Title: Imago-The Tao of John
Author: Kristen999
Word Count; 49759
Rating: T/Gen
Characters: Sheppard, Ronon, Rodney, Teyla, Elizabeth, Carson
Spoilers: Season 3 "The Tao of Rodney"
Summary: Imago: a creature in its final stage of development. John receives a gift that might be used to destroy the Wraith. It might also kill him. Can his team convince him that the cost is too high? Team plus Carson and Elizabeth. "Tao of Rodney" AU

Written for the SGA Big Bang's Forks in the Road: Tao of Rodney - John's the one accidentally caught in the machine.

This will be posted in four parts over the next few days. It is complete.

Notes: I want to thank my wonderful betas Frisco and everybetty for their wonderful suggestions and swift ,amazing beta skills! You guys rock!

Special thanks to greyias for all those write offs in the middle of the night and timely geek talk. Also applause to D1 for the most incredible cheer leading and feedback!

Extra Note: I do not have a huge science background. I did a ton of research until I understood most things, but I'm sure there are mistakes and they are my own.

The lower levels of Atlantis were their version of catacombs, one unmapped corridor after another, swallowed up by darkness. The air reeked of mold and their boots sloshed through an inch of standing water from previous flooding. John felt in tune with the city, exploring its depths during morning runs or hiding out in corners to think. Her piers were extravagant invitations to the ocean and her towers, observation decks to the sky. For all the beauty and mystery of their surroundings, no one truly understood the scope that was hidden from them.

Sub-levels were off-limits to most personnel because they lacked the resources or manpower to secure the areas. Hidden treasures lurked in the sleeping corridors, and it only took one bumble to remind them of the many dangers. He trained his P-90 in a clockwise circle, the light illuminating the dents and damage in the hall. He regretted not snagging a pair of night-vision goggles; it would make detecting something stolen from Star Wars easier.

"How big is the thing you lost again?"

"It escaped," McKay corrected.

John graphed every inch of empty space with his eyes. "Golf ball? Tennis ball?"

"I'm not sure. I was too busy making a tactical evasion to pull out my measuring tape," McKay snipped.

"You mean a tactical retreat?" John mocked with a smile.

"Actually, he ducked behind the nearest console," Zelenka spoke up. "I estimate the diameter to be around a half-meter. Closer to a cantaloupe."

"Because your knowledge of produce is so extensive that you can rattle measurements off the top of your head. Did you work as a grocer to pay for candles during those long winters as a kid?" McKay said.

Zelenka peered up from his scanner. "I picked up fresh food from the local market for my mother every day for dinner. You are just sore because you activated the thing."

"I did no such thing. I think you were the one who--"

"Could we tone it down until we find the floating ball that's programmed to avoid detection, open doors, and oh... happens to shoot lasers?" John groused.

The problem with playing hide-and-go-seek with scary alien tech was the unpredictability factor. There were no guarantees that it wasn't hunting back. The bowels of Atlantis were a fun time on a day off, an adventure of labyrinths inside Tron. The city fluttered like a weak pulse inside his mind; he could really lose himself down here.

John signaled two of the Marines to flank the sides of an unexplored room; this was the tenth one today. On a silent count of three, he palmed the sensor and the door slid open.

Corporal Ramirez and Sergeant Timms burst through with John right behind them. Three beams of light crisscrossed the empty void, clearing the area.

After the sweep he tapped his radio. "Lorne, this is Sheppard. We've just swept Sector 163-C. Moving towards 163-D. No sign of the boogie."

"Copy that, Colonel. We've just covered Sector 186-A through F with no luck. I'll relay to the other teams."

"Keep me updated," John replied, blocking McKay's beeline inside. "There's no time to inspect every room we come across. We have a lot more ground to cover."

"You have no idea what could be lurking inside. Who knows what--"

"It was nothing. No equipment, no cool gadgets. We can backtrack later."

McKay geared up for a long-winded retort – finger in the air, long inhale of oxygen – but John didn't give him a chance to unload. "Only scientists who don't let UFOs loose in the city are allowed to argue."

"It wasn't a spaceship," McKay huffed, boots trudging after him.

"But it was an unidentified flying object," John deadpanned.

It was fast approaching hour four of their search and he was getting bored. His uniform top and T-shirt underneath were damp from the moisture in the air, the temperature chilling his skin. "On the last trip from Earth, I grabbed Spiderman 3," he mentioned to break the monotony.

"I'd rather do an inventory of my lab," McKay sniped.

"It couldn't be that bad."

"Might be in the top ten worst comic book adaptations, I've been told."

"Like X-Men 3, bad?"

"More like The Hulk."

"What's wrong with The Hulk?"

"It was boring. Not to mention that whoever they got to play Bruce Banner was totally horrible," McKay commented, walking beside him.

"We did get those Hulk foam hands out of the deal," John said, enjoying the snort of contempt.

"Only you would think those things were cool, Colonel." McKay's light bounced in uncoordinated jerky motions over the walls. "Ang Lee directed it; that's all I'm saying."

"You don't like cowboy movies?" John held up his hand, blocking the beam that blinded his face. "Do you mind?"

McKay shifted his P-90 back toward the hall. "I meant that Mr. Crouching Tiger's kung-fu movies don't qualify him to tackle one of the biggest Marvel heroes ever."

"I dunno; I'm thinking Steel with Shaq was pretty awful."


"Shaquille O'Neal, great basketball player."

"Oh." McKay panned his weapon along the ground. "I bet this place is a breeding ground for rats. Polluted water, dark, creepy tunnels."

"There is nothing for rats to eat down here," Zelenka pointed out.

John scanned the ceiling, searching for holes or any other defects after millennia of disrepair. He wondered if Manhattan would look like this if ever abandoned. "Batman Returns," he offered to halt the bickering behind him about rodents and sewers.

"Wrong, once again. Batman and Robin was way worse," McKay said adamantly. "Codpieces, Colonel."

"Right," John admitted before taking over point.

Damn it, where was this thing? His stomach growled, the soggy waffles from earlier now a distant memory.

"Superman IV was dreadful."

McKay spun around to regard his fellow geek. "No one asked your opinion, Zelenka."

"He's right," John defended. "Nuclear Man sucked."

"Fine, fine. Catwoman. Worst comic book movie ever," McKay declared.

Everyone had a good chuckle, and Corporal Ramirez turned to his CO. "We're entering 163-D, sir."

"Okay, let's stay on our toes," John replied.

The lower levels of the city were gridded in order to map the place for exploration later on. They were following a single long hallway, clearing rooms as they came upon them. Teyla, Ronon, and Major Lorne were leading three other teams and exploring parallel halls to cover more ground. There was the possibility that what they were tracking would double back, but they had no intel on the thing's programming.

John held up his hand; a set of large double doors loomed ahead.

In Atlantis, large rooms equaled science labs.

Labs produced weapons, nanites, viruses, and alarmingly elusive drones.

He signaled Timms and Ramirez to take their positions with McKay and Zelenka holding in the rear. John nodded his head, and for the eleventh time today, his finger curled around the trigger, waiting for a blur of motion that could kill them.

The three of them swooped in, dividing up the room, rubber soles clomping over the slate floor.



It was a cool looking lab with rows of consoles and a large screen that hung in the middle. There was enough equipment to keep a science team busy for days. John stood in the middle, squinting from the lack of light while his heart slowed from a wild gallop. "Looks like a--"

"Oh, wow! This is awesome." McKay's voice was awed behind him.

Zelenka hurried past him with a kid-in-a-candy-shop expression of glee. "This definitely looks promising."

"Guys," John warned. It didn't matter; McKay was already powering up his laptop. "Seriously, we can't hang around here."

