Belleron

by

Ryan C. Charles

A/N: A timeless city points to the origin of life in the Pegasus. A hunt for a murderous band of mercenaries may mean the difference between life and death for a member of the Atlantis expedition. The fic takes place in season three between Stargate: Atlantis episodes Vengeance and First Strike.

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


Part One: Simulacrum


The wind tumbling out of the far-off mountains brought the smoke of cooking fires, a hint of spice, and the familiar smell of meat over an open grill. The sun was gone, its fleeting burnish hastening behind distant blue peaks. He'd been told it was the storm season. Days were short, the air cool. In the afternoon he'd watched thunderheads trade lightning, the massive slate and black clouds blowing across the river plain on which the Athosians built their new city of tents. Since then he'd learned a little about the place. The Athosians told him the stones in the valley made up the ribs of a world to which a band of priestesses from another race once traveled to pray.

Boots planted in the spiny brush along the cliff, John Sheppard stood against the wind. The ashen sky was level. The deepening well of the valley was below him.

A bit of timeless architecture held his attention. "When'd you find out what that place was?"

"Halling led a hunting party there," Teyla Emmagan answered. She stood at the cliff's edge, facing outward. Though her frame was loose, a tendon stood out in the tawny column of her neck. She stared into the valley, her gaze touching a construct about twelve feet high. "The wall is called the Arvad." Curving into the foothills, the thing went on for miles.

"Looks like a defensive barrier."

"Who can say?" Teyla stepped back, P90 resting in her arms. "The Ketites were a generous people but their time ended long ago."

"They have any technology?"

"They were spiritual."

"Maybe they ascended." John was trying to understand the problem.

"Perhaps. They were ruled, as I said, by a council of priestesses and this, this appears to have been the place to which they came to perform their rituals."

Was that what she wanted him to know? After giving her warning, after everything she told her fellow Athosians, it was mythos and mysticism that rooted her people to this planet?

"I still don't get it," he admitted.

"We never knew the way to the Ketish worship world." Teyla turned from the cliff to face him. "Yet New Athosia was chosen by the Ancestors. The Ketish believed, as we do, in the prophecy. Our ceremonies were similar, as were our beliefs. Many among my people think our coming to this world, to a planet once held by Ketites, was foretold."

Doesn't mean your people have to stay in harm's way, John thought.

After some minutes had passed, Teyla looked up at him. "You still do not understand." Her tone was careful.

He took note. "I think it's kind of strange how far the wall is from the Stargate, like the people who built it weren't so worried about off-worlders. It's like they built the wall to fend off something that was already here. Any idea what these Ketish might have been afraid of?"

"I have none," Teyla said. "The Ancestors assured us this world was not inhabited. Our hunting parties have ranged far. They have found no one." Teyla raised and lowered her shoulders. "The civilization of Ket ended long ago. It is believed they went away among the stars."

John's interest was piqued. "How long ago?"

"Many millennia before my birth."

"Might be worth looking into."

"As my people have decided to remain, I have already asked Halling to record the writings in the upland caves. He says that there are many. And to collect whatever evidence he finds. Perhaps it was an ancient ship." She turned inward, allowing the possibility to ignite others, each broad and full of hope.

"Or maybe it was the Wraith."

She turned from him, the light going out of her eyes.

John hurried to follow. "Teyla, it's not your fault."

Simply and without rancor, "I am their leader and still my words failed," she said to him over her shoulder. "They cannot stay here. You know this as well as I do. The planet can neither shield nor save. If my people had seen the Taranians, they would know this."

John felt a twinge of empathy. She was leader of a people for whom she felt a deep, resolute loyalty and yet she spent much of her time apart. Teyla believed that if allowed to continue their scourge, the Wraith would end human civilization in the Pegasus galaxy. She saw the expedition as integral to stopping many thousands of years of waste and death. The expedition and the city of the Ancestors. So she led the Athosians from a different star. It was a great distance that pulled at her but she'd made her choice in good faith.

"You tried," he said.

She raised a small hand in acknowledgement before passing into a thin scrap of woodland and merging softly with shadow.

x x x x x

Ronon folded long legs before a round iron cauldron. He sniffed but kept his big shoulders squared and his spine erect. There was a new spice in the pot, his nose assured him, but the time had not come for poking about. Halling sat a short distance away, his posture suggesting he and Ronon were part of a formal council. In truth, they were alone. Ronon had asked to speak candidly to the tall Athosian and Halling had agreed.

After listening for some while to a tale of horror and desecration, Halling's expression was bland. He asked, "Did you not have the means to take from this creature the coordinates of our Stargate?"

Ronon felt his jaw muscle knot. "We didn't kill him."

"Was killing him the only way?"

Ronon met Halling's gaze. "Yeah."

Halling turned to stare straight ahead. The night wind stirred his long, heavy locks, hiding his face.

"How will you do better, should this creature venture to the city of the Ancestors?"

"The Stargate on Atlantis is protected." Ronon squinted, one shoulder twitching upward. He didn't like playing with words. "You know that."

Halling turned to the sound of children laughing. The young ones were being called by the adults to the cooking fires. The patter of feet leaving the tents meant the discussion was over.

"Will this Wraith come for us?" Halling wondered aloud.

"Not if you go back to Atlantis."

"We are not abandoning this ground. It is hallowed. It is our inheritance-- we were meant to find it. Now, will this Wraith come for us?"

"He doesn't know what's at the end of what he dials, but yeah, it's possible. You gotta be ready. If he comes, he won't come alone."

Ronon heard the clap of military-style boots and shifted to see Sheppard and Teyla approaching. He caught Teyla's eye and shook his head.

She brought up her chin sharply, but did not look surprised.

"He will have beasts with him?" Halling wanted to know.

"His army, yeah," Sheppard said. "Count on it."

"He is very dangerous," Teyla added.

Halling nodded to his leader. The lines of his long face came together in look that was intractable and yet respectful. John had seen it before. Now Halling said, "We will make preparations. We have survived worse."

"Perhaps not," suggested Teyla, her tone plaintive.

Halling looked from Sheppard to Ronon. "Perhaps not. Nevertheless." He gripped his knees and sighed. "The meal is ready. You must stay and share it with us."

x x x x x

"It is an alarm," said Radek Zelenka. Transfixed by the display, the scientist passed long-fingered hands over the lighted crystal keys. Wire-frame glasses slipped unnoticed to the tip of his nose. "The event log shows no anomalies. The science team led by Major Connor returned from Jenev at 1800 hours. There was a power fluctuation--"

"Yes, yes, I see that." Hovering at the adjacent console, Rodney McKay frowned. "Coinciding with the time the wormhole was established."

"Three point two seconds after the wormhole established," Zelenka corrected.

Summoned to the control room, Elizabeth Weir glanced uneasily from McKay to Zelenka. "What's going on?"

Chuck Lindwall, the lead control room technician, swiveled from his console. "An alarm. They think."

"What kind of alarm?" asked Weir.

"They're not sure." Chuck turned to study the scientists.

"Rodney," Weir insisted, climbing the last step to lean over McKay's console.

Brow furrowed, McKay snapped up, then dipped toward the work station screen. "That wasn't there before."

Zelenka rushed to McKay's side but was unable to wedge his slim form past McKay's arm, which was leveraged on top of the rust-colored alloy frame. Zelenka settled for peering over McKay's shoulder.

Weir: "What wasn't there before?"

McKay tapped the keyboard of his laptop.

"What is that?" Radek extended a finger past McKay's arm.

Her voice deepening, "What is what?" Weir demanded.

McKay glanced up as though jerked across a great distance. "It's a life sign and it's connected to our alarm. The alarm is from a system we've never seen before. It must have been running in the background and became operational about thirty minutes ago."

"Ordinarily not so big or unusual a problem," Zelenka interjected, eyeing Weir. The strained air about the scientists belied that. "We have experienced this in the past."

"--Usually when there's a problem," Weir pointed out.

"We believe this system serves some sort of security function."

"What kind of security function?"

"I'm working on it," insisted McKay, red-faced with exasperation.

"He means he doesn't know." Zelenka caught a sharp look from McKay and amended his claim: "We don't know."

A familiar vibration rose within and below the control room as the curving naquadah ring of the Stargate began to glow.

"Off-world activation," Chuck announced, facing his work station. The Stargate whooshed behind its force field barrier and settled into a gelatinous pool of light. "Receiving Colonel Sheppard's IDC."

Weir exhaled. "Let them in. How many teams are off world?"

"Major Lorne's team is expected back in two hours."

Just one, good. Seconds later, she watched as Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, Teyla Emmagan, and Ronon Dex strolled onto the russet deck below the control room. Droplets of moisture clung to their shoulders and hair, suggesting a rainstorm on the Athosians' new homeworld. Dex wore a long brown coat that split along the side and up the middle, allowing for economy of motion. John and Teyla wore uniform jackets, tactical vests, and combat boots. Teyla's hair was clipped in a pony tail and off her face, letting Weir glimpse the strain in the Athosian's features and in her dark eyes.

Weir imagined it had not been an easy mission for Teyla, as this was the Athosian leader's second attempt to persuade her people to return to Lantea.

On the first occasion the warning about "Michael" and the hybrid army went unheeded. Michael and his hybrids could find New Athosia as easily as he found the Taranians. If he 'gated to New Athosia, how would Teyla's people survive? Teyla said her people would not return to Lantea. There was, Teyla told, a discovery on the new world of a religious nature, a link to a vanished race that played heavily in Athosian worship. And so Ronon had gone to speak to Teyla's next-in-command, to tell what he had seen of the Taranians, to explain the killing lab and the discarded corpses and to do so in a way that Teyla could not. By the look on the Athosian leader's face, Weir guessed that Ronon had not dented Halling's resolve.

Weir activated the internal com. "John, can you and your team come to the control room? We have a problem."

Sheppard glanced toward the transparent enclosure. He tensed and relaxed. Weir recognized the adrenaline burst. Saw, too, how quickly Sheppard reined it in. The Marines called it "stress inoculation," learning to live with crisis, training the body to react differently to the deluge of adrenaline and cortisol, the increased heart rate. Alarm ushered the "inoculated" warrior into a zone where performance peaked. In other words, the tougher things got, the calmer Sheppard became.

John climbed to the control room, said in a low, tight voice, "What's going on?"

"It is some kind of alarm," Zelenka replied, looking up at John. "It began when the off-world team led by Major Connor 'gated in--"

Sheppard opened the internal com. "Sheppard to Major Connor."

There was an immediate response.

"Connor, come to the control room ASAP." Hands on his hips, John gestured with his chin. "What kind of alarm are we talking about?"

"We don't know," Weir explained. "It appears to be coming from a system we've never seen before."

"But we are getting a location alert," Rodney suddenly said.

"What?" Weir cried out. "And you're just mentioning this now?"

The team turned to McKay, who looked back at them as though each was tapping his or her foot.

"On screen one life sign looks like the next. Once I made the connection between the bio-sensor signal and the alarm, I followed the prompt, which I suspect is a filter of some sort. With the filter on, every life sign but one went into the background. And before you ask, I don't know what the filter does. I have a bio signature but I don't know why it's unique or what is connecting it to the alarm. The only thing I'm sure of is that it's human."

"And it is inside the city?" Teyla asked.

"Yes, yes, inside the city." McKay rolled his eyes.

"We followed standard security protocols when Major Connor and his team returned," Chuck threw out there. "The bio sensors were green."

"And the detector didn't come on right away," Zelenka mentioned. "Rodney only now is noticing it. There is something about this life sign--"

"What's wrong with it?" Ronon pushed.

McKay flashed a cold stare. "I don't know. When I find out what the alarm is for, I'll know what the filter is ... filtering."

A wiry, blond Air Force Major bounded into the control room. "Sir?"

John, still low-voiced: "You run into anything strange on the mission today?"

"No, sir, it was pretty routine. We 'gated in, met with the indigenous population. They were friendly but they didn't want much to do with us. They let us take the samples we needed and then we 'gated back."

Sheppard exhaled sharply, began loosening his tac vest. "Where is it, Rodney?"

"Science Lab Six on level two."

Zelenka's eyes widened slightly. "That's one of my labs."

John shrugged his way out of his coat. "What's it for?"

"Storage mostly. Projects that have been assigned low priority."

Stripped to his T-shirt, John drew on his tactical vest. Settled his P90 in the crook of his arm. "Anyone supposed to be there now?"

Zelenka shook his head. "It is one of the smaller labs. We are rarely in Six. Only to gather materials and samples or recover logs that have been moved off the server."

Ronon fingered his weapon, eyeballed its selector indicator, and rocked the weapon back into its holster.

"Patch me to security radios only." Sheppard headed for the stairs.

Teyla, Ronon, and Major Connor hustled after him.

x x x x x

The central staircase tunneled down through the tower, throwing off corridors bathed in light, even in evening hours. John drew the team together and ordered radio silence, which meant the personnel passing in the stairwell and adjacent halls had no idea why he was moving quickly. Along the way, he met his back-up team.

The lab was relatively close to operations, which wasn't a bad place to create a little mischief. Okay, so sometimes the systems in Atlantis hiccuped. He could be getting hot and bothered over nothing. The problem was he was starting to get a bad vibe and it was running along a fine wire that connected dots he couldn't see but knew were present. Zelenka's storage lab wouldn't be an area of interest except for its position in the tower. As ground zero for sabotage, it might prove troublesome. But what did Zelenka's lab have to do with Connor's mission and a new kind of life sign detector? There it was. Too many dots and somehow they were connecting.

On level two, John signaled the back-up team to one side of the corridor. He didn't want the pretty Atlantis walls throwing an army of shadows across the doorway.

He listened. The level was quiet, not unusual during evening meal hours. This side of level two wasn't all that busy anyway.

John waved to Connor and the Marine security team. Wait. He needed them to hold out of sight. He signaled Teyla and Ronon. Together the three of them breezed through the lab's outer door and inside its stepdown containment chamber. Through a transparent inner door John glimpsed a man in a lab coat. Okay, that part was easy. The man looked familiar, looked healthy. He knelt inside a storage locker, but paused to take them in. He straightened, appearing puzzled by the presence of security personnel in the stepdown room.

John passed his hand over the doorway crystal. Nothing happened. He eyed the scientist, a thirty-something, athletic-seeming man with sandy hair.

The scientist stared back, then strolled to an illuminated console. He tapped a key, releasing the doors.

John stepped through first, swept the lab with a tight glance. "Doctor Moran, isn't it?"

The scientist glanced from John to Ronon, lingered on Ronon, and uttered, "Yes, yes, I am."

John's gaze paused on the open storage locker. A few pieces of inventory lay on the floor. He turned to the idle work stations, some of which were in shadow. The work stations formed a half-dozen rows, heavy-seeming slabs on top of veined granite pedestals. The stations reminded John of chemistry class. "You here by yourself?"

"Yes, I am."

"How long you been here?"

"All evening-- may I ask why you're asking?"

"All evening since when?"

"Since my colleagues and I returned from Jenev."

He was one of the scientists who went off-world with Major Connor on the Jenev mission?

John stopped looking around. Stopped everything. Stopped breathing.

Moran twitched. Or maybe it was Ronon who twitched. John trusted Ronon's instinct; he would take Ronon's intuition in a fire fight to the bank. When he dove, John landed on his hip against one of the granite platforms under the nearest work station but not before something slender and sharp slashed open his arm. He heard the thwack, thwack, thwack of projectiles pounding the wall and the scream of something drilling mercilessly through the transparent door without shattering it. The projectile continued into the corridor, bringing Connor through the doorway. John heard more projectiles singing through the air, cursed, and fell onto his belly. He exposed the muzzle of his P90, fired.

Bullets zinged into stone, plunked through metal, and rebounded off the faint bluish-green haze of the personal shield surrounding Moran.

John flinched behind cover as another volley of projectiles bore into the wall.

A half-second lull before the sound of steps. Crap. Where was Teyla? Where was Ronon? He couldn't see them. He couldn't see anyone but he knew Moran and his freakish weapon were heading his way.

John scampered the length of the stand.

"John, what is going on down there?" Weir's voice on the com.

He pedaled fast around the granite base, hugging the stone for protection. "Seal Science Lab Six! Extract the oxygen! Do it now!"

Weir protested. "John, there are four life signs in that lab."

"One of them's wearing a protective shield and he's shooting at us. Contain him and knock him out! It's the only chance we got!"

Ronon's blaster buried a devastating charge in the work station next to John, which meant, yeah, Ronon was still alive and Moran had been almost on top of John. Ronon's fire spun Moran around. As the outer doors sealed, Ronon fired again.

John came up from a crouch and added P90 fire to the back of Moran's shield. It made a lot of noise and a good light show and covered up the sound of the lab's massive air handling units adjusting to a control room command. There actually wasn't a way to extract oxygen other than to vent it. As there was no vacuum to vent into, Rodney was probably going to override safety protocols and introduce something unhealthy through the ducts.

Ronon was moving, continuing to draw fire in the form of shiny projectiles that appeared almost like flashes of light. John had seen the projectiles before and was profoundly unhappy to see them again. Besides which, his weapon was suddenly becoming heavy and his vision was slipping out of focus.

The scientist he knew as Moran was still shooting.

Moran whirled. John hung there, transfixed by the look on the scientist's face. Realization. The toxin or whatever it was-- no, it wouldn't be a toxin. John's strength wasn't in personal shield technology but he figured personal shields wouldn't let in anything bad. But if Rodney's answer to the problem was displacing oxygen, if the oxygen level went below a life-sustainable level, that would hurt Moran same as everybody else. Moran had to breathe.

John ducked, let a fresh volley of projectiles soar past. Chest pumping, he gripped the floor, certain he was melting into it. Hypoxia. Very soon he was going to lose the ability to shoot and dodge.

Moran stumbled. John heard his lumbering, unsteady steps. Good. Moran was feeling it. Now if he could keep the homicidal scientist on his side of the lab, maybe Teyla and Ronon had a chance.

He heard a thump. He figured the he was hearing his own head bouncing off the floor.

x x x x x

Teyla noticed first a swirl of color, blues and reds running together like a painting left in the rain. She attempted to discern the original image. For some reason doing so was important. Light tinged the edge of her vision. A spike of pain. Had she struck her head? She brought up her hand, confronted by the pull of freshly sutured skin.

Her eyes snapped open and she bolted upright.

"It's all right, it's all right." A woman's voice.

No, oh no. More pain than comfort, Teyla realized with a jolt. She faced a line of empty beds, inhaled the antiseptic scent of scrubbed floors and sterile sheets. Here another's voice was expected: a man's soothing baritone (and kind blue eyes) that never failed to attend her waking.

When she came here now, she always felt sharply the loss of Carson Beckett.

"You're in the infirmary," Dr. Keller informed unnecessarily. "We got you."

Teyla saw that she was under a sheet and in white pajamas. A pulse and oxygen meter clung to her finger. She plucked it off and scooted to the edge of the gurney.

"Not yet, Teyla, not--" Keller broke off with a groan.

On her feet and anxious, Teyla padded quickly around the privacy screen on her right. There in the next bed was Ronon. Fortunately, the blood on his neck had come from a less dangerous wound than she recalled. There was a bandage on his neck now. He wore an oxygen mask, and there was an IV.

"Is he all right?"

Dr. Keller had moved quietly to Teyla's side. "Doctor McKay released a chemical into the science lab that removes oxygen from the atmosphere. He calculated the level of discharge based on the urgency of the situation but, believe me, at any level, the chemical was toxic. Fortunately, Ronon's injuries are not life-threatening. I'm more worried about the long-term. Permanent liver damage. It does appear the men took a bigger hit than you did."

"Is John injured?"

"Colonel Sheppard is right here." Keller led past another screen.

Teyla went to the foot of the bed, let her breath tumble from her lungs in relief. John was sleeping. She passed a hand anxiously over her face, glanced away and back. In the early days of her association with the Earthers she had thought John Sheppard invulnerable. Alas, she was falling in love and somewhat incautious. She had learned since to expect no accommodation among the unforgiving stars.

"His oxygen level is much higher than Ronon's. He's going to wake up faster. Do you have a headache?"

Teyla nodded.

"Not surprising. I am sorry to tell you, Major Connor didn't survive."

"He was struck by the weapon, I know." Teyla turned her dark eyes on Keller. "And Doctor Moran?"

Keller's eyes became hooded. She swallowed noticeably. "We don't know what happened to Doctor Moran. Come, I'll show you."

x x x x x

The lights in Pathology were dialed to high. Groggy, Teyla had put on slippers, and Dr. Keller had given a robe. Thus did she meet Rodney McKay's skittish and glassy eyes over the morgue tray that contained the covered remains of Major Connor.

Teyla's heart pricked and turned within her breast. While Drs. Biro, Weir, and Keller looked on, she dipped her head in Rodney's direction. "You did what needed to be done," she assured him. "We would be slain otherwise."

McKay's hands twitched and fluttered. His mouth quivered. "I could have, I don't know, I wish I'd picked something less-- something."

"We had no time. I watched Doctor Moran fall only a short span from Colonel Sheppard. If you had not acted appropriately, Doctor Moran would have killed John as he killed Major Connor."

Dr. Weir smiled wanly at Teyla. "I'm glad you're up. Doctor Biro was explaining the weapon that killed Major Connor is the weapon that killed Lieutenant Kane on Athos."

"You are meaning the wrist weapons carried by the Preminians. Nothing good has come of that encounter."

"We have a couple of problems," Weir agreed. "Here's the first." She turned around.

Teyla followed Weir to another tray. On the tray lay the body of a woman. Ropes of auburn hair flowed from a face gone cold and gray. Teyla saw long features, a thin straight mouth tinged blue. She was certain she had never seen the woman before.

"This is Doctor Moran," Weir informed. "This is the person you confronted in the lab. But it's not our Doctor Moran."

"This is not right."

McKay murmured, "Really, you think so?" Teyla thought she heard a trace of caustic McKay but decided the scientist was merely anxious. "I'm trying to determine the last point in time Doctor Moran was Doctor Moran. My guess is the switch occurred on Jenev and when this ... person came through the Stargate, a sensor was activated."

"What kind of sensor?" Teyla asked.

"Hmm. Add that to the list," McKay said.

"The list?"

"It's a very long list, actually. Why was the sensor activated? What technology enables faux Doctor Moran to look like our Doctor Moran and act as a personal shield? What was the fake Doctor Moran looking for? Where is the real Doctor Moran? When did the switch take place? What would have happened if the sensor didn't send an alarm? Did I cause two of my friends permanent liver damage?"

Teyla brushed Rodney's arm, looked at him before quickly turning her gaze to the corpse of the intruder. "How did she die?"

"Did I forget that one? Actually, that one we know. Her personal shield sort of turned on her. It sent a lethal pulse the minute she was incapacitated."


Part Two: Encounter


"The technology is not Ancient." Rodney, next to Zelenka, raised his hands to illustrate his points. He scanned the conference room. "In spite of the similarities. Actually, there's more dissimilar than ... Uh, yes." He drummed the table, reacting to the tension surrounding him.

Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon were on his left. They'd looked better. Teyla's complexion was the least troubling but her brow was furrowed as though the light seeping through the partially closed panels was painful. Ronon looked awful, his skin almost pewter and his eyes shot with red. Pale, Sheppard at least looked at Rodney straight on. But every now and again Sheppard's chest swelled with a long, slow breath as though the Air Force pilot's thoughts were flashing to his brush with death by asphyxiation.

Elizabeth Weir was on Rodney's right. She had not slept and kept her hand near a necessary cup of cooling coffee.

Holding a chair across the big metal table, Colonel Steven Caldwell, commander of the deep space carrier Daedalus, drilled the scientist with especially fierce intensity. In Rodney's opinion, the by-the-book Colonel tended to analyze information according to a personal agenda.

Rodney went on. "From all accounts, the personal shield performed the way we expect ... the way I expect Ancient personal shield technology to perform, but that's where it ends. The shield module is radically different in design, down to the, uh, rather nasty penalty for losing a fight. Now for the clone technology, picture artificial tissue that mimics the real thing. But it's more than tissue. I mean, bone structure, cartilage, your unique, er, features and body characteristics. The skin our impersonator was wearing reacted to the environment just like ours. It blushed, it even bled. The artificial skin was mounted on a solid so porous, it was like being mounted on air. When I peeled away the artificial skin, I was able to detect nanites--"

"What, you mean like human-form replicators?" Caldwell interrupted.

