The Covenant

by

Ryan C. Charles

A/N: A frontier of the Pegasus becomes a deadly place for John Sheppard when the Atlantis team meets a band of ruthless mercenaries with a mysterious talent for staying ahead of the Wraith. The fic takes place in season three between McKay & Mrs. Miller and Phantoms.

The fic is about the length of a Stargate: Atlantis episode. The author uses part / chapter separators within the text but has posted the story in its entirety.


Prologue: At Zero


Implantation took place in a factory adjacent to a park in the old residential quarter of the planet Belleron's chief city.

The factory made parts for lifts, or so Gavriel was told. Without power, most of the factory's long, numerous floors were inaccessible and dangerous.

Gavriel turned his head. The park, what was left of it, was visible in the big windows of the factory's lower floor. How the windows with their primitive and fragile paned glass had survived the Wraith, Gavriel did not know. The people were goners for sure, like the people of Gavriel's home world. The people of this world had resisted and the Wraith had rained fire. Through the center window Gavriel glimpsed a placard over the frozen grillwork of the park gate. The park was a debris field littered with blocky, gargantuan remnants of what might have been a residential tower. The sky of Belleron told Gavriel that snow was coming. When winter settled, the snow would hide blast scars throughout the city. Would anyone care, after the first snow, that the park had existed?

This world was home to squatters now.

Gavriel was a squatter. He had been called other things.

Well-diver. Hunter. Assassin.

"Making the incision," said the surgeon, his voice low and thoughtful.

Gavriel turned from the shadowy, frosted windows to a cube of anomalous light partially enclosed by portable screens. The cube was a surgery center, temporary but functional.

The surgeon was lanky with burnished skin and almost no hair. He had a long neck, like the sinewy stalk of the tawny yajbo plant. The surgeon's neck bowed a changing and expressive countenance toward the body of a man sprawled on a table of polished alloy.

"Suction," the surgeon, Oded, encouraged his assistant, a thin female with dark ropes of hair and gray-green eyes.

The assistant squinted in the direction of a mobile halogen lamp. "Can you turn the light?" Ridad, the assistant, asked of Gavriel. She pointed with her chin at the battered work lamp.

Gavriel did so.

Ridad made a soft sound of satisfaction. Gavriel thought, She almost looks human.

The surgeon glanced at the worktable and poked a tray with his finger. "On or off?" he asked.

Gavriel considered that Oded may have lost his mind. "Let's turn it on, then, and see how you like doing surgery without fingers."

Oded grunted. No patience for sarcasm. Oded once declared that his good nature was a casualty of old age. Not bloody likely. Gavriel had never met a Satedan who appreciated a proper joke.

The surgeon picked up a black sphere with a long surgical instrument that reminded Gavriel of tongs. The sphere, its complex circuitry invisible and immobilized, was the size of a bead or a bauble and small enough to fit on a string or dangle with a dozen others from the neck of a young lady.

Oded balanced the shiny black bead carefully, then forced the device inside the incision in his patient's breast.

"Hormone healers," he called.

Ridad splashed the incision with translucent liquid, sponged up excess fluid. "Do you want me to close?"

"We've implanted a Candid Type II, m'dear. Not the best model for the market--"

"I customize my equipment, it'll do its job," Gavriel interrupted.

Oded grumbled deep in his chest. "You're a bit off sometimes. The Type IIs were unreliable ten years ago and they're unreliable now. Our military discontinued them, you know."

"They get a little touchy after deactivation. I don't have that problem, as I never deactivate my toys."

Oded glanced quickly at Ridad. "Never take advice from the hired help. The Type IIs go unstable when they're poked and sometimes when you just look at them. That's on or off. So, I'll be closing up our friend here from Atlantis, if you don't mind."

The assistant seemed mildly offended. "I won't poke."

"Not intentionally, of course."

"I'll help you get the patient dressed." Ridad turned away to wash at the portable basin. "It's cold in here," she noticed.

x x x x x

The surgical instruments, portable electronics, halogens, and screens had been packed up, carted away. Oded and the surgical assistant were gone. Only the table, the basin, and the patient remained.

Gavriel waited until the patient was awake enough to stare at him. "Good, good. We're on schedule." He turned from the man on the table, clasped hands behind his back, and strolled a few meters through grainy shadow. It would not do to have the patient, a male in his prime, see his face.

The patient wore the uniform of a soldier. His military designation was unfamiliar to Gavriel's ear, but Gavriel understood the man was an officer. The man's rank was a pass card to weaponry and tactical teams that won skirmishes against Genii special operations units and Wraith soldiers. Gavriel had left manacles anchored to the table on the man's legs. He was, this particular man, to be monitored and managed with caution.

"What you're feeling is a residual effect of the drug we used to keep you asleep. The tingling sensation in your upper body is the healing-enhancing hormones acting on an incision we made in your chest."

"What did you do with my team?"

"Let's talk about you. The first thing you need to know is--"

"What did you do with my team?"

"You're not asking the right question. Do you want to know about the incision?"

The man fell silent.

"We made an incision near your heart and implanted a device called a tagger. In addition to tracking implanted persons, the tagger lets me use a transmitter that will emit a fatal pulse. Death may not be immediate, but if it isn't, it's pretty damn close--"

"Why?"

"We planted the tagger because you have something we want."

"--You could've tried asking for it."

"I will. In time."

"My people won't bargain--"

"Your people won't have to. Unless you want to die, you're not going to tell your people about this place, the tagger, or the deal we're about to make."

There was a perceptible shift in the patient's focus, as though the prisoner heard something he wanted to remember.

Gavriel sighed. "You doubt me, don't you? Every now and then someone does."

"Don't take it personally but I can't get what you want."

"Oh, yes, you can."

"Well, then, take it personally. I'm not getting you anything."

"What I'm after won't mean much to you. When I take what I want, you won't mind giving it to me. You'll like the deal, I promise you."

"I'm starting to get the feeling you don't know me very well."

"You are the leader of the Atlanteans, the one called Sheppard? Yes, we established so earlier. You are wasting time. Your friends are still in difficulty. You still need to get them free."

The man levered his torso upright and glared. The manacles rattled.

Gavriel allowed himself a small measure of surprise. "I must say, your profile is dead on. So when I tell you we could have a mutually satisfying business arrangement, I won't expect cooperation on that basis." He lifted a band with a small screen to his wrist, fastened the band, and tapped the screen. "Perhaps I may get cooperation this way. I have just switched you on. Well, not you, precisely, but the tagger you're carrying, I've armed it."

"What does that mean?"

"It means it'll pulse when I tell it to. If you don't do what I tell you, I'll release the pulse. It's programmed to my biological functions, so if my heart rate slows or speeds up, if my skin temperature drops, it will release the pulse. If the signal between the device and my transmitter is interrupted, if you try to take it out--"

"--Well, that's unfortunate."

Gavriel snapped his fingers. "You don't want to try to take it out. Oh, and I went through the trouble of fitting you with a voice-activated transmitter on a dermal strip. It's taped to your skin just below the breastbone. Removing the strip deactivates the microphone, so don't get it wet. If the microphone strip is deactivated, I'll assume our association is over and I'll deactivate you. If you speak to your people about the tagger, our arrangement is over."

"And over means ... ?"

"This will not be a game for children. Forget about going through the Well. Travel through the Well breaks the signal between the controller and the device. As soon as we're disconnected, I'm afraid you'll be permanently disconnected."

"How do I get this thing out of me?"

"You're ahead of yourself."

"I asked you a question."

"I've got the remote to the device inside your chest, which means I don't need to answer your question. Now, I'm going to--" Gavriel jerked his thumb in the direction of the lobby exit --"take off. Here's the key to your restraints. I hope you can manage. You're going to count to ten. You can count to ten, can't you? You'll want to follow instructions precisely. Think of it as a test of our arrangement. Your comrades are in the building to the right as you face the old park. I tied them up on the lower level. Hope you get there in time. The important thing is you'll want to take care of yourself. Change the dressing in a few hours. Don't poke the wound, what's left of it. Don't get too smart and don't get too dumb. All things in time."

The man studied him.

Gavriel paused to wonder what he was thinking. Was the man stupid? Sometimes the brave ones were. Gavriel remembered the man's file. At Sheppard's command was a city of Ancient weaponry and technology. Ships that flew as cunningly as Wraith darts. A world that slept grandly beneath an Ancient shield. Knowledge more extensive than anything archived in the old palaces of the Exiles.

The Atlantean officer was not stupid. He would know, therefore, the way men of a certain caliber knew things, that no matter what he did Gavriel intended to kill him.


Part One: Past, Present, and Future


A day ago ...

John Sheppard dreamed.

In the dream his mouth filled with rancid liquid while around him pressed plates like steel.

The jackhammer of pain gave way to the lacerating need to fill his lungs until the need to breathe sharpened to an excruciating point.

How was he still alive?

He wanted to live, the chords of his body translating his will to survive into a final, fiery deluge.

He came out of the dream in stages. Got control of it, forced his chest to claim that breath, to let him inhale. He began to move his limbs first, torso and head last. He stretched his legs, let them drift slowly beneath the sheet. If the dream had been something else he would have found movement impossible. Sometimes his wrists ached, a small complaint he discovered when he was pecking out the report of his capture and torture by Acastus Kolya. He hadn't felt any pain below his arms when he was strapped to Kolya's chair. By the time he realized the restraints had slashed his skin, the cuts had healed.

Just another flash thing, Kate told him. Yeah, another thing to let go of.

When John woke from the dream, his face and hair were damp and he was pissed.

Sometimes he could find through the massive piers and platforms of Atlantis the breathy sound of the ocean. And sometimes he sensed the ocean's vastness, in which Atlantis sheltered. Those things, and a good book, settled him. They were fewer now, the dreams, but their number of course was relative. For a while he was having them three times a week. Not so much anymore. What had he told Kate? Every now and again. Truth, lie? More truth than lie.

Time to wash up and take a walk.

The best remedy for nightmares was the company of a friend.

x x x x x

"What are we doing here?" There was a chuckle in his voice, and maybe he was smiling, but seeing her in the northside recreation room reminded him suddenly that in Atlantis it was the middle of the night and his eyes were gritty with fatigue.

Teyla hunched at the end of the recreation room's sofa. She'd drawn up slender bare feet and dropped her forehead into her hand, over which drifted a long wing of reddish brown hair. She was using a PDA. She had been focused on the tiny screen when John walked in.

She murmured without looking up: "I cannot sleep."

"Yes, you can."

His standard reply. Wasn't this their third midnight intersection? Wasn't this why he came here the second time, this time, to see if she had the jeebies too ... that feeling of soaring helplessness courtesy of a rocky trip down memory lane? He was going to be the upbeat one tonight since they weren't quitting yet, either of them.

Teyla Emmagan, the young leader of the Athosians, was invested, blood, bones, and soul, in the work they did. And he wasn't giving up on the only Earth outpost in the Pegasus.

Teyla let the PDA slip to her lap. The long, lovely line of her mouth softened tiredly. "I am supposed to say that to you."

Sitting beside her, "Do that meditation thing," he suggested. He balanced his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands, and inhaled the herbal scent of her skin.

"My thoughts wander." She spoke quietly.

"Any interest in telling me where?" His eyes locked with hers.

"It is where they do not go that concerns me." She rolled her shoulders as though releasing a kink. "I worry that so much has happened, I am beginning to take matters easily within myself and as easily let them go. I have seen the destruction of a world, John."

"I'm worried I'm taking it harder than I should and I'm not letting anything go."

She regarded him. "What are we doing here?"

"Coping."

"Yes, we are."

He sighed and got up. "Can I walk you to your room?"

Teyla shook her head. "I intend to stay a bit longer. I am reading the novel you downloaded to my device. I find the story compelling."

"Which one?"

"The Princess Bride, a most unusual tale. As you said."

"Mission briefing's in a few hours."

"I am almost finished."

"Good book."

x x x x x

"M3K-657 is viable. The DHD is functioning, although I think we can agree telemetry shows an interior set-up that's taken damage. The damage looks old." Dr. Elizabeth Weir scanned the women and men arranged at the conference table. Her gaze was returned by looks both sober and focused. "It's a whole two degrees Fahrenheit on 657. John, what have I missed?"

"We don't know what caused the damage. That dome looks pretty high, so whatever hit it came from the sky. Intel on this Covenant group is sketchy but what I hear I already don't like."

Elizabeth glanced at the two Athosian women. The younger woman with closely cut dark hair was called Drina, she remembered. Drina sat between Halling and Teyla Emmagan.

"What can you tell us?" she asked Drina.

"The dome was damaged, as you say. It was once very ... impressive." Drina turned to look at Halling and Teyla for confirmation.

Halling sighed. Teyla's confidante among the Athosians, he was a giant of a man with long brown hair. "It was a place of trade. The Stargate was open to all. We were generally well received. But the people of Belleron built too well and too high. They expressed the will to defy the Wraith. In recent years, we saw the sign of this. We believe that is why they are no more."

Opposite Dr. Weir, the big Satedan, Ronon Dex, grunted. Halling's tale was not uncommon in the Pegasus. After choosing resistance, Dex's home world Sateda suffered almost total annihilation. Sateda's few hundred survivors were refugees on other worlds.

Ronon faced Halling. "What do you know about the Covenant?"

Halling grew thoughtful. "That they are a people but their numbers make up the displaced of many worlds. They are well-divers."

"What is a well-diver?" Elizabeth asked.

Dex sat forward. "Well-divers go from world to world but they go because they want to. They're not hunted but they claim no world as their own." He eyed Halling and Drina. "Well-divers have a plan."

"So they do," agreed Halling. "These are said to know how to stay ahead of the cullings. If you join with them, the Wraith will not find you. That is what they offer, that is what you pay for when you become one of them. So far their claim holds truth, though none can say what technology or skill the Covenant possesses to choose worlds that will not be culled and to leave other worlds ahead of a culling."

"Sounds like technology we could use," John stepped in.

"I agree." Teyla raised a pointed chin toward Elizabeth. "We must do all that we can to learn what they know."

"Teyla, they are a band that takes on refugees for pay," Halling reminded, softly. "There is no compassion in them. They know no law. And when they take a world, they command the Stargate and do not allow trade to flow as it should." Halling looked away from his leader to the frowning visage of Dr. Weir. "That is why I do not believe it is the Covenant that holds Belleron. At least not completely. We were allowed to walk freely. And the refugees that we saw, they spoke openly of their former worlds and why they had come to this one. But it is a barren place, Doctor. A hopeless place."

"Better for us," Dr. Rodney McKay blurted, "if in fact the Daganians are there."

The team, Elizabeth saw, showed dismay at the scientist's choice of words.

McKay pulled up his shoulders. "What I mean is ... if the Daganians are indeed part of this refugee culture, they'll be more receptive to overtures by yours truly. Nothing like a room without heat to soften your position."

John scratched his jaw. "They betrayed us to the Genii. Do we really like the idea of bringing these people to Atlantis?"

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "Oh, I agree, John. Their being here has to be temporary."

"Temporary temporary? Or temporary until we find another ZedPM?"

"I see your point, Rodney."

An attempt to develop an alternative power source had recently cost Atlantis its only zero point module. Without the ZPM, the expedition was totally dependent on its naquadah generators.

The generators were adequate in many ways but they could not power the city's shield or maintain a wormhole long enough for Atlantis personnel to 'gate to Earth.

"First things first. First, we have to make contact with the new-- I'm sorry, what's she called?"

"She's the Quindosim leader, she's called a master handler." McKay frowned and appeared to turn inward, bringing to Elizabeth's mind rumors about something awkward between McKay and the Daganian woman. "Her name is Allina," McKay eventually said.

"We have to find this Allina and we have to know if she's willing to discuss a future for herself and the Quindosim that involves bringing her zero point module to Atlantis."

"Big if," John said.

Seated beside John, Teyla nodded for emphasis.

"Oh, it's always about taking chances, John. You know that."

"Yes, I do. If we go, I want Lorne on 'gate duty. The refugees will probably have people watching the Stargate. I don't want them to be the only ones. We should go through on foot. A Jumper won't fit through that dome anyway but a Jumper flying in tends to take negotiations to a whole new level. Given the situation these people are in, I mean."

He was thinking about Olesia and the island of prisoners led by a multiple murderer who'd been willing to execute his team one by one for a chance to get a working Jumper.

"Good point. Last thoughts?"

McKay cleared his throat. "I'm sure you didn't mean to say that."

Elizabeth smiled contritely. "Of course not, Rodney. John, you have a go. Stay safe."

x x x x x

When John stepped off the platform his boots struck concrete. He glanced down and then up, let the moment come and then quickly go: a brief instant of awareness that he was on another planet and in a galaxy far, far away.

P90 raised, he scanned the building. The facility completely enclosed the planet's Stargate.

McKay shuffled into view, his hand-held raised to eye level. "Nothing on the thermal. No energy readings."

John tightened his mouth and gazed up. No people? That would not have been his bet.

Behind him came the whispery slurp that told him the rest of his off-world team was walking through the Stargate. Within a heavy gray naquadah ring, the event horizon of the active wormhole threw aqueous light across the bell-shaped facility.

A dome presided. The dome was unadormed, charred, and fractured.

Some weapon had penetrated it. Struck the floor, melting a strip of stone. The fire had bloomed upward, blackening the dome. From the look of the floor, a single strike had done the deed. The fire had not lasted. No corpses, no husks. The seam was not wide enough for a Wraith dart to escape outward into the planet's sky, but it was still likely the Wraith had dialed into Belleron's Stargate and made the domed facility useless as an evacuation point. Additionally, there was no place within the building to hide.

"I found an exit," McKay said. The scientist's breath came out in a gasp.

He looked like he had an itch, John thought.

McKay wore gloves. Ear muffs puffed under a wool cap. Surprisingly, McKay hadn't complained too much about the chill. John supposed the possibility of meeting up with Allina and a ZPM on the same trip was the scientist's idea of Christmas.

"Cold?" John asked.

"Not much." Rodney strode off, refusing to take the bait.

John turned to Lorne's team. "Major, keep an eye out for the locals."

"Piece of cake," said Lorne, catching John's eye.

John appreciated the meaning in the major's reply. Piece of cake or Pegasus Roulette, who knew?

Lorne's team-- Stroebel, Reardon, and Willet --fanned out.

"I'm expecting the refugees to want to talk to us," John said to Lorne. "We're here to play take me to your leader. Check in is two hours with me, three hours with base. Trouble with the locals, warning fire preferred. That being said, do what you have to."

"Yes, sir."

John signed to Teyla and Ronon. "Ready to make first contact?"

Striding hard after McKay, "I thought you already met these people," Dex complained. The wings of Dex's long weathered coat flapped open to reveal the broad, sturdy grip of an energy pistol. "What I heard, you ended up in a ditch."

John lowered the barrel of his P90. "It wasn't a ditch. It was a secret chamber."

"It was a hole in the ground," Dex asserted.

"It was a hole in the ground and a secret chamber." John began to wonder where the Satedan was going with this.

"A small difficulty," Teyla summarized, coming up the middle. "The Daganians, Ronon, were following the precepts of their religion. I only hope time has softened their opinion of us."

"Softened it a lot." McKay had reached a dreary, wooden pedestrian gate. "Okay, now I'm getting signs."

"In front of the door?"

"Further off. And moving away. Five of them, now four. Moving away fast."

They know we're here, good. Makes things easier.

John waved McKay from the pedestrian gate, checked the unlatching mechanism, and saw that the gate's operation was manual. "Anything straight ahead, Rodney?"

"No, we're okay."

"Ronon."

Ronon studied the gate. "No wires, no devices. Doesn't look messed with."

"Good, let's get it open." John released the lock by lifting a latch with his index finger.

He saw chains on both sides of the gate. He and Ronon pulled together.

For a hard three seconds, the gate resisted. Then it flew upward with a puff of oil.

John stood staring through stark winter light at massive chunks of stone and twisted steel. The debris towered him but stood back the span of a football field. Directly in front was an incongruous and improbable walkway.

He licked his lips. "Here we go."

x x x x x

It was daylight, so John couldn't see any stars. Therefore he could not see anything that made this world different from the last one, from any other world, but it was different.

They all were.

Belleron had achieved some level of industry. What had Halling said? The world had used its hundreds of years between cullings to advance, to grow arrogant, to forget the legacy of horror that had struck down the previous evolution of its people.

The price of that was utter devastation at the hands of a merciless enemy.

In realistic terms, the city remained. The domed building stood in a nest of low structures, most of which had been brought down by energy weapons. The domed building looked spared, and indeed the task of blasting it to pieces from the sky must have been abandoned when the Wraith realized the building housed the Stargate. What if debris had damaged the 'gate? Destruction of Stargates did not seem to be on the Wraith agenda.

Then someone had cleared a path through the ruin. Without tools, John wondered, how had anyone managed? The path led along a rise that gave view of a town-- not a city so much, he decided --arranged in a depression split by a meandering river.

John pulled out binoculars. He noted blocks of buildings, whole districts of them, factories maybe, and rows of narrow houses interspersed with dead trees and yellow patches of lawn. Away from the river stood some higher structures, like slender towers. Several had collapsed. More showed significant damage. The damaged ones appeared to be brick and held along the empty roadways like charred scarecrows. Across the river, more of the same but on the ledge above the valley something shimmered, something unlike the rest, uniquely tall, slender, and startlingly bright.

"Just once I want to see a car," Rodney complained.

"I don't think they had any," John said. "Look how narrow the roads are. No curb. They're for walking."

"Yes, well ..." McKay shut up, consulted his scanner. "They must be watching us."

"Where?" Ronon said, tightly.

"There, and there." McKay pointed with his chin.

"I see no one." Nevertheless Teyla shifted her P90 to ready, low. "Perhaps they are afraid to show themselves."

"That would be my guess." John sealed up the binoculars and signed the team to move forward.


Part Two: Reconnaissance


Teyla walked ahead of John down to the town. The air was still and cold, like a vacuum. Her boots clapped the pavement like discordant drums.

The town ranged before her, rows of blunt, two-story structures that sheltered a smattering of people.

Refugees.

She felt their eyes upon her.

Five generations since the last great raid. She was certain this was Belleron's history, though she had been to this world only twice or three times when such mattered. Five hundred years after the holocaust its people raised a city. The Bellites called the new city Sagaz, after their chief god. To celebrate their achievement, the Bellites had called together the leaders of their trading partners.

She had been a child then, her hand firmly within the clasp of her father Tagan Emmagan.

To her surprise, Tagan disappoved of the dome. The dome, her father said, was a new construct, a fool's endeavor. Yet the Bellites were happy to demonstrate its function.

The Wraith cannot come, the Bellites insisted, meaning the little pointed raiding ships-- darts --could not escape the new facility.

Her father had spoken in his kindest voice: They will think you are resisting. Have you forgotten the archives? They will come in their big world ships and they will kill everyone.

Teyla had stood with her father in the new Stargate building gazing up at its dome. She had inhaled its scent. It had smelled of plaster and concrete and the oily residue of industry. Standing with her father, she felt her heart go to pieces with longing. The stone beneath her feet, while rigid, meant something. Her father was wrong. The building spoke to the people who had built it. It spoke for them and not to the Wraith, who would, she had learned, do as they wished. If defiance merited annihilation, then it was an end of one's choosing. Was that not worth more, when the end came, than surrender?

She had asked this of Tagan, her girl's voice tiny under the dome of Belleron.

Her father had become stern. "How many lives do you balance, little one? Whose end do you casually discuss? What good is the universe to us if we no longer inhabit it?"

Contrite, the child Teyla had said no more. But her spirit riled. It was before the time of leadership, when her heart and its wild ways were everything. She understood now the meaning of balance, but not necessarily the choice of humans to gather before the scythe. Nevertheless, her father's warning had come to pass and there were no more Bellites among the stars.

John Sheppard slowed his steps. "What is it?"

Teyla looked about her. A nerve twitched in her neck. "I have been to this world."

John gave a look that meant he was choosing his words. "I'm sorry."

She jerked her head in a nod. Was it emotion rising under her skin? John never saw the Bellites at work or play. He never heard the laughter of Belleron's children.

How many hive ships had done this? How many of the ships that came to Belleron were among those she had awakened the night she and John showed the Wraith defiance?

"What are these streamers?" McKay asked.

Teyla arranged her countenance into a mask. The scientist was behind her. She glanced back, saw that Rodney divided his attention between his hand-held scanner and scarves hanging limply at the end of each lane of buildings.

"This world is now home to many people. The scarves say who is here."

John drew up alongside her. "Do you recognize them?"

"Some. That is the banner of Trenus, and that one, ahead, has the colors of Lixue." Teyla swallowed with difficulty. "I did not know Lixue had fallen."

"Life signs, a lot, straight ahead and closing," McKay said.

John squinted and slowed his steps. "Okay, finally."

x x x x x

Maybe the Bellites had used this room for meetings. Vachel wasn't sure. The furnace, tied to the generator in the basement, puffed greasy heat through the vents. Vachel was sure of that. How much heat came out depended on the thermostat on the wall, which Vachel, by vote, controlled with a key. The camp leaders made him the boss of everything because he knew what a thermostat was, and how to get fuel for the generator. When the furnace hiccuped, Vachel knew how to clear the fuel line and restart it. On Hypatia such machines were crude but Vachel had made a living going into old buildings and fixing them. He had been an engineer. Now he led the council of refugees.

"What say you?" Vachel surveyed the council members the way he would an old machine shop, paying attention to what was useful and what was not.

The council was made up of men and women of eight worlds. The members gazed at Vachel from hard chairs thrown in an informal circle. They were bundled in coats, robes, and blankets, some garments machine-woven but many homespun.

"Guilty," came the wiry voice of the woman Jatin. On Jatin's world, before the Wraith ships attacked and took too many of her people, heat rose out of stout stoves with bellies full of wood.

Vachel shifted a heavy hand to the cover of a book. The book spelled out procedure in matters of law. Vachel had found it in the library of the building they now occupied.

The book said that he was supposed to ask the council if the vote was unanimous.

"So say you all?"

The council replied in unison, "Aye."

Done. Vachel gestured to the clerk, a fragile Elanite woman with pretty black hair. The Elanite, Crye, alone among the refugees could read the Bellite law book. For this reason Vachel kept Crye close.

In bold letters the Elanite entered the vote into her scribe's tablet.

Vachel looked up to see a warden in the doorway. "The verdict is guilty," he said.

A young man with short saffron hair and the hands of an artist, the warden shrugged. The council tended to vote one way.

"I'm here about the other matter," the warden said. "People have come through the Well. They have a look I don't like."

Dread clamped Vachel's belly. He stood up. "What kind of look?"

"They're military."

Leaping to her feet, "Do they hold a scarf?" Jatin asked.

The warden shook his head. "They're the ones I told you about. A machine comes first, just like the one that came ealier. Then they come. They're not Covenant, though."

"How can you be sure they're not Covenant?" demanded another council member. "If this world is safe, the Covenant will come."

"They wear uniforms, all except one. The Covenant wouldn't look like these do."

Jatin released her breath with relief. "He's right, Vachel. The Covenant doesn't wear uniforms."

