Reconciliation

by

Ryan C. Charles

A/N: A brother's quest for justice jeopardizes the Stargate program and forces Atlantis to sacrifice one of its own. This fanfic is set in Season Four between Miller's Crossing and This Mortal Coil, with spoilers for seasons one through four, especially episodes 401 through 409. Helps alot if you've seen Miller's Crossing but it's not necessary.

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

The author wishes to advise that all original characters the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Likewise, the alphabet soup of government agencies, military bases, and government installations. Even when settings, government agencies, and military units are referred to by their true names, the incidents portrayed as taking place there are entirely fictitious.


Prologue: Suspicion


"They took everything." Peter Belk is a soft-spoken man in his fifties, round-shouldered, pale, and balding. Gentle hands sketch meaningless patterns in the air when he talks, a sign to his host that Belk is unraveling. "There's nothing left," Belk says.

Peter Belk's host, Richard, leans forward in a leather barrel chair and strains to hear his guest through the muffled hush of an early December evening. Belk and his host occupy a richly carpeted and furnished office in the north wing of a Virginia estate. Richard fits in here, a trim man in his late forties with sparse blond hair. Dressed comfortably in dark slacks and a tan linen shirt, Richard lives on the estate as a perk of his most recent post.

"What do you mean, there's nothing left?"

Belk's doughy brow furrows as though he's been pinched. "Our research data, years of it, gone. The labs have been emptied. The vaults. Our archives, all of it. Mainframes, workstations, gone. Email accounts wiped out. They came to our homes, confiscated our laptops, our PCs. They took everything." Belk's gray eyes dampen unexpectedly, and he sighs.

Richard begins to regret admitting this man to his home. It is 7:30 PM, well past the hour for uninvited guests. The winter night descended hours ago, and Kristin, Richard's wife, waits somewhere within the grand Virginia estate to serve dinner.

Ruefully, Richard considers his error.

Belk's long-term relationship with Richard's brother, Henry, isn't a bond Richard intends to take on, now or in the future. The man is a mess, leading Richard to wonder about Belk's position in Henry's company. Belk was the chief financial officer of Devlin Medical Technologies, at one time Henry's number two man and, depending on whom you asked, Henry's closest friend.

But how long has it been, really, since Henry was able to remember his friends? Long ago Henry took on a lifestyle dominated by work and the significant needs of his daughter Sharon. He'd started drifting when, three years ago, he lost his wife, and then Sharon his daughter was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Richard remembers the wreckage Sharon's illness brought to Henry's world. Sheltering in an ever darkening universe, the Henry of recent times was a solitary figure. What could Belk say tonight that would help Richard understand Henry's last days? What could Belk know about the death of Henry's daughter Sharon?

"You're here to talk about my brother's business," Richard realizes.

"DMT, the company."

DMT had been funded primarily by government contracts. Presently, DMT was struggling, restructuring. "You lost your funding. What can I--"

"They shut us down."

Richard prickles with suspicion. "I can't help you."

Sharply, and with rancor, "No shit," utters the pale, round-shouldered executive.

Richard uncrosses his legs, settles his feet firmly on the carpet.

Belk makes a blade with his hand. "Do you believe in coincidences? Do you? Henry disappears, Sharon disappears, and they shut us down? Henry's project, the SMLG prototype, it's gone. The SMLG labs have been dismantled. In the end, he was one hundred percent hands on, you know."

"What is SMLG?"

"It's a prototype for a new age in medical advancement, molecular nanotechnology. Microscopic devices designed to operate within the human body and respond to commands. Our research is cutting edge in its field."

"Henry understood the science?"

Belk lifts a leather case from the floor, takes out several files, and passes them to his host. "They're from Henry's personal archive."

Richard scans the Top Secret stamp on the cover. "From his personal archive?"

"He kept them at home."

Richard winces. It's a crime to remove classified files without clearance, and it is a crime to handle them now. What was Henry thinking, taking top secret research from a government-funded facility?

"He was dedicated," Belk affirms, and his throat leaps. His eyes widen for emphasis. "Henry was a big fan of SMLG's potential."

Richard feels a sudden stab of pain.

Belk says what Richard's thinking. "For Sharon, to cure her."

And now Richard is running mind and soul toward a gray reality. He looks away at a picture window full of night, pale Christmas lights winking soundlessly against the frozen darkness. Richard feels the uneven hammer of his heart, tastes iron in his throat.

They're dead. Henry and Sharon are dead.

He was first told of their deaths, then presented, two weeks ago, with their ashes.

Ashes.

The nondescript Air Force chaplain had spoken of an accident.

Henry and Sharon, the president of a medical research company and his terminally ill daughter, traveling on business, their lives sundered in a lab incident.

Richard has tried many times to imagine the accident. Human error and relaxed safety protocols, a lethal combination somewhere far away on foreign soil.

That's the official report.

A classified government project, the lab's location withheld.

So much of Henry's work was classified.

And he'd brought Sharon along. Why had Henry chosen to travel when Sharon was so ill? Why had he taken Sharon outside the country?

Just as he and his parents accepted Henry and Sharon's ashes, Richard had accepted the gaps in the chaplain's rendering. He'd accepted the final report, which read like the Reader's Digest condensed version of an industrial accident.

After he got the news there were several difficult days longing for answers that would never come, making arrangements, and, finally, erecting the framework within which to start the process of letting go.

Not once did Richard consider foul play.

Richard lifts the cover of the first file, studies a face sheet prepared, curiously, in Henry's tight, blocky hand. "Project SMLG," he reads. He looks up. "Stargate Program? What is Stargate?"

Belk's mouth parts. "I don't know."

There are names on the face sheet, an index to profiles prepared on Program Stargate's personnel, presumably DMT employees or contractors. "Was Stargate the project Henry was overseeing when he flew Sharon out of the country?"

"I don't know."

Richard closes the file. "What do you want from me?"

"You're his brother."

"I know who I am. I'm asking what you want from me."

"Look that over. If you believe in coincidences, then shred it. Forget I gave it to you. If you don't, understand that I don't have access. This is as far as I can go. You, sir, you always understood government better than Henry. You have the ear of military senior leadership." Belk clears his throat and draws pale hands inward to his lap. "Colonel Wallace, I'm here tonight because I don't think Henry and Sharon died the way they say they did."

x x x x x

"Are you sure?"

"As sure as any man can be."

John grimaces. His voice, and the memory of Henry Wallace's.

Are you sure? As sure as any man can be.

Gotta shut that down, John realizes. Gotta lock out the voices. There's no place, no time for that now.

Ronon likes to spar without padding, and today is empty-hand tactics day.

Strike, strike, block. Slow down the picture. Let the body find its rhythm.

Block, block. Don't lose focus.

Don't notice Ronon's long, muscled arms windmilling in front, looking for a way to power their big fists into John's body.

Shift the pattern, make it happen.

Ronon close, tunneling in, looking for the weakness in John's defense while putting up a rapidly changing series of blocks, what the Marines call sticky hands.

The slap of rubber soles against the brushed alloy of the pier-- John doesn't let himself notice how quickly he and Ronon are moving now. There's a breeze but John doesn't have time to feel it. The queer hazy sky holds two moons, one near, the other distant and pale. The balcony smells of silt and mildew, as though the life beyond the pier, uncharted and unknown, is perilously close.

Ronon leaps back, out of range, shaking out his arms, his long body bouncing.

John sinks into his stance, ready. Ronon never withdraws. He merely coils like a snake preparing to strike. Hypnotizes his opponent with a mask of indifference.

The second his opponent releases his vigilance, Ronon will swoop.

John feints a drop of the shoulder. Here it comes.

Ronon surges forward. John blades his body, beats aside Ronon's arm, and comes back with a blow to Ronon's side. Doesn't stick around. Although Ronon feels the strike, pain does not hobble the Satedan. Pain spikes Ronon's blood with resolve, jolts his reflexes. John has to get out of Ronon's reach to claim the point.

Frowning, Ronon grunts. "Again."

John has reached for a towel. He is drenched. The days on the new world are thick with humidity and John's body feels starved for oxygen. He drags the towel over his face, rubs at his short, dark hair.

Ronon growls, recognizing John's signal that the training session has ended. "Next time, five points."

John should be grinning but he isn't. His legs are weak, his arms rubbery. There's a kink somewhere under his skin in a place he knows will be black and blue soon. Still, he's holding his own, getting faster, settling into a place inside his head where Ronon's moves, and his, flow with economy and clarity.

Not interested in seeing if he has the breath to talk levelly, John holds up a hand in agreement. Sure, next time they'll go five points, not three. He can take the abuse, possibly do a little damage of his own.

All for a good cause. So he can be ready for whatever is coming. Stay ready.

Is something coming? You bet it is. Something always does.

John starts toward the portal, realizes he's moving stiffly, favoring the ripe bruise on his shoulder. Maybe a little ice, maybe a soak later on. There's a pre-mission briefing but that's in three hours and he's got just one thing to do before reporting to the command level.

As John angles away, he glimpses Ronon turning to suck on bottled water. The Satedan, who has hardly broken a sweat, stares distractedly toward the mist on the horizon. John follows his gaze. Nothing there, at least nothing John can see. Probably a ghost, John thinks. Probably Ronon will be out here alone awhile with it. Picking apart the thing with the Satedan Wraith-lover, Tyre, who got away, or maybe Ronon's chewing on something that cuts a little further back, whatever, take your pick.

John doesn't say anything. Wouldn't know what to say if he wanted to. In any case, he isn't one to talk.

The Wraith is waiting.

John makes his way toward a transporter.

Rodney McKay hurries to catch up. "There you are. Heading to control?"

"Nope." John spares the scientist only a brief glance, doesn't cut his strides.

Rodney notices, and a cloud drifts over his face. "Seen Teyla?"

"Nope." John reaches the transporter and Rodney falls back.

As John steps in, he turns to face his friend. His gaze and Rodney's meet for a fragment of an instant before John looks away. John's hands have moved to his hips.

Rodney nods in acknowledgment, though John is sure Rodney still doesn't quite understand why things are awkward. It'll pass, John knows this too. For Rodney, and for him, if not for others-- it will pass.

John activates the transporter.


Part One: Common Ground


Caroline Madden slipped out of a raincoat sprinkled with mid-December rain. It was thirty-seven degrees in Washington.

Smiling without much warmth, Joe Faber's assistant took her coat and strode away. Caroline wondered if Congressman Faber was going to be happier than his assistant to see her.

Joe was a fixture on the Hill, but there was no such thing as a pass in this business. Joe sometimes behaved as though his butt was made of Teflon-- her boss's words, not hers --although he'd been around long enough to know better. She was counting on the old guy to know better, to have some awareness of the unease he was stirring in her end of the pool. No doubt about it, he'd found his way out onto a precarious limb. The trouble with Joe, Caroline knew, was he loved the attention. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Joe had become slightly addicted to the bump and sway of thin, brittle limbs.

Caroline lifted long dark hair behind her shoulders, then glanced with meaning at a row of plush chairs. An elderly couple sat together watching Caroline, as though a slender, attractive forty-something woman in a designer suit and matching Italian pumps was a curiosity.

The only people in the congressman's copious waiting area, the couple was of no interest to Caroline.

Was Joe actually going to park her in a holding pattern next to the couple? If he let her cool her heels, she'd report to Randy, her boss, the assistant commandant of operations, that Joe Faber, the gentleman from Connecticut, perceived his limb, the limb that he'd danced onto, as fairly sturdy.

To Caroline's relief, Joe came out himself, a gnome of a man with a heavy pelt of silver hair, big teeth bared in a grin, and a funny slouch that belied the man's ability to move fast in a pinch. Caroline was not fooled. She'd been on the Hill in one capacity or another seven mercurial years. The unassuming appearance had lulled many of Joe's opponents. Meanwhile, the real Joe Faber lay under the frumpy sheep's wool, sharp and feral as a wolf.

He caught her hand in a grip, gave her his famous drilling glance, but made time to turn to the waiting couple. "Anne, Paul, are we taking care of you?"

The couple gushed under Joe's concern, but, no, they had everything they needed and the wait was acceptable. The man thanked Joe for taking them without an appointment. Joe brushed this aside with a flourish of his hand before leading Caroline into his office.

The old couple forgotten, Joe showed Caroline to a leather chair opposite a mahogany desk the size of a small tropical island.

Joe dropped unceremoniously into the chair beside her. "How's the family?"

Caroline forced a brief but engaging smile. "Alexa's doing well, thank you. We're all very proud of her. How is Rosemary?"

Rosemary was Joe's wife, an avid and public advocate for the return to traditional family values.

"She's well, thank you. The kids will make it home for Christmas this year. She's ecstatic." Joe sighed, staring. "So what's on Randy's mind this morning?"

She had hours ago picked her response to this query. "Don't you know?"

Joe's grin settled somewhat. He waved a hand. "So much going on, Carrie. So much. Come on, don't be cryptic."

"Your committee wants to conduct an investigation into a top secret program." She made the statement sound more like a question.

Joe's gaze adjusted several degrees toward freezing. "Come on, has anyone in your office read a journal or newspaper lately? There's such a thing as accountability."

Caroline struggled not to roll her eyes.

Joe went on. "Colonel Wallace conducted a preliminary investigation--"

"An unsanctioned, unauthorized, and illegal investigation." Caroline's voice was mild.

Joe seemed to note the friendly tone. "Colonel Wallace is a combat officer, an aviator and the commander of HMX-1. He's credible. The man lost his brother for God's sake, and this after losing a sister in the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. Come on. He's more than credible, he's sympathetic and he knows the game. Over twenty years of service to the Marine Corps, based at Quantico-- Lookit, all you people had to do was let the Article 32 investigation go forward. The umbrella of national security doesn't shelter criminals in this day and age, not when an innocent American child is dead."

