That Which is Broken

Season/spoilers: "Trinity" tag; spoilers for "Trinity" and potentially for episodes leading up to it
Rating: T
Genre: Drama, action, angst, h/c, friendship, teamfic
Disclaimer: These guys belong to MGM. I only play with them.

Chapter One: Rift

There was a rift, and Teyla did not know how to mend it. She had gone away with everything intact, and come back to find it all broken, and she wanted desperately to fix it, but could not.

She knew, as few others did, how quickly life could change from one moment to the next. How many loved ones had she lost to the Wraith? How many were yet to be lost? And still, even after all the losses, she found herself walking away each morning expecting that nothing would change behind her, expecting that her loved ones would still be there when she came back, even while knowing that life very often did not work that way.

Perhaps humans could not live for very long with the expectation of continued loss. It wore away at you, ate your soul from the inside. It was much better, Teyla thought, to suffer today's new disappointment and pain no less powerfully than yesterday's -- each loss, each betrayal as fresh and sharp as a knife cut. A soul could heal from a small slash, just as the body could. A soul would not die from a thousand cuts ... at least, she hoped hers would not. The insidious poison of mistrust would rot the soul much, much faster, and leave nothing behind but a blackened husk.

So she walked away one morning with Ronon, knowing, as she always did, that her teammates would still be there when she came back -- knowing, also, in a deeper and more cynical part of herself, that they might not be, for that was the fortune of war. And so, it cut her, but not as deeply as it might have, to walk back through the gate into a charged atmosphere of suspicion and anger. Something had happened while she was gone. Teyla did not know what, and at that moment, so weary and heartsick was she from Ronon's ill-use of her friendship that she could not even summon the strength to find out. She smiled to the gateroom staff, bid a polite but formal farewell to Ronon, and retired to her own quarters for some much-needed meditation.

She did not find out the story of the Arcturus disaster until the next day. And even so, she didn't really understand the magnitude of it at first. Her first thought, in fact, was Good riddance! to the newly discovered Arcturus power supply. Even if it could have helped in the fight against the Wraith, the last thing this war-torn galaxy needed was some sort of superweapon. She did not say so to Elizabeth, but deep down, she was relieved.

But the weapon was only part of it.

Teyla was one of the last people to know what had happened on Arcturus. Elizabeth's very public diatribe at Rodney in the gateroom had spread like wildfire through the city, as any new gossip tended to do in such a small enclosed community with very little else for entertainment. It didn't help that Zelenka was still thoroughly annoyed (not that Teyla could blame him, from what she'd heard) and willing to give his side of the story to anybody who would listen. It was the talk of the mess hall when she came down for breakfast, though at least she'd debriefed with Elizabeth first (giving only the barest details of her trip with Ronon; she was still working through the emotional fallout in her head) so at least she knew the story. Still, the whispers surrounded her as she got a tray and quietly found a table. Destroyed a whole planet ... no, I heard it was a solar system ... weapon that could have stopped the Wraith, and now it's gone ... better than a ZPM ...

The whispers would fade and stop as she walked by, only to resurge after she was gone. Most people on Atlantis recognized her as McKay's teammate, and she could feel curious eyes on her. Well, they'd get through this, she thought. There was always some rumor or other circulating about the group of them. Why, just last week one of the soldiers she was training in hand-to-hand combat had told her there was a rumor that Ronon was a boyfriend she'd brought back from on of the worlds they had visited. Her lips quirked. Hardly, especially not at the moment. She felt a moment of pity for Rodney, forced to live out this particular failure under the watchful eyes of his colleagues. While the man could probably benefit from a blow to his healthy ego, it still must smart. At least she had been fortunate enough to be able to deal with her own problem in private.

Speaking of her problem, here it came, walking through the mess hall in a leather trench coat. She was not sure whether to try to catch Ronon's eye or to avoid him, but the decision was made for her when Sheppard appeared and made a beeline for the big guy, and soon the two of them had descended upon her.

"Mornin', Teyla!" Sheppard greeted her cheerfully. "And how are you on this fine day?"

Teyla raised her brows and dipped her spoon in the current mysterious Earth concoction on her plate. "I am well, John, thank you."

"Good trip?" he asked her, digging into his own food.

"We got the flax seed," Teyla said shortly.

Sheppard shrugged, grinned. "I'm happy for you," he said, and with that, he turned to Ronon and started telling the man a joke, some Earth joke about an Earthman and his mother-in-law. Teyla studied him curiously. She had not been sure what to expect from Sheppard this morning. In her debriefing, Elizabeth had given her the complete story, if slightly abridged, of the time she'd missed, including John's willingness to vouch for McKay's Arcturus plan, and how the two of them had subsequently come very close to dying because of it. She was relieved that Sheppard did not seem angry, but somewhat puzzled by his almost manic cheerfulness. For a moment, she had the crazy thought that he might actually be taking some kind of drug, but pushed the thought away impatiently; it was only her own foul mood that made others' cheerfulness seem suspect. There was no reason why John should not be happy this morning. He had come close to death, and now he was alive; what was not to enjoy?

As they completed their meal, Teyla realized that there was still one team member that she had yet to greet this morning. "Will Rodney be joining us, do you know?" she asked Sheppard.

He seemed almost to flinch. "Haven't got a clue," he said, and went back to his conversation with Ronon.

A little warning bell jingled in the back of Teyla's mind. She stood up and pushed away her tray. "Will I see you for sparring practice this afternoon?" she asked Sheppard.

He looked up at her, and before his eyes skittered away from her face, she knew that something was wrong, very wrong. "Sorry, I can't," he said. "I'm leading a team of new guys from the Daedalus on their first offworld mission. I won't be back until late."

Teyla forced a smile. "Then we will take, what do you call it, a rain check," she said, and in Sheppard's answering smile, she saw a falseness that frightened her -- the smile didn't reach his eyes. She walked away feeling as if she should have said something else, but not sure what. She couldn't even really understand what was wrong ... not yet.

After leaving the mess hall, she went straight to the labs, not even bothering to think up some kind of pretext. The scene she walked into was the typical controlled chaos of the Atlantean laboratory wing: white-coated scientists rushing about, people poking and prodding at odd glowing pieces of technology or lifting bits of alien flora out of Petri dishes with tweezers. In the midst of all of it, as usual, she found Rodney, snapping out orders and turning around to criticize somebody's lab technique.

It was just another day on Atlantis. Just as that morning had been just another morning in the cafeteria. Except that Rodney usually joined the rest of the team for breakfast, and this morning he had not. Except that, as she stood in the doorway and watched the scientists, nobody was meeting Rodney's eyes or coming very close to him ... or, as far as she could tell, really paying a whole lot of attention to anything he said, except to respond to a direct order, but even then he sometimes had to repeat himself. It was strange, as if he occupied his own little personal bubble of space, and no one wanted to enter into it.

He saw her standing in the doorway -- and she saw the oddest expression flit across his face; she would almost say that it was a breaking expression, as if something had shattered and just as quickly mended. And then he spun around and ordered one of the scientists to step away from her computer because she was going about her calculations all wrong. The scientist hesitated, and then stepped away -- and that was wrong too; usually all of Rodney's people, for all they resented his abruptness, would jump to do anything he said. Teyla was an observer by nature, and she had observed the labs often enough to recognize the subtle wrongness beneath the surface. She watched Rodney push a few keys and then stride away to check on somebody's experiment. Behind him, the woman shoved her glasses up onto her nose, muttered something under her breath and returned to her work.

After a few more minutes, it became clear that he was not going to acknowledge her, so Teyla stepped away from the door and made her way over to where he was hovering over a technician doing something to a large crystalline object -- Teyla had no idea what it might be.

"Nonononono," Rodney was saying. "You hook up the cables like that and it'll blow every circuit breaker in this part of the city when you turn it on. Were you born stupid or were you frequently dropped on your head as a child, hm? Good grief, give that to me," snatching a pair of cables away from the aggrieved-looking tech. "Here and here. Don't make me show you again."

And he was off, even more manic than Sheppard had been in the cafeteria. Not that manic was an unusual state with McKay, but this, Teyla thought, was truly ridiculous; she almost had to run to cut him off, intercepting him just as he swooped down on a frightened-looking botanist. "Good morning, Rodney!" she greeted him cheerfully.

He barely looked at her. "Morning, morning. Kind of busy here. My God, are you dissecting one of those venomous slugs from M2R-375? Where the hell is your containment field? If you let loose some kind of contagion into our atmosphere, we're leaving you here to deal with it, understand?"

"Rodney, may I speak with you?" Teyla persisted.

He turned to look at her, and she very nearly took a step backwards. There was a brittle brightness in his vivid blue eyes that she did not like at all. His eyes glittered as if he had a fever, and there were dark shadows under them. She thought he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. "Teyla, we don't have a field mission today and I have a lab full of morons who have almost killed us six times since breakfast. Can this wait?"

"Yes, of course it can wait." She backed down, and watched him berate his underlings for a moment longer before leaving. In the lab there were no whispers, at least not with McKay in hearing range, but she could feel people watching her as she left, and she could feel the pressure of their disdain, even knowing it was not directed at herself.


She turned back, surprised, to discover that Dr. Zelenka had followed her out of the lab and was now chasing her down the hall. "I wanted to apologize," he said, panting slightly, "for that arrogant bastard in the lab back there, and his behavior towards you."

This must be the peculiar Earth custom called "chivalry", which she still did not fully understand. "You do not have to apologize for Dr. McKay to me, Dr. Zelenka," she said, and forced a smile. "I believe that you and your fellow scientists are having a much worse time than I am."

Zelenka sighed. "You don't know the half of it," he said wearily. "Today already we have had one lab tech suddenly announce that she had earned a nursing degree in college and will be transfering to Dr. Beckett's division, and two more have requested that they are returning to Earth on the next trip of the Daedalus. At this rate, we will have no one left by lunchtime."

He fell into step with her, walking down the hall. Behind them, Teyla could faintly hear Rodney in another tirade. It faded out and then there was only silence until Zelenka spoke suddenly.

"I am apologizing for him," Zelenka said, "because at this rate, the stupid zkurvysyne will have no friends left at all, and he needs friends now, though he does not seem to realize this."

Worse and worse, Teyla thought. "What did happen, Radek?" she asked gently. "I have spoken to Dr. Weir, but I do not understand how it came to be so bad."

"That's right, you were gone." Zelenka rubbed his upper lip, thinking. "He made a mistake," he said finally. "He made a very bad mistake, but who among us has not done that?" He paused and then said, "He apologized to me yesterday, do you know? I believe it is the first time I have ever heard him say that he is sorry since I have known him. He had accused me of attempting to ... prevent his mistake due to professional jealousy. And other things were said. In any case, he did apologize for it."

"That sounds good," Teyla said cautiously.

"It is good," Zelenka said, nodding. "I understand that he went around the city, attempting to make amends to people he had wronged. Dr. Weir, the Colonel. That is all good. And then, he throws himself into his work, loses himself in his work. It is how he copes, you see?" He cast a glance over his shoulder at the lab. "It is now most likely close to two days since he has slept, and he is going a bit crazy. That is what you see."

"Is his health in danger?" Teyla asked, worried. "Should we speak to Dr. Beckett?"

"I would prefer not to involve the doctor unless we must, if only for his pride," Zelenka said. He stopped and leaned against the wall, staring at nothing. After a moment he looked over at Teyla. "Rodney is a man driven by pride," he said quietly. "He is determined to be the best at everything. I do not know why he is like this, but that is how it is. Making a mistake of this magnitude ... it is a failure for which he cannot easily forgive himself. He would not admit this, of course. And the greatest thing he would not admit is that he believes that he has not just failed himself, but the rest of us."

He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his lab coat as he spoke, not looking at her. "He is a complicated man, our Rodney McKay. He does not trust people easily, nor easily allow people to trust him. He has now hurt those who trusted him, and all he knows how to do is to be angry -- angry at himself, mostly." He gave a small laugh. "He already has my forgiveness, of course. I was never truly angry at him; I am not angry now. I understand what it is like to lose yourself in your work. I understand him, I think, better than most people here, even yourself."

He turned and looked at her. Without the glasses, his eyes looked strangely naked, as if his heart was now open to her. "I am a little bit afraid for him," he said quietly, and seeing her alarm, he added quickly, "Not physically, I mean. He is certainly in no danger of working himself to death. He is not sick. When he truly needs sleep, he'll sleep. No ... what worries me is that he is hurting, very much, and will not let anyone close enough to help him. And the one person whose forgiveness he needs the most, other than his own, is the one person who seems unwilling to give it."

"Sheppard," Teyla said softly, remembering Sheppard's manic cheerfulness at breakfast. He was hurting as well, she realized now. If anything, Sheppard had even more trouble letting his heart show than McKay did. Rodney, at least, wore his emotions on his sleeve. John, though ... Teyla remembered watching Sheppard, with a smile on his face, shoot the person he believed to be his dead friend, on that fake dream-Earth they had visited. Sheppard, she realized, would have done exactly what Ronon had done to the friend who betrayed him. He probably would not have used her, as Ronon had ... but yes, he would have done that.

It made her feel a little better about Ronon. Worse about John and Rodney, though.

"Is there anything we can do?" she asked.

Zelenka had put his glasses back on, and was looking away from her. "I do not know," he said. "I'm only a scientist." He looked back at her, and smiled. "But ... if I think of anything, I will let you know. Please, will you do the same?"

Teyla smiled. For all the hurt and harm in the universe, it was still a good universe, to contain such loyal friends. Rodney did not know how lucky he was. "I will," she said.

Chapter Two: Plan

Over the next couple of days, it only grew worse. She made several attempts to corner both John and Rodney to talk to them, but they were always busy with something else. Rodney practically seemed to be living in the labs, and she wondered if John had given up sleeping as well, because it seemed that every time she passed the gateroom, he was preparing for some sort of offworld training mission, and every time she went by the exercise rooms, he was drilling recruits, frequently in the company of Ronon. His new best friend, she thought, and then was startled at herself for such a petty thought. Of course it was a good thing that John was taking an active interest in integrating Ronon into life in Atlantis. It was just ... it seemed as if he hadn't really been talking to anyone else. And talking to Ronon wasn't really talking, was it? If you wanted the company of other people but you didn't want any sort of awkward conversation along with it, Ronon was definitely your man.

John had not showed up for one of their sparring sessions since the incident on Duranda. Oh, he was polite about it, and he always had a good excuse. But she suspected that he was avoiding her because he knew she'd try to get him to talk about what was bothering him. And he is quite right, she thought as she worked out by herself, snapping the sticks back and forth with well-practiced moves.

She thought about perhaps approaching John through Ronon, but she still was not comfortable enough with Ronon to do that. He is no Ford, she thought, and then, once again, berated herself for the unworthy thought. But ... it was just so true.

We are coming apart. It was late evening and Teyla walked the halls, passing small knots of people. The whispering about McKay had stopped, as far as she could tell, and she wondered if Elizabeth had realized it had gone far enough and put a stop to it. Still, there seemed to be a subtle tension in the air ... or maybe it was only her own worries, leading her to see everything around her through a false lens.

We are coming apart. We were a team, a family. Then one of us was taken away, like sawing off a leg from a chair. We picked up the pieces, we learned how to balance our chair with only three legs. And the lynchpins of our team have always been John and Rodney anyway. She'd never quite realized that before, but it had the ring of truth. And we found another to join us, but now ... I do not trust Ronon, not as I once did, and John and Rodney do not trust each other, and we are falling apart.

She came around a corner, and, to her shock, saw the very people she'd been thinking about heading in her direction at a rapid clip -- well, two of them, anyway. It was also very obvious that Sheppard was trying to escape, with McKay in hot pursuit.

"Colonel -- Colonel, wait a minute, I have something to -- Colonel!"

They had not seen her, and she watched as Sheppard was suddenly balked by a group of gate technicians entering the hallway from one of the other halls. He swung around, arms crossed, as McKay skidded to a stop.

"What?" Sheppard demanded.

McKay stabbed a finger at him. "I need you in the lab, and don't think you're slipping away this time! I need to show you something one of the other exploratory teams brought back --"

"You mean you want me to activate something with my gene."

Teyla saw McKay draw back. "You're not the only person in the entire city with the gene, you know," he said haughtily.

"I'm aware of that. I'm also busy. If you're finished --"

McKay's voice dropped so that Teyla, at the end of the corridor, had trouble hearing him. She felt suddenly guilty for eavesdropping, but it was the first time she'd seen the two of them together since Duranda, and she hoped it was a good sign.

"... just wanted to get you to look at it, that's all," McKay was saying, and Teyla could see that he was looking at Sheppard hopefully. "It's a weapon, and you're the local expert on ... you know, alien armaments," he finished in a rush. "All you have to do is come and look at it."

"I'm busy at the moment, McKay."

Sheppard turned away, heading off down the hall, and Teyla saw McKay's shoulders slump slightly, then stiffen as he raised his head, the sorrow and regret draining out of him to be replaced by anger. "How the hell am I supposed to earn your trust back when you won't even talk to me, you goddamn asshole?" he demanded of Sheppard's back.

Sheppard might have hesitated a little at that, but at that moment he very nearly ran into Kate Heightmeyer as she rounded a turn. Teyla found herself suppressing an urge to duck behind a pillar so that Heightmeyer wouldn't see her. Although Teyla understood and appreciated the necessity of the woman's occupation, ever since her sessions with Heightmeyer she'd had to resist the impulse to hide whenever she saw her coming. She suspected that she was not the only one on Atlantis who felt that way.

"Colonel Sheppard!" Heightmeyer greeted him. "Are we still on for tomorrow's session?"

Sheppard snapped his fingers. "Sorry. I meant to send you an email. I've gotta cancel again. Got an offworld mission. Very last minute."

Heightmeyer's smile became somewhat fixed. "I see. How about Tuesday? Fourteen hundred hours?"

"Tuesday's great." Sheppard's false smile was back, and Teyla had to suppress a smile of her own, recognizing the same stalling maneuver he had been using on her lately. When Tuesday rolled around, she had no doubt that he'd have somewhere he would urgently need to be.

Looking around Sheppard, Heightmeyer fixated on McKay, who appeared to be making an effort to blend into the corridor. "Dr. McKay! Glad to see you, too. Our appointment on --"

"Sorry, can't, just got a shipment of new fuses from the Daedalus, and I'll be busy all day tomorrow overseeing the installation," McKay said in a single breath.

For an instant, Teyla saw him catch Sheppard's eye in a moment of shared annoyance. A smile had begun to flicker on Sheppard's lips, but it closed down almost immediately, and McKay looked away.

Heightmeyer heaved a sigh, looking back and forth between them. "You two do realize that Dr. Weir has ordered you to see me, you understand? It's not something you have an option about."

"I've been busy," Sheppard said. McKay simply waved his hand in the air, a dismissive gesture.

Heightmeyer pointed at Sheppard. "Tuesday," she said, and pointing at McKay, "Wednesday. And if I haven't seen both of you by then, I'm reporting it to Elizabeth."

She quite possibly reported it sooner, because the following day, Teyla was informed that the offworld trip Sheppard had mentioned to Heightmeyer -- a simple scouting mission to an uninhabited world -- was to include his regular team members as well as the newly-arrived scientists and soldiers from the Daedalus that he'd been planning on taking on a shakedown mission. The full group assembled in the gateroom without the usual pre-mission chatter. Teyla noticed that Rodney still had the same spaced-out, unslept look that she'd noticed in the lab. And he and John were both avoiding each other's eyes.

The most charitable thing that Teyla could say about that offworld mission was that it was ... uncomfortable. It should have been very simple, maybe even fun ... a vacation compared to some of what they'd been through lately. The Stargate was located on a pleasant-looking beach on some temperate ocean shore, near the ruins of an old village. No one had lived there in centuries. They poked around in the ruins and found a few curious sculptures to take back for the anthropology geeks to pore over. Rodney discovered some Ancient artifacts of unknown purpose that appeared to have been used as worship objects on a village shrine. There were odd little birds and rodents everywhere, and Teyla took pictures for the biologists while she walked the perimeter of the village and got a few rock samples for the geologists. One of the new scientists slipped on a rock and twisted her ankle, while another had a panic attack at the trip through the Stargate and had to be calmed down. All in all, it was just a standard exploratory trip, with no Wraith or hostile locals or dangerous wildlife ... a little boring, a little interesting, and an opportunity to visit a world where none of her people had ever been.

And it was one of the more painful experiences of her life. Sheppard and McKay started off by ignoring each other, which lasted until Sheppard accidentally dropped one of the artifacts he was helping the scientists load in a metal specimen case. It was completely unharmed -- it had lain in the weather for centuries, after all -- but Rodney whipped around like an attack dog and snapped out a comment about clumsy soldiers keeping their hands to themselves. Sheppard shot back a retort concerning useless scientists who can't handle their own specimens without help. At least they were talking for a change, Teyla thought, but over the next couple of hours, the bickering quickly became nonstop, and it was utterly lacking the friendly edge to their usual banter. Interspersed with the arguments would be several-minute interludes of stony silence during which they glared daggers at each other or else feigned to completely ignore one another; this would last until one of them couldn't contain himself and burst out with a cutting comment that led to another foray in what was rapidly becoming all-out verbal warfare.

By the time they returned to Atlantis, Teyla's nerves were worn to a frazzle. The only bright spot in the unrelenting gloom was that she and Ronon seemed to be getting along much better. At any rate, they kept sending each other long-suffering looks as the bickering faded in and out, and once she caught him with a little sympathetic smile curving his lips, and she smiled back. She wasn't sure if she quite trusted him enough to open her heart to him again, but things were improving.

John and Rodney, on the other hand...

As a leader, she had settled similar disputes among her own people, many times. But the Athosians were much more open about such things than her new, adopted clan. She had never met such closed-off, emotionally repressed people as the Atlanteans seemed to be. Perhaps for us, it comes of us Athosians being such a small people, she thought. Earth has many, many thousands. Perhaps they have to shut themselves up inside their skins in order to survive touching so many others.

She had thought, in her early days on Atlantis, that the Atlanteans viewed other people not as family and friends, but as fellow combatants in a great social game ... a game whose rules she did not understand or care to understand. She had thought it a very sad existence indeed. However, she had quickly come to understand that despite their outward behavior, these Earth people did indeed feel things as deeply as her own people -- maybe even more so, she sometimes thought, because for whatever reason, they felt as if they had to keep their emotions bottled up inside, rather than speaking to each other frankly as Athosians did.

She found herself searching her memory for all the different times that she had mediated disputes between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, hunting partners, trading partners. The trouble was, most people on Athos had understood how distrust could poison a relationship and had sought her services before it got too bad. They all knew that a people divided could not stand against the Wraith. Other people, throughout the histories of different worlds, had not been so wise or fortunate, and they had fallen to internal strife and been taken easily by the Wraith. The Athosians were survivors. Teyla remembered how offended she had been, in her early days on Atlantis, at the Atlanteans' quick willingness to suspect her people of treachery and betrayal. Only later did she realize that they it was not just because her people were outsiders -- Earth people also feared and distrusted each other so very easily.

What a strange, frightening world Earth must be, to breed such suspicion in its children.

Still, the Athosians were human and fallible just as the Earth people were, and Teyla could remember a few times that her mediation had not solved the problem. As she went through her evening workout routine, her mind was as busy as a woodrat in a river, going over the details of those difficult cases. Unfortunately, most of those that she could remember ended in tragedy, with the injured parties bearing their grievances to their graves ... or, worse, one of them dead and the other left to carry their burden of guilt alone, a burden compounded a hundredfold because they would never be able to put right in death what they had failed to put right in life.

Alone in her exercise room, Teyla worked herself until her muscles burned and her skin felt slippery with sweat in the afternoon sun. She had invited John, yet again, for a workout session when they'd returned from the planet, but he'd just nodded and grunted before slamming a fist against the wall and going off who knew where. Probably to blow off steam by flying around in one of the jumpers. She'd heard secondhand from one of the gate techs that he'd been doing that a lot lately ... taking the jumpers up alone. Getting back his feel for aerial maneuvers, or so he claimed. Avoiding his problems back in Atlantis, Teyla thought grimly.

With the fighting sticks slippery in her wet palms, she went again and again through the forms that she had learned as a girl: the ones to kill and the ones to maim and the ones to disarm without killing. Conversation among the Atlanteans was, indeed, much like fighting, she thought, but a fight in which you hoped not to hurt the other person. You had to choose each move so very carefully, calculate the exact amount of force to score a light hit without doing any permanent harm. It was so much easier, so much simpler among her people.

Back, forth. Back, forth, up, down. She moved with practiced ease, her breathing harsh in the warm air, and she thought of John and Rodney, avoiding each other, their light verbal sparring turned to harsh blows meant to hurt and maim. She thought of people she had known who descended into that dark valley and came back out of it. She thought of those who had not.

And, suddenly, she remembered a success story that had happened entirely by accident. It involved a man and his brother back on Athos who had come to blows over a woman. Ultimately the woman jilted both and chose a third, but the damage was done. The brothers, once so close, had sworn to never speak again until their dying day. Their family had tried in vain to reconcile them before appealing to Teyla, who had also tried without success. They simply would not speak to each other. Until, quite by chance ...

Teyla realized that she had frozen in the middle of one of her katas. Frowning, and smiling a little, she laid her sticks down carefully on the floor and went to get a towel from the bench along the wall. Wiping her face, she thought over her plan. It might work. It could work. She would need Zelenka's help, of course. The trick would be getting Elizabeth to go along with it.

Chapter Three: Allies

"I don't know if I can agree to this."

Still damp from her shower, Teyla sat in Elizabeth's office with her hands folded before her. She wanted to pace, to move, but she schooled herself into stillness with discipline born of a thousand trade-negotiating meetings. She kept her voice calm only with effort; like the rest of her, it wanted to spring forth from her roiling emotions.

"Dr. Weir, I know it is risky," she said. "I would not suggest it if I did not think it was necessary. You have surely seen yourself that we, as a team, cannot function properly in our current fashion."

"I hardly think that risking your lives is the way to fix it."

Teyla shook her head. "But if I am correct, there would be no risk, Doctor ... well, perhaps a little risk, but very little. That is the point."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "And if you're not correct?"

"Then there is no point," Teyla said quietly. "And you may as well disband this team, and assign us to work with other people, because I do not think we can work with each other for very much longer."

"Teyla, are you blackmailing me?" Elizabeth inquired quietly.

"No," Teyla said, surprised. "I am merely stating the truth. I'm sure you can see it. I suppose the question, Dr. Weir..." She leaned forward in her chair. "The question is, do you trust us?"

She realized that this might not have been quite the thing to say when she saw the shutters slam down in Elizabeth's eyes. "I have trusted," the other woman said softly. "I have trusted, just recently, very deeply indeed. And now here we are. You will pardon me, Teyla, if I am finding it difficult to trust the same people again."

Teyla smiled. She was finding herself on surer ground now. "Dr. Weir, you are their leader. You must trust them. I am also a leader of my own people, and I know that no human being will give trust back to their leaders if it is not first given to them."

"And if they have betrayed that trust?" Elizabeth inquired. Her face was still.

Teyla felt a clutch at her heart and hoped that her face did not show it. She still found it difficult, sometimes, to look Ronon in the eyes without remembering the face of the man he had killed. But she was mending, she hoped. The knife wound in her soul was slowly closing. "Dr. Weir, I say again: you are their leader. Please pardon me for speaking plainly. Yes, you will sometimes be betrayed, but you do not have the luxury to sit about resenting it. You must only decide: do I trust this person again? Or do I not trust this person? And if you do not trust them, then you must send them back to Earth, because if you have people working under you that you do not trust, then they are a liability to you, and you to them." Teyla drew a deep breath and went on, seeing some undefined emotion (anger? understanding?) flicker in Elizabeth's eyes. "But if your choice is to trust them again, then you must give them your trust without reserve, as if it had never been tested. And if you truly do trust them, then your decision on this matter must be clear."

Elizabeth stared at her for a moment longer. Then she lowered her eyes, and laughed. There was a little bit of anger in that laugh, and a little awe. "Teyla," she said, "I hope I never have to sit opposite you at a negotiating table." Then she raised her eyes again, and there was a slight smile on her lips. "You have my permission. But I want you to do everything in your power to minimize the risk, and if there is even the slightest chance that things are not going the way you hope, I want all of you to pull out and come home immediately, do you understand?"

Teyla nodded, hope breaking in her heart like a summer sun cresting the mountains. "I understand, and I agree."

"You will need to talk to Ronon about this. If he doesn't agree, you cannot go forward. The last thing your team needs now is more mistrust and recriminations."

"I fully agree." Teyla hesitated, wondering if she was breaking a confidence, then said, "I have already spoken to one other person about this. I hope you do not feel that I was acting in poor faith, but I needed to have a well-formed plan before I spoke to you, and I could not make all the plans alone. If you had said no, we would not have done it."

"And just who exactly is the other half of this 'we'?" Elizabeth inquired, a smile quirking her mouth.

"Dr. Zelenka."

Elizabeth laughed; she couldn't help herself. "I might have known! It's always the quiet ones..." she mused. "Well, I suppose we should choose a planet for this."

"Actually," Teyla said, "Dr. Zelenka and I have found one that will do quite well for our needs."

Chapter Four: Afghanistan

"Afghanistan in the winter."

Teyla raised her head from a marker post that she was studying. The post, made of stone, was as high as her waist and covered in the Ancestors' writing. "I'm sorry?"

"Afghanistan." Sheppard stalked around her, studying the life signs detector in his hand. "This place. Reminds me of it."

"This ... Afgastan is on Earth?" Teyla guessed.

"Served a tour of duty there." John leaned against a boulder and stared out at the windswept wasteland beneath them. Behind him, he heard her start to say something, and then go back to her inspection of the marker.

God, but it did look like Afghanistan in January. When he'd first gone over there, it was a hundred and ten in the shade and he used to make bets with Mitch and Dex about whether the platoon commander was just pulling their leg about the winters -- it couldn't really get that cold in a place so goddawful hot, could it? Six months later, he wondered if he'd ever get warm again. That screaming wind, coming down out of the mountains, it just never stopped. He used to wonder whatever possessed people to live in such a hell-hole in the first place -- hot enough to melt lead half the year, cold enough to freeze your eyeballs the other half.

This place could have been Afghanistan's sister country ... only without the helicopters in the sky and the insurgents on the ground, of course. That, or a big, frozen gravel pit. Below him, the gray and tan rockscape fell away into a valley criss-crossed with jagged ravines, dipping to a great river at its central point and then, on the other side, rising into a series of high, pitiless mountains clawing at the oddly colorful sky. The Stargate had been located on the west side of the river valley, and a cold morning sun slanted over the mountains and into his eyes, offering little warmth. Beneath him, the ever-present wind stirred up small whorls of dust and dry, sandy snow.

He hadn't seen a place so utterly devoid of life since the world where he and Rodney had investigated the crashed Wraith ship. Where Rodney had saved his life ... he pushed that thought away, didn't want to think about it right now. The point was, the place was barren and desolate and didn't even have those little glowy bugs to add some interest to the nearly colorless landscape. The life signs detector confirmed it ... the place was empty.

The only odd thing about it was that crazy shifting sky. He'd seen auroras in Antarctica, but this was more than just those curtains of green and white light. And auroras were never bright enough to see in the daytime. The whole sky was alive with what resembled faintly multi-colored static. It wreaked havoc with their communications equipment, and they'd been unable to bring the jumper because of it -- hence the reason why they were currently on foot. As soon as they came through the gate, McKay had immediately started muttering about sunspots and the hazards of solar radiation. He'd hypothesized that the planet might have been abandoned due to increasing levels of radiation. At least, Sheppard thought that's what McKay had said; personally, he was too busy trying to tune out the whining about radiation and sunscreen. As if most people would be worried about sunburn and skin cancer on a winter day with the temperature in the thirties at best. McKay never shut up, and he never quit worrying about his own skin ... literally, in this case.

Some deep part of John informed him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't being fair to McKay. He told it to shut up and went back to surveying the valley.

"You said the abandoned village is on top of the hill?" Ronon asked Teyla.

She nodded. "But there are several different roads; this marker will show us the quickest one."

"Thought you'd been here before."

"I have, but I am used to having a guide. I came here many times as a small child, before this world was abandoned and the inhabitants went elsewhere."

"I wonder why they might have done that," McKay grumbled, swatting at his arms to keep himself warm as they started climbing again.

What Teyla had called a "road" was, in Sheppard's eyes, more of a goat path: narrow, uneven and strewn with rocks. The hill was not exactly a cliff face, but steep enough to make climbing difficult, and the road or path or whatever you wanted to call it followed the natural twists and turns of the land. After fifteen minutes or so of ligament-straining hiking (punctuated by McKay's complaints), the "road" turned sharply and entered a crevice in the rocks. Looking up, Sheppard could see the flat, crackling sky high above them, framed by gray rock faces. The wind still whistled high overhead, but down here in the crevice it was almost comfortable.

Teyla reached up a hand to touch the rock face at her side, and Sheppard noticed that the rocks were carved with swirling pictographs. He was still looking at them when he heard Teyla say, from somewhere up ahead, "Here it is."

Hurrying to catch up with his team, Sheppard emerged into a flat, clear amphitheater in the rough gray stone. He couldn't tell if the wide opening was natural or man-made -- it was hard to imagine what natural force could have taken such a great bite out of the rock, but he remembered the eerie rock spires and arches of the American Southwest, and supposed that it was possible.

The amphitheater was perhaps a quarter mile across. They stood at one end of a huge courtyard paved with flagstones and drifted with shallow patches of sandy snow, and ringed all about with squat stone buildings whose empty windows gaping darkly like the eyes of the dead. The buildings even climbed partway up the walls of the amphitheater, built against the cliff face like mushrooms, with steep, narrow streets winding between them. Sheppard thought it looked as if the place had had quite a sizeable population at some point in the past; hard to believe, considering how much of a wasteland it was, but then, there were a lot of people in Afghanistan too.

