FOUR

Backup lighting came up in various portions of the city, but in a somewhat uneven fashion, not at all like the emergency management plan McKay had put into place practically the moment Atlantis had a working ZPM.

"Zed PM," Radek muttered to himself with a slight snort. There were times that Rodney could be so...Canadian. Behind him there was some shuffling, a muffled thud followed by not-so-muffled cursing in Czech.

"What?" Duchovny demanded, somewhat disgruntled and trying to find his way forward.

"Come on, Anton. Get the flashlight and come over here, please," Radek replied, trying to keep the tension out of his own voice. They had run several different diagnostic scenarios and had been in the middle of another when the power had failed so completely it was as if a giant hand had reached out and unplugged the entire city, so to speak. Prior to the power loss, there had been no indication of difficulty with the ZPM; everything had checked out. Primary and secondary systems had been, as far as the Czech could see, operating at optimal levels.

"Tell me where I'm going, and we'll see about the flashlight," the other man grumbled.

Fortunately the datapad's batteries had been fresh when he started the system checks and there was still a pale glow coming from the screen. Radek scooped it up carefully and turned it toward the sounds behind him. In the faint light he could make out Duchovny sitting on the floor. "What are you doing down there?"

"Sitting," the other man shot back, and Zelenka noticed that his fellow scientist was not only on the floor, but rubbing gingerly at his left ankle. At his worried look, Duchovny continued, "I tripped against something...that I think," Duchovny pointed at a small crate, "and twisted it." He gestured to the ankle.

"Do you think you can stand?" Radek propped the datapad up in such a manner as to let the faint glow continue to illuminate the corner Anton occupied, and hurried to help him up. "Easy," he cautioned as he got an arm around the other man. After a moment of shifting and pulling, Radek got him to his feet. Duchovny balanced on his good foot and gingerly attempted a little weight on the other. The sharp hissing intake of breath was enough to tell Radek that they were going to need help. "Over here, sit down," Radek motioned to the offending crate and helped Duchovny limp over and settle onto it.

"What was that?" Anton demanded, right forefinger making a circular motion to indicate the power shutoff. "Everything was testing fine."

"I don't know," Zelenka replied, perhaps a little more snappishly than he'd intended. "If I did, we wouldn't need the flashlight." Kneeling, he pulled one of the packs closer, rummaging around through its contents until he produced the flashlight in question and flicked it on. The beam pierced through the gloom, and Zelenka panned it around the area as an involuntary shiver ran through him. There were still days that some of the more remote parts of the city gave him "the creeps," as Colonel Sheppard would put it and while the chamber that housed the ZPM wasn't quite remote, in the dark it could still be a little forbidding even after all this time.

Getting up, the Czech returned to the datapad. Pulling it a little closer with his free hand, he ran his fingers along the touchscreen, entering several commands. A string of startled, puzzled Czech left his mouth and he called up more data, fingers moving nimbly.

"What?" Duchovny frowned and peered at his companion when no response was immediately forthcoming. "Radek, what is it?"

"I...I'm not sure," Radek admitted, pausing long enough to shove his glasses up on the bridge of his nose in a nervous gesture. "These command routines are..." he trailed off and laid the flashlight down on the console. Both hands moved along the touchscreen now, calling up several subsets of information. "The Ancient systems connected to the ZPM are not executing commands from this interface."

"Why?" Duchovny tilted his head a bit, thinking.

"Weir to Zelenka," Elizabeth's voice sounded in Radek's ear before he could answer Anton and he automatically reached up to activate his earpiece. "Radek, what's going on? If we lose primary power, we're extremely vulnerable. If it becomes necessary, we can't maintain the cloak on emergency levels alone."

"I know! I wish I could tell you," Radek responded honestly. "We have run into a problem down here; I'm heading to control tower to try to fix it from there. Anton turned his ankle; if Carson could send someone to the ZPM station that would be helpful."

"Help's on its way," Weir promised after a moment's pause. "I'll meet you in the control center."

"All right, Zelenka out," Radek responded, quickly gathering up the datapad and disconnecting it. He turned to his fellow scientist, who looked a little pale in the beam cast by the flashlight. "Are you all right down here for a few minutes? It won't take them long to come."

Anton waved his hand dismissively. "Go ahead. This," he motioned around them to indicate the current crisis, "is bigger trouble than I am."

Radek resisted the urge to chuckle, but he did grin. Duchovny's English was rapidly improving the longer he was here, but occasionally he still mixed metaphors or verb tenses, or as in this case, expressed something with a double meaning that he did not intend.

"All right; I check in with you later, Dr. Trouble," Radek pronounced as he passed the other scientist by to enter the passage beyond. "Try not to make any trouble while you wait, hm?" Radek headed back toward the nearest transporter; he smirked and did his best to ignore the disgruntled grumbling in Czech behind him.

Halfway there, the emergency lights flickered as well but just when Zelenka expected them to fail as well, full power returned and flooded the hallway with light. Not just light, but a brightness that seemed to exceed normal standards and the Czech stopped in his tracks, blinking furiously to keep his eyes from watering. He pulled off his glasses, reaching up with his other hand to rub his eyes but when he opened them again, it was as if none of it had ever happened.

Radek looked around the immediate area for a few moments, finding it was the same in the adjoining corridors; all was well, it seemed. Frowning slightly he reached up and tapped his earpiece. "Zelenka to Dr. Weir," he called and waited for her response. "I will be with you soon; there is something I want to see here." Having secured Elizabeth's permission, the scientist turned back the way he'd come, hurrying back to the ZPM station.

"I thought you were going back?" Duchovny looked up as Zelenka returned at a swift pace.

"It changed my mind," Radek replied, motioning briefly to indicate the return of power. "When the lights came up I wanted to check the interface one more time." He shrugged slightly and stepped up to the console he'd abandoned just minutes ago and reconnected his datapad. Tapping in a few commands, he watched as a series of diagnostic information scrolled across the screen. Muttering in Czech followed soon after.

"What is it?" Anton asked, his frown mirroring Zelenka's expression. "What happened?"

"I'm not sure, but the interface is working again, almost as if there never was a problem," Radek replied, confusion clearly in his tone. "Power levels are approaching normal again." He typed another string of commands and skimmed the information that produced. "It makes no sense."

Sighing softly, the Czech pushed his glasses up on his nose and glanced around as if the answers might materialize in midair; it wouldn't be the first time a hologram or display had appeared unexpectedly with an explanation or instruction. Despite the wishful thinking, there was no response from Atlantis and Zelenka looked at Duchovny in puzzled disappointment.

"I suppose we have no choice," Anton grumbled. "We'll have to get McKay on this."

"No," Radek said firmly, shaking his head to emphasize the point. "Not yet; we only started to investigate and we have not yet reached the place of admitting defeat." Before Anton could make any observation about what "admitting defeat" to Rodney McKay might entail, Radek continued earnestly, "We need to give McKay time to help Colonel Sheppard." The medical technicians Dr. Beckett had dispatched arrived with a wheelchair and a medkit, and Radek closed up the laptop as they saw to the other scientist. "Now I am going back. You can join me when they finish with you." With that, and a spate of frustrated Czech, Zelenka was off once again for the control center, taking the time in his muttering to inform Elizabeth that he was once again on his way.

Atlantis, it seemed, was offering no answers.


He woke to total darkness. Well, all right, not total darkness; a muted sort of glow came from somewhere and he blinked, trying to focus.

"Mom?" Rodney whispered cautiously, the remnants of his dream seeming to follow him into reality and for a brief moment he had trouble distinguishing one from the other. In the dim lighting a figure came into his field of vision; he reached up with his left hand to rub tiredly at his eyes before trying to pick out the face of his mother against the gloom. "Why'sit dark?" The 'why is it' was lost to light slurring and he realized how heavy his arm felt as he let it drop back to the bed beneath him.

"McKay," the gruff voice that answered him snapped Rodney firmly back to the present and he sluggishly tried to sit up.

"So'body shoulda woke m' up sooner," he grumbled as hands reached to steady him, taking care he noted, not to jostle his injured shoulder. "I've got importan' things t' do, y'know."

"Beckett made you sleep," Ronon's succinct explanation was enough to tell Rodney that one, he'd slept the entire day away and two; they'd tried to wake him sooner without success. He muttered a quiet curse that came out drunken-sounding. "Here." A cup was handed to him and somehow Rodney managed to drink from it without spilling it on himself. The water was more than welcome, and seemed to shake away a little of the lethargy.

"Still...I can't work if I'm comatose can I?" Rodney snapped now, a little more himself. He lowered the cup, and blinked twice as he abruptly realized that it wasn't the middle of the night as he'd originally assumed. "What happened?" he demanded, snapping his attention back to Ronon. "What's with the emergency lights?"

"Some kind of power problem," Ronon explained with a shrug and slightly raised eyebrows, which only prompted some eye-rolling from the physicist.

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Rodney handed over the cup and pushed himself up from the bed. He wobbled momentarily, the brief assault of dizziness courtesy of leftover medication and moving too quickly. Ronon gathered up a large fistful of shirt, keeping Rodney on his feet until the moment passed.

"Welcome," the Satedan watched him, unfazed, as he regained his balance. "Zelenka's working on it," Dex finally offered a little more information and nodded to indicate the low-level lighting. "Haven't been down long; hour, maybe."

Rodney's brow furrowed heavily in concentration, his mind already considering multiple possibilities. He reached up and realized he didn't have an earpiece. Pointing at both their ears in quick succession, Rodney demanded the Satedan's radio, snapping his fingers impatiently while the little device was handed over. Fumbling awkwardly until it was pressed into place, Rodney had a few seconds' debate in his head who he should contact first; Elizabeth or Radek. Before he could speak, the lights came up with an intensity that made even Ronon squint sharply, before falling back to a tolerable level. Rodney reached for eyes that filled reflexively.

"What the hell was that?" he exclaimed, wiping his eyes and blinking away after-images that seemed imprinted on his eyelids.

"Yeah, that was kinda bright," Ronon agreed, although the Satedan didn't seem to be overly troubled by it. Rodney continued to blink and squint, good hand fluttering near his face.

"You think? Where's Beckett? We could be in for retinal damage, significantly impaired vision..."

"I can see just fine," Ronon declared, and again grabbed a fistful of Rodney's shirt, this time to turn him around to face Carson, who was approaching at the scientist's rather vocal complaint. "And so can you, McKay."

"No offense, but I'd rather let Carson determine if I'm going blind or not," Rodney protested. In so doing, he completely missed the near-bored look Ronon shot over his head at Carson.

"Which I canna do with ye hand in the way," Beckett said rather matter-of-factly. "Back in the bed with ye now," he motioned toward the bed McKay had just vacated; the scientist squinting at it warily.