Caroline had worried this was going to be Joe's mantra, the loss of Wallace's sister in the Oklahoma City tragedy, the unexplained death of his niece, but she hadn't come here to change Joe's mind. She was fishing. Testing the waters. What was going to be Joe's strategy? What was his level of commitment to the case? Joe was a gambler, so he had to have some appreciation of the stakes.

"There's a process," she reminded.

"Colonel Wallace engaged the process and got the door slammed in his face."

"So he came to you?" This would be good to know.

Joe blinked at her audacity. "Carrie." He rose and padded behind his monster of a desk, parked his little frame like a king taking the throne.

Evidently asking for information that could tank Wallace's career was a no go. Caroline regrouped. "Would you like to comment on where you got the documents?"

Joe folded his hands on his desk. "No, I wouldn't. Would you like to tell me what the Stargate Program is, and what duty station you fine folks over at the Pentagon have code-named Atlantis?"

"Classified information." She shook her head as though wounded by the state of affairs. Joe had turned the files over to her boss but he'd read them first. At least he knew better than to pepper his media appearances with terms like Stargate and Atlantis. "So Richard Wallace didn't give the documents to you?"

"As I've said, Colonel Wallace is a decorated high-ranking Marine Corps officer. He accessed the chain of command and as far as I know he's willing to accept an inquiry into the deaths that conforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

Caroline found herself studying the tips of her shoes.

Colonel Richard Wallace had somehow gained possession of a short list of names, most of whom were Marines. He'd located a Marine who had, unfortunately for the man, recently PCS-ed (changed duty stations) to the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The Marine was a security specialist, a staff sergeant looking for a tour of duty with a lot of sun and gorgeous beaches. His previous assignment had been a top secret joint-military operation.

Following the direction of Colonel Wallace's finger, the station commander of Kaneohe Bay, Colonel Hayden, a colleague of Colonel Wallace, had turned over the staff sergeant for interrogation. Among high-ranking combat officers, one tended to see a fraternity with deep roots. Following his interrogation, the staff sergeant made a call. It wasn't long after Caroline's boss got the paperwork that NIS-- Naval Investigative Services -- and the Judge Advocate General's office-- JAG --were called off.

The staff sergeant was issued emergency orders to Washington, perhaps not the best decision given what followed. The idea had been to get the staff sergeant, who was the only name on the list accessible to Wallace, out of the line of fire, away from Wallace's peer Colonel Hayden, and close to the decision-makers. It would have been smarter to give the staff sergeant indefinite emergency leave, fly him to Alaska or the Arctic somewhere beyond the beaten path.

As soon as word of a cover-up trickled to the media, the staff sergeant was burned in the spotlight, linked to the death of a child and her doting father, a big business tycoon who trusted the military to provide security while he treated his sick daughter to a vacation.

Quick to hitch his wagon to this disaster, Joe Faber had condemned the events as he understood them. On the stage of public opinion, Colonel Wallace looked like the poster boy for patriot, a grieving brother and uncle who served his country during Desert Storm. Though the Colonel was circumspect in his dealings with the media, avoiding all but the compulsory statement, "My family has been deeply saddened by the loss," Wallace, Caroline suspected, was the driving force here.

She planted her feet and thanked Joe Faber for his time.

Joe guided her to the door. Caroline lingered as Joe's assistant fetched her coat. Joe, meanwhile, flowed graciously to the waiting couple, omitting their first names in favor of a more formal greeting.

"Mr. and Mrs. Wallace," he beamed. "Please, come inside. And thank you for waiting."

Five minutes later, as she climbed into the back of a waiting car, Caroline fished out a phone. A wrinkle furrowed her brow as she gazed bleakly at the rain-soaked sky. She'd have to report to Randy Sweeney, assistant commandant of operations, but by the time she reached the Pentagon, Randy would have his orders. Her first call would make sure of it.

Punching the number for her employer, she connected to the senior officer on duty. The officer was expecting her call.

"I'm on my way," she announced.

"He's chewing up the carpet. What's going on over there?"

"We need to get out of Faber's way. We get out of his way, he loses all the steam he's building up pushing while we push back. Allan's people can manage the media. CMC can manage Wallace. But unless you want to see weeping parents and photos of a little dead girl plastered on your high-definition widescreen television for the next six months, we need to remand to JAG for the Article 32, keep this in the hands of the military and off the floor of Joe Faber's three-ring circus."

x x x x x

McKay's fingers fluttered over the keyboard. "Receiving telemetry." A customary breath, momentary hiatus. The screen above him shifted as data piled in. Not good. Dragging a hand fretfully through his hair, he cut his glance. Oh no. Although he'd encountered this data too often in the recent past, he didn't groan this time.

This time the groan came from behind him. Teyla.

Rodney tried to pull himself up under the weight gathering in his gut. He got his shoulders level and then slumped, confronted by the desperate tap of Teyla's steps taking her quickly from the control room.

Probably headed for Forensics, Rodney thought. Her new home ... away from home.

Aware suddenly of onlookers, Rodney glanced around.

Colonel Samantha Carter was nearest, an unmoving figure in the Atlantis commander's uniform, long blond hair swept back. Her expression was indecipherable.

Ronon Dex seemed as implacable as Carter, rigidly facing the way Teyla had gone.

Chuck, the control room tech, swiveled silently to face his workstation.

Behind Carter, Sheppard had achieved a posture of nonchalance, leaning on a console with ankles and arms crossed, while showing a face that bordered on excessively malevolent.

Carter shifted from one foot to the other before stepping back. "Another one." She was speaking to herself, her tone subdued, distracted, her comment in no way aimed at Rodney.

Rodney bristled even so but kept his mouth screwed shut. This was his fault, wasn't it? Except this time he had the dubious joy of knowing the desecrated world may have harbored a clue to the disappearance of Teyla's people from New Athosia.

The charred world had been home to several small settlements, total census about a thousand. Hardly a satisfactorily juicy target for the Asurans, yet the MALP's readings were clear. The world had suffered a thorough Asuran scouring, a merciless tactic meant to eradicate the Wraith by eliminating the Wraith food source.

Didn't matter to the human-form replicators that wiping out the Wraith food source meant slaughtering thousands of people. Hell, long ago in their spotted, twisted history, the Asurans had engineered a selective virus to do just that, a precise and ruthless killer in Rodney's book. The virus extinguished anyone without the Ancient gene, which pretty much covered most of the Pegasus Galaxy.

Rodney logged off his workstation. He was starting to feel ill.

Sheppard wasn't looking at him, something Rodney was learning to get used to. Wherever Sheppard had gone in his head Rodney wasn't invited. It might have had something to do with the brilliant but, in hind sight of course, tragic patch Sheppard had worked on the Asuran home world when the team reactivated the "Kill Wraith" command in the Asuran base code.

Designed by the Ancients as complex and viscerally brutal weapons against the Wraith, the Asurans had, somewhere in the long millenia, inexplicably lost the will to battle the Wraith.

Rodney discovered that the command to do battle, like a switch, had been flipped off. Made sense to turn it on, right? Why not get another pair of hands, so to speak, in the war against the Wraith?

And for a while things went well.

Until the Asurans improvised. Or recollected an old startegy, take your pick.

Sheppard had been part of the mission in which the code was reactivated, though he could not have made the reactivation work without Rodney.

If it wasn't the systematic slaughter of a hundred thousand innocents bothering Sheppard, Rodney wasn't sure he wanted to know what it was. There was a laundry list, not least of which was the grinding of time since Elizabeth, Atlantis' former commander, was lost on the Asuran home world. Her fate was a mystery, and that made for sleepless nights.

At the end of the day, Rodney decided, he had his arms and shoulders full of his own sins. Gathering up Sheppard's was pushing the guilt business too far.

"Take it mission's canceled," intoned Ronon, low-voiced.

Rodney grimaced. Great. Satedan humor, gallows-style.

x x x x x

"Do you have a name?" whispered the man.

By way of an answer, "Come closer," rustled the voice of the beast.

In his customary seat in front of the Wraith's cell, John shoved the hollow, papery voices deep into the vault of Can't go there now, choosing instead to meet the unflinching glare of the Wraith.

The Wraith in the cell fixed John with a slitted, orange glare. The Wraith was a blank page for now, but John had seen this one go from neutral to lethally explosive in the blink of an eye.

The Wraith sat on a hard bench, hands cupped over his knees, the long leather vestment draped almost decoriously across the seat. There was no sound within the cell, not even the sound of breath.

This Wraith did stoic well.

Four weeks and three days since the Wraith fed. And four weeks and three days since the Wraith provided assistance to the scientists laboring on the human-form replicator "shutdown" code.

In the intervening days John came to sit. Came to watch the Wraith starve, or more to the truth, came to watch the clock grind down to the absolute last instant when the Wraith would have to feed, or die.

He'd seen the stray bits of dialogue between the SGC and Colonel Carter about the expedition's options, none of which John had shared with the Wraith.

When the moment came John did not know what Atlantis was going to do, and neither did the Wraith.

But in silent contemplation-- moments and sometimes hours long --adversaries who once bonded in a common goal acknowledged that the time for decisions was getting closer.

x x x x x

"I gotta go through the 'gate," John said. He started to point for some reason in the direction of the command tower and the gate room and ended up stuffing his hands into his pockets. "To Earth. Me, McKay, and Ronon. Something about a deposition. Supposed to pack for a few days." He started to shrug and realized Teyla wasn't looking. Par for the course these days. Still, he felt it in his chest, a plucked chord something like, well, like regret. "IOA stuff," he went on, "but it's an order. I have to go."

"Yes, very well."

He might as well have said the sky was blue. He was leaving Atlantis as Asurans wiped out worlds in an ongoing anihilation scenario of galactic proportions and she said--

Yes, very well.

They were inside the big forensic lab on level three, part of Rodney's domain. The lab had been designated ground zero in the search for Teyla's people and during the day, when the evidence technicians were here, you knew it. It was a lot of space to give to an investigation that could run an undetermined amount of time but with the unspoken but prevailing opinion the Wraith known as Michael had something to do with the disappearances, and with aid from the SGC now only a 'gate trip away, the expedition had not hesitated to throw resources at the case.

Presently, Teyla stood at a table with objects collected from New Athosia's city of tents. The objects appeared to be everyday items, tools and utensils that, for the evidence specialists and forensic anthropologists, represented some sort of scientific interest. For Teyla, they held sentimental value.

She hovered, touching nothing, her eye roaming the long metal table lit by halogen lamps.

To John, her restraint was poignant. The items had been logged and scanned for evidence upon arrival. There was no need to resist handling them now. They'd stayed in the lab as pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle, fragments that could be manuevered, once a useful theory was found, into a larger picture.

A lot of time had gone by since Teyla found the Athosian settlement abandoned.

The site at New Athosia and the tract between it and the Stargate had yielded few clues. The elements proved the investigation's biggest enemy in the form of cyclic rainstorms. Add to the erosion of prints and trace evidence the unfortunate presence of the Bola Kai, a race that, like an opportunistic virus, had picked at the settlement days before the expedition learned there had been an incident. Local wildlife had made a pass through, leaving no workable lead to who or what had attacked Teyla's people, if there had been an attack, and if there had been one, was the attack through the Stargate or from the sky.

Leaving Teyla-- what was the right word? --bereft.

Had there been an eradication of every Athosian man, woman, and child? On a scale between rotten and devastating, there were few things worse. Ronon could speak to that.

John leaned against the wall, watched the still figure at the table. She was staring at a damaged piece of crockery brought back because its singed edges could mean a high-energy weapon had been used in its vicinity. There was no residual radiation, no tell-tale pattern ... but one day the investigators hoped to find something to match to the burn pattern ...

He shook himself. He hadn't come to stare. He'd come to see how she took the news that he was going, that he might not be in Atlantis in a responsible charge position when the decision was made to let the Wraith die.

"Come with us," he said, unexpectedly.

She raised her chin a fraction, cut him a glance that seemed to touch him only briefly before sliding off.

"I was not sent for. Your leaders would permit it?"

He straightened a little, hearing in her something tentative. "Yeah, they would."

"If there was word that I was needed here"-- who needed her now, he heard in the faint quaver of her voice, when everyone was gone? --"I would be but a 'gate crossing away."

He straightened a little more. "Sure, that's not a problem. Stargate Command is aware of your situation."

She nodded. Stargate Command had been generous, sending experts from Earth to assist the already strained expedition staff.

"I will go with you."

He didn't smile. Too soon to smile. But he would have paid a million to see her do it.


Part Two: Home


John and Teyla, as it turned out, were going to a place called Deer Park. In response to the inquisitive arch of Teyla's brow, Woolsey explained. "It's a small Earth base in the mountains."

Teyla's bland expression told John that Woolsey's comment was less than helpful.

John laced his fingers on the conference table. "Deer Park is a federal detention center inside a military operation in a place we call West Virginia. When terrorists came to our doorstep, we created ..." The term terrorists made her frown, and now Ronon was staring at him too. John started over. "We sometimes find it necessary to protect the general population by holding dangerous people in a special place."

Ronon nodded, satisfied. Hardly an alien concept in Atlantis. However, Teyla gazed at him pensively, like she was thinking about letting it go but wasn't sure she had all the facts.

To this end, she asked, "You detain your own people?"

He hesitated, sure that this would have gone better if he wasn't in the briefing room of a two-star general with the leader of SG-1, SG-1's Vala Mal Doran, and the IOA bureaucrat Richard Woolsey looking on. If he and Teyla were back home-- the thought gave him pause, how easily and aptly he referred to Atlantis as home --this would be a mess hall discussion among teammates that spilled over to the workout room and, later, into the restless but private domain of one or the other's quarters.

