Desert Orkids

By Tipper

 

Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s).  Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring it to life.

Category/Rating: GEN/T

Parts: Some random amount

Status: Complete – 24 Chapters

Characters: Sheppard's Team, with an emphasis on McKay.  Yes, I know, another McKay-centric story.  Well, I'm nothing if not predictable.

 

A/N: I got a notion stuck into my head once to write a mystery, wherein Sheppard and McKay take on the roles of Rex Stout's creations, the great Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, but, as usual, the story got away from me.  It's much more action than mystery, and I think they ended up more like Bugs and Daffy, but, well, there you go. In any case, Goodwin and Wolfe were the inspiration, which explains a number of the characters names and the planet's name, from Nero Wolfe's fascination of with orchids.  I'm nothing if not a theme whore.

 

Description:  Despite themselves, the Atlantians find themselves caught up in the mystery and politics of a desert world, a place where, if they dig too deeply, they could end up buried alive. 

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CHAPTER ONE: ORKIDIA

 

Wind whipped mercilessly across the dry, sand-covered surface of the planet, relentless and powerful.  Waves of sand scoured the nearly featureless plains, the tiny granules carving lines into the few freestanding boulders dotting the landscape.  The sky was burnt orange on the horizon, the few clouds a strange sort of light peach against the dark blue mantle directly overhead. 

 

And it was hot. 

 

The unceasing wind did nothing to lessen or lighten the arid, oven-like atmosphere of the place—if anything, it made it hotter, as if someone had turned on a blast furnace inside a sauna. 

 

The desert stretched from horizon to horizon, a study in reds, oranges and browns. The few odd shaped boulders interrupted the smooth waves, rising from the shifting, sandy surface, looming like blood red, solitary ruins. Nothing else was visible, except the Stargate itself—the shimmering metal circle appearing out of place in the monochromatic landscape. 

 

It was an unforgiving place, but beautiful. 

 

To those adjusted and acclimated to its nuances, this planet was also home. They called it Orkidia.

 

To the Atlantians, it was P4G-174, the planet with some really nifty Ancient doodads on it.

 

Two people met them as they emerged from the Gate: The gray-haired woman, Dame Perrit, chief ambassador for the Orkidians, and her eldest son, Dazy, a middle-aged man of some girth and an almost overwhelming jolliness.  Perrit wore a large, heavy gold medallion around her neck, the blue crystal it framed glowing softly.  It was an Ancient device, one not requiring the gene, that formed an invisible wind-barrier around its wearer and anyone Perrit chose to include inside the bubble with her, though it did nothing for the oppressive heat or sun.  Stepping from the wind into her presence, therefore, was a bit like stepping into a bubble of serenity.

 

Both Perrit and Dazy offered wide smiles from beneath their wide brimmed hats, their expressions filled with both welcome and, to no small extent, hopeful anticipation. 

 

Elizabeth smiled brightly, greeting them by clasping her arms in front of her and offering a small bow, which they both returned.  It was the motion with had prompted Lieutenant Cadman to name this place the "I Dream of Jeannie" planet when she and the rest of her team had first visited here about six months ago.  Since that time, trade had been prosperous and plentiful...at least until recently. 

 

"Doctor Weir," Perrit greeted, stepping forward and offering her hand to be shaken, which Elizabeth did, "It is very good to finally meet you in person."

 

"And you, Ambassador," Elizabeth replied. She turned and held a hand out to indicate the team with her. "May I present Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay, Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex."

 

Perrit's smile grew, her eyes lighting upon Rodney, not hiding her excitement.  Dazy stepped right up to the Canadian scientist, holding out two meaty, broad hands and grabbing one of Rodney's tightly.

 

"You are the Doctor McKay that Lieutenant Cadman has told us about?" he asked.  McKay's face  creased with an unhappy smile as he let his hand be shaken vigorously, the other man almost smothering Rodney's smaller hand between his two sweaty palms.

 

"Yeah, unfortunately," Rodney replied tiredly, before tilting his head up a little to look up at the sky through his dark sunglasses, a sneer on his lips as he squinted in the overwhelming brightness.  "It is always this hot? It feels like the second circle of hell—" 

 

"Rodney," Elizabeth warned. 

 

"-luva place you've got here," McKay finished, giving her an arch look.  Dazy, meanwhile, only smiled more, pumping Rodney's hand a few times more before letting it go.

 

"It's much cooler down in the canyon," he offered. "Not to worry."  Winking at Rodney, which caused the scientist to recoil a little, Dazy turned to grin broadly at the others.  Rodney unsubtly wiped his hand on his pants to rid it of the clamminess as Dazy went the rounds and shook the other's hands.

 

"You are all most, most welcome!" he said cheerfully before returning to McKay again. He grabbed at Rodney's hand once more and held it firmly, ignoring Rodney's grimace. "You have no idea how glad we are to see you!"

 

Rodney's answering expression was a study in misery, and he pulled his hand free as soon as he could. 

 

"Of course you are," he muttered.  Teyla, at his side, nudged him hard, so he put on a fake smile. "And we're just tickled to be here," he added with a sigh. 

 

Oh, yeah...Rodney was not a happy man.

 

Elizabeth had requested this formal meeting with the Orkidian ambassador and her son, the Orkidian's lead scientist, to discuss future trade, and also to learn why the Orkidians had stopped trading with them about three weeks ago.  The Orkidians, not shy about their troubles, had explained over the radio that one of their three massive water pumps (which were the nifty Ancient doodads that had gotten the Atlantians so excited) had failed and, despite all their efforts, they could not fix it.  If no solution was found soon, it could force the evacuation of at least a third of their people, and no one wanted to leave.

 

Elizabeth, of course, immediately offered up Rodney.

 

To which his immediate response was, "Excuse me? What, suddenly I'm the plumber of the Pegasus Galaxy?"

 

He called it forced servitude.  He spent the three days leading up to the visit dragging one foot behind him every time he saw Elizabeth in the halls, as if he had a ball and chain.   He griped about desert environments and his delicate skin.  He moaned about the dangers of dehydration with his sensitive constitution.  He muttered about getting sand in everything...and everywhere (often pulling at his trousers in uncomfortable anticipation).  And he whined most about being dragged away from exploring the city and uncovering the secrets of Pegasus "just to fix some old Ancient leaky pipes."

 

And, of course...it only made Elizabeth even more determined that he go. 

 

Consequently, he was in an even fouler mood than usual, and was about to let poor Dazy know just how foul when, on his right, Teyla nudged him even harder.  Sighing, he rolled his eyes (luckily hidden behind the sunglasses) and turned his head to the side, muttering about the dangers of sand-mites and the possibility of twisting his ankle as they walked the dunes.

 

Dame Perrit was unfazed, as practiced a diplomat as Weir.  The Orkidian ambassador smiled as she turned back to Elizabeth, once more doing the "I Dream of Jeannie" bow.

 

"We have prepared a welcome feast in your honor," she offered, straightening again, "if you would like to follow—"

 

"Actually," McKay said, holding up a finger, "if you don't mind, could we go straight to the water pump?  I have some projects back home that I—"

 

"Rodney!" Elizabeth chastised again, sending him a chilling glare. "That's enough."  Rodney pressed his lips into a thin-line, but he didn't speak again.  Adjusting the straps on his knapsack, he looked off into the distance, eyes tracing the sea of rippled dunes.  Worse than a sulking child who had just been told by his mother to stop making a scene in the store.

 

"Well, actually," Perrit said, offering him an appraising look, "if Doctor McKay wishes to inspect the water pump first, that's all right with us.  It's on the way back to the canyon, anyway."

 

McKay immediately straightened, thinking perhaps he'd won himself a quicker trip home, eyebrows perked up as he looked with hope at Elizabeth.  She returned the look with a long-suffering one—one which promised she wasn't happy—but then shrugged.  Rodney grinned and turned back to Perrit and Dazy.

 

"Great, shall we go?"

 

Perrit inclined her head to her son, and Dazy spoke.

 

"Follow me," he grinned, sweeping out a hand.  McKay stepped right up next to him and the two led the way along the packed-sand road away from the Stargate, followed closely by Teyla, who was on "McKay-duty" at the moment.  Perrit and Elizabeth came next, the two women already discussing possible future agreements.  Sheppard and Ronon took up the rear.  The two men watched the surroundings with trained eyes, looking for trouble. 

 

Fact was, Ronon was acting uneasy.  He had some grievance against these people, though Sheppard had not been able to learn what.  It was enough, though, to put Sheppard on a higher alert than normal, and the two of them were planning on keeping careful watch for so long as they stayed here. 

 

But all they saw was sand.  Lots and lots of shifting, lifting, changing sand.  

 

If anyone was out there, they were well hidden.

 

Near the front, Teyla watched as well, her sharp eyes searching for anything out of the ordinary—whether it be a flash of color on the horizon, or movement not in keeping with the hot, restless environment, or a sound different from the constant, oscillating whirr of the wind in their ears.

 

But it was quiet.  For now.

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CHAPTER TWO: THE WATER PUMP

 

Rodney kept his head down, hand raised before his face, trying to ward off both the sun's glare and the stinging sand that seemed to whip his cheeks despite Perrit's medallion.   Next to him, Dazy kept up a stream of senseless prattle.  The man was the chief scientist on Orkidia, an engineer of sorts, and he had been in charge of trying to repair the water pump.  It had apparently been slowing down for years now, finally grinding to a stop about a month and a half ago, and nothing they'd attempted had worked.

 

Rodney grunted every so often, pretending he was listening as Dazy explained what they had learned about the machinery over the years, and what they had tried to do to stave off just this sort of calamity, but to no avail.  To McKay's mind, it was like listening to a child attempt to explain why he couldn't work a 747 Jet Airplane.  Instead, he focused on keeping his footing on the pale, sandy road, wondering if he would be able to warn the others before he fainted from heatstroke.

 

Then, Dazy's tone changed, and McKay looked up as he caught the last few words:

 

"Oh," the man had said, "we're here.  That's the water pump."

 

McKay stopped, tilting his head as he stared at the wonder before him.  It was this machine, along with two others, that had first brought the Atlantians here, but this was the first time the chief scientist was actually seeing it.  The reports he'd read and the schematics Zelenka and the others had prepared on it had not done it justice.  

 

The water pump was encased inside a structure shaped like a cone, the silver metal surface gleaming in the brilliant sunlight, almost too bright to look upon even with the sunglasses.  It shed reflected light back at the people admiring it, casting them all in a shimmering white glow.  The sand swirled around it without touching it, repelled by some sort of force field, allowing the smooth, unmarred surface to remain pristine.  McKay knew that this metal surface had purpose—it was an extremely efficient form of solar paneling that actually powered the device inside—but it also made the cone line structure appear like a diamond emerging from the sand. 

 

"Damn," Sheppard muttered coming up to stand on McKay's left, his dry lips parted slightly. "The Ancients don't mess around much, do they?"

 

"No, Colonel," Weir whispered where she appeared on McKay's other side, "they do not."

 

McKay breathed in deeply, coughed a bit as he tasted sand on his chapstick flavored lips, spat in disgust, and grimaced.  He looked around at the people around him, arching an eyebrow over the top of his sunglasses.

 

"Right.  Shall we go inside?"

 

Dazy led the way, and they filed in behind the large engineer.  He walked unerringly up to the force field, and it rippled a little as he passed through, sand cascading down the field off of him as he did so.  Following him through, McKay's dry fingers touched his lips, the feeling of having a cool cloth brushing them as he walked through remarkably strange.  The sand on them was gone, just as it had disappeared from all of his clothing.  Amazing.

 

An arched doorway appeared before Dazy as he touched the surface of the silver cone, and he walked inside, the others on his heels.

 

The interior was small.  Only about the size of a small kitchen.  Consoles ringed the circular walls, all dead at the moment.  In the center was a single white cylinder that appeared out of the ceiling above and disappeared into the ground below—the main pump.  Clear plastic tubing surrounded the cylinder, and smaller plastic tubes spoked out from the main near the top then curved down to enter the ground at different points along the floor.  The only piece of equipment that seemed out of place in the modern design was a folded-up wooden ladder resting against one wall.    

 

They crowded into the room, a tight fit with all of them.  Dazy stood in the middle, pointing up at the cylinder. 

 

"Normally, when this is working, water is being pumped up this central tube from below, then distributed evenly through the clear tubes and out to the nine oases they feed.  Obviously, it's not doing it right now. There is machinery hidden inside the ceiling above," he waved his finger generally at the ceiling, then pointed down, "and in the ground beneath the grates we're standing on. We've tried to...oh.  Wow."  Dazy's hand fell, his eyes widening as he looked through his audience at Rodney.

 

McKay had pushed past Sheppard and Teyla, shoving both unceremoniously on account of the tight quarters, to get to the largest console in the room.  When Dazy said "wow," it was in response to the fact that McKay had turned the console on with a touch of his hand.  The engineer eyes widened slightly, watching as the rest of the machinery in the room turned on—all except the pump itself.

 

"It doesn't...it doesn't react like that to us," Dazy said, blinking furiously.  "We have to turn it on manually, using the panel...." and he gestured vaguely behind him at the door, where a panel was indeed set in the wall, blinking away happily. He stared hard at McKay, who ignored him.  "You just...touched it?  How—"   

 

"We have a knack," Sheppard said, offering his usual charming smile and a small shrug.  Dazy just nodded, though he wasn't really listening, his lips still parted in wonder.  Perrit, too, seemed mesmerized with the efficiency of Atlantis' CSO as machinery started to hum around them.

 

McKay started pulling out his equipment then, paying no attention to anyone as he set up his laptop on top the console and turned it on, a faint chime indicating it was booting up.

 

"Um," Elizabeth gave a tiny smile, and looked to Perrit.  "Well, I guess...we should let Rodney do his thing?" She turned then to Sheppard, who shrugged.  Teyla gave a small, knowing smile, while Ronon already looked bored. 

 

"I'd like to stay, if that's all right," Dazy said, watching McKay avidly as the scientist pulled out some more pieces of equipment, including his datapad and hand-held scanner.

 

"Rodney?" Elizabeth called.

 

"Hmm?"  McKay glanced up, blinked, looked at Dazy, and shrugged. "Oh, sure. Fine."  He started typing away on the laptop, and his blue eyes reflected the pale light from the screen before him as he returned his attention to it.

 

"I'll stay with McKay," Sheppard said, stepping forward.  "Teyla, Ronon, you're with Doctor Weir."  His two team members nodded.  The colonel glanced at Elizabeth, and gave her a confident nod.  She nodded back, then smiled at Perrit. 

 

"All right," the Orkidian ambassador said, smiling, "in that case...Dazy?" She looked to her son, who tore his eyes away from McKay with some reluctance in order to acknowledge her.  "If you would, please bring Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard with you to Dendrobia when he's finished his initial survey.  I'm sure we'll all be anxious to hear what he has found, and whether he thinks it can be fixed."  Dazy replied to this request with a nod, and Perrit smiled again.  Then she led the way out of the pump station, followed by Teyla.  Elizabeth hesitated one moment, glancing at Rodney, then over at Sheppard.

 

The colonel gave her another reassuring nod—he'd take care of him.  She gave a soft sigh, then left, followed by Ronon.

 

—————————————————————————

 

The room seemed much larger now that the others had left, and Sheppard found himself relaxing a bit as he looked around, only casually checking the desert visible outside the open doorway whenever he passed by.  Rodney was working away, typing madly.   Dazy had wandered over, looking over the scientist's shoulder, pulling out what looked a bit like a tape recorder with a microphone attached and turning it on.  The overweight man's small eyes tracked the information Rodney was calling up, but was soon frowning.  It obviously looked like gibberish to him—as it often did for the Colonel.

 

"So, can you tell me," Dazy asked, putting the microphone to his lips, "what exactly you are doing?  This device you're using—a stenographic machine of some type, obviously, but the screen...what am I looking at?"  He then shoved the microphone at Rodney.

 

McKay glanced at the microphone in his face, then up at Dazy, then back at his laptop, frowning slightly.  Sheppard knew McKay hated anything pushed into his personal space.

 

This is a computer," he said, lifting his shoulders forward a little like a bristling cat. "It's translating the Ancient information inside this console and putting it a format I can understand."

 

"Ancient?"

 

"We call the Ancestors, the Ancients," Sheppard supplied, now standing in the middle of the room and looking up at the top of the central pump cylinder.

 

"Ah," Dazy nodded, pulling back the microphone which he had hastily pointed at Sheppard to his own lips. "He said, 'we call the Ancestors, the Ancients,'" he repeated into the microphone. Then he smiled at the two men again, "So, it's sort of a shortcut to understanding the basics of this machinery?"

 

"It provides a means of access," Rodney said, trying once more to ignore the microphone in his face, "but it's not a shortcut.  You still have to know what all this says."  And he waved a hand at the screen, down which data was streaming at an extremely fast rate.  Dazy grimaced as he peered at it.

 

"I see," he said, obviously not really seeing. "But you understand it?"

 

"No," Rodney deadpanned, "I like converting Ancient into completely unintelligible text because it looks pretty reflected on the wall behind me.  I'm considering adding a disco backbeat, actually, maybe start my own mini Studio 54." He glanced askance at Dazy, "Think any celebrities would come?" 

 

Sheppard snorted, but Dazy just looked more confused.

 

"Studio...?"

 

"Don't worry about it," Sheppard called out.  "He's just got a mean sense of humor."

 

Dazy glanced at Sheppard, eyes narrowing in obvious bewilderment.  "Oh." 

 

Rodney, meanwhile, was looking rather distastefully at the recorder out of the corner of his eye.

 

"Dazy," he asked, calling the man's attention back, "Speaking of odd things, what is that?"  He gestured towards the device with his thumb mid-type.

 

Dazy's rosy, plump cheeks grew even rosier and plumper as he smiled again, tapping it lightly. "This is a data recorder.  Something I invented.  It records sounds onto a device I call an audibility disc, and then...."

 

"Why?" Rodney said, still staring at it unhappily.

 

"Why?  Because it's a much easier method to record history than, say, writing it down and less likely to—"

 

"No," McKay sighed, rolling his eyes a bit, which made Sheppard smirk where he was walking about the room, looking down at the various consoles, "I mean, why are you using it?"

 

"Oh!  Yes, I meant to ask," Dazy grinned, "do you mind if I record your work? It's the best means I know how to remember what you might be able to teach us, as well as preserve what you do here for posterity." 

 

"Better watch what you say then, McKay," Sheppard sauntering back to them and leaning against the console. "This is for posterity."  His eyebrows waggled, and McKay shot him a dirty look.

 

"It's fine," Rodney said tightly. "Whatever."  Shaking his head, he looked down when his computer beeped, then frowned for a brief second.

 

"You find something?" Sheppard asked.

 

Rodney just hummed for a moment, then looked around the room.  When his eyes fell on the ladder, he looked at Dazy, who was once more trying to decipher the information on the laptop's screen.

 

"Dazy," Rodney said.  "Can you set up the ladder for me and open the ceiling?"

 

"Huh? Oh, uh, sure. Be happy to!" The Orkdian smiled again, clipping the tape recorder and microphone to his belt and turning it off. A moment later, he was across the room, positioning the ladder under the closed hatch that led up to the machinery hidden above, and climbing up it to open it. 

 

"Colonel," McKay's eyes were back on the laptop again, "Can you open up the floor hatch?"

 

"Huh?"  Sheppard turned around, looking down at the finely stitched metal grating under his feet, seeing nothing obvious.  "There's a hatch?"

 

"Oh yes," Dazy said, pointing off to one side.  "Over there."

 

Sheppard glanced over, and nodded when he spotted the small metal circle latch. Walking over, he knelt down and reached for the circle. 

 

Only to be knocked backwards by a massive electric jolt, screaming a profanity and cradling his burning right hand.

 

"Colonel!" McKay shouted, already halfway to his side as Sheppard sat up and glared angrily at the innocent looking circle latch.  "Are you all right?" McKay asked, kneeling down next to him, looking his friend up and down for any obvious injury.  Not responding to the question, the colonel was about to demand what had happened when Dazy's shadow fell over them both, the large man full of apologies and begging for forgiveness.

 

"Oh, I'm so sorry!  So, so sorry!  What a fool I am!  That's our security system, Colonel." The large man pulled a thin, black object from out his pocket about the size of a credit card.  He pointed it at the circle, then, with a weak smile, turned to offer Sheppard a hand up. "I am so sorry about that.  We have several security measures in place to protect the pumps from...those who would exploit them."  He sighed and backed away once he had the colonel on his feet, McKay rising as well to stand by Sheppard's side.  "The force field outside, for example, is keyed to only allow those Orkidians who wear the amulets..." and here he opened his chemise, revealing a green medallion resting on a chain around his neck. "...to enter, along with any guests I might have.  And, in addition," he held up the small, thin black object in his hand, "these remotes lock the hatches leading to the machinery.  I forgot to deactivate yours first.  I am so sorry.  It will wear off, I promise."

 

Sheppard just grunted, shaking his hand out now, which continued to shiver nastily with aftershocks. 

 

"Are there any other surprises we should know about?" John growled at the Orkdian.  Dazy looked properly abashed. 

