“For the last time,” Dave said, scrubbing his hand over his face, “I don’t know who would want to hurt my daughters. Yes, I have business competitors, but none of them would stoop to - this.”
This was black-clad men with machine guns bursting through the window, grabbing Anna and Clara and dragging them, screaming and terrified, into the night. No subtlety. Just force.
Kathleen sat beside Dave on the couch. The swirling police lights from outside were dizzying and distracting. A dozen uniformed officers and crime scene technicians were combing over the grounds and the girls’ rooms, which had been cordoned off with yellow tape. A young, pretty suit-clad detective and her partner stood over Dave and his wife, asking the same questions over and over again.
The police had showed up within ten minutes of Dave making the 911 call, but by then it was too late. He hadn’t seen any of the kidnappers’ faces, hadn’t seen anything written on their outfits, hadn’t seen any insignias on their guns or cars, hadn’t seen their license plates. Nothing. He and Kathleen had been awake all night, and they were exhausted. But they couldn’t sleep. Their children were gone.
The FBI was sending out a team who specialized in kidnapping cases. They’d had to call in all the staff - maid, cook, driver, gardener, nanny - to be interviewed by the police.
In the dawn’s early light, the broken glass was stark on the girls’ bedroom floors.
Kathleen hadn’t stopped crying since the police showed up, though she’d finally stopped saying my babies. It was all she’d been able to say, and now she wouldn’t say anything at all.
Detective Chandler had been very sympathetic; Detective Vargas had directed the crime scene techs like a drill sergeant. Both of them had been relentless. Dave felt squeezed dry - of every drop of information, of every tear, of every breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know anymore.”
Detective Chandler took a deep breath. “Mr. Sheppard, let’s try this from another angle -”
“There are no other angles!” Kathleen burst out.
Dave wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
Someone said from the foyer, “No, sir, you can’t come in here, this is a crime scene.”
Detective Chandler’s expression went steely, and she turned, ready to take control.
Detective Vargas glanced at her watch. “The FBI’s team is still about an hour out.”
“Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. I came as soon as I heard.”
Dave lifted his head, startled. “John?”
Detective Chandler eyed him. “Relation?”
“My brother.” Dave rose to his feet. He headed to the doorway, and there was John. In a black uniform that made Dave swallow hard. “What are you doing here? I thought you didn’t have leave for another three months.”
“I’m here to help,” John said.
Arrayed behind him were Ronon and two men and a woman Dave didn’t recognize. None of them wore uniforms. One man was soft in the middle, with thinning hair and intense blue eyes; he wore khakis and a grey and blue windbreaker. The woman wore slacks and a button-down blouse. The other man wore a familiar style of dark suit.
“The Air Force doesn’t handle kidnappings,” Dave said numbly. “Does it?”
The man in the dark suit pushed past John, fished in his jacket for a little leather wallet, unfolded it to display a gold shield with an unfamiliar insignia. “Agent Malcolm Barrett, NID. We’ll take over from here, Detective.”
Detective Chandler frowned. “NID? I’ve never heard of you. The FBI is coming. They have jurisdiction in kidnapping cases.”
“Not in this one,” Agent Barrett said. He called over his shoulder, “Let’s get set up.”
And a dozen suit-clad men and women tromped into the house, carrying black equipment cases.
“What the hell is going on?” Detective Vargas demanded.
Detective Chandler was already on her cell phone, making a phone call.
Dave watched helplessly as Agent Barrett’s people confiscated all the evidence the crime scene techs had collected and started herding them out of the house.
“John, what’s going on?”
“Like I said, we’re here to help,” John said.
“Since when does the military handle kidnappings?” Dave asked.
He glanced at Detective Chandler. She’d worn an angry, determined, righteous expression as she dialed, but whoever she was speaking to, whatever they said, made her go pale and nod.
“Yes. Yes, ma’am. I understand. Right away.” Detective Chandler pocketed her cell phone. “Tess, let’s go.”
“But Cat -”
“Orders,” she said.
Detective Vargas cast John and Agent Barrett a sharp look, but then she whistled shrilly, and the crime scene techs who’d been resisting the NID agents followed her out obediently.
As soon as the door was closed, Dave said, “John, what the hell is going on?”
“This isn’t about you,” John said. He scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked about as exhausted as Dave felt. “It’s about me.”
“You?” Dave echoed blankly. “But you aren’t involved in the company at all. Why -?”
“It’s not about the company,” John said. “It’s about my work.”
“Your classified work? Anna’s eight, Clara’s five!”
“They’re children, and they’re related to me. They’re - leverage.”
“Leverage for what?”
“That’s classified,” Agent Barrett said.
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Dave snapped. “These are my children we’re talking about.”
The dark-skinned woman who’d been standing behind John stepped forward. “Mr. Sheppard,” she said, “we understand that right now you and your wife are very distressed. We will do everything within our considerable power to find your daughters and return them unharmed.”
Kathleen tucked herself close to Dave’s side. “Who are you?”
“Right. Sorry.” John waved a hand vaguely. “Dave, Kathleen, this is Teyla Emmagan and Dr. Rodney McKay. You probably remember Ronon Dex. They’re my team.”
