Chapter 11

Shadow Play

Rodney Mckay was adverse to early mornings. Given the choice, he'd happily doze until around nine or ten o'clock. Unfortunately, choice was a luxury in these dire straits. Thus he'd levered himself off his surprisingly comfy cot at the sound of the timer on his digital watch, the closest thing to an alarm clock he had, and proceeded to dress, eat, then gear up and lumber towards the clearing around the Stargate in a sort of haze. As he approached the edge of the ridge leading down into the treeless basin, he saw Sheppard speaking with Lorne, dark circles still marking both their eyes from lack of sleep due to the previous evening's events. Idly, the physicist wished in vain for an espresso, or even just a caffeine pill. Almost like a zombie, Rodney lumbered up to the pair, causing, John to turn from the conversation he was having with the Major to face the grumpy Canadian.

"You said you wanted to see me first thing in the morning?" he asked. John looked him up and down.

"Yeah, though I figured you'd be better rested. You look awful."

"Pot, meet kettle." Rodney retorted in a practiced verbal riposte that was his trademark on occasions like this. It was especially bad when he was being denied his extra two hours, like he was now. He folded his arms and squinted irritably at the Colonel. John shrugged off the barb and looked over his shoulder to Lorne.

"We'll finish up later. Check in with Greene. She and her group should've finished their inventory by now. Once we leave, you're in charge." he ordered. Lorne nodded, then loped off at a sullen pace. Rodney noticed that the man looked even more grim than he would've expected someone to be on this occasion.

"Who crapped in his corn flakes?" he asked. Sheppard rolled his eyes.

"I promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel." he replied, walking down the hill and back into the main camp.

"Oh." Rodney said, suddenly feeling a little sorry for the former Major, before the confusion hit and he felt compelled to ask: "Wait, you can do that?" John nodded.

"It's a valid field promotion. Everyone else of that rank is dead or incapacitated right now, and we need structure if we're going to survive until the day after tomorrow."

"Oh." Rodney repeated, again feeling the twinge of pity. Lorne, like many members of the Alliance's field operations branch, Sheppard included, would do anything in their power to avoid reaching the inevitable rank of General, like Jack O'Neill had. It was a terrible thing to be exposed to the vast and innumerable wonders of the universe, only to end up shackled to a desk job because you were so good at dealing with them. Of course, despite his empathy, Rodney couldn't help but count himself lucky that at least he didn't need to keep dodging promotions like his military friends.

As they descended the ridge, Rodney took a moment to appreciate how the place had changed since the previous evening. The various and sundry boxes of supplies had been stacked up in a large and orderly heap, A few collapsible military tents had sprung up like square and rectangular green mushrooms. The largest ones stood to the left of the gate relative to their path, and stuck out thanks to the large red and white cross on their sides, made from the remains of an empty medical kit's storage case. While the majority of the camp was largely silent, the medical tent was able to produce enough noise to fill in the empty space. Even from here, Rodney could hear the groans and weeping of the wounded. He shuddered involuntarily.

"How many people are left?" he asked.

"Ninety-six at last count. Twenty-six are still wounded, mostly burns or broken bones. The majority of the most heavily wounded died last night." John answered gloomily. Rodney stared quietly at the tent as they walked past it, unable to think of anything to say in response. As the pair of dark green structures receded behind them, he shook himself.

"So what's our plan?" he asked John, trying to dispel his discomfort with distraction.

"Todd is going to take us to a little place he knows that should help us contact the Odyssey. I need you to come along and help with the technical details." he answered, not turning his head.

"Wait, Todd!?" Rodney exclaimed, "You want to put our hopes in him!? Again?! That's a terrible idea! In fact it's so terrible I'm not sure I have a word for how terrible it really is!"

"It's that or ask the Confederation, and given how little they seem to think of us right now, I doubt they'd lift a finger to help even if we were the last people in Pegasus. As it is, I'm having to send Teyla to speak with them on our behalf to request supplies that'll technically be earmarked for her people, not us." Rodney wanted to protest, but John's logic was unassailable. Still, he kept trying doggedly, determined not to put his fate in the hands of someone who would, given the chance, reduce him to a dessicated pile of skin and bones.

"What about Larrin and the Travelers? Can't we contact them?" John shook his head.

"The Travelers are part of the Confederation now. Besides, we presently have no direct means of getting their attention, not without a ship. We'd have to go through the diplomatic channels, which is something I'm less than eager to do after hearing how they treated Lorne."

"What about-" Rodney tried, but Sheppard cut him off before he could get further.

"Rodney, believe me when I say that I hate this with every fiber of my being. I'm as sick of sticking my hand out to him only to get bitten as you are, but right now, we don't have a lot of options. We have a very small window in which to get the Odyssey's attention, and Todd's offer is the quickest way to do it. I need you to help. Now can I count on you? Or should I get Radek?" Rodney flushed. He knew what John was doing, exploiting his ego to get his cooperation. He would never let Radek take his place, not if it meant him getting most of the credit for helping him save them all. Despite his newfound empathy, Rodney was still reflexively selfish and egotistical, and while he'd made strides in becoming less so, Sheppard's comment pushed all his buttons in ways he simply couldn't stand.

"Yeah, right. Last time he worked with anything organic, he fried half the systems in his lab!" he retorted. He could tell by Sheppard's expression as he glanced back over his shoulder at him that he knew that he'd gotten to him, even if Rodney himself knew that. He gave a sly grin and strode towards the DHD, where several armed personnel stood guard.

"Edgars." he said by way of greeting to the senior officer of the group. The woman's hazel eyes never left Todd's reptilian slits, but she nodded in acknowledgement.

"Morning, sir." she said, glowering at the passive Wraith, who was gazing into the middle distance with eyes half-lidded, looking for all the world like a cat gazing through a window, hoping for something interesting to turn up. His gaze lazily slid towards John as he entered his field of vision. Rodney shuddered, his spine picking up on the alien predator's presence through his other senses and reflexively telling him to run in the opposite direction, lest he end up as dinner.

"Is he behaving?"

"He's not trying to escape if that's what you mean." Edgar's grumbled, "Hasn't really moved much since I came on duty. I'd say he was sleeping, but we both know Wraith don't actually sleep." She said this last part with an acidic and insincere smile at Todd, who returned it with the faintest hint of a smirk. Sheppard glared at him, and immediately the expression vanished. Then he turned to Edgars.

"You're coming with me." he said, pointing his finger at the other members of the group, "All of you. I need you to back me up. I'd take more, but everyone else is tending to the wounded, maintaining the perimeter or maintaining the camp. We've got ninety-six people who need rescuing, us included," As one, the soldiers nodded, standing at attention. Edgars did not assume the same stance, but Sheppard could've cared less about formalities at the moment.

"So I'm sure word has already gotten around, but in case you need to hear it from me, here's the plan:" John announced, pausing to clear his throat before continuing. "Our 'friend' here, after realizing he's stuck in this sinking boat with us, has generously offered his help. He knows of a facility which, with the right modifications, could be used to contact the Odyssey. He's going to take us there so we can do just that. Dr. Mckay will accompany us to assist with the technical aspect." Again, John paused before speaking, taking the time to examine the faces of the men and women he was bringing with him. "Some of you might think this is a bad idea. In response to any protests you might have, let me say that I've already thought of them. If it were just our lives riding on this, I'd ditch him in a heartbeat, but it's not." he declared, causing Todd to snort with derision, making everyone present with a gun tense oh-so-slightly. Sheppard glossed over the Wraith's expression of scorn and plunged ahead. "Our lives and the lives of everyone here depend on us succeeding. I've said before that we don't leave people behind. Well now it's our job to make sure that when the Odyssey gets here, we're not left behind." he finished. No one except perhaps Rodney noticed the slight tremble in his hands at those final words. The physicist wisely chose not to comment, even after John dismissed the guards, admonishing them to pack quickly.

"A good speech." Rodney almost jumped out of his skin, his head snapping around to see that Teyla had appeared at his left during the course of the speech.

"Geez, could you be anymore quiet?!" he complained. A light smile of amusement was the Athosian's only response. Close behind her, Ronon and Halling were striding up to join the group.

"I wish you safe travels, but I suspect we'll all need a bit more than a blessing to get out of this." she said to John. The Colonel shrugged.

"All I can say is we won't come back without results." he answered. In the space that followed, Rodney glanced between Halling and Todd. Neither appeared to have noticed the other's presence. No, actually that wasn't true. He could see Halling's eye twitch towards the captive Wraith, after which they narrowed oh-so-slightly. However, he remained silent. Sheppard must've seen his expression, because he glanced over at Todd.

"Don't worry. We keep him on a leash." he said, half-jokingly. This did not appear to soothe Halling's mood.

"I won't ask what he's doing here. All I ask is that you make sure he doesn't bring the rest of his kind here." he said, his voice deadpan and calm, belying the disgust he must've been feeling. Fear and revulsion went hand in hand when it came to the relation between the Wraith and those they had preyed on for the past ten-thousand years or so. Rodney was impressed that he didn't try something nastier. It showed a lot of self-restraint.

"With any luck he'll be out of your hair before we are." Sheppard answered, glancing at the seated predator, who rolled his slitted eyes at the very obvious hidden message in John's words. With that, Teyla stepped over to the DHD and began to dial Manaria. Rodney sidled over to her while John approached Ronon.

"So you think this might work?" he asked, keeping his tone low, "I mean, getting help for us?" Teyla sighed ruefully.

"At this point, I cannot say anything except that I will try." she answered.

"Well if you do get them to lend you some stuff, can you try and get some painkillers? I dunno if they'd have them, but my sciatica is playing up again after a night on that cot." he said. She gave him a look that was equal parts humor and exasperation.

"Yes, Rodney, I will ask them for some." she chuckled, her sarcasm obvious, but playful.

"I'm serious!" Rodney pouted, unable to help himself.

"So am I." she answered, sounding slightly more serious, "Besides, I'm sure you're not the only person in need of some pain relief." Rodney paused then looked back over his shoulder at the medical tents.

"Oh, right." he said, feeling a little stupid and even more ashamed. He felt Jennifer's gaze on him, even from millions of lightyears away, and silently chastised his own selfishness. Teyla patted him companionably.

"I wish you the best of fortune. We're counting on you Rodney." she said, before pushing the large activation button. With a *KAWOOSH*, the Stargate surged to life, its trademark column of water exploding out, then retracting back into the largely smooth surface of an active wormhole. She strode towards it, adjusting the strap of the bag over her shoulder. Halling followed close behind, before stepping ahead of her through the portal. John patted Ronon on the back twice, and Rodney realized they'd been talking at the same time he'd been speaking with Teyla.

"Stay safe, big guy." John said, causing the big Satedan to chuckle.

"You too, Sheppard." he answered, then strode towards the gate. Teyla gave Rodney a final glance, along with John, then stepped through the shimmering event horizon, followed by Ronon. After another twenty seconds, the rippling surface gave a hiss and dispersed into nothingness, just as the rest of the team of guards, including Edgars, began to turn up. To Rodney's surprise, One of them handed a large pack to Rodney with a grunt, almost knocking the physicist over.

"Hey! What the-" he began to protest, before the man explained.

"Doctor Zelenka told me to give this to you." he stated, then walked over to join up with the other men. Confused, Rodney hurriedly opened the bag and saw that it contained a tablet computer, a basic science kit, and a note. 'THIS IS ALL WE HAVE.' the spidery handwriting on the slip of notepaper declared. Mckay felt his stomach sink He had no doubt that John had asked in advance for Radek to scrounge up whatever equipment they might need for the mission prior to meeting with Rodney. To discover that this was what he had to work with cut a hole deep into the physicist's confidence about their potential success. Still, he would not have been Rodney Mckay if his endless supply of insouciance hadn't risen to fill the gap. He had helped repair an Ancient warship on the verge of being destroyed by a giant supervolcano. Compared to that reconfiguring a communication system for interstellar broadcast was child's play...though given the Wraith used organic components, it'd be nasty, sticky child's play. Caught between disgust and egotism, Rodney almost didn't notice as Todd was unchained from the DHD, with every gun present pointed at him as he slowly stood up, an impressive feat given the straitjacket he was still wearing prevented him from using his hands. For a brief moment, he made eye contact with Sheppard, then looked away, a very, very small grin touching the corner of his pale, thin lips.