His two geeks were too absorbed with the playground they'd stumbled upon to heed his warning. McKay blew a layer of dust from a panel, fingers adjusting and fiddling with sensors and buttons. "I think this is the main one here," he announced, searching for a port to insert his computer.

Zelenka hovered over his own set of controls with several dormant monitor displays as he tapped a finger to his chin. "I am not sure, but I think this is what powers everything."

John never dropped his guard, eyes alert for unexpected motion, right hand still gripping his weapon. Both Marines floated about cautiously, staying away from the equipment that began to hum to life.

John walked over to where his teammate was preoccupied. "Rodney, we have a mission to complete."

A gigantic screen much like the ones in the gate room glowed with scrolling, unreadable Ancient text. He watched the green lettering zip along in a very Matrix-like manner, thousands of lines of streaming code flashing over the two by three meter display.

"What is this?"

"I have no idea," McKay answered.

John spun around from the screen. "Isn't this how you released our roaming ball of fun? A thing we still haven't found yet?"

McKay waved his hand in the air. "It activated when I got near it. I didn't even touch the damn thing, unlike the hundreds of devices you've happened to turn on just by looking at them."

"We can't stay here," John urged.

"It only fired at me when I pointed my weapon at it, and the scorch marks left behind were minimal."

"Was this before or after you jumped behind a console?"

The scientist glared at him. "Before. It perceived me as a threat. It's probably a defensive weapon."

"And for the past ten hours it has eluded all our teams, and we have no idea if it's adapting to our tactics or gathering intel to attack us. So until then, we unplug all our toys and keep looking for it," John ordered.

"Ten minutes. Just give us ten minutes to figure out what type of lab this was so we know who to bring along to examine it," McKay asked.

"I dunno, Rodney."

"Consider it a break. We still earn those you know. Even while hunting... Jedi training spheres."

John exhaled, thinking it over. They'd been slumming in the dank, cold underbelly of the city for hours without stopping. Chilling out for a few might recharge the batteries. "Fine."

McKay's eyes lit up at the prospect of attacking a new puzzle; it had been a while since they had discovered anything promising.

"Teams Two, Three, and Four, this is Sheppard," he said into his comm. "We're taking ten. You guys might want to do the same."

The other groups checked in, taking the rest to keep them all searching in the same zones. John pulled out a power bar and unwrapped it. "With all their advancements, I wonder why the Ancients never learned to make signs. Simple things. Bathrooms. Laundry rooms. Bioweapons labs."

Timms and Ramirez covered the door, each leaning against a wall while the geeks drooled over equipment that powered on all around them. John strolled toward a standalone console, gazing at the large platform that jutted out from under it. There were panels with multicolored crystals in shades of blue to purple and a small oval screen above it.

Nibbling on his oatmeal raisin bar, he studied controls that reminded him of an old church organ. Only there was a second shelf containing a computer keyboard with three times the normal number of buttons.

"I bet this is the most complicated scale known to man," he said under his breath, nudging the metal platform with the toe of his boot.

"Rodney, I'm picking up a surge in power," Zelenka warned. "What are you doing over there?"

"I'm trying to reroute these energy readings. Give me a moment," McKay said over his klicking keypad.

"Maybe we should just shut everything down. We only have a few minutes left."

"I know what I'm doing, Radek."

John shook his head; it looked like the children couldn't play nice during recess. "Kids."

A charge of static electricity sizzled through the air; the hair along his arms and the back of his neck stood on end.

"Rodney, do you feel something?" he asked.

"Busy here," McKay snapped.

The panel behind John started humming, lighting up like a Christmas tree with a sudden jolt of power.

"I think you activated this," John announced.

"Colonel," Zelenka cautioned.

An energy pulse shot out of the machine, and warm sensations of current swirled around and through John's body. Every inch of skin tingled, his eyes filling with each color of the rainbow, but in a single heartbeat it was over.

A collection of voices assailed his ears, and it took a moment to recognize his name.

"Whoa," he said, swaying. "That was strange."

Hands clutched at his arms and shoulders until the head rush was over. "I'm fine," he said, brushing away the help.

John glanced around at the now dark, silent room. His Marines were on alert, chattering into their comms, and McKay's anxious face hovered only inches away. "Rodney," he growled.

The man didn't budge, eyes nearly bulging out in panic. "You're going to sit down. A med team's on its way."

"I feel fine."

"Are you kidding me? You just got zapped by an unidentified Ancient machine, and you're going to get examined before you..."

"... before I what?" John demanded, not liking the implication.

McKay's face fell, and the words caught in the scientist's throat at suggesting the very real, very scary, possibility that he'd been exposed to something. John swallowed a lump, mind filling with a million possible outcomes from another freaking hidden lab with experimental technology. He cataloged every part of his body, searching for weird anomalies, calming his breathing that had him doing an impersonation of a marathon runner.

There was no time for overreacting; he had to get a grip for the sake of the people around him. "Okay, cancel the med team though. I'll walk to the infirmary."

He flexed his hands; nothing unusual there. His feet worked just fine, holding his weight as he moved. "Make sure to turn everything off," he ordered.

McKay was glued to his side, face twitching in nervousness as Zelenka powered down machines they had been in such a hurry to activate. His Marines escorted him out into the hall, extra attentive to their surroundings with a strange Ancient object still presenting a threat.

He really did feel all right, but his earlier paranoia didn't taper off. Almost turning into a bug could really change a guy.

Atlantis' bounty included state of the art medical technology that the best hospitals on Earth would kill for. The Ancient scanner started at John's boots, the green laser etching patterns across his body. The procedure was harmless; it never hurt or tickled. That didn't stop a slight quiver inside, the part of him not on display for all to witness. He laid there, the perfect embodiment of cool and relaxed.

He felt like they had spun a roulette wheel with a fifty-fifty chance that the results would come back red instead of black.

Carson handled the examination personally, all smooth smiles and honest eyes. He tapped a few buttons and returned the scanner to the corner. "There we go. All done."

John sat up immediately. "How long?"

"Always cutting to the chase?"

"Was never much for prologues."

"Aye, bet you skipped right to the last page of a book." Carson would make a great politician, always making the unknown sound fine. He slipped his PDA into a lab pocket, folding his hands in front of him. "I studied the initial readings, and everything looks right as rain. Your blood work should be back any minute, and I'll have an analysis of the data from this in a jiffy."

John only feared relapses of blue scales and insect eyes. "I'm not worried, Doc."

Carson patted his knee. "Just relax."

The gesture was meant to be comforting. If things were dicey the Scotsman went for the shoulder.

McKay wasted no time storming over, his emotions erupting in a flurry of energy. "What's the verdict?"

John dangled his legs over the table. "Nothing yet. Heard anything from the search teams?" he asked, changing the subject.

"What? No, I haven't been paying attention. Elizabeth won't let me take a team back over to study the device until we know if it's safe. For all we know you could have been exposed to radiation or gamma waves or--"

"Green kryptonite."

Humor worked for John, distracting the attention away from him. It broke the ice, defusing emotional situations that threatened to overwhelm all those around. McKay diverted worked-up adrenaline into verbal rants, spewing anxiety like a geyser.

It took a moment to notice the finger snapping.

"Have you been paying me any attention at all?"

"No," John replied.

It was amazing the different shades of red and purple McKay's complexion flushed when he let go of all that steam. "I'm glad that you find this a laugh a minute, Colonel. Some of us are actually wasting our precious time worrying over what that energy thing did to you. Not to mention any side-effects for those who might have been exposed by default."