Team. Not unit or platoon or squadron. For what? Teyla didn’t look like a soldier, and neither did Dr. McKay. Dave had always known, in an abstract way, that John was a soldier. He had the uniform and the rank. But he didn’t look like a soldier, not with his hair as untameable as it always was, not even in that black potato sack of a uniform.
“Are you kidnap and hostage negotiators?” Kathleen asked.
Teyla hesitated. John said, “Teyla’s a fantastic negotiator. She’s gotten us out of some really sticky situations. And Rodney’s a genius. He’s useful for - all kinds of things.”
“Mrs. Sheppard,” Dr. McKay said, “when he last came to visit, John gave your girls little hemp bracelets. Handwoven by some of Teyla’s people. Was either of your girls wearing hers last night?”
Kathleen hadn’t liked the things, the way they looked so cheap and touristy, but Clara adored hers and refused to take it off, and eventually Kathleen had compromised and let Clara wear hers as an anklet where no one could see.
“Probably Clara. Why?”
“Excellent. We should be able to track her location.” Dr. McKay flipped open the laptop he’d had tucked against his side, balanced it on one forearm, and began to type with the other.
“You lo-jacked my kids?” Dave asked.
“The girls have tracking jewelry,” Kathleen said. “They know never to take it off.”
“And the people who took them will know to remove it,” Agent Barrett said. “The hemp bracelet, on the other hand, they will probably overlook.” He glanced at Dr. McKay. “Relay feed should be coming through any second.”
Dr. McKay made a distracted noise, nodded.
“What do we need to know for the ransom call?” Dave asked.
Agent Barrett shook his head. “You won’t be receiving one. This isn’t about money.”
Dave glanced at John. “What is it about, then?”
“The people who took your daughters want John to do something highly dangerous and treasonous in exchange for your daughters’ lives,” Dr. McKay said.
“Rodney,” John said, voice low and warning.
“That was rather indelicate,” Teyla added, her tone a touch gentler than John’s.
Dr. McKay typed rapidly even one-handed. “Best to tell them the truth.”
“What is it they want you to do?” Dave asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Dr. McKay said, “because we’re going to get them back.”
The other agents were setting up laptops and additional screens, and yet more agents had been dispatched to patrol the perimeter. There was some shouting, and then another man - tall, muscular, blue-eyed, bespectacled - shouldered his way into the house.
“Dr. Jackson,” Agent Barrett said, “what are you -?”
“The house staff has arrived. I was informed that Colonel Sheppard’s case would need translation services,” Dr. Jackson said. He stood just beyond a human barricade of agents, hands raised in surrender, expression irritated.
Agent Barrett nodded, signaled for the junior agents to let Dr. Jackson through. He strode toward Dr. McKay, pushing his glasses up his nose as he went.
“Daniel. Funny how we always see each other when a kidnapping is involved,” Dr. McKay said.
“Not my fault we got kidnapped last time,” Dr. Jackson said easily.
Dave blinked. How could they sound so blase about being kidnapped? What the hell kind of classified work was John doing?
Teyla stepped in. “Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard, this is Dr. Daniel Jackson, a renowned linguist and translator. He is also very skilled at negotiation.”
Dr. Jackson turned to them, his expression immediately sobering. “We will do everything we can to get your daughters back.” He looked at John. “Is there a room I can use? To do staff interviews.”
John looked at Kathleen, who suggested one of the smaller sitting rooms on the first floor.
Dr. Jackson thanked her and summoned a junior agent, and Dave saw Hector the driver step in from the kitchen. Daniel beckoned to him, already speaking rapid-fire Spanish, and they vanished into the other room.
John went to peer over Dr. McKay’s shoulder at the laptop he was still typing on. “What have you got?”
“I’m trying to triangulate a narrow search radius before I activate the tracker. The half-life of the tracker is pretty brief, so I want us to be looking in the right place before I trigger it.” John put his hands on Dr. McKay’s shoulders and steered him over to a chair, pushed him down into it gently.
Dr. McKay didn’t protest the manhandling, just sat down, rested his laptop on his knees, and kept typing.
“What do you mean, trigger? Half-life?” Dave asked, following them.
“We couldn’t build a full-time transponder into such a simple piece of jewelry,” Dr. McKay said. “One, any kidnappers with sophisticated-enough technology would detect the signal. Two, that kind of transponder would require a more complicated piece of jewelry. The tracking device is a non-harmful radioactive isotope of a rare element that will show up on a tracker I designed. A single burst from a satellite and I can trigger the isotope to break down. It’ll emit a strong and unique signature for only a few seconds, and the kidnappers won’t notice it on any of their scanners if they have any. Also they won’t be able to shield against it.”
“Satellite should be in position in the next ten minutes,” one of the anonymous agents said.
“How do you know that?” Kathleen asked.
“I designed the system myself,” Dr. McKay said. “So unless they can read my mind, they have no access to the plans.”
“Apparently they’re aware of John’s classified work,” Dave said.
Dr. McKay frowned. “Well, yes, but only broadly. I’d know if someone had hacked my personal laptop.” And he kept typing away. “I never thought I’d say this, but it would be handy if Zelenka were here.”
“Why?” John leaned in to peer at Rodney’s laptop again.
“Remember the time Jackson and I were kidnapped?”
“Zelenka used combinatorics to track us to our location.”
“Right. The work of Lazslo Babai. So?”
“So I might be able to use combinatorics to narrow down possible locations.”
