Prologue: Fort Bragg, 1999

"Does this mean we're dating?"

Guffaws all around except for Alcano, who gives him a glare and makes to grab back the string of beads he'd dropped into Sheppard's palm. Sheppard closes his hand and pulls it away with a smirk because a pilot's reflexes are always going to be a little faster than an infantryman's.

"Watch it, Zoomie," Alcano growls, a low rumble that seems to make the air vibrate, "or we leave you here and they won't find you until next Q-Course. If you're lucky."

The glare turns into a stare which would turn into something that might make Sheppard a little nervous if Joe Alcano hadn't been the one to invite him on this ruck. Or if Alcano hadn't started grinning like a six-year-old with a brand-new box of matches.

"Okay," Bennington calls out from where he's crossing the road from where they left Sgt. Jerzinski and the truck. "We are clear to go. No exercises, no training, and shouldn't be anyone shooting at us."

"We hope," Wallach mutters loud enough to hear.

Sheppard laughs with the rest, fingering the string of beads in his left hand. They're a very nice set, each bead in both sequences a different texture, shape, and size and just the right feel so that they can be moved along the lanyard without seeming too loose. The beads are different colors, too, although that's unimportant beyond the fact that they are muted shades so that they can't be seen in the distance. He'd lost his last set somewhere between his last post and his current one and hadn't gotten around to replacing them. Not a high priority for an Air Force officer for whom land navigation skills are supposed to be either esoteric hobby or worst-case scenario.

Sheppard is attaching the string to the loop in his rucksack's shoulder strap as Bennington goes over the plan. Twenty kilometer saunter through the rolling hills and muck-bottomed forests of the Armpit of North Carolina, the back end of Ft. Bragg. They each have a map, a set of objectives, and a time limit. Pairs of two, last ones in buy beer.

He's partnered with Alcano, which is no surprise. Inviting the Air Force guy along is one thing, but it's another to work with him when there's beer on the line. The others are already telling him and Alcano to make sure they stop at the ATM before they get to the bar because there's going to be some drinking tonight. Sheppard schools his face to skeptical but Alcano, a bear of a man, is grinning. He knows better.

Sheppard doesn't think they'll finish first -- he isan Air Force pilot -- but they won't be buying any beer tonight. Alcano came to Special Forces from the Rangers and Sheppard... Sheppard has already passed the hardest land nav course there is. The beads that got him through that one don't travel. They don't even come out of the box with his medals and cufflinks and challenge coins and other trinkets of importance except when he's drunk and maudlin and not wise enough to leave the past alone.

It's been raining most of the week, which hasn't mattered because they've been in classes or otherwise indoors except for PT. But it has made the ground one shade closer to 'soupy' than 'muddy' and the humidity will make the forests feel closer to Brazil than "Pineland" in a couple of hours when the sun is up and climbing.

They set off first -- another sop for the Air Force guy -- and head north. Alcano asks him if he wants to calibrate his stride; Sheppard has a longish step for his height and knows he gets 61-62 left footfalls to the hundred meters on flat terrain and 63-64 on rough ground, but it can't hurt to check. Five hundred meters later by Alcano's count, he's fine with his count and with working the beads. The rhythm is easy to remember, like riding a bike, and he stops having to count out loud to himself quickly enough.

They trudge along in companionable silence, occasionally pointing out landmarks and flora and griping about the swampy conditions or the fact that they still have to sit through three more of Brigadier General Musselman's verbal perorations that are supposed to be about special forces battle management but aren't. Alcano leads for the first hour, then drops back to let Sheppard take point without making it seem like an official handing-off of duties.

From both training and familiarity, Alcano has a feel for the woods and hasn't done much more than take periodic peeks at his compass. Sheppard has no sense of direction and knows it, but he can orient himself on a map almost instantaneously and can do azimuths without having to pause over the calculations. He keeps the map in a handy pocket -- the one Alcano is using for his package of dried fruit -- and is unembarrassed about consulting it frequently because he can do so without stopping.

It is more than an hour later, but he is still in front when they reach their first objective. The marker is a red-painted box on a two-by-four planted into the ground, like a demented mailbox. An automatic hole-puncher-type thing is inside and they pull out their tickets, inserting them in turn into the machine, no bigger than a pencil sharpener, to prove that they were there. The punched hole is barbell-shaped.

Sheppard points out the direction they're next going in, Alcano takes the lead and Sheppard falls in behind him, taking a swig from his canteen as he does. The water is a little warm, but he doesn't mind. It's clean and he's not worried about running out of it or of food, which is just as well because land nav is kinda fun to practice, but survival training really isn't and he's not supposed to be as good at killing small animals as he is. He's got the spaghetti-and-meatball MRE, which he considers a minor miracle even if it comes with Wheat Snack Bread because the the alternative was the chicken-and-ham loaf one and his normally cast-iron stomach does have its breaking points.

The MRE is more habit than necessity anyway unless they get lost and end up running late; twenty klicks isn't that far, especially in daylight, and they have snacks. The plan is to get back and done in time for the afternoon "optional" professional development session, after which there will be beer and burgers and bitching, three things that seem to be in abundance in Fayetteville. Everyone assures him that the rest of North Carolina's really quite nice, especially up in the mountains and down at the shore, but Fayetteville is betwixt and between and not worth getting a postcard of even if he had some place to send it.

Overall, he has to say that he's enjoying this stint at JFKSWCS better than the previous ones. His first trip, right on the heels of finishing the Air Force's own Special Operations School, was pretty much a waste. It had been an afterthought, a timekiller between postings, and it had turned out to be perhaps less harmless than planned. The AFSOS prides itself on being educational instead of practical, as if the two were mutually exclusive, and he'd been blown away by the way everyone else around him seemed to actually be an Operator instead of just... learning how to be one. It'd been one of the only times he'd ever been embarrassed to be Air Force. He'd come out of AFSOS on the asymmetrical warfare track, but left Bragg wishing he'd done joint operations instead. That's what he was doing now, more or less.

The other time he's been here wasn't as a student. He'd been invited (for values of "invited" that don't include being able to decline) to speak about his experience of having walked out of a mission he'd flown into and that had been a completely different sort of embarrassment. People much more heroic than he'd ever be were treating him like a bit of a legend and all he'd wanted to do was puke. It was all he could do to stop apologizing to one of the other guests who'd spent four years at the Hanoi Hilton because, really, what the fuck sort of comparison was that? He'd been scared and wounded and hungry and yeah, there was no doubt that he'd have been in real trouble if one of the locals had gotten to him before the PJs had, but the PJs did get to him first. He'd told his audience that it was easier than SERE school because there had been nobody to grade him afterward and watch his mistakes -- no cadre, no fellow students, no COs. Nobody to see him cry, he didn't say, because one had come out where seven had gone in.

The next objective leaves them with clover-shaped holes punched into their cards. Alcano takes both of their cards to get punched because the box is in the middle of a foot-deep pond of muck caused by the constant rain and he's feeling a little apologetic for having led Sheppard through a bog they probably could have gone around. As with the last checkpoint, they switch the lead and Sheppard pulls out his map and compass. The sun is starting to climb in earnestness and he swears to Alcano that he can see the humidity. He wipes the wetness from his face with the edge of his sleeve, the green darkening with more than just sweat. Alcano, who is bigger and bulkier and should be sweating much more profusely than he is, simply repeats one of the eighty billion jokes about the Air Force's supposed softness. Sheppard answers back with one about the supposed lack of intelligence of Army types and they laugh as they head back into the shade of the tree canopy.


Present Day, M3X-46G

Ronon's going to kill him. Sheppard is sure of this, just as he's sure that if Ronon doesn't, Rodney probably will. Unless they find something, in which case he's back to only worrying about Ronon.

"Do you think that this energy source could be another ZPM?" Teyla asks as she follows behind him on silent feet. "Dr. McKay seemed sure, but..."

"But McKay is always sure until he's proven wrong," Sheppard finishes for her. It comes out a little more bitterly than he'd like because while he keeps telling himself that Rodney's learned from what happened with Project Arcturus II, there are too many times when it seems like he hasn't. And while Sheppard doesn't bear grudges, sometimes he forgets better than he forgives.