His teammate took a seat on the bed opposite of John to catch his breath, his hair frazzled in all directions. "I think I'm feeling the first signs of whatever you radiated me with."

That was the Rodney that he knew and loved. "If we both morph into Wolverine, think of all the cool things we could do."

"Oh, please not that. I don't want hair all over my body; your whole permanent five o'clock shadow thing is enough."

"Women dig a little scruff," he said, rubbing along his rough jaw line.

"I'd prefer a mutant a little less ruthless. Like Spiderman or Superman."

He resisted checking the scar on the inside of his arm. "Done the whole bug-man thing already," John said, clenching his jaw. "Plus, Superman got all his power from our orange sun; that doesn't count."

The awkward silence was exactly why he hated these situations. People avoided eye contact out of a fumbling sense of concern, only intensifying the spotlight on the possible problem. Thankfully, the sounds of approaching footsteps signaled an interruption. Relief turned to uneasiness; Elizabeth added an unknown to the equation, her presence both a comfort and a wrench to the precarious balance he had on things. "Hey," he said, jumping off the exam bed.

"John, I came as soon as I could."

"There was no need to," he replied hastily. "Carson didn't see anything weird during the first set of tests."

"That's good news. I'm glad I took the extra time to finish a few emails then." She smiled, improving on her bedside manner by acting casual.

"There's more where that came from," Carson's cheery voice echoed loudly.

Knots he didn't know were there loosened between John's shoulder blades. "Good news?"

"Every x-ray, scan and, blood test came back normal. The machine did nothing to ya." Carson beamed, waving a PDA around like the Holy Grail. "You're cleared to resume your normal duties."

The sounds of the infirmary came all rushing in; his surroundings had been nothing but a blanket of white noise before. John broke into a goofy grin, the hidden weights disappearing. "Awesome. Told ya it was nothing."

"Oh, thank goodness." McKay sagged in alleviation.

Elizabeth beamed at a disaster averted. "I'll inform Major Lorne that'll you'll help out the search in the morning so he can adjust the duty roster."

John grabbed his jacket, slipping into the sleeves. "I can go back and help now."

"No, it's getting late, and we already have teams out there. You can start fresh in the morning if it's not caught tonight," Elizabeth said in a tone that quartered no argument.

He knew that determined expression. "Maybe I'll check in with them later," John tossed casually, walking away.

"They'll be fine on their own. Let's not push our luck today."

Still on a stressed-induced high, McKay interrupted John's retort. "Does this mean I can go back and take a look at that room now that we know the machine's not dangerous? Good, I'll go track down Zelenka, and we'll begin working on it."

John was guided out of the infirmary in a rush, McKay whispering to him the entire time. "Quickly! If we're out of earshot then we're not disobeying orders."

He quickened his pace, tagging along with Rodney to get back in range to track down the stupid alien device that had begun this whole ordeal.

"We need to stop by my lab first."

"Then the armory," John replied.

"Whatever. As long as you don't shoot the stuff we're trying to analyze."

Some days John had the most exciting job in the world.

Trying to wrangle a scientist away from a white board, surrounded by the brain trust of Atlantis was an unenviable task. Add a series of complex math equations and geek talk, and you had a recipe for massive hand waving in between shouting matches. McKay entered the lab to fetch Zelenka, instantly getting embroiled in their discussion. He spent most of his time ridiculing the others until the rest of the geeks left in clouds of smoke. John hooked his boot around a stool leg and yanked it close enough to watch the verbal tennis match before him.

"Do I need to remind you that there are no known particles that have negative mass? That's the problem. We can't reproduce the acceleration at zero energy with the necessary repulsive force of negative inertia," McKay fumed. "It makes all this gibberish theoretical," he said, jabbing a finger at the board.

"That is why finding dark matter is the key to--"

"Dark matter? You want to go grocery shopping in a black hole and scoop up some negative energy?"

McKay began pacing, the vein on right temple beating madly.

Zelenka closed his eyes, mouthing, 'One... two... three,' and took a long breath. "Stop interrupting me."

John wondered how many times McKay rolled his eyes at other people, if one day they would just get stuck in their sockets. "It's not interrupting if I'm saving your breath by not allowing you to waste it on nonsense."

"Nonsense?" Zelenka literally vibrated in his shoes. "Big Bang nucleosynthesis models propose that there has to be equal amounts of positive and negative energy when the universe was created."

"Fine. If that's true then why can't we find some?"

McKay's face flashed triumphant in the wake of Zelenka's inability to retort quickly. John raised his hand. "Did I miss the part where Atlantis requires some negative energy soon?"

"Exotic matter with negative energy density is required for a wormhole," McKay said, looking at him like he was a complete moron.

"Quantum mechanics of the Casimir effect can be used to produce a locally mass-negative region of space-time. The negative stabilizes the wormhole to allow faster-than-light speed," Zelenka explained more patiently.

There wasn't very much white space between all the dry-erase marker equations. He recognized calculations for wave vectors and regulators to make infinite expressions. John skipped most of the scribbling, pausing at things that determined energy per unit. "You're trying to dissect a ZPM?"

"No, trying to make one," McKay corrected. "I'm impressed you figured that out."

"What else could solve all our problems?" John shrugged. He patted down his vest for another power bar. "You're talking about a force between objects. Acceleration of an atomic reaction inside a vacuum to produce endless energy. But the negative energy needed to do it --"

"We don't have," Zelenka finished for him, deflated.

"And it's produced in a ZPM. Creating power from vacuum energy, derived from sub-space time. Yadda yadda, yadda. I'm so glad we could have a refresher class on Ancient power sources." McKay glared at his fellow geek as if Radek was responsible for stealing the vital piece of data and hiding it.

"What we need is something we have plenty of."

John's stomach growled loudly, reminding him that he was starving, but something Radek said klicked. "Water."

There were no snide comments, making him think he hit the light bulb moment; however the two sets of eyes staring at him said differently. "Don't look at me like that. We're surrounded by an ocean," he defended.

"Oh yes, of course. Sail power. We'll just race boats out there," McKay snarked.

Zelenka busied himself at the board, erasing and correcting parts of the calculation, sheepishly looking over his shoulder. "I'm sure if we could use the ocean we would."

Being ridiculed didn't bother John one bit; it was par for the course. The odd thing was, the more he thought about the simplicity of creating energy, the more sense it made. "I'm not talking about actually using water. I'm talking about dumbing it down. Produce the energy we need with what we have."

"I see; I'll just go to my quarters and create a mini-universe with a few spare parts and tap it with my magic wand." McKay peered at the equation in front of him, snagging a marker. "The integer is in the wrong place."

John watched the two scientists bicker over the equations. "We've split the atom, right? We've also combined them together. Smashing two large nuclei together makes things unstable, and that releases energy, too."

"Congratulations. You just passed high school Chemistry 101." McKay furiously erased a segment of numbers. "I said that was wrong, Radek."

Zelenka stepped away, crossing his arms in irritation and turned to John. "You're talking about fusion, but it takes a lot of energy for it to work. Two nuclei normally repel each other. It takes massive amounts of kinetic energy from particle accelerators to make them merge even for the seconds needed. We're talking about gigantic structures that reach millions of degrees."

Something didn't feel right; John couldn't put his finger on it. "I know that. We get crap like radiation. But what about all those theories that you can create the same thing at room temperature?"

"Are you nuts? Cold fusion, Colonel? Did that beam fry your brain? Maybe Carson should x-ray your head, see if anything's missing."

"Just a few minutes ago you were bitching about trying to find matter out of a black hole. Even I know that sounds pretty impossible. How difficult would it be for the smartest people in the galaxy to try something that doesn't sound so... so crazy?"

