The Light of a Fading Sun

Season/spoilers: Spoilers through Season Three's "Sunday". HUGE SPOILERS for that episode, and pretty damn big ones for several others.
Rating: strong T/PG-13 (language, violence)
Genre: Action/adventure, h/c
Disclaimer: These guys belong to MGM. I only play with them.

Author's Note: This story is somewhat darker and heavier than what I normally write. Just so you know. But if you've read my other stories, you also know how much I love writing friendship ... so keep that in mind, too.

Gorgeous cover/wallpaper image by Alena Malfoy. Thank you so much!

Chapter One: Doranda

The briefing hadn't gone well. But then, he hadn't expected that it would.

No, Elizabeth had said. You can run all the simulations that you want, but I've made my decision. The answer's no.

The only light in the hallway was the soft glow of the ever-present bubbling pillars, and a few strips of dim track lighting to keep people from walking into walls. He passed a young lab tech lost in examination of one of the pillars -- she was one of the new people in Hydrology, fresh off the Daedalus. He didn't acknowledge her; she didn't even see him.

They could have powered the whole place effortlessly. Never had to worry about storms or depleted ZPMs or Wraith, ever again. The solution was in the palm of his hand -- the answers to the calculations that even the Ancients couldn't solve. And no one would listen to him.

The answer's no.

Sheppard had sat in on the meeting, at Elizabeth's request. Rodney wasn't sure why. The Colonel had not been back to Doranda since the initial survey. Had not been there for the test firing ... for Collins' death.

A small knot of Marines walked past him. They started laughing after they went by. He'd caught some sideways glances, not particularly friendly, and wondered if they were talking about him behind his back.

He wasn't sure whether it bothered him that they might be. He had little but contempt for the military in the city. The new people weren't the same, and the old ones had ... changed.

They'd all changed.

He wandered by one of the darkened rec rooms. A quick and unexpected flash of memory caught him -- lounging on a couch with his laptop, nitpicking the special effects in some inane B-movie, while Sheppard threw popcorn at him and Ford laughed and Teyla tried to mediate between the three of them.

But these days, the place was military-only. It didn't have a "CIVILIANS NOT ALLOWED" sign, but everyone knew. The scientists had their own areas of the city; the military had others. There wasn't any overt hostility if someone strayed into the wrong lounge or the wrong side of the cafeteria -- just cool stares and a general cessation of conversation.

It seemed like a very long time ago when they'd all been in this together.

In those days, the team movie nights had been an imposition on his work-time, deeply resented. But still, Sheppard or Ford had come down to the labs on a regular basis and rousted him from some vital-to-the-safety-of-the-city project in order to drag him off to see an inane movie that he'd seen a hundred times. He'd never stopped complaining, and yet they'd never stopped coming to find him.

So many were gone -- so many dead.

Ford. Grodin. All the many casualties of the Wraith siege and before.


He left the rec room behind with barely a twinge. The memories that it represented belonged to a different time in his life -- before the Wraith siege, before the deaths, before Everett and the Daedalus arrived to disrupt their tight, insular little world. Going through the gate, going out with Sheppard's team, was work these days. It was something he did because it was his job, not because he enjoyed it. His real life was in the labs. He'd considered, several times, turning in a request to Elizabeth to be taken off the team. It had never made much sense sending the head of the science department offworld. He wasn't sure what kept him going -- stubbornness, a sense of duty, an unwillingness to let go of the past.

His wandering steps turned in the direction of the cafeteria, hoping it would be deserted at this time of night. Though it was dim and quiet, a little group of scientists sat near one wall, papers spread on the table in front of them. He recognized Radek among them, and was briefly tempted to go over and join them, to lose himself in a discussion of theoretical energy physics.

But any discussion among the scientists tonight would no doubt turn to Collins' death, and he couldn't ... deal with that right now. Not when the answers that could have saved Collins' life were staring him in the face, and Elizabeth wasn't willing to listen to him.

Another brick in the wall ...

McKay took a muffin, and retreated without being seen, to continue on his silent tour of the sleeping city. For a moment, he considered going down to the workout room to see if Teyla was still up, before remembering that she was offworld at the moment with Ronon the Barbarian. She wasn't all that useful for bouncing off ideas, and she couldn't possibly have the slightest comprehension of the strategic importance of Doranda ... but she was comforting to be around. He told himself it didn't matter, but that didn't necessarily make it true.

He still got along with Teyla. He wouldn't say that they were friends, exactly -- but then, he knew, they never had been, and maybe that was why he still got along with her now. They had nothing in common, and the growing strain between the teammates only served to cast their differences into sharper relief. But Teyla smiled at him when he happened to see her in the cafeteria, and that was nice. They weren't the sort of buddies who went out of their way to sit together at lunch or hang out after work. But with everything else falling apart, they still managed to be amiable co-workers.

Tonight, though, Teyla was off somewhere with the caveman, and he felt an unexpected pang that bordered on betrayal.

Still a sore point ... Ronon. Of all the people Sheppard could have picked to replace Ford -- why him?

McKay hadn't even known that Sheppard had (inexplicably) invited Ronon to be on the team until they'd all shown up for their first mission together. That had been -- awkward. The first thing Rodney had done after they got back was storm up to Weir's office to lodge a complaint. Elizabeth had listened to him rant and then leaned forward and said softly, "Rodney, John's your team leader. The decision about who goes on your team is his, not yours. And I approved it."

"Yes, but damn it, Elizabeth! He invited a freaking barbarian and didn't even ask the rest of us!"

"It's not your call, Rodney. I'm inclined to agree with you that John ... could have handled the situation a little better, but I'm not going to second-guess the way he handles his team. I approved his selection of Ronon for the team, so if you want to be angry at someone, I'm as much of a target as John."

McKay rocked back on his heels, caught between anger and a sharp, unexpected hurt as the meaning of her words sunk in. "You knew and you didn't tell me?"

Elizabeth sighed. She looked suddenly very, very tired. "I told you, Rodney: I won't second-guess John's decisions when it comes to his team. I'll have a talk with him about openness and communication within the team, but ultimately, I'm not going to micromanage him. Do you think you can accept that?"

As if he had a choice.

Of course the entire gateroom -- including the rest of Sheppard's team -- had heard his tirade. McKay wondered if it was just his imagination that Ronon loomed in a somewhat more threatening way at the post-mission debriefing. For his part, Rodney was determined to cut the caveman not an inch of slack. So Sheppard intended to replace Ford with someone who didn't even understand basic hygiene, did he? That was just fine, but McKay didn't have to talk to him.

Luckily not talking to Ronon had proven astonishingly easy. The only time they ever saw each other was during their missions, and since Ronon spoke approximately one word per hour, conversation with him wasn't a huge threat. On Atlantis, Ronon's life intersected McKay's to an even lesser degree than Teyla's did.

And Sheppard, well -- the less said of Sheppard, the better.

Sheppard. Hmm ... maybe ... McKay slowed, stopped, and stood in the corridor, eating his muffin and thinking.

Elizabeth trusted Sheppard. She listened to him. Not as much as she once had, but then, none of them ... but that train of thought was going nowhere.

Maybe he could get Sheppard to talk to her -- intercede on his behalf.

He walked briskly towards Sheppard's quarters before he could lose his nerve, running over possible scenarios in his mind. If this didn't work, he could always go to Caldwell, go over Elizabeth's head and play the military card. The idea gave him a cold satisfaction that somehow left a bitter taste in his throat.

This is important, McKay, he told himself. More important than you or Elizabeth ... or Sheppard ... and a hell of a lot more important than your squeamishness about doing what needs to be done.

He paused outside Sheppard's door. For a tempting instant he thought about just skipping Sheppard and going straight to Caldwell. He hated to think of the amount of interference he'd have to endure if the military got hold of the project, but they could definitely trump Elizabeth.

He had a feeling, though, that if he did that, it would be the final nail in the coffin of his good relations with Atlantis's civilian leader.

And if Sheppard ever finds out you're using him, you'll be lucky if he doesn't just shoot you.

He wished he could just ask. There had been a time when Sheppard really might have gone to bat with Elizabeth for him. Now, though ... now he couldn't even think what arguments he might use. In fact, he had no idea how much Sheppard actually knew about the whole Arcturus situation.

After the initial survey when they'd discovered the Ancient installation, Sheppard hadn't been back to Doranda -- Lorne's team had been sent along instead, to help the scientists explore the facility. Heaven knew what he'd been doing instead; paperwork, maybe, or training recruits. It was pretty clear that the thrill of discovery wasn't a big issue for Sheppard, not these days; ever since Ford, the man had pulled back, retreated into his G.I. Joe persona. He was a lot more conscientious about his duties than he'd ever been, as if he had come to the conclusion that all the deaths over that first year could have been prevented if only he'd dotted another i, crossed another t. It was a much more detail-oriented John Sheppard who ran the Atlantis military these days -- a lot more responsible, a lot more mature, and one hell of a lot less fun. McKay never would have guessed that he'd miss the irresponsible, annoying version of Sheppard, but he couldn't imagine the more adult Sheppard ever throwing him off an Atlantis balcony or wanting to explore an alien hatch.

This would be the first time they'd actually talked to each other, one-on-one, in ... months, perhaps.

If he gave himself another minute to think, he was going to walk away.

McKay screwed up his courage and knocked on the door.

There was a long silence, and Rodney realized, belatedly, that waking up a person to get a favor out of them was probably not the world's greatest strategy. Especially when that person didn't really like him all that much to begin with.

Then the door whisked back, and Sheppard stood in a cool blue pool of light. He was fully clothed and didn't look recently awoken, or murderous. Puzzled and slightly annoyed, yes, but not about to lunge through the doorway and knock Rodney on his ass for waking him up. Peeking around him, McKay could see a book lying open on the bed.

Sheppard raised an eyebrow. This better be good, that look said.

And McKay's carefully planned speech -- involving Harry Daghlian, Louis Slotin, the Manhattan Project and lives sacrificed in the name of science -- flew straight out of his head. Rather than a string of half-truths and carefully selected facts calculated for maximum emotional manipulation, he found himself, unexpectedly, speaking the truth.

"I know you don't trust me, not really." He spoke quickly, before he could lose his nerve. There was a flash of something in Sheppard's eyes -- maybe pain, maybe anger, maybe a little of both. "You and I both know it's true."

Sheppard's arms were folded across his chest like a barricade -- hostile, defensive. "Then why are you here?"

"Because I --" And here he faltered, his supreme self-confidence breaking down. There were words, on the tip of his tongue, that would turn Sheppard to his side. He knew it. He just didn't know what to say, or if he dared say it. And with a growing sense of dismay, he realized that he didn't even know why he'd come here.

It had been easy to imagine manipulating Sheppard when he wasn't standing face to face with him. Now ... now he felt like a man leaning over the edge of a precipice and starting to slide.

If he couldn't make this work, he was going to have to go to Caldwell. Elizabeth couldn't seem to understand -- willfully refused to understand -- the importance of the breakthrough the Ancients had very nearly made on Doranda. It could make the difference in the war effort -- could be the distinction between victory or defeat at the hands of the Wraith. They couldn't walk away now, not knowing, never knowing, letting Collins die for nothing and leaving a puzzle unsolved.

Sheppard was still watching him. He hadn't run him off, and almost for the first time since the whole thing with Ford, McKay wondered if something might still be salvaged of what they'd once had. If only he could make him understand ... and believe. Not by manipulation, but by reaching down and pulling out the well-hidden inner scientist that he'd occasionally glimpsed lurking behind Sheppard's shuttered hazel eyes. Once upon a time, he might have been able to do that. Maybe he still could.

"Can I come in?" he asked hopefully.

Sheppard's answer was quick, flat and immediate. "No."

"Fine." He took a deep breath, trying to compose himself, but instead the desperation spilled out of him in a stream of words that, he feared as he listened to himself babble, made even less sense than usual. "Listen, the Doranda thing ... I can make it work. I know how to do it. I've been over the Ancient's calculations. Three times. I know where they went wrong. I know how to fix it. All I need is to get Elizabeth to --"

"Wait, wait, wait." Sheppard raised a hand. "What are you saying here, McKay? You think you can make this work when the Ancients couldn't?"

"Well, yes, because they were wrong. And I'm not saying that I'm smarter than they were ... necessarily ... but I've got the benefit of hindsight. I know how to make it work, Sheppard. And this is big. This is the wheel, the light bulb, the hot dog big."

He was getting caught up in it, but instead of seeing his own enthusiasm reflected back from Sheppard's face, as he had hoped, all he saw was suspicion. "McKay, one of your men died today."

Oh, that was fine coming from Sheppard; he hadn't even been there, hadn't seen it. Every time he closed his eyes, McKay was haunted by Collins' smoking body, and he suspected it would be a long time before he could sleep without nightmares. This was not something he wanted to get into right now, not with Sheppard. He didn't dare. He was too afraid of breaking down to let himself go there, and so he waved a dismissive hand. "I know, I know, I know, Colonel. But Collins' death is a pointless waste of life unless something comes of this. Don't you get it? There's no better memorial than to make the project work. He'd want this."

The invisible wall between himself and Sheppard seemed to have widened. "Would he, really. Asked his family about that?"

"Damn it, would you forget Collins for a minute? That isn't what matters here! This is so much more." Why couldn't any of them understand? "Even if we can't safely operate Project Arcturus at anywhere near its full capacity, it could still generate the power of a dozen ZPMs. We can power the shield indefinitely. We can make Atlantis fly. We can win the war against the Wraith. Big guns, Colonel, to make hiveships go boom. You know Caldwell's not going to let this go. This'll happen whether Elizabeth gives the okay or not. It's just a question of whether it happens now or later."

Something dark had come into Sheppard's eyes, and he nodded slowly. "You mean whether you get to work on it, or whether they send a team out from Earth once Caldwell gets the all-clear. Is that what it's about?"

"Well -- partly -- and I'd be lying if I didn't see a Nobel Prize in this -- but that's not what I -- Colonel? Hey! Wait!" Sheppard had reached to close the door; McKay jammed a hand in the way, stopping it. "Hey! We're not done here!"

"I think we are."

That was Sheppard's "I'm not kidding here, don't mess with me" tone of voice. There were times when McKay was willing to push back, but he'd already withdrawn his hand before he could think about it, and the door snapped shut in his face.

"It's not about the fucking Nobel!" he shouted at the door. It remained closed. "Son of a ..." He wasn't sure if he meant Sheppard, or himself, or the situation in general.

He wondered if Caldwell was still awake.

"I want him off my team."

Elizabeth finished typing a line on the report she was working on, before looking up at Sheppard hovering at the other side of her office.

"Does this have anything to do with Doranda?" After denying Rodney's request for more time to study the Ancient weapon, she'd ordered the address locked out of the database. Caldwell might have that order rescinded on his next trip from Earth, but that was six weeks away and she didn't plan to worry about it until it happened.

He just nodded, tight-lipped, and she saw her own strain echoed in the too-hard lines of his face. Once upon a time, they'd all thought that re-establishing contact with Earth would be the answer to their prayers -- that the cavalry would swoop in to save them, and all the fear and stress and chronic shortages would be a thing of the past. But that was before they'd learned, firsthand, what the residents of the Pegasus Galaxy had been dealing with throughout their history. They'd all lost friends in the siege, lost peers and co-workers who had become like family members. They were at war, and at long last, that cruel reality had finally sunk in. It was a little ironic, to Elizabeth, that they'd all laughed more, enjoyed life more, back in the days when they were on their own and surrounded by enemies on all sides. In a way, having a lifeline to Earth had done nothing more than make them all acutely aware of how isolated they really were.

"He came to my quarters last night."


Sheppard nodded. "Wanted to convince me to give the project on Doranda another try. Says he thinks he can fix what the Ancients screwed up."

Elizabeth grinned a little, despite the grim set to Sheppard's jaw. "Well, that's Rodney, John -- he doesn't do things by halves."

"Elizabeth -- he doesn't care. About Collins' death. A man is dead, one of his people, and to him, it's just an interesting scientific puzzle. It's the outcome of an experience, something to mark down on a clipboard before he moves on to the next part of the experiment. He wants to get a Nobel Prize out of this, and he doesn't care who has to die to make that happen."

Elizabeth folded her hands atop her desk, putting the report aside to focus her mind on the problem at hand. She had seen Rodney's face when he'd come back from Doranda -- the raw pain in his eyes. Sheppard hadn't been there to see; he had been training a group of the new Marines, having left scientist-babysitting duties on Doranda to Lorne's team. "John, you know Rodney..."

"Do I? In a way I feel like I never really saw him until last night, Elizabeth. The person that I thought I knew ..." He drew a deep breath and let it out, a bit shakily. "Either the person I used to know never existed, or doesn't exist anymore. The man I spoke to last night -- Elizabeth, I don't want that man covering my back offworld."

Elizabeth nodded once, slowly. "Request denied."

He laughed, a short bark of disbelief. "You think this is a joke?"

"No, John. But I need you to understand that yours is the flagship team of Atlantis. I need the best and brightest out there representing us. I certainly won't go behind Rodney's back and yank him off the team unless you can give me a damn good reason for it."

"Because I think he's a security risk? You don't believe that's a good enough reason?"

"No, John. Maybe that's your latest excuse, but you and I both know that you want him off your team because your friendship's fallen through and now the two of you don't get along. And, I'm sorry, but that is juvenile and silly. You're thirty-eight years old and a military leader. Whatever personal problems you two have, for God's sake act like adults about it. You can work with someone you don't like. People do it all the time."

The thin line of his lips had grown thinner. "I see."

"Do you? I've given you a lot of autonomy in who you choose to have on your team. I even let you put Ronon on there, against my better judgment. But this is petty, and I refuse to allow you to let your personal problems interfere with your ability to do your job." Seeing the rigidity of his shoulders, she backed off a little -- she had no desire to push him to an explosion. "If you can come back in a few days, a week, a month, and tell me the same thing, and give me good reasons, then I'll talk to Rodney. In the meantime, I'll consider your request; I promise that I will. But this is not something that I want to see done in haste, John."

He just nodded sharply, and turned his back on her, leaving her office with a swift stride. Elizabeth let out a long sigh and tried to focus on her paperwork. She'd just gotten into the biologists' figures on Athosian grain yields when a soft tap on her office door distracted her again.

"Dr. Weir?" It was Caldwell. Just the person she didn't want to see. "We're leaving for Earth shortly. I wanted to know if you've changed your mind regarding Doranda."

She shook her head. "I'm more convinced now than ever that Project Arcturus is a mistake."

He sighed. "I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this. You may not believe me, but I don't want to make an enemy out of you. But, if this can turn the tide in the war against the Wraith, let alone our enemies back in the Milky Way galaxy -- you have to understand why I can't let this go, and neither can the Pentagon."

Elizabeth folded her hands and gave him a polite smile. "Helping the U.S. military acquire bigger and better weapons has never been the purpose of this expedition. I am convinced that the dangers of Project Arcturus outweigh its possible benefits."

"Even if your top scientific advisor says otherwise."

Her heart went cold. This was what she'd been afraid of. "Did he talk to you?"

Caldwell nodded. "This morning. He says he knows why the project failed for the Ancients, and he's confident he can make it work."

Damn it, Rodney. It was what she'd feared. When he couldn't get her on his side, he'd gone to the military -- first John, and now Caldwell. "Unfortunately, confidence is not something Dr. McKay is in any short supply of."

Caldwell raised his eyebrows. "I was under the impression you'd hand-picked the people for this expedition, Dr. Weir. Is this how much faith you have in them?"

She could tell that her smile had become very fixed. "I know my people, Colonel. You do not. I know their strengths ... and their weaknesses. That doesn't mean I don't trust them. It only means that I know the areas where I can trust them less. If you fight me on this one, Colonel, trust that I will fight back."

Caldwell inclined his head with a small smile on his face. "I'd better get back to my ship, Dr. Weir. I'll see you in six weeks. I hope we'll be able to come to an understanding by that time."

Elizabeth watched him leave. She tried to get back to her paperwork, but her brain was having none of it, and eventually she left her laptop open on her desk and walked out to stand against the balcony, watching the gateroom.

It depressed her to see that the delineation between military and civilian had become even more pronounced than the last time she'd specifically looked for it. She remembered a time, not too long ago, when the Marines guarding the gateroom had talked and joked with the computer techs while they all passed the long slow days between crises. Now, though, there may as well have been barricades between them, for all the notice they took of each other. If her chief scientist had begun exploiting those divisions for his own gain, then it was to her, the leader of the city, that the real blame fell.

For a year, they'd all been equals -- pioneers in a brave new galaxy. The castes and cliques of Earth had been left behind along with everything else. But the cracks had begun to show during the Wraith siege, and now that the Daedalus was bringing fresh crew members, the egalitarian citywide family atmosphere had faded away. In a lot of ways, Elizabeth thought, the groups took their cues from their leaders. It had been common, once, to see Sheppard hanging around the labs, but as his relations with McKay grew more strained, those times became rare and tapered off altogether. Rodney had made his dislike of the military clear from the get-go, but it was hard to take him seriously on that subject when he spent most of his free time hanging out in the lounge watching movies with one or more members of the military he claimed to despise. These days, it seemed that he'd decided to act on his beliefs. It had been months since she'd seen Rodney pass a civil word with anyone in the military, including his team, when they weren't on a mission together. And rarely enough even then.

She leaned on the railing, disheartened and just a little bit afraid. If they couldn't make a go of a civilian-run base in the Pegasus Galaxy, she had no doubt that the military would take it over. And the consequences of that frightened her.

Chapter Two: Theories

As Elizabeth had feared, Caldwell came back, six weeks later, with new orders from Earth. They were to re-establish contact with the Doranda system and continue the Arcturus experiment.

"I do not like the results we are seeing here, Rodney," Zelenka pointed out as they pored over their figures, late at night.

"It could work," McKay snapped. But privately, he had to agree. During the past six weeks, in between missions, they'd done a lot of checking and double-checking of the figures he'd initially come up with, and his ardor for the project had cooled considerably. At first he'd laughed off Radek's theory about unpredictable particles, but it was starting to look more and more likely. Not that he could tell Radek that he'd been right all along; it would make the man completely insufferable.

"Rodney." Radek caught at his sleeve, gripping his arm until McKay raised tired eyes to his friend's face. "Last time, Collins died. We now know why he died, what killed him. We cannot guarantee the same will not happen to us. In fact, equations indicate it will happen to us, sooner or later."

"So we find a way to stabilize it." McKay detached Radek's hand from his arm with a hard shake; he hated being touched. "We can't walk away from something this big. In fact, we're basically being ordered not to." He heaved a sigh and stared at his watch. "Meanwhile, in five hours I'm going through the gate to yet another godforsaken planet that doesn't have a ZPM, so this will just have to wait until I get back."

Zelenka curled his hands around his mug of cold coffee, and looked away from the exhaustion in McKay's face. "How much thought have you given to quitting Sheppard's team?"

McKay's head snapped up. "None at all," he said, unconvincingly.

"Rodney, a blind man can see you do not like going offworld. You go with them because you want to be first, because you must be first to push every button. You know it is true. But you are needed here more than you are needed there."

McKay's eyes were fixed on a point somewhere on the wall, past Zelenka's shoulder. "It wasn't always that way," he said in a voice so soft he could barely be heard.

Zelenka wondered, with a twinge of pain, to what extent his friend was rewriting the past to suit his own ego. As far as he could tell, Rodney had never liked going offworld, and Zelenka couldn't blame him; his own single trip through the gate, so far, had been terrifying and overwhelming. It was certainly true that in the past, the head scientist had seemed to get a lot more out of it than he did these days. But, from Zelenka's point of view, McKay's natural habitat had always been the labs; the gate trips had always been just interludes during which the rest of them had to muddle through without the chief scientist -- and Zelenka lived in terror that something would happen to McKay, and the crushing responsibility for Atlantis would come down on his own shoulders. The idea of having McKay on Atlantis full-time was a huge weight off his mind.

Of course, telling him that would be the surest way to guarantee that the contrary scientist would hardly be seen on Atlantis again. Zelenka had no desire to push him either way, but he could definitely see which way the wind was blowing. There was a persistent rumor around the labs that Sheppard had asked to have Rodney taken off his team and Elizabeth had refused. Zelenka wasn't sure how much credence to put in it, but he could tell that it was really just a matter of time.

"So ... where are you going, tomorrow?"

"Some backwater forest planet with nothing whatsoever of interest." McKay pushed himself away from the lab counter with a sigh. "It'll be fun. The awkward silences in the puddlejumpers are my favorite parts. The last time we went through the gate, Sheppard threatened to duct-tape my mouth shut if I didn't stop talking. Claimed I'd talked nonstop during an entire three-hour jumper flight. As if!"

"As if," Zelenka agreed, his mouth quirking.

"I just like to fill the gaps in the conversation. And lately, it's been nothing but gaps."

"You don't have to like the people you work with, Rodney." He was thinking of certain people around the labs. Not Rodney; he actually did like Rodney, even the cooler and more distant Rodney who had slowly emerged in the wake of Collins' death. But there were certain other scientists who could take a one-way trip to Earth on the next flight of the Daedalus without causing him to weep.

"I'm well aware of that." McKay's shoulders slumped, just a little. "Suppose I should sleep, or there won't be enough caffeine in the world to deal with Sheppard tomorrow."

"Well, at least there's plenty of coffee, with the new shipment from the Daedalus," Zelenka offered.

McKay heaved another sigh. "Yeah, and as if I don't have enough to worry about, I'll get to spend the entire time offworld trying to figure out a way to tell Caldwell that we need more time before we start up the Arcturus project again."

Zelenka grinned. Even as tired as Rodney looked, it was impossible to resist the temptation to twist the knife just a little bit. "So you admit that I am right?"

McKay flinched as if stung by an insect. "You? About what?"

"That it is too dangerous until we solve the problem of radiation."

Rodney tossed his hand in the air with a dismissive snort. "According to my theories, yes."

"Your theories? If we are awarded Nobel for this, my name will be first."

"In your dreams, Radek."

Zelenka watched him slouch out of the lab, and wondered what the hell was really bothering the man. If it was this gate team business, hopefully he'd see the light and quit the team before he made everyone else in the labs miserable.

It hadn't escaped Zelenka's notice that some of the gate teams had a startlingly close bond. SGA-6, for example, the team with Dr. Benham. Or Lorne's team. But there were others who merely tolerated each other, and from what he'd been able to tell, Sheppard's team was one of those.

It was too bad. But then, as abrasive as Rodney was, it was hardly surprising. The man could try the patience of a saint. Zelenka liked him -- he was a big enough man to admit it to himself, though he'd rather be slowly baked over hot coals than admit it to Rodney -- but he couldn't blame Sheppard's team if they barely tolerated him. There were plenty of people in the labs who felt that way about him, too.

Zelenka sighed and rubbed his gritty eyes. He'd done enough calculations for one night. Doranda would still be there in the morning.

He didn't see Rodney all the next day, until finally spotting him across the cafeteria that evening. Crossing with his tray, he saw that the other scientist looked exhausted; there were even -- Radek raised an eyebrow -- sticks in his hair? He was cramming food into his mouth with single-minded intensity.

"Rodney," Zelenka greeted him.

"Mph," McKay managed, and cleared his throat with a swig of coffee.

"How is the ZPM search coming?"

McKay snorted. "We're not actually searching for ZPMs at the moment, more's the pity. We're back to pick up Carson; well, Sheppard is -- there's hardly any point in me going back with them. And the food on that planet is absolute swill."

Zelenka slid his tray onto the table. "You are back for Dr. Beckett? Someone is hurt?"

"No ... well, not yet ... suffice it to say that we found this kid Wraith on the planet and now Sheppard's got some kind of hare-brained idea about a drug that can stop the Wraith from feeding on humans--" McKay paused to take a huge bite of his sandwich, oblivious to Zelenka's open-mouthed stare of shock. "Oh," he said, through the mouthful, "and their day-night schedule happens to be completely reversed from ours, so right now I've got the worst case of jet-lag ever. Or would it be gatelag? And I think I've got blisters from tramping around in the woods. Did I mention the food is lousy?"

"A child Wraith? Did you say a way to stop --"

"Forget the Wraith; that's not important. Let Colonel Flyboy and the goon patrol deal with it." McKay pushed back his chair and stood up with the half-sandwich in his hand. "I think I've solved our unpredictable-particles problem on the Arcturus project. It came to me while we were traipsing around in the woods -- not like there's anything else to think about, since Ronon and Teyla are about as good at making conversation as a couple of tree stumps, and Sheppard's turned into a G.I. Joe action figure ..." Still talking, apparently not noticing that his audience was sitting back at the table gaping at him, McKay took off across the cafeteria.

"You have -- Rodney, wait!" Hastily grabbing a roll from his tray, abandoning the rest of it, Zelenka pursued his boss across the cafeteria. "You have a way to stop the radiation?"

McKay spun around, all bright, smug animation. As insufferable as he could be in that mode, Zelenka couldn't help being glad to see that look on his face again -- it was the first time that Rodney had really been that enthusiastic about anything in months.

"We don't stop it. We just get rid of it."

Zelenka shook his head. "We have been through that, Rodney; we cannot reliably shield against it, and even if we could shunt it somewhere else, there is nowhere to send it where it would not threaten us."

McKay snapped his fingers. "Oh, yes, there is."

"Where, then?"

"We build a bridge to another universe."

Sometimes he had no idea where Rodney's leaps of logic took him. "Excuse me, a what?" Zelenka followed him out into the corridor.

"A bridge. It came to me on the planet, like I said." McKay stuffed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth so that he could gesture with both hands. His next few words were hopelessly garbled, until he swallowed. "-- is a spacegate planet, and I've been tossing around this idea -- well, all right, it's Carter's idea if you get technical about it, but that's neither here nor there -- where was I?"

"Carter's idea," Zelenka prompted him.

"Yes, right -- the idea is to build an intergalactic gate bridge, using spacegates -- I doubt if Earth is going to be willing to devote any kind of serious resources to it in the near future, so it's really just academic at this point, but anyway, going through the spacegate got me thinking about the interstellar bridge idea, and then suddenly it hit me." He snapped his fingers. "We channel the particles into some other space-time, so they don't affect ours! Just like a-- a faucet! Only for lethal doses of radiation rather than water ... actually it's probably a bad example ..."

Zelenka stared at him. "Is that even possible?"

"Good question, but it's more than we had before. I need to set up some computer models and see how we might be able to get it to work."

Following him towards the labs, Zelenka's brain whirled around the idea. It was crazy. It couldn't possibly work. The trouble was, he couldn't come up with a good idea why it wouldn't work, aside from the sheer insanity of it. "The particles, wouldn't they cause a rather serious problem in other spacetime reality?"

"Only if it's inhabited, and the odds of that are about a billion to one."

"Assuming infinity realities, I do not like those odds."

"Feel free to take your cloud of gloom elsewhere then, Radek. This has real potential. If we can --" He paused, and raised a hand to reach for his radio. "Yeah, McKay."

Zelenka wasn't wearing a radio at the moment, so he got to hear half of a brief conversation. Rodney sounded tired and annoyed, before he finished with a short, "Yeah," and disconnected with a slap of his hand.

"You are needed elsewhere?"

"No ... no, I'm not." Regret mingled with the annoyance on McKay's expressive face; Zelenka wondered if Rodney had the slightest idea how easy he was to read. "Sheppard's team is leaving to drag Carson back to the Planet of the Wraith. Just wanted to know if I was staying behind."

"And you are?"

McKay's spine stiffened. "Of course I am. There's nothing for a physicist to do in that miserable forest, and I have far more important work here."

He turned his back and slapped open the door to the labs -- angrily, it seemed to Zelenka, following him inside.

Radek, the wimp, slunk off to his quarters around midnight, but McKay was far too wired to sleep. The mission to Ellia's planet was the furthest thing from his mind as he scribbled equations and wrote computer code as fast as his fingers could fly.

Sometime towards morning, he fell asleep for a couple of hours at his computer, waking up with gritty eyes and a caffeine headache as the early shift of lab techs began to file into the room. They gave him a wide berth. Someone had the forethought to start a fresh pot of coffee, though, and McKay swooped down upon it, then went back to look over the results of the rough simulations he'd started running before he fell asleep. There were still a number of problems to resolve, but everything looked very hopeful.

This could actually work.

He couldn't wait to present his findings to Elizabeth and Caldwell. Elizabeth had been giving him the cold shoulder ever since he'd gone above her head -- oh, sure, she'd been polite in the meetings and all, but cool formality had replaced the friendliness they'd once had. Maybe this would make her wake up to reality. It was time for the woman to stop being petty and face up to the fact that she'd almost let the find of the century -- no, the millennium, slip through her fingers.

This ... this was why he shouldn't be on the field teams. He was wasted there. Someone else could do the legwork; he should be here, in the labs, working on important -- hell, civilization-shaping breakthroughs like this one. Who had once said that a man can't serve two masters? That was exactly what he'd been trying to do, and it was time to quit it. He hadn't enjoyed going out with Sheppard's team in months, and he was far more useful here. Time to stop fooling around.

He typed out a quick email to Elizabeth, requesting that he be reassigned to Atlantis full-time, and hit Send before he could have second thoughts.

Now then. As much as he hated to stop working, he was shaky from lack of food and sleep, with his internal clock still screwed up from that damned planet yesterday. A shower and breakfast sounded like a good idea, and then he'd round up Radek and they could start preparing a report to give to Elizabeth and Caldwell. There was no particular hurry; from what he'd heard, the Daedalus would be in orbit for another few days, at least.

In the middle of breakfast, he glanced up to see Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon file into the cafeteria. They headed for the military side, of course. Since the lines between military and civilian had started to crystallize, McKay hadn't eaten with his team very often. No point to it, really.

At least they were back. He wondered if they'd found out anything useful. Teyla and Ronon both looked dragged-down and tired, but Sheppard seemed fresh and bouncy as ever. Actually ... more so than usual. He looked cheerful. McKay hadn't seen that look on his face in awhile.

He tried not to tune in on their voices, but still they drifted to him, through the murmur of background noise. Sheppard's disturbingly perky voice, in particular.

"Wanna go for a run after breakfast, Ronon?"

McKay's mouth twisted a little bit. Sheppard and Ronon had certainly bonded lately, in a very manly, grunting-and-shooting-stuff kind of way. It was yet another thing to dislike about the big oaf.

"Thinkin' about catching a little sleep, actually," Ronon rumbled.

"I'm sure we are all tired," Teyla said diplomatically. "It has been a very long and ... difficult day."

"I'm not tired."

"Yeah," Ronon said. "We noticed."

McKay saw Teyla glance his way, and hastily looked down at his food. Somehow the scrambled eggs -- real eggs! from the Daedalus! -- had lost some of their appeal. Sooner or later, he was going to have to tell them that he'd quit the team. Or maybe they would hear it from Elizabeth first. Selfishly, he hoped so. That way, he wouldn't have to see their reactions. The next time he ran into them, by accident, somewhere around Atlantis, it would all be over. They could just all say hello and goodbye, and go their separate ways. Well, Ronon would probably grunt, but it amounted to the same thing.

His mind's eye, refusing to cooperate with his efforts at denial, summoned up a mental parade of their faces as Elizabeth told them the news. Teyla looked sad, in a fetching and wistful kind of way. Ronon just looked relieved; he'd never liked McKay any more than McKay liked him. And Sheppard ...

He realized that he had no idea how Sheppard would react. Regretful? Relieved? Angry? Yeah ... anger was probably a given.

Maybe he'd just stay out of Sheppard's way for a while.

He picked up his tray and slunk out of the cafeteria, rudely rebuffing a couple of geologists who made the mistake of saying good morning to him.

Behind him, he heard Ronon say something, too low to make out the words. Sheppard and Teyla both laughed. Light and happy, the way they used to.

It didn't hurt. He was over it.

That evening, Elizabeth finally managed to locate him. Up to that point, he'd been doing a fairly good job of avoiding everyone. He was off in one of the less-frequented labs, troubleshooting one of the stickier areas of the bridge theory -- namely, what sort of physical equipment it was going to take in order to accomplish it. He'd turned off his radio, but that wasn't entirely unusual; he often did that when he was in single-minded pursuit of a problem and needed to concentrate.

"Rodney? Do you have a moment?"

At least it wasn't "Dr. McKay." Not yet. He looked up to see her standing in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her, back stiff.

"Okay, who ratted me out?"

A slight smile curved her lips. "Ah, so you are avoiding me, then? And a lady never reveals her sources."

Zelenka. Had to be, the little Czech stool pigeon. "Well, since you're here, I take it that you, uh -- I mean, did you --"

"Get your email? Yes, Rodney, I did. Actually, that's what I wanted to talk about."

He gestured at the lab stool across from him. Elizabeth shook her head. "No, I have a meeting with John and Carson in a few minutes. I don't intend to debate you on this, because I really have felt this coming for a long time. I just wanted to ask if you're sure, Rodney."

"I am." He hadn't really been sure until he said it, but it felt right. His chest still hurt with a tight, constricting pain, but some of the iron bands eased, just a little bit.

Elizabeth nodded, briefly. "I don't know if I should tell you this, but after Doranda, John asked to have you removed from the team."

It shouldn't hurt. It really shouldn't. "Did he, now."

"He did. I told him that I wouldn't do it behind your back."

"Well ... thanks." For extending me a little bit of common courtesy, when Sheppard wouldn't.

"And I think the same applies here," she continued. "I'll accept your resignation, Rodney, but only after you talk to John about this. Which I'm guessing you haven't done."

Damn. Hoisted by his own petard. "Do you really think that's necessary?" He was whining, and he knew it; he hated hearing that tone in his own voice. "If he's asked to have me taken off already, it's not like he's going to say no."

"This is about openness, Rodney, and communication within the team -- and the city. I can't have my head scientist and my leading military officer at each other's throats. If you end this badly, you may not be able to work together, and Atlantis has more than enough problems without that."

Annoyingly, he knew she was right; that didn't mean he couldn't argue about it, though. "Come on, Elizabeth, we're adults. We can handle it."

She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, because sneaking around behind your team leader's back, and then hiding from me because you knew I'd call you on it, smacks of responsible, adult behavior, Rodney."

"Oh, come on now, that's unfair --"

"Is it?" She flinched, and reached for her radio. "Yes, I'll be right there." Turning to Rodney, she said, "I have to go; this is rather important. If you like, you can come. John will be there; the meeting is about him, actually. You two could talk afterwards."

About Sheppard? Now, why didn't he like the sound of that. On the other hand, whatever they were talking about, it was evident that he hadn't been originally invited, and damned if he was going to drop in like a poor relation. He'd just wheedle the details out of Carson later. "No. I need to finish this up."

Elizabeth hesitated, as if she wanted to say something else. Then she just nodded, and left.

Chapter Three: Vigils

Being off Sheppard's team turned out to be a tremendous relief, although technically, McKay knew that he wasn't really off, yet ... not until he talked to Sheppard, which he kept putting off. No offworld assignments had come down the line yet, which was interesting -- he knew he should ask Elizabeth about that, but he didn't really want to talk to her at the moment, either. Maybe Radek had dropped a word with her about the importance of their current project, so she'd had the team stand down. Or something. He didn't know and didn't care. Arcturus was consuming all his waking time, to the point that he completely forgot to ask Carson what that meeting with Weir had been about. Actually, he hadn't seen Carson in days -- probably the doctor had lab work of his own to keep him busy, if that Wraith thing had panned out at all. One of these days he'd need to ask, but right now, he was living, breathing and sleeping Arcturus.

The "bridge" idea sounded simple, and on its most basic level, it was. But like so many simple things, implementation was turning out to be a bugger. McKay figured that months of work still lay ahead of them. But all he needed was to know if the damn thing would work, so that he could give that information to Caldwell to take back to Earth.

Of course, people still kept interrupting him for stupid problems that they could have figured out in five seconds if they'd just used their brains for thinking rather than calling the labs in search of a head scientist who had better things to do. One of these problems -- a simple short in a power coupling that was causing erratic equipment malfunctions -- took him up to the gateroom; it was the first time he'd been out of the immediate area of the labs in days. Oblivious though he might be, he couldn't help noticing the extra-heavy guard on the gateroom -- there were armed soldiers standing at attention everywhere, it seemed. Straightening up from the malfunctioning console after fixing it, he asked Chuck, "Are we expecting an attack, or something?"

"What?" the tech asked in confusion, then followed McKay's eyes to the extra guards. "Oh, no, sir. That's standard now that Colonel Caldwell's in charge. He thought our gateroom security was too light before."

McKay had stopped listening at "Caldwell's in charge." What the hell? Had he fallen asleep and woken up in the Twilight Zone? He tapped his radio. "Elizabeth! Sheppard!"

Weir's voice answered. She sounded exhausted. "Rodney, this had better be important."

"What the heck is this crap about Caldwell being in charge of the military? Is this someone's idea of a joke?"

There was a long, dead silence. Then Carson's voice broke in, "Rodney, I'd like to see you in the infirmary before you embarrass yourself further."

"Not now, Carson. I want to talk to Elizabeth."

"She's down here already, Rodney. That's where most of us are. Now move your stubborn arse, would you?"

"Sheppard's turning into a bug and nobody told me?"

He'd run to the infirmary, flat out, with all kinds of horrible scenarios spinning through his mind: a disease spreading through Atlantis, a terrible accident offworld ... but the truth had turned out to be both a huge relief and just about the most disturbing thing he'd ever heard.

In fact, he thought at first it was a joke; it had to be a joke. Even for the Pegasus Galaxy, this was a little too crazy. But the grimness in Carson's eyes, the fine lines of exhaustion in his face ... and the tension in the others around them, in Elizabeth and Teyla and Ronon and Carson's staff ... all let him know that something was terribly wrong.

And he had been the last to know.

He couldn't figure out whether to be angry at himself, or at them.

"Where is he now?"

"He's in his quarters, under guard." Carson leaned against a countertop, and rubbed his hand across his face, where a light spray of stubble was beginning to show.

"What -- you're holding him prisoner?" McKay just couldn't wrap his mind around this. It was too much.

"He still has free run of Atlantis," Elizabeth said, stepping forward. "But he's to be kept under guard at all times. We have no idea to what extent this is affecting his mind, as well as his body."

"Well, you're going to stop it, right?" McKay turned to Carson. "You can fix it, right?"

Carson sighed. There was a look on his face that McKay hadn't seen since Hoff; he looked tired and, disturbingly, old. "That's what we're trying to do, Rodney. Actually, I'd like to bring your science team in on this. The medical staff is coming up with nothing, and there might be something in the Ancient database that could help."

"Yes, yes, of course. Why the hell didn't you ask me sooner?" He still couldn't believe they'd left him out of the loop.

Carson's grip on the edge of the countertop tightened. "We didn't really know the extent of the problem until just a few hours ago. At this point, it looks like he's got -- days, no more."

"What do you mean, 'he's got days'? Days until what?"

"Rodney --" Elizabeth began, sounding impatient.

"He knows what I mean, Elizabeth," Carson interrupted her, in a soft and apologetic tone. "You do, don't you, Rodney? In a few days, whatever makes him John Sheppard -- it's going to be gone."

"You mean he'll be dead." Dead was bad, but ... he could almost cope with dead. If he didn't think about it too much.

"Eventually," Carson said, which wasn't comforting at all.

McKay was aware that everyone seemed to be watching him expectantly. He could feel the weight of Teyla and Ronon's stares in particular -- and he wondered if Elizabeth had told them that he'd asked to quit the team yet, until realizing that no, of course she hadn't; she was waiting until he talked to Sheppard. Who was currently mutating into a bug ... Wraith ... thing.

"So," he said, rubbing his hands together with a confidence he didn't feel. "You guys have a plan yet?"

The idea of bringing back Iratus eggs was completely insane. A plan only Carson could love. Unfortunately, it was also the only thing they -- and Sheppard -- had.

McKay didn't go along, of course. There would be no possible way that he could help; he'd only get underfoot and make it harder for the military-types and Carson to do their jobs. Not that he'd put it in those terms, of course. Clearly, he was much more useful here on Atlantis, searching the database for any hint that the Ancients had had to deal with this sort of thing before.

There was no reason to go, every reason to stay. So why did it feel so wrong, that his team were out there risking their lives to save Sheppard's, while he sat in a safe, comfortable lab?

They weren't his team anymore, he reminded himself, sitting back and rubbing at his sore eyes. They were just ... people, with whom he had once ... traveled ... places. Yeah.

Looking up from his computer, he jumped to see a figure standing in the doorway. Sheppard. At least, he thought it was Sheppard; it wore a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the USAF logo, the hood pulled so far forward that only a pointed chin was visible. A burly Marine hovered in the corridor just outside.


Sheppard pushed back the hood just a little. His face was turned, so that McKay could only see one side of it. What he could see looked normal, though. Maybe Carson was exaggerating the severity of the problem.

"Looking for Beckett," Sheppard said. There was something a little ... off about his voice. It was too rapid, with an unusual throatiness to it.

"He's offworld, hunting Easter eggs." And there it was again, that flicker of guilt that he couldn't quite deny.

"Oh. Right." Sheppard ducked his head away, an oddly diffident gesture from the normally confident pilot. "I didn't realize that he -- I mean, I knew Teyla and Ronon were, but Carson -- I wasn't expecting that."

Sheppard didn't ask why McKay wasn't out there, egg-hunting with the rest of them, and in a way that was even worse. Guilt rose up and nearly choked him. Perhaps that was why he blurted it out, the thing he hadn't meant to mention: "I quit the team."

"What?" Sheppard's head came up, the hood falling back, and Rodney blanched from the scaly blue skin that was revealed. He didn't mean to; he just couldn't control his reaction. He saw Sheppard's face flicker at that, becoming harder, as the Colonel reached up to raise the hood again, and looked away.

"Well." Sheppard sounded almost amused. "It's a pointless gesture, Rodney; without me, there's not exactly a team anymore, is there?"

The grim fatalism pissed off McKay: as if they weren't doing everything in their power to find a cure, as if they wouldn't find a cure at all. As if Sheppard could just discuss his own demise in that flippant tone -- it was stupid, idiotic ... and nothing made him angrier than blatant stupidity, especially from someone who he knew wasn't stupid at all. "It was before that," he snapped. "I turned in my resignation to Elizabeth days ago. And she approved it. Just said I had to talk to you before it'd be official. So -- here I am, talking to you."

"Oh," was all Sheppard said, and that single little word made McKay even angrier. The very least that Sheppard could do was have the decency to ask questions. Or maybe fight back. It felt too much like kicking him while he was down, doing this now. And yet his mouth just kept motoring on.

"Yes, 'oh', Colonel. And Elizabeth told me that you asked to have me removed from the team already --" oops, maybe that had been in confidence, but it was too late now "-- so I figured you'd be pleased. There just hasn't really been a good time to tell you."

"No ... I suppose that's true."

The silence stretched uncomfortably between them. The worst part, McKay thought, wasn't the anger. There wasn't really a lot of anger in this, not as much as there should have been, and that was the worst part of it all. A strong friendship, like the one they'd once had, could survive rage. What it couldn't survive was indifference, and that was what it had become.

He stared at Sheppard and realized that he was looking at a stranger. Not because of the blue scales; he didn't really care about that. Well, all right, he did care about it, because it was creepy and weird and also, it was killing Sheppard. But above and beyond that ... he didn't really know the man standing across the room from him. He'd known him once, known him well. But they didn't know each other anymore.

"When Carson comes back, I'll be in my quarters," Sheppard mumbled, and turned away. It was only after he'd vanished from sight that McKay realized Sheppard had probably thought he'd been staring at the blue scales on his face and neck.

"Rodney, you ass." He buried his face in his hands, briefly, then turned back the database with his shoulders resolutely squared.

"I put him in a medically-induced coma for now. I was afraid he might break through the restraints."

Behind the curtain and the Marines guarding it, Carson's voice was faintly audible. Lorne smiled apologetically at McKay and spoke, obscuring whatever Caldwell said in response. "I'm sorry, Doc. Colonel Caldwell's orders -- everyone has to leave."

McKay jerked his head at the curtain, belligerent and stubborn and not even sure why, except that anger gave him something to cling to. He hadn't spoken to Sheppard since telling him of his decision to leave. "I'm not trying to stay. I just want to know why they stayed."

"Colonel's orders," Lorne repeated, his eyes sympathetic, but implacable. Behind the curtain, Elizabeth's voice could be heard, asking quietly: "So what now?"

McKay turned on his heel and left. He strode past Teyla and Ronon, hovering in the corridor, forming their own little circle of grief and fear. Once, he might have been a part of that, but he could tell that theirs was a private sort of sorrow. There was no deliberate effort to exclude him, and Teyla gave him a sympathetic look as he passed, but he could sense that this was a place where only Sheppard's friends were welcome -- and he wasn't one of them.

Didn't want to be one of them.

He'd always had a bit of contempt for people who hovered around hospitals hanging over their comatose loved ones -- unconscious people didn't require moral support, it was that simple, and if you really were too upset to do anything useful, the very least you could do was wait at home rather than hanging around the hospital getting in the way. Knowing that he himself had done that exact thing in the past -- after Sheppard's first bug incident, for example -- only made him more irritated, both with himself and with irrational idiots who thought that the infirmary staff wanted them underfoot. Teyla and Ronon ... fools, both of them.

He went back to his quarters and took a long shower, just standing under the water with his face upturned, trying to wash away the mental image of Sheppard writhing against the restraints. It was a lousy way to die, and even if he'd never given a damn about the man, he wouldn't have wanted to see someone die that way. It was worse, far worse, to see those wild, hate-filled yellow eyes in the barely-recognizable face of someone he'd once ... known. He still felt guilty for not having gone along on the Iratus bug egg-hunt. There was no reason why he should have, and he knew it. But still.

Standing under the warm, cleansing cascade, he found himself thinking of his mother -- it had been years since he'd dwelled on that. He was surprised at how much power the lingering grief still had over him. They'd been enemies when she died, his mother and himself; it had been years since they'd spoken, divided by too many cutting remarks, too many little betrayals and cruelties. He had come to visit her, though, in the final days of her cancer, even after promising himself that he wouldn't. He still felt sick with the memory of how he'd stood in the doorway of her hospital room, trying and failing to see the strong, abrasive woman he'd once known in the pale shadow that trembled in the hospital bed. He hadn't spoken to her, and she'd died, days later, without ever knowing that he had come.

The rifts had been too deep to mend, he had decided; all he could have achieved by trying to bridge them was to have one final fight with a dying woman.

Deathbed reconciliations might play out fine in the movies, but in Rodney's experience, it was just one more thing that didn't work out in the real world.

He stepped out of the shower when he started to shiver, and was toweling himself off when his radio crackled on the bedside table.

"Rodney? It's Elizabeth." She sounded breathless, excited. "I'm sorry to wake you. I know it's late. But Carson has an idea that he thinks could help Sheppard's condition."

He froze with one hand holding the towel and the other holding his radio against his ear, unable to suppress a sudden, quick smile or the hopeful "Really?" that her words startled out of him. Getting himself back under control, and reminding himself that whatever they'd come up with was exceedingly unlikely to work, he added, "Don't tell me that you're letting Carson play at science again."

"Just come up to my office, Rodney, please. Weir out."

He stood for a moment, just staring at the radio in his hand, heart beating fast and not quite sure what he was feeling.

Two weeks.

Long time to avoid the infirmary.

He'd been busy, though. He'd had a report on Caldwell's desk before the Daedalus had left for Earth, and in between the usual minor crises, he and Zelenka had been working on the plans for the bridge.

McKay was pretty sure that, after another trip back to check their plans against the existing equipment on Doranda, they'd be ready to start building the thing. He was especially proud of having managed to modify their "best case scenario" design into something that could be done with the materials available on Atlantis and Doranda.

He had waited until after the Daedalus had broken orbit to give his report to Elizabeth -- because he was still afraid that she'd try to go over his head, try to stop him. With the report already winging its way towards Earth through hyperspace, he hoped that she'd be too concerned about presenting a united front to the oversight committee and the SGC to try and pull rank on him through the Stargate. So far, this seemed to be correct.

He might be getting better at this whole manipulating-people thing, because he thought he'd found the string to pull in order to get Elizabeth to cooperate with his plans for Project Arcturus. She was afraid of losing Atlantis to the military. He hadn't realized the depth of it, until he'd gone to Caldwell to get the Arcturus project re-opened. He also hadn't realized how tenuous her control of Atlantis had really become until the last couple of weeks. Sheppard's people had never been more than nominally under her control, but with Sheppard in the infirmary, he'd noticed that the military had pretty much been doing their own thing in "their" areas of Atlantis. No one saluted when Elizabeth walked into a room; no one stood up. Sheppard would probably try to put a stop to that once he was back in charge, but there was only so much he could do to reign in the runaway train of public sentiment.

Elizabeth Weir was very much a woman walking a razor's edge. Her control was slipping; Atlantis was fragmenting. And McKay, well ... he felt like an absolute louse for using it against her, but he told himself that the Arcturus project made it worth a little bit of harmless -- well, it wasn't even manipulation, was it? Just nudging. This project was bigger than any of them. When history judged them, the benefits of their work would far outweigh any minor damage that had been caused along the way.

They had to make this work. For Earth, for the Pegasus Galaxy and the war against the Wraith ... for all of them.

"Dr. McKay?"

His head snapped up from his computer screen. He'd been drifting, staring at a screensaver. He was tired. Hadn't been sleeping well. Too much working. Too much thinking.

Teyla stepped cautiously into the lab. She wasn't comfortable here; her usual grace and composure did not hide her obvious tension as she carefully avoided the busy lab techs and the unfamiliar equipment.

McKay tried to recall if he'd ever seen her in the labs before, and drew a blank.


She smiled at him, but it seemed strained. "Colonel Sheppard was released from the infirmary today."

"Oh, was he?" Damn. Avoiding the infirmary was relatively easy, although it did mean that he only saw Carson in passing in the cafeteria. Now he'd have no idea where Sheppard might turn up next.

"He appears to be doing well." Teyla looked away from him, uncomfortable in a way that he hadn't seen on her before. "He told me that you have resigned from the team."

Oh, damn. With everything that had been going on, he had completely forgotten that Teyla and Ronon didn't know. "I was going to tell you," he said, wondering if he sounded as lame as he felt.

The strained smile was back in place. "I know that you would have."

"It's just -- I'm needed here, you know, and it doesn't make sense to send the head scientist and Atlantis's chief military officer offworld on the same team ... You understand, right?"

"I understand, yes," she said.

To his dismay, there was hurt in her brown eyes -- of all the things he'd been expecting, that hadn't been one of them, and somehow, it cut him to the quick. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't her fault, but, as usual, the words weren't right.

"You'll need another scientist, of course. I mean, now that I'm gone. I was -- I'm thinking Zelenka. He's been reluctant to go offworld, and maybe this is just the opportunity that he needs. You know, to build up his confidence and all --"

He talked faster as she slipped towards the door, smiling an apologetic yet final goodbye.

"Yes," she said as he paused for breath, "Zelenka seems intelligent and competent. He will not be you, though, Rodney."

She was gone before he could respond to this -- before he could even consider it. He had hoped that they would miss him, of course. But somehow, he hadn't really expected it, and for an instant he couldn't breathe.

For an instant he wondered if he was making the right decision.

Clenching his teeth, he spun around on the lab stool and began swiftly typing on his computer. An email, very short, addressed to Sheppard. You'll need a scientist for your team. How about Radek?

