RATING: T for language and adult themes.

SEASON: Third season sometime after Phantoms but before The Return.

MAJOR CHARACTERS: The boys, of course, (if you don't know who I'm talking about, you're in the wrong fic) told from the POV of Carson and Radek… and the rest show up, as well.

CATEGORY: a little of this, a little of that.

SUMMARY: Carson atones for past sins and Sheppard ends up paying the price. Radek wears the cloak of command…as well as his tuxedo, and Rodney end up with a gun pointed at him…yet again. Sheppard/McKay friendship.

SPOILERS: A few things are hinted at, but not much is spoiled. Anything up to and including Phantoms is fair game, though and maybe a slight one for The Return Part 1.

FEEDBACK: Yes, please. I thrive on it and so do the bunnies.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own them, else I would be able to explain why they can understand the residents of Pegasus when they speak to them, but not Radek when he speaks in Czech.

NOTES: This story is part of the Dictionary series and all that that entails. You don't have to read the others to follow this story but a few refs might make a little more sense if you did. The list is on my profile page if you're interested.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks, as always to Koschka for the final once over and how she kept demanding more of this fic even though it kicked my ass worse than I kicked John's. And thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed my other stories…it really is very much appreciated!

The Confidence Game

by liketheriver

con-fi-dence (kan fih dEns), noun, 1. Trust or faith in a person or thing. 2. A trusting relationship 3a. That which is confided; a secret b. A feeling of assurance that a confidant will keep a secret 4. A feeling of assurance, especially of self-assurance. 5. The state or quality of being certain. adjective, 1. Of, relating to, or involving a swindle or fraud.


Chapter 1: Bait and Switch

Have you ever had one of those days where you had to ask yourself, how did I end up in a predicament like this? Have you ever had one of those days multiply like a warren of wee bunnies until you were asking yourself, how will I ever get out of this predicament now? Have you ever come to the conclusion that evidently all those good works I had performed along the way were never going to be enough to counteract the mistakes? That was exactly the situation I was in and unfortunately I'd brought Colonel Sheppard along for the trip.

The cell they had been holding us in was dark, and damp, and probably that last place I would want to be caring for an injured man. But Colonel Sheppard, good lad that he is, hadn't complained once, even when Rodney and I had had to set his broken arm without the benefit of pain medications, so I had tried to follow his example and do the same. And I will be the first to admit, it was a difficult task I had set for myself. The men holding us were a bunch of thugs, plain and simple. They took great joy in taking Colonel Sheppard out of the cell, beating him into a bloody pulp then returning him to me while they played with my medical kit outside the door.

"Not so high and mighty now, are you Doctor," Fornus, their leader, would taunt as I worked with the few supplies they would allow me… scrap bandages, a bucket of water, and a rough lye-type soap. At least the water was clean and I had bartered my watch for a bottle of the grain alcohol that one of the guards was drinking the second night we were here, so that I was able to clean the wounds as best I could. I had learned to bite my tongue, seeing as the last time I had spoken up, they had immediately dragged the Colonel back out and returned him with the broken bone. "Won't be killing off an entire race of people now, will you?"

Fornus and his men were Hoffans, or at least they had been. They were a few of the survivors that had escaped the effects of the inoculation that had killed half their population and the Wraith genocide that had finished the job. Now they called themselves Hollorans, having sworn off the advancements their society had made, blaming the downfall of their civilization on everything from the technological growth to the station that women had been allowed to hold, laying much of the blame for their demise at dear Perna's feet. They had set up a sort of outpost on a neighboring planet, and had quickly gained a reputation as reliable traders if a little odd in their beliefs.

Still, when the expedition learned that this reclusive band of merchants had a ZPM for sale, we had no reason to be anything but guardedly excited. Well, aside from Rodney, who was anything but guarded. He was gearing up to head through the gate as soon as the words passed through Major Lorne's mouth in the debrief. Still, at that time we had no reason to make a connection with the Hoffans. The Major's warnings about women being considered subservient in their culture and their rather primitive ways had them leaving Teyla behind. Besides, this was Major Lorne's find, so to speak; therefore, his team would take the lead. Rodney was going to confirm the viability of the ZPM, Colonel Sheppard was going to either keep Rodney in check or oversee Lorne's negotiations since Elizabeth couldn't, or maybe a little of both. And then I was called in as the commodity they claimed they desired most…medical assistance. And that's where everything had gone horribly wrong.