 

"No, no.  That's it.  I am truly very sorry. Please forgive me."

 

Rodney snorted rudely at that, then turned and returned to the console.  Dazy watched him go, then slumped a little, his eyes dropping to the floor.  Sheppard sighed at the other man's downcast expression, and finally shrugged, giving the Orkdian a comradely slap on the arm with his left hand. 

 

"It's okay, Dazy.  No permanent harm done."

 

Dazy immediately brightened, grinning at the colonel.  "Thank you, Colonel." 

 

Over by the console, McKay rolled his eyes a little and returned to his typing.  Barely a second later, he suddenly clicked his tongue and pursed his lips, lifting his hands away from the keyboard of his laptop as his eyes scrolled through the information.  Then, slowly, he nodded—he was on to something.  Dazy, meanwhile, had moved to open up the hatch that allowed access to the machinery below the floor.  Sheppard continued to cradle his right hand, watching Rodney curiously.

 

"Okay," McKay said then, looking up at the two men watching him.  "Dazy, I need to power down the entire structure for a few moments.  That means the force field outside as well.  Could you go turn it off for me?"

 

Dazy frowned, turning to look at him. "What?"

 

"The outside panel, where the switches are.  Could you go power it down?"

 

The large man blinked a little, glanced at Sheppard then back again, and shook his head. "What outside panel?"

 

"Oh," McKay looked briefly surprised, then smiled.  "That might explain why you couldn't fix this yourself.  Ah, there is a control panel hidden on the outside of the structure.  It's approximate location is," McKay looked around a bit at the walls, then walked over to a particular spot and tapped a section about head height for him, his fingers drumming the metal surface.  "About here on the outside.  You should be able to open it with a touch."

 

Dazy's mouth was open in wonder again, but Sheppard just sighed. 

 

"I'll do it," he said, already heading outside, putting his sunglasses back on. 

 

"Thanks," McKay called after him. 

 

————————————————————

 

CHAPTER THREE: OUTSIDE IN THE OPEN

 

The Colonel stepped outside, blinking unhappily—even with the sunglasses, the light was harsh.  He was already disliking the thought of being exposed to the wind and sand again, but didn't vocalize the thought as he turned to where McKay had indicated, mentally measuring the distance. 

 

A shadow behind him turned him in time to see Dazy had followed him out, the man's eyes lit with excitement at seeing something new.  Sheppard wondered just how long the Orkidians had been studying the structure—Months? Years? Generations? And McKay had already found something they hadn't known about in, what, less than two minutes?

 

Finding the right spot, he touched a hand to the surface and, sure enough, a panel opened to reveal a console. 

 

"Goodness!" Dazy said, leaning forward to inspect the inner workings of the panel.  "Look at this!"  He was already turning his recorder back on, fumbling a bit with the device, before pulling the microphone and quickly describing the location and appearance of the panel into it.

 

Not quite as impressed, the colonel took a couple of steps back towards the door as Dazy chattered away behind him.  "McKay?" he called, loud enough to be heard over the keening wind outside the invisible shield. "What do I do to turn it off?"

 

"There are three wires there, yes?" McKay yelled back.  "Red, green and white?"  

 

Dazy stopped speaking then, shaking his head in amazement as he considered the three thick wires running down the center of the panel.  Sheppard, meanwhile, was nodding.

 

"Yes!"

 

"Unplug the white one!"

 

Sheppard reached in with his left hand and fiddled a bit...then, with a satisfying pop, the white wire came loose.  Immediately, the wind grew louder in their ears, and sand started attacking them.  Hell.

 

"Done!" Sheppard yelled, not happily, sliding back towards the open doorway.  The wind was harsh—it felt like the constant thrum of hailstones on his body.

 

"Thanks!" McKay yelled back. "That's it.  I'll tell you when to plug it back in!"

 

"Unbelievable," Dazy called loudly, standing up on his toes to better see inside the panel, looking down and around. If he was bothered by the stinging sand, he was obviously too enamored by the panel to say anything.  "I had no idea...." he shook his head, then looked at Sheppard.  "Your Doctor McKay is truly extraordinary.  Do you know how long I have studied this structure?"

 

"Okay!" McKay yelled from inside. "Plug it back in!  Then unplug the red one!  And stay out there until I tell you to put it back in!"

 

Sheppard reached for the panel, but Dazy was quicker.  The scientist quickly refitted the white wire—which, thankfully, turned the force field back on—then unplugged the red one.  The field stayed on, but it became opaque, and both men jumped a little, feeling suddenly very closed in.

 

"McKay!" Sheppard called, then lowered his voice a little since the wind had disappeared completely, as if they were inside. "The force field, it's—"

 

"Don't worry about it!"  McKay yelled back. "Just trust me!"

 

"This is amazing...," Dazy breathed, reaching out a tentative hand to the dark surface. "Absolutely amazing.  This is...I...he's amazing, you know that?"

 

Sheppard gave him a wry look, hoping Rodney hadn't heard that. "Yeah, well..."

 

"It took him, what, less than a minute to find this panel?  We never even considered there might be something on the outside, much less that it could access the force field...."

 

"The door has never failed then?" Sheppard asked, glancing at the open entrance.

 

Dazy's eyebrows lifted, "the door?"

 

"Yeah. Just in case, you know?  Good to have a panel on the outside...."

 

"Oh," Dazy blinked at that, "Of course...I never...good heavens."  He shook his head, his lips forming a frown, the crestfallen expression returning. Sheppard smiled kindly. 

 

"Oh, no, I didn't mean it that way, Dazy.  I mean, I would never have found it either.  I may have thought to look for it, but this panel was invisible until we opened it.  I probably would have just given up—as I'm sure others before you have done.  Rodney's....well, he does this a lot.  He is sort of on another plane from the rest of us."

 

Dazy's eyebrows knitted in confusion at the idiom, "Another...plane?"

 

Sheppard gave a wry smile, and leaned in, "That is, and don't tell him I said this, I beg of you, but he's actually as smart as he thinks he is, maybe smarter.  It's a bit mind-boggling how much he knows.  Ask him a question, and he'll probably be able to answer it."  He shook his head, "What's terrible is, he knows it, too.  Drives us insane.  I threaten to kill him at least once a week."  He grinned then, leaning away from Dazy.

 

The Orkidian just smiled back, nodding. "Too smart for his own good, eh?"

 

"Something like that."

 

Dazy nodded, sighing a little. "It must be very useful having someone like that around."

 

"Yeah," Sheppard admitted, a little ruefully. "Actually, it is." Dazy chuckled at the tone, shaking his head and returning to his inspection of the panel.  The recorder at his side was still taping, and he started speaking into it again.   

 

"Sheppard!" McKay yelled, "plug the red one back in!  But don't go anywhere—I may need you to do one more thing!"

 

Dazy plugged the red wire back in, and the force field was back to the way it was before, which meant the sun was once more beating down mercilessly on the two men outside.  Sheppard grimaced slightly, squinting up at it, before looking to Dazy.  The Orkidian smiled back happily, before returning his attention to the panel.

 

The colonel sighed, leaning against the silver metal surface, surprised at how cool it was despite the hot sun.  Dazy had started clicking his tongue, eyes darting along the crystals and wires revealed before him.  He was reading the fixtures, obviously mapping their logical course, to guess their purpose.  After a few moments, he started guessing out loud, as if Sheppard cared—which he didn't.  As Rodney had done before, Sheppard just grunted whenever Dazy seemed to ask for his opinion.

 

Meanwhile, Sheppard watched the sandscape.  It was unchanged...that is, it had changed, being a constantly shifting surface, but nothing new had appeared.  The P90 was loose in his hands as he tracked the dunes, just in case.

 

He froze.  Dazy's jabbering next to him continued unabated, but Sheppard heard nothing at all now. 

 

His eyes locked on a particular sand dune.

 

Was that....?

 

For a second, he thought he had seen a head pop up and down, swathed in black.  But there was nothing.  He frowned.  The P90 was lifted a little higher, and the safety was turned off.

 

He stayed that way, alert and tense, for goodness knows how long, until he heard Dazy calling his name worriedly.  The Orkidian scientist was watching him, eyes bright.

 

"Something wrong?"

 

Sheppard grimaced, beginning to think he had imagined it. An ink spot caused by the bright sun, perhaps...

 

Finally, he shook his head.  "No.  I thought I saw someone out there, but," he shrugged, "I must have imagined it."

 

Dazy was staring out at the desert expanse now himself, eyes more used to the atmosphere and light levels doing a quick scrutiny.

 

"There's nothing there," he said, looking back at Sheppard.  "To be honest, Colonel, I don't know why there would be.  No one outside the Central Cabinet knows you're even here, besides which," he shrugged, "no one can survive out there for long."

 

Sheppard frowned, still not turning away from his scan, "How long is long?"

 

"It's the wind mostly," Dazy explained. "During the day, it's bearable.  You and Doctor McKay will be able to travel to the Canyon with only some discomfort—I have some additional scarfs that you can use to wrap around your heads.  But at night, when the temperature drops to ice cold temperatures, the wind whips up so much sand you can't see an inch in front of your face, and it buries anything that moves."  He grimaced, "It's pretty scary, actually.  I've seen it from in here a few times—no one could survive it."  He shuddered a little.

 

"That's why your mother has that blue crystal thingy, right?"

 

"It's the tool of the chief ambassador, to greet those who come through the gate and escort them to the canyon, yes. It's the only one of its kind, of course.  My green amulet also allows me individual protection, but not much—and access to the water pumps, of course."

 

"Of course," Sheppard said, still distracted by what he thought he had seen. The colonel's frown deepened, his P90 up and held close to his chest.

 

Dazy smiled, reaching over to pat him on the arm. "The sand and sun play tricks, Colonel.  It happens even to those of us used to this environment.  Believe me, there is nothing out there." 

 

"Right," Sheppard agreed, his tone uneasy. He knew what mind games the desert could play all too well—the memories of staggering across one in Afghanistan with a dying friend on his hip and no water in sight would always feel fresh in his mind—but  he also knew he'd feel better when they were inside again.  Dazy, meanwhile, having decided the matter was settled, returned to creating his audio notes about the panel.

 

It was perhaps five minutes later than the Orkidian finally stepped back, resting his hands on his ample hips and shaking his head.  Looking down to his waist, he turned off the recorder attached to his belt and smiled at Sheppard.

 

"I will have to ask your Doctor McKay how he—"

 

"Okay!' Rodney suddenly yelled, "You can come back in now!"

 

Together, the two men returned inside to see McKay climbing down the ladder, a small piece of Ancient machinery in his hand.  Dazy glanced at it, curious, and walked over to McKay as the Atlantian scientist returned to the console.  The recorder was turned back on as he walked.

 

"Did you find out what is wrong with the pump?" Dazy asked, detaching the microphone again and shoving it at McKay.

 

"Of course I did," Rodney said, without looking up from the console, moving around some of the crystals. He paused at one point to glance over at Sheppard, who was still staring out the doorway. "Colonel, you might want to step over here as well."

 

Sheppard was by Rodney's side in a second—he knew that tone—and McKay slotted the crystal into place.  Dazy opened his mouth to ask what he was doing, when, suddenly, the whole structure shuddered and the white cylinder started to pump up and down. 

 

Dazy's jaw fell open in total shock as the cylinder gained speed, until it was moving so fast, it almost appeared motionless.  Then the water erupted up the plastic tubing surrounding the pump and into the individual spokes, splashing down and out.  The tubes were soon full, spreading water to where it was so desperately needed.

 

Dazy's eyes were so wide, they looked like they would pop out of his head should someone slap the back of it hard enough.  Rodney had a smug look on his face as he started shutting down his equipment.

 

"What...?  How....?"  Dazy shook his head, blinking away as he turned back to Rodney.  "You fixed it?"

 

McKay shrugged, "Isn't that why you asked me here?"

 

"But...you...it's only been....how....?"

 

Rodney held up the piece of machinery in his hand, "This, actually.  It's been damaged.  The pump will work without it temporarily, but it needs to be replaced for it to continue working long term, or it will eventually seize up."

 

Dazy glanced at him, "I...okay...how long?"  He was still obviously having trouble thinking coherently.

 

McKay shrugged, "How long before you need to replace this part, you mean?  Oh, several years at least.  Ten or so.  But I'll have it replaced long before then.  I'm sure that, if we can't find a replacement part for you back home, I can make you a replacement."

 

Dazy was just speechless, staring back and forth from Rodney to the water happily bubbling through the clear tubes. 

 

Sheppard shook his head, not in the least bit surprised.  Instead, he watched as Rodney continued to pack up his equipment and, finally, power down the console.  The colonel then tapped his earpiece.

 

"Elizabeth?" he called.

 

A moment, then, statically, "Yes, Colonel?"

 

"Rodney's fixed the pump."

 

There was a pause, then, "Already?"

 

"At least temporarily—for about ten years or so.  To fix it permanently, he needs to replace a part that he's pulled out.  Are you to your destination yet."

 

"No, not yet.  Well, wow...You'd think I'd be used to him doing things like this by now. That's good news, and I'll tell Dame Perrit.  Thank him for me.  We'll expect you soon."

 

"I will. Sheppard out." And he tapped the signal off.  Rodney was already shouldering his pack on his shoulders, looking expectantly at Sheppard as he walked up next to him.

 

"Can we go home now?" he asked, eyes bright.   

 

"Home?" Dazy gasped, still wide eyes turning on him. "My goodness, no!  Doctor McKay, do you have any idea what you have done for us?  This is a miracle!  The luncheon feast we prepared...it will be increased ten-fold! You must be our guest of honor!  Please."

 

McKay grimaced, "Well, while I'd really like to—"

 

"He'd be delighted," Sheppard interjected, grabbing McKay's arm firmly and tugging him forward.  Rodney gave him a look, which Sheppard returned with clear meaning.  The scientist grimaced, then sighed.

 

"Fine, fine.  Lead the way," he muttered at the Orkidian.

 

Dazy grinned, then pulled some scarves from the small bag he carried. "Wrap these around your head, and follow me," he said cheerfully.  As they took them, the Orkidian fairly bounced as turned and walked out of the pump.

 

"Colonel," McKay hissed as they followed more slowly, both men fumbling to wrap the scarves around their heads.  "I know..."  Rodney's voice became muffled by fabric, and he tugged it down to uncover his mouth. "I know the kind of food these type of people like—all spice and no substance.  Do we have to—"

 

"Yes."  Sheppard finished wrapping his scarf and smiled at Rodney, who was still fighting with his.

 

"But I don't like spicy—"

 

"You're going."

 

"But I've got work to—"

 

"Am I not being clear?"

 

"Clear, yes. Reasonable, no.  Could we, maybe, leave early?  A toast and then—"

 

"Nope."

 

"But—"

 

"Nope."

 

"Colonel—"

 

"Nope."

 

"Will you at least let me finish a sent—"

 

"Nope."

 

Rodney stopped and stared at him, the pale colored scarf wrapped around his head like a badly askew turban. "You seriously suck, you know that?"

 

John just grinned. It was crazy how much he loved this. "Yup."

 

Rodney growled as Sheppard practically shoved him out the door and into the sunlight, where Dazy waited with a grin a few feet away, his hands on his hips, his big floppy hat back on his head.  A new sound had joined the whoosh of the wind outside the force field—the deep rumbling of the water pump in motion again.  It could probably be heard for miles. 

 

McKay sighed, head going down as he quickly fumbled his sunglasses back on, obviously having issues with the scarf wrapped around his ears.  Sheppard took him by the arm and pulled them both out into the wind, to stop him from hesitating any further, tightening the grip to show he meant business.  McKay glared up at him, but Sheppard wasn't paying attention.

 

The tight grip suddenly became a wrench as Sheppard threw them both sideways into the dirt behind a shallow sand dune, McKay's protest drowned out as the scientist got a mouthful of sand.

 

"Get down!" Sheppard shouted up at the confused looking Dazy, his words forming almost too slowly as machine gun fire strafed the air around them.  The middle-aged man shivered as bullets plugged into his unprotected back, and he collapsed onto the ground next to them, unmoving, blood bubbling out of his mouth.

 

McKay squealed, throwing his arms over his head as sand was sprayed up around them, bullets rapidly pelting the soft earth and pinging against the metal of the water pump behind them.  Sheppard was already up and firing back, his P-90 braced on the shallow dune they were cowered behind, firing at anything that moved.  Dazy's body was, morbidly, providing some cover—it was probably why they weren't dead yet. 

 

"Get inside!" he yelled at Rodney, "Crawl to the door!" 

 

McKay complied immediately, yelping as more sand erupted around his crawling form as he practically rolled inside the force field.  The attackers were also apparently firing on anything that moved.  Sheppard kept up his spray until McKay was inside, then grimaced at the realization that now he was trapped.  He couldn't get up to follow McKay without cover fire, but he couldn't stay out here either.  Eventually one of the bullets would....

 

"Roll inside the force field's edge!" McKay suddenly yelled from the darkened interior.  "Now!"

 

Sheppard acted instantly, rolling sideways.  It only took one roll, and he glanced up in time to see a bullet hit the force field about the height of his raised shoulder...

 

...and stop. 

 

The breath he hadn't known he was holding came out in a rush.  More bullets rained on the field, only to be stopped in the same way. 

 

Staggering to his feet, the colonel glanced at Dazy just outside the field, grimacing at all the blood pooling around the inert man's form, unseeing eyes staring up at the dark blue sky. Turning, he stumbled inside, seeing McKay madly working the consoles.  Finally, McKay hit a final button and looked up.  He was panting, sweat trickling down his forehead.

 

"You okay?" he asked Sheppard.

 

"Yeah." John checked his magazine—he'd used half his bullets. "You?"

 

"Fine, fine...scared shitless, but fine." McKay sucked in a breath, then looked back out the door.  "Dazy?"

 

"Dead."

 

"Really?  Then how...oh. Must be attuned...."  McKay grimaced, looked down, then back up at Sheppard, his  brow furrowed deeply.  "Is he on this side of the force field?  We need that amulet."

 

"Oh, uh...no."

 

"Damn," McKay swallowed, staring down at the console, then started moving crystals around, "Okay, I'll try to expand it.  Go back by the door and be ready to move when I tell you."

 

"Can I fire at them?"

 

"No.  It's solid now, except for light, sound and air.  The bullets will just stop, maybe even ricochet.  Just wait for me to tell you when to move."

 

Sheppard grimaced, but did as he was told, and swore as he looked outside.  Six or seven black swathed men—or women, it was hard to tell—dressed a little like old world ninjas were crawling towards the pump across the sandy covered surface, Genii like machine guns in their arms.  They looked like oil stains seeping across the bright orange ground as they slowly inched forward.  They were clearly exposed, suggesting they either had a lot of gall or knew that he couldn't fire on them. But why were they coming at all?  Surely they couldn't breach the force field either, unless...

 

Unless one of them had another amulet.  If they did, how close did they have to come before it gave them access? And would that allow their bullets to breach the field as well?  He had a horrible feeling it would.

 

"McKay!" he yelled. "They're coming!"

 

"Okay, okay!" came the harried yell back. "Hang on!"

 

Sheppard knelt down, pointing his P90 out the door.  The attackers paused at his action, then started moving forward again.  God damn it...

 

"Now!" McKay yelled, pressing both hands down on the console, as if physically pushing the shield out from there. "And hurry!  I can't sustain this!"

 

Sheppard moved fast, running outside, ignoring the bullet fire that erupted at his appearance, completely trusting his life to McKay's skill (and the hope that another amulet wouldn’t work from a far distance).  The bullets were being stopped just on the far side of Dazy's body now.  He smirked a little at that, but it disappeared as he grabbed the coat collar of the heavy Dazy.  Grunting, he pulled hard, trying to get big man back inside the original force field.  It didn't take long, despite the (literally) dead weight of the enormous man.

 

"Got him!" he yelled.

 

He saw the force field shimmer as it obviously reset to its original position.  The bullet fire stopped, as did the people advancing.  They had all paused mid-motion, watching him.  He watched back.

 

"Put the amulet on!" McKay hissed, appearing in the doorway, his own gun in his hands now.  He was cowering just inside the door, wide eyes taking in the sight of the advancing bad guys. 

 

"Why?" Sheppard shot back, not taking his eyes off the 'ninjas.'  He had assumed their need for it was so that the others couldn't get in—why would he need to put it on?  His hands were wrapped around his P90 again, even if he couldn't use it.

 

"It's Ancient—tuned to your thoughts.  It allows anything you want to pass through the shield to pass through—like the bullets from your P90...or my gun."

 

Sheppard didn't need to be told twice.  He shoved back the top of Dazy's tunic, pulling off the dead amulet and putting it on. It instantly started glowing green. The ninjas must have heard or understood the action's meaning, because they started firing again and trying to retreat. When their bullets were still stopped by the force field, Sheppard started firing.  McKay was doing the same, an uncomfortable, squinted grimace on his face.   

 

They were rewarded as four of the ninjas fell down in the sand.  Unfortunately, the rest made it over the dunes and behind cover again.