The scanner in his hand is energy sensor, directional tool, and anything else he can come up with, which means that he doesn't have to pull his own compass out of his pocket to figure out which way they're headed. He needs all the help he can get -- they're flying by instrument here. Under the dark canopy of the rainforest, he can't see the suns and isn't sure what sort of arc they're describing in the sky. He hates planets with more than one sun. Not only because it all feels a little too Tatooine for him, but also because it usually makes it damned hard to judge time and direction.

"It'd be kind of ironic if we did find a ZPM," he goes on in a more cheerful voice as they follow the weak signals on the scanner. "We looked all over when we needed one and couldn't find one -- or at least one we could keep. And now that we've got one, to find another? Irony being what it is in this galaxy, it sorta fits."

Ronon and Rodney are off on their own in the other direction, a split necessitated both by the fact that McKay couldn't pin down the source of the energy emissions as well as the fact that the scanners needed someone with the gene to work them. Teyla would have put up with McKay with firmly held patience, but Ronon's bigger and stronger and can both bully McKay as well as keep them safe where Teyla still has the tendency to defer if Rodney insists strongly enough.

Ronon understands why the split went that way, but the glare Sheppard had gotten when he'd split the team had been full of menacing promise and he really isn't looking forward to tomorrow's scheduled unarmed hand-to-hand practice. Ronon won't outright call it payback, but he'll make his displeasure known.

There is no point in hoping that Rodney simply behaves himself; the disaster of Doranda more than a month behind them and McKay has returned to form. He has been short-tempered and bitchy since whatever device it was that he'd been eagerly anticipated had been left off the Daedalus's manifest on its last run. The ship's not due back for another month and Sheppard's really not sure Atlantis can hold out that long. Generally, that's Elizabeth's problem. But out in the field, it becomes his and he's not sure he's really up to dealing with it right now.

"It would undoubtedly be put to good use," Teyla says, scampering a little to catch up. "Perhaps it would allow Dr. McKay to move one of the naquadah generators to the mainland."

She's double-checking his navigating, he knows, and it annoys him a little. The Athosians are now raising crops, but they were and are a hunting people and Teyla's tracking skills are probably second only to Ronon's. She's gone out to the mainland with groups of Marines to test and train them and Sheppard is under no illusions that he's better at navigating than she is, but he's the one with the scanner and he's not that bad. He's practiced land nav on his own jaunts on the mainland. Besides, whatever speed they'd gain by having her in front would only be lost by his having to constantly adjust her plotted course according to the scanner's readings.

"I do know where I'm going," he finally says after the third time he catches her making sure he hasn't led them in circles. It's important for all members of a group to know where they are at all times, but, to quote Darth Vader, he's finding her lack of faith disturbing. "I mean, as much as I can know, following these readings."

Teyla has the grace to look abashed. "I am sorry, Colonel," she murmurs. "I did not mean to imply that you did not."

He grins at her. "Don't worry, I'd probably doubt me, too, if I were following," he tells her, mostly because he hates seeing her look apologetic. It's not her style. "These readings really are no help. They're not increasing very much. They're hardly changing at all. It's almost like that fog planet we were on when..." he waves his free hand instead of finishing.

Teyla makes a noise of understanding. Sheppard thinks she's picked that up from Rodney, even if it's not quite his grunt of 'yes, yes, I know, stop talking now, please'.

They've gone about five kilometers since they split with Ronon and McKay and while he's sure they're still in range, it doesn't hurt to check. He hits the button on his transmitter. "How's it going, boys?"

"If we'd had something to report, don't you think we'd have said something?" McKay's voice is tinny with distance, but the words whipcrack enough that Sheppard throws his head back as if he could avoid the blow.

"I think the radios work just fine," he stage whispers. A step behind him, Teyla smiles, one of her indulgent smiles. He likes those.

The signal, a sort of low-level blur of a reading, gets a little stronger when they have to move east to find a place to cross a small stream, so he gestures for Teyla to follow him in that direction instead of continuing northward. He tries not to rely on the scanner more than he has to -- he loves the technology and, for the most part, it loves him back even more. But batteries die and things break -- or get taken away -- and, in the end, you have to be able to save yourself with what wits you were born with. It's feels like a traitorous thought when he's in Atlantis and she rises to meet his every request almost before he can make it. But out here, in a damp forest that reminds him too much of his nightmares and his memories, he remembers the truth of it.

They follow the stream as it broadens from something they'd be able to jump with a good running start to something they'd perhaps want to test the depth of before wading into. He really hopes they don't have to ford it now. The readings are increasing steadily, slowly and in small increments, but it's still not such a big rise from where they started that he wants to call Rodney and Ronon in. There's no saying that they're even tracking the same source. Rodney really hadn't been sure, had been muttering about elliptical fields, and had stomped around the area by the gate for fifteen minutes before even deciding which directions they should try first.

"Do you not find it... quiet?" Teyla asks as they trample through sodden, spongy moss that squishes loudly with each step. "There are no animals about and very few birds."

He hadn't thought about it, but now that she mentions it... "That is kinda weird, isn't it?" He looks at the scanner, which dutifully displays a graphic that shows no notable radiation or chemical traces and plenty of low-energy life signs that he has learned to associate with small animals and bugs. "Maybe the plants aren't good to eat? No herbivores so no carnivores?"

Teyla shakes her head slowly. "The plant life here is does not strike me as being very unusual."

He looks around. The plant life doesn't strike him as being very unusual, either, and he's not nearly as familiar with Pegasus greenery as Teyla is. It looks like most of the places he was deployed to in the 1990's, if he's honest. He's never sure whether he should be comforted or disappointed when he can find such similarities. "Maybe the animals around here are wary of people?"

"Perhaps," Teyla says, gesturing for him to precede her as they begin to walk again. "The animals I have hunted have never displayed quite such stealth."

"There are life signs," he tells her. Not many close by, but they're not alone by a longshot. "Bugs and critters, I think."

Teyla nods, accepting things as they are for now. She'd know if there were Wraith about. He, on the other hand, is starting to get worried. Not seriously worried, but they've walked into ambushes before. "Ronon?" he asks, hitting the button almost after he starts speaking, "How's the scene looking by you? Birds chirping, animals frolicking?"

Asking Ronon serves many purposes, not the least of which is getting a direct answer right away.

"Quiet," Ronon replies, his voice a little muffled by static. "We may be scaring everything off, though."

He counts to two before Rodney chimes in. "Excuse me. Some of us are more worried about finding a ZPM than the delicate nerves of woodchucks and boll weevils."

"I don't think there are boll weevils here," he replies. "Or woodchucks, for that matter."

Rodney mutters something that's probably obscene and he doesn't ask for clarification.

He's been stopping periodically to turn around and see if the readings change in any particular direction. They spike when he faces north, so he gestures to Teyla. It means crossing the stream, naturally.

Teyla points to a spot a couple hundred yards further down the stream. "There is a fallen tree over there. Perhaps we can make use of it?"

The tree -- really more of a thinnish log at this point -- looks strong enough, but is too narrow to use as a bridge. But the stream is sufficiently below grade that he thinks that they can use the log as a pole vault. Teyla looks at him quizzically as he tries to explain, so he ends up getting her to help him drag the thing to the bank and slide one side in. After which she says "Oh, yes. I am familiar with this," which is Teyla-ese for "why didn't you just say so in the first place?". The log is a little shorter than he'd like, but if they grab on at the top, it should maybe work.

He lets Teyla go first, giving her a shove as she leaps. She crosses with only a little yip as she hits the apogee of her arc, when for a terrifying half-second he thinks that she'll maybe go sideways and into the water instead of over and to the other bank. Teyla is such a force that he forgets how small she is. He gets across with no such difficulties, although he stops himself with such suddenness than he nearly falls over backward on to the damp ground.

He knows he's grinning madly, knows he should still be very concerned about their surroundings and it wasn't but a minute ago that he was worried about ambushes. But he's still a little high from the rush of flying through the air and chooses to ride it out. Especially because here in this galaxy where nothing is harmless, most of his adrenalin rushes these days come along with life-or-death situations.

