RATING: T for language.

SEASON: Third season after McKay and Mrs. Miller but before The Return Part One.

MAJOR CHARACTERS: The boys, of course, (if you don't know who I'm talking about, you're in the wrong fic),along with Caldwell, Novak, and Hermiod, and most of the rest.

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

SUMMARY: The Daedalus crew POV as they help the Atlantis team retrieve what is supposed to be the last stargate for the Intergalactic Gate Bridge. Did you notice I said supposed to be? Sheppard-McKay friendship.

SPOILERS: Anything up through Season 3 is up for grabs.

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

DISCLAIMER: I don't own them else that gate bridge might never have been built..

NOTES: This story is part of the Point of View series. It's not necessary that you read the others but things might make a little more sense if you did. The list is on my profile page if you're interested.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks, to Koschka and Kodiak Bear Country for the beta help.

The Last Gate

by liketheriver

"Teyla, would you be so kind as to tell Colonel Sheppard to blow it out his ass?"

I did my best to hide my grin behind a cup of coffee at Dr. McKay's outburst from the commissary table across from ours. After all, I am a Colonel in the United States Air Force and breaking into laughter at an insult directed at one of my subordinates probably wasn't the most appropriate response. But evidently my own tablemates weren't as successful in covering their reactions. Dr. Novak sputtered orange juice into the face of my ship's resident Asgard. And Hermiod, in response, muttered in his native language as he dabbed the liquid with a napkin.

Grabbing her own napkin, Novak started wiping at the alien herself. "Oh. Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry."

"Dr. Novak, is there a problem with your beverage this morning?" Hermiod inquired with logical patience. "Or perhaps your ability to swallow properly has been impaired and you should seek medical treatment?"

"Oh, I am really, really sorry. Colonel Caldwell, could I use your napkin, as well?" The request was accompanied by a hiccup.

Handing over the paper towel without comment, as anything I would say would just make the hiccupping increase I was sure, I surreptitiously returned my attention to the visiting Pegasus-based team. "I'm just saying, Rodney, that Colonel Carter was the one that came up with the idea. It only seems fair that her name should come first in the Carter/McKay Intergalactic Gate Bridge."

After a quick glare at Sheppard, McKay responded by addressing his female teammate once again. "Teyla, please inform Colonel Sheppard that the name is the McKay/Carter Intergalactic Gate Bridge and furthermore, his logic is as misguided as his confidence in his choice of hair styles."

"Rodney, you can inform him yourself, as he is sitting right beside you." The Athosian smiled politely but the sharp hitch of her head in the direction of the man that was pushing the limit on the Air Force regulation regarding haircuts indicated she was tiring of what was obviously an ongoing argument. I, however, found it funnier than hell. Seriously, Sheppard had brought this all on his self.

The Daedalus was going on what I hoped to be our final stargate retrieval. After we confirmed that the planet was abandoned, we could load the gate, place it in the final spot in the gate bridge, and my life would become infinitely more enjoyable. Why? Because I could finally stop being the official taxi service from Milky Way to Pegasus and back again. For the past two years there had been times when I had felt like little more than a glorified soccer mom… driving one kickass mother of a minivan, to be sure. But, hauling personnel and equipment from Earth to Atlantis with the occasional space battle thrown in was growing thin. It was bad enough that Weir had managed to sweet talk O'Neill into siding with her that Sheppard should maintain military control on Atlantis, but acting as their personal chauffer whenever someone needed a lift back to the City of the Ancients really chaffed my ass.

But all that was going to change once we had this gate bridge operational. Oh, I had no doubt that we would be called upon to haul teams around the Pegasus galaxy from time to time. And there would still be the occasional large shipment but I would finally be able to focus on commanding a battle cruiser and not providing public transportation.

"Be that as it may," McKay was rationalizing while decidedly not looking at Sheppard, "I am no longer speaking to Colonel Sheppard."

"And why not?" Sheppard demanded.

Pointedly addressing his answer to his two Pegasus-native teammates, McKay responded, "Because he has personally insulted me and my work on this gate bridge."

"If I insult your work will you stop talking to me, too?" Ronon asked hopefully.

Rodney glowered at the large man. "No."

"Well, that's hardly fair." Teyla grinned at the way McKay's jaw flinched at Ronon's reaction.

"What are you smiling about?" the scientist snapped at her.

"I just find it amusing that you claim to be angry with Colonel Sheppard but you are obviously playing favorites with him."

"And just why would you say that?"

"Because he is the only one you are not talking to."

Sheppard and Ronon snickered, as well, when the scientist turned an angry shade of red at the Athosian's observation.

"It's the hair," Sheppard reasoned with a grin. "He thinks if he gets on my good side I'll let him in on my trade secrets."

"Please. You'd think that all the electroshock treatments you've given yourself to maintain that 'look'…" Exaggerated quotation marks formed by the physicist's fingers cut through the air. "…would have cleared up the delusions that that fiasco on your head actually looks good."

Now it was Ronon and Teyla's turn to chuckle at Sheppard's darkening face. "Oh, you actually have the nerve to laugh at an insult to my hair?" the Lieutenant Colonel challenged the Satedan on his team and this time McKay joined in with the giggles.

I rolled my eyes and took another sip of my coffee. Amateurs. It was a common mistake of someone new to authority. You don't become buddies with the people you command. Granted, none of the people on his team were in the U.S. military. Hell, none of them were even U.S. citizens. But the point remained, when you gave an order you had to know the person you gave it to would follow it. And if you sat around shooting the shit with those people about personal grooming habits, you could never be sure they would shoot the enemy when you told them to do so. The bottom line was if the people under your command were free to question even simple things, then they would feel free to question the big ones, too. And that was no way to run a team, whether it was a four-man squad, a military outpost, or an intergalactic battle cruiser. You didn't just have a ship like the Daedalus handed to you like I had if you didn't understand that. You needed discipline, you needed integrity, you needed order, you needed respect, you needed…

A hiccup interrupted my thoughts and I turned my attention back to my crack science team. Novak was still dabbing at Hermiod. "Well, you're at least dry now, although there might be a little residual… stickiness. Maybe I should use a little water…" Reaching across the table she dipped her napkin in my water glass. "Colonel, may I?" she asked after the fact, not even waiting for a response before going back to giving the alien beside her a sponge bath in the middle of my chow hall.

Christ. Who the hell did I manage to piss off to get this detail?

"Colonel Caldwell," the bridge pilot came across my radio, "we're approaching the planet now."

"Copy that. Establish orbit and we'll report to the bridge in a few minutes."

"Yes, Sir."

"Time to break up the fun," I told my breakfast companions as I pushed back from my tray of food.

Hermiod tilted his head toward the people at the other table in that eerily detached-yet-curious way that gave me the feeling we humans were all just a free-running lab experiment for him. "I am not sure how angering one another is considered fun."

"Oh, they aren't really angry with each another," Novak tried to explain with a final wipe at the Asgard's head. "They're just teasing. It's a way to express friendship."

The shake of Hermiod's head suggested he didn't quite believe what he was hearing. "Human affection is most confusing, as it seems to be based in the supposedly opposite emotion of aggression. Angering another person is a way to express fondness, baring your teeth and tightly gripping one another's hand is the common greeting, and from what I have seen of human sexual reproduction techniques, there is not much difference between those and hand-to-hand combat except that the participants are unclothed."

Trying my best not to think about exactly where the Asgard had witnessed humans having sex, I stood. Novak, on the other hand, blushed scarlet and hiccupped loudly. "Yeaaaah, well, be that as it may, it's time to get to work and salvage a stargate. You know the routine; we're going to need a full scan for life signs on the planet before Sheppard's team can go in and disconnect it."

"Of course, Colonel Caldwell, I will begin at once."

When Hermiod stood to go, Novak stood , as well, with another hiccup. "I should probably…hick! Go with Hermiod…hick! In case he…hick!"

"Good idea," I effectively dismissed her then moved to the table that was bubbling with laughter. Sheppard at least had the good sense to zip it and sit straighter as I approached. "Colonel Sheppard, I just received word that we've reached our destination. As soon as Hermiod completes the scan, your team will have a go."

"Yes, Sir. We'll be ready to disembark as soon as you give us the green light."

With an inclination of my head in agreement, I started for the door, only to have McKay appear by my side. "I thought I might come and watch the scan myself. You know, just to make sure."

Without slowing my stride, I resigned myself to a walking…and talking… companion. "You must be excited, Dr. McKay, to finally see this day arrive. I know you and Colonel Carter have been working very hard to bring this gate bridge to fruition."

"Well, by working very hard, you mean Sam deployed teams to find gates in the Milky Way while I personally checked every one here in the Pegasus galaxy and worked on the DHD coordination for the dialing sequences, then, yes, we have been working very hard on our respective responsibilities."

"Colonel Carter has been a little busy with the Ori invasion in our home galaxy," I countered to his bristled tone.

"Yes, I am well aware. I did, in fact, play a major role in the destruction of one of their supergates. It was rather ingenious; we actually used a black hole and a Wraith ship…"

"I read the mission report, Doctor." I had no desire to hear how the man had single handedly saved the entire human race.

"Of course, I'm sure it was thrilling reading. But it's not like that's the only thing that has kept me occupied since we started scouting our gates for the bridge. We had the whole Asurian incident and then Sheppard was captured by the Genii and…"

Walking onto the bridge, I cut off the rambling scientist. "Hermiod, any results from your scan?"

"Yes, Colonel Caldwell. We have detected several life signs within the vicinity of the gate."

"What?" McKay demanded in sharp contrast to the simply stated information from the Asgard. He pushed past Novak to see the results himself. "But this is impossible. Lorne said there was nothing according to the jumper scans."

"This is why we run them again from the Daedalus, Dr. McKay," I reasoned before asking hopefully, "Are you sure they're human life signs?"

"Positive, Colonel." And I thought I detected the slightest bit of annoyance from Hermiod that I would question his results.

"But I don't understand," McKay reasoned. "People don't just disappear from a planet then reappear."

"Apparently they do on this one." Sitting in my seat, I keyed my radio. "Colonel Sheppard, it looks like you have a new mission."

Crap. It appeared I was going to be stuck playing soccer mom for a while longer.

xxxx

"Dr. Novak, they need you on the surface."

I stood stock still at Colonel Caldwell's words, hoping I had either misheard him, or he would laugh at his joke, or that I would just meld into the wall and he would think I had disappeared. Any or all of those would be acceptable options because what he had already said aloud was the furthest thing in the world from an acceptable option.

"Dr. Novak? Did you hear what I said?"

Shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot. He didn't fall for it. "Uhm, I'm not sure. Did you say…surface?"

"Yes." The answer was as short as the temper of the man staring at me like I was a complete idiot.

"Surface…" I swallowed back the encroaching hiccup as I sought to clarify. "As in surface of … of the planet?"

"Yes. Now, gear up; McKay's waiting for you."

Following quickly in the Colonel's wake, I explained frantically. "But I'm not a field person."

"I would hardly call being stationed on an intergalactic spacecraft a desk job, Doctor."

"But it is! I do!" When he glanced at me askance I continued, "Have a desk. I do have a desk. A very nice one surrounded by walls and a door. Not a tree or shrub or hostile alien presence to be seen. A potted cactus and an Asgard are as close I get."

"Well, I can't speak to the foliage situation, but according to Sheppard there aren't any hostile alien presences on the planet. Unless you consider small children a threat."

"Children?" My voice rose as my eyes widened in shock.

"Evidently those are the life signs we were reading. According to what they've been able to gather from the kids, the Wraith attacked their planet, they were ushered to safety at their current location, but apparently the adults that were escorting them were culled and never came through the gate with them. They've been down there for a couple of days by themselves because no one has come for them. Apparently, they don't know the address back to their home planet because the one child that is old enough to understand the concept of dialing the gate just keeps giving them the address to this one"

"Oh, that's just horrible! What are we going to do?"

"We'll bring them up here for the time being, get them fed and checked out by the medical crew, then figure out what to do with them after that. First thing we need to do, though, is round them up." When I furrowed my brow in confusion, he went on to explain. "It seems when the gate activated and they didn't recognize Sheppard's team, most of the kids scattered. Sheppard, Ronon, and Teyla are tracking them down now while McKay is staying with the ones near the gate."

I couldn't stop the snicker at the thought. "Dr. McKay is babysitting?"

"Someone needed to stay with the children at the gate while the others went looking for the ones that ran and as Colonel Sheppard so eloquently put it, it's bad enough trying to find kids lost in the woods without adding a big baby with multiple PhDs to the ranks of the missing."

"But I don't understand. Why do I need to go down there? Because, believe me," I snorted, "I'm probably the last person you want to watch children. Just ask my brother and his family about the carnival incident of 1997 if you don't believe me." Seriously, who the heck knew that a house of mirrors could really be that traumatic? I thought the crying was never going to stop, but then Joseph found the kids and then they found me cowering behind the mirror that makes you look all short and fat and I was finally able to get my emotions back under control.

"I need you to take transmitters down to them. There are kids everywhere. If they can pop a transmitter on them, Hermiod can lock onto their location and beam them up without having to beam the team up and down as well. Just take them down, show them how they work, then you can come right back up to your walls and desk and nonhostile alien."

"Oh. Okay." Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves I nodded my head. "I can do that."

"I have utmost confidence that you can, Doctor," he assured with a pat to my shoulder then continued on down the corridor.

"I won't let you down, Colonel." I called after him, earning a wave over his shoulder in response. Then I gathered my gear and beamed to the surface to find Dr. McKay and seven children. The oldest was probably six, a little girl with long braids and a smattering of freckles across her nose. The youngest was a boy no older than two and all of them were in tears. At the sound of wailing, I instinctively looked for a fun house mirror to hide behind.