Dave said, “John got his masters in - what was it, combinatorial topology?”
Dr. McKay’s hands stilled. “What?”
“Yes, topological combinatorics,” John said. He eyed Dave, surprised and something else Dave couldn’t read but that made his chest tighten.
As if Dave wouldn’t have known what John had achieved in school. It sounded a lot more impressive than a JD MBA, though Dave had no idea how the Air Force would find that degree useful, especially since John was a chopper pilot.
“You have your masters?” Dr. McKay demanded.
“Need a masters or its equivalent to make major,” John said.
“I know you said you were almost in MENSA, but -”
“What do you need, Rodney? I can run the calculations since Zelenka’s not here.”
Dr. McKay was pale and perplexed, but finally he said, “Fine. Get a paper and a pencil.”
John straightened up, caught Kathleen’s eye, and she showed him into the study for writing supplies.
As soon as John was out of earshot, Dr. McKay glanced up at Teyla and Ronon. “Did you know John has his masters?”
“John has never spoken to me about his schooling,” Teyla said.
Ronon shrugged. “He said he went to a place called Stanford, but his dad wanted him to go Harvard.”
“Stanford?” Dr. McKay echoed.
“He went there for undergrad,” Dave said. “Went to CalTech for grad school.”
Dr. McKay looked poleaxed.
John and Kathleen returned, and John knelt beside Dr. McKay, pen and paper in hand. That was the John Dave knew and remembered from childhood. John had always been so bookish, more interested in numbers than in people. Between the name and reputation he’d inherited from their father and the good looks he’d inherited from their mother, he’d seemed charming and sociable enough, but Dave knew John much preferred an intellectual challenge over talking to people.
When he’d first seen what it entailed to be a pilot, he hadn’t been surprised it was what John wanted. John liked speed and complications. Flying was perfect for him.
Dad had never seen it that way.
Dave sank down on the couch and buried his face in his hands. He’d had friends whose children had been kidnapped, and they’d never talked about the experience, just issued some suggestions, like tracking jewelry for the kids. Dave had seen kidnap scenarios on television shows before, and none of them were like this, with agents from some obscure federal alphabet soup agency taking over the house while military personnel and civilian contractors did high-level math in the living room.
Dave hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he smelled coffee and jolted awake.
Ronon stood in front of him, carrying a tea tray laden with coffee mugs. “You want one?”
Dr. McKay was sipping from a mug, as were John and many of the other agents in the room.
“Thanks,” Dave said.
Teyla eyed Ronon. “Who taught you how to make coffee?”
“Major Lorne. He says in an emergency, when guns aren’t helpful, the next best thing is coffee and food.” Ronon shrugged.
Dr. Jackson swept out of the kitchen, made a beeline for Ronon, and drained an entire mug of coffee in several swallows. “Staff are clear. None of them had been approached by strangers or bribed or anything. Hector recalled seeing a black SUV driving past him as he drove away last night, but he didn’t think anything of it. Could be a coincidence.”
And then Dr. McKay said, “Got it!”
“A location?” Ronon set the tray aside and spun around, crossed the room to be at Dr. McKay’s side in a few quick strides.
“A narrow search radius. Luckily for us, they didn’t use planes or trains or any other higher forms of transport technology.”
Dave was on his feet in an instant, Kathleen by his side. Teyla obligingly nudged Ronon backward so Dave and Kathleen could see Dr. McKay’s laptop screen.
Dr. McKay typed several commands into a program Dave didn’t recognize - was he violating some kind of NDA letting Dave and his wife see this? - and then a map appeared on the screen.
“Barrett, you ready?”
“Ready to receive telemetry.” Agent Barrett was standing behind a bank of laptops operated by several junior agents.
Dr. McKay pressed a button, and a red dot appeared on the screen for just a second.
“Got it!” Agent Barrett said, “Zoom in and lock.”
The junior agents typed madly, and then Agent Barrett said, “Sent coordinates to your PDA, McKay.”
Dr. McKay closed his laptop and rose up. “Let’s go.”
Dave frowned, because where did he think he was going? But John nodded and straightened up as well, set the notepad and pen down on the coffee table.
“All right, move out,” John said. Ronon and Teyla headed for the door immediately.
“You still need me?” Dr. Jackson asked.
John nodded. “Yes. Let’s go.”
Dave stood up. “I’m coming with you.”
John, who’d started for the door, paused. “What? No. Stay here with Kathleen. I -”
“I’m coming with you.” Dave caught John’s gaze and held it.
John studied him for a long moment. “Fine. But you stay in the van and you stay out of the way.”
Dave nodded. He kissed Kathleen, then went to find his jacket and shoes.
There were several black vans parked on the driveway. Dave scanned them and saw Dr. Jackson climbing into one, so he followed. Dr. McKay had his laptop open on his lap, sitting at the far end of one of the benches in back. Two agents were up front, one driving, one navigating.
“It should only be a few minutes before I’m patched into the building’s security feed,” Dr. McKay said.
“Only a few minutes?” Teyla asked. “Does this not seem...too easy to you?”
“Of course it’s too easy,” Dr. McKay said, “but look where we are.”
That made no sense to Dave, but John and Dr. Jackson wore considering expressions, and then they nodded as if that made perfect sense.