"No," Rodney finally declared, blinking back lingering moisture and reaching up to rub his eyes. "You can't knock me out again; I have to help Sheppard and it's pretty clear to me that I'm going to have to bail out Zelenka, too so just...just let me up." He forced away the squint, blinked twice, and allowed his eyes to adjust to the current—which was to say, normal—light levels. "Good. Where's my computer and hey...where's Hernandez? Has he gotten any further with the..."

The lights lowered again, but didn't power off completely. Rodney reached for his borrowed earpiece again, but was again distracted from his intention when one of Carson's nurses approached them. "Doctor Beckett?" she prefaced, gathering all three men's attentions. "The colonel's regaining consciousness." Rodney gaped, all thought of berating Radek for dropping the ball in his absence forgotten.

"All right, love; I'm comin'," Beckett acknowledged and with a quick glance to the other two, hurried back the way he'd come.

"Sheppard?" Rodney squawked as he followed after the physician; there was almost no other way to describe his tone, driven by tension. "When did he lose consciousness?"

"Happened while you were asleep," Ronon volunteered helpfully; he could appreciate the scientist's concern. "'Bout the same time as the lights went out...an hour ago?"

"No' quite," Carson answered as they approached the critical care area. "Although 'twas goin' on ta forty minutes; I was beginnin' ta be a wee bit nervous." He reached John's side and placed his hand on his patient's shoulder, noting the increased heartbeat announced by the monitor. "That's it, laddie, ye need ta wake up for me."

Rodney swallowed tightly as he stood at the foot of Sheppard's bed, fiddling with an undone button on his shirt, trying unsuccessfully to get the fingers of his left hand to cooperate. He couldn't be still, and he probably shouldn't speak, and his fidgeting fingers displayed his level of anxiety for any who cared to see.

It was Teyla's hand, falling on his shoulder and turning him to face her, that stilled his nervous movements. "Where did you come from?" he blurted out without thinking. "You could've given me a heart attack here!"

"We have been waiting for you to awaken," she said, nodding to indicate Ronon as well as herself, her voice quiet and calm. Her fingers deftly fastened the button, removing the outlet for Rodney's nervous energy as she continued, "Ronon stayed with you while I stayed with John."

"Oh," McKay swallowed hard and tugged the front of his shirt, his gaze sliding away from Teyla back to Sheppard, who was groggily coming to the surface. "What happened?" he demanded of the room in general and Carson in particular, but the physician's attentions were focused completely on John, and the scientist trailed off as he realized no one had an answer to his question, yet.

"C'mon, Colonel, I need ye ta open up those eyes," Carson cajoled, his hand steady on the colonel's shoulder with a kindly squeeze. "C'mon, now, no more sleepin' on the job," he teased gently.

"As if..." Rodney snorted; the one thing John Sheppard was least likely to do was fall asleep on duty. He felt Teyla's hand on his good arm, and he looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and worry. "What? You know I'm right."

"That," Teyla said, with a slight smile that Rodney suspected was perhaps a teeny bit patronizing, "I do not believe, is the point."

"I'm well aware of that," McKay shot back tightly. "I'm perfectly cognizant of the fact that there's an unknown alien substance in there trying to fry his brain, thank you very much."

"Rodney!" Beckett now; his voice was sharp and the look he threw at McKay even sharper. "Have ye forgotten the colonel's circumstances? Think, ye daft bugger, before ye speak." The physicist opened his mouth to make a retort and then seemed to reconsider; he snapped his mouth shut, and closed down his expression. Only a tic along his tightly-held jaw continued to betray his anxiety.

A soft groan broke from John's lips at last, drawing Carson's gaze back, and a faint frown now graced pale features. It was enough to melt the mask immediately from Rodney. "Sheppard..." he murmured, very, very softly now.

"Auhhgo'..." Something that was meant to sound like 'oh, god,' came next, and Carson squeezed the colonel's shoulder again, very gently.

"That's it, lad, almost there. Open ye'r eyes now," he encouraged, and this time was rewarded by two thin slivers of hazel between drowsy, dazed blinks. "Ahh, that's the ticket."

John blinked again, and slowly his brows knit together in a pained wince. "Wha' 'appened?" he managed to get out, slightly less incoherent than his first attempt at speaking. Carson fought his own rising sense of anxiety as he looked down at the pale, bruised face.

"What do ye remember?" he asked, deciding to turn the tables; if the toxin was affecting John's memory even further, they needed to know that. The Scot swallowed back a lump in his throat as he waited for the colonel's answer. Out of the corner of his eye, he was aware of motion at the foot of the bed, and glanced back just far enough to see Rodney shifting nervously from one foot to the other.

Sheppard appeared to consider the question, as if the very words had lost meaning for him, but finally he swallowed weakly and responded, "Was talkin'...with...Weir."

"Aye, ye were," Beckett responded, not even bothering to disguise the obvious relief in his voice or expression. "An' do ye remember what happened next?" he prompted gently. Another pause, an effort to focus beyond the moment, and the colonel's right hand reached up listlessly to rub against his temple. Finally Sheppard shook his head just a tiny bit. The wince that small amount of motion produced didn't escape anyone's notice.

"You...you passed out," Rodney volunteered helpfully, but with just enough of a high-strung edge of his voice that prompted an exasperated look from Carson. "Well, that's what you said he did," he defended himself.

"Aye," Carson agreed once more, this time with a soft sigh. "An' with a cry as loud as ta wake the dead, as the old sayin' goes." He reached for his patient's thin wrist, gently pulling John's hand away from his head and taking his pulse. "Elizabeth said ye seemed ta be in terrible pain." Blue eyes glanced back at hazel ones. "How are ye feelin' now, Colonel?"

"Not...so great," John admitted, blinking drowsily. "M'head really hurts."

"Of...of course it hurts; you've got a concussion. They hurt like..." Rodney spluttered; the word 'crazy' died on his lips. "You know, they hurt a lot, so no surprise you've got a horrible headache."

Tired hazel eyes looked at McKay with an almost familiar irritation.

"Make up...y' mind," John murmured wearily. "Which is it...brain fryin' sub...stance...or concussion?"

McKay froze like the proverbial deer in headlights. Beckett merely glared his displeasure. Never tick off the man who wields the big needles, the scientist thought grimly before plunging ahead.

"Both, maybe," he said with a tight swallow. He was aware of the glare intensifying, but his attention was completely on Sheppard. "He deserves to know, Carson. Give him that much respect." The jaw was firm, resolved, while inside McKay was anything but. He wished he'd kept quiet. Maybe if I'd kept quiet it wouldn't be true...

Blue eyes softened a bit, and Carson exhaled softly. Of course; it was rarely a good idea to keep things from a patient. He might catch it from Kate and possibly Elizabeth later, but Rodney had already let the cat out of the bag so to speak, and knowing John as he did, he didn't expect the colonel to let this little revelation go anytime soon. He nodded at last and looked back at John, who was stubbornly blinking in a bid to stay awake. Poor lad looked exhausted.

"Rodney's right," he finally said quietly. "When ye were taken, ye were injected with a neurological agent, somethin' we've never seen before." Carson paused, letting John have a moment to process what he was hearing before any further explanation. "We only have a vague idea what it might do ta ye once it starts breakin' down in ye'r system, and so far, there's no' any information ta help us with what ta expect or how ta counter it."

"Yet," Rodney interrupted stubbornly. "Right now, one of my...one of our top people is on it, and as soon as somebody brings along my computer I'll be back on it too. Trust me, we'll find what Carson needs to know so he can do his voodoo." Confused eyes drifted closed briefly, before reopening to focus hazily on Rodney. Carson followed John's gaze and he gave the pilot's shoulder a compassionate squeeze.

"This thing...gonna kill me?" John asked hoarsely, his eyes and his question pinning Rodney to the spot, despite being aware of Carson shifting uncomfortably beside him, and of the looks traded between Ronon and Teyla, who had both remained nearby. "McKay," he forced the issue, and the blue eyes staring at him narrowed abruptly as the scientist pressed his lips together briefly.

"Of course not," Rodney asserted with his usual condescending tone. He too was aware of the stares of the other three, but it was the tone Sheppard would expect, the Sheppard that was still lurking somewhere beneath the hazy eyes looking up at him. That Sheppard would demand answers, would expect genius. "Don't be ridiculous. We'll have this all figured out long before you're at death's door or anything like that." He waved his good hand dismissively as if swatting at a fly.

"Okay, then," John exhaled irritably; despite complete, mind-numbing exhaustion overlaid by the hammer in his head, he was taut as the proverbial bowstring, his slender frame tensing warily. "If you say so..."

"John, lad," Carson prompted worriedly, drawing the tired, pained eyes toward him.

"S' alright, Doc, I know...you can't make any promises," John mumbled, but there was no accusation in his tone, only a weary vulnerability that the colonel so rarely displayed and that Carson couldn't help but soothe.

"Well it seems that one's already been made for us," Beckett said comfortingly, with a slight nod toward the fidgeting scientist at the foot of the bed. "Ye know we'll do everythin' within our power, ta keep it."

"Doctor Beckett is quite correct," Teyla spoke up now, her expressive eyes having missed nothing throughout the entire exchange. "We are here, as you would say, for the long haul." The Athosian smiled warmly, but Rodney watched as John refused to relax...the tired, battered body shifting uneasily despite the fact that he was too injured to even get up on his own let alone go anywhere.

"We're your team," Rodney interjected now, with a determined expression the others were all quite familiar with. "Even if you don't remember us, there's no reason for you to doubt that. Give us a chance to do this. We saved your life; you owe us that much." He held John's gaze just as firmly; the scientist could only hope the colonel would make the instinctive leap at last to trust them. Until, that is, he cleared his throat slightly and tacked on, "Well, they saved your life, technically; I was stuck here," Rodney motioned awkwardly toward Ronon and Teyla. "But I've saved your life before...all this, so...that'll have to be good enough. And yes, I do say so."

There was a breathless moment, almost, of waiting...an insane hope perhaps that Sheppard would take him—take them—at his word. Pilot and scientist stared at each other; one wary, the other anxious. When the thin body fairly melted into the pillows, McKay knew the decision to trust had been made even before Sheppard opened his mouth.

"Okay," John said simply, too tired and hurting far too much to elaborate.

"Okay," Rodney replied and moved at last from the foot of the bed to practically nudge Carson aside, ignoring the Scot's slight huff of protest. "We'll figure it out; we have to," he said simply. The flicker of anxiety in his eyes was badly disguised by what was meant to be a reassuring smile. Oddly enough, John responded to it, smiling back faintly until a heavy wince replaced it. "Carson!" Rodney exclaimed, but the physician was already in motion, firmly pushing him back out of the way.