Vachel turned inward, conflicted. He had lost everything on Hypatia to beasts. Must he fear men as well?

"How many come?"

The warden told him.

Vachel made up his mind. "Place wardens on the roof. Arm them. If I signal, start shooting."

"They have people guarding the Well," the warden added.

Jatin gasped. "They have taken the Well from us?"

Vachel gestured to the warden and launched his bulk toward the exit. "Get the wardens on the roof." Arms swinging, he threw a hard look at the startled faces in the council room. "Are you coming?"

Ladderwells joined the six stories of the municipal building in which Vachel did the business of the refugee council. He trudged down the ladderwell between tight walls, his feet in their hard leather work shoes hitting the steps like blows.

The first floor of the structure was a business center. There had been cubicles. Vachel had those torn down. The offices, facing windows, were locked. Vachel had the keys. Outside the structure was a sign that, according to Crye, read Municipal Police. It was a government building, which explained the armory and the generator, but not the ominous lack of corpses. Across the lane stood the police barracks, empty. No generator there. When winter came the refugees had abandoned it for the generator-warmed, albeit isolated buildings further up the valley. Each building flew its colors to announce tenancy, and to welcome its people should more escape to Belleron through the Well.

Vachel glanced behind to make sure the council members and the assistants had followed. Several lagged like nannies chaperoning children, their faces clogged with fear. Vachel waved them along. The council was made up of carpenters, bookkeepers, farmers, and a cook, but the council was the spine of their meager world and therefore responsible for ensuring the survival of the group. He did not tolerate lagging.

When he had pulled the members into a formation, Vachel rounded the lane at the bottom of a shallow decline. He came out of the turn at full stride. Using his girth like a barrier, he planted himself in the middle of the walkway between a clothing shop and what was once a canteen.

The council gathered behind him. He could hear the members fidgeting and cursed under his breath. So much for a show of strength. At least the wardens were watching, men and women of a slightly less malleable nature, who had demonstrated affinity with the ballistic weapons of the Bellites.

Vachel squinted through the wintery light. The sun shone just a short hour past midday, which meant the temperature was well below the freeze mark. Vachel sniffed snow.

Too much to worry for. Too little to work with.

He saw, now, three men and a woman. The man who moved up front was tall and wiry but too young to be in charge. Vachel looked past him to the others. The woman had dusky skin and soft hair tied back. Her armor and winter gear gave her bulk but Vachel could tell she was lithe and rather small for a warrior. He glanced past her to a big, heavy-boned civilian with long bushy hair. The man was swarthy with light-colored eyes. He, too, was young. Younger than any Hypatian soldier Vachel had ever seen. A fellow with a cap brought up the rear, the tactical guide most likely, who held the unit's data module beside a stubby gun that did not, in Vachel's opinion, look like it could do much.

Could this be a formal military unit? Were they refugees? Perhaps the foursome made up a haphazard group forced together by the Wraith.

Vachel swung his attention to the man in front. "Where is your banner? What world are you from?"

Much to Vachel's consternation, the man continued forward. "We're from Atlantis. Our city was destroyed by the Wraith, so now we move around a lot."

Vachel forced himself to stand still. Even so the foursome made him nervous. He did not understand their demeanor and he did not understand why, as they drew near, they each seemed, in Vachel's mind, to grow older.

"I'm Vachel, leader of the council."

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard." The man stopped and studied the council members. Vachel sensed awareness growing in him.

The tactical officer had spoken into the officer's ear. Did the foursome have technology that told them there were wardens on the roof?

If so, not a one glanced up.

"This is Teyla Emmagan," the officer went on. "This is Ronon Dex. And Doctor McKay. We're looking for someone."

"We are always pleased to make new trading partners," the woman soldier, Emmagan, added with a small smile that seemed pleasant but politic.

"Are you displaced?" Vachel asked.

"Yes but don't worry," the man Sheppard said. "We're not here to impose on your hospitality. We're hoping we can help each other."

Vachel looked from face to face. The high-shouldered civilian seemed hostile but at least he was readable. The tactician looked curious but he kept his eye on his scanner and did not show with his face what the scanner was telling him. The officer, who was younger than a Hypatian unit leader, knew that there were guns above him. He was nevertheless a steady fellow.

"How can you help us?"

"I don't know, I think it's worth talking about. We have supplies we can trade. Blankets, medicine, food."

Jatin gasped with delight, the needy little fool.

Vachel frowned. "In return for what?"

"Information about some friends."

"Who are your friends?"

"We're looking for Daganians."

x x x x x

Take me to your leader, John had said to Lorne. John had watched way too many adventure shows in his boyhood. Remembered now that he hadn't enjoyed the way those films ended, especially the black-and-white ones with the trigger-happy military and extraterrestials with dietary peculiarities.

On the positive side, John was starting to relax. The refugees weren't dangerous people. Yeah, he'd picked up the whiff of desperation, calculated the math on it, and decided to stay on the good side of caution. The big man, Vachel, was the Tuesday night beerhouse type, a guy who maybe used to work a long leash anchored by heavy bills paid randomly by a job at the auto repair shop or reading meters for the gas company. He'd be okay, John figured, with some down to basics discourse, a sincere offer to share the local brew, and some bonafide goods courtesy of Atlantis. Meanwhile, John got a nice look at Vachel's side of Sagaz.

The walking lanes resonated of old Western TV shows, although the lanes of Sagaz were paved. The buildings themselves were more like 1940s row houses, with a faintly modern construct here and there. John was thinking quaint little southern town, one of those North Carolina gems an hour or two off the Interstate. Funny how he tended to relate what his eyes were telling him to an Earth model or era. He did that every time.

Vachel trudged along at John's elbow. The man wasn't talking. No one was. The council, as Vachel introduced the greeters, surrounded John and the team. They were headed, Vachel said, to the so-called Center. Eye contact with Rodney confirmed thermal blooms on the roof were pacing them. John wondered what arms the roof-crawlers were carrying. Probably something more sophisticated than bows and arrows.

Up an incline two pillars rose under the decorative lintel of a white six-story building. This area of the city seemed to have done okay. The brick behemoth across from the pillared Center was unscathed, as were the smaller structures beside and behind it.

"You have a functioning generator," McKay spoke suddenly into the strained silence.

At John's elbow, Vachel tensed and shot McKay a stormy look. "What do you know about generators?"

McKay misread the tension as a challenge. "I'm a scientist, not an engineer, but I know a thing or two."

"Do you need help with yours?" Teyla interjected.

"We don't." Vachel shut down the topic.

"Okay," John said, "but I'm sure there's something you need. We'd like to help."

They reached the steps of the Center.

Vachel slowed down. "First we need to know what you want."

"I told you what we wanted."

"You're hunters. You didn't say why you were hunting the Daganians."

"We're not hunters, we're friends. We'd heard they'd been displaced and we want to help them."

"In exchange for what?"

McKay opened his mouth to answer.

John said, "That's between us and our friends. For now, we can talk about how we can help you. If that's okay."

"You mentioned blankets," a heavy-set woman interrupted. "We have too few of those. And there are children. We could use blankets."

They'd stopped between the pillars. John looked at the woman. "How many?"

The woman returned his gaze with confusion. "How many?"

"How many blankets," Teyla said, "do you need?"

The woman opened and closed her mouth, perplexed. "You have not said how much or what you want in return?"

John looked askance, then scanned the group, going quickly from face to face. "I know, but I did say I wanted to help. How many blankets do you need?"

Vachel threw out a number. "Fifty." It was a challenge.

John keyed his transmitter. "Sheppard to Lorne."

Lorne: "Yes, sir."

"Dial up the 'gate and ask Doctor Weir to prep fifty blankets, preferably the heavy duty cold weather type, for transport to Belleron. There's need."

"Yes, sir."

John looked Vachel in the eye. "While I got my base on the air, anything else I can do for you folks?"

"You said medical supplies!" A voice from the back.

Vachel jumped in his skin. "Jaten, we may not be able to trade for these things!"

John toggled his transmitter.

"Lorne here."

"Could you ask Doctor Weir to throw in some first aid kits, maybe some heat packs, snack bars, and a couple of pillows, over?"

Amusement tempered Lorne's voice: "Will do."

"Sheppard out." John flared an eyebrow and turned to regard Vachel. "You want to be careful, okay. We can help each other. Wanna go inside, have a seat, talk about it?"

x x x x x

There were eight warriors in the upper levels of the structure. Teyla had seen the women and men pass over the roof, their footfalls soft as smoke. They would be heading down by now, watchful, perhaps on edge, certainly armed.

The refugees in the city Sagaz had chosen a wide open room on the lowest level for discourse. The members of the council gathered about John, who followed the leader through row upon row of hard little chairs. For a room intended to host many, it was quite cold-seeming. Had there been adornment? Would the refugees have removed Bellite statuary, images, and treatments? Would she, if this place had belonged to others and suddenly became hers? The room had only walls, no windows, and there were two doors.

The forward entrance let on the corridor. It was the way out. Teyla was sure the rearward door went inside the structure, possibly to a hidden passage or a service stairway.

A square of glass in the back door showed darkness but no movement. Still, if soldiers came, they would come through the back.

John and the council approached an elevated platform that seemed to mark, within the sterile meeting room, a place of honor. The council members claimed the platform, leading John onto its small surface. There were chairs there as well. The council leader sat, inviting John to do the same.

There was movement in the structure's front lobby.

Teyla swung about.

People from the city entered in a slow stream, focused but curious. When she saw these others, Teyla exhaled, smiled, and nodded greeting.

The newcomers paused at the meeting room's front doorway, then shouldered in, making no apology for intruding. Perhaps they were not intruding. Perhaps the room was meant to host all refugees.

Ronon met her eye over the heads of the new arrivals. His countenance was still, almost placid, but she understood his warning. The newcomers were not a threat.

She needed to cover the back doorway.

More people came. Arranging chairs to divide the factions, the refugees wandered into huddles. They talked within their groups, voices merging and indistinguishable except in their urgency.

Drawing surprisingly little attention, Teyla started among them.

P90 in the crook of her arm, she reached the far door. Ronon held at the wall, only a handful of steps from her. He seemed rather relaxed, yet was, Teyla knew, in his way very dangerous. When primed, Ronon became single-minded, like an arrow released over an open field. On the platform John was vulnerable. And Rodney, isolated for now in the empty row at the base of the platform, sat determinedly performing calculations. Both men needed time. Ronon would get it for them, even if it meant placing himself at risk.

The meeting room filled.

The heavy, disgruntled leader of the council-- he called himself Vachel --had just asked John how old he was.

John's thoughts were apparently flowing in another direction. "Excuse me?"

Vachel flapped his thick hands in a conciliatory gesture. "On Hypatia, we wouldn't let a man of your years lead soldiers. It's not right."

Sometimes John lost his words. When he did, he tended to frown. He frowned now.

Vachel held his eye. "That wasn't meant as disrespect."

Catching Vachel's startled tone, Rodney stopped his calculations and glanced at the two men. "How did you mean it?" he asked.

The refugee leader looked between Rodney and John. "A young man has his life. His life," he leader explained, leaning over his knee, "is the gift of the gods. He educates himself, he chooses among the women and is, in turn, chosen. He brings to fruition the gift of himself, partakes in the occupation for which he has trained, shares in the birth of his children, gathers maturity. After he has done that, he knows what he's fighting for. That's when we take our men into the military. Some stay, most do not. We only have them on required duty two years. The ones who stay, we pay them well, and they begin at the lower echelon and move upward. It would be impossible for a man like you, who should be at home with his wife and children, to be a leader among our soldiers."

John's brow had unstitiched as Vachel explained. He was nodding now. "I'm an officer in the Air Force. We make a choice almost before we know what we're choosing. After college-- that's where you train after you reach your majority --you go to a special school and come out a military officer. You keep going to specialized schools, you get a few mentors, you go into the field, you learn. I've been in the profession most of my adult life."

"So ..." Vachel said. "You're saying you know what you're doing."

"I have some idea."

"I meant no offense." Vachel gestured to Ronon. "I've seen his look. You start fighting too young, that's what happens to you."

"The Wraith took his world, killed everyone on it."

"Then you have no choice but to fight, I know." Vachel shook his head slowly. His cheeks sunk as though surrendering to gravity. What little light his suspicious eyes held wavered and dimmed. "It's been five hundred years since the last big culling. Still, we thought we had time. And then the Wraith came. Too many fought and more died, young men and old, women, babies, it made no difference. The gift's been spilled. So many Wraith are wakened, they take like they're starving. We're here trying to survive best we can, but we wonder, sometimes--" Vachel broke off, his mouth opening and closing in the needle-sharp silence that fell on the platform.

"You wonder," John said, "if there isn't a better way." He wore an inward-searching look but with John, Teyla had noticed, this sometimes made his gaze fierce.

Vachel sat up as though intrigued by John's intensity, giving John his full attention.

John went on. "You're right, there is. They can make us into refugees and we can stay that way, or we can figure out how to help each other and beat them. What do you want to do?"

"I'm just one person."

"Starts with one person."

"I want to kill them, every last one of them."

"There's one thing we have in common." John picked up his chin, his glance catching Teyla over Vachel's head.

Teyla managed a half-smile. Alas, John was doing quite well. The meeting room was nearly full. Its occupants left off talking among themselves to face the refugee council. Anticipation crept into the air. Teyla kept the rearward doorway in her sight but also sought the wide and graceful symbols of the banner of Lixue. She had friends on Lixue, trading partners who would recall both her father and mother. When she became the Athosian leader, the chief of the primary Lixuen settlement attended her oath ceremony. If the chief her friend yet lived, he would most certainly vouch for her and aid the mission.

x x x x x

While John looked around, the meeting room filled to capacity. No children, though, so there were more refugees somewhere. How many more? He didn't see the Daganian Allina or her surly protector, Sanir, so he was going to need to get specific about the number of refugees enventually.

So far Vachel was deflecting John's inquiries. First, Vachel said there were many worlds represented in Sagaz. He said he did not know all of them. Then he said, well, yes, he knew the names of the worlds but needed his archivist, a woman named Crye, to bring to him a journal.

Crye, of course, was somewhere else.

Would she come soon?

Yes. Well, not soon. She had a child to tend some distance away.

Later, then.

Yes, later.

And so on.

Meanwhile, the refugees below the platform started with their own questions. The common theme was John's intention, and what he knew about Wraith movements among other worlds. The arrival of the blankets and supplies interrupted. Not a bad interruption, either, as Dr. Carson Beckett and a few members of the chief medical officer's staff accompanied the medical kits. John had gotten a situation report over his earpiece receiver when the good doctor 'gated in. Not what John had intended but okay. He knew Carson Beckett well enough to take the doctor's arrival in stride. John had asked for first aid kits. They were on a refugee planet. Beckett had a soft streak for people in need.

The blankets were a hit, but, John saw, there was no fighting among the refugees for possession of them. Way more than fifty were needed. He might or might not be able, short term, to accommodate another order. Long term, he knew the expedition could supply as many blankets as the refugees wanted.

Vachel and the council distributed the blankets and other supplies using a voting system John tried but ultimately failed to understand. He made a mental note to check with Teyla. It seemed that the faction with the most members got most of the supplies. When he said he could get more of what they needed, the people in the auditorium gazed back with wonder. He didn't want to lose his bargaining chip but couldn't help explaining the blankets were an easy assist. After the cullings, or perhaps, miraculously, during the cullings, these people had fled their worlds with their skins and whatever they were wearing and they had not 'gated back. John could get his mind around that kind of trauma.

Beckett edged up to the platform and asked to open a temporary clinic. Didn't go over well. Beckett and Vachel and a woman named Jatin talked about it until Vachel put an end. Only a handful of refugees needed medical treatment, Vachel said. Such treatment needs were minor enough that Beckett, if he wished, could go among the residential blocks and seek his patients directly.

Beckett, disappointed, tried to explain the benefit of wellness checks for all Vachel's people.

John was a bit more upbeat. Vachel, it seemed, was wary of having his conclave overwhelmed by expedition personnel. So be it. At least now Beckett was free to ask about the Daganians among his new patients.

With a council member and Teyla as chaperones, Beckett led his medical team out into the city in search of patients.

Although the offer of a wellness clinic should have been the crowning point of the day, the arrival of expedition supplies really had gone over well. Most of the refugees appeared open and courteous. John signaled Ronon to hang out and get chatty. Saw his Satedan friend's scowl, thought about it, and tasked McKay to do the same.

Jatin suggested a tour. Vachel was reluctant, which got John interested. The big man was calm one moment, jittery and suspicious the next.

Jatin, on the other hand, was enthusiastic and talkative.

Vachel and the rest of the council tagged along.

There wasn't much to see. The back service stairs led to the boiler. Rodney wanted a look at the generator.

Vachel said it was dangerous.

Rodney wore a look somewhere between startled and patronizing. It was an interesting blend, even for him. "Dangerous, how dangerous?"

Vachel ushered them away from the service stairs. "When we found this place we were surprised by the lack of corpses."

Ronon came up beside Vachel, then moved slowly ahead. "The Wraith don't leave that many dead."

"They leave some," John supposed. He'd seen it.

Vachel pushed through a passage door, edged past Ronon. Started the group across a hallway toward the front stairwell. It was hard to tell if he was annoyed or constipated. Maybe both.

"They leave some," Vachel grunted. "Just not always. Here, maybe they left some. Down in the low places, these buildings, and through the underground drains, we found--"

"Oh don't tell me," Rodney protested, wide-eyed.

"We call them nesters. I've never seen scavenger bugs big as these."

John glanced at Jatin, who was nodding. "How big?" he asked her.

She said, "They sometimes went after the infants. Until we learned not to let the candles go out. Otherwise, they only bother you when they think you're dead. Incapacitated. Meaning the normal movement of an adult sleeping keeps them away. That's on the surface. They're bolder down in the underground, with so few of us around, and they're bold in the dark. Down in the boiler, we carry torches. Lots of torches."

Vachel: "But we don't go down there unless we need to."

Dex frowned. "These bugs, they don't mess with the pipes, the seals? They're not interested in any of the stuff people usually run under the ground?"

John thought about it. "That's a good point. The original inhabitants built the generator down there, so ..."

"I don't need to see the generator. Seen one, seen them all." Wriggling uncomfortably, Rodney tried to put the topic to bed.

"If it's a threat, we can help with your bug problem," Ronon said. "Sounds like your bugs are acting weird."

Vachel flashed John a glance.

"I agree with Ronon." John saw Rodney hold up his hand like a kid in science class. "Yeah, McKay."

"The vibration from the generator probably keeps the, uh, insects at a distance."

"Yeah. Whatever. What's next on the tour?"

Jatin in a soft, tentative voice wondered, "Would you like to eat?"

John winced and refrained from asking how effective were the kitchen's roach motels. Ronon looked willing and Rodney was a guess. Hunger and fear? With McKay it was a toss which drive would win.

The kitchen and cafeteria dominated the building's third floor. John sat down to off-world cooking, refugee-style. Lots of stuff out of cans, heated unidentifiable beans, little salted bits of meat, also unidentifiable. John poked the meat stuff, looking for tiny legs and antennae. Told Vachel the fare reminded him of home.

Check in with Lorne was on time. Teyla reported that Vachel's estimate of sickened refugees was abysmally low and she would be away with Beckett longer than anticipated. John asked directions to the washroom in order to talk outside Vachel's hearing. Vachel immediately offered a guide. John reassured the man that he could handle a couple of turns in a hallway.

In the passage outside the cafeteria: "How low is low?" Traffic in the passage was light, relatively. John kept his voice down.

Beckett chimed in. "Very. We're dealing with the people directly, so don't you worry. We'll get it done."

A woman sidled by, smiling at him broadly and with appreciation. John waited until she passed. "What are you saying? Are these people sick sick, or is there a problem?"

"It's a combination of diet, hypothermia, and trauma. I haven't come into anything too severe and from what I've seen, I can treat these people in the field. But don't go looking for us anytime soon."

"Supper's cold."

"Son, I just had it, and aye, it was."

John rolled his eyes. "All right. Anything on the Daganians?"

"Not a word, not yet."

"Damn it. Two-hour check-ins, doc. Sheppard to Lorne."

"Lorne here."

"Dial the 'gate. We're camping in the field."

"Oh good, sir. I'll send for a cozy fire and some marshmallows."

John smiled ruefully. Meanwhile, he decided to follow Vachel's directions, see where they led. He got to the corridor's end, stopping at a glass window, or what appeared to be glass.

The sun had set. He was looking into inky darkness sparkling shallowly with pricks of light, possibly candles.

At the distant end of a wormhole to Atlantis, Elizabeth Weir spoke into his ear: "John, how's it going?"

"It's going. You know. Making friends."

"How are the refugees?"

"They're okay. No sign as yet of the element we discussed but you never know."

"No, you don't. Any luck making contact with the Daganians?"

"Working up to it. Just had dinner. Been invited to an overnighter."

"An overnighter? So, you've bribed them into liking you." There was a chuckle in the doctor's voice.

"I sort of told them we're good for a couple hundred extra blankets, heat packs, and chocolate ice cream bars."

"Did you, now. I can't wait to see the response to the notation in my report."

"The one you'll write after we bring back a ZPM?"

"Bring back a ZPM."

"Sheppard out." He stood at the window, staring. Tapped on the glass. Nice ringing sound. He grunted. How had the stuff stood up to Wraith weapons? The candles outside, he noticed, were moving. They were in the hands of people but he could not make out the people, only the flickering sallow flames and the well in which they floated.

Contrastingly, he was framed by a wash of generator-powered illumination.

Were the people in the darkness below staring up at him?

He stepped backward, turned away.


Part Three: Unconventional War


"I just got a very unusual spike on the scanner. Sheppard, there's a power source nearby we need to check out."

"Which direction?" John sounded a little breathy. Sometimes Rodney's joy at discovery was contagious.

"I can take us there."

John sobered up. He was managing competing priorities now.

Morning on Belleron.

No heat in the night, or very, very little of it.

Nothing like walking in another man's shoes to stir up a sufficient quantity of empathy. Fifty blankets, hah. With a generator that ran on fossil fuel and a limited supply of fuel, the refugees were heavy into conservation. Doubling and maybe tripling up on blankets was going to be a necessity, not a luxury.

It was a luxury that John, Ronon, and McKay were not afforded.

They quartered in a small private room on the floor above the kitchen. Vachel had the room prepared, presumably ejecting the regular occupants and their belongings. Apparently, a room over the kitchen was the Sagaz equivalent of a VIP suite but it did not rate additional blankets. Heat rose. And that was good for an hour and then the cold seized the walls, the floor, the very air. Made John think about Trilo and being soaking wet in thirty degree weather.

Of course it was one or two degrees minus zero on Belleron.

Beckett and Teyla fared the same, reporting at regular intervals.

Lorne's team, so close to the Stargate, had apparently been given heat packs.

John envied the major and his team.

Freshening up was a bear. The spigot in the guest facilities had two settings: cold and icy. At least the refugees knew how to prevent the pipes from freezing. Shivering was making John hungry. Even zipped inside his cold weather gear, tac vest snug, he felt like a popsicle.

When he was ready to meet Vachel for breakfast, he contacted Beckett.

Beckett wanted to refresh his team but planned to stay on and visit the rest of the residential areas.

"How about a time estimate, Carson? Rodney's found something we have to check out and we're about to push for a lead to the Daganians."

"A day, no more."

Bundled inside his long weathered coat, Ronon stiffened. "Great. Another day in this hellhole."

John ignored him. "By day you mean until sunset?"

"I don't know how long that is, but I can tell you we've been almost everywhere."

"Keep checking in. Sheppard out." John looked at Rodney's face with its weary eyes, red blotches, and cracked lips. The visage of sleeplessness. Ronon's face looked like the mask of a hostile predator, braced to kill. All right, then. "Warm food this way." John dashed out the door first.

x x x x x

You don't taste the food when you're this cold, John thought. You feel it.

The morning meal was prepared by people who embraced the idea. Some kind of meal, probably out of a packet, mixed with water, no salt or butter, and who cared. There was a lot of sugar and he craved calories. Flashback to many five o'clock wake-up calls at McMurdo and two bowls of steaming oatmeal smothered in sugar. His definition of a feast.

The bad news was John said Daganians and Vachel said, "At the evening meal."

"As in, they'll be at the evening meal?"

Vachel said, no, he'd talk about what Crye, Vachel's archivist, had read of the Daganians at the evening meal. The Daganians had actually gone upland.

"What's upland?"

"Upland means out of the valley. I have an affair to oversee, so if you'll--"

John cut him off. "What's out of the valley? Another city?"

"Eventually, but I'm talking about the old city. It's in the uplands. Look, now, I've got a duty to attend."

"How many Daganians were around, can you tell me that?"

"A dozen, fifteen, maybe more." Vachel said this as he turned away, his big legs propelling him to the cafeteria exit.

He's holding out for supplies, John worried. Meanwhile, he noticed the cafeteria was nearly empty. The people had eaten quickly, then moved on. John and his team were among the last.

John glanced at Ronon and McKay. "I think I know what he means when he says the old city. It's a hike--"

"What are we still standing here for, then?" Ronon complained.

"Where'd everybody go?" McKay murmured.

John was frowning at Ronon but said to McKay, "I was just wondering the same."

"Well, I suppose they have some sort of duty to perform ..."

They moved into the passage, and John turned, looking down the corridor he'd walked the previous night. "Hold on." It was a fancy, a whim, but he was inclined to indulge it. He came upon the glass, used the edge of his palm to wipe a little condensation.

The sun over Sagaz was weak and watery. The area below had a gray cast, as though its stones and the wooden structure that dominated the yard wore a skin of ice.

The yard was full of people now. Even this failed to add color. The people themselves looked like constructs, their movements slow and mechanical. John, staring, realized in seconds that he was witnessing something in its final moments. Later, when he replayed the vision, this fact would grate. He was too late to intervene-- intervene? --and too soon to miss it altogether.

The refugees had perched three people under a beam. The people stood on a long wooden board. From the beam dangled nooses. The wooden board was a trap door. The three people were each fitted with a noose and then abandoned. They were trussed like animals, unable to flee. The board gave way and the people fell to an abrupt end.

Death after breakfast.

John cursed. Experienced that disconnect so damn familiar. He was once again hitting the hard reality that he just wasn't from around here.

His immediate reaction was he'd watched three murders. The idea unsettled him and pissed him off. Couldn't Vachel had given him an "oh by the way" with an explanation or a warning? Sure, it wasn't an obligation and certainly Vachel and the refugees owed him nothing, but now John was irritated and itchy.

He realized Ronon was coming over.

McKay was not far behind.

The two men looked, looked a little longer, then followed John in silence to the stairwell and the lobby.

x x x x x

"We gonna talk about it?" McKay trudged away from the Center down the decline to the main walking lane.

"No," John grunted.

"Not really," Ronon seconded.

"Why not?"

John looked in the direction of a rise. It used to have buildings on it and now the buildings were down. Maybe the lanes were blocked. Even so he preferred to head that way, give it a try, than go back to the Stargate building and circle around.

He picked up the pace. "This way."

"We just saw these people kill three of their own kind."