John found himself on his feet, eyes darting at the puzzle before him. He took the dry-erase marker and added two missing parts despite the protests. "You forgot to consider the hbar is half when used with the constant."

The words slipped off his tongue before he thought of what he was saying. John enjoyed watching his friend work himself into a lather, mocking his work until he realized the equation was correct. Zelenka pushed up his glasses, fingers cupping his chin.

John's belly took the moment of astonishment to make its hunger known again, growling loudly. "Okay, I'm going to grab a quick dinner before going after the drone. You coming, Rodney?"

The idea of Brunswick stew and baked chicken was a combination he couldn't resist. Normally the chow line was a choose-your-own-adventure. Meals were a mix of traded foodstuffs overly spiced to cover up the real taste and frozen commodities from Earth. Tonight he scooped a mound of pinto beans next to a stack of carrots, soggy canned corn, and some Athosian vegetable, then carried his heavily laden tray over to the table already occupied by his teammates.

Teyla arched an amused eyebrow at the high pile of grub, and Ronon tried to snag one of his brownies.

John slapped his fingers away. "Back off, buddy."

"You have two of 'em."

"I haven't eaten since breakfast this morning," John whined, cutting up the stew with surgical precision. "I heard the search ended in a bust."

Ronon dipped his bread into his gravy, soaking it all up. "Didn't find a thing. Captain Rhodes relieved us, and his people are looking."

"Between all our teams we covered fifty sectors and nothing. It is like a needle in hay," Teyla said, folding her napkin. "Major Lorne's team thought they sighted it in sector 221, but it was too quick."

"Did any of them actually see it?" John asked, mulling over a way to flush it out.

"No, it was a blur. We tried coordinating our teams to cut it off, but there was no sign of it."

He looked over at Teyla, noticing the weariness in her face, the exhaustion of running around the damp city for over ten hours. "We'll find it. We've got both those levels blocked off to keep it from escaping." John didn't relish how much manpower it was going to take to cover five-hundred sectors; the corridors were the size of city blocks down there.

"If it's that fast, might get by our guys," Ronon added. "Small flying things are hard to track."

"Has Dr. McKay not found a reason for its programming? Maybe if we know what it is doing, we could predict where it would go."

John started in on the chicken. "Thought of that," he chewed, answering Teyla. "We know it's some kind of drone. Used for scouting."

"Or it's a first strike object. It has weapons."

"True, but only when McKay aimed his P-90 at it," John muttered as he shoveled in the dumplings. "I'm betting its primary focus is to gather intel; speed and agility are our problems." He mapped out the sub-levels in his head, wondering how the search would affect its movements. Would it continue to evade? Or would its objective change and try to seek out people?

His eyes wandered the mess hall, groups of soldiers and civilians enjoying their time off. Bursts of laughter, moments of private interchange, and bouts of rowdy debate. The room thrummed with life, emotion of all types reflected in the many faces. John dragged his attention away, spotting Rodney's rush to get in line for dinner.

"Someone's late," Ronon chuckled.

"I think he was preoccupied," John grinned.

It didn't take long for McKay to wind his way over to the table, glaring at him as he sat. "I spent the last half hour rechecking that equation."

He looked up innocently, fork scraping his tray for the last of the beans. "Yeah?"

"It was a simple oversight from hours of slopping through rat infested waters, depriving me of sleep. When did you learn about polar coordinates?" McKay stopped long enough to poke at his stew. "Some jerk took the last of the chicken, the freaking nerve."

John honestly didn't know what polar coordinates were or what Rodney was fussing about. It just seemed right to add the fraction. The hbar function must have been in the back of his mind, collecting dust. He was about to joke about Rodney getting slow when a tiny blur out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.

His chair tipped over, and he was five steps away from the table, gun drawn, before he noticed his friends rushing to join him moments later.

Ronon was beside him, weapon at ready. Teyla at his flank.

"What the hell are you doing?" McKay squawked instantly behind him.

Marines were on their feet, and everyone else stared at John slightly panicked.

There was a streak of motion, over ninety miles an hour, the speed of a Major League fastball, dashing across the horizon.

People screamed.

The sphere rotated, crossing the room again even faster.

"There it is!"

Ronon discharged his weapon, red blasts hitting the wall where the sphere had been a second before.

"Everyone down. Take cover!" John shouted.

The sphere reacted, firing at the scattering the crowd.

Two-point-three seconds later, it took off like a shot to the eastern corner of the room.

Guns aimed at it. The object zipped over their heads a moment later.

"It won't stay still long enough," Teyla hissed.

Ronon fired again, energy blasts missing, the drone off like a dart.

Two-point-two seconds that time.

A sergeant trained his Bernetta in the air, and the sphere did a fly-by.

"Get down, Milsap!" John fired a half second ahead of time, causing the object to adjust course to avoid being hit, lasers missing the Marine by inches.

The weaponized ball rotated at John's four o'clock and one-point-seven seconds later, hovered at his eight o'clock. John narrowed his eyes, fired six meters opposite of the device, the sphere nearly running into his hail of bullets.

He smiled.

"Ronon, Teyla. On my mark, fire where I tell you."

There were no questions, only the movement of bodies getting into position.

The sphere zigzagged overhead.

One-point-three seconds.


"Two o'clock!"

They shot at empty space. John aimed three meters away, striking the sphere as it ran into his line of fire and knocking it down.

Ronon slapped him on the back of his shoulder. "Nice shot."

"How the hell did you do that?" McKay stared at him wide-eyed. "I mean, you really didn't anticipate its next move, did you?"

Teyla joined the circle surrounding the downed drone. "That was very clever, Colonel. It was so fast."

John holstered his gun. "Just picked up on a pattern," he said, ignoring McKay's skeptical expression. "I want to know why it entered the mess hall and more importantly, how."

"No one with the gene should touch it. I'll radio my lab. This means you," McKay pointed at John. "Back away. Don't even breathe on it."

A science team in protective gear entered and secured the device, McKay following the group out of the mess hall. John had a long report to write up on this and decided to get a head start. He ignored McKay's demand that he explain how he shot the thing down; his mind was already buzzing with other things.

He was inside his quarters before he realized how he got there.

John powered on his laptop, typing up notes on today's long search for the missing piece of Ancient tech. He really needed to formulate a more efficient template for mission reports, and before he knew it, he was constructing one in Excel. He didn't know the time; the light from the moon told him it was after midnight yet he was too wired to go to sleep.

Sighing, he picked up his copy of Golf Digest and noticed a pad of paper next to it. He wasn't in the mood to read and, for whatever reason, followed the impulse to begin writing. It never occurred to him to stop to think about what he was scribbling; things just began pouring out of his fingers.

What accounts for the absence of particles that are familiar in ordinary hot fusion, such as the neutrons D + -- n + 3He and the high energy y-ray of D + D-- y + 4He?

The HD reaction p + d -- 3He does not have an accompanying y-ray; the excess energy is taken up by the metallic lattice of Pd alloyed with D. Concerning the oft repeated demand for a control experiment using H20, one should note the possibility of a converse effect of the HD reaction: Through the natural presence of D20 in ordinary water, such control experiments might produce an otherwise puzzling amount of heat.

John blinked at his chicken scratch perplexed, but it made a weird kind of sense to him, and he continued to write.

The Ancients really knew how to design showers; they gushed out heavy streams of soothing water at intense temperatures before the safety features kicked in. He needed a powerful force to ease the knots after waking up with a crick in his neck at his desk. John toweled and changed, glancing at the spiral-bound notebook filled with ten pages of stuff he didn't recall writing. No wonder he felt so wrung out; his mind could never rest if it was too absorbed in something.