"Colonel?" Squatting over where Sheppard had curled into a ball on the stone floor, I reluctantly woke him to check his lucidity. Sleep was the only refuge he had from the pain and I hated to interrupt that, but he had taken some nasty lumps to the head that had me more than a little concerned.

Glassy eyes opened to stare through me for a second before finally focusing on my face. "That time already, Doc?"

"Aye, lad, that it is. Sorry." The faint smile that I gave him when it was apparent he knew where he was and what we were facing faded as he shivered violently. And the hand I rested on his neck had it turning to a frown. "You're running a fever, Colonel."

He snorted as his eyes slid shut again. "Wild West medicine has its limits, I guess."

"If I could only get my hands on my bloody field kit." I spit the words as I glanced bitterly toward the locked door. I'd be damned to hell if I let something like an infection brought on by unsanitary conditions kill a man under my care.

"McKay'll bring help," he assured confidently even as he pulled his jacket he had draped over his shoulders tighter with another shiver that morphed into a hiss of pain.

"I'm sure you're right, Colonel," I forced the agreement even through my doubts and worries that our friend had actually even been allowed to return to Atlantis, despite what our captors had promised in front of us. They'd already shown themselves for the scam artists that they were, my presence here was proof enough of that.

"McKay'll bring help," he repeated in a sleepy slur, and I had a feeling it was as much to reassure himself as me.

Before I could respond, the door leading down into the cellar opened and several pairs of booted feet could be heard descending to our cell. Two large men stood behind Fornus as he tilted his head toward the Colonel. "Can he walk?"

"If he can, t'will be a bloody miracle and no thanks to you. You know, there's no need to keep my kit away from me when I have no intentions of treating you or your men. But Colonel Sheppard needs the medicines I carry in it and isn't opposed to their use like you are."

"I'd actually, really, really, like them," Sheppard supplied from the floor as he moved to push himself up to a sit.

"We'll see what this Weir of yours has come to offer and maybe he'll be able to go back to wherever it is your people are hiding and they can do whatever they want."

The Colonel and I looked from one to the other in surprise. "Dr. Weir is here?" I asked hesitantly, not sure if I found that to be good news or bad. By the way they treated the women in their camp, I couldn't imagine they would hold much respect for her authority.

Fornus signaled and one of the men unlocked the door as he informed us. "He's here. And he refuses to negotiate until he sees that the two of you are alive."

"He is here?" Colonel Sheppard inquired with a grunt as I helped him to stand.

"Yes, he is," the man responded testily. "I told you I wouldn't discuss the terms of your release with anyone other than your leader. Now come."

Supporting Sheppard as best I could, we made our way slowly up the stairs flanked by the guards. I squinted against the bright sunlight that met us as we exited into the street above, my eyes not used to the glare after so long in the cell.

"I thought you said they were okay." Blinking, I could just make out the form of Rodney pointing an irate finger in our direction.

"I said they were alive," Fornus countered.

"Well, way to get by on a technicality." Rodney tried to move to Colonel Sheppard's other side to take some of his weight from me, but one of the guards had other ideas. Before he could so much as place a hand on Sheppard, the large man stood menacingly in front of him. And that's when I realized Rodney wasn't alone.

Ronon appeared behind the physicist, tilting his neck until it popped in a decidedly threatening manner. "Is there a problem?" the Satedan asked simply.

Realizing the Colonel and I were standing right in the middle of what promised to be the smack down event of the century, I tried to back away, only to find myself stepping back into the frame of the second guard. "I don't know, you tell me." The second guard's crack of knuckles only accentuated his request.

Sheppard, who was barely standing, grit out a cautious, "McKay." Although, I wasn't sure if he was warning him to get out of Ronon's path of attack, or to get him somewhere where he could sit down before he fell down. But before anyone could do anything, another familiar, thickly accented, voice snapped from somewhere off behind the large men blocking my view.

"Rodney!" That, however, was all I could understand as the rest of the sentence was spoken in Czech. Craning my neck, I could just make out Radek, dressed in a tuxedo, with a scantly clad Teyla draping an arm around his shoulder.

"Mother Mary and Joseph," I murmured in dumbstruck awe at the sight.

From this close, I could see that familiar jutting jaw tense…evidently Rodney wasn't very happy with my assessment of the situation… before he stood straighter and turned angrily to Fornus. "Dr. Weir is not pleased with the condition of his men. There will be no negotiations until they have been cared for properly." Somehow I doubted that was what Radek had said.

"You should consider yourself lucky that we allowed you to see them and are even entertaining negotiating with you."

