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seeking antebellum

Chapter Text

seeking antebellum

i.

prologue

it begins with a body.


Washington D.C., U.S. · Earth · The Milky Way
February 14, 2006 (Terran time)


A chill wind cradles the industrial pier in a white haze. Gulls are singing far above, and the waters clash against the cement and stone soothingly. This part of the pier is meant to be closed down for repairs and, at this early time of morning, emptied. But there’s activity and voices and moving feet. Two white vans are parked on the nearest available space, off-kilter, and an area stretching a few meters around the edge of the pier is cut off by tape declaring CRIME SCENE: DO NOT CROSS, creating a perimeter.

Within the circle, the agents are hard at work.

The marine – identified as such by the dark inconspicuous cammies worn, the heavily military-issue boots, and the neat haircut – lies face down on the cold cracked asphalt, arms harshly forced back. It is as if he has simply been dropped there, forgotten, uncaringly. The sleeves have been partially pushed up as if by force or struggle, exposing wrists darkened by bruises. The scene is fresh and relatively undisturbed – the call came from a frantic, terrified construction worked, babbling about a body: a human and a Dæmon, lying there, splatters of blood. The local Sheriff, by no means an amateur, concluded that a dead marine at the heart of D.C. is NCIS business; he and the police have cleared off, sighing that they’ll gladly let someone else handle this mess. The paperwork alone is enough to cause headaches.

The man lies there silent but speaking the language of the dead, and they are here to decipher it. The worst part isn’t the human body: he is clean enough, though his hands are bloodied. The body is still in one piece. No, the worst thing is the Dæmon, lying some ten feet away: as if thrown there, a considerable distance. Beyond the natural borders of comfort. The distance alone could, if prolonged by force, cause death. It’s more obvious that that: a bullet has cleaved through the Dæmon’s throat, cleanly. Its once bright eyes are dull, half-closed, and mouth splayed open as if in the middle of a cry.

This was no accident – this was an execution.

The questions remain: by whom? and why? and exactly how?

Senior Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs peers down at the pair of bodies, memorizing the details and the angles. Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo is kneeling, taking a high number of photographs, while Special Agent Caitlin Todd - former Secret Service - is taking notes; she has the statements from the Sheriff and the construction worker already. Not much to go on, but it’s a start. The last and newest addition to their team, Special Agent Timothy McGee – an MIT computer genius – is carefully measuring so that the scene can be recreated later in a lab, everything determined.

The air smells like it’ll rain soon. Got to get the bodies under cover before that.

Gibbs kneels by the human body to get into eye-height with the coroner; his Dæmon following, her Shape a warm-coated Siberian Husky and their Bond usually the quiet type, a whisper of comfort but they don’t use a lot of words explicitly. They savor the silence. When looking at a scene like this though, the splatters of blood, there is always a flare of anger. They’re good at this job, may even like it: finding the murderers and unveiling the plots but that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant job; finding a marine dead always pisses them off.

“What have you got, Ducky?”

Dr Donald Mallard – preferably called Ducky by friends and colleagues – is the investigating team’s chief medical examiner, and he carefully traces the fallen man’s wrists. There are several lacerations and cuts, not only on the arms but the fists also, indications of a struggle; and there are deep, harsh bruises, an uneven pattern. Further up his arm, above his right elbow, the uniform jacket has been torn – by a knife, perhaps, something with a sharp edge – cut open, and there’s a small wound beneath.

“These bruises appear to be the result of someone grabbing with considerable force and literally pulling his arms out of their sockets. See, here?” He points so that his assistant can see more closely, though right now the man’s clothes are mostly in the way. “I reckons once we’ve had an X-ray there will be signs of a hairline fracture.”

“They came from behind,” remarks McGee, but Gibbs shakes his head.

DiNozzo smirks. “Let’s not draw conclusions here, Probie.”

“Cause of death?”

“I’ll let you know when I know, Jethro, that is a promise,” Dr Mallard says with a chuckle. His Dæmon is an old and wiry thing, much like himself, and there’s a grimly amused glint in its eye; after many years of working side-by-side with Gibbs, Ducky is very used to his impatient mannerisms and cold stares which in interrogation often prove quite useful. “As Agent DiNozzo so sagely put it, let us no draw conclusions just yet.”

“Can you give me at least a time of death?”

The examiner withdraws the thermometer with which he’s checked the victim’s current core temperature as accurately as possible; still just an estimation. “Well, considering the state of the body and the fact rigor isn’t fully set in yet, I’d estimate he died sometime between five and ten hours ago. I can be more specific once he’s one the table.”

“What else?”

“Judging by the distance of the Dæmon to the victim, it is possible that Agent McGee is not wholly incorrect in his assumptions. This man may have been held back by one attacker while his Dæmon was taken out. Poor fellow.” Mallard shakes his head. “What a miserable way to die.”

“Look at his hands,” says Todd. She’s a woman with dark hair pulled back strictly and she moves with certainty, having been on this job for a while now. Not as unsure and awkward as during her first days with NCIS, her first case. 

Asking permission from Ducky and receiving a nod, she lightly grasps one of the dead man’s tortured hands with a gloved one of her own. The outermost layer of the skin of each fingertip has been removed, by something sharp like a scalpel. A lot of trouble. The obvious conclusions to draw is that someone is trying to hide this man’s identity. It’s worth noting, and DiNozzo snaps another couple of pictures, this time zoomed in on the ruined hands. Getting prints is going to be impossible.

“Got what you need?” Gibbs asks.

“Yeah, Boss, enough for an art gallery,” DiNozzo smirks.

“Oh, I’d no idea you even knew such things existed, Tony,” remarks Todd, sending her fellow agent a glance. “I thought you didn’t know about any kind of culture beyond your TV.”

The smirk widens. “Oh, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Kate.”

Gibbs, in no mood for his team’s antics, merely gives them both a sharp look. The corer and his assistant take position to move the man’s body; “Let’s turn him over and have a look at his face.” They grab hold of his side and shoulders, and –

McGee steps back, shocked, and even Gibbs has to admit this is particularly gruesome.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day,” Ducky says, almost causally, slightly concerned: another mystery.

The marine’s face is gone. Reminiscent of a previous case, last year – a meat puzzle, they’d called it; part of this appears, at first glance, to have been executed partly similarly. As if someone took a knife to it and peeled it away, layers of skin and the top muscles too, gauging out the eyes, and it’s a horrible scene. Something incredibly stark and brutal, yet frighteningly controlled. Not just anyone would have the guts to do something like this. But the blood pooled on the ground beneath is a very small amount, too small for this to have occurred here. No trace of the face or eyes either: there is another crime scene needs to be found.

Maybe they could recreate the face in a lab, let the resident forensic do her magic. Give them a lead on who this really is.

McGee is clearly trying his best to not find the nearest bush or stone to retch behind. “Suddenly I’m glad I missed breakfast this morning.”

Gibbs hands out orders and the two medical examiners get the man entirely flat on his back. DiNozzo manages to move to continue taking pictures from this new angle. The man’s neck is exposed and shockingly clean, the collar roughly forced open. And the place on his uniform which would display his name and rank is also clean, the patch has been ripped off. Traces of another patch on his shoulder, but that too is gone.

Kneeling, Todd searches with a gloved hand, but shakes her head: “No dog tags. Someone didn’t want us to find out this guy’s identity.”

That’s usually the case. But this is taking it to the extreme.

The agents continue their search, upturning pockets on his uniform: there are stains, dark dried blood. And from one pocket McGee pulls out a cellphone. It’s a pretty fancy model, a smartphone of the latest tech, and could have been brand new apart from the crushed, dented screen, cracked in several places. It remains unresponsive, but maybe they can breathe some life into it in a lab. Like all other evidence it is bagged and tagged. Other than that, there isn’t much: a half-empty packet of chewing gum; a wallet, containing a crumpled up dollar bill and an even more crumpled up Starbucks receipt. No sign of an ID card of any sort.

He’s still wearing his watch. This wasn’t a robbery.

“Espresso Macchiato, huh,” says DiNozzo, snapping a picture before the receipt ends up in a plastic bag and clearly marked. “Well, he’s got decent taste.”

Todd snorts. “He had.”

“That help us figure out his name?” Gibbs says, impatiently.

“Uh, no, Boss.”

Lastly, the two bodies, human and Dæmon, are maneuvered into a shared body bag. Wearing gloves, they take care never to touch the Dæmon directly. Even in death, such a thing is utterly forbidden: and not everybody can make themselves to it even then, with gloves and clothes in-between. The bodies are cold and still.

It could be like any other murder; a thirst for revenge, a deal gone wrong, missing money, a relationship gone south …

But whoever did this literally carved off the man’s face. This was so careful, deliberate: yet they didn’t dump the bodies in the water, not too far off. As if … they wanted the bodies to be found. Yes, this is what his gut feeling is telling him: and Agent Gibbs usually trusts his instincts. This might be a marine, it might not. But the bodies were dumped pretty much on the doorstep of NCIS Headquarters.

A message?

but for whom? and from whom?

 

Chapter Text

ii.

a glimpse of starlight

he wakes up night after night after night;


Atlantis · New Lantea · Pegasus
2006 (Terran time) · 456 days since Expedition arrival · 115 days after the Uprising

(one month earlier)


It always starts the same way: the cold relentless grip and he can’t breathe

                     he can’t breathe

he tries to stop them from controlling his flesh, from stepping onto the stage and drawing the weapon with his hands his hands no longer his own

he tries to stop them, but it doesn’t matter even if he tries to scream no sound can leave his mouth no pressure in his lungs he can’t breathe, and sometimes it’s an Ancient with cold distant eyes and a dangerous light in their hands, sometimes it’s a Goa’uld with a morphed voice and a haughty smile and yellow gleaming eyes and sometimes he is on his own, can’t determine the other shadow pressing near and he can’t breathe

he can’t breathe

he can’t


John wakes up in a flash. Like a weight in the center of his chest, holding him down. Takes a moment to find his own heartbeats again. The racing pulse. Shaking and sweating.

The alarm clock reads 04:32 in angry red. Hours yet before the briefing. The mission isn’t scheduled to start for another seven hours.

He turns over, but is far too restless, his bones ache and he knows that there’s no point in trying to go back to sleep. It’s always the same. Thirteen long, tiresome days since Icarus. Since the Goa’uld in Caldwell’s head, and Atlantis’ near-destruction. Thirteen days.

Exhaling, he rises from the bed. The Raven no longer at rest; a window is opened with a thought and, seeking an ounce of freedom the remembrance of it, they leap into the sunrise to take flight. New Lantean sunrises are beautiful. Like on Terra, streams of color, of vivid warmth but there’s something in the atmosphere making them even more intense out here.

Thirteen sunrises.

After each one, he thinks, keeps thinking, hopelessly: maybe we’ll get through the next one undisturbed.


“Offworld activation!”

The announcement is followed by the warmly familiar sound of a wormhole establishing, a blur of light stretching outward before collapsing, settling into a blue puddle. The daily routine causes no concern; the technicians at work don’t even blink at the sudden disturbance, and the marines below guarding the Gate take position. But it’s not necessary, as an IDC is sent through and identified. Three seconds later, the iris shielding the Gate has been lowered and AR-1 steps through.

Their collars are upturned and sleeves rolled down, and John steps onto the floor of the City’s hub breathing a sigh of relief. The lashing, gusting desert winds of P19-751 reluctantly let them go: he pulls down the scarf he’d tied around his neck to cover his face, and removes his aviators. There’s sand in places there probably shouldn’t be.

Albeit full of life, the City is remarkably quiet: there is the usual noise, the moving feet and murmuring voices, and the City Herself, of course, singing in welcome. But there is none of the harshness of the wind.

“That,” Rodney loudly proclaims after coughing a couple of times and wiping his forehead with a sleeve, “was a big waste of time.”

“Sheesh, I don’t know, I quite liked it,” John says, grinning, and the Raven stretches their wings and tries to shake some of the sand off. It’s stuck in their feathers like in his uniform, and the others are struggling with the same predicament. Something about the chemical or mineral composition of this sand really makes it stick to everything; Teyla’s Dæmon, Kanaan, grooms himself with worthy grace whereas Dex shakes his head, trying to get rid of the coarseness in his hair.

Lieutenant Ford pulls off his customary black cap – well, normally black; now covered in a fine layer of rust-colored dust. He’s already demanding they call P19-751 ‘Tatooine’. “For once, I got to agree with you, doc. There was nothing there.”

Dr Weir and her Dæmon descend from the Control Room to greet them. “You’re back early,” she remarks.

“Sandstorm,” John explains. “It came sooner than expected. Maybe we could go back in a Jumper after the storm’s abated, but there wasn’t any sign of any settlement.”

Rodney nods. “There might have been one, ten thousand years ago, but the planet’s climate must’ve changed catastrophically. No sign of any of the lush forests the database promised. Atmospheric pressure was a bit high, too, and the levels of CO2 and other such gases definitely indicate a run-away greenhouse effect.”

Teyla, sagely, adds: “The Ancestors described the planet as thriving, but sadly nothing remains.”

They’d set out hoping to find an Ancient lab; an old City; the means to create a potentia of their own; a weapon to fight the Wraith. Instead all they got was sand.

It’s been thirteen days since the whole thing with Icarus and the Goa’uld – a lot has happened since then. Weir and Carson are back, their duties resumed and their offices once again filled with the right people. And AR-1 is whole, back out there going on missions, like they should be. Caldwell has recovered enough to return to active duty - left with the Daedalus on their first Pegasus mission two days ago. Started complaining, after some time, after being stuck in the infirmary: there’s nothing for him to do in the City, he is still somewhat of a stranger here. He came here to do a job and the Daedalus was instead stuck in idle orbit around New Lantea for ten days, while frantic communication was exchanged between Atlantis and the SCG on Terra.

But the scars linger. Will linger, for a long time. It’d taken days before John could get some rest without the help of sleeping pills. Still has nightmares, waking up frozen, paralyzed in his own flesh and unable to move unable to speak unable to do anything

There are still nightmares.

But there are good things, too. Rodney and Meredith are back.

They try to be discrete. It’s difficult. And even if they know that they’d probably be supported by everyone in the City, at least the veterans – and Weir wouldn’t tolerate nay bullshit; if the situation concerned not himself but one of the marines, John wouldn’t either. But he still fears it. The SGC and the IOA and everyone back on Terra, they don’t trust him, never have and why give them one more reason which can be used against him?

The promotion had come as a great shock. Had thought they’d leap at this chance to bring in someone else, someone already of higher rank – like Caldwell; someone else, like Colonel Everett – to take the reins. Would be easier to grasp, somehow. The brass aren’t fond of him. Instances of disobedience, and now, with his bond with the City – the Uprising – all of it. And Icarus.

They don’t know the full truth. Only Rodney and Mer do, for now. For now. He’ll tell the team, he’s promised himself, one day, when he’s ready to face the truth fully. And Carson knows. Ran the DNA sequencing and comparison in utter secrecy. John saw the conflict in his face when the results came clear.

Contrary to popular belief, though they have everyone’s DNA on file within the SGC, they can’t simply access it however they’d like to. The Registry is made for identifying the deceased. Sampling and analyzing is a slow, expensive process, it demands work, and other things take precedence and priority over actually sequencing people’s genetic profile. Their war with the Wraith and, back in Avalon, the struggle with the Goa’uld, the Replicators – all of those bad guys – they don’t have time do to that. There are legal ramifications, as well; the Registry is only accessed rarely, in special instances. Like when they found the old withered version of Elizabeth Weir in a stasis chamber in the City, a year ago. Then Carson, a brilliant geneticist, had matched her DNA with that of their Weir. Proven her words.

This … this is different. Finding out there’s one gene, ATA, built into your very core and part of you, that’s one thing;

This is another.

No one else knows about Icarus, about the bloodlines of the Merged;

So he can be sure, for now, that no one’s going to start poking around, to ask those questions. The reality of it all hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be honest, though it did bring some closure when he was told the truth. Accepting it is going to take a while.

Thankfully, the IOA hasn’t asked. They’re too preoccupied. There’s the Trust to deal with; they sent a Goa’uld, infiltrating the SGC, taking over Caldwell himself, with the goal to destroy Atlantis to stop the Wraith from ever getting to Terra. A long-shot dangerous plan and it would’ve succeeded if not for Icarus’ interference. Now the Ancient is long gone, carefully watched by the Others. They’ll make sure he doesn’t repeat his actions – he was willing to do anything for the City, anything - and John understands, and the thought is momentarily frightening, chilling to the bone. Anything for the City.

“Well, if there’s nothing to say, then I think we could postpone the brief,” Weir says with a nod. “I look forward to reading your reports.”

“Sand, sand, and more sand,” Rodney snarks and mournfully looks down at his PDA. The screen is virtually impossible to read. Dust is caught underneath the edges and the seams. “Did I mention the sand?”


They separate, each one to find some spare clothes. The Quartermaster isn’t going to be too happy about the state of their gear – all TAC vests and other obligatory kit is to be returned, and cleaning it all out is going to be a rightful pain.

First thing as he reaches his quarters John steps out of his clothes and into the shower. Gets the grit out of his hair. Finds a colder setting than normal because the winds on that planet – relentless, never-ending: the storms there probably last for months or years – were unforgivably hot. The atmosphere was on the edge of too thin, poor in oxygen and rich in carbon dioxide, though they didn’t need any breathing apparatus or HAZMATs. Maybe they could rely the images back to Terra as a warning about climate change, a stir, waking people up.

After showering, he writes up the report. Normally there’d be two: one for Weir, for Atlantis itself, much more honest and on-point; and one for the SGC and IOA back on Terra, less personal and with an inherent distance, almost distaste. But the mission to P19-751 was the opposite of eventful. Boring, even. Not every day that happens, with their track record. Most AR-1 missions typically include enemy fire, an Ancient ruin, being hunted down by an alien lifeform, and at least one near-death experience.

John has to admit he’s distracted. For the past few weeks, nothing unexpected has occurred offworld. On the plus side: no new enemies, no Wraith ambushes, no angry natives chasing them off the planet with spears. On the other hand, there have been no new discoveries, nothing of the sort. Just silence. Calming, in a way.

The team’s working out well: there’s never been a five-member team before, not permanently anyway. But Dex is fitting into the picture smoothly, like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and nothing’s really had to change for this to happen. Natural adaption. Ford has warmed up to the Satedan now, has forgiven him for how he first came to be here: by accidentally ambushing him on another planet, on the run from the Wraith. The past is the past.

If only all things could be that simple.

The IOA are working on pulling the threads of the Trust and unravel them one by one, but the rogue NID organization has deep ties allover Terra and perhaps outside of it – probably outside of it – and there are Goa’uld involved. The Goa’uld empire might have been disbanded, while the Expedition were away from Terra, isolated during their first year, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone entirely. Remnants in the dirt, leaving traces. The System Lords are gone or have lost their power, but they’re still looking for some minor names. John has only skimmed through the reports.

That kind of job – the National Intelligence Department is involved too, and possibly other federal agencies, Homeworld Security and all that lot working under General O’Neill – it takes years. Demands miracles, sometimes. It’s all dirty work and undercover and secrecy, and whispers in the dark, so many uncertainties. John is being kept in the loop, carefully. Doesn’t get to know everything but hopefully enough. Not that it actually is: he doesn’t trust the SGC, nor do they trust him.

Just who the Goa’uld now acting as chief of the Trust is, and their agenda, is unclear. There’s no name, no face (though with a Goa’uld’s ability to switch host that wouldn’t be of much use), no location, nothing. Colonel Caldwell has relied all he could remember from the two torturous months he spent as a host, but most of it is vague and dim because the Goa’uld didn’t want to share any memories with its host. It needed his body, and was planning on killing off his Dæmon eventually, if the plan had worked and Atlantis imploded –

So many unanswered questions.

The Daedalus has resumed its original mission: ferrying people and equipment to and from the Aurora, which is still hovering in the void, incomplete. But they’ve got upward sixty people working on getting her patched up now, and soon, they hope, they can do a first test run of the hyperdrives. Get her to New Lantea. To Atlantis.

Back home.

The Daedalus has also dropped off a number of sensors in a grid, to form a somewhat crude but reliable warning system in case of the Wraith. If there’s any Hive activity within a few hundred thousand kilometers – a mere millimeter in interplanetary terms – the City will know about it within half an hour, and be ready to raise the shield or cloak Atlantis completely if necessary. That’s the choices they’ve got, really. Beyond the Chair and the few precious drones in storage, they haven’t got any weaponry to match the Wraith in firepower: even the Daedalus, as impressive as the BC-302 is, is no match for them. They do have the advantage of the Asgard beaming technology – the possibility of beaming nukes aboard - but they haven’t tested them yet against the Wraith. And the Wraith could probably defend themselves once they figure out what’s going on.

They defeated the Ancients. What chance then do the Tau’ri truly have?

But they don’t know about the Aurora. One slight, slight advantage. If only they could get the Warship fully operational again.

Major Lorne, instead of forming a Gate team off his own or rejoining the crew of the Daedalus, has opted to stay aboard the Aurora for now. With his ATA-gene he can oversee the repairs. And John has begun to trust the guy, at least somewhat. He’s of a reliable sort. And Air Force, so he’s got to give him that: in a City full of civilians and marines, it’s nice sometimes to have someone there who is somewhat similar, at least in experiences. Though the Major has been with the SGC a lot longer than himself. Began as a part-time geologist, overseeing offworld digs in Avalon, years before anyone knew anything about Ancients or old Cityships buried in the oceans, waiting, waiting;

Once he’s typed the brief report, John closes the computer. Hesitates for a moment.

He feels sore, still, after Icarus. Wakes up night after night after night, heart drumming in terror unable to breathe, chest tight, sweating; he tries to cry out;

He’s spent a few daring nights in Rodney’s quarters. Further out and away from the Citadel, but the area isn’t wholly private, and it’s always a risk. Always a risk.

The last thing he needs is to get dishonorably discharged because someone spots them stealing a kiss or a grasp of hands in a secret corner. And Rodney could get into trouble too. Not like he would, officially like that, but still. The whispers and the rumors and the glances. Little things which can make life difficult. Possible physical harm;

They haven’t talked a lot about it. Haven’t argued. But their Bond is strong and clear and John can feel his surface thoughts, if he lets him, and Rodney’s worried. Wants to be open about it and not have to care – to him, it’s difficult to grasp. He’s been a pretty open guy. He’s never had this kind of secret before.

He glances at his wristwatch. Not quite dinnertime yet. Maybe Rodney’s already in his lab – always hurries there after a mission. Working on those incomplete Ancient equations John managed to gather for him, as a belated gift: a hint at how to build a potentia. Ever since then it’s become Rodney’s number one project and he, stubbornly wanting to be the one to figure it all out, refuses to discuss it with the rest of his department. Convinced that Zelenka or someone else would proclaim themselves cleverer than he by stealing the answers. Not that John thinks it’d really happen, but the scientists have proven they can be surprisingly vicious if they want to, if they need to.

So he pulls on a spare pair of boots, blessedly sand-free, and heads for Rodney’s lab.


Three computers are running three different simulations at once. A few coffee cups, half-empty, are strewn about, and the hum of this room is different than elsewhere: noisier. Electric fans frantically working to cool the hard drives, joining in the harmonies of the City, the constant background of movement. A number of whiteboards line the walls, and they’re filled with numbers and symbols, both standard Terran ones, and archaic Ancient versions used in mathematics and physics, and Rodney is standing – hair slightly wet from a shower – in front of one, pondering. Hands in pockets, head slightly tilted.

John doesn’t need to warn him about his approach by clearing his throat: even in this state of deep thought, Rodney is somewhat alert, a thing taught by the desperation of war, the restless nights, the uneasiness of the Wraith hovering in the sky. And the Bond helps, too.

He doesn’t have the chance to voice a question, because Rodney holds up a hand, clutching a marker. “A minute.”

John smiles, and claims seat atop of an area of one of the desks which is relatively empty. The Raven settles on his shoulder. Rodney still hasn’t turned around, and, after a moment of deliberation, wipes part of the board using his hand, smudging the neat symbols and replacing them in stark blue. Organizes his thoughts like that: according to patterns and colors, using different markers for different parts, different boards. There are arrows and pointers all-over the place. A certain kind of chaos, and it’s pretty difficult to follow.

During the months he spent alone without him, coming to this lab, John became rather familiar with Rodney’s equations. Enough to finish them. He can, in an arbitrary manner, follow where he’s going but Rodney keeps skipping steps, not needing to write them down – too clever for that, his memory too sharp – when John would’ve had to, and he switches gears from one thing to the next, unhaltingly, constantly. Only two settings: on or off.

Once the astrophysicist has made the correction, he steps back, and nods to himself, approvingly, and John suggests: “Mess hall?”

Rodney looks quite interested. “Is it today they serve mashed potatoes?”

“Not-quite-potatoes,” John corrects. “You know, those orange ones, from Te’reem.”

“Ah. Good enough.”


Five days later, the Daedalus makes a swift turnabout to drop AR-1 off at the Aurora. The time has come to make a first test-drive of the hyperdrive engines; Major Lorne has already overseen a similar series of tests of the sublight engines, and it’s carried them a few thousand miles across the void, closer to P91-987. There’s a Gate there, the world sparsely inhabited, but with a Jumper it’d still take twelve hours from there to the Warship. The brief jump with the Daedalus – a merely fifty-six minutes, the blink of an eye in interstellar terms – is a welcome reprieve.

White light dissolves and takes them. One moment, they’re standing on the Bridge of the Daedalus: gray, dull, blinking lights, orders shared calmly. Then they’re on the much more spacious and colorful Bridge of the Aurora, and the hum of Ancient tech intensifies tenfold. Like an embrace.

Major Lorne is sitting in the Captain’s chair, and descends from it to greet them. “Colonel.”

“Major. How’s it been?”

“All quiet, sir.”

Repairs have really picked up speed since the Daedalus arrived with the extra raw materials and crew. However, the Aurora is nowhere near top-notch condition. They’re managed to seal off some areas physically but the breaches are so wide and violent that many sections of the hull are still missing completely. Thanks to the shield, that isn’t an immediate issue. The question is still where they’re going to get all the raw materials they need, and shape it, and transport it. Pieces far too large to fit through a Gate are needed, and it’s not like they know of any worlds yet out here who trade naquadah alloys in these quantities – or at all. Naquadah, and any variation of the substance, is a rare metal, and most settlements in Pegasus only focus on small-scale mining of much more common ores for their daily lives. Anything too big, too much, is a sign of technological advancement and, thus, makes them a bigger target for the Wraith.

Not to mention all the crystals which as of yet are wholly irreplaceable. They don’t know how to make those. Engineers back in the City are working the problem, but it’s slow and tedious work: hours of analyzis and debate and trial-and-error, and there, too, they lack the raw materials. They’ve managed to determine the composition of the first layer of crystal. Maybe there’s a chemical way to synthesize it.

Peter Grodin, a British technician, as well as Sharpe, an engineer, are also present; Rodney goes right to them to be told the latest updates, double-checking all data. It’ll be a while yet before they attempt a jump.

It’s not going to be all the way to Atlantis. That would be far too strenuous for the drives. This is going to be done in micro-jumps: ten minutes at first, then fifteen if all goes well. A few hundred lightyears.

The City is farther away. Her voice is distantly dim, but present. Present: that’s what matters.

(many of the nightmares are full of silence, voices muffled and forced away and bonds cut)


They go through the motions: testing systems, checking the shields, one by one. Pre-flight routines which for a Warship over nine thousand feet in length take quite a while. But finally, they’re ready. John sits in the Captain’s chair, and Rodney’s overseeing the primary systems; Grodin by another console.

From the Daedalus, via a subspace link, Colonel Caldwell wishes them good luck, before the Tau’ri craft disappears. It’ll meet up with them at the designated coordinates.

“Shields at a hundred percent. Lifesupport: check. Power output: check.” Rodney crosses off the final thing on the list, and looks up from his PDA. Clutching it tightly, like a lifeline. This should work, but if a single calculation has been done incorrectly … “And the computer has calculated the point of reentry. We’re good to go.”

And John exhales, sees every system every star on a map in three dimensions, and thinks: jump.

The Aurora is taken by a flare of light.

Chapter Text

iii.

anchorage

maybe it’s a mistake, the result of the invasion;  


It always starts the same way: the cold, it grips everything, tightly, he can’t move and he can’t breathe. Feels the tightening of his lungs. And they can’t move, they can’t fly, can’t flee. Their wings are held down by an invisible force. The room is dark and unending, and the Gate doesn’t function, there is no wormhole to step through. In the darkness he tries to run but someone is holding him down.

someone is holding them down.

someone is holding them down –


John wakes, sweating, draws a sharp breath. another. inhale, exhale. inhale. inhale. His eyes wide open, and it’s difficult to move, and he’s shivering. Lights blinking online, sensing his distress. Inhale. exhale. inhale.

Closes his eyes briefly.

It’s always the same.

It’s always the same.

Surely, surely these dreams will stop soon?

They have to stop. They keep throwing him off-kilter and the team are starting to notice his lack of sleep, his mood crankier than usual, his drop in attitude and the fading hunger. Even Elizabeth has asked, once or twice. Not to mention Carson.

Maybe should ask for stronger sleeping pills, but - the thought of something else taking control, control of such a basic function, of his body, control over him – a harmless pill – no.

No, he doesn’t think he can do that.

Pulling himself up into a sitting position. Rodney hasn’t stirred, and Meredith is curled up between them, deeply lost in dreams. Pleasantly. John looks at them for a moment, avidly jealous of their ability to simply rest. Sure, they’ve suffered from nightmares too. In the height of the Siege, when the Wraith were upon them - but not like this. Continually, relentlessly.

The Aurora is drifting through space slowly; rather than doing one single big jump, they’re doing this in smaller ones with a lot of waiting time in-between so that the engines can cool off and be routinely checked out. Major Lorne oversaw the last jump, two hours ago. The next and final microjump through hyperspace is due in less than a couple of hours, and John’s going to be in the Captain’s chair for that one.

John sighs, wipes his forehead with a palm. Clammy. Shivers again. Then he stands and heads for the shower. Not as soothing as true running water: the chemical mist doesn’t provide smooth warmth, the same exact feeling of cleanliness. There is no cold, either, he can’t drown himself in ice and burn away the memory of the dream at least for a little while, a little while. But maybe it’ll strip away some of the horrors.

After getting dressed, he casts a final look back: the quarters he’s claimed as his own are vaguely empty, there’s a single round window facing the stars and the bed, and Rodney and Meredith are still deeply asleep. Rodney’s arm is thrown sideways across the edge of the mattress, he tends to toss and turn quite a bit, he’s almost face-down and he looks quiet and content and calm, and Meredith’s purring in that silent way which John has gotten to know means they feel safe. They don’t look concerned or in pain.

Won’t bother waking them. What’s the point? They need to be well-rested for the next jump. 

John goes.

Lets them sleep.


He and the Raven head for the Bridge. A technician is there - the standard rotation of duties, three hours each during night-time (at least according to what their wristwatches says, Standard Atlantis Time: it’s midnight, sunrise hours away) and right now only one person has the watch. Grodin is standing by a console, running a diagnostic or something, sipping coffee carefully. Dæmon settled by his feet, a relaxed pose.

“Oh, good morning, Colonel,” Grodin says.

He rolls his shoulders to loosen the tension somewhat, tries to appear well-rested and alert. Probably not working too well. Asks for a sitrep, but nothing has changed. There are no alarms. The Aurora is flying without a problem, nothing’s exploded or gone off. All is well.

“… and the drives have nearly finished recharging and cooling off,” Grodin finishes his report. “Shields holding steady. There shouldn’t be a problem with executing the next jump."

The faster they can make the jump to Atlantis the better. John attempts to smile. “Sounds good. I’ll take over here. Get some rest.”

The Brit might not be too convinced, but recognizes an order. Might be a civilian but has been around long enough. He adjusts something on his PDA before disconnecting it from the port, and takes his leave without handing it over; John doesn’t need it. He can sit in the Captain’s chair and let the Warship inform him of everything that’s going on.

Sometimes sitting in the Captain’s chair is similar enough to the comfort of Atlantis. The music of connectivity. Something he can trust, and he takes seat, closes his eyes; doesn’t mean to sleep.

He can hear the City even closer now, and lets Her voice wash over him.

(what he wouldn’t do for a night without dreams)


A trickle of thought: Rodney’s wondering where he is. Knows where to find him. Appears on the threshold after a few minutes, clutching a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

“Morning.”

“It’s 26:00, you dork,” Rodney reminds him, but not unkindly. A wide yawn. “And we’re not in orbit around anything, so, technically, there’s no such thing as morning.” He approaches, takes seat in the reclining couch in the corner of the room. “Couldn’t sleep?”

The stars passing by slowly. At these speeds, relatively speaking, it looks like the sky is frozen in place, nothing coming nearer or disappearing. Space is far too vast for change to be noticeable at this pace.

John shakes his head. Can’t say it aloud: he couldn’t leave a note, in case Rodney or he forgot to get rid of it later, and someone walked in there, in any possible future, and found it. Then their secret wouldn’t be so very secret anymore. They’re already getting careless. He’s spent more nights than he should have curled up against Rodney’s body and they’ve breathed together and their Dæmons been close enough to touch. Savored those sweet hours to make them linger.

He leaves the Captain’s chair. Rodney looks well-rested, eyes brightening as he drinks his coffee, hair a little tousled. “Grodin ran a diagnostic a few hours ago,” John says, switching subjects. They’ve tried to press for answers once or twice before, aware of the nightmares but John would like to not talk about it, just stop thinking about it and maybe as the memory disappears so will the dreams. “Everything looks good. We’re good to go.”

Rodney nods, checks his watch. “Next jump is scheduled in forty minutes.”

People ought to begin dropping in any minute, but for this moment, they’re alone. There aren’t any surveillance cameras aboard the Aurora: there are less systems here than in the City, though rarely fewer questions. Not everything’s been figured out yet. But no one can watch them, and John joins him on the couch. A hand settled atop of an arm; they dare to kiss – here, right at this moment, no one can see them, no one can know.


Activity is ongoing again: scientists risen from sleep, and marines exchanging rounds of patrol. Most of the Warship is empty and uninhabited, and will remain so. The Aurora’s capabilities can be difficult to grasp. Once they’ve gathered all essential personnel in the Bridge, John directs the Aurora toward Atlantis. One final jump.

It’s been ten thousand years, but finally, finally the Aurora is coming home.

(The plead, sent by Icarus, wanting to be found: take us home)

This jump takes only twenty-one minutes and then the bright blue light clears, and space opens up: they enter orbit over New Lantea, a steady path and the Warship doesn’t protest. All systems green. The planet below, its familiar shape and oceans, and there, a tiny speck difficult to see without enhancing sensors: the City itself. 

So tiny from up here.

The radio sparkles to life; not the subspace comms, this time, but their own Tau’ri gear, finally within range, and John says: “Atlantis, this is the Aurora. We’re in orbit now.”

“Aurora, this is Weir. Welcome to New Lantea.”

They’re home.


Repairs will be much easier now with the ship so close. The Daedalus can focus on its recon missions to the outer reaches of Pegasus, searching for Wraith bases to destroy.

While in orbit, the Aurora remains cloaked; Ancient sensors can still pick it up, but not the Wraith or any other such advanced technology. Not that they have come across another civilization yet with that sort of tech, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist - there are many secrets hidden out there. Much like how they cloak the City, they’ve taken a cloaking generator from one of the Warship’s Jumpers, integrated it with the shield emitters; it took a while to figure out the optimal way to install it, but the good thing with Ancient tech is that they liked to standardize things. Crystals, plugs, wiring, a lot of it is interchangeable. In a few days, they hope, they can take the Aurora on its first official test-run: a mission, not too far away, with the Daedalus as backup in case there’s havoc on the engines or some other trouble. A planet observed without a Gate; initial scans of the atmosphere suggest viability; something could be alive there.

There are also the Genii to consider. So far, the Peace Treaty has fulfilled its goals: help in exchange for food, manpower for medicines. Once Cowen got to speak with Weir in person, as well, that helped. She wasn’t there when the Treaty initially was signed, far away on Terra and it’s not like they can let the Genii know there’s a whole other galaxy out there populated by humans, technologically advanced. That ships can go there. The Genii can’t know, and they can’t know that Atlantis still stands. As far as the Genii are aware, all that remains of the Lanteans are a few desperate survivors on the Alpha Site, its address a secret.

Inadequate; not enough protection; not enough to eat when winter comes. That’s why the Genii extended the olive branch, offering things in return for aid to complete their nuclear weapons. Only to be used against the Wraith. The Treaty had stated it clearly: no human settlement is ever to be harmed.

Cowen contacts them from time to time. And Weir has, diplomatically, carefully inquired about the so-called Rebel Faction once led by Acastus Kolya. The man is dead, dust since long ago but Cowen admits that some who still support him are out there. They want to no alliance with the Lanteans: only control of their technology, and they want to overthrow the current Genii regime. John knows how dirty politics usually is. How bad things can go. Cowen probably tries to reassure them that there’s nothing to worry about; doesn’t want them to be concerned, or to think that his power is less, that it isn’t secure. But no power is wholly secure, and John and Weir are both aware.

Everyone remembers the Storm and the Incursion that followed. All the veterans, anyway: but newer people too have heard the stories, serving as a warning that no place is safe. Not even Atlantis. Hurts to admit that, to know that even here, they aren’t unreachable and there aren’t just the Wraith – there are other bad guys, like the Genii were, like there could be others yet undiscovered. The galaxy is a big place. There could be a hundred thousand civilizations hidden among the stars and they’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

AR-1 is busy. They’ve been catching up on missions, the usual schedule, since they were reunited and, in a sense, reformed. Ronon Dex is now an official member of the team. Had taken some arguing with the SGC. Elizabeth had approved, of course. Not only is Dex a good warrior and hunter and tracker, he’s an asset in other ways. He knows the lay of the land, many addresses they haven’t been to before; provides a direct link to Pegasus. He’s got intel on the Wraith. They burned Sateda and forced him to Run for years and years – they gave him freedom, and in return he’s chosen to stay. When John first asked him to join AR-1, the guy didn’t even hesitate. Said he’s sat around too long, unsure of what to do. AR-1 gives him purpose.

He and Ford have bonded pretty tightly. Not that different: one of a Terran Marine Corps, one of the Satedan Planetary Forces. John has seen them spar in the gym a few times, exchanging alien techniques to fight, traditional Satedan arts and standard moves taught all US marines. It’s good to see them work so well together. Dex and Teyla had formed friendship early on: foreigners to the Tau’ri, there was common ground. And Dex and Rodney, well, that’d taken a bit longer. Probably because Dex at first wondered what a soft scientist was doing on a Strike Team, and Rodney wondering what use a brutish Chewie-like caveman - his words, not John’s - would be to them. Except they’d faced down a Wraith ambush together and saved each other’s lives and that kind of thing changes minds pretty quickly.

One day, one day he’ll tell them the full truth. Hasn’t found the right moment yet. He’s been thinking that he wants to do it some quiet night, when they aren’t under attack and when - when the Aurora’s back, he’d first thought. Now the Aurora is circling New Lantea, and he still hasn’t told them. About Icarus, about …

One day he’ll tell them.

One day he’ll tell them.


This one dream is different. It is no dream at all; not one he can recall, anyway. He wakes, never really closed his eyes but suddenly, energy, frantically beating, is urging him to move and it’s a memory. It’s not one he made himself, though, but a photograph, a print, a script that’s been handed over and he’s not sure why but it feels like it should be remembered. He gets up, and reaches out.

There’s a neat stack of papers atop the mostly unused desk, opened folders, and he can’t be bothered to find a datapad or computer - can’t find it immediately, this is faster, and if he waits then he’ll forget. This has to be written down now.

The sun hasn’t risen.


When it does, slowly, the warm glow is accompanied by the rest of the City waking and John hasn’t been able to tear his focus away.

Knocking. Unanswered. The doors slide open, and Rodney steps inside, halfway into a sentence: “… Sheppard, the brief starts in five minutes and – John?”

John sharply holds up a hand, the well-ingrained gesture for silence, the second the doors slide open, and Rodney makes a surprised noise, frozen on the threshold. John is sitting cross-legged on the floor, at the center of it, grasping a pen and not looking up;

Chaos. A grid of equations. He is surrounded by them. Notes, written in haste, covering one page after the other the other the other –

“Oh. Morning. What’s all this?”

“… Couldn’t sleep.” Woken in the middle of night, suddenly remembering –

“I … can see that,” Rodney remarks. Takes a step forward, careful not to slip on the sheets of paper on the gleaming floor and it’s like abstract pieces of art. Something to be admired; beautiful, but will take time to decipher. “Oh, this isn’t fair! You’re having a eureka-moment while I’m left with coffee-deprivation waiting for the meeting to start? They locked the espresso machine in there, you know. Atrocious.”

John doesn’t immediately reply. In the middle of a sentence. Can’t pause the thought to speak;

“Okay, not talkative, I get it.” Rodney grasps of the papers at random. They’re lying everywhere, spread over the floor, the desk, the bed. None of them piled neatly though it started out like that: tried to be systematic. Failed early on. Couldn’t take the time to organize anything, in case a thought slips away before he can finalize it;

“Of course it’s all in Ancient,” the Canadian remarks. Scrutinizes whatever it is he’s holding. John doesn’t look, can’t lose focus now. Pen keeps moving. “Though this part’s in English; is this even … ? – wait. This, this,” the astrophysicist points furiously, shaking the slip of paper between his hands, “this is a theory on Einstein-Rosen bridges. When did you study that?”

He hasn’t. Didn’t. John pauses momentarily - forcibly: he looks up, and sees Rodney’s expression which is often vivid but rarely this openly in complete shock over what someone else could possibly achieve, and Rodney’s looking right at him like he’s grown an extra limb, done something impossible. Which is kind of right, he supposes. He didn’t come up with this stuff, he’s simply, simply remembering;

“He was in my head, Rodney. Icarus. It’s … like the negative of a photo. He was there, and, and now I can suddenly remember stuff he never actually told me, or – I don’t know, but I woke up and realized I can remember.“

Icarus had said I’m clever and he hadn’t been lying at all. All that knowledge of an Ascended being, tucked away; tucked away but Icarus had been unable to use most of it without notifying the Others. But this, this John can do because it’s not interference anymore, it’s not interference.

A final parting gift – whether it was a conscious choice or not, John’s not sure.

Maybe Icarus had wanted to make amends.

Maybe it’s a mistake, the result of the invasion;

“Hm. That does make sense, actually. He was using your body as a conduit, essentially using a portion of your brain and therefore your neural network to store his own mind for a time. That’s how you remember. Just theorizing, of course, but - yes, that would make sense.”

“Yeah, I guess. Look, I have to get this down before I forget.”

Rodney watches him. Picks up another piece of the puzzle to study it. The man’s eyebrows is somewhere way past his hairline at this point.

“When did you start with this?”

“Uh, around midnight. I think.”

A glance at his wristwatch. “It’s been seven hours. Have you even moved since?”

No. Not more than to drink a glass of water at one point. Did that, yeah. Shy has done the flying and moving for them; “Not really.”

“Well. Right. Mission briefing’s starting in three minutes.” No reply. Rodney shakes his head, an echo of fondness and he activates his earpiece: “Elizabeth? Yeah, look, we got to postpone the meeting, Sheppard’s kind of busy with … with -and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but - science stuff. It’s hard to explain, but this is important. Yes. No, I’m not just making this up. Fifteen minutes. … Oh, his quarters. Just sitting there on the floor, like – no, no, we don’t need a medic.” When he conversation is over, he looks at John and remarks: “Elizabeth’s worried you –“

“I heard. I’m fine. Just –”

“Yes, yes, keep working. I’ll just … be over here.” Rodney hops onto the bed, gathers some of the work, and silently begins to closely read it. John doesn’t need to look up to know his movements.

(At least one thing still remaining comfortably familiar when everything else is changing.)


The peace lasts for approximately eighteen minutes. Then there’s a knock on the door frame – still open, electrical lights falling onto the floor – and there’s Carson and Elizabeth, the latter with her arms crossed, and the former carrying a first-aid kit and wearing a stethoscope around his neck, prepared for any kind of emergency. But they pause and stare, and then Weir asks, slightly uncertainly, demanding answers:

“Rodney? Colonel?”

“Told you you wouldn’t believe me,” he says, knee-deep in a very, very complex equation that he can’t believe came out of John’s hands. Not this swiftly and elegantly. This is lightyears ahead of what he should be able to do without further education;

“What’s this?” asks Carson, confounded.

“Just some theories that might revolutionize modern physics, so, your average Wednesday morning,” quips Rodney and nearly glares at the man as if he’s being far too obtuse. “And no, this isn’t my handwriting. Oh, this will take weeks to catalogue properly – these pages aren’t even numbered!”

Elizabeth’s arms fall to her side, relaxed but she’s frowning slightly. The mathematics is admittedly way over her head, but she does catch a glimpse of the symbols and there are strings of Ancient letters, forming complex sentences which, no doubt, are driven by scientific proof or natural philosophy rather than historical accounts, and there are Roman letters as well, forming a much more familiar language but the jargon is heavy, laden with complex terms intertwined with Ancient counterparts, one thought closely following the other.

“I guess the briefing has to be postponed a little longer than fifteen minutes,” she remarks eventually, gaze fixed on the pen moving in John’s hand. The Raven, for the moment, appears to be snoozing, perched on the back of the desk chair, head tucked under a wing. A pose of rest as if this frantic activity isn’t occurring at all, as if this is a normal thing.

Rodney makes a noise at the back of his throat. “Uh huh. Been at it for over seven hours now, but who knows, we could probably get stuck here for the rest of the day.”

“Seven hours?” exclaims Carson, bewildered and concerned.

John glances up briefly and shrugs. “Just about.”

“You must give it a rest, lad, and get some sleep.”

“Hasn’t even had breakfast! Preposterous, I know,” says Rodney loudly and nods and shares an incredulous look with Elizabeth, who tilts her head and raises an eyebrow; “What’s that meant to mean? Huh? Oh, ‘go fetch the poor man something to eat’, I get it. Isn’t that what the marines are for?”

Elizabeth clears her throat. “No, that’s not what I meant, although feel free to do so, Rodney. And, I must remind you, that’s not the proper use of our marines. Rather I’m wondering whether AR-1 should go on their mission today or not. The Aurora could wait another day. Colonel?”

The Aurora’s first real mission is due to start in six hours. Important. John forces his hands to still, to pause the thoughts he didn’t even ask for, and looks up. “No, we should go.”

“Not unless you eat and sleep first,” Carson insists; an order. The Scot doesn’t seem overly impressed by all of this, rather concerned, and he crosses his arms, sternly.

“I agree,” says Weir, and ignores his protests. “We’ll reschedule the meeting in a few hours. I’m sure the technicians won’t mind having some more time to double-check the Aurora’s systems.”


“So you’ve still got this Ancestor’s memories?” Ronon asks, dubiously; he’s not fond of unanswerable questions like these, stuff that cannot be seen or touched or proven with known science. This is the kind of thing which usually turns into something bad, into a rollercoaster of disasters and they don’t need it. 

They’re in the Armory, prepping for the mission. Though they’ll be using the Aurora rather than the Gate, they go through the familiar motions of strapping on TAC vests and checking the ammo and securing their backpacks. Emergency kit in case something happens. They’ll take Jumper One to the Warship which is waiting in orbit around New Lantea, cloaked and hidden from all sensors that aren’t Ancient in design.

“Something like that,” John says, shrugging. Had managed to let go, eventually, and had followed the doctor’s orders to food and rest before they held a brief that afternoon. As predicted, the engineers and technicians hadn’t protested the prospect of getting a second chance at making sure everything with the Aurora is in order. Managed a simulation of the hyperspace engines - all gone without a hitch.

Ford fastens the last strap of his vest. “Huh. Haven’t still got those, I don’t know, those Ascended-like powers?” A vague wave of hand, indicating what happened; Ford hadn’t seen it in person, but watched the security recordings afterward. How Icarus in John’s flesh had stepped out of the cell, held the marines standing guard back with a thought, how he’d made sure none of their weapons worked. Torn a taser from a marine’s hand. 

(Those aren’t memories he’s fond of: feels guilt, still, for letting it happen. That he hadn’t been strong enough to fight back and regain control of himself, his own body in time but if he had, then Icarus might not have saved the City, and the Goa’uld would’ve destroyed the New Lantean solar system by overloading the potentia, and no one would be left to remember.)

John grimaces. “Nope, and I really hope they won’t return.”

And Teyla nods, offers emphatic understanding though Ford remarks that it could’ve been a cool and useful power to wield against the Wraith. Rodney simply remarks that Ford has read entirely too many comic books as a kid, and this sparks a heated discussion of Marvel versus DC, and John simply rolls his eyes, relieved at the changing subjects and the focus slipping away from the original question.

They head for the Jumper Bay. The doors close.

 

Chapter Text

iv.

sign

part one 

there’s power;  


Aurora, in orbit around M31-927 (Deserum) · Pegasus 
122 days after the Uprising 


This jump takes exactly fifty-six minutes.

It’s the Aurora’s third mission. The planet above is similar to Earth - several big landmasses, lush and green and there’s oxygen in abundance and minute traces of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. Oceans, glimmering and blue: jungles, deep and dense and covering most of the center of the mass. A speck of desert, hinted at. M31-927 is complex and layered just like any other planet, and there’s no direct readings jumping at them to indicate a technologically advanced civilization but that’s to be expected. The address was locked out, couldn’t be dialed from the City or elsewhere – Gate might be disabled or destroyed. Which is a bad sign since, a few months ago, John and AR-2 went to this planet on foot through the Gate without issue.

His bet would be on the Wraith. They must’ve found the Ancient facility. The one where Ronon Dex had hid out, making camp for a brief night and then, without planning to, ending up ambushing John and then the Wraith had ambushed all of them – back then, Ronon was a Runner, had been for so many years he saw no escape from it. Didn’t expect the sudden freedom offered.

From this viewpoint, Deserum – as the planet is called in the City’s database – doesn’t look like that much of a wasteland. Must’ve been different when the Ancients first named it.

John, sitting in the Captain’s chair of the Aurora, pulls the brakes. They don’t feel the Gs – the inertial dampeners handle that. Takes part of the fun out of the equation, really – as a fighter pilot, John likes to feel the tight turns, to know them to be real – but, well. At this speed, without dampeners, everyone onboard would become splatters against the windshield. Not the nicest way to go.

He directs his attention to the HUD, which pops up as a holographic image on the wide port with a thought. An outline of the planet: the first scan.

“Readings coming in now,” Rodney announces from the console where he’s standing. Multitasking as usual: he’s glancing at his PDA from time to time. “Got some lingering energy signatures. Matching them now …” A disgruntled noise at the back of his throat. “That’s from Wraith weapons’ fire.”

As suspected. When they couldn’t get a lock on the Gate, they’d drawn the conclusion that the Wraith must’ve ransacked the place and destroyed or buried the Gate out of spite. Not thought the Lanteans had a ship to get here anyway. Whatever the Ancients left behind in that facility, most of it must be ruined by now.

Have to check it out anyway.

“Damage doesn’t look too bad from here,” John muses.

No. From a thousand miles away, skirting on the edge of the atmosphere, Deserum looks peaceful and beautiful and not like a place of war. But, focusing more closely on the southern part of one of the bigger land masses, there it is: a plume of smoke. It’s dissolved, hard to see with the naked eye but the sensors can pick up the residual heat. This happened a while ago.

Must have been pissed off when they couldn’t find the Runner or the other humans reportedly seen with him, and finding the Ancient facility instead: it had managed to remain hidden and forgotten for ten millennia, discovered by mistake. The Wraith wouldn’t have wanted anyone to find it and rediscover that knowledge. Turned it into ash.

“They must’ve fired from orbit,” says Miko Kusanagi, reading the diagrams from the display hovering over her console, adjusting her glasses.

“Any activity?”

“No sign of the Wraith. Nothing’s happening in this quadrant of space. And if anything’s down there on the planet, it’s not active,” Rodney says, looking up. Frowning slightly. “With our luck the facility is probably shot to minuscule, irreparable pieces, and there’s no hope of ever figuring out what was actually down there.”

John wishes he could recall more from his own visit to the place. But he’d been a bit busy at the time with, you know, surviving. Had only had a brief look at a console: powered it up, and then in the next minute he’d gotten stunned courtesy of Ronon’s particle magnum and they’d spent that afternoon hunting Wraith. 

“Don’t be such a pessimist. Maybe the Wraith missed.”

“Reading damage to an area of over twenty square kilometers,” Kusanagi reports.

Rodney snorts. “See, they completely missed.”

“At least they didn’t destroy the whole planet.” And John is glad the Wraith – so far – haven’t proved to have such an ability. If they did … Well, he’d rather not linger on it. “Looks like we’ll have to take a ride to get a closer look.”

Major Lorne nods, and they exchange places; without needing to touch any physical buttons on the Captain’s chair, John activates the comms linked to the Jumpers waiting in the Hangar. “Corporal, we’re going to head down to the planet. Transmitting coordinates now.”

“We’re ready, sir. Receiving coordinates,” Corporal MacGrimmon replies from Jumper Three. AR-4 is there with him. Gladys, the only one on their team with the ATA-gene, at the controls. Pre-flight check gone through while in hyperspace. Two other Jumpers are also waiting.

John and his team enter the Hangar after a swift walk. The hatch of Jumper One is already lowered, the craft prepared. John takes seat in the pilot’s chair with practiced ease and the team don’t need to exchange words to know their places.

“Jumper One, comms check.”

“Jumper Three, check,” Gladys says.

Echoed by Private Herschel, another marine with the ATA-gene and part of AR-9; her teammates Drew, Gamble, and Snow are sitting in the back. “Jumper Four, check.”

“Jumper One to Control. We’re ready to take off.”

“Copy that,” answers Lorne. “Happy hunting.”


The Jumpers power up and the Hangars is opened, vacuum greeting them. The small craft leave the Aurora, passing through the shields without issue, and head toward the planet. Atmospheric entry as smooth as it can be. The white clouds part: below them, a sea of greens. The woods are vast and appear, largely, undisturbed: there are no roads, no buildings, no markings of civilization.

The Ancients built here; but they didn’t live here, and they didn’t seed human life.

A bit odd. Why not? Planet seems nice enough. Dense with plants and wildlife and with a perfect concoction of oxygen and carbon-dioxide in the air. Suitable and thriving. Maybe they’d wanted this place for themselves? Conduct experiments in their hidden labs someplace where the Wraith wouldn’t come looking.

They circle downward carefully. The facility is located a few klicks north of the Gate, relatively speaking – north is, really, just a general direction according to the planet’s magnetic field. No energy readings are popping up. Neither the Aurora nor the Jumpers’ sensors can pick up any shadows of a Dart, of Wraith left behind.

“They probably took off when they couldn’t find anything,” Rodney remarks, looking up from his PDA briefly to stare out through the windshield as they descended through two thousand feet, thousand and five. John reads the numbers out of habit, and Gladys, to the port, does the same, the two Jumpers lining up.

“Let’s hope they overlooked something,” he says, dubiously cheerful. 

“Yes,” Teyla agrees. “It would be a shame if nothing of the Ancestors’ technology were to survive.”

Though the chances of finding a real goldmine, like a potentia, are slim to none, maybe something of the place is still intact. Fragments of a database or archive. Or just spare crystals: those would be real good to find. Don’t have too many of those lying around and so far none of their own patchwork have managed to cut it. Some secondary systems aboard the Aurora are still not properly functioning because of missing crystals, and they’ve got three Jumpers out of commission because they’ve had to cannibalize their systems (and it’d felt kind of wrong to give the order to tear the small ships apart to mend the greater Warship; doesn’t sit well with him, as a pilot, to do that to a perfectly fine craft).

Nine hundred feet; and the sensors map out of a holographic impression on the HUD, echoing the fallen structure below. There’s still some lingering dust but not much.

“Whoa. They hit real hard,” Ford says, peering out: this close, just a couple of miles out, they can see it.

Most of the facility is simply - gone. The building; there might have been a tower there or two, rising toward the skies but they’re all gone now. It was one big thing, partly underground and now the ground is cracked, down to the foundations of stone. Slabs of metal and concrete-like stone mixed haphazardly. Navigating around down there on foot won’t be easy. A lot of forest has been blown away too, simply burned down to minimal stumps; though some trees are still standing, bare and gray like ash and slowly trying to recover, monuments of another time.

The scans come back, and John remembers vaguely, but only very vaguely, some of the layout last time he was here. Down by that slope there was an entrance into a hallway, leading to a lab. Geography a bit different this time.

“There’s a clearing to the west, near the entrance there. Looks like a good parking spot.”

“I see it, Colonel,” Lance Corporal Gladys replies.

“Copy that,” says Herschel from Jumper Four.


They set down the Jumpers half a klick away where the ground is stable.

The broken facility sits like a monument, a tomb. The sunrise is just breaching the sky, this part of the hemisphere, coating it beautifully pink, and the bright light settles long shadows over them all. John’s got his aviators on, and checks his gear one more time before they lower the ramp and step outside. The air is slightly chilly with dew. The ground is barren, but there are patchworks of grass here and there working its way through the soil. Despite the calamity, nature’s recovering. It’ll probably take this all back in a few years, now that so much of the old building is turned outside out and destroyed, overgrow it and make it disappear.

He takes point, meeting up with AR-4 and AR-9 by Jumper Three’s open hatch. Lieutenant Drew, leader of AR-9, is peering toward the tumbling building through her binoculars; her teammates next to her. Lieutenant Kemp is chewing on a piece of gum.

“That’s a bad habit, y’know,” mutters DeSalle, AR-4:s resident medic, and the guy’s pretty intimidating for a medic, but he’s a marine. “Could stumble and suffocate, and then I’d have to do the Heimlich maneuver on your sorry ass.”

“It’s for stress,” Kemp retorts. “Know how stressful this kind of life is? Though this planet’s kind of pretty. Should snap some pictures for the family album.”

Lance Corporal Snow, from AR-9, shakes his head. “It’s been shot to hell.”

“Probably ‘cause of you, Mitch,” MacGrimmon says. “Nothing personal, man, but your team is always ending up on missions with bombed-out cities or being chased down by Suckers through swamps and shit. You guys are like magnets drawn to bad stuff.”

Snow’s teammate, Private Gamble, crosses his arms defensively. “Not on purpose.”

“And nothing like the Frontiers, either,” Snow agrees, in a half-whispered mutter, not really meant to be heard by said team. John pretends not to hear it, anyway, though he notices how Ford’s forehead creases into the hint of a frown, picking up on that last part.

When John and his team approach, the marines stand at attention, bickering ceasing at least momentarily. They know to cut radio chatter down to a minimum on joint missions like these.

“We’ve got a basic schematic, McKay’s uploading them now onto our lifesigns detectors,” John instructs: “We’re going to check this place out and see if there’s anything – a console or any piece of tech – still intact. MacGrimmon, take your team west; Drew, south, and we take east. Stay in regular radio contact. What we’d really like are some spare parts, so if you find any intact crystals, bag them and we’ll sort them later.”

“And ZedPMs,” Rodney interrupts without looking up. “Find us some ZedPMs.”

“Yes, sir,”  MacGrimmon says sharply in the Colonel’s direction, and pats DeSalle’s arm. “Let’s move it.” AR-4 and AR-9 are veterans, they know the drill. Won’t touch anything or do anything utterly incompetent, and even Rodney, who generally doesn’t trust that much in the marines’ ability Not To Screw Things Up (especially in the vicinity of Ancient tech), knows that.

The astrophysicist is too busy consulting the scanner in his hand to properly notice the two teams moving out, anyway. John glances over his shoulder. “So, seeing anything?”

“No, this place is as dead as it looks. Where was that lab your found last time?”

“That way.”


The rubble covers everything, and the nearby natural landmarks are all gone, burned to a crisp. But there’s a slope, gently moving inward, and the rising remains of a doorway. It was broad enough to allow three or four people in side-by-side, but most of it is blocked by now. The ceiling is collapsed. When they try moving one of the shriveled up pieces of metal, lying sideways across the doorway – the door itself is long since gone – there’s an ominous rumble, low-key like a growl and they step back.

“Perhaps we should sent for a team of combat engineers,” Teyla suggests.

“Or we can dig,” says Ronon. He’s wearing his leather gloves and looks to be up to that kind of thing. Well, he’s usually up to these kind of things: likes the missions, the killing of Wraith, even the heavy lifting. 

“Actually, there’s a third option. There’s a tunnel,” says Rodney, triumphantly. Shows the lifesigns detector. Sure enough, there’s this hollow space just some fifty meters away, and it seems like the Wraith did miss. Some parts of the place weren’t set ablaze.

It wasn’t a door, but part of a longer corridor, now split in two - this was the second level down, probably, and the floor above it was blown apart. Ford drops a couple of glow sticks down there, trying to gauge the distance, and there’s an empty dull echo as they land. The floor is relatively whole, though there are a couple of uneven cracks in it, following the uncertain seam where the fire must have torn apart the structure. 

“Who’s first? Seems like a Sheppard kind of thing to do, right?” says Rodney brightly. Recalls last time they entered a secret underground chamber – that whole thing with the Brotherhood of Fifteen.

(It’d gotten them a potentia, but people had died.
good people had died.)

Ronon and his Dæmon step forward unhesitatingly like they means to climb down there or jump without assistance, but John holds up a hand to stop them; “Hang on, Chewie. Safety first.”


Using the standard climbing rig, they descend; John first, then Ronon, Ford, and lastly Rodney. Teyla volunteers to stay up top and stand guard. They test the radio signal: clear within sight of the uneven hole in the ceiling, but just a couple of meters away the signal breaks into static. Typical.

They radio AR-4 to let them know what they’re doing. MacGrimmon and his team are, too, attempting to find a way inside, so far with little luck. Say they may be onto something, though.

“Okay. We’ll explore and be back in thirty minutes. If we’re not back by then, send a rescue team,” John instructs. Assume the worst. The standard around here.

Teyla nods. “Good luck.”

It’s dark down here, but the air isn’t entirely stale. It smells like rainwater’s been building up, clogging someplace close. The walls are lined with lamps and there are pillars, or were, placed at even intervals but there’s no power.

“The Wraith could’ve taken the power source,” Rodney says. “There was still some power here last time.”

“Yeah,” John says. “I accessed a console that wasn’t completely shot up.” Before Ronon had showed up and stunned him with his particle magnum. Man, that thing packs a punch. Doesn’t tingle like the Wraith stunners. The headache afterward had been surreal. 

The Satedan has the grace to look slightly guilty, shrugging his shoulders. “I said I was sorry ’bout that.”

“The past’s the past and all that jazz. So, which way?”

“That passage’s blocked,” Ford says, shining the light from his P-90; in front of them, the path is out of their reach, debris creating a wall. But the corridor reaches out in two other directions as well, and there’s no particular sign of which one’s the better.

Fishing out a lifesigns detector from a pocked in his TAC vest, John says; “Ford, go with McKay that way. Ronon and I will check this way, and we’ll meet back here in twenty.”

“Wait, wait. Is splitting up a good idea?” Rodney interrupts, in that usual worried way of his. “That never ends well. You all know that. Have you never watched a horror movie?”

“Relax, McKay,” Ford says, grinning, rolling his eyes. “I’ve got you covered. If there are, like, zombies or something down here, I won’t let ‘em eat you.”

“Yes, well, that’s not what I – oh, nevermind. If you find a ZedPM or something, Sheppard, and I don’t, I’ll be very cross.” With that, the astrophysicist adjusts his backpack and turns toward one of the passages. His steps are hurried. Right, Rodney isn’t that fond of dark, enclosed spaces. Wants out as soon as possible. “Well, come on, Lieutenant, we haven’t got all day!” Ford snaps into motion, following. Unlike the doc, the young marine walks more steadily, flashlight showing the way ahead and he doesn’t nervously glance around every two seconds. 


Ronon doesn’t have a torch, and John hasn’t got a spare, but uses his P-90 to light the way. They don’t small talk much. Not the Satedan’s kind of thing. Moving with quiet efficiency and grace. And John would normally like to send the Raven ahead, but with the uncertainty of how intact the place is, and the oppressing darkness, and the reoccurring nightmares – they still can’t bear parting. So they stay on his shoulder.

A Raven doesn’t have amazing nightvision, but maybe Ronon’s Dæmon has, their feline eyes glowing. There are rough patterns tracing the walls. Definitely Lantean: the stark beauty of this place, or what it once was, anyway. There are cracks in the floor, the walls, the ceiling. They pause now and then, as there might a shifting noise of wind indicating that there are pieces of steel and stone missing or broken. 

“Sheppard.”

“Yeah. I see it.” Peering inside; could be a lab; could be a meditation chamber. Rooms like that practically litter every Ancient place ever built. Wherever they went, the Ancients sought Ascension.

The door is stuck half-open, looks a lot like the doors in Atlantis, and Ronon pushes it open with brute strength. Makes a guy kind of jealous.

A lot of it is in tatters. Glimmering pieces, like a thousand stars, scattered on the floor – that used to be crystals; one console is upside-down, overthrown as if by an earthquake. A pillar lying down, and there’s a sizable dent in the ceiling, swaying inwards. “Careful,” John says, unnecessarily perhaps because Ronon snorts and doesn’t reply, but it’s his job to be a worrier; he’s the leader of the team.

There’s one console intact, though. Question is: is there any power available, is the source gone, or is this a matter of broken circuits? Handing over his weapon, he gestures for Ronon to keep it aimed - safety on – in the direction of the console so that he can see what he’s doing. Then he lays his hand on what he thinks is the on-button and thinks on, please, on.

Sometimes politeness is the trick. Sometimes he’s got to be more forceful. Come online –

There’s a flicker of power. It resists. The trickle of energy - but it’s enough to make his mind aware of it, his ATA-gene sensing the tech, or the tech sensing his gene. It’s weak. The circuit could be leaking, not all the power getting where it should. But, hey, the console’s powering up. Sort of. The screen it’s tied to is lying on the floor, unresponsive, and there’s no hologram appearing either.

“So?”

“Give me a minute.” If he could just read the data coming from this thing … John exhales, concentrates. Like he does in the City. He can close his eyes and She’d show him things. Maybe other tech could do the same: transmit some of that data – hell if he knows how, the technical details - but if he could transfer that to the lifesigns detector …

Glancing at the small device in its hand, the screen is changing, from the transparent map of the compound to something else. A stream of Ancient letters. “Okay. That … tells me nothing,” he admits. Seems like a jumble of nonsense, no real words – he’s pretty good at the language, and this isn’t Ancient though it uses the characters. Like someone’s typed a smattering of keys in a hurry without looking at the keyboard. He lets the data download, anyway. Kind of a lot of it.

He tries the radio. The intermittent signal is weak, but some of it punches through the stone: while it seems unable to travel upward, at the moment, it is able to move sideways. “McKay, this is Sheppard. You reading?”

“…Yeah, we’re reading you but the sign … weak. Did … find something?”

“Yeah, I’m downloading data from a console now.”

“.. kind of data?” Rodney sounds excited in that way when he’ll blink a couple of times and then abandon whatever he’s working on, full attention shifting.

“No idea. Have you found anything?” No answer. Signal must’ve been lost mid-word. “I repeat, have you found anything?”

“No. Just broken parts,” the Canadian sighs ruefully.

“We’ve got another fifteen minutes. Make the most of it.”

“You’re breaking up. Did you say ‘make toast’ …?”

John rolls his eyes. “I said, let’s make the most of it. See you guys in fifteen minutes.”

“Copy that, sir,” Ford says. Kid sounds like he’s smirking, clicking his tongue. “Ford out.”


It’s still downloading and the scanner, while an impressive piece of tech, may have been modified by Rodney to handle doing more than just scan for lifesigns but storing this amount of data was never its intended purpose. It makes a noise like in protest, and then the flow simply stops, and John guesses that’s it. Memory’s full.

He tucks it into his pocket.  Doesn’t want to lose it. The nerds back in the City can analyze that data later. Glances at his wristwatch. Three minutes.

They head back to the juncture; no sign of Ford or Rodney yet. Place looks the same, but a few of the lights in the corridor are weakly trying to come online, spluttering.

In the shadow of the sun above, Teyla is patiently waiting.

“Heard anything from MacGrimmon or Drew yet?” John asks.

“They found what looks to be another way in a few minutes ago,” the Athosian reports. “But they did not mention any particular finds.”

“Not much of the place’s intact. I doubt we need to hang around for long. Got a portion of a database here, though. Maybe the geeks back in the City can figure out what it means.”


Heels clicking on stone. When Rodney and Ford reappear, Rodney’s face is gleaming with anticipation, and he’s speaking excitedly: waving his scanner in front of them like it’s a grand revelation.

“There’s power!”

“Yes, Rodney, we know,” John says, dryly. “I had to turn it on to access that console.”

“No, you don’t understand. There’s power,” Rodney stresses, looking at them all like they’re on the wrong planet altogether, unable to follow his line of thought. 

Then it clicks. “Oh. Oh!”

“Yes, oh.” Rodney grins wide and clicks his fingers. Makes some adjustments to the scanner in his hands. “Let me see if …” The sentence is left hanging, incomplete, as the scientist works.

Ford just looks between the two of them like they’re the aliens, blinking. “What? What?”

“There’re a power source and it’s not depleted and the Wraith didn’t take it,” John translates. “So if we find it, maybe we could take that back to Atlantis.”

“A ZPM?” the Lieutenant asks, finally interested; if they found another one, they’d have three for the City and one of the Aurora. They’d have no problem raising the shield or summoning weapons, well, at least until they ran out of drones and that’s a whole other issue. More energy is always welcome.

“Let’s find out.”

Like exclaiming eureka!, Rodney doesn’t quite dance but almost, and gestures upward. “Okay, first off we’ve got to get out of here and go two hundred yards west. The source of the energy signature is emitting from thirty feet down.”

It could be buried under all of the rubble. But if it’s viable, they could have the Aurora jump to Atlantis, gear up an excavation team - yeah, that’d work. En route, once they’ve all climbed out and move in a circle around the worst of the destruction searching for an entry point, John manages to raise AR-4. Lieutenant Kemp, sounding like he’s still chewing on that gum, answers.

“We found a way inside though this large broken window,” Kemp says. Obviously following the same procedure as AR-1, leaving a person to stand guard, just in case. “Uh, northwest of you guys, like, there’s this tall cliff covered in moss.”

“Perfect,” Rodney cuts in excitedly. “That’s close to the power source.”

“We’ll come to you, Lieutenant,” John says. “We might’ve hit the jackpot. AR-9, do you copy that?”

“We hear you, Colonel,” Private Gamble responds. “Be there in five.”


Okay, so, maybe it’s too early to say that.

They enter carefully so not to cut themselves open on the thick, sharp glass: jagged pieces still in the frame, hints of color still there, those lovely geometrical patterns the Ancients had been so fond of.

The two other teams meet up with them and Drew asks, slightly suspicious, if they had anything to do with the lights suddenly coming on again. John explains the situation - Rodney doesn’t make any comments about ghosts, too distracted for that now.

“This room’s accessible,” MacGrimmon says. “But the whole place is unstable.”

“What’s this, a lab?” Ford wonders, peering around what once had been a wide, probably impressive, chamber; now it lies shrouded. 

“Looks more like some kind of gallery,” Gladys says. “Found a couple of crystals that looked intact; Snow’s got them.”

“Good work. What about those consoles?” John asks, but she shakes her head ruefully; so such luck.

“I couldn’t get any of them to work, sir, even after the lights came on.”

“Okay.” Could be broken conduits or crushed crystals or who knows what else. “Rodney, how’s it going with that power source?”

“Patience,” he mutters, pacing back and forth. There’s no clear, obvious route – of course there isn’t. Nothing’s meant to be easy. If it is, it always ends up being a trap, too good to be true. “Huh.”

When Rodney doesn’t elaborate, John waits for a few moments but nothing more’s forthcoming and he knows that tone of voice. That sort of huh means that he’s found something, and it’s not the Very Bad We’re About To Die-kind of thing, but more of a This Could Be A Good Thing.

“Want to expand on that?”

“If I’m reading this right - which I am, by the way – there’s another level below. There’s a big hollow space and there’s a tunnel leading to it, right …” Rodney moves, toward the end of the gallery, or courtroom, or whatever it actually once was. Feet squarely on the tiles, he walks around, like marking a circle. “… here.”

Leading his team in the pointed direction, John asks: “Structurally intact?”

“As far as I can tell. And that’s where the energy signature is coming from.”

“I can’t see any stairs,” Ford says, and John reaches Rodney’s side. Something with these tiles. The pattern: they’re forming a square. Right where …

Oh.

“That look like a hatch to anybody else?”


It’s heavy and awkward, but between himself, Ronon, MacGrimmon, and DeSalle, they get it open. If there’s an automatic mechanism to it, it’s broken since long ago. Dust rises like a cloud, and Rodney takes a step back, coughing. Covers his nose with the sleeve of his jacket.

The air settles, and they peer down. Darkness, but power’s running and there’s a hint of artificial lights, flickering uncertainly like they’re about the kick the bucket any second now. This whole place feels like that: trembling and about to give away.

A secret underground chamber. The Ancients sure were fond of those.

“So,” says Rodney cheerfully: “Who wants to go first this time?”

Chapter Text

v.

sign

part two

this is not a good fucking day –  


John wakes up in that rapid, uncomfortable way he only does when something’s wrong, something’s very very wrong – suddenly and in pain, and for a moment nothing makes sense;

No alarms. No blinking lights. No chopper crash or Jumper malfunction. Air tastes – different. Like sand. No, heavier than that; heavier … soil. There’s dust in his face, probably coating his lungs, and he coughs, tries to drag himself up. Can’t. A heavy weight settled over his legs and tendrils of hurt, like white and red clawed into his skin, somewhere in his midriff. He tries to clear his vision, but the darkness doesn’t go away. Gray and blurry at the edges.

Silence.

Silence.

Noise.

A groan. John shifts, wants to be able to look around and find the source of that brief sound, confirm it. Power, he realizes, the power must be out – there’s none of that hum of Ancient tech, there’s only the silence and the rocks. The tunnel collapsed –

The tunnel collapsed –

shit.

John inhales, and at least the Raven can move. Sort of. Their wings are whole, even if they can’t see either but the Bond isn’t broken it isn’t broken (the important thing) – “Rodney? … Rodney? Rodney.” He’s not sure if he’s saying it aloud or over their Bond, continually, just to make sure to make sure.

“… ugh.”

Alive. Exhaling, remembering how to breathe. They’re alive.

Still can’t see them. Too dark. 

“You okay?”

Voice hoarse, like his airways aren’t clear enough. A sudden thirst for water. For clean air. Isn’t sure which. Both.

“No,” Rodney says. Somewhere to his left. No, more beneath him. More noise, scraping-like, and then a flicker of light from a torch. It falls blindingly across his face, and John has to lift his right hand to shield his eyes from the sudden sharpness. Something wet and warm is dripping onto his cheek, and when he draws his hand away, he can see the red blurry spots. Head wound? If there’s a cut, it doesn’t feel that deep. “No, I’m not okay, we’re buried underground and who knows when we’ll be rescued by –”

Coming into sight, Rodney stops short. Something in his chest twists. All of Rodney is gray like ash, and there are bruises and cuts forming on his face and hands, and John’s guts twist and he doesn’t like it doesn’t like it. Wants to be able to make this just another bad dream.

“You don’t look so good.”

Their Bond is immediate alert in that way which means Not Good, filtering through, not quite clear-cut: concern, fear, hints of pain that could be physical or emotional or both and he’s not sure which one of them is the source.

“Thanks,” he says, wryly. Wants to move, but the weight – pressing down -– pressing down –

What was once a column carrying the ceiling up has split in two, and it’s lying now atop of him and John recalls now, the crunching noise the rumbling and the instinct to back away, he’d grabbed Rodney and turned them around, trying to shield him and then the darkness and the radios short-circuiting –

The tunnel had collapsed. Then the silence, and John can’t recall anything more. Must’ve hit his head.

Rodney evidently managed to get away from the worst of the falling debris in time, and he and Meredith move closer, kneeling. Not actually saying it, more like transmitting an impression: they’re wondering if he can move and how bad’s the pain and oh, oh, the panic leeching off their souls. Rodney isn’t good with dark, tight spaces and certainly not while knowing knowing that the building atop of them has collapsed and not knowing if their team’s all right if they’re alive.

They’ve got to be alive. John isn’t going to accept anything else, not until evidence is provided, solid and touchable and probably not even then. No, Teyla and Ford and Dex are alive, have got to be, and Drew and MacGrimmon’s teams – they’ve got to be alive.

“Try the radio.” He makes it an order, voice like sandpaper.

Have they got any water?

“Already did, before. No signal. You were out for several minutes. And I tried shouting and screaming and got no reply so I’m guessing no one’s close enough to hear us, either. I’m good at shouting and screaming in an emergency.” Something held up. A flask. “Here. Drink,” Rodney says, briskly, and John grasps it and takes a few gulps. The water is heavenly even if it is nowhere near cold.

He was unconscious that long? Shit. All right, the concussion. Must be it.

Glancing down, detached, like this body is someone else’s, and this pain is merely temporary and someone else’s; if he closes his eyes, maybe he could fly away with the Raven and it’ll all be okay. There’s rubble all-over him, and he can’t move his legs: his arms, albeit physically free, feel heavy, like filled with lead.

Manages to formulate a sentence, because Rodney’s looking down at him concernedly, waiting. “My legs are stuck.”

The Canadian reaches out to shift one of the smaller blocks of stone which is holding him trapped. Starts digging. Shouldn’t do that, John thinks, he’s not wearing gloves and some of those edges look real sharp and it’s heavy and unstable. More dust falling. Noise. Noise: the rumbling. The rumbling;

“Hey, stop! Easy, easy,” John interrupts, and Rodney pulls away. “That could make it all come down on us.”

"Good … good point. So, not a good idea. Digging.” Voice reaching a higher pitch. His hands are twitching. “What should we do? You know I’m claustrophobic, right? Because I might go into shock, or rather I probably will, at some point, and you’re injured – god, we can’t just leave you here, we got to dig you out –”

Meredith, curled up between them, might be close to hyperventilating.

“Rodney. We’ll be all right. Ford’ll radio the Aurora and they’ll send down some combat engineers and we’ll be fine. You hear me? We’ll be fine,” he insists, grabbing Rodney’s sleeve to make him look at him. Finds his wrists and holds onto it, sensing the staggering pulse beneath the skin. A nod, shaky, energized. Situations like these Rodney would like to pace but it’s not possible at this moment.

Rodney, we’ll be okay, he repeats, clinging to the words. Sees Rodney’s breaths slowly even out and relax, though his body remains tense and flooded with adrenaline, his heartrate elevated. We’ll be okay, you hear me?

Then Rodney says, abruptly, struck by an idea: “Can you contact Atlantis?”


thirty-eight minutes earlier: 


They watch the glow stick tumble down, and count the milliseconds until impact. Reckons that that’s at least thirty feet. No sign of any stairs or ladder: so the Ancients wanted to keep this place out of reach. Or maybe they used transporter technology to get down. But they don’t exactly have that lying around. The rope lets them descend, one at a time: John takes point, and Teyla is right behind.

Lieutenant Kemp and Private Herschel offer to remain on top. Don’t do too well with dark, tight spaces, and Herschel can fly a Jumper away from here in case of an emergency. 

His feet touch the ground, solidly. Down here they’re getting no radio signal, just like before: got to be right under the open hatch, but just two feet away there’s only static.

“How far is that energy source?”

Rodney consults his lifesigns detector. “Less than a hundred meters.”

John nods, and looks back up at the two marines waiting. “We’ll take a look around, and if we’re not back in thirty minutes, assume we’re in trouble.”

Kemp doesn’t smirk but almost, chewing on his gum and hefting his gun. “Yes, sir.”

It smells kind of damp down here. Could be a crack in the wall, ten-thousand-year-old piping having sprung a leak; erosion, eating through the ground and the concrete. Even if the Ancients were good architects, they didn’t mean to leave any of this behind without supervision for ten millennia.


Too good to be true; of course, in hindsight, finding anything remotely useful is too good to be true, and John reckons he should’ve known better, should’ve assumed that shit was about to hit the fan. When they find the room with the triangular console, formed just like the one in the the City’s Core, it’s too good to be true.

It’s a potentia. Its glow warm and familiar.

“It’s nearing maximum entropy,” Rodney says, disappointed, holding up his scanner to get a reading. “It’d give us ten minutes of shield, maybe, or enough juice to run a the computers in the Control Room for half an afternoon.”

“Damn.” Was hoping for something better than that. "But better than nothing. Bag it.” He nods, and Rodney approaches the dais, placing his hands on the control surfaces on the sides to unplug it -

The whole place rumbles.

Ronon, by the doorway, clears his throat. “Sheppard …”

Yeah. Felt that too.

Earthquake? The Aurora’s scans hadn’t indicated any kind of geological instability. And then John wants to smack himself, because, of course. He powered up that console and forced the system online - including the power source itself. Breathing life into the place could have made it unstable. His command could’ve been heard by other (relatively) intact pieces of tech in the vicinity, and upset the whole place. Or it’s the fact that, well, it’s been shot to hell by the Wraith and the building is about to collapse, and their timing simply sucks.

“Yeah. We should probably …”

Then the first explosion happens, and everyone is rocked off their feet for a moment. Catches their weight against the unstable walls. Torchlight scattering uncertainly as they twist and turn;

It came from the other side of the compound. Shock-wave travelled through the ground, past them and into the woods. The Aurora, John thinks, distantly, her sensors must’ve picked that up, and Lorne’ll figure that something’s wrong and -

“The hell was that?!” Ford cries.

“The conduits,” Rodney gasps. “They’re exposed, and power’s on, meaning it’s just pouring energy and something must’ve ignited -”

Another low groan. Like the trembling of a bass note: it stretches throughout the whole complex. A sigh. It’s picking up the pace. Fragments of rock – gravel in size – fall from the ceiling. Small pieces breaking off.

“Less talk, more running,” John orders. “Everybody get out!” Presses the button of his earpiece: “Herschel, Kemp, fall back to the Jumpers, fall back now!”

If they hear it, they don’t reply. There’s static. Interference. Maybe the structure is shielded, maybe there’s simply too much rock in the way. Doesn’t matter. Hopefully, they’ll understand, procedures, they can’t have missed the explosion.

Rodney’s scrambling to obey. Gathers his PDA, shoving it into his backpack. “The ZedPM –” he starts.

“Leave it!”

The potentia is nearly depleted, and their survival is more important. Rodney, incessantly refusing to listen to orders when it suits him, grabs the thing anyway and the consoles darken, and the glow of the potentia in his hands is so dim it’s nearly indistinguishable in the bright white from their torches.

“Move it, McKay!”

Slings the pack over his shoulders. Fastening the straps, fingers slipping. He’s half-running - can be pretty fast if properly motivated.

The sprint is short. Should be short. It all happens in mere seconds;

Eighty meters. Turn left. Seventy meters. MacGrimmon and Gladys are already by the hatch, sentries: starting to climb, and Snow and Gamble and DeSalle are right behind. Fifty meters. Snow’s grabbing the rope, following. Forty meters. 

More pieces of rock are coming lose and it’s not gravel-sized anymore, and the rumbling hasn’t stopped.

“Colonel!” Teyla is shouting, looking over her shoulder.

“Go! Go!”

They can only climb one person at a time. One person at a time - 

Ford’s the first one out. His Dæmon clinging to his shoulders, claws digging into his vest. Someone from AR-4 reaching out, arms grasped to help hauling him up; Teyla next, Kanaan gracefully climbing the ragged walls like a great cat, following. Ronon is halfway through, fifteen feet above the floor, his Dæmon in the middle of a leap upward, when the whole place tilts sideways.

No.

No, John realizes, it’s the ground itself at an upheaval. One of the walls, the one to the left, keeping the hallway up - it’s collapsing, and John reacts in a split second, grabbing Rodney’s backpack and forcibly yanking him backward. Twists, turning his body into a shield and he glimpses Rodney’s face, pale and shocked. Falling into a heap and the dust makes it hard to breathe, eyes watering. Shouting;

The P-90 slips of out of his hand but is still attached to his vest, and in its white light spilling from the ground he sees the ceiling collapse and the hatch disappear.


 

 


When John opens his eyes again, Rodney’s shadow is hovering over him, close enough to touch. His face is illuminated by the pale blue light from the lifesigns detector in his hands. Deep lines of worry: he’s got different kinds of frowns, John has learned over the past year of working and living alongside him, and this one means they’re in trouble and someone’s hurt and this someone is him. 

Rodney, he thinks at him to get his attention, and Rodney’s head jerks up, and he stares wide-eyed. How many minutes did it take? John had had to concentrate hard enough to lose track of time, and that’s not a good sign.

“Did it work?”

His neck is hurting too much to nod, so he says, “Yeah, I think they got the message.”

Couldn’t be too eloquent. He hadn’t found himself able to broadcast clear simple sentences, but She’ll understand, hopefully, and translate the information into something useful and let Elizabeth know. 

“Good,” Rodney exhales. “That’s good.”

The small machine in his hand bleeps rather mournfully, and John can see from this angle that the screen is cracked. Making some adjustments, the astrophysicist sweeps it over him. Like a medical scanner, John guesses, and tries to ignore the climbing pain from his left leg. He’d landed, twisted with his hip sideways. And he knows what broken bones feel like, and just breathes for a minute. Wants to close his eyes but that’d just worry Rodney and Meredith immensely and they don’t need any more adrenaline right this minute.

“You okay? You never … answered my question.”

“Am I okay … ?! No, of course I’m not, but yes. Yes. I’m not obviously physically injured unlike some people – now, lie still.” Voice sharp. “You’re hurting. Don’t say you don’t because we can feel it.” He glares at him when he’s about to protest: I’m fine, we’re fine, we’re all fine. 

Must’ve broadcast the pain over their Bond. Couldn’t help it, as they fell, flaring;

Whatever he’s doing with the scanner, it’s finished, and the results can’t be too good judging by that look on his face. The verdict: “Your ribs are probably very, very bruised even if this tells me they’re not broken. There’s a fracture in your left tibia, and probably another – I hate to use the word ‘minor’, but it’s not as bad – to your fibula. And this piece of, god, is that metal? That’s metal. You’ve got metal in our leg. Thigh. Vastus lateralis.”

A shaky exhale, inhale.

“You should be glad I remember all of this stuff – I read it all back in college when I was set on becoming a doctor for two weeks until I diagnosed myself with half a dozen illnesses, and, and – The point is, your leg’s broken and there’s metal sticking out of it and that is not in any dictionary a definition of ‘fine’ so don’t say you are.”

Nodding makes him dizzy. “Great. Sounds … painful.”

A roll of eyes. “And you probably have a concussion. Your head’s bleeding, there’s a cut over your eyebrow. Not to mention all those scrapes and bruises I can’t see under your clothes,” he concludes, sourly. Lowers the scanner.

(Rodney doesn’t comment that he pushed him out of the way, and that he woke up with John’s head limply resting atop of his lap, and feeling like one big confused bruise and he and Mer had pulled themselves free, looking down in horror at this mess. Fumbled for light. Only as an afterthought wondering about the state of his backpack and the tech hidden inside; the PDA might be broken, all recorded data lost. Same with the lifesigns detector John had used to copy data from that other console.)

“Looks worse than it is. We’re not dead, that’s the important thing.” Another exhale. “… Want to say something snarky now?”

“No. My head hurts too much for that.”

He doesn’t laugh, mostly because his ribs are so bruised it’d only be a big pain in the ass - tries not to cough or breathe too deeply. Aggravating. “Look, they’ll have gotten word to the Aurora by now. Probably’ll start digging any minute. We just got to sit tight.”

Any minute now. Any minute …


The Aurora has been away from Atlantis for less than a day, and they aren’t due for a check-in for another three hours - no one expects to hear from them until then.

Elizabeth Weir is sitting in her office, going over the last databurst package that’s going to be sent to Earth. Not many changes since the last update, other than Aurora’s second mission reports, and some notes from Colonel Caldwell regarding the Daedalus. The Tau’ri craft is scheduled to return to Earth soon, and Elizabeth is mangling the rooster: a lot of people are on the waiting list for a long, well-deserved break. A few dozen marines have requested leave: very few of the Original Expedition have yet returned to Earth since first stepping into the Pegasus galaxy. Yes, they have earned it.

Then there is the question of Colonel Sheppard recently showing having retained some of Icarus’ memories. The incident is still a sore spot – for them all, but Elizabeth has a nagging suspicion it hit the Colonel harder than he would like to admit. He is difficult to read, and given all that’s happened, it’s not that surprising that he tends to be closed off. Not wholly alone, though. He has his team and friends and, Elizabeth thinks, they are somewhat like family, after what they’ve gone through the past year. Genii incursions and Wraith attacks notwithstanding, the flow of loyalty between Sheppard and the others of this City is something quite remarkable, something she hasn’t really felt before. Then again, she admits wryly, she has never before been in charge of two hundred people exploring the stars of another galaxy, inhabiting an alien City which speaks.

The other thing. Despite the time that’s passed since the confession - and the rollercoaster which followed – she hasn’t quite grasped it yet. Oh, a Bond, that’s easy to comprehend. She and Simon are inseparable. A Bond between human and Dæmon – a law of nature. But the Ancients took those laws and twisted them and made their own. 

In the weeks since the incident with Icarus, there is something more going on, which she cannot put her finger on. But she believes that others in the City know and they wouldn’t keep undue secrets if there was a threat - but her Chief Medical Officer has been a bit distraught, as of late, and Carson assures her that it’s fine. No one’s life is in direct danger. There is no medical emergency or outbreak on the edge. Confidential, he says, an oath he can’t break; and Elizabeth is starting to think she has an idea what it is about, or at least about whom.

“Dr Weir?”

The voice in the headset startles her sharply. “Yes, Peter?”

Grodin speaks, and there is a sense of befuddlement and confusion in his tone, rather than a pure emergency, and there is none of that familiar noise of the Stargate turning and the chevrons locking. Not an incoming wormhole.

“You’d better come see this. I can’t quite explain it, but it looks like a glitch.”

Closing her laptop, she exits her office, and walks across the bridge to the adjourning Control Room. The usual traffic on the floor, the usual movements by the consoles. Except it’s stopping. The scientists and officers on duty are pausing their work.

The screens are flickering.

“Power levels are steady,” comes the report a minute later: “There is nothing wrong with the ZPMs.”