"Sometimes," he ended up telling her. "When there's a reason."

Major General Hank Landry, in diplomatic fashion, allowed a hiatus in deference to the leader of an off-world ally. Then, "The facility at Deer Park," he told her, "would be used to hold persons accused of crimes when the circumstances and their activities posed a threat to the security of this nation, its people, or the people of this world."

Teyla bowed her head, a gesture of respect. "Of course."

At the beginning of the conference, Woolsey had passed around packets stamped Top Secret. He directed the room's attention to them now.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey said, "what can you tell us about the men and women on this list?"

As packets opened, at his elbow, John felt Rodney bristle. "My old team!"

John said, "The civilians are scientists who are, or were, assigned to Doctor McKay's primary team. Doctors Zelenka, Kusanagi, Anevay, Esposito, Lebedev, Tesler, Solheim, and Wang still are."

"What about the others?" Landry asked.

John looked up. "Doctors Graydon and Dickenson were killed earlier this year on an underwater drilling platform. Doctor Hewston died ..." He heard himself snag and realized it wasn't Dr. Hewston he was thinking of. "She died of exposure to radiation."

Landry lifted his nose as though testing the air. His features, when he looked at John, solidified into something resembling a brick wall. "And the military personnel?"

John tried to hide his unease. "Captain Masciarelli is the officer in charge of overall lab security. Staff Sergeants Cummings and Sanchez report, or reported, to him. Staff Sergeant Cummings rotated back to Earth last month. He's out of the Stargate program. Staff Sergeant Sanchez was killed when Atlantis left Lantea during the Replicator beam attack. Sergeant Walsh is the interim lead NCO under Masciarelli in charge of lab security assignments." John inserted an appropriate pause. He wasn't good at gauging the thinness of the ice he stood on when it came to what remained of his working relationship with Landry. At least he had the benefit of knowing that whatever bad blood ran between them, he had earned Landry's wrath. "This list is out of date, General, but important to this briefing for some reason. Can you tell me why?"

"You tell me," the General groused.

An invitation from a two-star general to play twenty questions? Okay. Atlantis was John's domain, in and as much as the SGC let him hang on to it, and only as long as Stargate Command and its watchdog, the International Oversight Advisory, stayed busy with Milky Way affairs and out of his. If he was looking at the list of names as a security risk--

"Whoever put this together was looking at our core lab research team and the personnel we use to oversee lab security."

Cameron Mitchell piped in. "You rotate your military personnel between internal security and off-world missions."

John looked at him, relieved to be addressing someone besides Landry. "You bet. When we were cut off from Earth, the Marines going through the 'gate burned adrenaline like rocket fuel. They had to get some kind of downtime but there wasn't any. Conditions were, well, let's say conditions were tough. If you're trying to get mission teams downtime, internal security qualifies. Internal security is proactive, not reactive. After the first year, we fine-tuned the balance while getting a few key people permanently assigned to protect the labs for standardization purposes. The rest of the teams rotate through under their charge."

"So, if I wanted to plan a lab breach, for example ..." Mitchell began.

John's eyebrows shot to his hairline. A lab breach? Relatively speaking, lab breaches were not far-fetched. Atlantis itself had been breached by the Trust in the form of a Goa'uld with its little snake heart set on destroying the city. Since then, John and the SGC's Earth-based think-tank had implemented measures to make an incursion from Earth almost impossible, including stepped-up screening of BC-304 personnel.

"We're pretty secure, Cam."

Mitchell waved like John had missed a valuable point. "But if I wanted to raid one of your ..."

"We're in another galaxy. Our biggest threats are out there in the Pegasus. Sure, we have a contingency plan for what you're saying, someone infiltrating the SGC gains control of your dialer and your gate room, 'gates to the midway station, makes it to Atlantis, and tries to get control of the command tower. It's on the list of things to watch out for but not very high on the list of things likely to happen."

Throwing back his shoulders, Landry interrupted. "We think you're right, and we think you're wrong. You're wrong, because the person who made this list, made it under the mistaken belief Atlantis was code for a top secret Earth installation, and he made it with the intention of breaching security through your personnel and getting inside your labs. He was planning to raid you, and in fact he did steal from you, just not the way you think. You're right, because a physical incursion wouldn't have worked, Atlantis being in another galaxy and all."

"Who made the list?" Teyla asked.

"Henry Wallace."

John sat still and said nothing, let the phantom voice scratch its path through his skull. Are you sure? As sure as any man can be.

Face set, Landry scanned the table. "You all remember the name."

John wasn't sure if Rodney looked ill or angry. The scientist had gone a sudden and peculiar shade of red. Maybe it was shame, he thought, and cleared his throat. "With all due respect, General, it hasn't been that long."

"Indeed it's been long enough." Landry's glare was unreadable, and John preferred it that way.

It occurred to John this was the first time he and Landry had spent time in the same room since the phone call conversation in the secure corridor outside Henry Wallace's holding room. Landry hadn't wasted many words, and John hadn't either. Wallace, who was still alive at the time, sat only a few feet away in locked, soundproof quarters. Two SGC commandos stood outside with John, detached and impassive guards, but not deaf, and certainly not inhuman. Sometimes John wondered how they concealed their shock, because he knew they'd felt the wave pass under their feet and into their bodies same as he did. To think the deed, speak the deed, then do the deed had made monsters, or a monster's accomplices out of all of them.

Dragging his thoughts to the present, John sat back. "What's Wallace got to do with Deer Park?"

Landry rapped his knuckles on the table. "Deer Park is where we arranged to hold Staff Sergeant Cummings pending an Article 32 investigation into the deaths of Henry and Sharon Wallace in a lab explosion that occurred while Wallace and his daughter were touring a top secret facility known as Atlantis under the auspices of a security detail formed within a program called Stargate. You'll note that your name, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, is on Wallace's list."

"Yes, sir, I did. And- and did I hear you say one of my men is in custody pending an investigation? 'Cause I thought I just heard you say that." His voice had dropped to a level that gave the room pause. "I could have sworn I just heard you say there's a Marine in Deer Park while somebody chips away at the sanitized report of an incident the SGC knows about inside and out."

"Before you go there," Landry rumbled in reply, "you'd better take a look there at what's in front of you."

The unmistakable warning wasn't lost on John. He could feel it in the thickening tension around him, in the stricken and empathetic faces, averted eyes, tightened mouths. Mitchell would know what he was feeling better than the others, the fast burn of anger, the need to put boots to butt and undo the wrong. But Teyla and Ronon got it too. The job of a CO was to take care of his front-line team, the people he ordered into harm's way. The front-line men and women took the hits and brought back the grail. All the CO had to do was give them the tools, tell them the truth, and make sure they were looked after.

The alien Vala was staring at Teyla without much interest in John's meltdown. Ronon, on the other hand, was paying John a lot of attention, and so was McKay.

After a moment, John noticed Woolsey's nose pointed at the table, a faint flush in his cheeks. Putting a serviceman in secret lock-up while higher-ups scrambled for a way to save their asses sounded like a Woolsey action.

John exhaled tightly through his nose, took a finger and flipped over the second page of his packet. News clippings. He checked out the third page, then the fourth and turned back to look at the article dates.

Tycoon's Death Suspicious.

Research Giant DMT Collpases in Wake of Mysterious Death.

Was This Man and His Daughter Murdered?

Top Secret Research at the Heart of Family's Mysterious Death.

House Probe to Begin in Deaths.

This had been going hot and heavy for weeks now. His voice rough, "Why wasn't I told?" John demanded.

Over Landry's hardened expression flashed a look of incredulity. "You were busy."

"This is my responsibility."

"Correction." Landry jumped hard on the word. "It is the responsibility of this command to make decisions in the larger picture. In other words, when it's your responsibility, I'll tell you."

John saw Mitchell flinch. At least he and Cam were on the same page.

"All right, so it's no news to anyone at this table Staff Sergeant Cummings never met Wallace, wasn't on Earth when Wallace held McKay and his sister hostage. He sure as hell has no idea how the man died." John saw the answer in the faces around him, or thought he did.

He managed a silent curse.

A House investigation, for God's sake?

Give 'em a head to roll, feed the cry for blood, move on the next mess.

Before he could get his mind and his emotions around the consequences of losing access to the Stargate, he sighed. "What do they want, General, my resignation? I respectfully request to be allowed to wrap up present Pegasus business first. But if they want ..." They were holding one of his men. They'd picked the right pressure point. "If they want me in the Staff Sergeant's place, whatever they want, as long as you do what you have to do to get him home to his family, I'm not going to fight this."

"I'm trying to tell you what they want," Landry said. "They, of course, being us. First order of business, the Advisory wants depositions from Doctor McKay and Ronon Dex. It has every confidence their depositions will support the incident report."

John winced, and Rodney cleared his throat.

"Second order of business, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, as Staff Sergeant Cummings' commanding officer when the incident occurred, you will report to Deer Park and meet with the Staff Sergeant's attorneys from the Judge Advocate TSO. Cummings was brought in on a forty-eight-hour probable cause determination which he then parlayed into an Article 32 restraint when he refused to answer questions-- we'd like him to know the SGC appreciates his predicament."

"We should have stepped in, nixed this," John complained.

"We did that first time around," Mitchel interjected. "Full sweep. Even changed Cummings' duty station. It set off a firestorm. Refer to page one. This is plan B."

"Oh, well, if this is plan B ..." The tone in John's voice got a nod of empathy from Mitchell.

As though the complexity of the problem only just hit him, "Sheppard's meeting the investigators there?" McKay groaned. "Isn't there more neutral ground somewhere?"

"We're trying to keep the situation in a bottle, Doctor McKay." Landry showed him a grimace. "Bringing Navy JAG trial services attorneys to the SGC isn't an option. Meanwhile, these guys think we're stonewalling, keeping a barrier between Sheppard and them. They're right. Now it's time to put this dog to sleep."

"You want me to go there and give JAG exactly nothing."

"I didn't think I had to say that."

Ronon slid forward in his seat. "I don't get it." He knew Staff Sergeant Cummings. Teyla knew him, too. "You'd let your man stay out there on his own, no back-up?"

Mitchell scratched behind his ear. "Actually, no."

"I don't get it," Ronon complained again.

"They will ... retire Staff Sergeant Cummings with honor," intoned Teyla, softly, and seemingly from a great distance. "Isn't that so, Colonel?"

John stared at the his hands, silent, but Mitchell nodded and told her, "It'll look like an in-custody suicide, then we arrange relocation for the Staff Sergeant, a nice pension, a new name. RWH, we call it. I'm surprised you've heard of it."

"I have been among your people for some while and have heard it spoken of in the past, when your people have faced security challenges from within your own government. Is this not such a case?"

"It is at that," said Woolsey from his lonely end of the table. "It is at that."

"Miss Emmagan," Landry brought the topic to a close, "is there anything we can do to make you comfortable?"

Teyla startled, a reaction John found startling in itself. "I am fine."

"I meant, while you stay here, is there anything you need especially?"

Teyla's mouth hung open.

Vala stepped in. "I believe I can see to whatever Miss Emmagan needs."

"Then let's get out there, clean up this mess. Colonel Sheppard, there's a bird on the pad. Thirty minutes to departure. You know where to pick up your papers and flight information."

x x x x x

Vala drew Teyla into a gunmetal gray room, left the younger woman near the entrance, and threw open several wardrobe doors.

"Miss Emmagan--"

"I am Teyla." Pausing to take in the hard, hollow room, Teyla turned to her host.

Vala smiled. "Of course. We have apparel for off-worlders, as they call us, when we are to leave this lovely facility. Would you like a dress or pants?"

Teyla put herself beside Vala, stared inside the locker-like cabinets. "We are security for Colonels Sheppard and Mitchell, are we not?"

The question tickled Vala. "Indeed we are. Our cover is we're civilian lawyers with the Air Force deputy counsel's office. Here they would call us legal advisors."

"What do we advise?"

"Not what, but whom. They wouldn't let us inside the Deer Park base if we didn't have a reason to be there. The military's very touchy about these things. Colonel Mitchell will be Air Force JAG."

"I know nothing of this role."

"A real lawyer from the deputy counsel's office will go with us. Just in case. Presumably, Colonel Sheppard must have a keen mind about him to prevent him from saying something harmful."

Teyla became quiet.

Vala saw darkness shroud the other woman's expression, decided to take note and file it for later. "Dress or pants?"

"I gather we will have weapons."

"As far as the front door, um, I suppose so. Before that, we'll be on board a military plane. Our clearance level lets us carry sidearms."

"I will wear this."

Vala beamed. "Wise choice. And may I suggest an additional pair, for comfort in the evening. It won't be all work, dear."

Teyla nodded and chose again.

"Here's something loose to go with it. Roomy at the waist." Vala's gaze flicked to Teyla's belly. When Teyla's eyes widened, Vala exhaled. "As I thought-- you haven't told your team, have you?"

"I have not." Teyla pursed her lips. "Is my pregnancy obvious in the eyes of strangers?"

"Oh, I don't know about that. I saw your reaction to the General. He was only being nice, he had no idea. As for your men, I wouldn't be surprised if they go without a clue until the day you put on maternity attire. The closer a man is to you, the less he notices." She shrugged. "Here, let me pick out a valise. It's an overnighter. The rest you can manage and the changing room is this way."

x x x x x

A quick flight in a Black Hawk carried the group to a jet at Peterson. The sky swirled with fat, dusky clouds as the jet shot into the air, circled the field, and entered national airspace.