Now that they were out of the wind, Sheppard found himself becoming more comfortable -- actually, with a sweater under his uniform jacket and a hat and gloves covering the rest of his exposed skin, he was starting to sweat a little bit. He peeled off his gloves and took a look at the life signs detector.

"Hey, looks like it's working a little better in here," he said, starting to glance at McKay out of habit, and shifting to look at Teyla at the last minute. "I can see all of you guys on here. Before, I was only picking you up occasionally."

To his surprise, he caught a glimmer of unexpected emotion from Teyla at his announcement -- surprise and what appeared to be disappointment or nervousness.

"The rocks must be helping cut out the interference," McKay said. Sheppard, distracted from wondering about Teyla, glanced over to see the scientist waving his hand at the rocks. The familiar wrist-snapping gesture set off an unexpected twinge of pain in Sheppard's midsection -- like stepping down too suddenly on an injured ankle and feeling it twist under you.

"Maybe that's why they built here," McKay was saying, moving towards one of the abandoned buildings with scanner in hand. "Everything works better in here. No way you could have any kind of technological society if you can't use tech. Hey!" He spun around, his face animated and smiling; his eyes slid to Sheppard's face and slid immediately away again, the smile becoming fixed. Again, Sheppard felt that twinge deep down. He busied himself keeping an eye on the buildings, just in case something decided to come out of them.

"What did you find?" Teyla was peering over his shoulder at his detector, not that she could read it.

"There's some kind of energy source here. Very faint. Teyla, the people who lived here, were they advanced or not?"

"Advanced?" Teyla repeated.

"Yeah, advanced, you know, herding pigs and eating with their fingers, or watching TV and building ZPMs? More like your people or more like mine?"

Teyla's eyebrows shot up and Sheppard, suddenly intrigued, watched the barely-masked irritation uncoil on her face at McKay's casual dismissal of her people. The more surprising reaction, though, was McKay's. He looked up from his scanner, saw her face, and immediately his whole face, his whole body radiated shock and regret.

"Oh. Teyla, jeez, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -- I -- you know I don't think you're -- I have a big fat mouth, Teyla."

Teyla relaxed and reached out to touch his arm briefly. "I know that you do," she said with a hint of a smile. "I am not offended. The people here, they were more like mine than yours, as far as their technology was concerned. But they did have a few Ancient devices in the village. Most were treated reverentially, as sacred artifacts rather than items of everyday use."

"Really? Where did they keep them?"

They turned away as she started pointing out landmarks to McKay, and Sheppard glanced over at Ronon to see if the runner had noticed that little byplay, but Ronon wasn't looking in their direction.

He couldn't ever remember seeing Rodney just ... back down like that. And picking up on Teyla's rather subtle body language, too. The thought occurred to him that since Arcturus, Rodney had been ... well, subdued wasn't really the right word, but -- cautious, maybe. Afraid of treading on his teammates' toes.

Afraid of being rejected?

Sheppard almost snorted aloud. Rodney McKay, the original sarcastic asshole, wilting like a flower at the idea of emotional rejection. That'd be the day.

But as he followed his team deeper into the village, rather than seeing the buildings around him, he found himself seeing a pair of wounded blue eyes -- Rodney's eyes, fixed on him in the hallway after Duranda ... Rodney, as John had turned away into the transporter, calling him back with a most un-McKaylike desperation in his voice. Rodney, trying in his clumsy way to patch over the growing chasm between them.

Rodney, thinking that a simple apology could heal everything ... thinking that he could use their friendship to serve his own ego trip and then expecting to patch it all up with a few words.

No, he wasn't anywhere near ready to forgive Rodney McKay yet.

Still, those eyes haunted him.

Sheppard caught up to the others in a small courtyard off the main one. "There are several temples in the town," Teyla was saying. "I do not know which one would be most likely to have what you are looking for."

McKay whacked the side of the scanner in frustration. "It's so hard to pinpoint anything with all this damned interference. I can't get a direction on the signal. Maybe if I walk around the place, triangulate it ..."

"We can split up, perhaps?" Teyla asked, looking to Sheppard for confirmation.

"We can cover more ground that way," Sheppard conceded. "But we go in pairs. Nobody goes anywhere alone. That means you, McKay."

Rodney shot him a quick, hard look and didn't say anything.

Teyla moved smoothly between them. "I will go with you, perhaps?" she offered to Sheppard. "Of us all, Rodney is the most likely to notice the sort of technology that is valuable to your people, but I know the village best. So I can be your eyes as we search, and Ronon can be Rodney's guard in case anything should attack us."

"I thought you said the planet was deserted," McKay said hastily. "Not even animals, you said."

"As far as I know," Teyla said. "But it is best to be prepared."

Sheppard thought about Teyla's partnering suggestions and found that it did make sense, at the very least, not to put their two strongest fighters together while leaving the other two less defended. Not that Teyla was a bad fighter by any means, but she still wasn't as good with guns as either Sheppard or Ronon, and she'd also be distracted by her role as guide. "All right, let's do it," he said. "We may have trouble staying in touch if the radios keep cutting out, so let's arrange to meet back here in an hour, whether or not we've found anything. At that point we can compare notes and follow up on anything that looks promising, or head back to the Stargate, whichever. And we'll have regular check-ins ... every fifteen minutes, assuming the radios keep working."

McKay rolled his eyes. "Yes, mother."

It had been just one sniping comment after another since they'd come through the gate, and for Sheppard, that one was the final insult. He lost his temper. "Excuse me, but it's your ass that I'm trying to keep in one piece, Doctor McKay. If you'd act like a goddamn adult instead of a kid in pursuit of the ice cream truck every time you see a shiny new piece of alien technology, then maybe I wouldn't have to keep a leash on you, but I'll just be damned if I'll go back and tell Elizabeth that her head scientist walked into a hole in the ground and broke his neck while staring at the pretty lights."

McKay had gone pale under the slight flush of windburn on his cheeks -- pale with anger. His blue eyes burned. "So you don't trust me. Nice of you to finally say it out loud."

"I've already said it! Of course I don't trust you! Why should I?" The two men circled each other like stray dogs preparing to leap, their bodies tense and bristling. "The last time I made that mistake, you almost got us both killed and cost us an extremely valuable weapon that could have ended the Wraith threat! Elizabeth is still giving me the third degree every time I go on an offworld mission. I wish I hadn't trusted you then!"

"I wish I'd never asked you to," McKay hissed. "Rest assured I won't make that mistake again!"

Teyla looked at Ronon, seeing her helplessness reflected in his eyes. The runner's shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. If it actually came to blows, he'd help her separate the two of them, but this was far outside his expertise.

"You'd better just remember who's in charge here," Sheppard snarled. "I'm your team leader and you --"

"Are what? I'm civilian, Colonel! You have no authority over me and you never have!"

"No authority, is that right? You sure as hell could have fooled me over the last year, taking orders right and left, McKay! Guess you're a better liar than you are a scientist, huh?"

McKay punctuated his words with a stabbing finger, so furious he nearly lost his grip on the scanner balled in his fist. "I followed you because I wanted to, Colonel, sir! And that's another mistake I won't make again! When we get back to Atlantis, the first thing I'm going to do is get a change of assignment from Elizabeth! This is the last time you'll ever have me in your damned team, so enjoy the hell out of it!"

Sheppard threw up his hands. "Thank God, it's about damn time! Maybe I'll get a scientist who actually follows orders this time! Maybe one who's got a little bit of common sense too!"

McKay's face had gone red and his eyes blazed so brightly that Sheppard half-expected to see blue sparks fly from them. "I should have left you on Duranda," he snapped, and spun on his heel, stalking away with great strides into the abandoned city.

Sheppard wasn't about to let him have the last word. "You should have left me? What the hell, McKay! Who dragged your suicidal ass off that planet? Who flew the jumper through an asteroid belt with a planet-sized gun shooting at us? You'd be dead a dozen times over if I hadn't been there!"

McKay swiveled back, half-swallowed by shadows in an alley between two buildings. "Oh, well, that changes everything, then! Excuse me for not worshipping the water you walk on, Colonel! Too bad that giant swollen head makes it so hard to get it out of your ass, hm?"

"--But you know what?" Sheppard charged on, relentless. "If I'd known you were going to react this way, I'd have left you there with no hesitation, Dr. McKay!"

"Whatever happened to 'the military doesn't leave a man behind', Colonel, sir?"

"You're the one who keeps telling me you're not military!" Sheppard crowed, triumphant. Score!

McKay appeared to have become, for perhaps the first time in his life, speechless with anger. He just stood there for a moment, opening and closing his mouth. If looks could kill, Sheppard would have been a small scorched spot on the snow-dusted flagstones. Then McKay whirled around and vanished into the alley.

Teyla jerked her head sharply at Ronon, but the runner was already halfway across the courtyard and vanished after McKay.

"And you'd better be back here at the rendezvous or I'm dragging your sorry ass back to the Stargate at gunpoint!" Sheppard hollered after him.

The echoes of his words rolled back to him from the walls of the amphitheater as he stood in the middle of the courtyard, his heart pounding in his ears, his breathing slowly returning to normal. At gunpoint ... at gunpoint ... at gunpoint ...

Was this how bad it had gotten -- that he had to threaten his head scientist with violence to get him to follow a simple order? There had been a time, not too long ago, when Rodney would have --

No, not Rodney, not any longer. Doctor McKay. He pronounced the words inside his head, four syllables that echoed hollowly into the emptiness inside his chest. Dr. McKay, and he'd better not forget it again. After this mission, of course, it really wouldn't matter.

Christ, he'd messed this one up, hadn't he?


Teyla spoke his given name softly, almost shyly, and he looked down to see her hand hovering near his arm. Soft brown eyes looked up at him with compassion. John shut down quickly, hastily, throwing up barricades between his eyes and the world. At this moment, he didn't dare let anyone else inside him.

"I'm fine," he said, too abruptly. Teyla's hand hesitated with her fingertips almost touching his sleeve, then withdrew.

"So I can see," she said quietly, and gestured across the courtyard, opposite the direction that McKay and Ronon had gone. "Shall we go look in one of the temples?"

The absolute last thing Sheppard wanted to do right now was the extraterrestrial equivalent of a museum tour. He wanted to scream, punch things, empty a lot of ammo into something, scream some more and then get drunk. Instead, he started walking, with Teyla by his side. His boots rang on the flagstones.

They left the courtyard and climbed a narrow flight of stairs that opened into a crooked alley, barely wide enough for one person, let alone two. After a glance at John, Teyla took point, leading him through a virtual maze of tiny streets. The walls of the amphitheater kept him oriented; it was impossible to get lost with giant direction indicators towering above them on three sides. Still, Sheppard suspected that without Teyla, it might take him nearly the full hour just to find his way back to the rendezvous point.

This, normally, would have led into his usual wondering and worry about the state of the rest of his team. But not this time. He didn't think about them, couldn't think about them.

"So, you said you've been here before, with your people?" he asked, wanting to talk about something, anything to occupy his mind.

Teyla looked over her shoulder and nodded. "Yes, we used to come here to trade when I was a small girl. There were not very many people here, even then, but the city was not quite so empty as you see it now."

John waved a hand at the barren hills around them. "What in the world did they eat?"

"There are actually some good grazing lands down by the river." Teyla pointed into the valley. John followed her finger. They were very high up, and it still looked like a gravel pit to him. Looking back at her face, he saw that her lips were tilted in a small smile. "You must remember that it is this world's winter, John. The land is not quite this cold and barren in the summer."

"I'll take your word for it." He shivered, rubbed his hands together. "Ain't my idea of a vacation spot, that's all I'm gonna say." He looked around, and asked, "So if there were people living here that recently, what happened to them?"

Teyla shrugged. "The climate changed, grew drier. Their harvests were poor. Eventually they sought a better world through the gate. We have not traded with them in many years."

"Ah." After a moment he asked, searching for more conversation topics, "What was the name of this world? I mean, what did the locals call it?"

"It was called Cleta."

"Ah." Again, silence.

They entered another tiny courtyard overlooking the valley. They appeared to be nearly halfway up the side of the amphitheater by now, and the landscape spread before them, a vista of startling beauty for all its harshness.

"The temple," Teyla said, pointing, and Sheppard realized that the building on the far side of the courtyard was larger than the rest, with slender columns and statues around the front door. If she hadn't pointed it out, he'd probably have walked right by. John didn't notice buildings; he assessed them for danger, for possible cover and exits, but that was about it.

Out of habit, he glanced automatically at the life signs detector in his hand, but it wasn't reading anything but the two of them. They crossed the courtyard and paused for a moment by the small fountain at its center. The fountain was bone-dry and half full of snow. John snapped a dry stick from what might once have been ornamental topiary and poked half-heartedly at the snowdrifts around the fountain's base. This place was so dry that the texture of the snow was like sand, and there wasn't much of it; as elsewhere in the town, the wind had swept most parts of the courtyard clean. Thank goodness for small favors, he thought -- with worse luck, they could have been wading through knee-deep snow right now.

"Teyla," he said, and when she looked at him, he looked away, continuing to poke with the stick. "Sorry I've been such a dick lately," he said.

He paused automatically for the usual question about an unfamiliar figure of speech, but she must have understood that one, either by context or because of hanging around soldiers all day. "I do not feel that you have been a 'dick'," she said seriously. "I am not angry at you, John."

"I know I haven't been easy to be around lately, but I haven't meant to take it out on you."

"I know."

Poke, poke, at the snowdrifts. "I suck at this heart-to-heart stuff," John said. "Let's just assume that we're solid and go from there, okay?"

"John," Teyla said in a half-affectionate, half-exasperated tone, causing him to look over at her. The expression on her face matched the voice. "What on Athos would make you think I'm angry at you?"

"I don't know," he said shortly. Damn it, this was why he hated this sort of conversation. It always went off in strange, unexpected directions.

"Perhaps it is not me that you truly want to apologize to," Teyla said gently.

John had his mouth open to tell her that he had no idea what she was talking about, then shut it, and looked down into the valley. He wished to God this place didn't remind him so much of Afghanistan. It was hard not to think about what had happened in Afghanistan.

His two best friends had died in front of him.

Chapter Five: Teyla's Bright Idea

"... militaristic son of a bitch. Got a problem? Great! Just blow it up! Oh, let's kill something too, that'll make things better! Everything has a military solution for Lieutenant Colonel Dickhead, so I guess we should all count our blessings in this particular case that there wasn't anything to kill directly in front of him, because otherwise he --"

Ronon let McKay's rambling roll off him. He was paying enough attention to notice if anything important was said, and the rest of it was of no more consequence than the buzzing of flies on some alien world. This world, he noted, had no flies, or insects of any kind. Interesting.

McKay had been talking nonstop for the last ten minutes. This wasn't particularly unusual, although he didn't usually go at it with this amount of vitriol. He'd even apparently picked up some Czechoslovakian insults from Zelenka, and had used them all on Sheppard, several times.

He was still working, though -- the whole time, he'd kept his eyes on his scanner, and occasionally would correct his course or go off in a different direction, tracking the elusive energy signature while calling John Sheppard every dirty word in the book, and some that probably weren't in any book.

"...and while we're on the subject of treachery, you thug, you can tell me what Teyla and Zelenka's master plan is. Hm?"

Ronon didn't break stride, but McKay had his attention now. "Plan?"

"Oh, please," McKay scoffed. "I know they've cooked up some kind of ridiculous conspiracy between them. It involves me and this planet and that military asshole back there. Somehow Teyla came up with the stupid idea that she can get us talking again--"

He broke off; Ronon, glancing sideways, caught a glimpse of a startling depth of pain flickering across the man's expressive face. "Anyway," McKay resumed after a moment in his usual manic tone, the mask back in place, "the problem is him, not me, and I know she put you up to something, so ..." His fingers clicked rapidly in front of Ronon's face ... or as close to Ronon's face as he could safely get, anyway. "Spill!"

"Don't know what you're talking about." Their ramblings had taken them outside the village proper, which was good -- Ronon recognized their surroundings from Teyla's descriptions, and he pointed up at a small temple framed against the sky, presenting a striking contrast to the shifting static behind it. If Teyla's childhood recollections were accurate, this was one of three access points that she knew of to reach the catacombs under the city. "That looks like one of those temples she was talking about. Go see what's in there, why don't we."

McKay stopped in his tracks and folded his arms. "Oh, I don't think so."

Ronon looked down at him. "Thought you wanted to look for that energy source."

"It's clearly a trap, Igor," McKay said sarcastically. "Teyla and Zelenka set this all up somehow, I have no idea how, but I do know that their plan is to separate me from Sheppard, and then ... do ... something. That's their plan, isn't it?"

"Don't know about any plan."

"Oh yeah, right. You people seem to be forgetting, I am a genius. I have figured out alien technology that nobody else can understand. I singlehandedly ... well, almost singlehandedly saved Atlantis from alien invasion. I have fixed everything from crashed spaceships to toaster ovens. And if two fr -- two people I work with are conspiring about me behind my back, I sure as hell am going to find out about it."

Ronon was well aware that he owed Teyla a favor, as she had pointed out repeatedly back on Atlantis when she talked him this. And he would have been happy to repay her by helping with this plan as she had asked of him. But it was starting to look like things weren't going to go the way she'd planned anyhow, and now he was curious. "How'd you find out?" he inquired.

McKay snapped his fingers, positively bouncing in place with glee. "I knew it! I knew it! There is a plan. How do you think? Pure chance," he admitted in a somewhat lower voice. "I walked in on Radek and Teyla late at night in the lab. They didn't see me. Thought at first that there was something, you know, that it was a little late-night tryst, not that I wouldn't be okay with that, just fine in fact," he added quickly. "Radek's a great guy and Teyla's a fantastic woman and ... anyway, like I was saying, they didn't see me, and I was just going to duck out when I realized what they were talking about. Me! And, incidentally, the Colonel. I only caught about one word in four, but between that and a little snooping around on Radek's latest database searches, I do know that Zelenka was helping her look for a deserted world where communications equipment doesn't work. And why might that be, do you suppose?"

"No idea," Ronon said.

"Oh, come on!"

Ronon shrugged.

"Look, I know what they're planning, in general anyway." McKay looked around, as if he expected Sheppard to pop out from behind a rock. "They're trying to fake my disappearance and have the Colonel show up to save my ass, aren't they?"

Ronon shrugged again. "Something like that."

McKay's face changed, darkened. "Well, Teyla must be about to flip her lid right now, then," he said. "At the moment, I doubt if the Colonel would spit on me to put me out if I was on fire." He wiped a hand across his face, dragging away the anger, leaving a sort of resigned weariness behind. "So they're expecting to play me for a fool and have a show," he said. "Well, let's give them a show. What's supposed to happen in the temple, big guy?" When Ronon merely considered this, he added, "Sometime this week, perhaps ..."

Ronon gestured at the temple. "There's some kind of maze under the city. The people who used to live here showed it to her when she was a kid. The temple's one of the places you can get in."

"And ...?" McKay prompted impatiently when he stopped talking again.

"You disappear in the maze. Sheppard comes and finds you, gets you out."

McKay stared, and finally said, "That is their plan? Are you SERIOUS?"


"And what if we get lost for real? Starve to death? Freeze to death? Die of thirst? Fall down a hole?" McKay stared up at Ronon, still incredulous. "Zelenka helped come up with this? I knew the man was pissed at me; I didn't know he was that vindictive, though."

After a long pause, Ronon decided that if he was going to spill the plan, he may as well go for broke. "Dr. Zelenka made a tracker that works in spite of the signal noise on this world. Teyla's got one; so do I. The two of us can find our way out of the maze anytime we want."

"While Colonel Asshole and myself starve to death in the catacombs. That's a wonderful plan, Chewie, with only one rather glaring flaw." McKay glowered at him. "Now guess what that flaw might be!"

"You wouldn't die," Ronon said, impassive. "Neither of you would be left alone; Teyla or myself would accompany you. Therefore, we would always have an emergency way out."

"It's still the stupidest plan I've ever heard in my life, and basically hinges upon the assumption that Sheppard and I have the collective I.Q. of an eggplant. This may be true of him, but I'm far too intelligent to be taken in so easily, as you can see."

Ronon just grunted.

McKay's soft-edged features set into lines of determination. "Fine. Let's give them a show and teach the conspirators a little lesson while they're at it. Come on, Lurch, move it. I have a job for you."

Ronon followed him up the steep path to the temple, wondering how he'd managed to get co-opted by the other side. If the goal of this trip (for him at least) was to get Teyla to stop being mad at him, it might not succeed when she found out about this...

The inside of the temple was no warmer than the outside, being open to the air on all sides, but it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. Rodney strode around the interior. Didn't look like much, just a roof and a ring of white columns, with free-standing pillars inside the columns -- about two dozen or so, squat and about waist-high, covered with carvings -- and a large altar at the center. The temple was located on one of the highest points of the amphitheater's lip, so it commanded a breathtaking view in all directions. Would've been a great sightseeing trip, McKay thought, if he hadn't been cold and out of breath from the climb, not to mention mad as hell.

How dare they do this to him, his so-called teammates. As if it wasn't enough that Sheppard had suddenly turned into a raging bastard (not without reason, whispered a small inner voice) but the rest of them had turned on him too! Well, if their goal was a humiliated and humbled Rodney McKay, he'd just show them.

"How do you get into the catacombs?"

Ronon swung around, his dreadlocks almost brushing the ceiling -- good grief, the man was big -- and then pointed at one of the pillars. "That one. Secret catch in the carvings. Gotta run your fingers over it to feel it."

Rodney crossed to the pillar in question. It was about as tall as his waist and covered with carvings -- Ancient writing mixed with much cruder pictographs, similar to the ones outside the town. Ronon indicated one area of the carvings. "Somewhere in there."

Rodney started to reach for it, then pulled his hand back. "What happens when we activate it?"

"Door opens."

"So I assumed, but where? We're pretty high up here. I don't want to fall down a twelve-story shaft, you get my drift?"

Ronon shrugged. "Didn't ask."

McKay gave him a very long, quizzical look. "She actually got you to go along with this. I don't get it. Is she blackmailing you, or what?"

Strangely, he almost thought he saw a reaction in the man's impassive face. "Teyla wouldn't do that," Ronon said.

Hm. Hit a nerve? He wondered at the runner's quick defense of their teammate. Wondered if Ronon could possibly have a little bit of a thing for Teyla. Wondered if he should press further. Decided it was not a good idea to tease or antagonize a man who probably knew 4,000 different ways to kill somebody. So he just said, "Fine," and backed away from the pillar, tapping the floor all over with his toes in search of a hollow sound, and then using his scanner. His eyebrows raised as soon as he got a good look at it, and for a moment his anger at Teyla and Sheppard was forgotten. "The energy source ... it's right under us," he said thoughtfully. "I mean, not necessarily close, but definitely beneath us somewhere. It's so faint, I can't tell how close it is..." He laughed. "Yeah, good old avacado-for-brains Rodney is going to get lost in the tunnels and come out with a ZedPM ... that should just show them!"

His readings indicated that there was a space under the temple, but were too uncertain to identify any features of it. Rodney sighed, completing a third circuit of the temple without coming any closer to understanding its subterranean layout.

"Ready?" Ronon asked, reaching for the pillar with the control switch.

"No!" Rodney barked at him. "Quit it!"

Ronon looked slightly confused. "Are we going down?"

"No, we're not going down, you moron. Teyla wants me to go down. As far as I'm concerned, that's a perfectly good reason not to go down."

Now the runner looked even more confused. "You said there's an energy source down there. Thought you'd want to--"

"AHA!" Rodney's stabbing finger brought him up short.

Ronon gave him a quizzical look.

"I'm onto her now, that little ... wench!" Rodney paced rapidly back and forth across the temple floor, rubbing his hands together. "Oh yeah, I've got her number. They planted that energy signature down there, Teyla and Zelenka. Knowing I'd go down to investigate! Ha ha ha, you sneaky Czechoslovakian number cruncher -- you're getting the graveyard shift from now until 2012! Very sneaky! But not nearly sneaky enough!"

Ronon leaned, rather cautiously, against the pillar and folded his arms. "When?" he said.

Rodney was brought up short in mid-rant. "Er, when what?"

"When did they plant it?"

"I don't know! I don't pay attention every time anybody comes and goes through the Stargate! Though I may have to start keeping track now that I know they're -- Oh, God, if they used the Stargate, that means Weir's in on it too. This is simply unfair. Completely unfair. I always used to think people were conspiring against me, but I never realized it was true!"

"Teyla never said anything to me about--"

"Oh, and I'm supposed to believe you now? The confessed conspirator? Isn't that like hiring a Wraith for a school crossing guard? Oh, hell!" Rodney smacked himself in the forehead. "Why didn't I see it before? You're a plant! I was supposed to figure out that you were in on it. Now I'm supposed to think that you're on my side so I'll believe every word that you tell me and you can feed me a steady stream of misinformation and lies. Lies! Well, I've got you now. I won't believe a single thing you say to me. In fact, I won't listen to a single thing you say to me. La la la la, not listening. Are you getting this, Mister Double Agent Man?"

Ronon watched him pace, impassive, arms folded. "You're over-thinking this a little bit," he said.

"Not listening!"

The runner heaved a sigh and decided that this was going to be a very long day indeed. "What now, then?"

"Not. Listening." Rodney bent over the top of the alter, using it as a work surface to pry the back off the Ancient scanner with one of the many small tools he kept tucked into various pockets of his flak vest. He tweaked some of the scanner's wires, switched two crystals, flipped it over and grinned. "Ah, much better. Boosting the power is helping a lot with the interference. Bet I can filter out some of the -- hey!" He pointed the scanner at Ronon. "You said you have an emergency beacon or something to get out of the maze. Lemme see it!"

Ronon raised an eyebrow. "You trust me now?"

"No farther than I can throw you, which is ... not very far, but I want to see what Zelenka built. If that ten-thumbed loon could build it, I can reverse engineer it in ten seconds flat."

Curious despite himself, Ronon handed over what appeared to be another small Ancient scanner. McKay turned it over in his hands, recognizing the type. There were a million of these in the labs on Atlantis. Similar to the life signs detectors, they were very specific but could be modified to scan for almost anything. This one was picking up a strong signal off to his left ... the direction of the Stargate, he confirmed, glancing out of the temple and down the hill -- he couldn't see the gate from here, but he remembered that it had been behind that distinctive tall rock formation. Holding the scanner up to the light, he saw scratches on the back indicating that the cover had been pried off. It was the work of a moment to follow suit.

"Planted a tracker next to the gate when we came through," Ronon volunteered. "Scanner points to it."

"Yes, yes, yes. A compass that always points to the Stargate. I get it, I get it. Shut up, I'm busy." Tinkering around in the guts of the machine, Rodney muttered, "Oh, very clever, very clever. Actually ... not bad at all. He's just found a frequency that isn't too badly affected by all the interference on this planet and is filtering out everything else. It's far too weak and restrictive to use for radio communication, but works great for picking up a beacon that's only sending out one ping every ... let's see ... fifteen seconds, from the look of things." Leaving the back cover off the modified scanner, Rodney detached some wires from the other one and hooked them together, then flipped the bigger scanner over to inspect its readings. "Ha, now we're filtering out the interference. Most of it, anyway. Of course, we're also filtering out almost everything else, including, ah, ZedPM signals I see, but we are getting ..." He snapped his fingers to check. "Sound waves! Perfect! Hey, Caveman Jim, stomp around a little."

"You talking to me?" Ronon said.

"No, I'm talking to my invisible friend. He's standing over there by the pillar to your left. Of course I'm talking to you. Make some noise. I need vibrations."

Ronon made no move, so Rodney groaned and did it himself -- stomping on the stone floor, checking his readings, stomping somewhere else. After a few minutes of this, he was grinning.

"And ladies and gentleman, we have a rather poor-quality image of what's under the floor! Looks like ... hm, a chamber nearly the size of the temple itself. Some sort of structure directly under the altar. Presumably that's our stairs. Couple of tunnels leading off from it. There's more underneath ... I think there is a shaft that goes farther down, directly below us, but I can't tell how far."

"Are you going down?"

Rodney gave him one of his "are you an idiot?" stares. "I'm sorry, I must have been talking to myself for the last ten minutes. I believe we have firmly established that I am far too intelligent to walk into a trap set by the likes of you."

"I didn't--"

"Plant an energy source in the catacombs, yes, you've said that. I don't believe you. Or, rather, I think it's possible that you may be telling the truth and Teyla is far, far sneakier than we ever gave her credit for." He was going to have to remember that about Teyla. Never trust a woman who could undoubtedly break both your legs with one hand tied behind her back. "In any case, I have no need to go below, at least not yet. I have time and equipment enough to establish the location of the energy source and, using my keen intellect, which luckily none of y--"

"Shh!" Ronon held up a hand.

"Oh, now wh--"

The runner was big, but he could move astonishingly fast when he wanted to. Before Rodney had completed the sentence, Ronon had crossed the temple floor and clapped a hand over his mouth. Rodney made an indignant, muffled squeak, but shut up when Ronon stooped over to whisper near his ear, "I believe we are being watched."

"You're just trying to shut me up," Rodney snapped, crossing his arms.

"No. I am quite sure someone is watching us."

Cold prickles scampered down Rodney's arms and legs. He felt suddenly exposed, standing under the temple roof with nothing around him for protection but a handful of slender columns. Sitting on top of the hill as it did, the temple was probably visible for miles around. "How do you know?"

"You been running as long as I have, you just know. Little things. Hard to describe. Mostly just a feeling."

Rodney's eyes narrowed. "Runner's intuition? Is that what you're basing this upon?"

The runner had drawn his gun and his eyes were in constant motion across the seemingly deserted rocks around them. "My people say that 'intuition' is the unconscious mind picking up signs too subtle for the conscious mind to notice."

"Your people," Rodney said, "are all dead. I don't think their no doubt highly developed intuition did them much good."

Ronon swung his head around to face the scientist, and Rodney realized that once again, his brain-mouth disconnect had gotten him in trouble; but the words were said, and while he was still trying to find a way to somehow backpedal and make up for it, he realized that Ronon was not looking at him, but at something behind him.

"Down!" the runner bellowed, and Rodney didn't have to be told twice; he hit the deck as the roar of Ronon's gun went off somewhere deafeningly close to his ear. While his ears were still ringing from the blast, something skittered across his cheek, leaving traces of dampness. He reached up his hand, took it away to see blood. But ... he hadn't felt a bullet hit him ... was deafness a symptom of being shot? He looked up just in time to see the small puff of dust and scattering of more rock fragments (one of which had grazed his cheek) as more bullets scattered across the altar above him -- and these bullets were most definitely not coming from Ronon's gun.

Someone ... shooting at them? Ronon's gun barked again, right next to his head; he flinched and scrabbled for his 9mm. His fingers had gone horribly clumsy. He couldn't get the strap unfastened.

Ronon said one word, the low harsh voice breaking through his near-deafness and growing panic: "Tunnels." He looked around to see the runner making a break for the pillar with the secret catch that supposedly opened the door to the catacombs. Gunfire followed him, the bullets striking sparks from the tiles around his feet. Their assailants appeared to be quite lousy shots, and from what Rodney could tell, they didn't possess automatic weapons -- the gunshots were single. Sheppard's training must be paying off. He didn't dare raise his head from the floor to figure out where the shots were coming from, though.

Ronon threw himself behind the pillar, then reached around it to fumble for the mechanism. Finally it sank into Rodney's head just what, exactly, his companion was doing.

"Ronon!" he hissed. "Don't be stupid! We don't know what's down there!"

"Beats getting shot," the runner retorted. "I trust Teyla." There was a soft click from the pillar.

Nothing else happened, for a moment. Another bullet pinged off the altar, much closer to Rodney's head than the last one. Just as he was thinking that there must be something wrong -- the mechanism had, after all, been sitting out in the weather for many years -- he heard a low rumbling ... felt it, too, through the floor that he lay upon. The ground was trembling slightly.

The rumbling was accompanied by a much closer grinding sound. It took him a moment to pinpoint it, and he had to crane his head back to see -- the top of the altar had begun to slide back. It moved a few inches, paused, shuddered a few inches more -- and stopped, leaving a crack no wider than a man's hand. Rodney wanted desperately to get up and take a peek inside ... but he had no intention of making a human bullseye out of himself. However, that was before the tiles under him began to crack and buckle in a most unsafe way. The rumbling had not stopped when the top of the altar stopped moving. In fact, it was getting louder.

"CRAP!" Death by gunshot, or death by mysteriously disintegrating temple -- it was a lousy choice, but the gunshots were, just at the moment, a slightly less pressing threat, considering that they seemed to have stopped. Rodney's hindbrain kicked in and he found himself scrabbling backward across the crumbling floor like a crab. "Ronon, get out of here!" he yelled, not even sure at the moment where Ronon was. He fell backwards off the temple floor onto the natural rock surrounding it, just in time to see the temple fold inward on itself with a great plume of dust and a tremendous, deafening cracking of stone. And it was taking the surrounding countryside with it. The ground under him began to dissolve, sand and rocks and boulders cascading into the hole. He had time to scream before he vanished into the growing avalanche.

After the last parts of the temple fell into the hole, the ground began to stabilize, leaving a yawning black gap about forty feet across. Dust sifted up from it, drifted on the cold air, and eventually dissipated into the shifting sky.