"Their business," Ronon bit out between clenched teeth in a tone that said he believed something else.

John empathized. "They have a government--"

"Their government's a joke." McKay expelled air like steam.

John glanced at him. This was McKay with a bone, something the scientist wasn't going to drop without a fuss. His features under the wool cap were rigid, his mouth taut.

"Rodney, I don't want to talk about it right now."

"Again, why not?"

"Because I don't see the point. If it's a problem, it'll be a problem when we get back. Right now I want to work on the problem of getting to that Ancient city."

Channel change. Just like that. What was it McKay said when John's eyes lit up around new weapons and machines that flew fast? Pavlovian.

"What Ancient city?"

"Could be Ancient, maybe not, but it's up over that way, and it's different than everything we've seen so far. Kind of shiny too."

"Really? When did you see it?"

"I saw it with the binos when we first got here."

Rodney's tone took on the edge of the offended. "Why didn't you say something?"

"Didn't get the chance. Anyway, I may have ... stretched the point a little, sayin' it looked Ancient."

"Well why would you do that?"

"It's different, all's I'm sayin'. Probably not Ancient. Wasn't important at the time, but maybe it's important now. I'm saying something now, aren't I?"

"Well what's it look like?"

"Is this"-- John pointed --"the direction of your power spike?"

"Coincidentally, yes."

"Then we need to focus. I do that better when you're quiet."

Rodney was quiet.

x x x x x

The direct route into the slopes surrounding city was blocked, but a course deviation got them up through a network of connecting lanes into a section of Sagaz that reminded John of a preserve. No buildings. Just paved, leaf-buried lanes criss-crossing a tame swath of woodland.

The hump upward was something. At parts, it felt like real work. McKay puffed, but even the scientist conceded the exercise was an antidote to the cold.

At least they were dressed for the weather and not trying to sleep. John hadn't minded McMurdo because he had the tools he needed to cope. This, he realized, wasn't true cold, not compared to the deep freeze of Antarctica. This was an annoyance. Okay, a bit more than that. But it wasn't going to kill them.

When the lanes started to level out, John saw the ruins.

Big, it was big. No wonder it got his attention. Above the trees soared massive lintels and piers ranging a good quarter mile just beyond the ridge. John sighed. The piers were old but they were not Ancient. He looked at them with the binoculars. Confirmed it. The stone was falling apart. Not what he was expecting. The piers were stained and vine-draped as though the ground wanted desperately to draw them inside. John wasn't there yet, so he carried his disappointment a while before he understood the ruins represented something old, yes, but the structures he'd glimpsed through the binoculars when he stood near the Stargate building were not remnants, not at all.

Rodney consulted his scanner. "I'm not getting anything." What he was seeing wasn't impressing him.

They pushed on. In a quarter hour they were marching on level ground. John looked back. Sagaz swam in a gelid haze far below. Without the binoculars he could just make out, on the far side of the valley, the dome of the Stargate facility.

"Whoa." Rodney.

John turned back to the ruins. Yeah, tell me about it. He guessed they were a mile off but now the land was even. More importantly, the view was clear. Not much vegetation. No obstructions. So he saw the stone ruins were a kind of append to a picket of metallic, conical silos and a tall but narrow tower. The silos and tower sat within the ruins sort of like an oversized egg in a nest. He'd glimpsed the tops of the structures through the binoculars. Had missed the drawfed lintels and piers but that wasn't the shocker. The amazing part, John decided, was the position of the silos and the tower. They predated the crumbling stone.

"Ever seen something like this before?" John asked Ronon.

Dex was squinting in the direction of the phenomena. "Yeah, once."

"Really?" McKay piped up.

"Where?" John asked.

"On Sateda."

A question bubbled to John's lips. He studied Ronon a moment, decided to hold his question. "Okay, we check it out." He keyed his transmitter. "Sheppard to Lorne."

"Lorne here."

"Let Doctor Weir know we found a possible source for the power signature. It's a ruin, looks abandoned. No life signs. Could be shielded. Looks advanced but not Ancient."

"Roger that."

"Sheppard to Teyla." John waited. "Sheppard to Teyla."

Frowning, Ronon turned to look at John.

Sheppard toggled his transmitter. "Shepard to Beckett." He and Ronon locked gazes. "Beckett, come in."

Ronon swung about to face the valley.

John did the same. "Sheppard to Lorne, how do you hear me? You getting any interference?"

"You're loud and clear, sir."

"I'm not getting Teyla or Beckett. Any sign of the med team at your end?"

"Yes, sir. Replacements came in about an hour ago. The overnight crew 'gated home."

"Teyla, Beckett?" John asked.

"They weren't with them."

They weren't supposed to be but it was worth a shot. "Hit 'em on radio. The problem might be where I'm transmitting."

"Roger that. Lorne to Teyla, radio check."

John chewed his lip, scanned the valley, held his hips.

"Lorne to Beckett, come in Beckett."

There was no response.

"Crap."

Rodney shuffled over. "What's the problem?"

John shot a glance at Rodney. "You got two minutes to get some digital video, then we're moving out."

With a look of horror, Rodney yelped. "We just got here!"

Ronon grimaced. "Teyla and Beckett could be in trouble."

Which had not occurred to the scientist. It would have, eventually. When confronted with alien technology, Rodney's was only a mild case of tunnel vision.

While McKay fumbled for his digital recorder, John keyed his radio. "Lorne, follow missed check-in protocol. I'm letting McKay play around up here for a while. I'll radio when we're heading out."

Lorne responded with iron in his voice: "Copy that." Missed check-in protocols assumed an expedition radio was in the hands of unfriendlies and radio chatter was being monitored. Meanwhile, Lorne would put together a search party of security Marines and lead it.

John flashed McKay the barest glance. "Thirty seconds."

Ronon flipped back a wing of his coat, drew and fingered the setting on his energy pistol. "We gonna push this?"

"Somebody's gotta stay with him." John eyed Rodney jogging from one position to another, capturing different angles with the digital recorder.

"Babysitting's not a two-man job," Ronon insisted.

John agreed. "Lorne's going to go to channel two. Anything you hear on channel one is misinformation."

Ronon nodded. He knew that. Took off at a hard run.

John sighed. Felt the muscle of his jaw thrumming. McKay was tougher than he looked but the scientist wasn't going to make a full-out run back down to the city. And John was not going to lose more people than he had to.

"Rodney."

McKay jammed the recorder into its pouch. "Coming, coming. Go, go!"


Part Four: Regrettable Actions


The bodies had to be taken to a field above the river. Vachel and the council learned a while ago that burial near the refugee residential perimeter aggravated the insect nests. When the bugs fed, rather than go away satisfied, they got bolder.

In the beginning, Vachel's people, among the first to discover Belleron, talked of 'gating away. His voice was loudest against surrender. Where was there a world with rivers of honey and ponds of milk? Unless a world had recently felt the touch of the Wraith, that world's time was short. No, Vachel said, Belleron with its nests of scavangers could be managed. The refugees learned to bury the dead far from the places in which people slept.

The weather turned and without equipment interment became impossible. The ground was too hard. The solution was rather harsh, one Vachel preferred the visitors with their hand-outs and smug faces did not witness.

It was Jatin's idea to send the visitors upland.

"They'll leave us alone if we tell the truth," Vachel countered. The truth about the Daganians, he meant.

Jatin showed exasperation. "Not until we've bargained for foodstuffs."

The council's mandate. The shortage. Jatin had been nominated to barter with Sheppard for food. Sheppard appeared to like Jatin. But Vachel had been good enough, from the council's point of view, to point Sheppard upland, to get Sheppard and his soldiers away from the Center.

Now there was a problem.

Jatin and two wardens hastened to the burial ground to fetch Vachel. The burial detail was weary. Hauling three bodies was dismal work. More dismal than the killing, to which Vachel had become immune. It was not always so. There was a time when the hangings struck at him deeply.

He squinted upward as a snowflake melted on his cheek. He fingered his hair, glanced about. The low-hanging, doughy sky was fulfilling its promise. Vachel cursed, cursed the snow, cursed the dead, cursed the journey back to the Center with the grim, morose faces on the burial detail.

Seeing Jatin and the wardens, he felt a kick in the chest. Jatin never ventured to this side of the river. She feared the purpose of the place, feared the thing that would happen when the refugees drew away and the ground no longer vibrated with the footfalls of the living.

Vachel pushed through the burial detail to meet her. "What's happened?"

The wardens, one middle-aged, the other a blond-haired Elkanan who was likely enough Sheppard's years, helped Jatin cross the rubble that lined the field. "More soldiers!" She was not usually unsettled, although plainly she had her moments. "They have brought more soldiers through the Well! The ones standing guard, they have come into the city. I spoke to their leader. He is not like Sheppard. They are angry. And now one of those you sent upland is injured."

One of those I sent upland? Vachel felt a thin wire of anger tightening his spine. "Injured, how injured?"

"It's their tactician," the young Elkanan said. "The soft one. There was a problem on the way down from the city of the Exiles. The man called Sheppard just brought him to us."

The city of the Exiles. Only the Elkanan-- he was named Hernan --called the uplands that. On Hypatia, reference to the Exiles had been avoided. Hypatian archivists and holy men agreed, whatever the Exiles had done, an ancient war was the consequence, bad blood, and a scourge slightly older than that of the Wraith.

Vachel scratched behind his ear. "He must not be bad injured if Sheppard brought him to the Center, what with his own doctor about and the Stargate just up the valley."

Jatin tightened her mouth in frustration. "You're not listening. The doctor's a problem too. No one's seen him since morning. Sheppard and the one who came and went before him, the soldier with bad manners, they're looking for the doctor and the woman. If they don't find them, Vachel, they'll turn their guns on us, I sense it. And we haven't even begun to talk about trading for food stores. You have to do something."

As she spoke Vachel set his steps toward the Center. Propped up by the wardens, Jatin hobbled after. Vachel cut his stride.

"How many guns?" he asked Hernan. Young as he was, Hernan had a strategist's eye for military matters.

"Counting Sheppard and the wounded tactician, there are twelve soldiers our side of the Well."

Vachel blew air out of his heavy cheeks. "We still outnumber them." He saw Hernan's smirk. "What?"

"We're playing at what we do. They're professionals. Do you know the weapons they carry?"

"The little guns?"

"On Elkan, we made something similar for going into buildings and annihilating resistance. Their guns, I'd wager, fire projectiles without resetting the trigger. One gun can cut down twenty men."

"You're only just mentioning this?" Jatin puffed, her voice shrill.

"We never talked about going to war with them."

Vachel had stopped in his tracks. "There's no gun can do what you say, that's impossible, but we don't have to go to war with them. Hernan, you know the city. Take your wardens, help Sheppard find his people."

Jatin slapped a hand over her mouth. When someone disappeared, she blamed one thing.

Vachel met Hernan's eye. "No matter what you find, we bring it to the open. No more lying. We sent them to the uplands for nothing and now this. There are no Daganians here. Is their man bad hurt?"

"His limb is. It's lacerated, maybe fractured. It'll take a man of medicine to say for sure." Hernan gestured in the direction of the uplands. "Sheppard brought his man down through the debris when he should have stayed on the park road. His way was faster, but the soft one fell."

"All right. Jatin, we listened to you. Now listen to me. We help them, help them fast before this gets worse."

x x x x x

Four thermal blooms to check.

John drew the scanner into his line of sight, saw a snowflake settle on the display. The snowflake quickly followed by another. John surveyed the scarred, chipped buildings crowded at the edge of the walking lane. How long to nightfall?

Crap. Crap.

Lorne had started a grid search beginning with the Center. It didn't look big, the section of Sagaz worked by Beckett and his medical team, but on foot the task of searching the residential blocks was beginning to overwhelm.

John keyed his transmitter to channel two. "Sheppard to 'gate security."

"Sergeant Howe on."

"Sergeant, dial the 'gate."

Time to get more boots on the ground and damn the comfort of the local council.

If night fell before he found Teyla and Beckett ...

On Lorne's side of the grid, the locals were helping. The refugees remembered Beckett, and when Lorne ventured into their basements, the locals held torches for him. John wasn't getting that kind of cooperation. His side of Sagaz's residential heaven was a forlorn mess of falling down ruins. The locals were evasive, although he spied them here and there, skittish as rabbits.

When he noticed them, he called to the refugees. Called out to Teyla and Beckett as well, and to the men and women on Beckett's team.

His answer was the sound of his boots crunching pavement littered with rubble muffled by the fuzzy quiet you got when snow was falling.

He could do this faster with a Jumper. At least with a Jumper he could cover the hard ground and sweep Sagaz's blocks roof to basement with the Jumper's sensors. If he blew away a chunk of the Bellite dome, he could get a Jumper into the sky.

He wasn't ruling that out.

If the Daedalus was in the Pegasus, the BC-304 could focus the Asgard beaming technology using Teyla and Beckett's locator beacons.

But Daedalus was out of subspace communication range. By the time Stargate Command relayed the expedition's need and Daedalus came about, Teyla, Beckett, and Beckett's team would be lost.

He'd hurt Rodney. That was on John's mind as well.

When he'd left the uplands John figured going down into the valley would be easier than climbing out of it. And he'd wanted to avoid crossing the bridge over the river by taking a direct route through one of the damaged sections of Sagaz.

Did it matter that McKay was for it? Scrapes were inevitable, but then Rodney missed a foothold and ended up between two slabs of concrete.

McKay's yelp had chilled John to the bone. He'd hauled McKay from the slabs, saw the scientist's leg, and swore.

Rodney had insisted he could walk well enough to help with the search.

Grinding his teeth, John had taped Rodney's leg, then radioed Ronon and Lorne to work the search grid without them.

John had delivered Rodney to the Center, talked with Jatin. Vachel wasn't around, she'd said, but John should make sure his search teams checked basements and crawlspaces.

That was a delightful little moment, John getting her point along with a visual, courtesy of his imagination, and an emotional rendering powerful enough to make him want to punch something.

"You people said the bugs didn't go after adults."

Jatin had blinked, like maybe he had frightened her. Perhaps he was frightening. He had a knife turning in his gut. Until he found his people, the pain wouldn't stop, it wouldn't slacken. He and it were mated.

"They haven't, but ..."

He'd fled the Center, left the councilwoman stammering. Getting on the radio with the warning about the underground hadn't been easy. By way of an acknowledgement, Ronon had broken squelch, foregoing a verbal response. John was relieved not to have to hear what Ronon had to say.

Bad day. Long day. And if he could dial back the disquiet beating at the back of his head, the private voice that wanted to demand what he was going to do if ... He had no intention of thinking about it until he had to but knowing a part of him was already pounding the panic button wasn't helping.

A thermal bloom behind him. He cocked his head, looked over his shoulder.

A man ambled up the middle of the lane. One of the refugees, certainly. Maybe one John recognized. The man wasn't close enough yet.

"John, this is Weir. What's going on?"

"Elizabeth, we haven't found them yet. It's not good."

"Hello!" The refugee put an arm in the air, waving.

John felt a blossom of hope bigger than he ought. A sign of desperation.

"Elizabeth, standby."

He angled toward the refugee, P90 low.

The man coming up the lane was one of Vachel's wardens. John didn't recognize the face but he recognized the makeshift armor and the bulky pistol.

He called back, "You got something?"

"I do!"

Did he make that up? "You got something?" John shouted.

"Yes, I do!"

Heart thudding, John keyed up. "All teams, standby. I have something. Sheppard out."

The refugee drew even. John and the refugee were the same height. The local had a cap of blond hair, fair eyes, and stubble. Nothing about him gave warning. He looked like the rest of the refugees, slightly out of his depth, like maybe in his past life he'd been a schoolteacher.

In the refugee's hand was a flat box with a screen about the size of John's scanner, and when John looked at it, he saw that it was scanner.

The refugees didn't have scanner technology.

"Look at this," the refugee said.

They stood side by side. John felt his skin prickle but slanted a glance at the screen anyway.

"My name is Hernan. I'm a messenger. That's all I am. Don't bounce on me, now. You ready for the message?" The refugee's voice was only one notch above a whisper, the quiet in his voice and the image on the refugee's scanner as incongruous as Hannibal Lector talking vivisection to the accompaniment of classical music. "I'm supposed to help you."

On the scanner John saw his people. The monochrome display sketched shadows like a deep pool, shadows spilling across everything. John saw Teyla. Saw her lying down, knees to her chest, shoulders flat on the ground. John saw Beckett. He saw him bound. John saw the others but he didn't see anyone moving. And he couldn't see where they were.

"They alive?" His chest was folding in itself, making it hard to talk.

"Don't know. Have to be."

"What's the message?"

There it was, the smooth, subtle tone, the refugee saying, "Don't bounce on me, now. The message is you're geared up for communication and I have to get all your stuff. All your stuff, understand?"

The snow came now in fat flakes. The snow was big as lima beans. They fell around Hernan and stuck to his hair. The snow made John's voice sound far away: "Here--"

Hernan startled. "Be careful! You turn it on by accident, your people find out we're talking. The message is if they find out, there's no deal. No deal whatsoever."

"No deal if my people find out we're talking?"

"Yeah, so take it off careful. Careful as in you don't turn it on. That's what the message says."

John was breathing slowly now, in and out. Trying to keep everything else at arm's length, making sure he wasn't looking at Hernan's scanner more than he needed to.

"Here it is." He unclipped the radio, pulled his earpiece down, held out the gear with his left hand. His right was wrapped solidly around the P90.

Hernan scooped the radio and earpiece and made both disappear into a deep pocket. "You got anything else on you that'll trip a freqency scanner when we get where we're going? You trip the alarm, they say they'll fade away and you can do your door by door but you won't make it in time. Remember, I'm just the messenger."

"You know where my people are?"

"If I knew where your people were, I'd just tell you." Hernan backed this up with a plaintive expression.

"Let's go then."

"Ready?"

"It's getting dark, let's go."

"Won't be dark for hours."

"You have some place to take me?"

"I do."

"Then let's go." John looked at Hernan, who was watching the scanner. "This better not be about blankets."

"It isn't the council, and too bad. The council's nice. These people, they aren't us and we're not them, but they know you. Hey, I'm only--"

"You're the mesenger."

x x x x x

"What's the message saying now?

"It wants you to walk in this building."

"Which building? This one?"

"This one."

"How's that work anyway? They talking to you right now?"

"They're talking to me and they say shut up and go in the building or stand out here talking and let the time run out on your friends. It's your choice."

They'd crossed the river fifteen minutes ago. The service bridge had taken damage, pieces of it shattered like glass. The wind scuttled down the valley, groaning through the remaining suspension cables. The river itself was sluggish, ice bulking on the shores.

On the far side of the river, Sagaz had wider lanes, and there were raised walkways, suggesting the use of motorized transportation. This section mixed industry with residences, something the Wraith seemed to have disliked. Blast craters, debris, and fire-hollowed structures had discouraged settlement by refugees.

The snow stopped. The wind turned sharp and insistent, knifing through John's ears.

He faced a multi-level structure the size of a good block. It had the stiff, coffin-like facade of a factory, and was remarkably undamaged. The buildings across the lane, contrastingly, had been leveled, taking out a park and most of the street.

"In here?" John said. He faced a rectangle of dusty shadow. His sigh came out in a fog, dredged from deep within his chest. "My people are in here?"

"No."

"Then your message sucks."

"They say you need to go in there so they can tell you how to save your friends. Hey, I said it was hours before dark. I didn't say we had all day. You want to stand out here talking to me, or do you want to talk to the people who can help you? I can't help you."

John stepped over the threshold into the factory's vestibule. Hesitated to let his eyes adjust to the grainy half-light. Meanwhile, he churned a high-voltage current of agitation tempered by fear. He was used to both, understood the cause, knew how to put them to use.

He moved tentatively through the vestibule into a tight passage, maybe a serviceway, pitch black, feeling the way with his hands, Hernan telling him, yes, keep going. A doorless entry to a wide space, something big enough to have been a machine room but without the machines. Rows of windows facing the park. Front row seat to doomsday. Assuming anyone stuck around that long, what had it been like to stand at the window and watch the tower across the park come down? Curiously, the windows hadn't broken.

There was something in the middle of the space, a long table, maybe metal, panels on wheels, and flourescent lights on wheels. The lights were on, their covers drawn down and partially shielded by the panels.

At his back, John heard a different voice, older, rougher. More than that-- the new voice dipped a tab below the range a human throat was capable of. An electronic manipulation? Maybe. The effect simulated a growl.

"You need to stand still now. I don't want you to turn around. I don't want you to look at me. I need you to listen."

"I'm listening."

"Put your weapons on the ground and take two steps forward."

"Where are my people?"

"Do you believe there is time for this?"

"I think I have time for you to tell me where my people are."

Footsteps through the frozen dust. Something poked John in the back. John started to turn but saw a screen flash past him on his side, something square and about the size of a tablet. The hand attached to the screen wore heavy-duty gloves.

Hernan had been wearing strips of cloth for warmth.

John took the screen, held it in front of him until the liquid crystal display resolved into an image of five people trussed and pressed into a small, dim space. Candles surrounded them now, so John could see them better. Teyla's eyes were closed, her chin against Beckett's arm. Beckett's expression was slack and his eyes were closed too.

They were unconscious.

"They alive?"

"Yes."

"How do I know that?"

"You see any missing pieces? That's how they'll die, by the way. They'll get gnawed on by thousands of canivorous nesters with nothing to do but feed. Yeah, when they start screaming, the nesters'll run off. But when they don't get up, the bugs'll come back. Pretty soon your friends won't scream. I've seen nesters take hours to strip a full-grown human being. You want, I can record it for you, send you a copy."

John let him finish. Waited. Made sure the new voice was finished. Then said, "You have an over-developed sense of yourself. I can help with that. If they die, I'll find you."

"I don't want them to die. I want to help you."

John stiffened, his ears sizzling with recognition. A part of the puzzle clicking into place, although his tormenter didn't know it. "Then help me," he exhaled. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Put down your weapons, take two steps forward."

John lay down the P90, drew the Beretta and settled it next to the P90. He stepped forward.

"The knife, too."

John unsheathed his field knife, put it down.

Took two steps forward.

"Now take off your armor. Put it down and take two steps forward."

John didn't hesitate. Saw he was going closer to the lights, to the table. Concentrated on learning the purpose of that.

"Now take off your coat."

"It's kind of cold in here."

"I'll dial up the heat. Take off your coat and then I'm going to scan you. I see any RF, we're done. Your friends are dead and so are you."

John took off his coat and liner. Waited in long sleeves and gloves while he was scanned.

The man behind him clucked. "What does that do?"

As Hernan said, this guy was no refugee. There was no way the refugees could scan him this way.

"It's a locator beacon," John said.

"They embedded it in your flesh?"

"Yeah."

"It's passive until somebody pings it?"

"Yeah, that's the idea."

"Go lay down on the table."

John got a jolt. Saw the table in its proper context now and thought about what it was going to feel like, having someone hostile dig out his locator beacon. Thought about why the man would want to do that.

"You don't have to take it out. We got nothing in the area that can read it."

"Maybe I forgot to mention what's going to happen to your people when the candles go out. Wow, you'd think we had all day."

John started to turn. It was an anger flash thing. He snapped forward before he turned too far. Walked to the table. Oh, yeah, it was a medical set-up. Trays on wheels. The lights were dialed down now but they'd be bright when the time came. He saw surgical instruments, a scalpel registering a particularly wrenching note. With or without anesthesia? He preferred without. Time, the son of a bitch said, was short.

"Roll up your sleeve. I don't care which one. See the med-injector?"

John sat on the table now. Glimpsed an injector gun on one of the trays. His heart fell. With anesthesia. He jammed back his sleeve, picked up the injector gun.

"That's right," the voice said, "but you better lie down first."

"How long will I be out?"

"Not as long as you'll be if we talk about it first."

On the table, John was at an angle that made it easier to note the presence of his captor. He stiffened.

"The procedure is fast. You'll be up before the candles go out, provided we get on with it."

John lay back. The flourescent light pressed at the edge of his vision. With his spine against the metal, he was instantly aware of the hammer of his heart. It hurt to swallow, like his muscles were drawing in against his larynx. With the cool rounded tip of the injector, he dimpled his forearm. Closed his eyes. Squeezed the trigger.


Part Five: The Covenant


John was moving fast.

Doing way more moving than thinking, which would have to change soon.

He knew where they were.

The bruised, swollen sky made the afternoon seem like twilight. John took a swift look at the dimming sky, darted into the wreck of the structure adjacent to the factory.

He'd lost a lot of time, hadn't he? He was still losing it.

His temples throbbed, messing with his balance. He watched where he put his feet to compensate but it was going to have to be dealt with. The burning ache under his pects had to be dealt with too.

Later, he told himself. Later. Right now he didn't have a plan beyond finding his people.

He was looking for an underground access. When he swept a steel door with the beam of his mini-maglite, he found it.

A mechanical room. The Bellites had built it with two levels.

The boiler and electrical panels were topmost, with a heavy duty ladder that dropped to a lower level.

Running, John could already see the faint flicker of candlelight on the rearward wall. There was something else on the back wall, a big panel with speakers and maybe a display of some sort. The display was dead. He guessed that when it had power the panel was the way the Bellites controlled the bugs. The speakers probably played a pulse or vibration the bugs didn't like and the display most likely monitored motion under the ground.

Heart blasting, John flung himself at the ladder and shimmied down. Found a damaged generator under a pelt of dirt and crumbling plaster.

A few paces beyond the generator platform, the lower level dwindled into a crawlspace.

John gasped with relief and bolted toward an uneven circle of light. Dropped to his knees and crabbed to the bodies heaped on the floor.

Cold reached up through the ground into his legs. The crawlspace was a deep, freezing tunnel of pitted concrete. The smell in the crawlsplace was horrific. It seemed to come from beyond the walls. Astonishingly, the concrete appeared inviolate. Yet it was not. The nesters knew how to get in.

He came up beside Teyla, the back of his fingers against her cheek, wanting her breath on his hand. Everyone, he soon found, had a pulse. No one was moving but that was okay.

Next problem: how long before nightfall? How long before the candles were used up?

Through the vague, cottony fog of shock, John realized Ronon and Lorne couldn't find him if he didn't call for help.

He keyed the transmit button on his radio. As quickly as he pressed down, he jerked away his finger.

His abductor had given a set of instructions and warnings and John couldn't remember if he was able to safely use his radio. Traditional bomb safety-- a nice oxymoron --said no radio and cell phone use around explosive devices.

The hireling also said John was supposed to go about his day and wait for instructions.

That wasn't going to be possible if he stopped using his radio.

He keyed up channel two. "Sheppard to Lorne."

"Lorne on." There was a hefty pause. "You've been off the air a while, sir."

Yeah, that was an understatement. John had left Lorne and Weir on standby. No doubt they'd been looking for him. Right now, John guessed, Lorne was trying to figure out if John was under duress.

John smoothed his voice. "I found Teyla and Beckett. I found everyone. Come across the river and then head for something that used to be a park. A building collapsed on it but you can tell what it used to be."

"Everyone all right, sir?"

John turned his head to look at Teyla, the unconscious medics, and Beckett. Saw their hands and ankles had been bound with cord. He didn't know what had been used to knock them out.