"Easy now, Colonel," Carson murmured, only to glance up as the lights flickered once more. A frustrated expression crossed his features before he settled his attention back on his patient. "The headache's worse?" The dark head nodded just barely. Tension flooded back into the battered body, an instinctive attempt to defend itself from the onslaught. Carson placed one hand on John's shoulder, and the resulting flinch startled them both. "It's all right," he reassured even as his other hand fished in his lab coat pocket for his penlight. "I just need ta take a look at ye'r eyes."

"Please...no..." Sheppard's soft plea and the way he turned his head aside was worrisome; treating the lieutenant colonel more often meant dealing with the difficult combination of a high threshold for pain and sheer stubbornness. The open admissions of the headache earlier coupled with his guarded reaction now broadcast loud and clear the pain's growing intensity.

Beckett deftly turned Sheppard's head back toward him with an easy nudge. "I'll make it quick, lad," he promised, and gently pried one eyelid open and then the other, fast flicks of the penlight. Each was accompanied by a badly-suppressed groan, and the eyelids were squeezed shut instantly after.

"Doc?" Ronon, silent to this point, spoke up. He didn't like this at all.

Neither did Carson.

"Aye, I know," he reassured before turning to one of his staff and ordering the Ancient scanner be brought online. He leaned over John once more. "Colonel, lad, I'm goin' ta take another scan o' ye'r head an' see what's goin' on in there. In the meantime, try ta rest, an' I'll see about gettin' ye somethin' for the pain."

The next few moments were spent with Carson shooing the others away, much to their displeasure, and Rodney reluctantly allowed himself to be herded out as well. Not that he had much choice as Ronon had him by the sleeve of his good arm firmly pulling him along.

"Yes, yes, I understand Beckett needs some space to in which to work his voodoo arts but that doesn't mean you have to go all Cro-Magnon man and drag me back to your lair. Wait...Wait just a minute..." Rodney somehow managed to pull his arm free of the Satedan, some distance from the critical care area, and he looked back over his shoulder. The curtain was pulled; he couldn't see the colonel lying beyond. "Somebody get my laptop." He snapped his fingers. "And where's Hernandez?"

"I believe Dr. Hernandez was called away to help with the power problems," Teyla supplied, but before Rodney could demand whose bright idea that was, Ronon again had a grip on him and was pulling him into the makeshift waiting area they'd all spent far too much time in lately.

"What the... Okay, this is taking the bouncer thing far too seriously. I mean, really, I don't..."

"McKay," the Satedan rumbled, and his tone was enough to stop Rodney in mid-sentence. The former Runner shoved something into Rodney's hand. The physicist paused to look at it, and a frown immediately blossomed on his face as he recognized the somewhat abused image he held.

"Sheppard's Genii mugshot...? What's it tell us, beside the fact that Sheppard doesn't take a bad picture even for a wanted poster...?" Rodney started to thrust the bounty picture back toward the Satedan when Ronon shook his head.

"We gotta talk."


"There ye are, Colonel; that'll help shortly, I promise."

Beckett's brogue lilted above him, and a few moments later John felt the coolness spread up the vein in his arm. He released the breath he'd been holding, content that soon he would be oblivious to the headache currently battering away at his brain. The bass-drum line seemed to have coalesced into a single, unbroken thrumming through his head. It didn't take much to imagine it splintering his head like a sustained high note shattering a wine glass.

"Thanks, Doc," he murmured, grateful even before the drug took effect. He managed to work his eyes open and looked up at kindly physician who was watching him worriedly. John had to admit that there were few enough doctors he'd actually ever come to like, let alone trust, and yet he found himself doing both with the Scot despite the fact that at this moment, the man was a virtual stranger.

He couldn't have explained it, even if he'd wanted to, but he found himself doing the same with the three that claimed to be his team. They were a motley crew, putting it mildly, and John found himself intrigued by the fact that he'd picked them himself, according to Weir. Particularly given that none of them appeared to be military, despite Ronon's assertion that he was "military enough." He wondered briefly what on earth had possessed him to make three civilians his team members. Okay, one he could imagine easily enough, but all three?

"Are ye all right, Colonel?" Beckett again, although it almost took another attempt to bring a response; John had yet to get used to the 'Colonel Sheppard' business. He dredged up a small smile that he didn't really feel.

"Yeah, just thinkin', Doc," he promised, although he could tell already by the fuzzy feeling beginning to invade the edges of his mind that he wouldn't be doing too much more of that, at least not coherently. The upside of that being the constant bass note threatening to disintegrate his brain was being dulled considerably.

The smile, he realized an instant too late, was probably really idiotic now, but he also realized that he didn't necessarily care how drunk he looked if it meant he couldn't feel the monster headache for awhile. That it didn't kill him to breathe, that he couldn't feel the deep soreness of abdominal bruises, or the ache of the broken wrist were all side benefits.

John allowed his eyes to slide maybe halfway shut, a familiar lethargy stealing into his limbs as the painkiller strengthened in his system, pulling his thoughts far from the constant awareness of his injured body and allowing him to—somewhat—focus on other things. Limited by heavy-lidded eyes, his field of vision basically encompassed the immediate area around him; he watched with vague interest as Beckett and a pair of nurses prepared to move his bed. A faintly puzzled frown crossed his features as he wondered why they were moving him.

Beckett's brogue said something about a scanner, and John realized he must've asked that one out loud, and he managed a lazy nod in the doctor's direction. At last they began to roll the bed out into the triage section of the Infirmary, and John turned his head aside, his line of sight shifting to the window that was immediately to his right.

The wedge of sky he could see was brilliant blue, a perfect day for flying; barely a wisp of white cloud to be seen. It was the glimmer of sun-dappled water, however, that caught his attention, despite the pained squint the brightness caused him. He turned his head back after a moment, blinking away the afterimages of golden light on ripples of ocean. As his view shifted back to the interior of the Infirmary, John struggled to focus beyond the medicated fog settling into his head.

A faint frown touched his features as he gazed around at the unfamiliar architecture. It had an airy, ethereal feel to it, quite unlike any military base of operations he'd ever seen. Military and scientific expedition, he reminded himself, and idly wondered what billionaire corporation was bankrolling this outfit; it certainly wasn't any bare-bones expeditionary outpost, either. Even given Congressional excess, he couldn't quite imagine it being solely a government operation.

"Too pretty...to be federally funded..." he mumbled drowsily to himself, completely missing the curious, almost amused expression to cross Beckett's features as the doctor and nurses guided him toward an unfamiliar device.

"All right, John, we're goin' ta lower ye down so we can get a good scan," the Scot was saying, warning him in advance of the movement. They were careful as they eased him into lying horizontally, but it still occurred to John that it was probably a ridiculously good idea that he was too drugged to care.

"'Kay..." he mumbled his assent perhaps a moment or two too late. He blinked hazily as his field of vision was suddenly encompassed by the nearness of the device, and he felt a hand on his shoulder a moment later.

"Easy, lad," Beckett said. "'Tis only goin' ta take a moment."

He must have zoned out then, because the next thing that registered with John were fingers gently but firmly pressing small sensor pads along both of his temples. He couldn't help but groan as the slight pressure was enough, even with the painkiller, to remind him of the steady ache that the drug masked.

"All done, Colonel Sheppard," the nurse said very softly yet with a cheery demeanor. "I'm sorry if that hurt, but you're all set now."

"Se' for wha'...?" John found himself slurring much as he had when he'd come to the last time, and he resisted the urge to shake his head, instinctively realizing what a bad idea that would be.

"We're just goin' ta monitor ye'r EEG for a time, Colonel," Beckett explained calmly, even as he activated the unit. "The scan came up with some irregular activity an' I just want ta keep an eye on it."

John swallowed tightly, fuzzy thoughts trying to catch up to that one. Irregular activity... "Brain-fryin'...?" he finally managed, McKay's words from earlier coming to mind. He blinked drowsily but didn't miss the concerned set to the physician's features.

"I dunna know, John," Beckett was straight up with him and John appreciated that more than he could articulate at the moment. "That's why we're goin' ta keep ye hooked up ta the EEG for the time bein'."

"That why...can't 'member anythin'...?" John managed to get out, and while he would have loved it to be more demanding of answers, it just came out sounding troubled and tired. He felt weight against his shoulder, realized it was the doctor's hand. "Doc?" he pressed, not caring if he sounded overly anxious.

"I'm afraid I dunna have the answer ta that yet either," Beckett finally answered just as honestly. "But Rodney's right about one thing; we are workin' vera hard on it." The Scot gave him a smile that John found oddly reassuring despite the situation. "We'd rather keep ye around, ye know," he 'explained' conspiratorially. "Believe it or no', ye keep Rodney from drivin' the rest o' us crazy. Now, I can see it's about all ye can do ta stay awake; stop fightin' it, an' get some sleep."

John exhaled wearily. He was tired of sleeping, but it seemed his battered body and mind had other plans for him. Combined with the medication keeping the pain at bay, it really was more effort than it apparently was worth to stay awake. "Sucks...t'day...w' be nice flyin'," he grumbled as his eyes fluttered closed. He heard the soft chuckle above him but didn't bother reopening his eyes; sleep was not far off.

"I'm afraid ye will no' be doin' any flyin' anytime soon, Colonel. Let's concentrate on gettin' ye healed up first an' then we'll worry about everythin' else."

Beckett's advice droned in his ears, however as he let go of uncertain thoughts and unfamiliar surroundings and surrendered to sweet promise of painless sleep.

Carson sighed softly as he realized his patient had finally drifted off on him, and he reached over to pull the blanket up a little over the colonel's thin and abused body. Losing the bedside manner expression for the time being, his appearance softened into one of outright worry and in this moment he didn't care who saw it. Blue eyes glanced from one monitor's readings to the other, frowned a little as he looked at John's EEG. Even asleep, there was unusual synaptic activity taking place that there was little explanation for at this time beyond the neurological nature of the toxin that had been pumped into the pilot.

The latest round of blood-work would determine if the toxin had begun breaking down into John's system, but what that would mean for the colonel was still incredibly uncertain. Although if pressed, Carson would confess concerns that John's current levels of discomfort seemed to confirm his initial theory that the drug interfered with the proper firing of pain receptors, tricking John into feeling hurts that didn't exist on top of the ones that actually did.

"Bloody inhuman is what it is," Beckett muttered to himself, pulling up a nearby stool and settling down beside his patient. At the moment, the colonel was his greatest priority and biggest question mark, so he had absolutely no misgivings in spending a few extra minutes. Given the amount of the substance present, quite likely the unpleasant effects for Sheppard would only increase over time, and there were still no answers as to how long they would last, or what the ultimate result of prolonged exposure to the toxin would be.

It was one of those times in medicine, the Scot mused to himself, when the challenges of treating a serious disease were preferable, if the disease was a known condition, over the unknown or inexplicable ailment. In the case of the former there were definitive courses of treatment, methods to alleviate symptoms, medicines to soothe the suffering. Even if the first course of treatment wasn't successful, often there were other avenues that likely would produce the desired results. In the case of the latter, however, the search for a viable treatment protocol was too much like guesswork or playing chance with that life in his hands and that was a helpless feeling that Carson detested.