One of the techs begins to run a diagnostic on the power distribution. And within a couple of minutes, words begin to gather, a primary analysis. It’s not the lights, either, or any other part of the City that’s being affected: no one is calling to mention a surge or disturbance. It’s just the screens hovering over the consoles in the Control Room which are showing any signs of deviating behavior, and Elizabeth watches the proceedings, arms crossed.

“Is this a virus?”

“I don’t know. The computers can’t detect anything,” Grodin admits. “There’s no other malfunction. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Isolate the –”

Then, as if stabilizing, the screens form a uniform image. All white except for a string of words, spelled out in Ancient, and Elizabeth looks at them closely. Eyes widening.

Grodin has been around long enough to be pretty fluent in the language, and he looks at the message in disbelief. “The City is telling us …”

“Contact the Aurora, and Colonel Caldwell too, right away,” she orders, urgently, chest tightening with concern. People obey, not asking why. Used to trouble being thrown their way, and an explanation will follow eventually.

deserum, it reads: trapped. rubble. injured. help. no signal. send ship. help.

The City is speaking.


It’s been  half an hour. He thinks. What his internal clock is telling him, anyway, and it’s pretty well-tuned for someone stepping through wormholes constantly, with the instant Gatelag, and flying through space where time is an abstract concept and there are no sunrises to measure. Forty-five minutes, tops. His digital wristwatch is broken. Probably caught against a rock, screen and microchip splintered. 

Rodney’s digging. Carefully and slowly. Won’t stop. Argued about that, for about five minutes.

There haven’t been any more explosions. John supposes that’s good. Sort of. Power’s offline but if there’s any residual charge left – hard to tell – but if there is and if the broken conduits are still leaking, a small spark may set off another chain-reaction.

At least it’s not the potentia, intact and put away in Rodney’s pack: if a thing like that was disturbed, this whole planet would implode. Probably the whole system. All in a fraction of a second. They wouldn’t be left behind having to worry about it. 

“… that time when I debated with Nye in the middle of a classroom, did I tell you about that?”

“Uh, maybe; did you?” John says, pretending to be listening. Rodney’s voice is soothing even if it is tense and stressed out right now. Very much so. He lets him talk; it helps Rodney focus, and steers him away from a panic attack. And he’s already insisted and Rodney’s not listening, adamant that he can dig him free. Says they got to see to his leg, at least. With what, John’s not sure. They’ll improvise. Wing it like they always do, and it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.

“Back in ‘99, I was visiting Harvard to give a lecture –”

“I almost went to Harvard,” John says, out of the blue – it’s getting more difficult to think; shock or blood loss, maybe, and there are steps to take, John’s been drilled to handle this and tries to distract himself - and Rodney pauses his hands for a moment.

“Really? Figures you could study at any posh place you wanted.” He doesn’t sound too resentful, though.

“Dad’s thought of rebellion was to not go to the university he wanted us to,” he says, holds back a chuckle because his ribs hurt. “So I didn’t go there.”

“Of course. Right. Anyway, I was giving a lecture on theoretical spatiotemporal dynamics on the edge of a black hole. That was six weeks before I was recruited for the SGC to solve that issue with Teal’c almost getting eaten by a wormhole and Carter started hating me (sort of). It was this open lecture and several notable persons were there, and, right before the break, like three minutes before I’m delivering a crucial piece of evidence, Nye’s there and standing up questioning my research and asking about mathematical proofs like I’m some kind of confused amateur –”

The rant goes on. He keeps digging.


Someone should have heard their voices. Raised them, but there’s not even a dull empty echo. Too much debris in the way. If several portions of the place collapsed all at once - and John knows they weren’t all out, Ronon was mid-air and what if the upper levels came down too, burying them all? 

Trying to stay positive: they got their hands on another potentia. Nearly worthless but, still. That’s something to die for, eh?

The City heard them. He thinks. The reply is but a touch to his mind, Deserum is quite a bit away from New Lantea, but sometimes he receives impressions. Relays them to Rodney to keep their spirits up: the Control Room, Elizabeth got the message. Radio contact, the Aurora or the Daedalus or both – help’s coming. help’s coming.

Rodney isn’t talking about that lecture anymore, or even complaining about his fellow scientists and questionable methods or whatnot. The scraping noise. He’s using a piece of metal – bit of a wall panel – as a shovel, at intervals. Might just be his imagination, but the pressure isn’t that bad anymore. Progress.

“You know, if all you wanted was some time alone with me, you’d have asked,” John murmurs, and Rodney rolls his eyes.

“I always blow up buildings for a romantic touch. How’s your head?”

“’s okay. It’s stopped bleeding.”

Brief pause. Rodney’s resting his hands.

“Next mission, we’ll just stay aboard the Aurora and let the other guys scavenge the Ancient ruins,” John suggests. “Major Lorne needs the exercise, anyway.”

“Sound like a good idea.” Stretching, rolling his shoulders, the astrophysicist grabs the makeshift shovel.

He keeps digging.


[John, they are sending help] the City sings, half an hour after he first tried to make contact. [you are injured]

maybe She’ll display it as a message, too, but he can’t lie. yeah.

[help is coming]


“… Ronon. Ronon, you must cease,” Teyla says, again, with force. Her hands are on his shoulders, and she wrenches him away from the rubble. The hum of engines above: Gladys is in a Jumper, circling, circling, using the sensors to search for lifesigns. Unfortunately, there is a lot of interference.

The Satedan doesn’t answer, just stares at the ruined place where the hatch used to be, and then at his hands, which have become ruins too. His Dæmon, Melena, is still pawing at the ground as if it would make a difference, and refuses to be comforted.

By her side, Kanaan is restless and cold. It has been several minutes since their narrow escape, and there has been no word – no radio signal – nothing.

Combat engineers are closing in. Ford is speaking with MacGrimmon, who then rushes up to meet them, and orders are shared, but Teyla focuses on her friend for now rather than listening: recognizes, dimly, some of the names and designations. The marines are spreading out, forming a pattern. They know what to do.

A couple of medics arrive at the scene, and there’s Dr Janet Mallory, who acts as chief aboard the Aurora’s infirmary, and Teyla waves her good arm to make them seen. “Janet! Over here.”

Janet is by their side in an instant and shrugs off her medpack. Starts giving orders as she takes a look at the Satedan. “Are there any other injured?”

Aiden, in a daze, but controlled – he’s young but he’s a soldier – gives the doctor the lay of the land. They all managed to get out, in the nick of time. Ronon was nearly lost to them, and two others were hit by falling debris, but none of them lost consciousness. The medics get to work. They have people spreading out in the immediate area. At least they know where to start looking. But there is a thick layer of obstruction between them and Rodney and John, and Teyla fears that they may not be alive. The lifesigns detector in Private Herschel’s hand remains empty and unblinking, the marine looking at it in frantic determination and refusing to believe. Teyla knows the feeling all too well.

She was lucky, herself, escaping with a few scrapes and there is what feels like a light burn on her arm after having been dragged along uneven jarred ground for cover. Her uniform jacket is torn. After the second explosion, they had to flee from the ruins of the hatch, as the room they were in caved in on itself; they threw themselves out of the window. Lance Corporal Snow cut himself on some glass, and now a medic tries to make him sit still long enough for a Jumper to pick him and the other injured up and take them to the Aurora for treatment.

But Ronon refuses to move. He will not leave, and Teyla understands. John and Rodney are team, and friends, and they all wish to help them.

“I really need to get you under a scanner,” Janet says, with an eternal kind of patience which has been honed for many years after working with combatants. “You won’t be able to help anyone unless I get to treat your injuries.”

“Ronon, go with her,” Teyla agrees. “Aiden and I shall stay down here and oversee the excavation,” she adds. Exchanges a nod with Aiden. They won’t leave.

Eventually, the Satedan and the two injured marines are coaxed away. A nurse sees to Teyla’s arm, binding it. Fortunately, the damage is not severe.

Major Lorne is in the Bridge of the Warship, pacing, and has Dr Zelenka scanning the planet’s surface with powerful instruments and hoping, hoping, hoping; he’s speaking with Ford over radio, continually. Teyla has activated her earpiece to be able to follow the movements.

“… still nothing. We’re having difficulty tracking anyone down there,” the Major is saying; “It could be something with the compound or the atmosphere. It doesn’t have to mean they’re dead.”

“All the rescue teams are on site,” Ford acknowledges. “We’ll keep looking.”

Teyla knows the Tau’ri will not accept the truth until they find bodies.


John can finally move. Relatively speaking, anyway. Because, fuck, that hurts. He’s broken bones before. His arm, his collarbone, a childhood accident. Years ago. Almost forgot how bad that was, but he’s got a pretty high threshold for pain – tries to have that, anyway. Last time he injured one his legs like that, their chopper got shot down in Afghanistan, and he almost bled out next to Holland’s unmoving body;

“One … two …”

On an unspoken deliberate three, Rodney bends his knees, arms clasped under John’s armpits tensing, and he tugs; drags him back; and John bites his lip as his legs and hips are jostled, swallows a cry. But they’re breaking free. Breaking free. And only a little bit of dust rained down on them, not a mountain.

Air’s getting thinner. A subtle difference, but John’s been trained to fly jets in high atmo and knows to handle pull of G:s and knows to handle minutes with a lack of oxygen. There’s no draft here, and the tunnel’s blocked. Radio signal dead and they haven’t heard from anyone, even noise: they’d cried out, but if the tunnel was blocked far enough - if the others didn’t make it far enough – if the second explosion ruined more -

No, they’re alive. Got to be.

“You’re heavier than you loo– Oh. That’s, that’s a lot of blood.” He sounds kind of nauseous when he says that.

Breathing raggedly, and looking almost like in physical pain himself, all too guilty, Rodney’s grip relaxes and he’s laid down on the hard, uneven floor. Leans against a jutting piece of rock. And John sees what he means. Yeah. That’s quite a lot of blood. Ironic, really. Shrapnel piercing almost the same spot as his old scar.

Heartfelt: “Carson should be here, stuck with some poor bastard, and we should be up there staging a big heroic rescue,” Rodney nearly weeps, wiping his dirty hands on his pants. Gropes for his pack, the flask of water, hands it over.

They don’t have a medpack. There’s always an emergency kit in the Jumper, and Ford’s back carries some supplies. All Rodney’s got are some Tylenol pills and an epi-pen - standard issue for AR-1: the last thing they want is an emergency allergic reaction with no way to treat it. John’s already swallowed three pills with some water, and they may have cleared his headache a bit (and they’d argued whether he should actually have them at all, considering the concussion) but his leg’s on fire.

“Do I … leave that, or pull it out? Oh, god, it could be lodged in a major artery and be the only thing causing you not to bleed out. How are you still conscious and not screaming? Don’t answer that,” Rodney adds, sharply. Has seen him in pain before. Not this bad, though. Only with the Iratus bug, the first week as a team and that hadn’t been a good day but there hadn’t been nearly as much blood or signs of actual trauma. Or dirt. Or the building atop of them about to collapse, burying them alive, air slowly running out.

Got to stay awake. Head injuries – got to stay awake. Coherent. “Can’t your do that thing with the … thing?”

Thankfully, despite the delirious slip of tongue, Rodney understands what he meant to say. Sweeps him with the scanner again. In a minute, he’s saying: “It’s not destroyed a major artery. I think. This … might not be accurate.”

Doesn’t feel that deep. Honestly. Not that Rodney believes him. And John’s only a little lightheaded. “Okay, so, pull it out.”

“You could bleed out or get a raving infection, oh, you’re already probably developing one. And you know I’m not that kind of doctor,” Rodney says, cries, huffs. “I’m not qualified for this!”

Rodney …”

Another rumble. The argument about to rise falls before it reaches anywhere near a crescendo, and John holds his breath, counting the seconds before the world silences again. A crack in the ceiling - previously a few millimeters wide - broadens in one swift stroke and stretches from beginning to end, right above their heads –

It takes thirty seconds before it settles.

Rodney’s breathing heavily. “We can’t wait here. We got to move.”

“Where to, exactly?”

“Hallway isn’t blocked that way.”

“We have no idea what’s there.” But John is running out of energy. Can’t bother to argue for too long. If he does, if he passes out, things’ll only get worse. Without communications and with the dead weight of an unconscious body and their Dæmon next to him, well, Rodney would snap. “Okay. First. My leg; you got to splint it.”

“What about that?” A vague gesture at the ugly piece of shrapnel crisscrossing his thigh;

“Like you said, it didn’t split an artery and I’m not bleeding out. Not that fast, anyway. Fractures first.”

“It’s more like, uh, real breaks rather than fractures – okay. Fine. Right. On it.”

Skin’s broken in some places, but there’s no glint of bone. First question answered: it’s not an open break. Thank god. Rodney looks ready to faint at the mere notion.

John thinks he would have been screaming a lot more of that had been the case.

He’s freed the flashlight from John’s P-90 and now holds it between his teeth as he searches the ground for any kind of resource. Littered with twisted pieces of metal and the remains of what was a chain of really fancy lights, placed in the wall to form a line to follow. Searches, frantically. For once in silence, as he can’t speak with the torch like that and John simply breathes through his nose.

Radio’s still silent. Bad sign. Very bad sign. They’re about thirty feet down. Even if they dug straight up, punching a signal through …

Sometimes, the whole structure groans and shifts like a living machine in discomfort, and every time they’d freeze up and listen. Nothing more coming down. No more explosions. No more explosions.

With a triumphant cry, Rodney fishes something up. The lining panel from a wall, no, a door. Thin and sort of straight and sort of the right length. Then Rodney shrugs off his TAC vest, his jacket, and his t-shirt. Using a pocket knife – standard issue, and John doesn’t think Rodney’s had to have to use his before, there’s a first time for everything – to tear it to strips. Dust and ash has managed to slip under his clothing somehow because his torso looks much like his face, same state, and there are a few bruises forming and for once Rodney isn’t complaining about them. Normally he’d be – he should be – the guy to whine about pricking his finger; he shouldn’t have to need to worry like this about, shouldn’t need to – 

“I’ve never done this before,” he says. A note of helplessness. “What do I do?”

John walks him through it. Has him unlace his boot, pulling it off carefully, slowly as to not move his leg more than necessary. Cuts open his pants. Clenches his fists through it all. Doesn’t dull the pain, exactly, but once his leg’s straight and tightly bound, he can breathe a little easier. There are a couple of strips from the ruined t-shirt left, and they bind that around the shrapnel, very makeshift and probably not that good or proper or anything, but it provides some padding for the bleeding. Slowing down.

“So, I should really keep this still and elevated,” John says, as lighthearted as he can make it, “but we’ve got to move.”

Rodney pulls back on his jacket, abandoning the TAC vest. Quickly he goes through John’s pack, grabbing a couple of things – extra powerbars, spare batteries for the torch, his lifesigns detector with the earlier taken data, ammo because John always carries with him as much as he can – and places it in his own, stowing it next to his laptop (probably broken) and the potentia (hopefully not about to break). John’s not going to be able to carry that and this way they’re not leaving behind anything too important. Then, decisively, John makes no noise (or tries not to) as Rodney supports his shoulder, taking a lot of his weight. On his feet. Or foot. 

“Could be another way out,” Rodney says, nodding away from the collapsed tunnel. It doesn’t look that much better that way, to be honest. Debris littering the floor. Ceiling bent and walls uneven. And it’s dark. John’s glad he’s not claustrophobic.

Everything trembles again, and John curses, this is not a good fucking day;

It’s been well over an hour. Where the hell are those combat engineers?


“What happened?”

Dr Weir’s face is tense and drawn on the HUD, and Ford shakes his head, wishing they had better news. The three-way conversation between Jumper One, the City, and the Aurora, is managed on a subspace frequency and it’s risky, it could be picked up. But this is important.

“There was a series of explosions, causing the tunnel to collapse, and the place was already unstable. We’d just found the ZPM when the first one happened. The Colonel ordered us to fall back to the Jumpers, then the ceiling caved in. AR-9, AR-4, Ronon, Teyla, and I just barely managed to get out,” the Lieutenant reports, stone-faced and he will remain so until he’s too tired to stand up.

“We think,” adds Zelenka, adjusting his glasses – he’s standing in the Bridge of the Warship above, next to the Captain’s chair – “it could have had something to do with the power conduits of the facility. We are going over the data now, which we recorded continually while the teams were down there.”

“I … the doc said something about a conduit. A, a leak …” Ford remembers, stomach churning. “When it happened.”

“Makes sense. A single tiny spark could set off an explosion, and even if the power was cut it was too late; the structural integrity was already failing.”

Weir nods. Distracted by concerns. “What about casualties?”

“Snow and Gamble got scraped up, but they’ll be okay. Dex, he, uhm, he started digging with his bare hands and got them cut up pretty bad - the docs have him in the infirmary now. And there’s … there’s no sign of the Colonel or McKay yet.”

Ford can’t imagine that they’re dead. After all they’ve been through, as a team, all this shit and they have a mission without Wraith or even enemies and they end up dying in a collapsed building? That’s the worst of karma. No, they can’t be. They’re stubborn, both the doc and the Old Man. And they have people looking for them. They’ll keep looking.

“We think they’re alive, or … or at least Colonel Sheppard is. The City received a message,” Weir says.

Ford knows about that Bond – Link – Thing; but, well, it’s not like it’s a visible thread. Hasn’t seen it in action. The Colonel’s a pretty private guy and he hasn’t shown it off or anything. Got even more uncomfortable about it, seems like, after Icarus. And it’d freaked Ford out a bit to see him like that, with almost-glowing-eyes and with the telekinesis and shit (even though: wow, extremely cool). But he hasn’t really thought about whether that Bond allows for the transference of words or merely ideas, how strong it actually is. They – McKay, mostly – keeps insisting that being too far away, say: a galaxy away, from the City could hurt him, maybe even kill him. Like cutting a Bond between human and Dæmon. Makes Ford shiver at the mere thought.

“How …?” asks Major Lorne. Then, like knowing there’s not enough time for lengthy explanations and that the question will be cleared up eventually, he changes the question to: “What was the message?”

He doesn’t know about the Bond, not like that. It’s an open secret - in a place like Atlantis, a base like that, gossip is unavoidable and it’d gotten out, bit by bit, after the Uprising. But people don’t understand. Hell, Ford doesn’t understand, but keeps nodding, pretending that he does. Only McKay has seemed to grasp what it really means, but Ford isn’t so slow on the uptake as to let that out. If the two – well, there are several kinds of Bonds, between Dæmons and humans; he knows his parents had that, and he wonders if he’ll have the same, one day, but he’s only twenty-six, there’s plenty of time. Anyway, Ford’s not going to spread harmful rumors when he for once likes the CO without fear.

“It was very vague,” Weir says. “But it said there were people trapped under rubble on M31-927, requiring medical attention, and that we should send a ship. The Daedalus has been notified.”

Ford nods. Good, they can beam them up and out – if they find them, their signal – when they find them. Really got to install beaming technology on the Aurora, if the Asgard will just let them.

Medical attention. “They’re injured?” Ford asks, anxiously holding his breath. “We know who or how? how badly?”

“No, I’m afraid not. We’ll keep you notified if that changes.”

“Understood,” Major Lorne says. “We’re still scanning for survivors.”

“All right,” Weir says, like it’s the last thing she means and means to maintain a semblance of professional order, doesn’t grimace or sigh too loud. But they’ve lost people before, and Ford’s heard her voice at those times. “Keep looking. The Daedalus is on its way, but Colonel Caldwell was dropping off supplies at the Alpha Site so it’ll take them at least another hour to get to you.”

“Copy that.  We’ll keep looking. Aurora out.”

“Weir out.”

The HUD shuts off, and Ford leans back in the chair, winded. Adria’s curled around his forearm for comfort for support like a pillar, and he sits for a moment, considers the possibilities if this isn’t one of those times when the Daedalus will arrive in time like a deus ex machina and save their asses – what to do then? what to do then?

Then he stands, shoves on his cap, and exits the Jumper. Teyla’s in the field, giving directions, listening, watching: the crumbling facility is slowly rising to the skies as dust and ash, and the formations which were rooftops are gone. Lieutenant Kemp is waiting by the lowered hatch (all serious now: the expression doesn’t suit him), and together they walk back. It looks like something out of those tapes of villages that have been bombed, and Ford’s never been to Afghanistan or any of those places, haven’t seen them. Saw the video from Sateda, the leveled cities. But seeing even this hint in real life, that’s something else. The air smells uncomfortably chemical. 

Shouting. Over the radio, one of the combat engineers, Harris, repeats: “Step back! Step back!”

They pick up the pace, coming to a halt atop of a slab of rock, overlooking the area. People are moving out of the way as quick as they can, following the orders of evacuation. And Ford grips his P-90 tight enough for his hands to burn and they can’t do anything but back away and watch in horror as yet another portion of the place collapses.

The hatch. Right where it was – where the Colonel and McKay were last seen; it’s gone –

They’re running out of time.

Chapter Text

vi.

sign

part three

“don’t you dare.”


And they’re trying to run – stumbling; John can’t walk properly, and Rodney is shouting, come on! hurry! and there’s no time. There’s no time. Pain has to become secondary. The tunnel is breaking apart. The place where he’d been lying, stuck under the rubble minutes before, is demolished and disappears in a second. There is so much noise: loud loud loud noise stone crunching and shifting like a giant, a monster waking up. They try to run. Away from it, away;

 hurry hurry hurry

The ceiling topples down. The ground is rushing up to meet it. They’re going to be swallowed and buried alive. Rodney’s tugging him along. Shouting, aloud or through their Bond, it’s not clear which. The floor is uneven. John stumbles. They’re both swearing and his breathing’s too fast and too shallow, probably, more than what’s good. The pain getting to his head. But adrenaline can work miracles, and the tunnel getting narrower and narrower is a damn good motivator to get the fuck out of there.

Rock, metal, concrete, dirt. All falling. Then, a few meters away, it stops, as if pausing and changing its mind. They don’t slow down. The respite is only temporary. The cracks will reach further, and what if they run out of tunnel before that? there’s no time –

They’re trying to run.

Eventually, the pace slows down, minutely. The cracks don’t reach any further, for the moment, and the walls cease shaking. His leg aches, and what’s left of his pants is soggy and heavy with blood. Rodney’s gasping for breath, muttering about how heavy he is, about how bad a mission this was, what a bad idea it was to enter that hatch to begin with – what where we thinking, going down there as if it would go without a hitch? should’ve known better – and that the ZedPM better be worth all of this fucking trouble.

“Only the second one we found hidden underground.” John tries to make it sound light.

Rodney rolls his eyes, or would have if he’d had the energy to care to fulfill the action. “Yeah, and we didn’t get buried alive that time.”

The dust is settling. The air still stings in his eyes, and John blinks, vision wet with tears caused by the swirling dirt. But there’s no more rumbling.

The pace is something closer to walking than jogging, now. Languid. Rodney keeps shooting him glances, looks at his leg, and blanches each time. Almost like he’s hoping that he’s only hallucinating the damage, and he won’t listen when John insists it’s looking worse than it actually is.

“That lie never works. Stop saying it,” Rodney mutters. Sounds … angry.

Something like guilt tugs at John’s soul, making his belly feel empty and heavy and dark.

They keep moving.

If the rest of their team was near that hatch when it collapsed …

(No. John refuses to think it. They made it.

They made it.)


The dust settles, and the hatch is gone. The walls, the roof, the window they’d broken through to escape. Gone. It’s a twisted mess of wires. A glimmer of crystals, the innards of consoles and control panels. Pieces of walls and ceilings and floors turned to soup.

Aiden and Adria stand at the edge with Teyla and MacGrimmon, relaying the word to Major Lorne. The Aurora picked up the disturbance, a peak in the sensors. Still no lifesigns. Still no lifesigns. The radios are full of chatter.

The sizable crew of combat engineers keeps at it, though, refusing to give up until the order’s given to back off. They keep digging. Whole place is unstable. Major Lorne wonders if they should evacuate. There could be another explosion, tearing them apart, and they don’t want (any more) casualties. 

“No,” Aiden shakes his head. They’ve got to keep going, searching, continue. They can’t give up. The Colonel wouldn’t give up on them, would refuse to leave anyone behind.

Teyla’s getting tired. She’s trying to hide it, but Aiden thinks he’s gotten to know her pretty well over the past year and a half; being a team does that. The gash on her arm is bleeding through the bandage, sluggishly. Not a lot, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. She hasn’t stopped moving until now, and he hands her a flask of water from his pack.

“We’ll find them,” Aiden says. The third or fourth or fifth time.

She doesn’t answer right away, thanking him for the water. Takes a sip. If she sits down, if he sits down, they’ll exhale and exhaustion could make them fall asleep. So they remain standing. 

“It has been nearly two hours,” Teyla says. “And we cannot detect them with any of our devices.”

“We’re having trouble tracking anyone on this planet,” Aiden argues because he can’t believe. “It’s interference or something, like Zelenka explained. And the City got that message earlier. Look, they’re down there.”

“I am merely saying we must be prepared,” the Athosian says, solemnly. She and her Dæmon looks right at them, unblinkingly. Kanaan has always been a bit creepy and otherworldly, sometimes so utterly alien in demeanor. Doesn’t hesitate meeting eyes or even speaking to them - Aiden has seen it happen; Kanaan addressing the Colonel and Weir and several others, in ways which strangers or even friends normally don’t. Hell, Adria has never spoken with anyone on the team or in the City or anyone apart from his parents. It’s just – not quite normal. Sure, they’re good and they’re friends and all, but, still: it’s creepy. Now Kanaan says, a low murmur making Aiden shiver: “It is difficult to mourn lost friends.”

He shakes his head again. “They’re not lost.”

“Aiden …” Teyla’s eyes are soft and kind, deeply understanding. She’s lost plenty of people in her life. Seen Wraith Cullings up close.

(The closest he’s been was when there were twelve Hives above Lantea, and the shields glowed yellow and red like a rising sun under the fire. No one died that day, thanks to the shields, the ZPMs, the Colonel in the Chair.)

Aiden’s vaguely aware that MacGrimmon has backed away, giving them a moment. A team sticking together. 

After the Genii had killed two from Tyler’s team, Aiden had shared scotch with him and watched Tyler shake and curse his now-dead teammates’ quirks and reminiscing about the missions they’d shared, and he doesn’t want events repeating themselves.

“I can’t accept that,” he says, fists clenching. “I can’t.”


Forty-two minutes later, Major Lorne orders him and Teyla to return to the Aurora.

He almost considers disobeying, like a good marine shouldn’t do;


“Break. Let’s, let’s take a break.”

Rodney’s panting heavily, and John can’t physically nod without risking throwing up – but nudges, alongside their Bond, something like all right, let’s, and lets Rodney lower him down. Gropes along the knobbly wall for support. There’s this jutting formation like a slab which makes a place as good as any to sit down, and it’s not all the way to the ground. He can lean against the wall and Rodney helps to prop up his leg straightly, keeping the blood inside instead of outside his body for a few more minutes. He decisively doesn’t scream.

They’ve tried the radio a few more times. Static.

“We are never again going inside underground bunkers, or chambers, or anything like that,” Rodney swears vehemently.

“Yeah. Next hatch we find, let’s send, let’s send some other guys,” John agrees. A whisper.

“Please don’t pass out on me.”

“I’m trying not to.”

It’s been an hour a half. No. Two. More? Can’t tell. He’s losing the sense of time, and that’s worrisome. Blood loss is getting to his head. His Dæmon is feeling it. They have a problem moving without being all stiff and, if this corridor was wide enough to fly in, they probably wouldn’t be able to do so in a straight line. All wobbly-like. They’re clinging to his free shoulder, the side which is not pressed against Rodney’s as they walk – well, Rodney walks. John sort of … hobbles along.

“Are you going to throw up? You’re turning green.”

“No.”

Peering in the continual direction: the white light of the torch reaches only until the next wall or juncture. Every time they hit a crossroad or a door, they’ve got to decide which way to go. The now rather useless schematic provides little help. Pathways which on the scanner are shown to be clear and broad are full of debris, partially or wholly blocked. They’ve turned around twice to go another way. They could be just heading deeper into the maze, they know. Breaking that rule of Stay Put and Let The Other Guys Rescue You. But every ten or so minutes, the place tilts and groans. Threats. There have been two more what could’ve been explosions, the place swaying and sweeping like in a dance. Far off enough not to kill them, but close enough – too close.

“I was going to bring a grand piano.”

John blinks. Blearily. Wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, and catches sweat and blood. Probably running a low-grade fever, he reckons, but doesn’t say it. Rodney’s already aware. Keeps bleeding emotions through their Bond far too vulnerably, he can’t stop it.

“To Atlantis,” Rodney goes on, pacing. Three steps forward, turn, three back, turn. Air’s hot down here, he’s said, except John can’t feel it. Keeps shivering. “I was going to bring a piano. A proper one. Steinway, or Baldwin; those are good too.”

“Okay. Through … through the Gate? Do those things even fit?”

Conjuring up the image: almost makes him laugh. Considers the bizarre request, a bunch of marines lifting a block of black and white and heaving it through the event horizon while General Landry and Weir look on in utter befuddlement. Then another image: of Rodney’s hands, he’s got pretty nice hands (the feel of them the contour the press on his sides and his flesh and he’s got good memories associated to those hands) moving across the keyboard - what would it sound like? 

“The Daedalus could beam it up and ferry it over. Would need to be re-tuned, of course, right away – new planet, new climate … it’s always the bother with instruments. I don’t know if you’d know, but it is. There’s this building on the East Pier. We could convert it into a concert hall …”

John squints at him. Rodney’s half-turned away, illuminated by the single flashlight between them and it makes his hair glow like a halo of gold. “You’d bring a piano to Atlantis?”

“The digital one we built last year is adequate, but nowhere near good, and people are always poking at it and breaking it,” Rodney says, arms crossed. “Nothing like the weight of real keys.”

“Okay,” he says, agrees like it all makes sense. Would. The image of Rodney’s hands seared behind his eyelids, permanently. “You played, when you were a kid, right?”

Hasn’t heard him play. Bet he’s brilliant at it, though. It’d be precise and beautiful, the same way as his calculations. Maybe a bit messy and rough around the edges, the same way as his mind when he’s caught up with a bright idea. Would like to hear him play. To see if the idea matches reality. They’ll ask, once they’re back in the City. They’ll get them a piano and watch Rodney’s hands moving deftly and listen listen listen;

John catches himself closing his eyes, and jerks himself awake, violently. If he falls asleep, he might not wake up again, taken by the comforting warmth;

“We should get moving.”

With a grunt, Rodney hauls him back up. Makes him dizzy.

They keep moving.


They try the radio, again. Like clockwork. “Ford, Teyla, this is Sheppard. Come in. Anybody? This is Sheppard. Please respond.”

That’s how it started, anyway. He’s soon too out of breath to speak long sentences. Rodney takes over. Repeats. No reply.

“There’s thirty-two feet of dirt and rock and steel above us. Not to mention additional debris, and the direction we’re going in -”

Almost stumbling a couple of times. Continuing onward. “You even know which direction we’re going in?”

“Back the first way we came in through. There was a hole there, remember? We find it, climb back out … happily ever after.” 

“Oh. Great.”

“Hey, hey, don’t pass out.”

“I’m … not going to.” 

“Well, good.”

They’re turning again. Left. Is it just him, or does the air taste a little less stale here?

“… Prime/not prime? It’ll keep you awake.”

"I don’t know if I can think –”

“Five thousand seven hundred and thirty-seven.”

[Prime], the Raven decides, unblinking, and John echoes it. Can’t see Rodney’s face but hears the approval in his voice.

“Three hundred and nine.” The corridor is sloping downward, a gentle tilt of a degree. Feels the weight of gravity increasing.

“Not prime.”

“Seven thousand one hundred and eighty-three.”

“… Not prime.”

“Nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-nine.”

“Prime. You’re … dumbing it down for me.”

Rodney huffs a laugh: breathing: “And you’re just showing off.” 


still here, he tries sending the impression to the City as they slowly move forward, still ticking.

Hopefully the message will be passed on.

Faint and faraway, but undoubtedly Her, Atlantis returns with a not-quite-query: [you are worsening]

we’re fine, we’ll be fine.

Pretty sure that once the word reaches the people in Atlantis, they won’t be believed. AR-1 tends to get into too much trouble for that.


The image clears up on the HUD of the Warship’s Bridge. Major Evan Lorne has been sitting in this chair on and off for the past two hours, whenever he isn’t pacing. The Aurora is locked in a lazy orbit around the planet, hovering directly above the ruins of the Ancient facility. So far, nothing. Fourteen minutes ago, yet another part of it completely collapsed.

When they’d lost the hatch where the teams had entered the compound, so close to where the Doc and the Colonel had last been seen - the flare of worry had reaches all the way through the atmosphere. Everyone on this ship, and on the ground, are tense and quiet, working as quick and hard as they can. This isn’t just any other team of marines trapped down there. Lorne has been around long enough to understand this. They’d do anything to help any poor sods stuck in this kind of situation, anything they could – but this is different. Dr McKay and Colonel Sheppard are a cornerstone of the Expedition.

They don’t leave people behind. It’s something of a mantra, and SG-1 adheres to it, the SGC in general, and Lorne’s seen that ever since he started working for the Program, those days digging away on P3X-403, when he was part of Edward’s team – the whole mess when their dig for naquadah accidentally disturbed some indigenous holy place and pissed off a whole bunch of Unas. First offworld action Lorne saw proper. Part of SG-11 back then. Lorne’s major in geology had come in handy. Was pretty interesting, and then shit had hit the fan when Lieutenant Ritter got killed and SG-1 came to rescue him and Lorne had been dragged along as a witness and Dr Jackson had, eventually, made some kind of peace treaty with the (understandably very angry) Unas. Back then, Lorne was a different guy. Had no real comprehension of the fact that aliens may look different and not even have Dæmons in some cases but that doesn’t make them any less sentient, and it was a harsh lesson learned. He still regrets it sometimes, thinks of poor Ritter who got strung up like that. His first team; and even SG-11 hadn’t stayed the same for long.

(The year after that, he’d left SG-11 behind and set out to pilot an F-302. Became part of the 1st Space Fighter Wings. Saw Anubis’ ship blow up thanks to General O’Neill. Then, after that, when they’d figured out the thing with the ATA-gene and Dr Beckett had smilingly told Lorne that, yeah, you’re part-alien, Lorne hadn’t even known how to react. The Battle of Antarctica changed a lot of things.)

It’s far too routine with the SGC: teams splintering and reforming and changing shape. People moving on and passing on and passing by. That’s why, in a way, Pegasus is so different. Teams are more out here. Closer than SG-11 ever was. Back there, Earth was a wormhole away, and Lorne had a comfy apartment and other friends waiting, and off-duty he could call his girlfriend or some old buddies and catch up. These guys out here, they only had each other for a year, and the Athosians and other sparse allies. Some stuff he’s heard whispers about, things they do for each other (unconditionally) –

But this deep, deep loyalty, that’s new. Not like it was back in the Milky Way. This loyalty is like blood flowing through the Expedition; the City makes the bones, and the people are the flesh of the body, and the Colonel and Weir and maybe all of AR-1, they make up the heart and soul. If Lorne had the time to be poetic, yeah. If he would make a painting out of it.

“Aurora, this is Dr Weir. I just wanted to alert you that we just received another communication.”

Just how that communication thing works, what it even is, how it’s possible – Lorne really wants to know, because they haven’t gotten a radio signal through yet, and the Doc and Colonel wouldn’t have the equipment to receive a subspace communication. Yet, Dr Weir is serious and adamant.

Lorne’s seen a lot of weird shit in his years with the SGC. Disbelief won’t get him anywhere. Better to just nod and smile, nod and smile. Ask questions later.

“One day you’ll have to explain how that works, doc,” he says.

Dr Weir nods. Distracted. “Once you’re returned to Atlantis,” she says, and implied is the continuation: with the survivors.

And he’s heard whispered rumors in the City – once or twice – about the Uprising, about Colonel Everett and something about Colonel Sheppard; he was a Major then; being able to hear the City speak, something about a Bond Unheard Of, but that’s ridiculous, the City isn’t a Dæmon, Atlantis is a City not a sentient being. It doesn’t make sense. But Dr Weir isn’t joking. Wouldn’t be. So Lorne nods: just got to accept this. Hell, this is outer space. Impossible details like that, important and vague, shouldn’t be so surprising.

Teyla Emmagan came aboard in Jumper Eight two minutes ago, and now she enters the Bridge at a jog. Doesn’t slow down until she reaches the center console. Her face is streaked with dirt. A bandage is tied around her lower right arm, and her body is probably a motley of bruises they can’t see.

Lieutenant Ford is still down there, overseeing the excavation, along with Corporal MacGrimmon and Lieutenant Kemp from AR-4: they’re refusing to go anywhere else, even if they’re not real combat engineers, not trained for this situation exactly but they know how to follow orders. The rest of AR-4 and AR-9 are already on board the Warship, the injured in the infirmary being treated by Dr Mallory and her team. Out of AR-1, only Ronon Dex is in there, and apparently the guy is growling and upsetting the nurses and wants to go back down to the planet. Docs had to sedate him. Probably will wake up pissed, if his impression of the guy is anything to go by.

“Major,” she greets, and addresses the face on the HUD. “Dr Weir. I overheard the radio chatter - another message?”

A hint of hope. Emmagan and her people are a lot more used to giving up – maybe not the right words: rather accepting this kind of loss – than the Tau’ri, because of generations and generations of subjugation to the ever-present Wraith. She’s no longer armed with a P-90, and her TAC vest is off. Standing there on the Warship’s bridge, in her dirty uniform, she doesn’t look that alien. If not for the unusual shape of her Dæmon, she could’ve been Tau’ri. Just another human among the rest.

(To her, all the rest of them are the aliens. Even Ronon Dex, in a way.)

“Yes,” Dr Weir answers. “Less than ten minutes ago.”

“So they’re still alive?” Lorne asks.

At least the Colonel, Dr Weir had said, earlier, the first message they got. And her concern is deep and she’s got to be worn with anxiety. Millions of miles away, there’s nothing she can do but wait and wait and wait. 

“Yes. For now. It … It sounded urgent. One of them is injured; we think it’s quite badly.”

An exhale, almost shaky – relief. Because there is at least one living soul hanging on, calling out. Emmagan says, faintly amused as if she’s heard the same excuses many times before: “I assume he claimed to be ‘fine’?”

And this time there is a hint of a smile, tired, knowing. “Yes.”

It is only a brief respite. Dr Weir doesn’t have any promises. The messages may stop coming. And they have only one voice.

What if one of them didn’t make it?

What if they don’t make it?

Major Lorne isn’t ready to face that storm. Doesn’t honestly think anyone is ready for that. The Expedition are a tight bunch. Close. And a team is even worse. He’s been with the SGC long enough to understand, if Emmagan and Ford and Dex lose their teammates … Not to mention if there’s only one survivor. The guilt. Could claw away at a guy so deeply they’re taken by it. Lorne has seen it happen. Has felt it happen. (Ritter’s guts cut open and his Dæmon on a spear, and they weren’t even that close and Lorne had stared in horror and had nightmares for weeks afterward; what if I didn’t let him wander off, what if I’d stuck closer, would that have saved them?) And he’s seen the Colonel’s record, the non-blacked-out parts anyway, and can’t think he’s entirely completely free from PTSD from the shit he’s been through, that kind of career. Doesn’t know enough about the Doc to make a similar assessment, he’s civilian; civilians are … they’re not trained to handle this kind of thing.

(is anyone truly?)

“Colonel Caldwell will be here in twenty-three minutes,” he says, half an eye on the screen to his right where Lieutenant Terrace, acting as the Aurora’s Communications Officer at the moment, is keeping track of the Daedalus’ approach. Relatively speaking, because they can’t track them for real in hyperspace: only make estimations. But if they can’t get a lock on their the signals of sub-q:s, or lifesigns, if the Daedalus can’t beam them out …

But the people of Atlantis are stubborn. Other kinds of people don’t fit out here, in this pattern.

“Understood.” Dr Weir looks at him and then at Emmagan. Already gave the order earlier to hold position and search for another two hours. If they haven’t found them by then …

“We will find them,” the Athosian bows her head. A vow.

Dr Weir speaks for them all. “I really hope we do.”


Then they’re stopping again, and John thinks it’s a bit too early for another break, but Rodney’s looking into an archway. The door must have been open when the building was destroyed, locked in that position. The control crystals to the side of it are completely fried. Inside, it looks like a lab. And it’s more or less intact, and, hey, this corridor has been more or less intact for the past fifty meters, so maybe this part is less affected. Meaning they’re nearing the end of it. Hopefully.

There’s something inside there other than ten thousand year old consoles.

“Wrong way,” John mutters.

“No, just – a detour, that’s all. It’ll only take a minute. There’s something familiar about this …”

At the center of the room, there’s this device resting on a table: sleek, with a blue crystal at the top like a pinnacle and right now it’s dull and blank. Around it is a set of gray stones, with some kind of rune on them, a dozen of them or so.

Warily, John leans against the door frame, and lets Rodney do his thing. Humming on his breath and muttering all the while, the astrophysicist tries to analyze the thing at a distance. The machinery does have an Ancient vibe to it, though, at the same time, is a lot more complex-looking than usual. Not the clean white lines or square geometric shapes, but an intricate pattern. Almost Wraith-like in design, organic and alive, and the thought makes him shiver.

There’s no hum. It doesn’t respond to their presence. Broken? No power. Doesn’t matter. John would like to sit down, but then he wouldn’t be able to get back up. 

“I think I know what this is,” Rodney says. “There’s an old SG-1 report, when they’d found something similar to these stones. These are a form of Ancient communication devices.”

Communication. Communication. A way to reach their team, or the Aurora –

“Radio? Great, let’s use it.”

“No, not at all like a radio. They create some kind of physic link between two people each touching a stone of their own. O’Neill actually ended up sort of linked to this guy for years and no one noticed until last year – long story short, he rather liked it so he didn’t mention it until this guy, some Common Citizen Joe, started getting very worrisome visions about the SGC and eventually contacted O’Neill, something about death-threats, I don’t know, I only skimmed the report.” Rodney speaks rapidly: “The important thing is, we only found the stones before. This device, it could be some kind of stabilizer … O’Neill only received visions, but the full purpose is probably to, well, to be able to communicate through someone else’s body.”

John shivers. Not liking the sound of that at all. Visions. Psychic link. Someone else taking control of your flesh to speak; is that what it is?

Hearing him, Rodney adds: “As long as nobody touches the stones with their bare hands we should be fine. Will be fine.”

Warily. His grip of the door frame is faltering, starting to slide down. It’s getting more and more difficult to breathe, as if the atmosphere is thinning out and he’s reaching for the upper layers. “If that thing … ends up zapping you –”

“It won’t! Trust me. I’m a hundred percent sure the device isn’t even activated yet. I need to take this to Atlantis, to my lab to analyze it.”

“Rodney, I can’t even walk properly. I can’t carry shit. That thing’s interesting and all, but if we can’t use it to raise the Aurora, I don’t see how useful it is to us right this moment.”

Slipping off his backpack, the Canadian is already taking off his jacket and using that to grab a few of the stones, stuffing them in the bag, next to the dim potentia which isn’t making any noise. Then he looks at the terminal and says, thoughtful: “It doesn’t look that heavy.”

He wants to roll his eyes. “That’s what you said about me.”

“If we could come back –”

“Rodney,” John says, sternly. Tiredly. Taking the last breaths he’s got. Lungs don’t feel like they can fit that much in them anymore, refusing to expand contract expand that way they should and his vision is blurring, pulse rising, heat. “Rodney, this place’ll be collapsed before we’re back. Maybe some combat engineers can get at it. Maybe. Maybe if they get back, but.” Getting harder to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. “We got … we need to focus on finding a way out –” 

Ends up stumbling across the last sentence, the last word, like a scratched record and the room is tilting.

No. He is tilting.

Ah, shit, he thinks, blinking at the rust-colored ceiling and all the cracks in there and then Rodney’s there, his face swimming above in a halo of light, blanketing, and John blinks up at him dimly and wonders why he looks so pale and silent all of a sudden when they were that close to yelling five seconds ago –


“Aurora, this is Colonel Caldwell. The Daedalus is on approach.”

“Daedalus, this is Major Lorne. Good to hear your voice, sir.”

“We’re still nine minutes out. Have you found them yet?”

“No … No, sir. Nothing yet.”

Colonel Caldwell knows enough about the Expedition not to tell them to give up. Say: it’s too late. They don’t leave people behind.


“…Sheppard? Sheppard. John. John, wake up. John.”

The mantra keeps repeating. Over and over and over: over and over and over:

Someone’s touching his face. Annoying. He wants to go back to sleep. Sleep was nicely dark and warm. Hands, fingertips touching his cheek and his brow.

“John. Sheppard, wake up. Sheppard. Oh, please don’t be dead –”

“… ‘m not … dead.”

“Sheppard! Oh, thank god. You’ve been out for at least fifteen minutes – you’ve lost probably half your body weight in blood, it’s all-over the floor.”

He’s lying down, and the ground is hard except there’s something softer under his neck giving some kind of support. Still in that room. With the rust-colored ceiling. Pretty patters in it. Even as he speaks Rodney’s moving, poking at his leg, and he tries to swat them away but can’t, it hurts too much to move, and Rodney’s hushing him. Apologizes. Shouldn’t be doing that. Shouldn’t need to.

“I’m just checking. I don’t think the fractures have gotten worse but you really, really need a doctor. Why didn’t you tell me you were about to faint?”

“… Didn’t exactly … give a guy a lot of … of breathing space.”

The hands still, and John opens his eyes. Rodney’s face is drawn and there’s that expression again, like someone’s kicked his puppy. It’s rare and open, and most people think he’s merely capable of sneering haughtily and unable to address guilt;

After a moment, he feels a bit more clear-minded. Enough to attempt sitting up, anyway, but Rodney says he should probably lie down and now, he realizes, he’s propped up his injured leg atop of the pack, and that’s Rodney’s jacket rolled up under his neck and aching shoulders.

“… Where’re we at?”

“I’ve activated the ZedPM, which is about half an hour from reaching maximum entropy. I was a bit too optimistic with my earlier assessment,” Rodney gestures at a corner. “I’ve patched the radio to the control crystals borrowed from that broken console to try and strengthen the signal, but, no luck yet. I can only point the signal in one direction at a time –”

So if the Aurora, or people on the ground above, aren’t listening anywhere near that particular spot at that particular moment … 

Shit.

“Keep trying.”

They don’t leave people behind.

Releasing a slow sigh, John closes his eyes. Wants to pinch his nose. There’s a headache like an explosion building up behind his eyelids. Forces himself to say awake.

Rodney stands. Goes over to the console to try and send another message. apparently what he’s been doing for the past eight minutes, over and over, while John was out. An SOS. Subspace bursts. He explains the hows and whys, but John’s ears are ringing, and he can’t really remember properly what’s being said. He wants to go to sleep.


“Major! Major, we’re getting something! A signal! Look, look.” 

The Czech nearly runs right into a passing-by marine pacing the deck, gripping a datapad and looking to be in a frenzy, and he rushes to a center console, presses a few buttons. Plugging in. “Listen to this.”

It’s some kind of subspace burst, he starts explaining, and Lorne is radioing Lieutenant Ford already to tell them they’ve made contact. They’ve made contact. People are pausing their work, relief threatening to break out into cheers. One of the techs is leaning onto their workstation as if they may pass out. None of them have taken breaks to rest or eat or clear their heads.

It keeps repeating, intermittent noise in an artificial pattern which can only mean one thing. Three short burst, three long, three short, repeat. repeat. repeat. Morse code: Save Our Souls.

“Lieutenant, I think we’ve found them.” And he turns to Dr Zelenka: “Can we trace that signal and find lifesigns?”

“Already on it.”

He has Lieutenant Terrace turn on the comms in a flash. “Daedalus, we have something …!”


Rodney’s hunched over the potentia like a grieving man. Hands twitching like he wants to start pacing again. Makes the whole room sway and swim like in a drunken stupor. John can’t follow the movement without feeling seasick. The Raven isn’t flying. Shy’s weak like him right now, and they can’t lift their wings. Meredith’s curled up on the dirty floor next to him and she’s nice and warm and John relishes that. Everything else is damned cold, and that’s the blood loss talking, he knows, knows the signs. How many minutes before …?

They don’t leave people behind.

Rodney abandons his pacing, and settles down next to him. Doesn’t seem very comfortable. The cracked floor is hard and cold, and he sits down and they’re alone and he takes his hand. Like Meredith it’s warm and nice, and Rodney looks own at him without smiling. Of all the ways they’d thought they’d go –

He’ll make it. Yes. John knows that. There’s enough air here for - for one person and their Dæmon, for a few more hours – and the human body can survive without water for a couple of days – Rodney’ll make it, he has to, help will come eventually, and Rodney’ll make it even if John doesn’t;

Rodney, flinching like he’s been shot, frown deepening, says: demands: orders: “No!”

Didn’t meant to think that so loudly.

“Don’t say stuff that like, you, you –” Rodney struggles coming up with an appropriate insults. It tugs at John’s heartstrings almost as if he’s playing them; the musician sitting by the piano, maker of harmonies, and these melodies are theirs alone. “You self-sacrificing moron,” he settles on, hardly new or inventive. Thumb moving in circles on John’s shoulder, near the nape of his neck. “Don’t you dare.”

When he leans in, asking if it’s OK, his lips feels chapped against his own. John sighs into the kiss. The hand cradling his own hardens its grip, furiously, and they both might be trembling. For a long moment, neither of them speak. At least not aloud or in words. Just sitting there, holding hands. Then, after a couple of minutes, Rodney leans back to breathe.

“I tried … telling the City,” John murmurs.

“Yeah?”

“She keeps saying … help’s coming, but …”

But they don’t know where they are, radios are broken and what if they can’t detect their lifesigns or their subcutaneous transmitters? Then how will they be dug out or beamed out? He leaves the sentence hanging unfinished. Focuses on breathing. Tries not to close his eyes. Rodney doesn’t want him to close his eyes. Fear.

“Once we’re back in the City,” Rodney begins saying, but halts like after a false start. Tries again. “After all we’ve been through, we should – There is – Time’s in a short supply and, and – No, my point is: weshouldtotallygetmarried.”

In a situation where he was feeling a bit stronger, John might’ve started laughing from pure surprise, pure shock of that simple pure statement. Now he just blinks once, twice, and stares at Rodney, whose gaze darts uncertainly sideways and he’s fiddling with his sleeve, thinking shouldn’t have said that shouldn’t have bad idea mission abort abort I’m a fool, and those thoughts taste all wrong, bitter regret that shouldn’t be there.

Then his brain manages to catch up and John cracks a smile, on the verge of a chuckle. In the dim light, Rodney’s crooked mouth is beautiful. There are wrinkles around his eyes because of all the frowning, and clear traces that he’s tried to wipe away the dust on his forehead with little success. His eyes are bright and clear and vibrant. All of him so vibrant.

Oh. Oh!

“Yeah.”

So what if it’s illegal and there are regulations and they can’t even walk through the corridors holding hands openly like some other couples, there are many of those these days, marines and civilians in a maze and they don’t have to care as long as they’re straight, don’t have to hide it; but there are plenty other planets in this galaxy alone and other human cultures where things like that are allowed, where no one would blink, and they’re already holding so many secrets. What’s another to add to the pile?

He looks up at Rodney and inhales enough oxygen to muster a smile, control his body.

“You’re – I, I didn’t mean it. Seriously. Like,” Rodney staggers over the sentence, embarrassed as if earlier his tongue has slipped and he hadn’t meant to say it, and something in John’s chest aches at the notion that Rodney might not have meant it. Might not want it. Then Rodney’s facade breaks, cheeks warm, and John can feel his pulse, maybe it’s his own, unclear, through their Bond. It’s alight. Fire. “I – You mean that?”

An effort to speak. “Why … would I lie about that?”

(no more lies)

“We should … should do it … on New Athos," John adds, out of breath; all that kissing was probably not a good idea considering the lack of oxygen in his limited amount of blood, but. And Ford and Teyla already know, pretty much, and - Not so sure about Dex, Ronon’s a good guy, can keep a secret and they’re team, they shouldn’t be lying to each other in a team. Should have told them all already about Icarus and all that shit. Once they’re back in the City, he will. He will.

And just like that, he makes another silent promise. They’ll get through this, not the last of miracles they’ve managed to pull off, and he’ll tell the team the unabridged truth, get that weight off his chest, and he and Rodney could go to New Athos, where Halling and his people are building a new village, a new home. Don’t need a whole bunch of witnesses or a party to exchange vows. Can’t do it a Terran way, anyway, until laws are changed. Just the two of them. Maybe Halling or Teyla could fasten their hands and proclaim it.

Rodney’s uncertainty is falling away, giving into the pressure of a smile, returning it. 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a yes?”

Is it possible for emotions to be physically manifested into something touchable? “Yes, Rodney.”

The Canadian exhales, a chuckle like he’s not sure what other noise to make to properly convey emotion. “I, wow. I never thought I’d actually ask that question. Have the chance to, you know. I didn’t think we’d get that far.”

“No?” he tries to whisper, but it’s becoming a true effort to speak aloud. Squeezes the hand instead, and repeats across their Bond: Why not?

“Because people are complicated and, uhm, well, I rarely get this far into a relationship before it fails completely because of my lacking people skills and I’m being called a pain in the ass because science takes up more of my time than they think it ought, and – and it doesn’t work out.”

And John remembers his own failed pasts and how he nearly married Nancy but they broke that off, a few weeks into the engagement because they both realized it wasn’t going to work out, with their own secrets they wouldn’t share for different reasons. But he’s come to clean to Rodney, and maybe that’s why it works. They’re – on the same wavelength. And when they met, it just clicked. They clicked, and that friendship has never faltered.

This will work out. They’ve made it this far. Survived space together. One disaster after the other. A pretty solid foundation.

Thought the same at first too.

“You’re utterly ridiculous, you know that. How could anyone turn that pretty face down? Let me guess, you didn’t think you were good enough or something other, something – ridiculous. Someone needs to have a lengthy talk with you about that. And self-preservation,” Rodney goes on, almost on a spiel, but there is no anger or heat behind the words. “You really have no sense of self-preservation –”

First time they met, Rodney was wearing that orange fleece. Wonder what happened to it. John had sat down in the Chair in Antarctica, and stared dumbfounded at the holographic universe unfolding over his head. A lifetime ago. If not for that moment, they’d never have met, and he wouldn’t have a Dæmon, and he’d be alone. If not for that moment.

He’s got to thank Carson for accidentally launching that drone. If he hadn’t done that and inadvertently forcing John to inadvertently impress General O’Neill with his flying, he might not have been allowed down into the belly of the secret facility, the Ancient outpost, and he’d never have met Rodney.

Funny how things turn out.

“… with me? John? If you faint again …”

His eyes had slipped shut again, and he forces them open. Still here.

Rodney swallows, head bobbing, and something physically tightens in his chest, making it even more difficult to breathe. “Don’t do that. You almost gave me a damned heart attack.”

Talk to me, Rodney. It – it keeps me awake.

“Okay. Okay. You said yes. God, I never thought you’d say that and I didn’t think I was going to ask until, I don’t know, at least another few months, and given the extremely ill-wrought suppressing laws of your country I thought I was going to have to wait until the next century or something. New Athos, huh? New Athos. Yeah, we could, we could write it off as a friendly visit to the neighbors in the report. Park the Jumper on the other side of the continent where no one can bother us. It won’t be a religious thing because I’m atheist and – I don’t know what you are, huh, haven’t considered it before … but we don’t need a priest. Or. We could? if you like?”

Inwardly, he smiles. This kind of pain is good. Nah, I’m good. Not like they could actually bring a priest, anyway, of any Terran religion, bringing in an outsider like that, without spilling the whole thing, break the secrecy and then a whole other storm would tear them apart. Can’t exchange physical things, either. Things that can be shown or discovered or broken.

“Yeah, and we’ll ask Teyla to attend. And Ford. He won’t talk, will he? I know he gossips as bad as the rest of them,” Rodney’s babbling now. It’s really really cold. John’s struggling to catch the body heat lingering in the air. “But they’re team. They could, they could act as witnesses. Or best men. Best men and woman. Is that a thing, a best woman? We’ll make it a thing. ‘Cause I imagine you want her as your best woman. Ford’ll act like a total loon, I can imagine it. He’s really a big child with a gun and needs supervision. Do we invite Ronon? He’s team. And Carson and Elizabeth? Or would that complicate things too much? Because, because I would have Carson be my best man, not like we’ve talked about it but not because we’re not friends but more because I never thought I’d get married and he’s not. I’d like to make it legal on Earth, at least in Canada and your less than admirable country, but, as said, the rules are severely outdated and –”

Doesn’t matter, John interjects. To them, to them it’ll be true and real and that’s what matters.

He almost wants to laugh, edge of hysteria. They’re down here, trapped under at least thirty feet but probably more of rubble and Rodney’s holding his hand and asking to marry him, asking to marry him, and discussing it like one’d talk about the weather or the repairs of a spaceship’s sensors or wormhole theories – John looks, vision all the blurrier, at Rodney’s face and then at Meredith between them and the Raven resting beside him, unable to move. The four of them together like this. Fits. Warmth. Rodney’s not ceasing to talk, his voice is weaving a blanket, draping it over them.

“… or we could make sure to go to some backward planet and make sure the natives need to perform some marriage ceremony thing and insist it’ll be the two of us – put a spin to it, and no one could give you a hard time for that, could they? I know at least three candidate planets for that. If aliens made us –”


Scratching noise. Interrupting. No. That’s static breaking into something artificial and deliberate, and John hears is vaguely like at the edges of a dream. Rodney tenses.

It’s clearing up. Forms into something else. A voice.

A voice.

“… read? Colonel Sheppard, Dr McKay, please respond. I repeat, this is the Aurora. Colonel Sheppard, Dr McKay, do you read? Colonel Sheppard, Dr McKay, please respond -”

See? John wants to smile. Said they’d come and find us.

Rodney scrambles to his feet. practically throws himself at the radio to press the button. “Oh, thank god! Yes, we’re here! We’re here!”

They don’t leave people behind.

The voice – who’s that? Major Lorne? maybe – sounds so utterly relieved and exhilarated and there’s whooping and hands clapping in the background.

“… lost your radio signal, but we’re now reading four lifesigns,” Major Lorne is saying. “The Daedalus is inbound. Are you injured?”

Concerned. That should be him, not Rodney, answering. He’s the team leader. He should –

“We need a medic, Sheppard’s got a broken leg and he’s lost blood and passed out.” A glance in his direction. Keeps his voice steady but it’s climbing another octave as he speaks, frantically picking up the pace. “He’s awake now. He’s, he’s in a bad shape.”

In the background: someone calling out an order. Major Lorne might be nodding in confirmation but they have no way of seeing it. “We’re coming to get you, doc. Hang tight. The Daedalus is on its way, they’ll be here within four minutes to beam you out. Just hang tight.”

The ship isn’t meant to be here. In another quadrant of space. Checking out … Something. Can’t recall. Mission briefing. John breathes through his nose, eyes closing. We’ll owe Lorne and Caldwell a beer. A good one.

[Mm-mm.]

Neither of them can move. Neither of them can move.

“Okay. Good. Good,” Rodney keeps repeating that. Like in shock. If his tone is less than steady, John’s not sure if it actually is or if he’s imagining it. There’s a growing noise, static, deepening and it’s getting more and more difficult to keep his eyes open. “Could you hurry it up? Sheppard’s lost half his weight in blood!”

“Doing our best, doc.”

Then Rodney is next to him on the ground, and clasping his hand. “You heard that?”

Yeah, John murmurs, and sighs. Rodney's hand is warm and nice. Should hold it more often. More often. More often.

“Hey. Hey, stay awake. Stay with me, John – stay with me. You made a promise, remember? I’m not going to let you get away from that. You hear me? Don’t you dare break that promise. John. John, open your eyes. Sheppard, stay awake –”

This cold might be frightening and, and he might be afraid, he realizes, dimly. Should he be afraid? He’s bleeding out, in the dust, like those bombed destroyed houses on Terra, before the Gates, before he knew they existed; like the windowless cellars they’d crammed them in, after the IED, they’d killed off the Captain with a headshot playing Russian Roulette and he hadn’t know if the next dawn would be the last, but he hadn’t felt this cold then, and Rodney’s holding his hand, now, his hand, warmly, and distantly far away there’s the City singing and the Raven is too tired to fly, too tired, they’re too tired

they’re too tired

they’re too tired 

Chapter Text

vii.

peace / war

part one

for once, blessedly, there are no dreams.  


They tell him in the past tense what happened.

The first surgery took four hours. Overseen by Dr Mallory. It’s all done on the Daedalus. The minute he and Rodney had been beamed aboard the ship jumped into hyperspace, heading back to the City, the Aurora in tow. Radio chatter: Major Lorne and Ford and the others on the Aurora being told that they’re on board and safe.

John didn’t hear the announcements. Doesn’t recall much: only the bright light and that reeling sensation of displacement, the suddenness of a different kind of gravitational pull and the taste of clean clear recycled air. Oxygen, he finds out later; they’d put a mask on him within the twenty first seconds.

(He’d fumbled with his hand, reaching out, but Rodney was on another gurney. Everything was too clean and white.) 

Kind of glad he can’t remember clearly. He was probably delirious and pretty out of it. Hypovolemic shock. Splatters of red on the Daedalus’ gray pristine floors. Must’ve pissed Caldwell off. The guy likes his ship in a good state – what commander wouldn’t?

Once they reached Atlantis, fifty-eight minutes later, Beckett was beamed up along with Dr Frost, an orthopedic specialist who recently joined the Expedition, to work with the team of surgeons. Didn’t want to move him and make it worse. There’s blood on the floor of the small operations theater (the Daedalus is well-equipped) and there’s a lot of tense silence as they work, and the City held its breath. Deeply out of it, general anesthesia. Didn’t dream. They got the shrapnel out and set his legs properly, and then he was beamed to the City’s infirmary and put under the Ancient scanner for a better look. A second surgery followed a few hours later, to clear things up. Carson had him sedated.

(A hint of a memory: the press of a hand in his own before the light took them, and Rodney’s voice chanting and shouting angrily orders pleads, and the warmth of his Dæmon curled up at their side, the Raven and Meredith together. Then the light had taken them, and the hand was forced away. The Raven hadn’t been able to fly. Rodney had lifted Shy onto the gurney, wearing gloves, murmuring. For show. Can’t let anyone find out, to know, the depth of their Bond. Can’t let them know.)

Lost over one fifth of his blood, slowly, and they’d pumped him full of plasma to give his heart a chance not to fail while finding real blood for transfer. No shortage of donors, apparently. Word in the City had spread faster than the ship had reached New Lantea. Subspace comms. Weir had found out five minutes after that brief radio contact that he and McKay were still alive. Carson had rounded up the volunteers, those with compatible blood types and John’s glad that, at least, of all weird crap to inherit and for people not to know, an alien blood type wasn’t one of them. Same as his mother, or some other wholly human ancestor. Icarus having nothing to do with it. (Or just a little. Maybe the Ancients were a lot more like humans than previously believed. John doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to think about it.)

Dreamlessly, he sleeps.


He wakes up in the infirmary in Atlantis. She’s singing quietly like making a blanket for them to feel safe in, and the lights are on but only softly so, nothing sharp. There’s an IV attached to his arm, and if they’ve given him morphine – yeah, that’s the cloud he’s been walking on. A certain kind of aftertaste. Not overly pleasant. The ceiling – it’s not the same as on Deserum. It’s whole.

This is home, this is safe; and he breathes. Too deeply and his ribs hurt. Yeah, right – now he remembers. Bruised. Sure feels like it.

There is no dust in his hair. Oh, there was a sponge bath, wasn’t there? Probably. He hates it when that happens. The poking. Always makes him uncomfortable, the thought of being touched when unconscious and unable to do anything himself. Showering is going to be a pain in the ass until he can get this cast off.

Carson is slumped over in a plastic chair next to the bed, half-asleep, hair all askew, and there are dark bags under his eyes. His Dæmon, small and innocent-looking, is curled up on his lap, long ears slouching, and its human has a hand curled around its side softly.

“… Hey, doc.” It’s meant to be cheery, but it comes out as a croak.

The Scot blinks, dazed. He and his Dæmon both exhausted, and John feels kind of guilty to not have let them sleep a bit longer. But that position would give one crick in the neck. Jumping into full doctor-mode, the doc’s on his feet, checking on the patient and the equipment.

“How long was I out?”

“Unconscious or out of surgery? Because you’ve had two. One here, one on the Daedalus.”

“Oh. Unconscious?”

“Little over a day. I was tempted to keep you under longer,” Carson says. “You lost a wee bit of blood.”

Hah. With Carson it’s always a wee bit of blood loss, or a wee bit of radiation poisoning, or a wee bite from an alien creature that’ll kill you if left untreated.

“We removed the shrapnel and cast your leg. There were two breaks, one to the fibula and tibia respectively, but they were clean and thankfully not major, and neither required any internal fixation. What had us worried was the blood loss. We have to be on the lookout for an infection as well. You’ll be off your feet for a few weeks, lad.”

He sighs, relaxes into the pillows. A broken leg. That’s, what, six weeks? eight? when it comes to minor, normal fractures. He read that somewhere, he thinks. Catches that look on Carson’s face, and the Scot lowers his voice so that no nurse passing by can overhear:

“With your genetic heritage, it might be a bit shorter. We know they had a pretty good immune system; it stands to reason they healed physical injuries quite fast, by human standards.”

“Right. You know, you could check that out in my medical records, doc. I’ve been injured before.” No one had noticed anything weird then. Out of the ordinary. And that’s lucky, he supposes. Lucky no one’s found out and made him into a lab rat, something alien to be studied.

Carson doesn’t look amused. “I know. You’ll have a new scar pretty much atop of your old one there.”

“At least I don’t have to worry about covering up someplace new,” he tries to say lightly, but the doc only shakes his head, disapprovingly.

“Get some rest.”

“Wait. What about Rodney? And my team?”

“They’re fine. They have some bruises. Ronon was in quite a state, when they dragged him back,” the doctor says. “Tore his hands up trying to dig you and Rodney out before the combat engineers got there.”

Oh.

“Where are they?”

“They’re fine,” Carson repeats, as if sensing that he doesn’t quite believe that to be true, won’t believe it until he has proof, seeing with his own eyes. But the City sings, [it is the truth] and there are the dull blinking heartbeats, lifesigns moving nearby, some closer than others – John inhales, exhales, soaks in the emotion of safety and nods. “I sent them away to sleep and eat. They’ve been hovering by your bedside practically every hour, and I’m sure one of them will be back here before you know it. Get some sleep, lad. Visitors will have to wait until morning.”

Morning. Sleep. Sounds nice. He’s not even sure if it’s night or day on this side of New Lantea, and he can’t bring himself to glance sideways in search of a window – instead his eyes slide shut, and he sleeps.

For once, blessedly, there are no nightmares.


The second time, he wakes up feeling sore. Not that rested. Medically induced sleep: between the pain and the drugs, it’s difficult to feel rested afterward.

This time, Rodney is waiting in that plastic chair, and there’s Teyla and Ford and Ronon. Hanging around. Must’ve been allowed inside by Carson. Been a few hours, then. Teyla is speaking with Ronon in low tones in a corner, while Rodney’s playing with a datapad, and Ford’s leaning against a wall, arms crossed, tense. Looking at him on the bed like a sentry.

John cracks open his eyes, and the Raven stretches their wings. Feels sore, too. “Hey, guys.”

Reactions immediate. Ronon and Teyla move from their conversation to stand by the side of the bed. Starts feeling a bit crowded, but not necessarily in a bad way. They’re walking unsupported and he can’t see any major injuries and they’re all accounted for, and John releases a sigh of relief. They’re whole. They’re alive.

“Hi there, Sleeping Beauty,” Rodney says. “How are you feeling?”

He wants to reach out again, but can’t do so physically. Rodney’s thinking the same. Keeps his end of their Bond open. John cracks a smile. “Like I’ve broken something but the docs fixed me up. I’m all right. You guys okay?”

“We are fine,” Teyla says, with a smile. Unlike Ford and Rodney, she’s out of uniform, clad in more comfortable traditional Athosian garb. There’s a scrape on the side of her cheek, scabbed over, and there’s a healing abrasion on her right upper arm. Makes him wince. They’re all looking a bit like that: freshly showered and dressed in clothes free from dust, but there’s something lingering around the eyes, and their shoulders are still tense and slouched. Tired. Ronon’s hands are covered in white bandages, and the expression on his face is a bit difficult to read. Not quite dark, but somewhat guarded.

Ford shifts his weight from foot to foot, and John can tell the kid feels guilty about something – irrational. Should have a more private conversation later, once his head is a bit clearer. This is not Ford’s fault, whatever the kid is thinking. Ford got the team out of there, out of harm. Did a good job. Followed orders. He has to know that.

He wants to talk privately with Rodney too. Mostly to make sure that that conversation, the minutes before the light – that it wasn’t a hallucination.

“That’s good. And MacGrimmon and Drew’s teams?”

“Lance Corporal Snow and Private Gamble were mildly injured,” Teyla says.

“They’re fine, though,” Ford adds. “Doc’s already let them go.”

“You were the one with all the bad luck,” Rodney says, and pokes him in the side. Causes him to grimace. “Oh. Bruised ribs. Right. Sorry.”

They’re not broken. It’ll be fine. John smiles and rolls his eyes; honestly, it’s all right. His team is safe, his people aren’t hurt, they got back to the City – it’s all right. “You find anything, I mean, that data and stuff …? Don’t tell me we went there to get buried alive for nothing.”

“Still working on deciphering it. I lost my laptop,” Rodney says, mournfully. “But the data you downloaded onto your scanner was still intact. It’s coded somehow, and not in a way we’ve encountered before.”

“So you’ll have it all laid out for us in a couple of hours,” John says, knowingly. 


One by one, they disperse. Ford, heartfelt, showing that he’s still pretty young, says that it’s good to have him back. The guys in the Citadel have been wondering and asking. Restricted access to the infirmary – Carson loathes it when too many people wander in and out. Demands peace for his patients; not that John will complain. Frankly, the fewer people who gets to see him anywhere near his worst, the better. Teyla greets him the Athosian way, forehead to forehead. Dex just stands there looking his gruff and looming self for a couple of minutes, his Dæmon prowling by his feet like a beast that could pounce and kill in a second if motivated. Inclines his head at last before he filters out.

Then it’s just him and Rodney there, and the astrophysicist doesn’t say anything. Claims the chair, pulling it up next to the head of the bed. Their knuckles brush. His hands don’t feel that cold anymore. 

“Did you mean what you said?” John asks, finally.

Relief, something almost like joy, washes over Rodney like a falling river and immerses him. “Yeah. I’m so glad you remember that. I wasn’t sure if – I mean, you were … you were in a bad shape.”

“I remember, Rodney.”

“Okay. Good. Good, because I have no idea how to say it all again.” Rodney exhales. “So you, you still …?”

He smiles. “Yeah, Rodney. We promised, didn’t we?”

And Rodney nods. Both delighted and scared all at once. A bit overwhelmed. Their Bond flares with raw emotion. “When?”

“I want to be able to stand up on my own two feet. It’ll take a few weeks to heal,” he says. “I … I want to come clean, to the team. First. About Icarus, and – I mean. That could be a time as good as any.” To drop a hint. The words tie up awkwardly in his throat, not sure how to break them free. This is a pretty big damn step. It’s a huge step and they haven’t been together that long. But it feels like the thing to do. The right thing to do. A place like this - a galaxy like this - things are too easily shattered, and John doesn’t want to waste time.

The Canadian nods repeatedly. “That makes sense. New Athos?”

“I like that idea. Yeah. Let’s.”

He can talk to Halling, they’re - well, if they’re not friends, they’re pretty good acquaintances. The guy’s not only the current leader of the Athosians, but John’s had a good rep with him ever since he and the rescue team saved him from the Wraith and reunited him with his son Jinto a year ago. One of the good guys. Will be able to keep such a secret. He thinks. Yeah, once John’s explained the need for secrecy, the man will hopefully understand. If not, there’s always Teyla. She’ll get it. (She doesn’t approve, she’s made clear: DADT, all of that. There’s a lot of Tau’ri stuff she doesn’t approve of.)

They don’t want to waste time.


Over the next few days, Weir drops in to say hello, as does Bates though in a more stilted manner. Still haven’t had an official mission debrief, because John would prefer to be there. They’re still working on decrypting that data. And they brought that communications terminal and the stones, apparently.

John had told him to leave it behind. Rodney’s about as good at following orders as himself, so he’s not that surprised, really. Grabbed it when they were about to beam, automatically taking it with him. Now they’ve got it set up in a lab to take readings – all while being careful, Rodney has assured him. Well, John is dubious. Rodney is willing to go to great lengths for science and discovery, and this Ancient device is just waiting to be explained. In John’s mind, half of the time it turns out the alien machine is dangerous to everyone involved.

Most of the time, he sleeps. Gets his strength back, slowly. He’s resolved not to leave the infirmary in a wheelchair, but on crutches, carrying his own weight. Carson disapproves, of course. That glaring match lasted almost a whole afternoon – the highlight of which was Rodney dropping in to talk about, well, it was something, but he’d brought food, hot actual food, from the mess hall.

He reads. Tries to finish War and Peace. Sometimes he wakes up to find the assortment of get-well cards from the other citizens of Atlantis resting on the bedside table steadily growing in number. A memorable moment had been to find that not-flower from the Botany Department. So, they classified it as a flower, but John remains doubtful, because it sure looks nothing like it. But it glows in the dark, a soft warm blue, which is pretty cool.

He makes a point to have Ford find a good bottle of Athosian hot cider for Caldwell as a Thanks For the Rescue. The man’s timing was crucial. Had the Daedalus appeared just five minutes later, John’s pretty sure he’d have bled out, and that would’ve been the end his story.


The third day, he develops a fever. The docs worry, keeping an eye out for an infection, and pump him full of antibiotics. He sleeps a lot, in uneasy fits interrupted by movement around him as Carson or Dr Mallory or someone else checks up on him. Cold and shivering and sweating.

Afterward he vaguely recalls how Rodney had been there, holding his hand when no one else is nearby to see. The worst of the fever lasts only a few hours. Carson is very relieved about that.

Sometimes, in intervals, he finds Teyla or Ronon by the bedside, and they talk softly. Promising a movie night as soon as he’s better. Teyla says they got word from the settlement on New Athos; everything’s going well, homes are being built. It’ll be more permanent than it was on Athos, though some hunting parties are on the move, too used to their old way of a migrating life to change it. It’s a mild summer on New Athos right now. Ronon doesn’t talk a lot but when he does his sentences are pretty well articulated and thoughtful and, yeah, John thinks the guy is much more than a mere soldier with a big gun and most people aren’t aware of that, taken aback by his brutish exterior and all-too-fixated on his past as a Runner (John knows plenty of marines who are itchy to have a look at the sword he always carries around. Ronon never lets anyone touch his sword).

Ford drops in, too, and not merely out of a sense of duty to report as XO. John has him sit down, as a friend, and looks him in the eye and tells him there was nothing else he could’ve done, and he did a damn good job getting the rest of the team – all three teams – out of harm’s way. After that, Ford relaxes a bit, less agitated, less nervous: a good sign. He’s a good kid. Dedicated. With a sense of wanting to stick to regs which John doesn’t have, not anymore (and maybe he’s never had). Colonel Sumner had made a damned good choice picking him as his second-in-command, and John is glad he stuck to him.

Once the fever’s passed and he can sit up and do stuff like eat without assistance, Rodney brings a chess board and they spend a day playing until Carson sighs and rolls his eyes and chases Rodney out of there, demanding he let John sleep. John isn’t able to contain his chuckles at the grumbling tirade which followed.

(He wins three games out of five. Rodney claims he’s being kind enough to let him win because of his disadvantage being hooked up to an IV dulling his mind with painkillers. John and Shy don’t really believe him, but don’t call him out on it, mostly because Rodney’s pretty adorable when he’s all flustered as he demands another rematch. The day Rodney admits someone else is smarter or better than him, well, that would be a very strange day.)


After five days he’s finally released. Carson has scanned him twice every day, measuring blood and muscle and bones regrowing antagonizingly slowly, and John thinks that one day, soon, he’s got to come clean to his team and the rest of the City, to Weir, about the truth. Finally a plus side: he heals a little, little bit faster than the average Tau’ri. That’s always been the case, but John doesn’t think he’s noticed it – hasn’t reflected over it. It’s nothing so swift that it’s miraculous, or they would have noticed when he was a child; yet another reason to be labeled a Strangeling, and something even harder to hide, especially from bullies.

But after five days his leg is in a stable cast and he can finally wear some real clothes, not that flimsy hospital gown, and manages lift his weight onto the crutches. Carson has him carefully walk a couple of laps around the room before he lets him go; promising to return for a check-up tomorrow. Not entirely out of the woods yet. Once he gets a bit stronger there’ll be a strict regime of physical therapy to get back in shape.  It’s kind of awkward to move, but at least it’s only his left leg that’s out of order.

He heads for the Control Room first. Has to stop repeatedly to say hello to people passing by. The Aurora is in orbit around the City, cloaked; as if put on stand-by, and most of her crew are down in the City at the moment, taking a few days off or busy with other duties. Major Lorne is also down here and in the Gate Room when John enters it, suddenly realizing he’s got to tackle these stairs somehow without falling flat on his face.

“Colonel,” the Major greets. “I didn’t think the doc would release you yet.”

“I think I was driving the staff up the walls,” John says with a grin.

“It’s good to have you back, sir.”

“Good to be back, Major.”

He’s going to be stuck behind a desk for over a month. That … sucks. It’s starting to sink in now that, just as his team was getting starting, going out there again, with their own flagship no less – he’s back unable to do anything but sit on a chair and stare on a screen and listen to the reports.

While he was out of it, AR-6 secured nearly half a ton of wheat-like grain from a friendly planet, which was highly welcomed by the City’s kitchens. Two days ago, AR-12 escaped a Wraith ambush without casualties; P42-457 is off-limits for the foreseeable future. AR-12 spotted at least one Hiveship landed there; hibernating or just at rest, it’s unsure with. The Aurora will swing by in stealth mode and get some scans, estimate the numbers. Major Lorne will handle that mission.

Somehow he gets up the stairs without falling or stumbling. Mission a success. The Control Room is busy, and Grodin and Chuck are the two chief technicians at the wheel today. Two teams are out there, currently. Even though stuck in the infirmary with nothing to do, John’s been kept in the loop by Ford and Bates, regularly. He waves hello, hurries past them – though the word is relative as he can’t move that fast as the moment, and everyone seems to want to say hi and ask how he’s doing, and John just smiles, his trademark greeting, and nods his head and say he’s all right. That it’s good to be back on his feet. That, at least, is no lie.

Weir is in her office, the glass doors are closed and she’s looking at her laptop, rubbing one hand to her forehead like she’s got a headache. Busily typing. Crutches aren’t very silent and discrete, but she’s distracted enough so that he has to knock on the door frame as it slides open.

“Hi there.”

“Oh, hello, John. Carson didn’t say he had released you from the infirmary yet.”

“He just did. Headache?” he asks, sympathetically.

“It definitely feels like I’m developing one,” she sighs. “We received anther databurst from Earth while you were in the infirmary. The IOA wants another word. They’re demanding a conference as soon as possible.”

“Ah.” He lowers himself into one of the comfy white armchairs. “I suppose you told them where to stick it.”

“I did,” Elizabeth says. “It’s not just that. The IOA have noticed the lack of Wraith activity in the last few months. At least as far as Atlantis itself is concerned. They think it’s time to put one of their own in charge.”

“They can’t do that,” he protests sharply. Resists the urge to stand up to make a point. Have the IOA completely missed the last report about P42-457? Can’t they get what it means? The Wraith are still at large, and they’re amassing an army. Probably searching the skies for potential feeding grounds: so many of them, hungry and starving and craving. The people back on Terra, they have no idea. No idea. The Wraith are nowhere near gone, they’re just more silent than before now that they think Atlantis is destroyed. Heads turned elsewhere. Far too many humans die every day from Cullings. But since they’re a galaxy away, the IOA can’t grasp it and, most probably, they’re cold bastards who care more about numbers and keeping to a budget than they do about people. That’s almost always the case. “You’ve done more for this City and this galaxy than any of them.”

“Well, now that it’s relatively safe …”

Unsaid: they don’t trust her. She’s proven to be a wild card. Since the Uprising. Maybe since the beginning. Since it all went to hell, Sumner dying, waking the Wraith, finding themselves in a new conflict and now Terra is, inevitably, drawn into the orbit of it all. The IOA are cursing that they weren’t there from the start to stop it all.

Hell, if the IOA had existed properly as a body when the Expedition left, they probably wouldn’t be here, the risks deemed too great. Not outweighed by the potential hopes of meeting Ancients and making discoveries to make the world go round. Even if Dr Jackson had figured out the eight chevron and they’d have dialed Atlantis … No, they wouldn’t have sent an Expedition while there were still threats in the Milky Way. While it’s true that the Goa’uld System Lords are for the most part gone, there are remnants. And there are still unexplored things left to find. Space is big. Really, really big.

To explore it all would take more lifetimes than Terra has to spare.

“That’s not all. I was waiting until you were out of the infirmary to say this – Dillion Everett’s trial was five days ago.”

Whatever light that was in his chest before, it sinks at the mention of that name. Brings back memories he’d rather not think of.

Elizabeth’s tone of voice implies that it didn’t go exactly how she’d hoped.

“Okay,” he says, carefully;

“They’ve declared him not guilty and that he acted within reasonable parameters for the situation.” And John understands: a Colonel, pushed into an unwanted situation with limited intel, no true idea of the foe about to be faced, finding a City at disarray under the sway of a Strangeling; of course he reacted the way he did; feared the Strangeling was more than that, an enemy, a Snake. The incursion. He can’t be truly angry or disappointed. “But – well, this was the part that surprised me, since Everett struck me as a very proud marine – he resigned his commission.”

“What? Really?”

Huh. Everett seemed, just as Elizabeth says, like a very proud marine. A guy who wouldn’t back down and certainly not betray the Corps. Prideful. Clinging to his command and his power and to the spirit of simply being a marine, embodying it somehow, in another way than the marines John has gotten to know the past year and a half – the people of the Expedition have all changed, one way or another. Though the marines still remain undoubtedly marines, taking pride in that; and John would lie if he said he’s not doing the same, being a pilot in the Air Force. Being part of something (though being part of the City is something hundredfold greater).

“Yes,” she nods. “It’s all being sorted. He has General Landry’s support. Apparently they’re agreeing that this is better left behind us, and the only way ahead is forward. For Everett, that meant leaving the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Forward. John nods, distractedly. A moment, a flash: the battle inside the City as they roared through hyperspace, marines fighting marines, the blood and the dying, one soul too many because no one should have died that day. No one. No one.

“I suppose it could’ve been worse. What about the rest of his men?”

“Major Wolfe, previously his second-in-command, is still with the SGC. The majority of the other marines have been reassigned at their own request. They all passed their psych evaluations, I’m told, with various degrees of success. Some of them are scarred by the incident.”

They would be. John is, too. They all are, and dealing with it in different ways. Most by not thinking about it at all. Probably a bad way to deal. Heightmeyer, the City’s psychologist, would certainly agree. He’s been in her office a couple of times (at Elizabeth and Carson’s insistence).

Picking idly at a loose thread poking out from the armrest, John asks: “Who does the IOA want in charge instead of you?”

“One of their own. I’m sure they would prefer a committee.”

John laughs, dryly. “And a committee to decide the names of that committee.”

Elizabeth unclasps her hands, closes the laptop. Tense. They’re all tense and weary, these days. Keep looking over their shoulders.

“They want to replace you too, John.”

Of course. Nothing new. They’re scared of him. The IOA, the brass – everyone who’s been told about his Bond with the City, how She speaks with him and they think he has the power to overthrow the world if he wants to, probably, burn something down; that’s what Strangelings to. That’s why it’s such a refreshing relief to have General O’Neill on their side in this mess of politics and decisions, worlds away. All while trying to sort things out here in Pegasus, fight the Wraith, help people, build a better Alpha Site, fix things with the Genii – so much to do and no rest no rest for the weary.

“Oh, tell me about it. Who are they rooting for? Colonel Caldwell, or someone new?”

“That’d be Caldwell,” she says, mirroring his wry smile. “He’s proven to be trustworthy.”

“He’s one of the good guys, you know,” he has to say, because it’s true. Caldwell was on their side, however briefly, in the aftermath of the Uprising. Pragmatic and logical and loyal to the right degrees without being obsessive. And he’s doing good stuff and acts a middle-ground between them and Earth, a solid link. Yeah, John’s guts want to believe that Caldwell is trustworthy. Especially after they got that Snake out of his head.

“Yes. Yes, he is,” Elizabeth agrees after a moment. She looks at him, and he probably still is pasty and pale and not that striking, because there’s a flicker of concern. “If you’re up for it, we’ll debrief this afternoon.”

“I’m up for it. Better get it over and done with.”

Time to see if Rodney’s made any headway with that decryption.


He’s not working on decrypting that data. Sent it to Zelenka and the B-team in the meantime. No, Rodney’s all focused on the communication stones and the terminal. Presents this, three hours later – after John has had a solid lunch in the mess hall along with Teyla - complete with a PowerPoint presentation. Pictures of the device.

For the third time, John rubs at his forehead and waits for the painkillers to kick in and eliminate the headache.

“And these stones are safe to use?” Elizabeth asks. Her face is marred by a frown. She’s read the old reports.

“Well, it’s not like a permanent Bond. The link is completely temporary, and they provide instant communication in real-time. The stones were never meant to be used separately, only in conjunction with this terminal, if the database entry is correct. This is pretty useful. With these, we wouldn’t need to open the Gate every time to report to Earth. We’d save potentially huge amounts of energy,” Rodney says, nodding enthusiastically. Then pauses: “But the link would be physical. It would be, in essence, like inhabiting someone else’s body for a time.”

“Possession!” cries Ford. “Okay, I’m never touching that thing.”

“Don’t worry, Lieutenant, nobody’s asking you to.”

“The notion is … disconcerting,” Weir agrees. Still frowning.

In light of all that’s happened later, the memories still so fresh - otherwise they may have been able to greet this idea with more enthusiasm. But now, no, that’s not possible. People aren’t going to volunteer for a test that easy. And John thinks: maybe, maybe. But only with one person because there’s only one person he trusts that much, and not across the distance between galaxies. If Rodney is so eager to try this out, then he could do it, briefly. But not with anyone else. Not with anyone else.

He doesn’t need to use words to make Rodney understand this. Meredith is looking at him with sharp, gleaming eyes. Silently.

“Look, if nothing else, this could be used for emergencies. They don’t require an external power source,” Rodney says as if there’s no pause or invisible dialog ever going on.

“All right. For emergencies only. If you’re going to run tests, I want to know,” Elizabeth decides. “I want this to stay in this room. The IOA will no doubt leap at this discover and order us to use the stones.”

Quick, instant communication. Saving power. Oh, yeah, the IOA and other people back at the SGC and at the Pentagon will be happy at this discovery. See other applications. Ignoring the whole Possessing Someone Else-issue and the questions of bodily consent.

John nods. “What do we write in the reports?”

“Well, it’s not like we know for certain how to activate them,” Rodney says, after a moment. “Or know for certain what this thing even is. It could be a piece of junk.”

(Relief.)

“We’re sending reports to Earth tomorrow,” Elizabeth says. “That will have to include this mission. What about the data?”

“Working on it. It still looks like a bunch of nonsense. In fact, it’s almost like it is nonsense - not an encrypted text, but just random ones and zeros thrown together. Maybe the transfer didn’t work properly, or the source was simply too damaged,” Rodney explains.

“Let’s focus on that, anyway.” Feed the IOA something that’ll keep them mystified and hopefully distracted.

The briefing comes to a close, and they file out. Mission reports to write: the important things have already been said.


John heads for his quarters for a shower - a real one. Not the odorless chemical mists available on the Aurora. Takes a while, with the cast and all, but the hot water is soothing. The rest of that day a blur: he’s tired, and the return to his own bed is welcome like an embrace.

Another night of sleep without dreams.

Without nightmares.


The peace doesn’t last.

Of course it doesn’t last. But he’d been hopeful enough to think it would’ve. Could’ve. Once he’s been back in his own quarters long enough, relaxed, sinking into a state of it’s safe it’s over it’s fine - he wakes up shivering for all the wrong reasons.

Rodney isn’t with him tonight. Usually, John would go to his quarters, not the other way around. It’s a lot less suspicious, fewer people hanging around. The Citadel is full of marines. Many of them restlessly pacing, or hanging out in the Library or rec rooms, all hours of day or night. Sneaking into the commanding officer’s quarters would be very difficult without being seen. By comparison, the hallway where most civilians have their personal rooms is often desertedly empty. The scientists spend their time in their labs. Rodney is no exception. He only uses his quarters to sleep, and even that is hard to come by: when caught up in an important or interesting project, it takes a lot of coaxing to make Rodney leave it long enough to get some proper rest.

John sits up, blanket slipping off his shoulders. He thinks lights on (softly softly), and the City obliges. Doesn’t bring the lights on at full power, only a mild glow so he can see what he’s doing. A glance at the clock on the bedside table. 03:28. An awful hour, because if he falls asleep again, he’ll wake up disorientated and heavy and not feeling rested at all. If not for his leg, John would’ve gotten up and gone for an early run or something, clearing his head.

He runs a hand through his hair. Finds his forehead clammy with sweat.

It’s not cold. But he feels cold. 

The dreams are always the same. The grip: he can’t move: he can’t hear the City or Rodney or Meredith, just the silence, and Icarus – voice great and booming and mocking – declaring: I am your father (join me) – but it’s not as hilarious as it could’ve been, and he can’t shake it off. Lingers at the back of his mind, constantly. In the darkness he can’t move and he puts a bullet through Caldwell’s head and sometimes Elizabeth or Ford or Lorne or whoever else is in his way –

This night it had been Rodney. 

Maybe it’s what happened on Deserum, the building collapsing and being trapped and Rodney frantically telling him to stay awake. He’s never felt that fire before, so much worry and fear. They haven’t been this close, their Bond so alive, before. The first time he died, they didn’t have a Bond. The thirty-eight minutes the Jumper was stuck in the Gate and the Iratus bug clinging to his neck, Rodney had looked at him then with pure fear but this, this had been even worse because this time John could feel his thrumming heartbeats and know it was real.

