"OK, Teyla, your turn. Worst gift you ever received." Sheppard eyed her over the top of his coffee cup. "And no philosophical remarks like 'it's the thought that counts' either."
She pinked a little and considered the question as she swallowed her last bite of bagel and strawberry cream cheese. "When I was a child, my father's sister, Marel, decided to learn a new skill but could not find one that suited her. For the next two years, every gift I received from her was the result of a failed craft – brittle bantos rods, a blouse with one arm longer than the other, an artistic rendering of something completely unrecognizable. It is simply not possible to pick which was the worst."
"My mother thought I needed culture. On Sateda we celebrate our day of birth by giving gifts to others; one year she gave me a lemsar, similar to the clarinet Dr. Marks plays, and requested that I learn a traditional Satedan song for our next family gathering."
McKay's shoulders began shaking as John struggled to hold his face straight. "And did you?"
"Requests from my mother were not suggestions."
"Well, for Christmas one year- oh, forget it. Nothing I got can top being forced to learn to play the clarinet."
Dex grinned. "Hand it over."
Teyla passed him the last doughnut before turning back to the scientist. "I would still like to hear what you received."
"Grandma Betty always took the easy way out by buying everyone the same thing for Christmas. I am her only male grandchild. I usually wound up with a doll or a dress."
John coughed and spluttered as he aspirated coffee. "I'll bet you looked-"
The Athosian kicked him in the shin. "So in essence Jeannie received two gifts?"
"Exactly. Now you know why I suck at gift giving. And Sheppard, you don't seriously expect us to believe the worst present you ever got was a red sweater."
"Did I mention that it had a fuzzy Santa on the front, and I was sixteen?"
McKay grimaced. "Ouch. Did your mom make you wear it?"
Sheppard's eyes skittered away. "No," he responded softly.
Interrupting the awkward silence, Teyla stood and picked up her tray. "I believe it is time for our mission briefing. I do not wish to keep Dr. Weir waiting."
The team placed the remnants of breakfast on the conveyor belt and made their way to the conference room. Elizabeth followed them in and took her normal seat, greeting each one in turn, and then turned to Sheppard.
"What's on today's agenda, Colonel?"
"M3B-546. We believe it is a possible Ancient outpost. Rodney?"
"The database is sketchy on the details, but it lists 546 as a research facility. The planet itself is described as uninhabited with less than ideal weather conditions."
"How much less?" Weir asked.
"Oh, the usual. Wild temperature swings and hurricane strength storms that hit with no warning and last for months."
Teyla looked confused. "Why would the Ancestors put a facility on such a place?"
"To hide it," Ronon suggested.
McKay nodded. "That's the most likely explanation. Why would the Wraith bother with a planet like that?"
Elizabeth studied the report briefly. "So whatever they were researching…."
"….has to be worth taking a look at," Sheppard finished. "We can take a jumper and land close to the building."
She raised a quizzical brow. "How do you know the building is still standing?"
"We don't," the colonel admitted. "The MALP couldn't withstand the force of the winds for very long, but we did get enough telemetry to determine that a jumper could fly unimpeded through the gate. If the building is gone, we'll simply return home."
"Will the jumper withstand the storm? We could wait until it ends."
John leaned back in his chair, one arm thrown over the back. "The flight won't be smooth, but the winds aren't strong enough to blow it away like they did the MALP. Besides, there is no way to know how long the storm will last."
"Is it worth the risk?"
Sheppard and McKay traded glances. "Yes."
Glancing around the room, she saw only confidence and anticipation. "OK. You leave in an hour."
After zipping up his jacket, John double-checked the contents of his tac vest and then zipped it up as well. He took a last look around his quarters, making a note to give it a good cleaning when he returned. Dirty clothes were piled in one corner, and his sneakers and two pairs of boots were tossed haphazardly in another. His DVD collection was strewn in the floor from the last time Ronon raided it. He was not normally a slob, but life had been hectic lately. He took a deep breath and ran through his mental checklist – tac vest, Glock, knives, radio, sunglasses, gloves and a cap just in case. Satisfied he had everything, he headed to the armory for his P-90 and extra ammunition.