He's sober enough when the readings spike sharply a kilometer later, during which they've seen three birds that look like parrots and sound like car alarms. The birds seem to ease Teyla's mind a little and she tells him about some of the more exotic birds she's seen on her travels, including one that had been taught to curse in eighty-five languages.

"It lived in a tavern on Adera. If you spoke a language that the bird did not know, you got free ale if you taught it the foulest words you knew," she explains.

"Did you score the ale for Athos?" he asks, keeping one eye on the scanner and the other on the ground in front of him. He's already nearly tripped twice and doesn't relish falling into this stinky mess. Rain forests and jungles were his least favorite terrain even before he spent most of a week stumbling through one in fear for his life.

"Sadly, no," Teyla replies. "Adera and Athos have been trading partners for many generations. But I believe Halling may have earned his flagons for knowing a few uncouth phrases from Diriget. They were a very insular people."

"Halling?" He intentionally ignores that Teyla spoke of Diriget in the past tense. These things happen in the Pegasus galaxy. "Doesn't seem the type."

She laughs delightedly. "In his younger days, he was a bit of a... carouser, I believe you might say."

He tries to imagine the serene and serious Halling as younger and wilder. Oddly enough, he can. The Athosians, a catch-as-catch-can type of people, aren't dour by nature. Away from the specter of Atlantis and living with the ghosts of the Ancestors, Halling is far mellower and even a little mischievous.

The readings have gone up enough that he feels comfortable contacting Rodney and not receiving a verbal tongue-lashing for crying wolf. "McKay, I think we've got something," he says, letting go of the radio button so that he can balance himself after slipping again.

On his first trip to Colombia, almost ten years ago, he got taken through the jungle by some of the Special Tactics guys. He was new to his unit and it was some sort of hazing thing, but he'd ended up learning more than just that his dignity was very flexible (life as a doolie had taught that lesson permanently.) Walking in slick mud has never been a problem since, but he never signed up to be an infantry grunt.

Teyla moves ahead of him, looking around with experienced eyes. "There is something not right here," she murmurs, not turning around to face him. "Nothing looks out of place and yet something feels wrong."

He looks around for real for himself, without his attention being split between the ground and the scanner. It looks... like rainforest. The light is a little stronger here than it was earlier, but it's probably just a matter of the planet's suns being in a better position to break through the canopy. It still smells of rot and renewal -- but mostly of rot, that cloying too-sweet stink of overripe fruit that makes him want to retch when it gets too strong.

"Colonel?" Rodney's voice is more curious than annoyed. "Can you repeat what you said? You got cut off the first time."

Teyla is looking up as she returns to his side. "The trees are shorter here," she says finally. "Newer. There may have been a fire here once."

He follows her gaze. The trees are shorter, but not for very far out. The fire, if that's what it was, must have been small and contained quickly. A lightning strike might have explained the fire in the middle of the forest, but only human (or Wraith) intervention would explain the small radius of regrowth. "Could there have been a village here?"

She makes one of those faces he'll never decipher even if he always knows what it means. "Perhaps," she allows, "It is very isolated. We did not come across any paths to or from the stargate, but that does not mean that they are not there. Or that they were once there. This place has not been anything but what it is for a long time."

This deep into the trees, there's no wind to speak of and the stench of decay is starting to turn his stomach. Between that and the slowly growing sense that Teyla was right to be disturbed...

"Colonel?" Rodney's voice again, this time more annoyed than curious and more than a little worried.

"I said that I think we've found something," he repeats into the radio. "The scanner's readings are about five times what they were when we came through the gate."

"Do you see anything?" McKay's annoyance is gone.

"Trees, moss, mud, rotting stuff," Sheppard replies, moving slowly and carefully toward a large boulder placed incongruously next to the base of a tree. "A really big rock."

"How far away from the stargate are you?"

Sheppard closes his eyes to do the calculations in his head, knowing that the scanner in his hand has helpfully done all of the computation already and but waits for him to look down at its screen. Even in the Pegasus galaxy, navigation isn't hard, but he still throws in some wiggle room because he rounded up and a whole bunch of approximations multiplied and divided can put you in Chile instead of China... He looks down at the screen and sees that his measurement and the scanner's only differ by half a klick. He gives Rodney a heading and splits the difference between his calculation and the scanner's when it comes to how far.

There's silence as Rodney calculates how far away he and Ronon are from them and Sheppard rolls his neck, hearing the cracking more than feeling it. Teyla stands facing him, looking behind him for any threat they might have left behind them.

"They're probably arguing about how far the walk is," he says after the quiet stretches. He can just imagine the scene -- Rodney griping about how many hours of trekking through the muck it will take and Ronon looming over him, insisting that they start. He thinks Teyla must be imagining it, too, because she smiles a little wickedly.

There's no point in Rodney arguing; they have to meet up and unless Rodney finds something more interesting where he is, that means that McKay and Ronon have to come to them. "Guys?" he asks, dragging out the word. "Are you walking or glaring at each other?"

"We're moving," Ronon reports back, a rumble that would be gruffness if everyone didn't know that he'd just bullied McKay into acquiescence.

"Good," he replies, giving Teyla a pleased nod. All in all, that didn't take too much time. Maybe he should let Ronon handle all of Rodney's objections. He rests his left foot on the boulder, feeling the stretch of his hamstring as he bends his leg.

All of a sudden, however, the boulder shifts under his foot and he lets out a shout as he starts to fall backward, fall far longer than it takes for his head to travel six feet to the ground. Teyla is falling, too, and he can see her eyes wide in surprise and fear and he really doesn't want to know what's coming up behind him when they do hit the ground.


He wakes slowly, sluggishly, and filled with dread. He can smell blood, can taste it in his mouth, and his nostrils are filled with the stink of mud and shit and he forces himself to keep still, to remember what he learned in SERE, to remember the crash course in pidgin Manobo he'd gotten on the dry runs down and back, shouted over the engine noise of the world's loudest Huey, to remember the phrases he'd had to memorize before deployment because, oh god, he'd passed out and they'd caught up to him.

"Colonel?"

It's not his rank, but his eyes snap open anyway and the dissonance jars him out of his fog. Teyla. Not there, not caught, not then. Just here and now.

Whatever Teyla sees on his face worries her because she reaches out and then stops herself. "Colonel?" she asks again, more gently. "We are safe," she tells him. "We are stuck, but we are safe."

He wants to say something, but the only thing that comes out is a miserable groan. He settles for a nod, which seems like a bad idea after the fact. His vision swims with the pain.

"You hit your head when we landed," she tells him and he makes a face because that was immediately obvious. "You do not seem to have sustained any other injuries, but I did not do a thorough check beyond that which could not wait until you came to yourself."

He closes his eyes, sucks in a deep breath, and pushes himself upright, wobbling a little as he finds center. His back is pressed up against a wall and he tilts his head back, keeping his hands palm-down on the hard ground. His tac vest is unzippered and he reaches blindly for his canteen, which is not where it should be. Nor is his 9mm. or his knife.

"Here," Teyla says as she offers his canteen to him. He can tell it's his because of the dent on the side from the first time they encountered Ronon. "Your weapons are here," she continues, gesturing with her left hand to a small pile at her side.

He takes a small sip, rinses out his mouth, tilts to one side, and spits as far away as he can. He thinks of the cherry pit-spitting contest he saw in Traverse City one year and has to fight back a laugh. He's probably not even concussed; he'd have puked if he were. He takes a second small sip and swallows.

"Are you okay?" he asks in a voice quiet enough not to rattle his brainpan any more.

Teyla looks at him almost fondly for a moment. "I am fine," she tells him in the same quiet voice he used. "I am more concerned for you. Do you feel any pain apart from your head?"

He closes his eyes for a moment, cataloging the hurts. He can still feel the ache of a broken wrist, a sprained knee, bruised ribs, and a shoulder dislocated and popped back in against a tree, but those are phantom pains, only memories coming back to haunt. Right now, more acutely, he has a sore back, aching knees, and is probably bruised in unpleasant places, but there's nothing really wrong. He can run if he has to. "I'm okay," he says, opening his eyes. "Good to go."

He has lied about injuries before and Teyla knows it, but she nods acceptance for now. She's told him that she'd looked him over.