To his surprise, the answer came back almost immediately. One word.


Just that.

McKay tried to tell himself that he'd won that round. Inexplicably, it felt more like losing.

Chapter Four: Neighbors

As planets went, Doranda was just as bleak and miserable as McKay remembered from the last time they'd been there. Low, slate-colored clouds sent a dull rain pattering across the ruins as Lorne landed the jumper outside the main complex of buildings.

When they'd closed up shop after Collins' death, they had powered down the research facility, but left it ready to come back up at a moment's notice. McKay flipped switches and watched with satisfaction as the consoles sprang to life again. Zelenka really should be here, but he was offworld with Sheppard's team -- his second mission since the team had been cleared for duty again.

Lorne and his men paced around the room, glancing nervously at the consoles. Lorne, after all, had been present for the experiment that killed Collins, since Sheppard hadn't accompanied them on that trip; the Major had firsthand reason to be wary of Arcturus. "Everything in the green, Doc?"

"Everything's peachy," Rodney muttered, distracted as he checked the readouts. He frowned. Something wasn't adding up here.


"The auxiliary power is lower than it should be." Scowling now, he began calling up log files. "Either there's something draining power, or the facility was brought online while we were gone, and then put back into standby mode."

"Wraith?" Lorne asked, looking around.

"Wraith," McKay scoffed. "That's you grunts' answer for everything."

"So it's not Wraith?"

"What, am I psychic now? I don't know if it's Wraith or not! And I'll never find out if you don't let me work."

The log files showed clearly that someone had been in the facility while they'd been gone. Several times, in fact. He couldn't tell more about it than that, though. If the facility had a security system, they'd never found it. There hadn't seemed to be any reason to look for one; the gate was in orbit, and the Wraith left this planet alone, since there was no food for them here. Doranda was uninhabited; they'd scanned from orbit, and scanned again before landing today.

Of course, there were ways of fooling life sensors ...

Just as the thought crossed his mind, one of the Marines came running full-tilt into the room. "Major! You need to have a look at this."

Lorne frowned and followed the man out of the room, with McKay bringing up the rear. They climbed a set of stairs to a balcony looking down over the ruined city. The Marine pointed, but he didn't really have to. It was pretty obvious what he was pointing at.

There was another ship in the city.

They hadn't seen it, flying over, because it was under the cover of a leaning, ruined building, but from this angle it could be seen clearly. It was of a completely different design than either the Wraith darts or the puddlejumpers -- a long, sleek, glossy blue shape that reminded Rodney of a speedboat. It looked as if it had once been beautiful, although now it was old and battered, with scorch marks and repaired places on its hull.

McKay tore his eyes away from the ship to check his scanner. Widening it out to its broadest range, he shook his head. "No life signs, but there is a very faint power reading from the ship. It might be running some kind of shield that blocks our sensors."

"You are correct."

The voice was low, male and completely unfamiliar. As it spoke, several soldiers stepped into view, surrounding them on the balcony.

McKay's first thought was Crap, Genii! -- but then he realized that these people weren't Genii. They were tall and dark, with long braided hair on both the men and the women. They wore loose BDU-style clothing of a rough brown fabric, with heavy jackets over that, and their weapons were slender and pointed -- obviously designed to fire energy, not projectiles.

"Drop your weapons and equipment, please." The speaker was an older man, about Caldwell's age, with a gray-streaked beard and a firm, military bearing. A woman hovered behind him. Unlike the others, she wasn't armed, but she carried a small device in her hands and all her attention was fixed on it.

McKay looked down at the LSD, then up at them, then down at the scanner again. It still showed just the five of them -- himself plus Lorne's team. "That's not possible," he began, then pointed at the woman. "Hey, you're jamming us, aren't you? What's that you've got there? It looks Ancient --"

"I said, drop your weapons!" the older man snapped. He nodded to a younger woman holding a gun, and she fired at one of the Marines as Lorne began to shout a warning. Red light stabbed from the pointed tip of her gun. The Marine screamed and fell, convulsing, his P90 dropping from his fingers and skittering across the floor of the balcony.

"Son of a bitch!" Lorne snapped, kneeling next to his man. The Marine writhed and then went limp, twitching. "Harrison -- talk to me. Harrison? Brian?"

"On this setting, the first shot will only cause pain, incapacitating him. Further shots will kill him. Now, drop your weapons."

Teeth clenched, Lorne nodded to the rest of his men, who laid down their guns. Rodney belatedly realized that this probably meant him too, and struggled with his P90 for a moment before getting it off over his head.

"Equipment too," the man ordered, nodding to McKay's scanner. "Larissa, take that. You might be able to use it."

McKay snorted. "Hardly," he sneered as the woman darted forward. "It takes a special gene that you don't have -- or ... maybe you do," he finished lamely, when she took it out of his hand and the screen continued to glow.

The woman's dark eyes went very wide. "You have the mark of the Ancestors, like me," she breathed, looking from the LSD's glowing screen to Rodney's face.

"Step away from him, Larissa," the older man told her, and she reluctantly took a few steps backward.

The strangers confiscated their guns and packs, and lined them up, sitting, in the middle of the floor. The Marine who had been stunned appeared to be recovering, though he still trembled and leaned weakly against Lorne.

"This is extremely rude," Rodney informed his captors, glaring up at them.

"McKay," Lorne muttered, "shut up."

A smile twitched at the edge of the commander's lips. "If armed strangers invaded your world, what would you do ... McKay? Now, Larissa's going to scan you with something that'll tell us who and what you are, and if you check out, then maybe we can talk."

"What do you mean, who and what -- hey, wait a minute, are you saying you're Dorandan? Ow!" Larissa had just jabbed him in the arm with a device that resembled a voltmeter with a needle on one end. "You didn't say it was going to hurt," he muttered, rubbing his arm. "Hey, is that thing sanitary?"

"Don't worry, I only need a tiny sample." She studied the results and then repeated the process down the line. "They all have the Ancestors' mark, Seng," she told the older man. "But otherwise they are human, not truly of the Ancestors. And there is no Wraithsign among them at all."

"Five of you, all with the Ancestors' mark? How extraordinary." The older man, Seng, jerked his head at his men, who withdrew respectfully. "You may get up, and come downstairs. We'll talk."

It turned out that these people were, indeed, Dorandan, although not originally. According to Seng, their ancestors had come through the Stargate several generations ago, fleeing a culling that had left their homeworld barren.

"We were very highly advanced, my people," Seng told them. They were gathered in a long room downstairs in the facility; it might once have served as an Ancient conference room. As a good-faith gesture, their gear and weapons had been returned to them, although Larissa still eyed McKay's scanner longingly.

"There were many among us in those days who had the Ancestors' mark, as I do now," Larissa explained. "Our world had many of the Ancestors' machines, and we learned to repair and use them. The Wraith tried to destroy us, but there was a great battle and we won, destroying two of their hiveships in the process." She smiled, almost wolfishly. "It was a great victory for our people, and the Wraith feared us. We hoped they would leave us alone. Instead, they sent those with the Wraithsign among us."

"Wraithsign?" Lorne asked.

"Spies." Seng fingered his gun as he talked. "Just as Larissa's line have the Ancestors' mark, those who bear the Wraithsign have the Wraith mark in them. They can speak to the hiveships with their minds, and they can also be controlled."

"Wraith DNA," Rodney said, excited. "Like Tey--" He snapped his mouth shut at Lorne's warning glare.

"Like whom?" Seng asked.

McKay waved a hand at him. "Nevermind, go on. We've also, um, met people who have Wraith DNA -- your Wraithsign. Continue, don't mind me."

After a moment, Larissa picked up the story again. "There is probably no need to tell you what happened, then, if you have experience with Wraithsign traitors. They sabotaged our weapons, betrayed our secrets to the Wraith, and left us helpless against the next culling. Of our great world, all that remained were a handful of survivors who fled through the gate in what ships we could salvage. We found Doranda a dead world, as the old stories claimed, but the next one in the system turned out to be able to support life, and we have lived there ever since. The Wraith believe this system to be uninhabited, so they do not bother us."

McKay nodded slowly. "We scanned for life signs on Doranda, but didn't try any of the planets without a Stargate."

"We were aware when you came," Seng said. "There is always a small garrison stationed here on Doranda, to guard against the Wraith in case they ever find us."

Larissa frowned reproachfully at him. "And, primarily, to explore Doranda and glean technology that can help us survive. Life on our new homeworld is very hard, and there are not many of us. Anything that we can find here may mean the difference between life and death when the next long-cold comes."

McKay recognized the familiar signs of the same military-civilian divide that plagued Atlantis. Seng's solders were stationed here to guard against Wraith, but they were also supposed to guard Larissa and her scientists ... and didn't seem thrilled about it. "We didn't see your life signs here."

Larissa smiled and reached up to her shoulder, touching a small round object pinned to her jacket that looked purely ornamental. "This was one of our greatest finds in the ruins. We can --"

"Larissa." Seng spoke sharply, glaring at her. "I do not know if it's in our best interests to tell the strangers everything."

She glared back. "They're clearly as advanced as we are, Captain Seng, and maybe they know things that can help us. The long cold is only one turn away."

"Long cold?" Lorne asked.

Larissa's brow wrinkled. "Doranda's sun is dying, Major. There are severe heat fluctuations that affect our world very badly. We have learned to predict the cold cycles, but it is still very difficult for us to deal with. In geological time, it will be millions of years before this system is completely uninhabitable, but in the short term, we barely manage to cling to life on our world. We come to this world in the hopes of finding technology that will enable us to increase our crop yields during the cold times, or perhaps even stabilize the sun's energy output, if that is possible."

McKay raised a hand to indicate the facility around them. "But you never explored this? I'd think this'd be the first place you'd come! When we got here, though, it looked like nobody'd been in here in millennia."

"We had actually declared this part of the ruins off-limits," Larissa admitted. "Several other areas are designated that way, too. In our early explorations, we found all the bodies here, and clear evidence of a technology that we did not understand. It seemed prudent to avoid the more dangerous areas until we had explored the rest. And there are many ruined cities on this world. The idea of investigating this place had never even occurred to me until I saw your ships coming and going from here, half a turn ago."

"Ha! And the irony of it all is that the solution to your problems was right here under your nose the whole time."

"What?" Larissa asked, her eyes widening, while Lorne gave McKay a curious look.

"There's a power source upstairs, probably capable of keeping your entire planet running during the cold season." McKay pointed over their heads. "Good thing you and your little gang of alchemists never tried to power it up, because you'd probably have killed yourselves just like the Ancients did, but we've solved the problems of running the thing without creating lethal doses of radiation -- well, mostly solved the problem, but I think we're pretty much there."

Larissa's eyes had gone so huge that the whites showed all the way around them. She exchanged a stunned glance with Seng. "And you can make this work?"

McKay laughed. "That's exactly what we came here to do."

"There are people on Doranda?"

"Believe me, Elizabeth, we're as surprised as you are." Rodney leaned back in his chair. Elizabeth regarded him across her desk, looking tired and unenthusiastic.

"And they don't have a problem with you continuing your experiments?"

McKay laughed in disbelief. "A problem with it? Elizabeth, they're welcoming us with open arms!" Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, considering Larissa's cautious optimism and Seng's fairly open suspicion. Still, the idea of unlimited power had been a very easy sell. "Larissa -- she's the head of what I might loosely term their 'scientists' -- has pretty much given us an all-clear and offered any help that we need. If they can really do everything they've promised, it might cut the time to build the bridge in half."

Elizabeth drew a deep breath and let it out again. "You're sure it's safe, Rodney? We aren't going to have another Collins incident?"

"For the last time, Elizabeth, of course it's safe. Cross my heart, and all of that. What do you think I'm going to do, blow up the planet?"

"I certainly hope not."

"Of course not. We've resolved the problem that killed Collins; that's what the bridge is designed to fix. We flip the switch, the lights come on, and we're heroes on Doranda and on Earth."

"I just hope it's that simple, Rodney. I really, really hope so."

Of course it wasn't that simple. But the problems that they encountered were relatively easy ones to resolve, especially with the willing cooperation of the Dorandans.

The Dorandan settlement turned out to be even smaller than Larissa and Seng had implied -- only a few hundred people on a rocky, barren world that was only marginally more hospitable than Doranda itself. Still, in the centuries since fleeing their original homeworld, the Dorandans had clung tenaciously to the knowledge they had brought with them. Scientists were revered, and although the small settlement had no formal leader, Larissa and Seng seemed to share a leader's duties between them.

Seng remained cool about Arcturus, but Larissa offered her help willingly, bringing in the rest of her leading scientists and helping the Atlanteans search for useful raw materials from the ruined city. In McKay's opinion, the scientific knowledge of the Dorandans still left a lot to be desired, but Larissa turned out to be bright and quick-learning, and she already had a working knowledge of written Ancient that surpassed anyone on Atlantis besides McKay and Weir.

While Larissa and McKay got along well, relations between the Dorandans and the Atlanteans overall were strained. It was obvious that Seng did not trust them -- there were always a couple of armed Dorandan guards hanging around whenever Larissa and her scientists came to help -- but it was equally obvious that the lack of trust went both ways. Three weeks into the construction of the bridge, the Dorandans still had not been offered their own IDC or the gate address of Atlantis. Since they had their own spaceships and were at least potentially capable of retrieving addresses from the spacegate, Elizabeth asked the science teams not to dial directly to Atlantis from the Doranda system, instead gating to the Alpha site and from there to Atlantis.

"You know, this would be a lot easier if we could just quit this cloak-and-dagger stuff," McKay complained as he reported in from the Alpha site. It was raining softly, a light mist settling on the metal skin of the jumper. "I mean, we've been working side-by-side with these people for weeks and Larissa keeps asking me when she's going to get to see the city of the 'Ancestors'. How much point is there --"

"How many times have we been betrayed, Rodney?"

"Okay, point. But if they were going to try something, wouldn't they have done it by now? Besides, they've got a lot more to lose than we do. It's true that we stand to gain a lot from getting the Arcturus project up and running, but we're talking about the survival of their people here!"

"Speaking of which, have they allowed you to visit their settlement yet?"

McKay heaved a sigh. Trust Elizabeth to pick at the one thing that still bothered him, too. "No, but I haven't really tried, either. I mean, we are working, you know. There's not exactly time for sightseeing."

"It's the lack of trust that concerns me more."

He threw up his hands in the air, forgetting that she couldn't see him over the radio. "So they don't like outsiders, big deal! Their whole civilization was destroyed by these 'Wraithsign' people; I can see how something like that could make a person a bit suspicious."

"And they still insist on scanning every new person we send for Wraith DNA."

He sighed again. "Yes, yes, they do. But it's hardly a problem. The only person on Atlantis with Wraith DNA is Teyla, and we've all agreed that Teyla stays home, so what they don't know won't hurt them. As far as the settlement goes, we've confirmed from orbit that the life sign readings on their world check out with what they've told us about their people."

"But we know they can conceal life signs, Rodney. And they still haven't told you how they do that, have they?"

He rolled his eyes, again forgetting that body language was wasted on her. "It's hardly a secret; it's a device that Larissa wears. True, she hasn't let me take a look at it, but we haven't let them near the jumpers, either."

"Which brings me back to the overall lack of trust."

"You know what? Forget it. You guys can play spies all you like. I just want to finish this project before I die of old age. Speaking of which, Sheppard needs to stop hogging Zelenka. I need him here for a couple of days."

"He's currently offworld, but when he gets back, I'll send him your way for a while."

"Offworld? Again? Now where is he?"

"He's investigating the Ancient ship with his team and the Daedalus."

McKay froze with his hand resting on the DHD. "Ancient ship? What Ancient ship?"

"The Aurora. Rodney, we've been sending you reports; haven't you been reading them? I know Zelenka sent you a detailed report on the Aurora data, and I also sent along a formal request to have Radek offworld for a couple of days investigating the ship, and you signed off on it."

He really needed to stop signing things without reading them. "Why didn't anyone tell me? And why are you sending Zelenka? I should be there!"

Elizabeth's tone became very patient. "We did tell you; Zelenka is there because you authorized him to be there; and Rodney, you can't assign him to field work and then pull him every time that he finds something you want to look at. You can't have it both ways."

"I'm not doing that," he muttered, feeling heat rise in his face. "I just -- damn it, Elizabeth, an Ancient ship! One of their ships! Do you know what kind of valuable information could be on it? Radek doesn't have the experience!"

"He's been going out in the field for almost a month now. He's got a lot more experience than you think, Rodney."

The tidal wave of jealousy and resentment that swept through McKay left him shaken and shocked. He liked Zelenka, he trusted Zelenka ... and still, at that moment, he had an overwhelming urge to chuck the man out an airlock. Because he should be there, and he bitterly resented Zelenka for going in his place.

Damn it, Rodney, you made your choice.

"When he gets back, I want him on Doranda," he said stiffly.

"I think we can manage that."

It had been a useless, wasted trip -- a journey through hyperspace only to spend less than half an hour on the Aurora, frantically searching for anything that might be helpful in the fight against the Wraith, before the Daedalus had been forced to blow it up to keep it out of Wraith hands. Zelenka was still haunted by the memory of all those bodies, sealed in their stasis pods. He knew that all of those people had been beyond help for many years, but it still felt as if his team had left them to die.

He also couldn't shake the feeling that if Rodney had been there, he would have been able to get at least some information from the ship's computers. In the time he'd had, Zelenka had not been able to get past the tight security on the ship's database and logs in order to download any of it. There were obviously access codes, probably known only the to the ship's officers, but it wasn't as if they had any way of asking them, and he hadn't been able to find a back door in.

"Ain't your fault, Doc."

Zelenka looked up at Ronon in surprise. He hadn't realized that his state of mind was so obvious. "I am fine."

Ronon just patted him roughly on the shoulder, as the white light caught them and beamed them into the gateroom.

The first thing he heard was, "Radek!"

Great. The last person he wanted to see was charging down the gateroom steps in full-on bull-in-a-china-shop mode. "Caldwell's transmission said he blew up the Ancient ship. Blew up the ship! What is wrong with you people? Why didn't you stop him?"

Beside him, Zelenka was aware of Sheppard going tense. Perhaps unconsciously, Teyla and Ronon moved closer in, presenting a united front -- the team joining together against a common adversary. It felt strange to Zelenka to be included in that, a part of something greater than himself. Strange ... but nice.

Confronted by their unity, McKay came to an abrupt halt, faltering in his tirade. The quick flash of pain in his eyes was swiftly masked by anger. "Damn it, Radek, I can't believe that you didn't even consult with me before charging off to explore the find of the decade! You may be in the field but I'm still your superior --"

"I sent you a report days ago, Rodney," Zelenka said quietly. "We also spoke briefly before I left for mission. You are so wrapped up in Arcturus project that you are rubber-stamping everything and paying no attention to what people tell you."

McKay stuttered briefly and then managed to swing his tirade in a different direction. "And that's another thing -- you're running around offworld when we're about to fire up the project and I need you on Doranda. And you know that -- you've seen the project timeline --"

Sheppard steered Zelenka past McKay with a hand on his arm. "It's been a hell of a day, Rodney, and we don't have time for this. We're due for a briefing with Elizabeth, and then I need a shower and some sleep."

McKay ignored Sheppard, as if he hadn't spoken. "Get back here, Radek! We aren't finished!"

Radek stopped, swinging around; in nearly two years, obeying that voice had become instinctual. Sheppard, halfway up the stairs, had stopped too, turning around. Zelenka felt suddenly like a tasty morsel pinned between two angry dogs. This had nothing to do with himself and Rodney, he realized, and everything to do with Rodney and the Colonel. He didn't want to be in this position; he just desperately wanted to be anywhere else. As he floundered for something to say, he heard Sheppard speak from the steps above him. "Didn't I just say we were done here, McKay?"

Rodney's glare swept them all with withering fury. "Yeah," he said. "I guess we are." And he turned and stalked out of the gateroom.

Later, after a long shower and a meal in the cafeteria with his team, Zelenka cautiously approached the labs. He slunk in expecting wrath, but instead, McKay was cool and efficient. He wanted Radek on Doranda in the morning. He'd need this, and this, and this completed before then. Dismissed.

It was so different from Radek's usual conversations with Rodney that he was left in shock -- he just agreed, numbly, and began to complete Rodney's "to do" list without arguing. When he looked up, McKay had left and he was alone in the lab.

He'd been on the receiving end of McKay's anger often enough, but this ... this was something different. Something cold, and hard. Professional jealousy? He knew McKay wasn't above that. But as he teased it around in his mind, he realized that it was much simpler and more personal than that.

Rodney had assigned Radek to Sheppard's team. And as terrified as Radek had been at first, he'd come to enjoy it -- and, he thought, to fit in. He remembered the way that Sheppard's team had interacted over the last few months before Rodney had quit: the strain, the coolness, the palpable sense of tension. With Zelenka in the mix, the team worked together much more smoothly, and he thought it must be visible to everyone ... especially Rodney.

Sheppard was still distant. He wasn't unfriendly, but Radek didn't think the Colonel would ever be close to him -- or to anyone, probably. However, they had begun to find a comfortable working relationship. They didn't joke in the field, the way that Zelenka remembered Rodney and Sheppard used to do. But they could work together efficiently and smoothly.

Radek fit with the team in a way that Rodney no longer could. And, he thought with a heavy heart, Rodney would probably never forgive him for it.

He'd gained a team ... but lost a friend.

"Okay! Fleischman, you've got the radiation monitors? You calibrated those last night, right? Greta -- Girda -- damn it, what is that woman's name -- you there, put those in the -- damn it, that's fragile! Be careful, you ham-handed idiot!"

Sheppard sat back in Jumper One's pilot seat and let the activity in the jumper bay flow around him. He couldn't help smiling a little. There was something oddly pleasant and comforting about listening to McKay ranting at his underlings.

Even after all that had happened, it still sounded like home.

Of course, he hardly ever saw Rodney these days, and when they were in the same room, they couldn't seem to pass a civil word, beyond the bare minimum necessary to get through the staff meetings. After the Aurora mission briefing, Elizabeth had taken Sheppard aside. "John, I heard Rodney in the gateroom today ..."

"I imagine everyone heard him."

"I'm very serious about this, John. The two of you have to be able to work together, for Atlantis's sake."

It had been a while since he'd talked to Elizabeth one-on-one. In fact, the last time he could specifically remember was when she'd come to see him in his quarters while he was, not to put too fine a point on it, turning into a giant bug. There had been some brief, awkward infirmary visits -- she'd bring him a book, or something he needed from his quarters, and they'd fumble through some uncomfortable pleasantries before she retreated again. After that, well ... things had been busy, between dealing with all the innumerable duties that had piled up during his Gregor Samsa period, and trying to prepare Zelenka for field work. He just hadn't had time for relaxing.

Looking at Elizabeth now, he could see fine lines around her mouth that he didn't remember. There were blue shadows under her eyes. She looked strained and tired, and much older than the last time he'd seen her. And maybe that was why he didn't argue, didn't try to protest that it was Rodney's fault and not his.

"I'll try," was all he said.

So here he was, in the pilot's seat, preparing to fly to Doranda and watch the scientists flip some switches before going home. They'd have no shortage of security; Lorne's team and Sgt. Bradbury's team would both be there, as well as a couple of personal guards for Elizabeth. Sheppard didn't care what anyone said -- he didn't trust the Dorandans any farther than he could throw them. And the entire command crew was going to be on Doranda during the test: Elizabeth, himself and Rodney, plus Zelenka who was basically the science department's second-in-command and a member of his team.

He understood that they couldn't take Teyla because of her Wraith DNA, but he'd argued with Elizabeth about having Ronon along, finally backing down when she pointed out that the big Satedan was still a loose cannon and very prone to overreact to minor slights. This was a sensitive diplomatic situation and she did. Not. Want. Ronon. There.

He had to admit, privately, that she was right. But he didn't like it.

McKay's nonstop ranting came closer and finally plunked into the co-pilot's seat next to him. "-- and tell Dr. Vogel to forget looking for the damn mice, that's what the lab techs are for. We're leaving as soon as the GAH!"

He'd just turned and noticed Sheppard sitting next to him.

"No, I wasn't talking to you, obviously. Leaving in exactly one minute and anyone who's not on board is staying behind. McKay out." He slapped the radio and then gave Sheppard one of his familiar disgruntled looks. "Why are you here? I was expecting Lorne."

Sheppard just shrugged. "Needed another pilot. I was available."

McKay eyed him suspiciously. "You haven't been back to Doranda since the initial survey."

"Well, maybe it's time I saw what was so important."

The scientist stared at him for a moment longer, then hmph'd and activated his radio again, haranguing someone else for being late.

It was more than one minute, but less than five, before the three jumpers lifted off and gated through to the Doranda system. As they came in low over the ruined city, Sheppard realized that he'd unconsciously tensed up, the way that the body braces for an impact. It was as if he expected something bad to happen.

Zelenka had spent quite a bit of time that morning at breakfast trying to convince him that they'd covered every possible contingency. "I would not say it is impossible for something to go wrong, Colonel, but it is very unlikely. And you know that I am not -- that I do not make such assertions lightly."

I am not Rodney, he'd almost said.

Beyond his initial comments, McKay hadn't said a word to Sheppard since they had lifted off from Atlantis. Casting a quick sideways glance at the scientist, Sheppard saw that he was engrossed in his laptop, going through some kind of checklist on the screen.

It was so familiar, so comfortable, having Rodney there in the co-pilot's seat, just like old times. He had to fight off the temptation to crack some kind of stupid joke just to get Rodney wound up. But this wasn't the time or the place, and the scientist on his team now was Zelenka.

This was temporary.

The Dorandans were already in the control room of the Arcturus facility when the Atlanteans entered. There were just two of them today, a tall and attractive woman who must be Larissa, and an older, bearded man that Sheppard presumed was Seng. Larissa smiled brilliantly upon seeing Rodney, but her smile faltered as the others entered the room.

"You have brought more people than I expected," she said.

Elizabeth extended a hand. "Hello, Larissa. I'm Dr. Elizabeth Weir. We've spoke over the radio, but never in person. It's a pleasure to meet you at last."

Larissa smiled, a bit uncertainly, and accepted the hand awkwardly. "It is an honor to meet you, as well. You understand that we will need to scan you and each of your new people for Wraithsign?"

Weir just nodded. "I've been told. Please, go ahead."

Larissa tapped a handheld object, about the size of a paperback book, against Weir's upper arm, and nodded as she examined the screen. "Thank you. I apologize; it is just a formality."

"I understand." Rubbing a hand against her arm, Elizabeth watched with intense eyes as Larissa went to each of the Marines in Bradbury's team, tapping the device against their arms. Then it was Sheppard's turn.

"Hi. I don't believe we've met. I'm John Sheppard, the military commander of Atlantis."

"It is an honor, Colonel." She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd seen, but she was certainly striking, with almond-shaped eyes and long hair done up in many tiny braids that had been arranged in an elaborate coiffure on top of her head. One shoulder of her bulky brown jacket was decorated with an egg-shaped object that Sheppard would have taken for an ornament or some sort of rank insignia, if McKay hadn't tipped him off that these people used an Ancient device to scramble life signs readings.

It was one of the many things he didn't trust about them. The jacket was another; it looked positively made for hiding concealed weapons.

The device touched his arm and he felt a quick sting. Larissa looked at the display and her eyes widened, just a bit. Then her face became calm again. "He's clean," she told Seng.

Sheppard offered her his most charming smile and then looked past her at McKay. He frowned to see Rodney staring at him with an "Oh shit" look on his face.

"What's the matter with you?"

McKay opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, glanced at Larissa, and waved his hand dismissively. "Tell you later," he said, and turned to ask Zelenka a question about particle flow control.

Sheppard frowned after him, but McKay was already off in scientist happyland and Larissa looked to be joining him there, so he wandered over to Seng. "Hi. Colonel Sheppard. Military commander of Atlantis."

Seng gave him a direct stare from under lowered brows. "Captain Seng. Commander of the Dorandan Defensive Guard."

Sheppard leaned against the nearest console and assessed the man with a quick glance. About Caldwell's age, but very fit; despite the age difference, Sheppard wouldn't want to tangle with him. One of those long energy weapons he'd read about in Lorne's report was strapped in a holster on the soldier's back; another, pistol-shaped one rested at his hip. Well, Sheppard had his P90 and Beretta, so he supposed that made them even.

"So, you on scientist babysitting detail, too?" He offered a grin. Seng didn't grin back.

"This is very important to my people, Colonel. We take it very seriously." His stare got a little more intense on the "very seriously" part, and then he strolled off.

"Friendly sort," Sheppard muttered. He wandered over to see what the scientists were doing.

McKay and Zelenka were arguing over some minor point of the power feedback protocols. There was a hard edge to their raised voices that Sheppard couldn't remember hearing from their arguments before. Deciding that he didn't want to get involved, he went to the viewport that looked into the generator chamber.

It was incredibly different than the last time he'd seen it. Rather than sitting alone in an empty room, the core module had been wrapped in a series of what looked to Sheppard like alternator armatures. There were other things too -- protrusions where there had been only smooth walls, fat bundles of wires running to the armatures, and more.

He drifted off to prop up a wall and stay out of the way. Elizabeth was feigning polite interest in the various displays that Larissa seemed eager to show her. Every once in a while, the Dorandan scientist glanced in Sheppard's direction. One time, their eyes met and he offered her a smile. She smiled back, a bit too quick and bright, and then looked away.

Maybe she thinks you're attractive, he thought hopefully.

Boredom began to set in. He scratched surreptitiously at his healing forearm. Carson said the mark from Ellia's attack would fade in time, and it did seem to be slowly going away, but it still itched like a mother.

His fingers paused in mid-scratch as a very unpleasant thought occurred to him. Was it possible that enough of the Iratus alterations remained for his DNA to show up on Larissa's scanner as Wraith?

Ridiculous, he told himself, utterly ridiculous. For one thing, she would surely have said something if she got an anomalous reading ... wouldn't she? He couldn't imagine that she would allow a suspected spy to hang around during the testing of an extremely powerful weapon.

On the other hand, he asked himself what he would do if someone came to visit Atlantis and their scans turned up something weird and suspicious about their genetic makeup. It was possible that they'd just lock up the person or send them back through the gate. But ... it was also possible that they'd do nothing and simply allow the person to go about their daily business -- with a guard quietly tailing them.

He threw a glance at Seng and saw that the man's intense gray eyes were fixed on him.

Ridiculous. Carson had assured him that his DNA was ... what had he said? Mostly normal.

How normal was "mostly"?

And how sensitive were the Dorandans' scanners?

"Okay, people!" McKay announced to the room. "All lights are green. We're going to start bringing up the power, very slowly. You all know where you're supposed to be. On my mark ... three, two, one ... mark."

A deep, low thrumming began. Sheppard could feel it through the soles of his feet. He hadn't been there when Collins had died, but he still felt his body tensing. He'd read the report from Lorne's team. He knew how fast it had changed on them.

"Five percent power and holding steady," McKay reported. "Containment field is holding. All lights are green."

Zelenka looked up from his boards. "No radiation. The bridge is working."

"Power up to ten percent."

The thrumming increased. Sheppard could feel it in his teeth now.

"Ten percent and ... containment holding steady."

Several people in the room let out sighs of relief. Sheppard's eyes flicked to Larissa and he saw that she was staring at the ruddy glow visible through the containment chamber's small viewport, her eyes wide and excited. Captain Seng was doing the same. His sense of unease flickered again.

"-- weapon, Colonel?"

Sheppard realized that McKay was talking to him. "What?"

The scientist rolled his eyes and sighed. "I said, we need someone with the gene to do a test shot with the weapon. Care to blow something up?"

He couldn't help himself; a little-kid grin slipped out at the whole idea -- I get to fire a big space gun! -- and for just an instant, the corners of Rodney's mouth quirked up too. Then the grin vanished, as if McKay had remembered where he was and who he was with.

It had been so easy once, that back-and-forth between them.

The sense of fun had evaporated. Sheppard stepped up to the console that McKay indicated. It was simple to use, just like the targeting system in the jumpers. "What do you want me to shoot at?"

McKay sighed impatiently. "It doesn't matter. Any piece of debris will do."

He chose a derelict Wraith dart, and told the weapon, Destroy that thing.

It did.

The screens showed him a simultaneous simulation of the blue beam streaking up from the gun atop the facility, and the target evaporating into the darkness of space. "Wow," he whispered. "Cool."

McKay was silent for a moment, staring over his shoulder at the display, which now showed one less blip. Then he spun on Zelenka. "Well? Anything?"

"Not even a single dip in power. Containment field holding." The Czech scientist looked up, and a grin broke across his face. "I think we've done it."

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then jubilation broke out across the room. Larissa flung her arms around Rodney and squeezed him, to his obvious embarrassment and dismay. All around the room, people were laughing and shaking hands. Something struck Sheppard as odd about the scene, but it took him a moment to place it. For just that one moment, there was a total lack of boundaries between military and civilian. There was an excited female scientist hugging Lorne, and next to them, one of Lorne's team shaking hands with another of the scientists. Around the room, the scene was repeated. Then people slowly began to come back to themselves, to remember their places, to retreat to their own kind.

We really have lost a lot, haven't we? Sheppard thought in amazement.

Elizabeth beckoned him from across the room. When he was close enough, she said, "Sorry to cut out on you, but it looks as if everything's running smoothly and I have a massive stack of reports with my name on them back at home. Rodney's so excited right now that I don't think he'd notice if I took a swan dive from the top of the building."

Sheppard shrugged. "Now that the big moment is over, I doubt if there's much to see here for us non-science types."

"Are you coming back also?"

He'd been planning on it. He was just going to come for the button-pushing, and then head back to Atlantis, leaving Lorne's team for security. But unease continued to nag at him. He didn't want to leave while the Dorandans were still in the facility.

"Nah, I think I'll stick around for a little while. You might want to get back to your paperwork, but I make a habit of avoiding mine."

She smiled. "Not lately, thank God. I'm actually very impressed, John; you've had every single report and requisition in on time lately, and with all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, too."

"Hey, yet another reason for some downtime. I've earned it."

Elizabeth looked around at the gray walls. "Well, if you want to take your vacation time here ... who am I to stop you. See you back on Atlantis."

She left with Bradbury's team and, as it turned out, most of the extraneous scientists. Soon the only people left in the facility were McKay, Zelenka, Lorne's team, and Sheppard. And, of course, the Dorandans.

"Skeleton crew?" Sheppard inquired, wandering over to McKay.

Handwave. "It's not as if there's anything to do here; we're just running along at ten percent power. Right now, I need people back on Atlantis, crunching numbers. We collected a huge amount of data during the initial firing-up and that test shot, and I need those analyzed yesterday to make sure everything is running as smoothly as it looks and that we're not, oh, tearing a hole in the fabric of space-time, or something."

"Is that possible?"

McKay just gave him the "are you an idiot?" look, and went back to studying his readouts. Sheppard looked around for the Dorandans. Larissa was looking over some printouts with Zelenka. Captain Seng had vanished.

Sheppard moseyed over to Lorne.

"Hey, Major."

"Hey, sir."

"You didn't happen to see where Seng went, did you?"

"No, sir. Sorry." Lorne straightened, and his hand slipped down to his P90. "Is there a problem?"

"I really, really hope not, but I'd kinda like to know where he went, if you catch my drift."

"Can't blame you for that, sir. Any specific orders?"

"Not really, no ... just take your men and poke around outside a little bit. I'd be particularly interested to know if we have any other company hiding anywhere. We've scanned for lifesigns, but I hear they can conceal theirs."

Lorne's mouth twisted. "You hear right, sir."

"Be careful, Major, and check in frequently."

"Yes, sir."

Lorne's team left, and Sheppard went to check on the scientists again. "Everything still good?"

"Are you planning to ask every five minutes?" McKay demanded.

"You'll have to excuse me if the words 'hole in the fabric of space-time' make me a bit nervous, Rodney."

McKay drew his head back and glared.

"So," Zelenka interrupted nervously. "Anyone up for some food?"

The four of them sat in a circle on the floor and shared MREs. Larissa nudged at her food curiously, and then dug into without a complaint. She was, Sheppard couldn't help noticing, sitting as far away from him as she could get without being conspicuous about it.

She'd definitely seen something she didn't like on her scanner.

He saw that Rodney was looking at her, also, with a speculative sort of expression. And Sheppard had opened his mouth to say something, when one of the consoles began to beep.

The four of them were on their feet in an instant, scattering the remains of their meal. McKay, Zelenka and Larissa all clustered around the offending console, staring at the displays.

McKay pointed at something. "Well, that's--"

"Highly anomalous," Zelenka finished.

"What is?" Sheppard demanded. "If we're about to blow up, I'd really like to know."

McKay gave him an exasperated look. "We're not about to blow up. At least ... I don't think so."

"You wouldn't believe how much less than comforting that is, Rodney."

Once again, Zelenka spoke quickly in an attempt to head off an argument in the making. "We are simply seeing some odd readings. The energy in the containment field spiked, and it should not have done that."

Sheppard looked back and forth between them. They didn't appear as alarmed as he thought they ought to be if the universe was about to collapse. "Is this the sort of spike that happens right before we all die?"

"I certainly hope not," Rodney said, and then was interrupted by a loud gasp from Larissa.

She was pointing across the room with one hand over her mouth.

They all looked.

Over by the wall where Lorne's team had been standing earlier, there was a -- darkness. Sheppard could think of no other way to describe it. It reminded him vaguely of the energy creature that they'd unwittingly freed on Atlantis: a shadow with nothing to cast it, a scrap of night set loose in the daytime.

"Rodney," Sheppard said in a low voice, "what the hell is that?"

McKay was staring wildly at his readouts. His voice rose and cracked with terror. "It's something that shouldn't exist!"

"Like, say -- a hole in the fabric of fucking space-time?"

"Mmmaybe?" McKay offered in a tiny voice. Larissa made a small, terrified squeaking sound.

Then there was a ... shudder. Sheppard couldn't explain it any other way. Things shivered around them, through them. And the darkness changed, so rapidly he couldn't follow it with his eyes -- it collapsed in on itself, coalesced and was gone.

Leaving someone standing in the room.

Sheppard's eyes told him what his brain couldn't quite accept. The person standing across the room from them, swaying and staring at them with wild blue eyes, was Rodney McKay -- a terrified-looking Rodney McKay, wearing something which was most definitely not an Atlantis scientist's uniform.

He stood for a moment, swaying, staring, his mouth open as if he wanted to say something but couldn't quite find the words. Then he managed to say, "Oh, I -- you -- oh no, not again ..." right before he collapsed in a heap on the floor.

For a moment, nobody moved. Zelenka was, surprisingly, the first to start reacting again: he ran across the floor and knelt beside the man who looked so much like McKay, and reached out a nervous hand to nudge at his shoulder. "Rodney?" he asked shakily.

This seemed to snap Rodney -- the real Rodney -- out of his paralysis. "Clearly he's not me. I'm me. Standing right here. He's someone else."

"About that fabric of space-time thing, McKay ..."

Rodney pressed his hands against his temples. "Please don't say alternate universe. Don't say it. Please."

"Is such a thing even possible?" Larissa asked.

"As it happens, yes, yes it is. The SGC has ended up with alternate versions of themselves on multiple occasions." McKay heaved a sigh, and took one final nervous look at the board full of displays, all of which were reading comfortably green once again. "I'm telling you, we'd better not end up with a doppelganger of me every time we fire up this thing, that's all I have to say ..."

His voice cracked, but just a trifle. Considering the circumstances, Sheppard thought that they all were doing a remarkable job of staying calm. His own fingers twitched on his P90.

The three of them crossed the room and stood over the unconscious alt-Rodney. There was no doubt about it: definitely McKay, or at least, a McKay. Zelenka had slipped out of his jacket and wadded it up under alt-Rodney's head.

"His pulse is strong," Zelenka said. "I do not know why he fainted. Shock from his journey, perhaps, from wherever he has come."

"Passed out," McKay murmured stiffly. "Not fainted."

Larissa knelt down beside the unconscious man. "He does look like you. That is very, very strange." She plucked very lightly at the alt-Rodney's sleeve. "This is not the color that your scientists wear, though."

McKay crouched cautiously, his curiosity overcoming his obvious wariness. He glanced down at his own, science-yellow uniform. The other Rodney was wearing command blue, Elizabeth's color. "Maybe in his Atlantis, he's in charge of the expedition."

Sheppard's lips twitched in spite of himself. A sarcastic comment hovered on his tongue, but he bit it back, and the smile faded. This wasn't a time for jokes. "We oughta have Carson take a look at him. Think we should take him back, or bring Carson here?"

McKay spun on him, his eyes wide and startled. "You want to take him to Atlantis?"

"Why not?"

"Colonel! We haven't got a clue who or what he is! He could have diseases! He could explode!"

Sheppard sighed. "Elizabeth can make that decision. We at least need to let her know what's going on. Go use the DHD in one of the jumpers to dial the gate and call her."

"What, me?"

"Does everything have to be a goddamn fight with you, McKay?"

Rodney frowned at him. Sheppard wondered if it was just his imagination that McKay looked as tired as he, himself, felt. The past few months had been hellish on all of them, and things just didn't seem to be getting any easier.

Before McKay could respond, their radios crackled.

"Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, this is Lorne. Is Colonel Sheppard in there with you?"

They all looked at each other, and Sheppard touched his radio. "This is Sheppard. I'm here. Why?"

There was a brief pause before Lorne answered. "Because you're out here too, sir. Only ... you're dead."

Chapter Five: Doppelgangers

It turned out that Lorne's team had found a crashed puddlejumper in the ruins of the city. Or, rather, it had found them -- damn near crashed on top of them, from the sound of things.

When Sheppard and McKay arrived on the scene, leaving Zelenka and Larissa in charge of calling Weir about the unconscious alt-Rodney, they found Lorne's team hovering at a safe distance around a smoking, crumpled jumper sticking half in and half out of one of the buildings.

"I have no idea where it came from, sir," Lorne told Sheppard. "I'd swear on a whole stack of Bibles and my grandmother's grave that it just came out of thin air. One minute we're walking along, the next minute it nearly took off Harrison's hat and crashed into a building not twenty feet away from us."

Sheppard approached the jumper cautiously, leaping back as a piece of debris toppled from higher up on the building and smashed to the ground. Behind him, McKay made a small squeak.

"It's kind of unstable," Lorne added, unnecessarily. "I got close enough to see that you were, well, had been, flying it. I mean, someone who looked like you, that is. Clearly it isn't you, so I figured I'd radio for instructions before, well, doing anything."

Sheppard jumped up on a fallen section of wall so that he could see through the windshield. Presumably this was the vantage Lorne had used. The windshield was a spiderweb of cracks, the jumper's interior dim and filled with smoke, but he could see the twisted, blood-covered body of the pilot. Part of the jumper's roof had buckled on top of him.

McKay made another small sound and Sheppard cast an automatic glance sideways, to see that the scientist had gone white. Seeing his own double hadn't had this much of an effect on him. Sheppard wondered if it was the sight of blood that did it. It sure as hell wasn't the fact that it was him; he knew how McKay felt about him, these days.

"I'd like to get in there, sir," Lorne said.

"So would I, Major. Have you tried opening the hatch?"

Lorne nodded. "It's jammed."

More pieces of the building clattered down around them as they picked their way across the rubble. Sheppard expected McKay to retreat to the street outside, but to his surprise, the scientist stayed behind him. There was a soft whisper of sound as he drew the LSD from his jacket, and then an exclamation of surprise.

"He's alive," McKay said, speaking for the first time since they'd seen the crashed jumper. The whole situation seemed to have actually shut him up. Sheppard wondered if there was any way it could be made into a permanent condition.

"Alive? You're kidding. You saw him; he's a mess." Sheppard tapped at the hull, trying to find a manual release for the ramp. The jumper wasn't responding to him at all; it must have completely lost power in the crash.

When McKay spoke again, he sounded hostile. "The scanner doesn't lie, Colonel." And neither do I, his tone implied.

Sheppard was in no mood to deal with a McKay snit, so he ignored him instead. "Lorne, if we can't get this open, we're going to need a cutting torch. And we'd also better get Beckett down here."

"Colonel." McKay again. "I think we need to consider what we're doing here. This guy could be -- I mean, we don't have any idea what effect these people could have on our reality, if people they actually are. We're just lucky they didn't come from a -- an antimatter universe and annihilate us on contact. They could have bacteria we're not resistant to. They could come from an Atlantis where everyone is evil ..."

Sheppard rested his hand against the hull for a moment, then turned to look at Rodney. "You want us to leave an injured man to die? Is that what you're saying?"

"No -- no, you know that's not what I meant ... I just mean we need to keep in mind that there could be a lot of danger here, that's all --"

A sharp crash made them both jump. Sheppard looked up towards the front of the wrecked jumper as Lorne appeared around the end. "Colonel, the windshield was damaged enough that I've managed to break it. We can get in that way."

As he trotted around to the front of the jumper, Sheppard tapped his radio. "Zelenka? You get through to Elizabeth yet?"

"I did," the Czech reported. "Dr. Beckett should be on his way in a jumper."

"Tell them to fix on our lifesigns and land as close to our position as they can. We've got a very badly injured alternate me out here to match our alternate McKay in there."

After a brief, stunned pause, Zelenka said, "Right."

Sheppard jumped up on the front end of the puddlejumper and knelt to peer down inside. There was broken glass everywhere; getting in without getting cut to ribbons would be a neat trick. "And, Radek? I want that machine shut down immediately."

Rodney squawked, "Hey!"

"Not negotiable, not until we understand more about what's happening. Got it?"

There was a small, unhappy sigh over the radio. "Yes. I will do it. Larissa will not like this."

"I don't care what Larissa likes. I care about making sure the universe doesn't unravel. Sheppard out."

As he broke the connection, McKay said from below him in a disgusted voice, "It's not going to unravel the universe, Sheppard."

"How do you know? Did you know it would do this, McKay?" Using the tail of his jacket to protect his hands, he broke off more of the glasslike material, pushing it out of the way until he cleared an opening that he could climb through.

"I can go in first, sir," Lorne offered.

Sheppard shook his head. "No. You stay out here, keep an eye on things."

He slid through the opening and landed feet-first on the damaged console. Electrical smoke made him cough. His doppelganger was half in and half out of the seat, his torso twisted around at an alarming angle to his legs. Sheppard leaned over him, bracing one hand against the back of the jumper's seat and using the fingers of his free hand to feel for a pulse on the bloody neck. He found it, but it was rapid, erratic and faint. When the alternate Sheppard breathed, blood bubbled on his lips; Sheppard couldn't tell if it was from internal bleeding or because of the blood running into his mouth from one of the ragged, ugly gashes on his head.

"Crap, he's really hurt bad, isn't he?" McKay's voice was soft and scared. Sheppard looked up to see the scientist awkwardly balanced in the opening in the windshield.

Rather than answering him, Sheppard tapped his radio. "Radek, Beckett needs to know that if he isn't here soon, he may as well not bother coming at all."

It wasn't Zelenka's voice that answered, but rather, the gravelly voice of Sgt. Bradbury. "Actually, sir, we're above you now. We just got a fix on your life signs and we're going to try landing in the street."

"Be careful, sergeant; the last thing we need is another crashed jumper."

"Don't put any pressure on him now, Colonel," Beckett snapped over the radio.

Sheppard grinned, and slid down beside the seat, finding purchase for his feet. The jumper was tilted at an angle with its nose pointed up. He braced himself on the seat behind the pilot's, but he wondered why he was bothering to stay -- it wasn't as if his meager first aid skills could do anything at all to help the injured man.

It wasn't just him, though. In a shower of broken glass, McKay landed heavily on the console.

"I thought I told you to stay outside."

McKay raised a finger. "You told Lorne to stay outside. Didn't say a thing to me."

"That's great, but I hope you're up on your tetanus shots, because there are a lot of things to impale yourself on down here."

McKay shivered, his face pale, and with great care he maneuvered himself to rest against the co-pilot's seat. He leaned over and touched the injured Sheppard's face lightly.

"Don't go poking at him, McKay."

Rodney jumped. "I was just checking for a pulse!"

"I already did."

McKay chewed on his lip, then looked around in shock as Sheppard carefully stepped off the seat that was supporting him and, hanging onto a cargo net, slid deeper into the jumper's smashed body. "Where are you going?"

"Checking to make sure there's nobody else in here."

The body of the jumper was a total loss. The ceiling was buckled -- he'd though from the outside that it had crushed the alternate Sheppard's body, but it had actually caved in behind him. The gloom beneath it was lit by the lurid flicker of sparking electrical wires. Sheppard ducked to avoid them, feeling thankful that, unlike a car or a plane, there was nothing in the jumper that was in danger of exploding. At least ... he didn't think so. "Hey, McKay?"

"Yeah?" came Rodney's tense voice from the front of the jumper.

"This thing isn't going to explode, is it?"

"How should I know?"

Not comforting. "All I want to know is how likely it is."

"Not very," McKay said, and just as Sheppard was relaxing a little: "Well, unless the malfunctioning equipment somehow sends the wrong signal to the drones. But that's unlikely. At least, I think it's unlikely ..."

Sheppard sighed and pushed his way past a cargo hatch that had buckled inward on impact, nearly touching the opposite side of the jumper. "Thanks for the comforting thought, Rodney."

"You asked!"

Well, that was true. "Next time I ask you a question like that, just tell me ignorance is bliss, okay?"

There was a short laugh from the front of the jumper. "If ignorance is truly bliss, then you should be a very happy man, Colonel."

Sheppard grinned into the darkness. Maybe it was just that they had hardly seen each other in weeks -- maybe that was why it seemed to be easier to get along for a few hours, this time around. Perhaps the enforced proximity of going out on missions together was what had made it so difficult before.

He liked working with Rodney. He missed working with Rodney.

But it hadn't worked out, he reminded himself. Zelenka was easy to get along with, and a good fit for the team. Teyla and Ronon both seemed to really like him. And, considering how things had crashed and burned -- so to speak -- he wasn't about to ask Rodney to come back.

It wouldn't be good for the team.

Nevermind that he wanted it, and at the same time didn't want it, because it would hurt too damn much when everything went bad again. What he wanted wasn't a consideration. The good of the team was what mattered, and it wasn't fair to kick Zelenka off, wasn't fair to make Ronon work with someone he couldn't stand.


He realized that McKay had been repeating his name. "You'd better be on fire up there," he snapped, angry to realize that he'd zoned out in a danger situation.

"Fine, be an ass, I don't care," Rodney retorted, and then, in a different tone, "Hey, Carson! Stopped to play a few rounds of golf along the way?"

"Bloody hell," he heard Carson's brogue, a bit muffled. "It is the Colonel." His voice got clearer as he clambered through the windshield. "And he's a right mess, isn't he? Melanie love, we're going to need a backboard in here."

Sheppard climbed back up to join them as Carson and a muscular, middle-aged nurse worked to free alt-Sheppard from the twisted wreckage of the pilot's seat. Sheppard assisted as best he could, lifting and holding, while the medical talk flowed around him -- pressure and hemorrhage and Carson complaining about not having any cervical collars because he hadn't realized that immobilization and extraction were going to be on his agenda for today and how someone needed to redo the materials lists for the S&R equipment in the jumpers ...

"Colonel, we need to get him back to Atlantis fast," Beckett told him as he jogged alongside their improvised stretcher on the way back to Sgt. Bradbury's jumper. "There's a lot of internal bleeding, we didn't do him any favors pulling him out of there without proper equipment, and I need to get him in surgery now if he's going to even have a chance."

Sheppard just nodded, gripping a cargo net and swinging himself into the jumper's hold. He stopped in surprise at the sight of the other occupants of the ship: alt-Rodney lay on one of the jumper's bench seats, reclining against Larissa, while Zelenka crouched down by his head.

"We shut down the machine, as you said, and then brought him down here," Zelenka explained. "For the doctor to see."

McKay pushed past Sheppard. "I still think taking him back to Atlantis is a very, very bad idea. Why don't you people listen to me?"

Zelenka frowned up at him. "He is you, Rodney."

"He could be an evil me!"

"Looks like everyone's aboard," Bradbury reported back.

Sheppard nodded. "Major Lorne, I want you to take your team back to the facility and keep it secured." With Larissa sitting right there, he didn't want to add "... against the Dorandans," but he thought that Lorne got the idea. The major nodded and trotted off the ramp, which Bradbury closed behind him.

Larissa. Crap! As the jumper lifted off, Sheppard realized that he should have sent her with Lorne's team. Instead, she was still on board, supporting alt-Rodney on the bench seat. Well, damn. Too late now. He actually thought of asking Bradbury to set back down and drop her off, but then he looked down at his alternate self bleeding out on the jumper floor. Allowing his vague suspicions to trump a man's life was a pretty lousy thing to do. Especially when the man was him. Well, sort of him. They had to get back to Atlantis; there wasn't any time to waste. It looked like Larissa was coming along for the ride.

He just hoped McKay was right about her.

McKay felt as if things had completely spun out of his control.

It had all been going so well. And then ... this. And now no one would listen to him, and they'd insisted on shutting down the machine despite the fact that he was quite sure that this was a complete aberration and possibly not even related to anything they were doing in this universe -- wasn't it equally likely that the doppelgangers were here because they'd built a similar machine in their universe and screwed it up?

And now Sheppard insisted on taking them home like stray puppies. He couldn't believe it.

With so many people crowded in the back of the jumper, and his alternate self taking up the whole damn bench, there wasn't really anywhere to sit down, adding to his general foul mood. He tried to stay out of the way, and also tried not to look too hard at the activity on the floor of the jumper, where Carson and the nurse had laid out alt-Sheppard and were frantically working over him, as pools of blood spread under him on the metal decking.

Suddenly alt-Rodney sat bolt upright; McKay jumped. "Sheppard!" the doppelganger gasped.

Sheppard leaned forward and placed a hand against his chest, pushing him back down. "Relax."

He did, all the struggle going out of him. "Colonel, thank God, I thought --" Then he tensed up again, looking Sheppard up and down. "You're not--" he began, and then looked past Sheppard and saw McKay. His eyes got very large, and he was silent for a moment. Then he laughed, a very edgy laugh. "Oh, this is ... just great. Deja vu all over again. And here I was hoping it was just a bad dream."

McKay thought it was just his luck that they'd find an insane alternate universe version of him. "Where did you come from?" he demanded, leaning past Sheppard. "How did you get here?"

Alt-Rodney took a deep breath. "Settle down," he said, sounding as if he were speaking to himself as much as to McKay. "Just ... calm down, calm down, calm calm calm. Wide open fields ..." He shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked up at them. "I'm from Atlantis, of course. You're, um -- you too, I hope?"

"We're en route to it now," McKay said shortly.

"Of course we are," alt-Rodney murmured. "And you ... you're -- What do they call you here?"

McKay's eyes narrowed. This was him, after all -- the one person in this galaxy who knew his real first name. "Rodney," he said grimly.

"Well, then, I guess you can call me ... Rod." Alt-Rodney smiled a little, as if at a private joke. The smile dropped away quickly, though. "Did Sheppard come through with me? My universe's Sheppard, I mean. We were both in the ..." He trailed off at the looks on their faces. "What? What?"

Just then Beckett said sharply, "Melanie, I need some help getting this IV set up, I can't hold -- yes, there's a love--" and at the sound of that voice, all the color drained out of Rod's face. His lips moved, unconsciously it seemed, framing the word, Carson? He just sat stiffly for a moment, then leaned forward slowly, his eyes going from them, to the back of Beckett's head.