"Oh, what? What now?" McKay demanded impatiently. "Can you not get it through your tiny little heads that we are here to help you? How hard is that to comprehend?" When the crying only escalated, he cringed. "Evidently pretty hard."

Walking up behind where he was bent over talking to the children, I tapped him on the shoulder. "Dr. McKay?"

He jumped in alarm, letting out a loud, "Son of a bitch!" before relaxing when he saw that it was just me. "Don't do that!"

"I'm sorry, I just… I couldn't get your attention over the crying…"

"Well, that is understandable," he conceded before frowning when he realized the crying had transmuted into giggles. "What's so funny?" he challenged the oldest girl.

She shrugged shyly then burst into a fit of laughter again when one of the boys about her age tapped another who shouted, "Son of a bitch!" at the top of his lungs.

"You have got to be kidding me. If I had known cursing would get you to stop blubbering I would have done it from the beginning like I wanted to."

"I don't think that's such a good idea, Dr. McKay." I reached out a hand and patted the girl's head awkwardly. "We wouldn't want to corrupt their innocent little minds, now would we?"

"Would you rather listen to them cry?" he challenged with arms crossed across his chest.

Looking nervously between the children and the astrophysicist, with my ears still ringing from the wailing I had heard when I first arrived, I leaned in to the girl and whispered, "Piss off."

She snickered again and ran to join the others that were taking turns startling each other and yelling, "Son of a bitch!"

"Hey, don't go too far into that cave," McKay called after a few of the kids that were playing near the mouth of a large cavern. "I already told you once that I wasn't going to save you from the multi-fanged venomous creature that obviously lives in there."

Moving a little closer to the other scientist, I asked warily. "There isn't really a multi-fanged venomous creature, is there?"

"Honestly, I don't know. But I have no desire to find out by having to go track down an overly curious kid, do you?"

I shook my head emphatically in agreement, just as Colonel Sheppard's voice came across the radio. "Come in Mother Goose, this is Big Bad Wolf. Do you read me?"

"Sheppard, I swear to god, if you call me that again, I will have these kids in stitches over the profanity coming from my mouth."

I could picture the amused expression on the Colonel's face that I was sure was in sharp contrast to the exasperated one Rodney was wearing. "Any word from the Daedalus and those transmitters?"

"Yes, Novak just arrived. Bring in any of the kids you've found and we'll send them up with the ones you deserted me to baby sit. Then you can go back out with the transmitters."

"We didn't desert you to baby sit the kids," the Colonel defended. "You just seemed like the most logical choice is all."

"And what in our past history has ever hinted that I would be the most logical choice?"

"You have a niece."

Sheppard's justification evidently didn't impress Rodney. "Who I have seen once, for less than a day, I might add. Besides, Madison didn't like me because I didn't bring her a present."

"Well, maybe you'll have better luck with these kids."

"And why would that be? There isn't a Toys R Us for a million light years and Elizabeth's desk of knickknacks is on the opposite site of the galaxy."

"Consider it a training mission for when we get the gate bridge established and you can go back to Earth and visit your niece."

"Ha! If that were the case, then every mission I've spent with your adolescent self would have prepared me for that first visit."

"Look, I've seen what you carry around in your pack, McKay. You could keep an entire daycare center entertained for a month with the goodies you have strapped to your back."

"Those are very delicate and valuable pieces of scientific equipment, Sheppard. Not, contrary to your misguided belief, toys."

"Well, they keep me entertained while you do your dull techno stuff."

Blue eyes rolled skyward. "There's an endorsement if ever I heard one. I've seen you spend hours playing with a signaling mirror."

"Yeah, but I never get tired of your reaction when I shine it in your face while you're working." One of the girls let out a blood-curdling scream and the joking tone used by the Colonel changed to one of concern. "McKay? You guys all right?"

He glanced over at the screaming child in time to see her push another girl to the ground. The instigator was still holding onto the other child's hair even on her way down. Rodney responded blandly, "Fine. Kids are just fighting is all." The child on the ground let out a wail of her own that had me wincing against the sound.

"Christ. Break it up, why don't you?"

"Because, Sheppard, despite the fact that I deal with a staff of people that act like children on a daily basis, I have never had to break up a fight between two actual children in my life. Nor do I intend to start today. If you're so concerned then you come back here and take care of them yourself."

"I'm on my way back now with the kids I caught. We'll send those you have and mine on up to the Daedalus and then you can come help me. How about that?"

Before he could answer, the gate started activating across the distance. "Sheppard, the gate…we've got incoming," Rodney called tensely across the channel.

"Okay, McKay, it could just be the villagers coming for the kids." The Colonel tried to be reassuring, but the worry in his voice was self-evident as to what he truly feared.

"Colonel, I think we both know that if there were villagers left to come for them, they would have been here before now. Hermiod, lock onto our location," McKay requested urgently. "We might need to beam up immediately."

"I am having some difficulty locking onto the signal of the children as they are moving around so much. Perhaps if you affixed a transmitter to them…"

"Hey, hey, stand still, all of you," the scientist yelled but the playing youngsters just ignored him. Behind us, the final chevron engaged and a Wraith dart screamed out as soon as the event horizon formed. "Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit. Novak, grab the kids!"

"McKay?" Sheppard gritted.

"Wraith." A second dart appeared as I dove for the smallest child and McKay grabbed the two nearest to him as he told his teammate, "Lots of Wraith. Take cover. Oh, hell, I think they saw us."

"Rodney, get out of there. Now!"

"We're beaming you up now, McKay," Colonel Caldwell assured over Colonel Sheppard's command and before Rodney could voice his protest, the planet shimmered out of view and the deck of the Daedalus appeared.

I looked around frantically, seeing that only three of the seven children were with us. "The children! They're still down there!"

"Beam us back! Beam us back!" Rodney ordered, his panic in contrast to the calm tone of the Asgard manning the controls.

"Very well, Dr. McKay."

But when I had pointed out our missing charges, I hadn't intended to be going back to find them myself. Obviously, Hermiod hadn't understood that because both Rodney and I were suddenly standing in the trees just outside the cave. The whine of the darts was increasing, suggesting they were circling back toward our location. We both spun around looking for the children and I could just make out the sound of muffled sobbing. "The cave. They went in the cave."

Dashing into the cavern, McKay pulled his flashlight and shoved it into my hand as he also pulled his Ancient life signs detector from the pocket of his vest. A series of small blips, all overlapping, appeared on the screen. "There, in the corner." Following his directions, I moved the beam of light around the rock walls until it landed on the four small forms huddled together in the darkness. "Come on; let's get them out of here."

Gathering the children quickly we started out the entrance to the cave, only to have Rodney stop in his tracks as he studied the detector in his hands. "Back," he hissed in a whisper. "There are Wraith nearby."

At his warning, the children just started crying harder. "No, no," I hushed in my own lowered voice. "We have to be quiet."

Turning the two small girls he was leading, he pushed them toward the back of the cave. "They're going to hear us. We have to go in deeper."

Moving further away from the opening, the large chamber at the front of the cavern quickly gave way to a narrow passageway that descended down a steep slope. "Shouldn't they have beamed us up by now?" I asked desperately as two sets of small hands gripped tighter onto my arm and pants leg and I used my free arm to brace myself against the wall to keep my footing.

"McK… 'ome ..'n." Colonel Sheppard's voice crackled across the radio.

"Sheppard, you're breaking up." Raising his voice the slightest amount above a whisper, he tried again. "Sheppard?"

"..'Kay. Do y… 'ead me?"

"Colonel, the cave is evidently interfering with the radio signal. If you can hear me, we need to beam out of here immediately. There are Wraith just outside"

"R..ney. Answ… 'e. Go…damn…"

"He can't hear me," McKay told me needlessly and more than a little dreadfully. "Which means the Daedalus probably can't lock on to beam us out."

"Then we just wait here until the Wraith go away?" Despite my best efforts, I couldn't stop the hiccup from coming. "That's not so bad. Right?"

"Yeah. Sure. Right. Trapped in a tiny, very closed-in, tight cave with four small children that won't stop crying and a woman prone to nervous hiccupping while we're being hunted by Wraith and completely cut off from any help that might come. Piece of cake." I shined the light into the wild-eyed face of a man on the verge of a total meltdown. "Did I mention how…how small this cave is?" He gulped air erratically.

"Dr. McKay, are you okay?"

"Just a little claustrophobic is all. Nothing to worry about." He took a deep cleansing breath and closed his eyes, stopping our progress down the slope so he could lean back against the cave wall. "I just need to practice my visualization exercises and I'll be fine." After another breath I could just make out his muttering. "Wide open field. We're in a wide open field."

His mumbles had the children that were looking to him expectantly for their safety even more frazzled than before and I tried to provide what comfort I could to all of us. "We're going to be fine." Doing my best to cover my own anxiety, I forced a smile. "There's nothing to worry about. They'll find us, no problem. Not the Wraith!" I clarified quickly. "Our people. So, don't you worry. We're going to be just fine."

"How the fuck am I supposed to visualize a wide open field with you babbling on like that?" McKay snapped hysterically. This time the profanity didn't result in a fit of laughter, instead it only served to scare them more, and me along with them.

And all I could think was, who the heck had I pissed off to pull this assignment?

xxxx

How had I managed to be assigned to work with humans? I had asked myself this question many times over the past several years and there was only one explanation that made any sense whatsoever– Thor could definitely hold a grudge. You would think after two clonings he would let bygones be bygones. But that would be an erroneous conclusion. He has always displayed a weakness for inferior species and I had made the mistake of pointing that out to him once. As a result, I had been assigned to assist his latest pet project.

'They have assisted the Asgard nation on numerous occasions. They have saved us from the Replicators with their projectile weapons. It is our obligation to share our technology with them while ensuring that they do not misuse it, giving them the time to mature into the race they promise to become.' Yes, it is all very logical what our supreme commander has to say about the humans. And it is all well and good if he enjoys spending time with his few favorite specimens. But to subject me to the same… and not just a handful but an entire ship's worth of humans... it is obvious he has spent much too much time with this species.

"Why the hell would you send them back down to the planet?"

Colonel Sheppard was the perfect example of why humans were so inferior to the Asgard. The emotional cortex of their brains was much too large in relation to the reasoning center, often resulting in them complicating rather simple matters and oversimplifying complicated ones.

"Because he requested that I do so."

The crinkle between his eyebrows showed that this straightforward explanation was obviously too advanced for his underdeveloped analytical capabilities. As did the follow-up question. "And so you sent them back to a planet crawling with Wraith because he asked you to?"

"It was much more of an order, as is typical of Dr. McKay."

Colonel Sheppard shook his head in disbelief, of what I wasn't sure, but I wasted no time trying to decipher the crude rationalization process these humans struggled with. It was a perpetual state of confusion that they apparently lingered under and I tried my best to steer clear of the inevitable chaos that ensued. Unfortunately, thanks to all mighty Thor and my current assignment, that wasn't always possible.

Evidently Colonel Sheppard wasn't able to determine what was hard to believe either, because he suddenly became very frustrated. Once again, the unavoidable result of an overemotional species. "Forget it; just… just beam us back down there, too."

"Belay that order, Hermiod." For once, I was quite pleased that Colonel Caldwell decided to step in and take matters into his own hands. "No one else is going back to that planet while those Darts are still patrolling."

"But McKay and Novak are still down there," Sheppard argued to his commanding officer. Granted, Colonel Caldwell was not Thor, but I had a feeling he would respond to his subordinate's case much as Thor had to mine– 'That is a very compelling presentation of your thoughts on the matter, Hermiod. Now, prepare to depart for Earth.'

"You don't know that, Colonel. You haven't been able to establish radio contact with them and Hermiod can't find any indication of their life signs. And I'm not going to risk the lives of others when there is a very good chance they have been culled."

Colonel Sheppard's eyes widened and lips pressed thin as he turned to his teammates for any ideas on how to get back down to the planet. It was endearing, really… if Asgard let emotions cloud their judgment like humans did… and yet, totally unnecessary if they would just surmount their qualms about cloning. All this concern over a couple of people that could simply be downloaded into another body if they would just stop being slaves to their reproductive imperative. There was a great deal to be said about being without genitals, because if anything overrode the emotional response of humans, it was their sex drive. And with logic running a distant third in that mental competition, it was no wonder that humans as a species couldn't overcome their barbaric ways.

"If they've been culled, why are the Darts still on the planet?"

At Ronon's comment, Sheppard turned triumphantly to Colonel Caldwell. "That's right! If the Wraith haven't found them yet, that means we have a chance to find them first."

"You had a similar problem detecting life signs on Taranis when Colonel Sheppard and the others were underground on the Orion," Teyla pointed out. "And yet, they were very much alive."

"Be that as it may, we were dealing with a volcano that we could monitor safely from orbit. Here we have Wraith Darts and you all know what usually goes hand in hand with Darts."

"A Hive ship," Colonel Sheppard conceded with a frown.

"Exactly. And you know what our luck against a fully armed Hive ship has been in the past. I have no intentions of reporting back to Dr. Weir that you've gone on yet another suicide mission against the Wraith, Sheppard. Nor do I have any intention of risking this ship and its entire crew, not to mention the knowledge that Atlantis still exists, for a handful of people on the off chance that they are still alive."

"Then I'll take the Jumper. If we're cloaked, they won't see us and if a Hive ship shows up, you can move the Daedalus to a safe distance until they clear out."

Trying my best to block out the argument taking place on the bridge, I turned my attention back to my readings of the planet. Hmm. Curious. Running the scan again to confirm my findings, I informed Colonel Caldwell, "I have detected more life signs on the planet."

"Is it them?" Colonel Sheppard asked anxiously even as he moved to my consol to see the readings himself. As if he had any idea what they were saying.

