By: Kashkow

Author's note: This Fic is set somewhere in the second or early third season. Since I STILL haven't seen all of the third season (Curses upon the SCI FI Channel!) I may be stomping on some cannon toes, but then I have never let that stop me. Welcome to my universe, where Shep is mine and mine alone. Off to the whumping! I don't own them, mores the pity. Special thanks to Sheppardster, my beta for this fiction. I give her even more special appreciation since she overcame not only my horrifying grammar and spelling mistakes, but also that incredible gulf between American and U.K. English. Any remaining mistakes are my own.

Chapter 1-

Specialist Ronon Dex was leaning indolently against the giant circle that the people that had become known as the Lanteans called the Stargate. His own people had called it the Ring of the Ancestors. Whatever name you called it, it was a fascinating device. He didn't know how it worked, and really didn't care to find out, though one certain person insisted on telling him about it on a regular basis. As far as he was concerned as long as it worked, that was all that was important.

It wasn't working right now because that same certain person had yet to make an appearance even though it had been made clear that the mission was to start at 0700 Atlantis time. Unfortunately that time had come and gone without any sign of Dr. Rodney McKay, Astrophysicist, Chief Science Officer of Atlantis, and self-proclaimed expert on just about everything. The rest of the SGA1 team had all been ready. Ronon had actually been early, ready to get out into the field again after a two-week break in their regular off world schedule.

The reason they had been 'grounded', as another member of the team called it, for the past two weeks was leaning on the other side of the Stargate, looking as calm and collected as Ronon was looking bored. Teyla Emmagen was not one easily upset by much of anything. She was a beautiful woman by any standard, but Ronon had ample proof that she was as deadly as she was beautiful. She was a native of the planet Athos, and had from a child, been taught to defend herself and her people from all dangers, including the top predator in the Pegasus Galaxy, the Wraith. It was in fact when they were fighting said menace, that Teyla had been injured two weeks previously. Even wounded however, she had managed to dispatch the Wraith that had injured her and had joined their escape from Px3-9856 under her own power. Dr. Beckett, the Chief Medical Officer, had refused to let her go back out until her wound had shown sufficient signs of healing. Of the four team members, Teyla herself had taken the inactivity best, calmly meditating or practicing her stick fighting with only one arm.

The forth team member, Lt Colonel John Sheppard, who was also military commander of Atlantis, had been as bored as Ronon, but had things to keep him busy. Paperwork it seemed was universal. He also had many responsibilities as second in command of the Earther's mission here to Atlantis. That hadn't stopped him from running and sparring daily with Ronon, stick fighting with Teyla, or harassing McKay.

Sheppard and McKay were a combination that had often puzzled Ronon when he had first come to Atlantis. They were two very different men: one a scientist, one military. They were physical as well as temperamental opposites. However, at some deeper level, Ronon had seen that the two were actually alike. They bickered and argued like an old married couple, and played 'practical jokes' on each other almost constantly. These jokes always seemed to result in public humiliation or some sort of mess. But as time had gone by and Ronon had watched the two together, he had come to realize that like the Stargate, he didn't have to know why something worked to know that it was a good thing. He could do with less of the bickering, but if that was the price he had to pay for working with these men, and with Teyla, then so be it, they were his team. Ronon was jolted from contemplating his teammates by the sound of sputtering coming from the corridor leading into the gate room. Voices echoed down the hallway.

"Jeez, Rodney, have you been hitting the chocolate or something? I'm gonna tell Ronon to haul your ass out of bed for a run each morning. At this rate if we ever have to evac you from a planet, we're gonna need them to bring a jumper and a full squad."

"Very funny! It is to laugh. Now if you are done with your macho, Neanderthal posturing, I would appreciate it if you would PUT ME DOWN!"

"You had your opportunity to get here under your own steam, McKay. I told you what was going to happen if you were late again. Hell, you're lucky I didn't send Ronon. He wouldn't have let you get dressed before he hauled you out." Ronon smiled. That was true.

"Could you at least let me put my boots on, damn it!"

"Plenty of time for that later. People are waiting." The voices were growing closer, and the people at the control panels had heard them. Dr. Elizabeth Weir, leader of the Earth mission rolled her eyes and motioned Teyla and Ronon away from the gate. Once they had moved she nodded to the man at the DHD. The Stargate began its dialing sequence, and completed the process just as John Sheppard stepped into the gate room.

The tall military man, wearing his customary black uniform, had the forth member of his team slung over one shoulder in a fireman's carry, and was carrying a pair of boots in his free hand. They made an odd picture, but it didn't seem to faze Sheppard as he approached the gate. He didn't seem to be bothered by the additional weight, a fact that Ronon attributed to his strict physical training. The Colonel had been in good shape when he had come here, but is in even better shape now. Sheppard nodded his head at his pack that he had left at Ronon's feet earlier when he had gone in search of their errant scientist.

"Can you get that, big guy?" he asked.

Ronon nodded and picked up the pack, hiding his grin when McKay let out a yelp as Sheppard turned sharply around and looked at Weir. "SGA1 ready to embark, ma'am. Better late than never. That's our new motto. We're getting t-shirts done next week."

Weir made a valiant attempt not to smile at her military commander's antics, but failed miserably. Her eyes were twinkling as she gave her typical blessing on the mission. "Be safe."

Sheppard gave her a wounded look.

"We're always careful. It's true that Teyla is a bit accident prone, but we try to cover for her." he said seriously. Then with a grin and a wave of the boots in his free hand, he spun and was through the wormhole without another word. Rodney, hanging from his back, was in the middle of a protest as he went through the event horizon. Teyla and Ronon exchanged tolerant glances and followed their teammates. Once they were through, the wormhole shut down.

In the suddenly quiet gate room the gate tech looked up at Weir. "Well at least it's never boring." he said. She shook her head with a smile and headed to her office to get started on the day's paperwork.

Chapter 2-

When Ronon and Teyla stepped out the other side of the wormhole Sheppard was standing near the DHD, one hand on his P90 and scanning the area. McKay was sitting on the steps leading up to the Stargate, tying his boots. He was not doing it quietly. As the Stargate disengaged he was complaining about a late night call regarding one of the Naquadah generators and the mess hall. He finished tying his shoes and marched over to Sheppard and without a word, opened one of the small pockets on the colonel's tac vest. He took out a power bar and ripped the wrapping off, stuffing half of the bar into his mouth.

Sheppard gave him a nasty look and closed the pocket back up. His two teammates knew that he intentionally stocked his vest with extra bars for McKay who tended to suffer with Hypoglycemia if he didn't eat regularly. With a roll of his eyes at the scientist, Sheppard nodded his head toward the village that was visible about a mile away. Even from this distance they could see that the streets were packed with people and there were colorful banners flying. Music could be heard as well as shouts of laughter that carried on the breeze.

"You didn't say that we were coming during a holiday, Teyla. Think they'll mind us dropping in?" He asked the Athosian who had come here before with her father.

She shrugged, a puzzled frown on her face. "I have never known the Elasians to have such a celebration at this time. All that I have seen have been simple harvest festivals in the fall, and certainly never with so many people. The whole town held only a few hundred people when my father and I last visited over ten years ago."

"I don't suppose the birth rate really kicked up since then." Sheppard said with some trepidation. There were few truly thriving planets in the Pegasus Galaxy. The Wraith had harvested the planets barely twenty years before, and had gone into hibernation to allow their 'livestock' to breed itself back to a point where the feeding would be good enough for all of the hives. John himself had inadvertently wakened the Wraith early, and so it was much more common to find villages that were completely emptied rather than ones overflowing with people. And there were even fewer reasons for wild celebrations. It was vaguely disquieting.

"Maybe there's some kind of cyclic thing that Teyla and her father just never happened to see. Maybe people come from all over to join in and that's why there is such a crowd. Maybe this whole mission is going to turn out to be good food, nice people, and an easy time of it for once. Why do you people all look for trouble everywhere?" This came from McKay who had finished the power bar. His teammates stared at him. "What?"

"Don't tell me I gotta start checking the lower sections for pods now. That'll be the straw that broke the camel's back. Who are you and what have you done with the real Rodney McKay?" Sheppard quipped.

"Oh, ha-ha. I am simply saying that there is no reason to go in there 'loaded for bear' and looking for trouble. They are having a party. Let's go in with a party attitude." He attempted an upbeat happy look, and only succeeded in looking like he had to use the bathroom.

Sheppard shook his head and slipped on his sunglasses. He now had another insight about McKay's lack of social smarts. He suspected that parties had been few and far between for the scientist, and supposed that those he had attended had not been all that much fun, at least not for Rodney. He decided to play along with Rodney's attempt at lightheartedness however.

"Okay everyone, we're crashing the party. Stay in pairs and if we get separated, stay in radio contact. We're looking for the Mayor or the Headman, or the Chief, or whatever he or she is called here. If you find him or her, let me know. We probably aren't gonna get much negotiation done with all that going on, but at least we can introduce ourselves. Our check in is in two hours. We'll meet back here in an hour and fifty minutes. Understood?"

With everyone's nod they started toward the town. Sheppard took his pack from Ronon and slipped it on so that the ex-runner could have his hands free. They might be going to a party, but caution was still the watchword.

They were only about a hundred yards from the village when a small flying object approached them at high speed from the village. Ronon's pistol was out and pointed at it before it could come to a halt twenty feet in front of them and about ten feet off the ground. He was about to fire when Sheppard spoke.

"Don't!" Sheppard knew that the first thought that had gone through Ronon's mind had been that the object was a Wraith scout, but this thing was completely different from the scouts they had seen before. This was a sort of modified mini-helicopter, with a circular body and three rotors. Inside the circle was mounted a clear globe that resembled nothing so much as a giant eyeball. As they watched, the eyeball turned as if it was looking at each of them, and Sheppard got the distinct impression that they were being scanned, or at the very least observed.

He looked at McKay who was staring at the object in fascination.

"Any ideas, Rodney?" he asked.

McKay shot him a nasty look.

"Despite what you might think, I cannot just pull answers out of the air. It's obviously some sort of observation machine, not Wraith technology, and definitely not Ancient. It is certainly more sophisticated than I would have thought the people who built that," he waved a hand at the nearby houses of rough wood and thatch, "could build." As he spoke Rodney had been digging a scanner out of his vest which he now pointed at the machine.

"The Elasians have no such machinery. In fact they usually shun such things in favor of the old ways. My father told me that some of the older Elasians would not even touch items that had been found in the ancient outposts."

"I say we just shoot it." Ronon said, gun still in his hand. As he did the machine backed up another ten feet and rose five more feet up. The team swapped glances.

"Okay…so we know it can hear, or that whoever is operating it can hear and understand." Let's see if it can talk." He stepped forward, one hand on his P90. "I'm Lt Colonel John Sheppard. This is Teyla Emmagen, Rodney McKay, and Ronon Dex. We're here to see your leader or leaders about setting up some trading. We mean no harm, and our weapons are for defense. We don't want to interrupt the party so we can come back if this isn't a good time." The machine hovered for several moments then there was a whirring sound, and a voice that sounded like a game show announcer's issued from the globe.

"Congratulations! You are the last of the four teams to qualify for the games. Your names: Lt Colonel John Sheppard, Teyla Emmagen, Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex, are recorded as team members. All members have been scanned and filed. There can be no substitutions. You may retrieve your information packet and lodging information at the information booth in the village square. Please report at the stated time to the assignment booth for individual game registration. Again, congratulations!" The strange object dipped and then raced away toward the village.

"Does anyone understand what just happened?" Sheppard asked. The others shook their heads. "Oh good, I thought it was just me."

"It sounded as if we've been signed up for something, some kind of games it said." Ronon offered. He didn't holster his gun. He just dropped his hand down to his side.

"Yeah, that's what I got out of it. Are you getting anything interesting, Rodney?"

McKay was fiddling with the detector. "The readings are very strange. There is definitely several low level energy sources in the village, and one bigger one on the outskirts of the south side of the village, opposite where we are now."

"A ZPM?" Teyla asked. She could not imagine where such an item would have come from, but stranger things had happened in the last two years.

Rodney however, was shaking his head.

"No, it's not anywhere near that level. In fact I would say it is somewhere around Earth level of energy output, maybe even a little more. There are also some interesting readings coming from the middle of the town. We need to go take a look, Colonel." Sheppard glanced at his watch. They had just over an hour and a half before the scheduled check-in. He motioned to Teyla and Ronon.

"You two go on into the town. See if you can find out who's in charge and what is going on. McKay and I will circle around to the larger energy source and see if we can get a look at it. Two clicks every five minutes for contact, and let's keep it to a minimum on the radio in case they can tap our communications." The two Pegasus Galaxy natives nodded their understanding and started for the village. The other two headed at right angles to their course and Sheppard broke into a jog.

McKay scowled after him then started running along behind.

"Why do we have to do everything double time? I didn't see you making Conan and Xena run." he huffed. In the front Sheppard smiled. They probably didn't need to hurry, but getting McKay's goat was worth the effort.

"Both Teyla and Ronon could run you into the ground. Besides they only have a couple of hundred yards to go; We have to circle the village, that means that we need to go faster to get to where we need to go in the same amount of time. Were you sleeping that day in Math?"

"Oh you are just mister funny today. It's good to see that someone got a good night's sleep while the rest of us slaved over a hot Naquadah generator all night. Maybe if I had the benefit of say, four hours of uninterrupted sleep, I too would be perky and happy. Oh wait; I didn't get that, did I? Guess I get to be cranky."

"Oh suck it up, Rodney. You always say you never sleep anyway. What's one night?" They were halfway around the village, making good time on a nice path.

"ONE night? Let's see. Last night it was the mess hall, the night before that it was the waste recyclers for half of the personnel quarters and the night before that it was the heaters in the lab section. I'm beginning to wonder if ancient technology only breaks down at night." Rodney was about to go on when Sheppard sank to a crouch and held up a fist. Over two years of missions had taught the scientist well, and he found himself crouched behind Sheppard with whatever he was going to say stilled in his throat. He craned his neck to see what Sheppard was looking at through the bushes and gasped.

"When the hell did we end up in a Flash Gordon serial?" Sheppard said, looking in wonder at the long silver spaceships that sat in the open area before them. They were shaped like the traditional rocket ships of the early space serials, and even had the fins. Like the ships of the black and white movies, they were standing upright on their fins with a flight of stairs leading up to a hatch. Compared to the Wraith ships, the Ancient's warships they had seen and the Daedalus, the ships were almost pitifully lame. As they watched one of the helicopter/globe things approached one of the ships and was allowed entrance through a small hatch near the bow of the ship.

"What do we do now? Go up and knock and wait for Gort to answer the door?" McKay asked as he got out his scanner and started studying the readings. "This is the larger source of power, though I am still getting smaller readings from the village. I think some of them might be more of those 'globey things'."

"'Globey things'?" Sheppard asked with a smile. "Okay, you don't get to name things anymore, either" The smile dropped off his face as he realized what he had said, and who he had last said it to. The loss of Ford, the possible loss of Ford, on that hive ship was something that still burned in Sheppard's gut. He saw the understanding in McKay's eyes as he looked up from the scanner, and turned to study the ship. He shook his head in answer to the question.

"I don't see any reason to go knocking now. According to Teyla, this isn't anything that the natives would have, so that means other visitors. Maybe that's what's with the hoopla in the village. Let's go see what's going on there and maybe we can get a tour later." He stood and moved back toward the village. McKay took one last look at the ships and followed.

They were soon at the edge of the village, and moving among the people who were obviously in a party mood. Booths had been set up with food and goods, and the two men could see that many of the people that were in the streets were probably not natives of this planet. The types of clothing varied radically from homespun simplicity to wildly colored machine made polyester materials. As McKay stopped at a food booth, eyes lighting with interest at the smells coming from within, Sheppard grabbed his arm and tugged him forward. McKay was starting to complain when the comm. beeped and Teyla's voice came over the frequency.

"Colonel, I think that you should come here to the village square. I am afraid that there has been a misunderstanding."

"Oh, what did Ronon do now?" McKay said snarkily. There was a growl over the radio that indicated that the ex-runner had been listening. McKay looked warily around as if to make sure that the larger man was not nearby.

"Ronon has done nothing." Teyla reported in that patient voice she used when faced with the immaturity of her teammates. "It seems that we have arrived at a…very unusual time, and circumstances have combined to place us in a…position that I am unsure of." Sheppard frowned. The idea of a situation that puzzled a diplomat of Teyla's experience was not one he really wanted to be in.

"We'll be in there in a minute. Going is a little slow in the streets. Have you all noticed that there seems to be a lot of visitors here?" Another of the globes whipped by followed closely by yet another that broke off and headed down a small side street. Sheppard followed its flight with his eyes. "And a lot of those…'globey things'." He grimaced at McKay's look of triumph in his direction. He could almost hear Teyla's eyebrow rising.

"'Globey things'?" she asked. He could hear Ronon's snort of amusement.

"Hey, it's not my fault! Blame McKay. Those flying things that we met on the road coming into town." As he spoke they emerged into what he assumed was the town square. A large expanse of open space crowded with people and pavilions met their eyes.

Sheppard, finding himself taller than most of the people, scanned the crowd looking for Ronon who would stand out in almost any crowd. He spotted the Satedan near one of the pavilions, and headed that way, McKay following behind. Predictably the ex-runner spotted them soon after and said something to someone that Sheppard could not see through the crowd, and he assumed that Teyla was there as well.

They were soon together and Sheppard glanced at his watch to make sure that they still had time to get back for the check in with Atlantis before he looked at Teyla for an explanation. The Athosian woman drew them aside into a small alcove where they had some degree of privacy, something that was not easy with all the people around.

"I have some disturbing news, Colonel." she said seriously.

"Okaaay." Sheppard drawled with a wary look around. "You're starting to freak me out a little here. What's the bad news?"

"Ronon and I have spoken with several people here and have found out the reason for the celebration. It seems that the Elasians are hosting the party for the people of the neighboring planet. Because the Stargate is here, and there is no other in the system, the people of that planet travel here to use the Stargate and to meet with trading partners. However they do not trade with just anyone. They are very peculiar (or particular?) about picking their trading partners. They put them to a test."

"What kind of test, and just what are they trading that everyone is willing to jump through the hoops to get?" Sheppard asked.

"The test takes the form of a series of games. The prospective traders form a team of their most able people and participate. The Farlians, the people from the next planet, observe how the game is played, and who the winner is, then make their decision on the worthiness of the players. They feel that there are certain traits that are revealed in the playing that otherwise would not be seen until it is too late, should they simply take people at their face value."

"Boy, that is kind of…paranoid. They must have really been burned in the past. I wonder if they met the Genii?" Rodney observed with a smirk at Sheppard who nodded in agreement. Teyla continued.

"They do this once every five years, and chose only one trading partner out of a maximum of four groups. They also…'broadcast' the games to their people, as a form of entertainment using the...'globey things'. It seems to be much as your television and football. It is quite the occasion for them, and that is why they have persuaded the Elasians to let them use their town for the initial celebration. The games themselves take place off world, or on the outskirts of the village, and are recorded so that all can watch. There are viewing areas set up all around the square already." She indicated several larger pavilions where people were sitting in the shade.

"And why exactly do people want to go to all this trouble? It seems a lot of trouble for a new source of Tava beans or Jaru root." McKay said with a grimace. He had come to hate the Tava beans during the time before they had regained contact with Earth, and he really hoped to never see another preparation of Jaru root in this lifetime.

"That is another reason that I thought you should come as quickly as possible. It seems that the Farlians are well known for trading Ancient technology. They evidently search the galaxy to find Ancestor outposts and then they salvage whatever they can find that is removable. As you know there is a lot of interest in those items that do not require the gene for activation. It seems that to inspire interest in trading they are offering a variety of items to the winner of the games. They are displayed in the tent over there." She indicated a vibrant red tent that stood about twenty yards away.

"One of the things is a ZPM." Ronon said, tired of waiting for Teyla to get to the point. He knew that while the Lanteans would be interested in the Ancestor's machines in any event, it was the ZPM that they really wanted. He knew he was right when McKay practically shoved him aside to start toward the tent. Sheppard reached out and grabbed the scientist before he could get too far however. The soldier looked at Teyla and then Ronon.

"Okay, drop the other boot. You said something about disturbing." He ignored McKay's attempts to escape his hold on his arm as he asked the question. There had to be something else. Teyla nodded.

"Yes, there is, though I do not know about a boot." She frowned, thinking she had missed something, but Sheppard waved his free hand in a way that told her that she had once again ran into one of those strange Earth sayings. She would ask about it later.

"The teams are made up of four people and they have been coming since last night. When we arrived they had three teams already, and had been expecting a fourth team to arrive. When we came they saw us and thought that we were that team."

"And when I said that we wanted to trade…" Sheppard said, seeing where she was going. She nodded again.

"They took that as confirmation that we were indeed the last team, and have signed us up to compete in their games which begin in the morning. To them it is as if they are conferring a great honor to allow a team to compete, and I believe that they will be offended if we tell them that we do not wish to participate. It is never wise to give offense to someone that might have something that you want. I thought it best to confer with you first." Sheppard nodded in agreement.

"You were right. Elizabeth wants us to make as many friends as possible out here, and a race of people with space capability, even if looks like something out of Buck Rogers, would be a definite plus in her book. What do you say we go and take a look at these Ancient devices before Rodney gnaws his arm off to get there?" He let McKay go and indicated for Teyla to lead them toward the tent. He nodded at Ronon to take their six. They had run into too many 'situations' to take anything at face value. There were few people that he felt safer with watching his back, than the ex-runner.

They were soon at the tent, and pushed their way past the crowd of people to reach a table where ten items were laid out in a glass enclosed display case. The item on the end was a ZPM. In seconds McKay was up at that end, his scanner out and his nose almost pressed to the glass. His teammates exchanged amused looks and waited for him to start talking. It was not a long wait.

"Okay. It IS a ZedPM, but it only has about ten percent of its charge left. That being said it could run the less power-intensive systems on Atlantis for about three years. We need to get this." He put his hand against the glass as if he could grasp the prize. A large man standing nearby scowled at him. Ronon, standing next to McKay grabbed his arm and pulled his hand back from the glass, all the while glaring back at the large man.

"I think that they prefer you don't touch." he warned the scientist. Predictably, McKay wasn't listening. He had turned his attention to the other items on the table. His eyes were practically glowing with greed as he looked at a small pyramid shaped item about halfway down the table.

"Where did they find that? I read about it in the database. If we are translating it correctly that should be a…" He yelped as Sheppard stepped on his foot. He glared at the colonel. "What the hell was that for?" Sheppard looked at him sternly.

"Little pitchers have big ears, McKay. Let's keep it on the down low for now if you know what I mean." he hissed, glancing at the big man who had been listening with interest. McKay followed his glance and caught on quickly.

"Oh, well yeah." He looked at the items on display again and sneered. "I guess they are okay. Nothing we couldn't find ourselves if we really wanted to." Sheppard rolled his eyes at the obvious turn around, and looked at his watch. They had fifteen minutes before they had to be back at the Stargate for check in.

"We need to check in with Elizabeth and let her know what we have here. Teyla, why don't you and Ronon try to get some more information on exactly what's expected during these games while Rodney and I talk to Elizabeth. If you find out anything important let us know." With this agreement Sheppard and McKay headed out of town, getting to the Stargate right in time to dial Atlantis. As soon as the event horizon had settled Sheppard sent his IDC and then hit his comm.

"This is Sheppard, checking in. Anyone awake?"

"Hello, John. It's a nice change to have you checking in on time. Dare we assume that things are going smoothly?" came the amused reply. There was a snort from Rodney before Sheppard could reply.

"Hey, we don't get into trouble that much and we almost always make our check in." There was silence from the other side. "Well, we make it eventually. We get busy." Sheppard defended. He never really had figured out why they always seemed to find trouble. All the other teams seemed to be able to go off world and the worst thing that happened to them was the Pegasus equivalent of poison ivy. It wasn't fair. He could hear the amusement in Elizabeth's voice when she spoke again, and knew she was thinking much the same.

"Have you found us some trading partners? Teyla seem sure that the Elasians would be happy to trade with us, and wouldn't care where we were from." Too many people were interested in Atlantis, and while it wasn't as much of a secret as it should have been, they had decided that revealing that Atlantis was still intact was not a good idea.

"Well…you could say that we found some prospective trading partners, but it's not the Elasians. Things are a little more complicated here than Teyla remembered." He could practically hear Elizabeth pondering that statement, and hurried to reassure her. "On the upside these new people have a few items that we would really like to have, and they have space rockets just like Buck Rogers."

"Buck Rogers? Do you mean the movie serials or the TV series?" At that point McKay could no longer stay out of the conversation.

"The Colonel's science fiction fixation aside, these people do have something that we want Elizabeth. They have a partially charged ZedPM, and a…" he glanced at Sheppard as he cleared his throat meaningfully. "They have several items that we really need to get our hands on." There was silence as Elizabeth pondered McKay's zeal.

"So... these new people have something that we want. Can I assume that we have offered our regular trade goods in exchange for these items?" Obviously she had picked up that they didn't want to be mentioning ancient technology on the open comm.

"Well, that's where things got a little complicated." Sheppard said. Silence again. Then…

"You know, John, the other teams do not make it this hard to find trading partners. They simply go out, see what the other people have to offer and offer our things in return. It's all very simple."

"But do they come back with ZPMs? Have any of them even so much as seen one?" John asked. He then remembered that they hadn't done so well about bringing back the ones they had found, or even keeping them, but that was beside the point. "Anyway, these people are kinda picky about who they trade with, and have kind of a rigorous screening process."

"Which Colonel big mouth has signed us up for, by the way." Rodney supplied, with a grin at Sheppard.

"Screening process? What exactly does this process entail?" she asked skeptically. Her military commander had something of a habit of leaping before he looked. The fact that it had worked out up until now could be put down to a good portion of skill on the part of Atlantis's premier team, but also to luck. One or the other was going to give out eventually, and she didn't like pushing the odds.

"The Farlians seem to think that they need to put their potential trading partners to the test to see their true character. They do that by having teams of four play some sort of games."

"It's something like the Olympics, Elizabeth." Rodney broke in, impatient as always. "Every five years they have this contest to find a new trading partner. The winner gets the Ancient goodies, including the…ones of immediate interest to us, as well as the trading opportunities with these people who are known to hunt out Ancient outposts and scavenge what they can carry away. They also broadcast the whole thing via a series of flying cameras that follow all the action, and everyone tunes in to see who wins. When we showed up in the right number on the right day, and with one more slot open for the games, they jumped to a conclusion, and Sheppard managed to say all the wrong things at the right time to make sure that they included us in their little process."

"So you don't want to participate in the games for a chance to get the items, is that what you are saying, Rodney?"

"Well obviously I would prefer that they simply hand the things over as a gesture of good will, and give us first right of refusal on anything they might find in the future, but that seems unlikely. Also, they are capable of intersystem space travel, and reportedly interstellar, which means that they are at a comparable level with Earth technology before we met the Go' auld and Asgard. They obviously have either learned to deal with the Wraith or have found a way to hide their civilization from them, and that is something we need to know about. If playing their games is the only way to get that information, then so be it."

"Elizabeth, we don't have a lot of choice here. Teyla feels that if we suddenly pull out we'll offend them and never have a chance of trying again. As it is this is a once every five-year shot we have here, and they have something we want, I say we give it our best shot. The worst thing that can happen is that we lose and then maybe we will at least know who won the goodies and we might be able to trade with them." Sheppard persuaded. Elizabeth considered for several minutes.

"What types of games are we talking about here, John? There could be more danger than it is worth."

"We're talking a ZedPM and…" Sheppard poked him with the barrel of his P90. "Stop it! Where was I oh yes…we're talking about several other items of interest as well. We have a pretty good coverage for whatever they want to do. Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon can handle the physical stuff, and I can handle the mental heavy lifting. Admittedly that makes us a little weak on the intellectual side, but I can cover it." McKay said confidently, ignoring Sheppard's scowl.

"McKay's stunning confidence in our physical prowess aside, Elizabeth, these are civilized and advanced people. They want trading partners and entertainment. I'm thinking we may be looking at something like a combination of the Olympics and the Grand National Chess Championships, maybe some sort of problem solving thing. I can't see them wanting to watch a bunch of people hack at each other with knives or beat each other with clubs. They want a measure of character, not a measure of…well physical prowess or even mental. You can be smart and still be crooked."

"I would feel better if we had an idea of what you were getting into before we committed to the course, but I must admit that I am interested in what they have to offer. We haven't found so many of those items that we can afford to ignore the opportunity when it presents itself. Very well. Go ahead and participate. Do you know when it all begins?"

"Teyla said that she had found out that it starts tomorrow morning now that they have their full set of teams. There was also mention of lodging for the teams being set up, so I guess we are set here for the night. They use the Stargate to go to a different world for at least one of the challenges, so I don't know if we'll be able to check in tomorrow morning, or if it will have to wait. Let's say no more than 24 hours from now. We should be able to use it at night if nothing else. Not that I'm expecting any trouble, but we should know more about it by then and we can give you the details. Too bad we can't get you a video feed; you could all watch us kick some butt."

"Let's hope that isn't false bravado, Colonel. We'll talk at the next check in. Weir out."

"Good night. Sheppard out." He turned to McKay and clapped him on the back as the Wormhole closed. "Come on, McKay. I want to tell Teyla and Ronon how you've split the heavy lifting. I think they'll appreciate your evaluation almost as much as I do." He started back toward the town.

"Oh ha-ha again, like I'm intimidated by Conan and Xena. Bring it on I say." He hurried to catch up to the long-legged colonel. After several minutes of walking he looked at Sheppard. "You aren't really going to tell them are you?"

Sheppard just smiled and kept walking.

Chapter 3-

By the time they got back to the square, things had calmed down, and there seemed to be fewer people in the street. From what they were hearing from the crowd, there was some sort of ceremony due to start in the square soon, and most people were heading there, or finding somewhere to view it on the numerous screens set about the town.

"Opening ceremony?" McKay theorized. Sheppard shrugged. "Lot of little kids dancing merrily with flags?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. That's where I'm leaning though. We probably should be there for that. I'm surprised Teyla…" He was cut off by the comm.

"Colonel Sheppard, are you back in the town?" Teyla asked.

"Yeah we're almost to the square. You calling about this ceremony?" he asked.

"Yes. We have collected our information packet, and there is a schedule enclosed. We are due to be at the square in five minutes. At that time a team member from each team will be selected for each game. Once the selections are made there will be feasting and then the teams will be shown to their assigned lodging."

"Well we don't want to be late for the party. We'll meet you at that alcove and make an appearance together. Hope everyone is wearing their best clothes since we're gonna be on TV. We want to make a good impression."

The four met up at the alcove, and Teyla handed Sheppard the packet. Further investigation showed that it contained the schedule, written in several languages and four armbands in a dark blue. There was also a sheet of paper that Teyla identified as the rules. Sheppard nodded and put the papers back in the envelope.

"We'll go over that later." He handed each an armband and they put it on. "Let's go find out what we've gotten ourselves into." he said with a jerk of his head toward the main tent where Teyla had indicated they were to gather. They went around to the entrance and pushed in through the crowd, which allowed them to go in as they saw their armbands. Once they were inside they could see that the crowd was being kept back and there were only about twenty-five or so people already there. They could see other groups with armbands, and still others dressed in the flamboyant clothing that evidently marked the Farlians. Sheppard was about to make a comment to Rodney about the colors when something caught his eye, something that made him curse and raise his P90.The rest of his team, alerted by his curse, looked in the same direction, and he knew they were also readying their weapons. He heard Rodney curse from his position right behind him.

Across the pavilion from where they stood were three men and a woman wearing yellow armbands, they were also wearing Genii uniforms. They spotted the Lanteans about the same time, and were reaching for their own weapons. Supposedly their leaders had reached a peaceful agreement, but Sheppard was not prepared to take it for granted. There were a few too many of those wanted posters still floating around, and some rogue Genii, or at least they were told that they were rogue, wandering around for his comfort. He didn't even want to think about Kolya, who was out there somewhere, waiting to pounce again. One of the Farlian officials must have noticed the rising tension, and stepped between the two groups, arms spread.

"Come, come my friends. There is no need for arms here. We are here for a peaceful purpose. There are no hostilities allowed as per the rules to which you agreed by joining the games. Any animosity that you have for each other must be put aside for the duration of the games." The man intoned in stentorian tones. The attention of everyone in the tent had turned to the tableau. Finally Sheppard lowered his weapon, putting on the safety, and gestured for the others to do the same.

"Sure. Sorry for the display. We've had some bad experiences with the Genii in the past. However, we're willing to let it go if they will." he said. The Genii had also stood down, and the man he assumed was the leader stepped forward.

"We too are willing to abide by the rules. We all reacted in surprise. No offense is meant to our hosts." he said smoothly. Sheppard hated him immediately. The Farlian official beamed at them all.

"Wonderful! We have come together in peace then. Let us begin the selection. Can I have all the teams please gather before the dais." He moved to a slightly raised area where the rest of the Farlian officials stood. The Atlantis team moved to stand with the rest of the armband wearers. The Genii stood as far as possible on the other side, and that was fine with Sheppard. They might have to play nice, but they didn't have to be best friends.

"Welcome all to the games. I am Fornal, first official of the economic sector. I will be your host. First we will ask the leader of each team to give your designation for the viewing audience. You will be referred to by your color bands, but a name would be appreciated, to make you more…identifiable to the viewers. We will begin with you." He indicated the Genii. The leader stepped forward, a smile on his face.

"I am Garren. This is Kelar, Ander, and Hort. We are of the Genii." he said succinctly. With a nod at the official and a wary look at the floating camera behind him, he stepped back.

"Welcome people of the Genii. Your wish to trade honors us." The official repeated the process with the two other teams. They wore Red and Green armbands respectively. Lost in all the names Sheppard decided that he would just stick with the colors. Boy, 'can't tell the players without a program' had never been so true. Finally it was their turn. He stepped forward.

"I'm John Sheppard, this is Teyla Emmagen of Athos, Ronon Dex of Sateda, and Rodney McKay. We're kind of a mix from all over. You can just call us Team Lantea, I guess." The official bowed to them and welcomed them to the games, then turned to another Farlian standing nearby with a device. Sheppard could almost hear McKay come to point.

"Down, Rodney," he murmured to the scientist. Fornal raised the device, turning to display it to the camera.

"The Terit will now sort the teams," he intoned in that dramatic voice that Sheppard was coming to dislike. Turning back to the teams Fornal moved a lever on the device and a beam of light shot out from it. It started as a slim red beam not unlike that of a laser, then widened until it was about seven feet tall. Before anyone could move, the beam swept across the assembled teams from left to right, then back again. There was no sensation as it passed over him, but Sheppard was not too enthused to have something scanning them, or whatever it had just done. The device beeped twice.

"The Terit has completed its preliminary scan. The selection is made. Each person's armband will now have a number on it. The number corresponds to the game in which you will participate." Fornal announced. Sheppard looked at his armband and saw a symbol on it that had not been there before. A look at his teammates showed that each had a different symbol on their armbands.

"What was that?" Ronon asked, looking at his own band. Rodney, who had been using the handheld scanner, shook his head.

"Not sure exactly, but I believe it is some sort of scanner that uses a coherent light beam to scan with. Once it makes its comparison it then must use the beam to effect pigments in the armbands. It's an Ancient device but what its original purpose was, I haven't a clue. Somehow I doubt this is what they made it for." He twitched the armband around and looked at the symbol there, and then looked at the others'. "Well I have a three. Teyla is one, Ronon is two and Sheppard is four. It's using the Ancient numbering system."

Fornal was conferring with his fellows about something, but evidently whatever the issue was, it was quickly taken care of as he turned back to the teams with a smile. Sheppard was beginning to feel like he was on some game show. Actually they were on a game show. Now that he thought about it, Fornal did kind of remind him of Bob Barker.

He was distracted from his thoughts by the official's voice again ringing out.

"The initial choice has been made. Glory be unto the Ancestors for their wisdom. Now we must ask those of similar number to gather together. There should be four of each in each group. If those with the lowest numbers will gather here on the left and the next highest next to them and so on." As there was some reluctance in movement, he prodded them gently. "Come, come, we are all friends here on this occasion. Let us not delay further in the selection process. There is feasting to look forward to tonight, and rest to be had before the games begin." The different groups began to move, Sheppard's team among them, and in minutes they were in the new groups.

Sheppard was not best pleased to find himself in the same group as the leader of the Genii contingent. He found some small comfort in seeing that the other man was just as displeased. In the next group he could see Rodney moving to stand as far away from the Genii member there, a position that put him next to Ronon, either by chance or by design.

The runner had no such problem as the others in his group were giving him wary glances, they were all considerably smaller than he was, and had moved nervously away from him, causing him to toss a feral grin at them, which did nothing to ease their minds. Only Teyla seemed at ease with her group even though she was the only woman. No great surprise, as Sheppard had yet to see a situation that truly disturbed her cool. Once they were situated to his orders, Fernal raised the Ancient device once again.

He moved to stand in front of group one and pressed a button on the device. The scanning beam passed over the four in both directions, and the top of the device, which had previously been clear, turned red. There was a muttering among the officials, and Fernal raised a hand to quiet them.

"The first game is chosen," he paused, trying for dramatic tension Sheppard supposed, "it will be a test of strength. The four will go through the gate in the morning. You will be briefed on the particulars of the game when you arrive." He turned to the next group and raised the device again. It scanned over them and the crystal flashed yellow. Once again there was a stirring among the officials. Sheppard wasn't sure what the surprise was, but he figured they would find out eventually. After a short conference Fernal once again turned around.

"The second game has been chosen. It will be a test of intelligence." Without further ado Fernal turned and scanned the third group. The scanning beam danced over the group and the crystal turned a deep green. Again the muttering from the group behind Fernal, and now there was some among the crowd as well. Obviously something was different this year than ever before, and Sheppard made a note to ask someone what it was after this was over.

"The third contest will be a test of strategy. Not for the last hundred years has this challenge been met! Truly the Ancestors have blessed us during this cycle." Fernal announced, and the crowd cheered. Rodney looked at Sheppard and gave a puzzled shrug. He obviously had no more idea why this was causing such a stir than Sheppard did. Fernal turned to the final group and raised the device high.

"And now for the final group. Remember the forth challenge is worth two times the points as the rest of the challenges. It is acknowledged that it will be the hardest of the four. What will the Ancestors deem as appropriate? Let us see."

"Okay" Sheppard thought, "Not Bob Barker, but a side show barker, calling in the folks to see the freak show. Pay your money and take your chances." Fernal pressed the button, but instead of the full length beam, four concentrated beams shot out of the device and struck each of the contestants in the last group right between the eyes. All four stiffened and their eyes blanked.

Ronon started forward, determined to jerk Sheppard out of the beam but McKay grabbed his arm. Before he could shake the scientist off, the beams stopped, and all four men sagged to their knees, shaking their heads.

"Sheppard?" Ronon growled. He looked ready to go and grab the device out of Fernal's hands and smash it if Sheppard so much as twitched wrong. The Colonel gave his head another shake and raised a hand as he struggled back to his feet. He stood there, breathing deeply, and met his teams' eyes, reassuring them silently that he was okay. The others were slower to recover, but they too were soon back on their feet. While they had done so, the device had been humming quietly in Fernal's hands. Finally the crystal at the top started to color, but instead of achieving a solid color as it had before, it began flashing a rainbow of colors, that seemed to fill the tent, like some Ancient disco ball. The crowd went wild. The muttering among the officials was a full-blown argument, with waving hands and quiet but emphatic voices. The flying cameras were practically hovering over the officials' shoulders; a few slapped them away like annoying flies.

The contestants had shifted back into their own teams, and Sheppard's team was eyeing him with concern. His head was pounding as if he had been on a three-day drinking binge, and he really wanted to lie down for a while. Of course he wasn't going to admit that to his team, or show it in front of the TV audience, and especially not in front of the Genii. They would be quick to take advantage of any such weakness. He could see the doubt in his team's eyes, and typically it was Rodney that voiced it.

"Oh sure, I forgot, you're always 'fine'. I swear you could be missing a limb and you would still say you were fine. News flash, Colonel, having your brain scanned by an alien device is not a precursor to 'fine' in our past experience. Now how about you drop the macho act and tell us how you really feel?"

The scientist was splitting his attention between Sheppard and the device, obviously wanting to get his hands on it, but concerned about Sheppard as well. The pilot knew that he should feel honored that he was even being considered, as Ancient devices were very attractive to the astrophysicist. And he was, honored that was, but he wasn't going to let Rodney's uncharacteristic concern make him admit things that he didn't care to have known, even by his own team. He knew they truly cared about him, but he was what he was.

It wasn't even that he could tell them anything anyways. When the beam had hit him, everything had gone…foggy. He had felt hot, then cold, and then…nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. He had felt a sense of happiness from the device. It had known him, or at least his gene, and had been happy to see him. In the same manner that Atlantis was happy to have him there. It wanted to help him. Because of that, he didn't have the sense that it would willingly hurt him or that he had been compromised, but then he wasn't sure that he would know. They would need to get their hands on the device and be sure that it hadn't…downloaded any sensitive information. He wasn't sure what it had done, but he really didn't want it to ever do it again.

"Oh can it, McKay." he sniped. "Let's just get through this and get to the feasting, huh? I'm hungry. What the hell has them all in a swivet anyway?"

Rodney shook his head. "I haven't figured out what the damn device is doing, yet." The scientist admitted, "So it is kind of hard for me to say why whatever it is doing now is making them nervous. A little more information would be nice. Unfortunately I don't think our happy host is going to let me get my hands on it until this…travesty is over. I mean really, Conan here for intelligence and Teyla for strength. Obviously the thing is malfunctioning."

"And what is that supposed to mean, Dr McKay?" Teyla said in an offended tone, as Ronon scowled. Rodney looked from one to the other, the implication of his statement suddenly coming to him as he saw their faces. He started to babble an explanation, but was interrupted by Fernal calling for silence. The device stopped pulsing color, and went quiescent. Sheppard could still feel its presence however.

"This is a momentous occasion! In all the years that we have held the games never have we had such a result! You, yes you, my friends are to be witness to a first. The Ancestors have weighed the contestants, and have found them worthy of the greatest test. As I have said, never before has this been done. We will all be witness to the ultimate in challenges…" He continued waxing sensational, babbling on and on about the Ancestors and the council and how everyone should be fully cognoscente of the entertainment value that was being provided. Finally Sheppard couldn't stand it any more.

"What is the challenge already?" he finally asked loudly, overriding Fernal's speech. The official scowled at him, but quickly regained his friendly mask as he realized that they were being watched.

"Ah…our contestants are as anxious as we all are to begin. Indeed it is time to reveal the final test. The last of the challenges shall be…" He paused dramatically, only to hurry to continue as Sheppard fingered the safety on his P90. "A test of spirit!" The crowd went wild, while the contestants exchanged puzzled looks. It seemed that no one among them knew what a 'test of spirit' exactly entailed.

For the next thirty minutes there was a flurry of speeches by various officials, all deeply impressed by the good portents of the day. They nattered on and on, while the contestants shuffled from foot to foot and talked among themselves. Finally it all drew to a close, and Fernal appeared once again on the dais.

"Now my friends it is time for the feasting. We must celebrate this wondrous day. We bid our friends on Farlia farewell for now, and urge you to watch tomorrow as the first of our challenges begins. Goodnight to all." With a flourish he bowed to the nearest camera, and then stood back up to wave to the crowd.

"Let us all away to the feasting. Our contestants must eat and then rest for the test tomorrow. Come! Come!" He led the way out of the tent, the crowd parting before him. The contestants followed, one group at a time, the Lantean team bringing up the rear. The members of the crowd would reach out to touch them as they passed, touching an arm or shoulder. There were smiles and looks of awe on the faces they passed, and it was making Sheppard nervous. They really had to read that information packet.

The feasting took place in another, smaller square, near the inn that was evidently where the contestants were to be housed. Only the officials and contestants were allowed at the main tables, though there were smaller tables set up all around. Massive amounts of food were brought out, and everyone was soon eating. Sheppard found himself picking at his food, his head still pounding. He could see Teyla, who was seated across from him giving him a concerned look, and he made more of an effort to eat. By the time the rest of the people were finishing up however, his plate was still mostly full. Ronon, sitting beside him eyed the plate and then looked at him closely. Sheppard was prepared to give his standard answer regarding his health when the ex-runner merely exchanged glances with Teyla and then slid Sheppard's plate over and started eating the rest. Teyla smiled slightly at him and looked toward Rodney. The smile turned indulgent.

Sheppard would have expected protests from Rodney, except the scientist had managed to coral one of the officials into sitting beside him, and had steered the conversation to the device. The official, who was, it seemed, in charge of the device, was able to give Rodney more information about it, and also about the ships they had seen. The two were deep in discussions about the problems of leaving gravity wells and had both eaten without slowing down.

Sheppard's glance slipped past Rodney and his new friend down the long table to where the Genii sat. He was well aware of the glares that had been sent their way. Obviously while their government might consider Atlantis an ally, there was some resentment still present among the ranks. Not that Sheppard could blame them really. The thud of the bodies against the gate shield was part of the soundtrack that haunted one of his many nightmares. He sometimes heard the screams of the men he had killed as they flew toward that certain death. His mind was nothing if not inventive. He locked glances with Garren, whose eyes burned with hate. Okay, that was going to be a problem. He noticed that Garren's plate was empty. Great, he was the only one that the device seemed to have affected for the worse. Breaking the gaze he reached across the table and grabbed the information packet that Teyla had lying next to her plate and rose to his feet.

"I'm going up to whatever room we got. I'll see you guys later, okay? You might as well enjoy the festivities, and keep an eye on Rodney; we don't want him up past his bedtime. He gets cranky." he added the last a little louder, and Rodney raised a certain finger in his direction, without stopping his conversation.

Sheppard put on a disapproving face and shook his head. "Tsk…tsk…tsk such manners, and at the table. No dessert for you." This time the finger rose and twisted. With a laugh Sheppard traded glances with Ronon and Teyla, who nodded in understanding, and pushed away from the table. They would watch out for the scientist who sometimes was not conscious enough of his surroundings.

He entered the inn and asked to be taken to the room or rooms assigned to his team. The host bowed and scrapped, obviously almost overcome with the prospect of housing contestants for the games. Must be quite the thing for a society as backward as this to suddenly have a burst of prosperity and advanced technology. Sheppard hoped he was being well compensated. The place didn't look all that prosperous, just a simple great room with several tables and a large fireplace. The money he gained from all of this would probably allow him to keep the inn open for the next five years until the next games; free enterprise at work.

When the host had finished the welcome, he took Sheppard upstairs to a single large room. There were two large beds and two smaller beds that had obviously been added to the room. The room was on a corner, which suited Sheppard as it gave them two windows and an additional exit if needed as they were only on the second floor. He wondered briefly when he had started evaluating every room he entered for possible emergency exits, but snapped himself out of it as the host waited anxiously for his approval, stirring up the fire in the fireplace and putting on another couple of logs as he did so. Sheppard looked around and nodded with a smile.

"It looks great!" he enthused. "Reminds me of a Motel 6 in Fallon, Nevada I stayed in with three buddies one time." The host frowned, not understanding the words, but the smile and nod obviously was enough and he bowed his way out of the room. Sheppard wasn't happy that there was no lock on the door, but he guessed they could move the big bureau in front of it once they were all in for the night. He looked over the beds. The two big beds looked attractive, but once he sat down the edge of one he found that they were hard as a rock. Not into pillow top mattresses here he guessed. He tried one of the smaller beds, and found what appeared to be a feather mattress. He rolled onto it, and it puffed around him like a cloud.