"Something funny?" Rodney inquired as he stepped up next to the alien. Behind them, Edgars stepped up to the DHD and began to input the address of the planet Todd had promised held the answer to their problems. Rodney had been there when John had forced the Wraith to scrape the symbols in the dirt with his feet, being unwilling to allow even the slightest amount of leeway for Todd to try anything. It had been a little petty to be honest, but then after all the 'adventures' Todd had visited upon the Expedition back in the day, Rodney included, the physicist hadn't been much inclined to protest.

"Many things amuse me, Doctor McKay. This situation is not among them, I assure you." the alien vampire answered, his smirk never diminishing, "When this is over, all I can hope is that your leader will honor our agreement..." Rodney unsure of how to respond, nodded, then looked back to Colonel Sheppard. As Edgars hit the final button, John caught his eye, and an unspoken promise passed between them. Roughly translated, it could've been worded thusly: 'If we get captured again, I'm blaming you.'

-O-

The walk from the Stargate to the center of government on Manaria took Teyla and her companions roughly twenty minutes, most of which was spent winding their way through the busy streets. Teyla took note of the various changes Lorne had described in his report to Sheppard, and marveled at how quickly it had all come. In the few years she had been absent, the place had changed so drastically that once-familiar landmarks were hard to pick out. There was much more stone in the architecture, and the wrought-iron lamp-posts Lorne had mentioned felt like intruders from another universe on the newly-cobbled streets. She could not help but think of the images from the history books she'd read on Earth The whole place reminded her unnervingly of an image of pre-World War I France.

The biggest shock was the town hall, though Teyla was suddenly no longer certain that it deserved such a name. As she stood in the four-story shadow of the angular structure, she looked up at it with a sense that the ground under her feet was shifting. As she stared, mouth slightly open and turbulent feelings rushing through her, a term spoken by Dr. Daniel Jackson during one of their infrequent encounters came to her: 'the march of progress'. Throughout history, humanity had strove to better itself and its condition. Those that resisted this were crushed under the wheels of history with the rest of the old, plowed under to make room for the new. This process continued even in the harshest of conditions, and while it might stall now and then, it never truly stopped. Suddenly her people's decision to join the Confederation came to her in a new light. When faced with this looming and titanic change, how could one not be a part of it? More than that, how could one not want to be a part of it? Wasn't it better to build something and lose it than to never build at all? The Wraith had smothered the ambition of Pegasus' human inhabitants for millennia, but now, in their waning hour, humanity's spirit waxed strong.

"Huh...it's bigger than I remember." Teyla tore her eyes of the building to glance over to her side. Ronon was standing there, grinning his best grin, obviously amused at how awestruck she was. She elbowed him softly, returning his smile.

"It is." she admitted, looking back at it. She turned her eyes to Halling. He was looking at the structure too, though with less amazement and more indifference. He'd obviously seen it before, so it was only logical the wonder would've worn off after a while.

"I feel I owe you an apology." she said. His expression grew confused, an eyebrow arching in inquiry. Teyla sighed. "I had no idea the galaxy had changed so much. It is one thing to be told, and another to see it for yourself. Now that I have, I admit that I had no right to begrudge you or our people for joining." This seemed to amuse Halling.

"We both seek the best tomorrow for our people, Teyla. I simply did what I felt you would've done in my place."

"Perhaps...still, there is much to be wary of in joining with such a vast power…"

"Teyla Emmagan!"

The cry was so unexpected that it took Teyla to realize it had actually been directed at her. Her head whipped around to spot the source. Quick as she was Ronon was faster. His arm blurred and his pistol spun from its holster with a crackle as it activated. Several people screamed and dove for cover.

"Ronon!" Teyla grabbed his hand and dragged the barrel of the energy weapon down as she realized who was speaking, though when her heart at last slowed enough for her to distinguish individual beats, she found herself questioning whether she'd done the right thing. There was an awkward pause before the owner of the voice spoke again. He was a tall, balding individual, dressed in blue and grey, and wore a chain around his neck supporting a badge of office.

"Should I be concerned?" he asked, maintaining a nonchalant expression despite having come within a hair's breadth of being shot. He looked over at Ronon, the left corner of his lips rising in a smug smile. "I would advise against shooting me. If you did, the legal fees alone would leave your grandchildren in poverty."

"What do you want, Smeadon?" Teyla growled. Ronon looked over at her.

"Wait, Smeadon? Isn't he-"

"Yes. That one." she answered, then tightened her grip as she felt Ronon's arm instinctively try to rise again.

"It's good to see the years have not diminished your memory of me…" the old man sneered, "As for what I want, well...that's none of your concern." He strode closer as people began to pick themselves up, the standoff having become the center of attention, much to Teyla's chagrin.

"Then why did you call out to me?" she asked. The elderly landowner strode closer, his casual walk defying Ronon to try again, which he almost did. Luckily Teyla's hand kept his gun in place.

"I was merely surprised to see you again! After all, it has been quite a long time…" Teyla fought the urge to smear the spy's face over the cobbles. It had been almost a decade since she'd dealt with the man. This was because during the first year the Atlantis Expedition had been stranded in Pegasus, they'd placed their trust in him during a crisis, only to have him leak information to the Genii that they'd used to try and storm the city. Needless to say, while the attempt had been foiled, she'd never spoken to him again after that.

"What's with the badge?" Ronon grunted, nodding towards the gold and silver emblem hanging from around the man's neck. The spy's smirk grew wider in response.

"You've been away for a while so you obviously wouldn't know…" he said, his tone almost gloating, "I'm the official head of the Resource Allocation Committee for the Manarian Assembly."

Teyla's heart turned to stone and sank, as did her faith in the Confederation. It was as if the universe had decided one cruel joke was not enough for the week, and so had inflicted this on her.

"I see…" she said, her words trailing off, prompting Smeadon to smile again.

"Is there a problem?" he asked innocently, causing Ronon to again tighten his grip on his pistol.

"No, no problem. In fact we came here to request resources and aid." Teyla said, plastering her most artificial smile on as quickly as she could.

"Ah! Excellent! Follow me then. I'm sure I can assist you!" he chuckled, beckoning them towards the building a head. He turned and began to stride towards it, before pausing and looking back over his shoulder.

"Oh, but you will need to relinquish your weapons at the door." he added, as if it were merely an afterthought. Teyla swore she could hear Ronon grinding his teeth. Slowly she took her hand off his arm and began to follow the accursed man. Halling sidled up next to her, and when she looked, she saw he was as surprised as she was disgusted.

"I think should apologize…" he said.

"You could have told me I'd be dealing with Smeadon!" she hissed vehemently.

"I did not know!" he hissed back as they began to ascend the steps to the large doors, where Smeadon now waited with a beatific smile of pure, petty malevolence. "He was one of four candidates for the position the last time I was here. My contacts stated it was unlikely he would win the vote!"

"Well obviously he did." Teyla grunted, "Now we'll have to cope."

"I could shoot him." Ronon suggested.

"That wouldn't fix anything." Teyla sighed.

"It'd feel good." the Satedan retorted.

"The bullets from those six guards wouldn't." Teyla answered, silencing the trigger-happy ex-Runner. She nodded towards the men in question. Their uniforms were tan, and they all carried triple-barreled shotguns of Genii manufacture. Even Ronon couldn't possibly hope to stun all of them before they shot him. Teyla shook herself, breaking away from that train of thought. No, much as she wished, violence would not get her anywhere. Then again, given what she now faced, what would?

-O-

The first thing John did on emerging from the Stargate was drop to a crouch and raise his P-90. There'd been no MALP to send in order to check the destination, so he'd been expecting the worst from the moment he stepped through the event horizon. A dull, rocky landscape greeted his eyes with only greenish-purple lichen clinging to the stones to indicate there was anything alive. No Wraith drones popped out of cover with stunners, and no booby traps triggered. One by one, the soldiers he'd requisitioned for the mission emerged from the portal behind him with a series of sticky noises. John had always wondered why disturbing the event horizon of an active wormhole generated those molasses-like sounds. Probably there was a really good scientific reason that only Rodney knew or understood. At the moment, all it did was cause his stomach churn more than his nerves were already making it. The men and women behind him took up similar positions to his own, dashing and dropping into cover in expectation of an ambush. Todd was the last to come through, escorted by Edgars, who dragged him into the shadow of a particularly large boulder that sat like a mushroom by the DHD, the pristine lichen on its surface suggesting no one had touched it in a long time.

After a tense pause, Sheppard felt satisfied and secure enough to shout 'Clear!', prompting the rest of the group to lower their weapons to a position that still left them ready to snap up at a moment's notice.

"I'm wounded that you still don't trust me." Todd quipped, his face impassive save for a tiny smirk in the corner of his pale lips.

"If I wound you, you'll know it." John grunted, stalking forward to stand next to Edgars.

"If someone shoots at us, don't shoot back until you've shot him first." he ordered.

"Yes sir." the female Sergeant replied, her tone suggesting it was an act she'd relish. With that she grabbed him and pushed him out in front of the group. The Wraith stumbled, but was quick to recover his balance. He huffed in irritation, but then turned his back to the group, nodding into the distance.

"The outpost is about a kilometer in that direction." he said, jerking his head in a seemingly arbitrary direction. John stared out at the barren landscape. In the distance, the faint sound of waves crashing suggested they were near a body of water, as did the gray skies and thin veil of fog that suffused the air. It didn't inhibit vision completely at any distance, but served to generate a sensation that a veil of wool had been stretched to extreme transparency across the world.

"You pick the nicest places to bring me to." he grumbled to the Wraith. He tried not to breathe in too deeply. There was something heavy and soggy about the air that he didn't like.

"The atmosphere has a high moisture content that makes it easier to conceal a surface-base. This is the closest you'll ever see to a clear day here." Todd replied.

"Hmph, could've told us that part in advance." McKay grumbled. He was shivering in the damp air.

"I thought you were Canadian? You can't be THAT cold." John joked, trying to lighten his own mood, but only succeeding in making Rodney look annoyed.

"What, you think I go jogging in the winter? In weather like this, I stay in bed with a cup of cocoa. What about you, Colonel Kilgore? Why aren't you cold?" he shot back. John rolled his eyes.

"Come on. Let's get going, we've got some hiking to do."

"Oh joy. Nothing like a nice forced march to get the blood pumping, right? We'll probably build some character too! How about that!"

"Shut up, Rodney." John sighed. He knew he shouldn't have antagonized the man, but it wasn't like he wouldn't have complained regardless. If Rodney was really a champion at anything, it was whining. He'd gotten better about it over the years, but in stressful situations it tended to emerge like a nervous twitch, and John wasn't sure he could think of a situation they'd gone through in the past four years that was more stressful than the one they were currently in. They were cut off from Earth, low on supplies, friends and intelligence, and being hunted by an unseen enemy whose objectives and capabilities were unknown. John allowed himself a grim little smile as he trudged over the rocky and hard-packed dirt. It was just like old times...but with giant robots.

The walk took place in silence except for McKay noisily huffing into his clasped hands to warm them now and then. John almost missed the facility when it came into view, though in his defense it was an easy thing to do. The organic-looking edifice was much smaller than most Wraith surface installations John had seen in the past, and its exterior matched the grey color palette of the rest of the planet almost exactly. It looked almost innocuous, perched atop a small hill like an odd rock formation, save for the dim yellowish lights it was emitting from nodes in the pylons supporting its dome-shaped bulk. From its apex, a series of spikes protruded like the spines of an antenna farm.

"We have arrived. I recommend you follow my footsteps exactly from hereon." Todd stated.

"Why?" John asked, though he suspected he knew the answer.

"Because the area around the base is rigged with pressure-sensitive fragmentation explosives." the Wraith answered. Rodney beat John to voicing his confusion.