It was a lot colder today than it had been four weeks ago, when John was last on Earth. As he came out of the terminal heading for the plane, John tasted iron in the air. The walkway outside the terminal was sloppy with slush, though the tarmac itself was spotless. A recent homeworld snowfall. The thought of a December storm made John inexplicably wistful, given the circumstances. It was not as though the Pegasus Galaxy lacked for cold weather and snow. There was just something about today, about getting outside Cheyenne Mountain today, like he'd just found out he was on Earth for the last time.

Are you sure?

As sure as any man can be.

Choosing a seat next to Teyla, John winced. So much for recollection and happy memories.

Teyla fell asleep. She wasn't as fond of the jet's takeoff as she was of a Jumper's, but the moment the questions stopped and she relaxed she left him in her thoughts. Not that he expected to while the hours chatting happily with her. Soon as she ran out of things to ask about his world, its weather patterns, the science that kept the jet aloft, the marching titans below them called the Rockies, she'd turned from him. As his world was all she wanted to discuss, chit chat fizzled, leaving a prickly and familiar silence.

In his mind a memory stung. Teyla, her small face with its soft anomalous beauty frozen in front of him, her dark eyes darting for answers within her racing thoughts. What had she said? Right away she'd said, "It is the greatest insult among ..." And then she'd stumbled, her gaze growing unfocused, less certain. "It is the greatest insult among my people to be called a Wraith collaborator."

He'd felt that judgement in his soul, the truth of it. She'd added, because she must strike some chord of equanimity, or at least acknowledge that she might have been harsh, "But I was not present."

I was not present.

And then she'd walked away.

This had happened outside the control room the day he told her about Wallace, about Jeannie and Rodney, but more importantly about Wallace and the Wraith. When she turned from him he'd stood unmoving as though nails had been driven into his feet and a band was tightening on his chest.

What had he expected her to say? Oh, good, way to go, John. In his heart he knew she was grieving her people, that she'd turn back to him when she had room in her heart to finish the conversation, tell him what she meant, tell him what was required in terms of attonement. She weighed souls differently than he did, and it was one of the reasons he loved her.

The flight ended several hours later at the Moseby, West Virginia airfield. The jet taxied to the military side, stopped on the tarmac, and let them disembark. The civilian attorney, a middle-aged suit who spent most of the flight on his cell phone, perched a hat on a pink bald head and hustled ahead into the terminal. Because it was a military terminal, before leaving the plane, John and Cam got into their blue jackets, completing the Air Force "Alpha" uniform ensemble. The ladies wore long wool coats over pants suits that concealed Glock 40 caliber pistols. They carried briefcases, wore low heels and their hair down. Both women were extraordinarily good-looking and confident, comfortably running a gauntlet of appreciative looks from the handful of soldiers and what looked like a team of special ops Marines in baggage claim.

Within minutes, they'd checked in with flight services, showed their papers. A civilian clerk gave directions to the helicopter terminal and then they were on their own, the lawyer from the deputy counsel's office up front.

On the helicopter side, a crew manager told them their chopper was fueling and then put them in a holding pattern in an empty waiting area with hard plastic chairs. The waiting area smelled like hot chocolate and salted peanuts.

The lawyer plopped into a chair, hunched forward, and began texting.

Vala headed to a vending machine, where she attempted to trade two crumpled dollar bills for bottled water.

Teyla wandered to a floor to ceiling window, stared through the waxy light at the hangar and taxiways.

John came up beside her. "Not sure how it's going to go in there. I mean there, as in where we're going. Probably not going to be very pleasant."

"It will not be."

Hands slipping inside his pockets, he pictured her in the weekly lab team meetings, tried to remember her dealings with Troy Cummings. She and the Staff Sergeant had probably been friendly. Cummings had been part of the expedition two years.

"I never heard you say 'retirement with honor' before," he said.

"Nor I, you. I believe it is only talked about among the lower ranks."

"That's not actually true." But now that he said it, he had to admit the lower ranks had reason to refer to it more. "In the early days of the SGC, before my time, I wanna add, there was a risk the off-world teams would run into a Goa'uld. One thing led to another out there-- the stuff was new, nothing our people'd ever seen before --and some of those guys got infected."

She flashed a puzzled look.

"I told you what happened to Colonel Caldwell when he wired up the ZPM to explode in Atlantis, remember? He was infected with a Goa'uld."

"He tried to destroy Atlantis."

"Yeah ... Before then, what happened when you got infected, you pretty much ended up RWH-ed. That's dead but more than just dead, it means your teammates had to kill you in self-defense."

"I am beginning to understand."

"All the stuff you can run into out there, mist that can make you think you're awake when you're not, spores that can make you do stuff, act like a jerk, follow some idiot around doing everything he says, legal or not, sane or not. And all you did was wake up that morning and go to your job ... Remember me when I was infected by the retrovirus? What was Elizabeth supposed to do if the conversion didn't kill me, keep me in a holding cell four weeks and a day? Anybody even know what my dietary requirements would have been?"

Teyla bowed her head.

"Yeah," John agreed, "that's what I'm talking about. RWH. You're killed in action or in some way maybe not directly related to combat but it's because you're doing your job and you hit the jackpot, you got a bug in you or on you or something just as weird and now you're a security risk."

"Like Aiden."

"No, Ford's still out there ... But to be honest there are some who wouldn't blink if we RWH-ed him, sent him out."

"Sent him out, John?"

"Made him die."

"Like Wallace."

He wondered what made her say that and said, fast, because it was true: "No, not like Wallace." He almost said, Wallace wasn't one of us before he remembered he was talking to Teyla. He made distinctions like that because he'd been taught to. Tiers of entitlement held no sway with her. Wraith fed on peons and kings, children and the elderly, civilians and military. She wasn't going to let him get away with an oversimplification now.

"RWH is when your record is protected, your family can't get your remains but it's going to get your benefits, and your name doesn't get shit on. Doesn't apply to Wallace."

"The SGC allowed your world to learn this man was a criminal." She said it harshly but somehow managed to make it sound like a question.

"No."

"Why did you not do this?"

"You know why."

"To tell your world of the things he had done would have placed your secrets in jeopardy?"

"No."

"As I thought." She stopped looking through the glass and started looking at him.

"When he was close to it, Wallace asked the Wraith if it had a name."

Teyla glanced aside. "The Wraith have none."

"The Wraith said, Come closer." John flicked his glance away and back. "It seemed to make him calmer when he knew the Wraith could talk, like it mattered he had proof it was ... sentient. I'd told him it was helping us save McKay's sister but when he saw it ... When he saw it he, uh, probably saw what we all see. He didn't get calm enough for me to let it ... happen until it spoke. I asked him if he was sure, and he said, As sure as any man can be."

"And then you stood aside."

His throat clenched and leaped. He felt her eyes turn to him and linger. It was a purposed look dark with despair and it went straight through him.

After a moment, "In the case of Staff Sergeant Cummings," she went on, "if he is to accept pronouncement that he is dead when he is not, even if he is given a new place among your people with a new name and he is safe, is he not harmed by the actions of the SGC when he is deprived of kindred?"

John stared, first at Teyla, and then past her. "Yes."

"There is always harm, John, when a life is touched by violence."

He heard the tap of Cam's footsteps on the tile and looked over his shoulder.

Cam nodded in the direction of a group of approaching Marines. The special ops team ambling their way up the tiled ramp. They were hard-looking men of varying ages, heads shaved in a style they called "high and tight," olive green Marine "Alpha" uniforms immaculate. They carried long green duffle bags. The Marines spread out among the plastic chairs, and one of them went gamely to help Vala do battle with the vending machine.

John dipped his head to speak near Teyla's ear. "Cummings had nothing to do with what happened to Wallace."

She whispered, "I was not speaking of Cummings."

"So it's back to me again." Where had that come from? he wondered. There was a right way and a wrong way to have this talk. This was not the right way. He let up on the gas a little, but reminded, "The man was monitoring McKay's sister, he had dossiers on my people. If our actions say what kind of people we are--"

"They do."

This time he was one hundred percent sure she was honing in on him. "Then they do. His do-- did. Mine do." He let that hang there a moment. "Somehow," he sighed, "this has to end. It has to."

Cam came over. "Heads up."

John glanced down the ramp. There was a Marine John hadn't seen before, an officer. As the officer got closer, the unmistakable glint of silver on his uniform resolved into a pair of eagles. The man was a full bird colonel.

Mitchell stiffened in deference, John following suit. Mitchell said, "Afternoon, Colonel."

John turned to face the newcomer, who stopped near the window as though interested in learning what had Teyla's attention.

The Marine officer came to an inch or so below John, wore the olive Marine dress uniform with loose-jointed ease. He had a thinning cap of fair hair clipped close but not excessively so, which meant he wasn't with the special ops unit. An airwinger, John realized, noticing the aviator wings on his uniform. Automatically John liked him. The Colonel had an aloof but not ungenerous expression, half-business, half-something else. Evidently, the Colonel had the same taste for the sky, for being in it, and he and John had the same taste in women.

"Afternoon," the Colonel offered, an all-inclusive greeting. He glanced out the window, smiled a faint and politely neutral smile at Teyla, and moved on.

When the flight was called, the lawyer, John and Cam, Teyla and Vala moved outside first. While they stood in the cold waiting for the crew chief's signal to board, the Marine Colonel strolled from the terminal to join them. Cam and John saluted. Outdoors, while wearing hats, the salute was mandatory.

The Colonel returned their salute. "Quantico, Virginia, HMX-1. Where are you fellas from?"

The lawyer, Braden or Boden or something, suddenly looked up, his head snapping in the Colonel's direction.

Cam said, "We're out of Colorado. This place gets a lot of activity for being out of the way."

The Colonel pointed with his chin. "There's a counterterrorism unit out of Deer Park. I'm headed there."

"Excuse me," the lawyer honed in.

John ignored the lawyer. "Yeah, we are too," he told the Colonel.

"And you are?"

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."

The Colonel smiled again. There was nothing in it, no weight, no warning, nothing but camaraderie. "Colonel Richard Wallace. Good to meet you, Lieutenant Colonel."

Going a quarter shade pale, the lawyer yanked out his cell phone.

Teyla and Vala drew near.

John, whose breathing had thinned enough for him to know he should be worried about it, made sure his expression was neutral. "Good to meet you too, sir."

The crew chief dropped to the tarmac and waved them over. The Colonel turned away, and then John heard the tight voice of the lawyer squeaking into his cell. "Somebody needs to get out here with a leash. What do I mean? What do I mean? Wallace is at Deer Park--"

Wallace might have been in hearing range, and he might not have been. John wasn't sure.

"Wallace is here, at Deer Park," the lawyer hissed into his phone. "It's my job to-- Yes, yes, that's what I said, he's here. Yes, I said."

Watching the Colonel board the chopper, John frowned. "Hey," he said to the lawyer.

The lawyer didn't hear him. "I thought somebody was going to manage him--"

"Hey!"

"Excuse me, are you talking to me?" the lawyer said to John.

John pointed with his chin at the cell phone. "Give it a rest."

The lawyer looked with wide eyes at his cell phone, like maybe John was speaking an exotic language.

"I said, leave it alone. He's playing nice, we can play nice. Come on, it's our turn to board."

x x x x x

In spite of what he said to the lawyer, John wondered what Richard Wallace was doing here.

The answer to that was going to bother John, but only inasmuch as it affected Staff Sergeant Cummings, whose attorneys John was about to face.

Deer Park was not a place to which Colonel Richard Wallace had clearance. Hence, the civilian lawyer's reaction.

External and internal security was state of the art, a maximum control facility capable of withstanding a small-scale assault. John had read Wallace's profile. The man was a career Marine, a pilot who stepped up to the plate, became a leader. He'd flown combat missions, he'd pulled men out of danger. His only sister died in Oklahoma City. Thinking of the USS Cole, a Navy ship hit by terrorists, John could relate to the loss at a level Wallace wouldn't understand. Bottom line, Wallace was a commander with the wherewithall, in human terms, to lead with heart, if he so chose.

Could Deer Park withstand a probe from a decorated, high-ranking officer? In theory, yes. Without authorization, Wallace might as well have been a fly bouncing against glass.

In reality, though, Wallace knew a lot of people. He knew them through hands-on interaction and at a down-and-dirty level inaccessible to the paper-pushers who designed Deer Park's safeguards.

Wallace certainly knew enough to follow Cummings' attorneys, who were based in D.C., to West Virginia.

Inside Deer Park, staring at them, John thought Cummings' attorneys seemed especially anxious.

Navy Commander Eric Ressing and co-counsel Lieutenant Commander Alfred Luchino parked John and his "entourage," as Ressing called the others, in a cramped attorney-client conference room on the first floor of Deer Park's Administrative Wing. The trial services attorneys looked road-weary, harassed, and sagacious by turns, like street-savvy cops who knew they were wasting time and resented having to show up just to make something look good on paper.

John sympthatized. The minute Ressing asked about John's job, the circus started.

"Here's the thing," John tried to soften the blow. He wasn't happy playing a stone wall, even when he was doing it to protect the only program with a snowball's chance in hell of stopping the Ori, Wraith, and Asurans. "We're going to have to stick to stuff that doesn't require clearance. I can't tell you what I do in the interest of--"

"--national security." Ressing gave him big eyes, playing up the road-weary thing fairly well and spicing it with an undercurrent of righteous indignation. "No shit."

Mitchell stirred and John put up his hand. Today, he could take a little righteous indignation. If their roles were reversed, he'd serve it up in spades.

"Shit or no shit, a lot of the information you want is classified."

Ressing tugged smartly at the sleeves of his "Bravo" uniform shirt. "Classified, why is it classified? They want to court-martial our client for two murders."

John dipped his head in a solemn nod. "I'm well aware."