Dave stared as John pulled on a black vest with bulging pockets. He checked in one pocket and fished out a tiny black wire that he tucked against his left ear - a radio. Teyla and Ronon were doing the same, putting on black vests. Ronon, as large and intimidating as he was, looked perfectly normal with the vest.
Teyla looked calm and serene as she checked her pockets as well. Even if she wasn’t part of the US Armed Forces, she was a soldier of some sort.
For the first time, John looked dangerous. Frighteningly competent as he dragged a pistol out from under the seat, checked it, loaded a magazine into it, and then strapped it to his thigh. And then he picked up a machine gun and checked it too, slammed a magazine into it with an ominous click and clipped it to his vest. He strapped a knife to his waist as well, and tucked more magazines into his pockets. He swapped out a cereal bar from one pocket and tucked a little gray block of explosives into it instead.
Dave had always known John was a soldier, but -
“Testing,” John said.
“Copy that,” Teyla said.
“Copy,” Ronon added.
“Is it just the three of you?” Dave asked.
John glanced at him, surprised, as if just remembering he was there. “I’m lead, but NID agents will be backing us up. Rodney?”
“Pulling up the building specs. Their IT security guy isn’t completely incompetent, so it’s taking a little longer than I expected.” Dr. McKay took a deep breath. He had a radio at his ear as well. Then he glanced at John. “You never told me you got your masters.”
“I thought it was implied in the Major part when we first met.”
“I’m Canadian, and a civilian. Why would I know something like that?”
“You’re a genius.”
“Not at trivia.”
Dave glanced at Teyla and Ronon and Dr. Jackson, but they seemed completely unfazed by the tension between John and Dr. McKay.
Dr. McKay added, sounding sulky, “You never told me you had a brother.”
“You never told me you had a sister till right before she was going to arrive,” John shot back.
“You never told me you were smart.”
“You call everyone stupid, even people who are actually smart, like Zelenka. And I kick your ass at chess. That has to count for something.”
“John’s always kicked everyone’s ass at chess,” Dave offered.
Dr. McKay blinked at him. Then his expression lit up. “You probably know all kinds of embarrassing things about John. Share!”
“Now is not the time,” John said. “Do you have building specs or what?”
“There’s no better time,” Dr. McKay protested, and then added, “Yes. Building specs uploaded to the LSD.”
John fished a little pale handheld device from one of his massive pockets and switched it on. “Okay.”
“And I’m patched into the security feed. Smartest man in two galaxies.”
Dave blinked at him. “Why two galaxies?”
Dr. Jackson cleared his throat pointedly.
“Oh. It’s just - better than an entire planet, but not so egotistical as the entire universe.” Dr. McKay hunched his shoulders, and then audio spilled from his laptop. “Of course their security system has mics. That’s not at all creepy.”
Dave frowned. “That’s not a language I recognize. Is it Middle Eastern? Did terrorists take my little girls?” He scooted closer to Dr. McKay.
Dr. Jackson’s expression was grim. “Few people would recognize this language. It’s a very obscure dialect.”
“What are they saying?” Teyla asked.
Dr. Jackson’s brow furrowed. “The leader of the operation is code-named Artemis. The girls are safe and unharmed for now, but they’re refusing food and water - probably from anti-kidnapping training. They think anything offered to them is drugged.”
“Smart girls,” Ronon said.
“They want to make sure the girls have what they want before they reach out to Sheppard,” Jackson continued, listening intently.
“What could my girls possibly have that these people want?” Dave asked. His throat closed. Would the kidnappers hurt Anna and Clara if they didn’t have what they wanted?
John reached into his pocket, fished out a silver ball, lobbed it across the van. Dr. Jackson caught it, and it lit up. He tossed it to Ronon, and it winked out. Ronon tossed it to Teyla, and it remained dim. Teyla tossed it to Dr. McKay, who fumbled it and almost dropped it, but it lit up.
He rolled his eyes. “So mature. Thank you.” And he handed it to Dave.
It remained lit on his palm, was warm and - buzzing. Not against his skin but in his head.
“The girls probably have what they want,” John said.
“What is it?” Dave asked.
“Good luck charm,” John said at the same time as Dr. McKay said, “Night light,” and Dr. Jackson said, “Distress beacon.”
Dave blinked at them, then handed the ball to Dr. Jackson, who gave it back to John.
Dr. McKay narrowed his eyes at Dr. Jackson. “Since when do you -?”
“Merlin,” Dr. Jackson said, which made no sense, but Dr. McKay accepted the explanation as if it made perfect sense.
“ETA in twenty minutes, Colonel,” one of the agents up front said.
John nodded. “Copy that.” He was studying the building specs on his little handheld device, flicking his fingertips over it with the same casual ease he played video games. “What have we got, Rodney?”
“The kidnappers are holing up in a steel mill on the far side of the city,” Dr. McKay said. “Survey says -” his hands flew across the keyboard some more - “that it has been operating for a long time, but recently, it changed hands in a series of transactions and is now owned by a subsidiary of a shell corporation of another subsidiary belonging to a member of The Trust. Surprise, surprise.”
“Who’s The Trust?” Dave asked.
“That’s classified,” Dr. Jackson said mildly.
“It’s a smart option,” John said. “They have, what, a dozen guys? That means food and supplies and lots of people moving in and out. No one will blink twice at a couple of extra vans or trucks showing up at the factory.” He slid closer to Dr. McKay, shoulders touching, and peered at the screen.