Fornus's bristling tone only infuriated Rodney more. "And you should consider yourself lucky we don't just blow the hell out of this settlement of yours from orbit, which is exactly what we will do if they don't live. So, you decide, giant fireball of death wiping out everything in sight or give Beckett his medical kit back and finally let him do his job."

"You don't know where this particular world is located. I do not take well to false threats."

"You know we have technology well beyond your capabilities, including long-range scanning and tracking abilities. Do you really think that the leader of our expedition would come to this planet just to recover two men without some sort of security to back him up? But, hey, it's all up to you."

I couldn't help but wonder if Rodney's pluck had more to do with his ire at Sheppard's condition or the fact that Ronon stood ominously behind him. Whichever it was, it worked, although humming the 'Jeopardy' theme under his breath may have been taking it a bit far. Formus looked over at Radek who was doing his best to appear bored and indignant at the same time while wearing his dress suit, which gave him the appearance of a prematurely balding teenager attending the spring formal.

But it must have been good enough for the former Hoffan, because he finally flicked his hand at one of his men and sent him to retrieve my kit. "We'll be back after we eat our midday meal," he promised and he left, too, although several of his men still stood guard. The man between us and McKay gave both Rodney and Ronon a disdainful snort before following after his leader. As soon as he stepped aside, Rodney stepped in with Ronon relieving me of my burden, as well. Which was a good thing, seeing as the Colonel's knees gave out as soon as Fornus was out of sight.

"I thought he was never going to leave," Sheppard sighed as his teammates eased him to the ground.

"Easy, Colonel," Rodney soothed. "We'll have you home in no time."

"I don't suppose you really do have a jumper in orbit, do you?" Sheppard asked longingly.

"Not just at the moment, but we're working on it."

The Colonel leaned back heavily against his friend's shoulder. "Please tell me I'm delirious and that's not actually Zelenka in charge."

"Of course not," Rodney scoffed as he worked off his own jacket and wrapped it around a shivering Sheppard. "Give me a little credit here."

"Well, thank God for small miracles," I breathed in relief.

"No," Rodney beamed smugly, "I'm running the show here."

"You?" I demanded a little loudly, which resulted in Rodney shushing me with a glare.

"On second thought, I take it back." The Colonel's wince had little to do with the physical pain he was in. "Lie to me and tell me Radek's in charge."

And all I could think was, have you ever had one of those days where someone feeds the wee bunnies Viagra?


Gate travel; not one of my favorite undertakings.

But given the choice between accompanying Major Lorne's team off world and accompanying Rodney on his monthly inspection of jumper maintenance logs, I chose the field. Who could blame me? "Radek, why did you calibrate the sensor to this antiquated standard," he would say. "Radek, I thought you overhauled the entire guidance system? Radek, give me your ham sandwich." Rodney, he can find fault with anything as long as he was not one to perform task in first place and steal your food while you try to justify your actions. Who needs headache and grumbling stomach like that when can be out in the field with nice Major and his Marines instead? They talk little, yell less, call me sir, stand between me and danger. Unlike Rodney who takes credit for all equipment loudly for all to hear when it operates properly, but backs out of room and claims it is engineer's responsibility when it starts to spark.

So I had gone with Marines to avoid the monstrosity of McKay. Some might call it cowardice, others avoidance, still others desertion…the glare I received from the rest of the engineers as I left the lab in my field gear suggested that the latter was consensus decision. I, however, considered it prudence. And when we entered the small village of stone homes and dirt roads, I considered that it might just be waste of time. But the fresh air, sunshine and lack of noise pollution that was my direct supervisor on Atlantis had to count for something. And when one of the villagers pulled Major Lorne aside, obviously recognizing our technological advancement, to show him sketches of items we might be interested in that a band of traders were offering for sale, I decided it counted for a lot more than I had thought possible.

"Dr. Zelenka, you might want to take a look at this." Major Lorne, such nice young man… very polite, very observant, and very good with large gun that dangled down the front of his vest… and the fact that he gave Rodney hard time when they were on missions was not to be discounted. "See if there's anything you think we might need in here." He handed over the collection of drawings, placing one on top meaningfully. "And pick out something pretty for yourself."

My eyes widened in amazement at what I saw and the Major gave me a look to say 'don't let them see how excited you are'. But how could I not be? Not with the one item that we needed more than any other on Atlantis possibly within our grasps. But I am not Engineering Division poker champion for no reason. Adopting a bland expression I started flipping through the pages. "Yes, is very pretty. Would make most excellent decorative doorstop. And there are other things here we might have interest in. Can we see them?"

The middle-aged man shook his head. "They are not here on our world. I receive a service fee for sending potential buyers to the Hollorans."