Chapter Six: Hostile Country

Sheppard and Teyla poked around the temple and found nothing interesting -- it appeared that everything not nailed down had been taken when the town's residents had left, and everything else was covered with a thick layer of gritty dust. Sheppard noticed a couple of times that Teyla appeared nervous; she kept glancing in the direction that McKay and Ronon had gone, and once he caught her surreptitiously trying to sneak a peek at his watch. He couldn't really blame her for being nervous about their teammates' well-being -- it was an unfamiliar planet, after all, and the continued silence was eerie -- but he hoped that there wasn't anything she knew about the world that the rest of them didn't, something which might give her cause for extra concern. He was jumpy, too. Teyla had said that this planet was deserted, but he could swear he felt as if he was being watched.

He was hunting for words as the two of them emerged into the wan sunlight -- because something just didn't feel right, something was off about this whole mission. Something about Teyla, the way she didn't quite seem to meet his eyes ... just, something ... wrong. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. Words ... he could never do much with words.

And that was when the shooting started.

Sheppard, stepping down from the last step of the temple stairs, nearly lost his balance and scrambled to catch himself. The P-90 was in his hands before both his feet were on the ground. He knew that sound, knew it all too well.

Afghanistan. He was back in freakin' Afghanistan. And for a moment, the disorientation was so great that he half-expected to turn and see Mitch grinning that familiar sly grin, see Dex at his side covering his back ... standing in the cold sunlight, in a courtyard drifted with dry snow and sand, just like a dozen empty little towns they'd gone through on patrol, so many times.


Teyla's voice snapped him out of it. She'd started running, her own rifle drawn, and he cursed himself for his hesitation -- a few seconds, but sometimes that made all the difference. As he caught up with her, Sheppard hit his headset. "Ronon! McKay! Come in, dammit!"

No answer, only static. He cursed softly.

"Colonel!" Teyla beckoned. "It appears to be coming from outside the town. There is a temple on top of the ridge in that direction; perhaps Dr. McKay was looking for Ancestors' technology in it, as we were."

The shooting had stopped, trailing off in a rumble ... an explosion? It sounded like no ordinance that Sheppard was familiar with. As he followed Teyla, running side by side through the winding streets of the deserted town, he ran his mind back to what he'd heard, as in so many other combat situations, trying to build a picture in his mind of what had happened from the few fragments that he'd gathered.

Ronon had shot first -- or, at least, if there'd been other gunfire, it had been of such a small caliber that it hadn't carried into the town. The first sound he'd heard had been the unforgettable thunder of the runner's gun. After that --some kind of single-shot rifle, and what was probably a shotgun. Three or four shots each, which probably meant at least five or six shooters, because there had been little time to reload and the shots sounded like relatively primitive firearms, probably lacking large magazines. That would rule out the Genii, too ... not to mention the Wraith ... but it left them right back at square one.

Teyla ran swiftly, easily, and so fast that the hounds of Hell might have been on her heels. Sheppard could barely keep up with her.

"Teyla," he panted, drawing abreast with an extra burst of energy. "I thought you said the planet was deserted?"

"I thought it was." She glanced at him, but he saw worlds of anguish in that look, her usual barriers stripped away to leave the brown eyes bare and hurting. "I thought that nothing had lived beneath these skies for many years. Colonel, I am afraid that I have been a fool. I have made terrible mistakes."

"Not your fault," Sheppard retorted, between breaths. "Don't talk. Run."

She looked as if she wanted to say more, but nodded and put on another burst of speed. Sheppard immediately violated his own order by trying again to raise Ronon and McKay on the radio. Still no response.

At the edge of the town, Teyla and Sheppard each flattened themselves behind one of the last buildings before streets and cobblestones gave way to rocks and twisted, dead-looking bushes. No cover, Sheppard thought in frustration; Afghanistan, again. Above the hill, a cloud of -- dust? smoke? drifted against the alien sky, and from their position, a narrow path wended its way up the hill, more or less towards the smoke. Teyla pointed to the path, raised two fingers and murmured, "Tracks."

He'd take her word for it; just looked like rocks to him. "Rodney and Ronon?"

"Can't tell."

He drew a deep breath, looked up the hill. The cloud of smoke or dust or whatever was beginning to dissipate in the air. Aside from that, nothing moved, nothing appeared different; the landscape seemed just as deserted as it had been when they first arrived on this world. But clearly, appearances could be deceiving.

Teyla was looking at him, awaiting directions. The thought occurred to him how much easier it was to deal with Teyla in a combat situation than Rodney. Despite her lack of formal training, she was one of the best soldiers he'd worked with. Often she seemed to anticipate his thoughts -- he hardly had to give her any directions. Like now ... he raised his eyebrows at her and jerked his head up the hill, she smiled faintly and nodded, and the two of them left the shelter of the buildings, each darting for a nearby boulder.

They worked their way up the hill under what cover they could find. Sheppard hated the slow pace, knowing that two of his team were missing and possibly injured with hostiles in the area. But he had a heavy disadvantage of ground -- the shooters were up the hill, presumably with an excellent view of the valley, and he supposed they were also much more familiar with the area. Getting shot on the way to the rescue would make for a lousy cavalry scene.

Every once in a while, he glanced over at Teyla. She kept pace with him easily, using her smaller size to good advantage to find cover where he would have been exposed. When she noticed him watching her, she gave him what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile, but it didn't make it to her eyes. Her eyes were ... haunted. He'd never quite seen that look on Teyla's face before.

Teyla, meanwhile, was stewing in a morass of guilt. She could not imagine how she had been so horribly wrong. The planet Cleta had been abandoned for years. Everyone on the trading planets knew it. No one came here anymore. And she had seen no signs of recent habitation in the town below. Certainly it was possible for someone to have moved in after the Cletans left, but if so, where could they be living? It didn't make sense to live in the hills in this harsh climate when there was a perfectly good town just waiting to --

Oh. The tunnels. Of course, how could she have been so blind. She had assumed that no one could find the cleverly hidden entrances to the tunnels, but surely there were other people like herself, trusted trading partners of the Cletans who had been shown their secret before they left their world. Maybe the secret was not so much of a secret after all. And she ... she had sent Ronon and Rodney straight into their arms.

For a moment guilt so overwhelmed her that she had to stop moving. Sheppard gave her a worried glance; she tried to smile at him, but from the look on his face, the smile hadn't done much to reassure him. Focus, Teyla, she thought; focus. It wouldn't help their teammates if she and the Colonel were shot to death on this barren hillside.

As they resumed moving up the hill, Teyla realized that she had overlooked one thing: if people were living on this world, especially if they were living in the tunnels, what were they living on? Did they resupply themselves through the Stargate, and if so, how had they kept their existence a secret? Surely their food and other supplies had to come from somewhere. A small group of people might be able to hide without a trace in the tunnels, but surely they could not hide their grazing animals and crops -- assuming that crops could even still be grown on this world. She frowned. She was missing something here; she knew it.

Perhaps they had been followed through the Stargate by one of their enemies? But in this quiet world, they should have heard a gate activation if one had occurred after they'd come through.

She heard a sharp intake of breath from Sheppard, and snapped her gaze forward, again cursing herself for allowing her attention to be distracted inward at a time when she needed all her wits about her. Then she saw what he had seen -- and the ground seemed to jerk sideways under her feet, so great was her shock.

Oh, sweet Ancestors.

They'd come to the top of the ridge ... or what was left of it. Teyla stared in shock and horror at the gaping hole in the hilltop. The path led up to it and then vanished in the cracked and broken stone. There was no chance that this could not be recent; dust billowed up from the depths.

Teyla couldn't breathe. What had she done?

"McKay! Ronon!" Sheppard tried his radio, and then tried peering over the edge and hollering into the darkness beneath. He looked up at Teyla, but she could not meet his eyes, too frightened that he would see the guilt and terror lurking in them.

"That temple of yours ..." Sheppard said.

"Was here, yes. Upon this spot." Teyla's voice shook slightly. She approached the edge with great care, cautiously peering over as far as she could see. Clouds of dust obscured the bottom of the hole, but it looked as if it went a long way down. The sides were very unstable, little mini-avalanches of pebbles and rocks sliding loose at the slightest vibration.

"Think they're down there?"

"I -- I do not know." Her voice sounded faint and thin to her own ears. She still could not believe, could not understand. When she'd been on the world before, the entrance to the catacombs had been opened easily upon this very spot by their host, who wanted to show them the tunnels that the people of this world used to hide from Wraith attacks and other enemies. It had been a sign of great trust, indicating that their peoples were to be forever allies. She was not aware of any booby traps. And the people of this world had not left because of enemies; they had left because their world became no longer capable of supporting them. They would not have had any reason to leave traps ...

But clearly, this world had changed since she had been here. The evidence lay before her. And, trusting fool that she was, she had led -- no, manipulated her friends into a trap.

Sheppard had approached the edge of the hole so closely that she could see the ground start to fracture under his feet. Teyla tensed, ready to grab for him should he start to fall. He was leaning out as far as he dared, waving the life signs detector over the gap in the earth.

"I'm getting life signs," he said, and Teyla let out a long breath. "But there's so much static I can't tell how many. Could be one, could be a dozen. No way to know if it's Ronon and McKay." He frowned at the screen. "I'm getting some readings up here, too."

Teyla tensed, spun around with the P-90 and swung it slowly back and forth over the rocks. "Where?"

"I can't tell!" Frustration overwhelmed him; he smacked the scanner, stared at it again, sighed. "Maybe Rodney could make sense of this, but I can't. I just know we're not alone up here."

The two of them stared around them at the still, apparently deserted landscape. The wind keened in the rocks, and an occasional shower of destabilized pebbles cascaded into the hole, making Teyla flinch.

"Hey!" Sheppard bellowed at the landscape around them, and she jumped, her finger jerking on the trigger of the P-90; she barely managed to stop herself from peppering the nearest boulder with valuable ammunition. "I don't know who's up there, and I don't care! From what I heard earlier, we've got vastly better weapons than you do, and all we want is to take our people and go home. Help us or leave us alone, but either way, we're taking them and getting out of here. Get in our way and we'll kill you. Got it?"

"Colonel, perhaps I should handle the negotiating," Teyla offered.

"I'm not negotiating. I'm giving warning. Those bastards, whoever they are, tried to kill two members of my team."

Sickness rose in her throat, choking her. "You are very sure that they are still alive," she said, trying to keep her voice stable.

"No blood." Sheppard gestured around them with the P-90. "If Rodney and Ronon were up here, they were either taken prisoner without being shot, or they're down in that hole. Either way, there's something to rescue."

"True," she conceded.

Sheppard drew a deep breath and shouted at the rocks, "You guys getting this? We're armed and very dangerous. Shoot at us, and we'll kill some of you. Now, we're taking our people and going home."

With that, he muttered, "Cover me," and slung the P-90 over his shoulder. Teyla cast an incredulous look over her shoulder as he approached the edge of the hole.

"Colonel, what are you doing?"

"Climbing," he said, and stared down into the pit. "Damn it, wish I'd thought to bring rope! We haven't got time to go back to the Stargate -- it's a half-hour's jog at least, both ways, plus who knows how much time to get a rescue team together on the other side, and God knows if they're hurt down there." He studied the unstable sides of the hole, reached out a cautious toe and prodded at it, dislodging a cascade of sand and pebbles that vanished into the depths. "Maybe I could slide down, like on a sledding hill. Yeah. It's the only way. Gonna be a long damn way down..." He drew a deep breath, turned around and prepared to throw a leg over the edge of the hole, as Teyla stared in horror.

"Colonel! Wait!" One leap and she was at his side, releasing her trigger hand to seize his wrist. "Do not," she begged. "There may be another way. A better way."

"You got a plan? Let's hear it. And quick."

Teyla drew a deep breath. The time for dissembling was through. She'd promised Weir that if things started to turn bad, she'd give up the plan, and having two of their team members vanish in an avalanche of rocks while being shot at by unknown enemies definitely qualified as "bad" in anyone's lexicon. "There are tunnels under the town," she said. "This was one of the entrances. I know several other ways in. In the tunnels, we should be able to find our way back here much more safely and almost as quickly as we could climb down."

Both Sheppard's eyebrows raised nearly to his disheveled hairline. "Tunnels? Like, catacombs?"

"I do not know that word. The people of this world used them to shelter from the Wraith when the culling ships came. They are well hidden, and very extensive and deep."

Sheppard pulled his arm free of her grasp. "And you just now thought to mention this? Damn it, Teyla! Those energy readings of Rodney's must be coming from those tunnels of yours. If you'd just said something back in the village, Rodney and Ronon could've taken your safe way in, and they wouldn't be down in that hole right now."

Oh, he didn't know the half of it. "There is more," Teyla said, very quietly. "I do not think you will like this. You may give me whatever punishment you feel I deserve, for I am sure I have earned it."

"Punishment? What is this crap? Teyla, you've never done anything to deserve punishment! I mean, you made a mistake, but --"

"I believe I have done more than make a mistake." Her eyes roved from the rocks, to the distant mountains and the toy-sized houses of the town below them -- anywhere but Sheppard or the hole in the ground that she assumed had swallowed her friends. "Colonel, whose idea was it to come to this world, do you recall?"

"Damn it, is that what this is all about? You're blaming yourself because you suggested this world? That's just stupid, Teyla. We would have gotten here eventually in any case; you just sped up the process by suggesting we take a look at this place because you've been here before and you knew it might have Ancient tech."

"That is not why I wanted to come to this world," Teyla said, staring at the ground.

"Teyla." His voice was a bark of command. She risked a glance at him. "I don' t have time for games. Two of my team are down in that hole, maybe hurt, and every minute that goes by is a minute they could be bleeding to death or suffocating. We're standing here arguing in hostile country, which violates about fifteen of the rules that get drilled into you in basic training. If this is important, then tell it to me straight."

Teyla drew a deep breath. "I made sure that we came to this world because of a plan that I had devised ... well, Dr. Zelenka and myself had devised ... to repair the rift between yourself and Dr. McKay."

She risked another glance. He was staring at her. One hand moved to point at the hole. "You planned this?" His voice was low and dangerous.

"No!" she protested. "This was not part of my plan at all! I thought I had accounted for everything, but something has gone very wrong. I swear to you, I thought that there would be very little risk, or I would never have--"


In a world with only natural sounds, the very man-made sound of a rifle bolt snapping into place seemed as loud as a gunshot.

The first thing Rodney noticed was that he wasn't dead. This surprised him.

He raised his head slowly, moving his arms and legs, testing for broken bones. There were some bruises and his legs were half-buried in sand, but all in all, he appeared to be remarkably intact.

Sand, he thought -- the sand had saved him. He'd been one of the last things to fall into the hole, and the cascade of sand that had carried him over the edge had also cushioned his landing.

He sat up slowly, waiting for a searing pain that did not come. Weren't really bad wounds supposed to not hurt? You'd just keep running on adrenaline and have no idea you were bleeding to death until you keeled over. The fact that he felt no pain probably meant that he was mortally injured somewhere. After a few frantic seconds of checking himself over with his hands and finding no injuries, reassured by the presence of all the usual limbs and most vitally, his all-important hands -- he decided that he wasn't going to die, and looked around.

High above him, sunlight shafted weakly through lingering clouds of dust, but it did not reach this far down; his surroundings were murky, a perpetual twilight. He could see boulders and broken columns jutting from the debris, and wondered again that he had survived. A rattling sound made him jump; he realized that small cascades of rocks were still falling from the rough edges of the giant hole they had made. Craning his head back, he tried to figure how far down they must be. Twenty meters? More?

With a sudden surge of guilt, he remembered that he hadn't been the only one to go over the edge. "Ronon?" he called, ashamed by the slight quaver in his voice.

Only silence answered him. Rodney shook his legs free of the sand and stood up, testing his limbs. There was a very painful bruise on his right thigh, and he seemed to have banged his elbow. He dragged a hand through his hair, shaking free dirt and sand. He wondered what he looked like at the moment -- the living dead, probably.


He took a few steps forward, limping, and nearly twisted his ankle when a large rock slipped away under him and vanished into a suddenly yawning gap. Rodney froze, terrified that after surviving the fall he was going to fall into a hole in the rubble and break both his legs. He couldn't see. If only he could see!

A flashlight would come in handy.

Luckily, he realized, he had one. Kicking himself for being the dumbest genius ever, Rodney fished the small penlight out of one of the pockets of his vest and flipped it on. The beam cut a shaft through the dust-laden air. Just looking at all the dust made Rodney cough. Probably full of allergens and crap, too. The only good thing about being down here, as far as he could see, was that no one was shooting at them.


Something clattered somewhere in the twilit world ahead of him. Maybe another falling rock. Maybe someone moving. Rodney froze, crouched. He drew his 9mm and offered a quiet thanks to ... well, to science, since he didn't really believe in anything else, that he hadn't drawn the gun when the shooting began. If he'd had it in his hand when he'd fallen, then he would have lost it, just as he'd lost his scanner and Ronon's Stargate compass. He refused to consider the implications of that yet.

"Ronon?" he called softly, gun in hand, trying to make his voice sound deep and commanding rather than thin and scared. "Is that you?"

"S'me," rumbled a deep voice, and Rodney heaved a sigh and lowered the gun.

Behind one of the broken columns, he found the big man shifting rocks to unbury himself. The column, Rodney could see, had sheltered Ronon from the worst of it -- if not for that, the ceiling of the temple would have crushed him; it lay in pieces all around them. But Ronon didn't look good at all. His face was a mask of blood, and he carried his left arm curled against his chest.

"You okay?" Rodney asked.

Ronon glanced at him, apparently decided not to dignify the question with a response. He got to his feet stiffly, leaning on the column, and tilted his head back to look up at the sky far, far above them.

Rodney followed suit. "There's no way we can climb out of here, is there?" he said.

"Most likely not." And if Ronon was admitting that, then he must be hurting pretty bad.

Rodney raised his hand to his radio. No matter how he might feel about Sheppard and Teyla these days, or vice versa, he couldn't say he'd object to a little bit of cavalry showing up right about now. Before he could activate it, though, iron-hard fingers grabbed his hand, crushing the feeling out of it.

"Ow!" he snapped, snatching back his throbbing hand. "Dammit, Ronon, I need my fingers for my job!"

The runner glowered at him through bloody hair. "They could have radios, too."

"Radios capable of receiving Earth-style analog transmissions, tuned to our frequency? What are the odds of that, pray tell?"

"Not odds I want to take," the runner said. "Not if they think we died in that fall."

Reluctantly, Rodney lowered his hand. It was true ... they had no idea what sort of technology their mysterious enemies might possess, and right now they could use every little edge they could get. Besides, this far underground and considering all the interference in the atmosphere, the radios probably weren't capable of reaching the surface anyway.

"Well," he said, shaking his hand, "any sort of idea you might have ... I'd listen to it. I know you all think I'm a genius, and you're right, but at the moment I'm drawing a blank."

Ronon moved his good shoulder in a slight shrug. "Find the tunnels and leave."

Well, that was a plan. And Rodney couldn't think of anything better. Not waiting to see if Ronon followed, he turned and began climbing over rubble to get a better look at the walls of their prison. If the temple had once been an entrance to a system of tunnels, then perhaps it would still be possible to get into the tunnels from this point, assuming they hadn't been blocked or collapsed when the temple fell.

Fell. Buildings didn't just ... fall. Either the ancient mechanism that opened the entrance had gotten jammed, causing some sort of cataclysmic chain reaction of failures in the machinery, or their trigger-happy little buddies on the surface had set up a booby trap. He didn't have enough evidence to determine which was the cause, and that frustrated him. Sheppard would have laughed at his burning need to know; Sheppard would have said that it didn't matter why the temple had fallen, only that it had, and the important thing now was to figure out a way to get out of the hole.

But Sheppard wasn't here, and it annoyed Rodney to no end that he couldn't seem to stop thinking in terms of Sheppard this and Sheppard that.

Playing the flashlight up the ragged walls of the shaft, he soon located what he was looking for: a tunnel opening a few feet off what currently passed for the ground. There were others higher up, but this was the nearest, the only one they could possibly reach. He ran the flashlight around its edges and saw that it was nearly square -- clearly manmade and not natural.

Ronon joined him and looked up at the tunnel mouth, speculatively. Its floor was just above Rodney's eye level, but Ronon, being taller, could probably see in. "Does it look safe to you?" Rodney asked.

Ronon grunted. That might mean "yes"; it might also mean "I'm in pain" or "Could you please repeat yourself" or "Shut up" or about a dozen other things.

Sometimes, he really missed Ford.

"Think you can climb to it?"

Another grunt. Great, he was stuck in a pit with Og the Caveman. Rodney gave the runner a long, critical look, noticing his pallor and the blood matting his hair. "If you give me a hand up, I can help you up afterwards." Maybe. Ronon looked like he weighed a ton.

The runner didn't answer (saving his breath for more grunting, no doubt) but he bent his knees and lowered his good hand like a step. Rodney put a foot in it, and suddenly he was flying, propelled by a great boost from below. He sprawled across the lip of the tunnel, gasping, and floundered for a moment with arms and legs flailing before he got his limbs under him and pulled himself the rest of the way into the tunnel. Somehow he managed not to let go of the flashlight through all this, though the beam danced wildly across the walls and ceiling of the tunnel.

Turning around, he winced to see how far down Ronon appeared to be. Rodney sighed and held out his hand. "C'mon up."

Ronon shook his head. "Stand back."

Bemused, Rodney backed up. Surely he wasn't going to try ... but there he went, taking a few steps backwards and then launching himself at the opening from a running start. Ronon's good hand smacked on the floor of the tunnel and his chest, with the bad arm held in front of it, landed hard on the tunnel's lip. A sharp hiss of breath escaped his teeth, and for a moment he just clung there, his forehead resting on the tunnel floor, shoulders rigid and legs dangling outside the tunnel. Rodney nerved himself and took a step forward to help drag the runner into the tunnel, but before he reached the other man, Ronon drew a deep breath and pulled himself all the way over the edge. He lay on the floor, breathing hard, then got to his knees and paused again.

"Are you ... er..." Okay? Clearly not. "Do you need a hand? You can, um, lean on me," he added, hoping that his utter reluctance didn't show in his voice.

Ronon raised his head a little, giving Rodney a look through his dreadlocks that appeared almost amused. He braced his good hand against his knee and hoisted himself to his feet, stood for a moment breathing hard, then produced his big gun from somewhere under his coat. How in the world, Rodney wondered, had he managed to keep hold of that when he fell? Presumably that was another thing that came of surviving as a runner for seven years -- never let go of your weapon.

"What does your psychic runner sense tell you about this hole?" Rodney asked him ... well aware that he sounded like a bit of a dick, but he really did mean it. "Anybody in here with us?"

"Can't tell," Ronon said, and after a pause he added, "Can't hear anybody. Doesn't mean nobody's there."

Great. Apparently it was that time again: time to take a deep breath, gird your loins (whatever the hell that meant), and sally boldly forth into danger. Rodney didn't do danger. Didn't like it, didn't want it. Too bad the Pegasus Galaxy hadn't gotten that memo. He sighed and raised the 9mm into what he seemed to recall was a combat-ready position. Noticing Ronon swaying beside him, he resigned himself to being the brawn as well as the brains of this particular partnership and -- gun in one hand, flashlight in the other -- he braced himself and pointed both down the tunnel. Unfortunately, this meant leaving his back uncovered; he tried to point the gun both ways at once, then realized that Ronon was watching him.

"Uh ... you cover the rear, okay?" he offered.

"Sure," Ronon said after a moment.

And so they moved on, deeper into the tunnel. It sloped gently downward, which Rodney considered a bad sign, but it wasn't as if they had much of a choice. He strained his ears for any sound other than their footsteps and the pounding of his own heart. The flashlight created ghostly shadows that danced on the walls and kept setting off his internal panic sensors.

"Man, this is creepy." He played the light over the ceiling, partly in search of a way out and partly just to assure himself that nothing alive was up there waiting to drop on their heads. "Is this place freaking you out, or is it just me?"

He didn't even get a grunt from Ronon this time. Apparently, it was just him. Rodney sighed. If he was choosing people with whom he'd want to be trapped in a cave-in , Ronon Dex wouldn't be at the top of the list. Actually ... come to think of it, who would he want to be trapped in a cave-in with? Definitely not Sheppard, not right now. Zelenka ... don't go there. Elizabeth ... oh God. Caldwell ... just shoot him now, please. Teyla? Maybe. Samantha Carter? Ah, much better.

He was distracted from this pleasant fantasy by a fork in the tunnel. Rodney ran his light over the two tunnels. One slanted up slightly; he chose that one, all other things being equal. Looking back to make sure Ronon was following, Rodney saw that the man's shoulders were hunched, his arm held tenderly to his chest. At least the bleeding from his scalp wound seemed to have stopped, though it left him looking like a refugee from a horror flick.

"How's your arm?" he asked.

"Broken," Ronon said shortly.

"Shouldn't we ... ah, set it or something?"

"You find a splint, you let me know."

Sarcasm, from Ronon? He must be in pain. "You want some aspirin?" Rodney asked.

"What is aspirin?"

"Er, a painkiller. Not very strong, doesn't mess up your mind. Just takes the edge off and keeps it from swelling."

After a silence, Ronon said, "I would appreciate that."

Even though Sheppard usually carried a first aid kit, Rodney made a point of never walking through the Stargate without some basic medical supplies tucked into his vest: aspirin, Band-Aids, antihistamines, Epi-pen in case of allergic reactions, snakebite kit because hey, you never knew. People who called it hypochondria had clearly never been in half the situations he found himself in on a daily basis. He poured a couple of aspirin into his palm -- then, taking in Ronon's size, added a few more and handed them over. Before putting the bottle away, he took a couple himself; as he walked, the bruise on his leg seemed to be working itself out a tad, but it still ached something awful. He washed down the pills with a swig of lukewarm water from his canteen.

Ronon dry-swallowed the handful of aspirin and leaned against the wall for a moment. "Look, are you sure we shouldn't, I don't know, clean it or wrap it or something?" Rodney asked.

The runner shook his head. "It's a clean break. No compounding. Had worse. I'll be fine."

He didn't look fine, but it wasn't as if you could wrestle down a man his size and hold him while applying first aid. Rodney was lousy at first aid anyway; he knew by heart the symptoms of everything from heart attacks to anaphylactic shock, but as far as actually making practical application of that knowledge, he was well aware that he tended to either panic and freeze up, or completely overdo it. Theoretically he knew CPR -- Sheppard had insisted on the whole team being certified -- but if he ever actually had to do it ... well, watching him work on the CPR dummy, Sheppard had commented that he'd probably break every bone in the hapless victim's chest and inflate them like a balloon.

Sheppard again! Aargh! He hadn't realized until the last few days how the man had become wrapped up in every aspect of his life. It seemed that he couldn't go anywhere on or off Atlantis without everything he saw triggering some memory of Sheppard. Here he was, trapped underground on an alien planet, and he couldn't turn around without stumbling over a memory. The 9mm gripped in his sweaty hand reminded him of long hours in the Atlantis's makeshift shooting range with Sheppard patiently (or, often, not so patiently) teaching him the gun's operation and drilling him until he could hit a target. The vest he wore -- even the damn vest made him think of Sheppard, because Sheppard was the one who had originally outfitted them for their offworld missions, and one of their first big arguments had been over the vest, with Rodney insisting that it was too hot and bulky, and Sheppard standing firm that no one on his team was going offworld without some form of light body armor.

But it hadn't been a real argument, had it? Not like today. On that other day, there had been a lot of yelling, and at the end Sheppard had got his way through sheer stubbornness, and then they went off to the mess hall to get something to eat, and that was the end of it.

Today ... today was different. The last few days had been different. Thinking about it twisted his stomach in knots.

He'd lived his life without paying much heed to other people. He craved recognition for his genius, of course; who wouldn't? But generally, what people thought about him ... it wasn't something he worried about, wasn't something to base a decision upon. But over the last year in Atlantis, something had been built, very slowly, one little piece at a time ... something he'd never thought he would experience. Family. Belonging. And, in typical McKay fashion, he'd simply charged forward in his usual rampaging, "bull in a china shop" sort of way, heedless of what he might break along the way, until finally he'd pushed too hard, shoved at something he shouldn't have touched, and brought the whole thing crashing down around his ears. And then, only then, did he have time to stop and think about what he'd had, and what he'd lost.

He liked these people, dammit. He wanted them to like him. The idea that they might not like him, might not trust him -- that Weir didn't, that Sheppard didn't -- it hurt in a deep, empty, lonely kind of way that he hadn't experienced since he was a small child, craving the affirmation from his parents that would never come.

It was easier to think about such things alone in the dark, without other people around him, their thoughts and emotions and damned feelings pushing at him. Well ... not really alone, of course. He glanced back at Ronon. The runner seemed to be walking a bit more easily after taking the aspirin, his eyes roving around the tunnel by the light of McKay's flashlight, never resting, never still.

There was something strangely peaceful about being around Ronon, Rodney thought -- strange, considering that the man lived his life by violence; but the comforting thing about Ronon was the sense of utter self-sufficiency that surrounded him like well-worn armor. Ronon didn't ask for anything from the people around him, didn't even want it. What McKay had always hated about interacting with other people was their sensitivity, the way you could hurt them with a casual, careless word -- and watching his words was something he'd never been able to remember to do. He used to have that comfort with Sheppard, the sense that no matter what he said, it didn't really matter; nothing could be so bad it would drive Sheppard away. Now that this had turned out to be false, he realized that he got the same feeling from Ronon, only more so. He had no idea if Ronon liked him or not -- and, he realized, it didn't really matter that much to him, not the way that Sheppard and Teyla's approval mattered to him -- but he was pretty sure that he wasn't going to change Ronon's opinion of him with a few thoughtless remarks.

For Rodney, that was about all you could hope for from other people -- and a lot more than you got from most.


He wondered if he'd totally blown it with Sheppard. He also wondered if Sheppard and Teyla were looking for them. Had they heard the gunshots? Were they worried? Probably not worried about him, considering the terms on which they'd parted, but they would at least want to know what happened, wouldn't they? For that matter, he hoped they were okay. He knew from experience that they could both handle themselves in a firefight, but still ... once the bullets started flying, you only had to be slow or unlucky one time. Once was all it took.

A small, paranoid, dark part of his mind whispered to him: What if this is all actually still part of Teyla's plan? Could she actually have ... meant for this to happen to them? He couldn't believe that she would do such a thing, and yet ... you never really could know about people until they were under pressure, could you?

It just wasn't a good idea to trust people. Good things never came of it. He made himself a small promise to remember that, when he got out of this.

If he got out of this.

"Turn the light off," Ronon said suddenly.

Rodney jumped. "Why? Do you hear something? Are we being followed."

Ronon sighed. "Just ... turn it off. Think it's getting light in here."

"Really?" Rodney snapped off the flashlight. Pitch darkness rolled back in to swallow the walls of the tunnel, and he swallowed, fighting down claustrophobia. But, as his eyes began to adjust to the gloom, he began to make out details: Ronon's big shape next to him, his own hands.

Rodney turned to Ronon, starting to smile. Out ... they must be almost out! But the smile died as he realized that the light seemed to be coming from all around them. No ... above them. He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. It was glowing, very faintly, in a series of small panels.

Rodney switched the light on and played it across the ceiling. The panels were not reflective and blended with the stones so thoroughly that he could see how he might have missed them before, but ... he snapped the flashlight off, then back on. No doubt about it. They were glowing very faintly.

"I'll be damned," Rodney said under his breath. "Ancient technology. I think." He looked around him at the too-square edges of the tunnels, perfectly smooth even after all the years it must have been here. "I think we're in some kind of ... Ancient bunker."

Chapter Seven: Sacrifice

The corridor continued to brighten as Rodney and Ronon proceeded. The lights were responding to them, Rodney realized -- brightening as they approached, fading into darkness behind them. Soon he was able to switch off the flashlight. The light was still not very bright, and flickered like an old fluorescent fixture about to go dead.

"Damaged?" Ronon asked, jerking his head at the lights.

"Maybe," Rodney conceded. "More likely just out of power." He glanced around, noticing conduits on the stone walls (electrical, maybe?) that had not been present earlier. "Judging from the other Ancient installations we've found, this thing is probably almost out of power and saving it for the core areas. I'd guess that means we're getting closer to the heart of the thing."

Ronon brought up his big gun into a ready position.

They began to pass doors occasionally -- wide, gray, institutional-looking doors. Rodney tried the first one that they came to; it was not locked and slid jerkily back into a slot in the stone wall, reminding him of the rolling doors in self-service storage units back on Earth. The room behind was dark, bare and empty. Rodney cautiously played his flashlight around the inside and noted Ancient-style power outlets on the walls. He crouched down next to one of them and got a Swiss army knife out of his vest, using the blade to pry open the cover of the outlet.

"Don't know that we got time for this," Ronon said from the doorway.

"Shush. I'm checking something." He'd lost his scanner, but he did still have a small voltmeter and he used this to test the current in the walls. Same voltage as the Ancient standard, on Atlantis and elsewhere -- but weak, with heavy power fluctuations. Rodney straightened with a satisfied smile. Ronon gave him a look that might have been curious, or just impatient.

"It's Ancient, or at least a culture that's had a lot of contact with them," Rodney said, and, out of habit, promptly launched into an explanation as he closed the door. "We figured out after only a few different off-world trips that the voltages an advanced culture uses for its technology are one of the best ways to tell which ones built which items." Actually, Zelenka had figured it out, but he wasn't about to admit that. He'd just been too busy actually doing the work of collecting offworld artifacts to sit around in a lab coming up with esoteric theories. Still, it had been a good idea. Unrelated cultures tended to have incompatible power systems just because of sheer random chance considering the many possible options. Earth -- where different countries still used different power systems -- proved the rule on a microcosmic scale. So they could crudely test cultural diffusion just using a simple voltmeter.

"Plus," Rodney added, pointing at the flickering lights, "I'm positive now that their ZedPM, or whatever they're using, is on its way out. I suppose it's possible that it's just powered down, waiting for somebody with the gene, but the fluctuations that I'm seeing make me think that it's on its last legs."