Unfortunately, he reflected darkly, the unknown and inexplicable were much more familiar ground in the Pegasus Galaxy, leading him to walk the tightrope more often than he was comfortable, pressing his luck as well as his skills to deny Death its prize. A faint smile crossed Carson's features and he shook his head at himself. "A wee bit maudlin, mind," he murmured apologetically despite the fact that even if John had been awake to hear it, he'd likely have to explain himself. "Or overly poetic... Me mum would say ta buck up," he added sagely.

It didn't stop him from watching anxiously over the colonel for a handful of moments longer, or from hoping for the last word over the unknown and inexplicable, one more time.


Rodney glanced up and sighed dramatically as the lights fluctuated once again. "You know I should be busy saving the city now, right?" he glared at his teammates briefly at the entrance to his lab, but the pause was met by an intimidating glare in return from Ronon; the Satedan folding his arms across his chest impatiently.

"I am sure Radek has things well in hand, Rodney," Teyla reassured once again, to which the physicist sniffed disdainfully. "If he did not, I am certain he would have sent for you by now."

"You truly don't get the concept of ego, do you?" McKay's interrogative was less a true question than a curious observation as he canted his head at her. "Zelenka will bang his head against the wall until I come up with a brilliant solution," he asserted as the three of them entered the lab.

"Wouldn't that hurt?" Ronon asked, but his tone was so dry Rodney couldn't tell if he was being serious or not and looking up into the deadpan expression Ronon wore didn't clarify things at all. Rodney resisted rolling his eyes at the Satedan, settling instead for a look that said you're kidding me, right?

"It's a figure of speech," he dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand as he pulled up a stool to the nearest workstation, plugging in the laptop he'd retrieved from Carson's office on their way out. "Radek might not exactly be on the same genius level as I am, but I think it goes without saying that he's at least past the temper-tantrum stage of problem-solving. Mostly."

Ronon raised an eyebrow, giving Teyla a sidelong look that she returned, knowing Rodney was too absorbed in getting the laptop started up and plugged into the Ancient database to notice their amusement. While some of the Earthers' speech and methods of doing things could be confusing or puzzling, more often the two Pegasus natives were picking up the meanings of sayings and customs without needing much in the way of explanation.

Still, Ronon was not above baiting the scientist. He came around the end of the workstation, leaning casually against it. "You just say he's smarter 'n you?" Teyla smothered a smile as Rodney looked up distractedly.

"What? Zelenka...?" McKay fairly sputtered at the former Runner as he waved that off just as dismissively. "Be serious."

"Yeah," Ronon deadpanned. "Not sure you got past that stage yet..."

"Oh, very funny," McKay's expression soured while the others broke into outright grins. "Sheppard's a bad influence on you two," he grumbled before sighing resignedly. "Hello, middle of a couple of crises here; can we get on with things?" The scientist snapped his fingers rapid-fire and then held out his hand. Ronon produced the Genii picture once again and handed it over; McKay's forehead bunched into a frown as he studied the 'mug shot' of the lieutenant colonel. "And tell me why we're bothering to analyze this again?"

"Gotta run it through that translation thing," Ronon encouraged, motioning vaguely with one hand toward the laptop, indicating the translation software that Rodney used in deciphering Ancient material.

"Because...?" The frown deepened if anything. "We already know what it is, and who was behind..."

"Rodney," Teyla intervened now, coming around to the scientist's side. "What Ronon and I wish to learn is if any of the languages on this image match anything the Ancients may have in the database regarding the Isturans." The Athosian held Rodney's gaze steadily, and she smiled encouragingly as the scientist's expression shifted from irritation into dawning comprehension.

"You...you think they had something to do with Sheppard's kidnapping?" Rodney looked away from Teyla; he glanced randomly along the lab table without truly seeing its contents as his mind worked over that bit of information. "I knew there was something about that old man I didn't like, and it wasn't just his daughter making eyes at Colonel Kirk, either."

"We do not know if it was Yin'e, or even if it was any of his people, yet," Teyla said equitably. "But Ronon and I believe the fire that destroyed the Isturan village was set on purpose. Whether it was done by Colonel Sheppard's captors or by one or more of the villagers themselves is unclear. That is what Ronon and I wish to investigate. If we can establish a link between this," Teyla tapped the picture Rodney still held, "and Istura..."

"...Weir will have to let us go back and find out," Ronon finished for her with a shrug of his broad shoulders. Rodney blinked a moment, before inhaling sharply and putting the picture of Sheppard down on the lab table beside his laptop.

"Right, right; getting to work," he agreed as even one-handed his fingers darted over the laptop's keyboard. "This might take a little time," he warned with a quick glance at Ronon in particular. "There's a lot of ground to cover," he defended when the Satedan glared. "Do you know how many potential written languages could exist in the database?"

"Let us know when you have something," Teyla entreated, staving off any further distraction Ronon might provide. Rodney typed another set of commands and got up absently, moving around Teyla to collect a second laptop to employ it as well; there was still the search for Sheppard's mystery drug to be considered. "Rodney?"

"Yes, yes, of course," McKay made a sour face as if to say that went without saying. "You can give me a hand, though; I'm not doing this all by myself."

"What can we do?" Ronon asked skeptically.

"Find Hernandez and get him down here. I don't care what Zelenka has him working on; I need to know how far he got looking for that toxin," Rodney demanded effortlessly as he continued typing, manipulating the parameters of both the search and translation interfaces.

"He'll be here," Ronon promised solidly. If it was something he could to do help Sheppard, he was going to make sure it was done. Moving away from the table, he straightened up and nodded once as if to "seal the deal," as Sheppard might say.

"While you're at it, bring back a sandwich, willya?" Rodney entreated without looking up from his work, but when there was no response forthcoming, he picked up his head to see Ronon staring at him impassively from the doorway. "Look, I realize this isn't the Atlantis Catering Service but seriously, I haven't had anything since the crack of dawn and I'm starving. Somehow I doubt you'd appreciate a hypoglycemic collapse preventing me from finishing this little project."

"We will stop by the mess hall on the way back," Teyla interjected, not giving Ronon the chance to protest.

"Oh, good," Rodney said, relieved, as he bent his head back to the laptop. "I'd hate to have Sheppard's survival hinge on something as insignificant as a sandwich." Intent on his purpose, the scientist completely missed the slight shakes of his team-mates' heads and the looks they passed each other on the way out. Rodney's focus, they knew, was as their own, to aid their team-leader and friend. To that end, if it took a sandwich to help McKay find the answers they were looking for, they would gladly bring him back a plateful, in order to have John Sheppard returned to them.

They departed the lab to the sound of rapid hunt-and-peck typing.


Elizabeth stood quietly on one of Atlantis' many balconies, gazing out to the horizon as a late afternoon sun cast its light over the rippling waves below, unbothered by the breeze rifling through her hair. She lifted a mug and sipped the tea within, wishing absently that she could carry the peace of this moment back into her office to somehow make it a permanent fixture.

A weary sigh slipped out before she even realized it, and she put the mug down on the broad rail that ringed this particular balcony. It inhabited a level almost equal distance from her office and the Infirmary, and despite being on the "beaten path," not many frequented the small nook overlooking the central section of Atlantis and the ocean beyond. It had been, in fact, John Sheppard who had introduced her to this nearly hidden little place, albeit quite by accident. Elizabeth smiled to herself slightly as she recalled the circumstances; as she remembered it, the then Major Sheppard had been avoiding the fallout from a practical joke played upon a certain astrophysicist. She sighed again, and reached up to rub the bridge of her nose.

"You sound tired," a quiet voice said behind her, startling Elizabeth almost enough to knock her mug from the railing; she had a brief mental image of someone far below getting showered in tea. Despite circumstances, that was nearly enough to make her chuckle. Instead, she composed herself with a deep breath and turned around.

"Halling," Weir blinked, surprised to see the speaker was indeed the tall Athosian. "Is everything all right over on the mainland?" She blurted out the first concern that popped into her mind at Halling's unexpected appearance; that of the well-being of Teyla's people.

"Doctor Weir," Halling greeted with a slight cant of his head. "I apologize; I did not mean to frighten you. Yes, everything is well with our people," he reassured before going on. "I came to see if Doctor Beckett deems Wickley ready to return to his family; I merely wished to greet you before going to the Infirmary. One of the personnel in the control room directed me here."

"Of course," Elizabeth responded with a small smile now, and motioned for Halling to join her if he so wished, only turning back to the vista below once he had drawn near the rail. "I'm glad to hear things are good with you; how is Jinto?"

"Jinto is also quite well," Halling's smile was that of a proud father. "He seems to be outgrowing all of his clothing, almost faster than it can be made, and is beginning to learn the skills of the hunter. Before I know it, he will come of age and I will wonder where the seasons fled so quickly."

"Time has a way of getting away from us," Elizabeth said quietly, a half-smile that she didn't feel touching her lips as she picked up the mug once more. "Whether or not we want it to," she added, realizing just how true that was for John, and how true it had been, really, for the rest of them as they had conducted their search for him. "Fast, or slow, makes no difference; it just...goes." A moment's silence fell between them.

"It is my understanding that Colonel Sheppard has been found," Halling broke the quiet moment first, turning slightly to look at Elizabeth. She nodded minutely, not looking back at Halling just yet, her fingers wrapping tightly around the now rapidly-cooling mug. "Teyla tells me he was harmed by his captors."

Elizabeth couldn't help but look up now, and she swallowed convulsively. "Yes," she confirmed quietly, "Yes, he was." She couldn't bring herself to elaborate; it was still too near and still far easier than she liked for her imagination to run away with her whenever she thought too much about the time John had been missing. Yet, in the eyes that looked down at her now, Elizabeth saw only kindness.

"Will he recover?" Halling inquired now, and she knew then that Teyla had at least partially explained John's condition. Whether that explanation had included John's missing memory, or merely his physical state, was not readily apparent. Elizabeth pulled in a slow breath, glancing back out over the water before looking back up at the tall Athosian beside her.

"We are doing everything we can to help him," she promised firmly.

"That was not what I asked," Halling replied insightfully. He regarded her unwaveringly, and Elizabeth found herself turning away from the balcony rail to face him fully, his gaze as compelling as it was compassionate. Finally Elizabeth bowed her head briefly, just a small moment to break the understated tension and regain control of her own building sense of anxiety. "My son," Halling finally prompted, "is among many of our children who are very fond of Colonel Sheppard. What am I to tell them upon my return?"

Elizabeth raised her eyes once again, away from Halling's chest where her gaze had settled, back up to his face. She didn't try to disguise her obvious concerns, despite doing her best to project a measure of calm in her bearing. "I don't know," she admitted truthfully, swallowing hard. "There are...some unusual circumstances surrounding John's return, and his condition. We've only just gotten him back, Halling. The recovery he makes will take time, and we don't know everything he's up against, and..." Elizabeth touched suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue. "I don't know," she repeated quietly.