"Hollorans? I've never heard of them before."

At Major Lorne's observation, the man provided us information about the traders that we then shared with Elizabeth and the others during our debriefing. "There are approximately fifty people in the settlement. From all accounts, they move around a lot. They set up shop on a deserted planet for several months at a time before moving on."

"So they're nomadic traders," Elizabeth observed of Major Lorne's description.

"No, Ma'am, not exactly. It appears to be a sort of religious sect. They don't go out looking for trading partners. They distribute their catalogs around and wait for the buyers to come to them. By all accounts, they keep mostly to themselves. They don't like visitors that aren't there to trade, evidently stock some fairly high-tech items but don't use them themselves and have some rather old-fashioned ideas about the role of women in their society. And no one is given the direct address to the world they are on. They use various shuttle locations… buyers convene on one world and are met and taken to the Hollorans from there."

"And the people that provided you with this…catalog, they believe these Hollorans are safe to deal with?" Colonel Sheppard indicated the papers that Rodney was looking over intently.

"They felt they were safe enough if you don't insult them."

"And exactly how would we do that, Major?" Dr. Beckett asked from his seat, his face suddenly set with worry.

"Women on the team, showing up uninvited, sending in too many people, slighting their way of life…those sorts of things."

"Okay, so I guess that means Teyla and McKay sit this one out," the Colonel observed as he sat a little straighter.

"And why am I immediately discounted?" Rodney demanded.

"Because, Rodney, you have a way of insulting everyone you come across. In fact, you seem to take a great deal of pride in that talent."

Rolling his eyes, Rodney shook his head. "This is a ZedPM we're talking about, Sheppard, not a drought resistant seed or the most technologically advanced garden hoe the Athosians can use. There is no way I am staying behind for this mission."

"Rodney, it is Major Lorne and I who found the ZPM. We should be the ones to go negotiate trade, yes?" I turned to Elizabeth for her concurrence with my logical conclusion.

But before Elizabeth could answer, Rodney had something to say. It was not surprising; Rodney always has something to say. "Correction, Radek, you found a drawing of a ZedPM." Holding up the sketch in demonstration of his point he turned to address our expedition leader. "If anyone is going to go find the real thing, it is going to be me, the foremost expert on ZedPMs in this or any other galaxy." Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but Rodney was not yet done. Once again, to no one's surprise. "And, I promise not to say a word to anyone beyond 'show me the equipment'."

"Very well," Elizabeth sighed. "Rodney, you and Colonel Sheppard will accompany Major Lorne and one other Marine from his team to the settlement. If what the Major says is true, we want to keep the number of Atlantis personnel to a minimum. Dr. Zelenka will be available if there is need of an additional scientist."

I tried my best not to pout in front of others. But I was not the only one. Teyla and Ronon were none to happy when they heard the news, nor were the other members of Major Lorne's team. In fact, the only person that was truly happy with the setup was Rodney.

I found him in the lab packing his equipment that afternoon. "You are going so soon?"

"So soon? It's been almost five hours since the debriefing. I thought the Hollorans were never going to give us the okay to come to their village."

"It is not like you are missing blue light special, Rodney. We are only people in entire Pegasus Galaxy that even know what the ZPM is for. It is doubtful that anyone else would have bought it first."

"The Genii know we want one. They've already used that against us once." He disappeared below his workbench as he spoke.

"The Genii are now our allies," I pointed out. "Ladon Radim helped to save Colonel Sheppard's life."

"Ladon Radim knows that an Ancient drone can do just as much damage to their settlements as one of their nuclear weapons or a Wraith blast." He appeared again with a toolkit and sensor that he placed in his backpack. "He would have been an idiot not to help us."

"So, now you trust no one?"

"Let's review, shall we. We trusted the Genii and Sheppard and I ended up at gunpoint in their underground bunker. We trusted the Hoffans and they ended up killing off most of their population. We trusted the Dagans and ended up at gunpoint having a ZedPM taking away from us by a beautiful archaeologist. We trusted the Genii again and ended up gassed and at gunpoint …surprise, surprise… and seconds away from watching Sheppard have his brains blown out before they did the same to me. We trusted the Wraith and I ended up strapped in a cocoon on a Hive ship on my way to watching the destruction of Earth. Shall I continue or have I had more than enough guns pointed at me by supposed friends to prove my point?"

"It is the sad man that goes through life without friends," I clucked with a disapproving shake of my head.