He turned around to take in the enveloping dark. The candles only held back so much, and as they shrank, the blackness inched nearer.

John palmed the mini-flashlight and swept the crawlspace uneasily. "They've been lying in the cold. That can't be good. Otherwise, yeah, they're alive. I don't like our location. We're in what looks like a crawlspace under the building. We got light, but the doc and Teyla and everybody else are out. I'm the only one up and about, so we need to get out of here pretty damn fast."

x x x x x

Hands clasped in front, Elizabeth Weir stepped into operations. The next hurdle, she'd been told, was extracting the mission personnel. Her choices for extraction were on foot and by Jumper. Elizabeth had voted for using a Jumper, which meant trying to control the collapse of the Stargate facility's dome, even tasking the Jumper's shield to protect the 'gate. The expedition's engineers agreed the demolition could be done but not with complete certainty, not in time to be a useful option. If the Stargate was damaged, the estimated return for Sheppard's team would be based on the flight speed of the Daedalus. And after a back-and-forth on the durability of the Stargate, Elizabeth shut down the Jumper idea. The 'gate didn't have to sustain damage to lose its ability to creat a wormhole. The Stargate only had to fall, its perfect circlet filled with debris, and Sheppard's team was stranded with limited resources on a planet among people who had tried to kill them.

Elizabeth had ordered the on-foot extraction with four-man teams accompanied by medical personnel loaded with lanterns. She wasn't a fan of the term "by the numbers" but it applied in this case. The trek from the Stargate into the valley was a good one. Still, it was just a matter of time before the teams returned and the mission, for ill or good, ended.

That was how she saw it.

Why then was Sheppard telling her he needed to stay on the planet?

She signed to Lindwall, who struck a key. "John, this is Weir. What's this about?"

"McKay and I need to stay. We have a lead on the Daganians. McKay recorded a power source. We don't want to let that go."

Elizabeth slowly settled her hands on her waist. "More than half your mission team was just abducted and drugged. How can this be a good idea?" Now she waited for it, felt her breath knot in her throat as the seconds limped by.

"I know, Elizabeth, but I think the benefit outweighs the risk to the lives of my people."

Elizabeth winced and swallowed thickly. All right but he's alive. He's still alive. She bobbed her head up and down. "John, McKay's injured. Can you do this without him?"

John's voice was level. "Rodney won't leave until we find the source. Here, you can ask him yourself."

McKay came over the com, talking fast and loud. "I'm not leaving! We were this close."

Elizabeth had begun to pace. "John, you're there. I'm not. It's your call but I want the mission reset to standard protocols. That means Ronon and Lorne 'gate back to the planet and we use a 'gate security detail."

"A good idea!" McKay, still yelling.

John chimed in, sounding like he was in mission briefing or discussing the weather: "That's fine, Elizabeth." And, softly, "Update me when you know Teyla's condition. Sheppard out."

Elizabeth turned to Lindwall. "Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard has just activated the duress code. It means he's being prevented from 'gating back and he's not free to tell us why. We're to assume he's been compromised." Over her shoulder, striding to her office, she called to Lindwall. "The medical technician who treated Doctor McKay, I want to see him, Major Lorne, and Ronon in conference the moment they 'gate back."

x x x x x

John Sheppard dreamed.

In the dream his chest fractured between plates of steel.

The dream didn't let him stay sleep. It wasn't one of those that led through doorways to a kinder version of oblivion. There was no way out but the one, and that road was a cold sweat, memories of anguish, and the sense that nothing would ever be the same.

While the Wraith fed, it had been impossible to breathe.

Through his torso the agony had been a brazen torrent. It was the sort of pain that preceded eradication, a fiery, acidic deluge.

The enzyme stove off death, but the enzyme was no more merciful than the heel of a boot when it stomped an insect but failed to finish the job.

Essential life functions ground to a halt, an interruption that registered on every level of his conscious like a dashboard screaming red.

Meanwhile, the creature loomed above, its satiation expressed by a growl that bared its serrated teeth, the maw in its hand sucking years, stealing hope, and killing slowly.

"Sheppard."

John was awake, staring.

He was thinking that, yeah, he had survived the end-all, be-all of crappy deals, tied to a chair while a Wraith fed upon him, so maybe he could get through this deal too.

Yeah, John. Stay positive.

He sighed, looked around, and realized he was sitting on the floor of the fourth-floor washroom in the refugee Center near his quarters.

He'd spent way too much time downstairs scripting messages to McKay's tablet. The back-and-forth had worried him: he couldn't control the venue. Too many ways the refugees could spy on him.

Telling Atlantis personnel about the tagger was a non-negotiable item, like trying to remove the device or interfering with the signal between it and the remote. The man with the rough voice had promised any disclosure on John's part was subject to an unfavorable response.

When the medic from Atlantis arrived, John had excused himself to head upstairs. Rodney could brief the medic outside the range of John's microphone strip, get the critical details back to Atlantis. As long as the medic stayed off the radio-- which Rodney would tell the medic he had to do. Radio chatter on all frequencies, John had to assume, was monitored.

At the bottom of the stairwell John crossed Vachel's path, the big man escorting a young boy and girl. The little girl's hand was swallowed by Vachel's. Vachel guided the boy with a palm on the child's crown.

The Hypatian's look was tentative. After a pause, "You found your people," he said.

"Yeah. Yours?" John asked, pointing his chin at the children.

"This is my Pyralis. He is eight years. This one is Vea. She is five. The Wraith took their mother."

John nodded. "They look like good kids." Saying no more, he brushed by the council leader.

Vachel, he sensed, watched him go.

He chose the washroom near their quarters in which to wait. It was as isolated a place as any. John needed to finish briefing McKay. He needed to get his thoughts in order. Disordered thoughts led to distraction. Waiting for the medic to fix up Rodney, he'd taken a moment, maybe two moments, to think and he'd drifted off.

Now he swore. By his watch thirty minutes had gone by.

"Sheppard," Rodney called again. The scientist was framed in the washroom doorway.

"Yeah, Rodney. Get inside, close the door."

The rasp in John's voice made McKay hesitate.

John used the time to get his feet under him, shuffle to the basin, and operate the spigot.

The pipe hissed and reluctantly released a stream of cold water.

He bathed his face, caught his reflection in a tiny square of glass. Didn't like what the cramped muscles in his face were telling him.

He fingered the collar of his T-shirt, saw the microphone strip with its tiny circuitry pasted above his breastbone. Gripped the edge of the basin.

"How much time we have?" he asked.

"Before Ronon and Major Lorne 'gate back? I'd say about twenty minutes."

"I'd better meet them." He looked around at Rodney. "You okay?"

"Leg's not fractured. The cut's bad, but, you know, I'll live. He had to, uh, do the stitches here, since I wouldn't ... you know, go back ... Twenty-five stitches ... in case you're wondering."

"They give you anything?"

Rodney studied John's reflection, his mouth sketching an "O" of concern. "Uh, no, I wanted to be clear-headed."

"You supposed to be standing up?"

"If I tear something, they can stitch it up again."

John turned to face the scientist. One thing about McKay, when he did bravado it was a sight to behold. This, however, was not standard McKay theatrics. This was real.

John held out his hand for Rodney's tablet. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." McKay stuck the tablet and stylus in John's hands as though he worried John would drop them. "It's nothing. I can, um, manage. I'll .. live."

John slanted a sobering glance at Rodney, then looked down at the tablet. Transmitter, he wrote.

Rodney said, "It's way too dark to get a look at those ruins now," while he scribbled under John's blocky letters: More than one, mobile. Think net.

John wasn't sure what think net meant. The writing back and forth frustrated him but he was used to the gnaw of impatience, used to forcing himself to be still. With a frown, he wrote, If mobile, then people are holding them. He made three question marks. Then wrote: Track?

Rodney shook his head. "Not necessarily ..." He gave John wide eyes, like he'd slipped, and added, "I mean, if we bring enough lights, we could get up there and camp out."

"I'm not camping on an exposed ridge in the middle of a snowstorm, Rodney." Idle chatter, something for the microphone strip.

"It's not snowing, is it snowing?"

"It'll snow hard before morning. Trust me."

"Oh, yes, your, uh, time in the Antarctic, no?"

John snatched the tablet and wrote: why not track?

Rodney took back the tablet, erased John's oversized letters, and drew a picture.

Meanwhile, John turned away. His belly, knotting, was getting that distended feeling, like maybe he was a dead man. A walking dead man. He got a little space, did some deep breathing, whatever kept him from channeling his remaining moments into going after the warden who implanted him. Told himself to calm the hell down. There was another way. A better way. And if he failed, he'd fail while he was trying to survive. If he failed, it would be fast, it wouldn't be torture. He'd just go away, become a mess someone had to clean up. He probably wouldn't know he was dying. He'd just be dead.

When he turned back to Rodney he was looking at the tablet held chest high, Rodney's face above it begging him to take a peek.

John went over to him. "Any word from the medic on Teyla or Beckett?"

"Beckett's come around. Last check-in, Teyla was unconscious but doing good. No frostbite. That's good news, right?"

"Yes, it is." John checked out Rodney's diagram. It showed John at the center of several points. The points, John supposed, represented six transmitters. Rodney was trying to tell him that if he or someone messed with any one of the transmitters, the tagger in John's chest, by design, could register a fluctuation. Going after the transmitters was not Rodney's idea of a good plan.

John took the tablet. Figure something out. Save my life. Held up the tablet for Rodney to see.

Rodney glanced at his words, then met John's eye with a resolute jut of his chin, adding, "Absolutely."

John bowed his head to the tablet, writing more. When he finished, he stuck the tablet in Rodney's hands and strode out of the washroom.

Rodney limped after him. "Where are you going?"

"We're not going up to the ridge tonight but I need to meet Ronon and Lorne at the Stargate."

"By yourself?"

"I can find the Stargate by myself."

To lower the risk to John and facilitate the appearance of compliance with the parameters set by the mercenary and John's microphone, Atlantis rescue teams had withdrawn. John, Rodney, and a 'gate security team were the only expedition personnel on the planet.

"Rodney, if I catch a cold, fall and hit my head or something, whatever, see to it you give that to Teyla, okay?"

"What, this?" Rodney glanced at the tablet. He read what he found there and said nothing.

What was there to say?

John headed out.

x x x x x

"Your father has been taken."

It was a fellow Athosian, Intrid, who first spoke these words. Dark, slender Intrid framed in the watery light that formed the cave's mouth. The sky reached behind, strangely hushed, finally quiet--

The children marked Intrid's words, their tiny heads swiveling like the heads of puppets drawn by a solitary string, child-like mouths widening suddenly in horror.

Teyla, seeing the children staring wide-eyed, wished desperately to slap hands to her ears.

She had just got the children to huddle together, to begin their prayers. Now came the wailing like a slowly rising siren, and hiccups and shrieks, as their little bodies, knowing no other way, let free their sorrow. Up and up went the sound of children crying, until the air inside the cave was drenched by it.

Looking over the heads of the children at Intrid, Teyla said incredibly, "What have you done?"

Intrid stumbled forward. "I will manage them."

Teyla perceived a blow, as though Intrid had trespassed.

Intrid repeated, "Your father has been taken."

"Yes," Teyla said, archly. "I heard you."

x x x x x

"Teyla," Carson said, low. "Teyla, do you hear me?"

"Yes." Teyla's response was muffled.

Speech was difficult. Her vocal chords felt enlarged and numb.

She drew up her hand, the movement lethargic. Near the surface her body was warm but deep within was an adamant and chilled core. Blinking, she sought Carson, a connection to wakefulness, understanding. Carson's tone suggested he had called to her more than once.

Carson caught her hand and squeezed.

Teyla's heart began to pound. Stirring deep within herself, she extracted her hand. The cold in the bottom of her belly was trying to reach through her. She became aware that her head throbbed and lifted fingers to her temples.

"Where am I?"

"Back in Atlantis, my dear."

"The mission has ended?"

"Not exactly." To her mute inquiry, Carson said, "The guides weren't guides after all. And the soup they fed us was treated. Thank goodness Colonel Sheppard found us before there was any permanent harm but you need to rest. Perhaps because you wore the uniform of our military, you were given a larger dose than the rest of us."

"But everyone is well?"

"I'm afraid not."

She shivered, managing, against Carson's protest, to leverage herself upright. "Who has been injured?"

Carson's eyes flickered past Teyla. "Elizabeth, there you are."

Distress opening within the shard of cold in the center of her, Teyla turned to take in the arrival of Dr. Weir.

Weir drew near. "From what we've been able to gather, you and the others were abducted to force John to submit to a procedure. A device was placed inside his body to make him do something. We don't know yet what that something will be or when he'll be asked to do it. Meanwhile, he can't return to Atlantis--"

"Surely," Teyla protested, "in Atlantis we can remove the device without bringing harm to the city."

"That's not what I mean. If John uses the Stargate, the device will injure, and most likely, kill him. He's stuck on the planet, he's cut off. For how long or why, we have no idea. All we do know is we're not to know what's happening to him. They've planted a microphone on him to monitor everything he tells us. They've isolated him."

"He was able to write what we know thus far on Rodney's tablet," Carson said. "And we learned a bit more from Ronon."

"What does Ronon know of this?"

Carson glanced at Elizabeth, exhaled, and said, "Colonel Sheppard wrote the device they put in his body is called a tagger. There's no reference to a tagger in the Ancient database, at least nothing I can find. Ronon tells us on Sateda an elite arm of the military, one that specialized in covert operations, used a weapon called a tagger to control captured enemy agents."

"What more does Ronon say?"

Weir and Beckett exchanged glances.

Teyla knotted her fists in frustration. "Please, you must tell me."

Elizabeth sighed. "According to Ronon, the devices were really good at taking instruction from the remote but they weren't made to be taken out or turned off. The covert unit that used them didn't leave enemy agents alive when their missions ended. Apparently, you can turn off a tagger and extract it, but not reliably. Ronon says that in Satedan military parlance turning off a tagger is the equivalent of a kill command."

"I must go back to the planet." And in her mind, cutting sharply through the rise of emotion, was this: Please! I know no other way to love him.

Carson's eyebrows shot to his hairline. "You're going nowhere, dear. This was a near miss you for you. You're staying right here."

Elizabeth settled her mouth into a frown. "Colonel Sheppard has McKay. Ronon has gone back to the planet and so has Major Lorne."

"None who have allies among the refugees!"

Weir tilted her head, silent.

Teyla bit into her lip. Why were they not listening? Were her words ineffective? I know what it is like to watch life leave his body. If a man on Belleron wants to bring John harm, then that man must first go through me.

She slowed her thoughts, reined the torrent within her as her father had taught, gathering emotion into a cool place, turning it to a stone that she could seize and use as she saw fit. "Doctor Weir, there are Lixuen among the refugees. I did not get much time to speak with them, but if I go back, I may learn why this is happening."

Elizabeth tightened her arms over her chest. "Radio traffic is compromised. We wouldn't be able to tell Colonel Sheppard you were coming."

Relief spiraled through her, bringing forth a useful eddy of warmth. Adrenaline hardened her resolve, swept away lingering weakness and the throbbing in her temples.

She pushed off the bed, reached her feet. "Is there a 'gate security team?"

"Yes."

"Then I will be able to find him."

Carson, frowning deeply, asked, "What are you looking for?"

"My gear!"

x x x x x

The panels of his coat winging behind him, Ronon Dex plowed through the event horizon, boots landing hard. The Satedan wore the least focused expression John had ever seen. It was the look of a storm while the storm still gathered to it the winds of destruction.

Ronon set his steps toward John, long-striding with hand outstretched, a PDA sealed in his fist.

John looked at the hand-held. If he was less than eager to read its message, it was because he figured it for bad news.

Lorne passed through the 'gate, drew the guards into a tight huddle.

The Stargate shut down.

John brought Ronon's computer screen into the line of sight.

The file was ready:

The closest reference we can find for this tagger is from Ronon, who tells me a "tagger" is a Satedan weapon developed by a covert branch of the Satedan armed forces for managing and then executing enemy spies. We should suspect your handler is a mercenary with access to old Satedan weaponry. This doesn't put light on the identity of his employer or what it is the mercenary wants you to do, but it means Ronon may have luck identifying the mercenary among the refugee population ...

John thought, I already know who he is.

He read on:

John, please use everything at your disposal to learn what the mercenary wants. I fear this may happen more than once to expedition personnel if we are unsuccessful identifying the mercenary's employer. Once you know as much as you can, we have to create an exit strategy--

John felt a queer, giddy laugh bubble up through his chest. He cleared his throat. "Good one, Elizabeth."

--that takes into account the device you're carrying is extremely user unfriendly. According to Ronon, the tagger isn't intended for safe removal and there are problems with turning it off. Make sure Rodney knows to get outside the box with this one. PS Teyla is responsive. Her core temperature is within normal parameters. I'm going to see her now. I'll brief her. Nothing follows/EW.

John slipped the hand-held into a pouch on his tac vest. "We're waiting until morning to go up to the ridge--" Translation: When it's light out, we need to go looking for weapon caches that the refugees can lay hands on. One of Vachel's wardens is more than he seems.

Unhappily, "Why are we waiting?" Ronon countered.

John hesitated, gave Ronon a glance that was intended to convey a shared sense of urgency. He suspected that he failed.

"For one thing, it's snowing. For another, we can't go off blind. We need a plan."

"Find what we're looking for, I thought that was the plan."

"That's an objective, it's not a plan."

"So we're supposed to sit around, wait for nice weather?"

"I thought it might be a good idea."

"I don't like waiting around, Sheppard."

"I can see that. But I need to stay local a little while, and the snow's starting to get deep." Translation: I can't look like I've clued you in ... and it can't look like we're on a hunt, at least not yet.

Lorne jumped off the Stargate platform, signaling the Marine security detail into defensive positions. The Stargate, coming to life, had begun to vibrate.

John sighed, his senses tuned to the likelihood the Stargate activation was about Teyla. Elizabeth had indicated she was going to brief Teyla. If his role and Teyla's were reversed, no force in two galaxies could stop him from 'gating to Belleron.

The Stargate whooshed and settled. Through its puddle strolled a burly, bearded man about six-four, six feet five. He wore dark tones and jackboots, his coat a patchwork of leather and wool, well-padded. There was a long gun slung on his shoulder, nothing too advanced, but it was oiled and sturdy and appeared capable of serving its purpose. The man scanned the Marines, John, and Ronon, barely registering them, before turning around to observe the arrival of a woman.

The woman was short, blocky, and bound up in a long, yellow coat. A pistol in a holster hung on her hip. The pistol was short and gray with a thick barrel. She had brown work boots, brown trousers, and a wool scarf. No hat, which left bare rough spikes of reddish-amber hair clipped over the ear and close to the neck. She had high cheekbones, close-set eyes the color of almonds, and a small mouth that did not smile.

She glanced at Dex and John, looked away, but glanced back at John, thin reddish eyebrows arching slightly.

The woman and the burly man swung toward the pedestrian exit, boots striking the cement in unison.

The next persons through the Stargate strolled two and three at a time. They came armed and dressed for cold weather, some in military overcoats and others in layered homespun ponchos. Two wore fedora-like hats. One wore a typical wool cap.

Now marched persons leading crates, the crates on dollies or lashed to handcarts. The laborers gave John and the others less mind than the vanguard, most of which had gone purposefully to the exit. Once the pedestrian gate opened, the laborers trailed into the snow.

More armed men swept through the Stargate. Outerwear of profound and magnificent variation became a recurring theme, men and women coming through at length, swaggering like bullyboys. John registered the barest glances, low or no interest. Whether they were being taken for the local flavor or interlopers, they-- John and his team --seemed as unremarkable to the newcomers as a fly lighting on a door screen. A steady stream of arrivals now, more of the purposeful types, folks who seemed to think well of themselves. The self-important newcomers disappeared in a cluster of ruffians, possibly bodyguards, behind which came a long line of women ushering goods and children. The women and children were bundled against the cold. They followed on the heels of the bodyguards, their heads back, eyes forward. The children stared at John, Ronon, and Marines, and one pointed.

The procession lasted a while, and finally the Stargate rasped and shut down.

Ronon harrumphed, sounding agitated. No doubt he'd recognized an old acquaintance.

John, too, had recognized one of the newcomers.

"Ninety-four people, Sheppard."

"Yeah." John watched the last of the newcomers wend through the pedestrian gate.

"Thinking what I'm thinking?" Ronon asked.

Lorne and his Marines hastened to John and Ronon, their noses pointed at the exit.

"That's them, isn't it?" Lorne said.

John nodded, while Ronon grunted, "Yep."

"They ignored us."

John straightened. "Assume that's a temporary condition." Halling said the Covenant took over the Stargate on the worlds it held. "They're giving us the chance to 'gate out or clear out. Beats standing around in our blood."

The business of showing up on someone else's world, setting up shop, taking over-- they'd have it down to a process by now. No need to arrive guns blazing when intimidation did just as well.

John looked around at the Marines. "Ready for a meet and greet?"

Lorne's expression darkened. "Maybe we should stick to the mission, get the hell out of here."

John wrapped a hand around his P90, tried on his annoyed look, decided it fit, and displayed it liberally to everyone. "We get the hell out of here after we check out the new guys."

It was a long walk to the exit. John shot a glance at the crack in the Bellite dome, through which snow was plopping in clumps. He'd learned to like snow. Snow skies, he reflected, were innocent. The sky of Belleron behind the snow was dark and distant.

Bringing his mind back into the game, he ducked through the pedestrian gate. Stepped to the side to let his team pass and grew still.

Talk about getting a thing down to a science. The Covenant had been to Belleron already, John realized. No doubt about it. In pieces, as scouts, with machines, whatever, the group had come well in advance. They must have been the ones who cleared the rubble outside the dome. Presently, the crates were coming open, exposing lime-colored, luminous, and curvy panels that, when aligned, auto-sealed into domiciles the size of trailers. The trailers glowed like fireflies on a summer night. The hard work was pushing away the snow. The panels did the rest. A box the size of a microwave sat outside each trailer with cables running between the boxes and apertures in the rear panels.

The muffled crunch of boots in the snow, the whoosh of crates opening, and the hum of voices were the only sounds.

"That's efficient," Lorne said.

"We could use a few of those," John murmured. "Ronon, ever see anything like this before?"

"That's Exile technology and they're welcome to it. It's unholy. Doesn't belong to humans."

"Belongs to humans now," Corporal Willet noticed.

"Shouldn't, though." Ronon's hand had strayed to his blaster. He squinted as snowflakes adhered to his eyelashes. "You pay the hard way when you start bartering with Exiles. You run into them, you think it was your idea, but it never is. Whatever you think you got, they get you better."

"What's an Exile?" John asked.

"We don't have enough time."

"Give me the Reader's Digest condensed version."

Ronon quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Tell us the short version."

"There's no short version. They were among the worlds first, the Ancestors pushed them out, they hate us humans and we hate them back. You take something from them, even when they smile at you while they're giving it to you, that thing'll blow up in your face. That's why the Ancestors cleared them off Sateda and every other 'gate world I know of."

John responded with a deep nod. "Okay, for future reference, that was the Reader's Digest condensed version. If the Ancients cleared them out, how come you've heard of 'em?"

"Slime grows in the dark," Ronon said.

John frowned. "What?"

"They'll barter with any scum, the Wraith included. Messing with the Wraith is how they got back on the 'gate worlds."

Perplexed, Lorne asked, "You know this for a fact?"

John, too, registered surprise. "The Wraith?"

"Exiles are not human. They can't be fed upon."

"Any Exiles in this bunch?"

"You gotta be up close. But you, I doubt you can tell 'em from humans. I can."

"Good. You're with me."

Lorne stiffened. "Someone's coming."

John tilted his head. Oh, yes. He was liking this day more and more. Today he found a shiny old city, learned about an ancient and inhuman race, and renewed the acquaintance of a multiple murderer. Today, he got a bomb put in his chest.

Settling his P90 in the crook of his arm, John ambled through drifts of snow toward the Olesian criminal Torrell.

White-green light resonated outward from the alien domicile panels. Torrell crunched over the snow, the changing illumination bringing him from light to shadow and back again. He wore a wide wool coat and a cap through which sprigs of dark hair poked like frozen wire. He was grizzled but he'd cleaned up since the last time John was in the convicted killer's company.

Torrell stroked his chin with a gloved hand, put on a smirk that did not, sadly, touch his dark eyes.

This is the Covenant, John thought, holding the Olesian's eye. Riff raff, thugs, opportunists, murderers. Used to thinking of the Pegasus in one manner, John admitted he needed time to adjust. He was looking at a community that by definition was a gathering of predators, the typical debris that washed up after a bad wind. Was it worth his time to worry about a link between his situation and the advent of such a group? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the Covenant had targeted Belleron a long time ago.

John said, "Glad to see that 'gate address worked for you."

A year ago, when he was Torrell's prisoner, John had traded Stargate coordinates to an uninhabited world for his team's freedom.

Torrell lowered his hand. "You don't mean that."

"You're right, I don't."

A flicker of amusement. "Mentael Satoe's looking for you."

"Someone I should know?"

Torrell shrugged. "Depends on your life expectancy. If you want to become Covenant, Satoe's the person to see. I'll introduce you." The Olesian started to turn, changed his mind, and stabbed a finger in the direction of Stroebel, Reardon, and Willet. "They stay here. Three's enough, long as you mind your manners."

"I'm not good at minding my manners," Ronon threw out there.

Torrell didn't seem to have trouble recalling Dex. He gave another smirk and shrugged. "Your funeral." He headed off.

John spoke over his shoulder to Stroebel. "Teyla's inbound. Stay by the Stargate long as you can."

"Yes, sir." Stroebel waved to Reardon and Willet and took off.

Lorne pulled up on John's left, matching John's strides. "How do you know Teyla's 'gating in?"

"Because she is," John said.

x x x x x

Ronon scanned the camp. Tried to remember how long it had been since he had come upon a migrant city, a city of racks, as he had heard such an encampment called, perched on high ground at the edge of a Stargate plain. Loathing welled in him, deep and scouring. The huts had no right to exist. If he were on Sateda--

As the wind sliced over the valley Ronon knotted up like something hollowed by age, like the ancient and withered thing he was not. It wasn't enough to carry inside the mark of war. He must have also memories of the other thing and place, wherein he was slated for annihilation and found instead a living death when the Wraith that came to feed upon him discovered he was unable. Recollecting the lost battle and its consequence, he had been glad to live at first. At first. That was before he forgot how to feel, before he forgot how to want. And that living could mean something other than the dry, dusty remnant of a savage act. Was it Sateda's fault this encampment had come to be? Sateda had been home to the largest Exile city among the known worlds. The archives said as much. But who knew this now? Who was left to care? So much had been forgotten but more had been lost. Lives, tradition, dignity, responsibility. Loss on any terms curdled his gut.

The camp should not be. It was, as Ronon said, unholy. And here was a man, a criminal, who dove among the Rings of the Ancestors immune to man's law.

Torrell leaped to the threshold of a domicile, a brilliant dwelling large enough to comprise several suites.

