Rules of War
"Men of genius are admired. Men of wealth are envied. Men of power are feared. But only men of character are trusted."
Chapter One: Damn
8:34 am, Atlantis
The hurricane that was also known as Dr. Rodney McKay tore into the back of the jumper like a violent hamster on high.
Elizabeth might be one of the few in Atlantis that actually enjoyed Rodney's frequent, animated outbursts, but today there was good reason for everyone to be excited. Lorne's team had returned several hours ago after investigating an Ancient satellite orbiting around a distant planet. The prospect of adding another massive weapon to their struggle against the Wraith was a reason in itself for celebration, but there was something else that made this find an even greater miracle.
There were ZPMs on board. Five, to be exact.
Since their arrival in the Pegasus Galaxy two years ago, the hunt for these fundamental power sources had slowly sunk into the background of their objectives. After Ladon's coup against Cowen and his followers, they'd been officially deprived of leads and without direction, there simply was no hope of tracking down a functioning ZPM…until now.
According to Major Lorne, the ZPMs were held in a transparent, sealed-off chamber in the center of the control room. The major had wisely chosen to leave it alone until McKay or Zelenka had a chance to look at it. Yet upon exploring the main control station, they'd found nothing that indicated life had ever breached the dusky corridors of the satellite.
Weir had been forced to talk McKay down to bringing a team of only four scientists—half of what he'd wanted to start with. Honestly, she couldn't see why even four were necessary. Their primary goal was to retrieve as many of the power sources as they could before the main expedition set out to bring the weapon to its full potential. Recovery of the satellite would come later.
Needless to say, Teyla and Ronon were accompanying Sheppard, not for military support, but to relinquish him of some of the pain caused by dealing with Rodney.
Although the satellite was similar in many ways to the first one they had discovered, it also doubled as a research outpost. Its size was unimaginable. It would take no less than a dozen or so skilled men and women for the task of bringing it back to life. Dwelling on this, it occurred to her that she might have to request an increase of personnel, which would probably incur a full tactical analysis by the I.O.A.
She sighed softly and leaned on the railing, overlooking the Puddlejumper in the 'gate room with a thin smile. Hell, she would invite the council members to live in Atlantis if it meant the recovery of five fully functional ZPMs.
"Would you calm down, Rodney?" she heard Colonel Sheppard's voice over her headset. "The giant alien satellite isn't going anywhere in the next five minutes, so why don't we all just relax, and take our time."
"No, I won't. And yes, Colonel, it might!" the scientist shot back. Weir smiled. "You know, I'm not even remotely surprised you weren't listening to me the first three times. So I'll say it again at the expense of my very fragile sanity. Now that the satellite has been activated, anyone within a reasonable technological level of understanding can detect it. And just so we're clear, that includes the Wraith."
"Gentlemen, do I have to send someone to baby-sit you two?" said Weir, raising her eyebrows.
There was a slight pause before a disgruntled voice replied over the radio. "I thought you had already, ma'am."
Sheppard laughed sarcastically. "Come on, Lorne, this'll be tons of fun! Broken Ancient satellite, Wraith looming over your shoulder, death lurking around every corner. And hey, talk about location—I hear the edge of a radioactive magnetic asteroid field is great this time of year."
"No offense, sir, but it's not the mission I'm unhappy about. It's McKay."
"What?" Rodney protested. "Since when do you have anything against me, Major?"
"The last time I baby-sat you, I was shot with a Wraith stunner and left to roast in the hot sun," said Lorne.
"He had me at gunpoint! What did you expect me to do—fold you up and put you in my pocket?"
"Rodney!" Weir said curtly. There was radio silence. "Thank you. I hope this means you're ready to go?"
"As we'll ever be. Dial away," said John.
Elizabeth nodded briefly at the Canadian tech who sat at the dialing console. He punched in the coordinates, and the 'gate flashed, extended, then stilled. It was a little unorthodox to send jumpers out this way, but since their ZPM had been severely depleted a few weeks prior, they aimed to keep the 'gate open for as short a time as possible.
"You're clear to go. And Rodney," Elizabeth added, with authority.
"Yes, yes, yes, what is it?" the snapped response came. Impatient McKay? There was a surprise.
She pressed her lips into a thin line. "If it turns out these ZPMs can't be retrieved safely, then leave them behind. Promise me you'll do that."
His immediate silence wasn't reassuring in the least, but then, she hadn't expected him to wholeheartedly agree with her. Asking McKay to abandon even one working ZPM was like asking a starved lion to desert his prey—there was little room for negotiation.
"Fine," he said bitterly.