McKay exchanged a brief, confused look with Zelenka. He didn't have a chance to ask about it, though, because then Rod saw alt-Sheppard's mangled body, bleeding all over the floor of the jumper, and he jerked forward, starting to stand up.

"Sit down," the real Sheppard ordered, pushing him back against the jumper seat.

From the utterly stricken look on Rod's face and the way that he kept craning to get a look at alt-Sheppard, McKay supposed that the relationship between the two of them, in Rod's universe, must be different than it was here. On the other hand ... he got a weird twist in his gut whenever he looked at alt-Sheppard's broken and bleeding form, too.

"I want to see him," Rod said. "Let me see him!"

"You can see him just fine from where you are." There was a hard, brittle edge to Sheppard's voice. McKay didn't speak. For some reason, Rod's obvious concern for his version of Sheppard angered him. It made him feel strangely inadequate. We had that once.

"Would someone calm him down, please?" Carson didn't look up from his patient, but there was a tightness in his voice. "It's a bit difficult to concentrate and this is touch-and-go. Melanie, love, I need pressure there -- thanks."

Rod stopped struggling; his eyes were very large and very blue in his pale face. "What's wrong with him? What happened to him?"

"His jumper crashed into a building." Sheppard let go of Rod's shoulders, but kept a hand hovering near his chest, ready to restrain him if he tried to move again.

"I don't remember that."

"You weren't there," McKay said. Behind him, he was all too aware of Carson talking to the nurse, and he could see from the increasing fear on Rod's face that Rod was, too: ... probably a lacerated spleen ... isn't fractured, but the other one is ... collapsed lung ... need more oxygen here, love ...

Rod shook his head vigorously, partly in response to McKay's words and partly, McKay thought, in denial of what was happening on the floor of the jumper. "No, we were both together, in the puddlejumper, when we -- when the anomaly --" He broke off, the dazed look of fear being chased away, briefly, by sharp fascination; and McKay couldn't help staring at it, astounded to see his own familiar play of emotions reflected on another's face: Is that what I look like when I'm thinking? "Maybe the anomaly treats everything as a unit, the same way the Stargate does, so it took Sheppard and the jumper as -- but no, that doesn't explain why I'm --"

There was a sudden choking sound from the floor of the jumper, and alt-Sheppard's body arched, convulsing. Carson cursed under his breath. "Melanie, get his -- no, don't let him --"

Sheppard's arm slammed across Rod's chest like an iron bar as he tried to struggle off the bench.

"Let me go! I need to --"

"Get in the doctor's way?" Sheppard demanded. "Let him do his job."

Alt-Sheppard's convulsions stopped abruptly; he collapsed back to the floor like a puppet with cut strings. Rod stopped struggling, too, and sank slowly onto the jumper seat. He made a tiny sound in his throat.

Carson was bending over alt-Sheppard. He gave a little jerk backwards, and then said, in a tone of wonder, "Colonel? Are you with us?"

Alt-Sheppard's head turned to the side. His hair was so soaked with blood that it left a streaky trail on the floor of the jumper. His lips moved under the oxygen mask, framing inaudible words.

Carson glanced up at the real Sheppard, and said, "I think he wants to see Rodney." As McKay started to move forward, he added impatiently, "Not you, the other one."

As soon as Sheppard took his arm away, Rod lunged forward off the bench and dropped to his knees, heedless of the blood on the floor or the equipment around alt-Sheppard's body. He reached a hand out, then drew it back; there was nowhere to touch that wasn't covered with blood or attached to some kind of tube. "Sheppard?"

Alt-Sheppard's head turned towards him, and his eyes flickered half-open. His bloody lips quirked in a sideways grin of pure relief, and he whispered, "Rodney."

"Rod," said Rod quickly.

McKay saw alt-Sheppard mouth, "Rod?" in obvious puzzlement. Ha! he thought, they don't call you Rod in your universe either, do they, you big fat LIAR!

"Yes, Mr. Mensa-in-a-parallel-universe: Rod. Because there are two of me and it's too confusing otherwise."

Sheppard's eyes widened just a little, that quick flash where he got it -- and it hurt, dammit, because McKay remembered what that was like, that quick give-and-take between the two of them. He and Sheppard had lost that a long time ago. Now here were these ... these impostors, and watching the back-and-forth between them was like the pain of a phantom limb.

Rod's hand continued to hover over Sheppard's bloody arm, not quite touching it. "So, you're going to be okay, right? Because leaving me alone in a parallel universe with doppelgangers of ourselves would be -- you know, inexcusably rude. And the next time there's some sort of anomaly over the ocean and someone needs to go check it out, we're sending Lorne's team and Zelenka, got it?"

Alt-Sheppard's lips moved, but no sound emerged. His eyes drifted shut again, and the real Sheppard got a hand on Rod's arm, steering him back to the bench. He obeyed in a dazed kind of way. With a sympathetic look, Larissa got up to make room for him, and then she was drawn to the view of space outside the jumper's front viewport. Looking up, McKay saw her heading for the cockpit.

"Hey, you can't go up there!" Sheppard barked after her.

She looked back, startled. "I just want to look. Our ships -- you can't see out like this. It is all instrument flying."

"Well, that area's off limits to civilians."

McKay decided to stay out of this, and sat down next to his doppelganger, keeping a safe distance between them. Alt-Rodney -- Rod -- looked as if he was in shock; his arms were wrapped around himself, and he was shivering. On the one hand, McKay wanted to be sympathetic -- and it was more than a little bit disturbing seeing the obvious distress on a face so much like his own -- but he still wasn't quite done being angry at Sheppard's cutting him out of the decision-making process. Also, he was very, very curious about the many little differences between them. Like the uniforms.

"In your Atlantis, are you on the command crew? Are you in charge of the expedition?"

Rod looked up at him with a shell-shocked, deer-in-the-headlights sort of expression. "What?"

"Your uniform." McKay gestured at the command-blue that Rod wore.

"What are you -- oh." Rod narrowed his eyes at the science yellow of McKay's uniform. "Blue is the scientists' color," he said, a bit challengingly.

McKay shook his head. "No, blue is the command color -- the color Elizabeth wears. Science is yellow."

Rod peered around him, blinking at Carson. "And red is medical," he said, almost to himself.

"Well, obviously."

"It's different where I come from," Rod murmured, "very different," and he sat back against the wall, huddling in on himself. He was silent for the rest of the flight to Atlantis.

Chapter Six: Wraithsign

The flurry of activity when they landed on not-quite-Atlantis was a blur to Rodney. His analytical mind vaguely registered some of the little differences from his own universe -- a slight blue tint to the lights in the jumper bay; different seat material in the jumper itself -- but everything around him ran together like watercolors in the rain. He felt cold and disconnected. He couldn't help wondering, in a distant kind of way, if crossing between universes had done something horrible and life-threatening to him.

"Psychological shock," he heard someone say -- someone with Carson's soft brogue, but who wasn't Carson, couldn't be Carson, because Carson was dead and this was just ... wrong. Everyone in this universe was cold-eyed and hard and terrifying to him. Someone draped a blanket over his shoulders. He clutched at it.

When they moved Sheppard, he came awake and rose to his feet. He tried to follow but was stopped by this universe's hard-faced fake Sheppard.

"I want to go with him." He struggled, ineffectually, feeling as if he'd been trapped in a bad dream and couldn't wake up.

"He's going to be in surgery; there's nothing you can do. And the infirmary is where you're going anyway." The other Sheppard stepped back, nodding to a soldier that Rodney didn't recognize. "Bradbury, escort this man to the infirmary, please."

He wanted to complain about being treated like a criminal in his own city (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), but he was too shaken, too confused, too scared and tired. Hugging the blanket around himself, he allowed himself to be led down the jumper's ramp.

At the bottom of the ramp, he looked up to see this universe's McKay staring at him in a wary, worried kind of way. Like everyone in this universe that Rodney had seen so far, he looked a little more tired, a little older, than the people Rodney knew. "Haven't you ever looked in a mirror before?" Rodney snapped, and was rewarded when his double jumped guiltily and then scowled.

"I didn't even want to let them bring you here in the first place. Don't blame me."

Rodney didn't dignify that with a response; instead he stepped around his other-universe clone (this was going to get so confusing, he thought) and nearly ran into the strange woman with all the braids. She stepped back quickly and offered him a brief, not very sincere smile. Rodney wondered if she could be this universe's Teyla. She didn't have Teyla's kind eyes, though. Instead she looked more ... appraising, as if wondering what use he could be to her.

When a booted step rang on the ramp behind Rodney, he saw alarm ripple across her face before it was hidden behind a polite smile. The alternate Sheppard brushed past Rodney without looking at him, and he saw how the woman tensed up when Sheppard approached her. "Hope you weren't thinking of wandering off," the alternate Sheppard told her. "Atlantis can be a dangerous place for a stranger, Doc."

Doc... Doctor? ... of what? Rodney wondered. The woman's face was set in hard lines; Rodney could see that she didn't like Sheppard, but he had no idea why. "And I'm sure it's my welfare you're worried about," she said tightly.

The alternate McKay sidled up to Sheppard with one eye on the woman. "Need to talk to you," he murmured.

"Not now, McKay."

There were so many undercurrents in this place. Rodney had never been much good at figuring out people, and now he was surrounded by people bearing the faces of the ones he knew, yet all of them with their own hidden agendas. He'd never felt so lost, and it was actually a relief when a hand closed on his elbow and he felt himself tugged away from the jumper. He impatiently jerked his arm away, and the Marine quickly let go; Rodney saw fear in the young sergeant's eyes.

Everyone's afraid of me here. That's ... freaky. It was sort of cool too ... for about a half-second, before he noticed that the Marine's hand had dropped to rest on the butt of his sidearm.

"How about the infirmary, Doctor?" the soldier asked politely.

"How about it," Rodney muttered, and marched off in front of his guard dog, the blanket fluttering behind him. At least he could gain that much control.

"Need to talk to you."

"Not now, McKay." Whatever McKay wanted, it could wait. Sheppard figured that he had bigger problems at the moment, like a Dorandan scientist who had probably watched the jumper pilot dial the Atlantis gate address. Looking past McKay, he saw Bradbury escorting the alternate Rodney out of the jumper bay, passing Elizabeth as she arrived with several Marines behind her. To her credit, the expression on her face barely flickered as her eyes went from the unfamiliar Rodney's back, to the familiar one's face, and then to their uninvited guest.

"Doctor Larissa." Elizabeth held out a hand. "I wasn't aware that you'd come back with the Colonel. I'm sorry that our promised tour of Atlantis couldn't come under better circumstances." Her face betrayed no sign of her distrust of the Dorandans, but Sheppard knew her well enough to note the stiffness in her shoulders.

"That's quite all right." Larissa seemed eager for the distraction, hurrying to greet Elizabeth and to distance herself from Sheppard. And McKay was still hovering anxiously. Sheppard glared at him.

McKay glared back. "Colonel--"

Sheppard made a quick decision. He didn't want Larissa wandering around Atlantis unescorted, but neither did he trust the doppelgangers in the infirmary. And he didn't want McKay in either place -- didn't trust him to be objective enough in either situation. Rodney and Larissa, Rodney and alternate-universe Rodney -- either way, a disaster waiting to happen if McKay's scientific curiosity overwhelmed his not-very-well-developed common sense.

Larissa was probably safe enough with Elizabeth and a military escort, since Elizabeth didn't trust the woman any more than Sheppard did. Which meant that the infirmary was where he ought to be, as soon as he figured out a safe place to stash McKay for a while.

He'd been a world-class Rodney wrangler, once upon a time. He wondered if he still had the touch.

"Not now, McKay! Space-time continuum, remember? Hole in the fabric of reality? Why are you still standing here?" Sheppard jerked his head in the general direction of the labs. "Get your ass down to your lab and figure out what the hell happened, before it happens again and we're knee-deep in clones of you."

McKay's head jerked back. "You've got no authority to give me orders," he said, narrow-eyed.

"That wasn't an order. It was a reminder. Elizabeth will back me up on this: We need to find out what happened over there. It's your job to find out, so get down there and do your job."

Even as the words left his mouth, though, he could see McKay's blue eyes harden. No matter what he said to the scientist these days, it was the wrong thing. He'd always had such an easy touch with McKay -- it was like flying, a thing that came naturally to him. But now ... now he tried to think his way around every statement, to analyze the outcome, and inevitably he stumbled. It wasn't his way. He was a man who acted on instinct, who trusted his gut.

As a pilot, he knew all too well that in order to fly, you had to act; you couldn't stop to think, or the unforgiving ground would smack all the thinking right out of you forever. When you were catching air in an Apache helicopter with missiles screaming behind you, there was no room for fear and doubt and second-guessing. You just did, and picked up the pieces later.

Now, though -- nothing was right; when he acted without thinking, it was wrong, and when he tried to think it through, his reasoning was wrong. And every wrong step left him farther from home.

"Don't throw duty in my face," McKay said flatly. "Shuffle me off, get me out from underfoot -- You're trying to shut the scientists out of this, aren't you?" Trying to shut ME out, his tone implied, while his hands waved to encompass Larissa and the jumper bay and even Atlantis itself. "You haven't set a foot on Doranda in months, and now you're waltzing in and taking over. It's a military operation now, isn't it?" The mobile hands made air quotes around the word military, a sharp angry motion.

"For cryin' out loud, McKay, this isn't about civilian and military. Quit being paranoid."

"Oh? So what's it about then, Colonel? If it's not the scientists and the military, what is it, then? You and me?"

Enough was enough, and suddenly the seething frustration of the last few weeks burst out of him. "Yeah, you know? It is about you. We've already got two alternate-reality versions of ourselves and a possible ... agent of unknown alliance on Atlantis --" he didn't know if Larissa could hear them, didn't want to take chances " -- all because you can't contain your scientific curiosity and jump into things without thinking them through, and you know what? I don't trust you not to --" Lead the Dorandans straight to our ZPM was what he almost said, yanking himself back at the last moment. He faltered and regained his verbal footing. " -- not to waltz down to the infirmary and form alliances with who the hell knows what." Lowering his voice so that they couldn't be overheard, he hissed fiercely, "I don't trust you not to betray this fucking city because somebody dangles a new puzzle in front of your eyes."

McKay's mouth opened and shut for a moment, temporarily speechless. But only very temporarily. "Oh, and now you're forgetting that it was you who brought our clones back to Atlantis?" he demanded, his voice rising and cracking in fury. "Well, that's all just fan-frigging-tastic, Colonel, and you can rewrite history any way you like but I've known for months that you didn't trust me and it's about damn time you just came out and said it!"

By now, everyone in the jumper bay was looking at them. "McKay, this isn't the time or place for --"

"When's a good time, Colonel? When you're out on a mission? Oh wait -- that's all the time!"

The sheer unfairness of that felt like a punch in the chest. "You quit!"

"You tried to have me fired first! What, am I supposed to stick around when my team leader's trying to get rid of me?"

Sheppard couldn't believe McKay was dredging up all of this in front of the entire room. He felt all the eyes resting on them like a physical burden: his men, Elizabeth, Larissa. It was suddenly, horribly like Afghanistan, like his entire military career up to this point -- the judgment in the eyes weighing him, the feeling that he himself walked a razor's edge where comfort and friendship could so quickly dissolve into disapproval and scorn and disgrace.

McKay had done this in public on purpose; he had to have known that for Sheppard, maintaining his position as Atlantis's military commander would limit his ability to fight back. Son of a bitch. And Larissa was right there -- representing the Dorandans -- watching Sheppard's authority being undermined by his own people. White-hot fury roiled in his stomach.

"What's the matter, Colonel? Hit a little close to home there? Feeling a little less like Mr. Victim now, hmm?" McKay had a smug grin plastered across his features that didn't quite make it to his eyes. And Sheppard felt a quick, dark gratitude to their audience, because he didn't think he'd ever in his life wanted to hit somebody this much, and at least in public, he couldn't.

Instead he stiffened his spine, dredging down inside himself for the military discipline that his instructors had despaired he'd ever learn. Tight, controlled, he leaned towards McKay, and felt cold victory when McKay flinched back, open fear flashing across the scientist's face before he managed to hide it -- while deeper within Sheppard, something died at that look.

"You want this to be a civilian-military thing, then by God, get your ass into the labs or I'll have you thrown in the brig." Sheppard's voice was low and tight. "If you're thinking about appealing to Elizabeth, you and I both know that in the Atlantis chain of command, I outrank you -- and as of today, I want you to remember that."

McKay was trying to talk, an indignant spluttering, but Sheppard rode right over him. "You take orders from me, not the other way around, and if you're thinking about turning this into a war, remember this, McKay: My side is armed."

McKay's jaw dropped, then snapped shut, his face firming up into a look of resolve. "You're threatening me! I don't believe this!"

Sheppard tried to smile; it came out more of a baring of teeth. He didn't know if there were any smiles left in him. As the anger burned through him, leaving only steel behind, he felt himself on more familiar ground. He knew how to make soldiers obey him; he'd had lots of practice at that. "You got a problem, McKay, Elizabeth's right over there. Go ahead, hide behind her -- but you know how she feels about you these days. Otherwise, get back to the labs, and I'm not going to tell you twice."

He'd thought that he'd seen McKay in every conceivable variation of angry, but he didn't think he'd ever seen that look before: cold steel, matching him glare for glare. "If it's a war you want, Colonel, then you remember this: My side's armed, too, in our own way. And we're smarter."

With that, he spun on his heel and marched out of the jumper bay. Sheppard stared after him, hanging onto the anger until the dregs of it slipped out of his body, leaving steel and ash behind.

He'd been aware of the slow change for some time, but never more acutely than now. He was becoming the thing he hated most: the good soldier, the automaton, doing his duty not because he felt its rightness in his gut, not to protect and preserve the things he loved, the people he loved ... but only because it was his duty.

He could feel it happening and he didn't know how to make it stop.

Elizabeth left Larissa with the Marines and strode over towards Sheppard, her eyes sparking fire. "And just what exactly was that, Colonel?"

Sheppard took a steadying breath before meeting her eyes. "Chain of command problem. It's resolved now."

In a quieter voice, but no less stern, she said, "We agreed that no matter what happens between you and Rodney, you have to be able to get along with each other. The city needs no less than that."

"We can still work together, Elizabeth."

"That's not what I saw just now."

Damn Rodney for pushing it to this point. "Elizabeth, what you saw was strictly between myself and McKay. It won't affect our working relationship."

Her too-perceptive eyes searched his. "It had better not," she said at last, and then turned back to Larissa with smiles and apologies.

Sheppard realized, pulling himself together, that he hadn't had a chance to discuss with Elizabeth the need to keep Larissa out of sensitive areas of the city. However, knowing that Elizabeth shared his suspicions about the Dorandans, he'd simply have to trust that she would know what to do.

Trust. He found himself less willing to do that these days, especially with something so important riding on it. Quietly, he beckoned a Marine, and gave the man orders in a low voice. Larissa was to be guarded at all times. She wasn't to be allowed near the control room, the science labs or any of the power generating stations. And if Elizabeth had a problem with this, she'd need to take it up with Sheppard.

After that he left them to it. If there was nothing else he liked about the military, you could at least trust in the discipline that it instilled in its members, in a way that you couldn't trust people to come to the right conclusions by themselves.

He didn't trust Ronon that way, definitely not. There was no one he'd rather have at his back offworld; he knew the Satedan wouldn't betray them, though Elizabeth seemed less sure. But in a situation like this, he'd much rather have a few properly trained Marines on the job. Ronon just couldn't take orders well enough. Same with Teyla. When it came to the defense of Atlantis, he had to trust his men as extensions of himself; there was no room for independent thinkers.

Like McKay.

Sheppard could feel his hands curling into fists as he strode down the halls towards the infirmary. What the hell was wrong with the man? Couldn't McKay see that he was in the wrong? Sheppard was in charge, and no one wanted that less than he did, but when it came right down to it, he was the second-in-command of Atlantis and the person solely responsible for the city's security. Even Elizabeth had to defer to him on those matters. And there came time when orders had to be given, and taken, and if the civilians couldn't learn that, then they could damn well pack up and head back to Earth before more of them died.

Oh, their chaotic way of doing things had worked well enough the first year, before they'd all really come to understand how serious their situation was -- before he'd come to understand it. As much as he'd loathed the rigidity of his commanders in Afghanistan, he was starting to understand, now that he was in their position, why they'd acted the way they had. Sometimes you had to put personal feelings aside for the greater good. Sometimes you had to sacrifice one or two, or ten, or twenty, to save everyone else. He hated making those decisions, absolutely hated it. But the more of them he made, the easier they became.

And sometimes that scared him more than the Wraith.

After the fight in the jumper bay and the turmoil of his thoughts, he found the infirmary disconcertingly quiet. The doppelganger McKay was sitting quietly on a bed in the corner while a nurse examined him and Sgt. Bradbury hovered nearby. Sheppard's reaction to the sight of McKay's deceptively-familiar face startled and scared the heck out of him: a rush of emotion so powerful that he felt sick to his stomach. He couldn't even unravel most of it -- anger, betrayal, hate, other things with no name.

Apparently it was easier to put aside his conflict with McKay when the scientist wasn't in front of him, reminding him of it. But Elizabeth was right: He and McKay had to work together. There was no choice. And he'd get Rodney to see that, at gunpoint if necessary.

Hailing a passing nurse, he asked her about the state of the doppelgangers.

"The other -- um, you, is in surgery, sir. Dr. Beckett is with him." She nodded towards the McKay in the corner. "He seems to be uninjured, just a little bit of low blood sugar and a lot of -- well, shock, I guess. Physically, he's perfectly normal, except that his ATA gene doesn't appear to work on our technology."

Sheppard glanced at her curiously. "Really?"

"Yes, and we aren't really sure why, unless it's just different enough from our version that Atlantis doesn't recognize it. We assume the same would be true of the other Sheppard if he, ah ..." Her eyes flicked towards the doors of the OR.

"Survives. Yeah. Well, in a way that makes things easier, since we don't have to worry about these two turning on anything they shouldn't."

The nurse looked over at the alternate McKay again. So did Sheppard. It was really disconcerting seeing Rodney that quiet and subdued.

"We were going to call and ask what to do with him, sir, so I'm glad you showed up down here. He wants to stay here, but there's no real medical reason why he has to be, and he's making the staff nervous."

"No medical reason why he can't be somewhere other than the infirmary?"

The nurse shook her head. "No, physically he's fine. He should probably get something to eat, but that's about it."

"Thanks." Sheppard offered her a quick, distracted smile and then approached the corner with the doppelganger. Bradbury saluted him; he returned it. The doppelganger -- Rod -- looked up and scowled.

"Oh," he said. "You."

Sheppard reminded himself that this wasn't McKay, despite the face. Best to approach him as a stranger who had a few similarities in common with their version. "On your feet."

"Why?" Rod demanded. He was still wrapped in the blanket from the puddlejumper, and now he pulled it closer as if by doing so he could shut out the world.

Dealing with the doppelganger's belligerence would be easier if he hadn't just had a fight with the real McKay. "Because I said so, and I'm in charge. Get up."

"You're not in charge, Elizabeth is. Unless there's been -- oh God, did they have a coup here?" The doppelganger looked briefly frightened, before his scowl returned. "Nobody will tell me anything."

"Because you don't have clearance and probably never will. Now get up; I'm going to get you some food and find a place for you to stay 'till we figure out what to do with you."

Rod didn't budge an inch. He appeared to be trying for defiant, but this was undermined by the beseeching look that he gave the OR doors. "I'm not going anywhere until Sheppard's out of surgery."

"And it matters to you if he lives or dies? Get up. That wasn't a suggestion."

He hauled Rod to his feet by a not-so-gentle grip on his arm. The scientist didn't really put up a fight; he was staring in amazement. "Is that a serious question? How can you, of all people --" Then a mercurial look of comprehension flashed across his face. So familiar, so painful. "Things are different with -- with everyone here, aren't they? With you and me? Where are Ronon and Teyla -- or do you even have them here? Are they alive?"

The absolute last thing he wanted to do was to discuss his personal life with an imposter version of the one person he never wanted to see again. On the other hand, he didn't feel up for yet another argument with yet another McKay, not right now. If it got him moving ... "Move your ass, McKay -- Rod -- and I just might tell you a few things. Bradbury, if he doesn't start walking, shoot him."

The soldier drew his gun. Rod stared. "You're not serious?"

"Keep standing there," Sheppard said, "and you'll find out how serious I am."

"But -- Sheppard is --"

"In surgery. Do you have a medical degree in your universe?"

"No," Rod said sullenly.

"Then you can't do a thing here, and there's no point whatsoever in you being here. Start walking."

Rod began a resentful shuffle towards the door, clinging to the blanket like a -- well, like a literal security blanket. "But I can come back, right?" he asked, looking at Sheppard hopefully. "I'll go, I'll eat, I'll come back -- hmm?"

"No. You'll go and you'll stay where we put you, because we don't know a thing about you."

Rod stopped in his tracks. "Then I'm not leaving. I need to be here when he wakes up."

"Sergeant --" Sheppard jerked his head towards the Marine's weapon.

Rod squeaked and took a hasty step forward. "Jeez! I'm moving, I'm moving! What is wrong with you? You make the real Sheppard look like Mr. Rogers."

Sheppard blinked at the non sequitur. "The action hero?"

"The children's show host. You know. Fred Rogers. Sweaters. Puppets."

"Oh. Like Schwarzenegger."

Rod stopped again. "Schwarzenegger?"

"Austrian actor, has a very popular kids' show -- and why am I discussing pop culture with you? Get moving!" Sheppard shoved him.

"I thought the real Sheppard could be a bit of an ass, but he's got nothing on you," Rod grumbled as he was escorted down the corridor. After a minute, he looked over his shoulder at Sheppard, and his eyes were open, expressive, in a way that Rodney's hadn't been in a long time. "Listen, when he wakes up -- will you explain to him what's going on? Tell him I'm okay?"

"There will be people to do that," Sheppard said stiffly.

"I don't want somebody else to do it. I want you to do it."

"Shut up and walk."

He shut up, but not for very long. In that, at least, he did seem fairly similar to the actual Rodney. "You said you'd answer my questions."

"Depends on what the question is." But Sheppard matched his stride to Rod's so that he was abreast of him.

"That guy back there, the doctor, uh ..."


The look that Rod flashed him was a blazing trail of pain. "That is Beckett, then? Carson Beckett? Scottish guy, lots of brothers and sisters, cries at the drop of a hat?"

Sheppard's eyebrows went up. "Well, I don't know about that last part, but that's Carson Beckett. Why?"

"Because in my universe, he's ..." Rod looked away, twisting at the blanket with restless hands. He cleared his throat. "Anyway, there are a lot of things different here, but a lot similar enough to make me think that this universe isn't as different as I thought at first; it's just out of sync with mine in both time and space. Obviously the rift caught us on Lantea, but we didn't come through on Lantea, so it's spatially separated by quite a lot. What's today's date, anyway? What's the year?"

Sheppard told him; it wasn't like the date was classified.

Rod nodded slowly. "About a year off from my universe, then. That would explain, um, Carson ..." He swallowed. "So the last thing that happened to you guys, let me think ..." He snapped his fingers, and Sheppard felt an unexpected twist in his gut at the familiarity of the casual gesture. "Aurora. The Aurora. Did you find an Ancient spaceship just recently?"

"Well, it's a cloud of space debris now ..."

"Ah, yeah, to keep it out of Wraith hands, that happened in my universe too." He gave a small laugh. "But that Wraith was hot, wasn't she?"

Sheppard stared at him. "You think a Wraith is hot?" Maybe Rod's universe was a lot more different than he'd realized.

"What? Didn't that happen here? The virtual environment, all of that stuff on the Aurora?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." Then something clicked. "Wait, you weren't even on the Aurora."

"What do you mean, I wasn't? Of course I was! Why wasn't I?"

"Why would you be?" Sheppard countered. "I went and checked it out with my team. We couldn't find anything useful and had to blow it up."

"With your team? You mean --" Rod stopped again. "I'm not on your team here?"

He sounded like his puppy just died. And Sheppard was talking before he knew what he was saying, just to get that wounded sound out of the too-Rodneylike voice. It was almost instinctual. "You used to be. Back when we first came through the gate, I --" But he really didn't want to talk about that. "You quit. Just recently."

"Why would I quit?" From the utter disbelief in Rod's tone, Sheppard might have just told him he'd left science to become a grade school teacher.

"I have no idea. You didn't exactly give me a full analysis of your reasoning. I mean, he didn't."

"I just left?" Rod still sounded stunned. "Just like that? No wonder you're so ticked off at me! I would be, too."

"What makes you think I'm mad at you?" Sheppard was genuinely curious. Rod had left the jumper bay before he'd had that fight with the real McKay.

"What do you mean? Hello, genius here! I may be ... less than perfect with the social stuff, Colonel, but I'm not an idiot. Besides, even if I hadn't seen you and the other me trying to avoid each other, the way you've been treating me is pretty good evidence that my other self did something to you. Either that or you're just basically an ass here."

Sheppard had honestly not realized that he'd been treating Rod any differently than he would have treated anyone else. Or ... maybe that was the problem? "Look, McKay -- I mean, Rod, I don't -- I really don't hold that against McKay, all right?" At least, he hadn't, before the fight in the jumper bay. "It wasn't working out, having you -- having him on the team. It hadn't been working for a while."

McKay's mouth opened. "Doranda." Seeing the look on Sheppard's face, he pointed. "Doranda, right? Did I quit after Doranda?" He smacked himself in the forehead with the palm of his hand. "Oh, stupid, stupid me! You know, I actually thought about it? For, like, a nanosecond or two? So this must be the universe where I went ahead and talked myself into it."

Doranda. Was that really it? Sheppard hadn't tried to analyze it; there was so much about the last few months that he didn't want to think about. Things had been tense before he'd refused to help McKay get the green light from Elizabeth on the Arcturus project, but not irretrievably so. Maybe -- maybe the dissolution of the team hadn't been as inevitable as it had seemed. Maybe it had still been possible to step back from the edge, at that point.

Maybe, in Rod's universe, that had been the thing that saved them -- maybe Sheppard had agreed to help, and the project had worked and that had been the difference, the thing that made it possible for him to mend fences with McKay. In this universe, the project was starting to look like a failure, if it couldn't be run without threatening the spacetime continuum; perhaps, in Rod's universe, with a six-week head start and the active cooperation of Sheppard's contingent of Atlantis, they'd been able to solve that problem.

"Was that it? Doranda? Oh jeez -- how bad did I screw up here?" Rod's eyes were wide. "Did I -- did people die? Because of me? Oh God! Ronon and Teyla! They're alive here, right?"

They'd reached the empty quarters where Sheppard planned to put Rod, but he found himself oddly reluctant to end the conversation. Just as it had been disarmingly easy to fall back into the old give-and-take with McKay on the way to Doranda (had it only been this morning?), so he found it now, with Rod. He missed this, missed it a lot, but after today, he knew that there was no way he and the real McKay could ever mend the fences between them. And Rod, of course, wasn't McKay.

But he came from a universe where those fences had never been torn down in the first place -- or, at any rate, had been a lot easier to patch up. Because of Doranda, Sheppard thought, now more sure than ever that his hunch was right. In that other universe, the rift between himself and McKay hadn't widened because of his refusal to help, his insistence to Elizabeth that he wanted McKay off his team. It had closed, because he had said yes, had gone to Elizabeth and argued on Rodney's behalf. And Arcturus must have succeeded there, where it had failed here.

Rod was still staring at him with wide, worried eyes, and he realized that the question still hung in the air between them. "Oh, Ronon and Teyla? No. They're fine." Another thing that was different, because Rod seemed genuinely terrified at the thought of causing Ronon and Teyla's deaths, even if they weren't the Ronon and Teyla he knew. Maybe in their universe, Ronon didn't want to kill McKay as soon as look at him; the thought made Sheppard's lips quirk up slightly.

He palmed the door open. "I'll have someone stop by to bring you something from the mess," he said. "I imagine that Elizabeth will be down shortly, too, for a chat. If you want something in the meantime, just ask one of the Marines."

He didn't try to pretend with Rod, as he had with Larissa, that the guards were anything other than guards, the prison something other than a prison. Alternate-universe double or not, this McKay had surely seen enough of their protocol with strangers to know what he was to them.

"Hmm," was all Rod said. He sat down heavily on the bed in the middle of the room, pulling the blanket a little more tightly around his shoulders. Then he looked up. "Listen, about Sheppard -- my Sheppard, I mean. Ouch, that sounds weird. Don't tell him I put it that way. But ... when he wakes up --" Sheppard could hear him consciously changing the word from if -- "will you come tell me? Or have somebody tell me? If it's not too much trouble for you," he added with bitter sarcasm.

"I'll do that," Sheppard said, and started to say something else. Started to offer to let him stay in the infirmary with his injured Sheppard. Which was completely stupid, counter-productive and a gigantic security risk, so he snapped his mouth shut, and left. Outside, he gave instructions to Bradbury to make sure no one entered or left without authorization, and then went off to dispatch someone to bring Rod a meal from the cafeteria.

"And this is where we eat. Communal meals."

Larissa nodded. "We have a similar custom on my world. It was not always so, but since we came to the Doranda system, there are very few of us and we are like a large family, eating together in a central house."

Elizabeth liked Larissa. The other woman was intelligent and perceptive, and for each piece of information that Elizabeth offered her about Atlantis and the Earth humans, she offered something back about the Dorandans. The weeks of separation and distrust between their peoples seemed like a great mistake, now.

"Are you hungry? If you'd like to try some of our food --"

"I have eaten some of your food on Doranda. MREs?" Larissa's nose wrinkled a little, and Elizabeth laughed.

"We have much better food here. For example ..." Elizabeth picked up a chocolate chip cookie, and offered it.

Larissa took a polite nibble, then a larger bite. "That is wonderful," she said, heartfelt. "My people make a sweetening from the secretions of insects that we brought with us from our old world, but it does not taste like this."

Elizabeth mentally decoded this. "Honey?"

"We don't have that word."

"The sweetness in the cookies come from a plant ..." They discussed Earth agriculture as they wandered back out into the hall, trailed by two of Sheppard's men. The escort irritated Elizabeth, but she was willing to accept the necessity of it -- although the more that she spoke to Larissa, the more convinced she became that their suspicions about the Dorandans were unfounded.

"The city is amazing -- all that I had hoped the City of the Ancestors might be." Larissa laid her hand on the wall. "Where does your power supply come from?"

"I don't know if it would be interesting to you." Elizabeth smiled. "I'm sure what you have been doing on Doranda is much more interesting ... and much more advanced than anything we have."

She managed to dodge a couple more questions about the details of Atlantis's architecture, pleading ignorance of the finer points of its systems. The next, and final, stop on her carefully calculated tour of harmless places was one of the civilian rec rooms. Some of the night-shift scientists were watching one of the Star Wars movies -- or, more accurately, most of them were sprawled sleeping on various couches while the movie played. Larissa gasped in amazement; she seemed to be completely taken by the onscreen space battle. Cautiously she sat down on a sofa next to a botanist who had fallen asleep curled around his laptop.

"Would you like to watch it for a few minutes?"

Larissa nodded eagerly. "Oh, yes, please!"

Elizabeth was prepared to feign polite interest -- she lived the movie; she couldn't figure out why so many of the station's staff seemed to enjoy watching it -- but she was saved by the bell when Chuck hailed her with a minor personnel dispute. Quietly she slipped to the door of the darkened rec room, where the Marines had taken up duty stations, so that she could take the call while still keeping Larissa under her supervision.

She ended up staying on the radio for nearly half an hour -- now that they'd found her, it seemed that half the station had something or other that they needed answers to -- while keeping an eye on the top of Larissa's braided head, just visible above the back of the sofa. It appeared that they'd managed to convert another alien race to the ways of the couch potato, she thought, grinning, because Larissa hardly moved the whole time -- completely enthralled with the antics of Luke & company onscreen. Reluctantly, when she'd managed to stem the tide of questions and complaints, she pulled Larissa away from the movie; the woman had curled up on the couch with her feet tucked under her, huddled within the heavy jacket that all her people wore.

"Should we trade," Larissa said, her eyes bright, "perhaps some of these 'movies' would be part of the exchange."

Elizabeth laughed. "I think that could be arranged! For now, though, I've kept you much too long; your people must be wondering where you've gone. Should I send a jumper to take you back to Doranda?"

"I had hoped to see more of your city." Larissa wasn't stupid; she must have noticed that she hadn't been allowed into any of the more sensitive areas. However, she was probably also smart enough to figure out why.

"There's far too much of it to show you in a few hours," Elizabeth hedged. "But I think a cultural exchange would greatly benefit our people; we could arrange another, more detailed tour, and our ethnologists would be equally eager to see your settlement."

Larissa nodded slowly. For an instant something odd, evasive, flickered in her eyes. "I'm sure that could be arranged."

"Do you want to see Dr. McKay before you return to Doranda? I imagine the two of you have a lot to talk about."

Again that flicker. "Not today; I'm sure he'll be going over the data from the test, and I should return to do likewise. But I'll look forward to speaking to him again soon."

Elizabeth saw her back to the jumper bay, then off with one of the teams that was available to take her. All in all, that had gone well.

Now if she could just figure out what to do with Sheppard and McKay.

The Atlantean vessel took off into the Dorandan sky, and Larissa watched it go before heading quickly for her own ship.

The Little Blue wasn't really hers, of course; it belonged to all of the Dorandan people. But it was Larissa's expertise that kept it running, just as it was her expertise and that of her scientists that were slowly but surely restoring a very small fleet of very well-armed ships. The Little Blue, unlike the others, had no weapons -- and this was precisely why the scientists used it on their technology-scouting missions on Doranda. In case they encountered Wraith, or visitors such as the Atlanteans, it was definitely in their best interests to appear to be a small, inoffensive, ragtag group of survivors. If this meant that they had to sacrifice themselves to keep their people safe, it was a price worth paying.

Under her bulky jacket, the stolen laptop -- picked up quietly while she pretended to watch that beguiling form of entertainment they called "movies" -- pressed hard and square against her chest. Curling one hand carefully around her precious burden, she used the other to deactivate the shield around her ship.

Perran, one of her most trusted scientists, looked up from the screens as she entered. "Larissa! Thank the Ancestors. I wasn't sure what to think. Captain Seng has been here several times, asking about you."

"Is he here now?"

"No. He's out on patrol."

"Good." Very soon she would have to share her suspicions with Seng, and at that point, she knew that control of the situation would pass out of her hands. The more information that she could consolidate beforehand, the more power she'd be able to retain afterward -- and the more chance she'd have of protecting the best interests of her people. "Lock down the ship, Perran. If Seng comes back early, we will tell him that we were worried about the Atlanteans and didn't want to take chances."

She sank down into the copilot's seat and slipped her precious burden out from under her jacket. Perran's eyes followed it curiously as she placed it on the console between them.

"That's one of their computers, isn't it?"

"Precisely." Larissa patted the top of it. "In the next few hours, I am going to entrust you with retrieving and transferring as much information as you can into our own databanks. You're the best computer expert that we have; if anyone can do it, you can."

He looked up at her. "Where will you be?"

"There is a crashed ship out there that's identical in every way, as far as I can tell, to those vessels they call 'puddlejumpers'. I took a look on the way here, and they have not posted a guard on it." She smiled a little, to cover the sick feeling in her stomach -- the sense that she was setting into motion a chain of events that could not be halted or undone. "Why would they? It's only trash. But I will be taking detailed readings off every part of it, because in understanding that ship, we can understand the strengths and weaknesses of the ones they use."

"I don't understand." Perran frowned up at her. In addition to being one of her top scientists, he was also her cousin -- the Dorandans were a small group, and most of them were related to each other in some way -- and he'd never minced words with her. "Aren't the Atlanteans our allies? You sound as if you're preparing for war. I'd expect to hear words like this from Seng, not from you."

Larissa drew a deep breath. Ah, the moment of truth. "Perran, I'm about to trust you with a great secret, and you must tell no one -- not yet. It will be common knowledge soon enough. The military commander of the Atlanteans bears the Wraithsign."

Perran's mouth dropped open in a silent "O" of shock.

"I have no idea if they simply forgot about our equipment, or if they are so overconfident that they do not care," she said grimly. "Clearly they think our people backwards and ignorant. I have just been to their city, Perran, and was given a tour fit only for children and simpletons. Their leader prattled on about nothing, and carefully steered me to the recreational and meal-taking areas -- clearly avoiding anything of interest or value. It's plain to me that we've done right to hide our military capabilities from them, because they do not value us as allies, and they allow the bearers of the Wraithsign to walk freely among them."

She could only imagine what horrors lurked in the parts of the city that they didn't want her to see. People who would ally themselves with Wraithsign-bearing traitors could be capable of anything. Torture chambers? Cells filled with prisoners to be fed to their Wraith allies? Were there Wraith in the holy City of the Ancestors itself? The thought made her ill.

Perran looked lost and terrified. "What are we going to do?"

Larissa drew herself up, keeping her back straight. "First, we gather information. When Captain Seng finds out about this, he will use it to undermine my authority --" and rightly so, said a bitter voice at the back of her mind; you've been the Atlanteans' dupe from the beginning "-- and we need to play this very, very carefully to prevent the Captain from risking our people's lives in an all-out assault."

Now the other scientist's eyes were so huge she could see the whites all the way around. "We're going to attack them?"

Larissa's hands balled into fists at her sides. "Eventually, we'll have no choice. They know where to find us, and the moment they realize we're a threat, you can believe they'll attack us. We have no choice but to strike first. But Seng will want to overwhelm them with military might, and we simply cannot compete with them in that area. We must use stealth." Reaching out, she gripped his arm. "This is very important, Perran. We must say nothing, not yet, to our own people or to theirs. We cannot sever diplomatic relations with them; they must not realize that anything is wrong, if we are to survive."

And that would be hard. So hard. She had been struggling to maintain control of herself all day. The worst part was that she had truly liked McKay. He was abrasive, but she respected his intelligence and, over their weeks of working together, had developed a genuine liking for the man himself. Knowing that he had been following the orders of Wraithborn traitors made her stomach twist into a hard knot. Had all his promises about Project Arcturus been only lies, meant to gain her trust? Or -- she thought of the fight that she had witnessed on Atlantis between McKay and Sheppard, and wondered if McKay could himself be a victim of the Wraith traitors, held hostage for his intelligence.

She made herself a silent promise, then. No matter what happened, she would to her best to ensure that McKay was offered a chance to join them. And as for Sheppard -- she would see him dead.

Chapter Seven: Differences

Elizabeth booted up her computer with her jaw set, knowing what she was going to see as soon as she logged onto her email.

And she wasn't disappointed. Along with the usual array of requisition forms, field reports and the odd forwarded joke email, there were -- she counted -- 47 messages from a user calling themselves "RodneyMcKay2".

She had no idea how he was doing this. Supposedly, the alternate McKay was supposed to be confined to quarters and completely locked out of the computer system, and didn't have a functional copy of the ATA gene on top of everything. Yet he kept sending her emails.

Her ever-present migraine began stabbing a fork into her left eye -- it had been months since she'd been headache-free, and she was getting tired of the worried looks Carson gave her when she went to ask for more medication. On top of Doranda and Caldwell and the Wraith and the growing tensions on Atlantis, she didn't need to deal with an alternate Rodney McKay as well as the real one.

She started to trash the whole stack of emails, then, with a train-wreck sort of fascination, clicked on the first one.

Seriously, this is ridiculous. I have one of the highest security clearances known to mankind. Besides, I'm hacking your security even as we speak. Come on, Elizabeth, would a dialogue kill you? I'm going out of my mind here!

Frowning, she clicked on the next one.



Not that I care, of course.


I hate all of you people.

Elizabeth felt an unwelcome and unexpected smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. She couldn't help being reminded of the way that the real Rodney used to bug her via the intranet when he wanted something, back in the early months of the Atlantis expedition. The only emails she'd gotten from him in months had been all business, straightforward and to the point. The smile faded, and she clicked on the next email.

Okay, Elizabeth, I didn't mean it. About the hating. Say, are these going to you at all? Just my luck that in this universe, Heightmeyer's in charge and the Elizabeth Weir I've been emailing, namely you, is a six-foot-tall Marine who's going to head over here and kick my ass. Although at this point, I'd almost welcome the relief from the UTTER MIND-NUMBING BOREDOM. Elizabeth! I can feel my brain cells dying as I type! YOU CAN'T IMAGINE WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE!

I tried to make a ladder to escape from my window by knotting bedsheets, but I only have one bedsheet and I'm twelve stories above the ocean. Also, bedsheets don't knot worth a damn anyway.

Elizabeth, come on, this is childish. I can't believe you people are keeping me locked up. And you're avoiding me. Admit it.

Her brow furrowed, and she tapped a stylus lightly against her teeth. It was true; he'd been here two days, under heavy guard, allowed out of his quarters only to eat meals in the cafeteria. She knew that she needed to interview him, out of curiosity about his reality if nothing else. But somehow she couldn't bring herself to do so. She wasn't sure if she feared what she might find out about his universe ... or about her own.

She opened another of his emails at random.

Sheppard's dead, isn't he? That was an awful lot of blood in the jumper. He couldn't have survived that. He's dead and that's why you people won't let me see him. It's stupid not to tell me, you know. I'm an adult. I think I'd really rather know. The not knowing is the worst part.

Is he dead?


Anybody? Hello?

She shivered, trying to imagine herself in his shoes: isolated and unspeakably alone, lost in a universe not her own. She imagined how she might cling to the only other person from her own reality, even if it wasn't someone that she liked all that much.

And here she sat, ignoring her responsibilities because she didn't want to look into the face of someone who reminded her so much of all her failures here.

Elizabeth closed the laptop with a sharp click and rose from her desk. Hands clasped behind her, she left her office behind and walked silently through the gateroom. As usual, everyone was brisk and efficient, and no one smiled, though a few people politely returned her nods of greeting.

She tried to recapture the way she'd felt a year and a half ago, stepping through the gate into a wide-open new galaxy. It had been the most wonderful day of her life. When, she wondered, had the Pegasus Galaxy become a litany of failures ... a list of the names of the people she'd failed?

Not just the dead.

Her hands balled into fists.

She reached the small suite of rooms that was currently housing the alternate McKay, and had to pause for a moment, nerving herself to go in. For an instant, she thought of when she'd gone to see Sheppard while he was being changed by the retrovirus; she'd hovered outside his door for a long time, but in the end, had not gone inside.

This time, she refused to be a coward. She also deliberately ignored the slight hesitation before the young soldier guarding the room opened the door for her -- the pause before his "ma'am" that was not quite insolent.

If they didn't do something, it wouldn't be long before the military side of Atlantis refused to take orders from her at all. But the one person who could pull them back into line was Sheppard, and she had no idea if he even realized that there was a problem ... or if, perhaps, he was actually contributing to it. It had been a long time since she could speak freely with him. Elizabeth couldn't help thinking that they were already over the peak of the hill and picking up speed going down the other side.

The door closed behind her, and she looked around the dim room. The lights were off, but the window was open, its curtains fluttering in the breeze.

"Dr. McKay? Rod?"

There was a thump and a startled "Ow!" from the bathroom. After a moment, the door whisked open and alt-Rodney -- Rod, she reminded herself -- stood framed by the light, shoulders stiff and hands clasped behind his back. He was clearly trying to look defiant, but it was almost pathetic, a thin veneer over hope and fear and vulnerability.

She'd almost forgotten that Rodney had it in him to look like that. At some point, the facade that he presented to the world had become reality. Her heart ached.

Rod cleared his throat. "Elizabeth," he said. "Finally, um, deigned to stroll down and see the prisoner, hmm?"

With effort, she did not flinch. "I've been busy. I did, however, get your emails." She smiled faintly. "Rodney -- our Rodney, I mean -- would really like to know how you got into the computer system."

Rod snorted. "He should know; he's me, isn't he?"

"After a fashion," she agreed cautiously. "Would you like to sit down?"

"Excuse me? I've been sitting for days! And I'm no closer to getting myself out of this reality. I don't suppose your Rodney has come up with a solution to that, has he? He's a gigantic asshole, of course, but I presume that he's nearly as intelligent as I am."

Only Rodney could manage to be that competitive with himself. "He's working on the problem."

"Fantastic. Sheppard and I should be out of here in about five years, then." He stepped forward; now that he was no longer backlit by the bathroom lights, she could see that a lost look had crept onto his face. "Sheppard, uh -- he's -- Is he --"

"In stable condition, the last I heard." She saw his shoulders slump just a little in relief before the mask was slapped back into place. Suddenly, intensely curious, she asked, "In your reality, is he your friend?"

"Well, I wouldn't go that far." The answer was quick and glib. It sounded rehearsed. "More of an annoying pain in the butt, really. I'm sure that our Elizabeth would pitch a fit if I didn't drag his skinny, spiky-haired carcass home in one piece, though. Er ... can I see him?"

"I might be able to arrange that." She watched the quick play of relief and worry on his face. "But I want something in return."

"Of course you do." His shoulders went back; his chin rose, defiant. "And what might that be?"

"I want to know more about your reality."

Rod cocked his head to the side. "Planning to invade us ... Elizabeth?"

She couldn't help laughing. "No, of course not. I just want to know --"

I want to know how it's possible that you're climbing the walls with worry for Sheppard, when in this reality, you can't even be in the same room with him. I want to know if your Atlantis escaped the fate that I'm afraid ours is heading towards.

"You want to know what?"

"Curiosity," she said. "That's all. Just simple curiosity."

Hell. Rodney was in hell.

At least he hadn't dropped into the actual, Mensa-Sheppard-Rod's reality. The idea of being surrounded by smarmy, impossibly competent versions of the people he knew -- particularly himself -- made him want to curl up into a ball and whimper.

But this wasn't really any better. His worry over Sheppard certainly contributed to his misery; not only was he terrified that Sheppard would die and leave him alone here, but he didn't have anyone to commiserate with.

"These people suck," he complained. Sheppard, of course, remained obstinately unconscious, probably in a deliberate attempt to annoy him.

At least they'd finally let him see Sheppard, although he had a Marine shadowing him everywhere, and as if that wasn't bad enough, he was still being stalked by the creepy alternate Elizabeth. Like hell he was telling her anything about Atlantis. He'd dropped random tidbits to keep her off his back, the same obfuscation technique that he used on other planets when the natives got too nosy and there was some stupid diplomatic reason why he couldn't just tell them to go to hell. Elizabeth, unfortunately, seemed to be aware of this technique, but so far she hadn't pressed him too hard. However, she also hadn't granted him access to the computer system or the labs.

Also, he kept walking into doors. Stupid incompatible ATA gene.

He didn't think he'd ever wanted to go home so badly in his life.

This place ... this wasn't home. It looked like it ... in the way a corpse might appear to be alive, until you realized that it didn't move, didn't breathe, that there was no light behind its eyes.

The fact that the difference was so subtle made it all the worse. He kept telling himself that he was imagining things, that he was looking back on his own Atlantis through highly irrational rose-colored glasses, remembering the good and forgetting the bad. But then he'd slip -- he'd accidentally sit on the military side of the cafeteria, or he'd try to make a joke to this universe's hard-assed version of Sheppard, who had shown up in the infirmary a couple of times and asked him far more pointed questions than Weir's -- all of which he refused to answer. This Sheppard appeared to have had his sense of humor amputated. Every so often, Rodney would see flashes in the alternate Sheppard of the man that Rodney knew him to be. But most of the time, alternate Sheppard just made him think of Caldwell.

No one would tell him anything. No one would let him near a computer terminal or a lab. He'd managed to send the emails to Elizabeth from his quarters by prying off a supposedly sealed access panel and tapping directly into the Atlantean equivalent of fiber-optic cables, but while he could send messages that way using his pocket PDA, he couldn't access the database itself. He was afraid to try too hard for fear that the system or the alternate McKay would detect his tampering and he'd lose the one little backdoor into the computers that he'd managed to acquire. He had also tried all of his own passwords, but apparently this McKay used different ones.

He had never thought that social isolation would bother him, but it was really starting to get to him that no one in this Atlantis would do more than stare or, at most, interrogate him, like pseudo-Sheppard and pseudo-Weir had been doing. The one person who seemed willing to make friendly overtures was Carson -- the person Rodney had been trying to avoid at all costs. He couldn't even stand to look at him; it made something deep and painful and unscientific knot up into a tight lump in his stomach.

He would have avoided the infirmary in order to avoid not-Carson, but Sheppard was there: Sheppard, the one familiar thing in a world gone mad.

Sheppard, who was all white: white face and white arms and white sheets, his hair a single splash of darkness on his white forehead -- well, on half his forehead, anyway. To Rodney's secret glee, the hair on one side of his head had been shaved off in order to treat his head injury. Unfortunately, what it had been replaced with was worse: a thick swath of bandages and a tube that looked like it went straight into his brain.

There were more tubes coming out of Sheppard than Rodney really wanted to think about, with the one going down his throat being especially hard to look at. His lips, parted around it, were cracked and dry, and without really thinking about it, Rodney reached for the little tub of Vaseline on the bedside table. Sheppard was really going to owe him for this, he thought, dabbing a little bit onto the dry lips with the tip of his finger.

The silence was far too silent, with only the beeping of monitoring equipment and the hiss of the ventilator. "Your hair looks stupid," Rodney told him, capping the Vaseline. "You need to wake up now, so I can mock you properly. I'll tell you one thing -- you're not going to score any sexy nurses this time around. They'll be too busy laughing at your half-head of hair."

He pulled up one leg onto the seat of the chair and draped his arm over it; his back was getting stiff, sitting here so much. "Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, I was telling you how much everyone here sucks. Don't get me started on me. I can't stand me. Wait, that came out wrong. I mean, the me here. He's a complete ass. I still can't really figure out where this whole universe went wrong, although I'm starting to think it was a lot farther back than Doranda. It might actually go back a really long ways -- maybe you squished the wrong bug in childhood, or something. It's the little differences that keep tripping me up here, Sheppard. Like, for example, Han Solo? Is played by Chevy Chase! I'm not joking! When I say 'Harrison Ford', everyone says, who? He's probably a shoe salesman or something in this universe." Rodney snorted, steepling his fingers on top of his knee. "Hey, maybe that's the root cause of it all. Growing up with Chevy Chase as Han Solo has driven everyone in this universe insane. Understandable enough, I'd say. Oh, hey ..." Perking up, he grabbed a notepad off the bedside table and scribbled a few equations on it to join the sea of equations and incomprehensible notes already covering most of the pages. Not being allowed near computer equipment was putting a severe damper on his ability to figure out what had happened to him and how to undo it, but that didn't stop him from working on it the old-fashioned way.

For good measure, he scribbled, "Chevy Chase?" in one corner of the paper and added a few question marks around it. Hey, you never knew.