"It is possible," I conceded, "although highly improbable considering that the life signs are coming from a continent on the opposite side of the planet."

Colonel Caldwell furrowed his brow. "Is there a stargate on that continent, as well?"

"I am not detecting any power source of that magnitude in the vicinity of the gatherings of life signs."

"Gatherings? There's more than one?" Ronon asked curiously. I controlled my urge to point out that the use of a plural typically indicates at least two of any given item. It has been my observation that the more hair a human exhibits, the lower his intelligence. The converse is also true as demonstrated by Dr. McKay, who seems to be fairly intelligent, for a human. And I sincerely doubt Colonel Caldwell would have been given command of the Daedalus if he had not been approaching a near-Asgardian level of hairlessness. He is, no doubt, the envy of all his fellow humans with such a distinguished pate.

"There are, in fact, five such clusters of life signs. If I were to speculate, I would say that they were distinct human settlements."

"But Major Lorne's scan showed no signs of human habitations," Teyla challenged.

"The range of the scanners on the Ancient transport ships you have given the name 'Puddle Jumpers' is limited. If he was not looking on that particular side of the planet, then he would not have detected them."

My explanation had Colonel Sheppard adding, "He had no reason to look there. We're only interested in people that would access the gate. Unless they have the capability for intercontinental travel, I can't see that that would be an issue."

"By the limited energy readings I am detecting, it is highly unlikely that these people possess the technological expertise to achieve such transport."

"So taking the gate wouldn't be a problem, then?" Colonel Caldwell asked somewhat hopefully.

"Look, can we decide later if we're salvaging the stargate? Right now we need to find McKay and Novak and those kids."

Colonel Sheppard's reminder was interrupted by the bridge pilot's warning. "Colonel, an alien vessel just dropped into range. It appears to be a Wraith Hive ship."

"Shields to maximum. Ready the warheads and prepare to engage hyperdrive engines on my command." All thoughts of our missing personnel vanished as Colonel Caldwell strode purposefully the short distance back to his seat.

"You cannot just abandon those people if they are under attack by the Wraith," Teyla argued.

"What I can't do is risk the Wraith discovering that Atlantis still exists, especially when there isn't a ZPM to power the city shields."

"If they have Rodney, then they already know that Atlantis wasn't destroyed. And if they don't, then the best way to keep them from finding out is to bring him back."

Colonel Caldwell considered Colonel Sheppard's logic for a few seconds. "Sir, the Hive ship has deployed its Darts," the pilot advised.

With an irritated frown, Colonel Caldwell ordered, "Scramble the F302s. Fire railguns as soon as the ships are in range. Colonel Sheppard, you have a go to take the Jumper back down to the stargate and see if you can find our people."

"Yes, Sir," Colonel Sheppard started from the bridge with a relieved smile and Ronon and Teyla following closely.

"Not so fast." The Daedalus commander had the three stopping in their tracks. "Ronon, Teyla, you two are going to the surface with the strike teams to prepare the people in the settlements."

"Prepare them for what?" Ronon asked.

"Transport. Gather as many as you can into one location so that we can beam them off the surface."

"Colonel Caldwell," I warned. "I am reading between one hundred and six hundred and fifty life signs in each settlement. The ship cannot support so many people."

"We don't have to beam them to the ship, just to a different location on the planet away from the Wraith."

"It will not take long for the Wraith to find them again," I countered.

"Then we'll beam them someplace else when the time comes. Besides, the more Darts we have looking for the inhabitants of the planet, the less we have to deal with up here." The ship rocked with a blast from the Hive ship. "I suggest you find Dr. McKay soon, Colonel, or you aren't going to have a ship to come back to."

Sheppard dashed from the room and Colonel Caldwell turned his attention to me. "Can you beam from five locations simultaneously?"

"It will take some adjustments, but given the proximity of the settlements, it should be feasible."

"Then make them. The fewer times we have to lower the shields the better."

Another blast shook our craft and I shook my head in resignation. Honestly, why not at least give cloning a chance? It would save a great deal of effort on my part rewriting the command codes for the beaming technology.

"I am of the same opinion, Colonel," I concurred even as I started the reprogramming.

Although my opinion of humans in general was less than stellar at the moment.

xxxx

"Sir, we have a disabled F302 requesting permission to land."

God, I hated the Wraith. There's nothing like having your ass spanked and handed to you on a silver platter to ruin your day. And seeing as the Wraith had managed to do that to me a couple of times now, it was really starting to piss me off.

"Set aside the port hangar bay for hot landings. Have emergency crews on standby." I braced myself as another blast hit our shields. "I don't suppose we can beam a nuke over to their ship, can we, Hermiod?"

"I am sorry, Colonel, but their shields will scramble our signals."

"Yeah, I was afraid of that. How're those adjustments going?"

"They are almost complete. We will be ready to attempt the first transport in approximately one minute and forty seconds."

One minute and forty seconds. Leave it to an Asgard to be that accurate. I'm honestly surprised he didn't narrow it down to forty-two seconds. Of course, he had prefaced it with approximately. And I held off on asking approximately how long we had before we were blown from the sky.

"Jumper One requesting permission to launch," Sheppard called. When I nodded my approval, com relayed the command.

"Colonel Sheppard, Hermiod has advised me that with the reconfiguration of the Asgard beaming technology, we won't be able to beam you directly back to the Daedalus until he resets the system."

"I understand. We're pretty much on our own down there."

"No sightseeing, you find our people then take the Jumper through the gate back to Atlantis."

"Copy that, Sir."

"The protection of Atlantis is your first priority, Colonel. Anything else is ancillary. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal." And why did I find so little comfort in his assurance?

"Colonel Caldwell, I am receiving an emergency distress call from one of the F302s." From the Asgard's tone, you would think he was just telling me his mother phoned for a chat.

"Lock onto his signal, lower shields, and beam him home." Another teeth-rattling jar to the ship had me ordering, "Evasive maneuvers. Let's see if we can draw the Hive away from the planet until we're ready to deploy the teams."

The pilot set a course toward the largest moon of three around the planet, fast enough to move us out of the range of fire of the Hive ship but slow enough that they could catch us if they followed, which is exactly what they did. When she increased speed, I cautioned, "Easy, we don't want to completely outrun them."

"Ground teams are ready, Sir."

At the news, I turned to Hermiod again. "Are we ready to transport them?"

"Yes, the reprogramming is complete."

"Brings us within beaming range of the planet." Opening a channel to the teams, I instructed them, "You have ten minutes to gather the native inhabitants before we lock onto the clusters with a central transponder. After that, it will be another ten minutes before we transport again." When the team leaders acknowledged their orders, I gave the okay to lower the shields to transport them.

"The teams have been transported to the surface, Colonel Caldwell," Hermiod informed me as the Wraith Hive caught up to us and we took another hit.

"Raise the shields and let's take another run around the block." We headed out toward the smaller moon this time, leading the Hive on another wild goose chase and I wasn't deluding myself into thinking they would fall for it for long.

"Sir, that last blast breached the outer cargo holds on decks eighteen through twenty-one."

Goddamn it, there went the ice cream, not to mention most of our other food supplies for the return trip to Earth. "Seal them off and evacuate the immediate areas."

"Colonel Caldwell." Hermiod's voice called calmly through the pressure-filled room. "Approximately twenty life signs just disappeared from one settlement and fifteen from another."

"That tends to happen when people get culled," I responded dryly.

"I do not believe they were culled, as the individuals being culled typically do not disappear in such concentrated groups."

Great. A new trick from the Wraith. That's all we needed. "Have you found someplace to beam the inhabitants?"

"Yes, there is an island that will take the Darts approximately thirteen minutes to reach from the mainland. Once they have located them, that is."

"Good enough," I conceded. "Let's head back toward the planet."

"Dae..lus. Do …opy? Th…is …'ay."

"Dr. McKay?" I called back to the broken signal coming across the radio.

"Daed……. McKay."

Sheppard, who was monitoring our transmissions on the Jumper, cut in anxiously. "Rodney? Where the hell are you?"

"'od…ammit! Novak…cryst…in there."

"McKay, this is Sheppard. Do you copy?"

"'ppard? 'an you…"

"Rodney, I'm coming to get you guys but I need to know where you're at."

"We…in a…"

"You're breaking up, McKay." Sheppard told him in frustration. "I didn't copy that."

"Hermiod, see what you can do to boost our radio signal." I requested.

"I am working to do just that," came the put-upon reply as those spidery fingers moved smoothly across the consol.

"Daedalus, this is McKay." The signal was static-laced but finally coherent.

"Dr. McKay, we read you," I called back hopefully.

"Oh, thank goodness!" The relieved voice of Dr. Novak came over the radio.

"See? I told you it would work," McKay gloated before getting back to business. "Can you lock onto our signals to beam us out? There are six of us."

Hermiod shook his head no, although he seemed to be working to boost the transport beam capability, as well. "Negative, we can't read your signals at all."

"I was afraid of that. The chamber appears to be shielded and I haven't had time to find the off switch for it."

"Chamber?" Sheppard asked.

"In the cave near the stargate. I can't tell what it was used for just yet, but it's definitely Ancient in design."

"Hang tight. I'll be there with the Jumper in a few minutes."

"Watch yourself. There were Wraith right outside when we came in here."

"Yeah," Sheppard drawled, "we've run into a few ourselves."

"We'll meet you up at the mouth of the…. What the hell?"

"Rodney?" We all waited for several tense seconds but there was no response. "McKay?"

"Colonel Caldwell, we have lost Dr. McKay's signal once again."

At Hermiod's news, Sheppard cursed under his breath. "I'm going in. I'll report back what I find. Sheppard out."

"Sir, we're within beaming range of the planet."

Checking my watch, I saw that we had about thirty seconds before we were to beam the first group of civilians to the island. "Hermiod, you have a lock?"

"Yes, Colonel, I have them."

"Ground teams standby for transport on my mark." I watched the last few seconds count down, the watch face shifting in my view as my battle cruiser was jarred once again. Fucking Wraith. "Mark!"

Hermiod did his thing then reported, "Transport is complete."

"Shields are down to seventy percent, Sir."

Scowling at the news, I asked the Asgard, "How many people are still left to transport in the settlements?"

"The number keeps decreasing, but it appears to be six hundred and nine. Correction. Five hundred and ninety-two. Another group just disappeared."

Leaning back in my seat, I thought morbidly, well, that's less that I have to worry about transporting. "Let's take her out of range again and see if the Hive ship pursues."

As we headed back out to open space in my damaged vessel, I decided, maybe being a soccer mom wasn't a bad thing after all.

xxxx

"What the hell?"

Dr. McKay's question was a very good one, although, I decided, it was just one in a long list of the same. First had come his transition from panic stricken to almost comfortable with his surrounding. We'd been standing in the narrow passageway of the cave, Wraith outside, him on the verge of hyperventilating, the children trembling as much as I was, and me starting to think maybe my mother had been right- there was absolutely nothing wrong with a career in dental hygiene. You sure didn't end up on alien planets one step from death if you made a living scraping plaque from teeth.

But then, one of the children had whispered in that terrified way children have. "It's dark in here."

"Yes, it's dark!" McKay had snapped. "Of course it's dark! It's a damn cave! It's not like I can just say, gee, I wish we had some light in here, and expect it to miraculously happen."

But it did. Pale blue lighting suddenly illuminated our path, and Rodney's eyes widened as much as my own. Reaching out a hand to the wall, he observed in awe, "It's manmade. It's probably Ancient." Switching his detector over to energy mode, he smiled broadly. "There's something down here."

And all talk of wide-open spaces disappeared as he started down the corridor, barely looking back to see if we were even following him.

The something ended up being a large chamber that lit as soon as we stepped inside. A central platform large enough for a couple dozen people to stand on was situated in the middle of the room and a control console stood nearby. "See? Definitely Ancient."

Now, Asgard technology, I would recognize in a second and feel confident that anything we might need to do to utilize it, I could do. Goa'uld? Piece of cake. But I had only ever seen a few pieces of Ancient technology at the SGC and when I had taken shore leave for a few hours at a time on Atlantis. And you might as well ask me to preprogram my VCR as operate anything in this room, because the results would probably be along the same lines: eight hours of Pimp My Ride and rap music videos instead of the Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon I was hoping to capture. What can I say? Picard is a dreamboat, and shares more than a passing resemblance with a certain real life intergalactic spaceship commander, if I might be so bold as to make that observation.

"It looks like a sort of transporter control, like we have back on Atlantis," McKay observed of the console. "This complex must be massive by the looks of the location map here, but I don't see any doors leading out of this room." McKay furrowed his brow in confusion as he looked around the chamber.

"Maybe it transports to another level of the facility," I offered helpfully.

"Maybe." The concession was half-hearted as he moved to the panels that sat directly behind us. "Let's see if we can turn off the shielding that's blocking our radio signals and contact the Daedalus."

In the end, we couldn't turn off the shield but Rodney was able to tie his radio into the system to boost his signal. He let me help, which translated into him yelling and me hiccupping as I fought to keep up with which crystal he wanted me to move as he manipulated the controls. And finally, we were able to make contact with the ship. It was a good thing I was sitting on the floor when it happened, because my legs would have surely given out in utter relief at the sound of Colonel Caldwell's voice. And the news that Colonel Sheppard was on his way to pick us up had me on the verge of tears of happiness.

But then the console behind us activated, the platform lit from below and I could only mentally echo what Dr. McKay had said right before the radio went dead again.

"What the hell?"

And suddenly about twenty people appeared on the platform. Their clothing was similar to that of the children and they moved quickly off to the side when a chime sounded from above us. I noticed that Rodney looked as confused by the entire situation as I did, when the chimes sounded again right before another fifteen people materialized before us.