It was odd; applied psychics had never been his thing despite a BA in Aeronautical Engineering. He dismissed the peculiar thought and stepped into the hall with Ronon who was already warming up for their daily run.

"What route today?"

"Let's go to the West Pier," John suggested.

His friend only grunted in response before taking off. Normally they headed toward the more isolated areas to avoid others. Today he wanted a shorter trek, a simple five miles to shake off the lethargy from lack of sleep. The cool thing about these early morning runs was the feeling of freedom. Ronon always pushed him to his limits but never really broke the mood with too much talking.

John kept his strides long and loose, allowing his muscles to stretch. The human body was a graceful set of aerodynamics. It was all about rhythm: legs, arms, heart and lungs syncing into place while the city buzzed around him. Sometime into the second mile, he hit a perfect balance, his mind and body separating until he wasn't conscious of his feet hitting the ground.

This was the sweet spot, a warmth flowing throughout his limbs, burning away excess stress. He savored the peace and tranquility of being in perfect harmony with his outside environment. The peak of the runner's high began hitting him. It was funny how endorphins--

Endorphins are any group of opiate proteins with pain-relieving properties that are found naturally in the brain. The word "endorphin" comes from endogenous, meaning "produced within the body," and morphine, a chemical substance derived from opium that elevates mood and reduces pain. Endorphins in turn are neurotransmitters that are chemically similar to morphine.

"Whoa." John stopped and almost stumbled.

"You okay?"

He gave his head a shake, clearing the words out of his head. "Yeah, just..." John looked into the perplexed face of his friend. "Nothing. One of those weird moments."

Ronon seemed satisfied he wasn't bleeding or had sprained an ankle. "Are we going to have to jog now?"

"No, smartass," John snorted. He took off like a shot past his friend.

It took about three seconds before he was eating Ronon's dust, an evil grin tugging on the other man's lips. After being reminded that his running partner was over ten years younger and in better shape, things evened out as his teammate slowed his pace alongside him.

"I'm glad we're not looking for that thing anymore," Ronon said, his breathing even and steady.

"Yeah, it was a pain in the ass."

"It smelled bad down there."

The idea that Ronon was put off by foul odors made John chuckle on the inside. "It did reek."

"Don't put me on Reynolds' team anymore."

It wasn't often that Ronon complained about duty rosters. "No? Why not?"

"He's careless. He jumps signal counts," Ronon growled then increased his speed. "If there'd been an enemy, his timing would have killed people."

The selection process used for duty assignment to Atlantis was rigorous; it was annoying to run into a situation like this. "I'll talk to his Marine captain, see if we can work that out," John huffed, lengthening his stride. They couldn't afford screw-ups in basic sweep and clear procedures. One soldier could ruin a cohesive unit.

"Already mentioned something to him."

"Did it involve a wall?"

Very few people ever witnessed the way those eyes could light up with mischief. "Maybe." Ronon feigned innocence.

They hit the third mile, a long path over large overarching catwalks. John heard the rubber-soled boots of an approaching platoon. Atlantis was a twenty-four seven beacon of activity, the military up at dawn, the geeks burning midnight oil.

"I told ya I got the latest issue, and she was smokin'. All long legs and natural blonde hair."

"Whatever, Perkins. I prefer that new vid that Gunny has on his laptop. Who gives a rat's ass about Hustler?"

"Will you two shut the fuck up? I don't care about your smuggled porn. A few of us are hitting the real thing."

"Screw you, Polanski. No one wants to hear about your conquests. All I know is I saw that new LT arrive the other day."

John rolled his eyes, knowing exactly which lieutenant the jarheads were jabbering about. It always happened when any new female officers or civilians arrived. The ratio of males to females on the expedition was close to eight to one. He came to an intersection, looking both ways to see which direction the group was jogging from, only to find both halls empty.

He ran in place, keeping his legs nimble, wondering where the hell they were.


He ignored his buddy. The clomping drew closer, the cadence nearly on top of him yet there were no Marines in sight.

"What's the matter?" Ronon's voice was alert.

John brushed his fingers over the butt of his Beretta. Ronon was antsy, blaster drawn, head pivoting in search of danger.

The small unit appeared out of the east corridor, a flurry of legs and bouncing shaved heads. John tapped Ronon's hand to put his weapon away. His friend holstered it, glancing between the Marines and his CO suspiciously. The soldiers noticed John's presence right away, nodding as they went by.

They marched away, leaving him and Ronon standing in the middle of the hall.

"Was that another moment?"

John rubbed at the bottom of his neck then scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Just forget it."

The big guy wasn't Rodney; he studied John a second, shrugged and stretched out his legs to keep them from cramping up. "We gonna finish this?"

"Yeah," John replied, one eye on the green camo backs disappearing around a corner.

"You know after that shit in the mess, I bet we'll all being doing dry-fire drills soon," one of the Marines complained.

John took off down the hall, Ronon keeping an eye on him from behind.

"It was a lucky shot, Griggs."

"That's bull, and you know it. The Colonel knows how to handle a piece."

It was difficult for John to keep from stealing glances over his shoulder, the clomping over the hard floor still echoing loudly.

"Stuff it, Perkins. The guy's a bad ass in the field. Got something to do with his genes, I bet."

"Come on. Special ops pilots know how to fire a gun."

Their voices faded long after this bodies, and John was back to controlling his breathing and trying to keep up with Ronon. Tonight he might hit his bunk early; he needed to catch up on his Zs. He regained his earlier rhythm and pushed onward.

"You really think we'll find anything useful in the rest of the city?" Ronon asked.

The question caught him off guard. "Maybe."

"You think they'd have some big weapons to shoot down a hive or something."

"Or another fleet of jumpers," John breathed out. "With cooler guns."

The two laughed, rounding into a large open platform near the pier used to unload cargo from ships in the docking area. They approached the scenic view of their trek, staying under the overhangs, close enough to catch a breeze from the ocean below.

"Still don't know how they did it," Ronon said, awed.

Ronon was smarter than people gave him credit for; he was often judged only on his rugged exterior. John felt honored to have glimpsed the true person inside. Very few knew of the classes the ex-runner had taken in chemistry and other subjects on Atlantis to educate himself further since his days in the Satedan military.

John could relate to snap judgments, superiors who only saw the inside of his service record. He gave Ronon a quizzical look. "How they did what?"

"Made a city float."

It was a question for an engineer or for McKay. John opened his mouth to suggest asking Rodney the next time they ate but found himself answering. "The ballast tanks in the city control the center of gravity and allow for draft."

Ronon slowed down, squinching up his forehead.

"Has to do with positive and negative buoyancy and ballast force and..." John fumbled. "Uh, I'll show you a computer diagram one day," he added.

"You've been hanging out with McKay too much," Ronon said, shaking his head. "Need to get you to the gym or firing range more."

"Maybe you're right."

They entered the last leg of their run, and he could feel his energy levels dipping. He imagined mounds of pancakes, maple syrup, and sausage patties, knowing that chow would consist of scrambled eggs and biscuits. His stomach let him know that a powdered breakfast would suit it just fine.

"You gonna join me in the mess hall?"

"Can't today. Got a class," Ronon replied.

He forgot it was Thursday; Ronon taught an advanced defense course to pupils who adapted well to his fighting techniques. "Good thing I picked the route then."

The gym was around the next corner, and John slowed down despite Ronon's disapproval. Perspiration plastered his hair; tiny beads ran down the back of his neck. Hitting the shower again before breakfast could be seen as a waste of water, but he was sure his teammates would appreciate it. He noticed his running pal had barely broken a sweat.

'Kids', he thought.

"See ya later," Ronon excused himself.