When he reached the jumper bay, he found Ronon waiting for him. Traveling light had its advantages. Sheppard ran through his pre-flight check while the Satedan inventoried the craft's supplies. Once Teyla and McKay were aboard and Flight had given permission for departure, John closed the rear hatch and keyed the control to open the entryway to the gateroom as the jumper's autopilot took control. Teyla dialed the gate address, and the small ship shot through the event horizon.
Arriving on the other side was similar to bungee jumping - smooth sailing until the big bounce. The jumper bucked and rolled as it was buffeted by unbelievably strong winds. Blinding rain seemed to come from every direction, and the thunder and lightening were on a scale he'd never seen. The storm had worsened in the two hours since the MALP had been sent. Using every ounce of focus he had, Sheppard kept the ship in the air.
"Where to, Rodney?"
"Scanning…. OK, can you bring up the HUD?"
"Um, maybe." The craft dipped suddenly. "Hang on." John struggled with the controls and finally got more altitude. The display flickered on and off as his attention divided.
"Anytime now, Colonel."
"I'm trying, McKay. This isn't as easy as it looks." He battled another gust of wind and then brought up the HUD.
The scientist glanced at his readings and back to the display, pointing to a red dot a short distance away. "That's the only energy signature I'm getting."
Poor visibility prevented them from detecting the building until they were almost upon it. The tall spires of Atlantis were missing but the design was definitely Lantian, and the structure seemed intact. Sheppard landed the jumper a little harder than he intended, but he was grateful to able to get close to the entrance. McKay hustled out and peered at the wall momentarily before punching a series of keys. A door slid open, and the team hurried inside, remotely closing the rear hatch.
John ran his hands through his hair and then wiped his eyes in an attempt to brush away as much rain as possible. He almost laughed at his soggy little troupe as they dripped puddles around the cavernous room in which they stood. The lights had blazed to life when he had entered, revealing an empty atrium area with numerous hallways. McKay stood in the center, eyes glued to his scanner, while Ronon and Teyla alertly walked the perimeter. The roar of the storm could still be heard even with the door closed.
"Well?" Sheppard asked as he approached the physicist. "What have we got?"
Rodney adjusted a couple of settings and pointed to his right. "The strongest signal is that way."
"The strongest? There's more than one?"
"There are several coming from basically every direction." The Canadian could barely contain his excitement. "With these levels, this place has to be powered by a ZedPM."
"Before we start borrowing ZPMs, why don't we find out what this place does first."
McKay bobbed his head distractedly and headed toward the most powerful energy reading. John took a quick glance at the life signs detector, confirming four dots, before following the scientist down a hallway, Ronon and Teyla trailing after them. Rodney paused, turning slightly left then right. He examined the wall to his right, obviously searching for something. It looked like a smooth metal surface to the pilot, with no discernable seams or panels. McKay frowned as his eyes darted from the scanner to the wall.
"The energy signature is behind here, but I can't find a way in. Do you see anything?"
John looked to Ronon and Teyla who shook their heads. "We don't see anything either, Rodney."
Hissing in frustration, McKay typed a few commands into the device he carried. "There has to be a door or a panel somewhere." He touched the gray surface hesitantly. "Huh."
"What does that mean?"
"I can feel it vibrating under my hand." He turned hopeful eyes to the colonel. "Want to try?"
Knowing he would most likely regret it, Sheppard agreed. He took a deep breath and quickly laid a hand on the wall, pleasantly surprised when the entire surface disappeared to expose a room filled with dark consoles. Rodney went straight to the largest panel while Ronon and Teyla eased cautiously into the room. John checked the LSD one more time and then joined McKay.
"What do you think?"
"Hmmm? Oh, it just needs to activated." The scientist laid his hand on the console and scrunched his face in concentration. Opening an eye, he looked pointedly at Sheppard. "You know, this would go a lot faster if you-"
"Got it." Wandering around the room, John brought each panel to life with a touch. Soon the room was filled with happily flashing read-outs and one ecstatic physicist.
The military man recognized the totally absorbed expression on Rodney's face; they were going to be here for a while. Sheppard sneaked a peek at his watch and sighed. Eight hours before they needed to return or report. Gazing at one of the consoles, he realized the futility of trying to read any of the displays.
"McKay." No response. "McKay!"