"What happened?" He can guess that something more went on than just what got them here -- it's not SOP to strip a concussed teammate of their weapons and Teyla would err on the side of caution over comfort -- but leaves it to her to decide what to say.

Teyla raises an eyebrow meaningfully. "The ground opened up beneath us and we fell," she replies with deceptive calmness. "The hole--" she gestures up and behind her, "--closed again and we have been here for... ninety-five minutes."

He takes another small sip of water.

"I have not explored very far," she goes on, "but it appears that we are in a holding cell of Wraith design."

"Wraith?" He starts forward to reach for his weapons, but Teyla holds up her hands and he leans back heavily.

"It seems to have been abandoned for some time," she explains. "I sense no presence and the facility is dark and dust-covered."

He looks around. There's nothing really to see. There is one light on each wall, a dim illumination that leaves vast blackness in the middle of the room, which has to be pretty big. It doesn't smell very stuffy, but there's a staleness to the air that speaks to lack of recent usage. "What makes you think it's Wraith?"

Teyla gestures toward one wall. "The architecture is similar to what we have seen on hive ships and in the laboratory where my ancestors were experimented upon," she answers. "There is an open doorway to another room, but I did not want to explore it as it would take me too far from you."

He makes to rise. "We can go now, then," he says. "If we've been out of contact for an hour an a half, then Rodney and Ronon know we're missing and we should start working on our own way out. We are out of contact, right?"

"Yes," Teyla agrees promptly. "I have tried to reach Dr. McKay and Ronon from many points in the room."

Getting up is unpleasant, but apart from the ferocious pounding in his head, he's okay and waves off Teyla's offer to help. "Am I safe to be carrying arms?"

Teyla dips her head in embarrassment for a moment, then crouches to retrieve his guns and knife. "You woke earlier," she says slowly as she hands him the knife, hilt-first, and then the Beretta once he's sheathed the knife. "You were... confused. Dazed. You tried to fight me off when I came to tend you and were speaking in another language. I did not know if you would try to harm me or yourself, so I disarmed you."

Shit. He was glad that the dim light and his dirty skin were conspiring to hide his blush. It had been years since anyone had caught him in one of those nightmares. "I'm sorry," he says sincerely, letting his embarrassment color his words. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"I said that you tried to fight me off," she answers, a sly grin playing on her face, but disappears just as quickly. "Do you remember any of what you saw?"

She's thinking that the Wraith facility might be affecting him, he realizes. The way the Wraith's proximity affects her.

"No," he lies, because he remembers enough that he knows its provenance has nothing to do with the Pegasus galaxy.

"What does 'kaibigan' mean?" she asks, holding out his P-90. "You repeated it many times."

He rubs at his face and runs his fingers through his hair. "It means 'friend'," he says, taking the rifle and focusing all his attention on clipping it to his vest, even though he can do it blindfolded.

He flicks on the rifle's light and steps past Teyla, scanning the room slowly, especially the parts where the dim light cannot reach. It's a large room, maybe the size of the commissary in Atlantis, and it is bare except for a table and a chair. The table is laden with items he can't pick out from where they are and the chair, several meters away from the table, looks eerily like the control chairs in Atlantis and Antarctica.

"The items on the table appear to be implements of torture," Teyla says, accepting his disinclination to talk without any further comment. "Or perhaps scientific tools. There are Wraith knives and other devices that I cannot identify."

"Good to see that our luck at landing in the right place at the right time still holds," he replies with false cheerfulness. All kidding aside, however, the idea of having landed in a Wraith torture tank makes his blood run cold. Especially since he still hasn't quite shaken himself free of the lingering horror of his flashbacks.

"Wouldn't think that the Wraith would be needing much in the way of torture devices," he says as he moves toward the table. "What with the life-sucking touch to go with the stunner weapons and all that."

Teyla walks around the table so that she is on the other side. "There are those who are less susceptible to the Wraith's touch," she offers, gingerly picking up what looks like a rusty scalpel. It is macabre in the ornate design of the handle. "Like Ronon. I do not doubt that it is still extremely painful, but it would perhaps explain why they would resort to more... traditional methods."

"Oh, I'm sure it hurts like hell," he agrees, tipping over a small cup with the tip of his index finger. Ronon's ability to withstand pain is approaching legendary status among the Marines and Sheppard has had to take measures to ensure that Ronon doesn't do anything too damaging to himself as he hones that particular 'skill'. "But why interrogation? There aren't that many civilizations that can fight the Wraith -- they've seen to that themselves. Why would they even need to twist information out of anyone? They had thousands of years to work out a system of tracking their 'cattle' and they could out-gun and outswarm anyone in the galaxy."

"We cannot know how often the Wraith interrogate their prisoners," Teyla points out, dropping the scalpel and waving away the dust cloud that rises. "Not many have ever returned from their captivity to report. We do know from our own experience that hive ships have cells, however, and perhaps that should indicate that interrogation is not uncommon."

"The Wraith didn't need toys for those interrogations," he says flatly, remembering Sumner, the skeleton at the head of the table that he later found out had been an Athosian named Toran, and the slightly fishy smell of the Wraith guard's hand as it squeezed his own throat.

He is shining his light across the table when it glints brightly off of something. Reaching out, his fingers touch dusty glass that hums familiarly under his fingers and in his mind. He jerks his hand back instinctively, but then picks up the object, a small trinket that glows green and looks like one of the ugly brooches his grandmother always wore on Sundays for church. "That's disconcerting," he mutters, not really wanting to think about Ancient devices in Wraith dungeons.

"Colonel!" Teyla cries out, pointing behind him. He turns, shines the light of his rifle, and sees where her finger leads. It's a small table near the chair and he'd be able to see it even without the light because something on it is flashing red.

"Did that start when I..." he trails off, knowing the answer. "Great. Another one of those tracker thingies."

Teyla circles back around the table and heads toward the flashing device. As he follows behind, the flashing grows more insistent. "Definitely a tracker."

The effects of Teyla's necklace had been thought to have been an unfortunate confluence of isolated events, but the discovery of another tracker means that there was a systematic effort to booby-trap Ancient technology. And that meant that there had to be more of these out there, possibly many more, just waiting for someone with the ATA gene (him, always him, nobody on any of the other offworld teams ever seemed to set these things off) to get distracted by the shiny object. Considering that their expedition's mission was to find Ancient technology and utilize it...

"The Wraith don't have the ability to track anything over great distances," he says, bringing the bauble in his hand up to where Teyla is holding the tracking device. It is flashing frenetically and he has to look away.

"It should be safe to bring back to Atlantis," Teyla says. "My necklace only proved a danger on missions."

"True," he agrees. "But that was before we pretended to blow up the city. The Wraith get any ideas about doing a fly-by and we're throwing up a beacon."

The flashing is making his head ache even more. He tries thinking 'off' at the bauble and the green light fades, but the red light continues spasmodically. "Fantastic. It just needs activation and then it's good to go."

"Should we destroy it?" Teyla asks. "If the Wraith are nearby, then we are announcing our presence. We are trapped here and Ronon and Dr. McKay are unprotected on the surface."

He thinks it over for a minute. He knows Rodney, who has figured out how to deactivate the tracking bug, would love to have another one to play with. "You didn't sense any Wraith before. Do you sense any now?"

"I do not," Teyla admits, "But my 'gift' does not have as great a range as the Wraith tracking beacon does. They would sense us before I sensed them."

He goes back to the large table and looks for something heavy. There's a brick-like object and he takes it. He feels a little like Travis at the end of Old Yeller. Kneeling down, he puts the bauble on the ground. "Sorry, buddy," he murmurs to the device, and proceeds to bash it with the brick until the light in Teyla's hand goes out.

"Speaking of being trapped," he begins, standing up and dusting off his knees. The noise and motion have made his headache swell to a crescendo. He maybe should have let Teyla destroy the thing while he stood away with his fingers in his ears. "Howsabout we work on getting out of here? If we can get out, then we can get back in and poke around. Rodney's gonna want to spend some time down here."