Jaw set, Ronon met the Olesian's eye and marched forward. He swung his shoulders into the doorway ahead of Sheppard, who would have entered without a thought for what he faced. Sheppard was thinking, certainly, but not about Torrell, and certainly not about the encampment with its horrific and historical echo of madness and savagery.

Ronon sidled into the small vestibule lit by bubble panels. The dwelling was bright as a medlab and warm enough for shirtsleeves.

An accessway on the other side of the vestibule was blocked by a guard armed with a pistol. The accessway led into the domicile's core.

Ronon faced the guard, Torrell at his back.

Torrell said, "I bring Satoe's guests."

The guard sniffed at Ronon and shuffled aside.

Looking annoyed, Torrell squeezed past Ronon. Trailing puddles of slush, the Olesian plodded into the accessway. At the end of the accessway was a panel door.

Torrell passed his gloved hand over a signaling device.

The door retracted.

Ronon faced a broad room furnished sparingly with modular chairs and tables. It was easy to see how the pieces were put together, and how quickly the furniture collapsed into transportable units. Woven carpets softened illuminated flooring, from which Torrell was waved by one of several frowning guards.

Torrell coughed and joined the guards, his overcoat open and weapon exposed.

Ronon continued inward. His boots left the hard panels of the floor for the soft weave of carpet. He followed the swell and hollows of the brightened walls, pointed his nose at recesses and doorways. Finally he stood facing Sheppard across the open space.

Adjacent to the sitting area was a counter on a block of alloy. There sat the burly, bearded man and the stout woman with short, reddish-yellow hair.

The man was implacable as a piece of sculpture.

The woman, ignoring Ronon, stared with unabashed interest at Sheppard.

The man and the woman had shed their outerwear. The man had a gut, the woman was made like a tree, strong and broad but not unattractive. What she lacked in subtlety and softness she made up in definition. Strength had allure, strength within as well as without. The woman with red hair had both. Her age, he could not guess it. Her cheeks were smooth but her eyes were like a cold, deep river in the depth of an old forest that no longer got any warmth.

Satoe, Ronon thought with a jolt. The Olesian had spoken the name with emphasis on the first syllable. When rendered correctly, the surname Sa-TOE was Satedan, and feminine.

Of course it was.

Sheppard came quietly to the center of the room.

Lorne took up position by the accessway, his body bladed to control both the room and the entrance.

Silence ensued. The woman, observing Sheppard, let her gaze flick up and down. She shifted on a tall chair beside the counter, one shoulder sliding back, showing Ronon that she liked to toy with her prey.

Gazing back at her, Sheppard cut the quiet with a question. "You're Satoe ... is that what I call you?"

"You may call me Satoe." Correcting Sheppard's pronunciation, the woman seemed one of those who had not smiled in years. However her frame on the tall chair shifted from side to side the way a pet's tail wagged with pleasure. She was pleased that Sheppard recognized her authority.

Sheppard continued, "Do you know me?"

Satoe pressed her knees together and stood up. "I believe I do, but go ahead, introduce yourself."

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."

The woman brought her palms together slowly. "Yes, I know you. Would you like refreshment?"

"No."

"Word is, you could use a drink."

Sheppard canted his head. He was re-thinking his assessment, no doubt playing what he knew: Satoe led well-divers to sanctuary for a fee. Her camp and its personnel were feared. Her clients were killers.

He shifted his P90, let it rest in the bend of his arm. He opened his tac vest and unzipped his parka. A tad condescendingly, Sheppard smiled. Said, "What word is that?" in a tone that matched his smile.

Here, now, was an example of bad manners. Satedan military hierarchy tended in most cases toward rigidity. Protocol was unforgiving-- and Ronon saw Satoe react. Knowing Sheppard, the choice of curt over cute was a tactic but the room was close and there were a lot of guns in it.

Satoe, frowning slightly, noted, "You're not what I expected. Am I what you expected?"

"You're," Sheppard said, "exactly what I expected."

Ronon tensed. Here we go.

Satoe stood with her thoughts before choosing her response. "I lead the Covenant--"

"Does that pay well?" Sheppard interrupted.

Ronon's eyes narrowed, focused on the woman. Her shoulders had gone up, but then quickly settled.

Point to Sheppard, Ronon realized.

Sheppard knew two things now that he didn't know before. The first and most important bit of news was Satoe wasn't the person with the remote to Sheppard's tagger. Plainly, she wanted to dominate the encounter. If she'd had the remote, she would have let Sheppard know now. Whether she told him or showed him, overtly or discretely, she'd do it. She'd have better success driving the meeting after she did.

Sheppard also knew that, alive, he had greater value to Satoe than her ego, which meant there was a deal to be made here.

Satoe winked at Sheppard. "It pays like you wouldn't believe."

Sheppard: "How's that go? You sell protection from the Wraith--"

"I keep people alive. There's no product like it."

Sheppard and Satoe had boiled away the fat, thrown out the juice, and gotten down to business.

Satoe continued. "Nothing compares to staying alive. Not coin, sex, or a hot meal. Staying alive beats everything. When it's that or nothing, I've seen folks sell their kin."

"Could be a hard product to guarantee."

"I guarantee it, and for now, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, that's all you need to know. Unless you want to buy some? Would you, Sheppard? Would you like to buy back your life?"

There was a sour pause. Meanwhile, Ronon, visiting scenarios behind his eyes, was astonished.

He didn't know her. In his eight years as a Runner, he'd never heard of her.

The man at the counter, blithely confident, resolute, and mildly insolent, that man was not of Sateda. Nor were the guards.

The woman's name was an affectation, like the gun she carried but did not need in order to overwhelm an opponent in a room the size of her present location.

Mentael, on Sateda, meant "notification" or "warning." Satoe meant "distant journey." Her origin, Ronon suspected, was humble, not that his wasn't.

She had been military-- she carried herself like a soldier. She'd been enlisted. While she appeared cognizant of her worth, there was no polish on her, no tweaking. Her hands looked used to labor. She most likely escaped the destruction of Sateda with an arsenal. An arsenal fit what Ronon saw and would have proven trade-worthy, a possibility that made Mentael Satoe of interest. There was a connection here between Sheppard's problem and Satoe's business. He suspected she was a supplier of a lot more than she let on. How else did she get to be leader of the Covenant?

Satoe resumed her pitch. "I'll sell my product to you. The going rate for your life is service to me and one of your flying ships. Pay what I ask and I'll get that tracker Gavriel off your ass. I'll get the ticker out of your chest."

The chords in John's neck twitched. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Ha, it's one of those deals?" Presumably to address the hidden microphone, Satoe sauntered forward. "Gavriel, you do run a good game, don't you, you motherless son of a rat, but if you off this potential contract for talking to me, I'll close your contract, you got me? In fact, you should come see me, Gavriel, see if we can work out a better price on Sheppard. I think you're on the way to wasting a rich resource."

Time to step in. Ronon's gaze flickered to Satoe's stony face and held on. "What's this about?"

"What's this about?" She glanced Ronon's way, her eyes snapping up and down. "What this is about is Sheppard's got between two or three people and something they want and now he's got to play the game." She turned back to Sheppard, edging around him. "Did you think you could well-dive as you pleased and no one'd notice? You move around too much, too fast, and now you're playing with my kind. Stay with Gavriel or play with me, take your pick. Personally, I like your chances with me."

Sheppard, thinking, said nothing.

Satoe withdrew to her chair by the counter. "I can buy a surgeon who knows taggers."

Ronon: "How much?"

Satoe glanced his way, almost sneered, and returned her gaze to Sheppard. "It's an all or nothing deal. He comes to work for me and I get one of his flying ships."

Sheppard found his voice: "And I should trust you, why?"

"I run a business. I don't take two contracts at the same time and run my clients like they're the hired help, instead of the other way around." Satoe rolled her eyes and studied a lime-colored ceiling panel as she gushed, "Isn't that right, Gavriel?" She slanted a glance at Sheppard. "Join me and I'll deliver the product."

x x x x x

John left the dwelling, saw a world tufted in white. The illuminated panels threw muted shadows across the half-settled grounds. The creamy, uneven landscape baffled him and then he realized he couldn't feel his fingertips or cheeks, that he'd gone numb somewhere inside Satoe's dwelling and needed a restart to figure his next move.

Stroebel was at the edge of the grounds, gesturing.

John swallowed and headed over to the Marine lieutenant. Counting Stroebel, he saw four figures in uniform, one of them compact and slender even in her cold weather gear and tac vest.

How about that for a restart?

Teyla stepped slowly toward him. Uncovered, loose strands of hair fluttered at her temples. She gazed up, left and right, a furrow deepening between deep-set, liquid eyes. She whispered fiercely, "I sense the Wraith."

John had stopped in front of her. "Where?"

"As I told Lieutenant Stroebel, they are very near."

"Of course they are."

Her hyped sensory package, jacked by traces of Wraith DNA, had never been wrong.

John turned to look over his shoulder at rows of glowing panels. "It's starting to come together."

"What's starting to come together?" Ronon insisted. "She sayin' the Covenant gives shelter to Wraith?"

She's saying I have to stop playing by their rules and start playing by mine.

"I doubt taking in the Wraith is what the Covenant does, but using the Wraith, yeah, I think they'd work that deal."

Teeth clenched, Ronon whirled away.

Stroebel griped, "Colonel Sheppard, the Covenant's got armed guards blocking the Stargate. According to the guards in there, we have to trade for the chance to 'gate home."

Pistol at hand, Ronon paced. Over his shoulder: "I'm not getting the feeling we're winning here."

Lorne asked Stroebel if he was able to get a message back to Atlantis.

Looking pleased, Stroebel nodded. "I did, sir. When Teyla 'gated in, I radioed Doctor Weir. She's calling the Daedalus, but you know as well as I do, it won't be here tomorrow."

"Daedalus is beyond the range of subspace communication," Teyla explained, "but it has been told of our need by Stargate Command. Doctor Weir has said the Daedalus will reach us--"

John put up his hand.

Teyla fell silent.

He was feeling one of his moments creeping up. It was accompanied by a thudding burst of fear, a warning he was inclined to ignore. He was looking at Teyla, who, growing aware of his softening, changing visage, returned his stare without speaking. It was, with them, the equivalent of a touch, a stroke, even a kiss. The cold withdrew, and John's fear settled quietly within him. He knew what he knew, but to fear it ... he didn't want the distraction of anxiety right now. He didn't want a team discussion either. He just wanted to do it and be done.

He clipped his P90. He'd closed up his parka and the tac vest when he left Satoe's domicile. Now he undid both. Dug his index finger and thumb under the collar of his shirt, snagged the dermal microphone strip, and peeled it off.

He brought the strip in front of his eyes and rolled it between his fingers, looking for a sign the thing had deactivated.

He couldn't tell. Maybe McKay could, but he had a better idea.

He flicked the strip into the snow, jerked his head at his team, and left the microphone lying there.

The valley and the snow-blanketed residences of Vachel's refugees were in front of him. John located the road, kept his legs pumping, kept his mind ahead of the wire of fear threatening to paralyze him.

The others followed, and maybe he was walking fast or maybe they were hanging back, he wasn't sure, but it was good. If he fell there were a lot of people to catch him.

No one was speaking, or breathing, as far as he could tell.

Well, he was. He was breathing.

A necessary test, and a lesson both.

Gavriel, John thought. That's your name.

Time to make Gavriel and his contracts feel a little antsy.

Deactivating the mic had been a deal-breaker, or so Gavriel said.

John was alive, which meant Satoe had power over Gavriel.

What had Satoe said?

If you off this potential contract for talking to me, I'll close your contract ...

The Covenant, its leader, and their arrival had changed everything.


Part Six: Exile


Vachel no longer heard Jatin's voice, or the voice he thought was Jatin's, beating him over the head with her argument for caution. He had ceased to look at Jatin. In the last moments Jatin had begun to sound like a warning siren from his home world Hypatia: she was a great noise-maker but useless otherwise.

The Covenant had come. Therefore, Vachel required tools.

Tools he could lay hands on.

When Jatin stopped for breath, "Gather the members to the Center," he said. He knew that Jatin didn't like him giving the council an order. On her world nothing could be done until everyone voted. He knew, too, many on the council tonight were afraid. There was too much mumbling, too little decision-making. Many wanted to run.

Run where?

The Covenant had come.

Vachel poked a knot of muscle under his neck. His morose baritone had startled him with its roughness. He picked up his head and blinked at the faces of the council. Saw in them familiar desperation: they wanted him to save them.

Save them.

"Everyone," Vachel insisted. "All the people. As many as we can fit. The residential quarters won't be safe. When we face these butchers, we should face them together."

Jatin hissed, "It won't be enough. We aren't enough!"

Jatin and her whining.

Vachel thought, She's right. On a good day, with every thing in our favor, even on that day, it would not be enough. But what are we going to do?

"The Well is lost to us. It's past nightfall. Call together the people. It's the best we can do."

Jatin, her lower lip protruding, huffed and blinked watery eyes at him. Vachel met her gaze, nodding once. Jatin had finally lost words. Good.

Vachel said, "Where is the tactician, the one from the Well?"

No one answered. No one cared.

Vachel glanced from face to face, his brow creased. The skin beneath his collar burned. "He runs about unattended?"

Crye, the young Elanite archivist, looked up from her book. "He is in his quarters."

Vachel drew air through his nose, lurched to his feet. He was slightly unfocused, but only on the surface. Cognizant of the kernel of anger taking shape beneath his ribs, he turned away. The hounds would not come until morning. He could lead his people out of the valley, march them upland, but that would only provoke the new masters to kill everyone. The Covenant would follow. No, there was only one thing to do. The man Sheppard had broken bread with the Covenant leader. Two wardens, spying, had seen it. Sheppard had been Covenant all along. Nothing else made sense. Vachel intended to assuage his rage, satisfy justice, and repay Sheppard's tactician in the same betrayer's coin.

"Have the wardens bring Sheppard's man to the fuel shed," Vachel called, wearily, over his shoulder.

No one spoke to that. Though there had been no vote, Vachel knew the council would do it.

x x x x x

Vachel slipped into the children's dormitory, his coat already bound tightly to him. The children lay side by side in blankets that smelled of plastic. The blankets were new.

Around the children burned candles, dozens of them. Their soft saffron light flickered on five-year-old Vea's face.

Spit thick and sour in his mouth, Vachel fought to calm his breath. He pressed a shaking hand to the little brow, his thumb smoothing a tiny frown. She dreamed. What must she dream, this child, in a world where sunset loosed demons to twitter beyond the light, hungry for her flesh?

Crouched low, Vachel swung his gaze back and forth, swept the dormitory full of small, warm bodies breathing softly in sleep. His frown deepened until his lips pulled from his teeth in a grimace.

He slammed his hand against his mouth, stifling a groan.

Afraid, now, that he would wake them, wake the children, Vachel straightened.

He got out of there.

x x x x x

He does not descend the ladderwell so much as crash down it, shoulders skidding along the wall, knees wobbling in grief. Sinew loosens behind his face, threatening to unspool entirely. His eyes are wide and moist, like the stare of the mad. Though he hears, far away on a distant stage, the whine of Wraith ships, the wail of victims running away, he is vitally, inexorably connected to the present. Memory serves his purpose, a backdrop for reason, or what he calls reason: that monsters may behave as men, fly ships, and wear garb; and men may behave as monsters, giving over children without a look backward.

The monsters have returned to Vachel's world.

Vachel thrusts his bulk into a passage that connects the lobby, office area, and conference room. His people throng the corridor, huddling with possessions drawn into their arms. Some are standing but many more have collapsed onto the tiles. The corridor is bitterly cold, the tiles sloppy and wet with melting snow, but the meeting room is full.

Vachel jumps in his skin, electricity snapping his spine erect.

Accompanied by warriors, Sheppard has entered the Center.

Vachel watches with his mouth slack with shock as monsters pick their way through his people. Stupidly, the refugees have no fear of these well-divers. The refugees call out to Sheppard and his fighters, reach out to them.

Can you help us? Will you save us?

Oddly, while carrying on in this hopeless vein, Vachel's people are calm. The words to Sheppard are rendered softly, like a prayer. Speech elsewhere is louder, parents comforting children, couples discussing contingencies, a group of bachelors talking about fleeing upland.

Sheppard isn't answering the ones that reach for him. He picks through the sea of bodies, frowning, sometimes nodding, tolerating dozens of needy fingers on his sleeve, at the hem of his coat. He keeps his weapon high, meets no one's eye.

Also wading through this human sea, six warriors trail Sheppard. Vachel's gaze lingers on the woman, whom he wonders if he should spare. The woman is attractive. Maybe she is with someone well-placed in the Covenant. Would it matter if he gave her back? Would sparing a murderer's fancy girl save Vea and Pyralis?

Sheppard, looking for Vachel, misses him. The crowd is too heavy. Sheppard turns into the meeting room. The refugees make way. They do not see what Vachel sees. His people see blankets. They see food.

Sheppard and the others disappear.

Vachel barrels forward, smashing limbs under his boots, stumbling. He seizes the shoulder of a warden.

"Signal your comrades. Meet me on the stage."

The warden is frowning. He looks distracted, his thoughts running inward.

Vachel wants to slap the man. He reigns the impulse. "Get your men onto the stage, now."

The warden gulps, nods, and begins the arduous task of bullying his way through the crowd.

Vachel follows the wall to the stage, his eye on the Covenant spies, who have stopped near the council and appear now to be talking to Jatin.

Is Jatin capable of keeping her mouth shut about the capture of the tactician?

Sheppard's tactician has been taken to the fuel shed, the only chamber within the Center designed to keep out trespassers and protect (or hold) what it stores. Fuel is precious, although none is stored there now. There's so little fuel that Vachel keeps what's left near the generator.

The shed is ventilated to prevent build-up of dangerous vapors. Automatic air exchanges ride the same circuit as the Center's primary heating units, which means the shed's air exchange system can't be shut off. The shed is wired this way as a safety precaution. When vapor is allowed to gather in a closed chamber, the vapor can become explosive. The shed, therefore, is the tender temperature of an early spring morning. The council's prisoners never perish ahead of time.

Vachel finds a dozen wardens waiting for him. He speaks his orders. Hernan, near the back of the group, sighs with disapproval. Vachel ignores the Elkanan.

The wardens head out. When they are near the council and the Covenant spies, they start shouting. Startled, the refugees surge away from the ruckus. There is an outcry from Vachel's people, protest, confusion, anger, but it is brief. Vachel's people are used to sudden shifts in fortune.

The council flees, plowing through the people, abandoning Sheppard and his warriors. Space opens around the Covenant spies.

Pistols drawn, the wardens achieve a semi-circle around Sheppard and his warriors. Sheppard responds by snapping his gun into firing position. Behind the wardens the refugees push and thrust to escape the line of fire. Their escape is stalled by their number, which sends a note of panic bounding through the meeting room.

Sheppard demands an explanation.

The wardens don't answer. That is for Vachel to do but Vachel is mute.

Sheppard calls for Vachel.

The wardens remain steady.

Vachel finds his voice and, thankfully, a lull in the cacophony of panicked voices: "Disarm now."

Sheppard searches the crowd for Vachel, takes his eye off his sights, and fixes Vachel with a slightly widened gaze. "You have no idea what our weapons can do. We will defend ourselves. Have you lost your mind?"

Vachel supposes that he has. What man would not?

"Disarm, Sheppard, or we shoot you down here and now."

The muzzle of Sheppard's weapon ever so slightly lowers, showing the first sign of weakness Vachel has ever seen in the man.

Vachel waits.

Sheppard cuts a look over his shoulder, speaking low to his warriors. The big swarthy fighter protests. Ignoring the man's protest, Sheppard drops his weapon to his side. The woman steps smartly to Sheppard's side, her gun pointed at the tiles.

Vachel feels a swell of satisfaction. He wants to make an end but decides against a bloodbath in front of his people. He has all night to seek justice.

x x x x x

"I sentence you to death." Vachel studied Sheppard, looking for a reaction.

Sheppard stood in Vachel's quarters, hands bound behind his back, a warden on either side. The rest of Sheppard's team had been put in the shed. Since Sheppard wasn't going to need them, Vachel's wardens had taken his armor, coat, and gloves.

"You think your Covenant friends will save you," Vachel supposed.

Sheppard raised his eyebrows. "My Covenant friends?"

"Are you valuable to them?"

"Right now I'm not valuable to anybody."

"They'll barter for you, though."

"Who will?"

"The Covenant."

"Okay, I'll say this slowly, so pay attention. I'm not Covenant. My people have nothing to do with the Covenant."

"So when they come--"

"They're not coming for me."

"--When they come, they won't care if you live or die."

Sheppard's brow was divided by a deep furrow. "Are you kidding me? What is this, one step forward, two steps back? I'm not with those guys. I never saw them before tonight."

"You kill all the men over a certain age. Why do you do that?"

Visage snapping taut as a drum, Sheppard fell silent.

"And you take the children. What do you do with the children? Do you keep them? Will you bring up my Vea and Pyralis like robbers and fancy girls? Do you sell them to other worlds for labor?"

Sheppard, silent, seemed to turn inward, and to begin to seethe.

"You take the young women, the strong women, but you leave the old women to mourn the dead, to grieve the taken. You act like Wraith, why do you act like Wraith? You're men. You're human."

Sheppard looked suddenly left and right, moistened his lips.

Vachel grunted. "Shame doesn't suit you."

"It's not shame. Look--"

"What is it then?"

"How come you picked a planet with nesters? Was it so the Covenant wouldn't want it?"

"When we came here we didn't know about the nesters. When we found out about them, sure, that's why we stayed. Of all the 'gate worlds, why should the Covenant want this one?"

"They shouldn't. They don't. You have Covenant people in your camp, a spy, maybe more than one spy, but I'm not your problem. Were there ever Daganians in your camp?"

"Daganians? No, never."

"You hosted Athosian traders not too long ago. One of your people told them you had."

"More lies."

"That's why the Covenant's here. One of your people brought the Covenant to a place where the Covenant thought it could get its hands on Ancient technology--"

"Where? Here?"

"And someone in your camp made sure a person with Ancient technology would be here when the Covenant showed up."

Vachel chewed on that.

Sheppard said, "I have a ship coming big enough to take every one of your people off this planet. Nothing the Covenant has can stand up to it. It'll be here in seven days--"

"Liar." Vachel stared coldly.

"Yeah, I'm lying. Kill me then. But just me. Turn my people loose, give them back their weapons, see what happens when the Covenant comes."

"Seven days is too long. The butchers'll be down here by morning."

"Then let me help you. Take these ropes off my hands, give me a minute, and I can figure out a way to get you and your people through the Stargate. You, your son, and your daughter get to live."

Vachel snorted. "Covenant spy. Don't speak to me of my children."

Sheppard sighed. "This is crazy. I'm not the one you want to kill. Look, if I'm Covenant, you're dead no matter what you do, your kids are Wraith-bait, and your people are history. If I'm not, you're screwing up the only chance you have. I can save you. I can save you."

"Throw him in the fuel shed," Vachel growled.

The warden's seized Sheppard's arms.

Sheppard locked his legs, held his ground. "I saw you hang three people this morning. Why'd you do that?"

Vachel hesitated. Had that happened this morning? Morning felt like a lifetime ago.

"They stole supplies."

Sheppard lowered his head. "Wow."

"Supplies are life, to us."

"Do you hear yourself? Come on. When you thought up this idea, this refugee idea, is this really what you had in mind? You kill each other? Is killing what you're supposed to be about?"

"You think you're stronger than we are because we're farmers, machinists, and bookkeepers? I'll show you how strong we can be, I'll show you. See you in the morning, Sheppard." Vachel nodded to the wardens. "Get him out of here."

x x x x x

"How'd it go?" This from Ronon, who leaned against the fuel shed's back wall.

A faint square where the exhaust fan met the higher of two ceilings let by a sallow and distant light.

John saw Ronon in this half-light, imagined the Satedan's countenance was the picture of irony. Ronon had crossed his arms over his chest.

Positioning John in front of him, a warden cut John's binding and withdrew.

The fuel shed's door rocked shut on noisy hinges.

John wiggled his fingers, made sure circulation was returning to them, then massaged the welts on his wrists.

"They're talking pretty seriously about hanging us in the morning."

Crosslegged on the shed floor, Stroebel raked his scalp with annoyance and drew his knees to his chest.

"Is that before or after breakfast?" Lorne asked. He sat opposite Stroebel, rubbing his arms to build body heat.

"They're serious, how serious?" McKay, next to Lorne, erupted. "Did you tell them how incredibly short-sighted that would be?"

"No, Rodney, I forgot to mention it."

Teyla gathered her feet under her and stood up, wandering toward the locked shed door. The shed was probably fifty or so degrees and the refugees had taken her outer wear. She hugged herself for warmth.

"They are very frightened, and very angry. They believe we have wronged them, as though somehow we brought this danger to them. I sense that they are right."

"What?" McKay. "How is this our fault?"

John edged toward McKay, crouched down at his feet. "It's not our fault, but Teyla's right. If it wasn't for us the Covenant wouldn't be here. How's your leg?"

"It, uh, hurts. I'll live." McKay rolled his eyes. "I will live, won't I? Because I don't think you understand how really bad I am at hangings. Execution is not something I'm going to be good at."

Lorne plopped his head against the wall. "So, what, you're planning on squealing like a girl?"

The comment fell flat, possibly because Lorne delivered it flatly, and not at all as he must have intended. His voice had come out thin and, not surprisingly, empty of the humor.

John gave it a moment, then looked at Rodney. "You're gonna be okay. What'd you find out about the transmitters?"

"What?" McKay's voice, too, sounded thin. He had turned inward.

"Rodney."

McKay's mouth twitched. He sat up a little. "They're not mobile. There are way more than I thought. They're like exciters, a kind of antique wireless technology that sends a signal looking for a receiver. When the signal hits the device, it's happy. A person would install them to define a monitoring area and as long as the device doesn't get too far away from them, the transmitters tell a control station all is well. The exciters also act as a location identifier."

"The controlling station being?"

"I haven't worked that out yet."

"Can it be mobile?"

"In theory, yes, it can."

"Then it's the remote. So you're saying it's one guy--"

"Could be one guy."

"With a bunch of transmitters stuck on buildings."

"Or on poles ... but, yes, most likely they're elevated. Eliminates, um, dead spots."

"Dead spots?"

"Well, in theory, if you get outside the range of the signal, or if an exciter can't reach the device because of ... for whatever reason ... the, uh ... unless there's another exciter hitting the device ... That could be a problem."

"Okay. That's good to know. Anything else?"

"No, that's about it."

"How do I turn it off?"

"You don't. Not without the control station."

"So all I have to do is get the remote?"

Ronon spoke up. "It'll be on his wrist. It'll have skin temperature and pulse rate sensors. The device will have programmed limits. Let's say you cut off his arm, his heart rate drops or his skin temperature drops, the remote'll send a kill command."

John stood up. "They build any kind of delay in there?"

"Not big enough to be of any use."

Lorne frowned. "You ever use this thing on somebody?"

"I wasn't covert ops." Ronon's mouth settled into a firm line.

"How come you know so much about these things?" Corporal Willet asked with genuine interest.