"What is going on here? Who are you people?"

Dr. McKay's demand of the group in general was answered by a young mother holding a crying baby in her arms. "The Wraith attacked our village and we took refuge in the Halls of the Ancestors. They brought us here to safety."

"Village? There're no villages around here," the physicist told her confidently.

Reaching across the console even as she bounced the infant in her arms to quiet it, she pointed to one of the transporter locations on the map. "It is here. The group that came in after us, I believe their village is here." She pointed to another dot.

With a roll of eyes and droop of his shoulders that said how could I be such an idiot, Dr. McKay shook his head. "Of course. This isn't a map of a facility; it's a map of the planet." Turning back to the woman, he asked. "Do you have a stargate… a giant ring for traveling to other worlds… near your village?"

"The only Circle is located outside of this Hall."

"So, the Ancients placed the human population on one side of the planet and the gate on the other," McKay stated in dawning understanding.

I, however, still wasn't dawning anything besides more confusion. "Why would they do that?"

"Because the Wraith typically come through the stargate for a culling. If they do that and don't find a settlement in the immediate area, there would be no reason to stay. The only time they would find them is if they come in from orbit from a Hive ship. But then the Ancients gave them a means of escape through this transport system."

"A…Hi…Hive ship?" Oh, this was bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad. A Hive ship attacking the Daedalus? I'd been through that before and it was… well, it was bad, bad, bad. "We have to get out of here. The Daedalus can't hold off a Hive ship by itself. It will only be here for so long and then it'll leave. We have to get back to the ship!"

"Novak!" he yelled over my growing panic. "We have the Jumper coming. We have the gate less than a ten-minute walk from the cave. We don't need the Daedalus."

Of course! We could go through the gate! "We can go through the gate! We can go back to Atlantis!"

Dr. McKay shushed me with a look at the villagers before amended reluctantly in a lower voice, "Well, once the Wraith leave we can." "They, uh, tend to hold the gate open when they're culling so that no one can escape. But it sounds like the primary attack is taking place from orbit, so if they don't find anyone here, maybe they'll just rejoin the main attack party and leave us alone."

"Do you really think they will?" I asked hopefully.

"If they don't then we just wait them out here. No reason we can't do that, right?" Another chime sounded and a third group of people appeared and the room started to get a little crowded. "Christ, how many people are planning on coming through here?"

"There are thousands between the various villages," the mother volunteered.

"Thousands?" Dr. McKay seemed very put out by the news. "We can't fit thousands of people in the cave."

"I've never seen so many Wraith attacking at once," the young woman continued. "One of the neighboring villages was attacked a few days ago and almost everyone was culled. We thought that would be the end. But they came back today. Why would they come back so soon? It is usually many years between attacks and never so many."

Rodney winced. "Yeah, well, I might know something about that," he admitted. When the woman tilted her head in confusion, he shook his. "You know what? I'll let Sheppard charm his own way out of this one when he gets here. Right now, we need to start moving people up to the mouth of the cave before we have to excavate a new tunnel."

Another chime and another group of villagers resolved on the platform and Dr. McKay started for the exit. The children we had originally brought down with us moved in and clung tightly to his pants leg. "Look, why don't you go hang out with some of the people from your own planet?"

When the little girl just shook her head wordlessly and gripped tighter he gave an aggrieved sigh. "Fine. But let me make this abundantly clear. We have not bonded or imprinted or made any sort of connection. Got it?"

"Son of a bitch," she grumbled with a frown.

Rodney started up the walkway with the child in tow. "Yeah, well, you aren't the only one with that opinion."

When we had almost reached the top, Colonel Sheppard called across our radios, "Rodney, you in here?"

"We're here. Along with half the population of this world."

"What?"

"Evidently the Wraith are attacking settlements on the other side of the planet."

"Yeah, I know. The Daedalus is playing Hide and Go Seek with the inhabitants and Tag with a Hive ship as we speak."

"Well, the Ancients set up a transporter to move people from the settlements over there to the gate over here and they're coming through in droves." We rounded the corner into a dimly lit room that I now recognized as the entrance chamber to the cave and saw Colonel Sheppard standing there with three more kids. "Where did they come from?"

"I found them when I was making my way from the Jumper to the cave. I had to leave it cloaked in a clearing near the gate. There's a bunch of Wraith in the woods and a couple of Darts out patrolling still."

When the young girl that had glommed onto Rodney's leg saw one of the boys that was obviously a relative, she let go of the scientist and clung to the boy instead. Dr. McKay exhaled in relief at his abandonment before telling Colonel Sheppard, "Actually, they're most likely transmitting a radio signal to keep the gate locked open so we can't dial out."

The colonel nodded his agreement before asking, "How many villagers are we talking about that have transported here?"

"It's probably closing in on a hundred by now, with more still coming. More than can fit in a Jumper, that's for sure."

"And more than we can move through the woods to the gate quiet enough not to attract the Wraith."

"Wait, why are we even talking about the stargate? Just beam us up to the Daedalus." My reasoning was met with a shake of Colonel Sheppard's head.

"We can't do that. Hermiod is moving villagers to different locations to stay ahead of the Wraith. He had to do something to the beam in order to make that work."

"Ah, of course," I lamented. "He had to recalculate the point for rematerialization along a horizontal instead of a vertical plane. I mean, of course, relatively speaking, as there is no horizon in space." I snorted a laugh at the obviousness of my statement. "Although he would have to take the curvature of the planet into consideration depending on how far he transported them and there are limitations on that. Assuming a horse is a sphere only works for so long, you know." Another snicker at my own reference to the classic physics joke had the two men giving me blank looks. They clearly had no sense of humor.

After a beat, McKay turned to Sheppard. "Let this be a lesson to you about what you could have ended up with instead of me."

"I take back everything I've ever said about your terminal geekiness. But that doesn't help us with our little dilemma here. We need to get through the gate and we can't do that as long as there are Wraith and Darts out there."

"Why didn't you just blow the Darts with the drones from the Jumper when you first arrived?"

"Because, I didn't want to draw attention to myself until I found you, that's why." Colonel Sheppard defended against the criticism from his teammate. The two men looked at each other and the light bulbs went off simultaneously. "But there's no reason not to blow them now."

"Take out the Darts and I bet you take out the radio signal holding the gate open…"

"And then we can dial home to Atlantis," Sheppard finished with a smile. "We go through, grab some Marines, come back and escort the rest of the villagers to the gate. We need to fill them in on the plan then the three of us will head back to the Jumper."

"Whoa, what do you mean the three of us?" I demanded in alarm. "Why do I need to go?"

"Because I promised Caldwell that you two would be the first ones through the gate. Besides, would you rather stay here with your sidearm and wait for the Wraith to find you or stay with the big guns?" He patted his P90 affectionately and I looked to my M9 with a grimace. The less said about my small arms qualification scores the better.

"Okay," I conceded, "when do we leave?"

A quick briefing to the ever-increasing crowd of people in the transport chamber had us heading out into the trees. Colonel Sheppard led the way with the two of us close on his heels. When we reached the edge of the clearing where the Jumper supposedly sat, I checked my watch. Seven minutes. How could seven minutes seem like an hour? Well, the fear that every leaf blowing in the breeze was a Wraith waiting to suck your life away could make the seconds tick a little slower, that's for sure. And the sound of a Dart screaming overhead could make time stop all together.

Colonel Sheppard checked his life signs detector before giving the all clear and heading toward the invisible Jumper. Activating the back hatch, I finally saw where we were supposed to be going as the interior appeared, seemingly floating in the middle of nothing. That's also when the first blasts from the Dart hit the ground. I did what I found to be the natural reaction- curled in a ball where I dropped to the ground. Rodney and Colonel Sheppard dashed the rest of the way into the Jumper.

A second blast hit the ground as Dr. McKay yelled, "Novak, come on!" But my legs wouldn't seem to move. This was most definitely not a nice safe office with non-hostile aliens, and there wasn't a gosh darn desk anywhere in sight. "Goddammit, Novak, get your ass up and in this Jumper immediately!"

I had a sudden image of my mother, minus the foul language, chastising me for skipping my chores and sitting out in the backyard reading a book instead. That wasn't such a bad thought to have as a last one. Green grass on my bare feet, a giant oak tree at my back, a tattered, well-loved copy of 'A Wrinkle in Time' in my hands, the sunshine flickering between the rustling leaves above me, and mom standing in the back door calling me in to fold laundry. The Nebraska winters were harsh, white death blowing in across the plains during the winter storm season. A person could freeze to death in a matter of minutes from the bitter winds that roared across the barren lands, not unlike the white face of the reaper I could just start to make out in the cockpit of the Dart bearing down on us like a lethal gust from a blizzard in January. But I fought to concentrate on the warmth of the July sun, the buzz of bubble bees in the alfalfa fields, the sound of my mother's voice and was rewarded instead by the hum of the pods opening on the jumper and the heat of a drone racing to find its mark in the Wraith vessel.

The Ancient weapon struck home, sending the Dart veering sharply into the forest on the backside of the stargate, but not before one final blast glanced the side of the Jumper. It wasn't a direct hit, thank goodness, or I had no doubt it would have left nothing more than a smoldering crater in the ground. But it was enough to send the craft tumbling over, rolling away from me bottom over top several time before it came to rest against a tree, the sound of the large conifer snapping from the impact barely audible over the crash of the Dart almost simultaneously impacting the ground in the too-close-for-comfort distance.

Sitting up, I blinked dazedly at the sight before me. "Dr. McKay?" There was no answer to my hail through the radio. "Colonel Sheppard?" Still no answer, except for the whine of another Dart somewhere far off to my left.

I scrambled to my feet quickly, and as I sprinted across the distance between me and the mangled Jumper that was no longer cloaked, I decided dental hygiene really wouldn't have been such a bad choice after all.

xxxx

"Sir, we're receiving a call from Dr. Novak," the communications officer informed the ships commander.

"Patch her through to the open channel," Colonel Caldwell directed and soon my liaison's voice was filling the bridge.

"Uh, Daedalus, this is Novak. Do you copy?"

"Dr. Novak, this is Caldwell."

"Oh, Colonel." The relief in hearing her superior respond was evident, although there was also a certain amount of fear accompanied by a loud hiccup. Once again, the human obsession with their mortality and those around them never ceased to amaze me. Loki's fatal flaw was that he decided to concentrate on human anatomy instead of human mentality; else I might have taken him up on his offer to assist in his work all those years ago. "You need to help us. I don't know what to do. Dr. McKay and Colonel Sheppard, hick!… and now the Wraith are going to come back at any minute, hick!… and I can't move them, hick!…"

"Doctor, you need to tell me what's happened."

A blast from the Hive ship had one of the crew reporting, "Sir, shields are now down to fifty-five percent."

Forgetting about our crewmember with the spastic diaphragm for the moment, Colonel Sheppard turned his attention to his ship and that meant he turned his attention to me. "Hermiod, can you divert power from anything else to our shields?"

"Of course I can. However, humans do tend to need more oxygen than we Asgards, so cutting into the air scrubbers might not be a wise choice."

"Aside from touching critical systems like life support and propulsion?" he clarified with an annoyed sigh.

Well, if that is what you meant, why did you not specify? Although I didn't say that. Thor may be a sentimentalist when it came to the human species, but he was still my superior and the last thing I needed was to be reassigned to an even worse mission. The Nox spend way too much time in the outdoors and the Furlings have that disgusting fur ball problem. "Then, no, Colonel, there are no other options for redirecting power."

"When are we due to beam the next group of villagers?"

I quickly checked the clock to confirm my internal count before responding. "In two point four minutes."

"Increase speed and take us out of firing range for the next minute then begin our return sweep to the planet," he ordered the pilot before turned back to the obviously frazzled woman on the surface. "Dr. Novak, are you still there?"

"Yes! The Wraith, they shot the Jumper while it was on the ground before Colonel Sheppard could destroy the Dart. The Colonel and Dr. McKay were in the ship when it happened." She blurted it out in a rush before the next hiccup came.

"Are they alive?" Colonel Caldwell's frown showed that he was not pleased with the news, although I was unclear as to whether he was angry that Colonel Sheppard had not fulfilled his assignment or that he may have gotten himself killed.

"Yes, but they are both unconscious and there's another Dart and Wraith in the woods and the cloaking device was damaged in the blast and the gate is still locked open by the Wraith Dart and I don't know how we are going to get all these people that are back in the cave away from the Wraith…"

The Colonel cut off the ramblings. "Dr. Novak, you need to calm down." Through the radio I could hear Dr. Novak suck in a long breath accentuated by another hiccup. "What villagers are you talking about? It was my understanding that the only native inhabitants in your location are the children."

"People are transporting from one side of the planet to this one using some Ancient escape route. There are probably a couple hundred back in the cave by now."

Well, that would explain where the humans in the settlement were disappearing to. With a complacent tilt of my head, I blinked my self-satisfaction that I had, indeed, been correct when I stated my belief that the villagers had not been culled. Preparing my instruments to beam the next group of humans to the island, I noted the readings from the surface. "Colonel Caldwell," I reported, "it appears that the Wraith have located the villagers and are dispatching Darts to the location now."

"How long until they reach them?"

"In approximately eleven minutes."

"Colonel Caldwell?"

Dr. Novak called again and the Colonel dismissed her with an abbreviated, "Stand by, Doctor," as he shot orders around the room. "Hermiod, stick with the plan, transport the villagers to the island but start looking for a new location."

Of course, I was one step ahead of his primitive thought processes. "If we clear the stargate, Colonel, I can reprogram and transport the villagers there and they can escape through the stargate with the others."

"Can you do that from one side of the planet to the other?"