Turning around, he nearly trips over the chair and wrenches his already sore back making sure he doesn't fall on it in any way that might turn it on. If the innocent-looking bauble had a Wraith tracker, who knows what the Wraith could have done to this bastardized control chair. "Ow," he hisses as he finds his balance again. A hot bath and plenty of aspirin are starting to move well past 'hot meal' and 'sleep' on his list of things to acquire once they're back in Atlantis.

"Are you hurt?" Teyla asks, aiming her rifle's light at the chair and not at him.

"No more than before," he answers, turning away before she moves the light close enough to be able to see the tears that he's shedding involuntarily. He wipes his face with the back of one hand and gestures with his P-90 with the other. "Let's go thataway," he suggests.

Teyla moves in front of him, which is as good as her announcing that she no longer believes that he's in any shape to be running around. She'll never say that he's not in any position to lead, but she will decide that he shouldn't be leading from the front.

"Careful," he warns, because he really isn't in that bad a way and he hates being coddled. Headache, backache, and bruising, but on the big list of crap that's happened to him, it barely rates. He's dinged himself worse practicing crash-landings at Hurlburt Field. "This'll only be a funny story afterward if falling down the rabbit hole is the highlight."

They move into the next room almost shoulder-to-shoulder, ignoring height differences. "You go left, I'll go right," he tells her quietly.

The odds are that if something were to happen, it would happen to him. If this is a Wraith dungeon, if that was the torture chamber or wherever they did their Dr. Mengele routine, then it stands to reason that the place is rigged to respond to the Ancient gene.

He didn't want to say it out loud because Teyla sometimes bridles when someone does, but the Ancients were the Wraith's last worthy opponent. They were the last race the Wraith would have needed to interrogate, the only people they would have seen as adversaries and not chattel. This place wasn't built to torture humans; it was built to torture Ancients.

He thinks "off" and "don't turn on" and "not really here" and "shhhh" and "these aren't the droids you're looking for" and all of the other concepts that Atlantis and her toys respond to back home. The room is much smaller than the one they fell into and completely bare. He meets up with Teyla on the far wall.

"No door, no passage to another room," she says, looking around. "There must be a secret passage."

Wraith doors have never been their friends. "If we could find a crease or a panel or something," he mutters, "then we could blow a hole and get out that way."

"Yes," Teyla agrees, touching the wall in front of them. It's the same ugly, chitinous style as the hive ships, all curved bits and no straight lines and it's going to be harder than it should be to find a doorway because neither of them seems to have found one on the first pass.

He gestures for her to continue past him and examine the walls he has just passed. He'll do the same with her side of the room. They both end up stopping frequently, following what turn out to be false trails of the room's component parts.

"Colonel," Teyla calls to him. "I think I may have found something."

He shines his light over to where Teyla is pointing hers. From across the room, his light covers a wider area than hers. It could be a door. The outline Teyla is tracing has a regular shape, even if it's nothing he'd call door-shaped. "Wanna blow a hole in it to check?" he asks.

They both carry C-4 as a matter of course. Ford had been the demo guy, but when it came time to go out on their first mission after he'd left, the wounds had been too raw for Sheppard to assign the task to either Teyla or Staff Sergeant Stackhouse, who had accompanied them on a few missions before they'd found Ronon. He hadn't counted on Teyla assuming the responsibility on her own and their meeting in the armory had been both awkward and a relief.

"Don't use so much," he cautions as he holds his light on her so that she has both hands free. "Ventilation in this place may be letting us breathe, but we don't want to push it."

Teyla takes a smaller chunk and applies it, sticking on the cap where it is thickest. He moves quickly into the other room and she follows him after a moment. He goes to the far end, where he'd fallen, and plugs his ears as best he's able. The explosion still rattles his skull and he leans against the wall a bit to let his head clear. He can smell the first wave of acrid dust and smoke -- Wraith building materials smell vile when burned -- and slides down the wall to the floor, where the air is not as bad. He takes out the handkerchief he carries out of habit and wets it a little, enough so that he can cover his mouth and nose.

He senses more than feels Teyla next to him and leans toward her slightly. She'd kill him if she thought he was protecting her from dust, but he does a little anyway. She, too, is covering her face.

They wait a couple of minutes, eyes closed and breathing carefully. He lifts his rifle and checks out the Brownian motion of the dust. It's thinning out, so he bumps Teyla and gestures for her to get up. They walk back to the other room, the floor of which is now covered in yellowish dust. There is a small hole at the bottom of the wall, enough to crawl through without a vest -- if there's something to crawl through to. He crosses to it and kicks at the ragged edges, widening the space by maybe a foot before his own foot starts to ache. They seem to have found a passage.

"I will go through first," Teyla announces. "I am smaller."

He's about to point out that the hole is now wide enough for him to pass through without a problem, but she gives him that look and he backs off.

It takes Teyla a moment to organize herself so that the barrel of the P-90 -- and thus its light -- are pointed in the correct direction as she crawls. She goes in halfway, a little more, and then stops. He's on one knee behind her, not close enough to get in the way but close enough to be able to have decent leverage should he have to grab her legs and pull her back out.

He hears her gasp and his hands are on her ankles in a heartbeat, ready to drag her out.

"I am fine," she assures him, slowly backing out of the hole.

He is standing by the time she is all the way through. She looks up at him and, in the shadowy edge of the rifle lantern's light, she looks pale and shaken.

"What is it," he asks, crouching down. "What's there?"

"It is a charnel pit," she says with barely contained revulsion masquerading as calm dignity. "There is nothing beyond it."

Great, so they've discovered the Wraith's garbage disposal. He offers his hand to her and she accepts it, letting him pull her up. He looks her over carefully as she brushes herself off; it's a momentary shock, nothing more. Teyla is as tough as they come. He's pointedly looking at his shoes by the time she looks his way.

"Should we continue our search?" she asks, taking a sip from her canteen. It's not yet time to worry about rationing or food supply, although another couple of hours and they are going to have to designate a latrine.

"Yeah, but I think we'd better be really sure about the next hole we blow," he answers. "There's a lot of dust floating around and breathing clean air is not optional."

He thinks of Rodney then, of what he'd be saying about the air quality, about their chances, about them getting stuck again. He'd be a pain in the ass bitching about everything, but maybe he'd have an idea about getting them out, too. He's not sure whether that would outweigh the bitching and moaning, though.

"We never found out how long they thought it would take for them to get to us," he realizes aloud. Granted that Rodney's calculation and Ronon's were probably significantly different, he knows that Ronon's would be closer to the mark now that he and Teyla were missing. "Although they could be right on top of us and we'd never know."

"Does your scanner not reach the surface? Teyla asks, crossing past thim to wall opposite the doorway into the other room.

He knows he looks stupid with embarrassment and that she can't really see him. "Let me check," he answers, pulling it out. It is unharmed from the fall and promptly produces a backlit image of their surroundings. It's only a two-dimensional image, so there's no way of telling if the many dots are on the other side of the walls or above or below them.

"Teyla," he says slowly, "Is your Wraith-sense tingling?"


They are waiting, pressed up against the wall of the larger room halfway between the spot where he'd woken and the doorway to the smaller room, by the time they can hear the sound of a door sliding open. Their P-90s are up, safeties off, rounds in the chambers. He knows she's the superior fighter, but he's still prepared to keep himself between the Wraith and her to give her a chance to escape. Better she live to resent him. Better still if they both live.

They'd heard scrabbling noises at first, sort of like the rats-in-the-wall noise he'd known from some of his worst billets and sort of like dirt and rocks rolling down a cliff, then nothing, then the sound of a small explosion. Then they'd hidden because it could be the cavalry or it could be the bad guys. This could be a Genii trap for all they knew or some other people who don't take kindly to strangers.

The door doesn't open smoothly; there is grit in the mechanism and dirt on the floor. He looks over at Teyla, but she shakes her head. She doesn't know if they are Wraith or man. There are faint noises that could be footsteps but maybe aren't and, either way, it doesn't identify who is coming. In Atlantis, the Marines can generally be heard a hundred meters away, except when they can't be heard at all until you're on your belly kissing a training mat.