"I doubt if human-form replicators need to go to this extreme to alter their appearance. The nanites I found were what altered the artificial material. My guess is the process happened before and while the artificial material was mounted on the porous solid. When we pulled the material off the corpse, the nanites became inert. The membrane became thin, almost transparent, similar in every way to porous areogel. The membrane covered our intruder head to toe."

"Is this possible?" Weir asked.

"Hmmm, clearly."

"How?"

"I have no idea."

"So what you're saying--"

"Most of you don't know how porous aerogel is made and I don't have time to tell you. Let's just assume, shall we, that it is incredibly complex and time-consuming. They, whoever they are, must have somehow brought the porous solid with them. Then they used nanites mounted on the porous solid to form a complex facsimile of a human being. That was the end product. Before they, whoever they are, did that, they needed to make a reasonably decent record in our three-dimensional world of our Doctor Moran and program the nanites with data from the recording. Knowing that Doctor Moran's first off-world mission occurred yesterday limits the amount of time our intruder's technicians actually had to produce their facsimile, which means they did all this in a matter of hours. A matter of hours. It's technologically impossible."

"You just said it was possible," Sheppard corrected.

"Did I?" Rodney humphed. "Nothing like this exists in quantum mechanics, biomolecular science, or interface chemistry. Nothing even remotely resembling this technology is in the Ancient database. I don't know who created it, but, uh, whoever they are, they're not from around here."

Ronon Dex stirred. "You're saying the intruder was a skin-on-skin."

Rodney pursed his lips to disagree and then realized the oversimplification was accurate.

Meanwhile, Teyla looked slantwise at Ronon. "A skin-on-skin?"

Ronon shook his head at her. "Exile science."

Teyla's body language showed instant agreement. She spoke a word that Rodney recognized as Ancient.

He translated: "Simulacrum? Did you just say simulacrum?"

"I believe that is what the Ancestors called the evil that put on the skin of the dead and the lost to do bad things."

"Like break into your city, go through your stuff?" Sheppard suggested.

Dex clamped his mouth shut. Teyla, too, showed reluctance to elaborate. However, she added, "I have not seen this technology or a skin-on-skin and known it. My father spoke of such things when he told of the crimes of the Exiles."

Rodney had been tapping his laptop. Now he glanced up. "There are references to simulacrum in the database. I'm going to need a minute to go through them."

"What was this person doing here?" Elizabeth wanted to know.

Zelenka shrugged and folded his hands. "We may not be sure of the simulacrum technology or the personal shield, but the wrist weapon is used by one of our dubious allies, the Preminians. Perhaps the Preminians are exporting this weapon to support their new life on the new world, we do not know. The imposter was most likely another mercenary. The lab in which the imposter was looking was the last location of the data modules before I moved them." Zelenka searched the blank faces. "The data modules? The modules for which the bomber several months ago was prepared to kill Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard? If you do not recall--"

"I recall." Sheppard.

"--we substituted a hasty construct to fool the man."

Elizabeth began slowly to nod. "No good deed goes unpunished."

Sheppard flared an eyebrow before turning to Zelenka. "Why'd you move the modules?"

"I have increased the project priority level. We don't know yet what the modules do. Initial research says are data storage. What is the data? Somebody wants them bad enough to kill for them." Zelenka met Sheppard's eye. "We thought we should know why."

The Colonel, meanwhile, frowned like a man who'd bitten into rotten fruit.

Elizabeth edged her coffee aside. "We can't afford to wait for the next assault. I'll speak to the chancellor on Jenev, see if we can go back and find out what happened to the real Doctor Moran." She sighed, a mirror for the collective feeling that Dr. Moran was murdered and disposed of. "Rodney, let's understand this simulacrum technology better. To that end, I keep hearing the term Exile. The remains of an Exile city exist on 657?"

"Belleron, yes," Zelenka agreed. "That is the planet on which Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard encountered the first mercenary."

Caldwell scanned the room. "We need to go back there. If the Exile civilization possesses a level of technology capable of creating simulacrums and personal shields, we need a closer look at it."

Rodney felt his stomach shimmy. The last time he'd seen the planet Belleron, it was infested with murderous thugs: bottom-feeders from all over the Pegasus living under the authority of something called the Covenant.

Elizabeth continued. "John, I want you to escort a science team back to 657, provided the planet has been abandoned, and see what you can find out."

Sheppard squared his shoulders. "Yeah, about that. How we gonna know the Covenant won't come in behind us, especially if they're the ones that sent the imposter?"

"My people," Teyla said, "continue to bring word from our trading partners that any who have means may trade for a place among the Covenant. If anyone may become one of their group, the location of the current Covenant world may be guarded, but with the proper questions and for the right person, it will not be a secret."

"She's right," Ronon seconded. "Shouldn't be hard for Teyla to find out if the Covenant is still on Belleron."

"And if they're still on that planet," Caldwell jumped in, "we take the Daedalus, use beaming technology to reach the Exile city, and follow our mandate." He rocked forward, elbows on the table. "I shouldn't have to remind anyone in this room we are duty-bound to explore any and all technology that could help Earth win the war against the Ori."

That hung there for a while.

x x x x x

An open panel let burnished daylight into the spartan office. Looking for focus, John brushed his laptop keyboard, examined the liquid crystal display, and slowly sat back.

I am Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. It has been my privilege to command the unit under which your son, Major Thomas David Connor, served with dedication and selflessness. I am writing to extend my deepest sympathies to you and your family--

Here, restless, he stalled. He never referred to the last letter, the one he'd composed before this one, or the one before that. Not even to jumpstart the process. It didn't matter how many hours crept by. Or that he was still a little weak, still nauseous. Making the words work, whatever they would be-- knowing that he'd pulled them from within, refusing to let the task become routine --that was part of who he was, who he wanted to be. Something his father taught. Something he would not let go of.

So it took longer than it had to, writing the letter.

It meant disobeying Keller's orders. He wasn't going to grab that power nap. It was get the letter done and get over to the infirmary for the final sign-off by Dr. Keller.

... In the brief time Thomas served under my command, I found him to be an extraordinary officer, a skillful colleague, and a good friend. He died heroically rushing to the aid of comrades. His sacrifice has profoundly impacted those who knew him. I wish I could tell you more--

John stopped abruptly. Too much like the last one. Try again.

Ronon's voice cut into his thoughts. "We're due in Medical."

Eyes on his screen, John said, "You could have used the com." This was his office, so he was used to the unannounced coming and going of personnel. However, the Satedan specialist's arrival surprised him.

"We"-- this time it was Teyla's voice and John looked up --"did not wish to speak to you over the com."

John saw that she was slightly in front of Ronon and dressed already in uniform trousers, boots, and the light shirt she would wear under her jacket and tactical vest. It was, the MALP had assured, spring on Belleron.

"I'm just finishing up something."

Teyla said, "We merely wanted to look in before seeing Doctor Keller."

She meant, before the mission swept them up. They would go first to get checked out-- all at once, like a bunch of recruits in boot camp. Then it was on to mission briefing. The mission would catch them like debris in a current and speed them along. Bumps and bruises notwithstanding, they'd been through it all before.

"The Jenev have agreed to let us search for Doctor Moran," Teyla went on.

He'd heard. "All right. And your sources confirm the Covenant left Belleron?"

"It is so. Major Lorne has observed the progress of the MALP and the UAV."

John nodded. "Anything worth seeing?"

"It is as I recall," said Teyla, unhappily.

Ronon bobbed his head in agreement. "Place still looks like hell. Nice and warm, though. No life signs."

John said, "Good." Didn't know until he said it how badly he didn't want to set foot on the planet. But, "Maybe we can finish it this time," he added. Wasn't sure what he meant by that but it made him look at the laptop screen, check out the last line in the letter of condolence.

"What do you mean? We went for a ZPM. There were no ZPMs on Belleron." This was Teyla. "That information was seeded to draw us there by enemies who knew we were in need of such. It is the fault of no one that we never examined the Exile city."

"They learned we'll negotiate for our people," John said, unexpectedly. "They learned they're stronger than we are."

Teyla inhaled and tilted her head. "We refused to leave behind one of own. That is not weakness."

Ronon locked his arms across his chest. "Yes, it is," he countered, his throaty voice stronger than usual. "But it's a weakness I can live with. It's what makes us who we are."

John was glad to hear the Satedan say it. Still, "They know our city," he protested. "They've been in our city."

"The death of Major Connor did not come of our going to Belleron." This, also, was Teyla, and her voice was soft. "This enemy, the one that took Doctor Moran and held you captive, was our foe before we traveled to that world. Do not forget, we saved the refugees and while we were there showed the Covenant we were not to be trifled with."

"Yes, we did." John reached for a key and darkened his laptop screen.

"Okay?" Ronon queried.

"I'm good," John said.

Relieved, "You were doing mission reports now?" Teyla exhaled. "Before briefing?"

He had a reputation for procrastination in the area of documentation.

"I can catch up when I get back." He stood up and realized he'd been thinking about the letter another way. He'd been working on the letter to Major Connor's family as though he wasn't. Wasn't going to come back. In the way of the combat-initiated, an overly superstitious breed if ever he saw one, John recognized his thought as the worst kind of karma and shook it off. Arm extended to his teammates, "After you," he said.

x x x x x

The Wraith cast a long shadow, John thought. How many worlds had he seen twisted into a reflection of pseudo-insanity by its inhabitants' unrelenting fear of the inevitable culling? Human behavior did not get to him as much as it used to, although he had some difficulty accepting the pervasive abjection of Pegasus cultures that simply waited for it. Likewise the radical treatments and machinations of those that did not. He was constantly confronting one end of the spectrum or the other end. Rarely was there middle ground, and he knew why-- he had, too, experienced the mind-numbing madness of waiting for the hammer in the form of three Wraith hive ships, waiting and waiting, knowing they were coming, preparing though he was certain, at least for a time, that nothing he had was going to be enough.

In the so-called lull between cullings, Belleron's people had built a domed facility over the Stargate. The dome's purpose, Teyla had explained, was to stop Darts, the little pointy Wraith raider-ships. As far as John could tell the Bellites had shown no deeper form of resistance. Even so the Wraith had wiped them out. Belleron had been a civilization like 1950s-era Earth, at least development-wise, with maybe a bump here, a deficit there. High-rise buildings, a river spanned by a succession of architecturally impressive bridges. One side of the river was criss-crossed with sidewalks. The other side accommodated vehicles of some sort. Presently, the city-- he had no way of knowing if the primary Bellite city of Sagaz was one of a kind or one of many --was more or less devastated, much like the city John had seen on Ronon's homeworld Sateda. Culling or violent death, no escape, and finally silence.

Standard Wraith response for worlds that showed a little spine.

And so spring on Belleron offered up a thin stir of wind that tasted faintly of tall grasses and pollen. The air whispered cryptically with the to-and-fro of debris and the eddy of a slow-moving river. The wind was sickeningly devoid of all things human.

It was a hollow that lay a chill on John's heart. Last time he set boots on Belleron there had been a refugee community and a coterie of criminal-types intent on wiping out said refugees. As far as John could tell, the Covenant was a band of Stargate-hopping opportunists who believed they could stay ahead of the increasingly frequent and deep cullings taking place on many Pegasus worlds. The marauders had a successful track record. Pegasus dwellers now had a choice between bad and worse; and many, according to the Athosian Halling, were going for bad.

Fortunately, the Covenant, too, had moved on, making John's trek above the valley uneventful, like a long, slow march through the countryside. Much of the upland was level and lush, thatched here and there by leafy woods. A night rain had softened the soil. A flock of birds wheeling overhead reminded the Wraith had killed Belleron's people but the planet itself was alive, its cycle of life uninterrupted. Below the rim, in the valley city of Sagaz, an insect issue had survived eradication of the populace. Sagaz's infestation was of the carnivorous variety, critters called nesters that were, thankfully, shy of adults and ineffective in daylight. John was trying not to think about them.

For this day's jaunt, John had put Lorne's four-man team on 'gate duty inside the Sagaz dome. Teyla marched up front beside John. McKay drifted a few paces behind, his nose pointed at the screen of his scanner. Although it was hardly the case two years ago, McKay had the lungs and muscle now to keep up. Ronon brought up the rear, undoubtedly cutting his strides to accommodate all of them. The mission was to check out the ruins and if all went well, fetch and escort the scientists, already on stand-by.

The Exile city was right there in front of them. It had been in sight, far away and always immense, the moment they cleared Sagaz. What a presence.

"You have one of these on Sateda?" John asked. Normally he didn't mention Ronon's world. Figured it was a touchy subject.

"Yup." Ronon, from behind.

John waited for more. After a minute of silence, "You ever go there?" he asked.

"Nope."

John plodded along, eyes ahead.

Teyla, however, slanted him a sideways glance.

John tried again. "Your city look like that?"

"No."

"Really?" McKay joined in. "What's different about it that you can see from this far out?"

John shot a glance over his shoulder, found Ronon looking between them with his usual frown.

"Sateda's is bigger," Ronon said, in a moment. "That circle of stones you see here, it is not there on Sateda. And there is no approach by foot. The Exile city is on a rock projection guarded by the centralized military authority. Was. Was guarded." Ronon looked askance, then seemed to shrug off a dark thought. "Nothing there for civilian eyes. That was decided a long time ago."

"How hard is it to get inside?" John wondered, looking up at the outer circle of giant, ancient stones. The circle made him think of Stonehenge, except Stonehenge was much smaller. "Could it be boobytrapped?"

That got a cry of protest from McKay. "What? Why are we just now discussing death traps?"

"Nothing like that in our records," Ronon said, tentatively. "But it's on, the city's not dead. It's on, and you can make mistakes if you don't know what you're doing."

"Like what? What kind of mistakes?" McKay insisted.

"Better if I show you."

"In time to avoid them, if you don't mind." McKay.

Annoyed at McKay's tone but in tune with McKay's message, John looked back at Ronon. "Hey, buddy, how dangerous could this get, based on the, uh, records?"

"You can call them," Ronon said.

"Call who?"

"The Exiles."

"Call them how?"

"The communications array is always active. Our scientists couldn't turn it off."

"Is that all?" Teyla wondered.

That was enough. "Gavriel was one of these Exiles," John reminded her.

Posing as a warden with the refugee community, a being known as Gavriel had implanted John with a lethal remote-controlled device in order to fulfill a freelance contract that involved stealing data modules from Atlantis.

"Okay, we take care of the array first," opined McKay. "Is there anything else you'd like to mention before we get there?"

"Nope. Yup. There might be weapons."

John stopped in his tracks, turned around. "Defensive weapons?" He was incredulous and a bit annoyed. What was Ronon holding back for?

"These kind of weapons." Ronon brushed the holster of his energy weapon.

Annoyance melted in a burn of excitement, which, for reasons he didn't care to share, John worked hard not to show. "Really."

Ronon saw it anyway. With a flare of his brow and a slight smirk: "Really."

John turned back toward the stone ring, a little extra pep in his step.

x x x x x

Used to the symmetry, uniformity and straight lines of Ancient design, John was mesmerized by the Exile construct, a dark soaring model of interconnected rings of dissimilar and varying position and size gleaming in the azure haze of the sky. The outer circle of giant upright Stonehenge-style stones looked like Lego blocks in comparison. Visible at a far distance, the floating rings, each canted oddly, were affixed somehow to a glazed, black cone that looked as though it was the center of the Exile city.

The stone circle, clearly, was Bellite and pitifully old, far older than the human city Sagaz in the valley. John supposed the Bellites had put up the stone circle back in its equivalent of the Stone Age, maybe as homage to the Exile city idle and unknown in its midst. The Exile city, which somehow had discouraged settlers, could easily have evoked worship, prompting the Bellites to lay down religious framework in a form the people of a more ancient era understood. Meanwhile, imposing and eerily pristine, the floating arches and rings presided over millennia of change, itself unchanging and host to no one.

"Anything turned on here, Rodney?" John asked. They'd cleared the neolithic circle of stones and selected a path that appeared to have been laid down for the infrequent visitor. The outer precinct of the Exile city was enclosed by a thin wall the hue and texture of gun metal broken by four immense gates, all of which stood open. Grass had grown around the path but under the wall the grass stood back as if groomed by mysterious groundskeepers or subject to an alien will.

John thought the cropped grass was freakish. It was neat and pretty and all, and about as cool as a gaily painted Tim Curry doing his clown grin.

"You betcha," cooed McKay, unfazed. "Soon as we cleared those stones. In fact, the energy readings are increasing like we tripped the on switch and the city is saying hello."

"Told you," said Ronon.

"Anybody ever get into trouble on your world by going in the Exile city uninvited?" John asked.

"Not going in. Like I said, there're other problems."

"Like running into the landlord, I get it." Rodney seemed characteristically dismissive. "First contact and all that."

"We already had first contact." Ronon said it before John could.

John tightened his face. "All right. We got a lot of ground to cover so we need to keep it tight. We see anything good, remember there's a science team coming for that." A quick look of warning in McKay's direction. His reward for that was a roll of McKay's eyes. "No wandering off. This is a security sweep only. We want to be back in Atlantis by nightfall. Tomorrow we come out, bring the champagne, take this place apart."

At his side, "Yes, John," murmured Teyla.

Made him look at her, made him notice that she was not her happy self.

"What is it?" he asked.

She tensed her shoulders, then forced them to relax. "I do not know. I am sensing something that I have sensed before, and I do not like it."

"Just now, or ..."

"I have been sensing it for some while."

John began to wonder if he was having a bad day and was it him or were the expedition's best guides to Pegasus worlds deliberately holding out on him.

"New rule," he said. "Anybody senses something, has something to contribute, he or she speaks up right away. Deal?"

Teyla shot him a cool look. "It is not that kind of problem. But I will tell you, when I have felt this way in the past, I have not gone forward. Perhaps that is it. Something here makes me want to turn away."

"Me, too," Ronon said, quite earnestly.

John swung toward the Satedan. Ronon's instincts had been honed through eight years surviving as hunter and hunted in a deadly game of tag with the Wraith.

"As a child," Ronon added, "we were told nothing good comes of awakening Exile technology."

"Is that what this is about?" McKay challenged. "Fairy tales? We have them too. They're called urban legends. Never rub old lamps, don't drink goblin's milk, avoid saying Bloody Mary three times, don't pick up Rutger Hauer when he's hitchhiking."

"What happens," Teyla asked, "when you rub an old lamp?"

"People," John said, "do we have a problem here or don't we?"

"It is only a sense," Teyla said.

John glanced at Ronon.

The Satedan shrugged. "I already told you everything I know."

"Then we move on. Security sweep. And we stay together."

x x x x x

On the other side of the wall, squares of green turf divided long, white walkways that muted their footfalls. The outer layers of the Exile city were slender dun, gray, and black towers put up so close together that only a walkway separated them. John scanned the towers with his binoculars. Some were at least ten stories high. A hexagonal structure loomed, its perimeter marked by gardens of red, yellow, and lavender flowers.

When he realized what he was seeing, John stopped hard. "What's causing that?" No way should he be looking at mowed lawns or gardens.

McKay said: "Well, they're not holograms, although there's a power grid under the grass and the garden. Actually, there's one under the sidewalk too. It's emitting low levels of radiation."

"How low?"

"We're okay," McKay said, his voice slipping upward a notch.

"Can you tell what's powering the grids?"

"The power source is there." McKay pointed. "Have a look, shall we?"

John was thinking check out the power source later, do the security sweep first, but the technology that took care of the aesthetics had also created a way to shield a person and change a person's appearance. He was, therefore, more than a tad curious to see the source.

"Head in that direction," he allowed. He could evaluate the risk once he saw the structure. With that thought, he looked straight up at the closest giant ring. A quarter mile away and it looked like it was right on top of him. There, he thought. It's going to be there. What kept the black metal ring from crashing downward? Hopefully, not the on switch, which, John decided, he'd have to remember not to let Rodney turn off until the question of ring suspension was resolved.

A skyscraper balanced on slender metal stalks. Behind it, taller towers, twenty, forty, fifty stories, and arches with glass domes at the apex.

"Life signs?" John asked.

"Are you kidding me?" McKay was the master of sarcasm.

"Just checkin'."

"They don't live here anymore," Ronon said. "Our scientists thought the Ancestors did something to make them afraid to come back. We made sure they couldn't get back in. Didn't think letting them back inside was a good idea."

"Okay, how'd you make sure they couldn't get inside?" John asked.

"Don't know."

McKay looked up, his face registering exasperation. "So you have no way of knowing if you actually kept them out. For example, didn't you say the Covenant was using Exile technology likely looted from Sateda?"

Ronon glanced up at the floating rings rather than at McKay and answered with an unpredictable lack of rancor: "Yup."

Marching at John's side, Teyla shrugged. "I do not believe there is a way to keep them out of these cities. Long ago, perhaps, when the Exiles were removed from the worlds the Ancestors knew to be populated by humans."

Rodney corrected: "The Ancients were the ones who put humans on the Pegasus worlds."

Teyla went on. "Yes, Rodney. Even so, this world, and Ronon's, would not have been home to the Exiles for some while. The Ancestors did something to make the Exiles prisoners upon new worlds. After meeting you, I came to suspect the Exile prisoner worlds were those worlds with Stargates in orbit. Such was the way of it until the war with the Wraith. The Wraith must have reached the Exile worlds by ship. It is said that Exiles cannot be fed upon; the Exiles are not human. The Exiles treated with the Wraith and were in turn brought once again to the worlds with Stargates. It is said that by then the Exiles were few. My father believed that they chose mates among the humans who took them in and bred with us, that they became human themselves. All that I know is legend. My people and I have not heard a story of an Exile in many lifetimes."

"Can't say that anymore." Ronon, squinting at her. "About not knowing any Exile stories."

"True. Gavriel was not ... he was not human."

"Which doesn't answer why they've never come back here. We're talking ten thousand years," John murmured.

"No," Rodney said. "It doesn't explain it, does it?"

"What about that communication array? Not looking forward to having a dozen Gavriels creeping up on me," John decided. With that thought, he toggled his transmitter. "Sheppard to Lorne."

"Lorne here."

"We're picking up power and we have reason to believe there's an as yet undetectable signal leaving the city. FYI."

"Yes, sir."

"When you do the check-in, tell Doctor Weir we've breached the city, no life signs, and we're looking for possible com equipment and a live power source."

"Very good, sir."

"Sheppard out." Frowning, John trudged ahead. The structures were growing, seventy, ninety stories. It was like walking down the concrete canyons of New York City except New York never looked this shiny, this neat, and this freaky.

After another quarter hour of hard walking, the base of the cone was visible and McKay identified it as the power source. The rings now extended behind them. John thought he could detect a faint vibration, but Rodney said he was imagining it. Still, the hair was up on John's neck. Teyla's, too, going by the taunt expression and the way she held her P90.

"Any chance the communication array is controlled in there?" John asked, pointing with his chin at the base of a cone about four blocks wide. A plaza of smooth stone fronted the cone, leaving no doubt about the way in. When he saw McKay shrug, "That's gonna open on its own, isn't it?" John asked, uncomfortable.

McKay: "If we're lucky. Wanna try picking the lock on something like that?"

The plaza was about a half mile across, its white stone reflecting the warmth and light like glass.

"Anybody else feel like the ground is moving?" John spoke up again.

"Nope." Ronon.

Teyla said, "No, John."

McKay said, "Another increase in power. Still steady. This is amazing."

An opening large enough for a tall human being appeared in the dark metal cone.

John stopped. Took off his shades. Was that real? Sure it was. Made him wonder if they should really be going in there. A fleeting thought, no matter how salient, because they had to go inside. The answers were inside. It was his job to go first, get in, get everybody out, and later do it again for a cadre of eager geniuses with busy hands that liked to fool with stuff.

Growing steady, he put on his shades, set his mouth, and moved out.

The team-- after seeing him hesitate --went quiet.

x x x x x

"Amazing," Rodney breathed.

They entered on black tile that ran on to black walls and gave the interior the impression that the space went on forever. Rodney could see this because as soon as they entered a slew of lights in the form of horizontal bars popped on across the high ceiling. The bars were like pointing fingers, indicating the direction of the signal Rodney wanted to investigate. This made him wonder what the building was for. Would this building's only function be to maintain the power core? If so, then that explained the invitation to find it. Or was someone or something watching? So far Rodney had seen no evidence of shielding, which would hide life signs from his scanner. He might not, though. If the technology was good enough.

As he progressed, the space tapered to the width of an aircraft hangar. Corridors extended away into a dustless dusk.