John waved, knowing they all had a mission later in the day. He still needed to go over his notes before the briefing with Elizabeth.

"Mr. Dex, sir. I was wondering if you could show us that takedown technique you used with Teyla the other day."

"That requires you to master the one-handed supku-maneuver."


"That a problem?"

"No, sir."

The conversation carried through the air like the acoustics of an amphitheater. John knew the doors to the gym were closed, and the distance widened the more he ran. The voices soon faded, and a sudden ravenous appetite grabbed his full attention.

"God, I'm turning into McKay. Okay, we'll eat very soon," he patted his stomach while another growl ripped through it.

John entered the jumper bay, startled by men perched high on the catwalks, sparks raining down from their soldering irons. The engineering team yelled orders at one another, signaling to the crane operator which direction to steer a massive steel beam. He made a large circle around the work crew and sought out the nearest hardhat, tapping on the back of it.

"What the hell!" Hardhat guy snapped, turning around to reveal a feminine face and short locks of red hair. "Oh, Colonel Sheppard."

John covered his surprise, smiling. "Hey, um..."

"Sanders, sir. Sergeant Sanders," she replied.

"Well, Sergeant, I'm curious as to what's going on around here," he pointed to the scaffolding and the large equipment.

Brown eyes squinted in confusion from behind safety goggles. "This is a work zone, sir."

"I can see that."

"You didn't get the memo? This was approved weeks ago. We're repairing structural weakness in the hangar bay. The overhead beams are rusted and the rivet joints are stripped. They both need to be replaced or repaired."

John studied the project, nodding. "Very well. Guess I missed it on the weekly maintenance logs."

"Or maybe you didn't read your email," Elizabeth's voice came from behind him.

The sergeant smirked at his 'oh shit' expression. "I'll just get back to work," she said, looking over her shoulder a few times before returning to work.

"I've had a few busy days," John defended, turning around to face his boss.

Elizabeth quirked an eyebrow, obviously not buying his excuse. "Yes, you have. However, we talked about this a couple of weeks ago during our meeting on city infrastructure."

"Was that discussed in hour two or four?"

"It was a very dry and long meeting. Maybe you should record them next time, might help your memory," she teased.

John matched her smile. "I'll be sure to play them whenever I can't fall asleep."

Elizabeth normally didn't see his team off on missions, especially after a briefing. They both opened their mouths to speak at the same time, their words drowned out by a jackhammering sound. After a horrendously long minute of grinding steel on metal, the bay grew quiet again, save for the hollering between workers.

"I was going over your report on the mess hall shooting and recovery of that rogue... what are we calling it?"

"Rogue sphere."

"Rogue sphere," she said, amused.

"Yeah, what about it?" John asked, well aware she was digging for something.

"It lacked some detail I thought." She waited on him, continuing when he had nothing to say. "Sergeant Milsap's report took great pains in documenting your ability in taking it out. It was very..." she chuckled. "Let's say filled with a bit of hero worship. The situation sounded very risky, and he went to great lengths to credit you for saving everyone under impossible circumstances."

"I just typed up what happened," he answered.

"On the off-chance something that dangerous occurs again, I want you to focus on getting everyone out before taking on the super-technologically-advanced... sphere," Elizabeth warned.

"I knew I could handle it," John said automatically. He cleared his throat at her dubious expression. "I promise to be more careful."

"Good to hear. We need to be extra cautious around Ancient technology. I find two encounters with mysterious machines in the same week to be a bit too close for comfort." Elizabeth watched an engineer push a cart stacked with rebar towards the construction set. "You still feeling all right?"

Elizabeth was an expert diplomat, a firm leader, but when it came to nonchalance, her voice gave her concern away. John used his best charming smile. "I'm fine."

"Good. Radek downloaded an entire flash-drive's worth of data from that machine. It's all in Ancient, and I've only scratched the surface translating it."

"Cool, let me know if it has any good golf games on it."

He almost missed the evil look she gave him. John noticed his team enter the bay, all three of them sporting similarly bewildered looks.

"Shouldn't there be a safety area? Where are our hard hats?" Rodney asked, eyes scanning for danger and ducking at a sudden clanking noise.

Teyla and Ronon merely ignored him, walking over.

"Is the mission still on?" Teyla asked, spotting Elizabeth.

"Yes, it is. You guys enjoy working out our new trade agreement terms with the RaKuf. Don't let them strong-arm you on the medical supplies," Elizabeth said, waving goodbye.

"Oh, please. Who cares about how much antiseptic they want? It's worth it to get more of those mineral ores," Rodney snorted, keeping his eyes up high as another shower of sparks filtered down. "A warning next time you try to set us on fire!" he yelled at the construction worker.

John urged him towards the jumper. "Come on, McKay. We don't want to be late."

"How the hell did they get a crane in here anyway?" Rodney wondered.

"Piece by piece," Sergeant Sanders answered, walking by.

John felt a grin tug at his features.

"Please flirt on your own time," Rodney grumbled.

Only McKay could ruin the unexpected flare of giddiness he felt. "Let's go people," John said.

The RaKuf had been hard bargainers in the past; any sign of a fair trade was seen as a weakness. There was little wiggle room once the first offer was made, even if medicines trumped their tasty fruit. Atlantis offered simple solutions to the spread of disease with alcohol, disinfectants, and antibiotics. In return the team secured fresh sources of vegetables, fruits, and an ore that supplied power like supercharged batteries. Alternate sources of fuel or energy were always highly prized. Trading with them was often a chore even though there was no reason for the RaKuf to be so disagreeable. It wasn't as if they often had a chance to trade with people with their gate being orbital.

The jumper exited the wormhole.

Too bad there wasn't a way to detect a culling in progress until it was too late.

"There's a Wraith cruiser in low orbit!" Rodney shouted.

John had already initiated a quick one-eighty turn, heading back toward the gate and engaging the cloak.

A swarm of darts surrounded the orbital ring, firing blindly at their location.


John thrust the shuttle into an almost vertical dip.

"--out... Oh, my God. We're going to die!" McKay yelled.

The tiny craft shook as it dove, missing most of the volley, but a lucky shot hit part of the invisible jumper.

"We just lost the cloak!" McKay hollered unnecessarily.

The way home was blocked by a throng of enemy fighters, forcing John to think, run and shoot at the same time.

A set of four darts chased them; a half dozen more exited the cruiser to join in the fray.

"What are we going to do?"

"Shut up McKay. Let Sheppard fight!" Ronon snapped.

'Come on. You can do this,' John thought. Forget the fact that there were six bogies heading right for them. Find a way.

It hit him all at once.

There were six focal points. Six weapon blasts of energy to avoid.

A three-dimensional grid of vector points flashed before John's eyes. He weaved the jumper in between the blue streaks, firing his own weapons at the two closest targets.

Both bogies exploded.

Eight were left.

Time and distance caught up to them, and the jumper and the other darts barely missed colliding into each other

Teyla gasped.

The ones on their tail opened fire now that there was no danger of hitting their pals. John sent the jumper upwards and hit the braking thrusters, halting it. All four darts whizzed right past them.

He engaged the targeting system, shooting four drones and mentally guiding the projectiles while the rest of the darts came after them from all directions.

Algorithms of target tracks appeared on the HUD with multiple line trajectories. Weapons fire became pulses to avoid. He plotted optimal solutions and flew in and out of the darts shooting at them. He broke left, broke right. The puddle jumper responded instantaneously to his thoughts.

"The drones hit all four darts!" Rodney gasped in disbelief.

That left the four he was evading.

"More are coming from the Hive!" Ronon shouted.

"Activate the gate, Rodney!" John commanded.