The scientist jumped. "What?"
"We're going to check some of the other rooms. Radio if you find anything useful."
Waving a disinterested hand at them, Rodney turned back to his work. "Have fun."
John, Ronon and Teyla each took a separate hallway and spent the better part of two hours searching the facility. They discovered living quarters, common areas, a commissary, a few labs and various other rooms but nothing that resembled an armory, which disappointed Ronon, or a power station, which disappointed Sheppard.
The pilot keyed his radio. "Ronon, Teyla, this is Sheppard. I'm going to see how McKay is doing. Finish your hallway and meet me back there."
"I am almost done, Colonel," Teyla stated. "I will join you shortly."
"I've got a couple more rooms on my hall and then I'll be there," Ronon added.
Idly wondering where all the energy signatures Rodney had scanned were emanating from, John made his way back to the room in which he'd left McKay. Entering the seemingly empty area, the colonel frowned until he spied legs emerging from a console.
Biting back a grin, he softly cleared his throat. "Rodney!"
A dull thud resounded from the panel. "Ow! Dammit! Why do you always do that?" The scientist gingerly touched a spot near his hairline as he sat up, laying his computer tablet on the floor.
Sheppard put on his most innocent look. "Do what?"
"Sneak up on me. Am I bleeding?"
"No, you aren't bleeding. Have you considered that I was concerned since you weren't standing where I left you?"
Rolling his eyes, McKay slowly got to his feet. "Bullshit. You knew exactly where I was. Life signs detector?"
"Oh. Must have forgotten to check. I do, however, remember someone posting my high school prom picture on the Atlantis intranet."
Failing miserably to hide a smile, Rodney shrugged. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"That's what I figured. And for the record, I wasn't sneaking." He walked over to peer over the Canadian's shoulder. "What did you find?"
"Each console is for a separate research project. I've only begun deciphering what exactly since all the data is encrypted. The Ancients were seriously paranoid about this place which is probably why the Atlantis database had so little information. You didn't find anything else, did you?"
"Nothing. How'd you know?"
"Anything of value is hidden behind walls like the one for this room. I would guess-"
The main console emitted a loud buzz which was followed by a strange humming sound from the doorway. Both men turned in time to see the wall reappear.
"What the hell? McKay, get that door open." He clicked his earpiece. "Teyla, Ronon, can you hear me?"
The Athosian responded first. "I can hear you, Colonel. What has happened?"
"Probably nothing, but the wall to the room came back on its own. Where are you?"
"I am now in the hallway." Pounding echoed on the wall. "John?"
"I'm here, Teyla! Rodney is-"
All of the consoles began flashing, and a strange ripple washed through the room which then plunged into darkness. John switched on his P-90 light as Rodney dug a flashlight out of his vest. Suddenly the lights flickered on.
"Working on it."
"Teyla? Are you there?" Complete silence greeted him. "Ronon, can you hear me?" More silence. "Rodney!" he growled.
"I'm trying! I don't understand why everything just quit working. There was nothing to indicate-"
The wall disappeared with a whoosh, opening to a dark, empty corridor.
"Where did they go?" McKay demanded.
"Well, excuse me-"
"Stop talking and listen."
The ensuing silence was deafening.
Rodney heaved an irritated sigh. "What? I don't hear anything."
"Exactly. What happened to the storm?"
"Oh." The scientist's eyes rounded. He turned back to the console he'd been working on and stopped short. "Oh no." He grabbed his scanner from his pocket and headed for the entrance to the building. When he stepped into the hallway, it became illuminated as well.
"McKay!" John ran after him, snagging him by the arm and pulling him up short. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I need to check something. Please let me be wrong." He wrenched his arm from the pilot's grasp and continued to the door.
"Want to let me in on the secret?"
"Not yet." He scanned the atrium area, keying in a couple of commands as John reached for the door.
"Stop!" Rodney screamed. "Don't open it." He massaged a temple as he took a few more readings. "Oh, we are so screwed."
"Now is not the time-"
"We're on a different planet."
That got Sheppard's attention. "What?"
"The atmosphere is toxic. We can't go outside."
"How could we possibly-"
"I don't know yet." McKay hurried back to the control room. "All I know is we are no longer on the same planet. Ronon and Teyla aren't here. My tablet isn't here. The jumper isn't here. And we can't get to the stargate."