This night he’d seen Rodney standing in front of the Gate, in the way, in the way, and Icarus forcing his hand up and the gun in his grip so heavy so heavy and John had screamed and wept and the trigger; the gunshot he saw the bullet speeding through the air leaving behind a trail of dust just like it killed Kolya and this time Rodney this time this time -

[John]

He closes his eyes, exhales through his nose. The City addresses him like that when Her sensors detect something’s wrong. Elevated heartbeat. Maybe She can see how bad off he actually is and he wonders, then, if it’ll show for the rest of the day. They have a brief this morning, he and Ford and Weir and AR-2, about an upcoming mission. A meeting, and he’s got to appear and smile and be ordinary. Just another day.

He can’t get the picture out of his head. The horror on Rodney’s pale face. The blue glow of the event horizon as he fell through it –

[it is all right]

No. No, it isn’t.

He’s too tired to argue.

She sends an impression, as if understanding that words won’t soothe him: an image, a sound, of Rodney and Meredith in their quarters, asleep. They’re curled up, Rodney’s sprawled out on his side and he’s snoring loudly. Relaxed. No care in the world. Not stirring. No nightmares. [this is what is real], Atlantis tries to convince him.

John can’t stop shivering. Bile rises in his mouth, and he clenches the sheets hard, tries to steady himself. Then he pulls off the covers, reaches for the crutches, and hobbles over to the bathroom. Splashes some water on his face. It feels like ice. He leans over the sink, breathing, breathing. Just stands there for probably what’s the quarter of an hour, or more. Dizzy.

Eventually he moves back to the bed, sinking down onto the mattress. Sits down. Can he sleep? Part of him wants to. His body is tired. Part of him is terrified to back there and be assaulted by the same images again again again;

There’s a tug. Not physical, or even really clear. But it’s unmistakable, and he closes his eyes, focuses. Apart from what happened on Deserum, they haven’t really used their Bond that much. Expressed actual words rather than vague emotion and state of well-being. But he might get used to this. The Raven is certainly pleased.

It’s a big step, he knows. Forming Bonds. It’s important.

Rodney – that you?

A sense of agitation and worry and concern and warmth that might be love floods his system and threatens to short-circuit it. John takes a shuddering breath.

I’m coming to you, he feels him think, and John almost shakes his head.

You don’t need to.

Shut up, you dork. Let me.

Seven minutes later, the doors slide open. Rodney’s clad in PJs with a mismatched t-shirt with pi spelled out on it to two hundred decimals in tiny, fading print. The corridor, John glimpses behind him before the doors close, is empty. Meredith doesn’t hesitate, leaping onto the bed, and then Rodney settles next to him, coaxing him to lie back down. He feels warm and nice. An arm is cradled over his chest, careful not to disturb his healing ribs.

With a thought, the lights are dimmed and turned off completely. The silence isn’t heavy, but relaxing and comforting. The faint hum of Ancient machinery. Airconditioning. Faraway: the ocean, waves rhythmically beating upon the piers.

“You didn’t have to come, you know.”

“We really need to talk about your sense of self-worth and all that,” Rodney mutters, wryly amused, before his expression turns much more serious, and John suddenly avoids looking into his eyes. If his leg wasn’t so uncomfortable he’d roll over onto his side. “It was another one, wasn’t it?” When he doesn’t answer right away, he presses: “Another dream. I know you keep having them.”

“I thought they’d stop by now,” John says, avoidingly.

“John.”

“Rodney.”

Huffing.

“Yes. Fine. It was another one. It.” His tongue latches in his throat, and it’s difficult to breathe. He doesn’t realize he’s actually stopped talking, stopped breathing altogether until he hears Rodney repeating his name, stroking his throat, his scar there. He’s counting down. Rodney’s peering at him, blue eyes glimmering, shadows in the night. “It was you. This time. I – it wasn’t Caldwell I was shooting.”

“Okay,” Rodney says, uncertain.

No. It’s not okay, John wants to scream.

“Have you talked with Carson?”

“No.”

“Maybe you should –”

“It’ll be fine,” John says, quickly. (Too quickly.) “Look, it’ll be fine. It’s probably just what happened on Deserum, it – it got to my head. It’ll be fine.”

Rodney doesn’t believe him, clearly. Holds him anyway and doesn’t argue, for once, even though he seems to be on the verge to. Too tired.

John wishes this could be every night: not the dreams, but Rodney’s side melded to his own and Meredith resting by their feet and the Raven on the headboard, head under their wing trying to seek sleep. Together. At peace.

Rodney relents, sighing. “Get some sleep.”

And John really tries to, watching the ceiling through half-lidded eyes as the lights dim and Rodney’s breaths even out, steady like the pulse he shares with Meredith. The pain is dull now, a throb barely noticeable, but starting to break free since it was a few hours since he last took some pain meds. He tries, tries to follow him. It takes a long time. Then he’s falling, a rushing disquiet sensation and he doesn’t continue dreaming.

Chapter Text

viii.

peace / war

part two

he should be able to trudge through this just fine. just fine.  


Six days after the events on Deserum, they have a Team Night, and John decides it’s time. He’s been waiting too long, anyway. He needs to be truthful. Still working on that. The habit of lies is dangerously easy to fall into.

When telling them about Atlantis being self-aware and sharing Her voice in his head, like the Bond with a Dæmon, it’d been a different situation. Pressed. Stressed. The Wraith had been upon them. They’d sat in the Conference Room, by the triangular table, he and his team and Weir. Later, word had spread through unofficial channels to the rest of the Expedition and onward, to the brass on Terra (and they don’t understand it; they will never understand it; they’re afraid of it, like Everett was). This, he supposes, will help it make sense. But it feels like a bigger bombshell to drop, somehow.

They’re watching Jaws. Whichever of them it is – John can’t quite focus on what’s happening on the screen. Ford’s idea. He wants initiate Ronon and Teyla to more Terran culture. (They’d debated: Rodney had said haughtily he didn’t care that much what they watched which is, of course, a lie, and John has suggested Back to the Future for next time; there’s a long list of stuff Teyla and Ronon should have the chance be introduced to, if only to get the references and the jokes.)

People spend a lot of time in this movie screaming. Teyla’s munching on popcorn and Ronon is actually looking quite amused – keeps pointing out the blatant errors. John’s leg is neatly propped up on a chair, and in the murky darkness he can lean against Rodney’s side, next to him on one of the white sofas, and no one notices or pays heed and there’s a bowl of snacks in Rodney’s lap hiding their overlapped hands from view. Allowing them to meet and touch however briefly when no one’s looking. Ford’s enraptured by the screen. The windows outside are dark, the moons of New Lantea just beginning to show and the piers glimmering with a thousand artificial lamps adorning the towers.

One of the characters gets eaten by the shark and Ronon asks if sharks are very common on Earth, and if this is some kind of pseudo-documentary on typical shark behavior – well, not that he uses those exact words, but it sounds a bit like it. If water-dwelling Dæmons were possible, John figures, the Satedan might have had one like that. Not that his current isn’t quietly deadly, curled up on the floor next to Kanaan. Athosians aren’t as big on the whole Don’t Get Too Close taboo. No touching but not that same inherent aversion to contact either. Seems like Satedans are quite the same, with people they trust, with … with the team like this.

As close as family that John’s ever gotten since he passed through childhood and left it behind.

Ford chuckles at the question, answering no.

“The statistical likelihood of getting eaten by a shark is much lesser than, say, crashing and dying in a plane,” Rodney says. Then he pauses, adding: “I guess that goes double for some of us,” and he glances at John, who rolls his eyes.

“You had to say that, didn’t you? With our luck something will mess up our next Jumper ride.”

“Superstition.”

Teyla looks faintly displeased and befuddled. “Surely speaking of such events will not cause them to occur?”

“Like I said: superstition.”

The boat has sunk and it’s nearly over. John takes a sip from his drink (non-alcoholic because it’d mess up with his pain meds and Carson has a really dangerous cold glare that he’s started using more and more often), feels Rodney’s hip against his own and his relaxed presence, and he uses that as an anchor to reality. 

“There’s something I need to tell you guys,” he blurts. “I’m half-alien.”

After a moment of wide-eyed silence, Ford turns to look at him, and Teyla’s glancing at him too, her expression difficult to read.

“Half-Ancient, Colonel Dramatic,” Rodney corrects, with ease, waving a hand casually as if this is a completely normal statement. John resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Be precise. Couldn’t have waited until the movie was over, huh? And, technically speaking, the term would be Alteran because of the genetic strain due to cultural and temporal division caused by -”

“Yeah, well: that.”

“Okay,” says Ford, uncertainly. Thinks for a moment, then blinks once, twice. “What does that mean? You’re more Ancient than just having the ATA-gene?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Rodney goes on, “that’s what he means.”

He can speak for himself,” John interjects, glaringly, crossing his arms, but there’s no real bite in his words. 

Ronon, silent up until now, uncrosses his arms and there’s something triumphant about this grin, the glimmer of white teeth. “I knew it.”

And John recalls their meeting on Deserum and Ronon staring at the Raven and the distance between them, their wings, and his incredulity and fascination and insistence that he’s an Ancestor, that he’s got to be. And how John had chuckled and answered not really because at the time it had sounded like such a ridiculous statement. It’s not funny anymore, though.

“You did? You told Conan before?” Rodney sounds a bit outraged, in his typical fashion, arms flaring outward and John nearly gets a hand in his face. He has to lightly grasp his wrist and give him a look; calm down, buddy.

“Nah,” the Satedan shrugs, for once not even glaring threateningly at Rodney for the use of the nickname. Too distracted. “Thought it was obvious.”

Teyla reaches out for the controls and presses the pause-button, and the screen freezes. The sudden silence of the room is a bit unsettling. But she doesn’t look angry or upset, nor does anyone else, so John takes that as a good sign.

And she asks: “How did you find out?”

“Beckett analyzed my DNA. After … Icarus told me.”

“Oh,” says Ford, and the kid shifts restlessly as if he can’t process this information. John can’t blame him. “That why you’ve been, uh – You’ve been kind of, I don’t know, uptight all since that happened, sir.”

John nods. “Yeah.”

Ford shudders. “It was kind of cool, what he could do, the telekinesis and stuff – but that guy freaked me out.”

“That makes two of us.”

“John,” Teyla says, brows creasing, “the Ancestors have not been alive in corporeal form for many generations. Dr Beckett once explained how they went to Earth after the War with the Wraith, but few went there and even fewer survived - they intermingled with your people giving you the ATA-gene, but even so, for one of your parents to truly be an Ancestor …”

“Yeah, there’s that. Apparently some of them, uh, cheated? Ascended and then descended, or something like that. I’m not a hundred percent sure how it happened, but. Yeah.” John exhales, inhales. “Icarus did … that.”

“Ica… oh, shit. Shit.” Ford, now realizing he’s still grasping a handful of popcorn, drops them carelessly on the table and they scatter. “Whoa. That’s – that’s just weird.”

Rodney snorts. “That’s the general consensus of our lives.”

“Actually it, it explains a lot,” John says, thinks he has to – should. “Like how I can hear the City. And why my Dæmon didn’t Emerge right away.”

That part Ronon doesn’t know about, not in detail. Has been told the rumors afterward, of course, but he wasn’t here to witness it. He was a Runner at the time, unaware of the City even existing, nevertheless the Tau’ri. Now, though, he seems to accept those words with grace. “The Ancestors were born without them?”

“Sometimes. Apparent it has to do with Ascension. Something to do with their evolution.”

Rodney, of course, fills it in for them. He’s read all he could about that, and has had John talk about it more than once. Taking notes. All things Ancient is important to document and since they were (probably) pretty xenophobic and paranoid, they left all their archives unindexed and difficult to search through. Few notes on their own biology and background. “The closer they were to Ascension, genetically speaking, the later their Dæmon would Emerge,” he says. “Apparently some of them never had one, making it easier to Ascend in the first place.”

“Weird,” Ford repeats. Then: “Does anybody else know about this?”

“Just you guys and Carson.”

“Perhaps it would be prudent to inform Dr Weir as well,” Teyla advises sagely.

“I’m thinking about it,” John admits.

Teyla smiles. It’s gentle, somewhat understanding. She too is one of the odd ones out, not only by having joined the Tau’ri and appointing Halling as the leader of her people in her stead. She’s one of the few Athosians who have the Gift to sense the Wraith from afar, to warn her people about their presence. A Gift which might also be somewhat of a curse. There should be something behind that which can be explained, scientifically and methodically, but they’ve never really had a chance to study it, and Teyla has never asked them to. It’s just A Thing That Is. Maybe she’s thinking that about this, too. She’s been on the team long enough, known him long enough, to accept that. It’s what John hopes, anyway. He doesn’t want different treatment, he just wanted them to know. Be truthful because they’re team and a team shouldn’t (have to) lie to each other.

They unpause the movie, but no one’s attention is properly on it anymore. Eating their popcorn. As the credits start rolling, the Lieutenant turns to him, and for a moment it’s obvious he’s still so young and a kid at heart, and he’s grinning, face full of curiosity. And if he wasn’t his superior officer, John supposes he would have to start awaiting X-Men jokes from this point on. Or Alien jokes. Or Star Trek. (Is Ford old enough to know what that is?)

“Can you still do the telekinesis thing?”


The fact that they took it well takes some tension out of his body, and, next morning, he actually does have a bit more of an appetite than usual. They sit together at their usual table, and it’s like it should be. Rodney’s talking animatedly, poking at both a PDA and his food simultaneously, explaining something about … something; John isn’t listening to the words as much as to his voice, his mere presence. This is how it should be. The team together and without feeling the need to hide secrets from each other.

There’s still the one thing. Of course. And though they talked about it, in passing, while stuck in the debris of Deserum – John’s not sure how to actually breach the subject, and neither is Rodney. Because he’s pretty sure Teyla and Ronon wouldn’t react badly, but that doesn’t mean others won’t. If Ford – well, Ford saw them kiss, after the City landed on New Lantea and Rodney just couldn’t help himself. To admit it aloud though is to break laws.

They break the laws of physics on a daily basis out here, but this kind of thing …

John pops another grapefruit into his mouth, and doesn’t look at Rodney right away (and probably a good thing because he can be distracting).

It can wait another few days. Anyway, they’re going to wait until his leg is healed so that he can return to their mission schedule, and Weir won’t have any excuses not to let them go to New Athos.

Then.


AR-1 is at a standstill. They won’t be for long, though. Ford can handle their missions. With four people already on the team, Elizabeth doesn’t feel the need to add someone else, an outsider, a temporary replacement. John has full trust that Ford can handle this. It’s good training, too. Just because his leg’s out of commission it doesn’t mean their duties have ceased. 

But he can’t be stuck behind a desk for another month. He just can’t. He nearly, nearly pleads; looks at Weir with his best large wounded kicked-puppy eyes, and she sighs, arms crossed. It’s been twelve days and he has nothing to do. Has signed his name and read more official-looking paperwork more times than he cares to remember. Can’t take runs around the South Pier like he used to. Can’t a lot of things. Hangs out in the lab so much that even Rodney’s getting cranky. Well, it’s not like he can resist drinking his good coffee.

“I’ll just sit in that chair the whole time,” he argues. “No running around or anything.”

“It’s not like you can run right now,” Rodney murmurs, rolling his eyes. The fondness in his tone – John’s not sure if the others can interpret it like that, but he wants to grasp his shoulders, return it somehow, openly.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

Elizabeth clears her throat, interrupting them before they can really get started. Bates, by her side, has his arms crossed and isn’t even trying to hide being a bit amused at their banter. It’s such a familiar thing to slip into. Like a glove.

“The Aurora is not meant to engage the Wraith at this point,” Weir points out.

Their only tactical advantage: unawareness. The Wraith aren’t meant to know the City is still standing. The Wraith aren’t meant to know the Expedition has access to not one but two Warships, one of which is Ancient. The Wraith aren’t meant to know about contact with Earth being established, a link of reinforcements and extra supplies now a constant. If they reveal the Aurora (and they will, one day: they must) that advantage will be lost. The surprise will cease. They need to choose that moment well, John knows. They’ve discussed it all before. They’re already looking for that moment: a battle in which they can make a difference. Preferably taking out a Wraith ship or two.

(There are over five dozen Hives in this quadrant of space alone. Over a hundred, if not more, in all of Pegasus. And the Wraith are probably growing more of them right at this moment. Relentlessly.)

“And we won’t,” John says. It’s a humanitarian mission. Easy. Swift. “We’ll drop out of hyperspace, stay cloaked, and send the Jumpers down with supplies. Then we’ll turn around and be back in time for dinner.”

“Colonel,” Bates says, with a stern sigh and crossed arms. “You’re on medical leave.”

“That’s just a technicality.”

“What’s Dr Beckett saying about this?” Elizabeth asks, eyebrow raised, and John shifts a little in his chair.

“Oh, he’s –”

“Grumpy,” Rodney cuts in, knowingly. “He’ll threaten to sedate you and strap you to a bed, Sheppard.”

John tries not to let the blush rise and show, hearing words like that from Rodney’s mouth. It’s bad enough he has to struggle day-to-day not to reach out and touch him. The statement is followed by an echo from Mer, shared quietly: it’s a good idea, and Rodney, the smug evil bastard, just smirks.

“So, he doesn’t know yet that you want to go on a mission only twelve days after a major surgery,” Elizabeth concludes. “Colonel, I know you’re eager to return to your duties, but I can’t allow you back on active duty until you’re healed and cleared by Carson. Not even to command the Aurora. Major Lorne will handle this mission.”

Ah, damn it.

He’ll try again, in a few days. Elizabeth knows, after all, how stubborn he is. Seems resigned to face this battle. John is set on winning it. Eventually.


He watches Ronon beat a marine into the mat for the second time. Guy  simply doesn’t know when to quit. Those bruises will last for days. (Ronon’s had a stern talking to, though, weeks ago, about not breaking people. Or things. That time when Corporal Hester showed up with a fractured wrist and a broken nose, Carson had nearly yelled at the Satedan, who had stoically stood there taking the shouting and then nodding, saying, almost reluctantly like a kid in the playground being dressed down: fine, no more broken bones.)

John’s sitting in the alcove under one of the large, multi-colored windows. His hands are itching. This change of routine, so abrupt, has left him very restless. Normally, a day like this, without missions, he’d be sparring with Teyla for at least an hour. He’s been getting better at banto’a. And Ronon has shown him a few tricks, too, but their sparring matches are even more brutal: while banto’a relies much on efficiency and speed and agility, Ronon is raw power and merciless strength. The Satedan and the Athosian sparring always draws a crowd. There have been bets. Since they’re both team, John tries to stay clear of that, and not pick sides. Each battle always ends differently. They’re evenly matched.

Lance Corporal Snow and Ronon – not so much. 

He watches them exchange blows and winces when appropriate. A small PDA is resting on his knee; he’s got his leg propped up on a chair (Carson’s insistence), and he’s reviewing some files. Several teams are expected to leave with the Daedalus tomorrow, including AR-9 and AR-4. Also Olsen’s and Markham’s teams are going. Several people who haven’t seen the Earth in over a year and a half. Families and friends waiting. John knows there’s a Lieutenant who has exchanged emails with his wife and there was a baby born seven months after the Expedition left. Others, too, have kids and girlfriends.

At least there’s one thing not to be jealous of, he supposes. He can’t hold Rodney’s hand just like that, with ease, without judgement – but he can see his face every day and speak and assure each other that they’re alive and well. They don’t have to rely on very long-distance calls.

Groaning, Snow’s getting back to his feet. Ronon’s not a big talker but he does say he’s an adequate fighter – Snow beams at the almost-praise. The guy usually doesn’t smile a lot, and Ronon usually doesn’t hand out praise like that.

He and Gamble have both healed by now; there won’t be scars, thanks to the wonders of the various medical devices the SGC is equipped with. They both got cut up on Deserum, leaving their team on stand-by until they’re fit for duty again. The last few days they’ve spent packing, just as the others who are going with the Daedalus. There are scientists, too, including Miko Kusanagi and Dr Zelenka. It’ll be weird when they’ve gone. Suddenly the new influx of strangers – newly recruited marines and civilians – will feel all the more prominent; they haven’t really become part of the Expedition, not like the original crew. Rodney complains sometimes about the New Guys touching things they oughtn’t and screwing things up because they lack experience. They don’t get how things are done around here.

Not that they’re bad people. John’s met the new marines, checked with Bates and Ford how they’re taking to the City. Thirty-eight of them. Some are new to the SGC; some are veterans. Plus, he’s approved some more who are going to return with the Daedalus, meaning they’ll be in the City in two or so Terran months. Several of those will be proper Air Force pilots to man the F-302:s which have been commissioned for the Aurora. The SGC has fifteen of the sleek fighters standing by for deployment and the Daedalus will transport them to Pegasus. It’ll be a nice addition to the Jumpers. While the Ancient craft are the best thing he’s flown, hands down, the F-302:s aren’t that bad either, as far as he’s heard. He’s spend some time talking with Major Lorne about them. Turns out the Major was there during the Battle of Antarctica. Told a story differentiating a little from the stilted impersonal reports – John has already read them all. Lorne had flown under the command of Colonel Cameron Mitchell in that dogfight.

One day, the Aurora will fight a Hive, ship to ship; it’s inevitable. And though it’s a terrifying reality, John can’t help a surge of excitement at the thought. Because: space battles.

And maybe he wants to take a spin in an F-302 someday only to feel like a kid again, running around in the living room pretending to fly an X-Wing.

John is so distractedly deep in thought that he has to be nudged back into motion. Shy murmurs: [Hey, look, Teyla’s here.]

He follows the Raven’s gaze. The Athosian is standing in the open doorway. A bag is slung over her shoulder, and he can see the banto’a rods he’d given as a Christmas gift poking out of there. He waves hello. She inclines her head in greeting, walking around the edge of the mat to sit down next to him.

“Hey. How’s it going?”

“All is well,” she says, smiling. Kanaan settles by her feet, waiting. “I was hoping to catch Ronon for a spar before my meditation.”

The Satedan undoubtedly heard that, though he makes no sign of it: he’s standing in the center of the room, a display of ferocious unbroken concentration, and Snow is circling him, waiting to strike. Yeah, the guy’s persistent. Few people manage to last this long. 

When the Lance Corporal hits the mat for fourth time, John winces. Ouch.

[Yeah.]

“… okay, okay! I yield!” Snow gasps, and is released. “Fucking shit.”

Ronon’s grin is all teeth. “Don’t think that much. It slows you down,” he says.

“No kidding.” Snow keeps cursing all the way out of the gym and to the locker room, accompanied by Lieutenant Drew, who’s smirking and shaking her head, and John snatches the edge of a conversation: the Lieutenant saying: “You need to stop making bets with Gamble about beating the guy. You’ll never win.”

“Never say never,” Snow answers before he’s out of the door.

Teyla stands, turning to Ronon, who’s toweling his sweat-drenched face. She gives him a minute to drink some water before asking for a match. They’d already planned it last night.

“Best out of three?”

Ronon is strong. He wields two banto’a rods but not exactly like the Athosian; there’s a Satedan art which is similar yet not the same. Dissimilar movements. Harsher. Teyla is one of the most graceful people John has ever seen. Their fight is a dance. One day he might, he hopes, be half as good as them. Unlike the earlier match with Snow, this isn’t over in just a couple of minutes; they could go at it for half an hour, he thinks, if they had to. Even longer than that. Neither wants to yield. John alternates between watching the match with his own eyes and letting the Raven do it for him while he returns to his PDA. Sometime halfway in, a few marines have paused their lifting of weights to watch the events unfurling.

Ronon wins round one. Markham and Stackhouse cheer; though, unlike a couple of the marines watching who are still quite new, their own workout isn’t forgotten. Original Expedition members have an easier time to ignore things and not stare. The newcomers – John recognizes them as Yates and Whitney – look enraptured and fascinated and may be considering whether or not to challenge either the Satedan or the Athosian in the near future.

Teyla wins round two. Very clever move, that flip and sticking out her foot, using her lithe body to her advantage. Lance Corporal Gladys, also watching, is clearly betting on Teyla being the winner today.

Ronon’s panting heavily, and Teyla smiles, dangerously: “Are you ready to give in?”

“Never,” the Satedan answers, rising, retaking position.

They’re twenty second into round three when there is an unmistakable tug, demanding attention. Rodney’s presence peaks, a hum rising in pitch and he can make out words: I figured it out. No preamble. His words are rushed, excited.

John relaxes in his seat, leaning against the wall, and follows their Bond quietly. Want to specify?

The lab, Rodney’s thinking, I need you here/come quick/where are you?

He makes a swift calculation of the trek from the public gym to Rodney’s lab – right now, he thinks, he ought to take the transporter. Carson already thinks he’s getting too careless in his restlessness. Give me twelve minutes. He wants to see the end of the match first.

I mean right now.

Rodney doesn’t sound stressed or anxious, so it can’t be a warning, can’t be a distress call. What exactly did you figure out?

That’s definitely a smug smile. The encryption.

Ah. So he’d taken it back from Zelenka to work on it personally. No surprises, really. Rodney likes hogging his science stuff in order to be able to make all the big discoveries and take credit.

Hang on.

He lingers long enough to see Teyla win round three. As the Athosian and the Satedan bow their heads to thank each other for the sparring match, he pockets the PDA and gathers his crutches, getting to his feet. Ronon and Teyla look at him without actually asking a question aloud, in that way a team does – he just shakes his head, and Ronon grabs his towel and heads for the showers, and Teyla remains to continue her workout.

Markham approaches her to ask for a sparring match – few people actually dare do that; Teyla doesn’t offer it to just about anyone, either. But Markham is part of the First Wave. Has been here long enough. Yates and Whitney are trying to be stoic but John thinks there’s a hint there of disbelief; they’re more impressed by the Athosian and the Satedan than they care to admit aloud, and preferably a bit scared. John likes to think so, anyway. Knows that he himself isn’t that intimidating or impressive to look at. If anyone ever doubts AR-1:s effectiveness, he knows just to whom he should direct the disbelievers.


Lance Corporal Gladys exits the gym with him, and they end up both going to the nearest transporter. In a sudden unexpected surge of insight, John realizes their small talk is probably so extremely otherworldly, if an outsider could just hear it. Discussing alien planets like the weather. AR-4 visited the Manarians yesterday. Their last official mission before their return to Earth.

Still a bit wary of them: since at least one of the Manarians betrayed them to the Genii, leading up to the incursion during the Storm, they haven’t had that much contact with them. Ceased trading. They were always stuck-up suspicious bastards anyway, in John’s personal opinions, giving him these weird vibes. Gladys’ shoulders are tense when she talks about them, no doubt with the memory in mind.

“They were a bit – okay, they were not really pleased having us there,” she says.

He hasn’t had the time to read their reports yet. “Was there an incident?”

“Not as such,” Gladys says. Since they’re both technically off-duty, they both don’t use rank. It’s nicely familiar, actually, being able to be so relaxed with a subordinate. It doesn’t feel like blurred lines, at least not in a bad way. The Brit isn’t trying to offer extra support, or even noticeably slow down her step to allow him to keep up. John’s getting far more adept at walking with the crutches over the past few days than he wants to be. He’s glad, really, that the Lance Corporal acts like he’s not actually injured, that this is just another normal day in outer space. She’s been here long enough, too, not to even blink at the Raven. She doesn’t flinch when Shy flies over and past them, reaching the transporter two hundred yards away in record time.

“But there was definite tension,” she goes on. “J.J. had us out of there before anyone actually had the safety off. I don’t recommend going back there.” Then she switches the subject and he lets her, because he knows too well himself how it is to return from a tiring mission without any lingering mood to think about it. “Do you know when you’ll be back on duty, sir?”

“If the docs will have their way, not until another two months,” he says, morosely. “I think they’re trying to keep me off my feet on purpose.”

“Permission to speak freely? Your team gets in a damned lot of trouble.”

He chuckles. “I know. It’s like we’re carrying around a sign on our backs.”

“Maybe you should find some of those personal shield things,” Gladys suggests, lightly.

“With our luck, the Ancients only made that one we found and decided making more was a waste of time.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I think we’d need them for all of us.” She makes a face, considering a thought. Adds, quietly: “Some more than others.”

Yeah, he thinks, doesn’t say it aloud. His radio crackles this time, Rodney demanding to know where he is and why he is so slow and it has definitely been more than twelve minutes now, hello, why isn’t he responding?

John rolls his eyes, and Gladys looks oddly knowing as he answers the call, patiently.

They reach the transporter and a scientist carrying a datapad under his arm exits it that moment, sparing them a glance and a brief hello. They step inside. John presses the spot on the map which is closest to Rodney’s lab, and the white light flickers around them, unseen. A whooshing noise. Unlike with the Asgard transport beams, there is no sense of displacement, reeling and sudden. He steps out, and the doors close again, taking Gladys to another part of the City.

A series of rooms acting as labs are less than fifty meters away from here, the corridor brimming with light and life. Mostly civilians in this part of town. Most of which are walking while looking at their datapads, distractedly. One of them nearly trips over his crutches and stutters a flustered apology.

Rodney is hunched over one of the computers as he enters the door. His back is turned, and for a second John stands there looking at that tantalizing glimpse of skin, the nape of Rodney’s neck, the curve there, and it takes two seconds to catch up with reality. 

“Hey. What's the fuss about?”

Meredith is perched on the desk, in-between datapads and coffee cups, and she watches him approach with clear eyes and there’s such an intensity in that gaze that John almost wants to blush.

Rodney types a command, and directs their attention onto the large screen on one of the walls. It goes from dark and empty to full of data. A scroll of text. This time, however, it’s not a bunch of random letters and nonsense. No, this is an Ancient text.

“Some data is missing,” Rodney admits, ruefully, “but that’s because of irreparable damage to the file. Can you read that?”

He concentrates for a minute, tracing the words. Looks to be some kind of log. Personal? The wording … It’s oddly emotional, not as detached as he’d thought a scientific log would be.

Nothing sticks out. Except one word, and suddenly John feels chilled to the bone. A bad memory. Because this word – he has heard it a couple of times before. Once explained by Chaya Sar – a lifetime ago – on Proculus, when she’d given him a glimpse into the life of an Ascended being, when she’d told him about Merging with Dæmons and explained why he was born without one. And the second time, Icarus mentioned that word in passing, you haven’t encountered them yet, have you? – Ori.

Though the City has told him a bit about that, too. The First War. A dispute based on differentiating world views and Ascension itself. He doesn’t actually know a lot. Yet, there’s something, an instinct telling him that this is something they need to stay clear of. Avoid. 

“So…?”

“It mentions the Ori,” he says at last, and Rodney frowns.

“The what?”

And, oh. Right. Because Chaya Sar had told him, but no one else. And John has never paused before to tell anyone else, because it wasn’t relevant. “A faction of the Ancients, who are apparently still back in their home galaxy. This here … it mentions – I guess this means the communication device. They were using it … to …”

Rodney clears his throat. “You didn’t finish that sentence out loud, you know.”

“I’m still translating. Hush.” John leans against the desk, concentrating, and tries to put some weight off his good foot. Grabs a chair to sit down. “They were trying to reestablish contact with the Ori. This – this sounds like there was a faction or something, because here it says: ‘The Council greatly opposes making contact’. Huh.”

“So the Ori are Ancients?” A hint of excitement rises in Rodney’s voice at the possibility of there being a whole civilization of Ancients still possibly out there, alive and whole. But John shudders, suddenly. “They wanted to contact their home galaxy. That’s why they made the stones!”

Maybe.

And John thinks about what he’s heard from Chaya Sar and Icarus and (reluctantly) the City, about the Ori, this First War. Details vague. The Ancients didn’t want to remember that and hadn’t been happy to share information; the segregation had been so deep that the Ancient people had split in two, and one part of them fled their very own planet, the galaxy unnamed which not even the City wants to reveal the name or location of. A secret, like a family ashamed of their black sheep, and they hadn’t mentioned the grudge in their records if they could help it. Whatever life is left there in that faraway galaxy, the Ancients hadn’t seemed too keen on reconnecting. Until ten thousand years ago.

They’d wanted to forget. Until the Wraith.

“There was a war which made the Ancients leave for the Milky Way.”

“Huh. Oh. And you didn’t tell us you knew this, because …?”

John crosses his arms, wryly. Habits. “I don’t know. It just – didn’t come up. I didn’t know if they’re still around, anyway.”

The astrophysicist ponders this. “A war?”

“Yeah. The Ancients wanted to Ascend and leave all this, the mortal plane or whatever, all behind, no interference. The Ori … they thought they were superior. At least that’s the impression I got from Chaya Sar when she told me. And Icarus …” Saying the name is disquieting. Tastes badly. Wrong. It will be like that forever. “He said he hoped we’d never meet those guys.” For an Ancient to have that opinion: that says a lot. (Or maybe nothing at all.)

the Tau’ri have not encountered them, have they? no. I would keep wishing that they do not.

“If they’re like the Ancients, they’re advanced. Really, really advanced.”

“And seeing as the First War happened millions of years ago, who knows where they’re at now,” John concludes, matching his frown. “Here, this part … ‘Reestablishing contact with Celestis could unite us against the Enemy’ … Guess they wanted to bring reinforcements to fight the Wraith.”

“Maybe that’s it. If they build the facility near the end of the war with the Wraith, they’d explore all options,” Rodney thinks aloud. “Desperate times.”

“Still.” Not entirely right. “I don’t think we should make contact with them. I mean, the Ancients don’t have the best rapport with any alien race – anyone different from themselves. The last thing we need is another enemy.”

“Too right,” Rodney sighs. No hiding the disappointment at that bleak outlook. “But they’re a galaxy away, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

And something is telling him they’d better keep it that way.


Elizabeth isn’t wholly convinced. He can tell. She’s curious. Has always been fascinated with the Ancients. Now confronted with the possibility that there is a whole civilization of Ancients just waiting around the corner – metaphorically speaking – of course she’s curious.

There are records of the First War, mentions in the City’s vast database. Took some coaxing for Her to pull them up, but eventually she relented. Maybe knowing that knowledge is needed. John hands over the datapad and watches as Elizabeth skims the words for herself even as he narrates, outlying the major steps: two opposing factions, the issue of Ascension at the heart. This is big stuff. This is the reason the Ancients ever came to the Milky Way galaxy. Passed by Ida, meeting the Asgard, on the way.

A long slow journey. They didn’t have hyperspace capabilities, though there was some kind of Faster-Than-Light drive. The record is incomplete, yet staggering. The journey took generations. Eventually, they reached a planet they found suitable. And they developed the idea of Stargates. Built them; built ships. Built a lot of ships: sent them out to search the stars, to find planets and place Gates there. A little piece of the sky at a time. A little at a time. 

(Their singing Cities came much later.)

Eventually, Elizabeth lowers the datapad. “I see why you’re concerned, John,” she says at last. “If the war was that severe …” And the Ori have got to be technologically powerful, if they’re still around; it’s left unsaid. “The last thing we need right now is another foe.”

Rodney, impatiently, crosses his arms. “So what do we do? Just … put this aside? Do we share this report with the SGC?”

“No,” Weir says, suddenly. “If the IOA got wind of this, I could bet they’ll demand us to make first contact. I’ll speak with General Landry, and O’Neill if need be.”

The General will understand – O’Neill has seen and been through so much strangeness with the SGC. This kind of announcement won’t make him bat an eyelash, only remark something casually and then start making emergency contingency plans.

“The data was missing,” Rodney says loudly. Nods several times as if having a bright idea, and the gesture is a bit too big and obnoxious to be natural. “I’ll go check on that device one more time.”

The hint of a smile plays at Weir’s lips, returning the nod, and Rodney goes. The office feels oddly cold without him, but John tries not to linger on that. Makes him distracted. Instead he turns to Elizabeth.

“How’s the Daedalus’ preparations going?”

“It’s all on schedule,” Elizabeth says. Advises her notes. “Forty-six people will be leaving the City this wave. Forty-one are returning.”

He nods. The numbers add up. It’s a shame to see some people go: both civilians and marines. But it’s been a harsh year in outer space. With all that’s happened – even when they’d been warned and prepared to maybe not ever return to Terra – it’s difficult. Some people have been broken and shattered like leaves strewn across the ground, dying in fall. They’re simply not made for this. There will be those who will want to leave the SGC behind altogether.

(and part of him can’t help wondering: when will be the time, when will be the day that Rodney reaches breaking point too?)


Colonel Caldwell is sitting in the City’s commissary. It’s rare enough a sight to make John pause at the threshold.

There are the usual folks, teams and marines and civilians intermingling, speaking and laughing as they eat. The smell of hot food gives the large room an almost homely feel to it, even if it’s still a typical mess hall with all the noise and the movements. One more downside of hobbling around on crutches: no hands. It’s the little things, day-to-day, which makes him tired. Stuff he suddenly can’t do as easily or on his own. But at least Carson is only demanding a check-up once every two days now. John is seriously getting sick of the infirmary.

Ford is holding their trays. Rodney will meet up with them later. In his lab - now that the mystery data thing has been solved, he’s back at trying to crack the ZPM equation so that one day they may be able to build their own and have access to unlimited green power. It’ll win him a Nobel, for sure. They could declassify the SGC and give the people on Terra enough potentiae to solve the issue of greenhouse gases and at least some parts of global warming forever.

(or start a war, the darker more realistic part of John’s mind adds. power like that can be harnessed for all the wrong things)

Teyla has gone to New Athos to visit her people, and Ronon went with her. The big guy doesn’t seem to like staying in one place for too long, can’t handle it. Oppressing. After that kind of life, Running from the Wraith – for the Wraith – for years and years and years – John can’t fault him for it.

There are plenty of downsides to his injuries, but the cooks are taking pity and there are very often desserts. Only, before Deserum even happened, John’s not in the mood. Hasn’t had the heart to say no thanks every time. Rodney’s more than happy to eat for him, though, even if he frowns every time John leaves a meal unfinished.

The table is occupied by Elizabeth, too, who smiles hello. Caldwell greets them both pleasantly as they take seat.

The Daedalus has landed for the first time in weeks; their missions have been days-long and overlapping for most part, with a rotating crew who all knew what they’d be in for. Or close enough, at least. They’ve tried to move quietly. Encountered the Wraith ship-to-ship only twice, and both battles had been quick. The first one was over easily, far too easily, but then the Wraith figured out how to protect their shields from being penetrated by the Asgard beaming technology, preventing them from taking out the enemy by transporting warheads and watching the Hives go out without breaking a sweat. They haven’t worked out yet how to undo that, to find some other way past their shields.

He and Caldwell has had an okay rep, he considers, since the Goa’uld was removed. A somewhat shared experience. They don’t talk that often, and when they do Caldwell is all business, and John has no issue with that. Caldwell’s one of the good guys.

“I received the updated list of personnel that’ll be returning with us,” Caldwell says, taking a bite of the not-quite-pasta, made from an alien grain. The flavor is heavy. John is so used to it, by now, that the thought of pure Terran food is kind of alien in of itself. “Some new faces are transferring.”

No surprises there. The tour hasn’t been that long, but for some people, it’s enough. It’s enough.

As they eat, Elizabeth and Caldwell fall into easy conversation, and instead of joining them, Ford turns to him and latches onto the unfinished debate from their last team night. Sort of. He tries to be subtle about it, in his own way.

“So you can’t …” The kid waves a hand around like casting a spell. Not exactly subtle.

John raises an eyebrow. “You aren’t going to let that thing go, Lieutenant?”

“Nope.”

By his side, Elizabeth glances at them. Not worriedly, only sort of bemused.

“So …?”

“Nope.”

Ford’s shoulders slouch just a little bit. “It’d be kick-ass.”

Jeez, the kid’s a menace. But in a good way. And if Rodney could see them he’d be spluttering and laughing his ass off, no doubt, before launching into a highly scientific explanation as to why John isn’t able to Do That Thing anymore without Icarus or some other advanced energy-based creature taking over his veins and heartbeat and neural system.

John just shakes his head and tries to eat his pasta.


The Daedalus’ liftoff is a surprisingly somber affair.

Some people have chosen to take that long route. Maybe because it gives them some time to think: twenty-seven days in hyperspace. Yeah, it’ll give people time to mull things over and come to terms with not having seen Terra for a year and a half. Prepare speeches and hugs. But most Expedition members walk through the Gate. They dial the same morning, after watching the Daedalus rise from the East Pier and over the water, through the sky. Breaking past the atmosphere and into the stillness of space. Then they’d jumped into hyperspace and, in a flash, were gone from the City’s sensors.

The Gate remains open for eleven minutes.

The night before, there’d been music and dancing and drinks had been passed around. Teams shook hands but soon enough that wasn’t enough, the goodbyes heartfelt and John had watched the embraces and the promises of email exchanges. Some demands had also been made to return with some Terran things which simply are irreplaceable. But that night had been full of light and noise, and now, at dawn, they’re crammed in the Control Room in silence. The Gate Room is crowded too. Audience. People standing in line, bags slung over shoulders. Waving goodbye.

One step, one step and they’re out of the Pegasus galaxy and back on Terra.

They can choose not to return.

They can choose not to come back.


Sometimes he remembers things. Not as overwhelmingly as that time when he’d stayed up seven hours straight scribbling nonsense on the walls, trying to get the thoughts out of his head and clear it. But still as sharp. Tidbits of information: in Ancient: how to build a hyperspace engine; the functions of time; and odd memories that have nothing to do with learning at all.

(the picture of looking up, ten thousand years ago, from the bottom of the ocean of Lantea, when the City still rested there, and Icarus stood under its shields waiting for the chance to help his people. A discussion with Ianus in a hallway. Vague: standing before the Council, asking them to send a ship after they lost contact with the Aurora; a mother saying goodbye, we will meet again; a childhood of never seeing the sunlight in person, only holographically.)

It’s just as disconcerting as the nightmares. But some of this stuff could be useful, and he tries to write it down. He’s still got all the notes from that seven hour phase when he wasn’t himself. For some reason, he doesn’t want anyone but himself and Rodney looking at it all yet. Most of it remains in a jumble, unnumbered pages, nothing making sense. One day it might.

He wants to forget.

He wants to be able to just forget.


AR-1 is on a mission to a neighboring planet, six lightyears away, led by Ford, and John’s stuck back in the City and he can’t sleep. The mission scheduled them to leave around midnight for practical reasons: days on that planet are short, only four hours of sunlight, and they’ve got to catch as much of that as possible. There were some interesting readings. Magnetic fields or some such. A dense core. John had only listened to the explanation with half an ear.

He can’t sleep. With Rodney by his side, he might’ve, but -

This growing codependency is almost terrifying. He’s a grown man, for goodness sake. Shouldn’t have this need for touch to fall asleep without dreams. And after some of the shit he’s seen and felt before - the minefield which was Afghanistan – the dust of Iraq – shit, he should be able to trudge through this just fine. Just fine. What’s a guy taking over your head to driving over an IED on the road and having your team killed off one after the other –

So he ends up at Dr Heightmeyer’s office. Carson has urged him to do so more than once already. And John still can’t stomach the thought of sleeping pills. 

(Teyla has guided him through meditation a couple of times but it won’t stick. At least not right away and what he needs is a solution. Before he broke his leg, he’s sat on the floor and breathed and breathed until his neck grew stiff and his knees ached, and now he’s tried lying down flat on his back, relaxing every muscle, breathing, but it won’t work it doesn’t work.)

Heightmeyer is a kindly woman with a kindly face, and her Dæmon is feline and even if it’s completely different from Meredith, in form and color, the shadow of similarities makes something tug in John’s gut, almost (irrationally) like jealousy. She says she’s frankly relieved he finally turned up. There have been times in the past when Carson has nearly ordered him here. But John has always put up excuses. Something with psychiatrists and psychologists; the idea of them breaking you down, analyzing you like numbers; maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s his general aversion of medics of all kinds. But, most of all, it’s shame. To go here is to admit that something is wrong.

He apologizes. It’s late. She just smiles and shakes her head. Says she’ll gladly do her job and help no matter the hour. It’s hardly the first time. Space is large and hectic and frightening, and Heightmeyer has been busy ever since joining the SGC with facing scenarios so far outside the normality of Earth that she’s used to it, now, the most otherworldly statements and sights. She knows how to filter that down to words.

He’s still tense, and wants to leave. Doesn’t. He’s not going to be a coward. Instead he moves to sit, when asked to, and the doors slide shut behind him. The Raven isn’t flying, clinging to him, clinging to their wholeness as if it makes things better somehow. Once he’s off the crutches Heightmeyer sits down too.

The wide couches in her office are identical to the hundreds of others spread through the City, and somehow that familiarity is a comfort. The room is much like any other in the City. High ceiling, very spacious, yet adorned in such a way that their voices don’t echo. They’re many levels up and through the half-lidded blinds they can see the ocean sink and rise steadily, wave after wave after wave. It’s cloudy tonight, and few stars are visible. Heightmeyer has placed a few potted plants below the window. Most of them don’t look Terran – gifts from the Botany department – but there’s one exception, a single daffodil in a simple clay pot. Must have been grown from the seeds they’d brought with them from Earth: the botanist made sure to bring a lot of them. Mainly edible things, vegetables and roots, but evidently some plants for aesthetic purposes too.

He glances around the room, carefully, never turning his whole body or head. Reflexes kicking in. Military training. Don’t take your eyes off – but Heightmeyer isn’t meant to be an enemy, and sits in front of him, calmly. Asks ordinary things. She doesn’t start prodding right-away why he’s here. Anyway, she can probably guess.

Lets him take his time.

She asks how he’s finding it having the whole team back in the City, and then the lack of movement because of his injury. He can answer to that somewhat truthfully. That he’s bored out of his skull. Heightmeyer doesn’t take notes, and he’s grateful for that.

Eventually, she asks – very straightforwardly – past the necessary point of small talk – how long he’s been unable to sleep. He almost winces. Is it that obvious? Or maybe just the hour he dropped in at. Just that. Yeah.

“Uh, a while.” A heartbeat. “Since Icarus. I … dream about it.”

“Would you be comfortable describing one of these dreams for me?” When he doesn’t answer right away, she goes on; “It might help to process these dreams by talking about them.”

Noise is stuck in his throat. For a moment, he can’t breathe. He has to look away and out the window. She lets him. Taking his time. The waves wash upon the piers.

“It’s, uh, it’s usually the same. I’m in the Gate Room, and Icarus is in my head.”

“Can you do anything about it?” she asks, gently, not startling at all and the question makes him shiver.

“No. No, I – I can’t move or anything. I couldn’t stop him.”

“What happens next?”

He forces himself through the motions. It always follows the same pattern. Predictable except for the ending, who will be unveiled, which face. “I’m holding my 9mil. It’s loaded. I can’t stop him from pulling the trigger. It’s – someone else, standing in front of me. The Goa’uld.”

“I see. I’m aware that at the time of the incident, Icarus attacked Colonel Caldwell. You see the same thing happening in your dreams?”

“It’s … him, sometimes, yeah. As the Goa’uld.”

“But not always.”

He relents: “… Sometimes it’s other people, from – my team.”

“People close to you. This isn’t so strange,” Heightmeyer says. “You suffered a trauma when he forced you to do things without your consent, causing a deep fear of something like that happening again. You don’t want to hurt the people you care about.”

He looks back at her, and doesn’t know what to say because trauma? is that really the right word? 

Finds it’s difficult to breathe again. Whispers: hoarsely: (dis)agreeing: “No.”

(Can still see it: feel the gun in his hand the weight of it and felling them one by one Rodney Teyla Aiden Elizabeth)

I don’t want to hurt them.

“How often do you have these nightmares?”

“A few times a week.”

“Have you talked with anyone else about this?”

And for a moment he considers lying, because -

“Rodney,” he blurts, out of control, and then straightens his back, awkwardly. “And I think Teyla – sort of knows.” She’s always sensing a lot more than she lets on, clever and bright-eyed. Ronon, he’s not so sure about. They’re a good team and friends, but they’ve rarely talked about … issues with each other. That one night, when watching A New Hope, before Rodney and the others had returned from Earth – Ronon had talked, very briefly, about Sateda and past regrets, and John had revealed a little bit about Afghanistan, and about the Storm, losing people. As for Ford, well, they’re team and he’s his XO and they’re friends, but neither have ever sat down like that, and John’s not sure if they ever will reach that point of comfortable familiarity. “I think.”

Heightmeyer seems pleased about this, however, and doesn’t note or ask anything in particular about Rodney or Teyla or anyone else by name. “That’s good,” she says. “It’s good to have a support network of friends, and I know how close a team is.”

And suddenly he wants to say, dare to say, be free to say I don’t dream when Rodney’s there with me, but he can’t. Even if Heightmeyer won’t spread the word; her knowing, it would … it would make things ever more awkward. He’s pretty sure she can tell things just by looking at him. And she’s seen his record. The tiny words in fine print. She’s got to be well-aware that he hasn’t seen a shrink since forever. Only when he’s basically ordered to by the brass. After that IED. After the chopper went down. The hot swirling sand the dust making it hard to breathe making it

He’s been quiet for over a minute, and then suddenly reality is back. Heightmeyer’s brows are creased in a worried frown.

Something must be seen on his face. “I take it you’ve refused taking sleeping pills?"

“Yeah. I just – can’t.”

“That’s understandable.” When he just frowns confusedly, she goes on: “John, someone took control of your body against your will. The last thing you want is to lose control.”

“I can handle pain meds, as long as they don’t mess up my concentration,” he says, feels the sudden need for justification for this weakness. “But. Yeah.” The thought of falling falling falling without the ability to stop himself is terrifying.

As of late, the dreams are leaving him tired and jittery, to the point where he thinks someone is bound to notice. Not just the dark rings slowly growing under his eyes. His lack of appetite. He’s let Rodney eat his desserts for days on end, not stopping him from stealing them and even Ford has noticed that, raised an eyebrow; John had waved his hand, changed topic. 

“There’s prazosin,” Heightmeyer offers. “It helps against high blood pressure and there is a documented use of it to ease chronic nightmares. However, a side-effect includes lightheadedness and a risk of fainting, so I assume you would prefer not to use that. But there are alternatives to medication.”

“Teyla’s tried to show me how to meditate,” he says, suddenly recalling it. Last time was three weeks ago, before his injury.

“How did you find it?”

“… Difficult,” he decides on, finding a word that’s somewhat fitting.

“Was it the sitting still for that long, or the act of relaxing?”

“It’s, it’s more like – I had the time to think. Teyla says it’s meant to give an opportunity to think of the, well, the right things, but I get distracted.” Not in a good way, either.

Heightmeyer nods. Still hasn’t taken any notes. Will she, once he’s walked out the door? This wasn’t an officially booked meeting, after all. He’d called unsure if she’s answer, at midnight. She really deserves a raise, putting up with this. Her sleep being ruined by someone else’s ruined sleep. The irony isn’t lost on him.

She suggests he return, properly, in a few days. That he try meditating. Listening to some calm peaceful music, perhaps. And John agrees, eventually, because even if it’s hard to form the words, and there’s still a weight in his chest and maybe that’s got nothing to do with the nightmares at all: his team is away from the City, Rodney is away from the City.

Even She can’t stop his dreams. They aren’t one.


When John finally takes his leave, it’s been well over an hour, he realizes when returning to his quarters. The alarm on the bedside table glaring red. He dims the lights with a thought. Leaves a window open slightly, and this way he can hear the wind and the water.

Slipping back into bed, he closes his eyes. 

The City hasn’t sung for him intangibly for a long time. He understands Her words now. But now he seeks that same lullaby that was being poured through the halls when the Expedition first arrived here, the first living beings to set foot in the dark corridors for ten thousand years;

If it won’t stop the dreams entirely, only momentarily, it’ll be enough until Rodney returns.

The team had better not get in trouble on that planet.

 

Chapter Text

ix.

peace / war

part three

"if this isn’t a life-or-death situation and instead a huge waste of our time,”
Rodney declares, the transporter doors swishing open, “I’m calling in sick tomorrow.”
 


It’s strange being on a mission without John.

Rodney realizes, halfway between the village and the Gate, that he doesn’t like it at all.

Technically, it’s AR-1:s seventh mission since M31-927; their seventh mission as a four-person team; their seventh mission without Sheppard, and that’s just not right. And they’ve been splintered before, yes, temporarily, with weak promises of reunion, in the aftermath of the Uprising when all senior staff were forced to go to Earth and endure the questioning of the IOA and General Landry and the others. That time, leaving John behind, a galaxy away, had felt harder than it should have; they’d grown too attached. Too quickly. Too much.

Rodney doesn’t generally consider himself very – clingy. That’s the word. A typical Sheppard kind of word. The man often behaves and speaks like a five-year-old. And Rodney’s trying to focus on this, on this planet and their mission and not on John who’s stuck with an injured leg a star system away. Right now, it’s nighttime in the City. Probably asleep.

Can’t stop thinking and wondering.

No, he hasn’t been this attached to another human being ever before, in this lifetime. It’s … frightening. Frightening, how easy they’ve slid into this motion of Being One, even talking about we and us – he’s never been plural with anyone but his Dæmon; he and Meredith are two sides of the same coin. When they’d stepped through the Stargate toward Atlantis for the first time, there was never ever a thought of letting someone else join that fold. Never. Nevertheless someone like John Sheppard: flightily mysterious and with that casual smile he uses to hide everything from the world and born without a Dæmon (and Rodney is still working on accepting that John’s so quiet and unprotesting at being called a Strangeling; no one should have to endure that) and with an unreasonably high IQ he, for some unfathomable reason, wants to pretend he doesn’t have (but Rodney is no longer fooled) and too pretty for his own good and half-alien (minor detail). Mostly though, it’s – John is John and unreachable and yet, yet Rodney has managed to grasp him, anyway, like defying the laws of physics.

No. It’s not right to be on a mission without him.

Too quiet.

Ford’s doing an all right job, Rodney supposes, because they’re for once not in a life threatening situation, surrounded by Wraith hellbent on sucking their souls dry, or trapped aboard an exploding starship. But this quiet is unsettling.

Teyla’s talking to the village elders. Chances of diplomatic relations and, perhaps, trade. The readings indicated that the planet’s crust is crammed with various ores, including naquadah, and if they could set up a minor mining facility someplace uninhabited – so not to disturb the natives – that’d be ideal. One can never have too much naquadah. And the soil is rich, judging by the wide expanses of growing fields surrounding the valley, full of foodstuffs. Can’t have too much of that either.

Ronon is … well, the Satedan is mostly looming in the background, his Stoic Warrior face on, and Rodney could bet the guy is almost as bored as he is. Because, honestly, couldn’t they have sent someone else? And then, oh, wait, he recalls – most First Wave teams went back to Earth five days ago, and what they’ve got left are the newbies and Elizabeth maybe doesn’t trust them well enough yet for a mission like this. Naquadah is important. But what Rodney would like to find, most of all, is an Ancient ruin full of Ancient tech to breathe life into, or a ZedPM – and there’s a huge gaping part of him (empty; painful; like someone’s taken a knife and carved a hole in his spine) wishing for nothing else but to back, step through the Gate back to Atlantis.

Dependent. He’s - he’s become dependent on closeness for happiness, it dawns on him, suddenly. While he’s sitting there uncomfortably cross-legged on the hand-woven mat of the chief’s tent, Teyla’s soft voice lullingly sharing words with the gruff chief, the smoke and smell of candles wafting around them, his back itching, the TAC vest too tight. It dawns on him: it’s too silent; John should be here, and the Raven, the twosome always getting into trouble and poking at stuff and making bad jokes, urging them into debates and banter relentlessly. It’s too silent; John should be here, by their side, flashing that carefree smile and remark at Rodney’s impatience with this mission to Backwater Planet No. Eighty-Nine. It’s too silent. John should be here. 

Their Bond – thin, fragile: not meant to be stretched to these distances – is a finely woven thread of white light, and it’s not alight with fire so Rodney can know, at least, that John isn’t in pain or distress. Except then, somehow – like being woken in the middle of night: it is. Just a faint thing, barely there. But Rodney has gotten used to listening to their Bond. John is usually so shut-off. Tries to be. Careful. Wears masks. But this fire is real. It’s not physical pain as much as it is emotional, and somehow that’s worse.

For a moment, Rodney’s breath catches in his throat, all tight and heavy, and something’s hammering away in his chest harshly just like he’s run a marathon to escape a horde of Wraith but this isn’t fear or terror or panic for his own life. He can’t do anything, only listen. He hates being unable to do anything. He should be able to –

(when they’d been stuck on M31-927 all alone not knowing if their team had made it if they’d come home alive, Rodney had grabbed his hand out of sheer desperation and the blood, he still can see it, and John protesting saying he’s all fine it’ll be fine I’m fine, the liar, trying to calm him down make him comfortable. as the air was slowly running out and John fell down, Rodney’d grasped his hand and the words had been unstoppable, he couldn’t help but blurting out what he’d been considering silently for the past two weeks and John hadn’t seemed aware, he’d shielded his thoughts well enough – they don’t pry, they never do that – ever since Icarus fears of being unable to move;

Rodney almost wished in that instance that he had, just gotten a glimpse, something, so that he could’ve been more prepared for the answer. and then John had smiled so beautifully and said yes; yes, of course and they made plans, started making plans – set on making it out of there alive. promising.)

It takes a minute for him to refocus. The tent. The deal being made. His aching knees and protesting joints. Lieutenant Ford, by his side, somewhat jittery though he’s trying to stay calm. Ronon shifting impatiently, wanting to be someplace else fighting Wraith preferably.

The fire is fading. Another nightmare?

That’s got to have been another nightmare. Rodney – who has had own fair share of them (continually; he still sometimes dreams, in times of high amounts of stress, of being eaten alive by a giant whale – sometimes it’s not that at all; sometimes it’s a Storm raging and the towers of the City quaking and swaying and trembling, bowing to the harsh winds, and as lightning strikes a hand’s reaching out grabbing Meredith by the neck and they can’t move can’t scream can’t do a single thing to stop it but it’s been a year now and Rodney hasn’t dreamt of the Storm in over three months) – had hoped they’d stop by now. It’s been weeks. They should have stopped.

“… and you may explore the area you have specified,” the chief is saying.

And Teyla is nodding: “That is a fair offer. Then we are in agreement.”

The people of P9X-182 don’t shake hands, but do some kind of salute with a touch of the chest (which is a big deal around here: that’s where the spot where a Wraith’s hand would be when it feeds). Teyla reciprocates it and quietly urges the rest of the team to copy it too. Rodney finds it awkward, but he’s been with the SGC long enough to roll with it. 

Can’t concentrate, though. Can’t. His thoughts inevitably turn back to Sheppard, in one form or another. Even if in abstract equations.

They should tell the team about their plans, soon, shouldn’t they? shouldn’t they? They’d said they would. Promised. John wants that. But it’s right there on the verge of impossible, balancing on the edge of what can be done. Every law and rule and regulation is working against them. Teyla and Ronon won’t understand – well, they’ll say that they do, but they won’t, Rodney knows. They’ll think the regulations are another illogical Tau’ri thing which doesn’t make sense. And Ford – Rodney isn’t sure. Ford’s loyal, to the team, to Atlantis, to Weir and Sheppard and command. But he’s a marine, and he might not agree that –

Though, he was witness to their kiss, in the Chair, as the City had landed on New Lantea and Rodney had burst forward and grabbed John’s face in his hands and kissed him, and Ford and Teyla had been there to see it. Rodney remembers. That’s when Ford had told Teyla about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and that she couldn’t reveal this to anybody without risking John being demoted or dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. And Rodney doesn’t want to take that away from John, not just because Sheppard clearly was born to fly, but because, selfishly, that would also take him away from Atlantis.

Yes, the Lieutenant is loyal; dangerously so;

New Athos, they’d said, decided, and John hasn’t wavered from it. Rodney doesn’t really have a preference. Maybe the City itself would be the better place, the best place (right there in the Gate Room before the open wormhole and glimmering lights), except the City is full of people and surveillance and never quite enough – never private enough – to exchange vows, and on New Athos they could be alone. Take a Jumper. New Athos has got both forests and oceans and there are continents far from the Stargate, unexplored, where no one would disturb them. Interrupt. Isles of solitude.

(And: would that be like eloping? It would, in a way, wouldn’t it? Technically speaking. By dictionary definition.)

Finally, they’re standing up. Rodney sighs in relief, groaning at the pain in his stiff shoulders. The deal’s made. The inhabitants of P9X-182 will receive medical supplies and manpower (galactic trading constants: in Pegasus there are rarely things like money to be had, and they’re not really useful over planetary borders) to help rebuild their houses from the last Culling – another, much more grievous, galactic constant. This village was Culled nineteen rotations ago. Fires still being put out.

In return, they’ll let the Lanteans mine a few miles south of the Gate, an uninhabited area. There are some clauses and conditions, but Rodney only listens with half an ear. So, now they can send back a group of geologists to start digging for naquadah – Elizabeth will be pleased to hear that. They need the ore to make repairs to the City and the Aurora, which will undoubtedly be damaged in a future battle.

They walk back to the Gate, Ford talking vividly with Teyla and Ronon, but, for once, Rodney remains morosely silent, and Meredith doesn’t walk rapidly by his feet but rest on his shoulders, sensing that what he needs is the comfort of closeness, this physical thing which he’s lacking; John is six lightyears away, untouchable and unseen.

“Hey, doc?”

He’s not in the mood to be bothered by relentless energetic questions or, worse, merciless teasing which isn’t at all like John’s banter – “What is it, Lieutenant?” he says, snidely, trying to convey leave me be with a sneer.

Ford doesn’t back down, glancing over his shoulder and Rodney has to admit that the young man’s expression is genuine. The hint of a frown. “You’re real quiet back there.” Unsaid: you usually never are, so something has got to be up. “Anything interesting on the scanner?"

He isn’t even holding it. Hasn’t bothered to pull it out of his backpack. “I would tell you if there was, and there isn’t, so there is nothing to say,” Rodney nearly snaps, something violent beneath his skin threatening to break through. He takes a breath. That wasn’t anger – but another rising pulse – nightmares. John is in distress, he realizes, once more and out of reach, and it’s bleeding through and he can’t do anything.

“Rodney,” says Teyla, gently, imporingly in that voice she uses when approaching a wounded animal, and she’s worried and also probably reprimanding him for being unnecessarily rude. And Rodney doesn’t like it, and grits his teeth because he’s fine, he’s fine, he just wants to get back to Atlantis right now.

The Stargate rests at the mouth of the valley, between two rising peaks at a distance, mountains massive enough to easily compete with Mount Everest, disappearing into the clouds. It’s a sunny if somewhat cloudy day, brief as they are this time of year on this planet – merely four hours of sunlight before dusk, and a long night following. Spring reaching into summer. There’s still some frost in the air.

Without being given the order, Rodney starts to dial, and the glowing symbols of the Stargate spin, lazily, in a circle, settling one chevron after the other. The moment the event horizon flares outward and settles, the Bond is much clearer, like a bell that’s been dulled suddenly ringing loud and free.

(The fire’s gone out. John is probably awake. Always has trouble falling back asleep after dreaming.)


Rodney dumps the gun and the TAC vest with a happy, weary sigh and scratches that itch. Finally able to reach it.

05:13 hours. The team has got a sleep-in, to catch up on the Lantean time, and the debrief isn’t until well past noon.

He passes by the Control Room (Chuck is leaning over a console half-asleep; Rodney grumbles about inefficient people being inefficient at their jobs, and the guy startles and looks somewhat sheepish, if annoyed at being so rudely woken), checks the City’s sensors, counting the lifesigns and, no surprise, John’s quarters appears to be empty. There is, however, a pair of blinking white dots right there in Rodney’s lab on the three-dimensional map.

He’d slept all afternoon yesterday to power up for this mission, and he’s not particularly keen to sleep yet. Instead he grabs some coffee and heads to his lab. The door is closed, but unlocked, and within the computers are on stand-by, screens dark with the exception of a simulation quietly running in the background, and the machinery is softly humming and beeping. The Raven is nested up in the rafters, where the ceiling meets the wall, the crook of a beam carrying the room above, with their head tucked under a wing and Rodney has gotten used enough to the sight by now to know that the Dæmon’s asleep. A blanket is peeking out from beneath the main desk, and Rodney nearly stumbles over the foot sticking out behind the pile of boxes – some electrical supplies Rodney hasn’t sorted out yet.

Swears softly on his breath.

Seriously? Of all places …?

He puts down the already half-empty cup on the edge of the desk – relatively clear from clutter – and moves closer. John doesn’t stir.

Safe. John is usually a light sleeper, flinching at any little noise and reaching for his gun (trigger-happy, Rodney’s called him once, and the Colonel had scowled but not argued against it) but now he doesn’t, and something in Rodney’s chest contracts and warmth pools in his belly, thinking that John feels safe enough in here to close his eyes without having to keep a gun within grasp.

One of the whiteboards is changed. Rodney only barely notices - out of the corner of his eye. An equation filled in and corrected. A little thing, and he shakes his head – really, should make him do an IQ test. Hasn’t been able to convince him to join the City’s Mensa club. The Colonel firmly doesn’t want to be labelled a Geek, even though he doesn’t have that much qualms about associating with them. Or making out with one. The thought causes Rodney to smirk.

For a moment, he considers walking out of there without ado. Because he’s not going to sleep right on the floor, not when there’s a perfectly good bed less than a hundred yards away. Not going to happen.

The light is dim, but some falls from one of the windows, gently, pale and blue and cold from the moons of New Lantea. Nearly full. Huh, maybe they ought to start measuring the month cycles of this planet. Give the B-team something to do. And they could make a poll to make up names for the months. Of course, the marines can’t be allowed to participate because they’d only come up with the most ridiculous things – Ford has demonstrated the marines’ general ability to only name things nonsensically many times enough. Idly, the thought passes by (he can never stop thinking), and he crouches down next to John’s head, poking his shoulder.

“… R’ney?” comes the murmur, fifteen seconds later. John blinks a couple of times, blearily, eyelids heavy and his hair all ruffled. You’re back?

“There’s a thing, you know. Called a bed. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a very soft and comfortable invention,” Rodney says – not too loud, carefully. The man on the floor groans, squinting up at him. “Come on. That can’t be good for your leg, or your neck.”

“Nah, ‘s fine.”

Rodney rolls his eyes. “And this floor is icy cold.”

The pilot makes a contemplative noise at the back of his throat, patting the floor next to him with a hand. “… You could help me fight the laws of thermodynamics by getting down here.”

Oh, he’s such a ridiculous, ridiculous man.

(And Rodney can’t stop himself from falling.)


With a low-pitched whine, the machine crosses his body and then is guided aside. The screen is set up at an angle so from the infirmary bed John can’t see the results, but Carson isn’t frowning grimly. Instead he’s nodding, making some note on his datapad. 

“It’s healing nicely.”

The doctor is no longer demanding that he visits the infirmary every second day for a check-up. This is the last full-body scan, John reckons, since his ribs are pretty much healed now. It’s been almost eighteen days. Still taking iron supplements because the blood loss. He’s no longer on any heavy-duty pain meds, just simple oral ones to take the edge off.

“When can I get rid of the cast?”

“When I say so, Colonel,” Beckett orders, his voice a grave typical impression of his mood: ‘I’m the Medical Professional, You’re the Patient, Shut Up and Listen’. 

John rolls his eyes, sitting up. He’s still sore, somewhat, but it’s not that bad. Not bad at all. The physical pain, that he can deal with. And he’s regaining some mobility, slowly, surely. Getting handy with the crutches. He hasn’t almost fallen on his face for days. But, god, he’s bored, and he’s done so much paperwork that for once he isn’t behind on any of it and even Bates has noticed that. He thinks Weir and the others may be getting agitated with his attitude. He asks (pesteringly) to join the Aurora on missions every second day, and each time, the answer is the same: not until he’s back on active duty. All he’s allowed to do is sit around and wait and watch.

AR-1 has been on seven missions in his absence. Thankfully, mostly without issue. There was a Wraith patrol one of them, a planet in the throes of winter, but they escaped unscathed. John has read the reports, again and again and again. And when he runs out of those he spends hours in Rodney’s lab. Correcting equations when the astrophysicist isn’t looking. (Rodney isn’t even pretending to be displeased and annoyed anymore.)

“Can I return to the gym, at least?”

“Well,” the doctor considers for a moment, “perhaps. How are your ribs feeling?”

“No pain at all.”

Beckett’s eyes twinkle. “Still a wee bit sore, then,” he translates.

“I never said that!” John crosses his arms. Seriously. Medics. They never believe him, always thinks he’s playing down and – okay, fine. He does that. A lot. Usually. But the thing about his ribs is true. And the scans can’t lie. The damage has healed. He’s fine.

His leg looks better. The scar tissue is still dark and raw and starkly visible, just half an inch from his old wound, which was similar but not as bad. Shrapnel hadn’t pierced as deep that time. Which is lucky, because if it had, he’d probably have bled out in Afghanistan, and that’d be the end of it all.

“All right, you can lift some weights and such in moderation. It’s good to keep your body in trim, after all, and it will help with the excess energy,” the Scot adds with a smile. And yeah, maybe John has been more irritable than usual over the past couple of weeks – for more than one reason. The pain, the dreams, the straight-up refusal from Weir and the rest to let him go on any kind of mission, even as audience aboard the Aurora - John is restless. There’s nothing as tedious and straining as being grounded by an injury. “As for your leg, it’s coming along nicely. No signs of swelling, which is lucky, considering there was some displacement. And you’re doing well on your physical therapy; just remember not to stress it. The pain being lessened doesn’t mean the bones are healed enough to bear your weight and I’m serious about this, John – the last thing I want is to have to perform corrective surgery.” John takes the stern warning look sent his way with grace, nodding and smiling. “You’ve only lost a bit of leg muscle mass, but I think you’ll bounce back in no time. But it will be several months before you regain your previous range of motion.”

Great. Now he’s never going to outrun Ronon on their morning runs around the South Pier. John’s missed them. The routine. Sometimes Teyla would join them; and Ford, once or twice, though the kid tends to stick around other marines for his workouts. The prospect of waiting for weeks even after he can walk again without crutches is rather bleak.

But, hey. Trying to be positive: he’s only got one broken leg, not two.

“Well, then; off you go.”

John slides off the bed, gathering his crutches.

“Thanks, doc.”

“And no strenuous activity, Colonel,” Carson adds when he reaches the threshold. “I mean it!”


Does this count as a strenuous activity?

He’s lying still on his back, after all, leg immobilized and taking care (trying to) not to jostle it. Mostly still. Toes curling – an involuntary reaction – and his breaths come in sharp gasps, hollowed out – he is the thing that’s being hollowed out, but this is the good kind of pain;

They’d started out careful and anxious, not knowing their own boundaries or where to draw the lines. Each touch had been frantic and soft all at once. Growing bolder now. They’re getting past the stage when kisses in the middle of things feel awkward, and instead each one of them is a wonder and John has a small difficulty breathing but it’s for good reasons. The kind of breathlessness he seeks.

The thing is, neither of them jumps at the chance of sex as soon as they can. Not that they can, but they don’t feel that urge every waking moment, and that’s that. He’s glad, they haven’t exactly talked about it; it works out anyway; a silent agreement. It all simply – the pattern fell into place, unbidden;

Over the weeks, John has come to realize a few things. One: he’s a huge sap. Not that he’s admitting it out loud.

He blames the lack of a lustrously romantic teenagehood. Like the one portrayed in the movies. Where’s the realism in that? John’s teenage years certainly were nothing like that. He had a single crush he could remember, and he wasn’t the best at social cues and stuff at fourteen or fifteen or however old he’d been. And Rodney’s teenage years probably weren’t like that either. Maybe that’s a poor excuse. Does he even need one?

He’s always been averse to touch. Like with trust, it’s a slow thing. Physical contact is – there’s a limit to what’s okay and when it reaches into categories of uncomfortable and weird, and often, often with most people, a shake of hand is the limit. John’s not sure if people actually notice that. The thought of hugs make him shudder. The team, as close as they are (other kinds of bonds, unbreakable and without doubt: they would all defend each other; John is ready to start wars to save them) –there’s respect. And of course there’s little things going on with the team – a pat on the arm; the Athosian forehead touch; standing shoulder to shoulder; that sort of thing, especially after missions gone wrong. But they’re not exactly cuddly with each other. 

With Rodney, he craves it.

The second realization: he’s a cuddler when Rodney is in the same bed. A horribly horribly clingy cuddler. Almost ashamed.

Maybe it is codependency – the definition to be found in the dictionary; that would be a picture of them, hands intertwined and refusing to be separated even by galaxies. Settling into his bones and flesh and soul, searing a place there like a burn; Rodney belongs here with him in Atlantis; he belongs here with Rodney in Atlantis. He doesn’t shy away from his touches. He wants more.

Sensing the thought, fleetingly crossing his mind, Rodney huffs a laugh. Mouth warm upon his skin.

It could count as a strenuous activity, Rodney thinks in response. The hint of a smirk. 

John has got his good leg bent at the knee, foot planted atop of the mattress, and Rodney’s cradled partly atop of him, on his side. Covers pulled aside in haste. Shoes and clothes tumbled onto the floor, carelessly, doors firmly locked. Rodney’s broad hand (burningly scaldingly comfortingly) traces his newest scar, slowly, gently. And there’s still a shadow of distress on his face every time he sees it and John wants to chase that shadow away, so far so far that it’ll never again be discovered. 

His leg makes everything too difficult because he wants to be able to move and grasp Rodney and climb atop of him and ravish him. Has to settle for this – for now – for now. Not that it’s bad. 

In the low light, a sliver of moon slipping through the windows, John reaches out and pulls him up for a kiss, to distract him, to get rid of that shadow. “Hey. Want to help me out of these?”

The thought of struggling to stand to undress almost breaks the mood, and Rodney suggests, pondering with the same certainty he would any obstacle: “We could cut them off.”

Oh, that’d be amusing trying to explain when it’s time to do the laundry – AR-1 has a reputation to work their way through clothes and gear faster than any other team, being hunted and chased and shot at continually, but a pair of cut-apart boxers? Yeah. That’d be an interesting conversation. John decides he’s desperate but not that desperate.

“Hips up.”

“Geez, you’re bossy,” John smiles, obeying, supporting himself with his elbows and his good leg, straining. Biting his lip. The expression on Rodney’s face is utterly captivating: pure concentration: just like he would look at a potentia or brightness of an exploding star, marvelling –

“Don’t deny you like it. It’s my second best charm,” Rodney says without hesitation and tugs the boxers down, skimming over his thighs and calves and feet, and the air’s slightly chilly, goosebumps breaking out on John’s skin, and Rodney’s hand returns, a motion of certainty just as John speaks;

“And what’s the firs-a-aah.” Noise is shocked out of his throat. And he’d thought he was breathless before

The astrophysicist’s smile widens, smugly.

Relentless – can’t fight the groan escaping and he doesn’t want to fight it either – John clutches the sheets, the muscles of his belly contracting and holding still, tense. “Oh. That’s cheating.”

 “That to me sounds like a challenge.”

Rodney reaches out with his free hand without looking, fumbling for a moment until he collides with the bedside table and pulls out the top drawer. He nearly loses his balance, close to toppling over, but steadies himself quickly grabbing a shoulder and John returns the gesture, clinging to him. Unmistakable noise. Expertly at ease (impatiently heatedly needily) Rodney rips open the package and rolls on the condom, let me, here, and John physically aches as Rodney leans in for a wholly different kind of kiss and John can only breathe, tangling a hand in Rodney’s short hair, seeking something to hold onto an anchor steadily – it’ll never cease to take him away, how amazing the simplicity of it is –

A call from the City-wide comms: one of the technicians working on shift. The demand rings out through the quiet room, disrupting the air and they both abruptly still.

“Colonel Sheppard, report to the Control Room immediately.”

Of all things to ruin the mood. From a hundred down back to zero in two seconds flat. John bites back a whine of frustrated disappointment.

When he withdraws, Rodney’s cursing.

“… Their timing,” he grumbles, gratingly; followed by the whisper of an insult less than savory, and his voice tickles against his skin making John shiver. “It’s like they’re doing it on purpose! They should be reprimanded for that. Or fired. Definitely fired.” fired; let’s fire them into space on a poorly engineered rocket to a moon without atmosphere, more like –


Rodney wasn’t called for; he follows anyway. Curiosity takes over.

For once, John’s glad about the crutches. Makes a good excuse why it takes them so long to appear. They both have to splash some cold water in their faces and he’d have preferred an icy shower, to get rid of the sting, but the demand was urgent, and if there’s a disaster on its way … So they hadn’t, but John had been unable to look away from Rodney for more than three seconds at a time before being drawn back and Rodney is reacting in the same manner. Like two stars in a binary orbit. He’s not sure if his hands are completely steady, or, for that matter, his legs.

It’s very very difficult to walk through the corridors as if nothing’s going on, no, we weren’t interrupted or anything – he could thank every deity in the world that it’s night so there aren’t that many people on the move and they don’t bump into anybody except for a busy scientist clutching a datapad and they’d passed by without even looking up, headed for the Library probably. Which is just as well. John doesn’t feel well-composed at all. Every time Rodney’s arm brushes against his own, he’s back in bed and Rodney’s mouth hotly –

Okay. Let’s … not. Not now. Fucking damn it.

Right before the transporter carries them up and away, Rodney blurts, “We should fire everybody.” and the thought continues, an abstract image of the City quiet but for them and there’d be no need to hide;

John sends him a look. “Yeah, that’d make us popular.”

But he is relieved by this sudden insight that Rodney isn’t set on leaving anytime soon and wants him in the City for himself just as much as he and that’s something John can live with. More relieved than he can properly articulate.

“If this isn’t a life-or-death situation and instead a huge waste of our time,” Rodney declares, the transporter doors swishing open, “I’m calling in sick tomorrow.”


It’s not the Aurora making contact via a Gate, nor is it an offworld team returning early under fire, or an ally pleading help – the Genii have been speaking with them on the Alpha Site from time to time. A team of scientists (heavily guarded by marines armed with both P-90s and stunners) have been helping them with their nuclear weapons, in accordance with the Peace Treaty signed just a few weeks earlier.

It’s the SGC.

The databursts to Terra are regular like clockwork and usually words don’t need to be spoken in real-time. Mission reports, messages, and other files are sent in a compressed burst; it takes a couple of seconds, minimizing the impact on the power supply. Even though two potentiae are currently hooked into the City’s Core, they can’t be too careful. This time, however, Elizabeth is standing in front of a screen in the Control Room, and on the other side is General Hank Landry.

The man’s face is shadowed and carved into a deep-set frown. Displeasure, stress, or simply age, is hard to tell. There’s a certain sharp edge to his voice, and his Dæmon is a gray thing, severe in its quietness, with thin eyes and a crooked nose. John inclines his head in greeting, exchanges the customary words.

“What’s this about, General?” Elizabeth asks. To an outsider she’s perfectly polite, but John knows her well enough to recognize her tense shoulders.

“I know you prefer to be frank, Doctor, so I’ll cut to the chase,” the General says wryly. “You know Homeworld Security has been trying to wheedle out the major players of the Trust for some time now.”

“Yes, we are aware of the situation.”

“Some weeks ago, well before the situation with the Goa’uld on Atlantis arose, we planted an agent undercover. Only recently did his mission priority change, to find out more about the plot to destroy Atlantis, and just how many Goa’uld there are on Earth right now. A week ago, we lost contact. He missed his last two check-ins. There is no telling where he is now.”

“So he may have been compromised,” John says. Can’t think other than pessimistically. If the Trust figured it out; or if a Goa’uld got into the agent’s head, whoever he is –

“Possibly. However, we intercepted a coded message a almost three days ago which Colonel Carter managed to crack, and we realized that this is probably bigger than we first assumed.”

“If it didn’t have anything to do with us, you wouldn’t be telling us this,” Weir points out, arms crossed.

The General’s already pinched expression worsens. “The message wasn’t sent to us directly, but to one of the marines under Colonel Sheppard’s command, but we intercepted it. Lance Corporal Snow went missing over twenty-four hours ago.”

Snow. Part of AR-9. He and his team returned to Terra for a two-week leave six days ago along with many others. What’s he got to do with this? John had no idea the LC had any ties to an NID agent – probably NID; it’s the most logical explanation; he’s not sure if the FBI or whoever else know about the Stargate.

Weir has got to be thinking the same thing, showing on their faces because General Landry goes on: “Colonel, did you order LC Snow to partake in any kind of investigation of your own?”

John straightens his back. Oh, the IOA are going to have a field day with this: yet another reason to doubt him; sending one of his marines to do some dirty work beneath their noses. “No, sir. I had no idea Snow had ever known any agent, federal or otherwise.”

“Well, it has the feds in an uproar,” the General says grimly. “General O’Neill is communicating with the NID right now from the Pentagon, and no one has seen or heard a whisper from either Lieutenant Snow or the agent. The possibility of a leak is getting us all worried.”

“What about Snow’s team?”

“AR-9 are currently held in the Mountain under supervision.”

Under supervision. Meaning: they don’t trust them. They’re suspects, and conflicting emotions rise. Anger at this obvious distrust; and the knowledge that this is just how it is. They’re going to be questioned, no doubt, by the NID and the IOA, asked again and again. If Snow is somehow involved – then his team could be accomplices. Holder of secrets.

A team is like family. You don’t keep secrets from each other.

(One day he’ll come fully clean with his own.)

“I see,” John replies, carefully. Shares a look with Weir, and Rodney doesn’t have to: their Bond lets them know, and Rodney’s side ghosts against his arm, comfortingly. Standing so close that it doesn’t look unnatural or strange.

“And what is the IOA saying about this?” Elizabeth wonders.

“The IOA,” the General says, “oh, I’d prefer not to think about the IOA. But they are involved, of course. They can’t keep their noses out of anything. They are demanding the immediate questioning and detaining of AR-9, Snow himself once he’s found, and they want a word with you, Colonel.”

Oh, wonderful. But he can’t do anything but dutifully reply: “Yes, sir.” Doesn’t mean he has to be enthusiastic. “I’d prefer a word with my marines, if that can be arranged, sir.”

“We’ll see what can be done. The next databurst is scheduled in fourteen hours – Mr Woolsey is going to be speaking with you then. Be there. We’ll let you know if anything changes. Landry out.”

The screen fizzles into darkness, and the Gate shuts down.

Weir sighs. She’s apparently been kept out of the loop as much as anyone else around here: fed just enough information for the paperwork to be approved, but not enough, never enough to truly know anything. Now an agent and a marine are missing for unclear reasons, and they haven’t really been told anything. Whatever the coded message entailed, the General refrained from sharing.

Perhaps out of own volition; perhaps under orders from the IOA. The civilian bureaucrats may be as far as one can come from the Air Force or the Corps, but they still have that power. Since they clearly think Atlantis cannot be trusted – if one of his teams is involved in this shady affair …

The thought doesn’t sit well. Like politics, there are just so many gray areas, and there isn’t enough intel. John crosses his arms.

“This doesn’t make sense.”

Rodney’s frowning. “How do you mean?”

“There’s something they’re not telling us. Plus, what would Snow have to do with an NID agent?”

“If,” adds Rodney: “it is the NID.”

“If it’s not, who else?”

Elizabeth nods.

“But you’re right, John. Something doesn’t add up.”


A video link is created directly to the Conference Room, and John sits behind the table, Ford and Bates with him; this is something they need to know. A missing marine is all their business. Weir, too, is present, but not Rodney. Isn’t allowed to be here, and he’d grumbled about it, loudly, but nothing could sway the minds of the SGC or the IOA.

On the other side, there is a similar set-up: but the room is a concrete gray, without windows, and the three remaining members of AR-9 are lined up, side-by-side. Their expressions are coolly detached, but there’s a hint of concern, of pure worry for their teammate, and annoyance at being stuck in the Mountain. They haven’t been let out for hours, constantly under guard, and all their means of communication have been taken away. As the image clears, they straighten. A man in a suit – Mr Woolsey; John vaguely recognizes that balding head – is also present. The man adjusts his constricting formal tie, clearing his throat, as if unaware the camera’s rolling and John sees a his Dæmon is a gray thing, utterly unimaginative, with clear eyes.

“Ah. Dr Weir, Colonel Sheppard. I’m Richard Woolsey of the IOA.”

“A pleasure,” Elizabeth says without passion. “What’s the situation?”

“On point, I see. Well, we’ve determined the last location of the missing Lance Corporal … Mitchell Snow,” the bureaucrat consults his paperwork, a black neat folder resting in his hands. All of him is like that: completely organized. Nothing out of place. He also looks decisively uncomfortable, like he’d rather be elsewhere, sorting paperwork or doing whatever else the IOA normally does. This isn’t exactly a normal situation – oh, but with the SGC whenever is there? “Twenty-nine hours ago, Snow was sighted leaving Cheyenne Mountain, and this is backed up by several marines on patrol at the time. Outside of the gates he took a cab, possibly downtown. Then we lost him.”

That’s it? All of the expensive gear and clever people at the SGC’s disposal and all they got is that? “I want to know what the hell’s happened to our marine.” John barely manages to keep the growl out of his voice. He’s tired of games. If Snow is in trouble …

“That is understandable, Colonel.”

Mr Woolsey gestures to AR-9, and the team’s leader, Lieutenant Drew, is suitably pissed off.

She nods. “Sir,” Drew says, voice tight but controlled: “I don’t know where Snow is. We tried texting, but he wouldn’t answer anymore.”

“He could just have found someplace to crash for the night,” adds Lieutenant Gamble. “There’s no way Mitch was in any of this shit, sir. We’d know.”

A team doesn’t lie to each other. Not if they’re meant to work, and AR-9 are veterans, part of the First Wave. They experienced the Siege. They’ve seen and done things some people can’t ever dream of. And John wants to trust and believe in all of them, but right now he can’t trust anyone – that’s not right. That’s not right.

“So you don’t have any leads,” concludes John, frowning, facing Mr Woolsey.

“Not, not as such, no. The Prometheus isn’t back until tomorrow, and then we’ll scan the planet for Snow’s subcutaneous transmitter.”

“And the missing agent?” Bates asks.

Again, Mr Woolsey clears his throat. “That is strictly need-to-know, Sergeant, and –”

“Our marine is missing. We need to know,” John cuts in, and maybe it’s the tone of voice, or maybe just the way the Raven stares at the screen, right at the camera lens and John is aware of the effect that can have. Mr Woolsey shrinks back a little. Nods, stressedly, and clears his throat;

“Fair enough. The agent, codename Specter, hasn’t been in contact for nine days. Earth-time, that is. We intercepted a text sent from his phone, which we’ve tagged, to Lance Corporal Snow but we don’t know if Snow read the message or managed to understand it. We’ve also lost the trace of the phone. That was yesterday, on the thirteenth of February. The same day, Snow disappeared. His team tried to contact him but got no reply.”

“This right, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Drew answers without hesitation or doubt. Ready to take charge, and ready to take responsibility for her teammate. “We were going to have a team night at a local place last night some pizza and a pool-game and Snow said he was under the weather. After that no one could get hold of him. I thought he was sleeping off whatever it was.”

Ford’s hands are knotted, weight resting on his elbows and he leans a little closer. “Couldn’t you track his phone or something like that?”

“We’ve tried,” Mr Woolsey says tiredly. “It appears to be turned off.”

Or disabled. Broken; destroyed; sabotaged. Either by mistake, or deliberately – by himself or someone else.

It must be deliberately. Snow wouldn’t drop off the map so conveniently after receiving a message he wasn’t meant to see from a person he isn’t meant to know; wouldn’t leave his team behind if it wasn’t serious. It gnaws at him: one of his marines isn’t entirely who he’s meant to be, and John knows all about secrets and their worth. But this secret is creating a bigger mess and the SGC and the IOA are all involved, and the NID, and where does that end? And what about the rest of AR-9?

They’re sitting there together. Not kept in separate cells to be interrogated, meaning the IOA might not suspect them anymore, at least not that deeply. Even if they aren’t letting them out of sight. They aren’t cuffed. At least that’s something.

Mr Woolsey clears his throat. Changes subjects abruptly. “I’ve just been informed that you found an Ancient communication device a few weeks ago.”

So the reports got to Earth and they figured they probably weren’t telling the whole truth. Rodney’s not a very good liar. But John cannot fault him. It was just a delay of the inevitable.

“We did,” John says, sharing a look with Weir. Thinks he can tell where this is going, and he won’t like it. Doesn’t like it.

“I’m also told that using this device should be safe.”

“Look, what is it the IOA wants?” he asks, tiredly. Arms crossed.

The representative shuts the folder in his hand with a snap. “The IOA wants you to use the stones to report directly to us, Colonel, seeing as you seem unable to leave the City.”

Of course. Should have seen that one coming. Weir interrupts: “We’ll need to discuss this. The stones have never been properly tested and I’m sure you’ve read the report, Mr Woolsey, concerning the only earlier time this technology has been used – by accident, no less.”

“Ah, yes. That was a … unique situation. However, we know you found the terminal meant to be used in conjunction with the stones, and we deem the advantages to be worth the risks.”

They’re just so eager for a word – or grilling – face-to-face. John resists the urge to roll his eyes and groan. Tries not to think of it too far, because of the implications: Rodney said the stones created a psychic link. Made you physically step into someone else’s shoes, and the implications of that …

After what happened with Icarus, not too long ago, he didn’t think the IOA would have the guts to suggest it.

After what happened with Icarus, John’s not sure he could do it. If anyone would volunteer to be on the other end. One thing is certain: he doesn’t want just anyone messing around in his head, in his body –

“As I said, this will have to be discussed,” Elizabeth says, sternly, won’t back down and John is so so so relieved. “I will not use authorize the use of any tech that hasn’t been further analyzed and safely tested.”

Using them would mean someone would need to be on Terra, be sent there, after touching a stone to ensure a connection – if something goes wrong …

And John doesn’t want to go. Suddenly glad that they don’t know what Icarus said, that leaving is painful oh so painful but possible; he’d probably survive it. Probably. But the IOA don’t know that. In fact, the only people who know that is himself and Rodney. Couldn’t keep that from him.

He’d thought he’d seen the last of Terra.


“There has been a development. They’ve found the body.”

“Have they discovered his identity?”

“We made certain it would take a while to work out, but I know about these agents. They’re good. They’ll make a connection, and once they do …”

“And he is on Earth?”

“Not yet.”

“Then it’s time to move forward.”