"The wrong is not in lacking the necessary answers," Halling said steadily, at last shifting his gaze from the expedition leader to the breathtaking vista before them. "Often it is in not asking the necessary questions."

"Halling..." Weir stiffened now and she put down the mug, her expression becoming distressed.

"Certainly there have been doubts between our peoples," Halling admitted frankly, but not unkindly. "But you, including Colonel Sheppard...perhaps especially Colonel Sheppard, have proved Teyla's faith in you all. The time has come, Doctor Weir, when you must allow us to prove ourselves in return on Sheppard's behalf."

"It's not a matter of faith, or about proving anything," Elizabeth protested. "It's a matter of not handing someone else over to an enemy—an unknown enemy at that."

"Perhaps this enemy is not as unknown as you propose," Halling interjected, and there was no hiding the surprise that flashed across Elizabeth's face. Teyla apparently had spoken in greater detail to Halling than Elizabeth had expected. "We have dealt with the Genii many years longer than you have been in this galaxy. While they dealt deceptively with us all, our people are more familiar with them and if they have spies on Istura, we will root them out."

Elizabeth pressed her lips together briefly in a disapproving line before sighing softly and folding her arms across her chest. "Then tell me, Halling, do you believe Ladon Radim would so quickly break the alliance that established him as leader of the Genii?" The issue of Kolya, Elizabeth considered a separate matter and she was already well acquainted with how ruthless the former Genii commander could be in the pursuit of his goals. That, at least, was much more of a certainty than the fledgling truce with Radim. She watched as Halling canted his head thoughtfully.

"Perhaps the more necessary question to ask, Doctor Weir, is what you believe Ladon would do." The tall Athosian paused briefly. "If, that is, you are considering the possibility of...expanding the field of your investigation."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow slightly, giving Halling a look that was almost amused. "Did Teyla and Ronon put you up to this? They've been after me to let them go back to Istura for a little heart-to-heart talk with their Council regarding John's abduction. I'll admit; I want to know how far we can trust these people, but not at the expense of our own."

"No," Halling answered with a slight smile. "They did not, not directly. However, I happen to agree that this is the course of action we must take if we are to uncover the necessary answers." The Athosian's smile deepened as Elizabeth's eyebrow quirked a little higher.

"We?" she echoed curiously. Halling nodded slowly, the smile melting into something more serious.

"I am not the only Athosian who is willing to accompany Teyla and Ronon to Istura, or anywhere else we are needed to go," he said calmly, but firmly, "As I said, Doctor Weir, Colonel Sheppard has done much for us all, and for the city of the Ancestors. Now it is our turn...to do what we can for him."

Elizabeth regarded Halling for a long moment before finally nodding a little bit. "Thank you, Halling," she prefaced first, wanting him to know how much she did appreciate the sentiment, for John's sake. "I'm still considering Teyla and Ronon's request, but as soon as I've made a decision, I'll let you know."

"Very well," Halling left it at that; he bowed his head slightly toward her in acquiescence. "I will await your answer along with the others, but I cannot promise that we will abide by it. If we believe it necessary to act, you cannot keep us from leaving."

Elizabeth inhaled sharply; she was already well aware that Halling's statement was more than truth, it was a trump card. The fact that Ronon and Teyla had not played it themselves, despite their impatience to help John, said much for the growing cohesion of Atlantis' premiere team and deepening loyalty to their team leader.

"I understand," she finally responded as she retrieved the tea mug and turned away from the railing completely. "Believe me, Halling, if the Genii are at all responsible, there's nothing I'd like better than to exact a little retribution, but that's not necessarily a viable option. Plus, there are...other circumstances I have to consider. All I'm asking for is a little more patience."

"Then you shall have it," Halling answered steadily, falling into step beside Elizabeth as she left the balcony. "We will speak again once I have seen to Wickley."

Elizabeth merely nodded silently as she parted ways with the tall Athosian, and she hoped that by the time he returned the decision she made would be the right one, and one they could all live with. She wondered briefly as she headed back to her office if she would be able to reach an answer that achieved both of those goals.

"Maybe," she murmured to herself. "And then, maybe not."


Light filtered in gradually as John turned his head and sluggishly blinked his eyes open. He felt a tiny tug on the skin at his temple and realized belatedly that he was still attached to the EEG; the minor motion dragging the wire across his pillow. It took another moment between thundering heartbeats to remember why he was dragging around more wires and a slow frown gathered.

"John?" The voice came from his other side, and he carefully maneuvered his head back the other way, blinking a little harder to help focus as a face swam into view. Pretty face, he decided as the features solidified in his vision.

The woman next to him smiled demurely. "Nice of you to say so, Colonel," she said pleasantly and John, embarrassed at having spoken aloud without realizing it, felt a slight flush crawl into his face. Way to go, John, he kicked himself—mentally this time—and offered up a winsome smile of his own.

"My drill...instructor back...Academy used...t' say, 'Cadet, forget...flirtin' on the...morphine...y' won't remember...what...y' said and the...field medics...won't forget.'"

"Sounds like a real charmer, your instructor," the woman said and the smile deepened a little. "But, I don't think you need to worry too much about 'flirting under the influence;' I won't tell anyone." John chuckled, a rather breathy sound, until both head and ribs declared painful disapproval and he stopped with a soft grunt. "Do you need me to get Doctor Beckett?" Pretty-Face asked, and John dismissed the suggestion with a slight wave.

"Nah...Just gotta remember...laughing...bad. Drugs...good," he kidded, turning the back of his IV hand toward her. "John Sheppard...Nice to meet you. Again, probably...with the way things've...been going."

"Yes, again," the woman said warmly and came a little closer. "Kate Heightmeyer."

John stiffened slightly, feeling a little like that proverbial deer in headlights and more than a little disoriented. "I slept...that long?" he mumbled as he cautiously reached up to his temple, scratching just at the edge of the sensor pad; the adhesive made his skin itch.

"No," Kate said, and the gentle smile was back. "You didn't. I realize Doctor Weir told you we'd speak later, but when I heard about what happened earlier, I thought I'd stop by and see how you're doing."

John dropped his hand away from his forehead, letting it drape loosely across his waist as he regarded the psychologist warily. "Not doin'...anything much..." he started, and then changed direction. "Y'know...not sure I'm really..." He nearly flinched when Kate interrupted the beginnings of a perfectly good tirade by placing a hand on his shoulder. "I mean...I don't think...this is...such a...great..."

"John, I'm not the enemy, here," Kate asserted kindly. "No one here is blaming you for anything, and whatever issues cropped up during debriefings in the past will have no bearing on anything we discuss now. There are a lot of people here who just want to see you heal, and that includes recovering your memory to the fullest extent possible."

We're your team...Give us a chance to do this. Rodney's plea drifted through his mind and John swallowed thickly, blinking slowly as he considered it. Something had prompted him to trust the scientist without benefit of knowing the how's and why's behind their association. Despite his desire to practice avoidance in peace, without someone analyzing his dream life or some other aspect of his psyche, he found himself being tugged by it again. There are a lot of people here who just want to see you heal.

"Me...me too," he finally admitted. Whether or not he liked it, Heightmeyer might be his best chance to plug the gap in his memory. John's eyes closed as he sighed wearily, cringing when the sharp exhalation reminded him yet again of his sore, bruised abdomen and broken ribs.

"What?" Kate asked lightly, pressing only when he declined to answer. "What is it?" John reached up again to rub a fingertip around the edges of the irritating sensor pads, careful not to dislodge them.

"It's just...weird," John grumbled, and he didn't bother looking to see if the shrink was watching him. He felt like crap and he didn't know where he was or with whom half the time; if that didn't qualify him to indulge in a little grumpiness, he didn't know what would. "Too weird. You all know...all this...stuff."

"We don't just know who you are; we're familiar with you," Kate filled in, her tone gentle. "I imagine that's a little unsettling." John nodded very slightly in spite of himself, but he avoided sighing in frustration as he wasn't keen on inviting a return chorus of aches and pains.

"In here..." he lifted his hand just enough to gesture toward his head. "...you're all unfamiliar...just drawin'...blanks." John squinted a little, gazing at Kate with as much intensity as injuries and medication would allow; if he could just think, could just rattle the cage trapping his memories hard enough, get just one recollection to pop loose...

John felt a hand touch his and realized suddenly that he'd clenched a fistful of the blanket covering him in his fingers without even registering the tug of the IV. He let go with a slight hiss of discomfort, and his expression grew a little sheepish as the counselor gave his hand a small pat.

"John, no one expects you to figure it all out right this second," she said, her voice just as gentle as her touch. She pulled her hand back and offered him a smile. "There's plenty of time to work on getting your memory back, but it's not the original purpose of my visit."

"Oh...yeah?" John murmured guardedly, tension creeping back into his tone as he regarded his visitor. "Confessing...a hidden agenda...there, Doc?" he tried for distracting charm; it came off sounding cautious and tired. "Ink tests, id and...ego...Freudian slips?"

"Soup, actually," Kate answered and she moved aside a little to reveal a mug sitting on a nearby table with a short straw poking out the top. "Doctor Beckett said if you were feeling up to trying it, I could be your dinner companion. I thought it would be a good way for us to become reacquainted." Along with the mug, there was a plate with a sandwich and a carton of milk for Kate. "Broth, if you want to be technical, but I think that it's chicken."

John was surprised when his stomach actually grumbled in response; he'd been too caught up in his various hurts to truly register hunger. As Kate picked up the mug and he got a whiff of the broth inside, he realized his belly ached with more than just soreness and bruises; his captors had practically starved him. "Smells good," he admitted grudgingly, and decided Kate's visit could be prolonged long enough to eat. Or drink, as the case may be.

Kate held the mug for him at first, and John took a pair of small sips. The broth tasted good, and he actually groaned slightly with pleasure at the warm, not overly-hot liquid on his throat and stomach. Encouraged by those first sips, with no immediate threat of the liquid making a return appearance, John reached for the mug to hold it himself. Pleasure turned to mild frustration when he found that he was too shaky to manage it with one good hand and the other trapped in a cast.

Kate simply reached over and steadied his hand without taking the mug or saying a word, and John had to admit he appreciated her unobtrusive aid; he felt the unreasonable heat of embarrassment rush into his face. Whether or not the psychologist noticed, she didn't comment on it, just allowing him to concentrate on sipping more of the broth. After a moment or two, she began to talk about safe, innocuous subjects; nephews back home and hobbies. John found himself relaxing almost against his will; between her quiet voice and a full stomach he felt drowsiness creeping up on him. Finally he gave up and closed heavy eyelids; sleep followed not long after.