He lay there for a moment, enjoying the feel of the mattress, but as he felt himself start to drift he rolled off and stood. He took off his P90 and tac vest and then sat down to remove his boots. He had to grab the edge of the bed to keep from falling onto the floor when he bent over. Okay, that was not a good sign. He took several deep breaths and bent again to untie his boots. He managed that with only a slight swirling of the room. Deciding against taking off anything else he pushed the boots to where he could find them in a hurry and pulled back the thick blankets. It must get pretty cold at night.

He crawled in and pulled the blankets over himself. He reached for the information packet, but even before he could pull out the papers, he knew he wasn't going to be able to look at them. Sleep was drawing him down. He briefly thought about how the room was not secure and he was on an alien planet with hostile Genii and unknown people, who may or may not be friendly, and his team wasn't there, but he couldn't find it in himself to care. He tossed the packet onto the floor, rolled over onto his stomach and allowed sleep to take him.

It was almost two hours later before Teyla slipped away from the festivities. She was well aware that her part of the games would take place on the following day, and she intended to be ready. She was unsure as to why she had been chosen for this particular test. While she did not fool herself into thinking that she was as physically strong as a man, she was confident in her own strength. That strength had led her people for many years now, and she was prepared to continue to do so. But the three other competitors were all male and were significantly larger than she, especially the Genii contestant who rivaled Ronon for height and girth. In a true test of strength they had an advantage that she could not overcome. As yet, her teammates had not expressed any doubts, if you discounted Rodney's earlier rant, which she had done, but she had her own.

Of course they had little information on exactly what would be involved in the tests, and she could be worrying unnecessarily. She almost desperately did not want to let Atlantis down, did not want to let her team down. She entered the inn and asked for their room. The host smiled at her like a long lost friend and took her personally to the door of a room upstairs. He left her there with many bows, and returned below. She pushed open the door, unsure what to expect, and was surprised to see one large room with four beds. She was also surprised when she saw that one of the beds was occupied, and that the occupant appeared to be deeply asleep. When they were off world they were always extremely cautious about making sure their quarters were secure, mostly at the insistence of Sheppard and Ronon. To find Sheppard in an unlocked room so deeply asleep that he did not wake at the sound of the door opening was disturbing. The colonel was usually a very light sleeper.

She stepped quietly further into the room and stopped as she heard what could only be the hammer of a pistol being drawn back. Only a few tufts of Sheppard's dark hair and one eye could be seen above the quilt. But she knew that the colonel's weapon was pointed at her under the covers. She realized she was probably standing in shadow, and he could not see her well enough to identify.

"It is I, Colonel." she said calmly. The form moved slightly, and she saw the pistol being returned to its position under the pillow. Sheppard didn't speak, but instead only snuggled further into the blankets. She moved to stand near the bed, concerned still. He might be aware enough to guard the room, but was he well?

She reached down and pulled the quilt back to reveal the pilot. He was lying on his side, head pillowed on one hand. He seemed a little pale to her, and she reached a hand to his forehead. He didn't move at her gentle touch, though he did scowl without opening his eyes.

"I'm fine." he said almost petulantly, and rolled over, settling in again with the covers pulled up to his neck. She lowered her hand to his shoulder and squeezed.

He was slightly warm, more so than could be accounted for with the blankets and nearby fire. She knew that whatever the device had done to him and the others had affected him more than them. She had seen how he had pushed the food around his plate, not eating much, and could tell from the occasional wince that he had a headache. She had studied the others from Sheppard's group, and had not noted that they seemed ill, but then they did not have the Ancestor's gene as Sheppard did. His claim of being 'fine' to the contrary, she suspected he felt quite bad, a suspicion confirmed by his current need to sleep. She sat down at his side. He murmured a little and snuggled back against her leg, letting out a deep sigh and slipping back to sleep.

She saw the information packet on the floor and bent to pick it up. She would read the information and wait for the other two members of their team to come in. She would not be able to sleep yet she knew, and felt someone should keep watch until such time as they could secure the door. She pulled out the rule sheet, reading it over quickly. There was nothing overtly disturbing, being mainly warnings against using weaponry, cheating and early withdrawal penalties. It seemed that her caution about leaving had turned out to be true, as anyone leaving the games without completing the competition would be barred from any future trading, with no appeal.

She was disappointed that there was no description of what each challenge entailed, though she supposed that given that the challenge was dependent upon the contestants, that it would be difficult to give descriptions. She briefly studied the schedule that was the last paper in the packet, seeing that there would be a group breakfast in the morning shortly after dawn, and the challenge was to start an hour afterwards. It seemed that the challenge would only take one day, as the next challenge was scheduled for the next day at the same time. The whole test would be over in four days. She hoped that it would all end well for them.

She had confidence in herself and her teammates, and she was sure that they would make a good showing, though she was not sure that they could win. They were late to the challenge, and were not prepared as the other teams were. But they had much experience in improvisation, forced on them by the vagrancies of the Pegasus galaxy and the seeming bad luck that followed them from world to world sometimes. If anyone could be dropped into this situation unprepared and still triumph it would be them.

She put the papers back into the packet and placed it on the floor under the bed. She reached again and placed her hand against Sheppard's cheek. He moved slightly under her hand, but did not wake. He was still warm. She was withdrawing her hand when she heard the door opening, and Ronon and Rodney entered, arguing about something as usual, or at least Rodney was arguing, and Ronon was listening, or perhaps not. They stopped as they entered and saw her sitting on the side of the bed. Rodney frowned, his previous argument forgotten in an instant.

"Is he sick? He didn't eat hardly anything before the hairy Hoover here vacuumed the rest of his dinner up. Maybe we should have Carson come and look at him. Elizabeth isn't going to be too happy if he's gone and got himself damaged again." He came over and looked at Sheppard's pale face. "He's not waking up. That's weird."

"I believe that the device affected him more than he would say. He seems simply to be deeply asleep." Teyla assured them. She did not think it was necessary to call Beckett. "He was awake earlier when I came in, and is sleeping now because he knows we are secure. I think that he will feel better for it in the morning. We all will." The others nodded, and looked around the room.

"Dibs on one of the big beds." Rodney said and headed towards the one furthest from the door, and near the fire. Teyla smiled at Ronon.

"You should also have one of the large beds. I do not think that you will fit on the smaller one in any event." He nodded and went to slide the chest of drawers that stood near the door in front of it, barring the way in. Sheppard didn't move even at the sound of the heavy furniture moving. She wasn't sure if that was a sign of how ill he was, or how much trust he had in them, knowing that he would be safe with them there. She had no doubt that somewhere in his subconscious he had noticed the arrival of the other two members of the team.

She patted Sheppard's shoulder one more time and rose to go over to the other small bed. She hid a smile at the complaints coming from Rodney on the larger bed, as he tried to find a comfortable place on what he claimed was a mattress like a board. Ronon went around the room and blew out the candles in the sconces. Only the waning fire lit the room as the ex-runner slipped into the other bed and they all settled down for a night's rest.

Chapter 4

The next morning Sheppard was obviously feeling somewhat better, though he still would not admit how bad he had felt the night before. They had seen to their morning ablutions and had gone as a group to the breakfast, sitting together at one end of the long table. The food was simple yet plentiful, and everyone ate well. The only disturbing part of the whole thing was the flying cameras whirling around, seemingly trying to capture every small detail of the whole process.

Finally when everyone was done, Fernal stood and signaled for silence. Conversation died away slowly, and the official gave a quick blessing on the challenge to come and asked that those participating in it should stand. Teyla and the three others did so. They too were blessed, and were asked to come forward. Teyla started forward, only to stop as Sheppard caught her arm. She looked at him.

"Good Luck." he said seriously. She could see the confidence that he had in her in his eyes, and looking at her other two teammates, she could see it in their eyes as well. It made her feel better about her chances. If they had such faith in her, she could not help but do her best. She knew that it was all that they would expect of her. She smiled at them all and went to stand with the others in the first group. A small crowd had started to gather, and they could hear the sounds of more people in the streets beyond, obviously waiting for the trek to the Stargate. Fernal raised his hands for silence once again and the crowd stilled.

"The time has come for the first challenge. We go now to the Stargate and the contestants will go through to the planet Toret. There, the test of strength will take place. The cameras will follow them through the gate and will record the challenge. Throughout the day as the test continues we will redial the gate and the recordings will be downloaded so that we can follow their progress. You will see it all almost as it is happening." His face became serious.

"I must remind those that are watching of the rules of the games. There can be no interference from outside. No help may be sought from any other person or persons. I caution those that may be inclined to…wager on the outcome of this contest. Be warned that the winner will not be declared until all contestants have returned here. The contest will end at midnight local time. Any contestant who has not completed the test by that time will be considered in violation of the contest rules regarding early withdrawal, and their entire team will be disqualified, and no longer considered as a trading partner. Now, let us away to the gate, and the specifics of the challenge." Fernal threw off his serious mien and waved the contestants forward, leading the way. There was a cheer from the crowd, and everyone surged forward.

Sheppard, McKay and Ronon exchanged glances. They could all see that the others were less than impressed by the theatrics of it all, but they were all ready to support Teyla. By silent consent they followed along at the rear of the crowd.

"You know there is a lot that can go wrong here." Rodney said.

"Do tell, Dr. Doom. What's the prognosis?" Sheppard drawled.

"Funny…not. Look, I know that I mentioned this before, but doesn't it seem just a little strange to you that the person least likely to win a contest of strength is the one that was chosen for our team?"

"So are you saying that Teyla isn't strong, or are you saying that somehow the game is rigged, and against us in particular? Isn't that a bit paranoid even for you McKay?"

"Says the man who was sleeping with a pistol under his pillow." McKay had seen Sheppard remove the weapon this morning.

"I always sleep with a pistol under my pillow McKay, even on Atlantis."

"So do I." intoned Ronon, who had simply been listening to his teammates talk as they walked after the crowd. His height let him keep an eye on Teyla, moving ahead in the vanguard of the mass. She was moving confidently, evidently not intimidated by the size of her opponents. Ronon knew for a fact that she could take any one of them in a fair fight, and probably several of them in an unfair one.

"Oh and that just makes my point all the more. The poster boy for paranoia speaks." Rodney's hands were waving in their usual bold manner, almost taking out an eye of an old man who failed to dodge quickly enough. McKay gave him a nasty look for ruining his train of thought, and hurried to catch up with his friends who had not stopped. "All I am saying is that look at the challenges we got and how the teams were assigned. Doesn't it seem that we have been given a bit of a handicap so to speak?" Sheppard seemed to contemplate the question.

"Well, you were given the test of strategy, that is rather suspicious as you don't know diddly squat about it, but the rest of us came off okay I would say."

"Okay? Has all that hair gel finally eaten its way into the last brain cell? And what kind of challenges are these anyway? A test of strength; what does that have to do with trading? Are they trying to determine if you can carry ten bags of Tava beans through the gate instead of five? It's useless. It's meaningless. This whole thing is a hopped up reality show pandering to the crowd with silly, inane games that are meant only to entertain. There's probably a bunch of people meeting in a smoky back room somewhere bribing some officials to 'win' the games and become the newest trading partner. We're just fodder to make it look good." The three had come to a stop as the crowd had reached the gate, and Sheppard and Ronon had paused to listen to Rodney's rant. The two other men looked at each other and then back at Rodney.

"You've been watching those Survivor DVDs again haven't you McKay?" Sheppard finally said with a sigh. The scientist sputtered with righteous indignation, but then caught the knowing look on his teammates' faces. He raised his chin.

"Well what if I have? Katie likes to watch them, and if I should have happened to catch a few and noticed that the whole thing is a contrived, puerile, cross between Gilligan's Island and some weird Japanese game show what does that have to do with anything? It doesn't change the fact that I'm probably right. I usually am you know."

"Not about people Rodney." Sheppard reminded him.

"All right, maybe not people, but everything else, yes." said Mr. Ego. "I am telling you there is something hokey about it." He looked at Ronon. "Tell the truth Conan, do you really think that you are the best choice for a test of intelligence?"

"Rodney…" Sheppard started, but Ronon cut him off.

"I'm just as smart as you are." he said in an offended tone. At Rodney's blatant look of amazement he smiled grimly. "Do you know the right place to press on a man's neck to kill him quietly without a weapon?" McKay's horrified look was his answer and he continued. "Do you know how to live for a week on one canteen of water and a patch of moss? Or how to sew up a wound so that you don't bleed to death before you can get back to your own people? There is more than one kind of intelligence, McKay. Maybe if you were as smart as you think you are, you would know that."

Before a red faced Rodney could say anything, Fornal was calling for everyone's attention. The official and the first contestants were lined up in front of the steps leading up to the gate, and someone was dialing the address on the DHD. The wormhole established and Fornal began to speak.

"The challenge is thus. The contestants will go through and each will find a map to a place ten miles from the ring. They will travel to this place and each will retrieve one of the items that they will find there. The item must be returned to the ring in the same shape in which it is found, or there will be a penalty. The time limit has been stated. The contestants must all return by midnight planet time or be disqualified along with their team. Do you all understand the rules?" Each contestant nodded, and Fornal gestured dramatically to the wormhole. Teyla turned for one last look at her teammates, standing at the side of the crowd, and with a nod in their direction, stepped through the event horizon. They were followed by five of the cameras.

Chapter 5

She emerged on a planet in the middle of a rainstorm. It was like walking into a waterfall, a cold one. She was instantly soaked to the skin as were the other three who had preceded her. All stood for a moment, in shock at the change in circumstances. Finally they all began looking around, and spotted the small pavilion set to the side of the gate. The front of it was open and they could see a table with four rolled papers upon it. They started toward it at the same time, and Teyla found herself elbowed to the back by the three men. She could have asserted herself too, but she could see no reason to do so as there were enough maps for all, and it did not matter which she got. The three men grabbed their maps and moved aside to unroll them in the dryness that the pavilion offered. Teyla stepped forward and took the last map and unrolled it to see what it showed.

It was a simple map, one that showed only what was necessary for the challenge. At the bottom was a small picture of the pavilion in which they stood. At the upper right was a drawing of a small range of mountains, one of the mountains was larger than the rest, and a cave had been drawn on the side of it. Obviously this was their destination. There were several landmarks drawn on the map, obviously to guide them on the journey to and from the cave. Teyla was memorizing the way then the map was taken from her hand.

She looked up to see that one of the men, by his clothes she recognized him as being from Phanos, a planet much like Athos had been, and a people of similar type. The other two men were watching from across the small tent as the Phanosian looked at the map and with a sneer tore it into small pieces, his eyes daring her to protest. Instead she stood quietly as he tore it and scattered the pieces on the floor. Violence was forbidden, so she would not attack him. She had seen the map enough to know the way, and did not really need it. It would have been useless in the rain in any event. She gave him a gentle smile.

"That was unnecessary and ill advised. If you seek to keep me from the goal, then you have made a foolish choice. I have only to follow the rest of you, and I am there. Also, while tearing the map may not be considered cheating, it certainly does not present you in a favorable light to those viewing this, and you have revealed yourself, and presumably your teammates, to be an enemy who will bear watching. In any event I saw enough of the map to be confident in the trail. Now shall we continue the challenge?" She raised an eyebrow at him, and met his eyes, not quailing under his glare. When he did not answer, she turned and left the tent, getting her bearings. The two other men pushed past her and started up the trail at a lope. She followed at a comfortable jog, knowing it was a pace she could keep for the necessary distance. She had gone only a short way up the path before she was jostled aside as the Phanosian passed her. She watched him disappear into the rain, and shook her head.

She heard a whirring noise and one of the cameras, the 'globey things' passed her, disappearing after the man. A quick look over her shoulder showed her that she too was being followed by one of the machines. She was not pleased to be watched, but given the treacherous nature that the Phanosian had displayed she was somewhat happier knowing that he could not strike at her without being seen.

She knew why he had picked her. She was ostensibly the weakest of the four, and the easiest target. Perhaps he felt that if he intimidated her enough she would simply quit, thus removing her entire team from contention and making his teams chances better. He might be planning to walk the edge of the rules to make it unpleasant enough to force her out. Of course he did not know with whom he was dealing. She had never been one to give up in the face of the difficult or dangerous, and she was not going to start now.

Chapter 6-

Sheppard grabbed at Ronon's arm as he started out of his chair, heading toward the group of men wearing red armbands who were seated three rows over in the pavilion where they all sat watching the first feed from the planet where Teyla was undertaking the first challenge. They had watched as the contestants had stepped out into the rain, getting soaked to the skin almost instantly. Sheppard hoped that the rain was at the least warm, but he suspected that things were not going to be that easy.

When the man had taken Teyla's map and torn it up, the low rumble of a growl had started in Ronon's throat. When Teyla had calmly put the man in his place, Sheppard had silently cheered her. He knew that he could always count on her cool head, something he couldn't say about his other two teammates, or even himself in some situations. Ronon had been sitting straight as a board until the competitors had left the tent, moving up the path in the rain, followed by the cameras.

Teyla seemed to moving out at that ground-eating jog that they had all seen her use so effectively in the field. She seemed to be able to do it forever, though she never seemed to have to put out much effort. It was when the man came up behind her and almost pushed her off the path as he pushed by that Ronon started up, evidently seeing it as the last straw.

"Ronon! Stand down, that's an order!" he bellowed as he dug in his heels to keep from being dragged along by the larger man. He looked around at Rodney, wondering why the scientist wasn't helping him. McKay gave him that look that said 'I'm not crazy(or stupid). If you're feeling suicidal don't expect me to help you.' "Ronon!" he bellowed again. The Satedan turned on him, his right fist coming up, and Sheppard mentally prepared himself to get his head removed from his shoulders, but Ronon's darkened, angry eyes focused on him, and he lowered the arm and stopped his forward progress. The big man was breathing hard, but he was stopped and Sheppard slowly let go of his arm.

"Look, the guy is an asshole, but so far Teyla is handling him. He's like a schoolyard bully; you show him you aren't scared of him he goes away. She's following the rules and he's skatin' the edge. He goes over and he's out, and he doesn't want that, so he's not going to do anything that she can't handle. Now why don't you go for a run or something and work off some of that extra energy. We'll let you know if anything interesting happens. I think we're just settling in for a lot of running until they get to the cave." Ronon glared one more time at the other team and then left. Sheppard figured he'd circle the town a few times, and then come back for the next feed.

Once the contestants were on the other planet, the challenge was revealed to the audience. They got to see a copy of the map, though what it was that the contestants would have to bring back remained a mystery. The crowd had dispersed, and Fornal encouraged the rest of the teams to return to the main pavilion, which was set up for their viewing pleasure.

Rodney had latched onto his friend from the night before, and had spent most of the time before the first feed talking about the Ancient devices that the man had seen. He had managed to garner the information that the Farlians had found four Ancient sites so far, all of them large, and all of them yielding devices. Rodney had practically been salivating at the thought of so many sites and machines. He had tried subtly to get the gate addresses of the sites, but the other man had been wise to his purpose, and had refused to give out that information. Rodney had returned to his teammates muttering to himself.

They had found some seats where they could see the screen and were sufficiently far enough away from where the Genii sat. More hostile glances had been exchanged, but so far peace had been maintained. Sheppard was beginning to realize that while Rodney might have something to keep him busy, the rest of them were going to have a battle with boredom. There just wasn't much to do. The town was small, and didn't exactly boast a lot of places for entertainment. During the time between the feeds from the other planet the Farlians were running what appeared to be some sort of news report that looped every fifteen minutes. One time through was more than enough. If this kept up, he and Ronon were going to get in a lot of running time. That is if he could keep the other man from tearing into the red team; the burdens of command. He sank back down into the chair and sighed as the talking head of the newscast came back on the screen. Time for more waiting.

Chapter 7

Teyla stopped as she came to the mouth of the cave. The rain had stopped 30 minutes earlier, and she was now mostly dry from the heat of her own body and the sun that was now shining in the sky. She had been following the Genii contestant closely for the last 10 minutes, and he had just entered the cave. She was sure that the other two men were already inside, as she had not seen anyone heading back the other way. It had taken them almost two hours to reach this point, and they were still pretty close together. The way had been easy for the first half, but as they had started up the foothills the path had become more difficult. She was tired, but then so were her opponents. She had paced herself so as to have plenty of strength left to make it back to the gate. Now she just had to find out what it was that must be taken back.

She entered the cave and found the way lit by torches. She followed the path until it entered a large cavern, where the three men were looking at something that resembled a large nest. She went to the side and pulled herself up to stand on the edge as the men were. She looked inside.

The inside of the large bowl like shape was lined with what appeared to be down and feathers along with some leaves and ferns. Nestled among this litter were four eggs, four very large eggs. Each one had to be at least a foot and a half in diameter and more than two feet long. They were green with blue speckles on the larger end.

Teyla straightened and looked around the cavern. It was obvious that this chamber was the last of the cave. There were no further passages leading anywhere else, though there was an opening in the ceiling of the cavern that had been covered over by a net, presumably to keep out the mother bird. The creature must be of impressive size to have laid such eggs, and Teyla was just as glad not to have to deal with it.

She could not see any other items that might be meant to be carried away, except for numerous rocks. It was no coincidence she was sure that there were four eggs and four contestants. Obviously the others were coming to the same conclusion. The Genii contestant stepped down into the nest and nudged one of the eggs with his foot. It did not move. He then leaned down and grabbed the egg and hefted it. It obviously took some effort, but he stood up with it and started to move to the side of the nest near Teyla. Once there he obviously ran into a dilemma, one that Teyla saw immediately.

He had to put the egg down on the edge to climb out, but then he would have to release the egg. The edge of the nest sloped down and away, and if he released the egg it would roll off the edge and onto the floor. There seemed to no way to secure the egg, and such was the problem. Teyla took a step and knelt to hold the egg. The Genii's eyes looked to her, anger flaring. She realized that he must think that she was planning on taking the egg. She smiled at him.

"I will help you with your egg if you will help me with mine." she offered. She could see the calculation in the man's eyes. He needed her help. So she could not see him turning her down. This way they could both benefit. The other men were already lowering themselves into the nest to get their own eggs. She knew that the man from the Red team would offer her no help, so she hoped that she could persuade the Genii to help her.

Finally the man nodded and released the egg to her care. She held it while he climbed out and down to the floor of the cavern. She was able to get a feel for the heft of the egg as she slid it towards the edge and the Genii's waiting arms. With some dismay she realized that the egg must weigh almost fifty pounds. It would not be easy for her to handle such a weight over the distance that she must travel.

The Genii lowered the egg to the ground, stepping several feet away from the nest to place it in a small depression so that it would not roll. He then turned back to look at her expectantly. Evidently he was going to honor the bargain. She was pleased that the hostility that she had seen in his team earlier was not going to preclude a beneficial alliance for the moment. She swiftly slid down into the nest and looked at the last egg. She crouched next to it and ran her hands over it, noting that it was quite warm, having been in the middle of the bunch and sitting deepest in the down and leaves. It felt dry to her hands, and slightly bumpy, which at least would give her a good purchase on the shell.

She lifted the egg carefully and moved to the edge of the nest. She was barely tall enough to lift the egg to the edge, but she managed to do so after only one false start. The Genii steadied the egg as she climbed out and down. He released it to her; obviously his help was not going to extend to helping her get the egg down. She allowed it to roll back against her chest and lowered it carefully to the ground. The Phanosian and the man from the Green team had each managed to get their eggs out of the nest, without help. But with a lot of effort, and without looking at the others, hefted the eggs and left. Once Teyla had gotten her egg out the Genii went to his egg and considered it.

After several moments he removed his jacket. He placed it on the ground and rolled the egg into the center of it then zipped it up. There was a drawstring at the bottom of the jacket and he pulled it tight then tied it off. He repeated the movement with the drawstring at the top as well. He then tied the arms together. He picked up the bundle he had created and put the tied arms around his neck, supporting the egg with his arms. With a look at Teyla he stood and left the cavern.

Teyla knelt there next to the egg and considered her options. She could simply carry the egg as the first two men had, or make a sling like the Genii had. As she was thinking she left her hand on the egg, and noticed that the egg was cooling quickly from the level that it had been in the nest. She frowned. In her mind she heard the instructions that they had been given. Part of it had been that the item should be brought to the gate in the same condition that it was collected in the cave.

It would be easy, and convenient, to assume that they had simply meant that the egg shell should be intact and that was all, but she was sure that there was a level to these games which was not obvious. Strength had its value, but as Rodney had pointed out, it had little to do with trading qualifications, other than to possibly protect ones goods. She could not see that being a criterion however. So there must be more to this challenge than the stated objective.

She was familiar with egg laying creatures. There were several different kinds raised by her people, and she had tended them all over the years. As a young girl she had incubated eggs that had been refused by their mother, and had raised the hatchlings. One of the first lessons she had learned was that the temperature of the eggs was all-important. If this egg was to be viable it must be kept at a temperature comparable to that in the nest. She looked around the cavern. There were some ropes hanging from the net that covered the hole above. She cut two lengths with her knife and removed her tac vest and opened one of the small pockets. She should have everything she needed.

Chapter 8-

The second feed was heralded with a blast of music and a hearty round of applause from those waiting in the main pavilion. Ronon had just returned from a protracted run into the countryside, and Sheppard and McKay had just come back from a tour of the 'rocket ship' as Sheppard dubbed it. McKay's Ferlian friend, Tholat, had arranged for them to take the tour, and the two scientists had spent the whole thing (or time?) talking about stuff that Sheppard barely understood. If he hadn't been interested in seeing what the inside of the ship looked like, he would have gone in search of Ronon and ran a few laps of the town.

They all took seats, Sheppard making sure that they were well away from the red group. It was not hard to do with the crowd that was there. Fornal rose and did his shtick whipping the crowd into the requisite frenzy. Finally he moved aside and the screen changed to show the contestants entering a cave, one at a time. They watched as the four found the nest and the large eggs. Ronon gave a snort as he realized that Teyla would have to carry one of the large eggs back to the gate. He didn't know much about eggs, but he could estimate weight, and he knew that one of the eggs probably weighed just under half of Teyla's body weight. That could be a problem.

McKay instantly started in about how unfair the challenge was, not bothering to lower his voice. He pointed out the weight difference between Teyla and the others and how she was at a disadvantage by the very nature of the challenge. Sheppard, tuning out the grumbling, was watching the other teams and the judges. The other teams were all happy enough, obviously secure in their teammate. The Red team was looking very happy, as it was their man who had left first, the egg easily hefted in his arms. The Green team was equally chuffed about their chances, and even the Genii were looking happy, or at least as happy as any Genii ever seemed to be when they weren't taking over something. Their smiles had dimmed when their man had been helped by Teyla and had helped her in return.

Sheppard watched as Teyla removed her vest and removed several items from the pockets. The cameras cut away to show the progress of the others down the path. Red and green were almost neck and neck, which led to some interesting jostling at a narrow point on the path. Both men nearly lost their eggs as they nudged and pushed at each other. The Genii, his egg cradled in the sling, took the opportunity to pass them both, and once they noticed, they stopped the pushing contest and took out after him. The drama evidently over there, the camera cut back to Teyla in the cave who had finished her preparations.

Sheppard had to smile as he saw what she had done. She had taken the Genii's idea one step further. She had taken her tac vest, her survival blanket, a layer of down from the nest, and had put the egg on the vest and zipped it up so that the egg was inside it, cushioned in the down. She had also taken the two lengths of rope she had cut and run them through the armholes and up the vest to come out the bottom. She tied the ropes into loops and adjusted them down to a point where she could pull the vest onto her back like a pack, using the ropes to hold it in place over her shoulders. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, and the egg was not only easier for her to carry this way, but it was also protected and warm.

Sheppard wondered at why she was taking such a precaution, and the time, but then remembered the instructions that had been given to the contestants. The item had to be in the same shape as when they had found it in the cave. That presumably meant that the egg still had to be…alive, or whatever. Who knows, maybe the Ferlians needed some new livestock, and this was how they got it. Must make one huge omelette or one heck of a good sized bucket of fried chicken. Sheppard felt his optimism regarding Teyla's chances rise.

He had always trusted her to do her best, trusted all of his team to do their best. But even with his confidence in her, he had admitted that if it came down to simply muscle strength she was not going to win. But maybe since she was the only one really taking the time to care for the egg, she might be the only one that met the requirement. The others would certainly be back sooner, but with cold and dead eggs. Was her, and his, assumption correct?

They watched as she lifted her 'pack' onto a small ledge so that she could slip her arms through the loops of rope, and settled the awkward burden against her back. She staggered slightly as she stepped away, but quickly regained her footing. Sheppard knew that it could not be comfortable, and the weight must have been painful for her, but she showed no sign of it beyond a quick grimace. Then she was moving out of the cave. She was going slowly, nowhere near the pace that she must have made to get to the cave within the two hours, but she was moving. At least since she was in the rear there should be no reason for any of the others to make any move against her, even the petty pushing and shoving they had seen earlier. Which was just as well, as he didn't think he could control Ronon if the Red team's man took another shot at Teyla.

The camera cut away from Teyla as she stepped out of the cave, and back to the others who seemed to be making good time. There was little drama to be had, and so Fernal soon took back the attention and the feed was cut. Obviously no one was interested in watching people tramp through the forest. Sheppard almost expected to see some kind of commercial come on for some multi-national company selling telecommunications products, or some type of beer, but instead the feed faded back to the news and Fernal told them that the next feed would not be until after lunch sometime, once the contestants were closer to the gate, or if there was an 'exciting development'.

Sheppard sighed and glanced at Ronon and Rodney who looked almost as unenthused as he felt. This was almost as exciting as watching paint dry, almost. He was sure that Teyla was not finding it all that boring, but for those left behind it was a drag. He wondered why the Ferlians didn't have several of the challenges going at once, and just cut from one to the next like they did with the Olympics. Of course since they were using this as entertainment, along with finding new trading partners, they obviously wanted to draw it out as long as possible. Maybe they were more like the networks than Sheppard had thought. This way they got four days of entertainment instead of just one or two. Why waste the opportunity, especially since it came only once every five years.

The crowd was fading as the people started heading off to lunch. Sheppard's appetite was still slight, so he had no urge to join them. He knew that Dex and McKay would be able to eat; when couldn't they? As he didn't feel like having them nag him to eat, he came up with a different plan.

"Why don't you guys go and get something to eat. I'm going to go and make nice with our jolly host, Fernal. I want to see if I can get a read on what we might be looking at in the rest of the challenges. I think there may be a bit more to them than is obvious."

"Gee, you think?" McKay sniped. "Obviously Teyla agrees with you, or she wouldn't have taken the time to make her little pack thingy. And I point out that I was saying that there was more to this than meets the eye from the start."

"Yes Rodney, we all quail before your awesome all-knowingness. Now can you please just stuff a sock in it and go to lunch while I go pump friend Fernal for whatever information I can get. I think I'll have more luck alone than with a group. Maybe I can get him talking like you have Tholat."

"Yeah well, good luck with that. He's a little too…something, if you ask me, too smooth, too in charge. He's not going to spill anything he doesn't want known, it will ruin the dramatic tension." Rodney said, getting up and starting toward the small area square where the teams were being fed. Ronon stood but didn't follow. He was looking at Sheppard his eyes narrowed in calculation. Sheppard gave him his best innocent look of inquiry, which the ex-runner wasn't buying for an instant.

"When will you eat?" he finally just came out and asked.

Sheppard looked away with a scowl. Busted.

"I'm not really hungry. I ate a lot at breakfast and I haven't been doing much. I'll get something tonight." Ronon just stared at him. Sheppard stood and tried to look capable of looking out for himself. Ronon's look didn't change. Sheppard let his shoulders sag. "Fine. I'll eat what you put in front of me tonight. Will that make you happy, mom?"

Ronon nodded in satisfaction and went after Rodney. Sheppard watched him go, torn between the anger at being treated like a child who couldn't take care of himself and the secret pleasure of having someone, several someones in fact, who cared enough to take his bull and keep coming back. He had never expected to have anything like that in his life, and valued it more than he was willing to contemplate.

Shaking himself from his thoughts he looked around and spotted Fernal talking with some people near the door of the tent. He might as well do what he said and try to get what information he could. He put on his best smile and went toward the Ferlian.

Chapter 9-

Teyla moved off the trail to a fallen log that rested not far away. She backed up to it, and allowed the egg and pack to sit on the log as she leaned back against it. She was breathing heavily and her legs and back were sore. She had made it off the mountain and through the foothills. It had taken her almost two hours to get this far, and she knew that she was only half of the way back to the Stargate. Her pace was slow but steady, but she found herself wanting to hurry. It was not practical.

She knew that she was comparing herself to the others, something that she had decided that she would not do. While she was technically competing against the others, she somehow thought that the real competition was against herself, and the clock. She had given it a good deal of thought as she had plodded along. All claims of entertainment value aside, she could see no value in a test of strength.

While there were any number of peoples who valued strength above other qualities in trading partners, she did not believe that the Ferlians where one such people. There was another layer to this test. If, as she supposed, the condition of the egg was the actual test, then it made more sense from their standpoint. Who wanted to purchase items that had been mistreated? A conscientious trading partner was a good trading partner.

She had gotten her breath back, and she straightened, taking the weight of the pack onto her back again. The ropes bit into her shoulders, and under her arms, and she knew that the flesh there was raw, but there was nothing she could do about that so she ignored it. Moving back onto the path she kept to the steady pace that had gotten her this far. She estimated that she would be at the river soon.

There was a rope and plank bridge there. She had noticed that it was not newly built, but neither was it very old. There were signs of wear, but the boards still had their sharp edges, not the dulled roundness of aged wood. Obviously there were some people here, and this path was used regularly, if not heavily. At least it had been enough to warrant the building of the bridge. Perhaps the eggs were a commodity here, and that was why they had been chosen for the test. Once she was over that bridge the land was flat and the path ran almost in a straight line toward the gate. She would be able to make better time, even with the awkward bundle.

Ten minutes later she came to the river, and stood looking at what had been the rope and plank bridge. Now it was simply a few ropes with a few planks still attached along the lengths, being twisted and beaten by the water of the fast moving river. The ropes were still attached on this side, but she could see where they had been cut free on the other side. She felt her anger rise.

The men in front of her had had the same opportunity that she did to take care of their eggs, but they had not. Only the Genii man had taken time to do anything with the egg, and even that had been more for convenience of carrying and not for preserving it. Now, obviously one of them had been thinking the same thing that Teyla had, about the value of the egg, and what the Ferlian's would be looking for when they reached the gate, but it had been too late for them to make a change. So they had done what they could to turn the circumstances in their favor.

If only the 'dead' eggs were returned within the time limit then the person that got there first, with an intact egg should win by default. If Teyla had arrived with a viable egg, even if it was considerably after the others, then she would be the winner, she was sure of it, and evidently so was at least one of the others. The question now was which, and how was she going to get across the river.

It was too swift to cross here. And even if it had not been too swift, she suspected that the water would be too cold for the egg. She could not risk cooling it too much, and she would not be able to carry it above her head if the water was deep. She considered her situation, looking around at the bank of the river on which she stood. There was a path heading upriver to her left, but nothing going to the right. The path did not look like it had seen much use; being overgrown for the length she could see it.

She had few options. She settled the pack more comfortably, or at least as much as possible, and started along the path, pushing the branches out of the way. The going was slow, and in several places the riverbank had given way, taking the path with it. She made her way around these areas, scrambling through the brambles and bushes that lined the banks. For a half hour she pushed along, finding no fording place. The water was deep, and she could tell that it was still moving fast. She could not chance it.

She was thinking that she should perhaps turn around and go back to where the bridge had been, and try something else, when she stepped suddenly out of the woods into a clearing. What appeared to be the remains of a small hut stood at the back of the clearing, its roof collapsed inside the walls. Vines had grown over most of it, and it had obviously been many years since anyone had occupied it. But what caught Teyla's attention was not the hut, but the bridge, if it could be dignified by that name.

It was built from what appeared to be braided vines, and consisted of three lines, one on the bottom, and two on the top, strung across the water. The upper lines were on either side of the lower, and were connected to it with short lengths of vines. Obviously you were meant to cross the river by walking on the lower line and steadying yourself on the upper. Teyla had seen such bridges before, and had crossed them, though not one of such obvious age and disuse. The braided vines were tied around a large tree on this side of the river, and they looked old and brittle. She was not sure that they would even take her weight, but she had few options. What was it that Sheppard had said before, 'No guts, no glory'?

With a glance at the already declining sun, she started forward onto the bridge. The lower rope sagged down under her weight, leaving her feet in the water, but it was supporting her, at least for now. She hoped if it was going to break that it would do so while she was still near the bank. The going was difficult; requiring a lot of concentration on placing her feet, and it seemed to take a long time to reach the center of the bridge.

Having reached this milestone, she was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic regarding her chances of making it across. Her legs were submerged to the knees now, and it was harder to take the next step as the vines were now wet and slippery, and uphill from the center. She had to use her arms to pull herself along more now than she had been on the way out.

She was almost three quarters of the way across when two very startling things happened. She had just completed a step and was steadying herself for the next when the egg…shifted. It wasn't that the backpack moved; it was the egg that moved. This was not a good time for the occupant to be making its presence known. Hopefully it was just shifting to make itself more comfortable. It was good in a way, since she now knew that it was alive. She was contemplating the possible implications when the second thing happened. The bridge suddenly dropped almost a foot, plunging her into the water to her hips. She frantically glanced back over her shoulders at the other bank, and saw the vines fraying on the side of the tree. Only the upper lines were holding up the lower line and at least one of them was about to break.

She lunged forward.

Chapter 10

Sheppard was sitting in the pavilion in as quiet a corner as could be found when the screen lit up once again. Evidently the next feed was coming in. He had been sitting there for the last hour, having spent almost two hours previously battering the false cheerfulness of Fernal and several other officials, and getting nowhere.

He called to his teammates who said they were near another of the tents and would watch there, until there was a lull in the action then they would join him. He settled back to watch as the picture showed two men approaching a bridge. What followed was an almost comic pushing and shoving match in the middle of the none- too-solid structure.

Red armband and Green armband - where were the programs for this thing - where were using hips and shoulders to nudge each other aside, and finally in the middle of the bridge it all came undone for them. Red seemed to break first. He put his egg down, wedging it in a turn of the rope and practically leaped on Green's back. Green stumbled and almost dropped his egg, but managed to fling himself backwards onto the ropes, scraping Red off. Red bellowed some words that Sheppard suspected would have been bleeped on television, and attacked again. Green tried to simply outrun him, but Red caught him half way to the other bank, and dragged him down.

Green's egg went flying, but didn't break. Green and Red were now throwing punches at each other, ignoring the way the bridge was wavering under the strain of the activity. As they were going at it, the Genii appeared in the frame. He watched for a moment then edged his way around the combatants, nearly getting tipped into the river when they rolled against his legs. He made it through however and without another look, kept going.

The two continued to fight, and one of the cameras turned away from them to show the two loose eggs. Red's egg had come loose from where he had wedged it, and was rolling back and forth on the planks. Green's, in a nice twist of fate that Sheppard appreciated, had found a depressed area, and was riding out the battle rather well.

The two men seemed evenly matched, and Sheppard was beginning to wonder if the Ferlians were going to have to send in a referee when Green managed to get his feet planted in Red's gut and shoved him up and off. The man flew backward, losing his footing, and his shoulder hit his loose egg. The egg careened for the edge, and Red, realizing what was happening, tried to lunge for it. He was way too slow.

The egg seemed to teeter in a taunting manner on the edge of the bridge, and then just as Red's fingers touched it, it went over into the water five feet below. The egg submerged, then bobbed to the surface briefly, just in time for the rushing water to smash it against a sharp rock. In moments only shards of the egg could be seen floating down the river. Red armband lay on the side of the bridge staring after his lost prize. Green, no dummy, surged to his feet and grabbed his egg. He was off the bridge and into the woods before Red even looked away from the river.

It didn't take a genius or a telepath to see the thought processes on Red's face as he looked up at the camera hovering ten feet above him. He was livid. He had already lost, he knew it, his competitors knew it, and the audience and judges knew it. There was nothing he could do to make that up. His team was out. But as he rose to his feet, Sheppard knew that Red wasn't done.

The man stamped (or stomped?) toward the far bank, stopping and reaching into his boot as he stepped on the bank. A long knife appeared in his hand, and Sheppard knew then what he was going to do.

"Oh hell no!" he snapped and pushed his way through the crowd so that he was in front of the screen. Two of the Ferlian officials were standing nearby. He pointed to the screen. "Are you going to just let him do that?" he demanded of them. One of the men shrugged.

"He is already disqualified, as is his team. We can hardly penalize him further than that." He said reasonably. Sheppard scowled at him, and they both stepped backward. He looked back at the screen, and his guess was confirmed as he watched the man cut the ropes for the bridge, effectively stranding Teyla on the other side of the river. Red smirked at the ruins of the bridge and disappeared into the woods after the other men.

"How the hell can you call this a fair contest when my teammate is left on the other side through no fault of her own? She's being penalized because this guy is a sore-losing asshole!" he barked at them. They edged further away from him, as did the crowd in general. He was gearing up for another rant when the screen flickered as it did when it changed between cameras, and Teyla appeared, walking up to the bridge. He turned his attention to the screen.

He could see that some time had passed. The light was different, and the bridge was little more than a few boards tied to the ropes that danced in the water. Unlike himself, she expressed no anger at the sight, but instead studied her situation with the same calm consideration that she applied to most things. She seemed to have spotted something on the upriver side, and she was soon moving down what appeared to be an older path. When she came to the clearing and spotted the old bridge he guessed that she would chance it, even given the rickety appearance of the structure, if you could call it that.

She was edging out onto it when a voice spoke at his side, causing him to jump.

"Okay, if you're Kirk, he's Chewbacca, and she gets to be Lara Croft, who does that make me? And where are the Pygmies's shooting poison darts at her as she crosses the rickety bridge? They call this drama?"

"Right at the minute I'm leaning toward Dr. Evil. All you need is a bald cat and you'll be set. Maybe we can shave Kavanagh when we get back. Now will you shut up so I can concentrate?"

"Sorry to strain the one brain cell with multi-tasking." McKay looked around and frowned. "Why is everyone looking at you like you're going to go postal any second? I thought that was his shtick." He said jerking his thumb at Ronon. Sheppard looked around and noticed that there was a five-foot clear area around him, even in the crowded tent. Evidently he had been a bit…scary earlier. He smiled and turned his eyes back to the screen with a shrug.

"Must be my deodorant." he quipped. He wasn't going to mention his little scene. McKay gave him a doubtful look, but he saw Ronon give him an understanding nod.

Teyla was moving slowly on the bridge. He had crossed similar bridges himself in South America, though they had been made of steel cable, and didn't have as much give as this one appeared to have. It was difficult work, and he hadn't been carrying an awkward backpack with a fragile egg in it.

She was almost all the way across when she paused in mid step almost, and seemed to waiver. It was right after that that the tension in the bottom line seemed to go completely. The bridge sagged down until she was waist deep in the river. The camera, obviously operated by someone with a fine flair for the dramatic, spun around and focused on where the bridge was anchored around a large tree. The bottom line was completely gone, and they could see one of the top lines fraying even as they watched.

"Son of a Bitch!" Sheppard growled desperately wanting to be there to help her. Of course if he had been there, there was a good chance that he would be on the bridge with her, and literally up to his ass in trouble with her. She lunged forward, pulling herself with her hands, practically hanging from the top lines. He knew how much strength she had in her arms and hands, developed over years of training with the sticks, he could only pray that it was enough. She was still three feet from the other bank when the left line let go. She reacted immediately, swinging her weight to the other arm, and somehow managing to keep her torso out of the water, but how long would the other line hold with all her weight on it?

McKay had grabbed Sheppard's arm when the line went, and his fingers were biting into his flesh, but he didn't care. The scientist was chanting under his breath, 'Come on, come on, come on' in a litany that he probably didn't even realize he was vocalizing. Sheppard was sure that Ronon was probably as taught as a bow string, and ready to explode with his need to help, but he couldn't take his eyes of the screen long enough to check. He made a mental note to be sure that there were no red armbands anywhere near them as soon as this was over, though maybe if they were already disqualified a little violence against them would be overlooked…

On the screen Teyla was pulling herself ashore, hand over hand. You could see the determination on her face, the single minded drive to make it to the goal. He felt his heart swell at the sight of her. What a woman! He felt proud that she had deigned to work with them. Obviously anyone who thought she was the token female of the team had another think coming. He wished he could get a tape of this and show it to all those idiots on Atlantis who made comments about how they just kept her around for a pretty face.

She finally made it to the bank, and the crowd in the tent went wild. There was clapping and yelling and cheers. People surged forward and pounded McKay and Sheppard on the shoulders. Ronon, by dint of a scowling look, was spared the pounding, but Sheppard could tell that the Satedan was pleased and proud of their teammate. McKay was laughing nearly hysterically, a look of amazement on his face. Sheppard was sure it was because he knew that he could not have done what she had done.

Fernal, his face flushed with excitement and pleasure, stepped forward as Teyla disappeared into the forest, no doubt heading back toward the path that would take her to the Stargate, the screen faded to black behind him. He waited patiently as the furor died down, smiling benevolently at them all. Finally when everyone was calm he spoke.

"Truly the Ancestors have blessed our contest!" He began the hyperbole. "Who can say that they are not moved by the courage of the Blue team contestant? Such determination, such will power. Truly a formidable woman." His face took on a serious cast. "How disappointing that through the violent action of one team member the Red team has now been disqualified. Had he not sought to sabotage the efforts of the other team, he would not have lost his egg. As per the rules, as soon as the contestant had returned the Red team must withdraw from our celebration. Such is the way. We regret that it is so." He waved off the serious subject, and the smile returned.

"But let us not dwell on the negative when we are so blessed! The next scheduled feed is in two hours, and we should be seeing at least one of our contestants reaching the gate. But will they reach it with their item intact? Who will be the winner? Stand by to find out!" The flying cameras left, and Fernal lost some of his false cheer. The crowds started wandering away. The officials were huddling together, their faces serious. No doubt they were discussing the disqualification and how to deal with Red armband running around taking out his anger on the other contestants. Sheppard grabbed an arm of each of his teammates and urged them out of the tent, and over to the alcove that had served them the day before.

"Okay. Am I the only one that noticed that the officials were not all that whipped into a frenzy about the violence, or keeping our buddy Red from beating up the other contestants so much as the fact that the egg was lost."

"No, I noticed that, too. Gives me a real warm, fuzzy feeling about being on some other planet with the Genii chick, or even the guys in the Green team." McKay acknowledged.

"Chick?" Ronon queried with a puzzled look.

'Oh don't even ask, just add it to the things you never say to an Earth woman if you ever want to…well just don't say it. And Teyla probably already knows what it means so don't use it on her either." Sheppard warned. Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Fine, excuse my political incorrectness." Rodney snapped. "But beside that, what are we going to do about our homicidal fellow contestants? I don't know about you two, but I can't strategize while someone is trying to stick a knife in my back."

"I don't know. That's usually when I do my best strategizing." Ronon noted with an evil smile. "Usually on how to stab him first."

"Oh that's great. You just meet them on the same level, and the rest of us will look over our shoulders a lot. I'm sure that will help our performance a lot."