Chapter Text

x.

wednesday

the letter arrived fifteen days ago:


New York City, U.S. · Earth · The Milky Way
February 15, 2006 (Terran time) · 141 days after the Uprising


A city isn’t always the best place for every kind of Dæmon. Cities are busy places, with crowded streets, and the underground and the taxis can’t always fit you if your Dæmon is a lion or bigger than that, and sometimes people have had to adapt when the cities can’t. The stress, the noise, the flashing lights. But he likes it here. He guesses that, after all, he is a man of the city even though he raised his family outside of it. It might have turned out differently if his youngest wasn’t a …

Well, the years have gone by, and there’s no use in dwelling on the past.

He looks at the timetable and then at his watch. Two minutes past. Right on time.

The rumbling rhythm of the carriage grinds to a halt. The doors open, and people stream through: the man and his Dæmon step off the ground and onto the train. The familiarity of it another part of the rhythm, and he’s carrying a smart brown portfolio in one hand, and a newspaper is folded up under his arm. Coat neatly pressed and tie chosen with perfect care. A symbol of a businessman: wealthy, successful, and yet relatively anonymous. His withered face and graying eyes evoke a sense of time gone by, opportunities barely caught up upon. His Dæmon is a large and proud thing with groomed fur and an air of genteel importance, and people unconsciously make way.

A pleasant voice – recorded previously, heavily edited to make new messages – announces: “Large Dæmons please use carriages two through three. Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Doors are closing.”

He finds his seat, the usual one if he can help it, by the window and this carriage is adapted for Dæmons of his size, so they can stretch without hindrance or fear of bumping into a stranger. Joins the other commuters who are of every kind and sort imaginable, and were he younger and his ears not as poorly they now are he might have contented himself with plugging in a pair of headphones. Instead he places the portfolio between his feet and unfolds today’s paper. Skims the headlines as the train begins to move and leaves the platform behind. The conductor checking his ticket is a redhead with a gentle smile and the perfect costumer attitude, and he returns the pleasantries dutifully.

So far has been a good day. The meeting went well and tomorrow, he hopes, the deal will go through. The CEO of Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics had seemed a shrewd man, if a bit young; but most people feel quite young nowadays. A smooth, convincing voice. Rather peculiar accent.

Yes, he feels, this has been a commonly slow but lucrative day. The coffee tasted good. No displeased worker or customer or business associate has called to curse his name and generation. 

He isn’t nervous or worried. Or, perhaps: he is, in a certain, new way. Not the usual way because he’s worked this business for a long time, and he’s done his part, by far, to become the mogul his great grandfather wished to become when he first started the first shy shop. The corporation is thriving, and he knows how to deal with it. No, that isn’t it.

The letter arrived fifteen days ago. Fifteen days; and he cannot quite believe it. He spoke, long and well, with the Colonel and watched a tape and there was even a second letter, signed by the President himself and he hadn’t quite known how to react. To know all of this. This is a heavy secret, and it makes him suddenly look at his fellow citizens, the people at work at the company, on the street, in a whole new light.

The world is, suddenly, both vast and utterly tiny both at once.

This sensation is unlike one he’s had for a long, long time. Not since, perhaps, the result of that autumn trip to France, their first as newlyweds and their son had been but a small thing, clinging to shoulders (wept and slept, one after the other, constantly, the whole trip which took half an eternity for so small a child). He had looked at the blooming countryside, awed, overwhelmed by the surge of youth and they’d been so happy. It was before it all began. It was before they started drifting apart.

It was a slow process, the fading. The arguments were not wholly a surprise. But they had parted amicably – would have parted amicably - and he is proud of that, that they would have remained friends, continued to exchange cards. Moving on, contently. Like saying: this is enough, and we are both aware, and there was no need to part as enemies.

(He makes a point to visit the graveyard when it is due, making certain the flowers are fresh and lively. Valerie had so loved the yellow chrysanthemums.)

He yet hasn’t answered to that letter, because words escape him. Oh, he knows all the formalities, could whip something together in an afternoon – but the olive branch, offered; this action, he feels, must be returned with care. It’s been so long since they spoke, since he even saw his youngest son’s face.

And that is another truth to come to terms with, because, oh, he knows. He isn’t sure if his son knows – he is his son, despite it all – and he cannot even explain it, because he trusted Valerie fully and utterly and they loved each other, back then, and in the end, does it even matter? She never mentioned another; and at the time to bring up questions of paternity wasn’t a thought. They didn’t want to disrupt their happiness.

Then, then the child had been born, without a Dæmon and with a stranger’s eyes, and he had thought: it will pass. In an hour, a day, the child will turn out to be perfectly normal. (He had prayed. It changed nothing.)

The letter came as such a shock. He’d cancelled his afternoon and, once the Colonel had explained it all (barely scratched the surface) and left, he’d sat down in his favorite chair with Irene curled up by his feet. Sat down, and he’d nursed a glass of whiskey and read it through again. Looked closely at that attached photograph, a simple two-dimensional square of color and seen a face so strange and familiar all at once. On a whim, he had tucked it away. And he had called his eldest to tell him: Johnny is still alive.

So enraptured in his musings, the man doesn’t first notice how someone takes seat opposite to him. Giving up on the newspaper, because he cannot quite read the words – too distracted – he folds it up, meaning to put it away, and the stranger clears his throat: “Excuse me. Would you mind if I borrowed that?”

He looks up and smiles graciously. “Please. I’m finding myself a bit too distracted to read anyway.” Hands over the paper.

The other is a man, roughly of the same age he guesses: a stern face, with a tight haircut – buzz? is that the word? – and he’s wearing a black jacket. No formal dress, something rather more causal, yet contained. Heavy boots, and the man’s Dæmon is a gray wolf. Not an unusual Shape; plenty of people have that, though this one has a curious scar to its upper back, near where the spine meets the neck.

The man glances through the headlines, grimly displeased or perhaps, to be fair, that might be his default expression. Something makes him think that this man might be military, or the like. A veteran. The way he holds himself, and the scar of his Dæmon. Abruptly he seems to recall something, and offers a hand in greeting. Very firm handshake. The kind of thing he’s learned means either a reliable person or someone simply confident.

They don’t really exchange pleasantries, and the man admits he’s only passing by. Not from the City. Doesn’t look like a tourist, though. Doesn’t have any baggage with him, as far as he can see.

A gentle automatic voice announces the next stop and he glances at his watch. Right on time. Stands up and moves toward the doors and, after a moment, the man follows. “Thank you,” he says pleasantly and hands the paper back; but he shakes his head.

“Oh, please, keep it.”

The carriage stops moving. The doors begin to slide open. Five or six people are also waiting to get off: youngsters with backpacks, looking at their phones, those new fancy blueberries or whatever they’re called, or listening to MP3s or those iPod devices. Someone with a book. An elderly woman clutching her purse tightly and worriedly. This is all background noise, and he pays no heed to it, and moves outward with the rest of them. A foot touching the platform, and a sharp cold like steel enters somewhere below his ribcage, to his left side.

Irene is growling. This in itself is unusual, this sudden poise and it is what makes him first wonder what’s wrong. And then he begins to understand that the coldness spreading from his side isn’t quite coldness, and the warmth might be blood, and he raises a hand almost confused and someone is crying out in the background. He’s falling, and can’t recall just how he came to lie down there.

The old woman with the purse is shouting. Grabs the arm of one of the youngsters, one with those phones and it’s got this shell with a glimmering bundle of fake stones on it and why he notices that, he isn’t sure. The sunlight falling onto the platform is very bright, very clean and direct and he has to blink several times trying to clear his eyes, but his vision is blurring anyway, and it doesn’t make sense;

The old woman frantically shouts: “Call 911!”

Why would they need to do that? he wonders, drowsily.

Irene is so worried. Their Bond frantic and alight and he can’t quite understand it, at first. Why this fear is so sharp.

Presses a hand to his side. Hand comes back covered in something brightly red. Oh.


“… hang on a second!”

Albeit the shout cannot be heard, he says it anyway, one more time, and hastily cleans his hands with a kitchen towel. Throws it over his shoulder and strides to the phone mounted on the wall. His Dæmon leaps with him.

The food is prepared, the table set, candles lit, and Laura is due to arrive in ten minutes. Perfect.

He unlatches the phone from its cradle, clearing his throat. “Sheppard residence. Hello?”

The speaker is unfamiliar. “Mr David Sheppard? I’m Dr Green of the Bellevue Hospital Center, New York. You’re listed as an emergency contact of Mr Patrick Sheppard.”

He nearly drops the phone. That could only mean bad news and he’s already trying to sort through his mind, who this could be about, and – no, not Laura, she’s in her car ten minutes away and nowhere near –

“Yes?” he asks, carefully.

“Your father, Mr Patrick Sheppard, has been injured in an incident. I’ve just finished emergency surgery. Would you be able to make your way to the hospital anytime soon?”

“I …” Breath leaves his lungs. Incident? what kind of incident? surgery? Dave simply doesn’t understand. “I’m in Iowa right now. Is it serious? Is he all right?”

New York. Brooklyn. Yes, he’s been there for some business meetings with some other corporation representatives. Would be coming back on Friday if all went well. Dave remembers now. They spoke on the phone just fifteen days ago, and he’d mentioned it, in passing. Seemed pleased. Mostly that conversation had been focused on Johnny, and Dave had swallowed the words, just as shocked then as he is now;

Like Lazarus rising, no one had expected to hear from Johnny again. Dave hasn’t attempted to send a card for years and years and years –

“His condition is stable and no longer critical,” Dr Green says. “But I’m afraid this might change for the worse, given his age. Some officers are here and they could maybe answer more of your questions.”

Officers?

He could ask for details of what’s happened – is this an accident? a car on the road, veering off-side? broken bones? he doesn’t know – but he says, nodding, searching with a hand for something to write with – “I’ll find a plane to catch,” he says. “Do you have my mobile number? Could you contact me if anything changes?”

“It’s in the records. We’ll call if it’s necessary, Mr Sheppard,” the doctor promises. 

Dinner will have to wait. 


The flight is long and boring and the engines drone on and on and on, a loud unearthly noise. Normally, Dave would attempt to sleep through it. This time he can’t. Laura clutches his hand, a press of elbow against his own.

For a panicked moment, as he’d thrown some clothes into a bag, hurriedly packing, the thought had struck him: if he dies he’ll miss the wedding, and his dad had been so looking forward to finally seeing one of his sons happy – then the thought had drifted away, and Laura had driven them to the airport. Found last-minute tickets. He’d taken it from the emergency fund, the one they’d set up in case the car breaks down or something similar. He’d never though they’d end up on a flight to New York because his dad has been injured. 

He managed, after an eternity, contact the police. Or they found him. One way or another. The guy at the other end sounded tired and distracted like this was his fiftieth case today and he’d not had enough coffee. Dave had, after a moment of finding himself shakingly uncertain, let Laura do the talking.

Stabbed. A hit-and-run mugging, they said, and one witness – an elderly woman, who’d called 911 – said something about seeing a man wearing dark gloves rushing away but it was on a crowded platform. There ought to be security cameras, Dave thinks, but there is no reply to that question. And he wonders what the woman’s name was so he could forward a thank you.

Then, it’s well past nightfall, and they’re leaving the hotel (cheap beds; shower, no tub) behind, a cab rushing them to the hospital even at this ungodly hour and Laura tips the driver generously. Then they’re being led through the sterile white corridors, full of nurses and doctors in a hurry and patients waiting in line, and there’s a somewhat private room without a view. He’s come out of surgery, and he lies on the sheets pale and unmoving and hooked up to machinery, and it’s all wrong, and it’s been several hours now and Dave cannot for his life make any sense of this. The doctor tells him and Laura about the chances of survival, before leaving to check on his other patients.

It’s crowded and loud and silent all at once.

They break their vigil to get something to eat in at the hospital cafeteria. The food is bland. Dave stirs his coffee (one cube of sugar, no milk) but almost forgets to drink it.


At the eleventh hour, there’s a visitor. No, two. They’re clad in dress blues.

“Mr David Sheppard?” one of them says; she’s blonde, carrying herself tall and proud and with a firm professional smile on her face. The white man next to her is also generically pleasant-looking and his shoulders are broad, and Dave is no expert on the languages of the military, but both of them bear quite a lot of medals on their chests. Their Dæmons are fierce, what one would expect from military types, quiet and calculating, though the man’s appears to be unsettled, pacing, perhaps impatient. The woman’s is very still, efficiently so, all well-preserved energy. The second thought strikes him: they’re military, not cops. What are they doing here? asking his name?

“Yeah? That’s me.” He stands up, offers a hand. “Can I help you?”

“My name is Colonel Samantha Carter, and this is Colonel Cameron Mitchell. We’re with the U.S. Air Force.” The woman shakes his hand first, then the man. Empty pleasantries.

And suddenly he thinks of the letter his father had talked about in that phonecall –

“Is this about my brother?”

The two exchange a silent look. Difficult to say if they’d anticipated the question.

“Not quite,” says Colonel Mitchell eventually. Turns to Laura. “I’m sorry, who might you be?”

She extends a hand to shake. “Laura Shannon. I’m Dave’s fiancée. What’s this about?”

Colonel Carter lowers her voice, speaking with the other Colonel for a moment – “The General didn’t mention other family.” – “Family is family, Sam.” – and Dave cuts in, declaring without hesitance: “Whatever you have to say to me, you can tell Laura as well.”

“All right, Mr Sheppard.” The door is closed, and the windows covered up, and now Dave starts getting really nervous. “We believe this was a deliberate attempt at your father’s life, and, if we’re right, it has to do with a letter he received from your brother fifteen days ago.”

“He … he mentioned that. But he said John’s location is classified,” Dave says, uncertainly. Doesn’t like it. What was in that letter? His father refused to let him see, to send him a copy. Said … he’d said a Colonel Carter of the United States Air Force delivered it, and made him sign an agreement of silence just to know the contents. This Colonel Samantha Carter? It must be. It can’t be a coincidence. It must be. 

What the hell was in that letter, so strange and important that their father ended up attacked for it?

“It is. It’s got to do with just that. Your father knows things, and we think someone might target you as well.”

Laura grasps his hand. “Just who –?”

“That’s classified. But if you both would be willing to sign some nondisclosure agreements, we’ll tell you everything,” Colonel Carter says, kindly, as if understanding what an otherworldly situation this is, or maybe just good with people. “And move your father to safer location as well.”

And Dave can hardly breathe because what? what is this? what the hell is this?

A few hours ago, he was at home, preparing soufflés and they were going to have a nice night together. Now his dad is in a hospital bed, and these two – Air Force – they’re saying this has something to do with his brother, it’s classified, it’s dangerous – someone’s tried to murder his father. His blood grows cold with fear. Someone tried to murder him. What if it happens again? Another attempt? What if Laura or he are next on a list?

Laura is already nodding. “Okay. Okay. Who are you guys really?”

Colonel Mitchell hands over a stack of papers. There is a line at the bottom to be filled in with names.

Dave glances up at them, eyes narrowing. “If we sign this, is there a possibility I could speak with my brother?”

“That can be arranged, yes.”

And Dave signs the line and isn’t sure if he will begin by yelling at his brother, or simply envelope him in a hug like when they were kids, those rare times before they fought and taunted each other. They are, after all, brothers. Dave’s not sure if Johnny has forgiven him for all that he made him endure, taunting him as a kid, that odd one out, the Strangeling (and no one knows about that, his father has made them swear on it: this is a thing that Cannot Be Known). He’s not that child anymore, relentless and selfishly mean.

Once the paperwork is handed back, Colonel Carter fishes up a phone from her pocket. Dials a number which cannot be seen from this angle, and she doesn’t say hello.

Instead: “Jack, it’s Sam. They’ve signed it.” Whoever this Jack is, whatever he says, the reply can’t be heard. Carter is nodding. “We’ll arrange it. Oh, and they want to talk with Colonel Sheppard, so … Yes, yes, that’d be ideal. … Tell Lionel to stand by. … Will do, sir. Thanks. Bye.”

The call is disconnected. Mitchell looks faintly amused. “All well in the White House?”

The White House? The …? No, no, this can’t be real. Dave is ready to pass out at this point. Nothing of this makes sense. Not here, not now. Not on any place on God’s sweet green Earth will this ever make sense – just who are these people? what is this?

“Yeah. They’re waiting for our signal. Now, Mr Sheppard, Ms Shannon, this is going to sound completely ridiculous,” Carter says with an entirely straight face, turning back to them. “We’re part of something called the Stargate Program, which uses an alien device to travel between planets.”

“There are also spaceships,” adds Colonel Mitchell, helpfully.

“What the hell?” Dave blurts before he can stop the thought.

Laura glares at them, furious. “We didn’t fly for three hours to listen to a bad joke.”

“I’m afraid this isn’t one, Ms Shannon,” Carter says, apologetically. Sounds genuine and not at all amused, and she glares at her colleague slightly tiredly.

Then she directs them to stand up, some way from the bed where his father lies unconscious and wrapped in white. Colonel Mitchell stays back. Asks them to stay calm and still, and promises to arrange things for his father. Then Carter picks up not her phone but what looks like a radio; an earpiece of some kind. Places it in the curve of her ear, presses a button. And she says: “Prometheus, we’re ready.”

And a set of strange things – are those large metal rings? – sweep into existence around them from above and they are taken by a sheen of brilliant light; 

Chapter Text

xi.

soul

they make a deal.


Atlantis · New Lantea · Pegasus
142 days after the Uprising


He can do this. He can do this;                        (exhaling, inhaling)

Rodney has said, several times, that switching it off is easy. Just remove the stones from the device – without direct contact of skin – and the connection should be instantaneously cut. Should. The key word here which makes this all the more frightening. But if this could work, then they have another means of communication to go to Terra – not that he feels the pressing need like absolution but with these, he could do that.

He has to. There are orders. They’re expecting him on the other side.

There’s only one person he trusts enough.

Rodney, too, doesn’t look entirely comfortable. One of the reasons why they chose to do this privately, just the two of them. Weir has given her go-ahead to test this, once Rodney explained he’s confident how the stones work, that it’s safe. It’ll be safe, and if this test is successful, others could make use of the stones too. Use of the Gate requires power and power isn’t limitless. The two potentiae will, slowly and surely, drain away and they haven’t figured out yet how to make new. Rodney’s working on it, though. Working on a lot of things. This way, if they lose the Gate, they could still be in contact with Terra, without the need to send the Daedalus to and fro: this communication would be instantaneous. 

There’s still the sharp issue of using someone else’s body to do it. To normal people, he reckons, the very idea would be utterly alien but out here, the possibility is all too real and John has had nightmares like these and what if something goes wrong? what if they’re stuck?

But Rodney says it’s safe, and he wants to trust him.

John needs to trust him.

“On three,” Rodney suggests, and John nods. The device is online, the spiraled crystal at the center glowing blue and Rodney is already holding onto a stone, so that it’ll imprint on him; John holds the other. Then, without speaking aloud, a common command, John inhales exhales one more time and closes his eyes and places the stone in the device.

He can’t feel anything. There’s no pain, no - not even a vague sense of vertigo. Simply …

Opening his eyes. The room’s all wrong. Wrong height, the sense of smell – different. And the light, it’s the same, it falls the same and yet not and his body feels – different. Height and weight and it’s all different. He blinks, draws a sharp breath. He’s sitting in front of himself.

In front of his body. Makes him want to squirm, makes him want to get out get out and some of that distress must show on his face, across the Bond because the man now wearing his flesh frowns and abruptly withdraws from the stone, using a clean cloth set aside for this purpose to lift it away from the terminal, and John is back.

Immediately and without thought; he can breathe again.

Rodney looks concerned. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” John says, after a moment, nodding. Looks down at his hands. They’re his own once more. “Let’s – let’s try again.”

A test of a few seconds won’t do. They’d agreed on half an hour. Then an hour, at least, before someone else should try, or before anyone is sent to Terra with a stone to try it at a distance. Perhaps another planet in Pegasus, first. To make sure.

“Only if you’re sure. We could do it some other time,” Rodney says, as if time is not an issue. Stone still in his grasp, hidden under white cloth so innocently.

But John is sure. He wants to be able to do this. He wants to be able to – to gain that confidence in his own control again. Stop fearing it. Face it head-on. That’s worked out before, so why not now?

If this works, it could stop the nightmares.

“Rodney, I’m sure.”

And they try: again, placing the stones back in the device and John’s whole body is tense, waiting for it, waiting;

He looks down at his hands, and the callouses are new, not utterly foreign because he’s held these hands and kissed them gently, he knows them, but they’re not his. Breathing is different, a little heavier, and each muscle each nerve each inch of skin he feels it, feels it as if reborn. Looking up, there’s his own face, smiling wryly and then his own voice, remarking: “Thank god you’re on painkillers. You are, right?” His own hand, lightly touching the top of the cast. Then his own throat being cleared: “Oh, this is weird.”

“You’re telling me,” John says, with Rodney’s voice, and glances sideways at the wall and the full-length mirror mounted there. From the outside it doesn’t look that out of place: the Ancient device, humming quietly,

Interesting, the hum is … quieter. Much more subtle. And the City – he can’t hear Her like he usually can; this song is duller –

he can’t hear –

he can’t

“Sheppard? You’re spacing out – oh, that’s strange. Talking with someone else’s voice. Hey, John?”

Realizing, dimly, his breathing’s picked up and vision grown dimmed and blurry, he blinks a couple of times, tries to find foothold. Pressure: intense, and somewhere atop of his chest like pulling Gs and not at all, not at all like it – and where’s this physical pain coming from? And Rodney reaches out and grasps his hand, disconcerted. Repeats his name. And John clings to the sensation the pressure on the hand that isn’t his own and the voice, it sounds alien, no resonating deeply through bone but through air; his own voice, differently, it’s all different and too silent – Rodney’s body doesn’t have the DNA of his own, and it makes sense, makes sense that he can’t hear Her or sense Ancient tech like usual, but that logic is no comfort –

On repeat: repeating again: his voice / wrong wrong wrong / repeating his name and someone’s saying You’re right here, breathe, breathe with me, in, out, in, that’s it, that’s it, can you hear me?, breathe;

Eventually, his gaze clears, and his pulse isn’t racing, albeit still elevated in fervor, and he looks at Rodney and tries to say something to apologize for messing this up because he’d thought he could handle this but he can’t find the words, the ability to speak.

Breathing deeply. A second passes, and Rodney is frowning at him, Not His Face and Not His Voice. “Should I call for Carson?”

Breathing deeply. “No,” John says, hoarsely. What just happened…? He hasn’t – before – (for years and years and years, crawling in the dust, didn’t know about Stargates back then, didn’t have a Dæmon, he was alone and there’d been low haunting points when he’d curled up in the shower helplessly lost but he’d managed to pull himself back up back up back up).

Rodney – his eyes should be blue, not such a terrifying glimmer of green – is looking at him, expression careful, slack with worry, something hard around the edges and Meredith is closer now, almost touching, and something through their Bond trembles with anger/concern/should we stop?.

“I think you just had a panic attack. Look, that’s an argument not to use the stones, a big definite con,” Rodney says, insistently. “We should call Weir and tell her that it won’t work. The IOA can’t have us use the stones if this is what happen –”

Breathing deeply. John shakes his head. Doesn’t want to give up. Because he’s stubborn and not a quitter. Even if it might be a bad idea. You stubborn sonofabitch, Lyle Holland had told him before he’d died (trying to convince him to flee to go home but there was no home), and, yeah, he is. Fuck yeah he is.

“Just … just give me a minute.”

Once he isn’t shaking uncontrollably, he realizes something else. Their Bond, as well as his Dæmon Bond, is perfectly intact. And Shy is utterly confused, because before the switch they’d been perched atop the back of a chair – a normal place – while Meredith had been resting on the mattress, next to Rodney. Now, suddenly, now they’re in each other’s place and Rodney notes this with a thrill of excitement.

“That makes sense. A Dæmon is a metaphysical manifestation of energy, and granted I’m not a medic so I don’t know all the mumbo-jumbo, but – oh, of course. That’s why it works. The Dæmon ensures a stable link of communication,” Rodney’s nodding to himself, and god is that strange to look at: his own face, his own hands his own voice all of that movement that is so Rodney and now it’s him – gives him a headache to think about – John can’t tear his gaze away. Rodney continues to explain: “That’s how you remain you, and I remain myself, while we’re in each other’s place.”

How the Ancients ever figured out the science behind this is way over John’s head. He simply accepts this, for now. Tries to learn how this body works. There are all these little things which he’s only felt from the outside before. Notices the slight twinging ache in the left knee, and shifts; they’ve been sitting like this for a while, chairs facing each other, John’s injured leg propped up on a cushioned pallet – at the other side: now Rodney has to deal with the slowly healing injuries, the leg heavily cast and unable to move.

Wonder how he’s feeling?

Someone else in his flesh;

“John?” The frown returned. He might’ve stopped breathing. The hand gripping his own tightens, and the tremble is back.

I can do this, John tries to tell himself, like an order shouted by a drill instructor, an angry Sergeant with a stern unmistakable face. He has to be able to do this. If his presence on Terra can help unveil the truth, he’s got to be there; a marine is missing, a team splintered and John can’t just let that be. Not if he can help it. Inhaling, inhaling, he forces his hand to still. Tries to.

They’re all in the wrong place. But the Bond is intact. And he can sense Rodney, too, a distant thing but the City is utterly quiet and he notices something else. Rodney, with borrowed hands, scratches at his forehead as if struck by a headache. Noise. Can he sense Her now? or just the echo? It’s in his body’s DNA and now Rodney is in that body -

Rodney looks at him. “Is that - is that what you hear all the time?”

Can’t hear it now. John nods. “Yeah.”

“Wow. It’s,” Rodney struggles to find the words – “… beautiful,” he settles on, eventually, hesitating. “But I can’t really make sense of it.”

“But you can hear Her now?”

“Sort of, I think. It’s reminiscent of a Bond, to be sure, but – well, I can’t make sense of it. Like a foreign language. It’s not really Ancient or English, but something in-between? Or, sort of. I’m guessing that your genetics make you perceptible to it, but you’re not in here, anymore,” Rodney taps the side of his head. “So to speak.”

It works. But John isn’t sure if he can live much longer with this silence. He’s only got bad memories associated with silence.

Checks the time. Eight minutes. Got to last at least thirty, preferably an hour if this is to be of any use. Best if they could do this once, get it over with, and not have to switch back and forth.

“How did the Ancients even come up with this stuff?”

“The idea is very effective,” Rodney remarks. “I mean, instantaneous communication over vast differences – if this works like the database indicates, it should handle the vast spacetime between galaxies without issue.”

(should; should; should)

“Yeah, but – well, why? The Ancients stuck around pretty much only one galaxy at a time,” John points out – looks down at Not His Own hands briefly, and it’s like sensation is slowly creeping back and replacing itself. Getting familiar. He has touched these hands before, held them; “They had subspace comms and the Gates; why would they need the stones?”

Contacting the Ori – that was the point of the outpost on Deserum. The hidden goal. A way to win the War against the Wraith. John wishes they had taken the stones with them or had them destroyed, instead of just dumping them there, to be stumbled upon in the future; though they must’ve brought a number of stones with them to Terra too, given that General O’Neill once ended up accidentally linked a random civilian. What did the report say – didn’t the guy find it in a junkyard sale? How the heck did it even get there in the first place? Unbelievable. The Ancients must’ve left it on Terra, by accident, and an archeologist must have dug it up thousands of years later, and it was handed on and discarded and sold as a cheap souvenir.

“Requires less power – probably the main reason. Not to mention it seems efficient and, as far as we’ve determined, can’t be hacked into.”

He makes a humming noise, nods. Not his voice.

Ten minutes. Almost halfway there.

“Chess?”

John blinks. Involuntary reflex: to control this face is unnatural and difficult. “What, now?”

“Well, what else are we going to do, stare at each other for thirty minutes?” Rodney rolls his eyes. Camera’s rolling, he adds, silently across their Bond.

They’re filming the results, a measure so that, if anything goes wrong, they have something to analyze and evidence to show the IOA and the folks back on Terra. A good idea made by Weir and Carson, but also incredibly impeding. Being watched. They have to watch their tongues, their hands.

Got to remember to edit that. Later. Because John seriously doesn’t want anyone to be privy to what happened earlier when he couldn’t breathe and – No. Even if Carson might be pissed off when, if, he finds out. But he doesn’t want anyone to see. Ashamed. (Hadn’t Heightmeyer said something about that, about seeking comfort and help with others? Release himself from hiding. Yeah. She’ll be pissed too, or disappointed, and another kind of shame threatens to rise in his throat, like bile, like sickness itself.)

It’s up to John to fetch the board, resting on the desk. And it’s surreal, so surreal to stand up without crutches. Unsteady. Everything at the wrong height, and the difference between isn’t even that big. A couple of inches. Yet he feels it, the center of gravity changed and the floor beneath these boots doesn’t give and each breath is an effort, alien muscles alien bones alien blood rushing past his ears. Each step staggering, unnatural. Slow.

They set up the board between them, on the table next to the terminal. It glows: an imposing shadow. Unforgiving.

Seventeen minutes.

Rodney (John’s hands: wrong hands: this will never be normal) makes the first move, a pawn. And John can’t focus on the game, only feel the offset of nerves at the wrong place wrong place and makes a precarious leap with a knight. In five moves, Rodney has taken that knight and his king’s cornered, and Rodney (John’s face: his mouth) smirks smugly.

He loses the game spectacularly. Next time, next time he’ll extract his revenge.

For now he can only focus on breathing.

(wrong set of lungs: the air tastes differently with this tongue)

“Right. That’s half an hour. Shall we?” Rodney gestures at the terminal.

The disconnection is immediate and without a sound. Winded, John steps back. This heartbeat is much more familiar and yet he feels uncertain, and Rodney’s step wobbles too. Suddenly relieved: he’s not the only one finding this experience far too Out There for comfort.

A radio call. Weir is in her office, at work, and though her voice echoes that she’s pleased that the test worked without issue – John doesn’t mention his Almost Freaking Out – there is a trace of something else, recognizable and they all feel the same: if this works out safely, then the IOA will be happy. And people could start using the stones regularly. Contact with Terra made easier. And the IOA and the SGC and the brass can begin to make harder swifter demands and John seriously doesn’t want any more to do with Terra than necessary: the supply lines are important, the Daedalus’ missions, the letters from loved ones because far from everyone is letting go. They have people back there they care about. But John is selfish about this. He wants to cut the ties and be free, free from those rules and the overhanging shadows and doubts. Wants Atlantis to become truly independent.

Not that that’s going to happen anytime soon.

The next step, after some rest, is a two hour-attempt. Then, twelve. And finally twenty-four and if there’s no glitch, if there’s no danger, then they may consider sending someone to Terra – and Rodney has said he could go. The Daedalus will bring him back, or a potentia. Either way, it’d work out, and John could go there, speak with the IOA and partake in what’s become an investigation into Lance Corporal Snow’s disappearance, while Rodney continues his scientific work in the City.

They turn off the camera.

John’s leg aches.

“Before handing that tape out to the public,” he says, “remove that bit – when I – would you?”

“Of course,” Rodney says, popping open the camera to grab the memory card. “Now: break. Coffee? Let’s see if they’ve still got any muffins left.”

“Sure,” John says, grabbing the crutches, hauling himself up. Refuses the helping hand which Rodney seems ready to offer.

And in strikes him, suddenly, how unnerving Rodney finds it – still; yet – to see him like this, injured, for real. Because, while he’s been wounded in the line of duty plenty of times before, in Atlantis it hasn’t been this severe. Discounting the Iratus bug which nearly sucked his soul dry (John prefers not to think about it), but he’d healed swiftly and, though he’ll bear the scar for the rest of his life, he’d been back on his feet quickly enough. On active duty within a couple of weeks. And life had gone on. Life had gone on. Rodney hasn’t before experienced him like this: completely grounded.

(So many scars he still hasn’t explained. He’d said, first time they’d properly touched, when Rodney came back from Earth – the astrophysicist had touched them all and wondered, and John had said he’ll tell the tales one day.)

Their flesh and minds displaced for one thousand and eight hundred seconds – Rodney had felt the lingering pain and the weakened muscles, his heartbeat, elevated, breaths tasting wrong – was that how he felt too? wrong wrong wrong;


This time of day, nearing sunset, the mess hall is appropriately empty. After dinner. A team is sitting in a corner, having returned a couple of hours ago from their mission, and there’s a civilian sitting near one of the large windows reading a book and lazily picking some grapes off their plate, but otherwise it’s quiet. Rodney fills that silence immediately. Wormhole theories. Mathematical nonsense. John nods when appropriate (he hopes), can’t quite focus. The coffee (real Terran stuff) is heavenly hot, and John has just recently been allowed to return to his habits of drinking it. Messed up with the heavier pain meds, but he’s off those now.

Of course, they can never have a moment uninterrupted; and John can’t even be surprised, just indignantly annoyed as Peter Grodin’s familiar voice calls over the City’s intercom speakers. Demanding attention. He sighs, exchanges an exasperated look with Rodney.

“Colonel Sheppard, report to the Gate Room immediately.”

(At least this time they weren’t in the bedroom. Small mercies.)

Mentally checking the timetable: no team is meant to dial in for another six or so hours. Could be an emergency, and part of him wishes it is that: a team coming in hot, enemy fire on their heels. Unruly locals. Not Terra, he would’ve prayed if he had time: anything but Terra.


Elizabeth meets him by the stairs to the Control Room and she says, voice tight: “John, General Landry is ordering you use the stones now to go to Earth. It can’t wait.”

He can see it in the lines of her face; something’s wrong.

Something’s happened.


No; no, not now (not again)

Still alive, are the next words. Patrick Sheppard isn’t dead, but his heart was close to failing for a second, and his liver is damaged, and he’s still not out of harm’s way. The call comes from General Landry. It’s difficult to read the man’s expression. John can’t quite hear what’s being said, at first. It’s just so surreal.

(a wish not coming true)

It’s not as simple as flicking a switch and walking through the Gate. First, a radio connection is established and General Landry is already waiting on the other side, impatiently. At least they can tell him some good news: AR-9 is no longer under suspicion, alibis confirmed and whatever’s happened to Snow, they can’t be involved. Could have told them that, but nobody would listen.

Elizabeth’s words yet ring heavily in his ears.

Six Terran hours ago, Patrick Sheppard was almost killed. Out in the open, under the sun, in front of witnesses but the person responsible escaped (no clear description: hooded face: gloved hands: disappeared into the crowd). Clearly not an accident. Colonels Carter and Mitchell have gone to New York, ringed there by the Prometheus now in orbit around Terra and they spoke with the NYPD. A stabbing like that is intentional.

And there’s a brief debate and John has made it clear he won’t just switch with anybody - in light of what happened with Icarus; after the Goa’uld in Caldwell’s head. But, oh, oh god he doesn’t want Rodney to leave the City again so soon not again –

The Daedalus could take one of the City’s two remaining potentiae. Bring it through the Gate now and the ship would make the trip from Terra back to New Lantea in under a week. Yeah, that could work. And with Rodney on Terra, he could make sure the IOA or the SGC or whoever don’t claim the potentia for themselves; they need it back in the City, in case of the Wraith. They all know it. The Generals know it. 

They make a deal.


Rodney is given two hours to pack. Once he’s on the other side, they’ll switch: and John will be able to walk around on Terra for the first time in over a year, and Rodney can continue his research in the City; it’ll work out. It’ll work out.

The mystery of Lance Corporal Snow’s disappearance and the missing NID Agent - but what does his Father have to do with this? Patrick Sheppard doesn’t have anything to do with the SGC. Except, of course, except he’s the man who raised him and gave him his name. Dave has been taken into protective custody, as far as John’s grasped it. Been read in on it. Being read in on it right now by Colonel Carter and Colonel Mitchell.

It doesn’t make sense. Snow and the Agent and now this attack; none of it seems related; none of it makes sense. There are pieces missing.

“You sure about this?” John asks, again.

“We don’t have time to second guess ourselves,” Rodney says, face dark and serious. “Yeah, John. I’m sure.”

I’m not, John almost answers. Doesn’t need to. Rodney pauses momentarily to reach out and squeeze his hand, before returning to propping his duffel bag full. Not that there’s much. Since he’ll, technically speaking, remain in the City, he doesn’t need to bring his laptops full of research. Just some clothes and a toothbrush. Takes one computer though. Just in case.

Then he slings it over his shoulder, and they walk out of Rodney’s quarters side-by-side. The doors slide shut. Finally, exhaling, Rodney taps his earpiece. “McKay to Weir. We’re ready.”

“Understood,” John hears the reply. “Stargate Command is ready to receive you. I’ll tell Chuck to start dialling.” 

He realizes he’s shivering. Cold.

Shit.

Only a little while, he tries to tell himself. The Daedalus will be on Terra in twenty days. Then it’s another week. Then – Rodney will be back. But so soon, so fucking soon, far too soon. They’d made plans –

“Don’t eat any lemons,” Rodney says as they enter the transporter. “Or anything else I’m deathly allergic to.”

“Of course I won’t. Don’t try running around the piers.”

“Of course I won’t!” he huffs, affronted. “You have a broken leg, if you’d forgotten.”

John musters a smile, bright light carrying them upward. “There you go.”

“I packed several epi-pens.” The doors swish open, and they walk toward the Gate Room. This time, the Raven doesn’t fly ahead, but keeps the same pace. Meredith walks close enough for John to feel the brush of a tail against his good ankle. 

The rest of the team is waiting for them there to see Rodney off, and they both knew it and yet, as they enter the room, Rodney looks somewhat surprised. As if he hadn’t quite believed that they’d be there. The realization is painfully sharp, both on his face and across their Bond. 

Teyla insists on wishing good luck the Athosian way, forehead to forehead. Ford shakes his hand. Even Ronon doesn’t look that gruff, slapping his hand on the Canadian’s shoulder and Rodney very badly tries not to wince, but grumbles all the same. The three of them smile, gently.

John wants to kiss him. He offers his hand instead.

The Gate is turning.

“I mean it. No citrus!”

He manages to smile. Too weakly. Doesn’t want to. Like wearing a shield.

Says: “Rodney.” Letting the infliction convey all the little meanings hidden in those two simple syllables.

“Yes, well.” Clearing his throat, and Rodney’s gaze flutters from John’s face to his hands and back up again. “Can’t be too careful.”

I trust you, Rodney’s thinking clearly so that it can be shared, and something in John’s ribcage swells and contracts painfully all at once. And once we’re back, we’re going to New Athos.

The event horizon stabilizes, and, with a final look over his shoulder, John’s hand yet echoingly warm, Rodney walks through the wormhole.

Chapter Text

xii.

in the flesh

part one

the worth of a name;


NCIS Headquarters, Washington D.C., U.S. · Earth · The Milky Way
February 16, 2006 (Terran time) ·142 days after the Uprising


It’s raining. The sky remains cloudy and gloomy, and the wind rattles, unforgiving, against the windows.

It’s just another morning in the office, hectic and boring and there’s a lot of movement. Their fronting team is working on a new case, a brutal murder and Cynthia Summer doesn’t know all the details – she’s not involved in that, as the Director’s PA. There are bigger things on her mind. The sorting of the week’s duties, and meetings to schedule, and calls to make.

The Director herself is in a meeting in SatCom and will remain there for at least another two and a half hours. The vague details she heard beforehand didn’t sound good. A political mess which the Director is part of, trying to hedge another conflict; the usual.

It’s a bit chilly, a draft escaping from somewhere, and Summer would’ve called the janitors to do something about that if she weren’t so busy. She hasn’t touched her coffee yet. She doesn’t like to bring food or drink to the desk; too messy and disturbing. Her Dæmon (feline; small; a speck of white against the dark smooth carpet) rests under the desk, breathing for the both of them, tail flickering slightly impatiently but right now no one is here to witness them and complain.

It’s been a hectic week. Three ongoing homicide cases – the last one (double murder; quite nasty) was solved just three days ago. And there’s more to NCIS than solving such crimes. There’s counter-intelligence and surveillance for domestic terrorism and other such work, which isn’t nearly as shocking to her (she’s been in the business long enough) even if it can be just as darkly disturbing as murder. Summer knows. Is used to it. She’s worked for various departments in this and other agencies before landing this (quite sought-after) spot. Doesn’t pay as well as it could have, but that’s usually the case.

At 09:23, the phone rings. Summer can’t recognize the number straightaway, but not just anyone would be calling a number within HQ, and she picks up the phone, bearing the usual graceful smile, polite and warm and far too used to dealing with various stressed, unpleasant, impolite people who think that she’s just an assistant who picks up the trash after her boss.

“NCIS, Director Sheppard’s office,” the secretary answers, her voice pleasantly smooth. Shakes her head, even though the person on the other side can’t see her. “Yes, this is the number, Mrs …? Ms Mayfield. I see. … No, the Director is in a meeting right now and she – No, not for another two hours. Can I take a message? … Hello?”

In response: only the telltale shuffle of someone hanging up. With a small sigh, she places the phone in its cradle. Then she notes the time and number, for the record. Likes to be neat like that. The Director hadn’t said she was waiting for someone to call, but maybe it’d slipped her mind. She’s busy, running this place, and she’s only had the job for a few months. It’s tough. Summer can appreciate that, especially as a fellow woman in a workplace dominated by men. Even if she’s a secretary and not a Special Agent running on the front and finding bodies in disturbing degrees of decay.


The day continues to move forward. It’s not until past noon that the Director returns to her office after a long, tiresome chat with SecNav, and Summer makes sure her favorite blend (a teaspoon of milk, no sugar) is waiting on her desk.

The Director smiles in greeting as she crosses the threshold (only sign of stress is her Dæmon, walking in step with her: the Savannah Cat’s ears downturned and eyes darkened and posture tense). Summer forwards the latest notes, and the morning’s call is mentioned only hastily, passing by. 

“From who? I wasn’t expecting anyone at the time,” the Director says. “Did they leave a message?”

“No, ma’am,” Summer says. Tries to recall the incident more clearly. “Mayfield, she said her name was; the VP of …” Summer advises her trustworthy notebook. “… Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics. I told her you were in a meeting, and she just hang up. She didn’t give any indication whether she’d call back.”

Odd. The Director says she’ll look into it, and then suggests they eat a late lunch out together. The matter dropped for at least a little while. Her schedule is clear until 14:00, and Summer is flexible in her work. She prefers this boss over the last one; they eat out every now and then, try to get away from the confines of the office. Even if today’s raining.

Director Sheppard used to be a Special Agent before taking this position, and Summer has glimpsed (only glimpsed) some of her record, and she’s from a different world – but they click, and Summer’s glad for that. Isn’t sure if she could stand working for some obnoxious know-it-all in a strict suit, although the Director’s suit is very strict. 


There’s a sushi place three blocks down. They take a cab, huddling under an umbrella each. It’s still raining, though the wind has lessened. The food is nice, and they talk about non-work-related things. The Director clearly is strained and stressed. Summer wonders if she’d take offence if she cleared up a weekend for her at a spa. She’s got a cousin who knows a guy, and they could fix it up for a low price. Yeah. There’s a minuscule gap in her schedule near the end of the month; yeah, she’ll make the call.

The Director – No, call me Jenny, she asks now that they’re not at HQ anymore. Off-duty. Jenny has got a firm grip of reality, and hands hardened from handling a gun, and her nails are perfectly manicured. She’s also got a good sense of humor, and for a moment they’re just friends having lunch, not a boss and her secretary. Yeah, it’s real nice. And the food’s good. They eat languidly, discussing the latest movies, the movement of politics, whatever else that strikes their fancy.

It’s nearly half past one when the Director’s cellphone rings. Not expecting the call, she frowns as she picks up. “Director Sheppard.”

And Summer had been hoping for an (for once) uninterrupted lunch.

Good news? Bad news? Summer tries to gauge the Director’s reaction. Her shoulders tense slightly, and the frown deepens. The Director says - sharp and controlled; heated: “‘Outside of our jurisdiction’? All due respect, sir, I don’t think so.”

Bullshit news, then. Summer has seen this thing happen before. Another agency meddling with NCIS business; perhaps out of goodwill, but mostly not; mostly to take the credit themselves. Well, she thinks, no more sushi today; the Director becomes single-minded like this and won’t eat. Summer flags down the waiter to settle the bill and asks for a take-away bag for the remainder of the food; no point in letting it be wasted. She makes sure to leave a generous tip. The waiter looks tired beneath that pleasant smile. 

The call lasts for several minutes. All carefully worded, and no yelling is involved on either side, merely deliberate sentences which would chill Summer to the bone if she wasn’t already used to it. The Director isn’t happy, but her face as pleasant as always: she’s using her smile, a powerful tool, like a shield.

They flag down a cab, rushing back to HQ with grace, and during the ride the Director places a new call, by the sounds of it to warn HQ that they’re returning in a hurry. The door is held open for them as they arrive, and Summer isn’t directed otherwise so she follows the Director to the plaza where the agents are at work. Busy: people speaking, debating, computers humming, fans working hard to keep up even though it’s a cool day. The Director sees that the pen she seeks is empty – the one belonging to one of their best teams, Summer notes – and asks a passing-by agent for Gibbs. 

“Interrogation, ma’am,” Agent Cabot answers dutifully. Nods to herself: “All his team’s there. I heard they got their hands on a suspect for their case.”

Summer doesn’t get to see Interrogation a lot. She’s the PA, not an agent, after all. Now she watches the Director turn down the hallway, opening a door to the surveillance room hidden by a one-way mirror. Can hear her talking with whoever’s inside – one of Gibbs’ team – and then, eventually, the other door opens and Senior Special Agent Gibbs emerges, his face a storm after being interrupted in an interrogation. The Director doesn’t even blink.

“My office, Gibbs,” she says, without preamble. “It’s about your case.”

And the agent appears just as pissed off as the Director, and Summer makes a note to fix them both some coffee, following them upstairs. She settles at her desk, watching the doors of the Director’s office close behind them. A slight headache is starting to grow behind her temples. Summer digs out a couple of Tylenol from her handbag, before taking the phone in hand to make yet another call.

Just another day at the office.


six hours earlier:


“… time of death between four and six a.m. on the fourteenth. These abrasions on his knuckles are a tell-tale sign of a fistfight.”

he had tried to fight; to survive; wrestled free. The scene can be imagined and reconstructed, the frantic movement the reaching for a weapon (but it was taken out of his hands)

The coroner is gathered alongside Agent Gibbs and his medical assistant, Mr Palmer, around the flat table where the dead man is lying. They haven’t yet been able to identify him. The unknown Joe is quite tall, a fit man, at the height of his health and somewhere between twenty and thirty years old - and that’s all they’ve got so far, and it’s making Gibbs restless. He doesn’t like the unknown, the mysteries piling up without answers.

Their resident forensic technician is at work with trying to digitally recreate the man’s face based on his muscle and bone structure, but it’s slow work, and it only given them a baseline to work from. At this point, they can’t be certain that the man actually is a marine, or if he simply was dressed as one. The uniform is genuinely real, but all identifying marks have been removed from it.

Closer inspection proved that the man’s teeth had been ruined, deliberately, far too much for him to be identified by dental records. Now they’re trying to match his Dæmon with Corps and Navy records. That, too, is slow work. Not all information has been digitized, and only in recent years did it become standard to photograph both Dæmon and human, together, rather than simply the human face – deeming a Dæmon too intimate information; no law or regulation can force anybody to reveal theirs like that. The Corps tend to have written records, though, if only a simple statement of Undetermined if the Shape isn’t to be divulged. This man’s Dæmon has been shot at point-blank range, throat torn up and its muzzle a mess. It was beautiful once. Hopefully, there’s a picture somewhere. But few Dæmons are entirely completely unique in Shape – exceptions exist, of course, as well as variations.

Dr Mallard isn’t going to cut it open like the human. Not like that. Will avoid touching for as much as possible. What he can do is try and make them more presentable, dignified in death like in life. Clean up its sorrows. Have a photo taken for identification.

“… And I noticed, here, a curious wound to his right upper arm. Measuring one by half an inch, this is a precise incision, and whoever did it knew exactly what they were looking for. I’ve sent a sample up to Abby, there seemed to be trace amounts of some material causing minimal irritation,” Ducky says, peering at the damage through a looking glass. “It seems that something was surgically placed right here several weeks ago – possibly months. The lack of bleeding suggests that he was already dead when it was removed.”

“What thing could that be?” Gibbs muses.

“Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t organic. Dear Abby may have more answers about that. I have, however, managed to determine the cause of death. This poor fellow was alive when his Dæmon was shot. It was killed it instantly, but evidence points toward the man living for a little while longer afterward.”

Mr Palmer blanches, and Dr Mallard is clearly disturbed at the notion. Not a lot can make a medical examiner uneasy: they spend their days around dead bodies, after all. But this is an unusually cruel way to die.

“A Ghosting,” Gibbs echoes. It’s rare. Most people simply can’t hang on that long. They perish the second their Dæmon does. But a few hang on; try to hang on;

“Yes. He was held back by one person using both hands, in the process dislocating his left shoulder and causing a hairline fracture, here, to the wrist. Whoever did it was careful, wearing gloves of some sort. I haven’t gotten anything from the skin or fingernails.”

“Trace materials?” Usually, there’s something. A single fiber, a strand of hair. Something.

Very careful, Gibbs. There’s nothing - yet. Perhaps Abby has been luckier.” Ducky clears his throat. “As I was saying, he was held back by one unknown assailant. It is clear both hands were used to hold him back, while someone else took the Dæmon out. Which means –”

“We’re looking for more than one killer.”


Heavy metal blasts loudly through the speakers, easily covering up the soft sound of the doors sliding open and a man stepping inside.

A woman is at work by one of the elevated desks: a multitude of computers and other analyzing gear are also at work, beeping at odd intervals, clicking through screens or showing diagrams. The woman, young with dark hair fastened in ponytails, doesn’t at first react to the new presence in the room, until her Dæmon turns its head, spotting him. She turns around with a wide grin on her face.

“Just in time, Gibbs!”

“Hey, Abs. Anything to tell me?”

Forensic technician Abby Sciuto happily reaches for the sizable red cup of Caf-Pow in his hand, but Gibbs gives her a stern look, refusing to hand it over straightaway. A pout. But he won’t budge. Eventually, Sciuto sighs, arms uncrossing.

“Well, I’ve only just gotten started. Patience is a virtue, you know,” she says but walks over to her main desk, two computers in front of her. The broken phone has been pulled apart into its main components and hooked up to the machinery via wire, and Sciuto gestures vividly at the screen, basically thrumming with excitement. “All right, so the clothes yielded nothing. I mean nothing: no fibers, no residue, no chemicals. Very clean. Nothing we can trace. There’s some dirt caked on the boots though which I’m running in the spectrometer right now. The digital reconstruction isn’t finished either. Oh! the slug. It’s from a 9mil handgun, pretty standard. Haven’t been able to trace it – yet.”

They haven’t found the weapon itself; the murderers didn’t dispose of it anywhere near the first crime scene. Not far from the pier where they’d found the bodies, DiNozzo and Todd had managed to retrace the steps of the events, leading them to a back-alley even closer to NCIS Headquarters and there was blood there, hints of violence upon the ground and hidden behind a trash can, but any other material evidence had been removed.

But I might be able to put a face to our marine.”

Gibbs shakes his head, doesn’t chuckle, and Sciuto pouts apologetically.

“Sorry. That was bad. Anyway, I have managed to restore part of the phone’s memory. Pretty empty, actually, but we’re no longer guessing."

“Abby.”

She beams. “This is not an untraceable phone. I managed to backtrack when and where it was bought. The name is …” She types, rapidly, and a name appears on screen. “Mitchell Snow. He bought this phone from a store in Colorado Springs just three days ago. Or at least his credit card did. Pretty fancy too; this is the latest model.”

“What about the contents of the phone?”

“Still getting there. There’s not much on it,” she admits. “No photos, no media … It could be of course just because it’s such a new phone and he hasn’t had the time to add anything. But I found this: there’s just one contact, which looks like a group text. You know, you hook up several people to this number so you can send mass messages, sort of like a group chat -” At the impatient (and partly uncomprehending) silence, she moves on, pointing at the plasma screen where everything is magnified: “It’s this one.”

A string of messages, under an elusive and cryptic codename:

AR9.

“Facial reconstruction?”

“Another hour, tops.”

“You got thirty minutes.”

Before Gibbs takes his leave though he finally relinquishes the Caf-Pow, and Sciuto accepts the beverage with glee. Then he’s out of the door, and Sciuto returns to working on the digital reconstruction. She’s used to working against impossible odds and impossible deadlines. (She can swear Gibbs only makes up the numbers to keep them on their toes.)


“We have a name. Find me everything on Mitchell Snow.”

“On it, Boss!”

They set to work, not bothering to bicker or point out the probability of there being more than one Mitchell Snow – neither are unique names – in the Marine Corps or Navy or Army. They know the drill.

The guy might not even be a marine; for all they know it could be some kind of set-up, a civilian dressed in a uniform not belonging to him. But the name is their only lead so far. Sciuto is still working on the digital face reconstruction. Once they have that, they could see if it matches whatever they find.

And eventually, within the hour, they find it: a number of possible people with the right name, and when lined up against the digital facial reconstruction, there’s one pretty good match.

Agent DiNozzo feels a certain amount of annoyance. They’ve run into far too many walls on this search. Documents he couldn’t access, files he couldn’t read. This guy is high up – not in ranks, but in secrets. A deep conspiracy. Not the first time NCIS has grappled with one of those, though.

“Lance Corporal Mitchell Snow, USMC. Born ‘81 in Virginia; Snow joins the Corps at nineteen and advances quickly through the ranks. Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan which both got him awarded and promoted. No issues during any of this time, no black marks – Snow behaved impeccably, it seems like. A real poster boy,” DiNozzo says, clicking through the images on the widescreen they use as an electronic pinboard for each case.

The man in the photographs is tall and handsome, back ramrod straight. A proud marine. He looks pleasant, the kind of guy who is easy to talk to. He also appears a bit like, well, like a Common Joe, could blend into the background easily enough.

“Married?”

“Nope. If there’s a girlfriend, we’ll find out, though, and other family too.” DiNozzo clears his throat. “Speed forward to November, 2003, and Snow’s off the radar, assigned for … something we don’t know. Yet,” he quickly amends at Gibbs’ glare. “That gives us a thirty-eight-months’ blank.”

“We couldn’t even get a location or codename,” explains Todd, clearly frustrated and confounded. “It’s all classified.”

But,” DiNozzo adds, quickly. “We’ve got this: the base – wherever, whatever it is – its current CO is a Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. And, you won’t like this, Boss: he’s Air Force.”

A zoomie in charge of a marine officer? Gibbs has never come across his arrangement before. DiNozzo is right, he’s not fond of it. He’s not had many dealings with the Air Force. They tend to be overambitious flyboys who possess little awareness of the real world, how battles are truly fought. The few encounters he’s had haven’t upped his impression of them much.

“Get hold of that CO,” Gibbs barks. “And give me a background check – I want to know everything about him. And follow the red tape – someone’s paying Snow’s paychecks. Give me a location.” Red tape is useful way to find out where a person is stationed if the name itself is classified information. Money always comes from somewhere.

They’ll find the answers.


Mrs Snow sits in the sofa clutching a cup of hot tea without drinking it, and she looks at the Agent hopelessly, helplessly. Her Dæmon is curled up against her belly in her lap, slack in shock and terror and weariness. The house is quiet.

“Is … is my son dead, Agent Todd?”

There’s a sudden hardening of her aged features, something of recognition or resignation. The realization settling. Her son might be dead. Her son is probably dead – unless the corpse in the morgue is someone else, a stranger. The woman sighs, closes her eyes briefly; Mitchell Snow mightn’t simply be missing, run away – her son wouldn’t run away. She is certain of that, and Agent Todd wants to agree, after seeing the man’s file, the promises of past heroics. But she’s learned by now not to be too optimistic.

“I have a picture, Mrs Snow,” Todd says, with practiced gentleness even if she hates this part, talking to the victim’s (possible, probably victim) family; “of a digital facial reconstruction. Does your son look like this?”

They’re not going to ask Mrs Snow to identify the human body, because there’s nothing left of it that’s appropriate for a civilian to look at, nevertheless the mother of the victim. And having her look at the Dæmon is also out of the question, because they were shot at point blank range. Mrs Snow nods, shakily, and Todd hands over the slip of paper. She looks at the picture for a long while, and puts down the cup with a clinking noise against the tabletop. The tea isn’t spilled, but only barely. 

“That … that looks like him. Yes. It … yes. Oh, Lord. Mitchell.” And a broken gasp breaks free from her throat. Nearly a sob.

Todd gives her a minute to compose herself. 

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Snow.”

“I always knew it could happen, one day. In … in action, but no one’s – This wasn’t in action. Was it? You wouldn’t be here if he was killed in action.” Todd can only shake her head. Offer more condolences. Mrs Snow sighs, closes her eyes. (No parent ever thinks they will have to bury their child. No parent should have to.) Mrs Snow hands back the photo, and her hands are quite steady, though she swallows repeatedly, and her Dæmon has gone entirely still. Shock. She doesn’t ask how he died, or why she’s only seeing a photo of Snow’s Dæmon and not his face, and Todd is relieved. She’s not sure how she would phrase it: the damage done. No mother should have to imagine it.

“You mentioned a phonecall?”

“Yeah. Yeah; I think it was three days ago. No, four. Yes, I’d just come home from the office when the phone rang. Almost missed it. It was Mitch.”

“What did he say when he called?” Agent Todd asks gently. “Can you remember?”

“I – he sounded happy, a bit tired maybe. He’s been on assignment for over a year, see, I hadn’t heard a word from him in person for so long. Only in the last few months did I start receiving emails again. Mitch always tries to stay in touch, let me know that, that he’s all right,” Mrs Snow says, nodding to herself. Though her voices trembles slightly, her words are steady: “Mitch never told me where he was stationed. It, it sounded important, he was proud to be part of it. I could tell. He called, he said he was going to come visit, that he was back finally. Couldn’t tell me anything about work, and I wouldn’t ask. I understand.” She glances sideways, at the drawer in the hall, the photographs lined up on the wall. “My husband was a marine too.”

Todd makes a brief scribble in her notebook. “Anything that struck you as odd about this conversation?”

“No. He sounded happy,” Mrs Snow repeats. “Said that there were some … I can’t recall correctly the words, but he said he’s seen such amazing things and wished he could tell me all about it. But it was a secret, of course; all classified.”

“Do you know where he was stationed?”

A shake of head. “Not exactly. In Colorado Springs, I think. From the stamps. Before he left on this new assignment, he sent a couple of letters.” And Mrs Snow shudders, has to pause for breath. “That was before his father died. Harold passed away last summer, when Mitch was away - bone cancer. I … I couldn’t get hold of Mitch to tell him until three months ago.”

And now her son is dead too.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this, Mrs Snow, I promise.” Agent Todd hands over a small white card with fine neat print on it. “If you can think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call.”


They can’t get hold of Snow’s CO. The numbers are all wrong. Keep getting thrown into loops. And it’s ruining his day. This is the fifth call this hour which has led to nowhere, because the person on the other end just refuses to give up and answer to questions. Snow’s CO is unavailable. Overseas, they say. When’s he going to be back? Not any day soon, it sounds like. Very busy guy. Oh, and where’s he stationed? Nope, sorry, can’t say (well, that’s not exactly how they word it). The closest thing DiNozzo has managed to figure out that this has something to do with Colorado Springs; with Cheyenne Mountain; with NORAD, and that’s only thanks to his finely tuned detective instinct coupled with the wonders of the internet.

It’s nowhere near a complete answer. The Other People certainly don’t want to give them up. But DiNozzo can be a persistent bastard when he needs to.

It’s like the CO doesn’t even exist properly. Or, rather, that he ceased existing about sixteen months ago. Oh, there’s a record, all right, a firm paper trail, and with the name in hand he also can hunt down the guy’s birth certificate and every other official deed there is to legally obtain. DiNozzo has managed to find it all. Born in 1970 not far from Omaha, Nebraska; son of a wealthy business mogul – something in the family: seems like the last three generations at least of that company has had a CEO with the same name; hell, they built their grand house in the early 1900s (grainy photographs). The mother, and Patrick Sheppard’s late wife, a French immigrant. One sibling. Not listed in a public or private school for the earliest years, but DiNozzo isn’t that surprised, honestly, that a family with that kind of money can afford the effort of home-schooling, private tutors. Enrolled at a public school at age eleven. No notable incidents during adolescence, no mentions of dangerous escapades of the kind which white rich boys can get away with nothing more than a smack on the shoulder. 

Time goes on: guy grows up. Enters university at only seventeen, indicating that he’s some kind of child prodigy and DiNozzo is kind of surprised that such a guy (if the notes from the university professor is correct) would join the Air Force because that can’t be that challenging and stimulating and well-paid, can it? Not that the guy needs to get paid, with that implied inheritance and all. (Though DiNozzo can relate a bit, wanting to make your own name, considering his own relationship with his old man; the need to break away and show the world that you’re more than a rich man’s brat.)

Enters the Academy at nineteen – seems he earned his Bachelor’s far more quickly than the average. So a secret nerd, DiNozzo concludes. Graduates from the Academy with high marks, and DiNozzo managed to get hold of one of the old Drill Instructors – Chief Master Sergeant Mills, who’s since moved on from the position, but as a Sergeant she’d been part of the personnel roster overseeing the ‘90-‘93 graduates. “Yeah, I do remember him, actually,” she’d remarked over the phone. “Struck me as the quiet type, but with good leadership skills, and not too bad marksmanship. I try to keep an eye on my old cadets. Last I heard he was in Afghanistan.”

Though not a marine or anything of the sort himself, DiNozzo has picked up a thing or two from working with Gibbs. And one thing he’s learned is that, sometimes, even the most dreamily perfect marine or airman would turn out to be a huge disappointment. CMSgt Mills sounds like she recalls her old students with fondness (albeit the battleworn and weary kind) and DiNozzo doesn’t think she’d appreciate to hear that, as far as DiNozzo now’s found out, the guy might have been the latter, because there’s a black mark, a court martial, and usually those a big flaring red warning signs.

The military record is quite interesting and full of darkened out parts. Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo … the list goes on; guy’s been to every continent on Earth. Reported MIA twice. Actually considered KIA for over two days, before suddenly miraculously reappearing (first tour in Afghanistan, and DiNozzo couldn’t access all the details but it sounded messy and gory and unpleasant all around). That’s up until 2003, when, after a second tour to Afghanistan, he receives a black mark and faces court martial for reasons noted as disobeying orders while attempting to rescue three fellow servicemen, none of which unfortunately survived. Then, by the coming of the next year, the guy - a Major at the time - is reassigned to Antarctica of all places. Some distant outpost. MacMurdo. Tasks unspecified. Where, conveniently, he disappears off the map. 

After that, his record is basically off-limits, though his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel is noted in December 2005. For a year, there aren’t even paychecks being noted, until September in ‘05, and there’s a big peak that month as if, for a year, the CO wasn’t being paid at all, and then suddenly it’s all dumped in his bank account. Speaking of which – there hasn’t been a single withdrawal from any of the guy’s accounts since October 2004. Nothing big and nothing small. Nothing. That is more than little bit suspicious, and can’t be a coincidence.

(Just like with Snow; the dead marine hasn’t spent a penny between that same time and until four days ago.)

The rest of the guy’s record is just … silence. Words in the margins: from the rest of the paperwork (there’s a lot to filter through) there are well over a hundred marines attached to the same mysterious Non-Place as this nonexistent CO.

Doesn’t make sense, his Dæmon thinks, wording it for them: It’s a conspiracy.

“… and for how long would that be? … Right. Okay. … Thanks. I’ll call that number. Bye.”

Swallowing back a frustrated sigh, DiNozzo disconnects the call.

“You know what bothers me?”

“Tony, some of us are trying to work here,” McGee responds without looking up from his desk. He’s is consulting his computers for answers; it’s what he’s best at, rather than talking to people. Still working on that bit. Computers are reliable, they can be taken apart and data analyzed and trails followed, and they’ve caught bad guys that way in the past. Even if DiNozzo disagrees that it’s a proper Method of Investigation. McGee’s Dæmon does take the time to glare at the guy, though. DiNozzo isn’t perturbed. 

“The only place with a name I can trace this guy to at this moment is NORAD. I mean: NORAD. What the hell’s up with that? Headquarters are in Colorado – that’s nowhere near Antarctica. And it’s not just that it’s NORAD, it’s that is so damned classified. I’m telling you, someone doesn’t want us to know about this.”

McGee glances up for a second at that. “Uh, you know what NORAD stands for, right? North American Aerospace Defense Command, so, it’s not that odd for the Air Force to be involved with –”

“It’s a conspiracy. NORAD has a secret listening post in Antarctica, and Snow could’ve been a leak or something, and now they’re trying to cover it up,” DiNozzo goes on as if not hearing this argument, standing up and walking over to the other agent, hovering near his desk in an obnoxious manner. Loves to tear at his fellow junior agent’s proverbial pigtails. While Todd has long since gotten used to it and has proven to be efficient at extracting her own revenge, McGee is still kind of soft and easy to tease, and DiNozzo simply can’t resist. “Snow was more than a simple marine. I’m telling you, he’s part of the guys who hide aliens at Area 51. NORAD is all about that, aren’t they? They capture all the UFOs and tell the rest of us that they’re, I don’t know, asteroids or broken weather satellites. Hey, Gibbs should have high enough clearance to see the aliens, so –” A sudden chill runs up his spine, and DiNozzo freezes, awkwardly. Voice turning flat. “He’s … standing right behind me, isn’t he.”

“Get back to work," Gibbs growls, having reappeared in the room and holding a Starbucks cup in his hand. The younger agent tries not to flinch, before reluctantly moving back to his desk. “What have you got for me?”

“Uh, noth… not much,” DiNozzo amends quickly. “I can’t get hold of the CO.”

“Damn it, DiNozzo, I don’t have time for this. McGee?”

“Three years ago, shortly before his last assignment, Snow bought an apartment here in D.C.,” McGee relays his latest findings, hurriedly. Doesn’t want to make Gibbs even more displeased and, God forbid, angry.

“Got the address?”

“Yeah.”

Gibbs launches a pair of car keys at the man, who catches them deftly from a lot of practice. “You know what to do. DiNozzo, you’re with him.” If the man can’t find the CO, then Gibbs has just got to do that himself.

“Yes, Boss!”

He watches the pair leave, without amusement, and hears the elevator open with a ping. Closing. Disappearing. Then Gibbs reaches for his phone. He’ll find that CO, even if he’s surrounded by more walls than the Pentagon itself – dig him out of his hole – his clearance should get him through to anything; even if DiNozzo is only dreaming about Area 51 and his conspiracy theories – he’s been watching too many of those movies again. A bad and annoying habit and it grates on Gibbs’ nerves every time DiNozzo can’t help but make illogical references to popular culture instead of focusing on the case at hand.

There are no such thing as aliens, his Dæmon thinks for them, and Gibbs shakes his head quietly and starts dialing.


Snow’s apartment is on the sixth floor. They take the elevator.

It’s quiet: the door isn’t disturbed, and the lock securely in place. The landlady is grim and bored-looking with crossed arms, and only asks them not to make too much of a mess. Sounds rather pissed to hear that the tenant’s dead. “He was hardly here anyway,” Mrs Tyler remarks. The marine was obviously away from the States more than he was present, at least for the last couple of years.

The hallway is pretty empty. A couple of forgotten knickknacks, and there’s a layer of dust - this place hasn’t been properly cleaned out for months, if not longer. A pair of discarded shoes. 

They enter the routine, white gloves on to make sure nothing’s contaminated. “All right, Probie, you take the kitchen –”

Then there’s a noise that shouldn’t shouldn’t be there and DiNozzo silences immediately, reaches for his sidearm on reflex. That was a heavy footstep. No, two. Whoever it was reacted quickly, though, silencing and the agents share looks. A slow nod. The living room area is just ahead; someone’s in there, and it makes no sense because the door was locked and untouched, and this is six floors up. If they scaled the building –

“NCIS – hands in the air!”

A shadow moving; someone, out of sight, demands: “Prometheus, get them out of here!” and there is a strange whooshing noise, difficult to define properly – it’s not running water, more like a spike of energy, and then in flash it’s gone. McGee and DiNozzo storm around the corner together, weapons drawn.

There’s a marine: dark skin, neat buzz, perfect poise and his arm is raised to fire, the grip of his handgun without doubt or hesitance. And there’s another guy, who also has got a 9mil in his hand and empty thigh holster and a very annoyed, darkened expression on his face. The marine’s clad in black cammies minus the bulletproof vest, but the other guy looks civilian – more or less – without any defined abs or the right haircut or any other sign of being a marine – no, he couldn’t ever be. Even if he’s wearing similar clothes to the marine and doesn’t appear ill at ease in them.

A tense silent moment where the agents and the two strangers stare each other down; the marine’s Dæmon is tense, ready to pounce, claws out. Whatever the other guy’s Dæmon is, the Shape has got to be small enough to be hidden in a pocket.

“Put down your weapons. Slowly,” instructs DiNozzo.

Sharing a look, the two obey, the civilian going first. Their guns are put on the ground and then kicked toward the agents. Empty hands raised above their heads. The civilian goes so far as to break into an easy, disarming smile, and it’s kind of unsettling, that swift switch.

“Stand still. Hands above your heads, legs apart.” McGee approaches, quickly pats them both down. Finds them armed with more: the marine’s got a pocket knife, some extra ammo. And the Other Guy is carrying two knives, not just one, stands ramrod straight almost impatiently as they’re taken. Radios: earpieces, neatly fitted. Some kind of PDA though the design is very strange, none of them has seen anything like it, and the screen is dark and there’s no obvious on-button. McGee bags it all.

And the civilian – he’s got sort of a crooked mouth, his blue eyes glinting in the dim light – says: “We’re not criminals.”

“Uh huh. Looks like breaking and entering to me, doesn’t it, McGee?” remarks DiNozzo wryly.

“Sure does,” McGee agrees, never taking his eyes off the two suspects.

“Any sign of that? Because you’ll find we didn’t pick any locks or break any windows,” retorts the Other Guy. “We’re just visiting.”

“Stop chattering and let’s get moving,” DiNozzo orders.

Cuffing. No protests, but the Other Guy rolls his eyes again like this isn’t that serious, merely an annoyance, a hitch in the wheel of his day. The marine doesn’t put up a fight. They lead them through the building to the black car parked outside and a curious neighbor pokes their head out the door, peering at them with wide eyes, and DiNozzo flashes his badge and exclaims calmly: “Federal agents. Nothing to worry about.” before they step into the elevator.

“Oh, that’s real comforting,” remarks the Other Guy on his breath, and shares a look with the marine, who seems less amused. “Isn’t that right?”

“If you say so, sir,” says the marine, stoically, as the elevator starts to move downward. Somehow, that tone of voice – it’s as if this is a far too usual occurrence to be normal.

And how the hell did they get up there, anyway?

Gibbs might be pleased, at least. To have someone to glare at and grill: this is, no way, a coincidence. No way. These guys have to be involved, somehow, and DiNozzo takes glee in the thought that Gibbs will find out. No one lasts through his interrogations without giving up something

Chapter Text

xiii.

resurrection

(a case study in conversations)


to: Amanda Herschel; Tanya Drew; Alexander Gamble
from: Mitchell Snow

Hey guys, Ive bought that phone now. R these the right numbers?
-Mitch

text sent: 2006-02-12 10:04 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow; Tanya Drew; Alexander Gamble
from: Amanda Herschel

Yep! Let’s make it group text to save time, y/n?
-A.H.

text received: 2006-02-12 10:13 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow; Amanda Herschel; Alexander Gamble
from: Tanya Drew

Works fine with me
/Drew

text received: 2006-02-12 10:13 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow; Amanda Herschel; Tanya Drew
from: Alexander Gamble

Sure!
-G

text received: 2006-02-12 10:14 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow; Tanya Drew; Alexander Gamble
from: (unknown number)

Done and done :) This be the number ^
-A.H.

text received: 2006-02-12 10:22 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow, Amanda Herschel, Alexander Gamble (Group text: AR9)
from: Alexander Gamble

No emoticons! Seriously, we’re not twelve. Btw Drew when are you leaving Colorado?

text received: 2006-02-12 10:24 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Hey :/ I like them! ;) they convey … emotion :DDD
Dont go!! :'(

text received: 2006-02-12 10:26 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Stop it or I swear to god

text received: 2006-02-12 10:27 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Don’t make me separate you two. I am not going to play drill sarge! Fucking hell guys
Going to get flight tickets whenever the brass are ready to release us. It’s like they think a year in Pegasus has left us unable to handle society. Hopefully tomorrow. You?

text received: 2006-02-12 10:35 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

Lol yeah right. Go Team Herschel :DD

text sent: 2006-02-12 10:39 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

DID YOU JUST… LC for one second could you not encourage them? I could make it an order

text received: 2006-02-12 10:42 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

Sorry Lt!!
Ma’am
Your honor
Seriously tho Gam u could chill a bit, u know? I dont see how emoticons are that bad??

text sent: 2006-02-12 10:49 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Yeah, it’s not as if we’ve lost control of reality but yeah, I’m thinking of doing the same. Visit the old folks and such. Do we know yet when return flight is going to be?
Also Mitch you’re a dick

text received: 2006-02-12 10:52 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

Thanks Gam
Anyone heading west? Planning on going to DC

text sent: 2006-02-12 10:54 A.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Nope sorry but we will c each other back in the Mountain after :) and I think return flight is sometime around March 20 …? :/ not sure. I am going back to Germany anyway for a couple of weeks

text received: 2006-02-12 10:59 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow
from: (unknown number)

1101011001151111094911611184114117115116 67105116121677910097110103101114 1001101161141011121081211141051151071161149799 11997105116102116104114111114100101114115

text received: 2006-02-13 11:14 A.M.


to: (unknown number)
from: Mitchell Snow

Is this a joke…? Sorry, u must have got the wrong number, man

text sent: 2006-02-13 11:31 A.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow
from: (unknown number)

B.M. Don’t call back. Delete messages after reading.

text received: 2006-02-13 11:44 A.M. GMT-7


to: (unknown number)
from: Mitchell Snow

Bradley…? How did u even get this number??

text sent: 2006-02-13 11:49 A.M. GMT-7


to: (unknown number)
from: Mitchell Snow

Deciphered the message. What do you need? Btw deleting as asked

text sent: 2006-02-13 12:13 P.M. GMT-7


Deleted 2 messages from Inbox.
Deleted 3 messages from Sent.


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Hi folks. Pool game Harry’s at 1900 anyone? They serve those fries you like, Gam. C’mon it’ll be fun, we haven’t seen each other for a while bc of these meetings with the brass. Heard no one got away from that.

text received: 2006-02-13 15:19 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Sure, why not! Just team? JJ and co are still around, could ask em to join?                                               

text received: 2006-02-13 15:21 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Ja! C u there! :D I ran into Gladys just a while ago I can ask her on behalf of AR4, y/n?

text received: 2006-02-13 15:22 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Sounds good. Ask away
Mitch how about you?                                      

text received: 2006-02-13 15:26 P.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow
from: (unknown number) 

Please trust me. If I’m right a lot of people are in danger.
Will send details later

text received: 2006-02-13 11:24 A.M. GMT-7  


Deleted 1 message from Inbox.


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

U go im not really feeling it. Head cold. Tomorrow maybe

text sent: 2006-02-13 15:38 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

That sucks man, you have the worst luck. The docs should up your constitution with a shot or something

text received: 2006-02-13 15:30 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Take care of yourself buddy. But better here than on duty in the City I guess. Just a head cold?
And you’re one to talk, Gam

text received: 2006-02-13 15:30 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Hey I didn’t break my wrist ON PURPOSE. And the other thing was an accident holy shit

text received: 2006-02-13 15:30 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

P99 was a rollercoaster it wasn’t my fault I repeat NOT MY FAULT. I blame the rocks

text received: 2006-02-13 15:31 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Ja we know. You always blame the rocks. Learn to chill, Gam :p

text received: 2006-02-13 15:32 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Im not a fucking geologist next time a place like that on the list I vote we vote for Maj L to go HES a geologist

text received: 2006-02-13 15:39 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Take it easy Gam it wasn’t your fault
And don’t start it all up again Herschel. If tonight’s ruined because of this you’re all getting your asses kicked by me not to mention DeSalle if he shows

text received: 2006-02-13 15:41 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Yes ma’am sorry ma’am it wont happen again
Sorry Gam :( U know I didn’t mean it like that yeah?

text received: 2006-02-13 15:43 P.M. GMT-7      


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Yeah.
No wait no, you owe me a beer for this, a good one too

text received: 2006-02-13 15:43 P.M. GMT-7     


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

Will sleep it off. See you guys later

text sent: 2006-02-13 15:44 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

OK see you
Btw G & H you two need to stop doing that. I don’t need to or want to check my phone every five seconds just to see you two at it.
Are JJ and co coming or not?

text received: 2006-02-13 15:47 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Yeah think so at least Gladys and Kemp :)

text received: 2006-02-13 15:50 P.M. GMT-7


to: Mitchell Snow
from: (unknown number) 

N38°52'24.459" W77°0'3.701" 10:45 Zulu
I’ll explain everything
Come alone. They may be watching

text received: 2006-02-13 16:02 A.M. GMT-7


Deleted 1 message from Inbox.


to: B.M.
from: Mitchell Snow

Where are you?

text sent: 2006-02-14 05:48 A.M. GMT-5


A man in a hoodie stands waiting, trying to look like any casual morning jogger, by the corner of the alley where it meets the pier. It has been over seven minutes since the last text and no answer, and not a shadow of the other man.

They shouldn’t be late. Bradley was the one who decided the time and place, after all, with precision, and Snow rushed to be here. It’s not like him to be late.

His Dæmon is pacing, tail swishing to and fro: They’ll be here, the Lance Corporal thinks, they’ll be here. Bradley’s an old friend. Known each other since earliest childhood. Never let each other down; and he wouldn’t send messages like that if it wasn’t serious. They’d thrown themselves onto a late flight, a slight dent in his accounts but he hasn’t touched his paychecks since they shipped out nearly a year and a half ago.

It’s a chilly, damp morning. He only had half a bagel and some coffee for breakfast, and his neck is stiff, and he’s starting to think this was a very bad idea. A prank. A poor one in taste, but a prank nonetheless. Did the team put them up to this?

But Bradley had sounded real urgent.

He’d followed the instructions, deleting every message both delivered and sent to that unknown number. Written down the first message, though, and the last. The coordinates which had brought him here. He’s barely slept tonight because of that. Sat on the plane thinking, worrying: just how much trouble is Bradley in? This is deep. Fuck, this is deep and dangerous, and Bradley wouldn’t lie, no, he wouldn’t. And they’re old friends and he knows Bradley works for some government agency, whichever acronym it was, and this has got to be serious. The first message got Snow real concerned and conflicted, once he figured it out. It suddenly became personal, in a way. Was that why Bradley messaged him? Because he’s not just with the Program, he’s with the City?

He unpockets his phone, and considers calling. Whom, though? Bradley had explicitly said not to call, and if it’s all true … If he’s undercover or some shit, no, Snow can’t blow that for him like that. Texting so far has been of no use. But there’s the team … If Bradley’s telling the truth, then the City and the Colonel are in danger and his team could let the SGC know; they could –

Quickly, he types a brief message. Decides to wait for a bit longer. Maybe Bradley is only being careful. Or stuck in traffic. Something. His thumb hovers over the last button for a moment. How’s he going to explain this to the team? Drew’s going to be pissed, he knows, and the others too. Taking off without telling him that he might be walking right into a trap – knowingly – hell, as if he’s one of the Frontiers who’s decided to go on an adventure on his own. If this was Pegasus, he’d have his head chewed off.

This had better not be a joke, he thinks, and presses send.

It’s been nine minutes when there is a sound of tires on asphalt, out of sight, behind one of the large containers. Off beyond the area which is sealed off because of construction work. No one has started working yet. It’s still early, and only the busiest streets are crowded with commuters, people on their way to the office. It’s a bit strange to be back. Very strange. So many people, and no direct threat of alien ships in the sky, no Wraith hunting them down. It’s kind of refreshing.

On instinct he crouches down behind a couple of trashcans, barely daring to breathe, and peers through the crack at the pier.

Now a person comes into sight, their Dæmon right beside them. Pretty large, canine, dark fur, and there’s a slight mist hanging over the water and sweeping over them, making it difficult to see until they near. Their clothes are dark, and the person’s steps make the same noise as a pair of heavy issue military boots would, Snow thinks, distantly. He’d previously kept his ungloved hands buried in his pockets to preserve warmth but now he pulls them out, and his muscles, for some unknown reason, tense, preparing to run. An instinct, deep-rooted. They’re getting closer. Snow realizes they hadn’t agreed on a codeword or anything like that. Should have. Foolish, he thinks, and his Dæmon presses closer; seriously, we are. Taking off like that on a whim because of a coded text and maybe it wasn’t Bradley?

The team’s going to wonder. He left the Mountain in a hurry yesterday afternoon, stopping by to grab his bag and he didn’t say proper goodbyes. Sat on a plane and on a bus for too many hours, and the time zone difference is still grating on his mind. At least, with the Gates, changes like that were instantaneous. The shock and delay came after a while, out there. Going from a snow-covered morning to a desert in dusk in a heartbeat.

There’s something off about the picture, Snow realizes, because he knows Bradley and even if they haven’t seen each other for a couple of years, there’s no way his Dæmon would just be switched in Shape like that. Would it? No. Switching is a difficult task once you’re an adult and you’re Settled. Requires effort and a power of strong, strong and relentless, because switching Shape as an adult usually means something has changed, deeply, within you, and there is a need to break familiarity and comfort and exchange that with something frighteningly new. Snow has never heard of that happening. Not really. (The Colonel doesn’t count - everything with the Old Man is a bit alien, and Snow has realized, like most people in the City, that it’s easier to move on without asking too many difficult questions.)

Because, while close enough - no, that isn’t Bradley, and the person’s closer now for him to see they’re wearing cammies, dark, nondescript. Same as Expedition marines. Exactly the same, though there’s no name tag or flag on the shoulder and no other patches to identify the man and Snow hesitates. Draws back a bit. Doesn’t look like they’ve been seen yet, because the guy and their Dæmon have veered offside, closer to the water’s edge, and their back is a bit turned, and Snow realizes he’s unarmed. Didn’t take a gun or a holster, and it had felt strange, for sure, a habit deeply ingrained - they wouldn’t walk the City unarmed, not even there, where they’re meant to be safe but never truly were. Every day, every moment. But this is Earth and he’s playing a civilian right now.

The hair on his neck is rising by a chill, and he becomes aware of the wind changing, a gust carrying noise from behind them, and Snow’s Dæmon peers behind them, at the alleyway, but it looks empty enough. Doesn’t shake the feeling.

Then the van appears. It’s common enough: dark-tinted windows. The driver’s wearing a uniform like some kind of service worker, maybe, though Snow can’t tell for sure. It’s dark blue. The driver remains seated, but the guy on the pier turns to them and the back doors are thrown open, and Snow really thinks they ought to have seen him by now, even as he’s trying to be quiet and hide. Someone’s being tugged out of the van. They’re trussed up and their face hidden by cloth, and they seem to be trying to struggle a bit but tiredly, tiredly, and held by a very large guy with meaty hands. There’s something hanging from his belt. Gun?

Ah, shit, Snow thinks, and his own hands are empty but he’ll be damned if some guy gets executed on his watch. Diversion.

The tied-up person (business suit; gray tie; white, judging by their hands) is kind of familiar. No sign of their Dæmon all at once, probably still in the van (chained?), but … Snow’s got a gut feeling. Like the instinct telling him to flee or fight because this is a very bad, disquieting situation. As strong. That … That’s Bradley. And they’re in trouble, and Snow isn’t going to just sit here and watch as the other guys kill and dump him in the water –

This is a bad idea, his Dæmon whispers, but let’s go for it, Daredevil, and Snow gropes on the ground for anything to use. There’s gravel and small stones there, and one that’s roughly the size of his palm, and he grips that tightly.

I’ll throw and you’ll bite, he decides. Just like always, huh?

And he stands up. Quietly, but the movement was noticed, heads turn as the marine launches the piece of rock and the Dæmon leaps out, aiming to tackle the first guy’s own Dæmon, which is nearest. The stone smacks the guy square in the face, and they stumble half a step back, cursing – he thinks that’s a curse, at least. The language is foreign and gratingly harsh, and where’s he heard that before? where …?

And then, too late, he realizes just under just what circumstances he’s heard such words before, and the large man raises the zat’nik’tel in their left hand and fires, and the bolt of energy blazes through the air and the marine can’t duck faster than light can travel; his Dæmon tumbles and falls, cracking onto the asphalt, and Snow falls with them, eyes dimming and then the first guy is standing above him, expression hidden in shadow but their eyes dangerously glowing, and in their hand they’re holding a knife.

It’s the last thing Snow sees.


to: AR9
from: Mitchell Snow

Guys I think there’s trouble, smth to do with the City. Im in DC to meet a contact, maybe there’ll be answers
I’ll call when I know more

text sent: 2006-02-14 05:59 A.M. GMT-5
status: failed to deliver


You have 1 missed call
from Tanya Drew at 14:56 P.M. GMT-7 (2006-02-14)


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Hey Mitch, just wondering what’s up. Call back?

text received: 2006-02-14 16:15 P.M. GMT-7


You have 2 missed calls.
from (hidden number) at 16:25 P.M. GMT-7 (2006-02-14)
from (hidden number) at 16:49 P.M. GMT-7 (2006-02-14)


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

We’re in the Mountain, Gen L wants to walk with you asap. Yeah he’s the one who’s been calling you, pick up. THE GENERAL. I’m serious, LC

text received: 2006-02-14 16:55 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Mitch?! If we get in trouble bc u ill kick ur ass

text received: 2006-02-14 16:55 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Alexander Gamble

Hey Mitch they’re going to lock us up n take our phones bc some stuff bout a hijacked message or whatevr I AM PISSED WITH YOU
Answer ur damned calls man

text received: 2006-02-14 18:14 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Tanya Drew

Not kidding about the brass asking for you LC!!

text received: 2006-02-14 18:15 P.M. GMT-7


to: AR9
from: Amanda Herschel

Mitch?? Hallo???

text received: 2006-02-14 18:15 P.M. GMT-7  


You have 1 missed call
from (hidden number) at 19:01 P.M. GMT-7 (2006-02-14)

Chapter Text

xiv.

rebellion

strange. it doesn’t hurt to look at it now. he hasn’t missed the moon.
he hadn’t missed Terra, even if the planet is undeniably beautiful from up here.


Atlantis · New Lantea · Pegasus 
142 days after the Uprising


Half an hour after the Gate has closed, John is sitting in Weir’s office. The glass door is shut, and her desk, usually so neat, is occupied by the large communications terminal they’d found on Deserum. The crystal at the center glows the same hue of blue as the chevrons of the Gate as it locks, without a flicker, and for a moment he stares at that and wonders what the hell he’s doing, what the hell he’s thinking. Why did they agree to this?

Carson’s there, holding a scanner, just to make sure everything goes well, physically, medically. And Heightmeyer is also present, in the background, near the doorstep which is now closed and there are really too many people just waiting and watching; he feels like they’re in a cage, and this one he walked into willingly and he gave the jailors the keys and said Good luck.

The plasma screen mounted on the far wall is alight with movement, depicting events happening three million lightyears away and, technically, only zero point three seconds apart because that’s the time it takes for the signal to travel through the open wormhole. Rodney is similarly sitting on a chair in front of a laptop in what looks to be one of the gray dreary labs under the Mountain. It’s been so long since John was there, he can’t remember the details very clearly, though he did spend those last few days before Leaving Day in then Rodney’s lab in the Mountain – the SGC’s new lightning switch, poking at bits and pieces of Ancient artifacts, the docs delighted every time something happened. It might even be that same room. There’s a hint of white coats and computers and desks and teeming whiteboards, and General Landry standing behind Rodney, waiting. Meredith is out of sight from the cam. Seated on the table, maybe, next to the laptop cam. Rodney isn’t paying the others any heed, but there’s a minute twitch to his hands, telltale: he’s anxious too, wants to get this over with. The stone Rodney brought with him – had it imprint on himself – is resting lightly in his hand. John can glimpse the shimmer of gray through his fingers.

A nod. They don’t speak; they don’t need to. If they start it might lead to arguing and as much as he likes their banter, this kind of argument isn’t one they want to have in front of so many witnesses. John places his own stone in the terminal slot. There’s no sound or blinking light.

The switch takes a millisecond.

there; not here;

Momentarily winded, John finds himself, rigidly, pressed downward by Terra’s gravity. The room, the air, the noise – hushed – the background beeping of machinery. This is the SGC, all right. The stone rests in his right hand. Rodney’s right hand.

Three million lightyears.

In a way, it’s anticlimactic. Except it’s kind of amusing how even the General flinches and one or two of the technicians (or whoever they are) take a step back when, suddenly, Meredith’s gone and there’s the Raven, stretching their wings. At least that worked out as it should have. Was predicted. And the wormhole is still open and their Bonds unbroken and John grips the stone harder, as if to an anchor, and breathes through his nose while everyone else is too preoccupied with staring at his Dæmon to notice the beginnings of his heartbeat deteriorating into a too-swift rhythm. His. Rodney’s. Theirs (both) from now on. It’s Rodney’s chest that’s aching, and John’s fist clenches around the Ancient stone as if, if he gripped it hard enough, it’d transport him right back to the City. Because the second the Gate shut down he’ll cease hearing Her, it’ll be a mere whisper, like before, when he was a kid, stuck on Earth with no way out and he’d heard Her singing in his dreams, lifetimes away. Lifetimes ago, it almost feels like. 

Rodney – his own face – is stirring in Atlantis, looking at John’s hands and then poking at his cheek somewhat theatrically, grimacing. John hears, voices slightly distorted by radio transmissions, Dr Heightmeyer asking: “Dr McKay, is that you?”

An uneasy breath. Figuring out how it works. Then Rodney speaks - and, wow, hearing his own voice through a radio transmission is … creepy.

“Yeah, it’s  ow, ow. I thought he was on pain medication?” Rodney complains, grasping at the injured leg. “Yeah, it’s me. All … Rodney McKay.” He looks toward the camera above the plasma screen.

Meeting his own eyes. Just as eerie as last time. A shiver thrills through him.

Elizabeth sounds conflicted; partly relieved; partly like facing an unknown enemy and not knowing how to negotiate. “Good to have you back, doctor.”