Teyla and Ronon knelt on the other side of Dr. McKay to look at his laptop.
“Those guys right there - they’re additional security.” Ronon pointed.
“Are all of these people involved in the kidnapping?” Teyla asked.
Dr. McKay tapped away at the keyboard. “No. It’s an operating steel mill. Most of the people are regular employees, probably have no idea what’s going on.”
John sighed. “Most of the people are extra hostages, you mean. Where are the girls?”
“Best as I can tell, here.” Dr. McKay pointed.
Dave scrambled across the van to see what Rodney was indicating. A massive steel shipping container.
“Shipping containers make great portable cells,” John said. “Also no one would be suspicious of them coming in and out. Can you see inside?”
Dr. McKay entered a command, and a new window popped up. Dave’s heart crawled into his throat. Anna and Clara were huddled inside the container with bottles of water and nothing else, cuddled close together, wearing their nightdresses. They looked generally unharmed, but they’d been crying.
“Good,” John said. “They’re not hurt. Look like they’re mobile, can assist in their own escape if necessary.”
The frank, unemotional tactical assessment made Dave want to slap his brother across the face, but he was sure John had to distance himself emotionally, to get the job done.
“They’re barefoot,” Ronon pointed out.
“You can carry both of them without breaking a sweat,” John said, and Ronon conceded the point with a nod.
The agents stopped the van a couple of blocks away from the factory. Dave wanted to ask a question, but John ducked his head, pressed one hand to his radio. Then he nodded and straightened up, and the back doors opened. Agent Barrett climbed into the van.
“What’s your strategy, Colonel?”
“We can’t go in hard,” John said. “As soon as they see us coming, they’ll leverage the other employees and the girls. We need a distraction.”
“Don’t say an explosion,” Dr. Jackson said.
Dr. McKay lifted his head. “I wasn’t going to say an explosion.”
But John’s expression was thoughtful. “Rodney, what’s the average response time for the local fire department?”
Dr. McKay typed some more. “About five minutes.”
“Excellent. Barrett, can you spare a couple of agents for some undercover work?”
John beckoned Agent Barrett closer, and he outlined his plan. Everyone offered suggestions, including Dr. Jackson. Dave watched John and his team work, the way they could communicate with the barest glances and shifts in facial expression, and finally the plan was in place.
“Dave,” John said, “you stay here with Jackson and Rodney. Do not move. Do not follow. Let us handle this, clear?”
Dr. McKay cleared his throat. “You can sit with me, if you like. And watch everything happen. It’ll be like an action movie.” His tentative smile wasn’t comforting.
Agent Barrett checked his gun, then ducked out of the van. John, Teyla, Ronon, and the two drivers followed.
Dave moved to sit beside Dr. McKay. Dr. Jackson sat on the other side of him.
“What kind of doctor are you, exactly?” he asked.
“I have PhDs in physics and engineering,” Dr. McKay said.
“I have PhDs in archaeology, anthropology, and philology.” Dr. Jackson reached under the seat, drew out a box, opened it, and armed himself with a pistol with a casual competence that Dave had not expected from the man. At all.
“Three?” Dr. McKay echoed. “You have three?”
Dr. Jackson shrugged, strapped the pistol to his thigh just like John had. “A lot of the courses for anthropology and archaeology crossed over.”
“And you work for the Air Force?” Dave asked.
Dr. Jackson nodded. “Yep. Been doing it for - oh, well, I first contracted with them back in ‘94, took a bit of a sabbatical to get married, but...fifteen years now.”
“A sabbatical to get married?” Dr. McKay asked. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“I was married and my work for the Air Force was on hold,” Dr. Jackson said. “That’s why I get paid more than you, by the way. Seniority. Sheer dint of time served. You started, what in ‘01?”
“Rub it in, why don’t you,” Dr. McKay muttered. Then he paused, ducked his head, pressed one hand to his little ear radio. “I copy. OSHA? They’ll love that.”
“What’s happening?” Dave asked.
Dr. McKay tapped several keys so there were four windows on the screen, one with the feed on Dave’s daughters in the shipping container, one on the back door, which was being guarded by a bored-looking young man in a polo shirt and dark slacks, one on a shipping bay where several semi trucks were sitting idle, and one on the front door where a man and a woman, both of whom Dave recognized as some of Agent Barrett’s people, were heading up to the desk.
They both carried briefcases, and with their dark suits they looked official.
“Pull up the audio,” Dr. Jackson said.
Dr. McKay pressed a button, and sound erupted from the laptop.
“Agents Donovan and Ramirez, from OSHA. Here to do a surprise inspection.”
The young woman at the reception desk looked flustered. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Nope. Surprise,” Agent Ramirez drawled and cast her partner an amused look.
“Let me call Mr. Jostein’s office.” The receptionist fumbled for the phone. “Yes, Tiffany, it’s Marla in reception. I have two OSHA agents here doing a surprise inspection. No, they don’t have an appointment. It’s a surprise inspection.” The receptionist nodded frantically, hung up, and pasted a strained smile on her face. “Someone will be out to escort you to Mr. Jostein’s office in just a moment.”
“Looks like the ruse is working,” Dr. McKay said.