"Nicely handled, m'dear," Carson's gentle brogue murmured to her right, and Kate glanced over her shoulder as the Scot drew alongside.

"He managed about a third of it," Kate observed uncertainly, and Carson peered over to gauge for himself how much liquid remained in the mug.

"That's better than I thought he'd do," he replied with a smile. "His belly's been denied enough that we'll have ta be a wee bit gentle with it until he begins ta adjust ta havin' somethin' in it. But it's a step forward; lass, an' right now I'll take every one o' those I can get."

The pair moved out of the immediate area and Kate risked a quick glance back over her shoulder. John slept on, although she noticed that even now his face carried a faint echo of pain. Turning back to Carson, she offered him a small smile in return.

"He's been through a lot," she stated the obvious, clasping her hands before her as they walked. "And he's trying very hard to keep an even keel; not so easy to do when you're in pain and you feel like your world's been turned upside-down."

"Aye," Carson agreed fully. "I could no' agree with ye more; I dunna think I'd be doin' half so well in similar circumstances."

"I think we need to ground him a little," Kate suggested with a slight incline of her head. "As much as his treatment and condition allow it, providing him with a...schedule of sorts might be a good start. A little routine might go a long way to helping Colonel Sheppard to at least feel like he's supposed to be here; knowing a few things to expect and when to expect them will help him settle into the idea that he has a place with us."

Carson tilted his head slightly, considering it as he did so. "That might be a good idea, dependin' on what ye have in mind," he agreed.

"Well I'm not talking about entering him into a marathon or anything," Kate kidded lightly and she was glad to see Carson actually smile along with her. "I think for now, maybe just lunch everyday with some usually familiar faces would be a good start...Elizabeth, his team...Major Lorne. The more we can make this feel normal for him...Don't look at me like that, Carson."

"We've been here nigh two years, lassie, an' I've yet ta figure on it bein' normal," Beckett interjected half-seriously, but then he canted his head slightly with a smile. "But it is home now," he admitted. "I canna imagine bein' anywhere else in two galaxies, no' anymore. No' after Atlantis." He smiled. "She may exist in a vera strange place, but she's a right fair mistress."

"'She?'" Kate replied with a slight quirk of her eyebrows.

"Ships o' many kinds have always been referred ta as lovely maidens," Carson said warmly. "An' Atlantis, at her heart, is a space-farin' vessel. I dunna think there's a better compliment for our fine city."

"Well, when you put it that way, I think I could be persuaded to agree with you," Kate smiled. "So what do you think? Lunch-dates to start? The more familiar things and people we can surround John with, the more likely we are to stimulate his mind, without any undue pressure, to hopefully start tapping some of those missing memories."

"Aye lass, I think we may just be able ta accommodate ye."

"Good. I'll speak with the others about it," Kate confirmed as they stopped near the Infirmary entrance and she turned slightly to gaze back toward the critical care area. While John was now beyond her line of sight, the psychologist's expression was thoughtful. "We may have our work cut out for us," she remarked seriously now. "You know as well as I do, maybe better, the kinds of percentages we're looking at in regards to John regaining a functional grasp of his past here."

"I know," Carson said quietly, his smile fading away as well, replaced with worry and yet a steely sort of resolve. "Believe me, Kate, I know. But I'm no' goin' ta start quotin' numbers yet. Just because a hill is a wee bit steep, let's no' make it Everest." Blue eyes followed Kate's gaze. "No' yet," he repeated softly.

"Of course you're right," Heightmeyer agreed with a tight nod. "We're only getting started. I just think we need to approach this very realistically, for the Colonel's sake as well as our own." She looked at Carson, whose gaze was still cast behind them, and she reached up to put a hand on his arm, drawing his eyes back to her. "I told Elizabeth that I would do everything I can to help John recover his memory, and I intend to do so. But you and I both know that ultimately this is out of our hands; it's up to him."

"Aye," Carson had to agree with that. They could—and would—do everything in their power and quite likely more to help the John Sheppard they knew come back to them. Whether or not that John Sheppard returned rested on the man himself and how well—or poorly—he was able to respond to those efforts. "So long as ye bear in mind that it's no' the first time the Colonel's faced down some vera long odds. Dunna count him out just yet, lassie."

Kate merely nodded, and she took her leave with a promise to visit their patient again soon. As she started off down the hallway, she could only hope that Colonel Sheppard was up to the challenge that was looming before him. Like Carson, she could take comfort in the fact that the Air Force pilot had indeed conquered some daunting "Everests" the Pegasus Galaxy had thrown at him. All they could do now was to give him the tools to beat this one; the climbing was going to be all up to him.


Teyla picked a little at the fruit left in a small dish, and glanced over at Ronon. The Satedan had slumped forward on the stool he'd perched upon; head pillowed in his arms on the table before him, long dreadlocks obscuring his face but unfortunately not his snoring. He was blissfully unaware of his surroundings, including the click of computer keys and the occasional muttered curse or more frequent "come on" being uttered by Rodney.

The scientist himself moved between computers, having dismissed Hernandez some time ago, the moment the Puerto Rican had given him the information needed to continue the research of Sheppard's mystery toxin. Flexing the fingers of his good hand as he turned from one table to another, Rodney leaned down to check a second and third laptop now scouring the Ancient database for linguistic matches to the various languages on the Genii bounty picture.

"Interesting..." Rodney murmured to himself as his fingers clicked across the keyboard, and Teyla couldn't help but lean forward a little.

"You have found something...?" she said, her voice more than a little hopeful. The Athosian nudged aside the dish; pushing up from the stool she'd been seated on next to Ronon, she joined Rodney in front of the pair of computers.

"What?" Rodney spared her a glance and then sighed softly. "No, not...well not what I'm looking for, yet. At least two, maybe three of these languages are some sort of derivative of Ancient, which given what we know about the Ancients' activities in this galaxy...isn't all that surprising, really." He stabbed a finger at one of the lines written on Sheppard's 'wanted poster.' "This one apparently is the written communication of the Manarians. Tsk, tsk still buddies with the Genii, there's a shock..."

"I remember," Teyla replied steadily.

"And this one..." Rodney picked up the picture and held it beside one of the laptop screens for a visual comparison, "...looks like it belongs to those tree-people on that planet with the weird cat-things. Remember...little furballs with the purple eyes and the whip-like tails?" Rodney moved to the next computer and tapped a pair of keys, bringing up a screen full of information. "You know, one of those pseudo-felines left a welt on my leg. I was just making nice; my cat loved it when you rubbed his ears. How was I supposed to know that... oh, hello."

"Rodney?" Teyla stepped a little closer, dark eyes alert and watching.

"How did I miss this?" McKay muttered to himself and blue eyes narrowed in concentration as he waved the picture of Sheppard like a fan. "Do we still have those original copies around here somewhere, back from when Ladon engineered his wonderful little coup?"

"I do not know."

"Yeah, think so," Ronon said at the same moment as he lifted his head from the table. Teyla's voice had awakened him at the start of her conversation with McKay; now that it sounded like something important had finally been found, he entered into the discussion as he pushed himself upright. "I remember somebody askin' Weir for one," he stated with a slight shrug. "Think she gave 'em one of yours. Somethin' about some target practice."

"Nice," Rodney replied with just the right amount of sarcasm.

"Not really," Ronon shrugged and ignored the annoyed glare he received in return. "Just wanted to see what you'd say. I think Doctor Weir still has 'em." The Satedan waited a beat, frowning slightly as he watched Rodney poring over the image of John in his hand. "Why?"

"I just realized something, and if I'm right, I may have an idea where your smoking gun is," Rodney said absently, until he noticed Ronon glancing down at the holster strapped to his thigh. The scientist snapped his fingers and gave the taller man a roll of the eyes. "Oh c'mon, don't tell me with all the action flicks Sheppard's been feeding you, that you don't have a handle on the clichés. Smoking gun...the murder weapon, or at the very least, the piece of the puzzle you need to put it all together." When Ronon folded his arms across his chest, Rodney gave up. "Just...go get me one of the original copies of Sheppard's mugshot from Elizabeth so I can see if I'm right."

"Mugshot," Teyla echoed with a slight lift of her eyebrows.

"In keeping with the spirit of the whole metaphor...just...just go get the stupid picture."

"Be right back," Ronon promised and he pushed up from the table and headed out of the lab.

"What is it that you have found, Rodney?" Teyla asked directly, now and she watched as Rodney put down the picture of John and returned to the keyboard, very cautiously easing his arm out of the sling to type briefly with both hands.

"This is the one I need to concentrate on," McKay answered distractedly, pausing only long enough to point at the particular scribble-like message scrawled on the bottom of the picture, across Sheppard's chest. "It's the only one that I haven't come close to identifying."

"And this one?" Teyla pointed at another version of the message. "I do not believe you have identified this one either."

"Technically, no," Rodney conceded. "But according to what I've found so far, it appears to be another derivative from the same Ancient foundation. Plus, those I have identified all belong to established or former allies of the Genii...except my guy." Rodney pointed again. "It doesn't carry the same markers pointing back to the original Ancient, and it's not attached to any of the planets we've noted as Genii trading partners or allies." He shook his head. "Never thought I'd say it, but what I wouldn't give to have Jackson here to look over this."

New search parameters entered, Rodney abandoned the pair of computers and turned his attention back to the one dedicated to going through the Ancient medical database. So far, that had been as frustrating as the linguistics search, and a tight sort of squeezing in his chest reminded him that Sheppard likely did not have a lot of time to wait.

He was still typing two-handed with the occasional wince when Ronon returned with another of the Genii pictures of John in hand, plus one of Rodney's just in case. "Here," the Satedan announced as he approached.

Rodney had settled down on one of the stools and was engrossed in his work; the pictures sliding across the keyboard of the laptop broke his concentration but he didn't snap at Ronon. Instead, he quickly snatched up both images and scrutinized them carefully. "I thought so!" he exclaimed, and looked at Teyla. "This is it, this is our big clue," he said with an air of certainty as he reached for the picture of John that had been brought back from Istura. "Take a look at these. Notice anything different?"

He waited and watched while two sets of eyes pored over the three pictures, now laid out side by side on the table. However, he wasn't that patient a person. "These two," he said, waving the original pictures Teyla and Ronon had brought back to Atlantis, "don't have this," he used his forefinger to trace beneath a line written on the Isturan picture, the same line that Rodney had just been discussing with Teyla. "I'm guessing that somebody other than the Genii had an interest in Sheppard."

"How does this help us?" Teyla wanted to know. "There is still nothing to link the Isturans to John's abduction..."

"Au contraire," Rodney replied with a satisfied grin. "Those 'wanted dead or alive' photo-ops were all part of Ladon's complicated little takeover, as well as to advance their research into the Ancient gene and as such, there was only ever really one place they were distributed."

"We don't know that for a fact," Ronon rumbled suspiciously.