“Seriously. I thought you were on pain meds?” the Canadian repeats – and still keeping his accent, speaking with the wrong tongue – looking straight at the camera at John, who almost rolls his eyes. Still figuring out how to control his facial muscles to that degree of perfection. Then there’s a thinly-veiled muttered insult about his general intelligence and lack of self-care. Unsurprising. John wants to be able to pat his shoulder and tell him that he does try to look after himself really he does and he doesn’t need to worry;

“Yes, Rodney, he is, but not anything strong,” Carson says patiently. “Perhaps it’s having a different effect the differences in physiology and biochemistry between the two of you, making you unable to process his body’s signals the same way … All right, let’s get you to the infirmary.”

Weir looks from Rodney – from John’s body – and it’s clear she’s trying to deal with this, hide her bewilderment and doubt at this whole affair. It’s too late to change this, Rodney’s already here on Terra and they’ll see it through. John insisted. Rodney agreed. But Elizabeth is concerned. He can see it in the lines of her face and her crossed arms, knuckles whitening as she’s gripping her elbows. “If there’s any issue on our end, I’ll order the connection to be terminated immediately,” she says.

“Understandable, doctor,” General Landry says, nodding, faintly. John only listens with half an ear, occupied with watching Rodney (awkwardly; can’t use the crutches properly; Carson has to support him; talking vividly) moving out of the room and out of sight.

He can’t hear the City. It’s quiet. It doesn’t hurt, physically, because his body is the thing that is mostly tied down, his flesh so vulnerable and Rodney’s there and will look after it and, god, he’s here and it’s still such an alien concept all wrong –

He can’t hear the City: only an echo: only an echo, like he’s that child again, dreaming of a Dæmon who’s hiding in the clouds and he’s got to learn to fly to get to them;

The video connection is cut. John takes a breath, swallows back nausea. 

The Stargate is shutting down. He can feel it: the second the event horizon folds in on itself and disappears, a weight settles on his chest, and there’s this emptiness; just a lingering echo. Like last time when Rodney was on Earth and he couldn’t feel him properly. A piece of his mind missing. Now it’s twice that weight pulling him down, because the City has been reduced to an echo too, and he struggles to grasp it. Much worse than being offworld entirely. And maybe, since this is what it feels like, maybe he could’ve gone in person and guilt etches a scar into the hollow of his ribcage, suddenly. He could’ve gone in person instead of like this, instead of forcing Rodney to endure this.

Could he have? He’s not collapsing, caught by seizure, gasping. He’s not collapsing. He’s not –

[We’re here.] Shy whispers, just as shocked and disorientated but pridefully not showing it, and that’s the only real thing they know they can cling to: each other.

To his side, General Landry clears his throat. “Colonel Sheppard, I’m going to assume that’s you.”

“Yes, sir. That’s me,” John says, and he stands up. Has to use the armrests of the chair to steady himself. Wow. Weird. A few minutes ago he couldn’t support his own weight and now there are no scars, nothing. Nothing. Rodney’s never been injured like that (and John wants it to remain so forever) and his knees don’t buckle.

The contrast to Atlantis couldn’t be sharper. He’s surrounded by strangers. Their faces are unfamiliar, and their Dæmons stare at the Raven distrustfully. The civilian docs – he thinks that the slightly burly man in the glasses has to be Dr Lee, whose general intellect Rodney has insulted more than once – a couple of medical personnel, just in case. And he’s not unaware of the men at arms by the doors, two of them, sentries. And he wonders briefly if they’d expected an enemy to arrive, or for him to lose the concept of self and time. Rodney’s body isn’t armed, dressed so casually in a pair of gray slacks and jumper and t-shirt, like any civilian. Old clothes. Don’t fit as well as when he left for the City; he’s gained a bit of muscle since. It’s like walking beside himself, in a dream perhaps, everything distant and the light casting shadows at the wrong angles.

No doubt at this moment Rodney’s being escorted to the infirmary to be put under the scanner. Carson will probably keep him there for a while. Worried. A thirty-minute test is one thing, but this switch across galaxies – another. And last time he … John’s throat tightens, and he forces his feet to keep moving. He’s not going to have a panic attack. Not surrounded by these strangers and under the General’s scrutinizing gaze.

He looks up, straightens his back, and stands at attention, snaps a salute recalling to do so in the last second because this is Earth, and General Landry is his superior officer. The gesture is returned albeit after a moment of halting hesitation – barely perceptible – and no doubt it’s because John is acting like a soldier in a civilian body, and no one at the SGC can probably imagine Rodney ever behaving like that. 

Protocol in Atlantis is different. More relaxed. Or, perhaps that’s the wrong word to use to describe it because people aren’t slack. They’re simply … at ease, comfortably familiar with each other and aware of their own vulnerability and how few they are and the vastness of space, and the City is like the pinnacle of a snow globe surrounded by glass, so small and fragile and the shield so thin. And in an environment like that they have to be more than loyal. They must trust each other implicitly and always and know when the time is right to prioritize, and, well, John’s not that much of a fan of certain parts of protocol anyway. Always acutely aware that he’s not the ideal superior officer to oversee the City’s military contingent. 

General Landry leads the way, and John follows. The wobble disappears after two or three steps.

Thankfully, by some grace, the people of Stargate Command are pretty used to strange impossible occurrences. Body-snatching, or the closest equivalent thereof, it’s new but not terrifyingly so and they’ll get used to it. The General isn’t looking at him like at an alien. Though the techs still are. [They’re being ridiculous], Shy muses, would have laughed. The room is kind of cramped. So are the corridors. They opt for settling on his shoulder, and that’s probably for the better anyway, so that no one accidentally touches them, or (worse) tries to stun them with a zat.

“The Prometheus is waiting in orbit,” the General says, leading them out of there, outlining the situation: the missing marine, the NID agent out of contact. The IOA debating. Security risks. The stabbing. “Mr Sheppard has been taken into medical care there.” Out of the way. Unbothered by whatever is going on at the Mountain, whose infirmary is meant for SGC personnel and SG-teams. Safe from whatever threat they’ve implied Earth could pose to him right now, and all these questions without answers make John uneasy. No one’s told him exactly what’s happened, and maybe they don’t know yet.

The corridors are stale and bare and just as boring as he could remember them. People at work – marines, airmen, civilians – most of them pause to stare as they pass. Even with a warning broadcast beforehand, seeing the Raven in person … John had anticipated that kind of reaction. Thought that it would be worse. Prepared to hear the whispers behind their backs.

“What about the IOA, sir?” They were the ones demanding he come here like this in the first place, before his father was injured.

Landry clearly isn’t fond of them. Scowls. “They can wait.”

“Sir, requesting permission to talk with my marines once I’m back.”

“Granted,” the General says, and John’s finding it much easier to like this guy than any of the IOA. “Word spreads fast around here, Colonel. There are a few people waiting for you.”


Five minutes later, Colonel Pendergast says they’re ready to ring them up. John is kind of curious because he’s read and heard about the tech – used actively by the Goa’uld; that’s how the SGC encountered the ring transporter system. A lot of Goa’uld ships are equipped with them, and thus was the Prometheus retrofitted with a set of its own before the Asgard handed over some of their own inventions. One day the Prometheus might be updated; the Asgard transporter is less bulky and generally faster to use. For now, the rings will do. Though built by the Goa’uld, the design is clearly an imprint of the Ancient Stargates.

The feeling of displacement is dizzying. Must be the thing with being in the wrong body and all. Beaming or using the Gate hasn’t felt this disorientating since his first time walking through the event horizon two years ago;

They appear on the Bridge. Looks a bit like the Daedalus. Tiny details which are different, but largely the same. Space is quiet. A glimpse of the moon rising above the horizon and, faintly, the debris field of human-made satellites scattered in various orbits around the globe. The configuration of stars is eerily wrong to his eyes after becoming so familiar with the skies of Pegasus; he knows what the stars look like from various planets that they visit more regularly. Has the fields memorized. 

John hasn’t seen the Terran moon for well over a year.

Strange. It doesn’t hurt to look at it now. He hasn’t missed the moon. He hasn’t missed Terra, even if the planet is undeniably beautiful from up here.

The Prometheus is, at least on the outside, very much like the Daedalus, except it doesn’t have the Asgard transport beams; this is the original model of Terran Warship, and it’s integrated other kinds of systems. Including transport rings, Goa’uld in design – or, they could be Ancient, an old precursor to the transports in Atlantis and on the Aurora. The aesthetic design is after all close to that of the Stargate, and the Goa’uld had been scavenging and stealing for thousands of years after the Ancients had gone and before the Tau’ri rose into space.

The vessel’s current commander, Colonel Lionel Pendergast, is immensely proud of his ship and rightly so; any Air Force officer would be. Right now, the ship is riding in a slow arc around the planet, and some of the technicians are using the sensors to scan for the missing marine’s subcutaneous transmitter. But scanning even a limited portion of a so densely populated planet is slow, cumbersome work, and it’ll take hours or even days to get a complete picture. Not to mention that all SGC-personnel are equipped with sub-q:s, so sorting all those out to find just one – well, it’s like looking for a particular needle in a needlestack.

John and Colonel Carter, who’d followed them up to aid with the scanning – she knows the ship’s systems better than anyone – materialize outside of the cargo hold, where the rings are located. Carter isn’t that freaked out about the Raven or the stones or anything. Fascinated. Asks a few questions, professional but bubbling with enthusiasm under the surface, and John can, for a second, maybe imagine why Rodney had a crush on her. She’s smart and blonde – for some reason Rodney had something for sexy blondes, though John can’t, personally, really see it. (Aesthetically, yeah. But, no.)

Which is kind of weirdly hilarious when he thinks about it because a lot of people in the City think John Sheppard is some kind of Kirk, flirting his way through the universe – hell, Rodney thought that. Vehemently. It’d taken a while to explain and to make him believe that, sure, he knows how to use charm, both on- and offworld, but he’s not sleeping around, and he’s never wanted to. There might be a word for that, he thinks, maybe. That with not being able to do sex without emotion, and not doing emotion easily, so it’s kind of a bind. Anyway, it’s not important right now. He follows the Colonel to the Bridge where the technicians are at work and the ship’s commander is waiting.

Colonel Pendergast takes it all in surprised stride. Blinks at the Raven on John’s – Rodney’s – shoulder. Had heard the rumors because everyone has heard them but few believe. Then he offers his hand to shake, and John figures the man must be rattled by the sight of a civilian with the Wrong Name aboard his ship. Maybe they’ve met before, he and Rodney; Rodney’s never told, but there are things they haven’t remembered or wanted to share yet, and Rodney tends to forget the names of people he doesn’t care much for.

“Colonel Sheppard, I presume?”

“Yeah, sir, that’s me, even if I don’t look it.” Like the General, the Colonel in front of him is of higher rank, and somehow slipping into the old routine of greeting is easier than he’d thought it be, even though Rodney’s arm doesn’t quite obey as smoothly as his own would’ve. Colonel Pendergast returns the salute with the same halting hesitance that the General did. Probably feels weird about saluting what looks to be Dr Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD. Out of his depth – oh, hell, they all are, at this point.  Rodney’s body language is all off. Something trapped in-between alien and familiar. “Pleasure to meet you, Colonel.”

“Ancient communication stones, huh?”

“Yeah. Don’t ask me how it works, sir, I haven’t a clue.”

Pendergast nods in that way which means he has no idea what this means either, and at this point he frankly doesn’t care about the technicalities. He must be used to so much shit doing down around him and learned that sometimes he’s better off Not Knowing. Carter greets Pendergast with familiarity, using first names, a nod.

Then she turns to John, beckoning him to follow out of the Bridge. “Mr Sheppard was taken onboard two hours ago. The doctors tell me he’s out of immediate danger,” she says as they walk.

“Thank you,” John says, suddenly realizing that he hasn’t said those words and he should have, to General Landry for having him notified and for offering his father medical care and a safe place to linger for a while. He can’t imagine the brass actually liking him enough to pull such favors. Like missing pieces. Something he’s got to examine later on, when there’s time. “For – all this.”

Carter’s sternness melts somewhat. “We realize that the chances of this being a coincidence are very slim. With the SGC, there’s no such thing.”

The gray walls encompassing, they go up one level, fifty meters aft; there’s the infirmary. People are moving to and fro, technicians and scientists and marines, pilots still in gear unwinding from their last mission which they came back from less than twelve hours ago. Since all they see is Rodney’s body, no one snaps a smart salute, and for that John doesn’t mind – protocol in Atlantis is relaxed, and he prefers it that way, also here – but they’re staring at the Raven. Even Colonel Carter is glancing at them from time to time albeit in a nicely discrete way and there are no questions. She must have read the reports and seen them across a video link, three million lightyears apart – but this, this reality is startling. Only aliens have Dæmons deviating from the human norm, even across galaxies.

(She and the rest of them don’t know how the half of it.)

“In here,” Carter gestures as the automatic doors slide open. The sick bay isn’t overly crowded, and whoever was injured on the Prometheus’ mission have been taken down to the SGC or elsewhere on Terra for treatment. There’s just one patient in there now. But up here is safe, and whatever happened – for it to warrant such special treatment – it frankly makes John very nervous, and confounded. He doesn’t have a lot of friends around here willing to stick their neck out for him, and no one at the SGC owes him favors, not big enough anyway to warrant his father being taken aboard a Tau’ri Warship for security.

No, whatever is going on, this is much bigger than that.

“You only have a few minutes, Colonel,” Carter says, distractedly. “We’re needed for a briefing in the Mountain at 14:00 hours.”

“Understood.”

She takes her leave, heading toward (what John assumes to be) the Bridge, and John lingers on the threshold, breath abated and – shit. Shit. His father is in there, confused and not knowing what the hell is going on and barely having grasped the concept of aliens yet – how’s he going to explain this? the stones, being in Rodney’s flesh? his Dæmon’s existence? Patrick Sheppard received his letter – John got confirmation back from Carter about that; took it surprisingly well, considering – but still. Shit

He takes a breath. In, out. Then John steps inside, and blinks. There’s Patrick Sheppard on a bed, hooked up to monitors and his heartbeats are faintly echoed by the beeping machinery. Appears asleep under the pristine white sheets. But sitting on a chair next to the bed is his brother. And John is so surprised – no one mentioned that he was going to be here – that he can’t stop himself from blurting out:

“Dave?”

His brother’s Dæmon, once so small and lively (the memory clear: they were dancing in the library) lies slack across his brother’s knees, as if in shock.

[What are they doing here?]

There’s a woman, too, dark hair and dark eyes; a complete stranger but obviously not to Dave, from the way they sit close together, murmuring, hands clasped. Their Dæmons almost touching. Close – girlfriend? wife?

Oh. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. His brother has got a whole other life. They haven’t spoken for years. He could be married, could even be a father, and John has no idea, no idea, no idea.

Dave turns his head to look at him when hearing him enter the room, the shadows cast upon the artificial walls. His face is pale and knotted in a frown and, man, he’s got to be so damn confused. “Uh, hello – can I help you?”

Right. “Hi. It’s, it’s me. Your brother. John.”

“I don’t think so,” Dave says. Eyes wide. Looking at the Raven.

“Dave,” murmurs the woman. “I thought your brother … ? They said you’d be able to talk.”

“You’re not my brother,” Dave says.

“I’m using an Ancient communication device,” John tries to explain. Dave’s here so he must’ve signed a nondisclosure-agreement, but how much has he been read in on? Does he know about the Gates? About the Ancients? About Atlantis? How much have they bothered to tell them other than sparse, theatrical, superficial stories? How many details? “This is the body of Dr Rodney McKay, but it’s really me speaking, Dave. This is my Dæmon –”

“John doesn’t have a Dæmon,” Dave protests. By his side, the woman’s eyes widen at this proclamation, and John hides a wince. Not the kind of revelation he’d hoped for.

“Well, no, not ‘til recently I didn’t. But I do now. They Emerged about a hundred and fifty days ago.”

“I still don’t believe it’s you. How can –”

“It’s your brother,” John says. “How do I prove …? Look, it’s me. You’re Dave and Nina, you used to play in the library. When we were kids. Remember? You mocked me for wanting to become a pilot. You kept listening to that awful mixtape on your Walkman and was pissed off when I (accidentally) broke it. You had a crush on that girl, Kate or Claire or something, in fifth grade and wouldn’t shut up about her. Remember? I stole your bike when you were thirteen and I was eleven and tried to run away, only ending up crashing in a ditch two miles from the house and nearly getting run over by a car. Mom died when you were seventeen and I was fifteen; there was a drunk lorry driver –”

The silence is so fragile it could be shattered with a whisper.

“Oh my god. Johnny?”

Something in his chest hurts, physically, in remembrance as Dave looks at him and it’s still his brother’s eyes even though his face is that of an adult and they hadn’t exchanged photographs or cards for years, there’s been no phonecalls but John hasn’t forgotten, and – shit. Years and years and no talking and now they’re face to face aboard a Warship in orbit around Terra, of all places of all times in the universe;

Not wanting to believe, Dave just nods. Looks overwhelmed. “Okay. It’s, it’s you. Did you say some kind of … Ancient … device? Does that mean alien? Oh my god.” Then his brother sighs, overwhelmed, and buries his face in his hands. A moment of silence. The woman’s looking between them, and John’s got to place these minutes in the Top Three most awkward conversations he’s ever had. His brother finally looks back up at him, too pale. “Oh god. This is such a messed up day.”

Yeah. “You tell me. When did you get here?”

“A few hours ago. There, there was a phone call, I find out dad’s been stabbed in New York and then two Air Force Colonels – Carter? and Mitchell? – they’re appearing and telling me it’s not safe and they’re taking us into protective custody and I have to sign up for nondisclosure and, and, and I have no idea what the hell is going on, and I would very much like to know!”

It ends in half a shout, weary and panicked.

“I’m sorry,” John says, helplessly. “I didn’t mean for you to be dragged into this. Any of you.” Then he turns to the woman and offers his hand. “Sorry, we haven’t met. I’m John.”

Feels almost ridiculous, repeating that after all those words, but the woman returns the greeting, rising from the plastic chair where she’d been sitting by Dave’s side. She looks tired. No surprises. John heard – briefly, from Carter – how they were called here, from New York of all places, and there are still details missing which he needs to hear. “Laura Shannon. Pleased to meet you.” If the Raven or the earlier words have rattled her, she’s good at hiding it. Her hand is smooth and the grip firm, strong. 

“My fiancée,” Dave clarifies, and now John can see the ring, the glimmer of a precious stone on her hand. It’s beautiful.

When did they meet? How long ago? It’s not outright curiosity. It’s … John can’t put his finger on it. The Boy Who Was His Brother is a stranger now who’s become a man, a stranger like the rest of them, no longer the gangly teenage boy with whom he’d grown up. Parted ways with when their worldviews and careers and dreams carried them away in wholly different directions.

Dave was the crowd-pleaser, after all, and the guy who their father truly trusted and who he wanted to take over the family company, the family legacy. Dave didn’t have any big fallouts or grievances with their parents. Dave was doted on unconditionally by their grandparents on those few occasions they visited, his personhood never coming into question because he was a normal boy with a normal Dæmon and normal behavior. Dave applied for the university Patrick wanted him to with grace and didn’t argue about it. Dave was the normal child, with normal dreams and a normal Dæmon; one that was actually there and not flown away; it existed; their mother never wept over his cradle in despair;

The noise is abruptly cut into when Patrick Sheppard blearily opens his eyes. Recognizing the voices, or at least two of them. “… David?”

John holds his breath; Dave visibly tries to calm down, control his voice. “Yeah, dad, I’m here.”

Rising from a sedated sleep, Patrick is struggling to move and all of him has to be sore. John has been in the same situation enough times himself to know: that kind of sleep doesn’t leave you feeling rested and relaxed. More like weighed down by lead and throat dry from disuse, and both man and Dæmon shift slowly, with great effort. John was told the damage like an impersonal report, insisted on knowing: a single stab-wound. Clean but deep and it nicked his liver and he’s had two surgeries, one in New York and a second one aboard the Prometheus once he was ringed over here, four hours ago. But he made it, he’s alive.

John moves forward to get a better look and he has to bite his tongue. Recalling how frightening he found Irene to be when he was a child, this looming shadow and stern gleaming eyes and her claws and how his Father was never pleased, never fully happy and he never found out why. Now, though, the Dæmon doesn’t look that frightening. Not as big as he remembered. Graying. A slow decay. His father also looks older, much more worn, than in any of his memories.

“Uh, dad, this – this is –” Dave clearly doesn’t know how to explain this and retain his sanity.

“It’s me. John,” he says. Unsure, should he offer a hand? Not like Patrick is in a state to return the gesture or shake it. Shouldn’t disturb the injury. “But I don’t look like me because I’m using an Ancient communication device, it … it sort of swaps consciousnesses. This is the body of Dr Rodney McKay.”

He attached a photograph with that letter. A photo of himself and the Raven, and Rodney and Meredith, together – that was a calm and peaceful mission, gathering supplies on Te’reem and there had been no Wraith or casualties that day. Ford had taken the picture. The Lieutenant does that from time to time, and John knows that he’s making an album, and if the Program is ever declassified then Ford is going to want to show it all – at least the less gruesome bits – to his family on Earth, the grandparents. Not the only person in the City hoping to do that.

Did Patrick read that letter? did he see it? does he remember? John, for a moment, can’t raise his voice to speak. Acutely aware that he’s wrong, doesn’t fit into this particular picture, in Rodney’s flesh and with Shy so close, their wings pressed to their sides as if to make themself appear smaller, less frightening.

For a moment, Patrick doesn’t say anything at all. Then he glances at Dave, though his Dæmon doesn’t take her eyes off John. The stare is cold and full of distrust and confusion. “What happened?”

“You were stabbed,” Dave says, voice uncertain. “In New York. You were taken to hospital and - and now we’re at, uhm …”

“We’re aboard the Prometheus, one of the ships the SGC has got,” John says, regaining control of Rodney’s voice. “It’s … Did you read that letter? From, uh, John Sheppard?”

“The letter … Yes. I did,” his father says, his voice weak. He’s not entirely out of harm yet. But the docs have done a good job, and John can guess that some unofficial alien medical devices may have been involved too once he was taken onto the ship.

Irene is still looking at him. Sharply. Unsettling. Her eyes slightly dim, as if by weariness, or confusion. John wants to crawl back and shiver, uncontrollably, recalling being a child and finding Irene a terrifying creature;

“It’s a spaceship,” Shannon says, in a matter which means she doesn’t believe it, won’t ever believe it.

“We’re in orbit around Te– Earth,” John says, nearly slipping up. Doesn’t want to start speaking Ancient in front of them because they’re already too overwhelmed. Stands there, back ramrod straight and hands clasped behind his back, as if standing at attention before his peers, some grim General. Doesn’t even realize until afterward that he’s doing it. But he hasn’t seen his father for years and years and years, and has no idea how to act around him unless he’s to become that little boy again. He’s not a little boy anymore. “We’re still working on identifying who did this.”

“The newspaper,” Patrick says, drowsily. “On the train.”

“Yes?” Dave prods, far more gently than John could have managed. Dave isn’t a stranger, and talks to their father gently and calmly. “What about it, dad?”

“… asked to read …”

Then he falls asleep. The monitors don’t squeak in alarm, so John knows it’s okay, for now. He’s just drained. Needs to rest. But if he could have just finished that sentence …

John can’t stick around. The IOA are waiting. And he’s got to see to his marines - and is that betrayal? feeling more comfortable and confident speaking with his marines than his own brother and father?

God. They don’t know about Icarus. About … He’s got to tell them, one day. It will confirm what Patrick must have suspected for a long, long time. He can even have Carson send over the DNA analysis, an encrypted file, if proof is demanded to be seen. He could -

“Are you staying?” Dave asks once their father has settled back into the pillows.

“I’ve got things to do back at the Mountain. You guys will be safe up here,” he says, awkwardly. “I’ll see when I can come back.” Looks at Shannon. “I was nice to meet you, Ms Shannon. Wish it’d been under better circumstances.”

She’s looking at his Raven, distracted. Refocuses. “It’s Laura. Please. We’re practically family,” she says. “Dave speaks well about you.”

John can’t believe this for a second, but nods anyway. Doesn’t need to start a feud.

“Why is …” Dave asks before he’s out of the door: “Why is your Dæmon like – like that?”

“That’s a long story,” John says, tries not to take offence. “I’ll tell you all about it later. But they’re – they’re a normal Dæmon,” he has to add, clarify somehow because he doesn’t want them to look at him like that, not understanding, maybe even afraid. Strangeling, the word lies on his tongue, resting; Yeah, I’m a Strangeling, he almost says, but still human, still human enough. “Just with wings.”

It’s a story he wants to his father to be awake to hear, he realizes. The lies of childhood and the questions he wants answered. Icarus. All of the details. Icarus. All of the details.


He’s ringed back down to the Mountain in a daze. Forces his feet to keep moving. He’s got to keep moving, and not think about the City or the silence in his head or how much of a bad idea this was. There’s a job to be done. A marine to find.

Two of Atlantis’ teams are there, waiting. AR-9, while not supervised as suspects, are still unable to leave Cheyenne – a demand from the IOA, probably, ill at ease because of so many uncertainties. Lieutenant Drew is, understandably, deeply pissed off. She wants to be able to go out there and find her missing teammate. Gamble and Herschel share this sentiment loudly.

AR-4 are present too. By chance they’d all been stuck in the area for the past week, not yet split up. Maybe finding it as hard as John would have. A team is close. Like family. Leaving, even temporarily, can be a harsh and difficult thing, and they’re postponing it. They won’t return to Pegasus for well over a month, after all. There’s time.

(Time which John dreads.)

So, like an unspoken signal, word passes through the Mountain reaching the right ears, and twenty-one minutes after returning from the Prometheus, John finds the seven of them and their Dæmons waiting in one of the crew quarters. DeSalle is bunking here with Kemp at the moment. It’s a perfectly neat, unimaginative room, with gray walls and a flat ceiling without decoration; no posters. Room hasn’t been lived in. Both of the beds are made, and there are two more pushed against the walls, empty.

They snap into attention as he crosses the threshold and closes the door. This body isn’t his own, but there’s no mistaking the Raven.

“Colonel!” Corporal MacGrimmon sounds a mixture of relieved and befuddled. “Anything new on Snow?”

“No, not yet. There’s a meeting at 14:00.”

The Prometheus is still scanning.

Lance Corporal Gladys is fiddling with a datapad, most likely checking the servers for updates or the like. But this isn’t Atlantis. There isn’t the same structure with an intranet with a certain safety of discussion and contact being able to take place, and news aren’t shared the same way here as there.

Herschel swears on her breath in German.

“He’s not dead, he can’t be,” Gamble says. “He’s too stubborn for that. But he could be in trouble, real trouble.”

And this is the SGC, this is Pega… No, John corrects himself before the thought is finished. But things happen here that won’t happen elsewhere. They overcome the impossible. Snow’s missing but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. No one’s going to accept that until – unless – bodies are found.

“What do they going to do?”

“At this point, I don’t know,” John says. “The IOA are debating.”

“That damned committee never gets anything done before it’s too late,” Drew remarks, arms crossed. “We should be out there, getting the job done -”

“Tanya, we don’t even know what the job is, at this point,” Herschel says, tersely.

“So.” Kemp stands up from where he’d been lounging on one of the beds, approaches with open palms: “What do we know?”

“A whole bunch of nothing,” DeSalle sighs.

“Lieutenant, shut your hole and think,” MacGrimmon cuts in, sharply.

It’s all sharp. They’re threading on a lawn made of knives, searching. Searching. The IOA aren’t letting them do anything. One of their own is missing, and the Prometheus has done another sweep – Colonel Pendergast had reported personally, said: Still nothing – and the SGC are all thinking it: Snow is dead, just as the missing agent, who also had a sub-q implanted before going on his mission. The relation unclear, but without doubt there. There is no other reason for Snow to take off without warning.

His team keeps insisting that they had no idea Snow knew the NID agent and they have no reason to lie.

No reason.

John is ready to start tearing at his hair.

(None of them wants to be here.)

“Look, what’s the last thing he said, or texted any of you?”

Gamble consults his phone – IOA had confiscated it earlier, but they’ve got it back. There logically shouldn’t be a signal down here, this deep down under rock and forest and concrete and steel, but SGC has installed a few relays in the last year, not wanting to be wholly dependent on landlines. That’s meant heightening communication security, of course, because the last thing the SGC needs is an outsider finding a way into the Mountain (physically or otherwise) by jumping onto a stray signal. John’s not sure if that truly works, but, well, he’s not a technician. Wouldn’t care except it’s relevant now. A text message Snow received started all this, or at least brought it to light to the SGC.

(Also a sign of their level of paranoia. The phone was private, not something loaned via the Program, and yet the SGC had it tagged, listened in on Snow and his team. Do they do that to everyone? Every SG-team and personnel, or just the Lanteans, those they trust even less? The thought makes John wince, suddenly a lot more concerned about his and Rodney’s own emails during the time they were separated – they’d always encrypted their messages, and double-encrypted their secret videos but what if they don’t stay secret much longer? Someone digging them up and unfolding them, one by one? The techs working at the SGC are good. They’re all geniuses, even if they’re nowhere near as clever as Rodney. Combined forces can be a dangerous thing.)

The Lieutenant clears his throat, reading: “‘Will sleep it off. See you guys later.’ That was two days before yesterday. Said he was down with something.”

“The General actually tried to call him,” Herschel remembers. “He wouldn’t answer.”

“Honestly? I think either he was sick and asleep when the General called; or he’d gone out to have some fun without us and didn’t want to tell and, y’know, scored it with a hot girl,” Gamble adds. Shrugs. “I mean. That’d make more sense than … whatever they think’s happening. What do they think is happening?”

That Snow has run off to meet an undercover agent whose cover has blown, and has possibly leaked secrets, John thinks, mulling over the Lieutenant’s words. He sounds like he believes what he’s saying. Trusts his teammate, and doesn’t think he’d lie to them without good cause. That he’s a traitor.

John doesn’t want to believe it either.

“He left the Mountain in a hurry,” Herschel says.

“Yeah,” Drew agrees. “Ran into him when he packed his stuff, ‘cause I was headed from the gym and he was headed to the men’s lockers to grab his bag. I think he said something ’bout visiting his old folks or the family or something. He’s from D.C..”

“Even got an apartment there,” Gamble says, nodding as if making a plan in his mind, drawing a map. “You know, this quite nice bachelor’s pad. He would never shut up about it. He had this aquarium there? Like this collection. I don’t know, it’s such a nerdy thing, but, anyway, I know because he was sad about leaving behind his precious fish when we shipped out to Atlantis.”

“So maybe he was going to his apartment,” John says. Washington D.C. – there’s a lot of stuff there. Not just the obvious things, like the Pentagon and the White House. It’s more, because General Landry had, in their brief conversation earlier, hinted that that’s where the missing NID agent was last spotted or heard from. Can’t be a coincidence

“Maybe he really really missed his fish,” Gladys remarks humorlessly.

Gamble shrugs. “Nah. I think he sold it all or something before we left Earth.”

“So – visiting the family?” Kemp suggests, hopefully.

No one wants to say it: He lied to cover up something not-so-innocent.

And that minute, the conversation is cut short. The meeting isn’t scheduled for another half hour, but the marine sent knocking on the door words the call urgently. General Landry wants them – or at least Colonel Sheppard – in the Conference Room right away. And John goes, wondering if they’ve found out more about Snow or the missing NID agent – what else could it be?

(If it’s a sudden alien invasion, John is going to shoot something.)


Another urgent call, demanding attention. The last few days have been full of those, and none of those messages have been good. This one is no exception.

“Someone hacked into our servers at 12:00 hours – less than half an hour ago,” Colonel Carter says. She’s standing in front of a screen, entirely at ease in her surroundings, Dæmon relaxed. Meanwhile, John suppresses the urge to shiver and run away. “It was very well done. Whoever did it was obviously familiar with our encryptions and manner of storing data.”

Others at the table: Colonel Mitchell, whom John’s never before met in person - they shook hands on the threshold. He’s been in there in the background of a few databursts, video calls over three million lightyears; he was there when the whole thing with Icarus and the Goa’uld in Caldwell’s head was explained. He seems like a nice enough guy but the Colonel hadn’t been able to hide how unsettled the Raven makes him. How it affects them all. There are no spoken words or even questions – at this point, everyone knows the story – but, still. John notices

There’s the General, too, and Mr Woolsey. “What did they steal?” asks Mr Woolsey, frowning.

“That’s the thing. Nothing was copied with one single exception – this was clearly a planned attack, they knew exactly what they were looking for. It was one of the databursts from Atlantis, concerning the mission to M31-927,” Carter says. “Our security systems detected them but not until six and a half minutes into the attack, so they managed to copy every file from that databurst. It’s quite a lot of data because of the compression algorithm, and we don’t know if they have the ability or computer power to extract that data, but we have to assume that they do.”

Including the not-quite-true report on the communication stones, John thinks darkly. Fingernails digging into his palms, trying to ground himself. Coincidence? Can’t be. What else was in there?

Deserum, the stones … And all the other teams’ offworld activity that week; three other missions. Plus whatever the science departments added and the personal letters alongside.

“They didn’t delete anything,” Carter continues, “or alter any data. But the way they worked … It was very swift and precise. They knew a lot of the algorithms very familiarly.”

“A leak,” says Mitchell, leaning forward, frowning.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” John remarks dryly. He sits, arms crossed, in the most dreary conference room he’s ever seen. Wasn’t really up here last time – first time – he was at the SGC. Then he’d spent time with Rodney in the labs, watching him work, enjoying pulling his figurative pigtails. No idea what the hell could happen in the year to come. A cup of smoking hot coffee rests in front of him, but he’s only sipped at it. Something odd about his taste buds. Can’t really appreciate the drink like he used to. It’s probably the neural link, somehow. This isn’t his body. It doesn’t work like his own, all those details. He hasn’t eaten since leaving the City. “Do we know who ‘they’ are, exactly?”

“They have to be linked to the Trust,” Mr Woolsey says, frowning. “We think our undercover NID agent was trying to send us a warning.”

“Via Lance Corporal Snow?” That … doesn’t make sense. There’s a piece missing.

“Well, uh, it turns out that the agent and Snow are half-brothers. Same father, different mothers,” Carter says, and John just blinks. Okay.

“So, a family secret kind of thing.”

Far too familiar with those, he almost laughs.

Colonel Mitchell makes a contemplative noise. “Maybe the agent felt it was safer to confine in Snow? Less suspicious.”

And then a thought strikes him; a hacker. A lot of people in the City are polishing various skills, and the SGC always encourage further education; marines are given a chance to get a degree (or more, if they fancy it). Easier on Terra, of course. But in Atlantis there’s a plethora of scientist glad to share in knowledge and it gets hands-on and Snow, John vaguely recalls, wasn’t he doing this computational engineering thing? An asset to the Expedition in more ways than one, as it’s with a lot of people in the City. If that’s a motive;

John takes a breath and means to say this, but then Chief Master Sergeant Harriman, the primary Gate technician in the Mountain, walks into the conference room, hassled and obviously stressed.

“Chief, this had better be good,” General Landry barks.

“Sir, sorry for interrupting,” Harriman says genuinely apologetically, “but we were scanning national servers for activity as instructed and, well, there’s been a development. Someone else is also trying to find Lance Corporal Snow.”

“Who?”

The Chief consults his datapad, brows furrowing. “Uh, NCIS, sir. They made a search inquiry this morning to get information on his service record.” A record which will contain a lot of blurred out parts. “We only just noticed because one of their agents has been placing a number of calls, and got through to NORAD. Apparently they’re trying to get in contact with Colonel Sheppard, sir.”

John stiffens. And alarm bells are starting to go off in his mind: NCIS. What’s that again? … Naval Criminal Investigative Service, he thinks, memory rising, yeah. Knows about it only vaguely, in the sense that he’s aware of other acronyms but little about they’re actually all about. They have nothing to do with the Air Force – the NCIS has to do with the Navy and the Corps; the work they do is mirrored in part by the AFOSI. It would only make sense if … Snow. Snow’s a marine, and if NCIS is searching his name, then that means he’s been found (how? a victim? dead?) and they’d find, of course, a mention of his secret posting and the name of his CO somewhere or other.

“That’s our cue,” General Landry says. “I have a phonecall to make.”

John stands up as the General does. “Sir, I could –”

“No, Colonel,” the General doesn’t let him complete that sentence. “I’m not having you chatting with the feds. I’ll handle this.”

“Sir,” Colonel Carter says unexpectedly. “The IP address located the hacker less than a block from the apartment currently registered as Lance Corporal Snow’s residence. That can’t be a coincidence.”

The General considers this. And then he nods. “Colonel Sheppard, take one of your teams and check out the apartment. The Prometheus will ring you there. Carter, you and Colonel Mitchell will look into the hacker. I’ll deal with these pesky federal agents.”

“Yes, sir.”


Finally: something to be done. A mission to fulfill.

He heads out of the Conference Room and to DeSalle and Kemp’s quarters to see if they’re still there – it’s empty, but they’re still in the Mountain; none of them has passed by the check-point. Passes by one of the armories to gear up. He’s already carrying a handgun and rechecks the ammo, then grabs some extra, plus two knives. Never know when they come in handy. The Quartermaster looks faintly bemused about that last request. The scientists around here don’t tend to walk around armed like that. Well, maybe with the exception of Dr Jackson when SG-1 is about to head out.

He grabs a set of earpieces too, but decides against a TAC vest. Too conspicuous. They could run across civilians, after all, or need to cross a street in broad daylight – it’s not in the plan, but it could occur. Should be prepared to make excuses. The radios will have a direct link to the Prometheus so they can be ringed back up in case things go awry, or if they need to escape the public eye. The last thing they want is to cross paths with authorities or police who know nothing of the SGC. Would be a bit difficult then to explain what’s going on.

Lastly he asks the Quartermaster for a spare uniform, the type which SG-teams wear, and the design is only subtly different from the ones in the City. Insignia displaying the point of origin for Terra rather than a Pegasus lifting its wings. There are some spares, and eventually John find some that fit. But if they’re going to battle then he’s got to be dressed for it. Luckily, Rodney took his military issue boots with him, well-worn and walked into. John manages to find a lone corner to change in. Doesn’t think Rodney would appreciate it if he used the men’s lockers just like that. They hadn’t talked about such boundaries, hadn’t had enough time to think about it, but John knows that, as a civilian, Rodney just isn’t as used to the whole no-privacy mentality which marines and also airmen are more or less used to, sharing gyms and locker rooms and bunks. Once he’s in a BDU he feels a bit more like himself, actually. It helps, a grounding thing, like wearing armor. Once he’s geared up – swiftly – he goes in search for AR-4.

Corporal MacGrimmon is in the mess hall, eating Jell-O alongside the rest of his team without much enthusiasm. Picking at it. A normal day in the City, Kemp’s arms would be waving around vividly as he tells a joke, or they’d play a game of cards. There’d be laughter. Now they are all morosely subdued, even Kemp who’s usually a very laidback guy, and they speak in carefully lowered voices with the other marines present. Whether it’s a conscious act or not the City’s marines have bunched together, formed a group of their own, sitting apart from the rest of the Mountain’s marines and airmen.

MacGrimmon looks up as John approaches, steadily and at a determined pace which can only mean one thing. The marine doesn’t seem upset about this break in time off. No: he looks relieved.

“There’s a lead on Snow?”

“Maybe,” John ventures. “We’re going to D.C. to check something out, but I’m only authorized to bring AR-4 with me. The Prometheus will ring us out.”

“Still got us tied up here? Verdammt.” Herschel shakes her head in dismay.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so, Private. The General and the IOA aren’t too inclined to listen at the moment.”

“They can’t keep us here forever, sir,” Drew says. Turns to the members of AR-4 and commands strictly: “You drag Snow’s ass back here before I do.”

Kemp chuckles, but without heart. MacGrimmon nods: “We’ll do that, Lieutenant.”

John hands out the earpieces and explains the orders. For a moment it’s almost like being back in the City and they’re preparing for a mission; just like any other day in outer space.


Colonel Pendergast has been notified, and the Prometheus rings them up from the Conference Room in a hurry.

They’re just here to turn around. One of the technicians aboard is already punching in the coordinates. AR-4 wait, patiently, weapons loaded. They also bring a couple of zat’nik’tels – one shot stuns. Just in case they run into some less than savory guys who they could need to interrogate. Once the coordinates have been confirmed, they gather on the platform, AR-4 standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle, protectively familiar, their Dæmons used to be near each other; and John standing aside but not apart.

Then the rings rise and the light carries them away. 

Chapter Text

xv.

in the flesh

part two

there’s no such thing as a coincidence;  


NCIS Headquarters · Washington D.C. · Earth · The Milky Way 
February 16, 2006 (Terran time) · 142 days after the Uprising


The man sitting inside Interrogation One is impeccably calm. If he’s nervous or agitated, he isn’t showing it. If nothing else, he looks bored – cut-and-dry utterly completely bored. Leaning back in his chair, arms loosely crossed, posture certain and relaxed. Rolls his shoulder or head once or twice, fiddling his thumbs. Then he looks right at the one-way mirror, at where he must guess at least one agent is standing, listening;

“Hey, is this show going to get on the road or what? Getting kind of restless in here.”

They’ve looked him up to little avail, because half of his file is deeply classified, parts of it blocked out and censored. They couldn’t even access the second half, not high enough clearance. And it pisses Gibbs off, because his clearance should get him through this: his clearance should get him through anything.

Got a name, though, and a profession, and the man is no marine or military at all, but civilian through and through (though there seems to be some liaisons with people of the military as of late). Doctor Rodney McKay, Canadian astrophysicist born in 1968; graduated prestigiously summa cum lade from MIT after first starting to study there at the mere age of fifteen; two PhDs – and Agent McGee had exclaimed half-aloud that he’s heard about this guy before: their fields of expertise don’t intermingle much, but Dr McKay is apparently utterly brilliant. Astrophysicist. Caught the eye of the CIA in sixth grade for building the model of an a-bomb in his parents’ garage for a school project, and was  interrogated for half a day and an expert called in only to announce the model was, well, just a model and not about to explode. For a while surveyed by the FBI, but they’ve dropped any suspicions or accusations long ago, it seems. A proper genius. Now roped into working with the American government but when, where, and under what organization’s acronym – it’s all blurred out. Anyone’s guess. All they can tell is that it’s important for somebody: someone high-up. Whatever corporations may be involved, even the government itself; the man has got contacts.

Someone’s covering for him.

Looking at him, he doesn’t seem that assuming. Not that tall, rather squarish face, averagely blue eyes, mouth a hint of lopsided. His clothes aren’t worn or tattered: not that typical sleazy geek – instead he’s dressed like the marine, in nondescript cammies and it’s just not right. Complete with heavy black combat boots (and they appear to be the real deal, military issue). Found wearing a fancy digital watch, but no phone, no other markers, no ID card or wallet. Dr McKay is just sitting there, bored, and after a moment he stretches and yawns, scratches at the right-hand side of his neck idly.

They’d found him armed: a handgun, two knives. More armed than they’d expect a guy like him to be, and the weapons seemed military issued. Standardized. But people could far too easily get their hands on those elsewhere. Hasn’t got a warrant.

His Dæmon’s got to be small enough to hide in his pocket, scurrying to take cover when they searched him. No sign of it, but it’s got to be there; of course it’s got to be there, and the guy had made annoyed face but hadn’t complained as the agents patted him down and walked him through the metal detector downstairs. The jacket has got enough room to hide something tiny. A rodent, maybe. Somehow – it doesn’t seem to suit his character. First brief impression. Small Dæmons are spun for small and humble souls.

And something – Gibbs can’t quite pinpoint it, but something about this guy is silently screaming wrong wrong wrong and he is inclined to trust his gut instincts.

They’ve split up the doc and the other suspect – because at the moment suspects are what they are. The other, the marine following the doc around like a Personal Security Detail – he’s not talking either. Corporal Jimmy MacGrimmon, USMC. His file, too, is full of secrets, things out of reach. It’s infuriating, that’s what it is, and also too much of a coincidence in Agent DiNozzo’s mind. It’s a connection, not a coincidence.

“Look, I’m a busy guy, and I bet so are you. So why don’t we get this over with?”

Something about the way he talks. As if his words don’t truly fit perfectly in his mouth. Something off with the accent: he doesn’t sound that very Canadian; there’s something about the syntax and the accent. Can’t quite place it. Maybe he’s been around Americans too long, mimicking it. They managed to pull a photo to ID him, but found no picture of his Dæmon yet, and it’s not obligatory for a person to reveal their Dæmon’s Shape in written documents with federal access. You can’t order people to bare their souls. There’s no name. No clues. And Dr McKay doesn’t seem inclined to share anything. Can’t even repeat his name and ID number like an interrogation by the enemy, like a marine could do if taken prisoner. And he’s not demanding a lawyer. Just sitting there, waiting.

This guy isn’t a marine.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Kate mutters, arms crossed, surveying the man through the mirror. She’s good at reading people, but there’s something off about this guy.

“A lot of stuff doesn’t make sense,” DiNozzo agrees. “Like why some people have pineapple pizza –”

“Tony, please. Focus.”

“Oh, wow. You said please. It always pleases me to hear you say that to me, Kate.”

She sighs, too used to her teammate’s attitudes than what’s probably healthy and sometimes she has a very strong urge to kick him, because he truly lacks a sense of tact and, really, has no idea how sexist he is half of the time. Like an overgrown child brought up surrounded by tiringly bad influences, and she’s stopped trying to change him because it would just drain her dry. “Very mature.”

“Honestly, though. The sting is just … Okay, right. Forget about the pizzas. What’s a Canadian science guy doing at a dead LC’s apartment?”

Gibbs enters the room: sternly quiet, like usual. Doesn’t say a word. Places a closed folder on the table, takes seat. Dr McKay sighs dramatically. “Finally! I’ve been waiting ages. Special Agent … Gibbs, wasn’t it?” He squints at the agent, uncrosses his arms and leans over the table a bit. “You’ve got questions. Ask away. Though, got to warn you: I can’t tell you nada, really, honestly. Nothing personal, agent. I’m sure you’re a swell guy.”

When Gibbs doesn’t say anything at first, just stares, the usual cold glare which would make normal people cower and stutter, the man has the gall to grin lopsidedly. “Oh, I see. Bad cop thing going on, huh? Trust me, I’ve seen far worse. That glare isn’t going to work with me.”

“Talks a lot,” DiNozzo remarks from behind the one-way mirror where they can’t be seen or heard. “Doesn’t he.” He can’t quite believe that the doc is sitting there calling Gibbs of all people a swell guy. Of all things. Jeez. “And to Gibbs’ face, no less. That takes balls.”

Agent Todd merely glances at him, shakes her head in silent disapproval, and doesn’t comment.

“All right, Dr McKay,” says Gibbs pleasantly and opens the folder. “Tell me about today.”

“Which part? Got to be a bit more specific.”

“At one fifteen a.m. today you were apprehended for unlawfully entering a downtown apartment belonging to Lance Corporal Mitchell Snow, United States Marine Corps. What were you doing there?”

“Classified.”

“Who are you working for?”

“Classified.”

“Anything you do that isn’t classified, Doctor?”

A smile, sharp and humored and his expression is difficult to read. “There are a couple of papers on the mechanics of flight, but I’m not sure you’d grasp what it’s all about, Agent Gibbs. No offense.”

Gibbs isn’t happy. Pissed off, in fact. This guy is just wasting time - “How do you know Lance Corporal Snow?”

Abruptly – no: a slow change – McKay’s expression melts into something harder, something stern and not quite detached. No, there’s an undercurrent of anger and frustration, for the first time, and it’s intriguing. And still something off, as if the man isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin. Is it the room? This setting – the unforgiving walls of the interrogation room – would make anyone nervous. 

“Classified. Well … I could tell you; then I’d have to find a good place to dump a body, and frankly it’d be a huge waste of my time.”

So he knew Snow personally. Interesting. “That a threat, Doctor?”

“That’s a fact.”

A pause. Gibbs opens the folder, pulls out the mugshot of Snow’s dead face on the slab: cold, like the metal beneath, the hint of the Y-incision blow his collar bones. The scientist doesn’t flinch, but there’s a hint of an angry frown, just a minute detail. He doesn’t begin to sweat; he doesn’t curse; he doesn’t avert his eyes. The gore, apparently, doesn’t bother him. Or he pretends that it doesn’t.

This guy is an actor. To what extent?

“Take a good look at that,” Gibbs urges. “And tell me why I shouldn’t believe you’re the one who put him there.”

Resignation. The guy’s thinking about choices, about benefits and losses no doubt, and he’s speaking like a tactician rather than a scientist. Like – yes, now it makes sense: this man doesn’t hold himself like a scientist. Nor wholly like a soldier, but there’s much more of the soldier in there nonetheless. The certainty of his well-guarded, well-controlled facial expressions; the lack of movement of hands; like preserving energy. This guy, Gibbs thinks, this guy has been trained to withstand interrogation and that doesn’t make sense. A civilian wouldn’t have reason to be trained for that.

“Our goals aren’t dissimilar, Gibbs,” he says at last and meets his gaze head-on. “We want to know who killed Snow, just like you.”

“Who’s we?”

“That’s classified. Unless I receive authorization to bring you in on this, anything I tell you would lead to a very swift termination, or a jail cell without a trial. Either way, it won’t be pleasant.”

“Authorization from whom?”

“Classified.”

That’s enough. Gibbs doesn’t have the patience for this.


Leaving the doc alone to simmer for a while, Gibbs walks over to Interrogation Two where the marine is waiting under the careful watch of Agent McGee. Corporal MacGrimmon is less talkative, but no more agitated or nervous. In a determined manner staring at the table, hands knotted in his lab. His back is straight. Unlike the civilian, he’s in combat uniform, minus the vest. They’ve confiscated his 9mil handgun and his Swiss army knife.

He repeats his name and service number and that damned, unwelcome word: classified.

It’s all classified. Gibbs is quite ready to rips heads off if someone says that word one more time. Perhaps even call Fornell – but no. They’ve evened out their favors, and it’s too early. The FBI have nothing to do with this case. This belongs to NCIS and Gibbs is going to keep it that way.

“I’m not here to play games,” Gibbs growls. Getting damned tired of this. “You’re stationed at the same place as Snow, under the same CO – that correct, Corporal?”

Corporal MacGrimmon squares his shoulders. “Yes, sir.”

“Where, exactly?”

“I can’t tell you that, sir. That’s –”

“Classified?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You and Snow were close?”

“We’re buddies. Same base.” MacGrimmon looks at him, decisively. Must be unnerved and anxious, but pretty good at hiding it. “I saved his ass, he saved mine, more than one time, sir.”

“This.” From the folder, he pulls out a transcript. A text conversation, and he points at the names: the mysterious (abbreviation?) AR9, the piece of code that they haven’t managed to unveil yet. The conversation itself makes little sense, context missing. Stray names mentioned within the texts: Drew; Herschel; Gam; Mitch – that is clearly the victim, Mitchell Snow. … Pegasus – a codeword? base? operation? … Colorado. A location and unfortunately it lies beyond the range of NCIS’ normal operations, but Gibbs is damned if he isn’t going to find a loophole to get the answers. They’ve got people analyzing the conversation, but it’s slow work, slower than what Gibbs prefers. He gives the Corporal a moment to look at the plain print;

“This mean anything to you, Corporal?”

MacGrimmon tries not to let it show, but Gibbs is a seasoned agent and he knows, he knows when there’s a flicker of recognition and that’s definitely it, even though he cannot say to what exactly: the texts’ contents or the mentioned names, or the part AR9 itself.

But MacGrimmon stubbornly refuses to answer.

“Covert op?”

“Can’t say, sir.”

Everything is damned classified.

He looks closely at the Corporal for several long moments, but he has evidently clammed up. Keeps repeating that damned word.

Maybe the doc in the neighboring room has thought through his options and realized that giving his cooperation is his best option.


Another photo is tossed at him. A close-up of Snow’s ruined face;

“You’re not going to make me talk,” Dr McKay says. “Try as hard as you like.”

The nerve of the guy. Gibbs steels his voice. “And what would make you talk, doc?”

“A phone call. I suggest you try General Jack O’Neill – that’s two l:s,” the man says, quirks a grin. Looks up from the photos which he had considered unflinchingly, but with a momentarily darkened expression – something very personal about it. Yes, Gibbs is certain, Dr McKay knew Snow. He keeps talking, relentlessly and too brightly: “Try the Pentagon. I mean, I might not be much of an office guy personally, but that’s a pretty nice place he’s at. I especially like the choice of rug. You know, very chic. And if he’s not there, well, he’s probably in the Oval Office drinking coffee and having a chat.”

This General is in regular contact with the President? Then that means …

“Very high up. SecNav, or one of those guys?” DiNozzo guesses from behind the one-way mirror, unheard and unseen by the two inside Interrogation. Todd nods. 

“That would make sense,” she says, “with his cockiness and everything.” Even if the thinly-veiled threats are nothing more than empty words; it doesn’t seem to her that the words are fueled by nervousness or anxiety. Though she’s got plenty of profiling training, Todd can’t quite pin this guy down. There are contradictions to the way he acts. 

Except it doesn’t make sense, doesn’t at all.

“So: why would a Canadian astrophysicist, who’s friends with a high-up American General, be snooping around a dead US marine’s apartment with another very live marine as his PSD?” DiNozzo ponders.

Someone opens the door without knocking. They shouldn’t be. Gibbs never wants interruptions during interrogations, and the whole building knows that, and DiNozzo turns toward the door to shoo them off – but it’s not a stray agent or janitor or technical assistant. DiNozzo nearly makes a double-take; and then he realizes they’ve got no choice, and he shares a look with Todd, who shakes her head very pointedly – you deal with this, she means.

Oh, crap.

“Uh, Boss …” DiNozzo awkwardly clears his throat over the intercom, and briefly thinks about the horrid way he’s going to die because no one, no one ever interrupts Gibbs’ interrogations without being the recipient of bodily harm.

But the Director is standing right there, her arms sternly crossed, and demanding to see Gibbs right now.


There’s been a call – not even SecNav, but from Homeland Security, and they only poke their noses into NCIS business when it’s truly serious and they think NCIS too incompetent and not cleared enough to solve it, and it pisses Gibbs off.

“They can’t take this investigation –” he growls, but Director Sheppard shakes her head:

“I’m not sure how word reached them but they know about our dead marine. In fact, a team is on its way right now to ID the body. If the dead man is who they’re looking for, they’ll retrieve all evidence and we are to close this investigation without ado. And they want Dr McKay and Corporal MacGrimmon released immediately.”

“What’s their excuse?”

“They claim this lies outside of our jurisdiction; however, I won’t let this go so easily,” the Director says. Her voice is smooth and controlled: “They’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”


DiNozzo and Todd are waiting by the plaza, while McGee lingers to keep an eye on the two suspects. Who, Gibbs says furious and disbelieving, are meant to be freed of all charges and collected by someone sent by Homeland Security, and NCIS is meant to Not Ask Questions about the whole thing. Gibbs isn’t going to back down, though. Not without a fight.

Dr McKay and Corporal MacGrimmon are far more than they seem. Gibbs isn’t going to let this go without a fight, whyfor he’s ordered McGee to stand watch over the two, and not surrender them to anyone outside of NCIS until this is sorted. Because he will not, whoever the orders come from, let someone take this case from them, especially not now when they’re slowly, finally, starting to make headway.

They know the drill. Hell, it’s not the first time another agency has meddled and demanded to take over a case; so DiNozzo rang down to Abby’s lab, and the technician is copying valuable data onto one of her computers, a backup drive somewhere, hidden from view. That way, even if they must hand over the hard evidence, they’ll still have access to a copy. Dr Mallard, too, has been warned. If these people – whoever they are – can identify the remains then they’ll definitely take over. But the chances of that … The marine’s face is gone, and his Dæmon is unique yet generic.

Less than a quarter of an hour after Gibbs was interrupted by the Director, the elevator pings and the doors slide open.

It’s not an FBI agent wearing a black strict tie and immaculate polished shoes and unbearable haughtiness who enters the room, wearing a visitor badge and escorted by one of the door guards who makes sure no unauthorized people can enter HQ. It’s not even a marine. It’s an Air Force General. His hair was once some shade of brown, though it’s mostly gray now, and just a touch too long for Gibbs’ comfort: a marine certainly wouldn’t be allowed to have it that way, even a General. His dress blues are tidy and he carries his cover under his right arm, posture quite relaxed despite the hints of annoyed darkness in his expression. That’s quite a lot of medals on his chest. Whoever this guy is, he carries a heavy weight.

DiNozzo tries not to stare as Gibbs and the Director descend the stairs from the Director’s office to meet with the General. Hands are shaken, but DiNozzo knows both his bosses well enough to tell that neither wants to extend any courtesies.

The stranger has got a few minions with him, and they’re clad in standardized battle-dress uniforms – dark grays and black, sturdy boots, and there’s something suggesting that even though the clothes are clean and boots polished they may be battleworn. Same stock as what the two suspects are wearing, same colorings, and their shoulder patches, too, have been covered up though the shape is somewhat different – Dr McKay’s had been round, but these are more of a triangle shape. But the three marines are not full gear and their thigh holsters are empty. Weapons confiscated at the gate, no doubt. Covers off.

Two women (one dark; one redhead; both quiet and difficult to read, and they’re tense as if this a fight they’re walking into, a hornet’s nest) and one man (square shoulders, dark hair, a conflicted expression). The three linger in the background without saying a word to either the General or among themselves. The way they move … as if they’re a team, part of the same squad; Gibbs is familiar with that. Checking the perimeter; and this is enemy territory.

“Director Sheppard, I presume?”

“Yes,” the Director answers. She can’t recognize the man right away – not the voice who had interrupted her lunch with her PA – but then it clicks. There are a lot of big folk on the move in D.C. in general and at the Pentagon in particular, and the city is thick with agencies; but she’s seen this guy, all right, if only from a distance. “General Jonathan O’Neill, am I right?”

The General breaks into a smile, as if this isn’t a day out of the ordinary after all. “So you’ve heard of me; likewise. Thought it’s ‘Jack’ – Major General Jack O’Neill. Hear you’re doing some great work here after your predecessor, Director. All good things. Now, I’ve got three marines here,” the General says, indicating slightly with his head, “with business here while I need to have a chat with you, Director.”

“Is that so,” the Director says, coldly. “I understand that Homeland Security sent you.”

“Technically, yes,” the General says. “Though you could say I’m here on behalf of a friend. Major General Hank Landry, Air Force – old buddy of mine, and let’s say I owed him a favor.”

No one moves. The junior agents barely dare to breathe. Though the words are pleasant and not at all aggressive, and their tones guarded, the air is thick enough to be cut with a knife. DiNozzo discretely checks his phone; Abby was going to let him know when the copying was done, but no word yet. The marines are still quiet and waiting, it seems, for directions. The moment lasts only for a few seconds; Gibbs is staring the General down; the General blinks, briefly, as if only vaguely impressed.

“If,” the Director says, “we hand the reigns of this case to you, what will you do, General?”

“Get to the bottom of this and find the sonofabitch who killed our marine,” says the General, with this heat implying more than he says, though careful, and the Director notes with interest the use of pronouns. This General is Air Force. There are no marines, as such, working directly with or under him; surely. Surely. “Let me ask a question, ma’am. You’re a Sheppard, yeah? Any relation to a Mr Patrick Sheppard, utilities mogul?”

Both are quite common names, and there are probably many living with the combination. But the Director halts, hiding a double-take, face guarded; the conversation is veering into a direction unexpected, and the name does ring a bell. “I can’t see how that’s relevant, General.”

“If I said this case involves both this Mr Sheppard and one of your cousins – a son of said man – rather directly, would you be interested in a compromise? That way, my people –” (which can mean anything) “– will get their answers, and you people will have a chance to continue their investigation. I’ve heard you NCIS people are rather good at what you do, and so are we. A combination of efforts, really. Your agents and yourself would be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement first, of course.”

Wait, her cousin? The agents, including Gibbs, notes the word. The Director never speaks of family, and for this General to know and use it like this; if this is related to the Director, however distantly …

The Zoomie, Gibbs thinks then, hiding whatever shock the realization causes. Snow’s CO. Sheppard.

(There’s no such thing as a coincidence.)

The Director looks at the General sharply. “How directly involved?”

She doesn’t prod about nondisclosure agreements, not yet, far too familiar with those. Most agents sign half their life and their firstborn away before the consequences truly occur, and silence threatens to envelope them. She is willing to sign them, to get answers. Gibbs, perhaps, too. She’s not as certain about the rest of Gibbs’ team. They’ll want questions answered, and no answer can be given beforehand.

“If our theories are right – and I trust that they usually are,” the General adds wryly, “then very directly.” Not a real answer. The General, despite his clever dress blues and neat words, appears almost casually relaxed as if this is nothing new to be shocked or especially concerned over. “As in we have a clue someone might want to get their hands on him; someone other than the usuals.”

How very reassuring, DiNozzo thinks wryly, holding back an irritated noise at the General’s general vagueness.

The Director nods. “If this is done, my team will be granted full access, retain control of the direction of this investigation, and your people will be let in on anything necessary to assist.”

“Hmm. Well, that’s workable. Let’s talk this through with the General,” General O’Neill says (which other General? what?), and faces Gibbs having steadfastly ignored him until now despite the silent glaring. “Agent …?”

“Gibbs,” he says, grating and harsh. He doesn’t trust this guy. His instincts are telling him that General O’Neill, for all his medals and manners, is hiding something huge from them all. And Gibbs isn’t fond of secrets because they too often end in pain and threats of death. “Senior Special Agent Jethro Gibbs.”

“Well, Senior Agent Gibbs, would you mind having one of your junior agents escorting our marines to the morgue,” says the General, despite the wording of a question more of an order, and suddenly he appears not at all amused and his Dæmon is now tenser, a bit slouched as if by weariness and age and burden of command.

He turns to one of the yet anonymous uniforms. Gibbs has glanced at their name tags, though, and notices that there are also flag patches on their shoulders – two American, one German – which isn’t covered up, unlike on the other side; perhaps that contains some classified information, or a codename which the General doesn’t want to reveal yet, something that could tie them to a Secret Project.

The one named Drew is addressed: “Lieutenant, let me know what you find.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The Director and I have a call to make,” General O’Neill goes on. “You have some fancy telephone hub around here, don’t you? Oh,” he adds, struck by a thought: “Dr McKay and the other marine you’ve got in your custody – would you be so kind as to unlock them from your interrogation rooms, Agent Gibbs?”

“Maybe you had orders to bring them out, General, but they’re still suspects at a possible crime scene,” Gibbs says calmly, not backing down. “Suspects under NCIS jurisdiction.”

“Not anymore. We sent them to Lance Corporal Snow’s apartment where you found them. Any complaints about that you’ll have to route through me. Now let them out of there. I need Dr McKay to partake in this chat,” says the General smoothly. The hint of a smile again; only vaguely. “If your people hadn’t only turned up ten minutes later, we could have avoided this whole mess.”


Agent McGee is tired of waiting.

Sure, he knows he’s the most junior agent of his team; the Probie; the one who has to deal with the most menial tasks while also enduring the sometimes-merciless teasing of DiNozzo and, on occasion, Todd. Doesn’t mean he has to like it. Plus, things have gotten better of the past year; he’s proven himself in the field. Shown Gibbs that he’s not just a computer nerd.

And now he’s been put on guard duty. There was a call, so much he’s gathered; the Director had calmly walked into Interrogation One to grab Gibbs, and it sounded urgent. DiNozzo and Todd are now at the plaza, waiting for someone to show up – to take the case. McGee understands how livid Gibbs has got to be.

They’ve moved the two suspects to the same room, and McGee sits behind the one-way mirror, observing. They’re still recording, in case one or two of them lets slip something. Refused to the last to answer questions, stubbornly. Without direct supervision that might change.

When McGee had escorted the Corporal to where the doc was sitting, the two had exchanged a greeting glance and a nod. Then, as he’d left the room, the marine had asked:

“They asked you too, sir, about Mitchell?”

And Dr McKay had said, voice grimly tight and arms crossed: “Yeah. Showed a picture. It … it didn’t look good.”

“I can’t believe it,” Corporal MacGrimmon had muttered, hands knotted atop of the table and for a moment he’d lowered his head as if in grief. “Shit. Shit.”

“It could be someone else,” Dr McKay had said then; refusing to believe. And something like hope had risen in the Corporal’s eyes, and the doc had gone on, carefully, aware that they’re being listened to: “Couldn’t tell who.”

“So he could be …” the Corporal had trailed off and silenced, and the two hadn’t spoken any more.

Eventually – just a few minutes later - his phone buzzes, and McGee fumbles to pick up. “Agent McGee here.”

“You’ve got to release the prisoners, Probie,” says DiNozzo without preamble on the other side. “Orders from the Boss.”

“Right. Okay. So they’re not involved in this?” McGee wonders, confounded and confused. They caught these guys breaking and entering, fair and square.

“I didn’t say that,” the other agent answers. “But we’ve got orders from some hotshot General from the Pentagon. Looks like the doc and his bodyguard have got friends in high places. Get them some visitor badges. Gibbs will still want to talk with them.”

The call ends without a goodbye, and McGee nods at the technician in the corner to cease recording. When he enters the Interrogation room, the doc looks at him, saying – voice light and casual and he’s slouching back, just like before: “Got more questions for us, huh?”

“Not quite,” McGee says reluctantly. “You’re being freed from all charges. Come with me.”

As the two are uncuffed and allowed to stand, Dr McKay gives the Corporal an inexplicable glance.

“See, it worked out like I said it would, Corporal.”

“Only with your – people involved, sir,” says MacGrimmon, as if halting over a word, making a last-minute repair of choice. “Crap like this doesn’t happen to mine.”


The three marines are led down to Autopsy by the two agents, and Todd and DiNozzo watch them carefully. Curious: no introductions were given, as such, but these people must have known Snow well. Their faces are tense, and shoulders drawn back and heavy, and they sometimes exchange quiet glances as the elevator carries them down. Clearly familiar with one another. Their Dæmons stick pretty close. They have fought side-by-side; that much is clear. They don’t speak.

The coroner is waiting. The marine’s Dæmon has been put back in the freezer, and the dead man covered up under a sheet. Dr Mallard nods a quiet hello to the agents, beckoning them over; they’d called to give warning, and give the doc a moment to make the room more presentable, though he’s still outfitted with blood splattered on his clothes and gloves. He takes these off, now, throws them in the bin by the door, before donning a clean pair and leading them to the freezer. Opens number four and pulls the drawer out.

Dr Mallard has done a good job, cleaning out the blood. Fixing up the ruined throat and the damage to the Dæmon’s muzzle even if it’s not (will never be) completely what it was. A difficult task. The coroner has touched more Dæmons in his life than most people would ever have nightmares about, albeit dead ones, and his hands gloved - gruesome and unforgiving, and, most people think, a wrong thing to do. But sometimes it has to be done. 

The three marines look at the Dæmon, quietly. Their breathing is sharp, and DiNozzo and Todd think that it’s shock and grief – and then one of them, the dark-haired woman, says:

“No. That’s … that’s not her.”

The marine whose nametag calls her Drew – a Lieutenant, by her colors – raises her gaze to look the agents in the eye. The name immediately rings warning bells: the same name was mentioned in that text conversation. The fact that she’s a marine, that they’re all marines interconnected, that reveals that these people and Snow know each other well enough to be part of the same platoon or squadron. Perhaps closer. Question is: is AR9 the name of that squadron or their op? 

Now Drew stares, face tightening, at the unmoving Dæmon laid out on the table and everything is so quiet they can hear the soft murmur of the vents and the agents expect grief, they expect to see stoic shock at the revelation of the dead marine. But now Drew says:

“No. That’s not Mitchell’s Dæmon.”

“You sure, Lieutenant?” DiNozzo checks; this is unexpected. They were pretty sure of the person’s ID, with the digital facial reconstruction recognized by Mrs Snow and all. This definitely complicates things.

“A hundred percent,” agrees one of the other marines, the guy. Private Gamble. “Mitch’s was similar, sure, but their fur was much more red, and there was this white mark on the – Yeah, that’s not her.”

“Could we see the body?” asks the third, the redhead. Private Herschel. She sounds weary, albeit her words are steady. The lilt to her voice suggests that she’s German. “Agents, please,” she adds, an afterthought. “Snow’s part of our team. If it’s – if he’s dead … We need to know.”

Todd glances at Dr Mallard.

“I’m afraid he’s not in a very good shape, my dear,” says Dr Mallard gently. “I fear identifying his face would be impossible.”

“I see,” says the first Lieutenant, drawing a sharp breath. Clearly disturbed at the notion, and somehow understanding – realizing – what the doctor’s statement could imply. “I don’t know who exactly you’ve got here, but that’s not Mitchell’s Dæmon.”

DiNozzo is already crossing the room for the desk by the door, and grabs the landline phone; there’s no cellphone reception down here. The doc would probably remove the landline phone too if he could, not so very fond of it. Gibbs’ number is on speed dial.

He picks up after three long, slow rings.

Behind him DiNozzo hears Todd continue to question the marines, and they keep insisting: No, no, this Dæmon is that of a stranger, and they have worked side-by-side with Snow for over two years. They know him. They know his Dæmon. Might even have spoken with them though they don’t tell, and that only happens when people are very, very, very close. When he glances over his shoulder, DiNozzo sees their frowns and clenched, trembling fists, as if the marines are unsure whether to be relieved or angry, or if they should (could be able to) grieve. The fact that they’re here means that they are missing Snow, and the big General upstairs knew it too, and they showed up thinking they were going to find his body.

“What?”

Gibbs sounds annoyed and tired and generally, really, as himself – in the middle of a discussion with the Director and the strange General, up in SatCom, possibly, or the Director’s office. Voices in the background. Disagreement. Can’t pick out the exact words.

“Boss, the dead Dæmon isn’t the LC’s,” DiNozzo says, lowering his voice a bit. “We might have a John Doe on our hands.” And he thinks of the digital photo which Abby managed to match against records; their face cannot have been too different from the marine’s. “They could be related to the LC somehow, close enough to be mistaken for him.”

Gibbs doesn’t answer, only hangs up after a second of silence. But DiNozzo has worked with him long enough not to take it personally. Or try to, anyhow. Anyway, he understands what it means. He looks at Todd, nodding.

“Let’s get up there.” Turns to the marines. “You’d better come with us.”

The marines are visibly more relaxed than before. As if vague hope has been kindled, and the one with the German accent exhales as they enter the elevator again, and there’s a murmur right before the doors close: He could be all right.

And the other marine answers in a similar soft tone as if only daring to hope: Maybe.

Chapter Text

xvi.

do not go gentle

part one

death can also lie.


A headache is slowly growing behind his eyelids, but John grits his teeth and refuses to let it show.

They’d planned to disconnect tonight – Terran time, that is – in a few hours. It’s already been far longer than their first and only previous test with the stones. Once they get their things back (minus the guns), handed to them by the agent introducing himself as McGee, John glances at the digital watch on Rodney’s wrist; well past two in the afternoon.

On Atlantis it ought to be late morning. Wonder what Rodney’s up to. There’s been no databurst so they – Elizabeth and everyone else – have no idea about what’s happening here. This detachment makes him uncomfortable. If Atlantis was nearby, if this was Pegasus, he could’ve trusted his team to be ready to jump into action or had the surety of the Aurora being able to fly them away and out of harm, of backup being only a Stargate trip away; here, now, none of that’s going to happen.

He reckons, though, as the SGC are keeping their eyes on NCIS at this very moment. They may not have been able to find Snow’s sub-q, but they are well-aware of Rodney’s and MacGrimmon’s respectively.

They were stuck in the interrogation room for quite a while and John had grinned and borne it. Took some grim pleasure in watching the old stern agent’s glare flare and falter – Agent Gibbs hadn’t been pleased. But John hadn’t lied. He couldn’t tell him anything.

The sudden release was unexpected and yet not at all. It doesn’t take long to figure out that someone must’ve guessed they were in trouble; monitoring from the Prometheus, scanning for their subcutaneous transmitters. Colonel Pendergast’s technicians would’ve noticed how he and MacGrimmon moved too quickly from Snow’s apartment here, to NCIS Headquarters, to have been on foot. And John’s order to ring the rest of AR-4 back up would’ve been a big giveaway that something was up. MacGrimmon should’ve been ringed up too, but the marine hadn’t moved into the circle quickly enough. Something that could’ve been interpreted as disobeying orders, but John’s not planning on causing any repercussions for that, regardless if the marine’s move was deliberate.

So they’d been stuck for an uncertain amount of time, unable to tell the truth and unable to prove themselves innocent, and when Agent Gibbs had thrown those grim photographs on the table John had swallowed back nausea and anger. It burned hot in his chest. Because if that’s Snow – no words are enough; no words; no words. Even as Gibbs demanded answers, and asked so bluntly if he or perhaps MacGrimmon were the ones responsible for killing the Lance Corporal – John had wanted to shout, say, show him: no. no way in hell. And he hadn’t wanted to truly believe it.

He’s seen a lot of people die in hideous ways, but this, this was new and rough and shocking, and the memory of that photograph – the man without a face, everything stripped off and seared and ruined – is going to remain at the back of his mind for a long time, perhaps forever. He’d though of Snow, last time he saw the man, with his team being waved off from the City; glimpses at the farewell party sharing Athosian hot cider; the mission to Deserum. Snow is (was) (was) a pleasant kind of guy, the sense of humor most people got along with. Little rough around the edges maybe. His team missing him fiercely, wondering what’s going on and the SGC so interested and the strange coded texts –

And then he wonders what the hell he’s going to tell Snow’s team, and he watches Gibbs’ back as the man turns and sharply walks out of the room upon the demand of a woman over the intercom; Gibbs’ face had remained stony but his eyes a storm upon the interruption. And John’s mind had been only in part of the recent conversation – he’s faced far worse interrogations in the past – and he could think only of Snow’s team, still waiting for their teammate to return, still hoping; and no one has wanted to believe the man to be dead. Run away, perhaps. A traitor, even. John was preparing himself to handle that, to face that unfair truth – but this? this?

MacGrimmon had been questioned too. Asked first thing when they were brought to the same cell about whether he as well was questioned about Snow, and the Corporal’s so usually steady shoulders had hunched slightly and he’d briefly closed his eyes, reality sinking in;

This is Earth. (Most) people who die on Earth stay dead.

And then the door had opened and they’d been let out. Agent McGee has him and MacGrimmon equipped with plastic badges proclaiming them now to the visitors rather than suspects, and they’re led through the dull corridors to a plaza full of people at work.

There are corners divided, and a multitude of desks and computers, and could almost be mistaken for any other ordinary office if not for the row of boards at one wall listing the top ten most wanted terrorists and criminals on NCIS’ list. John can recognize quite a few of the names even if some pictures are grainy and foggy; been on the news, or whispered about, or openly hunted for when he was still on Earth. Some are unknown, deep secrets. Not quite like the secrets of the SGC.

Corporal MacGrimmon is real quiet for a while. Hadn’t wanted to believe; their brief earlier conversation hasn’t soothed his fears even if he seemed a little bit relieved when John said he couldn’t identify the dead man’s photograph. Had understood, though he didn’t put it to words, that the man was beyond recognition; implying so much more than a mugging gone wrong, a case of mistaken identity.

Agent McGee’s desk contains two computers, of the old bulky kind, and it’s kind of strange to see so many stationaries; John has become used to the ways of Atlantis, the sleek consoles and plasma screens, the Ancient holographic displays, and the laptops they’d brought with them, the PDAs littering the hallways.

The guy powers one computer up and tells them to wait for his boss – Gibbs – to return. The man’s Dæmon is a ferrety thing which peers at them curiously, quietly. Looks kind of daunted and a bit confounded.

Speaking of which. John glances around. There are many windows, but he can’t see an opening mechanism to them right away. Besides, even if he got them open, it’s not like they could fly in here without causing a minor riot, and he’s just in no mood to deal with that. They’ve got a view from the outside. Keeping up with the car, earlier, as the agents had taken them from Snow’s apartment, had been a bit difficult but the city traffic has a lot of slowing twists and turns and holdups, and the Raven would always catch up at the traffic lights. And it had been strange, and John had sat in the car eyes half-lidded, watching, watching the Terran city sweeping by below, all of these humans, all of these people everywhere

He’d almost forgotten. The noise, the smell of a city so crowded. Atlantis doesn’t have cars or trains or movement of the same kind. There are no Starbucks or busy cafés, no wafting scents of food at odd places, no shopping malls. There are no busy businessmen stressedly crossing the street. Cars. Highways and people minding their own lives, unaware of the vastness of the sky;

Earth … is noisy. Oh, Earth is so loud. And the wind had tasted strange, not as clean as the air on New Lantea, tainted by CO2, and it had taken a good deal of effort and concentration to remain on course and not fly higher, seeking altitude among the clouds, far from the noise and pollution.

The city is full of birds. Took advantage of that. No one pays heed to another raven in the sky. Near NCIS Headquarters a pack of crows nearly collided with them, and Shy had joined them, foreign; a bit difficult to navigate amongst and through them, but it’s easier to blend in. Then they had passed, and the Raven had settled atop of a lamppost (the sensation of Terran steel so strange so strange) from where they can peer right into the agents’ office. Now John glances sideways and sees, for the first time in too long, that they’re truly all right, even if he always can feel it, and see what they see if he wants to.

The wind is slightly cold, and it had rained until just a little while ago. Their feathers feel a bit heavy, and they ruffle them, trying to get some of the water out. They observe, somewhat bemused, the world around them. The Dæmon has never before seen Earth, like this, truly: only though his memories. They can see him now, too, and he feels them relax a bit – you’re all right; we’re all right. No one pays heed.

But if an agent were to look out the window this moment, they might’ve noticed the glimmering green eyes staring unblinkingly back, far too intelligent to belong to a natural animal.

Agent McGee clears his throat. “Uh, would you like some coffee or anything?”

John glances at MacGrimmon. “No, sir. I’m good, thanks,” says the Corporal. And John shakes his head. Everything tastes bland anyway, and he doubts it’d help his headache.

The agent doesn’t leave them be. No doubt because he doesn’t trust them. To be honest, this guy appears more of a geek than a soldier; some kind of hacker, maybe? More Spock than Kirk, anyway. Nowadays such skills are just as valuable for intelligence (if not more) as old fashioned guns-out-blazing soldiering. Agent Gibbs had seemed shrewd, but also more of the latter kind, and John thinks the guy must’ve been a marine before he became an NCIS Agent. It would explain why he seems to be taking Snow’s death not only seriously but personally.

Snow’s death. No. John doesn’t want to be certain of that. There is a body, yes; but no more than that. Yet. No dog tags or other clear marks of ownership, and – no mention of the man’s Dæmon. Do they autopsy those? John’s pretty sure normal cops wouldn’t; hell, normally a proper deep autopsy isn’t the norm if the cause of death is clear enough – but federal agencies are another thing.

Is the dead man’s Dæmon lying somewhere between these four walls, hidden in an icy drawer, cut open with a coroner weighing its insides?

John forces back a shudder and tries not to think of it.

He turns to the agent. “How come you’ve suddenly exchanged our cuffs with guest badges?” John asks.

Agent McGee answers in a tone of voice suggesting he’s not certain just how much he should, or is allowed, to tell. “There was a call from a General. You seem to have some important friends, Dr McKay.”

Being addressed like that never ceases being weird and he tries not to let it show; tries to react appropriately and at once, and not at all like the name isn’t his own. Each time, the delay is a little shorter.

“Yeah, well, I guess we’re more popular than we thought,” he says, and from the corner of his eye notices MacGrimmon’s mouth twitching in a faint smile.

Then McGee tries talking with them. Or him, specifically. Something about MIT and publications and the like, and John attempts to roll with it. So McGee is a geek, it seems, graduated from MIT (with very high scores no doubt) with a focus on computer sciences, and he’s heard of McKay even if they work in different fields. Maybe even read one or two of his papers before the man disappeared from the face of the Earth (literally; not that McGee knows that), and when McGee asks if he’s published anything lately, John shrugs, says something along the lines of not having the time and it’s classified; the good old excuse.

Even as he repeats the same lie for the fifth time, John is a little bit smug that he can still follow McGee’s conversation, at least when it veers into areas of mathematics common to both computers and theoretical astrophysics. After all, much of one depends on the other. Equations are needed to build simulations. He guesses McKay would love to butt heads with this guy. Of course the debate would end, eventually, with McKay declaring the agent to lack in intelligence, but still.

And as they talk, he hopes to lower the agent’s guard bit by bit. Wheedle out some information about the case, or about the agents themselves.

“Your boss seems the grouchy type.”

The agent looks around for a moment as if fearing that said man would suddenly appear. “Uh, he, he can be,” McGee admits, “but he’s a really good agent. Solves every case.”

“Every one?”

“Yeah! Yeah.”

“Huh. Is he ex-military or something? Seems the sort.”

McGee nods. “He was a marine before joining NCIS,” he says. And then he stiffens a bit, catching on that he’s the one being asked the questions when, just a minute ago, it was the other way around, and his expression turns slightly pinched and suspicious.

John makes an ahuh-noise at the back of his throat. Ruse’s up. The agent’s going to avoid further questions in that direction. He lets his gaze sweep over the plaza. There’s a digital billboard nestled between two desks, a wide plasma screen, and there are lists of suspects and notes about evidence and drawn red lines and question marks.

John can see names there; Snow’s, of course, but also his own, as the CO. There’s a phone number attached and an angry string of words muttering unreachable, try later, and he bites back a wry grin. Good luck with that.


As soon as they’re out of the elevator, DiNozzo heads for SatCom, and Todd leads the marines back to their pen, where McGee is sitting by a computer, typing; it’s hard to tell whether he’s actually working or only putting on a guise while often glancing upward and sideways at the marine and civilian man also standing there. Neither has sat down, even though being offered a chair.

They’d almost forgotten all about the two previous suspects. They’re now out of Interrogation, and McGee seems to have supplied them with visitor badges. At the sight of them, standing casually relaxed in the plaza – at least Dr McKay seems relaxed; the dark marine is still stiff and seems kind of pissed off – the three marines stop short.

“Colonel!” Lieutenant Drew, stepping forth and, funnily enough, it seems like her hand is itching to rise in a salute, though she stills the action before it begins. Todd still takes note of it, because it’s such an odd thing to do; Dr McKay, whom she’s turning to, is a civilian.

“Nah. It’s the doc for now,” says Dr McKay in greeting. Words strange. The Lieutenant appears briefly confounded, before she and the others nod, as if an agreement has passed. “Good to see you, Lieutenant.”

“Sir – doc.” Drew’s voice is tight but hopeful. “Snow might be alive.”

Corporal MacGrimmon, silent until now, stares wide-eyed and there’s an unreadable expression in his eyes. “What?”

Dr McKay, also obviously shocked, doesn’t say anything at once. Looks the Lieutenant in the eye, and hope returns: “You sure?”

“Yeah. It’s not his Dæmon in the morgue.”

“Shit. Do we know …?” MacGrimmon leaves the sentence hanging, tersely.

“No,” Todd cuts in. “But if what you’re saying is true, then it is possible the body does not belong to Lance Corporal Snow. And that means this case is outside of the jurisdiction of whoever you’re working for.” She directs that last part sharply toward Dr McKay as well, who only shrugs, nonchalantly, as if this isn’t his problem.

McGee is standing. “Wait, does Gibbs know about this?”

“Yeah, Tony’s letting him know all about it now. Are they in SatCom?”

“Yeah, with the Director and the Air Force General,” McGee nods, a bit nervously, because Gibbs and the Director had both seemed a lot angrier and more annoyed than usual; as if the General had come to spit at their feet and insult all of NCIS in the process.

Truth to be told, McGee isn’t too happy either, and not just because his bosses are on the edge. No. Something about all this is giving him a bad feeling; like that creeping sensation up the spine giving you misgivings about what you’re actually experiencing, what’s truly real. He doesn’t like it at all.

Then there’s Dr McKay and Corporal MacGrimmon. The two certainly hadn’t bowed during interrogation, and he heard from Tony that the doctor even called Gibbs ‘a swell guy’ to his face without blinking. Looking at him down, it doesn’t seem likely. There’s a certain cockiness in the man’s body language, and that’s another thing that’s bothering him. The man looks far too at home in the black battle dress uniform than a civilian ought. McGee isn’t a marine by any means, but he’s been around long enough to pick up on things. It’s like the guy’s face isn’t matching the rest of him; or perhaps his voice, his words themselves.

Once he’d taken them out of their cuffs and the harsh interrogation room, they’d both seemed friendly enough. Corporal MacGrimmon hadn’t said much, though he said thanks when McGee got their stuff back from Abby’s lab, minus their still-confiscated weapons – those they’ll only get back once they leave HQ altogether.

It doesn’t sit well with him to just let the two go, like that, at the snap of a finger when just an hour ago they were suspects at a possible crime scene. But Gibbs couldn’t disobey the General without good cause, and so far they haven’t been any clues that these two men are murderers. As for their real reason for being at Snow’s apartment …

And now Snow isn’t the victim?

Possibly, he mentally adds, because a Dæmon only tells half a story. Snow could be dead, his Dæmon dumped elsewhere, and that would mean the guy in the morgue is indeed him, but the dead Dæmon belongs to someone, too; either possibility means that someone else other than Snow is dead. The victim of homicide.

And the fact that the Dæmon is such a lookalike to Snow’s. And Snow himself. The digital facial reconstruction isn’t a hundred percent, of course, but the likeness was enough to fool even Snow’s mother, and – McGee frowns. There are too many missing pieces to draw the proper conclusions. Are they dealing with two dead, not one?

While Tony and Kate had been takin the marines to Dr Mallard, and Gibbs and Director Sheppard busied themselves with the General, McGee was left alone with Dr McKay and MacGrimmon. Not suspects anymore. Guests. Got them badges to show just this.

At first, he’d attempted discourse. McGee studies different – vastly different, at times – sciences at MIT than what Dr McKay has got his degrees in, but he thought, maybe, he could glean a thing or two from him in some innocent geeky talk (as Tony would sneeringly call it). Yet the doc hadn’t seemed very interested in that. In fact he’d seemed pretty uncomfortable when addressed – particularly, McGee had noticed, when using the agent spoke to him using the proper epithet of ‘Doctor’– as if McKay didn’t feel deserving of it.

In vain, he had tried to grasp for common ground. Asked if the doc had read this or that recent paper and found that, no, no he hadn’t. Dr McKay said some frail excuse about being offshore for a long time. Odd choice of words, though McGee couldn’t immediately realize why or how. Said he hadn’t published for the same reasons. Classified work; can’t explain unless the whole thing it’s connected to is declassified. That McGee can believe, since the doc’s signed up to work with the government, whichever branch it might be, and they’re sticklers to rules, regs, and classifications.

Anyway, Kate’s back now, and the dynamic of the room changes the moment the elevator slides open. The three marines are joined by MacGrimmon, and the doctor, seemingly comfortingly at ease (recognizing them all; knows the name; they must’ve worked together) stayed with them. Maybe not in the group yet not apart. Now they’re speaking in low voices as if the agents aren’t there to listen.

“You know if my team’s all right?” Corporal MacGrimmon is asking Lieutenant Drew, who nods.

“Yeah. Colonel Pendergast explained they were collected,” she says. “They’re waiting there.”

MacGrimmon nods, visibly relieved to hear this.

“Hey, for a second there you got us worried, man,” says Gamble. “What happened?”

Dr McKay has got his arms crossed, wryly amused. “Got ourselves arrested by a pair of curious agents. We’d barely just arrived, and couldn’t really get a good look around. No sign of a struggle, though.”

“What about, uh – I mean, are they around? Your, uh – they?” Drew asks suddenly, as if struck by a thought and can’t word it properly. The question is so vague. Or, or there’s something that can’t be said, and now she has to code the message. An agreed upon secret, and that’s both interesting and disconcerting, and just the sort of thing which agents are taught to look for. The Lieutenant sounds genuinely concerned. “If you were are the apartment, and the agents saw –”

Dr McKay must’ve caught on, because he shakes his head to that statement. “No. Though, kind of tricky to keep up with the car. I don’t think anyone noticed.”

“Well,” says MacGrimmon, at length, “the city’s full of birds.”

“Yeah,” Dr McKay chuckles. “Doesn’t seem like these windows can be opened, though.”

“Isn’t that … strange?” says Herschel. “Is it a problem, sir?”

“No. Take a look, if you like.”

McGee tries to follow their gazes, past the agents at work and the busy desk, toward the windows lining the opposite wall. The day outside is still cloudy, though it’s ceased raining a little while ago, and maybe the sun will come out for a little while before the day is over.

There, there’s a glimpse of streets, cars moving to and fro, the cityscape never-ending; a line of lampposts, dark, and flashing signs at a distance, and a couple of trees swaying in the light wind. People. McGee thinks he sees a flock of birds pass by – a pack of dark crows, though one of them, a pretty big one – maybe it’s not a crow, he’s not sure of what’s what, to be honest. Not a bird person. It stops briefly on the nearest lamppost, as if to rest. Ruffles its feathers, unblinking. Some passers-by cross the sidewalk below, a few still clutching umbrellas since the sky is still threateningly heavy.

There’s nothing strange about the sight, just a normal day for the people outside HQ, and yet the marines all seem calmed a bit by looking out; it’s only a moment, one second, and then it’s gone.

Then the moment is forgotten and McGee doesn’t remember it for a long while afterward, because Gibbs reappears, DiNozzo in tow, and there’s also the Air Force General. The Director is not with them.

“Dr McKay.” Gibbs’ voice is unmistakable. It’s not quite a command or an angry bark, nor a question. Sharp.

“Hello again, Agent Gibbs,” Dr McKay smiles pleasantly. Turns toward the General – evidently they’re not strangers. No lies. “General. How was the talk?”

“Well, there was talking, and talking, and talking – the Director is still doing that with Hank,” the General says, tone implying he’d rather be sipping coffee in his office, or possibly be working off steam in a shooting range. “So apparently our victim is not Lance Corporal Snow.” Sends a glance at the three marines.

“No, sir,” reports Lieutenant Drew dutifully, backed up by the other marines. “At least it’s not his Dæmon.”