Even though no one would tell him anything, he was starting to put together a few of the pieces. He and Sheppard had basically been the victims of something similar to what he and Jeannie had inadvertently done to Rod's reality. This universe's McKay was running some kind of experiment messing with the nature of space-time -- and, knowing himself as he did, he'd bet that it was involved with extracting zero-point energy. Considering the different timelines, this was interesting, because it meant that these people were a lot farther along than they ought to be, compared to his own universe. They'd obviously had some sort of breakthrough. He kept his eyes open, but had yet to figure out what. There was something naggingly familiar about the room that he'd seen all too briefly before fai--passing out; all he knew was that it had been offworld somewhere, since he'd woken up in the jumper heading back to Atlantis. He felt as if he should know that place, but couldn't figure out why. No one would tell him what was happening, but from snatches of overheard conversation, he'd at least gotten the idea that whatever their experiment was, they'd shut it down until they figured out what had gone wrong. This was a huge relief -- at least he knew they wouldn't inadvertently destroy his own universe while he was spinning his wheels here. If he could figure out how to go home, he'd have a home to go back to.

And the fact that he and Sheppard had come through the rift between universes in one piece was nothing short of miraculous. The quantum forces that had to have aligned --! According to all the theorizing he'd been doing in the intervening days, it must have had something to do with this universe being offset in both space and time from his own. Without having to deal with the resonances between quantum pairs in too-close universes, this one and his own had been able to swing into perfect alignment for just that brief period.

This could make getting home even harder, though.

Also, he was pretty sure that he'd figured out why he and Sheppard had gotten separated. Sheppard had been interfacing with the puddejumper while he flew it, so he and the jumper had been taken as a single unit -- and that gave him a really horrible mental image of Sheppard being reconstituted as some kind of man-jumper hybrid. That would have been difficult to explain to Elizabeth. As it was, the two of them had come out on this side with more spatial separation between them than had existed on the other side -- probably due to the fact that this universe was offset spatially from their own...

For the time being, he managed to lose himself in his calculations, while the soft beeping of the monitors kept him company.

Another man might have been intimidated when he found himself living in the legendary City of the Ancestors, but Ronon Dex was not that man. Seven years on the run had pretty much beaten all the reverence out of him ... for anything. On other worlds, he'd slept in taboo holy places and eaten the sacred offerings of grain when he woke up. No gods ever struck him down.

So here he was in the holy city, and all it really meant to him was a bed to sleep in, square meals when he needed them, and people who didn't want him dead. He still hadn't figured out what he was doing long-term. Strange to think in terms of What do I want to do with my life? Well, kill Wraith, obviously; he did know that much, and at this point, he stuck with the Atlanteans because they seemed like the best chance to do that. So far, though, there didn't seem to be a whole lot of Wraith-killing going on. Instead there was lots of sitting around and watching other people do sciencey stuff that didn't make much sense to him. The Atlanteans were a lot of talk, but not so much action, as far as he could see.

He'd thought about leaving Atlantis after killing Kell and realizing just how deep the gulf between himself and these people really ran. And he thought about it now, wandering the darkened city. He passed the occasional soldier on guard duty; they nodded to him; he nodded back.

Ronon didn't put much stock in trying to fit in; as many places as he'd lived, as many things as he'd done to survive, little stuff like what sort of tools you eat with were less than nothing. But he did have a survivor's skill for reading the currents around him. He'd picked up pretty quickly on the civilian/military divide on Atlantis. There had been similar tensions on Sateda, but not as severe, since the active state of war and the supreme status of the military had kept the civilian population from overstepping their bounds. Here, the city was actually run by someone who had not served in combat, something he really couldn't get his mind around. He could see that the soldiers didn't want to take orders from her, and he wasn't surprised; the only surprising thing was that the coalition had held together this long. Atlantis was a house divided, and Ronon thought that its fall was probably imminent.

And what of him, then? He liked Sheppard and had come to respect him, recognizing a lot of himself in the way that the Colonel held everyone at arm's length, including the members of his team. Teyla ... he'd expected to find little in her to respect, since he'd heard of the Athosians and knew that they were a peaceful farming people, i.e. cowards. But she'd surprised him with her warrior's spirit, and as a resident of this galaxy, she understood things in a way that the soft Atlanteans could not. He regretted the rift that had developed between them after he'd killed Kell. Since Sheppard's team spent little time together off-duty, there hadn't been much opportunity for healing the divide. He and Teyla had a polite working relationship now, and though he didn't ever see them becoming friends, they could work together smoothly; it was more than he'd had before.

Zelenka -- was better than McKay, at least. Ronon couldn't stand McKay; the head scientist had made it clear from the beginning that he didn't like Ronon and didn't want to be on the team with him, and Ronon, for his part, couldn't figure out why Sheppard put up with McKay's constant insubordination. Nothing like that would have been allowed to continue on Sateda. When McKay left the team, it had been a relief. Zelenka was, Ronon felt, a liability; he was too cautious, too timid, and they had to spend most of their time offworld protecting him. On a personal level, Ronon liked him, but he didn't understand Sheppard's insistence on having a scientist along on their missions. In fact, he didn't understand the point of a lot of their missions. Kill Wraith! How hard was that to understand?

Now the entire city was buzzing about this alternate-universe thing. Once again, Ronon didn't really understand most of the theory, but he did understand that there were duplicates of Sheppard and McKay in the city, which most people had heard about but few had actually seen. He had to admit he was curious. He'd never seen someone from another universe, and he wondered if they were identifiable in some way; it could be useful to be able to recognize an alternate-universe person if he saw one.

So Ronon would occasionally wander down to the infirmary and look in on the other Sheppard. The medical staff claimed that he was getting better, but he didn't look any better to Ronon. He looked mostly dead. He also didn't look particularly different from the Sheppard that Ronon knew, aside from being mostly dead. The real Sheppard, Ronon noticed, took pains to avoid the infirmary -- even more so than usual. In fact, he seemed to be avoiding Atlantis in general. Ever since the clones showed up and Sheppard had had a fight with McKay in the jumper bay -- Ronon hadn't seen it, but the whole city had heard about it -- the team had been on a series of nonstop offworld missions. It was very routine stuff, busywork mostly: checking on trade agreements, exploring not-so-interesting worlds. Basically just staying away from Atlantis. Ronon figured that if even he realized what Sheppard was up to, then it had to be as transparent as glass to everyone else, but Sheppard didn't seem to be aware of this.

The nighttime infirmary was dimly lit and nearly deserted. A computer screen glowed blue across the room; the duty nurse looked up from her files. "Visiting hours are over."

Ronon had quickly learned that visiting hours was code for We don't want you in here, regardless of the actual time. He'd also learned that most people didn't want him gone enough to actually go to the considerable trouble of removing him from a place he wanted to be. "Just lookin' in on the other Colonel."

"Well," said the nurse, proving his point, "be quick about it."

They had the comatose Colonel in a private curtained-off area, with two Marines guarding it. Ronon was on generally good terms with the military in the city; they just nodded to him and stepped back to let him inside.

The last person he expected to see was McKay, who jumped and looked up, then flashed him a quick, slightly nervous grin and said, "Oh, hi there. Wondered when you'd show up."

It was that, more than anything, that clued him into this being the other McKay, the alternate universe one. The real McKay didn't like him, was nothing but hostile when he was around. This one, though, just moved over to make room for him at Sheppard's bedside, and that was very wrong. Ronon hadn't planned to stay; he just wanted to take a peek, and he wasn't even sure why, except that the other guy looked so much like Sheppard and he didn't have anyone to watch out for him here.

Except ... that was obviously wrong. He did have one person. Ronon had just assumed that the other universe's Sheppard and McKay were like the ones here: former friends, now shading more towards enemies.

But the other McKay had obviously been making himself at home here; there was a sea of crumpled candy wrappers on the bedside table and a cup half-filled with cooling coffee. Sheppard looked a little better than the last time Ronon had stopped by. They'd gotten rid of the tube down his throat, and without that, he looked more like he was sleeping than like a corpse animated by machinery. He was still awfully pale, though.

"Looks like crap, doesn't he?" McKay said, echoing his thoughts. "Not going to be winning any nurses' hearts looking like that, which is probably why he's staying unconscious. Too embarrassed to wake up." The scientist tore open a candy bar wrapper with his teeth. There was a jitteriness to him: too much caffeine, too little sleep. He settled back in his chair with a pad of paper in his lap, incomprehensible symbols scribbled all over it. Glancing up at Ronon, seeing that he was being watched, he groaned and rolled his eyes. "You're worse than my great-aunt's Schnauzers, you know that? Here --" He tossed another candy bar in Ronon's direction; the Satedan, startled, caught it automatically. "Take that, and quit the begging. And for God's sake sit down; you're making me nervous with the looming and all. Or leave. You could also leave."

Ronon sat down in the unoccupied chair by Sheppard's bedside, operating mostly on autopilot at this point. McKay ... giving him food? He turned the candy bar over in his hands, wondering if there was some ulterior motive. When he looked back up, the scientist was buried in his equations again, scribbling on the paper and flipping over another sheet to scribble some more.

So, here he was; now what? Ronon hadn't planned on having a conversation. He couldn't even talk to this universe's McKay, let alone an entirely different one. Instead, he studied the scientist while taking a large bite out of the candy bar. McKay's exhaustion was evident in his slumped shoulders, the way he paused occasionally to rub his eyes and take another swig from the cup of coffee.

"You look like you could use some sleep," Ronon said suddenly, even surprising himself.

McKay raised bloodshot eyes, and snorted. "Oh, thank you, Doctor Dex. What school is your medical degree from, again?"

Ronon could feel his hackles raising; McKay just had that effect on him. But there wasn't any particular venom behind the words. When "their" McKay said something like that to Ronon, he meant it. But here, the runner sensed no malice.

Just then, Sheppard stirred and made a soft sound, cutting short Ronon's train of thought.

And McKay moved with unexpected speed, the notepad falling, forgotten, to the floor. He leaned over the bed. Ronon moved too, unconsciously leaning closer.

Sheppard's eyelashes fluttered, a fringe of darkness against the blue shadows under his eyes.

"Sheppard! Hey, about time you decided to quit lazing around." The words were typical McKay, brusque and impatient -- but his voice cracked in the middle, and this drew Ronon's eyes up to McKay's face. What he saw astonished him: the facade of indifference broken, shattered, revealing relief and worry and hope. McKay's blue eyes were wide and fixed on Sheppard's face as if drawing him back to consciousness through willpower alone.

It wasn't a side of McKay that Ronon had even known existed. Not the McKay here, he amended, reminding himself that they were two separate people. The other Sheppard might be different, too.

Still, he couldn't stop watching, as McKay leaned forward and laid one hand tentatively on Sheppard's arm, giving it a little nudge. "So, are you waking up or still dreaming? Hello in there? Anybody home?"

Sheppard swallowed convulsively, turning his head to the side on the pillow. He blinked and Ronon could see him going through a slow orientation, figuring out where he was. His eyes fixed on McKay. And it was like a whole conversation took place between them, almost instantaneously. Ronon knew that silent language, in some of its dialects -- the rapport of comrades under fire; the unspoken communication of family. The way he himself had been with his war-brothers on Sateda, and with Melena, and with his parents; the thing he'd never found on Atlantis, that could have kept him here rather than continually wondering when the time would be right to leave.

Sheppard's cracked lips curved in a faint smile, and his eyes fluttered wearily closed. McKay's grip on his arm tightened. "Hey, you want me to get a nurse?"

The lips moved; the whispered voice was the familiar lazy drawl, but with a note in it that Ronon hadn't heard before. It was relaxed, in a way the real Sheppard's voice never was. Warm. "Sure, Rodney, knock yourself out."

"I'll do it," Ronon said.

McKay jumped. Obviously, he'd completely forgotten that Ronon was there, all other concerns dropping to the side at Sheppard's return to consciousness. "Yeah, you, uh, do that, then?"

Ronon ducked out of the curtain, and behind him he heard McKay's voice, low, making some kind of joke. He missed most of the words, but he heard Sheppard's soft, wheezing laugh, breaking off in a cough and then a pain-filled murmur of "Dammit, Rodney ..." quickly overridden by McKay's hasty, babbling apologies.

And Ronon realized something that surprised the hell out of him.

He liked this McKay.

Chapter Eight: Arcturus

"I hate them all," McKay told his coffee cup.

Normally, he'd do this sort of griping to Zelenka, but right now he hated Zelenka most of all, with a bitter and all-consuming loathing. Traitor! McKay needed him to help troubleshoot the Arcturus project, and where was he? Gallivanting around offworld with Sheppard's team! He'd sent Elizabeth no less than sixty-three emails inquiring (okay, demanding) that Sheppard's team be grounded until they got the spacetime rift problem solved, but she was ignoring him. She didn't want the project to succeed in the first place; if it worked, it would be a huge blow to her credibility with the IOA, since she'd done everything in her power to stamp it down in the beginning.

He hated her, too.

And he hated the Dorandans, who were inexplicably dragging their feet and making it even more difficult to do the troubleshooting that he needed to do to make it work. Didn't they realize that they had the most to lose of anyone, if the project failed? Idiots.

He hated the military, in the wake of a series of missives from the SGC wanting to know how the project was coming along. His last report had said that they were close to completion and ready for a live test. Now, of course, he didn't want to send another report until he solved the current range of problems. The longer he waited, the more impatient they got. This was why he didn't want the military in charge of the project! Civilian investors understood that results took time. The military wanted to see results now, now, now.

He also hated the doppelgangers, who provided continual living proof that the project wasn't quite working as advertised. He particularly hated the alternate McKay, who kept demanding access to the labs and equipment so that he could figure out how to get home. Didn't he understand that they were working on it? Two heads, NOT better than one, common misconception. Even if both heads were his own.

He hated his underlings for being incompetent and the cafeteria staff for not being able to make a proper pot of coffee, and he hated Sheppard on general principles. Somehow this was probably Sheppard's fault; he just hadn't figured out how yet.


Sheppard, who wouldn't listen when McKay had tried to share fears and suspicions with him after the Arcturus test. He was still worried that Larissa had picked up something weird in Sheppard's DNA; there was no telling if the Iratus DNA showed up on her scanners, and he hadn't even thought that it might, until seeing the weird look on her face when she had scanned the Colonel. Now he was beginning to doubt his own suspicions, because she hadn't said anything, and she hadn't been anything less than polite.

On the other hand, she hadn't been anything more than polite, either. He'd thought that the two of them were developing, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a rapport, but ever since the test their communications had been short and strictly business. And every time that he suggested coming back to the planet to run more tests, the Dorandans had some kind of polite and plausible excuse. There were bad storms on Doranda, Larissa told him on one occasion, and they shouldn't come through. Another day, the Dorandans were having problems with their ship, and she told him that while he could come work on the project, she wouldn't be there. Elizabeth had then nixed the idea of taking a team to Doranda; McKay had argued and railed, but Elizabeth asked him flat-out: "Are you absolutely positive you can accomplish anything there that you can't from working on your simulations here? This is supposed to be a joint project between our peoples; how does it look if we go behind their backs?"

And maybe it wouldn't matter anyway.

McKay swirled the coffee in his cup and stared at the lines of code on his screen with burning eyes. He'd been working for -- what was it now? Fifteen, sixteen hours straight? It wasn't working, and it wouldn't work, and he didn't know how to make it work. The results were all coming up the same. As promising as the bridge idea was, the containment protocols on the Arcturus station weren't adequate to make the bridge stable. When they shunted off the unpredictable particles into another universe, it was going to create a highly unstable portal with one end in their reality. It was impossible to tell, without running more physical tests, what the effects of such a portal would be, but he didn't like the way the simulations were coming out.

It's not going to work. If we run the project, even if we shunt the particles into another reality that isn't inhabited, we'll still run the risk of destroying our own. Unpredictable particles that'll kill everyone in the system, or a wormhole between realities that'll eventually unravel our universe ... those are the options.

He was so damn tired.

He picked up his coffee cup, found it empty. Rubbing his aching eyes, he wondered if it was worth going down to the infirmary, running the risk of encountering the doppelgangers, to get something from Carson to give him a few blessed hours of dreamless sleep. It would probably be accompanied by a lecture on the perils of too much caffeine, but there was something comforting in that. Carson was the only person in the city who still interacted with him on a friendly level. Otherwise ... it was like the SGC all over again. Or Russia, or any of the other places he'd worked. People might appear friendly at first, but it didn't take long before their true colors started to show through -- as Sheppard had certainly proven.

He slid down from his lab stool, yawning, and turned around -- only to come to a dead halt at the sight of Ronon lounging in the doorway, watching him. Seeing the barbarian in the labs was so completely unexpected that he just sputtered for a moment before he could even muster up a suitable head of righteous indignation.

"Do you want something?"

"Nope," Ronon said, and continued to watch him.

"How long have you been there?"

"Awhile," was the laconic answer.

McKay stared back with eyes narrowed, but Ronon's face was unreadable as always. "Yes. Well. I was just ... leaving."

"Okay," Ronon said, and obligingly moved to the side. Of course, McKay would have to brush past him in order to get out into the hall. He had no desire to get that close.

"In the ... other room," he clarified, edging towards the door leading to the biology labs.

Ronon just grunted, and continued to watch him with no noticeable change of expression until he'd backed into the biology lab and escaped into a different hallway.

That had been very weird.

Sheppard drifted in and out of consciousness. Things didn't make a whole lot of sense when he was awake; he kept thinking he saw Carson, which was patently impossible, and Rodney kept explaining things to him in an exasperated tone which indicated that he'd probably asked the questions before -- but he could never remember the answers. His throat was raw and he recognized the weird floaty feeling that meant he was probably doped to the eyeballs. He couldn't remember what had happened to him. Everything was in pieces. And something felt different. Off. He couldn't put his finger on it, but there was a wrongness to his surroundings that he couldn't quite name, a feeling that some nebulous something, which normally hovered around the edges of his perceptions, just wasn't there anymore.

It was a relief to finally wake to a full-body ache which meant that they were starting to taper off the drugs. Lying with his eyes closed, he listened to the familiar beep of monitoring equipment and, closer, to small rustles and a scritchy sound of pencil on paper. A member of his team, or Elizabeth, he guessed, and wasn't surprised to see Rodney come slowly into focus when he cracked his eyes open.

He tried to say a casual "Hi," but having to clear his throat a couple of times to get the words out sort of spoiled the effect.

Rodney looked up, over the top of his legal pad. He looked exhausted, but he managed to offer a friendly scowl. "You'd better be coherent this time. I'm getting tired of Drug-Addled Sheppard 101."

"If I weren't, would I know?" Then he coughed, and pain rippled down his side.

Rodney leaned forward and offered him a plastic mug of water with a bendy straw. Sheppard turned his head away from the offered straw and insisted on bringing up his hand to take the mug from Rodney -- then had to use both hands when one proved not equal to the task.

"Stubborn idiot," Rodney muttered. "Want me to get a nurse?"

"No, I got it." After he drank, feeling a little better, he handed the mug back and asked, "Don't you have work to do, or something?" Normally when he was in the infirmary, Rodney tended to wander in and out -- he wasn't a sitting-at-the-bedside type.

"I wish. They won't let me do anything. It's sit here, or sit in strange quarters under house arrest, so I may as well be out here where there are at least people to talk to. I'm telling you, we were a lot nicer than this to Rod."

"Rod..." Snatches of memory flashed behind his eyes, bits and pieces of things Rodney had told him while he was drugged. "We're in another universe?"

"And he goes for the win," Rodney said dryly. "We took a jumper out to check an anomaly over Atlantis's ocean. Looks like it dumped us here, in another reality."


"Yeah, wait'll you meet everybody. This is like the inverse of Rod's happytime universe. There, everybody was insanely smart and competent; here, they're all a bunch of moody, emo versions of the people we know."

Sheppard blinked, working to put together his fragmented recollections into something resembling a coherent whole. "Then ... I really did see -- Carson?" He had to force the word out; the stab in his chest had nothing to do with his injuries.

Rodney swallowed, and rubbed a hand across his face; it rasped across what looked like a couple days' growth of beard. "Guess so," he said shortly. "This universe's version, anyway."

Sheppard thought about saying something flippant, like Guess we can't take him back with us, but the words died in his mouth. No. It wasn't funny.

Instead he said, "What happened to the puddlejumper?"

Rodney blinked, irritation climbing up over the edges of the funk he appeared on the verge of sinking into. "Excuse me, are you retarded? Look at you. What do you think the jumper looks like?"

"Elizabeth's not going to like hearing we lost another one."

"No," Rodney agreed glumly. "If we ever see her again, that is."

"Rodney, I hate to break it to you, but if this is the emo alternate Atlantis, then it's infecting you, too."

"Oh, very funny. You'll be depressed too when I tell you about this place."

And Rodney proceeded to fill him in on the details that he'd missed, in between nurses coming in to check his vitals and offer him a bowl of soup. He took a few desultory sips of the hot liquid before his stomach decided it had had enough, and slumped back as exhaustion began to claim him, listening to Rodney's slightly skewed and self-pitying version of events.

"The only person who's the same appears to be Ronon, which is just creepy, let me tell you. He keeps coming in here and staring at me. I've found that if I give him food, it makes him go away, at least for a while."

"You know what they say about feeding strays, Rodney," Sheppard mumbled.

"Excuse me, who's the one who brought him back to Atlantis in the first place?" Rodney sighed; his shoulders slumped. "I wonder what Ronon and Teyla are doing right now. I bet they're going crazy, looking for us."

"Any luck on figuring out how to get us back to our universe?"

Rodney gritted his teeth and wadded up a sheet of paper from the notepad. "You can see how it's going. They won't let me near their computers! These people are completely paranoid! What do they think I'm going to do, hack in and steal all their secrets? This is Atlantis! I already know all their secrets!"

Sleep was drawing him down, but Sheppard pulled himself back to the land of the living to say, "I would think that by now you'd have stolen a computer, cobbled together a killer robot from spare parts in the trash cans and taken over the city. I'm disappointed, Rodney."

"Well, aren't you funny. I'm not MacGyver, you know."

Sheppard closed his eyes, missing out on any further McKay body language, but opened them again at the unmistakable rustling sounds of Rodney standing up. Noticing the Colonel looking sleepily at him, Rodney said impatiently, "Oh, I'm just going down to the mess to get something to eat. Want me to bring you some real food?"

"Not really hungry." Seeing the lost, exhausted look creeping back into Rodney's face, Sheppard realized that it really was bothering Rodney hugely that he didn't have anything to do here, and no good way to get them back where they came from. The Answer Man didn't have any answers. Maybe giving him a mission would help a little bit with that. "On the other hand, maybe if they have some chocolate chip cookies ..."

Rodney looked a little more cheerful. "Cookies. Got it."

"You'll have to sneak it past the nurses."

"I can do that."

Sheppard gave him a thumbs-up, and then closed his eyes and let himself drift for a while in a semi-comfortable haze.

He woke up when someone started fussing with the equipment hooked into him. Peeking from under half-closed eyelids, he gave a little jolt when he saw that it was Carson, then sucked in a breath at the resulting stab of pain in his ribs -- thereby ruining any pretense of being asleep.

"Well, hello, Colonel." The doctor gave him a smile that was mostly friendly, with maybe a tiny bit of nervousness mixed in. Sheppard couldn't blame him for that; remembering how odd it had been to deal with Rod, he could only imagine how the local Atlanteans were handling not just one but two alien versions of themselves.

"I've heard Rodney call you Colonel," the doctor added, "so I presume you had your promotion in your universe as in ours, though we haven't exactly had much of a chance to chat."

"I did," Sheppard agreed, blinking against the dim lights of the infirmary. "Promotion, that is." As the level of painkiller in his system declined, it was harder to get a deep enough breath to speak in anything longer than short sentences.

Carson's too-perceptive blue eyes assessed him. "Any pain? Discomfort?"

"No," he said promptly, ignoring the dull ache in his chest that blossomed into full-blown pain whenever he tried to move. But it felt so good to be able to think clearly again that he had no intention of getting back into that drugged-up state, pain or not.

"Hmm," was all Carson said to that. He tapped on a beige-colored box clamped next to the bed. "I'm putting you on a PCA since you're a little more alert now. I presume you've used these in your universe; I can't imagine you being any less accident-prone there than you are here."

"Yeah." Sheppard eyed the painkiller-administering device. "You, the other you, always tell me I don't push the button enough." Only after the words had left his mouth did he notice that he was still using present tense -- but of course, it was present-tense here, where Carson was still alive.

He wondered if it would be possible to give warning; would Carson listen? Believe him? It was hard to get his thoughts together; the painkiller dose might be lighter than earlier, but he was still pretty heavily doped.

Carson gave a soft laugh. "I can see some things are the same in any universe. I presume you're an adult and capable of acting like one -- so if the pain is keeping you from sleeping or moving, use the thing, Colonel, or I'll take it away and put you back on scheduled drugs."

Sheppard made what he hoped was a noncommittal sound. Carson patted him on the shoulder. "Get some sleep, Colonel."

"Mmm." As Carson started to turn away, Sheppard opened his eyes again. "Hey ... how bad was it?"

Carson turned back, frowning down at him. "How bad was what?"

"Me. You know. How close did I ..." He gestured, not liking the way that his hand wavered in the air; just that small movement seemed to take all the strength he had.

Carson looked at him for a moment, then gave a small smile. "Close, Colonel. Too damn close. We'll save the gory details for when you're feeling a little stronger, why don't we?"

"If you say so."

"That I do, Colonel."

Sheppard let his eyes slide shut as Carson fiddled with the equipment around the bed. Rodney might complain about this place until the cows came home, but from Sheppard's point of view, it was comforting and familiar in a way that the Atlantis infirmary hadn't been since -- well. Better not to think of that.

"Colonel, are you still awake?" Carson's voice was soft, pitched not to disturb him.

"More or less, Doc."

"Do you mind if I ask a question?"

Sheppard blinked his eyes open, and looked up to see that Carson was adjusting the IV and not looking at him. "Sure, shoot."

"I take it in your universe, Rodney and I don't get on."

This genuinely surprised him. "What makes you say that, Doc?"

"The way he's avoiding me here."

Oh. Oh. Crap. Apparently, Rodney hadn't been particularly forthcoming with the details of "his" Atlantis. "I wouldn't say that. It's nothing to do with you. Or him. It's ..."

His protective instincts surged up full-force; he desperately wanted to warn this Carson, but he wasn't even sure where to begin. This universe appeared to be so different that there was no telling if the same chain of events would occur. For all he knew, Carson could die in a Wraith raid tomorrow.

Still, he felt as if he had to make the attempt -- but how did you tell someone that they were dead in another reality? Words were never something he was good at anyway, and this ... how did you find words for this? They sure as hell didn't have a Hallmark card for it.

Carson apparently mistook his silence for weariness, and rested a hand briefly on his arm. "Well ... perhaps I'll take it up with Rodney, then. Get some sleep."

No, he thought. I have to save you. Here, even if I couldn't there. But then the curtain around the bed drew back and there was Rodney, frozen, balancing a tray in one hand. "Oh ... um. Hi. Carson."

"Rodney." Carson's eyes went to the tray. So did Sheppard's. It looked as if McKay had glommed onto one of every dessert in the cafeteria. Send him for a cookie and he comes back with the entire dessert buffet. The man was an over-achiever, no doubt about it.

"What?" Rodney snapped defensively.

"Those had better not be intended for my patient."

"They're not," and Rodney took a large bite of a doughnut to prove it.

"I'm not sure if they should be intended for you, either. Assuming you have the same health issues in your universe that you do here ... and possibly even if not," Carson added, raising an eyebrow.

"I'm sorry, did I ask for your medical advice?" Rodney scoffed through a mouthful of pastry. "Unless temporary amnesia is a side effect of traveling between universes."

"Unfortunately not; nor, it seems, does it impair your ability to speak, more's the pity."

Immobile but comfortable as long as he didn't move, Sheppard cheerfully watched the show. He'd really missed this. Besides, it was nice to see Rodney doing something other than moping around; at times, being Rodney's friend was like being stuck with a bizarre hybrid of Eeyore and Chicken Little.

"--and my medical situation isn't really any of your business, Carson, and what are you implying, anyway?"

"As your doctor, I think it --" Carson broke off, apparently remembering that he wasn't this Rodney's doctor. Something shut down in Rodney's face, too, and he edged around Carson with the tray of food.

"In any case," Carson went on after a moment, in a softer voice, "you might consider going back to your quarters and getting some rest, Rodney. You're obviously running on the edge, and sugar and caffeine are only going to make it worse."

"I'm fine," Rodney said shortly, slamming the tray down on the bedside table.

Carson frowned at him, in a puzzled and worried kind of way. Sheppard's scowl was a little more pointed.

"What?" Rodney demanded.

Just then a door slid open somewhere else in the infirmary; it couldn't be seen, beyond the privacy curtain, but it could be heard along with a familiar, strident voice: "Carson! Where is that man?"

"Bugger," Carson muttered under his breath, and raised his voice. "I'm coming, Rodney; don't have a fit."

Rodney had stiffened at the sound of the other Rodney's voice, slipping around to place Sheppard's bed between himself and the privacy curtain. As Carson vanished around the end of the curtain, Sheppard slid a hand over the bed's rail to pluck at Rodney's jacket and get his attention. "What's the matter with you?" he asked quietly.

"What do you mean, what's the matter with me?" Rodney hissed back. "Are you telling me that creepy funhouse-mirror versions of ourselves don't freak you out? Of course, you liked Rod, too," he spat in an accusing tone.

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "You wanted information," he murmured, nodding towards the curtain. "How do you expect to get it if you treat them all like they have the plague?"

Rodney's eyes went wide. "Oh God. Germs. Do you suppose we have immunity to their germs? If the ATA genes don't work, then that might mean that virus genetics are different too. I knew I shouldn't have spent all these years ignoring the pseudoscientists in the biology lab..."

"The ATA genes don't work?" And suddenly the sense of wrongness that he'd been feeling ever since he woke up clicked over in his head. He couldn't feel Atlantis. Normally it was a continual vague awareness; not really a presence as Heightmeyer had sometimes put it when he tried to describe the sensation to her, but more nebulous than that. Just something there, like the way that you could sometimes be aware of an engine noise on the very edge of hearing without really being able to consciously detect it.

"No, they don't. I can't explain it, but they don't." Rodney shuddered and wiped his hands on his pants, obviously still thinking about germs. Beyond the privacy curtain, the sound of Carson and the other Rodney's voices rose and fell as they spoke. Rodney raised his eyes to stare in that direction, curiosity warring with nervousness.

"Rodney, for pete's sake..." After a moment, when Rodney didn't move, Sheppard -- wincing -- rolled over so that he could reach an arm out of bed and pull back the curtain enough to see what was happening.

The alternate McKay was sitting on another bed in the infirmary with his back to all of them and Carson, in front of him, shining a light in his eyes. "How have you been sleeping?" Sheppard heard Carson ask.

"Like crap," the alternate McKay grumbled. "Look, I didn't come down here to be interrogated; I just want some pills. Is that too much to ask?"

"Considering that I just gave you a bottle of prescription-strength sleep aids less than a month ago ..."

"There were only twelve pills in that bottle, Carson! It's been a lot more than twelve nights!"

"Yes, but you're not supposed to be taking them every night." Carson's voice went soft; Sheppard had to strain to hear it. "I heard about the fight you and the Colonel had in the jumper bay --"

"Don't you start with me, Carson!" Rodney's sharp tones, by contrast, were no problem at all to hear. "If I want psychoanalysis, I'll go to Heightmeyer! The only reason I come down here is for drugs and that's it."

From Sheppard's viewpoint, Carson's face was partially obscured by the IV stand, but he could see that the doctor was frowning. "You come down here because you need someone to talk to, and I'm the only one in the city you haven't managed to alienate by now, though not for lack of trying. You can lie to yourself, but not to me."

The alternate McKay sputtered. "It's not -- I have -- I'm not -- Damn it, Carson!" He scrubbed his hands over his face and then ran them through his hair. Sheppard tried to remember if he'd ever seen Rodney use that particular mannerism; there was something especially un-Rodneylike about it, a sense of exhausted defeat.

Glancing over at Rodney, he raised an eyebrow: Do you know what they're talking about? Rodney just shrugged. And then he stiffened as if he'd touched a livewire, and Sheppard tensed also, turning his attention back to the scene beyond the curtain. They'd both heard the other Rodney say Arcturus.

"I know it's not going well, but I don't know any of the details," Carson was saying.

"Project Arcturus is a giant mess, that's what the problem is." Alternate-Rodney swung his legs over the side of the infirmary bed, watching as Carson crossed the room to the medical storage lockers and passed out of Sheppard's line of sight. "The bridge, I still maintain, is a stroke of genius, but I'm starting to think there's no way to stabilize it. The particles that are being created don't just vanish into their reality; they tunnel between the two realities, and as long as the weapon is running, the hole is going to get larger and more dangerous. We could maybe fire up Arcturus long enough to shoot down a Wraith cruiser if we had to, but there's no way we can use it for power generation."

"Have you had this out with Larissa?" Carson asked from somewhere out of sight.

Alternate-Rodney snorted. "If I could get her to talk to me! She's been acting weird ever since the test and them." He jerked his head towards Sheppard's side of the infirmary, but didn't look over to notice that he was being watched. "She and I are going to go over some of the test data tomorrow -- finally."

There were clinks and clatters from Carson's unseen position. "On Doranda?"

"No. Here. She doesn't want to do it on Doranda. Says we need the computing power of Atlantis to run the simulations faster."

"Elizabeth's fine with this?" Carson asked dubiously, coming back into view with a bottle in his hand.

"Elizabeth would rather have me here than on Doranda, and normally, believe me, I'd be happy enough that she didn't want to risk my genius brains offworld, but that's not what this is about." He snatched the bottle from Carson's hand with a sharp, angry motion. "She doesn't trust me. She hasn't had the respect to say so to my face, but as soon as she got the report about the results of the first experiment, suddenly it's all Rodney, we need you here, and Rodney, you can run your simulations from Atlantis just as easily as you can on Doranda. Carson, the woman doesn't want me within light-years of Doranda and I can't help wondering if that's Larissa's problem, too."

"Rodney, don't borrow trouble where there is none."

Alternate-Rodney's shoulders slumped. "I'm not. I'm being realistic. I said I could make it work, it's starting to look like I can't, and we both know that when it comes right down to it, the sole reason I'm here is for my brains."

To Sheppard's surprise, Carson didn't deny it. The doctor started to reach out as if to pat Rodney's slumped shoulder, then drew his hand back. "Have you eaten?" he asked instead.

"At some point."

"Daft fool. Tell you what, I could use a bite. Assuming the other you has left anything for us."

"The other me? What's the idiot done now?" alternate-Rodney snapped, jumping down from the infirmary bed with the bottle of sleeping pills clutched tightly in one hand.

"Only cleaned out everything in the mess with sugar in it, from the look of things."

"Have you noticed he's heavier than me, Carson? And nowhere near as good looking..."

Their voices trailed out of the infirmary, and Sheppard looked over at his universe's Rodney, expecting irritation with incipient explosion. Instead, Rodney was staring after them with a distant look on his face. He sat down heavily in the chair by the bedside. When he raised his hand and snapped his fingers, the sound was shockingly loud in the silence.

"That's why it was so familiar. The place we came through to this universe, Colonel. It was the control room for Project Arcturus."

"Doranda didn't blow up here."

Rodney nodded. His hand dropped absently onto the tray of pastries, grabbed a muffin and brought it mechanically to his mouth.

Sheppard frowned at him. He couldn't figure out why it mattered that much to Rodney now, any more than he'd been able to figure out why it apparently had been such a big deal to Rodney after the whole thing was over. The motto of Sheppard's life was Leave it behind. He didn't hold grudges, usually; he got pissed and then got over it. In the wake of Arcturus, he'd spent a couple of days being pissed at Rodney, and then he wasn't anymore, and everything was fine.

He'd thought.

Of course he sucked at being comforting, especially when hot pokers were digging steadily deeper into his chest. He eyed the button on the PCA, but decided he wasn't that desperate yet. Besides, needling Rodney was more satisfying, and without side effects -- well, aside from the risk of being hit in the head with the nearest soft-edged object. And Rodney definitely looked in need of being poked at.

"You know, I think they're right about the weight thing. The 'you' in this universe is definitely thinner."

"Says the man who looks like a strong wind could blow him away," Rodney muttered absently, spraying muffin crumbs. "I'm trying to have a serious conversation here. And figure out how to get us out of this hell. If Arcturus is what brought us here, then we're that much closer to figuring out how to get back."

"That's great, Rodney: blow up the Doranda system in this universe too. I'm sure that'll endear you to everybody here."

"It was an accident!"

"I know that," Sheppard said. "Do you?"

Rodney gave him a vicious glare, which softened slowly into something a lot lighter ... and wicked. "You know, Sheppard, I just realized that I never told you about your hair."

"My ... hair?" Startled, he raised a shaky hand to his forehead and touched bandages. "What about my hair?"

"Oh no." Rodney leaned back in his chair and broke off a piece of the muffin. "I wouldn't want to interfere with your recovery by getting you that upset. Carson would kill me." His smirk was entirely unrepentant.

Sheppard would have felt a lot more cheerful about finding something to perk Rodney up, if it hadn't been his damn hair. "McKay, what is wrong with my hair?"

"Oh, nothing at all." The smirk widened, and he popped a piece of muffin into his mouth. "What's left of it," he added, chewing.

Sheppard stared at him. "Bring me a mirror," he said flatly.

"I don't think Carson would like that."

"Mirror, McKay. Now."

"I wouldn't feel too bad about it if I were you, Colonel. Lots of people are bald. Patrick Stewart, for example. Caldwell. Hermiod ..."


Chapter Nine: Mistake

Walking into the jumper bay with Sheppard and a small detachment of soldiers behind her, Elizabeth stopped short at the sight of Rodney examining one of the jumpers while a Marine stood by. Her first thought was: I just called him and he said he was in the labs; how did he get up here so fast? And then, Oh. Doppelganger.

Sheppard caught on immediately, especially when alt-Rodney jumped guiltily and looked up at them. "What's he doing here?"

The Marine corporal straightened nervously. "I didn't know he shouldn't be here, sir."

Elizabeth tried to think back to the instructions Rodney's guards had been given. She didn't want him in the control room or the labs, but since they'd decided to give him a relative amount of freedom on Atlantis, nowhere else had been specifically declared off-limits. Damn.

"Oh come on, what could I possibly do, Elizabeth?" the doppelganger snapped. "I don't have a working ATA gene in this reality. What am I going to do, push a jumper out into the ocean and row it to shore? I'm just curious about the design of your jumpers and bored out of my skull."

Elizabeth locked her hands behind her back. "We're expecting a guest, Rodney, and no offense to you, but I'd prefer if you'd sit this one out."

"Why?" he demanded. "What guest? Wait -- is it this Larissa person? Is she from offworld? I'd figured she was one of the scientists here. It's not as if I can even remember all their names in my own reality ..."

Elizabeth's eyebrows went up. "How do you know about Larissa?" Rounding on Sheppard, she asked, "How much does he know?"

"I have no idea! I haven't even talked to him since he got here."

"Thankfully," alt-Rodney muttered.

The door swished open as McKay came in at a trot, Zelenka in tow. He skidded to a halt at the sight of his double. "What's he doing here?"

"That's my line," Sheppard said under his breath.

McKay flicked him a glance and then conspicuously ignored him, instead marching up to alt-Rodney, who nervously took a step backwards. "You! I want you out of here."

Alt-Rodney folded his arms and raised his chin. "I don't think so."

McKay wasn't used to being told no to his face. "What?"

"I don't take orders from you, so ha!"

Elizabeth's migraine was back, and she was fairly sure one of her eyes was starting to develop a twitch. "John, could you please have him taken back to the --"

But it was too late; the iris in the floor, leading to the gateroom, began to unspool, just as Chuck's voice announced into her ear over the command channel: "Ma'am, the Dorandans are here."

"Thank you, Chuck." She sighed and faced forward, watching Jumper Three settle into its berth and lower its hatch with an echoing clang. Lorne's team had been dispatched to bring back Larissa -- and, Elizabeth saw, two unfamiliar scientists as well, a man and a woman.

"Dr. Weir." Larissa inclined her head respectfully. "This is Perran and this is Mokarra; both are assistants of mine. I hope this won't be a problem?"

"Of course not." Elizabeth offered a welcoming smile to the two new scientists, both of whom looked nervous and uncomfortable in their unaccustomed surroundings.

McKay abandoned his argument with his double and strode over to them; alt-Rodney followed more slowly. "Thank goodness you're here; now maybe we can get some work done. As you can see --" he held up the tablet PC in his hands "-- I've sorted the data into four sets of -- all right, what? Oh." He'd just noticed that Larissa was looking past him at the other McKay. "Yes, it's him. Me. Whatever. Can we get some work done?"

"You're working on Project Arcturus, right?" alt-Rodney asked, sliding quickly into the conversation when McKay paused to take a breath.

"That's right." Larissa glanced between the two McKays.

Alt-Rodney looked smug, and hopeful. "I happen to be the foremost expert on Project Arcturus in my reality, as it happens."

"I ... should hope so." Larissa looked somewhat helpless, borne along by the tidal wave of not just one, but two, Rodney McKays. Obviously striving to gain control of the situation, she held out a hand in a passable mimicry of the Earth greeting she'd observed. "I am Larissa, foremost expert on --"

"Co-expert," McKay snapped.

"Of course," she agreed. "I am the head scientist among my people. Dr. McKay and I were working together on Project Arcturus, as a joint project between our two peoples, when we inadvertently opened a doorway to your reality."

Alt-Rodney held up a finger. "Yes, yes, very interesting, but about that. It's opening the doorway again that interests me."

McKay glared at him. "Which we can't do without destroying both of our realities, and are you a complete moron?"

"Oh, now you're going to blame me? No one tells me anything!"

"Well, boo hoo and cry me a river! Look, Mr. My Parallel Reality Is Better Than Yours, some of us are trying to get important work done, and if you ever want to get back to your reality, then you'll shut up and let us do it."

Alt-Rodney returned the glare. "Excuse me? Genius here, remember? Perhaps you've mistaken my IQ for your own, but if you want to make this work, then even you have to admit it'd go faster with my help!"

"Two heads are not better than one; it's a common misconception! And what are you implying about my IQ?"

"If they're not better than one, then we don't need yours, right? How about you go stuff it up the nearest --"

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said loudly, wondering if she could talk Carson into anything stronger than the ordinary painkillers. There were times when she was strangely and selfishly glad that Rodney and John's odd friendship had apparently fallen by the wayside, because it certainly made life easier for her. She'd never expected that she would have to look out for Rodney and Rodney. "Why don't we move this to a conference room?"

As they filed out of the room, Elizabeth noticed to her dismay that alt-Rodney had fallen right in with them. This universe's McKay (and Zelenka) had commandeered Larissa, steering her into a conversation about something something particle waveform something, so alt-Rodney had gravitated to the other female scientist, Mokarra. Like Larissa and the other Dorandan women, she wore her hair in a myriad of tiny braids. In her case, short blond braids. Elizabeth wondered nervously if a fondness for blondes was something that all McKays shared, in any universe.

"So how much do you know about Project Arcturus?" she heard him say as she tried to maneuver herself in that direction without being conspicuous about it.

"Oh, not so much as Larissa," Mokarra replied shyly. "I have been assisting since the beginning, though -- I mean, since your people began showing us how to use the equipment."

"Did we? I mean, we did. Say, how did your people find out about Arcturus, anyway?"

Mokarra looked briefly confused, but then her face cleared. "Oh, your people told us about it, of course. We would have had no idea otherwise. Tell me, do you think it is likely that the project can truly be made to provide power for our world?"

Sheppard slid smoothly into place by Elizabeth's side. "Want me to separate them?" he murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

"Yes, but I don't want you to be too obvious about it. I don't trust him, John -- that universe's McKay, I mean. I think he might be up to something."

"I don't trust any universe's McKay," Sheppard muttered darkly. His eyes went to the real McKay's back, ahead of them, where he was engrossed in conversation with Larissa.

Elizabeth's stomach clenched. "John, have the two of you spoken since the fight in the jumper bay?"

"Why would we? He's made it clear where he stands."

Behind her, alt-Rodney was floundering as he tried to answer Mokarra's questions about the power output of Arcturus. "I am sorry," the Dorandan scientist said. "I forget -- you are not from our universe, correct?"

"You know about that, huh?"

"Of course. That is why the project has been temporarily discontinued. I hope that it will be possible to make it work, because otherwise our world will die. Tell me, in your universe were you able to successfully generate zero-point energy?"

"No," alt-Rodney said, "though not for lack of trying. Is that why we're working with you guys on this? Because you need the power?"

The thought occurred to Elizabeth that they hadn't even thought to tap alt-Rodney for information on his universe's zero-point technology, and she really should talk to McKay about it, because pooling the two universes' science just might be able to solve the problem. Meanwhile, Mokarra was saying, "Doranda's sun is dying. It is near the end of its life cycle."

"Oh, really? Didn't know that. Granted," alt-Rodney muttered, "didn't have a whole lot of time to find out, either."

"It is true. Unfortunately we didn't know that when my ancestors gated through, fleeing the Wraith. The sun's fluctuating power output causes very long cold cycles on my world, and that is why we need the power from Arcturus to make it through the cold times."

Looking over her shoulder, wondering at what point she should stop them, Elizabeth saw alt-Rodney hold up a hand. "Wait, wait, wait. I'm sorry, you lost me. I thought we were talking about Doranda's sun."

Mokarra looked equally confused. "Well, yes. Oh, I see what you are asking -- I didn't mean to confuse you. The world where my people relocated is not Doranda itself; it is the next planet out. Is it not the same in your universe?"

Alt-Rodney stopped in his tracks. Mokarra stopped with him. Elizabeth went on a couple of steps before realizing that they were no longer behind her, and then paused as she looked back.

"And when you say relocate --" there was a desperate edge to his voice "-- you mean recently, right? Like within the last few months?"

"Oh, no. My people have lived in the Doranda system for many generations."

All the color drained out of alt-Rodney's face. Elizabeth had never seen someone go white like that. He looked as if he was going to faint; staggering, he caught himself on the wall.

"The other planets," he said in a low, hoarse voice. "Oh, my God. We scanned Doranda, but the other planets ... Oh, God. Planets without a Stargate aren't usually inhabited."

Mokarra caught at his arm, surprised and confused. "Are you ill?"

"I think I might be." He looked up at the Dorandan woman, and Elizabeth caught a glimpse of his eyes: huge, blue, wounded. "I'm sorry. Oh, I'm so sorry." He turned, nearly ran into the wall, and then walked quickly down the hall with his guard in rapid pursuit.

Elizabeth and Sheppard looked at each other. "What was that all about?" Sheppard asked in low tones.

"I have no idea. As soon as I get a chance to excuse myself, I think I'm going to find out."

Sheppard flicked a glance ahead, at McKay with the other two Dorandan scientists. They were almost to the conference room where McKay had set up his simulations and displays. "You trust them enough to leave them alone?"

Elizabeth dropped her voice yet lower. "If you call leaving them with an armed guard 'leaving them alone'." There was a bit of challenge in her tone; Sheppard didn't respond. After a moment she said, "No more than you do. But I don't like the idea that the other McKay might be planning something, either. We still know next to nothing about his universe, but he obviously reacted to what she said. If he's up to something, I'd really like to know what it is before he springs it on us, wouldn't you?"

Carson's removal of the more intrusive hardware had improved Sheppard's quality of life quite a lot. He now had a limited ability to move around -- or would have, if he'd been allowed out of bed -- and he was eating again, albeit lightly.

"Are you in pain?" the doctor inquired, checking the PCA's metering system while a nurse helped Sheppard with a bowl of soup.

"Not pushing the button enough for you, Doc?"

"Colonel, only you are the judge of that, but people do tend to heal faster when they don't have untreated pain placing undue stress on the body."

"I'm doing fine." It was hard to explain, even to himself, but he liked being able to feel what was happening to his body, even if a lot of it hurt. The body had its pain sense for a reason, and he'd never forgotten one time when he was a young man: doped up on Percocets for a badly sprained ankle, he'd been invited on a bike ride by cute Suzie next door, and had very nearly blown out his ankle entirely because he couldn't feel what was happening to it.

"If you say so, Colonel. I'm going off shift soon; I was here all night with Dr. Moreland's electrical burns. The lass is doing much better and I'm going to get some sleep, so if you need something, now is the time to ask."

"I'm fine, Doc, really. Well, except for reaching my chicken soup saturation limit here -- no offense." He smiled at the nurse.

She smiled back and blushed; damn it, no matter what Rodney said, he didn't try to flirt. It just sort of happened. She was very young, and not someone he recognized; maybe in his universe, she'd never come to Atlantis, because he was very familiar with the infirmary staff. "It's not actually chicken, it's --"

"Don't tell me; I think I'm better off not knowing what sort of Pegasus Galaxy creature gave its life for this soup."

The nurse giggled and swung the tray out of his way. "Would you like some jello, or anything else I can get for you?"

"Nope. Just a nap." He was exhausted again; it seemed like he had no energy at all.

Carson and the nurse retreated, leaving him alone. They had taken off most of the monitoring equipment as well, so he drowsed in the near-total silence of the infirmary. The only other patient at the moment was the badly-burned Dr. Moreland, and she was being kept in isolation. He drifted off to the sound of soft, quick nurse footsteps and the hum of Atlantis's ventilation equipment.

He wasn't quite sure what woke him; it wasn't something sudden, but he drifted back to consciousness with a vague awareness that he was not alone. Peeking from under half-closed eyelids, he saw Rodney sitting on a chair tipped against the wall, staring at the floor.

As time drifted past and Rodney continued to gaze into space, Sheppard's Protect the team instincts began pinging. He shoved himself the rest of the way awake, taking an experimental breath to see how his chest and ribs were doing. Not so good. Reluctantly he hit the PCA button. The drug, whatever they were giving him, stung briefly as it entered his veins and then left him with a warm glow.

He pushed himself up on one elbow. "Yo ... McKay?" When Rodney didn't answer, Sheppard waved a slow hand in front of him. "Hey! Atlantis to McKay."

Rodney raised his head, very slowly. He looked dazed.

Sheppard stared at him for a long moment, not liking this at all. "You okay?"

After another moment, Rodney looked up, seemed to think for a while before his eyes clicked over from "not there" to "present and accounted for". Still, there was a palpable cloak of Leave me alone surrounding him. "I'm fine," he said.

He didn't sound fine. Brittle was the first word that Sheppard could come up with to describe the odd quality to Rodney's voice. And -- it took him a minute to figure out the other thing that was bothering him: the quietness. A Rodney who wasn't talking was not a Rodney in a good mental place.

His brain flipped through the various possibilities and kept settling on What did these crazy fuckers do to him?

"You sure you're okay?" He wouldn't normally have pushed, but he didn't like the vibe he was getting here. Something had happened, and he was stuck here in this bed, about as useful as a pile of used laundry.


Outside the drawn privacy curtain, the door of the infirmary clicked shut, and Rodney jerked upright like a wakened sleeper, standing with a quick nervous movement as the chair legs thudded to the floor. Sheppard followed him with his eyes. From somewhere outside the privacy curtain, he heard Elizabeth's brisk tones, and the voices of the Marines currently on guard duty. Someone tapped lightly on the wall.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Elizabeth said. "Are you awake?"

He glanced from the curtain, to Rodney, who was leaning against the wall and staring at nothing again. "Yeah," he said.

The curtain drew back, and Sheppard got his first look at this universe's Elizabeth. Outwardly, she was much the same as the woman he knew and respected in his own Atlantis: composed and trim, her back straight, her face serene. But this Elizabeth was too stiff, too calm. There was something almost robotic about her, as if the diplomat's mask she customarily wore had somehow taken over and displaced the human being within. When she smiled, it was with more weariness than warmth.

"Colonel," she greeted him, and with a nod to Rodney, "Dr. McKay. This is the first time we've had a chance to speak, Colonel, and I wondered if we might --"

Rodney pushed off from the wall suddenly, stepping past her without acknowledging her.

"McKay! Hey!" Sheppard shoved himself hastily into a sitting position; various things in his body twinged and creaked, and a head rush made him reel. He gripped at the edge of the bed; Elizabeth made a brief, abortive move as if to catch him, then caught herself. Rodney, however, stopped and looked back, emotions flickering on his face.

Sheppard panted through the world's attempt to spin away from him. "Where you goin'?" he asked, aiming for casual though he could barely manage to keep his voice steady against the vertigo.

"Bathroom," Rodney said after a moment. He took his eyes away from Sheppard with a sleepwalker's dazed slowness. "Just need to use the bathroom." He stepped around the curtain and vanished.

"McKay, damn it --" Sheppard leaned forward urgently, holding onto the side of the bed. Rodney's sudden exit freaked him out, especially after the uncharacteristic silence. What the hell was going on? "What happened?" he demanded of Elizabeth. "What did you people do?"

She looked after Rodney, then back at him, apparently in honest bafflement. "What?" she asked.

Sheppard let out his breath in a long, frustrated sigh that hurt his ribs, and let himself slump back down onto his pillows, which hurt quite a lot worse. He closed his eyes. The room was still spinning. Jesus, he hated this feeling -- hated it beyond anything else: the helplessness of having events moving around him without being able to influence them. McKay ... Rodney ... he didn't have any intelligence to work from here, but he trusted this situation not at all. And he couldn't do a thing, could barely freakin' move and didn't have a radio, didn't have any allies, couldn't even send Ronon or Teyla after him. For all he knew, Ronon and Teyla were the cause of whatever had happened while he was sleeping.

Assuming anything had...

"Colonel, could we talk for a minute?" Elizabeth's voice had a note of forced cheerfulness.

Ronon. He opened his eyes. Rodney had said Ronon had been coming around the infirmary during Sheppard's convalescence. It was kind of a long shot, and kind of weird, but from the sound of things, this universe's Ronon was basically the only other person that Rodney had some kind of rapport with. He decided to go off instinct -- that, and the protective way that "his" Ronon acted towards Rodney back in their own universe. No Ronon in any universe would hurt Rodney; he was as sure of that as he was of anything. Giving Elizabeth a smile as false as the one she was giving him, he said, "Sure, Liz." He noticed her involuntarily flinch, and his smile widened just a bit. In his own universe, the Elizabeth he knew had once mentioned how much she loathed the nickname. "Let's talk. But first you do me a favor."

Elizabeth gave a short laugh and shook her head. "Making demands already. What is it that you want?"

"Call Ronon. Ask him to keep an eye on McKay."

Elizabeth leaned forward and rested her elbows on her thighs, clasping her hands between her knees. "Why do you think Rodney needs to be watched, Colonel?"

She sounded like friggin' Kate Heightmeyer. This universe was so messed up. Sheppard could see why Rodney talked about these people the way that he did; he could also see why Rodney hadn't given them a bit of information about the "real" Atlantis, and could feel his own classic Sheppard stubbornness kicking in. He didn't have the slightest desire to throw them a single crumb he didn't have to. "Because he does, okay? Look, just give Ronon a call and ask him."

A trace of genuine emotion appeared in her voice: confusion. "Why would Ronon listen to me?"

This brought him up short. Why wouldn't Ronon listen to her? Even back in the really early days, when Ronon was still feeling his way around Atlantis, he'd deferred to Elizabeth -- a bit grudgingly at times, but he'd never pushed her. Oh, wait. Duh. Different Atlantis. "Let me talk to him."

"Somehow I doubt if he'll be interested in anything you have to say, Colonel."

"Just call him and let me say something." He lifted a shoulder in what was supposed to be a friendly little "so sue me" shrug to go with his innocent little grin. It was spoiled in the middle by a wince. Okay, major OW. "Look, what have you got to lose? What am I going to do -- try to subvert him?"