"You have landmines!? Since when?! And why!?" the Canadian physicist almost shrieked. John glowered at Todd, waiting for an answer. The Wraith seemed to take a moment to think over his answer before giving it. When he did, it was in hesitant tones, as if he were almost ashamed of his words.

"When I first began my rise through the ranks, I quickly came to the realization that fighting my own people for control was not the same as culling yours. Stunners are useful, but your projectile weapons and explosives offer an element of finality they do not."

John thought on this for a while, the wind whistling constantly over the fungus-matted rock-strewn landscape. It made sense, after a fashion. Especially in a place like this, which you didn't want your political enemies to know about. If someone were to find it, stun-bombs would be less of a barrier to someone that wanted to get in than getting their legs blown off. Still...

"Where did you get them?" John asked, looking over at the straightjacketed vampire. He merely shrugged.

"You've heard of the Hoffans?" he asked, looking out towards the waiting outpost.

"Yes…" John answered, again suspecting he knew where this was going.

"I learned of their destruction not long after you returned me to my people. The planet had been mostly picked clean by scavengers, but there was a large quantity of unspent munitions in one of their bunkers that I helped myself to." He said it as casually as if he were talking about going shopping at a grocery store, but that didn't change the fact that Todd was discussing what essentially amounted to grave robbing. The Hoffans were a people who had attempted to make themselves immune to the Wraiths' feeding process, apparently ignoring the fact that all this would achieve was to prompt the Wraith to exterminate them rather than risk their immunity spreading. Among the many dark holes of guilt in his soul, John still maintained one for his decision to lend Atlantis' help to the Hoffans in perfecting their 'secret weapon'. He fumed, wanting to chastise the pale-skinned alien but knowing he had no moral grounds to do so. It was a futile feeling, and it was becoming a familiar one lately.

"Alright, but if anyone explodes-" he grunted.

"Yes, yes, you'll shoot me. Second verse, same as the first." the Wraith spat distastefully. There was an awkward pause before he realized he was being stared at.

"Second verse-?" Rodney started.

"It's not like you gave me anything to do for those months before I entered stasis besides stare at that bizarre entertainment-box your planet seems to be infatuated with." he grunted, rolling his eyes. There was a snigger from one of the soldiers.

"It's called a television, Todd." John said feeling a smirk of amusement growing on his lips. The Wraith glowered.

"Are you interested in being rescued or not? We can stand here all night, though I suspect you might not enjoy the weather that comes with it." he huffed. He stomped off towards the base of the hill where the communications facility was perched, while behind him John struggled not to laugh. The unexpected funny moment was a welcome break from the tension they'd been dealing with since before they'd arrived, and for a moment it seemed like things might turn out alright. Before their morale could improve further though, a roll of thunder boomed across the sky, rattling them out of their fragile good mood.

Then it started to rain.

-O-

The interior of the Manarian Hall of Governance reflected the exterior's increased size. The entrance hall featured a large desk, where a small line of people waited in front of a well-dressed man working at a primitive-looking computer. Teyla stared at the device for a moment, its presence feeling so out of place in the still relatively rustic society she'd just passed through that it felt like an intrusion from another universe. It was one thing to make cobbled streets and lamp posts, and quite another to have informational devices such as personal computers. It had to be from one of the other, more advanced Pegasus societies. It was a fair assumption given the increased amount of non-native decorations garnering the chamber. She recognized tapestries from Trictinia on the walls and a few bone sculptures from Levanna mounted on ornately-carved tables set next to plush chairs, some of which had people in them.

Near the back of the room a pair of guards stood by a pair of doors. As she approached, Halling and Ronon close behind, the man at the desk looked up from his screen, grabbed some forms from a drawer, then handed them to the elderly but astute-looking woman at the head of the line. She took them, then stepped around the desk and towards the doors, which the guards opened to reveal a hall lined with doors beyond. As she stepped through, she caught sight of Smeadon, then saw Teyla and her group. She cocked an eyebrow as if in interest, but didn't stop as she passed through the doors and into the hall behind, before disappearing as the guards closed up the wood-paneled passage behind her.

"If you'll wait just a moment…" Smeadon said, looking back over his shoulder with an imperious expression. Teyla felt her guts clench in anger, but kept her calm, pausing to the right of the large desk. Some of the people in the chairs and the line gave her party an annoyed look. Perhaps they had appointments with the former spy and were angry she was being allowed to cut ahead. Teyla amended her thought to 'potentially former spy'. There was no way to know if Smeadon was or wasn't still in service to the Genii. It was entirely possible he'd left their service in the decade or so since she'd had any contact with him. Again, she cursed the AOA for not maintaining a greater exchange of information between Earth and the Confederation.

As Teyla watched, Smeadon strode up to the guard on the right side of the doors and began to speak with him in a low tone. She couldn't hear what was said, but the guard looked back and forth between her group and Smeadon several times. He asked a couple of questions by the sound of his tone, which Smeadon responded to by waving his hands in the universal gesture that indicated the dismissal of that which was not important. The guard looked at Teyla's group again, eyes full of worry, especially when they landed on Ronon, who was still seething over having his pistol and many of his hidden knives taken away. However, then he seemed to shrug and tapped his partner's shoulder. Together they opened the door and performed an odd salute, where they wrapped their hands around their inner elbows as if mimicking the common Pegasus greeting. Smeadon gave them a smirk and turned back to Teyla.

"This way please. I have a busy schedule, so I would like to address your concerns as soon as possible." he said, his tone again bringing Teyla's temper to a boil. Still,she kept her expressing happy and cooperative. She'd negotiated with worse than Smeadon in her life. She was not about to be outplayed by him in a game of diplomacy. She stepped forward, beckoning to Ronon and Halling to follow. However, Smeadon pointed at the big Satedan and made an expression of distaste.

"Not him." he commanded. Ronon twitched, his eyes darkening.

"What?" he asked, his tone low and threatening.

"If you have come to barter for resources, Teyla, then it should only be Athosians that are involved. Halling is welcome, but your...bodyguard is not." the bureaucrat explained, a faux-apologetic look on his face. Ronon took a step forward, his features contorting in anger.

"Where she goes, I go!" he growled. Smeadon shook his head sadly.

"Not here, I'm afraid."

"You would be." he merely smirked.

"If you continue in this abrasive manner, you will be removed from the premises. I assure you that Teyla will come to no harm while in my company." As he spoke, he checked his nails, indicating subtly that he was quite confident that even if Ronon were to attack him, it would be the last thing he did. Teyla eyed the guards on either side of the door and saw they had tensed up, hands hovering over their pistol holsters, which were loaded with old-fashioned Genii sidearms.

"Ronon, please," Teyla said softly, turning to her friend and placing a hand on his upper arm, "let me deal with this." He looked at her, and she could see the anger and protectiveness in his eyes. It made her ashamed to have to do this, but right now Smeadon had her at a disadvantage, and the only move she had left was to concede. Ronon must've seen this in her pleading expression, because he slowly backed down, reverting to a state of broodiness that only just covered up a promise of violence should anything go wrong.

"I'll wait out here." he grunted, stepping back and locating an empty chair. He glowered at Smeadon, who just smiled back in his smug way, before turning his eyes to Teyla again.

"As I said, let us make haste." Teyla smiled back and followed him through the doors.

The hallway beyond was empty of people save for the occasional man or woman in a grey and black clerk's uniform, carrying stacks of paper and folders. About twenty feet from the entrance, the passage split into a T-junction. Smeadon took a left, then paused at a niche covered by a collapsible metal grille with a mirror on the back wall and a strange lever to the right. He undid the catch on the grille and ushered them in, then stepped in behind them, closing the grille. Teyla didn't need Rodney's intellect to tell her this was an elevator, a fact confirmed when Smeadon pushed the lever up and the niche began to rise with a squeaking, hissing noise. Again, she marveled at the progress which seemed to have swept the galaxy in her absence, before being jolted from her thoughts as they came to a stop at the third floor.

"I see you are not surprised by the ascending lift…" he remarked, undoing the catch on this level's metal grille and pulling it aside, "Many people who see it for the first time think it's some kind of magic. In truth it's merely powered by steam from the building's boiler."

"It is amazing." Teyla replied blandly, "Though I will admit it's not the first time I've seen such a device."

"Ah, yes." Smeadon remarked, "No doubt there were much greater wonders in Atlantis." He said the city's name with just the barest hint of scorn, but it was there, like poison in a sugar-rich pastry. Teyla's spirits sunk. She didn't need the diplomatic skills of her old friend Dr. Weir to know that Smeadon knew, or at least suspected, that she wasn't here for her people's benefit. Quite likely he had assumed it on principle upon seeing her and hearing why she had come. Teyla had been gone a long time, and her absence had no doubt only strengthened her connection in the minds of those who knew her to Atlantis and the perceived betrayal they had committed.

As she and Halling were led to the man's office, only a scant few feet from the elevator, her mind raced, trying to find a way out of this situation with what she had come to get, only to fail in every potential scenario she could think up. Still, she was going to try. She owed it to her friends.

The ex-spy's office was neither opulent nor spartan, but somewhere in between. A desk supporting a small clockwork fan and a computer like the one at the reception desk downstairs sat in front of the rear wall, which included a small fireplace, currently unlit. The walls to either side were lined with shelves interspersed with filing cabinets. There were two chairs, one in front of the desk, one behind. It reminded Teyla of the lawyer's office she'd had to visit to get her citizenship on Earth, but with a more anachronistic twist. Halling stepped out in front of her and offered her the visitor's seat while Smeadon took his place behind the desk. Two electric lampshades flanked him, and he reached over to each in turn to switch them on, before settling his elbows on the desk and lacing his fingers together.

"Now, what is it you need?" he asked, his 'helpful' smile taking on a sly undertone. Teyla took a deep breath. Now her battle really began…

-O-

Despite John's worries, the trek up the hill did not cause anyone to lose a limb. The group of soldiers followed Todd at a steady pace in single file. In the fog and the downpour, Sheppard noticed that Rodney was muttering to himself, to low to make out any words, but enough that he could hear it. He was also shaking slightly, though whether that was from nerves or the cold, John couldn't decide. At last,they reached the foot of the bizarre organic outpost, where a door that looked as though it had been made from a ribcage waited for them. The downpour had grown so heavy that a veritable torrent of water flowed down off the section of the roof that stretched out over the area in front of the strange, ossified entrance like a thin waterfall. The gravel from before had turned mostly to mud. Everyone, Todd included, was drenched from head to toe. Even if any ponchos had survived from the Alpha Site, there wouldn't have been time to unpack and put them on before the water soaked in regardless.

"Just when I thought this day couldn't get worse…" Rodney declared, stepping through the sheet of water in front of the overhang, emerging miserable and dripping like the rest of the group into the relative dry space beneath.

Meanwhile, Todd stood stolidly beside the door as if awaiting further instructions. John looked from the sealed aperture to the pale alien, then back again.

"What, did you forget the door code?" he joked. Todd narrowed his eyes.

"The system requires a biometric reading to allow access. DNA, combined with a palm-print-" he explained. Sheppard raised a finger.

"Ooh, no. No." he said firmly, "I know where you're going, so let me stop you right there-" Todd rolled his eyes.

"You could try and bypass it by cutting off my hand, but I doubt it would work. And if you did, well...I think I'd be justified in denying you my help. Also, this is not the only security measure you will need my help to overcome. I built this place to be one of my best-kept secrets. Do you really think I'd be satisfied with a few explosives and a well-placed door?" He snorted in derision, tilting his head back slightly to sneer at John, which almost got the overstressed Colonel to pull the trigger on his P-90 out of sheer spite. In the end though, he sighed, glared at the Wraith, then glanced over at Edgars.

"You know the drill." he said wearily, "He tries something…"

"I gotcha." the Sergeant replied, shouldering her own weapon and gesturing for the rest of the team to do likewise. Rodney hastily stepped out of the line of fire, looking at them like they were all insane. John didn't blame him. Maybe this was crazy, but right now, after yesterday and today, he wasn't feeling very sane regardless. He stepped up to Todd, grabbed him by his straightjacket, then glared into his slitted eyes.