Ronon grunted. Rodney got the distinct impression that he wasn't interested, and couldn't figure that out. They were standing in a previously undiscovered, underground Ancient facility! What knowledge, what tools and weapons might be down here? Neanderthal ... he was dealing with a Neanderthal.

They passed more doors. Rodney insisted on opening the first couple of them, but when they proved to be as empty as the first room, he started spot-checking. One room was filled with powered-down equipment covered with Ancient dust-sheets, similar to the ones that had been all over Atlantis when they first arrived. Ronon practically had to drag him bodily out of there.

The lights were almost fully operational in this part of the facility. So far, they'd heard nothing, seen no signs of human beings.

It was too good to last.

Sheppard moved to unsling the P-90 from his shoulder, and the stranger said, "I wouldn't do that."

There were about a dozen of them, actually -- but only one who seemed willing to talk to them. He stood on top of a boulder about fifty feet away from them, as Earth people measured distance. Teyla had not seen how he got there -- one minute the wasteland around them was deserted, and the next minute, it was full of Cletans, all of them pointing an array of rifles, shotguns and even a few energy weapons at the two visitors.

And they were Cletans, the same hospitable, gentle people who had welcomed her family's traders all those years ago. The same ... yet not the same. She recognized their distinctively braided hair, the cut and style of their clothing, the cultural ornaments that they wore on their arms to indicate marital status and number of children. All these things were Cletan things. But their eyes ... The eyes of the people she remembered had been warm and welcoming. These people's eyes were flat and cold. And their clothes were so covered with dust that they blended with the rocks, their hair matted and dirty. The Cletans she remembered had been meticulously clean -- it was one of their beliefs that an unclean body and an impure mind were an affront to the Ancestors.

"Drop your weapons," the Cletans' spokesman said.

"You first," Sheppard retorted. "Don't do it, Teyla."

She kept her eyes on the spokesman: a lean man, all jutting bones and muscle, with long brown hair under a wide-brimmed hat. His eyes were pale, as blue as Rodney's, and startling in his deeply tanned face. Of all the ragged bunch on the rocks around them, he was the only one who really seemed to belong here, among the stones and the snow. He had the look of an outdoorsman to him. The rest of them gripped their motley assortment of firearms with the white-knuckled clutch of desperation and fear, huddled in their ragged clothes. They looked more like refugees than soldiers.

Teyla sought for familiarity in the faces. Some of these people she thought she had met before, on her previous trips to their world. But she could remember no names.

"I said drop it! I'm not joking."

The antique-looking rifle in his hands barked once, and dust puffed up a few inches from Teyla's feet. Warning shot. She did not flinch, although Sheppard made an incoherent growling noise. The stranger's gloved hand flicked the bolt on the rifle, snapped another cartridge into the chamber.

"So you've been putting in your time on the rifle range. Big deal," Sheppard said. "If you've got any sense, you can see how much more advanced our weapons are than yours. In the time it takes you guys to shoot one of us, we can shoot ten of you."

The rifle raised to point to Teyla's chest. "And you consider that a fair trade, do you?" the stranger wanted to know.

"We are not your enemies," Teyla said. "We are visitors to your world. My people and yours were friends once. You and I may have played together as children."

The man snorted. "Don't make me ask again."

Very slowly, acutely aware of the rifle pointed at her chest, Teyla swiveled her head towards Sheppard and said softly, "I do not think they will hurt us, Colonel. They seem more frightened than anything else."

"Frightened people can be a lot more dangerous than angry ones," Sheppard murmured back. He sounded as if he spoke from experience. His eyes were far away, perhaps in that Afgastan place he had spoken of.

"I concede that you are right. But the only alternative to surrender that I can see is a firefight that would kill all of them and most likely result in one or both of us being injured or killed."

"Gonna give you a five-count," the Cletan leader said, "and then I'm gonna shoot her. One ..."

"Fine!" Sheppard snarled. He threw his P-90 to the ground, followed by his sidearm. Teyla followed suit.

The Cletan spokesman jerked his head at the others, and in moments the two of them were surrounded and forced to their knees. Following their leader's directions, the Cletans stripped their prisoners of their flak vests and all else that they carried: one knife from Sheppard and two from Teyla; their first aid kit, Teyla's fighting sticks, their radios. Their captors produced a soft, strong rope -- surprisingly high-tech-looking -- and bound their hands behind their backs.

"You people need to read up on your Miss Manners," Sheppard snapped as they were dragged to their feet. "This is a pretty crappy way to treat guests."

"He is right," Teyla said coldly. "Our people were allies once. I do not think your forefathers would approve of what you have become."

The Cletan leader strode toward her and struck her across the face. Sheppard lunged forward but was brought up short by two Cletans who moved to defend their leader.

"You defile the Ancestors with your words," he snarled, and turned his back on her. Teyla drew herself upright, licking her lips and tasting blood.

"Hey!" Sheppard yelled at his back. "There were two more of us. What'd you guys do with them? They'd better be alive."

The Cletan leader didn't respond to him. "Let's go home," he told the others. "Bring them."

A smattering of murmurs ran through the ragged group. "Are you sure?" a woman asked finally.

"I'm sure." He didn't look at the prisoners. "I know what I'm doing. Bring them."

Prodded by rifles and dragged by hands, Sheppard and Teyla found themselves the center of a small and very well-armed parade. As they were dragged away, Teyla cast an anxious glance over her shoulder at the hole in the ground, and she noticed Sheppard doing the same thing. Then his eyes found her, and she understood that the Cletans' arrival had only postponed the reckoning that lay ahead for her.

"You people are in so much trouble," Sheppard growled as they were led at an uncomfortable speed down a winding, rock-strewn path that descended the back of the ridge. "You're messing with the U.S. Air Force here, you cretins."

"Cletans," the long-haired man corrected him, striding at the front of the group with a loose, swinging walk.

Sheppard snorted a half-laugh. "You know, I know a guy who has even less of a sense of humor than you do. He's about seven feet tall and looks like a walking bear. He's also got a gun that can blow a hole in your chest the size of a basketball. You seen him, by any chance?"

"Colonel," Teyla murmured.

He directed a stinging glare in her direction. "They know where they are, Teyla. Whatever happened to the temple, they caused it. They know where our teammates are; they just don't want to say."

Perhaps there is a reason why they won't tell us, Teyla thought, but that way lay a guilt so deep she did not want to look at it.

Sheppard, however, appeared to have no intention of allowing her to avoid it. As they trotted down the path, trying to keep their balance and avoid stumbling on loose rocks with their hands tied, he leaned closer to her and muttered, "Please tell me this wasn't part of your plan."

That stung like a slap to the face, until she saw a glint in the hazel eyes and realized that it was just Sheppard being Sheppard. But still it stung. "No. I assure you, I thought this world was deserted. Everything I had heard on the trading worlds indicated that no one lived on this planet anymore."

She fell silent as the path got steeper and they were forced to go single file, Sheppard in front and Teyla behind, occasionally bumping into his back when the variable pace of the people in front of him forced him to slow down suddenly. To their left, the steep slope dropped off into the valley below. There was no cover except the boulders, nowhere to go if they did try to escape. Looking down at the sweep of rocks and dirty snow, Teyla thought that their pathetic attempts to use the boulders for cover on their climb up the hill had probably been completely transparent from above. They had no doubt been watched the entire time.

"So when are you going to tell me?" Sheppard asked, risking a brief look over his shoulder.

"Tell you what?" The question was genuine; she wasn't sure what he meant.

"Why you brought us here. I know what you hoped to accomplish; what I can't figure out is what exactly you were trying to do."

She looked down at his back. "On Athos," she said, "I had to settle many disputes among my people. One of them concerned two brothers who fought over a woman. It became a great feud and threatened to tear their family apart. Their parents tried to mend the relationship, and then came to me and I tried as well. But it was impossible. They could not be reconciled because they would not speak to each other."

She became aware that their captors also seemed to be listening, and fell silent. But Sheppard was still listening as well, and after a moment he prompted, "And ...?"

Teyla sighed. "And one day, the village was attacked by a pack of shaganar -- an Athosian predator," she explained. "Like your cats, that you have told me about -- only very large, and venomous."

She stumbled to avoid bumping into Sheppard, who had suddenly stopped walking. The entire line of people had come to a halt at the end of the path, which petered out in a field of boulders at the foot of a cliff face.

Teyla peered past Sheppard at the leader of the Cletans, who appeared to be having a heated discussion with some of the people at the front of the line. She caught snatches of sentences, heard someone say "...strangers, they don't know any..." and another: "He said there are more of them, and they'll send..." Then the Cletan leader snapped in a clear voice, "Do you see any other way?"

The voices fell softer. Teyla sat back against a boulder, her shoulders aching from the awkward angle of her arms behind her back. Sheppard sat down beside her, glowering at the ring of guns bristling around them.

"You okay?" he asked her, seeing her roll her shoulders to relieve the discomfort.

Teyla nodded. "I am unhurt."

"I think you were telling me a story. Something about big cats?"

Teyla gave him a small, sad smile. "Shaganar," she said. "Yes. The pack had been displaced from their usual hunting territory by a forest fire and were starving and dangerous. They attacked the village and everyone was scattered. It was nearly as bad as a Wraith attack -- chaos, people running about, no one sure where anyone else was. In the confusion, each brother assumed that the other had been killed. I happened to be fighting alongside one of them. He was distraught. Where before, all he could speak of to me was how much he hated his brother, now all he could do was worry and try to find him. I later learned that it had been the same for the other. When they were reunited, their joy was the most beautiful thing I have ever beheld. They became inseparable once again."

Her gaze had fallen to the ground. Slowly, she looked up from Sheppard's boots to settle on his incredulous face. Both his eyebrows had very nearly vanished in his birds-nest hair. "You mean to tell me that this is all part of some kind of master plan to get me and Rodney talking again by making us think the other one is dead?"

"Not dead," Teyla said in a small, faint voice. "Just endangered. And not real danger."

"And you guys think MY plans are stupid?" Sheppard's incredulous expression had morphed into the one that Teyla, after being introduced to the Earth game of poker and its various conventions, had begun to think of as John Sheppard's "poker face" -- a faint smirk, a cocked eyebrow, looking slightly amused and slightly dumb to anyone who didn't know him ... your basic dumb, cocky Earth jet jock. What was going on in the sharp mind under that smirk, though, was anyone's guess, and as Teyla had seen in the past, could range from fury to pain to genuine amusement. As well as she knew the man, she just couldn't tell what he was feeling on many occasions.

"I have never thought any of your plans were stupid," Teyla said. Honesty compelled her to add, "Unwise, perhaps, on occasion. And sometimes most ill-advised. Quite often, poorly planned. But never stupid."

Sheppard had maintained his poker face just fine up until she started listing her string of qualifiers, but by the time she got to the last sentence, the smirk had dissolved in a genuine smile. He got the poker face back up, but it wasn't quite as flat as it had been.

"Colonel..." Teyla began. But before she could find her way to an apology, the Cletans were prodding them back to their feet at riflepoint. The argument seemed to have been resolved in favor of the big outdoorsy guy ... no surprise there. He stood at the base of the cliff face, looking back over his shoulder at them with impatience.

Teyla noticed the variety of expressions on the people around her: some nervous, some afraid, some angry. Where are they taking us? she wondered.

She got her answer a moment later when the Cletan swept his blue eyes across the two prisoners and then turned and walked into the cliff.

Oh. A hologram. She noticed some of the Cletans watching them, apparently waiting for a reaction, looking disappointed that there wasn't one. If only they knew what stranger things she'd seen in the last year...

As the Cletans hustled them forward through the strewn boulders, Teyla realized that this was not one of the tunnel entrances that she knew about. Apparently the Cletans had kept their secrets even from their allies.

Many secrets, it seemed.

Even knowing it was a hologram, she had to close her eyes to force herself to walk into what appeared to be solid stone. She felt no sensation at all as she passed through it, and a moment later she opened her eyes to find herself in a corridor beneath a low stone ceiling. To her surprise, the corridor was lit by bright, flickering ceiling panels -- Ancestor technology, she recognized immediately. When she'd been here before, the tunnels had been dark, illuminated only by the smoky yellow light of torches and lamps.

As their captors led them down the tunnel, Teyla noticed how the lights faded out behind them and brightened ahead, responding to their presence as did certain parts of Atlantis. Was this a different part of the tunnel system than the part the Athosians had been shown? she wondered. Or had the Cletans been hiding the truth even then? Clearly they were more than the simple farming people they had appeared to be.

Sheppard leaned his head towards hers. "You recognize any of this, Teyla?"

It was the first thing he had said since they'd come through the wall -- he hadn't even taunted their captors. At least he was speaking to her. "No, Colonel. I do not believe I have been in this part of the tunnels before. But they are very extensive; at least, so the Cletans told my people."

Sheppard smiled crookedly; her tone must have let him know how she currently felt about anything the Cletans told them. His voice dropped still further. "Think you could find your way back out?"

She nodded without hesitation, but cast a glance at the weapons bristling all around them. "You do not think we can find a way to--"

"I just want to have options if an opportunity presents itself."

The Cletans made no attempt to prevent them from whispering to each other, which was worrisome all by itself. Now that they were inside the tunnels, they seemed much more confident, talking amongst themselves and occasionally shoving their prisoners with the muzzles of their guns.

"Colonel," Teyla said quietly, and he looked at her. "Are you angry at me?"

The eyebrows raised a trifle. "Still trying to figure that out," he said. "I like my people to take initiative. Your course of action leaves a little to be desired, though."

Well, it was something. "If it should make any difference," Teyla said, "I do not believe I will try this sort of thing again. Ever."

"Conspiracies don't suit you," Sheppard agreed.

As they passed through corridor after corner, turn after turn, crossing after crossing, Teyla began to believe that the place was, indeed, as vast as the Cletans had once told her. Their captors moved swiftly, with the ease of long familiarity with the passageways. They passed many rooms, some empty and others filled with darkened equipment; Teyla could recognize nothing in the brief glimpses that she could get, but she thought how excited Rodney would have been, and her heart twisted again.

"This will do," the Cletan leader said suddenly. The two of them were thrust into one of the rooms and the door slammed shut behind them. Teyla fell to her knees, unable to catch herself with her hands tied; she heard a grunt and a thud from Sheppard. Rolling to her feet, she turned around to see Sheppard shaking his head; he'd apparently slammed into a wall. The room was nearly dark, lit only by ambient light from the corridor outside, streaming through an open window in the door.

Sheppard thrust his face to the window and said, "I'll be sure to recommend your local hospitality in the next edition of Pegasus Traveler's Review, right under the Genii homeworld and that planet where we got mind-raped by energy beings. If it's any consolation, so far you're still coming out ahead of the world where the bug attached itself to my neck. Let's make sure it stays that way."

Looking past Sheppard's shock of unruly hair, Teyla could see the puzzled look on the Cletan leader's face, fading slowly into disdain. "I don't think you're in a position to make demands, trespasser," he said.

"Oh, trust me, I haven't even begun to demand things yet."

Teyla edged up to stand next to her team leader. "Perhaps we should introduce ourselves ...?" she offered very quietly.

"No way I'm making nice to these people, Teyla. I think they've made it pretty clear how they feel about us, haven't they?" he challenged the Cletan.

The man shrugged. "We are simply trying to survive. From the look of you and the weapons you carry, you know nothing of hardship. I have no sympathy for you."

He turned away, motioning two of the others to guard their door.

"Hardship?" Sheppard shouted after his back. "You think you can tell me about hardship, huh? How about actually fighting the Wraith, rather than hiding in your bunker? You people are cowards, every last one of you!"

He snarled and kicked at the door -- winced, hopped away on one foot, then kicked the wall. Winced again.

Teyla turned away from him with a small sigh and examined the window in the door. It was about as wide as two of her spread hands and equally as tall. Although there appeared to be no glass blocking it, she could not see how it might help them. The door was made of the smooth hard material that the Ancestors favored for their buildings, and did not appear to have a handle on this side. She sat down on the floor and concentrated on trying to undo her bindings.

After storming around cursing and examining the walls, Sheppard came to sit next to her. "Not a damn thing in here," he said. "I think they've put us in an Ancient closet."

"A storeroom, yes. That makes sense." Teyla shifted her shoulders, trying to twist her fingers around. The bonds were very tight.

"Notice how the lights are flickering?" Sheppard said, jerking his head at the door.

She had noticed it, but had not thought about it. "Yes...?"

"Bet you their energy source, whatever they're using, is just about run down. Since there's nothing else on this world, they must really depend on it. I don't blame them for being half crazy."

Teyla smiled in spite of herself. "Yes, you do."

Sheppard heaved a sigh, grinned back. "Yeah. I do. But only because they tied us up and held us at gunpoint. That tends to put me in a less-than-forgiving mood."

"I think when they come back, we should try to reason with them," Teyla said. "I think they are only afraid of us because they do not trust outsiders. They may have had bad experiences with the Genii or others, or perhaps they have only been isolated for a long time. But I believe they may be willing to become our allies if we can explain to them that we face a common threat."

Sheppard shook his head. "I wouldn't be too sure. Most of them, maybe. But that guy they're taking orders from? He's a toughie. Notice his eyes?"

"They are very blue," Teyla said.

Sheppard laughed, then realized she wasn't joking. "Er, yeah. They're also dead. Lifeless. I've seen that look on other guys, back on Earth, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It's shell-shock. Too much killing, too much losing people close to you. Eventually you shut down, lose the ability to care about other people. I think this guy's gone over that divide. He doesn't care anymore. There's no telling what he might do."

Sometimes Sheppard truly surprised her with his insights. "But why? There is no war here. This planet appears to be untouched by Wraith."

"Wraith aren't the only enemy in the universe. On Earth we did just fine without them." He laughed without humor. "Maybe they had a civil war. Maybe the Genii came and killed most of them. I don't know. All I know is these people look like war victims to me."

Teyla recalled her earlier thought, that the Cletans reminded her of nothing so much as a group of refugees. "I agree," she admitted. "But victims of what conflict?"

"That's the 64,000 dollar question, isn't it?" Sheppard turned his back to her, and she felt his hands bump against hers. "One thing, though -- they don't seem to have a whole lot of experience at taking prisoners. Since they were so kind as to leave us tied up together, let's see what we can do about that, huh?"

They were still trying to untie each other some time later, when the sound of footsteps and voices outside their door let them know that more of their captors had returned. The ropes around their wrists appeared to be made of some high-tech synthetic material, and only tightened as they struggled. Truly a strange mix of technologies, Teyla thought.

A fist pounded on the door, and the Cletan leader's voice said, "Hey in there. We're opening the door to give you some food. You two, get back against the wall and stay there until we shut the door."

"If we don't?" Sheppard challenged.

"We've been figuring out how to work your weapons. They are very nice. We currently have pointed them at the door. I'm sure you don't want to die."

He watched them through the door as they rose and reluctantly backed up to the far wall. Then the door slid open a crack -- it appeared to slide in and out of the wall -- and a pair of hands shoved a tray through before quickly closing it again.

"And we're supposed to eat with our hands tied?" Sheppard demanded.

"Since we have no intention of untying you, I guess you'll have to."

"A bathroom break would be nice."

"We'll come back later with a bucket."

"You got a name?" Sheppard called, challenging. "It's getting on my nerves, not having anything to call you. Other than 'Shithead', of course."

The Cletan flicked a pale, unreadable glance over his shoulder. "Karmath."

"Well, we're making great strides towardes a beautiful friendship!" Sheppard declared, stepping away from the wall. "I'm Colonel John Sheppard, U.S. Air Force. This is Teyla Emmagan. I can see we're going to be great buddies. Handshakes all around!"

"That remains to be seen," Karmath said, without turning around. "There is a task we need performed. We think you people may be able to do it for us. But we're still discussing it."

"Well, fine. Be sure and let us know what you decide."

"I assure you," he said as he walked away, "you will be the first to know."

Teyla and Sheppard looked at each other. "I really don't like the sound of that," Sheppard said.

Teyla shrugged philosophically. "There is nothing we can do about it now, though. And I am hungry."

In the dim light of their cell, they studied the food on the tray: four bowls of the Ancestors' tough plastic, two containing water and two containing a strange brownish porridge. Teyla sniffed at it. It did not smell unappetizing, but it also did not smell like any food she had ever eaten before.

"What is this stuff?" Sheppard asked, apparently having come to the same conclusion.

"I do not know. It is unfamiliar to me." Teyla hated to debase herself as their captors demanded, but it made no sense to starve themselves out of pride. Swallowing her dignity and forcing herself not to look at Sheppard, she knelt and cautiously touched her tongue to the contents of one of the bowls.


"It is edible, but that is about all I will say for it." Teyla ran her tongue around her mouth thoughtfully. "Actually, it reminds me a little of your MREs."

"Artificial food," Sheppard said, staring at it. "That's what it looks like to me. Like you'd get out of ... I don't know, a Star Trek synthesizer gone wonky. Tell me, Teyla, on all the worlds you've been, have you seen any Ancient devices that make food?"

She shook her head. "No, but that does not mean they do not exist." Looking down at the bowls of brown goo, she said, "I had wondered where they obtain their food, since they seem to have no crops. If you are right, that would be the answer to my question."

Sheppard snorted. "If that's what they eat, no wonder they seem traumatized."

In the end, they drank the water but left the food alone, and went back to trying to loosen their bonds.

"We've missed our check-in with Atlantis," Sheppard said. "When we don't report back, they'll send a team to look for us."

"Which will likely have the same problems that we had, as we have no way to warn them," Teyla pointed out.

"Somewhat less likely, since they probably won't be dumb enough to split up," Sheppard returned.

The words, and the guilt on Sheppard's part that it implied, hung in the air between them. Teyla looked over at Sheppard and saw that he was staring at the wall. "It is not your fault," she said. "If there is blame here, I believe it should be mine."

Sheppard gave a small laugh. "I guess we ought to get out of here first, and lay the blame around later."

Teyla smiled. "I think I can agree with--"

She broke off at the sound of approaching footsteps and voices -- at first too indistinct to make out, but after a moment resolving into a very familiar, nonstop litany of complaints.

"--Geneva Conventions! Ever heard of those? Well, pretty damn soon you're going to wish you'd never heard of those, my friends. Now I think you should take us to your local embassy or whatever pile of rocks passes for one around here, and we'll send a message to our people so the rest of us won't come through the gate and nuke the hell out of the lot of you, all right?"

"Rodney!" Teyla breathed.

Because she happened to be looking in Sheppard's direction, she saw the expression on his face at the sound of that voice -- a quick, nearly instantaneous flash of pure joy. It was replaced by his usual smirk so quickly that she would not have seen it if she hadn't been alert.

The door rumbled open and two more prisoners were shoved unceremoniously through the gap. It slammed quickly shut behind them. Ronon, for of course he was the second prisoner, landed hard on his knees and didn't get back up. Rodney caught himself with his shoulder against the wall, and stared at the two of them.

"Well, as Napoleon might have said as his troops turned back from the Russian campaign, this is a bit disappointing," he said in a voice laden with even more than his usual helping of sarcasm. "I was hoping for a bit more of a, you know, rescue with guns blazing."

"They took our guns," Sheppard said.

"So I inferred, since I don't see any guns in here."

"You're supposed to be the smart one," Sheppard snapped. "How about a little less backtalk and a little more working on a plan to get out of here?"

"I just got here and already you want a plan? How about some unrealistic expectations, Colonel? I thought we established a long time ago that I'm not Superman."

"No one would ever mistake you for him, don't worry," Sheppard retorted nastily.

Teyla decided to ignore them and went down on her knees beside Ronon, who had not raised his head. "Are you all right?" she asked him, concerned.

"I am fine," Ronon said hoarsely.

This distracted McKay, temporarily, from his argument with Sheppard. "He's most certainly not all right. He's got a broken arm and he fought back when they tried to take his gun."

"And several of them are never going to try that again," Ronon rasped with satisfaction.

"Yes, unfortunately the other twenty have no such illusions," Rodney sighed.

Sheppard looked Rodney critically up and down, clearly noting his unbruised condition. He was dirty, but appeared otherwise intact. "Nice to see you jumped right in there to help out your teammate, McKay."

"Hey! What do I look like, Mike Tyson? Unlike some people, I'm smart enough not to try to take on two dozen guys with my bare hands."

"How'd you find that many of them, anyway? This should be good."

McKay rolled his eyes. "If you must know, we'd found a well-lit section of corridors and were opening doors in search of a way out. One of them led into what I suppose, from the look of things, was their mess hall. And I do mean mess -- do you have any idea what these people eat? Oh," he added, noticing the tray on the floor, "I see that you do."

"So you walked into the mess hall..." Sheppard prompted.

"Yeah, and walked right back out again, double-time, with a bunch of pissed-off Mad Max extras on our heels. Unfortunately they were faster and a lot more numerous than we were, and for some stupid reason I talked Conan here out of summarily executing the lot of them ... well, the reason being that the remaining ones would probably have shot us before he could manage to mow them all down. It worked great until they laid their hands on his gun."

Teyla was trying to examine Ronon's injuries as best she could in the dim light without using her hands. He was terribly bruised, one of his eyes almost swollen shut, but his nose and jaw were unbroken and the damage seemed to be mostly on the surface. She saw with anger that they had bound together his wrists even though one of his arms was clearly broken. At least they'd had the decency to tie his hands in front of him rather than twisting his arms behind. He kept fidgeting his hands as she examined him; she thought he was just uncomfortable until she saw a glimmer between his fingers and realized that he was very carefully cutting his bonds with a small knife.

"Did they allow you to keep that?" she asked softly, surprised.

Ronon's teeth gleamed in a quick grin. "It was up my sleeve."


His ropes parted and he passed her the knife. She quickly busied herself cutting herself free.

On the other side of the cell, Rodney and Sheppard were still at it. "... without a thought, as usual!"

"Oh, because you're an absolute paragon of foresight and self-restraint, Colonel, sir!"

"Maybe I could find us a way out of here if you'd put a cork in your mouth for one minute, McKay!"

"Excuse me? You admitted yourself that I'm the one with the brains in this outfit, remember? I'm not the one who shoots anything that moves and calls it a plan, hm?"

Ronon stirred next to her. "I could hit 'em both over the head," he offered in a low rumble. "Peace and quiet for a little while, anyway."

Teyla couldn't resist the small smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth. "No, they would only wake up testier than before," she murmured. "It is a tempting idea, though."

The ropes around her wrists parted with a tiny snap. Teyla looked up from massaging the feeling back into her fingers, to see Ronon watching her with something akin to apprehension. She smiled hesitantly back at him. "Thank you," she said.

The answering smile that broke across his bruised face was oddly beautiful.

"Will you be well?" Teyla asked him. "I can help you care for your injuries."

He shook his head. "Got no first aid supplies. Not a whole lot we can do 'till we get out of here."

Teyla nodded and rose, approaching her other teammates with her arms kept to the shadows just in case their guards took a peek through the window.

"I said put a sock in it, McKay!"

"Ha, you can't order me around anymore. I'm not on your team, remember?"

"You're still on my damn team until we get back to Atlantis and Elizabeth damn well reassigns you somewhere else!"

"Excuse me..." Teyla tried.

"Ha ha, that may be true of you jarheads, but I'm civilian and as a civilian, I can quit my job any time I want, and I just quit!"

"You can't quit until I tell you you can quit!" Sheppard bellowed, the veins standing out on his neck.

"Civilian! Civilian! Allow me to spell it out for you in small syllables. Civ-il-ian!"

"You know what? If you want off my team, the sooner the better I say. You want off? Fine! You're off! Happy?"

McKay didn't look happy -- at all. Anger was like a mask across his features, flattening their usual expressiveness. "Just like that?" he snarled. "It's that easy for you, is it?"

Teyla groaned and, coming up behind him, slit McKay's bonds with a quick, expert slash of the knife. Since he'd been jerking his arms as he talked in an unconscious effort to move them, his hands immediately flew out from his sides and spread wide in a gesture of exasperation. There they stopped, as he realized with shock that he could move his arms again. Rodney stared from one hand to the other as if they'd suddenly turned into frozen chicken drumsticks on the ends of his arms. "Um?" he said in a small voice.

Teyla interposed her body between him and the door, holding up the knife so he could see it. "Dr. McKay," she said. "Kindly do not let the guards see that you are free."

"Oh. Right." His arms went down again, as she turned to Sheppard and set him free as well.

"You didn't mention that you had this earlier?" Sheppard wanted to know.

"It's Ronon's."

"Trust Ronon," Sheppard said, grinning. He completely ignored McKay as he brushed past him to the runner sitting on the floor. "Nice work, big guy."

Ronon grunted. "They're coming back," he said.

Indeed, they heard voices outside the door. Teyla helped Ronon to his feet and the four Atlanteans flattened themselves against the walls, out of sight of the door.

The Cletan leader, Karmath, appeared in the window, blocking the light. "Planning something in there?" he said. "I think you'll want to hear this."

They didn't respond. Teyla's fingers itched for a stick, a gun ... anything.

"The decision has been made," Karmath said. He looked ... relieved, Teyla thought, as if a great burden had been lifted off his shoulders. She did not like that, not at all. "You will be able to help us after all." He gestured to his guards. "Open the door."

The door slid back and light flooded into the room. Sheppard started to gesture to Ronon and Teyla, indicating which way they should go, but before he could do more than raise his hand, Ronon was on the move -- whipping out another knife (where he had hidden this one, Teyla could not tell; he'd been too quick) and hurtling it. However, still dizzy from his injuries, his aim was badly, and uncharacteristically, off; the knife went wide. Red light flashed and Ronon went down like a ton of bricks in the hallway. Teyla looked up, blinking the spots from her eyes, to see one of the Cletans holding Ronon's gun.

"Good one, Ronon," Sheppard growled under his breath as he was manhandled out into the hallway. "We'll have to have a little talk about chain of command later."

"Any other heroes?" Karmath demanded. "I didn't think so." He pointed to Ronon and told two of the others, "Carry him. Keep a gun at his head at all times. If the rest of them try anything ... kill him."

And so they were bound again, their escape attempt ingloriously aborted before it had a chance to begin. Teyla was silent, while Sheppard launched into a new round of insults and Rodney into a round of complaints. As they were led away down the hall, Teyla found that she kept looking towards her teammate being carried alongside them. He was so still.

"Do not worry," Karmath said to Teyla. "During the fighting in which we captured that man, some of my people were shot with his gun and they recovered with no ill effects."

Teyla's mouth went dry as she realized how easy it would have been for the Cletans to have accidentally bumped the controls on Ronon's gun from its stun setting to something far more lethal. Since there wasn't a giant hole in his chest, however, she had to assume it was still on stun.

Behind her, she realized that Rodney and Sheppard's motor-mouths had once again been turned from their captors to each other. She rolled her eyes before she could stop herself.

"... worst escape plan in the history of escape plans. You do realize this."

"I didn't have time to come up with an escape plan, McKay. We'd just got our hands free, for crying out loud."

"Well, you'll excuse me if it looked like one of your plans, what with all the aimless running around, lack of communication and people shooting at us."

"You know, McKay, you wanted off the team; I fired you; you quit. Now you're off the damn team. What do I have to do to get you to shut up?"

Maybe, Teyla thought, allowing the tiny doubt to creep in for the first time ... maybe some things were too broken to repair?

"Those men are clearly enemies," said a voice at her elbow, and she nearly jumped. "Yet you appear to be friends with both of them. That can't be easy for you."

Teyla turned her head to see that Karmath had dropped back to walk alongside her. "They have not always been enemies," she said.

He nodded. "I see. And your people and mine were once friends. Times change, then. I know this well."

"What did change here?" Teyla asked. "According to all I had heard, your people left through the ring of the Ancestors and went to other, greener worlds. Was this wrong?"

Karmath snorted. "Those you see around you are the only true Cletans who remain. Those who left -- we do not consider them kin to us. They are no longer welcome here. That is why we have set traps at most of the entrances to the tunnels -- such as the one your friends accidentally triggered. We have no intention of allowing the blasphemers back into this holy place. They violated the Ancestors' wishes, abandoned the world the Ancestors had given us. We, those who stayed behind, are the ones who trust in the Ancestors' plan."

"What is their plan?" Teyla asked quietly.

"How should we know? The Ancestors are far wiser than us. We are waiting for the true wisdom of their plan to be revealed -- for their purpose for Cleta to unfold. The cowards who left us claimed that the world was dying, that the Ancestors had abandoned us. They did not have faith."

His blue eyes had taken on a glow that Teyla had seen before -- among Chaya's followers, and among the deeply religious on other worlds. "What will you do if this world becomes incapable of sustaining life?" she asked.

"That will never happen to us. Down here, the Ancestors provide for us." He waved his hand around. "See how it is light and warm. The Ancestors give us all the things we need for life -- food, clothing, shelter. They will continue to provide for us as long as we keep the faith and wait until they need us."

"I see." Teyla looked around. The corridors seemed deserted except for their armed escort, and she wondered how many of these people were left. She had seen no children, no old people. "Perhaps you can answer a question that I have," she said. "When I was a child, your people showed these tunnels to my people. But they did not look like this. They were cold and dark."

"Ah, the tunnels near the surface are dead," Karmath explained. "Once, we thought that all the tunnels were like that. But as the surface grew more hostile, we explored more deeply and that is how we discovered this wonderful sanctuary that the Ancestors had left for our use. We believe that we were meant to live down here from the first. The Ancestors did not intend the surface to have to support our people, and that's why it became barren, destroyed by our grazing animals. The Ancestors do not make mistakes. It was only through my people's ignorance of the Ancestors' true plan --"

"Don't make mistakes, huh?" Rodney apparently had been listening in on their conversation, and now he attempted to shoulder his way back to them, only to be thwarted by a couple of hostile-looking Cletans with rifles in hand. "Don't make mistakes? Let me tell you about the Ancients' mistakes. Let me tell you about something they built on a world called Duranda --"

"McKay --" Sheppard hissed in a low, threatening voice. The threat in his voice, however, was nothing compared to the naked hostility in Karmath's blue eyes as he spun around on the scientist.