"Thank you." Her arms dropped to her sides. "I hope you remember that promise, Rodney. We'll be waiting for the good news shortly."
"See ya in a few," Sheppard said, just before he cut the connection. A moment later, the jumper throttled forward with the usual melodic purr in its wake. Once it slipped through the event horizon, the 'gate closed behind it, and the mission to G2T-178 began.
Be safe, Elizabeth thought after them.
9:13 am, G2T-178 Space
Amidst the sheet of stars, the massive blue-and-gray satellite looked like a drifting ghost. The light reflecting off the gaseous navy-aqua planet stained the highlights of the station. It floated, no more than a lonely giant filtered through the advanced technologies of an ancient race. As the jumper neared the docks, lights surrounding the mouth of the hangar blinked at them, as though a sleeping monster might open his eyes and greet the smaller creatures in the flying vessel.
Of all the words that could describe it, and the only one Sheppard came up with was 'pretty'. Okay, so sue the guy who failed the linguistic class. It was damn pretty.
Beside him, McKay was ecstatic. Sheppard felt his hand itch with the need to slap the man upside his head. He didn't care if they'd found a hundred ZPMs on a giant flying ship made of gold—he knew Rodney when he started acting this way. Yeah, he'd learned some things since Doranda, but that didn't mean he'd spun a full one eighty. From now until the moment they showed that hunk of Ancient metal the rear end of a jumper, John would have to keep a close eye on McKay. Again.
Of course, the more he thought about babysitting McKay, the more he felt the mental itch start to grow in the back of his mind. There was something he was supposed to do today. It had something to do with Rodney. And the more he tried, the less he remembered.
As he went on concentrating, Sheppard maneuvered the ship until it set down gently on the floor of the hangar. Sensing their arrival, the newly awakened station closed the doors to the vacuum of space and replaced the atmosphere in the chamber.
Whatever it was he couldn't remember, it would have to wait until they were back in Atlantis.
"Everyone remember where we parked," he announced, standing up. The nine other occupants of the jumper were already filing out the rear hatch. He joined them on the deck.
"The control center we found is two floors below," said Major Lorne, giving the team of scientists his best 'move-before-I-say-so-and-die' glare. "There was some pretty heavy damage to the corridors on this level, so we had to reroute through an airlock to reach the transporter."
The marine standing behind Lorne—Lieutenant Padley—gave a long, sweeping look around the hangar. "I don't like the fact that the damage's internal rather than external."
"We don't know that for sure yet," Rodney reminded him. "The structural damage throughout the satellite is probably the result of several direct shots to vulnerable targets on the hull's exterior."
"I don't like the fact there's any damage at all!" Sheppard cut in sharply. "We're not even inside the damn thing yet and I'm already starting to feel that this is a bad idea."
"Well, bad idea or not," said McKay firmly. "We should at least take a look at the control center. Bottom line is, everything we need to defend ourselves against the Wraith is in there."
"Not everything," said John. He turned his back to the scientist to address the team as a whole. "From here on, nobody leaves sight of the group unless specifically ordered by either me or Major Lorne."
"What? What about—"
"Or Dr. McKay," Sheppard added gratingly. "Are there any questions?"
One of the techs, one Dr. Golding, a mousy little guy with a thin moustache and an English accent spoke up. "What do we do if we must relieve ourselves?"
Sheppard didn't bother to answer the question, and instead moved away towards the inner area of the docks at a pace that suggested his urgency to get the mission over and done with. As the group misted around him, Golding looked after him with an offended twitch of his cheek. Ronon paused behind him and glanced down, a lethargic expression on his face.
"Use your imagination," he said, before stepping around the frozen man and following the others.
And thus, Dr. Golding, master of two PhDs and brilliant Yale graduate learned a lesson about stupid questions.
9:29 am, Ancient Satellite Second Base Airwalk
True to Lorne's testimony, the door to the left of the dark corridor was sealed tight. Electrical burn marks suggested that it had shorted out at some point, leaving behind a trademark steel barrier and several black holes in the wall. Rodney glared at him before Sheppard could ask if it was fixable. The scientist brushed past him without a sound, heading down the right path towards the airlock.
John drifted in thought. It was weird…there was something about today that felt different. Was he supposed to remember something? Was it a holiday, or an anniversary…? But then, again, as soon as he turned his mind to it, it eluded him. Once again, he found the few mental strings pulled right through his mental hand and it was gone. Damn.
Anyway, he led the company down the hall after McKay and found him working intently on the panel to the door, brow furled in concentration. Picking up on his negative Rodney-go-boom vibe, the remaining scientists stood by and let him work. After a few moments, McKay stopped what he was doing and faced the colonel.