"Speak for yourself. I think I'll go with the stab them first thing." Sheppard said.

"Great. That should go over well. Why don't we just quit now and call it a day. That mattress killed my back last night; it's like a freakin' rock. Anyway, do you think we have a chance to win this thing?"

Sheppard considered then nodded. He really was feeling more optimistic regarding their chances. It was early in the competition, and their assignments were not exactly what they saw as their personal strengths, true, but there was something more going on than what met the eye, and Sheppard wanted to find out what it was. That meant staying and playing the game by the rules presented. He was starting to feel a little like a member of the Jamaican sledding team at the Winter Olympics. They hadn't won, but at least a reasonably funny movie had come of it, and the knowledge that they could do it. Maybe Team Lantea could get something good out of this too.

Chapter 11-

The full moons had risen an hour after the sun had set, and their silver light lit the path sufficiently to make it easy for Teyla to follow. It had taken her almost a half hour to make her way back to the path from the bridge, but she had done so, and after a short rest she had continued forward. She figured it would take another two hours to cover the rest of the way. Despite being more tired than she had been in quite some time, she was sure that she could go the distance, what she wasn't sure of, was if the egg would be intact when she got to the gate.

It was becoming a lot more active. It had gone from being a solid still lump on her back to something akin to carrying a small child in a sling. She could only hope that it would delay hatching until she could get it back to the gate. Of course if she did not arrive before midnight Elasia time the point would be moot, but she should be there with more than a few hours to spare. It had been early afternoon planet time when they had arrived, so the time here was a few hours advanced. She had time.

She topped a small hillock and in the moonlight she could see the Stargate shining in the distance. As she watched, the Stargate burst into activity, as someone either dialed out or in. It was either the scheduled check in time, or one of the other contestants had arrived. She was willing to bet that it was the second. The men should be far enough ahead of her to have reached it already. She had at least another 45 minutes as the path was not straight from here on out, twining along a small stream that passed near the Stargate.

She sighed and started down the hill, moving into the darkness of a thick stand of trees where even the bright light of the two moons could not penetrate very far. She slowed, not wanting to take the chance of tripping, and it was that slowing that saved her. Instead of taking the full force of the flying body, she was pushed to the side as the man that leapt from the shadows missed her. She staggered and fell to her knees. As she put a hand down to steady herself her hand brushed a fallen limb. She picked it up, and was happy to see that it was of a sufficient length and heft to use in place of her sticks. She rose to her feet, and removed the pack, setting it down near the base of a tree where the protruding roots would keep it from moving. That taken care of she readied herself for the one-stick defense.

There was enough light to see that her attacker was a man, but she could not make out his features. He was large, and seemed too heavy to be the Genii, though she was aware that she had enemies among them, though not as many as Sheppard. Something told her that it was he of the Red armband. The man with the Green armband had not shown any tendency to violence, whereas the Phonician had. It did not matter to her really. She was protecting herself, and there was no prohibition to that in the rules. She had no need to attack; the defensive position was more powerful now that she was aware and armed. Besides that, her opponent would be over confident. He had shown that tendency by his very action here.

The man charged, and she spun, bringing the limb down across his back as he passed. She felt it connect, and knew that it must have hurt rather badly. Her supposition about her attacker was confirmed when she heard a curse in Phonician. A small smile crossed her face. The man had not learned; (or learnt) it was perhaps time for a more permanent lesson.

The man swung around and rushed her again, arms sweeping wide to grab her. She swung the limb in a way that got optimum angle and power behind it, and connected with his solar plexus as she spun out of his reach. He doubled over, and as he did so she brought the limb down on the back of his head with a solid 'thunk'. He dropped to the ground on all fours, dazed. She leaned over him.

"If you take no further action against me I will not harm you further. If you continue in this manner I will make sure that you cannot do so. It is up to you." With that she took her limb and went to her pack. The egg seemed to be rocking gently, and she thought that she heard a small sound like a 'cheep'. The time of hatching was nearing, and she hoped she would make it to the gate. Perhaps it was time to throw caution to the wind and push aside her weariness.

She pulled the pack on awkwardly, and picked up her limb. She would not abandon it now, as it had proven a good weapon, and she was not sure if the man had learned (or learnt?). There was still opportunity for him to attack her before she could reach the Stargate, though she did not see what it could gain him. She was sure that this had all been recorded, and his actions must have been seen. Why he would actively risk disqualification escaped her.

She settled the pack, and dismissed the Phonician from her mind. She moved through the grove of trees until the moonlight once more lit the path. With one hand behind her to steady the pack and the other holding the limb, she moved to a jog, pushing her tired body toward her goal.

Chapter 12-

"Oh, now that is just completely illegal! You cannot tell me that you are not going to do something about that Neanderthal jerk!" Rodney shouted out at the officials who were standing near the screen, watching as the rest of them had as Teyla had taken down her attacker.

Her teammates had come to the tent almost directly from the dinner table where Ronon had enforced his earlier deal with Sheppard by filling the colonel's plate almost as high as his own. Sheppard had whined throughout, but had kept his end of the bargain, though he had managed to slide almost half of what appeared to be a chicken onto Rodney's plate when the Satedan had been looking the other way. Since Rodney had taken to piling the bones in the space between their plates, Sheppard just pretended they were his. The Satedan had given him the evil eye, but had no proof, so he had let it go.

When they had finished they had wandered back toward the main pavilion, simply for something to do, as it was still incredibly boring if you were not into watching the never-ending news programs. The Elasians didn't seem to be big on night life either, as most of the natives had retreated to their homes, leaving the streets to the Ferlian contingent, who seemed as a people to really like news programs.

They had just gotten to the pavilion, where the officials were just showing up for the next scheduled feed, when the screen lit up unexpectedly. On the screen was the onsite host; Sheppard had called him 'Fernal in the field'. The host was smiling broadly, a flash of incredibly white teeth in a tanned face.

"Exciting news my friends! The first contestant has arrived here at the ring of the Ancestors! Let us watch as the contestant approaches and see if we can have a word with him." The camera shifted to show a figure approaching. He was only a dark form in the night until he stepped into the lights around the gate. It was the Genii, a smile on his face. Sheppard really hated that smile. He would have rather had the Green team come in first, though if his supposition was correct regarding the eggs, it really didn't matter.

The Genii unloaded his egg from his improvised sling, and handed it to a couple of officials who stepped forward to take it from him. The host was preparing to interview him when another official stepped forward and said something. The host nodded and turned back to the camera.

"I understand that there has been an exciting development back along the path. Let us go now to see this development, and how it will effect (or affect can be used) the contest." The camera had shifted to Teyla, and had switched just in time to show the man leap from the darkness at her. The camera's obviously had a low light mode, and very ably showed Teyla kicking the guy's ass. They could hear her warning, and Sheppard knew that if it had been directed at him, he would have heeded it.

Rodney however was not satisfied with the outcome, even though Teyla had walked away unscathed. Not being one to hide his displeasure, he had stomped up to the dais, and voiced his question before the crowd and no doubt the television audience. The officials exchanged nervous looks, and went into another of their huddles as on the screen the Genii contestant nattered on about how his training and natural cultural superiority had allowed him to triumph. Sheppard wanted to throw up all that food Ronon had forced on him.

McKay had stood by, arms crossed and chin raised in belligerent inquiry as the officials conferred, Sheppard and Ronon had moved up to stand behind the irate scientist, and Ronon's dark glare was most assuredly more intimidating than Rodney's. Sheppard tried for a politely interested look, but figured he had failed when he noticed that the crowd was edging away from them again. He also noticed that the Green-arm banded contestant had arrived at the gate, and was now being interviewed. The officials broke out of their huddle, and Fernal stepped forward. He gave a signal, and the interview on the screen was quickly wrapped up and the cameras turned on him. His face was unnaturally, for him at least, serious.

"We, the judges of the contest, have been very tolerant of the actions of the member of the Phonician contingent. He was not censured for his initial act of bad faith when the contestants were given their maps, and neither were his rather…belligerent dealings with the other contestants. We are after all tolerant of the cultures of others, and understand that there are certain…mannerisms that are common to certain planets that are not to others."

"Are you saying that these Phony people are natural assholes, and so you let him ride? Can you actually be saying that? Because if you are, the Genii are from a long line of deceptive torturers, so I hope that you are willing to deal." McKay said loudly. Fernal shot him what might have been his first genuine look, and continued as if the interruption had not been made, quickly regaining his natural mask.

"The first attack against his fellow contestant, and the subsequent destruction of his egg, has resulted in his disqualification from the games for this time. Had it ended there, his team would have been allowed to enter our next contest in five years. However, given this most recent and reprehensible attack on yet another contestant, it has been decided that the Phonicians are no longer a trading partner that we wish to consider. They are now permanently banned from competition for this standing. We ask that all members of the Phonician team withdraw to your home world as soon as the gate is disengaged. This is the decision of the judges." he intoned the last as if it was words from on high, and with a sudden change of mask that would have done one of the talking heads on the news programs proud, turned back to the screen and smiled.

"Now come, let us watch as the last of the contestants arrives at the gate, and the final judging on this phase of the contest is done."

"Final judging?" That question came from Gerren, of the Genii contingent. Sheppard suspected that the man had figured out that there might be more to the contest than just being able to carry an egg for twenty miles, even a big one, but evidently he wanted it spelled out. "Our man was first to return to the gate; we are the winners!" he declared the last with the typical arrogance that Sheppard had come to associate with his people. Fernal gave him a tolerant smile.

"Ahhh, yes your man was first, but I am afraid that returning to the gate was only part of the challenge. The stipulation in the rules was that the item returned must be in the same condition that it was when found. It remains to be seen if this condition has been met." Fernal glanced at the screen, where the on site man was making some large gestures. "And it appears that we will soon have the final judging, as the final contestant has reached the gate."

Everyone watched as Teyla walked into the circle of light near the gate. She was looking frazzled, and Sheppard could tell by her gait that she was sore and tired, but her face was still composed, and gave no hint of it to anyone who did not know her well. She removed her pack slowly and handed it gently to the officials, who carried it equally carefully off camera. The host approached her, obviously wanting to talk to her. She calmly answered his questions, making it all seem very casual, as if she regularly raced time and man to carry large eggs across the countryside.

After several more moments of gratuitous babbling, at least as far as Sheppard was concerned, the judges were ready to get on with it. The contestants were told to stand behind their eggs, which were now in stands that held them upright. It seemed that Red armband had been retrieved from the forest, and was now standing, his face bitter, behind an empty stand. Sheppard noticed with amusement that the man edged slightly away from Teyla who stood next to him, acting as if she did not notice him. He also noticed that she was still holding onto the limb that she had carried with her.

After another few moments of tension-building Ferlian style ended when a screech was heard off camera. The contestants, who could obviously see whatever it was reacted by taking several steps back, Teyla raising her limb in what Sheppard recognized as the defensive position. He also noticed that Red armband took a step to the side so that he was behind the Athosian. Mister Macho. The host smiled and waved everyone's concerns aside as a bird the size of a Camel was brought into the frame. Two men, with long ropes looped around the beak and head fought to control the bird with only minor success. The only thing that helped them was that the bird wanted to go where they wanted it to go. Sheppard made a mental note to avoid that planet in the future.

"Be not afraid my friends. The Skorla is not a flesh eater, regularly at least. The bird is simply agitated because of the loss of her eggs. A problem that should be resolved soon." he said dramatically. He motioned to the men on the ropes to hold the bird away from the eggs. She wasn't pleased, and another ear splitting screech pierced everyone's ears.

"As you may recall the main condition of the contest was that the item retrieved from the cave must be returned here in the same condition as they were found. That condition includes viability. The eggs in the cave were all confirmed to be alive minutes before the contestants entered the cave. The second condition was returning to the gate by the appointed time, which was met by all but one of the contestants. The first to return was the Yellow team. Their egg will be tested first." He waved to the men, and they let out some slack, and the bird leapt forward to the Genii's egg.

The bird nuzzled the egg, then threw back its head and gave a mournful wail filled with such loss that Sheppard felt his heart go out to it. It didn't seem fair that the poor beast had to lose her eggs just so people could win a trade agreement. The host stepped forward as the bird was tugged back: crooning to herself in what Sheppard could only call sorrow. Gad (or God?), he was really starting to feel sorry for the bird. Good thing all the eggs on Atlantis were powdered from some unknown source unrelated to actual eggs, or he wouldn't be able to face breakfast for weeks.

"Oh that is too bad. While the Yellow team did return first, the egg is no longer viable. The only hope now for the Yellow team is if the other eggs are also non-viable, then they will win by default. Let us check the egg of the Green team, second to arrive back at the ring." The whole thing was repeated, down to the sorrowful screech of the mother. There were people in the crowd actually crying for the bird. Sheppard looked with disbelief over his shoulder as he heard a sniff from McKay. The scientist scowled back at him, sniffing again.

"What?" he demanded. "My allergies are kicking in. There must be something in the air." Sheppard gave him that look that said 'oh sure' and turned back to the screen as the host spoke again.

"Oh the sorrows of mother love. We cannot help but grieve with the poor beast. But there is one more chance that her efforts will not go in vain for this breeding season, the egg from the Blue team. Let us give her the chance to find out." He motioned again to the handlers, and the bird stepped forward, stretching her neck out to the egg. As she did so, the egg gave a shudder, and a piece of shell was pushed out near the top of the egg. The mother gave a hopeful chirp and leaned closer; making a noise not unlike a purr as another piece of shell was pushed out and a small beak could be seen. Moments later a head poked out of the hole that was made.

The small beast looked like its mother except it was covered in down instead of feathers, and was moist from its confinement in the shell. It pushed its way out of the shell, and stood on thin shaking legs and looked around, finding its mother hovering over it. The gargantuan mother bent her neck to it, and gave the purring noise again. The host was beaming.

"Wonderful! We can have no better proof that the egg is viable. While the Blue team was last in, they were the only team to meet both requirements of the test. Therefore it is my privilege to say that the winner of this round it the Blue team, Team Lantea!"

"HOO AHH!" The blast of sound came uncharacteristically from Ronon. His teammates turned and looked at him in amazement. McKay shook his head.

"That's it, no more hanging out with the marines for you."

"What, you're not happy she won?" The ex-runner asked with a frown. Sheppard shook his head.

"No, it's not that. We were just…surprised that's all. You're not usually so…loud."

"She deserves it."

Sheppard (?) looked back at the screen where a smiling Teyla was accepting a small medal on a blue ribbon from the host. The ceremony being over, the host quickly wrapped it up and the feed stopped. Fernal stepped up and let everyone know that the next contest would begin at the same time the next day, and reminded them that it was to be a test of intelligence. With that he wrapped up the broadcast for the night. Once the cameras had disappeared he let them know that the other contestants would be returning through the gate as he spoke. He also said that the remaining Red team members had already returned to their home planet and that the man on the other planet would leave from there.

Sheppard led the other two men out of the Pavilion and toward the gate. The stars were out, and the night air was soft with the sound of crickets. The Green team was slightly ahead of them, and the Genii were slightly behind. Sheppard wasn't too happy about that, and catching Ronon's eye he jerked his head to the side of the path. Ronon nodded and moved to the side. Sheppard grabbed McKay's arm and pulled him over, ignoring the scientist's squawk of surprise.

"What the…" he started to sputter then he saw the Genii passing by. They didn't seem too happy to have the Lanteans behind them either, but they were aware that it would look silly for them to stop. With everyone vaguely uncomfortable they arrived at the gate as it shut down. Teyla and the others stood near the DHD, waiting for their teammates to reach them.

The Green team basically patted their guy on the back and left, with not a word spoken. They didn't seem to be excessively disappointed or depressed by the loss and he kind of got the feeling that had their man won it would have been much the same. Kind of a stoic group, Sheppard thought as he watched them go, might bear some watching, but at least they didn't seem violent like the Red team's guy had been.

The Genii approached their man almost in lock step. Gerren stepped forward and without any indication of what he was going to do backhanded the man who stood waiting. Sheppard stepped forward, to do what he wasn't sure, but Ronon's hand on his arm stopped him. The man who had been hit staggered, but instead of retaliating, as Sheppard would have, he simply bowed his head in shame and when the others turned and marched off, simply followed behind. Sheppard watched them disappear into the night as Dex and McKay moved up to where Teyla stood. Shaking his head he turned to watch the reunion.

McKay, awkward as always, hung back slightly as Ronon stepped forward and grabbed Teyla in a huge hug, lifting her off the ground and swinging her around. She laughed tiredly and patted his shoulder. When Ronon returned her to her feet McKay stepped forward and offered his hand, which she met with her own.

"Really great job, I mean it. I couldn't have done it. Well, I probably could have, genius here, but not as…well…you know what I mean." She smiled at him knowing that he was pleased, and that was enough. She then turned to Sheppard who was standing back watching her with a small smile on his face. She stepped up to him.

"Colonel?" she said with a lift of an eyebrow. It was hard to read his face. She knew that he must be glad that she had won, but he seemed subdued, especially compared to their teammates.

"Teyla." he replied solemnly. Then the effort became too much and a large grin split his face. "You were great! If you weren't already on my team I'd ask you to be. Even if it meant getting rid of Rodney."


"I'm also glad to see that I'm not the only one whose ass you can kick. I was getting a complex. Now, what say we get you something to eat and let you get some rest? I'd say you earned it." With a smile he slung an arm around her shoulders and turned her toward the town. He looked over his shoulder at McKay and Dex. "Why don't you two call Elizabeth and let her know that Team Lantea has kicked some butt, and has their eye on the Gold. We'll see you back at the inn."

The two nodded and watched as Teyla and Sheppard walked toward the town. They then went to dial home.

Chapter 13-

The next morning Teyla was still asleep as the others rose and went to breakfast. She usually was an early riser, but the day before had been very strenuous and she was after all still technically recovering. It was a measure of her tiredness that she did not even stir when the men had gotten up. They had tried to be quiet, though it wasn't McKay's best thing.

Now, sitting at the table, they were enjoying the plentiful food and talking about what could be coming for Ronon. The ex-runner for his part was calm, as if this was an everyday happening, and seemed determined to eat as much as possible before he went, which of course did not go without comment from certain quarters.

"Good God, man! Are you trying to eat these people out of house and home? Some farmer somewhere has spent an entire season growing what you've just shoved down your maw. How can you even think about…thinking after eating all that?" McKay asked, while putting down a considerable amount himself. Sheppard had satisfied his own appetite with a bowl of Oatmeal-like hot cereal and some fruit. He was now splitting his attention between his teammates and the glowering Genii at the end of the long table. Without the Red team to take up the chairs in between, the way was clear for some serious scowling on their part. Sheppard simply looked back with no expression, which seemed to make them more upset. He was not looking forward to his turn with Gerren.

"I think better on a full stomach." Ronon said in response to McKay's jab. "And you never know when you can stop for the next meal, so it makes sense to eat when you can. It's also hard to think when your stomach is empty, and then you only think about how to fill it."

"So you should be ready to come up with something equivalent to the theory of relativity then, given the amount you've eaten. Let's hope that you can fake it so that the contest isn't ruined when you win within moments of getting the challenge. We wouldn't want everyone out there in television land to be disappointed. Would we?"

"I'll try not to make the others look bad." Ronon assured him with false seriousness, but Sheppard saw the twinkle in his dark eyes. To an outsider, Ronon might seem dour and humorless, even one dimensional, but once you got to know him, got past the shields built during seven years on the run, you could see the humor and feeling in those eyes. He had started to loosen up over the last several months, showing his teammates the depths of the man inside, and it made them value him all the more.

The breakfast was drawing to an end, and the march to the gate for the next challenge was about to start when Teyla arrived. She chose a piece of fruit that resembled an apple and ate it as they walked. The Genii were almost defiantly in the rear, and the Green team, aloof and quiet, were in the front. As they walked McKay shared the details of the previous night's check in.

"…so anyways, Elizabeth says not to get over confident and said I should remind you about a certain soccer game on the mainland two weeks ago."

"Okay so I got a little over confident with the soccer. How was I to know that Cadman was a ringer? She should have been on my team anyway. It was supposed to be me and her and the kids against Carson, Elizabeth and the scientists." Sheppard grumped. It was still a sore point that the game had gone against him. Cadman, it turned out, was an all-star soccer player in high school. Carson had conveniently developed a sprained ankle right before the game, and Cadman had gone to the other team while one of the other marines had taken her place on Sheppard's team. They had been soundly whipped.

"Can we say sore loser, Colonel?" McKay sniped then waved a hand, as Sheppard was about to protest. "Overconfidence aside, I assured Elizabeth that we had the upper hand and the momentum to make it through. Since there is obviously more to these tests than what is stated, we only have to figure out what they are really after, and make sure that we are doing it, and we should come out ahead."

"And you do not believe that our opponents will figure this out as well?" Teyla asked skeptically. McKay's confident smile slipped a little.

"Well…I guess they could have gotten a clue from the first round. You'd have to be pretty dim not to but…well; we'll just do it better than they will. We're more technologically advanced and…"

"You're not gonna start saying that we have God on our side are you, because I'm gonna have to hit you if you do." Sheppard interrupted. Ronon smirked at him. Sheppard had no doubt that during his time in the military he had been indoctrinated about 'right is on our side'. It didn't take long when you were in a war to find out that 'right' had a lot of different meanings.

"Yes, yes, then we must all remember that we have the physical prowess side covered as well. Thank you for that reminder. Why do I suddenly get a picture of that 'Agony of Defeat' guy from World of Sports?"

"Jeez Rodney, you've just swung from total domination to ignominious defeat in the space of five seconds. Mood swings much?"

"I'm just saying that while we may have a certain…intellectual advantage, we have to be on our toes. Hell, you think if we lose to the Genii they'll ever let us live it down?"

"Well by all means we have to keep our pride, McKay." Sheppard said mock seriously with a roll of his eyes to his other teammates.

"Oh yes, the mocking. I knew that we would get to the mocking. Thank you for getting it out of the way so early so that we can move on to other, more important things." Rodney snapped as they arrived at the gate. Fernal was waiting on the steps, the Stargate already engaged. The cameras were flying all around and three went through the event horizon as Fernal started to speak.

"Good morning all! The Ancestors have blessed us with another beautiful day here on Elasia, and on the planet Herta as well, which is where our next challenge shall take place. Could I have the contestants for this round join me here?"

Ronon looked around at his teammates with his usual lack of expression. Predictably it was McKay who spoke first.

"Don't forget to try to figure out what the real challenge is. They say intelligence, but what do they really mean? You know what I mean?" he asked. Ronon just stared at him and McKay stuck out his hand for a shake. Ronon returned the gesture and turned away to Teyla with a smile that McKay couldn't see. She smiled back at him and they bumped foreheads.

"I am confident that you will do your best, and that it will be sufficient to the challenge." she said. Ronon nodded to her and turned to Sheppard who gave him a punch on the shoulder in the approved manly fashion.

"Go get 'em Big Guy. I know you can do it." he said with a smile. He hoped that Ronon could read the confidence he felt in his eyes, but which he could not express through words. The big Satedan gave no sign as he nodded, but Sheppard thought that he might have stood a little taller as he turned to join the other contestants on the steps. Fernal did the blessing thing, and then gestured the contestants through the gate. Ronon looked back over his shoulder as he followed the Genii contestant through, and saw his team watching as he went. He would not let them down.

Chapter 14-

Ronon stepped through the gate into a very hot day. In fact it was like a furnace. The land around the gate was all sand and a low prickly-looking brush with small whitish leaves. As soon as he stepped out of the gate Ronon surveyed the entire area around it, looking for routes of escape, possible dangers, or hidden enemies. Old habits died hard, and as it turned out, they had paid off well in his time with the Lanteans.

This time he saw only the desert landscape, the brush, and another pavilion. The 'too smiley' guy from the planet that Teyla had visited, stood before them with, no surprise, a wide smile on his face. The flying cameras moved to take up position behind each contestant and another hovered to the side to focus on the host. He raised his hands in greeting as the gate was being redialed from this side, no doubt to allow the 'viewers' to hear what the challenge was at the same time the contestants did. There was a delay as various people spoke through what he assumed were communicators and finally the host turned back to them and indicated that it was time.

"Welcome contestants and viewers. We are ready to begin the second of our challenges. The Ancestors willing, we will see an exciting contest. But let us delay no longer, to the challenge. As you know this challenge is one of intelligence. The contestant that wins this contest will complete all phases within the time allotted. Unlike the previous contest, it will not end here at the ring; instead the contest will end when the first contestant reaches their goal. And now it is time to reveal that goal." He gestured dramatically to two men standing slightly behind him, and a curtain was drawn aside.

It revealed a map of a facility. A very large one, that appeared to be buried beneath the surface. The host moved to stand beside the map. He indicated what appeared to be an access point.

"This facility is one left by the Ancestors. It was found over ten years ago. The access tunnel is located three miles from this place, and it not easily found. The first challenge is to find that entrance. Once you have accessed the facility your goal will be to get to this place." He pointed to a large room in the center of the facility. On the schematic it appeared to be a room suspended in a massive shaft. Three catwalks led into it, and it seemed suspended by them. Perhaps it was a control room that could be isolated from the rest of the facility for some reason. After allowing them the chance to look at the map for several moments the host gestured and it was covered once more.

"To make this a true challenge of intelligence there is an addition difficulty. Once a contestant reaches the center, they will be given a random crystal. But they will not be able to see the crystal. However, they will be able to see the crystal of their opponents. If all contestants make it to the center then there will be three crystals. At least one of the crystals will be blue, the other crystals may be blue, or they may be white. Only a person with a blue crystal may enter the central room. The contestants may cooperate and reveal to each other the color of each contestant's crystal. Such cooperation could have a serious outcome, as it may determine who will win. Or, the contestants may choose to attempt to figure out the color of their crystal by observing the crystals of their opponents, and acting independently."

"And if you try to enter the room with the wrong color crystal? What happens then?" Ronon asked. It seemed to be the only important question. He knew he could find the facility, and get to the center room. It was the whole crystal thing that mattered. The host smiled at him in a manner that reminded him of an early teacher and a particularly slow student. He didn't like this guy.

"A fair and intelligent question from the Blue contestant." he said heartily, making a move as if he were going to slap the Satedan on the back. Ronon scowled at him, encouraging him to rethink that particular choice. The host moved nervously away from him, and tried to cover it with another smile, but it was forced. "To attempt to enter the room with a white crystal, will cause the contestant considerable pain. It seems to be part of the defense system. It is not fatal, but it is temporarily debilitating." He didn't seem to be bothered by the thought, but then he didn't have to worry about it. The host smiled at the contestants and waved his hand again. A large readout showing three hours was displayed.

"You have three hours to find the facility and arrive at the center. If any contestant is not there at the end of the allotted time, they will not be allowed to attempt to access the central room, and will be unable to complete the challenge. Failure to reach the area means that their team will lose this round. Time begins…now."

As soon as the word 'now' was out of the host's mouth, Ronon was out the door of the pavilion and moving in the direction of the facility at a jog. He had plenty of time, so there was no use in wearing himself out before he got to the facility. He suspected that there was going to be more to it than simply finding the entrance and walking down the corridor to the central room. There was something about the way that the host had so casually mentioned getting to the central point, and the fact that they had three whole hours to do it.

Ronon had gotten some very up close and personal experience with Ancient facilities over the last several months, and few of them were as straightforward as they might first seem. He mentally shrugged to himself. He would worry about that when he got there. He became aware of footsteps behind him, also running. A quick look showed him that it was the Genii, and he caught sight of the Green team man behind him. Evidently they had decided to follow him. That was okay too. In another time and place he would have killed them before going to do what had to be done, but this was not that time or place, and somehow in the months since he had come to Atlantis, he was not that man anymore. No longer was everyone else the enemy. Now, he figured they could follow all they wanted. They were not the opponents here. Time was the enemy now, and later it would be the mystery. He would save his energy for that. So that he could win.

Chapter 15

The screen cut off as Ronon took off out of the pavilion. Sheppard could imagine him running in that ground-eating lope that he could keep up for hours, toward the entrance to the facility. He had no doubt that the ex-runner had memorized the map in the minutes it had been displayed, and that he would find the facility before anyone else could unless one of the others just got lucky. He had come to realize that in matters like maps and layouts that the Satedan possessed a near photographic memory. Ronon had told him that the Satedan troops at his level were trained to memorize maps at a glance, and he had been very good at it. It was a handy trick, and Sheppard knew that it would pay off for them now. He looked at Rodney who was staring at the screen in a sort of memorized fugue. Sheppard reached over and backhanded him on the arm.

"Rodney, you finally blow a fuse on that thing you call a brain? You look like you're gonna start drooling any second now. What's going on?" he asked, suddenly concerned. Maybe Rodney had seen something he hadn't. McKay's blue eyes turned to him, and Sheppard felt his concern ebb away. He recognized that look. That was the 'I really need go there, I so want to play with that, I've got to have that, right now' look. McKay started to speak, but Sheppard cut him off.

"No, we can't go there now."



"We could…"


"All we would do is…"

"No." There was silence for a moment as McKay considered his next argument. Sheppard could practically hear the gears grinding. He noticed Teyla smiling gently at them from where she stood on the other side of McKay. He smiled at her with his eyes, keeping his face neutral. McKay started again, hands as eloquent as his words, as usual.

"Okay, we can't go now because of the challenge. I get it. But we can make note of the gate address and see if we can get a copy of that map that they have. Even if the Ferlians have carried off anything lying around, that doesn't mean that there aren't other things there. Did you see the size of the facility? And that might just be the sections that they were able to access. You know that we've found facility after facility that have rooms only accessible by gene carriers. From the size of what they HAVE found that has to be a very important place. Maybe even one where ZedPM's are produced. Certainly it was something important. We have to go there, Colonel."

Sheppard had listened to the impassioned speech with a blank face, taking a lesson from Elizabeth who he had seen listen with every appearance of complete calm, to speeches that would have any other person slack jawed with amazement, shaking with fear, or blazing with anger. He knew he had pulled it off when McKay glared at him, and he had to let the smile out. Well he couldn't be expected to be as good at it as Elizabeth was.

"We'll get the gate address when they dial in again, Rodney, and make sure that we pay the planet a visit in the future. About the map though, I got a feeling that they aren't going to be too happy about sharing that. After all we're kinda their competition when it comes to Ancient technology." He could see McKay winding up to complain, no doubt something about the uncooperativeness of gene-challenged peoples when Teyla put her hand on his arm.

"Ronon has seen the map up close. He will be able to recreate most of it from memory, and will actually be in the facility itself soon. He will be able to act as a guide. Surely that is better than any possibly incomplete map, and we will not have to trade anything for it." She said practically, defusing McKay's incipient tirade in the way only she could. He nodded, his mind already processing the possibilities.

"Yes, yes. You're right. Why trade for something that is useless. Ronon can lead us in. We also should be able to see something in the next broadcast. I can't see them showing us the three of them trekking through the bushes looking for the entrance, that would be extremely boring, but once they get inside we should get a feed. Then we should be able to see something of what's there."

"In the past we have found few Ancient facilities that were…hospitable to non-Ancients, even those who have the gene. Does it not seem likely that it will not be as simple as finding the entrance and going to the center? Why else would there be three hours allowed?"

"She has a point." McKay conceded. The Ancients did seem to be exceedingly paranoid when it came to securing their facilities. The fact that the paranoia was justified when it came to the Wraith didn't help those who came after the fact however. "He's been with us in several facilities, and has heard about what the other teams have found. He should be able to get through." For McKay it was a rousing endorsement.

"When's the next scheduled feed? Did either of you hear. I've taken to tuning out the hosts for the most part."

"They are…disturbingly happy." Teyla noted. "However the host did say that the next feed would begin when the first contestant reached the facility. I believe that Ronon will be able to find and access the facility within an hour, so we should be at the gate at that time. We should then be able to obtain the gate address." Her teammates nodded. She noticed that Sheppard was watching the Genii who were standing not far away. "Do you think that the animosity between us and the Genii team is due to some affiliation with Kolya or Cowan?" Sheppard shook his head.

"I think if they were, no rules would have kept them from firing on us in the pavilion. I know that Gerren at least recognized me, and probably the rest too. Those wanted posters were everywhere. They probably used them to frighten children at Halloween."

"They might not be aligned with our favorite Nazi-wannabe aliens, but you can tell we aren't exactly on their Christmas list. I think if they could get away with it they would happily push us off any convenient cliff." McKay noted with a glance in the Genii's direction. It seemed that with so little time for the challenge all three of the teams had decided to stay near the gate. Either that or the others had the same idea about finding out where the planet was. After all they were all here because they wanted to trade with the Ferlians for Ancient devices; an Ancient facility would be a draw for any of them. 'What do we do if they attack us? Can we fight back without violating the rules?"

"The rules say that only those instigating violence will be disqualified. As I was not disqualified when I defended myself against the man from the Red team, I believe this to be true. There are too many witnesses here for them to make any attempt, and even when you are in the challenge the cameras are always there, watching. I do not believe that they will take the chance of being disqualified, even for revenge."

"Besides Rodney, I think you can take her if she makes a move on you." Sheppard said, nodding toward the Genii female who was in the same challenge as McKay.

"Oh Ha Ha. Have I mentioned how not funny you are Colonel? Anyway, I think that Gerren is the one to watch in that group. If looks can kill you would be a small greasy spot of smoking hair gel." Sheppard smirked at him and glanced around. There were only a few spectators here. Evidently most of them were back in the town, sitting in the pavilions out of the sun. He spotted an open place under one of the trees near the gate in the shade, and nodded toward it.

"What do you say we get out of the sun? If we have to wait we might as well be comfortable. We can see the DHD from there too." His teammates agreed and they headed toward the shade with McKay complaining about his lack of sunscreen. They settled down in the shade to wait for the next development.

Chapter 16-

Ronon slowed to a walk as he neared the area that he had seen on the map. He mentally reviewed what he had seen, comparing the actual land to the representation. He was aware that the Genii and the man from the Green team were not far behind him, though they had slowed down considerably over the last mile. The going had not been easy, rocky and uphill. Ronon had almost enjoyed stepping up the pace as they had gotten to the uphill section. It was like running with Sheppard in the morning, part of the fun was challenging the other runner.

He scanned the area and his eyes were drawn to a section of cliff. The outcropping, rising up above the area was gray for the most part, and rounded by erosion, except for one section where the angles were sharp and abrupt. That wasn't natural. He started forward and when he reached the cliff he pulled aside some of the vines hanging down over what appeared to be more rock. Putting a hand against it, he could tell that it wasn't rock. It was cool, and had the same feel as the walls of Atlantis. He pulled back more of the vines and found the activator. He pulled out his gun, and with a final look around he reached out and activated the door.

There was a rush of cool air as the door opened, and a corridor appeared before him, with the lights coming on as the door opened. Before he could step into the corridor he heard a sound behind him and he spun, gun coming up. The Genii stood about thirty feet away, his arms coming up as he saw the weapon. Ronon gave him a glare, and the man took a step backward.

"What is found can not be unfound Lantean." the Genii said. "Go, take the lead. I gladly will let you lead me to the center. You obviously have the advantage...now. That will change when we meet the final challenge." As he spoke the Green team contestant appeared on the path behind him, and stopped as he saw the tableau before him.

"If you are going to kill each other can you finish and get out of the way. I wish to complete the challenge within the time given." he said after a moment of silence. Ronon gave him a small smile and put his gun back in its holster. He looked into the doorway of the facility and down the corridor, thinking. He looked back at the two men, who hadn't moved. He jerked his head toward the corridor.

"Have you been in an Ancestor's facility before?" he asked. Both men shook their heads. "Are you armed?" There was a pause then the Genii carefully took out one of the projectile weapons that Ronon had seen before. It was similar to the Lantean's pistols, though a little cruder than and not as powerful as the 9 mils. The man from the Green team shrugged and pulled out a knife. Though Ronon wouldn't really call it a knife, as it didn't appear to be suited to anything more than cutting a steak from what he could see.

"The Ancestors often left traps in their facilities when they abandoned them. There's no telling what might be in between the central area and us. If we work together we'll have a better chance of getting through in time."

"The Ferlians must have already accessed the entire facility. They would have disarmed anything dangerous. Why should we think that we would encounter any problem?" The Genii asked. The answer came from the man from the Green team.

"They may have indeed defeated the defenses when they arrived, but that means that they also could re-initialize those defenses for the purposes of this challenge. They have given us a generous amount of time to reach this place and find our way to the center. This leads me to believe that our Satedan friend is correct in his assessment of possible dangers lurking within. I agree that working together would be the wisest course. If the final challenge is as they describe, it would be advantageous to have all three of us instead of two or even one." Ronon blinked at that logic, not quite sure what the man was getting at, but he looked to the Genii to see what he thought. It didn't really matter to him in the end what they thought. He had offered because having the three of them working together raised the odds of him reaching the center. After that, as far as he was concerned things got really simple.

The Genii considered for a moment, then nodded in agreement. He moved forward and so did the Green team man. Once they were all together the Green team man looked at the others and smiled slightly.

"My name is Taris, from Thela. May I ask your names? It may be enough for our viewers," he waved at the cameras that were jockeying for position above them. "to refer to us by the colors of our armbands, but I find it rather impersonal for men with whom I am facing a challenge." The way he spoke reminded Ronon of Dr Weir, educated and somehow soothing.

"Ronon, of Sateda and Lantea." he said briefly and looked at the Genii.

"Kelar of the Genii." With the last, Taris smiled at them.

"Very well. We are met and ready. What is the plan now?" He looked down the corridor. "I believe I have memorized the shortest route, do you think that it is wise to take it?"

"I don't think it will matter which route we take. If there are defenses they will operate wherever we are. We might as well take the shortest route we can, though we might have to make a detour." Kelar said. He looked at Taris and then Ronon. It didn't take a genius to see the disdain in his eyes as he looked at the ex-runner. "I don't imagine either of you know anything about the Ancestors' technology."

"Just enough to know what can kill me and what can't" Ronon ground out, and pushed the Genii aside to step into the corridor. "That's all I need to know right now. Now let's get moving." He started down the corridor, gun in hand, and senses alert. There was a moment of hesitation and then he heard the other two moving behind him.

Chapter 17-

Rodney had his PDA out and ready to use and was staring at the DHD as if it were going to leap up and make a break for it any moment. When the gate actually did start dialing in, he jumped several inches in surprise, causing Teyla and Sheppard to share a smile. As soon as the symbols started to light up, the scientist started inputting them into his PDA. As soon as the gate locked he gave a sigh and saved his file.

"Got it!" he crowed. Sheppard nodded absently as he noted that there was some movement in the Genii group. Gerren's back was being used as a desk as the female wrote something on a piece of paper. No big secret about what that might have been. A quick look at the Green team showed a similar scenario taking place. It seemed it was going to be standing room only at the Ancient facility once this was over. The scientists from the various worlds would be fighting over who got to do what. Sheppard found himself amused at the thought of a geek smack down. He would back Rodney against all comers in THAT particular arena. The man could cow a scientist from 50 paces with that mouth of his. Maybe he could get a pool going with his grunts. They'd bet on anything.

Fernal was rambling on again in his usual manner, and as Sheppard had said earlier, he had managed to tune out most of the chatter. He expected if there was anything important being said, his teammates would keep him appraised of it. As it was he kept an eye on the other teams until the feed started on the screen that had been set up near the Stargate. The camera showed Ronon approaching what appeared to be a cliff face when it first came on.

Sheppard expected the Satedan to simply head on in, but the other two men showed up before he could do so. There was some talking, and it ended up that Ronon suggested that they go in together. At Sheppard's side McKay nearly exploded.

"What in the hell is he doing? This is a contest! You don't cooperate with the enemy. Didn't anyone explain the concept to him before he left; was he paying any attention at all during the briefing?"

"I believe that Ronon understands exactly what he is doing Dr. McKay. As he told the others, there are probably defenses that they must pass before they reach the final challenge. It is simply common sense to seek the help of the others." Teyla said calmly.

"Oh sure. I guess you guys don't have the parable of the Scorpion and the Frog here." McKay snorted. At Teyla's puzzled look he continued with a wave of his hand "Let's just say that just because it makes sense to cooperate doesn't mean that the others might have changed their basic nature. The Genii don't like us, and are more likely to hinder rather than help, even possibly to the point that they lose themselves. And who knows about the Green team guy. For all we know they could be closet sociopaths who simply like to play with their victims before they strike." He saw Sheppard staring at him in amazement. "What?"

"Jeez Rodney, paranoid much? That was over the top even for you. While I can't say I disagree with you on the Genii, on general principle, you've gotta admit the guy from the Green team looks like someone who could be on one of your science teams. He probably doesn't weigh more than 150lbs and Ronon could probably bench press him without breaking a sweat."

"I agree with the Colonel, Dr McKay, though I am prepared to give the Genii the benefit of the doubt. It would be wrong of us to assign evil intent to others simply because we do not know them. These men were chosen for the test of intelligence, surely they will see the practicality of working together." Teyla added. McKay shrugged.

"Fine. Everyone is all puppies and sunshine until they prove otherwise. Just don't come complaining to me when we have to go scrape Ronon out of the bottom of a mine shaft somewhere with a knife in his ribs."

"And where exactly would this mineshaft be in an Ancient facility, Rodney?" Sheppard asked facetiously. McKay was about to reply, when Teyla gasped, her gaze on the screen. Sheppard spun around and looked to see what had startled her, and found himself gaping.

On the screen the three men who had been working their way down another corridor, after having gone down a flight of stairs had thrown themselves into the shallow protection of two different doorways as three silver globes shot around the corner in front of them. The globes, slightly larger than the cameras that evidently were hovering near the ceiling out of the way, and reminded Sheppard even more of the Wraith scout globes than the cameras did. However these globes had a new and different twist. As they came around the corner, the smooth silver outer hull seemed to suddenly explode into a ball of blades.

The deadly looking globes careened toward the men, bouncing off the doorjambs, as their trajectories did not allow them to turn into the doorway. A few more passes showed those watching that the globes seemed unable to turn tightly enough to get at the men, however that didn't help the contestants too much as they could not leave the doorways. Ronon stuck his head out far enough to track the globes after one pass, and lost a portion of a dreadlock when one of them made a close pass.

"Oh that ain't gonna go over well." Sheppard observed as Ronon looked down at his severed dreadlock. The runner was very fond of his hairdo, and didn't like anyone messing with it. Ronon pulled out his gun and took aim at one of the globes. The globe dodged the beam, and it left a scorch mark on the wall instead. Ronon was forced to duck back into the doorway as another of the globes made a close pass. Several more tries yielded the same effect, and Sheppard could see the Satedan was getting frustrated, and ready to make a move that could get him hurt, if not dead. He needed to stop and think about what had been happening, not go off half-cocked.

"Come on Ronon, think about it. Think about what you've seen. They always do the same thing. There are three of you, use it." Sheppard whispered under his breath, not noticing the strange looks from his teammates. He stared at the screen, trying to send his thoughts to Ronon.

Chapter 18-

Ronon ducked back as another of the globes swooped in, trying to slice him as it passed. He glanced at his pistol, checking the charge. So far he had been unable to hit any of the globes. They were able to dodge faster than he could change his aim. He looked back up, and looked into the eyes of Taris, who was in the doorway across from Ronon and Kelar who shared this doorway.

"We must work together to defeat these things. When you fire at them they dodge. But they do so in a predictable way, and move in predictable paths. When you fire at them they tend to move up. Also, there seems to be a particular globe that is aimed at each of us, and it does not vary. They will not strike at another. If you, Kelar, would fire at one with your pistol, I believe that Ronon should be able to hit it as it dodges upward to avoid the first shot. I will draw the globe to me, and you two shoot it."

Ronon and Kelar exchanged glances and a nod. The Genii took out his pistol and got ready. Ronon also readied his pistol and looked over at Taris who nodded. He watched as the globes hovered at the end of the corridor, waiting for one of them to expose themselves. He leaned further out and one of the globes started toward him, gaining speed. Taris hung out of the doorway until the last second, and then dodged back as Kelar fired. As Taris had said the globe shot upward to avoid the projectile, and Ronon's shot hit it dead on. The globe exploded in a rain of shrapnel, and pieces flew all over the corridor. One of the other globes shot toward Ronon's arm, but he pulled it back into the doorway just in time. Taris was grinning at him from the other doorway. Ronon frowned at him as he saw a trickle of blood flowing down the side of his face. Taris saw the direction of his gaze and raised a hand to wipe at the trickle.

"It is nothing; a piece of metal hit me when it blew up. I vastly prefer it to the alternative." He looked down the corridor where the two remaining balls had regrouped. "Now for the next one. I am afraid I must ask one of you for your weapon." He looked from Ronon to Kelar. The two men exchanged looks and Kelar shrugged. Carefully putting on the safety, he tossed his pistol gently across the corridor, mindful of keeping his arms inside the doorway. Taris caught it and held it awkwardly.

"Do you even know how to use it at all?" Kelar asked in contempt. Taris slid the safety off, and looked across at his Genii counterpart.

"We are not the warrior/scientists that you Genii claim to be, but I have fired one before. It should be sufficient since Ronon will be doing the actual destruction. I trust his marksmanship meets with your approval?" he said with a fake smile. Kelar ignored him and looked down the corridor. He turned to Ronon.

"What would be the best angle for you? Should I move out from here and go to that side, or come back this way?"

"Go out and across. That will give me the best shot without exposing myself to the other one." Ronon said. He was not particularly happy about this for some reason. It was solving the problem, but there was something in the back of his mind that was bothering him. He could almost hear Sheppard's voice in his head warning him to be cautious. The problem was that the tactician wasn't here, and the voice didn't say what to beware of. He was also unhappy with the thought that he was going to have to give up his weapon. If it had been to one of his team he would have not problem, but with these men… He pulled his thoughts back to the present as Kelar jumped out of the doorway and paused in the middle of the corridor for a moment as the globe started toward him. As it accelerated towards him, he jumped toward the opposite doorway, and Taris fired. Ronon aimed up and to the left, and the globe moved directly into the path of the energy bolt. Shrapnel flew again. He looked over at the two men.

Taris peeked down the corridor at the remaining globe then back at Ronon. "I believe that I should keep the pistol, as I am not sure of my aim. Kelar would make better use of your weapon."

Ronon studied the Genii for a moment, meeting the dark eyes, and seeing nothing other than a polite disinterest. He looked down the corridor. He might be able to take out the globe on his own, but it would probably take several tries at least, and there was no reason that the others would have to wait for him now. He needed to do this. The goal was to win the challenge, and he would do what was necessary to not let his friends down, even if it grated. He put his weapon on safety and reversing it, tossed it to Kelar. The Genii caught it, and stood looking down at it for a moment as if familiarizing himself with it. When he looked up though, it was with a sly grin, and he slid the safety off and pointed it not down the corridor but at Ronon, who stiffened.

"Too trusting. I didn't expect it of you, Runner." he said with a sniff of disdain. With his free hand he reached over and wrenched the pistol out of Taris' hand. The other man was looking at him in astonishment and didn't resist. Kelar put the pistol in his holster and stepped out into the corridor, keeping near the wall and well out of Ronon's reach. He laughed at the glare the ex-runner sent him as the globe ignored his presence. In a few steps he was to the turn and with a wave was gone, followed by his camera. Ronon turned his glare onto Taris. It wasn't as if the man had betrayed him like Kelar, but then he hadn't stopped him either. Taris met his eyes hesitantly and shrugged.