Dave, Dr. McKay, and Dr. Jackson all watched intently as another young woman led the two NID agents into the back of the factory, across the factory floor - both of them paused to put on hard-hats - and into a bank of offices in the back, up a staircase, and to a fancy corner office.
“There!” Dave pointed. “They just passed the container where my girls are! Why aren’t they going to get my girls?”
“They’re the distraction,” Dr. Jackson said.
The receptionist, Tiffany, apologized and told the two NID agents that Mr. Jostein, the CEO, wasn’t there, but the shift manager would be summoned from his meeting as soon as possible. She told them to make themselves comfortable and then hurried for the door. Agent Ramirez called after her, reminded her to put on a hard-hat, and Agent Donovan ostentatiously made a note on a clipboard.
Tiffany fumbled with the hard hat and hurried away.
“Now what?” Dave asked.
“Now we wait.” Dr. McKay clicked rapidly, following the assistant from screen to screen - and camera to camera, Dave realized. “All right. Triggering the fire alarm now and releasing that steam valve there. Sending an alert to the fire department.”
Agents Ramirez and Donovan flinched when the fire alarms went off.
“It’s about to get sticky,” Dr. Jackson observed.
“Five minutes, mark,” Dr. McKay said. “A fire truck has been dispatched. So far so good - no security to Jostein’s office. Tiffany the minion is looking for the shift manager. People are being evacuated out front. Excellent.”
“Why is that excellent?” Dave asked.
“Fewer hostages.” Dr. Jackson narrowed his eyes critically, watching the action on the screen.
Dave heard sirens in the distance, approaching fast, and then a fire truck roared past, sirens and horn blaring.
“Four minutes,” Dr. McKay said. “That’s a departmental record. Ramirez, Donovan, you are clear to head to the back door in ninety seconds.”
Both of them nodded - they must have been wearing radios somehow, too - and Ramirez took up position at the door, a pistol in hand, while Donovan peered out the windows.
The guards near the shipping container didn’t completely abandon their position, but they angled themselves toward the commotion and the evacuation on the other side.
One of them tipped his head down, hand pressed to his ear just like John with his radio, and Dr. Jackson said, “Can you patch us into that?”
Dr. McKay bit his lip and typed rapidly. “Give me just a moment - there!”
The language on the radio was the same unidentified one as before. Dr. Jackson’s eyes went wide.
“All those guards are wearing hats, aren’t they?” he said.
Dave nodded. “Yeah, why?”
Dr. Jackson tapped his radio. “Sheppard, the guards - they’re Jaffa. We didn’t notice because of the hats, but Artemis is issuing orders in her native tongue.”
“What are Jaffa?” Dave asked.
“Special elite mercenaries from the, er, chief kidnapper’s homeland,” Dr. Jackson said. “Tough as nails.”
“Ramirez, Donovan, go!” Dr. McKay hissed.
On the screen, Ramirez and Donovan moved down the stairs. They must have been quiet, because between the fire alarms and the chaos of the evacuation, the guards didn’t notice them.
Dr. McKay toggled another window to enlarge, and there - the back door with the bored guard.
He had stood up, craned his neck to peer into the window at the fire alarm.
There was a flash of red, and he dropped.
Dave’s throat closed. Was he dead? There was no blood, but someone had shot him. Someone -
And there was John, on screen, with an assault rifle in hand. He had a hand on the door knob and another hand on his gun, and then the door opened, and Ramirez was beckoning him inside.
Dr. McKay toggled to another window, and people were still streaming out of the front. He toggled back, and together the three of them watched as John led Teyla, Ronon, and half a dozen more agents in the back door. John stayed in the front, moved low, and it was kind of like an action movie, only -
Gunfire was so much louder in real life. John rose up, fired, and all of the guards near the shipping container went down.
It wasn’t like an action movie at all. There was so much blood. And there were screams. And John - he didn’t even hesitate, strode past the guards and over their bodies to the shipping container. Ronon followed on his heels. He shot every single guard he passed, but not with a regular gun, with something that flared red.
Dr. Jackson said, “Hey, can you patch me into their comms system?”
“The enemy comm system?” Dr. McKay raised his eyebrows.
Dr. Jackson nodded.
“Sure, but why?”
Dr. Jackson reached into his pocket and drew out a device, clipped it to his collar. “Just go with me on this.”
Dr. McKay typed rapidly. “Is this going to be like the time you got struck by radiation? Because I’ve forgotten what I was planning on saying to you when I thought you were dying the first time.”
“I’ve died so many times that people’s sentimental goodbyes are meaningless,” Dr. Jackson said easily, and Dave could not fathom the man’s humor in this situation or any other. “Am I patched?”
“You are patched.”
“What are you going to do?” Dave asked.
Dr. Jackson tapped the device on his collar and began to speak in the same language they’d heard the guards speaking. Only his voice came out deep and resonant and -
“What the hell?” Dave recoiled sharply.
But on the screen, the guards paused, looked confused.
Dr. Jackson signaled to Dr. McKay, who pressed a few keys, and then Dr. Jackson turned off the device on his collar and unclipped it, pocketed it once more.
“That should buy us a few minutes.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Gave them conflicting orders. They’re tough, but they’re not always the brightest.” Dr. Jackson smiled grimly.
“Where are my girls?” Dave demanded.
Dr. McKay toggled through several screens - but the shipping container was gone.