 

Sheppard stopped firing, breathing hard.  McKay had already stopped, his hands shaking a little where they gripped the gun, unhappy eyes focused on two of the fallen ninjas in particular—the ones he had hit. His skin color was ashen, his eyes watery. Abruptly, the scientist disappeared back inside, unable to stare any longer.

 

Sheppard waited a moment longer, then knelt down next to Dazy and respectfully closed the man's wide open, dead eyes. The amulet felt warm against his chest as he stood up once more, staring angrily at the people he couldn't see but knew were still there. 

 

"What the hell do you want?" he yelled out.

 

No response.  After a moment, his scowl grew.

 

"Did you hear me? I said, what do you want?" he tried again.

 

Still nothing.  He shook his head.

 

"All right, if that's the way you want it, fine! But any of you pop your head up to take pot shots at us again, and I'm taking it off!" 

 

Silence.  He snorted.  And looked down at Dazy's body.  If they thought he was bluffing, they had another thing coming.

__________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FOUR: PATIENCE

 

"McKay!" John knelt down next to Dazy, but his eyes were still on the dunes.  Once again, they seemed empty of life.

 

"What?" Rodney didn't yell back, he just answered, sounding tired and shaky.

 

"Can you set the shield so that not even someone with an amulet can come through?"

 

"Oh, uh, yeah.  Hold on." 

 

The colonel hated the tremor in his friend's voice, but couldn't do anything about it now.  He just waited, gritting his teeth and watching the dunes.

 

"Okay," McKay said. "It's done. It's keyed to just your amulet now.  Apparently, there are only three amulets that this facility recognizes—I've deleted the other two."

 

John blew out a heavy breath and nodded, relaxing minutely.  He tapped his earpiece as he reached down to drag the heavy Dazy into the cool interior of the pump.

 

"Elizabeth," he called as he got a solid grip on the man's collar and started to pull, speaking through gritted teeth. "Teyla. Ronon."

 

A short pause, then Elizabeth answered. "Colonel? Is something wrong?"

 

"We're still at the water pump.  We were ambushed trying to leave." He grunted as Dazy got stuck a little on the threshold. "You, Teyla and Ronon need to get out of the open, in case they're after us.  Ronon, Teyla cover Elizabeth."

 

"Right," Ronon replied quickly at the same time that Elizabeth said, "Oh my God. Are you, Dazy and Rodney okay?"

 

"Dazy's dead. McKay and I are fine, but trapped.  You guys need to get to safety as fast as you can."  Having successfully gotten Dazy inside, he grimaced at the bloody trail the man had made.  At least his death had been quick.

 

"Oh no... I'll...I'll let Dame Perrit know."

 

Teyla spoke then, "Colonel, are you two safe?  Do you need us to—"

 

"We're fine, Teyla, but you're not." He straightened, looking around the interior of the pump.  Nothing looked like it was damaged from the machine gun fire. "Soon as you're safe, let me know.  We'll work out a plan.  Now move!"

 

"Of course.  Teyla out."

 

John heard the telltale double-click as she checked off, and turned his gaze to Rodney.  McKay was looking pale, staring down at the main console with a lost expression.  His hands hovered over it, as if there was something more he could do, but wasn't sure what.

 

"Hey," the colonel called, getting McKay to look up.  "We close enough to the Stargate for our radios to work at this distance?"

 

"Um...no...but I can boost the signal.  But it won't matter if the Stargate's not...."

 

"Atlantis will contact us when we don't check in."

 

"Oh," Rodney nodded. "Right.  Um," he held out his hand, "Give me your radio."

 

"Can you use yours?  Elizabeth's going to contact me."

 

"Uh, sure." Rodney still seemed a bit dazed, working the knapsack off his shoulders.  In moments, he had knelt down on the floor, using it as his worktable, busily connecting bits of equipment together, while John returned to the door to check on their ambushers.  The dark forms they had killed had been removed, but he doubted that meant their ambushers had left.  More likely they were still out there.  Watching. 

 

A mental slap later, and he had his life signs detector out.  He frowned when it showed nothing in the immediate area—but when he expanded the parameters a little, he saw about ten dots forming a semi circle in front of the structure.  Damn.

 

"Ten guys," he said, looking over at McKay.  The scientist was sitting on the floor now, as there were no chairs at the workstations, surrounded by bits of radio.

 

"I was wondering when you would pull that out," Rodney said, the first vestiges of his natural sarcasm returning now that he was focused again on work, using a tiny screwdriver to take apart his transmitter.  "Shame you didn't think of it before."

 

"What? Since when do I use it when you're here?"  John replied.  "That's your department."

 

"Sure, when I’m on new planets and searching for energy signatures, but not....Wait, hang on." Blue eyes lifted as if a horrible thought had just occurred to him, and they turned to look aghast at the colonel. "You think I'm only looking at life signs when I use my scanner?  Is that what you think?"

 

John pursed his lips, eyebrows furrowed.  Huh.  Well, that explained a few things.

 

McKay shook his head, "No wonder we keep getting ambushed! Of all the stupid....Colonel, I can't believe you think I—"

 

"Oh, shut up, McKay," John grunted, looking outside again. "Not now."

 

"Not now?" McKay squeaked. "Why not now?  You got someplace else you need to be?"  He dove back into his work on the radio with renewed vigor, muttering now. "Besides, It's not like they can get at us in here now.  May as well find out what other horrible errors in judgment you've been—"

 

"McKay," the colonel snarled, "there'll be one less life sign in the immediate vicinity if you don't shut it...now."

 

"Ha! Nice comeback.  Worked on that one for a while, were you?  Saving it up for a special occasion?"

 

"No, it was sort of spur of the moment.  I've got others if you like."

 

"And they obviously reflect that oh so amazing intellect all the girls fawn over," McKay tsked, sneering a little as he worked the delicate wires into the radio transmitter from his scanner.  "Math genius, they say.  Atlantis's favorite, they say, though the City is about as sentient as a head of lettuce. Always comes up with the plan to save the day, they say.  Nice hair, they say, even if I think it looks like someone attacked you with a hedge clipper..."  He was muttering now, barely paying attention to what he was saying.  Accordingly, John had tuned him out. He was looking around the cylindrical room, as if he might find another way out of here.

 

"Only one door," McKay offered, not looking up.

 

Man, he really was freaky when he did that.  Shaking his head, the colonel moved to the door to look out. He shifted the P90 in his arms—despite McKay's saying he'd locked everyone out, he still felt uneasy. 

 

"I already said I set it so that no one can enter, not even someone with another amulet," McKay informed him, sounding a little exasperated. "I promise you, no one can get in whom you don't want to let in."

 

John gave him a strange look—freaky was now bordering on seriously creepy.

 

McKay caught the look and frowned.  "What?"  When John just lifted his eyebrows, McKay twisted his lips into a grimace, and returned to his work. "Oh, come on. I’m not reading your mind.  I just know how you think."

 

"Huh."  The colonel shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, then looked back outside. He waited a beat, then looked back again. "You got that radio working yet?" he asked, squinting at the mess of wires and radio in McKay's hands.

 

"Almost.  Just another...a-ha!  There, got it."  McKay held up the radio. "Et voila! One long range radio."

 

"Cool." John walked over to where McKay was sitting to take it, and then looked at his watch.  They'd been gone from Atlantis for forty minutes...okay....probably not really going to be worried yet.  Or for a while.  They weren't due to check in for several hours.  Nuts.  With that thought in mind, he handed it back down to McKay, who attached his earpiece to it and put it back on his ear.  The scientist stretched his legs out then, as if settling in for a while.

 

He might have a good idea.

 

John looked back at the sunlit doorway. "So," he sucked in a breath, "no one can get in."

 

"No."

 

"You're sure?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Absolutely sure?"

 

"Deadly sure.  And considering this is my life we're talking about, which I value above all else, I think you can rely on that certainty."

 

John pursed his lips, and McKay gave him a look.

 

"Fine.  Here," he grabbed his tablet off the console and set it up to show life signs, then placed it in front of them.  "There's our ten guys," he said, waving at it.  "You can watch them fail to get inside as much as you like."

 

John gave a half-hearted smirk.  "Okay then."  With a sigh, he settled down next to McKay on the floor, watching as the other man pulled out his laptop and powered it up again. 

 

"Solitaire?" he asked, wondering what the reasoning was.

 

McKay snorted, "No.  I was going to assess the pump a bit more—I really didn't spend that long looking at the schematics or studying the broken device.  I thought, since we're stuck here for a while, that I would take a stab at learning more."

 

"Hmm," John pursed his lips, nodding.  "Sounds like a plan."

 

"However," McKay reached into his knapsack again, and, after rifling around for a moment, he pulled out a deck of cards.  "I brought these for you," he said, handing them over.  John's lips parted, surprised.

 

"You knew we'd get trapped here?" he asked, plucking the deck from McKay's fingers.

 

"Hell, no," McKay snapped back, shaking his head.  "I've been carrying them around for a while now, just in case we do ever get trapped somewhere.  Figured, deck of cards might come in handy someday...plus, they're not heavy and I know you're addicted to them."  He shrugged again, and his fingers started typing away. 

 

John gave him a genuine smile, and dumped the cards out of the case into his hand.  He gave them a quick bridge shuffle, liking the feel of the cool cards rippling under his fingers.  Glancing at the tablet, he saw the dots outside shuffle around, but none of them came any closer.

 

He started laying out cards in seven piles.

 

A moment later, Elizabeth checked in to tell them that they were all fine and secured, and that the Orkidians were planning on sending out a rescue mission.  John told them to hold off—Atlantis could extricate them more safely and probably scare the bejeesus out of the bad guys in the process.  Elizabeth admitted that was true, and promised to make that suggestion.  A couple minutes later, however, she told them that the Orkidians were adamant they could deal with a few bushwhackers ("ten," John told her then), and that they should expect the cavalry soon.  John shrugged, gave his okay, and then settled down to play.

 

And for the moment, the men sat in comfortable silence next to each other, both glancing at the tablet every few moments almost without thinking.  Just another day.

____________________________________________ 

 

He wasn't sure what alerted him, exactly.  A shift in the wind? A change in air temperature?  All John knew was that something was about to happen.

 

Sweeping up yet another lost game of Patience and tucking the cards together into a pack, he shoved it towards McKay still sitting by his side.  The scientist arched an eyebrow at the deck waved in front of his nose, frowned in annoyance, and took it, tossing it into his open knapsack before returning to his study of the broken piece of machinery.  The scientist's expression was odd—torn between disgusted and confused.  John wasn't about to try and decipher the reason behind that one.

 

The colonel, meanwhile, stood up and pulled out his hand held scanner, studying the ten dots still visible outside, the same still blinking away on the tablet on the floor before McKay.  Hefting his P-90, he headed towards the open doorway, wondering just how long those guys expected to wait out there, anyway.  Were they really that determined to kill him and Rodney?

 

Coming to a stop just inside the doorway, he allowed himself to be seen, and was rewarded by a renewed spray of bullets, all of which hit the force field, leaving odd light ripples in the air before him.  He smirked coldly, waved, then looked down at the scanner again.

 

The smirk grew.

 

Coming up behind the ten dots were about forty others.

 

Here comes the cavalry, he thought darkly.

 

"Forty more life signs just appeared on the tablet," Rodney breathed behind him. "Wow. You think it's..."

 

"Yeah," John replied.

 

As if on cue, his radio came to life.

 

"Colonel Sheppard?  Doctor McKay?"  Teyla's voice was cool and calm, as it always was.

 

"Sheppard here," the colonel replied, tapping his radio.  He glanced behind him, to see McKay looking up, watching him expectantly, the scientist tapping his own radio to answer as well if necessary.

 

"We're close by," Teyla informed him. "We've identified ten men watching your position, all dressed in black.  Are there others?"

 

"Nope, that's all of them.  Are you the forty or so folks coming up on them from behind?"

 

"We are."

 

"Nice," John grinned, nodding smugly at McKay.  The scientist just sighed and returned to his work.  "Need any help from us?"

 

"Probably not," Ronon answered for Teyla. "Why?  Are you feeling lazy?"

 

Cheeky bastard, John thought, easily imagining the crooked smile on the Satedan's face. "Yeah." 

 

"You're shameless," McKay threw out from across the room, not looking up from his work.

 

"But honest," Elizabeth added.  Apparently, everyone was listening in.  John grinned more broadly, then the smile suddenly fell.  Wait a minute.... John straightened angrily.

 

"Wait, Elizabeth?  Are you out there?  Teyla, she—"

 

"I'm well protected, Colonel, and will stay well back." Elizabeth assured him. "We'll be there in a few moments."

 

John shook his head, anger rising as he glared out at the sand. "Teyla, no, she..."

 

"Doctor Weir is correct, Colonel.  She's fine. We'll see you soon."

 

And, suddenly, the sound of someone yelling "You are surrounded! Throw down your weapons!" echoed through the wind towards John.  The response was more gunfire, but on a scale that made the previous firefights feel like mere appetizers.

 

McKay was on his feet now, his own gun out, jogging across to John to peer out the door.  They could see very little, just sand, the dunes too high to make out the activity going on behind them. 

 

For a moment, nothing changed.

 

Then ten black clad figures boiled over the crest of the dunes, running for their lives towards the pump.  John and Rodney stepped out, weapons raised.  Sheppard's expression was stone. McKay's was beleaguered, his jaw gritted firmly.  All ten figures were firing, aiming at the two men, as if, by some stroke of luck, their bullets might breach the force field.  Neither Atlantian fired back, neither seeing any reason to waste their ammunition until they had clearer shots.

 

"Wow," McKay said, his voice trembling slightly as he watched the light show caused by the bullets impacting the shield. "They really want to kill us, don't they?"

 

"Apparently," John replied, eyes narrowing as the figures got closer, their collective yells ear-piercing.

 

"Why?" McKay asked.

 

The colonel just shook his head, then straightened as, like an ocean wave, dozens of men and women in pale yellow washed over the dunes behind the running figures, firing at the backs of their would be killers. 

 

McKay put his gun down, his jaw agape.  Sheppard lowered his as well, not wanting to fire and hit any of the Orkidian troops.

 

One by one, the black clad figures went down, until there was just one, screaming in fury, running straight at the field...and straight at McKay.  The scientist just watched, unmoving, the gun loose in his fingers.

 

The ambusher got close enough for Sheppard to see that, yes, it was a woman.  She was screaming, her face twisted with rage and determination, eyes wide and insane.  She'd thrown her gun aside at some point, and had pulled a knife, raising it over her head as she charged.

 

Sheppard put the P90 down, and pulled his 9MM, even though he knew it wasn't necessary, and pointed it at her head.

 

McKay shut his eyes.

 

She hit the shield running, and it rejected her with a thousand bolts of energy, throwing her backwards ten feet.  She landed poorly, her neck angled wrong. 

 

McKay immediately turned and went inside, never having opened his eyes.  John stayed where he was, the amulet still warm on his chest.  Looking up, he saw Teyla, unmistakable amongst the Orkidian troops despite the Orkidian scarf draped around her head, disengage and run forward.  She hesitated on the threshold, but John waved her inside.  She stepped through with a confident step, eyeing him up and down.

 

"Are you and Rodney all right?" she asked, eyebrows lifting.

 

"Fine," he nodded. "Thanks."

 

She gave him a nod, then turned behind her.  Elizabeth, guarded closely by Ronon, along with Perrit and an extremely tall, gray haired man with the air of a commander approached the water pump.  Other troops were securing the downed people in black, checking for survivors.

 

Elizabeth walked inside the safety of the water pump's field, her own eyes appraising his health, and he nodded at her.  She smiled back in obvious relief, then disappeared inside to check on Rodney with Ronon still on her heels.  Ambassador Perrit barely looked at John as she brushed past to get inside as well, and a soft sob emitted from the interior as she obviously found Dazy. 

 

"Colonel Sheppard," Teyla said then, standing to one side and gesturing to the gray haired man. "May I introduce Commander Delian."

 

The gray haired man crossed his arms and bowed to John, and the Colonel returned it. 

 

"Commander."

 

"Colonel."

 

Before either man could say anything else, Rodney emerged with Ronon and Elizabeth on his heels—the scientist shouldering his pack on his shoulder while Elizabeth had somehow ended up carrying two pieces of his equipment. The wry expression on her face suggested she had probably offered to help carry without expecting to be taken up on it—clearly, she had not been off-world often enough with McKay.  Rodney had put his sunglasses on again and had his head down.

 

Delian eyed the scientist for a moment, before turning his attention back to the Atlantian military commander.  "Colonel, can you tell me what happened?"

 

John nodded and quickly described everything he could. Commander Delian took in the information calmly, grimacing when John finished.

 

"And you have no idea why they attacked," he asked.

 

"No, sir, I do not.  Nor why they were so determined, even up until the end.  They must have known we would call for help."

 

Delian pursed his lips, then shook his head.  "Not necessarily.  We do not have communication devices as effective as yours.  Still...," he shook his head, "it is odd that they didn't give up sooner, once it must have been obvious that they could not breach the force field.  Speaking of which," the commander looked up and around, as if he could see the invisible shield, "I did not know it could repel bullets."

 

"It couldn't," Rodney said quietly, looking up. "I modified it. But it drains too much energy to be sustained, so I've returned it back to its original programming."

 

Delian arched an eyebrow at the scientist, "You must have done that very quickly.  I am impressed.  I was also told that you repaired this pump in, if I may say, record time?"

 

Rodney just shrugged, looking off into the distance. "Wasn't that hard. Not when you know what you're doing, as I always do."  Delian's eyes narrowed at the arrogant statement, but it was its lack of bite that had John glancing worriedly at Elizabeth, who nodded back.  McKay was done for the day.  

 

"I think we should go," Ronon said calmly.  John gave him a tiny smile—they all knew Rodney too well. 

 

"Agreed," Teyla said. She nodded up at the Orkidian commander. "Commander Delian, is there anything more we can offer you in assistance?"

 

Delian stared at them a moment, then shook his head.  "Not at the moment, but we may contact you again."

 

"You know where to find us," John said.

 

"Yes.  Thank you.  I'll have my men escort you back to the Stargate."

 

"Ah, wait, first..." John pulled the amulet off his chest, and glanced at McKay. "Did you put the other two amulets back in the system as well?"

 

Rodney just nodded, still not looking at him.  John grimaced, then made to hand the amulet to the Commander.

 

But Delian didn't take it—he just shook his head.  Sheppard frowned, eyes following the commander as the gray haired man backed away and looked into the pump.

 

"Ambassador Perrit?" Delian called, his tone respectful.

 

A couple of beats passed, and the stately woman appeared in the doorway.  Her face was tear-streaked, but her chin was lifted proudly.

 

"Yes, Commander?"

 

"Sheppard has your son's amulet, Ambassador."

 

Perrit glanced at the colonel, saw the amulet in his hands, and held her hand out.  Sheppard immediately gave it to her.  She grasped it firmly and drew it back to her chest with a nod.

 

"You're leaving?" she asked quietly.

 

"Yes," he said. He glanced past her to the pump and her son inside. "I'm sorry."

 

She swallowed, but nodded. "As am I."

 

"We will be in touch," Elizabeth assured.  " If you need anything, just let us know. You know how to contact us."

 

"I do," Perrit said, clasping her arms together and bowing.  Elizabeth returned it.

 

Moments later, the Atlantians were headed back out across the desert, heading towards the Stargate, escorted by about ten of Delian's soldiers. 

 

Had they looked behind, they would have seen Perrit standing in the doorway, listening to something Delian was telling her, but her eyes trailing the Atlantians as they disappeared.  In particular, she watched the broad back of Rodney, her expression unreadable.

________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FIVE: SELF-DESTRUCTIVE

 

Elizabeth frowned, staring up at Rodney with a bleak expression, her hands clenching a little before flattening to press down on her desk. The scientist had his arms crossed where he stood before her, lips pressed together tightly in an indignant frown.

 

It had been only a day since their return from Orkidia—they hadn't even had an official debriefing about what had occurred—and McKay had just dropped a bomb that would make future talks with the planet even more strained.  Behind Rodney, Sheppard was leaning against the door frame leading into Elizabeth's office, his own arms crossed, expression carefully neutral.

 

"You're certain?" Elizabeth asked Rodney.

 

"Yes," Rodney replied darkly. "The part was deliberately damaged. I guessed at it yesterday on the planet, but was only able to confirm it last night.  I've checked the data twice." He shook his head, disgust evident in his tone. "The water pump was sabotaged."

 

Sheppard snorted, tilting his head. "Why would someone want to sabotage the water pump?"

 

Rodney frowned, turning slightly to look at the colonel over his shoulder. "What?"

 

"The water pump," Sheppard repeated, "why would someone sabotage it?"

 

McKay's eyebrows rose. "You're asking me?  Why would I know?" 

 

Sheppard shook his head, smiling wryly. "No. It was meant to be rhetorical, McKay.  I wasn't really looking for an answer.  I just meant, it seems a rather dumb thing to do when you live on a desert planet."

 

"Yes, obviously. But it's more than just dumb." Rodney looked back at Elizabeth. "It's sick.  Like someone vandalizing the Mona Lisa.  It's just wrong."