"How dare you." Karmath's eyes blazed; his body was stiff with furious tension. Teyla saw, out of the corner of her eye, that Sheppard had made an instinctive move to protect Rodney, only to be shoved back by more of their guards. Perhaps things were not so broken after all, she thought. "How dare you question the Ancestors' wisdom! Next to them, we are worms, incapable of understanding the simplest things!"

"Speak for yourself," Rodney retorted.

Karmath raised a hand to strike him -- Sheppard tensed up like a coiled spring -- and then lowered it. "I believe you will be the first," he said, raking Rodney with a knife-edged glare as a cold smile curved the corners of his mouth.

Anger warred with fear and suspicion in Rodney's eyes. "Er ... the first to what?"

"You'll see soon," Karmath said. "We're here."

One of their guards opened a door, and they were led inside. This room was larger than any of the rooms they'd seen previously, and looked far more like Atlantis than the hallways outside, in both its panels-and-glass decor and in the banks of equipment along the walls. Clearly, Teyla thought, this had been some kind of control room. Most of the equipment was dark and dead-looking, like that in the other rooms they'd passed, but some parts of it were lit up with flashing crystals. At the far side of the room, against the wall, her eyes were drawn to a white chamber with a metal disc in the floor and a matching one in its ceiling. Apprehension clutched at her throat. She really did not like the look of this at all.

"Put them there," Karmath ordered, and the captured Atlanteans were dumped against the wall by the door. Ronon groaned faintly when he hit the floor. Bending over him, Teyla saw that his eyes showed beneath half-raised lids -- glazed, but aware. After the small moan, however, he remained still and silent, observing the people in the room.

Rodney was observing too, but his attention was fixed on the equipment rather than the people. "This place is a mess," he said. "Are you a bunch of pigs? No wonder nothing works! Look at all the dust on those crystals. Er, why are we here?"

Karmath made a rather ironic, courtly gesture. "Welcome to the heart of this place," he said. "No outsiders have ever been here before. This is the incinerator room."

There was a long silence. Sheppard broke it.

"The what?" he said.

"The incinerator room." Karmath smiled at them. Perhaps the Atlanteans had disappointed them before, with their matter-of-fact reaction to the Cletans' advanced technology, but finally, here was something they did not understand. "Didn't you wonder where the energy to power this place comes from? This is it. The incinerator."

Rodney's head was cocked to one side, his eyes bright. "Tell us about this incinerator," he said, in his What the hell are you ON? tone of voice.

"You're looking at it." Karmath gestured to the white chamber. "We did not understand the function of this place at first. We did not understand until one of us accidentally walked into it and activated it. He was burned to death in an instant -- all that remained was a sprinkling of ash. And the lights, which had been fading, brightened immediately. Lights began to come on in parts of the corridors that we had not been able to activate. Machines which had been starting to malfunction suddenly had power again. And finally we understood. When we lived on the surface, we used to burn all our trash and the bodies of our dead. We even burned the dung of our cattle to generate heat for our homes. This place works just the same way ... except that it only works on living human beings. We tried it on trash and all manner of dead things, even dead people. Only a living human being will do."

The Atlanteans stared at him. Even Ronon seemed to have nearly stopped breathing. Finally Rodney spoke, and what he said was a typical Rodney question, odd and nonsensical and having, apparently, nothing to do with the real problem at hand. "How much ash, did you say?"

"Only a tiny amount." Karmath ran his finger over one of the dusty crystals, held it up to show him. "Just like this. That is how completely it consumes a body, converting it all into pure energy to power this place."

"I see," Rodney said, staring at the white chamber with a speculative, intense look on his face. "Very interesting."

"I'll probably regret asking this," Sheppard said grimly, "but how many, er, living human beings have you fed into this thing?"

"Only as many as we must," Karmath retorted, too quickly. "Of course, we use criminals, and volunteers -- the terminally ill, the very aged, the suicidal. But over time, each new ... energy source has fed it for less and less time."

One of the other Cletans spoke up suddenly. "That's why we started the lotteries."

"Lotteries?" Teyla repeated, horrified comprehension dawning.

A shudder went through Karmath. "Yes, lotteries," he snapped. "It is the only way. Otherwise, we begin to lose heat and light, lose the ability to make food. Those of our people who are chosen understand that their sacrifice is necessary so that all may live. All of us are happy to make this sacrifice, when we are chosen. I will have you know that my own daughter has had that honor."

Both Sheppard and McKay looked pale. Teyla swallowed and stared at the man in dismay. He barely looked older than herself; how could he have an adult child? Surely he did not mean ... "How old was your daughter?" she asked, hearing herself as if from a great distance.

"She was four years old," Karmath said.

Sheppard regained his voice first. "You inhuman bastard."

"It is necessary!" Karmath's voice rasped in his throat. "Any of us would gladly walk into that fire! My daughter died with great honor and went to join the Ancestors, just three days ago! And now the Ancestors have rewarded us for our faith by sending you."

"So that we can feed your damned machine? I don't think so!"

Around them, the guns rose to form a ring with the four Atlanteans at its heart. "You have no choice," Karmath said. "It's the Ancestors' will."

"The Ancestors are not gods, that you should worship them and make sacrifices in their name!" Teyla cried, furious. "Your very existence is an affront to them!"

Rodney spoke slowly, staring at Karmath. "So when you said I'd be the first..."

"You will be the first to walk into the incinerator," Karmath said, appearing to relish his words. "Unless you would rather watch your friends go before you."

"The hell you're gonna do that to him!" Sheppard flared. "To any of us!"

But Rodney was already struggling to his feet, not looking at Sheppard. "That's fine," he said. "I accept."

All the breath left Teyla's lungs as if she'd been struck. Beside her, she felt Ronon stiffen.

As Rodney moved into the circle of guns, Sheppard said, "Hey. Wait." It finally seemed to be sinking into his head that this was serious, that they were serious, that Rodney was serious. "Wait!"

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

"Yeah -- you're throwing your life away trying to make a point! Get back here, you moron! That's an order!"

"I'm off your team, remember?" With his back ramrod-straight, Rodney allowed himself to be led across the room and into the chamber. He turned around, facing out towards the room, not meeting his teammates' eyes. His face was almost as white as the walls of the chamber.

Teyla could find no words. Desperately she forced her hands against her bonds, but the knots held tight. Beside her, Sheppard had flung himself forward, only to have one of the Cletans strike him in the face with the butt of his rifle. He fell to the floor with a groan, and still tried to struggle upright again.

"Stop it!" Rodney snapped, apparently speaking both to Sheppard and his captors. To Karmath, he said, "They'd better quit hitting him or I won't do this. I mean it. If you want my cooperation, you have to promise me that my teammates won't be harmed."

"You have my word on that, as long as they don't try to escape." Karmath glanced over his shoulder. "They will be treated as guests. This is, after all, a great honor."

"Honor my ass!" Sheppard bit out. With his face pressed to the floor, he'd twisted his head to the side so that he could speak. Blood ran down his face from a split lip. "Rodney, get your butt out of that machine this minute!"

Rodney stared at him, his eyes shadowed and sad. It seemed to Teyla that he was trying desperately to express something he couldn't bring himself to say. What he finally said, though, was, "You still don't trust me, huh, Sheppard?"

"You're standing in a goddamn incinerator, McKay -- don't tell me this is all part of some grand plan!"

Rodney gave him one last, desperate stare, then turned to Karmath. "Turn it on. Get this over with."

Karmath looked at him for a moment with something approaching respect, then moved forward and quickly slit the rope with which they'd re-tied his hands. "You should not go before the Ancestors bound like a criminal," he said. "You have chosen to meet your fate with dignity."

"Yeah, yeah," Rodney snapped, very pale. "Just turn the damn thing on."

"Rodney!" Sheppard screamed, as the Cletans reached for the controls. The cry cut Teyla to the very depths of her soul.

Light flared in the room, a light so blinding that Teyla had to turn her head away, twist her eyes shut. Even this far away, she could feel the heat. When she opened her eyes, blinking rapidly, there was no sign of Rodney McKay ... just a few light particles of ash, as fine as dust, drifting down in the middle of the white chamber. The metal disc in the floor glowed red-hot, quickly fading as the heat dissipated.

Teyla's fingers constricted, fighting her bonds as she fought the tears rising behind her eyes. No ... Rodney ... How could she have made such a dreadful mistake? Her eyes crept sideways to her teammates. Ronon had closed his eyes as if he'd fallen asleep, though she could tell by the tension in his body that he was very much awake. Sheppard's face was shockingly white against the brilliance of the blood staining his lower lip, staring at the incineration chamber as if he could bring Rodney back by sheer force of will alone.

"Colonel," Teyla whispered through stiff lips. She did not know what to say, what to do. How had it all gone so wrong? "I am so, so sorry... if I had known ..."

The look that he turned on her silenced her utterly. That must have been the look that he'd given Rodney after Duranda. No wonder McKay had been desperate to get back in the Colonel's good graces. There was anger, lots of anger, but worse, a cold, stony disappointment. I thought better of you, that look said, but I will never think so again.

And Teyla's heart broke, for in her effort to reconcile her friends, she had killed one of them and, she feared, cost herself the friendship of another. There was no way she could ever make up for this.

Chapter Eight: Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone

A light tap at Elizabeth's door roused her from her laptop ... thankfully. She wasn't sure how many more reports on the state of Atlantis's grain supplies over the last six months that she could handle. Automatically her eyes flicked to the small clock in the corner of the computer screen before she looked up. Past time for Sheppard's team to check in. She'd been expecting someone at her door, one way or another.

"Dr. Weir?" the gate tech said. "You wanted to be informed when Sheppard's team made their check-in. Well, it's past time, and we tried establishing an outgoing wormhole to P2R-517 and couldn't raise them on the radio."

Elizabeth drew a deep breath. "Thank you. I'll be in the gateroom in a min--"

Her radio crackled. "Dr. Weir?" the accented voice said.

"...minute. Hello, Radek," she said into the radio as the gate tech vanished from her doorway.

"Did they check in?"

Weir smiled. "You've been watching the clock too, haven't you?" The smile dropped off her face. "No, they didn't. Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind here," she added, overriding him as he started to speak. "First off, it's not at all unusual for the off-world teams to miss a check, especially Sheppard's team. If they're, say, at a tricky point in some negotiation, or deep in some investigation of alien technology, they may not break it off to come back and send us a call." Her mouth twisted in a wry smile; this she knew from long experience. "Also, this planet is known to block radio communication; they'd have to be right at the gate to talk to us. Normally, we'd wait through another check-in cycle before we started to worry."

"But this is not a normal situation."

Elizabeth sighed. "I don't want to alarm anyone. And it's still very likely that they're fine."

A hesitation, then Zelenka said, "You don't plan to send anyone...?"

"I never said that. I would appreciate it if you could come up to the gateroom, and on your way, very quietly round up Carson and bring him with you. Let him know what's going on, but keep things low-key."

She could actually hear him leap out of his chair on his way to carry out her instructions -- Low-key, Zelenka, she thought with an inward sigh -- then stop. "Er, you are not sending me on offworld mission, yes? Because I am not trained for field work."

"You helped get Rodney and Cadman out of that crashed Wraith ship."

"Yes, and I was terrible in the field, very terrible. Major Sheppard said so."

"Actually I believe the words he used in his report were 'Slightly jumpy, but performed very well under pressure' or something to that effect."

"Oh," Zelenka said, sounding pleased.

"To answer your question, I haven't decided yet, but if we do need a scientist, I would assume you'd want as few people on Atlantis as possible to know about your hand in Teyla's plan, aren't I right?"

Pause. "You are cruel and manipulative woman, Dr. Weir," Zelenka said.

Her lips twitched. "I'm not manipulating you. I just think it might be best if we didn't have to explain the situation to more than just Carson and maybe one or two others, for Rodney and John's sake as much as anything else. I'm going to have Major Lorne get his team ready for a possible rescue mission. I'd like to know that I can count on you if I need to."

"You can," he sighed. After a moment he added, "Do you think that they are all right?"

"I'm certainly not ready to borrow trouble yet. But knowing John and Rodney, it doesn't hurt to be prepared for it."

Sheppard's eyes burned. It was from staring into the light, he thought -- he hadn't been able to tear his eyes away, hadn't shut them quickly enough, and fuzzy afterimages were still seared onto his retinas. Just the light. It still seemed too bright in here, stinging his eyes, making him blink.

Goddamn Afghanistan. Just when it had receded from his nightmares, it had to invade his waking life as well.

When Rodney stepped into that damn chamber, something inside him had frozen, hard and brittle. It was going to break eventually; he knew how this worked, he'd been here before. Hopefully by that time they'd be far away from this place. At this point, he didn't care if they had to kill every last one of these bastards in order to get out, either. This was war, and they'd brought the war to him.

Teyla was talking. Apologizing. He silenced her with a look. They'd talk later, he and she -- a long talk about giving him the full intel that he needed on a mission, about not keeping secrets from her teammates and not trying to "fix" what didn't need fixing.

Later. Much later.

He turned a cold stare on Karmath, and saw the man flinch a little, though he tried to hide it. Good, Sheppard thought. You better be afraid. You better be real afraid if you take these ropes off me.

"Our friend ..." Teyla said. Her voice broke; she steadied it. "Our friend needs medical attention." She gestured with her head to Ronon. "You promised to treat us as guests. If you truly expect us to ... to feed your machine, he may not live that long without treatment for his injuries."

Considering Ronon's stamina, Sheppard imagined that the man could fight off a herd of bears even with two broken arms, but he could see what she was trying to do. And it wasn't a bad idea. He just wished he could think straight. He kept seeing Rodney in the chamber, a white flash of light.

You still don't trust me, huh, Sheppard?

Sheppard pressed his lips together. Okay, the thought he'd just had was a truly crazy one, but it kept coming back. He'd been able to tell that Rodney was trying to convey something to him while standing in the chamber, right before they pushed the button. Apologies, he'd thought, more apologies, and he was so far beyond any desire to hear another apology out of Rodney's mouth -- there was no room for that in the anger that sustained him. But what if Rodney hadn't been trying to say he was sorry? What if he'd been trying to get Sheppard to understand something ... something he didn't want their captors to know?

What if the machine was more than an incinerator?

Crazy thoughts. But he kept having them, as he was hauled to his feet again. He didn't even struggle. He caught a glimpse of Teyla looking at him with open concern, and he knew what she must be thinking -- shell shock, or the Athosian equivalent. But it wasn't that. He was thinking, that was all. For a change.

Because he did trust Rodney. He'd never stopped trusting Rodney. He didn't think McKay really understood -- the scientist seemed to believe that Sheppard's anger had to do with the fact that he'd been wrong, that he'd tried to figure out an Ancient piece of technology and had made a mistake. It was never about that. Hell, Sheppard himself was the grand master of tactical errors, wasn't he? He wasn't about to lay into one of his people for making an honest mistake. Well, all right, he might get a little mad about it, but not that mad.

No. He felt betrayed. Personally betrayed. And it was stupid, and he knew it was stupid -- he'd seen it happen to other people, friendships and relationships broken up by some small thing that drove a little wedge between them, the crack growing wider as neither person could find words to heal it.

He'd always sucked at words.

And granted, almost getting him killed wouldn't exactly be a little thing for most people, but that was just Sheppard's daily life. He didn't care that Rodney'd dragged him to an alien planet and almost killed him. Really, he didn't. How many times had he dragged Rodney to alien planets and almost got him killed?

No, it wasn't that, and it wasn't that he'd lost a little face with Elizabeth, because how many other times had he screwed up in front of her? The woman must keep a "Sheppard's Failed Plans and Bad Ideas" file in her computer by now. It wasn't any of that, and every time that he tried to figure out just what, exactly, it was, he found himself running down a seemingly endless list of things it wasn't.

Rodney had been willing to let Sheppard die in order to prove his theory correct, and maybe that should have hurt, but somehow it didn't -- because he'd also been equally willing to let himself die, or perhaps just blind to the possibility that either of them might not make it off Duranda alive. As Sheppard had said to him then, he'd seen pilots do that before -- get so caught up in the need to fix a problem that they couldn't see the point where the problem became unfixable. It was an ego thing, and ego was something Rodney had in spades, but so did Sheppard and most of the other people that he respected. He understood it.

No ... this was personal, foolish and personal, and it frustrated him to no end that he couldn't really put his finger on one specific thing, out of the whole great mess, that had caused him to slam shut the doors of his soul to Rodney's earnest efforts to win his way back in. What it all came down to was that he'd been hurt and he didn't want to be hurt again. There was no use looking for logic in it, because there wasn't any. He had liked that Rodney had come to him for help. Not to Elizabeth or Teyla or Zelenka or Beckett, but to him. When the chips were really down, out of everyone on Atlantis, Sheppard was the one Rodney turned to. It had been that way for a while, hadn't it? Only he'd never really noticed it before. And this was the first time it had been acknowledged, really ... that deep trust that had grown between them.

Acknowledged, right before it was shattered. Partly by Rodney, and partly, he had to admit, by himself. Because he was as stubborn and egotistical as the next guy ... well, all right, the next guy being Rodney, maybe not quite as much, but enough. The similarities between them were a lot of what made the friendship work ... but now, those same similarities -- pride, stubbornness, temper, ego -- had come right back to bite them both in the ass. He couldn't give in, he wouldn't give in, and neither would Rodney. They'd both just stand in opposite ends of a sinking lifeboat, drilling holes and making it sink faster, neither one willing to take one step towards dry land because that would mean yielding an inch of hard-won territory in a war that made no sense.

Maybe he really did need Teyla and her half-assed plans to knock some sense into him.

And maybe he'd only been so angry the last few days because he knew that if Rodney came to his door again, asking for help with his heart in his eyes ... that he'd do the same damn thing again, even with the memory of the last time still leaving a hole in his chest. There was just no way to take back that trust, not without taking back everything they'd said and done over the last year, all the times they'd saved each other's lives without a second thought. He'd tried, he'd really freaking tried, and probably hurt Rodney enough along the way to more than make up for Doranda, but he just couldn't turn off the part of himself that wanted to trust Rodney McKay the way plants crave light.

He knew he couldn't turn it off because he was doing it again right now. Rodney was alive. He refused to believe otherwise. Maybe it was stupid, maybe it was just his own continued inability to accept that his friend was as fallible and human as the next person -- but, damn it, McKay had been trying to tell him something, and he was going to hang onto that, because to do otherwise meant to admit to himself that the last thing he'd done before Rodney died was to insult him and kick him off the team, and he just wasn't ready to accept that.

He wasn't going to believe Rodney was dead until someone presented him with a body bag of fried super-genius, extra crispy. Not until then.

Sheppard realized that he had completely lost track of where they were being taken this time. He hoped Teyla was paying attention. They were deep in a strange section of the labrynth -- at least, he didn't think he'd been here before; most of the corridors looked more or less alike to him anyway.

"This is our medical facility," Karmath said suddenly, pausing before a door that looked just like all the other doors to Sheppard. When he opened the door, it revealed a room that vaguely resembled a field hospital circa 1860 -- brightly lit and more clean and sterile, but still definitely primitive compared to the Atlantis's infirmary. Rather than beds, there were pallets on the floor, like flat field cots. The Cletans carrying Ronon deposited him on one of the pallets. The runner still appeared unconscious, though it had been long enough since the stun blast that Sheppard was sure he was faking .

A tall woman with her dark hair drawn back in a braid came storming past tables of equipment and accosted Karmath as he stepped back from Ronon. "What is the meaning of this?" she demanded. "Charging in here with your armed commandoes as if this is your own private fiefdom! There are sick people here, Karmath! I've told you how I feel about your high and mighty ways! Do you have a patient for me, or are you simply here to annoy me?"

In spite of himself, Sheppard couldn't help grinning at the startled and disgruntled expression on Karmath's face. Apparently doctors were the same the galaxy over. This was also the first person he'd seen around here who was actually willing to stand up to Karmath.

"As a matter of fact, I do have a patient for you." Karmath stood back so she could get a look at Ronon.

The doctor's eyebrows went up and she knelt in a swift fluid motion, lifting some of Ronon's hair to get a look at his head injury. "I do not know these people. Are these the strangers from outside the city?" She swept her eyes across Teyla and Sheppard, eyes as startling green as Karmath's were blue. Her gaze passed from them to the armed guards surrounding them -- about a dozen of them -- and her green eyes went nearly black. "No weapons in the medical room, Karmath. We've been through this."

"I assure you, you'll regret it if you send them away," Karmath snapped. "These people are dangerous."

"So I can see," she retorted sarcastically, taking in the bound hands, the blood and bruises on Ronon. "It's a good thing we have you and your merry band of thugs here to protect us from tied-up prisoners, or where would we all be?"

Sheppard realized that the green-eyed woman reminded him of somebody even more than Beckett. He nearly staggered when he realized who it was. That abrupt, self-assured manner ... she made him think of McKay. The resemblance, not physical but emotional, hurt as if he'd been punched in the stomach.

"The guards stay, Sasha." Karmath pointed across the infirmary at several people on pallets with nurses, or the local equivalent, hovering around them. "Those people underestimated this man and came out the worse for it. I'm not risking more ... not that it wouldn't do you good to find out you're wrong about something for once, of course."

Sasha snorted. "Me wrong and you right? That'll be the day." She started to move Ronon's arms and discovered the bonds on his hands. "Oh, Karmath, this is really going too far!"

"Take those off and it's your neck, Sasha."

"My neck can fend for itself," the doctor remarked archly, slitting the rope with a small scalpel. Sheppard saw Ronon's body tense very slightly, and bit the inside of his lip, wishing he was near enough to give the runner a good admonishing kick. They didn't need a repeat of their first escape attempt, especially not with a dozen rifles pointed at them.

Sasha gripped Ronon's head and twisted it around to hold his face to the light, not roughly but not particularly gently either. "I can see that you're awake, so don't try to fool me," she said, touching his forehead lightly with her thumbs. "Does this hurt?"

No answer; his eyelids remained closed. Sasha rolled her startling green eyes and bore down hard with both thumbs. The runner's whole body jerked as if with an electrical spasm and his eyes snapped open. Anyone else would probably have cried out with pain, but he just gave her a hate-filled glower.

"Excellent, I'll take that as a yes," she said sweetly. "Anywhere else?"

Sasha insisted on moving her patient behind a privacy curtain in order to continue her examination. Sheppard was highly amused at the way that not just Karmath's people, but even Ronon himself, seemed to bend to the will of Hurricane Sasha. Karmath did send a couple of armed guards behind the curtain -- Sasha's yelling could be heard all over the infirmary, but Karmath stood his ground, arms folded, until she quit yelling and endeavored to ignore both him and his guards.

Meanwhile, Teyla and Sheppard were allowed to sit on a pallet and given individual trays of food and water -- this time with utensils. Their hands were tied in front of them rather than behind, so they could eat, and Teyla did so, perhaps more out of a desire to be polite than actual hunger. Sheppard himself was not hungry at all. Staring at the tray, he heard McKay's sarcastic voice in his head: Do you have any idea what these people eat? Oh ... I see that you do.

Everything reminded him of McKay.

He's alive, Sheppard thought. He clung to that.

Teyla finished her bowl of ... glop, and put her spoon down with a grimace. "You're welcome to mine," Sheppard offered, along with a half-smile.

She looked back at him with brown eyes brimming with trepidation. Whatever she saw in his face made the brown eyes warm, the lips curve in a small answering smile. "I thank you, but I could not eat another bite," she said, and then she laughed, a soft warm sound that made him think of sunny days on the Atlantis balcony when they were all together again. And he laughed too, and for just that moment, things were closer to okay than they had been in some time.

"As bad as it looks, is it?" Sheppard asked, shoving at some of the brown stuff with his spoon.

"I have eaten worse," Teyla said, evasively.

"It's every bit as bad as it looks and then some," came Sasha's strident voice, and the doctor crouched down on her heels in front of them. "The 'bounty of the Ancestors'," and her fingers made little quote marks around the words.

Karmath loomed over her. "You shouldn't take the Ancestors' gifts for granted, Doctor."

"Stuff it up your rear, Karmath," the doctor returned with a sugary smile, and turned to Sheppard and Teyla. "Have these ruffians harmed the two of you in any way? You both appear somewhat bruised," she added, looking critically at their faces.

Karmath interjected, "They attempted to esca--"

"Did I ask you, high and mighty lord of sand fleas? No, I did not. I believe I was having a private conversation with my patients."

Sheppard smirked at Karmath's obvious discomfiture at having the verbal rug once again jerked out from under his feet, while Teyla smiled and offered a small half-bow, as best she could while sitting down. "We thank you for your concern, as well as for your food and hospitality, but we are not harmed in any great way. May we see our friend?"

"Certainly." Sasha offered her a hand under her elbow. Sheppard waited to see if he was going to get a hand up, but she ignored him utterly. So much for the famed Sheppard charm.

Ronon had been stripped to the waist, revealing a torso mottled black and blue with dozens of bruises. Sheppard winced just to look at him. His arm was set, though, and the wound on his head had been dressed. He lay stretched out with his eyes closed, chest gently rising and falling. Around him, Karmath's guards watched him from what they probably considered a safe distance. Sheppard thought that if he'd just beaten up Ronon and killed one of his teammates in front of him, he'd want to be a lot farther away. A few miles might be a good start.

"Your friend is still insulting my intelligence by pretending to sleep," Sasha said loudly. Ronon ignored her and remained still. Sheppard leaned a little closer to him just to make sure that he hadn't been drugged. And he saw a slight gleam in one of Ronon's closed fists. A smile flickered on his own face. At some point Ronon had managed to palm a scalpel. Sheppard straightened up.

"Well, not that we don't mind the effort you've put in here and all," he drawled, "but I'd say it's a bit of an insult to us that you folks patch us up just to keep us healthy so you can kill us later."

Sasha stared at him in astonishment. "Kill you! What insane talk is this? My people would not do such a --" She broke off. "Karmath!" she shouted.

"What?" Karmath said, poking his head around the curtain, a bit reluctantly it seemed to Sheppard.

"What have you been telling these people?" Sasha demanded in a voice that promised a slow, painful death involving lots of large needles.

"What?" he repeated.

"You do not know," Teyla said, incredulous understanding dawning on her face. "You do not know the fate he has planned for us."

"What he's already done to one of us," Sheppard interjected coldly. He's alive. Keep believing that.

"There were four of us," Teyla said. "This man put one of our friends in your incinerator machine."

For a moment, Sasha just stared. Then she hauled back and hit Karmath across the face. A couple of his guards made small moves in a protective sort of direction, but backed off when Sasha swept her death-glare across them.

Karmath staggered, nearly fell. He wiped his mouth, looked down to see blood, sighed. "Are you so short of patients that now you have to create your own?" he said.

"I cannot believe that you ... you ..." Her voice trembled. "Next you will tell me they went of their own free will!"

"He did," Karmath returned coldly, meeting her eyes with his blue ones. "Once we had explained the situation, their companion willingly stepped into the incinerator."

"Because if he hadn't, this asshole would have put one of the rest of us in it!" Sheppard flared. Teyla moved a little closer to him, her shoulder bumping lightly against his. I've got your back, that gesture said.

The doctor stared at Karmath with mingled rage and sorrow on her face. "Oh, Karmath," she said softly. "How far you've fallen. How far we've fallen. First your infernal lotteries, then our daughter ... now you have begun murdering strangers. This is a dreadful path with nothing good at the end of it. You speak of duty, but no one is duty-bound to murder someone else; you cannot put this monstrosity aside so easily."

Our daughter. Suddenly a lot of things made sense to Sheppard about the friction between the two of them. More importantly, though, all of the guards were fixated on the argument between the doctor and the military leader. Quietly and unobtrusively, Sheppard went down to his knees. Teyla, looking puzzled, followed suit. They were now kneeling beside Ronon's pallet.

The runner stirred. Sheppard felt an arm fall against his leg, as if Ronon had merely twitched in his sleep. The scalpel was just visible between two of the fingers. Sheppard suppressed a grin and moved his bound hands to bring the rope within reach. One movement of Ronon's nimble fingers, almost too quick for the eye to see, and Sheppard was free. Carefully he gripped the ropes with his fingertips and pinned them against his wrist so that he appeared to still be bound. He shifted to allow Ronon to free Teyla as well.

Sasha and Karmath were going at it tooth-and-nail. "I am responsible for an entire city! Do not talk to me about my duty! It is on my shoulders whether we all live or die! Should we save a few strangers at the expense of our entire people? At the expense of our very souls if we violate the Ancestors' commands? These are the sorts of decisions I have to make every day! You are mad if you think--"

"Hey!" one of the guards yelled suddenly, spinning around. "They're loose!"

Well, damn.

Ronon moved like lightning, rolling off his pallet and dipping his hands under it in one quick motion. The pallet was made up of folded blankets with something like a futon or feather mattress underneath; the runner hurtled the whole wad at the nearest guards, taking them down in a heap. And the three of them were running, pushing aside a startled nurse and fleeing out into the hall. Someone fired wildly, the sound loud as a bomb blast as it reverberated off the walls. Sasha started screaming about firing guns in the infirmary.

Ronon stopped immediately, started to turn. "My gun--"

"No time! Doesn't matter!" Sheppard yanked at his arm, got him going again just as a whole swarm of Karmath's guards came surging out of the infirmary. The three of them rounded a corner, momentarily losing sight of their pursuers.

"I hate running away," Ronon snarled. "I owe them a few broken heads."

"I owe them a hell of a lot too!" Sheppard panted, looking over his shoulder. "I owe them for Rodney, for you, for every damn person that they've fed to that machine! But right now I'd rather get out of here! We can come back here later and strafe the place with a puddlejumper if we have to, but right now let's just go, shall we?" He skidded to a stop where their corridor met another in a T intersection. "Teyla, which way?"

"I -- I --" She decided, maybe blindly. "Left." They went left.

"Can you find your way back to the place we came in?" Sheppard asked her as they ran. A door along the corridor opened; a head poked out and immediately popped back in.

"I ... do not know," Teyla said nervously. "This place is ... confusing."

"Well, try!" Right now he just wanted to get out of the populated section. "We need to get outside, get down to the Stargate, and wait for Rodney."

There was a silence.

"Colonel," Teyla said, sorrow in her voice. "Dr. McKay is not --"

"I know what we saw, Teyla. I was there. But I think there's more to it than just that. I think Rodney knew something when he walked into that machine ... something he couldn't tell the rest of us without tipping off the Cletans."

Teyla didn't answer, apparently deciding to save her breath for running rather than arguing. Another intersection. More bends. The tunnels were interminable.

"I think we may be going in circles," Ronon said when they stopped at yet another intersection, looking both ways.

"Shush!" Sheppard snapped, looking to Teyla. Like Sheppard, Ronon had deferred to her to lead them out -- she was, after all, the only one who had been fully aware and paying attention when they were led to the infirmary.

"I am trying, truly I am," Teyla said, looking desperate. "It is not like navigating in the forest. There are no landmarks here. All these tunnels are very much the same."

A group of Cletans, bristling with rifles, rounded the corner up ahead, saw them and started running.

"Right it is," Sheppard declared. They fled in that direction, only to see more Cletans appear down at the end of the corridor. This would have been funny if it hadn't been so damn serious, Sheppard thought -- like one of those cartoons where characters run in and out of doorways in a hall.

Doorways! There were doors in this corridor. He picked one at random and opened it.

The room inside was large and lit up at their presence. Lots of dark consoles around the walls and long tables covered with dust; Sheppard registered it with a sweeping glance. Some kind of old lab. Door in the far wall too. Hide or run? No -- the Cletans had seen them go into this room. He made for the door on the far side as Ronon was closing the near door, reached out, got it half open and then shouted a curse and tried to slam it shut as someone wedged a rifle inside.

They were trapped.

Sheppard's reaction was desperate, instinctive. He slammed a hand against the wall. "Lock!" he yelled, focusing his concentration on the doors.

And, to his amazement, both doors froze in place -- one shut, one half open. This place responded to the ATA gene!

Unfortunately, they had one half-open door with armed hostiles forcing their way through it. Two guys were in the room already. One fired at Ronon, but the shot went wide and Ronon was on him in an instant. The other guy was taking aim at Teyla, who reached out blindly and wrenched free a handle from one of the pieces of equipment. "Don't move --" the guy with the rifle started to say, when Teyla's hurtled projectile bounced off the hand supporting the rifle. He dropped it, and Sheppard was already in motion, hitting him from behind with clasped-together fists. The man dropped like a rock.

"My thanks," Teyla said and spun around to launch an expert kick at another man, disarming him. Teyla was clearly trying to disable their opponents without killing or even seriously hurting them. Ronon apparently had no such compunctions -- one-handed, he grabbed a woman armed with a decrepit-looking shotgun by her hair and slammed her face into a console.

Sheppard realized that after meeting Sasha in the infirmary, his appetite for wholesale Cletan slaughter had gone the way of his appetite for their food. They were, after all, just people trying to survive. Damn it, he just wanted to get out of here! He disabled another Cletan with a kick to the groin, amazed at how much difference Teyla's martial arts lessons had made to his hand-to-hand skills. Spinning around to check on his team, he saw the Athosian with all her attention on a woman she'd just knocked out, while another Cletan took aim on her back. This guy had one of their stolen P-90s, and from the way he was holding it, he had a pretty good idea of how to use it.

Teyla. It would cut her in half.