“Where are they?” Dave grabbed Dr. McKay’s shoulder to try to tug him aside so he could grab the laptop.
Dr. McKay shook him off. “It’s part of the plan. The container was loaded onto a semi being driven by some of Agent Barrett’s people. We will rendezvous with the container in -”
Something exploded outside the van.
Dr. Jackson hit the floor and dragged Dave with him. Dr. McKay dove for the floor, laptop cradled protectively in his hands.
“John, we’re under attack!” Dr. McKay shouted.
Dr. Jackson grabbed the laptop and thrust it at Dave, gave Dave his radio. “Keep an eye out on the teams. Rodney, cover me.”
“What?” Dr. McKay protested, but Dr. Jackson crawled for the front of the van, pistol in hand.
To Dave’s vast surprise, Dr. McKay fumbled a pistol out from under one of the benches, checked that it was loaded, and followed Dr. Jackson to the front.
“I’ll drive, you fire,” Dr. Jackson said.
“You’re a better shot than me,” Dr. McKay protested. “Let me drive.”
“You cannot fire and drive,” Dr. Jackson said. “I can do both in a pinch. Now cover me, dammit! Keep your head down, Sheppard Junior.”
Dave ducked his head as gunfire exploded outside the van. He tucked the radio into his ear and was instantly overwhelmed by chatter.
“Teyla, Ronon, cover my six!”
“They have concussion grenades.”
“Sir, on your three -”
There was an explosion, shouts of alarm.
More chatter erupted from the laptop, a woman shouting with the same resonant voice Dr. Jackson had had with that device on his collar. Some kind of voice modulator to disguise her identity?
“Find them! We need those children alive!”
“But what about John Sheppard?”
“I want him alive as well.”
“But Goddess, John Sheppard’s brother is a vulnerable target -”
“I want John Sheppard and I want him now!”
“I got him.”
There was a burst of gunfire, and then John shouted, “Fall back, fall back!”
Dave toggled through the different windows frantically, but he couldn’t see John or his team or Agent Barrett or his daughters.
Gunfire exploded from inside the van.
“Did you get him?” Dr. Jackson asked, wrenched the wheel. Dave was tossed against one of the benches. Tires squealed.
“I don’t know. He’s not following us anymore.”
Gunfire exploded outside the van.
“You didn’t get him,” Dr. Jackson grumbled, and there was more gunfire.
“If you can shoot and drive, why do you need me?” Dr. McKay protested.
“To cover the other side, Rod.”
“Bite me, Danny.”
“Johnny might have something to say about that.”
“Can we not bicker while people are shooting at us?”
“Let me try and shake them.”
“Shake them faster.”
“I’m an archaeologist, not a stunt driver.”
“Do not quote Star Trek at me!”
Before Dave could yell at the both of them for being terribly unprofessional at the worst moment ever, John’s voice erupted over the comms.
“Rodney, sending you coordinates for the semi. Rendezvous ASAP.”
“John, where are my girls?”
“Rodney, why the hell is Dave on the comms?”
“Did you miss the part where we were being shot at? Jackson’s driving.”
“Driving and shooting right now, Colonel. Bit busy.”
“Rodney, can you get the coordinates?”
“Yes, I have them. Navigating for Jackson now.”
“See you there.”
The laptop was pointless now that no one was at the factory anymore. Dave closed it and set it aside.
“Was this part of the plan?” he asked.
“Getting shot at is never part of the plan,” Dr. McKay said.
“The plan never goes to plan,” Dr. Jackson added.
“Take the next left.” Dr. McKay pointed. He’d laid his pistol on his lap and was consulting a pale, hand-held device, like the one John had used.
“So is the shooting done?” Dave dared to peek up between the seats.
“I shook them.” Dr. Jackson drove one-handed, kept the other hand on his pistol even though it was holstered at his thigh.
“What kind of archaeologist are you, Indiana Jones?” Dave gazed out the front windshield.
Dr. Jackson spluttered, and Dr. McKay laughed, and Dr. Jackson snapped, “Don’t get me started on Doc Brown in Back to the Future.”
It was Dr. McKay’s turn to splutter, but then he was barking directions and Dr. Jackson was jerking the wheel and they were off the road and bouncing along a dirt path and there, in front of them, was the semi. It was racing across the flatland, kicking up dirt and rocks and grass in its wake. Multiple black vans were following it, more than Dave thought had been brought along by Agent Barrett.
The chatter in his radio was incomprehensible, and he tore it off, cast it aside.
Dr. McKay ducked his head, pressed a hand to his radio, and then he nodded. “Jackson, now!”
Dr. Jackson swung the wheel a hard left, and Dave saw, like some kind of madcap synchronized swimming maneuver, how all the black vans circled the semi. It screeched to a halt, dust flying.
Two of the vans opened, and those black-clad soldiers spilled out, the ones Dr. Jackson had called Jaffa. Dave was baffled at how they were from anyone’s homeland, as some were black, some were white, some were Asian, a couple even looked Native American. But they moved as one, armed with machine guns and circling the semi.
They barked out in the same language Dr. Jackson had used to trick them, but none of them were using voice modulators.
“Where are my girls?” Dave demanded, but both doctors ignored him. Dr. Jackson had his pistol at the ready, and Dr. McKay was watching, wide-eyed.