There's ambient white noise here and it's worse with the door open. His stomach decides that now is the perfect time to announce that it's been at least nine hours since his last meal and scrambled eggs only go so far. He knows it's not that loud a noise, but he still imagines that it echoes around the large chamber, revealing their presence. Getting betrayed by his own hunger would be a stupidly ironic way to go if those are Wraith in the other room.

"Colonel Sheppard? Teyla?" A voice calls out quietly. "Are you here?"

He recognizes the accent and lets out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Safir?"

An annoyed sigh is positive identification enough. At least until they encounter their first mindreaders or shapeshifters, which thankfully doesn't seem too likely. He lowers his rifle and flicks the safety back on. Next to him, Teyla does the same. They don't come out in the open yet.

"When you are not saving us all from certain doom, you are sometimes more trouble than you are worth." A rustling noise. "Major? We've got them."

There are no footsteps, but the next time Safir speaks, it is from a closer position. "Are either of you hurt? Can you move? Can you walk?"

"We're fine," he replies.

"Colonel Sheppard was knocked unconscious and is slightly injured," Teyla says, looking unrepentant and challenging when he glares down at her. "We are able to walk."

"I'm fine," he insists, knowing that it wouldn't really matter, that Safir will give them both a cursory exam once they reach the surface. It's just that now he has to report to the infirmary once they get back to Atlantis.

Safir sighs again. "Of course you are," he agrees. "Is there any reason you are still there and we are still here?"

"No, Doctor," Teyla says, stepping away from the wall. She keeps one hand on the rifle, nonetheless.

His radio and Teyla's are set to different frequencies than Lorne's team's are, although all radios have the open channel as a pre-set and the ability to access to the command channel. He's about to switch his to the command channel to talk to Lorne when he remembers the way Lorne's team works.

"Reletti? Are you there, too?" he asks.

"Yes, Sir."

"Go upstairs now," he orders. "Nobody with the gene comes down here."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He can hear boots hitting the ground as Reletti runs away.

"Teyla, go get that tracking device," he tells her, gesturing in the general direction of the chair and table. "I want to see if anything in Atlantis is bugged and maybe the engineers can build us another one."

His rifle comes up as Safir appears in the doorway, his own P-90 up and ready. They exchange smirks and lower their weapons.

Safir comes closer to him and pulls out a penlight, running its beam up and down his body before returning to his head. He raises his hand to his eyes to block the glare and Safir turns the light to the side. Yoni is in field medic mode now, the annoyed expression gone in favor of critical appraisal as he steps closer, into Sheppard's personal space. The flashlight returns to his face, but this time Safir shields Sheppard's eyes with his own hand.

"Doesn't look too bad," he murmurs, lightly touching Sheppard's forehead with gentle fingers. "I'll take another look once we're topside. Think you're concussed?" He steps back, turning the flashlight toward where Teyla is rummaging on the table.

"Nah," he replies, deciding honesty is the best policy now that the cat is out of the bag. The more information he gives now, the less he'll have to endure in the infirmary. "Landed all right, I think. Teyla may have landed on me. Nothing serious."

Safir grunts agreement. Yoni is one of his preferred doctors to deal with not only because he's brisk and efficient, but also (mostly) because he has perspective and experience as a soldier and his sliding scale of Injuries Worth Fussing Over is far different from most of the others in Medical. He'll never release a patient who should be kept for observation and he's impossible to con into an early release, but for the rest, where Carson offers a bed in the infirmary, Yoni offers aspirin and a curt goodbye.

Teyla returns with the device and the three of them walk back to the smaller room just as Ronon appears in the doorway that leads to the way to the surface. He looks at Sheppard like the way people look at their pets before they're housebroken. "You hurt?"

"No," he answers. Before either Teyla or Safir can contradict him, he hits the button on his radio. "Lorne? We're coming out. Everything peaceful?"

Ronon stops in front of them, looking him and Teyla over, eyes lingering on his face before nodding and then moving past them.

Sheppard's not sure how Ronon will react to what they've found, it being a Wraith torture chamber and Ronon being an alumni of the program, but he's pretty sure he'll handle it better without evidence and in daylight.

"Ronon, let's go," he says. "You can look around later."

Ronon comes back and falls into step behind them.

"Colonel?" Lorne's voice comes over the command channel. "Good to hear your voice. Everything's peachy up here. Gillick's boys have set up a perimeter and Dr. McKay is having a picnic lunch."

Sheppard smiles ruefully, unpacking Lorne's words into mental pictures. Rodney won the argument and called in to Atlantis -- Ronon would have wanted to go directly to where they were and looked for them -- and Elizabeth sent both Lieutenant Gillick's platoon and Lorne's team out to help. Gillick is ready-room officer this shift, so his presence isn't surprising, but Lorne was probably summoned from wherever he was and told to kit up. Both a second team and the ready-room platoon is a bit of overkill for the situation, his own position in Atlantis notwithstanding, so either Rodney was especially panicky in reporting in or Lorne simply lost the argument with Elizabeth, who has been a little protective of off-world teams of late. His own team's recent streak of getting captured by rogue elements probably merits it, but he's not about to confess that during the debrief.

The way out starts with a long, narrow, dimly-lit passageway that they must go through single file, Safir in front. It curves enough that there is very little but wall to be seen both ahead and behind and he finds it disconcerting. Especially because it was apparently also a ramp -- they make one last curve and he can see daylight.

He is disoriented once they're on the surface. He doesn't see anything that looks familiar, but the nature of their egress completely screwed with his ability to tell how far they are from where they fell. The forest is thinner here, almost a clearing, and there are stumps.

Lorne is pushing off a tree he's been leaning against when Sheppard spots him, apparently in conference with both Gillick and his gunnery sergeant. Reletti, along with Suarez and Ortilla, are standing near where McKay is sitting. Rodney is inhaling an MRE and looks up with studied nonchalance, waving to them with the pouch of whatever the entree was. Sheppard revises his approximation of the events that led to their rescue to discount McKay's excitement and go with Lorne choosing discretion over valor and not arguing with Elizabeth. Rodney's not even worked up enough to snark at him. He's been keeping his distance since Doranda, but he knows McKay well enough that his biting words are occasionally more pressure valve than actual personal belief. Sometimes Rodney bitches at you because he's worried. Here, not so much and Sheppard hopes it isn't because his disappearing is getting to be the rule rather than the exception.

"As you can see, there was much tsuris over your disappearance," Safir says wryly. He can see that Yoni is watching Rodney, but the doctor turns around to look at him. "Let me look at your head again."

They are about the same height -- Yoni has maybe an inch on him -- so he doesn't have to kneel. Gentle pressure on what must be a cut by his hairline, then a thumb along his cheekbone, and a look at his ear and chin.

"How far behind him were you when you fell?" Safir asks Teyla, pulling out an antiseptic wipe and tearing open the foil packaging. He starts cleaning the abrasions and they start to sting.

"Not far," she replies. "But too far to reach out to each other. I'm afraid that I landed awkwardly on the Colonel."

He doesn't remember the fall. He remembers standing around talking to Rodney and then he remembers waking up on the floor. He probably tried to orient himself for a PLF -- without the P -- which would explain the creaky knees. If Teyla landed on him, then he probably got knocked out by her weight driving his head into the floor.

"Don't worry about it," he tells her before she can apologize. "I'd have tried to break your fall anyway. Just not, you know, with my head."

Safir looks over the cleaned areas and grunts. "You're getting scanned when we get back, but I think you will just look especially roguish for a few days. No stitches."

"Good to hear," he says, turning to the waiting Lorne. "We good to go?"

"Yeah," Lorne replies, gesturing with one hand toward the entrance to the underground chambers. "What's down there? Storm cellar? Hidey-hole from the Wraith?"

"The opposite," he answers. The antiseptic has numbed that side of his face a little and his frown comes out warped. "It looks like the Wraith version of Dachau."

Lorne's eyes go wide with surprise and Safir stiffens next to him and, for half a second, Sheppard wonders if he shouldn't have gone with a different example. Ronon, who had wandered off but was still in earshot, returns at a lope.

"What's Dachau?" Ronon asks. His face shows that he knows it's not good.

"One of the concentration camps where they rounded up my people, experimented on some, and murdered the rest," Safir answers in a hard voice. He gives them a vicious smile. "It's got condominiums now. 'Arbeit Macht Frei' right next to the McDonalds."