"You are Staff Sergeant Cummings' commanding officer?"

"I was. I'm not now."

"When Henry and Sharon Wallace died, were you Cummings' commanding officer?" This was Luchino, the younger of the two, a short, watery-eyed man with bushy blond hair and a New Jersy accent.

"Yes, I was."

"When did the Wallaces die?" Luchino again.

"That's classified."

"I have a report filed here"-- Ressing poked through a stack of brown folders, chose one, and opened it --"by the coroner at Hudson Naval Air Station in Seattle, Washington saying they died November fifteenth, at zero two oh seven."

"Then you know."

Ressing slapped the folder shut. "This is crap. I suspected it was crap before ... Now I know it's crap because you just told me the true circumstances of their deaths, including when, maybe especially when, is need to know and we don't need to know."

"I have to go by the report," John said. "If the report says they died at 2:00 AM, then they did."

"So the coroner's report is bull too?"

"I never said that."

"That's why we're here." Luchino, now.

"I think I know why we're here, Lieutenant Commander."

Ressing saddled his high horse. "I have two deaths attended by an unknown number of individuals, one of whom is our client. Our client won't confirm or deny his role in the incident, and as a result an inquiry was jumped to an investigation and an investigation has jumped to an Article 32. Was this a murder, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard? Was a little girl murdered in your top secret lab--"

"No."

"Was her father murdered?"

John stared at Ressing, stared until he realized the moment for denial had gone and Ressing knew it.

The civilian attorney piped in anyway: "No one was murdered. Read the report."

Luchino swung his head in the attorney's direction. "I read what I can see of it. It's not very telling and it's sure as hell not exculpatory."

Holding John's stare, Ressing leaned back a little. "What started as two questionable deaths produced a person of interest who, instead of clearing things up, sat around saying nothing. Fast-tracked from suspect to defendant, he's making no attempt to clear himself. So, here's how it plays in court, Lieutenant Colonel. Little Sharon and her father were burned to a crisp in an explosion under circumstances too heinous to disclose--"

"Because the circumstances are classified," ground out the civilian attorney.

Luchino sighed, exasperated. "Yeah, I've seen the sanitized version. It translates to a life sentence in Leavenworth for our client. Just so you know."

John sighed. The meeting was going pretty much as expected.

By way of a closer, "Good looking after, Lieutenant Colonel," muttered Ressing as he gathered his files. "May I make a suggestion? I suggest you peek in on Staff Sergeant Cummings, get a good look at the guy you and your pals've set up to take the fall."


Part Three: Epiphany


The snow starts minutes before they leave the installation, a squawl that blankets the sidewalks and lanes, whiting out Deer Park's landscape of concrete and brick long before they reach the rural route turnoff at the end of the base's half-mile access road.

The chopper won't return today, so it's a slow crawl in a loaner Suburban through alabster hills. Conversation is nil. John drives, and thinks, and drives, and thinks some more. He thinks about the JAG lawyers, Ressing with his indignation and Mr. New Jersey and his watery stare. He thinks about the little interview room he used to see Troy Cummings, to ask him how things were going. He thinks about Troy in white coveralls, the Staff Sergeant's taut yet bemused smirk as he greeted John. "Jackpot," Troy said. Yeah, yesterday it was somebody else, tomorrow, sure as you know it, it'll be somebody else, because today it's me. Jackpot. And John had nodded, his chest cold and wet on the inside, like he was ill, because jackpot shouldn't apply to Marines who drop out of the SGC for orders to Kaneohe Bay. Jackpot is for battle, and this isn't one. So, no, Staff Sergeant Cummings, this is not the crap shoot. This is just crap. Pure and simple.

Forty minutes later, the loaner Suburban turns into the driveway for the Hanson Inn. Not a promising name for an out-of-the-way hotel but the place looks well-lit. The sign boasts about a bar and the best steakhouse in West Virginia. The lobby is excessively small but the staff's friendly and the place looks clean.

"They probably see a lot of business from the base," Cam said.

John thinks Cam is right. Still, he's able to get five rooms easy and charge them on the expense Visa. Their rooms are on the second floor. When he parts the drapes to adjust the thermostat, John notes a closed pool at ground level inside a grate fence, the pool and patio under inches of white stuff. He and Cam checked in with Landry from Deer Park, so the only thing to do is get through the evening. John showers, changes into a blue shirt and jeans, the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. Hair still wet, he heads into the hall to tap on Teyla's door.

He gets a greeting from the shoulders up, Teyla's drawn face and tired eyes telling him before he asks the evening isn't going to go well.

"I was thinking about grabbing dinner," he sighs, thumb pointed toward the stairway.

"I am not hungry."

"Wanna watch me eat?" He thinks about adding a smile, decides not to, keeps it all business.

"My stomach is unsettled. I do not think I should."

Okay, that's that. He gives a reassuring nod, adds, "Feel better," and heads to Cam's room.

Cam gives a "be down in a bit" shout through the door.

John checks with Vala. She promises to look in on Teyla and join John shortly.

John doesn't bother the lawyer, doesn't wait for Cam, figures why not get a fast start on an end-of-a-bad-day beer in the best steakhouse in West Virginia.

The place downstairs says it's Hanson's Corner and it's doing good business from hotel patrons content to watch the snow fall in a warm, dry place. John asks for a booth in the back, a menu and a beer, and soon he is one of the customers staring into the blue fuzzy twilight.

For a while his mind is a quiet stage, lights low, no players in sight. The hum of other patrons holds him in the real world, sounds and smells he's used to but not used to. Although four years in the Pegasus has taught him a different kind of normal, decades of memories are only a switch flip away, shadows with voices both soft and strident, deep and wide as a winter storm.

The feeling doesn't last. As night descends, he loses the sense of insulation and isolation brought by the falling snow. His reflection sharpens in the glass, as do the reflections of strangers. His mind swings right, and his thoughts turn hard.

When the Asurans finish with the Pegasus, will they point their Aurora-class warships and city ships at the Milky Way? How long will it take two warships to scorch Earth? In West Virginia, in a steakhouse in West Virginia, what will the sky look like when fire rains down?

Rodney's teams finding the shutdown code, finding some way to tell the human-form replicators to lay off the eradication of humans, that's what makes sure this steakhouse is here next time John thinks of West Virginia. And the time after that. And the--

A reflection grows in John's eye, a man who is as clear in the glass as John's thoughts, and John is not surprised to see him.

The man wears a flannel shirt tucked into a pair of khakis. He slides onto the bench across from John, folds large hands on the formica table, exposes a gold watch that doesn't fit the lumberjack shirt. He wears a wedding band.

The first thing John thinks he keeps to himself: very little about Colonel Richard Wallace reminds John of the Colonel's younger brother, Henry. The Colonel is blond, Henry Wallace had dark hair. Henry's face was for the most part open. There was certainly nothing hard in it. He was a guy trying to save a child, not a career criminal. The Colonel, on the other hand, is without doubt a cool customer with a pleasant facade, but not too pleasant. You wouldn't mistake the Colonel for an easy mugging victim. If you're sizing up the Colonel for a mark, you're going to notice the big hands, the long shelf of his shoulders, the column of his neck. You'll notice the awareness in his stare and figure the man plays his cards well.

The next thing John thinks surprises him. John thinks about the Asurans, that if he could tell Colonel Wallace about the Asurans, the Colonel would get over the shock factor quickly, go straight to the part where he gets to sign up to fight them.

John says, "You followed us, sir."

"Didn't have to," Wallace replies.

John considers what Wallace is telling him. "You knew we'd be here."

"Moseby Airfield shuts down at seventeen hundred. Not even you can change that."

"What does that mean-- not even I can change that?"

"Word is, you can make people disappear."

Good, John thinks. Everything up front and open. And then John thinks, I don't want this man to believe I'm his enemy.

Soft as a kiss at the end of a date, John hears, Are you sure? And he hears, As sure as any man can be.

No good, thinking about Henry's last words while he's looking into his brother's face.

The Colonel registers John's response, gives it back like a mirror, like a part of him is comforted by John's unease.

Cam's hearty voice blasts through the tension. "Colonel Wallace, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, can I join the party?"

John swallows hard, sees that Wallace notices this too. His gaze stays on Wallace. "Not right now, Cam. Maybe in a minute."

"You sure?"

John nods. "I'm sure. Get another table, I'll join you when I'm done here."

Cam lingers, chewing on the right and the wrong of the two men facing off. After a while, "Be right over here," Cam says. He leaves them alone.

Wallace hitches back one shoulder, leaning to the side.

John gets a mild jolt. If Wallace is carrying a pistol, he might sit like that to get access to it. But why would Wallace throw away his life for a revenge scenario before he knows what happened to his brother?

The next thing Wallace says hits the spot: "Means nothing to me if he goes to prison," he tells John, "and I don't find out what happened to them."

Them: Henry and Sharon. John's forgotten Sharon, that her fate is tied up in the investigation because no one outside the SGC knows why she died.

"You mean Staff Sergeant Cummings, don't you, sir?"

"Yes, I do."

"You're aware he's not talking, aren't you?"

"I am."

"How could you possibly be aware of that?"

"I know a lot of things. I know your last duty station was McMurdo in Antarctica. Not too big a slap for disobeying an order from your CO. You went into the line of fire for your men, they should have given you a medal." Wallace leans forward, throws his elbows on the table. "Maybe you should have been a Marine."

John waits for the other shoe to drop.

"You transferred to the Stargate Program, took a promotion from major to lieutenant colonel, became commander of a joint-military protective services unit. How do you like the billet?"

John sighs as though wearied, lips pressed together, the skin under his eyes tightening. "It keeps me busy."

And ... here it comes.

"That lab didn't explode with a little girl in it." Wallace angles his head, his control slipping ever so slightly. "Henry wouldn't bring his little girl inside a top secret lab. Ask me how I know that."

John doesn't. He doesn't say anything.

"Did you bring his little girl into a top secret lab, Lieutenant Colonel? Hmm? You're the security for a top secret project making nanotechnology do, what? Is it a weapon? Did my brother finish your weapon for you? My brother doesn't make weapons. He would have wanted the research for medical purposes. Did he tell your bosses he was going to pull the plug, direct all his research to a cure for Sharon? Did your boss ask you to ask Staff Sergeant Cummings to set up a little accident?"

John's neck spasms, making a cord vibrate in his throat. He lowers his head to release the tension, finds he's staring hard at the table and his pulse is racing.

"Enough," John whispers. It's almost a plea.

"Enough, sir."

John lifts his head far enough to get a peek at Wallace's face, its lines cemented in resolve.

Wallace asks, "Do you remember what they look like, my brother and his daughter?" He takes out his wallet, flips it open, and while John watches with something akin to horror, Wallace pinches out a cropped photo of a younger Henry Wallace and Sharon as a baby.

"Henry met Sharon's mother at a time when we thought he was going to die a bachelor. As a kid, Henry was a prankster and a comedian, but he was never the serious type. And then one day he discovered science. His religion. He took better care of his books than himself. Sheila saw through that, fell for him, but she left him after six months, said he was spending too much time at work. And Henry, he got the message. Next phase of Henry's life he had priorities. Sheila hung in there, Sharon came along, and there it was, the perfect picture, a great future. The company doing well, Henry's found the balance he'd been looking for all his life. Even after we lost Julie in the bombing, he had balance. I was the one who lost focus, who had to watch McVeigh die. Ever see a man executed in front of your eyes, Lieutenant Colonel?"

"Yes, I have." And not just through glass while the guy goes to sleep courtesy of a lethal cocktail.

"Know the satisfaction you get when some deserving son of a bitch gets what's coming?"

John thinks of Kolya, remembers the bunker and the flame of agony hijacking his conscious while a Wraith fed on his lifeforce. And John thinks of shooting Kolya, of watching the outcast Genii slump to the ground.

"I didn't get that much out of it, sir."

Wallace's eyes dim, as though he's gone back to the moment he witnessed McVeigh's end, and he knows John is right.

Now, John thinks, say it now. "I'm sorry for--"

"Don't finish that sentence. Don't you dare."

John nods. "In the larger sense, what you're after, it's not attainable."

"You mean, I can't have a piece of you."

"Not at the going rate. You don't want to pay the freight either."

"On the other hand, I can tell it's killing you we've got one of your men."

"We've got one of my men." John nods again. "If that's okay with you, maybe I should be glad I'm not a Marine."

Wallace picks up the photo, glances at his brother and baby neice, and tucks the photo away. "How did they die, Lieutenant Colonel?"

"I'm going to go now. Good night, sir."

So much for steak and beer.

x x x x x

There is a knock on the door. He isn't sleeping, sleep's not happening, but it's two in the morning West Virginia time, so he's concerned.

Standing at the peep hole, he gets a knot in his stomach. Some of it's anxiety, because the lady on the other side of the door has probably come to talk about Wallace. Some of it's relief because he's used to her near him in the night but it's been four weeks going on five since they shared a bed, and he misses her.

He opens the door. "Teyla."

"My room has an unusual amount of noise."

"Yeah, you can hear them in my room too ... I'm farther away, so maybe not as much." He lets her in. "Sounds like an early Christmas party."

The only thing Christmas about the hoopla down the hall is the choice of music, which drifts through John's head now like an echo under the roar of drunken voices.

She nods. She's seen Christmas come and go a few times on Atlantis.

When he closes his door, the roar subsides but the music doesn't, which is weird but okay, since Teyla's shoulders collapse with relief.

She's dressed in casual clothes, and her brown-gold hair is down. She gives the hotel room a cursory glance, notes his bed is made, and he, too, is still dressed.

No need to ask why he isn't asleep.

"Better in here?" he asks.

Hands together, she moves away from him. "Much better. May I stay?"