 

"I'd have said it's more like locking yourself in a garage with the motor running, but to each his own."  John smirked slightly, but not in amusement.  Rodney just glared at him.

 

"What?" he said. "What does—"

 

"I think what Colonel Sheppard meant, Rodney," Elizabeth twisted her lips and stood up, crossing her arms across her chest, "is that it seems irrational to do something that self-destructive."  She lowered her head, so she didn't see the flash of anguish in Rodney's eyes at her words.  "Can you think of any..." she waggled her head a bit before looking up at him again, "mechanical or scientific reason why someone might want to damage that part?"

 

Rodney snorted, "Of course not.  Don't be ridiculous."

 

"Okay," she pursed her lips. "Well, there must have been a reason.  I suppose, considering what happened when we got there..." she took in a deep breath, looking past Rodney to John, "You don't think it was to lure us there, do you?"

 

She saw John lift his chin—he'd obviously already thought of that but didn't want to voice it—but Rodney was shaking his head vehemently, raising a hand to her.  "No. No chance.  The damage I found occurred over time, starting long before we even got to this galaxy.  Someone took a very sharp knife and carved fine cracks in the crystal.  Although," his grimaced, "more recently, the cuts were deeper and thicker, as if someone was feeling rushed."

 

"More recently, eh?" Sheppard said, looking from Rodney to Elizabeth and back again. "Because the saboteur knew we were coming to help?"

 

Rodney's grimace deepened into a frown, but he gave a shrug. "Maybe.  But it doesn't explain why someone would want to do it in the first place." He shook his head, focusing on a point on the floor near Sheppard's feet. "Putting aside the obviously criminal disregard for a beautiful piece of engineering, you're right to call it self destructive."  He glanced up at Elizabeth. "Damaging that water pump is akin to our trying to sink this City. It doesn't make sense—they need it to survive."

 

Elizabeth shrugged. "So it would seem.  Unless someone is trying to get the Orkdians to leave that planet."

 

"Why?" McKay said.

 

She gave him a tiny smile, eyes twinkling a little. "You're asking me?" she echoed dryly. "Why would I know?"

 

Rodney gave her a dark look, "Oh. Very droll."

 

She smiled cheekily, "I thought so."

 

John straightened then, stepping forward so he was shoulder to shoulder with McKay. "So," he asked Elizabeth, "what do you want us to do?"

 

She frowned at him, looked down at her desk, then back up.  After a moment, she sighed.

 

"It's information we need to pass on to them," she stated firmly.  Her face twisted into a grimace, shaking her head.  "As if Ambassador Perrit didn't have enough to think—"

 

She was interrupted by the alarm sounding, and, for a moment, they froze, before turning and walking swiftly out of her office to the Control Room. The Gate was spinning down below, even as Chuck informed Weir (somewhat unnecessarily) that it was an unscheduled off-world activation.  McKay was already pushing past people, sliding into a chair next to the technician and calling up information. As the Stargate activated, Chuck took one look at the screen before glancing up at Elizabeth.

 

"The Alpha Site.  Stackhouse's ID."

 

"Let him through," Elizabeth said.  Chuck immediately shut down the shield.  But no one walked through, instead, Stackhouse's voice called over the radio.

 

"Atlantis, this is Sergeant Stackhouse."

 

"Go ahead, Sergeant," Sheppard replied into his radio.

 

"We have a request from Ambassador Perrit of P4G-174 to meet with Doctor Weir and Doctor McKay. But she would like to have the meeting here at the Alpha Site."

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow, glancing at Elizabeth.  She grimaced. 

 

"We can't meet her on her own planet?" she asked.

 

"She was insistent, ma'am.  She wants to meet with you and Doctor McKay, but she says she can not do it on P4G-174."

 

Elizabeth sighed, looking down at the floor for a moment, then again at Sheppard.  "What do you think?"

 

"I don't like anyone traveling to the Alpha Site, Elizabeth, you know that.  However, I don't think Ambassador Perrit is a threat.  I imagine she must have good reason."

 

Elizabeth nodded, agreeing with his statement.  Reaching up, she tapped her own radio to tell Stackhouse to set it up, when Rodney stopped her. 

 

"Um..." McKay held up a hand, "Can I...do I have to go?"

 

That surprised Elizabeth enough that she actually turned to look at him. "What?"

 

"Just...," he gave a shrug, "I have a great deal to—"

 

"You're going, Rodney," she said, adding the weight of 'that's an order' to her voice. "Besides," she looked back at the wormhole, "you can apprise her of the sabotage at the same time." 

 

"Right," McKay muttered miserably. "Of course."  Had Elizabeth looked at Sheppard then, she would have seen the worried look he gave his friend, but she was already tapping her earpiece.

 

"Okay, Sergeant," she said. "Set it up for..." she looked down at her watch, "0900 hours tomorrow morning. I'll be there with Sheppard's Team."

 

"VIP Tent, ma'am?"

 

Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head.  The alpha site was all tents, in deference to its constantly moving nature.  The "VIP" tent was just the largest of them all.

 

"Yes, Sergeant, the VIP tent."

 

"Okay, ma'am.  See you then."

 

"And standard precautions, Sergeant," Sheppard added.

 

"Yes, sir.  Alpha Site out."

 

John clicked off his radio and glanced askance at the expedition leader, "Wonder what this is about." 

 

In return, Elizabeth just shrugged.

 

"Whatever it is, it's probably bad for us," Rodney mumbled, fiddling with something on the console, staring distractedly at something on the laptop screen before him.

 

"Always so willing to stick his neck out for others, our Rodney," Elizabeth joked, looking at John.  He smiled back, but there was something guarded in it.  Her smile faltered slightly, wondering what that look meant.

 

"Ha, ha," McKay mumbled, eyes narrowing as something flashed red on the screen.  Then he rocketed out of the chair, tapping his earpiece and running from the room.  "Radek! What the hell are you doing to level six!"

_________________________________________________

 

Rodney slowed down as soon as he left the Control Room, and diverted his path to head towards the stairs.  He clicked his radio frequency to the science channel.

 

"Radek," he called again.

 

"Rodney?" the Czech replied on the same frequency, sounding very confused. "I just checked. There's nothing wrong with Level Six."

 

"I know," Rodney replied, rubbing a hand over the tight muscles in his neck. "My mistake.  Don’t worry about it."  Clicking off the radio, he hit the stairs and started taking them up, two at a time. 

 

At the top, the stairs opened out onto a small balcony that ringed the uppermost tower.  Breathing heavily from the exertion, Rodney stepped out onto it and glanced down at the ocean hundreds of feet below.  Turning, he walked slowly to the far end of the balcony and grasped the railing with both hands. 

 

Leaning heavily against the metal support, he closed his eyes and bowed his head.

 

And tried to will the face of the woman who had charged the water pump from his mind.

__________________________________________________

 

Perrit was fiddling with the folds of her long, cream colored cloak, looking very uncomfortable in the cool air of the alpha site.  A sweet, lilac flavored breeze wafted through the folds of the massive white tent in which they sat, ruffling the steel grey hair on her head, and she shivered.  Outside, a soft, misting rain was falling, but the soothing sound only seemed to increase her discomfort, the fingers pulling at her cloak tugging just a little too hard. She sighed, her shadowed, red-rimmed blue eyes seeking Elizabeth's, then McKay's.

 

"I came because I need your help," she said, staring at the scientist.  Her voice was half the strength it normally was.

 

"My help?" he replied, confused.  "Has the pump broken down again?"

 

"No," she said, looking down again.

 

McKay frowned, "Then I don't—"

 

"Perhaps," Elizabeth said, leaning forward in her chair, "you should let her explain, Rodney."

 

He grimaced, but shut up.  Perrit nodded.

 

"Thank you, Doctor Weir." She looked up again, and this time she looked around the tent at the four people with her.  It was the same group that she had met a few days before, except that the Satedan, Ronon Dex, was missing.  Considering the way he had looked at her outside, she did not mind. "As I said, I need your help, and, in light of what you just told me about the water pump being sabotaged, that help is even more desperately needed."  She sucked in a deep breath, sighed heavily, and fixed Elizabeth with a proud gaze. "I believe someone high up in our government orchestrated the murder of my son and the attempt on Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard." Her eyes flicked from Rodney to John, before returning to Elizabeth. "But I don't know who.  All I know is, I can no longer trust any of the people I work with, and there is no one on my planet whom I can to go to for answers."  She gave a sad smile. "And so I have come here."

 

Elizabeth frowned, and she leaned forward, nodding gently at the older woman. "That is a very difficult position to be in, Ambassador. And I can sympathize—we suffer many of the same foibles on our world as well.  But," she shook her head, "I do not know exactly how you think we can help you."    

 

Perrit nodded again, obviously expecting this. "I realize this must seem odd."  She reached into her bag, shuffling its contents for a moment, before withdrawing what looked like an audio tape "But I came to you because of this..."  She looked at them again, her eyes soft, handing the tape to Doctor McKay.  "It is my son's recording of what happened two days ago, when you," she glanced at McKay, "and you," her eyes turned to Sheppard, who was standing over Weir's shoulder, "fixed the pump.  Did you mean what you said on there?" she asked, staring up at the Colonel.

 

"What I said?" Sheppard repeated, obviously confused.  "About what?"

 

"About Doctor McKay."

 

Rodney's eyebrows rose, and he looked curiously at Sheppard.  The Colonel's arms crossed over his chest, expression darkening. 

 

"Um..."

 

"You said that Doctor McKay could probably answer any question put to him, is that true?"

 

Sheppard closed his eyes, not needing to see the smug look on Rodney's face as the scientist shifted in his chair to grin up at him. 

 

"Oh, really?" McKay said, his smile so wide it threatened to split his face.

 

Sighing, the colonel opened his eyes and looked at Perrit.  "I might have said something...along those lines," he admitted begrudgingly.

 

If possible, McKay's smile grew even wider.  Sheppard swallowed hard and pretended not to notice.

 

"But you believe it to be true," Perrit pushed.  Sheppard looked like he was in pain, but he nodded.  McKay looked like the cat that just ate the canary—he even danced a little in his seat.

 

Paying no attention, Perrit looked back to Doctor Weir, "Then I would like to ask your permission to have Doctor McKay—and anyone else he wishes to accompany him—return to my planet and help me discover who killed my son."

 

McKay made a sudden choking sound, turning to stare back at Perrit with wide eyes.  Elizabeth's own expression was not far behind it.

 

"What?" McKay snapped.  "Are you kidding?"

 

Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ambassador, I don't think we understand.  How could Doctor McKay help?"

 

"Because whomever killed my son is the same person who damaged the water pump, of that I am sure.  Doctor McKay is the only one who would know the right questions to ask, and, being an off-worlder, would be outside the politics of my world," Perrit explained. "And because I believe he would find the answers.  Isn't that what he does?  Finds the answers to things?"

 

McKay was shaking his head. "No, no, no," he stuttered, "I didn't...I can't...I don't...."  Next to him, Elizabeth sighed, resting a hand on his arm to quiet the scientist.

 

"What Rodney is trying to say, Ambassador, is that he's a scientist, not a detective.  I think you misunderstood what the colonel was trying to say."  And she glanced up at Sheppard, arching an eyebrow, as if chastising him for feeding the beast.  Sheppard gave a small shrug.  Elizabeth looked back at Perrit, taking her hand from Rodney's arm. "The fact is, Rodney understands machines, Ambassador, not people."

 

McKay was nodding, then stopped when he realized he might have just been insulted. "Oh, well, that's not entirely—"

 

"Not now, Rodney," Elizabeth said, not taking her eyes off of Perrit.  The Orkidian was frowning, meeting the gaze evenly.

 

"I did not misunderstand," Perrit stated firmly. "This is about machines.  It's about machines, and someone using them to hurt my people." She turned again to Rodney. "That pump was failing for years, Doctor McKay.  You fixed it in minutes. That alone shows your aptitude for solving puzzles. You saw straight through that machine to the problem, and you solved it.  I have absolute faith that you could turn that same aptitude to figuring out who it was that damaged the pump."  

 

McKay stared at her, dumbfounded. "But...how? I mean, I—"

 

"As an ambassador, I have gotten very good at reading other diplomats, Doctor. My instincts can tell me who is lying, who is boasting, and who is genuine.  Would I be wrong to suggest that you may have that same ability to rate the people in your profession? Other scientists?"

 

Rodney grimaced, "Well, no, but—"

 

"Only someone with a background similar to yours could have damaged that pump under my son's nose, Doctor, and there are very few with those sorts of skills on my world.  Three to be exact. You are the only person I know who could possibly ferret out which person that is for me."

 

Elizabeth glanced at Rodney, then back at Perrit.  She shook her head. "Dame Perrit, while we appreciate your request, we—"

 

"And in return," Perrit interrupted quickly, leaning forward, her voice softening, "I can offer you and your people," she paused, obviously hesitating, then plunged on, "something which no other planet can offer."

 

Elizabeth grimaced at that, not liking the sound of that. "Ambassador, I'm not sure what—"

 

"I can offer your people sanctuary from the Wraith, Doctor Weir."

 

Everyone in the tent straightened.  Elizabeth tilted her head, as if she hadn't heard correctly.

 

"I'm sorry?"

 

"I can not explain how or why, but I can promise you that if you are ever attacked by the Wraith and need somewhere to go...you would find sanctuary on Orkidia.  And you would be safe.  Safer than anywhere else.  They would not find you.  Ever."

 

Elizabeth's brow furrowed, desperately trying to read the meaning behind the statement.

 

"The Wraith do not visit Orkidia?" Teyla asked, sitting on Rodney's other side.

 

"No, they come," Perrit said, glancing at the Athosian, "But they leave empty handed.  We are completely safe from the Wraith."

 

Sheppard shook his head, frowning. "Why?  How is that possible?"

 

"As I said, I can not explain now," Perrit replied. "Nor will I honor this bargain, should you try to take advantage of what I just told you without fulfilling your end."  She sat straight backed again, her eyes unblinking. "So, what do you say?"

 

Elizabeth just stared at Perrit, obviously not sure how to respond.  McKay was watching her, his lips parted, eyes uncertain.  Sheppard and Teyla wore identical frowns, not hiding their distrust. But Elizabeth was staring openly at the woman opposite her, obviously measuring her....

 

"I need to discuss this with my people first," she said finally. "Would you mind waiting outside?"

 

Perrit gave a single nod. "Of course."  She stood up, gave them all a small bow, then retreated out of the tent.  A marine by the door followed her out, to make sure she did not eavesdrop.

________________________________________________

 

McKay slumped down in his chair, staring down at the grassy earthen floor.  Teyla rested a hand on his shoulder. Sheppard moved to sit in the chair Perrit had vacated, so that he would be level with Elizabeth and Rodney. 

 

"No way," he stated firmly when Elizabeth raised a questioning eyebrow at him. "We're not doing this." 

 

McKay looked up at that, then at Elizabeth, to see her reaction. 

 

"I'm not disagreeing that there is a risk..." Elizabeth said.

 

"Elizabeth, Dame Perrit is hiding something," Teyla said, obviously agreeing with the colonel. "I do not know what it is, other than there is obviously some sort of power struggle going on, but I do not think we can afford to get involved with whatever it is." 

 

"Normally, Teyla, I would agree with you," Elizabeth said. "But we have to take into account that we have had to move our Alpha Site four times in just this last year.  We will run out of options eventually, and if, as a result of helping these people, our security can be enhanced—"

 

"Elizabeth, no," Sheppard said then, almost angrily. "We'll find another way."

 

She frowned at him. "Perhaps," she said evenly, "but at what cost?  We have already lost so many, surviving by the skin of our teeth so many times. If what Perrit is offering is genuine, we owe it to ourselves to check it out."

 

"There is a falseness to her, Elizabeth," Teyla said, shaking her head. "I know you see it too.  And I know that if Ronon were here, he would say the same. Who knows what the repercussions of that falseness could be?" And she gripped McKay's shoulder a little, causing both Elizabeth and Sheppard to look at him before looking up again at the Athosian.

 

The scientist had been quiet, still tossing Perrit's words around in his head as the other's spoke. Fact was, he kept seeing that woman's face in his mind, the one who had charged the force field, the one who had committed suicide in her desperation to kill him.  And those others—the ones he had killed.

 

That he had killed.

 

He looked down at his hands, opening them and slowly gripping them into fists.    

 

He needed to understand, to know why, to make sense of it.  There had to be reason, had to be a purpose.  It couldn't have been for nothing.

 

He needed to know.

 

He glanced towards his shoulder, as if seeing Teyla's hand there for the first time.  Abruptly, he frowned—he hated being talked around, hated being treated like a child.  He particularly hated having decisions made for him.  When he looked up again, he face was flushed with determination.

 

Elizabeth was grimacing, looking down at the ground now, as if worn down by the others. "Perhaps you are both right, I—"

 

"Not they're not," Rodney said sharply, fixing Sheppard with a glare as he jerked his shoulder forward. He felt Teyla quickly lift her hand away from him, but he didn't turn to look at her.  "If Perrit is telling the truth, if they have some means to protect themselves against the Wraith, we need to know what it is.  We have to go back."

 

Sheppard eyebrows lifted. "McKay, come on." He pointed vaguely outside. "The woman is obviously lying. She's just trying to get you back there for some reason.  I'm not going to risk you for some mythical weapon."

 

"You think she's lying about their being safe from the Wraith?" Elizabeth asked, surprised.  "Because I didn't sense that at all.  She's lying about something, but I don't think it's that."

 

"Yeah, well, I do," Sheppard affirmed. "And Teyla does too," he glanced at the Athosian, "Don't you?" 

 

In return, Teyla frowned a little.

 

"Actually," she replied with obvious reluctance, "Elizabeth is right.  Perrit is not telling the whole truth, but I do not think she is lying about their being protected from the Wraith. I just know that we can not trust her."  She shook her head, "I just feel like there is something wrong here."

 

"Yeah, something's wrong," Sheppard said, crossing his arms. "She's lying." 

 

Teyla gave him a long suffering look.

 

"All I know, John," Elizabeth said then. "is that if she's telling us the truth, can we afford not to go?  And as to whether we can trust her," she looked at Teyla, "if trusting her now means we may have a way to save your people and mine someday, Teyla, I think it's worth the risk."

 

Teyla grimaced at that, but did not disagree again.

 

"Oh, come on," Sheppard said, leaning back and throwing up his hands.  "Are you two blind?  She needs McKay for some reason.  I don't know what, but I'm not about to let him—"

 

"Hey!" Rodney shouted, waving a hand out, "I'm right here!"

 

"Yes, that's right, you are," Sheppard said, staring at him. "And since when do you volunteer to go into harm's way, eh?  Come on!  Stick with me here, McKay.  You're usually the first one to see the worst in people.  Are you telling me you think she's telling the truth?"

 

"Actually, yes," McKay said, his mind moving quickly, "but not because I trust her."  He leaned forward, and almost smiled. Now that he was thinking again, something incredibly obvious had just occurred to him. "Do you realize, Colonel, that P4G-174 has three perfectly intact Ancient devices on it, devices that have never been touched by a Wraith weapon.  Devices that stick out like a sore thumb?"  He pointed at the colonel, "Name one planet we've been to where you've seen that before."

 

Sheppard frowned.  McKay nodded, smiling a little as he grew more excited.

 

"Every planet we've been to where there was an outpost or a city or some other aspect of Ancient culture on it is a story in ruins.  These are intact—that must mean they're protected somehow.  And if whatever protects them, protects Perrit's people...?"  He lifted his eyebrows, not needing to finish his statement, because Sheppard was already slumping in resignation.

 

"All right," the colonel grumbled, looking down at his hands, "I guess you have a point."

 

McKay gave him a smug smile.

 

"Well then," Elizabeth said, leaning back in her chair, "I guess we're agreeing to helping Perrit solve her son's murder." 

 

McKay's smile faltered, Teyla grimaced and Sheppard looked down again at the ground. 

 

Elizabeth gave a wry smile, not in the least surprised. "Well," she said, "This should be interesting."

____________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SIX: GATHERING INTEL

 

"No! Sheppard, this is a bad idea!" Ronon was furious, crossing his arms tightly as he watched a very pleased Perrit being escorted back to the Stargate.  Elizabeth had asked him not to take part in the meeting, knowing his opinion already, and he was clearly regretting his agreement to stay out now.  The muscles in his arms tensed, as if on the verge of punching something.

 

"You can not trust these people," he snarled as he turned to face the Atlantians and Teyla, his disappointment focused entirely on Sheppard, as if the colonel were somehow to blame.  "I told you that."

 

"Yes, you did," John replied, "and we are aware that there could be dangers.  But," he held up a finger, "Elizabeth and Rodney have a point, Ronon.  If these people—"

 

"These people are the worst sort of pretenders.  I've told you the stories—visitors disappear on their planet, never to be heard from again.  The Orkidians claim they are lost in the desert, or they claim it is the Wraith, and yet, they themselves never seem to come to harm."  He glared at Elizabeth now, "And yet you still want to go back there?  Send McKay back there?"