"Which hand?" he asked. The reptilian gaze became slightly confused, before comprehension of John's question caused them to light up. Todd smirked and nodded to his left, causing John to relax a little. At least it wasn't his feeding hand. He undid the leather straps, then stepped back, out of reach as the Wraith looked down at his free limb, then shook it twice as if trying to restore circulation. He smirked again, then turned to the door. He pressed his pale hand to a section of the base's exterior that looked slightly more moist than the rest. There was a sticky sound, then a humming as the pad glowed yellow. Two seconds later, there was a squelching, grinding noise as the door split in half, the 'ribs' folding back to admit the group. Beyond, a dark chamber awaited, and something like dry-ice fog rolled out to mix with the mist around them.

John took the first step inside, followed closely by Edgars. Todd was nudged in by three different gun barrels, followed closely by McKay and the rest of the group. All of them flicked on their vest-mounted flashlights, revealing more of the same ribbed organic architecture. John did his best not to inhale too deeply. All Wraith habitats, be they ships or bases, smelled of the same thing: death. It was a feature that tended to define them. Idly John wondered if there were any human 'snacks' cocooned in some hidden room, trapped in suspended animation until a visitor decided he was hungry. He pushed the idea from his head. He had bigger things to deal with. Once they had contact with the Odyssey, everything would be different. A chill ran down his spine, but a quick check revealed it was the rain dripping down his neck from his hair.

"The control room is that way." Todd gestured down the dark hall, which was slowly lighting up with an odd bioluminescence, projected by large nodes in the curved ceiling. It gave everything around the group a bluish tint, disguising the greens, grays and purples of the structure.

"Good. Rodney, you ready?" John asked.

"Is it too late to say this is a bad idea?" the physicist quipped.

"You said that already." John commented, looking back over his shoulder.

"I think it bears saying again." Rodney answered. John snorted.

"Let's move." he commanded. As one, the team advanced down the long, bony hall towards the end, where a door much like the one at the entrance awaited. It couldn't have been more than thirty or forty meters long, but the tension made it feel like an eternity. John eyed the other doors, the ones set on the sides of the passage every fifteen or so feet, with suspicion as he passed them. However, none burst open to reveal recently-awakened Drones or other booby traps. By the time the exit was in reach, John was beginning to feel disappointed. He was certain he should've been betrayed by now. That was usually how it worked when it came to Todd. Then again, so far the Wraith had been nothing but helpful, if a bit acerbic as well. He watched as the alien vampire stepped forward and pressed his free hand to another slick interface-surface, causing the next door to open. At the same time, the one they'd just passed through closed, and John glared at the Wraith.

"A simple precaution. Given how long this may take, I'm certain you'd rather be in here than out there...especially now that it's raining." John wanted to argue with the explanation, but he had a gut feeling that given what he'd seen so far of the surface, it was probably a good idea...probably. Still…

"Rodney, once you get in, can you get control of all the doors?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder again.

"Probably." McKay replied, before John's glare caused him to clear his throat and backpedal."Definitely. I meant definitely." he corrected himself.

"Better." Turning back to Todd, John shouldered his P-90. "I'm sure you understand." he said, in his best faux-apologetic voice. This didn't seem to phase the Wraith, who merely smiled a shark's smile.

"Completely." he replied, as the lights beyond the door glowed into life, revealing a large circular chamber with an array of knobbly-looking organic consoles and flickering screens projected on cascades of mist. Todd turned his gaze to Rodney who tensed almost unnoticeably at being the subject of attention for such a predatory being.

"Let us begin, Doctor. I'm sure you're as eager to get this over with as I am."

-O-

Optimus woke from recharge to find Drift sitting cross legged nearby. The ex-Decepticon had one of his enormous katanas out, which almost made Optimus transform on instinct until he saw that he was patiently sharpening it with some sort of whetstone that resembled fulgurite, but given the use it was being put to, must've been anything but. Upon seeing this, Optimus chose to transform anyway, but at a more leisurely rate. Once he'd shed his disguise, he sat down in front of the blue-armored warrior, crossing his own legs to mirror his subordinate.

"You're awake. Good." Drift observed, not looking up from his work, "I hope you rested better than I." He continued to drag the stone along the blade, making a low metallic scraping noise. Optimus watched the movement, transfixed, but shook his head with a dour expression.

"Unfortunately not. My dreams are troubled...but then they almost always are." he replied. He looked to his left, gazing out on the encampment that had sprung up around the Athosian Stargate. He felt the melancholy he'd experienced before leaving Earth returning. Again, he found himself questioning his actions, his depression increasing when his gaze swept over the still form of Ironhide. He took comfort in the fact that the wounds his old friend was still sporting were no longer leaking Energon or lubricants, and decided it would be better to distract himself from his failures rather than wallow in them. Ratchet wouldn't have wanted that...didn't want that, he corrected himself. He looked back to Drift, then to the sword and the stone.

"What is that?" he asked, pointing to the rock in curiosity. Drift smiled a sad smile.

"A bit of material from the ruins of Kalis." he answered, "It long ago ceased to be radioactive, but it has never worn out."

"Would that the city it came from still stood..." Optimus said sympathetically, "I regret never getting the chance to see your home before it's fall."

"And I regret never getting the chance to see Iacon, my friend." Drift answered, continuing to sharpen the blade, "I regret a great many things. But that is the nature of war." He paused in his work and looked over at Ironhide. "My people...we had a story...a fable," he began, optics taking on a distant look, "a tale from the days of the Dynasty, some say."

"Tell me." Optimus said, "I feel useless as it is, so tell me." He almost added 'and distract us both from our demons.', but knew better. He was one of the few that knew Drift's full history, specifically of his deeds when he had been head of Kalis' Royal Guard. There was no need to make either of them more morose, not here and now.

Drift nodded, then looked back to his work.

"The version I heard was told to me by Skyfire. He was my commander when I still served the Decepticons…when I thought they still had honor." Again, the blue defector shook his head, then dragged the stone over the sword's edge once more. "In it, Volant Prime, the progenitor of all Seekers, is busy exploring the Eshems Nebula one day when she happens upon a world where two halves of a society stand on the brink of war. Both call upon her to help them destroy the other, each citing various atrocities the other has committed. So great is their anger that they have built a massive wall between their two nations; a monument to fear and ignorance." Optimus nodded, laying his hands on his knees and leaning back a little on a tree, which creaked, but did not move. He'd heard many stories about the original Thirteen. Just as humans had their own religious parables, so did Cybertronians; just another in the long string of features they shared.

Of course there were differences too. Cybertronians had never waged wars over the interpretation of religious texts, except possibly with words. Optimus chuckled as the memory of some of the more wild theological debates he'd witnessed while working as Alpha Trion's pupil in Iacon came back to him. Things could get very heated, especially when the two sides involved were young and full of the kind of certainty that only desperation to impress could provide. However, the Prime quickly found himself recalled from his theatre of recollection by Drift's words.

"She goes to both parties, and bids that they meet her at a point on one of their planet's moons. She promises each the power to destroy the other, if they can convince her of the rightness of their cause. So they come, arriving at the meeting place she's set, and there, she gives them an audience, making sure to hear both sides fairly."

"And which does she choose?" Optimus inquired, feeling just for a moment like the student he once had been all those millennia ago. He had learned the ways of war from Storm Jet, but in his Spark, he would always be a scholar, and the tale was speaking to that part of him in a way few things had for a long, long time.

"She gives each leader a box, with two buttons inside, attached to the weapons of her ship, the Knight's Terminus; enough to level the entire surface of the planet. One of the buttons will fire the weapons at the enemy of the user; the other will destroy the wall. Neither is labeled. Furthermore, the Prime explains that if one side chooses peace and the other war, the destruction of the wall will allow for the ash and soot from the destroyed side to smother the surviving one. Thus, the only choice is peace, or annihilation."

Optimus reeled at the turn of events. What Drift was describing was an almost monstrous deed, far from what he had expected to hear in a story about Volant Prime, who supposedly had stopped genocides in their tracks with a single speech. Then again, this was a story from Kalis, whose people were known for pragmatism almost as much as they were for their art. Perhaps this was a reflection of their ideals; a spin on an old tale to personalize it for their Sparklings. As considered this, the stone scraped across the blade again while the old warrior went on.

"Of course, the leaders of both sides are incensed, accusing the Prime of deception, of lying to them. She answers 'I have not lied. I have found both sides worthy of life. Furthermore, I have stripped away the division between you. Here, there are no illusions, no walls, no lies or ignorance. What stands before you is a model of every petty conflict I have ever witnessed. One side kills the other and takes what they have. The other kills them and takes it back. On and on and on...and every time, all that is required to prevent it is that both sides sit down and talk,'. The two leaders look at her in confusion, asking her why she has done this, and she answers 'Because the future is uncertain. Because death is the only true equalizer. And because the universe is vast, and in it all we have is one another.'."

Drift frowned and looked up from his sword.

"I trust you understand what she meant?" he asked. Optimus nodded.

"As much as anyone can truly understand the old tales. As I understand it, she was reminding them that victory is not eternal, and that we are greater than the laws of conflict that govern the universe, because we can refuse to participate...can choose a nobler path." The Prime nodded, crossing his arms. "A good story, worthy of remembrance." he said, "I will have to transcribe it someday...how does it end?"

"There are two versions I have heard." Drift admitted, holding the katana's edge up to the light, "In one, the leaders back down, and agree to broker peace. They ask Volant Prime to be their neutral party at the negotiations. When she finally leaves, the two nations are working together to break down the wall themselves."

"And the other?" Optimus asked, knowing he probably wouldn't like the answer, but feeling compelled to inquire anyway.

"Both leaders press buttons at random. One accidentally chooses to destroy the wall, while the other destroys his enemy. Volant Prime sends them back to share the fate of their people. The ash of the destruction triggers an ice age, and most of the survivors die. Those that remain live with the legend, and take steps not to repeat the mistakes of their forebears."

Optimus tapped his chin with a metal finger. On the whole, it wasn't as bad as he'd been expecting. Then again, the goal of the fable was obviously to inspire hope, one way or another. Still…

"Do you tell me this because you feel we might be living with the results of such a choice?" he asked Drift. The azure warrior shrugged.

"There are parallels, certainly. But it is not the same with us. In the second version of the story, the leaders made peace on their deathbeds, recognizing in their final moments the mistakes that had cost their people so much. This war between you and Megatron though...I fear it will not have so happy an ending."

Optimus considered his words in silence. Something about them suggested that Drift's mindset was not what he'd thought it was. He'd always seen the ex-Decepticon as a soldier who'd seen the light and come to understand that freedom was the right of all sentient beings...but what if he hadn't? What if he'd joined not because he wanted to defend ideals...but simply because he wanted the killing to stop? Optimus' immediate inclination was to reject the thought. Drift had served loyally, defending dozens of worlds, if not more, from the scourge of Megatron's followers. However, those words...and the story that preceded them…

Optimus found himself recalling the day Drift had offered his services to him. He'd told him of what he'd done, how he'd been forced to make a horrible butcherous choice that, in the end, had done nothing to prevent the senseless destruction of his home. He'd looked into azure warrior's eyes and seen what he'd thought was conviction and regret. He'd thought he was simply seeking redemption, like the others who had tossed aside Megatron's cause, sometimes for similar reasons. Had he misinterpreted him?

Doubts swarmed about Optimus' mind, and it was only the sound of metal on metal that brought him back to reality as Drift sheathed his sword.

"I have always felt that the moral of the story is that a true warrior fights for peace, both to keep it and create it." he said, standing slowly and turning towards Ironhide, "I cannot say where the path we are on will take us. I can only hope that someday, it will take us out of the shadow of war, and into the light."

"Tell me," Optimus found himself asking, unsure why he was doing so, "if you thought killing me would bring peace, would you do it?" Drift's retreating back froze. Slowly, he turned, and Optimus now saw how tired he looked, .