Rodney sniffed. Frequent and efficient air exchanges were keeping the air in fine shape.

"Is this place fully automated?" Sheppard asked.

"Looks that way. Wonder if it's been like this for ten thousand years."

"Or if somebody turned it on a few months ago just for us."

"It's always on," Ronon said again. "I told you."

"Oka-ay," Sheppard said.

Rodney was thinking, Pick a hallway, any hallway, because the team was following him and his scanner. He chose left just to be different and was immediately glad he did.

A recess in the corridor offered a row of consoles to which Rodney skipped joyfully. Noting that as he approached the consoles graciously offered lighted panels flowing with data in symbols he had never seen before. Control stations were designed to be intuitive, so Rodney began searching for a clue on the consoles.

Ronon stayed with him because he chose to or because Sheppard signaled him to play bodyguard. Either way, Rodney didn't mind. Having a giant warrior in tow came with advantages. Something occurred to Rodney.

"Can you read this?"

"What?" Ronon asked. "This?"

Ronon was pointing at the main console with large crystal displays running messages like ticker tape.

"Yes, this."

"It says the main core is on stand-by. Says cells five and six are malfunctioning. All other cells're performing at ninety percent or better. Says you should enter your command code there."

Good news, not so good news, real good news, and then crap. But okay, life couldn't always be about chocolate candy bars and cream soda. Rodney began looking for a way to interface with the console.

Sheppard was coming over. "Is that Satedan?"

"Kind of archaic, but yeah. Like reading a history book before our scholars modernized it."

Seeing Sheppard do the same, Rodney gave the Satedan a fast glance. Sheppard looked away first, so Rodney suppressed his concern, didn't want to explore it while he was inside the Exile city. Didn't see a point to asking his teammate why Satedans used Exile symbols in their written language when the Satedan spoken language came directly from the Ancients. He ended up murmuring, "Interesting," and letting it go.

"Rodney," Sheppard called.

"Yes, yes, coming. I just need to find the interface--"

"Play later. We check out the building first."

"I just need to to see if--"

"McKay."

Rodney straightened, mouth screwed into a thin, hard line. "Fine." He fell in behind Sheppard with Ronon at his back.

x x x x x

"Who's leaving the breadcrumbs?" John asked, mostly to himself. The power center's broad, onyx passages went on an interminable distance. The reward for taking one of the shiny, lighted corridors was a sharp, seemingly pointless turn that connected the passage they just followed to one identical to it. The message of the day: destination unknown. The passages were level. No sign of stairwells, elevators, or transporters.

McKay huffed. "I am." He was still a bit touchy about getting yanked off the control panel and out of a scientist's idea of Christmas.

John was making only right turns so he wouldn't have to rely on someone else's version of breadcrumbs, though he was sure that whatever McKay was doing to ensure they didn't get lost in a maze of shiny alien hallways was good.

John was starting to think the corridors were host to a dozen rooms easy, but since he and his team were not invited into the rooms by the city's automated systems, the doors were staying invisible. Eventually, he was going to have to tackle this problem. Half his heart said that when McKay hacked the control panel, the "hidden rooms" problem would get solved. Or McKay'd blow up the place. One or the other. John's money was on McKay, but he was holding onto a healthy dose of skepticism.

So far the structure was behaving well, which was usually the galaxy's cue to inject a little drama.

On schedule, Teyla's face and frame went rigid.

John signed the team to an abrupt halt. "What is it?"

"I am sensing something." Something this time being a little more urgent than the heebie-jeebies she'd experienced outside the city.

John waited. Waited a bit longer. "And?"

Teyla whispered. "This structure interferes. However, I sense Wraith."

Ronon's blaster made a heavy beep as he drew it and rotated the selector from stun to kill.

"Are you sure?" John asked.

"Yes, I am sure." A hyped sensory package, the result of unwelcome DNA manipulation in her family tree, made it possible for Teyla to detect the presence of Wraith.

Not for the first time this trip, John felt a surge of adrenaline. He opened his mic. "Sheppard to Lorne--"

And got suddenly a growl through the earpiece, the Major adding in a tight voice: "Colonel, we got 'gate action."

John flinched. "Teyla senses Wraith. Fall back if you can't dial home for help."

"Nothing coming through!" That made sense. Belleron's dome was a hazard for Wraith Darts but tying up the Stargate to keep the locals from escaping, now that was a tried and true Wraith tactic. "We're inbound to you!" Lorne shouted.

"Watch the skies-- there's probably a ship in orbit," John warned.

"--We're out in the open, now, sir. Oh, no--" A live-wire screech, followed by the sounds of fighters in distress. "Darts! Darts--"

The com disconnected, Lorne's end swallowed by pristine silence.

John felt as though he'd been punched in the gut. It was a feeling he knew well but could not indulge. With Lorne's team gone and the Stargate busy with an inbound wormhole, his exit strategy was shot. That left Plan B, which was to dig in, or Plan C, the crappy option in which they got to go down fighting. He checked memory for a layout of the city. Better out there or in here? Kept in mind that he had about thirty seconds to make a call. The Darts were quick and could make it around the valley in no time.

"How shielded is this place?" he asked Rodney.

Rodney's tone was plaintive. "I have no way of knowing that."

Teyla gasped. "They are upon us."

"The Darts?" Rodney protested. "Oh, no."

"I am sensing a ship of some power, and its Darts have beamed soldiers to the surface within the Exile city."

"How many?"

"I cannot say."

Plan B looking bad, although Plan C was getting a bit of a nudge.

"We gotta get out of here," Dex grunted. "See if we can get lost in the city."

In a universe with rapidly dwindling options, John thought, running for it worked as well as any other half-hatched plan. Except he didn't see how the team could hope to negotiate the corridors of the power station and reach the exit in the time that was left. Leaving, alas, Plan C and the fragile possibility that a different version of Plan B would later present itself.

It was now about fifteen seconds since he lost Lorne. He wheeled first. Teyla was behind him. Ronon brought up the rear to make sure the team didn't lose anyone.

Teyla called out, "They are inside the facility!"

"What? Are you kidding me?" Rodney panted.

There was nothing but hallways, no chambers with sealing doors, nothing between them and the wide-open space. Go back, John's inner voice warned. Keep going until something better than running into a deadly enemy presents itself. If the corridors had been shorter and narrower, they could have worked a couple of decent ambushes. In a clash between John's team and the Wraith, the side with the heavier fire power and more bodies to sacrifice was going to win.

He got a jolt, pivoted in time, and dodged the white, prickly discharge from a Wraith stunner. His heart pounding, John looked for a bit of wall to hug. What a singularly crappy way to go. In the tail of his eye, he glimpsed Teyla dropping tactically to one knee, her P90 firing. Ronon had thrust McKay behind him with one arm, Ronon-fashion, and was sending his powerful and deafening blasts down the once immaculate hallway. John saw the vague outline of Wraith soldiers, the blue-white skin of massive arms wielding stunner long-guns, the heavy leather-like armor getting plunked by P90 rounds, the face masks that looked like rough stone crumbling under Ronon's shots. Soldier Wraith fell, and fell some more, three, then four, because Wraith warriors did not back up, they did not withdraw or regroup in any way that made sense. They attacked like soldier ants, piling up on the front line until the enemy was worn down or overwhelmed.

Teyla took a hit first. Keeping out of Ronon's field of fire, John angled from the wall to cover her as she crumpled the way he would a wounded comrade on Earth. The Wraith weapons did not wound, however. They altered consciousness, incapacitating a victim so that the victim could be stored for later consumption. Without Teyla's fire power, the Wraith running in for the next wave were getting off more shots. John heard Ronon grunt. Followed by the boom, in close proximity, of 9mm rounds exploding down the hallway. McKay, shooting. John ducked and took a stunner hit in the breast. The sizzling pain started in his chest and crackled outward, creating spasms as his muscles contracted and rapidly released. He was shutting down as quickly as he was falling and soon was still.

x x x x x

He woke cold and wet. Watched without moving his head as male Wraith in heavy black leather harnesses wandered to and from a bulky recessed panel with a bank of displays. The room he was in was overly bright, like a room in a surgical suite. Which made sense, because he was on his back on a hard, flat surface pinned by wrist, leg, and belly restraints. He had the feeling he was in the center of the chamber but he wasn't sure. His corner of the chamber hinted at an oblong structure. The spongy hull, exposed conduits, and irregular posts suggested he was on a Wraith vessel. Too bad. He harbored no fond memories of Wraith vessels. Every time he found himself inside one he wondered if this was it, if this was the end. His first mission in the Pegasus had led to a chain of bad experiences inside a Wraith hive carrier. His last visit to a Wraith ship wasn't any better.

Rivulets of sweat found the hollow of his throat. He felt streams like fire and ice cutting down his side and pooling under his back. Knew his hair was drenched. His palms and the soles of his feet, too. Light streaked his face at intervals. Although he was sure the light had purpose and it was doing something to him, he could not make himself stop looking at the panel to seek the light's source. If someone had asked him to multiply four times four, he could not have done it. Even so, he came to understand that the panel was showing him four sets of data-- the data unreadable, as he could not decipher Wraith symbols. But he needed to believe in something bigger than the wrist straps and his shivering, sweating body. He needed to believe the fluctuating readings measured his vitals and the vitals of his teammates.

After an interminable span, a Wraith wearing the long coat favored by the upper echelon leaned toward the panel. One of the displays winked out. John felt his heart crash into his ribs. The shock made him turn his head. His vision expanded, filling up with a long, broad bloodless visage. The face looked, for lack of a better word, rugged. Its features were thick, yet sharply honed, like the face of a cliff. The deep-set eyes were enormous with vertical slits, lending the pronounced features a brutal, almost maniacal cast. As John stared, and perhaps gasped, the creature's fat red lips retracted in interest, revealing a double row of glassy, serrated teeth. The sound that accompanied the baring of the teeth was a hiss, which John had learned from observing "Steve" was mostly reflex, much the way a cat purred when it was pleased.

The face drew back, going fuzzy.

John blinked and tried to focus. Could not do it.

The light from above swooped, flashed at him, and vanished.

John convulsed through a wave of nausea.

"I think he is ready," murmured a gruff voice at his side.

John rolled his head in the direction of the second Wraith.

The Wraith above him put out a massive hand and caught John's chin between thumb and fingers. The fingers tightened, forcing John to look up at him. "What do your soldiers call you?"

You killed my people, you can go to hell, John thought.

The Wraith's brow wrinkled with morbid interest. "Is that not the nature of war?"

This a mind probe? Can you tell what I'm thinking? Here's a thought for you. I don't remember starting a war, you son of a bitch. And get your hand off me.

The Wraith removed his hand and lowered fleshy lips over the blade-like teeth. As interest faded into something darker, the Wraith stared. "What is the name by which your soldiers know you?"

Thought your kind wasn't big on names.

"I wish for you to tell your public and intimate name, the name that is not spoken among enemies, in order to test the effectiveness of our probe."

Yeah, okay. See, this is why we put our interrogators through a cultural studies course.

The Wraith's blank face grew even more so. "A study of cultures--"

Yeah, like maybe what works for you, may not work for me.

"His responses are evasive," the Wraith addressed an unseen comrade. "Increase the stimulation."

Wait, wait-- you want to know my name? My name is Sheppard, John. Choke on it.

The Wraith turned to his invisible comrade. "He is ready." Facing John, "You have been to this world before now."

What world? This one? He felt his head nodding and his throat working hard to lubricate his vocal chords. "Yeah, I've been here before."

"When?"

John mouthed the word, Winter.

His lips twitching in response, the Wraith hissed. John's answer had agitated him. "For what purpose?"

John locked the muscles along his spine and in his limbs. He groaned.

The second Wraith wondered, "Is he again resisting?"

"Yes, he is." There was disappointment in the demeanor of the hovering Wraith.

"This one is their leader but perhaps if we prepared another subject--"

John spat, "What do you want from me?"

"We, Sheppard John, are looking for our queen. She last communicated to us in this solar system and from this world. And before we arrived, she was gone through the Stargate. Time and time again, through many solar systems, we have located and lost her. The beacon we attached to this city's communication array alerted us to your return. That is why we have remained in this solar system, awaiting the return of humans. That is why we captured you. We wish to know the location of our queen."

John had begun writhing. "I never saw Wraith the last time I--" He broke off suddenly, the truth hitting him.

A quiver of the lips, and a grating breath. "Ah, yes. The treatment and the probe are quite effective. You realize now you are unable to lie while bound to this table. Tell us about your encounter with our queen."

"It wasn't a queen. It was a male."

"You captured a male Wraith, yet saw nothing of his queen?"

"You know, if your queen is running away every time you get close to her, maybe she's tryin' to tell you something."

Rather than show anger, the Wraith radiated new interest. "Then you knew that she was here when you captured him."

I didn't capture him and I never saw him. I know he was here because he was with the Covenant.

"Where has the Covenant taken the queen and her guardian?"

How the hell should I know? I'm not a member of the Covenant.

The Wraith stood back. "You are not?"

"I just said I wasn't. I can't lie, remember?"

The second Wraith, the one John had not seen, made a savage sound. "Another useless endeavor!" He stalked off, his boots like blows against the floor of the ship.

John looked up at the first Wraith, blinking. The Wraith stared back, discontent grafted on his features.

It was over. Just like that. The interrogation was over.

John rasped, "What are you going to do to my people?"

The Wraith pursed the thick mouth in contemplation, frustration lingering like a faint but detectable scent. "You and your people will be stored until such time as you become useful."

x x x x x

You will be stored until you are useful.

There was no reasoning with that, no wedge deep or sharp enough to leverage the will and desire to live and return home with his team against the Wraith's indifference. Just as the Wraith, to John, was less-- less than human --so John, to the Wraith, was less deserving of existence. The Wraith consumed the life energy of humans to survive. And so John lay as though pinned by an unfathomable weight. He lay imagining the sleep in the cocoon, tendrils holding him as a fly was held for the spider, the horrible death as the time came to be useful.

Why can't you find her? Why can't you find your queen?

The Wraith paused as though between one thought and another, neither of which involved John so much. It occurred to John the Wraith could simply be considering feeding on him, in which case he, John, would die wretchedly but relatively quickly compared to his friends, and that would be that.

"Feeding upon you is not what I will do with your body."

You said you were going to store me.

"We are a science vessel within a destroyer-class Ranger."

What the hell? A destroyer-class what? "I don't know what that means."

"It means you are not among our human allies and as you suspect, will be terminated. Before you are extinguished, however, we will make use of your body."

Tentacles of fear gripped John's heart. "Make use of my body?"

"As I said, we are a science vessel."

He uttered, "Oh, God." This encounter was going south on a trajectory that profoundly exceeded John's imagination.

"Your cocoon is being prepared. Once you enter it, you will know no more pain."

How very human of you. Let me see my team.

The Wraith hesitated again, and again looked distracted. Whatever was holding him in that room was beyond John, who had never before traded words-- or thoughts --to this degree with a Wraith.

"Let you see your people? Whatever for?"

Whatever for? They're my people, I want to say something to them.

The Wraith had grown still.

John became aware of the long white hair, couth and combed, hanging over the Wraith's shoulders, and the breast and shoulder pads and layered sleeves that looked as rigid as armor. The Wraith was one of those that led raiders and flitted around the queens. He was an aristocrat.

"I am the commanding officer of this vessel," said the Wraith, responding to John's thought.

Commanding officer of a new type of vessel, one that was made for science and capable of war. The vessel's design had to be new. John would have recognized the type and designation otherwise. Great. The Wraith was commanding a floating lab that experimented on non-Wraith-worshiping humans, who, for some reason, were too low to be fed upon.

"What knowledge do you possess with which to compare what I have told you of my vessel to other vessels used by my species?"

Crap--

A baring of the teeth, followed by a satisfied grunt. "Much knowledge indeed. You are a pilot of vessels and have engaged my kind in war. Show me the vessels you have piloted."

Struggling, John threw up on the stage of his mind the image of a Dart. He infused the image with detail and then let his mind become consumed with the sensation of flying one.

"You know more of my kind than I suspected." The Wraith commander edged closer. "What did you do with the vessel?"

As John focused, the Wraith leaned in, mining John's thoughts, scratching for and securing knowledge of John's maiden flight in the pilot's seat of a Dart. Panting, John switched channels, tunneled in, exposing some things but throwing shadows around others, letting the Wraith have his memory of standing on the flight deck of a hive ship surrounded by humans. Release, relief. He found and flung to the surface of his thoughts what he remembered of his encounters with hive queens. Let the commander Wraith see him telling the first queen that he was at the beckon of another and more powerful Wraith female. He focused on his dialogue with her, the memory of his dialogue, shutting out subtext. He focused on Nira, the queen's human pet. Reached downward and then let himself remember killing the second queen on the abandoned deck of a submerged cruiser.

The commander Wraith grunted. "Your activities explain the varying levels of technology among your possessions. Your weapons and armor are crude but your scanners are reminiscent of the technology of a vanquished foe. Are you-- what is the term? --a well-diver? We call such actors in our affairs agents without masters. Do you collect materials as you go? How have you survived?"

John rasped, "I don't go in for the whole worship thing." And realized that while there was something to be said for putting off the approaching moment in which he went to sleep forever, he was beginning to tire. In nearly the same instant another memory was kindled. He had, once, spoken like this to a mortal enemy-- to a Wraith. On the previous occasion, he had even traded gallows humor, and, yeah, a save or two, so that although he and that Wraith were no longer in one another's debt, the memory of their encounter was not altogether repugnant.

The Wraith commander, absorbing this as he had John's other thoughts, took a sudden step backward. He made a motion, which must have involved activating a transmitter. He said, "Return to the Stargate planet." And then he strode out of sight.

x x x x x

John came to on the floor of a dim Wraith holding cell among his comrades. He wondered, momentarily, if he was dreaming. He'd heard that people in a coma dreamed. Maybe the pre-expiration limbo was like this, a string of pseudo-memories and dreams. Not that waking up on a hive ship was his idea of a good time. Still, Teyla was beside him. It was her jacket under his cheek. He could smell her scent in the fabric. Ronon and Lorne squatted in front of him. In this dreamscape, if he was dreaming, Lorne hadn't been killed, not yet anyway. Nor had McKay, who leaned down to squint into John's face. That meant the more distant figures in the cell were Stroebel, Reardon, and Willet, Lorne's men.

" 'Bout time you woke up," said McKay, shakily.

Lorne added: "Wasn't sure you ever would. What'd they do to you?"

"How long have I been out?"

Teyla lay her hand on his arm. He thought about taking hold of her, just holding on to her for about an hour. If this was going to be a dream, what was the harm? "By our reckoning," Teyla said, "you have been with us in this cell a night and much of one day. Prior to that, you were apart from us many hours." The dark of her eyes expanded and deepened, and she paused, he was certain, to make sure of her voice. "We were," she said, "quite concerned."

Letting go of the dream possibility, John wondered if he should try to sit up. Something said no, but his warrior mind said he needed to know what parts of him were in the game and what parts were on hiatus.

As he tightened his frame to sit up, "Whoa," Lorne gasped, and grabbed his arm. Ronon maneuvered in to lend a hand, which John seized. With Ronon's brawn in the mix, John sat up easily. Staying that way was another matter.

He swayed. Teyla put her hand into his back and he steadied.

He needed to get on his feet. His teams had moved in. He needed to be their leader. "Someone will come for us," he put that out there. In sync with him as usual, Ronon offered his arm. John stood up. No swaying this time, though his sight blurred. Fortunately, Ronon was built like an aircraft carrier. John watched the faces of his teams, each one trying to rally while giving him its kindest Nice try sigh. He decided to go for a more realistic pep talk. "We've been in worse situations."

McKay's features screwed into a mask of alarm. "Actually, I don't think we have."

Lorne jumped on the bandwagon. "Sir, we're on a Wraith vessel flying in hyperspace. Our people don't know where we are. My guess is they took you somewhere for interrogation and they'll be doing the same to everybody else. After which ..."

Thank you, Lorne, John thought grimly. "We're headed back to Belleron."

Ronon's head swiveled in John's direction. "We are?"

The others pressed closer, eager to hear more. Belleron, their last known location, could by now be the host of a number of Atlantis security personnel, as well as a big honking battle cruiser.

"I heard the commander Wraith say it before they knocked me out."

"What draws them back to Belleron?" Teyla wondered.

"Has something to do with a missing Wraith queen and the Wraith you and Ronon saw when the Covenant was around."

"What's that go to do with us?" Lieutenant Stroebel wanted to know.

John shook his head. "That's the part that's probably gonna suck."


Part Three: The Long Road


"It is not Sheppard John, but John Sheppard, and you have entered into compact with our kind before and kept the balance."

If by balance, the Wraith commander meant his word, then John agreed. "By the way, how do you know about that?" He wondered if this was going where he thought it was.

John stood below a dais in a long, narrow room. The Wraith sat at one end on a dais like a queen, his soldiers and a handful of upper echelon officers arranged around him.

"I know of it as I know about the bond you share with your warriors. It fascinates me, this bond, as it is unique among your species."

John felt a spike of anger and choked it down.

Some while ago the Wraith ship had exited hyperspace, entered atmosphere, and affected a landing. John suspected the ship had set down on Belleron and he was about to broker a deal with this arrogant, condescending bastard for the lives of his people.

The Wraith cocked his head, the black-nailed hands on the armrest padding tightening. "Your distaste for my kind is as strong as mine for yours."

"Can we sit and chat about that some other time? Nothing personal, I'm just more interested in finding out why you brought me here."

The Wraith stood up, hissing. And kept standing up. He was, save one, the tallest Wraith John had ever seen. The leather harness pulled tight across his massive torso, above which the Wraith's stern visage floated like a goblin's from Lord of the Rings.

The Wraith clenched his fists. "You will bring to us the queen we seek."

Here it comes. "In exchange for what?

"In exchange, I will grant freedom to your warriors."

John had supposed it was going to be something like this. "That's not a problem."

"Why is it not?"

"Let's just say I'm good at this sort of thing. If your queen was around last winter, then she was with the Covenant. Word on the street is, you can't find the Covenant but I can."

"You are certain you can find her."

"No problem."

"I have examined the chronometers you carry. You use an increment called hour. You have twenty of your hours to bring our queen back to us."

"That's a problem."

"I will give twenty of your hours, no more. If after twenty hours you have not returned, the life of one of your warriors is forfeit. Then you shall have twenty hours more. And so on. Have we a pact?"

"I can't find her in twenty hours. I need more time than that--"

"Have we a pact?"

John couldn't do it and the bastard knew it. The unrealistic deadline was payback, John believed, for Wraith warriors killed inside the Exile power plant.

"I can't make that deal. I'm not giving up the life of one of my people."

"Then I shall kill them all."

John felt a layer of muscle harden under his face, felt his jaw lock. "If this is about saving face--"

"My terms are not negotiable."

"--if this about saving face, take me instead."

"You who have terminated so many among my species? No, you are unique and superior to others of your kind. You will find our queen and you will bring her back to us."

"I'm going to need help."

"When our trackers are placed within a body, there remains a marker we can detect through a sample of the blood. The quarterblood warrior was once something the Wraith of this quadrant call Runner. He will help you. Take him."

"I need the others."

"You may take one other."

"Damn it."

"After you leave this world, John Sheppard, you may go wherever you please, wherever you must. If you do not return, we will kill your warriors."

"You mean, you're not going to put a tracker in me?"

The Wraith put up his hand. He was so tall that it looked like he was about to strike. In truth, he was calling an end to the dialogue.

"Trackers are useless when a human travels with others. We have found that a human will endure a considerable amount of pain while his companions cut the tracker from him. Have we a pact?"

"I'll get your queen but if you kill one of my people, I will find you. And I will kill you."

"I look forward to a match of skills, John Sheppard, warrior to warrior. Have we a pact?"

John let a black rage stir a minute in his chest and behind his face, didn't mind the Wraith picking up on it, maybe getting a little taste. "Yes, we have a pact."

"Good. You will find our queen and you will bring her to us."

x x x x x

Clear your mind.

John was being moved along a succession of turning and interlocking passages, a soldier Wraith tightly on each arm.

His scalp was damp, and so were his temples. He needed to calm his breathing, quiet everything before he got back to the holding cell. He needed to get a grip. But how could he get a grip when he had snips of thoughts battling one another in his head?

How did this fit together? Destroyer-class Ranger? Find a missing queen? A queen was member of the most powerful caste in the Wraith hierarchy. There was a marker in Ronon's blood?