 

"Yes, well," McKay said, looking increasingly nervous about what he'd pretty much volunteered for, "we're not just ordinary visitors, are we?  We're more advanced than your usual—"

 

"You're an idiot," Ronon growled at him. "Your overconfidence will just get you killed faster."

 

McKay's expression shifted instantly to furious.  "My overconfidence?  What about you, Mr. Fists of Fury? You're under the delusion that you can beat up every problem or gun it down and it won't come back to bite you in the—"

 

"McKay!" Sheppard snapped, at the same time that Elizabeth hissed out a "Rodney!"

 

The scientist's arms snapped defensively over his chest with military precision, his chin lifting.

 

"I'm just saying..."

 

"You always are," Ronon sneered back.

 

McKay's eyes narrowed, "Oh, that's it. Okay, fine, next time you need someone to rescue you from some technological nightmare, don't expect me to pull you out!"

 

"I never do," Ronon sniffed.

 

"Oh, please!  Who got stuck in that crazy energy field last week because they were too trigger happy around the ancient equipment on P4X-188, eh?  Dreads shooting off sparks like hairy Roman Candles sound familiar?"  He waved his hands around his head as he spoke, stopping when Ronon suddenly loomed over him.

 

"Well, I wouldn't have had to shoot it in the first place if you hadn't locked us in that pla—"

 

"Me?" Rodney had hopped back a step, but now he leaned forward, up on his toes, his finger in Ronon's face. "I didn't do anything!  You're the one who set off the—"

 

"Boys!" Elizabeth snapped. "Stop it!"

 

McKay huffed and crossed his arms tightly across his chest, while Ronon just glowered at him.  Finally, he took in a deep breath, backed up and turned his glower on Elizabeth.

 

"All I'm saying is, this is a bad idea, and thinking your technology can save you—" 

 

"Yes," Elizabeth said, "Ronon, I think we get it." She shook her head. "Look, while it is true that overconfidence is a trait that Rodney often suffers from," she ignored the glare Rodney threw at her for that, "I like to think that the rest of us do not."  She held up a hand when Ronon looked ready to speak again. "No, listen to me.  We are painfully aware that we have been in over our heads from the moment we walked through the gate into Atlantis—believe me, we are not about to walk into any situation blindly thinking that our technology can save us.  We've made that mistake enough times."

 

Ronon shook his head. "And yet, you still agreed to let McKay go back there."

 

"Yes, because the possible benefits outweigh the risks." She shook her head at him. "If the Orkidians have a means to defeat the Wraith," she gave a small shrug, "we can not ignore the opportunity."  Ronon scowled again, and Elizabeth sighed. "Ronon, please understand.  While I trust your opinion, I also know that it is only an opinion.  One based on rumor and speculation that the Orkidians have done all those things you've described to Colonel Sheppard and me.  But there is no proof to back any of it up, nothing but gossip and hearsay. And up until now," her eyebrows lifted, "they have been nothing but good to us." 

 

"So were the Genii before they invaded Atlantis and tried to kill you," Ronon said quietly.

 

Elizabeth's eyes hardened.

 

"Low blow, Ronon," Sheppard hissed.

 

"I don't suppose I have to point out that the Genii are our allies now, do I?" Rodney interjected, his eyebrows lifted as he physically stepped into their line of sight, waving his hand.

 

Teyla came him a small smile in return, but Ronon just huffed.

 

"For now," he said. 

 

McKay's shoulders slumped as he backed out of the ring again, standing next to Sheppard.

 

"You know, Rodney," the Colonel whispered to the scientist, "I think your crown as the biggest cynic might be being usurped." 

 

Rodney just returned the quip with a sardonic smile.

 

Elizabeth steeled her jaw, facing Ronon squarely. "As I said," she said, her voice tight, "we know the risks."  She lifted her chin, and there was authority in that gaze now. "And we will be careful.  But the decision has been made."

 

Ronon grimaced, trying to stare her down, but, eventually, his eyes slid away.  Elizabeth gave a small nod, and turned to look at the Colonel.  Sheppard frowned at her, and she grimaced.  With another sigh, she turned back to the Satedan.

 

"Look," she stepped closer to Ronon, "I would understand if you do not wish to accompany—"

 

"What?" Sheppard said, turning his frown on her. "No. Elizabeth, he's part of the team.  This is not your decision.  He's going."

 

She sighed, glancing at the colonel. "John, I realize  it's not my place, but if Ronon feels so strongly about the Orkidians that he—"

 

"Weir," Ronon said, interrupting her, frowning a little. "Sheppard's right.  I go with my team."  He said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

 

She lifted her eyebrows at him. "Are you sure?"

 

Ronon just looked at her like she was crazy. "I go where Sheppard tells me to go," he stated firmly.  Then he shrugged, "Besides, I'm not about to let anything happen to McKay or anyone else on that planet.  Those people even look at him wrong..."  He trailed off, resting his hand on the gun at his hip to finish his point. 

 

McKay gave a short laugh at that. "Huh.  Well," he shrugged, loosening his arms, "I know I feel better." When Ronon frowned at him, Rodney just gave him a crooked smile in return. "What? I can't feel better?  Okay, fine." He shrugged, pointing vaguely to the left. "I'll just go back to being mad at you, since you know I can win that argument if I really wanted to.  Next time your hair decides to do it's impression of a human sparkler, I'll just sit back and watch.  Maybe toast some marshmallows."

 

Ronon blinked as the words registered, then cracked a laugh as McKay gave him a small smile.  Whipping out his arm, the Satedan roughly rubbed the top of Rodney's head.  The scientist squawked and ducked away.

 

Elizabeth smiled softly at the antics, obviously grateful to have that settled. "All right," she sighed. "Good.  Now, as proof that we are not about to go in completely blind—we are going to get as much intel as we can first.  Teyla is going to ask the Athosians to ask some discreet questions for us, and we'll send some inquiries to our more trusted allies as well." She looked at the Athosian, and Teyla nodded back.  Elizabeth smiled, returning her gaze to Ronon, "And...we have one other contact of our own that we're going to check with."

 

Ronon arched an eyebrow, "Who?"

 

Elizabeth just smiled more brightly, and turned to look behind her where a marine was hovering nearby.

 

"Corporal, can you go find Doctor Simpson for me?"

_____________________________________________

 

"Actually, I have plans to meet with Eric in about a week," Doctor Simpson said, blushing a little as she brushed back some of the dark blond hair off her face. "He's, um," she blushed a little deeper, "trading some items for us in return for...other items."

 

"Funny that," McKay said, rolling his eyes. "A trader trading for goods.  How shocking."

 

"You think Connam will be able to help?" Sheppard asked, glancing at Weir.

 

"I think you made a valuable friend in Eric Connam, Colonel," Elizabeth replied, nodding. "He is not shy about what he does—he's the type of man who makes a living out of being able to read people.  I have a feeling that, if anyone knows anything about the Orkidians, it will be him."  She looked across at Ronon. "Okay?"

 

He just shrugged.  He's spoken his official ten words for the day—he was done now.

 

"Well, for now," Elizabeth looked around at all of them, "I suggest you prepare for the mission as best you can.  We promised Perrit you would be there in a couple of days, ready to solve her mystery.  Take as many precautions as you can, but don't scare her off.  If they have a weapon, we need to know what it is."

______________________________________________

 

The intel they gathered before leaving was pretty sparse, and didn't tell them much more than what they had already learned from their own visits to the planet.  The Orkidians were reputed to be a closed society, rarely letting people visit their home world, preferring the anonymity of the market worlds.  In fact, many traders on Belkan were surprised the Atlantians had been as welcomed as they were, though a few noted that it was probably in deference to Atlantians' level of technology.  Apparently, the Hoffans used to visit every so often, as did the Genii.  Then the Genii lost some people on Orkidia, and never went back.  The Hoffans, of course, wouldn't be visiting anyone anymore. 

 

As for the rumors that Ronon had already described to them, the tales of Orkidian duplicity grew wilder and more strange the more people they asked.  After a while, Elizabeth likened it to the rumors surrounding a haunted house spread by children.  No one really knew what Orkidia was like—people just liked to tell stories.

 

To be honest, some of the rumors they heard reminded them of the rumors that filtered back to them regarding Atlantis—some of which were downright mind-boggling in their inaccuracy.

 

In the end, all that they really learned was that Orkidians were known as fair traders in the markets and, generally, good people. 

 

Hoping that to be the underlying truth, Elizabeth gave the mission the go.

 

————————————————————————————

 

Three days after Perrit had made her plea, Sheppard's Team found themselves once more on Orkidia, met by Perrit alone this time.  She still appeared pale, but she smiled warmly when they came through the Stargate.  There was no hiding the gratitude she felt—whatever else she might be hiding from them, her gratefulness for their presence was clearly genuine.

 

At the first touch of sand under his feet, Rodney was already uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to the other as he watched Sheppard greet Perrit by offering her the traditional bow.  The Orkidian sun overhead was too bright, as usual, and the desert air too dry.  Sand lifted and stung his uncovered cheeks despite the protective medallion, and he frowned. 

 

What the hell had he gotten them into?

 

Swallowing, already thinking his throat felt parched, he tuned into Sheppard's conversation with Perrit.  Behind them, the wormhole was still engaged, and, without encouragement, he followed Teyla and Ronon to one side to get out of the way.

 

Sheppard was smiling, turning Perrit to face him, putting her back to the wormhole, asking her something about the gate, something about whether they had any shielding on it.  Perrit looked confused.

 

"Shielding?"

 

Meanwhile, behind her back, a jumper blew out of the wormhole and instantly cloaked. 

 

Perrit, of course, heard it, and she whipped around, staring back at the innocent looking gate.

 

"Something wrong?" Sheppard asked, arching an eyebrow as Perrit searched the endless dunes for what she had heard.  McKay tried not to roll his eyes—Sheppard was about as subtle as a jackhammer.  Perrit just continued to look confused, but, seeing nothing, turned a sharp-eyed gaze to Sheppard.  She clearly knew that he was keeping something from her, but, after a moment of silence, gave a simple head-shake.

 

"No, I...," she grimaced. "I must have been imagining things.  A trick of the wind—it can do that here."

 

At that moment, Elizabeth called over the radio, to make sure everything was all set.  Teyla replied with the all clear, and the gate shut down.

 

McKay resisted the urge to look up, to where he knew the jumper with Cadman, Miller, Johnson and Greene would stay cloaked, keeping watch over them.

 

Perrit, meanwhile, was already moving, asking them to follow her.

___________________________________

 

"What do you know of Orkidia?" she asked, walking between Sheppard and McKay as she led the way to civilization.  Teyla and Ronon took point and rear-guard respectively, both on high alert.

 

"Lieutenant Cadman's team gave us some information," McKay replied, his hand resting uneasily on the P90 strapped to his uniform. "We know Orkidia is made up of three communities...."

 

"Dendrobia, Cattleya and Vanda," Perrit nodded, "Yes."

 

"And that you are ruled over by a council of six members and..." McKay shrugged, "That's about it.  Other than that, you have a bunch of spices that send our cooks into paroxysms of glee."

 

Perrit smiled indulgently. "We're glad you like them."

 

"Well," McKay muttered under his breath, "the cooks do."

 

Sheppard pursed his lips, glancing askance at the scientist, but Perrit didn't seem offended.  He stepped closer to the Ambassador.  "Cadman also told us that you all live in a canyon of some kind?"

 

"Yes. It's about five miles west of here." She gestured before her, but the only thing visible in that direction was more sand and a couple of monoliths, one of which looked a little like a large, fat man from this distance—for some reason, it reminded McKay of the old outline of Hitchcock they'd attached to his movies. "The canyon is the home to all three communities," Perrit continued. "Truth is, we rarely venture up over the top of the canyon except for those few who visit the water pumps and travel through the Stargate.  Otherwise, we stay down there."

 

"Must be a pretty large canyon," Sheppard mused, never taking his eyes off the dunes around them.  In his ear, he was listening to Cadman describing the layout as clear—nothing appeared to be sneaking up on them.  Miller was using the Life Signs Detector on the HUD to keep track of them.

 

"It is.  It's shaped a little like..." Perrit frowned, as if thinking, then held up her hand, holding up three fingers, "like this.  There is the central part," she indicated her palm, "and then three fingers that stretch out.  Each finger is a different community, and the palm part is mostly farmland and market space.  The central finger is the largest, and that's Dendrobia, where the Council's headquarters are, right at the beginning of the canyon."  She pointed to where her middle finger met her palm. "That was where I was taking your Doctor Weir before we were interrupted.  We took them to the military headquarters in Vanda instead," and here she pointed to her index finger, "which is closest to the main path leading into the canyon from the Stargate."   She put her hand down.

 

"How deep is it?" Rodney asked.

 

"Several hundred feet.  It's very cool and protected down there."  Perrit smiled at him, having obviously not missed the sweat slipping down his face from beneath his hat and sunglasses. 

 

"Formed by rivers, I presume?"

 

"Once.  Long ago.  The rivers are dry now, which is why we are so dependent on the Ancestor's water pumps."

 

"And the size of your population?" Sheppard asked.

 

"We are, perhaps, 80,000 strong...."

 

"80,000?" Teyla interrupted, her eyebrows lifted high over her sunglasses as she glanced back at them. "That is very large.  I have never heard of a planet than can boast so many."

 

"Yes, well," Perrit brushed off the statement, "80,000 is about the size, and yet, for all that, it is still close knit."

Ronon snorted from behind them, and Sheppard shot a warning glance over his shoulder.  Perrit was not oblivious to either the animosity of the large man, nor the wariness of the others, but she was gamely ignoring it.

 

"So, what's the gameplan?" Sheppard asked.

 

"I am taking you to meet the Council.  If anyone sabotaged the pump and killed my son, it will be someone on the Council."

 

"You're certain?"  Teyla glanced back, surprised by the sudden sneer she heard in Perrit's voice.

 

"I am."

 

"Why?"

 

She frowned a moment, then sighed. "As you mentioned before, there are six council members.  Three of those are popularly elected officials from each of the three communities.  The three then appoint an ambassador, which is currently me, and a military leader, whom you have also met—Commander Delian.  The last is the Guildmaster, leader of the scientific, artistic, engineering and labor guilds."  She sighed a little, her eyes looking off into the distance. "Baylor." She pursed her lips, eyes narrowing as she studied the dunes.

 

When she didn't continue, Rodney cleared his throat.

 

"Right," he said, trying to prompt her. "Six council members, got it." He lifted his eyebrows. "And you suspect your fellow council members because..."

 

She grimaced. "It has to be someone on the council because of the amulets—only someone with a green amulet could have accessed the water pump to sabotage it."

 

"And I take it only council members have amulets," Sheppard understood. "Although...was your son on the council?"

 

"No," she shook her head. "Not exactly.  You see, there are only three amulets, one for each of the water pumps.  Tradition dictates that the Vandan amulet is held by the military leader—who is Commander Delian, the Dendrobian amulet by the chief scientist of Orkidia—who was my son, although I have it now until the science guild appoints another chief, and the Cattleyan amulet is held by the Guildmaster—Baylor.  Thus, except for my son's amulet, the other two are held by council members."  She didn't have to say out loud that she didn't think Delian was involved.  McKay wondered what it was about this Baylor guy that had Perrit so convinced he was the murderer.

 

"And that's the only way to access the water pumps, by using an amulet?" Sheppard asked.

 

"Yes," Perrit said.

 

McKay just hummed a little at that, looking away, obviously not quite agreeing with that.  Sheppard glanced at him, then turned back to Perrit, not wanting to interrupt the big brain at the moment.  He'd get back to McKay on whatever the scientist was thinking later.

 

"Can I ask a question?" Teyla said, looking over he shoulder at them. "Having a six-member governing council seems strange to me.  What happens when you have a split vote?"

 

Perrit gave a wry smile, "Ah...yes.  I forgot.  The six are supposed to choose a Chief Councilor, but...we have not, in the last ten years, been able to choose one.  So..." she shrugged, "We have done without."

 

"No one wants the job?" Teyla asked.

 

"Oh, no," Perrit's wry smile grew uglier, "that's the problem.  Lately, everyone wants the job."  She shook her head, "And the fight over it gets nastier every day."  She closed her mouth firmly then, as if finished with the topic, but when Sheppard met McKay's eyes over her head, there was no questioning the meaning there.

 

Perrit hadn't said it out loud, but she implied it heavily enough.  The sabotage of the water pump and Dazy's murder were about one thing—power.  Someone wanted to be Chief Councilor, and they were willing to kill to get it.

_______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: THE CANYON

 

They came up upon the edge of the canyon almost blindly.  One moment, it wasn't there, and the next it was.  Teyla was already partway down the carved trail leading down, Perrit not far behind her, but McKay and Sheppard had stopped, unable to avoid marveling at the view before them.

 

Teyla stopped, turning around.  When she had seen this for the first time a few days ago, she too had been in awe, and so she waited patiently for the two men to soak it in.

 

The ground literally opened up before them.  Where before there had been nothing but endless dunes and baked, dry land, suddenly the earth split open to reveal a multi-hued canyon so deep as to appear bottomless from this high up.  Colors from deep red to bright yellow to pale blue lined the walls, and tufts of grass, lichen and shrubs clung stubbornly to the rocks.  It was breathtaking. 

 

"Grand Canyon?" McKay asked, looking at Sheppard.

 

The colonel shook his head, "Not so wide as that.  More like a bigger version of the Canyon de Chelly, but colored like Arches."

 

"Canyon de what?" Perrit asked, watching them curiously.

 

"Back home," Sheppard said, waving a hand airily towards the vista, "we have some natural wonders that might match in scale and beauty what you have here, but…" He shook his head, "This is wondrous."

 

"Back home?" Perrit's eyebrow arched, "On your wet planet?"

 

McKay's lip quirked a quick smile, thinking of the Vancouver like feel of the Alpha Site, which Perrit believed to be their home.  Yes, not many desert canyons to be found there—at least, not near the Stargate, and they had yet to meet a population that had strayed far from their Stargate in this galaxy.

 

"Our former home, before we moved," Sheppard amended quickly, his eyes studying the multi-layered stone of the red rock walls.  They couldn't see into the bottom, where the Orkidians apparently lived, but the path they would follow down was broad, wide and well-traveled, and he could just make out a small, brown hut about a third of the way down, before the path curved out of sight.  A way station, he supposed.

 

McKay, meanwhile, was peering at what looked like jewels in the walls.  Something glittered at even points along the very top edge of the canyon, like diamonds embedded in the stone.

 

His brow furrowed, and he pulled out his binoculars, removing his sunglasses as he did so.  Still frowning, he focused the binocs on one of the "jewels."  Perrit watched him, not speaking, allowing him to draw his own conclusions.  Sheppard had caught his notice, and had pulled his own binocs, aiming them in the same direction at the scientist.

 

Through the glass, the jewel resolved into a round, metal disc, perhaps several feet in diameter. Grooves on the surface suggested it might open up, perhaps revealing something more insidious  hidden behind it. An energy weapon of some kind? There were hundreds of them along the edge—did it make a grid that protected the canyon?  Really, from this distance, it was impossible to do more than guess.

 

"Those discs," Sheppard asked, lowering his binocs to look at Perrit, "Are those part of your defense system?"

 

Perrit just nodded.  "Yes."

 

McKay studied them a little longer, then finally lowered the binocs from his eyes.  Without more information, he couldn’t tell what they were made of, or what they did, but they were certainly interesting.  Hopefully, the Jumper's scans could tell them more.  They were obviously Ancient—the Jumper should be able to tap into whatever they are and provide more detail.

 

"Shall we move on?" Ronon asked, the Satedan glancing unhappily at their exposed position on the cliff edge.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, nodding at Teyla.  The Athosian nodded back and started walking again, her sharp eyes watching for anything and everything as the others followed her down.

 

McKay stepped up alongside Perrit and started asking her some questions about the discs, which the older woman mostly sidestepped.  Sheppard let them get ahead of him, staying back with Ronon on their six.  When he couldn't hear their conversation clearly, he tapped his radio, glancing up at the clear blue sky.

 

"Anything?" he whispered into the radio.

 

"Not that we can see, sir," Lieutenant Cadman replied. "The canyon is amazing, though. I've seen it before, when we visited here initially, but never from above like this. It's so much bigger than I ever imagined. Oh, fyi, we've also pinpointed all three of the Ancient water pumps on a map of the area.  They're all at raised points surrounding the canyon, and my guess is, all three feed into it equally."    

 

Sheppard heard McKay give a small snort over the radio as he half-listened to Laura's report on his earpiece, as if to say, "that's obvious," but he didn't vocalize it, aware of Perrit still obviously chattering away by his side. 

 

"Also," Cadman continued, "the Ambassador wasn't lying when she said there are a lot of people down there, sir.  The Jumper has counted 85,765 human life signs."

 

"Lotta people," Sheppard whispered. He lowered his head when Perrit looked at him again over he shoulder, to hide his face from her. "The Jumper give you any idea what the discs in the walls are for?"