“We still can’t find his sub-q,” the General says. Looks at Dr McKay. “You’re lucky you got picked up by NCIS, by the way. Just imagining having to meddle with another agency makes me shudder. Two birds in one stone, really. Now, we’re still trying to work out the details here,” he says, giving Gibbs a sidelong glance, “and both Agent Gibbs and Director Sheppard –” (something significant about the name; the marines all react to it, in various degrees; McGee thinks he’s missed something here, something that could end up being important) “– are quite insistent that you and the LC are to be kept here. I have to disagree. Anyhow, we’ve had a pleasant chat with Hank about this though the matter isn’t settled. Good thing is,” he says, turning to Dr McKay and MacGrimmon, “you’re both free from all charges.”

“Thank you, sir,” Dr McKay says graciously. It doesn’t match his face.

“Don’t thank me,” the General shakes his head. “I think you’d better have a private talk with the Director, doctor. She insists on not signing the confidentiality agreement right just yet. Apparently, we’re not ‘trustworthy’.” This seems to amuse him, like an old joke.

“Surprise, surprise,” mutters Private Gamble dryly, and Private Hershel hushes him with a sharp familiar look.

“So you still want to take this case, even though evidently the body in the morgue is not yours to lay claim to,” says Gibbs, and stares down the General; could keep it up all day, no doubt, even without coffee.

Awesome.

“This doesn’t entirely exclude involvement on our … behalf,” the General says, and McGee thinks this is the time to start backing away slowly. Doesn’t want to get caught in a pissing match between Gibbs and an unknown factor. Even Tony seems wary, though this kind of thing might’ve amused him. “I can’t tell you more than that.”

“You still won’t tell us who you work for, not even an acronym – I don’t believe that bullshit about this being Homeland Security.”

The General doesn’t seem to be offended. Instead he regards Gibbs carefully, closely, almost as if weighing him. Then, without taking his eyes off of him, he addresses Dr McKay. “Do you suppose you could talk some sense into the Director?”

“Uh, maybe, sir. Yes, sir. Depends on how far I’m allowed to go on the talking,” Dr McKay corrects himself, and then it strikes McGee what other thing that was all wrong with this guy: he doesn’t sound like a Canadian, nor like a civilian. He sounds like American military. It’s right there in front of them, clear as day, so suddenly –

This guy isn’t Dr McKay, regardless what his photo claims. This guy … is some kind of usurper.

Gibbs seems to have realized this too.

“Who the hell are you?”

The General smiles, teeth glinting white. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe half of it, agent. Now, we’ve got to be off. McKay – have a chat with your cousin. She’s in her office. Up that way.”

“Sir.” The doc nods, like a marine would at an order.

“And we’ve got the nondisclosure agreements on standby,” adds the General, “so, if push comes to shove, talk away.”

‘Cousin’? O-kay. Huh. But the doc’s Canadian …? Obviously, they need to go back and study his family tree, and see wherever it conjoins with the Director’s. And see what kind of relevance that could have with the case.

Baffled, McGee watches them go. The General takes the marines with him; though they all offer to stay with the doc, for some reason, as some personal security escort, and MacGrimmon says before the elevator reaches them: “Sir, I’m going to stick around, ‘cause we all know the trouble the – the doc gets into.”

Dr McKay doesn’t react, as if he didn’t hear, not even rolling his eyes. He’s already only his way toward the Director’s office. Whatever the General answers, swayed or orders disobeyed, the LC does indeed stay, getting a clap on the back from the one named Gamble before he hurries after Dr McKay.

“Corporal, I didn’t give the order,” Dr McKay starts, sounding just slight exasperated, as MacGrimmon bounds up the stairs two at a time, coming to the doc’s side.

“Well, then I’m making my own, sir. City veteran privilege.”

“Fine. Don’t think I didn’t hear that, though.”

From this angle McGee can’t see the marine’s face, only hear the vague response: “Yes, sir, sorry, sir.”

And then the two have ascended to the top floor and entered the corridor leading to the Director’s office. And if the agent had taken the time to look out the window, he would have seen the same raven, previously perched quietly atop a lamppost, take flight, as if ascending with them; but Agent McGee and his colleagues don’t look out and don’t see this happening.

Instead they wait until the General and his minions have left through the elevator, and then Gibbs turns to them, gathering them around, and from his expression McGee can tell that this is far from over.


Cynthia Summer’s day has been wearisome and worrisome, and there’s been some strange things in it. The phonecalls interrupting, and the Director’s face falling into shadow. Yet, for all the ways that it’s bothersome and dreary, it’s not extraordinary, and no cause for true alarm. Not for her. When the Air Force General had appeared and spoken, at length, with the Director in her office, along with Agent Gibbs, Cynthia hadn’t been privy to details. At at the end of the day she’s probably better off not knowing. After some time, the General and Gibbs had both left, and the Director had said she didn’t want to be disturbed. A call she has to make on her own. Even now Cynthia can hear her voice, distantly, filtering through the door. She’ll get her some coffee later, and see if there’s still some of that cake left in the fridge.

She’d sorted paperwork and rang some necessary calls to make the rest of the afternoon run more smoothly, and then, at 14:18, the phone rings again. There’s something vaguely familiar about the number. Cynthia adopts her usual pleasant tone as she answers.

“NCIS, Director’s office. … Hello. How can I help you, Ms Mayfield?” And she remembers suddenly where she last heard that name, and she doesn’t know why, but something strikes her as odd about this conversation. The VP of that company. She doesn’t repeat the name this time, as if that’s not of importance. “One moment. The Director is in an urgent meeting, but – Yes. Yes. I see. … With whom is she…? No, I am not able to divulge that information. If I can take a message, or arrange a meeting … Today? I’m afraid that will not be possible, ma’am. But tomorrow; how does eight o’clock sound? … That’s the best that can be arranged –” The woman on the other side is clearly aggravated but smoothing it out. Another stressed secretary or PA, Cynthia would just reckon. “I understand, Ms Mayfield, but the Director isn’t available for the rest of today –”

Someone knocks at the door. Cynthia reaches for the button on the side of her desk, to change the lamp-lit sign hanging by the door from the green available to the red busy. They just have to wait for a moment. Cynthia’s desk is placed in a room adjacent to the Director’s, and one has to walk through it to reach the other. It’s a sensible arrangement, being her PA and all, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of some people thinking they can just walk through as they will without bothering. This time, at least, whoever’s on the other side of the door gets the message, stopping to knock, either walking away or waiting.

She refocuses on the conversation. Ms Mayfield’s voice is like honey, smooth and silken and well-practiced, as she repeats that this is an urgent matter that must be discussed with the Director as soon as possible, without explaining what the urgent matter actually is. Nothing usual. Cynthia has spoken with too many people like that in her career. Typical federal attitude, to reveal nothing, and either Ms Mayfield or her employer carry some classified information. And they wouldn’t have gotten this number by looking it up in a catalogue. It clearly is important.

“I understand, ma’am, but Director Sheppard is truly quite busy,” Cynthia says, again. “I can’t say when she’ll be available today. Let me take a message to pass on. … Yes, in the building.” Grabbing a pencil, she scribbles in her dependable notebook. “Yes. Yes. Thank you. I’ll let the Director know. … Have a nice day.”

She places the phone back in the cradle, and exhales, studying the message. Brief and not telling anything. Then she glances toward the Director’s office. The door remains closed, and she can vaguely Director Sheppard within arguing at level tones. She isn’t agreeing with whoever is on the other side.

It’s still quite cold in here, that stray draft refusing to cease. Yeah, she’ll talk with a janitor … when she finds the time. Whenever she finds the time.

Then she switches the sign from busy to available, and, after a few seconds, two people enter. And Cynthia saw – just a glimpse but enough to be sure – those two in Interrogation earlier, when the Director had marched down to interrupt Agent Gibbs’ work. But now the two are wearing visitor’s badges. One of them – tall, dark and handsome – is obviously a marine. The other – Caucasian, slightly soft around the middle, receding hairline – clears his throat and smiles in an off-guard manner Cynthia guesses is meant to be charming, though there’s a peculiar tilt to his lips as if he’s not that sure about using them to smile.

“Hi. Is this Director Sheppard’s office?”

“Yes,” Cynthia says. “But she’s busy at the moment with an important call.”

“General Hank Landry,” guesses the man, and Cynthia frowns: that was the exact name the Director used before she locked the door. The man in charge of these other people’s affairs, which are shrouded in mystery; and the Director isn’t fond of mysteries.

“I’m sorry, sirs, but you just have to wait.”

“That’s fine,” says the man. “Thanks.”

There’s a soft, short sofa along the opposite wall, between a plotted plant and the window, but neither man sits down. They seem far too tense. Cynthia readies herself for bothersome questions or, worse, long hard looks and poor attempts at flirtation, but this doesn’t occur. Instead the marine and the civilian – she supposes – draw close together, backs half-turned to her desk.

“Suppose they’ll listen, sir?” says the marine quietly.

“Honestly I’ve got no idea,” shrugs the other.

And they don’t really speak anymore until, a few minutes later, the Director’s call is ended and Cynthia announces that she’s got two visitors on the intercom. The Director doesn’t sigh, but her voice is strained, and she doesn’t sound surprised.

“Send them in.”


Director Sheppard has had enough.

This murder is unlike any other case. Oh, they’ve had similar ones. Dark and messy ones. They’ve investigated marines, civilians, even their own agents. These people, they’re different. If she had the choice of any words she wanted, she’d say they’ve lost a piece of their minds somewhere along the line.

General O’Neill has reached the peak of his career, now a desk-bound pilot but the Jenny thinks she can still see some energy in him. He speaks in a very laid-back manner, but evidently knows the works. He’s in the Pentagon, after all. They don’t let just anyone in. Jenny has her assistant, Cynthia, find O’Neill’s record. It’ll make interesting reading and perhaps tell her something the man won’t.

It’s all so secretive. And she’s the Director and doesn’t usually get directly involved in cases – but the General had looked her in the eye and mentioned her long-lost cousin, and, despite herself, Jenny is intrigued. She hasn’t heard from that cousin since childhood, years and years and years ago. From old Christmas cards and vague family gatherings, she’d summarized that there’d been a falling out, discourse, disquiet, after her aunt-in-law died. Car accident, she thinks it was. She’d phone sometimes, a few times a year, to talk with her uncle; Patrick is getting old. There was a letter a few weeks ago, from her other cousin, Dave; a wedding invitation. Jenny’s still deliberating whether she’ll have the time to go.

Dr McKay isn’t smiling. The greetings had been flat and empty and stilted. So the General’s so desperate he sends me a theoretical physicist to talk me into signing a nondisclosure agreement.

“I know it sounds – out there,” the doc makes a vague gesture with his hand. “Hell, I didn’t buy it at first, either. But trust me, signing it is worth it. Because if you don’t, within a few minutes, we’ll probably take the body and all anyway and solve this on our own, and I’ve got a feeling you won’t like that.”

“You’re right, I won’t,” she responds. “Let me ask: what’s a Canadian physicist doing in concord with the Air Force?”

“Bit of this, bit of that. It’s not just Air Force,” Dr McKay reveals after a moment of deliberation. “This … this is huge. It’s bigger than the planet.”

Odd choice of words.

“Okay, okay,” says the doc, finally. “You don’t believe me. I get it. I wouldn’t either. Story of my life,” he drawls, dryly, and his accent sounds nothing Canadian at all, despite the words on paper. Gibbs had voiced similar concerns: impostor. This guy is a liar, and so is the General and the rest of them.

So are we, Jenny reminds herself. There are many things the NCIS never tells the public. Why would this other Program – still refusing to reveal their true identity – be any different?

“I don’t know why the General thought I could convince you,” sighs the doc, rubbing at his temples, the most vivid gesture so far. He looks bleak all of a sudden, tired, worn.

He’d entered her officer alone, leaving the marine – Corporal MacGrimmon – by the door. Her insistence. These words are for them alone. Jenny feels her Dæmon restlessly against her leg, trying to keep still.

“Here’s the deal. You sign this,” he holds up the pile of paper, so innocently, TOP SECRET stamped at the top. “And we’ll let you know who we really are, and we catch a murderer, and there’s your happy ending.” He says it as if he doesn’t believe in those at all, but Jenny doesn’t either, and doesn’t comment on it. “Or you don’t sign it and you’ll never know the truth. Your choice.”

“I –” she starts.

And then there’s a strange whining noise, and a retaliating voice shouting, and Dr McKay is on his feet almost as if his nerves are as honed as her own. She reaches for her gun resting on her hip. She rarely gets to use it anymore – not since she was an active agent herself.

The voice isn’t shouting in English, some foreign language she’s never before heard, harsh and unforgiving.  And every one of her instincts scream at her: there’s someone in the building. Intruders. But how? To have gotten past security, all the agents – there’s no way that –

She’s by the door, and Dr McKay, though unarmed, takes point on the other side as if realizing what she’s about to do. Exchanges a look. Inhaling, exhaling, Jenny nods, and the doc grabs the handle, swinging the door open, and Jenny takes point, gun aimed;

The room should be empty but for Cynthia and the marine. The marine is lying on the floor, out cold, Dæmon sprawled next to him, and Cynthia is crouched behind her desk. A red light is blinking. Means that the rest of the building’s been alerted. Good. No sight or smell of blood. But they’re not alone.

Somehow, somehow, somehow these people have made it past the locked doors. And Jenny’s first thought is this can’t be fucking right, because there are three men in the strangest getup she’s ever seen, some kind of golden armor; escapees from the museum’s Ancient Egyptian exhibit. There are marks on their foreheads. The fourth man is clad in a black BDU – basic standard – no insignia, and his eyes are cold like ice, and his Dæmon is the shape of a gray wolf. She can’t see any others. All this is registered in the flash of a second.

She pulls the trigger. The bullet makes a dent in the chest plating of one of the first three, and the guy stumbles back but doesn’t fall. They’re holding a tall staff, and aims it at them like a weapon –

“Crap!” gasps McKay, and Jenny is tugged back by the elbow. A blast of heat and light and noise from the staff – what the fucking hell – sears into the wall behind where she’d just been standing. McKay doesn’t even blink. He slams the doors shut.

“I need a weapon!”

She doesn’t have spares. Shakes her head.

A second blast tears though the door handle. Forced open. They stream in. A rain of fire. She returns it.

What the hell’s going on?!

Pain. It blazes across her torso, burns through her shoulder. She falls back, grunting. When she removes her hand, she finds traces of blood on it but adrenaline makes the pain dull and faraway. Dr McKay, unarmed, grabs for anything to use, and he doesn’t move like a terrified civilian. He isn’t shrieking or pleading or weeping. He grabs a pen from the desk like it were a knife and collides with one of the armored men. Pierces his right eye with it. The man howls and falls, and blood spurts darkly on the floor.

In a haze, Jenny tries to pull out her cell. Dial Gibbs. Anyone. They must have heard the gunshots. They must be on their way –

“Hold it right there!” barks the man with the wolf. There is no infliction to his words: no pain, no anger, no particular heat. The words simply are, and Jenny feels a chill running down her spine.

She’s faced down all sorts of people. Been part of dark secret ops and special extractions and shoot-outs. She’s interrogated and done things to be less proud of. But she’s never seen eyes like that, or a Dæmon so utterly still, as if it were a shell, tired and to be disposed of.

And Dr McKay stares, shocked;

“Colonel Everett.”


This isn’t possible.

John has read the reports; he’s seen grim pixelated images, shaky video feeds. He’s read the reports. The markings on their foreheads, their staffs. These are Jaffa in service of some Goa’uld – and they can only have gotten in here by ship. Ringed. There’s a ship. Where? Is it cloaked, hidden? Circling above D.C. right at this moment?

This isn’t possible.

He sees the Director go down, the blast hitting her shoulder. Staff weapon. The damage is like a burn, but it bleeds too, and John has never seen those staffs in action before and feels helpless not knowing what the damage could be. By comparison, Wraith weapons are so simple – they don’t make you bleed. And the bolts of energy released by the staff aren’t like bullets either. It burns as well as pierces.

They need backup. Assistance. This building is full of agents and surely surely surely someone’s on their way?

This is fucked up, he thinks, and reacts, grabbing a pen to wield as a knife and it’s almost ridiculous in its irony but he isn’t laughing. That’s the pen Jenny would have used to sign the nondisclosure agreement if they’d managed to get that far. Instead, instead NCIS HQ is being attacked from within by Goa’uld.

And the mastermind – he knows that silhouette. He knows.

“Colonel Everett,” slips out of him, the pure shock for a second. Everett is not a Colonel anymore. He’d walked away from the Corps, after – No, not willingly. And now John grows cold; this is the reason. Everett didn’t leave the Corps willingly. They must’ve gotten a Snake in his head to pull the shots, it’s the only thing that makes sense because Everett had been far too proud to just walk away unhindered. The wolf is still like a statue, unnaturally so, especially since there’s a firefight raging around them. As the man turns, zat’nik’tel in hand, John is certain without a doubt. “Stand down!”

In return, Everett doesn’t speak. Takes aim. John ducks to the side, a flare of electrified air sweeping past him, over his head. The man – the Goa’uld – fires again. Counting the milliseconds, waiting.

Jenny is clutching her injury with her right hand. And John seeks her gaze. She nods, shakily. She lifts her gun.

A bullet hits right where he wanted it to, tearing through Everett’s wrist, forcing him to drop the zat. The man does so involuntarily, flinching, but he doesn’t stagger or drop down or cry out in pain. The stilted expression on his face is entirely inhuman. Unnatural. Wrong.

John manages to take one step forward, manages to just grab the zat, before a cold muzzle is pressed against his neck. The grip is steady and unwavering. The two Jaffa still standing, one of them with a deep dent in its armor above where a human has their heart, point their staff weapons at him and Jenny.

He stills.

“Drop the weapon.”

He hesitates.

“Drop it.”

Ah, fuck. He can’t fight like this. Rodney’s body doesn’t know how to. And he doesn’t want Rodney to get hurt. He obeys, safety on, and kicks the zat in Everett’s direction when prompted to.

“You’re going to call the Raven to you, or I will kill your companion and then put a bullet in your spine.”

Jenny is held down by one of the Jaffa. Willing herself to remain conscious. She’s pale, breaths harsh. She doesn’t move, and neither does her Dæmon and at least, at least no one’s touching them but John knows that they will if he fights them. If any of them struggle. Can’t let that happen. John dares to glance sideways somewhat, but can’t see the speaker yet, but it’s a woman’s voice, dangerously soft. Another Snake?

Has to be. No one in their right mind would be serving a Snake willingly, and it’s not the desperate voice of someone moving under coercion.

“Fine,” he grinds out, reluctantly. Shy whispers, [We’ll be fine. Been in worse spots.] and he says: “Got to open a window.”

One of the Jaffa does when commanded to: a blast from the staff weapon breaks the glass. A breeze, slightly moist with dark rain, sweeps through the room. It is so silent now, too silent. But John can hear voices and moving feet. The agents must’ve figured what’s up, amassed forces, and now they’re trying to get through the door. But he doubts that they’ll still be here when they do.

The Raven sweeps down from the lamppost where they’d waited, partly hidden in the gloom, watching out of sight; Jenny wasn’t meant to know; no one was meant to know or be given a chance to react. They land on his right shoulder, a familiar weight, a wing nearly touching the gun and they could have tried attacking. Could have swept down and hacked out the Snake’s eyes and snatched the gun out of their hands – but the Jaffa have got Jenny and her Dæmon, and, shit, John can’t let them die because of this, because of him.

He can’t see if MacGrimmon is still alive. The marine is lying unmoving, but hopefully, hopefully, he’s just been stunned by the zat. That was the noise, earlier. Discharge.

He grins bleakly, and tries to sound cheerfully optimistic. “Where do you want us next, huh?”

The muzzle is moved from his neck. A woman steps into view, a stranger. Maybe she’s the Snake in charge, not Everett. She’s dressed like going to the office, blonde hair pulled back, and he supposes that this is the kind of woman McKay could’ve drooled over. Her face is dangerous. She makes a gesture, and the Jaffa pull Jenny closer and force her Dæmon to comply. And John figures that means they’re about to get out of here, and not through any door.

The last thing he sees is the bright light of the transporter rings folding over them, and then the room dissolves, bearing them up through the atmosphere.

Chapter Text

xvii.

one small step

this can’t be real: this cannot possibly be real.  


Corporal J.J. MacGrimmon comes to with a headache and to a medic shining a bright white light in his eyes. He swats them away. Swaying, his Dæmon tries to get dizzily to her feet, but they both are too unstable for the moment. J.J. feels groggy, disorientated. Like … like he’s been clipped by a Wraith stunner, though the aftertaste is a bit different. More bitter. Tangible.

Hang on. Stunned.

The Jaffa – shit, there’d been Jaffa, they’d ringed down –

“Take it easy, kid,” says General O’Neill, swimming into vision, and the marine realizes he’s lying atop the sofa in the waiting room outside of the Director’s office. The Director of NCIS. Yeah, that’s why they’re here, they got taken here by those agents, he and the Colonel, first interrogated and then there was a meeting, and AR-9 had been to the morgue and not found Snow frozen in death (relief relief relief). Then the Colonel –

Shit.

“Sir,” he gasps, “there’s Jaffa and –”

“Yeah, we know. There’s security footage.” The General doesn’t sound happy at all. He nods at the marine, and walks past him, toward where several NCIS agents are waiting. J.J. follows the movement with his gaze and tries to sit up.

A firm hand pushes him back down.

“Hey, J.J. Lie the fuck back down. Trust me, I know these things. Your pupil response is good so you didn’t hit your head, for once.”

The voice belongs to none other than Lieutenant DeSalle, his teammate, friend, and AR-4:s official medic. He’s in full BDU, TAC vest and all, with a freshly loaded P-90 slung over his shoulder; in a way which a Corpsman on Earth wouldn’t always be, most of them being non-combatants but with the SGC things are different. In a surreal way it is such a comfort to see him like that: it’s the Natural State of Things, and it’s almost like they could be back in Pegasus, on a mission. Any mission. And there’s Gladys and Kemp too, so familiar, on the lookout: Kemp has got an extra P-90 and TAC vest in a hand, waiting, and Gladys stands by the door as if guarding it, and J.J. exhales, relief mixing in with his worry and the general soreness of his body. Feels like he took a hit in the chest, threatening to cave in. Dazedly his Dæmon crawls to her feet.

Zats sure do sting.

“What happened?” he groans.

“A bunch of Snakes ringed into the building,” Gladys reports matter-of-factly; as much fact as they’ve got this far anyway. Which isn’t a lot. “They grabbed the Old Man, and someone else too. Someone important by the looks of it. We were called in just a few minutes ago; Colonel Pendergast transported us here.”

J.J. pulls himself up slowly, and for a moment he isn’t on Earth, he’s in Atlantis and they’re under attack and he struggles to get his bearings. “Casualties?”

“You and the PA over there got hit, but she’s going to be okay, got away with a few bruises. You’re hella lucky. Two shots from the zat kills, y’know,” DeSalle point out.

He knows. He’s been with the SGC long enough to know. Seen the action. Tasted it.

His team and the General aren’t the only ones there. There’s plenty of activity. Agent Gibbs and his team of feds, and they’re arguing, gathering evidence in disbelief at the same time. He wonders if they’ve been briefed. If they know about the Snakes yet. Evidently, if they have, they don’t truly grasp what it means, and if they haven’t – well, they will, soon enough. If their Director was taken, they will have to be briefed. They won’t back down, and they’ll have to sign those agreements of silence, and they’ll probably not believe a word of the SGC’s cover story about Deep Space Radar Telemetry. Who would?

And what was that about their Director being a Sheppard? Didn’t the General mention they’re cousins? Sure makes the world seem a lot smaller beneath the scope of the universe. J.J. shakes his head (and regrets it at once as he is hit by a wave of nausea), and decides to catalogue that fact along with the hundred thousand other things under the list of Shit I Don’t Want to Know.

Maybe trouble runs in the family, his Dæmon can’t help but think. J.J. doesn’t laugh. He’ll wait until they get the Old Man back.

Once he’s on his feet, Kemp hands him the spare vest and weapon, and J.J. takes it, checks the ammo on automatic. Like gearing up for a mission. This is an element of comfort and familiarity, and the marine slides into it like a hand in a glove. J.J. fastens the vest and smooths out the edges. Clicks the P-90 in place. There’s a slight crick in the neck from the awkward angle he’d been lying in on the floor, plus his shoulder feels like he landed on it harshly, but it’ll be fine in a little while, DeSalle assures him, though the medic would’ve liked to get him under a scanner like the one they’ve got in the City. But they haven’t got one, so this has to do until they get back to the Mountain. J.J.’s sure DeSalle will want to have the docs there run a full exam on him later.

The General is arguing with Agent Gibbs. Low, burning words. No outright shouting. J.J. supposes that’s a good thing.

One of the other agents, the guy in his mid-thirties with dark brown hair, is taking photographs, moving around with gloved hands and processing the room like this is a crime scene. Which, in a sense, it is. There are scorch marks on the floor from the blast of a staff weapon, and the PA’s desk is a mess, things overturned. So is the Director’s office. Stains of blood on the floor;

The female agent – J.J. can’t recall any of their names right now and blames it on the zat – is taking notes on a PDA. An elderly guy with a British accent is checking on the assistant, who’s awake and seems fine but for a bruise on her cheek. Probably hit her desk when she fell.

No one’s dead. One good thing, at least. Either the Snake didn’t want to kill anyone or (more likely) they didn’t have time to. Ringed in, grabbed their hostages, fled the scene. If people were dead, the Snakes would’ve left the bodies .

Jeez, AR-4:s missions usually don’t turn out like this. Figures that when he’s accompanying someone from the Frontier team, this happens. But J.J. is too emotionally drained to be angry or even annoyed. Snow’s still missing and could be dead, for the lack of a body, and there’s still the unknown dead guy in the morgue, and now the Colonel’s missing. In Dr McKay’s body, the Ancient communication stone still active, hidden in the bowels of the Mountain, powered thanks to that terminal thing in Atlantis – J.J. isn’t sure of the details. Makes him a bit dizzy to think about it all.

And he was meant to take this week off. Visit the family, see if he could pop in on any old friends, lie in the sofa and lazily watch some TV, catch up on the news and the politics, call people and tell them he’s still kickin’ …

There’s no truly free time with the SGC.

“… know what the hell’s going on! Your people showing up is not a coincidence,” finishes Gibbs in a growl. J.J. can’t blame him. Some alien wierdos in high-tech mock-up ancient Egyptian getup just broke into a highly secure building full of specially trained federal agents and kidnapped their Director and nearly killed said Director’s assistant. J.J. knows he’d be pissed. Is.

At least J.J.’s pretty sure that the Colonel isn’t dead yet. Goa’uld wouldn’t bother to bring dead bodies with them; they’d leave them behind. No, the Colonel’s alive, and is probably going to be tortured for whatever reason. Questioned for information. And they’ve got to do now is find him, break him out, and there’ll be choirs of hallelujah.

Kemp more or less says this out loud, and Gladys glares at him. “As if it’d be that easy,” she says.

“Never said it’d be easy,” Kemp retorts.

“Shut it, Lieutenant,” J.J. orders and subtly listens in on the General, who is unsuccessfully trying to soothe the agents with non-information. So they haven’t signed the agreements, after all. Figures.

“And you will find out, in a sec. Guess we’re doing this the flashy way,” the General says to the agent, fiddling with his phone. Puts it to his ear. “Hi, Hank. We’ll need that lift in a minute. Yeah, it didn’t go so well. They won’t sign those damn agreements, so … You owe me for this!” The call is ended with a click, and the General sighs, long-sufferingly. “Today was going to my day off. Just me, my pond, and the fish …”

J.J. has heard rumors that that pond is completely void of fish. He doesn’t say it. He waits for the Prometheus to pick them up.


This smells of something foul.

A trick. Foul play. Gibbs is far too familiar with such things. And, sure, it seems pretty vividly genuine, their concerns: the marines hovering around their own fallen; the brisk report, the avid questions. It seems pretty genuine. Their reactions of shock, surprise, even anger. But he’s seen this kind of thing before, and what if this is one of those? A ruse, make-believe, and they want him and his team to sign those damned nondisclosure agreements before they can reveal anything. Before they can help.

These people have a clue who attacked the building. Somehow, they got into the building without ever breaching the doors. No windows are broken, although one of them is open. But this is several floors up and it’s broad daylight. No one – not a whole group of people – could’ve scaled the building and not been seen. Not been heard.

General O’Neill has brought more of his people. Oh, they’re not Air Force: they’re marines. But they’re with the same Program, and Gibbs has had enough.

He needs to know what’s going on here. This is more than a single murder case.

“If we sign this, then my whole team will be let in on this, including my chief medical examiner and forensic technician. I need to know what the hell’s going on. Your people showing up is not a coincidence.”

General O’Neill unpockets a cellphone and doesn’t argue anymore, because they’ve been arguing for the past half hour. The past half hour in which Director Sheppard and Dr McKay has gone missing, and either both are victims or the doc had something to do with this.

A ruse.

To what end?

This is exactly why Gibbs doesn’t tend to play nice with other agencies.

“And you will find out,” the General says at last. “I can’t promise your forensics will make the cut, though.”

There’s security footage, and they’ve watched it in disbelief. The flash of light and what looked like rings appearing out of thin air and suddenly six people are standing in the room; the marine in the corner is given no chance to move. Some weapon, a discharge of energy, no bullets. Experimental? The marine had been knocked out cold but not killed. No injury. No burns. Nothing but a bad headache according to the medic, who acted like this is something he’s seen before, unblinking.

Ducky has checked out Summer, Jenny’s PA, but she’s fine. Some kind of weapon was used to subdue her and the marine. Similar to tasers and yet completely utterly different.

They need to know what the hell is going on.


They sign the agreements. Gibbs does it first. Reluctantly but urgently. Reads, tries to do it carefully but in the end, he realizes, in the end it doesn’t matter if the agreement isn’t just silence for eternity but his soul to the devil. He needs answers. DiNozzo, Todd, and McGee are already present, and they too sign their names, some more grudgingly than others.

General O’Neill makes a call to General Hank Landry, and Gibbs watches, listens closely. When the General returns to them he’s smiling wryly, as if there’s a joke going on here that never gets old.

“The Program,” he says, “is really short for the SGC, which in turn is short for the Stargate Program.”

“Stargate? Interesting codename,” Todd remarks.

And then the General says, with a hint of a mysterious smile: “It’s not a codename.” Speaks into his phone: “Prometheus, we’re ready.”


No. No, this can’t be real. This cannot possibly be real.

No.

No way.

Agent Todd can’t make a noise. In one minute, they’re at HQ inside the Director’s office, and they’re ordered to stand in groups and keep their Dæmons close. She clutches her own in her arms, and McGee and DiNozzo do the same. For transport, the General says, and it makes no sense, and the man gives a surreal order through the phone: Ring ‘em up.

And then they’re … here.

Wherever here is.

The walls are gray, like those of a cell. She can’t see any windows. Artificial lights. Plenty of people milling around, giving them a wide berth. Their uniforms are particular, mixtures of dark blue. It reminds her of an aircraft carrier, those silent mazes with an underground feel to them, cramped quarters. The air is fresher though, not as dank. She can’t smell any masculine sweat or oil or grease, and there is no roar of any engines or jets, only a quiet constant hum, a vibration.

“What – what was that?” gasps McGee, out of breath with shock.

“That,” says a new voice, “was the transporter rings.” A middle-aged man in dark green approaches them. Looks like a technician of some kind. Air Force, according to the insignia on his breast.

“A what?” DiNozzo says, blinking like an owl, swiveling his head to look this way and that.

The corridor is busy. People moving to and fro. Some are geared for war. An echo of a carrier, yes. Some look like technicians, bearing PDAs. They are clad in grays and greens, and there is efficiency to each movement. No one in the background is panicking or distressed by the utter impossibility of what just happened, matter coming to life with a beam of light.

“You are read-in on this, right?” the technician asks, suddenly dubious. “Okay, step away from the platform please. We’ve got another transport incoming.”

They do, in a daze, unwilling to move. Their weapons aren’t confiscated. In fact the people around them seem generally ignorant of them – aware, but not curious. Busy. There are a few marines present, armed, on the move or guarding thresholds. There are airmen with sidearms and technicians without. Todd takes note of them, even as her heart thunders and her mind tries to think of a single logical reason for this to be happening.

She can’t find one.

She stands to the side with DiNozzo and McGee, wondering if she’s entered a wonderland, a dream, fallen into it like Alice.

There is a flare of shimmering light, and those rings again rising from the floor impossibly, and then Gibbs is standing there alongside the General. The latter is entirely unperturbed and steps off the platform without hindrance or prompting, but the NCIS agent remains frozen in disbelief.

“It’s a transporter,” McGee says, weakly. “Oh my god. It’s a transporter.”

“You mean, like …” DiNozzo wets his lips, trying to find the words: “’Beam me up, Scotty’?”

“Yup,” says the General with a grin, appearing before them. “Well, sort of, and you’ll have to ask Carter about how it works. Welcome aboard the Prometheus, our very first interstellar vessel. Been in service for a few years now, the old gal.” He knocks at the side of a gray steel-plated wall with fondness.  A place of recognition.

“It’s true – the conspiracy theories! It’s all on the web, and, and I can’t believe it. We’ve got a spaceship!” exclaims DiNozzo suddenly, regaining his breath. Agent Gibbs sends him a sharp look but he cannot silence. He almost feels responsible to channel his inner Abby Sciuto since she and Ducky hadn’t been allowed to sign those nondisclosure agreements just yet (which had pissed Gibbs off for five seconds until even he became distracted by the whole No Longer in Kansas thing). “What’s this? NASA? This is one hell of a secret.”

“Not quite NASA,” says the General. “Our modus operandi is kind of different. Though the SGC deals with them from time to time, helps out with developing satellites and whatnot. Hitched a ride with one of their shuttles in ‘99.” The man smiles for a moment, amused by some fond memory.  Then he turns to greet the person who must be in charge. “Ah. Colonel. Nice day.”

“General,” nods another man crossing the threshold of the corridor; he too in blue, like the technician, but with a clear Air Force badge on his chest proclaiming his rank and name: Colonel L. Pendergast. “Welcome aboard. I’m Colonel Lionel Pendergast, the commander of this vessel.”

“We’re in space,” Gibbs says, flatly, disbelieving: a tone he doesn’t often employ, but this is causing a violently sudden crack in his otherwise solid view of the world.

Todd grasps helplessly for a hint of reality. Can’t find it. Blinks a couple of times, but the images refuse to go away: they are aboard this … vessel. It thrums with energy beneath her feet, and the people around them are frighteningly real and solid.

“Uh, why aren’t we weightless?” McGee points out, while, in the background the marines who’d been ringed up with them

“Artificial gravity,” Colonel Pendergast explains simply.

“One more group to beam up,” General O’Neill says, and they move to make room. A few moments later, Corporal MacGrimmon and the three marines join them – and this explains now how those three got to HQ so quickly after the alarm blared. None of them appear the least bit taken aback by the unorthodox (impossible impossible impossible) means of travel.

One of them is chewing on a gum, and one of them mutters: Haven’t I fucking told you not to do that? Heimlich maneuver, ringing any bells? and the marine retorts: Can’t smoke, can’t drink on duty, can’t chew gum. What the hell am I going to do against the stress, man? and the first one retorts: Could try meditation with Emmagan, heard she’s been giving lessons lately, causing the female marine with them to snort and shake her head as if this is an argument witnessed time and time again.

They are led from the immediate area through a gray corridor. Not as cramped as an aircraft carrier, and Todd glances from left to right continually, trying orient herself in this foreign place and then they make a left turn, across a threshold. There are no knee-knockers, and the place is, despite being built from encompassing steel, oddly spacious, and the air smells fresh and not of sweat. There is an artificial breeze passing over their heads. They could be underground, but they enter what could only be described as the Bridge of a ship. And there’s a window, wide and flawless and beneath – above? – there’s, there’s –

Oh my god. Todd stares. It’s the Earth, making a slow turn, or it’s the ship that is turning and they along with it. For a moment she cannot properly breathe, has to fight nausea and dizziness. Every instinct tells her that this is wrong: the Earth is meant to be beneath her feet, not beyond them like this. She’s seen a lot of things in her career, both in the Secret Service and at NCIS, but this …

Todd has never believed in those conspiracy theories about the moon landing being faked or the Earth being flat or NASA making lies to fool the public to believe, but she’s never before truly considered space to be a thing, either, and why would she have? The Earth is enough of a playground, and she knows nothing of the movement of the stars, isn’t an astronomer.

Earth is terrifying and beautiful, and they’re in space.

They’re …

“We’re in space. We’re really in space!” gasps McGee, his Dæmon making a noise of delight and confusion like a dream coming true, and they crowd by the window, as close as they dare to move without touching anything or disturbing the technicians and airmen at work.

“What about Colonel Sheppard?” Colonel Pendergast asks then, looking at the General, who shakes his head.

“No. We’ve got a problem.”


They’re in space.

The ship’s nerve-center of command faces a window: wide, and below them there’s Earth, lazily spinning, the atmosphere glimmering with the rising sun and millions of stars beyond which cannot be seen from the planet’s surface, and they’re in space. They’re aboard a spaceship. It’s an impossible, improbable thing: this level of technology isn’t meant to exist. Can’t. Area 51 is a coverup for building weapons and missiles and there aren’t meant to be aliens there, and NASA hasn’t sent a man to the moon for decades. This is not meant to be possible.

Gibbs has seen a lot of strange things in his life. This, though. This outranks all those moments steeply.

And DiNozzo has the nerve to look out at the vastness, and then smirk a little: “Hey, I told you there was a conspiracy.”

“Tony, shut up,” groans Todd, regaining her bearings. Attempting to. Making it seem like she’s all right after all despite being just as out of her depth as the rest of her team.

Gibbs couldn’t agree more.

DiNozzo is going to be insufferable for weeks.


“He’s been what?!”

It is really weird, J.J. thinks, watching the Old Man’s face scrunched up in a dark frown and arms waving vividly, and knowing that it’s not really him talking. He wouldn’t move like that. Wouldn’t use that tone of voice either. Talks the wrong way. Words not fitting that mouth. Dr McKay is very frank, very upset, and probably angry – for good reason; his teammate’s been kidnapped by a bunch of Snakes. No one who’s been part of a Gate team would show full restraint in the face of that.

They’ve explained to the NCIS agents and all, the vague details: that, yeah, that guy? is not Colonel Sheppard but rather Dr Rodney McKay communicating through his body via a pair of alien stones; and the guy who just got kidnapped? yeah, that’s Colonel Sheppard in McKay’s body. They’ve explained that and the other things: Stargates, artificial wormholes, space travel. The high-speed, compressed version. Isn’t sure how much they actually comprehend or buy, though. Most people would think this is an extremely elaborate, well-paid joke. One with a poor punchline.

“We’re trying to track them, but his sub-q has been disabled,” Colonel Carter says. She is, by comparison, quite calm. They all are. They know that panic doesn’t help.

“Which means that they knew that he had one and they had to destroy it,” Colonel Mitchell adds.

“You mean to say ‘cut it out of him’,” grumbles McKay and visibly shudders.

Yeah, very weird. J.J. knows about the stones thing, instant communication, but has no idea how it works. Now it would really really help if they could trace that connection. But they’ve got nothing. No coordinates, no location. It’s possible that Colonel Sheppard is still on Earth; it’s also (even more) possible that he’s onboard a Goa’uld ship, lightyears away, in hyperspace, out of their grasp. Even if the Prometheus could probably catch up, they’ve nowhere to go, to start. Space is really fucking big, and many Goa’uld craft have cloaking capabilities.

It’s been over two hours, and they’ve got nothing. J.J. has only listened in a little bit to the NCIS agents’ subduedly vivid discussions about possibilities. They may be good at their job, but he’s not sure how they could help right now. Solve a murder? Yeah, fine. Find an intergalactic kidnapper on another planet? Not so much. But they’re here.

J.J. is part of the meeting only because he’s a key witness. Sort of. Not that he saw more than those Jaffa and the business ends of their weapons. And he’d volunteered to stick with the Colonel, watch his back, and he’d failed that task. The sourness in his chest won’t go away. He is aware that the others aren’t going to hold it against him – J.J. had tried to fight, but the feds had taken away his weapons and there’d been three or four Jaffa ringing in so suddenly. He’s lucky not to have been hit by a staff blast in the jugular and killed instantly. Still. It doesn’t sit well with him that those Snakes got past his watch.

“Rodney,” says Weir on the other side, in the City, the voice of calming reason: “we’ll find them.”

“They could be anywhere by now! Don’t tell me to calm down.” It’s practically a snarl.

“We detected an energy signature consistent with the trail of a Goa’uld ship’s sublight engines two hours ago,” Carter reveals. “That matches the timeline for the kidnapping.”

“Is it possible for us to track it?” asks General Landry.

“Not exactly. We’re working on plotting courses along the trajectory detected by the Prometheus’ sensors, but it’ll be guesswork at best. The ship is probably cloaked. We haven’t sensed any hyperspace windows leaving the system yet, but we’re on the lookout.”

“So you’ve got nothing,” retorts McKay, and there’s something terrifyingly sharp, seeing him like this. Or hearing him. At least his Dæmon is the same. Small comforts.

J.J. realizes he’s never seen the doc this upset. Okay, maybe, when the Hives were bearing down on the City and they didn’t have the means to fight back, or that time in the Chair Room, with the lightshow. Had been pretty upset then, yeah.

There’s been no sight of the Raven, so they’re all supposing – all hoping – that it’s with the Colonel in McKay’s body. J.J. really hopes so. He’s heard whispers that they can handle pretty huge distances between each other, but no one, not even the Colonel and his Dæmon, should be able to live through being separated by planets and hyperspace. Yeah, they both made it, they’re both alive. That’s the assumption they’ve got to work with.

The fact is, this is bigger than that. There’s still the question of who hacked the SGC, and why. Well, they might know why. To get to the Colonel. Somehow. It’s a puzzle, and the pieces are slowly meshing together and coming to light.

“I wouldn’t say that. Now we know that whoever’s behind this wanted to get their hands on Colonel Sheppard, and possibly Director Sheppard too,” says Carter.

“They targeted family,” adds Mitchell. “Maybe they’ll use her as leverage.”

This is connected to Snow’s disappearance, somehow, somehow. J.J. can’t follow the lines. Not yet, but he’s working on it.

On the other side of the large conference table, Agent Gibbs looks drawn back, stern, quiet. They’ve been read in – quickly and in broad strokes – on the Program now. They’re still trying to deal with the shock of it, he guesses. The guy named DiNozzo keeps glancing at the Stargate below the bulletproof glass as if it’s a mirage about to fade. Next to him, Agents Todd and McGee take notes on small PDAs, simpler than the ones J.J. is used to seeing in Atlantis.

At least they can talk without codewords now. Spill secrets.

General O’Neill is here despite wanting to go fishing: this is serious. General Landry, too, and Dr Jackson. J.J.’s not clear what task could be handed to the archaeologist in times like these, but he’s a cornerstone of the SGC. Maybe they’ll find some obscure reference or something for him to translate. Intercept a message in Goa’uld.

“I can’t believe this,” grouses McKay. “We let him out of our sight for a few hours and he gets himself kidnapped?!”

On the other side of the open wormhole, the City lies in darkness, the sunrise far away. They’re in Weir’s office: McKay and his Dæmon, Dr Weir, Teyla Emmagan, Lieutenant Ford, and Ronon. The ex-Runner is standing by the door, leaning against the frame in a way J.J. has learned to recognize: it looks relaxed, but the guy’s ready to pounce in a heartbeat. His Dæmon’s long teeth are bared like glints of steel: similar to the long-since-dead saber-toothed cats of Earth.

“I don’t think it’s on purpose, doc,” says Ford wryly.

This is personal. This is a team being attacked and splintered, and J.J. understands deeply.

“Not my point! Okay, okay,” says McKay, backtracking, thinking. “Obviously, the Trust’s involved.”

“Who or what exactly is the Trust?” asks Special Agent Gibbs. Right, they never got that far in the SGC 101 briefing.

“They’re an offshoot of the NID, an organization meant to help with the defense of Earth against alien invasion. Some rouge NID agents began to gather more than intel: they collected weapons and technology to use to their own ends,” Carter says. “They formed the Trust, and, recently, we got a hint that the Goa’uld had infiltrated the highest ranks.”

“And the Goa’uld are these … snakelike parasite things that takes over people’s bodies,” says DiNozzo, blankly, as if reading from a book. He glances at the Generals and the others, and shudders visibly. Well, that’s a normal reaction. The kind of reaction J.J. himself ceased having well over a year ago when he realized that this is his life now and there’s no getting around it, and shock and disbelief is only so useful in the long run. “Like in Body Snatchers but without the pods. Or, or Turnabout Intruder except … worse. And they’ve attacked Earth. Before.”

The guy must also be having a bad day. He and his whole team of feds: to find out so suddenly that there are spaceships and Stargates and aliens – J.J. had a hard time himself when he first was let in on the secret three years ago. And he’d just been a marine being stationed at a new strange place to do his job, and he’d eventually gotten used to it and he has seen so many things now: Atlantis’ skyline with its rising towers; worlds with purple plants or perpetual snows or dense jungles untouched by human hands; so many foreign sunrises and sunsets; and that’s not even mentioning the aliens.

These people are trying to solve a murder. Aliens never came to mind.

“God,” whispers Todd quietly, encompassing this is so fucked up and strange and I’m not certain I believe it into a single syllable. She’s cradling her Dæmon in her lap like a lifeline.

“We won those battles. The Trust is much more devious than your average Goa’uld System Lords. We’re uncertain of their exact numbers. They probably have access to at least one ship – a cargo vessel would be my guess,” Colonel Mitchell says. “Those have got cloaks.”

“Which renders them invisible both to the naked eye and to radar and our scanners,” Carter clarifies at the feds’ questioning looks.

O’Neill takes over. “We’ve got one guy on the inside of the Trust. Or we had: we lost contact some time ago. And now Corporal Snow has gone missing. Right before that, we intercepted a message from our man to Snow.”

“That’s too much of a coincidence,” Gibbs says, and it shows now that he’s a seasoned agent. His eyes are sharp and intent. “What kind of message?”

Carter nods. “It was a code. But we managed to decrypt it – actually, it was fairly easy: he used regular ANSII.”

“That’s not very safe. Or clever,” McGee comments, and then flushes a bit, flustered at the sudden attention on him. Still trying to swallow the whole fact about Stargates and wormholes and other planets being inhabited by aliens. “Using ANSII in regular text? Anyone who knows how to Google can figure that out.”

“We realized that. It’s possible that he ran out of time and couldn’t think of a better way to send a message,” Carter says. “But that it was Snow he contacted has an explanation. The two are half-brothers, and both are linked with the Program, but it’s still less conspicuous than him contacting someone else in at the SGC such as myself or General O’Neill. It is possible that his contact was betrayed, and Snow was, well, his best shot at the time.”

“Or it wasn’t sent by your agent,” Todd muses half-aloud, “just meant to look like it was.”

A trap? For Snow? To J.J., this doesn’t make a lot of sense. But, granted, this whole day hasn’t made a lot of sense.

If there’s the slimmest chance of Snow still being alive, J.J. wants to be part of the rescue op.

“What about your inside man?” asks Gibbs.

“NID Agent Bradley White,” Dr Jackson says. There’s a file spread out in front of him but he doesn’t read from it, and his voice works a hundred miles a minute. “Mission’s codename Specter. He had an alternate identity forged for him as a Mr James Eddington, posing as a businessman with international relations and widespread interests. The idea was to wheedle out the major players of the Trust and find the main Goa’uld behind all this by making business deals with the corporations we believe to be involved in this. The NID had managed to put together quite a paper trail. The Goa’uld are megalomaniacs not very fond of sharing power, so it would make more sense that there’s a big Snake to take care of first. Cut off that head, and the rest would follow. A few months ago, one of our own, Colonel Caldwell, was taken by the Trust and implanted by a Goa’uld. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice until it was almost too late.”

“‘Didn’t notice’? That a guy has got an alien parasite in his head?” DiNozzo echoes, dubiously.

General Landry sighs heavily. “We are not, unfortunately, perfect or unflawed. Security is tight but wasn’t tight enough.”

“Yeah, we’ve started scanning people’s brains every time they enter the Mountain now,” remarks Mitchell wryly. The NCIS agents hadn’t been exempted from this rule: applying to every marine, every scientist, every pilot, every technician. No one escapes from Dr Frasier and her team of medics.

J.J. and his team had had to visit the infirmary when they’d first gotten here from Atlantis. Doesn’t matter if they come by ship or by Gate. For a while, even Dr Weir considered it for City security. After Caldwell … They don’t want it to happen again. Can’t let it happen again.

“The Trust did their homework, and the Snake in Caldwell had a very clear objective. He did not conduct any other sabotage than the one thing he’d been sent to do; it was careful job,” finishes Landry.

“And what was that objective?” asks Gibbs.

The door opens, and another man enters the room. He looks average, nondescript, black tie.

“To destroy Atlantis,” he declares.

“Ah, Agent Barrett. Have a seat,” Carter greets the man with a smile, seemingly at ease. J.J. has never seen this guy before, and his hand had automatically gone for his 9mil. He tries to relax as the NID agent is introduced to everyone and finds a chair to sit in.

“And Atlantis is, what? a base?” asks Agent Todd.

“It’s where we are,” says Dr McKay in the Old Man’s body from the other side, arms crossed. The lack of immediate insult is kind of suspicious. J.J. has seen the doc reduce the biggest and dangerous of marines to the brink of a breakdown. Hm, maybe he’s extra grumpy because of the pain. Broken leg and all. Or it’s the stones. There’s no point in trying to figure out the reasons behind the doc’s mood; they’ve got a bigger fish to fry. “Ancient Cityship three million lightyears from Earth. But if you want to simplify, yes: it’s a base. But it’s much more than that. It’s an intergalactic vessel containing an archive of immense knowledge and technological advancements lightyears ahead of anything else we’ve found so far. The power of its weapons alone can potentially outmatch anything on Earth.”

Agent McGee opens his mouth as if to say something, but closes it again with a quiet strangled noise.

“That time,” adds Carter, “another alien saved the day, one of a race we call Ancients – or Alteran – and he also removed the Goa’uld, saving Caldwell’s life. Don’t worry, he is fully free from the Goa’uld’s influence now. He did remember some important details which got this investigation going. The host generally remain aware of their time of possession.”

J.J. remembers that day. It had played out in a few hours, really. Seeing the Colonel lose control and then glowing eyes of Colonel Caldwell and – well, it had been a long, strange day. His boss suddenly showing telekinetic talents and throwing people and guns around like toys. But he’d saved the City and everyone in it and not killed Caldwell. J.J. is acutely aware that if Caldwell had died, the aftermath would’ve played out very differently.

Agent Todd considers what’s been said. Tries not to cry out in disbelief that none of this should be possible. Doesn’t comment that the last statement is creepy and otherworldly and frightening as hell. “Okay. What about the message, what did it say?”

“It’s brief and vague. Here.” Carter activates the plasma screen so that it shows a string of numbers, then translated into English words. Most words are abbreviated, shortened down to save time. But J.J. understands: nedsom1toTrust CityCOdngr dntreplyrisktrac waitfthrorders. White had meant to send Snow further instructions but never got the chance, or those messages were deleted.

City CO in danger. Something cold settles in J.J.’s chest. So this was a warning, and a trap: for the Old Man. Why? What for? Information about the City? Considering the stuff he’s heard, something about the Colonel being able to control the City or communicate with it or something like that … something with the ATA-gene or something, stronger than anyone’s, even the General. The guy makes a powerful asset. It makes sort of sense. Sort of sense.

And this was meant to be our day off, his Dæmon complains.

“It is also possible that the message was hijacked or even sent by the Trust in the first place,” Carter goes on.

“To lure him in,” says DiNozzo. “Okay. Why?”

“Good question,” says O’Neill breezily, leaning back in his chair. He exchanges a look with Colonel Carter, the way old friends can share entire conversations in an unspoken heartbeat. “Why’s LC Snow so special?”

“You said they’re half-brothers,” Todd points out.

“Yes. Same father, different mothers. That implies that White’s cover is definitely blown and he got caught, and the Trust wanted to exploit him. Threatening family definitely fits their MO, and White has no family apart from his mother and half-brother,” Agent Barrett says. “We still have found no sign of him. We can’t pinpoint his subcutaneous transmitter.”

Colonel Mitchell drums his fingers against the table. “And we’ve lost the Colonel’s as well, just as we lost Snow’s.”

J.J. feels like it needs to be said: “Doesn’t mean they’re dead, sir.”

Because it would be so wasteful that the Old Man’s got to go through all that’s happened, Wraith sieges and Genii incursions, all to die in the Milky Way because of some damned Snake. Besides, with the stones, what would happen to Dr McKay if the Old Man was to suddenly drop?

And Mitchell Snow … J.J. wants to hold out hope for Mitch. Needs to, to stay focused. Won’t believe until he’s found, and possibly not even then.

(To die on Earth is the worst kind of irony.)

Of course, at that statement, General O’Neill adds wryly: “Got a point, Corporal. It’s not like the Goa’uld to kill someone too fast.”

Knowing from personal experience – J.J. has read the reports. A few years ago, during the time when Dr Jackson was Not Dead But Ascended, the General was briefly a Tok’ra host and taken by a Snake – which one? J.J. scrambles to remember. It was before his time at the SGC. Something like … Ba’al. Yeah. That guy. Creepy shit.

(All Snakes are fucking creepy and disgusting, and part of J.J. had been relieved to leave them behind when he went to Pegasus.

Then they’d exchanged them for the Wraith, and some days he can’t be sure which is worse.)

Not kill someone too fastComforting euphemism for torture. In the corner of her eyes, his Dæmon lets them both see the NCIS agents exchange understanding, horrified looks. Or, well, Gibbs doesn’t appear very horrified: calm, comprehending. Guy has to have been a marine before joining NCIS, J.J. decides. Something about his air.

“Bottom line is: we have no idea where Colonel Sheppard or the Director could be right now,” Dr Jackson says, “and we won’t know until we find out where the Goa’uld is.”

General Landry nods solemnly. “Then we got to find that Snake.”


John has gotten himself kidnapped. Of course he has. Rodney would like to say he is extremely surprised, but he can’t. Ill luck follows them around to each planet they visit: of course it would haunt them on Earth too. Of course. Should’ve seen it coming.

And he’s stuck in the wrong body, and what if the connection with the stone fails? What then?

Then he’ll be the one stuck in whatever cell Sheppard’s been thrown in.

For a moment, Rodney actually considers it. Not that he wants to be stuck in a jail cell, mind, but at least he has a pretty good track record by now of breaking out of them. AR-1 gets in trouble far too often offworld, after all. How hard could it be? Hack a lock – he bets this is some high-tech stuff. On a ship. That’s a logical assumption. A Goa’uld ship, and Rodney knows quite a bit about their technology even if Ancient tech is his specialty. He could outwit the tech and break free from it.

Not so sure he could face down a Snake and survive it, but …

For a moment, Rodney actually considers it, and then he looks down at John’s body and John’s aching slowly healing leg, and back up again, at the others in the office. Weir sits in her chair, and Ford’s pacing. Ronon’s by the door, tense and ready to attack like some wild animal, and Teyla is a calm presence, and no one has the answers. No one has the answers. They’ve been in tight spots before as a team. Separated. They’ve been shot at, hunted, nearly fed upon. They’ve survived the Wraith, and now some Goa’uld is going to end them?

It’s not fair at all.

During the video call, there had been strangers there, briefly introduced: some federal agents, from whichever alphabet soup, unfamiliar enough with the SGC to ask blatantly obvious questions. Something about a body being the wrong one. Rodney hasn’t paid attention to the details, really, because he’d been too preoccupied with the fact that John has gotten himself kidnapped.

When this thing started, he’d planned to be in his lab. Do some research. Calculate. Polish that ZedPM equation and maybe have a brilliant insight before lunch. They’d use the stones for a couple of hours, then take a break, and then Rodney would be on Earth and could do some science there. Discuss things with Carter, maybe, and contact some lowlife scientists to argue with them, that kind of thing. Yeah, Rodney had some plans. And now he is utterly singularly focused, like a planet orbiting a single star: they’ve got to find a solution.

Out here, a galaxy away, they can’t hunt for Goa’uld. They can’t track whatever ship John’s on – if he is on a ship. Could be in a dark dank warehouse somewhere, a pit in the dirt, whatever. Another planet already. A Goa’uld vessel with an okay hyperdrive could make it to the nearest neighboring systems in the time that’s passed since It Happened.

The video link is shut down, the Gate darkening. Thirty-eight minutes have passed.

“I’m worried about the Colonel,” Ford admits to the silence which follows. “What do the Goa’uld want with him?”

Nothing good, Rodney doesn’t say. He crosses his arms. “Best case scenario is they need information.” About what, he’s not sure. Can’t be SGC security codes or secrets of the Mountain, because that’s not Sheppard’s forte. Sure, he knows some of those, but not much more than anyone of the SGC on Earth. He knows what he needs to know and no more in relation to that. But Atlantis: the City’s defenses, bits and pieces of its databases … There’s so much here that he knows.

“Which the Colonel’s got. Right.” Ford nods, distractedly. The young Lieutenant looks distraught and disturbed by the recent turn of events. Not the only one.

“Or,” Rodney continues, but Elizabeth has the same horrible realization and blanches: “they want him as a host. Or me, because that’s my body over there,” he adds, feeling a bit sick to the stomach.

And he’d reminded John sternly not to eat lemons. Lemons! That feels like a bad joke made ages ago, but that was just a few hours ago. Not even days yet.

Should’ve told him not to get into trouble with Goa’uld or kidnappers or the Trust or –

Not that Sheppard is good at following orders.

“What are we going to do?” Ford asks the air. The marine looks out of his element. He too can’t do anything. No Bad Guys for him to shoot.

“There must be something we can do to assist,” Teyla agrees. Her arms are loosely crossed over her chest, and her fair face marred by a frown.

“There’s little we can do,” Rodney cuts in before Elizabeth has a chance to say something falsely comforting. The truth of it all hurts and is damningly annoying and frustrating, and he bites back an angry sigh. He’d like someone incompetent to yell at. That always calms him down. “Look, we can’t investigate anything personally and we can’t make sensor sweeps for ships leaving Earth because we’re three million lightyears too far away. Right now … right now we’re simply in the wrong galaxy.

Chapter Text

xviii.

do not go gentle

part two

time to start panicking a little.


This … is not good.

This is not good.

John is pretty sure that he’s stuck aboard a ship of Goa’uld design. Not that he’s seen any in person before, but he’s looked at vague pictures from salvage sites, read the reports and listened to the tales told by the old-school SGC marines in the City who’d wanted to share. Some things are giveaways, like the trail of hieroglyphs on the yellow walls. And there’s something about the place that simply gives him the creeps, but not in the way a Hive would.

Hiveships stink of death and rotting flesh and the fading cries of the dying.  This ship isn’t purgatory: it is relatively clean, and there are no humans stuck in cocoons waiting to be eaten, in such shock, past the point of weeping or pleading, staring blank-eyed at the walls. There are no Queens, no one who can delve into a person’s mind without touching them. Goa’uld aren’t telepathic. Are they? No. No. Doesn’t matter, because the Goa’uld can burrow into heads and strangle necks and take over bodies against a human’s will.

Fuck, he hates those things.

His wrists ache. Bound? Yeah. And his body is sore, and since so many minutes of memory are missing: he must’ve been stunned. Zat’nik’tel.

To his left, blinking his eyes blearily open, there is a glimpse of energy. No, not his left. All around. Confused, he realizes that the force field, caging them in, his not around his – around Rodney’s – body at all, but around the Raven. They can’t lift their wings and flee.

Trapped.

And to his right, slumped on the floor just as he, tied up and alone, is Jenny. The Director is half-conscious. Losing blood. She needs a medic. She needs help – they need help. Her Dæmon is quiet, not whimpering, too strong-willed to let their pain show. They could be dying. A staff weapon blast like that can be fatal.

This is not good.

“Colonel Sheppard,” a voice says. He lifts his gaze. “I’ve wanted to meet you for some time now.”

The guy is kind of tall; wiry, dark hair, an obnoxious goatee. He’s clad in Terran clothes, a dark striped business suit, all clever and fine, and he’s wearing a strict tie. He could have been walking down any street on Earth and no one would bat an eye. Just another businessman, another corporate mind. But his eyes are gleaming golden, and John recoils, instinctively, the shackles digging deeper.

He’s tied up, and they’ve got the Raven in a forcefield cage ten feet away. This feels like a ship. Engines roaring in the background, lurching them forward through space. This is a ship, and they’re trapped, and this guy is a Goa’uld.

The Goa’uld also knows who he is while looking at Rodney’s body. He knows about the stones. He knows.

What else does he know?

[We’re fucked.]

Not necessarily, he thinks. Tries to stay positive. Tries to stay positive.

“Oh yeah?” he says, puts on his trademark greeting-the-natives-smile. “I can’t say the feeling’s mutual. Who are you and what the hell do you want?”

“Very direct. I can understand that. I am Ba’al, the System Lord.”

Heard of him. Reports. He hasn’t spent a lot of time considering the Goa’uld System Lords because they’re meant to be defeated. But obviously they aren’t because the Goa’uld have been on Earth long enough to infiltrate the Trust and implant one of their own in Caldwell – and now, here’s the puppet master who’s been pulling the strings. John looks at him for a moment, silent.

He won’t answer any questions.

“Am I supposed to be impressed?” John quips.

Beside them, Jenny is shaking slightly in effort and pain, and staring in disbelief, and he can only guess what she’s thinking. He’d had one very bad day when taking his first steps in Pegasus and waking the Wraith – but this has got to be much much much worse. Kidnapped by aliens and not knowing about the SGC or Stargates or anything. She and her Dæmon must be on the verge but they’re also well-trained special agents, knows to keep her cool under pressure. Unnatural, unimaginable pressure.

 There are Goa’uld vessels with cloaking technology. It could have hovered above Washington for days or weeks, unseen, unheard. Waiting. John considers the options. How long’s the Goa’uld been hiding their ship, and where? Have they been waiting … for this? Is it going to be an attempt at bribing the SGC, or are they simply going to torture them for information?

(What else could they be hiding? Are these people responsible for the missing agent? for Snow’s disappearance? for Patrick Sheppard being stabbed in New York? Too many coincidences which led him here.)

They must’ve taken off while he was unconscious. Pierced the atmosphere. Question is if they’re in hyperspace yet and, if so, how far they’ve gotten. How long have they been knocked out?

“You have kidnapped a federal agent and a civilian –” Jenny starts to say, voice miraculously stern and not trembling at all. Her hands are steady. No one has tended to her injury, and the shoulder of her shirt is soaked dark with wet blood. She needs a doctor. She needs a medic –

“Oh, I’m not that interested in you, Director,” the Snake cuts her off. “Though this is a nice bonus.”

Yeah; John figured. Now he can torture them both for the price of one. Awesome.

Ba’al smiles, steps closer. All of John’s instincts are screaming at him to stand and fight but the Jaffa guards are pointing their staffs at them, and their hands are bound – even if Jenny wasn’t injured, how would they win? The Goa’uld looks him up and down. The glow is fading, and his eyes turn a dull brown. Entirely human. Except not. There’s no hint of any Dæmon. If that body has been a host long enough, the empty shell has already died and turned to dust.

“Nice,” John says, lightly. “I like what you’ve done with the interior decorating. Personally, not my style, I’d’ve gone more for Starship Enterprise than a mummy’s tomb, but whatever floats your boat. Is this your ship or something you stole? Can’t see why you’d be loitering around on Earth with access to it.”

“Earth is a very resourceful place. Quite useful. It’s been easy to make myself known as a wealthy, influential businessman with very valuable connections. Knowledge of your governments’ secrets … People pay good money for that.” Ba’al pauses for a second. “Of course, it’s not the only thing they pay with.”

Awesome. Ba’al has got underlings, Snakes under his command on Earth. How many? And where? And to what end? (other than the obvious: to one day rule the world and ruin everything good the SGC has ever done.)

The Trust. John is suddenly pretty sure of it. With everything, it’d simply … fall into place. The Trust being infiltrated by the Goa’uld; implanting a Snake in Caldwell; and now another in Everett; it’s all led up to this point, and it’s been masterminded by Ba’al, the former System Lord who’s played god for a good long while and he’s hungry for power – for reasons ungraspable. The Trust. Whatever company or names Ba’al has used, they’re just façades and walls to hide behind while biding his time, planning … something. So what’s his end game?

If Ba’al wants secrets out of John, about the SGC or whatever, he’s going to have to cut them out with a knife.

“So how many are you? How many Snakes have you got?” John presses, suppressing a shiver of disgust at the thought of being at the hands of this master puppeteer. Goa’uld are in a way much worse than Wraith. Wraith feed, a biological imperative, a need for survival and they’re pretty sure they came out of some Ancient mistake, an experiment gone wrong, a single false step.

But Goa’uld, as far as John knows, were no lab rats who escaped their cage. They evolved much more naturally and began to take host thousands if not millions of years ago, and maybe for starters it’d been a symbiotic thing, two-sided and beneficial at both ends. If there ever was a such a time. With those – what were they called? Unas? Yeah, like that thing that kidnapped and nearly killed Dr Jackson on an archaeological dig someplace. Read the report. Unas didn’t have Dæmons but Jackson argued they were on the verge of becoming as sentient and aware as humans. With that raw strength and opposable thumbs, Unas made useful hosts, but once the Goa’uld stumbled on the Earth and its humans, after the Ancients had left the planet bare of real protection – they’d jumped at the chance and started building their empires. John’s not sure if the Snakes were all born megalomaniac and power-hungry, or if it incorporated slowly into their DNA, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.

He wants to tear the parasite out of this nameless man’s body. It’d probably kill him. Its Dæmon is dead, the soul departed. For all John knows, the host could’ve been dead for centuries, only the Goa’uld keeping it alive.

Ba’al smiles. “As many as I need. As you can see, grabbing hold of some more noticeable people of the SGC hasn’t been difficult.” He gestures toward Everett, who stands a couple of feet back, near the closed door, at rest like a foot soldier waiting for orders. The man’s eyes are blank. There’s no ice or fire. The wolf isn’t moving. “I almost had the idea to implant one in your – well, not quite your father, is he? – had he gone through with our business deal,” Ba’al says, and John’s breath catches in shock, in retaliation, in disgust all at once. “Then I realized: why waste a larva on a man you can simply kill? He wouldn’t be that useful to me. Thank you for taking the bait, by the way.”

“And if I hadn’t?” John asks coldly.

“Your cousin here is a good secondary alternative. And your brother: David Sheppard. My spies reported the SGC got to him first, which was a pity. But the plan to get you back to Earth worked as expected.” The Goa’uld sounds pleased with himself. Good for him.

“Like a charm,” John echoes. So that’s why Patrick Sheppard was stabbed in New York. All for attention. A trap.

Is that why Snow was killed, or at least meant to appear killed? a ruse? to lure him here, because at the SGC, in Atlantis, they leave no one behind –

At least Dave is safe aboard the Prometheus. Relatively safe.

“Aren’t you the least bit impressed by the corporate empire I’ve built?”

John broadens his smirk. “Not really. So, what’s the plan, huh? I mean, that’s what you Bad Guys do: keep us entertained with a monologue while the rescue catches up with us.”

“We’re going to Atlantis.”

A shiver. Not possible. The location on New Lantea –

But Ba’al has hacked into the SGC: he or someone working for him. He’s got Snakes in the Trust. Poisonous tendrils reaching in all directions. Of course he knows about Atlantis. He might even have been the one to order Caldwell – the Snake in Caldwell’s head – to blow the City up, overload the potentiae. What other information has he stolen?

He knows about Icarus, it dawns, dimly. Not quite your father, he’d said. He knows. How the hell? Only Carson and AR-1 are privy to that information; not even Elizabeth knows, and John hasn’t put up a sign declaring it.

DNA. It’s written in his DNA, and someone with enough time, contacts, and money could analyze that if they got their hands on it. All it takes is a single strand of hair, a single drop of blood. Wouldn’t put it past Ba’al. The guy has been busy. He hasn’t laid low on Earth but built an empire of names and dubious money and could probably have something to do with the Trust as well.

Atlantis is so very far away.

“Why? To destroy the City?”

Like last time, which they failed to do? It makes sense now: if this is the Snake that infiltrated the Trust, that got to Colonel Caldwell, that tried to make him rewrite the City’s operating system and overload the potentiae. The Goa’uld hadn’t counted on Icarus interfering.

This time, Icarus can’t do that. John highly doubts the Others will let him, even if he tries or cares or whatever – not that he thinks the Ancient would. Not about him, anyway. About Atlantis, certainly; anything to protect the City.

“Destroy it? No, it would be such a waste. I realized that after the first attempt failed. No, I’m going there to get a much better host,” Ba’al smiles. “I am quite fond of this one, true. But with an Ancient City under my command I will be more powerful than any of the System Lords, even Anubis, could ever have hoped to become.”

Oh, great. Melodramatic megalomaniac.

[So maybe we’re a little fucked], Shy whispers, a groan; they’re stuck in an unknown part of space in Avalon, three million lightyears from home, and this Snake wants to take over the City and, by the sounds of it, John’s body. He shivers.

But the City won’t let them get there. He’s sure. They’ve got shields, the Chair, the Aurora to guard them. Weaponry and a hundred faithful marines. They can blast this ship out of the New Lantean skies – if it ever reaches them. If they get that close.

He doesn’t let any doubts or fears show, and grins weakly at the Goa’uld like he would at a buddy sharing a bad joke over a pint. “Well, good luck with that.”

That’s a long journey. He’s not an expert on Goa’uld tech and there are differences between engines, but even if this ship was as fast as the Daedalus, it’ll still take them weeks to get there. Plenty of time to escape or sabotage, or for the SGC to catch up. Make plans. Defend the City. 

Ba’al is far too smug and confident. He nods, and one of the Jaffa steps forward, brandishing a sharp gleaming knife. For a moment John fears the worst, not for himself but for Jenny who isn’t even supposed to be there and she’s silent, but still breathing and conscious and she is watching the events unfold in shocked disbelief.

The knife digs through his skin and into the muscle and finds the subcutaneous transmitter with ease. Knowing where exactly it was hidden. It’s yanked out and John doesn’t take his eyes off the Snake as the Jaffa does this, wordlessly handing over the small piece of tech which would let the SGC know where they are.

Ba’al takes it, considers it for a moment, before dropping it to the floor and crushing it under the hard sole of his polished shoes. The signal must have died right away, and John knows that if someone’s watching on a screen faraway, the small blip suddenly disappearing – they could think him dead, his body destroyed.

“There is no hope for your friends to find you now, Colonel Sheppard.”

Damn, they are over-the-top, these Goa’uld. Ba’al is no exception. Wraith aren’t usually: they don’t make a dramatic speech declaring their evil intensions; they go straight for your chest, the spot where your heart is, to suck the life out of you.

John rolls his eyes. “I’ve been in worse places,” he says. “And we always find a way out. You guys are really persistent bastards; you never really learn. You can’t win. You know that, right?”

“It’s quite simple,” Ba’al goes on as if he didn’t hear, doesn’t care. “This ship has been equipped with an external generator in addition to its original power source; something you call a Zero Point Module. And you are going to help us integrate it and modify the hyperdrive so that we can reach Pegasus before my patience runs out.”

potentia? Where did they …?

The Ancients must’ve littered the vastness of Avalon with more of those things and other tech before they left it; more the SGC has had the time to find. The fact that Ba’al has found one is worrying, and the guy is hundreds of years old, or at least the Snake itself is even if the vessel might not be; Ba’al could’ve found it decades ago, long before the Program was established. Figured out slowly what it is, how it can be used, and waited for an opportunity. And John had thought that the Snake was dead along with the other System Lords. To know that, no, the bastard is not just alive, he’s been posing as some kind of overlord of a corporate business empire –

“Sorry. You’ve got the wrong guy.”

Wrong answer. The Goa’uld gives its human host unnatural strength, and dark spots dance in front of John’s eyes after the blow, and his jaw feels sore. Pretty sure his lip just got busted. He spits on the floor, and, yeah, that’s blood. Fuck. He doesn’t want Rodney to get hurt.

But he’s stubborn and he’s not going to help this Snake, not on his life – 

“Can’t do. I don’t put out on the first date.”

“Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be, Colonel,” the Goa’uld advises, seemingly humored and not at all stressed. “I know you have retained the memories of the Ancient named Icarus. You modify the hyperdrive of this craft: I let your companion here live. Formerly a Special Agent and now Director of NCIS – very impressive record – one which I can instantly cut very short.”

John stills, and internally curses this false deity. Now would be a good time for the SGC to catch up and beam in a team of marines. Now. Now – but there is no flare of fire, or an Asgard beam, or an assault of F-302s. Only Ba’al smile that John wants to kick in.

“I’ll give you a minute to think about it. We’ll soon leave this system behind, and there’s no way for the SGC to track us out here.”

Then the Goa’uld is gone, the Jaffa following at an even march, and the doors slam shut. The whirring noise of a locking mechanism.

They’re alone.

[Well. Looks like we’re going to have to improv our way out of this one], the Raven remarks wryly, tries to remain positive and uplifting and not give up. If they could get free and if John could get his hands on a single gun, a single zat, he could take ‘em. Probably. Yeah. Just needs the opportunity.

John exhales.

“What the hell,” Jenny gasps, but not from pain anymore. The shock: she’d been this reserved, professional woman – no longer the girl from his vague childhood memories, when they’d met those rare times when the Sheppards deemed it safe and okay for their Strangeling child to be exposed to other people lest the secret got out. They’d played in the yard of the green lawn. Been there at his eighth birthday party and they’d pulled pranks on Uncle Ben and been carefree children unaware of the dangers of the world, lifetimes and lifetimes ago; before the fallouts; before.

Now, her eyes are wide, and her face pale, and she’s staring at him like at a ghost. She doesn’t recognize him. He is a prisoner in the wrong flesh. A bruise is starting to bloom on Rodney’s face. McKay’s not going to be happy about that.

“What the hell is going on?!” Her voice is hoarse.

John turns, awkwardly. The shackles won’t let him reach out. And what’s he meant to say? lie? Saying it’s going to be fine is for children.

He decides to be blunt and just get it over with. No time to wrap it up nicely in warm blankets. “We’re aboard a spaceship. A Goa’uld cargo vessel, is my guess. That was Ba’al and he’s a Goa’uld and, yeah, they’re aliens, a parasite that takes over human bodies and kills their Dæmon because they have no use for them. And – yeah. I’m not really Dr Rodney McKay. This is his body, but, there are these communication devices –”

“Stop. Just stop.” Now Jenny blinks several times and looks to be holding back tears or laughter of hysteria, incredible disbelief and John wishes, too, that this was some elaborate dream. But it isn’t. it isn’t.

It sucks.

“I don’t –”

“I know you don’t believe me, Jenny.” First time he addresses her by that name instead of by rank, properly. Makes her raise her gaze sharply. He holds it, calmly, and counts the seconds until their breaths even out. “I’m John Sheppard. There’s this device that lets me talk and essentially be here via Rodney’s body. Sort of, sort of like a Bond, if you will. Telepathically? He’s in mine, my body, back on Atlantis. It’s complicated but yeah.”

“… Atlantis?”

“It’s a City. Three … three million lightyears from Earth,” he adds, hesitating briefly around the number because it’s so ridiculous to an outsider and although thinking in terms of lightyears and parsecs is normal, now, to him, it’s not really. She’s never been to outer space before, and this isn’t exactly the warmest welcome mat.

Home, he doesn’t say. It’s home.

“Holy fuck,” she whispers at last, curling up closer to her Dæmon. “Holy … fuck.”

“Yeah.”

She’s probably the sanest and most grounded person on this ship right now, he reflects.

He just hopes that she’ll get off it in one piece.


The Snake returns a minute or two later, goons in tow. Not Colonel Everett this time, blank-eyed. It is a relief. To see the once proud marine like that, his Dæmon a shell, is creepy as fuck.

“What is your answer?”

And John has to relent. But he has a condition. He knows they’ll never let Jenny go, but at least they’ve got to give her some medical attention. They’ve got the technology aboard, he’s certain. Healing devices of some kind.

He really doesn’t want to see her laid to rest in a sarcophagus. He’s read reports: dangerous consequences, addiction. But she’s worse off than she shows. She’ll bleed out, eventually.

Ba’al smiles a little, amused; as if this is a game; this is a game, and he owns the board and all the pieces and the audience, staged so handsomely according to his designs. “Is that your only demand?”

“Yeah,” John grunts. “Heal her, make sure she lives – without putting a Snake in her – and I’ll fix your engines.”

However that’s going to happen, because the Snake’s under some illusion. Sure, he’s got a few of Icarus memories. Doesn’t mean he knows how to rewrite the operating system of a damn Goa’uld ship, or hotwire its hyperdrive, or anything else like that. He’s not some damned Space MacGyver. That’s Rodney’s job.

What we wouldn’t do for Rodney to be here and fix –

He ceases the thought.

And Ba’al barks an order in Goa’uld to his Jaffa, and they yank the Director’s chains free from the wall, and she doesn’t cry out or plead for help. She is stoically quiet in the way of a military officer or federal agent well-trained to withstand interrogation. She does glance at John briefly in that echo of shock, of disbelief, of this being a very vivid otherworldly dream, and he has no answers to give. Her arms tighten around her Dæmon. They do not touch them: small mercies: and the Jaffa drag her to her feet, forces her to walk. She refuses to fall.

She’ll be taken to the ship’s sarcophagus, John is certain, if there is one, or Ba’al might use a hand device to heal her. She’s no use to them dead;

He wishes he could be certain that they won’t transplant a Snake in her head out of gruesome spite.

Then Jenny and her Dæmon are out of view, half-conscious, and Ba’al blocks door, and the Goa’uld appears to be unarmed. If we were on his own without hostages to worry about, John would’ve chanced it. Thrown himself at him. Twisted his neck. Goa’uld are stronger than humans, but if he –

But he can’t.

(Time to start panicking a little.)


Rodney hasn’t slept for over twenty-four hours. He isn’t the only one. His head hurts, and Carson says he can’t take any more painkillers for the rest of the day without causing damage to his – to Sheppard’s – liver. Rodney had yelled at him for a bit, before Carson had pointed out that yelling didn’t make the pain go away or make him feel better. Morosely, he’d returned to his lab.

He is at least allowed coffee. Its bitter taste is different from when it’s on his own tongue, but Rodney needs it to focus.

Also, he’s back to yelling.

“If we trace the hacker’s trail to –”

“Tried, got nothing. Servers rerouted it a dozen times.”

“What if we use the –”

“Again, tried it: nothing. It’s not going to –”

Their voices are rising in pitch, angrily. The anger is just a byproduct of stress, of concern, and nothing personal and they are aware of it on a distant level. Rodney can’t help but be very annoyed all the same. Radek’s ideas are nothing noteworthy and their options right now are limited.

They’re in his lab, and he’d prefer to be standing but he’s confined to a chair in front of a plasma screen. A clean whiteboard has been moved over and now they are scattering ideas over it. Data has been transmitted by the SGC: what little they’ve got on that energy signature indicating a ship breaking orbit from Earth. Not a hyperspace jump, though. They’ve got possible trajectories and little else. There’s also the hacker to deal with. Carter and her team are on the other end trying to find out by whom and where that was made. All of it are pieces of the same puzzle.

One which Rodney has trouble unravelling and he blames the painkillers making his head all fuzzy and his muscles sore. Not his but for the moment they are. A corner of his mind remains unfocused on this room, this moment, and instead wonders if John is even breathing though he’s got to be. The stones’ connection is still going strong and they’ve theorized that if a person were to be fatally injured while using them, if they died, the connection would break, possibly ending them both –

But they’re not dead, Mer reminds him sharply. They can’t be. So they’re not.

They try to focus on that fact and draw some hope from it. It’s hard because Rodney is, on a good day, pessimistic at best, and this is not a good day.

“We simply do not have enough data,” Radek emphasizes. “Had we had access to –”

“Well we don’t,” Rodney cuts him off sharply.

This, as Sheppard would probably put it, sucks. No, maybe he wouldn’t put it like that. Rodney certainly wouldn’t. Rodney would use much harsher language than that to describe the situation and Sheppard would put holes in said situation with his gun. He’s not that fond of the military types’ single-mindedness of This Doesn’t Work So Let’s Blow Something Up, generally, but right now Rodney is willing to make exceptions. Only problem is they have nothing to blow up or shoot at because they have no target; a target needs to be visible, and –

!!!

Rodney freezes and exchanges a look with Mer. The thought passing between them is more than an emotion but cannot be translated into words.

The Czech still in the room clears his throat. “McKay? Share with class?”


Radek, having worked alongside Rodney McKay long enough now to recognize when he’s having an idea (and not merely an angry outburst is on its way), cocks his head curiously.

“McKay? Share with class?” he suggests.

“Shut up, I’m thinking,” Rodney snaps and grabs for the nearest computer. Just needs to check something, but –

The Czech silences and nods, and knows not to wake his wrath. He busies himself with thinking. He’s not going to get any of his usual work done today, or tomorrow, or until they’ve figured out how to return the Colonel to the City. Radek is certain. Recalibration of the City’s internal sensors and analyzing the interesting survey of atmospheric energy anomalies on P01-937 will have to wait.

He’s not part of a Recon Team the way Rodney is (which is better for him; he would rather not be Out There to be shot at), but Radek knows the loyalty of everyone in this place and this is more than personal for Rodney McKay. McKay, for all his social inaptness, his brashness, his arrogance, his inability to stop gloating about his superior intellect, is not a bad person. Not the best, maybe, but not as bad as people often make him out to be, and Radek knows well because he has listened to more complaints regarding McKay than a man ought in his lifetime. McKay, beneath that gruff insensitive exterior, cares about the people around him. Even his science department even if he loathes admitting it.

And he might not be the most socially adept person (though a thousand times more aware than McKay), but Radek isn’t blind. Like a lot of people, he is willing to – what is the English term? Ah, yes: ‘turn a blind eye’. Necessary to do that for things to run smoothly in Atlantis.  Radek doesn’t think that McKay knows that Radek once spotted Colonel Sheppard enter McKay’s quarters one evening and not emerge until morning, although the City’s lifesigns censors showed no irregularities, as if the man and his singular Dæmon were never there. Radek does not tell. If he is ready, then McKay will say something. If he will, Radek doesn’t know. If the Colonel were a civilian, things probably would be different. The Czech has worked with Americans long enough to know about a lot of issues they have, and it’s not like it’s the country is the only one on Earth with the same problems.

For a long while now McKay taps the keyboard, briefly at intervals pausing to think, muttering to himself. Is strange to see him like this, in Colonel Sheppard’s flesh, though his attitude and manner of speech alone betray who he really is; there is no need to look at his Dæmon, curled up on the desk impatiently, which is all McKay. Still, it is rather … unsettling. The wrong face. Radek would not have volunteered to use the Ancient communication stones. Given recent – recent enough – events, he is a bit surprised that the Colonel agreed to use them.

But the Colonel is a very loyal man, and, from what Radek has learned, his family on Earth is involved somehow, and the man cannot leave the City. The details about that Radek does not share either. But he has watched, understood, calculated. So have many others. The Colonel does not need to use lifesigns detectors in the City, and knows much more than he lets on about Atlantis at any given time. This Radek has noticed. He whispers to the City, and it answers. Radek finds it useful. Now if only he too could hear whenever a fuse blows in a tower on the South Pier or there’s a power fluctuation on level three or a door is forcibly opened, and a lot of Radek’s troubles would be solved. Atlantis is old and there are a lot of blown fuses.

Yes, there’s a lot that Radek knows and notices that he doesn’t tell anyone explicitly or (often enough) implicitly. He’s not the only one either. Dr Weir, certainly, keeps her eyes peeled. And there are others, among the scientists as well as the marines. Unspoken secrets agreed upon to be kept that way until the time’s ripe to share them.

Until now, McKay acted grumpy not just because of what’s happening but because of the pain the body is in. Now, though, that pain is forced away or forgotten in intense concentration. A lot of people think Rodney doesn’t know how to shut up. Oh, he talks a lot. At first, Radek found it annoying and grating. When he first met McKay in Siberia (the less told of that incident the better), he couldn’t wait to be away from the man and had a strong urge to sock him. Very uncharacteristic, such a violent thought. McKay had been so sharp and rough and there was no wonder the Air Force had sent him to Russia to that international research complex. No one else wanted to take him in. 

Now Radek is used to it, the talking, and finds Rodney’s speech patterns a good indicator of his mood and health. (Has helped to avoid several catastrophes due to low food rations.) But when he is this deep in concentration, McKay falls very very silent. He is not even touching his offered coffee. If this was a normal (ha. normal. Radek does not laugh.) day, then Radek would start to become concerned at this silence, but he knows the reason today. Is best not to interrupt and agitate him further.

A little more than half an hour passes until he moves from his office chair, and he marches out of the lab, heading for the nearest transporter. Tries to march, anyway, visibly struggling with the Colonel’s injured leg, with the crutches. Radek, curling a PDA under his arm, follows, prepared to step in and support the man if he slips, knowing that Rodney will vehemently deny the aid until the last possible moment. Rodney doesn’t like pain or being injured, sure, but he hates leaning on a colleague’s shoulder even more. Though they are not merely colleagues anymore: Radek would call Rodney his friend, and, in extremely emotionally draining situations, McKay would admit the same.

They step into the transporter and McKay presses the area representing the Control Room on the map. He leans against the wall, breathing heavily.

“Well?” Radek asks finally.

“I’ve got an idea how to find that ship.”


twenty hours earlier: 


It’s cold and the light is dim. Yellow. Lamps? There aren’t any windows, and the door is barred shut, tightly, and he comes to suddenly, blinking, dazed; his head hurts, pounding something awful. Not like after a good night out, or even after a bad fight. For a moment he can’t recall how he could’ve ended up here – nothing makes sense.

Then he starts remembering. The texts. The texts. He’d answered … worried. Honestly concerned, because they wouldn’t just contact him like that out of the blue without a cause. Getting his number so fast and everything …

The text. That message. What had it meant?

He scrambles into a sitting position, and realizes that this smell, this – this stench, is smells like the underground, moist and dank and unmoving. The lack of light. Yeah – this could be underground. Cellar? But how did …?

The text. Bradley. Bradley! Shit, the van, the van and the strange men and the knife –

Racing to his feet, heart suddenly pounding so loud he thinks that it has to be the echoing reverberations in his skull, Mitchell grasps for the door. The room is pretty large for an underground cell and if this had been offworld, he’d be waiting for his team to show, or maybe even one of the Frontiers, the full cavalry. Guns blazing heroically and all that. Leave no one behind, that’s the motto they live by. Isn’t it? But this is Earth, not –

Earth.

Which means his team isn’t coming because they think he’s ill, that’s why he wouldn’t hang out with them to share beer and laughter and for a moment forget the terrors of Pegasus. And, shit, isn’t this the most cruel irony? Survive Wraith and ambushes and alien planets, and now he’s stuck someplace on Earth because Bradley White wouldn’t –

He lays his palms against the door and closes his eyes. The thought of the guy with his arms tied behind his back comes to mind, and as he stands there, leaning against the door and breathing heavily, his memory rekindles. The recalls the van and the men and the knife, and the prisoner, their bound hands. Their Dæmon … so familiar, so familiar; that had been his half-brother, he’s certain, even thought it was years since the last time they saw each other face-to-face.

There’d been blood, and a vague scream, and a light that didn’t fit in – but his memory is fuzzy. Takes a moment to recall.

The flash of the zat’nik’tel. Been so long since last he saw one of those things, because they brought none of them with them to Pegasus. Pity, really. Handy in a tight spot. If he’d had one himself … But he didn’t, and darkness had taken them;

He opens his eyes again, and realizes why he’s so cold. His feet are bare. Someone’s taken his boots, and his cammies, and he’s in nothing more than boxers and a tank, and, jeez, he’s probably going to freeze to death. Trapped in a cell on Earth – but where? Is this still D.C.? Elsewhere? He has no conception of time or how long he was out. They could’ve keep hitting him with the zat every time he woke up, until …

And he shudders. Unconscious. They both were. That means they must’ve touched … Is that, too, why he feels so cold? Someone put their dirty hands on his Dæmon and carried them away;

The door is solid. Steel? His hands are free, and there are no chains, and his Dæmon isn’t forced into a cage. They both pound and claw at the heavy door. It doesn’t rattle or move. He throws himself, using his left shoulder, as a weight upon it. Nothing happens.

“Hey! Let us out!” he shouts. “Hey!?”

Already his hands and arms start feeling a bit sore, and he realizes that he’s bleeding. A smear on the steel. He reaches out to touch it, and then the corresponding spot on his arm, above the elbow. The subcutaneous tracker is gone.

“Anybody there?!”

How long have they been down here? And what’s the rate for hypothermia, when does it strike, when does it become deadly? He thinks he can hear the wet noise of water dripping somewhere slowly, and shudders again.

“Fuck,” he whispers to himself.

Maybe Drew will come save us after all, his Dæmon tries to think for them upliftingly. Realize something’s wrong and save the day.

Maybe. And she’d never let him forget it, either. If she could.

Heavy footsteps.

It doesn’t sound like a rescue team. They wouldn’t be that obviously loud, and he draws back, to the left hand side of the door so that when it opens, he could take the shot. Pounce. His limbs are so heavy.

It’s not a Gate team, not a marine. It’s a Jaffa, and his jaw tightens in angry shock and this doesn’t make sense. He tries to fight, but the Jaffa just threatens to shoot his Dæmon with their staff weapon.

“What do you want?!”

These, these are the people who took Bradley and maybe he could be dead, that’s why he’s in this cell alone;

Someone else enters the cell. Not a Jaffa. Her forehead is smooth and holds no such marks, and she’s beautiful, kind of hot and with icy blonde hair and she’s in a business suit, skirt all strict and it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

“You’re going to give up your security codes so that we can access the SGC:s database,” she says, her voice pleasant and business-like. As if this is a meeting at a bank and she’s making a withdrawal.

He’s standing in front of his Dæmon now so that the first shot can’t hit her, but it’s meagre protection and they both know it. He can spot a couple more Jaffa beyond, in the corridor. Dank, darkly lit, electrical lamps. Earth. This is Earth, still. Not an alien ship. And there’s no way they could’ve travelled through the Gate to another world.

At least that’s something.

“Look, lady,” he says, “I don’t know what the hell you want, but –”

The woman doesn’t say anything. Nods at one of the Jaffa and, instead of firing, it strikes him across the face with the staff. He falls down, searing with dizziness and his eyes blacken for a second, nothing to be seen. His jaw is sore and cheekbone maybe broken.