"I have friends," Rodney protested, maybe a little more defensively than usual. "But unlike some social butterflies from alternate realities, I just limit the people I trust to a select few, most of whom I can count on one hand."

"But you do not trust me to obtain ZPM from Hollorans." With crossed arms, I challenged his assessment.

"Are you still sulking about that? Christ, Radek, this isn't elementary school." He stuffed his laptop into the bag and zipped it closed.

"No? Are you sure? You are acting like bully on playground pushing everyone out of way to get to favored toy."

"It's not a toy, Radek. And if you haven't noticed, we are totally screwed around here without one." And now I understood why he insisted on going. He still felt he was the one responsible for depleting the ZPM to stop the rift and allow his alternate self a chance to return home. And, technically, he did, although in truth there were many that could share the blame. But Rodney felt the need maybe more than anyone to make things right again. Hefting his pack he rolled his eyes. "Look, it if makes you feel any better, I'll let you be the first to get your hands on it when we get it through the gate."

I perked up in cheerful anticipation. "Really? You will allow me to take lead on the study?"

"Don't be absurd," he sputtered. "I meant you could touch it. Hold it even… maybe… if your hands are clean and you're standing on a pile of pillows." Patting me on the shoulder, he walked out the door with a chuckle. "Lead up the study? You're a funny guy, Radek. Don't let anyone ever tell you any different."

"And you are petty man, Rodney," I called after him. "Petty, petty man."

With a grumble I sat at my station and prepared to work until the illustrious Dr. Rodney McKay returned triumphantly through the gate with the ZPM held aloft for all to see and admire. Of course it was almost two days before Rodney returned through the gate and his return was anything but triumphant.


You just know it's not going to be a good day when you have just poured your first cup of coffee and before you even have the chance to take a sip you get a call on the radio from Dr. Weir. "Carson, I need you in the conference room, please."

There was no panic, no medical emergency, nothing like that. But there was definitely an urgency in her voice that set my spine to shivering. And reporting to the conference room, I found out why. Major Lorne and Lt. Rowley were speaking with our expedition leader when I entered and asked, "Where are Rodney and Colonel Sheppard?"

"Back with the Hollorans," the Major provided with a disgruntled frown.

"Was there a problem with the negotiations?"

"Yes and no," he wavered.

"Well, that doesn't sound very reassuring." I looked to Elizabeth for more of an explanation.

"It seems the Hollorans refuse to even begin negotiating for the ZPM until they see what we have to offer… in person," she clarified. "And their primary request is for medical assistance."

"In fact, that's their only request," Major Lorne continued.

That set the alarm bells ringing. Most people that we came across wanted the technology…weapons, tools, transportation… with food and medicine coming in a distant second, although that was always our first offer. "Do they have a medical problem we should be aware of? Something possibly contagious?" I was already thinking of how many people in the gate room had come in contact with the two men that had been off world and what sort of containment protocol I might need to enact.

"No, not that I could see. They just insisted that they wanted medical assistance for the trade and that they wouldn't even show us the ZPM until they met our lead doctor."

Relaxing slightly I chuckled, "Well, I'm sure Dr. McKay was none too pleased with that arrangement."

The lieutenant standing behind Major Lorne bit his lower lip and suddenly looked to his feet, obviously trying to hide his amusement. The Major tried his best to give the young man a disapproving look but couldn't keep the small smile from his own face. "No, he wasn't. In fact, they requested that he be the one to come and fetch you. When he refused to leave until they showed him the ZPM, they told him that if he wanted to stay so badly, they could arrange for him to remain permanently and hauled him off at gunpoint."

"Is he all right?" My worry was only slightly alleviated by their obvious humor.

"Aside from complaints about the unsanitary conditions of the cell they locked him in, he's fine. Colonel Sheppard made it very clear that if anything happened to Dr. McKay, there would be no deal no matter how many ZPMs they paraded in front of us."

"And you believe that will be enough to keep him out of harm's way?"

"They seem to be willing to do almost anything to get you there, Doc. And when I say you, I mean you specifically."

Looking from the Marines back to Elizabeth, I suddenly had an idea why that concern had been in her voice when she called me. "Me? They asked for me by name? But how…?" I was rather shocked by the news to say the least.

"Evidently your reputation precedes you," Major Lorne informed me. "They recognized Colonel Sheppard's and Dr. McKay's names and requested that you come as part of the negotiations. They say they've heard of your skills as a healer through mutual trading partners and are very anxious to have you help them, as well."

Frowning harder at the thought of what this might mean, I hadn't even noticed that Elizabeth had moved to my side until her hand landed on my arm. "Carson, normally I wouldn't send you on something like this, not with the suspicious nature behind the information that they have about you and the others."