"I have killed too many friends." he said sadly, shaking his head, "Killing one more would achieve nothing." Then he walked away, leaving Optimus full of uncertainty and another unvoiced question: 'Would Drift kill me if he thought it would save our species?'

-O-

About an hour into the negotiations, Ronon was getting restless. It wasn't just that Teyla hadn't returned yet. He'd never been very good at waiting. He was the sort of person who always took the initiative, who always struck first because he'd learned that was the best way to make sure you lived long enough to strike again. He'd started pacing, which got him nervous glances from most of the people nearby, then sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs, before standing up and pacing some more. He'd thought about cutting through the line in front of the receptionist's desk to ask her where Teyla was, but had resisted because he knew how angry it would make her if she found out he'd made a scene and possibly cost her everything she'd worked for. He decided to sit down again, this time choosing a spot by the door so he could get a better view of the room and all its occupants.

After picking a chair that looked the least likely ruin his posture with an excess of cushions, Ronon took a seat and began to observe the comings and goings. The length of the line in front of the desk grew and shrank as the minutes trudged by. Some people took the same option as Ronon, finding a chair or couch to sit on until the line seemed short enough to warrant their attention. It seemed like a poorly designed system, and Ronon couldn't help but remember the time Sheppard had helped him get a ID to ease his life on Earth. While the whole thing had been a test of Ronon's patience like few other things ever had been before or since, at least there they had a more reasonable system with the patrons taking numbered tickets and waiting to be called on. Here, it seemed much more haphazard, with whoever came first getting served first.

It was around the end of the second hour than Ronon began to doze off. He tried to keep himself awake by trying to figure out how many different ways he could take down the guards and get out alive in his head, but soon fell short due to the reality that he didn't know nearly enough of the buildings layout or potential opposition to make it an interesting exercise. Slowly but surely, he felt his eyelids getting heavier, and cushions getting unreasonably soft for some reason. He sagged sideways-

-and was jerked awake by someone giving him a hard prod in the shoulder. Immediately he defaulted to his combat instincts and went for his gun, only to find it wasn't there. Clamping down on his panic, he prepared to vault from the chair and face his attacker when suddenly a familiar voice cut through the adrenaline.

"Lookin' for this?" Ronon focused and realized that his gun was being offered to him butt-first. He stared at the hand holding it, then let his eyes run up the attached arm to its owner.

"Solen?!" he exclaimed. The bald, battle-scarred Satedan grinned down at him.

"I knew better than to try and wake you while you were still armed." he said playfully, Ronon grinned and took the pistol from him, holstering it before grabbing his outstretched arm and pulling himself up. The two men engaged in a bear-hug, laughing, slapping each other's shoulders.

"Never thought I'd see you again, buddy!" Solen declared, "Glad I was wrong!"

"Damn right you were wrong!" Ronon chuckled. Solen was a special friend, in that he was a Satedan like Ronon, and not just Satedan, but ex-military. They'd known each other long before their people had been reduced to refugees when their world was purged for resisting the feeding cycle of the Wraith. While Ronon had been captured, Solen had helped lead almost three-hundred civilians off-world in an effort to preserve what remained of their society. They looked each other over, each checking for new scars, a testament to their continuing fight, before settling back into a more relaxed demeanor.

"What are you doing here?" Ronon asked, looking first towards the inner door behind the desk, then the bigger one that lead outside just as it opened to admit another visitor. He frowned, noting the light was much more orange than when he'd arrived. How long had he slept?

"I should ask the same!" retorted his friend, "We all heard you'd run off with Atlantis!" Ronon cringed a little at the words. They weren't said in an accusing manner, but they made his heart ache, and he couldn't help but wonder if perhaps he should've stayed and helped his people. Then the memories of the years spent fighting alongside Sheppard, Teyla, Lennox and all the rest came rushing in and he drowned his doubts beneath the tide. He'd never abandoned his people. Besides, they didn't need him like Teyla's needed her. He shrugged.

"Been busy. Things to hunt, bad guys to shoot..." he admitted. Solen grinned.

"Well I'd love to hear about it! I'm sure the great Ronon Dex has a few stories to tell about life beyond the galaxy! Unfortunately it'll have to wait. My employer's busy over there. I can only stick around for a bit." He thrust his thumb over his shoulder and Ronon looked past him to see that the line in front of the desk had all but vanished, save for a tall woman with greying red hair, an ironic trait that matched the color scheme of her uniform, which resembled that of a Genii officer. Ronon looked back to his friend in confusion.

"You're working for the Genii?" he grunted, his good mood starting to diminish.

"Well yeah! A lot of us are! Been a lot of call for Satedans lately. The galaxy's overflowing with the cry for people who know their way around logistics and are good at freelance work. Of course, you can guess which of those I'm filling in for." the bald Satedan answered, looking baffled by Ronon's sudden grim reaction, "Haven't you heard? They're working with the Travelers, building an army to fight the Wraith across the galaxy!" Ronon frowned, looking from his friend to the woman.

"Last I heard the Wraith were getting tired of killing each other and crawling back into their pods..." he said doubtfully, causing Solen to burst out laughing, so loudly that both the receptionist and the woman in grey looked over to them, along with the few other remaining occupants of the room.

"Oh Ronon, buddy!" Solen cackled, "Hah! You should know better than to listen to rumors like that!"

"I haven't heard-" Ronon tried. Solen held up a finger and wagged it

"Oh there's plenty who believe that crap, but trust me! The Genii know better!" he countered, then added in a mutter: "Well, most of them at least." He shook his head. "No, no they're not going anywhere...and even if they are, we'll hunt down whatever holes they hide in and burn 'em out! That's why I'm with 'em. Ever since the Confederation got its act together, they've been calling for any people with prior military experience to serve as teachers. They're hoping to put together a code of strategies. Battle plans, tactics, that sort of stuff, y'know? A handbook for everyone, from the soldiers to the generals. Plus, you need guys like me to teach all these farmers and fishermen how to REALLY fight a war!" He continued laughing, and Ronon noticed a few people around the room were glaring at him for his boisterous words. His 'employer' was not among them however. Ronon nodded towards her.

"Who's she?" he asked. Solen looked over his shoulder, his tone suddenly becoming evasive.

"Oh, right! She's...well...I'm not really supposed to talk about that. Let's just say she's working for a very special branch of the combined armed forces. Name of Natashii. I got pulled off training recruits on Sirea to be her body-guard. Not sure why, but then-"

"Mr. Sincha!" The voice was clear, hard and cold, bespeaking an owner who was used to having her commands obeyed. Consequently it wasn't hard to work out its source. Ronon looked over at the elderly red-headed woman, who had left the desk and was now approaching with a gait that somehow seemed both menacing and clipped, the legs moving as though they were fighting the urge to march. It was the sign of an old soldier, and it filled Ronon with intrigue.

"I wasn't aware I authorized you to speak to civilians." she said, her tone still frigid, but with enough curiosity in it to imply that she wasn't completely furious...yet. To his credit, Solen did not stammer or fumble, and turned to face the Genii commander, if that was what she was. Ronon was beginning to suspect it might not be so. Genii allowed women into their military, but to his knowledge, most of them were kept at a relatively low rank. However, he was prepared to dismiss his suspicions on the basis that perhaps the new unity of worlds had caused a rethinking of certain traditions...for now.

Then he noticed the odd pin on her left breast. It didn't resemble any rank Ronon had ever seen on a Genii officer. In fact it looked somewhat familiar. He struggled to try and pin down exactly why this was so, but Solen interrupted his train of thought.

"This isn't a civilian ma'am. This is Ronon Dex. He's an old friend and a former comrade. We served together on Sateda." Solen explained, standing to attention, hands clasped behind his back. The woman looked over at Ronon, an eyebrow raised, though whether in respect or disinterest, Ronon couldn't say. She extended an arm, which he took at the elbow as she did the same.

"Commander Natashii Divala, of the Confederate Fleet." she said by way of greeting, staring into him with eyes like chips of onyx.

"Ronon Dex." Ronon answered, He was surprised at himself, but then not too much. Something about the woman's demeanor was triggering instincts drilled into him during his earliest military training. something that no one from Earth, not even Sheppard, had ever managed to invoke. "Formerly Specialist Dex of the Satedan Armed Forces. First Commander of Third company, Alpha battalion." The commander nodded, clearly approving of his words.

"You have quite a legend about you, Specialist Dex. Even I have heard of the Runner who joined Atlantis." she said, looking him up and down, "You'd have made a fine candidate for my program."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, suddenly suspicious. Natashii replied with a grim smile.

"Solen and I have been together for less than a week. However he has done much to prove he is a loyal and worthy bodyguard. His people's reputation for honor has also improved my initial view of him, which was that of an undisciplined drunkard assigned to me as a joke." Solen winced at that, and Ronon had to fight to keep a straight face. Solen usually looked like that whenever he wasn't on the battlefield. The man had a taste for alcohol that matched his hunger for Wraith blood. Ignoring her bodyguard's reaction Natashii continued. "Given how much he trusts you, and your background, I will take it on faith that neither he nor you will betray my confidence." she stated, before drawing in a breath and smoothing the front of her uniform as a prelude to her next words. "I am part of a program set up by the military that, among other...objectives, aims to locate and liberate any Runners from their enslavement to the Wraith."

Ronon's eyes almost bugged out, and it took all his self-control not to let shock take over his face. He stared at the red-headed officer for a few seconds, before finally regaining control of his tongue to voice one of the countless questions running around in his head like frightened birds.

"You...what?" The shock resulting in a rather uncharacteristic, and if Sheppard had witnessed it, hilarious response. The former Satedan officer quickly recomposing himself further and tried again. "Um...why?" Only to fail utterly. Commander Divala smiled again, an expression that felt somehow foreboding on her battle-weathered face.

"We aim to create an army to combat the Wraith. As one of our ancestors who saved our people once said, 'In order to destroy your enemy, you must know your enemy'. And while much information has been gleaned regarding the nature of the Wraith now that information is at last flowing freely between worlds, it is not enough, and worse, it is not what we need."

"And what do you need?" Ronon asked, feeling a little stupid, but asking regardless, his snark returning half-bore. In the back of his mind, her words hit a small pocket of suspicion that had started with the odd pin and caused it to grow, though again, he remained unsure why. The commander's gaze hardened making her dark irises look even more cold.

"How to find them. How to hunt them. How to fight them and kill them. There is no one who knows more of these things than Runners." she said, as though stating a basic truth of life, with as much weight as a person commenting on the weather. Again, Ronon found himself shocked. He looked to Solen, who seemed as surprised as he was to learn this, then back to the commander.

"You're serious?" he asked. Ronon suspected that had she not been concerned for her image of consummate professionalism, she would've rolled her eyes in irritation..

"As a bullet wound. Specialist Dex, I realize that you already have other loyalties to think about, but I hope you will not take it amiss if I offer you a place in my program. You'd have the respect of your colleagues, you can be certain. Even among the Runners, your name is legendary. We could use people like you. Your experience in fighting the Wraith would be beyond value, both to me and the Confederation as a whole." she replied.

Ronon found himself falling into the black abyss of Divala's gaze. On the one hand, his people, and the galaxy they were part of, called out to him to join them in their struggle, promising that it wouldn't be like before, that this time, the struggle would not end in slaughter, that this time it would end in victory. On the other, his friends, the people who had saved him from an existence trapped in motion, never able to stand still, never able to interact with others because if he did, the Wraith would kill them as punishment. He stood between them, on one side the mission he'd come here to help accomplish; on the other, the war that was to come. For a long time he drifted there, caught between the tides of loyalty, of duty and friendship. Finally, he answered.

"I'll think about it." he said. Divala's face fell a little, indicating she knew what he actually meant.

"There's nothing I can say to help you decide?" she asked, looking only mildly crestfallen. She seemed as though she'd been prepared for his answer, and was now merely going through the motions of being thorough. He shook his head.