Teyla touches Safir's arm and he turns to her sharply. Anyone else and Yoni'd have probably gone off on them, but this is Teyla and so he instead nods briefly at her.

"We didn't look around a lot, but we did find some nasty tools and a pit full of bones," he goes on. What's done is done and Safir's a professional. "It was probably designed for the Wraith to use against the Ancients. There's some of their tech down there."

Lorne nods, belatedly understanding why Reletti was sent upstairs.

"We brought this up," Teyla says, pulling the tracking device out of her vest pocket.

"McKay," Sheppard calls. Rodney gets up and trots over. "Brought you a souvenir."

"It's the least you could do for saddling me with He-Man and then disappearing through the looking glass," Rodney says as he joins the circle, wiping his hands on his pants and ignoring Ronon's glare. "What's that? It looks Wraith."

"It is," Teyla confirms. "It is a tracking device, perhaps like the one the Wraith used to follow my necklace."

She holds it out to Rodney and he accepts it, turning it over in his hands.

"We can use this," he says, half to himself. "Reverse engineer it, get a better feel for Wraith electronics."

Sheppard knows that Rodney's teams have been disassembling and dissecting every piece of Wraith equipment they've managed to acquire. They know how the stunners work, even if they haven't been able to come up with a reasonable way to protect against them, and there have been other trophies along the way. Mostly broken and very few that aren't weapons.

"Did you bring up one of the transmitters?"

"It didn't come with an off button," Sheppard replies, glossing over the fact that he didn't bother looking for one. Rodney doesn't like expediency when it means taking away his toys. "We didn't want to let the Wraith know that we were around and trapped in their facility."

"So you destroyed it," Rodney says, frowning. "How did you set it off in the first place?"

He winces before answering. "Same way it happened with the necklace."

Rodney rolls his eyes and sighs. "Of course. Lieutenant Colonel Careful strikes again."

"How was I supposed to know that there'd be Ancient technology in a Wraith dungeon?" he asks indignantly. "Or that it would be booby trapped? The Wraith can't even get Ancient technology to work."

Rodney gives him the stare reserved for idiots and children. "Because we've already encountered Wraith tech that was booby-trapped for Ancients?"

"We weren't sure," he points out.

"You weren't sure," Rodney retorts. "I found the evidence, coupled with the fact that the Wraith and the Ancients fought for how many years, convincing enough."

He sighs. "Yeah, well. Can we focus on what we have here?"

Lieutenant Gillick, who has been hanging back and supervising his platoon's security patrol, approaches the group. They are in the field, possibly in view of hostiles, so he doesn't salute. "Sir," he says instead. "Good to see you safe."

"Thanks," he replies.

"How much more is down there?" Safir asks. He's holding Teyla's jaw delicately in his grip, turning it this way and that, looking for bruises underneath the dirt and dust.

"What was on display can't be all that was there," he answers. "It's a lot of underground construction for someplace so small."

Teyla, having passed Safir's inspection, nods agreement. "The charnel pit was quite large. The complex may be extensive."

"The Wraith don't build small," Ronon adds. He looks agitated, but is covering it up with restlessness.

"We should go back down," Rodney says. He gestures as if they should do this immediately.

"Nobody with the gene is going down there until we get a look around," Sheppard replies, holding up a hand. "We'll come back with the Camero, get a picture of the place, and then pillage, okay?"

The Camero is a through-wall imaging radar that will let them see what the complex -- and it has to be a complex -- really looks like. They'll hopefully be able to see not just the layout, but also any traps and security features.

"You have the strongest connection to Ancient technology and you were fine down there," Rodney points out. "Apart from the transmitter. Or was there something else you're not going to confess to until you have to write the report?"

He makes a face at Rodney. "I was careful."

He doesn't want to have to explain that the strength of his 'abilities' also gives him the strongest chance of turning anything off. Initializing something is easy and doesn't take much thought -- most stuff wants to be initialized. But powering something down requires concentration as well as control and that's much harder, especially under duress, because you're often fighting the technology as well as your own impulses.

Rodney looks like he's about to argue, but he doesn't. So Sheppard doesn't have to remind him of his adventures with the personal shield, which sort of qualifies as a low blow, but would certainly end the argument.

"Teyla, take Dr. Safir, Staff Sergeant Ortilla, and Sergeant Suarez back down to where we were," he tells her, "Take what you can that looks interesting. Leave the more obvious tools behind for now. Especially look by the chair, see what else is on that table."

She nods. "Of course, Colonel."

"What chair?" Rodney cuts in, sounding suspicious.

"There's a chair that looks like a bastard version of the weapons control chair," he answers. "It can't be for anything good if it's down there."

"Probably not," Lorne agrees dryly.

"All the more reason to get it to Atlantis," Rodney insists. "Was it connected to anything? Could a couple of Marines carry it out?"

"Probably and no," Sheppard sighs. "We'll come back when it's safe and you can look at it au naturel."

Rodney doesn't look placated and he doesn't care. Being out in the open like this, so far from the stargate -- and he doesn't even know how far they are from the stargate now -- makes him edgy.

"Gillick, how many of your men have the gene?"

Gillick, a solid, compact, young man not much taller than Lorne, screws up his face for a moment in thought. "One for the time being, Sir. The other is home on mid-tour leave."

Good enough. "Put one squad on security for Teyla's group. I want nobody out of earshot. Eyeshot if you can swing it."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Gillick nods, stepping back so that he can issue the orders into his earpiece. When he's done, he steps forward again. "Are we expecting trouble, Sir?"

Sheppard shakes his head. "I hope not. But we did have a tracking transmitter going and who knows what sort of silent alarms the Wraith may have on this place. I don't want to take any chances."

Lorne looks around for the rest of his team and spots them the same time Sheppard does, standing close to the trees that mark the edge of the clearing and the entrance to the underground chambers. Ortilla is either explaining something to Suarez and Reletti or yelling at them; it's hard to tell from this distance.

Lorne summons them by radio and they trot over, all three grinning. Probably not yelling, then. They are filled in on their orders, Reletti looking disappointed that the other two get to go, and Teyla leads them and Safir away and back toward the entrance.

While Lorne is explaining to his team what the plan was, Sheppard pulls out his scanner. It tells him how far they are from the stargate and how far he is from the last point he'd asked. They are almost a kilometer farther away from where they'd fallen in.

"Place is probably huge," he murmurs, looking at the display. Rodney's head appears and blocks his vision and he pulls the scanner away until McKay leans back a bit. "Down, boy."

Rodney sneers at him. "If we can't go in, we might as well start going home," he says, looking up at the sky. The two suns are far apart and one is close to the horizon. It's a long walk and Elizabeth is going to want to know that you're in one piece."

"She that concerned?" He's gone off radio before. For far longer than a couple of hours.

Lorne coughs and Gillick looks like he swallowed a bee.

"She sounded pretty upset," Ronon finally volunteers.

"Well, then," he sighs. "Let's go and tell the good Doctor that Teyla and I are alive and well, shall we?"

Gillick assures them that he's got everything under control -- the perimeter is holding without trouble and they'll wait for Teyla's team to resurface before returning to the stargate.

Sheppard wants to stop by where he'd been standing when he and Teyla had fallen through the trap door, so he leads Lorne, McKay, Ronon, and Reletti to the spot. He keeps his distance from the boulder by the tree and insists that Ronon, the only one of them without the gene, stay away as well in case it's not triggered just by Ancients.

Ronon is trudging back to where the others are standing when he stops suddenly and cocks his head as if he hears something. All of a sudden, he breaks into a run heading back toward where they'd left Gillick and his team.

"Wraith," he calls over his shoulder, gun already out.

"Ah, crap," Sheppard mutters, starting to run himself.


He is sitting on the floor of one of the balconies that open up from the hydroponics garden that the botanists have created in one of the public spaces.

The inside is large and lovely and serene and one of Teyla's favorite rainy-day places, full of tall green grasses, brightly colored blooms, and delicate trees. It has southern exposure, so it's lit by the sun almost all day courtesy of its wall of windows. He almost doesn't remember when it was a network of ugly surplus grain buckets from the quartermaster ganged together by rubber hose and flexicuffs.