"Absolutely. Want something to eat? You should be pretty hungry."

"I ate Saltines and tried your ginger ale."

Silence ensues. He feels a pang. She's looked so tired lately.

"Do you want to lie down?"

To his surprise, she moves directly for the bed, sits down, draws up her legs. Tension seems to roll from her body, and she sighs.

He heads over, and through a series of shimmies and wiggles, she helps him ease the bedspread and wool blanket from under her. They don't talk, she closes her eyes. He covers her legs, heads to the other side of the bed, and slips in. When the bed shifts with his weight, Teyla sighs the way she used to, the way she used to bring him to her before her people went missing, before Wallace died.

He covers her arms with his hands, moves against her back.

Like the old days, she sinks gently into the curve of his body, and her breathing settles.

Bells Will Be Ringing plays faintly in the walls, the bluesy base somehow heavier than the words, but John can hear the syrupy voice of the lead singer: "... Please come home for Christmas, Please come home for Christmas, If not for Christmas, then for New Year's night ..."

Feeling as though he's arrived on an island eternally divided from despair, he wraps his arms around her body. She's gone, she's left him for dreams. Didn't take long for her to drift off. She fell asleep pretty fast on the plane, too. It's okay, he doesn't need anything right now but to hold her, to breathe her skin and hair and listen to the rustle of her breath. To have her safe and to be safe, to have that over everything else, everyone else, just a few hours more.

His mind's been on overdrive since his encounter with Wallace, measuring stuff. How much he has to lose, how much he should try to keep, what is the cost of action, and what are the benefits. He's pretty much figured out what he's going to do, and this, a handful of hours of her folded in his arms, this is enough to get him through it.

Please come home for Christmas, please come home for Christmas ...

He is drifting now, too, lifting anchor, ready to flow away from thoughts, from ghosts and resolutions, and something snaps him to wakefulness.

His mind dashes after the trouble, hunts the thought that jumped at him before taking off and leaving him with a sense of alarm and no idea why.

Heart pounding, he blinks into the darkness above Tyla's head. Nothing is there. Heart still pounds, though. He touches his lips to her hair, grazes the gold-brown strands with his cheek.

And then he shifts his hand, senses the fragile connection between the pads of his fingers and her belly. She's wearing slacks, the fabric is thick but he can feel her. He can feel it.

It's not quite a "that wasn't here before" moment and it's not a "what the hell" thing either. It's more like a "I know what this is" light coming on and it's not just that her belly, which normally feels taut under his touch, is softer tonight. It's been five weeks since he last caressed the hard muscles of her tummy. No, it's the way that she's been living inside herself, the distance and distractions. What he thought were distractions. The other stuff is mixed in, but there's more and he knows it. It's been there all along. It's been there and he's missed it.

He missed it.

x x x x x

She stirs before sunrise and he draws his arms away, watches as she lowers her limbs and perches on the edge of his bed.

With the dark still around them, he feels close to her. Feels close enough to graze her back, to say, "I have to tell you something."

She reaches back through the darkness until he catches her hand. "You did not sleep."

"We have a couple hours before we have to find the airfield, I'm okay."

"You stayed awake because you were saying good-bye."

"I wouldn't know how to do that, but it's probbaly a good idea to figure something out."

"What will they do to you, if you take Staff Sergeant Cummings' place?"

"I can't take his place, not the way you mean. He isn't actually where he's supposed to be. I know that sounds weird, but the code of law they're applying to Cummings doesn't work for problems that crop up within organizations like the SGC. He can't stay where he is and right now it's a sure bet I can get him out of there."

"Will you be harmed?"

"My people will try hard not to."

"It will be their choice, or some other's?"

"A mix of both."

"If you are harmed, in what form might the harm come?"

"Low risk to me, but the worst they could do to me as far as I'm concerned, they could make me leave the SGC under a new identity, and that means I leave you. Better outcome in my opinion but lousy in a number of obvious ways, I stay in the program but only as long as there's an Atlantis and an expedition in the Pegasus. On Earth, I'm a goner, RWH-ed on paper, actively on duty but a ghost."

"What can we, your friends, do?"

"Go back to Atlantis."

"Do not ask that, John."

"McKay and Ronon have to go back. They can't fix this, and they'll fight me. Help me with that."

She turns to gaze at him through the shadows. "When we are in Atlantis, you and I, there is something we must discuss."

His heart kicks, flooding his body with warmth. "I'm up. Let's talk about it, whatever it is, right now."

She sighs and looks away. "While you face this danger, I cannot. When we return to Atlantis, we should discuss this ... distance that has come between us ... and if you cannot make your way home through this trouble, we will find another way to speak of this, you and I. Promise that we will."

"If only the world were that simple," he whispers.

She glances at him and away. "If only." She stands, and leaves him.


Part Four: Critical Mass


The elevator doors opened, launching McKay into a stark gray corridor burning with artificial light. He wasn't much for aesthetics but had to admit the sterile passages of the SGC, an oversized and glorified bunker if you will, made him a little homesick for the warm, soaring architecture of Atlantis.

He hurried toward the steps to the briefing room and jerked back mid-stride to avoid a head-on collision with Jack O'Neill. In dress blues, the General strode out of the stairway at a clip, arms tight at his sides, the scowl unmistakable.

McKay immediately felt alarm. What was O'Neill, head of Homeworld Security, doing at Cheyenne Mountain?

Had to be a problem. Had to be an issue of some significance.

Why wasn't I called?

McKay maneuvered around, tried again to enter the stairway, and collided with General Landry.

Landry's hand shot out to steady Rodney, an absent gesture, and then the General marched briskly away down the corridor. McKay missed the SGC commander's expression, but if the tension in his strides was an indicator, all was not well.

Wearing his black BDUs and combat boots, Sheppard descended behind Landry. He stepped into the hall, saw Rodney, and froze.

McKay's mouth popped open. "Oh." He considered the Lieutenant Colonel's expression, recognized the shift from worry to aloofness, the kind of look that usually meant some crazy Sheppard "going solo" stunt was in the works. "Heard you were back. I was just coming to find you."

"Yeah ..." Sheppard looked tentatively in the direction of O'Neill and Landry.

"So," Rodney pressed, "did somebody call a team meeting and I wasn't invited?"

"No, Rodney. Listen." Sheppard looked at him now, gave his full attention. "Listen, you, Teyla, and Ronon-- you're all through here. You've been cleared for 'gate travel back to Atlantis."

McKay's eyes twitched and narrowed. "And you?"

"I'm staying."

"Why?"

"Above your pay grade, McKay. All you need to know is you're going back to Atlantis, you're going to work on the replicator shutdown command, and you're going to save us all."

"Uh-huh." Rodney looked over his shoulder, spied Ronon and Teyla heading their way.

Sheppard drew his hands out of his pockets. "Hey, buddy," he said when the Satedan was close, "I was just telling McKay you guys are cleared to head home."

Ronon locked his arms across his chest. "What's up?"

McKay was glad for a unified front, except he had a feeling Teyla wasn't exactly on his side. Hard to tell with her these days, she was so closed off. He pointed. "What's up, everyone, is Sheppard's getting ready to do something stupid."

"Again?" Ronon supposed.

"Perhaps ..." Teyla glanced at the faces around her. "Perhaps we should speak in a place more private."

John waved at the stairs. "The briefing room's not in use at the moment. After you."

They sat together at one end of the conference table. With the blast doors locked over the gate room window, the chamber had a tight, muffled atmosphere. Sheppard dug his elbows into the table, leaned forward, and talked. He talked five minutes straight, a personal record, McKay would have bet. When Sheppard was done, McKay was thinking maybe the room's air exchange system had shut down. His throat felt sore and his chest hurt, filled with acid.

"How is this helping?" he moaned, a tad higher than normal. Why did solutions have to go this route when Sheppard was involved? McKay understood the need to save the Staff Sergeant, but wasn't there a cleaner way? Why couldn't Sheppard just pack, write a note, let the SGC gurus settle it with Wallace and the politicians? Why open a vein here, get messy, when there was work waiting for them in Atlantis?

Sheppard fixed Rodney with a thoughtful look, a look that scared the hell out of Rodney.

Sheppard said, "He deserves the truth."

No need to ask who he was. Brothers-in-arms and all that. Of course that would appeal to Sheppard's warrior side, but, hello, why couldn't Sheppard see this had no chance of ending well.

"Is it worth so much?" McKay pleaded. He flung a desperate glance at his teammates. A little help here! He found Ronon sullen and lock-jawed, Teyla drifting toward that place of hers, that box that shaped the jagged new reality she was leader of a missing civilization. I'm on my own, great. McKay's tone sobered. "When has the truth ever fixed something, huh? You go through with this and you may not make it back to Atlantis."

"Rodney, I know that."

"Then why's it so important to you?"

"You have to ask me that?"

"Well, somebody has to."

"Staff Sergeant Cummings deserves to be home with his family for Christmas. No, not for Christmas, he deserves to be home now, as in this very minute."

"I understand the political pressure out there to keep him in custody, but surely O'Neill, or even the President of the United States can make the call--"

"Do you really need to hear this? Okay, then here it is. O'Neill didn't make this mess. I did. If there's anybody in two galaxies who can understand messes, it's you, and you, the people I'm looking at right now. When we start messing with other people's lives, sometimes we put in motion a cycle of events ... And sometimes the cycle blows itself out, but sometimes, McKay, it starts wars."

Rodney winced.

"This one isn't going to run out of steam on its own. It needs the truth." Studying his hands, "The truth, yeah," John breathed, "I'm not so sure the truth fixes a whole lot. Fixes some things, though." He picked his head up and leveled a gaze in Rodney's direction. "And while we're on the subject of the truth ... It was risky, but no more risky than going through the 'gate to the Pegasus in the first place. We were on their home world, Rodney. Theirs. We weren't going back there again. You saw the command and we had a second, a split second to make a decision. Should we have turned on the kill code? Well, yeah, who's going to argue with the charred husks of a dozen worlds? You wanna be the guy who says, It's my fault? I'm not gonna stop you. But while you're at it, remember to remember you're human, and what your head was telling you when you saw the code. What we were trying to do."

"You're saying this to me now?" McKay muttered. "Why are you saying this now, like you're not coming back?"

Without answering, John turned his head to look at Ronon. "You think it's your fault those Satedans chose to live the way they did over dying? You don't think losing their world had something to do it? You think because you chose something else, if they'd had you to count on all those years, you could have saved your friends from the choices they made? That's fine if you want to carry it--"

"I'm not carrying it." Sitting forward, Ronon squinted.

"Yeah, you are. I said, it's fine. Doesn't make it your fault and it never will."

With a shift of his neck, John was looking at Teyla.

"John, don't."

The plea in her voice, Sheppard seemed to hear it. And it looked like it almost stopped him.

But then, "You will never quit looking for your people," Sheppard whispered, like a cord had tightened on his windpipe. "That's what you're afraid of. That you'll stop looking. You're afraid something is going to come down on us like something always does, and for a day, a month, a year, you'll stop looking until one day you'll wake up and where they lived inside you, that place'll be empty, there'll be nothing there. Do you really think that's going to happen?"

"No, John." On her cheeks ran fast tears that McKay could not hear in her words. In her words he heard the iron of conviction. "I fear it but I will not allow it."

"Neither will I."

"So how's this going to help, huh?" McKay gave it a final try. "You putting yourself in this man's way, how's that going to solve anything?"

"I watched it feed on him, Rodney. You know what that's like?"

McKay's Adam's apple leaped. "I have some idea, yeah."

"Wallace didn't know what a Wraith was until I told him. I told him what it needed to save your sister. I'm the reason he volunteered. Think he had enough information?"

"Did he know it was gonna kill him?" Ronon asked.

Sheppard nodded slowly.

"Then, yeah, he had enough information."

Teyla shifted quietly in her seat. "John is not saying he acted inappropriately. The Wraith performed its task. Wallace's victim was saved. John is saying that he--"

"I let a Wraith feed on a human."

She lifted a hand to her cheek, nodding. "It cannot be a simple thing to forget. It is not, it appears, a simple thing to forgive."

Sheppard came slowly to his feet. "Elizabeth had a saying. To get peace, you have to bring peace. Never been a big fan of all that tree-hugging stuff ... and I still don't think the truth fixes a whole lot but it fixes some things. Right now, the truth's all I got."

x x x x x

Caroline Madden gazed out the window as the C-9 Nightingale made its final approach into Peterson. Time to get the juices flowing, she thought. Her part in the plan didn't allow for a middle of the story, or an ending to it, for that matter, and she wasn't sure she cared. Her job was to escort her guests and hold hands, if necessary. What happened after they got where they were going was out of her control, and therefore of only moderate concern, so long as General O'Neill and her supervisors at NID were satisfied.

Her guests.

Caroline never met Richard Wallace before today and wasn't particularly happy to know him now. Inside the C-9's cusomized cabin, back at Andrews AFB in Washington, she'd presented Wallace with a non-disclosure agreement.

It hadn't been her job to brief him on terms and conditions-- someone else had done that, which meant she didn't know what he was expecting in exchange for his signature.

He'd signed immediately, the pen digging in like it was a weapon and the paper was flesh.

No look at her as he swept the document away, just a stare that sank inward behind granite features and a mouth set in a straight, rigid line. If she'd seen him looking like that on a street, she would have crossed to the other side.

Joe Faber had boarded last. Joe had a polite word for Wallace, who barely noticed, and a gloating grin for Caroline, which was pure Joe.

When she gave the congressman the non-disclosure agreement, he'd signed with flourish, looking every bit the cat with his mouse, content with the way things were going.