This is the hand, John. This was the way the hand was dealt. Deal with it.

To get to that other place, to get back to what has to happen instead of what he wanted to happen, John had to do some regrouping. Had to picture himself with his grandfather on a platinum lake in Oregon; he pictured the curl of smoke above a mountain cabin on a pale and stony shore, the smell of grilled fish rising on a dry, cool breeze. He thought about the first time he knew the sky was in his blood. Thought about the Northern Lights making a rainbow phalanx between him and the rest of the world. He saw the sun settling into the ocean on Lantea, Teyla's face framed between his hands.

x x x x x

Back in the holding cell, hands on his hips, "Everybody, gather round," John called.

"Is it time for the how screwed we are report?" McKay answered. "Because, uh, you know how I really love them."

There were seven people in the holding cell, not counting John. For some reason McKay hung in the back of the group, letting Lorne's team-- Lieutenant Stroebel, Sergeant Reardon, and Corporal Willet --crowd in front.

Ronon, too, stepped aside, his stiff shoulders and countenance giving him, in the dimness of the cell, the appearance of a gargoyle.

Teyla stood next to Lorne. The Athosian and the Major managed to look impassive, like zen masters deciphering a puzzle.

"It's about a mission," John told the teams. "They have one. They want three of us to do it. They picked two people for the mission, I have to pick the third. The rest of you stay here and hope I pull it off."

Bobbing his head and rolling his hand, McKay opined, "So it's not your run of the mill 'grab and snack.' They actually don't want to torture and kill us."

"And if you can't pull it off, sir?" Willet managed, a trifle thinly. "I said you 'cause I'm assuming you're doing the mission."

John's gaze paused to meet the Corporal's. "That wasn't negotiable."

"Who's second choice?" asked Lorne, still reticent and unexpressive.

John pointed with his chin. "Ronon. They got blood samples from everybody and figured out through his that Ronon used to be a Runner. The fact that he's free now makes them think he'll be an asset on the mission."

Ronon had been leaning against the wall. Now he jerked upright. "And you agreed to this?"

John cocked his head. "Hey, buddy, I didn't have a choice. They have cocoons with our names on them. Thumb our noses at them and that's the way this mission ends. Or we can play along and take our chances. All for seeing how this plays out, raise his or her hand."

He didn't mean for them to but they did it anyway: they put up their hands. Even Ronon's hand went up, the Satedan leaning back into the wall and wearing a grimace.

Unanimous.

Lorne's brow furrowed. "What happens to the ones left behind?"

John could appreciate Lorne's question. After John, Lorne was the senior officer. No perks for the ranking officer in a situation like this.

"Best case scenario. I finish the mission, get back in twenty hours, and they let everyone go."

Teyla flinched. "With no reason to keep their word, they cannot be trusted to do so. They are Wraith."

"That's why I said best case scenario."

"Is there a more realistic scenario?" Lorne wanted to know.

"Yeah. I leave you here, deal with whatever I have to deal with, and don't make it back in twenty hours."

"What happens in twenty hours?" Ronon said.

Lorne tightened his mouth like he wanted to swear. "They kill a hostage. Right?"

John nodded.

And then Lorne did swear.

"Yeah," John said.

"How about we wrap up that open item and get that out of the way?" Lorne pushed. "The third person should be, and I think I speak for everyone here when I say this, someone who can contribute to the success of the mission. So what's the mission?"

"I'm supposed to find the missing Wraith queen. They think the Covenant's got her. What that says about the shape she's in, if she's alive or dead, I don't know. Rumor is the Covenant can stay ahead of the Wraith and it's starting to look like that part's true. The Wraith want us to find their queen for them, bring her back."

That shut up everybody. Cricket, cricket. John waited out the airless hush, frozen faces, bobbing Adam's apples. Through the quiet, he was assaulted by the chub-chub in his own chest. Thought his heart was pumping hard enough to drive sludge up his carotid.

"Wha, wha?" uttered Willet. "They want you to take on the Covenant?"

John raised his head once, lowered it.

"Sir, that's suicide," Sergeant Reardon protested.

Ronon came off the wall. "Assuming we do this. Assuming--"

Teyla interrupted. "Colonel Sheppard would not be so foolish as to 'gate in to the Covenant planet, not while Colonel Caldwell is at base. Colonel Caldwell will beam him to the surface."

No talking this time but there was movement. Limbs needed shaking out. Spines needed unkinking. Ronon cracked his knuckles. Willet turned around once, twice. Chests decompressed. Only John, Lorne, and Teyla kept still. Teyla, because she used stillness more effectively than anyone John had ever met. John, because he was staring at Lorne.

It was time, now, for the harder questions. Questions that needed to come from the Major.

"You can only take two people?"

"Two people."

"Flight time for Colonel Caldwell to the Covenant planet?"

"Can't tell you that until I know the coordinates of the Covenant planet."

" 'Cause if you use the 'gate, once you find the planet, they'll kill you on sight."

"Uh-huh."

Lorne's eyes narrowed below a steadily deepening frown. "So you have to find the Covenant planet's coordinates, get there through hyperspace, find the Wraith, and get back here."

"Tight schedule."

"Tight's not the word I'd use."

"Me neither."

After a moment, "Okay," Lorne said. He flicked his tongue over his teeth. "I'm here with my team, it can't be me going. May I suggest you take Teyla? For starters, she can find the Covenant planet faster than any one of us. And after you find the planet, she can find the Wraith."

"I am not the only one who can find the Covenant planet, Major Lorne. And Colonel Caldwell has sensors that can--"

"Frankly, I'd rather not be thinking about Colonel Sheppard 'gating to New Athosia looking for Halling while I'm stuck in a Wraith holding cell looking at my watch."

"Um, Lorne's got a point," McKay said to John. "Much as I'd like to be the one you, uh, picked, the last time I had to get off this ridge in a hurry you ended up carrying me. And I'm just guessing, but, uh, I think Teyla's Wraith spidey sense could come in handy."

"Rodney." John inhaled and slowly let out his breath. "Rodney, they're going to kill somebody if I'm not back in time."

Nodding, McKay's face clouded with distress.

"Yeah, I think we all got that, sir." Lorne's jaw hardened. "Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on everyone. Long as you promise to hurry."

McKay seconded that. "By all means, hurry."

x x x x x

Daylight.

John turned in the sun-warmed air until he was moving backward in the tall grass of the Bellite upland. His gun belt and tac vest heavy against his skin, he gazed up, and up, at the Wraith ship.

The portal had sealed. He, Teyla, and Ronon were armed and free. Along with his weapons and tactical gear, John had picked up McKay's scanner and digital video recorder from the bin in the Wraith ship's property compartment. Couldn't hurt to give Zelenka something useful to analyze. John's plan was to reacquire his personnel by any means. To that end, he was bandying about two possibles. The first and obvious way to go was to forget the mission, screw the Wraith, and work on a good old-fashioned rescue. In and of itself that option required data, a lot of data, beginning with the size, capability, and origin of the Wraith ship in front of him.

Dex said, "Ever seen something like that before?"

John wished people wouldn't ask that question the remainder of his time in the Pegasus. The answer was too often, No-- hell, no.

"Let's go," John rasped, signaling his teammates. He was going to need distance to appraise the new ship.

When he got some he stopped and took out his binoculars. The Exile city loomed inside its archaic stone circle about an eighth of a mile off the nose of the ship. At points the Wraith vessel-- the commander called it a destroyer-class Ranger --dwarfed the outer stones, the vessel's communication and sensor array about as tall as the floating rings around the Exile city's power center. Near the nose the Ranger was slender, relatively speaking, with a sloping dragon-like design culminating in a huge sphere. The rest of the ship flared outward and up, its tiers rounded and sleek, until it was, easily, twice the dimension of a hive carrier. Like the interior of the Exile power station, the Ranger was black. Much of a Wraith ship was alive, its technology bio-mechanical, lending the appearance, in this case, of some insect monster wearing an obsidian shell. On the ground it looked a lot like a vicious preying mantis. John dialed in the binoculars, counting railguns, weapon ports. When he was done, he made a scan and got some video. The BC-304 Daedalus wasn't a match for the Ranger, not in John's opinion, but hopefully Daedalus could outrun it.

John put Plan A out of his mind, swung away. He glanced at Teyla first, then Ronon. "It's faster through the city than around it, but I've done this before and it's no walk in the park. The debris this side is dangerous."

"What are we waiting for?" Ronon said.

"I am ready," Teyla said.

John filled up his lungs. In the back of his mind he counted the days he'd gone without nourishment. His throat was rough and his lips cracked. His skin felt feverish and he'd stopped sweating: he was dehydrated. In contrast, Ronon looked pissed off but fit, and Teyla's eyes were clear. They hadn't gone through the interrogation, he reminded himself, and no matter. The one option he didn't have was taking his time.

"Teyla, you're up front, Ronon behind." Tucking away the binoculars and video recorder, he powered up his legs. Teyla was already veering from the Exile city and racing for the valley. Her shorter legs were like pistons and her lungs were superb. He put his head down and concentrated on keeping up.

The return trip cost forty-five precious minutes. Where they could run, they did, but there was no help for the first half of the trek, huge chunks layered in a rubble pile that had to be negotiated or climbed. It was in just such a pile, on a previous jaunt, that Rodney had suffered a severe laceration. When the main way sloped upward, Ronon moved in on John's six o'clock. John wondered if he was staggering or swaying. Possible. Hell, it was probable. He'd developed tunnel vision in the first mile. By the final mile he was burning nothing but adrenaline and willpower.

The Sagaz dome was visible from the outside at a short distance but John did not understand the ruined dome until he and the others stepped inside the old Stargate facility.

A chunk of the dome was gone. Well, no, not gone. A portion of the dome had been powdered and allowed to rain plaster and dust. However, the Stargate platform and DHD were okay. The debris field was oddly geometric, like someone had turned over a giant bowl on top of the 'gate and the dial-home device to protect the equipment as the roof took damage.

"That's different," Ronon said.

"Tell me about it."

A Jumper had done this, droning the roof to pieces while extending its shield to protect itself and the valuable Stargate. And then, no doubt, the Jumper had gone into the sky of Belleron looking for missing Atlantis personnel.

What John didn't know was how long ago the Jumper was on Belleron and when or if it (or they) made it home.

Time to dial in and find out.

x x x x x

Elizabeth Weir was coming off a coffee burn. The edge, however, was tender and the feeling behind her eyes and in her throat only served as reminder that she'd put in a couple of long days on little sleep and less patience.

When the com activated, she flinched. It was okay, no one was around. Still, she wondered why it wore her this way when a team was missing. It wore her raw. Each time.

"Weir on."

"Doctor Weir, unscheduled off-world activation." Chuck was matter-of-fact but he wasn't fooling her. She noticed his excitement. "Receiving Colonel Sheppard's IDC."

"Let them in, Sergeant!" A warm vapor closed softly over the wound of worry as she jogged across the gallery to the control room.

The Stargate beamed its peculiar fluid light, its naquadah ring glimmering. Teyla strode through, followed by John and Ronon. Elizabeth turned abruptly. What was this? Swift calculations led to an uneasy stomach and the need to head down the lighted staircase. As she descended, she felt John looking up at her. Something in his haggard face made her hand twitch to the com. "Medical team to the 'gate room." Meanwhile, the Stargate shut down. Damn.

"John, where's Rodney?" She was still striding toward the team. "Where're Lorne and the others?"

She got back a morose look that, coming from a grizzled face wearing a couple days' growth, shook her to the bone. John didn't show 'down and out' normally and he didn't lean on others for balance, not unless he had to.

Presently, he was leaning on Ronon.

Teyla spoke. "We have a problem."

"Mind if I get a drink of water?" John asked.

Elizabeth turned to look around. "Anyone have water?"

Two techs and one of the security Marines bounded onto the platform, bottled water in their hands.

John took a bottle, saw that it was half full, and drained it.

Another was offered.

He took it, gulping. Lowered his arm and exhaled mightily. "Everybody else's a hostage. The Wraith got 'em."

"The Wraith!"

"Yeah. I got to do something for them or they say they'll kill our people."

"How'd the Wraith get involved in this?"

"Long story-- can't do the long story. Short story, 'member that Wraith we found on Belleron?"

"The one being held by the Covenant?"

"Turns out he's got a sister, a mother, whatever, who's a queen, and the Wraith who captured us want her back."

"John, I think we need to sit down."

"Yeah, about that. I got"-- he checked his watch --"nineteen hours and ten minutes to find out where this queen is and get her back to Belleron or Lorne dies."

"Lorne!"

"Yeah, Lorne. It's one of those deals, one dead person every twenty hours. Lorne's senior officer, which means he's gonna put himself head of the line."

"Where's my patient?" a concerned voice called at Elizabeth's back.

Keller and her medics had arrived.

Elizabeth looked over the men and woman in front of her. "What did they do to you?"

Teyla shook her head. "We were stunned and held in a Wraith cell. Nothing more was done to Ronon or to me. But Colonel Sheppard," she said, and hesitated. "He was not so fortunate. He was taken elsewhere for a long period. I suspect he was harmed."

"I'm fine."

Keller cut through the assembly, flicked a light at his eyes. "Did they give you anything? Make you eat or drink something?"

Elizabeth saw John stiffen. She'd seen him do that before. She sighed. It wasn't a question of if he was going to lose it, but when.

"John," she made an attempt to calm him. "I don't understand what's going on but you need medical attention. Answer Doctor Keller's question."

Ronon said, "They gave us packs. Looked like gel. I think they keep 'em for their worshipers, the humans who live on their ship. Stuff goes down like water."

John protested. "How come you didn't save me one?"

Teyla turned her head toward John but for some reason avoided his eyes. "Even though they gave to us only as many packs as were people in the cell, we each saved a portion for you. However, you were away so long we came to believe that you were not--" The Athosian fell silent.

John frowned, momentarily wordless.

Elizabeth jumped in. "May I suggest we do the debriefing in Medical? John, I--"

"When we get back. No time now."

"Yes, there is time. I need information and you--"

"I said I'm fine. I don't have time for this."

"John, you're not making sense." She saw his mouth fly open and hurried to finish. "If there's going to be a mission, I need information and I want all of you checked out, Teyla and Ronon included. I'm not giving you a choice."

x x x x x

Blood pressure cuff dangling from his arm, John sat on the exam table in Medical. Across from him, Ronon and Teyla were in an identical set-up. Medical technicians, two to each, pumped up the cuffs or drew blood, checked reflex and oxygen levels. Looking at the flurry of action on the other side of the cubicle was like watching a physical on speed. The "double-up and get it done" method eased his anxiety about wasting time, let him focus on briefing Elizabeth.

The Daedalus, he'd already learned, had been tasked by the IOA to do reconnaissance in the vicinity of the human-form replicator planet. This bit of bad news led to Elizabeth's account of the attempted rescue.

"When you didn't check in, we dialed in and attempted to establish communication."

Standard protocol. John nodded.

"We got nothing on com, by MALP, or UAV. Captain Preston led a team out, but they ran into a complication."

"What kind of complication?"

"You didn't see them? There are insects, carnivorous insects, all over the valley."

John's initial response was: "We weren't in the valley. The Exile city is upland." Followed by: "Did they 'gate in after sunset?"

"I'll have to check the mission report for that detail but I thought you said the insects weren't dangerous to adults day or night."

"The insects've been alone a lot longer since the refugees left," Ronon said, "than they were between the time the Wraith destroyed the city and we showed up."

"Meaning?" Elizabeth asked.

Ronon shrugged. "Meaning they fed on the refugees. They fed on 'em alive and they fed on 'em dead." Elizabeth's cringe moment went unnoticed. "Season's come and gone and they've got nothin' to feed on. No indigenous population, no refugees, nothin'. Wouldn't be the first time hunger made a species more dangerous."

Elizabeth: "Point being, we began to think the insects were responsible for whatever happened to you. Sergeants Castigan and Dominguez were injured but they managed back okay. They were treated and released. We found out the insects didn't like vibrations from the P90s, so I authorized a second attempt, this time by Jumper."

"I noticed that."

"We used the shield to protect the Stargate and collapsed the dome. We figured the Bellites didn't need the dome anymore."

Teyla sighed and looked down, her thoughts turning inward.

"We scanned the valley and the upland, found the ruin but no people. There were no life signs. I authorized several sorties inland from the 'gate, but John, you and the teams were gone."

"Yeah," agreed Ronon. "They had us on their ship."

"We were in hyperspace," Teyla added.

"Sheppard convinced the Wraith to head back."

"How'd you do that, John?"

"I told them I'd find their queen, which is why we need the Daedalus."

"I'll make the attempt but I'm not sure I can do that. The IOA mission was high priority."

"So's saving my men." He paused while a tech ripped off the cuff and went over to Doctor Keller, who was examining the data pads. "Listen, I need two things yesterday. I need to know flight time from the Daedalus's current location to Belleron. And I need to know where the Covenant is."

"You're hoping the Daedalus can lock onto our locator beacons and use the Asgard beaming technology to rescue our people."

"In a nutshell."

"And if the Wraith ship is actively jamming?"

"I can bring a couple plans together, get the Wraith to stop jamming if I have to, but first ..." Something small but powerful shimmied up his back and tried to yank him over onto his side. The wave of dizziness was so unexpected that he needed to grip the exam table.

Dr. Keller took note, as she was already on her way over.

John knotted his spine, sure he wasn't going to enjoy the doc's assessment.

"Ronon and Teyla are fine. Fatigued, a bit dehydrated, but fine. Colonel Sheppard," Keller said, "needs to be in a bed as soon as possible."

John clenched his jaw, which was warning number one that, yeah, he absolutely needed to be in a bed. "Were you even slightly paying attention to anything I said?" The rock under his tone was his second warning. Self-control was seeping out of his pores. Ronon was looking at him with unusual focus, while Teyla, usually the intense one, had chosen to look away. Elizabeth put up her hand, ready to intervene. "I'm not going to bed. I'm not having this conversation. My people are out there--"

"John." Elizabeth.

He ignored her. "We need to get communication with the Daedalus before it gets out of subspace range. Are you going to do that, or am I?"

"I'm not clearing you medically," Keller said. "Mission or no mission, if I don't clear you, nothing you or Doctor Weir say will get you out of here. So I suggest you listen to me."

He slid off the table.

"John!"

"Sheppard," Ronon warned.

Injecting iron into her voice, Keller pulled her slender frame up a few inches. "Doctor Weir, is it possible you and everyone could leave me alone for a minute here with my patient?"

Elizabeth: "John? Can I count on you to listen to Doctor Keller?"

"Yeah, I'll listen. Oh, and while I'm listening to her and you and everybody else, we're letting my men die."

"No," said Teyla forcefully, "we are not." She slipped off her exam table and stood beside Ronon. "John, you cannot come with me while I seek the Covenant planet. You already know this. It is far simpler if I go to my trading partners as leader of the Athosians and find out what we need to plan the rescue. Ronon will go with me, but you, you are of Atlantis and may raise suspicion. Since you must wait here, fit or not fit, you might as well do as Doctor Keller advises." She inclined her head deeply, an Athosian gesture of respect and affection. "I will return as quickly as I am able."

Ronon moved in next to Teyla. "Sit this part out, Sheppard. Be ready for the real fun when we get back." He followed Teyla out of the infirmary.

Brow furrowed with concern, Elizabeth backed up, backed up some more. "I'll check in on you later." She left behind Teyla and Ronon.

John scanned the exam room. The medical technicians had vanished. He never saw them take off. Turning his attention to Keller, "I'm not staying here," he asserted.

Keller pointed down an aisle that divided the exam area and the inpatient bay. "Colonel Sheppard, don't shout in my medical lab."

Had he shouted? Not when they were alone. He wouldn't do that. But, yeah, before the others left, he'd been rough. Realizing that, he clamped his mouth. As a pilot, he knew better than anyone the sweeping powers wielded by medical doctors in matters involving fitness for duty. It was never a good idea to piss of a doc.

Keller, meanwhile mustering a kind of low-key indignation, began telling him off without ever raising her voice. "That's number one. Number two, and most important for you, I am new to the position of medical director but I've been around here long enough to understand a few things. When I make a call to ground someone, I know something critical to the expedition may not get done. That's number two. Number three, I know what the people of this expedition mean to you. Now here's what's gonna happen. You're going to take an inpatient bed, and when you're settled down I'll intravenously feed you electrolytes and hope you get some sleep. If your tox screen comes back okay and your electrolyte level increases satisfactorily, I'll clear you with the assumption that the minute you 'gate out of here, you're not going to fall flat on your face. Nothing else is guaranteed but I have confidence you can handle yourself. At least that's the word on the street. Are we in agreement?"

He opened his mouth, shut it. Opened it again, shut it. And finally said, "I'll lie down and take an IV but I need intel and people to bring it to me."

"Meaning you want to turn my inpatient bay into a briefing room."

"I got nineteen hours."

"Yes," she sighed, "I did hear you. I was listening."

x x x x x

He had left behind his team. Correction, he'd been forced to leave behind his team.

Jennifer Keller was reticent about many things. One of them was a set of circumstances under which she abandoned the well and able in a nightmare contrivance over which her control was nil. She was all for practicing medicine and research in another galaxy. Stargate travel did not just appeal to her. The very notion of it sang to her. Like many expedition personnel, she could list her reasons for volunteering-- for aggressively pursuing --Pegasus assignment. The list was as long as it was inspired, tended to the romantic, and played as testament to the unconquered human passion for exploration. She was certain nothing going forward could top this experience, at least in general terms: her posting in a city called Atlantis above a vast ocean on a world in a galaxy seeded by a lost race.

But service had its moments. This was one.

Disquieted, she picked up a bottle of mineral water, took in a mouthful, and turned in the direction of the curtained patient bed. That section of the inpatient bay's lights had been dialed back, but not enough to engender the somniferous environment Keller wished for. Her patient lay mostly unmoving but at times consulted the PDA in his left hand. When he was not reviewing data, he lay with eyes open or closed but never sleeping. He had downed a few ounces of water but wasn't able yet to take food by mouth, so she'd given an anti-emetic and discussed with him her diagnosis.

The preliminary tox screen on Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon was good.

Teyla and Ronon were fit, ready for duty. The Wraith food gel had indeed been a nutritional suppliment, a damn good one. She hoped one day-- hoped? --to study it. Apparently, the Wraith preferred healthy worshipers.

Sheppard's condition appeared to be the result of the Wraith version of a truth serum. Sheppard's cortisol and adrenaline levels were unusually high, and if the beam had done this, Keller could only guess the beam's purpose was to induce distress. He'd suffered prolonged increased heart rate and respiration as well as other predictable consequences of elevated stress. He'd become diaphoretic. Factor in lack of water and food and you had a nice recipe for severe dehydration. (To Sheppard, her diagnosis-- what he would call a no-brainer --described a condition of extreme thirst. In reality, untreated dehydration could kill. At best, the Colonel was a candidate for confusion, weakness, altered consciousness, difficulty breathing, and palpitations.) There was a psychological toll to all of this but she was holding back that determination. Charting trauma-induced stress would essentially remove her patient from the roster. Carson used to say the trick in field medicine was to know what was okay under extreme circumstances, like hypervigilance, increased blood pressure, and so on, and what was an impediment. If trauma-induced stress was going to be a factor for Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard today, then he ought to have been 'gated back to the SGC six months ago and placed on permanent disability.

Presently, he was dealing with bad news. Drs. Weir and Zelenka had come by earlier. The Daedalus had been successfully redeployed to participate in the rescue. Unfortunately, travel from its current position (enroute to Asuras) to Belleron was twenty-one hours. Dr. Weir and Colonel Sheppard had agreed to allow the Daedalus to continue making its way to Belleron. Meanwhile Sheppard was tasked to develop a mission plan that assumed the Covenant world, once they knew its address, was closer.

After the briefing, Dr. Weir had gripped Sheppard's hand briefly but failed, Keller noted, to mitigate the growing desperation.

Now, a 'gate team was standing by for the Covenant world mission.

After making that call, Sheppard had asked Keller for permission to push his IV along to his quarters to gather fresh gear, a request that put in perspective, Keller realized, his commitment to saving his people within a limited and limiting set of rules scripted, no doubt, by a pessimist named Murphy. She'd instead called a Marine assistant to take down a shopping list of sorts from Sheppard and head out to the Colonel's quarters with orders to bring the Colonel's gear to the infirmary.