"Well, okay, we don't, but the only other place we've ever run into another one of these is Istura. And as far as I know, we've never had anybody else try to take me, or for that matter any other offworld team member with the ATA gene, in for the reward."

"That's 'cause yours is fake," Ronon said, barely hiding the smirk that wanted to appear.

"If anything, that my ATA ability was designed would make me highly valuable in terms of gene-therapy research," McKay sniffed and then waved a hand. "Whatever, the point is, whoever was so keen on getting their paws on Sheppard likely duplicated more of his picture specifically and handed it out on Istura, with the added bonus of a personalized invitation for a big fat reward in the mother tongue, so to speak, if I can ever find a match on it in the database."

As if summoned by the sheer force of McKay's train of thought, both laptops working on the language identification and translation pinged at nearly the same time, and the scientist spun around on the stool, carefully working his arm back into the sling and stepping over to check each screen.

"Find somethin'?" Ronon prompted first, resisting the impulse to sigh impatiently.

"Yeah..." Rodney murmured, without elaborating at first as he leaned closer and pecked at the keyboard of one of the laptops with his good hand. "This is...oh this is so not good," he murmured, and then looked up at his team-mates, who were now watching him expectantly. "According to the translation data, our mystery language appears to be the very old, very obscure written dialect of Istura's religious class."

"Sounds good enough to me," Ronon enthused. "Weir'll have to let us go."

"I repeat; not good," Rodney repeated with a shake of his head. "The language is a match but its base elements break down not into some theme or variation of Ancient, but into a distinctive code. A Wraith code."

"Wraith?" Teyla echoed, trading anxious looks with Ronon. "What would the Isturans have to do with the Wraith?"

"I'm sure I don't want to know," Rodney replied with a grimace. "But this is some pretty old reference material. A lot can change in ten-thousand years. Maybe there was a connection but it's more than possible it doesn't exist anymore, or maybe their high priesthood thought this would make a suitably obscure language for their so-called sacred texts or something."

"Or they're traitors," Ronon interjected disgustedly, his expression a reflection of his tone and his bearing as tense as anything Rodney had ever seen from him. "Either way, we gotta go back. If you're right, they took Sheppard. And they know about Atlantis."

"If I'm right...?"

"Ronon is correct; either way, we cannot risk the Wraith discovering that the city still exists," Teyla added, her tone urgent. "Come, we must take this information to Elizabeth."

Rodney handed the pictures to Teyla. "You two take the information to Elizabeth. Somebody should...I should stay here and keep working." He glanced between his two team-mates and hunched his shoulders. "I mean, seriously, I would love to go...beat the answers out of the Isturan Council with you and all, but saving Sheppard would be much better served by my staying here and helping Carson research that toxin."

"You should stay with Sheppard," Ronon agreed with a slight nod.

"Really?" Rodney blinked, having almost expected some resistance. "I mean, I know we want to get to the bottom of this, but what good will it be if Sheppard's dead by the time we figure it all out?"

"Yes, indeed," Teyla agreed as she took the pictures from the scientist. "It is important that we all do what we can to bring John completely back to us."

"Good...okay...that's good," Rodney muttered as he perched upon the stool once more, facing the laptop that was carrying on the search of the medical database. Carefully easing his arm back out of the sling, he cautiously began typing with both hands again.

"Good luck, McKay," Ronon intoned from the doorway as he followed Teyla out. Rodney glanced up and nodded slightly.

"You too."


John woke up in near-darkness and for a brief, disoriented moment felt a bloom of panic in his chest when he didn't know where he was. Aches and pains spoke the loudest in the dim lighting and for a moment he was back in Afghanistan, feeling the after-effects of a beating at the hands of Taliban militants. His heart hammered hard in his chest, making his headache spike and prompting a groan. Then he realized he was lying on a fairly comfortable bed with clean sheets, a warm blanket and a couple rather soft pillows...Infirmary, he told himself. His eyes adjusting to the dusky light, he cautiously shifted a little, unsurprised to see a nurse quickening her pace toward him.

"Colonel Sheppard?" she murmured quietly, and John recognized her as the nurse who had put the EEG pads on him however long ago. "You all right, sir?" She was already checking over the IV and the various monitors. He took note of her demeanor and the 'sir' with which she'd addressed him.

"Lieutenant?" he hazarded a hopeful guess, pleased to find his voice sounding, if not stronger, at least a little less hoarse. The nurse—a redhead, no less—smiled at him cheerfully.

"Not anymore, Sir," she answered him. "Just made Captain last month...you pinned the bars on me yourself just a couple days before..." She cleared her throat, and made notations in his chart. "It was really nice, you know, and I didn't really get a good chance to thank you for putting me up for promotion."

"Don't think I've got anyplace to go," John kidded, but knew the light teasing wasn't fooling her; the tired drawl he seemed to have permanently adopted completely ruining the effect. The nurse smiled anyway.

"Well then, I guess this is the perfect opportunity," she said in kind. "Thank you, Colonel, for putting me up for promotion."

"You're welcome," John replied as genially as he could under his current circumstances. "I'm sure I'll remember...eventually...all the details of your...exemplary service and all that. Captain...?" His good hand motioned slightly, prompting a response.

"Noble, Sir. Captain Marlene Noble. But most people call me 'Marley,'" the nurse filled in, and John nodded slightly in acknowledgement. "Can I get you anything, Colonel?" she asked solicitously.

"Doctor Beckett still on duty?" John wondered aloud, and 'Marley' shook her head.

"We made him take a break. Doctor Suhaila's just come on shift, though. I can get her if you need..."

"No, that's okay," John reassured her and took a careful breath.

"Are you sure?" Marley watched him closely. "You look a little shaky, sir, and Doctor Suhaila is just over..."

John squeezed his eyes closed briefly as the headache pulsed through his temples, reminding him of its presence, and then he forced them open, giving his caretaker a cautious smile. "Just a dream, Captain. I'm...a little thirsty. If I could..." Giving her something to do, it seemed, was the best way to change the subject.

"Certainly," Marley responded and poured a little water from a pitcher on a nearby tray table. Parking a straw into the cup, she brought it close for John to sip from the liquid within.

"Thanks," John murmured and leaned his head back cautiously and wearily into the pillows.

"I'll just be across the way if you need anything, Sir," the nurse promised as she set the cup aside. "Try to go back to sleep."

John squinted a little; was she kidding? The low bass note that had throbbed its way through his brain now seemed to be...vibrating through the rest of him. He didn't know how else to explain it but it was as if it was all around him, now, beating at his body and mind, a distorted thrumming that, while making him weary beyond belief, at this moment was unlikely to let him go back to sleep.

"Okay," he mumbled, probably a little insincerely, but he did close his eyes. Unbidden, a shiver traveled through him and he grunted at the soreness it produced in various places, but then it continued, becoming a series of uncomfortable chills that swept through him and he tugged at the blanket with his good hand.

"Are you cold, Colonel?" Marley was back, and John realized at some point he must've zoned out, because he hadn't been aware of her return. Her blue eyes were somewhat round in a disbelieving expression. After a moment of hazy blinking, John realized the nurse was slightly sweating; she pushed aside strands of red hair plastered to her forehead.

"Little...little bit," John murmured groggily. Despite himself, he shivered again and groaned as it swept fresh discomfort through him. Marley shook her head slightly.

"It's really warm in here," she commented as she retrieved a thermometer. "Just let me take your temperature, Sir." She inserted the plastic tip into John's ear and he obediently held still. The small beep, beep seemed almost unnaturally loud with the thumping rhythm carrying on in his head and he cringed. "One-oh-oh, even; it's barely a fever, Colonel." Marley offered him a reassuring smile. "If you really want, though, I can get you another blanket." John nodded a little, closing his eyes.

"Thanks," he mumbled as, a few moments later, he felt another of the deceptively light Infirmary blankets being layered over him.

"You're welcome, Sir," Marley said softly. "There's a visitor here for you." John cracked his eyes open. "Just a few minutes, okay?" the nurse was saying. "He really needs his rest."

When the nurse stepped aside to go back to whatever she'd been doing earlier, John blinked in surprise to see a small boy edging closer to his bedside, eyes wide with worry. The face wasn't any more familiar than anyone else's around here, but the clear concern in the child's eyes was enough to make him dredge up a smile from somewhere and try to ignore his various hurts.

"Hello, Colonel Sheppard," the boy said uncertainly but before John could ask the kid's name or try to figure out how he knew the little guy, his gaze was drawn to a rather tall man just stepping up behind the child, a broad hand coming to rest on the boy's shoulder.

"Wickley wished to come see you before we returned...home," the man said, and his voice was calm, and kindly. There was something odd in his way of speaking; not an accent necessarily so much as a tone of formality. John blinked up at him a little before nodding his acceptance. He was a little startled as small fingers wrapped around his hand and shifted his attention back to Wickley.

"Careful of the IV, buddy," he warned first as he carefully shifted his hand a little; Wickley let go immediately but John reached up to take the smaller hand in his palm. "There, like that's good," he said, and offered the boy another smile. Wickley looked up at the tall man; perhaps his father, although John couldn't see the resemblance, personally. Tall Guy nodded a bit and Wickley turned back to John.

"Are you feeling better?" Wickley asked outright, and from the flicker of the boy's eyes, John could tell that the kid was trying not to overtly stare at the mottled bruises, the proliferation of medical equipment or the cast on his left arm. "Doctor McKay said you had a...really bad headache, and Halling says because you were hurt, you have forgotten...things." John swallowed a little; the throbbing in his head joined by a brief clench of nausea, the latter feeding off the former along with a touch of nervousness at how to answer the child holding his hand.

"It'll be all right," he reassured first, squeezing the smaller hand and trying not to wince at the slight tug on the IV that produced. "They're takin' really good care of me, and they're gonna help me get better and remember stuff. So don't worry, okay?" He did his best to hold Wickley's gaze.

"Okay," Wickley said softly but to John's mind he looked unconvinced. He had to admit that, in Wickley's place, he'd be a little skeptical too, given what he must look like right now. John offered another small smile.

"I know it looks pretty bad," he said carefully. "And I won't lie to you; it doesn't feel so good either. But Doctor Beckett's gonna make sure I'm okay, and he gave me some medicine to help me feel better."

"You promised to teach us how to play football," Wickley's voice was very soft now but the look on his face very hopeful, and John wondered briefly what he'd gotten himself into. He was saved from answering by the tall man, who squeezed Wickley's shoulder slightly.

"You must be patient, Wickley," he said firmly but not unkindly. "It will take much time and rest for Colonel Sheppard to be well again. When that is achieved, then we will see what he says about teaching you and your friends about this football."

"Sounds...like a plan...to me," John murmured, nodding thankfully to the tall guy before giving Wickley a reassuring, albeit tired, wink.