He envisioned a full three-sixty view of all incoming targets. Bearings, altitudes, and range. The darts became dotted lines of motion.

"They've dialed the gate! We can't dial out!"

"Not what I wanted to hear, Rodney," John hissed.

His hands were on the yokes out of habit; his brain triggered their course before the jumper was physically capable. "I'm heading toward the planet!" he yelled.

There were twenty darts now, some of them beating him to the atmosphere.

The HUD responded, flashing twenty lines across the screen. All gibberish at first. Then he put together the optimal planar trajectories, understanding the connecting points of field. He saw beyond mere numbers.

Paths intersected at: twelve, thirty-one, forty-five, fifty-three and sixty-eight degrees.

John sent the jumper in an isochronous rendezvous with the darts in front of them while a cluster followed behind. It was tricky, maintaining this path, engaging in impossible maneuvers to avoid being hit from the rear.

"What are you doing, Sheppard? There are darts right in front of us!"

"I know, Rodney," John breathed.

Then he slowed his speed, allowing the darts on their six to get even closer.

"Colonel?" Teyla's nervous voice floated toward him.

All he needed to do was find a trajectory minimizing the flight time between the two positions.

They headed straight toward the five bogies in front of them.

"Hold on!" he yelled.

John threaded the needle, flying three degrees higher over the group. He skimmed right above the first enemy targets, but the darts behind him couldn't adjust fast enough, slamming into their buddies.

Multiple explosions rocked the jumper.

"You made them crash into each other!" Teyla said in awe.

Still ten left.

John fired five drones at once - something he'd never done before – and sent them towards the closest targets. Controlling the projectiles and evading the bogies was an incredible strain.

"Now what?"

"Multitasking here, Rodney," John growled.

"Help him out, McKay! Sheppard can't keep flying like this!" Ronon shouted.

"I'm trying to keep systems functioning while he flies all kamikaze on us!" Rodney hollered back at Ronon.

John dove down, using speed as an advantage, and the jumper shuddered.

The jumper shook again; there were just too many of them. John guided the drones and sought the foothills for cover.

"That one was close!" Rodney shouted.

John lashed out, forcing the drones at unheard of speed, smashing them into four of their five targets. There were still six left, all firing at them. He sent the jumper into a corkscrew, but a shot clipped their engine pod. "I've got to land!"

"There are more darts in the sky," Teyla warned.

"They're probably from the hive that's still trying to cull," Ronon shouted.

The jumper leered right, one side too heavy, and John used all his will and might to guide her down without killing them. They struck the ground hard, the tiny craft skidding across the terrain. The jumper jolted, finally coming to a stop.

John sucked in a breath, mind spinning, hands shaking slightly. "Everyone in one piece?"

"I think I'm going to puke," Rodney moaned. "How the hell did you maneuver like that?"

"I followed what the HUD showed me," John said, clipping his weapon to his vest.

"What are you talking about? There was nothing but zooming dots on the screen," McKay huffed.

"No time to talk. Those darts are going to land, and we're going to have company," Ronon barked.

"Okay, everyone out. Grab what you need; we're going on the run," John ordered, lurching to his feet.

All four of them exited the craft with an unknown number of Wraith converging on them.

"What do we have?" John demanded.

"I can't tell. All the RaKuf signs are blending in with the Wraith!"

"The RaKuf would be running from their villages toward us, Rodney. The Wraith would be the ones in pursuit," Teyla explained briskly.

"Which ones? We've got mass chaos. Can you tell me who is who on this thing?" Rodney held out the life signs detector for all to see.

Ronon crouched by a nearby boulder. He was eagle-eyed, blaster at ready. "Doesn't matter. We've got to find cover."

Teyla took up position opposite the Satedan, scanning the brush for any sign of pursuers. "They are coming," she cautioned.

Where? What direction? John concentrated, searching for a solution.

He was assaulted by thumping sounds, shocked to hear them coming from his team. He chewed on his bottom lip and forced them to go away. As soon as they stopped he noticed even more. Twenty-five-beats per minute, seven heart muscles too slow and alien to be human. "The Wraith are the ones at our eight-o'clock," he announced.

McKay peered at the detector. "How do you know?"

"Get ready," John ordered, dragging Rodney by the tac vest behind a protruding rock. "On my mark, open fire."

Teyla and Ronon hesitated for a second, trading glances, and hunkered down. The thudding drew closer. McKay's cheeks turned rosy; sweat dotted his brow, his eyes buried in the scanner, busy monitoring the Wraith whose approach beat loudly in John's head.


Three of them opened fire, spraying the woods with ammunition. Several Wraith burst through, and Ronon took them down with his weapon. Rodney's eyes flicked to the detector to locate his target, his P-90 vibrating between his hands as he fired.

John just knew where to aim, showering his targets.

"There are two left!" Rodney shouted next to him.

The Wraith knew only to charge ahead, creating fodder for Ronon and Teyla's pinpoint shots. But the victory was short-lived as the sky filled with darts, heading toward the village to finish culling.

John heard the first wave of fleeing RaKuf, their frantic heartbeats nearly drowning out his own thoughts. "We've got civilians coming."

"Yeah? Which dots are those?"

It was like multiple war drums thundering in his head. John tried to filter them out, wincing with the effort. "Those," he pointed at the blips to the south. "Let's not kill them."

Rodney glared at him. "Are you psychic now?"

"Trust me," John growled, forcing the thundering sounds to the back of his mind.

Rodney was in his face all worried and flushed. "What's wrong with you?"

John closed his eyes.

Focus on the threat. Focus on defensive measures and evasive maneuvers. Do whatever it takes.

The terrified pulses of the RaKuf faded only to be replaced physically by the natives themselves.

Teyla was next to him, breathing heavily. "Colonel, we have company."

Villagers charged through the woods, frantic and dirty. Their devastated eyes flickered with the last vestiges of their annihilated homes.

"Please help us!"

"No, we must retreat!"

"What are we to do?"

A hand clawed at John's shoulder. "You are 'Lantean. You can save us!"

Ronon jerked the panicked man away. "Step back!" he growled as he looked to John. "We need a plan."

Four women huddled near Teyla, one of them clutching a child. John turned to the man Ronon guarded. "Do you guys have defense plans for a culling?"

"Hate to rush you, but we have more signals heading this way." Rodney announced as he joined the group, gripping his detector. "I have no way of knowing which--"

"A dozen Wraith. All coming from the west. Probably from the outskirts of the closest village," John interrupted. He'd picked out their slower heart rates seconds before.

"Do you have a magic eight ball or something?" Rodney hissed.

John spun around to face the RaKuf. "What are your escape measures?"

"We hide in the caves. They're filled with endless tunnels; the Wraith never follow. But you have flying machines, you could--"

"Our jumper crashed. Run to your caves. We'll provide cover and follow after the culling is over," John ordered as he pushed the guy forward. "Go! Don't look back."

"Now we're guards for the Alamo?" Rodney shouted, readying his weapon. "And you still haven't explained your recent spidey-sense to me."

The RaKuf disappeared over the foothills, and John signaled his team for another stand off. "We'll take care of this next wave and then go spelunking with the natives."

Rodney's voice rose an octave. "The Wraith are splitting up!"

"They're trying to flank us." John signaled Ronon and Teyla to handle the ones to the south. "Rodney, I want you to lay down cover fire. I'll see about getting our group caught in a crossfire."

"What? You're going to leave me?"

No, he was moving ahead to draw attention away from McKay's position. He tried to ignore the thought of all those darts attacking the defenseless town. Or that their only means of sending a distress call was tied up by the Wraith using the gate. Flicking his watch, he knew they had another twenty minutes before they could try dialing again.