"I will have to store their patterns, which will involve purging a section of the ship's mainframe to provide sufficient storage space, so that we can then move the Daedalus within beaming range of the stargate."

"How long will that take?"

I hated to admit it, but it would definitely be much easier to accomplish if Dr. Novak had been on board and she could purge while I undertook the reprogramming. As it was, I would have to make decisions on what was critical information and what could be deleted from the system. I was sure personnel and medical records weren't that important, although I had to make sure that I did not delete the human behavior files I had come across in Sgt. Christoff's private drive labeled DrteeSkoolGrls. They had been most enlightening into the human mating rituals that I found so baffling. As it were, I was expected to monitor the shield energy, try to find ways to increase it where I could, find a safe location for the villagers, beam pilots from damaged F302s, beam the villagers to the safe location I found, monitor the Wraith ship for any potential cyber attacks against our ship, and now reprogram, once again, the transport beam while simultaneously making room for the storage of human signals. Which, I was sure, they expected to be identical to what they were when they went into storage as when they came out. AlthoughI doubted any of them would be able to tell if signals got a little…scrambled. I know I wouldn't be able to spot the difference and my race had been developing interstellar space travel when humans were still fawning all over themselves for shaping tools out of rocks.

I found myself wondering if Loki was planning an outing anytime soon, even as I responded, "I should be ready within six minutes."

"Make it happen. Coms, notify the ground crews that we will be beaming again in seven minutes instead of ten. And have them find out where these escape routes are and start moving people there instead. Dr. Novak, I'm diverting a squad of F302s to provide cover and take out the remaining Darts." Making eye contact with the crewman responsible to make sure it happened, Colonel Caldwell continued to try to sooth Dr. Novak. "That should allow you to dial out and give you enough time to get the villagers through the gate to safety."

"Okay," she acknowledged with a hiccup. "So, I'll just wait here until… Colonel Sheppard?" Through the open link, we could hear a groan. "Colonel Sheppard, oh, please, wake up."

"M'kay?"

"No, it's Lindsey…Novak…Lindsey Novak. Dr. McKay is still unconscious."

"Wha' happened?" He asked groggily. "Where's Rodney?" The question was followed by an exclamation of pain.

"We need to get out of here," Dr. Novak urged. "The Dart will be back any minute now."

"Not without McKay."

"Colonel Sheppard," Colonel Caldwell hailed through the radio.

"Sir?" The confused voice still held the snap of attention of a subordinate responding to a superior officer.

"Air support is en route, but you need to move out of the Jumper and take cover until it arrives."

"Yes, Sir," he gritted in pain.

"Caldwell, out." And with that dismissal, he cut the transmission and returned his attention to other matters. "Hermiod, once you beam the last groups to the island, commence with the reprogramming to beam them to the stargate."

Shaking my head, I lowered the shield while simultaneously locking on to the life signs of the humans on the planet surface. "Of course, Colonel."

What other task did he assume I was planning to undertake? A trip to the commissary to consume a cup of concentrated caffeinated beverage? Hardly. The last time I had attempted to ingest coffee, I had found myself oddly attracted to the green plant Dr. Novak kept in her office. She had not been pleased when I rubbed all the leaves from the stems. No, a coffee break was not an option. The rather persistent chlorophyll stains on my skin had been difficult enough to remove so that I had no desire to contend with the spikes of the Earth desert succulent with which she had replaced that original gloriously leafy organism. And given that Dr. Novak was currently on the planet being attacked by Wraith, I didn't even have the alternative of taking a reprieve from the bridge and having fruit sucrose spat upon my person.

"Daedalus, this is Teyla. Be advised that several Wraith were beamed along with the last group of relocated villagers." The gunfire that I could hear in the background of the Athosian's transmission suggested that several Wraith had also remained at her location.

When Colonel Caldwell looked to me, I simply blinked slowly. "Given the crudeness of the programming I have been forced to undertake, I am only able to scan out nonhuman signals to a ninety-eight percent efficiency. If the Wraith are in extremely close proximity to the person being transported, the effectiveness will drop to approximately ninety-four percent." I would have been ashamed to produce such sub-par results on an Asgard ship. But I challenged any one of these hairy creatures to accomplish anything nearly as effectual.

The Colonel settled back in his seat in irritation. "Copy that, Teyla. We'll deal with them when we beam those on the island to the gate. Have you located the Ancient transporter locations yet?"

"Affirmative. We are moving the remaining villagers there now."

"Very well, we'll contact you again after you arrive at the stargate."

The Daedalus shook again from another hit. "Shields down to thirty-five percent, Sir."

"Godddammit. Take us out again. Hermiod, you have your six minutes. After that, they're on their own."

"Yes, Colonel," I agreed with a few choice Asgardian words, already well into my reprogramming. Colonel Caldwell's personal log…delete. Perhaps Loki had the right idea after all. Even a few anal probes would be preferable to what I was forced to deal with here.

xxxx

"Do you think you can walk?" I asked Colonel Sheppard, the way he gripped at his knee made me think that simple act may not be possible, which meant I had no idea how we were going to move Dr. McKay from the wreckage.

Looking up at the ceiling above us, which was in reality the floor of the Jumper, he let out a disbelieving, "Holy crap."

"Yeah, it was pretty unbelievable to see. The Jumper just sort of rolled like a giant… well, there really isn't a good comparison." With the earth flying as the extended pods dug into the ground, the vessel had seemed to bounce more than roll its way to the tree line where it had come to a jarring rest. "Of course, I'm sure it was even more unbelievable to experience."

"I don't really remember it," he admitted even as his eyes scanned the debris in the inverted craft and landed on the person he was searching for. Pulling himself over to where Dr. McKay rested, he double-checked the pulse I already had. "Rodney?" When he got no response, just as I hadn't, he started checking him over, wiping absently at the blood running down the gash above his own eye. "Come on, McKay, rise and shine." The gentle shake gained him an incoherent moan. "Rodney, let's go. Time to move. We have Wraith on our tails."

"…else is new?" Dr. McKay swatted sloppily at the hand on his shoulder.

"An addition to the list of out of commission Jumpers for one thing."

Wary eyes cracked open to take in the scene before shutting again as he rolled onto his side as though settling into bed. "Have Radek fix it."

Outside, the whine of the Dart grew louder. "We should really get out of the Jumper," I warned, looking longingly for the trees just beyond the open hatch. "They can see it."

Giving up momentarily on trying to wake Dr. McKay, the Colonel instead pushed himself to his feet with a grimace of pain, standing gingerly on his injured knee, and tried to access the controls dangling above him. He closed his eyes in thought before calling once again, "Rodney, I need power. The Jumper won't respond."

"Did you check the 'on' switch?" he yawned in reply.

"Dammit, NOW, McKay!"

Rodney winced as he jerked fully awake, cradling his head as he sat up and looked around. "What the hell happened?" He blinked when he saw me. "Novak? What are you doing here?"

"Rodney, focus for a second and just get the Jumper powered so I can access weapons." Watching as Dr. McKay glanced around in confusion once again, Sheppard reminded him, "The panel's on the floor behind you."

"The panel's on the ceiling," Rodney corrected.

"Well, given that the ceiling is now the floor, it's on the floor behind you."

At Colonel Sheppard's clarification, McKay looked behind him in a daze. "Oh, right."

"Don't you think we should leave?" I asked even as Rodney popped open the panel and started pulling crystals, squinting to try and bring them into focus.

He ignored me, simply tossed aside a damaged crystal, pulled another from a neighboring slot and directed, "Try it now."

I ducked as the Dart whizzed by overhead. Even though we were out of sight in the Jumper, there was no way it could have missed seeing the damaged craft. And my fears were confirmed when the Jumper responded to Colonel Sheppard's command, the displays came up and we could see the yellow arrow representing the Dart circling around again. "What are you doing? We should go."

The lights flickered then went out. "McKay…" the Colonel called tensely, once again ignoring my suggestion.

Swapping another crystal, Rodney countered, "Sorry, my head hurts. Cut me a little slack."

"You won't have to worry about a headache if the Wraith blows us to smithereens."

The controls glowed back to life and Dr. McKay, satisfied that he had fixed the problem this time, leaned back wearily against the bulkhead. "Then maybe you should blow it to smithereens first."

"Way ahead of you," he assured as a Drone flew from the Jumper and we watched on the screen as it impacted with the approaching Dart. The explosion sounded above us and the thud of pieces of Wraith ship bouncing off our hull had me flinching away. The Colonel gave me a pleased smile before reaching up and dialing the DHD above his head and waited for the gate to come to life. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard, do you copy?"

"John," Dr. Weir's voice acknowledged, "you are probably the last person I expected to be hearing from today, especially through the gate."

"Yeah, well, we ran into a little problem here."

"Define little," she requested warily.

"Ends up the planet is inhabited and we've got refugees. Lots of them seeing as there's a Hive ship in orbit launching an attack against the Daedalus and the villagers on the ground."

"We need to work on your understanding of the term little," she responded dryly before asking with obvious suspicion, "Are you okay?"

"Rodney and I got a little banged up."

"Once again, define little."

He glanced over at Dr. McKay who sat staring hazily at the broken control crystal on the floor. "Well, maybe more than a little."

"I'll send a medical team through to you immediately."

"Negative. The planet isn't safe. That's why we're evacuating. I'm going to recommend we send the refugees through to the Alpha Site. Have medical teams deployed there to assist the wounded."

"I'll start gathering the personnel now. And I expect to see you and Rodney amon… first to be trea…" The lights flickered again and the radio went dead, a few seconds later, the gate shut down, as well.

"Dammit. Rodney, see if you can… Rodney?" The alarm in Colonel Sheppard's voice had me looking back to where Dr. McKay was slumped unconscious once again. The Colonel took a step forward, mindless of his injured knee, and with a curse ended up right back down on the floor when it gave out from under him. But it seems that's where he wanted to be anyway. "McKay? Come on now, you can sleep later. After Carson gives you the okay."

A sliver of blue eyes looked back out at him. "Carson's here?"

Sheppard and I both exhaled in relief. "No, we need to go to him so that means you need to stay awake until then."

The eyes slid shut again. "You go ahead. I'll catch up when I finish here."

"No!"

Rodney opened his eyes again at the exclamation and gave Sheppard a confused look. "What happened to you?" he demanded of the battered Air Force officer beside him before taking in the rest of the scene. "Why's the Jumper upside down?"

Frowning at the obvious confusion of his teammate, the Colonel spoke slowly. "We were shot by a Dart, you've obviously banged your head, I've busted my knee, and we need to get out of here before more Wraith show up. Now the gate is just across this clearing, and I need you to help me walk so that means you have to stay awake. Do you think you can do that?" I seriously doubted Dr. McKay would be much in the way of assistance for Colonel Sheppard, but hopefully concentrating on the task would go a long way in countering the effects of the growing lump on the side of my fellow scientist's head.

"Yeah, sure, I can do that." I moved to help him stand, steadying him as he swayed and he looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. "Oh, hey, Novak. What're you doing here?"

"Let's save story time for when we're back on Atlantis," Sheppard chastised as he tried to pull himself up to his feet.

McKay bent to help him and almost ended up back on the floor. I caught him before he went down, staggering under the weight as I pushed him back against the wall. "Here, let me help him up." Before I could, however, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. Looking out the window, my eyes widened and I dropped to the floor myself, pulling Dr. McKay down beside me.

"Dr. Novak, I'm not sure you quite comprehend the concept of helping us to our feet."

I silenced the Colonel's drawl with a wave of my hand and a shush. "There are Wraith outside, at the gate." Risking another quick glance through the windshield, I hunkered back down. "Three of them, milling around the DHD."

"Crap." Colonel Sheppard's assessment of the situation pretty much mirrored my own. He considered our options for a moment before hitching his head toward the back of the Jumper. "We'll head into the woods, back toward the cave and wait for the air support Caldwell is sending in."

Nodding my head briskly in understanding, I managed to get the two men to their feet, providing support on Colonel Sheppard's left side while he threw his right arm around Rodney's shoulder. We took one step forward and Sheppard asked a wary, "McKay?"

Looking past the Colonel, I could see Rodney had gone pale and broken out in a sweat. "I think I'm going to puke."

Sheppard squeezed his shoulder understandingly. "Suck it up, buddy; we've got Wraith right outside." Rodney closed his eyes and nodded, and I fought to control my own sympathetic gag reflex even as he fought to control the nausea brought on by his head injury. "You make it back to the cave and you have permission to ralph all over my boots if you want."

"Gee, you're a real pal." Rodney shivered once from the cold sweat before taking a step forward and we were off.

The seven minutes it had taken us to travel from the cave to the gate had come and gone and we were still only about halfway back. During that time, at least four more Darts had arrived; we could hear them buzzing through the sky and catch glimpses of them now and again through the branches overhead. Also during that time, Colonel Sheppard had kept up an ongoing whispered conversation in an attempt to keep Dr. McKay alert. But the discussion of which pizza joint in Colorado Springs they would hit first as soon as the gate bridge was up and running was cut abruptly short when the pilot lifted his head and released his hold on McKay in order to grip his P90. "We've got company."

"Company? What kind of company?" I clenched my nine millimeter with both hands, mainly to try and control the shaking in them. It didn't work. And a flash of ghostly white through the trees answered my own question.

But Colonel Sheppard opened fire in an entirely different direction from the Wraith I had seen and I feared we were surrounded. Dr. McKay fired behind us and my fears were confirmed so, I closed my eyes and fired myself.

"John! Rodney! Hold your fire! You will give away your position." Teyla's voice in my ear had me looking around for her until I realized she was calling us through the radio.

"Too late for that," Sheppard informed her as he fired once again.

"Are you sure? Have they returned fire?"

Lowering his P90 hesitantly, the Colonel admitted, "No, they haven't."