"First off, this technology is extremely outdated," he explained. "Compared to the Ancients, it's…well, ancient. It's obviously a lot more complicated than ours, but it also makes it very volatile."
John lifted his brow. "Which means…"
"Which means it won't work one hundred percent of the time," Rodney said somberly. "Or even fifty percent, for that matter. It's almost as if the whole satellite was hit by a super-charged EM pulse, scrambling circuits and overloading parts of the electrical system simultaneously. It's a wonder the hangar doors closed without shorting out."
"We noticed a few of the doors weren't responding last time," Lorne affirmed. "We went as far as we could before turning back."
"Speaking of doors," John interrupted. "How about this one?"
"Yes, yes, I'm trying," sighed McKay. "Major Discovery over here must have drained what little electrical charge was left in the door's buffer the first few times it was opened. It's not your typical 'pop-out-and-replace' crystal system we're talking about here."
"Of course it's not."
"When and if I do get it to work, we're going to need something to wedge it open," the physicist went on to explain. "I doubt it'll open after this."
Automatically, John twisted his head to look over at Ronon. The Satedan shrugged, took a single glance around the passageway, and spotted a narrow pipe somewhat dislocated from the wall a few yards away. He snapped it the rest of the way with a rough jerk of the arm and passed it to their team leader.
"Thanks," said John, taking the metal pipe as casually as though he would a handshake. "Here you go, Rodney. Now you can't say I never get you anything."
"How nice," drawled McKay, ignoring the gift. "A birthday present. It's all mine. You shouldn't have, Colonel."
Sheppard felt something kick inside him. Oh, shit.
"It's your birthday?" said Lorne. "You never said anything."
"No. It's an overrated concept. Why anyone feels the need to celebrate the fact that they're one year closer to their inevitable demise escapes me. Now stand over there, and get ready to use that thing once I open this door."
Sheppard turned on Rodney incredulously. "It's your birthday?"
"Go. Stand. Door."
That was what he couldn't remember about today.
Grimacing, the colonel stepped forward so that he stood in front of the partition in the door. He vaguely remembered Elizabeth mentioning today's date and it's privileged meaning. Hell, on Teyla's birthday, he'd presented her with a box of smuggled popcorn and a couple of chic flicks Cadman assured him were ideal. But Rodney's…well, he'd forgotten it was today.
Actually, he hadn't realized it was even remotely close to today. Even if he'd remembered a few days before, what could he have gotten McKay? Yeah, he was part of the team and it seemed like the right thing to do, to give birthday presents when the time came around. But then, he was a pilot, and a soldier. He fought wars. Wars had rules and those rules didn't include bonding with civilians in the middle of perilous missions.
McKay was definitely not the kind of guy who cared about rules. Maybe because he'd broken them so many times…but then, hell, so had John. What irked him was the fact that Rodney disobeyed lots of rules, including the ones he made himself to protect the team. Annoying, stubborn, egotistical McKay.
Maybe he should stop thinking about it.
John came out of his reflective coma to find that McKay had the cover of the panel open and was doing something with his fingers. There was a brief flash of sparks and the door suddenly jolted open with a low hiss. Before it could slam shut again, John grabbed the edges and pried them apart until he could fit his body through. He felt Ronon grab the pipe from his hand and wedge it between the two halves, near the top where it wouldn't be knocked out. The door shuddered, but the metal bar in its jaws didn't snap despite its unconventional circumstance.
"There," said Sheppard, standing back. "That wasn't so tough. You okay, Rodney?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm fine," grumbled the scientist, ducking under another shower of sparks expelled by the panel. "Just your run-of-the-mill jolt of electricity to the brain, that's all. Nothing to worry about."
John exchanged glances with Teyla, but said nothing, their thoughts being the same—he was fine. As fine as Mckay could be.
The inside of the airlock were dismally bare. A rectangle sort of hatch was carved into the ceiling—he guessed it was for lowering larger-than-normal things into the airlock to be jettisoned into open space. Or maybe it was used for launching probes. Who cared. McKay's 'enthusiasm' was getting contagious, and John really wanted to get out of here.
The astrophysicist waved his hand over the panel to door across the small chamber. Fortunately, it did exactly what it was meant to do and flushed open. They marched through.
Which was good…because airlocks made him nervous. So did birthdays. And rules.
The transporter was too small to fit everyone all at once, and Sheppard arranged it so that he and McKay would be amongst the first group to go down. He threw in Ronon and Teyla for experience, sticking Lorne and the cheerful Lieutenant Padley alone with the other scientists.