"Well, I can hardly ask a man to abandon his friends." she said regretfully. "The offer still stands however, Specialist Dex, should you ever change your mind. Or, Ancestors willing, the relations between the Confederation and your...compatriots, should change." Ronon caught on to what she was implying: if Earth became more involved with the Confederation, he could easily do what she asked and still remain part of the Atlantis Expedition. A long shot if there ever was one, from what he understood, which wasn't much. He remembered Teyla's words about her responsibility to her people, and wondered whether or not her decision to stay would compel him to join her. They were both from Pegasus, and while Sheppard and McKay doubtless felt responsible for everything that had happened, that was happening, they could never truly understand the weight hey and Teyla bore.

"Maybe…maybe not." With that he offered an arm to the officer as a parting gesture. When she took it, they grasped each other's firmly, but when she went to pull away, Ronon didn't let go. Instead he tightened his grip, and pulled her forward. To any onlooker, it looked as though they were simply embracing, ut Solen sucked in a sharp breath, immediately recognizing it for what it really was: a public, but subtle interrogation. To her credit, Divala didn't make so much as a sound, only grabbing onto Ronon to further sell the charade, a reaction that surprised both Satedans.

Moving in close, Ronon whispered, "Are you Genii?" He squeezed tightly, making sure to get his point across. Divala at first shook her head, Ronon grunting in approval until she suddenly nodded. He squeezed again, the intent obvious: explain.

"Not for them...but I answer to them. To the Confederate Senate. The Genii hold influence over most of it."

"But who do you work for?" he repeated. There was the tiniest of shrugs.

"Chairman Ladon. He still feels a debt to Atlantis, even if they are unpopular. It is common knowledge that he strongly desires to repay it, even as he tries to urge our people to go to war with the Wraith. It is a decision for which he faces strong opposition, I'm sure you've heard."

"I've heard." Ronon answered. Even for someone as politically inept as he was it didn't take a genius to work out what the conflicting messages Lorne and Solen had given meant. As for Ladon...well, he wasn't sure what to make of that. The man had become leader of the Genii by playing Atlantis and his predecessor against each other, very nearly at the expense of the lives of Sheppard and his team.

"Can I show you something that might help?" Divala whispered, breaking Ronon's train of thought. He glanced over at Solen, who was standing frozen in place, unsure of what to do. Ronon really hoped that his friend wouldn't take it personally if this went poorly. He nodded slightly, glancing over to the line of people, which had reformed in the commander's absence. No one was looking their way. He nodded, just enough for her to notice.

Wincing slightly, she raised her free hand, making sure to keep it in view as she reached towards her collar. She paused for a moment, waiting for approval. When Ronon nodded, she reached in and slowly pulled out two sets of what he recognized as dog tags; the first was obviously Genii. He had killed enough of them to recognize one when he say it, but the other was completely new to him, made of some sort of bronze-colored metal that tickled the lump of suspicion in his brain with its familiarity. Divala glanced over at Solen, prompting Ronon to look, and hanging from his friend's neck were an identical pair of tags, hanging alongside his Satedan tags. "My loyalty is to the Confederation and Chairman first, and the Genii second. If you are ever betrayed, it will not be by my hands, or the Chairman's."

Ronon thought about this statement, considering whether or not to trust it. Ladon didn't owe Atlantis anything as far as his ascent to power was concerned. They'd been pawns in that little game. However, they had helped save his sister's life. Furthermore, Sheppard had endured torture to spare his miserable hide when the sadistic Acastus Kolya, a holdover from the old regime, tried to force Atlantis to tear him down. Yes, Ladon owed them...and more than that, he'd always come through for them, loathe as Ronon was to admit it. He was a dishonorable snake, but he kept his word...which meant that he could trust this woman...probably.

Slowly, he eased his grip and they parted, Divala rubbing her throat gently. She gave him a reproachful look, but it wasn't as severe as he'd expected. He'd fully expected her to tell Solen to kill him, not that Ronon thought his friend would've obeyed, but still, it was a good sign.

"Now if you're quite done with the theatrics…" she muttered, "was there a reason for all that?" Ronon drew in a breath, steeling himself for this next bit. He was amazed that his plan, if you could even call it that, was working, and truth be told, he was making most of it up moment by moment. Still, he'd grabbed the bull, and his choices were either hang on, or get thrown and trampled.

"I have...information. Something you need to know. I'm willing to share...but I need an exchange." he said. Divala's eyes narrowed, her lips becoming a thin line, but she nodded sharply.

"Name your price, then tell me. If I think the information is of equal worth, then you have a deal."

"Well that all depends on whether or not you believe me." he grunted. Her lips pulled upwards in a smirk.

"Try me."

-O-

The work to repurpose the Wraith outpost was slow going. For hours, Sheppard and the other members of the team found themselves called on to hold and retrieve various things, mostly sticky, slimy interface tendrils which the Wraith used in place of cabling. Those who weren't busy doing this took up positions around the round room, standing on guard at the three visible exits. The chamber was shaped like a very shallow bowl, with two rows of control consoles arranged in a rough circle at the center. Wide, shallow steps led down to the bony-looking pedestals, around which waterfalls of fog spilled down from a central protrusion in the ceiling, diverted into segments by bony extrusions. These formed the main displays of the control panels, with their glowing buttons projected on surfaces that looked like raw skin stretched between claw-like branches.

In this 'ring of power' John stood watch as Rodney paced back and forth between the devices, directing work, though his gaze mostly rested on Todd, who stood hunched over one panel in particular, occasionally making his own requests. Despite the obvious 'ick' factor involved, John found himself wishing he knew more about Wraith technology, if only so he could check Todd's work. Even with Rodney doing just that, he didn't feel safe. As if he'd sensed his thoughts, John heard the yellow-eyed predator let out a sigh of irritation.

"This would go much, much faster if I had use of both my hands." he stated.

"Not a chance." John answered flatly. This was the third time in twenty minutes the Wraith had made such a complaint and John was wondering if it was a tactic to try and erode his patience. If so, it was working.

"He does have a point." Rodney said, appearing at Sheppard's elbow so suddenly he almost reached for his sidearm.

"Don't do that!" he growled. The physicist simply answered with a smug grin. John rolled his eyes then nodded towards the alien, who looked uncomfortable dressed in the one-piece blue jumpsuit he'd been wearing since his release from stasis. "How much longer?" he asked. Rodney shrugged.

"Honestly? Maybe another three or four hours. Five, if you want to make sure that only the Odyssey will be able to hear us and not every Wraith ship in the galaxy." John ground his teeth in frustration, but nodded.

"And if we were to give him his other hand?" he asked, keeping his volume low so only Rodney could hear.

"Well he does know more about the systems here than I do. The design isn't standard, not that anything really is with Wraith-tech. I still have no idea where half these conduits he's having me pull out even go…" John suppressed the urge to let out his own little sigh. Part of him hoped that at least some of Rodney's estimate was fudged, as the physicist had a terrible habit of exaggerating the odds he faced so when he did solve a problem, he looked all the more a hero. It was annoying, but so long as he got results, John had never complained...much. Still, something told him that this time, the diagnosis was genuine.

"Dr. McKay, if you could please adjust the bandwidth again?"the Wraith requested. Rodney gave John a knowing look and hurried over to the control panel the pale-skinned predator was perusing.

"Uh, doc?" asked Corporal Quentin, standing nearby and holding a pair of nasty-looking fleshy 'ropes', one in each hand, "Should I put these down now or-"

"Only if you want us to start over." McKay snapped, not looking up. His hands flew over the controls, albeit in a way that made it look as if he were hesitant about making every keystroke, his face grimacing as his fingers brushed the wet-looking icons. Finally he nodded.

"Alright, bring the left one over here." he said. Quentin looked back and forth between the two equally-unappealing 'cables'. He looked like he was fighting not to throw up. Rodney looked up from his work and saw his expression.

"Your left, Corporal! YOUR left!" he snapped, not an ounce of sympathy in his tone. When Rodney worked, he was often snappish, but working near Todd only seemed to exacerbate the condition. Sheppard's eyes drifted back to the Wraith as his free hand swept over the 'panel' in front of him, causing one set of controls to be replaced by another, like swiping the screen on a smartphone. He tapped a few of the new characters, which opened boxes of alien symbols. Deciding enough was enough, John sauntered over to the alien vampire and peered over his shoulder.

"Anything interesting?" he asked in his best smart-aleck tone. His pale-skinned target grunted.

"I am ensuring the system updates I wrote for our transmission to work have taken effect." he answered, apparently unperturbed. He swept his hand again and a square of symbols flickered and distorted, before closing and disappearing. Todd growled, through his pitch suggested it was in approval.

"Good news?" Sheppard pressed. He saw McKay shoot him an annoyed look, clearly displeased he was distracting his work partner. John ignored him

"For the most part yes. The updates have taken hold and the antennae have been reconfigured. Now Dr. McKay needs to provide me with the message he wishes to send and specify the bandwidth-" the Wraith said, his voice deadpan. John realized that his efforts to annoy Todd were having no effect and so he turned away with another sigh. At almost the same moment, one of the larger fog-screens popped up a box with a string of red symbols, causing Rodney to groan.

"What? What is it?" John asked. Red in any technological context was generally bad in his experience.

"Not enough power." Rodney whined, "The bandwidth we'd be using in combination with the scale of the transmission means it's too much for the damn generators."

"Not necessarily." Todd interjected, "If I removed the safety limiters-"

"Yes...yes!" Rodney said, his face brightening up, before it suddenly sagged again.

"Would either of you like to tell me what is going on?" John growled.

"Someone would need to enter the generator room and manually disengage the safeties. This outpost is very spartan in design. I made it so that when it was built, no one would suspect the resources being siphoned off to grow it."

"Which means?" John pressed. Todd snarled in frustration, but shook himself, turning away from the console he'd been hovering over to look at Sheppard.

"Many systems that would otherwise be automated are not. The antennas were adjustable from the interior because it's safer than trying to climb on the roof and do it by hand with the frequent rain, wind and lighting this planet has, but the generator safeties are not. I never suspected there'd be a need for such a large power surge."

"So your secret base was built on a budget." John growled, "Where does this leave " Todd stared at him, then shifted his gaze to Rodney, whose face was paler than usual in the weird lights of the various projection systems.

"Someone would have to go in an disengage the safeties manually. Provided the place doesn't explode right off the bat, they'd have to stay there too, which means a lot of radiation. Wraith power cores are basically organic fusion reactors. It's cleaner than a nuclear power plant, I'll grant you but still…" He trailed off, giving John a worried look. Todd just huffed.

"I will do it."

"And why would we let you?" John asked. Rage, sudden and sharp, contorted Todd's features, lasting for just an instant before he got it under control, pressing it down into a sort of grim frustration, which bled over into his next words.

"Because, Sheppard, I am not you. I am Wraith, and more likely to survive extended radiation exposure than you. And because you will never willingly risk these people's lives when another option is available."

"You're pretty weak right now." John countered, "Starving, even. If you do go in there, there's a decent chance you'll die anyway. And if you do die, who's going to distribute that retrovirus?" He wasn't sure why he was saying these things, and by the looks of it, neither were Rodney and Quentin. He paused for a moment, questioning his own motivation. If Ronon had been here, he would've sacrificed Todd without a further thought...but then John wasn't Ronon. The Wraith chuckled.

"A noble sentiment Sheppard...but take my word for it when I say that radiation is pleasant compared to starvation as a choice of ending one's life. As for the retrovirus...I trust that Dr. Keller will find a way to make it work, someday."

John was speechless, not least because out of all the many, MANY ways of Todd dying he'd imagined, many of which had come in the past few hours, he'd never expected anything like this; a noble sacrifice, like Spock walking into the Enterprise's reactor. And it didn't even have the decency to come with the same urgency. He was risking death so John could send a damn message, not to keep the base from exploding. It was...anti-climactic to say the least.