"It is the Darts. They are creating the shadows to move you toward the Wraith on the ground. Stay where you are, Ronon and I are almost at your location."

True to her word, the two appeared over a small rise within a few minutes. When he saw them, Rodney asked hopefully, "Now can I throw up?"

"Knock yourself out."

At the Colonel's approval, Dr. McKay wasted no time dashing over to a tree and proceeded to empty his stomach. Teyla frowned in worry and Sheppard told her simply, "Concussion," and she moved to check on her ill teammate.

"What happened to you two?" Ronon asked taking in both men's beat-up appearance as he supported Sheppard who was hobbling on one leg.

"Long story, but suffice it to say that we aren't going to be flying the Jumper off this planet. How did you two get here, anyway?"

"We came through the transport stations from the settlements with the last of the villagers. The kids in the cave told us you had gone to scout the gate. When the Darts started showing up we thought we should come and find you."

"Good thought."

The large man shrugged in response just as a new craft whizzed above the tree line. An F302! Colonel Caldwell had sent the reinforcements! Two more were fast on its tail, banking sharply as the Dart fired and engaged them. Colonel Sheppard stared up at the sky with a kid-in-the-candy-store sense of wonder on his face and it was obvious he was torn between returning to the clearing for a better view of the dogfight taking place above us or returning to the cave.

Teyla led a still pale Rodney back to the group. "We should return to the cave and take cover until the gate is clear."

"Yeah," Sheppard agreed reluctantly, "we should get going."

Teyla started to step into the spot Rodney had occupied on the Colonel's right side and he shook his head with a meaningful glance at Dr. McKay, who frowned in confusion at the two new arrivals. "Ready to go, McKay?"

Resuming his previous position, McKay mumbled quietly, "When did Teyla and Ronon get here?"

"A few minutes ago." When Rodney just frowned harder, the Colonel wasn't able to cover his worry. "You doing okay?"

"I can't remember… I can't… everything is just so fuzzy." He rubbed at his forehead with the pad of his free hand, as if he could clear his thoughts with the action.

Teyla placed a gentle hand on his back and I had a feeling she didn't plan to move from his side for the rest of the trip back to the cave. "You will feel better when you can rest… at the cave."

The four of them started forward then and I suddenly had the feeling of a fifth wheel. Oh, don't get me wrong, I was very relieved to be relieved of my duty of watching over two injured men. But the four of them moving as a single unit had me feeling a twinge of homesickness for the Daedalus and my own team. Hermiod was at that moment, no doubt, grumbling about the requirements Colonel Caldwell was putting on him and Colonel Caldwell was, I was sure, frustrated by the Asgard's snippiness. I did more that integrate Asgard and human technology on our battle cruiser; I also integrated Asgard and human relations. I may not be as intelligent as Hermiod or have the tactical expertise of Colonel Caldwell, but I did know how to make them work together efficiently. And with a final longing look up past the battling ships in the sky to where I wished to see my own ship that was high in orbit above the planet, I followed along until we reached the cover of the cavern.

Several members of the strike teams Colonel Caldwell had sent to the settlements were standing guard outside and the cave itself was almost full of people. Ronon cleared a path among the villagers to the inside wall and eased Colonel Sheppard to the ground. Dr. McKay sat beside him and the young girl that had started this adventure with us pushed through the crowd to sit beside him and lean against his arm.

"Hey, Madison," Rodney smiled. "Did you get the doll I sent you? Well, technically I guess it was more of a statue but you could probably force some clothes on it…"

"We need to get him to a doctor and soon," the Colonel told Ronon who was squatted on the ground in front of him.

"We need to get these people through the gate and out of this cave." An explosion sounded in the distance to accentuate Ronon's words and I hoped it was a Dart and not one of our ships.

"You know where the gate is located. Take one of the teams and secure a path for the villagers. As soon as the gate is clear, we'll start moving them out."

Ronon gave a sharp nod as he stood and checked his gun. "I'll be back for you and McKay when the gate is open."

"Negative. You go through the gate with the others. We'll catch up with the rest."

The Satedan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right."

"That's an order, Ronon," Colonel Sheppard called sternly after the leather-clad back of the man making his way through the crowd.

"And exactly what was your rank in the Satedan military?" With a final smirk, the large man turned and continued on his way.

"I'm sure it would have been higher than yours, you insubordinate son of a bitch!"

At the Colonel's grumpy outburst, which had no effect in slowing Ronon's passage out of the cave, the little girl beside McKay burst into giggles and exclaimed her own, "Son of a bitch!"

The mocking voice had Rodney's eyes narrowing as he looked around frantically, "Where are the other kids?" When we just gave him blank stares, he demanded again, "The kids! There were three others with us. Did they go outside? There are Wraith out there!"

"They stayed with the other villagers when they came through the transport," I reminded him. "Don't you remember?"

"No, I don't." He pulled his knees up to his chest and dropped his head on them. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Just a little while longer, McKay," the Colonel encouraged with a pat to his back.

A few minutes later, Teyla squeezed her way through the milling villagers with a first aid kit in her hands. "I only have the pain medication we are issued with our packs, but hopefully it will help until we can reach the Alpha Site."

"Thank God." Sheppard eagerly took the pills the Athosian offered him, washing them down and leaning his head back against the wall.

"And we should bind your knee to immobilize it so you do not unintentionally injure it further." Teyla grimaced in sympathy when she delivered the news.

"Any more painkillers in there?" Colonel Sheppard asked hopefully.

"I am afraid not." Pulling out the bandaging she would be using, Teyla asked casually, "Rodney, could you help me, please?"

The look of gratitude Sheppard gave Teyla for finding a way to occupy Rodney's mind, transmuted to concern when the scientist looked from the injured limb to the Colonel's face. "What happened to you?"

"Don't worry about it, Rodney. Just give Teyla a hand."

I was afraid Colonel Sheppard was going to bite a hole through his lip to keep from crying out when they bound his leg. By the time they finished he was as pale as Dr. McKay and shaking even worse. Teyla finished cleaning the various cuts on both men before coaxing, "Rest now. We will bring a stretcher back when the gate is secure."

When Teyla started to stand, the Colonel grabbed her arm. "I want you to take Rodney through the gate with the first batch of villagers. The sooner he sees Carson, the better."

She nodded her agreement; although it was obvious she had no intention of leaving him there alone. "When Ronon returns, I will take him. For now, rest."

Sheppard leaned back and closed his eyes once again, a crease of pain across his forehead. Dr. McKay stayed beside him, the child still leaning against his arm as he closed his own eyes. Convinced that her teammates were settled as comfortably as possible, Teyla headed toward the mouth of the cave and I followed. In the direction of the gate, I could hear the spacecrafts firing; occasionally I could even catch a dark angle of wing or the point of a silver nose flickering through the trees.

"Do you know them?" Teyla's question startled me and she clarified. "The pilots, do you know them?"

"Some. There are a lot of people on the Daedalus; it's hard to know them all and seeing as I'm civilian I don't hang out with the pilots as much as some of the others. But I am familiar with most of them. See them in the mess hall, run diagnostics on the ships, trip over their gear in the hangar bay. That sort of thing."

"It must be difficult to be here when you know your team is fighting without you."

I almost argued the point. Why would I want to be up there, risking being blown to bits by a Hive ship when I had a much better chance of getting through the gate and to safety down here? But she was right. Just as she was worried about the men back in the cave and the one scouting the gate, I was concerned with those flying overhead and back on the Daedalus. That's where I should have been. Helping the crew fight the Wraith. Doing my job. The most amazing job in the universe. And it was really hard to argue with that assessment.

"Actually, it is."

She gave me an understanding smile which I returned – honestly, gorgeous, friendly, and deadly. Talk about a woman with everything. I've seen Asgard with more body fat that she has. And would it have killed someone for me to have even a fraction of that cup size? – then we turned our attention back to the battle above us.

When the number of explosions started diminishing along with the whine of Darts, Ronon called on the radio. "Teyla, we've secured the gate. Start the villagers moving. I'm on my way back now."

Teyla announced the plan to the people in the cave, gathering them into manageable-sized groups to be escorted with the remaining members of the strike teams. By the time Ronon returned, a good hundred or more people were already on their way through the woods.

"I contacted the Alpha Site and they're sending a medical team for Sheppard."

At the news, Teyla started back into the cave. "I will let him know and take Rodney and Dr. Novak to the Alpha Site." It was unspoken that Ronon would remain behind with the Colonel. But when we reached where Colonel Sheppard was dozing against the wall, Dr. McKay was nowhere to be seen.

Teyla turned in a circle, trying to find him in the people still leaving the cave for the stargate. "Rodney!" she called over the crowd before tapping her radio when she received no reply. "Rodney, do you copy me?"

Ronon shook the Colonel lightly to wake him, asking urgently when he sat up with a start, "Where's McKay?"

"He's right… oh, hell. He was sitting right here beside me."

I suddenly had that same sinking feeling in my stomach that I had when my niece and nephew went missing in the funhouse. "He did not leave the cave," Teyla reasoned. "Dr. Novak and I were at the entrance the entire time."

"So that only leaves one way he could have gone." Ronon indicated the path leading back into the transporter room.

Keying his own radio, Colonel Sheppard called, "Rodney?" Receiving no answer, he signaled for Ronon to help him stand. "McKay, answer your radio, goddammit."

"I can't find Madison," the anxious voice finally responded. "Christ, Jeannie is going to kill me if I lose her."

"Who's Madison?" Ronon asked.

"His niece," Sheppard growled in frustration. "He thought the girl that he came back to rescue earlier was his niece."

"I saw her leave," I pointed out. "She was with her brother in one of the first groups to head toward the gate."

"Rodney, she's safe. It's time for you to go. You need to come back."

"But she was right there beside me and I closed my eyes for just a second to try and get rid of this headache and when I opened them again, she was gone. I told you Sheppard. I told you I wasn't any good with kids and now I've lost her and Jeannie will never speak to me again."

"Rodney, I swear to you, she's fine. Now, tell me where you are. Teyla's coming to get you so she can take you to see her again." Sheppard leaned against Ronon to keep his balance even as he and his team stood by waiting for McKay to give his location.

"Oh, hey, there's a big room down here. It looks Ancient in design."

"Go," he ordered and Teyla trotted off down the corridor. "Just stay there, Teyla's on her way."

"You should really come see this, Colonel," Rodney told him excitedly. "The controls look like a transporter."

Sheppard pinched the bridge of his nose and told him with exhausted patience, "Sounds fascinating, Rodney," before mumbling to Ronon, "I swear to God, he should come equipped with his own personal black box."

"Huh, I wonder where it goes to."

"Don't touch it!" his three teammates exclaimed in unison. The last thing we needed was for him to disappear over to the opposite side of the planet.

"Maybe there's another level to this facility…"

"McKay, do not touch anything down there," Colonel Sheppard gritted out. "Do you understand me? Not one goddamn thing."

"Fine," he groused, "no more touching."

"No more?" Sheppard shook his head and rolled his eyes with a grumbled, "That's it; we're putting a homing beacon and a shock collar on him as soon as we get back to Atlantis."

"I'm not feeling so hot, anyway. Kind of dizzy. I think I'm going to…"

"Rodney?" The slurred voice had the Colonel's exasperation turning to concern. "Teyla?"

"I am almost there," she reported, her breathing suggesting she had broken into a sprint. A few minutes later, she told us, "I have found him. He had lost consciousness once again but seems to be fairly lucid now, although the nausea has evidently returned. As soon as he finishes… in the corner, we will be on our way back." I crinkled my nose at the delicate way Teyla had described the retching we could hear in the background.

"Do you need some help?" Ronon's offer held a certain amount of dread that she might actually require his assistance.

"No, Ronon, I do not think that will be necessary."

The last of the villagers left the cave and one of the Daedalus crewmembers came in. "That's all of them, Sir. Should we wait around? The team near the gate has reported some Wraith on the ground and the F302's are saying there's another wave of Darts on the way."

"No, get the villagers through and take Dr. Novak. We'll follow as soon as Teyla and McKay get back."

"Actually, I'd rather stay with you, if that's okay." I couldn't really explain why I wanted to stay behind with the Atlantis team. Maybe I just wanted to see it through with them; after all, I had started here with Dr. McKay, I may as well leave with him. Or maybe if I couldn't be with my own team, they'd made a decent substitute. After all, as much trouble as they tended to attract, these four always seemed to make it out alive, which meant I had pretty good odds of making it out alive, too.

But as the Captain left the cave, I had a terrifying thought… what if I was the red shirt in this adventure? And I had a good deal of time to consider that rather gloomy concept while we waited for Dr. McKay and Teyla to return. The long wait had Colonel Sheppard a little on edge, as well.

"Teyla, what's taking so long?"

"Rodney had to stop again." Her voice lowered slightly. "And his disorientation seems to be growing."

"As soon as you get back, you and Ronon are taking McKay and Novak through the gate."

"And what about you?" Teyla challenged.

"I'll wait for the medical team."

"Medical team's not coming." Ronon, who had been outside the shielded cave to monitor the radio traffic of the teams escorting the last of the villagers to the gate, came back in. "Too many Darts coming in, they don't feel the gate will be secure for much longer."

Sheppard asked anxiously. "Do you think you could get Rodney and Novak to the Alpha Site?"

"I could do it." The Satedan's confidence unfortunately didn't make me feel much better. "I can get all of us to the Alpha Site."

The Colonel shook his head. "With my bum leg I'll just slow you guys down."

"What happened to your leg?" The smear of Rodney's words through the comlink only seemed to strengthen Colonel Sheppard's resolve.

Teyla completely ignored them as she protested, "But you will be here alone."

"Where's everybody going?"