"But we are talking about a ZPM here," I provided. "As well as the fact that they are holding Rodney and, for all practical purposed, Colonel Sheppard."

"And we have no idea how to find them," Major Lorne continued. "We're supposed to bring you back to the contact planet within an hour or they'll be gone and we'll have no way to contact them again."

Nodding my head in understanding, I sighed. "Then I'd best gather my things so that we can go."

"Carson, we can give you a transponder like we use to track the progress of the MALPS through the wormhole."

"But," I added sensing her addendum, "that will only be able to locate me through an open wormhole."

Nodding in agreement with my conclusion, she did try for a ray of hope. "Normally we could track you similar to how Rodney was able to locate Ronon when he was taken by the Wraith. But with the limited long-range scanning capabilities we have now without a ZPM we'll have to wait for the Daedalus to return to locate you should anything go wrong."

I could tell that Elizabeth's reassurance wasn't what she hoped it would be. "And how long until the Daedalus reaches Atlantis?"

"Fourteen days but she will be within scanning range within nine."

My stomach knotted at the news. Nine days before help would arrive might as well equate to nine years. But what else could I do? Leave Rodney and the Colonel in the hands of these Hollorans? Not very likely. Forcing a determined smile I started for the door. "Well, then I'd best pack a couple of changes of clothes just in case."

Not that it did me one bit of good. As soon as we stepped through the gate my bags were confiscated, the Marines were taken in one direction and I was led in another. Behind me and through the small copse of trees that were obscuring my view, I could hear the gate activating, then I was being led through… without Major Lorne or Lt. Rowley.

"Where are the others?" I demanded as we started up the stairs.

"They won't be joining us," was the only answer I received.

"What have you done to them?"

The hand that clamped onto my arm and the handgun that was shoved into my ribs stopped my progression in the direction I had last seen them. "They are no longer any concern of yours."

With a last look back, I was shoved roughly through the gate and stumbled out into the Holloran village, the fate of the two other men that had accompanied me from Atlantis unknown. The settlement had once been a rather advanced society by the looks of it, somewhere along the lines of Sateda, and the Hollorans had settled into the rubble. Partially demolished buildings had been cleared and missing walls replaced by canvas tents. A few children could be seen playing in the streets, but they were quickly gathered up by the women as we approached and led cowering into the dwellings. Those that were slow to disappear were berated loudly by the men escorting me and the women mumbled fervent apologies for their apparently insubordinate behavior before ducking out of sight.

"Is that completely necessary?" I remembered what Major Lorne had said about insulting their culture but the fact that I had no idea if the man that had delivered that warning was dead or alive, I found a little insulting to my own culture.

"Women should know their place. Those that don't live within the limits that we have established for them are a danger to us all. It is as much for their protection as our own."

Scowling in distaste at the answer I received, I mumbled, "Well, then, I would hate to see how you treat the people you aren't trying to protect."

And unfortunately, I was correct in my assessment because I was soon led down into the basement of a building that had been flattened down to the foundation, the floor hatch opened onto a metal stairway lit with wall torches reeking of an animal-fat oil. Making my way down the steps, I blinked against the dim lighting and saw two figures moving to the bars of the cell they were being held in.

"Aw, hell, they sent you." Colonel Sheppard's voice put to rest any doubts I might have had about the situation we were currently in…we had just walked into yet another trap, the perfect bait and switch..

"Where are the Marines?" And Rodney's demand just went to confirm how bad I was now seeing our predicament truly was. "You were supposed to come back with two Marines. Where are they?"

"They weren't allowed to accompany me beyond the rendezvous planet," I informed him as my eyes finally adjusted and then widened as I could see them clearly for the first time. "What happened to you two?"

Rodney touched gingerly at his nose that still showed a smear of blood on his upper lip, as well as a stain on his shirtsleeve. "Our hosts didn't really take too well to McKay's demands that he be released," Colonel Sheppard supplied, his own bloodied lip with accompanying darkening bruise testament that Rodney was not the only one to anger our captors.

"And they really didn't take well to Sheppard's response to their reaction to my demands that I be released," Rodney chimed in.

"Call me crazy, but I tend to get a little upset when people start beating up my team members in front of me… no matter how much they might have deserved it."

"Oh, so now it's my fault," Rodney's frustration was dampened by the slightly nasal quality his voice had acquired thanks to his injury.