"I am sorry my friend, but I am not a warrior. It would have done little good for me to protest." He cast a glance down the corridor, and then down at his empty hands. He edged towards the open area and stepped hesitantly out, sighing when the globe did not move. He looked back at Ronon, who was staring at him expressionlessly. He smiled slightly and sighed. "I also regret that I am going to take advantage of the situation. I will at least spare you the rationalization about how my people need this trade agreement, as I know you are not interested." As he spoke he edged down the corridor staying close to the wall. With one last sorrowful glance at Ronon, he disappeared after Kelar.

Ronon spat out a series of Satedan curses that would have had his mother tanning his hide with the nearest switch and looked around the corridor, looking for a way out of the situation. His anger still boiled, but in his time with the Lanteans he had learned something that had been missing from his previous training. Always before his emotions had been channeled to action, but in watching Sheppard, and to some extent even McKay, he had seen the value of channeling emotions to thought. Planning before action if there is time. He had the time, now he needed the plan. His eyes roved the corridor for several minutes, finally coming to rest on the camera that hovered just outside his doorway. A small smile curve his lips as he reached for one of his more obvious knives. He thought that Sheppard would approve of the plan that had just come to him.

Chapter 19-

By the time that Taris slipped around the corner and out of sight, leaving Ronon alone trapped in the doorway, Sheppard was on his feet and pacing, his face expressionless, his hands were balled into fists. It was only with the greatest act of self-control, and the stern look from Teyla, that he did not pull his sidearm and express his…displeasure with the Genii. He supposed it wasn't their fault, but still…it really pissed him off. It also made him that much more wary of any future dealings with Ladon Radim's government. All profession of friendship and rapprochement aside, if your people could so casually betray an ally, why would the government be any better? The Genii had not even looked their way as their teammate had slunk off, taking Ronon's weapon and his best chance of getting away from the globe with him. The other team, the Green team-the Thelans, had the grace to at least cast anxious and embarrassed looks in their direction when their teammate had followed the Genii. They were all of similar build to their compatriot, and had struck Sheppard as a typical bunch of scientists, though he had come to know that just because one was a geek didn't mean you didn't know how to handle yourself, at least with a little guidance. He glanced at his own geek.

Rodney McKay didn't need a sidearm to fire on his enemies. He used his best and most powerful weapon to make sure that everyone in earshot knew exactly what he thought about what they had just seen.

"Oh that is just peachy! Why didn't he just give them all his knives while he was at it? They may need those later. Isn't he a team player? Doesn't he see the intelligence of working with the others?" Rodney was on his feet as well, glaring at both the Genii and the Thelans. He smirked in satisfaction as the nearest Thelan cowered back from his look and edged away. "Doesn't that give us the right to shoot them or something?" he asked of an official who had the misfortune to be passing. The man looked uncomfortable, but stopped and nervously looked from McKay to Sheppard and then Teyla. It was to her he spoke; obviously feeling she was the most coolheaded of the trio.

"While the actions were most…. regrettable" He looked nervously at Rodney at the Scientist's snort of disdain. "They were not against the rules." Teyla raised an eyebrow at him, and took a step closer. The man's face paled, and Sheppard had to hide a smile as he watched yet another man come to the conclusion that the female of the species was indeed the more dangerous.

"Then perhaps the rules need to be changed." she said coolly. "Surely you would not wish to trade with a people who would so easily betray their allies? Are we to assume that you are so tolerant of it because your government approves of such actions with the justification of 'necessity'?" The official was in active retreat now, but Teyla followed him, moving further and further into his personal space, and her voice rising so that it carried to everyone nearby, which Sheppard was sure was the plan. "If that is the case, we may have to re-evaluate our desire to trade with you. We need no other allies who find their honor is…negotiable." Sheppard smiled wolfishly at the Genii as he heard the emphasis on the word. This time the group had turned to look, no longer able to ignore the Lantern delegation. The official, clearly choosing discretion over valor, turned without a word and walked swiftly towards the small pavilion where the other officials were standing, watching with wide eyes.

Teyla turned back to her teammates, but not before her eyes fell first on the Thelan group and then the Genii. Both groups avoided her eyes, turning back to the screen where Ronon was evidently still trying to figure out the best course of action. She raised an eyebrow at the two men, smiling slightly at McKay's undisguised look of approval, and settled again under the tree, as if nothing untoward had happened. Rodney was about to comment when a murmur went up among the watchers. Their attention was pulled to the screen.

As they watched, Ronon looked directly into the camera that was hovering just over his shoulder and down the corridor a little. Evidently whoever was controlling it had gone in for a close up. Sheppard saw something in the Satedan's eyes, and knew that he had come up with a plan, and the small spark of humor he saw there made is own lips curl in anticipation. Oh this was going to be good. The ex-runner pulled a knife seemingly out of nowhere, and flipped it in his hand so that he was holding it by the blade. After that the action became almost too quick to follow, if you blinked you missed it.

Ronon stepped into the corridor, and the remaining globe started toward him, gaining speed as it approached. When it had gotten within ten feet Ronon threw the knife with an almost casual grace, and with the same movement reached up with his other hand and grabbed the camera still hovering behind him. The last thing they saw on the screen was the camera careening toward the globe, which could not dodge. There was a wild burst of static then the screen went blank. The crowd was completely silent, jaws hanging open. Almost as one their eyes turned to the rest of the Lantern team, who stood in a line, eyes on the screen. As the crowd turned to them, Sheppard and McKay seemed to dissolve into howls of laughter, and fell to the ground clutching each other. Teyla had a huge grin on her face and her deep laugh could be heard over Sheppard's whoops of joy and Rodney's crowing. The tilt of her chin both showed the pride she felt in her teammate and dared anyone to say anything against him. No one did.

Chapter 20-

Ronon made quick time following the memorized path to the center. There were a few small booby traps on the way, though nothing as active or high tech as the globes. He noted on one that there was a smear of blood on the wall, and took that to mean that one of his opponents had tripped it previously and hadn't been quick enough to evade it as he did. He couldn't quite stop the grim smile at that crossed his face, and was just as happy that a new camera had not been assigned to him. He wouldn't want to ruin his image.

He was well aware how what had taken place must have looked like to his teammates, and how they must have taken it. He was sure that they had made their opinions regarding it clear to everyone. If it were he in the Farlians' place, he would be doing some pretty close looking at possible trading partners. They would have to be stupid to not see the inherent problems in dealing with a people that would betray allies in such a way, even for something as unimportant a game. Something he was sure one of the others would point out to them. As it was he was the injured party here, and he intended to milk it all the way, until such time as the appropriate revenge could be taken. He had a few ideas about that.

Avoiding the last trap, he stepped through the last door into the central area, stepping out on a walkway over the open area. It reminded him of a scene from one of the movies he had watched with his team, a massive hollow cylinder of metal with a ball suspended in the middle seemingly held in place by four walkways. Around the outside of the "ball" was a larger walkway where the other two contestants and two officials stood. A quick glance showed Ronon that it had been Taris who had fallen victim to the booby trap in the corridor, as a bloody bandage was wrapped around his right arm. Both of the other contestants now wore a harness with a small pocket on the back of it between their shoulder blades. He assumed that it would hold the crystal they were to be given. As he entered, one of the officials looked up from a small device in his hand.

"Ah well done Blue team!" The official said with one of the fake smiles Ronon had come to expect from them. He assumed that they were broadcasting again, as there were three more cameras hovering in the open space around the 'ball'. He was amused to see that they all maneuvered away from him as he neared the group. "You have met the deadline by less than three minutes. Glory to the Ancestors for making our contest truly exciting by having you all here."

He was given a harness of his own and he slipped it on, settling it into place. He didn't think much of it, but it was part of the game, and he was playing to win, so he would go along with it. After way too much talking, all for the benefit of the 'viewing audience' the choosing of the crystal began. Each contestant went to a small curtained area and stood with their back to a split in the curtain. As they stood so a crystal was placed in the pouch on their back. It did not take long for all three to have their crystals. They were led to an open area and stood in a rough triangle facing each other. One of the officials stood in the middle, and smiled at them. He prattled on for a while longer until Ronon was ready to take off the harness and strangle him with it just to get this over with, even if it meant they lost. Finally the man stopped and indicated that each contestant should turn around, allowing the other two contestants, and the audience, to see what color crystal they had. He reminded them again that only a person with a blue crystal, of which there was at least one, could enter the center room without being subjected to extreme pain.

In the end, each contestant would know what color the others had, but not what they had. The test was then, for each contestant to step to the door and make their decision. If they believed that they had the blue crystal, they should step forward and enter the room. If they believed that they had a clear crystal, then they should refuse to step forward. If the contestant did not have a blue crystal, and stepped forward, they would feel the pain. If they refused to step forward and had a blue crystal they would automatically be disqualified. It did not matter in the end which color crystal you had, as long as you could divine which it was when it came to a choice.

It all seemed a little…what was the term Sheppard used…hokey, to Ronon. Why not just do this at the gate, or even back where they had started? All this staging for the audience was grinding on his last nerve, and he was beginning to wonder what exactly the humans saw in their 'Olympics' if this was the same thing. Who wanted to sit through a bunch of useless stuff if the only important game took place at the end? Why not just do what you wanted to do, then watch just the final contest to see who won? How bored did you have to be to sit through everything else that didn't matter? He hadn't ever been that bored.

The official had finally stopped talking and each contestant turned to show their crystal. Ronon could see that Kelar had a blue crystal, as did Taris. They were then given five minutes to consider their choice, in complete silence. Ronon wondered at the last, it wasn't as if any of them were going to help the others out by revealing the color of their crystal. He leaned back against the railing around the walkway, and let his mind drift. There had to be a logical way to figure this out, and while logic wasn't one of his familiar weapons, like a knife or his gun, which he was going to beat out of the Genii as soon as this contest was finished, he still could think logically when it was necessary. Sometimes your life depended on it.

At the end of the five minutes the official called them forward to stand in front of the door. He said that they would go in the order they had arrived at the center, and Kelar stepped forward. The official caught him by the arm and led him to stand before the door. With what sounded to Ronon like a prayer in a language he was not familiar with, the official asked for Kelar's choice. The Genii confidently refused to enter the room, his whole demeanor saying he was sure of his choice. Ronon could not contain a snort of amusement as the official reached back and pulled the blue crystal out of the pouch at Kelar's back. The Satedan took a great deal of satisfaction from the dismay that flashed across the Genii's face. Being shown to be wrong in front of so many viewers was probably worse than being beaten, not that the beating wasn't going to happen. As Kelar stalked angrily away Ronon just happened to stand to stretch. Just by coincidence he bumped into Kelar. His gun just happened to fall out of Kelar's belt and back into his holster. Since everyone was watching Taris stepping forward to choose, he doubted if anyone would have noticed. Kelar's outraged look showed that he had however, but Ronon's smile and his hand on the reposed gun made sure that the man made no move.

Taris stood through the prayer and then with a moment's consideration hesitantly stepped forward into the central room. There was a flourish of recorded music from some mechanical device, and the official was happily praising the Ancestors for their grace. Taris was looking relieved, and anxious all at once as he moved aside to allow Ronon to step forward. It was now up to Ronon. Either they would split the points with the Thelans or they would lose like the Genii. The Sadetan ignored the praying and waited more or less patiently to be able choose. As soon as the man finished, he confidently stepped forward through the doorway.

Chapter 21-

Back on Elasia, everyone was glued to the screen, as they had been since Ronon had stepped through the door from the corridor. Sheppard was pretty sure that they were waiting for the violence to break out, but he knew Ronon. The man might tend to the 'eye for an eye' mode of behavior for the most part, but he wasn't stupid, and he knew that the team was counting on him. He saw the look he threw at the Genii, and had to hide a smirk. The man was going down. It was just a matter of when. At his side Rodney was practically dancing with anticipation, as the explanations seemed to go on and on. Finally Sheppard turned to look at him.

"Do you need to use the little scientist's room Rodney?" he drawled, and smiled as McKay frowned at him.

"Do these people talk just to hear themselves yap?" he paced back and forth in front of Sheppard as the official continued to talk. "They told us all this back in the beginning. If you have the retention of a turnip you shouldn't be in the intelligence contest. Can't they just cut to the chase?"

"Glass houses and stones, Rodney." Sheppard said with a roll of his eyes at Teyla who was wisely staying out of the conversation. She did smile a little however when Rodney puffed up and tilted his chin in the familiar way he had.

"Genius here." he said with a wave in front of Sheppard's face. "Everything I say is significant. This," he pointed at the screen. "is prattle. I could have gotten this back home, from any number of idiots on my staff." He was obviously revving up to continue when Teyla broke in.

"I believe they are about to get their crystals." she pointed out as the first contestant, the Genii, went to the small curtained enclosure. The man was given a crystal and he stepped away, allowing the man from the Green team to step in, then Ronon followed. The camera angles were carefully planned so that they could not see what color any man had. There was more talking, which made McKay just about burst, but he was hastily shushed by Teyla as the first man stepped forward. It was the Genii. Rodney booed, glaring at those who turned and looked at him, mainly the Genii group. The rest seemed to be slowly edging away from them. Sheppard fought the urge to sniff himself. Maybe they just didn't like his aftershave; then again it could just be Rodney's delightful personality. At a stern look from Teyla the scientist quieted. They could now see that the crystal in the Genii's pouch was blue. Had he figured it out?

Sheppard couldn't stop the fist pump and the ringing "Yes!" that seemed to burst out of his mouth when the Genii chose to not try the door. He shrugged at Teyla and grinned unrepentantly at Rodney who grinned back.

"Better than shooting him, although I don't think Conan would agree with me." he quipped. Teyla, who had been watching the screen closely, smiled.

"It seems he can now do so if he has the urge." She said with a nod at the screen. The two men frowned at her, not understanding and looked for themselves, trying to see what she saw. As the cameras panned around, it was predictably Sheppard who spotted it.

"He got his baby back," he said with a smirk. Rodney frowned at him.

"What the hell does that mean?" he looked back at the screen where the official was praying over the Green team man and his blue crystal. He snorted at that, his mind no doubt cataloging the increased possibilities, and then frowned at Sheppard and Teyla. "What?"

"Wait for the camera pan around to Ronon again. What does he have that he didn't have before?" Sheppard teased. The scientist looked back, and when the camera caught the Satedan again he looked closely. He almost didn't get it, but then he saw the familiar hand gesture.

"He got his gun back!" he chirped. "How'd that happen? What did I miss?" Sheppard shrugged.

"Don't look at me. Teyla saw it." He pointed to the Athosian. She smiled, pausing to answer as the Green team man walked into the room. There was an outbreak of music. The odds had just gotten slightly worse for them. Ronon needed to make the right choice, or they would be tied with the Thelans. Teyla, still calm and assured spoke so that her voice did not carry.

"When the Genii was moving back out of the way, Ronon bumped into him. He took the gun back at that time. The look on the Genii's face was not pleasant, but I believe he chose the wise path and refrained from making a scene." Rodney harrumphed.

"Maybe he was the right one for the intelligence test after all, despite his rather poor showing. Hey," he looked at the screen. "Here comes Conan." They all watched as Ronon stepped forward. Rodney let out a crow of triumph as the color of the crystal was revealed. I knew it! As soon as I saw the other two blue I knew it. But will he?" He nervously shifted from foot to foot as the prayers wound down. He was practically vibrating by the time Ronon was finally free to act. When the Satedan stepped confidently forward, with no hesitation at all, he leapt into the air with a screamed "YES! Take that you Genii-!"

Sheppard clamped a hand over Rodney's mouth, ignoring the evil look from the scientist. It didn't stop him from grinning like an idiot himself as he listened to the music playing again and the flights of near ecstasy from the official. Teyla was grinning just as wide, and she gave both of her teammates a hug. They were still ahead.

Chapter 22-

It was two hours later before Ronon could step back through the Stargate. The trip back had been long, made at a slower pace than the race to the complex as the officials had insisted on them all traveling together. But they had finally made it back, and Elasia was dialed. He waited for the rest to go through, then stepped through himself, and found what he expected to find. His team was waiting for him.

Teyla stood a little in front of the others, her smile wide and genuine. As he came down the stairs she drew him down for an Athosian greeting. He was always most aware of the differences between them when she did this, and the similarities. She was so small, so seemingly delicate, but he knew her to be strong and powerful. Her strength came not from muscle, but from character, and he could feel it in her when they touched. He pulled back from her with a grin, comfortable to be showing his emotions with her.

He found Sheppard standing behind Teyla, a huge grin on his face. He reached out a hand, and they grabbed each other's forearms. It was more than a handshake. It was a meeting of equals, congratulations, and an acknowledgement that he had done well. He could see the pride shining for him in Sheppard's eyes, and it felt good. Sheppard pounded his shoulder with his other hand.

"Way to go, buddy. I knew you could do it." It was said with such conviction, that Ronon could not doubt the sincerity. Sheppard had indeed known he could do it. He released Sheppard's arm, and turned to the third member of his team. McKay stood there with arms crossed, and a thoughtful look on his face. There was pride shining in his eyes however, and Ronon knew that whatever of their usual banter might come out of that mouth, the scientist was as proud of him as Sheppard and Teyla were.

"Nice to know that hanging out with me finally rubbed off some, Conan. Good guess." McKay finally said. Ronon smiled at him and with no warning he reached out and grabbed the shorter man. He swung him up and around and let out one of the yells he had been taught in training to use when charging the enemy. McKay let out a squeak of fright, and grabbed at Ronon's shoulders as they spun. He was already complaining as Ronon put him back on his feet. "You couldn't do that with Teyla?" he sniped, trying to settle his vest back down where it belonged. He looked secretly pleased under the bluster, as he tended to do when he was included in what he declared as the nonsensical display of testosterone-fueled male bonding.

"You're just jealous, McKay," Sheppard noted, as they all began moving toward the village, walking four abreast, bringing up the rear of the procession. "You have to admit you couldn't have done better yourself." McKay started to protest, but with a sideways look at Ronon, who was walking beside him he shrugged and nodded.

"True. I did have it worked out, but tell me, Conan. How did you KNOW? The odds were that your crystal was clear, but you didn't even hesitate. Don't tell me you're that into pain. I mean taking one for the team is highly overrated."

"Yes, Ronon. I too would like to know how you figured out that you had a blue crystal. I was not sure until the cameras showed your pouch. How did you know?"

Ronon paced along with them for several moments, simply enjoying the warmth of the sun, the smells of dinner cooking in the town ahead, the companionship of his team, and the impatient looks of McKay at his side. Finally he started to speak.

"I had a pretty good idea when Kelar, the Genii failed, but it was when Taris hesitated before he chose, I was certain that I had to have had a blue crystal too." he said simply. At his side McKay was nodding his head. Teyla, walking on the far side of Sheppard leaned forward and frowned at him.

"I do not understand? How did how they chose, beyond the color of their crystals, make you sure?"

"It all depends on who was doing the choosing. I got to know them in the short time we were there. I got to know how they thought. How they chose was based on what they saw on me and the other player. There were only so many possibilities, I counted on them to figure them out, and that let me know what I had to have." Now Sheppard was frowning too, and McKay's head was bobbing like a Casa bird casing fish.

"So you knew from the explanation that there had to be at least one blue crystal among you, but in fact you could see that there were at least two, so that information was useless to you." Sheppard speculated, a thoughtful look on his face. "You would have discarded that information. So the question became are there only two, or are there three blue crystals? It's an easier question. The mathematical probabilities changed."

Ronon shrugged.

"I don't know from mathematical probabilities, but I knew them, and how they would react given a set of possibilities. They were smart, they would have thought they figured it out in their own way, and I used that to tell me what they saw when they looked at my crystal." he said. Teyla was still looking puzzled, though she, like the others was ignoring Rodney's near to bursting look as he held back from explaining it all to them.

"I do not understand either the probabilities or the possibilities. Please explain." she asked.

"When Kelar thought his crystal was clear I was pretty sure that mine had to be blue. He would have seen two blue crystals, and would have made his decision by going with the odds. The odds said that his crystal was clear, at least they did to him." Ronon explained. He could see Teyla considering it, and saw Sheppard purse his lips, and knew that the colonel had probably figured out his train of thought. It was finally too much for McKay however, and he rushed to fill in the rest.

"Then when the other guy went forward and hesitated, then you KNEW it had to be blue." he said triumphantly. Teyla and Sheppard looked at him with nearly identical frowns.

"Rodney," Sheppard said with a falsely stern tone. "This is not your story, let Ronon tell it his way. Go ahead Chewie, you tell it." McKay huffed out his annoyance, but motioned for Ronon to continue.

"McKay's right. When Taris hesitated I knew that my crystal had to be blue, too. The only reason that Taris would hesitate would be if he wasn't sure of his choice. He was guessing, and that meant that he went against the odds."

"And that meant that he had to have seen two blue crystals on the others.' McKay finished. At the exasperated looks from Sheppard and Teyla he threw up his hands in disgust and glared at Ronon. "Are you trying out to be one of those host guys? Just get the story over with so we can go to dinner already." he huffed defensively. Ronon hid a smile and continued.

"If he was guessing, that meant he had to think that he could have a clear crystal, but he wasn't completely unsure, since he didn't dither around."

"So because his response was the opposite of the Genii's, you figured he was thinking the same thing, but reacted differently because of his personality. Good going Chewie! We'll buy you an extra drink at dinner tonight." Sheppard said with a slap on Ronon's back.

"The drinks are free." Ronon deadpanned, knowing what would be coming.

"Well then, you can have as many extra as you like, and we, as your grateful team will carry you to bed when you pass out as your reward." his leader graciously offered as they turned the corner into the square where the large tables waited, already stacked with food.

Ronon smiled at him, and then at Teyla and McKay. He felt the pride swell in his chest. He had brought his team a victory, and they were proud of him. It was enough for him. He didn't need anything more.

That night the feasting was extra jolly, except for the Genii team who grimly worked their way through their food and then disappeared into the crowd. Sheppard was not sad to see them go, as he had noticed Ronon's eyes turning toward the man who had been his opponent several times throughout the night. He was pretty sure that only Teyla's steadying influence at his side kept the Satedan from jumping up on the table and striding down to grab the man by the throat. In any event, it was a nice evening, and the drinks were as generous as the food, though Sheppard restrained himself, and was pleased to note his team did as well.

Teyla and Rodney went to check in with Elizabeth, leaving Ronon and Sheppard sitting at the table with half full tankards of the local ale. They were going to have to trade for some of this stuff with the Elasians when this was all over. It might not be high tech, but it sure tasted better than the jungle juice that was currently being produced by the Mark VII, Radek's latest generation still. Admittedly, there was no longer a danger of going blind from over imbibing the noxious brew, but you had to be dedicated to drinking yourself stupid to do more than take a sip. The ale on the other hand was a fine brew to sit and talk over, letting the mellow taste roll over your tongue. Sheppard was doing just that when he saw Ronon's eyes lock on to something behind him.

It wasn't the 'Watch out, you're about to get a knife in the back!' kind of look, or even the 'here comes Weir and she looks pissed!' look. This was something new. This was a disappointed, wary look. At a loss to explain it Sheppard turned to see what, or who, was there. He saw the Thelan contingent standing about twelve feet away, laughing and joking merrily as they evidently headed toward their own rooms, still carrying tankards and a single pitcher of the local brew. There was a geek party in the making if Sheppard had ever seen one.

Ronon's eyes were locked on one of them in particular, the one that seemed to be the center of the jolly group, still getting pats on the back from his colleagues. If Sheppard wasn't mistaken, this was the man that Ronon had called Taris. In a way, he had gotten the impression that Taris' betrayal had hurt Ronon more than Kelar's had. He wasn't sure why that was, but he thought that he was reading the situation correctly. Ronon had more depths than most people suspected. Sheppard tried not to underestimate those depths.

As Sheppard was starting to turn back to Ronon he saw Taris look their way, and knew that he had met Ronon's eyes when he first went pale and then flushed a bright red. The laughter faded from his face, and he brushed aside the hands of his teammates and stepped hesitantly toward where Ronon and Sheppard sat. To his credit he did not break eye contact with the ex-runner, and he ignored the calls of his group to leave it be. He came to a stop standing next to Sheppard.

"I know that I have little right to ask anything of you. But if you would grant me the favor of a moment I would appreciate it." he started, obviously addressing Ronon. The Satedan nodded once, his face blank. Taris dropped his eyes to the table as he spoke, the words tumbling out quickly as if they could not wait to be said.

"I wanted to apologize, again, for leaving you there without your weapon, after you had helped me to be able to continue. It was…unethical of me, even if it was not against the rules. I cannot say that I regret the outcome of the contest, but I do regret that action. Upon reflection it was…petty. I think that, as with my research, I became too focused on the goal, winning the trade agreement, and did not consider the consequences of my actions. In the end, I realized that if you had not made it to the central point in time, the odds would not have improved. In fact, given that all the crystals were blue, there would have been no chance of being able to draw a logical conclusion about one's own crystal color with only two of us. With two, each of us would have seen a blue crystal and then would know only that there was a fifty/fifty chance that our own was blue as well. There would have been no input from another person to evaluate," He chanced a look at Ronon, and Sheppard could see the man's intelligence in his eyes. "Input that you put to very effective use and as the last to have arrived, you had the benefit of both of our responses in making your decision. As I watched you, I came to believe our Genii counterpart may have miscalculated, and I went along with him. I will not make such a mistake again soon." He shuffled nervously under Ronon's continued silent regard, glancing at Sheppard as if for some reassurance. Seeing nothing there beyond polite interest, he turned back to Ronon.

"It may mean little to you, but I am glad that you also guessed correctly, even if it means we get only half the points." With that his courage seemed to abandon him and he turned quickly away, gathering his now sober teammates about him and heading toward the inn.

Maybe that geek party wasn't going to be so great after all. He looked back at Ronon.

"Well, you sure are popular with everyone tonight." he observed. Ronon, who had been watching the Thelans leave, looked back at him with the same blank face. Sheppard shrugged and finished off his ale, seeing that his teammate was not going to be drawn into a discussion. No big surprise there. However, there did seem the need for some tension to be released. He pushed to his feet and stretched. "Feel like a quick run around the town before bed? I could use a little exercise."

Ronon shrugged a shoulder and finished his own ale. Sheppard thought that there was a lightening of the darkness that had been in the ex-runner's eyes when he had come back from the contest. Some of the anger from the betrayal was gone. Maybe the apology had been accepted. He grinned at Ronon, backing slowly away from the table and lining himself up with the nearest alley that would take him toward the edge of the village. "Tell you what: I know you intellectual types are kinda out of shape so I'll take it easy on you." With those words, he turned swiftly and broke for the alley, running full out. He heard Ronon's growl and the scattering of silverware and plates as the Satedan leapt onto the table and gave chase. The things he did for his team.

Chapter 23-

The next morning found the Lantean team up and moving well before the sun rose. They had received word the previous night that the contest would begin just after dawn, as the officials anticipated an extended time would be necessary for the completion of the game. Rodney had been nervous and edgy, which meant he had managed to irritate and annoy all of his teammates within minutes of his rising. He complained about the mattress and how he had tossed and turned all night. When Ronon pointed out that the rest of them had been kept up by Rodney's snoring, the scientist had waved the protest aside as being ridiculous and suggested that it was Teyla who had been snoring. He had then proceeded to babble constantly about possible scenarios of doom and gloom resulting from his inexperience in tactics. Finally, seeing that Ronon was about to explode, and even Teyla looking like she would slap the scientist silly if he said one more word, Sheppard grabbed McKay's arm and dragged him away from the table where they had just finished breakfast. He hustled the protesting scientist into a small alcove not far from the tables, where they would be able to hear what was going on in case the officials decided to get things started, but would still have some privacy.

"Look Rodney, you have to calm down or you are going to lose this thing before you even start." he said seriously.

"Oh great, no pressure then! Great pep talk there Colonel, I feel so much better." Rodney sniped in his usual tone. But even with his bold front Sheppard could see the nervousness in his eyes. For a man with as much ego as McKay, there were times when there was a serious lack of self-confidence in evidence. Usually it was when something physical was in the offing; anything outside his familiar territory, and he became doubtful. But, give McKay a scientific problem and he was on it with all cylinders firing. Sheppard sometimes pondered what childhood traumas had formed that particular character trait in his friend, but he didn't want to ask. He doubted if he would get a real answer anyway, and now was not the time for armchair psychoanalysis. It was time to reframe the problem.

"Look Rodney, you're always telling us that you are the greatest thing since sliced bread when it comes to science. Tactical thinking is no different from trying to find out something in the lab. You set up the parameters for an experiment in order to gain the most knowledge about whatever you are studying and to get the best results in the end. In fact, if you set the parameters right, you get the results you want, whether they are true or not. It's the same thing with tactics. You study the enemy to find out how they think, and try to set up your own parameters to have the result you want. It's true that there are more variables in the field, but still, there are a lot of variables in any experiment; say the impact of the Lorenz chaos theory on the study of light particles entering a black hole. There were over four hundred possible variables cited there, and counting last I heard. You can do this. It's what you are trained for, even if it's called something else."

As Sheppard finished speaking he could almost see the thought process kick into gear in Rodney's head. The arguments were pulled up, studied, and abandoned with lighting speed. Finally Rodney blinked, and Sheppard saw the usual confidence rising in those blue eyes. The stubborn chin tilted up. The colonel felt a small smile starting on his lips. He had him.

"You're right, Colonel. I am trained for this and I am good at it, better at it than anyone else in this contest…" He looked at Sheppard with pursed lips "Present company possibly excepted...in terms of field tactics at least." He stood up straighter and pulled down his vest; the light of determination was growing in his eyes. He looked around for the officials and started toward them, almost absently drawing Sheppard along with him by one arm. "Well, when are we going to get this show on the road? I didn't get up early just to stand around while everyone nattered over their morning tea. Which by the way, I should mention is a particularly bad substitute for coffee, as I don't think there's any caffeine in it at all. How do they expect us to be at our best when we are deprived of the basic building blocks of nutrition?"

Sheppard hid a grin as he thought about the amount of food that Rodney had eaten. He was pretty sure that no 'building blocks of nutrition' had been missed. Rodney suddenly stopped and turned to face Sheppard.

"You read my paper on particle acceleration near a wormhole?" he asked seemingly out of the blue. There was a pleased note in the seemingly casual question.

Sheppard smiled gently at him and patted the hand that was holding his arm. "I've read all of the papers you've published since we came to Atlantis. Can't say I've understood them all, at least not beyond the math parts, but I've read them." He was happy to see a pleased smile grow on his friend's lips.

"All of them...really?" There was that self-confidence problem again.

"Yeah, really." He was becoming uncomfortable under Rodney's gaze. He had read the papers because they were important to his friend, and he had felt it was the least he could do, even if, as he said, he didn't understand much beyond the math. Call it support for a teammate. It wasn't something he wanted to discuss to death. Over McKay's shoulder he saw the officials rising to their feet and the cameras started to gather overhead. He turned McKay around as he started to say something and directed his attention to the men.

Fernal had moved to stand at the head of the table as Sheppard and McKay rejoined Ronon and Teyla at their places. The men that Sheppard had mentally designated as 'stage managers' were gesturing wildly for silence, and soon the Master of Ceremonies was directing his blinding white smile at them all.

"Friends!" he exalted. "We have no words to describe our pleasure at the spectacle that the Ancestors have provided for us. Can you not feel the tension rising as we move on to the next contest? The stakes are raised now. This contest is worth four points. As you know the first contest was worth three, the second four, and the last contest will be worth five points. Our current standings are as follows; the Blue team is ahead with five points!" He paused for a round of rousing clapping, most provided by assorted Ferlians who were standing in the area. Sheppard had a feeling that they were there solely for that purpose as it seemed early for a crowd to have gathered. Not one to be a party pooper, he added a shrill whistle to the din, followed by a "Go Team Lantea!". His teammates stared at him, and he shrugged. At least he hadn't painted any part of his face blue. After the clapping had died down, Fernal continued.

"In second place with two points is the Green team!" There was another round of clapping, though Sheppard noted that the Green team simply joined the clapping and didn't add any other noise. No team spirit there it seemed. "And last, with no points…. yet, is the Yellow team. But do not despair my friends. There is a chance to catch up, and indeed to still win." He smiled upon the Genii who collectively glared grumpily back at him. Not morning people Sheppard noted, too bad. Fernal seemed to notice that they were not getting into the happy spirit, and moved quickly on.

"And now to the particulars of the day's contest. There will be no need to travel through the ring of the Ancestors for this contest, as it will take place here in a nearby field. As the glorious sun rises on our endeavor, we will now travel to the field of battle so that we may engage in the test of Tactics." As he was speaking a minor official came by and handed Teyla a packet. She pulled out the papers and looked them over. She frowned.

"What, what is it?" Rodney asked, stopping just short of grabbing the papers from her, as he no doubt realized that they were in a language he did not understand. Instead he practically vibrated in place as she continued to read. Finally she took pity on him and looked up.

"Do you recall the game I described to you, Genill, that you said was similar to your Chess?" she asked. He nodded, gnawing his lower lip. "The contest is to be a game of Genill, for three players, but there are some differences…"

"What! I spent the entire night sweating bullets over a game of Chess?" Rodney demanded, ignoring an official's attempt to shoo the group toward the alleyway. He glared at the man who retreated nervously. Sheppard hid his smile and looked at Teyla.

"What kind of differences?" he asked. She had described the game to him as well, and it was indeed very similar to Chess. The pieces were of course named differently, but they moved in the same ways with only a few differences. One of the historians on Atlantis had told him that nearly every ancient civilization on Earth had developed a game similar to Chess and that they were finding that here in the Pegasus galaxy it was the same story. It was thought that this was because it had come in one form or another, from a game played by the Ancients. The historians as a group had been in near transports of delight over the possibilities.

Teyla frowned and scanned through the papers again. "I am not sure that I fully understand the instructions that they are giving. It seems that they are indicating that some of the pieces are to be replaced with people, and that a certain amount of violence will be allowed."

"Violence? What's violent about Chess?" Ronon asked. He hadn't thought much of the game when Sheppard had tried to teach it to him. It had been similar to a game played on Sateda, called Shadat, but he hadn't liked that game either, too much sitting still. He preferred something more physical.

"If I am reading this correctly, we three," she indicated herself, Ronon and Sheppard, "will take the place of three of the pieces, one a soldier, what you call a Pawn; one a wise man, what you call a Bishop; and one the mistress, the Queen. It will be the same for the other teams. In the course of the game should a piece be lost, then the attacker, if it is one of the real people, may strike at the person representing that piece, once. No lethal weapons may be used, but I need not tell you that sufficient damage may be done with one blow from even a non lethal weapon."

"It's freaking three way Battle Chess." Rodney said in disbelief. "Are they gonna boot it up on their Commodore? Did they get the Harry Potter movies before we did?" he ranted. The official was practically biting his nails in anxiety as all the others had now left, and he had no doubt been charged with making sure that the Blue team made it to the field of battle. Sheppard decided to cut the man a break and grabbed Rodney by the arm and started toward the alley. The scientist went along reluctantly. Time for that pep talk.

"It's still Chess, Rodney." Sheppard reminded him. "And who better than you to play Chess?"

"I don't know, may be…. you!" McKay gasped as they moved into a trot after the relieved official. It had been a matter of some disgust to the physicist to find that Sheppard was not just his equal in the game, but was actually that much better. His opponent did not intimidate the colonel as many had been before, and had a strange chaotic style that defied all logic, but which worked nonetheless. Rodney had not yet found a way to win consistently against the man. He couldn't help but think once again that Sheppard would have been the better choice for this challenge.

"You will do fine Dr. McKay. I, WE, have every confidence in you." Teyla assured him. Sheppard and Ronon nodded in agreement. McKay noted she wasn't even slightly out of breath, but then neither were the other two. He really needed to think about some kind of regular exercise. Maybe when he finally got that grand unification theory thing worked out he'd look into that.

They were soon approaching a very large tent that had been set up in a field. There was a crowd already forming around the outside of it, with several monitors set up, evidently so that they could see what was going on inside. As they passed through the crowd, various people called out to them with well wishes or predictions of doom. McKay tried to ignore both, but found himself building on the predictions of doom. There was so much that could go wrong here, not the least of which was his lack of familiarity with the game. He needed to have Teyla read the instructions to him word for word, and go over the moves of the pieces again.

The official hustled them inside, casting a sorrowful look at Fernal who stood waiting on a small dais just inside the tent. The rest of the area seemed to be taken up with what at first appeared to be a series of scaffolding. After a moment McKay realized that it was a walkway, no doubt surrounding the 'game board'. He was pretty sure that it was from there that he and his fellow players would conduct their game, with an overview of the board. All of a sudden something clicked. He grabbed Sheppard's arm in a steel grip.

"Oh my god!" he exclaimed. "There's three of us playing, playing against each other." He said it as if Sheppard hadn't been there all along. The colonel looked at him strangely and nodded.

"Yeeaah." He drawled out the word. Teyla and Ronon simply looked on in puzzlement. Rodney shook the arm he held, making Sheppard wince with the power of his grip. Rodney's exasperation grew. The man could be so obtuse sometimes.

"I know you took advanced game theory, Colonel. It is part of any mathematics degree course of study. Even if the soft sciences have tried to glom onto it and use it for lord knows what predictive measure, it is still a valid mathematical model. If you have three people playing a game, there are only so many possible ways that it is going to work out."

"That may be true." Sheppard conceded, not pretending to not understand what McKay was saying. "But that is true of any game, no matter how many players you have. It just ups the odds. That is where the tactics come in. You know the possibilities; now work with them; make it come out the way you, we, want it to. Von Neumann and Morgenstern would approve I'm sure." Rodney stared at him in disbelief.

"You just completely disregarded the entire life's work of not one but two Nobel Laureates." he said in disbelief. Sheppard grinned at him.

"They've been dead for at least forty years Rodney. I don't think they are going to care."

"I care. Their work on three-person theory-" he was interrupted by Teyla's hand on his arm.

"As…interesting as this conversation is Dr. McKay I believe that Fernal is awaiting you on the dais with the others. Perhaps you should join them there." she said with a nod to where the Master of Ceremonies was looking over at them with an impatient look. McKay released Sheppard's arm and with a last withering look at the colonel, to let him know that the discussion was not over, he strode toward the dais. It was time to do this.

Chapter 24-

As McKay stomped toward the dais with all the good grace of a prisoner on his way to the electric chair, Sheppard became aware of his remaining teammates staring at him. He looked back at them and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "What?" He murmured as Fernal started babbling something about blessings and traditions. Gad that man could talk more than Rodney.

"What were you and Dr. McKay speaking of, this 'game theory'? It seemed to upset him greatly." Teyla asked.

"And what does it mean to us now?" Ronon threw in. Sheppard stared at them for a moment, and then looked back at the dais. Fernal was still rambling on, so he pulled the two Pegasus natives to the side, near one of the walls of the tent and spoke quietly.

"Technically, game theory is the mathematical analysis of any situation involving a conflict of interest, with the intent of indicating the optimal choices that, under given conditions, will lead to a desired outcome." They looked blank. "It's the science of figuring out all the possible moves in a game before they can be made." They both nodded.

"In a two person game, it is pretty easy to figure out what the goal is, and in a regular type of game, what moves you have to make to get to the desired ending, winning." he went on. "But, when you add a third person or group, things get a lot more complicated." He could tell he was losing them a little bit again. He tried to think of a way to best illustrate his point. His eyes fell on one of the Genii, who was staring at them. There it was right there.

"Think about it this way. Say this whole thing with Atlantis, the Wraith, and the Genii was a game. We know what the desired end solution is; it is survival. Now, think about what goes on. We fight the Wraith, the Wraith fight us, the Genii fight the Wraith, the Wraith fight the Genii, we fight the Genii, and the Genii fight us. Those are the basic 'moves' that are made. But then the complications come in. Sometimes, like when we needed an atomic bomb, the Genii helped us fight the Wraith. Now that we are…allies, we have given the Genii some help when THEY fight the Wraith. We cooperated, and have expanded the possible moves to include us and the Genii against the Wraith.": he paused. This next bit was not very palatable, but he was trying to explain this as best he could, and the point was there.

"Now think about Kolya and what he did when he kidnapped me. He used a Wraith to torture me, so technically it was the Genii and the Wraith against us. They were conspiring, though not really. And there you have yet another possible move. Then there was the Wraith and I. We cooperated against Kolya and the Genii, yet another move. Do you see where I am going with this?" He had some other examples, for instance Michael and his Queen and the plot to overthrow the rest of the hives, but he didn't think he was going to need that. Now that he had put it into terms that were familiar to them, he could see that his teammates understood.

"And it is the same here." Teyla said. "Since there are three opponents, it will be natural for two of them to 'gang up' on the third, so as to rid themselves of a common enemy, and then fight it out between themselves. If they are confident in their own abilities this would be the logical choice." Sheppard nodded with a grin. She had it all right. Ronon was also nodding.

"And you won't be able to count on anyone that you agree to cooperate with because you know in the end they are likely to become your opponent, and they will have their own best interest at heart, not yours. They could turn on you at any time, and cooperate with the other team to destroy you instead." the ex-runner added. Oh yeah, they had it.

"And to top it all off, in a game like this, you don't even have to agree to conspire. You simply have to wait and then throw your support behind someone at one particular time, or withdraw that support at another, and you reach your goals without any possibility of broken alliances." Sheppard concluded with a proud grin. How could anyone have a better team? Some desultory clapping in the small audience interrupted his moment of pride, and their attention was drawn to the dais, as Fernal seemed to settle down to describing the rules for the contest.

"Each team has been given a set of rules for the game. I am sure that there are those of you watching who are familiar with the basic game, but you will be interested to see that this is not the usual game. No, first we have three players instead of two. This will add a whole new dimension to the play. The strategy must change. The tactics must evolve. It should be thrilling to watch. But, as an added appeal we have also added a new twist. On each side the members of the player's team will replace three of the pieces. They will move on the board as the pieces would, but with an added significance. When two living pieces vie for one space, they will battle for that space with this," he reached out a hand, and a long stick, not unlike the ones Teyla used was placed in his hand. It was a little longer, and reminded Sheppard a little of a Pool cue.

"The two people will fight until one of them steps out of the box. That person will be out of the game. As an added degree of difficulty, each team is allowed only ONE weapon. It must be shared among the three. It must be passed between them in whatever manner they devise, as needed. If the weapon is lost, then they must do without it as best they can. If the weapon is dropped, it can only be regained when the person is in the square in which the weapon falls.

"This of course brings up the question of what happens if a person is disabled by a blow. As stated clearly in the rules, any use of deadly force is cause for disqualification, and the referee will determine if such force is being used. As such, blows to the head are strictly forbidden. The referee's decision is final, and there will be no appeal. A referee will be present at all times during the game. Blows may only be struck at the time of an attack on a space, and as soon as an opponent steps out of the space the fighting must end. Any blows struck beyond that point will result in disqualification of the team. Should a person be struck with such force as to be unable to continue to fight, or if the person who wins the space cannot complete the moves assigned to his or her piece, he or she will be removed from the game, and their team will lose that piece from play. And, I must remind all the players, that at no time may the 'pieces' speak to, or signal, their player. Only the player may make the decision regarding movement on the board. They will announce their move, and the pieces will either be moved, in the case of the non-human pieces, or will move themselves. Once again any breaking of this rule will result in disqualification." There was a stirring in the crowd as the teams absorbed this information. This put a new light on the game.

Sheppard was not deeply bothered about his own team's abilities in either defensive or offensive stick fighting. The sharing the weapon thing could be a little dicey, as he could see that having your weapon intercepted by the other teams could leave you with an injured teammate or two, or three. They needed to read the rules about striking without the weapon. Hand to hand wasn't as good as a stick, but you could do some damage if you had to, especially Ronon. No, what had him worried was Rodney. He had watched as the physicist's face had gotten paler as Fernal went on. It was one thing to play cutthroat Chess against two opponents or make jokes about Battle Chess on your Commodore. It was another to have the possibility of one of your 'pieces' being injured if you couldn't keep it from being taken. A sacrifice pawn could be just that.

And what about the other teams? He didn't see the geek squad being out for blood, but you never knew. You only had to catch the Atlantis scientists when they were running short on coffee and chocolate right before the Daedalus got in with supplies, to know just how scary a grouchy geek could be. It was the Genii that were going to be the problem. The three men would be on the board, and they would all be willing and able to take their best shot at any of the Lantean team. In fact, he could already see them looking their way with smiles. And both teams would have to consider that there was still one contest to go, and it would sure be easier to win that contest if one of the contestants in question was ever so slightly beaten with a stick. He was going to be a very popular 'piece', he was sure. But that was a problem for later. Now he had to deal with Rodney.

Fernal announced that there would be a one-hour delay as the teams familiarized themselves with the rules and decided who would be what piece. Strategy could not wait for the game to begin. You had to have part of it in place before you even started. Rodney had his work cut out for him, but Sheppard had faith. It was now time to make sure that Rodney had faith. The scientist was coming toward them with his usual 'We're all going to die' look on his face. Sheppard put on his "Oh, it isn't that bad' face and slapped an arm around McKay's shoulder as he joined their group. He jumped in before Rodney could start to complain.

"Okay Rodney, I know that you already have your strategy all figured out, and that we, the 'Blaster' part of this 'Master-Blaster' mix, can't know what you are thinking, but we have a few suggestions regarding who should be where. That is if you don't mind, right guys?" He looked at Teyla and Ronon, knowing that they, familiar with Rodney's self doubt under the bluster, would support him. They did not let him down.

"I believe that Ronon should take the position of the soldier, the Pawn." Teyla started. "It is the piece that sees the most contention, and he is our best hand to hand person…at least when it comes to brute strength." She added the last with a sly smile at Rodney, inviting him to his regular game of Ronon baiting.

When he only gave an aggrieved grunt and scowled toward the game board, Ronon picked up the conversation.

"By the same standard Teyla should take one of the wise man positions. It is a powerful piece that sees a lot of action later in the game. With her skills with the Bantos sticks she will be formidable when the time comes. Maybe not as much as me, but enough." The rest of the team stared at him when he finished, Teyla ignoring the dig. "What?" he asked at the amazed look on Rodney's face. "I have heard of the game, at least the Satedan version, and your Chess. Just because I don't play doesn't mean that I don't understand it." he said.

They were silent for a moment, and then Sheppard took up the conversational gambit. He could see that McKay was listening, and a little bit of the panic had faded.

"Okay, not that I'm offended by being third on the list of being able to take care of myself or anything, but that leaves me with the Queen. She's the most mobile piece, and usually sees more action in the last part of the game than the other pieces, except for the Rooks and the King. I guess I can get in touch with my inner woman and kick butt after you two take care of the little people."

McKay had finally worked his way through his funk and was nodding at them in his usual condescending way.

"Yes, yes…all the big decisions have been made already. I know what I have to do, and I know where you all need to be. What you have to understand is that I can't guarantee that we are going to win this." he said nervously. His eyes darted to where the Genii contingent was going through their papers. "I can't even guarantee that I can protect your pieces. They're going to be out to get you, especially you Colonel, and I won't be able to pull your piece out to protect you, not and still try to win the game. I'll have to treat each of you just like a regular piece."

We understand that, Dr. McKay." Teyla assured him. "And we do not expect you to sacrifice the game for our sake. There is much to be gained from the Ferlians, possibly even a ZPM, and we are not unfamiliar with danger when searching for these items. You will do your best, as will we. That is all that can be asked of anyone in any situation."