"You will not forget again?" Wickley asked carefully, wide eyes blinking back unwanted tears.

"Hey...hey," John let go of the boy's hand, reaching up to pat Wickley's upper arm gently. "I promise, Wickley. I'm not gonna forget about you, buddy." He hoped using the child's name would help reinforce his intent. "All right then... You trust me, now?"

Wickley nodded, and despite the worried look, smiled a little.

"Come, now, Wickley," the Tall Guy cajoled gently. "It is time to go. Colonel Sheppard needs rest, and so do you. Your family is waiting to see you."

Wickley looked up over his shoulder and nodded, before leveling the most serious gaze he could muster at John. "I am sorry you were hurt so much," he declared solemnly. "I hope you will be well again soon."

"Me too," John agreed wholeheartedly. "Workin' on it."

Tall Guy murmured something to Wickley about waiting for him in the outer area of the Infirmary; the boy nodded obediently, and quietly slipped away. "Thank you for those few minutes, Colonel," he said warmly. "I know you do not remember us, but like Wickley, many of our children on the mainland have come to care a great deal for you."

"Seems like...a good kid," John observed tiredly; he was coming to the end of his endurance for this visit. "He your son? Uhm...?"

"I am Halling," the man said with a slight cant of his head. "And no, Wickley is not my son. I am merely here to bring him home to his family."

"Pleased to...meet you," John breathed out; the effort to speak draining as well as adding to the throb in his head and, it seemed, to the general soreness of his body. His eyelids betrayed his will as they dipped lower despite a willingness to continue the conversation. Any little nugget that might trigger his wayward memories was appreciated. Obviously he was on friendly and familiar terms with these two, and he wouldn't mind a little more time to try to unearth the history. Halling certainly wasn't the military type; true, he carried himself with the unassuming air of someone who'd had a hard life and was familiar with hard work, yet with gentleness that spoke of something more aesthetic, perhaps even spiritual. It was a curious combination of personality elements.

A combination that John's sluggish brain would have to ponder later; where he hadn't believed sleep all that possible earlier, now with or without his permission his body seemed determined to return to it despite the nagging, gnawing ache. Halling was saying something, taking his leave, but John couldn't quite bring himself to respond, eyelids slipping completely closed. It occurred to him vaguely, just before sleep claimed him completely, that where he'd been chilled before, he now felt as if he was dragging in ninety-degree heat.

Then it didn't matter anymore.


"Radek," Elizabeth looked up expectantly from her desk. "What can you tell me?" Her tone was just as expectant, and the Czech grimaced briefly.

"Not nearly enough," he prefaced before stating flatly, "Put simply, Atlantis' systems are inexplicably failing. It is only a matter of time before the city is completely incapacitated."

"Failing?" Weir echoed as she leaned sharply back in her chair, stunned. "I don't understand; failing how? Is there something wrong with the ZPM?"

"No, it's not a power issue, at least, not as far as availability. The ZPM and the naquadah generators are perfectly intact," Zelenka explained with a helpless shake of his head. "But for reasons we don't understand, the city is slowly losing its ability to maintain power levels necessary to operate properly. So far only basic systems have been affected, but eventually it will spread to far more critical functions. As yet, city-wide diagnostics have failed to reveal any equipment malfunctions or integrity issues that could cause or contribute to the problem."

"You're right," Elizabeth agreed as she folded her arms. "It's not enough. We need options, Radek."

"I have, however, been examining the various power fluctuations and system failures from the first confirmed reports," Zelenka continued, pushing his glasses up as he spoke. "While the initial occurrences seemed quite random...lights, environmental systems...they have in fact settled into an almost predictable pattern now."

Weir leaned forward once again, her attention fixed on the Czech. "So...what does that give us?"

"Until we can discover the source of the trouble, again not much," Radek admitted. "But it appears, we think, that Atlantis is gradually initiating a...type of emergency hibernation mode, not unlike when we first arrived, really, except..." Zelenka trailed off uncertainly and glanced aside.

"Except what? Radek?" Weir prompted.

"Except this time, we don't know why; perhaps it is some sort of automatic backup but we don't know what initiated it. And I'm not at all sure we'll be able to reestablish the city's power grid. There has been damage done to several of the underlying secondary systems during the various shutdowns. If Atlantis' primary systems fail completely, it may become permanent, irreversible damage." He cleared his throat nervously. "We would effectively lose the city."

Elizabeth exhaled sharply, and after a moment, nodded reluctantly. "I'll get Rodney to join you on this," she declared, but before she could as much as reach for her earpiece, she realized her doorway was being filled by a tall, agitated Satedan. "Ronon?"

"They were working with the Wraith," Ronon growled unhappily, once again dropping the Genii picture of Sheppard onto her desk. "McKay says that," he pointed to the particular line of writing, "proves it."

"What?" Elizabeth exclaimed, startled. "Who was working with the Wraith?" Behind Ronon, Teyla stepped into the office, calm and collected as ever, except for a barely perceptible tension in her stance.

"Rodney deciphered the various languages represented here," the Athosian explained in more detail. "The one Ronon pointed out to you is a variation of a Wraith code, and it is employed by the Isturans." Teyla paused only briefly before continuing. "If the Wraith become aware of Atlantis' continued existence..."

"We gotta go back there and find out what those people know," Ronon stated simply, shoulders bunched with barely restrained anger as he leaned down, palms flat on her desk. "Whether you want us to or not, I'm goin'."

"And I am going with him," Teyla declared, her expression becoming grim and determined. "We must learn the truth behind Colonel Sheppard's capture. For his sake as much as our own."

"Sheppard's runnin' outta time," Ronon pushed away from Elizabeth's desk and nodded vaguely past his shoulder, indicating the Infirmary beyond. "You know what McKay and Beckett said; that drug's messing with his brain. If the Wraith had somethin' to do with it..." The Satedan shook his head vehemently and turned away.

"Ronon, wait," Elizabeth called after the tall fighter as he started for the door, presumably to carry out his intentions.

"I'm done waiting," Ronon said, although he did stop walking and turned just enough to look at her.

"I know it's been a difficult time for you," Elizabeth stated as she pushed up from her chair. Coming around her desk, she crossed over to stand in front of the taller man. A heartbeat passed between them before he looked down at her directly, but he said nothing. "Believe me; it hasn't been easy on any of us. I know I can't stop you from leaving Atlantis, but if you were determined to go regardless of what I had to say, you wouldn't be here right now asking my approval for this mission."

She watched as the Satedan shifted his stance, eyeing her frankly.

"So...?" Ronon prompted impatiently.

"So give me a chance to weigh the information and make the decision you came here for," she said firmly, not backing away from his gaze. She held the silence a moment longer. "I happen to agree with you. We need to know if the Wraith—or the Genii, for that matter—were involved in what happened to John. Now that you've established the probable involvement of the Isturans beyond a simple hunch, that's good enough for me."

Elizabeth could feel his eyes on her as she turned around and headed back toward her desk.

"So you're gonna let us go?" Ronon faced Elizabeth once again, but he was still in the doorframe.

"Yes," Weir answered as she settled back into her chair and then looked up at the Satedan. "I am...along with a team of Marines."

"Doctor Weir?" Radek spoke up from where he'd remained, pushing his glasses up nervously. "That could potentially be a problem. The Gate hasn't been affected by the system failures yet, but it is only a matter of time before it..."

"It's workin' now?" Ronon asked flatly, pinning the shorter Czech to the wall with a blunt stare.

"Well, yes, at the moment the DHD and the Gate are still drawing power; it's my estimation the Gate would be one of the last..."

"Then we go," Ronon shrugged.

"We could lose power to the Gate while you're offworld," Radek replied evenly.

"If that happens," Elizabeth interjected, "and you run into trouble, we won't be able to help you."

"Perhaps it would be better, then," Teyla intervened, "if Ronon and I were to depart immediately, before the opportunity is lost." She glanced at Radek before continuing. "If the need arises, we can gate to the Alpha site until the problem here is resolved."

Weir exhaled slowly as she leaned forward on the desk, lacing her fingers together in a deliberate manner. "I'd prefer if you waited for that team of Marines," she said first, before looking up at Sheppard's team-mates. "We spent three weeks searching for John, not even knowing if he was still alive. I'd rather not spend another three weeks doing the same for you."

"You won't," Ronon reassured steadily, arms folded across his chest. "And if this is Wraith, and they're plannin' somethin', better for Atlantis if your people are here to defend it." He glanced over at Radek, and the Czech cleared his throat slightly.

"There's no reason—yet—to believe the Wraith know the city survived. Long range sensors are still active at this point; they're clear," Zelenka provided without being asked aloud. "No sign of Wraith activity anywhere in the vicinity. Like the Gate, I imagine the sensors would be one of the last systems to be affected."

"If you must send others with us," Teyla addressed Elizabeth once again, "Consider the offer my people have made to help gather information. They will be discreet, and have many contacts that would be willing to aid us should it prove necessary to pursue the search beyond the Isturans."

Elizabeth pursed her lips thoughtfully as she regarded the Athosian leader; her eyes narrowing slightly as she recalled her earlier discussion out on the balcony. Had that really only been a few hours ago? "Halling did speak to me about his desire—about the Athosian desire—to help John by contributing to the investigation into his kidnapping."

"I am certain he will have an able group readied within the hour to depart for Istura," Teyla asserted.

Weir exhaled slowly and reached up to rub her forehead briefly. In her head she could already hear what would normally be the expected protest from John Sheppard regarding the safety of the civilians under the city's protection. However, Sheppard wasn't in a position to make that protest, and there was a certain validity to keeping the Marines in Atlantis should the Wraith learn the city still existed and execute some sort of attack. Besides the fact that Halling had also made a point...it would go a long way to healing past trust issues, plus the Athosians still knew their way around Pegasus a lot more than the Lantean expedition.

"Very well," Elizabeth rubbed the back of her neck now but met Teyla's gaze. "I don't believe the pilot that brought Halling over from the mainland has taken him back yet; I'll have the lieutenant report here and take you to the mainland. Gather what help you'll need, and then he'll pilot the jumper to Istura. That way, you'll have a protected escape through the Gate, if that becomes necessary. Hopefully it won't."

"Thank you, Doctor Weir," Teyla replied with a slight nod. "We will return as quickly as possible." Taking Ronon in with a glance, the Athosian strode quickly from Elizabeth's office with the intention of preparing for their return to Istura. Elizabeth turned her gaze to Ronon as well, and was surprised when the Satedan also inclined his head to her, an approving expression in the forbidding features before he turned in silent, fluid motion to follow after his team-mate.

"Good luck," Weir murmured softly as she watched their retreat through the operations area, and then sat back with a breath as she realized Zelenka was still there, datapad in hand. She held the Czech's gaze as she activated her earpiece and summoned McKay.

Ronon and Teyla weren't the only ones in need of some good luck.