So when they…well, 'transported' down to the base level and the doors parted to reveal the actual authenticity of the Ancient's control room, Sheppard felt he could safely, however temporarily ignore that bad feeling in his gut.
"This is…this is amazing," said McKay.
Well, okay, maybe 'amazing' was sort of an understatement. He wasn't McKay, and he wasn't exactly the one looking forward to spending the next fifty-two hours slaving over a laptop, trying to bring dormant systems back online. On the other hand…this was nice. Really nice. He never thought he'd see so many damn ZPMs in one place, but there they were.
The ZPMs were standing, unattached from the device in the center of the room, in a neat row inside what could only be called a glass cage. All five power sources—brand new, shiny, and untouched. Consoles that were only slightly similar in design to those on Atlantis stood on all four sides of the chamber. They, along with the chamber itself, were elevated on some kind of metal platform. To the left, the room branched out into a larger wing, which seemed to have nothing but walls covered with keyboard interfaces—and in the center of it all, a large, flat screen.
"Okay," Sheppard said, after a moment of intake had passed. He stepped out of the transporter, followed by Teyla and Ronon. "I admit. This is cool."
It took him a moment to realize that something wasn't quite right. He looked around, and saw that Rodney still hadn't moved. "Rodney?"
The scientist continued to stare into space, unaffected. Good lord, was the man drooling? Sheppard snapped his fingers. "Hey, Rodney! Wake up!"
McKay jumped, casting a short and hostile glare towards the colonel. "What?"
"What do you mean, 'what'? You're the one who won't stop going on and on about these ZPMs, McKay, so start…ZPM-ing!"
"ZedPM…what?" the physicist squeaked, advancing quickly. Ronon stepped aside to let him by. "Excuse me, Colonel, if I take a while to savour the moment," he added snappishly. "And for the love of all that's decent, just…stay right here, and don't touch anything. I don't want you accidentally turning on something important."
"Because that would be a problem, right?"
The transporter slid open behind them, and Lorne arrived with two of McKay's crew. He more or less politely removed himself from the line of banter while the scientist hung back where they were comfortable—in the background.
"Yes, it would!" said McKay. "For all we know, this level of Ancient technology could be ten times as sensitive to ATA than Atlantis' systems."
"Am I the only one getting the 'mother hen' vibe from him?" Lorne asked, just as the transport delivered Padley and the other techs.
Sheppard scratched his chin. "Actually…"
"I am sensing a type of…defensive intuition," Teyla offered, smiling slightly at the chance to join in.
"Reminds me of my mother," Ronon added.
"Okay, just…stop, right there!" Rodney barked. "First of all…Ronon, what did I ever do to deserve that? And second of all, what's with all this? You find out it's my birthday, and all of a sudden I'm wearing a sign that says 'Yes, I'm thirty-five, so please humiliate me some more'?"
That surprised John. "You're thirty-five?" That would make him a year older than him. John didn't like to think of Rodney as 'older' in any way. He spent half his missions trying to prevent the man from sticking his fingers into other people's belongings (not to mention business). How could he be older?
"Never mind," Rodney said dismally. "Forget it. Golding, Armes, you're with me. You, and you…do either of you read Ancient?"
The two remaining scientists nodded, one slightly more hesitant than that other. The woman with auburn hair seemed new and uncertain, unlike Fisher, the older and most senior personal next to McKay himself. Satisfied with their mild enthusiasm, McKay went on, "Fine, the two of you start looking for something like a log or a database in one of these computers. Start there and work your way around." When they moved off to oblige, he went straight to one of the consoles next to the glass chamber. Golding and Armes followed suit.
"Getting the chamber open is probably the easy part," Rodney said aloud, whether he meant it to be public knowledge or not. "The hard part is determining how reliable they'll be, consider—agghh!"
The instant Mckay's hands touched the surface of the datapad, a white light flashed, jumping from the device and straight into the physicist's body. He yelped sharply and fell backwards, half-thrown and half losing his balance. Before he hit the ground, Sheppard, Teyla, Ronon, Lorne and Padley all had their weapons drawn and armed at the circle of consoles.
"McKay!" Sheppard called, hurrying over to him. Rodney was now on his back, staring and blinking at the ceiling. "Hey, are you okay?"
To his surprise—and that of everyone else, the scientist sat up abruptly, with no tell or trace of drama attached. Sheppard stepped back, eyeing his teammate suspiciously and said slowly, "Rodney?"
Rodney looked up at him with a confused tilt of the head, as though he were just waking up from a dream. "Oh," he said listlessly. "Sheppard. Hi."
McKay blinked again. "That was strange."
"What was strange?"
"That!" the scientist said helpfully. And then, "How long was I out?"