Everything that could be done had been done, leaving, inevitably, the grind of time and fear and reflection. Was Sheppard thinking about the men and women he'd lost or was he thinking only about the ones he needed to save?

A question to which she'd never have the answer. It wasn't her wish to unravel the psyche of leaders like Sheppard, whose skillset she held in esteem. In fact, she wasted little time decrypting the layers of colleagues and friends, preferring, outside of the medical bay, what was on the surface. Experience had honed this particular bit of insight. Sheppard was, to many staffers, a veritable conundrum, a man who liked the people he liked and disliked the people he disliked with equal intensity. But like you or not, he wouldn't give up on you. It was one of the few things in Atlantis that was bankable. That, and the fact his heart was owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by the Athosian queen he'd rescued from a Wraith hive ship in the earliest days of the expedition.

Keller saw movement behind the curtain and got up. She found Sheppard sitting, his hand resting against his com piece.

"Copy," she heard him say. Saw his fingers knot around his PDA.

"More news?" she queried.

He was already looking up at her. "Teyla and Ronon have a 'gate address but they don't think the address is the target world. It's most likely a checkpoint. They're inbound to Atlantis to debrief-- I need to be there. Am I cleared?"

His voice was calm, level, and low, but she noted the uneven respiration.

"How's the nausea?"

"I'm fine."

"Do you want to try to get down some crackers?"

"I'm fine."

"If you don't mind my asking, has Doctor Zelenka calculated travel time for the Daedalus, just in case the address is the Covenant world?"

"It's good. It's better than good."

Okay. Okay. He'd been on his back a while. Observing him as he stood up would tell them both how he was doing. As he stood his heart rate would increase. When there wasn't enough fluid in the blood due to dehydration and the heart sped up, not enough blood was going to make it to the brain. You couldn't trick biology. The brain knew what was going on. He was going to feel faint and likely show it, but only if his fluid level had not improved.

"Let's get the IV out and see how you look on your feet."


Part Four: Infestation


"What is that noise?" Willet snapped.

McKay huffed, his eyes wide with alarm. "It's me, all right? When I get nervous, my teeth do that!"

Willet grumbled under his breath, eliciting a glance from Lorne that made the Corporal drop to his haunches in frustration. Willet brought up his knees, dropped his head, grabbed the back of his neck.

Assuming the Corporal's posture was intended to mock him, McKay groaned. "Is that how it's going to be? Make fun of the civilian?"

Sitting on the cell floor, Lorne sighed. "McKay."

"No, no, no, no, I see how it is!"

"No, you don't." Lorne's demeanor, however, was placating. "Willet's not as good with small spaces as he likes the docs to think he is. Tell you the truth, I'm not that good with 'em either."

Not for the first time, Lorne's wrist twitched and sort of just happened to offer for his perusal the dial of his watch. Lorne had set the timer. Twenty minutes gone since the last check. They were looking at fifteen hours and change. Fifteen hours was a duty day or the length of a good crash after a long mission. If it were night-- was it? --and he could actually sleep, when he woke up he'd be within a few brief hours of getting out of this. One way or the other, in fifteen hours, he'd be out of this.

Stroebel jumped up. "What the hell is that?"

Throat leaping, McKay lurched to his feet. "It's the ship's alarm."

Lorne bounded up, hurrying to the criss-crossed cell door. He was thinking good news. Well, relatively speaking. He was thinking rescue but worried the alarm boded ill for the mission team. Instinctively, he was flashing options on the stage of his mind. If a human security team had invaded the Wraith ship, he expected the Wraith to engage it and not bother with the ship's human prisoners. That meant he needed to be alert for every chance to open the cell door. Mission reports prepared by Colonel Sheppard said the cell's control panel was in the squishy pad out of reach in the passageway. The control panel had on occasion responded to hacking and knives. Hacking was out of the question and none of them had a knife.

Stroebel came to his side. "Think it's them?"

"If by them, you mean us, I certainly hope so."

"We gotta get out of here, sir," Stroebel said, "and help them."

"That's my thinking." Lorne's hands knotted around the cold, resilient web-like bars crossing the front of the cell.

Two soldier Wraith and one of the leather-clad officers strode hard into the short passage outside the cell.

Lorne and Stroebel immediately fell back.

The officer Wraith waved its large, gray hand at the cell control pad.

The bars folded like bat wings and vanished into the wall.

"Come with us now."

Lorne noted a level of urgency. Good. He was pleased that Atlantis was somehow delivering a punishing blow and just as happy to get in a better position to help.

He motioned his team and McKay forward.

Predictably, "Where are we going?" McKay demanded.

The Wraith officer, evincing uncharacteristic strain, repeated his command. Come with us now.

Lorne got a shiver, so that when the Wraith turned away-- turned away? --he surprised himself by seizing Stroebel's shoulder and pushing him forward. "Willet, Reardon, move." He stepped back and caught McKay by the sleeve. "Double-time, out!" This wasn't what he thought it was, that much was sure. A prisoner escort didn't look or feel like this, and frankly, it seemed to him like the Wraith escort was running away. His mind seized upon the words that fit: flight, escape, evacuation.

It looked like the Wraith were trying to escape something. If the ship was under attack by humans, Lorne's gut said the Wraith would deal with that circumstance another way.

What the hell was going on?

"Hurry the hell up, McKay," Lorne snapped.

McKay, abruptly quiet and focused, took off with Lorne. Stroebel and Reardon were in front. Willet shifted around to take up the rear. The soldier Wraith and the officer were getting further away, a sight Lorne was queerly unhappy about. One for the books.

The passage intersected another, this one flowing with Wraith making haste. Lorne thought about the way he was going to explain this in his report, his team and McKay getting in line with a bunch of scared Wraith to get to-- where? Where were they going?

And then Lorne stopped thinking about their destination. Under the ship's grim lighting, he began to discern anomalous movement. The ship's bulkhead was moving. He was hearing, too, sounds he'd never heard before. Wraith screams. He put the pieces together but gingerly, refusing to invest his consciousness completely with understanding. Instead, he focused on keeping his people together. The Wraith were powerful, and fast, and desperate. A stampede this was not, but it could become one. The threat was not behind them but around them, above and in front of them. Layers of fist-sized insects had adhered their fat little bodies to the walls of the ship. By the dozens the insects were falling, and when they met flesh appeared to attack ferociously. Fluid gushed from the Wraith wounds, and from the bulkhead.

An egress point, a disembarking ramp.

Through the open bay Lorne saw the strong black thickness of night.

He began to register, now, what he remembered about Belleron's insects.

The Wraith ship was organic and presently represented a greater feeding opportunity than the ship's evacuating passengers. The ship wasn't protesting and it wasn't fighting. It was just dying.

The evacuating Wraith-- and Lorne and the humans --needed light.

The insects didn't like light.

As he dealt with this thought, his boots struck the soft soil of the ridge. His people, he checked, were together. No injuries. The Wraith were regrouping, acting like a collective, getting a hundred or so yards distance and coming about. Lorne didn't want to mix in with them; he wanted to keep going. An opportunity was an opportunity only if you made the most of it. But something pulled him around. Something made him stop and look back.

His stomach contracted, flipped over, and surged acid into his throat.

Once, when he liked that sort of thing, he'd studied the behavior of certain army ants. He'd learned that at rest they liked to make a mound. The mound could be as big as a large bush. They were the mound, their bodies heaped one on top of the other. The army ants could eat a grown man if they got half a chance.

The Wraith ship, dark as the darkness that had swallowed Belleron's sky, was a mound of living, shifting, feeding things. At the base of the mound a stream was flowing, a heavier darkness than the night. It was, Lorne determined, responding to vibrations through the ground reaching away from the ship and flowing toward those vibrations, toward the evacuees rather than away from them.

McKay shouted. "The city!"

Lorne made it an order.

His men wheeled inside the Wraith horde.

The Wraith, confounded, began firing at the advancing insects, their stunners echoing as Lorne pushed through the dozens, and then hundreds of warriors in his way. A long go of it. Screams at the fringes, response to the kind of agony even the most stoic creature could not contain.

A break at last, and air to breathe.

Lorne got a fistful of McKay's jacket. It was the only way to make sure he didn't lose the scientist.

"They're following us!" Willet cried out.

The bugs, yeah, that was expected, but Lorne cursed anyway. He was of the ilk that no way was a good way to die. However, overwhelmed and pinned by a hundred pointy teeth as his flesh was shredded and consumed ranked high as a particularly dismal future.

And no weapon to speak of. Just a prayer, and speed.

They cleared the outer circle of stones.

Up ahead, the alien city.

Lorne flung a look back. A large number of Wraith, fleeing the stalking bugs, were at his heels.

His boots struck stone.

McKay cried out, "Must go faster, must go faster!"

Lorne was inclined to agree. Was that a wall straight ahead? Crap. The gates were open, and a fat lot of good the city was if the bugs could hunt them inside it.

They reached the wall, passed under it, and ran-- as the Wraith caught up --into the Exile city's outer precincts. Where to go? What was safe?

Lorne looked up and around. High ground, maybe. Somewhere they could park themselves and not walk around, not make noise.

As he picked their destination, he felt his skin catch fire and a hundred pin-prick explosions go off along his spine. His brain launched a final, fleeting curse. Some Wraith bastard had just shot--

x x x x x

Elizabeth and Radek swept into Medical. Keller stood with Ronon, Teyla, and John. Teyla was still clothed in her supple Athosian garb, and her hair was down. John had geared up. He looked pale but solid, and his eyes were clear.

As she headed toward John, "The way I see it," Elizabeth said, "we have two options. We go with the address being the checkpoint or we proceed as though it's the Covenant world."

Keller held a datapad in her arms. She consulted it and excused herself, leaving John and his team with Elizabeth and Radek.

"Big difference," John said, huskily. "If it's a checkpoint, we can go in, talk the people there into giving us a good address."

Ronon's brow furrowed with a frown. "How do you plan on doin' that?"

Teyla put up her hand as though illustrating a thought. "We should begin as though we are interested in joining the Covenant. I did not find the Covenant to be overly cautious. It is my belef the checkpoint guards will be low-level personnel who will most likely not know us."

"So we just go in and ask for a membership card?" John threw out there.

Teyla nodded. "We should bring something with which to trade."

"That's not gonna do it," Ronon said.

John turned to look at Elizabeth, who had canted her head as though to ask why. "The guards'll likely dial out rather than give us the address. Which means we'll have to watch them dial out, memorize the address, detain the guards, and 'gate back to Atlantis."

"Either way we're shutting down the checkpoint," Ronon finished.

John hesitated, looked Ronon's way, and asked, "How you doing with that, by the way?"

Ronon gazed back, brow sewn faintly with a frown. "Shuttin' down the Covenant?"

"Rescuing a Wraith queen."

"I'll play along. Last I checked we weren't given much of a choice. Ask me after we get a choice. My answer'll be different."

John gestured as if to say, Fair enough. "Depending on the activity level at the checkpoint, the Covenant operations center on the main world's gonna know something's coming after we do our thing."

"You're going to the main world on the Daedalus," Elizabeth reminded. "Will that matter?"

Ronon and Teyla shook their heads.

John explained. "No matter what the Covenant thinks is going on, I doubt they'll imagine we're after the Wraith. Long as we're beaming in, them going on alert shouldn't be too big of a deal."

"After the ordeal the mercenary put you through, I'd like this better if I wasn't worried about the checkpoint guards realizing Atlantis is involved in this, or that you, John, are personally involved."

Ronon said, "I was thinkin' the same thing."

Radek frowned. "I do not understand. Why is that important?"

"Last time we met, the Covenant leader was pretty set on getting a Jumper and a pilot with the ATA gene," John said. "Once the Covenant knows it's dealing with us, it'll know it's dealing with our technology. That ups the stakes way before it has to. The Covenant's seen a Jumper. Seen a lot of things, apparently."

"They are made up of people from all over the galaxy," Teyla added. "There is not much they do not know about the wonders of this city."

Elizabeth laced her fingers. "First things first. Ronon, Teyla, can you handle the checkpoint mission? Just 'gating in is a risk. For obvious reasons, we can't send a MALP or UAV--"

"You could be 'gating into a trap," John translated.

Teyla looked at him before smiling both broadly and softly. "I am confident in my source, Colonel Sheppard." She turned her head. "A MALP or UAV, Elizabeth, will be unnecessary. Ronon and I," she added with a flare of her eyebrow, "can easily handle the guards. I suggest that we hurry."

With a twitch, John checked his watch. Said nothing. Didn't have to.

x x x x x

Rodney McKay had never felt so alone. Okay, that wasn't true. But close, this was very close. Lorne was down and so was Reardon. A Wraith had stunned the Major, then Reardon when Reardon attacked the shooter. All this had happened in a kind of semi-darkness. Curious metal poles had begun streaming light almost as soon as the evacuees entered the Exile city. In the oddly amber and changing light, Rodney witnessed the Major and the Sergeant being hefted like sacks of flour onto the shoulders of Ugly Number One and Ugly Number Two. After which a savage but incredibly focused creature wearing the long black vestment of a Wraith leader strode through the chaos to address Rodney directly.

"Which way?"

Confounded by the insanely calm figure amidst the horrific reality of panicked Wraith and pursuing flesh-eating nesters, Rodney had become speechless.

"Which. Way," the creature had demanded. Its glare felt like a drill bit.

Self-preservation kicking in, Rodney found himself pointing before he knew he was doing it. "There." The power center.

The Wraith in the long coat hollered and just like that brought his will to bear on the unfriendlies in his vicinity. Its head canted sharply, it shouted, "The insects have not breached this city. Put guards above the wall and advise immediately if that should change." With a second swerve of its neck, the Wraith was again facing Rodney. "How did you know this city was sanctuary?"

Rodney began at once to babble. "I-I didn't-- I wasn't sure-- I-I--"

The Wraith hissed with impatience. "Follow me." And with a glare over its shoulder, "Send to me all of our technicians," it barked at the collective. "Those that are left."

The power center had in some measure provided Rodney comfort. For one thing the majority of Wraith stayed outside. A fast glance before he went through the portal afforded Rodney a disturbing view along the lines of Night of the Living Dead. Pale visages and sharply-toothed maws stretched in rage. Was it good or bad, Rodney wondered, that hundreds of Wraith had survived the nester attack? He was thinking in terms of food supply for the nesters. Grossed out by the vision his thought engendered, Rodney trained his mind on the myriad of issues the nester attack had presented.

At the top of the list: how was Sheppard going to finish the mission and bring the queen to the Wraith if the nesters had gone berserk and the only safe zone was the Exile city? Two, why was the Exile city a safe zone? Three, how could he, Rodney, go about ensuring the Exile city remained a safe zone? Issues, issues. Oh, and what time was it? Anyone? Anyone?

The Wraith had parked him with Willet and Stroebel along with the unconscious bodies of Lorne and Reardon in the middle of the onyx lobby surrounded by relatively calm soldier Wraith. The show of force was a bit excessive, Rodney thought glumly. He was beginning to feel a chill. Or was it the onset of a fever? How long before Lorne came to? Why did Willet and Stroebel look so surly? Screwed, Rodney thought. He was so screwed.

The Wraith leader toed up to Rodney's seated form. "You are a technician?"

Rodney considered lying, except the question seemed less like a question and more like a challenge.

"I'm a scientist."

"Come with me."

Without waiting to see if his prisoner would comply, the nearest Wraith soldier jerked Rodney to his feet.

McKay squealed. His legs felt like rubber and his chest was sore from breathing hard. He threw a frantic look at Willet and Stroebel and saw Willet take a stunner hit for trying to intervene. This made Rodney inexpressibly sad. With the soldier Wraith's paw clamped to his arm, Rodney shuffled after the broad-shouldered back of the leader Wraith.

Lights flashed on. The tubular light fixtures. Ah, yes. Rodney recalled them. The passages seemed the same at night as by day.

Stumbling past the control panel in its deep recess, Rodney's mind returned to the happy feeling of discovery. It had all ended badly, so badly.

The Wraith paused in the passageway.

Now what?

The Wraith clasped its gray-blue hands behind its back. "You are familiar with this technology?"

Lie or truth? Rodney blinked, conflicted. "Somewhat."

"We wish to enhance the power to the communication array in order to send a signal in subspace to our sister ship. My communications technician did not survive and the knowledge of his subordinates is insufficient. You will assist us."

"Uh, uh, uh, I may not--"

"You will assist us."

"Yes, let's talk about it for a really long time and maybe that'll make it happen!"

"You will assist us, or when the first twenty hour period has elapsed we will throw your leader outside the city wall."

Rodney fell quiet.

"As I suspected," mused the Wraith, who began walking a bit faster.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Rodney called after it. "How is it your ship didn't warn you of the impending infestation?"

The Wraith, hands still clasped behind its back, paused to contemplate its response.

"The ship's warning came in the form of system errors, to which my technicians responded as the errors occurred. As you can imagine, in each section where infestation occurred, as my technicians responded, the responding technicians were instantly overcome. After a sufficient number of secondary systems failed, a primary overload ensued, at which time, I, the ship commander, was appraised of the difficulty. Once we initiated a system wide scan, we determined the cause, but by then--"

"By then it was too late."

"Yes."

"Your ship is organic. Be glad the nesters stopped to feed on it before looking for the, uh, people." Rodney looked the Wraith up and down before clearing his throat.

"The ship was an advanced science vessel and one of three of its kind."

Rodney nodded automatically but wondered if he'd heard regret or something like it in the commander's tone. The Wraith wouldn't be the first captain to have bonded with a ship.

"Yes, well, I'm sorry for your loss." Immediately, he choked on the words. "I'll check out the com but I could do without the threats."

The Wraith craned its enormous head to glare down at Rodney.

Rodney swallowed thickly. So much for his banner attempt at improving Wraith-human relations.

x x x x x

While Zelenka plotted the coordinates given to him by Teyla, Elizabeth corralled her premiere team in the gallery outside the control room.

The three teammates leaned together speaking with hushed tones in a kind of intimate shorthand.

John: "Not surprising."

Ronon: "Makes you wonder."

Wonder about what? Elizabeth thought.

Teyla: "I fear--"

John: "Me too."

"Another day's problem," Ronon commented.

John: "Yeah ..."

"Guys," Elizabeth interrupted. "Spell this out for me."

"The Covenant was not as easily taken with our grain stores as with our weapons." Teyla turned her impassive face to take in the base commander. "The Covenant, I sense, is far more interested in acquiring fighters than cloth, grain, or livestock, things that will sustain a population."

"They were ready to take us before we opened our mouths," Ronon pointed out, "just because we looked like we could handle ourselves."

"What happened?"

"We were recognized." Ronon's brow arched as though such was inevitable.

In Russian Roulette, spin the cylinder enough times, you get the bullet. Ronon, like John, was a study of Pegasus Roulette.

Ronon called getting the bang now and again an ordinary fact of living. "It was messy, but we handled it."

"Any casualties?" Elizabeth asked.

John rolled his eyes, not because he didn't care but because Elizabeth did. "Notice: no cold-blooded killers were harmed during the making of this picture." He saw her look and added, "Seriously."

Zelenka turned around in his chair. "Perhaps that choice was not the correct one."

Coming from Zelenka, John didn't know what to make of that. He decided to chalk it up to stress over Rodney and the others. John could empathize.

However, Zelenka now leaned his thin face into his hands and vigorously kneaded his brow. "I am afraid the news is not good."

"The address is bogus?" John said.

Teyla swung toward Zelenka, incredulous.

Elizabeth said, "How could the address not be in the database?"

"It is in the database." He raised his face, let them see his features starting to sag with fatigue. "I am afraid that if this is the correct address, then it is beyond the Daedalus's capability to reach in the time that is left." Zelenka allowed a few seconds. "I am sorry."

Elizabeth turned sharply away. John supposed she'd had more than a few lousy updates since the Belleron mission began and she was feeling banged up a bit. On the other hand, he'd never excluded the possibility that both the Covenant planet and Belleron would fall beyond range of the Daedalus, given the time constraint. Now that he knew, he could deal with it. It was the unknown that sucked him dry. This, this was just another road that had to be negotiated.

Picking up his head and pecking at his laptop, Zelenka sighed. The Czech had already figured out what John was going to do next. That was why he had lamented in uncharacteristically cold fashion the decision not to take out the Covenant guards.

Teyla sighed. "We did not kill any guards out of hand. There was no point. There were non-combatants present at the checkpoint who overheard our exchange and witnessed our actions. These innocents are also able to identify us to the Covenant leaders. As it was, we were"-- she flashed a glance at Ronon --"forceful in obtaining the 'gate address."

Elizabeth sighed. "I'm only sorry, after your effort, we're not going to get the chance to use it."

Not unkindly, New day, same hurdle, John thought. He was faced now with the chore of explaining the new Plan C to the expedition's civilian base commander. He opted to get it out and get it over with.

"Our only chance of saving Lorne is to go to the Covenant world," John said. "We're going."

His reward was her surprise. After all these years, she was practically wide-eyed. "John! Through the Stargate? Are you mad?"

"Mildly suicidal," opined Zelenka, who observed the interplay with a flicker of hope.

"We were insistent about learning the lay of the ground around the Stargate." Teyla bobbed her head in a single nod. "We were told the Stargate is very high. There is an inlet surrounded by wetlands on one hand. A dry shelf has formed near the Stargate. It is on this shelf of grass the Covenant has made its camp. Beyond the grassland, the terrain is low, boggy, and crossed by many waterways. A marsh of some range reaches that way. We must use a Jumper, I fear--"

"Hey, Jumpers take hits better than skin," Ronon interrupted. "We take a Jumper, we might make it. Depends. The longer we stand around talkin' about it, the more time they got to get ready for us."

"A Jumper!" In the astrophysicist's absence, Elizabeth appeared to have adopted McKay's proclivity for fits. "You expect me to authorize the loss of yet another Jumper?"

John scrutized her. "Are you really stuck on the 'losing a Jumper' part?"

"Well since you mentioned it I'm kind of sour on the idea of losing the three of you, too."

John nodded. "Ronon's right. We need to gear up now. Oh, and we're at fourteen hours and fifty minutes in case anyone's counting--"

Zelenka's hand shot into the air. "I am."

"--We pull this off, we can be back on Belleron with time to make a decent go of the finale to Plan C. If we don't make it, or the Wraith screw us over, it's the Daedalus's show."

Elizabeth's mouth tightened to a thin line, her enormous brown eyes passing over Teyla and Ronon. She locked her arms over her chest. "You're in agreement?"

Teyla said, "We must try." She caught Elizabeth's eye. "Is that not the appropriate action? Is that not what Major Lorne would want us to do? Not long ago a member of your world took a small and fragile craft through fire to save me." Elizabeth winced. "I am glad," Teyla gently asserted, "to repay the debt."


Part Five: Interloper


The power station's control and communication center was on another level. A lift had appeared in the obsidian wall as the leader Wraith strolled along. Clearly, he had been inside the power center before. On an upper floor a chamber roughly the size of a football field proffered a candy store of stations, consoles, and systems, all of which appeared to be running in fine fashion.

At the broad entranceway, Rodney felt a flash of boyish eagerness, which was too quickly tempered by good old-fashioned terror.

He was here to perform a task for his captors. Once he satisfied his captors' demand, he would be dragged back to death row.

There wasn't time to play.

A huddle of Wraith dressed in supple jackets conferred at a stand-alone console.

"Is that the main communication console?" Rodney asked.

By way of an answer, the Wraith led him to it.

When Rodney was in their midst, the Wraith technicians went silent. He peered cautiously from visage to visage, encountering the same blankness laced ubiquitously with vinegar.

Tentatively, "Is there diagnostic equipment of some kind?" he asked.

The Wraith continued to blithely and silently observe him.

"Yes, well." Rodney cut his glance, unsettled. He wasn't sure if Wraith preoccupation with consuming human lifeforce was getting the better of them. "I, uh ..."

The Wraith leader guided one of his creatures to one side, then executed a sweeping gesture. "We believe the diagnostic screen is here."

Rodney angled his gaze downward. A recessed screen winked a prompt in an alien language. He could already feel his finger twitching to touch it. "Um, what is it you want me to do again?"

"We wish to communicate with our sister vessel in another system. The technicians will provide the coordinates. You will access the communications subroutine and boost the signal. Can you do this?"

"Does a bear ... Never mind. Room, please?"

The Wraith technicians did not move.

The Wraith leader jerked his head, sending his minions to other tasks.

Rodney observed the technicians, noticed that they were pecking at consoles randomly. "Uh, what the hell are they doing?"