Futz.

“The security access codes,” the woman repeats like she’s bored and stern and could do this all day. Her nails are painted a deep red, red like blood. It’s the only color in the room. Her Dæmon is an odd shadow that doesn’t move.

C’mon, Drew, he thinks, hopes: figure it out. Come get us. Don’t need to send a Frontier team all fancy. I’d settle for any armed marine right about now. Any heavily armed marine.

He’s not going to betray the SGC, his team. He can’t. Not to these Snakes.

“No.”

Another strike.

Okay, bad idea.

She’s probably ready to do this all day. She steps closer, not afraid to get blood on her pristine clothes or her unmarked hands, and her eyes glow golden.

Fuck, he hates Snakes.

Gasping for breath, he glances upward. “If I did, what would you do? Who the hell are you anyway?!”

“Give us the security access codes,” she says, voice like dark honey, smooth and frighteningly warm, and for a second he thinks that she’d have better success with this plan if they’d tried seducing him or something. Guess that’s too cliché.

Maybe just tricking himself because, yeah, he’s sure that his cheek is broken, and if he doesn’t comply more bones will follow.

C’mon, Drew. Anytime now …

But no one’s coming for him and he knows it, deep down, he knows it. He lied to his team about where he was going and didn’t tell them and this is how he’ll pay for it.

His team has gotten into trouble before, offworld. Not like the Frontiers but almost. Chased down by Wraith. Captured once by angry locals and they’d been pretty beat up but those folks had thought they were Wraith Worshippers and it had taken Weir a day to negotiate them out of there. Now he’s got no such luck.

And he thinks about his team: can’t betray them. He has no idea who this woman is or why she wants those access codes but he can guess, and in any scenario the outcome won’t be good.

“The access codes. Then the pain will go away.”

Probably via a headshot. Not looking forward to that.

He bites his tongue, doesn’t answer. He looks at the woman and thinks, fiercely, even if she and the others can’t hear it: Go to hell, lady.

This time, the Jaffa doesn’t strike. Aims for a kneecap and fires.

The scream tears out of his throat.

Chapter Text

xix.

one giant leap

they’re missing a Dæmon.  


They take him to the engine room. His Dæmon is left behind in the cage, the forcefield encompassing, and they don’t wish each other good luck. Every minute he wastes, the closer Jenny’s going to draw to death. And he has no idea what the fuck he’s even doing. The Goa’uld is out of its mind. He could stall them, he could, make up lies, but he has no idea where on the ship exactly Jenny is and they’ll kill her if he doesn’t cooperate.

There’s a potentia. Its glow is dull, weak. Half-power. But enough. Could be enough to carry them all the way to Atlantis, where his body is waiting.

Icarus has knowledge of the Goa’uld, met them after evacuating to Terra ten millennia ago and he spoke their harsh tongue.

“Y’know,” he remarks idly, “I’m not sure I can actually do any of what you want me to do.”

He’s not McKay. And he hasn’t summoned up any of Icarus’ memories out of the blue, at a whim. True, he hasn’t tried. Still. It’s not like flipping a switch.

The Snake is clearly out of its twisted mind thinking that this can be done.

“I’m just saying that if this doesn’t work, it’s not my fault.”

“I could always kill Jenny Sheppard right away,” Ba’al says without infliction. “She is of little use to me.”

John shuts up. He lets them lead him to the consoles, to the crystal panels open in the walls and he looks at the trays of crystals and wonders how the hell this is going to work. He needs it to work, because if he doesn’t do what Ba’al wants then Jenny will die. And she’s innocent in all of this and doesn’t deserve such an end. There are wires on the floor waiting to be used, and a Terran computer hooked up to the machinery. There are some complicated equations there, half-finished, the slow movement of planets and galaxies needing to be ironed out because some of the data is missing.

They need him to plot the course, he realizes then: they don’t have New Lantea’s exact coordinates, Atlantis’ exact coordinates. John has no choice but to give it to them.

And there’s a potentia, dull as it’s not yet connected to the system. The Ancients never meant for their technology to be used this way, in conjunction with Goa’uld – or, for that matter, Terran or Asgard or Wraith – tech. But they made those other combinations work, didn’t they?

This is going to take a while.


“I was right. There is a conspiracy.”

“You can shut up about it now, Tony,” Todd sighs, rubbing at her brows briefly with a hand. It’s been a long very strange day, and there are things to do. “You’ve only pointed it out fifteen times in the past hour.”

At least now they – sort of – know what they’re dealing with. Scratched the surface. There are still huge chunks missing, things that have to be pulled out of the dark and illuminated.

They’re back at HQ, and they’re going to do what they do best: investigate. Now given full clearance and access to what they couldn’t reach before, they get to work. What they need to do is find that Goa’uld … or its host.

Host. Dr Jackson, the archaeologist (whose reputation has been ridiculed for years and years now for his outlandish theories about the Egyptian pyramids being the basis of spaceships) had explained: the Goa’uld are parasites and they take host, and the Dæmon of that host slowly or rapidly dies, fades away to dust and empty shells and none of the agents wants to continue that horrible, soul-wrenching thought. These Goa’uld can walk around emptily for months to trick people into believing that everything is okay.

It’s the stuff out of a B-grade sci-fi/horror movie. The kind which DiNozzo usually would relish with glee, but now – now – now, fuck, how’s he ever going to look at any movie with spaceships and aliens the same way again?

They don’t have any names yet, but many of those System Lords (calling themselves gods once upon a time) are gone now. Overthrown or dead. Several thanks to the SGC, to Dr Jackson and General O’Neill and their old team, SG-1.

So much information has passed them by in the last couple of hours, astounding and terrifying, and it’s difficult to take in. Process. And there is (too) little time to do so because the Director’s gone, and they’ve got to find her. Pressing questions. The other agents at HQ, and the Director’s assistant, are concerned and they’ve got other agencies breathing down their necks and the Department of Defense frowning, and Gibbs cannot point to the usual suspects. For once he cannot be honest enough to hazard a guess and give the other agents a clue as to where to look. No, this case is something he and his team must figure out on their own.

Not entirely on their own. The SGC will of course help; this has to do with them, and one of their own has been murdered – or staged to look like a murder – and another has been taken too. They’ve sent information, and keep coordinating with their people. They’re also still searching for a murderer and the possibility of Corporal Snow still being alive. Elsewhere.

“So that wasn’t really Dr McKay,” says McGee after a pause. Sitting in front of his computer frantically typing, seeking paper trails. False identities.

From what they’ve managed to gather, the SGC thinks that the Trust-come-Goa’uld has lived in the shadow of Earth for months or years, probably as some kind of businessman. So they’ve got to match corporations. There are hints: Summer, the Director’s PA, has told them about two suspicious phonecalls; and there was another attack, to Patrick Sheppard, the Director’s uncle. Related somehow.

It’s a mess.

A huge intergalactic mess. Wow, that’s a word none of them ever thought they’d use in their line of work. Or ever.

“Apparently, yeah. That wasn’t McKay,” DiNozzo says.

Disbelieving. Can’t let it go. The video call: to another planet: to another galaxy, and there’s a City there and there was a guy whose face matched the photos of Snow’s CO. But he spoke oddly and waved his hands around a lot, and claimed to be Dr Rodney McKay. The one they’d meant to have in custody a moment ago along with Corporal MacGrimmon. Something about communication devices with telepathic links. Or something.

Some days DiNozzo wonders why he took Gibbs up on the offer of joining NCIS and leaving the life – sometimes dull, sometimes dangerous, sometimes thrilling – as a police officer in Baltimore behind. This is a day like that.

At least at the PD he wouldn’t have to worry about shit like this. Aliens storming HQ to perform a kidnapping. Alien ray guns. Alien spaceships.

Spaceships.

A conspiracy. A huge conspiracy at the heart of everything they know. They’ve been fed lies for years.

There was even a battle. No, battles, plural – battles for Earth: against some of those Goa’uld System Lords. Ships exploding in the sky. A dogfight above Antarctica less than three years ago, the kind which would be awesome and exciting on TV, but Colonel Mitchell had apparently been there in a fighter jet to fend off the attackers and been badly injured and he hadn’t made it sound like anything out of Star Wars at all.

And DiNozzo has watched Wormhole X-treme! and found it kind of hilarious in its B-graded grace, with special effects that could’ve been better but also could’ve been much worse. To then meet General O’Neill and Colonel Carter and Dr Jackson and realize that these are the real (weird) people doing real (unbelievable) work, and those Wormhole X-treme! characters were caricatures of them … based on them – they even said the creator of the show is an alien. An alien. Making TV about aliens. That’s some Men in Black-level of weirdness (and there’s yet another movie DiNozzo isn’t going to be able to watch for a long while without a meltdown).

Yeah. All of this – it would mess with anyone’s head.


And just as Dr McKay wasn’t really Dr McKay, the body in their morgue isn’t Lance Corporal Snow. Instead they’ve got a dead NID agent who according to records should have a Dæmon of different Shape than what’s in the freezing drawer; and Gibbs can draw two possible conclusions. One is that there’s yet another body out there to be found but it makes little sense, and in gut he’s just not feeling it. The second possibility is that the Dæmon is the one belonging to Agent White, but the Shape has been – forcibly or otherwise – changed since the records were made.

A Dæmon finds a suitable Shape and Settles into it in late adolescence or adulthood. A mark of passage. Such is the nature of things. After that, changing is much harder; often seen as impossible. But they’ve got to question the impossible now. If properly motivated – by will, by circumstance, by enduring force – then a person could switch the Shape of their Dæmon. Theoretically, Dr Mallard agrees, it’s possible, but it doesn’t usually happen.

The SGC, Gibbs has come to understand, doesn’t deal with ‘usually’ or ‘impossible’. Hell, they’ve got the means to travel through space using Stargates like the normal guy would take the subway to work. That’s not normal or natural, and Gibbs wouldn’t touch a wormhole with a stick.

He has Abby run a DNA test, samples provided by the NID via the SGC. Of course, convincing Abby and Ducky to continue working the case without being able to share information pisses Gibbs off. He doesn’t like keeping these kinds of secrets. They should work as a team and a team doesn’t hold out on one another. But the two are still being vetted by the SGC. Hopefully, before the day is up, two more nondisclosure agreements will be delivered to HQ and Gibbs can bring them up to speed, and the SGC can provide both information and people to work with Abby and Ducky and the rest of his team. Once that’s done, they’ll find out the truth about who did this, and why, and how. And then Gibbs is going to book a long weekend in his basement with his boat.

The wood and dust will remind him that while there may be aliens, the rest of the world remains the same. Because if he starts thinking otherwise, Gibbs knows he’ll end up a paranoid bastard (more than he already is, anyway) for the rest of his life and never get a good night’s sleep.


Dr Mallard takes it in stride. Very talkative, taken-aback stride, yes, but in stride nonetheless. Sciuto, gasping in revelation, demands Dr Jackson, who is there when the agreements are signed two hours later, tell her everything about the Stargate and related to it, and she barely recalls how to breathe. Jackson can talk just as fast and Gibbs watches the discussion for a minute or so, and then barks at them to focus on the case.

Aliens or not, they’ll catch this killer. Questions about wormhole physics and the chemical residue of Goa’ulds or whatever else they’re blabbing about has to wait. Abby pouts, but obeys, and Dr Jackson relays all and any relevant information to her and Dr Mallard. The archaeologist – and now they know why an archaeologist has been hired by the USAF base without an airstrip as a ‘consultant’ – has brought with him a computer and several files pertinent to the case. If he hadn’t, Gibbs would have had Abby and McGee hack the SGC, and General Landry had seemed aware of this fact. Perhaps heard not undue rumors from disgruntled feds about Gibbs’ habits and stubbornness.

The odd three walk together to Abby’s lab in Forensics, and before the elevator closes with a ping, Gibbs hears Abby ask Jackson: “But what chemical reaction causes the eyes to glow?” and decides he doesn’t want to know.


Later, in the bullpen, the NCIS team is gathered with everything they’ve managed to find. Possible suspects; new angles to look from has given them ideas and forced them to discard others. Abby’s still working in her lab but should return shortly.

Mallard’s run through the autopsy for a second time with new eyes. Now they know, for example, that the strange shallow cut in the vic’s arm had been made to remove a tracking device planted by the SGC: the only thing that makes sense.

The DNA match arrives at nightfall but none of them is thinking about turning in. The sample provided by the NID is positive: their victim is Agent Bradley White. DNA doesn’t lie. That’s White, and since he was running an op of such import to the SGC he’d been implanted with a tracking device. Subcutaneous transmitter, says Abby. Gibbs trusts her to understand what the hell that means. The SGC had been able to track White in real time, anywhere on the planet, up until shortly before the murder. It matches the timeline. That’s White.

His Dæmon is another story. The Shape of it is wrong. Agent Barrett, who coordinates with the NID, SGC, and now NCIS, confirms this. Barrett has worked with White before, and White’s Dæmon was roughly that size, yes, but it was definitely feline, and not of that color. But, digging through old photos, they find a match. Sort of.

“The missing marine, Snow, we see his Dæmon in this picture. High school reunion two years ago,” DiNozzo says, and a picture comes up on the plasma screen.

It depicts Snow alongside three other people, two men and one woman, of the same age, dressed in casual attire. The light is dim and the image is somewhat shaky, but good enough, and they can clearly see all the Dæmons as well. One of the people’s wearing a purple party hat, and there’s movement in the background and a flash of confetti, and their smiles are somewhat forced as tends to be the case then people who haven’t had contact with each other for years and secretly loathes one another come together to socialize.

Snow’s got an arm thrown around the woman in the picture, and he looks healthy enough. By his feet sits his Dæmon, close to the woman’s. She’s been identified as a girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend now, according to Snow’s team and friends, who apparently know everything about Snow. Lieutenant Drew, the leader of AR-9, had said during the interview that a team knows more about each other than most husbands know about their wives.

Gibbs was a marine once, and he knows that kind of life. Drew wasn’t lying.

“So. We’ve got a dead NID agent, no sign of his Dæmon, and a missing marine with his Dæmon in the morgue,” DiNozzo concludes, turning to the others. “We’re missing something here. We’re missing a Dæmon.”

McGee looks at the picture for a long moment, at the comparison of the Dæmon zoomed in next to the dead one. The blood’s been cleaned off the corpse. He’s silent in thought.

“You know, I read once, I can’t remember when exactly right now,” Dr Mallard who’s with them says. He has his tirades, but Gibbs doesn’t interrupt the old man. Yet, anyway. “Oh, yes! When I was studying in Oxford, I came across the notes of a very odd case. There was a mismatching Dæmon, I remember now. It was the case of two siblings involved in a robbery; one of them was found in a dumpster …”

“Ducky,” Gibbs cuts in. They’re wasting precious time.

“All right, all right,” says Ducky slightly grumpily but continues, understanding that Gibbs’ glare means Get To The Point. “At first, the coroner was confounded. The cause of death was clearly poisoning, at least for the human body, and the signs were clear as day and should’ve translated over to the Dæmon. Instead the Dæmon’s skull was clearly bashed in! Photographic IDs revealed that this Dæmon should’ve had the Shape of a white Felis catus, which are fairly common as a basic Shape, but instead next to the body in the dumpster there was a Felis margarita –”

“A sand dune cat,” translates Todd.

“Very good, Kate!” Ducky says, smiling. “Now, there’s a minor difference, and could’ve been attributed to an oversight with the registrar’s office. Two days later, the victim’s sister was found, very much alive, and her Dæmon looked exactly like the victim’s. The chances of such an occurrence is very slim, even in the family. In fact, in less than one part per million of the average population –” Catching Gibbs’ impatient look, Ducky clears his throat. “My point is, this very Dæmon had been reportedly seen at the scene of the crime, a robbery one week earlier. A Felis margarita is quite rare; especially one of this coloring. Yes, it was the black stripe across its back that did it. The dead woman had registered the Shape of her Dæmon as a white Felis catus. Her sister …”

“Shifted the Shape of her Dæmon before she was killed,” Gibbs concludes.

Ducky nods. “Yes, that’s what happened. That kind of thing happening in adulthood is highly unusual. No doubt it was done under coercion, the woman’s attempt to cover up and blame her sister for the crime. Back then, DNA forensics was still in its cradle, and if not for the precise memory of the bank teller, she’d have walked free.”

“That’s possible? I thought shifting Shape as an adult was a myth,” exclaims McGee, woken from his reprieve. Timothy’s Dæmon settled when they were seventeen and haven’t attempted moving into something else since, and they don’t have any plans to.

The notion of being forced to shift Shape into something else is shocking to the core. Then again, so is a lot of things he’s recently learned. He’d not heard about that exact case that Ducky’s talking about – that was way back in Britain in the sixties or something – but he’d read something like that on a forum on the internet once. He’d thought it was something he could use for one of his books one day, maybe. A good twist people wouldn’t expect. It’s the thing of fiction.

“Probie,” says DiNozzo, uncharacteristically serious, lowering his voice a bit so that other non-read-in agents can overhear them: “there are aliens.”

McGee blinks. “So? They don’t have Dæmons. And we’re talking about a human victim.” It’s weird, having to stress that.

“It’s possible,” Gibbs says. His tone is grave. He won’t speak more of it, about whether he knows from hearsay or from experience. “Rare, difficult, but possible.”

They’re not missing a Dæmon. They one they’ve got in the morgue is a copycat. The question is: where is the original?

Gibbs nods, mulling over what’s been said. “Kate, what’ve you got?”

The female agent steps forward. She’s been looking into the people who broke into HQ and kidnapped the Director. The oddly looking men she’d not been able to find; talking with the SGC liaison, she was told that those men probably are not from Earth. True aliens. Jaffa, foot soldiers for the Goa’uld, they’d have grown up on a completely different world without records or birth certificates and they’d have had their Dæmons cut off from them as they were implanted with larvae. The blonde woman, on the other hand, she’s managed to find a name to.

Todd clicks and the plasma screen flickers to show the image of a woman in her mid-thirties; next to that is a frozen frame of the security recordings taken from the Director’s office. The second picture is fuzzy even with enhancement; it had been difficult to find a clear shot of the woman’s face, and there’s something wrong with her eyes in the video. As if they were glowing.

“This is Charlotte Mayfield, VP of Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics. More than that, according to the intel provided by our new friends, it’s probable she’s got connection to the Trust. Today she placed two calls directly to the Director’s PA requesting a meeting with Director Sheppard.”

“Not a coincidence,” DiNozzo comments needlessly.

“The Bad Guys,” McGee says, for the lack of a better moniker; within the openness of the plaza at NCIS HQ, surrounded by other agents, they can’t speak unveiled words about what they’ve just learned; “they tend to like positions of power, and this is a major company with many contacts both in the US and abroad. Their biggest client is the Department of Defense.”

Huge warning signs right there. It’s a perfect cover to gather intel and conduct sabotage, all the while making big money.

“The interesting thing is,” Todd goes on, “that Mayfield got into this position just a few months ago. The previous VP, Alex Jamesson, dropped off the map six weeks ago. A short time before that he began to behave strangely according to his wife who hired a private investigator, suspecting that he was having an affair with another woman.”

“And?” Gibbs presses.

“And nothing. Yet!” Todd adds hurriedly.

“If these … Snakes,” McGee hesitates over the word briefly, “got to him, it’s possible he’s literally off the map.”

“And they replaced him with Mayfield,” DiNozzo fills in. “Makes sense.”

Gibbs ponders it. Mayfield may be loyal to the Trust and therefore be more useful to them. The money alone flowing through that company is a good motivator. The pieces are slowly slotting together. “What about the CEO?”

“This guy,” Todd says. A new picture: a man in his mid-thirties or forties, difficult to determine; slightly dark skin, a neat trim of hair and a goatee, a hint of a relaxed self-reliant smirk. Outwardly he’s rather ordinary, kind of handsome. His Dæmon must be small enough to hide on his body or it’s simply outside of the camera’s narrow field of vision. The picture is taken at an angle: the screenshot from a conference or other. A swarm of men in black in the background, anonymous businessmen sitting around a table. Two large men stand to the side directly behind Human; bodyguards judging by their stance, radio wires, and sunglasses. For a businessman to have personal security is unusual but not unheard of.

“Eric Human, born January 17, 1969 in Bloemfontein, South Africa; only child, parents died – cause unknown – in 1987. He moved to the states the same year. Unmarried. He bought the company eighteen months ago and from what I can tell he has got funds both in the US and overseas in over a dozen accounts, most of which are linked to the company. We’ve managed to pull some paperwork on him. He’s clean but a bit fuzzy. The name pings me as falsified – the record is, well, too thorough but not enough in all the right places.” She’s a good profiler, and Gibbs trusts her judgment. If Kate’s certain that someone’s bogus then they probably are. “Civilian; no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket. I managed to find a couple of reviews on him, all very appreciative. Apparently he’s becoming a big deal in certain circles, he’s got contacts across the globe.”

“And then some,” DiNozzo mutters on his breath. “That is, if he’s involved in this Thing We Can’t Talk About.” He exhales shakily, murmurs to himself: “Got to come up with a good acronym that doesn’t violate that agreement.”

Todd can’t help but agree: with his first point, that is, not the acronym. “It’s suspicious, especially with a name like that.” Even if the name isn’t falsified and that is really what the man – the host? – is called, then ‘Eric Human’ a huge irony. From what she’s thus far learned about the Goa’uld, it’s that they, while able to be subtle, are big fans of dramatics, about making statements. The SGC said they pose as mythological figureheads and gods, after all. Todd thinks that, if this wasn’t so weird and out of their league, she’d find making a profile assessment kind of interesting. Now it’s simply deeply disturbing.

“No Dæmon in any picture we’ve found,” McGee remarks in a low voice, looking at Gibbs expectantly. “If these – Snakes – really don’t have them, then …” He trails off, looking pale and a bit sick at the thought.

“Doesn’t have to mean anything, not until we’ve got all the facts,” Gibbs says. “I want to talk with them both.”

“That’s the problem. We can’t get a hold of either Mayfield or Human. According to the assistant I spoke to on the phone, they’re on an extended business conference in Germany. Wouldn’t specify more than that. Left this morning, private flight, won’t be back for days,” says Todd wryly. The whole thing reeks with lies.

“Europe,” echoes DiNozzo, slightly dreamily. “Nice. I like Europe, especially the –” Sensing the glare from Gibbs and the threat of a slap to the head, he quickly shuts up.

“If they’re involved, it’s not Europe they’re going to.” Gibbs considers all the data in front of them for a moment. Then orders: “Fix me a warrant to search Human’s office at Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics, his home, the works.”

“Uh, Boss, for a search warrant we need a justifiable cause,” DiNozzo hedges, hesitating. McGee doesn’t point out that DiNozzo has on more than one occasion entered private property without warrant (though not wholly without cause), which, though it’d turned out all right in the end, hadn’t always sat nice with the court and jury.  Gibbs only looks at him, and DiNozzo ceases voicing objections. Not the time. Not when the Director’s somewhere out there in need of help. “Right. Cause – on it.”

“Kate, contact our liaison,” Gibbs orders and she nods, reaching for her phone. Agent Barrett is standing by to help in whatever way he can. “Tell him we need to get to the Mountain.”


Their earlier visit to the Prometheus was brief, a turnaround so that they could get to Cheyenne Mountain. This time it is not so. The ship thrums and hums beneath their feet, and Kate has the reeling sensation of being stuck inside of a submarine, the air tight and difficult to breathe. They pass by a few windows, giving way to an incredible but at the same time terrifying view of the moon below.

Colonel Pendergast has the Prometheus orbiting Earth’s moon, hiding in its shadow, while they scan space hoping to get a glimpse of the ship they think fled the solar system earlier. So far no luck. That’s not why the NCIS agents are aboard, though.

The infirmary is a gray room without windows at the heart of the ship, well protected in case of battle. If the hull of the ship is hit then the infirmary, as well as some main engineering sections, would suffer the least. This is a place they could seal themselves in in if the ship begins to vent atmosphere.

Vent atmosphere – Kate can barely process that. When she’d been down in that submarine to solve a case of mistaken identity, her first year with NCIS, it’d taken awhile to get used to the idea of all crushing weight of water above them, knowing that no one would survive if the sub dropped down and filled with water. Now, she and Gibbs endure a quick security walkthrough with one of the airmen aboard, Captain Womack who’s a Bridge Technician. She tells them were to find the safe areas, how to close hatches, how to fasten an oxygen tank in less than ten seconds. Kate hadn’t taken note to it before, too shocked, but now she sees that the walls of the ship are the opposite of smooth: there are various instruments and data screens, and almost everywhere there are handrails jutting out at various levels from floor to ceiling, so that there’s something to hold onto in zero G or low pressure.

“A human can survive approximately fifteen to thirty seconds in vacuum before it kills,” Captain Womack says, lightly and yet seriously. She doesn’t seem weirded out at all. This is her job, simple as that. “If the general alarm sounds, get to a safe area. Lifepods are on level three, two corridors over.”

“You expect trouble?” Kate can’t help but ask. They’re here to interview a witness.

“No, but shit happens,” Komack says plainly. “Besides, the Colonel might order a drill. He’s fond of that.” The Captain pauses, as if trying to recall if there’s anything else they should immediately know. The woman hasn’t asked questions about who they are; Colonel Samantha Carter ringed up with them and said that they’re agents investigating current goings-on, and that seems to be enough.

The ship doesn’t have any truly restricted areas they’re told to avoid. The whole ship is a restricted area. After the instructions, Captain Komack leads them to the infirmary and leaves them there. A marine is watching the door. Gibbs and Kate flash their badges and watch the marine’s eyebrows rise, and then he shrugs and opens the door.

The room is well-lit, spacious and yet cramped. A number of beds and differing medical equipment line the walls. The beds are empty save for two; an old man is resting under the covers of one, attached to an IV line, and on the one next to it a woman is lying on her side, sleeping but not injured. A second man is snoozing in a chair in-between the beds, his neck at an angle that’ll soon be uncomfortable.

The old man isn’t asleep. He looks somewhat drained and pale, and in dull pain, and he’s wearing scrubs. He’s got a datapad of some sort in his lap and is reading when the two agents enter.

“Mr Patrick Sheppard?”

“That’s me,” the man sighs and squints at them. “You’re the NCIS agents? Colonel Carter told me you were coming. I’m afraid I don’t think I can tell you much.” He moves a hand vaguely. “The morphine isn’t good for my head.”

Gibbs smiles gently, a thing people generally don’t think he can do. He holds up his badge but the man only glances at it.

“I’m Agent Jethro Gibbs, this is Agent Caitlin Todd.”

Woken by the voices, the man and woman stir. They’re both somewhere in their mid-thirties and man is wearing a haphazard tie and mismatching socks, and the woman is without makeup. They look tired to the bone, and Kate guesses that they must be David Sheppard and his fiancée, Laura; civilians who have nothing to do with the SGC. Wouldn’t have if not for David’s brother and their father’s stabbing in NYC. Colonel Carter had told them what happened, but they haven’t had an official statement from Patrick Sheppard yet.

The woman on the bed sits up and yawns. “Hi, sorry. I thought it was another nurse. Should we leave?”

The two agents exchange a look. “We’d like to hear what you and your fiancé know, Miss Shannon,” Gibbs says, voice disarmingly charming.

David, who’d stood up to shake hands, sinks back in his chair. “I’m sorry but that’s not much. We, we got here – yesterday? It’s been several hours now, and I keep losing time aboard this,” the man hesitates, the world foreign now, “ship.” He waves a hand, lost, motions at the walls. “Colonel Carter and Mitchell told us about the SGC, or a bit about it, and got us here while my dad was still in surgery.”

Mr Sheppard looks wry and grim and says: “It was quite a shock to wake up here and being told that I’m aboard a spaceship. They had to wheel me to the – Bridge? – to prove …” He shakes his head and winces dizzily. “Okay, what do you want to know?”

“Start from the beginning,” Kate says.

The man lies there, breathing, thinking for a moment. “I’d gone to New York for a conference. Well, it was an informal meeting to be honest, with the board of another company mine has been having deals with for the last few months. Last month we were approached about an interesting offer, but they wanted to discuss the details in person.” He nods to himself, remembering. “The meeting went well, though there was something about the – well, at the time I thought I was being superstitious. Now I’m thinking …”

“Yes?” Gibbs says. Kate is taking notes, though Patrick Sheppard hasn’t gotten to the attack yet.

“I’ve been a businessman my whole life and I know the competition, how greasy and slippery it can get. The sums involved. I’ve taken the lobbyist route myself on occasion. But I swear I’ve never been in a room full of so many people who didn’t feel right. There was something that I didn’t like about the CEO or the board, though I can’t put my finger on it.” He sighs. “As I said, I thought that was superstition, but now apparently there are spaceships – so I might have to change my mind about that. Well. The meeting concluded around three o’clock, and I took the scenic route back to the hotel. Had a wonderful cup of coffee at 86 East 7th street, caught up on the news. I prefer to read the paper. Then I took the subway back to the hotel. It’s not the first time by far that I’ve been to New York, and I like the city, its people, and I’ve been staying at that hotel before, taken that route.” When prompted the reveals the address and hotel room number, which he’s still being billed for, and Gibbs makes a mental note to check it out later. “I was sitting by the window, reading the paper, and an older gentleman takes seat in front of me.”

“What did he look like?”

“To be honest, I was a bit reminded of you by him, sir,” he says to Gibbs. “White, somewhere in his mid-fifties, I think. His clothes were black? Yes, that’s it. I think he might have been military. Didn’t give a name, but we talked for a bit, and he asked about the paper I was reading. I gave it to him before I stepped off. He was rather tall, gray hair. His Dæmon was a wolf, a large gray wolf.”

“Anything particular about it?”

Sheppard is quiet for a heartbeat. “There was a scar on its neck, I’m sure of it,” he says at last. “And it was very still and quiet, so I guess the man himself was a very controlled person. I can’t remember our exact conversation, I’m afraid. Even if I weren’t being medicated right now, I’m getting old and my memory is no longer that sharp,” he says, sighing. “Colonel Pendergast was here earlier and explained what’s going on, at least some of it. Apparently I’m now under constant surveillance for my personal security.” He huffs in indignation.

“Why are Navy investigators involved in this?” David Sheppard asks. He looks confused and uncomfortable.

“Are you aware of your brother’s involvement in this case?”

Mr Sheppard senior nods tiredly. “Yes,” he says. “Johnny was here earlier, but I can’t remember all of it. I was still rather out of it.”

“Yeah, he was here,” David says and now look uncomfortable but in a new way, for other reasons. “I mean, he was here, but – wasn’t. It wasn’t his face.”

“Alien communication devices?” Kate says, hardly believing her own brain for forming words like that.

Laura says, sounding relieved: “So you know about that. We’re not – making this up. It’s actually happening.”

“It is. Have you been brought up to speed on what’s happening?”

“I don’t know. There was a mention of someone being grabbed, but we’ve been stuck up here,” David says, running a hand through his hair.

“Your brother and someone from NCIS have been kidnapped.”

Shannon’s eyes widen. “Kidnapped?”

“Yes,” Todd says, nodding. “That’s all the information we can disclose right now.”

Mr Sheppard’s expression is quite shrewd. “Because it’s all the information you’ve got, I gather.”

“As far as we know, your son is alive,” Gibbs says. “As is Jenny Sheppard – your niece, and our Director of NCIS.”

“Jenny works for NCIS? Her mother never told me that. Though I didn’t tell her about Johnny, so I think it’s only fair,” Patrick says tiredly. “Old feuds; you know how it is.”

“You cut your son out of your life, or was it the other way around?” Todd asks, and Gibbs lets her continue that line of inquiry for a moment longer. It might prove useful.

“Well, it was both ways. I’ve –” He halts, backtracks. “We’re both stubborn people, and Johnny was only fifteen when my wife died, leaving me devastated, and I didn’t notice how deeply it affected him until it was too late. I can’t claim to have been the model father. I wanted my sons to continue the company, so when John came to my office one day and said he’s going for the Air Force, that he’s already applied to the Academy … I was angry, disappointed. We argued. Nothing physical, I assure you, but – he left pretty quickly after that, as soon as he turned eighteen. He used the funds I’d saved for him. Finished university early, you know. He’s a lot like his mother, very intelligent.” Mr Sheppard looks old and weary and pained. “I haven’t seen him for over a decade. Then I got a letter.”

“When was this?”

“Fifteen … sixteen days ago? Yeah. It was so sudden. I was given clearance to know about this,” he waves a hand, vaguely. “The Stargate Program; though I didn’t really grasp it. There’s this photograph too … David, could you get me my portfolio? Hand me that envelope.”

A sleek, black, anonymous portfolio is lying on the bedside table. David opens it, retrieves a simple envelope without a stamp but there’s Patrick Sheppard’s name on it. Written, not stamped. Aged, blunt fingers open it and pulls out three sheets of paper. It’s a continuous hand-written letter, and with it is a small square photograph. “I didn’t recognize him,” Patrick remarks quietly, thumbing it before holding it up for the agents to see: Dr Rodney McKay and Colonel Sheppard and their Dæmons in a forest glade, the background a little blurry. They appear to be talking and smiles ghost on their faces. It could have been snapped any place on Earth, but Todd has a strange feeling that it probably taken lightyears from here.

“I was thinking about writing back and trying to mend old hurts when this all happened.”

It is a stark but personal letter, and Gibbs lets the words glide past in a hurry. A mention of the President giving Mr Sheppard permission to know about the SGC. A mention of – he pauses, reads the sentences again. A word repeated: Strangeling.

Ah. This explains a few things. Typical case of a younger son with daddy issues, especially after the death of the mother, and said son labeling himself a Strangeling – a curiously harsh, self-loathing sentiment – a falling out makes sense.  Yet, it isn’t directly pertinent to the case. Gibbs hands the letter back and Mr Sheppard folds it once, almost carefully, and the agent thinks the man cares more than he lets on. For a man who has not spoken with his youngest son for years, he’s not that cold or indifferent.

“The man who stabbed me … Was it because of this?”

“It’s possible,” Gibbs says. Makes sense. Logical. “That’s what we’re going to find out. Anyone who’d like to see you hurt?”

“Oh,” the man chuckles dryly. “Someone of my profession gets involved in a few vendettas in his lifetime, Agent Gibbs.”

“So you’ve been threatened?” Todd asks.

“Occasionally, but nothing too bad – an angry letter; irate phonecalls; some protesters. No one’s attempted something physical before. Besides, this man, it was done without threats or anything. He never mentioned my company or anything else. He didn’t seem angry … He didn’t seem to feel anything much at all.” A shake of head. “Honestly? I don’t think it was personal, at least not against me.”

No, Gibbs thinks quietly. If this man wasn’t the father of John Sheppard, then he and David and his fiancée – and Jenny – none of them would have been in danger. Targeted. This wasn’t about what Patrick Sheppard once may have done or said; this is about family and bloodlines.

“You may be right, Mr Sheppard,” he says aloud. “Thanks for talking with us. If you remember anything else …” He hands over a card.

“I’ll call, if that’s possible from a spaceship,” Mr Sheppard says and his wrinkles deepens as he smiles sardonically: “I’m not certain there’s reception up here.”


“He’s telling the truth. I didn’t get any other vibes from him,” Todd says once they’re back in HQ courtesy of alien transporting technology which neither of them is really comfortable with thinking about yet. “So we got a vague description of a white male in his sixties, thereabouts, with a gray wolf Dæmon.”

Unique, no. Rare, yes. If it was possible they’d have a sketch artist sent up to Mr Sheppard, but the SGC hasn’t cleared anyone besides Gibbs’ immediate team, and refuse to do so. Regulations are already being broken or bent, Gibbs reckons. General Landry had seemed happy to hear the two NCIS agents were already on their way off the ship and headed for home. In the eyes of the General, they are civilian, outsiders, green and dangerous.

McGee is by his desk and looks up to greet them as they exit the elevator as if they’ve come from another floor and not from a different place altogether. His tone of voice is excited.

“Boss! So I did some digging and there’s been a number of odd-looking transactions between Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics and a couple of other companies.”

Gibbs rounds the corner into the plaza and more or less looms over the younger man’s desk, causing him to edge back slightly. “Define ‘odd-looking’.”

“Look.” He turns the monitor slightly so that Gibbs can see; curious, Todd joins them, and she looks at the figures and releases a low whistle.

“That’s a lot of money being shuffled around.”

“And,” McGee says, proud to have found it: “it looks like Mr Human was bribing someone.”

“Or paying them for a secret job,” Todd fills in. “Question is what they’re funding.”

Something is being built. A nagging sensation begins to form in Gibbs’ mind: something is being built. Something, somewhere, is being constructed out of that money which is great sums slipping away and seemingly disappearing off the grid.

“Whatever it is, this is phony enough for justifiable cause,” McGee says. “What do you say, Boss? Do we check it out?”

At that moment, a phone rings. Gibbs picks up after a beat and Sciuto’s voice greets him brimming with excitement. He listens, and nods, and says with a genuine smile: “Good work, Abs.” Then he hangs up without saying goodbye and Abby will be cross with him for that, but he’ll visit her lab later with a Caf-Pow to make up for it.

“What’s up, Boss?” McGee asks.

“Finally we’re getting somewhere. Abby’s got the analysis of the body’s clothes. Where’s Tony?”

“Down in Forensics.”

“Okay. Good,” Gibbs nods and crosses over to his desk, pulls out a pair of car keys, and tosses them to Todd who catches them deftly with her left hand.

“You two, pay a visit to the office. I’ve got a gut feeling that neither Human or Mayfield have gone to Europe.”


“Where’s my Caf-Pow?”

Abby crosses her arms sourly and pouts. Gibbs holds her stare until she sighs dramatically and wheels over from one computer monitor to another. DiNozzo badly hides a snicker behind a hand pretending to have a sudden coughing attack; when Gibbs turns to simply look at him unmovingly, the young agent stiffens and silences.

“You said you had something, Abs.”

“Yeah. There’s some traces of dirt in the lining of the clothes, like this body was dragged somewhere. Now, soil can be traced – the mixture of elements, the percentage of certain minerals, it’s all due to climate changes and organisms and stuff. Some places are more precise than others, but I’m pretty sure that this guy’s clothes got dirtied up someplace pretty far from D.C.. Like, very far. There’s a microorganism here that I can’t identify and I’ve used three different analyzing programs and half a dozen databases …”

“There’s databases for bugs? Ugh. That’s gross.”

Microorganisms, Tony,” Abby says sweetly. “Big difference. I dated a guy at the WDCM once, and he had great hands. Very steady.” With a few clicks she brings up a picture on screen: a scan of a blob, small and imprecise around the edges. “Anyway. There’s an untold number of these little fellas on the victim and now knowing that there’s a Stargate they’ve come through, I think these are miniature aliens that hitched a ride. Hello, ET.”

“Whoa. Pretty cool – but, still, gross.” DiNozzo wrinkles his nose in distaste.

Gibbs is getting tired. “The point, Abby?”

“Nothing, I just thought it was cool. Cranky much, huh? Uh, sorry. Okay, this is what I’ve got: a set of fingerprints from the inside of the uniform collar. Thanks to files given to us by the SGC, I matched them with this guy.” A photograph comes up; a name.

DiNozzo looks at the data on the plasma. “The missing NID agent, Bradley White.”

“Not missing anymore,” Gibbs points out.

“Obviously no one thought we’d be lifting prints from the inside of the clothes,” Abby says. “When I was working the analysis, I started thinking. If this guy is the wrong one, and his Dæmon’s been forced to look like somebody else’s, that means they wanted us to think he’s LC Snow, right? So Snow was meant to be taken alive and for a purpose. I did some digging and Snow’s a programmer. Maybe not as good as myself or McGee, but the SGC person I was talking with – Carter – she said that shortly before we were let in on this, the SGC got hacked. I mean, it was a very specific attack, lasted only a couple of minutes and few files were copied. Nothing broken or altered. Everything stolen had to do with something called Atlantis? and Aurora. Carter said it was a ship. Look, I think it was Snow.”

“That’s speculation.”

“Not necessarily, Gibbs,” she protests. “Logical deductions, you know? Like Holmes would’ve done it. Snow is a marine with a master’s degree in computer science and an SGC veteran. He knows access codes and would be familiar with its systems and security. They kidnap him, tries to make the SGC think he’s dead, has him hack the SGC for them.”

And then he could be kept for further possible uses or quickly disposed of. Snow could be a slowly rotting corpse right now or thrown into a well, an ocean, buried beneath concrete in hopes he’ll never be found.

Gibbs considers it. Abby has a point, but they need solid proof. Speculation doesn’t hold up in court. Albeit he starts wondering how the hell this case is ever going to get to that point; he wants to give Snow and White’s families closure, but how can they do that when this is a highly classified mess with a deep conspiracy at the heart of it?

Life seems in retrospect suddenly so much easier before spaceships got involved.

Sciuto twirls her chair around to look at the old agent sternly. “So, where’s my Caf-Pow?”

“Get me a location and you’ll have one, Abs.”


It hurts to breathe.

It hurts to move, and his vision is blurry, and he knows it’s the mixture of blood loss and dehydration and he wonders if anything’s infected and that’s what’s raving through his body, hotly.

He’s certain that Bradley’s dead. Didn’t imagine the noise of the dying, lulled by the water by the pier. For a moment the memory is wholly distorted, because of that water. Water reminds him of Atlantis, and not that much of Earth. Earth is hard soil and a tattered sky and broken lines of cities and people and pollution, and for a moment he recalls seeing Bradley’s face twisting in confusion/horror/pain as they’d been forced to change Shape, a false mimicry, and then he hadn’t seen the rest because Bradley was going to play him, dead. He understood it then. From the moment he stepped out of that van, Bradley was a dead man walking. They both were.

They’d taken him away – here – where is here? It’s so dark. There’s no sunlight, and no sound of water or nothing. The lights are off, the lamps broken. They’ve gotten what they needed and left him here, and he wants to be angry but is too tired to be, too tired, and in so much pain and he’d given them the access codes and maybe someone’s figured out then, figured out that he’s missing. They wouldn’t use take those codes, they’d use them. Wouldn’t they?

They.

Who were they? The blonde woman with the cold smile, and the eyes – Goa’uld. Goa’uld have eyes like that, gleaming without an outward source. Goldenly pale. It’s fucked up, and she’d laughed grimly at his torture, demanding answers. Did he answer? His tongue is thick and heavy. He could have. Tried not to. Tried, but his fingers are broken and he can’t feel so much of his body and the parts that he can feel hurt too much to move. His thought process is fuzzy. So dark. He isn’t chained but it doesn’t matter; he’s too weak to stand, nevermind walk out of here, or fight. Even if the door was unlocked … but it isn’t. Tried. Rattled the handle but didn’t make a dent.

If there’s a guard out there, they’re ignoring him completely. Maybe there isn’t. Could be alone, left down here to suffocate or starve, whichever comes first.

He’s tried screaming for help but no one’s come so no one’s heard.

“Help!” he tries again. They’ve taken turns. When his voice is too hoarse from lack of air and water, his Dæmon takes over the cry.

Help!

Help us!

Down here!

We’re down here!

                                                                                   Help!

Help!

 

Chapter Text

xx.

into that good night

part one 

this is never going to work;  


“… and the stones are tied into a specific set of subspace frequencies to communicate with each other and their users,” McKay says. He has let go of the crutches in favor of leaning against the desk so that his hands are free. It’s not often he’s seen like this, without holding a computer or datapad. And his face is not his own, nor his voice, but the rate of words certainly is and that is already one comfortingly familiar thing in this chaos. “If we could target those frequencies we could locate the issuing point, the place in spacetime where the signal, for the lack of a better word, reflects off the user, we should be able to find Sheppard.”

With him is Zelenka, and the Czech takes notice to Elizabeth’s somewhat mollified expression of confusion. “It’s sort of like triangulating the position of –” Radek begins clarifying, and Rodney rolls his eyes dismissively and cuts in:

“It’s more complicated than that as more than three dimensions are involved, but, yes, in essence that’s what we can do. At any point we’ll be able to determine the direction, if not the range.” Rodney pauses briefly in his rapid speech to breathe and nods to himself. “It’ll require the use of the Prometheus and we’ll have to recalibrate their long-range sensors. By we I mean Sam and some of her people on Earth, of course. Some flying in search grids is probably going to be involved, but we should be able to put them within a few hundred thousand kilometers of the target.”

Which is, in astronomical terms, right atop of it.

Elizabeth takes all this in and nods. Some of the technobabble might be beyond her expertise, but she has learned to trust Rodney and Radek with these things. They’re good scientists and Zelenka tends to even out the worse of Rodney’s decisions; the Czech is humbler, aware of his own limits in a way the Canadian usually refuses to acknowledge in his obduracy.

“Okay. Sounds good. How much time would it take?”

“Calculating the frequencies is difficult (for most people, not me) and complex,” Rodney says. It’s eerie to hear words like those articulated in John Sheppard’s voice. The accent is slightly off, there’s emphasis in odd places, and he’s moving his hands and doing that thing with his mouth that is such a McKay gesture. It doesn’t belong and this duality is making Elizabeth’s head hurt. It causes unease in a lot of people, not just herself; she’s never going to get used to it.

“A few hours, maybe half a day,” Zelenka says.

“One hour, tops,” Rodney says simultaneously.

“We must take into account –”

“Yes, well, but the displacement isn’t the biggest issue,” McKay argues, crossing his arms, turning toward his fellow scientist who does not back down. Radek’s Dæmon is rather small and ferrety but they’ve worked together in Atlantis for a long while now, and they don’t flinch when Rodney has his outbursts of irritability or anger.

Zelenka shakes his head and adjusts is glasses. “Maybe, but the spread …”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. So narrowing it down would require … Two hours.”

“All right. Go,” Elizabeth says. The two scientists are already out of her office, loudly arguing about how to solve the puzzle.

The prospect of waiting another two hours is daunting and also relieving, because at least they have something to go on now. Before they’d been treading water, worrying and debating and without leads, and a galaxy away from where the action is happening. Then, a few minutes ago, Rodney burst into her office, Radek hot on his heels, and said he knows how to track the ship.

This has already been going on for too long: several hours have passed since the kidnapping, and days since one of their own was found murdered on a pier in Washington D.C., and Elizabeth quietly rages that she hasn’t been given much in the way of pertinent information. The SGC are in liaison with NCIS on Earth, but out here, in the City, what can they do but think, and wait? There’s no telling what kind of condition Colonel Sheppard and the NCIS Director are in at this point. Goa’uld, possibly Trust, took them offworld, and Elizabeth has some experience with the Goa’uld from her brief stint of leading the SGC.

Before Atlantis, after General Hammond left for the White House and eventually retirement while O’Neill was still in stasis in Antarctica; she remembers all of the days spent arguing, phonecalls and video conferences with military and politicians and the President. Environmental activists who didn’t know about the Stargate or the Battle of Antarctica demanding to know about the rumors of the expansion of a research facility already hidden in the ice seeking to bury further down. Elizabeth had had them, and the military, and various scientific groups breathing down her back while she was still trying to grasp the fact that the Stargate exists and that her briefing with the President on that sunny afternoon wasn’t a surreal dream. Adjusting to being thrust into command of Cheyenne Mountain in the aftermath of the Battle hadn’t been easy, but she’d managed it. She’d managed.

Goa’uld, she had learned, stop at nothing to get what they want and they all seek power, to rule. Not that different from many humans, perhaps, but they play by wholly different rules. Right at this moment, Colonel Sheppard could be being tortured, or –

Elizabeth halts that train of thought sharply. She needs to focus.

The two scientists are already out of her office, loudly arguing about how to solve the puzzle. Elizabeth watches them walking away, crossing the balcony into the Control Room, down the stairs, heading for the transporter out of sight. Rodney visibly struggles with the crutches, John Sheppard’s body not as agile it used to be – should be.

No, she’s not going to get used it. She’d prefer that they disconnect the communication stones, but then they could risk not being able re-establish the connection and, right now, that fragile link is all they’ve got to go on. At least John has some experience in breaking out of prisons; she’s read his file, and she knows him. If there’s any solution to be found on Sheppard’s side, he’ll do everything he can to make it happen.

There had been a brief discussion about what could happen if Sheppard were to die while connected to the stones. What would happen to Rodney, to his consciousness, to John’s body? Would he remain stuck in the wrong flesh? Or would he fade away too? Elizabeth risks losing two people and possibly more if the Goa’uld have some more sinister plan in mind. They are a dramatic race, much for theatrics; but they also have weapons and technology at their disposal to make them a true threat, and the SGC lacks the proper intelligence yet on the particular Goa’uld behind this. No location, no name. Those things are what the SGC on Earth with the aid of NCIS are hoping to find. There is a murder to solve. People having gone missing. Many more questions to answer.

Tiredly sighing, Elizabeth leans back in her chair and momentarily closes her eyes. A dull headache is starting to grow behind her eyelids. To think she once believed that the long, drawn-out UN negotiations were bad, that the intricate politics were complicated and that this adventure would be easier. She’d been preparing herself for First Contact with alien cultures, friend or foe; for translating Ancient texts after studying the language with Dr Jackson’s help for months; for finding underwater Cities and unveiling great secrets about the stars. Not this. Not this.

But nothing is that easy, Simon quietly remarks.

Someone knocks on the door frame and steps into her office, and Elizabeth clears her eyes to greet them. It’s Amelia Banks, one of their newer Gate technicians.

“Dr Weir, we have an incoming wormhole,” she says.

Never a quiet moment.

“I’ll be right there.”

Banks nods and returns to her console. Elizabeth moves and her Dæmon with her: together they straighten and stand, and they exit the office and walks into the Control Room.

Chuck is sitting by the DHD controls, an open laptop to his right displaying a received IDC. The open wormhole casts a blue glow over their faces and seemingly drains all other color from the air. The protective iris is raised. Everything is still and calm, but there is an underlying current of perturbed energy not just in this room but in the whole City; the quiet is a façade.

“Dr Weir, we’re being hailed,” Banks says and puts the transmission on speaker. Audio-only.

“Atlantis, this is Major Lorne. Are you receiving?”

“Major, we weren’t expecting to hear from you so soon,” Elizabeth remarks. The Aurora is lightyears away, orbiting a brown dwarf; a team of astrophysicists, led by Dr Kusanagi, are studying the small star up close while Grodin is seeing to minor adjustments and repairs of the Ancient Warship. The work will never be complete. The vessel has been out there for days, and aren’t expected to return to the City for at least another two days – though Elizabeth could recall them right away, she has yet to make that decision. There is little the Aurora or her crew could do to help right now.

The Major is meant to be sitting in the Captain’s chair on the Aurora, not be standing in front of an open Stargate on an anonymous planet.

“Yes, ma’am, we’re aware, but there’s a situation developing you’ve got to be aware of. We took a Jumper from the Aurora to the nearest planet with a Gate – the Aurora’s hiding in the shadow of that star right now. We’ve got a Wraith Hiveship on our scopes. It’s not heading the city’s way, far as we can tell, but if the Aurora’s discovered …”

She resists the urge to groan. The timing couldn’t be worse. “Understood. Is the Aurora in the shape to engage?”

“Well, Dr Grodin reckons she is,” the Major says, sounding a bit unsure. “I’d gladly kick some Wraith ass, but we also don’t want any rumors that there’s an Ancient Warship up and running until we’re ready to take them on. What are your orders, doc?”

Elizabeth thinks for a moment; weighs the pros and cons. A destroyed Hiveship would cheer them all up, but, on the other hand, the Aurora is still not at a hundred percent. She doesn’t want to risk its crew – mostly civilian scientists at the moment – needlessly. They can’t hazard the City being discovered to be whole or its people much alive. It’s one thing for AR-teams to meet odd Wraith patrols on foreign soil; a few survivors could have escaped through the Gate before the City was laid to ruin. But a Warship?

Just because the Tau’ri are knee-deep in other issues doesn’t mean the Wraith are sleeping.

“Take caution for now,” she decides. “Withdraw and stay out of their path. Their long-range sensors aren’t as powerful as ours, so as long as you keep your distance you should be able to stay hidden. Engage only as a final measure. I’m sorry, but that means taking the long way back to the City.”

“Understandable, ma’am. Will do.” A momentary pause. Then: “How’s everything going on your end?”

She shakes her head though the Major cannot see it. “Nothing new. We’ll let you know as soon as we can, Major.”

“Copy that. We’re not going to use the subspace array on the Aurora to be safe, so we won’t be able to check in again until we find a Gate in range.”

“Understood. Take care, Major.”

“We’ll do our best. Lorne out.”


The main office housing Fellow-Marshall Aeronautics is a tall, gray, anonymous building, part of the striking cityscape blending into the background. The sign etched over the revolving door is simple, plain. If this is a disguise, it’s a good one, Agent Todd muses as she pulls the car up on the curb and silences the engine. Not many would look at this building and think something odd was going on, because not many would look at it in the first place.

Agent McGee and his Dæmon step out of the car alongside her. He doesn’t look forward to this much more than Todd does.

The rains of yesterday have cleared and the sky is full of sun. People are hurrying to and fro on the sidewalk, oblivious to anything greater going on, and Todd is momentarily side-tracked, struck by that thought: here they are, in the heart of D.C., and there’s a kid holding their parent’s hand while eating ice-cream and a woman talking loudly on the phone almost bumping into Todd, not looking where she’s going. There’s here, on this street, an average sunny day and just a few hours ago she was aboard a spaceship in orbit over this planet. Reality has never seemed both so mundane and so vividly colorful at the same time.

They step inside the building. Within it is cool and a bit dry, air-conditioning working overtime, and the receptionist is pleasant bordering on disturbing. His voice is smooth and he says: “Have you booked a meeting?” when they demand to see the boss.

They flash their NCIS badges. The man behind the desk frowns and looks at them closely, and says: “Well, I’m sorry, but Mr Human and Ms Mayfield aren’t in the office right now.”

“Any idea when they’ll be back?” Todd asks sweetly and smiles patiently.

“I’m not certain,” the receptionist says, and the slithery silkiness gives way to annoyance. “I’m not the PA.”

“All right, we’re just asking.”

“Standard procedure,” adds McGee.

“Again, I’m sorry but they’re not here. Try some other time. Or call the PA.”

They’ve already done that, and the receptionist either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Not giving any such thoughts away, Todd nods. “We’ll do that. Thanks. Now, we’re going to take a look at Mr Human’s office.”

“You can’t do that! You’re not authorized,” the receptionist protests, sounding a little panicked.

In response McGee only holds up the search warrant. Todd is already moving past him, toward the elevators. “Which floor?”

“Uh, you can’t, uhm,” the receptionist tries, paling. He probably worries about being fired.

“Either you assist or we’ll charge you for obstruction of an ongoing criminal investigation,” McGee says. He has learned to keep his cool, now; a year or two ago, he’d be too nervous to interview witnesses properly, or deliver half-veiled threats. “Which floor is Mr Human’s office?”

The receptionist visibly gulps. “Seventh. You’re, uhm, going to need a key card …”

It doesn’t take much convincing after that to make him hand one over.


Gibbs had instructed them to be discrete, so they’d chosen to go just the two of them, without any forensic technicians to help them; and this case functions on a strict need-to-know basis, so this is safer. Todd had feared that searching the office on their own would take long, but Mr Human is very tidy, it seems. There are very few things of a personal nature.

The office is spacious, high ceiling, well-lit. There’s a painting on the left wall, impressionist, depicting a flowing river lined with graying autumn trees. On the opposite wall is a filing cabinet and at the center, in front of the window, there’s a wide desk.

The door had required the key card and a fingerprint to open, and the receptionist had called for Ms Mayfield’s PA who was in the building and she, apparently, was qualified to unlock the door. Todd makes certain to take a good look at the PA to remember her, though she’s not immediately tipped off in any particular way. The PA is a young black woman and her Dæmon is a panther, and she has an air of genuine concern about her but doesn’t ask questions. As soon as the door is open both the PA and the receptionist take their leave, though the latter much more reluctantly than the first.

The agents quickly set to work, donning white gloves. They lift the potted plants and the carpet to look for anything hidden there, and then move onto the more obvious sites. The file cabinet has a traditional keylock and Todd has it quickly worked open with a hairpin; a trick she learned from DiNozzo. She expects to find plenty of folders there, but there’s nothing. That is strange. Very strange, and suspicious. The CEO of a company as large as this should have plenty of files in storage of all business deals and the like, detailed documentary of each decision, every movement. Sure, a lot of that is digitized nowadays, but not all of it.

Something is definitely not right here. This office has been cleaned out. Todd doubts taking prints is useful, because it’s going to belong to Mr Human, Ms Mayfield, or possibly the PA, or the person who emptied the cabinet was careful enough to not leave prints or wipe them off before leaving.

The desk is neat. No decorations, no photographs. There’s a paperweight in the a bit unusual shape of a pyramid, but no letters. A computer and a monitor, both shut off; McGee presses the button to boot them up and while they wait for it to waken, they turn to the painting. Carefully they lift it down.

Buried in the wall behind it is a safe. It is rectangular, some two by four feet, gray, dull. There’s a white number pad lock with a small digital screen above it.

“Think you can crack it?” Todd asks McGee.

He looks at it doubtfully, but Todd can tell that he’s thinking hard. “Ten numbers – if this requires a standard four-digit code, then … that’s ten thousand possible combinations. We’ve got to narrow it down.”

They’d brought a bag with them with the basic tools necessary to secure a crime scene or search the premises, including the tools to find fingerprints. Todd turns off the lights while McGee surveys the pad with a blue UV fluorescent lamp. And, true enough, there are clear signs of someone pressing several of the small buttons multiple times. The order, however, is unclear; and Todd doesn’t think this made it any easier at all.

“A lot of codes are numbers easy to remember, like birth-years,” Todd says.

“Yeah, but we’ve got so many numbers that I don’t think it’s a four-digit PIN. Look, we’ve got so many numbers I think this is a far more complex combination. At least six: zero, one, two, three, eight, and nine. That’s … seven-hundred and twenty permutations. I wonder …” McGee trails off and reaches for his phone. “I remembered something. From that briefing.”

“Yeah? What?”

“The – uhm, the round big thing?” Todd’s eyebrows rise a bit at the vague description but nods in comprehension. “I talked with Colonel Carter a bit about how it worked, out of curiosity. It has symbols on it, denoting different constellations. Glyphs. Thirty-nine, if I remember right. We’ve got the numbers nine and three here, so what if there’s a combination involved? I think – I mean, it’s conjecture, but it could be a combination for the …”

“Big round thing,” Todd fills in.

“It makes sense,” McGee argues, “if a, uhm, Snake is involved. It’d be something a normal person wouldn’t know about.” He dials the number for the SGC liaison with his thumb and waits for the dialing tone to be replaced with a voice. And he says: “This is Agent McGee, NCIS. Could I talk with Dr Daniel Jackson? It’s important. … Thanks.” More waiting.

Todd has her arms crossed; she’s a bit doubtful about this theory of his, but they’ve got nothing else to go on. While McGee paces, Todd goes over to the desk and the computer there. The display glows with a standard welcoming screen and the request for a password.

“Yeah, hi, sorry to bother you, Dr Jackson. I was wondering about the Gate – yeah. What’s the combination of symbols for the place the, the Snakes come from? … Yeah, I think it’s relevant for the case which – okay. Uhuh. … Is there a particular order to …? Yeah, that’d be helpful. Thank you, doc.” Nodding and listening to the archaeologist’s explanation, he starts pushing the buttons. Todd watches: it’s not a four-digit PIN; it’s much longer. Twelve numbers segmented in twos. A Stargate address; 

2-0-1-8-1-1-3-9-1-0-3-2

And, to her and McGee’s startled surprise, the lock clicks open.


“… the lock used the combination of the Stargate address to that planet? That’s almost evidence in of itself! Isn’t it?” Abby says excitedly. “That’s like a signature, signing ‘Hey Guess What, I’m an Alien’. Cool.”

“Not a lot of people would think of a combination like that,” McGee agrees, quite proud to have figured it out. He’s delivered the contents of the safe to Abby for analysis, and they’re down in Forensics with heavy metal tearing at the speakers. Kate’s on the phone with Gibbs to rely what they’ve found; neither Gibbs nor DiNozzo are at HQ. They’re still searching the large apartment owned in Eric Human’s name in the D.C. suburbs.

Inside of the safe they’d found a laptop. The computer at the office had been wiped, but they’d confiscated that one too. Now all they have to do is crack them open and maybe they’ll find something important inside. McGee and Abby start the laptop and plug in the chord to recharge it. Sciuto rubs her hands eagerly as the reboot screen lights up and then quickly summarizes: No data. Everything has been erased.

Abby isn’t deterred. “Team Sciuto is going to have this solved in no time!”

“I think it’s ‘Team McGee’. I found it,” McGee protests a little.

“Kate and you found it,” Abby corrects him with a grin. “And I’m going to hack it.”


It’s been hours, he thinks. Can’t be sure. There are no windows and no sun to measure. And his throat is dry and McKay’s body is cramping with hunger. He sure hopes that he’s not going to suddenly go into hypoglycemic shock; McKay might exaggerate about things, but his allergies are no lie, nor the risks of him developing diabetes. There was a mission once to a planet full of yellow plants and three moons where they were stuck in a pit and AR-1 had to wait for a backup team to get them out of there, and Rodney nearly lost consciousness because of low blood sugar. After that, they’d all, not just John, taken to carrying extra powerbars with them on every mission. 

His captors had searched him to disarm him, but they hadn’t, thankfully, taken the epi-pen or that packet of glucose tablets Rodney keeps with him at all times. Not that he takes them; he prefers stealing food from his teammates. The thought of him causes John’s chest to tighten and pops a tablet into his mouth and swallows it as he forces himself to look at the machines. Focus on that. Focus. Focus.

He’s done what he can. His head hurts. Icarus’ memories were jumbled, vague, and he couldn’t actually access them vividly, because this is not his flesh and Ba’al thinks he’s lying, concealing things. The truth is simple. John can’t force himself to recall things he’s never seen or done or learned. It’s lucky he’s spent so much time around McKay. Seen him handling potentiae, repairing Jumpers, rebooting Ancient consoles. In combination with the scraps of memory he actually does manage to conjure up, he can do more than fiddle around with the control crystals in pretense.

There’s a chance that this will fail and it’ll never happen, or too soon, or too late. A chance that the engines will blow five seconds from now – but, if that happens, at least he’ll take the bastard with him.

Eventually, John withdraws from the engine. The Jaffa on guard by the door has his back half-turned and looks bored out his mind and hasn’t interfered, which is dammed lucky. The potentia glimmers like a miniature star trapped in a glass box.

When Ba’al returns, the Snake smiles down at him with sharp eyes. “Is it done?”

“As well as I could’ve,” John says. He moves slowly and carefully so that the Jaffa won’t think he’s trying to flee and shoot him. He stands, biting back a pained groan. His back is stiff and his limbs heavy. “Now I want to see Jenny.”

“All in good time, Colonel.” Ba’al inspects the open panel in the wall, the wires and crystals, the data on the screen. John holds his breath. Hopes. Hopes. A moment of silence. “Fascinating, that you can remember so much.”

Well, you dickhead, try having someone possessing you, John thinks at him sourly and does not punch him. Doesn’t think Rodney would be happy if he tried and got something broken. Instead, he reigns in the dry weary chuckle stuck in his throat. So this was just a test? To see if he could remember anything at all about Icarus? Great. Awesome. If Ba’al looks too closely …

According to the calculations, the journey will take six and a half days; not as fast as the Daedalus when powered by a potentia, but fast enough. Those are the numbers that Ba’al can see displayed, and it seems to please him. Six and a half days: enough time for the City to mount a defense, if only they could be warned. If only they could be warned. Hopefully the SGC can figure something out.

John isn’t planning on spending six days trapped aboard this ship. “Well,” he says mildly, “I watched McKay hotwire a thing or two.”

“Perhaps he would also be a useful host for one of my larvae,” Ba’al says, turning to face him.

Sharply John tenses but does not attack or move, and doesn’t swear over my dead body because the Goa’uld can see it in his harshly set face and in the line of his jaw. Ba’al doesn’t continue to mock him; walks past, toward the ship’s Bridge. Barks a harsh order at the guarding Jaffa and John picks up a few scattered words: they’re going to have him stay here for the moment. Maybe in case something goes wrong and the engines have to be manually shut down.

He’s not going to be allowed to see Jenny yet, or Shy, not for minutes or hours op maybe days. Rage seethes somewhere in his gut and spreads through his blood and he quietly breathes through his nose. Wouldn’t help. Wouldn’t help.

God. I hope I made the right decision, he thinks when the hyperdrive is engaged; I really hope; John feels the vibration of the floor change as the engine picks up pitch, and then a lurch –


This isn’t the Goa’uld ship: this is Atlantis. This flesh is his own and the air tastes not as stale and he’s in front of a whiteboard, sitting on a raised chair, and Radek is there hair askew he’s in the middle of speech and John blinks in bewilderment:

“… calculated trajectory yields too many results; to search them all would take week,” the Czech is saying, a hint of patient frenzy to his tone. “Rodney, I do not think –”

“Radek! Radek, it’s me, it’s Sheppard!” he shouts, regaining control and realizing that this is the one chance he’s going to get, and Radek startles – turns – stares – drops the whiteboard marker he’s been holding. Instead of Meredith curled up on the desk there’s a Raven. “We’re aboard a Goa’uld ship, we just jumped to hyperspace. It’s Ba’al who –”

Gone. The lab is replaced with the engine room.


One moment he’s arguing with Zelenka. They’re in his lab, and calculations are scattered on the whiteboards and on the tables and the floors. Rodney’s got a plan; Radek is trying to dispute it, give encouragement but sees flaws, pointing out risks. But Rodney is ready to take those risks. Arms crossed, Rodney is glaring at him with Radek tries to make an argument;

and then he’s on a ship.

Not Ancient; something else. Darker. Smaller. The hum of an engine at work is unmistakable and it clicks in a heartbeat: Goa’uld. He’s in an engine room sitting down and to his left, there’s an arch and there’s a Jaffa – armed with a staff – and in front of him there’s an open panel and wires and crystals half-pulled and at the center of it all is a ZedPM, hooked up Frankensteinishly to the machinery and he starts to realize: this is where John is, trapped, and there’s a schematic on the laptop screen on the floor next to the ZedPM, complex equations and a plotted subspace course on a map depicting star systems, a marked beginning and an end across a huge void;

And it’s difficult to breathe, he can’t see Mer anywhere no sign she’s too far away and he can’t breathe –

Atlantis returns.

“– nel? Colonel Sheppard?” Radek is repeating, having dropped the whiteboard marker onto the floor. It’s come to rest against the leg of the chair. Zelenka is staring at him concernedly. “McKay, is that you?”

“It’s, it’s me. It’s me,” Rodney says weakly, stumbling over the simple words. To breathe. Mer is there with him again, by his side. What just …? Oh, oh. He struggles to regain his bearings. The sudden rush of noise of the City and being displaced. Breathing. Breathe. And once a few seconds have passed and Rodney remains here, in this flesh and not his own, he looks at Radek.

“I – I think I know where Sheppard is.”


Five minutes later they’re in Elizabeth’s office. Ford has been called for, as have Teyla and Ronon. They’ll want to hear this; they’re team. They gather around him as Rodney props up the injured on a plush white chair, wincing but not only from physical pain.

Mer is settled across his good knee, and he idly strokes her back. Those three seconds of disconnect was one of the most terrible things they’ve ever experienced. Mer had woken suddenly out of the lab, trapped behind a forcefield within the bowels of a Goa’uld ship. They had both panicked. And then it was over, blessedly rapidly, but it was definite indicator what’s happened to Sheppard and his Dæmon. Rodney knows the two can handle being apart better than most, but still. He wants to find that Goa’uld responsible and hurt them and a very vivid thought flashes by in front of his eyes, and surprises he himself at the stark ferocity of it.

“What happened?” Elizabeth asks.

“The connection with the communication stones broke for a brief moment. I think it was the jump to hyperspace,” Rodney says, nodding to himself as he speaks. “It must’ve interrupted the link with the stones.”

“Yes,” Radek says. “Suddenly I was talking with Colonel Sheppard instead of Rodney.”

“What did he say?” Teyla asks concernedly.

“Not much. Mentioned a Goa’uld cargo vessel – and Ba’al.” Zelenka winces. He knows his SG-history, and he knows who that particular System Lord is. Elizabeth does too and blanches. “The connection was restored too quickly for questions.”

“Yeah, it’s a Goa’uld cargo vessel or possibly a larger transport,” Rodney agrees. “I was in the engine room and from what I saw, they’ve modified them. There was a starchart: they’re plotting a course right here.”

“Here?” repeats Ford, blinking. “To Atlantis?”

McKay glares at him wearily and almost calls him an imbecile out loud. “Yes, Lieutenant, that’s obviously what I meant by ‘here’.”

The Lieutenant, used to his teammate’s ways, shrugs self-consciously but doesn’t complain about being picked on. This isn’t their usual mission. Plus, it’s still hella weird that his Commanding Officer isn’t – well, isn’t in, and talking like McKay would. is.

“Okay,” says Elizabeth, trying to be calm but there is a note of thrilled anxiety to her voice. “But even if they know our location, it would take years for a ship like that to reach us. They don’t have Asgard technology.”

“No, but they’ve got a ZedPM hooked up to the engines.”

Which is bad for a number of reasons. One: they can make the jump here in a matter of days instead of decades or centuries. Two: with a ZedPM charged enough, they can withstand a defense sent by the City; raise shields, power weapons. True, one Goa’uld vessel is nothing against an armada of Hiveships. It’s still a problem. Especially since Sheppard is on that ship and no one wants to order Carson or some other person with the ATA-gene to sit in the Chair and fire drones on it while John is still a prisoner onboard.

Question is what John was even doing in the engine room. Rodney can’t imagine the Goa’uld or Trust operatives would just let him in there to have a curious look around.

He voices this, and Ronon remarks: “They could’ve broken out.”

“Yes,” agrees Teyla. “John would attempt that.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Rodney sighs morosely, remembering the Jaffa guard who hadn’t even blinked; if John was really trying to escape, that Jaffa would either be lying on the ground or firing at him. Not standing guard. Plus, his Dæmon was behind bars someplace else, so why would John go to the engine room? “They’ve probably got that other person, that federal agent woman, hostage, remember? And Sheppard’s got a terrible hero complex.”

“You mean he’ll try to make sure they don’t hurt the other hostage,” Ford says. Not aloud but understood by them all: at his own expense. “Makes sense.”

“I can only think of one other possibility if he didn’t break out: their captors let him into the engine room on purpose. From what I remember, it was even like he’d been working on rewriting some of the ship’s command. Couldn’t get a very good look, some of the data was translated into English but not all of it.” He wishes he knew Goa’uld well enough to speak it. He knows some technical terms here and there, relevant when working with their tech which he did from time to time as an SGC consultant before Atlantis, but at this point he knows Ancient much better.

“Really?” Radek frowns.

“To what purpose?” Elizabeth asks.

“Probably to disable some failsafe mechanisms to allow the ZedPM to power the engines long enough for a jump to Pegasus. The power transfer will be enormous. It’d still take days – six or seven, minimum – but with the ZedPM they could get here.” Rodney wishes he could stand up and pace. Pacing always helps. Even strides like beats to invisible music. Andante, eighty-five beats per minute. He gestures instead with a free hand at nothing. There are no plasma screens full of data, no beautiful presentations, nothing certain, nothing absolute. No evidence but for that brief flash of memory and displacement. “Good thing is I think I pinpoint his current location. Not in full because we can’t track a ship through hyperspace, but I can make an educated guess – more accurate than our current calculations.”

“D’you know if he was hurt?” asks Ford, the young marine frowning.

“I felt like a giant bruise when I was there, and I’m – he’s probably dehydrated and I don’t even want to think about what he’s been eating. If he’s been eating,” Rodney says, “and they must’ve cut the subcutaneous transmitter out.” But, he privately adds, if John had been tortured like they’d all feared he’d have felt a hundred times worse. And he hates to think it but he’s pretty sure that if John were in his own flesh and if there was no hostage to worry about, he’d take anything they threw at him and go down fighting. Wouldn’t give in. “But otherwise he’s fine.”

Ford exhales, his Dæmon visibly relaxing where she’s seated on his shoulder, tail wrapped under his armpit. The others  react similarly.

“We need to prepare a defense for Atlantis, just in case,” Rodney says. “The Trust tried to destroy the City before. Someone obviously changed their mind and now wants to take the City instead. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Not like the City would let the Goa’uld in knowingly, Rodney thinks, but then alters that thought. The City hadn’t noticed that Colonel Caldwell was possessed; the sensors hadn’t been enough, and the man hadn’t been under the medical scanner until after he’d been subdued and they already knew. Too late. And if the Goa’uld use John somehow –

“Agreed.” Weir taps her earpiece. “Sergeant Bates, please join me in my office. There’s been a development.”

Between Bates and Ford they can work out a functional military defense. Have the Chair ready to fire. They have the railguns given to them by the SGC during the Wraith siege, and Elizabeth has confidence in every marine in the City. Sheppard has trained pilots for the Jumpers – they’ll have ships in the air. She’d be more comfortable with the Aurora nearby but it’ll be hours or even days until the Warship is back in this system. Right now the vessel is zigzagging between stars in an unpredictable pattern to avoid detection by the Wraith. The last thing they need is a Hiveship above New Lantea. Major Lorne is out of contact and will remain so, as they can’t use the subspace comms for fear of being overheard. The Daedalus is headed for Earth and too far away, and the SGC cannot send help to Pegasus.

They’re on their own.

“Think the Goa’uld are planning an attack?” Ford says.

“We’ll kill ‘em before that happens,” Ronon says, swirling his particle magnum in his right hand nonchalantly. Rodney isn’t certain if that gun even has a safety setting, so it can’t be set off accidentally – the Satedan won’t let anyone near his gun long enough to examine how it actually works – but Ronon does that thing all the time and hasn’t shot himself in the foot yet. For once Rodney finds the action more reassuring than annoying, and he guesses that tells everything about his current emotional state. The big guy’s Dæmon is prowling in tense tight circles around the room, clearly ready for battle at this very second.

“The City is well-protected, with two ZPMs powering the shields, and we have an iris on the Gate. If the City is their goal then we’re prepared to withstand them,” Elizabeth says. “We have a scheduled check-in with the SGC in three hours; I’ll prepare a report with this new information.” Unusual to dial so many times in one day, nevertheless one week, but this is a difficult situation. “Hopefully they’ve had some headway with the investigation on that end. I need to be able to send them some coordinates on the Goa’uld ship.”

“We’ll work the numbers as fast as we can,” Radek promises avidly.

Elizabeth nods. “Good. Rodney, if the connection breaks again I need to know.”

“Of course,” he grunts, glaring at her meaning for it to be sharp and generally insulting at the implication that he’d let her out of the loop, but he’s tired and weary and in pain, and it probably doesn’t come across as he intended.

“Perhaps we should disconnect the stones entirely,” Teyla suggests; she can see how much it drains the astrophysicist to use them.

“I’ve thought about that,” Rodney says. Wants to stand up. Walk. He remains seated and he’s come familiar with this body in the last few hours in a way he didn’t want to be; he wanted to get to know John from the outside. He feels like he’s broken into a house and thrown the occupant out and proceeded to rip apart the furniture, and he needs to get out. “If we make a switch, that means we might not be able to switch back again, and if Sheppard has got a plan we’d mess it up. But he probably doesn’t have a plan unless it involves explosions or something else typically violent like that.”

“Right now, violent is good,” Ronon says, quietly but with force, and Rodney glares at him but doesn’t disagree. The Satedan catches the look and shrugs as innocently as a man of his size and stature can make the gesture appear when he’s carrying a gun and his Dæmon’s dangerous teeth are showing, sharp white spikes.

Rodney doesn’t say it aloud, of course (he’s not that rash) but of what little he can sense of his and John’s freshly established Bond – a weak weak trail of light in the darkness – from that he can tell that John probably doesn’t to disconnect. For selfish reasons, maybe. Not yet. Not yet. Neither of them could get out of that Snake’s clutches on their own so easily. As a team there’d be a much higher chance of success. Of survival. But John is alone, a galaxy away. Rodney can’t feel if he’s in pain. He knows he’s got to be.

It’s not common for Rodney to feel such constant, pressuring fear for someone else. It pounds away steadily alongside his stolen heartbeats.

They’re going to be okay, Mer whispers. False promises for the both of them, and what else can they do until they find that ship? They can’t feel what John is thinking.


This is never going to work.

He could’ve gone for the easy way and not written a trigger into the program. He could’ve set it off at once, but that wouldn’t have been fair to Jenny, or Rodney. Rodney, or his team back in the City waiting for them to return.

John is back in the cell and at least they’re closer now; his Dæmon has unsuccessfully tried to find a way out of their cage, but the forcefield won’t yield. It stings. They’re only going to get one shot at this, once it happens and the power grid fails for – what’s it going to be? three seconds? less? – it’s not going to be no enough time.

Fuck.

[It’s going to have to be. It’ll work.]

At least someone believes in me, John considers wryly.

Shy has got their wings pressed tightly against their back to make themself as small as possible, and they blink at him once. [That’s a rather self-serving thought, isn’t it.]

We’re not going to argue. He glares at them. If the Raven could huff or roll their eyes they would’ve.

[Just saying.]

All they can do for now is wait. Wait. Six days, Ba’al thinks it’s going to be, and at least John’s been given some water and food now that they’re in hyperspace. Earth food, because before leaving the Goa’uld stocked up and it smells like Taco Bell. Which, among the weirdest meals he’s had aboard a spaceship. John doesn’t want to touch it, but he doesn’t want Rodney’s body to collapse on him either, so he forces himself to take a few bites. It isn’t poisoned or laden with sedatives. Who knows when the next meal is going to be served?

It seems the Goa’uld are bored of him for now, which is fine by John. Sooner or later Ba’al is going to return, to question or torture no doubt, leisurely. He’ll withstand it.

Once he’s eaten, he reviews everything in his head for the umpteenth time. The order and timing of events and the movements he’s going to make; and it’s like envisaging a flight simulation before the real show starts, imaginary stick in hand and the controls gleaming on the board. They’re both aware of the plan. There’s no way to give warnings to Jenny. She’s still in the sarcophagus.

They haven’t been allowed to see her. John refuses to accept the possibility she could be dead.

That’s the tricky bit. John found a blueprint with the layout pf the ship in the computer when he was looking at power grid schematics, but the sarcophagus wasn’t marked out on it. So if she’s not healed enough soon to be brought back to the cell, he’s got to find her. Waste time. But they’ve gotten out of tighter spots before. Got to think positive.

John isn’t a pacer. Rodney is. Ronon is the loomer, and Teyla’s much calmer; she’d meditate and survey the situation from every angle before striking. He could have used her by his side. The Athosian, like the Satedan, would keep several weapons handily hidden. John hasn’t even got a knife. He hadn’t brought the beautiful dagger Teyla had given as a Christmas present – which he’s in hindsight glad of because he’d hate to lose it – and the Goa’uld have taken his other one, basic standard issue. He has no TAC vest, no gear, nothing. Just the clothes on his back and his wits.

There are five underlings including Everett, and of course there’s Ba’al to contend with. And John would like to save Everett somehow. If it’s possible. No one willingly has a Snake rammed down their throat and the guy, for his faults, doesn’t deserve this ending. But how? Last time … With Caldwell – Icarus had taken care of that. No such Ancient intervention this time. John is no neurosurgeon. And he’s got personal experience with having someone else calling the shots and being unable to do anything but watch and feel in horror as control is forced away. Retaking it is difficult if not impossible when Goa’uld are involved, the physical presence wrapped around the spine in a stranglehold.

If he could subdue Everett, give him a chance …

One thing at the time.

No one has taken his wristwatch and he throws a glance at the digital display. Eight hours. Eight hours since he woke up on the ship. He’d really like to sleep and this is the only time he could do it, so he stiffly tugs off his jacket and bundles it up into an uncomfortably lumpy makeshift pillow. There’s a cold draft circling the floor, coming from the left, a small vent – too small to escape through – and John turns his back to it, lying on his side, arms crossed and hands in his armpits to conserve warmth. He’s aching with exhaustion but doesn’t want to lose consciousness. Dream.

Wonder how his team’s doing. It’s early morning in Atlantis now. The sun rising.

Eventually he can’t fight it any longer. Is sleep even possible like this? the idle thought strikes him; with the stones. His vision – Rodney’s vision – blurs, muscles relaxing even though he strains against it. A soft sight. Between breaths, he begins to drift away, and there’s a whisper of [I’ll keep watch].

His Dæmon remains alert but they never feel safe. The Raven doesn’t sleep.


Agent Gibbs is not in a good mood. The thorough search of Eric Human’s apartment had yielded no results. The place had been emptied and scrubbed clean. He and DiNozzo return to HQ morosely – well, he is more morose than DiNozzo, who complains at how dangerously fast Gibbs is driving the car and the tightness of the turns, and clutches the seatbeat like a lifeline.

Once they get back to HQ, two hours after McGee and Todd got there, Abby calls him on the phone and says there’s a surprise waiting down in Forensics.

“You wanted good news? This hard drive contains a wealth of information which I managed to crack.” Abby is on her fifth Caf-Pow, tired but excited and nowhere near to giving up.

“Actually, I did a lot of the work,” McGee butts in sounding a bit affronted.

“Okay, so he helped a little bit. Anyway, what we found is this: it looks like they wiped the laptop but forgot how computers actually work. Whenever something’s written onto a hard drive, it physically alters the magnetics of that hard drive, so even if you delete a file the shadow of it is still there. So – voilà.”

Among the plethora of files, most of which detail transactions, are what at first looks like .jpeg-images, but McGee and Sciuto have pulled them apart. Hidden in the text files are messages: secret and in an alien language. Getting Dr Jackson to HQ is not possible as the Prometheus is nowhere near Earth, seeking the trail of the lost ship, so they’re communicating via phone.

“I’ve managed to roughly translate the first file you sent me,” Dr Jackson is saying. Abby has put him on speaker, and Gibbs, DiNozzo, Todd, and McGee are gathered in Forensics to listen. “It talks about an operation or, well, the word translates better to ‘stage of affairs’; doesn’t really have an English equivalent. Uh, so, it’s plans to upgrade an engine using Ancient technology and knowledge, though the details are vague here. It mentions ‘finding a superior host’, which doesn’t sound good for anyone involved.”

“Host? For a Snake?” asks DiNozzo curiously. Shakes his head a bit, murmuring: “Creepy. And disgusting.” The agent is a bit surprised that Kate doesn’t comment on him acting immature, but maybe she’s just as overwhelmed as the rest of them.

“Yeah, that’s what I think. And I recognize this mark. I’m pretty sure I know which Goa’uld we’re dealing with – an old System Lord named Ba’al. The last one, actually, as far as we’re aware.”

“And this helps us how?”

“Well, we know his MO. Ba’al likes to play with his food, as it were, which means that he wouldn’t just kill off a captive. He needs information, and if that’s Ancient tech then Colonel Sheppard would know it. A mention here – yeah, they meant to hack the SGC. Referenced as ‘the Mountain’.”

“Which is what happened,” Abby says smugly, almost adding an I Told You So.

“Anything else, doc?” Gibbs asks.

“I think it’s a set of coordinates.” A row of numbers are read, and McGee immediately pulls up an internet search window on a computer and starts typing. Shortly, a satellite image forms. It’s an address. And it’s not far. On the edge of D.C. itself.

“Looks like an old industrial site, Boss,” DiNozzo comments.

They’ve caught the scent.


The Prometheus drops out of hyperspace for the eighth time in the last five hours. Each jump, they linger for the quarter of an hour to scan the nearest few lightyears for any signs of a ship. So far they’ve encountered nothing but a faraway meteor storm. Colonel Pendergast is starting to doubt if this venture will yield results. He hasn’t had the pleasure – or luck, according to some – of meeting Dr McKay in person – his personality, at least – but the man is meant to be the Carter of Atlantis. And if Colonel Carter had been the one to give him the calculated search grid, Pendergast wouldn’t have questioned it.

Still. One of their own is out there in need of help.

Captain Womack is sitting by one of the consoles at the helm. After three minutes into the scanning cycle, a console bleeps suddenly. “Sir, we have a contact on long-range sensors.”

Colonel Pendergast leans forward. Seems like Dr McKay was right, after all. Well. “How far out?”

“Twelve point eight lightyears. It’s too far out for IFF, but there’s a shadow of an energy surge. It could mean something’s left hyperspace.”

“All right. Intercept course, take us right at it, maximum hyper.”

The technicians quickly have the ship prepared for another launch, and the navigator considers the numbers on the screen in front of her, giving an estimated time of arrival to target by the best calculated course. “Maximum hyper, yes sir. ETA eighty-seven minutes. Entering hyperspace.”

The window opens up again and the Prometheus is launched into it. 

Chapter Text

xxi.

into that good night

part two

time to get off this boat;  


John wakes up suddenly to the noise of something sliding open. Not the smoothness of Ancient doors, somewhat more grating, a low groan from below. The cell. It comes back to him now: the cell. The ship. His head aches, and his eyelids feel heavy, and he draws himself up stiffly. He could kill for a hot shower. A bath. A meal and a bed. In his own body, preferably. A glance at his wrist tells him he’s been sleeping for three and a half hours. Doesn’t feel like it.

Blinking sleep wearily from his eyes, he looks steadily at Ba’al who enters the cell. In his wake is Colonel Everett and the gray wolf is gone. John’s belly churns. He wants to be sick. He can figure out what happened, and does this mean the Colonel is beyond rescue now? No, no, he doesn’t want to believe that. One way or another. It’ll be fixed.

“Good morning,” he smiles at his captors brilliantly and stands up, doesn’t wobble despite Rodney’s limbs struggle to cooperate. Man, McKay’s going to chew his head off. Everything is stiff and painful, but nothing’s broken so there’s that. “If it’s morning,” he adds. Space is confusing.

“Your resilience is both amusing and grating,” Ba’al says. He’s not wearing the business suit any longer but a typical Goa’uld getup and, really, those things look even worse in person. And John has always thought the pictures – taken by SGC security cameras whenever Goa’uld were in the Mountain, uninvited or not – were gaudy. It’s even worse than the Wraith with their flashy black coats. 

“I do my best.” He’s not chained up. He could try to … No. Not yet. It’s not time. “Where’s Director Sheppard?” Refuses to believe the possibility she could be dead.

“You’ll be glad to know she is recovering, Colonel. She’s lucky we had a sarcophagus onboard.”

“Yeah,” John mutters wryly. “Lucky.” He wonders if this is going to be like a scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells Lando Calrissian to hope the deal hasn’t been altered any further, with Ba’al starring in the role as Vader and himself as Calrissian. Would that make Colonel Everett Boba Fett? A less cool, grumpier Boba Fett, if that is even possible. Or it’s going to be more like he’s Han Solo and Ba’al’s planning on some recreational torture without asking questions to pass the time and amuse himself or whatever - the cause doesn’t really matter. Either way, they’re stuck here. “You planning on making her into a Snake too?”

The unsettling smile. “It would be useful, I admit.”

“But you can’t,” John counters. “Because I bet your cover’s blown. There’s no way you can come back to Earth now, which means having the Director of a federal agency under your command would be kind of useless. The SGC is going to have figured you out by now and they’re coming after us as we speak. There’s no way you can win this.”

“They will not catch up,” Ba’al says, pacing slowly, crossing the space so that he’s between Rodney’s body and the cage with the Raven. If not for the forcefield they’d would be flinching back to escape being touched, but they hold their ground now. If the forcefield is lowered and they escape, their first action might be to hack this guy’s eyes out. A reflex. Payback. “Your ships don’t have a Zero Point Module or engines powerful enough to match our speed.”

Bleakly, for a moment, John considers the Daedalus. It’s on its way to Earth. In the void between galaxies. If they get close enough to the edge, maybe they could get reasonably close – within the few million kilometer range necessary for the Daedalus’ sensors to detect the Goa’uld vessel. Not that John expects such an easy and obvious way of escape. When the fuck does that ever happen, huh? This is the SGC, not … He can’t come up with a likeness or analogy, nothing works, and he stops thinking about the Daedalus. It’s possible that the vessel is in the void between galaxies right now and out of range of both the SGC on Earth and Atlantis, and unaware of all this going on, and Colonel Caldwell and the airmen and marines onboard aren’t going to suddenly appear in a fittingly heroic manner and save their asses.

“The Warship Aurora cannot make it here in time either,” Ba’al goes on, and John hides the lurch of surprise from showing on his face. The Snake wasn’t meant to know – Ah. Shit. That briefing, before he and AR-4 went to investigate Snow’s apartment – and subsequently getting caught by those pesky NCIS agents – John recalls: Colonel Carter had said something about a hacker getting into SGC’s main computers, downloading mission reports, logs. Copies sent from Atlantis. About the Aurora. So Ba’al’s interested in the Warship. To use it to take over a corner of the universe? It’s more mobile and nimble than the City; maybe he intends to take both. A potentia-powered Warship, with an arsenal full of drones, as well as the Last Ancient City in the hand of a Goa’uld – especially one as clever and dangerous as Ba’al …

Ba’al isn’t asking questions. So maybe he’s bored. Hell, John hopes he is bored and hasn’t found out about John’s latest move on the game board, or this will all be over very soon.

[We timed it right], Shy tries to assure him – assure them both. If the Snake hadn’t walked in, the Dæmon was going to wake him up somewhere around now. [Twenty … no, nineteen and a half minutes now.]

Sounds about right.

“Know about her, huh? Sweet ride. I’d show you around – especially the exhaust ports or maybe an airlock.”

It doesn’t look like Ba’al appreciated to hear that about airlocks or the implication of being thrown out of them. At a command of a sharp nod and a brief Goa’uld word, Colonel Everett steps forward, and his eyes are blank and his expression silent and he never says anything. His military boots are pristine and perfectly polished and the black uniform – did he steal it? did he unwillingly walk away from his career still in it? – immaculately spotless. He draws a knife in a well-trained motion. John stills. Crap.

“The thing is, Colonel, as clever as Dr McKay is I’m not that interested in him.”

“I’m pretty sure I can tell you it’s mutual on his behalf.”

“I’m aware it’s not a good idea to kill him. Not yet,” Ba’al says.

Yeah. The Goa’uld is bored, and John is going to be the plaything. Rodney is going to be. This body is going to bleed. Fuck. Fuck. It was a promise he’d meant to keep, to make sure no one else was hurt.