"Maybe all that YOU can ask." McKay muttered. At a look from Sheppard he sighed. "All right, all right." He gestured to the papers in Teyla's hands. "We'd better go over those. There are only a few differences in how the pieces move, but I don't want to make a mistake in the middle of the game. Also, there have to be some changes to accommodate the third player, for instance what happens when the third player is eliminated, are their pieces removed from the board, or do they stay and take up space? I need to know this stuff." He said it in a tone that suggested that the officials had intentionally omitted English from the instructions only to inconvenience him.

Teyla ignored the tone and started reading through the rules word by word. At her side Ronon shuffled from foot to foot, and Sheppard raised an eyebrow at him.

"So what do we do for an hour?" the Satedan asked.

Sheppard had been planning on listening to the rules and working with Rodney on some strategy, but he guessed that expecting Ronon to do so as well was not logical. He thought quickly, Ronon needed a mission. Inspiration came in the form of an official wandering by eating a small pastry. He looked around the tent. There did not seem to be any food in evidence.

"Rodney is going to need some snacks. You know how he gets, and it is going to be a long haul until lunch. I've seen games of Chess that can go on literally for days, and those were just two people. I don't think this is going to be like that, but we want our head strategist to be firing on all cylinders. Go see what you can forage for him that he can keep handy, maybe a pouch or one of our backpacks. I know there are some power bars in my pack and my vest. Make sure there's nothing with citrus." He was sure that he didn't need to remind the runner about the last, but it was simply part of the spiel.

Ronon nodded and slipped out of the tent. Sheppard turned back to where Teyla had started on the movement of the pieces. This was shaping up to be a long day.

Chapter 22-

An hour later Rodney found himself standing on the scaffolding above the hexagonal board, along with the Genii female and one of the Thelans who all seemed to be interchangeable when it came to looks. Six feet below him were the pieces, arrayed on the black and white triangle that made up the board. Instead of two rows of eight pieces as in Chess, there were three rows of five on each of three sides, leaving three sides empty. The changes in the piece movements were imprinted on his brain. The changes were sweeping, but he found them intuitive when faced with the board. The Knights for instance, called Champions here, had nine moves, but still in the L shape. The Bishops, or Wise Men, could still only move diagonally, but instead of being confined to one color, they were simply constrained to move only toward a corner, giving them six directions of movement, and they could still move as far as they wished. The rest of the pieces had similar changes to accommodate the change of the board.

The pieces seemed to be made from a light plastic that had been colored to match each team. Team Lantea's were a dark blue. The Genii's were a sort of sickly looking yellow, and the Thelans were a grass green. In among the pieces were the other contestants, each wearing a sash in the same color as the pieces. Rodney was standing directly behind Sheppard, who, as the 'Queen' was on the last line of pieces. Teyla was in the row ahead of him and to one side, and Ronon was on the front line on the far end. He held the staff that was their collective weapon. The Satedan was twirling the stick like a baton and grinning at the man in the Pawn position of the Genii pieces. It was Kelar.

He noticed that the other teams had protected the last player in the Queen's position in the same manner they had protected Sheppard, though he doubted that they'd had to couch it in the same way that his teammates had in their 'logical' placement argument. He was well aware that Sheppard would have volunteered to be in the front line, but the pre-emptive strike by his teammates had put him off his argument. There was little he could say to justify putting himself at risk in the Pawn spot when Ronon was the best choice, based on sheer meanness and experience in hand to hand combat. Teyla had him in stick work, as proved by their daily work out, so he could not argue there either. What bothered Rodney was that he was there at all, that any of them were there.

He had few friends, and even fewer people that he considered family. There before him on the board were three of those few. The fact that no fatal blows could be struck was of little comfort. As a man who tried to avoid pain in any intensity, the idea of even a non-fatal blow from what appeared to be a sawed off Pool cue, was not appealing in any way. But he had to stop thinking about that. He could not be concerned about what his teammates might suffer at the hands of their opponents. He had to think. He had to be thinking several moves ahead of his opposite numbers. Then there was the possibility of collaboration. He didn't expect any such dealings for the first part of the game, when they would each be feeling the other out, learning the strengths and weaknesses of the others. Once it was determined who was the dominant player, and who was the weak, the jockeying would begin.

He had no doubt in his mind that HE was going to be the dominant player. That meant that the natural response of the others would be to gang up on him and remove him from the game and then settle it between them. He had watched carefully as he had listened to Teyla reading the instructions. There had been no talking between the Green and Yellow teams, so obviously at this point there was no collusion. However he expected that to change.

He tugged at the pouch that was slung over his shoulder and across his chest. He had been surprised when Ronon had appeared out of nowhere minutes before the game began and handed him and the others the pouches on a thin cord. A quick look inside had shown him, an assortment of power bars from their supplies, some of the pastries they'd had at breakfast, and an assortment of fruit. All things he could eat out of hand as the game progressed. He had been moved almost to tears at the thought of his team taking care of him in that manner. Not wanting to show it, he had of course groused about the roughness of the cord and the probability that the pastries were made from the local equivalent of prunes and would have him taking bathroom breaks every five minutes. Ronon had grinned at him and offered to take them out, but he had clutched the bag to his chest with a glare and that had been that.

Fernal was nattering away again as the cameras were getting into position around the board. Several men, who would evidently be moving the regular pieces moved out from under the scaffolding and awaited the first move. There had been a draw several minutes ago, and the Thelens had won the first move, followed by Rodney, and then the Genii. It waited only for Fernal to stop talking for the game to start. One of the cameras made a close pass at Rodney, and he wondered if he could encourage Ronon to take it out with a wide swipe of the stick, but he noticed that the cameras were avoiding the Satedan, and since he couldn't talk to the man anyway, he abandoned the idea and decided to ignore them. This was just like playing in the Chess club as the other members watched, he told himself. The fact that some of the pieces were armed and dangerous, and the audience was made up of aliens on another planet while the game took place on yet another alien world, that they had reached through a wormhole from the lost city of Atlantis was beside the point. Denial was more than just a river in Egypt. He let out a sigh of relief as the Thelen called out his move. The game was underway.

Two hours later he was at a low boil, his blood pressure was skyrocketing, and he was pretty sure that he was on the edge of an incipient aneurysm. If the vein in his temple throbbed any more he was sure it was going to burst. In that time the other two players had hemmed and hawed and generally dragged their feet while making moves that did little to progress the game in any manner. Each player had fifteen minutes, or the local equivalent thereof, to make their move, and each one had used almost all of their time for each move. Rodney on the other hand, had called out his move before the Green team's piece was moved to the correct space.

This had left them with no pieces ready to engage, and a bored audience. He was sure that if anyone was watching out there, and he had his doubts, they were all asleep in whatever the Ferlians used as armchairs. He could practically nod off himself between moves, and he had probably walked ten miles just pacing back and forth between one side of his area and another as he waited. He could feel his teammates' eyes on him, and he knew that they wanted to tell him to be patient, but they could not speak to him. He found himself grateful for that as he didn't want to be told. He wanted to rant and yell at the other players, but restrained himself. After all, they couldn't pussyfoot around forever. In fact, it was rapidly coming to the point that someone was going to have to make an offensive move, beside himself that is, and he was ready.

He had modified the Bresnevsky opening to suit the new circumstances. His opponents malingering aside, he was in pretty good shape to attack or defend, and had a working plan underway to strike into the Green and Yellow areas simultaneously when things finally got moving. He had caught Sheppard looking at him as he called his moves, and had seen his nod of approbation, and knew that the colonel had worked out his strategy so far, and approved of it. That was one of the few things keeping him from a complete meltdown, that and the fact that Teyla was sending him stern looks from her new position, and that Ronon was in even worse straits than he was. He at least could pace around, the Satedan, with nothing to do but stand in a small space was just about ready to explode, either that or go to sleep. With Ronon, one could never tell.

The man from the Green team, McKay hadn't bothered to listen to the introductions, finally decided to commit and called his move. It sent one of his Pawns into a space occupied by a Pawn of the Yellow team. First blood to the Green. Rodney grinned; the movement of the Pawn had been perfect. That cleared a nice path. He called out his move even as the one piece was being carried off. His second Wise Man, the Bishop that wasn't Teyla, was across the board and took a Knight from the Green team. Second blood, but bigger game, take that! He smirked at the Green team player who looked startled at the new development. He heard a throat cleared from below, and looked down to find Sheppard staring up at him warningly. Okay, so evidently he was supposed to play nice. He glared at his teammate and turned his attention to the Genii woman. Maybe they could get moving now.

Another four hours later he was looking back on the period of inactivity with a certain fondness. They had all engaged fully after that first exchange, and it had gotten somewhat hot and heavy after that, at least as hot and heavy as a Chess game could get, even if you added in the Battle Chess component. They were all using their full fifteen minutes for contemplation of their moves now, even Rodney. So far Ronon had beaten off the attack of the Yellow team Pawn, sending the man off the game board on a stretcher. Ronon had done it almost casually, with a smile on his face. Some revenge gained there then. On the down side, Teyla had engaged the Genii Wise Man, and after a battle that went on for almost ten minutes, and that had the referee watching closely, had been forced out of her space by sheer muscle power, her opponent outweighing her by at least fifty pounds of what appeared to be pure muscle. As she had realized that she could not save herself she had thrown the stick to Ronon who was the closest to her, and he had only just managed to snag it before it shot over his head and into an open space. She had been bruised and slightly bloodied, but she had walked from the game board to applause from both the spectators and the Green team, as well as proud looks from her teammates.

The Genii woman had managed to take out the Green team Pawn with her man before he had gone, and so they were all down one live piece at that point. If you counted the lost pieces the Green team was suffering the most, and McKay had just realized something that made his stomach sour, even with the prospect of lunch soon.

The Genii woman was backing him. As he attacked she was changing her game to follow his push. With no consent of his, they were collaborating against the Green team. He almost lost his rhythm as he saw it, so much so that he almost didn't see the opening that the Green team's move had made. He could go in for the kill, there would be no way for the Green player to counter, especially if the Genii woman followed as Rodney was sure she would. He checked his pieces, and below him he saw Sheppard looking around the board and then glancing back at him. He saw it too, and knew what it meant.

There was a silent exchange between the two of them, a skill that they had perfected over the last three years of trials and tribulations, and Rodney knew that he had permission to do what he had to do. He would have preferred taking out the Genii woman, but she was clever, and had done a good job of protecting herself, while attacking both Rodney and the Green team. On the board, Sheppard had turned his attention to Ronon who was about sixteen feet away. A slight whistle got the runners attention from where he had been visually intimidating the Green team's Wise Man in an adjoining space. A series of hand signals that moved too fast for McKay to pick up and the runner nodded. Rodney called out his move.

Sheppard broke into a run, moving across the spaces between him and the Green Queen, as he passed closest to Ronon, the runner tossed the stock to him, and he plucked it out of the air without pausing. Rodney could see the Green team's man tensing, his eyes growing bigger and bigger as Sheppard did not slow his approach, he didn't have his team's weapon, and there was no way that his teammate could get it to him in time. Finally, three spaces away, Sheppard launched himself forward in a massive leap, stick raised to strike. The Green team man did the only logical thing given his circumstances, he fainted dead away. In doing so he fell outside the lines of his space. Sheppard somehow twisted himself in mid air to land in the space, crouching with the stick held in one hand, and a large grin on his face. Evidently winning through intimidation had been the plan.

Rodney shook off his surprise and called out. "Checkmate!" At the same time the bell sounded signaling lunch. There was uproar in the crowd as they reacted to the elimination of one of the three teams in such a dramatic manner. McKay caught Sheppard's eyes and scowled at him, expressing his displeasure at the playacting. Sheppard grinned at him and shrugged spinning the stick in his hand in a flourish worthy of Robin Hood. McKay rolled his eyes and looked toward where Fernal had come up onto the scaffolding.

"Oh, well played Blue team! Never have we had such viewing. Surely everyone will agree that this is the best of the contests so far. We salute you all!" He paused for dramatic clapping from the crowd, and gestured to the players and then to the remaining people on the board. "We have reached the lunch hour, and everyone is released for that time. Please, avail yourself of the offerings of our hosts on the tables outside the tent. I assure you that there are many among the crowd who wish to speak with you if you have a chance, though you will of course be allowed peace during your meal." He signed off, and McKay slumped against the rail that ran around the scaffolding as the cameras all shot off to wherever they were kept, probably for recharging. He wished he could be plugged into something somewhere and get recharged. He felt like he had been up for a week, and he was hungry. He was not enjoying this.

Chapter 26-

Sheppard looked across the table to where McKay was shoveling food into his mouth. Between him and Ronon, the colonel was afraid they were going to eat the Elasians out of their winter stores. He hoped the Ferlians were paying top money, or whatever the trade was for the use of the town, accommodations and food, this had to be getting expensive. He assumed that the tourists were at least paying their own way, and he was sure that there was the usual gouging going on price wise. He pushed his own plate away, his appetite satisfied with only one plate. Teyla, sitting beside him was watching their teammates eat with her usual soft smile of amusement. He smiled back at her and leaned over as if to speak quietly to her, but he couched his voice just loud enough to carry to the other side of the table.

"I sometimes worry when we're on missions that if we ever run out of food, that we two are going to end up on the menu. They'll make up some kind of story about how we were attacked by the Pegasus equivalent of a Polar bear and got eaten and how they managed to escape. Meanwhile they'll have roasted me and made you into a stew."

By the time he finished, Ronon was shaking his head.

"Nah, you're too stringy to roast. We'll make you the stew and roast Teyla." he said seriously.

Rodney paused in his eating to nod in agreement.

"I have to agree. If we're going to do it, might as well have it be palatable. I bow to the master of cooking over an open fire." Sheppard snorted.

"Might have known, they've already got it planned out. From now on I'm sharing a tent with you. We can guard each other's ass." he said.

"And the rest of the parts as well." Teyla deadpanned "They may decide to take us piece by piece." The four shared a laugh, ignoring the strange looks from those nearby.

Sheppard grinned as he saw Rodney's shoulders relaxing a little, and he saw Ronon shooting him a look of approval. Teyla patted his arm below the edge of the table, adding her approval to his tactics. They needed to make sure that the physicist was as calm and relaxed as possible given the circumstances. They had about ten more minutes until the game started again.

Sheppard noted that Ronon had already begun making a small pile of finger foods on the table next to him: evidently so that when the servers started taking things away they would still have some snacks for Rodney's pouch. He pushed a small bowl of dried fruit that reminded him of banana chips across the table in his direction. Ronon nodded, barely stopping his eating and added it to the pile. Rodney snorted.

"Just how much do you people think I eat, and how much longer do you think this is going to go on?" he asked sourly as he finally dropped his fork and pushed his plate away. So much for being relaxed.

Ronon reached over with his fork and speared the piece of roasted meat that was there, adding it to his own plate. "Jesus, Conan, watch the fingers will you?" he groused.

"I think you should be able to take her in ten moves." The Colonel said confidently standing and stretching. His back was a little sore from the day's standing around. He was used to moving, not simply standing and waiting for something to happen. He had almost enjoyed his theatrical attack on the Green team's 'Queen' earlier. It had given him a chance to shake off some of the cobwebs. He was sure that he had managed to make an impression on the Genii as well as on the poor guy from the Green team, whom he had hunted down and checked on before they had sat down to eat. He had been embarrassed, but Sheppard had good-naturedly suggested that it was hunger, not fear that had caused the problem. He definitely had a soft spot for geeks, no matter whose it seemed.

Catching the looks being thrown their way by the Genii contingent he raised his voice a little.

"Of course, we wouldn't want to make anyone look bad, so maybe you should fake it through fifteen or so. Gracious winners are always popular." he suggested to McKay who followed his glance.

McKay lifted his chin haughtily.

"Other people have to take care of themselves. I'm here to play a game. Seven moves." he replied.

Sheppard could see by the spark in the blue eyes that while Rodney might not be happy about this, he was at least ready for what was to come, and would do his best, and Sheppard had reason to know that Rodney McKay's best was pretty damn good. At least the ego was pumping full speed.

"Let's not get cocky, Brain." Sheppard drawled as he started around the end of the table.

"Never you mind, Pinky" Rodney taunted. "It isn't cocky if you can back it up." He stood up, as did Ronon and Teyla. The Satedan scooped the food he had stockpiled into the pouch and he handed it to Rodney who scowled into it. "Could you have at least done it neatly, Conan? Maybe I would prefer my pastry without bits of dried whatever that stuff is all over it."

"At least you got it and you won't faint in the middle of it all." Ronon growled.

McKay put on his offended face.

"It's a medical condition, and it's 'passing out'. Which I'll have you know, I've only done once." There was a snort from someone, though when McKay spun around he was met with blank faces. "All right, maybe twice, but that is beside the point. Would you persecute someone with epilepsy for having fits?"

"What's epilepsy?" Ronon deadpanned.

Sheppard wasn't sure if he didn't know, or was just jacking McKay up further. The runner could get McKay going almost as well as Sheppard could. It was a fun pasttime.

"It's a condition where your brain's electrical system goes into overdrive…Never mind what it is." Rodney snapped as he saw the small smiles on his teammates' faces and realized he was being kidded. As he turned to lead them back towards the tent Sheppard caught sight of a small smile on his face. The physicist had come to understand that the gentle kidding was a form of affection from his team, and it always made him feel better, which was, of course, part of why they did it.

They entered the tent and paused at the bottom of the stairs to their section of the scaffolding. The rest of the people were starting to trickle back in as well, passing by as the team stood there, having a moment of simply being together. It wasn't that they weren't comfortable doing things without each other. They could, and often did, go for days without seeing each other except for in the mess hall or in passing when they were on Atlantis, but off world they were used to being in each other's company almost constantly. It felt wrong somehow to be separated, and the last several days had enforced that wrongness.

Teyla could not be on the scaffolding with Rodney, but she would be able to go on the next section over, where some of the officials were watching the game. She would be right next to Rodney and could offer silent support, since the rules forbade any conversation. An elbow impacting Sheppard's ribs from behind as a form stumbled into him, broke the comfortable silence that enveloped them. He grunted and stumbled forward. He probably would have fallen if Ronon hadn't lunged forward and caught him. Sheppard pushed himself out of Ronon's arms and turned to see the large Genii man smiling in his direction, an obviously false smile.

"I am very sorry, Lantean. I am so clumsy. Please forgive me." He said spreading his hands in a gesture as if to say 'what could you do?'. Behind him, Sheppard could hear Ronon growling and felt him start to push past, no doubt to remove various body parts from the man. The colonel grabbed Ronon's arm and by the expedient of dragging himself in front of the larger man kept him in from rushing forward.

He smiled back at the Genii, his own just as false.

"Gosh, I can see how it was just an accident and you're all real sorry about it. Let's all get together and do this again sometime huh, when we're not busy kicking your asses at the games. Oh but wait, we're always kicking your asses at something, guess we'll have to take a rain check on that."

The false smile dropped from the Genii's face, and only a snapped order from Gerren kept him from moving forward. Sheppard had to throw his full weight backward against Ronon to keep him from surging forward to meet the rush. The Genii hulk glanced at the official who was standing nearby, and with a growl left to rejoin his team. Sheppard stopped pushing back against Ronon and reached around unconsciously to rub at the spot on his back. Teyla gently slapped his hand away and lifted his t-shirt to look at his back.

"Ow." he whined as she gently ran her fingers over the area. There wasn't anything broken, but the man's elbow had caught him in the short ribs, and he had obviously known exactly what he was doing with it.

"I do not feel anything broken, but I am afraid you will bruise." she said after she finished and pulled his shirt back down. Rodney let out a sigh of relief and Ronon growled again, his eyes locked on the Genii group who were talking amongst themselves and glancing in their direction. Sheppard reached out and backhanded his arm. The dark eyes turned to him.

"Let it go big guy. If you're lucky Rodney will let you take him before he wins in what..." he looked over at the physicist who was looking slightly anxious. "Five moves?" Rodney's blue eyes met his, and he could see that the scientist knew what he was trying to do, and could almost see him decide to go along with it.

"Seven was what I said, Colonel. I wish you would pay attention. I can see we'll have to have Ronon throw something at you during the game so you don't nod off at an importune moment. Like when that Genii bully is trying to shove a stick up your-"

"Contestants, it is time to begin the game again. Let us have everyone take their places." Fernal's stentorian tones cut off Rodney's reply and with a grin at the other two, Sheppard herded Ronon toward the game board. It should be interesting.

Chapter 27-

Rodney paced back and forth on the scaffolding over his area. It was now two hours past lunch, and they were ten moves further along. The Genii woman had proven a tough opponent. An added distraction had been the abandoned Green team's pieces that dotted the board. The only way to remove them was to take the piece, but that often left you open to attack, or revealed more strategy than you wanted revealed.

Ronon had been taken out of the game a half hour earlier, ironically by a regular piece. Of course the Satedan had rather spectacularly removed the equally large Genii man fifteen minutes before that in a battle that had even the referee backing up and staying out of the way. They had scraped the Genii man up and carried him off, leaving a bruised but grinning Ronon in command of the space. Rodney was pretty sure that the man was happy just to have gotten a chance to do some damage, and really didn't mind being off the board all that much. At least now he didn't have to be still. Of course, that meant that he was now pacing in the Official's section next door, his eyes going from the board to Rodney in a silent but impatient demand to get on with it. Rodney ignored him and kept his eyes on the board. One unfortunate result of that engagement had been the breaking of the weapon. The stick had snapped near the middle, leaving Sheppard armed with a stick almost a foot shorter than the Genii's. Rodney's protest to the officials had been refused since there was no provision for replacement. When he had gone to protest further, Sheppard had caught his eye and shook his head.

Rodney had a clear plan now, not that he hadn't had one before, but he was ready to move into his end game, and he sensed that the Genii woman had reached a similar point. It was his turn to move, and now was the time to utilize the Queen. He called out his move, and with a nod Sheppard moved forward to hover menacingly near the edge of Genii territory. There was only one possible response for the woman if she didn't want to be checked in two more moves. She sent her Queen on the attack.

Unlike Sheppard's grandstand move on the Green team earlier, Gerren approached slowly and cautiously, the stick spinning expertly in his hands. By the time he reached Sheppard it was sounding not unlike a buzz saw . At least the colonel had time to get himself set. He was the defender of the space, and so he knew Gerren had to come to him. It was all the advantage that McKay could offer him.

With a flick of his wrist Gerren's stick snapped out of its spin and drove for Sheppard's ribs. Rodney winced as Sheppard's shorter stick clattered against it, stopping most of the blow and sliding it to the side with a sharp crack. That had to have hurt, so much inertia had to go somewhere, but neither man flinched or let loose their weapons. They flowed into an almost graceful looking battle. As amazing as it was watching the two men, Rodney quickly recognized that Sheppard was fighting an almost completely defensive battle. He could not attack easily with Gerren's longer reach. The space only allowed so much movement, but the Genii was taking all the advantage of it that he could.

Several minutes passed as the two circled each other, Gerren occasionally striking out and Sheppard defending. Something had to break, and McKay was pretty sure who was going to make the first move. Sheppard was not a patient man, for all his self-professed laziness. He would be plotting and planning even as he defended himself. He bit his lip as Sheppard twirled the stick around like he did the Bantos sticks, and attacked. There was a flurry of blows from both sides; Gerren seemed hard pressed to defend himself. The Genii was forced to take a step back, then another, by the force of Sheppard's attack. Then it all came apart.

As Sheppard was stepping forward his foot slipped, probably in some sweat as both of the men were sweating heavily in the heat of the tent. He could not stop himself, and he slipped to one knee. Garren, changing directions quickly, brought his stick up and drove it toward Sheppard's kneeling figure. The colonel threw up his arm, but he was not able to block with the stick due to his position, and the Genii's stick slammed into his forearm. There was a dull cracking sound that echoed around the tent, and Sheppard fell back with a muffled cry. Gerren tried to follow up his success, but Sheppard used the roll to kick up with his feet and force the other man back. Gerren tottered on the edge of the space, barely managing to stay inside the lines.

Sheppard used the brief respite to get himself back to his feet, an awkward movement that left him swaying in place. Rodney saw movement on the scaffolding next to him, and he tore his eyes away from Sheppard to see Teyla forcibly restraining Ronon from jumping over the rail down to the game board. His mind, running on some level he didn't even recognize, made a note to try to figure out just exactly how something with so little mass could have such an effect on a larger item, but his main thought process was centered below, and he trusted Teyla to be able to control Ronon. He turned his eyes back just in time to see Sheppard, his left arm hanging limp at his side, block an overhand blow from the Genii, neatly reversing his stick, which he had somehow held onto, slamming it into the other man's stomach. They moved as far apart as the space allowed them and stood, both breathing heavily. Gerren was folded over his stomach, face pale and Sheppard was just as pale, turning to keep his wounded arm away from Gerren. It was as he made the move that Rodney saw it. The redness trailing slowly across the back of Sheppard's left hand. He was bleeding.

Rodney stepped forward, not sure what he was going to say or do, when Gerren made his run. With a shout that rang through the tent he rushed at Sheppard, obviously bent on slamming into the slightly smaller man and forcing him out of bounds, ignoring his stick in favor of speed evidently. What happened imprinted itself on McKay's mind and replayed like a movie for weeks after, this was what Sheppard was always trying to show him in training.

With a smooth grace that belied the dangling, bloody arm, Sheppard slid to the side as if to dodge, then moved back into Gerren's original path. The Genii had adjusted his trajectory once, but could not act quickly enough to correct again. Sheppard dropped down, and Gerren rammed into his side as Sheppard rose back up, using the Genii's own momentum against him. Gerren flipped over Sheppard's bent back, and slammed down onto the next space, clearly out of bounds. Sheppard staggered slightly, and then managed to regain his footing, well inside the confines of the space. The tent erupted into pandemonium and the yells could be heard from outside as the crowd watched on the large screens. McKay was glad for the rail, as it was all that was holding him up, as his knees seemed to give out.

Fernal waved to the people inside the tent to quiet down as it was now McKay's turn again, Sheppard having successfully fought off the Genii woman's move. He called out a move that brought his remaining Wise Man into play, and saw the Genii scowl. She saw it now, he knew, the question was what she would do. She called out her next move almost immediately, and Rodney felt a sinking feeling. Damn it.

There were really only two responses to the position that the woman was in. The accepted response at the level of play that Rodney was used to, was to concede defeat and forgo the moves that would lead to the now forgone defeat. The other response was to hang on to the last, fighting a rear guard action that could accomplish nothing except take up time, and end up at the same conclusion. It was considered to be bad form in Chess circles to draw something out unnecessarily. It was something he would have never considered. The Genii…witch had taken that second option. With a look at Sheppard, McKay knew why she had done it.

In the moments since they had started again, the trickle of blood on Sheppard's hand had turned into a rivulet. He was attempting to staunch the bleeding with a strip of cloth torn from his shirt, but seemed to be having little success. His face was even paler than it had been before. As Rodney watched he carefully wrapped the material around the arm and tied it off using his teeth. Yeah like that was going to be a big help. McKay turned his mind back to the game. There had to be something he could do to hurry this up. At least he did not have to move Sheppard for now. He was in the position to threaten the King when the intervening piece was taken, which was only a matter of time. He made his next move.

Three moves later he was grinding his teeth and just barely restraining himself from screaming at the woman. She was intentionally drawing this out, sacrificing her pieces to make the game go on longer. If Sheppard passed out and was unable to move, she could possibly avoid the checkmate for a few moves more, but even then it was just a matter of time. She was down to her King, both Rooks and two Pawns. Meanwhile Rodney had his King well protected, using not only his own pieces but also the leftovers from the Green team. He would win this. He was about to call his next move to tighten the noose when he saw Sheppard stagger and sink to his knees. The crowd gasped, and he heard Ronon curse.

No, no, no. This couldn't be happening. He had her in three more moves, no matter what she did, no matter how she stalled. He had her…but then that meant she could have at least 30 more minutes delay, possibly more if he should be wrong about his moves, not that he was of course. He looked again at Sheppard, now propping himself up with his good arm, eyes closed and breathing heavily. He looked at the Genii woman, standing on the other side smirking at him. He glanced at Teyla and Ronon who were watching Sheppard with deep concern. Only Teyla's hand on his arm was keeping the Satedan from jumping in. He looked back at Sheppard and then nodded to himself. He made his decision. He looked around at Fernal.

"The Blue team concedes the game." he called out, and the people in the tent went wild again. He saw Teyla explaining something to Ronon just before he flung himself over the rail, landing in a crouch over ten feet below. He went rapidly to Sheppard's side, crouching down beside him. Rodney wasn't even going to think about doing that, he would break both legs and end up laying there like a bug. That would be no good to Sheppard. He ignored the people around as he rushed down the stairs, pushing his way through spectators and officials to make his way onto the game board. He knelt down next to Ronon who was trying to get Sheppard to let him see his arm, but the man had it clutched up against his chest and would not let it loose. Teyla was seconds behind him, clutching some cloth that she had found somewhere. McKay leaned over and put his face down where he could look up into Sheppard's face.

"Colonel, the game is over. Let Ronon look at your arm." There was no response. He put a hand on the nearest shoulder, grimacing at the feel of sweat soaked material. Sheppard jerked and his eyes opened.

"What?" he asked, his voice barely audible among the hubbub of the tent.

"The game is over: let us look at your arm." Rodney ordered. His back was screaming at him from the odd position, but he was at least making eye contact now, even if Sheppard's eyes were glazed. He moved his hand from the shoulder to Sheppard's face, not liking the clammy feeling of his skin. The colonel was in shock, no surprise there. The dark eyes blinked at him vaguely and he tapped him lightly on the cheek. "Colonel?"

"Mc..Mckay?" came a whisper. The dazed eyes blinked again.

"Yeah it's me." he said. "Let us look at your arm."


"Yes, Colonel, you know, the bloody, broken one." More blinking. McKay tapped the cheek again.

"Did you win already?" McKay had to bite his lip at the faith that was implicit in that question.

"No. No I didn't win." he said quietly. He wasn't even going to try to explain the circumstances now. They had to get to that arm. Before he could make more arguments to the man, Sheppard was suddenly leaning further forward and Ronon was reaching to collect the slumping figure. Sheppard was unconscious at last.

As Ronon held the still figure Teyla rapidly tore the sleeve away from the arm and looked at the wound. McKay winced as it was revealed. Obviously the blow had driven the bone through the skin on the inside of the arm, and it was nasty looking.

"He needs Beckett." Ronon said after one look at the arm.

Teyla nodded in agreement.

"Yes. There is nothing we can do with this kind of wound here. It must be reset and then the wound closed." Ronon got to his feet, pulling Sheppard up with him as if he were a lightweight. They were turning toward the front of the tent when McKay realized that Fernal was speaking. He had been ignoring the cameras that had flittered round them, and now saw that the Official was making his presentation of the winners. Whoop de do. He pushed out past the people at the opening and quickly caught up with Ronon and Teyla who were headed toward the gate. They all had their IDCs with them, so that would not be a problem. As for their gear, well it wasn't as if the inn was going to rent out their room, so it should be okay.

The tent was on the edge of town closest to the gate, so it was only a matter of minutes until they were at the DHD, and Teyla was dialing. In moments the wormhole engaged and Chuck's voice came through.

"Dr McKay we' are receiving your IDC. We were not expecting you to check in for several hours yet. Do you need to talk to Dr. Weir?"

McKay was fumbling his radio into his ear as the man talked, and managed to get it into place with his shaking hands.

"No, I don't need Elizabeth. We need the shield down. We have a medical emergency. Get Beckett on the way with a gurney, now!" McKay snapped into his radio as he stepped forward. "We're coming through." He only half heard the acknowledgment as he looked back at Ronon who was stepping forward with the unconscious colonel. Teyla brought up the rear. As he stepped into the wormhole he had a moment to consider how 'normal' this was for them.

Chapter 28-

Elizabeth Weir was used to being woken up in the middle of the night to deal with crisis, and she had come to accept that more often than not, those crises were going to have something to do with one of the teams that they had off world. Their people were dealing with complete strangers in a completely new galaxy after all, and misunderstandings abounded, not to mention hostile environments, wild animals and Wraith attacks. It really wasn't their fault that the various problems seemed to arise in the middle of the Atlantis night.

What she had also come to accept was the fact that most of the time, the off world team that was going to wake her up was going to be that one led by her military commander. It seemed that 'Team Sheppard' could find trouble no matter where they were, or what their ostensive reason for being there was. Wraith; deadly bugs-of all sizes; Ascended Ancients; time dilation fields; old enemies; new enemies; super weapons; what hadn't they run into? Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly grim she contemplated that thought, and just knew that there had to be something even worse out there, just waiting for Sheppard and his crew to show up. It was a sobering thought.

As she jogged down the corridor toward the infirmary, pulling her robe more closely around her against the chill of the night, she wondered what had happened this time. Chuck had offered her no details, saying only that the team had returned with a medical emergency, and that Carson and his crew had wheeled what looked to be an unconscious Colonel Sheppard off to the infirmary practically the second they were through the gate. His team had followed their leader, and if she wanted information she would have to go where she knew they would be. Trouble magnets they might be, but they were loyal to each other beyond all description.

She went through the doors into the infirmary and found what she had expected to find. Teyla Emmagenwas sitting in one of the plastic chairs that made up the 'waiting area' of the infirmary. It was Carson's way of trying to impose order on a chaotic system, and she applauded him on the attempt if not the success. Predictably, Ronon Dex was leaning against the wall nearest Teyla, eschewing the too small chairs, his face grim and his clothes stained with what seemed to be a lot of blood. Since he was here and not in the infirmary proper she assumed it wasn't his. Rodney McKay was pacing in front of the chairs. As she approached he seemed to be having a silent argument with himself, an action his teammates seemed to be watching with amusement beneath the regular worry.

"Rodney?" she asked stepping into his path. She suspected she would get a more coherent and clear picture of what was going on by speaking with Teyla, but with Rodney in the room he would be involved anyway, so she might as well start with him. He looked up at her and she was startled at the look of despair that she saw in his eyes. Just how badly off was John?

"I conceded the game, Elizabeth. I could have won but he would have bled to death, or passed out, or fallen over and broken his other arm or something. Do you think he'll be mad at me? He can't be mad can he? I mean it's his bleeding that was the problem. He couldn't have wanted to me to keep going…could he? Of course we're talking about the man who tried to fly a nuke into a hive ship here, who allowed someone to stop his heart with a defibrillator in the back of a stuck puddle jumper. Crap, he's going to blame me. You guys have to protect me." he demanded the last of his teammates.

Teyla rose gracefully and patted his arm, leading him to sit in one of the chairs while she turned to look at Elizabeth. The head of Atlantis noticed that Ronon reached out and patted Rodney's shoulder in a silent gesture of support. She looked at Teyla with a puzzled expression. The Athosian smiled in her cool collected manner.

"Dr. Beckett has taken the Colonel into surgery. He had his left arm broken in the last contest. The bone punctured the skin on his forearm and he was bleeding excessively and we had some difficulty stopping it. Dr. Beckett believes that once he has set the arm and sewn up the wound, that the Colonel will be fine." she reported. Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. The Ferlians had some attractive trading possibilities, but they were not worth a permanently damaged or, God forbid, dead Colonel. She frowned as a thought hit her.

"I thought that this challenge would be Rodney's. Did they change the order of the challenges?"

"No, but in Dr. McKay's challenge we were all involved. It was in the course of the game that the Colonel was injured. It was not Dr. McKay's fault, and he did what was necessary. Colonel Sheppard will understand that." She addressed the last to McKay who was slumped in the chair now, rubbing his head. He shrugged. Elizabeth didn't feel any more enlightened. She pulled Teyla toward another of the chairs and sat down beside her.

"Fill me in."

An hour later Beckett had emerged from the surgery and assured them all that Sheppard would be fine. The wound was closed, there was no nerve damage and the arm was set. He had it in a splint rather than a cast since the wound needed to be watched for a few days, but it was going to be fine. The colonel was in recovery and would be there the rest of the night. He had refused to allow any of them to sit with him, saying he thought they would benefit more from the sleep, and that the colonel would not be waking up until the morning in any event. After a brisk argument that Beckett won out of sheer stubbornness, the team acquiesced.

Elizabeth suggested that they get some rest and meet with Sheppard in the morning. She figured she could get at least a few more hours before the next crisis emerged, or Sheppard woke up. Which would prove more challenging, she could only guess.

Chapter 29-

John Sheppard had woken up too many times in the Atlantis infirmary to not know where he was immediately. He also woke up with an almost complete memory of what had happened. He only lost it after he had managed to throw the Gerren over his back and out of the space. At that point everything became just a bit on the blurry side. He vaguely remembered his arm hurting like a bitch, and trying to stop some bleeding from something. Then…pretty much nothing until he woke up here.

What the hell had happened? Had they won? Well of course they had won. Rodney had her in three more moves. Seven if she decided to fight it out rather than concede like a Chess player would. He had a feeling that the Genii woman, he was pretty sure that her name was Hort, was going to push it to the last piece. And, who named their daughter Hort, anyway? Of course maybe in this game it was considered correct to fight to the finish even if you couldn't win.

He opened his eyes and looked around. Yep. Same old place. It seemed to be early: he was used to the way that the early morning light streamed through the windows. It was quiet, and the lights were still down. He felt around with his right hand; the only one he could feel at the moment, and found the controls to the bed. A flip of the switch and the head of the bed rose and he could see a little better what was going on. Well at least he was the only one of his team in here, though there was someone else in a bed at the end of the row. He saw a light shining from the small office where the nurses sat during their shift, but didn't see anyone. He knew that the night shift often did inventories on the various pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to fill in time, and assumed that was where the duty nurse was. Just as well. He had places to be. If it was dawn here, that meant it was the middle of the night on Elasia, which meant that he didn't have but a few hours until he had to be there to participate in the next challenge. His team hadn't come this far, fought so hard, to punk out because he couldn't come to the mark at the bell.

He shook his head. Boy, Carson must have given him the good stuff if he was using boxing metaphors this early in the day. He looked down at his left arm. It was in a plastic splint, open on the side where he assumed the bone had come through the skin. Nasty. Evidently he couldn't have a cast on it for a while. Oh well, his challenge was a test of spirit; he shouldn't have to be too physical. Maybe he could do the whole thing sitting down. Hey, maybe if it was meditation he could put some of what he learned in the sanctuary to use. Had to be something all that time was good for.

He gingerly lifted his splinted arm and waited for the pain. Nope. Must have received a dose not long ago. Well that would help out. He would get back to Elasia and see about getting a few hours sleep before the challenge started. Maybe he could talk Carson out of some Vicoden to take along. He had a feeling that when the shot wore off he would need a little something. He would need a sling too. Past experience had shown him that dangling a broken limb did not feel good, at least for the first few days.

His stomach grumbled, and he realized that he had not had dinner. If he was right about the time, the early breakfast line should be forming in the mess hall. If he hurried he might be able to get some of the real eggs and bacon that the Daedalus should have brought two days ago. They didn't last long. He looked down at his right hand where an IV fed into the back. That was going to have to go. At least he was in scrubs and not a gown.

He peeled the tape back from the insertion point and pulled the needle out. Gad that hurt. You would think the painkiller would take care of that. He put the tape back to help control the bleeding a little. He'd get a band-aid later. He cast another look at the office. Still nothing. If the nurse had just done rounds he might have as long as an hour before someone notified Beckett. That would give him the chance to eat, change, and have his arguments in order for why he had to go back.

He threw back the covers and cradling his left arm with the right, he swung his legs over the side. There was a bit of a head rush, but not too bad. The floor was cold on his bare feet and he looked around for his boots. No such luck. Oh well, if he was going to show up in the mess hall in scrubs anyway, he might as well go whole hog and be barefoot as well. It wasn't as if no one would notice the splint. He scratched at his chin, and scowled at the stubble he found there. He needed a shave, something else to take care of back at his quarters. But food first,

He slipped out of the infirmary and was in the nearest transporter in minutes. He didn't see anyone, and he mentally reviewed the patrol schedule. Shouldn't be anyone near the mess hall now either. Perfect. The transport dumped him out just a short walk from the mess, and he sauntered in as if he always showed up in scrubs. There were very few people present, a few military who probably went on duty soon, a few scientists who had probably worked through the night, and a few people who just got up early because they wanted to. He garnered several double takes, and could hear the speculation going on at the tables with more than one person as he got in line with his tray. He was going to have to limit his weight; he could only handle so much single handedly. He got a plate of scrambled eggs, wishing he could have some over easy, but that was asking too much of the military. You can have fresh eggs, but they are going to be presented to you just like the powdered ones were, scrambled. Four slices of bacon, some toast and a glass of orange juice had him all set. He would go for coffee once he set this down.

He made his way to a back table, out of sight of the door, and after procuring some coffee, sat down and tucked in. Even scrambled the eggs were great, as was the bacon. Say what you will about cholesterol and pig fat, but damn they tasted good. He had worked his way through his plateful and was finishing his coffee when he saw one of Carson's nurses, Leticia, come in. She didn't see him and headed straight for the line. She was talking with someone, and she did not look around. Knowing that his presence in the mess hall, in scrubs and bare feet would be reported to Carson immediately by his spy network, he rose and dumped his tray. Moving quickly, but he hoped not noticeably so, he went out the door.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he entered the transporter again. If he could just get to his quarters, Carson would have a hard time chivvying him back into sickbay. He could hold the high ground so to speak and let the man argue all he wanted. He exited the transporter near his quarters and headed toward his door, his bare feet making little sound on the cold floor. He had almost made it when he heard the sound. It took him just a second to make the connection and he picked up his pace to a jog, which seemed to jar his arm more than he had thought possible. He was only one step from his opening door when it was too late. The owner of the pounding footsteps he had heard approaching appeared around the corner, and came to a stop. Ronon.

"Sheppard, Beckett is going to have your ass." he drawled. Sheppard turned around and scowled at him. He was going to argue, but he realized that having this conversation in the middle of the corridor was not getting him shaved and showered and back in his own clothes. He decided to move ahead, and Ronon could follow if he wanted. He headed straight for the bathroom and got out his electric razor. It was smoother and longer lasting the old fashioned way, but time was short. The little bit of jogging had made his arm start to ache. Maybe Carson hadn't given him the good stuff after all.

He made quick work of cleaning off his face and was contemplating how he was going to do the shower thing when his doorbell rang. He poked his head out of the bathroom and looked at the door. That silhouette could only be Ronon. He thought the door open and the ex-runner entered. He was carrying a piece of plastic. It took Sheppard a moment to realize it was a bag, meant for covering assorted body parts when they weren't supposed to get wet. The Satedan had broken his own arm over three months ago, and had evidently kept it since then. He was never one to waste anything. Sheppard smiled at him. Evidently he had a partner in crime. He motioned to his teammate.

"Come help me get out of this top. I don't figure I have too much longer and I want a shower." he said. His friend complied.

Twenty minutes later he was sitting on his bunk, wearing his BDU's and drying his hair. The shower had felt great and he wished he could have stayed in for a lot longer, but facing Beckett in the nude would not have solidified his position. Not that he was shy, or that the doctor hadn't seen everything already, but it was hard to be forceful when naked, at least in this kind of situation. His arm was starting to ache now, and he wondered what he had that he could use to make a sling. He was saved from having to improvise when Ronon came to stand in front of him with a sling dangling from his hand. It was one of those ones that basically consisted of a couple long of strips of Velcro that went around your wrist and kind of hooked on your elbow. That worked. He let the Satedan help him into a long sleeved shirt, most of the left sleeve of which was efficiently removed by one of Ronon's many knives. The ex-runner then helped him with the sling. They had just finished when his doorbell rang again.

He wondered how Beckett managed to make the sound come out irritated and grumpy, when it usually was just an innocuous beep. Of course McKay managed to make it sound impatient and arrogant, so it wasn't just the Scots doctor who could do it. However, he was not going to have any time for contemplating that question. He knew if he didn't open it himself, Beckett would use his medical override and come in anyway. He thought at the door. He put a fake smile on his face and stood to face the music. His smile faded a little as he realized that the music was evidently going to be a quartet. Beckett, McKay, Elizabeth and Teyla all stood in his doorway. Ronon gave a little snort and edged slightly away from him. What a coward.

"Hey everyone, good morning." he attacked, knowing his position was weak. He sought to throw them off balance. Beckett ignored his greeting and marched up to tower over him. Steam should have been shooting out his ears, produced by the fire in his eyes. Sheppard's smile faded some more.

"None of your foolishness, Colonel. You're six hours out of surgery, even if it was local anesthesia and relatively minor compared to what you usually do to yourself. You shouldn't even be on your feet much less wondering around Atlantis doing who knows what." He looked Sheppard up and down. "Don't tell me you got in a shower, man! Are you trying to get it infected or crack your head open when you get dizzy?"

"Well I didn't…either one, I used a plastic bag and I'm not dizzy." He stood up, and had to close his eyes against the head rush. When he opened them he looked sheepishly at Beckett. "At least I wasn't. But I'm fine now. We can get back to Elasia as soon as I've got my boots on and everyone has had breakfast."

"And what makes you think that you'll be going anywhere but back to the infirmary?" Beckett questioned, not moving from where he stood which put him well inside Sheppard's personal space. It also kept him from moving.

"We're in the middle of something, Carson. Only one more contest to go and we've got this wrapped up. These people have Ancient tech from places we may never even know about. Rodney was salivating." His argument didn't seem to be moving the doctor. "Anyway, everyone else has done their best to get us in first place, and we can't lose it all now. It's just a 'test of spirit' anyway. How physical can that be?"

"Uh…about that Colonel-" Rodney started, only to be cut off by Elizabeth.

"Not now Rodney." she said sternly and moved up to stand next to Carson. Sheppard shuffled back as far as his bunk would allow. He was just about ready to crawl across it to the other side to gain a little space. "John, I understand and appreciate your desire to get us a new trading partner, but it is not worth your health. Carson believes you need to stay in the infirmary for a few days."

"A few days? They are not going to wait for a few days. Even if the Ferlians were willing, you can bet the Genii would raise a stink, call it favoritism or cheating or something, and I'll be damned if I give them the satisfaction." he ground out.

"Colonel-" Beckett started reaching out to grab Sheppard's good arm. He jerked his arm away, managing not to sway on his feet as he pushed past the two of them and faced his teammates.

"Why aren't you guys helping out here? You've all put it on the line to get us where we are, we can't let it all go down the drain." He noticed for the first time that Rodney seemed to be uncharacteristically silent. Teyla and Ronon exchanged a look. Something was going on. "What?" he demanded. Teyla stepped forward.

"Your health is more important than finding new trading partners. The Ferlians can offer nothing that we can not find for ourselves given the time."

"Who says that we're going to have the time, or even that we're going to look in the right place? We've been looking for a ZPM for what, three years now and so far we have squat that hasn't been brought by someone else. Not to mention that they might have some addresses for places that would give us an edge that they don't even recognize. Wouldn't it be nice not to have to put our own ass on the line for some of this stuff?" He spun as quickly as he could and faced Rodney, catching him chewing on a thumbnail. Oh yeah, something was up. Rodney only self-cannibalized when something was going on that he didn't want to talk about. "And why aren't you helping me out here. What's wrong with you?" The deer-in-the-headlights look confirmed it before the 'I'm not lying now' face took over.