 

"We're scanning them now sir, but..." she paused, as if embarrassed, "we're not getting much information. I know Rodney was hoping the Jumper would be able to jack into whatever the weapon system is, but," she sighed, "it's not. There's some sort of firewall, keeping us out. It's like it needs a password or key or something. I'm sure Rodney could hack it but we just don't know how." Her tone was deeply apologetic.

 

Sheppard just grimaced, looking once more at the embedded metal.  "It's okay, Lieutenant. Just send whatever you do have to McKay."

 

"Yes, sir.  Do you want us to follow you in, sir?"

 

"No," Sheppard said, still keeping his face averted from Perrit when she looked at him again. "I'm not sure what might trigger this weapon of theirs. One would hope an Ancient ship wouldn't trigger an Ancient weapon, but we've seen stranger things. Just stay up and out of sight."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Ronon frowned, giving Sheppard a pregnant stare about already losing their main source of protection.  The Colonel just gave him a smile and a shrug, then jogged to catch up with Perrit already about twenty feet down the path with McKay. 

 

Perrit was currently describing a little of the history of Orkidia, telling a bored looking Rodney about how they came up with the current Council based government.  Sheppard listened for a moment, then cleared his throat when she paused.  She glanced at him, eyebrows raised.

 

"So, we're going to meet the Council," he said.  "Do they know why we're here?"

 

She gave a small smile, "No.  They think you're here because I asked you to review the status of the other two water pumps for malfunctions similar to the one you fixed, and also to examine the status of the wells.  I told them that, especially now, with Dazy gone, we need experts to tell us that there will be no more problems.  Plus," she shrugged, "the Council still wishes to thank you for fixing the water pump that was broken.  That should buy you several days here at least, and between the feast tonight and the political posturing I know will happen—the council members will all want to 'win' you to their side—you should have plenty of opportunities to make your opinions."

 

"Several days," McKay frowned, looking unhappily at the rock dust sticking to his shoes. "You mean, sleep here?"

 

"Yes.  In my residence.  I have plenty of room—I promise you will be very comfortable."

 

"Actually," Sheppard said, smiling serenely, "I think we'd prefer to return to our own planet this evening after—"

 

"But you can't," Perrit said, frowning. "Did I not mention the sand storms?  At this time of year, we are plagued by them, particularly during certain times of the evening and almost every night.  I could not, in good conscience, allow you to return home with that threat so real, and as the feast has been scheduled for evening…."  She trailed off, arching her eyebrows at them.

 

Sheppard sighed, ignoring the concerned gaze of McKay over Perrit's head.

 

"I assure you," Perrit said suddenly, "that you will be under my protection the whole time you are here."  She turned and rested a hand on McKay's arm. "Doctor, you are vital to my people's future.  That I believe with all my heart.  I would never let harm come to you, not while I still draw breath.  And I am not a powerless woman.  You will be safe here, no matter what rumors you may have heard about my people."  And here she glanced back at Ronon covering their six, as if sensing that he was to blame for their obvious wariness.

 

Sheppard glanced at Ronon as well, but didn't meet the man's dark gaze.

 

He could feel the 'I told you so' emanating from the Satedan even from this distance.

 

Finally, the colonel shrugged, looking forward again down the canyon, "Well, in for a penny…."

 

"In for a pound," McKay grumped, pulling his arm away from Perrit's.  She didn't seem to mind, and instead started talking again about the wells.  McKay lowered his head and seemed intent to listen, so Sheppard backed off.

 

They continued down the long, winding trail, refilling their canteens at the first way station Sheppard had seen from above—a dark adobe structure—and taking in the changing landscape and shifting temperature—it was getting cooler. 

 

When they rounded the first bend on the trail, the harsh, wailing desert wind disappeared, replaced by bird calls and the sounds of animals and insects scurrying invisibly around them.  The surface was a barren wasteland, but it seemed the canyon was teeming with life.  It only made the Colonel more amazed that the Wraith did not cull this place.  It had to appear like a cornucopia to them. 

 

Strategically, a canyon was a good defensible location if both sides were on foot, but not if one side was flying Wraith darts.  So they were obviously protected by something.  His first assumption was that it must have a shield, but what powered it?  A ZPM?  If so, how much power did it have left?  And if it wasn't a ZPM, then what could power it? Geothermal energy, like the supervolcano planet?  Or could stored solar energy like that powering the water pumps be enough to withstand a barrage by a Wraith Hive?  That seemed unlikely. He just couldn't imagine the Wraith allowing a place with a shield to exist, even if it took several days to break through the protection. He imagined any kind of sanctuary was bad for business—which is why they continued to attack Proculus despite Chaya's unyielding protection.  But the Wraith obviously left this place alone—why?

 

His mind continued to trip over possibilities as they descended, trying to guess at what they were going to find. All he knew was, whatever the weapon was?  It had to be a doozy.

 

And Atlantis could really use something that powerful.

__________________________________________

 

It took several hours to finally reach the bottom of the canyon, the path dropping them into a small box canyon that sheltered them from the sun and wind.  It was shaded and quiet, a serene little haven for weary travelers to rest before entering the main canyon.  Another wooden hut sat to one side, with a small water source inside—one of the many connected to the water pumps above. 

 

The moment they hit level ground, Rodney sat down heavily on the first chair-like rock he saw and massaged his aching legs. Christ, his feet were on fire! Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon, of course, still looked fresh as daisies, as if they hadn't just hiked down a rocky slope in unrelenting heat and sunshine for several hundred feet and...oh God, they had to climb back out again? 

 

He was staring despairingly back up the path when Sheppard barked his name from several yards away, to get his attention.  Sighing, he struggled back to his feet, teetering a little as his legs sorely protested the action.  Groaning slightly, he managed to slog over to Sheppard, limping a little as he moved. 

 

"What?" he snapped, trying to muster a little dignity and stand up straight.

 

Sheppard's expression was annoyingly amused, smirking behind his sunglasses. 

 

Rodney hated him.

 

"You ready, your highness?" the colonel asked, pulling his sunglasses down to peer over the top of them. "Time to move on, meet the locals, that sort of thing."  He rolled a finger about as he spoke, then used it to push the sunglasses back up his nose.

 

Rodney didn't answer immediately, squinting towards where Perrit and Teyla were standing next to what was effectively the entrance to the canyon. Ronon had disappeared somewhere, to scout presumably.  The two women were in silhouette, black outlines against the sun bleached landscape behind them, and Rodney realized he couldn't actually make out anything through the opening between the rocks.  It was like peering into the sun.  Christ. He half expected the words 'Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here' to be etched into the stone.

 

"Ready to go?" he said quietly, not hiding the trepidation he was feeling. "Not really."

 

Sheppard just smiled again, this time a little more kindly. "It'll be all right," he said.

 

Rodney looked at him, oddly grateful for that. "You think so?"

 

Sheppard shrugged.  "Sure."  And then he smirked again. "'Course, if this does all go to hell, you do realize that it'll be all your fault, right?" 

 

Yup, he hated him.

 

"Great," he muttered. "Thanks for that."

 

"My pleasure.  So..." The colonel stuck a thumb towards the entrance and the women. "Once more into the breach?"

 

"Where's Ronon?"

 

"Outside.  He's already given the all clear."

 

"Oh," Rodney frowned.  How had he missed that?  He really needed to pay more attention.  Sheppard gave him a pat on the shoulder, shoving him towards the women.  A little begrudgingly, McKay went, heading for Perrit.  She nodded at him as he approached, and led the way out into the sun. 

 

Like curtains raised from a stage, the main canyon opened up before them, revealing the most beautiful set nature could create.  The red cliff walls fell away, leaving behind a wide, flat plain covered in lush pastures and tilled fields.  People were scattered everywhere, working the earth, while water trickled down irrigation channels, leaving the air almost humid.

 

Taking in the vastness of it all, Rodney couldn't remember the last time he had felt so small.

 

Perrit didn't say a word as she led them down a wide path leading between rows of what looked like soy beans, the low-lying green leaves shivering in the light breeze. The smell of fresh vegetables and fertilizer assaulted their nostrils, and in the distance they could hear cattle like animals lowing to each other. Perrit waved to a couple of nearby workers in one of the fields, and they waved back.

 

Only about a hundred yards in, they came across a squat barn-like structure. Perrit stopped and went inside a small side door.  When the main barn doors opened a few minutes later, she was sitting atop an open-topped wagon driven by a ruddy faced man in overalls.  She grinned at them.

 

"Hop on in," she said, indicating the flatbed behind the driver's seat. 

 

McKay was very, very grateful.

 

Meeners drew the wagon, and when Sheppard remarked on them, Perrit nodded, asking if he had ever been to Garillion.  The tight smile the colonel gave her quickly ended that conversation.

 

The first major structure they came across was the military complex—Commander Delian's center of operations.  Not surprisingly, Sheppard straightened to see it better, while Rodney slumped.  To the scientist, it looked like a prison.  A high adobe wall surrounded a series of low-lying buildings, and there were turrets at each corner with men standing guard.  As they rolled by the entrance, which was sealed by a iron barred gate, they could see a large courtyard where a group of men and women were obviously moving through a set of training maneuvers.  Sheppard and Ronon both watched until they couldn't see them anymore.  Rodney snorted.  Of course they would.

 

Rodney perked up only once they were past the imposing structure, when it became clear that the complex actually guarded the first of the three finger canyons. Vanda.  From what he could see, Vanda was a fairly narrow canyon, stretching away behind the military complex for what looked like several miles.  Squinting, Rodney could just make out structures built up against the canyon walls and, in places, built into the walls.  What did they call those things in the American Southwest?  Cliff Dwellings?  Mesa Verde had nothing on this world.

 

The wagon continued to move at a faster clip, and the number of structures started to grow in number, while the tilled fields gave way to gardens and commons.  Soon, it was clear they were entering the outskirts of an actual city.

 

"This is Dendrobia," Perrit said proudly, sitting up straighter in her seat.  The others imitating her—it was rare they got to see a real city in Pegasus, one that hadn't been ravaged by the Wraith.

 

Like the Vandan military complex, Dendrobia was surrounded by a wall, but, unlike Vanda, this one was low and overgrown by vegetation and, amazingly, trees. 

 

"You have trees?" McKay announced, almost in wonder as the ash like trees waved silvery green leaves at them.

 

"Not very tall ones, I'm afraid," Perrit agreed as they passed beneath an arched entranceway through the high wall.  "These are more like the stubborn cousins of the type that grow on your world.  Hardy, strong and determined."  She smiled, and it was clear she wasn’t just talking about the trees.

 

"Most of these look like firs of some kind," Rodney noted, "and palms."  Which made sense—both of those trees were good at storing up water.

 

Perrit did not answer, just settled back and watched as they absorbed the rest of the city.  Like Vanda's military complex, none of the structures inside Dendrobia's walls were very tall—nothing over two stories—but unlike the utilitarian appearance of Vanda, there was an elegance to these.  More windows, open courtyards, rounded arches and softer edges.  Flowers, greenery and colorful tiles mixed together to fill in any holes.  The air no longer smelled like farmland, but like spice and perfume and pine.  It was like a cross between Santa Fe and the Ancient city of Fez in Morocco.

 

It's the sort of place Rodney used to think he'd retire to someday, before he moved to Atlantis.  Part of him still sort of wanted to.  Of course, deep down, he knew he'd never actually retire. To him, that was the same as death.

 

They wound through flagstone streets, the many people crowding the city stopping to stare at the strangers.  Like Perrit, they all wore the pale colors of the Orkidians—plenty of long, soft linen like materials, light and breezy in style.  Perrit, in front of the wagon, sat stick straight, her head held high.  She had a pleased and stately air about her, and a number of people bowed their heads as she passed by in deference to the Ambassador. 

 

The street they were on seemed to lead directly to the canyon wall edging the city and, as they approached it, Perrit whispered something to the driver, and the wagon slowed.

 

"The heart of Orkidia, and the Council Chambers," Perrit said as the street opened up to reveal a large market square, at the center of which was a massive water fountain.  Dozens of people were scooping water out of it with buckets, but they stopped at the approach of the wagon.  And beyond them, carved into the canyon wall was the entrance to a building that rivaled in size and grandeur the red-rose buildings of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. 

 

Petra was a wonder on Earth; it was no less here.  If anything, this place was more amazing, because these buildings were alive.

 

Perrit smiled at their awe, and indicated the water fountain, "And this is the main well of the city, Doctor McKay.  It was dry until your visit a few days ago."  She tapped the driver's shoulder, and he pulled to a stop in front of the fountain, and all the people standing there.  Swiftly, Perrit was on her feet in the wagon, tugging at McKay's sleeve to get him standing.  He did so, though he did not understand why.

 

"My People!" Perrit shouted, though she already had their attention.  Still, others emerged from what looked like store fronts and cafes surrounding the main square, and more came from the streets.  Ronon bristled, standing as well.  Teyla and Sheppard weren't far behind.

 

"My people, this is Doctor Rodney McKay!  He is the one who fixed the Dendrobian Water Pump!  He is the one who has saved our city!"  And Perrit grabbed McKay's hand, lifting it high over his head with hers triumphantly.  McKay stared at her—what the hell? "And I am the one who brought him here!" Perrit added proudly, her eyes taking on a devious glint heretofore missing from her appearance.  "My late son and I—we have saved Dendrobia!  And Orkidia!" 

 

The crowd burst into instant applause and cheers, and several people rushed the wagon, grinning and smiling up at the strangers, reaching out hands for McKay.  He turned his shocked stare to them, even as Perrit was nudging him forward.

 

"Shake their hands!" she hissed at him. "Please!  They want to thank you!"  Her eyes were gleaming. 

 

McKay, never a shy man, usually soaked up accolades, but this, he knew, wasn't about him.  This was politics, and he hated politicians.  Elizabeth was the only exception to that rule—all others, to his mind, could jump off a tall bridge.  Especially those who tried to use him.

 

"No," he growled, ripping his hand from hers.  "What the hell are you doing?" he snapped. "This is not why we're here!"

 

She just smiled tightly at him, seeing the glower on his face and, beyond him, the livid expressions of his teammates, forced into a position of needing to protect Rodney as people continued to crowd the wagon.

 

"Oh, I...my apologies, I didn't..." Perrit whispered, though she didn't sound at all contrite. Quickly, she turned back to the crowd, her hands raised up to calm them down.  "Ladies and Gentlemen, my apologies, but my guests are tired.  They had a long journey here, and—"

 

"Look out!" Teyla shouted, diving forward into McKay, knocking him into the floor of the wagon.  He was still close enough to Perrit to bring her down with him in a crumpled heap, her scream echoing in his ears.  The driver's head rocked back, impacted by the bullet that would have hit chest high on McKay had Teyla not pushed him down. 

 

And more bullets followed, splintering the wooden slats of the wagon's sides.  The crowd screamed and tried to scatter. The meeners pulling the wagon reared and tried to move forward through the people, using their horns to buck people out of the way who didn't move fast enough.

 

Suddenly, guards were pouring out of the Council Chambers entrance, all dressed in the same military sand colored brown as Commander Delian's troops, except with red swatches on their shoulders.  Sheppard had leapt over the downed driver, grabbing the reins of the meeners leading the wagon and forcing them forward towards the entrance, while Ronon sent several powerful blasts in the direction of the shots that were fired. Teyla had already rolled away from McKay and Perrit and she was sending a burst of machine gun fire at another rooftop.

 

A satisfied smile lit Ronon's face as a black-clad man fell screaming from a rooftop balcony, dislodged by the power of his weapon.  Teyla stopped firing as two more bodies slid down the tiles of the roof she had targeted, her keen eyes searching for more attackers.

 

Lying on the wagon floor, McKay checked on Perrit, quietly asking if she was okay.  The older woman was breathing heavily, her gray eyes wide and scared, but she nodded. There was blood on her face, but it looked like splatter from the driver.

 

Sheppard guided the wagon through the guards now blanketing them to the steps leading into the chamber, and jumped off, turning around to help the others.  McKay got Perrit down first, letting her fall into Sheppard's arms, then followed.  Teyla and Ronon and the guards covered them, their weapons pointed at the rooftops, looking for more of the black-clad warriors. 

 

In moments, Perrit and all four Atlantians were inside, rushed into the cool hallway by the guards, the wooden doors swinging shut behind them.  When Sheppard let her go, Perrit grabbed at McKay's arm and held on, as if needing someone to keep her upright.

 

"Rodney?" Sheppard called to him, his eyebrows lifted in a question.

 

He gave the colonel a hesitant nod back, telling him that he and the Ambassador were okay.  Sheppard nodded back, then looked to Teyla and Ronon.  They nodded as well.  Rodney saw him then breathe out a heavy sigh of relief, and turn, obviously looking to speak to the head of guardsmen who had helped.

 

And found himself facing the tallest, ugliest man Rodney had ever seen.  It was like he had melted right out of the shadows.

 

"Welcome," the tall man sneered, black eyes staring down at Sheppard like he would a bug, "to Dendrobia."

_________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: THE COUNCIL

 

He was taller than Ronon, if that was possible.  He was also balding—jet black hair was greased back well away from his forehead, accentuating the sharp widow's peak that pointed towards his nose like a skullcap. Unlike everyone else they had met or seen in Orkidia, with their olive tanned skin, his skin was also the color and consistency of tapioca—yellowish-white with...bubbles.  Worst of all, he had a scar that cut straight across the center of his nose, as if someone had taken a pair of glasses and pressed them too deeply into the skin.  Pale, thin lips sneered more as John attempted to smile.

 

"Hey," John said, wondering if perhaps the Addams Family was missing its Lurch. "How's it going?" 

 

"Baylor!" Perrit called, letting go of Rodney.  She straightened, brushing down her linen cloak, and managed to regain some of her usual dignity. Walking forward, she made her way to John's side, pasting on a fake smile as she looked up at the imposing man. "It is good to see you."

 

The sneer on the man's face grew, and he inclined his head towards the gray haired woman. "Ambassador," he greeted formally. "Are you and your guests all right?"

 

"Yes, yes, thanks to...," Perrit turned, looking to Teyla and smiling, "Miss Emmagen.  I am in your debt."

 

Teyla just gave a smile back, but said nothing.  Perrit was more composed when she looked back again.

 

"So that is not yours?" Baylor asked, his eyes drifting to Perrit's right cheek.  The Ambassador blinked, then shakily touched her face.  Bringing down fingers sticky with dried blood, she swallowed, and slowly shook her head.

 

"The driver's," she said, letting out a heavy breath. "Poor man." 

 

Baylor gave a grim nod, then turned black eyes once more on the Atlantians. "That is the second attack against these strangers, is it not?" he asked. He arched both eyebrows. "It would seem no one wants them here."

 

Perrit's eyes narrowed at that, standing up to her full height. "Only the people who wish to destroy Orkidia, Guildmaster," she stated. "The people who would rather see children die of thirst than encourage outside help."  Her eyebrows lifted, challenging.  Baylor snorted, inclining his head towards her.

 

"I did not mean me, Ambassador, as you know.  For myself," he stared at John again, "I am very excited these people have come.  It is a great boon to Orkidia that you have brought them here."

 

Oddly, he sounded sincere, though Hermiod probably showed more excitement than this man.  John's eyes narrowed. 

 

"Um," he tried smiling again, shifting forward, "not to seem rude, Ambassador Perrit, but...." he raised his eyebrows.

 

She gave a pretty smile at that, her composure apparently returned now that she was back on familiar ground.  "Oh! Of course, what poor manners.  Colonel John Sheppard, may I present Guildmaster Baylor of the Council.  Guildmaster, this is Colonel Sheppard," she turned, "Teyla Emmagen, Doctor Rodney McKay and Specialist Ronon Dex."  As each of their names was called, Baylor crossed his arms and gave the Orkidian bow, which Teyla, at least, returned.  Ronon and Rodney just nodded.

 

"It is good to finally meet you," Baylor said, still with no discernable inflection. "We have heard much of you from the Ambassador.  Indeed, I came out here to meet you upon your arrival—not that I expected it to be so exciting."  He looked beyond them to the closed doors, frowning a little, the first real emotion on his face. 

 

"That's okay," Sheppard said, "We're kind of getting used to this sort of thing."

 

Baylor favored him with another sneer, and Sheppard realized for the first time that it was meant as a smile. Gah. Talk about unnerving. He gave a half-hearted smile back.

 

"Perrit!"  Commander Delian swept into the room like a tidal wave, his guards disappearing nervously into the shadows when it was clear their leader's dark face was flushed with anger.  His eyes were focused on Perrit, his fear for her obvious to all.  "Ambassador, are you...," He seemed to stop himself, and, clearing his throat, glanced away from her to the others. "Are all of you all right?"

 

"We're fine, Commander," Perrit said smiling softly, bowing in thanks, a hint of color on her own cheeks. "However, our driver..." she waved a hand to the outside.

 

"He is being taken to his family," Delian nodded, still looking torn between fury and concern. "They will be taken care of, I assure you.  And the bodies of the men who attacked you are being searched.  Perhaps this time we might find out something of who leads them."

 

Perrit just nodded. "I dearly hope so."

 

"Colonel," Delian turned his sharp eyes to John, "I hate that, once again, we are forced to meet on these terms, but, if you could answer some questions?"  His eyebrows lifted in question.  John inclined his head. 