"I don't…" Sheppard knew McKay could be weird, but this traipsed all over the line. "Two seconds? Maybe three? Rodney, what the hell was that thing?"
"That thing that just jumped into your skin! Right when you put your hands on that thing, it shocked you, remember?"
"Major, what are you talking about? I was just sucker-punched by some old guy in a black suit! He's…was just…right there, a second ago."
The colonel didn't fail to notice that slip up. His defenses went up, and so did the P90 in his hands. He wasn't about to point it at him, obviously—he knew better than to traumatize his answer man. "Rodney, I'm a Lieutenant Colonel now…remember?"
Again, the scientist looked confused as Teyla and Ronon moved in, concerned. "Huh? What did I say?"
"You called him 'Major'," said Ronon guardedly.
"Oh. Well, I meant to say 'Colonel'. Obviously. But seriously, I'd like to know…what just happened? There was some weird…guy, screaming at me about a bunch of people, and then…I ended up here. Oh, God…my head, my head…that's a migraine just waiting to happen…"
"Did anyone else see this guy?" Sheppard asked the group. No one said anything. The new recruit looked ready to run out of the room in fright. He turned to Rodney. "Nope. We only saw you getting viciously thrown to the ground by a non-corporeal bright light, McKay. Aside from the headache, do you hurt anywhere else?"
"No," the scientist grumbling, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet, not appreciating being treated like a child in second grade. John helped him balance out as his teammate came to his senses. Rodney glanced at his face, doubtfully. "Other than feeling like my head is about to split open like an overripe melon, no, I'm fine. I'm sure there was someone…"
"Maybe you should sit down, Rodney," said the colonel firmly. "I'm telling you, no one punched you. That Ancient thingy scrambled your brain a little. Now, I'm going to take the jumper back to the 'gate and call Beckett—
"No!" McKay said suddenly. Sheppard's eyes widened. "Look, you're right, Colonel. The console had a power surged and I got zapped. It happens. But trust me when I say I'm thinking clearly now. I'd like to get back to work, if that's okay with you."
"No one is touching that thing until I get Carson to check you over," said Sheppard, getting a little pissed. "Don't argue," he added, before the man had a chance to. "It's not open for discussion. And don't think I won't zat you just because it's your birthday."
Yeah. Some of the military personnel sported zats now, for the finer details of missions gone wrong. For example: a raging horde of angry villagers. Zats were handy when it came to neutralizing threats that weren't necessarily evil, just…misguided. Plus, it was pretty handy when it came to threatening McKay into obedience. Hell, he'd tried every other form of negotiating. Lemons and zats worked a long way towards the path of Rodney's cooperation.
But truthfully, today wasn't going so well for Rodney. And Sheppard had experienced his fair share of shitty birthdays, one of which involved a place in the Middle East and a black mark on his record he preferred not to think about. So yeah, he wouldn't zat Rodney on his birthday, unless it was really, really necessary.
No lemons this time, either. Sheppard sighed.
"Teyla, you're with me. Ronon, stay here and make sure he keeps his fingers to himself, and Lorne…" He paused. "I need you to check the perimeter—stay sharp. We don't know for sure that we're alone."
And like a curse, the moment the words left his mouth, they were suddenly pitched in darkness. Auburn-haired recruit squeaked in panic. It took a few moments for the backup power source to kick in, and soon they were washed in glowing blue lights.
Almost the instant after it happened, something flickered in the corner of his eye. Sheppard spun and pointed his P90, tightening his finger on the trigger.
There was nothing there. Suddenly, another movement caused him to jerk in another direction. He greeted another legion of shadows. Not Wraith shadows, just…moving shapes in the dark corners of the room. Beside him, Ronon and Lorne were reacting the same way, at different targets. McKay just looked sick.
A popping sound pierced the room fogged with invisible foes, but the fear arched through his heart and prevented Sheppard from looking elsewhere. Silently. Slowly. It was like living in a dream state, where his body no longer belonged to him, but to someone else—a hunter, a prey and neither one all at once.
And then it was all over. After a few moments of ghost hunting, the blue lights went out again and the room flickered back to life. Gradually, John's heart started to slow down to a normal rhythm. His head felt clouded, as though he had just spent several hours swimming underwater. He looked around, to make sure his team was okay.
Only to find Teyla slumped to her knees, bleeding freely from a bullet wound in her shoulder.
McKay was on the floor across from her, unconscious, his face twisted and streaked with sweat. The berretta in his hand was cradled loosely in his grasp, still warm from having fired only moments ago.
And all Sheppard could think, on top of the oncoming flood of instinct and gut feeling was…
AN: Next update will be soon, hopefully.