"No, Rodney, it's always been your fault," the Colonel countered. "Calling them backwater hicks that make the antagonists from 'Deliverance' look like the finalist for the Field's Medal in Mathematics definitely didn't help matters."

"Like they have any idea what either of those references mean." Rodney sniffed and checked his nose for blood once again.

"They evidently got the gist of it," Sheppard drawled with a meaningful jut of his busted lip.

"I have a feeling you would have received the same treatment even if you had sat like choir boys at High Mass," I mumbled as the door opened again and a man entered flanked by two others. He was almost a head shorter than the two men that accompanied him, thin, with short-trimmed blonde hair and large brown eyes. He smiled when he saw me, the type of smile that a schoolmate you haven't seen for years might give if you ran into him at a reunion, like he had been looking and waiting and hoping that you would show and now you finally had. And it made the hairs on the nape of my neck prickle just to see it.

"Dr. Carson Beckett. After all this time, we have finally managed to bring you to our humble home." He waved an arm around the room. "Do you like it? It's not as grand as my forefathers had hoped for, but it has served us well and obviously the Ancestors have seen that we have given up our excessive ways and rewarded us for our humility by delivering you to us."

"Do I know you?" I asked warily.

"Forgive me, where are my manners? I am Fornus Hollor, leader of the Holloran tribe." The smile transmuted the tiniest bit, becoming less friendly and more victorious.

Instinctively moving away from the man, I found myself with Sheppard and McKay standing on either side of me, if separated by the metal bars at my back. "Is there something in particular that you were hoping I could help you with?"

"Actually, there is. You can let me close out the last lingering chapter of our old lives. Dr. Carson Beckett, in the name and memory of Hoff, I arrest you on the counts of genocide and high crimes against the Hoffan people."

"You're Hoffans?" Was that my voice squeaking like that?

"There are no more Hoffans. The Ancestors punished them for following the likes of you and the other scientists by sending the plague, and when that didn't destroy them all, they sent the Wraith to finish the job. But there were a few of us to survive, because we chose to live a life devoted to simplicity and devotion that has made us the blessed of the Ancestors. All that has remained is for us to seek justice for the disease mongers. You are the last. And now, you are here."

Fornus smiled proudly at his accomplishment in a way that made me feel weak in the knees. To my right I heard Rodney snort lightly. "Huh. What do you know? Ends up it was Carson's fault all along."


Two hours after Carson left, I was still irritated. It should be me on negotiation team, not Rodney. When five hours had passed, I found I was antsy. How long does it take to trade medicine for ZPM anyway? After ten hours, I was troubled. Why had no one at least updated Dr. Weir on progress? After twelve hours, I made my way to the control room and learned I was not the only one concerned. Maybe it was good thing I did not go with Major Lorne's team after all, I decided. When fourteen hours had passed, Elizabeth gathered a team to investigate why we had heard no word.

The four Marines had assembled in the embarkation area and been dispatched to the last known location of the five missing men to see what they could find. Ronon had gone with them, simply shown up in the gate room with his gun on his hip and his sword on his back and a look on his face daring anyone to question why he was there. And very prudently, in my opinion, no one did. I had watched them go from the control room with Elizabeth on my one side and Teyla on the other.

Teyla was in her field gear also, arms crossed angrily across her chest. "This is ridiculous, Elizabeth. They are my team, as well."

"And we are dealing with a people that might find your appearance in a position of power a threat. And as ridiculous as their beliefs may be, there are too many unknowns at this time to risk setting them off, Teyla."

"I understand, it is just…" The Athosian leaned against the railing in frustration. "I am not used to being told that I cannot do something simply because I am a woman."

"There is nothing worse than being made powerless just because someone says you are." Elizabeth leaned forward, as well, with a sympathetic smile. "But we know better, don't we?"

Not placated by Elizabeth's consolatory tone, Teyla glowered into the empty stargate. "All I know is that my three teammates are somewhere on the other side of the gate and I am waiting here because I have no penis." Teyla's heated words had me backing slightly away for fear that she may decide to take some action against the nearest offending appendage.

"I've never understood that," Dr. Weir pondered, also staring off into the distance. "How they can think that one silly little organ somehow makes them superior when, in many ways, it's one of their greatest vulnerabilities."

The two women turned their heads toward me simultaneously and gave me matching accusatory glances, as if I were the designated representative for the male of all species. I lifted my hands in an unthreatening manner. "I would just like to say that I find both of you to be very powerful and threatening women, even without penises."

"Even without?" Teyla questioned dangerously.