"What do you mean? I'm just as concerned about your health as everyone else. If Carson thinks you need to be in the infirmary, then I'm sure that's where you need to be. Like Teyla says, we don't need those people." At Sheppard's disbelieving look he colored, and his eyes skittered off to Teyla and Ronon with a desperate look. He sidled slightly away from Sheppard and behind Ronon. At Sheppard's loud snort he colored even more.

"You would happily sell me, Ronon and Teyla for just a chance to play with the ZPM that was on that table, not to mention the rest of the goodies that were there, so don't give me that. What the hell is going on?" His arm was starting to make itself known a little more, and he hugged it unconsciously against his body as he stalked McKay around the unmoving bulk of Mt. Dex. A quick shift back the way he came had him right in front of the retreating scientist. The blue eyes looked at him imploringly.

"IdidntwinthegameIhadtoconcedesoyoudidntbleedtodeath." McKay said and then ducked down with one hand up as if to ward off a blow. Sheppard blinked at him, his mind trying to decode whatever language that had been. He had finally managed to parse it out when Elizabeth stepped forward and took his arm. He didn't shake her off' he was too busy staring at McKay. She gave him a brief synopsis of what the team had reported to her.

"John. Rodney did what he had to do. Carson said if they hadn't gotten you back when they did you would have gone into shock and possibly died before he could have done anything." she offered. He didn't take his eyes off of McKay. His mind was whirling.

It was his fault that they were on the edge of losing. If he had managed to take care of Gerren without letting him through his guard, McKay would not have had to concede the game. He had been only moves away from checkmate, from winning, and he had quit…for Sheppard. The colonel felt a surge of something he could not identify. It was gratitude, anger, friendship, exasperation, love and even a little bit of awe. Rodney McKay, super genius, possessor of the largest ego in two known galaxies, had thrown a game of Chess…for him. That had to have hurt. The fact it was to the Genii had to make it excruciating. And the rest of it all...they could lose everything, the ZPM, the other gadgets, the chance of more. All of his friends were willing to give it up, for him. It was humbling in a way that few things had been in his life. Without giving any warning he stepped into Rodney's personal space and ignoring his squeak of fright, wrapped his good arm around the scientist. He pulled him into a gentle hug and turned his head to speak in the man's ear.

"Thanks, Rodney." Was all he said before he stepped back, ignoring McKay's amazed look and turned to face Weir.

"Look Elizabeth, we NEED this trade agreement. These people are not just the EBay of Ancient tech. They also have technology that isn't too far from our own. That means that they have managed to avoid the Wraith long enough to evolve. I don't know if they've dug in like the Genii, or if they have shields or what, but we need to know, and the only way that is going to happen is if we win this thing. We have one more challenge, and only I can do it. No substitutions, it's in the rules. Let me do this." He put everything he had into that last demand. They had to let him go.

"Colonel-" Carson started. He was the stumbling block, Sheppard knew. The doctor would not be impressed with getting more Ancient tech, even a ZPM. His concern would be for Sheppard himself, and he would not waver in that concern.

"Carson, look. I know I'm not 100, maybe not even 80, but I can function. You have the bleeders tied off, and the arm is splinted. If you can give me just enough stuff to keep it from hurting for a day, one day, I'll come back and I swear I'll stay in the infirmary until you say I can leave. Not one complaint, no escape attempts, I'll even try to keep the whining to a minimum." The doctor looked torn. Good, at least he was thinking about it.

"It's a 'test of spirit', Carson." Rodney put in, finally seeming to overcome his shock. "How hard could it be? He'll probably just have to meditate for three hours and they'll call it good. It'll be like Olympic knitting or something. We can keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn't strain any stitches." Beckett looked at him as if he had brain damage.

"You were there when he was hurt before, Rodney. Your record as a babysitter doesn't thrill me."

"Oh come on, Carson. That isn't fair." Sheppard protested. It was part of the tag team strategy that he and Rodney had perfected. When one was weak the other had to go into the ring. "I was on the game board of my own free will, and Rodney obviously took steps to stop it when he saw I was having trouble. What more could you ask for?"

"How about that you don't put yourself into these kind of situations?" the Doctor asked. But behind the sarcasm Sheppard saw that he was at least considering their argument.

"It was Chess, Carson. We are not talking your usual high-risk sport. We didn't know that Gerren was going to go for it when he had the chance." Sheppard wasn't going to mention that he had been pretty sure that Gerren was going to take his best shot, but that wasn't the same as knowing now was it? "Like Rodney said, this last challenge should be nothing more exciting than say Curling or something like that. I'll probably nod off in the middle of it all." He saw Rodney frown at the curling reference, but even the Canadian had to admit that the game wasn't exactly exiting. Carson looked from one to the other of them and then at Elizabeth who was standing by, enjoying the fact that the "terrible two" were double-teaming someone besides her for a change.

"I'll agree to let the Colonel go, but on one condition. I go along to keep an eye on him. I don't trust Rodney any further than I can throw him when it comes to reining in the Colonel, and Teyla has three of them to wrangle and she can't be everywhere at once." he offered ignoring Rodney's protest and Ronon's dour look. Elizabeth, knowing how much Carson hated going off world, knew that the doctor was trying to do what was best for not only his patient, but also for Atlantis. She also knew he wouldn't even consider allowing John to go if the colonel wasn't up to it, no matter how much the two of them harassed him.

"Very well. I see no reason you can't go. How soon do you have to leave?" She addressed the last to Rodney who did some quick figuring in his head.

"It should be around 0400 right now. If they stick to their regular schedule, the challenge should start after breakfast, which is usually right around 0700 planet time. I hear that there's bacon and real eggs in the mess, so I would rather have breakfast here than sit through another bowl of oatmeal."

"Yeah, I saw how you barely shoveled down that third bowl yesterday." Ronon said edging toward the door. The mention of bacon had been enough to get his interest. He had become a fan of the breakfast food after first tasting it. Rodney, seeing the movement, sneered at the Satedan and started toward the door, the conversation obviously over in his mind as more important things had arisen. The two slipped out the door. The remaining people shared a smile, and Carson gently took Sheppard's good elbow in a firm hand.

"If we're goin' to do this, Colonel, you are coming back to my infirmary for a while. I want to look at that arm again and I'll give you a shot that will keep it in control for at least a few hours. We'll see what else has to be done then. But I want you to understand something lad. If I see that wound opening up, or if you start to have trouble, I am calling this whole thing off, game or no game, win or lose. There's no piece of Ancient machine that is as important as you, even Rodney's ZPM."

Sheppard, after a brief consideration of refusing, gave in with good grace and after Teyla helped him with his boots, he allowed Beckett and the Athosian to guide him toward the infirmary. Elizabeth watched them go down the corridor with a sigh, and then headed toward her office. It was time to take care of the next crisis.

Chapter 30-

Two hours later they stepped through the gate onto Elasia to see the sun already up and a few people moving about. They startled two technicians who were obviously setting up for the day's game, though Sheppard decided not to mention that out loud, since that kind of put paid to his suggestion to Beckett that there wouldn't be much involved in the upcoming contest. If they had to go off world, then obviously something was going on beside marathon meditation. Luckily, Rodney was keeping up a conversation with Beckett regarding some of the fruit that they had tried here on Elasia the morning before. Carson was distracted enough not to notice the men.

They walked slowly, toward the village. Sheppard chafed at the slow pace, but knew that if he tried to push it any faster, Carson would have a kitten. So they ambled along, and reached the square where everyone just as they seemed to be finishing up breakfast. There was quite a stir as they entered, and Sheppard smirked at the Genii contingent as they gaped at him standing there.

"Hey Lucy…I'm hooome!" he called to Garren, who looked at him like he was crazy. Maybe he was, because his own team was looking at him funny too. He shrugged which wasn't as easy as it sounded with the new sling that Carson had made him wear. He had replaced the simple sling with a full out sling of material that cradled his whole arm. The only good thing about it was that he had snagged an extra 9 mil down inside of it, and you couldn't tell it was there. No one watched a cripple too hard. It was an advantage out of his disadvantage.

Fernal, sitting at the head of the table as usual, stood and with his usual flair, spread his arms in welcome. "The Blue team returns!" he exalted as if they were the second coming. "We feared that your wound would be too severe for you to continue. We, all of us here, and those watching on Ferlia, welcome your return. Never before have the games been so fraught with tension. Without you the last challenge would have not been so good. The Ancestors have indeed blessed us!" Sheppard suspected they were in for some exceptional hyperbole today.

The five Lanteans took a seat in the middle of the table and waited while the officials sorted themselves out. Carson was amazed at the action, watching the cameras flying about and staring at the colorful tourists who had come to line the square for the announcement. Ronon and McKay took the opportunity to sample a few of the pastries that were still piled on the table. Sheppard was secretly grateful for the opportunity to sit down.

His arm didn't hurt so much as it ached. Beckett's pain medication was a wonder, but he could only take so much of the pain away without leaving Sheppard as a zombie. He didn't need that, and wouldn't ask for it. He could however, enjoy the moment of respite from the jostling that occurred when he walked. He saw Teyla looking at him and he gave her a smile. He knew he didn't fool her; he wasn't sure there was anyone that could fool that woman, but she smiled back at him and turned her attention to the head of the table.

Ferlan had evidently gotten word that it was time to begin the broadcast as he waved everyone into their places, and began the regular greetings and happy talk. Finally he worked his way down to the important stuff.

"For those of you keeping track of the score, you know that the Green team has two points, the Blue team has five points and the Yellow team also has five points. This is the final challenge. Points will be awarded at the discretion of the judges, the total points to be determined by them. Once this challenge is completed the choice of who becomes our next trade partner will be evident. And now to the challenge." He bade the three contestants come forward, which they did. Sheppard could feel Gerren's contemplative look at his arm, and he grinned at him before he turned his attention to Ferlan and the challenge.

"Honored contestants; gracious hosts; viewers, we must now beg your indulgence. As I have said previously this challenge, the test of spirit, has never been met in the history of our games. The manner of the test is known, and well within our capabilities, but in order for the challenge to proceed as planned, the contestants, and by default all of you as well, must remain ignorant of the particulars of the test." There was a stirring among the crowd, and Sheppard assumed this was somewhat unheard of. Of course it would be hard to build anticipation for something you couldn't even describe. Ferlan raised his hands in appeasement.

"Gentle folk, I beg you, indulge us in this, and I guarantee that the results will be more than you can anticipate. We will not let you down. You have been guaranteed entertainment, and entertainment you shall receive. There are some things that we can share with you." He motioned for the contestants to join him on the low dais where he stood. Once they had done so, squinting in the lights of the cameras, he continued.

"Our three contestants will go to the Stargate and there embark to the planet Tortana. They will remain on the planet for at least six hours, but no more than eight. The length of time will depend on the developments of the day. Due to the nature of the challenge, no official will be with the contestants on the planet, and so the cameras will be our eyes. The contest will be broadcast in its entirety with no interruptions. All rules of the previous games regarding behavior between contestants remain in force, and any violation will result in the dismissal of that team from the remainder of these games. We are so close to the end, and surely all can see the benefit of the prize. I am sure that we can overcome any petty differences or arguments that may be between us for the completion of this contest. Do you not agree gentlemen?" With a glance at each other, all three contestants nodded and Ferlan smiled upon them with his megawatt smile.

Then let us away to the gate.

Chapter 31-

As soon as Sheppard stepped through the far side of the event horizon, he was instantly suspicious. There was such a thing as too perfect. Everywhere around them was pastoral niceness. There were rolling hills with grasses blowing in the gentle cool breeze. The sun shown down on an incredibly blue lake to one side and flowers danced in the breeze on the shores. Across the lake a deer-like creature lifted its head and stared at them before wandering slowly off, unalarmed with their presence. A flock of colorful parrotfish birds flew overhead, landing in the trees near the lake edge. All it needed was a few scantily clad nymphs cavorting about to make it completely perfect. He wished for his P90 and idly fingered the pistol in his sling under the guise of adjusting his arm.

The other two men were also studying the area, and the Green team man, Herth, was smiling. Garren, obviously more experienced when it came to traveling between worlds, or maybe just naturally suspicious, wasn't looking so happy. Herth turned to look at them.

"Well, my fellow contestants at least we have a beautiful place in which to compete. Have you any idea what we are to do?" he asked. Sheppard had been scanning the sky and pointed out what appeared to be a spiral of smoke.

"Looks like some kind of fire over there. Maybe a village of some kind, we could see what the natives have to say." he suggested. He wasn't really fond of the plan, they hadn't had a lot of 'good' encounters with Pegasus galaxy natives in his experience, but short of just sitting on the grass under a tree and contemplating his navel for the next six hours he had little other to offer as suggestions.

The other two squinted in the direction he indicated. After a moment Garren nodded and started towards it without a word. Herth peered toward the area for another moment, and then looked at Sheppard with a shrug.

"I don't see anything, but then my eyes are not what they could be. Too many hours in the labs I guess. Of course I would not have even thought to look for such a thing. Shall we walk together?" Sheppard accepted with a nod and they started after Garren. The walking was easy, and the cool breeze was just right in the sunshine, just too perfect. Sheppard kept looking around waiting for something to spring out at them. Herth must have noticed his distraction.

"You seem anxious. Do you know something I do not about this place?" Sheppard shook his head.

"Never been here before. Let's just say that I've gotten…cautious over the years." No need to mention paranoia. He wasn't paranoid anyway, that was Rodney's job. He was just careful. Breaking the workload up among the team.

"Hmm. My people do not as a rule travel to many worlds beside a few trading partners. For the most part we prefer that others come to us. We are an insular people," he looked speculatively at Sheppard. "Perhaps too much so. I…may I speak frankly to you, Sheppard?" The colonel glanced at the cameras that were hovering over their heads.

"If you don't mind however many people listening in hearing whatever it is, then go for it. Frankness would be a nice change for me." Herth smiled at him.

"I know that we have been competitors in this venture and in at least one instance, the actions of my people have not…shone the best light upon our character. We are a people of science. We have little in the way of military, and we always seek to avoid confrontation when possible. Not through any philosophical dislike of it you understand. I would not have you think us pacifists out of moral strength. We are a meek race out of weakness, not strength." Herth shot him a look out of the corner of his eyes, perhaps expecting a look of disgust. Sheppard simply raised an eyebrow at him. Herth indicated Garren, walking almost two hundred yards ahead of them.

"His people will not deal with us. They sneer at our meekness and find us distasteful. Where they actively seek to fight the Wraith, we hide from them. Effectively, but still it is hiding. Our science is focused on that, finding more effective ways to hide. The Genii think we should turn our attention to weapons, defensive weapons. I had thought, when you and your people came that you would be much the same." He left it hanging there as they walked in silence for several minutes. Sheppard was contemplating exactly what he could say with however many people possibly watching and listening. He wished there was some way to tell when the cameras were on. Finally he decided on a suitably vague reply that might just get his point across.

"My people have learned the value of both defensive AND offensive weapons." he said. "And let's just say that hiding is not something that we sneer at. In fact, we might just be interested in what you have to offer. What say after this we get together and see what we can do for each other?" He wasn't sure just how technologically advanced the Thalians were, but if the Genii were after them for weapons, that probably meant they were at least on par with them, maybe more so in terms of defense. Even if they didn't win this thing, they might just end up with a trading partner. A no-lose situation, that was appealing. Usually it seemed to be the other way around. Herth smiled at him, obviously happy with the suggestion.

"Indeed!" There was no missing the man's enthusiasm. "Uh…if I may ask..."

"Sure. We're practically best buds already." He waved away the puzzled look and indicated that the man should go ahead. Sheppard noted that Garren was giving them looks over his shoulder. No doubt his paranoia was raging, wondering just what the two were plotting against him, too bad about that.

"Your people are obviously advanced. Your weapons alone are above anything that I have seen, even more than the Genii. More importantly, you have what my people call the 'activator', the ability to affect the Ancestor's machines. Why do you seek alliance with any of us? What can we possibly have that you need?" Okay, so we were going to ask the hard questions.

"We may or may not be…advanced, but we do know that the only way that we can defeat the Wraith is if we have friends. The uh…Ancestors found out that going it alone didn't work. We don't plan to duplicate their mistakes. The more the merrier." That should do it. Best to not discuss the 'activator' at this point.

They walked on in silence after that, and Sheppard found himself slowly relaxing as nothing with lots of teeth jumped out of the grass and tried to eat them. His arm was still at a low throb, they had a possible new ally, and things were not going too bad. They crested a small rise, and they could see what appeared to be a small town not unlike that on Elasia about a mile away. Garren was at the foot of the rise, having slowed his pace a little. Sheppard was about to head down the hill when it all went to shit.

Chapter 32-

Back on Elasia Rodney had taken Carson to see the Farlian space ships. They had simply viewed them from a distance, though Rodney had plans to use his 'in' with the tech to get a glance inside when the opportunity presented itself. The trip had mainly been a way for Rodney to divert Beckett's attention from the fact that Sheppard was going off world, out of reach of the doctor's voodoo power, and would be so for at least six hours. Beckett had slipped Sheppard a small packet of pills before the colonel had marched off toward the gate with the officials and his fellow contestants. He had pretended not to see Beckett's scowl, and had begged off on any conversation. Beckett had mumbled under his breath most of the way to the ships, something about Air Force Colonels and large needles. They were heading back to the main square where they had planned to meet Teyla and Ronon. They had both gone along with Sheppard to the gate, to watch the proceedings on Tortuga, or whatever the name of the planet Sheppard was on was called. As there was not an outline for what was involved in the game, they had no real idea when something would happen, or what shape that something would take, so they had decided to get comfortable in the pavilion set up for the teams' use. It might be difficult to keep Ronon from beating up any Genii who might be present, but at least there would be snacks present and a chair to sit in.

They had caught site of the planet that Sheppard had gated to before they had gone on their little hike on one of the screens, and the fact that the place looked like the perfect vacation area, minus the flower pollen of course, only served to piss McKay off. He got a tent, Teyla got the road trip from hell, Ronon got killer dodge ball and Sheppard, what does he get? He gets the Elysian Fields. Rodney's mind stuttered to a stop. Maybe that wasn't the best comparison given that the Elysian Fields were where the Greek warriors went when they died. He suddenly saw Sheppard as he had been only yesterday during the Chess game. Swaying on his feet, face pale, with blood dripping from his hand. Okay, he wasn't going there.

They were passing through one of the smaller squares, what is it with these people and squares anyway, when they caught sight of one of the screens. The cameras were still broadcasting, as promised. The angle was from behind and above Sheppard and the Green team contestant, Rodney could not recall his name. Was there no program for all these people? Had no one thought of this stuff?

The two were walking along through knee high grass, talking. Their voices were just low enough that the camera's microphone only picked up an occasional word. The Green team contestant seemed happy enough about whatever they were talking about, and Sheppard had that earnest look on his face that practically screamed 'Trust me. I was a Boy Scout'. A wholly deceptive, but probably true statement, as McKay well knew. John Sheppard could be just as devious as the next man, maybe more so since you rarely saw it coming, but he wouldn't do it if he didn't think you had earned it. Of course his opinion about who had and hadn't earned it was completely subjective. As Rodney and Carson paused to watch, the two men crested a small hill, and seemed to be looking at something in the distance. The camera panned to show a small village that looked very similar to the one they were in. They could also see the Genii leader, Gerren, McKay had his name imprinted on his brain, at the bottom of the hill.

McKay still wasn't sure how Sheppard could be within five feet of the man and not want to shoot him, or something equally painful. He knew that Ronon had only restrained himself after a decidedly stern look from both Teyla and Sheppard. On the whole, Sheppard was taking it all as if it were just another day at the office, so to speak, no harm, no foul. Of course it was all an act, Rodney knew. He had seen the enjoyment Sheppard got from the Genii's surprise at their arrival earlier. Repression was after all the man's stock in trade, so he shouldn't be too surprised he guessed.

On the screen Sheppard started down the hill, and then, mid-step he stopped and dropped to the ground, dragging the other man down with him. The camera was close enough that they could see the wince on the colonel's face as he hit the ground. Sheppard was looking off screen, his eyes dark and angry. McKay had seen that look too many times. The camera panned around and they saw what Sheppard had seen. A Wraith dart passed overhead, and in the distance they could see several more passing through the open Stargate. At his side he heard Carson swear under his breath. Rodney couldn't help but agree.

Chapter 33-

Sheppard lay in the grass, trying to ignore the pain that had shot through his arm as he had landed on it falling to his stomach. He had dragged Herth down with him, and they both lay still as several darts passed over their heads. Sheppard cursed as even more passed over. He wondered why they hadn't heard the gate engage. The wind must have carried the sound away. They were sitting ducks out here. He wasn't sure why they had been ignored, but he could only think that the pilots were so focused on getting to the village in the distance before the people could run and hide, that they had not bothered to scan anywhere else. He well remembered the solid canopies on the darts, and knew that the pilots were depending completely on their telemetry on the HUDs to give them their prey.

They only had so long before at least one dart came back and started sweeping the area or until ground troops followed the darts through the gate. At that point, if they were here in between the gate and the village, they were going to be breakfast for some Wraith. Not something that had been part of his plan for the day. He suddenly thought of something. The cameras! If those things were poking up filming everything they would give away their position in an instant. He looked around, carefully keeping his head down. The cameras had dropped down so that they were mostly hidden in the grass. Well at least they didn't have to worry about that too much. They must be on some kind of automatic program since the technicians that usually drove the things were back on Elasia, and they certainly weren't controlling them via radio waves.

While he was up, he looked around. There was a small copse of trees about three hundred yards away that seemed the best bet for concealment. Of course it would also probably be the first place the Wraith would look when they got around to cleaning up the stragglers. Not that they had a lot of choices. Then there was the problem of getting there. He wasn't too enthused about just making a break for it. That was a lot of open ground to cover, and while he could do it quickly when he was in top shape, he reluctantly accepted that this was not one of those times. Also there was more to think about than just himself, Herth was there too. The man didn't appear to be in all that bad a shape, but if he was a scientist like Rodney was, that meant that running was probably not something he excelled at. Though to be fair, McKay had gotten much better at the basic 'run for your life' process. However, Sheppard could not expect Herth to be up to that kind of effort. Time to make like a snake in the grass. He lowered himself down and looked at the scientist who was gnawing his lip. Obviously the man had grasped the direness of the situation. Sheppard had a brief thought about Gerren, but figured the Genii was just going to have to take care of himself.

"Okay, here's how I see it." he started. "I have quite a lot of experience with the Wraith, and I can tell you that while they may have passed us up for now, they will be back once they finish off the village. I don't know if there are other villages on this planet for them to hit, or what, but they have to come back here to go to the gate and right now we're like a drive-through just off the turnpike on the way home. All we need is for one of them to pick us up on his sensors and we're a burger and fries to go." He ignored the puzzled look on Herth's face and went on. "I say we head for the trees over there and see if we can find a better place to hide than in plain sight." Herth nodded his agreement and went to stand up, but Sheppard grabbed him and hauled him back down.

"DON'T!" he snapped. "If there are any ground troops they'll see you. We're sky-lined on the rise and there's a clear view all the way to the gate. We'll have to do it on our stomach." He showed the scientist what he meant by belly crawling a few feet forward. It was incredibly awkward with his arm, but not as awkward as being brunch for a passing Wraith. He started to suggest that Herth go first so that Sheppard wouldn't hold him up, when the scientist got to his knees as if he were going to stand again. He was fumbling at something on his wrist.

Sheppard cursed, and was about to jerk the Thelan back down when all of a sudden, Herth disappeared. The colonel blinked at the spot where the man had been. In one of those actions that later made no sense, he looked around as if the scientist had just stepped to the side or something, but there was nothing there. Okaaay. He put out his hand toward where Herth had been, and almost jumped out of his skin when a hand closed around his wrist. There was a tingling that felt as if an electrical current had been routed through his body, and suddenly Herth was in front of him again.

"What the hell was that?" he demanded. As he finished the question he realized that something was going on with the grass. It was no longer the soft green it had been. It was now a strange purplish red and the sky, it was…yellow. Okay, this was not good. He looked at Herth who was smiling. He at least looked pretty much the same as he had before he disappeared.

"I am sorry. I was not sure that I could make my device cover both of us. It was made for only one, and it is still in the testing mode. I do not know how long it will last, and I suggest that we save explanations until we are somewhere safer, if such a place exists here." As Sheppard looked at him in puzzlement, he waved a hand around them. "We can not be seen. We must take advantage of it while it lasts." He started toward the trees, pulling Sheppard up and along with surprising strength. The colonel could have pulled away, but he had to admit, the man HAD disappeared. He might just not be as nuts as he sounded. In any event, he had been well trained by Rodney McKay to place his faith in science. As they headed for the trees he just hoped it wasn't misplaced.

Chapter 34-

McKay and Beckett had run all the way to the central square and the central pavilion. Once there they had found what they had assumed they would find. Ferlan, and several of the other officials were surrounded by the various teams, and were being pelted with questions. The screens had gone blank, and McKay assumed that they had lost the signal when the Wraith had taken over the gate. As McKay and Beckett pushed their way to the front where they could see Ronon towering over the crowd, they could hear Teyla speaking.

"You must cancel the game immediately and give us the address to the planet so that we can go through the gate. If you must, the challenge can be started again at another time, but we cannot leave our friend there with no weapons or support." she was saying. Ferlan was making that ridiculous 'calm down' movement with his hands that Rodney had always hated when used on him.

He pushed his way to Teyla's side. "We can not stop the challenge. Once it is begun we must allow it to run its course." Ferlan said calmly.

McKay wanted to grab the man and shake him. "Are you stupid or has whatever you use to whiten your teeth eaten its way to your brain? Those are Wraith. They aren't there to watch the game. They aren't going to land their darts and unpack a couple of lawn chairs so that they can get a ringside view of whatever it is that's going to happen while they roast a few wieners on their hibachi. Now give us the gate address we can go save Sheppard's ass before he becomes the seventh inning snack attack." he demanded.

Ferlan blinked at the vehemence of the demand, and seemed momentarily taken aback, but his training stood him in good stead, and he was soon smiling again. He raised his arms and called for quiet.

"Please! Please my friends! Let us all be calm." he begged. Finally the crowd quieted, and despite the glare he was getting from Ronon, Ferlan continued to speak calmly. Rodney's estimation of the man rose slightly at that show of moxie. "Please let us all take a moment and allow us to explain."

"EXPLAIN?" Rodney asked in disbelief. "Explaining indicates that you had some indication of what was going to happen. If you sent them there knowing that the Wraith were going to show up, you better wave bye-bye to the studio audience because my large friend here is going to rip your arms off and beat you and the rest of your friends here to death with them, and then the rest of us will probably take a few shots at whatever is left. Start explaining now." Ferlan was now looking nervously at McKay and the others.

"You do not understand my friend. There is no danger, not to anyone." he soothed. Rodney, who had appointed himself spokesman for the Team Lantea, and evidently for the rest of the teams as they didn't seem to be getting a word in edgewise, tilted his head and put a finger to his chin in exaggerated thought.

"Well let's see. Let's ignore the three mostly unarmed men that are wondering around in the open on a strange planet with no backup, and think about the village that seemed to be the main target of the life sucking alien menaces. What about those folks? You think about now that they might be in a little bit of danger?" Oh yeah, the sarcasm meter was off the scale.

"You still do not comprehend. There is no danger because there are no Wraith." Ferlan said patiently as if speaking to a very slow child. Ronon stepped forward.

"We saw them on the screen. We all know what Wraith darts look like. Are you telling us someone else was flying those ships?" He did not look amused.

"No, no. There are no Wraith and there are no darts, in fact there are no people in the village though if you got close enough you would see people there. There only appear to be darts, only appear to be people. That is the beauty of the game." Ferlan explained with a gleam in his eyes. Rodney realized suddenly that the man was excited. This was high drama; it must have the Ferlian TV audience glued to their sets. Fernal's paycheck had probably doubled for his next gig. That was if Rodney didn't kill him first. Teyla chose to ask the obvious question.

"When you saw 'appears', do you mean that the darts are not real, that they are…illusions?"

"Yes, dear lady!" Ferlan crowed delightfully. "Indeed! They are but tricks of the eye formed from the Terit, the gift of the Ancestors, and broadcast through the cameras that follow the contestants. The Terit chose the common link between the contestants and formed a challenge that would be common to them all. Now it projects that challenge in a way that appears to be real from a distance, but if touched has no substance."

"Holograms." Rodney interpreted. "The Ancient uh…Ancestor's device that you call a Terit projects holograms, 3-dimensional pictures formed of light." Teyla, Ronon, Beckett, and just about everyone else were looking at him in puzzlement. He sighed. Was he doomed to go through his entire life explaining things to people who just could not understand?

"A hologram is a recording of the phase of the light wave at each point in an image. A reference beam which is combined with the light from the scene or object, which is called the object beam. If these two beams are coherent, optical interference between the reference beam and the object beam, due to the superposition of the light waves, produces a series of intensity fringes that can be recorded on standard photographic film. These fringes form a type of diffraction grating on the film, which is called the hologram. The central goal of holography is that when the recorded grating is later illuminated by a substitute reference beam, the original object beam is reconstructed, producing a 3D image." He ground to a stop, not seeing one bit of understanding in the entire tent. He threw up his hands.

"You use a special kind of light and a camera to take a recording of something, then when you shine that same kind of light later you can see the item just like it was really there." he said more concisely. That seemed to make it through to a few of them. Why? Why was he surrounded by this type of people? He looked back at Ferlan.

"So the darts are fake, and so are the villagers? What is the point of that? What does running from a perceived threat have to do with a test of the spirit?" he asked in exasperation.

"As we have said before it is in the midst of trial that the true self is revealed. It is in the face of death that one's true spirit is shown. In this manner we bring the contestants to the edge of the precipice, but there is no danger of falling in." The man seemed very self- satisfied. He looked around the tent, seeing that the unrest seemed to have calmed, and nodded to the technician at the side of the tent. The tech nodded back, and the screen came alive again. The feed seemed to be picking up where Beckett and McKay had last seen it, with Sheppard and the Green team guy in the grass. The picture was obscured by grass as the cameras were evidently 'hiding' from the Wraith too. Nice touch that.

He saw Sheppard rise up a little and look around. He looked right at the camera for a moment with a frown. Evidently Sheppard was wondering about the cameras. What answer he had come up with McKay could only guess, but evidently he had rationalized it somehow. The colonel had then looked off to the left, rising up just slightly. He then turned and said something to the scientist who tried to get to his feet. Sheppard hissed something at him and pulled him back down. He then demonstrated the technique that Rodney fondly remembered (not!) from survival training called the belly crawl. As far as he could tell if you didn't end up with your underwear filled with dirt you were not doing it right. He found it in himself to be miffed that even with one arm in a sling, Sheppard managed to make it look easy.

Evidently the other man did not agree as he got to his knees reaching for his wrist. Sheppard turned to look at him and then all of a sudden, the Green team man was gone! The look on Sheppard's face could best be described as 'what the hell?' He looked around, but didn't seem to find anything. Then he reached out to where the man had been, and he was gone too. The tent erupted into chaos again.

Rodney blinked at the screen. Well damn.

Chapter 35-

They had walked with calm deliberation toward the forest, and were almost there when the odd colors began to bleed together, causing Sheppard to feel slightly nauseous. It was not an attractive mix of colors. Just as they stepped into the shade of the first tree there was a sudden flare of light, and everything was back to normal. Looking down Sheppard could see Herth's hand wrapped around his wrist. Evidently whatever it was had given out. But it wasn't the time for post mortems on some machine. He reversed the grip and grabbed Herth's wrist, pulling his own free, and dragged the man into the woods. Herth seemed to understand that they could not stop, and followed along willingly enough that Sheppard let him go and stepped out slightly ahead. The woods were thick, but there were some slight animal trails that they followed. He hoped to find a deadfall or cave that animals might use for a den that they could use for cover. He found what he was looking for after five minutes on the trail.

It was a deadfall where a large tree had fallen and the root ball had left a good-sized hole. Another tree had fallen against the roots and formed a sort of cave. He threw a rock in to make sure that nothing was going to protest their occupancy and led Herth inside. Enough light filtered through the litter above to make it easy to see. Obviously whatever had used the place previously had been carnivorous, and not a neat eater. Sheppard hoped it didn't come home anytime soon. Herth looked around and then found a place to sit down. He was breathing heavily, though Sheppard had a feeling it was from anxiety, not from the walk. Sheppard sat down too, and gestured at Herth's wrist.

"What is that thing? Some kind of personal invisibility shield, a cloak?"

"Yes. It is something I have been working on for the last several years. We found a device of the Ancestors. On it there were instructions for using it as a cloak, as you call it. We could not get it to work, obviously, but I was able to disassemble it and create a device of my own."

"We call that reverse engineering. It looks like you did a good job." Herth shrugged, and looked at the small machine that hung on his wrist like a manacle.

"It did indeed, and I can not say that I am displeased with its performance. However I am afraid that its usefulness is over. The power source is dead and I do not have another. It was from the Ancestor's device. It seems that the power drain is immense. I obviously have not gotten the regulation of power correct. We are perhaps lucky it did not blow up. I will have to study it when I return to the lab."

"Well I'm grateful that it didn't blow up. That would have been the perfect end to what's shaping up as a hell of a day for me."

"Indeed, I can not say that this is turning out quite as I had foreseen. A 'test of spirit' was not something I had previously contemplated, and I am afraid that this…" he waved at the area, "is not something that I associate with spirit."

"Oh well, maybe it's all in how you play the game." Sheppard said, peering out through the tangled roots and vegetation. He hadn't heard anything, but that didn't mean that the Wraith weren't out there. And just what had happened to Gerren? He might not like the Genii, but he wouldn't leave anyone to the Wraith …okay, maybe Kolya, and those guys on PCX-457, and the Ori, and the Go'aold, and Phoebus and Thelan-well they were dead, but they still deserved it, and Michael, wait, he's already a Wraith. But anyway, Gerren didn't deserve to be sucked dry just because he had it in for Sheppard. He was, after all, just one of an ever-growing crowd. The Genii had headed in this direction, if he came by it would only be neighborly to invite him in for some tea or something. Sheppard noticed something for the first time as he turned back to Herth.

"Hey, there is one good thing. We finally ditched those cameras. At least they won't be giving away our position. I don't know how sophisticated their automatic guidance system is, but somehow I don't think hiding from the Wraith was programmed in."

Before Herth could respond there was the sound from outside, something snapping, as if stepped on. Sheppard drew his pistol out of his holster and tried to get a look outside without showing himself. A brown dressed shape, that Sheppard instantly recognized as Gerren, moved through the forest about twenty feet away, moving slowly. Sheppard had to smile as he saw all three cameras following the Genii like a row of ducklings following their mother. From the annoyed look the man threw over his shoulder he was not enjoying the attention. Sheppard snorted a laugh that had Herth looking at him oddly, and coming to see what he was looking at. He too smiled when he caught sight of the procession. Sheppard slipped out of their hide.

"Gerren." He hissed, trying to keep his voice low but still attract the Genii's attention. He succeeded as the man spun in his tracks, gun coming up. Sheppard raised his free hand to show he wasn't a threat and Gerren lowered the weapon, though with a little reluctance it seemed to Sheppard, and came over to where Sheppard stood. The colonel gestured into the hiding place. "We've got some cover for now. You're welcome t o join us if you want." He glanced up at the cameras with a grimace. "I guess I couldn't get you to leave those out here could I?" The Genii shared his scowl.

"Even if we could, the damn things would give away our position. I would have shot them myself if it would not have given me away to any Wraith nearby."

Sheppard had to stifle a laugh as the cameras drew slightly back at that statement. The program must be pretty sophisticated after all. Gerren must have decided that the offer of cover was good enough as he ducked into the small "cave". It was a tight fit with all of them, and the cameras hovered close over their heads as they followed the two men inside. Sheppard looked cheerfully around.

"Well. Isn't this cozy? Anyone got any spooky stories they want to share?" When the two men just stared at him he shrugged. "Never mind, yours all probably have to do with the Wraith, and you wouldn't get mine. Any ideas abut what we should do? It's not like we can help that village, but there may be some survivors that we can help. Once it gets dark I think we should scout it out, see if the Wraith are still here. It's too open between here and the village to make moving around advisable"

"Why should we take such a chance at all? We simply watch the gate and when they are no longer keeping it open we will gate back to Elasia and get this over with. Why take any chances by going to the village? They will leave no one alive. And if they did, what could you do to help?" Gerren said with a sneer.

"Even if we do nothing more than hold the hand of someone as they lay dying so that they know they are not alone, that is helping. I would be grateful for the kindness myself. I would not deny it to another if I can. Also, there are those that may evade the Wraith, maybe some who were away from the village as we are, and who hid through the attack. We should check before we go." Herth said, not intimidated by the Genii's scowl in his direction.

"Yeah, what he said." Sheppard said with a smile at the Thelan. He looked outside, trying to get a fix on the sun. "It's not going to be all that long before it is dark. It seems like the Farlians didn't plan their time very well if they were planning on us being here at least six hours. I wonder what the test of spirit really was. If it was something to do with that village I have a feeling we'll never know now."

They sat speculating on what the challenge might have been; each sharing what they had thought was going to happen. None seemed particularly likely. They had been sitting quietly for about fifteen minutes when the quiet was broken by a scream. It sounded like a young girl. Sheppard was on his feet and outside before the echo died, looking frantically around for the source. Herth was right behind him, and Gerren followed reluctantly. Sheppard's pistol was in his hand, ready, but he saw nothing. The scream came again and this time he was able to get a direction. It was back toward the meadow where they had first seen the Wraith. He started running in that direction, awkward with his arm in the sling. He impatiently tore it off, tucking the extra gun in his holster. He could hear at least one of the others following him, but he didn't look back to see who. He didn't really care. He would do this alone if he had to. He could not sit by while one of those things killed a child. He had to be able to live with himself.

In a matter of minutes he was at the edge of the woods, and he scanned the area, looking for the source of the scream. Almost immediately the scream came again, and he saw a small girl, surely no more than eight or ten come running over a small hill. She was wearing the rough clothing that he had come to expect of the small villages here in the Pegasus galaxy, with pale yellow hair and bronzed skin. She looked over her shoulder as she ran, and he followed her line of sight to see a Wraith stalk over the hill in pursuit. The Wraith was obviously in no hurry to catch his prey, secure in the knowledge no doubt that she had nowhere to go, and he would catch her eventually. What was it with these guys that made them like to play with their food? It was not an endearing trait.

Herth had come up beside Sheppard, breathing heavily. Sheppard took his extra pistol out and slipped off the safety. He handed it to Herth.

"The safety is off. Point it and pull the trigger. You have 15 rounds. Make good use of them." he said. With that he broke into a run again angling himself so that he would intercept the path of the little girl somewhere between her and the Wraith. The Wraith seemed to pay him no mind, evidently focused on the girl. Just as Sheppard reached them, the girl fell and exhausted, lay on the ground panting and crying. Sheppard came to a halt, his back to the girl, weapon raised and pointed at the Wraith, who seemed to have noticed him. It hissed at him, no doubt trying for intimidation. Herth arrived at Sheppard's side, panting even harder. He at least managed to not shoot himself or Sheppard with the weapon that he was awkwardly pointing at the Wraith.

"What do I do?" he asked. Sheppard looked over his shoulder at the unmoving child and jerked his head at her.

"Get her and run like hell. You know where to go. If I can't kill him, I'll at least try to give you a chance to get away. Maybe Gerren will-" he didn't have a chance to complete the thought as the Wraith started forward. "Go!" He aimed and fired two rounds into the Wraith's body mass. It didn't even stagger. It must have fed a lot in the village and have a sufficient amount of life energy to heal itself. Sheppard took a step back and fired twice more, going for the head. The Wraith shook it off, as if wasps were bothering him. Great, Sheppard thought, this showed every indication of not working out well for him. He raised the pistol and fired again, focusing his fire on the center of the Wraith's chest. He heard Herth cry out behind him, but he didn't have time to stop. The Wraith was stalking slowly toward him, and the slide clicked back on his pistol, signaling the end of his ammo.

The Wraith was ten feet away. Sheppard wrenched the knife he carried in his boot out and also the one that he wore on his belt. He put the smaller in his left hand, knowing it wouldn't be of a great deal of help, but it might be just annoying enough to help. Holding the longer knife in his right hand, he fell into the stance that Ronon had taught him. If he was going down, it was going to be fighting.

Chapter 36-

On Elasia, Ronon Dex was trying very hard not to express his displeasure with the tactics these people had used to make their 'challenge' by tearing limbs off any and all of the officials on the dais. No one had a clue what had happened to Sheppard and the other man, not even McKay who seemed to understand just about everything. The cameras had scanned around, looking for the two men but had found nothing. They had finally moved the cameras to join the one that was following the Genii man, Gerren. There was a man that Ronon wouldn't mind leaving to the Wraith, if there had been Wraith. Even with McKay's explanation, he was still not convinced that there really wasn't a threat.

They watched as the Genii ran to the woods, and tried to find a place to hide. He was not particularly good at moving through a forest Ronon noted with some satisfaction. McKay was better than him at sneaking, and that said a lot. If there had been real Wraith around. he would have been dead in minutes. Again, Ronon didn't really care. He wanted to know what had happened to Sheppard. He noticed that the remaining Green team members were in a huddle not far away from where he stood. He drifted that way, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible. He had to get within five feet before he was able to pick their voices out of those of the crowd.

"…it must have been the device. There is no other explanation." one of the men was saying. The other two were shaking their heads.

"It makes no sense. Why would Herth bring such a device for field-testing to this event? This is not the scientific method. There is no way to record its effectiveness, to document any problems. This would be incredibly irresponsible. He is an experienced researcher."

"He had a prototype completed last week. He spoke of trying it out under field conditions sometime in the next few weeks, and asked me to be with him to document the results. Perhaps he felt there would be some time available." That was Taris, who spoke in a reasonable tone that reminded Ronon of Sheppard explaining to Dr. Weir about something McKay had done. He shifted a little closer.

"But the power cell was unstable. It was supposedly a personal device. If he has used it not only to cloak himself, but the other man as well, the Perspicuous Device may overload."

Ronon had heard enough. He slipped away from the group and back to where the others were standing watching the screen. Beckett was still muttering about Sheppard and his ability to get into trouble, and McKay was working with his computer, which he had evidently had in his pack.

"What's a Perspicuous Device?" he asked the scientist. He was sure McKay would know. It was what he did, like Ronon knew weapons. McKay's head jerked up.

"Perspicuous Device? Where did you hear that? That's an Ancient word." He snapped.

Ronon jerked his head at the Green team huddle. "They were talking about their man having one, testing one in the field." McKay's eyes wondered to the huddle, and then narrowed in speculation. Beckett, looking from Ronon to McKay to the Green team grabbed Rodney's arm.

"What is it? What does it mean?" he asked. McKay didn't respond for a moment, and they could all tell he was thinking furiously. Then his fingers started snapping. He pushed his computer into Teyla's hands and started toward the Green team huddle only to be brought to a halt as Beckett's hand closed on his arm again. "Rodney?" McKay gave him a disgusted look, but obviously decided he wasn't going anywhere until he answered.

"It's a personal cloaking device. Perspicuous is the Ancient word for transparent. It's what they used to describe the cloak that hides Atlantis and the jumpers. We've speculated about there being a device that would work like the personal shield that we found that would be a cloak instead of a shield, or maybe a combination of the two. If that's what he is using they could go anywhere and simply reappear when they wanted to. Of course that would mean that the Green team guy had the gene…" they could see McKay's mind spinning off on a tangent, and Beckett dug his fingers in again. McKay blinked at him.

"They said something about the power cell being unstable, that it could blow up. And that it was a prototype." Ronon offered more of his gathered intelligence. McKay's speculative gaze moved to him again.

"Something they built themselves?" he asked in amazement then shook his head. "No. It had to be something they found and messed with; why else would they have an unstable power core." He shrugged off Beckett's hand and started toward the Green team again. Ronon had no doubt that he would have demanded complete details out of the Green team if the screen had not grabbed their attention at that moment.

The camera had panned around to show Sheppard, weapon in hand but not raised, gesturing to the Genii. Moments later they were inside some sort of cave or dugout. It was a fair hideout, Ronon figured, though not perfect. Of course Sheppard was not working with the best conditions. Ronon could tell that the colonel was tired, and his arm probably hurt, but at least he was still functioning. They listened as the men spoke, Sheppard wanting to take some type of action, though he was at least willing to wait until it got darker. Knowing the Lantean's usual lack of concern for his own safety, Ronon figured that he was trying to protect his fellow competitors. The ex-runner sneered at the Genii's response to Sheppard's suggestion. Coward.

After some argument the three men had settled down to wait for sunset it seemed, and McKay was giving every indication of starting after the Green team again when they heard a scream. The sound was so piercing that everyone in the tent looked around for the source. It was only as they recognized that the men on the screen had done the same, that everyone knew it was on the other planet and not here. The three men left the deadfall, and looked around. The scream came again and Sheppard took off at a run, pulling his arm out of the sling as he went. Ronon couldn't stop the smirk that came to his lips as he saw the second pistol being dropped in the colonel's holster. The man was picking up a few tricks. Of course he had been pretty good about that before Ronon had gotten a hold of him. As far as the ex-runner could tell, Sheppard's innate paranoia had kept him alive through some pretty nasty stuff.

They watched as Sheppard and the Green team man ran down a path, and came out on the edge of the woods. There, Sheppard paused and looked around. The camera panned to show them what the colonel was seeing and they watched as what appeared to be a small girl topped a rise nearby, followed by a Wraith. Ronon could see Sheppard's lean frame stiffen and knew before he even moved, what the Lantean would do. He watched as Sheppard handed his extra pistol to the Green team man and said something that the camera did not completely pick up. Then he was running forward again, putting himself in the fake Wraith's path toward the fallen child.

Ronon could see Sheppard's frustration and anger as his bullets had no effect on the approaching Wraith. He must have written it off to the Wraith having fed excessively and healing the wounds so quickly as to not even be effected. The camera angle shifted to show another angle, and they could now see that the Green team man was heading toward the 'child'. He bent over her, speaking to her and obviously trying not to scare her further. He reached out to her, but the girl moved away as if in fright. The Genii man had finally made an appearance and he stepped up to the other man's side, looking off camera to where Sheppard was. He had one of the Genii's pistols in his hand. He obviously was meaning to act as back up if Sheppard failed. They could hear Sheppard firing in the background and Ronon knew that the colonel would be having no success, and would be getting angrier by the moment. The Green team man stepped forward again and reached out to take the girl's arm, and his hand passed completely through her. He stepped back with a startled yell just as the camera shifted again.

Sheppard's pistol was finally empty, the slide locked back. Ronon watched in approval as without pausing Sheppard shoved the gun in his holster and drew a knife out of his boot. He held it in his bad hand and pulled another knife out of his belt. After shifting the knives he fell into a stance that Ronon recognized even with the awkwardness of the broken arm. He had to smile a grim smile. The Benihana Sateda-style was about to see its first field test, in a way.

He remembered how Shepherd had laughed when Ronon had told him that he had developed a new style based on what he had seen in the restaurant on Earth, and had suggested the name. They had been on a medical leave, having returned from PCX-457 with every team member wounded and Weir had suggested that they go to Earth. The team had all agreed and Sheppard and McKay had done their best to show the two aliens everything worth seeing on the planet in the week they were there before the Daedalus left. One of the places had been a restaurant where men in tall white hats had used knives in a way that Ronon had never seen them used. He had been fascinated by their skill at handling the blades, and had managed to take one aside before they left and have him demonstrate some of the techniques.