He wouldn't watch another friend die. Damn it, he wouldn't. This place wasn't Afghanistan; the hell with that! He wasn't close enough to do anything about Rifle Boy, he didn't have any weapons, but Teyla was only a few yards away...

Sheppard took a running dive at her, hit her in the midsection, and they both fell. The stutter of the P-90 nearly deafened him in the enclosed space, and he felt it hit -- not pain, not yet, but a solid impact, like being punched in the chest. He'd been shot before, but this ... this was bad. Heat radiated out from his chest, spreading down his arms and legs, and everything just stopped working.

Teyla heard someone behind her, started to turn when a great impact knocked her off her feet. She heard the assault rifle, felt something wet and hot spray across her chest and shoulders and face, stinging her eyes, her lips. Falling, she tasted salt on her lips. Blood.

And then she was lying on the floor, with Sheppard a dead weight across her legs. She looked up to see Ronon taking out the shooter, and she dared take her eyes off the room around her to lean forward and roll Sheppard onto his back. Even after so many years of fighting the Wraith and the other native predators of Athos, she still could not get used to that first moment when you look into the face of an injured comrade and find out whether or not they've survived. In order to make herself look, she had to fight down a surge of panic that she hoped never showed on the surface.

A glance told her the wound was fatal. In fact, she couldn't believe he was still breathing, yet somehow he was, drawing upon the central core of steel that she had seen in him when they first met on Athos. Blood bubbled on his lips with every breath. The assault rifle had chewed great chunks out of his chest. His entire uniform was soaked with blood, and more of it every minute, spreading under him in a great pool. Even if an Atlantean medical team dropped through the roof right now, Teyla didn't think they could save him.

Her commander, her friend, was bleeding out in front of her, and she didn't know what to do. She tore off her jacket and pressed against the holes in his chest, but the blood soaked through immediately. Looking up, she saw that Ronon had vanished out into the hallway carrying the P-90, and she heard gunfire. Oh Ancestors, he was holding them off by himself.

She had lost her two closest friends today. It hadn't really sunk in yet. She watched Sheppard struggle to breathe, and it still wouldn't sink in.

His eyes fluttered open, saw her watching him. "You okay?" he murmured in a thick, choked voice.

"Yes." There were no words for this. No words.


"He's ... in the hall." Another burst of gunfire from the hall punctuated her words.

The hazel eyes, glazed with pain and shock, fixed on her face. "Go help him," Sheppard said quietly. "Get out of here."

"Not without you."

He smiled a faint, lopsided smile, blood on his lips. "There's nothing you can do for me, Teyla. I can feel things breaking when I breathe. Go. Get out. But don't leave this world without Rodney. I don't think you'll have to find him; he'll find you. Just don't leave without him if you can help it."

She searched his face -- the pallor, the determination. "You do truly believe he's alive."

"I do," Sheppard whispered. His body bucked; he tried to cough, brought up more blood.

Teyla desperately wanted to stay until it was over, did not want to think of him dying alone on this alien world. But every moment she waited in here was another moment Ronon was alone in the hall, perhaps needing her help. With one P-90 between them, she didn't know how they were going to fight their way out of here.

Sheppard believed in them. They could do it, somehow. And maybe he was right about Rodney. Maybe Rodney would help them.

She took him by the shoulders, lowered her forehead to his. "Until we meet again in the halls of the Ancestors," she whispered -- an old Athosian farewell.

"Sounds dull," Sheppard said, raising a shaky hand -- at what cost in pain she didn't want to imagine -- to squeeze her shoulder in return. "We'll have a party, liven up the place."

"It is a date," Teyla responded. Sheppard's face wavered in front of her eyes, blurring, returning to focus. No, she could not cry now. Later she would mourn, back on Atlantis, safe with Ronon -- and Rodney, she added stubbornly; if believing in Sheppard's optimism was the last thing she could do for him, then she would do it.

He smiled at her and she smiled at him one final time, then got up and ran out of the room, not looking back.

Chapter Nine: The Halls of the Ancestors

He hadn't thought to shut his eyes, so the flash of light nearly blinded him. "Idiot Ancients, should've had a warning sign; not that they ever worry about little things like consumer warnings on packaging ... Not to be taken internally, no user serviceable parts inside, may blow up and destroy solar system ..."

Rodney blinked his eyes to clear the spots and continued muttering to himself -- well aware that he should probably shut up, too nervous to do anything about it -- while he looked warily around the room in which he now found himself.

Of course it had been a teleporter. He'd known immediately upon taking one look at the thing. It was an early design style that he'd seen referenced in the Ancient database, and to confirm it, he was well aware that no technology, no matter how advanced, could possibly reduce a human being to such a tiny amount of ash; anyone who knew anything about physics could see that. Since everything on this world was so damn dusty, the "ash" must be dust as well, displaced from the other side of the connection -- therefore, the connection went somewhere, and probably somewhere with a circulating atmosphere or it wouldn't be that dusty. Naturally he would never have stepped into it if he'd thought for a moment that he'd be incinerated. Although looking like a hero in the others' eyes wasn't particularly a bad thing, either, particularly these days. The look on Sheppard's face had been especially gratifying. Kick him off the team, ha! He'd just see about that!

Incinerators. Honestly. He could see a primitive people jumping to that conclusion, but he was quite disappointed in his teammates. Didn't they have the slightest idea how much energy the human body contained? Or, as the case may be, didn't contain. Lord, he'd hated The Matrix for that very reason ... human beings are a dumb-ass power supply. The amount of energy it takes to raise and feed them far exceeds anything you can get from them. No way the Ancients were stupid enough to power their facility on people, even assuming that they'd ever done anything that Machiavellian in the history of their entire civilization. When they got back to Atlantis, he was going to recommend to Weir that his entire team have some mandatory sessions with the Atlantis database. Ancient Tech 101 had just become a priority.

He hadn't had to fake his fear, though. He had, after all, been testing an unknown Ancient device on himself. Even though he was nearly 100% sure that he knew what it did, there were still a vast array of unknowns. What if it was never intended for transporting living beings? What if it took him somewhere with an unbreathable atmosphere, or no power for a return journey?

There was also the most pressing question of why the other "sacrifices" never returned home, which he would really prefer not to learn the hard way.

However, at the moment, he was free -- well, for the most part -- and the locals thought he was dead ... an excellent position from which to begin a rescue. Rodney rubbed his hands together and stepped out of the transporter.

It wasn't dark. He'd been worried about that, transporting himself into some sort of cold, dark, dusty, claustrophobia-inducing pit, but instead, the room was gently lit by a tasteful stripe of lights along the wall. The room itself was clearly of Ancient design, hexagonal-shaped with a bank of equipment along one wall. Colored lights flashed quietly in standby mode. There was no sign of any living being.

Dead ones, on the other hand ...

He was so intrigued by the unfamiliar machines that it took him a good thirty seconds to notice the dead bodies on the floor.

Rodney's first instinct was to stumble backwards, covering his mouth with his sleeve in the wild hope that a few inches of military-issue fabric could protect him from airborne pathogens. Stupid. He lowered his wrist, and scientific curiosity began to take over. The bodies -- two of them -- were clearly long dead, mummified in fact. One of them was sitting against the wall, its legs straight out in front of it. The other, which appeared to have once been female, lay curled up on its side as if sleeping. They wore the same style of clothing as the other inhabitants of the world.

The sacrifices. Well, two of the sacrifices. He had a deeply unpleasant suspicion that they weren't the first bodies he was going to see as he explored this place.

Giving the bodies a wide berth, he wandered around the edges of the room. When he touched the dark consoles, they sprang into life and light under his hands. Another piece of the mystery clicked into place: the reason why the Cletans had jumped to the conclusion that the "incinerator" was powering the facility. The computers must have brought up a brief surge of power every time someone came through the transporter, responding to human presence by preparing the equipment for being used and, incidentally, brightening the lights back in the catacombs. No doubt the effect would have faded as the power-saving measures came back on line. From what Karmath had told them, it happened more quickly each time, probably meaning that the power supply was nearly depleted.

Three doors opened off the room. He spot-checked by glancing through the open doorways. The first and second were more rooms full of equipment -- definitely a priority, but not the number one priority, which was figuring the lay of the land and also determining whether or not this place was likely to kill him anytime soon. To that end, the third door, which opened onto a hallway, seemed to be his best bet.

More bodies in the hallway, lots of them. The place was a damned charnel house. How many people had the Cletans sent through over the years? He shuddered to think of it. And not one of them seemed to have managed to get back to town after they'd been teleported up here ... a fact which he was trying not to think too hard about. Although most of the bodies were long mummified in the cool dry air, a sweetish stench of decay hung over them, and Rodney tried to breathe through his mouth.

The hall was long, dim and featureless. It soared high above him, illuminated by flat panel lights some ten meters off the floor. There seemed to be no doors opening to either side, just a featureless expanse of rock. He wondered what its function had been ... other than presently serving as a place to store bodies.

He found out by accident when he brushed his hand against the wall in the process of detouring around a particularly fresh corpse. The wall flickered and vanished. Rodney gasped, recoiling as suddenly he found himself looking down the side of a mountain. Heights didn't normally bother him, but the quick change in perspective gave him a surge of vertigo. The mountainside dropped away beneath his feet, plunging a kilometer or two into the river valley where they'd come through the Stargate. He couldn't see the Stargate, or the town, but if this view could be believed, he suspected that he was currently located on, or more accurately in, one of the mountains that towered over the valley around the town.

He could see a strong wind kicking up snow and dust outside, but could feel nothing, and the air temperature remained just on the cool side of comfortable. Rodney reached out a finger cautiously and his fingertips touched the chill, smooth surface of the wall. The whole thing was just a large display screen, which meant that he could be seeing the actual view on the other side of the wall, or he could just as easily be deep underground or on another planet entirely.

Looking along the hallway, he discovered that this was definitely how it was intended to be seen. Where before it had appeared as a dim and gloomy corridor, now it was an open, airy gallery on the side of a mountain. Natural light flooded through it, making the corpses look all the more macabre and out of place.

The epiphany hit him then. If the people in the hallway had been able to see out this window, surely they would have clawed their fingers bloody trying to escape. He knew he might, if he was dying of starvation and thirst with an apparent escape mere meters away. Even if they were more stoic than he gave them credit for, then at the very least they wouldn't be sitting propped up against the window as if it was a wall -- and some of them were doing exactly that, which created a very disturbing effect as the cadavers appeared to lean against thin air.

No. The other sacrifices, Rodney realized, had died here because they didn't have the ATA gene. They couldn't use any of the equipment. The facility would probably have powered up its basic functions expectantly at their arrival, and clearly some of the equipment worked without the gene, because the Cletans under the town had been able to use the food dispensers ... but most of the non-basic stuff had probably been beyond their reach.

Karmath had said they hadn't understood the function of the "incinerator" until somebody accidentally turned it on. Somebody with a weak form of the gene, perhaps? It wasn't impossible. Who knew how much of the equipment that unknown person had turned on by accident ... and how much he or she hadn't managed to touch before being -- what? Sent here, surrounded by the equipment to escape and the gene to use it, but without the knowledge of how to do it? Or killed back in the town, some other way? No way to know now. One thing was for sure, though: most of the Cletans didn't have the gene, but Rodney did, and he sure as hell wasn't staying here until he looked like the rest of the mummies.

The wall flickered; for an instant the mountainside vanished, then it returned. This reminded Rodney that his power was most likely extremely limited, and might be all that was providing him with breathable air at the moment. He touched the wall, thought "Deactivate" at it, and was rewarded when it blinked back to smooth rock again.

Feeling a little more cheerful, if still uncomfortably crowded by reminders of his own mortality, he picked his way through the corpses to the other end of the hall. Looking back at them, he felt a severe twinge. Somebody should bury them, or at least arrange them. He saw that some had been laid out nicely and covered, probably by still-living sacrifices with nothing else better to do, but it bothered him to see the rest just sitting or lying there. These had, after all, been someone's family once -- mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. It wasn't right. Not like he could do anything about it at the moment ... but maybe later, when he got back and explained to the Cletans what the "incinerator" actually did ...

Yeah, at which point they would most likely shoot him. Possibly worship him as a god, a Lazarus come back to life, but more likely, considering his luck, just shoot him. He needed a better plan.

The door at the end of the hallway was closed. He placed his palm against it and it swooshed open. The room on the other side contained no bodies, and as the door closed behind him, it mercifully took the smell of death with it. Well, that confirmed his theory, then. No ATA gene, no way out. Which really sucked for them, but gave him renewed hope of being able to get out of here soon.

He couldn't immediately identify the function of this room. Foyer maybe? It was small and closet-like, and contained only one other door, somewhat different looking from the rest -- very large and sturdy. Rodney placed his palm against it. A small voice in the back of his head was screaming that it would be a very good idea at this point to go back and start looking through their documentation, figure out where he was, at least determine if he was still on P2R-517 or had transported himself to some airless asteroid somewhere -- but right now, he was so desperate to find a way out of this place of death that he was willing to give it a try. Just to prove to himself that he wasn't going to end up like those poor shmoes back there, dying of thirst while the way out remained elusively beyond his reach. Besides, the Ancients had built so many failsafes into most of their equipment that he doubted the door would just blithely open onto molten lava.

Doranda, his brain supplied helpfully. He told it to shut up.

The door slid open and a freezing, dust-laden wind smacked him in the face, tearing back his hair and scouring his face with grit. Rodney shielded his face with his arm and opened tearing eyes to see that he was, indeed, standing on a mountaintop, looking down into the valley. The door had opened onto a balcony that seemed to hang over the abyss, giving a stunning view of the patchy brown hills and the twisting silver ribbon of the river far below. Ten thousand years ago, maybe this had been a nice little vacation spot, with refreshing breezes and eagles drifting on the air. Today, it was like standing in a freezing cold sandblaster.

After eyeballing the floor integrity of the balcony -- rock; it didn't get much sturdier than that -- Rodney dashed out to the edge, just to reach out a hand and make sure that this was real, not an illusion. Waving his hand in the air confirmed it. Already starting to shiver in the subzero temperatures, he ran back to the door and shut it behind him.

Okay. Still on P2R-517. And he would be able to get out this way if he really had to, although he didn't relish hiking down those mountains.

All right. Time to examine his options. First, he took a quick inventory of his supplies. He'd noticed that Sheppard and Teyla had been stripped of nearly everything they carried, but he and Ronon had been subjected to a much less thorough going-over, maybe because the only one of the Cletans who had any idea of how to treat prisoners was that Karmath guy and he hadn't been involved in their capture. The Cletans had taken their guns and radios, but left everything else, including his laptop and even his Swiss army knife, which they had perhaps not recognized as a knife. The one thing he really missed was his scanner, lost in the fall, but he still had his tools. He could fix things if he had to. He had powerbars, an MRE and a canteen mostly full of water. He wouldn't starve soon. He could get out of here.

Bracing himself, Rodney opened the door to the hallway and picked his way among the bodies once again, covering his nose with one hand to shield the worst of the smell. He remembered Karmath saying that they'd sent sick people into the "incinerator" as well. Great, just great. He wondered if they had plague on this world. Wasn't that carried by rats? Probably not, then. But there could be all kinds of wonderful new influenzas and other fun germs. What he wouldn't give for one of those horrid hazmat suits right now ...

The door between the transporter room and the hallway had been open when he arrived, but that didn't necessarily mean that it wouldn't close, and he quickly discovered that it did, indeed, close, shutting off the sight and smell of most of the bodies. There were still the two in the transporter room, and he didn't really want to touch them to move them, so he just tried to ignore the corpses as he pulled out his laptop and hooked up the power converter.

He lost his grip on the power cable and jumped nearly a foot in the air at a soft, very alive sound from somewhere off to his right. A low, hoarse cough ... like the sound a predator might make right before it attacked. It was followed by a faint rustling or slithering.

Damn it, oh damn it all to hell. He'd assumed all these people died of starvation, but what if something else killed them first?

The only thing in that direction was a doorway leading to one of the other rooms. Rodney retreated to the far side of the room, staring at the doorway and straining his ears for more sounds. Now that he was paying attention, he thought he could hear something breathing. He wished desperately that he had his gun ... or, better yet, Sheppard with a P-90.

"H-hello?" Rodney called, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. "Is someone there?"

No reply, just another of those coughing sounds. Rodney looked around desperately for anything that could be used for a weapon and finally settled on what appeared to be some sort of Ancient coat-rack by the door. It was as tall as himself and made of a heavy black metal. He picked it up, brandishing it like a sword. Or rather, like a big coat-rack pretending to be a sword.


Oh, where the hell was a Marine when you needed one. Holding the coat-rack in front of him, he attempted to do one of those cool crouch-and-roll-through-the-doorway things that Sheppard was so good at. All he managed to do was whack his head on the doorframe (ouch!), crack his coat-rack neatly in half on the other side of the doorframe and nearly fall on his butt. With any luck, the predator was laughing itself to death right now. Rodney looked nervously around the room, brandishing his much shorter coat-rack and hoping that he looked intimidating, like an action hero instead of a slightly out-of-shape geek.

The room, like all the other rooms, was empty of anything except for some mostly-dark consoles and a handful of desiccated plants in earth-toned pots.

"Come out," Rodney ordered, gripping the coat-rack so tightly that his fingers went numb. "I'm armed and I know how to use this!"

Yeah, he knew how to use it ... to hang coats on. Fighting monsters was a whole different barrel of flying monkeys.

Rodney stalked around the edges of the room, resisting an urge to take a hand off his makeshift weapon to rub at the bruise that he was sure must be forming on his temple. Coming around the end of one of the consoles, he froze.

Another mummy. A tiny one. A dead kid, he thought, appalled. Just as he was coming to terms with this new horror, it moved.

Rodney recoiled backwards, collided with the console and added two new bruises to his collection, one across the back of his thigh and the other on his hip.

The child wiggled and managed to turn onto its side, curling into a ball. The coat-rack slowly slipped from Rodney's fingers and fell to the floor with a loud clatter that he didn't notice.

It wasn't a zombie child or a mummy child; it was a dying child, and its face had turned towards him, its sunken eyes opening and staring vaguely in his direction. It made the sound that he had heard in the other room -- a faint, barking cough. He couldn't tell its age or gender, but it was so small that it must only be a few years old, and it had long hair falling into its glassy eyes.

Sick? Plague? Rodney backed away, again raising his hand to cover his mouth. The child continued to stare at him and then its eyes closed, and he slowly lowered his hand, feeling weak and cowardly and stupid, and loathing himself and this situation.

He didn't like kids, and he hated sick people, and here he was, trapped in a room with a child who might be dying of any number of horrendous and contagious diseases. But, given the evidence, the most likely thing was that it was dying of thirst. The kid had probably come through the transporter and, like the dead adults in the other room, had been unable to find its way out.

And here was Rodney McKay, genius, standing like a coat-rack himself with a full canteen at his hip, unable to make himself get any closer for fear of germs.

God, sometimes he hated himself.

What would Sheppard do? No ... he didn't even need to ask.

"Hey there," he said quietly, unstrapping the canteen and opening it. "Want some water?"

The child's eyes flickered open, then closed again. Swallowing, Rodney approached cautiously, ready to flee at a moment's notice if it sneezed or threw up or did anything ... contagious. But it didn't. It just lay there, its thin chest rising and falling, and Rodney thought that it might be a girl, maybe. It looked like a girl; he didn't think a boy would be so tiny and delicate, or have such long hair.

He decided to think of it as a girl, and sat down next to it ... to her. When she didn't respond, he reached out and lightly prodded at her shoulder. Her skin was rough and dry and very cold. Her eyes blinked open again -- though glassy and shadowed, they were very blue, as blue as his own. There was no recognition in them; she seemed to look through him, and he wondered again why he was doing this, or if there was even any point. Her slight chest rattled when she breathed. She looked pretty far gone.

"Hey. Can you drink?"

No response. Trying not to touch her any more than he had to, Rodney carefully got a hand under her arm and lifted her, terrified that he'd hurt her -- she looked as if she'd snap like a dry twig -- and equally terrified that he was signing his own death warrant by touching her. But, damn it, he couldn't just sit there and watch her die. No matter what anyone thought of him, he wasn't that much of an ass.

"Here. Water." He put it to her cracked lips, tilted it a little and let some trickle into her mouth.

The head jerked up; the kid began coughing, a wispy rasping sound that seemed to tear deep into her chest. He hoped he hadn't killed her. But she sucked in deep breaths, calming the spasms, and then her eyes opened wider, and he thought she was actually looking at him for the first time. She raised a skinny arm and groped for the canteen.

"Oh no. Just a little. Small sips." He did know that much first aid ... that you weren't supposed to give dehydrated people a lot of water. And he'd never seen anybody who looked so dehydrated.

She took more sips, and then her little body contorted, and he held onto her -- resisting the urge to fling her as far away from him as possible -- as she coughed up what little water she'd swallowed. Grimacing and taking a deep breath, Rodney brought the canteen back to her lips.

"Okay. Let's try this again, shall we, and keep it down this time, hmm?"

He hated kids and sick people, hated playing nursemaid ... hated the way that she couldn't get her lips to hold onto the canteen, letting the precious liquid slide down her cheek (which might be the difference between his life and death too, come to think of it, if he had to walk down the mountain); hated the short choking sound of her swallows as she finally managed to get the hang of it; hated the way her eyes fastened on him as a drowning man stares into the face of his savior -- and hated, even more, the way that her eyes slid closed soon after, and her hot dry forehead dropped down to rest against the front of his uniform ... as if she was just going to die, right now, after he gave her his water and everything.

Kids. No gratitude. No wonder he couldn't stand the little buggers.

Carefully, trying not to disturb her too much, McKay wormed out of his jacket and wrapped it around her. All she was wearing was some sort of loose undershirt-type thing, and her skin was so very cold. But her breathing sounded a little better; the rattle in her chest had calmed a little. She no longer sounded as if she was going to drop dead at any moment. Kind of looked like it, but didn't sound like it. He wished Carson was here.

He wondered how long she'd been here, alone, slowly dying of hunger and thirst with no one for company but the dead adults in the other room.

Something clicked in his memory. Karmath's four-year-old daughter. He'd said that she had been sent through ... how long ago? A few days. The time worked out correctly. He tried to recall how long a person could survive without water. No wonder she looked so awful ... kids could be more resilient about things like that than adults, but she still must be just about dead.

He laid her gently on the floor and stood up, but stayed for a moment, staring down at the small, still body. Now he had even more incentive to get out of here quickly. The kid needed medical attention.

Sometimes he wished that he was really as much of a jerk as most people thought he was. It would make life a lot easier.

Chapter Ten: Brother's Keeper

The Stargate field collapsed; the blue and silver light shattered like ice and flowed away into nothingness, leaving only a view of desolate brown hills drifted with patchy snow. Major Lorne couldn't help staring up at it for a moment. Man, no matter how many times he saw that, he never got tired of it.

But right now he had a potentially hostile zone to secure. He dispatched his men off to the sides of the Stargate, keeping an eye on the two noncombatants whose safety was his job today.

"I can see Sheppard or Rodney doing something this half-arsed, but you and Teyla?" Beckett's tetchy voice carried loudly across the clear air. Lugging a pack full of medical equipment, he appeared to be giving Zelenka a good chewing-out. "You disappoint me, lad! Of all the people on this station that I have to worry about, you two are supposed to be the voices of reason. What in the world happened to that?"

Zelenka heaved a sigh, glancing nervously up at the hills around them. "Rodney happened," he said.

"Ah, now that I can believe. Want to tell me the full story?"

"Major Lorne, sir!" Lorne's attention was drawn away from the two of them. One of his men gestured to the hills at the eleven-o'clock position from the Stargate. Lorne saw immediately what had drawn the corporal's attention. On an ordinary world, he would hardly have noticed it, but this place was so barren and desolate that the wisps of dust or smoke drifting over the hills might as well have been a giant neon sign saying SHEPPARD AND MCKAY WERE HERE. Sure, it could be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon (speaking of which, damn, that sky was weird) but, even no longer than he'd dealt with Sheppard's team, he'd lay money that one of them had pushed some funky button up there.

"Get ready to move out on my order," Lorne called, and to the two civilians he said, "Doctors? Looks like we've got a lead. You two, behind me, and if I say duck, you duck."

Neither one of them looked like they were going to put up much of a fight to that. In fact, if he'd said "duck" at that moment, they would probably have both fled for the Stargate. "Wraith?" Zelenka squeaked.

Lorne heaved a sigh. It was better than babysitting McKay, but just how much better remained to be seen. "Just follow my lead. Let's move out!"

Rodney's most pressing problem -- how to get back to the Cletan city and his teammates -- turned out to be the easiest to solve. It only took him a few moments of studying the teleporter's controls to be confident that it was a two-way device. At least in the short term, getting out of here would be as simple as he could have hoped -- all he had to do was set the controls and step into the chamber. Unfortunately, that would bring him out in the middle of a bunch of well-armed Cletans, and he'd be right back where he started. Well ... right back where he started only carrying their leader's dying child, which struck him as a very bad bargaining position.

Before he went anywhere, he needed a plan. He tried not to think about what might be happening to the others right now. Hopefully, Karmath had followed through on his promise and was even now providing them with food and better living quarters. Hopefully they had not yet tried to escape. He figured that his current deadline amounted to: How long would Sheppard put up with being a prisoner before he tried to escape and possibly got them all killed? Not long, Rodney guessed. He had that much time to figure out how things worked around here and to come up with a good rescue strategy.

He went and checked on the kid -- unconscious, still breathing, but clearly on her way out. It was just too little, too late at this point. She needed an I.V. and electrolytes and other stuff Beckett always natterred on about. A few sips of water by mouth were just not going to cut it. So his second deadline was: How long could the kid survive before he had to get her through the Stargate to Atlantis's medical facilities? Once again, he didn't think he'd like the answer.

He felt deeply guilty about not just walking through the transporter with her right now. But at this point, he suspected it was probably too late already. The Cletans would never let him just walk back to the Stargate with her, and he couldn't see how they could help someone who was so sick, considering their low state of technological development. He told himself that he was not being cowardly, just pragmatic. It wouldn't help the kid if he went off half-cocked, took her through the transporter and then got shot while she died under whatever passed for medical care with the Cletans.

He would try to get them both out alive. He really would. But he wasn't about to throw his life away in an attempt to save the kid when it probably wouldn't help her anyway.

He got his computer hooked up to the local system and started downloading data. Like all the Ancients' computers, their filing system was ass-backwards and crammed with useless information that he had to decode to get to the good stuff. It was like trying to figure out the nature and function of an IBM 386 by downloading and deciphering the source code for Pong. Still, he caught on quickly that this was an old facility even by Ancient standards. While Doranda had had all their newest and best equipment, this place was filled with stuff that was outdated by Atlantean standards -- like that transporter, which was really just a prototype for the much better ones used on Atlantis.

As far as he could tell, this planet, and more specifically this facility, had been a test lab for sensor-blocking technology. Hence that weird staticky field in the sky. It wasn't harmful; it just didn't quite do what they wanted it to do. It interfered with all signals rather than just blocking transmissions from outside. Skimming record logs and what appeared to be personnel files, he got the impression that the facility had been occupied off and on for a few decades and then abandoned. The area under the present-day Cletan town had been their main living and working area, while this small lab up here was the control center for the facility, separated from the main living space both to prevent problems -- here he thought again of Doranda -- and to allow them to test various sensor arrays over distance, to gauge the shield's effects.

Apparently the shield used to be much stronger than it was now. It didn't draw a whole lot of power, but over ten thousand years, it had managed to almost completely run down their ZPM -- and, yes, they did have a ZPM here, but like most of the other ones in this galaxy, it would be utterly useless to Atlantis even if he could manage to find it. If these readings were accurate, it'd barely run the Atlantis shield for a few seconds.

He also learned that Ancients had tested more than just the sensor-blockers here. This place had been a general tech laboratory where they worked on prototype versions of a lot of the technology that was now being used in Atlantis -- those hanging displays in the gate room, personal shields (ooh, bad memories there), some systems he recognized as puddlejumper technology.

Rodney left the data downloading to his laptop -- connections weren't as fast here as in Atlantis, either -- and wandered through the rooms, poking at stuff, well aware that both of his deadlines were still ticking away. Something here had to be useful to help him get the others out of the Cletans' hands. This planet was an archaeologist's treasure trove. In much the same way as the operation of a Model T Ford engine could be fathomed more easily than that of a 2005 Ford Mustang, they could probably understand a lot of the technology in Atlantis much better by getting a look at the early development stages. He found a couple of the prototype personal shields, and (a bit reluctantly) tried to turn them on, but either they wouldn't respond to his artificial gene, or the Ancients hadn't gotten them working yet. If he could only find a weapon or --

Hold the phone! What was this? On a shelf of unfamiliar objects, he picked up one that looked very familiar indeed. He'd read most of the SGC mission reports in detail, and he remembered seeing pictures of something very much like this. What had it been?

Oh yes. A Tok'ra healing device.

McKay fitted it over his hand, grinning, and laughed aloud when it lit up and he felt it respond to his ATA gene, attuning itself to his body as the personal shield had done. Where the modern version could only be used by Goa'uld hosts, this one, naturally, responded to Ancient genes instead. Despite slight differences of design, he was pretty sure it must be the prototype for the eventual Ancient technology that the Goa'uld had appropriated in creating their own.

He could heal the kid!

Suddenly a plan began to come together. Coming back with Karmath's dead or dying daughter was a sure-fire recipe for getting a hole blown in his own head. On the other hand, coming back with Karmath's alive-and-well daughter ... that was a different story altogether. They just might get out of this.

More excited than he'd been since first stepping through the transporter, he ran into the other room. The child was still huddled under his jacket, very still, and for a heart-stopping moment he thought he was too late, but as he pulled away the jacket he saw her thin chest shudder as she drew a shaky breath.

"You are one lucky little girl," he told her, scooping up the tiny body, not even noticing that he didn't have the slightest hint of revulsion as his hands contacted the small, shivering form. Gently he laid her out on his lap and placed his hand over her chest. How did these things work? The SGC reports had been sketchy ... but he reminded himself to stop thinking of it as a Goa'uld device. It wasn't the same -- it was Ancient technology, and he was the resident expert on all forms of Ancient technology. They always had a mental component.

Heal, he thought, concentrating. For a moment he felt as if a giant hand had reached down into his chest and squeezed; he leaned forward, gasping for air. The sensation wasn't necessarily bad, but it was very startling and like nothing he'd ever experienced.

And heal she did.

Her dry, flaky skin softened and smoothed as he watched. The shadows under her eyes vanished. Her limp, tangled hair became glossy and rich; her cracked lips plumped out; the painful thinness began to recede from her sticklike limbs and they more resembled the thin arms and legs of a normal, twiggy child.

"Hey ... kid?" He started to poke at her, but then her eyes snapped open -- huge, brilliant blue eyes. She gave a small cry and sprang for him, seizing upon him as her rescuer or maybe just the only halfway familiar thing in that empty place of death, wrapping her arms and legs around him like a jumping spider going after its prey. Rodney recoiled, and found that his arms had gone shaky and wouldn't catch him. He fell flat on his back, the child pressed against him.

What was wrong with him? His head buzzed and the world swam around him. He swallowed, swallowed again, trying to work up some saliva in a mouth gone dust-dry.

Maybe she did have the plague -- and now he had it!

No ... he didn't really feel sick, just very weak and dizzy. Rodney sat up, impatiently pushing the child off him; he didn't want to be clung to at the best of times, let alone when he wasn't feeling well. He reached for his canteen -- paused when he remembered that he'd been letting a potentially plague-ridden ch ild drink from it, but thirst was strong enough to overcome revulsion, and he drank half the remaining water in one gulp. Then he dug in his vest for a power bar, ate a few bites, began to feel a little better.

He just felt ... drained. As if something had sucked all the energy out of his body.

His eyes went down to the device on his hand.

Hello! He could have smacked himself in the head for being such a dunce. That was where the power to run the thing came from -- the operator!

He stared at the device, his mind spinning as he worked out its function. Nothing about this side effect had been mentioned in the records on the Goa'uld and Tok'ra devices, so presumably this, like everything else in the lab, was an early version that would later be improved upon. If it truly did draw power from its operator -- and from the way he was feeling now, he assumed that it did -- then it stood to reason that the power consumption must be proportional to the severity of the injuries being healed; most Ancient devices worked in a similar fashion, such as the shields that drew variable levels of power depending on need. He was just lucky that all that had been wrong with the kid was a few days of neglect; if she'd been badly hurt, he could easily have killed himself before he even figured out what was happening.

What an incredibly stupid thing to do ... stupid of the Ancients to build such a thing, and doubly stupid of him to use it without fully understanding how it worked. Shuddering, he stripped it off and stuffed it into a pocket of his vest. No way he was putting that on again! The lab monkeys back on Atlantis could mess with it, figure out if they could reverse-engineer anything useful out of it.

He looked around for the kid, intended to yell at her for luring him into risking his own life to heal her. The words died when he saw her sitting on her knees a few feet away, staring at the half-eaten power bar as if she hadn't seen food in months. Which was quite possibly how she felt at the moment.

"Here." He tossed it to her, got himself out another one. She ate it so quickly she nearly choked and then looked back at him with wide, beseeching eyes. He gave her half of the other one, too, and then he sat against the wall and ate the remainder more slowly, feeling a little less woozy.

"What's your name, kid?"

She stared back at him with those enormous eyes, and just when he'd finally decided that she was an idiot or brain-damaged or too young to talk, she said, "Amma."

"Amma. Nice name. Er, I have a sister named Jeannie." He hated making conversation with kids, mostly because he was terrible at it. They never had the slightest interest in quantum physics or differential calculus, and beyond that, his conversation skills were limited -- with children or adults.