"They are looking for the location of the power core."

"I strongly advise they stop what they're doing immediately."

"Whatever for?"

"Does the term on/off mean anything to you? On means the nesters stay outside and don't eat us. Off means the city's version of insect repellant goes to standby and it's, um, each man for himself."

The Wraith gestured, and the technicians sidled away, leaving just Rodney, his soldier escort, and the Wraith commander alone.

Rodney humphed. Not a big, big ray of sunshine but maybe a flicker. "I'd work better if my friends were up here with me." After he said it, he cringed, waiting perhaps for a cuff on the head.

Instead he heard, "Bring the prisoners here," and glimpsed the soldier Wraith storming off.

"You have two of your hours," the Wraith imposed. "Otherwise, when the conditional term expires, I will make sure you are among those present to watch as the first of your comrades dies."

"Wha-What's with your species and threats?" Rodney protested. "Twenty hours, two hours. Yes, yes, I get that you can make us all die horribly. You know what, after a while that threat gets a little thin."

The Wraith walked away, the heels of his boots ringing like tap shoes against the immaculate tile.

x x x x x

Teyla approaches Jumper Two slowly.

The Jumper bay shows less activity than anticipated.

The Jumper's hatch is open. Hands folded against the stock of her P90, she observes the unhurried departure of a technician from Dr. Zelenka's staff. A routine mission launch-- that is what this seems. A scouting trip or an escort for scientists involving an unpleasantly long flight.

She wants to smile. Indeed, the edges of her mouth soften and lift as though at some odd, private thought. The flight to come is anything but routine. It promises to be shockingly brief, potentially catastrophic, an event unlike any other.

Yet Teyla is calm. Fear can become commonplace. However, she is not afraid. She has spoken two of several applicable prayers, although the one she will not speak-- the ritual preparation for death --is the one she thinks of as she climbs into the rear of the Jumper, as she spies John with Dr. Zelenka at the Jumper's controls.

They discuss manual activation of the Jumper's SD protocol. John wants to be certain not only that she and Ronon can enter the command, but that the manual command can be entered quickly.

She looks around for Ronon. Her Satedan friend has not yet come.

No worries. Only a quarter hour has passed since the meeting in the control room. Ronon will be here soon.

Briefly, she allows herself to wonder if Ronon has within his quarters boxes, perhaps plain, perhaps not so plain, containing possessions that are dear to him, possessions that can be taken up by the expedition in the event of his death and disposed of without forcing the expedition staff to pack them. Certain items among Teyla's possessions now rest inside decorative worship boxes. The items make her quarters her home but, alas, they are private, suitable for the eyes and hands of family only. Halling, she knows, will see to the content of the boxes. There is no reason Elizabeth or Sharon, her Earth friend, need go through them. Sharon and Elizabeth know this, as does John, who has seen them. Does Ronon do this also? she wonders. Does he gather the things of his heart and place around them the protection of polished wood when a mission promises to be especially difficult?

Meanwhile, Teyla has put on sober clothing appropriate for the planet, M4G-293, called Vallet. The dark tones will match the planet's present weather pattern and season. The database of the Ancestors says that it is winter on Vallet, but in the winter near the Stargate the climate is wet and turbulent. It is not cold. The database's information is thousands of years removed from the present but it is all they have. A MALP or UAV will announce the imminence of their arrival, increase their peril, and endanger John's rather fragile Plan D-- yes, they are on Plan D now--if in fact they must suffer capture.

John looks back at her. "Good, you're here." He, too, is dressed somberly, all in black. Though his appearance rings of the military, he is not in uniform. None of them will be. He carries a sidearm. His P90 is clipped to his tac vest. His black trousers are unbloused, hanging over combat boots. His coat could be Ronon's, except she has seen it before in his quarters. He wears it over his vest.

She approaches the co-pilot's chair. "Are we ready?" she asks.

Dr. Zelenka avoids her gaze. He is decidedly pale.

She brushes his arm reassuringly. "It will be well." This is not a lie, and it is not bravado.

"Yes, yes," agrees Dr. Zelenka. As John looks on, Dr. Zelenka goes through the manual self-destruct sequence. He tells her that in the name of expediency he has disabled the command code feature, meaning she must be careful.

"I do not suppose it will be very quiet or calm inside the Jumper if I am asked to do this," she reminds.

Zelenka tightens his mouth, hesitates, and covers her hand with his. "God speed," he wishes. He leaves.

John starts to lower himself into the pilot's chair and stops.

Teyla draws inward a long, relished breath that quickly becomes filled with the scent of his skin. He sweeps toward her, closing his lips over hers, conveying both tenderness and urgency. She follows the column of his neck with her fingers until the kiss ends, at which time she warns with a whisper, "That was not good-bye."

He drops into the pilot's chair and begins pre-flight. "We don't do that, remember?"

"No, we do not."

"We don't do what?" Ronon's voice carries heavily from the rear compartment.

John activates a control. The hatch seals with a faint hiss. Never answering, John brings up main power and drive engines.

Over the com, "This is Sheppard in Jumper Two. Dial it up."

Sergeant Lindwall says crisply, "Roger that, Colonel. Initiating dialing sequence."

Elizabeth's voice, low and steady: "Stay safe."

Teyla glances back at John, at Ronon. Ronon is belting himself into the seat behind her. Now her belly is a-twitter. She wonders if Halling will think she has been wasteful with her life, abandoning her people to save newcomers. She thinks of New Athosia, and the old wall. It comes to her now, like the silver piping of a beautiful song, the reason Halling and the others cannot abandon the prayer world of the Ket. It has to do with faith. Just surviving is not enough. There has to be something more. The bond between her people and this life runs deeper than skin. She understands this. Their reason for staying on New Athosia, and hers for going on this mission --they are the same.

x x x x x

The Jumper was on autopilot soon as it left the Jumper bay. John likened the feeling of the swoop downward to face the enormous naquadah ring and the event horizon of an outbound wormhole, coupled with the inevitable surge forward, to the gravity-defying plunge auto-rotating a landing in an attack helicopter from five hundred feet. The mission to the Covenant planet had no MALP telemetry, no UAV data, nothing but the certainty that on the other side of the Stargate the Jumper would be facing the defensive measures of the Covenant as fashioned by a criminal who'd succeeded in shooting an unshielded Jumper out of the sky.

John planned to switch on the Jumper's shield as soon the ship materialized on the other side of the wormhole.

For a tilting, airbrushed instant, the Jumper's port filled up with liquid sky and towering thunderheads. The Stargate was adjacent a sluggish swath of water, the inlet Teyla had mentioned, and mounted at the apex of a stone structure about five stories high. He was set to maneuver skyward and away from the Covenant's makeshift bubble city with shields that should have been operational a bare fraction of a moment after he materialized. That wasn't how his day went. The HUD flung its holographic warning even as the hull was struck. John groaned. It was what he would do, pepper the air in front of the 'gate and keep the missiles flying. The HUD pinpointed the origin of the barrage, leading to an eyeful of fat matte black launchers on the shoreland. Their broad shafts were already smoking.

Though he zigged, he sped right into them, one after the other. Talk about leading your target. His sky was mined with exploding rounds.

Nothing surprising but he'd hoped to get distance before the Jumper took damage.

"They're hitting us," Ronon shouted.

Was this Compensate for Rodney day? First Elizabeth with the drama, and now Ronon with an award-winning McKay-like statement of the obvious. "I know." John had his fists on the manual controls, vectoring for the cover of the swamp beyond his windscreen. "Inertial dampeners failing. Trying to compensate."

The Jumper bucked angrily.

"We cloaked yet?" Ronon called out.

"Can't bring up shields or cloak."

"We lasted long," the Satedan complained.

"About as long as I thought." Still, John wished Ronon wasn't so morose about it. At least the Satedan didn't have to fly the damn thing. He just had sit back and enjoy the crash.

Teyla pointed. "John, I see a break in the trees."

He nodded hard. Smoke trailed little flashing pricks into the sky. More missiles. Torrell, the Olesian he'd encountered on an island penal colony on one of the team's more memorable missions, now adviser to the Covenant leader, had upgraded.

The Heads Up Display said the Jumper was losing primary systems. Not good. They had too much altitude. The patch of trees-- how far away? The HUD, responding to his thought, showed him.

John swung the Jumper out over the inlet. "Everybody, hold on." Brought the Jumper around in a wide arc, crossing a narrow strip of red clay and listing over treetops. The marsh looked raw and black, like the boonies of some deep southern bayou mid-winter. He'd cleared the last of the missiles but the damage was done. Came out over a creek. The marsh looked thick on either side.

"Going in," he warned. And then watched as the HUD vanished, the console darkened, and the Jumper burped out the last of its life. Crap.

He was close enough to the ground that the impact didn't knock out anyone. The Jumper punched through trees and brush and finished its final flight in a tract of wet clay along the creek.

"Everyone okay?"

Looking like he wanted to pound something, Ronon unlatched his belt and jumped up. Teyla leaped for her supply pack and strapped it on.

"Taking that as a yes," John said. He dropped to one knee, swept back one of the panels, and moved a crystal in the power net the way Zelenka had told him to.

"Okay, Teyla," he said.

Teyla eyed the console. Something was there, a prompt, asking her to do her thing. She entered the self-destruct sequence. The SD didn't need main or drive power. It was designed to create a devastating overload in the core when engines and main power were offline.

"We should go now," Teyla supposed.

Ronon released the rear hatch and plopped into the mud. He veered from the creek, made sure his companions were behind him, and ran for his life.

x x x x x

Rodney pressed the console with the pads of his fingers, pleasantly surprised to see a menu of some sort.

If life was fair he would be standing gaily at the console right now with fellow scientists, a PDA, and a scanner.

His companion, presently, was a tall, white-maned laconic Wraith with an eye, or so it seemed, on Rodney's chest.

Rodney ignored the screen for the moment and struggled down to his knees. Pushed aside panel doors that led to the control and power crystals embedded in the console's pedestal. Like the room itself, the pedestal was more than adequately lit by blue-white halogens.

The pedastal was also pristine. Even the conduits and their boxes were dustless. This was, Rodney knew, on the order of a minor miracle. When Rodney had been inside the pedestal a while, "Doc, what're you doing?" he heard.

He got a mild but not unpleasant jolt. Angling his torso half way out of the panel, he eyed the towering figure of Major Lorne.

"Oh! You're up!"

"I asked what you were doing," Lorne said, looking remarkably in command for a prisoner of war.

"I'm, uh, boosting the power to the communication array so the, uh ..." His voice trailed. Well above him, Lorne was beaming a taciturn 'tough guy' look second only to Sheppard's. Lorne managed also to shoot that look down his nose, which made Rodney worry he'd missed the memo that said he had to check orders from the lifeforce-sucking monsters with the military before complying.

"Get out of there."

Rodney hesitated. He had a lethal gray-skinned predator on one side, Sheppard's 2IC on the other. The situation felt like a no-brainer but Rodney was conflicted.

"Uh, he said he was going to kill you if I, uh ..."

"We're not aiding the enemy, doc."

Rodney sat up, mouth hanging in an expression of mocking wonder. He supposed no bad day was complete until the absurd mixed with the appalling. "Excuse me? We are so helping the enemy. What do you think Sheppard's doing right now?"

The Wraith, meanwhile, gazed from Lorne to Rodney as though its pets' behavior was worth the front row seat.

Until Rodney got up.

The Wraith made a low sibilant sound inside its throat.

Rodney felt compelled to emphasize the warning. "He said he was going to kill you. What, d'you wake up on the wrong side of the floor?"

"We're just five people, doc." Lorne shifted slightly to look the Wraith in the face. And then, like he expected the Wraith to deign to answer, Lorne asked, "Why do you want us to work on the communication array?"

As Rodney was starting to mourn the departure of the Major's sanity, the Wraith spoke. "In several of your hours, the Stargate of this world will activate. Your warriors will return with our queen. If we remain as we are, they and she will fall to the plague that destroyed our vessel. We must board another vessel and monitor the Stargate so that will not happen."

"You want to contact another vessel?"

Rodney thought, Lorne, shut up! "Of course he wants to contact another vessel!"

"As you say," the Wraith agreed, "you are five. It will take many days to extinguish your lives according to the pact, but I shall be far more creative than necessary if you do not order your technician to proceed."

Lorne answered with his military's trademark intractable stare.

The Wraith hissed.

And Rodney startled. "Lorne. Lorne! There's a bit of an infestation problem going on outside this city right now. How's Sheppard gonna get ten feet past the Stargate without help?"

"All right. He works," he told the Wraith, "and I watch."

The Wraith made a grating sound that passed, at least for the present, as agreement and strode off.

Rodney rolled his eyes. How had the Major made it through that one? "Well, if you're going to stand there, move back a little. You're in my space." Shaking his head, he hunkered down beside the panel. Came up a few minutes later, was relieved to see the Major still breathing. "Let's have a look, shall we?" He turned to the console. The menu was present, scripted with various combinations of unrecognizable symbols. He was not above experimentation, and, besides, he was beginning to think he knew what the menu was for.

He touched the screen. Text appeared, aligned top to bottom like the Manareans' written language.

At the top of the screen, a symbol that looked remarkably like an arrow.

The back button.

The menu reappeared.

Oh, thank God, a scroll button.

He tapped the button once. More items appeared on the menu. He tapped again and there it was, a choice scripted in Ancient.

Magnificent, to put it simply.

And if he were surrounded by friends, right now he'd be in a scientist's version of paradise.

He selected Ancient, watched the text flash by. When a string of symbols he liked rolled up, he touched the screen. A diagram appeared.

"What're you doing, doc?"

He suppressed the urge to tell Lorne to be quiet, then realized he wanted someone to share with. "The self-help tool is in Ancient!"

"Ancient? How can that be?"

"Well, it's in a lot of languages. I'd need my PDA to tell which ones, but there are a lot. This is amazing!"

"Amazing, what way amazing?" Lorne had edged closer and now he was whispering.

"Well, Teyla and Ronon keep saying the Exiles were here first. What if they're right?"

"You lost me."

"What if you were seeding a world and you saw this big old city sitting on a hill, nobody in it?"

"I'd think the planet was a good place to raise my kids."

"--but that means the Exiles were gone for a while. Gone, and then they came back."

"So what, doc?"

"The Ancients were the 'gate builders. How'd the Exiles take off and come back?"

"By ship?"

"No other way."

"Oka-ay."

"This ..." Rodney lowered his voice. "When they came back it looks like they absorbed aspects of Ancient technology and incorporated those aspects into their own systems." And then they translated the how-to manuals for their technology and the technology of their rivals into the written languages of humans throughout the galaxy. A big no-no from the Ancients' perspective. "This, this is either a picture of, or an actual DHD."

Lorne glanced at the screen. "Nearest Stargate's kind of far away right now."

"Nearest Stargate that we know of!"

Lorne's brow furrowed. "You think there might be a 'gate in the city?"

Rodney touched the screen. A symbol lit up. He touched another, bubbling with glee.

"Cut that out," Lorne grunted.

Rodney stiffened and switched screens. "Too bad I can't track the power signature of a second 'gate without a scanner."

"Yeah, well, until we figure out how to find it and use it without bringing company, we won't be dialing any 'gates. Got that? We're just five people."

Huh? What's with the head count? Rodney hoped that wasn't going to become the theme song for today. He'd much rather hear Sheppard's "we don't leave our people behind" mantra. It was a tad more upbeat.

He got busy scrolling diagnostic windows. Since he and Major Lorne were of a sharing frame of mind, Rodney decided to reveal something. "On another note, our Wraith is acting weird. Very un-Wraith-like, if you ask me. He actually talked to me, and he deferred to you."

Lorne was quiet.

Rodney shrugged, decided he was alone in his impression of the Wraith commander.

Then Lorne said, "Tell me about it."

x x x x x

The storm clouds looked pretty menacing but weren't doing anything but blowing around. Gave the ashy and black terrain an underwater look. Rumblings in the distance, but no lightning, although the storm smell was kind of strong. Stronger than the damp ozone in the air was the odor of decay. Away from the creek were black pools, stumps and sprawling leafless trees rising up or falling down in the stagnant water.

Life signs. After the explosion, there had been four that scattered. Then nothing for a while. Ronon was calling the show, taking them out of the marsh toward drier land, bigger tree cover, on a course parallel to the Covenant town. Teyla was no novice, and John had done this before, but he marveled at Ronon's style, avoiding laying down tracks, working out the direction of travel through instinct.

John saw more life signs on the scanner, saw them moving off toward the explosion. How much daylight left? This could work. He was pushing his mind to the problem the Stargate presented. That high, they'd be exposed heading out. He wanted to look at the Covenant's defensive measures before he lost the light. Chances were the Covenant wasn't aggressively defending the Stargate from people trying to 'gate out but he needed to be sure.

Life signs, this time from a bad direction.

He signaled, and Ronon and Teyla stopped and crouched and edged close. He showed them the scanner. A group coming at them, which meant the group was using bio-sensor or thermal scanning.

Ronon's expression was, well, blank, which was par for the course.

Teyla rolled her head from side to side, orienting her reality to the inevitable violence and the vagaries such presented. Pain, sprains, broken bones, even death.

John quirked his eyebrow and pointed. Which way to a used path?

Ronon understood. Jerked his head in the direction of the encroaching life signs.

John wanted to say something. He looked longer at Teyla than Ronon, maybe because he thought Ronon already knew what he wanted to say. But when he'd been looking into Teyla's eyes long enough, he realized she knew too. So he just stood up, took the lead.

They'd made a plan-- call it Plan D Screwed --in case the Covenant had tracking technology. It was the worst variation of the Plan, but it was a plan. It was the reason John was out of uniform. It was the reason they now needed to stop moving evasively.

They had to seem like they wanted to meet and greet. And while this was the plan least likely to end well, it beat going into full offensive mode, which was a lose-lose on all counts.

Plan D-- the screwed version --would have worked better if John had known (at the time Teyla and Ronon were interrogating the guards on the checkpoint planet) that the Daedalus's travel time to the Covenant world made using the Daedalus impossible. But he hadn't known, and frankly, an undercover run into the Covenant's territory was not John's idea of a winning play under any circumstances. Bottom line, the Daedalus was enroute to save four people. John, Ronon, and Teyla were working with a lousy hand and no chips to save five.

But it was going to cost.

Big time.

The grass was sparse, prickling up through damp red soil in knotted clumps. The trees were getting knocked together by a storm wind that hadn't delivered, their gaunt branches rasping. In a hundred paces or so John saw a footpath that curved up from the creek toward the higher, drier grassland near the Stargate.

He checked the scanner.

Still out of sight. A lot of them. Coming dead on.

Made his stomach harden. Made him swallow, too. Would he have felt better if the approaching criminals were breaking up, circling around, looking for a flanking maneuver? Maybe. Anything strategic on the part of the gang up ahead to show a subtle mind, intellect, cool thinking. Instead he imagined a band of toughs with a thermal tracker, hard-striding men too recently invigorated by the singe of rocket exhaust in the air. They'd be loud, wild, and apt to shoot without relying on a command.

The path straightened, and the crooked little trees fell back.

John came to a halt. The ground wasn't level here, so he only saw a few at first, roughened burly men accessorized for war in a hodgepodge of layered leather and metal. The forward rank snapped to a halt, eyeballed John, and passed to the others the joyous word.

"Sheppard," Ronon grunted.

"I don't like it either," John let him know.

"How many you see?"

"Scanner says fourteen."

"We can handle that," Ronon knew.

Handle fourteen bullies who thought battle was a numbers game played with brute force? Sure they could. They could kill them all, and do what a Runner did: they could get moving and stay moving until it was time to rest or they ran out of ammo. Then they'd die.

Already knowing the answer, "What do we do?" Teyla asked.

John tucked away the scanner. Unclipped his P90. "Come on, guys."

"Sure you wanna do this?" Ronon figured he give it a last try.

"No choice."

"You say so."

John settled his P90 on the footpath. "I do." Unholstered his pistol and put that down too.

Teyla lay down her guns and slowly raised her hands.

John checked Ronon, glad he did. "Hey, buddy, you want to get with the program here before we get shot to hell?"

"My bet is we're gonna get shot anyway."

John, his hands up, unkinked his neck, frowned, and nodded. "I'll take that bet."

There it was, a tight, wry little smile, Ronon-style. The Satedan put down his energy pistol and locked his hands behind his neck.

The gang up the path took them in.

Under his breath, "Yeah, that's right. We're just standin' here," Ronon scoffed.

Not the brightest thugs John had ever seen. Oh, hell, here they come. Complete with tough guy sound effects, the gang charged. John flinched back a step, tried to remember if he should tighten up or relax. Never decided before the faster runners tackled. After the pummeling he lost momentary connection with his forebrain. Pain tended to cause that. He went down with his feet in the air, lost his wind, lost his vision. When his wiring straightened out, he was taking boots in his back and legs and concentrating on protecting his head. Heard Teyla make a sharp, protesting grunt and realized she was still on her feet. Saw through the hedge of legs that two of the Covenant bullies were on the ground and Teyla was in a fighting crouch. They must have reached for something they shouldn't have. She left the ground and landed a strike with the heel of her boot against the knee of an attacker. A flash of light and she spiraled and sank boneless to the grass. John, rolling from a muddy boot aimed at his cheek, thought the stunner blast was kindness.

The boots withdrew and were replaced right away by elbows, fists, and some kind of cable that trapped his hands behind his back. They yanked him up to his knees. The sky tilted, all dark and distant. Liquid streamed from his nose and hair. He was mouth-breathing and frantically searching for a face with a shred of sanity.

He found Torrell.

Crap.

Torrell with John's Beretta sealed in his big hand, a twitchy smile, and a smug but otherwise empty gaze. "I'm so glad to see you again. How's this work?" the Olesian murderer wondered. He put the barrel between John's eyes, and pulled the trigger.

Suspended between two of Torrell's thugs, John winced and slumped backward. Son of a bitch!

Torrell frowned, turned the pistol over in his hands. "Work better if I move this little switch?" He took off the safety and jammed the barrel against John's skull. "Been waiting like you wouldn't believe for this day."

"Hold your load another two breaths, why don't you?" a female voice from the crowd fringe called out.

John weakened with relief. Did a fast scan for Ronon, saw his friend trussed and pissed but breathing.

Meanwhile the Covenant leader swished up an aisle opened by her toughs. It could have been his head hurting but John thought Mentael Satoe looked different. Thinner, taller. He remembered spiky reddish-amber hair and that was the same but the high cheekbones had gotten sharper, her fox eyes darker. A pistol belt circled brown trousers tucked into mud-caked boots and a hard little waist. She carried ammo pouches and a second pistol in a holster that crossed her chest. Her neck was still thick, and so were her arms. Like Ronon, she was a Satedan refugee with preternatural reflexes and a lethal style drilled by the Satedan armed forces.

"I cannot believe," Satoe whistled, "you showed your face here. This morning I woke up, not two hours ago, thinking what the hell could I do to make myself feel good. And here you come. The question I can't answer is do I shoot you myself or let Torrell do it."

Okay, okay, he'd bantered with this woman before. Tried to remember the key points. Her ego, for one. And the fact that she had a Pegasus-sized chip on her shoulder.

He decided to go with, "You missed one," by way of answer.

"I missed one what?"

"Missed a menu item." It was important, now, that he held her eye. Calling her a fool in front of her men wasn't necessarily the winner move. He had to let her come to it on her own.

She stared, and then-- bingo --her mouth quivered a bit before locking into a rigid line. "I would have thought you put greater value on your life."

"I value it well enough."

"Why didn't you negotiate at the transfer station?"

"With your errand boys? I thought we'd gotten to know each other better than that."

"I know you're a good liar."

"Thank you."

"I know you captured my operative. Such a costly operation and no return. I've been losing sleep."

"I didn't know that. Didn't know she was your operative. Didn't know you were losing sleep."

"I almost believe you, Sheppard. I was, however, under the assumption you were a sensible man. Did you think you were going to fly into my camp and set down to a parade?"

"Actually, I did."

"I'm back to thinking about shooting you again. You just cost me another flying ship."

"I'm not the one who shot it down."

Her features congealed, reddened, and abruptly flattened with resolve. She thrust out her hand for the Beretta.

With a grunt of disappointment, Torrell gave it to her.

Satoe aimed resolutely for John's heart. "Give me one reason I shouldn't waste you on principle."

"I can get another one."

"Another what?"

"Another flying ship."

"Lover, I've heard that song before. You have three heartbeats to do better."