And the worst part was, there was nothing he could say. There were no words that wouldn't seem contrived or pointless because he wasn't sure if he'd really mean them. Their relationship, which had started as unwilling torturer and even less willing victim in Kolya's dungeon all those years ago, had forever been a hazy, uncertain one. There had been alliances, and there had been betrayals, in almost equal number, but now, standing here, John realized the reason he felt this way was because for all the suspicion and dislike he'd accumulated towards Todd, he'd never respected him any less as an adversary. Behind the predatory features and alien gaze, he knew there lurked not a demon, like so many Wraith he'd encountered throughout his time in Pegasus, but a man whose sole goals had only ever been survival and a better tomorrow.

Without thinking, he stretched out his hand, causing Quentin, McKay and even Todd himself to look at him as if he were insane. He ignored them all, focusing on the Wraith's eyes.

"For what it's worth...I'd rather you didn't have to die like this." he said. The Wraith stared at him, before a smile and an odd chuckle overtook him. He stretched out his own hand, and John was certain everyone in the room tensed as he took it and shook it, expecting at any moment for him to become dinner, regardless of how tight the straps were on Todd's feeding hand. Finally he released it and stepped back.

"There are still many things you do not know about Wraith, Sheppard." Todd chuckled, "But if this is our last meeting, then know that for my part, I wish you good luck." He turned back to the console, then tapped a few buttons. He then made a shooing motion towards McKay and Quentin, who were still near the center of the room. As they stepped back, the fog on the floor boiled and erupted as a spiral staircase big enough for a single purpose formed, steps lowering into position like a spring extending. Todd walked down it until he was about halfway in, then looked back at Sheppard.

"In case I do not survive, there is a map of the minefield in the main databank. I have marked it for Dr. McKay. Once the transmission is sent, I suggest you do not remain longer than necessary." he said. Then he turned to McKay.

"As for you Doctor," he said, accentuating McKay's title with a dash of sarcasm, "if I should die, when you see Doctor Keller again, please tell her that I would appreciate it if she finished the work on the retrovirus. Whatever you might think of me, and my objectives, they have only ever been those of a pragmatist. So I ask you to do the logical thing and free my people from their ceaseless hunger...if only because is is ALSO the right thing."

With that, he descended deeper, and vanished from sight. A few seconds later,the stairway closed behind him. John looked over at Rodney, who was wearing an expression he suspected matched his own. Fear, confusion, respect; they all boiled together on the physicist's face like the soupy fog on the floor.

"Well...let's do this." Sheppard stated. Rodney jerked as if snapping out of a nightmare.

"Right...right!" he said, looking around until he spotted his tablet and scooping it up. He tapped its surface, hurriedly pulling up a fresh display with a set of meters indicating what John assumed to be power consumption. He then shoved it towards Quentin, who took it with a baffled expression.

"What am I-" he began, but Rodney interrupted.

"Just hold it." he commanded, then scampered over to the biggest of the control consoles.

There was a long pause, followed by soft beeping sound as one of the fog-screens changed its display to show a series of meters identical to the ones on Rodney's tablet. A window with a small icon appeared next to the display, and Todd's voice suddenly resounded from overhead.

"Dr. McKay, I am disabling the safety systems and adjusting the power plant's output. I can guarantee you one minute of reasonably safe operation before the reaction triggers a meltdown and we-"

"Explode, yes, thank you!" Rodney replied, jabbing another incomprehensible icon on one of the panels, presumable in order to respond, "Don't shut anything down just yet. Just get everything in position. We still need to prepare the message." He then turned to John. "What do you want it to say?"

"Save our asses?" John quipped, trying to cover his current emotional turmoil with sarcasm. It was a trait he and Rodney had in common sometimes. Rodney glowered at him, prompting him to roll his eyes in response. "Can't it just be a voice-message?" he asked, only for the physicist to shake his head.

"Not using this system. It's designed for highly encrypted data reception and transmission. It doesn't do voice-recording."

"Damn." John muttered, thinking quickly, "Well, I was hoping a video message would be enough to convince Mitchell this isn't a Wraith trick, given we're using Wraith tech. The Odyssey's bound to pick up on the discrepancy…especially since the Alpha Site didn't have a subspace transmitter system more complicated than a telegram-machine."

"We could try Morse code…" Rodney suggested uncertainly. Sheppard snorted, but conceded it was probably a decent idea. No one else in the galaxy was likely to have a similar system. Hopefully it's uniqueness would be enough to catch Colonel Mitchell's attention. He delved into one of the many pockets on his tac-vest and fished out his copy of the SGC Field Operations Manual. It was a compact little booklet about the size of a cell-phone, with directions for tasks ranging from the exotic, like dialing the gate manually, to the mundane, in this case, a small index of morse code on page sixty-five. It was printed on waterproof material, which was just as well since John still hadn't fully dried out after the drenching approach to the base. Flipping it open, he approached the consoles as Rodney did something arcane and incomprehensible to the sticky surfaces, bringing up a new window on the fog-screens and causing a small red sigil in the nearest pad to him to glow briefly. He pointed to it as Sheppard came within reach.

"Tap that to generate the morse signals. When you're done, tell me, and I'll give Todd the go-ahead." he explained. John winced as he reached out and jabbed the crimson icon, causing a tone to start playing from the unseen speakers. Nodding in satisfaction, he released the button, then held up his manual, wondering how else today could possibly go wrong...

-O-

It was all Teyla could do to hold back tears. She was no child of course. She'd known going into the 'negotiation' that she was unlikely to succeed. Still, she'd given it her all...and as it turned out, her all hadn't been enough. As the heavy wooden doors clicked shut behind her, sealing away the smug grin of Smeadon and his false platitudes, she looked around for Ronon. She found him sitting in a chair near the exit, wearing an expression of mixed apprehension and consternation, which quickly grew into anger at seeing her face and the defeated expression she was wearing.

"So?" he asked, obviously knowing the news she brought, but wanting to hear it from her own mouth.

"There will be no help from the Confederation. Not from Manaria, at least."

"Give me ten minutes with Smeadon and we'll see about that." he growled, rising from his seat and reaching for what was probably one of his countless hidden knives. She laid a hand on his arm to stay his wrath.

"It would do no good." she said. Should she tell him? She looked into his eyes and felt the guilt well up inside her. The truth was, Smeadon hadn't flat out refused, though somehow that would've been better. No, instead he'd offered all the supplies she wanted...in exchange for a labor deal that would've made her people little more than slaves for five harvests to come. The Athosians could not bear that burden, not with their hunter-gatherer lifestyle being what it was. The absolute worst part had been the temptation to take it. Her loyalty to her friends was still strong, and she'd been gone for so long….it was a shocking reminder at how separated she'd become from her people. She might've taken it, were it not for Halling standing by her side, keeping her divided instincts in check. She decided to keep silent. It was her issue, between her and her people. Unlike many of the problems she'd faced in the past, having her friends help her might just make it worse...or would it?

Her doubts were disrupted by Halling, who cast an angry glance back over his shoulder at the front desk as he spoke.

"Would that it were so easy, Ronon Dex. I must admit, after the way he spoke to both of us, I would not mind seeing him brought low. Unfortunately Teyla is right. We cannot simply remove him. In all likelihood, the Genii would seek retaliation."

"You think he's still working for them?" Ronon asked, looking to the willowy man curiously.

"I would not bet my life on it...but it is too easy to imagine. Regardless, I have never heard of anyone leaving the employ of the Genii...at least not 'feet-first', as Colonel Sheppard would say."

"There is nothing to be done. Our only hope is to try and convince one of the other member worlds to help. What of the Belkans?" Teyla tried. Halling shook his head.

"It is winter on Belkan. The markets will be closed, and it is an even bet as to whether or not the officials there will be any more accommodating. Besides, I'm sure Smeadon is already spreading the word to make sure any attempt we make to find help is thwarted at every level. A man who seeks power the way he does tends to accumulate pawns everywhere."

"I...might have something." The sudden remark from Ronon made Teyla wonder if her ears were deceiving her. Given how exhausted she felt, it wasn't entirely impossible. Still, the tone in his voice suggested it was more than an auditory hallucination, and at this point, she'd take anything, just to try and scrub the memory of that worm smiling at her from across his desk.

"What is it?" she asked. Ronon shifted his feet. She might've said he looked nervous, except that Ronon was never nervous...or at least he never appeared nervous.

"Solen was here." he finally said, looking around as if checking to see if anyone was listening. It seemed rather silly, since the lounge was virtually empty apart from the receptionist, but it just made Teyla more unsettled.

"Solen Sincha?" she asked, "Your friend from Sateda."

'Yeah. He came in while you were haggling with Smeadon. Said he was working as a bodyguard. He introduced me to his charge.:

"Ronon-" Teyla began, a mix of apprehension and irritation filling her stomach, like butterflies in a pit of acid. The negotiation with Smeadon had left her nerves raw, and so for Ronon to be so uncharacteristically cagey was rattling her and upsetting her at the same time.

"Look, I...had a talk with her. Said her name was Natashii Divala. She dressed sort of like a Genii, but there was something off about her. She said she was recruiting Runners to help train soldiers for the Confederation's army. Offered me a position."

"What did you say?" Teyla asked, dread gripping her heart like a hand made of icicles.

"I said I had better things to do. But listen, I managed to interrogate her-" The color must've drained from Teyla's face, because quickly Ronon waved his hands placatingly.

"Quietly. No one noticed." he clarified, "I was able to get some information out of her. Suffice to say, she works for Ladon. Directly for Ladon. There's some kind of political thing going on inside the Confederation, and the Genii are part of it. Solen said the Wraith aren't going back to sleep. He called it a rumor."

"He would be the first I've heard to do so." Halling interjected, "Everyone I've traded with for the past year has said it's the truth." Ronon glared, but continued talking.

"Look, I told her about our situation...and I managed to get her word that she'd help us."

There was a long, uneasy pause, in which Teyla stared blankly at Ronon, his words echoing around inside her head while she mentally ran around trying to stop them from shattering what little composure she had left. She was caught between rage and terror, swinging back and forth, unsure whether to feel betrayed or utterly confused. As it was, she had to fight not to try and break his nose or fall over in shock. He'd let a total stranger, a possible enemy, know that the forces of Atlantis were holed up on her people's planet with a large number of wounded, ripe for the slaughter.

And yet, she reminded herself, this was Ronon she was talking to. She couldn't count the number of times he'd saved her life, or helped her through a time of dire need. He might not appear very smart on the outside, but like John and even General O'Neill, he had hidden depths and a certain amount of cunning. Finally, when her seesawing emotions had achieved some sort of balance again, she sucked in a deep, calming breath.

"You trust her?" she asked. He winced, the implications of her statement obvious.

"No, but I trust Solen to gut her if she turns on us." he answered. Teyla nodded. That was more like him. She crossed her arms.

"Tell me the whole story." she commanded. He did, doing his best to avoid leaving out any details. Outside, the sun continued to sink into darkness, visible through the large windows at either side of the exit. When he'd finished, she sat down, pouring over the information in her mind. Halling sat beside her, with Ronon resuming the seat they'd found him in.

"I trust your judgement, Ronon. You spoke to her as one soldier to another, and I'd be a fool to discount that kind of respect and the honor that goes with it. Still, I'm worried this might not turn out as well as you think." she finally said, struggling to keep the edge she felt she was pressed against out of her voice.

"I know, but like you said, we both knew Smeadon was never going to play along." he responded, "At least this way there's a chance it might work out alright." Teyla tried to find fault with his reasoning, but failed. She was too tired. As she sat mired in mental exhaustion, a part of Ronon's account drifted to the surface of her muddied mind as it fought to resist snapping under the new tension his gamble had brought..

"The symbol she was wearing...could you draw it?" she asked, reaching into her own coat and withdrawing a small pad and pencil. The Satedan looked and her in confusion but she pushed the items towards him anyways.

"Please." she pressed. Deciding not to argue, Ronon picked up the paper and stylus, then did his best to sketch out the symbol. He had to make two attempts, scrunching up the first ones and tossing them over the back of the chair into the corner, to the apparent annoyance of the receptionist. Finally he pushed the paper towards her, along with the stubby pencil. She stared at the icon for a long time, long enough that Halling got worried enough to speak up.