That was if they didn't get overrun.

Branches broke a hundred feet away, and, if he lived to see past this battle, John was going to get his ears checked. The clumsy approach was at his four o'clock, and he began rounding behind them. He swore he could hear Rodney's frightened 'where are you going?'.

Six targets marched right past him while Rodney began firing. One of the Wraith went down; the others forged onward. He could hear Teyla and Ronon's firefight rage in the distance. McKay was still raining down a hail of bullets, and John prayed he wouldn't get hit.

He counted a beat and stalked behind his prey, squatted and fired.

Another three went down, confusing the remaining Wraith about who to go after. John strafed right, squeezing the trigger and gave them their answer.

He could still hear Ronon's weapon and Teyla's P-90, but McKay wasn't firing anymore. John sprang to his feet to go after the Wraith still on them. Killing the bastards would be complicated since they had fed recently.

Two of the drones jumped up, firing their stunners. One got John in the shoulder; his left arm went numb immediately, and the force sent him to the ground. His right hand wasn't compromised so he played possum until both Wraith peered over him.

Then he fired into their masks, dropping them.

"McKay!" he yelled, fighting to get up and regain his balance. The pinpricks assailed his bad limb like a million fire ants.

He wavered on his feet, shooting two other Wraith in the head to make sure they were dead.


Ronon and Rodney came toward him, allowing him to breathe a sigh of relief. "Where's Teyla?"

"Right, here, Colonel," she responded, stepping out from behind the big Satedan.

A sudden low heartbeat thumped in his head, and John raised his P-90 in time, eyes laser-sighting on the Wraith a few degrees behind her. "Down!"

John shot the Wraith before Teyla could even react. The rest of the team turned one second too late, all aiming at empty air. He stormed over, face red. "Why did you quit shooting, McKay?"

Rodney looked at him dumbstruck. "I didn't want to risk hitting you. Jeesh, Sheppard. How did you notice that drone?"

There wasn't time to answer; the air above them filled with dozens of darts. John was incredulous. How much more shit did they have to deal with? He glared at the aircraft, channeling all his anger at their pointy little noses.

"Damn it! Why don't you just all fall out of the sky!"

No one was prepared when all the darts jerked as if hit by a massive power surge. They lost all momentum, and gravity yanked them down. It was surreal, like some bizarre cartoon.

Teyla's eyes grew large, and Ronon's eyebrows drew together in confusion.

"You… you didn't just do that!" Rodney accused, pointing his finger at him.

John's brow furrowed; his mouth hung wide open. "I'm not sure."

"Maybe we should try getting a transmission to Atlantis before all those Wraith exit their ships and come looking for us," Teyla suggested.

They had five more minutes, but the darts were at least a klick away. John nodded. Ronon looked at him with an impressed if not somewhat bewildered expression before dragging Rodney away.

Teyla laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you okay?"

John knew she wasn't asking how he brought down a fleet of darts. Her eyes shone with pure worry; her fingers took his trembling right hand. He hadn't noticed it twitching.

"Just the effects of the stun," he offered. John felt the rest of him shaking but knew there wasn't time to relax. "Let's go grab the others and wait for rescue in the caves."

"If you are sure," Teyla said, but she never let go.

The truth be told, John had no idea how the hell he was feeling, clearly evident since he allowed Teyla to keep gripping his fingers and lead him away.

It was a pressure cooker; hiding under a mountain and being forced to sit in the dark only added to the tension. They didn't speak to avoid Wraith detection, and it took an obvious toll on Rodney who was ready to burst at the seams about what had happened. So he instead spent his time glued to the life signs detector and kept tabs on their 'friends' outside. The wait for rescue lasted only half an hour; apparently the Wraith were just as confused by the sudden loss of control of their darts. They didn't give chase, probably concerned that they were up against some unknown weapon.

Once inside the jumper, Mount McKay erupted with a million questions, never taking a breath to allow John to answer. He didn't reply because he didn't have any to give.

"Why don't we wait until we get back to Atlantis?" Teyla said in a tone that brokered no debate.

Ronon glared at Rodney who folded his arms petulantly. "Of course. Let's not ask Sheppard how he brought down all those darts. No, it happens every day."

"We're ready to dock, sir." Lorne announced.

At least the major knew better than to take part in the insanity, his face clearly showing how perplexed he was by all the ranting and raving madness. The only thing that sounded crazy was McKay's non-stop jabber; even the Marines kept a wary eye on him. The rest of his team said nothing, probably still mulling things over.

John followed the strike force out of the shuttle, Teyla close behind. The other jumper landed in its designated slot; the men from the other half of the rescue operation disembarked. Elizabeth was waiting anxiously nearby.

She approached the bedraggled team. "Is everyone all right?"

"We are fine," Teyla answered, stepping forward.

Elizabeth knew something was up; nothing got past her. "You radioed that there was a culling in progress. What is the status of the RaKuf town? And--"

"The town is toast," Rodney cut her off, practically vibrating in his boots. "What you should be asking is how exactly we were able to get past, what was it? Twenty or thirty darts? Doing aerial aerobatics that I don't think were humanly possible. But wait," he waved a finger in the air, his boisterous voice attracting a crowd. "Let's not forget--

"Rodney," Elizabeth warned.

"No!" McKay's complexion was slightly pink from lack of oxygen and rampant enthusiasm. "Haven't even mentioned the good part yet," he said turning to face John. "Care to tell us how you magically brought down all those darts by yelling at them to fall out of the sky?"

All eyes were on John, many convinced that Dr. McKay had finally lost it. However there was no dispelling the truth, whatever that was. Teyla and Ronon stood quietly, patiently. There was curiosity and a little bit of wonderment there. Yeah, they wanted to know too but were far too polite to push.

John found it hard to formulate the right words. The jumper bay was crowded. Too many anxious expressions, too much white noise. The crane was busy moving another beam across the open air toward the catwalk. Work crews buzzed around like insects, their voices joining into the chaos of sound.

"John?" Elizabeth stepped closer.

"Sorry, just feel a little wiped out," John said.

That wasn't quite a lie. He felt heavy, and his head ached, a deep kind of hurt. Annoying, like a hangover.

"Of course you're tired! You took down a bunch of darts with your mind!" Rodney snapped.

"I don't know what I did, McKay! I was a little busy trying to keep everyone alive," John growled.

"Wait. So, what Rodney is saying is true?" Elizabeth asked.

John heard it. His eyes caught the movement; his ears the crack. The workers above yelled out but were too late. The cable attached to the crane snapped, and the girder it carried fell.

People gasped, the Marines scattered, but the heavy strut hung mid-air. John was poised like some grand wizard, hands out and, for all practicable purposes, halting the descent of the beam with the gesture.

"Oh, my God," Elizabeth mumbled.

The Marines were rooted in shock, gaping at the suspended girder.

"You guys might want to move," John commented, still amazed and quickly getting freaked out by what he was doing.

The soldiers ran out of the way; the bay was washed in silence, everyone focused on him. He swallowed, lowering the beam to the ground, not even sure if the hand gesture was necessary. He turned to face the crowd, Rodney was oddly silent. Teyla and Ronon both looked unnerved yet amazed at what had just happened. He wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole. All the attention was becoming unbearable, making even twitchier.

Elizabeth came to his side, eyes intense but mostly worried. "Maybe we should go to the infirmary."

There was no maybe about it. John found enough moisture to speak, his voice wobbly. "I think you're right."

He took marginal comfort in the way his team surrounded and went with him. John shoved shaky hands into his pockets and tried to draw strength from his friends, thinking about the last time he'd demonstrated freaky abilities.