"You're going to war and need what I know."

"What do you know that I need?"

"How to win it."

She lowered the 9mm. Swept the crowd, pausing on Ronon and pausing, too, on Teyla's unconscious form. "You brought your assistants."

"I packed for a long stay," John advised. "Sorry you blew up my ride?"

She burned him with a look, strode away.

Torrell leaned in, grabbed a fistful of John's hair. "You lucky bastard, you get to keep breathing least till dinner. I'll say my prayers. Maybe I'll get to shoot you then."

x x x x x

"Next person looks at his watch, I'm gonna shoot," Lorne said dryly before rotating his wrist, checking his watch. Three hours on countdown-- no, two hours and fifty-eight minutes. No sense in rounding up. He'd found optimism a liability in the Pegasus.

He and the others had been brought down to a corner in the giant foyer on the ground floor. The alien lighting made the foyer look like daytime but the light was far from intrusive and the black walls, floor tiles, and ceiling gave the space an insulated feel. Consequently, Willet and Reardon had gone the last five hours dozing on and off. Stroebel and McKay had earlier traded Wraith war stories, with McKay taking the dubious prize for the most encounters. Lorne was going to throw in an anecdote to pass the time but stalled when the first tale that came to mind was actually one involving an Iratus cave and the death of the men, Sergeant Walker and Captain Stevens, Reardon and Stroebel had replaced.

He wondered-- if it came to it --who would replace him. He thought about some of the SGC Air Force officers pursuing assignment in Atlantis. When he took leave, he ran into a few. Leave on Earth sometimes fell flat without an SGC buddy to hang out with. He still had to watch what he said, but at least he could talk about the Stargate. At home in Pennsylvania, he couldn't talk about anything. When he went home, he lied a lot, stuck to his cover. Ate home-cooked meals, chopped wood, told his father he was glad he was supervising an office of paper pushers stateside instead of on deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. He felt bad that his bedroom was the same since college. Knew his father wouldn't turn it into a spare room until he met a girl, got married, bought a house of his own. They talked about it sometimes, his father looking at it from the bright side.

Military careers end early, Lorne's dad liked to say. You'll be a big shot retired officer, forty years old, pensioned out of the Air Force and lookin' good. All the time in the world then. Look at me, I got married late.

Jesus Christ, Lorne thought. Two and a half friggin hours.

"I just thought of something," McKay perked up.

"I'm scared already, doc," Lorne said, shifting his haunches to keep the blood flowing.

"Ah, sarcasm, yes." McKay did an eye roll and then went full speed ahead. "Sheppard said, last time he was on mission here, he saw equipment in the basements and crawlspaces that looked like it was for the bugs."

Lorne had seen the report. "So?"

"So, what if he was right?"

Lorne stretched his spine against the smooth wall, heard a satisfying crack, and looked askance. He wasn't interested in Belleron basements anymore. He wasn't interested in a serenade on the technical aspects of Exile cities. And he didn't want go a round in a dialogue about the peculiarity of their Wraith hosts. The only person he wanted to hear from was the guy who had the crystal ball. Yes or no, am I going to be alive in three hours?

McKay was still chattering. "... this planet, and maybe they didn't know. Let's face it, the Ancients didn't do such a good job with the insect population on other worlds getting to their pet humans, now did they? But here, the Exiles came back--"

Lorne couldn't take it anymore. "Come back from where, doc? Who said they went anywhere?"

"I did. Weren't you paying attention?"

Lorne thought, Shoot me, and immediately wished he hadn't. He waved to indicate surrender. "Okay, so these Exiles came back. Then what?"

McKay's eyes got big. "Well, think about it," like he was telling Lorne any two-year-old could have guessed. "How old is this city?"

Lorne waited. McKay waited. Lorne said, "I. Don't. Know."

"It pre-dates Ancient colonization of the Pegasus."

"That's old."

"Now you're being patronizing. Forget it, I'll just--"

Willet had stirred and was following the interplay. "Don't quit. I'm actually kind of interested."

McKay shifted like an eager kid to face the Corporal. "Picture millions of years ago, this city teeming with a population. Are there nesters? Sure. But they're controlled and not only inside the city. Same as we have large inner cities that scientifically manage insect and other, um, populations, the Exiles must have managed the nesters. But you can never completely eradicate the cockroach, now can you? Now picture the Exile departure--"

"How?" Willet asked.

"By ship," Lorne sighed.

"So he is paying attention," McKay noted. Stroebel was sitting up now, and Reardon was awake. "And the Exiles come back. They come back and find a human population beseiged by insects."

"Besieged? Why didn't the humans just 'gate out of here?" Reardon asked.

"I may be overdramatizing," McKay allowed.

"Tell the story," Willet encouraged.

"The Exiles, not being stand-offish like a certain technically advanced civilization we know, intervened, not only controlling the nester population but showing the Bellites how to do it. That's why we found an underground full of machinery, systems, and passages. The nesters weren't a problem when this world was populated. Even after the Exiles left the second time, or were taken, depending on one's version of events, the Bellites thrived. As we're talking several millennia before they even thought about electricity, I can only guess, and here is the point, this city supplied power either directly or remotely to the Bellite civilization. Which means it can do so again, and wherever the devices weren't blasted in the Wraith attack, the nesters can be held back."

Willet blinked. "So Colonel Sheppard can get back up here."

McKay frowned. "Lot of open ground to cover there, but, uh, at least he might get far enough to signal he's here."

"Before the bugs kill him, you mean," Lorne supposed.

"In time for him to let the Wraith know he's back. They already sent for their ship. Wraith ships have culling beams. Sheppard's going to have their queen with him, you know."

"We hope." Reardon.

Lorne said, "Let me get this straight. You want to let the Wraith know this city may have a remote or hard-wired link to the human city in the valley and you want to ask their leader to let you turn on the juice."

"I was, uh ... I think we ... Yes."

"Any idea what kind of crap that could open up in terms of technology useful to the Wraith?"

"Actually, I do." McKay tilted his head. "You weren't paying attention, so I'll spell it out for you. I'm talking about turning on the power there, as in not here. There being the human city, here being the highly advanced alien one. In case you haven't notice, the highly advanced alien city's been at full power from the word go."

x x x x x

From the edge of the Covenant encampment, John spied the metallic loop of the Stargate. Steps cut in stone led to a platform high above the flats. He bet the grasslands flooded now and then, making the stone and the height of the platform necessary. Since the Ancients had built the 'gate and not the local humans-- whoever they were, wherever they had gone --John supposed the stone went down through the wet soil and water about as far as it went up. The Ancients built to last.

He didn't see guards around the Stargate platform, on the steps beneath, or at the base but then this wasn't a disciplined military camp. The excitement of the air show, Jumper explosion, and recovering prisoners might have drawn off the four, five, or even ten armed thugs Satoe kept on 'gate duty. John had no way of telling. He checked out the climb from the base to the platform. Long way to go out in the open with people shooting at you.

He turned his attention to the people, the camp, and where the Wraith might be. Same as the one he saw on Belleron, the Covenant's Vallet encampment had started as symmetrical rows of luminous lime panels auto-sealed into dwellings closely resembling trailers. The curvy, bubble panels attached to independent power cells and were, John remembered, furnished efficiently and comfortably. The settlement on Vallet had the distinction of being larger than the community on Belleron. In addition, a huge, raggedy tent town had sprung along the fringes, like the poor human's version of Covenant living. The women and children stolen by Covenant raiding parties, John decided. Most Covenant members were paying customers, but there were some, usually those inhabiting a world the Covenant desired, who were annexed through conscription, violence.

The "pay your way" side of the Covenant lifestyle was catching. Sure it was. As with any good product, the Covenant didn't have to advertise.

Sell your soul and stay ahead of the cullings.

Cullings that were increasing in frequency and brutality as more Wraith wakened than could be sustained.

As John was marched through the tent town, he wondered if he was in a way responsible for the Covenant. Wasn't he the one who killed the Keeper and woke the Wraith? Wasn't the Atlantis expedition responsible for seeding the waking Wraith with the idea of a rich new feeding ground?

Assaulted by the competing odors of humans pressed into a small space with bad hygiene and no sewer system to speak of, John began searching faces. The storm sky was deceptive. It was morning on Vallet. What did the people living outside the bubble city do during the day? Half the people who skittered out of the way or stood staring along the clay path looked like ordinary people. Was it all right to feel pity? Suppose they didn't want pity, he thought. Suppose all they wanted was a way to escape-- or to hide.

The holding area was on the upscale grounds amid the "trailers" that Ronon had said were built using Exile technology. Torrell and his bullies pushed and dragged John and Ronon into one of the domiciles. After Torrell made his thugs free their hands, he opened up a tank that looked like a display case or something from an Earth zoo. The sliding door was transparent and sealed magnetically at one end. Torrell had his man unload Teyla onto the ground and then lock the three of them inside a single unit. He left behind three guards.

First order of business was assessment. John had been wearing his tac vest under his outer coat. He no longer wore either but Torrell's man had tossed his coat in with him before withdrawing. Ronon still wore his coat, and Teyla hers. That was good, because they'd lined the inner layers of all three coats with lightweight but essential supplies, Runner-style, before leaving Atlantis.

While Ronon harassed the bemused guards for water and food, John examined Teyla. She didn't appear to have taken much abuse. He, on the other hand, was a roadmap of maltreatment, although nothing felt cracked or dislocated.

"You okay?" he asked Ronon.

Ronon gave a look that asked, Does being pissed off count?

John palmed his face, ignored the cuts, probing the tender places underneath. He had a gash above the hairline that was still bleeding. Wondering what he looked like, he sat on the cell floor and gently lifted Teyla to his lap. He guided wisps of hair from her face, reached down to take her hand in his.

Noticed that in addition to taking his weapons, the Covenant thugs had taken his watch.

Well, that sucks. He began picking his brain for some sense of the time it took to get clear of the crash site, surrender, and get marched to captivity. Torrell hadn't acted like he was in a foot race, so maybe, what, an hour, two hours? What did that leave? Twelve, eleven hours?

"Hey, buddy, they get your watch too? My watch is missing. So is Teyla's."

"Yup."

John swore, raised his face, and froze.

The cell was on an aisle that accommodated other units. The aisle wasn't very wide but it was big enough to keep the lighting in one unit from affecting the occupants of the cell on the other side.

The illumination in the opposite cell was low.

John discerned movement, the slow rising of a long, thin body. It was shadow, really. The contours sharp at the shoulders, the arms a tad long, the hands taloned.

"Ronon."

Ronon saw. "Yup."

The figure leaned into the glass, its hands pressed outward, its lips drawn back in a snarl.

They'd found the male Wraith.

x x x x x

The commander Wraith told them they had to get up, move outside into the plaza. Scout ships, released by the big carrier vessels in space, were landing for passenger pick-ups. The mother ships had been warned not to set down.

Ships, plural. As in two.

Lorne got everybody together and led the march outside. Daylight, truly. He winced, and slowed his steps. As long as he'd dreamed about launching into the vacuum of space, being close to the stars, he'd forgotten how sweet the warming sunlight could feel on his skin.

McKay was shielding his eyes and bumping into people.

Lorne put out his hand to steady the scientist, saw that McKay's eyes were raw and red-rimmed from strain and lack of sleep.

Lorne knew how that felt. "Can you see okay, doc?" he asked.

McKay babbled, "It's, uh, it's kind of pretty out here."

x x x x x

The guards were a problem.

With John up front bothering the guards for water, a little food, Ronon had been able to work a knife from his braids. The guards met John's and Ronon's pleas with amused, sometimes caustic rejection, and eventually demonstrated apathy by turning away. When the guards gave them their backs Ronon's knife disappeared up the sleeve.

Now came the difficulty of removing the strips of C4 from inside the coats and fixing the explosive to the cell's magnetic lock. There was nothing in the cell to keep the guards from seeing what they were doing, or to protect them from the blast, but John and Ronon had agreed the blast didn't have to be big. They didn't need to blow the lock to pieces, just disrupt power going to the lock. John had already located the conduit. He was willing to bet his life that the power would cut out rather than risk an overload.

Leaving the problem of the guards.

A long day ensued.

Teyla stirred and stiffened. "I sense Wraith."

John was sitting with her, trying without success not to obsess about the time. He was making up his mind to blow the door and call it day but knew, too, his 'get it done yesterday' nature wasn't an ally right now. They'd come to Vallet with better than ten hours to spare. Leaving Vallet meant taking a Wraith queen through the Stargate with them, a being they had yet to locate. He'd glimpsed the Stargate from within the Covenant settlement but he'd been too far away to notice the eyes Satoe had placed on it.

He needed time. He needed information.

Teyla clasped the back of her neck and pulled herself up. She turned her head to look at John and Ronon. "Are you injured?"

Ronon said, "I'm fine," while managing to sound like he was ready to crush a human skull in his hands.

John said, "Looks worse than it feels."

Ronon grunted. "You sure? Looks pretty bad. By the way, I won the bet."

"What bet?"

"I said they were going to shoot no matter what we did."

"He pulled the trigger, he didn't shoot."

"You should be dead right now."

"Let's revisit that later." John lowered his voice to a whisper. "Right now, maybe Teyla can tell us if she knows where they're holding the queen."

Teyla had gone up to her knees facing the transparent wall. She eyed the Wraith in the cell across the aisle. "I sense something but what I sense is not a queen. Why is the male Wraith a prisoner?"

A fact never explored, John realized, in their last dealings with the Covenant.

"Would you know if a queen was here?" Ronon asked.

Teyla stood up. "I think so."

Ronon cursed.

John didn't feel good about it either. "We're missing something."

"Unless the queen isn't here."

Teyla slanted Ronon a glance and shook her head. "No, I agree with John. We are ... missing something."

John felt his jaw tighten. "Okay, nobody gets out of here until we figure it out."

x x x x x

The holding cell on the new Wraith vessel was identical to the one they evacuated on the doomed ship. It brought to mind the despair of coming full circle, a gloom Lorne wanted to dispel. Not because he'd been in these situations before, but because he needed to think of McKay and his men making it home.

And, yeah, he'd been in these situations before.

Willet, disgruntled, was pacing. "We're surrounded by thousands of Wraith, sir. What makes you think the next twenty hours is gonna make all that big a difference?"

Lorne was tired. He wanted to sit down but was worried if he released his muscles the Wraith would have to pick him up to take him out of the cell. He didn't want his men seeing that.

"Colonel Sheppard used the Daedalus for the mission. There must have been a complication--"

"Like what?" Of all of them, Stroebel was taking it the hardest.

"Like the planet they had to reach was on the far side of the Pegasus and flight time even in hyperspace took longer than twenty hours."

No one spoke to that. Why bother? They'd been thinking it, all of them, from the first hour. The deadline wasn't really a problem that got solved with heart, skin, and bones. Not when Asgard beaming technology and hyperdrive engines were involved. The expedition was going to find and secure the Wraith queen. Sheppard, his team, and ten Marines could easily effect her extraction if they used stealth. And if stealth failed, why not throw an F-302 squadron at the problem? No, the deadline was more of a math issue. How much, how long, etcetera. The funny thing was certain elements were fixed. The location of the Covenant planet, travel time to its solar system. Those were facts that could not be altered. Soon as Sheppard had them, he knew he was going to make the deadline, or he knew he was not going to make the deadline.

Wasn't looking good, Lorne realized. He didn't suppose Sheppard was taking it well.

"So." He'd made it to the point where looking at his watch made him faint. He thought he could count backward in sixty second increments on his own pretty good now, not that he cared all that much if he had twenty minutes, or seventeen or fifteen. "I must say, it's been an honor, boys."

"Oh now, hold on a minute." McKay, appalled, went erect. "I've seen it get closer than this."

"Me too," Lorne agreed, "but if you don't mind ..." The Major cocked his head, mutely imploring the scientist to excuse himself. McKay looked like he wasn't sure he knew how to do that, so Lorne went on. "Lieutenant, I keep my letters on my laptop. I'm going to give you the password. That way Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard doesn't have to go looking for them. He gets to do that too much."

"Yes, sir." Stroebel had been leaning into the wall. He stood up and eased his heels together, his features rigid. "I'll take care of it."

Lorne dropped his voice. "Okay, now, this part, guys. This part, it's hard to hear but it's important. Something makes me think there isn't going to be a body. You don't know my dad, but--" He paused here and cleared his throat. Stopped talking a full thirty seconds. No one was going to rush him. " ... Unless he sees my body, my dad's just going to keep watching the doorstep. I can't go like that, thinking of him like that--"

"We'll do it," Reardon said. "Whatever story the SGC makes up, we'll go see him, sir. It'll be all right."

Lorne looked at Reardon, glanced over at Stroebel, who was on the verge of saluting. Lorne waved that away. He turned to see if Willet was doing okay. Lowered his head, as though asking, You okay? Willet answered with a vigorous nod. Lorne pointed with his chin in McKay's direction. "Don't let anything happen to the civilian."

"You know we won't, sir," Reardon promised.

"I know you won't."

x x x x x

"She's ready for you but you gotta clean yourself up." Pistols aimed into the cell, the guards rolled back the transparent wall while a youth walked in with towels and water in a bowl.

"Who, me?" John asked.

"Just you. Hurry up."

The youth backed out and the cell wall slid into place.

John grunted, "Does anybody have a clue--"

"What time it is?" Ronon finished in a rough whisper. "Yeah, because you asked so much it suddenly came to me."

John bent to the bowl, rinsed his face and hands. The water clouded with blood. Great. He was going to make a good impression when he looked Satoe in the eye and said, Oh by the way, that queen you're hiding, where is she?

He tucked in his shirt, signaled the guards. Looked at Teyla and Ronon. Under his breath, "You get a chance, take it," he said.

Outside the cell, the front guard seized his arm. John snatched his arm out of the guard's grasp. The rear guard aimed with his pistol, making sure he was far enough that John couldn't take the pistol from him. John spun in the direction of the rear guard, his gaze sweeping the dim Wraith cell.

He locked his legs and his mouth fell open.

The Wraith edged over, instantly and aggressively hostile, using its hard, lean body to shield the second, smaller being from John's sight. Too late. John had already seen. With the female's body blocked from view, John flicked a glance into the bitter slitted face of the Wraith.

Her guardian, the Ranger ship commander had called the male. John now knew why Teyla was unable to sense the Wraith queen. Thinking about the team's encounter with Elia, John remembered Teyla's Wraith-o-meter worked differently with very young Wraith.

He started moving, let himself get walked through the pressure door, into a short passage, and through another door. Here was a common room of sorts, doubling for storage.

Laid out in bins he saw his gear: P90s, pistols, tac vests, knives.

He had to keep moving. The guards had guns pointed at him. He didn't want to go. Everything he needed was inside the trailer.

But there were guns pointed at him.


Part Six: Belleron


Here they come.

He didn't hear them. He felt them as if their footfalls vibrated through the Wraith ship's hull and the very air he breathed. They were early. He didn't know until they came, three of them, an officer and two drones, that he half-expected they would come before the clock ran out. An instant's glance he gave them before he shut his eyes and turned away. Found himself in the end, buffered against shock by a flush of adrenaline.

The cell door retracted. The Wraith stood in the doorway, confronting everyone.

He saw the Wraith didn't know who to take-- anyone would do --so he propelled himself forward, pausing only long enough to hand his jacket over to Stroebel.

At his movement, satisfied, the officer Wraith hissed and swung away. The soldier Wraith, faceless in their masks, grabbed Lorne's arms.

He didn't feel their hands. Didn't feel what must have been a mercilessly tight grip, one on each arm. Didn't feel them pushing him between them either.

Surprisingly, there was no sound from within the cell.

He preferred it that way.

x x x x x

The sun had made it, feeble yet fiery, between two fissures in the sky. The clouds looked like battle ships, gray and massive. The sun shot between them, burning them down into the inlet and leaving only an unfriendly inky twilight when they were gone.

John got to watch Vallet's sun go down. That was how long it took to pick down the narrow lanes between domiciles to the center command dwelling and Satoe's place. She had guards outside but otherwise it was quiet enough to hear drifts of sound from the peripheral tent town, a more lively place indeed, with children in it.

The guards let him in but didn't follow and no matter. Soon as he entered there was a man with a gun telling him which way to go. Through a door like an airlock, and through another, same as before, the hush settling around him like the pristine peace inside a brand new luxury car. Until he came into an open area, woven carpets on the floor, a portable table, chairs, even something that looked like a bar. The temperature just right and faintly perfumed. No marsh smell to speak of. More guards in here too, and Torrell. Where was the big guy John recalled, Satoe's partner? Swept away maybe, or killed. Had Torrell replaced him? Not good. Everyone was armed except John.

Satoe sat at her table in front of a solitary plate, little round vegetables on it, purple, red, and blue. Something white and fleshy, like boiled chicken strips. Probably not. A cup on the table, and a smaller plate with swirls of sauce.

Satoe was sitting but looked up to scrutinize him. "You're too messy for my table," she said, half to herself, and got up. She stood holding the larger plate and raking him with her dark eyes. "Go stand over there."

He didn't know where over there was and he didn't want to stand anywhere anyway. He had what he wanted and what he wanted was twenty minutes back the way he'd come. He needed to put this meeting to bed and get back to Teyla and Ronon before the clock handed him bad news.

"I'm fine where I am."

"You think I won't kill you?" She seemed to just realize.

"I know you won't."

She didn't say it so much as show it. You bet your ass I will. In the same way he'd seen Ronon look over a problem and come at the sad, hard heart of things without skipping a beat, she showed him. It was her world. Why should he get to have a place less tenuous than her own? She'd witnessed the end of her civilization and the slaughter of everyone she knew. What was one life more?

Okay, he had to stop sparring with her and figure out what she wanted. "Where did you say I should stand?"

"At the table. I put out a map. I want you to look at it." She popped a lavender sphere into her mouth, chewing slowly.

"I usually charge a fee for consulting."

"I'm giving you another night of life." Without any sarcasm at all.

He went to the thing that looked like a bar, tried not to notice the guards staring. Better quality thugs, these, than the ones that hunted him down. Better even than Torrell, who appeared to be their leader. They knew how to watch and what to watch for.

John looked down at papers spread on the surface. "What am I looking at?"

Satoe took a short walk to a decanter on the table next to the papers. She put down her plate, picked up the decanter, and poured clear fluid into something that looked like a thermos cup. "Cowen was a sloppy man and easy to deal with. He didn't believe in what we could do but he didn't get in our way either. For food, liquor, herbs, he could be bought. And we sold him information. My little family is like that. We're invisible when we go among the worlds. People talk to us."

John began to see that he was looking at building plans, and maps of districts, possibly cities, some of them underground.

Satoe took a sip from the cup. "Ladon is another sort. A man of ideas." Her frown spoke to the way she felt about men with ideas. "He won't allow off-world trade, and he banishes those we bribe when they're caught. It's getting so I can't do anything with the Genii worlds. After which, he charges a task force to learn of me, to find me, and when I catch his spy and kill the fool, he puts out word he'll pay for my flesh. My flesh." She made a snort. "A pretentious man, Ladon Radim. I don't like his sort."

John wasn't watching her as she went on. He was afraid she'd see something in his face. But he said, "I know, it's bad when a head of state actually acts like one."

She froze, tensed, and finally exhaled. "So you see my problem. I'm going to destabilize him. Here are my targets. Which one should I attack first?"

He still wasn't looking at her. Test or fishing expedition? he wondered. And then he sighed. She was giving him a long term goal, telling him that if he survived the mission he was going to have to move her up on his priority list. He could ask her why she sent an operative to Atlantis and what she meant to do with the data modules but he already knew. She was a freelancing opportunist. The modules were up for sale. He could ask about the simulacrum and the Exile personal shield but knew, too, she'd accessed Exile technology before now. Her arsenal was the collateral she'd used to get the Covenant started. He was thinking she was worse for the Pegasus than the Wraith. She was worse because she understood the fear of her human victims far better than the Wraith, and liked it more. She was the bully that tramped through sandcastles, laughing. And like any good deconstructionist, she didn't need a reason.

"I'd start here." He pointed to Ladon Radim's primary residence.

"Why there?"

"Because his government is young. An attack there, though it'll fail, will remind the hot bloods that Ladon got to power through violence. It'll stir up the fire, and it'll make the people who followed him because they wanted peace afraid again."

She stared, her throat working slowly as she swallowed. "If you'd said anything else, I would have killed you on the spot."

He'd figured as much.

"Maybe I'll keep you after all."