Heaving a sigh, he got to his feet and went back to his cursory inventory of the lab contents. What he really needed was some kind of weapon, but he couldn't find anything that he recognized as one, at least not anything that worked.

The child padded around after him, watching him with wide eyes. At least she had the sense not to try to talk to him while he was working. Actually, as kids went, she wasn't really that annoying. He wouldn't mind kids so much if they'd shut up and leave him alone most of the time.

"What's your name?"

Drat, spoke too soon.

Rodney turned to give her an exasperated look. "I'm Rodney. Now be quiet please, so I can find a way to rescue my teammates, hmm?"

"Where's my daddy and mommy?"

"Not here, obviously." Rodney waved his hand at the room around them, and went back to the shelf he was checking. Damn it, there could be a million useful things here, but if he couldn't recognize their functions, he couldn't use them! Overcome with a fit of frustration, he swept his hand across the shelf, knocking priceless artifacts onto the floor. Some of them shattered. He put his hand over his eyes. Wasting time, wasting time safe in an Ancient lab when his teammates were ... where?

A small hand tugged at his leg. Rodney fought back a very tempting urge to smack her off him. Instead, he removed his hand from his face and looked down at the wide blue eyes staring up at him.

"I want to go home, please," the child said in a very tiny voice.

"Hell," said Rodney, "me too. ... Oh, goddammit, I just said hell to a four-year-old. Also goddammit, damn it. Crap!"

He sighed.

"You want to go home, kid?" he asked.

The child stuck her thumb in her mouth. "Yes," she said around it.

"Me too. Let's go home."

He gave her another half a powerbar and finished his lab sweep, with the child clinging by one sticky fist to his leg, to his annoyance. At least she stayed quiet while hanging onto him. He'd put up with the weight on his leg in return for the silence.

Nothing else in the lab promised to be immediately useful to him. He wished he had about six months to study the place in peace; alas, duty called, and it looked as if he would be going up against a city full of angry Cletans armed with nothing more than his brains. Luckily, they were his most effective weapon.

While the kid sat nearby and watched with a finger in her mouth, Rodney dropped under one of the control consoles and pulled one of its micro power supplies -- they were used for maintaining local settings in the event of a power failure, like the batteries on a laptop, only stronger. He also pulled two control crystals and in about thirty seconds had himself a --

"--Taser," he said to the kid, waving it proudly in front of her. "Clever, huh?"

"Tather," the child repeated dutifully, and tried to grab it.

Cripes, he was showing off to a four-year-old. Maybe he did need to work on that ego problem a tad.

All right. Got weapon, sort of. Got kid. Got element of surprise. Not got a whole lot else. He went back to the console and whistled when he got a look at the power levels. They were dropping fast. This world's ZPM must be on its proverbial last leg. His trip through the teleporter, combined with his ATA gene turning on everything in the facility that could be powered up, had come pretty close to kicking that last leg right out from under it. He tried to shut down the prototype sensor shield, only to find that he couldn't. The facility was programmed to consider the shield a primary system, right up there with life support. Sure, he could have rewritten the program if he'd had time, but he was starting to feel a lot of urgency about getting back through the teleporter -- not just because of what might be happening to the rest of the team, but because if he waited too long, there might not be enough power to teleport back.

"Hey. Kid. Er, Amma. C'mere."

The child hesitated, but when he held out his hand, she trotted over to him, trusting as a puppy, and clamped onto his leg. Rodney shut down all the systems that he could, and set the controls on a time delay. Casting a last regretful glance around the room, he stepped into the teleporter.

"Shut your eyes." He put a hand on her head in what he hoped was a comforting manner. The last thing he needed was the rugrat panicking and getting herself cut in half trying to escape the teleportation field.

Light flashed. Rodney blinked, wiped his eyes, and went into a defensive crouch, as best he could with the child still attached to him. Glancing quickly around the room, he found that it was empty.

First piece of good luck he'd had all day.

"Mommy?" the child piped hopefully.

"Do you see Mommy anywhere? Hanging from the ceiling maybe?"

Rodney tried to pry her off his leg. He managed to detach her from that appendage, only to have her clamp onto his hand instead. Good grief, it was like having a little blue-eyed squid wrap its tentacles around him.

Taser in one hand, child clinging to the other, he made his way to the door and peered out into the hallway. Deserted. He quickly went to this room's control consoles, and was pleased to find that most of the dark crystals came alight when he ran his hand over them. The lights flickered as he did so, and he reminded himself that his power supplies were extremely limited. Well, all he really needed to do was find some sort of map. That shouldn't be too difficult.

It wasn't. The wall in front of him lit up with a three-dimensional display of the whole complex. Damn, the place was huge! He noticed in passing that the amphitheater on the surface, which contained the town, had not been there when the map was made 10,000 years ago. There had been a hill where now there was a gigantic hole, and the facility had had external towers. He didn't need a history book to tell him where that big hole had come from -- he sensed the greedy blue fingers of the Wraith. Or, possibly, the Ancients had actually destroyed the part of the facility on the surface to keep it from falling into Wraith hands.

... none of which mattered right now; the important thing was to find everybody else. He soon got a life-signs display and found that most of the life signs in the place were a few tunnels over from his current position, grouped in a corridor. Odd. But convenient.

The lights flickered again, ominously. Rodney quickly powered down the console and darted out into the hall, towing the kid with him and hoping against hope that the lights stayed on long enough for them all to get out. He didn't relish finding his way through the dark, especially when the place would be crawling with well-armed and possibly very angry Cletans.

Gunfire. He jumped. It was impossible to tell which way it was coming from, with the way the tunnels twisted around, but he put that together with the cluster of life signs and his heart sank. Apparently he hadn't been quick enough to thwart an attempted Sheppard jailbreak. Now if he could only be in time to keep somebody from getting hurt.

He came around the end of a long corridor and found himself in a war zone.

The air smelled like gunpowder and blood; the hallway swarmed with people, screaming and milling around, some waving guns around and some unarmed. He saw a man lying on the ground with hands clutched to his bloody abdomen -- wearing Cletan clothing, he registered with a detached sense of relief -- while a dark-haired woman crouched over him. Down at the far end of the hall, he could see a knot of people in frantic motion, but he couldn't tell what was going on.

Damn it. Damn it.

At least all he saw were wounded Cletans, not wounded Atlanteans. And actually, there only seemed to be a few wounded people -- along with a lot of panic. Down at the end of the hall, he heard the distinctive rattatat of a P-90, followed by a single blast from one of the Cletans' weapons. The noise nearly blew his eardrums out, reverberating off the walls. No wonder everyone was panicking. If you wanted a lousy place for a firefight, you couldn't really pick anything worse than a tunnel underground. The richochets alone could be deadly, let alone the possibility of cave-ins.

Just as he was wondering how in the world he was going to find the kid's parents in this mess, let alone get to his team without being shot, the child suddenly yanked on his hand with a loud cry of, "Mommy!"

The dark-haired woman jerked as if she herself had been shot, and slowly she straightened up, turned around. McKay tried to remember if she'd been one of the ones holding a gun on him. He didn't think so. At the moment, she was unarmed and up to her elbows in blood, with a roll of bandages in one hand. His brain put two and two together and came up with doctor.

His original plan had been to use the child as a hostage of sorts, insisting on seeing his team before he let her go. But when Amma yanked her hand free of his, he simply let her go, watched her make a beeline for the dark-haired woman's arms. The woman swept her up into a crushing embrace. Surrounded by panic, madness and blood, the two of them made up their own little world, entirely lost, for the moment, in each other.

Rodney approached slowly, amazed and happy and, strangely, stinging from a very deep, very old wound. He could not ever remember either of his parents hugging him like that.

Seeing him over the child's head, the woman seemed to come back from someplace deep inside herself. She swung around to him, with her daughter hanging from her neck. "I don't know who you are, and I don't know how you have accomplished this miracle, but --" She broke off, looked him up and down. "You are dressed like the other strangers. Are you one of them?"

"Yeah," Rodney said.

"I am Sasha."

"Rodney," he said, and then, stupidly, "We'd all like to go now, if you don't mind."

She looked him up and down, seeming to measure him to a standard he could not quite meet. If this was how she looked at a person who brought her child back from the dead, he hated to think how she would have reacted if he'd just showed up without the kid.

"Your people have hurt and killed some of my friends today, Rodney."

"Your people tried to kill my friends," he retorted. "Look, at this point I just want to get out of here. That's all any of us want, all we ever wanted. You think you can stop them from shooting my teammates up there?"

Sasha looked around, then she freed one arm from the child and reached out to grab a rifle from a man running past her. Controlling it with one arm, she fired it into the ceiling. Rodney jumped. Dust and rock chips showered down all around them. There was a sudden silence.

"Karmath!" Sasha bellowed into the stillness. "I'm coming up there. The first person who fires a gun is going to explain it to me!"

And with that, she began walking towards the front lines of this impromptu war. All around her, everyone had gone still and silent. Rodney followed, feeling as if he was trailing in the wake of a battleship. He also felt very exposed and out of control.

Karmath came charging through the cluster of people at the front of the hall, pushing them aside. He looked exhausted and furious. Blood dripped from one of his arms. "Damn it, Sasha, they're holed up and they just took out another of my men and what the hell do you -- oh."

He had seen the kid.

Slowly he looked from the child in Sasha's arms, past her shoulder to Rodney. The look on his face was terrifying -- shock and joy mingled with a fury, fear and hatred so deep that Rodney actually flinched backwards from it.

"Karmath," Sasha said, "this man brought Amma back to us."

Karmath took a slow step backwards. "This man is dead, Sasha. Amma is dead. That's not --"

"You're an idiot," Rodney said.

The Cletan leader raised his eyes to Rodney's face. The whites showed all around them. He raised his rifle. "What did you call me?"

"You heard me. Idiot." For an instant, Rodney remembered standing at the business end of Kolya's gun with Elizabeth at his back, desperately trying to bullshit the Genii commander before they both died. He felt a little bit the same way now -- high on adrenaline, his faster-than-usual brain so highly charged with terror that he felt as if he could think circles around a goddamn supercomputer. And he was mad, too. "That thing you call an incinerator? It took me to another place on this world, that's all. The place where you guys send people to die. Only it isn't the so-called incinerator that kills them. They die of starvation because they can't get back."

"You got back," Karmath snarled, the muzzle of the rifle trembling. All around them, men and women with guns, some of them wounded, were watching the showdown in silence. Rodney had never been less thrilled to be the center of attention.

"Yeah -- because I know how the equipment works!" No time to try to explain about the ATA gene to someone who probably didn't even know about chromosomes. "Lucky for you it'd only been a few days since you sent the kid through, otherwise she'd be like all those other poor saps up there. Do you know what death from exposure looks like, Karmath? It's ugly." Rodney noticed his voice was shaking, not just with fear but with anger, and he realized that a lot of that anger was on behalf of all those people who'd been sent to their deaths because the superstitious idiots down here hadn't understood enough to know how the technology worked.

"You lie!" Karmath held the rifle square on Rodney's chest. "If not the people, then where does the power --"

"--to run this place come from? It's a generator, um, a battery --" He could see that none of them understood what he was talking about. "It's like the sun, all right? Do you get that? Only man-made and much smaller -- uh, and not as bright, or as hot, and -- damn it! Look at the technology around you!" He waved his hands at the lights -- currently flickering -- and the walls. "Do you really think that someone who could build all this couldn't come up with a better way to power it than by feeding people into a freaking garbage burner? Are you honest-to-God so far gone that you believe the Ancients -- er, the Ancestors you worship would build a promised land that runs on human suffering? Are you people really that stupid?"

He dared to take his eyes off Karmath and look around, at the hollow desperation in the eyes of the people looking back at him. They wanted to believe, he thought, because it gave them the illusion that they were doing something to help themselves, rather than waiting in the dark for their world to die around them.

"Look," Rodney said. "All we want to do is leave. We don't want anything from you. All we want is just to ... go. We won't take anything from you and, frankly, I don't give a damn if you go on stuffing people into that machine from now until the sun goes nova. Just let us walk out of here."

"He is right," came a clear voice from behind the assembled Cletans. Rodney raised his head, eyes wide, to see Teyla standing in the hallway. She was unarmed and covered from head to foot with half-dried blood, but as far as he could tell from her stance, she wasn't actually hurt herself, so it must be Cletan blood. What had she done, torn them apart with her bare hands? He wished he'd gotten here earlier, been able to spare her whatever she'd had to go through to get free.

"We mean you no harm," Teyla said, looking from one to another of the Cletans while holding her hands in the air, palms out. "If you let us leave, we'll go and we won't come back to bother you."

"Outside," one of the Cletans spoke up suddenly. "On the hill. You people fired first. We weren't shooting at you."

"That would be me." Ronon's low rumble carried to Rodney, although he couldn't see the man from here. "I'd do it again."

"What he means," Teyla interjected smoothly, "is that he found himself surrounded by strangers with guns and, understandably, felt himself under attack. We have been fighting the Wraith for many years, and we have been to many worlds where enemies tried to kill us. We have become, sadly, very suspicious of those whose intentions we do not know. I can assure you that we have no desire to be enemies with your people, and I can also assure you that if you allow us to leave, we will make sure you are not bothered, and even offer trading and assistance if you wish. If we continue to be held here, however, our people will send others to find us, and we have many more weapons like the ones you took from us. Many will die."

When she stopped talking, a waiting silence filled the corridor. Rodney leaned over to Sasha, who as far as he could tell was the closest thing they had to a sympathetic ear in the whole sorry group. "Just let us walk out of here," he said quietly. "It doesn't have to be hard."

Sasha looked at Karmath. And Karmath moved the rifle in a sharp, imperative gesture. The people along the corridor withdrew, opening a clear path from Rodney to Teyla.

Rodney McKay, hostage negotiator. Elizabeth would be so proud, he thought.

He began walking, feeling his heart starting to approach a normal rhythm. As he walked by Sasha, she reached out and gave his arm a quick squeeze. That was all. He kept walking, and when he reached Teyla, turned around and looked back at the group of Cletans. The weapons were mostly lowered, but he had the sense that at one wrong move, all those rifles, shotguns and decrepit energy weapons could be bristling in their direction once again.

"Get out," Karmath said. "Yes, you are free to go back to the surface. We will not bother or hinder you. Get out, and don't come back."

"Ronon!" Teyla called into the open doorway beside her. The runner ducked under the doorframe and Rodney saw that he was carrying one of the P-90s and had been covering her. No doubt anyone who moved to hurt her would have been mowed down in a hail of bullets. He must be getting used to Ronon, because the fact that the man had been firing an assault rifle with a broken arm hardly even startled him.

Rodney's eyes went past Ronon, into the darkness of the room, and then turned to Teyla questioningly. "Where's Shep--"

"We will talk of this in a moment," she said firmly. He looked at her; she would not meet his eyes. "First let us get away from them."

"I want my gun back," Ronon growled, turning to glower at the crowd.

After a brief hesitation, Karmath nodded and the gun was produced from the depths of the crowd and kicked down the hallway. The runner scooped it up with a look of evident relief and relinquished the P-90 to Teyla.

"We're keeping the other ones," Karmath said in a challenging tone.

"Go for it," Rodney said. Fat lot of good the P-90 and the handguns would do them once they ran out of ammo.

As he turned away, Rodney saw Karmath lower his gun and raise one hand to softly and carefully touch the child's hair.

Turning his back on all those armed people and walking away was one of the hardest things Rodney could ever remember doing in his life. He kept expecting to feel the impact of a bullet between his shoulder blades. But no one shot at them, and they turned a corner and the Cletans were gone. Rodney drew a long, deep, shaky breath, and turned to grin at Teyla.

"Rodney," she said, her tone filled with a warmth that truly surprised him -- almost as much as it surprised him when she gripped his shoulders and touched her forehead to his. "We did not think we would see you again."

Rodney laughed in spite of himself. "You people need to have a little faith in me. You really think Rodney McKay would let himself get crispified by a cult on another world? Have some respect for the man with the brain!"

He couldn't help it; he was goofy with relief. Her next words sucked all the joy out of his world, though, along with most of the air.

"The Colonel did not believe that you were dead," Teyla said. "He believed in you all along."

It was the little things -- the past tense, along with the fact that Sheppard wasn't with them, and that blood, all that damn blood....

"Where is he?" Rodney demanded.

"We are going the way that ..." Teyla trailed off, and started over. "He is here. The way we are walking. We will see him before we ... leave. I do not know if he will see us."

"He's not dead," Rodney said. Flat denial. Sheppard, he of the infinite optimism, would have approved. "Not dead, right?"

Teyla seemed to choose her words one by one. "He was ... still breathing, when we left, but --"

"You left him?"

"No choice," Ronon spoke up, cutting across McKay as he started to launch into a tirade -- because talking was better than thinking right now. "He was dying," the runner went on, flatly, without mercy. Someone who didn't know him would have thought he didn't care. They might not have noticed the way his knuckles had gone white on the handle of his gun, the shutters that had slammed down behind his eyes. "See her?" He gestured, with the gun, at Teyla's blood-drenched uniform. "He saved her life. Pretty nearly cut in half. Dying. No way to take him with us, not having to fight our way out. We'd all have gone down, and he wouldn't have wanted that."

It was a long speech for the runner. Rodney didn't care. He backed away from them, shocked and disbelieving and horrified. "You left him. I don't believe it. You don't get it. I can --"

He trailed off. And then he said in a voice not quite his own, "Where is he?"

Teyla pointed, ahead of them. A half-open door in the corridor. "There."

Rodney turned and ran. Ran like a thousand Wraith were at his heels. He skidded to a stop at the entrance to the room, half-expecting it to be dark inside like all the others, but this one was brightly lit.

It would have been easier, had it been dark.

He remembered learning in biology class that the human body contains about five liters of blood -- slightly over a gallon by the American system. He recalled thinking that it didn't sound like a whole lot. And if five liters was the total, then the amount on, under and around Sheppard couldn't possibly be nearly that much.

It looked like a hell of a lot more.

He didn't remember crossing the room, didn't remember getting out the healing device either, but it was cold against his palm and he was kneeling in a pool of Sheppard's blood, blood on his feet and knees and on his hands as he pulled away Teyla's sodden jacket to see the damage. He thought he'd have to open Sheppard's shirt but he didn't need to -- it had been shredded by the bullets, and what was underneath ... Rodney wasn't a soldier, wasn't combat trained, and in spite of all the things he'd seen since coming to the Pegasus Galaxy, he felt a yawning gulf of blackness open up under him at the sight of his friend's chest looking like hamburger. He swallowed, tried desperately to distance himself. It's not Sheppard. It's just ... some guy ... yeah, you can handle this. You can do it.

Sheppard couldn't possibly be alive, not looking like that. It wasn't possible. But ... this was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, too damn stupid to know when to quit. Had his chest moved a little? Rodney left bloody fingerprints on the white skin of Sheppard's neck, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. His brain rattled off statistics from the various first aid courses he'd been forced to take since coming to Atlantis, on blood loss and shock and blood volume -- if he'd lost so much blood, then his pulse could be faint, too weak to detect. He dug his fingers in harder. Yeah, there was something, a light fluttering against his fingertips.

Sheppard's lips moved; he made a slight choking sound, deep in his throat -- trying to draw air into lungs filling up with blood. How could someone still breathe, when their chest looked like that?

If Sheppard was the one with the massive chest injury, why was he the one who couldn't breathe?

"Too dumb to quit." He didn't realize he'd said it aloud until Sheppard's eyelids fluttered, opened a little. "And too dumb to know when to pass out, either," Rodney added, wondering whether Sheppard could hear him.

He could. The glazed, hazel eyes widened a little, and one side of his mouth lifted in a weak, lopsided, bloody grin. "You are one sneaky S.O.B., Rodney," he whispered. "Either that or I'm dead, but I was hoping for a prettier angel."

"You're not dead, now shut up."

"Not dead yet, huh?"

The effort of speaking caused more blood to trickle from his mouth, his nose. It was all Rodney could do not to turn away, but not because of revulsion, not this time.

"I said shut up," Rodney snapped, more harshly than he'd meant it. "You're not dead and you're not dying, Sheppard."

One of the Colonel's eyebrows twitched; it was all the movement he could manage. "I've seen fatal wounds before, Rodney," he whispered, "and you've always been a lousy liar."

"You're not going to die because I can fix this." Rodney held up his hand, trying to still its shaking. The healing device nestled in his palm. "I found this in one of the labs here. It's for healing, obviously," he added impatiently, seeing Sheppard's confusion. "I can heal you."

Sheppard stared at it, his glassy eyes slowly focusing. His gaze went from the device, to Rodney's face, and a slight frown furrowed his brows. He did not seem to like what he saw there. His mouth opened, closed, as if he wanted to say something and couldn't find the words, or perhaps he had just lost the strength to speak.

"Hang on," Rodney said. "Wait for me. Something I gotta do first."

Rodney uncoiled from his crouch, shot to his feet. Teyla had come up behind him and was standing in the middle of the room with a helplessness entirely unlike her. Rodney grabbed her arm, drew her aside. "Do you and Sheppard still have your GDOs?" he asked her in a tense whisper, fumbling in his vest pockets.

Teyla shook her head. "We were searched when we were captured. What are you--"

He shook his head, silencing her, and pressed a handful of objects into her hands, leaving streaks of blood on her skin. He had to be quick; there was so little time; but he had to be sure that he remembered everything, didn't leave the rest of them twisting in some trap that he hadn't anticipated. It was hard to anticipate all possible contingencies after your own death. On the other hand, what was the point of being a genius if you couldn't do that? And it kept him from dwelling too much on what he was about to do, on the consequences of using the device to heal a wound that severe.

Teyla looked down in surprise. She saw various tools, some of which she did not know how to use, and Rodney's gate GDO. While she stared at the handful of technology with a rising sense of foreboding, Rodney was digging through his pockets and cursing softly. He came up with a pad of paper and a pen, and began hastily writing. "You know the Atlantis and alpha site gate addresses, right?" he whispered.

"Yes, of course, but--"

"If you lose the GDO, don't forget you can't go back to Atlantis because of the shield. You'll have to go to the alpha site or one of the other safe addresses." As he spoke, he tore off the sheet of paper, folded it, scribbled a single word on the back and started writing on the next one.

"I know that; it's basic gate protocol. Rodney, what are--" Teyla broke off and searched his face with worried eyes. "Aren't you coming back with us, Rodney?" she asked quietly.

McKay's lips pressed together. "I doubt it," was all he said, and he pressed two folded sheets of paper into her hand. One said ELIZABETH. The other said JEANNIE.

Teyla saw, in those little notes and in his fear-filled blue eyes, all that he would not tell her. She glanced at the device curled in his hand. "Then I will use that instead of you," she said immediately. "We need you too much, Doctor. What if something goes wrong with the DHD? I cannot fix it."

Rodney shook his head with a stab of regret. So easy, to hand the burden to someone else. Alas, not to be. "It needs the ATA gene, and even if it didn't, it's attuned to me. I'm the only one who can do this. Any of the rest of you can dial the DHD. Besides, if you don't come home Atlantis will send a team through. They may already be looking for us."

Teyla stared into his face. She saw resolve, determination ... and fear. She had seen that look on his face before -- just before he saved their lives by walking into the energy creature's black field back on Atlantis, many months ago. "How likely do you think it is that this will kill you?" she asked, her voice barely audible.

He cast a sideward glance at Sheppard, at the bloody mess where the Colonel's chest used to be, and lowered his voice until it was as soft as hers. "Pretty damn likely."

"One life for another is not a fair trade." But that was the trade Sheppard had already made, in front of a P-90: his life for hers. She did not want to think about that.

"It's my decision. I've got a lot to make up for," he told her, knowing even as he said it that it was only an excuse, that guilt had nothing to do with it, but maybe it was a reason she could accept. From the moment he got a look at Sheppard, there was never any doubt about what his decision had to be. The fact that he couldn't stand by and watch a friend die, especially not this friend, even if it meant his own life ... it wasn't something that he could even really understand about himself, let alone explain to someone else.

"Teyla, please, let me do this before I lose my nerve. Promise me you won't try to stop me, and you won't let Ronon, either. Promise me, Teyla."

His eyes nearly broke her heart -- so frightened, yet so determined. He truly did not expect to survive. "I promise," she whispered, her heart in her throat, nearly choking her.

He smiled at her ... a small, vulnerable smile. "Thanks," he said softly, and turned away from her.

Teyla felt Ronon's presence behind her. "What is he planning?" the runner demanded in a low rumble.

"He is planning to save the Colonel's life, of course," Teyla said. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. In a terrible way, her plan seemed to have worked ... but, oh, such a terrible way.

Rodney knelt down beside Sheppard and laid his hand, with the device curled in it, lightly on his chest. "I don't know if this'll hurt you," he said, his voice cracking slightly with nervousness. "I've used it once before and I don't think it causes any pain, but--"

"Rodney." The voice was only a faint thread of sound.

He looked down at Sheppard, reluctant to meet his eyes.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" Sheppard whispered, with a faint, bloody shadow of his usual crooked grin. "This thing ... not gonna fry me, is it?"

Rodney's first reaction was a quick flush of anger. Here he was prepared to throw his life away for the man, and Sheppard had to go and make a point that he still didn't trust him? But ... it was a joke, he realized. A bad joke, a typical John Sheppard "laugh in the face of danger" kind of joke. The sort of joke that Sheppard would have made before Doranda. In the face of that small crack in the wall that had grown up between them, he could think of only one thing to say. Maybe it was entirely the wrong thing, and he didn't know how Sheppard might react -- but there were so many things to be said, and no time to say them, and in the end it came down to two simple words.

"Trust me," he said, his whole heart in those two syllables.

And Sheppard's bloody lips curved, the grin growing wider, stronger. "I do," he said quietly, the last word turning into a rattling cough. His eyes closed.

Rodney just stared at him, until the realization that it had been a very long time since the Colonel's last breath shocked him into moving. Just as he started to lean down to check for a pulse, Sheppard's body jerked slightly and he drew another shaky, uncertain gasp of air.

"Stubborn jerk, it'd be just like you to drop dead now," Rodney murmured, focusing all his attention on the device. "Hogging all the glory for yourself, as usual. Lieutenant Colonel John Q. Whatever-the-fuck-your-middle-name-is Sheppard, kamikaze pilot. Well, it's my turn now, asshole."

His fingers curled around the device as he felt it begin to warm in his hand.

"So long, Sheppard."


Chapter Eleven: The Way Back

Teyla had no idea what to expect. She backed away, and Ronon with her.

But nothing spectacular happened. A bluish glow suffused the device on Rodney's hand, spreading up his arm and across Sheppard's chest like water. Rodney's body stiffened and arced as if an electric shock had gone through him ... and perhaps it had.

Cautiously, Teyla approached the two of them. Rodney was taut and shaking, his shoulders hunched, his head fallen forward and sweat matting his hair. She could see the strain he was under, and her fists clenched in sympathy.

But it was working. Sheppard's chalk-white face regained a hint of color; his breathing eased; the terrible wounds in his chest began to close and knit together.

Yet not fast enough, she saw. Not nearly fast enough.

McKay's face had gone grayish, with a blue tinge around his lips.

The device was killing him, as he had told her it might. And she could see that he had no intention of stopping. He meant to see this through -- to the end.

Teyla strode forward, two quick steps. She had promised she would not interfere. But she had also made a far older, far deeper promise: a promise of loyalty to her new team, her new people, her new family. She had come to this world to reunite two brothers; she would not stand here and watch one of them die to save the life of the other. The story was not supposed to end this way. No matter what vows she had made, she could not let it happen. She would pay the consequences later. She had to wait long enough, but not too long -- and she prayed to all the Ancestors that her timing was correct.

She tore the device from McKay's limp fingers. Clutched in her hand, it immediately went dark. Her eyes went quickly, fearfully, to Sheppard, but he continued to breathe, eyes closed.

A spasm went through McKay's body, and Teyla feared for one truly horrific instant that she had killed him by separating him from the device. But he was only trying to raise his head, holding himself up with trembling arms. He was so weak that he could barely do that. "You promised," he said in a faint, betrayed voice, and reached a shaking hand towards her. "Give it back. Not enough, not yet ..."

"It will kill you."

His eyes were wide, wet, pleading. "Doesn't matter," Rodney whispered. "He'll die if I don't. Can't stop halfway ... all this, for nothing ..."

Teyla knelt beside Sheppard, reached across and took Rodney's face in both her hands. "Rodney," she said quietly. "Look." And she directed his gaze to Sheppard -- to the raw slashes of the wounds beginning to knit together, the blood clotting along the edges; to Sheppard's chest rising and falling smoothly with deep, even breaths. "He will live, Rodney. Do you hear me?" She raised his face to hers, met the dazed-looking eyes. "You did it. He will live. You do not have to die to finish healing him. He can do that himself. He is still injured, but he is not dying. You have done enough."

For a long moment he just looked at her ... then down at Sheppard ... then back at her. And slowly the tired blue eyes came alive, and she saw a look in them that she had not seen since before Doranda, and very rarely even then -- a warm, unrestrained joy, as if for just that instant, the hidden beauty in the depths of his closely guarded soul had opened to her. "I did it," he whispered, and then the animation faded from his eyes and they rolled back in his head as he pitched forward, collapsing across Sheppard's torso.

There was pain and darkness ... not as much pain as he would have thought, considering that he was dying and all, but enough that he wasn't crazy about the idea of waking up anytime soon.

"Colonel. Colonel Sheppard." A woman's voice, tense and urgent. For a moment, drifting in the darkness, he couldn't quite place it. A hand touched his face -- hurried, yet soft. "Colonel. Wake up, please. We cannot carry you. You must wake up."

Sheppard felt, more than heard, a groan escape his lips. His lungs were wet, aching ... and yet, he could breathe freely. He opened his eyes, saw the ceiling and a dark blur that slowly resolved into Teyla's face. He coughed; she drew back. "Sorry," he said, and was surprised when the word emerged clearly. He took a deep, cautious breath, and with Teyla's help, eased himself upright. His clothes were sticky, clinging to his body uncomfortably. What the hell ...? Oh. Blood. Damn. And it all rushed back: fighting the Cletans and leaping after Teyla and getting shot and knowing that he was going to die, and ... and Rodney, somehow, Rodney very much alive and telling him that he could heal him and ...

"Where's Rodney?" he asked, as Teyla helped him stand up. His legs trembled under him, limp and shaky. He felt like hell, but at least he didn't feel that he was about to drop dead.

Teyla turned her head, and Sheppard followed her gaze. Rodney was crumpled against the wall in a heap with Ronon bending over him. Maybe it was just the flat, flickering lights that made him look so ghastly white, like a corpse. There was something terribly wrong about seeing him so still, with all the life gone out of his expressive hands and face.

"Is he all right?" Sheppard asked her. He wanted to go to him, but right now, keeping himself upright was all he could manage.

"No," Teyla said, and he heard the tenseness in her voice again. "He is very much not all right, and we need to get him, and you, back to Atlantis. Soon. Can you walk?"

Sheppard tested out a cautious step. His legs held him, at least for now. His chest felt weird, fragile, like a shattered piece of glass with every fragment leaning precariously in place, awaiting a puff of wind to send it all tumbling down.

"Teyla, what in the world happened?"

"This." She showed him an object in her hand. Sheppard reached for it, and he saw her hand jerk as if to pull it away, but she relinquished it reluctantly. He couldn't tell what it was, some Ancient doodad or other, but he remembered seeing it glowing on Rodney's hand. It stayed dark for him, but then, he wasn't trying to turn it on.

"What's this?"

"It's what he used to heal you," Teyla said. "A device of the Ancestors, a very dangerous one. Please do not try to use it," she added, her voice pleading. "He was perfectly healthy and it very nearly killed him. I had to take it away from him to make him stop using it. That is why you are not fully healed. I am sorry, but I did not feel I could do anything else."

"You did the right thing." Sheppard staggered against her as he tried to take another step, but it wasn't all from the weakness in his legs. "That idiot. Doesn't he know better than to try out some new gadget when he doesn't know what it ..." He trailed off, looking over at Rodney as Ronon levered the smaller man over his shoulder with his uninjured arm. He was remembering Rodney talking to him through the haze of pain, saying something about kamikaze pilots. "Teyla," he said in a somewhat different voice. When she looked at him, he asked, "Do you think he knew ... what it would do to him?"

She seemed to hesitate fractionally, then gave up. "Yes. He gave me this." She showed him Rodney's GDO. "He knew."

Sheppard stared at Rodney, hanging over Ronon's shoulder, and said nothing. He couldn't see Rodney's face. Couldn't even see if he was breathing. Teyla touched his arm.

"We should go," she said.

The corridor outside was deserted, the lights dim and flickering. "Don't tell me you two killed them all," Sheppard said, striving for a light tone past the lump in his throat.

"It is a rather long story." Teyla shifted her shoulder against him, adjusting to a better position for walking. "What it amounts to is that Dr. McKay saved our lives, and for now the Cletans appear to be keeping their side of the bargain, so we must go quickly while we can."

"I really need to hear this story."

Teyla gave him her side of it as they walked, Sheppard leaning heavily on her shoulder. There were still a number of things she didn't quite understand; the one person who knew the whole story was draped over Ronon's shoulder, and showed no signs of waking up anytime soon.

"How are you two, anyway?"

"We two?" Teyla questioned.

Sheppard jerked his head from Ronon to her. At her startled look, he grinned. "You know, I didn't get to be an Air Force Colonel by completely ignoring the people serving under me, you know. I can tell that something happened between the two of you. Are you working it out?"

Teyla looked over at Ronon. "I believe we are doing very well, Colonel." And quietly, she smiled.