"Why aren't we dead?"
"If the atmosphere is toxic, why aren't we already dead?"
"The building must be shielded."
They reached the room, and Rodney methodically began checking panels. Stopping, he dropped his head to his chest and took a deep breath. He shot John a taut glance. "You're going to need to reactivate the consoles."
"Don't ask me how because I don't know, but nothing moved but you and me. This place is a duplicate to the one on 546."
"So we are in a different building on a different planet."
"Yes. I told you the Ancients were seriously paranoid about the place. Hopefully once we get everything turned on, I can get some answers." He pressed a few keys on the console as John began activating the other panels.
"Ronon and Teyla?"
"My best theory right now is only the people in this room move."
"So they are still on the other planet."
"Yes, and as completely cut off as we are."
"Colonel Sheppard! Please respond!" Teyla shouted for the fifth time as she hammered the wall with her fists. "Dr. McKay! Can you hear me?"
Struggling to not panic, she turned to Ronon. "Can you hear anything?"
He stood perfectly still, barely even breathing. "Nothing but the storm. We need to contact Atlantis. Someone with the Ancestor gene will need to open the door."
"We cannot. Colonel Sheppard has the jumper remote, and we could not operate the controls if we could get inside."
The Satedan huffed in frustration. "Then we will have to get to the Ring."
Teyla gazed steadily at him. "You know that is not possible at the moment. I have never seen wind and rain like this, even the time the massive storm hit Atlantis. We could get hopelessly lost or step off a cliff. We must wait for some of the fury to subside."
"I don't like to wait."
"That has not escaped my attention, but we must. You go when it is calmer; I will remain here in hopes that they will eventually answer."
She slid to the floor, back against the surface that had separated her from her two teammates. Leaning her head back, she tried to center herself while Ronon stalked angrily in front of her. She knew the meditation techniques would never work, but they kept her mind occupied. Dex dropped heavily next to her.
"Have you ever considered taking the gene therapy?"
She opened her eyes in surprise. "Have you?"
"I am right now. It might not work, but if it did we'd be able to get ourselves out of situations like this."
"That is true. I have just never been comfortable with the idea of pretending to be an Ancestor."
"Is that how you see having the gene?"
She shrugged. "In the past, I questioned the advisability of artificially taking on Ancestor characteristics, but when they returned recently…. I had never doubted their wisdom until then."
"They were very intelligent and very advanced, but they weren't gods, Teyla."
"I know that. But they-"
"They accidentally created the Wraith and then left us here to deal with them. If Beckett has a shot that will help us fight the Wraith, shouldn't we take advantage of it?"
"There are times that I do not know what to do or believe anymore. So much has changed in the past two and a half years. I would not have thought it possible to fight the Wraith let alone defeat them until John and the others arrived, and yet now there is nothing I want more."
"When we get back, I'm going to ask Beckett."
"I will consider it."
"It's been two hours. Anything yet?"
"I'm trying, Colonel. I told you I had just started deciphering what project each console is for, and now I don't have my computer. Encryption, remember? So far, I've determined what these three are, but I haven't found which one controls the stargate."
"Well, how did you think we were moving from one planet to the next? Fairy dust? Something must be remotely dialing the gate and transmitting any life signs in this room through."
"There are over thirty consoles in here."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"What happens when-"
The wall popped back into place as the panels flashed and the room rippled. Darkness descended momentarily.
"I think we moved again."
"Well, I didn't do it!"
Low lights began to flicker on. The wall slid open, and Sheppard entered the slowly illumining hallway, Rodney following in his stead. The temperature in the atrium was close to freezing.
"Why is it so cold in here?" John turned to see the scientist furiously typing commands on his scanner.
"Well, the good news is the atmosphere isn't toxic here."
"And the bad news?"
"The temperature outside is -118 degrees Celsius."
"We wouldn't last a minute out there."
"Then let's get back to that room."
They spent the next two hours pouring over the consoles in an attempt to find the stargate controls. When the buzzing started and the wall reappeared, Rodney's shoulders sagged.
The process repeated, and they found themselves in another dark room. The lights came up almost immediately.