"My commander came from covert ops. He brought his toys. That's what covert ops people call them, toys. I've seen a tagger. I've held one in my hand. But I wouldn't put technology in the body of another man." The meaning of his declaration resonated in John, who looked Ronon in the eye. Ronon said, "If I wanted to kill someone, I'd just kill him."

Dialogue dried up, silence followed, and John went over to Teyla, who stood with her back to the shed door.

"How are you?" she asked, low.

"I'm feeling a little screwed, what about you?"

"There is a way," she said, under her breath, and mostly, he was certain, to herself.

There was. And he knew it. There always was. Sometimes the choices were awful and his cousin, but they were still choices.

"Tell me why there would be Wraith in that camp?"

Teyla shook her head. "It makes no sense, unless ..."

"Yeah, unless." He thought about it. "Exiles, have you ever heard of a species known as Exile?"

She regarded him. "Of course. What child has not?"

"You've never mentioned it."

"Because they are a tale for children, they cannot be purely what they were any longer. It has been too long."

"Care to explain that?"

"They were first. Before the Ancestors, they were here. These stars were their home. The Ancestors found them lacking and removed them from the worlds in which they built the Stargates. When you, John, first showed me the Stargates that had been placed in orbit, I wondered then if they were not 'gates to the worlds on which the Exiles were abandoned by the Ancestors." She sighed. "You must understand, their banishment ended long ago ... When I was a girl, my father told me that they allied with the Wraith because they could not be fed upon. The Wraith carried them in their ships and so the Exiles found their way among us. It is widely believed they became human in the end. As they became few, they had no choice but to breed with us. So my father said. I was warned I would not be able to tell an Exile from a human, and I have no care to."

"How do you know you aren't standing next to an Exile right now?"

"You are not Exile."

"What about the refugees? You know any of them?"

"I know some of them, though none that I can call by name."

"Apparently, when the Covenant shows up, it steals the kids and the women, kills the men, and I guess that's pretty much been the standard from the beginning, whenever that was."

"Halling said the Covenant was capable of great evil."

"Well, you put something like that against hanging a few people to make your day a little brighter, we lose. That leaves us trying to take out the guards when they come. I gotta tell you, that plan sucks, I don't like those odds. There's a hell of a lot of them. Some of us are gonna catch a few rounds."

"That will be true for both sides."

"And after that we still got no way to get this damn thing out of me." John checked his watch. "Going by yesterday, I'm gonna say we have about six hours before the sun comes up."

"John, what are you thinking?"

"We have to make a deal, that's what I'm thinking. For a deal to work, I have to be talking to somebody who can listen to reason and do basic math."

"That someone is not Vachel?"

"He's got two kids. Talking to him right now is like listening to marbles rattle in a tin can."

She sighed. "Vachel is their leader. If he has lost his reason, perhaps the night will restore it and by morning he will be well enough to hear our offer of aid."

x x x x x

"Teyla! Your father has been taken!"

Intrid, gasping and weeping in the watery light at the cave's mouth.

The sky reached behind, strangely hushed, finally quiet.

Now came the cry of little voices. Louder and louder, until Teyla snapped awake.

x x x x x

The grainy dark pressed down on her, taking her breath. She struggled with that, calling air to her in measured breaths. Softly, softly. She sensed that others were sleeping and did not want to disturb whatever peace they had claimed. Ronon, on his feet, was watching her, watching over her, and would come if she showed distress. She signed to him, let a grateful smile soften her mouth. He turned away, squatted, and returned for better or worse to the company of his thoughts.

John sat beside her. They were close enough to share body heat, but they were not touching. With the others near, they would not.

She faced ahead, sensing rather than feeling the rise and fall of John's chest, wondering if he was awake, if he too was watching.

She was afraid to engage him, for he would ask what she dreamed. And what would she say?

I dream of loss.

Why are you dreaming about loss? It's going to be okay.

John Sheppard, you have never lied to me. It is not necessary to begin doing so now.

She leveled her breaths, pulled her knees to her chest, and settled a cheek on her knee.

"Going back to sleep?" John whispered.

She blinked. It wasn't so dark anymore. Opposite her, McKay sat rubbing the muscles in his neck. Lorne, next to McKay, was sleeping. Stroebel and Sergeant Reardon also slept. Corporal Willet sat staring at nothing.

"How near are we to morning?" Teyla asked.

"Too near."

She sat up, her hand jumping to her belly. That was fear. It shocked her.

Was there a greater significance to this?

Yes, and it came of knowing John too well.

Her mind buzzing with anxiety, she gazed up through the vent. "Has the snow stopped?"

"Can't tell."

Idle chatter. Must she go on with it, to have his voice?

"Did you finish the book?" he asked.

"What book?"

"The Princess Bride?"

"Ah, yes, yes, I did."

"How do you find our reading material, the stuff from Earth?"

She turned her head to look at him and found, astonishingly, that he faced away. Her gaze settled on the column of his neck, the short sweep of dark hair. She wished, in spite of her fear, for his eyes to have as well. And heard, somehow, the distant young voice of her late friend Intrid calling over the heads of frightened children, "Your father has been taken!"

"Your tales, and mine," Teyla said, "are not so different."

"Good." John looked down at his lap. "Traditions, you know ... being important."

"You know much more about mine than I know of yours."

"I doubt that. I've seen you at the computer."

"I meant, you know more about me than I know about you."

He continued studying his lap. She knotted up inside, halfway between anger and terror. Oh, he meant to lie. In spite of the covenant and the love and years they had shared, he was working his way to it.

Your father has been taken.

Teyla's heart began to pound, a low, deafening march. The thunder reached her ears, throbbing in her neck.

"John?"

"You know what I like," he said.

"Tell me something, then, that I do not know."

"Something about Earth?"

"Something about John Sheppard."

He hesitated, hesitated a little more, than turned his face to her.

She warmed through her body, blood, bones, everything, as if he'd touched her. She forgave him the shadow behind his gaze, the secret that he thought he was keeping, and let the warmth move upward into her visage, a mirror for him to have.

"I never went to my high school prom," he said.

She raised her eyebrows.

"It's a dance, a big one, a lot of people instead of one, so it's different than the way you do it. Well, like I saw you dance. It's kind of a couples thing, a man and a woman, well kids actually, facing each other, you know, dancing together to music."

"Together?" she said.

"Mostly."

"And you miss that you never did this?"

"I've done it. I've done it lost of times, but not ... at the prom. The prom is ... it's special."

"Oh please." Rodney McKay had zeroed in on them. "It's an outdated and moronic social platform after which millions of young girls lose their--" He stopped, tensed, accidentally bumping Lorne, who woke with alarm. "They're coming."

John checked his watch. He said, "It's probably them," and slowly stood up.

Ronon, shoulders high, fists knotted at his side, rose quietly as a cat.

Teyla pushed herself to her feet.

John started to step forward, which would take him away from her. He looked down and said it, told the lie: "It's gonna be okay."

For her, he meant. And for the others. Not for him. He was, or already had, given himself to the refugees. He'd see the sense in it. And he'd know better than to say good-bye to her. They were never supposed to, anyway. Saying good-bye tainted the pact that they had made, the choice to love when the work they did was so dangerous. But he should not have lied.

She'd make him pay for it later. For now, she nodded. Prepared to follow his lead.

The Marines were up. McKay struggled, groping his way up the wall, moaning wetly. No one offered a hand. The Marines, like Ronon, expected soon to be in a life and death brawl.

The lock in the door clicked. The door shifted inward.

John moved closer, let the door creep wide. There was a faint light from a hallway. Daylight, pristine and frozen. Like the air that swept by her, displacing the heat of seven bodies crammed into a small space for many hours.

Teyla cocked her head, looking for Vachel. Without Vachel John had no plan but to attack. The wardens-- Vachel's guards --wouldn't alter their orders because John asked them to. Only Vachel could do that.

And there he was, the big Hypatian beside the lithe Elanite woman, as many wardens as he could put between them and the fuel shed door. There were guns, enough to kill her, to kill John and the others if that was what Vachel wanted. The wardens used a staggered formation, so if the forward guards were overcome the others could still shoot, provided they did not mind hitting their fellows. Teyla saw John taking it in, taking it all in, and then Vachel gestured.

A warden pointed at John.

She was nearest, and so she stepped in front of John before Ronon. Lorne, too, jumped forward. They all made a lovely, tactically impracticable target for two or three guns to mow down without any effort.

Vachel said something that made no sense, but John, hearing him, put his hands lightly on Teyla's shoulder.

x x x x x

Vachel spent the last hours before sunrise with Vea on his lap and Pyralis beside him bound in a blanket given to him by the man Sheppard. Vea smelled of winter air.

No one on the council came to see or speak to him. Maybe they had gone. Maybe he had frightened them when he made the wardens arrest Sheppard.

It was startlingly quiet in Vachel's quarters, like the first hour after the Wraith attack ended and the whine of their ships had ceased to assault Vachel's ears.

Vachel got up, Vea in his arms, and opened the door into the corridor. At some time in the night, the wardens had come up to wait on him.

One of them caught his eye and nodded.

"Are we going to do this?" demanded another.

"Yes, but not all of them. The woman might be valuable, and the rest, being professional soldiers, they're going to be hard to manage, even when they're unarmed."

Hernan put up his hand, saying, "I say we wait until--"

Vachel, impatient, cut him off. "We deserve blood. We all do. And we'll have it." He thought he was looking at ghosts, that he too was a dead man. They had no time to wait. There was only the present. "I have to take the children back to the dormitory. I'll hurry."

The wardens regarded him.

Vachel withdrew to bathe his face and get the children ready.

Vea woke and smiled at him. Vachel managed not to look at her.

In spite of Belleron's hardships, she'd managed after the culling.

This is the price I paid to be free, and for my trouble, we are given over by well-fed, fair-faced, fair-speaking strangers with blankets.

Vachel went to Crye.

--What does the law book say?

--It says you are breaking the law.

--What about the common laws, the laws of men?

--You are committing murder, and there'll be enough of that soon.

Vachel told her, then, that he wished to be a man, not a leader, and if he was going to be a killer also, then he wanted her to witness.

She said that she would, but she refused to bring her book, or to write what she witnessed. When she was a slave of the Covenant, none of this would matter. If the books were to be all that was left, she wanted the last entry to tell of dignity, not chaos.

Vachel took her with him to the fuel shed. The wardens talked among themselves, talked like bullyboys about being careful of the Satedan's reach, and shooting if anyone tried for their guns, and how would they stand the wounded one on the gallows if it actually got that far.

Halfway to the fuel shed, Vachel was sickened by their chatter and ordered them to shut up.

The bolder ones looked at him sidelong, and two snickered.

Vachel's authority already had slipped. It was the thing he was doing, what Crye called murder.

The shed door opened, and Sheppard stepped forward.

Vachel looked at him; and as though he could not help it, he said, "Did you lie to me last night? Are you lying now?"

Sheppard never answered. Other things happened instead.

The woman got in front.

The Satedan surged forward.

Afraid of the Satedan, the wardens recoiled as though jolted with electricity, their bravado gone.

Vachel saw Sheppard put his hands on the woman's shoulders. Vachel thought for sure it was to move her out of the way, but Sheppard did not move her. The woman swayed backward, like Sheppard touching her communicated something vital, essential. Her eyes closed and then opened. Sheppard looked down at her, and she looked up. He spoke to her, and then he said something less quietly to the Satedan:

"He just wants me. I'll be right back."

"Like hell," the Satedan growled.

"Wait here."

"Sir," said the pale soldier on Sheppard's left, "I don't think you want to go with them."

The woman-- she was his, Sheppard's, Vachel realized --glanced past the wardens at Vachel, saying, "Do you love your people as we love ours?"

Vachel, at first, wondered if he heard her. She had a bird voice but her tone was harsh.

She had more to say. "He will go with you if you will bring to the place you are taking him one of our weapons, the larger one, and I must go with you."

The men around Sheppard eyed her. Vachel could feel their question. It made him think of Hypatia, and of his wife. When his wife spoke, he questioned, but sometimes he did not speak the question. Sometimes there was trust.

Still, Sheppard said, "Absolutely not."

The woman swept that away with a sigh. "Then we do it the other way."

What other way?

Sheppard took his hands from her shoulders, drew them away as though to release his woman was anathema. He edged around her, walking toward the wardens. She went with him and he did not stop her.

x x x x x

How had John known Vachel was going to choose him? Did it matter? Yes, and no. What mattered most was Teyla had found the knowledge in John's words and she had a plan.

The wardens bound John but not her; they did not see the warrior in her, which suited her.

Vachel strode ahead, his back to them. The great crowd of wardens, with John and Teyla in their midst, flowed away.

It had stopped snowing. She saw this through the doorway at the end of a long passageway. As she drew near the threshold, she felt the churn of fear. There were people beyond the doorway slogging through the snow, and people on the scaffold pushing at snow drifts with their hands.

Killers with guns were coming for them and this was what they did at sunrise.

Yet was it any different elsewhere?

The Wraith had taught women and men to wait for the scythe.

And to rage.

The wardens stopped at the doorway, pushed John against the wall. Several wardens continued into the freezing air. Most stayed in the hallway, which was no warmer. Teyla stood next to John, looked at him with worry, and then turned to Vachel, who was staring at her.

John said, "What are you going to do with my team?"

"They can stay where they are and hope the Covenant finds them."

"That's the same as killing them."

"You killed them when you brought them here."

Teyla gasped. Did she imagine it, or did Vachel seem somehow closer to the reality of their predicament? Did he know, therefore, that John and Teyla were not Covenant? And while the Covenant had come to Belleron for John, it was never John's intention to trap the refugees between one evil and another?

He does, she thought. Vachel was angry but his words had the ring of contemplation and reason.

"Where is the gun?" she asked.

Vachel glanced at her, glanced away, and stumbled outside.

Hernan, the warden, swung into view. "It's coming. What do you want it for?"

Teyla ignored him. She didn't like him. He was always smiling. He smiled a little now.

"Why don't you get the hell away from her?" John said. He didn't like Hernan either.

A woman warden came quickly down the passage holding a P90 in one hand. She loped by Teyla and John and delivered the P90 to Vachel.

Managing to angle the barrel in a safe direction, Vachel took the weapon into both hands. The magazine was in place. The weapon appeared undamaged.

Teyla realized this was it. She had no outerwear and the cold was making her shiver. John, too, had grown pale in the weak Bellite light.

If she failed ... A river of emotion, dammed before it overwhelmed her. She brought fingertips to her lips, allowed them to grow warm with her breath, and settled them gently over John's heart.

"Know what you're doin'?" he asked.

She nodded.

"All right, then, do it."

When she left John's side she went outdoors to Vachel's. The snow tugged at her legs. She fought for balance. Next to Vachel, she pointed to the selector switch on the weapon, explained its operation, and told Vachel that when he pulled the trigger he needed to hold the weapon tightly.

She added, "Be careful where you aim."

"You want me to fire this?"

"Nothing I say will have meaning until you do."

Vachel glanced over at John. Was there further softening? Was it possible Vachel had recovered equilibrium? If not, then ...

Teyla pointed. "You must focus."

Vachel pushed the P90 into his shoulder, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

A cascade of shots. Vachel hit stone, wood, and snow. The weapon knocked him back a little, not much. The roar and power of the weapon seemed to surprise him. She had instructed him to use automatic fire.

Vachel lowered the weapon, mouth hanging in disbelief, and turned to Teyla.

"All of your kind have weapons such as these?"

"Yes."

"How many battles have you fought?"

"We fight when we must. We do not seek battle, nor do we run from it. But we are careful."

"You are young to be so careful. On my world, young men and women are not ... careful, which is why we do not like our young to learn war, to learn to kill."

"I too believe there is wisdom in the lesson that life must be valued." She sighed. "Did you suppose our leader surrendered to you because he was afraid?"

Vachel seemed taken aback. "What?"

"You believe that we are animals, slaughterers, that we have been careless with the well-being of your people. Do you believe also that, last night, when our leader bade us lay down our weapons and give ourselves over to you, that he did it because there were more of you than there were of us?"

Vachel swallowed. "I gave him no choice."

"There is always choice. I wanted you to feel the power of our weapons so that you would understand ... if we had engaged you in battle we would have won."

Vachel shot a look past her, jaw tightening.

"We do not choose battle," she said, "when many innocent lives will be lost. Though we tried not to, we would have killed more than we wished. That is why Sheppard told us to put down our weapons. That is why you have his life to keep or take. We are not evil. We are not monsters."

The P90 in Vachel's hands was growing cold. He turned it over once, twice. He looked numbly in the direction he had fired, staring as though returning to the moment last night when the weapon had been trained on his people.

"Will more of you come to fight?"

"That is not possible."

"He said he could save us."

Teyla glanced back at John, who watched her with his head cocked. He could hear her, and he could hear Vachel. There was a smile in him somewhere, not too far from the surface.

"If he said that," Teyla supposed, "then he must have a plan."

Vachel held up the weapon, placing the P90 in Teyla's hands. "The Covenant is coming. Will this weapon stop them from killing us?"

"Not this one. But we have other weapons."


Part Seven: War Crimes


Teyla braces as the Covenant leader, wearing a dark vest over a wool shirt, tall boots, and a sidearm, saunters from her domicile and down a cleared path. Ronon waits beside Teyla, squinting toward the powder sky. The far away sun leaves a glaze on a camp of undulating white and bright, luminous structures running side by side like rows of grain.

Teyla has never seen Exile technology, nor does she recall ever hearing of the panel dwellings. Historically, planets are not abandoned by their population after a culling. A world that has been culled is thought safer than one awaiting the Wraith.

Sometimes, however, the Wraith take too much, or rain fire, and then the human survivors can neither rebuild nor endure. Thusly were the Athosians displaced and Athos, the world of her birth, lost to her.

The woman-- Ronon named her Satoe --is trailed by guards. One of the guards is Torrell, the Olesian killer who once held her team prisoner. Teyla remembers Charin singing a song when she, Teyla, was a child, a song that advises evil is but a dream. It is a lullaby, not meant to be embraced except in the most temporary of ways, to lead a child to peace. Teyla is confidant the approaching woman and her guards could teach much about true evil.

A Wraith abides in the encampment and the woman Satoe knows it.

"What's this?" Satoe murmurs, unsmiling, while showing amusement in eyes that swim coolly through shadows. "The message was Sheppard's come."

"He has," Ronon says.

Meanwhile, Teyla studies Satoe.

Ronon says, "He's gone to the Stargate. He's waiting for you in the Stargate building."

Satoe flicks a tongue over her teeth and frowns.

She is unaccustomed to being summoned, to being led, Teyla realizes.

"He thinks a lot of himself," Satoe says.

But she will go to him anyway. Teyla tilts her head, feels interest sharpening. Why did no one mention the acuity of Satoe's desire for John? While Satoe's desire appears professional, it beats within a venal and dangerous predator. Such persons have no borders. Therefore, it is likely Satoe's interest in John will tend to the extreme.

"If the deal is made," Teyla says, "we will be Sheppard's aides. Before he gives to you his terms, we will survey your camp and report to him--"

"Report what to him?"

"Our satisfaction, or the lack," Teyla says.

Torrell, behind Satoe, snickers.

Satoe is frowning, or maybe distressed. She betrays conflicting thoughts, her gaze askance. When she looks back, she addresses Teyla. "What skills have you?"

"That should be obvious."

"A woman without skills becomes the property of the community."

"I am no one's property."

"Not even his?"

Teyla opens and closes her mouth, sighing. "I have already answered you."

Satoe drops her gaze to Teyla's feet, sweeps Teyla toe to head, and down again. She completes her scan with a sneer than deepens as her complexion runs to pale.

Ronon twitches slightly, sniffing danger.

Satoe gestures. "Do your survey. Those that are awake will be making ready for a jaunt to the valley, so don't get in the way." Leading her guards, Satoe swaggers past, heading for the Stargate.

Ronon looks over his shoulder. "That went well."

Teyla follows Ronon's glance. "A very frightening woman."

"You have no idea. Which way to the Wraith? Sheppard said to do it fast."

Teyla gathers her thoughts to the mission, points with a wag of her head, and says, "This way."

x x x x x

John figured if Satoe showed up, he'd know how to play the next move.

There was a chance she'd send a guard to fetch him to her domicile. That would tell him something too. And then he'd have to work another angle to get her out to the Stargate. The location was key. That, and Teyla and Ronon taking care of her Wraith partner.

Her Stargate detail looked annoyed, cold, and hungry. There were only four, and by the look of them they hadn't seen hard work in a long time. John had brought Lorne. If it came to it, he and Lorne could handle the guards, but John was hoping he wouldn't have to discharge a firearm.

He preferred a better hand when he knew he was going to bet high.

There were almost a hundred armed and cocky thugs just beyond the domed facility.

All in all, so far so good. Lorne was on the other side of the Stargate, which increased their fields of fire. If the guards had been with it, they would have made John and Lorne stand together.

Presently, the guards began talking among themselves, cursing the cold, complaining about being hungry.

The advent of Satoe silenced them.

John registered Satoe's personal contingent and decided it could have worked out better: she could have come alone. But it could have been worse. The fact that she showed up greatly increased odds in his favor. Now he just had to factor the influence of witnesses, tweak his script to allow for her ego, and get on with it.

x x x x x

The guards bothered her. There should not have been any. The Wraith would not need or expect humans to watch over it.

Unless the guards were to protect the camp from the creature, in which case the two Covenant guards parked at the entrance to the dwelling were not enough.

Ronon gestured. Time to fix the noise suppressor to her P90. Her P90 wasn't for guards. The armor-piercing rounds were intended for less yielding flesh.

The silencer threaded onto the barrel, Teyla drew her blade and selected her target. How much time did John have? It depended on his verbal skills, and on the personality of Satoe, her proclivity for discussion.

If Satoe sent people to look for Teyla and Ronon, then the slain guards and the slain Wraith would be found.

Thus creating the need for-- how did John put it? --a bad Plan B.

Ronon started at a casual stride to his target, Teyla went smiling toward hers.

Satoe was with John now, and in the near distance Satoe's warriors prepared to march toward Vachel's people, loot the refugee camp, gather the women and children.

Teyla aimed at the guard's throat, raised her arm, and drew the blade across the exposed flesh. She powered the slash from her belly, rising up without giving up her balance. The guard gurgled and staggered back, fingers at his throat. She plunged the blade into his chest and twisted. Crimson on white. The guard collapsed to his knees. She dashed behind him and seized his grimy collar.

Ronon had already dragged his guard through the domicile entrance. He reappeared, took hold of hers, and hefted the boneless corpse. She ran ahead, ducking inside the domicile.

A vestibule, as Ronon said there would be.

Ronon let go of the guard. The body landed beside the first with a smack.

Teyla approached the accessway, moved on the balls of her feet to the next door. On her heels, Ronon padded silently.

She pushed inward, P90 up and ready, cleared the entrance for Ronon, snapped the extended barrel of her weapon onto its target.

And froze.

x x x x x

Satoe sailed up an imaginary line from the pedestrian gate to the Stargate platform. One hand crept to a strong hip, the other swung free. The raised hand, incidentally, was nearest her gun. An old habit. Her boots shed snow in clumps. Her hair looked stiff as ice, glaring red in the gray-white light that sliced through the tear in the dome.

Sheppard cut across her path-- stasis, it seemed, did not suit him --forcing her to come about. She looked at his back for a moment and then Sheppard, passing the DHD, turned to face her.

The wind sliced across the dome, some of it finding its way inside. Satoe's breath was a cloud, her nostrils slightly flared. She glanced at Sheppard and away, glanced at him again. Meanwhile, her mouth formed words that seemed to stick in her throat.

An inauspicious beginning.

Sheppard lay an ungloved hand on the rim of the DHD. "I have to wrap up my work with my people first."

Satoe heard, We will deal. She saw a contract, saw the ship under her sway, and the man flying it.

"I can't allow that."

"Can't or won't."

Her voice low, "They mean the same thing," she said.

"I need two aides."

"I've already agreed to that."

"What do you do exactly? What do you want me to do?"

Does he hesitate? She was not expecting this.

"We make a place for ourselves," Satoe said. "Our needs are simple. Every element of the universe has a place. So do we."

"By that, you mean ..."

She paused to study him. To reconcile what she'd heard, and what she saw. Then she sighed.

This is not who he is. This is an act, a play.

She began slowly to pace. No longer looking at him, "I won't mistake you for a quibbler, Sheppard," she said. "I'll use your ship to win battles. I'll begin many and finish them all. You will pilot your ship and take your pay after the work is done." She did not add, Can you handle this? She knew that he could.

"Is that it?"

"I'll expect you to see that we win," she said and stopped to regard him.

"I can get a ship through the Stargate--"

"Good."

"You haven't heard my price."

"I help you to live."

"I'm alive now."

"Not for long."

He reacted to that. She was pleased to have struck a chord. Something genuine. Not that she valued honesty all that much.

She said, "I'll reach the limit of patience eventually, you must know that."

"There are three hundred refugees in the valley."

"Is that their number?"

"You didn't come for them, did you?"

"I think you know the answer to that."

"I want all of them through the Stargate."

"Oh-ho!" She cackled, mirth loosening layers under her skin that hadn't been shaken in years. She drew a finger thoughtfully along her cheek, an eye on Sheppard, who wasn't smiling, not at all. Probably he knew the refugees were hardly worth a morning's work.

"That's two hundred and ninety-nine lives too many," she answered. "Counting yours of course."

"If you wanted them ..." He stepped toward her, kicking up his feet, taking his time. "If you wanted them, I'd let it go. You don't want them." He added, "I'm afraid it's a deal-breaker."

She stood still, watching him make his way to her. "Are we done then? The price of three hundred little mice is rather high. For you, I mean."

"I have another buyer."

He drew up a boot length away, close enough for her to see into the middle of his light-colored eyes, for her to understand there was darkness, there were shadows. Close enough for her to smell his skin, the man scent absent the musk of fear.

Her lips came together in a straight line, sealing her thoughts in silence.

He said, "If you're a quibbler, maybe I'm better off with the competition."

x x x x x

Teyla lowered the P90, lifted her eye to make sense of what she saw.

The panel looked like it was a single piece. It was translucent, running across the back of the room like a pane of glass.

But it was not glass.

It was the forward wall of a cage.

The Wraith strained against it, its taloned blue-white hands spread wide. It looked roused and cross, its lips pulling away from sharp serrated teeth in a grimace. Its eyes were wide as coins, its brow furrowed with rage.

It kept up the menacing stance for a moment. Then the snarl in the back of its throat quieted to a raspy breath. The creature's shoulders fell a fraction. Its lips closed over its teeth.

Ronon moved to Teyla's side. "Can it get out?"

"I think not."

Ronon jerked his thumb in the direction of the caged Wraith. "Are we on Plan B yet?"

x x x x x

"I shall insist on seeing what I am getting," Satoe breathed.

John let his gaze flicker along the lines of her face. They were too close for him to take her in all at once.

She tipped back her head, letting him. She needed to look up to match him look for look.

He ended his study with her eyes, held on, and keyed his mic. "Sheppard to Santa's reindeer."

"Yeah, we're here." Ronon's voice.