Once again, Rodney's question was disregarded as Sheppard assured, "I should be safe as long as I'm in the cave."

"You do not know that, John." Teyla was obviously becoming irritated with the Colonel's stubbornness.

"There's a transporter in the cave," McKay pointed out. "We could just transport out."

"Teyla's right," Ronon agreed. "The Wraith may not be able to detect you in here but that doesn't mean they wouldn't find you. It probably won't take much for them to track the path of the villagers back to here." "

"Look, I know Rodney needs a doctor and the chances of him getting to one and all of you getting to the Alpha Site are a hell of a lot better if I don't go."

The three of them continued to argue but something Dr. McKay had said suddenly gave me an idea. "We could transport out."

"Sure, to the other side of the planet and into the middle of the Wraith forces there, and then what?"

I shook my head at Ronon's assumption. "No, no, no. If I can adjust the frequency of the transport beam, the Daedalus could intercept the transmission of the patterns. Instead of going to the other continent, we would go the Daedalus."

"And you can really do that?" Colonel Sheppard asked.

The scrutiny of the two men had me back stepping slightly. "Well, in theory, yes. After all, Dr. McKay was able to boost the radio signal to contact the Daedalus, the principle is basically the same. Although, I would need Dr. McKay's assistance in manipulating the Ancient system."

"McKay, you think you're up to helping Dr. Novak?"

He was answered by a woozy snort on the other end of the radio. "Well, she obviously needs all the help she can get."

Sheppard gave an awkwardly apologetic smile. "Head injury. You know how it is."

"Actually, I know how he is." I also knew that this was something I could do. And as we headed back into the transporter room, I decided dental hygiene might have been safe, but I probably wouldn't be able to save five people from a horrific death by scraping plaque. I had a great job. An amazing job with amazing people and aliens and technology and I was pretty darn good at it.

Besides, it could have always been worse. I could have actually taken that assignment in Atlantis and worked for Rodney McKay.

xxxx

"Colonel Caldwell, I have successfully stored the signals of the last of the villagers in the database. We are ready to relocate to within beaming range of the gate."

My news had the Daedalus commander nodding sharply as the ship shook so hard from a blast that I nearly ended up on the floor. "Raise the shields and take us to the opposite side of the planet."

"Sir, that last hit damaged our long-range navigation systems."

Bringing up the damage report the helmsman had just conveyed I saw the problem. Without long-range navigation, we would not be able to open a hyperdrive window without running the risk that we would come out of it in the middle of an asteroid belt or the core of a sun. It would take several hours to remap the system, and that couldn't take place until after the actual hardware that was no doubt damaged or destroyed was replaced to relay the information through. Although to fly the ship to a position above the stargate wouldn't require the long-range systems. Colonel Caldwell knew that, as well, given his response.

"Right now I'm just interested in circumnavigating the globe. Keep the planet to starboard and we should be fine for the time being."

"Blue Squad is reporting heavy resistance from the Darts around the gate. At this point they don't think it would be safe to transport the villagers there for their final evac from the planet."

The Colonel frowned harder as he called back to me without even turning. "Hermiod, how long can we safely store those signals?"

"There are cases where signals have been stored for several Earth days in the buffers of the Stargate. However, there is not enough storage space on the mainframe to allow for system redundancy."

"Meaning?" He gripped the arm of his seat when we were jarred again.

"Meaning that should the system lose power, it is highly probable that the signals will be lost, as well."

"How many villagers are we talking about?"

"I show eight hundred and ninety-four distinct signals. Although there is the distinct possibility that some of those are Wraith and not the local inhabitants of the planet."

"Then I suggest we don't lose power to the mainframe," he grumbled.

"That would be a prudent plan of action, Colonel," I agreed. Although the direct hit from the Hive ship had me doubting that would really be possible.

And the report from the crewman had me doubting it even more. "Shields down to twenty-five percent."

"Hermiod, I need more power to the shields."

Well, obviously, that was the case. Although spontaneous production of energy from our rectal cavity is not a common trait of the Asgard and while it may be a special talent of several humans I have come across, natural gas has never been a fuel of choice for my species. Even if it were, there would be no way to harness and redirect it to the shield seeing as the mainframe was literally overflowing with the mathematical reduction of almost nine-hundred methane-producing life signs. I was almost afraid that one of them would pop up on the screen saver of my engineering station and gyrate in sync with a repetitive percussion rhythm like the disturbingly coordinated human infant on Dr. Novak's laptop.

"Redirection of any more systems could have several negative consequences," I informed him, leaving out the suggestion that perhaps with enough computer modules, we could produce a colony of sentient laptops and free up some valuable storage space in the mainframe.

"Let me guess; the signals?"

"Yes, Colonel." Looking over the shield data, however, I did have an alternate suggestion that would pose only a minimal risk to the system as a whole. "However, I can redirect existing shield energy to the areas that are the most vulnerable and have been the target of most of the Hive weapons."

"And that would decrease the areas it was taken from…"

"To minimal shield strength," I finished.

"Do you see any other options?" I had to give him credit for refusing to accept defeat, even from me.

"Yes," I told him simply. "We can leave."

But I had been serving with humans, this one in particular, long enough to know that that was not a course of action he would consider. There were thousands of human lives depending on us- the F302 pilots, the troops on the ground, the villagers, the Atlantis personnel. He wouldn't leave them behind. The Asgard think in terms of the whole. The whole species, the whole race. The lives of one or a hundred is less important than the Asgard as a sum total. We're a dying race. We don't have the luxury that humans do to risk the lives of thousands over a handful. We do not have the freedom to think in terms of family. The concept does not exist on my world, it hasn't for millennia. It is just one more weakness of the human race. And yet, I find myself strangely relieved when Colonel Caldwell responds to my suggestion.

"That is not an option at this time." He sat forward with a resolve to complete his mission, even though that mission was not the one he originally started the day with. "Redirect the shield energy to the proper locations. We hold until the gate is clear."

"Of course, Colonel."

And I started my work and the waiting that would follow. We spent most of that time trying our best to avoid the Wraith ship, minimizing damage where the shields were weakest, and waiting for the gate to be clear for transport of the signals. Finally, word came that the gate was in our hands and the Alpha Site had been dialed.

"Set in a course for the coordinates to beam the villagers out of the mainframe."

"Transporting the signals to the gate now, Colonel." And with the push of a button, the mainframe was empty of human life signs once again.

"Sir, the ground teams report that the villagers arrived safely and are going through the gate now."

"Very good, Lieutenant. How long before the planet is evacuated and we can recall the F302s?"

"There are still several hundred that are making the trip from the cave to the stargate. And we're showing another wave of Darts inbound on their position."

"Send Red Squadron to intercept. As soon as the last person is through the gate, I want the F302s back here so we can get the hell out of Dodge."

Once again we went back to waiting and avoiding. I tweaked the shield arrangement from time to time to protect the more critical systems and continued to search for more ways to boost those shields that we still had. When at last the F302s were back on board the Daedalus, we were preparing to leave the planet. But that was when we received a call across the communications system.

"Daedalus, this is Novak. Do you copy?"

"Dr. Novak, you are supposed to be at the Alpha Site right now." Colonel Caldwell was not too pleased to hear his chief human engineer's voice.

"We were cut off from the gate, Sir."

"We?"

I have found the human body a rather interesting organism. It tends to change colors with moods, much like several reptilian species throughout the galaxy. In this case, Colonel Caldwell was turning an intriguing shade of red.

"Y... yes, Sir. The Atlantis team is with me, too."

Correction, the shade was much closer to maroon.

"Colonel Sheppard?"

"We're back in the transporter room in the cave, Sir," the Atlantis-based officer answered quickly, as if to deflect the anger to another subject. "We're going to need to beam out from here back to the Daedalus."

"Colonel Sheppard," I interrupted. "I still cannot lock onto your signals due to the shielding around the cave."

"We know that, Hermiod," Dr. Novak informed me. "But if I can adjust the frequency of the transport beam to match that of the Daedalus system, you should be able to intercept it midstream between the two transport locations."

When Colonel Caldwell looked to me, I nodded my head in acknowledgement. "It is possible to intercept the signal at the destination point if we adjust the frequencies to match."

"I'm working on that now with Dr. McKay."

"Dr. Novak, we're on the verge of a total shield collapse," Colonel Caldwell stressed. "If we lose shields entirely, we will have to disengage the Wraith ship and leave the area."

"Yes, Sir, we understand."

"Come on, Rodney, focus here." Colonel Sheppard coaxed desperately, probably not even realizing his radio was still openly transmitting.

"Where's Madison?" Dr. McKay's voice could be heard through that same open communications link.

"McKay, you need to adjust these frequencies or we are screwed. So just forget about the kid for a minute and do this."

"But she was just right here."

"Goddammit, will you just…" Even through the radio, we could hear Colonel Sheppard fighting for control. Sucking in a deep breath, he continued with forced calm. "Rodney, look at me. I swear to you, she is safe. Do you understand what I'm telling you? She's safe." There was a pause and a sigh of exhausted relief from the Colonel. "Good. Now then, tell me which crystals Novak needs for the frequency modulations."

"Tie in to the third row, second from the left."

"Got it!" Dr. Novak exclaimed excitedly.

A few long moments passed and several more hits from the Hive ship. "Sir, shield strength down to five percent."

"Dr. Novak, now or never," Colonel Caldwell warned.

"Okay, okay." Dr. Novak sounded as if she had been running in place the entire time we had been waiting. "Hermiod, we're transporting a backpack, see if you can intercept it."

Activating a beam to intercept at the same moment I detected one from the point of origination, I was able to successfully capture the matter stream and a backpack rematerialized on the bridge.

"It worked! Get the hell up here now!" Colonel Caldwell didn't wait for a response, simply informed the bridge, "As soon as they're on board, take us out of range of the Hive ship."

Once again intercepting the signal, five figures materialized before us. Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay both leaned heavily on their teammates and I saw how the Colonel winced when the ship shook and he was forced to try to steady himself with his bound leg. Dr. Novak left Dr. McKay's side and moved quickly to the engineering console.

"Hermiod," she greeted quickly and a little breathlessly.

"Dr. Novak, it is good to see you back at your post." And it most definitely was good to have her back.

"Why are we still sitting here?" Colonel Caldwell demanded as another blast sent sparks flying overhead and alarms blaring from systems overloading.

Among the ruckus, I could hear Dr. McKay lamenting, "This is not helping my head… or my stomach."

But my attention was drawn to the damage reports scrolling across my screen. "We've lost primary propulsion," the bridge pilot reported.

Knowing what was coming, I was already working on the problem when Colonel Caldwell called to me. "I am working to patch the system now," I assured him.

Dr. Novak squinted in thought at the screen. "We still have hyperdrive engines."

"We don't have long-range navigation." Colonel Caldwell brought her up to speed as he yelled over the alarms and various damage reports.

"Decompression is imminent on the aft portions of decks four through eight."

"Evacuate and seal them."

"How far do we have to go to get away from the Hive ship?"

Dr. McKay's question had Dr. Novak smiling at me even as I blinked my understanding. We didn't need to jump far, just far enough to get out of the range of weapons. And the short-range detectors could be used to map a course that far. Add to that a simple macro that could be used to tie them in together so that we could make several small trips in sequence and we would easily be outside of pursuit range.

"I'll program in the short-range detectors into the hyperdrive navigation system." Dr. Novak's fingers were already moving quickly over her keyboard.

By the time she finished that, I had the macro almost encoded. Of course we hadn't notified Colonel Caldwell of what we were doing, but there would be time for that later. "Engaging hyperdrive engines, now."

"What?" he demanded of my news, but we were already sitting beyond the furthest moon of the planet.

"Again, Dr. Novak," I directed and within a few seconds we were positioned just beyond the gravitational pull of the next closest planet in the solar system.

"Hermiod, what the hell are you doing?"

"We are using the hyperdrive engines in conjunction with the short-range navigation and moving in small bursts instead of one long one. My apologies, Colonel, but as soon as I finish the macro to link the navigation system to reopen a window as soon as one closes, the trip will be much smoother and less jarring."

"Hey, that would work pretty well for the gate bridge. Oh, crap." Dr. McKay's observation was accompanied by him regurgitating on the bridge floor just as we opened another hyperdrive window, which made Dr. Novak's projectile fruit juice from the morning meal seem much less revolting than it had at the time.

"Medical team to the bridge," Colonel Caldwell called before retaking his seat. "Dr. Novak, I want you checked out, as well."

"Yes, Sir. Just as soon as I help Hermiod with the repairs." She gave me a quick smile and I returned my gratitude with a contented blink and tilt of my head.

"That would be most appreciated, Dr. Novak."

"Very well, I need a complete list of damage to the ship…" Colonel Caldwell turned his attention to the business at hand. Now that we were no longer in danger from the Wraith Hive ship didn't mean we were home free. There were short-term repairs to be initiated until the long-term repairs could be completed. The ship's registry had no doubt decreased in the battle that had ensued and we did not complete our initial mission of retrieving the stargate. But it wasn't a total loss. A planet of people had been evacuated safely out of reach of the Wraith. The Atlantis team had suffered injuries but had remained intact and Dr. Novak had made it back safely and resumed her post.

The medical team arrived on the bridge and eventually Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay were taken to the infirmary by gurney with Teyla and Ronon lingering close by. It was ridiculous really. The sentimentality these humans display for one another, the worry over a single person, the devotion to the family unit. Sometimes it seems to blind them to the bigger picture… and obviously effects their olfactory senses, as well, given the way they put all their concentration on Dr. McKay's growing disorientation regardless of the smell emanating from what he purged from his body onto the floor.