Dave’s heart crawled into his throat when the semi’s cab doors swung open and two black-suited agents hopped out, hands raised in surrender.
“No. No! Anna! Clara!”
Dr. Jackson whipped around and clamped a hand over his mouth, and then -
The other vans opened up and NID agents and soldiers spilled out, weapons blazing.
Literally blazing, because no one was using assault rifles. Ronon was wielding something that looked like a pirate blunderbuss but shot pulses of red light, like the red light that had felled that first guard at the warehouse. John had what looked like a supersoaker but was firing yellow shots, and everyone else had little z-shaped metal things that were disturbingly phallic and emitted bursts of blue-white light.
And the enemy soldiers, the Jaffa, they all fell to the ground.
John and several soldiers stood over them. Ronon nudged one of them with his toe.
Dr. McKay lifted a hand to his radio once more, nodded, and opened the van door.
Dave took that as his cue and burst out of the van, tore across the grass, and hoisted himself up onto the back of the semi. He wrenched the container open - and stared.
It was empty. No water bottles. No trace of little girls. No nothing.
His heart stopped. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breath. His girls, his daughters. They were gone.
And then he heard voices he thought he’d never hear again.
“Uncle John! Uncle John, we were so scared!”
“Where’s Mommy and Daddy?”
Dave stumbled out of the container and back onto the grass and saw -
John, kneeling beside the fallen Jaffa, clutching Anna and Clara tightly. They clung to him, sobbing. He rubbed a hand up and down Anna’s back soothingly, pressed a kiss to Clara’s hair, and Dave slowed.
He’d never seen John look so terrified and so relieved all at once.
“I apologize,” Teyla said. “They would not remain in the van once Agent Ramirez gave the all-clear.”
John lifted his head. “Thanks for watching them, Teyla.” He squeezed both girls, closing his eyes, and took a shuddering breath. “I told you, I’d always protect you, just like your mommy and daddy.”
Clara was crying so hard she was hiccuping, and finally Dave found his voice. “Anna, Clara.”
They both pulled away from John with cries of, “Daddy!”
Dave opened his arms, and they started toward him, and something slammed into him. Knocked the breath out of him. His world went sideways, and he heard a burst of gunfire, and there was shouting and more blasts of light, and his girls screaming, and John crying out Dr. McKay’s name.
When Dave caught his breath, he was on the ground, Dr. McKay sprawled on top of him. Hot wet stickiness was spreading across Dr. McKay’s shirt.
“He’s dead,” Ronon said.
Dave scrambled away in horror. “Dead?”
But Dr. McKay said, “I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot!”
John was at his side in an instant. “Where?”
“Teyla, take the girls,” Dr. Jackson said, and there was more sobbing. “Sheppard Junior, go to them. We’ve got it from here.”
Dave staggered to his feet as Ronon, Dr. Jackson, Teyla, and John crowded around Dr. McKay. Agent Barrett was on his radio requesting medevac immediately, they were a man down.
Dave ran to his girls and scooped them up, carried them to the far side of one of the vans, away from the chaos, and held them while they cried and cried and cried.
Agents Ramirez and Donovan drove Dave and the girls back to the house, with promises that John would be in touch later.
Kathleen and the girls had a teary reunion, and the four of them ended up huddled on the couch together, reading books in anxious silence, reveling in each other’s presence but worrying the longer they went without news.
It was Dr. Jackson who finally called to let Dave know that Dr. McKay was in the hospital and recovering just fine, surgery was successful, the shot was a through-and-through and no major damage had been done.
Kathleen and Dave put the girls to bed in the same room - Clara wanted to stay with Anna - and Kathleen slept in the rocking chair in Anna’s room. Hector, Maria, and the rest of the staff agreed to stay the night as well in the guest rooms, and the NID had left additional agents guarding the house out front and on a wider perimeter.
Dave showered, dressed, and drove to the hospital.
An NID agent recognized him and let him through over a nurse’s protests, and Dave found Dr. McKay’s room easily.
He paused in the doorway and saw - Teyla, asleep in a chair.
Ronon, asleep on the floor at the foot of the bed.
And John, scrunched onto the bed beside Dr. McKay, curled around him protectively. Dave stared at their interlaced fingers and the way Dr. McKay was angled toward John and thought maybe he ought to start calling Dr. McKay Rodney.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Dr. Jackson said quietly.
Dave nearly jumped out of his skin.
He spun around, and there was Dr. Jackson, wearing jeans and a button-down flannel t-shirt and looking very mild-mannered indeed.
“You can’t tell anyone about anything - not the Jaffa, Artemis, or the weapons you saw anyone use.” Dr. Jackson gazed at John and Rodney with something like wistfulness in his eyes. “I’m sure you understand you can’t tell anyone about them. At least - no one who’s not family.”
“Rodney saved me,” Dave said, dazed.
“He does that sometimes,” Dr. Jackson said. “Besides, you’re John’s brother. You’re family, whether you knew it or not. We protect our family.”
Dr. Jackson held up an envelope. “This is an NDA. If you want to know more, read it, sign it, return it to Colonel Paul Davis at the Pentagon. Now, I’d better go.” He tapped his pocket and said, “This is Dr. Jackson, ready for beaming.”
And he vanished in a column of golden light.
Dave blinked. Blinked again. And tore the envelope open.