 

"Of course.  Although, Teyla is the one who spotted them first."  John indicated the Athosian, and Teyla stepped forward.  Delian nodded, and bowed deeply to her, much more so than he had greeted any of them before.

 

"My guards also told me you are responsible for saving our Ambassador's life," he said to her, "as well as taking down two of the three assailants."

 

"Merely a matter of staying alert, Commander," Teyla admitted humbly. "I was looking in the right direction at the right time."

 

Delian arched an eyebrow. "If you say so."  He glanced from her to John, then to Rodney and Ronon. "I promise you, my guards will not be so lax again.  They were unprepared for how to deal with the crowd in the square.  From now on, you will be under my constant protection whenever you are outside.  I will see to it myself."

 

John just gave him a tight smile. Having a blanket of guards might put a crimp into any plans they had to do recon.  "Thank you," he said, "but don't go to any extremes on our behalf, Commander.  We can take care of ourselves." 

 

"Yes," the older man's eyes narrowed, "I'm beginning to see that."  

 

"In any event," Baylor said suddenly, interrupting them, "I have also been given the honor of escorting Colonel Sheppard and his team to the Council rooms, where the others await with refreshments.  I would like to take them now—I am sure the other Councilors are getting anxious."

 

"Did you say, refreshments? Oh, thank God," Rodney smiled, sounding hopeful for the first time. "Are there chairs too?  Please say yes."

 

Baylor regarded him a little too long after that comment, and Ronon stepped a little closer to the scientist. 

 

"I need to speak with them first, Guildmaster," Delian said, also stepping forward.  Strangely, he also gave the impression of wanting to offer protection.  Baylor just looked bored.

 

"I am sure you can ask them later, Commander.  Besides, what is there to know?  Some men attacked them in the square. If I were you, I would start by trying to figure out how those men got up onto those roofs without any of your precious guards seeing them in the first place?  In the meantime, I suggest you allow these people to do what they came here to do."

 

Delian frowned, but Perrit laid a hand on his arm. "He is right, Delian.  Let them get some rest.  You can talk to them later."

 

The Commander's jaw steeled, but, after looking down at her earnest face, he finally gave a nod.  "Later then.  As for the Council," he looked over at Baylor, "please give my excuses.  I need to speak to my men about what just happened."

 

"Of course," the Guildmaster said graciously, inclining his head. His black eyes then turned to John. "Please," he turned, "follow me."  He strode off, moving like a man who felt he had nothing to fear from anyone or anything. 

 

A little reluctantly, John gave the others the signal to do as Baylor asked.  Rodney led the way, obviously spurred on by the thought of refreshments, and Sheppard quickly fell into step next to him.  Pretending to be reaching up to scratch his face, Sheppard tapped his radio twice.

 

"Hey," he called.  Rodney glanced at him.

 

"Cadman here, sir.  We're receiving you."

 

"Just checking to make sure you're all right," Sheppard said, meeting the scientist's gaze, as if the statement were directed at him.  Rodney nodded.

 

"You?" the scientist asked, to keep up the pretense.

 

"We're fine, sir. Are you okay?"

 

"Doing okay for now. Just don't stray too far."

 

"Gotcha.  Jumper Two out."

 

"For now," Rodney repeated in a whisper, as the walked deeper into the shadowed, cool halls after Baylor. He shook his head. "This just isn't going to end well, is it?"

 

John just snorted a laugh. 

________________________________________________________

 

The Council Chamber, surprisingly, was rather dull after the grandeur of the outside.  It was a large, semi-circular, cavernous stone room, with tall, thin windows carved impossibly high up along the walls and bathed in electric light.  Curved benches sat at different levels, a bit like a small, indoor amphitheatre—there was even a small stage at the base.  Sitting atop it was a long table, reminiscent of the Supreme Court's bench in Washington, complete with seven chairs.  The central chair, whose back was taller than the other six, had a white cloth over it, signaling its obvious disuse.

 

Three people stood talking quietly on the stage in front of the table, two women and one man.  A handful of guards were stationed throughout the chamber, and a couple of white clothed servants bustled in and out carrying trays of food and drink.  Oddly, they didn't stop in the amphitheatre—rather they were just passing through, as if heading to some room that must be behind this one.  McKay watched them go with longing.

 

The three people on the stage, meanwhile, had stopped talking when the Atlantians walked in, and now looked up at them expectantly.

 

"Commander Delian is, sadly, going to be late," Baylor called to the group as he started down the wide stone steps to the stage. "He will join us later."  The three people all gave a nod—they either already knew or already guessed.

 

Sheppard followed Baylor down the steps, Rodney still by his side.  Teyla, Ronon and Perrit brought up the rear.  As soon as they hit the stage, however, Perrit sidled quickly into the front and bowed to the three people there.  They bowed back.

 

"Councilors," she greeted, "It is good to see you again."

 

"Always a pleasure, Perry," said the taller of the two women, a woman who was as beautiful as Baylor was ugly.  She was at least as tall as McKay, with long, dark blond hair styled in a loose bun atop her head.  Light brown eyes crinkled in a smile, the expression lighting up her face. "I take it, these are our saviors?"

 

"Yes." Perrit smiled back, and it was surprisingly genuine—she must honestly like this woman, even if she had winced a little at being called 'Perry'.  The Ambassador turned once more to her guests. "Colonel John Sheppard, Doctor Rodney McKay, Specialist Ronon Dex, and Teyla Emmagen, may I present the rest of the Orkidian council."  She swept her arm out, indicating the blonde woman first. "Starting with the Dendrobian leader, Councilor Jaquette."  In response, the blonde's smile deepened, and she gave them the crossed-arm bow.

 

"You are most welcome, Atlantians," Jaquette purred, her hands pressed together now as if in prayer. "Truly, most welcome." Her smile turned almost lecherous as she took John in, her eyes raking up and down the colonel's frame without shame. "Not only did you fix our water pump, but, my goodness, you're even good looking!  You'll dress these old dusty chambers up nicely for a few days—they could use a little color and class."  Her gaze shifted to Ronon, "And you, my stars!  You're just gorgeous, aren't you?  How tall are you?" She stepped forward as if to measure herself against him, and Ronon backed up a step. "Why, you make our Baylor look normal sized, and I've never known anyone who could do that!  How wonderful!"  She clapped her hands together in glee.

 

Sheppard just blinked, glancing over at Teyla, who wore a pursed expression, as if she had just sucked on a lemon.  Baylor, meanwhile, had given an impressive eye roll at Jaquette's antics, which the colonel noticed Jacquette not only saw, but was clearly amused by.  McKay, who had rolled his eyes as well, unexpectedly erupted in a rough cough, rubbing at his throat again.  Jaquette's eyes widened slightly, color tinting her cheeks.

 

"Oh, how rude of us!" she gushed, reaching into her long white, linen coat and pulling out a silver flask. "Water?" she asked, holding it out to him.

 

Rodney took it warily, clearly not liking this bouncy woman, and sniffed at the contents before taking a sip.  She just smiled and tilted her head sweetly, not in the least fazed by his attitude, almost as if she expected it.  At his gruff thank you, she just smiled some more and took the flask back.

 

"My pleasure, darling. And don't worry, I think you're very pretty too, especially with those big blue eyes of yours."  Her hand reached out and stroked down his cheekbone, and Rodney stumbled backwards away from her, looking a little shocked at the familiarity. "Oh, and shy, too!" she cooed. "How sweet!"

 

"Uh," Rodney glanced at Sheppard as if for help, and John just shrugged. Rodney looked back to Jaquette, frowning now. "Thank you?"  She grinned, like he had just bestowed her with a prize. 

 

"Ahem," Perrit said loudly, which finally got Jaquette to back off, sliding back into line with the other two councilors.  Perrit gave her a nod, and took back command of the floor, now gesturing to the older man who had hovered near the table.  "This is Cattleyan Councilor Stebbins."

 

Stebbins was as gray haired as Perrit and Delian, but, based on the depth of the lines on his face, was probably a few years older.  He shuffled forward and bowed to them, which Sheppard and Teyla returned.  A massive gray, handlebar moustache covered most of his face, and it blew a little as he spoke.

 

"Welcome," he said gruffly, his voice aged and coarse, "And thanks for giving us a hand."  He watched them for a moment as Teyla said 'thank you,' as if sizing her and them up, then backed away.  Apparently, like Ronon, he was a man of few words. 

 

Perrit cleared her throat again.  "And this is Vandan Councilor Stella."

 

The last woman in the room was a brunette, the hair cut short and tight around her face, looking almost like a swimmer's cap and curling at the edges.  Dark brown eyes regarded them without much interest, her face pinched in a tight expression, making her small features appear even smaller.  She made no effort to greet them, as the others had, but instead simply stared.

 

"Nice to meet you," Sheppard said, offering a smile, but her gaze, which had rested on him when he spoke, quickly swiveled away, as if she couldn't be bothered.

 

"Really," she said curtly. "Well, you won't feel that way for long."

 

Oh yeah, John thought, this was going to be fun.

________________________________________________

 

The meet and greet with the Councilors soon broke up, with everyone moving into another room for the dinner feast, where they were introduced to a large number of people who were, apparently, the elite of Orkidian society.  Several dozen people filled a large dining hall, every one of them pretending fascination with the newcomers, exuding that sort of plastic societal air that people like Paris Hilton had in spades.  McKay hated it.  Looking at the others, he knew instantly that his three companions all felt the same way.  Ronon snarled, Sheppard was exuding overweening charm, and Teyla had that false, genteel smile of hers that she used only for the worst of the worst.  When they finally sat down to eat, McKay couldn't have been more relieved.

 

The feast itself was every bit as lavish as Perrit had promised, and every bit as spiced as McKay had feared.  He gamely tried some of the dishes, but after drinking nearly a jug of water after the last one, had given up. 

 

Eventually, the dinner was cleared away, leaving only an ever-flowing port-like alcohol delivered by the omnipresent waitstaff. The temperature was hot in the room, despite the cool air floating in through the tall, open windows high up in the walls, creating an oppressive atmosphere.  Even at its busiest, Atlantis never felt this crowded. 

 

McKay felt like the world was crushing in on him, and it was only through a supreme effort of will that he forced himself to do his job...and mingle.

 

Perrit had dragged him around with her for a while, introducing him to people he didn't want to meet, and he eventually pulled away.  On his own, he was able to breathe a little more easily.  He decided to focus on just speaking with the five other councilors about the water pumps, to suss out just how knowledgeable each of them were.  His intention was to see if any of them were lying about how much they knew, and how much they cared to know.

 

Sheppard and Elizabeth might make fun of him, but Perrit was right about one thing—he could always spot a scientific fraud...or a genius...a mile away.  Whether they were taking credit for something they did not do, or were denying culpability for some terrible mistake they had made, or were hiding their knowledge of something in general, he knew.  Someone lying to him about their feelings on some squishy subject—like love—then he was as oblivious as a dog chasing its tail, but science?  No one could lie to Rodney McKay about science.  Not even an Ancient. 

 

But knowing someone was lying, and knowing they had killed someone, were two very, very different things.

 

And the fact that he was certain several people in the room had lied to him this evening only made it worse.

 

It had begun with Baylor.  To be honest, he had sought the dark, menacing Guildmaster first, wanting to get it over with.  The conversation had been stilted, awkward, but plain.  McKay had introduced the subject of the pumps by asking Baylor if he was the one to pick Dazy's successor.  Baylor responded with one word, eyeing McKay with all the interest of a bored child in an art museum:

 

"Yes."

 

"Oh." McKay tried to seem interested (instead of intimidated). "How?"

 

"The college of sciences nominates three people.  I pick the one I like."

 

"You like?" McKay smiled. "What does that mean, like?"

 

Baylor sighed and looked away, apparently already bored with the topic. "It means someone whom I don't dislike."

 

"Oh," Rodney tried to nod understandingly to the pointless answer, "And Dazy?  He was someone you liked?"

 

"He was someone I didn't dislike."

 

McKay just lifted his eyebrows, trying not to roll his eyes.  "I see.  Well, uh, you know that Ambassador Perrit has asked us here to look at the other two water pumps, to see if they suffer from damage similar to that of the one we fixed.  Do you know who might be accompanying us in Dazy's place?"

 

Baylor turned to look at him again, his eyes dark. "No.  And I don't care.  Does it matter?"

 

McKay arched his eyebrows high, "Oh.  Well, I don't—"

 

"I'm sure Perrit will take care of it.  Besides, how the pumps work really doesn't mean anything to me, so long as they do work.  Now, if you'll excuse me..."  Baylor nodded stiffly in farewell and walked off, leaving McKay with only one clear impression: Baylor did care who took over as chief scientist.  And it did matter to him. 

 

A lot. 

 

He also knew more about how the pumps worked than he let on. 

 

Plus, he made McKay's blood run cold.  Couldn't be a good thing.  The last person to freak him out that much was Kolya. Baylor even looked like the Genii commander a little.

 

And wasn't that a fun comparison.

 

Still, he'd persevered in his role, approaching Councilor Stebbins next.  For some reason, he could sense no threat at all from the rancher-type politician.  And their conversation was every bit as dull as he'd hoped.  Stebbins really was clueless about the machinery of the pumps, his interests were the crops and livestock in his valley—and keeping both well watered.  He appeared genuinely appreciative McKay and the others were there, and when he walked off, McKay felt a little bit better about their presence.

 

Then, of course, he met Death.  Or, to call her by her actual name, Vandan Councilor Stella.  He wondered how someone like her had gotten the name Stella.  On earth, of course, it meant "star".  Here it obviously meant "frightening hag-like witch".  A name like Medusa would have fit her so much better. 

 

She'd bowed to him in the usual "I Dream of Jeannie" manner, which, of course, immediately put the scientist in mind of Jeannie's evil twin sister.  The woman was attractive in her own way, sharp boned features that, in the United States, might have put her on the cover of a magazine, but, in real life, there was nothing pretty about this woman.  She was about as approachable as a piranha and she treated him in much the same way, asking him as many questions as he asked her, snapping them out between two rows of perfectly white, straight-edged teeth.

 

"I understand you were able to fix the pumps remarkably quickly," she said, leaning forward into his space.  She even had bad breath.  McKay backed away slightly as he shrugged, trying not to breathe in too deeply through his nose.

 

"I have an extensive background in Ancient...Ancestral...technology," he replied evasively. "So, how about you?  Have you ever studied the mechanics of the pumps?"

 

"Oh, indeed.  I would be a poor leader if I did not at least familiarize myself with the water pumps. Our people can not live here without them, as you probably know."  She stepped forward again. The tiny woman seemed intent on getting into his personal space, and she flashed her teeth at him again. "And how long have you been studying machinery made by the Ancestors?"

 

"A while," he answered, stepping backwards again, nearly tripping on a chair. "So, are you concerned about your water pump breaking down like the Dendrobian one did?"

 

"No," she declared, still moving with him. "My pump will never break down, at least, not for the reason the Dendrobian one did." She gave him a sly smile then, her eyes lighting up with something that could only be described as venom.  McKay swallowed thickly.  Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

 

"You, uh..."  He backed up one more time, and ran into a wall.  He blushed and tried to slide sideways, but she just got closer, hemming him in.  "You seem awfully certain of that."

 

"I know why the Dendrobian pump broke down, Doctor McKay," she hissed softly, the playful tone she'd attempted earlier disappearing completely, replaced by something more akin to rage.  Cold eyes met his without blinking. "I am not a fool, and you are a poor liar.  The Ambassador will not get away with this, I assure you.  You are no miracle worker—you fixed that machine because you were told what to fix.  You can tell Perrit I will not let her get away with this blackmail.  Understand?  The sooner you and your pawns are off the board, the better."

 

And then she was gone, pulling away from him in a blast of cold air and disappearing out a side door.

 

McKay was still pressed against the wall, trying to breathe, when Teyla reached his side a few moments later. Gently, she pulled him over to a place he could sit down.

 

"Are you okay?" she asked, settling down next to him on the small, cushion covered divan.  "You appear a little," she hesitated, "distressed."

 

"I don't like this place," he replied quickly, not caring that it came out as a whine.  She just nodded, patted his arm, and promised that she and the others were staying close.  When he didn't respond with anything more than a grimace, she just patted his arm again and rose to mingle some more.

 

McKay sighed, rubbed a hand across his forehead and leaned forward on his knees. 

 

"Doctor McKay?" Ambassador Perrit called, walking over, dragging someone else with her.  McKay looked up, and wondered if he looked as unhappy as he felt.  Gamely, he stood to meet yet another Orkidian dignitary.  Perrit smiled.

 

"I would like to introduce you to Master—"

 

"Actually, Perry," a smooth voice called very close to his shoulder, the cuddly tone a dead give-away of its owner, "I was hoping to steal your good doctor away for a moment." 

 

McKay's eyebrows rose, looking to his right at the blonde Dendrobian Councilor.  Jaquette was linking her arm into his, snuggling up to him, and then she did the strangest thing he had ever seen...

 

She winked.

 

McKay flinched like she had slapped him, which seemed to amuse Jaquette enough that she giggled. Oh God, he was so far out of his depth. It was like he was in a movie, but without the confidence of knowing where the story was going. Opposite them, Perrit frowned, but nodded, a forced smile on her face, telling him she and the dignitary would meet up with him later.  The look the Ambassador gave him as she walked away said she hoped he got something from Jaquette, because she didn't like to be snubbed.

 

Great.

 

Sighing, McKay found himself being led to another side of the room, to another divan.  He honestly had no idea what else to do except submit. Truth was, it wouldn't be the first time a beautiful blonde wound him round her finger with nothing more than, literally, a wink and a nod. Councilor Jaquette snagged a couple of drinks off the serving tray of one of the waiters drifting past, then shoved McKay down.  Never at his best with beautiful women, McKay simply let her.

 

"Um...Thank you?" he said, posing it as a question, clearly not sure if meant it yet.  Jacquette turned, handed him the drink, her eyes alive with laughter.

 

"My pleasure," she purred. "I figured even pets get tired sometimes and need a rest."

 

McKay frowned, straightening in his seat. "I'm sorry, what?"

 

She just clucked her tongue at him as if disappointed, her nose pinching in a cute way, and flounced down next to him as bold and brassy as any Broadway actress.  She started talking immediately, her conversation ranging from music to science to politics, and, somewhere in the middle, she took his free hand and held on.  McKay replied awkwardly at first, then grew more comfortable, responding to her quips with ones of his own.

 

And somewhere along the way, McKay found himself holding her hand back.

 

Fact was, Jaquette spoke of the others in the room with an unflinching honesty, and when she spoke, he found himself listening.  Something he had stopped doing with Councilor Stebbins about five seconds into their brief conversation.  As Jaquette spoke, her eyes seemed to take in everything around her much in the same way that Beckett examined a tissue culture, finding something of interest even in the smallest of details. 

 

In her opinions of those around them, she held nothing back, and he soon realized that, like him, she had no patience whatsoever for sycophants and phonies—something, apparently, she considered most people in the room to be.  In other words, her way of thinking was eerily like his. 

 

And she noticed. He was deep into a rant about his hatred of passive aggressive behavior when he caught her looking at him, her gaze more open than it had been when she had first stolen him away from Perrit. 

 

Most amazing of all, the beautiful Councilor Jaquette stayed with him for the rest of the evening.  He wasn't sure if she genuinely liked him, or found him simply to be a fascinating specimen, but she stayed. 

 

And her hand never let go. 

 

"Here's something wicked," Jaquette said at one point near the beginning of their conversation, leaning in close to his ear. "I know why you're really here."

 

"Oh?" McKay replied, trying (and failing) to appear innocent.

 

"You're here," she said, turning to face him, her eyes crinkled in amusement, "because Perrit is showing you off.  That's why I called you her pets."

 

McKay immediately sat back, not hiding his annoyance. "Wow.  And for a moment there, I thought you might actually be clever."

 

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you saying I'm not?" she asked, her lips quirking into a smile.

 

"If you think the four of us are someone else's pets? Yes."

 

"Oh, don't worry," she said, crinkling her nose again in that very cute manner of hers (not that McKay was noticing how pretty she was.  Not at all). "I won't tell." 

 

"Oh please," he sneered, his eyes narrowing angrily. "Go ahead, tell as many people as you like.  Do you think I actually give a crap what these people think?  Honest truth, Jaquette, the only pets I see in this room are the ones fawning over you and the other councilors."

 

She stared at him a moment, then smiled again, "But you are here for Perrit," she prompted, "aren't you?"

 

McKay met her gaze a moment, then gave a shrug. "We're here because she asked us to come, yes.  But we're not here for her."

 

Her eyes drifted across his face, studying it. Then she tilted her head, and there was something akin to concern in her gaze. "Should I be worried, then?" she asked softly. "About why you are really here?"

 

Rodney grimaced, looked away, then sighed, shaking his head. "No," he admitted finally. "You have nothing to worry about," his eyes narrowed on Baylor and Vanda, each talking to Ronon and Sheppard respectively, "at least not from us."