And now here they were, heading for Cheyenne Mountain.

x x x x x

When Caroline and party arrived, O'Neill checked his watch. He wanted to mark his descent into hell, if only as a point of fact-- or points of fact, whichever the case may be --for some future date when he was an old and happy and fishing on the lake.

As a point of fact, his reason for disliking the events shaping before him had nothing to do with the day's likelihood for success. There was going to be a win. The price, though, yeah, the price for that, well ...

Woolsey stepped into the conference room. His knob of a head bowed for a solemn instant, like a pall bearer's who had just deposited his load. Coincidentally, the IOA bureaucrat seemed out of breath.

Behind Woolsey strolled Madden, she of the lovely legs, Randy Sweeney's top assistant at the Pentagon and an agent-- well paid, opined the word on the street --for the NID.

Joe Faber shuffled in next looking like a skinny rabbit, big grin beaming in spite of the funereal atmosphere and the rock hard glint in his wise old eyes. Joe was going to be the realist, today. Joe was going to be the closer.

A third man came up behind Faber, fully uniformed. The third man stopped at the threshhold, glanced at Landry, at Jack, and came swiftly to attention.

"At ease, Colonel," O'Neill advised. "Come in. This briefing will take a moment."

A coffee service waited in the conference room. Faber honed in it with a vicious grunt. Introductions were underway, a sterile formality that failed to break the ice. When the how do you dos were done, everyone was standing, Faber happily quaffing steaming coffee and Landry eyeballing Wallace like he wouldn't mind taking the Colonel into space and jettisoning him via an airlock.

O'Neill broke into the dense quiet. "Not to rush anybody, but I, for one, would like to get this over with."

"Here, here." Faber gulped enthusiastically from his cup.

"If no one objects, let me put some perspective on this. Anyone care for a little walk?"

Joe put down his coffee.

The brief jaunt to the gate room entrance was accompanied by silence. Joe found unusual interest in the passage with its exposed conduits and austere decor. Wallace looked sraight ahead, sealed in his thoughts. The Colonel's singlemindedness was worrisome, and Jack had to admit Sheppard nailed it when he pegged the man as obsessed. Short of destroying the man's career and possibly his life, taking the edge off the Colonel was an essential move.

The blast doors opened, and O'Neill strolled into the gate room.

Joe swept in and then attempted to give himself whiplash checking out the interior. The Colonel's scan was cursory. He seemed to note the security detail and the guards' armament. The big ring behind the elevated ramp might as well have been a road sign or decoration, until it started up.

Riveted, Faber and Wallace watched the chevrons as they brightened. The enormous energy of the Stargate intensified as chevrons locked, giving the newcomers a sense of its power. The iris was open, so the spectacular plume of radiation sent Joe stumbling in shock. Wallace took it in stride, squinting into the aqueous glow, his features bathed in it and his throat leaping. Fifty percent of his tension drained as he faced the 'gate, replaced by cautious concern and hunger to understand, a feeling O'Neill could get his mind around.

"Shall we?" The General headed up the ramp, didn't bother to look behind. Landry would rein in Joe, and Caroline was only a step at his rear. Wallace, too, hadn't hesitated.

It was Wallace by his side when he gazed through the portal in the midway station's control room.

O'Neill let the initiates get acclimated. Sometimes this took a while.

Landry steered Joe toward a larger viewport. "We're halfway to Atlantis," Landry was saying, "which is as far as we're going today. Nice view?"

"I'm not sure I understand," Joe admitted. "I'm missing a frame of reference."

"There is no frame of reference. We're in a vacuum surrounded by a space station, Congressman."

"How did we get here?"

"We stepped into a wormhole that connects Earth to points throughout the galaxy."

Joe burped air, bent over, and seized his knees. He flung up a hand. "I'm all right!"

Wallace and O'Neill exchanged glances. By Wallace's look, O'Neill figured the Colonel would have made a good addition to the SGC.

Wallace turned back to the smaller portal. "So we're in ..."

O'Neill nodded. "That's right."

"And this is ..."

"We call it the midway station. Because, well, it's mid-way between Earth and Atlantis."

"Between Earth-- and Atlantis. Earth, our planet Earth." This was Joe, who to give him credit, was bucking up rather quickly. He'd lost the pasty, bug-eyed expression. The grin was threatening a return, though. "Atlantis is a planet?"

"It's an outpost on another planet." Landry shuffled past Caroline, who wore a smile in spite of the fact this was the NID agent's first trip off-world. "You're standing inside a technological marvel made possible, in no small part, by advances acquired from Earth's alien partners."

Wallace lowered his head and chuckled. Not the usual response. "I'm sorry, General," he said. "Alien partners? Well, all right, I'll bite. How many alien partners?"

"That information is need to know."

"Big secret to keep," Joe intoned, eyebrows raised.

"And good reason to keep it." O'Neill approached the dialing computer. "The show part is over. Now it's time to tell."

"Did my brother know about this?" Wallace cut in.

"That's the tell part," Landry said. "Let's take it back to the briefing room."

x x x x x

Landry waited until everyone was seated, then went to the head of the table, where he stood.

"The Stargate Program is top secret, and while we'll be talking about it somewhat, we won't be ripping the lid off.

"Atlantis is an experimental research outpost. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard reports to the Atlantis base commander, who in turn reports to me. The Stargate Program runs with civilian oversight called the Advisory established under Section 11 of the National Security Act. What you all need to understand is we are at war.

"With that said, under the National Security Act, Advisory is empowered to determine cause for detention and prosecution of any agent of this program, an agent being someone present or retired who has served in Stargate Command."

"If I may, General, did you or Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard consider my brother to be an agent of your program?"

"No, we did not. And it's our program, Colonel Wallace. You're in the business of serving this country. There's no dividing line here. If our program fails at its primary task, Earth pays the bill. That bill, I assure you, will come due with interest.

"As I was saying, Mr. Woolsey is our Advisory representative. His will be the only official record of what happens here today. Are there questions?"

There were none.

Landry lifted his hands to his hips. "The nanotechnology entrusted to Devlin Medical Technologies came from science salvaged in an extraterrestial encounter in the vicinity of the Atlantis base. The science funneled to DMT was for medical research, with Atlantis and her science teams charged to explore nanotechnology's other applications.

"Atlantis discovered the purpose of the technology. It's a weapon. The nanites were created as a relentless weapon of genocide. The technology was turned against humans in the form of a lethal virus that is one hundred percent effective. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's job is to protect the people who are at work on a way to eliminate this threat. Questions?"

Wallace swallowed slowly. Faber, coffee neglected, looked like he might never grin again.

"Henry Wallace interfered with Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's responsibilities in two ways. First, Wallace exploited the basic knowledge pipelined into his company for medical research. He did this, by his own admission, in order to develop a treatment for his daughter. Second, when spying failed to yield data in a sufficient manner, he organized a criminal action that drew key Atlantis personnel to Earth. Does anyone have questions at this point?"

Wallace cleared his throat. "I assume, General, there will be corroborating evidence."

O'Neill frowned. "You didn't see the packet Henry Wallace put together on the Stargate Program, Atlantis, and Atlantis personnel? What, do you think he stole top secret information so he could have a little light reading after dinner?"

Landry finished. "Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard apprehended Henry Wallace and transported him to a secure facility. Within four hours, Henry Wallace was dead. The official report reads accidental in-custody death, the details of which are classified.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard has two motives for agreeing to an interview today. One, he wants an official record clearing Staff Sergeant Cummings of wrongdoing. Mr. Woolsey's record of Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's interview will do that. Staff Sergeant Cummings' duty records will be made available to Mr. Woolsey at the formal stage of today's proceedings, so that Mr. Woolsey in accordance with the criminal code under Section 1106 of the National Security Act, and as a duly appointed member of Advisory, can enter a judgement that will, in effect, stop the Article 32 investigation. When he does so, we require agreement from all parties that the matter is closed.

"The duty logs will show Cummings was on base in Atlantis during the incident, while Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard was not.

"Secondly, if duty records are to become part of an official record, it is Sheppard's condition that the men who were with him are not implicated in wrongdoing. This is non-negotiable. He will not speak to you unless these men are granted immunity, and Advisory has done this."

"Immunity?" Faber interrupted. "Before there's testimony? On whose authority?"

"Maybe you didn't hear me," Landry groused. "The Stargate Program is engaged in stopping a threat that could erase all human life from the face of the planet. The program operates with the highest authority in the land. Criminal process under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a distraction. Yes, you heard me. When it's necessary to apply the code, there are several methods to an end, none of which follow standard criminal procedure. A member of this program's leadership who admits to unacceptable action is not subject to court-martial. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard knows this. It's his only bargaining chip and he cashed it. His men were authorized immunity. Sheppard has none and has requested no counsel. Counsel was appointed over his protest, and for the record, there will be no members of the military in the interview room when Congressman Faber asks his questions.

"General O'Neill, Colonel Wallace, and I will watch, with Sheppard's knowledge, from an observation room with full audio. If there are no more questions ..."

Wallace looked from O'Neill to Landry with a frown. "Advisory makes the determination that a crime took place."

Woolsey said, "Exactly."

"Civilian oversight doesn't trust the military to clean its house."

"Execution of orders falls to the military. Advisory is concerned with the overall security of the Stargate Program and the program's fitness to carry out its directives."

"And then what happens?"

"In this case," Woolsey asks, "or in general?"

"In this case."

"General O'Neill, care to explain?"

O'Neill said, "It's my call."

x x x x x

O'Neill offered Wallace a chair. Wallace refused. The observation room, a sterile twin to the interview chamber on the other side of the two-way mirror, was dim. In the interview room, under a brighter panel of lights, Sheppard sat in a black T-shirt, BDU trousers, and combat boots. An in-house counselor perched on his right. Across the table sat Joe Faber, Caroline Madden, and Woolsey.

Faber had just introduced himself. Sheppard, hands folded in front, responded without rancor.

Faber asked a set of establishing questions, Sheppard's name and date of birth, his service date and home of record.

O'Neill explained. "As I said, the room has audio recording."

"Video?" Wallace asked.

"No."

Wallace nodded, then said, "He looks smug."

O'Neill thought about what to say. Opted for the truth. "Then he must be pretty shaken up." Felt Landry glance at him and returned the glance. Landry nodded. O'Neill said, "I'm not going to blow smoke here, Colonel. If you want a conventional officer, a man who believes there's a bible on operation, you don't want Sheppard. His prior record shows insubordination and conflict with commaning officers, traits that usually don't point to a stellar career in the military."

Wallace shifted his gaze to take in O'Neill.

"On the other hand, if you want someone who can take an expedition of civilian scientists, plant them in an unknown environment, and take care of them at great personal risk, he's your man. He doesn't stay in the box and he trusts his instincts."

Faber's voice over the microphone was tinny. He was asking Sheppard to verify the duty logs submitted to Woolsey. Sheppard glanced at Woolsey, who nodded.

"They're good," he said.

Faber asked Sheppard where he was during the window of opportunity established by the duty logs.

"Conducting an investigation into the disappearance of Doctor Rodney McKay and his sister."

Faber stopped. His list of questions did not include this area because he hadn't had information about a disappearance in advance. "How was this investigation related to the deaths of Henry and Sharon Wallace?"

"Henry Wallace abducted them to complete research on a treatment for his daughter Sharon."

In the observation room, Wallace grunted. And then he whispered, "Henry ..."

O'Neill said nothing.

Faber said, "My understanding is you apprehended Wallace."

"That's correct. We found him in a lab set up to run experimental treatments on Sharon using nanotechnology and information extorted from our scientist."

"Did you destroy the lab?"

"I didn't, no."

"When you arrested Henry Wallace, where did you take him? Did you turn him over to a competent authority?"

"What?"

"Did you give him to the police, the F.B.I., who did you give Wallace to for booking and due process?"

"That's not how it goes."

"Maybe in your twisted world, Lieutenant Colonel. In mine, that's exactly how it goes. What did you do with your prisoner, Lieutenant Colonel?"

"I ordered him transported to a top secret facility for detention and interrogation."

Next to O'Neill, Colonel Wallace stiffened.

Faber asked, "Interrogation? Do you mean torture?"

"I said what I meant."

"And was Henry Wallace interrogated?"

"No."

"Now we come to it." Faber laced his fingers. "I want to know who the senior military officer was at this top secret location."

"I was."

Landry and O'Neill exchanged glances.

"You were in charge. And why didn't you interrogate Wallace?"

"Interrogation became unnecessary in view of the larger picture, and in the larger picture, it became necessary to allow Wallace to die."

O'Neill glanced at Colonel Wallace, who stared with no outward reaction.

"Care to repeat that?" Faber challenged.

Sheppard said, "Actually, no, I wouldn't."

Faber lifted his shoulders. "Are you authorized, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, to make life and death decisions for civilian prisoners?"

"Not on a regular basis, no."

"Yet you decided Wallace had to die."

"Under another set of circumstances, I might not have. The hand I was dealt, I made the call to let it happen."

"For the record, how did Henry Wallace die?"

"I arranged a lab accident. The sanitized report is more or less acurate. He walked into the lab alive, he didn't come out."

Faber sat back, glanced up at Woolsey, and then back at Sheppard. "What about Sharon Wallace? Did she walk into the lab alive?"

"Sharon was nowhere near that lab and she'd already passed away."

"But you brought her to this secret facility of yours, where you were in command?"

"Yes."

"She died there?"

"Yes, she did."

"As far as I'm concerned, if a minor child died on your watch, she died of your negligence. Lieutenant Colonel, I'm inclined to cut this off right here, because from where I sit, you just copped to murder and negligent homicide. I know your record will say you're actively on duty happily serving your country in some crack of the world where no one will ever see you again. I know your family will one day get your pension--"

"I don't have family."