After staring at each other for a minute, they silently made their way to the entry room.
"Well, isn't that something," McKay muttered.
"Ever been to Florida?"
Sheppard's face crinkled in confusion. "What?"
"It's rather like the Everglades."
"Don't make me say 'what' again."
"The atmospheric conditions right now – hot and humid, maybe a little swamp-like."
"So we can go outside."
"The stargate isn't registering on my scanner."
"Well, there has to be one if we're here."
"I know that. Maybe it's just a really long way away, or something could be blocking the energy signature."
"Great." John's head was really beginning to ache. "Anything else?"
"Check the life signs detector."
Sheppard pulled it from his vest. "Lots of life signs."
"No idea. Do you think there's anything on those consoles that would tell us?"
"Stop repeating everything I say. There might be something on the database in that room, Colonel, but I don't know without looking."
"Then, by all means, let's look."
Rodney huffed in irritation and stomped back the way they had come. John rubbed his eyes, prayed for patience, and followed. The room layout in the first three rooms had been identical so they ignored the panels that they had already deciphered and began activating the other ones.
One console refused to activate for the pilot, and he stared at it in surprise for a moment. He had never had trouble using any Ancient technology before. He'd seen Carson, Rodney and several others strain to activate or operate some equipment, but John hadn't ever had to even think hard. He rested both hands on the controls and concentrated. He heard a loud pop and then a whir as the machine struggled to life. He closed his eyes and focused.
His mind screamed a warning before the surge hit, but he couldn't get away in time. Blinding white hot pain raced through every nerve ending and exploded behind his eyes.
McKay stared at the display as the frustration built. Why could he not find the right set of controls? He could fix this; he knew he could. Something here was manipulating the stargate, and he wasn't going to rest until he found it.
A loud pop caught his attention, and he turned to see Sheppard frowning as he tried to activate a console. The scientist started to make a sarcastic quip about pilots and ATA genes when the colonel's body stiffened.
"Rodney," he whispered. "Something's wrong."
The man's eyes widened, and he screamed in a way McKay had heard only once and had hoped to never hear again. John's eyes rolled back in his head, and his body began to convulse as the console whined an overload alarm.
Although Rodney had never been much of an athlete, he'd seen enough hockey and football to understand how to take someone down. Steeling himself, he ran at Sheppard as hard as he could. He body-slammed John just as the console exploded. McKay felt shrapnel pepper his right side before something hard impacted his skull. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
The acrid smell of smoke brought Rodney back to awareness. His entire body ached, and something warm and sticky was running down his face. He tried to raise his right hand to wipe it away only to stop as shards of pain radiated from his shoulder to his knee. Deciding to lie still for a while, his lids slid shut, but the image of an exploding panel caused his eyes to fly open again.
"Sheppard?" he croaked. The rest of his senses began to return. Realizing that he was lying on his stomach and that something hard was pressing into his abdomen, he gradually raised his head, grimacing as agony spiraled down his body. He blinked slowly, trying to focus. Lights flickered and then remained steady, and he caught his first glimpse of John.
The colonel was sprawled on the floor in front of him, blood running down his face, chest and arms from numerous cuts and abrasions. His pallid features were completely still, and panic blossomed in Rodney's chest. McKay pushed himself up, fumbling to find a pulse on his friend. Slumping in relief at the sluggish but steady heartbeat, he glanced around the room. The other consoles seemed intact, but he needed to get medical help. He sincerely hoped there was an infirmary in this ridiculous building.
When the wall opened, he staggered to his feet and dragged Sheppard into the hall. Uncertain which way to go, he reached for his scanner and bit back an expletive when he couldn't find it. Gently easing John to the floor, Rodney walked unsteadily back in the room and dropped to his knees as he began to retch. His concussion confirmed, he remained on all fours until the dry heaves stopped and the dizziness receded. He crawled to where the scanner had fallen, leaning his forehead on the cool floor as he tried to gather strength. A loud buzz sounded, and the doorway disappeared in a hum.
"Oh no. No!"
He scrambled to his feet as the consoles began to flash and the room rippled into darkness. The door open, and he wobbled into the dark and empty hallway.
"No," he whispered as he slid down the wall. Sheppard was gone, and he was alone.