"You'd do better with a flying ship."

"I'm not trusting you through the Well, forget about that. But you may be good for my operation."

"Speaking of your operation, I saw a Wraith penned up in one of the domiciles. Those things are pretty strong. Aren't you worried about making a mistake?"

She waved her hand dismissively. "It's cattle, as long as we have the female. It won't even look at me if I tell it I'll blow on the child for doing so. It's startling, really, how easy it is to control."

John supposed she hadn't been startled by anything in a long time. "What do you feed it?"

"We get our share of riff raff."

Now he flicked a look at her and saw that his question had amused.

She added, "I guess you're worried why I locked you in so close to it."

"It crossed my mind."

"Keep me happy, Sheppard." Taking up her plate and showing her back, she strolled to the sitting table.

That was a sign to the guards to take him away. Before he went, he turned to size up Torrell, and Torrell tossed a toothy smile.

When he was in the cell, he sat next to Teyla and Ronon and tried to look like he was settling in for the night. "Our weapons are through that door down a hall. No guards in the room but it looked like a ready room to me, so be careful when we head out."

"Noted," Ronon grinned, pleased at the proximity of his blaster.

"You know," John said, "when we go, this whole place comes apart. The Covenant will scatter, or get culled."

Teyla sat looking across the aisle at the Wraith cage. "Yes, we saw the female child when you did. The females are rare. It is not surprising to find her guardian will do anything to ensure her survival, even surrender to or do the bidding of its mortal enemy."

John let that hang between them, didn't see that going into it further was going to make what came next easier. Ronon didn't share his mindset. "So every time the Wraith get in the solar system--" he pondered.

Teyla nodded. "If a Wraith ship enters the solar system inhabited by the Covenant, the adult Wraith will know it. He must then warn the Covenant leader, who initiates an evacuation well ahead of the culling."

"He'd do that?" Ronon asked.

"Has to." John thought he'd throw that in. "If he doesn't, Satoe will kill the female. He's gotta do what Satoe tells him to until he figures out how to escape on his own."

"Seems like they're all gettin' what they deserve," Ronon mused.

"Not every member of the Covenant is a volunteer," John reminded.

"Many will flee right away," Teyla supposed. "Once the guards have fled, the remaining people will also. Imagine, John, what the Wraith of her hive will do when their queen is returned to them. What she may do, when she comes into her full power."

No more time for chatter. "Wait for my mark," John said.

x x x x x

He didn't know where they were taking him. The light was changing, growing brighter as they went. He thought about the hiveship he'd commandeered to escape the no man's land between the Pegasus and the Milky Way. Days-- days? --he'd walked that ship inundated with its hurtful stench, the breath of dead things, never sure if the wounded hive would make it. He'd been with his people then and with his people he'd stopped an assault on his home galaxy, applying a skill only a handful of humans possessed. So he'd been okay with dying, if that was what he had to do.

This ship didn't feel or smell like a hive. The sickly reek wasn't present, and the changing lighting confused him. Why was it getting brighter? Maybe the Wraith were doing something different with the cocoons. Maybe they were taking him somewhere to store him. He'd thought about that, how he'd deal with it if they put him in a cocoon.

An opening appeared in the passageway. His heart stuttered. He thought it was an alcove or a room for human storage.

The Wraith could web him up, save him for later. He'd go to sleep knowing his death was just ahead of him. Did it make a difference, really? It did but it shouldn't, he thought. He'd been taken from the cell, removed from the others. His people mourned him. His time was up, which meant that in every meaningful sense but the main he was dead.

The alcove turned into a bay. No cocoons but there were humans sitting in it, men and women dressed in clean linen, who looked up at him with different expressions, none of which was pity.

Wraith-worshipers.

His escort jerked to a halt, and promptly two Wraith sailed from a recessed portal to meet them. One Wraith was the doomed ship's commander. Was he ranking officer on the new ship as well? He appeared to be. The commander closed with Lorne, face thrust forward, nostrils flared.

"Bind his hands. Follow me."

The commander observed the binding of his hands. Lorne didn't resist. He felt his life drifting away, just falling away from him. He felt it as though the dwindling instants were corporeal fragments he could catch, and see. He was sad for each one and understood that this was the place at which all living things arrived sooner or later. He was alone but many others, countless others had gone this road. As Lorne watched, the commander Wraith turned toward the portal. He felt the tug of his escort and glanced at the Wraith worshipers sitting in the bay. They weren't looking at him anymore. It was as though they knew he was a ghost.

The portal opened inside a single room. The room was long but narrow and in the middle of it was a heavy chair. The chair reclined under a Wraith wearing some kind of gray polymer sheet. Conduits like IV lines ran from the wall and ceiling into the Wraith. The Wraith's eyes were closed and its face was mottled. Not mottled. Pieces of its flesh had been avulsed, shorn or gnawed away. Nester wounds appeared to cover its entire form.

The commander approached the chair and leaned down. Though its features retained the Wraith's inexpressive contour, something about the way the commander touched the wounded Wraith communicated grief.

The escort Wraith maneuvered Lorne forward. Lorne's body vibrated with a psychic wail. Fear clotted his throat. When he was next to the chair, he saw the commander straighten.

The commander pushed a button and the chair rose.

The commander Wraith picked up the sick Wraith's hand and guided it toward Lorne's chest.

x x x x x

The power conduit taking care of the magnetic lock was on their side of the wall and within the curving lime-colored panel.

Teyla concealed the charges in her coat and passed them along. The small, thin palm-sized timers counted off fifteen-second increments.

Ronon brought the ingredients together while on his knees at the door.

A guard turned around to look at him.

Ronon smiled broadly and dove for cover.

The charge produced a crack about as heavy as nearby thunder. The blast rolled through the cell-- it didn't pop as expected --and hurt John's ears, even though he'd jammed his fingers into them.

The magnetic lock was undamaged but power dropped and the lock released.

Put off by the small explosion, the guards eventually rallied, going for their weapons. Teyla and Ronon took care of them, and collected their weapons. John, meanwhile, slapped a strip of C4 to the Wraith cell. The creature glared at him, its lips like wire, its face all teeth. John fitted the charge and the timer and shouted, "Get back! Get back!"

The Wraith didn't move. Thinking the female child was in danger, it was prepared to use its body to absorb the explosion.

John remembered, suddenly, he was supposed to do something. Something important.

He stood at the transparent door, cupped his hand as though protecting the word: "Andrebis."

When he spoke, the Wraith closed its mouth and backed up.

Thinking how much he liked magic words, John punched the timer and fled.

The Wraith shielded the small body with his own, and when the cell door opened it gathered up the Wraith girl and held her against its torso.

John pulled off the guard's jacket and gave it to the Wraith. The Wraith twitched and made a rumble in its throat. John figured the groan translated to, Screw you.

"Put this on, hide your hair in the hood. We got some ground to cover to the 'gate. We start shooting right away, nobody's gonna make it."

The Wraith took the guard's jacket.

"Better if she walks," Ronon grunted. He looked the Wraith up and down in a way that made John nervous.

The girl Wraith swung her head around to look back at Ronon. She had the small, supple body of a ten-year-old human. Her features were Wraith but blunted somehow so the softer human parts stood out. Her skin was pale, not gray, and her mouth was small.

"Let him carry her," John said.

"We need every gun," Ronon protested.

"Let him carry her."

Holding the guard's gun, Teyla sped into the passage. John motioned Ronon to follow so he could stay between Ronon and the Wraith. Wasn't the warmest, fuzziest place to be, because John believed the Wraith would kill everything, anything to get away.

The next room was empty. Two minutes to gear up. John knew that with certainty because Teyla's watch was in the bin. He checked her dial and got tight in the chest. God Almighty. Give or take a second, he only had thirty minutes.

Trading up, Ronon gave the Wraith a gun he'd taken from a Covenant guard. John wondered if this was a sign Ronon wasn't going to shoot the Wraith "by mistake" on the way out. Best not to leave certain things to chance, John thought. He sent Teyla and Ronon outside first.

Guard at the entrance.

Teyla put him to sleep with a strike and Ronon dragged the guard into the trailer. John signed, Slow it down now, take it easy, meaning he didn't want to see anyone running just yet.

Nice, easy strides down the lane. It was dark. They just had to take it easy.

The Stargate platform was unlit, John noticed. Did that mean fortune was smiling? As he got closer, he made out four guards at the base. Same number the Covenant put on the Stargate back on Belleron. The guards were talking, facing each other, not expecting trouble from the camp.

Open ground between the edge of the settlement and the 'gate guards.

John told the Wraith to wait with the child and to run on his signal for the platform. The Wraith hunkered down, setting the child's feet in the grass.

John, Teyla, and Ronon headed for the guards. One of the guards noticed, tapped his buddy on the shoulder. Ronon reached him before he cried out, and trapped the shout in his throat. John swung his guard into Teyla's and smashed his elbow into the guard's face. The resulting crunch was satisfying. Ronon was on the fourth guard, and then John was signaling the Wraith.

The creature snatched up the girl and ran.

Ronon dropped to the rear, John sped up front. The Wraith overtook him and in the cool night air reached the DHD first.

"No!" John whispered, hard. He snapped his Beretta up, covering the Wraith. "My rescue, my way. You go where I say you go."

The Wraith turned its lean blue face to glare.

"Andrebis, right? That's the password your boss gave. It means you do what I say. I dial, you follow, got it?"

The Wraith stepped aside and John saw in the tail of his eye Ronon lower his pistol.

John dialed Belleron.

x x x x x

Lorne thought he saw eternity. He thought he saw it in the moment between two heartbeats, when the sick Wraith's hand supported by the commander's was rising toward him. The escort Wraith locked their fists, anticipating their prisoner's convulsion. The hand of the sick Wraith rotated, the maw briefly visible, and then there was a connection.

The breast of a human, and the feeding aperture of a Wraith.

The Wraith released enzyme from a sack in its arm. The enzyme bolstered the circulatory and nervous system of its victim, like PowerAde in the form of a toxic cocktail the prey was not meant to survive. The infusion of the drug was agony, even in the short second it lasted. Prepped for the feeding process, the Wraith switched from give to take, and that was worse.

Lorne screamed. When the feeding stopped his legs were boneless, his breath boiling out of him like liquid fire. He had no sense of the length of the ordeal or how much of him remained. He knew only the sandpaper grinding of the dust that had replaced the blood in his veins, the dizzying weakness, and the throbbing feeding mark above his heart.

The commander was struggling, now, to hold onto the arm of the wounded Wraith. The Wraith in the chair had stirred, rotating its ruined visage and taking in Lorne through slitted eyes.

Dialogue ensued, which for Lorne was miles away through dense shadow and pain. He would later recall and believe that he had dreamed the exchange. And later still he would think back and know that he heard every word:

"Why did you stop?" demanded the commander.

The wounded Wraith answered with a question of its own. "What is this?"

"It is the strength you need to heal yourself," the commander answered with vehemence. "Did you not feel his defiance? It is the only way, my gift to you. This life is mine and I give it to you."

The wounded Wraith turned its ghastly face on its brethren, its voice cutting sharply from its damaged throat. "You are mad! This is one that you have captured! He is not one of us!"

"I have not gone mad--"

"The search for our queen has weakened your reason. Else you would recall that before I tasted your gift, I would rather see my last breath. Everything I am, everything I was, is fouled by it. When has our species savored the defiance of our prey and been unaltered? You wish for me to wander the long millennia like the Wraith of this quadrant, slave to a hunger that cannot be satisfied?"

"I wish for you to live!" The commander exhaled beseechingly. "His life is mine to take. It is not the same--"

"Take it, then, but I will not."

"You are so weak. You are so weak. How will you remember it?"

"I have tasted his defiance. I will remember its sweetness until the last moment of life."

The commander let go of the other's arm. Its mouth sealed, and silence hardened in the air between the commander and the dying Wraith, cold and resolute as metal.

The commander jerked its head toward the doorway.

Lorne felt himself hefted and led back to where the light was bright and there were chairs and other humans.

The commander followed. It spoke to the humans: "He will not."

A woman began to sob.

The commander stepped in front of Lorne, and Lorne, still dazed, was dragged behind. The passages became a blur, and endless. Some strength returned to his legs. And then they were near another wide place in a room with a table.

Lorne located his voice box, and somehow framed the words: "What are you going to do to me?"

The commander scoffed. Drew away from the table something that looked like straps. It didn't seem interested in speaking but suddenly, as Lorne was pushed forward to be bound, the Wraith turned to him. "The best serum is that which carries elements of the source."

That should not have made sense but it fit perfectly a world that had turned upside down. Lorne was cognizant of the injury already done to him, and aware, too, that injury of another sort awaited. Here we go.

Lorne spoke again. "Are you going to kill me?"

"When our human allies die, they give to the Wraith a gift. It is part of the ritual. Wraith call it the Elixir. Ordinarily our serum is synthetic. That which is articially manufactured comes to the Wraith coarse and unsatisfying. To take trace elements from a human, as I'm going to take them from you, denies us the euphoria of feeling your heart struggle, grow sluggish, and stop, but there is a sweetness nonetheless."

"You like it better when it hurts."

The Wraith lowered its gaze, which had grown distant and forlorn, to meet Lorne's. "There is much about Wraith you do not know. This process does not harvest the byproduct of distress."

"Are you going to kill me?"

"You will provide nourishment," the Wraith said, "in a manner reminiscent of our forebears that does not bring to Wraith an awakening of the hunger."

"So you're going to kill me."

The Wraith blithely clasped its hands behind its back. "Your life was given on the word of one who is brother to Wraith, he who took the Gift of Life. According to the tennets of fair trade and honor, it is for me to say what I will do with you. All living things must feed."

Lorne slumped. As the Wraith placed him into the restraints, he wondered if it was going to hurt.

And then the ship's alarm clamored.

x x x x x

It was day on Belleron. The wrecked dome showed a powder sky, and the air tasted of blowing dust, bruised plaster, and pollen. There was another smell, too. John knew it. Knew he didn't like it. But he couldn't give it a name.

The Wraith had lowered the girl and was leading her by the hand. Its strides were strong and fast. She kept up by running and did not seem to mind. The Wraith had a wearied look. The child in contrast seemed frisky, delighted by its change of fortune.

Had she gone each day, every day, in a cell? Would Satoe have done that? How not? Both the child and its guardian were predators, though John remembered suddenly that young Wraith ate as humans did until adolescence.

Ronon led the way to the track above the valley.

John said, "Do we go around or go through?"

Teyla looked worried. "Did not Doctor Weir say the rescue mission was attacked by nesters?"

John reminded, "I'm not looking at a lot of clock here."

The Wraith pushed forward, making Ronon flinch and raise his blaster. The Wraith said, "What are you waiting for? Summon the hive."

John looked at it.

The Wraith grunted and turned aside in disgust. Its features tightened slightly, and then it gazed down at the female. "They know we are here. Help will come."

John winced. Oh good. Why didn't I think of that?

x x x x x

Rodney sat on the floor. He'd drawn up his knees, a position guaranteed to bring cramps. He would have been singularly uncomfortable if he had any sense of what his bones and muscles were feeling at the moment.

Don't let anything happen to the civilian.

He had not heard or spoken a word since Major Lorne was taken away. Accompanied by the morose but strangely stoic faces of Lorne's men, Rodney was obliged to keep a lid on his presently insanely unstable emotional state. He would have been more comfortable with panic, except he knew Sheppard was coming. Sure, there were infinite combinations of random circumstances that could prevent Sheppard from getting back, not least of which was death-- Sheppard's, not his --but after a bout exploring the infinite, mysticism, higher plains of existence, and all that, Rodney currently permitted indulgence in his admittedly childish notion that the Pegasus couldn't actually kill Sheppard. He'd seen Sheppard fed upon by a Wraith and restored to vigor. He'd seen Sheppard defibbed into cardiac arrest and brought back to life. There had been two-- count them, two --potentially lethal Iratus incidents. And there was that explosion no one should have survived.

So, no panic.

Just a nearly unbearable and corrosively familiar sorrow with which he must contend in order to spare the Marines who had known Major Lorne with greater intimacy.

And then Rodney did say something. Looking up with a taut frown, "I don't feel good about this," Rodney said.

The ship's alarm had gone off.

Stroebel and Reardon pushed off the wall and strode to the cell door, both men peering out into the passage.

Willet went to stand by McKay, presumably to watch over him.

Rodney got up.

"Something's coming," Stroebel said, and he and Reardon stepped back.

As Rodney's mouth fell open, a squad of soldier Wraith marched into the passage. The Wraith carried stunners.

On command, the cell opened. The Wraith fell to one side, signaled the prisoners forward.

The Marines and Rodney looked at Stroebel.

Stroebel squared his shoulders. "Let's get this over with."

x x x x x

John stood in an unfamiliar compartment with two Wraith officers, Teyla, and Ronon. The girl and her guardian had been whisked away, and the commander Wraith, with whom John had expected to deal, was absent.

He was still tingly from the Wraith beam but the beam had merely transported him. It had not rendered him unconscious. He, and his weapons, were intact.

After a long minute, he noticed the alarm was silenced. Made him feel less jumpy. And then he heard the boots of the drone Wraith approaching. Saw his men.

He checked his watch. Five muntes to spare. And about an hour and five minutes before the Daedalus was due to drop out of hyperspace.

The drones delivered his men and fell back to block the corridor. John figured they were either going to hold them all together until the beam was ready or kill them all at once--

He got a jolt. "Where is Major Lorne?"

McKay, pale with red splotches under his eyes, babbled something.

Stroebel swallowed. "They took him, sir."

John heard the chime of Ronon's weapon snapping to kill the same instant he drew down on the nearest Wraith officer. "Where the hell is my man?"

The Wraith regarded him blankly. "You exceeded your alotted time. Your companion was forfeit."

John wondered if he'd heard that right. After having a very bad day, and driving really, really fast, was he actually hearing that the bank had closed early?

"You killed my officer because your watch was wound too tight?"

The Wraith gave him the mental equivalent of a shrug. "What's done is done."

A myriad of emotions, none of which led in a straight line. Killing something, by way of a reaction, competed with killing everything. Which would not get the rest of the team out of harm's way and off the Wraith ship but would dial back the pressure at the base of his skull.

He was still thinking about it when his brain was scrambled by a cold, white light.


Epilogue: Reckoning


She feels the coming together of many minds. Feels them coming together within her own. It is the definition of home. It is, she knows, only a part of that which has gone before, and that which has always been, concepts to which she is heir and progenitor.

The One promised she would have this, know this once again. And now that she does, she knows that she had it long ago, when she was too small to move unaided, and before, when she was only a consciousness.

Her uniqueness is both alarming and satisfying. There will be no other to tell her the way, but with genetic memory forged through millions of years, she does not see her distinctiveness as debilitating. Though her power is only a fraction of what it will be, she sees the future in the mind of the collective, feels it like warmth. She sees it in the gestures and faces of those who companion her.

And then she is before the one who has ruled in her place, and who will without quarrel or hesitation step aside.

She comes to him in a small room the size of a sleeping compartment. The room, however, is a lab. She sees this in his mind. She sees, too, that the ship holds many labs, and its purpose is to discover the nature of a galaxy that has begun to turn against her species. Already much has been learned. The data is fascinating. Through the being who was once commander of the hive, she will experience discovery, innovation, salvation.

For now she wonders about the human beside him. It lies bound upon an exam table, yet it lives. Its breast is naked, and there is a feeding mark upon it. For this human, he who was once commander delayed greeting her.

She wishes to know why it is she who sought him, what keeps him in the lab when he ought to be at her side.

He who was once commander inclines his head and attempts to explain within the mind-stream of the collective.

No, no. The meaning is wrong. There is conflict. A disparity between action and belief.

She interrupts vocally. "The word-bond between brothers was used to force the humans to surrender one of their kind to our hunger."

Denial is useless, and inappropriate. Her subject admits his action, his purpose:

"To obtain a variation of the serum."

"Saving me was not your single motive."

The minds of the collective pause. This she did not anticipate. This she does not understand. This is like Before, when she and the One were alone among savages.

She drops her gaze and puts out a small hand. The human is within reach. She has been shielded from this experience. In her early days, human allies were kept from her. Slowly, she permits the pads of her fingers to brush the cloth of the human's trousers. Her skin detects the warmth of the flesh beneath. Her fingertips meet naked skin, and she stops. The human's skin is different to the touch. It yields beneath its cables of muscle as though it possesses the chemical desire to give up its essence.

The human is unconscious.

She takes away her hand. "What is being done to it?"

"There must be a lapse between awareness and the harvest, or the--"

"I understand." The poison will come otherwise, that which is succor and bane. The thing that made the One reach hungrily through the aperture in their cell when the beastial humans offered up one of their own.

Her brow crinkles with disgust. It is unnatural for a species to slaughter its kind. The Wraith of this quadrant do it. Humans in this quadrant do so as well. The weapons of her captors rendered the flesh of all living things. The humans were animals. Wraith weapons do not kill Wraith.

She notices a conduit attached to the human's arm. The human is being fed nutrients and sedatives. The big harvest needles are idle, waiting.

She begins again to receive the mind of the one who commanded the vessel. This time his thoughts flow uniformly, and there is no contrivance. Things will go well between them once this ugliness is left behind.

She looks up at him. "I am here now. I will see that your brother heals." She looks down at the human. "This cannot be allowed. The human has been fed upon. Let one who is strong return what was taken, and be done. I fear, too, we have lingered too long in this solar system."

"His life was given in fair trade."

"In this we agree. It is not what is fair that I seek, but what is right." She turns, now, very slowly to the One. "To survive, many things have been done. And in that awful place, those things were right. Here, it is not right. Do I speak truth, Andrebis?"

The One bowed deeply.

"Your way, Andrebis, will be long and hard but we are back on our path. We are in that quadrant of the galaxy inhabited by brethren who have abandoned our ways. We must not become them. To accomplish the task before us, we must remain strong, all of us, together."

x x x x x

Night has fallen on Belleron. The stars wink coldly and with despair in the moonless sky. The sky is visible through the wrecked dome.

John struggles through dimness to consciousness, blinks at the stars, and pushes his torso from the concrete floor. His ears fill with his groan, and the groans of others. He sees Stroebel rolling onto his side, Teyla lifting her head, Ronon on his knees. Where's the light coming from? He knows he's near the Stargate. He knows it's after sunset. There is a light source within the facility.

Before he solves the mystery, his nose is assaulted by an odor he's smelled before.

This time he is not fooled. This time he is alarmed.

Getting to his feet, he stumbles toward the pedestrian gate. The gate is open and provides a view of the grounds beyond the Stargate facility.

He sees nothing of the pavement or the grass. He sees only the shifting, vicious mass of millions of insects holding as though they have met some invisible barrier. Their reek, or the reek of the underground places in which they hide during the day, clogs his throat. He tries but can find no end to the swarm. They cover everything as far as he can see.

He swings around to get his people up.

Ronon looks at him. "Sheppard."

"We need to dial out of here, fast. I don't know what's keeping 'em back, but if they come in here, we're toast."

"That." McKay, stumbling to his feet, points. "That's what's keeping them out."

John follows McKay's finger to a box-sized unit mounted on the wall next to a light fixture. The light fixture has power.

He doesn't get it. How can there be power here? But he is always grateful for little things. "Ok-ay, let's get out of here before somebody flips another switch."

"Sheppard."

John turns to Ronon, who leans over the unmoving body of Major Lorne. The bastards sent back Evan's corpse. John locks his legs, feels the rage cut through him. But, It's something, he thinks. At least the family will have a body.

"He's alive," Ronon says.

"He's alive?"

"Yeah." Ronon looks up with a quirk to his mouth that might be a smile.

Teyla is already at the DHD. John hears the plink and rasp that tells him she is dialing out.

Stroebel and Reardon scramble to help Ronon pick up the Major.

"Guys, anybody see a wound?" John asks.

"Don't see one. Breathing's strong. Pulse is strong. He looks okay."

"Son of a bitch." John exhales with relief, starts to smile but realizes they're not out the woods yet. He kept his word, he's thinking. The Wraith kept his word.

A plume of liquid-like energy shoots out of the 'gate, suffusing the facility with a blue glow.

"Everybody, move out," he calls, unnecessarily. "I'm ready to head home."


DISCLAIMER: "Stargate SG-1," "Stargate Atlantis," and its characters are the property of MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp., Showtime/Viacom and USA Networks, Inc. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations and story are the property of the author and may not be republished or archived elsewhere without the author's permission.