“Look, let’s talk this through …”

“Your loyalty to your people is typical Tau’ri,” Ba’al says, spitting at the word like something unpleasant. “You would rather take the blow than have it land on any of your friends, even people you barely know. I have read about your history, and your cousin is almost a stranger to you. And still you came to her rescue. You know, Colonel O’Neill was quite similar.”

O’Neill had been held captive by this bastard once, thought to be a Tok’ra host with information. How’d he gotten out of that one? Oh, yeah. Dr Jackson. Ascended at the time. John doesn’t have any Ascended buddies on his side now, because after all that happened with Icarus he doubts the guy’s going to be able to pinch in without pissing off the Others and getting himself banned or whatever, and it’s not like Icarus cares that much about him. About humans. It’s the City that matters. And the way Ba’al is talking, about how he knows things about John’s past and family, doesn’t exactly ease the mood or his nerves.

But he steels himself. “I think you’d benefit talking with a psychologist,” John says. His back to the wall. Hands seeking uselessly for a weapon to defend himself with. A shield. There’s nothing. Fuck, fuck, fuck. “You have a lot of issues. Shrinks love that kind of thing. Know what I think? You’re doing this to make up for something.”

And somehow the words come, creeping onto his tongue, and he imagines, tries to imagine what he has never wanted to remember. The uncomfortable cold and being unable to breathe and his flesh not his own, and it’s not that difficult, now, to draw himself back into that state, because this isn’t his flesh – and he imagines Icarus’ voice, reverberating like the echoes within a cathedral, and he had held down the Goa’uld in Caldwell’s spine and spoken to it: what had he said? he’d said – Your plan has failed, he’d said in the harsh grating language of the Goa’uld, a language which John has never been taught or even heard before that moment; and he says: “Or, what, you being the only System Lord left you’ve got to go big or you’re scared you’ll seem like hasshak?”

It definitely seems to strike a chord with the Goa’uld. Ba’al’s eyes flare golden like fire, and his mouth twists into a snarl. One doesn’t insult a System Lord lightly. They value their ego higher than any mountain. Possibly more than Rodney, even, and that’s saying something.

And John smirks. This is the easy part, somehow, suddenly; not the first alien he’s looked at and spat in the face – practically what he did with that Queen, after all (and then he’d speared her with a stunner and he wishes he could do the same now, with this creature, to set them free). “Mok mitka hasshak. Give me a sec and I’ll be more creative.”

“You seem to forget that I have hold of your Kalach,” Ba’al says coldly and not seeming to be disturbed at all. A cat toying with its food. “I don’t need to harm that body to harm you.” 

And that’s what he wanted and it’s a relief, almost, when the knife is no longer held in his direction. They’ve just got to hold on. Eighteen, seventeen minutes. Hold on. When the forcefield is lowered, John doesn’t fight it. They don’t struggle, and Ba’al is pleased (but not as pleased as he would be if they’d screamed and writhed), and he braces himself, tries to brace himself for it. This body won’t be hurt. Rodney will be okay, and it’ll be okay it’ll be –

Everett’s fist closes around the back of Shy’s neck.

It’s so cold. So cold. John wants to writhe and scream. He’s on the floor. When did he fall? He can’t remember. The Raven thrashes.  Instinctive motion. Can’t help it. John’s heartbeat is so rapid and not his own and it’s difficult to breathe to breathe to breathe (like the repetitive nightmares everything predictable and yet he can never learn to breathe) and he cannot overcome;

tries to breathe

seventeen minutes. just seventeen minutes
that’s all they’ve got to last

They can’t move away from the knife. 


“… take the south entry-point and Gibbs’ team the north. No lifesigns yet.”

The Prometheus isn’t here to help them but the SGC has other tools at their disposal, including scanners – Ancient devices, says Dr Jackson, who starts explaining how the machine works (according to some text he translated) over the phone until he’s patiently, familiarly interrupted by Colonel Carter. One of the small machines – reminds McGee of a thick, clumsy tablet, to be honest – rests in Lance Corporal Gladys’ hands. She has the specific gene in her DNA required to operate it. Which means she’s related to Ancients. Aliens. Okay.

“If we’d had a Jumper we’d be able to get a more accurate view from above,” mourns the Lieutenant next to her, Kemp. The two are part of the Gate team AR-4 and the NCIS agents are quite familiar now with their leader, Corporal MacGrimmon.

“Well, we don’t, Lieutenant,” orders MacGrimmon quietly without missing a beat or looking at him. “Focus.”

AR-4 along with AR-9 are part of the assist. But the charge will be led by Agent Gibbs, it’s been agreed. This is their case. Lieutenant DeSalle is a trained medic – which, weird, because as far as McGee knows that’s not something marines are – and is already decked out with a full field kit along with a loaded P-90. The other marines are similarly armed, and they’re all wearing radio headsets tuned to the same frequency. They’ve been over the plan once already.

Since the Prometheus is dozens of lightyears away on another hunt (McGee can’t quite grasp that, the truth of such an absurd thought: dozens of lightyears. lightyears) the marines came to HQ the old-fashioned way: by car. They were already in D.C. waiting for a development in the case, figuring that staying here was better than loitering around in depths of Cheyenne Mountain.

Now they are tense but brimming with unrelenting energy, ready. Waiting. Lieutenant DeSalle’s Dæmon is tense like it wants to prowl in circles, teeth showing (not the kind of person you’d want to piss off, McGee thinks), and Kemp shifts from foot to foot for half a minute before he settles into stoic, professional quietness. LC Gladys is harder to read. McGee isn’t a marine, has never been, and he’s still considered The Probie of the team and thus inexperienced. But there’s something about this woman reminding him of Gibbs: a stern quietness, a well of seriousness hiding behind a calm expression, small smiles. She doesn’t seem to be nervous.

McGee glances at his watch. It’s been thirty-one minutes since they figured out the coordinates, and the building ahead of them looks empty. They’re approaching from two directions; two agents with each a team of marines, and McGee and DiNozzo move closer to the warehouse along with AR-4, weapons poised.

“Sitrep,” Drew whispers on the comm.

“No contact,” Gladys reports. “We’re clear in a hundred yard radius.”

The door is unguarded. Appears to be unguarded, McGee quietly corrects himself: that Ancient tech might be able to distinguish lifesigns and tell them if anything’s approaching, but trusting Earth tech is one thing, but alien stuff?

At least DiNozzo has finally shut up about the alien government conspiracy theories.

“In position, Boss,” DiNozzo says.

Gibbs’ voice: “Move in.”

They strike.


The outer door slams open and MacGrimmon is inside first, and if they’d had any he’d preferred to have a stunner at hand. Just in case. Not that they expect to run into any friendlies except Snow –

God. Mitch has got to be alive. Fuck, Drew is going to be devastated if …

It’s then Gladys exclaims hoarsely: “Someone’s jamming us. Lost the lifesigns detector.”

Fuck. J.J. hits the button on his earpiece with his left hand, never ceasing looking around. The light is dim, nothing’s on. A few broken windows. There’s still daylight, clear and pale, and dust rises slowly. The warehouse is crumbling and a few wooden crates have been left behind; debris. It’s wholly different but he has a brief uncomfortable flashback to M31-927 and the walls disappearing and the groaning ground unsteady beneath their feet. “Delta to Beta. We’ve lost scanners – we’re being jammed.”

There is no answer from Agent Gibbs or anyone else from the second team. Agent DiNozzo, two steps behind J.J., stiffens. There’s static, hissing and spluttering. They’ve lost radio. Which means that either the Snakes are paranoid, or they know someone’s just entered their shabby house unannounced and without ringing the bell. J.J. holds up a hand, fist tightly closed, and they fall silent and freeze. He signals for Kemp and Gladys to move around to the other side of that steel column, the other side of a closed container left behind. Exchanges a look with Agents DiNozzo and McGee, who both nod. Ready.

Something moves in the shadows up ahead, forty meters off, near the wall. A glimmer of armor which J.J. knows too well for comfort.

They fire. The figure fires back and the blast of a staff weapon touches the concrete where McGee stood one second ago; DiNozzo grabs him, jerks him out of the line of fire. “Jaffa!” shouts Kemp, a warning.

There’s another one, emerging from a blue door, paint slowly disintegrating. There are only two of them and these things are much easier to kill than Wraith; J.J. lets that be a comfort as they surge forward. Bullets clatter against armor, sparks flying. Hard thumps of ammo being spent. One of the Jaffa stumbles back and falls. The agents are firing too, though they only have handguns.

The remaining three Jaffa shouts something incomprehensible to most people from Earth, but J.J. has faced off Snakes before: he knows a command when he hears one, and the three take off. The marines are faster. Gladys has one of them down, and J.J. gets a second. Agent DiNozzo clips the last one out with a bullet from his sidearm before a door slams heavily shut.

Just in case there’s a chance in a million of being heard, J.J. tries his radio again as the engagement is over, briefly, before they move on. “Got Jaffa down here. Four tango down. One got away, we’re in pursuit. Agent Gibbs, do you copy?”

“No use, sir; they can’t hear us,” Gladys says.

DeSalle helps Kemp to his feet. His boots smell burnt and a sizzling smoke has caught onto them. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Kemp nods a little breathlessly. No sounds of pain. Good. Fire only touched on the edges and quickly released him, and his boots aren’t melted into a puddle. “Let’s go.”

If any more Jaffa are in the building they must’ve heard that firefight. J.J. can hear noises: a shout – Goa’uld language – running feet – weapons’ fire. P-90s and 9mils. Sounds like Agent Gibbs ran into some Snakes too but there’s a wall between them. The schematic didn’t show that. The jamming signal probably messed up the scans, so they can’t rely on them. Gladys has already stashed the lifesigns detector away in her TAC vest, realizing looking at it will be of little use.

Quickly they cross the empty space to the door at the back. They try the shut door without success: locked from the other side. A single round of fire takes care of that, the handle blown off. Kemp and Gladys stay on guard for half a minute after they’ve filed up, in twos, J.J. and DiNozzo in the lead and the corridor here is empty. They duck into a couple of side rooms – what once were storage space and offices: now cluttered with fallen dust, left-behind broken chairs, an old computer, a ragged notebook, old manifests no one’s cared to pick up.

“Clear!” Even as he says it, there’s a nagging sensation at the back of his mind: something’s not right. Something’s not right. They’ve missed something. This seems … too easy. Where the hell did that last Snake go? And J.J.’s gut tells there are others in hiding nearby.

“Clear!” DeSalle shouts from further down the hallway. “Nothing’s here.”

“I thought you said the other entry-point led to the same location,” DiNozzo says, frowning. Displeased. If this has been a waste of time …

“The scan wasn’t accurate enough. They were jamming us,” Gladys says.

“Which means there’s a device doing that somewhere. Think you can find it?” J.J. asks her. For once having a McKay on the team wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The actual destruction of such a device shouldn’t be as tricky as locating it: a well-placed charge of C4 should do the trick.

“Maybe,” Gladys affirms.

Then there’s another shout: Agent McGee. “Tony! Look.”

There, beneath a hastily removed cardboard box full of paper, is a hatch carved into the wooden floor. It looks thick and heavy and J.J. wants to glare it out of existence. It’s closed, no sign of a locking mechanism. Maybe there isn’t one; maybe the Goa’uld thought that no one would check an abandoned warehouse out anyway, or want to move a box of old newspapers out of the way in search of secret hatches.

Kemp, reaching them, glances at the hatch and then at J.J., raising an eyebrow. “Know what I’m thinking, Boss?”

Half his mind of M31-927, J.J. says: “Yeah. Déjà vu.”


J.J. flickers on the flashlight nestled against the barrel of the P-90. There’s wiring running along the floor in a single direction, no others to take, and they follow it. Kemp waits up top, and Gladys has gone with McGee is search of the jamming device, following an intermittent signal weakening one moment and strengthening the next. They’d debated briefly about splitting up, if it’s a good idea; it was never the plan. But the mission’s two-fold now: find Snow, and re-establish communications with the other team. 

A pale circle of white light stretches to reach the far end of the corridor. It’s a narrow passage and the ladder down is rusty.

“Looks like a bend up ahead,” Agent DiNozzo murmurs. J.J. doesn’t think the guy’s ever been a marine, but sometime something shines through. But he’s a federal agent and that warrants some training.

True enough, there’s a crossroad: a passage to the left, and one to the right. Down here, they can’t hear the noise of gunfire from up top. Well-insulated. Isolated. The air is stale but cold and there’s this unpleasant wetness lingering and J.J’s Dæmon threads carefully, a paw at a time, resisting the urge to constantly glance downward.

Agent DiNozzo’s Dæmon moves close to the ground and briefly crouches for a closer look, sniffing the air, but the agent doesn’t look at it directly, eyes focused ahead. Unspoken between them, and then DiNozzo says aloud: “Blood.”

“Hopefully theirs, not our guy’s,” DeSalle says grimly.

“Theirs?” DiNozzo asks.

“The bad guys’.”

“Uhuh.”

J.J. looks toward the left, then the right. Neither direction offers any clue or hint as to what to find. Both lead to unguarded doors. Too easy. Too easy, Juno reminds him. Only two Jaffa to guard a Goa’uld hiding spot, potentially with a prisoner they’d obviously done a lot to kidnap and cover up the act? Doesn’t make sense. Unless their numbers were thin to begin with and the rest are aboard that ship. With the Colonel and the Director.

J.J. could bet half a month’s pay that the Bad Guy responsible is far, far away from Earth at this point.

Likely predicting what he’s thinking – they know each other too well by now – DeSalle gives his commanding officer a look. “Splitting up is a bad idea, Boss.”

He’s right. As usual. “DeSalle, cover us.”

“Got your six, Boss.” Unlike with Kemp, DeSalle doesn’t use irony, and in the beginning when they’d been strangers J.J. had wondered if the guy had any sense of humor whatsoever. Knows better now.

There’s a door at the end of the corridor leading left – east, J.J.’s pretty sure – fifty feet down. Gray, unassuming. Its hinges are rusty and there’s a lock, cast iron. DiNozzo fires a single shot at it; not the first door he’s broken past, then. And J.J. swings the heavy door open pushing with his shoulder and DiNozzo’s got his sidearm up and there are no lights within, no windows. The white flare from J.J.’s flashlight falls across the space within: narrow, and it smells overwhelmingly of sweat, blood, urine.

It’s not the only thing.

There’s a human body. It hangs limply from its arms and the eyes are upturned, whites showing, lids half-shut, and blood has coated a trail from a head wound. It’s dried. Nothing moves. The room was airtight enough to not even let in flies to devour the body. Like a piece of meat hung to dry. The stench makes J.J.’s belly twist and turn, and he prides himself in his ability not to throw up.

DeSalle glances over his shoulder. Cannot stop himself from exclaiming: “What the hell?”

“Okay,” DiNozzo says, breaking a slow second of dumbfounded silence. “That’s … not the guy we’re looking for.”


b r e a t h e

i n

o u t

i   n

o   u   t

i   n

i n

in

If there’d been questions asked, it might’ve been easier. He’s got nothing to say. Nothing to reveal or hold back. He bites back the screams at first and can’t stand up.     Lungs contracting not working properly.        It doesn’t work.             It

The knife has been recently sharpened and Ba’al says with a smile, after a minute – two?     John’s losing track of time       No one but Rodney’s touched his Dæmon before, it never hurt, it’s never hurt 

Ba’al whispers that that’s the knife that killed his marine, and Patrick Sheppard on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in New York, and it’s going to be the one to kill him too eventually;        no,        no, not him; Rodney, and his team, and Weir, and the rest of them. His brother, and Jenny;     they’ll all die   the same way (at his hand) – Ba’al will take over his flesh and the others and kill them slowly with his hands   that knife    that

He can’t breathe. Everett holds the Raven like a hunter displaying his prize for the photograph emotionlessly. It’s stopped trashing. Each stroke: precise, unhurried, almost gentle. Measured. Are they going to be able to fly after this? they won’t oh god they won’t;

Three minutes five seven he doesn’t know he manages to crack an eye open to glare at the Goa’uld. “What – what do you want?” he wants to say, demand, “Why are you doing this?” but it’s a useless question and all that comes out is a wheeze of fragile air from strained lungs.

There wouldn’t be an answer.


Gibbs has got a bad feeling about this. It’s an exhausted cliché, but he’s not the guy watching all the movies so he doesn’t care.

They’d taken out the three Jaffa guarding the entrance easily enough. The metal plated armor wasn’t as tough as it looked and didn’t cover the neck or head, so Gibbs had one down in a heartbeat. Bullet through the left eye. Kate dealt with the second too, and the four marines spread out behind them like a living shield. They move with quiet efficiency and clearly, vividly, as a team: as one. They don’t speak aloud apart to communicate with the other team on radio, and therein lies the problem. Comms were just cut out. Static.

They’re being jammed. That usually means a trap lies ahead, but Gibbs isn’t planning on walking away. The warehouse is silent now but, as they were fighting, they’d heard dull noise and it wasn’t echoes. Another firefight. And the schematic made with the Ancient scanned was clearly wrong because there’s a wall separating them from the other team. The warehouse is now quiet and Gibbs leads them inside, past the fallen bodies.

A pang of noise so sharp they stumble back. Flashbang. In a second, as they’re blinded, Gibbs hears the smattering of fire from the P-90s, one or two of the marines having managed to cover their ears or eyes in time to now react, and something returning fire. Staff weapons, and something else. Electric.

A grunt. A thump. A cry:

“Drew!”

Gibbs draws back behind a container, and Private Herschel clearly wants to jump out and retrieve her fallen teammate who’s lying on the cold cement, unmoving. There’s no blood.

Those alien weapons make no sense.

“She’s stunned,” murmurs Private Gamble. “She’s going to be okay.”

“How many do you see?” Gibbs asks, glancing around with his sidearm tracking for targets. It’s dim and white spots are slowly clearing from his gaze, and his right ear is ringing. He loathes flashbangs.

“Four targets,” Gamble says, checking his ammo. “Two at two o’clock, the other two at ten.”

“Agent Todd and I’ll take those two.” He inclines his head toward the ten o’clock position.

The marine is all business, in his element. This is a battleground; Private Gamble knows how to deal with that. “Yes, sir.”

Two marines circle back to another container, aiming for what’s another of those Jaffa and alongside them is another – human? No, but the silhouette is different, and Gibbs is then busy in a firefight to analyze it further. If he had, he would’ve noticed, as the man stepped into the light with a zat’nik’tel in hand, that he wore a business suit and that his face was coldly smiling. He would have noticed that the man was familiar.

Kate reloads her handgun and takes aim again.

The Jaffa falls. The other one with it turns around and starts running, and they run after, leaving behind the staccato choir of P-90 bursts. Gibbs lets his Dæmon run ahead. They’re faster than them, and if they could fell that person, that thing;

Gibbs doesn’t finish the thought. A spark of energy hits him suddenly and it’s not like being shot by a bullet at all, no IED no shrapnel no sniper on a roof, and he falls down without seeing the face of the shooter.


Agent DiNozzo snaps a few photos of the body with his phone. There’s no time to collect evidence just yet. Mission to accomplish. Their radios are still dead, and there’s no reception so the agent pockets his phone after failing being able to call Gibbs. If there was time he’d have started searching the body for an ID. One thing is sure: this isn’t Lance Corporal Snow.

Tony recalls the last update the searches made. This guy is vaguely familiar. It could be that previous VP of the bogey company. Jamesson. Which explains what happened to him. Didn’t (necessarily) cheat on his wife; got himself murdered instead. No one does this to themselves. And he’s no coroner but he’s been in the business long enough, and this guy has been hanging here awhile. Disappeared six weeks ago but maybe not dead all at once … Nevermind. He can’t speculate right now. Speculation isn’t investigating.

Straightening, he looks at the two marines with him. Working with them is oddly fine. They’re not newbies even if they aren’t federal agents, and they don’t hurl at the sight of the decaying flesh.

Corporal MacGrimmon grimaces like he’s biting his tongue, but his voice is steady. “Civilian,” he notes, moving the flashlight down and up again. The dead guy is wearing gray slacks and a white shirt, which is torn at the edges, and ashen with dirt. A quick look around reveals the rest thrown into a corner: black dress shoes (a pretty expensive brand, too), nice watch, dress jacket, fancy tie. “What are we going to do with him?”

If he’s a civilian, it’s not strictly speaking with NCIS jurisdiction and so maybe they can’t take him to HQ. But Tony doesn’t think Gibbs, once he hears about this, will be happy to have the guy anywhere but on Ducky’s autopsy table.

“Boss, we should move,” Lieutenant DeSalle addresses MacGrimmon. “More Jaffa could be on their way even if we can’t hear them.”

“So that’s what those armed wierdos are called,” Tony remarks idly. “‘Jaffa’.”

“Yeah. I thought you were briefed, Agent DiNozzo,” MacGrimmon says quizzically.

“Yeah. Well, Corporal, I’m still wrapping my head around the whole alien wierdos are running amok on Earth-part. With, you know, aliens.”

MacGrimmon looks far too understanding when he says that. DeSalle only says, unsupportingly dryly: “Wait until you meet Wraith.”


This is just great. Just great. Come back to Earth for some R&R; an opportunity long-awaited to visit friends and family, to eat Earth food without it being canned and unfrozen, to prop their feet up and catch up on all the crap TV they’ve missed out on. Now they’re stuck in a crossfire on Earth, outside of Washington D.C., of all places. Herschel is going to write an angry letter. They deserve a raise. If they’d been part of an SG-team on Earth, sure, this would be fine. But this isn’t Atlantis, and this is her damned day off. A lot of angry letters.

But Mitch is stuck somewhere here. Verdamnt. He’s got to be, and he’s got to be alive, and when they find him Herschel is going to smack him silly for being so dumb as to get himself kidnapped.

There’s one Jaffa left, and a guy who isn’t one of those but he’s got to be Goa’uld; nothing else makes sense. Herschel aims for the Jaffa’s torso and it drops quickly. She wants to check on Drew, but Gam’s right, the zat only hit her once so she’s stunned but otherwise fine. Otherwise fine.

Together, she and Gam emerge from two different sides to take down the last guy. She can hear a sidearm go off behind them, form the direction the two agents went – hopefully they got to the two others.

“Stand down!” Gam shouts in the most commanding voice he can muster. His face is serious. “You’re surrounded.”

“So I am,” says the man: a voice of oil, of grime, if she had to describe it, icy over a coarse surface. Drolly unsurprised. His Dæmon … there’s no sign of it. Goa’uld. He’s a Snake. Only conclusion that’s logical. “Congratulations. You caught me. What do you win?”

She doesn’t lower her gun, nor does Gam. “Lower your weapon. Slowly. Kick it away from you. No sudden moves.”

The man drops the zat’nik’tel, kicks it in their direction so that Gamble can pick it up warily, and holds up his hands in a universal gesture of peace. Smiling a little. Herschel wants to kick that smile in. Gamble weighs the weapon in his palm.

“Where’s Mitchell Snow? Where have you taken him, bastard?!”

“You’ll find him in the basement,” says the man calmly. “He might be … a little worse for wear.”

It’s not like her to easily lose her temper, but he’s a guy more or less admitting to taking her teammate and friend prisoner. And she knows what’s being implied. “Arschgesicht! I’m going to gut you!” No one hurts her team and gets away with it.

Before she can take the shot with a bullet to the guy’s head, or at least somewhere painful but non-lethal (people are better at answering questions when they’re alive), Gam does. The zat discharges without kicking back and the guy crumples. He only fires once. Then he tries his radio.

“Gibbs – MacGrimmon? Got a prisoner over here, probably a Snake. Anyone? … Shit, comms are still down.” He lowers his arm and fastens the zat in his belt. “C’mon, Amanda, help me tie this guy up.”

They’re not too gentle about it. Improvising with some rope they find lying around, they make sure there’s no way the guy could break free, no matter if he’s a Goa’uld or only human, when he comes to. They also check him for other weapons and find nothing. No knives, no ordinary guns, no ammo, nothing. Only a guy in a business suit in a place he doesn’t fit in. Once he’s secure, they move on. First they check on Drew. She’s out cold, and she’ll have some bruises in the morning, but otherwise she’ll be fine.

“I’ll stay with her and guard that guy,” Gam offers. Turns his head slightly and adds, painfully softly: “Please find him.”

Herschel inhales. Exhales. Promises. “I will.”


Agents Gibbs and Todd had moved out of sight before pursuing a suspect. Around stacks of crates and an empty container, across the threshold into a corridor hidden around the corner. When Herschel catches up, the senior agent is slumped over and the younger one kneeling next to him, checking his pulse. Todd looks up sharply when the marine come into view.

“He got hit. One of those alien weapons,” she says, a bit breathlessly. Sounds uncertain as if unsure what those weapons actually do. Herschel can understand that feeling vividly.

“Just one shot?” Herschel asks. A nod. “Then he should be fine. It renders you unconscious. Drew’s the same. She’s with Gamble now, the way we came from. All targets gone.”

“Dead?” the agent asks sharply.

“No, one of them just gave himself up, and he’s not Jaffa. Could be a Snake. We’ve stunned him and secured him.” Herschel offers a hand, and together they help roll Agent Gibbs over. “He should come around soon. Looks like a pretty solid guy.”

“Ex-marine,” the agent says curtly, but it explains a lot. “Anything from the others?”

“Not yet, ma’am. We’ve tried to –”

At that moment, something buzzes in both their ears and the static gives way to voices.

“… Gibbs?  Can you hear me? This is McGee. There’s a jamming device; LC Gladys and I managed to shut it down. Do you copy? Uh, over.”

“This is Todd,” the female agent says. “That’s good to hear. Any sign of Snow? Over.”

“Nope,” intones another voice: Agent DiNozzo. He’d (in that aggressive and annoying manner too many men do) tried to flirt with her in the elevator on the way out of NCIS HQ, so Herschel is not that partial to him personally. “But we got a body. We’re down in the basement – secret, hidden basement, by the way.”

“I see where you are,” Gladys says. “The lifesigns detector works now. We’re coming to you, Agent DiNozzo.”

“How come Gibbs is all quiet?” DiNozzo sounds puzzled.

“He’s been hit by one of those alien weapons, stunned. He’ll be fine,” Todd assures them. “Once he wakes up we’ll come to you. Gladys, can you guide us?”

“Yeah, no problem. Guys – I’m picking up two lifesigns one level down, east part of the building – close to you, MacGrimmon. I think … It could be Snow.”

Herschel governs her breaths steadily. Shouldn’t celebrate victories beforehand. But lifesigns. Signs of life. It’s the best news this whole week. She hears MacGrimmon say: “We’re on it. Meet you there.”


They nearly stumble over their feet in their rush. There’s the door. Right there: if they’d turned right instead of left in that juncture, they’d have already found them. Found them. Thank you, Mary and Joseph, J.J. mentally whispers as they get the lock broken and the door open. Just as heavy as the other one. No lights.

This man is not hanging from the ceiling. He’s slumped over and curled in on himself and breathing, and J.J. wants to draw him into a big hug. The Dæmon – recognizable, warmly familiar despite the dirt in its matted fur – lifts a lidded gaze toward them, and the man jerks as if violently woken from sleep. There’s a tang of blood in the air, and the relief is exchanged with acute concern.

DeSalle barges past both him and Agent DiNozzo in full medic mode.

“… J? ‘Salle?” the voice is weak and slurred. “Wow, I’m … really out it … if I’m ‘magining … you guys.”

“You’re not imagining anything, buddy,” J.J. says and crouches in front of him.

Snow looks at them almost disdainfully, as much as a man in his state can. His leg is obviously broken, knee twisted up in ways unnatural, and his face is gaunt and haunted.

“You’re right. I’d’ve … gone for Drew with a big … big gun.”

“Oh, she’s here, and Herschel and Gamble,” J.J. assures him. “They’re pretty pissed off and worried.”

And Snow smiles weakly. “’S not my fault.” Then his expression turns pained: “They – she killed him.”

He exhales through his nose. Doing the talking while DeSalle looks at the injury. DiNozzo’s calling for the others, giving sitrep, requesting immediate medical assistance. They’ll get him to a hospital and then back to the Mountain, and everything will be all right. J.J. tells him that, tells him his team is on its way and Snow’s going to be fine, and he doesn’t mention any other kidnappings or deaths. Snow’s been through enough already.

When the rest of the team finally finds the cell, Snow’s huddled up with his Dæmon in his lap, and J.J. is supporting his shoulder, DeSalle deeming his leg far too unstable to move without a stretcher so they’ve got to wait until the ambulance arrives. Drew has got dust on her nose and one side of her face, and she’s a bit dizzy, the aftertaste of a zat; Agent Gibbs is the same way. Gamble also looks dizzy but for different reasons, and he and Herschel and Drew swarm into the room. J.J. gives them the space and the moment. Walks out into the corridor where Gladys and Kemp are waiting, and he glances back at AR-9 and the knots inside his chest untangle.

Danke Gott. You look terrible,” they hear Herschel say. A chuckle of relief.

“And you smell,” adds Gamble with a smile that can be heard. It sounds slightly strangled, as if he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“You timing … sucks,” Snow sighs, and then he relaxes and simply falls asleep in his team’s arms. First time he’s slept in days, J.J. guesses. It starts to sink in: a rock landing on the bottom of the sea, the weight finite and complete and it’s stopped sinking and they didn’t drown: Mitch is alive. Mitch is a l i v e.

There are far too damn few happy endings out there, too far in-between, but this time they managed to get lucky.


If this goes on for much longer he’s not going to be able to run. It’s not going to matter. They’ll be grounded forever. forever. forever. John has forgotten how to breathe or move, and lost track of time – he needs to keep track – needs to. He blinks the sweat out of his eyes and he’s lost his voice, hoarse from screaming. Rodney’s voice. It shouldn’t sound like that and they can’t move and he can’t tell any longer where he ends and the Raven begins. Everything is hazy pain.

And he’s unable to breathe and it’s been twelve fifteen seventeen minutes and he blearily tries to make sense of it when it catches up with him: it’s time, they timed it and the program should kick in now in six seconds five four three

Training kicks in: he’s spent so many countless hours in flight, and the key to fighting Gs straining against you is to breathe evenly, deeply, and he tenses up his lower body to keep the blood in his head – wait, he’s lying down, does that even matter? – he can’t fight the instinctive reaction, and

two

he looks up at Ba’al cold smile and Everett and the knife and musters a smirk which might have failed, and says: whispers hoarsely, tasting blood on his tongue: “Hey, Ugly. Guess what? I broke your ship.”

one.

and before Ba’al can question that, yell in anger, continue the torture, do anything at all, the whole ship trembles and groans as the drives shut down, the spark of an explosion, and they are torn from hyperspace. Violently, the window ending and their velocity is high and the inertial dampeners struggle to compensate. They are thrown down, even the Snake losing his balance. Everett tumbles, the knife falling from his hand and so does the Raven. For a long second John feels the press of a weight atop of his chest – Rodney’s chest – theirs – trying to overcome them all before the machine manages to catch up. It fades as rapidly as it began;

For a dizzying second, everything changes but this time John saw it coming. Closes his eyes. He is not lying down: he’s standing, leaning against a table, crutches put momentarily aside, and he’s holding a cup in one hand and he can’t keep the grip in the sudden transportation. His leg aches, his head aches, everything aches but there is no taste of blood, and the coffee spills over his wrist and shirt and he’s in the mess, there’s a scent of hot food and lowly speaking voices and Athosian spices and a lull of ocean splashing onto the piers (home home home) and a sharp inhale, someone calling his name (is that Teyla? Teyla’s voice. Teyla) worriedly, and a drop of blood clashing onto the Ancient floor –

A klaxon blares. Begins to turn. Overload imminent, and John really hopes he’s right about the calculations and that there’s no way to stop it.

Now that Everett is no longer touching them, the Raven is not in direct pain. It remains a sharp shadow but John can move, and he’s a fighter pilot, used to pulling G:s, and John gets to his feet quickly. And if he were a normal human, Ba’al would’ve dazedly stayed down a little longer, but he isn’t human. The Goa’uld gives the vessel – name long since forgotten – inhuman strength. The power grid and everything connected in the ship flickered for a brief second; the doors slide open. They need to get out of here. They all need to get out of here.

John grabs the zat, fallen from Ba’al’s hand onto the floor, and fires in Ba’al’s direction and doesn’t stop to check where it hit. There’s an angry cry cut off mid-noise, and they try to move together but their wings are broken – John has to kneel down to gather his Dæmon in an awkward cradle of his arm, too large for it to properly fit, and claws dig into skin. He points the zat at Everett and the man’s eyes blaze and he reaches for the knife.

John hesitates for a millisecond before he pulls the trigger. He can’t look at Everett’s face.

He heads for the now open door. A blast from a staff weapon: barely missing. The Jaffa beyond it falls back when the zat blast breaks through its throat and surrounds it with sparks of electricity. The body thumps to the floor. John leaps over it.

The ship trembles. The alarm is singing.

Time to get off this boat.


“Rodney, are you all right?”

“Teyla? I – I. Ow.”

“What happened?”

“The thing, the thing with the stones, the breaking connection. They must’ve dropped out of hyperspace! It’s the only thing that makes sense. Ugh, that hurt.”

“You are in pain?”

“Yeah. No. I mean, Sheppard – Sheppard’s in pain. I’m … fine. Not really, but, yeah.”

“We saw,” (softly), “Meredith was gone and Shy was here, and there was blood –”

“Yes. I know. I know.”

“Perhaps we should go to the infirmary.”

“Not me who needs it. And he’s in another galaxy. There’s no way they’ve reached even the edge of the Milky Way yet. Somehow … It must have been a malfunction of the drive, but I couldn’t really tell, wasn’t there long enough. Radio. Have you got a radio? I’ve got to talk with Weir. After I’ve changed out of this shirt, I’ve got coffee all over me. Where the hell’s Radek? We’ve got to rerun those calculations! Give me that datapad.”

“Rodney, we will find them.”

“If they dropped out because the drive malfunctioned or a catastrophic overload – there’s no way we’ll reach them in time.”

“We will find a way. I believe that. We must have hope. Are you certain you should not see Beckett?”

“I don’t have time.”

“Then let us go to your lab.”


half an hour earlier:


One moment Gibbs is running; the next he’s slumped over, face-first, and his Dæmon too: a brief flash of uneven light. Kate ducks behind a crate, holding back a noise of concern and surprise. She glances at Gibbs – from here she can only see his feet – is he breathing? Then she looks ahead: the shot came from there. A threshold into a dark room, beyond the warehouse’s main space. She can’t just rush over there without risking being hit by enemy fire. Like Gibbs.

“That wasn’t very clever, coming here,” says a voice drolly, a dark edge to it like it’s older than it should be. Todd struggles to put a name to it; she hasn’t heard it before. So it’s not Human’s PA or someone else they’ve encountered recently. But – wait. The security footage, the recording. Of the Director’s kidnapping. That’s … Yeah; that’s the voice of the woman who’d been there. Mayfield. Not in Europe, then. “But you just couldn’t keep away, could you? Oh, well, I’ll just dispose of you the same way as I did the other one.”

Other one. That’s got to mean the NID agent, Bradley White. At least now we know for certain, Kate’s Dæmon remarks in a shared whisper. They doubt Mayfield will offer such a succinct confession in court.

She sees her. Not her face clearly: but a pair of glowing eyes, and what the actual fuck and then Kate remembers the surreal briefing: the Snakes, the Goa’uld, the aliens possess people and alters their voice and eyes –

There’s no sign of a Dæmon. Normally, if this was any other suspect or witness or person crossing the street, Kate would just assume that their Dæmon is small enough to keep out of sight. Fit in a pocket. Now she knows it’s not the case, and she shivers.

Kate remembers the whine of the bullet cleaving the air, and how she’d dropped to the ground out of shock milliseconds before it would have hit. Not the first time she’d been shot at, far from it, but that moment had been the closest she’d come to dying. This is similar, too similar – the team being split apart, a shootout; except this is no terrorist, no sniper on a roof. This is a woman with glowing inhuman eyes. To think she’d gone from protecting the US President to this. Fighting aliens was not on her list when she decided, in that implausible moment, to join Gibbs and his people at NCIS, leaving the Secret Service behind.

There are few days when she misses the Service. It had been different, complex, each day new but there was also a simple rigidness at the heart of it all giving a sense of security. She knew who to turn to. it was both easier and harder than solving murders, and there were some days back then when she felt all of her training as a profiler didn’t seem to matter. Flying out of the window.

This is one of those days.

This time, no bullet whines past her: not a physical one. Instead a streak of pure energy sizzles past and Kate flinches; this is unreal. The noise isn’t like any noise she’d heard – apart from once: the recording of the Director’s kidnapping. Mayfield had been there and she’d fired just such a weapon. What did the SGC call it? Zat … zat’nik’tel. And what was the warning Colonel Carter had left about those things during that absurd meeting?

One shot stuns … two – kill. Three …?

“Give yourself up, Mayfield, and you’ll receive a fair trial.” Kate holds her voice steady. This isn’t the first murderer or creep she’s dealt with. So what if it it’s an alien? It will face justice. “You admit to killing a federal agent.”

Mayfield – is that its name? do aliens have names? – laughs grimly. “There’s plenty more where he came from. It’s better you give up now,” she says. “I don’t have a grudge against you but I’d gladly break every bone in your pathetic body if I have to. You know, shootouts are very boring. Feels like cheating.” A step forward. Mayfield is almost visible. Kate will have to take the shot.

Another shot of yellowish electric light flies past her, too close, too close. Kate crouches behind the crate and considers her options for half a second. If Mayfield had had a sidearm or a semi-automatic, the crate wouldn’t have held up long but the energy from the weapon doesn’t seem to penetrate it. As long as she doesn’t have a direct shot, Kate is safe. Relatively.

Backup isn’t on its way, they’ve got what they’ve got.  Gibbs is down; the marines busy grappling with other assailants. She’s on her own with this one. Gibbs is slumped awkwardly where he fell and Kate can only pray at the moment that the injury is superficial, that he isn’t dying and the zat’nik’tel truly stuns with the first shot. She cannot rush over to check on him or his Dæmon without becoming target practice. She’s got to find the opportune moment and take this woman out. No other choice. Self-defense.

“You won’t escape this building alive unless you surrender!” Todd shouts. “We have you surrounded.” Faint white lies. Mayfield can probably see through it. There are no blinking lights or sirens. But Kate wants to stall, learn more information and, if the marines are given some time they could provide backup in a crossfire. Subduing Mayfield and take her to HQ for interrogation would be ideal.

Another horrible chuckle. “You are naïve. Come out now. I don’t have time for playing.”

Kate doesn’t take the bait. “So you and Human killed Agent White,” she says, calmly. Tracks Mayfield by the sound of her voice and movements. She’s in the doorway, entering the light. “What about Lance Corporal Snow?”

“He had his uses,” Mayfield says, equally as calm and there’s something terrifying about the smile hinted at in her tone. It makes Kate sick and furious. “Now he has none.”

“Where is he?” she presses, but there is no answer but another round of firing of the zat’nik’tel. Mayfield is getting closer and soon Kate will be down like Tony. She can’t let that happen.

She’s out of time.

Kate stands up and fires her handgun. The shot is loud and her aim certain, and the sound rattles the air but no one is listening for it. The blonde woman takes the bullet to the chest and it doesn’t pass through her: cracking through a rib, collapsing a lung. It should’ve caused her to drop, whimpering and gasping for breath. She shrieks in anger more than pain and jerks back, blood tainting the ground and the air, but she doesn’t drop dead. Injured but still kicking.

Her eyes gleam with more than wrath: they are pale and white. Kate keeps the grip on her sidearm steady and fires a second time, at the hand, forcing it to drop the zat’nik’tel.

When she speaks, Mayfield’s voice is not her own. It’s deep and reverberating and wrong. And there is no Dæmon; there is no Dæmon, Kate realizes, horrified. There’s not even an empty shell, a doll dangling from thin strings. There are no strings; they’ve been cut. This is a soulless marionette.

“You do not know who you’re dealing with. You’ll die at the hands of a goddess, little girl. Do you know how I am?”

“Don’t think so, sweetheart, and I wouldn’t care less what you think you are.” She reloads her handgun without taking her eyes off the target.

Mayfield leans the wounded hand against the nearest wall, moving closer, smearing the pristine white wallpaper will dark blood. She steps into the light and Kate gets a first proper look. Her once beautiful face is contorted in a snarl, angry and painful.

“Where’s Corporal Snow?” Kate repeats the demand. Aims at Mayfield’s head: this shot won’t miss.

“Dead,” says the woman simply. She sounds pleased and indifferent at the same time.

“Why did you take him?”

“Your race is too primitive to understand,” says the – no: not a woman: this is an alien. This is a Goa’uld, and no pictures or accounts or reports could ever hint at the horrifying reality of such a creature. Looking at it makes Kate’s skin crawl. “It’s too late.”

And the woman who should be dead launches herself at the agent. She kicks the weapon out of Todd’s hand, and Kate cries out hearing rather than feeling the crack of bone shattering and Mayfield’s grip is far too strong, far too strong, inhuman. They end up on the floor, Mayfield on trop, wrestling for control and hands seeking Kate’s throat.

Kate could take down half the agents in the office in less than a minute one-on-one, but this woman is unlike anyone she’s ever fought. The strength is too great for the untrained body. Eyes glowing again, a flare of wrath, Mayfield grabs the agent’s throat with one hand and her hair with the other, and bashes her head against the floor. Dark spots dance in front of Kate’s eyes. For two or three seconds, she’s sluggish, and she feels the warm blood dripping heavily from Mayfield’s body onto hers as well as a dark warmth blooming at the back of her skull, and she’s lucky she didn’t lose consciousness at once. The press of hands tightening around her throat is cold: inhuman;

                                                      inhuman;

alien ;

Those two seconds are all Mayfield needs. With one desperate hand she forces Kate’s jaws open holding it still and Kate cannot properly breathe and something dark and slimy crawls out of Mayfield’s mouth. Kate tries to scream, she cannot see it because Mayfield’s pressed their mouths together like a perverse kiss of death, and she feels it, a sharp jab of pain and a sudden presence as it slithers inside –

Mayfield collapses on top of the agent, who had tried to claw at Mayfield’s face with her fingernails in attempt to free herself from the bruising grip. Now the body is limply bleeding out. The woman is already dead, was dying long ago.

Kate feels herself staring at the ceiling.

She feels herself pushing the limp body off her with strength she didn’t know she had – shouldn’t have – and she feels herself stand, stiffly, as if this is the first time she’s moving and for a staggering moment must learn how to walk. And then she feels her face smile, muscles working, and there is horror and she cannot breathe, and she is awake and not awake all at once. The struggle is over and Mayfield’s body doesn’t move. Kate sees her Dæmon unable to call out to him and he writhes for a moment, struggling, defiantly seeking control and together they weep without words. She tries to call out his name. She tries. There’s pain unlike anything she’s ever felt, like someone – something – is severing their Bond bit by cruel bit with a dull chainsaw, a knife unseen. They can hear but not listen; they can move but not control;

If she could, Kate would be hyperventilating. But her body stands still, breaths evening out calmly, as she looks at the unmoving forms of Gibbs and his Dæmon, and she has an eerie feeling of seeing double, with two pair of eyes. Two consciousnesses wholly different in nature.

Something dark and oily whispers the knowledge to her, dully, to her mind, that They Are Power and nothing will stand in their way, and Kate gets the impression of time endless and memories far longer than the span of a normal human life, and a name; Athena, The Goddess of War; she was once worshiped by millions on planets unnamed; and the thing inside of her has trapped her and she can’t move can’t move can’t escape. She can’t escape. The Goa’uld has a purpose, a mission but more than that it won’t share and it’s suffocating her while also pulling and tugging at her mind, her self, her memories. It hurts. Her limbs are moving, and she steps across the still body of Mayfield and further, toward Gibbs and his Dæmon. Lying still. still. still.

Her eyes burn. She smiles. She hears her own voice speak, dulled by bones and flesh, marred by something new and frightening:

“This is much better.”

Chapter Text

xxii.

into that good night

part three

they’re missing something.


The Prometheus lands in a void on the edge of a solar system never before visited. This is within five hundred thousand kilometers of the source of that energy spike they detected less than forty minutes ago, and for a brief moment Colonel Pendergast and his crew have hope to find what they’re searching for. As soon as they break out of the confines of subspace, that hope is abruptly shattered.

There is no sign of any ship: only wreckage. Debris, scattered over so vast a distance and so fragmented it can barely be picked up by the sensors. The human eye cannot see it. The crew holds their breath as the scans are completed and the area surveyed several hundred thousand miles in each direction. The result is the same. Something has been destroyed, and there is precious little left to give answers.

The explosion occurred half an hour ago – a technician confirms that it matches the timeline they already have, something dropping out of hyperspace forty minutes ago; the explosion happened less than ten minutes after that, the second great energy surge recorded on their sensors, though tracking something in real spacetime while in hyperspace is extremely difficult. The heat levels confirms it. The debris is still cooling off, taken by the vacuum of space, slowly shedding heat but the momentum of the break continues to hurtle the small chunks further and further apart. In time, nothing will be left, the pieces of the starship caught by nearby wells of gravity, cast in different directions by nearby stars. There is no planet in the immediate vicinity. Only space. Only space.

Colonel Pendergast surveys the damage grimly. These were not the news he’d hoped to bring back to Command.

After a few minutes, one of the technicians says: “Sir, computer calculates the possibility of that being the remnants of a Goa’uld cargo vessel – what’s left of it – at over fifty percent. Estimated seventy percent of the vessel is just gone.”

The Goa’uld who kidnapped Colonel Sheppard and Director Sheppard, along with the two of them, must have been lost in the fire. There’s no other plausible possibility he can think of it. But this is Stargate Command: implausible they deal with every day. 

“All right. Contact the SGC.”

“Yes, sir. What shall we tell them, sir?” the communications officer asks, preparing to relay the Colonel’s message, whatever it may be.

Colonel Pendergast stifles a weary sigh. Losing people is always tough, even when he doesn’t know them personally. “That there’s nothing left out here but we’ll keep looking. Lieutenant, start search pattern delta,” he says, even though he personally doesn’t think it will yield much. But this is the SGC. They don’t give up that easily, and they don’t leave people behind. General O’Neill will have his head and possibly his career rescinded if Pendergast simply had the Prometheus directly turned around. They’ll be out here some time yet.

“Yes, sir.”


The atmosphere is dull when the message reaches Atlantis.

It is early morning on New Lantea and a brisk wind caresses the piers, and many haven’t slept much or at all this night. The tension hasn’t been resolved. Elizabeth has spent most of the last few hours reviewing reports and waiting in her office around the clock, and occasionally Radek has radioed in. Rodney is too distracted to do so in person. It’s been eight hours since the connection with the stones broke, and the switch was sudden and intense and over in less than five seconds. Rodney hadn’t been able to determine much: only that Colonel Sheppard was in pain, and from the glimpse Teyla and others in the commissary got of the sudden appearance of the Raven, the harm has been made to the Dæmon directly. Carson is deeply worried about it. Hell, they all are, and Elizabeth lines up the reports and scraps of information they have thus have on the laptop screen, scattered words, and tries to make sense of them.

The ship must have dropped out of hyperspace again, which was confirmed by the Prometheus via General Landry on Earth. The Prometheus’ sensors indicated that approximately forty minutes away at top-speed, the same time as the connection broke, adding to the fact that it was a hyperspace window opening. But the transition wasn’t smooth. Rodney had vividly described immense pressure: the pull of Gs. And, merely ten minutes after the first surge, while they were still in hyperspace and their sensors focused on that area, the Prometheus picked up another surge much greater than the first. Then they found the debris. They lingered a couple of hours to scan it, but the results aren’t uplifting.

No survivors.

And on Earth, NCIS have the possible Goa’uld responsible being held behind locked doors for questioning, and the SGC has sent a jet to D.C. with Dr Jackson and Colonel Carter to assist. The Prometheus is hours away, and Atlantis has no direct help to send. Another suspect and a number of Jaffa are dead, as is one human body recovered where Lance Corporal Snow had been held. NID Agent White is confirmed dead and his family is being contacted.

One good thing, at least, Elizabeth thinks morosely. Snow has been found alive and is currently being treated at a hospital in D.C., and once the Prometheus is back they’ll ring him to Cheyenne to be treated there. The last report – sent by Lieutenant Drew via Cheyenne – listed his injuries as severe but not life-threatening. Dehydration, a broken leg. The shattered kneecap will take the marine hard and Elizabeth has been part of the SGC long enough to know that Snow will want to stick around, but to be part of an AR-team one must be physically fit, and the fracture was complicated. The first surgery was completed less than two hours ago, just in time for the latest databurst. She does not want to lose a good person who has been part of the Expedition since day one. Snow has a degree in computer sciences; maybe they could make that work. But it will not be the same as being part of a recon team.

God, she’s tired. She’s had three cups of coffee since midnight and it’s – she glances at the corner of the laptop – 04:56 SAT. In Cheyenne it’s nearing noon, and D.C. somewhere around two in the afternoon. The last databurst had been a somber affair. General Landry had sent his condolences: 

“No sign of anything but debris, nothing alive; we’re sorry, Dr Weir, but Colonel Sheppard and Director Sheppard must be assumed to have been killed in the explosion.”

When the verdict came, she hadn’t been alone in the Control Room; Ford, Teyla, and Ronon had been there in addition to the technicians and the odd off-duty marine, and their faces had been drawn. The young Lieutenant had been obviously horrified and trying to deal, and Ronon churned with low, seething rage, the despairing kind which can have disastrous results, his Dæmon baring her long teeth. It was almost lucky that Rodney hadn’t been there but still in his lab working inhumanly fast; Elizabeth knows this City and its people, and no one deserves to be given these kind of news.

But no. No, it cannot be, McKay had insisted later, because he’s here and is fine – relatively fine, anyway – and if they’d been killed then Rodney should have felt something at the destruction of his body. The theory of the stones is that the connection wasn’t meant to hold this long to start with and if broken like that, they’d both die. That’s the simple logical conclusion a scientist would make, and Elizabeth has learned to trust Rodney on these things. The connection with the stones remains intact and nothing with the control device indicates a problem. No. No.

If only she had never let them use the stones, let Dr McKay step through the Gate to Earth, for the Colonel to follow. If only. It’s easy to be wise in retrospect, and the guilt will last for a long time.

She looks at the computer and then stretches and sighs. Her neck and back are stiff from sitting down for so long staring at the screen. She needs a break. They need a break. She stands, rubs at her eyes, and then exits her office with Simon close to her heels. Often, they’ll chat softly and plan things together, but now they are silent. The silent won’t last forever. They have other issues: Snow is recovered, and NCIS have new things to investigate, and Atlantis is still preparing for an attack.

One might come, but not from the Goa’uld. It’s been well over fifteen hours since the last sitrep from Major Lorne. The Aurora is out of sight, albeit a little while ago Chuck reported there was a blip on the City’s long-range sensors. That blip was being followed, a few million miles away, by another one identified as a Hiveship.

Elizabeth crosses the bridge into the Control Room. Activity is constant. Machinery bleeping and blinking. Chuck’s not here, finally convinced to get some rest, and Banks and another technician have stepped into place. Amelia’s hair is neatly pinned up but there’s a hint of tiredness under her eyes.

“Anything new?”

“Not yet, ma’am.”

They’ll dial Earth again in five hours. The usual pace. Unless an emergency comes up. Which, given the time and place, is not unlikely. She has another headache starting to form.

“What’s the last known location on the Aurora?”

Banks brings the data up on the nearest Ancient screen, semi-transparent, hanging beautifully from the ceiling like a technological tapestry. It had taken the Expedition weeks figure out how to properly read the long-range sensors; they had come online when the first Zero Point Module was installed and brought to the foreground when Dr Zelenka noticed its function as a Dart was approaching; a precursor to the siege that followed. Now a particular area of the Pegasus galaxy is shown, a few systems with Stargates marked out with their address. Not all of them have been visited by an AR-team: far from it. “There,” Banks says, nodding toward a blip on the upper left part of the screen. “One hour and fourteen minutes ago we caught them in the ‘535-system. They only appeared for a few seconds, not enough for an accurate fix.”

“How long would it take them to get back to the City?”

“Depends on the route they take. Quickest is four hours,” Banks says. But it’s doubtful they’d take the direct route; Major Lorne is a careful man, and he’d do everything he can to keep the Wraith far away from the City. “The Hive dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the same system half an hour ago – it’s possible they caught sight of them. They’re not heading toward the City.”

“Okay, good. Let me know if it changes, or if Major Lorne contacts us.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elizabeth looks at her closely. “You should take a break, Amelia. I haven’t seen you leave the Control Room for hours.”

The other woman only smiles tightly and doesn’t budge. “I’ll be fine a little bit longer. Chuck will be back in a couple of hours to change shifts.”

If there’s one thing Atlantis has in abundance it is loyalty. To their own, to the City, to their safety. No argument will persuade them otherwise, and Elizabeth doesn’t make it an order. Not yet, anyway, though she’ll keep a close eye on Banks and the others who have been here all night, including the team of marines guarding the Gate. Though having the promise of an iris to keep foes out, they always keep a number of armed marines on the lower level to keep an eye on any incoming wormholes. It helps Sergeant Bates sleep better at night – when he’s sleeping, that is. The Sergeant is below right now.

Before, in the beginning of the Expedition, the Sergeant kept a certain distance to the other marines, taking his duties as Head of Security seriously and stressing the importance of rank, of order. Of course, those things are important. Elizabeth had found the rigidness of the military one of those difficult things to deal with at first, but now she’s used to it. In fact, she’s come to understand Bates’ point of view: the known order gives a sense of comfort.

Things have changed, and the Sergeant might have followed Colonel Sheppard’s hands-on approach. He doesn’t lead an AR-team or leave the City very often, but he does join the marines on the floor more often these days. He’s also been to the Alpha Site several times to set things up and run training sessions, brief wargames. It’s not all watched from afar.

Elizabeth descends the stairs to approach him. The Sergeant doesn’t look bored but he’s tense, and his Dæmon stoically sits there, immobile like a statue, awaiting the worst while the man holds a P-90 in a firm grip. The safety is on. He nods in greeting, only momentarily taking his eyes off the inactive Gate which casts a long shadow on the floor from the bright clear light from the morning sun breaking into a rainbow through the beautiful Ancient glass.

“Sergeant.”

“Ma’am. Have we heard anything new?”

“Still no word from the Aurora, I’m afraid,” she shakes her head.

Clearly the Sergeant likes it even less than she does, and he’s been trained as a tactician: he is planning possible outcomes, making contingency plans for various scenarios. The people of the City are well-aware of the constant risks and Elizabeth is ready to order an evacuation to the Alpha Site of all non-essential personnel if the Wraith do approach the City.

“And Earth?”

“McKay is working on the latest data. The Prometheus sent copies of their scans, and he’s sifting through them.”

“Doc, if Colonel Carter and the others didn’t find anything …” the Sergeant starts and Elizabeth hates that she must agree.

“I know, the chances are slim. But,” she says, arms crossed, and she looks from the man to the Stargate in its still glory and all of its implausible promises: “we have to hope.”


No.

Rodney just won’t listen the words when Elizabeth takes him aside to tell him the news.

No. First off, it doesn’t make sense. From what he’s learned about the communication stones, if either of them was killed, the other person connected would be too. However, no one else seems to truly grasp that. They’re now looking at Rodney – at Sheppard’s body – like at a ghost. Well, we’re not giving up, Mer says. She’s perched on the desk next to the monitor. Still running the numbers. They’ve been sent a data package from the Prometheus: scans taken at the site. Crude renderings of debris.

Second …  If John’s alive, and that agent person, then they’ve escaped the ship – how? Pod. No, another ship. A Goa’uld vessel of that size would be equipped with Death Gliders, and John would attempt to fly one, of course he would. Even if he’s never seen one of them before in his life. The man doesn’t back down from anything. So: they escaped, in a Glider, and then … and then …

“Rodney,” Radek enters the lab and sighs when seeing him by the board scribbling furiously. “You need break.”

“No. Shut up, I’m thinking.”

“When was the last time you ate? Something more than a sandwich on your feet. Or slept?”

Rodney looks at the nearest screen. It’s connected to one of the computers, one of several running the same scenario. Atlantis is essentially a giant computer, superior to any yet built supercomputer on Earth, and now a portion of all that power is focused on trying to rebuild, backwards, the scans taken by the Prometheus. It’s not an easy task, especially since huge chunks of the original ship seems just gone, obliterated so small pieces that the scanners couldn’t pick them up. After all, even Asgard sensors (the ones they’ve been given, at least) aren’t that powerful. Can’t tell apart atoms.

It’s not that interesting to pick up on grains of sand: the only time they’d be able to pick up on something smaller than a thumb would be if it’s a beacon emitting on a subspace frequency of some sort, like the locators they use for the beaming tech on the Daedalus, or a radio signal that can be traced to a source, or a very powerful electromagnetic field. But small pieces of silent debris? No chance the Prometheus can pick that up, unless the sensors were to be seriously augmented and they had no on aboard with the skills to do that. Maybe Carter could’ve been able to, but she’s on Earth working with those feds. Busy. He impatiently taps at the plasma screen as if it would magically change readouts to give all the answers. It doesn’t, of course.

It would make sense if they tried to escape in a Death Glider. It’s the only way one can walk off a ship in space: in a smaller ship. John would try it, even if he has never seen a Glider with his own eyes in his life. If not for all the other dire ways he could die, Rodney would be worried he’d crash into a meteorite or something. There is no sign of any occupied Glider in the wreckage. In the time it took from the explosion to the Prometheus getting there, a Glider couldn’t have gone too far. The fighters aren’t meant to fly too far from a Mothership; they’re not equipped with hyperdrives, and their lifesupport is limited, and their sublights not nearly as fast as those of even an F-302. That’s assuming the Glider wasn’t damaged or impaired in some way, which is unlikely given the possible proximity to the explosion. It may not have made it out of the bay.

What are the specs again? shields? do they have shields? No. No shields. Rodney groans, physically in pain from all the useless thinking giving no results. Max speed: roughly twelve thousand kph; twelve thousand kph for half an hour would yield … His head hurts, it’s difficult to think. It shouldn’t be difficult to think. … would yield ideally six thousand kilometers; well within the range of the Prometheus’ scans … which way? there’s nothing to navigate by, it’s the middle of nowhere …

They should have seen it. If they escaped in a Glider, they should have seen it. But there is no trace. And Rodney is not dead, which means John is not dead. Then where are they?

He needs more coffee.

“Rodney,” Radek implores again, impatiently. He doesn’t answer.

The marker swirls across the whiteboard, trails of green. Numbers. So many possible trajectories and no obvious way to go, as it was the edge of a vastly empty system. Stars far away, no planet to be seen. And the Prometheus hadn’t been able to pick up anything with their long-range sensors. A Glider wouldn’t possibly have been out of sensor range no matter if it had escaped five minutes or five hours before the explosion. 

“I will fetch Carson,” Radek threatens. “To check your head.” 

“Hm-mm.”  Rodney doesn’t look at him.

The Czech takes in the busy whiteboards and screens and probably knows that they’ll have to physically drag Rodney out of there in order for him to stop, and if Radek is honest Sheppard’s face looks like hell, especially since Rodney hasn’t had a cup of coffee in over three hours. “Have you got an idea?” he asks instead of further insisting that he get some rest.

And Rodney’s shoulders slump slightly. He hasn’t. They’re stumped. He and Mer can’t come up with anything that could’ve saved – that would have saved them - and yet. The data is inconsistent. The stones still work. 

They’re missing something.

They’re missing something.


eight hours earlier: 


The hallways are crawling with Jaffa.

He’d thought there’d be a mere handful of them; obviously that was wrong. Armed with only a zat and a briefly remembered map of the place, John heads for where he hopes the sarcophagus is placed. If she … She’s got to be alive. He’s not accepting any other alternative. The Jaffa are angry and confused. The first explosion wasn’t the main overload – if it’d been, they’d all be smithereens already – but it took out one of the drives and some other essential systems, crippled them and stranded them in the middle of nowhere. Dropped out of hyperspace too early. There’d been a risk the sheer stress of the action would tear them all apart and the ship scatter across half a galaxy, and John knows he got lucky.

He has no idea where they are. Frankly, he doesn’t care that much – well, he’ll care later, when he’s more coherent and blood not dripping all over the place and his head not swimming, and if they’ve made it off the ship; then he’ll care a fucking lot. Right now? He just wants to get off this damn boat.

Normally, Jaffa march in straight lines and follow orders. They’re running about now in an entropic cascade. Word has spread that their Big Guy in Charge is down and they’re scrambling to make up for it. The alarms sing harshly and John hears them first: heavy footfalls, raised voices. He meets three of them in a corridor on the second level and ne needs to get down to the first. The firefight eats away precious time and he’s nearly caught by the blast of a staff. Barely manages to kick some ass. He’s a mess, and he knows it, and man Rodney’s going to be pissed at the state his body’s in.

They’ve got ten minutes, maximum.

He’s got to finish this.

One of the Jaffa falls, the zat fire hitting its chest plate and dissipating. One he misses, and John figures, fuck, he can’t take them on all at once and in desperation he turns, runs. Tries to run. More like – stumbles and manages to dive out of the way from another staff blast hunting them. Fuck. Every bone every muscle every heartbeat protests painfully. He seals the corridor he’s in off by destroying the control pad next to the door and, shit, that was the fastest route and they’re cut off.

[This part of the plan isn’t going so well], Shy groans. They’re blinking rapidly trying not to lose consciousness, and if the Raven goes, so does John, and that’s goodnight for the both of them.

He leans against the engraved wall and takes a few deep breaths. Okay, so that way’s shut off. There’s … there’s another. To the left, fifty feet, turn ‘round, a stairwell. Probably going to be full of Jaffa too. Awesome.

He cradles the Raven in one arm. They’re no longer strong enough to clutch to his shoulder on their own. They’re both starting to get tunnel vision, narrowing by the minute and darkening blurrily around the edges almost like they’re running out of oxygen. He’s pretty sure a rib is cracked.

They’re very possibly fucked.

But we’ve made it off tighter spots. Got out of that cell in Iraq no problem (a lie) – He runs, gasping for breath as they take the next bend and there’s no Jaffa (thank fuck) and he ruins that door’s control panel too. Buying time. Even if it might not matter.

Nine minutes.

Never should’ve come back to Earth. Worst idea. Fuck.

[Should use Rodney’s idea. Fire people.]

Close now. Down that hallway and the stairway shaft, completely vertical and John nearly falls into it. Struggles because he needs both hands free to climb without risking breaking his neck, and the ground is unsteady as another disturbance rocks the vessel. They’re trying to bring the engines online again without success. The Raven concentrates and digs their claws into skin and hold on, and he makes the descent.

And he’s just rounded the corner and there’s the door and one Jaffa’s guarding it, and he fires the zat, taking it by surprise, and it’s too easy; of course it’s too easy. He’s just about to crack open the final door when Everett appears.

The zat only nicked him earlier and he woke up quickly, maybe thanks to the faster healing powers caused by the Goa’uld. The man doesn’t look angry or upset or in pain or pleased at this chance of recapturing him. He doesn’t look … anything. The emotionlessness of his eyes is worse than any anger, and John wonders for a spaced second why the fuck the man hasn’t fired the handgun. It’s loaded and safety visibly off and he hasn’t shot once: the man has the chance: the Snake has the chance. If Everett’s come to, Ba’al probably has too, and – fuck. Should’ve shot at the guy twice. Or thrice. To make certain.

He aims the zat somewhat unsteadily at Everett. Something wet and a bit warm trickles over his lip, and it might be blood from his nose.

“Don’t make me shoot you, Colonel.”

Two Jaffa rush into view behind the Colonel. Staff weapons. Well. Fuck.

[… I could. Maybe.] a suggestion and he has a brief vision of a lot of blood and a startled scream as eyeballs are hacked out. Wow. Done that a lot recently. Those Wraith on M31-927 when they ran into Ronon – Ronon’s particle magnum – and they’ve done it a couple of times since on Wraith they’ve run into on other missions. Jaffa are closer to human and easier to kill.

If they don’t try something, they’re as good as dead anyway.

The Raven takes flight toward the Jaffa. There is no wolf to meet them. The flight isn’t agile and easy: each breath hurts, and they’d like to lie down and sleep sleep sleep and John fires the zat. Everett pulls the trigger, and John drops to one knee, and the bullet buries in the wall behind him. Shy ducks between raging fire from the staffs and they’re nearly hit and fuck it hurts.

“Colonel!” he shouts. “You’re still in there, you can stop this.”

“Dillion Everett is dead,” the Goa’uld says. Fires again. So capturing alive is no longer on the table. Ba’al must be really, really pissed off. Good.

It’s not the way anyone deserves to go: soul devoured and strangled by a Snake. John stops talking. It’s no use and his throat is parched and he’s too tired. With the last ounce of his strength, he launches himself at Everett. Not the best plan. A bullet grazes his side and John doesn’t stop and he aims the zat at Everett’s face, but the man is being controlled by a Goa’uld and not bleeding away, and his movements are sharp and swift, not sluggish like John’s. And that swiftness ends up saving them because the Raven has reached one of the Jaffa and the other tries to blow them away, and the dangerous dance causes them to fire their staff weapons in all vague directions and a stray blast tears through the air and into Everett’s back.

Everett shows, for the first time, emotion: surprise. Not pain as such, but pure disbelief at this turn of events, and John nearly collapses on the ground. He’s dizzy and possibly going to throw up, and they’re down to six minutes now. One of the Jaffa is howling and holding a hand to their bloodied face and the Raven spits the eye out onto the ground, and John tastes iron and copper on his tongue.

The Goa’uld stumbles. John fires the zat at the still injured Jaffa, and then at the other one, and then he drops the zat, his hands too tired to hold it and he need to lie down. He doesn’t. He stumbles, half-aware of the still screaming klaxons and the warnings shouted in Goa’uld, to Everett’s side where he’s fallen, and the man’s eyes are glazed with horrifying awareness.

“Colonel. Everett. Sir, sir, wake up,” John tries. has to try. has to. “Wake up, that’s an order.”

The eyes snap fully open and focus on him. The man lays a hand on his chest but that’s not where the injury is and John dimly realizes it’s possible the blast burned through flesh and muscle and sinew right onto bone and severed the spine.

“Major,” is a whisper then and, fuck, fuck the man’s aware of who he is and where and that might mean the Snake is dying. When Snakes die, they tend to release their poison to kill the host but not always. If it’s swift enough. Does it matter? Everett has lost his Dæmon. He’s not like John; he’s had his all of his life and doesn’t know how to properly breathe without them.

“Sir, you’re a marine, you’re a marine. Keep fighting.” John tries to make it an order, useless as it is. Everett’s eyes are bleak and starting to flutter wildly in search for something not there. The physical pain is merely an afterthought, and for a horrible second John recalls the crashed chopper and the dust and Lyle Holland crying out his Dæmon’s name.

Then, for a moment, focusing while John struggles to remain awake, Everett looks at him like at a ghost and his voice cracks. It shouldn’t. This isn’t the man John met and fought in Atlantis, those months ago: this isn’t the man, the marine so adamant and proud so strong and unhesitating, this isn’t the man. This isn’t the Colonel ordering his men to take the City, fearing the Goa’uld had overthrown it; 

“… Sheppard. Tell – my wife. and children.” Blood ice cold: he hadn’t known the man had family; “the truth.”

“Sir,” he repeats. The feigned comfort for the dying. “Hang in there.”

“I,” Everett chokes, and blinks like he has forgotten how to cry and now suddenly the impulse is fleeing through his system, a final escape. He becomes a little bit more coherent. “I’m sorry. I killed your father. I killed Lance Corporal Snow. I killed –”

Snow might be dead, no way to know now, but – “Colonel, my father’s still alive, and you need to stay alive too. You’re innocent. What the Goa’uld did, that wasn’t you, and you’ve got to testify, to show ‘em. Colonel, get up.”

And Everett moves swiftly, like only a trained marine would and he’s grabbed the gun before John can stop him and he doesn’t yank it out of his hands, merely aims it upward and the safety’s off, he left it off in case there are more Snakes aboard the ship they haven’t seen and Everett uses his right thumb to pull the trigger. The bullet enters below his eye-socket and at this close range explodes on the other side and John can’t even shout.

“No! No – shit, shit, shit –” No one else was meant to die. The Snake was dead, they could’ve gotten Everett out of here –

But his Dæmon was gone. He was a ghost. He was a ghost.

The ship is groaning and tilting. Almost a flashback: on Deserum, there had been an explosion and the building had collapsed. This ship is about to collapse too, klaxons screaming and a monotone voice repeating in the language of the Goa’uld, warning, warning, warning –

No time to save the bodies, and there are no dog tags as there would be to fallen soldiers. The man stopped wearing dog tags a long time ago. When he stopped being Colonel Dillion Everett and became the host of a Goa’uld. John takes the wedding ring from the man’s finger, an impulse, and pockets it – an illogical action, maybe. Doesn’t matter. Then he grabs the gun, a fallen staff weapon, and trembling stands up. Everything hurts. Everything hurts.

Four minutes.

He hopes it’s not too late.


Jenny can’t recall the sarcophagus clearly.

Only this bright light and a cold embrace of foreign steel and stone, and a beam of energy traversing through her body, and searing pain as she blinked in and out of consciousness. If asked, she’d have no words to describe it without feeling sick.

When she returns to herself, her Dæmon is curled up on her chest and it doesn’t hurt anymore. She isn’t bleeding. The wound if gone without a trace, and when she checks it later there’s no scar. She wants to throw up. She doesn’t. The lid has been pushed open, split down the middle, and there’s Dr McKay – no. John. He claims to be her cousin, sprung into this other man’s flesh and using his voice, and it shouldn’t make sense, but Jenny has had a very long, bad day. He’s got a weapon in his hand like the ones those people –

aliens –

had used, tall spears that aren’t spears. They’d spat light and energy. He is stressed and pale with blood splattered on his face and clothes and he grasps her arm, and her training kicks in and she tries to lash out. He clumsily blocks the blow aimed for his diaphragm with his arm like the move is strange and foreign and yet he knew to do it.

“Jenny! It’s me, it’s Sheppard. Look, I can’t explain but we’ve got to get out of here.”

“What’s going on?”

She sees now that there are two bodies on the floor. Those people (aliens. aliens.) in the mock-up Ancient Egyptian getup. They’re sprawled face-first onto the floor unmoving and there’s no sign of any Dæmon, and Jenny hauls herself over the edge of the stone box – whatever the hell it is – they’d put her in. Everything resonates wrongly. She clearly remembers being shot and the burn and the sensation of falling as blood trickled out of her and she lost consciousness. And then …

“Come on!”

He doesn’t try to touch her again albeit he might want to, might want to grab her wrist and rush them out of here. There’s blood on his hands and face and a motley collection of bruises beneath the pallid skin. Jenny stumbles for a second, she and her Dæmon struggling to find balance. She swallows harshly to keep down the bile from her mouth and manages to say: “Weapon.”

“Here,” the man – McKay – John? says, throwing something – not an alien weapon; a 9mil, familiar. Two bullets left in the magazine.

“What now?”

“We haul ass.” He sounds pained and breathless. “There’s – a Hangar.”

A growing noise. He is already crossing the room and peering through the open door into the corridor both ways. A hand raised, making an all clear-gesture. Military. He knows the language. Dr McKay wouldn’t, shouldn’t, know it. Then he breaks into a run. His Dæmon – Jenny doesn’t think she’d come up with a raven on her own volition – is clutched to his chest in a solid embrace and its wings bloodied, and for a moment she doubts if any memory is real and if this is some mind-game. A dream. Jenny and her Dæmon follow them.

As they take a left turn she catches up and glimpses blood on his throat, faint splatters from faraway. She doesn’t ask questions about it. She doesn’t ask questions about the three bodies outside, two of those alien warriors and a man who could have been a human soldier – a marine, somewhat familiar but this isn’t the time to linger on it.

“Got to hurry,” McKay gasps. “Overload’s in three minutes.”

They don’t run into anything living or dead for over a minute. Just running. McKay – John? – seems to know where they’re going. The hallway opens up, and then there are a pair of wider doors, and he fiddles with the controls for a few seconds. Just as they slide open to reveal a wider, darker room beyond – walls gray and not golden – there’s a voice.

“Colonel Sheppard.”

The announcement comes from behind them, and a blast of energy tears through the air and misses by a hair’s width. Jenny’s breath catches and she throws herself sideways, and McKay to the other, and he kneels behind a tilted pillar decorated with engraved hieroglyphs. He looks close to passing out. A distant part of Jenny’s mind realizes that this place could be what the temples of old in Egypt might have looked like thousands of years ago when the Pharaohs ruled and clad the walls in gold. There are even glowing fires placed at even intervals along the long stretch of corridor, like this were such a temple, and this is the path to the great tomb or a priestess’ lair.

At the other end of the hall is the man who’d taken them. The one with glowing eyes. They are cold and white and he’s no longer in the business suit from earlier, but flowing robes of red and gold. Jenny aims her weapon at him, as does John. That’s the man who kidnapped them, the one who John called an alien.

We didn’t hallucinate that, she thinks, blinking.

“There’s no escape, so you’d better give up.” The voice is oil and smooth silk and ice churning.

“Sorry, but I’d rather not. Not that you haven’t been a good host,” Dr McKay’s voice retorts sharply. His grip of the staff weapon is steady. “Thanks for the meal. Could’ve used better seasoning. We’re off now.”

“I don’t think so,” the Thing says. Thing, because this is no man. This is no human. It can’t be. It is far too distant and cold and there’s no Dæmon.

McKay – John – smirks. “This is our stop.”

The Thing takes a step forward, and Jenny pulls the trigger on instinct. The backlash is familiar and the Thing staggers as the bullet hits its chest and she fires again, at its head. It falls back with a heavy thud barely heard over the cacophony of other noise she cannot fully recognize. Eerie and alien. She wants to go home.

An exhale. “Nice shot.”

And a new explosion rocks the ship and Jenny is thrown backward, losing her balance, and so does John. A weight pushes at her and it could be Gs – she’s flown in cramped craft before and landed on carriers, coming to a sudden halt, she knows the sensations well enough to realize that that’s what just happened: something tugged at this vessel violently enough. To a halt? Or slowing down? It doesn’t matter.

In the few seconds that they’ve been disorientated by it, McKay is already pulling at her. Speaking hurriedly. He blinks several times and his hands are visibly unsteady. “Can you walk?”

“Yeah,” she gasps, breathlessly, staggering back to her feet. “Yeah.”

There’s a body on the other end of the corridor and her Dæmon thinks that was too easy; but they’re running again, running into the open space beyond and there’s a row of smaller craft there, parked alongside one another, their curve alien but their shape almost like a bent fighter jet. The shaking is getting worse, and she realizes that alongside the rumbling noise there’s another, persistent and repeating: an alarm. warning, warning, it shrieks and cries out in a harsh unknown language and they don’t stop in order to listen to it.

Hangar – lifeboats? do spaceships have those?


Everything is shaking, and John bites his tongue to keep himself awake and not be sick. There’s no time to count the seconds remaining: a minute? two? does it even matter? he didn’t think to calculate the explosion’s range. the point wasn’t to escape but to prevent the bastard’s sick plan. survival came second, in the end. they run. he’s dizzy and they cannot fly anymore. they run they run they run. the Hangar isn’t that huge and there’s a row of empty Death Gliders and they rush toward the nearest one;


The Zero Point Module reaches its vast limits and the energy within it breaches the confines. Glass shatters and implodes, and the energy source draws in on itself: a miniature black hole. It takes only a few moments for the process to finish and the place where the Module used to be is gone.

The explosion tears the Goa’uld ship apart from within. Hot compressed air pushes through the corridors and the hull breaks. Remaining Jaffa scramble in vain to hold onto something as the entire ship, section by rapid section, loses pressure and integrity and they are thrown out into the dark vastness of space, taken by its cold embrace. Energy that could have powered an Ancient shield for thousands of years, lent power to a City to fly, is expulsed and exhausted in a matter of seconds. Had the Zero Point Module been at full power and not already nearing maximum entropy, the devastation could easily have put a not merely a planet but a solar system to waste; eaten away a corner of a galaxy. Ten minutes and twenty-one seconds after the initial power surge, the explosion occurs. In vacuum no sound is heard, but the aftershocks make a ripple large enough to be picked up by anyone who is listening. Disturbed radio signals.

This signal travels outward at the speed of light and is nearly at once picked up by the lone Tau’ri ship slowly searching space, quadrant by quadrant, a job for which they are severely ill-equipped.  Spacetime is a construct of gravity and of forces beyond human senses, an everything happens all at once: time is an illusion: it is constraining. The Tau’ri chase the source: they will not reach it in time. It has already happened.

The System Lord’s body is trapped and cannot move; the flesh is beyond repair; the symbiote is dying. Yet it is not afraid. It has other means for its legacy to live on; the System Lord has ensured that.

The body is taken by the flames.

Chapter Text

xxiii.

rage

part one

trapped within and unable to be heard, Caitlin Todd is screaming.


NCIS Headquarters, Washington D.C. · Earth · The Milky Way 
February 18, 2006 (Terran time) · 144 days after the Uprising 


“Oh, hello, Jethro. I was just about to start cutting him open.”

Dr Mallard is outfitted with white surgical gloves and a plastic faceplate, and there are minute traces of blood and other bodily fluids on both. His tone is uncharacteristically subdued even if he tries to remain his normal uplifting self; but it is difficult in light of current events. The man on the slab is, technically, civilian, but they have been granted (after some argument with various other agencies and backed up by Homeworld Command a.k.a. Homeland Security) authority on this one to perform the autopsy; it’s connected to the current case, and everyone wants it solved as quickly as possible.

The Director’s disappearance has made everyone anxious. She has an important job to do and does not sit around her desk all day for nothing: she is meant to be there, in SatCom, leading ops, watching things over. Present. A constant, not unlike a law of nature. The gap left behind is huge and difficult to fill, and the other agents at HQ want answers and cannot be given the full truth as they aren’t read in on the SGC. Will not be. General Landry wants this contained, casualties limited. There’s already enough of a mess to clean up.

And Gibbs is not very fond of the guy who has temporarily stepped in in Jenny’s stead – Leon Vance is a good agent, sure, been with NCIS since before it was named that, and he is an all right Assistant Director but Gibbs doesn’t trust him the way he trusts Jenny. Vance is an unknown, albeit he has plenty of field experience, and knows to focus on both outside threats as well as looking inward. The Assistant Director has been brought up to speed by their SGC liaison and Gibbs had been there in the office, and heard the outrageous tone of voice when he asked is this a joke? – a lucid reaction to the ludicrous revelation of the Stargate Program.

But the shock, while not faded, has dulled, and they’re all at work trying to solve this case. Vance has been stuck in SatCom for hours, having satellite conferences with this agency and that, evading straight answers. Generals Landry and O’Neill have both joined in briefly to help; at least those two share little love with meddling agencies such as the FBI. Gibbs has an unanswered call from Tobias Fornell on his cell, probably wanting to get some answers from him, instead, this distrustful ally; it can wait. 

Mr Alexander Jamesson’s cause of death appears, at first glance, quite obvious – but Gibbs doesn’t believe in the obvious. There’s no such thing.

A few days ago there were many things he’d dismiss out of hand as being too preposterous and obviously lies. He’d be mildly amused when DiNozzo joked about such things, made an annoying movie reference – there’s always one to make. DiNozzo hasn’t made a movie reference within Gibbs’ earshot for hours. Any other time Gibbs might’ve found that relieving. But there are spaceships built in the desert of Nevada and hidden by the government for years, and aliens, extraterrestrial life, and Gibbs is an agent, he’s seen his fair share of bullshit and lies being tactfully spewed left and right in the name of this country or that, and he’s a marine and stoically trudged through it. He’d be happy never finding out about Stargates. He’s not taking it very well, and it’s only partly because this whole mess has led to Jenny being kidnapped and possibly dead. Possibly dead. 

The SGC has called the search off. Nothing left to search for, they’d said. Only empty wreckage, void of life; no bodies; nothing. That is enough to proclaim NCIS Director Jenny Sheppard and her cousin MIA, presumed KIA, and, if nothing new comes up, condolences are to be handed out to family and burials prepared for without caskets, and Gibbs’ blood burns. This cannot be true: it cannot be happening. Two days ago, this was just another case; then HQ was attacked, and he struggled watching the security tapes, disbelieving. Signed his name on the agreements, disbelieving. Captured an alien in the flesh of a man, disbelieving;

He’s lost people before. Agents, friends, fellow marines. Family.

Shannon.

Kelly.

He’s not sure he can stand losing Jenny too. It hasn’t sunk in yet. It will never sink in.

He doesn’t even want to imagine the storm coming: for NCIS to lose its Director, it’ll leave chaos in its wake; someone new will have to be reined in and appointed and read in on its secrets; cleared. A new boss. It’d been hard enough to deal when Jenny, only a few months ago, got the position. Though those reasons were for Gibbs personal and he’ll never forget Paris. To think she’s gone now; gone …

These thoughts pass him by as Gibbs enters Autopsy, clutching his fifth cup of coffee for today in his right hand. Ducky hasn’t called yet but he’s got a gut feeling and he needs a sitrep, and to get away from the plaza for a while. They have one man interrogation who has been identified as Eric Human, and the SGC have some of their people en route to assist with the questioning, despite Gibbs ill feelings about that. No one interferes with his interrogations. This man, according to the SGC, is not a man but the host of a Goa’uld, one familiar to them. They have a name – Ba’al. A history. This alien has attempted to attack Earth. He’s a murderer and a warlord and Gibbs knows that’s only the tip of the iceberg; Dr Jackson spoke very, very quickly, an abbreviated version of basically all of SGC’s history – what’s relevant to the case, anyway – until General Landry cut him off and said he’d better get on a jet to D.C. instead of lingering in the Mountain. So more civilians are coming to HQ, and Gibbs doesn’t look forward to playing host.

As for the other SGC personnel they’ve already met, they’re watching over their fellow marine. Snow was taken to hospital and the two AR-teams went with him, and Gibbs never questioned that. Lieutenant Drew has his number and texted when the first surgery was over with, a couple of hours ago, and everything seemed to turn out well. A relief. The marine didn’t end up in the morgue, and when he wakes up he should be coherent enough to tell what happened; for now, he sleeps. Gibbs will send McGee or Kate to get a statement later.

That’s not the current focus. Gibbs knows the marines will keep watch on the hospital and Snow should be out of harm; he doubts they’ll let anything happen to their fellow marine or let him out of sight. No, the focus is now on the two new bodies in Autopsy and their suspect upstairs. Human’s assistant and possible partner in crime, Mayfield, is dead; Kate took the shot. Resisting arrest: the gray zones which court both hates and loves, but Gibbs doesn’t think this case will ever reach court in the traditional sense of the word. The SGC must remain a secret from the public and if the suspects are all alien … Does the SGC have a place for things like that? Penal colonies on other planets or a storage at Area 51?

Kate is handling it better than he’d expected, and only briefly expressed regret that Mayfield wasn’t detailed alive but not out of emotion but for practical reasons. Interrogating someone who’s dead is something only Mallard can do. Her reasoning had been logical and somewhat detached, and it might be another way of coping with which Gibbs is all too familiar. It’s how he coped after Desert Storm. It’s how a lot of marines cope; and in reality they don’t, and far too few actually care; most of the government certainly don’t.

“What can you tell me, Ducky?”

“Well, it’s not fully conclusive, but let me show you what I’ve got.” Ducky puts down the surgical scalpel back on the metal tray and waves him over to the X-rays lined up on the wall against a backdrop of white light. Palmer patiently waits for the continuation of the autopsy. Gibbs looks at the images. It’s not terribly gruesome. He’s seen much worse. In fact, when they’d found Snow, the LC had seemed to be in hell of a lot worse shape. “A couple of hairline fractures – to the clavicle and here to the ulna. It matches the quite severe bruising. There’s signs of stress to the joins of especially the arms, not surprising given the position he was found in – he could have been left hanging there for days, poor man. And of course the skull; some depression from blunt force trauma. However I don’t believe it is what caused his death. It would have given him a concussion, possibly rendering him unconscious for some time.”

“Then what did?”

“That I’m still unsure of. I have to finish first before I give that verdict, Jethro. Oh! We found some fibers and a single strand of hair which had stuck in the blood on the head before it dried. I sent them up to Abby.” Dr Mallard hums on his breath. “I can tell you something with certainty, Jethro. This man did not die pleasantly.”

He snorts dryly. “Few of them do, doc. Few of them do.”


Just as they were starting to make sense of the puzzle, a whole shitload of new pieces were dumped on them in disarray. Tony’s looked at everything twice. So, LC Mitchell Snow is alive: good. A sort of happy ending, for once, albeit his injuries have to heal and Tony suspects the marine’s active career as a combatant might be over. The first body has been positively identified now as NID Agent Bradley White, his Dæmon masquerading as someone else’s. The second body, Mr Jamesson, was reported missing six weeks ago and now he’s on a slab in Autopsy, and there is Ms Mayfield, and they’ve also got a lot of dead Jaffa.

The SGC had sent Homeland Security – Homeworld Command, actually, according to General O’Neill, its de facto boss – to collect those. Rest of NCIS aren’t in on this, after all. They can’t explain so many bodies wearing golden armor and with alien larvae in their guts.

Once this is over, Tony would like a closer look at the Stargate and at Area 51, because, well, it’s got to be around. Later. Still getting used to it. But he’s an agent, damn it. He’s going to get through this without breaking down in hysterics over the impossibilities. He’s also never going to be able to watch Alien with the same eyes again, or Wormhole X-treme! for that matter, and it makes him kind of nostalgically sad.

“Tony, are you going to stop sighing dramatically?” McGee grumbles. “Five times in the past half hour.”

Nostalgically, Probie. It’s nostalgia for the innocent days … Which was just a day or so ago.” Huh. Two days ago, he didn’t know about aliens. Two days? Two days, two days since everything and nothing changed. His knowledge of the universe suddenly so much broader, yet the same kind of shit of everyday life going on. Same kind of people walking the street, only now he’s worried he’s got to watch out for parasitic aliens in their midst.

It’s too fucking much of a change, to be honest. Too violently much. Tony stretches his arms over his head and there’s a nice pop but the knot of tense muscle refuses to let go. They’ve been standing behind the one-way mirror for over an hour now, and Gibbs hasn’t gotten started yet. They’re letting Human simmer for a bit. Also, they’re waiting for the jet to land with SGC’s consultants or experts or whoever they are. Gibbs has gone down for a sitrep from Ducky and Abby, and Kate is – somewhere around. Excused herself to hit the head a little while ago, and she hadn’t insulted Tony’s mental age or intelligence when he’d poked fun at her as he usually does, which is a bit odd but Tony can’t quite put his finger on it.

She could be having an off day. They’re all having an off day, with aliens around, and Kate shot a suspect – in self-defense – a little less than eight hours ago. As far as Tony knows she didn’t go home to sleep. None of them did. They got some takeaway, and she barely touched it, but that’s kind of typical since she’s so concerned for her health and eating right and blah blah blah.

Eric Human – or Ba’al, the SGC calls the guy – sits there. He’s relaxed and smiling a little. It’s a disconcerting smile which Tony has seen displayed before both during his time as an agent and as a Baltimore cop. It’s the smile of the cold ones. The calm mass murderers proudly proclaiming their guilt. The ones who claim they’re innocent but definitely aren’t usually break down and cry a bit pathetically, and Tony hasn’t decided yet which kind is worse.

He hasn’t demanded a lawyer. He hadn’t asked about Mayfield or anyone else, no names. He’d met Gibbs stare when they’d brought him in, under guard and handcuffed, and only said: ‘I always liked a good murder mystery.’ Nice. Guy’s got a touch for theatrics. The SGC said that most Goa’uld do, but Tony has struggled to honestly believe anything said by them.

“And I didn’t know you’re counting,” Tony adds and McGee’s scowl deepens.

“No, I just – it’s irritating and you sound kind of moony.”

“‘Moony’?” Tony asks and chuckles, broad-mouthed. “As if.”

“You are, aren’t you? Actually, I don’t want to know,” McGee continues quickly. “That guy gives me the creeps.”

“Smooth change of subject and I’ll have you know if I was thinking of a woman I wouldn’t be sighing and be ‘moony’ because I’m a masculine guy who doesn’t moon.” 

McGee bites back a weary groan.

“And yet you have to keep defending yourself,” Kate’s voice joins them as the door opens and she returns. She walks stiffly and her back is straight and her face serious, and the statement is said like the words don’t quite fit on her tongue. Looks kind of tired. “Where’s Gibbs?”

“Still downstairs,” McGee says. “Should be back any minute.”

“And, yeah, he gave clear orders no one’s to talk with Mr Not-So-Human until he’s back,” Tony adds. He rocks back and forth on his heels and glances at her. “Tried to fix your makeup? That’s what took so long? Think you missed a spot.”

There’s a lot more poison in that glare than usual, which says a lot. Sometimes Tony does step over the line. It’s hard to help, and he’s not aware of it until it’s too late. Kate sometimes seems like she likes him okay, and sometimes like she will fulfill her promise to set him literately on fire. But their banter’s part of the charm. Isn’t it? She’d stupidly lingered at his side when he was suffering from the plague, and she’d been healthy and shouldn’t have risked it. Then Tony thought that, yeah, they’re really, really friends. At the start he’d been into her too but Gibbs put those rules in place for a reason and Do Not Date a Co-worker is an important one.

So, yeah, that didn’t work out. Kate didn’t express that interest seriously anyway and a few weeks down the line it’d just be extremely awkward. Doesn’t mean the flame is completely dead or that he doesn’t care. He does. Maybe he’s bad at showing it. He’s a man, he’s been raised as a man and as a DiNozzo; can’t escape that. He’s not like McGeek who talks Feelings from time to time without laughing it off as a bad joke. 

She doesn’t say anything. Just glares for a hot second and Tony could almost swear she was reaching for her sidearm. Then she ignores him completely and crosses the room to stand on the other side, next to McGee. Looks through the one-way mirror at the suspect.

“Had he said anything?” Kate’s question is directed at McGee.

Okay. Cold shoulder. Shouldn’t have said that. Right. He never truly learns. No wonder Gibbs keeps hitting him over the head constantly. Ugh.

McGee shakes his head. “Not since we brought him in.”

Mr Human’s description and photo matches: this is definitely the guy. The one the SGC has been looking for and everything. Tony had thought that a Goa’uld trying to esc