They had left the well-lit tunnels, entering the dark ones. Teyla flicked on the light on their one P-90 and used it to illuminate their way. They climbed a short flight of stairs that did not look familiar -- Teyla tried not to notice how Sheppard's breathing grew harsher as they climbed -- and found themselves in a long straight tunnel sloping gently downwards.

"I really don't mean to criticize," Sheppard said, "but do we have any idea where we're going?"

Teyla drew a deep breath and released it. "Less than I might hope," she admitted at last.

"Shoulda got a map from the mole people back there."

"It was all we could do just to escape with our lives. I would not have wanted to push our luck any further."

"You guys did good," Sheppard told her after a moment. "Really. All of you."

He seemed to intend more, but broke off in a coughing fit. Teyla felt him leaning more heavily on her shoulder than before. She turned her head to see him raise a hand to wipe his mouth, and glimpsed a dark streak of blood on the back of his hand. Her stomach clenched.

It clenched further at the tightness in Ronon's voice when he called quietly, "I believe we should stop for a rest."

"Rest sounds good." Sheppard sounded as if he was striving for a light tone, but he ruined the effect by coughing again. As she eased him to the floor, Teyla felt wetness against her arm and drew it back to see that her uniform sleeve was spotted with fresh blood, glistening darkly in the P-90's uncertain light.

"You are bleeding again," she said, turning to help Ronon lower McKay's limp form to the floor beside Sheppard.

Sheppard dismissed that with a wave of his hand -- a rather McKay-like gesture, Teyla could not help noticing. "He doesn't look good," he said, studying the unconscious scientist.

Teyla had to agree with him. McKay did not look good at all. His skin was waxen, his eyes sunken in dark rings. She could see from his cracked lips that at least part of his problem was dehydration, and unstrapped Rodney's half-empty canteen from his hip, she tried to get him to drink. The water simply dripped on his mouth and she ceased for fear of choking him. Frustrated, she handed the canteen to Sheppard, who took a couple of swallows before ending up in a coughing fit. Teyla took the canteen away and then supported him until he could draw breath again. To her surprise, he was grinning when he raised his head and looked from her, to McKay and Ronon, finally down to his own bloody chest.

"We're a wonderful bunch of heroes, aren't we?" he said, and laughed until he coughed again.

"Please, stop it," Teyla begged. When he could sit on his own, she laid down the P-90 and turned to ostensibly adjust the wrappings on Ronon's arm, in the process drawing the runner a few steps away from the others. Tugging at his cast, trying to look busy, she murmured, "They are not doing well at all."

"I cannot continue to carry Dr. McKay," Ronon said quietly. "It will kill him ... the movement. He had grown much worse since we have been walking."

Teyla nodded. "Nor can the Colonel continue exerting himself, even with my help. His wounds are beginning to break open. If he continues, he will undo everything that Rodney did for him. They will both die for nothing."

The two of them, runner and warrior, stood in the dimness of the tunnel and looked back at their Earth teammates. Sheppard was slumped against the wall next to McKay's still form; he seemed asleep. In fact, Teyla thought for a moment that he was asleep, until she saw that his hand was resting lightly on McKay's, and the fingers were moving, gently chafing the limp, still hand.

"If we leave McKay behind, I could carry Sheppard," Ronon said.

Teyla looked up at him. She could not read his face. She knew that Ronon was intensely, personally loyal to Sheppard, only slightly less so to her ... but she did not know how he felt about McKay. In a perfectly cold, rational universe, that would be the thing to do: save the less injured person, come back for the more injured when time permitted.

But Teyla did not occupy such a universe, and neither, she suspected, did Sheppard. And somewhere deep down, she didn't believe that Ronon did either.

"Sheppard will not allow that," she said softly.

Ronon's breath hissed out as if he'd been struck. "If the alternative is both their deaths..."

"The result," Teyla said firmly, "would still be the same, I assure you of that. Carrying McKay might kill him. Leaving him here would kill the Colonel."

Silence descended upon them. Teyla met Ronon's eyes, saw that her decision was also his. No words needed to pass between them. She turned back to see that Sheppard's eyes were open again, watching her. He smiled slightly as she dropped down to her haunches in front of him. Teyla had opened her mouth to speak, but Sheppard beat her to it.

"You two are going to have to scout ahead," he said. "No way we can all get out of here in time for McKay. I can see that."

Teyla frowned and brushed her tangled hair from her face. "I was going to say that one of us should go search for the exit, Colonel. We cannot leave the two of you undefended, not with your injuries so severe."

Sheppard was already shaking his head. "And send one of you on alone? Not a chance. If you have to fight, if you have to climb something, if you come to a junction in the tunnels and have to explore two ways at once -- no, I'm not pinning all our hopes on one person at this point in the game. Rodney claims that two heads aren't better than one" -- and his eyes flickered to the scientist with a mixture of exasperation and challenge, as if daring McKay to wake up and defend himself -- "but it's true. I don't know if one of you can find the way out. Two of you have a much better chance." When Teyla opened her mouth again, he said, "Damn it, that's an order."

Swallowing anger, knowing he was right, Teyla picked up the P-90 and pressed it into his arms. "You will keep this, then. We have Ronon's gun."

"Yeah, but you don't have a light."

Ronon spoke up. "Dr. McKay had a flashlight earlier."

Teyla raised her eyebrows and bent over McKay, digging though his pockets with a guilty sense of violating his personal space. She quickly found a small light and flicked it on and off. "Are you happy now? We have light. And surely you must agree that you cannot be left here defenseless, so do not argue about keeping the gun."

Now it was his turn to open and close his mouth, yielding the point with a show of irritation. "You've clearly been spending too much time around me and Rodney, Teyla. You used to be so nice."

Teyla felt her lips quirk up. "We shall return swiftly, Colonel."

"You shall return carefully," Sheppard retorted. "And keep your eyes open."

"We will." She looked down at the two men, both of them alive and breathing and, she hoped, likely to stay that way for quite some time. Less than an hour ago, she had thought that she would never see either of them again. Leaving them now was like tearing away a piece of herself.

"I believe you are right, Colonel," she said, and at his quizzical, eyebrow-raised expression, "I think that I have been spending too much time in the company of yourself and Dr. McKay. Once, I was highly trained in the ways of speaking. I could think of words to cover all situations, and this, indeed, was my life as a negotiator." She folded her arms, trying to look stern. "These days, I find that all too often, I discover myself in situations for which I cannot find the words."

Sheppard smiled at her, an unexpectedly gentle smile. "Some things, there just aren't words for, Teyla."

"Indeed." The moment stretched out, and she knew she should have been gone already. Turning to Ronon, she found the runner already in motion -- but as the two of them turned to go, it was Ronon who stopped and turned back.

"Hey, Sheppard!" One of the runner's hands flickered, and Sheppard flinched from the knife suddenly quivering in the floor by his boot.

Sheppard snorted and reached to pull it out of the crack in the stone where it had embedded itself. "Jeez, warn a guy next time?"

"In case the gun is not enough." He raised his hand to them both.

Teyla thought that she would be brave enough not to look back. And, all down that long corridor, she managed to be that brave. But at the end, just before she turned the corner, she did look over her shoulder. By that time they were so far away that all she could see was a distant, lonely light, quickly swallowed by darkness as they went around the bend and moved away.

If the Ancestors were watching, Teyla quietly hoped that they would suspend their pact of non-interference in living matters for just a moment to extend a protective hand over the two men who waited in the dark.

"So then, my aunt Rebecca said, 'Little Johnny boy' -- and, before you start laughing, yes, that's what she always called me, and I do mean always, we're talking grown and in boot camp with a jarhead haircut and still she'd call me up on the phone and say, 'How's the military life treating you, little Johnny boy?' Anyway, Aunt Becky, being my mother's older sister, always had this overbearing streak -- I think she ran roughshod over Mom and my other aunts during the whole time they were kids, and it didn't change once they grew up. So she called me over -- 'Little Johnny boy' etc -- and with that tone in her voice, the one that makes me want to do the exact opposite of whatever's being said ... I'm sure you're entirely shocked to learn this about me, Rodney, but I have this little authority figure problem ..."

Sheppard broke off to shift himself into what he hoped would be a more comfortable position. He didn't like the way his chest felt, no matter which way he was sitting, but at least he could keep his butt from falling asleep on the cold stone floor. He'd been stretched out so that his side was against Rodney's, hopefully helping to keep his friend warm. Since this was resulting in the loss of feeling to his extremities, not to mention making it hard to breathe, he got himself in a more vertical orientation and laid his arm across Rodney's head with his hand resting on the scientist's opposite shoulder, tilting Rodney's head against his side in a sort of half-hug. Just for balance to keep himself upright, naturally, seeing as he was none too steady himself right now. His thumb against the side of Rodney's neck monitored his pulse; it was fluttery and weak.

"Okay, now, where was I? Oh, right, in Aunt Becky's parlor. Now, mind you, at this point she had no idea I was the one who threw the baseball into her china cat collection. I imagine she must've had her suspicions, seeing as I was the only boy among the cousins, but some of those girls were little hellions like you would not believe. So all I woulda had to do was play it cool and I'd be off scot-free. And seriously, that's what I was planning to do. So I opened my mouth to tell her I'd been out in the backyard with the girl cousins all afternoon. And those girls would have backed me up, I swear; not that I bullied 'em or anything, just that none of them liked Aunt Becky much, either. I opened my mouth and --"

Rodney twitched. Sheppard shut his mouth quickly and bent over him. "Hey! McKay? Rodney, you in there?"

He studied the pale face for any sign of returning awareness, and was rewarded by a slight twist of McKay's mouth.


Long-lashed eyes cracked open, revealing a hint of blue. Unfocused at first, the eyes slowly fixed on the Colonel's face bending over him.

And Sheppard laughed. Once he started, he couldn't stop. Exhaustion, relief, pain, the shaky rush after an adrenaline high ... all this combined to leave him so weak he couldn't help himself.

"Nice to..." The voice cracked, started over. "Nice to see you're enjoying my pain, Sheppard."

Sheppard tried to stop laughing, he really did, but he just collapsed against the wall, finally winding down when the laughter turned to coughing and the coughing seemed likely to split him in half. He caught his breath with a coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

"You sound like hell," Rodney rasped, apparently unaware of what he, himself, sounded like. Sheppard raised his head.

"And your voice is the dulcet tone of a bluebird on the morning hills, McKay, but who's paying attention?"

Rodney's cracked lips separated in a faint, familiar, crooked smile. And the blue eyes, what Sheppard could see of them under half-lowered eyelids, were warm.

"I was having the absolute weirdest dream," Rodney said thoughtfully, his voice still weak but growing slightly stronger. "There was a Wraith about to kill me, and I thwarted it by throwing a baseball into its good china. Then it wanted to talk to me about it, but I decided to join the Marines instead." He paused for air -- Sheppard didn't like how rough his breathing had become -- and then asked faintly, "Hey, you don't have some water, by any chance?"

Sheppard unscrewed the top of the canteen and cupped a hand under Rodney's head, lifting it so he could drink.

"I see you've been using old sweat socks as water purification equipment again," McKay murmured as Sheppard lowered his head back down. "Which military regulation is it, exactly, that states all canteens will be washed no less than once every ten years, give or take a couple?"

"You'd complain even if it was Perrier," Sheppard said, taking a small sip. His throat was so dry it hurt, but he didn't dare drink more than that. McKay probably needed it more than he did.

"Damn straight I would. Perrier? Have you ever had Perrier?" Rodney waved a hand in the air weakly. "That stuff's nasty. Tastes like tap water that's drained through cement. I'm aware the minerals are in there on purpose, but frankly, if it's so good for you, I'd like to know why half the civilized world buys water softeners to get the minerals out of their water ..."

He trailed off in mid-ramble. Sheppard leaned over him again. "Rodney?" The man's eyes had closed. Suddenly they snapped open and he stared up at the ceiling.

"The room's not actually spinning around, is it?" he asked Sheppard in a very faint voice.

"No, Rodney."

"Oh, good. It's just me, then. Well, I had to ask. You never know, some of the places we've been ..."

He trailed off once again.

"Can you breathe okay?" Sheppard asked softly, thinking what a stupid question that was. He could feel his own breath hitch as he watched Rodney struggle to breathe.

"It's been easier," Rodney admitted quietly.

"Think it would be better if you were propped up a little?"

Silence, a terrifying, too-long silence ... then a soft, "Maybe."

Sheppard shifted his stiff, aching body, feeling something grind unpleasantly inside his chest as he did so. He got an arm under Rodney, lifted him up, and for lack of a better place to put him, he tilted McKay's upper body across his own, supporting him with an arm across his chest. Rodney's head flopped weakly to the side and rested in the hollow of Sheppard's shoulder. He could feel the slight warmth of McKay's breathing ... the only warmth in the man at all; the rest of him was ice cold. God, he should have known better than to leave a sick man lying on the icy floor for so long...

"Better?" he asked.

Rodney's head shifted in a slight nod. After a moment he murmured, having to pause for breath every few words, "If we die this way ... and they find us this way .... I swear to God I will hunt you down in the afterlife and kick your ass."

"Nobody's dying anytime soon," Sheppard said, tightening his arm a trifle in spite of the uncomfortable things that the added pressure did to his injured chest. "In spite of all your efforts to the contrary," he added.

"Oh, that's great, mock the sick man," Rodney mumbled. "I'll have you know I knew exactly what I was doing when I stepped into that teleporter. Even if some people were too dense to take a hint."

"I wasn't talking about that."

A long silence. Sheppard realized too late that he'd just ratcheted the "discomfort" level of the conversation up about forty notches and cast frantically around for something else to talk about. The alternative would be letting McKay drift back off, and he wasn't ready to be alone in the dark again. "Have I told you about my Aunt Becky?" he asked, desperately.

"I had an Aunt Becky once," Rodney murmured in a dreamy voice, and then, sounding slightly clearer: "No, wait. I dreamed that. Hold on just a minute. Am I dreaming your screwed-up life, Sheppard?"

"I was talking to you while you were asleep."

"Oh Lord. I vaguely remember a dream in which I found myself snogging a Goa'uld larvae in the tool shed behind my mother's garden ... are you responsible for that?"

"That would probably be Meg Becker, tenth grade," Sheppard admitted, guiltily.

"Sheppard," Rodney said, sounding somewhat stronger, "assuming that I ever become, I don't know, comatose, if you should take it into your spiky head to do the 'bereaved friend sitting at the bedside talking for hours' bit ... please, please do something useful with yourself instead, such as going and cleaning my labs or some constructive task along those lines. Help me remember this. When I get back to Atlantis, I'm writing it into my living will ... wait, I don't have one ... Okay, I'm writing a living will and it will include the provision that if I'm in a coma, Lt. Colonel John Sheppard is not allowed within two hundred yards of the infirmary without having his mouth sewn shut ... Hey, do you think Beckett would do that?" he asked eagerly.

"Do what?"

"Sew your mouth shut."

"Rodney, are you delirious?" Sheppard asked warily.

"No, just hoping to avoid another round of your life passing in front of my eyes as portrayed by an all-star cast of the Pegasus and Milky Way galaxy's alien races."

"That's fine, McKay. The next time you need to be talked out of a coma, Teyla can do it."

"You can't talk people out of comas," Rodney mumbled. There was a pause, then a soft murmur trailing into silence: "That's a ... myth ..."

"Rodney?" There was no answer. Sheppard shook him gently. "McKay, answer me!"

After a pause, Rodney said in a faint but unmistakably annoyed voice, "Sheppard, I swear to God, if you don't leave me alone and let me sleep, I am going to crawl away from here and find a less annoying patch of wall to lean against."

"You can sleep as long as you keep breathing while you do it."

"I didn't stop breathing, did I?" Now the mumble sounded anxious.

"Well, not yet."

Rodney let out a long, exasperated sigh. "Sheppard, do us all a favor and don't take up medicine. Your patients will beat themselves to death with their own bedpans just to get away from you."

"That's nasty, McKay."

"So's your bedside manner."

Another silence, stretching out, as the light of the P-90 dimmed by imperceptible fractions as its battery slowly, very slowly, ran towards empty. Rodney's breathing evened out, somewhat less rough than it had been. And Sheppard himself tipped towards sleep, the stress and strain of the last few hours catching up with him, along with boredom and the need to pass the time somehow until Teyla and Ronon came back. His body slumped, his head dropping until his forehead rested against Rodney's tousled, sweat-damp hair. His grip across his friend's chest remained firm, however, even as the rest of him relaxed into sleep.

Chapter Twelve: Living in the Moment

"... and it turned out that we were not terribly far from the part of the tunnels that had been shown to me as a child. From there it was quite easy to find one of the undamaged entrances." Teyla's hands were folded in her lap and her eyes downcast as she spoke -- for all the world, Elizabeth thought, like a chastised child reciting her lessons. As self-aware as Teyla normally was, Elizabeth wondered if she realized how her body language radiated defeat and shame.

"Karmath, the Cletan leader, had told me that they had trapped the entrances, but fortunately their traps were crude and quite obvious from this side. They were meant to keep intruders out, not in. We were able to easily avoid them. When we emerged onto the surface, we were surprised to discover almost immediately that Major Lorne's team had been searching for us."

Elizabeth tried to suppress a smile but was not quite successful. "And, from what I heard, frightened two civilians out of about fifteen years' worth of gray hairs. I believe that Major Lorne's exact words, with regards to Dr. Beckett, were 'screamed like a little girl' when the two of you appeared practically under his feet. I recommended that he leave that part out of his official report, or at least rephrase it a bit."

Teyla raised her eyes for a moment, a hint of humor sparkling in them. "Major Lorne is still not fully accustomed to the people of Atlantis, I believe."

"They take some getting used to." Elizabeth pointed at her own head. "I may have a few gray hairs myself."

Teyla lost her temporary sparkle and looked back down at her clasped hands.

"And you returned for the Colonel and Dr. McKay?" Elizabeth prompted.

Teyla nodded, and again, a slight smile tugged reflexively at her mouth.

"Carson said that they'd fallen asleep on each other." Actually, like Lorne, Beckett's figure of speech had been somewhat less professional than that -- "like two babes fallen asleep in the woods" as she recalled. She wondered if she should mention that to Sheppard when he woke up, or simply save it for blackmail potential later.

Teyla's smile widened a bit and she nodded again. "Neither of them woke when we moved them to stretchers, but we did have some trouble untangling them," she said. "Colonel Sheppard in particular would not let go. We had to pry his fingers loose from the sleeve of Dr. McKay's uniform."

"Would you consider your experiment a success, then?"

Teyla's head snapped up and she stared at Elizabeth with wide eyes. At Elizabeth's insistence, Beckett had forced Teyla to leave the infirmary for a brief shower and change of clothes before coming up to Weir's office for her debriefing, but she still looked strung out from exhaustion, her eyes shadowed and dark. "How can you say that?" she demanded before remembering who she was talking to and modifying her tone. "We were captured, threatened, imprisoned and nearly killed several times over. The Colonel just got out of surgery. I am prepared to hand in my resignation to him when he wakes -- or perhaps I should give it to you; I am not familiar with the order of command for these things."

"Calm down. Nobody's resigning from anything."

Teyla drew herself up proudly. "It is far more honorable to resign than to wait for the Colonel to ask me to leave."

"Do you really think he'll do that?"

The proud shoulders drooped. "I do not know." Then, almost in a whisper, "No. I do not think he will. But I will find it difficult to face him after everything that has happened, let alone Dr. McKay."

"And is that why you want to resign -- so that you won't have to apologize to your teammates?" Elizabeth allowed a bit of a sting to enter her words, but only a little, just enough to get the woman thinking. Teyla was clearly more than capable of castigating herself for her mistakes.

"No, of course not, I ..." Teyla swallowed, her hands clenched together. "I do not know how they can trust me after this."

Elizabeth sighed. "Yes, it seems that trust issues have been quite a problem for your team lately."

Again Teyla's head snapped up; she seemed to sense that she was being led, but not where. "Do you believe the situation is comparable, Dr. Weir?"

"Do you?" Elizabeth challenged.

Now Teyla just looked confused. "What do you want to hear from me? Please tell me, for I do not know!"

"Teyla," Elizabeth said gently, "turn it around. Put someone else in your place. Should Rodney have resigned from the team, or do you think he made the right decision in staying to work things out? You've never been a person who backs down from a challenge. Why should you start now? Besides, I gave you permission to try your idea; if there's any fault here, it's mine."

Teyla's brow furrowed. "Dr. Weir--"

"Teyla, before you left on this mission, you said some very wise things to me about trusting the people under you ... things I've taken to heart. I do trust you. I trust all of you. I can't speak for John, of course, but I truly believe that he trusts you as well as I do. And now," she added, "I believe there is somewhere other than my office that you'd like to be."

A smile flittered around the edges of Teyla's face, lightening her tense look. "Is it that obvious?"

Elizabeth laughed. "When one of you is in the infirmary, where do I always find the rest of you?" She sobered, and rose to walk Teyla to the door.

"Thank you," Teyla said quietly.

Elizabeth placed a hand lightly on her shoulder -- she had almost never touched the other woman, she realized. "Teyla, over the last year I think I've gotten to know all of you fairly well, as individuals and as a group. Your team's had some ... hard blows lately." She hesitated, seeing the look in Teyla's eyes and wishing for a moment that she had not brought it up; Ford was still a sensitive topic with Sheppard's group. "But you've weathered it all," she said, meeting the brown eyes squarely. "The group of you -- and I believe I can include Ronon in this as well -- have something special between you, something most of the other teams don't have. You are ..." She hesitated, unsure if she could articulate what she had increasingly noticed.

Teyla smiled warmly. "Family." Her hand came up to respond with a gentle squeeze to Elizabeth's arm. "You are right, and sometimes I lose sight of the many things I have gained in this place. But now, I should be in the infirmary."

"I'll be down soon myself. Oh, and if you see Radek down there, will you send him my way? He's the only person from the Cletan expeditions that I haven't debriefed yet. I think he's avoiding me."

Teyla flashed a quick grin over her shoulder. "I shall tell him if I see him. But I do not know if he will listen."

"Seems to be a lot of that going around, too," Elizabeth murmured to the Athosian's retreating back, but she was smiling. After all, the last thing she wanted was a bunch of people who did exactly what they were told all the time. She just had to remind herself occasionally that personal initiative was a good thing.

The infirmary lights were dimmed for the Atlantean "night". Beside Sheppard's bed, Ronon meticulously cleaned his big gun, booted feet propped up on a chair. The Atlantean medical team had set his arm and re-wrapped his other injuries -- Beckett declared Sasha's medical skills "adequate, for the Stone Age" -- but none of the doctor's persuasion or bullying could induce him to go take a shower. So he still wore the same stained and torn clothes in which he'd fallen down the shaft, his skin dust-darkened except for swathes where the nurses had incidentally wiped the dirt away in the process of cleaning his injuries.

Teyla approached quietly, but he looked up long before she reached him, and moved his feet so she could sit down. Teyla glanced at the chair's seat and surreptitiously brushed off clods of dirt before seating herself. She handed him a wrapped sandwich from the cafeteria, and unwrapped another for herself. "I thought that food might be a good idea."

Ronon nodded thanks. She caught his hand just before he took a bite. "You are supposed to unwrap it first," she explained, peeling back some of the paper from her own in demonstration.

"Oh." For some reason, Ronon seemed to have difficulty adjusting to the idea of food that couldn't simply be picked up and eaten. Teyla recalled that she herself had been a bit surprised, at first, by the affinity that Earth people seemed to have for packaging things, but at least she could tell the difference between waxed paper and bread.

They ate in companionable silence, while Teyla watched her teammates sleep. There was a strange peace here, punctuated only by the quiet beeping of various monitors and the nearly inaudible -- but, to Teyla, unspeakably precious -- sounds of Sheppard and Rodney breathing as they slept. In the silence, the whisper of Beckett's soft-soled shoes seemed loud as he walked over to check on his friends.

"They seem to be doing well," Teyla offered hopefully as the doctor checked the monitors.

"They're both doing much better than I would expect, John in particular." Beckett stared down at the Colonel's pale face. "The wounds that I saw on the scanners should have killed him, but instead, they looked as if they'd been healing for several days. He did need surgery for a few things he'd broken open with all his wandering about, and he'll be our guest for a while yet, but he's definitely out of the woods."

"And Dr. McKay?"

Beckett looked over at the occupant of the other bed. Rodney's bruises showed up starkly against his pale skin. "I'd be able to tell you, lass, if I knew what was wrong with him. He is, for lack of a better word, badly depleted. Dehydrated, hypoglycemic, hypothermic, actually malnourished if you can believe that. Like something sucked out everything that his body needs to function, nevermind that such a thing isn't physically possible. From what I can see, he's bouncing back just fine now that we're getting his body chemistry closer to normal, but it was a touchy thing."

"They gonna wake up soon?" Ronon asked in what was, for him, a low voice.

Beckett shrugged. "Sheppard's out of the anesthesia and sleeping normally, so it's anybody's guess, really. I expect they'll sleep for a while. You two might want to do the same -- especially you," he told Ronon.

The former runner just stared back at him. Teyla smiled. "I believe we will be here for a while yet, if you do not mind."

"I didn't expect different, lass." Beckett heaved a sigh. "Well, we have plenty of empty beds around, so just take a load off if you feel like it. And if you can get your oversized friend to take a shower, that would be all the better. This is a sterile environment, believe it or not."

With a friendly smile to the two of them, and a last concerned look at Rodney and Sheppard, he slipped off to get some sleep himself, leaving the team alone once more. Well ... not entirely alone.

"How are they?"

The soft voice came from behind one of the curtains, as if the speaker wanted to hide. Teyla turned in his direction and, when she spoke, tried to project comfort in her tone. "They are both doing well, Dr. Zelenka. Would you like to join us?"

Zelenka slunk out from behind the curtain and accepted the chair that she offered him. He stared at his hands rather than looking at the men in the beds. Teyla recognized that look all too well.

"You do not blame yourself for this?" she asked gently, touching his shoulder.

Zelenka flinched, and the eyes that he raised to her looked haunted. "Until the day I die, I will not forget the sight of the four of you, covered with blood and dirt, and knowing that I was at least partly responsible for it."

Ronon just snorted and went back to cleaning his gun. Zelenka glanced at him with a flicker of familiar exasperation before it was covered up once again by guilt. Teyla leaned forward. "Dr. Zelenka, I have spoke to Dr. Weir about this--"

He visibly cringed at the name. "How angry is she?"

"Not at all. She is worried about her people, her friends; but she holds no blame for any of us. Radek ..." She nudged at him. "You work with Dr. McKay, do you not? You are his friend and you know him better than most people. You knew as well as I ... something was broken; something needed to be fixed. The two of us tried to do that. And it has worked, and no one has died. We cannot change the past, only move forward."

It was strange ... she had gone to Elizabeth's office feeling much as Zelenka did now, and Elizabeth had counseled her, and now she felt as if she was passing it along to him. She watched as he looked from Rodney to Sheppard, and back to her. And a small smile quavered around the edges of his mouth. "It did work?" His voice was barely more than a whisper.

Teyla smiled back, and she felt him taking strength from that. "Yes. It did. I would not say the plan went off without a hitch" -- an understatement so vast that words hardly did justice to it -- "but I would not be surprised if they wake up insulting each other just as they once did. Well..." She hesitated, once again feeling the burden of honesty. "I imagine that it will not be quite the same. There have been cracks, and cracks, even repaired, leave a mark. But it is well known that a broken bone may heal stronger than it was before. I would not be surprised if this was the same."

"People change," Ronon rumbled suddenly. Teyla and Zelenka looked at him in surprise. He hadn't looked up from the pieces of the gun broken apart in his lap, and he continued methodically polishing the barrel with a soft cloth as he spoke. "People change, and what's between 'em changes too. That's just life. Why worry about it?" He jerked his head to indicate his two sleeping teammates. "Comrades in arms ... those are the strongest kind. There's a trust that you don't get any other way. But people go on changin', and trust doesn't always go along with it."

He paused for a moment, long enough for Teyla to remember the look in the eyes of Ronon's former friend at the instant of his death. But she no longer felt the sharp knife of betrayal twisting in her heart at that memory. There was still a dull pain, and perhaps would always be. But Ronon was right. People changed. Sometimes for the worse. Sometimes for the better.

Seeming to become aware of his small audience listening intently, the runner spoke again. "Don't know what the future holds. None of us. Today I saw a guy get his chest blown out for his teammate" -- he glanced at Teyla -- "and I saw another guy willing to let the life get sucked out of him to save a friend. And both of 'em are still alive to talk about it. No way to know what you'll have tomorrow, but that's what we've got today. Don't know about you, but I figure I'll take that, and let the future sort itself out."

He fell silent again and concentrated on the gun with a single-minded intensity. Teyla found herself thinking that in his own peculiarly straightforward way, Ronon had hit upon a fundamental truth. Life, she thought, consisted of an infinite series of nows. The past was fixed in stone, the future a mystery. All that was real, all that could really be changed was this one moment, this now. And now, there was the infirmary, the sound of her friends breathing, the warmth of Zelenka's shoulder under her hand -- the knowledge that, just for this one moment, she herself and those that she loved were alive, and together, and reconciled with each other. Tomorrow, this all might be gone. But that would be tomorrow. And it was far too easy to lose oneself in tomorrows, when life was made up only of one today at a time.

Somewhere else in the infirmary, a door closed. Zelenka moved and her hand slipped from his shoulder. A moment later, Major Lorne appeared around the edge of Rodney's bed. He was dressed in casual clothes, or at least as casual as anybody got around Atlantis -- a T-shirt and BDU pants. Teyla found it slightly disconcerting to see him thus; she'd almost begun thinking of his normal uniform as an extension of his body. His short hair was tousled and damp from a recent shower.

Confronted by all of them, he hesitated, his usual confidence in the field evaporating in the face of their small, close grouping. "Uh, I wanted to see how the Colonel was doing. And everyone else, of course," he added hastily.

"The Colonel and Dr. McKay are doing well," Teyla said, "but will probably sleep for some time longer. Ronon and myself are also doing well. We will be staying for a time. Would you like to stay also?"

He actually blushed when she smiled at him. "As long as I wouldn't be in the way."

It was wonderful to fly, but nicer, sometimes, to drift. Sheppard drifted in a fuzzy gray place, vaguely aware of the beeping of machines around him, of voices that came and went -- familiar voices, comforting though he could not quite place them. He felt warm, safe, content. But still, even half asleep, he found himself tallying up voices, making sure that each one could be filed away in his mental checklist, even though he still couldn't put names to them -- and one voice kept coming up missing. It was this absence that finally prompted him to push himself up from the comfortable gray nothingness into a colder world with harder edges.

Beeping machines. White sheets, slightly scratchy. Atlantis infirmary. He was relieved and, at the same time, vaguely worried, though he couldn't figure out why. He twisted his head to the side. What he saw made him blink.

It seemed at first glance that the entire population of Atlantis was in his corner of the infirmary. On second look, it wasn't actually that bad, but still ... had the wing of the city that housed the living quarters flooded or something?

On a chair next to his bed, Ronon was slumped, asleep, with his gun in his lap. Teyla sat on the floor next to him, leaning against his leg, also sound asleep. Sheppard's eyes roved across the two of them, to McKay tucked under a set of white sheets like his own; the concerned tightness in his chest finally eased, although the scientist seemed to be hooked up to a worrisome number of machines and bags of fluids of various colors. On the other side of Rodney was another bed with Lorne sprawled across it, fully clothed, and -- Sheppard's eyes widened considerably -- Radek Zelenka curled up next to him, just like an oversized house cat. The final piece of the tableau was Elizabeth Weir in a chair at the foot of Rodney's bed, her elbow propped on the bed and her head in her hand, snoring softly.

At least Caldwell wasn't here. That would just be too much. He didn't think his brain could take it. He wondered where Beckett was, but had no doubt the man was around somewhere ... maybe watching them all on closed-circuit TV. And laughing.

"Hey." Very quiet, the call -- pitched so as not to wake any of the sleepers around them. Sheppard's eyes snapped back down to Rodney, met two clear blue eyes looking back at him.

Rodney moved his head slightly to indicate the people around them, and he said in a barely audible voice, "Nothing like a welcome party, huh?"

Sheppard tested his voice, found it weak but functional. "Maybe an outbreak of sleeping sickness hit Atlantis while we were gone."

"It's flattering, and yet ..." One of Rodney's hands moved in a slight circling motion, trailing wires in its wake.

Sheppard nodded his head against the pillow. "Creepy."


Their eyes met in perfect understanding. Sheppard found that the last vestiges of his nagging sense of worry had vanished, replaced by a dreamy sense of contentment. He thought drugs might be involved. His eyelids seemed to be drifting shut of their own volition.

"Oh thanks," Rodney said in a voice that managed to be petulant while still remaining soft-pitched enough not to disturb the sleepers. "Leave me alone with the Sleeping Beauty extras."

"You can ... stand guard. Or something." Hard to think, hard to talk ... the quiet gray place beckoned. Not forever. Just for a little while.


There was fear in that voice. The fear penetrated his gray place, urged him to struggle to the surface once again.

"Yeah?" Sheppard managed to say, blinking against the haze and squinting over at Rodney. "This better be good."

But Rodney was just smiling, a smug crooked smile with something warmer and softer underneath. "Checking. Sorry. Go back to sleep."

"Damn you," Sheppard murmured, eyes drifting shut once again.

"Payback." McKay's voice was equally soft. He seemed to be drifting off too. Apparently all the sleepers around them were contagious.

"Up yours."

The answering, mumbled insult from the next bed over was incoherent as McKay faded towards sleep. Struggling against the gray haze, Sheppard found that one more thing needed to be said. "Yo, Rodney?"

There was a long silence before the unusually quiet voice answered, sleepy and annoyed and something else as well. "Yeah, what."

"See you."

A pause, then a soft, "Later, Sheppard."

And he slept.


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