"I have no idea," she said with a sigh. "All right ... he doesn't have a radio, of course, but I can see if Teyla knows where he is."

Doesn't have a radio? Sheppard tried to remember how long it had taken them to give Ronon his own radio. It sure as hell hadn't taken until after the Aurora. How paranoid were these people, sending someone out in the field without a radio? He listened through a brief, one-sided conversation, and then she handed the radio to him and nodded.

"Hey, big guy."

"Sheppard." The voice was cautious and wary, and definitely Ronon.

"Elizabeth told you I'm not the Sheppard you know, right?"

A soft chuckle. "Sure, but I gotta call you something."

The reassuring Ronon-ness of that made him grin. Everyone else might be different here, but Ronon was always Ronon. "Listen, I got a favor to ask you. I know, I know, you don't know me from a sack of hammers and for all I know, based on what I've heard, you might not like this universe's Sheppard much, but --"

"Who told you that?" Ronon sounded positively bristling.

Woops. "Okay, it's really just an educated guess, based on the fact that from all accounts the Sheppard you know, as well as the McKay you know, are both complete assholes." He remembered too late that Elizabeth was still listening; she'd cocked up an eyebrow curiously, and looked faintly amused. "Be that as it may," he said, defensively, "I was wondering if you could keep an eye on my universe's McKay for a little while."

Ronon still didn't sound too happy, but then, it was basically his default state. "He in some kind of trouble?"

He wished he knew. "I just thought he could use a friend, that's all." Okay, that sounded completely dopey, and there was a total silence from the other end of the line. "Er, what I mean is --"

"No problem," Ronon said. "Where is he?"

And that was much too easy. Sheppard seriously hoped that he hadn't just made Rodney's life worse. It's Ronon. You trust Ronon. "Infirmary."

"Okay," Ronon said, and the link terminated. Sheppard handed the radio back to Elizabeth, whose raised eyebrow appeared to have permanently affixed itself to her hairdo.

"Okay, about the asshole thing. You know, I don't think you --"

"Sheppard," Elizabeth said in a tone that was tired yet amused, "shut up."

Startled, he did. After a moment, she said, "I'd be angry except that you're so absolutely right. What did Ronon say?"

Sheppard hesitated, finally said, "He's coming up to keep an eye on Rodney."

"You're worried about him. Rod, I mean. Rodney."

Again, he hesitated, but it wasn't as if there was any purpose in lying to her. "Yeah."

Elizabeth cocked her head on the side, her eyes cool and assessing. "Do you really think we'd hurt him?"

He thought about it a moment, and damn it, deep down, he really didn't. Even though he knew he shouldn't be willing to extend them a level of trust they haven't earned. And obviously something had rattled Rodney badly. "Well, you're not Wraith, at least," he said finally.

"I should certainly hope we haven't fallen that far." The wry amusement in her voice was underlain by something a little darker and more cynically self-aware. "If it's not us you're worried about, that doesn't leave very many options, though, does it?"

Sheppard just met her eyes casually. "I dunno. Is there something I should know about?"

Elizabeth let out a long sigh and laced her fingers between her knees. "Colonel, I am genuinely trying to help you both, do you understand that? I haven't thrown either one of you in the brig as a safety risk, and I could easily have done that. I also haven't sent a mission report back to Earth on you two. You do realize that when I do, the SGC is going to want you brought back to Earth to be examined and detained? It might be years before you get a chance to step out of Cheyenne Mountain. I'm really trying to avoid that, but you aren't helping."

Something cold lodged in his throat. "We're not staying here. We're going back to our own universe."

Again the cool, assessing look. "Do you have reason to believe you might be able to do that?"

He felt like a rat in a maze. This was the first time he'd ever been on this end of the Elizabeth Weir "speak softly and carry a big stick" school of diplomacy, and he didn't like it. He was too damned tired and doped-up to navigate through a verbal minefield. "I'm still kinda worn out," he said, and closed his eyes. "Think I'd like to get some rest."

"I'm not your enemy, John."

Oh, first names now. But he was freakin' tired, and his chest hurt, and he was just goddamn through with having to question the motives of strangers who wore all-too-familiar faces. "In case I didn't make it clear, go away."

He heard soft rustles as she got up. "I'll come back later."

Oh joy. He kept his eyes shut and pretended to have fallen asleep. After he heard the curtain whisk shut behind her, Sheppard opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. Shouldn't have given her back the damned radio. He wanted to know where Rodney was. He wanted like hell to know what was going on out there.

I'll lay here for a few more minutes, he thought, and then I'll get up and take a little walk around. Carson's not here. I won't get caught. The walk will be good for me.

Instead, caught off guard by the exhaustion of his healing body, he fell asleep.

Elizabeth let the curtain fall behind her and nodded to Sheppard's guard.

She hadn't expected anything other than a runaround; she knew John well enough to expect that. But what had really floored her was how much she wanted to trust him.

He reminded her, with a sharp and bitter sting, of the John she'd known in the first year of the Atlantis expedition. The John of infectious, childlike enthusiasm, the John who loved to fly and never hesitated to throw himself into danger for a friend's sake. Even though he was sick and exhausted and hurting, even through the layers of suspicion and the smart-ass responses, she could still see a light in this John's eyes that she had thought she'd never see again.

After the Wraith siege. After Ford.

Oh, God, Ford. She hated coming down to the infirmary; she had ever since the day Ford had died. Sometimes she could still hear the sharp bark of John's gun, smell the reek of gunpowder and feel the pain as Ford's hard fingers around her throat relaxed slowly, as his body melted towards the floor. His face had been so close to hers that she'd had no choice but to look in his eyes, even as her vision faded in a whirl of black sparks; she'd seen the light in his eyes -- one human, one black to the edges -- fade away into the vacant sheen of death.

She'd watched his eyes go flat, and then, as he and she collapsed towards the floor, her dimming vision had gone past him to John, to John lowering the gun that had killed Ford and saved her life -- and she'd seen the light die in John's eyes, too.

Elizabeth brought her hand up to her throat, feeling the bruises that had long since vanished. Sometimes she felt as if they'd left scars, invisible ones. Scars that went to the bone. She woke at night, gasping and cold, still feeling Ford's hands on her neck.

Rodney had lain still at her feet where Ford's single blow had dropped him. Ford would have killed her, and perhaps Rodney too. John had only done what he'd had to do. Maybe if he'd had a chance to get a stunner, things would have gone differently -- but the weapon at hand was his 9-mil, and with it he'd saved her life and Rodney's and perhaps that of the infirmary staff.

And though there had been a lot of little things that had pushed them to the place they were now, a lot of wrong choices and small hurts and mistakes, she thought that day might be where it had all gone wrong. In her late, sleepless nights, she sometimes thought that day might be the last time John Sheppard had really, truly allowed himself to care about anyone.

In her universe.

But this John ... this John was different. Somehow he'd weathered Ford's death, or maybe the course of events in his universe had been more different than she imagined; whatever the cause, he'd been able to retain whatever it was that she'd seen in him the first day she'd met him. He was stronger and harder and sharper in certain ways, just like the John she knew, but under it all, she could tell, there was still the same eager kid who wanted to fly, the same grown man who didn't hesitate to let his heart bleed for other people. He'd been scared for Rodney. She had seen it. And she didn't know why, but she couldn't doubt the strength of his emotion.

And, as she strode out into the hall, she wondered if the things she could see in the John of this other universe could still be present in her own Atlantis's John Sheppard, buried under so many layers of emotional armor that maybe even he couldn't see them anymore.

Chapter Ten: Invasion

Rodney stayed in the infirmary bathroom for a while, sitting against the wall with his arms crossed over his knees. He just wanted to be alone, and right now "alone" was the one thing denied him, with a guard dogging his every step.

He supposed he should be feeling more than he was. He recognized this numbness; it was the same feeling as he'd had after Carson's death -- but he wasn't going there, couldn't go to that mental place right now.

What it all came down to was that he just didn't know how to feel.

About anything.

Emotion was a strange landscape to him, and even if he'd been comfortable with it, situations like being responsible for genocide didn't tend to come up in ordinary, everyday human interaction on Earth.

A whole world gone, a whole race of people dead, because of him. And he didn't know how to respond to that. It was so distant and abstract that he couldn't seem to wrap his mind around it.

"Okay, don't be stupid," he said aloud, talking to the walls. The Atlantis bathrooms were largely soundproof, a nice bonus to hiding out in one. "So they're dead, so -- so no big deal. Dead is dead, and it doesn't really matter now, right? Besides, you're in a different universe and you might never get home -- in fact, never will get home if these unhelpful idiots don't give you a little bit of cooperation, and you don't even know if your universe's Doranda system was inhabited anyway, so does it matter at all?"

He got up, and had to reach out to catch himself on the wall. He felt a little sick, a little shaky, like he was coming down with the flu or something. He splashed some water on his face and stared at himself in the mirror, wondering if his skin could really be that gray, or if it was just the 10,000-year-old lights.

"I'm a genius," he said to his reflection in the mirror. "Still, I can't be expected to think of everything, can I?"

A whole world, dead.

He opened the door and crossed the infirmary, not really sure where he was going except that he didn't want to be here. He paused for a moment to glance at the drawn curtain concealing Sheppard's bed. But the last thing he wanted right now was to deal with Sheppard's horribly awkward and misguided attempts at being a concerned friend. Rodney was well aware that he sucked at friendship, but there were times when Sheppard sucked a whole lot worse.

His first instinct had been to come here -- in those initial moments of shock and horror, this was where he'd run. And he didn't understand why.

He stepped out the door of the infirmary -- and ran into a wall. His first, crazy thought was: Stupid place to put a wall, followed by I see Carson's been redecorating again. Then his brain caught up enough to realize that the wall was wearing leather.

"McKay," Ronon said.

"You're in my way, Alley Oop." He tried to go around. Ronon moved easily to block him. "Okay, what the hell? Are you planning to drag me off to your lair and eat me, or what?"

"Sheppard wanted me to keep an eye on you."

"Your Sheppard," Rodney said, "is an ass." He tried, once again, to dodge around, but even on a good day his reflexes were no match for Ronon's.

"Not my Sheppard; yours."

"Really?" Rodney looked up at him. That just figured; Sheppard had been awake and lucid for how long, and already he was doing his best Blues Brothers impression and putting the team back together. "He's also an ass, and a meddling one too. Move."

"You hungry?"

His stomach flipped over uncomfortably. "No. And just so we're clear, have I suddenly started speaking Alteran or something? Because I distinctly remember telling you to get out of my face."

Ronon's lips quirked. "You're more like chest level, I'd say."

Profanity didn't come naturally to him; he generally considered it the refuge of lesser minds (such as Sheppard's). But from somewhere inside him, a dark tide of emotion tried to force its way to the surface, and emerged as: "Fuck off." He tried to shove his way under Ronon's arm by virtue of sheer force and stubbornness.

Ronon caught and held him effortlessly. "You aren't normally like this."

Rodney snatched his arm back, bristling. "How do you know what I'm like? You've known me all of how many days?"

The Satedan was still watching him a thoughtful expression that Rodney would not usually expect to see on him. "You're acting more like the McKay we have here, the one I know. That's not you."

"You don't know me."

Ronon just kept watching him. Finally he said in a decisive tone, "Come on," and took off with Rodney in tow. The Marine who was supposed to be guarding him, looking a bit helpless, followed along in their wake.

If Ronon wanted to take you somewhere, there wasn't really a whole lot you could do about it, short of collapsing on the floor and trying to slow him down with drag. Rodney's whole body was vibrating with tension like a plucked violin string. He tried hitting Ronon a few times; this had about as much effect as he'd expected it would.

They didn't go far -- up a few flights of stairs and finally out onto a balcony. The sharp, salt-tinged wind caught Rodney in the face, and despite his agitation, the breathtaking view caught him off guard. Like everyone else in Atlantis, he'd spent quite a bit of time out on its balconies, but very rarely the high ones. The whole city was spread out at his feet.

Ronon let go of him and stepped back to speak quietly to the guard. After a moment, the guard withdrew to just outside the door, and closed it behind him before taking up a parade-rest position.

Rodney took a few steps forward to the railing. It was chest height on him, a heavy slab of the high-tech plastic that composed the fundamental building material of most of the city. Leaning forward, he rested his arms on it, and slowly leaned into it as the wind washed over him.

Ronon settled on the railing next to him. "I come up here when I need to think."

Rodney's head was resting on his folded arm; that was the only way he knew that he smiled, because the edge of his mouth moved just a little against his arm. "You? Think?"

"Once in a while." He could hear a trace of a grin in Ronon's voice, too. A large hand settled on his shoulder -- very tentatively, as if tacitly asking permission, and with more authority when he didn't shrug it off. "You wanna sit?"

"Sure," he mumbled, and with a little bit of a shove from Ronon, slid down to lean his back against the sturdy railing, cutting out most of the wind. The ex-Runner sat down beside him, saying nothing. It shouldn't have been as companionable as it was. He had to remind himself that this wasn't Ronon, but some sort of emo-verse look-alike. Besides, he told himself, he didn't like Ronon. He didn't hang out with Ronon. Ronon was always just ... there.

And as he felt cautiously around that thought, he realized that he missed Ronon and Teyla like a piece of his soul had been torn away.

I don't want to use the term "lonely", but there are certain people who ... I miss.

It was like being back on Earth, that one time, not knowing if he'd ever be able to return to Atlantis. Only this was worse, in a way, because he was surrounded by people who looked like the ones he knew ... but didn't act like them.

At least they didn't know he'd destroyed a solar system.

And committed genocide.

Thank God Sheppard hadn't found out ... yet. If Rodney had his way, no one would ever find out, here or in any other universe. Destroying an uninhabited solar system was a bad mistake, but that's all it was -- just a really big mistake. Killing hundreds or thousands of people -- how could anyone forgive him that? And should they?

Leaning forward against his knees, Rodney closed his eyes.

"You wanna talk about it?" Ronon asked in his low rumble.

"No," Rodney said, without opening his eyes.

Ronon didn't speak again. His breathing was slow and steady. After a few minutes, Rodney realized that he was picking up the slow rhythm of it, calming himself down.

In fact, Ronon was so quiet, his breathing so even ... Rodney opened his eyes and then rolled them in exasperation. Asleep. It just figured. He started to aim a kick at one leather-clad leg before remembering that this was Ronon, and an alternate-universe Ronon at that. Oops, I didn't mean to snap your neck like a dry twig wasn't much consolation if you were the snappee.

His eyes narrowed a little in contemplation, then, because just the fact that Ronon was willing to fall asleep in his presence ... it had more significance than he would have realized, a year or two ago.

"Hmm." He settled back against the railing. The only sound was the moaning of the wind and the distant whisper of surf at the foot of the towers. His guard was still around, but separated from him by a semitransparent glass door. It wasn't privacy, but it was as close as he was likely to get in this city.

He leaned his back against the railing and thought about a solar system dying in a flash of light.

Elizabeth's arrival in the conference room where the scientists were holding court went unnoticed by anyone except her universe's Sheppard, who raised an eyebrow. She gave her head a quick shake, by which she meant both I didn't find out anything and Not now. She hadn't seen the alternate McKay on her walk to the conference room, and didn't want to be too obvious about looking for him considering the delicacy of the present situation. In the unlikely, but possible, event that the doppelgangers were planning something with the Dorandans, she'd probably done more than enough to tip them off in the conversation with Sheppard already. Mentally kicking herself for an incautious fool, she joined the scientists at the far end of the room.

For a brief and very nerve-wracking moment, she thought that open warfare had broken out among the scientists, but it was only the usual controlled chaos that inevitably erupted in McKay's vicinity. "No, no, no, no!" McKay was yelling at the top of his lungs at a very startled-looking Mokarra, while Larissa and Zelenka -- both much more accustomed to working with him -- were trying to make themselves loud enough to be heard over McKay's tirade.

Elizabeth finally resorted to waving her arms in the air to get McKay's attention. "Does this mean things are going well, or not?" she asked when it quieted down enough that she could get a word in edgewise.

"Oh, we're making progress." McKay's eyes were bright, his whole body practically quivering with energy. He looked manically happy, obviously riding the edge of some kind of intellectual-achievement high. Elizabeth had to struggle to keep from grinning. There was a delightful normalcy to all of this.

"Carry on, then." She retreated to Sheppard's side of the room.

"So?" he asked, low.

"John, not only do I have no idea what, if anything, is going on, but I think I'm more confused than I was before." As she gave the honest answer, her words startled her. It had been a long time since she'd been that open with him. Talking to the other Sheppard must have rattled her more than she'd thought.

Sheppard jerked his head towards the Dorandans. "How about them?"

"I don't know. They seem to be working well with our scientists. Maybe we were mistaken."

"Maybe." There was a note of slight condescension in his voice -- not something she'd ever expected to hear from John, once upon a time.

"Well, I'm going back up to my office; I have a couple of meetings I really can't put off, even for this. Oh ... and you should know that the other you has put Ronon on guard duty for his universe's McKay."

Sheppard's head snapped around. "He's giving orders to my team now? What the hell? And Ronon took it? He doesn't trust anyone here."

"I don't know, but once you're satisfied that they can be left alone for a while, you might want to see about straightening out your chain of command."

She'd meant it to come out as friendly advice, not as a condemnation of his team-handling abilities, but she saw his eyes darken. "Advice taken, ma'am," he said stiffly, clasping his hands behind his back in a slightly exaggerated duty pose.

"John..." She drew a breath, nodded, and offered him the warmest smile she could, hoping to thaw some of the chill in his eyes. "We'll talk later, all right?"

He just nodded, and Elizabeth turned and left the room, her emotional shields wearing dangerously thin.

It seemed that every conversation lately had been a series of missteps, each one putting a further crack in the camaraderie that had grown between Atlantis's command staff during their first difficult year. And for the first time, Elizabeth confronted the growing dissolution of her city not with weary resignation, but with a flare of anger that surprised her. It will not end this way. She wasn't sure if she could trust what she'd seen in the other Sheppard, but somewhere deep within, she felt the strong resonance of instinct telling her that she was right. The other universe had managed to dodge this rift that was tearing them apart. Fierce determination buoyed her up. We haven't survived Wraith and Genii and nanobots and natural disasters just to go down under the weight of our own egos.

I will not let it happen.

Lost in her thoughts, she was startled by a hail over her radio. It was a simple signal that she and the rest of the command staff had worked out a while back; the only information it conveyed was that she should switch to a private channel known only to herself and a handful of others in the city -- Sheppard, McKay, Beckett.

Cautiously she switched. "Weir."

"Elizabeth." It was Sheppard, and he sounded genuinely rattled. "Did something happen just now?"

She stopped walking and looked around. The city appeared normal; a pair of geologists passed her, bent on unknown business. "Not as far as I know. What sort of something?"

There was a pause, then he said, "Nothing. Never mind."

"John, is there something I should --"

"No. No. Look, Elizabeth, do you know where the other McKay is at the moment?"

"Not for certain. You could try asking Ronon. John, if there's something I need to know about --"

"No. It might be my imagination. Stay sharp, though. Colonel Sheppard out."

And with that, he signed off. "Damn it, John," Elizabeth said aloud. As if she'd be able to concentrate on her meetings now. On the other hand, he hadn't even given her enough information to know exactly what she ought to be paranoid about. For a moment she thought about going back to the conference room and asking him. But he was probably already off, pursuing whatever he thought the problem was.

He's my military commander. I should trust him.

If only she actually did.

After Elizabeth left, the scientific contingent -- McKay, Zelenka and the three Dorandans -- settled back into a friendly kind of bickering, tossing ideas back and forth about how to resolve the issues with the Arcturus Project.

The Dorandans had all three been very reserved at first, even Larissa, but McKay was pleased to note that they were finally contributing at a halfway decent level, even if their thought processes lagged several revolutions behind his own.

They were still being guarded by two Marines and Sheppard, which was annoying, but McKay found that he could shut them out if he concentrated. Besides, there was more than enough to focus on -- they were making actual progress for the first time since the aborted test. At this rate he might have an actual report to send back to the SGC when he couldn't put them off any longer.

It was also the first time McKay and Zelenka had worked closely together since the Doranda test; they had hardly even spoken. And McKay was surprised at how quickly they were able to fall back into their old give-and-take, batting ideas back and forth like a series of lightspeed ping-pong balls. There was still an underlying tension; the resentment was still there. But they seemed to be easing back into something like what they'd had before.

At times like this, he really loved his job.

Zelenka and Larissa's two assistants were bent over laptops as they input data for a new simulation that might have a prayer of actually starting to crack the problem. Still a ways to go, but he thought they might be getting there, so he tuned briefly into something Larissa was blathering about, her current half-baked theory on distributing the random particles between an infinite number of universes rather than channeling them into just one. "And according to my calculations, the energy could be --"

She didn't stop speaking, but for a split second, for no apparent reason, he suddenly couldn't hear her. It was like the whole world blinked, and for an instant he couldn't breathe; his chest hurt with a deep and stabbing pain, and for the briefest moment he had a crazy conviction that he'd just been shot. Sucking in a sharp breath, he heard Larissa continuing: "-- long as we keep switching universes fast enough, the particles wouldn't have a chance to begin tunneling and create a permanent link -- Dr. McKay, are you listening to me?"

One of her hands was jammed deep in the pocket of her jacket; seeing his confusion, she took it out and touched his arm lightly. "I'm sorry; did I miss a point? Please correct me -- I can tell from the look on your face that you're skeptical."

Confused and worried would be more like it; the weird feeling had already gone as if it had never been, along with the conviction that someone had shot him, and a strange and frantic worry about Sheppard. He tried to remember the exact symptoms of heart attacks and strokes. Could he be developing epilepsy? Maybe it was just stress. He'd definitely have to stop by the infirmary after this was all over and have Carson give him a thorough physical. Distress made him snappish. "Yes, yes, by all means continue explaining your idiotic theory."

Larissa, who was used to his moods by now, just sighed. She looked oddly strained, and for a moment, McKay thought of asking her if she'd noticed anything strange just now. But it was very clearly something that had happened to him, and him alone; Zelenka and the other two Dorandans hadn't even flinched. And he felt perfectly normal now.

His eyes flicked over to Sheppard; he still had a weird, lingering sense of fear, as if something bad had happened to Sheppard, which was incredibly stupid because Sheppard was standing right there, talking into his radio. Still, his posture was tense, and McKay wondered briefly if there could be some crazy psychic thing going on. Maybe because of their doppelgangers?

Sheppard glanced over in their direction, and McKay hastily hauled his eyes away, not wanting Sheppard to know he'd been watching him. When he looked up again, the Colonel had vanished out the door.

Huh. Weird.

Larissa was talking about particles again. He dragged his attention back to her. Whatever had happened, he felt perfectly normal now. If the Dorandans weren't here, he'd be in the infirmary so fast he wouldn't even leave tracks, but it wasn't as if he could just drop everything and go sprinting off in the event of a possibly serious medical emergency. He'd just have to hope that he didn't keel over between now and the time the Dorandans left.

"Dr. McKay? I asked if you think that additional particles could possibly be generated by the process of switching --"

"Yes, yes, I heard you," he snapped.

Sheppard strode down the hallway, hoping that his face gave nothing away.

What the hell had happened back there? He was caught between blaming the Dorandans, and blaming the doppelgangers; he figured it was about equal odds either way, leaning slightly towards the doppelgangers, based upon the meager evidence at hand.

As usual when in guard mode, he'd kept his eyes roving around the room, and at the precise moment that whatever-it-was occurred, he'd been looking at Zelenka and the two Dorandan scientists. Then -- something happened. Between one instant and the next, the room seemed to flicker, and sharp pain blossomed under his ribs and in one of his legs, and a rapid-fire sequence of images burned itself into the back of his retinas in a flash like the snap of a camera: Rodney, his back arched in agony, and then (flash!) going suddenly limp in the stillness of death.

And then everything was normal again. Neither Zelenka nor the Dorandans so much as twitched a muscle. His eyes went quickly to McKay, to see the scientist staring around wildly as Larissa took a step towards him in concern. Whatever it was, Rodney had felt it. Sheppard cast a glance at the two Marines flanking him: Chen and Raines. They both looked attentive but faintly bored.

Just himself and McKay, then. He tapped his radio and shortly had confirmed that Elizabeth hadn't noticed anything, either. He was no scientist, but if he were to venture a guess, the whole thing sure as hell felt like some weird echo effect involving himself, McKay and the doppelgangers.

The scientists had reassured him that, due to the precise mechanism of the alt-Sheppard and McKay's entrance into this universe and the continuing minor bleed-off of entropy into other universes, they didn't have to worry about entropic cascade failure -- all of which meant absolutely zilch to him, but since they talked about this cascade whatever like it was a major bad thing, he wondered if this might be what it felt like when it began. Which would, he assumed, be bad.

Either that, or the doppelgangers were up to something. Or the Dorandans were ... but he could see all three of them right here, and none of them seemed to be doing anything but engaging in scientific debate with the Atlanteans.

"Hey, Sergeant." Sheppard jerked his head at the scientists. "Keep a close eye on them, all right? Don't let anybody enter or leave this room. Call me if someone tries."

"Yes, sir." Chen looked confused. Sheppard couldn't blame him, but he could hardly explain to someone else when he couldn't even explain to himself.

Now here he was, out in the corridor. And Ronon, damn it all, didn't have a radio of his own yet, since Weir still didn't fully trust him. Instead, he called Klieg, the young corporal who was guarding McKay. "Where are you guys, anyway?"

"Top of the main tower, near as I can tell, sir. Dex is along. He's with Dr. McKay right now; I'm standing guard."

One of the side effects of having Ronon in the city was that most of the Marines, especially the younger ones, had a huge amount of respect for him, bordering on hero worship. Particularly since Ronon was on Sheppard's team, they treated him as having an honorary rank second only to Sheppard and Lorne. Sheppard had yet to figure out if this was good or bad; it meant that he didn't have to worry about Ronon being treated like an outsider -- by the military, anyway -- but it also meant that they took orders from Ronon as if he was actually in their command structure, which he wasn't.

Luckily, Ronon didn't abuse this privilege, or at least he hadn't so far.

"What are they doing, Corporal?"

"Just talking, sir. There's a door between us, so I can't hear what they're saying, but they're sitting out on the balcony."

Which meant McKay wasn't up to anything at the moment -- at least not without having subverted Ronon, which was about the most unlikely thing Sheppard could imagine. Could his alternate self in the infirmary be doing something, then? It seemed unlikely.

"Orders, sir?" the Marine asked.

"Keep on as you are, Corporal."

He stood in the hallway, undecided where the greater threat might lie -- or, indeed, if something even stranger might be going on. He was still trying to decide what to do when the lights went out.

McKay was bending over his laptop, trying to figure out why the code for their latest simulation kept choking and dying right in the middle of the Arcturus weapon's firing sequence, when he heard an odd, electrical-sounding zap and fizzle, followed immediately by a thud.

His head snapped up just in time to see the second of the two Marines dropping to follow the first. Larissa and both of her scientists had drawn those little zat-like stunner weapons that their people used. Perran was holding his on Zelenka, who had raised both hands with an astounded expression.

Larissa herself pointed her gun at McKay, who froze in the act of reaching for his radio.

"I wouldn't do that. Remember the way our guns work: the first shot incapacitates, the second kills. No one needs to die. Now take off your radio and throw it on the floor. You too, Dr. Zelenka."

Silent, furious, McKay obeyed. Zelenka's radio clattered to the floor beside his own. Meanwhile, the third Dorandan scientist, Mokarra, had sprung into action, binding the two convulsing Marines hand and foot.

"What the hell is this?" McKay demanded, finding his voice.

"Against the wall," Larissa ordered. He and Zelenka ended up standing side by side with their palms flat on the wall; they shared a glance of confusion and mutual disgust with themselves.

"But we were actually making progress!" McKay protested, watching out of the corner of his eye as the Dorandan scientist stared at one of the Atlantis terminals for a moment, then used her ATA gene to activate it.

"I know." She sounded regretful. "And I hope that we will be able to make much more progress, soon."

The doors of the room slammed shut, and the main lighting died, only to have the emergency lights kick on a minute later.

"You'll never get away with this," McKay said darkly, ignoring Radek rolling his eyes.

Larissa ignored him. She continued typing. Then she paused at a sharp crackle of static, and reached for the Dorandan-style radio in her pocket. "Excellent timing, Captain," she said into it.

McKay couldn't hear what was said on the other end, but Larissa's brow creased in a dark frown. Her voice remained calm, however. "No, we've just managed to secure things here. We're running late. If you'd come through just a bit earlier, you'd have run smack into their shield; the timing was very close. I have Dr. McKay here, but Colonel Sheppard is still at large."

The radio crackled again. "I tried," she snapped. "His reflexes are insanely fast. Don't underestimate him. Now, so far my scientists and I have been handling the entire situation; is it too much to ask for a little backup here?" She jammed the radio angrily back into her pocket.

McKay and Zelenka shared another look, this one frightened. Zelenka mouthed, "Genii."

Great. Just great. Like one group of technology-hungry megalomaniacs in the galaxy wasn't enough.


Just as Elizabeth reached her office, the lights went out and the emergency power kicked on. She froze in her tracks and spun around to call to the control room staff, "What just happened?"

Chuck shook his head, sliding over from one dead console to another. "I don't know, ma'am. It just --"

A chevron clicked alight on the gate.

Elizabeth whirled around and trotted down the stairs. "Do we have the shield?"

"No, ma'am!" Chuck's voice was on the edge of panic as his fingers ran across the boards, trying fruitlessly to restore power.

Elizabeth tapped her radio. "Dr. McKay! Rodney! What's going on?"

There was no answer. After a moment Sheppard said, "Elizabeth, what the hell?"

"I wish I knew!" The gate ka-whooshed to life, and she pointed at it. "I need security on that! Now!"

But something was breaking through the event horizon. Something big. It cruised into the space between the gate and the control booth above the stairs, nearly filling the room as its tailfins emerged from the event horizon: a ship considerably larger than the puddlejumpers, of a design she'd never seen before. As she stared, the doors to the jumper bay irised smoothly open as the docking protocols took over, and the ship rose only to be replaced by another, and a third, and finally one with rows of unfamiliar glyphs down both sides of it, presumably indicating some kind of special status.

And then a voice filled the air -- speaking, Elizabeth assumed, through some sort of loudspeaker on the ship. Frozen, all she could do was stand on the stairs and listen.

"This is Captain Seng of the Dorandan people. You are trespassers in the City of the Ancestors, profaning Her with your presence. Surrender immediately, or you will be killed."

Chapter Eleven: Takeover

During her time as a diplomat, Elizabeth had learned a few hard-and-fast rules. One of them was Do not argue with fanatics. And from the tone of Seng's command, combined with the Dorandans' earlier obsession with Wraithsign and genetic purity, she guessed that this was exactly what she was dealing with.

On the other hand, they'd apparently been allies up until recently. Something had changed. As a diplomat, and as the leader of the city, it was her job to find out what had gone wrong — and fix it.

Stepping forward, she saw that the final ship had halted in place in front of the gate, blocking it. She was amazed that it had fit through the gate at all, but then realized that it was designed to do so, although only barely; its tailfins and side fins must have been folded down in transit. Looking up at the ceiling, she realized that it had not risen into the jumper bay because it was too large to fit through the door. Some failsafe must have kicked in to prevent it -- which meant they were stuck with a warship in the gateroom.

"This is Dr. Elizabeth Weir." She spoke loudly, hoping that those within the ship could receive as well as broadcast. "Captain Seng, we met on Doranda. I had believed our people were allies; what is the meaning of this treachery?"

Seng laughed harshly over the loudspeakers. "Treachery -- that's fine, coming from defilers of the Holy City. Perhaps you do not understand what has happened. The Dorandan people are the caretakers of the city now. We are in control of your computer systems. I would prefer not to damage the Ancestors' city, but I will do what I must to remove you people from it. Tell your people to surrender and hand over your weapons to us. We demand that anyone who carries the Wraithsign be handed over as well."

Teyla, Elizabeth thought; how did they find out about Teyla? "Let us negotiate, one leader to another. We are not prepared to hand the city over to you, but a compromise --"

A small port under the nose of the ship irised open. Elizabeth sucked in a breath. Scarlet light stabbed past her, cutting a swathe through glass and plastic. Technicians and soldiers threw themselves to the floor or rolled out of the way; one unlucky Marine had time for an aborted scream before he was immolated. The beam punched a hole in the stained-glass window behind the control room; sunlight streamed into the room, slanting through the smoke of burning plastic and electrical components.

"Medical team to the control room!" Elizabeth ordered. "Who's hurt?"

"Janya cut her arm," Chuck reported, white-faced, "and Corporal Kouviakis is --" But he didn't have to finish the sentence; the only thing left of the Marine was his boots.

At the same time, Carson's voice came across Elizabeth's radio. "We can't get to you, Elizabeth. The city's in lockdown. It's like the bloody nanovirus all over again."

Elizabeth spun back to the ship hovering, implacable, its gunports still trained on the control room. She had to grip the railing to still her furious shaking. "Your actions are those of a terrorist, Captain Seng. Is this what it means to you, to be a 'caretaker' of the city? Would you destroy it and kill us all in order to win?"

"I would rather destroy the city than see it in the hands of Wraith sympathizers."

Even anger was washed away momentarily in her rush of shock. "What?"

"I will ask once more, Dr. Weir, and then I will open fire. Do not think I'll hesitate; we have scientists who are capable of fixing any damage that we do to the city in the process of freeing it. You and your people will not be so fortunate. Lay down your weapons and order the rest of your people in the city to do likewise, or I will kill you where you stand."

She believed he'd do it. Obviously, they had been betrayed by Larissa; there was no other way that the Dorandans could have taken over the computer. Right now the Dorandans held all the cards. We can't fight back if we're dead.

And where in the world did they get the idea that we're Wraith sympathizers? The very idea was repugnant. She forced herself to swallow her anger.

"I want your word that if I tell my people to surrender, no one will be harmed."

"You have it," Seng said. "Once we've secured Atlantis, you will be released on the planet of your choice. The only exceptions are Dr. McKay and any of you who bear the Wraithsign. The rest of you will be free to return to wherever you came from."

Well, for now, for whatever it was worth ... it was better than nothing. She gave the warship a single, tight nod, and then turned to the control room, meeting a dozen frightened pairs of eyes. "For now, we will do as they say. Lay down your weapons."

Seng watched on the forward viewing ports of the Caledon, his flagship, as the Atlanteans laid their weapons down.

"So far, so good," offered Tennet, his second-in-command.

Seng shook his head. "Most of them are still at large in the city. Some may obey their leader's command, but I'm sure we can expect resistance. And Sheppard is still at large." He should have known Larissa wouldn't succeed in all of her objectives. The woman seemed to think that she could play spy, but she hadn't been trained for it, wasn't prepared to take the necessary steps to ensure victory. At least she'd gotten control of the gate, although the close timing still left a roiling hole in the pit of his stomach. They could so easily have lost their first ship against the gate shield, and the element of surprise along with it.

The ship's pilot rotated her chair so that she could look at him. "Should I take the Caledon up to the gateship room with the rest of them?"

"Negative. We'd have to blast a hole in the ceiling, and I don't want to damage anything we don't have to. Besides, as long as we stay here, we'll have an excellent bargaining position." He glanced at the rear screens. "Can we get the ship any farther forward? I don't think it's outside the Ring's blast radius." That probably wasn't the preferred scientific term, and Larissa would no doubt correct him. But it was how he thought of it. He'd never seen a man vaporized in front of the gate, but he'd heard stories.

His pilot was the best; no one else would have been allowed at the helm of the Caledon. She nudged the ship forward until its bow nearly touched the railing of the control room. Separated from the Dorandans by only a few paces and the ship's thin hull, Dr. Weir glared at them defiantly.

Seng ignored her, instead calling up to his mind's eye the figures and numbers that Larissa and her scientists had retrieved from the stolen computer. According to the information on the computer, there were 317 people currently on Atlantis, of whom 98 were military and the rest could be assumed to have at least some minimal self-defense training.

It would be a close thing; they'd have to depend on quickly subduing as many of the city's defenders as possible. While there the Dorandans were more numerous than they'd allowed the Atlanteans to believe, they still didn't have enough people and weapons to be assured of victory in a war of attrition -- which was what guerilla warfare usually turned out to be.

He opened a channel to the other ships. "This is Seng. The control room is secured."

Through a fuzz of static -- Larissa had warned them that the Atlanteans' communication systems might cause some problems with the radio frequencies they normally used -- the answer came back: "Gateship room secured, sir. We've captured two of their people."


"Footsoldier Breen is injured, but it's only a flesh wound."

So far, so good. "Proceed with the plan. You all have rough schematics of the city's layout. Spread out, capture and subdue; your first priority is finding and securing a large area for keeping hostages. Someplace defensible. I don't want any massacres, but you are absolutely authorized to use lethal force when necessary. Make an effort to take civilians alive, where you can do it without undue risk to yourself or your squad. But if someone shoots at you, shoot back at them until they stop."

"Yes, sir."

Closing the connection, he looked at Tennet. "Sub-Captain, secure the gate area. Once that's done, I want a squad dispatched immediately to assist Larissa with her hostages. We need to get McKay somewhere secure and keep him there."

"You..." He thought a moment. "Find the Atlanteans' hospital area. Assuming they're still alive, that's where the people from the other universe are most likely to be, based on what we've been told about their physical condition. I want them killed. They are of no help to us, and if they're in good enough shape, they're likely to be dangerous."

Tennet nodded and ran off. Seng looked back at the viewscreens. Dr. Weir was kneeling beside one of her people who'd been injured when the laser grazed the control room. Tennet's soldiers appeared in his field of vision, fanning out, collecting the Atlanteans' weapons.

As long as all of his people kept their discipline and stuck to the plan, they'd be all right; his greatest fear was that someone would turn out to be the weak link in the chain, snapping and causing the rest to unravel. While they had trained all their lives for the possibility that they might someday have to fight to defend their homeworld, none of them had any actual combat experience -- including himself. He'd read all the books in their database on military strategy; now he just had to hope that those long-dead authors knew what they were talking about.

The gym was lit by the soft glow of the sun through the stained-glass windows, casting patterns of gold and blue across Teyla's skin as she went through her cooling-down stretches after her workout. Running the back of her hand across her forehead, she wrapped a towel around her shoulders and ran her palm across the place on the wall that opened the door.

Nothing happened.

Frowning, she tried it again. Still nothing. Only then did she notice that the normally glowing blue crystals were not lit up. Frowning, she was reaching for her radio when Dr. Weir's voice came on the Atlantis PA.

"May I have your attention, please. This is Dr. Weir. Atlantis has been invaded by a hostile army. I repeat, Atlantis has been invaded and is currently experiencing a citywide lockdown. Please go to your quarters if you can, or, if not, stay where you are. We have received the invaders' word that those who cooperate will not be harmed." Teyla, attentive to vocal nuance, noticed the sarcastic twist to Elizabeth's words as she said this. "They are armed, well-trained and very dangerous. They have also taken hostages. Do not offer resistance; you will only risk your own lives and that of your colleagues."

Teyla hesitated with her hand on her radio. Perhaps Sheppard wished to maintain radio silence. Or perhaps he was one of the hostages. But she needed to know what he wanted her to do. "Colonel?"

His voice came back immediately, punctuated with heavy breaths. He was running. "Teyla! Where are you?"

"I am in the gym."

"Door locked?"

"Yes. I cannot open it."

"Damn. All right, listen. We have no way of knowing if they can listen in on our communications, so I want to keep this short. You heard the announcement: we're under attack and Elizabeth's folded like a house of cards. The hell with that. We're taking this city back. It looks like they --" There was a pause; his voice came back softer. "They've got soldiers moving through the city in three-man squads. Right now, I have Lorne gathering up all the Marines he can find."

"What would you like me to do?"

Another pause, and she realized in that instant that he hadn't even thought about it -- in this moment of crisis, his thoughts were all on his soldiers, his people. The awareness lanced through her heart, a quick sharp pain; the depth of that hurt amazed her. When Halling had first told her of her father's death, it had hurt so.

She knew that Ronon had been thinking of leaving the city, and in that instant, she realized that if they survived whatever was happening, she would probably do likewise. Even without outside involvement, Atlantis was fragmenting, eaten from within by distrust and resentment. Dr. McKay had not spoken to her since leaving the team; Colonel Sheppard was no longer the man she had met on Athos, who had seen her as a person when his leader had looked through her.

Colonel Sheppard was speaking again. "Okay, why don't you find Ronon and the two of you --"

"Never mind." She cut him off. She had never done that before. "I cannot leave the gym; the door has locked me in. You must carry on protecting the city, Colonel. Please do not be concerned for me; I will be safe here, but there is nothing I can do to help."

"Teyla --" he said, but she turned off her radio.

Standing in the warm sunlight, she felt her heart battering at her ribs, and closed her eyes, willing it to slow. The childish petulance in her words came back to haunt her, and she was ashamed. Her father would have scolded her for allowing her personal feelings to interfere in a crisis.

But her father had also taught her to have pride in herself and her people. He had taught her that the universe is far too large a place to trade with people who belittle and devalue their trading partners. When she had first met the Atlanteans, she had not judged them by Colonel Sumner's casual dismissal of her voice, or by Dr. Weir's willingness to believe the worst of Teyla and her people. Instead she had judged them by John's open welcome, by Dr. McKay's defense of her in the face of Elizabeth's suspicions, by Ford's ready friendship. Now she considered the possibility that she had been in error.

The Atlanteans did not deserve to be overrun by invaders. She would help, of course. But after that ... her lips pressed together in a thin line. As Charin always said, If you stop to count the running denga-beast, your arrows will go astray. In other words, the middle of a crisis was not the time to make plans.

There would be time for plans later.

Right now she had other things to worry about. Her eyes went to the door. It was locked; she could not get out that way.

Her speculative gaze went to the window.

For a girl who had grown up in the woods, doors and corridors were a mere formality. There was more than one way to get around in a city.

Rodney started out of a light doze when Ronon uncoiled with catlike speed and agility, going from sleep to wide-awake and upright. Blinking up at him, still drowsy from the sun on his shoulders, Rodney said, "What's the matter with you?"

Ronon didn't answer; instead, he paced quickly across the balcony to the semi-transparent door leading into the corridor. On the other side, Rodney could see that the Marine ostensibly guarding him was trying to get it open, to no avail.

The door was soundproof, but Ronon and the Marine had a brief conversation using nothing but hand signals. Rodney stood up stiffly, confused -- and still more confused when a distant sound caught his attention, and he looked down to see a flash of red light from the city below them. Wait -- that was the general area of the Stargate, wasn't it?

Something was wrong.

Ronon stepped back from the door, and drew his gun. The Marine ducked to the side. A few blasts from the gun left the door dangling askew from its hinges.

Rodney couldn't restrain a squeak of frustration. This might not be his Atlantis, but it was still an Atlantis; it was like opening up machinegun fire in a cathedral! No, worse, because there were lots of cathedrals, but only one Atlantis. "Have you gone insane?"

"Quiet," Ronon snapped. "We got a problem."

The Marine was talking into his radio. Rodney could only catch about one word in four, but he heard Genii and his stomach dropped straight into his shoes. "What, what? What's going on?"

Both of the others ignored him. The Marine said, "Yes, sir," and signed off. He looked up at Ronon. "The city's under attack from the Dorandans, and it's locked down ... although you seem to have a solution for that," he added, looking at the ruined door. "Everyone who's still free is being ordered to fall back to the armory, where we'll prepare to --"

He paused, cocking his head to one side. The Atlantis PA was only faintly audible from out on the balcony, but Rodney could get the gist of what the alternate Weir was saying.

Ronon's face darkened.

"Sorry, sir, I have to go," the Marine told Ronon, and turning to Rodney, "Come on, Doc. I guess you're still with me."

Rodney took a step forward and then fear came crashing down onto him like a ton of bricks. "Sheppard! I have to get to Sheppard."

"The Colonel's a little busy at the moment. Come on, Doc, let's move."

Rodney planted his feet. "My universe's Sheppard, you buffoon. He's --" Injured and helpless was what he wanted to say, but putting Sheppard and helpless in the same sentence just didn't seem appropriate. "If my experiences in your universe of paranoiacs have been anything to go by, nobody's telling him anything and he has no idea where I am. He'll probably go into Rambo mode, make it three steps from his bed and collapse in a puddle of blood. Get out of my way."

"I got my orders, Doc. Move it."

Ronon's big hand settled onto the Marine's shoulder. "I'll take him back to the infirmary. You go join Sheppard in the armory."

The soldier studied him, then nodded. Apparently Ronon's mysterious mojo with the Marines worked in this universe, too. Turning, the man trotted off down the hall.

Ronon didn't say anything, just jerked his head at McKay and took off down the hall. The main lights were out, leaving only the occasional emergency light; there was an apocalyptic feeling to the place.

They went down two flights of stairs and hit a sealed door. Ronon promptly blasted it open.

"Far be it from me to interfere, Conan, but do the words 'stealth mode' mean anything to you?"

Ronon shot him the standard "Earth people are crazy" look. "No."

"Well, that just fig --"

A big hand caught him in the chest and slammed him into the wall. Ronon ducked back behind the stairs, taking Rodney with him. A minute later, three people in brown fatigues rounded the corner cautiously. Ronon strafed them with his gun; they went down like dominos. From the flare of red light and lack of smoke or blood, he must have reset it to stun.

The ex-Runner trotted over to the bodies, picked up one of their guns and turned it over in his hands. Rodney trailed after him, only to make an Oof sound as Ronon shoved the gun into his hands.

"What's this for?"

"It's a gun. You shoot things with it."

He glared. "I know that."

"Then why'd you ask?" Ronon kicked the other guns away from the bodies and blew the weapons to twisted slag with a shot from his gun, then stepped over the smoking remains and jogged to the corner, peeking around it.

Rodney looked down at the gun in his hand. It was obviously an energy weapon, judging from the lack of a visible magazine, but otherwise had no clues to its function. There was a trigger, and a glowing red bar with tick-marks along it; he guessed that it was some kind of charge indicator.

His eyes went from the gun to the men on the floor. The brown clothes and baggy jackets -- he recognized the design from when he'd met Larissa and the scientists earlier.

"They're Dorandan," he muttered. A shiver ran through him. It was like looking at ghosts -- ghosts of people he'd killed.

"Hey." A bone-jarring whap on his shoulder drew him back to the here and now. Rodney looked up to glare at Ronon, rubbing his arm where the big man's fist felt as if it had left a bruise.

"Coast's clear," Ronon said.

"What, you can't just say that? You have to beat me up to make some kind of macho point?"

"I tapped your shoulder, McKay."

"With what, a redwood?"

They rounded the corner -- Ronon leading, Rodney hanging back because, after all, protecting the smart guy's brains was the only logical thing in a crisis! Another couple flights of stairs brought them to the corridor that led to the infirmary. "Wait --" Rodney began, but Ronon was already firing at the closed infirmary door. Another shot blew it off its hinges.

"What's the matter with you? Doesn't the thought occur to you that we might need that door to keep the bad guys out?"

"Doesn't help us much if we can't get in."

"Yeah, but the people inside might disagree!"

There had been complete silence from inside the infirmary since they'd blown the door off. Rodney sighed, imagining panicked infirmary staff hovering behind the door, waiting to brain them both with bedpans. He called through the gap between the warped door and its frame, "Hey, we're on your side, okay? It's not my fault Clint Eastwood here prefers to shoot first, second and last, asking questions never. Um, don't kill us?"

Ronon gave the door a shove; it teetered and then crashed to the floor with a deafening sound that reverberated down the hall.

Rodney shot him a withering look. Ronon, unperturbed, ignored it and stepped over the door, where they were met by a couple of terrified nurses and an equally freaked-out Marine, the one who'd been assigned to watch Sheppard.

Sheppard himself was sitting on the edge of his bed with the curtain drawn back. He looked wary when he saw Rodney. "Okay, which one are you?"

"Don't ask stupid questions, and what the hell are you doing out of bed? Get back in there! If you tear your stitches, the Wrath of Carson will be on my head, and I don't care if it's a different universe, he'll still find a way to make my life miserable."

Sheppard grinned at him, weary relief lighting him up like a neon sign. "Hey, Rodney."

"Don't 'hey Rodney' me; you've been sitting up for, what, all of five minutes and you look like you're about to pass out. You, bed, now."

Sheppard obediently swung his legs back up onto the bed, wincing as he did so. "Ronon. Hey there. Good to see ya, buddy. We haven't exactly had a chance to talk yet, in this universe, anyway."

"Brought you a gun," Ronon said.

"Cool. Um, where?"

"McKay, give him the gun."

"Oh, hell no," Rodney snapped. "Does he look like he needs to be running the halls doing the Bruce Willis thing? I don't think so! You should have picked up an extra one. This is mine and I'm keeping it." He stuck it in the waistband of his pants, TV private-eye style, and snapped his fingers at a nurse. "I need a computer."

The targeted nurse looked around helplessly for someone who was authorized to approve this; everyone knew that the foreign Rodney was supposed to be kept away from the computers.

"Oh, for -- Look, we're at war, okay? You people have much bigger problems than me." His eye settled on the nearest laptop; with the power mostly down, it had switched over to its battery and the screen's blue glow seemed bright compared to the muted emergency lights. "Never mind. There's one."

Sheppard, nominally back in bed but leaning forward tensely, beckoned to Ronon. "So, fill me in. What the heck's going on?"

Ronon hesitated for only a moment. "Dorandan army took over the city. Sheppard -- the other one -- is getting together everyone who's still free. Looks like Weir's been compromised. Guess that's about it."

Sheppard held up a hand. "Did you say Dorandan army?"

At the laptop, struggling to get into a computer system for which none of his access codes worked, Rodney went stiff.

"Yep. No Doranda in your universe?"

Rodney focused on the computer. Still, he could feel Sheppard looking at him. "Not really," he heard Sheppard say. "Tell me about them. What are we dealing with? What sort of technology do they have?"

"About like you guys. Radios. Guns. Stuff like that. Haven't met them, except just to shoot a few."

"Hey, Rodney?" Sheppard's voice was soft. "How about you? Have you met these people?"

Rodney tried to focus on the computer screen. His fingers went astray, spewing gibberish into the password box. Shit. He wanted to scream, throw something; his vision went hazy for a minute. "Kinda busy here," he bit out. "Saving our asses, and all. You know. No pressure."

After a minute, Sheppard said, "Hey, big guy, why don't you go put the door back on."

"Don't know if it'll go back on."

"Prop it up. We need to be able to keep the, uh, the Dorandans out, and we don't have enough people to repel a siege."

Ronon's bootsteps retreated across the floor. Rodney tried to guess what codes the alternate McKay might have used. The computer didn't seem to be in a high-security lockdown; his best guess was that someone, possibly Larissa, had gained access to it at a normal security level and then locked out everyone else. Therefore, a higher-level security code could still override her lockdown. The trouble was he didn't know any of them.


"Still busy!"

"Rodney, these people he's talking about -- have you seen them? Talked to them?"

"Why?" Rodney demanded harshly.

"I just want to know what sort of technology level we're dealing with here."

Yeah. Like hell. "You heard the caveman." He didn't look up from the computer. "About like Earth, I'd guess, maybe a little beyond, or else they've picked up advanced technology from somewhere else. They understand about computers, and they have energy weapons."

"Are they actually from Doranda?" Sheppard's tone gave away nothing, but the softness was back.

Rodney stopped typing, squeezed his eyes shut briefly, then opened them again. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it back. "Not Doranda itself, but the next planet out. It didn't have a Stargate, so we didn't scan it for life signs, when we were there."

"Different universe," Sheppard said immediately. "Different universe, okay? We know a lot of things are different here."

"You can rationalize it however you want, but I'm trying to work here, so shut up."

He worked in silence for another minute or two, mentally cursing alternate-McKay's paranoia, because all the codes had either been changed, or were never the same as the ones he knew. There was a creak from Sheppard's bed, and then shuffling footsteps approached, along with the clink of an IV pole being dragged along the floor.

Rodney attempted to bore a hole in the screen with his eyes, refusing to be baited into looking up. "Go away."

Something touched him: a hand, coming gently to rest on his shoulder. Rodney shrugged it off with a quick, hard jerk of his arm. Sheppard sighed, and leaned heavily on the edge of the counter where the laptop sat. "So, what are you doing?"

"Trying to break into the system."

"How hard can that possibly be? Don't you know the system inside and out?"

"Well, sure, but none of that does me any good without the passwords. Contrary to what you may have seen on TV, you can't just hack into an encrypted, high-security system using magic. Without the passwords, I may as well be some idiot Windows user staring at a blue screen."

"I like Windows. The little dancing paperclip is cute."

"The paperclip is Word, you moron." Rodney looked up. Sheppard's face was deathly white and beaded with sweat. "Okay, for the last time, you seriously do not look like you need to be out of bed. Get back in it."

"Little problem with that." Sheppard's grip tightened on the edge of the counter.

"Which would be?"

"I don't think I can walk that far."

"Honestly, are you entirely lacking in common sense? Ronon!" he bellowed, only to turn around and jump when he discovered Ronon looming behind the two of them, watching them. "What are you doing today, training for the Stalking Olympics? Help him back to bed before he falls over and cracks his head open on the infirmary floor, thus damaging his brains. Damaging them more than they already are, that is."

Ronon, looking amused, hooked an arm around Sheppard's waist and helped him back to the infirmary bed. Sheppard asked over his shoulder, "Can you make paperclips dance on the big Atlantis screens?"

This startled a laugh out of Rodney -- not much of one, but still a laugh. "What kind of drugs are they giving you?"

"No, seriously, Rodney, can you? That little paperclip with the eyeballs, but two or three feet tall? I'd love to see Elizabeth's face."

"Tell you what, let's save that happy little romp until after we take care of the terrorists trying to take over the city, okay?" Shaking his head, and refusing to acknowledge that the vice crushing his stomach seemed to have eased off a few notches, he tackled the computer again.

As Ronon eased Sheppard back down onto the bed, he said, "You're different. Both of you."

"From this universe's versions, you mean?" Sheppard had unhooked the PCA from the IV in order to make himself more mobile; he stared at it, trying to figure out how to get it back on without giving himself an embolism, then gave up.

Ronon nodded. He slid his hands under Sheppard's legs, lifting them onto the bed with matter-of-fact ease. "The Sheppard here -- I like him. I respect him. But he's --" There was a pause while he helped Sheppard get settled. "He's not you," he said finally. "He doesn't smile much. I don't know if I've ever heard him make a joke."

"Sounds downright peaceful," Rodney said without raising his eyes from the computer. "What am I like in this universe? No, don't answer that. I'm a jerk."

"Pretty much. Kind of a relief when you left the team, really."

Sheppard looked around at him. "You're not on my team? I mean, his team?"

"He left awhile back," Ronon confirmed. "We got a little guy now, talks funny. Zelenka. Don't know if you have him in your universe."

Rodney's jaw dropped and he swiveled around in his chair. Sheppard choked on a laugh. "You replaced me with Zelenka? What kind of messed-up universe is this?"

"I don't know, McKay." Sheppard was trying hard to look innocent, but his dancing eyes and the smirk tugging at the corner of his lips gave him away. "He's quiet, polite -- sounds ideal to me."

"Hello, terrorists?"