The outside is not as large or as lovely, but he finds it more serene because fewer people come out here. There are hardier trees and the everpresent troughs of marsh grasses, but the backdrop is the city and the ocean and that seems to be less popular as a calming sight. Which is fine by him.

He has his laptop and he's sitting on the floor pillow Teyla gave him for Christmas and he's got tea and cookies and, really, it almost (but not quite) makes paperwork bearable.

He hears footsteps and looks over enough to see military issue boots and Atlantis issue dark pants. He continues typing until Lorne's boots are within his peripheral vision.

"Cookie?" he asks, not looking up. If it were really serious, someone would have pinged him on the radio or sent an IM to his laptop. It's hard to run away completely in Atlantis, even if sometimes Atlantis is willing to help him.

Lorne, correctly interpreting the offer as one to skip the formal stuff, drops down heavily nearby. "Beer?" he asks wearily.

Sheppard looks over. Lorne looks like he's been run over by a herd of cattle.

"What happened to you?" he asks because, contrary to popular opinion, he does know where most of his immediate subordinates are on any given day and Lorne's schedule was two meetings and a milk run.

"McKay, Zelenka, Simpson, Takahashi, and Selikhova happened," Lorne answers, leaning his head against the planter and closing his eyes. "I have been cursed out in five languages today. At least to my face. Behind my back, it could be twice that."

He nods in sympathy, partially to cover up the fact that he is smiling. He'd been relieved when Elizabeth had told him to give the mission to Lorne's team. McKay plus new technology equals a headache; McKay plus subordinates plus new technology in a remote location is just asking for it.

"I thought Gillick's platoon was with you." After successfully avoiding -- and destroying -- two Wraith darts and a dozen foot soldiers, Gillick has earned the right to stick with the mission.

"They were," Lorne confirms. "But Gillick's platoon is much more scared of our scientists than they are of the Wraith. I don't blame them. I'm not sure either group recognizes the Marines as sentient creatures."

McKay tends not to even see enlisted men and barely notices officers; Zelenka is always testy when he has to go off-world and spending the day with Rodney probably doesn't help; he doesn't know the other scientists very well, but if Rodney picked them for the mission, then they had to have some backbone because McKay didn't trust the science of anyone who wouldn't fight back. All of which meant that Lorne had spent the afternoon getting yelled at while playing referee for irritated scientists and frustrated Marines.

"Can I do something?"

"Nah," Lorne replies, which is the correct answer. Anything he does is going to undermine Lorne's authority on the project. "I've got it under control. I've just got a migraine to show for it."

Lorne's nominally out here to verbally report in that the mission team has returned home safely, but he's really out here to escape from the craziness that awaits him inside. So Sheppard leaves him alone and goes back to his open file, which is, not coincidentally, his own after-action report of the first trip to M3X-46G.

He's up to the part where things got interesting in the life-threatening way, as opposed to the persistent low-level interesting in the oh, look, my ATA gene opened up another can of worms way. The latter of which has been a depressingly constant theme of his time in the Pegasus galaxy, although most of the people he reports to are kind enough not to bring it up too often.

AARs are generally not the high point of his military paperwork curve. Because nothing ever goes according to the plan that took reams of paper (or kilobytes of data) to detail when you had to write up your orders to get them approved, either you're trying to explain where you screwed up or you're trying to figure out how to recount your brilliant success without sounding like a blowhard out for commendation. Can't win either way, but gotta try anyway.

In an ideal world, his AAR for the mission would come down to "chased power source, fell down a hole, had a little adventure, got out, got chased by the life-sucking vampires, killed all the life-sucking vampires, went home". Which sounds a little like George Romero's dream production of Alice in Wonderland, but so does most of what he's done in the last year and a half. Helluva way to title an AAR, though.

But this isn't an ideal world and his report is going to get beamed to Colorado and read by generals who are still looking for an excuse to recall him, so his one sentence summary will in fact take five pages. And he'll have to figure out a way to make sure that he doesn't seem too much like the guy who literally fell into a great discovery. Because while he's comfortable in the job he did and the role he had in what happened both before and after the Wraith showed up, he really didn't do anything that smacked of great command abilities. It was the boring, mostly competent stuff that translates into nothing useful to put in the report because he's not a horn-tooting kind of officer and he's not going to take credit for what he didn't do. On the other hand, Gillick, who really did a helluva job in leading his first real fight against the Wraith, will gets all of the credit he deserves. Not in the least because he's not going to let his junior officers' careers get harmed by having him as a CO.

The Wraith darts were overhead, scoopy beams (officially "dematerializing vacuum beams used for prisoner acquisition") scanning the ground, by the time they'd made it back to Gillick's position. Gillick had already gotten his Marines moving, was calmly ordering his SMAW team into place so that they could shoot at the darts, and immediately put Reletti into his rotation. Ronon had been the first to spot the Wraith coming out of the trees and had only shot two before Gillick had his men reoriented and ready.

The SMAWs were new, an upgrade over the shoulder-launched weapons they'd come to Atlantis with, and the Marines seemed to love them. To the point that they'd had to limit the number of live rounds available for practice. Gillick's platoon had been one of the first to switch over and the experience showed. Four rockets launched at erratically moving targets, two kills. After that, it was almost target practice -- a handful of Wraith outnumbered by eighteen Marines loaded for bear. The only casualty was the unfortunate Marine who tripped over some tree roots -- he was still catching grief for the sprained wrist.

They'd returned home, checked in, and he'd set up a permanent presence at the site by rotating platoons in shifts. A week later and no more Wraith and he'd given Elizabeth his consent to set up a science mission. Which all wraps around to why Lorne is sitting a few feet away, maybe dozing but probably not.

He looks at his watch. It is almost time for Teyla to kick his ass with the fighting sticks. He's had to take a week off because of his injuries -- not his idea. But Safir threatened to yank him off the active duty roster and that would have meant a week trapped in Atlantis without even a puddlejumper to fly and then another physical so that he could be reinstated.

He'll pay for the idleness -- he practices three times a week and Teyla can still block 90 of his offense; a week off and he'll be bruised unless she pulls her strikes. Ronon has been compensating, setting a brutal pace on their runs and then asking if he needs to go to the doctor when he's left panting at the end of them.

He saves the file and powers down the laptop, scratching lightly at the places where scabbed skin and new beard are interfacing. He'd tried shaving, had even resorted to an electric razor, but it hurt too much and was irritating the skin. He's never minded the Air Force's restrictions on facial hair, is already one of those guys who could shave twice a day, and he'd look like a space lumberjack now if the Marines' barber didn't know a few tricks.

"Colonel?" Elizabeth's voice in his earpiece. "Have you seen Major Lorne? He's not answering his radio."

He looks over at Lorne, who maybe really is sleeping.

"Nah, haven't seen him," he says, knowing that the internal sensors wouldn't help beyond saying that there were two humans on the balcony. "Is it important?"

"It can wait," she replies. "We were going to go over some proposed changes in the mission specs for M3X-46G."

Sheppard picks up his pillow, his mug, and the zippered case for the laptop. "Remind the scientists that the Marines are there to protect them and not for target practice and you'll solve most of the problems."

Elizabeth's laugh is pleasant in his ear. "I suspected as much," she admits. "Rodney..."

"Rodney needs that reminder more than the rest," he interrupts. "And Lorne won't say so, so I will."

He walks past Lorne's still form and along the balcony to the door. There are a few people in the indoor garden, but nobody he has to do anything more than nod to in acknowledgement.

"I'll take care of it," Elizabeth promises. "I have a long meeting scheduled with the science team this evening."

He'd make a joke about having to buy both her and Lorne drinks, but Atlantis is technically still a dry expedition and while they both know he quietly monitors the black market in booze and the speakeasy by the west pier, they never talk of it to each other in order to preserve the fiction of plausible deniability.

They instead joke weakly about the electrical engineers turning an Ancient device into a popcorn popper, at least until Sheppard arrives at the training room where Teyla awaits and Elizabeth signs off with an exhortation to not let his dignity get too bruised.

An hour-plus later, he's not quite sure whether he's succeeded.