On the long and boring trip back to the Pegasus galaxy he had worked on perfecting his own version of the style and by the time they had arrived back in Atlantis, had put together a new style that should confound the most experienced knife fighter. He had tried it out on the Marine's knife expert and the man had been completely baffled. He too had laughed when Ronon had revealed the source of his inspiration, but had asked to be taught the new style, as had Sheppard. It still puzzled Ronon why the Lantean's society consigned such warriors to food preparation when they should be out on the front line fighting their enemies, but then many things puzzled him about his new friends. He just assumed it was some sort of punishment, and moved on with his new knowledge.

He watched as the fake Wraith closed with Sheppard and saw the colonel brace himself to move. When the Wraith was in position, Sheppard executed the first move with a precision that warmed Ronon's heart. Sheppard had been paying attention after all. But, instead of the damage that the blade would have done to an actual enemy, it passed through the 'hologram' and Sheppard stumbled forward, right into the Wraith's path. It walked through him as if he were not there. Unable to keep his balance due to the unexpected lack of solid enemy, and no doubt the awkwardness of his cast, Sheppard fell to the ground. Ronon almost laughed out loud at the expression on his face as he looked after the 'Wraith'.

Then he did burst out laughing as the astonished look became one of anger that was directed not at the phantom Wraith, but instead at the camera that was hovering a few feet away. Sheppard pulled at his pant leg and pulled out a small pistol and leveled it at the camera. There was a sudden burst of static and the screen went blank for a moment, only to come back as they shifted to another camera. Evidently the operator hadn't learned anything and it was an easy shot for Sheppard as he turned toward the other two men. The third cameraman had evidently gotten a clue, and while the picture came back swiftly, it was from a camera that was obviously rapidly retreating. Sheppard, seeing that the camera was out of range, made what Ronon knew was a rude gesture in the direction of the camera and put his weapon back in the small holster. Yes, that paranoia was coming along nicely.

They watched as Sheppard was obviously explaining something to the other two men, complete with gestures toward the where the fake figures had disappeared. They could see the puzzled looks on the two faces that slowly cleared as Sheppard evidently made them understand. Two more looks of anger were directed at the remaining camera. There was more discussion, and a decision seemed to have been reached. The three men started walking toward the camera, and what Ronon assumed was the gate. Evidently they had decided that they were not going to continue.

They had taken several steps when a Wraith dart appeared in the sky behind them. The three must have been alerted by the sound, and they turned as one to look at it, but did not react. Ronon had a moment to wonder why the Ancestor's machine was continuing the game when the contestants knew it was fake, before the ship started firing on the three men. Instead of the beams passing harmlessly through them, or simply fading away, the ground around the men erupted in explosions. Looks of complete amazement came over the three faces; looks that Ronon noted were echoed on the faces of the officials who had been watching the screen. He hadn't known that holograms could do that. Evidently they were more powerful than McKay had indicated.

"That was no frigging hologram. That's a real dart!" the scientist yelled out. On the screen the three men had obviously come to the same conclusion and had started running toward the woods. Those on Elasia could do little other than watch as the men wove back and forth to confuse the pilot. Ronon growled as Sheppard narrowly missed being picked up in a culling beam, and then moments later dived to knock the Genii man out of the way of another. Sheppard was slow getting to his feet, and just missed culling again as the Genii reached down and dragged him to his feet. They continued their run to the woods, barely making it there before another explosion rocked the camera. At least there was only one dart after them. Had then been more than one, they would not have made the dubious protection of the woods.

The camera was sending a confused collage of pictures alternating between one or the other of the trapped men, and the explosions as the Wraith fired randomly into the woods, either hoping to kill them, or flush them into an open area where they could be culled. The explosions lessened as the men moved further into the forest and as the explosions lessened, the camera moved up to tree top level and scanned around. The dart could be seen heading away from the camera. However that was not good news.

In the distance they could see the gate, the event horizon shining in the oncoming twilight. The dart was approaching it. It hovered nearby, obviously contemplating why it was open. Without warning the picture cut off.

"He closed the gate. You can bet he'll be dialing out to block us from dialing in again. They're trapped there. He can hunt them for the next 38 minutes and we can't do anything." McKay said, obviously putting it all together." He looked at the officials. "That device, the Terit, must have been using a large amount of energy to project all of the things you said it was projecting. Holograms are energy intensive. If that planet is normally completely empty of life, to have an energy signature like it must have been producing would have been like a neon sign for any passing Wraith You might as well have put them on a plate and yelled 'come and get it'."

"It's probably a scout. He'll try to catch at least one of them alive to find out about the energy source." Ronon put in.

Teyla nodded in agreement then stepped forward. Her eyes were hard when she addressed the officials who were looking a little afraid.

"You will give us the address to that planet. In 38 minutes we will be able to dial into the gate and send some help to Colonel Sheppard and the others. I would suggest that you cooperate with us. You will not like it if you stand in our way."

"Dear lady the game-" Fernal began, but she interrupted.

"I am not your 'dear lady', and the game is no longer relevant. Provide us with the address, or we will take it from you by force. Do not mistake our peaceful approach for weakness. We wish you no ill will and do not wish to harm anyone, but we will do what is necessary to rescue our friend and the others."

"And what they will not do, the Genii will not shrink from." It was Kelar who had spoken. The three remaining Genii had moved forward and stood near the Lanteans, their faces grim. The three men from the Green team also stepped forward.

"We must agree with the others. When we agreed to participate in the games there was no mention of such machinations. We must insist that you reveal the location of the planet so that our people can be rescued." The Ferlian officials seemed taken aback by the united front, perhaps not expecting such solidarity among adversaries. The huddled together, obviously discussing their options. Perhaps they had already decided for the most part, or perhaps it was the angry gazes fixed upon them that sped their conference, but Fernal was soon turning toward them.

"We will reveal the address." he said. He swept his arm toward the gate. "Come. I will show you the symbols myself." They all left the tent and headed toward the gate. There were questions being thrown at them from all sides from curious people who wanted to know when the broadcast would begin again, but no one stopped to answer. When they got to the gate one of the technicians was trying to dial it, but it would not engage. Fernal wave him aside and pointed out the symbols for the planet. Rodney wrote them down on a pad he had pulled from his vest, and then pushed Fernal out of the way. He began dialing a sequence that Ronon recognized as the alpha site.

They had 32 minutes before they could try to dial the other planet. Now it was a race to see if that was too little time, or too much.

Chapter 37-

Sheppard ducked as a splinter of sharpened wood the size of his head flashed by. The wood buried itself in the side of a tree and he scrambled back to his feet, helped by Herth. They were near the deadfall, and Herth partially dragged him into the relative safety of the hideout. Sheppard sagged to the ground breathing almost as heavily as the scientist. Gerren tumbled in after them, and they lay there simply breathing as they listened to the continuing explosions. The Wraith was definitely out to get them.

As his breathing settled back to normal Sheppard thought about what had occurred. The little girl and the Wraith had been fakes, some kind of illusion, or maybe a hologram. He wasn't sure what had produced them, but he was pretty damn sure who had done it. The Ferlians. It was all part of the damn games. "A 'test of spirit', my ass," he thought as he pulled himself up to a sitting position. His arm was throbbing and his head was matching it beat for beat. He looked down at the splint and grimaced as he noticed blood darkening the bandage he could see over the wound. Carson was going to have a whole herd of cows about that. At this rate he'd never talk his way out of the infirmary again.

Of course there was every possibility that he would not have an opportunity to do that anytime soon. The Wraith seemed to be alone right now, but there was no telling how long that was going to last. If he was a scout, come to check out something here, be it energy readings or the unusual gate activity, he was certainly going to report back to his Queen. Sheppard was sure that the Wraith's next step was going to be to close down the gate connection to Elasia.

That explained the cameras he guessed. What he had assumed were automatic movements had been the Ferlians simply watching all along. They had been in contact the whole time, broadcasting the whole thing. He could almost spare a smile to think about the reaction on Elasia when the 'Wraith' had appeared. He idly wondered if Ronon had hurt anyone. He knew that Rodney would have verbally abused someone at the very least. He bet this latest twist was really going over well. Talk about selling a series. The Nielson's on this part of the games were going to be off the chart. His attention was pulled back to his current circumstances as Herth pulled himself up and looked out at the rapidly darkening woods.

"What do we do now? Could we seek a hiding place in the village? Perhaps they have weapons. It is only one Wraith." he asked. Sheppard shook his head and saw Gerren doing the same.

"I have a feeling there isn't any village. I bet the whole thing was an illusion. We were never meant to get there, or they would have waited to attack us later, I think. It would have been easier." he theorized. Gerren nodded and added to Sheppard's evaluation of the situation.

"And there is only one Wraith now, but he will call for more if he does not think he can capture us himself. They are arrogant and contemptuous of us. He will try on his own first, but he will call eventually. Do you think he is blocking the gate?" This last part he addressed to Sheppard. The colonel nodded.

"Yeah. Once he had us corralled in here, he would have cut it off in case some help came through. He must know that we don't have any weapons that can hurt his ship since we didn't do anything about it before. Unless he just wants a snack all he has to do is scorch this place to the ground, and that's it. Since he hasn't yet, I think he may want at least one of us alive. Probably to find out why we're here and what was putting out the power." Gerren frowned at him, and Sheppard took that to mean he didn't understand. Herth seemed to have grasped the idea of holograms, and he was nodding.

"Yes, it would have taken a lot of energy to produce the illusions that we saw in such detail. The Wraith must have picked up the signals and got curious. But this power is gone now, correct, since there are no more illusions."

'I don't know what was making the holograms. It could still be running. If it was the cameras, the signal should have been lost when the gate shut down, but I didn't think the Ferlians had anything like that in their bag of tricks. That's pretty sophisticated stuff."

"Not if you…how did you say it?…reverse engineer, something. Could the Ancestors not have had such a thing?" Herth suggested turning his own reverse engineered item around his wrist.

"Yeah. I guess that could be it. We know that they had holograms." Sheppard said, though he did not elaborate on how they knew it. He wasn't about to describe the hologram they had found when they had first come to Atlantis. "If they found something that the Ancients…er the Ancestors left behind, something that didn't need to be initialized, then they could have done it. The question is, where is the damn thing. Here or on Elasia? If it's here he'll be looking for it. And I don't know about you, but the idea of the Wraith getting their hands on something like that is not something I'm too excited about."

"No, they do not need another advantage against us." Gerren agreed. "Do you have an idea?" Sheppard considered it for a moment. He looked around and noticed how dark it was becoming. It would be full dark soon. That would not bother the Wraith as much as it would them, and the Wraith would probably know that they had gone to ground. He would wait for morning when they would need to be moving around searching for food and water.

Sheppard knew that his friends would have probably seen the real Wraith come after them, but he didn't know what they would be able to do about it. They would find out the address and try to mount a rescue he was sure, but would they be able to coordinate it in time for the first 38 minute shut down, or would they have to wait for another try? Would they even be able to dial in before the Wraith could dial out again?

They would contact Atlantis he knew, but these kinds of things took time, even with well-trained troops, and they couldn't just come through and hope for the best, so they would have to send through a MALP first. Elizabeth would not send troops in blind. They had seen only one ship on the screen, but had no way of knowing how many there might be now. Sheppard didn't think that it was going to work out for the first 38 minute cut off, but the next one…then they might have a chance, if they could figure something out. If he and the others could be at the gate, waiting when the MALP came through, if they could somehow let Atlantis know what was going on, it would speed things up. But everything depended on them getting through before the Wraith did. There were too many variables. Sheppard needed to bend the odds in their favor. That meant making sure the Wraith was occupied when the gate closed down, too occupied to dial out again. He glanced at his watch.

"We have about ten more minutes before the gate has to shut down and then I am sure he will dial again. My people will be coming for me. They'll have weapons to destroy the dart, but they have to be able to get through the gate. If we distract the Wraith so he can't dial out, they'll come through."

"I can think of only one way to distract him, and that is to give him what he wants. Speaking for myself, I am not ready to die yet. Would it not be better just to hide? We can find another, better place." Herth suggested, and Sheppard remembered that Herth had said that his people hid from the Wraith as a means of survival. There was nothing wrong with that, and it had obviously served his people well over the years, but it wasn't a method Sheppard could subscribe to.

Evidently neither could Gerren as he looked at Herth with a scowl. "Could you sound any more cowardly?" the Genii demanded. "We can not just sit here and allow the Wraith to possibly gain possession of another weapon against us. I say that we attack the Wraith. He will have landed, probably between the gate and us. He will no doubt stay with his ship for the night; we can attack him there. He will not be expecting it."

"And what do we use for weapons?" Herth asked spreading his empty hands. Sheppard pulled out his little hold out gun and ejected the clip. He looked at it closely trying to confirm what he thought was there.

"I have ten more shots. Then I have my knives. What about you Gerren?"

"I have six shots in my weapon. I too have a knife. You" he sneered at Herth again, "can find a club, or a rock, or can act as bait. We all must do this. Even if we do not survive, neither can the Wraith."

"Yeah, well let's save the talk of heroic sacrifice until after we do this, okay?" Sheppard suggested. "I think-" he cut off as the hiding place was suddenly filled with a rainbow of brightly colored lights. They all shielded their eyes. As the light faded Sheppard lowered his hand and looked at the entrance to their cave.

The Ancient device, the one that had sorted them into the different groups at the start of this whole thing, hung there, floating about two feet off the ground. It hesitated there for a moment then it floated gently toward Sheppard and with a mechanical sigh, settled into his lap and seemingly turned itself off. The darkness returned, magnified by the light they had lost, and it was silent.

"Okay…I have a feeling we just found out what was making the holograms." Sheppard hazarded a guess.

"It sought you out?" Herth asked, and Sheppard could hear the disbelief in the man's voice.

"Ancestor machines…like me a little. They uh…tend to do weird things when I'm around." He wasn't about to go into the genetic mutation, mental component, or other highly classified information with these guys, even if they were trapped on some godforsaken planet with a curious Wraith. He could feel the other two looking at him and the machine, even though he could no longer make them out very well. He ran his hands over the machine, searching for some kind of on button, or control panel, or something.

The Ferlians were using it, and there had to be sort of regular interface, beyond that of the mental component. He finally found a small panel on the bottom of the machine that seemed to have a variety of dials and buttons. There was no way to tell what was what in the dark, so he tried think at it and the machine started to glow with a dark red light. That should preserve their night vision, but give them something to work with. He set the thing down in the middle of the space, and looked at the other two men who were staring at the machine in astonishment. Hologram projector, game sorter, and now camping lantern, what more could a good scout ask for. Still, he wished Rodney were here to help him figure out how to use the thing, it might come in handy against the Wraith.

As the thought crossed his mind there was a flash of light, and suddenly Rodney McKay was standing in the middle of their cave. He was dressed in his full field gear with a life signs detector in one hand and a power bar in the other. Sheppard almost jumped out of his skin as the figure suddenly materialized. His head swam, and he felt his stomach twist as he gaped at his friend standing before him, where he knew he could not be.

"What the hell-" he started, but then he looked down at the machine that was now flashing a blue light. He made the connection. He had wished for Rodney, and the machine had given him what he wanted. Rodney McKay in all his glory, ready to fight the good fight, or at least spew sarcastic rhetoric at the enemy until they gave up. Sheppard's eyes narrowed, ignoring the pain that was starting in his head and he thought about Ronon, picturing everything he could about the man. There was a shimmer of light, and where Rodney had stood now stood Ronon, slightly hunched over due to the low roof. Another thought, another wave of nausea, and Teyla stood at Ronon's side, Bantos sticks in hand. Oh this was good, very good. He looked away from the holograms to the amazed faces of his fellow contestants, ignoring the fact that his brain felt like it was going to liquefy and pour out of his ears. Evidently that mental component was a literal thing with this machine. He could feel the grin building on his face.

"I think we just got a break, guys. One distracted Wraith, coming up."

Thirty minutes later Sheppard was lying on the top of a small rise that overlooked the area where the Wraith had landed his ship. As Gerren had guessed, the Wraith had parked between them and the Stargate. Either the pilot was still in his ship, or he was on foot somewhere nearby, possibly looking for the three humans before settling in for the night. Sheppard was betting on him being in the ship, betting the lives of his fellow contestants and anyone coming through the Stargate on it as a matter of fact.

The plan had sprung forth in his mind almost fully formed. He had insisted on relating the specifics to Herth and Gerren as they made their way back to the open meadows. Though there had been pauses for arguments and recriminations. The Genii had been openly skeptical regarding their chances, preferring the option of a suicide run on the ship at dawn. Herth had been intrigued by the machine and scared of the possibilities the plan might not cover. Just like Rodney, the scientist was smart enough to understand all the implications of a situation, including what could happen.

Sheppard had been using the Terit like a large flashlight, lighting their way with the dark red light that preserved their night vision until they came to the edge of the woods, and the light from the half moon above was sufficient for them to see. Using it like this didn't seem to have the same deleterious effect as when it was projecting the holograms, though it did keep the headache that had resulted from his little experiment in the hideout pounding insistently behind his eyes. He was going to need a few dozen aspirin when this was over, that is if he wasn't dead. He still hadn't mentioned that little side effect to his companions, but he figured it was a need to know kind of thing.

They had paused there at the edge of the meadow to go over the plan one last time. They did not have a lot of time to spare if this was going to work. As they had thought, the Stargate was still engaged, and since nothing had come through, it had to have been the Wraith who had dialed it. They could see it shining in the distance, almost as bright as the moon above. Sheppard had crouched down on the edge of the grassland, mentally turning off the light in case the Wraith should be looking their way. He looked at Herth, now clutching a large limb from one of the blasted trees, and could see that the man was pale, but determined to see this through. Gerren was nervous, but hid it well, and seemed anxious to get on with it. Sheppard suspected that the Genii thought the plan would fail and they would all die here, but was willing to go along to draw the Wraith out if nothing else.

However, Sheppard didn't need Gerren's approbation, only his cooperation.

"All right" he had said with a glance at his watch. "We have just over twenty minutes until the next window of opportunity. You know the plan. If when you get to the gate and it shuts down someone doesn't immediately start dialing in, you need to start dialing out. Herth, you said you know the address to a planet with no population to worry about in case this all goes to hell and the Wraith gets by me. If you have to, go through and then gate back to Elasia from there, or even to your home planets." He had to be realistic. If the Wraith saw through the illusion, if his friends didn't come, they could not lead the Wraith back to Elasia. No, it was better to use the hopscotch move to one planet then another, to throw off any possible pursuit. They would not lead the Wraith to a new feeding ground. If he had to go by himself later, he would go to the beta site, then home. He hoped it would all be redundant as he was almost positive that given the chance, Atlantis would dial in.

"If Atl…my people dial in, they'll send a MALP, a moving machine that sends back pictures and sound, to see what is going on before they come through. If you speak to it, and tell them what is going on, they'll come through all the faster. You may need to convince them that you are not being coerced. If they ask for some proof, tell them I went to Disneyland to ride the 'It's a Small World ride'. They'll know that's from me."

The two men had nodded their understanding, and split off to make their way to the gate in a roundabout manner. They could have sent one man to the gate, but Sheppard had been firm. If the holograms distracted the Wraith, there was no need for one of them to be there, and if it didn't, then there was more chance of two people surviving than one. Herth knew that alternate address and Gerren could defend them both, or at least could possibly distract the Wraith long enough with his pistol for Herth to dial the gate to possible escape. As he had watched them disappear into a roll of the land, he tried to not think about how they might have very little chance to do anything, if he failed.

He lay there now on the cool grass, the slight breeze blowing across his back, watching the dart. There was no movement. He glanced at his watch, ten more minutes. The plan was that he would get the Wraith's attention in some manner, which he still hadn't quite decided on, and once it was outside the craft, he would initiate the Terit. That he had planned out. It was all hinged on getting the Wraith outside though. With the solid canopy, that meant the Wraith was seeing his environment with his sensors, and the holograms would not register.

He wondered briefly if there was anything else the Terit could do, but there was no time to experiment and as they had found almost everywhere, the Ancients had left no instruction manual. He was glad they had it, but he could have wished for something like a stunner or even a P90. Time passed slowly by, and he was glad to note that the headache had eased, and the nausea was gone. He had a feeling they would be making a reappearance soon however. Unfortunately, with those distractions gone, his arm was making itself known again. The whole arm throbbed, and he noted that there seemed to be some swelling in the area of the stitches. That probably meant he had managed to get it infected. Forget the cows, Carson was going to lock him in an isolation room and not let him out until he didn't have so much as a hangnail. But there was nothing he could do about that now.

Finally there was five minutes to go. He got to his feet and hefted the Terit. He had scouted around the landing area before he had lain down, and he knew what he wanted to do. The question was, would the Wraith cooperate. He thought the machine on, not wanting to have any lag between thought and implementation when it came time. He tucked it between his splinted arm and his body, ignoring how that made the arm feel. In his other hand he took his small pistol and made sure there was a round in the chamber. He was ready. Taking a deep breath he ran directly at the dart.

He was within ten feet, and starting to wonder if maybe the Wraith was off on a potty break or something, when the canopy started to open. He didn't slow down, but he raised the pistol and fired three rounds into the cockpit. Maybe he would get lucky and one of the rounds would kill the Wraith. Sure, and Ed McMahan would be waiting back at Atlantis with his check for 10 million dollars too. The Wraith let out a roar and leapt out of the cockpit, landing way too close for Sheppard's liking. He cut off to the side, and putting all he had into his run, he made for the small streambed that was directly ahead. He ignored the roaring of the Wraith and dove over the side of the small drop off, landing in a roll that lacked his usual grace. If he had learned nothing else from his sparing with Ronon and Teyla however, it was how to fall when he was hurting so as to minimize the pain. As he had planned, the Wraith paused at the lip, no doubt thinking that Sheppard had been surprised at the fall, and wanting to taunt his food like most of his race.

Even as he rolled to a stop he concentrated on the Terit and what he wanted to see. There was a flash of light, and the wave of pain and nausea that he had felt earlier rolled through him. The Wraith, who had been getting ready to jump down into the streambed, suddenly pulled back with a hiss as line of marines appeared on the opposite bank. They were all armed with P90s, which were aimed at the Wraith. Sheppard raised his pistol and taking a moment to aim, sent one round into the Wraith's head, then another into his body. The Wraith staggered, and fired his stunner again and again, but there was no effect, a result that caused the Wraith to howl in anger.

Sheppard sent another thought to the Terit, and the marines began firing back, causing the Wraith to try to evade the phantom bullets. Sheppard fired again two more times, each one hitting the Wraith. Let him think they were just really bad shots, as long as he was distracted. Sheppard struggled to his feet, clutching the Terit to his chest. His head felt like it was going to explode again and he felt something warm and wet moving down his face from his nose. He was pretty sure that was blood. The Wraith was moving, staggering. Sheppard's shots had wounded him enough that he could not heal the wounds. He was still firing at the 'marines' who Sheppard had made go into full combat mode. He focused his thoughts again, ignoring the spike of pain it caused, and another group of marines appeared behind the Wraith, between him and the dart. Sheppard heard the Wraith's howl of fury, and knew that the new 'marines' were probably taking fire. He thought the first group forward, making sure to drive the Wraith away from the dart. He stumbled to the place where he could climb out of the streambed, on the side away from the Wraith.

He glanced at his watch. The five minutes had passed. The gate should have disengaged. Now it was up to Atlantis, or Herth and Gerren. With a glance back at the fake firefight, he started toward the gate. He was not able to keep a straight line, staggering from side to side. His knees were feeling less and less able to support him. He struggled to keep going, to stay conscious. If he passed out, he suspected that the Terit would stop producing the holograms and that meant that the Wraith would be after him, and once it had dealt with him, in a way that he did not wish to contemplate, it would be after Herth and Gerren. He could not allow that. He forced himself to go on.

In the end it was not his determination that gave out. No, what did him in was a molehill, or whatever this planet's equivalent was. He tripped over the mound of dirt hidden in the grass and fell to his knees. It seemed the natural thing to just continue the movement and he found himself laying on his right side, Terit still clutched to his chest. The last thought he had as the moon suddenly seemed to disappear from the sky, was that he hoped that his people could find him in the dark.

Chapter 38-

Rodney McKay was not a patient man. He had never claimed to be and no one who had known him for any amount of time would expect it of him. That probably explained why no one had yet killed him as he made what was approximately the ten thousandth circuit of the jumper bay around Jumper Two. There were thirteen more minutes before they could try the gate to the planet where Sheppard and the others had been sent.

They had gated back to Atlantis as swiftly a possible, and Rodney had started telling Elizabeth about what was going on before they had even stepped through the event horizon. She had been waiting for them as they stepped through the Stargate, as had Lorne. He had wanted to immediately load up into a jumper and be ready when the wormhole disengaged in less than five minutes, but the look on Elizabeth's face had put paid to that plan immediately. He had then demanded, cajoled, and almost, but not quite, begged, to be allowed to go through without a jumper, saying the marines could bring up the rear if they had to, but that they, Sheppard's team, were ready to go now. She had refused.

He could tell that Ronon and Teyla were just as anxious as he was, but they, like he, understood why Weir had refused and were patiently, more or less, waiting now, seated in the jumper with the marines. Ronon was playing with one of his knives, sharpening an already razor sharp blade to a point that it would probably split an atom. Teyla had checked her P90 about four times already, but was going over it again. Carson. Still muttering darkly under his breath, had dragged what could possibly be the world's largest field first aid kit into the jumper, and was checking through it again and again, with the help of one of his nurses. Two field medics were in the second jumper with similar packs. Rodney had started to make a comment regarding taking the MRI machine, when he recalled that it was Sheppard they were going after. Maybe they needed to figure out how to take a few of the Ancient diagnostic tools along in the future. Lorne, having already briefed his marines, who were busy checking over their weapons, was in the pilot's seat, doing his preflight. A second jumper was also getting ready to go. Rodney made another circuit, his mind going over the possibilities. They didn't look good.

They had tried the gate address, and it had been blocked. The Wraith had redialed, as they had known he probably would. That having been established, that meant one of two things. Either the Wraith had not found Sheppard and the others yet and was still looking, keeping the gate engaged to keep any help from coming. Or, and this was the part that made Rodney pace faster, the three men had been captured, and the Wraith had found out just who he had captured. Despite what anyone might say, the Wraith were not stupid, and they did chat among themselves. While they might, or might not, believe that Atlantis itself was destroyed; they know that the Lanteans were still a viable threat, and they knew that Sheppard was the leader of that threat. If he were captured, the Wraith would have called his Queen, and she would have come to see the human who had killed so many of her kind. It was highly unlikely that there would be a quick death for John Sheppard.

Lorne finally called for everyone to get ready to go, and McKay rushed into the jumper and glared the marine out of the co-pilot's seat. Lorne started to say something, but when the death glare was turned on him, he shook his head and turned his attention to lowering the jumper into the gate room. The second jumper waited just above, ready to deploy as soon as the room was cleared. McKay's hand itched to dial the symbols on the jumper DHD, but knew that the control tower would be doing that, at the command of the computer, which with the time programmed in would be 'speed dialing' from the first moment that the gate could possibly be available. It would be going faster than any human, or Wraith, could possibly dial. Zelenka had created the program, and would be overseeing the process. Rodney had to have confidence. It was all he had left.

He almost fainted with relief when the last symbol locked into place. He shifted impatiently as the MALP, which had been sitting at the edge of the safe zone motored into the event horizon. He called up a screen that would allow them to see the MALP's feed, ignoring the annoyed look that Lorne threw his way. He watched as the MALP rolled out of the gate, and into darkness lit only by the gate. For a moment there was nothing, and he was reaching for his earpiece to demand that Zelenka stop playing around and get the damn thing moving when he caught sight of movement. Suddenly there was a face in front of the MALP's camera, and Rodney recognized the man from the Green team.

Zelenka finally got it together, and the MALP's lights flared into existence and the machine moved forward out of the way of the wormhole. The Green team man backed up before the MALP, and as the camera panned around, they could see the Genii man standing near the DHD, pistol in hand, and alternately watching the MALP and out into the darkness. There was no sign of Sheppard. Damn it.

"This is Elizabeth Weir. We are prepared to send a significant force through the gate, what is the situation, and where is Colonel Sheppard?" The Green team man stepped forward and looked into the camera as if he expected to see someone there.

"I am Herth, of Thela. Please, do send your people through. We are in need of help. There is a Wraith here, a real Wraith, and I fear that he will not be fooled for long."

"Fooled about what, and where is Colonel Sheppard? " Elizabeth demanded. McKay shifted nervously in his seat. Enough of this chatting, they needed to get moving. He could feel it.

"The Colonel discovered how to use the machine of the Ancestors to produce the holo…halo…the illusions. He is using it to distract the Wraith so that it would not dial the gate again and allow you to get through. You must come quickly so that we can retrieve him. He is alone, and I fear that the machine takes as much as it gives."

"I'm not sure I understand about the machine, but I do understand about the Colonel. I hope that you understand that we need to be sure that you are not being forced to speak. Can you tell us something, something to assure us…?"

"Colonel Sheppard gave us a message, in case you asked, he said that you would understand. He said to tell you he was going to Disnulan and it's a small whirl." Herth replied. He stood there looking at the screen with a hopeful look on his face. A look that slowly faded as the silence continued. The Genii, who had moved closer gave a snort of disgust and pushed Herth out of the way.

"I am Gerren, of the Genii. This idiot is lucky to remember his name correctly. The Colonel said that he was going to Disneyland and it is a Small World ride. I do not know what it means, but that is what he said." He growled into the camera. "Now if you are coming, come now. If not, disengage the wormhole and we will take care of this ourselves." McKay could not restrain his own snort at that answer, knowing that Sheppard would not be caught dead on the annoying ride. He gestured for Lorne to go through the wormhole, but the major held up, waiting for orders. Evidently the answer was sufficient for Elizabeth as well, as her voice came over the radio.

"Jumpers one and two you have a go. Bring him home." she said. Before she was finished, Lorne guided the jumper into the wormhole. They burst into the night on the other planet, and Lorne brought the small ship up and out of the way as Jumper 2 came through moments later. The two men below were staring up in amazement at the two ships. Lorne keyed the radio as Rodney began scanning for life signs beyond the gate area.

"Jumper 2 you stay here and secure the gate. Get the two men on the jumper and be ready in case we need backup." As he got confirmation from the other ship, Rodney popped a screen up showing two dots on a grid. One dot, white, was not moving, and the life signs readings that hovered to the side were not encouraging. The other, red was moving toward the white dot, and they didn't need the readouts to know that it was the Wraith. That meant the unmoving dot was…Lorne cloaked the jumper, and sent the jumper forward so fast that one of the marines, who had stood up to look into the cockpit, was thrown backward on to the deck. He scrambled up as his fellow marine's jeered at him. One of the sergeants growled them into shape, and everyone was locked and loaded in moments. Ronon rose to his feet and went to stand near the ramp. Teyla rose with him and stood just behind him. The marines formed up behind her.

In moments they were almost to the position of the white dot. The red dot was right there, so close that the two almost overlapped. The jumper dropped down, losing speed rapidly, and was thumping onto the ground before McKay could even speak. The ramp dropped like a ton of bricks, someone having hit the emergency release, and Ronon was out into the night before it had rebounded once. Teyla was on his heels. Lorne turned on the floodlights, and McKay found himself looking on a scene he had hoped to never see again. A Wraith stood in the beam of the light, his head turned to snarl at them. His right hand, the feeding hand, was drawn back and ready to strike. The left hand was twisted in dark hair, holding a limp John Sheppard up, his t-shirt already torn off his chest.

The Wraith quickly overcame his shock and turned to complete his task, but before his hand could make contact, Ronon hit him like a pile driver. There was no way that the Wraith could have held onto Sheppard after that hit. The two rolled away from Sheppard, but not far enough that Teyla could shoot. She put herself between the two and Sheppard, her P90 raised. The marines lined up on either side of her. McKay was scrambling out of his seat, and pushed past Beckett who was struggling to drag his pack onto his back, he ignored the doctor's call for help and ran out the back of the jumper. He ran as fast as he could and flung himself down next to the unmoving figure of his friend.

The hard white light of the jumper's floodlight was not kind to Sheppard. His face was incredibly pale, a hue offset by the scarlet rivulets of blood that were flowing out of his nose and ears. McKay reached for his neck, needing confirmation that the man was still alive. The skin was cold and clammy, a sure sign of shock McKay's mind cataloged, as he felt for the throb of a heartbeat. He almost passed out from relief as he felt the thready beat. Then he was being pushed aside as Beckett, with Lorne hauling his pack, arrived and knelt at Sheppard's side. McKay scrambled back and looked over toward where Teyla and Ronon were, just in time to see the Satedan swing his sword in a huge arc, gleefully separating the Wraith's head from it's shoulders. The ex-runner spit on the still twitching body of the Wraith, then wiped his blade on some of the grass nearby.

A few minutes later he and Teyla had joined McKay standing and watching as Beckett worked over Sheppard, calling directions to his nurse. There were already two IV's running into the back of Sheppard's good hand, and oxygen was being fed to him through the mask that covered his face. As the three watched, the doctor slipped a neck brace on the colonel, and motioned for the nurse to cover the still form with a blanket. He called for one of the marines to bring a backboard from the jumper, and it was done. As they prepared to roll the limp figure onto the board, Ronon suddenly stalked away from the crowd and bent to pick something up out of the grass.

He brought it back and held it up. It was the Terit. The lights were off, and it appeared to be turned all the way off. McKay took it from Ronon and thought at it, but nothing happened. Evidently it only responded mentally to a natural gene carrier. He looked at the small control panel, and wondered if perhaps they could simply neglect to mention that it had been recovered from the planet. After all, the Ferlians owed them something for all of this.

They were soon on their way back to the jumper, minus the marines who Lorne sent off to secure the dart that they had located on the sensors. It was always good when they could get an enemy vessel. It gave such a good opportunity to test new weaponry and to find out just what they had. McKay would send Zelenka back with some of the lab monkey's to take the thing apart and bring it back to Atlantis. The only pilot they had who could fly one was not going to be available for a while; he refused to believe that Sheppard wouldn't make it, so the only option was to dismantle it. Unless the Daedalus was nearby, then they could simply scoop it up and haul it to Atlantis. That was a possibility, he had some vague recollection of some mention of Caldwell being on the radio, protesting the short time for planning an assault, but he hadn't cared enough earlier to find out for sure. That was something to consider later. Now he could only think about the battle that was being waged on the jumper floor.

"Damn it, his blood pressure is in the bloody basement. If I didn't know better I'd say he was bleeding out, but there is no sign of anything like that, not even internal injuries." he said before ordering several drugs to be pumped into the IV. He lifted one of Sheppard's eyelids to check his pupil response and cursed. Rodney caught sight of one eye and he could see why, the whites of Sheppard's eyes were bloodshot to a degree that they looked almost solid red. That couldn't be good.

"Bloody Hell!" Beckett swore again. He leaned over and looked into the cockpit where Lorne was getting them back under way. "We need to get back to Atlantis, NOW." he yelled. "And I need an open line to talk to my people. We're going to have to move fast, and they'll have to be ready when we get there."

"Carson?" McKay asked, not bothering to hide the concern in his question.

"Not now Rodney." the Scot said, not even bothering to look at him. He was listening to Sheppard's lungs, and whatever he heard didn't make him happy. "We're going to have to intubate him. Get me the tube and stand by with the bag and the oxygen." McKay had to look away as Beckett maneuvered the tube down Sheppard's throat. He felt like crying. They had been too late.

Ten minutes later they were sitting outside the infirmary in what Beckett laughingly called a waiting room, and McKay was back to pacing. Teyla was sitting in one of the chairs with Elizabeth, filling her in on what had happened, and Ronon was standing against the wall, cleaning his blade with a cloth that he had produced from somewhere.

McKay grimaced at the black stains that covered the rag, and tried not to think about where it had come from. He had no sympathy for the Wraith, but beheading was not something he really wanted to contemplate. He made another pass, and found himself stopped by Ronon's big hand on his chest. He looked from the hand to Ronon's face.

"Sit down." The Satedan rumbled. McKay started to protest, but then caught sight of the black stained rag in Ronon's other hand. Never argue with a man who had just beheaded something, that was a policy that he was sure would be good to adopt. He sank into the seat next to Teyla, and another hand appeared before him with a power bar. One of the chocolate chip ones, all of which he had thought Sheppard had managed to hide somewhere. He looked at Teyla who met his look with a smile.

"The Colonel gave some to me to ration out to you. He said that otherwise you would eat them all at once and then whine about having to eat the other kinds. You have not eaten for several hours. Dr Beckett does not need a distraction at this time." she said in answer to his silent question. McKay snorted, but snatched the bar anyway.

"Shows what he knows." he said as he unwrapped the cherished bar and took a bite. "I am quite aware of how to ration. Who was it that had the only supply of Fruit Loops before we contacted Earth, I ask you?"

"I believe that was because you discovered that there was actually citric acid in the ingredients, and the only reason that you still had it and had not traded, was because you had pushed it to the back of your closet, covered it with plastic and duct tape and forgot it was there." Teyla noted. McKay waved the argument away as he munched the rest of the bar.

"Yeah well who knew among all that sugar there was an actual natural substance? Where is he hiding this stuff anyway? I've found all the rest of his hideouts, and the bars aren't there. He's also hiding that Shirtzat tea that you like and the Finkle berries that Conan goes crazy for."

"It is Shirzaz tea and Finel berries. I do not know where the Colonel is hiding them; I have not tried to find them." She tilted her head as if she were considering something, then smiled slightly with a look at Elizabeth. "He also has some dark chocolate for you and some scotch for Dr. Beckett. I had not thought about it before, but while he is willing to share the locations of his other stashes, he guards this place very well. I believe that the Colonel has made sure that he has something that each of us like that he can share when we most need it."

The others all considered that, each of them thinking about the circumstances of when Sheppard had handed out the small treats. Ronon thought about the anniversary of his coming to Atlantis when he had found a bag of the Finel berries sitting on his bunk. Elizabeth thought about the small box of Godiva chocolates that had been sitting on her desk on what had been the anniversary of her and Simon moving in together. Like her birthday, she still did not know how he had managed to find out the date. Teyla had found a small container of the tea in her quarters on the anniversary of her father's death. McKay, the wrapper of the power bar crinkling in his hands thought about how he had seen Carson smiling at a small bottle sitting in the middle of his desk on his Mother's birthday, a date he sorely missed being with her. He also remembered the file that he had found on his laptop the day of his birthday with a recorded message from Jeannie and his niece singing 'Happy Birthday' and sending birthday wishes. He had to blink quickly to keep the sudden moisture from flooding out of his eyes. Teyla leaned against him offering comfort with her proximity.

"The Ancients will not take him from us. I am sure of this." She said with her regular assurance, though when he looked at her, McKay could see the anxiety in the looks she threw toward the doorway into the infirmary. He reached out awkwardly and took her hand. Her strong fingers closed tightly around his own. Ronon slipped into the seat on the other side of Teyla between her and Elizabeth, and leaned slightly so that his shoulder met hers. So linked, they sat there staring at the doors in silence.

Carson Beckett was wishing for a little bit of that scotch that John Sheppard had slipped onto his desk two months ago. It was only fair after all, since the person who provided it was the one that was driving him to it with his constant need of emergency medical care. Beckett dragged a heavy hand across his face and scrubbed at the stubble that he found there, almost as heavy as that on Sheppard's pale face, though his was there because he had forgotten to shave that morning what with team Sheppard heading back to Elasia. Knowing that the colonel had been clean-shaven when he left, Beckett could not help but be amused at the man's robust beard. It was perhaps fueled by the same source of energy that gave the man his amazing recuperative powers.

In his years as a doctor Beckett had seen very few people whose blood pressure had dropped so severely in the field, survive the trip to the emergency room. And no one else yet who had done so with a recently broken arm, a bleeding and infected-damn the man anyway-surgery site and possible brain damage from interfacing with a machine created at least 10,000 years ago, by the first holders of this form of hominid. Carson sometimes wondered if it was Sheppard's genetic connection to those distance Ancestors that gave him his strength of will and recuperative powers. Since those Ancestors had been wiped out by attacks of the Wraith and a plague, it seemed that they had almost as much luck as the colonel did.

Beckett ran expert eyes over the still form on the bed. They had managed to stabilize the blood pressure, had cleaned and re-stitched the wound, had re-applied the splint, which had been hanging on by a thread in any event, and the nurses were now removing the last of Sheppard's uniform and getting him into a gown. The colonel wouldn't appreciate that particular substitution, nor would he like the tube that had been placed in a certain area. That was a battle for another time however, and he was fairly certain that given the medication that had been given him, and the exhaustion that made dark circles beneath the closed eyes, the man would not be waking anytime soon. Though he was sure it would be sooner than anyone expected it to be.

He gently patted one of Sheppard's blanketed legs and headed toward the waiting area. By the time he was through the door, all four of the people waiting in the small room were on their feet and staring at him.

Predictably it was McKay who spoke first.

"Well Carson?" he blurted. "You've had time to build an entire new Colonel by now from spare parts you had in your lab. Should we expect the Sheppard mark II to roll out sometime soon?"

"Calm down, Rodney." Beckett soothed, not at all upset by the brusque greeting. "The Colonel is resting quietly now, and well he should, after whatever that bloody machine did to him. His blood pressure ended up close to completely bottoming out, and I think he was just short of having a major aneurism. The Ancient scanners can't find any permanent damage, and neither did I. He had re-opened his stitches and had an infection setting in. We're giving him a round of antibiotics to handle that. I also re-splinted his arm since he had managed to beat up the one he had pretty well. He at least didn't shift the bones again. He should sleep through the rest of the day and into the night, but once my nurses get him settled, one of you can stay with him. Work out your regular schedule so that you all get some rest too."

He raised a hand to forestall the question he saw on everyone's lips. "And yes you can all see him before you go." He rapidly got out of the way as Rodney and Ronon broke for the door, just barely avoiding each other as they pushed through. Teyla gave him a small smile as she passed by and patted his arm in gratitude. Elizabeth stopped at his side.

"You've managed to pull it off again, Carson." She observed with a wide smile. "Thank you." He rubbed at his stubble again and gave her a tired smile.

"Sometimes no one is more surprised at that than I am, Elizabeth, especially when it comes to the Colonel. I have to give a lion's share of the credit to him and his pure cussedness. Anyone else would have been dead in that bloody field." The two shared a shudder at the thought. They were both realists and knew that some day John Sheppard would fall on a battlefield of some sort, and he would not be saved. The only thing they could hope for was that that particular battlefield was far, far in the future. Carson shook off the morose thought and took Elizabeth's arm. "Come along lass, you'll want to see him, and I'm sure you'll want to get in on the rotation. By now they'll have it all set up and Rodney will be arguing for two spots instead of one."

Chapter 39-

Beckett had been right about the amount of time that Sheppard would sleep. It was almost midnight, Atlantis time when he finally stirred from his sleep. Ronon happened to be the one on watch. It was his second turn at sitting at the side of the bed. He had been dozing, body relaxed in the chair, eyes closed, mind drifting, but senses tuned to his environment. At any sound nearby that was out of the ordinary, he opened an eye and studied the area. It was such that he heard what anyone else might have missed. A small sound, much like a whimper. He opened one eye, and saw no one nearby. He opened the other eye and looked at Sheppard who had done little more than breath since he had been put in the bed.

As he watched, Sheppard moved his head slightly on the pillow and tried to move his left arm. The whimper came again. He noticed that Sheppard's breathing was starting to speed up, and soon the colonel was panting as if he were running. It didn't take long for Ronon to realize that Sheppard was dreaming, and it was probably not a good dream. The ex-runner was well familiar with nightmares. Sheppard was responsible for getting rid of some of those that had haunted his sleep for a long time; the least he could do was return the favor. '

He leant over the bed, and put a big hand on Sheppard's forehead. The colonel seemed slightly warm, but not so much that he could be said to have a fever. The Satedan kept his voice low and calm as he spoke.

"Sheppard, it's just a dream. It's okay. You're going to be okay." he soothed. The dark head tossed again and Ronon ran his hand into Sheppard's unruly hair, almost petting him. He started to hum a tune that his Mother had always hummed to him when he was ill. It had no name, he wasn't even sure that it was really a song, or if she had just made it up, but it was comforting to him, and he figured it would do the same for his friend. In moments, Sheppard's breathing evened out and he stopped tossing his head. Ronon stopped humming and lifted his hand when he saw Sheppard's eyelashes flutter against his cheeks. It was one thing to comfort a friend; it was another to be caught doing it. He had a reputation to uphold, even with this man who saw way more than was on the surface.

He stayed leaning over the bed however, and when the dark eyes opened, he smiled.

"Good to see you awake finally. Maybe we can all get some sleep now." he said.

Sheppard blinked blearily at him and rolled his head to look around at the darkened infirmary.

"How-?" he croaked, and then cleared his throat. Ronon grabbed the cup of water with a straw on the table at the bedside and put it to the colonel's lips. He sucked several mouthfuls and then lay back. "How long have I been here?"

"Been back over twelve hours. You've been sleeping since we got back." He saw a frown form on Sheppard's face as he obviously tried to remember what had happened to land him here. It took a moment, but the frown cleared and Sheppard struggled to sit up Ronon held him down with almost no effort.

"Herth, Gerren, did they make it to the Stargate? What about that Wraith? Did I pass out?" he asked. The heart monitor at the side of the bed was starting to beat faster and faster, and Ronon knew it was only a matter of time until one of the nurses or a doctor appeared. They were not going to be happy with him if Sheppard was all uptight. He patted the shoulder under his hand.

"They're both here. McKay and the guy from the Green team are locked in the lab with that machine you had. They tried to get Beckett to turn it on, but he refused and got Weir to order them to leave it off since it had done something to you. My guess is that they'll have it in so many pieces that no one will recognize it by morning. The Genii guy is sulking in his room since Lorne refused to let him go anywhere but the mess hall, the rec room and the gate room." Sheppard had calmed down a lot, and the heart monitor was slowing to a more normal pace. Maybe Ronon would get out of here without being 'spoken to'.

"What about the Wraith? I think I had him fooled until I passed out. Didn't figure the Terit would work without me telling it what to do. I tried to make it back to the Stargate, but I don't think I got very far."

"You got far enough, we found you about half way. The Wraith is dead." No need to share the details right now. Sheppard would read the AARs on the rescue, and would find out in time, just how close he had been to being fed on again. He did not need that information right now. The look Sheppard gave him made him pretty sure that the colonel already suspected that the rescue had been in the nick of time, but he didn't say anything.

Ronon watched as Sheppard lifted his right hand and scrubbed at his face. He then lifted the blanket and looked underneath with a grimace. He looked around the darkened room again and cast a hopeful look at Ronon.

"Don't suppose you could find someone to come and take this damn thing out so I can use the bathroom like a big boy?" he begged. The look that McKay called the 'puppy dog eyes' was in full force. Ronon grunted, unmoved by the look, but he sympathized with the cause and went in search of the night nurse. Sheppard turned the full force of 'the look' on her, and she was soon stammering and promising to find the duty doctor and see if the catheter could be removed.

Ten minutes later he was helping an unsteady, but vastly happier Sheppard, back from the bathroom and helping him into the bed. He had just pulled the covers up when Rodney McKay came around the privacy screen that had been set up around the bed. He was carrying a huge mug of coffee, his laptop and two large chocolate muffins. He stopped in surprise as he saw Sheppard not only awake, but sitting up. He looked from the colonel to Ronon.