The teasing expression fell away, and Sheppard was all business again. "Rodney's right; we need a plan. Heavily armed Dorandans are presumably going to show up here at any time, and we've got civilians." He glanced at the nurses and the injured Dr. Moreland in her hospital bed.

Ronon flipped the setting on his gun from stun to kill and back again. "They come through the door. I shoot them."

"There is a certain elegant simplicity to that," Sheppard admitted.

"If one is twelve," Rodney put in. "Oh, wait. Forgot who I was talking to."

They all jumped sky-high when the damaged door fell in again with a loud crash. Ronon and the Marine took up instant defensive positions; Rodney grabbed the laptop and dived under the counter.

Alt-Sheppard stepped cautiously over the bent and damaged door, P90 cradled in his arms. He had a "yeah, I meant to do that" sort of look on his face; the door must have fallen in when he'd touched it.

"Well," he said, sweeping his cool eyes over them. "So that's where you went. Ronon, go down to the gym and make sure Teyla's all right. She was training in her usual place when the doors locked up."

Sheppard raised his eyebrows at the peremptory command. Ronon didn't seem to think anything of it, though. "And then what?" the Satedan asked.

"And then stay there and wait for orders, that's what. If you can get her out, I'm sending stragglers to the armory." From somewhere distant came the sound of P90 fire and an explosion. "We've started engaging the enemy," he added, unnecessarily.

Ronon nodded, and trotted for the door. "Hey!" Sheppard -- the real Sheppard -- called after him. "Be careful out there!"

Ronon glanced back, looking startled, then nodded and raised his gun in an informal salute. He vanished into the hall.

The two Sheppards regarded each other. It wasn't an especially friendly look -- more like two stray dogs circling each other in an alleyway, jockeying for territory. Alt-Sheppard broke the look first; he swung around on the nurses and the Marine. "This room isn't at all defensible. Start setting up a perimeter," he snapped. "Unfortunately the security doors have trapped people all over Atlantis. It's going to take me a while to get some backup over here; in the meantime, you'll probably end up having to hold off Dorandan attempts to take the infirmary. The door fell over when I tried to knock on it; we need something better. You --" He pointed to Rodney, who looked up from his laptop in surprise and annoyance. "Find something to barricade the door."

"Little busy here! I'm trying to break into the computer system!"

"Making any progress?" alt-Sheppard challenged.

Rodney crossed his arms. "I've ruled out quite a few things that don't work --"

"In other words, no. Make yourself useful."

"No one talks to a member of my team that way," Sheppard said in a quietly dangerous tone.

"Just in case you hadn't noticed, Colonel, this is a martial-law situation. With Weir compromised at worst, and in enemy hands at best, I'm in charge not just of the military, but of Atlantis itself. And that includes you. Now there is no doubt in my mind that the enemy are on their way down here to seize control of the infirmary, and all the drugs and facilities it contains -- if I were them, that'd be one of the first things I'd do, to treat my own wounded and prevent the enemy from treating theirs." As he spoke, he circled the room like a restless panther, his sharp eyes assessing everything. Two nurses were wrestling the damaged door back into place, while a nurse and a pathologist moved the semiconscious Dr. Moreland into an isolation room.

One of the nurses jumped back from the door with a cry. "Colonel, there are soldiers in the h--"

She never had a chance to finish; something like a shotgun blast tore through the damaged door, and through her. Mouth open, dead before she hit the ground, she fell in a spray of blood.

"Damn it!" alt-Sheppard snarled. "Get in there with them!" He pointed towards the isolation room where Dr. Moreland had been moved; the nurse who had been standing close to the dead woman, her face and body splattered with blood, shook herself out of her stupor and ran.

Sheppard was trying to scramble out of bed. "For God's sake stay where you are!" alt-Sheppard shouted at him, pulling the curtain closed. There was no time to hide him better than that; he obviously couldn't fight hand-to-hand, and he didn't have a gun.

The lone Marine had already moved to one side of the door; Rodney, following that cue because he didn't know what else to do, went to the other side, his shaking hands clenched on the unfamiliar energy weapon.

"What the hell are you doing?" alt-Sheppard demanded. He jerked his head at the isolation room. "Get in there with them!"

"I can fight." He had to force the words through chattering teeth. He was terrified, but no way in hell was he leaving Sheppard out here undefended, especially with this lunatic in charge.

"The hell you can! Don't make me drag your ass in there!"

Rodney bristled, his spine straightening, his fear fading in the face of anger. "You trust me to back you up offworld!" he yelled, forgetting momentarily that it wasn't "his" Sheppard that he was talking to.

"I never trusted you!" There was a ragged dark edge to alt-Sheppard's voice, a terrible pain --

-- and then the door exploded inward with another of those blasts, and Dorandan soldiers swarmed into the room.

Everything disintegrated into chaos. Rodney couldn't follow it. Most of the soldiers were armed with energy weapons, but one of them had something different -- big, high-powered, like a shotgun on steroids. That weapon caught the Marine, and there was blood and screaming -- but some of the screaming was coming from the Dorandans, as alt-Sheppard coolly picked off one after another with his P90. Rodney got somebody with his energy gun; the Dorandan went down, writhing, and Rodney realized that it was a woman, a woman in the same bulky jacket that everyone else wore. And that froze him, because he'd just shot a woman, and it shouldn't have mattered but it did -- because in his own reality, the real reality, this woman was dead. He'd killed her. Twice.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the alien shotgun destroy most of the cabinet that was hiding alt-Sheppard, flushing the soldier into the open even as alt-Sheppard swept his P90 across the cluster of Dorandans and managed to take out the shooter. And then Rodney's world dissolved in white fire, when someone shot him.

He'd had no idea what the energy weapons did, but apparently, what they did was they hurt. They hurt like ohfuckmakeitstop. Every muscle in his body seized up, and the floor came up to smack him in the face. He was vaguely aware that he was thrashing uncontrollably, his consciousness fading in and out. His jaw was locked tight; he couldn't even scream.

Dimly he was aware that the shooting had stopped. Someone nearby was speaking, an unfamiliar male voice. "You understand how these guns work, right, Colonel? The first shot will incapacitate. Another shot in close succession to the first will kill him. I suggest you drop your gun. Oh, so that's how it's going to be?"

And that was the last thing he heard before he seized again and the world went away, in white noise and pain.

Chapter Twelve: Trust

"Think we could sit down yet? Are you planning on making us stand here until Doomsday? Oh, wait, that must be today, my mistake --"

"Rodney," Zelenka hissed under his breath.

"What?" McKay snapped. "I talk when I'm nervous! I can't help it! And somehow, having a crazy person pointing a gun at me is making me nervous! I mean, call it a personal weakness if you like --"

"Shut up, both of you." Larissa paced the room, passing her gun from hand to hand. The other two scientists stood guard over the hostages. McKay and Zelenka were still standing with their hands against the wall; the Marines, tied up and gagged, had been hauled behind a console.

"So how long were you planning this happy little betrayal of doom, huh?" McKay demanded, twisting his head around so that he could follow Larissa's pacing. "From the first time we met? I knew I couldn't trust you people, you know. I'm a very good judge of character. Their eyes were very shifty," he confided in Zelenka, loudly.

The other scientist glowered at him. "Rodney, please shut up before the terrorists kill us."

"We are not terrorists!" Larissa shouted, slamming her hand down on one of the consoles. Both McKay and Zelenka jumped. "Your people have lied and betrayed and collaborated with the Wraith! I would like to think you are not following them voluntarily, Dr. McKay, but nothing you have done has given me cause to believe --"

"You think we're what?" Rodney interrupted her. "What's all this about the Wraith? Have you been talking to the Genii? Because they hate us and they're liars."

"Be quiet. I should not have spoken." She turned her back on him and opened up one of the laptops that was hooked into the Atlantis computer.

"Hey! You can't just dangle a conversation starter like that and then take it back! What's this about the Wraith?"

The female scientist, Mokarra, sidled up to Larissa. "Should I -- should I shoot him, ma'am?" Her eyes shifted around the room; it was obvious that she hoped the answer was "no".

"Shut up!" Larissa ordered McKay, and in a slightly more modulated tone: "No, Mokarra. We may need him. Not yet, anyway," she amended, giving McKay a look.

"It's because of Sheppard, isn't it? Oh God, I was right! Your half-baked device picked up the Iratus DNA, didn't it? It's that idiotic Wraithsign fixation of yours! If all of this is because of some kind of stupid superstition, then your people are even more backwards than I thought they were --"

"Please do be quiet." Larissa's fingers moved quickly across the laptop keys.

"Larissa, if you did -- did you pick up Wraith DNA in Sheppard's blood? Because it's just a stupid mistake! You know that, right? He kind of turned into a bug a few weeks ago. Okay, I realize that sounds a bit odd, but we're in the Pegasus Galaxy and, believe it or not, stuff like that happens to us every day --"

"Stop defending them!" Larissa's voice was a whip crack. She looked at him over her shoulder. "I promise you, we will grant you full amnesty if you renounce them. We don't want to hurt you or anyone here. All of you without the Wraith taint will be released unharmed as long as you surrender and don't give us any trouble."

McKay thought of Teyla and Sheppard. "What about the rest of us, the ones that don't pass your stupid test?"

"They'll be killed, of course. As all of you should have done. I don't know why you've chosen to collaborate with them, but I do know that fear can be a great motivator." Her eyes dropped briefly. "For now we are choosing to give all of you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are victims who have been forced to cooperate with the Wraith-tainted ones among you."

Where did he even begin unraveling this idiocy? Before he could try, there was a sharp rap at the door, a pause and then another series of taps. Larissa turned back to the computer and began to type rapidly, bringing up power to their sector. Trying to crane around and get a look at what she was doing, McKay could see that, as he'd suspected, she didn't have Atlantis in full lockdown. She'd just shut everyone but herself out of the computer. All he had to do was get his hands on a terminal for ten seconds, and he'd show her a real lockdown.

The door slid back, and a half-dozen heavily armed Dorandans entered the room. Their apparent leader, a heavyset woman with braids tied back at the nape of her neck, nodded a brusque greeting to Larissa. "We have this area secured. Is it possible to get some of the doors open? It's hard to move our troops around."

"The point is to keep them trapped." Larissa turned to the computer again. A display flashed up, showing a map of the city with life signs displayed. She frowned and tapped the screen. "There's a big cluster of them here, but I don't know what here is."

McKay did, stealing a peek. The armory. That had "Sheppard" written all over it.

Zelenka kicked him lightly in the ankle to get his attention. "What are you grinning about?" he whispered. "I hope this means you have a plan."

He hadn't realized he'd been grinning, and kicked back on general principles; Zelenka winced. "I'm pretty sure Sheppard's still free," he murmured back, "and it looks like a lot of his jarheads are too. I never thought I'd be glad to see the Brute Squad, but I'm guessing these idiots aren't going to know what hit them."

Zelenka laughed softly. "I haven't yet had a chance to see the Colonel in his -- what would you call it -- Rambo personality."

"You aren't missing a whole lot," McKay said shortly, the brief lift of his spirits evaporating at the reminder that Zelenka was on Sheppard's team and he, McKay, wasn't.

A gun jabbed him in the ribs, coming as an almost-welcome distraction. "Move," Larissa said. "Captain Seng wants to see you. Not him," she added when Zelenka moved to follow McKay. "Put him in with the other prisoners."

"Hey!" Zelenka protested, cursing in Czech when the Dorandans forced McKay out into the hallway. "Where are you taking him? What are you going to do to him?"

McKay's mouth had been open to say something similar about Radek; he bit back on it, hard. Larissa said they weren't planning on killing hostages. He'll probably be all right. Not that I care.

And the Dorandans were planning to kill Sheppard and Teyla. Sheppard, at least, could take care of himself and had some idea of what he was up against, but McKay was suddenly terrified on Teyla's behalf. Had they tested her already? Found the Wraith DNA? Shot her? And what about the Athosians on the mainland? Teyla couldn't be the only one of them with Wraith ancestry; in fact, depending on how far the experimental genes had diffused through the population over the millennia, it was possible that all of them might look "contaminated" on the Dorandan scanners. He had a sudden horrifying mental image of genetic-purity fanatics in brown jackets walking through the Athosian village, shooting women and children and old people, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

He didn't even notice that he'd completely forgotten to be afraid for himself.

The stained glass of the gym window was not as fragile as it looked, but eventually it shattered under a few strategically-placed strikes from Teyla's bantos sticks. She wished that she had her uniform in the gym, but she did not, only the loose skirt and unencumbering top in which she preferred to exercise. Wrapping her hand in a towel, she knocked pieces of glass out of the window until she thought that she should be able to crawl out without cutting herself. She used her knife to hack the skirt down a manageable length, slung two bantos sticks across her back, and got a coil of rope, crampons and other climbing gear from one of the lockers. The gym was unfortunately devoid of any kind of gun -- she would have to remember to talk to Colonel Sheppard about that -- but it did have all manner of exercise and sporting equipment.

Heights had never bothered her, but she was very, very high. The ruffled white surf crept along the base of the towers, far below her, as she climbed very carefully out of the window onto an ornamental ledge that curved around the side of the tower.

If she fell, they would probably never find the body. Perhaps they would see the shattered window in the gym, and think that the enemies had come in that way. Perhaps they would not survive, and would never have an opportunity to think of her at all.

The wind off the ocean was unpleasantly chilly as she sat on the ledge and affixed a grappling hook to the end of the rope. She had not used such a thing before, but had a vague idea of how it was supposed to work, and she'd always had a good throwing arm. After a few experimental tosses of the rope, for range, she hooked a crenellation in the wall across from her. "We die but once," she murmured, quoting one of Charin's favorite sayings, and threw her weight on a slender thread across the abyss.

Her feet struck the opposite wall; for a moment she just dangled, breathing, and then she rappelled down to the next ledge. Some experimental jerks on the rope taught her the particular technique for getting the hook free.

It was hard at first to relate what she saw outside to what she saw inside, but Teyla had a good memory for spatial relationships. It was easy, too, finding her way to the central tower where the Stargate was located, because of the ugly hole in the side of that tower, which made it stand out.

She lowered herself carefully onto a balcony outside Dr. Weir's office. For now, she had the element of surprise, and she must not lose that. The doors, of course, were closed; standing on tiptoe, she cupped her hands around her face to peer through the colored glass panels.

Her eyes widened at the sight of the huge ship nearly filling the space in front of the Stargate. She couldn't even believe that they had managed to fit something so large through the gate. The ship must have been specifically designed for such a thing. Now that she saw its orientation, she could see where the hole in the side of the tower came from -- the Dorandans must have fired some kind of weapon. Teyla shivered; the ugly rift in the Ancestors' beautiful city hurt her like a physical pain.

On the balcony overlooking the Stargate, she could identify the splash of blue that was Weir's shirt. There were other people standing around holding guns. Squinting, she saw that Weir, held at gunpoint, was talking to an unfamiliar man who carried himself with the bearing of command. That was probably the leader of the Dorandans, she guessed.

From here it was impossible to tell what they were saying. She tried to pry the doors open enough to slip through, but they would not budge. Frustrated, she took a step back. She couldn't break the glass here without being noticed. How to get into the control room without giving herself away? Oh ... the hole in the wall! She could probably climb around to it, and surely, the Dorandans would not be expecting attack from that side. But what to do when she got there? Attacking dozens of enemies with no plan and no weapons except the bantos sticks ... she'd just be throwing away her life in a meaningless gesture.

Think, Teyla. You are intelligent. You have hunted on Athos, many times. You have also witnessed military strategy many times as part of Colonel Sheppard's team.


What would the Colonel do?

In the infirmary, backed up against a wall, Sheppard fired until the P90 clicked on an empty chamber. All of the enemy but one were down, some of them dead, others moaning and clutching debilitating injuries. He didn't feel sorry for them; there was a young Marine, a kid in his early 20s, sprawled dead by the doorway, and the image of the nurse's body crumpling to the floor was still seared into the back of his retinas.

The one remaining Dorandan was a lean blond man of medium height, about Sheppard's age. At his feet, the other universe's McKay writhed in the grip of seizures, while the Dorandan held one of their zat-like energy weapons trained on alt-McKay's body.

"I wouldn't do that, Colonel," the Dorandan said pleasantly, as Sheppard's hand paused in the act of drawing his 9mm. "You are Colonel Sheppard, correct? Allow me to introduce myself: I am Sub-Captain Tennet, second to Captain Seng of the Dorandan army. You've just killed some good men, and I'm not happy about it. Kindly remove your hand from the weapon."

"You people brought this on yourselves," Sheppard growled. He didn't take his hand off the butt of the 9mm.

"You understand how our guns work, right, Colonel? The first shot will incapacitate. Another shot in close succession to the first will kill him. I suggest you drop your gun." He lowered the muzzle of the gun towards alt-McKay, who had gone limp.

Frozen, Sheppard calculated odds in his head. If he was fast -- but he'd have to get a kill shot before Tennet pulled the trigger --

"Oh, so that's how it's going to be? I'll ask you once more to drop your gun, Colonel. And don't think I won't kill him. Once he's dead, I'll have no shortage of other hostages." He nodded towards the isolation room, the terrified nurses peeking out.

"Not if I take you out first."

He had to. He had to. If Tennet was second-in-command of the Dorandan military, he couldn't be allowed to leave the infirmary alive. There were too many lives at stake, not just one man's.

It was his job. His duty. Sometimes you had to make tough decisions ... and sacrifices. Rodney's life for Atlantis.

He prepared to draw his gun, as he saw Tennet's finger tighten on the trigger of the energy weapon.

And then the privacy curtain whipped back to reveal alt-Sheppard -- upright, white as a sheet and swaying, but managing to stay on his feet, and looking furious. Wrapping both hands around his IV pole, he whacked Tennet in the head with it before the other man had a chance to react. Tennet went down in one direction and alt-Sheppard in the other, as the recoil from the impact knocked him from his unsteady equilibrium.

Sheppard himself lunged forward, kicking Tennet hard in the head to make sure he stayed down. For an instant he considered shooting him, but now that the threat had been neutralized, it made more sense to keep him for questioning. Twisting Tennet's arms behind his back, he zip-tied him.

Alt-Sheppard, breathing hard and in obvious pain, pushed himself up to a sitting position and gave Sheppard a look of absolute hatred. "You son of a bitch," he snarled, nearly incoherent with fury. "You were going to let that bastard kill Rodney."

"It was the only option," Sheppard retorted.

"Bullshit! That's absolute bullshit. You sound like Sumner! Like Caldwell! Like everything you've -- I've always tried not to be!"

He couldn't believe he was taking this from himself. "You're me! We think alike. Deep down, you know I'm right."

Alt-Sheppard just stared at him for a moment, speechless. "You're not me," he said finally, in a flat cold tone, and slid himself across the floor to Rodney. Laying a hand on the trembling shoulder, he called softly, "Hey ... McKay?"

Rodney stirred, and sucked in a choking breath. If looks could kill, alt-Sheppard's glare would have set John's hair on fire. "What did that weapon do to him?"

"As far as we know, they're a little like zat guns, only more crude." He was back on more solid footing now, discussing weaponry. "They incapacitate with the first shot, but it doesn't seem to leave any lasting effects."

"So it won't hurt him permanently."

"No. He'll be fine in a few minutes."

Rodney drew another strangled-sounding breath, and managed to get out, "You try this, dipstick. Sheppard, shoot him."

Relief softened alt-Sheppard's pale face. "You wouldn't give me the gun, remember?" he said, patting Rodney's shoulder.

"Yeah. You're supposed to be in bed." After a pause to swallow and draw a couple more deep breaths, Rodney pushed himself up on shaking arms, rebuffing alt-Sheppard's offer of assistance. "Where's the jerk who shot me?"

"I clobbered him with my IV pole."

"Really?" Rodney looked around until he located the bound and unconscious Dorandan, then beyond that, the doorway full of bodies. His eyes went wide.

"Yeah, Carson's not going to be too happy when he sees what we've done to his infirmary."

Sheppard reloaded his P90 by rote, unable to tear his eyes away from the two of them. If alt-Sheppard hadn't done what he'd done, then this McKay would be as dead and still as the Dorandans in the doorway.

Sacrifice one person to save others. He'd never been willing to do that, and he'd nearly thrown away his military career on more than one occasion because of it. If one of his people was in danger, or a civilian, or even a stranger -- he'd give up anything to save them.

When had that changed?

If it had been his own universe's Rodney in front of that gun -- or Teyla, Elizabeth, Ronon ... what would he have done?

The terrible thing was ... he thought he knew. And his hands began shaking so hard that he nearly dropped the P90. Shivering, he clipped it to his vest and got himself under control again. He began to move through the Dorandan bodies, assessing them, confiscating weapons. Three of them, besides Tennet, were still alive: a woman Rodney had stunned, who was already beginning to recover, and two badly injured men.

To let them live, or not. The thought occurred to him that not so long ago, he would never have considered shooting a wounded prisoner. Now ... now he couldn't help thinking that leaving them alive just created a security risk. There were no Geneva Conventions here.

You sound like Sumner, the other universe's Sheppard had said. Like Caldwell.

Like just about every CO I've ever butted heads with, Sheppard thought grimly, tying up the stunned woman with zip ties. Swallow your humanity and follow orders. That's why I was in goddamn Antarctica, because I couldn't do that. So, in Pegasus, I learned to do that — to push aside my feelings for the greater good. To assess a situation rationally rather than letting myself be swayed by ... I don't know what you'd call it, by conscience, by sentimentality.

He added the shotgun-like weapon to the pile of stunners he'd taken off the bodies.

I'm a better soldier now. Isn't that a good thing?

The IV catheter had been torn out of the back of Sheppard's hand when he'd used his IV pole in approved Teyla fashion. He didn't even notice until he tried to help Rodney up, and instead left a long smear of blood down Rodney's still-trembling arm.

"You're bleeding," Rodney said. There was a hitch in his voice; he was still having trouble controlling his body. They were both sitting on the floor -- Rodney was still too shaky to stand up, and Sheppard was pretty sure that if he tried to get up without something to hold onto, he'd just fall over.

"I know." Sheppard pressed his palm against the back of his hand. It stung, but it didn't really hurt.

"No. I mean there." Rodney's forehead was creased with worry as he nodded towards Sheppard's chest, where a few spots of blood had seeped through his scrubs.

"Oh. Crap."

"I told you not to get out of bed, and now you've gone and torn your stitches. If you bleed to death internally, Sheppard --"

"I'm not bleeding internally." He hoped. True, it felt like a red-hot poker was sticking into his side, but it had been feeling like that even before he got up.

They watched the other universe's Sheppard move among the Dorandan bodies.

"If he starts killing the wounded," Rodney said under his breath, "I'm going to pick up one of those Dorandan guns and give him a little taste of what I just felt. Which hurt like hell, by the way."

"He's a little crazy, but he's not Walter Kurtz, Rodney."

"Walter who?"

Despite his pain, Sheppard couldn't help grinning. "Are you telling me you've never seen Apocalypse Now? What kind of deprived adolescence did you have?"

"Hello? Canadian? Why would I watch American war movies? And need I remind you that Colonel Crazypants over there was about to let the bad guys kill me?"

"I don't think he would have actually done that, Rodney." Sheppard wished he could convince himself that he was telling the truth.

"Yeah, that would explain why you're making like Jet Li with your IV pole," Rodney grumbled.

The nurses had come nervously out of hiding and approached the wounded, with anxious glances at alt-Sheppard. He gave them a short nod and then went to the door, peering out into the hall while talking on his radio.

"This is ridiculous," Sheppard said suddenly. "There's no reason for us to be cut out of the loop like this, not with everything that's going on. Rodney, get Petrovski's radio."


Lips pressed together tightly, Sheppard nodded to the dead Marine. "That's his name in our universe. He left on the Daedalus about a year ago. I'd do this myself but --"

"Yes, yes, I understand the problem." Supporting himself on the wall, he got shakily to his feet and limped over to the dead Marine. Sheppard watched him hesitate for a moment, then bend down quickly and strip off the dead man's radio.

It did feel like robbing the dead. But they needed the radio. With the situation being what it was, they couldn't afford to be clueless.

Rodney leaned down to give Sheppard the radio. The colonel started to hook it over his ear, then changed his mind and dialed up the volume, cupping it in his hand next to his ear so they could both hear it. He had to check several of the commonly-used channels before coming upon a conversation between alt-Sheppard and Lorne.

"-- said that they've got three of their own ships in the jumper bay, sir, and another one in the gate room."

"They brought four warships into Atlantis?" alt-Sheppard demanded.

"Looks that way, sir, and the one in the gate room, at least, has weapons capable of shooting through the walls."

Alt-Sheppard was silent for a moment, thinking. "How well guarded is the jumper bay?"

"There's a lot of them, but I can't give you an exact count. What are you thinking, sir?"

"Not over the radio," alt-Sheppard said. "Meet me -- Major, what's happening?"

Through the radio, Sheppard could hear shouts and the sound of P90 fire. He and Rodney exchanged a glance.

Lorne's voice came back, sounding breathless. "They've found us, sir. Either they made a lucky guess or they're able to use the city's sensors. We're going to have to regroup somewhere else."

Alt-Sheppard swore. "All right. Bring C4, all that you can get, and as many men as you can keep together. I'll meet you in that little lounge west of the jumper bay -- the one where the botanists used to store spore canisters 'till they got their own wing."

"Yes, sir." More gunfire. "I have to go, sir."

Alt-Sheppard signed off with another soft curse. Sheppard lowered the radio and looked over at Rodney, only to find that the scientist was on his feet and headed across the infirmary towards alt-Sheppard.


"You're blowing up the jumper bay?" Rodney demanded. "Am I hearing you right? Are you nuts?"

Sheppard grabbed hold of the nearest piece of furniture and hauled himself to his feet, his chest screaming protest as abused muscles flexed and pulled on even more abused ribs. His vision grayed briefly; when he looked up, alt-Sheppard had turned around to confront Rodney, looking more tired than angry.

"There are four warships in Atlantis, McKay. If you have a better idea than blowing them up, spit it out."

"The jumper bay is above the gate room! If you mess up on the amount of explosives -- and gee, what are the odds of that -- or if they have a self-destruct, or if their ships are powered by nuclear reactors, or any of half a dozen other equally likely screw-ups, you'll drop the entire central tower on top of the Stargate, probably taking out the infirmary and about half the living quarters in Atlantis along with it. Gee, what a fantastic idea!"

Sheppard's face was set and stony. "I said if you have a better idea, let's hear it. Otherwise shut up and let me do what I need to do to stop the Dorandans."

McKay flinched visibly at the word "Dorandans", but he charged on. "Of course I have a better idea. Genius here! If those ships have computers -- and let's face it, space flight is far too complex to be handled by a human pilot alone, so at least some of their systems have to be computer-controlled -- then I can hack into them. Control their ships."

"As I understand it, you can't even hack into our own computer right now."

"Oh, that's low," Rodney snapped.

"But true."

"Look, it's a different thing! This is Atlantis! And we've been deliberately locked out of it! The systems on the ship are bound to be much less complex, and I doubt if the Dorandans are going to land the ships in enemy territory and then shut down and lock up all their systems, hmm? Everything should be online and warmed up; all I need is access."

"I already have a plan, McKay." Alt-Sheppard scrubbed his hand across his face wearily. "One that doesn't involve you. You've already proven that you're a loose cannon."

"Oh, don't trust me, huh? Fine! Have your McKay do it instead! Say --" He paused, his mobile hands in mid-gesture. "Where is your Rodney, anyway? Last I saw him, he was with the -- oh, crap."

"Yes, he's probably in the hands of the enemy right now," alt-Sheppard said quietly.

Sheppard, limping towards them with one hand pressed against his side and the other supporting his weight on the wall, was close enough now to see the flicker of emotions across the face that was so nearly identical to his own.

Rodney appeared oblivious to it, though. "So you're planning to, what, save him by dropping a few stories of Atlantis on him? Great plan!"

"McKay." Alt-Sheppard's voice was low and dangerous. "Don't tell me how to do my fucking job."

"How about I tell you how to do your fucking job?" Sheppard said. They both turned to look at him. Alt-Sheppard was scowling. "If Rodney says he can hack into the ships, then he can. I shouldn't have to tell you that, and I also shouldn't have to tell you that if he says he's got a plan to save the city, you need to get off your ass and go do your job, which is to protect him so he can do his, rather than carrying out a plan that's likely to get a lot of people killed. Clear?"

"You do know you had a big hole in your chest a week ago, right?" Rodney demanded, obviously not at all appreciative of the backup. "And people who almost died in puddlejumper crashes are not supposed to be walking around!"

Both Sheppards ignored him. Alt-Sheppard took a step forward, bristling. "I think you're a little hazy on the chain of command in this city, John."

"Oh, really? I'd say you're a little hazy on the whole concept of not killing the people you're supposed to be protecting!"

"Um, guys..." Rodney's nervous gaze darted back and forth between them.

"I'm trying to save this city, and every minute that I stand here arguing with you is another minute that my people are getting killed out there."

Sheppard forced his body to uncurl, despite the stabbing agony in his side, in order to look himself in the eyes. "Rodney's got a plan. He thinks it's more likely to succeed than your plan, and a hell of a lot less likely to cause mass destruction. Right, McKay?" He didn't take his eyes off his doppelganger, but he heard Rodney shift uncomfortably.

"Um ... right."

"He doesn't sound sure," alt-Sheppard said grimly.

"Rodney," Sheppard said with his eyes fixed on his double, "if he gets you to the jumper bay, can you take control of those ships?"

Rodney hesitated, then offered in a small voice, "Probably?"

Sheppard saw his double's lips curve up in a cold smile of triumph. "Rodney! Yes or no!"

"Yes! Probably! This is not an exact science here, Sheppard; I can't give you hard figures! But I can tell you one thing -- if he does what he's planning, I'd say there's a better than eighty percent chance that he'll bring down the tower on top of the gate. Well ... maybe seventy percent. But way too high. I can pretty much guarantee you that I have a better chance of success than that."

The other Sheppard's eyes were hard as steel. "Maybe. But with my plan, no matter what the outcome, we'd take out the threat to the city. The damage could be rebuilt."

"Oh, really?" Sheppard demanded. "You can rebuild your McKay, huh? Elizabeth's probably down there too, and I wouldn't be surprised if Carson's in the thick of things by now. You're willing to kill them, and every other person in this tower, because you aren't willing to trust your team?"

And that was it, he knew, the crux of the difference between them. Seeing the flatness in the other Sheppard's eyes crystallize into anger, he realized that he'd struck a nerve.

"McKay's not on my team -- not this McKay or the other one. Not anymore." And there was pain, as well as anger, in his voice.

"So?" Sheppard asked. His tone went lower, and he studiously avoided looking at Rodney as he spoke, keeping his eyes fixed on his double. "I remember Antarctica; do you? That's where you are right now, John -- Antarctica. Only you've put yourself there. The best thing that ever happened to you is here in this city, and you know it. You'd throw it away -- for what? Pride?"

He really thought that his alternate self was going to hit him, but surprisingly, the other Sheppard's eyes dropped, and his voice was almost inaudible. "You'd trust McKay? You'd take him up to the jumper bay?"

"If he thinks he can do it, then yes, in a heartbeat. I'd take him myself if I wouldn't just slow both of you down." He loathed admitting that, but it was hard not to, when walking across the room had left him so exhausted that the walls were swirling around him. Taking stupid risks and getting your men killed wasn't the mark of an effective leader.

Alt-Sheppard stared at the floor. Then he spun around on Rodney, who was staring at Sheppard, looking amazed. "What do you need?" he demanded.


"What do you need to do this?" alt-Sheppard repeated. "Take it and let's go."

Rodney blinked, then took a few steps to the nearest laptop and unplugged it. He looked around the infirmary, grabbed a couple handfuls of wire and a voltmeter sitting on a shelf. "There. I've got what I need. Do you have a life signs detector?"

Alt-Sheppard displayed it. "Some of the Dorandans don't show up, though. They have the ability to shield themselves --"

"I don't care; that's not what I want it for. I may need to use it to trace circuits in their ships -- well, actually you'll need to use it, since my gene doesn't work here ..." He trailed off, his bravado collapsing, looking pale and terrified.

"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Take a gun."

"What? Oh. Right." He bent down and picked up one of the Dorandan stunners. It was much smaller and easier to carry than a P90. "I, um ..." He looked over at Sheppard, and winced. "You know, you're bleeding a lot, now."

Sheppard touched his side, felt the sticky wetness. "It's superficial."

"Says your advanced medical degree?"

"Rodney, get your ass up to the jumper bay before the other me changes his mind."

"He's not you," Rodney said, and a hint of a smile tugged at his mouth. "See you later. And, if you won't get back in bed, then at least sit down; just looking at you is making me dizzy."

Sheppard compromised by leaning against a wall, or slumping into the wall was more like it. "Good luck. Be careful."

Rodney snorted. "Hey, it's me. Like I'd do anything else?" He folded his hand over the laptop, swallowed and looked up at alt-Sheppard. "Okay. Going now."

Alt-Sheppard just made a hmph sound, and tapped his radio. "Major Lorne? We have a change of plans..."

They vanished through the open doorway. Sheppard let his legs wilt, carrying him to the floor in a controlled crumple. One of the nurses bent over him. "You should be in bed," she said worriedly.

"Yeah. So I've heard." He let her help him up, and realized that he still had the radio clenched in his hand. He hooked it over his ear.

At least he could hear what was going on, even if he couldn't do anything about it.

Chapter Thirteen: Insurrection

Sometimes the thought crossed Carson's mind that the entire universe, or at least the Pegasus Galaxy part of it, was conspiring to keep him from sleeping.

He'd been dead asleep, the first time in two days, when something woke him. He couldn't quite figure out what: a noise, a vibration maybe? He was lying half asleep and pleasantly drifting off again when Elizabeth's voice began speaking over the PA. Hostile army and ... city taken over ... and ... what?

Still only half convinced that this wasn't some kind of crazy dream, he stumbled to his feet, pulling on his pants as he lurched towards the door. He was already palming the door control before his brain caught up with everything happening around it and he realized that the announcement had said to stay put. Still, if there were injured people out there somewhere --

The door didn't respond. He tried again, and then realized that the normally bright crystals beside the door were not glowing.

He tried to dial up the lights.


Hmm. He reached for his radio, and hit it a few times before realizing why it wasn't working: He didn't have it on.

Damn it, time to wake up. He blundered back to his bed, sat down heavily and smacked himself in the face a few times. That helped. With a jaw-cracking yawn, he reached for the radio.

"Colonel? Dr. Weir? This is Beckett. What's --"

"Doc? That you?" He recognized Lorne's voice. "Look, stay off the radio, okay, Doc? Are you in your quarters?"

"Yes, but --"

"Good. Stay off the radio. Thanks."

"If you say so," he muttered, and sat for a minute or two with his hand resting on the radio. Then he got up and stumbled into the bathroom, where he found that there was no water, either.

Listening to the intermittent chatter on the public channels of the radio gave him an idea of what was going on. Occasionally he could hear muffled bursts of gunfire outside his room; he couldn't tell where it was coming from, but anywhere within earshot was too bloody close as far as he was concerned. For the first time, he wished that he kept a gun in his quarters -- not that he could imagine using one on a human being, but it might feel better to know that he could do something if --

The lights came on in his quarters, making him flinch. "Thank God," he muttered, jumping off the bed and starting for the door.

It opened before he got there. Carson stopped in his tracks: The people standing in the doorway were wearing unfamiliar uniforms and pointing guns at him.

It was the Genii all over again.

"Are you the doctor?" one of them demanded. "Your people said that a doctor lived here."

"Yes, I am a doctor, but what do you mean by --"

"We need a doctor." The soldier gestured with his gun. He was incredibly young, not more than twenty or twenty-one. Carson thought suddenly, painfully, of Ford. "Come with me. Please," he added.

"Just a minute." He didn't keep weapons in his quarters, but he did have a case of medical supplies, neatly organized and lying beside his bed in the event of an emergency. He grabbed it.

The soldier and his companion -- female, equally young -- escorted Carson out the door and down the hall. They were reserved, but polite, and even had the decency not to point their weapons actually at him, but rather off to the side. At least it's a civilized abduction, he thought, a bit hysterically.

They rounded the corner at the end of the hall and he stopped, staring. A battle had taken place here. Bodies littered the floor, four of them, all wearing Atlantis uniforms. Instinctively he started towards them.

"Not them." The young soldier pulled on his arm. "They're all right; they're stunned. Here."

He dragged Carson behind a half-open door into a set of apparently empty quarters. Well, they had been empty; now there was blood pooling on the floor and a small cluster of people in the middle of the room. And Carson got a second shock. "Radek?"

The scientist looked up in surprise. His hands were tied behind his back and he was kneeling on the floor, splattered from head to foot with blood. His face was very pale. "I see they got you too," he said with a grimace.

"Are you hurt? Did they --"

Zelenka shook his head. "The blood -- it's not mine," he said, and swallowed. "The Dorandans -- they were taking me to -- wherever they're keeping prisoners. We encountered a group of Marines and there was a fight --"

Someone cried out softly, a female voice, in pain. Carson turned, instinctively drawn by that sound. Since these quarters were unused, the bed in the middle of the room was stripped of sheets, and the injured Dorandans -- two of them -- had been laid on it. Another soldier stood beside the bed; from her hunched stance, she appeared to be injured, too. However, it was obvious from the way the others deferred to her that she was in charge.

"Who is he? Is this the doctor?"

"He says so, Claris," said the young male soldier escorting Carson.

The woman glared at the boy. "It's ma'am!" she snapped. "We're in the field! And in front of the enemy!"

The boy quailed, and Carson couldn't help noticing the obvious resemblance between them. They were obviously related, maybe brother and sister.

The other woman asked, "Where did Berin go, Clar -- Ma'am?"

"He's scouting." The woman stepped back from the bed. "Well, if you're a doctor -- can you help them?" There was a note of desperation underlying the command in her voice.

Moved by compassion, Carson knelt beside the bed. The bare mattress was soaked with blood.

"They're not using stunners," the younger female soldier said. "We didn't know that. We thought --" She broke off at a look from the woman in charge.

The injured were one male, one female. The man was young, just a boy really; the woman was about Carson's age, late thirties or so. When he touched her, she gasped and tried to twist away.

"Shush, love. It's all right." There was a lot of blood on her, but most of it seemed to come from her upper arm and scalp. A bullet had broken her arm, and he thought she might lose the use of it if they couldn't get her to surgery, but her life didn't seem to be in any immediate danger.

The other one, the young man, was in much worse shape. He'd been shot in the abdomen; most of the blood was coming from him. Carson swallowed, peeling away the shreds of his shirt to reveal the damage beneath.

"Can you help them?" Claris demanded.

Carson snapped open his medical case and reached for a pressure dressing. "If I get him into surgery now, maybe I can save him. She --" he nodded to the female patient --"-- is going to live, but she may --" He'd started to say lose her arm, when he realized that her eyes were open and she was listening to him. "-- need surgery as well," he finished lamely.

The woman swallowed and pushed herself woozily up to a sitting position. "Don't worry about me," she said, swallowing again and cradling her injured arm in her lap. "I'm all right. If he needs --"

"You're not all right; are you daft? Lie back down! You, hold this --" He got the young man holding the dressing on the male patient, and then helped the woman into a reclining position and began binding her arm to prevent further blood loss. "I'm sorry, this is going to hurt." The pulse in her hand wasn't good at all. She needed to be in surgery. Both of them did.

And damn it, they were the enemy, and the Colonel wasn't going to be happy about this -- but the Colonel could just stuff it. "You're not carrying lethal weapons?" he asked.

"Our weapons can stun or kill," Claris said, looking down at her gun. "We're trying very hard not to hurt anyone that we don't have to, though. We assumed that your weapons were like ours."

The woman on the bed sucked in a gasp of pain as he accidentally jostled her injured arm. "Maybe if you military goons had paid more attention to the intelligence that we -- ow!"

"Lie still," Carson told her again. "You're not military?"

Zelenka spoke up. "She's a scientist. Her name's Mokarra." He frowned at the woman on the bed, looking both worried and angry. "She and her boss, and one other -- we welcomed them into the city, and they betrayed us. They have McKay; I'm not sure where they took him." He cleared his throat. "I'm the one who told them where your quarters were. I'm sorry, but I was afraid they were dying and they asked me if we had any doctors, and I --"

"Don't apologize, Radek; you did the right thing." He got Mokarra settled and gave her a shot of morphine.

"I can't move my hand," she whispered, her eyelids fluttering as the drug took effect.

"It's all right, love; don't worry about it."

"We've done a terrible thing." Her voice was a sleepy murmur.

"People make mistakes." Carson nodded to the young soldier holding the field bandage against his other patient, and smoothly took it over. It was already nearly soaked through. The boy's body jerked under Carson's hands.

"Oh, son, no, don't you do this ..." The boy convulsed; Carson tried to hold him still. Suddenly he went limp, slumping against the doctor.

"Help him!" Claris ordered, her voice rising in fear.

The boy's eyes were open, staring. Carson swallowed hard, and reached to feel for a pulse, then, cringing inwardly, tested the corneal reflex. Nothing.

"Help him," Claris repeated, her voice softer this time.

"There's nothing I can do for him. I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker ..." His voice trailed off; he arranged the boy's limp arms across the gore-sodden chest, then slumped down beside the bed and covered his face with his blood-wet hands for a moment.

A hand unexpectedly patted his shoulder. He looked up and saw that it was Mokarra, half awake, reaching across the boy's body with her good arm.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "Not your fault."

"Why are you apologizing to me? My people killed your friend." He realized that his loyalties were getting completely mixed up, but all he knew was that an injured person had died under his hands, and his people were responsible for it. He felt sick.

Claris shrugged out of her jacket and covered the dead boy's face. Seeing the stiff way that she moved, Carson remembered his earlier suspicion that she was injured, too. "Let me take a look at you."

"I'm all right. Just a crease along the side." But she stood still and let him peel back her shirt, giving a soft hiss of pain between her teeth. She was right; it was painful-looking, but superficial. He bandaged it anyway -- no sense having the lass run around in pain. "We need to get your scientist -- Mokarra? -- into surgery quickly," he told her as he taped the bandage into place.

Claris nodded. "Can you do that here?"

"Bloody h-- No. No, I can't. I need a sterile environment and proper tools, or we may as well wrap her arm in dirty socks for all the good it'll do her."

A frown creased the smooth skin between her brows. "Why are you helping us?"

"Being dragged out of my quarters at gunpoint probably has something to do with it," he muttered, not looking up at her and concentrating on taping the bandage.

"But you were genuinely sorry when Adaran died." She glanced briefly at the body. "You are really trying to help us. This is not at all the behavior that I would have expected from Wraith worshippers."

Carson stared at Claris for a moment, then tugged down her shirt to cover the bandage. "Lass, I don't know who told you that, but you've been terribly misinformed."

"We found Wraithsign in your Colonel Sheppard," Mokarra murmured from the bed, blinking sleepily at him as she struggled to stay awake in the face of narcotics and blood loss.

"This is all because of --" Everything fell into place. "Bloody hell. You people ... Rodney told me about this Wraithsign obsession of yours. Colonel Sheppard ran afoul of an Iratus bug some time back -- do you know what those are?"

"Never heard of them," Claris said flatly.

It was probably best not to get into the details of Wraith origins at the moment. "It injected Wraithlike DNA into him -- Wraithsign, as you call it. That's what they do."

"Then you admit it!" Claris's voice was triumphant. Mokarra, however, listened in silence, her eyes -- glazed with pain and narcotics -- fixed on him.

"No! The Colonel's as human as you and me, lass. I don't know how many times he's saved my life and that of everyone in this city. We don't work with the Wraith; we have never worked with the Wraith."

"You lie," Claris said. "Of course you would say that."

Mokarra shook her head, and frowned up at Carson. "You're telling the truth, aren't you?"

"On my sainted mother. On my word as a physician -- a healer. We have never meant any harm to your people."

Claris made a sharp, aggressive move in his direction. "Don't listen to him. He's lying." But she sounded uncertain.

Mokarra's eyes searched his face, growing more alert as curiosity sharpened her focus. "Is it possible that your leadership could be involved in something you don't know about?"

"No. Absolutely not." And he wished there wasn't the tiniest little worm of doubt about that. He didn't know half of what the Colonel was up to these days. But Wraith worship -- never. Of that, at least, he could be certain. "Not something like that."

"Claris, he's not lying, can't you see that?" Mokarra twisted her head around to look at the young soldier, wincing as she jarred her injured arm. "Dr. McKay said much the same thing. These people are fighting to defend their home; we are the aggressors, not they." She reached up to her jacket with her good hand, fumbling. "We should call Larissa. Talk to her. If this is all a misunderstanding --"

"It's Captain Seng that we should call," Claris said. "He'll know what to do." She pulled out her radio and keyed it a couple of times, then shook her head. Static. "There is something in your city that disrupts our communications. We have been having a very hard time staying in touch with each other since we've been here."

"I might be able to help you find a frequency that--" Zelenka trailed off when Claris shot a suspicious glare at him.

Mokarra chewed on her lower lip. She looked halfway to passing out -- but very, very worried. "If this is truly based on a misunderstanding, and if we cannot contact Larissa, then I need to get to your gateship storage bay." She started to swing her legs off the bed, and reeled, her face going white.

Both Carson and Claris lunged to catch her; the two of them ended up eyeing each other warily over Mokarra's mop of blond braids while they each supported one side of her. "You aren't going anywhere but the infirmary," Carson told her.

"Mokarra, I hate to say this, but he's right," Claris said. "You're badly hurt and bleeding. Why do you have to go there?"

The injured scientist breathed deeply through the pain; after a minute, a little color began to come back into her face, and she raised her head. "I do; I just do, it's important. More important than you can understand."

"That's probably where the worst of the fighting is going to be." Carson tried to think strategy, and found himself failing utterly. The one thing he knew he couldn't do was let a patient, enemy or not, go running off in the condition that Mokarra was in. "Listen, why don't we take you to the infirmary, get you patched up, and we can call your leaders and maybe get this whole bloody mess called off?"

Mokarra frowned, but another wave of weakness made her slump over. "All right," she whispered. "But I really must talk to Larissa. As soon as possible. It's vital."

"Why are you doing this?" Claris asked Carson as they improvised a stretcher out of a closet door. "You don't have to help us. We're enemies. Are you trying to convince us that you aren't a Wraith collaborator, lull us into believing you?"

"What do you expect me to do, let her die?" With the help of the male soldier, he eased Mokarra onto their makeshift stretcher. "You're the one who sent people to roust me out of bed, aren't you?" Frustration and anger made him testy. A boy of nineteen or twenty lay dead, and how many others, Dorandans and Atlanteans both? All because of a stupid mistake.

He tried not to unravel it farther back, tried not to think about the retrovirus and what culpability for this whole mess might fall at his own feet. No sense making things worse than they had to be. Time to fall apart later. Lives to save now.

And he couldn't help wondering what had Mokarra so frantic to get up to the jumper bay that she'd try to go there while she was leaving pools of blood on the floor.

Rodney, Teyla was sure, would have torn her plan apart. He would have said it sounded like something Sheppard would come up with on an off day. And he would probably be right.

The Colonel, however, was quite likely to approve.

Her plan was simple, ambitious, insane and probably impossible. Her plan was "steal that ship."

If it had been one of the puddlejumpers, of course, she couldn't have done it, but these ships looked totally different and she guessed that they were built by ordinary humans, to be flown by ordinary humans. And, true, she had not actually flown a spaceship before, but she wouldn't actually have to fly it. Much. She just had to keep the Dorandans from being able to fly it.

Which meant that her problem now was getting into the ship without being seen.

The lights came back on in the control room, and, startled, she jumped away from the doors before they could be triggered by her presence. "Ancestors," she murmured before she could help herself, because with the power off she might have been able to pry the doors open enough to slip inside, but everyone in the room would notice if they suddenly slid open all the way.

Which just left the hole in the wall.

Climbing up onto the railing, she worked herself from there to a row of decorative moldings. Flat against the side of the tower, she edged along and most assuredly did not think of the long plunge beneath her. When I have done this, I shall never fear heights again.

Her big piece of luck for the day was the discovery that the stained glass window had been blown out in big, floor-to-ceiling shards, leaving gaps that would easily accommodate her. Peeking inside, she saw that no one was looking her way, although while she'd been climbing around the tower, the group that included Weir had been joined by McKay and some more Dorandans.

Framed in the opening, she would be instantly visible to anyone who glanced her way; quickly she darted inside and out of view. The ship looked huge from this angle, and she was all too aware that whatever weapon it had used to blast that hole in the wall must be pointed in her direction. But she dared not stop now. If only the gateroom weren't so open.

There was a particular technique of hiding in plain sight that her father's huntmaster, Akenos, had taught her when she was a young girl. Akenos had been dead now for years, but she remembered clearly his lessons for sneaking up on game. Always before, though, the worst consequence of failure would be a meal of bread rather than meat. Never had her life, and the lives of others, so powerfully depended on her stealth.

Animals notice movement, Akenos had said. They also notice sudden cessation of movement. You must move as if you are part of the scenery.

I don't know what you mean, she had protested.

She had never been Akenos's best pupil. Some of the village children could creep up close enough to tap a denga-beast on the flank before it noticed them. But Akenos had also told her that, in their own way, humans and Wraith were not nearly so vigilant as wild animals. It was in some ways easier, and in some ways harder, to fool an intelligent being. They did not pay as much attention to their surroundings, but they were much more likely to investigate something that seemed wrong.

Flow like water, Akenos had said, and like water she flowed down the stairs, taking full advantage of the smoke still hanging in the air and the shadows where the blast had destroyed lights or power conduits.

The ship had a ramp, much like the ones on the jumpers, stretching from the floor to its sleek belly. There were two guards at the base of it, vigilantly watching the doors coming into the gateroom. They were not expecting attack from her direction.

She moved on the nearest with stealth and speed. Two quick blows to his nerve points dropped him, and she caught and eased him to the floor. The other began to turn, startled by the movement, and she did the same to him.

It had taken only a few seconds, and no one in the room seemed to have noticed. Neither of the men had tried to reach for their radios. Her luck would not hold, though. Teyla ran lightly up the ramp, reflecting as she did so that it wasn't really luck; it was obvious to her that these people were not used to combat. Colonel Sheppard's people would never be so oblivious or fall so easily.

She wondered how he was faring.

"Hey, who are y--" and two more guards went down. She was using her sticks now, and not making a lot of effort to pull punches. Noise didn't matter so much now that she was inside the ship; the important thing was speed.

It was not difficult to infer that the ship must have been used as a troop carrier, but it was staffed by a skeleton crew now; most of the soldiers that it had carried were deployed into the city. She went forward, going from her knowledge of puddlejumpers and the Daedalus in the hopes of finding a control room. And she was not disappointed. Unfortunately there were three people on the bridge. She took out the first of them quickly, before they saw her. The second managed to get off a wild shot that missed her utterly, and then she broke his arm with her stick. But by that time, the pilot had risen from her chair, gun in hand.

"You! Stop! Who are you?"

Teyla turned slowly, holding her hands out to the sides with a bantos stick in each. "Do not harm me and I will not harm you. It is not my intent to be your enemy."

"Yeah, tell that to the guys you just beat to death."

Teyla shook her head sharply. "They are not dead."

The pilot reached behind her with the hand that wasn't holding the gun, reaching towards a button on the console. "Sure. Drop those sticks."

Instead, Teyla snapped her wrist forward and threw the right-hand stick. The pilot's reflexes were good; she dodged, but her weight went off balance and Teyla took a running leap, disarming her with the other stick before she could recover. Unexpectedly, the other woman came back with a hard uppercut, knocking Teyla back -- she'd clearly had some hand-to-hand training.

"Not my enemy, huh?" she panted, swinging a kick through air that Teyla had occupied mere seconds before.

But Teyla had finally identified the pilot's fighting style, a form of martial arts practiced on many worlds. The pilot's style was quaint and somewhat eccentric, as should be expected of a people who had been isolated as the Dorandans had. But it was also fairly rigid, adhering to the forms of the art without varying from them -- the fighting style of a person who had spent a lot of time in a gym, but very little with actual opponents in the field. If she followed true to form, then her next attack would be an overhand attack -- and it was, so Teyla countered swiftly, striking through the opening and landing a hard blow on the pilot's chin. She finished it with a knockout strike and then caught her opponent to stop her from falling too hard.

"Well done," she panted, dragging the woman outside the ship's control room and laying her gently on the floor before going back for the others. "I hope that we have an opportunity to spar under less dire circumstances."

Leaving the unconscious Dorandans in the ship's corridor, she swung the door shut, sealing herself inside. Unlike the Atlantis doors, it was not the sliding kind, but rather a heavy metal airlock-style door, clearly designed to make the bridge self-sufficient in case the rest of the ship depressurized.

Now then.

The bridge consisted of two helm chairs -- one of which the pilot had occupied -- and a captain's chair in the center. It reminded Teyla somewhat of the Daedalus's bridge; she wondered if all ships were built along such lines. The controls looked much more primitive than those of any other ship she had seen, though. Some of the Ancestors' technology, mostly scanning equipment, had been cobbled together with big metal levers and dials. They were labeled tersely in a combination of the Ancestors' writing, which she could read a little, and another script that was not familiar to her.

Above the controls, there was a large viewing window currently showing her an all-too-close view of a tied-up Elizabeth and an extremely annoyed-looking McKay arguing with a man that Teyla guessed must be Captain Seng. Panic raced through her at the thought that they might be able to see into the ship, as one could see into the puddlejumpers, but then she remembered that she had not been able to see inside from the gateroom. The ship's windows, like the glass in some parts of Atlantis, only went one way.

Still, it could only be minutes until they discovered what she'd done. Teyla scanned the rows of unfamiliar controls in front of her, trying to figure out how to make them work. Earlier, her only thought had been: What would Colonel Sheppard do? Now it became: What would Dr. McKay do?


Sub-Captain Tennet had a splitting headache, and whatever the Atlanteans had used to bind his hands held him so tightly that he could barely squirm. All he could do was watch the activity around him with his head twisted to the side. From this angle, most of what he could see were people's feet. He'd been gagged, and the rough material pressed chokingly against his tongue.

It had all gone wrong somehow, and he still wasn't sure exactly how.

A pair of feet in slippers approached him at a slow, shuffling pace, picking their way through the debris that had been pulled off the shelves during the battle. The owner of the feet sank onto one of the metal lab stools with a soft grunt of pain, and then pushed at Tennet with one foot, turning him over. It was Colonel Sheppard -- the fake one from the other universe, Tennet guessed, because the man looked white and shaky. He'd thrown a jacket over his hospital scrubs, and there was a gun across his knees.

"Hey there," he said in a tired, scratchy voice. "Let's talk, why don't we?" Bracing one hand against the wall, he leaned forward and pulled Tennet's gag free of his mouth.

"Your fate is sealed, traitorous scum," was the first thing Tennet said, trying to gather up his courage and channel the heroes in the folk stories he'd heard as a child. An entire squad of his trusted soldiers, including some of his friends, lay dead because of this bastard and his ilk. And torture no doubt lay ahead. Tennet figured that he needed all the courage he could get.

"Ah," Sheppard said, "starting with the villain talk already." Pressing a hand to his side, he sat back and rested his shoulder against the wall, as if it were the only thing holding him up. "Your name's Tennet, right?"