And if I felt a lessening of anxiety by having Dr. Novak back, it was obviously a result of the fact that it only meant less that I would have to accomplish on my own. We fell into a familiar rhythm during our trip back to Atlantis… Colonel Caldwell demanding, Dr. Novak trying to appease him and meet my requirements for the bare minimal standards of engineering support. It wasn't, of course, what could be expected on an Asgard ship. I had to provide constant oversight to make sure the work was completed and that only served to slow my own progress. But while it may not have been as efficient as it could have been, it had become familiar, so there was at least that. Seeing as Thor wasn't likely to reassign me anytime soon, I supposed I should take what I could get.

Besides, it could have always been worse. Dr. McKay could have been assigned to work with me on the Daedalus instead Dr. Novak. I'd take a hiccupping human over a nauseous one any day.

And maybe with a few subtle suggestions, she would even acquire a new green plant for her office.

xxxx

"Carson, would you please tell Colonel Sheppard to kiss my ass?"

"I will do no such thing, Rodney," the Scot told him as he wiped at the corners of his mouth. "Seeing as I just recently discharged the Colonel from my care, I have no intention of him showing back up with a raging case of the cooties."

"How do you treat that anyway, Doc?" Sheppard inquired keenly.

"Well, it depends on the strain, of course, but astrophysititis streptacootus, particularly originating from the bum, is particularly nasty and often involves leeches and bloodletting to mimic the interpersonal skills of the host organism."

"Hmmm, fascinating."

Colonel Sheppard's response had Dr. McKay turning to the Satedan smirking across the table. "Ronon, would you please tell Dr. Beckett to kiss my ass?"

The more things change…

Well, actually, that wasn't completely true. Granted, Dr. McKay was still voicing his displeasure with his team leader, and once again it was over the name of the gate bridge. He was still trying to give the silent treatment as only the man knew how… very loudly and boisterously. And I was once again dining with Novak and Hermiod while overhearing the argument at the next table. But a few things had changed over the past couple of days. For one, we were sitting in the mess hall on Atlantis and not on the Daedalus as the ship was still undergoing repairs, not to mention that most of our food supplies had been lost in the battle with the Hive ship. For another, Sheppard's team wasn't preparing to embark on a mission to an alien planet but was instead taking Dr. McKay for his first outing from the infirmary since his injury on the last alien planet they had embarked to. And third, we were joined by Dr. Weir for our meal, just as Dr. Beckett was joining the others.

Dr. Novak was able to control herself this time around and not spit on Hermiod. It may have had more to do with the fact that she was currently placing a forkful of food in her mouth and not orange juice, as she did choke slightly at the exclamation. But I was sure Hermiod was thankful for small miracles and remained dry.

Catching the own small shake of my head, Dr. Weir observed, "No one can ever accuse Rodney McKay of being understated."

"No, but the same can't be said for you if that's how you describe the man," I snorted as I cut into the alien meat on my tray. Too light in color for beef but not the right texture for chicken and nowhere near as flavorful as pork, I decided to take the approach I had with most of the hot meals I had eaten since enlisting in the Air Force- cut, chew, swallow and be thankful it hadn't come out of a pouch that had been warmed under my armpit.

She shrugged with a grin. "It's the diplomat in me; it comes out from time to time."

At the next table, Sheppard leaned back in his seat, his braced leg propped in the chair his crutches rested against. "It's only fair, Rodney. I mean Hermiod gave you the idea for the dialing macro for the gate bridge, he should be part of the name."

Dr. McKay shifted angrily in his wheelchair, pointedly turning his body away from the Lieutenant Colonel. "Teyla, tell him it's McKay/Carter. McKay/Carter. If I started sticking all the names of anyone that ever contributed to the thing, it would go on for pages. You can't recognize everyone."

"That is true." Teyla suggested, "So why do you not call it the Atlantis/Earth Intergalactic Gate Bridge instead?"

The scientist frowned. "Just because the name can't recognize everyone doesn't mean it shouldn't recognize me."

"The gesture to include my name in the gate bridge does convey the appropriate respect; however, my contribution to the overall project has been rather ancillary." Hermiod's observation was accompanied by a contemplative tilt of his head. "Although the contributions of General O'Neill and Dr. Jackson to the development of the Asgard ships bearing their names was even less than my participation in the gate bridge."

I paused mid-sip, not sure if I wanted to try to explain that Sheppard wasn't serious about including Hermiod's name in the gate but almost fearful that he would now expect it to come to fruition. By the slight rise of Elizabeth's eyebrows, I could tell she was thinking the same thing. When she met my eyes, I lowered my cup. "You're the diplomat; you want to field this one?"

At the next table, Sheppard was shrugging off McKay's arrogance. "That's fine, Rodney. Since we're obviously not that important in the creation of this gate bridge, we'll just stay here while you go back to the planet to retrieve the gate on your own."

As if that would ever happen. He and the rest of the team had been hovering around the infirmary for the past couple of days. McKay had been lucky, he and Sheppard both had. They'd walked away from that mangled Jumper with little more than bumps and bruises. Sure, Sheppard would be on crutches for a few weeks and McKay had one hell of a concussion, but there hadn't been any pressure on the brain or anything like that. He'd spent a good day completely disoriented… asking about the children on the planet, his niece, what had happened and how they had gotten back to Atlantis… but eventually that confusion had cleared. Dr. Beckett had kept him in the infirmary for observation and because of the painkillers he was being administered for the lingering headaches and residual dizziness. And I had my suspicions that Beckett had decided if he kept McKay under his care, he would be guaranteed to have Sheppard there enough to keep an eye on him, as well, regardless of the fact that the man had convinced the physician to release him to limited duty.

Back at my table, Dr. Weir was starting the delicate job of explaining no one had any intention of naming the gate bridge after the Asgard who was currently regarding her with condescending calm. "Well, you see, Hermiod, human humor can take many forms…"

Not surprisingly, Dr. Novak stepped in. "Actually, Hermiod, I would think that the gate bridge would be too small to properly recognize your contribution to the stargate program as a whole. No use wasting your name on something like that when there is the potential for something bigger in the future." The engineer could, from time to time, amaze me with her grasp of the Asgard's psyche.

"You make a very compelling point, Doctor."

"Besides," she mumbled conspiratorially, "do you really want to share the name of something with a person who can't even properly modulate the resonance on a dual synch redundancy system?"

Dr. Novak giggled at what was evidently an inside joke between the two and Hermiod gave what I had come to recognize as the equivalent of an Asgardian snicker, which involved several blinks and a head bob. "Oh, Dr. Novak, you are going to be the premature cloning of me yet."

Weir gave me a relieved, if somewhat bewildered, grin even as Dr. McKay voiced his disapproval of Sheppard's suggestion that the physicist go it alone next time. "And I repeat, kiss my ass."

"Oh, look, he's speaking to me again." Sheppard just grinned wider at the glower from the subject of his taunting.

"Once again, I am perplexed by human terminology," Hermiod confessed as he recovered from his rare expression of humor. "It was my understanding that kissing was a sign of affection, often sexual in nature. Alternately, the term I overhead one of the crewmen using, 'kiss ass', as explained to me by Dr. Novak, meant that the bridge pilot was agreeing with your orders just to give you unwarranted praise." Novak reddened when I frowned and I made a mental note to find out the name of the crewman in question. "Do Dr. McKay's repeated requests for Colonel Sheppard to kiss his ass mean he is seeking an affectionate sexual response from the Colonel or is he merely requesting feigned respect?"

Now it was my turn to choke on my food. I'm a Colonel in the United States Air Force, I'm a Colonel in the United States Air Force…. Starting rumors about one of my subordinates, no matter how temptingly easy it would be, was beneath my rank. Besides, given how Hermiod had unintentionally let it slip that one of the crew had less than the proper respect for my decisions, it would just be a matter of time before Sheppard found out what I had said. And one indoctrination on Don't Ask Don't Tell had been more than enough for my entire military career.

"Colonel, are you having trouble chewing your meal? Would it help if I were to pat you on your back? Literally, of course. The metaphorical meaning of giving genuine praise would have very little impact in this situation. Although it is rather interesting that vernacular associated with praise is so often in reference to the backside of humans. And further, the authenticity of said praise varies in accordance with the height and form of application of the attention. Are there any terms of admiration associated with the front of the body? Or is there simply nothing worth touching and admiring on the front of the human body?" The Asgard suddenly seemed to come to a significant realization. "Ah! Perhaps this is the actual meaning of the term 'suck my…"

"Hermiod!" Elizabeth thankfully interrupted seeing as I was in danger of aspirating every morsel in my mouth and Dr. Novak had gone from red to crimson in about two sentences. "Maybe we can discuss etymology of Earth phrases another time?"

He simply blinked his agreement and I was finally able to suck in a breath. The coughing had evidently caught the attention of the people at the next table. "You okay, Sir?" Sheppard inquired curiously.

I waved a dismissive hand as I continued to cough, this time a little less violently, and tried my best not to consider how the man had played into the original cause of the whole issue. Satisfied, the team turned back to their conversation.

"Besides," Dr. McKay sulked, "it could be months before we even get back to that gate. By the time a decision is made, we could have secured another gate on the list and placed it instead."

Considering the rather vicious nature of the Wraith, particularly when they meet resistance during a culling, we were reluctant to let the villagers return to their planet. Of course, the decision would be theirs, but Dr. Weir had been strongly advising that they didn't. The problem was, where would they go if not there? Some had family or friends on other worlds, others would be welcome to relocate to the Mainland, and normally Atlantis would be offered up. But given the fact that the city currently didn't have an operational ZPM, that wasn't an option at the moment.

In addition, even if they didn't return to their home world and the planet was abandoned, the scientists still wanted the opportunity to study the Ancient transporter technology, and that meant leaving the gate in place so they could access it. And that meant I was going to be stuck playing soccer mom for a while longer.

"Then we go to the next one on the list," Sheppard offered. "By the time the Daedalus is up and running again, we should all have the green light from Carson and we'll check out P5X-something-or-other and hopefully have better luck with that one. No biggie."

"Except that we could have had an operational gate bridge by now." Dr. McKay closed his eyes and rubbed absently at his forehead. Now that I looked at him closer, it was obvious that he had paled during the time I had been coughing. An observation that his teammates hadn't missed.

"Are you that desperate for pizza?" Sheppard's light tone covered the way his eyes narrowed in concern at the scientist's actions.

When he didn't respond, Ronon asked, "You okay, McKay?"

"What? Oh, yeah, just a headache." One hand spiraled in dismissive explanation. "What were we talking about again?"

"You returning to the infirmary." Dr. Beckett stood with his declaration and the others did, as well.

"What? No, come on, I just got out." The protests were promptly ignored as the physician took control of the wheelchair.

"And now you're going right back in. I told you it was just for supper anyway."

"But you won't let me have a laptop to work on the macros…"

"Staring at a computer screen is not going to help your headaches, Rodney. Besides, wouldn't you rather be in top form when working on that? I would hate to become lost in a wormhole for all eternity just because you miscalculated as a result of a head injury."

"You wouldn't become lost in a wormhole, Carson, not unless there was some sort of perpetual feedback loop in the program… although theoretically that might be possible, I hadn't really considered it. I wonder…"

Sheppard took the crutches Teyla held for him. "I hate to drive a car in those damn roundabouts, McKay. I have no desire to try something similar in a Jumper. Save the calculations that could kill us until after you're drug free." When Dr. McKay opened his mouth to argue, Colonel Sheppard cut him off. "How about I bring the mapping software and we pick the route for our next road trip? We'll have a quick trip back to Earth in no time, might as well plan ahead."

"I was actually thinking about that," McKay admitted as they started from the cafeteria.

"Seriously, McKay, I'm not going to Niagara Falls with you."

"Actually, I was thinking somewhere in Canada… and maybe we could stop by and see Jeannie and her family? I've been thinking about my niece a lot lately for some reason."

Sheppard gave him a small smile. "We could probably do that… as long as we don't have to listen to Celine Dione in the car."

Looking down at my own nearly empty tray, I decided it was time for us to be getting back to work on the Daedalus. The sooner she was operational again, the sooner we could put the final gate into place and the sooner I could stop playing taxi driver for two galaxies. Although, even that served a purpose. Even with the ZPM for the gate back to Earth, we were the only contact the people here on the expedition had with their loved ones back on Earth. I'd been deployed enough in my career to know the meaning of a two-week-old box of chocolate chip cookies from home or a simple letter from a buddy back in the States. There were worse things than being the commander of the ship that brought hope to a group of people, whether it was holding the line against the Wraith or delivering a birthday card from home or a stash of Nebraska beef steaks. Pushing away the remains of my mystery meat I decided that was definitely going to be in the hold my next trip out. And I knew just the engineer to hook me up.

Seeing that I was ready to leave, my crew took the clue and stood to leave with me. Dr. Weir looked up from her own partially eaten meal. "Back to work so soon?"

"Duty calls," I sighed before saying our goodbyes and heading out into the hall for the pier where the Deadalus was docked. We quickly caught up to the group heading back to the infirmary, holding back to avoid the need to make small talk but still close enough to hear them. Although, apparently they didn't know we were there.

"You know," Sheppard was saying as he hobbled along beside the wheelchair, "we could stop at Toys R Us and pick out some really cool stuff for the kid."

"No need," McKay told him, "I already got something for her. I took this totally cool scale model of the Daedalus from Caldwell's office on the ship."

Stopping in my tracks, because surely I had not heard what I had just heard, I looked to Dr. Novak for confirmation. Her wide-eyed stare and accompanying hiccup, confirmed that yes, I had, indeed, heard Dr. McKay's confession correctly.

I saved his goddamn hide from the Wraith and this was the thanks I got? Yeah, things sure the hell could have been worse than being an intergalactic soccer mom.

I could have had Rodney McKay assigned to my ship.

The End