"How's that survey coming? We're ready to close the deal."

"It's not," Ronon sighed.

John felt a frown coming on. Teyla and Ronon's part of Plan A was to piss off a Wraith hive ship and maybe cause a little friction between the Covenant and its Wraith partners. John had hoped the friction would manifest sooner rather than later as a useful distraction.

"So, deal or no deal?" John asked Ronon.

Satoe flared an eyebrow.

John held up a finger to her, like, Wait.

"It's not what we thought. Make the deal."

Plan B, okay, John thought. He turned around until he stood shoulder to shoulder with Satoe. "Sheppard to Santa's elves."

"Stroebel on."

"Let's get the presents to the North Pole. Time's a-wasting."

"Will do."

John nodded to Lorne. "Dial the 'gate."

At his side, Satoe murmured, "It had better be worth my time."

"I'm out of wrapping paper, but, yeah, you'll find it worth your time and a bag of chips."

Satoe signaled her guards to let Lorne use the DHD.

Lorne leaned to the control panel. The Stargate, responding to his coordinates, lit up. A wormhole to Atlantis bloomed. Lorne shouldered his P90 and went through it.

The Stargate shut down.

Satoe tapped her boot. "How long?"

"We, uh, actually keep them pretty much ready to go."

"They? You have more than one?"

"We have two."

"You store them in the open beside your Stargate?"

"That's right."

"You're not worried about a raid?"

John raised his chin, presumably in thought, then said, "No."

"If he doesn't come back, I shall be very disappointed."

John thought about it. He hadn't opened communication with Atlantis because last night he had activated a duress code. Anything he said and every request he made was suspect. Lorne on the other hand, with about sixty seconds to talk, had to convince Elizabeth there was a plan, the plan had a chance, and the Jumper, if released, would most likely make it back in one piece.

Sixty seconds, not counting the time it took to sprint to the Jumper bay and dial out.

If he doesn't come back, I shall be very disappointed.

Thinking about it hard, "So will I," John said.

The Stargate shivered to life, the azure symbols flashing.

Moment of truth.

The event horizon blossomed. Became the hard, dynamic body of a Jumper. Narrowly missing Satoe's Stargate guards, the gateship executed a pirouette and hovered with its nose tipped downward at the top of the dome.

The wormhole closed.

Satoe fell back half a step, her mouth parted slightly. "Make it land. I want to see inside it."

"How's that deal coming along?" he asked.

"Yes, you can have your three hundred mice." She glanced at him. "Provided I get to name the ship."

"We have a deal."

"Make it land."

"Sheppard to Lorne, she wants to kick the tires."

Lorne brought the Jumper around, windscreen facing the pedestrian gate, and touched down.

John led Satoe to the hatch. Noticed Torrell following and stopped. "Where the hell are you going?"

Torrell glared.

Satoe waved the Olesian away, saying, "Go outside and make sure the valley mice get along without an incident."

Looking like he had bitten down on something sour, Torrell went.

On the ramp at the back of the Jumper, Satoe was jubilant. She strolled inside, paused in the rear compartment before sweeping forward, passing her hand over the back of the pilot's chair.

Lorne got up.

John said, "Dial out." Signed to the DHD outside the Jumper, foregoing the one in the Jumper's console.

Lorne left.

"I don't suppose I can learn to pilot this."

"That's not likely."

"I'm a good pupil."

"There's a biological component."

She glanced back at him. "I knew that. I wished to know if you'd lie. I would have been disappointed if you had."

Lorne had succeeded in opening an outbound wormhole. The coordinates led to a planet with a mild climate and few inhabitants, a suitable weigh station until Atlantis could find something permanent. 'Gating to Atlantis was a no-go until Vachel knew for certain who was and who was not a Covenant spy.

Satoe rotated the chair and lowered herself into it. "Is this vessel shielded?"

"Not at the moment."

"Does this vessel possess weapons?"

"Yes."

"I am impressed."

"I thought you would be." John saw Ronon and Teyla sidle through the pedestrian gate.

"There are your aides." Satoe cocked her head. "I hope you don't mind, but ..."

John sat up straight, saw Satoe's man, the burly bearded assistant, raise his pistol to Ronon and Teyla.

"I prefer them where they are," Satoe said.

John opened his mic. "Teyla, Ronon, hold tight. It's all right. She's just guaranteeing delivery of the product."

Satoe nearly smiled. "You are a businessman."

"Take your guns off my people. They're not going anywhere."

"Let's just take a moment and see."

A little wire of adrenaline uncoiled in John's belly. He dealt with it, choosing silence over small talk. Satoe drummed her knee, sighed occasionally, and finally grew still.

In ten minutes more or less, led by Stroebel and the Marines, the first of Vachel's people arrived at the pedestrian gate. McKay was in the first batch, his bad leg supported by two wardens.

Carrying almost nothing, organized in a line of two and three, the refugees streamed to the Stargate and pushed through.

"Mice," Satoe said to no one, to herself. "They don't even look around. They don't see anything, this ship, the world they're leaving or the one they're going to. They see nothing but the fog of their own fear and the distance between themselves and the next meal."

On a scale of one ten on the self-loathing meter, John supposed Satoe's ramble rated about a five. He supposed, too, she hadn't enjoyed much her first seasons abroad following the fall of Sateda. Ronon told him she was Satedan, former military. She hadn't ended up on a hive ship, so she'd kept her head down when others were losing everything on the front line. And she'd managed to fill up her pockets while she was doing it.

Saying nothing, John kept an eye on the refugees. They were making decent progress. Good, keep it moving.

Finally quiet, Satoe crossed her legs and rocked back and forth in the pilot's chair.

John swiveled around, a hard breath at the back of the Jumper catching his attention. He swore.

Plan B called for Rodney to go with Vachel's people through the 'gate, but John hadn't put much faith in Rodney following the plan. For one thing, Rodney had agreed too quickly.

Favoring his hurt leg, Rodney lurched up the ramp and collapsed on the bench.

Clenching his jaw, John whirled away. He could start issuing orders, but McKay was wearing his stubborn look. Something else to worry about. Additionally, Rodney's presence had the lovely effect of reminding John of the alien device in his chest.

The endgame in Plan B was getting a little fuzzy.

The migration of refugees continued. Satoe stopped watching, amusing herself with the Jumper's console.

John named a few things, made the lights come on, tried to distract her.

Vachel and the Marines were last. John had insisted and the council leader agreed. When the Marines, minus Lorne, and Vachel vanished, the game changed. John's mind cleared.

Ronon leaped at Satoe's bearded assistant. The signal. John didn't wait to see how Ronon fared. He spun to Satoe, registered the blur of motion on his left, and brought his Beretta in line with her chest just as her pistol collided with his brow.

McKay leaped up on his good foot, his 9mm pointed at Satoe.

John listened. No shots outside the Jumper, and no one was shooting inside the Jumper. It meant Lorne had control of Satoe's 'gate guards. That was good. John noticed, too, how evenly Satoe breathed with a gun pressed to her ribs and her own weapon jammed between a man's eyes.

John said, "He has you," meaning McKay.

She didn't blink or twitch. She knew Rodney had a gun on her.

"Then we both die," she said.

"I'm already dead. You, though, you could go on to live a long life. All you have to do is get the gun out of my face and tell your people to stand down."

"I don't think so."

"Let's do this slowly then. Because I think you're under the impression you have an advantage."

"I have the advantage."

"Pick a spot on the dome."

"What?"

Growing impatient, John activated the weapon pod. The soft hiss of machinery made Satoe a tad skittish, broke her focus, but not as much as the fiery trail of the Ancient drone and the boom the drone made punching through the dome's stone.

John ducked to the side, trapped Satoe's wrist to control her gun, and propelled her into the Jumper's bulkhead.

She bounced off the wall, straightened, and turned to mark the debris drifting with chunks of frozen snow to the ground. John held her gun, but she didn't appear to care. Astonishment competed with anger and astonishment won. She shook herself and strode off the Jumper.

John told Rodney to stay behind, cover them. And then he followed her. John wasn't going to be able to use the Jumper anyway, and he didn't want to be on it if for some reason Rodney needed to turn on the shield.

Satoe gaped at the damaged dome. Her cheeks were patched with red. Her mouth slackened with wonder.

"I can pick a target closer to the ground," John said, coming up behind her.

"I'm sure you can." She seized her hips. "But you'd hit your own people along with mine."

Ronon and Teyla and Satoe's guards were in a stand-off.

"I wouldn't be aiming at them."

She peered at him slantwise, a query unspoken on her small mouth.

"You put me in corner. If this is your idea of a bad day, I feel your pain. You can go on to the next thing. But me, me you have in what we call an all or nothing pinch. So if it's all, we're good. You get out of here, my people go home. If it's nothing, I'll take out the Stargate. We die and that sucks but you, you're stuck on this planet forever. Interesting insect life on this planet, by the way."

While he talked she scraped her toe back and forth over the concrete. As he finished, she lowered her arms. Her expression was inscrutable. "I've heard about the insects."

John shrugged. "I don't like bugs myself."

"Nor do I." She held up her hand to her assistant. "Let them go."

When Satoe gave the order, the guards lowered their weapons.

John said, "Tell your people to close the door."

"Won't make any difference. Do you see that man over there? He isn't one of mine. I believe he is waiting for the chance to do business with you."

Near the pedestrian gate stood a tall, slender man with blond hair and a young face. He wore makeshift armor. His sidearm was holstered.

John wasn't ready to deal with Hernan yet. Not yet. Instead, he motioned Teyla and Ronon toward the Jumper.

The Stargate was still active.

Teyla and Ronon loped to his side.

John pointed at the Jumper.

Ronon said, "That's not going to happen."

x x x x x

Satoe, you screwed me. May I live to return the favor.

But one didn't repay Satoe's misdeeds. If one survived her interference, one lived and learned.

Gavriel could consider Sheppard's little reversal his, Gavriel's, victory. In practice, however, it meant Gavriel was going to have to get his hands dirty.

The contract wasn't suppose to involve Sheppard's personnel. A breach of Atlantis was always in the plan, had to be, but not a dynamic entrance followed by a dynamic exit. Once Sheppard knew what he was giving away ... That was the crux of Gavriel's operation. To let Sheppard get a long, cold taste of misfortune and then tell him what it was about. Taggers had a way of softening a man's spine. And why should Sheppard care about the modules? He wouldn't even know the modules were in Atlantis. Six small items in exchange for a future. Gavriel just needed to control the variables. He had been a mercenary longer than he had been an adult. He wasn't worried about his target holding out. With the right pressure even strong men folded.

If things had stayed clean, Gavriel would have moved to the final phase without a wrinkle.

x x x x x

Satoe, circling away from John, Teyla, and Ronon, began to pace.

John, too, was getting antsy. Even disarmed, Satoe was unpredictable. And her people had begun to look like pit bulls on hind legs at the end of a chain. Rodney controlled the Jumper's drones but without a fresh demonstration the Covenant thugs were thinking murder. Meanwhile, Ronon was turning John's escape strategy into a battle.

Still some distance away, the warden Hernan was getting closer.

John eyed Ronon. "I can't go with you."

Teyla snapped her P90 into her shoulder. "Then we are staying here."

John felt like groaning. "Teyla, Ronon, get McKay and you get through the Stargate. That's an order."

"Not gonna happen, Sheppard."

Satoe froze, head turned.

She wasn't watching John. Her attention had shifted to something a little further away.

The game was escalating, the end and the beginning meeting at the center, as perhaps intended.

His Beretta clenched at his side, John twitched. He twitched again.

Put two rounds in the breast of the approaching man and it was over.

Teyla, observing from the corner of her eye, exclaimed, "Colonel!"

Cold, and growing colder, John slammed his pistol into its holster.

Satoe scratched beneath her chin. Was Sheppard about to shoot down the mercenary with the remote to the tagger?

Her pacing brought her within arm's length of John. "This, by the way, is the motherless rat you chose over me."

He ignored her. Hernan had drawn close enough to hear him. John tried to bargain: "When they're gone--"

Hernan with his Hernan-- human --voice nipped that in the bud: "I don't take orders from you."

Ronon's pistol levered up. "How 'bout me?"

Still moving, ten steps away, now seven, Hernan offered Ronon the barest of glances. Said in a different voice entirely, "That shortens the game somewhat."

Ronon blinked. And backed up.

John didn't blame him. He'd heard the I'm not Hernan anymore voice before. He first heard it in the field surgery center. Remembered that he had thought, at least for a short while, the macabre, gravelly voice had come from another man. And when he realized that it hadn't, when Hernan used a familiar phrase, John had assumed the second voice, also Hernan's, was created electronically. It had a kind of absurdly scratchy, decidedly feral quality more suited to Halloween than any human throat. He'd thought that only technology, or an injury, could create a sound so bizarre.

But he was wrong. John could see now the voice was real. Hernan had become Gavriel, Satoe's business contact, and Gavriel was no warden, no young-faced Elkanan refugee. The voice of Gavriel belonged to an older, less tentative being.

Both hands on his pistol, "How come I can't smell the stink on you?" Ronon demanded.

Gavriel gathered back the sleeve on his right hand, revealed a band with a small display. "That's insulting, coming from you."

Ronon's grimace deepened. "You call that an insult?"

"You should rethink the old home world mindwash and by the way you're standing between me and my mark."

"Ronon," John warned.

"What?"

"Lower your weapon and get out of here."

"Leave you here with him?"

Gavriel now stood within arm's reach of John. Ronon's blaster was inches from Gavriel's cheek and the tip of Teyla's P90 was a foot from Gavriel's throat.

The mercenary turned over his wrist display and tapped the miniature screen.

It felt at first like a pinprick of fire. The prick stretched into a welter of pain, the pain cascading down John's spine.

John didn't scream so much as want to scream. One leg buckled, the other saved him from falling. He staggered to the side. When Teyla caught his arm he seized her shoulder. Gathered the fabric of her parka into his fist and squeezed.

Ronon yelled.

His savage bass breaking across the domed facility, Gavriel yelled back, "I'm in charge here! Me! I am!"

Wheezing in pain, John tried to signal the Satedan.

Ronon hollered a curse. Teeth bared, he jerked his pistol to his side.

Gavriel tapped the screen.

This time John's legs did give, but in relief. Lorne had scrambled over. He and Teyla grabbed John's side and arms, keeping him from collapsing. John locked his knees, found that his legs responded to his will. Air rushed into his lungs, prickly with the cold. He clutched his chest, a shiver ringing every sinew in his body.

"That was a taste," the sandpapery voice warned. "When it kills him, he might know it, he might not. When it just says hello, he'll know it." Gavriel waggled his hand, the remote shiny in the thin light. "A little personal touch, a homegrown modification, courtesy of my patron Satoe." Gavriel tapped the screen one more time. "And now for the deal closer--" Brow furrowed, Gavriel glared at Ronon. The Satedan had inched toward him. "You are trying my patience. Back up. Back up."

Ronon didn't.

The mercenary struck his remote display.

"Oh my God--" John stumbled backward, bile closing his throat. His vision swam and then darkened and for a second he thought, mercifully, he was going to black out. This time he fell, grabbed the ground with his fingernails, clawed for a way to breathe.

Teyla screamed Ronon's name.

Ronon jigged backward. His chest rising and falling desperately, the Satedan holstered his pistol and threw up his hands in surrender.

Gavriel cut off the pain pulse, and John collapsed forward. Someone dragged at his shoulders. He almost wished they'd let him fall down. He knew he was breathing but even that wasn't helping. The pain resonated like a succession of blows nailing his gut and chest.

"I deactivated the aux transmitters," Gavriel was saying, "which means-- everybody listening? It's just Sheppard and me. He gets farther from me than we are right now and he dies. You," Gavriel said to Ronon, "if you get closer to me than you are now, he dies."

Ronon exhaled powerfully through his nose. "He dies, and I'll kill you."

"I know you'll try but here's the thing--" Gavriel stopped. "Can he walk?"

Lorne and Teyla had pried John from the ground. His vision hadn't come back. On the contrary, John saw a gray and swollen landscape inhabited by far away figures. He couldn't hear so good either. Speech was a dream and walking unaided wasn't happening.

"Shit," Gavriel spat. "Okay, I want everyone on the ship."

John tried to hold up his hand. No!

Meanwhile, Teyla was speaking to him. "We have no choice, John. When we get a better choice, we will make it."

John was aware the Jumper was getting closer.

Satoe called out to him. "Sheppard, good not doing business with you." As she headed away her path took her by Ronon. She put out her hand and lightly brushed his arm.

Ronon flinched, then leaned to the Covenant leader as she whispered to him.

Then John couldn't see Satoe or Ronon anymore, only McKay backing inward from the rear compartment of the Jumper and lurching toward the pilot's chair to keep from toppling over.

Lorne lowered John to the bench, which made John want to scream. He was in the back of a Jumper. He was never in the back of a Jumper unless he was down for the count, unless he was cargo, removed from play, a liability.

Gavriel settled across from him. Leaned over and instructed Rodney to dial Atlantis.

"You will not dial Atlantis, McKay."

Gavriel sat back, eyeing him. "I got a little time to discuss it, if you want to discuss it--"

Teyla cut in, her tone spiked with iron: "That will not be necessary. Rodney, dial Atlantis so that we may speak with Doctor Weir." Her eyes narrowed. "You should know that our base forbids a breach such as that which you are attempting. Unless our commander allows it, we will not be permitted to return. And if she permits it, you will be instantly surrounded by heavily armed security personnel and most assuredly overwhelmed."

Gavriel bobbed his head until she finished. "So you're saying we should finish up right here, call it a day."

"If you kill Colonel Sheppard, you will not accomplish your goal. You will die senselessly."

"I have a better idea. You people sit down, all of you, relax, and let me get what I came for."

Slumped next to Lorne, John summoned enough air to speak. "This isn't about the Jumper?"

"Is that what you call this vessel? Hardly."

Ronon: "Then what're you after?"

"In a lab in Atlantis you have a package that belongs to my employer. It serves no purpose for you, but he needs it. I'm going to get it for him."

Ronon grunted. "How you planning to get it?"

"Well, I could ask one of you to bring it to me, but then I'd be sitting here wondering if you're messing with it. Can't risk that. I'm going to get it, and you can look at it once I'm holding it in my hands."

John sat up slightly. "That's not going to happen."

"I wouldn't want to be you if it doesn't."

"Didn't you hear what she said? We don't bargain under duress."

McKay, in the pilot's seat, turned to them. "Atlantis is on."

A hush fell on the rear compartment. John was aware the hatch was open, and that through the hatch he could see the Stargate. Satoe's men were gone. He glanced toward the forward compartment. Through the windscreen he saw no one.

His palms were damp, and so were his back and neck. He could hear, now, the deep in and out of Ronon's breath. Ronon, prevented from approaching John and Gavriel, was by the co-pilot's chair. John glanced up at Ronon and away. Where was Teyla? Beside him, of course. He looked up at her too. Only Gavriel and Lorne were sitting, Lorne because he was keeping John from keeling over.

John leaned forward for balance. "Elizabeth."

"Yes, John."

"We're on board the Jumper with a freelance criminal identified as Gavriel. He's shown he is in possession of the remote to the device in my chest. He wants access to an Atlantis lab and permission to take an unidentified item. I'm refusing his request on my authority."

"Understood." Weir's words cut through the compartment: "But, John, if I follow the duress protocol you put in place, I'm going to need another assessment of the problem. Is Major Lorne there?"

"Yes, ma'am." Lorne exhaled. "I'm going to agree with Colonel Sheppard."

There was a significant pause. She would want, John realized, to keep her voice even. Sometimes she had trouble with that.

"Do you understand what you're advising me to do?"

After a moment, Lorne nodded, though Elizabeth could not see him. "Yes, ma'am, I do."

"Is the man who implanted Colonel Sheppard able to hear us?"

"Yes, ma'am, he is."

"Why are you doing this?"

Gavriel swiped at the moisture beading his lip. "I carry no explosives, no equipment beyond the switch to your officer's tagger. I can't hurt any of your other personnel or your base. The item I want is useless to you. It has no value to your people. Once I get it, you can live on and grow wiser."

"You're holding Colonel Sheppard against his will--" Weir stopped. John thought he heard a faint cough or a hitch in her speech and winced. "I will not negotiate until you release him."

Gavriel moved.

No! Grab his hand. Don't let him--

These thoughts flew onto the stage of John's mind as fast as it took a struck match to flare. And with the same coarse speed, John flung out his arms. There was nothing nearby to grab except the bodies of comrades and they were what he seized. By then the raw wave of pain was cleaving him in two. It started everywhere but rapidly became a blue-white knife, dull and sharp, sawing back and forth up the middle of his chest. He went immediately blind and partially deaf. Back in the fog somewhere in his mind the liquid sun of the Afghan sky played like a memory, scarred by a rocket coming at him from nowhere. He imagined a Wraith leaning toward him. And heard himself scream. His throat had locked and the muscles in his neck had expanded too much for a cry that carried. It was loud enough, though, to pierce the vapor of pain and vibrate in his ears, and to fill the Jumper, and reach Atlantis.

And then there was nothing, a white smooth nothing before the muscles, every one, in his feet, his hands, even in his scalp, unclamped, yo-yoing in a silvery cascading instant of agony. He convulsed massively and tried to collapse. His body convulsed again, refusing to let him find oblivion. Blackness held him, the rough, hot side of it. This blackness told him he hadn't died, he wasn't dying, and the torture was going to go on until someone put a bullet in Gavriel's brain.

Lorne: "Stop, you son of a--"

"Doctor Weir!" Teyla, her mouth near John's ear. "We must do something!"

Gavriel: "Is this what you want?"

John was sure the mercenary was warning Ronon back.

Rodney: "I'll get whatever it is you want, I'll go back and get it. Seriously! I'll get it for you--"

At the other end of the wormhole, Weir shouted, "You're limiting our options!"

As John's vision pricked with light, he discovered Gavriel had gone to his feet. "I'm limiting my options?"

Lorne jumped up. "Doctor Weir, I'm revising my assessment!"

A momentary and brutal silence. Propped by Lorne's hand under his arm and held on the other end by Teyla, John struggled to break it. He wanted the Jumper to leave without him. If he was going to be alone at the end, he wanted to be alone now, before he lost the ability to face it.

Lorne began, meanwhile, to lay out a deal for Weir: "Quarantine the Jumper bay, ma'am. We get back to Atlantis, figure out step two. Step one I can guarantee. We scan for explosives, we take this guy's weapons, we bring Colonel Sheppard home."

"That's the consensus here," Weir's voice rushed back.

"Recommend you have a medical team and security standing by."

"Agreed."

Gavriel nodded. "Good job. And to move things along, take this." He held out his sidearm to Lorne, who took it with his free hand. "I want to use this newfound spirit of cooperation to brief everyone on a couple of precautions."

No one spoke.

Gavriel, after a pause, held up his wrist. "When we reach your base, you will, all of you, clear out. When you do, I activate a proximity alarm. It allows for two thermal blooms. That'll be me and Sheppard. Anyone gets inside the protected zone, we have no more business to discuss. Are you familiar with the term dead man's switch?"

"I am," Ronon grunted.

"Once I turn it on, if I release pressure on the key, we will, unfortunately, have no further business. I need to stay alert, alive, and happy. Is that understood?"

"When this is over, there won't be anywhere you can hide," Ronon promised.

"I seriously doubt that," Gavriel replied, "but suit yourself."

Weir added, coldly: "I can't speak for your safety if anything happens to Colonel Sheppard."

"Occupational hazard."

"Major Lorne."

"Yes, ma'am."

"The shield is down. Weir out."

x x x x x

McKay sealed the rear hatch and piloted the Jumper toward the Stargate. The ship switched to automatic, crossed the event horizon, and glided to a stop below operations on the embarkation floor of Atlantis.

The Jumper pivoted and rose through an opening above the Gate Room.

The Jumper bay.

Gavriel waited until the Jumper was still before pinching a pair of cable cuffs from his belt. He tossed the cuffs to Teyla, who caught them and flung them back. Her expression was implacable. She seemed neither ice nor fire. Her mouth set, her hand on John's shoulder, she stared at Gavriel.

Gavriel held out the cuffs to Lorne.

"Put these on him."

"Screw yourself," Lorne suggested.

Gavriel looked between Lorne and Teyla, lowered his hand. He put on a crooked smile. "All right, then, everybody off."

"We have company," McKay advised.

Gavriel murmured, "I suppose we do. Everybody off. You first." He pointed to Ronon.

"I make you nervous?"

"As a matter of fact, you do. Now get off."

The rear hatch opened.

Ronon strode into the rear compartment. The compartment became immediately and excruciatingly tight. Ronon halted beside John, didn't turn or glance at him. Ronon stood there a few seconds, then walked away.

No good-byes. From Ronon side of the line, it wasn't over yet.

"You next." Gavriel indicated Lorne. "First take Sheppard's weapons and his radio."

Lorne let go of John, gathered up John's tactical gear. "It's going to be all right, sir."

John said, "We brought a hardened criminal to Atlantis, how's it gonna be all right?"

Lorne nodded, turned away, and left through the hatch.

Teyla's hand tightened on John's shoulder. "Colonel Sheppard is weakened. Allow me to stay with him in case he needs assistance."

"The next time he needs assistance, it'll be permanent. Get out."

"John." Teyla lowered her gaze. "I will follow as closely as I can."

"Don't let this asshole take anything out of Atlantis."

"That is for Doctor Weir to decide. You need to trust her. You need to trust us." She moved her hand slowly across his shoulders. "We will not abandon you."

"Come on, you too." Gavriel motioned to Rodney. "Get up, let's go."

Teyla waited for Rodney and offered her arm. McKay took it, looked down at John as he passed, and said, "We've gotten through worse, okay? This isn't over."

Teyla and Rodney left the Jumper.

Gavriel pecked at the screen, waggled his fingers at John. "Stand up."

John leveraged his body erect.

"Turn around."

John tested his legs, found them rubbery but responsive, and shifted to face the back of the Jumper. Placed his hands behind his back.

Gavriel cinched the cable cuffs around John's hands. "I'm going to guide you, because I don't want you wandering anywhere far. The dead man switch is armed. Don't pull away, don't fall, and don't distract me. If I release the key, you lose."

"Then you lose."

"We both lose. Let's not lose, shall we? Now, head out."

x x x x x

His core team, John saw them first. With Weir and Beckett, they made up the front line. Ranged about the Jumper bay were Marines and International security teams, weapons trained on Gavriel-- on both of them. A hedge of rifle barrels.

A medical team trailed a stretcher loaded with Beckett's big bulky kits.

John felt their collective stare, felt giddy and light-headed, like he'd fallen off a stage at an important presentation. Teyla, still holding up Rodney, pulled his eye. He had not looked up at her when she left. Now he remembered the slow caress of her hand, now he saw the plea behind her quiet strength, and now he felt its depth, understood what she asked.

Okay. Okay. Get on to the next thing, get through this, survive, teach Teyla to slow dance, pretend she was the one he was supposed to take to the prom.

"How are you planning to get this thing, this item you're after?" John asked Gavriel.

"We're going to walk to it."