"Drop dead, Wraith-worshipping bastard."

"Okay, now that's just rude. You wanna sit up? It's kind of hard to talk to you sideways." Using his foot again, Sheppard nudged at Tennet's shoulder, sort-of-gently shoving him into a vertical position. Tennet tried at first to fight it, then realized that he could at least look his tormentor in the eyes if he was sitting upright, and squirmed until he had his back against the wall.

"That's more like it," Sheppard said. "What's this about the Wraith?"

"You should have killed me. Are you saving me to feed to your Wraith masters?"

"Where in the world did you get this Wraith thing from?" Sheppard tilted his head back, resting it on the wall. With a couple days' worth of stubble furring his chin, he looked scruffy and exhausted, not exactly villain material.

Tennet clamped his mouth shut. He was in the hands of the enemy, and he was terrified, but he didn't intend to talk, even under threat of torture. So the Atlanteans wanted to know who had sold out their dirty little secret. How stupid do they think my people are? Tennet thought, proud of his people's resourcefulness. Whatever treachery the Atlanteans planned, they would have no chance to accomplish it now.

There was a sudden commotion from the front of the infirmary. Sheppard started to lurch to his feet and then sank back down with a gasp of pain, but he raised the gun. Tennet, twisting his head around, saw a cluster of brown Dorandan uniforms.

"Colonel! Stop! Don't any of you go shooting any of the rest of you --" An Atlantean appeared from the middle of the cluster of Dorandans, waving his hands in the air. Tennet had no idea who the Atlantean was, or why he was with them, but he recognized young Claris and her squad, and thought, Now what? He couldn't tell if Claris's group were hostage-takers or hostages. The wildly gesticulating Atlantean grabbed the barrel of Claris's gun and forced it down. "Nobody's shooting anyone here. I think we're all on the same side."

"Carson, what's going on?" Sheppard didn't lower his own gun.

"Move her over there, that's a dear," the Atlantean -- Carson -- instructed Claris's squad, and to Tennet's utter shock, they obeyed. "I have a patient to attend to, Colonel. And do you realize you aren't supposed to be out of bed?"

"Do you realize we're under attack?" A little of the fight went out of Sheppard when he got a better look at Carson. "You look horrible; what happened to you?"

Carson paused and raised a hand to his face, seeming to become aware of the half-dried blood streaking his skin. "Oh. That. No, it's not mine, I'm not hurt. And if you don't lie down, you're going to tear your stitches and you'll be back in surgery before you know it."

Since his captors were ignoring him, Tennet occupied himself trying to squirm out of his restraints. The tough material bit into his wrists and refused to give, so he looked around the floor for something to cut them. Amid the debris, the glint of a scalpel caught his eye. He scooted cautiously in that direction while listening absently to the Atlanteans argue. He couldn't understand why Claris and her squad were cooperating with the Atlanteans until he glimpsed one of the scientists -- Mokarra, was that her name? -- on a bed with blood all over her, and then he realized that she must be a hostage against the soldiers' good behavior.

Tennet hooked the scalpel awkwardly through his restraints, parting them with a soft snap. He flexed his fingers and rolled his shoulders to get the blood flowing again, then cut the restraints on his feet.


"If you don't lie down, you're going to tear your stitches and you'll be back in surgery before you know it."

Sheppard dismissed Carson's concerns with a wave of his hand, but he did sink down onto the nearest thing that looked capable of supporting his weight, which happened to be the edge of an unoccupied infirmary bed. He was doing all right so far -- adrenaline, maybe -- but being on his feet for any length of time left him dizzy and weak. Collapsing on the floor wasn't likely to make the doctor leave him alone.

Since it was fairly evident, to Sheppard at least, that he wasn't going back to bed anytime soon, he'd taken the time to throw a jacket over his scrubs -- medical red, he still couldn't get used to it. As an added side benefit, it concealed the patches of blood soaking through his bandages. He didn't like that, and he didn't like the growing stickiness down his side either, but damn it, they were in the middle of a hostage crisis and he didn't have time to give in to his body's weakness.

The Dorandan soldiers had drawn together into a tight, hostile grouping, allowing Carson access to their injured, but not much else. One of them was still, somewhat halfheartedly, holding a gun on Radek, who looked uncertain if he was still supposed to be a hostage or not. Sheppard, for his part, kept his P90 that he'd taken from the dead Marine laying prominently across his knees.

"So do we have a truce here, or are we all waiting to kill each other?" Sheppard asked Carson.

"You'll be the first to know when I figure it out, Colonel."

The injured Dorandan woman kept trying to sit up. "You said I could talk to Larissa! I have to talk to Larissa, tell her to shut off the --" She broke off with a gasp of pain.

"Easy, easy," Carson soothed. "Shut off the what, Mokarra?" When she didn't respond, he looked up at the other Dorandans, who just shrugged in confusion.

Sheppard leaned forward. Ow. "What's she talking about?"

The doctor glanced over his shoulder. "I don't know. She's been frantic to get up to the jumper bay. I'm not sure why."

The jumper bay. Where Rodney was headed. Sheppard slid off the bed (ow, again) and limped over.

"Don't bother my patient, Colonel."

"It looks to me like your patient wants to be bothered." The blond woman, Mokarra, seemed to be trying to say something, but her voice was too quiet to hear. Sheppard leaned over her, and saw her eyes widen, saw her flinch backwards. Then pain exploded through him when the female Dorandan soldier standing over the bed gave him a hard backward shove on his bad shoulder, nearly sending him to the floor.

"Get away from her, traitor," she snarled.

"Claris, no," Mokarra breathed, and with a great effort she managed to get up on one elbow. Sheppard, meanwhile, had picked himself up with one arm wrapped around his side. Carson hovered over him, dividing his attention between glaring at the Dorandan soldier and trying to help Sheppard.

"Are you all right, Colonel?"

Was it really necessary to dignify a question like that with a response? "Peachy," Sheppard muttered between his teeth, feeling cold sweat prickling the nape of his neck as the pain began to fade.

"Claris -- Colonel, Doctor, I need to --" Mokarra swallowed; she was obviously fighting against unconsciousness, and blood continued to soak through the bandages on her arm.

"The only thing you need to do is lie down, love." Abandoning Sheppard for the moment, Carson tried to ease her back down to the infirmary bed, but she fought against him.

"No, no -- the warships, the self-destruct, it's armed and loaded. Clock is counting down."

Carson went still. So did Sheppard. "Say that again?"

"Captain Seng's idea." Mokarra paused every few words for a deep breath. "Larissa, Peran and I helped develop it. Most people don't know. We -- we knew we'd be outnumbered, outgunned. It was our emergency backup plan in case something went wrong. Rather than letting -- letting the holy city fall into Wraith hands -- or the hands of Wraith sympathizers -- we were ordered to destroy it. The ships ... ships are going to explode."

Radek groaned something in Czech. Claris stared. "We weren't informed of this," she breathed. "Why weren't we told?"

Mokarra shook her head, the braids brushing against the pillow of the infirmary bed. "Most people didn't ... backup plan ... the ships..."

Rodney, Sheppard thought. Crap. "The ships in the jumper bay?"

She made an obvious effort to pull herself together. "Yes ... self-destruct, counting down. That way, even if we lost ..." She trailed off, her eyes closing, but managed to resume weakly. "Even if we lost, we'd win. No one has to be alive to push the button. Ships will explode if it's not turned off."

"Sounds as if you all would lose, love," Carson said softly.

"What happens if someone tries to tamper with the ships?" Sheppard demanded, but he could guess at the answer, even before Mokarra whispered "Boom" and closed her eyes again.

"Colonel--" Carson began.

"Carson, Rodney and the other me just went up to the jumper bay to destroy the ships."

Mokarra's eyes popped open. "What?" she whispered.

There was a clatter from the doorway and Sheppard spun around (ow) just in time to see a brown Dorandan uniform vanish out the door. Crap! I shoulda known better than to turn my back --

"Mokarra! What's his name -- Tennet -- does he know about the self-destruct?"

She nodded weakly against the pillow. "Tennet and Seng ... a few of Seng's personal guard, and those of us who worked on the self-destruct ... that's all."

Which was all Sheppard needed to hear. He was vaguely aware of Beckett yelling, "Colonel, damn it all --" as he caught himself on the doorframe and pushed off, into the hall.

Having the other universe's Sheppard (creepy G.I. Joe edition) at his back was somehow less comforting than Rodney would have liked, but they still managed to make their way to the jumper bay with a minimum of carnage -- at least until they got close.

"Crap," alt-Sheppard whispered, peering around a corner. They had tried several different routes, and kept running into Dorandans. "They've got the whole area secured."

"Which is why you brought the genius, hello?" The genius who was currently scared out of his mind, but trying very hard not to show it.

This would be the point where his Sheppard would have snarked something back and given him a quirky grin. This one, though, just leveled a challenging glower at him. "All right, genius, go for it. Get us in."

"The fact that you've never even tried to learn the layout of this city, beyond noting the location of all the big doors you can fly a ship through, is a continual source of amazement to me." He backtracked as he spoke, looking for the access conduit that he knew was somewhere around here. "Aha!"

"Oh, you gotta be kidding," alt-Sheppard groaned as Rodney pried off the cover. "We're going through the ducts?"

"I know, it's like a bad sci-fi movie, isn't it?" Rodney squinted into the dark shaft, with a ladder leading up towards dimly-glimpsed light above them. Small dark places, why did it always have to be small dark places? "I don't know if there are descended Ancients working in Hollywood, or what, but they've kinda got the general look. There's a conduit that goes right above the jumper bay, for servicing the bay doors." At least that was what Zelenka's engineers used it for.

When Rodney hesitated, alt-Sheppard said impatiently, "Sometime today?"

"I was sort of hoping you could go first. You're the one with the gun."

"You're the one who knows where we're going."

"Point," Rodney sighed. He grabbed the ladder and began to climb. A few rungs up, he paused and looked down as alt-Sheppard dragged the access cover closed behind them, plunging the shaft into near-total darkness.

"Have I mentioned I'm claustrophobic?"

"It's come up a few times." After a pause, alt-Sheppard said, "With the other you, that is."

"Could you people kindly stop comparing me to him? I happen to be very much my own person, you know."

He was startled by a soft laugh from beneath him. He hadn't even realized that this universe's Sheppard was capable of laughing. But when he looked down, it was impossible to make out expressions in the dark.

Their little shaft joined the main access conduit, which was dimly lit but tall enough to stand upright. Rodney had to think carefully to orient himself with regards to his mental map of the conduits, but he'd spent enough time in here that he found his way to the jumper bay with only one wrong turn.

The floor of the conduit over the bay was dotted with wire-grille hatches: maybe to let light in, maybe to let the Ancient mechanics -- long since dead or Ascended -- figure out where in the jumper bay they were located. Rodney and alt-Sheppard had to tread carefully, stepping over the grilles to avoid giving themselves away.

Rodney knelt next to the grille that was directly over Jumper One's berth. His breath caught at the sight of the sleek, alien ships next to the blocky forms of the jumpers, and next to him, he heard alt-Sheppard make a soft sound in his throat. Looking over, Rodney was startled to see that the other Sheppard, for the first time, resembled the one that Rodney was familiar with. The hard lines of his face had smoothed out, and there was a little-kid look of wonder in his eyes.

Then he jumped when his radio crackled. "Damn it, not now!" he whispered impatiently. Rodney, holding his own breath, could faintly hear the tinny voice speaking in alt-Sheppard's ear. "I said, not now!" the Colonel hissed and shut off his radio with a smack.

"Problem?" Rodney whispered.

"The other universe's Sheppard. Wants to talk. Lousy timing." He looked back down. "Well, can you do anything from up here?"

Rodney blinked at him. "Aren't you going to find out what he wants?"

"No! Now, can you access their computers from up here, or not?"

Reluctantly, Rodney unfolded the laptop tucked under his arm. "Depends on whether I can get our wireless connection to interface with their system."

"And if you can't?"

"Then we have to go in and do it by hand." He was very much afraid that the worst case scenario would turn out to be the case -- well, all right, the absolute worst-case scenario was having the whole jumper bay explode, but having to sneak onto the ships past a bunch of armed Dorandans wasn't far behind, in his book. And he wasn't optimistic about his ability to access the system remotely. The wireless cards in the laptops didn't even work with the Ancient computers; he had little hope that they would be able to make a connection to a computer system that was a complete unknown. Stupid sci-fi movies, making it look simple to network into an alien system. Hooking together PCs and Macs was a snap compared to what he had to deal with in a whole freaking other galaxy.

Tennet had already disappeared down the corridor. Sheppard leaned on the wall, catching his breath. I don't have a chance of catching him. He tapped his borrowed radio.

"Colonel Sheppard!" And damn, it was weird to address himself that way.

"Not now," his alternate self whispered back fiercely.

"You don't have to talk, just listen! There's a guy called Tennet headed--"

"I said, not now!" and the connection was severed on the other end.

Sheppard banged his head lightly into the wall. Now I know how Elizabeth feels when she has to deal with me.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed off again. The walls spun around him and then stabilized. He knew he shouldn't be out here, knew he'd probably end up as more of a liability than a help, but there just wasn't any other friggin' choice. Tennet had heard him say that Rodney was heading for the jumper bay, and there was no way he was letting his other self drag his friend into a trap. Or, if the Dorandans didn't get them, then Rodney, thinking he was doing the right thing, would blow them all to Kingdom come.

Trailing his hand on the wall for support, he limped towards the jumper bay.


"We've acceded to your demands, Captain Seng." Dr. Weir literally vibrated with anger, her chin lifted and her shoulders rigid. With her hands bound behind her back, she clung to a tattered shroud of dignity, drawing it around her like a cloak. "I've given you our promise of cooperation --"

"From what I'm hearing, your people are still attacking mine. Several have been killed. Doesn't sound like cooperation to me; sounds more like the kind of behavior I'd expect from Wraith sympathizers."

McKay jumped in. "I know you're in love with the sound of your own voice, but if you'd shut up for a minute and listen to our explanation --"

"Larissa, shut him up or I'll do it permanently."

McKay opened his mouth. "Now is not the time!" Larissa snapped at him.

One of Seng's aides approached them cautiously. "Sir, we're getting a call from one of the field commanders. The connection is very bad, but I think she's said she secured the infirmary."

"Finally. Good news for a change." Then he frowned. "She? I sent Tennet on that mission."

"I don't know, sir, but she said she wanted to talk to you."

Still frowning, Seng took the radio. "This is Captain Seng."

The voice on the other end was blurred by static. Damn these Atlanteans and their blasted holy city. Seng thrust the radio at Larissa. "Can you boost the power?"

"Maybe," she said, and fiddled with it a little, then held it up to her ear. "Field commander? This is Larissa in Control; do you read me?"

The voice that returned was definitely female, but broken up by interference. "Doctor, this ... temporary truce in the ... told about ... in the ships?"

"I'm sorry, I can't understand you." She made some more adjustments. "Can you hear me?"

"Much more clearly." The voice was understandable now. "This is field commander Claris. I'm in the Atlantis infirmary, where their doctors are helping to care for our wounded. May I speak to Captain Seng, ma'am?"

"Certainly." Larissa handed the radio back. Elizabeth Weir had gone stiff at the mention of "their doctors."

Seng retrieved the radio with the warm glow of a job that was finally going right. "Good work, commander. How many prisoners do you have?"

There was a pause. "I'm sorry, sir, you misunderstand. Their doctors are helping us voluntarily. We, um ... we seem to have come to a temporary truce."

Seng just stared at the radio for a moment. "You're not here to make deals with the enemy, soldier!"

"Sir, it's -- I'm starting to believe that some of the intelligence on this mission may have been flawed, sir."

What were the Atlanteans doing, using mind control drugs? Subverting his people? "Field commander, you are hereby relieved of command. Give the radio to the nearest ranking soldier to you. You are--"

"Captain Seng! Sir!"

Another of his field commanders came dashing up the steps of the gateroom. Vaiden -- he'd left her in charge of security on the Caledon.

"Not now!" he bit out harshly.

"Sir, we have a problem. A big problem. A really big problem."

Why was everything going to hell at once? As he started to turn, Larissa stepped forward to take the radio from his hand. He spun on her.

"Seng, I remind you that we are both in charge of this mission," she said quietly. "I'll speak to Claris; you handle this."

He didn't like that, not at all, but the look of panic on Vaiden's face didn't bode well. "What's going on?"

Vaiden was normally very direct; it was one of the things he liked about her. This time, though, there was an uncharacteristic hesitation before she spoke again. "Sir, the Atlanteans have gained control of the Caledon."

"What?" Stunned, he swung around to stare up at his warship, its guns in their resting position: pointed straight forward. At him. A moment ago, he'd felt comfortable and secure with the ship's bulk right behind him, backing him up. Now it loomed like a monster from a child's tale, ready to rain death on him at the push of a button.

Vaiden swallowed. "A, uh, a strike force gained access to the ship. They've sealed themselves on the bridge."

"And they're doing what there?" And why haven't they attacked? Or made demands?

"They may not be able to figure out how to use the equipment," Vaiden murmured.

McKay's eyes had been darting back and forth between them like a spectator at a ball game, but he seized on this. "Unlike you, our people are accustomed to using advanced technology. Sheppard's probably just trying to figure out which one of you to shoot first."

Spinning around, Seng backhanded him hard across the face. Elizabeth jerked forward, brought up short by her bonds, and Larissa paused in the act of speaking into the radio. Seng seized hold of McKay's arm and began dragging him down the stairs.

"Wait! Where are you taking him!" Elizabeth tried to follow; Seng's guards halted her.

"Keep her there," he ordered.

"I'm a terrible hostage," McKay babbled. "A really bad one. Ask anybody. Where are you taking me, anyway?"

"If your people have taken over my ship, McKay, then you're going to help me get it back."

A sudden commotion ahead of him had Sheppard ducking behind the nearest pillar, having to catch himself to keep from falling over. He heard a scream and a blast from a very familiar energy gun.


Grinning, Sheppard limped cautiously around the corner. His smile faltered when he saw Ronon kneeling beside a very dead Tennet. Smoke curled up from the corpse.

"Damn it, Ronon, I wanted him alive!"

"Too bad," the ex-Runner retorted. "He wanted me dead. Tried stunning him, but it didn't work. He must be wearin' something that blocks it."

"Really?" Sheppard had seen one of the Dorandans get stunned in the infirmary, so they couldn't all be impervious. Still, if he could figure out what was doing it ... He lowered himself very carefully to the floor and began going through Tennet's pockets.

"He was talkin' on the radio when I shot him," Ronon added.

"Crap." Sheppard picked up the Dorandan radio, about the size of his hand with a strap where it could be fastened to someone's wrist or clothing. A soft hiss of static came from it. Maybe Tennet hadn't been able to get through. On the other hand, even if Tennet hadn't alerted his people, Rodney and the other Sheppard were still walking straight into disaster, if Mokarra had been telling the truth.

He went back to searching Tennet's pockets. "So, you find Teyla?" Last he remembered, the other Sheppard had sent Ronon to look for her.


There was no elaboration. Sheppard glanced up, decided not to ask for details. Tried to shake a sudden mental image of this universe's Teyla bleeding out on the floor. She'll be all right. Teyla's tough. She's probably off saving the day while we all sit around.

Most of what he found in Tennet's pockets was standard, recognizable field equipment: a first aid kit, extra charge capsules for those guns they carried. There was a little folded locket which Sheppard opened before he realized what it was; it held a picture of a young woman with a baby, and he shut it quickly and returned it reverently to the dead man's pocket. I hate war. I really, really hate it.

But he also found a small device a few inches across, obviously Ancient. He held it in his palm, seeking instinctively the familiar tug of activation, the quick glimmering across a corner of his mind -- but of course there was nothing, due to his mismatched ATA gene.

What do you do? he asked it silently, in a fit of whimsy. Of course it didn't tell him. They never did.

Still, if Ronon was right that energy weapons didn't affect Tennet -- and Sheppard trusted him on matters like that -- then it was the only thing the Dorandan was carrying that could account for it. At least, it was the only thing he'd found. And it was clearly active, for it had been glowing softly when he took it from Tennet's pocket and was still glowing now.

"Ronon, shoot me."

The ex-Runner looked him up and down. "Way you look right now, it'll probably kill you even on stun."

"No it won't. Just turn it down to the lowest setting you got. No, wait, this is better." He picked up Tennet's energy weapon and handed it to Ronon, who held it with unusual awkwardness. "This way we get a test run with the actual weapons they use."

"Sheppard, this is a bad idea."

"I know, but if I'm impervious to their weapons, I'd really rather find out now than when we're facing down a bunch of them."

"This better not kill you." Ronon squeezed the trigger; there was a flash, and Sheppard felt a slight tingle run down his body, like static electricity ghosting through the hairs on his arms.

"Whoa. Cool." Looking up, he saw Ronon raising the gun again and held up a hand. "Hey, hold up there, Tex! The effects of these things are cumulative; I'd really rather not find out that it works on the first shot but not the second, huh?"

"You want this back?" Ronon held up the stunner dubiously; it was obvious from the way he was looking at Sheppard's P90 that he thought the deadlier weapon by far the better choice.

The face of the young woman in the locket ghosted through Sheppard's memory. "Yeah, why not. Given the choice, I'd really rather take 'em alive."

"It's your funeral." Ronon reversed the gun and held out the butt to him. Slinging the P90 over his shoulder, Sheppard accepted the less lethal weapon and then started to hoist himself off the floor -- only to sink back down, gasping, when pain ripped through his side.

"You okay?"

"Fine, fine." He breathed through the pain, tried to get up again and failed again. "Uh, could I get a hand?"

Ronon hooked an arm under Sheppard's armpits and hauled him upright. The room faded around him, black spots blotting his vision for a moment. He leaned into Ronon's warm bulk until things stabilized.

"You supposed to be out of bed?"

"Probably not, but in case you hadn't noticed, we kind of have a situation here."

Ronon's soft laugh vibrated his body. "Noticed."

"Uh, you can put me down now, by the way."

"Uh-huh." Ronon made no move to do so. "Where we goin'?"

"Jumper bay." Sheppard tried to squirm, then succumbed to the inevitable and let Ronon help him down the corridor, supporting the majority of his weight.

"I notice you're not dragging me back to the infirmary."

"I don't know you real well yet, but if you're anything like the Sheppard we got here, I have the feeling it wouldn't keep you there."

"No," he admitted. "Probably not."

Chapter Fourteen: Fight Scene

There was a peaceful familiarity to sitting in the dim conduit, listening to the tapping of Rodney's keys and an occasional muttered exclamation as the self-described genius hit a dead end or made some minor discovery.

Sheppard kept having to remind himself that this wasn't his universe's McKay. It was a little bit freaky being in close proximity to the alternate one, because he'd totally forgotten how McKay's and his own personal space bubbles used to overlap. In fact it wasn't something he'd really been consciously aware of, until getting around this McKay and rediscovering it. In some indefinable way, he didn't mind having McKay in his personal space; he never had. And the feeling was mutual. Right now he kept wanting to lean over Rodney's shoulder to look at the computer screen. Once upon a time, he would have done exactly that. In fact, with Rodney so thoroughly engrossed in the computer, the almost instinctive temptation to poke at him was almost irresistible.

What the hell? Combat zone, damn it!

"Well, this is just great," Rodney said softly. "Basically, it's like I thought. If their computers have some form of wireless connectivity, I certainly can't hook into it. I'm going to need to get into one of those ships."

"It's not too late to just blow them up."

It might be his imagination, but he thought Rodney looked briefly tempted before irritation overwhelmed it. "Typical, Colonel, typical. Let's solve the problem by destroying it. Been hanging out around Ronon a little too much, have you? Oh wait, I forgot, you were like that before you ever met him."

"You have to admit that it would solve the problem."

"Only by potentially creating a rather significant new one."

The stubborn part of him wanted to argue, because damn it, he was the military commander; he was in charge, and he couldn't go and let a civilian push him around. But a somewhat louder voice in his head kept repeating, If you go and get people killed because you're too goddamn proud to listen to experts, John, then you're an idiot.


Rodney had his mouth half-open in the apparent act of marshaling another argument. He shut it. "Oh. Um, good." His voice, already quiet for Rodney, got a bit smaller. "You know, if you have any ideas about how to get into the ships ..."

"The genius doesn't have a plan for that?"

Rodney's eyes narrowed. "The genius was a little bit busy trying to figure out how to --" He paused, then snapped the fingers on both hands at once, making Sheppard jump. "The life signs detector, do you have it?"

"Yes." He pulled it out and handed it to Rodney, by habit. The screen immediately went dark, and Rodney's face fell.

"Oh, your malformed ATA gene. Again. Big surprise."

"It's our genes that are malformed, not yours?" Sheppard inquired, having to fight down a grin. He was actually enjoying this; damn it all, with the fate of the city at stake, he was having fun verbally sparring with Rodney again.

"Yes, of course it is," Rodney said absentmindedly, handing the LSD back. The screen lit up happily in Sheppard's hand. "Okay, you're going to have to operate it for me. The laptop couldn't do it, but the scanner is much better at finding and identifying carrier frequencies. I've used it before, to interface with unfamiliar technology from a distance when I froze the Asurans."

"The who?"

"Oh right. You don't know about them yet. Ancient wannabes that are actually killer robots. If you happen to find a listing in your database for an abandoned outpost on a planet called Asurus, kindly resist the temptation to explore; you'll save yourselves a lot of trouble. Now, if you're quite done asking questions? Good. Hold up the scanner so that I can see the screen. Okay, now what I need you to do --"

Sheppard quickly discovered why people tended to transfer out of the science division at a higher-than-average level.

"Nononono, dial the frequency down, down! Stop! Go up! Oh, come on, you can do it faster than that!"

"Keep your voice down," Sheppard muttered. "There are only six buttons on this thing, McKay."

"That's why there is a rather significant mental component, Colonel. Ah! Wait! Stop! I think that's got it."

"We're into their system?"

"Not exactly, but I think that we've found the carrier signal that their ships and computers use to interface with each other. Of course whatever protocol they use is going to be complete gibberish to us, which is why we're totally screwed if it isn't similar enough to something in the scanner's data banks that it can interpret it. Call up the main menu. No, not that one!"

Sheppard sighed and had opened his mouth to tell Rodney exactly what he thought of his menus, when a commotion on the floor beneath them caught his eye.

"Oh, damn it," he whispered.

"What?" Rodney looked around wildly, then down, as a small group of Dorandans dragged two prisoners towards one of the ships. One was an apparently semi-conscious Ronon; the other was the Sheppard from Rodney's universe, doubled over with one arm curled around his chest.

Rodney's fingers curled into the metal grating. "What's a person have to do, tie him to his freaking bed?"

The prisoners were forced to their knees in front of the ships. One of their captors backhanded alt-Sheppard across the face; he reeled, obviously having trouble maintaining his balance.

Rodney made a tiny sound in his throat. Sheppard could see that the scientist was on the edge of doing something stupid; every line of his body screamed that he was poised to move. So he reached out, grabbed Rodney's arm -- realizing even as he did so that he hadn't touched McKay, his McKay, in months, the casual contact-in-passing that had once been such an integral part of the weird and prickly friendship they'd once shared.

"You really think you can do anything to help down there?"

Rodney's face was open, desperate. "I don't know, but I've got to do something!"

Sheppard shook the scanner at him. "So get control of the ships. That's what you're good at, right?"

Rodney just stared at him, like his words weren't making any sense. Then, slowly, he gripped the scanner in both hands -- and cursed when the light immediately died. "I can't do this," he said, and his voice cracked in the middle. "It's too slow, too clumsy, I can't get control of those ships before they kill Sheppard and Ronon or at least beat the crap out of them, and we get to watch, oh God I wish I'd made Carson give me the inoculation for your universe's gene --"

Sheppard folded his fingers over the top of the scanner; the blue glow lit up again. "Let's try this a different way. You see if you can manipulate it while I keep it running for you."

"It shouldn't work like that," Rodney said, but he sounded a little less panicked. "Mental component, remember?"

"Never know till you try, right?"


For a change, McKay didn't bother complaining as Seng forced him up the ramp of the Caledon into the ship's too-small interior. He was too busy trying to think the situation through. Sheppard -- it had to be Sheppard. McKay might have his personal problems with the Colonel at the moment, but there was only one man in Atlantis who could sneak onto the enemy flagship and take control of it, right under everyone's noses.

Of course, Sheppard hadn't done anything after that -- which made McKay think that he was having trouble figuring out how to fly it. It just figures. Same thing every day. Nobody can solve a problem without me standing there holding their hand.

His vexation was momentarily forgotten when he saw the inside of the ship. Okay, yeah, it was ugly and cramped and could really use a good coat of paint and maybe one of those pine tree air fresheners, but it was also a whole new design that bore no resemblance to any of the Ancient or Asgard-derived ships he'd seen. Clearly, the Dorandans -- or whoever they'd stolen the ships from -- had developed space travel on their own, without piggybacking on Ancient or Wraith technology.


Maybe there was hope for this galaxy yet.

"What's that for? Is that part of the ventilation system? Why in the world did you put it above the entrance to the ship? Oh, wait, that must be the air intake over there -- oh, interesting, you've managed to solve the problem of pressure backflow without relying on --"

"Doctor McKay," Seng growled between his teeth, "you are here for a reason."

McKay was so enthralled with the ship, it took him a minute to notice that there were also humans on it. A middle-aged woman sat with her head between her knees, a damp cloth on the back of her neck. A few more Dorandans were laid out on the floor, being tended by a couple of field medics. One was having his arm splinted.

All of them were alive, and none had bullet holes, which suddenly made McKay reconsider his Sheppard hypothesis.

"Any luck getting the doors open?" Seng snapped.

"No, sir. The intruders have closed the decompression bulkheads in the forward part of the ship."

"Intruder," said the woman on the floor in a weak voice.


The woman looked up. There was a spectacular bruise across her chin and the left side of her face. "Intruder. There was only one. A, um, a rather small woman."

"Ancestors' all-seeing eyes, Treen, she'd better have been heavily armed," Seng snarled.

The woman addressed as Treen gave a little flinch. "She was armed with, uh, sticks, sir."

McKay could feel his jaw drop open. Teyla was in charge of the ship?

Seng looked equally stunned. "What is wrong with you people?"

"She was so fast, sir! I think she might have been using some sort of enhancement technology."

Seng had his mouth open to reply -- and from the expression on his face, it wasn't going to be pretty -- when Larissa came running up the ship's ramp. "Captain Seng! We need to talk. Now."

"No." Seng's voice was a low growl. "You and McKay can make yourselves useful and open the doors to the front of the ship."

Larissa brought herself up short; her back stiffened. "Captain Seng, you do not have authority to give me orders."

"This is a military operation. I'd say that I do."

McKay couldn't suppress a painful twitch of memory. This was a rather familiar argument.

Larissa strode forward and jabbed a finger into his chest. "We agreed that if any intelligence came out during the battle that would change our strategy, we'd discuss it. Well, we need to talk. Now."

Seng raised his gun and pressed the tip of it lightly against her jacket below her heart.

"Captain," Larissa said quietly, "at this range, the stun charge would likely be fatal. You understand that?"

"I do, Doctor. I do. Step back or I will shoot you."

The other Dorandans stared, but none moved to interfere. They were all Seng's people, all soldiers, and while none of them looked particularly happy with what was going on, none of them were going to stand against him.

If he were really cool, McKay thought, this was where he'd run down the ramp and escape into the city while everyone else was occupied. Except that his hands were tied behind his back and he figured he'd only get a few steps before someone shot him -- and one of Seng's guards had a big shotgun-like weapon that looked a whole hell of a lot more menacing than the stunguns.

Larissa's face went white and set with rage, much as Elizabeth's face had earlier. She took a few steps back.

"Excellent. Now we understand who is in charge here?"

It took her a moment to be able to speak. "Only here. And only because this is a military operation. As you said."

"Indeed," he agreed smoothly. "Now, take Dr. McKay--"

A soft beeping sound interrupted him. Larissa jumped, and looked wildly down at her wrist, where a small device was strapped. Seng was giving his own wrist an equally startled look.

When Larissa raised her head, there were two bright spots of color on her cheeks. McKay didn't think he'd seen anyone that angry, ever. He took a step backwards and stumbled into a bulkhead.

"Captain," Larissa said crisply, each syllable enunciated, "this is what I wanted to talk to you about. They are attempting to hack into our computers. The system has detected the intrusion and reset the counter on the self-destruct, just as it was designed to do. We now have two and a half cenda before we will all be incinerated."

McKay's mouth went dry. Okay. Holy shit. I really hope a "cenda" is a long time.

"You said this wouldn't happen!" Seng roared.

"No! I said I thought Doctor McKay was the only one on Atlantis who could do it!"

Seng jabbed a finger at McKay, who shrank back against the wall. "And he's right there!"

"But the other one's not," Larissa shot back.

"You said the other one couldn't use the Atlantis computer systems!"

"I didn't think he could! Obviously I was wrong!"


"I'm in," the alternate Rodney murmured, his eyes fixed on the glowing screen. "Oh, crap. It's detected me and initiated some kind of defensive protocol -- I can't tell what yet."

"Dangerous?" Sheppard demanded, holding the scanner for him.

"Shut up, shut up. Working."

"McKay..." Sheppard said, staring down through the metal grating into the jumper bay


"McKay, why are you opening the jumper bay doors?"

Alt-Rodney stopped in the middle of his efforts, his hands freezing on the controls. "What?"


The crack of his captor's fist against Sheppard's cheekbone snapped his head back and sent him off balance; with his hands twisted and tied behind his back, he had only the muscles of his legs and side to catch himself, and it hurt like fuck. He wished for a moment that he'd taken another hit or two of painkillers before leaving the infirmary.

"Nice right hook, but lousy follow-through," he panted. "You wouldn't last a round with Tyson, buddy."

They'd been ambushed not far from the jumper bay. After eluding several patrols, they'd had the bad luck to be engaging one group of the enemy while another came upon them from behind. The Dorandans had stunned Ronon, who was supporting Sheppard's weight with one arm while they covered opposite ends of the corridor; both of them went down hard, and Sheppard had blacked out for a moment when Ronon accidentally rammed him in the side. He'd realized, once he could think again, that the stun blast really hadn't worked on him, but the Dorandans didn't know that. Of course, he doubted he could manage to get back to his feet without help, which wasn't the best condition from which to take out an armed platoon of enemy ... so he'd faked a seizure and let himself be captured.

After all, he wanted to get to the jumper bay anyway; this would just get him there a little quicker.

He recognized these guys' type: not professional soldiers, but scared amateurs, trying to do a job that was too big for them. Sometimes people in that situation became overly timid; other times they reacted by turning into bullies, overcompensating in an attempt to become what they thought a soldier ought to be.

The big man currently interrogating him was that sort.

"We found Sub-Captain Tennet's body, you Wraith-worshipping bastard. How many of you are still free?"

"Free," Sheppard informed him, "isn't all it's cracked up to be. My last trip to Wal-Mart, they were giving away these free Subway coupons and --"

The next blow hit him in the side, and his vision went white for a minute. His mouth tasted like copper, even though he didn't think he'd been hit in the mouth yet. That didn't seem like a good sign. As the roaring in his ears subsided, he heard Ronon making a low growling noise. Ronon was pissed. These guys had no idea how much trouble they were going to be in when Ronon managed to cut or break his bonds, which Sheppard figured was probably going to happen more sooner than later.

A hand caught his collar, dragging him forward. "You think this is funny? You think this is a joke? My friends are getting killed out there by your soldiers, Colonel."

Aw, crap. This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill interrogation; they thought he was the other Sheppard. Who could have prevented this whole thing if he'd just answered his damned radio. And Rodney was probably setting up to blow them all to smithereens right now. John sent his other self a mental bitch-slap for being a paranoid twit. "You know, I think you've mistaken me for someone else, and frankly I don't blame you for disliking the guy --"

The Dorandan shook him, hard. "I've seen pictures of you. I know who you are. You're a Wraith traitor and you've given your men orders to kill us on sight." Another shake, and he thought he felt something give inside his chest with a wet twang. Not good. "Call them off!"

"Love to, but you --" He coughed, tasting blood, and tried again. "You took my radio."

The Dorandan drew back his hand, looking confused. Sheppard's earlier suspicions about the Dorandans were confirmed: They were no strike force like the Genii, but just a bunch of ordinary schmoes drafted into a war they didn't know how to fight. They'd scored a good hit in the beginning, but none of them had the slightest idea how to fight a drawn-out ground war.

This made them less dangerous in some ways than the Genii -- and in other ways, far more so. Their threat was not of precision, but of unpredictability. He didn't have a freakin' clue what they were going to try to do.

When he felt the floor move, at first he thought it was just his screwed-up equilibrium -- until his Dorandan interrogator jumped backwards and Ronon gave a grunt of surprise.

"What did you do?" the Dorandan demanded.

"I didn't do anything!" His first guess was that Rodney had managed to set off the explosives -- except that all of the ships were right there, and while he might be a little bit out of it, he'd sure as heck notice a ship blowing up twenty feet away from him.

He only realized what was really happening when a huge crack opened up in the floor next to his leg.

The irising door to the gateroom was opening.

And they were standing on it.

Teyla looked up from her study of the ship's controls in alarm, as a sudden flurry of activity in the gateroom let her know that her intrusion had been detected. She saw Seng hustle McKay out of her field of view, and thought, Come on, Teyla, time is running out.

But she had no idea what any of the switches, buttons and levers were for. She'd hoped that the controls would be similar enough to the jumpers that she could figure out how to fly it. But nothing looked familiar. All she could do was pull levers and hope.

As she reached for one that looked promising, a screen suddenly lit up with a display of red symbols in the unreadable Dorandan script. As she watched, the symbols began changing rapidly.

It looked like a countdown.

Had she accidentally triggered something?

In any case, they'd be breaking through the bulkhead at any time. She couldn't afford to stand around here waiting. Seizing the most likely-looking lever, she yanked it down.

All around her, systems began to hum, and the ship lurched, cracking its nose against the gateroom balcony. Elizabeth and the others scrambled away in shock.

"Sorry," Teyla murmured. She pushed the lever farther forward, very gently, but now the ship was moving in earnest. She jerked her hands off the controls, but the ship kept moving.

What did I do?

"You. You!" Seng pointed at the Dorandan guard carrying the shotgun-like weapon, and at the pilot, Treen, sitting on the floor. "You two stay -- and you, Larissa. Everyone else, get off the ship."

No one needed encouragement. They didn't know what was going on, but they'd heard "self-destruct".

"This will be happening to all the ships!" Larissa gestured at the ceiling. "We've got to radio up to the jumper bay, have them shut off the self-destruct!"

"Is anyone there who knows how?" Seng's voice was tight.

"I don't think so. Mokarra's in the infirmary. Perran was with me. How many of yours know how?"

"Just myself and Treen." He nodded at the pale-faced woman on the floor.

"Ancestors' blood!" Larissa swore. "We'll have to talk them through it and hope the static doesn't mess up the instructions. And we have to get onto the bridge!"

McKay had been, up to this point, speechless with a combination of disbelief, shock and fear. It didn't happen to him very often. But he'd finally found his voice. "Are you telling me that you people rigged these ships to explode? If anyone but you accessed the systems? And am I actually understanding correctly that you people didn't even set it up to shut down remotely? How stupid are you? Everyone in this galaxy should be tied up and forced to watch a marathon of bad sci-fi movies for educational purposes!"

"We were trying to cover --" Larissa broke off when the ship jolted violently underfoot. From above them came a clunk and a rumble, with the high whine of servos.

"Now what?" Larissa's voice rose so high that it cracked in the middle.

McKay laughed. He couldn't help it. "Oh, I should have guessed. I wonder if the other me planned it this way? Probably not..."

"Explain," Seng said coldly, "or I will shoot you."

"You hear that?" McKay tried to stab a finger at the ceiling, forgetting that his hands were tied behind his back. All he managed to do was wrench his shoulder. "That noise is the jumper bay doors opening."

"What? Why?" Larissa demanded. "Something your people did?"

"No! Well, sort of! You said they hacked into your computers, right? Well, you people parked your ship right in front of the Stargate. As soon as it gained access to your guidance computers, the Atlantis system must have taken over in the same way that it does for the jumpers. It's using its automatic docking protocols to take us into the jumper bay."

"Make it stop," Seng ordered McKay.

"With what, the power of my massive brain? Besides, even if I had a computer terminal, I don't think I could. That's part of the basic Atlantis system operations." Which was a total lie. The jumpers could be put under manual control at any point during the process. But as far as he was concerned, anything that got a potentially exploding ship out of the gateroom was a good thing. Not that having it above the gateroom would be much better, but at least this way it would be a straight shot to fly through the roof and out of the city.

"No, this is better," Larissa said. "We'll be able to shut down the self-destruct on the other ships ourselves."

"No one shuts down anything without my say-so."

Larissa turned to stare at Seng. "Captain, those ships are going to explode! And so is the one we're on!"

"We rigged the self-destruct for a reason, Doctor. To keep these ships from falling into Atlantean hands. To destroy the city if we couldn't save it. No one is turning it off until I'm convinced that we're not in danger of that."

The floor dropped away under Sheppard. He tried wildly to scramble backwards, but with his hands tied he only managed to twist his body. A great tearing pain shot through him, and then something smacked into him like hitting a brick wall.

He blinked. His cheek was pressed against something hard and smooth. Hmm. I'm not dead. That's interesting. The drugs must still be messing with his thought processes, because it took him a moment to process the fact that he must've fallen on top of the ship coming up from below.

Ronon! Sheppard opened his eyes, blinking sideways across the ship's smooth hull. Around him, the walls of the jumper bay rotated as the big ship settled smoothly, if awkwardly, into a jumper berth. After a moment of sheer panic, he located the ex-Runner, crouched near him on the ship's hull and busily engaged in untying his hands.

But behind him --

Was it too much to ask that their sadistic interrogator could have missed the ship and fallen to his death? But no. The universe hated them just that much.

"Ronon, look out!" Sheppard yelled, just as a stunner blast hit Ronon from behind. The Satedan seized, and fell off the ship, vanishing from view.

No. Sheppard pulled himself painfully up to his knees. They were on solid ground now, so at very worst Ronon had fallen fifteen or twenty feet onto the floor. But with his hands tied and in the grip of seizures, that was bad enough. Ronon would be very lucky if he hadn't broken his neck.

"You son of a bitch."

The Dorandan balanced with his feet spread out on the hull of the ship. "I don't know why I bothered with either of you. I should have just killed you." He raised his stunner and fired twice in rapid succession at Sheppard, who braced himself. Guess he was about to find out if Tennet's stunner shield worked on killing blasts as well as stunning ones.

Rodney and alt-Sheppard had watched in horror and then disbelief as the scene beneath them unfolded.

Rodney could feel his heart rate slowly going back to normal as the tiny figures on the ship's hull started to pick themselves up. "His luck is downright supernatural sometimes," he said, trying to laugh, but his voice shook. God, he'd thought that he had a ringside seat to watch Sheppard and Ronon plunge to their deaths. Sure, it wasn't his universe's Ronon, but considering that the big guy was just about the only person in this universe who'd been decent to him...

But they were all right. Of course, with the unusually large ship entirely filling the irising doors to the gateroom, it would almost have defied probability if they hadn't fallen on top of it.

His grin faded when he saw that Sheppard and Ronon weren't alone on top of the ship. The Dorandan was getting up too -- and he was right behind Ronon.

"McKay," alt-Sheppard said. "Can you make that ship move?"

"I-- uh -- I don't think I have that much control --"

They both heard Sheppard's yell from below them, and looked down just in time to see Ronon get shot and fall off the ship.

Alt-Sheppard made a strangled sound and his face went white with shock and rage. Rodney jerked back just in time to avoid being kicked in the head as alt-Sheppard drew back a booted foot and kicked out the metal grating.

The Colonel fired through the hole in the floor of the conduit before the tumbling square of metal even had a chance to land.

When the Dorandan fired at him, all that Sheppard felt was a light tingle gliding over his skin. Then the Dorandan jerked, spun around and fell, as the harsh crackle of P90 fire rattled in Sheppard's ears.

Sheppard threw himself flat, by instinct, at the sound of gunfire. Okay, bad idea -- ow. He had to lie still and get his breath for a few precious seconds before he could find the strength to raise his head. There he froze, staring in amazement at what was hanging in midair.

Rodney covered his ears when alt-Sheppard fired the P90 right next to his head, then opened his eyes and squinted over the edge. "Hey, you got him! Looks like Sheppard is -- whoa."

The metal grille that had been in the conduit wasn't really falling. It was more ... floating, drifting very slowly and gently floorwards.

"Failsafe?" alt-Sheppard said.

"Apparently. Huh. I wonder if our jumper bay has something like that?" They'd found several places around the city that used a modified form of the shield in order to prevent catastrophic falls. Apparently, this was another such place ... which made sense, if it constantly had spaceships coming and going through the roof.

"Those stun weapons don't seem to have much range, nothing like Ronon's blaster," alt-Sheppard said thoughtfully. "I doubt if they could hit us before we landed on top of the ship."

Rodney blinked. "What do you mean, us?"

"You can't use the scanner without me; it's not like you can do anything up here."

"Except be safe!"

Alt-Sheppard cocked his head to the side, and for an instant his half-grin made him look younger and happier -- much more like the Sheppard that Rodney knew. "Come on, McKay, what could possibly be safer than on top of one of their ships?"

"Try telling that to Ronon," Rodney retorted, and then could have kicked himself -- stupid giant mouth! -- as the smile dropped off alt-Sheppard's face and the hard look returned.

"Well, come on then," he said, and grabbed Rodney's arm.

"Hey! You don't even know if the failsafe will work on people! At least let me run a few -- damn it Sheppard!"

When the Caledon stopped moving, Larissa stood still for a moment, listening to the sound of raised, startled voices and then, distantly, a burst of gunfire from an Atlantean-type gun. Then she snapped herself out of it. "I have to go disarm the self-destructs."

Seng turned back towards her, his expression flat. "I ordered you not to."

Do not fight this fight NOW, she told herself harshly, biting back on the furious responses that rose to her lips. She hadn't expected Seng to make a power grab in the middle of a battle, but from his viewpoint, perhaps it was the perfect time. Think. Remember the old saying: Bread does not spring fully-baked from wheat. Small steps. What compromise would he willingly accept?

"Let me shut off the others, or at least reset them back to the original timer," she said. "This one can't be reset until we get onto the bridge anyway. It's too much of a risk if we have to run around resetting all of them at the last minute. This will still give us a bargaining chip."

"Except that the Atlanteans control this ship!" Seng snarled.

"But they obviously don't know how to fly it! And I imagine they have no idea they're flying a ticking bomb -- one they certainly can't disarm without the codes. Seng, there is no time to argue about this. If we can't get onto the bridge soon, we'll all be dead no matter what."

He stared back at her, and for just a moment, she thought he might actually be far enough around the bend to fight her on this. Then he nodded. "But you stay here. Treen!"

"Sir!" The pilot staggered to her feet.

"Disarm the other ships." Seng looked around for the other soldier, the one holding the basfa gun. They had only a few of these -- powerful weapons that could punch through almost anything. Tennet's team had taken another, but there was no telling where that one was. Seng took the big gun, and then hesitated, and removed a small device from his pocket, handing it to Treen.

"What's this, sir?"

"The most powerful shield we have," he said. "It'll protect you not just from stuns, but from the concussive impact of the projectile weapons they carry. Go reset the countdown on the other ships to the long count."

Well, it wasn't perfect, but it was better than Larissa had hoped for. And she was amazed that Seng had given Treen his personal shield -- but perhaps it did make sense. In the close-knit Dorandan society, Treen was the daughter of Seng's cousin; he'd taken her under his wing a long time ago, teaching her everything that he knew about flying the flagship of the small Dorandan fleet.

There were times when she feared and hated Seng -- and times when she was reminded that he was truly working for the good of the Dorandan people ... as he saw it.

Treen and the soldier vanished down the ramp. There were more bursts of P90 fire from very close by. Seng took a deep breath, shouldered the basfa gun and looked over at Larissa.

"Stay out of the way, Doctor."

"I don't like the idea of using that so close to the ship's vital systems, especially not with the self-destruct countdown running."

Seng smiled grimly. "I didn't think you would. But we have to get in, and I don't see that we have a choice." He nodded to McKay. "Bring him."

"Um ..." McKay resisted when Larissa tried to take his arm. "Just what exactly are you people planning to do to me?"

"What do you think?" Seng checked the magazine on the big gun, then swung it into the ready position with practiced hands. "You're a hostage. What does one normally do with a hostage?"

McKay swallowed and shut up. When Larissa took his arm again, he didn't pull away, and she could feel him trembling.

I didn't want it to be this way, she thought. But she brought him anyway.

Alt-Sheppard let go of Rodney as soon as they touched down on top of the ship. Rodney staggered a little and looked down automatically at the scanner -- which was, of course, completely dark. Damn it. Stupid ATA gene.

"They'll be on us in a minute," alt-Sheppard muttered, and reached for his radio. "Lorne? You around?"

Rodney took advantage of the moment's respite to untie Sheppard. "Gee," Sheppard said, "took you long enough," and then he swayed and would have fallen if Rodney hadn't caught him.

"You look like absolute crap." Understatement of the century. There were fresh bruises on Sheppard's face, and blood on his lips. "Why are you even here?" Rodney demanded, brushing him off briskly. "This hero thing, it's like a disease with you, isn't it?"

Behind them, alt-Sheppard was saying, "Good. We're taking the jumper bay. McKay's got control of their ships. All you have to do is handle the people -- and from what I've seen, they're not very well trained."

Sheppard's head came up sharply. His face was chalk-white, and purple shadowed his eyes. "Rodney, tell me you didn't already hack into their computers."

"Sort of. I got through the security wall, but I haven't really taken control of -- What? What's wrong?"

"We got some new intel after you left. There's a -- crap, get down!" Sheppard seized hold of Rodney's shirt and pulled him down flat. Stunner fire crackled over their heads. Remembering what it felt like to get hit by one of those, Rodney shuddered and flattened himself as much as possible.

"There's a what?" he asked, twisting his head to the side to see Sheppard's face.

"Self-destruct. It's triggered if someone tries to hack into the computer."

"What?" Rodney demanded. "Is that a guess or do you know for sure?"

"Well, they seemed pretty sure."

"And yet we're still alive," Rodney said flatly.

"Maybe you haven't triggered it yet. Maybe they were lying. I'd feel a whole lot better if you could at least check!" Sheppard pointed to the scanner.

Rodney picked it up and gave a little moan of frustration as it remained obstinately dark. "I hate this stupid gene! Sheppard! No, not you," he said when Sheppard looked at him. "The other you. Colonel!"

Alt-Sheppard glowered at Rodney. He was crouched in the shelter of an antenna array on the ship's hull, one hand cupped over the radio in his ear. "McKay, I happen to be a little busy running an insurrection right now!"

"I need your gene!"

Alt-Sheppard paused, and the oddest grin passed across his face. "You haven't said that to me in ages," he said, and after saying something else, softly, into the radio, he crawled under the bursts of stunner fire to join them.

Rodney took one look at the newly activated scanner and shook his head. "No. No way. If you're right, if some kind of clock is ticking, and --" he flinched as a new burst of gunfire flashed across the ship's hull "-- considering that people are shooting at us, this is going to take forever." He looked up at alt-Sheppard. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but you need to get me inside this ship."

"McKay, seriously, we're being swarmed by Dorandans and any minute now Lorne is going to burst in here with a couple dozen Marines and try to take over the jumper bay. This is not a good time."

"It'll be a much worse time if we explode!"

Alt-Sheppard frowned. "Is that likely to happen?"

"He thinks so. The readings basically agree with him. There is an energy source inside this ship, kind of naquadah-like, and it's charging up. Very bad." Rodney pointed at Sheppard. "Look, just get me inside this ship. I don't care how. I do know that there's no way I can do what I have to do using a scanner I can't even operate without you holding it. And if I can get full control over even one of the ships, then we can win this little skirmish."

"Or you precipitate a firefight that gets us all killed."

Rodney stared at him. "THIS? Coming from YOU?"

"You know it's useless to argue with him when he's got an idea," Sheppard told alt-Sheppard, with a grin.

For a moment the two of them shared a look of commiseration.

"Oh ha ha, very funny. Ticking time bomb? Exploding soon? Could you do the Rambo thing for a minute and get me into the ship, pretty please with a freaking sugar cube on top?"

Sheppard poked him in the shoulder. "Don't give me any ideas about kicking you off my team, McKay." He slipped something into Rodney's pocket.

"What the heck's that?"

"A little goodie I got off a dead Dorandan. It'll protect you from their guns."

"Oh, the absolute hell I'm leaving you behind to get captured and tortured and stuff," Rodney retorted, grabbing him by a handful of his scrubs.

"Rodney, I'll just slow you down --"

"Shut up. And quit bleeding on me. It's annoying."

In the enclosed corridor within the Caledon, the blast of the basfa gun was deafening. Larissa winced and covered her ears.

The smoke cleared away to show the bulkhead damaged, but still holding.

"Larissa, you can't let him do this." Rodney fidgeted, his arm resting against hers in the close confines of the corridor. "I know you're not happy with what he's doing. You're not that kind of a person. Come on, Larissa, there's a friend of mine in there, and he's going to kill her. And probably me."

"No one will die who doesn't resist." Larissa felt as if she were parroting things she'd been told; the words themselves came out empty.

"Do you really believe that, or are you just trying to convince yourself? You listened to what I said about the Wraith DNA thing, right? You're not stupid, Larissa. You know there's more going on here than the talking heads on your planet have told you."

"Shut up!" she snarled, but even she could hear the desperation in her own voice.

If he is right, then I've caused the deaths of dozens of my people for no reason. And my actions may destroy the City of the Ancestors.

The Atlanteans aren't our worst enemy. WE are.

The blast outside the door shook the floor underfoot. Teyla expected it would only be a matter of time before they broke in -- and she still didn't have the first idea how to run the ship.

She was running out of time.

The muffled sound of gunfire outside the ship made her look up. Startled, she looked up -- at the viewport, in time to see Atlantean uniforms pouring into the jumper bay. The battle had been joined in earnest now.

I have to help them. But how?

She just didn't know enough about the ship's weapon systems. If she tried, she'd be as likely to incinerate her allies as to render them aid.

Another loud noise came from outside the door, and it jumped in its frame as if a giant foot had kicked it. Thin blue threads of smoke curled through the gap between frame and door.

Another couple of hits like that, and the Dorandans would be inside the room -- and she'd probably be badly outnumbered. Teyla looked up at the viewport and wondered if she could break the glass and escape.

No. Even if she could, she wouldn't. She had to hold the ship against the Dorandans. She had to figure out how to use it, and what that ominous red display was telling her. The lives of the others depended on her. If nothing else, she must destroy the controls so that the ship would be as useless to the Dorandans as it presently was to her.

And then she realized that in all the insanity, she'd forgotten that she still had her radio. Sheppard might be in the middle of a firefight and she hoped that she didn't distract him at a crucial time, but she really had to let him know what was going on. She tapped it.


Sheppard led the charge into the ship. His backup, he thought in disgust, was Rodney McKay (alternate universe version) and one very badly wounded alt-Sheppard. He would have loved to park alt-Sheppard somewhere and leave him there, but there wasn't anywhere safe to put him, and Rodney refused to abandon him. It was weirdly touching. But annoying. Which, come to think of it, was par for the course with Rodney.