Faber shut up, staring. Drummed his fingers on the table. "Why did you do all this? What could possibly be justification for killing a man in your custody, for denying appropriate medical care to his daughter?"

Sheppard leaned forward. "First of all, I didn't deny Sharon care. That's not going to matter to you, but Woolsey's transcripts might be read one day and I want that on the record. About Wallace, in the larger picture, there was a reason. I could tell you I have days when I get to choose between shit and crap and I can tell you I'm getting a few more of those days than I used to. What's the point? The only thing worse than what happened is lying about it. I was senior officer. It's my responsibility."

Faber swung around in his chair. "Mr. Woolsey, is there anything else you need?"

Eyeing Sheppard, Woolsey shook his head. "Advisory will issue the order of detention immediately." He stood up.

"And then what happens?" Wallace, on the other side of the glass, demanded.

"Well," O'Neill sighed, "an order of detention from oversight is indefinite. Once there's a complete dissolution of the Stargate Program, meaning the threat's been eliminated, Sheppard could face court-martial. That's a bridge we've never crossed."

"You're going to let his official record say he's clean but lock him up indefintely?"

Landry grunted. "Until or unless something else happens."

Wallace glared. "Something, what something?"

O'Neill: "We don't actually have facilities to hold prisoners indefinitely."

Caroline and Woolsey were standing and motioning to Faber. Caroline said, quietly, "It's over and you have your answers."

Faber looked quickly from Sheppard, who had turned away, to Woolsey. "What happens now?"

Caroline said, "Outside, if you please, Joe."

A door opened, revealing the presence of armed guards.

In the corridor, Caroline lightly brushed Joe's arm. "He'll be remanded to military control under Homeworld Security, and under their code he'll never walk out of here again." She paused. "You have your answers, Congressman. You did good."

x x x x x

"I have my answers." Wallace inhaled and blew out his breath. He stared through the glass at Sheppard.

Sheppard's attorney, sitting beside his client, had leaned over to talk into Sheppard's ear.

Wallace shook his head. "Henry ... I don't know, but Sheppard took Sharon to some hole, took her there and let her die."

O'Neill put his back to the observation window. "It's over, you know. This is where it ends."

"You people, General, put a platform in space halfway between Earth and some other planet, you put a research base up there in the sky and you use it to study microscopic machines that will one day cure cancer. You don't mess around much, do you?"

"Your point, Colonel?"

"Why'd you clear Joe Faber out of here so fast?"

"I think you know why," Landry murmured.

"You'll never make me believe it, unless I see it."

O'Neill strolled to a phone, lifted the handset. "What's the good word?" he sighed, low-voiced. He listened. "That's too long. Make it fifteen. Things are ... a little tense right now." He waited. "Let me know when the Congressman and Miss Madden are topside."

Wallace looked at O'Neill over his shoulder. His eyes glistened sharply, briefly, before going cool and distant. "Fifteen minutes' work to end a man's life. Impressive, General. All for the sake of the larger picture. Will you give it as much thought as that man in there gave my brother?"

"About as much thought, yeah," O'Neill agreed.

"Show me. I mean, if it's all the same to you. Sir."

"For the sake of the larger picture, your request is granted." O'Neill glanced at Landry, shot a glance back at Wallace. "Excuse me." He left.

x x x x x

O'Neill entered the interview room.

Sheppard stood at attention.

O'Neill waved at Sheppard to take a seat, nodded to Sheppard's counsel. "He doesn't need you anymore, you can go."

The attorney left.

Edging up to the table, O'Neill rolled his eyes. "That was somewhat ... candid."

Sheppard searched inward, and when the light came back to his eyes, he asked, "What part especially did you think I got wrong?"

"A conversation for a different day," O'Neill decided, and then he finished, "if we wanted to drag this thing out. Which ... we don't."

Sheppard looked at him for a moment. "I was kind of hoping ..."

"Yeah."

"It's absolutely necessary?"

"Sheppard, does it look like I'm tossing around ideas here?"

"How much time do I have, sir?"

"About ten minutes."

"I hope it's enough."

"Hope what's enough?"

"All of it."

O'Neill gripped the back of the chair across from Sheppard. "Mind if I sit here?"

Sheppard dipped his head, squeezed the back of his neck. "Might be better if you do."

O'Neill said, "I'm not going to talk or anything."

Sheppard almost smiled, and then again maybe he didn't. Maybe the twitch was nerves. He raised his head, exhaled.

O'Neill folded his arms, waiting.

x x x x x

The door opened, and there was an airman in it signaling O'Neill. "General, Doctor Lam says she's ready."

"Okay, good." O'Neill stayed seated, eyes shifting to take in Sheppard. "What about you? Are you ready?"

"Nope, not really."

"Think you might be some time soon?"

"Probably not." But Sheppard stood.

O'Neill got up and moved toward the door.

Two guards came in.

Seeing them, Sheppard winced.

"Don't mind them," O'Neill told him. "It's procedure, it's not you."

Sheppard frowned a little. "If we have to, we have to."

The guards handcuffed his hands behind his back.

An elevator took them to the medical level, and then it was a walk along abandoned passageways to the isolation chamber.

A gurney had been set up between a pair of IV poles, its back raised. When he saw it, Sheppard made O'Neill cross the room first.

"I was kind of hoping I wouldn't have to lie down, sir."

O'Neill turned around. "We don't do special requests here."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather you didn't let them use those straps."

"Again, it's not you."

"I gotta say, my day's gone downhill pretty fast."

"Ready to get this over with?"

"Wanna give me a second? I really don't want to lie down on that thing."

The guards edged up behind Sheppard.

O'Neill's eyes widened and he threw up his hand. "Easy, boys. Sheppard, how long a second we talking about here?"

"I'm working on that part, sir."

"You have an audience."

"I figured."

"That was your second."

"Okay, you can take off the cuffs."

"Do I need more security?"

"Probably not."

"Do I have your word?"

"Yes, sir, I'm okay. I'm not going to freak out or anything."

O'Neill gestured.

When his hands were free, Sheppard maneuvered around to sit on the gurney. He lay back.

O'Neill watched the guards cinch straps over Sheppard's chest, waist, and legs.

Trailing two technicians, Dr. Lam strode in. She wore a knotted expression for O'Neill, something less horrific for Sheppard, whom she greeted with, "We're going to set you up with an IV. As soon as it's in, I'm going to start a sedative. I'll administer the first injection, the one most important to you. It's sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate that works like an anesthetic. I need to be sure you're dosed correctly. After you're out, the airman technician will take over. I'm not in the business of watching people die in my facility."

Beautiful speech, O'Neill thought.

Sheppard let her plant his arm in the butterfly armrest, stick him, and set up the syringe. One of technicians gelled pads under Sheppard's T-shirt. When the leads for the pads were connected, he flipped on a monitor. Sheppard's heart was making a bit of a run. Dr. Lam glanced up, distracted by it. She was about to push the first injection.

"Want more time for that sedative to kick in, Colonel? I'm in no hurry."

Sheppard gave a small shake of his head. "If you don't mind, I'd rather get it over with."

She inserted the needle and waited. The heart monitor flub-flubbed and then began to slow down. She gazed at him. "It's doing what it's supposed to do, don't fight it." His breathing was leveling. "Just go with it, Colonel."

Fussing with Sheppard's vitals, Lam waited another minute. Then stepped back. Sheppard lay unconscious. She swept the room with a look of contempt, then left it.

O'Neill nodded to the second technician, who stepped forward with two big syringes.

The first syringe went into the IV line, and then there was a minute's pause. The second syringe was halfway in when the monitor said Sheppard had flatlined. The technician emptied the syringe.

x x x x x

There were three people in the observation room above Isolation. The third person was not military. A woman-- dark skin, dark eyes, a long mouth, and soft lines laid over a strong face.

Wallace remembered her. She was dressed in somber hues, her hair up this time. He'd mistaken her for an attorney, not someone with whom he expected to share a moment as personal as this.

When the monitor said Sheppard's heart had stopped, she gasped. He would not have tried to talk to her otherwise.

What he was thinking was, It's done, it's over. And he was thinking of Sheppard in West Virginia, telling him he wasn't going to get what he wanted.

Well, he was pretty darn close to getting what he wanted.

The woman standing near the glass watched him. Wallace's head snapped up, swiveling to take her in.

It surprised him how steadily she stared, like she was trying to drink him in through her pores.

The technicians lowered Sheppard's stretcher, moving him from the room. She reacted to that, let that pull her eyes from Wallace and toward the glass.

"What are you to Sheppard?" he said to her.

She considered his question, a faint furrow touching her brow. Her lips parted. She glanced at him and away, but turned her gaze to him in the end, and let her gaze tell him things, though she herself said nothing.

"General Landry, who is this woman?"

"This is Miss Teyla Emmagan of the Athosian civilization, one of our alien partners."

Wallace's hands fell to his side. "You know Sheppard?"

"I do," she finally answered.

"How do you know him? Do you work with him?"

"I carry his child."


Epilogue: The Return


He saw Dr. Lam before he heard her, saw her through slitted eyes as a wave of nausea nailed his back to the stretcher. Then it felt as though his brain switched from low gear to high and he was alert.

Lam wrapped cool fingers around his wrist, checking his pulse. "What's your name?"

He blinked. "John Sheppard."

"What day is it?"

He told her.

"What's the last thing you remember?"

"You."

She smiled a little, evidently deciding he was fit to get a lecture. "Even with a medical doctor present, what you did was risky."

"They told me," John said. "An innocent man's future was at stake."

"That's why I agreed, but I never, ever want to do that again." Looking over her shoulder, "General O'Neill sent you a visitor, so I assume he thinks this is a good idea. My heartfelt recommendation? Fix this. I'm going to leave you to it." When she moved away from the stretcher, she cleared his line of sight. "Colonel?"

John said, "Yes?" But he wasn't the Colonel she meant.

Facing the man behind her, she exhaled forcefully. "General O'Neill tells me you're cleared to know about nanite technology. So, Colonel, my infirmary is where Sharon Wallace died. Before she arrived here, she'd been given the nanite prototype you call SMLG. We tried to save her. I don't appreciate someone calling my facility a hole. In fact, the technology here is ... well, let's just say there's no place like it on Earth. Gentlemen." She strolled away.

John groaned. This made no sense, no sense at all. He'd risked his life. As Dr. Lam said, getting dosed with a fast-acting barbiturate was nothing to take lightly. The up side was the permanent absence of Richard Wallace from his life. Not a fair trade off, but a trade, nonetheless.

And in the interest of fairness--

"More than a little surprised to be looking at you, sir," John said.

"Can't say the same," Wallace retorted, and with his hands in his pockets, he moved closer to John's stretcher. He raised his head and made a sweep of the infirmary. "They put you at the edge of a coma, turned off the heart monitor, and let me watch. Nice big brass ones on your commanding officers."

"Well, they stop short of killing their own people."

"I'm career military, Sheppard. I know that. Interesting seeing how far they'd go to make sure you had the freedom to return to your outpost and your work."

"I don't know about that. Not a lot of it was about me."

"Who was it supposed to be about, me?" He locked his arms over his chest. "You've obviously never spent any real time in covert ops or Washington. And now I'm getting a whatever do you mean look. What do I mean? I dumped a truckload of pressure on a top secret organization when I didn't know what you were or who you were ... but I knew if you were shadow ops, you, they, or someone was going to come see me.

"That's where your boy scout leadership went wrong.

"They didn't have to offer you up. They only had to get rid of me. And isn't that what we were talking about from the beginning, people eliminating the troublesome people in their lives?

"If you were real bastards, you would have left Cummings in lock-up and taken away my motivation. And that confession? Nobody confesses without a reason. Nobody does that.

"You people, you all wanted to send everybody home with a door prize. I rather enjoyed watching the show, given the circumstances. You like working here?"

John said, "You have no idea."

"I'm cleared to know about wormholes, midway stations in space, and the unexpected but useful fact we can mate with women from other planets. I think I can handle the truth about my brother's death."

"You know the truth."

"Uh-huh, you let him die, I get that. I want to know why. I want to know what you're holding back." While John was thinking about it, Wallace threw open his arms. "Want to play I'll show you mine, you show me yours? Try this. Do you know why my brother called the nanotechnology project SMLG? It meant Save My Little Girl. He was worth fifteen million this time last year and almost bankrupt when he died. That's a hefty chunk of change he threw at you, your research teams, and your security. He was the smartest man I knew, and after Sheila died he lived for his daughter. So believe me when I say if Henry came at you, I know he gave you a run for all he was worth. Now, tell me what you left out. Make me understand what happened."

"Care to sit down, sir?"

"No, thank you, I'll stand."

John nodded.

And then he told Wallace about the prototype, its failure, the way the nanites broke down inside Sharon, and the way they were breaking down in Jeannie. He told Wallace how the nanites got inside Sharon and Jeannie, and why. And how they all hoped to fix the problem, why it wasn't good enough for Sharon, and why it worked for Jeannie.

He told Wallace about the Wraith. That part took a while. He told Wallace about Henry, and telling Henry about the Wraith. That part went quickly.

When he was done, he lay staring at a dead spot on the wall, and that was pretty much how he felt.

"I'm very sorry for your loss."

Wallace slipped his hands into his pockets, stepped into the aisle between beds, and began the long walk to the exit.

John heard the tap of Wallace's shoes on the tiles, and then he heard something else, a soft but visceral sound, breathy and broken, the beginning of a sob.


DISCLAIMER: "Stargate SG-1," "Stargate Atlantis," and its characters are the property of MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp., Showtime/Viacom and USA Networks, Inc. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations and story are the property of the author and may not be republished or archived elsewhere without the author's permission.