"That is to say, I do not consider myself your superior because of one silly little organ… I mean, not that it is little." Did I really just say that? Out loud? By the somewhat shocked and disbelieving looks on their faces, I evidently did. "Not that you would want to know something like that. Correct? No, no, of course not."

Before I could find an excuse to remove myself, the gate provided one for me. It burst to life behind the shield and the Marine heading up the rescue team called over the radio, "Atlantis, request a medical team be sent to our location."

Elizabeth nodded and the technician sitting at the controls called to ask for one. "Sergeant, what's the status there?"

"Major Lorne and Lt. Rowley were found tied to a tree. They're conscious but have both suffered head wounds."

"And Dr. Beckett?" she asked warily.

"There's no sign of him, Ma'am."

Ronon cut across the frequency then. "Lorne says the Hollorans separated them as soon as they arrived on the planet. They must have taken Beckett back to the planet of their main settlement."

"That seems likely, Ronon," Elizabeth agreed. "Are there any clues as to where that is?"

"Not that I've found, but I'm thinking we could probably get some information from the people that pointed us toward these traders in the first place."

"Major Lorne said they told his team they only knew of the meeting location where you are now," Teyla interjected and I nodded my agreement.

"Yeah, well, maybe they just didn't ask them the right way," the Satedan growled back.

"For now let's concentrate on what we do know and that is that Carson was taken through the gate." Elizabeth eyed me as she spoke. "I'm sending Dr. Zelenka over to recover the most recent addresses from the DHD. If we have to, we'll start a planet by planet search until we find them."

And that was how I found myself off world on yet another recovery mission bashing my head into the DHD as I raised it too quickly when I heard footsteps approaching.

"Dr. Zelanka, Ronon has assured me that the area has been secured. There is nothing to be worried about."

Teyla's reassurances did little to calm my nerves, but I quieted my curses in my native language and forced a small smile of thanks where she stood above me as I lay on my back and worked to download the data from the unit. It ends up it was the footfalls of her teammate and the Marines that had startled me in the first place.

"Almost done?" Ronon, it seemed, could not stand still. He paced around the consol like a tiger in tiny cage even as I finished the connection. I found it odd, here we were outside with room to roam freely and he moved liked trapped animal. But then again, he was caught in the same trap as we all were; the desire to do something to help our friends without the ability to do so.

"Download has started. It will just take a minute to complete."

"This is insane," he grumbled. "How many addresses will you recover?"

"Approximately fifty." I winced at the snarl the large man let out when I gave him the news.

"Fifty worlds. It'll take days to search them all."

"Did Major or Lieutenant not see anything?" I asked him from where I lay on the ground. "Even one symbol could narrow search considerably."

"They didn't see anything." His booted foot sent a rock flying off into the trees and I thanked my lucky stars that he had aimed it in that direction instead of toward me. "They could be dead by the time we even find the right planet."

"They could be dead now, Ronon," Teyla snapped. "But I, for one, will not let that stop me from finding them or the people that took them." I couldn't see above their knees but by the way their feet were squared off I could imagine their faces were just as rigid.

Ronon was correct. They could be dead. But why not just do it here if that was the plan? They seemed to want Carson alive, and hopefully that would be enough to keep Rodney and the Colonel alive, as well. And then something dawned on me.

"Dr. Beckett's field kit, was it here?"

At my question, Ronon squatted beside where I worked. "No, we didn't find anything."

"Then he still has transponder with him."

"But I thought the long range scanners could not scan that far without the ZPM." At Teyla's observation I began disconnecting the equipment from the DHD.

"And the Daedalus is still over a week away," Ronon added.

"Yes, but with addresses, we will not need to scan entire galaxy," I explained as I sat up brushing leaves from my hair. "We can scan the individual planets through the wormhole. Not as efficient as scanning all planets at once, but much quicker than searching each with a rescue team."

"We can do that from Atlantis?" Ronon helped me to stand…or should I say lifted me like crane hefting steel beam. Very large crane lifting very small steel beam.

"Yes. I will need to realign the sensors to read through the gate, but should not be too difficult to accomplish."

Ronon didn't release his hold on my arm, as if I might dart into woods if he did. As if he couldn't catch me if I decided to try. "Dial the gate, Zelenka has work to do." His tone almost made me think I should try, because if this did not work, Ronon would not be happy. And Ronon is much too large to be unhappy at me. Unhappy at bad men holding our friends, yes, that I could support. But unhappy at me… the trees were looking more and more tempting.

In the end, I did not run. I went back through gate, brought together a team of my own…engineers, physicists, a gate tech or two…and within two hours we were dialing the first address, looking for our missing men.