The jumper bay had degenerated into chaos with the arrival of Lorne's group. Sheppard wanted to be out there with them, fighting -- but from what he understood, getting onto the ship was the current priority.

Two Dorandans ambushed them as they circled under the nose of the ship. Sheppard got one, but the other snapped off a stunner shot at them. Rodney stepped in front of alt-Sheppard -- fast, instinctive, obviously not something he even had to think about, although his face was screwed up in an "oh my God this is going to hurt" expression. But the shot just rippled over him, doing nothing, and Sheppard fired a P90 burst at the shooter, locking down on the part of him that screamed They're just kids!

"Okay, that was seriously cool --" Rodney looked past alt-Sheppard as something caught his eye. "Hey, look, Ronon's okay!"

Sheppard's head snapped around on pure instinct. He hadn't let himself think about that -- but Rodney was right; he saw Ronon across the jumper bay, untied, snapping off calculated shots from his blaster. Each one found its target.

Should have known a 20-foot fall onto concrete wouldn't hurt him, he thought, but the unexpected wave of relief made his knees weak. And Teyla, he assumed, was safe in the gym --


Speak of the devil. "Teyla?"

"Colonel, I have a --" He heard her pause and draw a deep breath; there was a shuddering explosion in the background. "A bit of a situation."

"They're attacking the gym?" Damn it, Ronon was supposed to go down there and keep an eye on her!

"No, Colonel. I am not in the gym."

"You're not?" Sheppard peeked around the ship's landing gear and saw three Dorandans guarding the base of the ramp. Crap. He'd have to be fast.

"No. I am in one of their ships."

Sheppard stiffened. "Captured?"

"No, Colonel. I have gained control of the ship."

Impossible. "Which ship?"

"The one that was in the gateroom. But I cannot use the controls, and they are --"

An explosion nearly drowned out her words. Then there was a gasp and a thump.


No answer came.

"Teyla, dammit!"

"What's wrong?" Rodney was frowning at him. "Is Teyla in trouble?"

What do you care? he wanted to snap back, by instinct. Instead he said, "We gotta get into this ship. Now. Teyla's in trouble."

The door to the Caledon's bridge fell in a shower of smoke and sparks.

"Be careful not to damage the controls!" Larissa shouted at Seng's back, and started after him just as a commotion erupted in front of her. A woman in a short blue skirt, moving like the wind, kicked Seng in the stomach -- sending him down to one knee -- and then sprinted past him, racing down the corridor as he swung around to track on her with the basfa gun.

"Captain, no! You'll damage the ship!"

"That ten-times-cursed woman is loose in my ship!" He charged after her.

Larissa groaned and decided that shutting off the self-destruct was more important than preventing Seng from damaging anything important. She clambered over the smoking, twisted piece of metal that had once been the door to the bridge, and vaulted past the captain's chair to the main control console. She saw immediately that the intruder female had started trying to destroy the controls, but fortunately, not realizing what was what, she'd started with the environmental systems and other not-immediately-essential control panels. It was the matter of a moment for Larissa to bring up the menus and enter the code that she had memorized.

Nothing happened. The countdown to the self-destruct continued to race.

Larissa stared. She brought up the menu again, tried again.


Seng had changed the codes.

"Seng!" she shouted, and ran back the way she'd come, pushing McKay out of her way and sending him staggering into the wall. Then she skidded to a halt, realizing that leaving a brilliant enemy scientist unattended on the bridge of the Dorandan flagship was not a good idea, and turned back to get him. "Come on!"

"What's going on?" McKay complained as she hauled him along. The fleeing woman, and Seng, had vanished in the direction of the crew lounge.

"I can't shut off the self-destruct!"

From somewhere ahead of them, the basfa gun roared twice, and the ship's lights flickered.

"That idiot," Larissa moaned. "He's gone completely insane!"

"What do you mean, you can't shut off the self-destruct?"

"I can't do it because Seng changed the codes!" She paused where the corridor separated, one way going to the lounge and the other to the mess. A yell and a clatter from the direction of the lounge let her know where they were.

McKay made a small frustrated sound as she pulled him along at a jog. "Have I mentioned lately that you people are retarded?"

Teyla realized, the minute the door fell, that she wasn't going to be able to defend the ship's bridge. She found herself facing a man with Kolya's ice-cold eyes and a weapon that put Ronon's blaster to shame, and the sick realization rose in her that all she could do here was die. John was still speaking in her ear, but she threw all her attention, all her resources into getting free. She ducked under Seng's radius of fire, kicked him in the stomach and ran.

"Teyla!" Sheppard was saying. "Teyla!"

"I am being pursued," she panted. "I am sorry, John." She didn't even realize that she'd used his first name until the words had passed her lips. "I am afraid that I have not helped very much."

"No, Teyla, you're doing great. Hang on. I'm coming. Where are you? Where in the ship, I mean."

"I am in the back end of it -- in some kind of recreational area." She paused, and threw herself down at a motion half-glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. The huge gun went off, deafening in the enclosed space, and blew a hole in the wall next to her head.


"I am fine!" Another blast barely missed her. "I cannot talk now!" She ducked around a large couchlike piece of furniture, only to find herself looking down the barrel of Seng's weapon.

"Seng!" Larissa burst into the ship's rec room, with McKay stumbling behind her, trying to keep his balance and stumbling into the walls; his hands were still tied.

She saw at a glance that Seng had captured the female Atlantean -- the stranger stood behind one of the rec room's loungers, with her hands in the air. But Larissa hardly had eyes for that. "Seng! You changed the codes!"

"Yes," he said shortly.

"All of the ships? Or only the Caledon?"

"Only the Caledon." He didn't take his eyes off the enemy Atlantean. "I didn't think it was a good idea to concentrate that much power in your hands."

Larissa drew a deep breath and fought to keep herself under control. "Captain, we are running out of time. I can't reset this one; you must do it."

"Relax, Doctor. There's still time. I just need to clean up some trash first."

The captive Atlantean drew her head up and regarded him with level, dark eyes.

"Teyla!" McKay called across the space between them, his voice tense and scared. "Teyla, are you all right?"

"I am not hurt, Dr. McKay," she said. "Yourself?"

He gave a tiny, frightened laugh. "About as well as can be expected under the circum--"

The basfa gun barked once.

Teyla did not have time to move, perhaps not even time to realize what had happened to her. Blood sprayed the wall behind her, floor to ceiling. She crumpled in a heap, eyes open and staring.

There had been a handful of moments in McKay's life when time had stopped for him. Standing in front of Kolya's gun, waiting to see if his fast talking had been enough to save Elizabeth's life -- and his own. The moment before he'd stood up behind Sheppard and started shooting at the Wraith on the desert planet. The moment when the outpost had exploded with Grodin inside -- when the hiveship had blown up with Sheppard and the nuke supposedly on board -- when Sheppard had shot Ford.

And now, again.

He watched Teyla fall, and time stretched, and he had an eternity to remember every time he hadn't stood up for her, every time he'd seen her in the cafeteria and turned away, every time he could have laughed at one of her jokes, every apology he could have made.

But now it was too late.

"Seng!" Larissa's shocked, horrified voice cut through McKay's paralysis.

"I'm through cooperating with these people," Seng snapped. "Through making deals with them. She should never have been allowed within a thousand paces of the ship; she should have been shot on sight. And you told me the Atlanteans shouldn't have been able to gain access to the ship's computers, and yet they did. They're too dangerous to be left alive." He turned, bringing the gun to bear on McKay. "Step back, Larissa."

The realization that he was about to die ran through McKay like a flood of cold water.

"Seng, don't," Larissa whispered. "It doesn't have to be like this."

"Step back, I said." His voice was a crack of command, and Larissa took a slow step backwards, out of the way.

"Let's -- let's talk about this." McKay's voice broke in the middle. There's got to be some way out of this. I'm a freaking genius. What's the point of that if I can't save myself? My friends? Anyone?

The spray of Teyla's blood on the wall mocked him with his own failure.

"I'm done talking to any of you," Seng said, and pulled the trigger.

The thunder of the gun echoed in McKay's ears as he instinctively closed his eyes. At least, if he had to die, it would be fast.

Stepping over the bodies of the Dorandan guards, Sheppard trotted up the ramp into the ship, gun at the ready. He was vaguely aware that he was leaving alt-Rodney and the injured alt-Sheppard behind, but he didn't care. His main goal was to find Teyla, who was no longer answering her radio.

The ship was eerily deserted. Gun at the ready, he edged down corridors of unfamiliar design. In the back of the ship, she'd said. A recreational area.

Voices caught his attention. He looked around the corner into the rec room just as Seng shot Teyla.

It was like a snapshot, seared in an instant into his consciousness. The walls were white, the cascade of blood red. His brain caught it, an indelible image; in his mind's eye, the only color was that wash of red, the tangible evidence of his failure to protect his team. The wall was white, white like snow, stained with blood.

White like Antarctica.

That's where you are right now, John -- Antarctica, his other self had said.

He'd killed Ford, because he couldn't find a way to save him. Maybe, in some other universe, the way had been there -- he just hadn't been able to find it.

He'd watched Ronon shot, falling from the roof of the ship. Only luck or toughness had saved him -- certainly not John Sheppard.

And now he watched Teyla crumpling like a rag doll because he'd been too slow to save her.

The best thing that ever happened to you is here in this city, and you know it.

He'd had it. And he'd lost it.

Too slow.

Too stubborn.

Too proud.

Seng brought around the alien shotgun to bear on McKay. The argument between Seng and Larissa, was a buzz in the back of Sheppard's brain, meaningless words, while the drama went down in front of him.

He couldn't shoot Seng, not with McKay in the way.

But there was something else he could do.

Seng pulled the trigger.

And Sheppard moved.

He'd once heard about that whole life-flashing-before-your-eyes thing. And he'd never experienced it, personally. But time could slow down. And the memory that flashed before his mind's eye was the alternate Sheppard, barely able to stand, taking down Tennet with an IV pole to save the alternate McKay.

He remembered Rodney standing up to a Wraith, gun in hand, saving his life.

I'll help you find it, Rodney had said to Kolya, but then you let my team go.

And with that thought in mind, he hit Rodney in the shoulder, shoving him down, out of the way.

So long, Rodney.

The shotgun blast was a physical impact to his chest, ripping a hole through him, splattering Rodney from head to foot with his blood. And that was how he discovered that the myth is true: you really do live on for an instant or two after you die, and as his brain caught up with the fact that his heart no longer existed to pump blood ... as he fell ... he realized that this was the only way he had ever wanted to die.

Protecting his city.

His team.

His family.

And with that thought, he died.

Chapter Fifteen: Choices

Sheppard's impact against McKay's shoulder knocked him to the floor, as Seng's gun went off with a deafening roar. A hot wet spray soaked his face and neck and side; droplets splattered on the floor around him.

Sheppard hit the floor in front of him like a sack of damp laundry. Like Teyla, the Colonel's eyes were open -- glazed and green, staring sightlessly into McKay's.

McKay's brain tried to cope with this, but it just wasn't happening. Beyond Sheppard's body, Seng was turning towards him, swinging the gun to cover his new position. And there just wasn't anything he could do. Something in his heart had gone still. A minute ago, he'd been terrified at the prospect of death -- and now ... now it didn't seem to matter.

Teyla and Sheppard were already dead. Maybe it made sense that they'd all die here, and join Ford: the once and former Team Sheppard.

And then Seng's body went rigid, and he keeled over, convulsing.

Larissa lowered the stunner she had used to shoot him, and kicked the shotgun away. Her face was flat, unreadable.

McKay blinked. He could feel blood trickling down his face -- Sheppard's blood, its heat slowly fading.

Larissa strode over to him and freed his hands with a few quick jerks on his bonds. Numbly, McKay brought one shaking hand to his head, trying to wipe away the blood. All he managed to do was smear it around.

"Are you all right?" Larissa's voice, like her face, was hard to read.

"N-n--" He had to try a few times to get the word to come out. "No."

Larissa gave him a hand getting to his feet. He leaned on her until he was steady, then waved her off, still trying uselessly to wipe away the blood on his face, neck, arm, leg. So much blood, oh God, so much of it.

"I'm sorry," Larissa said.

McKay laughed. It was high, hysterical, and he didn't seem to have any control over it. "You're sorry?"

She passed a hand over her mouth, so pale that the skin around her lips looked faintly blue. "Dr. McKay, tell me of Colonel Sheppard's Wraith heritage."

McKay stared at her. From the corner of his eye, he could see blood -- from which of his friends, he wasn't sure. "You -- you want to have this conversation now?"

"Please. Tell me. Why did he register with Wraithsign on our scanners? You started to explain earlier, but I was not listening."

Scientific explanation. Okay, he could do this. He could do it without thinking about the blood all over the floor, the walls. All over him.

"There was a world awhile back where we ran into something called an Iratus bug. It injected some of its DNA into him. Very similar to Wraith."

"But it did not affect his behavior? Was he still ... human?"

McKay waved a hand wildly at Sheppard's body on the floor. "He just threw himself in front of a -- a fucking bazooka!" For me. "What would you call it?" His voice shook. He tried to get himself under control.

Sheppard had died for him.

Sheppard was dead.

Teyla was dead.

Oh God ... Teyla, Sheppard. He couldn't stop trembling; if he shook any harder, he was afraid he'd fly apart.

Larissa's lips trembled as she looked around the room, at the blood and devastation. "Mokarra tried to tell me -- I am afraid that we have been wrong. So very wrong."

"Poor you!" He couldn't take self-pity from her, not right now. "Let's all have a pity party for you! The ship's about to blow up, Colonel Klink over there is probably going to regain consciousness any minute -- but let's stop so I can explain to you what we all would have told you if you'd just asked before! If you'd just listened for a minute!"

Larissa looked back at him, and he could see pain and hurt and fear and guilt starting to climb up through the growing cracks in her facade. She was trembling, a faint but visible vibration.

"So can we go up to the bridge of this freaking ship and try to turn off the self-destruct before it incinerates the city?" he demanded. Elizabeth. How am I ever going to tell Elizabeth?

Larissa shook her head. "Not this time," she said, and reached into her pocket.

McKay tensed, especially when she brought out what looked almost exactly like a cartoon version of a bomb. It was a smooth black orb with a little cap like the top on a Christmas ball, of obvious Ancient manufacture.

Larissa offered it to him on her palm.

"What's this?" He didn't touch it.

"Take it," she urged. "Take it quickly. It won't work for me. I've already used it. And time is passing quickly."

He took it in a gingerly grasp between two fingers. "So this isn't some kind of bomb? Or is it?"

"Bomb, what? No." She looked briefly baffled.

"So what's it do?"

Larissa took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them, looking decisive. "When we attacked your city, the plan was for Mokarra, Peran and myself to take over the computer and render Colonel Sheppard harmless. The first time we tried it, Colonel Sheppard proved too fast for us. He took out both Mokarra and Peran in seconds; I have never seen a man with such quick reflexes. And you took advantage of the distraction to lock us out of the computer, which meant that our ships would have been unable to get through your shield. The first time, our invasion failed before it began."

"The first time," McKay repeated numbly, staring at the black sphere in his hand.

"I used that to jump back and try again. It's something we found in the ruins on Doranda, a long time ago; it has been in my family for generations. But it can only be used once by any carrier of the Ancients' mark, and it will only take you back about a cenda -- what you would call about five minutes or so. So you had better act quickly."

He looked up at her sharply, trying to take all this in. "Time travel! Wait, in the conference room -- that's when you did it, isn't it? I had this weird flash of ... something."

"Yes. Other carriers of what you call the Ancient gene would have felt it. I could tell that you did, though I tried to smooth it over. When you jump back, the others who have the gene will remember both timelines for a moment. The more closely involved they are, the more clearly they will remember it all afterwards." She hesitated, then reversed her gun and handed it to him. "When you go back, everything will reset but you. Wherever you are standing, that is where you'll be. Make it count."

He took the gun, folding his fingers around the trigger, then hesitated. "You won, you know. I mean, you could have. This is your people's victory you're giving me."

She shook her head. "No. We lost." Her eyes were sad, but very intense. "It will only go back about a cenda. Go quickly, or you won't be able to go back far enough and can change nothing."

That galvanized him like nothing else could. He took a few steps to the side, out of Seng's immediate line of sight, and then concentrated on the sphere. Go.

Nothing seemed to change -- for him. But everything around him blinked, the same weird sensation that he'd experienced in the conference room. To everyone else in the room, he must have appeared to teleport from one place to another.

He'd jumped back to just before Seng shot Teyla. He saw Larissa flinch as she felt the change -- and behind her, this time, he saw Sheppard appear in the doorway and then freeze, his eyes going very wide. McKay remembered that bizarre feeling from the conference room, as an impossible set of memories had been briefly overlaid on his own; dimly, he still remembered, now that he knew what he was remembering -- the feeling of being shot in that other timeline.

But there was no time for that; Seng was about to kill Teyla. McKay shot him instead.

Or tried to. Seng saw the movement and ducked, so fast that McKay's reflexes -- not good at the best of times -- were left in the dust. The energy crackled harmlessly against the wall.

Seng fired at him just as a hand seized the back of his jacket and pulled him down. McKay fell flat on the floor, squashed underneath Sheppard's wiry weight, while the alien shotgun or whatever the hell it was blew a hole through one of the bulkheads.

"McKay." Sheppard's face was white, his eyes haunted. "What the hell just --"

"Time travel, sort of, I'll explain later, now get off me, crazy person on the loose!" A crack, a clatter and a yell let him know that something was going on out of his field of vision. He rolled over just in time to see Teyla finishing a roundhouse kick at Seng. She'd disarmed him; the shotgun-thing went spinning off under a piece of furniture. Seng made a dash for the door -- and the bridge.

Sheppard snapped off a couple of shots with his 9-mil. Even lying flat on the floor, half-crushing McKay and obviously very rattled, his aim was true. Seng jerked, spun around, and crumpled in the doorway.

There was a moment of silence and stillness, when no one spoke or moved. The way their bodies were pressed together, McKay could feel Sheppard's heart going like a jackhammer, his muscles tensed up so hard that he was trembling slightly.

Larissa was the first of them to move. She went to Seng in the doorway, knelt and touched his throat, feeling for a pulse.

"Sheppard," McKay choked out, "I can't ... breathe."

"Sorry." Sheppard rolled off him, pushed up onto his hands and knees, and then touched his chest and brought his hand away covered with blood. "McKay --"

"It's not mine," Rodney said hastily, sitting up. He was still covered with gore, slowly getting tacky and stiffening the front of his uniform. Nausea coiled in his stomach at the heavy metallic reek.

Sheppard was still staring at him as if he thought that he could drag the answers straight out of McKay's brain. "It's mine," he whispered, his face a picture of confusion and horror as he tried to sort out the conflicting memories.

No point in hiding it. "Yeah. You died ... messily. Would have died, I mean."

There was a sudden, soft gasp from Larissa in the doorway. "Captain Seng is dead." She looked over her shoulder at Sheppard, frightened accusation in her face.

Sheppard's hand closed around his gun, half-raising it.

"No," Larissa said, and sudden cold terror gripped McKay. "Seng was the only one who could disarm the self-destruct on this ship."

Then she was up and running down the hall towards the bridge.

The Dorandan ship wasn't anywhere remotely close to Daedalus size; it wasn't that much bigger than the puddlejumpers. But it was a maze of narrow warrenlike corridors, all jammed together with tiny closetlike rooms. Rodney and Sheppard lost sight of alt-Sheppard almost immediately.

Rodney gave Sheppard's arm a little tug. "Bridge is probably up front. Seems like the best place to go, don't you think?"

"That's not where he's going."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Which means we should follow him, why? If the ship is going to blow up, the bridge is the most likely place to stop it."

As they turned down the corridor which appeared to lead to the ship's bow (or whatever you called it; he didn't much care) a creepy sense of deja vu swept over him, as if he'd walked down this corridor before. He staggered and caught himself on the wall.

"You feel something just now?" Sheppard asked, frowning.

"Like what?"

"Like --" Sheppard waved a hand around uncomfortably. "Like we've been here before."

"It wasn't just me?"

They looked at each other.

"Bad," Sheppard said.

"When is it ever good, Colonel?"

Sheppard sighed. "You think it's something our counterparts did?"

Rodney shivered. "Or some hitherto unknown entropic effect that we're about to discover the hard way. But none of it matters if we don't turn off that self-destruct."

The bridge was not hard to find; all they had to do was follow the smell of smoke. The door had been blown off. Rodney peeked inside; no sign of anyone there. His eyes were drawn to the red symbols changing rapidly on one of the screens.

"That looks like some kind of countdown," Sheppard said from behind him.

"Gee, Colonel, do you really think so? I can see why I brought you along; I don't know what I'd do without those sparkling insights."

Sheppard leaned against one of the chairs; he looked on the verge of collapse. "Can you read it?"

"Not at all. It isn't Ancient or Wraith or any other script I've ever seen before. Do you have a radio, by any chance?"

"No, they took it when they captured me."

"Great." Rodney scanned the consoles quickly. There had to be some kind of communication system, but he didn't immediately recognize anything that could be used in such a way. Therefore, they wouldn't be able to ask anyone how to shut off the self-destruct. And so it fell upon him to save their skins. Again. Sighing, he pried the cover off the nearest console.

Sheppard cleared his throat. "You're going to try to disarm a bomb that you know nothing about, that's apparently capable of blowing up Atlantis?"

"I don't really see that I have much choice, unless they told you how to shut it off."

There was a rather guilty silence from Sheppard's direction. Lifting off the console cover, Rodney found a tangle of wires and alien circuit boards underneath. Genius or not, he wasn't liking the odds here.

"You might want to leave, Colonel."

"Uh-huh," Sheppard said, and he pointed his confiscated stunner at the door.

"Fine, be that way."

"Look, if this thing does blow up, would I be any safer anywhere else in Atlantis?"

Rodney frowned at the wires, and began tracing them with eyes and fingers. "Well, that's a point."

"Hey, look," Sheppard said suddenly, gesturing towards the main forward viewport with his gun. "I think we're winning. Atlantis, I mean."

Despite the urgency of his task, Rodney risked popping up for a moment to see. The fighting outside the ship had almost completely died down. In his brief glance, Rodney saw small clusters of Dorandan soldiers forced to their knees, surrounded by Lorne's people.

"Whaddya know. We are winning."

"Considering that we have better weapons and I think we outnumber them, we'd better be winning."

"Until the ships blow up and kill us all," Rodney pointed out from under the console.

"Way to look on the bright side, Rodney."

McKay had hoped that his memories of the altered timeline would fade, but they were still as bright and sharp as a knife's blade. The brilliance of Teyla's blood, splashed on the wall ... the look in Sheppard's eyes as the life faded from them ... these things would, he thought, be branded into his memory until his dying day.

Which might be today, the way things were going.

He gave Larissa's gun to Teyla, because she was a much better shot and it only made sense. But as Sheppard and Teyla took point on the way to the bridge, following Larissa, McKay realized that he didn't want to be the protective non-combatant, sandwiched in the middle. He wanted to be fighting. Helping.

He flexed his hands, feeling the tacky stickiness of the drying blood. He didn't think he'd ever wanted a shower so much in his life.

He didn't want to watch

someone he cared about

someone else die for him again. Ever.

With his senses on high alert, Sheppard was acutely aware of everything and everyone around him: the soft sound of Teyla's breathing as she covered their three o'clock; McKay's heavy footsteps behind him; even the little creaks and pings of the metal in the spaceship.

And every time he blinked his eyes, an image flashed across the darkness behind his lids: a still snapshot of Teyla, her chest blown out, blood spraying across the wall behind her.

It wasn't real. It hadn't happened. He had not watched Teyla die, he had not thrown himself between McKay and an alien shotgun-from-hell -- but a visceral part of him was very deeply convinced that he had. The lingering horror of it made his hands tremble on his gun.

Time travel. I'll explain later.

McKay had done something, Sheppard wasn't sure what, but he was damned determined to get the whole story out of the scientist later. Right now, though, he couldn't afford the distraction; he tried to shove the disturbing mental image to one side, locking it into the same box that held everything else in his life that he didn't want to think about.

Seng's gun, pointing at McKay...

I jumped ...

I died...

He shook his head, forcing himself back to reality, and arrived at the bridge on Larissa's heels -- just in time to hear the other Sheppard's voice snap, "Get back!" and the crackle of a stunner firing against the doorframe beside Larissa's head.

McKay charged past Sheppard and Teyla, pushing them out of the way. "Let her in, you idiot. She's on our side. And it's an emergency."

Larissa needed no more encouragement; she darted onto the bridge. Sheppard followed her, stepping over the fallen metal door to see the alternate Rodney up to his elbows in wiring.

"Move," Larissa ordered.

"Look, I'm trying to --"

"I said move! This ship is going to explode in less than four of your minutes and I do not have the codes to stop it." She began hitting buttons on the console. Sheppard realized, somewhat belatedly, that it was an alien-looking DHD. He wasn't close enough to see which gate symbols she was dialing, though.

As the ship shuddered and began to move, McKay snapped, "What are you doing?"

"I am getting this ship out of your city before it explodes." She reached for a dial on the console, and Sheppard was there with his gun, thrusting it against her chest.

"No tricks, lady."

Her eyes narrowed and she regarded him over the barrel of the P90. "No trick. I need to speak to Treen -- she is the person who was tasked with disarming the self-destruct on the other ship.

Sheppard could feel the motion in the pit of his stomach as the ship rotated slowly, preparing to descend to the gateroom. It must surely have inertial dampeners, but either they were deactivated, or they weren't as effective as the ones in the puddlejumpers. In a minute they'd be through the Stargate, and while he couldn't fault Larissa's actions in getting this particular ship off Atlantis, he hated to abandon his people.

"Do it," he said, pulling the gun back but leaving it pointed at her. "And I'm not kidding. No tricks."

She gave him another cool look and twisted the dial on the console. A sudden hiss of static filled the room. "Treen, it's Larissa. Have you been successful?"

After a moment of silence, the voice that spoke through the bridge speakers was clearly identifiable as Lorne's. "Treen, huh? We caught this lady trying to sabotage one of the ships. Who are you?"

Larissa looked at Sheppard, and made a small gesture at the radio, inviting him to speak. He stared back at her, trying to read her eyes, and finally took a deep breath.


"Lorne, this is Colonel Sheppard. Let her continue what she was doing. It's important. She's disarming bombs."

Temporary darkness closed around the ship as they descended into the gateroom, caught up in the automatic launch protocols.

"If you're sure, sir." Lorne sounded very skeptical.

I only wish I was. "Yes, I'm sure, Major. Keep her under guard, but let her do her thing." Looking again at Larissa, he added, "Major, how are we doing here?"

A note of pride entered Lorne's voice. "We're winning, sir. I think we've got most of 'em."

Sheppard managed, barely, to suppress the smile that tried to quirk his lips. Damn, he had good people. This brought a quick flash of Teyla

blood, falling, Teyla ... no --

to his mind, and suddenly the urge to smile was gone.

"Carry on then, Majo--" He didn't have a chance to finish before the gate washed over them in a surge of blue-white light -- and then all that was visible out the forward viewport was a field of stars. The static on the radio suddenly cut off as the gate deactivated and severed their connection to Atlantis.

Larissa leaned forward to touch the controls. The ship came about, and a silver wedge of sunlit planet came into view.

"Wow... Doranda." The soft, contemplative voice was McKay's -- but Sheppard had to look around to figure out which one had spoken. It was the alternate-universe one, gazing out the viewport with a pensive, unreadable look on his normally expressive face. Sheppard noticed the alternate-universe Sheppard staring at alt-Rodney with a frown on his face. Beside the door, the real McKay had folded his arms and was looking over Larissa's head at the planet; Sheppard had to turn away from the brown stains of blood drying on his face and clothes.

"There is an escape capsule on the Caledon," Larissa said, bending forward and touching buttons on the console. "I can engage the star drive to have it take the ship away from the planet after we jettison."

"Star drive ..." McKay swiveled on her, his eyes suddenly sharp as twin knives. "This ship has a hyperdrive?"

"For another couple of minutes, maybe," the alternate Sheppard murmured, and then he staggered and would have fallen if alt-Rodney hadn't lunged and caught him.

"No, no ... " McKay gestured impatiently, oblivious to the byplay. "My God, I know how you two could get home."

This got their attention, all right -- alt-Rodney swung around to look at him, the frozen shock on his face slowly giving way to irritation at being intellectually upstaged by himself.

"Come on! Think!" McKay snapped at his alternate-universe double. "The problem isn't that we can't make a bridge to your universe -- it's that we can't hold it for more than a split second because of the creation of unpredictable particles."

Alt-Rodney rallied, glaring back at him. "It would help in coming up with a solution if you'd ever told me any of this!"

"What, you need me to hold your hand and walk you through everything? You're worse than Zelenka!"

"McKay..." Sheppard addressed both of them with the same annoyed tone. "This ship is about to explode in ..." He glanced at Larissa.

"About two and a half of your minutes," she supplied.

Neither of the dual McKays paid the slightest amount of attention to the small matter of incipient death. They stared at each other, and alt-Rodney's face changed slowly to a look of dawning realization. "Open the rift for an instant and use the hyperdrive to jump in," he breathed.

McKay grinned. "Exactly."

"And that might avoid the problem that we had coming across, too. We just wouldn't be in transit long enough."

Alt-Sheppard, who was still leaning on "his" Rodney's shoulder, gave him a hard nudge. "Rodney, we can't take this ship to Atlantis; it's going to blow up."

It was McKay who answered, waving both hands to punctuate his words. "So? It doesn't have to be this ship! The theory's sound! We just get off this ship and you can try later--"

"With what?" alt-Rodney demanded.

"One of their other ships!"

"No." Larissa shook her head. "This is the only one of my people's ships with a star drive. The technology was taken from a crashed Wraith vessel; we do not know how it works. And there is no reason why we would give you one anyway. I would suggest," she added firmly, "that we make our way to the escape pod now."

Sheppard silently wondered if it would be worth knocking both McKays over the head and dragging them off to continue this argument somewhere that wasn't going to explode. Teyla, presumably having similar thoughts, raised an eyebrow at him. Not yet, he mouthed at her.

"Well, you're sure as hell not getting one of Earth's ships," McKay snapped. "Not to jump through to another universe for all eternity. I can just see what Caldwell would say about that."

Alt-Sheppard glanced back and forth between the Rodneys. "You guys are saying this might be our only chance."

"Not your only chance," McKay scoffed.

"More like our only chance for years," alt-Rodney said grimly.

"If it works," Sheppard put in.

There was the briefest silence, then alt-Sheppard said, "Rodney, do you think it'll work?"

"The theory is sound. At least, as far as I can tell." Alt-Rodney bit his lip. "It should work. I can't see why it wouldn't work. I mean, as far as anything that's happened to us in the last week makes sense."

Alt-Sheppard looked back at the others, his gaze level. "We'll set you down on Doranda. We're going home."

The Caledon let the others out on the roof of the main complex on Doranda with about a minute and a half to detonation.

Both McKays were trying to talk over one another. "But remember, when you initialize it, don't give it a chance to get into a runaway loop-" "Excuse me, not a complete idiot here, am I telling you how to use the hyperdrive?" "A minute ago, YES!"

Larissa jumped down off the ramp and looked up at alt-Rodney. "I've set the controls to get the ship far away as soon as you jettison -- just hit the button I showed you. And be ready to move; you don't have much time at all."

"I know! Going, going." But he paused, looking down at them. "Listen, uh ... Sheppard?"

Sheppard paused. His own universe's McKay had already turned to dash down to the control room of the facility. For the moment, it was just the two of them.

"Listen, I --" Alt-Rodney licked his lips nervously. "I haven't been, um, always the greatest person to deal with, although it would have been easier if you guys hadn't been such a bunch of total jerks --"

Sheppard could feel himself fighting off a slightly hysterical urge to grin. "McKay, is there a point?"

"Just this." Alt-Rodney swallowed and gripped the railing. "In my universe, while granted, things are generally a lot less sucky than they are here, Carson's dead and that sucks a lot."

Sheppard felt a quick bolt of something cold flash through his stomach. Memories, half-faded now, but still very real, lurking just below the surface. Teyla. Blood.

Protect your people, John.

"It happens about a year from now, your time," the alternate Rodney was saying. "There's a station-wide rest day and -- and Dr. Houston and, and Watson are going to trigger an Ancient device in an abandoned lab in Sector 12 -- are you getting all this?"

"Getting it," Sheppard said softly.

"Tell them. Tell Carson, tell the other me, don't let it happen, okay? Dr. Houston, Dr. Watson -- got it? Station-wide rest day, one year from now--"

"Got it."

"McKay!" alt-Sheppard shouted down the ramp.

Sheppard suppressed a grin. Some things never changed, even between universes. He turned away, following his team into the facility.

Rodney was muttering under his breath as he charged back onto the bridge of the ship. "Seriously creepy, it is Doranda, and Project Arcturus, just like ours ..."

"McKay," Sheppard said. "Focus."

Rodney stopped, took a deep breath, then followed Larissa's earlier lead and activated the radio on the ship's instrument console. "You guys ready?"

"Ready," said the other McKay's voice. Damn it, that just didn't ever stop being creepy.

"Wait for my signal," Rodney ordered him.

"Of course I will," alt-McKay said, sounding peeved. "I am not an idiot. And hurry, or you won't have time to eject."

Sighing, Rodney managed to pull himself back from an argument with himself. He looked over at Sheppard, and frowned at the grayish pallor, the dark spikes of sweat-damp hair.

"I know, Rodney -- I look like crap," Sheppard said with weary amusement.

"You don't look like you can move very fast. And when we exit on the other side --" he very carefully did not say if "-- we're going to have to move fast as hell to get to the escape pod before this thing shoots off into orbit over Lantea and blows up."

"Then let's go."

Rodney reached for the ship's radio, then hesitated. "You know, the odds are really slim that this is going to work."

"I know."

"We can go back to the other Atlantis. You could heal. I could refine my theories. We could try again, some other way."

"Years from now," Sheppard said quietly. "While they're fighting the Wraith without us, back at home. And we might never get another shot at going back, not like this one."

"We're probably going to die."

Sheppard closed his hand over Rodney's forearm -- a firm, comforting grip, except for the slight tremors of weakness in his fingers. "Do you think it's worth it? To go home?"

For a moment Rodney said nothing, just looked into the steady green eyes meeting his own. And then he reached for the radio. "On my mark, open the rift. Ready?"

"I said I was ready," alt-McKay snapped impatiently.

"Just think," Sheppard whispered, an impish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Whether or not this works, you never have to hear his voice again."

Sheppard squeezed his arm lightly. Somehow, Rodney managed to find it in himself to grin back.

"Ready, and ... mark."

Blue light flared in front of them as he hit the hyperspace control as Larissa had shown him, and pushed the levers all the way forward. His world contracted to that field of blue fire, rushing to fill the universe -- that, and the solid warmth of Sheppard's hand on his arm, steady, grounding him, as they leaped home.

Blue light washed out the viewscreens of the Arcturus control room. McKay and Larissa, working in tandem, quickly brought the power levels down.

"All green?" McKay asked, hating the small catch of nervousness in his voice.

"All green," Larissa confirmed.

"Powering down ... now."

The consoles went dark, but for the minimal level of power to keep the lights on.

"They did it?" Sheppard asked.

For once, McKay didn't have a snarky comeback. Instead he looked up at the ceiling. "Want to go up top and find out?"

Together the four of them mounted the stairs to the nearest balcony. Here, months ago, Seng's patrol had ambushed him, along with Lorne's team -- their first contact with the Dorandans.

Now they lined up along the railing, looking up at the dull leaden sky. Lightning flashed somewhere far off. The ship was gone as if it had never been.

"I suppose that we will never know if they got home safely," Larissa said at last.

"Speaking of getting home," McKay said, "we're all stuck here until someone sends a jumper for us. Unless your people have more ships," he asked Larissa, hopefully.

She shook her head. "The only other ship is my personal one, and it's not here."

Sheppard just stared at them for a minute, then spun around and punched the wall. Hard. "Damn it!"

"Everyone will be all right," Teyla said softly.

"I am confident that our peoples can reach some form of compromise in our absence," Larissa said. But her fingers worked nervously at the hem of her jacket.

Sheppard paced restlessly for a few minutes, punched the wall again, and then -- nursing a set of bruised knuckles -- slid down to sit with his arms over his knees. "Any idea how long it'll be before they send someone for us?"

McKay eyed him. "Are you asking me? How should I know, Colonel? Perhaps I'll use my psychic powers to find out."

Sheppard knocked the back of his head lightly against the wall. "Hell. I'm in hell."

Teyla settled, crosslegged, to the floor. After a moment, McKay and Larissa joined her. They all sat in a rough circle, staring at anything but each other. Larissa's eyes kept going to the P90 resting on Sheppard's knee and aimed, rather pointedly, in her general direction. Finally she said, "You need not point your gun at me. I am not your enemy."

"Yeah, that's a question." Sheppard looked slowly around the little circle, at Teyla's bruised face and the half-dried blood on McKay's jaw, lingering at last on Larissa. "Where do we stand right now? You on our side, or not."

McKay snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. I guess I've still got your -- thing." With obvious reluctance, he held out his hand to Larissa, something small and dark nestled in the palm.

"Hey --" Sheppard began, fingers twitching on the P90.

"Oh, quit it, Colonel. If it hadn't been for her, you'd be pushing up daisies." There was a note of forced humor in McKay's voice, with something darker underneath, as he placed the small object in Larissa's hand. "Teyla too," he added, eyes darting towards her.

Larissa's fingers closed slowly over the object. "I gave this to you?"

McKay nodded, lips pressed together. He scrubbed one hand reflexively at the blood on his neck, then gave up self-consciously.

Sheppard let the P90 relax, marginally, slipping farther down to point at the floor. "I think there's a story here that all of us need to know."

Teyla cleared her throat. "It seems likely that we will be here for several hours at least. Perhaps this would be a good time to ... talk."

Sheppard and McKay gave her identical suspicious looks.

"I think that we are all long, long overdue for a conversation," she said, ignoring them. "A very thorough one."

Epilogue 1: Our Universe

It took a week for Sheppard to get out of the infirmary, and that was only under rather cautious and polite threats from Keller to go straight back to his quarters, and to stay off active duty for at least a month.

He didn't remember much of their return to Atlantis, just disjointed flashes. Elizabeth had told him, sitting at his bedside, that the explosion in Lantea's upper atmosphere had drawn the attention of one of Lorne's patrols, which had been canvassing the ocean ever since their disappearance a week before. They'd found him and Rodney floating in the Caledon's escape capsule in the ocean: Sheppard bleeding and unconscious, Rodney freaking out. Keller had later told him that his internal bleeding had been so severe when he was brought in that they hadn't expected him to survive.

During that week in the infirmary, he missed Carson with a pain deeper than the morphine-dulled ache in his side. He'd almost been past it, at least as far as a person could get past something like that -- and then he'd been in that other universe, and he'd talked to his lost friend, and now the pain was back, worse than ever.

He couldn't even run to get rid of it. He'd done a lot of that, in the early weeks after Carson's death -- just ran and ran in the halls of Atlantis, until his legs burned and his lungs felt as if steel bands were wrapped around them.

But he couldn't do that, so he slept a lot instead. And sometimes pretended to be asleep, in order to not have to deal with Keller's polite but impersonal solicitousness, with Elizabeth's overly cloying concern, with Kate Heightmeyer's steady and too-penetrating stare.

Having Ronon and Teyla back -- his Ronon and Teyla -- almost made up for all of that, though. They came to see him often. Teyla brought him books, flowers from the mainland, and amusing stories about the Athosian children. Ronon sharpened knives and sat with him, a pleasant and undemanding presence.

Rodney, though, was largely absent. He would show up, mumble something about the labs going to hell under Zelenka, and then vanish for another two days.

"You seem to be doing fine, John," Elizabeth told him on one of her visits -- which got a raised eyebrow from him, because if she thought that, then she really wasn't paying much attention. "I'm worried about Rodney, though. Do you know what's bothering him?"

"Something's bothering him?"

"John, Rodney doesn't exactly have a poker face. He spends all his time in his labs or in his room; he even takes his meals from the cafeteria to eat them there. Teyla's commented on it. Did something happen to him in that other reality?"

"If something did," Sheppard said carefully, "I think that's for Rodney to talk about, not me. He gave you a report, right?"

"Almost as thorough as yours," she said, with a direct stare. Sheppard had yet to grant her an actual debriefing, and had turned in a half-page report that touched on the basics (alternate reality, et cetera) without really discussing it. So far, he'd managed to beg off writing anything more thorough, pleading exhaustion and the difficulty of typing with one arm mostly out of commission from his chest injury.

"We were discussing Rodney," he said quickly. "Have you thought about maybe having him talk to Kate?"

Elizabeth eyed him, but obviously decided to let it go ... for now. "I've suggested it, but I don't want to make it an order unless I absolutely have to."

"Good call."

She smiled and leaned back in her chair, settling her tablet PC in her lap. Since John wasn't up for long conversations, she'd taken to doing some of her paperwork in the infirmary, when she could get away. While Elizabeth's presence wasn't as undemanding as that of his team, Sheppard had found that he enjoyed having her there, as he drifted in and out of pain-medication-induced sleep.

Now, though, she frowned. She tapped the stylus on the screen and frowned some more.

Her look of worry finally caught Sheppard's attention. "What's wrong?" His slightly foggy brain began cataloguing all the bad things that could have happened in their week-long absence. Wraith? Genii? Food shortage?

Elizabeth shook her head. "I think I've done something to my computer, but I can't imagine what."

"Show me."

She swiveled the screen his way. There was her normal desktop -- and a full-sized version of the Windows dancing paperclip, filling the screen.

Sheppard threw his head back and laughed. It hurt his side like hell, but he couldn't help it.

"John! This isn't funny! It could be a virus!"

"Sorry," he gasped.

If Rodney had managed to find the time to do that, then he would be fine. They'd both be fine.

So now he was free of the infirmary, under strict orders to go back to his quarters and sleep. Ronon had escorted him there, and he drowsed for a while, loopy from pain meds, finally waking with a kink in his neck and moonlight shafting across his face.

He'd slept through dinner, but he opened his door to discover that some thoughtful person had left a tray with a sandwich, roll and some fruit.

I'm home, he thought, and felt warm all the way down to his toes.

He ate a little, and then went for a stiff walk -- more of a hobble -- around the nighttime corridors of Atlantis. At night, he was less likely to be stopped; most people were desperately curious from the rumors they'd heard about his and Rodney's sojourn in the other dimension, and he'd been fielding questions almost continually whenever Keller didn't keep strict control over his visitors. Perhaps he should have just stayed in his room and worked on War & Peace for a while, but he'd lost a lot of muscle tone during all his days in bed, and he wanted to start getting back into shape.

Besides, he didn't really want to think about war or peace, at the moment.

It wasn't until he noticed that he'd gone down the same corridor twice -- the one outside Rodney's room -- that he had to admit he might have a slight ulterior motive for taking a walk, above and beyond the call of physical fitness.

It was the middle of the night, and Rodney had to be asleep. Still, he paused in the corridor, and tapped very softly on the door. He waited. No answer. He was just starting to turn to go, when the door whooshed open.

Rodney was barefoot, wearing nothing but a pair of pants and a jacket thrown over his bare shoulders. Still, it was fairly obvious that he hadn't been asleep, especially since he was holding the neck of a bottle and reeked of alcohol.

John just stared, and tried to remember the last time he'd seen Rodney actually drunk.

"This better be important, Sheppard."

"I, uh ... Can I come in?"

A bit unsteadily, Rodney stepped back and waved a hand around. The lights were off; the only illumination came from the full moon outside the window, highlighting everything in shades of silver and black. Sheppard shut the door, and nearly tripped over a pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Rodney was not generally a meticulous housekeeper, but his room tended to be tidy in a Spartan kind of way, a byproduct of spending almost no time there.

"Have you talked to Kate?" It was out before he could stop himself.

Rodney sat down heavily on the floor by his bed. "If you're here to nag, you can just march yourself right back to your room. Where I'm guessing you're probably supposed to be anyway. I heard Cars -- Keller had let you out of prison, but I don't imagine it'd take much to get her to throw you back in the slammer."

Sheppard sat down beside him, very carefully, and leaned his back against the side of the bed. "So ... you going to share?" he asked, nodding at the bottle.

"With a man who's probably got enough narcotics in his system right now to supply a small Columbian drug cartel? I really don't think so."

"It's always disturbing to me when you channel your inner grown-up, Rodney." Sheppard leaned an arm on the bed, and rested his head against it.

"Funny." The strength seemed to go out of Rodney, all of a sudden; he sagged sideways against the bed, and closed his eyes. The timbre of his breathing didn't change; he hadn't fallen asleep or passed out. He just didn't seem to want to deal with the world at the moment.

"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Don't. Seriously. Don't."

Rodney didn't open his eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

John leaned forward. "I'm talking about sixty men dead on the gate shield, that's what I'm talking about. Human beings, with lives and families. Sumner. Kolya. I've been there, believe me. There's no way to deal with it that I've ever found, except by accepting that you did what seemed like the best out of a bagful of lousy options, and then moving on."

There was a long pause, during which he thought that Rodney was going to pretend he didn't understand. Then Rodney's eyes opened a slit, silvery in the moonlight. His voice was slow, drowsy, a little slurred. "Fifty is a far cry from a whole world full of people. We're talking genocide here. We're talking Nuremberg trials."

"We're talking about another universe. Rodney ... a universe where Chevy Chase was Han Solo, for pete's sake."

A very faint grin tugged at the edges of Rodney's crooked, downturned mouth. "Which is so very wrong," he mumbled.

"We don't know what else was different there, McKay. Different uniforms. Different history. It would be a very simple thing for a group of refugees to dial a different gate address. And Teyla's people had never heard of anyone living in the Doranda system."

"I don't know." Rodney's voice was a faint sigh. "I'm so tired of thinking about it. Wondering about it."

"So don't."

"I thought we established that I don't know how to stop thinking, Colonel."

"But now you do," and Sheppard couldn't resist a very small smile. "Clear blue skies, remember?"

"Dark clouds swirling around my head," Rodney mumbled.

"That's just the preliminary step."

"You're the worst meditation teacher ever ... you know that?"

Sheppard poked him lightly in the arm. "But it worked, didn't it?"

Rodney's eyes peeked open again. "What in the world makes you say that?"

"You're still here."

Rodney stayed silent for a moment. Then he worked himself to a somewhat more upright, vaguely more alert-looking position. "And people say I have an ego."

"Loved the paper clip, by the way."

A tired, but genuine, smile cracked through the surface of Rodney's exhaustion and misery. "Yeah? You saw that? I was hoping she'd be somewhere around you when she booted up the computer, but I couldn't guarantee it."

"Remind me not to suggest anything seriously felonious to you -- like, say, a bank robbery."

"I'd say the Jesse James stuff is more your style, Sheppard."

Since he was sitting on the floor and therefore had easy access, Sheppard reached under the bed. If it was still where it used to be -- aha. He pulled out a cheap chess set in a plastic box.

"Oh, this is completely unfair, Colonel -- playing chess with me when I'm drunk?"

"I win even when you're sober, Rodney."

"Not all the time."

"I'm high on painkillers, remember? That should even the odds somewhat."

"Okay. Point."

There was silence while Sheppard set up the pieces. Finally he said, "We made a difference in their universe, you know -- at least I think we did."

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, sure. We sort of helped them fight some terrorists, and we didn't even do a whole lot of that. Big deal. Even assuming they survived the whole assault-on-Atlantis thing, at the end of the day they're still a bunch of screwed-up bastards."

"I'd like to think we made more of a difference than that."

Taking a drink, Rodney set the bottle on the nightstand. "I guess we'll never know. Your move."

Epilogue 2: Their Universe - 1 Year Later

The sun rode high in a sky so blue it was nearly white at the horizon, glittering on the shoreline of the Lantean mainland as if handfuls of diamonds had been thrown upon the waves.

There was a place on the mainland where the mountains came down to the sea, and huge tumbled rocks enclosed a white-sand cove. Half of Team Sheppard -- the Ronon and Sheppard half -- had discovered the cove a few months back, and the group had been there several times since; it was now their preferred location for their all-too-infrequent days of R&R. From the high rocks, suitable for cliff diving, to the deep clear water with glittering shoals of fish, to the soft white beach that seemed tailor-made for lying on a blanket in the sun ... the cove offered enough variety that every member of the team could find something entertaining to do.

Today Teyla had managed to coax Zelenka away from his laptop into the water. Between the two of them, Teyla and Ronon had turned their scientist into a respectable swimmer, and from his high perch in the rocks, Sheppard could hear splashing and laughter coming from below. Looking around, always alert for the location of each member of his team, he finally located Ronon even higher on the rocks, apparently scaling a sheer rockface for the hell of it.

On his day off. The man was insane.

Sheppard's eyes kept roving, looking for his special guest scientist; he finally found her when she dropped lightly from a nearby boulder to join him. There was a belaying harness laced around her waist.

"Ronon has been teaching me rock climbing," she explained, stripping off her fingerless climbing gloves.

"And I'm the one who gets to explain to the Dorandans why their leader bashed her brains out on a rock." But he grinned when he said it, and Larissa smiled back, a bit cautiously. They had slowly gotten past the lingering awkwardness between them, as their two cultures had; but they were not friends, and probably would never be.

At least he no longer felt an instinctive urge to point a gun at her every time he saw her.

"Your world has so many different kinds of recreation." She lay down, folding her hands under her head and looking up at the wisps of cloud unfolding in the sky.

"Have I shown you golf yet?" He nodded towards the bucket of balls and the clubs leaning tidily beside it. He was still scouting for a nice meadow on the mainland that could be turned into a golf course, but in the meantime, he'd found that this alcove over the ocean was nice for practicing his backswing.

"You have ... explained the rules of the game." Larissa could be almost Teyla-like in her careful attempt to speak the truth while tiptoeing around offense.

Sheppard sat up, setting aside War & Peace. "This would be a perfect time to show you, then, while we're waiting for --"

"Oh, look, there they are!" Larissa pointed skyward, sounding faintly relieved.

The second jumper appeared low on the horizon, and came in for an inexpert, wobbly landing, next to Jumper One on the beach.

Sheppard and Larissa reached the beach as the back hatch of the jumper lowered to the sand. "You guys're late," Sheppard said.

"Well, excuse me, Captain Obvious," McKay snapped, jumping down to the sand.

"That's Colonel Obvious, and look, after what the doppelgangers told us about their universe, do you blame us for wondering where you were? We only came out here because we thought everything was fine back on Atlantis."

McKay rolled his eyes. "Everything is fine, the Ancient device is deactivated, the patients are fine, station-wide day off proceeding as planned, and if we didn't have to bring everything and the kitchen sink, we would have been here hours ago."

"They're only ferns, Rodney." Katie Brown gave him a reproachful look as she trotted past him with a tray of baby plants.

"The mainland has ferns already!"

"They're special ferns, and if I leave them unattended all day, they'll die." She went back for another load, adding in passing, "A true gentleman would help me."

"I'll help you, love," Carson offered, appearing from behind McKay with a tray of ferns. Next to him was Mokarra, carrying another flat of the small feathery plants.

McKay threw his hands in the air. "You people do realize that I have a dozen very important experiments back in Atlantis?" He very ostentatiously and obviously pretended not to notice Carson offering Mokarra a gentlemanly hand down to the sand. But he did vanish back into the jumper to grab a tray of ferns.

Sheppard left them all to their bickering and wandered down to the edge of the water. He knelt on the damp sand, picked up a flat rock. Behind him, he could hear that the conversation had moved on to Carson and Ronon arguing about fishing: "it's a gentleman's sport" versus "stab it with a spear until it stops moving".

Sheppard grinned. He drew back his arm and threw the rock as hard as he could, watching it skip across the water before vanishing when it met an onrushing wave.

"Most people grow out of that sort of thing when they're about eight," McKay said at his elbow.

Sheppard glanced over at him, and picked up another rock. "You're only jealous."

"Jealous of your rock-throwing prowess?"

"Sounds like it to me." He cocked his hand and tried to put a spin on the rock. It skipped once and sank.

"Yeah," McKay said, "I can see there's a lot to be jealous of, all right."

They walked down the beach, away from the main group. Sheppard tried to remember the last time that he'd seen Rodney outside of work. Team movie night the other day, maybe. The physicist had been dropping in on those more often since his recent brush with near-Ascension. He might not technically be a member of Sheppard's team anymore, but it was strange -- or maybe not so strange -- how easy it had been to get used to having him around again.

"How are things with the project?"

McKay snorted. "It would be going faster if I could get Jeannie out here permanently. For some reason she's still insisting that her family's more important than a super-energy source that could end the war with the Wraith and the Ori in one swoop."

"For some reason," Sheppard said dryly. He threw another rock, watched it dance in the sun. "You still think you can get Arcturus to work?"

"Oh please. I know I can. It's just a matter of taking it one step at a time."

They walked in silence for a while. The voices of the others had faded almost completely; the only sounds were the sounds of the sea -- wind, surf, the distant cries of birds that were almost but not quite like gulls.

"Do you ever wonder if they made it back?" Sheppard said at last.

McKay made a soft hmph noise. After a long pause, watching the surf pound against the white sand beach, he said, "Yeah. Sometimes."

"Think they did?"

"I don't know, Colonel. I'm not Physics Google." He didn't speak for a moment, then bent over and picked up a flat piece of shale from the water's edge. A flick of his wrist hurtled it straight into an oncoming wave, where it vanished immediately.

"Yep, that's some technique you got there, McKay."

"Don't blame me if some of us prefer to reserve our brainpower for more noble purposes than learning to throw rocks."

"That and tunneling under other countries' borders in the dead of the night."

McKay jumped and looked guilty. "I, uh ... I thought you weren't checking the game room anymore. Since ... you know, last year. When we stopped."

"So I figured, when I noticed that you'd taken advantage of my absence to start encroaching on my borders."

"I just wanted to see how the game simulation was running," McKay said defensively.

"Seriously," Sheppard said, "when did you start checking it again?"

McKay looked away, staring out at the waves. A light blush colored his cheekbones. "Oh, I don't know. Couple of months ago. You?"

"Month or so. Couldn't tell you exactly."

If McKay noticed that this happened to coincide perfectly with his recent brush with Ascension and near-death, he didn't say anything about it. "So I'm sure you know nothing about the defensive fortifications that have been springing up along my borders."

"Hey, the simulation did that. I had nothing to do with it." Sheppard threw another rock. Three skips. "Well ... maybe I did push it along a little, once I noticed it was already happening."

"Ha! You admit it." McKay brushed his hands against his pants, wiping sand off the palms, and cleared his throat. "You know, whenever we're done with our little tour in day-off Purgatory here, I was thinking about maybe hitting the game room ... you know, if nothing urgent and life-threatening has come up in our absence. Of course, if you're busy, and I imagine you are --"

"Funny," Sheppard said, cleaning off a bright shell with his thumb and slipping it into his pocket to take back to Elizabeth. "I was thinking of doing the same thing. Taking advantage of the day off to see how the game's running."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rodney smile.


Author's Note: The timeline in "our" universe is somewhere between Sunday and First Strike ... just so you know.

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