"How do you know where it is? How do you know where to find it?"

"I know where it is. I practiced the route in simulations."

"In simulations of Atlantis? That's interesting."

"Hope you didn't move any furniture."

"Me too."

Gavriel started walking.

x x x x x

The Jumper bay exit took them down to operations, where personnel, pointedly silent, swiveled in chairs or stood up to watch Gavriel lead John away down to the main level.

On the main level a column of Marines fanned out to cover their approach. Civilians caught on the upper passages leaned down to observe.

Gavriel swung onto a well-traveled thoroughfare.

"You're not getting into the main science lab," John warned.

"I'm not headed for restricted areas."

"This going to be a long walk?"

"You can handle it."

x x x x x

Beckett, moving at a brisk pace, gave his report: "We're ready to do the procedure at a moment's notice. Our mobile scanner, I believe, can locate the device. But until I see where it is in Colonel Sheppard's body, I won't be able to tell you how long the procedure will take."

"You took out my tracker pretty fast," Ronon, striding behind him, said.

Weir, her eye on Sheppard's back, cut in. "This is different. The tracker wasn't a bomb."

"It's not a bomb," Ronon corrected. "It's more sophisticated than a bomb. The device stays intact when it goes off. It pulses."

"Pulses?" Beckett queried.

"Yeah, it messes with--"

Beckett's eyes widened. "An electromagnetic pulse?"

"If it goes off, can we restart John's heart?" Weir anxiously asked.

"No," Ronon said. "It'll fry him. He'll burn. Everything inside gets fused together. It's done, it's over like that." Aware that those within hearing were staring at him in horror, he added, "Sounds hard but it's fast. He won't know it."

"A pulse, you say? It may be fast, but he'll know it," Beckett decided.

"What else can you tell us?" Weir asked.

"On the planet, just before we left, the leader of the Covenant, her name is Satoe, she's one of my people--"

"Mentael Satoe," Teyla said.

"Yeah. She said don't turn it off. Never turn it off. I don't know what she meant, but I been thinking about what she said. My commander said the same thing. You turn off a tagger, it kills you. Satoe claimed she could get the tagger out of Sheppard without killing him."

Teyla: "Ronon, do you think she was trying to help us?"

"Not us."

x x x x x

The Marines were behind him now. Gavriel had taken a southeast route into an uninhabited section of the city. Tired of the pressure of Gavriel's hand on his elbow, John was getting twitchy. The passageway was only partially lit, shielded by russet walls from the afternoon sky.

John looked up and down through the twilight, pressed a cheek to his shoulder to blot the sweat, and tried to focus. This section had been under water, yes or no? There was damage. The section had been a battleground during the Wraith attack.

And he'd been here before.

"We been going for a while," he said. "Want to stop for lunch? I'm starting to get hungry."

"A sense of humor is an underappreciated trait."

"I think so."

"Now shut up."

x x x x x

McKay, stranded because of his injury in operations, opened communications. Like John, he was very twitchy. In fact, he felt like hopping. "Elizabeth, I think I know where they're going."

"Rodney," answered a disembodied voice arch with strain, "you think you know or you know?"

"He kept saying the item he's after, it's something we don't need, something we don't want. Elizabeth, I can see them on the sensors. They're headed right for it."

"Headed for what, Rodney?" Beckett, rough with impatience.

"He's after the data beetles."

x x x x x

They were called data beetles because they looked like insects, and because Sheppard had gotten to Radek while McKay was off world with Weir on a diplomatic mission to Premina.

Sheppard liked to name things.

After their recovery from a defunct lab [note: occurs early in my fic "Proteus" in an uninhabited section of Atlantis, Zelenka had taken charge of the modules. The modules were small, black, and ovoid. Their sloping backs resembled carapaces, protective shells, which had prompted Sheppard to dub them beetles.

The modules held data. What kind of data and how much remained a mystery. The modules had needed a human with the Ancient gene to initiate them. Once initiated, they sat dormant until a team member with the ATA gene touched them. The modules reacted to touch the way machines responded to an on / off switch. When touched, the modules began transmitting encrypted data on an unidentified pathway to an undetermined storage device.

After intense scrutiny, the modules were eventually shifted to a low priority and removed from Zelenka's lab to a storage room in Rodney's work area. There they slept in a clear case, the case in which they were discovered, until something in the Ancient database offered a clue to their purpose.

As Zelenka hurriedly and with great anxiety reminded Elizabeth of this over a secure communication channel, the beetles were getting a lift in the hands of a security team leader, who literally fled with them from the storage room to Zelenka's lab.

Weir wanted to know if Zelenka could in five minutes or less tell her the value of the beetles to Atlantis.

Zelenka and McKay, sharing a com line, exclaimed, No!

They had tried, Zelenka explained. And tried. The fact was they had no idea what the modules were for, what information they stored, and what or whom was the intended recipient.

Weir asked the scientists to qualify the harm to Atlantis if she allowed Gavriel to take them.

McKay said the modules could be a portable database.

Zelenka elaborated: "The Ancient database."

Weir said, flatly, "Back to square one."

"Not necessarily," McKay radioed back. "He doesn't know they're not going to be there. If we let him keep walking, it gives us time to rig something. Just be ready to tell him where they are when he asks, and he's going to ask."

"I want this show moved to the Gate Room," Weir ordered. "Whatever you're cooking up, can you get it to the Gate Room?"

"What are you thinking?" Radek asked Rodney.

"It's risky."

"Oh well, if it's risky, we'd better not do it," Weir came back. "Guys, I need what you got sooner rather than later."

"Give me fifteen minutes."

"Make it ten, Rodney."

x x x x x

The fact that he'd been here before meant John had to prepare and prepare fast, have something to say that was pretty effective, pretty convincing, and he had to get it out without stammering.

Meanwhile, he kept walking. As long as they were walking, there was time.

Rodney would remember this section of the city. Rodney remembered the address of every planet he'd visited. He'd figure it out.

The problem was as soon as Gavriel saw the modules weren't where he'd been told they'd be, he'd know he was in trouble.

He'd have to ask for them. Asking Atlantis personnel for his item, he'd said, was unacceptable for a number of reasons.

The most obvious reason was Atlantis now had the opportunity to duplicate, or even damage the modules.

Gavriel didn't have equipment for verifying the authenticity of anything. He just had his belief the modules in their case were undiscovered and had slept as they'd been left thousands and thousands of years ago.

Although John was relieved that Gavriel's intelligence was stale, the fact remained he'd had intelligence.

One day that was going to have to be checked out.

Meanwhile, John was readying his end of the dialogue Gavriel was about to initiate.

The shuffle of boots down the hall reminded that he still had company. He couldn't begin to describe the ways in which the escort was growing on him. An hour ago he would have killed to face this alone. Now he wouldn't trade the escort for anything. He was changing, wasn't he, and for far longer than a day, a month, or a year, into another man. He was changing in ways he wouldn't bother to define. In ways he couldn't define.

Here, now, the lab. Only a few hundred feet.

Gavriel made a sound of satisfaction. "This is it."

John felt a fresh, warm layer of sweat pop across his back. He bit his lips and swallowed.

The lab entranceway appeared. The door had taken damage and was never repaired. It was partially open.

Gavriel ducked through, pulling Sheppard behind him. He scanned the lab with a miniature light, angled toward the display board, and stopped short.

John had decided on the open and honest approach. It wasn't like he had a choice.

Gavriel wrenched around, mouth wide and stiff, light snapping to John's eyes. "Well, that's a fine play, very fine indeed. A nice little jaunt, a bit of exercise. You knew."

John said, "I figured it out."

"Oh we're fair screwed, now, you know."

"We could say that, or I could go out there and ask one of my men to throw me a radio, let me ask for what you want."

"After you've had them in your labs, after you've tinkered with them? I'm sorry, their value has dropped rather dramatically."

"I don't know what to say. We don't know what they are. We have no way to prove they're the way we found them because we can't make them work."

Gavriel became silent.

John asked, "Want to have a look at them?"

"That by the way is what we call on my world a significant reversal of position. You're suddenly happy to put the modules in my hands?"

"First, you were right, we won't miss them. They're paperweights. They don't do anything. Second, I'm kind of squeamish about collapsing into a pile of jelly in front of my men."

"Get out there, get a radio."

John and Gavriel edged out of the lab, emerged in the passageway. John called for a radio.

Ronon took a hand-held radio from a Marine and sent it sliding down the hall floor.

Gavriel picked up the radio, quirked an eyebrow at John, and keyed the microphone. "This is Gavriel. You have what I want."

Weir's voice came out of the built-in speaker. "I read you. Fall back to the Stargate. If we're talking about six small objects in a clear case, provided Colonel Sheppard is unharmed, we will have personnel waiting with them."

"Sheppard has a rather brief future, I have to be honest. I'm a little, shall we say, put out. All of you suddenly so accomodating and me without a way to be sure of the product. But, yes, let's meet at the Stargate, see how we salvage this. If we salvage this. Bring two funeral urns, just in case."

x x x x x

Looking like they're being dragged away by meat hooks, the operations personnel get up one by one and jig backward.

John watches, sickened.

Gavriel continues barking orders. Further ... still too close ... get back more.

Lindwall and Zelenka seem especially brutalized. This isn't their scene. The rough stuff ends at the Stargate. They see it in reports, hear about it in the back and forth over the com. Zelenka may struggle with the technical aspects in his lab but when violence does reach inward to Atlantis, when there is a personal touch, the action takes place away from operations, which, by design, is protected.

Gavriel wants access to the dialing device.

John looks outside operations at the human barrier around the embarkation floor, Weir with security teams and John's front line staff, Teyla, McKay, and Ronon.

A lot of guns raised.

And a crystal case in the middle the broad russet floor.

Gavriel studies the dialing console, his fingers tightening on John's arm. This is Gavriel on stress, the mercenary making calculations and not coming up with numbers he liked.

While John stares, Gavriel pushes Stargate address symbols. The address leads most likely to a midway stop, the planet that shrewd 'gaters put between them and their desired destination.

Gavriel waits until the wormhole appears, then steers John toward the embarkation floor.

A little way to go now.

Hard to believe it's only been a day and a night. A day and a night comprising some of the longest hours of his life. But not the longest hours. John has to admit this. He has to wonder how much of that other experience has bled into this one. Not only for him but for the others as well.

He remembers, he always will, what Acastus Kolya did.

And what the Wraith undid.

But he isn't the only one who remembers. As he descends to the Gate Room, he thinks about the ways in which others recall the incident. What do they see when they reflect? Does the memory intrude? Does it strike against judgment? Is it why he is home, why he is able to die at home, if that's what it comes to, rather than alone on a frozen planet with an obsessed murderer?

He wonders if he is the only one who dreams.

x x x x x

Elizabeth Weir was pacing. Hands pressed in front, she'd claimed a tight spot in front. She couldn't get far but she was wearing the strip of ground she had to nothing.

And then she got the transmission from Ronon: Gavriel and Sheppard were going up to operations.

He has to dial out, she thought. He's taking the bait.

"All right everybody," she called to her personnel. "We're going to the next phase."

Her heart kicked up and her legs stiffened. No more pacing. John was going to be directly in front of her soon.

We'll get him back or we'll lose him in the next few moments.

x x x x x

The aqueous light of the Stargate tinged the room. It was a light that usually called to John, like a good feeling he wanted to last. Rodney would call it Pavlovian. John sought Rodney now, got a reassuring nod from the sidelined scientist.

Gavriel's fingers dug into John's bicep. Savagery was probably the guy's normal response to a bad day. John pictured the mercenary kicking the hell out of a dog.

It was good to hold onto to a sense of humor.

Good to let in a little distraction.

Wasn't that what Teyla meant?

You must trust us.

Whatever John was able to control, he'd controlled it already. The rest was out of his hands. He was a pawn now. The save today would belong to others.

He saw Teyla, saw the barrel of her P90 following Gavriel's skull, saw the furrow in her brow.

The case in the middle of the floor, John and Gavriel had almost reached it.

Carson Beckett was in scrubs. John just realized that. Well, okay. This wasn't a bad thing, relatively speaking. The stretcher was gone. The thing next to Carson looked like a metal table on wheels. A scanner stood next to it, one of the big ones from sick bay. Carson's technicians were in scrubs too. A big Marine stood next to Carson with a containment box.

Gavriel reached the clear case, knelt on one knee, poked the case, and straightened.

He really was pissed.

There was absolutely no way for the mercenary to know if he'd been duped. He didn't have the ATA gene. He didn't have any scanning equipment. He knew nothing about the modules. His method of authentication was to find his items after a ten thousand year slumber abandoned and untouched.

Gavriel let go of John, growled, "Stand still."

"Why don't I," John said, almost pleasantly.

Weir said, "Activate the shield."

Gavriel startled. He swung around, glaring as the event horizon clouded. "What's this?"

"You're not leaving this city with that remote. And when you take off the remote, if something happens to Colonel Sheppard, you're not leaving this city period."

"That's not the plan," Gavriel snapped at her. "When I get to where I'm going, I'll transmit the deactivation code through the Well."

"Like hell," Ronon bit out.

Weir inhaled softly. "My sentiment exactly."

Gavriel cocked his head, stepped away from Sheppard. "You sure you want to mess with me?" he asked Weir.

"I'm quite sure you're not getting out of here with my military commander and those modules. One or the other, you choose."

Tearing his gaze away, Gavriel worked his wrist display. The strap loosened abruptly.

Teyla gasped.

Gavriel let the strap dangle. Took the remote from his wrist.

"As you can see, I've turned off the proximity and bio monitoring functions and am operating on a common dead man's switch. Drop the shield and I'll deactivate the switch, disarm the tagger, and put down the remote."

Weir nodded to Major Lorne, who waved a security team to close around John.

Carson and his people ran up right behind the Marines. John felt the cable tug on his wrists and release. Meanwhile, Carson's technicians got busy stripping his tac vest, his outerwear. Watching Gavriel, he let them.

When Carson's team had John stripped to his shirt-- somewhere there was a signal, John didn't see where --Weir ordered the shield down.

Gavriel put down the remote. John's eyes got big, seeing the remote to the tagger settle on the ground. Gavriel scooped up the module case, pivoted, and fled. He was one blur, and then there were two others. The event horizon swallowed the racing figures, Gavriel first, followed by Ronon and Teyla.

John's mouth fell open. What the hell? Gavriel was gone, the remote was on the floor, and he was still alive.

There was no reason for--

While John stared in shock, Carson pricked his neck.

The prick, too, was unexpected.

"No worries, easy now, Colonel, easy."

John, tensing, had swung around.

" ... let us handle it, now, Colonel. We got you, we got you."

John fell down into darkness.

x x x x x

Ronon powered his body through the Stargate, his pistol ready and his eye lined up behind it. A maneuver he'd done lots of times.

Anything that moved was dead.

At the edge of his vision, on the left.

Teyla had the field of fire to the right.

She fired a fraction of a moment after he did.

He kept moving, driving his powerful legs forward.

Gavriel's ambush team was down but not Gavriel, who had cleared a swath of grass in front of the Stargate and was beating a path toward a nearby treeline.

Teyla shouted, shouted again, and Ronon began to slow down.

He realized that she was telling him she'd found it.

Gavriel had disappeared. The trees had swallowed Gavriel. Ronon began to notice the planet's overcast sky, the advent of twilight. He swung back, scanning for targets.

As he drew even with her, Teyla showed him a small transmitter, something that would fit in the hand of a child, which she'd pried from the fingers of the man she'd killed.

Gavriel's back-up device.

Ronon grunted, somewhat satisfied, maybe a whole lot satisfied, but not as happy as he could have been.

Gavriel had escaped.

Unfortunately, John's life depended on someone working the remote who had a good idea how the transmitter did what it did.

Ronon palmed the transmitter. He remembered it. He'd held one before.

He turned the transmitter over, pressed the Satedan symbol for safe. Then he keyed his radio.

"Ronon here."

"How did we do?" Weir anxiously asked.

"We got it. What's the remote by the 'gate sayin'?"

"McKay says if he's reading the symbol the way you showed him, it's in the safe mode."

"He's reading it right. Don't touch that remote. To be sure, don't shut down the 'gate. This one could be the master, it's bigger than the other one. I put this one in the right mode ... So tell Beckett it's now or never, he better start the operation."

"You and Teyla hold tight."

"Do what you gotta do," Ronon asserted, "but know our situation is not secure and Gavriel got away."

There was no way to 'gate back to Atlantis until the outbound wormhole was shut down and a new inbound wormhole was created.

"Stay safe, it shouldn't be long. Doctor Beckett is starting right now."

Teyla and Ronon exchanged glances. Teyla's cheeks puffed, puffed some more, and expelled air. She scanned the woodline with her P90 at ready, moving to keep her legs loose.

After a moment, she keyed her radio. "Elizabeth, has Doctor Beckett finished? Is John all right?"

Weir: "A moment ... it's ... The tagger is in containment, it's over, Teyla. It's going to be all right. Come home."

Almost smiling, almost, Ronon hurried to the DHD.

When he and Teyla strode through the Stargate in Atlantis they met a sight they'd never seen before. The Gate Room had transformed into an emergency surgery center.

Naked above the waist, John lay insensate on a table. A giant, bloody surgical pad was taped to the left side of his chest. Fluid laced with blood trickled from the table onto the floor. A technician was running an IV line, another unwinding the string to an oxygen mask.

Ronon played back in his mind Carson's warning about taking the device out of John in the Gate Room. The lack of a sterile environment, no monitoring equipment. The necessity of speed meant there wouldn't be a proper anesthetic.

And then there was the device itself.

Ronon looked for and found the containment box.

He had said not to close the box or touch the remote. He had figured out the meaning in Satoe's warning.

The tagger, once turned on, had two modes. Realistically, there were three, but only two that facilitated operations. The first mode was off or total deactivation. The tagger was always implanted in the off mode.

Once turned on, the tagger worked in the two primary modes: armed and safe.

It could not be turned off. That was what Satoe said. Never turn it off. Going from armed to off was the kill command.

When McKay picked up the wrist remote, he'd seen the symbol Ronon told him he should see and confirmed it.

Safe.

But there was going to be another transmitter. Ronon was sure of it.

It would or wouldn't be the master controller.

No matter what, it would be transmitting the instant Gavriel opened a wormhole and it had to be found and switched to safe before Beckett opened John's chest.

Ronon stepped close to the containment box, glimpsed the bloody spot inside-- it was no bigger than a bead.

He pedaled backward, nodded to the Marine who held the box's controller.

The Marine shut the box.

Proof against radio frequencies, the box acted as its own off switch.

Even through shielded layers of containment, the pulse was audible.

x x x x x

Oded's camp was heavily guarded. Gavriel was however a known, and expected. The case tucked under his arm, Gavriel strolled past a line of low flares to a panel dwelling. The evening breeze was warm. There was an ocean nearby. Gavriel could smell it.

He entered the dwelling, ignored Oded's soldiers and attendants, and continued long-striding into the main room.

Seeing him, Oded and his guests got up. Sipping from cups that looked like real glass, two men and a woman gathered at a low table.

They looked comfortable and rich, which annoyed Gavriel.

Still unspeaking, Gavriel stepped up to the table. The human man edged out of the way, no doubt offended by the reek of Gavriel's sweat. Gavriel dropped the module case on the table. It landed with a clink.

The human exclaimed with surprised delight. "Is this--?"

"I wouldn't touch it, were I you." Gavriel peered into the man's cup, saw that there was liquid in it, took the cup from the man's hand, and drained it. He grunted with some satisfaction, adding, "Atlantis had already found the data modules. If you want anything out of them, you might want to check the case for sabotage or be prepared to find your data corrupted."

The human's smile wilted. "You're serious."

"Serious, yes, that's me. I'm serious."

Oded, gazing from across the table, managed to look amused. "Gavriel, did you have a hard day?"

"Thanks to her highness here," Gavriel muttered, bowing to Mentael Satoe. "Why am I not surprised to find you skulking around? Come to learn how much trade you lost trying to steal my contract for your own lousy end?"

Satoe appeared to make an effort to overlook Gavriel's tone. "I had no idea an entire world was in the mix."

Oded agreed, "Our comrade occasionally acts before she asks, which is an endearing trait, ordinarily."

Exasperated, the human cut in: "Did you kill Sheppard? Tell me you at least got that part right."

Oded looked back at Gavriel. "Sheppard and the High Lord of Premina appear to have a history."

Wagging his finger to indicate his profound indifference to the histories of the high lords of anything, Gavriel smirked.

"Did I kill him? Not bloody likely. John Sheppard has a Satedan hybrid on his roster, did anyone know that? Nice intelligence, Oded. The Satedan was on my ass last I looked. He took out my cover team and he probably got the master. Did I kill Sheppard? I'll tell you what. Everyone, good night. Here's your product. Satoe, nice work. Oded, lovely contract. Your lordship, Arleus Meta, if you get out of these things the data you need to put a shield in your new bloody sky, I'll be by for my fee. Until then, I'm off to a bloody bath."


Epilogue: Kind Acts


It healed faster the first time. John was frustrated with that.

Hernan / Gavriel had mentioned hormone healers.

John wanted to get back through the Stargate, do what made him feel good, connect with the juices that made him glad to be alive.

Beckett said, okay, but the tissue had been re-injured and John wasn't ready.

So the wound, in addition to a number of other issues, was responsible for a chunk of down time. It hadn't helped that he'd torn the stitches trying to work out too soon.

At least at the gym he'd gotten the chance, outside the infirmary, to see Lorne and Zelenka, and to thank them.

McKay came by regularly, Ronon not so much but he saw Ronon at mess.

Regular meetings with Elizabeth had not yet produced the opportunity to tell her how grateful he was she'd irresponsibly disregarded Atlantis security in favor of saving his butt. He supposed eventually the time would come.

At their last session, Kate Heightmeyer had asked, "Why do you think you're finding it especially difficult to discuss your feelings about the rescue with Doctor Weir?"

With a knowing sigh, John had waved the query aside. All he needed was another dose of exposition. He was feeling naked enough already. Besides, he already knew the answer.

It was like having your secret flung onto the airwaves.

For his team he would have let Gavriel into Atlantis. For any one of them, for every one of them.

So now that was out.

It made them vulnerable. It made him vulnerable.

It was, too, a testament of sorts, and therefore sacred. Atlantis was going to have to work with it.

They were all going to have to work with it.

And live with it, too, live being the operative word.

Finally, Kate had asked about his dreams, the ones from before.

It was a particularly bright day, sunlight like gold winking on the frame of the window in the psychologist's office. He'd dropped his gaze, reflective.

"I'm not having them anymore."

It was true. He wasn't.

x x x x x

Wearing a loose top of woven fabric, loose pants and sandals, Teyla appeared at the threshold of John's quarters. She'd let her hair down on her shoulders. Her mouth, he saw, had curved into a tentative smile. Her expression was plaintive, maybe even placating. She hadn't been to his quarters in a while.

Since the surgery he'd been distant and unavailable. He hadn't set out to exclude her especially. Actually, he wasn't excluding anyone. He'd just stopped going to the rec hall. Stopped going to the labs, operations, the mainland. She still saw him at mess, but she was used to him another way. Before the incident they encountered one another every day, throughout the day, without trying. It had become routine. Now with work outs and missions off the schedule, he ached for her company.

Sometimes at night he would stir and want to be with her, and then hours would pass before he realized he hadn't activated the com. Or Rodney would come to his room, chat John's ear off, get John to play a video game or a round of chess. When Rodney left John would find the evening had slipped away, it was too late.

Tonight, though, John had called her.

The Daedalus was in Atlantis, bringing with it the means to keep a promise.

"John?" she said in the doorway.

Wearing jeans and a light shirt, he waved her in. The door swept shut. He started talking right away, he had to. He had to put words between them. Until he was ready for something else, words made the ground under his feet feel solid.

"Major Thompson's a friend of mine ... he sent this ... not what I asked for ... but ... You ever hear of Bob Dylan?"

Teyla, frowning, gently answered, "No."

"Great songwriter, Earth songwriter. Good singer. This isn't the version I asked for, it's a cover actually. You know what a cover is?"

"Yes."

"No, I mean, when somebody says a song is a cover, do you know what that means?"

Teyla's smile deepened. Oh she knew him. Knew she was seeing what he threw up on the surface, what he put out there until inside him the key turned, until a distant door opened. She was waiting for the door to open. A long time ago she had given up all doubt. It was a truth they shared ... about what they could have and what they could not. She knew therefore she was the key.

"I have never heard a song referred to in this way."

"A cover is like a tribute, an homage, when a band does an older song but doesn't re-interpret the song, so you can tell where the song came from. That's what this is." He ran his hands over his shirt, spun around, spun around twice, located the CD player, and said, "Ready?"

She flared an eyebrow. "Ready for what?"

"Your dance lesson." He pushed a button.

A laugh bubbled out of her. "A dance lesson? From you?"

John sobered. Stood in the open space beside his bed looking at her as a low melody gathered against the sudden silence. He raised his arm, his hand palm up.

The key turns, it turns.

Teyla's smile sank inward. Solemn now, she took John's hand. His fingers closed carefully over hers, drawing her toward him. She set her hand to his chest. When her fingers encountered the dressing taped under his shirt, she withdrew and then placed her hand on his arm. Meanwhile, he began to move. Startled, she glanced down. There was a fragment of space between them, just enough for her to see his feet shuffling from side to side and his hips taking up a subtle rocking motion.

"What is the man singing?"

"The song's called Lay Lady Lay."

A man's voice, following the music, cooed, "... whatever colors you have in your mind, I'll show them to you and you'll see them shine; lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed; stay lady stay, stay with your man a while ..."

"Oh, ho," Teyla chuckled. John had found the rhythm. He was inside the rhythm, inside the music, his frame lightly brushing hers. She looked up at him, lips parted. "What is this?"

"We're slow dancing," he explained.

"We are what?"

"Well, I'm slow dancing. You're watching."

"What do I do?"

A woman sang now, her voice in harmony with the man's: "So maybe I'll stay, stay while the night is still ahead ..."

John slid his hand across the top of her shoulders, found the soft skin of her neck with his fingers, and gathered her slowly, inexorably to him.

"Follow my lead."

"Like this?" Her gaze easing up toward his, she moistened her lips.

"Yeah, that's how you do it." And felt her glittering eyes slide downward, her cheek float gently against his wound.

The muscle in her neck released, the whole long line of her body softened. Her hand fell from his arm and encircled his waist.

For him it was as though he gave up breathing on his own and began breathing through her. Every thing that came before was gone. It was a dizzying ride, like falling from the top of the world.

It's okay, he told himself. This is the way it's supposed to be.

In no particular hurry, as the music played on, he drifted with Teyla inside a song, just breathing and slowly swaying.


"Lay Lady Lay" was written and performed by by Bob Dylan. The version John and Teyla dance to is performed by Magnet featuring Gemma Hayes, off the Mr. & Mrs. Smith Original Soundtrack CD

DISCLAIMER: "Stargate SG-1," "Stargate Atlantis," and its characters are the property of MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp., Showtime/Viacom and USA Networks, Inc. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations and story are the property of the author and may not be republished or archived elsewhere without the author's permission.