"What is it?" he asked, "Is it something you've seen in your travels?"

"No…" Teyla said darkly, "But I have seen something like it. I only hope that Optimus and Drift can tell me I am wrong..."

"What do the Autobots have to do with it?" Ronon asked in confusion.

"Nothing...but the Decepticons?" she intoned, eyes heavy with suspicion, "As I said, I hope I am wrong."

-O-

As John released the controls for the makeshift Morse device, he checked over the series of dots and dashes he'd created on the fog-screen in front of him. Of course they weren't actual dots and dashes, but rather Wraith iconography that served the same purpose. He examined it, checking against his field manual for mistakes. He didn't want to get ignored and listed as K.I.A. by the bastards back in the AOA because of a typo.

"Is everything in readiness?" asked a querulous Todd over the chamber's speakers, "It's rather stuffy down here."

"And I thought McKay complained a lot." John muttered to himself.

"What was that?" snapped the physicist.

"Nothing. Yeah, we're green." John hastily replied, checking his authentication code one last time before snapping the field manual closed and replacing it in his vest. He turned to Rodney and jerked his head in affirmation. "Light it up." he ordered. The pale Canadian immediately looked back down at the control panel in front of him, his expression stating clearly that he wasn't going to let go of the jab John had taken at him and there'd be a reckoning later. This just made the Colonel roll his eyes and walk over to peer at the hovering, ethereal display linked to the organic 'buttons' over Rodney's shoulder. Despite this irritating maneuver, he found himself ignored as Rodney performed the final arcane programming tweaks to allow for transmission.

"Alright," he finally said, tapping a button in the left corner of the slick membrane, "Go ahead Todd."

"Releasing reactor safeties." declared the Wraith. Immediately, an odd static sensation filled the room, and the hair on John's neck stood on end. The fog-screens flickered briefly, and the lights seemed to glow brighter.

"We need to maintain output for a good thirty seconds, otherwise we risk not reaching the Odyssey. It's a matter of timing and bandwidth." he declared, his voice fraught with tension. John didn't blame him. This was the only real shot they had at avoiding a complete mess and maybe even spending the rest of their lives in Pegasus. That thought brought a sudden recollection of standing in front of the Stargate at the SGC, on the first day of the Expedition's mission. They'd all embarked on what could've been a one-way trip, even him. He couldn't help but wonder if it had been because he was excited or because he wanted to get away from Earth and all the bad memories it held, especially after his time in Afghanistan. Now here he was, trying desperately to phone home. Was he running away again, this time from all the problems he'd caused in Pegasus? It was an odd question, and for a moment, a lump of guilt with the mass of a black hole threatened to tear him open from the inside, dropping through his throat into his stomach where it rested like a black hole.

"Dr. McKay?" Todd inquired, and amidst his own self-recrimination, John thought he detected a note of pain in the alien's voice.

"Beginning transmission...now!" the physicist declared jabbing another button on his tablet's screen. The whole room lit up even brighter, and the strange electric tension built to the point that John almost felt nauseous. He hoped desperately that the radiation shielding around the base's power plant was not faulty and that this feeling was not a sign he was going to die in agony.

Then, in what seemed like no time at all, the lights faded as Rodney pressed the same button again, cutting off the transmission. Hastily he jabbed the first button he'd pressed opening a channel to Todd.

"Re-engage the safeties! Do it now!" he commanded, sounding a little panicky. John could see why. The power gauge on the tablet Quentin was holding had turned into a series of bright red bars, and a small temperature meter in the lower right corner he hadn't noticed was flashing white. As soon as the words had escaped his friend's mouth though, John squinted as the glow of the lights around the chamber suddenly faded, growing dimmer and dimmer. They only stopped when it seemed like they were about to go out. Even the screens on the waterfalls of mist around him seemed faint and almost nonexistent.

"What is it? What happened?" John demanded, "I thought he was just going to re-engage the safeties, not shut the reactor down!"

"Looks like he had to. We were this close to system failure." Rodney said, his voice and gaze distant as he looked up from the controls, "If he hadn't...we'd all be a greasy mushroom cloud right now."

John's fear, which he'd managed to cover up after Todd's descent into the fog with his focus on the mission, surged back. He shoved McKay aside and pressed the 'talk' button, even as the physicist reeled from the sudden and violent reaction.

"Todd, Todd pick up the damn phone!" he commanded. There was a sound from the speakers overhead, like labored breathing, heavy and whistling. It almost reminded John of air being pumped through a hose full filled with holes. It was the sound of a person in great, great pain, still familiar despite the divide between Wraith and human as species. John wasn't sure what to do. Despite the forewarnings and odd goodbye, on some level, he'd never actually expected to stand there listening as his...ally lay below, dying by inches. Then, in a bubbling, strained tone, Todd spoke.

"Sheppard? Is that...you? It almost...sounds like...you...care." There was a violent bout of coughing, before the Wraith spoke again, thick with a liquid noise like phlegm, except that John knew it wasn't phlegm. He'd seen what happened when you died of radiation. Even though he couldn't see Todd, he could imagine him on the floor, spitting up bits of his organs, probably covered in burns, and still burning from within as his DNA was shredded.

"I've left...emergency power. Don't come down...highly rad...radio...active." More coughing, or was it laughing? "I suppose...this...is the end. Good luck...Colonel...Sheppard."

There was a click...and then only silence remained. Rodney looked down at the spot where the steps to the reactor had been, his face full of shock and horror. It seemed like John, he too had expected Todd to survive. Even now it seemed unreal; a galaxy without Todd? What did that even look like?

"Check the life-signs detectors." John commanded, staring down at the same spot as Rodney, "If he's dead. I want to know. Hell, get me a camera view."

"The Wraith don't have cameras, John." Rodney said.

"I DON'T CARE!" John roared. The physicist, indeed everyone in the room, flinched away from the Colonel at the outburst. Panting, Sheppard struggled to regain his composure. "Just check." he said finally, his tone wavering despite his efforts, "Just check, and then, when you confirm that the message was sent, we'll go."

John stared at Rodney, who stared back like a deer in headlights, before looking to Edgars, then to Quentin, who returned stoic, yet subtly unnerved expressions. Rodney reached down to the controls and tapped a few more icons, pulling up a map of the base on the nearest screen. The general shape was of mound with a starfish on the underside. In the center of the starfish, beneath the mound, was a cylinder...and it was completely red.

"I can't get a clear reading." Rodney finally said, "It's either too little power or too much radiation. But the thermometer and Geiger counter all mark that place as unlivable." The physicist looked up again and back to John. "If he's there...he's dead."

"Well…" John said, not satisfied, but unsure of what else to say, "I guess that's that." Rodney nodded hesitantly, then quickly refocused on the organic panel next to him.

"The doors still work, and the lights...but barely. Everything I'm seeing in the logs says our transmission was successful. The logs are partly corrupted though, So I can't say if it was a clean one."

"There's nothing else we can do?" John asked, glancing down to the empty space in the room's center that now felt like the hidden steps to a mausoleum. Rodney shook his head. "Let's go then. No sense in waiting around." He strode towards the door they'd entered by. Every footfall was muffled by the fog, yet seemed sharp in John's senses. The rest of the squad was hesitant to follow, but as he reached the room's edge, they finally picked themselves up and gathered to him, Edgars in the lead.

"What about this place?" Rodney asked, taking his tablet back from Quentin and scampering up the steps after disconnecting the device from the fleshy tendrils it had been hooked to. John looked back over his shoulder, taking in the dome above and the faint, flickering lights one last time.

"Leave it." he said after a moment's hesitation, "Maybe we'll be back this way. There's bound to be something worth looking over. But it's no use to us now." He looked back at Rodney as he pushed his way to the front of the group, then shook his head. "Just let it be."

As the group proceeded down the dark tunnel to the pouring rain outside, John tried to assess his feelings. Todd was gone. He tried saying it in his head, but when he did, it didn't sound as final as he would've liked. There was a space after those words, a dark yawning chasm that he was afraid to fill, because all the options just made the statement as hollow as he felt. For years, he'd played a game of betrayal and counter-betrayal with the Wraith, both of them only trying to play their cards as best they could. But now the game was over.

John had won...and he hated it.

-O-

In the darkness of the reactor core, he waited, clamping down on the pain with expert skill born of tens of thousands of years of experience. He waited until the flickering screens indicated that the facility was empty and he was, at last, alone.

The Wraith called 'Todd' looked down in the faint glow of the illumination nodes at the burn mark on his chest. He'd pressed a high-powered conductor tendril to it to help sell his 'dying moments'. Even now, it still stung, but it was nothing like some of the wounds he'd suffered over his long, long life. On a scale of one to ten, this barely rated a 'six'. He grinned in triumph all the same. McKay, for all his pride, or perhaps because of it, had been easy enough to fool. He'd never once suspected that there might be an alternate locus of control in the reactor chamber. After all, why should the power core serve as a second control room, especially in a base this small? They'd all swallowed it; hook, line and sinker.
He growled at that, then chuckled. It was really fascinating how much his time with the humans, and Sheppard in particular, had affected him. In truth, he actually felt remorse, something he seldom ever felt, for deceiving the Colonel. But he knew that this had been the only option. At least now, Sheppard would probably be rescued, and he'd be able to return to his people. That thought too, interested him. He'd had a chance to end the game, to simply corrupt the entire message and leave the humans with nothing, but he hadn't. Why?

He grunted, pushing himself upright using the knobbly control pedestal as a crutch. He didn't have time to reflect on such things. He needed to move now, while the emergency capacitors still had enough energy to transmit a distress call to his brethren. It had been a struggle hiding everything he'd been doing from McKay, he had to admit, but then he'd helped design this outpost.

As if to highlight this, he staggered over to a space on the wall, then pressed a knobbly lump that resembled every single other knobbly lump in the semi-spherical room, except that this one caused a hidden maintenance passage to slide open. Dropping to his knees, Todd crawled in, hand still clutched to his side. He needed to feed soon. Sheppard had been right about him starving. He struggled down the narrow duct to the end, which dropped him into another, much smaller room with niches set into the walls containing equipment and large, human-sized cocoons backlit by faint yellow light. The closest human approximation to the chamber's function would've been a panic room, a place to wait until help arrived. And help WOULD arrive; Todd had seen to that. Using the reactor room's controls, he'd formulated and sent his own signal on a secondary bandwidth that McKay had missed, hiding it in the energy surge of Sheppard's transmission. It was a message to a very specific, very special Hive, one that he knew he could count on even after all this time away.

Todd slid himself out of the passage and onto the floor of the room, coughing violently at the disturbed dust. The pods were already starting to squirm sluggishly. The power loss meant that stasis functions had been compromised. Once again, the Wraith forced himself upright and struggled towards the wriggling packages. Then he reached out, and with a snarl, began to feed.

As the screams of the preserved humans in the pods echoed through the room one by one, Todd felt no satisfaction. Unlike so many of his brothers, he did not find joy in the suffering of his prey. They were a means to an end, like Sheppard had been, even like the Hive he had called on for rescue. Since he had hatched, Todd had only ever valued one thing above all else: survival. And yet, as he took his fill, he could not help but wonder: Why then did he feel guilty about betraying Sheppard?

o

A/N: HOLY SHIT this is like the longest chapter yet and DAMN did it take forever to write! Sorry to everyone who was kept waiting, but I've been MUCHO distracted with real life issues. Lots of good and bad things have happened, and overall, it's just been a struggle to kick myself to write in the midst of all this exhausting drama. Still, I hope I piqued your interest, because we've still got a hell of a ways to go before this is all over. If I had to judge, I'd hope to say we're about a fifth of the way into the story, and soon a lot of big revelations will be happening. It is my hope that by the end, you'll all be totally hyped for a sequel, since I'm quite sure that writing all the way to the end will be an exhausting experience and I'll need the damn motivation. XD On the bright side, I feel I've REALLY improved in terms of character development skills and just general plot design. Let me know where you think I can improve, because man, at this point I just love hearing that people cared enough to read this drivel. XD