"I see we're going to have to go over the protocols again, Conan.' he said snarkily as he juggled his pile. "You were supposed to let us know when sleeping beauty woke up. Some of us might have had something important to do besides sit around in here, like, I don't know…sleeping." Ronon reached out a long arm and snatched one of the muffins off the top of the laptop. McKay attempted to stave him off, but nearly managed to drop all the rest. By the time he had rebalanced the load, Ronon had nodded to Sheppard and disappeared around the screen. McKay, not one to let such an insult go, called after him.

"Oh of course, just take my hard earned food and run!" he yelled. "I'll have you know that I had to trade my last two candy bars for those." The only response was the swish of the doors as the ex-runner left the infirmary. Rodney turned to Sheppard who was watching him with a grin. "Do you believe that?"

"Oh come on Rodney." Sheppard said. "All you had were two Payday bars, and you told me you hated those. It's not like you don't have one left." Sheppard eyed the huge muffin closely. "I fact I would say that there's more than enough for two people there. He was hungry, and the chocolate muffin was just warm enough from the ovens to still smell wonderful. His stomach made a growling noise, and he turned 'the look' on McKay, who took a step away from the bed shaking his head.

No, N, O, NO. This is mine. That overgrown garbage disposal took one of them already. You are not getting any of this one, and you can save the puppy dog look for someone it works on." He set the laptop down on the bedside table near the next bed, well out of Sheppard's reach, and sat down. He broke off a piece of the muffin and put it in his mouth. He let out a moan of delight. Sheppard pouted at him.

"You want to be alone with that, Rodney? I'm sure that I can have the nurses move all my medical machinery and me somewhere else so you can do what ever it is you do. I wouldn't want to cramp your style." he snarked.

No, this is fine. You go about your business, and don't mind me and my fresh baked, chocolate muffin, with real chocolate chips I might add." McKay took another bite and washed it down with some coffee. He was getting ready to take another bite, and Sheppard was considering throwing himself at the food, when the nurse came around the screen carrying a tray. On it was a plate with two muffins and a glass of milk. She cast a quick glance at McKay and then rolled a table over by Sheppard's bed and set the tray on it.

"Dr. Beckett said you could have something to eat when you woke up. The other duty nurse was up in the mess hall, and she brought back some of these wonderful muffins so I thought you might like one." She cast a doubtful gaze at McKay who had stopped to stare at the tray, and continued. "I brought one for Dr McKay too, but it looks like he already has one. I can take this back-" She started to reach for the second muffin but Sheppard stopped her.

"I'm really hungry, and I bet that I can eat both of those muffins with no trouble. Why don't you just leave them both?" he beamed. She looked at him doubtfully. Sheppard was never a big eater, usually less so when in the infirmary. His smile convinced her however, and she wandered back toward the office. Sheppard pulled the tray toward him, and lifted one of the muffins and took a bite. It was great, still warm from the oven, and so chocolaty. He turned his head to find McKay glaring at him. "What?" he said around another bite.

"I had to trade two candy bars to get my muffins, only one of which I ended up with I might add, and you get two of them handed to you on a silver salver just because you can't stay healthy for longer than a day. The universe is not fair."

"No one ever said it was, Rodney. Of course the universe does like some of us better than others." They argued the point for several minutes, and eventually ended up splitting the second muffin, though McKay also ended up with half of Sheppard's half as his energy flagged. He sank back against the pillows and sighed. A memory resurfaced and he looked over at McKay who was sipping his coffee and booting up his laptop. "Hey, Ronon said you and Herth were working on the Terit. What did you figure out?"

"Well obviously you figured out that it produced the holograms." McKay said with a questioning lift of his brow. In the way that they had developed over the years Sheppard knew that the scientist wanted to know how he had figured it out. He told about how he had been wishing for the team to be there, and how the Terit had answered his wish. He didn't mention that it had been Rodney himself that he had first wished for. No need to feed the ego. McKay listened and hummed.

"Yes, well since Carson refused to turn it on, and went and tattled to Elizabeth that we were trying to use it, we couldn't try it out with a natural gene carrier. It has a limited power cell that the Ferlians were feeding through the camera, which they were also using to rebroadcast the signal it produced. When the gate shut down, and the last camera was lost, it lost its main power source. Good shooting by the way on those other two, anger management classes coming along well?" Sheppard shrugged. He wasn't proud of his little display of peak, but they had pissed him off with their cavalier use of the one thing that was the worst nightmare of them all. McKay smirked at him and continued.

"We took the thing apart: Herth isn't half bad at that by the way. He's evidently done quite a bit of renovation on Ancient items that they've found. He showed me that bracelet he used to make you invisible. Would have liked to have taken a look at that, but he's gone back to Elasia with that Genii guy. Very nice work on that even if he had the power curve all hinky."

"'Hinky?'" Sheppard asked with a smirk. "Is that a technical term?"

"Yes, yes it is. I don't expect you to understand the jargon however." McKay replied with an answering smirk. They shared a smile. "Anyway, as far as we can tell without actually turning it on the way it was meant to be turned on, since it didn't have the power source it was using before, but you still wanted it to do something, it took the energy from the only place it could, your brain. Admittedly it was a low wattage, but it was enough to get the job done. However, since you had a finite amount of power to feed it, along with keeping your body going, it sapped you quickly, thus the fainting like a heroine in a monster movie."

"Hey, I tripped…like a heroine in a monster movie" Sheppard protested as he snuggled down into his blanket. He was tired again even though he had only woken a short while before. Now with his stomach full, he was ready for another nap. He turned on his side facing McKay, careful of his arm and the I.V.

"Are we going to ask the Ferlians for a do over or is Elizabeth tired of it all now?" he asked McKay on a yawn. The scientist was opening his laptop, obviously preparing to stay. Sheppard could only hope that his friends knew how much he valued them for their willingness to sacrifice their own comforts for him.

"Well, there has been some discussion. After the debrief Teyla and she talked for quite awhile I guess according to my spy in the gate room." Sheppard was well aware that McKay's 'spy' was Chuck the Canadian gate tech, who was an inveterate gossip when it came to things that really didn't matter. He would no more talk about sensitive matters than he would allow a Wraith through the gate. Obviously McKay must have cornered the man when he was going off duty and probed for information. Being annoying was a surprisingly good interrogation tactic, at least for Rodney.

"Teyla will get us back there." Sheppard said with another yawn and complete confidence in his teammate's persuasive powers. His eyelids seemed to have taken on a life of their own, as they seemed to be closing against his will. He had a few more questions. "Any idea when Beckett is going to spring me?" He didn't realize that the question was barely whispered, and that he was asleep before he completely finished the sentence. Nor did he see Rodney's fond smile in his direction.

"Not anywhere near as soon as you'll want, Colonel." he answered in a low voice, and turned his attention back to his laptop. He had the schematics for the Terit, and he wanted to go over the power systems again before they put it back together. Maybe he could talk Elizabeth into keeping it. Kind of a consolation prize as it were.

Chapter 40-

Two days later Carson Beckett found himself with his back firmly against a metaphorical wall. Unsurprisingly the reason was one Lt Colonel John Sheppard, who was sitting on the side of his infirmary bed, legs dangling, broken arm in a sling, and free of his IV and all monitoring devices. Not surprisingly, it had been an uphill fight to keep the man in the infirmary for those two days, and there had been one escape attempt the previous day that had been thwarted by a pissed off Rodney McKay, who had mumbled something about baked goods and someone being treated like 'the fair-haired boy' by everyone. Carson had noticed that there had seemed to be a steady flow of very tasty baked goods being produced in the kitchens, some of which found their way down to the infirmary before they were even available in the mess. The colonel was a favorite with the cooks.

Push had finally come to shove when he had deemed it possible to put a cast on the colonel's arm. The infection had passed, and the stitches were well set. He had put the fiberglass cast on that morning, and it had set up well. Of course Sheppard had decided that this meant that he was ready to be discharged from the infirmary and returned to light duty at the very least. Carson was of another opinion, not wanting the man to put any strain on the arm, or indeed on his entire system which had taken quite a beating from that bloody Ancient machine the Rodney was still playing with.

McKay had put the thing back together, and had been hounding Elizabeth to let one of the other natural gene carriers try it out. He had promised not to let it get to the point it had with Sheppard, who being the only source of power had been drained almost too far. Beckett was not prepared to believe that such a caution would be sufficient. Too often they had attempted to do things with Ancient devices thinking they had control when they did not. He was not prepared to risk anyone for simple curiosity. Elizabeth had told Rodney that the machine had to be returned to the Ferlians, and the scientist had reluctantly agreed. He, Teyla, and Ronon were due to return it today, and find out what had happened with the games. Somehow Sheppard had gotten wind of it. The daft bugger wanted to go along, and had made his intentions clear when Beckett had come to check on the cast.

"Come on Carson. There's no reason I can't just walk through the gate and see what's going on. You saw how close the village was to the Stargate, and it's not like anything else is going to happen. The games are over, all that's left is to total up the points and see whose 'cuisine reigns supreme' as it were." the colonel whined. Beckett scowled at the reference to the show Sheppard had caught him and Cadman watching the previous day in Beckett's office. Laura was a big fan of Iron Chef, and had several seasons on disc. Beckett had been on his lunch hour, and Cadman had brought the disc along to show him an episode with a Scots chef. Carson was sure that if Rodney were to find out about the cooking show he would never hear the end of it, and the implied threat did not escape him. He glowered at the colonel.

"I believe you used something of the same argument the last time I let you out of here, and look where that got you."

"That wasn't my fault! The real Wraith weren't supposed to show up." Sheppard said with a pout.

"It never is your fault." Beckett pointed out. "But that doesn't stop it from happening does it?" He had been prepared to let Sheppard out anyway, but not to away missions, and definitely not back to any 'games'. "I'll release you to your room, and no further. Light duty in two more days, no earlier. Off world, maybe next week to established trading partners only." Sheppard's face had darkened as he continued.


"I said NO!" They stared at each other for several moments, and Beckett could see the thought process going on in Sheppard's head and braced himself for further argument, but instead the stiffened shoulders slumped and Sheppard looked away.

"Fine. Can I at least go now?" He asked, staring down at the floor. There was definitely pouting being done, but was that all? It had seemed too easy. Carson eyed him narrowly, but seeing no evidence of any physical problem beyond what he already knew, he decided that the man had simply figured out he was beaten and had decided on discretion rather than valor. Carson was slightly suspicious, but he decided to allow it for now, but was going to keep a close eye on the man. He had his own spies around the base.

"All right." He put a hand on Sheppard's chest as he went to slide off the bed, halting the movement. The hazel eyes that came up to meet his were shuttered. No, not a happy camper. "I will be checking on you through the day, and I'll be sending a tray down for lunch. Stay off your feet and clean your plate and maybe I'll let you go out to the mess hall this evening." If the man was going to cooperate, Carson could show him that he could compromise, too. He got only a nod for his trouble, and Sheppard slid the rest of the way off the bed, and with a wary look at Beckett, headed out dressed in the scrubs and bare feet. He didn't have anything else there and he evidently wasn't going to wait on the off chance that Carson would change his mind. The doors closed behind him with a decided thud and Beckett figured it was Sheppard's way of slamming it. He sighed.

Two hours later three fourths of SGA1 was standing in front of the Stargate ready to depart for Elasia. They were waiting for the dialing to complete. McKay was clutching the Terit to his chest with a petulant look, having tried once again to convince Weir that the Ferlians would not miss it. She had refused. Teyla, seeing the look rolled her eyes and glanced at Ronon, but the Satedan was not looking her way, instead, he was looking toward the corridor leading into the gate room with a strange look on his face. It was part smirk, and part concern. She looked that way herself, but could not see anything that might have caused such a look. She shook her head. Sometimes she wondered about the members of her team. The last chevron locked, and the wormhole was established. Elizabeth looked down from just outside her office.

"Please extend our sorrow to the Ferlians that the games were interrupted. Should they decide in the future to trade more…openly we will be happy to talk with them. Please be sure to speak with whoever is in charge on Elasia and see if they might be interested in some sort of trade agreement. I understand that they are adverse to new machinery as a rule, but we can offer medicines and agricultural support that they may be agreeable to. If nothing else they can perhaps keep us updated on the Ferlians."

"I understand Dr. Weir." Teyla said. She had been put in charge of the mission since the colonel was not going. Since it was she who did a majority of the trading, it was not a hardship for her, but she would miss the colonel's presence. He had an…interesting style when it came to meeting people. "If we can not conclude our business within a few hours time we will check in with you in four hours. We do need to gather the rest of our gear from the inn and locate the persons that we need to speak with."

"I understand. Be safe." Elizabeth said, watching as Rodney led the way through the gate followed by Teyla. Ronon was bringing up the rear. He was just getting ready to step forward when she heard a strange noise behind her, and looked around to find the door to her office…bouncing. It was closing and then opening and then repeating the cycle. She stepped toward it to press the crystal at the side when she heard Chuck, the gate tech call out.

"Colonel, I don't think-!" Whatever he was going to say was never completed as the gate shut down. Elizabeth spun around from the now empty gate to Chuck who was looking at her with wide eyes. The two marines stationed near the gate were looking at the floor and she could swear that she could feel the embarrassed blush on the one nearest her, a young man who couldn't be more than twenty two or three. The other one, a seasoned vet who had been with the expedition since the beginning seemed to be trying hard not to laugh.

"Tell me that Colonel Sheppard did not just sneak through the gate after his team." she demanded out loud. She lowered a grim look on the two marines and the hapless gate tech. The marines shuffled their feet, and didn't meet her eyes. Chuck raised both hands in a 'what could I do' gesture. Elizabeth lifted her hand and touched her radio.

"Major Lorne and Dr Beckett to the gate room please. Immediately." she said sternly. The marines shuffled nervously again. Chuck sighed and slumped over his equipment. His expression said that he was re-evaluating his choice of career. So was she at that moment. When Lorne and Beckett showed up she motioned them into her office. She noted that the door was no longer malfunctioning. What a surprise. She shut it firmly and stood just inside it her head down for several minutes, breathing deeply. Seated in chairs in front of her desk Beckett and Lorne exchanged glances. Lorne finally broke the ice.

"Ma'am is their something wrong?" He had noted the flushed faces of the marines on duty, and the fact that they would not look at him or each other. That coupled with Dr. Weir's obvious anger meant that something had happened, but he didn't have a clue what. He noted that SGA1 had been scheduled to leave just minutes ago, maybe it had something to do with gate room protocol, but that didn't explain Beckett's presence. He watched as Weir seemed to pull herself together and watched as she walked around to her chair. She sat and looked at them both with the calm face that she usually projected. She folded her hands on the desk, and if her knuckles turned just the smallest bit white, who was to say.

"It seems that despite being ordered to remain in his room and being grounded for at least the next week, Colonel Sheppard has seen fit to accompany his team back to Elasia." she announced. The words were expressionless, as was her face, but her eyes blazed. Lorne hid a grimace. The colonel had definitely made her made this time. A glance at Beckett showed that Sheppard hadn't made any points there either.

"What! He was in his room and resting after lunch when I saw him not twenty minutes ago. How in the hell did the stubborn bugger get dressed and ready in that time?"

"The Colonel never did turn in his handguns to the armory." Lorne said. "Usually Dex or Teyla will bring them back if the Colonel can't but this time nobody did. He should at least be armed."

"Oh well that's handy. He'll be able to shoot himself so I don't have to when he gets back." Beckett started, jumping to his feet. "I swear to you Elizabeth, the next time that man needs medical attention I am putting him in one of those cells where we hold the Wraith and I'm not letting him out until he's completely healthy."

"And I'll back you on that, Carson." Weir said. She unclenched her hands. 'This is completely irresponsible of him. He was ordered to stand down. This certainly a direct challenge to your authority as CMO, Carson, and there is some precedent that could call this desertion-" Lorne sat up straighter in his chair.

"That is a pretty strong word ma'am! The Colonel might have made a …bad decision, but he certainly hasn't deserted his post." The colonel had really stepped in it this time, but the man was as loyal to Atlantis as anyone here, and while Lorne might not have done the same thing, he had to think that just maybe Sheppard had a reason for what he had done.

"Might have made a wrong decision? Major he has broken not one, not two, but a handful of regulations and he did it knowingly. There is no excuse-" she was preparing to enumerate the mistakes when Chuck interrupted.

"Ma'am a timed message just popped up on the server for you. I …think it may be from Colonel Sheppard." he said. Elizabeth opened her lap top and swung it around so that Beckett and Lorne could see it, joining them on the other side of the desk. She had Chuck send it to her computer and the message started. John Sheppard appeared on the screen. He gave a kind of half apologetic smile, and began to talk.

"Hello Elizabeth. If everything went according to plan, right about now you are exceedingly pissed, and I don't blame you. You are probably planning a court martial, or at the very least public pillory or something along those lines. Beckett will probably be willing to help you out with that. But while I understand your anger, I hope that you will listen to what I have to say before you do anything hasty, like…well, like anything.

"I know that Carson grounded me, and I understand why. That Terit really messed with my body, and I know he only has my best interest at heart, but I am feeling better now, and I think that I should know better than him what I can and can't do." Beckett snorted at that. "I am not planning on doing anything strenuous, and beyond walking to the village, I don't even plan on getting a lot more exercise than I would have gotten pacing around in my room. My team will look out for me, and make sure I don't over do it. If you can't trust me, trust them.

"Now, as to why. That's the big question." His face became serious. "I know that we decided to enter into these games because we wanted to see if we could get a hold of some Ancient devices without having to put our own asses on the line to find them, and I think that is still a valid reason to seek trade with the Ferlians. I cannot tell you how tired I am of sending people out to die for some stupid piece of 10000-year-old metal and crystal. If having this trade agreement saves even ONE of our people, then it is worth any sacrifice on my part, even your trust.

"About this point you are probably wondering just what I think I can do that Teyla can't. Well that's sort of a loaded question. When it comes to negotiating the answer is 'nothing'. But that's not the reason I have to go. I have to go because the test of spirit isn't over, and it won't be until I go back there. I read a quote once I think it was Ben Stein that said it. He said, 'It is inevitable that some defeat will enter even the most victorious life. The human spirit is never finished when it is defeated...it is finished when it surrenders.'"

"It took me awhile to figure out. What were they trying to see with the fake Wraith and the fake villagers? They had to know that we'd find out sooner or later, in fact they expected it to last only six or seven hours, so there had to be something else they wanted to see besides us fighting Wraith. What they did was put us in a situation in which we could not win. There was no way for us to fight the Wraith. No way to save the village, no way to save ourselves really. What they wanted to see was what we did when there was nothing we could do. How did we treat each other? How did we handle ourselves? Did we crawl in a hole and pull it in after us and the hell with everyone else? Did we team up and try to save everyone, or did we go it alone? When push came to shove, was the life of someone we didn't even know more important than our own, or at least worth the effort to save?

"That is what the test was all about, and like I said, until I go back, until I've reached the end of the game, it's not over. If I don't go back, I've surrendered. They'll never trade with us. But if I go back, if I finish, despite my…infirmities, they'll at least think well of us. We may not win it, but maybe sometime in the future we'll have that chance again, and we can save that life. I have to take the chance." His look was pure Sheppard at that point, defiant and determined. But after a moment the looked faded and he looked away from the camera. With a sigh he turned back.

"No one helped me with this. It's all on me so don't go looking for someone else. It's kind of scary just what you can pick up hanging around a bunch of scientists and stealth specialists. Elizabeth, I'll take whatever punishment you deem fit when I get back. Carson, I'll follow your instructions to the letter until you release me, no complaints or griping. Lorne, well sorry Major but it looks like you are going to be in charge for a while. You know where the paperwork is. Sheppard out." With that the message cut off, and the three people in the room were left to stare at the empty screen. No one knew what to say.

Chapter 41-

One of the first things you learned when you went through the Stargate was to count the soft 'bloops' of your companions crossing the event horizon. You didn't have to even look to know that everyone had made it as long as the count was correct. McKay's mind was tracking on several things at once as he stepped through. The first was that he missed having Sheppard along. He had gotten used to the colonel's presence, annoying though it could be, and it just didn't feel right going off world without him. If Rodney had any say, and he would be sure that he did, he would not be going off world again until Sheppard was cleared to do so. The next thing he noticed was that he could smell something very good coming from the village. The wind was just right to carry the scent of fresh cooked meat their direction. He was also going over in his mind exactly how he was going to convince the Ferlians that they really needed to trade with them. After all where else were they going to get someone who could turn on Ancient technology?

With all this going through his head, McKay was only partially paying attention to the soft sounds of his two teammates coming through behind him. It was only when the third 'bloop' sounded and he heard Ronon's soft grunt of what passed for amusement that he remembered that there should have only been two 'bloops'. He spun around, and nearly fell down the stairs as he saw John Sheppard, in full field gear, stepping away from the event horizon as the gate shut down. He was looking sheepishly at them as he came up to them.

"Hi guys. Did you miss me?" He quipped. Rodney scowled at him.

"How can we miss you if you won't go away?" he said, drawing a look from Teyla. "What are you doing here? I thought Carson was holding you in durance vile until you got rescued by an ascended princess or got healthy whichever comes first. Somehow I don't think you've achieved either one yet."

"Yeah well, he kinda forgot to put the dragon in the moat." Sheppard replied snappily, waving at the gate. Teyla frowned at him.

"Dr Weir is going to be very angry with you Colonel, as is Dr Beckett. They are only concerned with your well being and this is ill advised." she said. Sheppard looked down and practically scuffed the stones of the stairs with the toe of his boot like a big kid being chastised by his mother.

"Oh come on Teyla. It's not that bad. Carson let me out before, and then I had a splint and not a cast, and he thought I was well enough to be out of the infirmary, so I should be okay just to stand around and talk. Maybe I can even get a chair. Ronon will get me one won't you big guy?" Ronon nodded. Teyla frowned at him, but he simply shrugged at her. She sighed.

"Very well, but you will rest as much as possible, and we will be returning to Atlantis as soon as we are finished with our business." With that she turned and started for the village.

"Yes, MOM." Sheppard muttered, not loud enough for her to hear and stepped out after her. It was a very nice day, and he was feeling pretty good, so he decided to not worry about Teyla's disapproval, Weir's anger, or Carson's homicidal tendencies. Okay, maybe he would worry about Carson a little. McKay was soon at his side, with Ronon bringing up the rear.

"They are going to kill you for this. I'm surprised that Elizabeth didn't send through a team of Marines to haul your scrawny butt back and lock you in the brig." he said with a smile. He loved to see someone else step in it for once. Sheppard scowled at him.

"Little too much joy in the possible suffering of others, Rodney." Sheppard drawled. When McKay simply smiled at him he shrugged. "I left a message that they should have by now. I hope that it helps them understand why I had to come, and they'll cut me some slack."

"Yeah, well good luck with that. Elizabeth the Hun and Carson the Bruce are going to be all over you. What did you tell them any way? I would like to hear this explanation before the court martial."

"She can't court martial me, she isn't military." Sheppard said, though maybe not with as much confidence as he could have had. McKay snorted.

"Unless you were very persuasive, she'll give it her best shot. Now give."

"I told them that I didn't think that the Ferlians were going to consider the games over, and that I had to come back as soon as I could so that we completed the challenges. I really think that even if we don't win, we need to make a good showing. I mean Elizabeth is having Teyla tell them that if they ever change to look us up, but if they see us as quitters, as not finishing what we start, then I don't see them ever contacting us. They told us in the beginning, no substitutions. That means that the original people have to be here, and so I had to come. Plus, we completed that damn challenge, all of us, maybe not like they had planned, but that wasn't our fault. I intend to look them in the eye, give them their little toy back, and ask who won." He heard a grunt of agreement from Ronon, and looked up at Teyla who had her head cocked just so, and he knew that she had been listening as well. He then looked at McKay who he could see was pondering his words.

"You may be right." He said finally. "I won't even pretend I can guess what's going on in these people's heads. It's like having the makers of Survivor running a planet, but you may just be right." He pondered some more and broke out into a big grin. "Not that being right is going to save you. You might get a by from Elizabeth, though she's gonna beat you up for sneaking off, but Carson won't care. You could have left to save a planet load of puppies and little kids, and he'd still be pissed at you."

"Still just a little too happy on that McKay." Sheppard grumbled as they entered the village. The crowds were somewhat less than they had been, but they still received stares from many of those who were still there. In fact they started to gather a following, much to Ronon's disgust. Even the glaring and snarling of the Sadetan didn't keep them at bay for long. They just stayed a little further back. Obviously they sensed a 'happening' was incipient, and no one wanted to miss it. By the time they reached the center square, the crowd was good sized. Two of the larger pavilions were gone, but the central one still stood, and it was in that direction that Teyla led them through the crowd that had been in the square. They all scowled as they saw a swarm of the flying cameras hovering outside the pavilion. Obviously something was getting ready to happen, besides them. They had almost reached the tent when they were hailed form behind. With a call to Teyla, Sheppard stopped, and turned to find Herth approaching, he was with his team. The Genii team, with Gerren in the lead was behind them.

"Friend Sheppard," Herth beamed. "I am so glad to see you here. I was under the impression that you would not be able to join in the final ceremonies. Your Doctor Beckett seemed to think you would not be well enough to attend. I was deeply disappointed."

"I was kinda disappointed myself, so here I am. You say this is the final ceremony? So that means that they do consider our challenge completed?" Maybe his theory was going to work out. Gerren and the Genii brushed by without so much as a glance. Herth smiled after them.

"Indeed. I believe that is why our Genii companion is not happy to see you. If you had not appeared the choice of winner of the challenge would have been between me and him, and I fear he feels that I did not acquit myself with distinction." The scientist did not seem upset about that, and Sheppard gave him an odd look, which made his smile grow larger.

"We have achieved our goal already Sheppard. Win or lose we have made a trade agreement with a people who can help us survive the Wraith." When Sheppard just continued to look puzzled Herth realized that Sheppard had no idea what he was talking about. "I spoke at length with your Dr. McKay and your Dr. Weir. Our two peoples will be trading information and medical supplies. We are united in our search for knowledge and for a way to defeat the Wraith. It is inevitable that we should be friends. Did no one tell you?" Sheppard cast a nasty look at McKay who shrugged.

"No, no one mentioned that little tidbit of information, but then I didn't have much time to chat before I left this morning." he said with a smile. Well at least they had gotten something out of it. He noticed that there were officials hanging around the opening of the tent casting anxious looks in their direction. Evidently Ronon's presence had kept them at bay. The big man grinned at them as Sheppard looked around.

"Quit scaring our hosts, Chewie. Play nice." He started motioning everyone forward with his good hand. "Looks like the Ferlians want to get this over with. Might as well go in. They probably want their Terit back, too. Do I need to have Ronon carry it the rest of the way McKay, so that there are no undignified displays of grabbiness?" McKay sniffed at him in disdain.

"They can have their little hologram projector back. I can build a better model with two gum wrappers, a digital camera, and a bug light." He said with a sneer ignoring the fact that his hands were caressing the Terit.

"Okay, MacGyver. Just don't get in a tug of war with it when they try to take it. We'll find you another nice Ancient toy to play with…if you're a good boy." Ignoring McKay's look of death, Sheppard led the way into the tent. He was glad to see that benches had been provided near the front, obviously reserved for the teams as the Genii were seated on one of the three. With a nod to Herth and his team Sheppard led his own team to the bench and sat down with a sigh of relief. He wasn't sore or anything, but he was tired and it felt good to sit. As soon as they were settled one of the officials rushed up and stood in front of McKay.

"May I take the Terit? Glory to the Ancestors that you have retrieved it!" He asked with nervous looks between the item and Ronon who was seated next to McKay. McKay caressed the machine one last time, before reluctantly handing it over. The Ferlian clutched it to his chest like a baby and started to carry it back to the dais. As he passed Sheppard, the machine flared to life with a burst of rainbow colors from the top crystal. Sheppard could feel it reaching out to him. He ducked his head, closed his eyes and thought firmly at it. "OFF". With an almost petulant flare of lights it complied. The official looked at him wildly and practically ran off with it. McKay leaned forward so that he could speak around Teyla.

"So now you are flirting with Ancient machinery, too? Is there no end to it?" he quipped. Sheppard scowled back at him.

"It made the first move, McKay. I just shut it down, literally. You're just jealous." He couldn't help it if Ancient technology liked him, sometimes too much. He put up a hand and wiped at his brow that he suddenly realized was beaded with sweat. Where did that come from?

"Are you all right, Colonel?" Teyla asked, looking at him with concern. "Did the machine seek to harm you again?" She placed a hand on his forehead, checking his temperature. His other teammates were also looking at him in concern. He waved it off.

"Nah I'm fine. Just a little hot from the walk. The Terit just wanted to say 'hi', I think. It didn't try to drain me or anything." He didn't want them worrying, and he definitely didn't want any suggestions about returning to Atlantis, at least not until the ceremony was over. Looking forward he was glad to see Fernal stepping forward and raising his arms for attention. The cameras gathered.

"Honored contestants, gracious hosts, my fellow Ferlians, the Ancestors have blessed us indeed during this contest. We have had entertainment the likes of which we have never known! The challenges have been hard, the contestants clever, the consequences dire, but through it all we have watched, and weighed. Though the last challenge was cut short by the advent of the Wraith, we, the officials have decided that the contestants completed enough of the challenge to declare a winner." He paused dramatically. Sheppard almost expected them to go to commercial to raise the tension, but evidently Ferlian reality TV had not reached that particular Mecca yet.

"The judges have decided that the winner of the forth challenge is…the Green team. They are awarded six points." There was a surge of sound as the people in the tent reacted, but Fernal raised his arms again and it quieted. "Please, allow me to finish. The judges have also decided that the remaining teams acted with distinction. Therefore the Yellow and Blue teams are awarded three points each." Fernal smiled upon them with his best game show host grin. All three teams were looking at each other in puzzlement. It was a tie. All the teams had eight points. Gerren sprung to his feet.

"This is nonsense! You have allowed the games to end in a tie. There is no winner! Has all this been a waste of our time? Will we have to wait another five years?" he asked angrily. The rest of his team were on their feet, with equally angry expressions. Fernal was obviously taken aback by the vehemence of the question, and made his 'let's all be calm' hand gesture. Sheppard, whose thoughts had been running along something of the same lines as Gerren's, found himself wanting to grab the man and shake him until he lost that cool. He managed to restrain himself as the Ferlian spoke.

"My friend, there is no need to be so upset!" he assured the Genii. "I am afraid that you have been laboring under a misapprehension. The point standings have no bearing on our decision as to who is to be our trading partner. Surely you had not thought us so foolish as to think that we would make such an important choice based on such a thing? The points are merely a…device for the convenience of the viewing audience. We have found that they appreciate the games more if there is some indication of a frontrunner. They mean nothing beyond that. All of our games end in a tie. It is traditional. Look to your fellow contestants, they are not so upset, I am assured that they understood this."

Sheppard tried his best to keep his face expressionless as Gerren, and the cameras, looked their way. He had really had no clue about the points. Now that he thought about it, he HAD thought that the Ferlians were foolish enough to base their decision on the points. Not the best way to view potential trading partners, but there it was. Of course he wasn't going to let anyone else know that he had been thinking that. Glancing at his team he saw that Teyla and Ronon were as expressionless as he hoped he was himself. He had to roll his eyes a little as he caught sight of McKay who had his 'wait, wait, I'm thinking about this' look on his face. Looking over at the Green team he saw only serene understanding, and felt a bit put out that Herth hadn't shared this bit of information. Though to be fair it hadn't exactly come up in conversation. Fernal was continuing.

"The decision of who will become our trading partner is based not on the points, but on the manner in which the games were played. Each contest is formulated to allow us to see a portion of the character of the contestant. The test of strength displays not only strength of body, but of will and perseverance. The test of intelligence displayed not only cleverness, but also cooperation and devotion to cause. The test of strategy showed not only the wisdom, but also compassion and prudence. The test of spirit, though truncated unnaturally, showed courage, empathy, and altruism. It is from these things that we draw our decision." He smiled on them like a benevolent preacher who had made his point, and was sure his flock would follow. He waved to the other officials who joined him on the dais.

"In the name of the Ancestors, the government of the planet of Ferlia, and the officials here representing that government, I now declare the selection of our newest trading partner…" He once again paused for dramatic impact, and Sheppard thought about setting Ronon on him. Fernal swept a hand across in front of himself, indicating first the Genii, then the Thalans, then coming to stop on the Atlantis team. "The Blue team! We welcome you Team Lantea as the newest of our trading partners. May our association be long and fruitful for us all." The tent exploded into clapping and shouting. A good portion of the shouting was from the Genii team who after being pretty much ignored, stomped out, pushing people out of the way as they went. Sore losers.

Sheppard's team was on their feet, being congratulated by officials and spectators alike. Fernal passed through, as did most of the Green team. Herth smiled hugely, saying that he figured that they had gotten the best of the deal, as they would have not only the Lantean's but also some access to the Ferlians, which they had not really hoped to win. Sheppard frowned at that and asked why.

"My friend, you do not realize that you are very different from the others here. You think differently from us, perhaps it is from where you come, or perhaps from living where you do, but it is different. We," he indicated his team, "like so many of the others of this galaxy, have fought for so long to survive that we have forgone many of the things that once separated us from the Wraith. We seldom look outside our own with any compassion or empathy. Survival has become our goal, and all those not helping us towards it are…minimized. To think of others as you do, to act FOR them and forget yourself, it is a wonder. We saw it immediately, once the games started, and knew that unless you simply could not finish, that you would be the only logical choice."

Still not wanting to let on that he at least had fallen for the points thing, Sheppard had nodded his understanding-he didn't, but he nodded anyway-and had gone on shaking hands. He felt like he had shaken every hand on Elasia by the time things had calmed down. Two officials had appeared before them, asking who their trade representative would be, and they had carried Teyla away for preliminary talks. Ronon had gone along as back up, though it was probably not necessary. Sheppard liked to think that the large Satedan's quiet presence was a good motivator for honesty however. McKay, as soon as he could get away from the crowd, had made his way to the table with the Ancient goodies, and had bullied someone into opening it up. He, the entire Green team, and several Ferlian techs were currently going through it piece by piece, all arguing about what did what, and packing them into a crate that someone had provided. He noticed that the mostly depleted ZPM had been the first thing wrapped up and put in the box. Rodney wasn't letting that get out of his sight.

With nothing more to do himself, he sat back down wearily on the bench. There was some kind of celebratory meal planned in an hour or so, and he guessed that they had to stick around for that. Now that the excitement of the whole thing was over, and they had won, he was feeling more than a little washed out. His arm was aching, he needed to find some water or juice and take a couple of Vicoden, but he didn't feel like getting up to do it. He leaned forward, and resting his good arm on his knee massaged his forehead with his hand. He almost jumped out of his skin when a hand came down on his shoulder and a gentle voice spoke in his ear.

"You know that I hate makin' house calls Colonel, and this is the third time in as many days you've had me ridin' that devil's roller coaster. Have some consideration for your fellow man why don't you. You know I have some mighty big needles, and you've already earned a few this day." He turned to find Carson Beckett, in full field gear, and braced by two marines standing behind him. Sheppard blinked at him in puzzlement.

"When did you get here?" he asked, straightening. Beckett pushed down with the hand on his shoulder, keeping him from rising.

"Just stay down, Colonel. You don't look all that bad, but I bet you're finding out why I wanted you on bed rest for the day at least." he said as he slid onto the bench beside Sheppard. He reached for the colonel's wrist and took his pulse, checking his breathing and looking in his eyes at the same time. He was happy with what he was seeing. If it had been anyone but Sheppard he would have been surprised at the shape he found the man in, but recuperative powers seemed part of Sheppard's bag of tricks. Not that the man was off the doctor's list. He was still going to pay for his little unauthorized trip.

Carson was not a man who dwelt on the power that he had over others, it made him rather nervous on the whole, actually. He vastly preferred the isolation of his labs where he didn't have to concern himself about other people, and everything worked in a set way. However, he understood the necessity of having that power, and he knew that he could not allow Sheppard's disregard go unpunished. Otherwise in future he would have more trouble not only with the accident-prone colonel, but also with others in the expedition. He couldn't have that. Even though it appeared that the colonel had been correct in his read of the circumstances, Carson couldn't let it go. Might as well make it clear now.

"I understand there's some sort of luncheon that you all have to attend. After that I expect you to return with me to…" he paused and looked around. Discretion was called for. "Back home, where you will come with me to the infirmary where you will be staying for the next three days." That got the response he expected.

"Three days! Come on Carson. We won the pennant! Brought home the bacon. Made the big time. We're world champions, can't I get time off for good…" He stopped before he finished the sentence and shot Beckett a look that McKay called 'the puppy dog eyes'. "Anyway, you let me out before. Can't I just stay in my own quarters? I promise I won't set so much as a foot outside, even if the Wraith attack."

"That was before, Colonel. Need I say that your little escapade has not endeared you to me? You have some healing to do, despite what you might think. Your body has had a hard time in the last several days, and even you need time. I am going to make sure that you get that time, and you are going to do it where I can see you twenty four hours a day. I will choose what you can do, what you can eat, and whom you can see for the next three days. Maybe this will teach you that when I make a decision regarding what you can and cannot do medically, that the decision is final. I will not stand for your blatant disregard of my authority." He spoke sternly, and could see the, reluctant, acceptance in the colonel's eyes. A sheepish look came over the pale but handsome face.

"I do respect you, Carson, and I didn't mean to undermine your authority. I'll take my punishment quietly, like I promised, and if anyone else tries to 'do what I do' and not what you say…well I'll make sure they know they don't." Becket could not doubt the man's sincerity, and he knew that Sheppard would keep his word. Of course next time it was all up in the air, if the colonel thought that he needed to go, he would go. Such was the cost of dealing with such a man.

Two hours later the luncheon was over, and the Lantean delegation was making its goodbyes and packing up their prizes and gear. Elizabeth had come through when Carson had, summoned by Teyla to sit in on the talks. Everyone seemed to be happy with whatever had been discussed. Lunch had been as good as the other meals, but had been somewhat drawn out by some long-winded, in Sheppard's opinion, speeches by various officials, and one short one, obviously unprepared, by Elizabeth.

Everyone was so happy that Sheppard felt badly about the let down he seemed to be feeling. They had won! Why wasn't he happier? Maybe Carson was right, and his body just needed time to heal. He wasn't looking forward to the next three days, but knew that he deserved it. He also knew that he still had to face the wrath of Elizabeth. Maybe it was that that had him feeling so down. Everyone else was having such a good time, and was so up that he tried hard to not show his bad attitude. He hoped that anyone that noticed would put it down to him not feeling well. Rather than fake it through all the goodbyes, he decided to get a start on leaving.

He had managed to smile his way out of the crowd and was starting toward the Stargate, but not before tasking two marines to stay behind with McKay who was finally getting that tour of the ships he had coveted. Sheppard was aware that one marine was pacing him, no doubt at Elizabeth's order, as he trudged toward home. Maybe if he hurried he could get in a shower, with the appropriate waterproof arm wear of course, before Carson incarcerated him. He preferred to shower alone and with no one kibitzing outside the door, and he probably wouldn't get that in the infirmary. If Carson let him shower at all.

His mood did not improve as he walked and he started to really question himself. He finally just stopped where he was and outright asked himself what his problem was. He was sure the marine probably thought he was just resting, which was fine with him. No need to let the men know that their leader was having a personal issue. And it was a personal issue. He was mad…at himself.

He felt like he had let his team down by not having to compete like they had. They had given their all, and had rightfully been given the accolades that had fallen so profusely from Fernal's lips during his speech, but he, Sheppard, didn't belong in that same company. He felt like a cheat. Oh he had made an appearance, and had fulfilled that part of the requirements, but he hadn't really completed the challenge. Maybe if the real Wraith hadn't shown up he could have acquitted himself well, could have done better. He didn't like to think that he was a sore loser, but damn it he hadn't thought he had been doing that badly.

He didn't want to take anything away from Herth. The guy had really pulled it out with the personal cloak, even if there wasn't anything to actually hide from. And when it had come time to try to rescue the fake girl, the scientist had been willing to come with him and possibly sacrifice himself. Sheppard guessed that in the end that was more impressive than his own efforts. He was used to fighting the Wraith, for Herth, whose society made a point of hiding from the Wraith, it had taken some serious courage to do what he did. Okay, so maybe Herth had deserved to win. Sheppard could accept that. But did they have to give him the same points as the Genii? Was that how he came across?

Okay, there was the problem. He felt bad because he had gotten the same amount of admittedly useless points as Gerren. His team had done their best, even McKay, who had quit, because of him, had done good. He was so freaking…something that he couldn't even come off as better than a Genii. Was he a liability? This time it had been a game, but what about next time when it wasn't?

"You're thinking too much Sheppard." The voice shook him from his introspection, and he turned to see Ronon standing at his side.

"Not something that I'm usually accused of." Sheppard said with a small smile. He could feel the dark eyes studying him.

"What's wrong? You've been off since they made the announcement that we won. Thought you'd be happy." Without saying anything the two men started toward the gate. The marine, who had looked grateful that someone had gotten the CO moving again, he had been just on the edge of radioing Major Lorne who was with Dr. Weir when Dex had shown up and shook his head, brought up the rear.

"I am happy. Really. We need the ZPM and all those other gadgets too. It'll be nice having someone else find the things for a change." Sheppard said. He wasn't surprised that Ronon had picked up on his unease; he was just surprised that he had said anything. Usually he let Teyla or Rodney tackle him. Maybe it was because they were busy. They were a team after all, and when one couldn't do something the others had to pick up the slack. He just wished he hadn't left so much slack.

"You're thinking again. Would be best if you stopped that."

"You know, big guy, that isn't exactly the best thing to say to the military commander. Someone might get the impression that I tend to act before I think." Ronon shrugged.

"Do best when you don't think too much. If it ain't broke don't fix it." Sheppard had to smile at the old cliché. He wondered where the Satedan had picked that one up. The man was probably right too. He had found that going with his instincts was the right thing to do more often than not. It was just…

"You think that you did less than we did?" Trust Ronon to come right to the point, and to see what he had been trying to hide. Of course that meant Teyla had seen it too. He didn't have to worry about McKay he knew, he would have had to have a sign and a neon arrow pointing at it to get the physicist's attention, especially today. It was slightly unnerving having people who knew you so well. Sheppard kicked viciously at a rock on the path.

"I wouldn't say that I really helped our team out much." he allowed.

"Points didn't matter."

"Maybe not in the greater scheme of things, but still…" It sounded a little whiney. He hated that, but Ronon shrugged it off.

"What would you have done differently? If the real Wraith hadn't shown up." Well, that was certainly a pertinent question. He wished he had an answer. He looked up and could see that they were almost to the Stargate. They would be home soon. The diplomats would take it all over, and they could put this behind them. Another successful mission. Wasn't that the important thing? He cast a glance at Ronon, whose face was as stoic as usual.

"You uh…don't feel like I got off easy or anything, because the challenge was cut short. Like I didn't carry my share?" He finally asked it outright; bracing himself for what he knew would be an honest answer, even if it were one he didn't like.

"You do your best?"

"Well…yeah. Not that it mattered…"

"You know that then?"


"You did your part."

Okaaay. Sheppard's mind scrambled. That was evidently that. As far as Ronon was concerned he'd done what he was supposed to do, and no hard feelings regarding the duration or outcome. Teyla and Rodney certainly hadn't said anything, or even looked at him funny, so maybe…He let go a sigh, and felt the tension he hadn't even recognized flow out of his shoulders. He was good with his team.

They were at the Stargate and he started punching in the symbols for Atlantis. The wormhole engaged and he sent his IDC. They were given the go ahead, and he led the way through the event horizon. It was good to be going home. And they were going home a winner, even better!

Chapter 42-

Ronon Dex watched as his team leader sauntered off toward his quarters, moving in his usual deceptively lazy gait, saying that he wanted to get a shower before Beckett locked him up in the infirmary. It was a different walk altogether than he had seen minutes earlier when he had caught up with the man on the way back to the Stargate. That Sheppard had been plodding along as if he were wounded, not physically, but mentally. Dex had seen too many people moving like that, after Wraith cullings, not to recognize the look.

He had seen the change come over Sheppard in the pavilion, even before lunch. The mask, the one that hid his true feelings from all but a chosen few, had replaced the happy look. Ronon had felt honored when he had first realized that he was one of those that Sheppard had chosen to share himself with, and that had not changed. But with the privilege had come responsibility.

If he hadn't been planning on coming himself, he knew that Teyla would have probably sent him anyway. He had seen her looking at Sheppard too, during the ceremonies, and all that talking. She had seen the change, and had probably figured it out too. McKay was oblivious, like usual, not that he was really good about picking up subtle things like Sheppard's mood swings on a good day, or like a complete eclipse of the sun if he was involved with something. In any event, Ronon had tasked himself with watching Sheppard after that.

He had seen the colonel pick his way through lunch, not really eating much of some really good food, and then slink off without saying anything to anyone but the marines. He had allowed the man a little room to chew on what was bothering him, then moved in when he saw the marine getting nervous, as Sheppard seemed to be doing his impression of a statue. It turned out that he had guessed right, and Sheppard had foolishly believed that they would somehow hold the fact that he hadn't won his challenge against him. Like it was Sheppard's fault the Wraith had come, or that the judges were stupid.

Ronon would never tell Sheppard just how proud it had made him to see the colonel standing there in front of what he thought was a hungry Wraith, wounded already, but prepared to give his life to protect someone he didn't even know. And he had been prepared to use the method that Ronon had created. That was an honor. He had seen Sheppard fight when he really meant it, and he knew that the lean colonel had more going for him than it might seem to a larger fighter. What he lacked in bulk, or even skill, he more than made up for in determination. Sheppard had brought honor to the team and the Lanteans. The points were meaningless, and since the judges had given the Genii the same amount, they were obviously arbitrary.

In addition Sheppard had been the one to come up with the plan to fool the real Wraith, and had completed his task despite the energy drain long enough to let others contact help. It had been a valiant effort. Of course Sheppard only saw that fact that he hadn't been able to drag his depleted body back to the gate, seeing only what he saw as his own failure, and not the overall success. Ronon understood that drive, and applauded it. It was part of what made him stay here.

He looked around the gate room. The marines were moving back into their duty stations. The techs at the consoles were discussing something. The sun was shining brightly down through the stained glass. It would be a while before Teyla and McKay would be back. Diplomats and traders always took time to say their goodbyes, trying to wrest one last deal or concession out of the other side. McKay would probably have to be forcibly removed from the Ferlian ships, but since they were scheduled to be leaving soon too, he would have to go eventually.

Looking at the angle of the sun, he figured that the third platoon marines should be starting their PT soon. If he hurried he could meet them in the gym. He hadn't sparred in the last several days and he was feeling stiff. Later he would wander into the infirmary and see if Beckett was letting Sheppard have visitors.

The time on Elasia had been interesting, except for all the talking, and he guessed that it had been a profitable outcome from the trading point of view. But if that was what those Olympics that the marines argued about were like, he wasn't interested. But he had heard the cooks talking about some show on something called the Food Channel about fancy knife work contests. Maybe he could get that on disc. Now that would be interesting. He wandered off to give the marines a workout. Everything was back to normal.

The End.