 

Jaquette seemed to think on that for a while, then she leaned in again. "But, Rodney," she said, "do you know why Perrit asked you here?"

 

McKay just shrugged again, something he knew she saw right through.

 

She leaned in, bringing her face close to his.  "You're here, darling, because Ambassador Perrit is showing the council and people of Orkidia that she can not be replaced.  Even more," her eyes fluttered coyly, "that she might be invaluable—all because she commands you, our saviors.  See," she shrugged slightly, "now that her son is dead, her position has become very shaky.  We don't have to keep her on anymore, not if we don't want to."

 

McKay frowned as her words registered, turning to face her squarely, not hiding his surprise. "Wait, say that again?"

 

"Don't you know?" she asked, and her own brow furrowed slightly. "Her son is the reason she was named ambassador.  He made it part of his agreement to be head scientist."

 

McKay's eyebrows lifted. "Dazy was the one who put Perrit in her position?"

 

Jaquette arched an eyebrow, "Of course.  Dazy was, without question, the most brilliant mind of the last three generations.  Naturally bright and fiercely dedicated—he lived for what he did.  Of course, politically, he was a bit of a fool, but his mother took care of that for him. He made her Ambassador, and she took every advantage.  Of course, now she wants to be in charge of all Orkidia...."

 

McKay absorbed this quickly, trying to equate the rather silly man who had shown them the water pump with the "brightest" mind of several generations.  Looking up, he found Perrit in the crowd, standing between two people he had not met.  She was speaking, and her audience seemed rapt.

 

"Not, of course," Jacquette continued, "that she would ever kill her son.  No, she didn't do that.  Someone else did that." 

 

McKay returned his gaze to the woman at his side, seeing the sharp intelligence in her eyes.  She had been watching Perrit, but now her gaze turned to his, and there was a strange disquiet there.

 

"Be very careful, Doctor McKay," she said softly, a real underlying worry in her tone. "I would hate to see anything happen to you," she grasped his hand more tightly for a second, "or your friends." 

 

His brow furrowed. Was that a threat?  But Jaquette just gripped his hand tighter before he could respond, and the smile returned to her face.  "Now," she cooed, looking out into the crowd, "let me tell you about those two over there..."  And she was off again, mingling gossip and fact as if she had never said a thing in warning.

 

It wasn't until the evening was finally over, and Jacquette took her leave that he realized he had, quite possibly, fallen in love. Of course, it could possibly be with a psychopathic killer that commanded an army of suicidal ninjas, but still...in love.  Hell, it wouldn't be the first time.  As they had stood up, she kissed his cheek, and then bounced away, taking Councilor Stebbins' arm in hers and leading him out of the room.

 

Sheppard was next to him a moment later, nudging him.

 

"She's a looker, eh?" the colonel grinned mischievously.

 

"Yeah," was all the scientist could manage in reply, his eyes still on Jacquette as she looked over her shoulder at him one more time before disappearing out the door.  His cheek still tingled from where she had kissed him. "You know," he said, "I think I might like this place."

 

Sheppard just sighed.

 

"Oh yeah," John said. "She did it."

 

Yup, still hated him.

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER NINE: WELCOME TO MY PARLOR...

 

Guardsmen assigned for their protection escorted them through Dendrobia to Ambassador Perrit's home, led by Commander Delian.  Evening was falling quickly, meaning that the entire canyon was in deep shadow, although the light was not completely gone.  If one looked straight up, the sky above was still blue, though it was more a striped indigo than the royal blue of midday.  There was also a lot of sand in the air up there, blowing off the edges of the canyon in great puffs of orange—had to be the start of the sand storms Perrit told them about.

 

Rodney stared straight up, trying to imagine a Jumper materializing out of thin air up there, the last rays of the sun lighting it up, swooping down to save them in the nick of time...

 

But nothing happened on the walk.  Hell, the whole city felt asleep, it was so quiet.

 

The Atlantians found themselves being led by foot down several quiet, cobblestone streets, the scent of spice still strong in the air, even though it was now very cool down here, bordering on cold.  The spice clung to everything, sort of like the sand they had long since given up on brushing off their clothing.

 

Finally, they came around a corner into another large, open courtyard, and Perrit glanced askance at her guests to see their reactions.  She wasn't disappointed.

 

Four jaws dropped. 

 

The Ambassador's house was a mansion.

 

The house itself was at least three stories high, with many windows, and was as wide as a city hotel.  The walls were whitewashed, the paleness of them obvious even in the half-light, and it was covered in wisteria-like ivy, pale pink flowers cascading down the walls.  It was a study in arches and columns, reminding McKay more of ancient Greece than anything else.

 

"Amazing," Teyla complimented, the first to recover.

 

"Yes," Rodney admitted, nodding.

 

"Not bad at all," Sheppard added with a small grin.  As they watched, the doors opened and a phalanx of white clad servants bustled out, lining up before them and bowing.  Then they stepped aside, to allow them entrance. 

 

Ronon glanced at the others, eyebrows raised.  More than any of them, this was well outside his realm of experience, or comfort.  Shifting uncomfortably, he watched as Sheppard's grin grew and the colonel shrugged at him, telling him to go with it.

 

One servant in particular, a rather non-descript young man with dun brown hair bustled up and bowed more deeply.

 

"Ambassador," he greeted, and turned to Sheppard, "honored guests.  Welcome.  Your rooms are all prepared."

 

"Thank you, Dawson," Perrit replied, then grinned proudly at the four Atlantians, clearly pleased she was able to get this reaction from them.   She swept her arm forward, looking most keenly at Sheppard, "Well, shall we?"

 

Sheppard nodded and followed Dawson inside, followed by the others.

 

Perrit hovered back to thank Delian and the guards.  Many took the thanks with a nod and made to leave, to head back to their homes, until just Delian was left.  He waited as Perrit turned her eyes skyward.  Her jaw steeled, and she looked down at the Commander.

 

"Cut them off," she said quietly.  He nodded and said something to a guard with him, who took off running.

______________________________________

 

Dawson led them to a room where more servants tried to take their gear, and that was pretty amusing, since no one was giving up anything.  The servants seemed terribly disappointed, muttering promises that they just wanted to clean off the sand and keep things safe, but McKay's venomous glare when they attempted to pull off his backpack quickly sent them scurrying.  The servants then continued to look utterly crestfallen while Dawson tried to change the Atlantians' minds. Teyla attempted to placate, making up something about needing their things to feel comfortable, and John almost started laughing at the absurdity of it all. In the end, of course, they kept their stuff.

 

Eventually, Dawson led them out and down a wide, gilt hall to a grand staircase.  It stretched up into a large atrium dripping with gold and brass and ivy. The word 'palatial' seemed almost too insufficient to describe this place.  It was like something out of an old Disney cartoon...or a horror movie. 

 

"Your rooms are all on the second level, which has a wonderful view of the city from the balconies," Dawson cooed.  He spoke like an hotelier, giving them a tour of their vacation accommodations.

 

It was all a bit strange, and, despite the servants, the mansion felt very empty. What was worse, these stairs were uncannily similar to the main set from The Shining.  John had one chilling moment of hesitation, when unwanted thoughts of a crazed Jack Nicholson ran through his head, but he shook it off and followed Dawson up the stairs, his team on his heels.

 

"Red Rum," McKay whispered softly behind him.

 

Sheppard jumped about a foot, then whirled around, shoving a finger into the scientist's face. "That's it! Stop reading my mind, you freak of nature!"

 

Rodney just grinned smugly, scrunching his nose as if to say, 'so called it!'  Sheppard gave him a death glare, and turned around again with a huff. Taking in a deep breath, he started once more up the stairs.  Dawson had stopped to wait, and now started up again.

 

"Col.. Sheppard!" Cadman's broken shout made Sheppard jump again, stopping him once more on the stairs. The others instantly stopped with him, all wearing mirroring expressions of concern, watching their leader.  Dawson turned around again in question, obviously not understanding the reason for this second abrupt halt. 

 

"Co...Resp...!"

 

He glanced at Dawson, not hiding his sudden worry.  "We need a minute."  The servant just nodded, and gestured to a room off to the side.  

 

"You can use that room, sir.  It's private."

 

Sheppard nodded, and jogged back down the steps, tapping his earpiece twice.  Perrit saw them where she was coming in the door, and paused on the threshold, her expression curious, but he did nothing more than wave at her as his team jogged past.

 

"Col...pard! Please Resp..."

 

As soon as they were inside the small room Dawson had indicated, John spoke. "Cadman?  Lieutenant, come in."

 

"Colonel Shep....Tey....Doctor...! Anyone recei...?  The sand....can't...losing contact with...subcutaneous transm...."

 

"We're reading you, Lieutenant, but you're breaking up.  Say again?"

 

The static was thick, and Rodney ripped off his pack, pulling out his tablet.  Sheppard looked at him, waiting, hoping he could do something to boost the signal.  Teyla was by the door, making sure they wouldn't be interrupted or overheard.  Ronon started pacing next to a small fireplace on the far side, all of his senses obviously suddenly on full alert.

 

"Colonel, we're not...radio sig...and dampeners aren't...pensating...too stro...sandstorms...out of nowhere...reading us?"

 

"There's a massive building up of energy in the atmosphere above the canyon walls," Rodney said, tapping away. "It's...It's massive.  Hurricane gale winds—my God, it's like they came out of nowhere.  And...what the...?"

 

"What?"

 

"I'm losing the signal.  It's...damn it!"  he started tapping at the tablet again, obviously trying to improve whatever he was seeing. 

 

"Sir! Can you hear...? We're trying...above...Shit!"

 

"Cadman!  Get above it!  Up, go up!"

 

"Losing...feels...--cking pinball! Colonel, if you can...spond! We're..."

 

"Then get the hell out of there, Cadman!  For Christ's sake!"

 

"...If...can hear us we're...can't tell which way is...instruments not....only chance...dial the...trust automatic...."

 

Sheppard closed his eyes.  He finally figured out that they couldn't hear him.  Maybe they hadn't heard him even when they'd first connected.

 

"...antis, sending IDC...Jumper....coming...fast...."

 

And then the static disappeared completely.

 

Ronon's deep sigh was not lost on Sheppard.  They were truly alone now.

___________________________________________________

 

An hour later, McKay was padding quietly down the silent, carpeted hall, aiming for Sheppard's room.  He saw Teyla padding towards him from the opposite direction, and gave a small wave.  She nodded back.  By silent accord, they were both carrying their full packs—the team would not be sleeping in separate rooms tonight, even though that was what Perrit had set up for them. 

 

Teyla reached the door first, knocked, and was quietly told to come in.

 

McKay followed her inside, to find Sheppard sitting at the end of a massive king-sized bed and already talking softly with Ronon, sitting on one of the chairs in the rooms.  The two men looked up as they entered, and Rodney shut the door softly behind him.

 

Teyla walked over, dropped her pack next to Ronon's, then pulled up a chair next to the former Runner.  McKay simply sat on the bed next to Sheppard, who shifted to make room.

 

"Did you look outside?" Rodney asked in a whisper, gesturing towards the windows. "It's pitch black out there now.  Night must have fallen really fast once those storms started, and I don't think this planet has a moon.  I can't see anything when I look up, not even stars.  Either the sands are really thick, or there's serious cloud cover up there now."

 

"I noticed," Sheppard whispered back, his eyes narrowed. "And, yeah, it's creepy, but didn’t I tell you to stay away from the windows?"

 

"Well," Rodney gave a shrug, "I just took a peek."

 

"Don't do it again."

 

Rodney just sighed.

 

"Okay," the colonel said, still keeping his voice low, "who wants to go first?  Teyla?"

 

"Hey," Rodney protested in his loudest hushed tone, "I thought I was the 'head detective' here."

 

Sheppard gave him a look, then shrugged.  "Okay, go ahead."

 

Rodney gave a pleased smile, and turned so he could see all of them at the same time. "Well, it's pretty obvious that Stebbins is not the culprit."

 

"Agreed," Ronon said, and Teyla nodded.

 

"Which, of course, puts him at the top of my list," Sheppard said.  That earned him three sets of raised eyebrows.

 

"Why?" Teyla asked.

 

"Because it's always the one you are least likely to suspect," he informed her with a shrug.

 

"What?" Teyla looked confused, turning to Rodney for an explanation. She wasn't disappointed.

 

McKay snorted, "Oh for Christ's sake. This isn't the movies, Sheppard."

 

"Movies?" Ronon asked.

 

"In mysteries written or shown for entertainment on earth," McKay explained tiredly, "the character who appears the most innocent is almost always the guilty party."

 

Ronon frowned, "Oh."

 

"It was not Stebbins," Teyla stated firmly. "He cares too deeply for his people and their livelihood.  He would have never deliberately sabotaged a water pump."

 

"Not even to make the Cattleyans better off than, say, the Dendrobians?" Sheppard asked.

 

She nodded.  "The two people's are too different, Colonel.  You can not make one better than the other.  The Cattleyans are ranchers.  They trade meat and skin for the crops grown by the Vandans, who have the most fertile of the canyons including most of the farmland we crossed through on the way here.  The Dendrobians, meanwhile, provide the industry and technology.  None of them could survive without the other."

 

"She's right," Ronon agreed. "But that doesn't mean that one of them doesn't want to be in charge of the others."

 

Sheppard pointed at the Satedan. "So, maybe Stebbins wants to be the one in charge?"

 

"Stop pushing Stebbins, Colonel," Rodney snarled. "He's not the type.  Besides, he doesn't know the first thing about the water pumps."

 

"Oh?" Sheppard said, arching an eyebrow. "Fine then, Hercule, who do you think it is?"

 

"Easy," McKay said, "It's either creepy Baylor or creepier Stella."  He specifically didn't say Jaquette, hoping only his own paranoia made her a suspect—Sheppard's earlier joke notwithstanding.

 

"Or Councilor Jaquette," Teyla added. 

 

McKay looked at her. Nuts.  "Really? Jaquette?  Why?"  Not that he didn't already know.

 

"She was very interested in you, Doctor McKay," Teyla said, "very much so.  I noticed she stayed with you for most of the evening."

 

McKay shifted, "Well, that's," he shrugged, "that's just because she liked me."

 

Sheppard snorted, and McKay shot him a look. 

 

"People don't like you, McKay," Ronon said matter-of-factly. 

 

"Hey!"

 

"Shhh! Not so loud," Sheppard admonished, hitting McKay on the arm, before adding in a whisper: "He only means that they don't like you at first.  Then they get to like you."

 

"No," Ronon said, "I meant people really don’t—"

 

"Ronon," Teyla interrupted.  She looked at McKay, and smiled sweetly.  He didn't buy it for a moment. "The thing is, Rodney," she said, her tone soothing, "most people, especially," she seemed hesitant, "women," she blushed, "tend to be put off a little by you," she glanced at Sheppard. "At least, at first.  They don't usually warm up to you as quickly as Councilor Jaquette appeared to."

 

He stared at her a moment, his jaw set tightly.  Then his eyes narrowed.  "So, what you're saying is," he said evenly, "that because a pretty woman seemed to find me interesting for an evening, that means she's trying to kill me?"

 

Teyla gave him an apologetic look as she gave a nod.

 

"Pretty much," Ronon agreed, a tiny smirk on his face.

 

"Well, that's ridiculous!" he hissed, wishing he could shout at them. "Lots of women like me!"  He looked to Sheppard, "Come on, remember Allina?  She liked me—you said so yourself."

 

"Yeah," Sheppard's face winced, "and she ended up betraying us, holding us at gunpoint with that Brotherhood of hers, and taking away the ZPM we found.  I'm thinking she probably would've had you shot had you protested more."

 

"Yeah, but...she liked me until then..."

 

"Sure, she did," Sheppard agreed, "when she thought you were one of the Ancestors.  She went cold the minute you told her we weren't them, remember?"

 

McKay's shoulders slumped, then lifted again, and he held up a finger. "Okay, but what about Katie Brown?  Katie liked me!"  He amended that quickly, remembering the smile she had thrown him the other day, "Likes me."

 

"Yes, well, she's a bit odd.  I mean, you had another consciousness in your brain, controlling you, and she ended up not seeming all that phased when she found out.  I think she might have a hero complex," Sheppard teased, "and, for some reason, mainly because she has never actually interacted with you for very long, she thinks you're a hero."

 

"Oh," McKay sneered, "Lovely. Thanks for that."

 

"He's got a point, McKay," Ronon noted.

 

"Oh, come on," McKay argued, "What would you know?  You'd barely been in Atlantis a week when Cadman was—"

 

"Listen," Sheppard said, raising a hand, "point is, you're an acquired taste, McKay.  Councilor Jaquette spending most of the evening with you...?"  He shrugged, "Frankly, it was weird.  That's all we're saying."

 

McKay grimaced, crossing his arms over his chest, looking at Teyla and Ronon, snarling when they nodded in agreement with Sheppard.  Teyla at least continued to look contrite.

 

"Fine," he snorted, "but she doesn't know anything about how the water pumps work, so, even if she's setting me...us...up for something, it had nothing to do with the water pumps."

 

"You sure?"

 

"Yes," he snapped, ignoring the doubting looks he received.  If they all thought he was too smitten to talk to her about the pumps, they were mistaken.  Although...it was a little odd that she had held his hand most of the time they were together.  No one had ever done that with him before, not even his mother.  Still....but....she had been so....damn it!  Fine! So it was weird!  Man...this sucked....

 

"There is one other person to suspect," Teyla said suddenly, interrupting his musings.  McKay looked up, glad to stop thinking about Jaquette.  Teyla had lowered her voice and was leaning forward in her chair, which caused the other three to lean closer to her as well.

 

Sheppard counted the councilors on his fingers, then frowned.  "Who? Not Commander Delian?" 

 

In reply, Teyla just shook her head and sort of looked around the room, then back at them pointedly. "Perrit." 

 

Ronon agreed with a nod, Sheppard grimaced, and McKay outright frowned.

 

"But Dazy was her son," Rodney protested softly.

 

"I know," Teyla said. "But there is something Perrit is not telling us."

 

"There's a lot of things Perrit's not telling us," Sheppard muttered.

 

"Seems to me," Ronon said, his eyes narrowed, "that we're not here to find out who killed her son anyway.  We're here because she's showing us off."

 

McKay looked at him, interested to hear Jaquette's words repeated. "You think so too?"

 

"Please," Sheppard said, "She couldn't be more obvious if she had painted, 'My personal Atlantians saved Orkidia,' on her dress.  By bringing us back so soon after Dazy's death, she's proving to the Orkidian people that we weren't scared off by the attack.  In other words, that we would come back at her request to fix the pumps, should they break down again.  Seems pretty clear she's more interested in the political points she can win with us, than any information we can uncover for her about Dazy's murder.  I'm not even sure she even cares who killed him.  Hell, I even had that crazy Vandan Councilor threatening me because of it."

 

"Me as well," Teyla nodded. "Councilor Stella was...most abrupt."

 

"And me," Rodney said, raising a hand.

 

"She's a bitch," Ronon stated.

 

"Well, bitchiness aside," Sheppard said, "she seems to have Perrit pegged."

 

"So, what?" Ronon asked. "If we're not here to really find out who killed Dazy," he shrugged, "Can we leave?"

 

That earned a moment of silence, as everyone looked at the colonel.  He grimaced, glancing at McKay on his left.

 

"Do you think the weapon she promised us is real?"

 

McKay's eyebrows lifted, then furrowed, having, for the moment, forgotten about the underlying reason they were there.  His eyes dropped over to his pack, where the data the Jumper had gathered was downloaded on his tablet. He'd looked at it earlier, but Cadman had been right—there was nothing informative there.  The Jumper's scans must have been blocked.  His eyes shifted then to the floor, recalling the silver discs he'd seen buried into the walls of the canyon, wishing he'd had a chance to see one up close.  Unconsciously, he turned to look out one of the windows in the room, even though Sheppard had them all shuttered tightly.

 

"There are too many people living here," he said finally, then turned to look at Teyla and Ronon, "aren't there?"

 

"Far more than is typical, yes," Teyla agreed.

 

"Though not so many as would probably populate a planet that hasn't been culled," Ronon noted darkly. "After all," he looked at Sheppard, "aren't there billions on your planet?"

 

Sheppard's eyebrows lifted, then he nodded.

 

"If this place has never been culled," Ronon asked, "why aren't there billions here?"

 

Again, they all turned to the scientist.  McKay grimaced, and looked outside the window again.

 

"I don't know.  But I do know that there must be something protecting these people."  He looked to Sheppard, "I think it's worth it to find out what it is."

 

Sheppard continued to study McKay, obviously weighing the scientist's earnestness against the need to protect his team.  They were clearly in danger here, but whether it was dangerous enough to give up on possibly learning of a new weapon to use against the Wraith....

 

Fact was, they'd risked their lives for a lot less.  Eventually, he nodded.  Ronon snorted unhappily, slumping in his chair. 

 

"Okay, then," Sheppard said, "we stay.  Which means we're back to trying to figure out who sabotaged the pumps and killed Dazy."  His eyebrows lifted, "So, what else do we know?"

 

"Councilor Stella definitely knows the water pump was sabotaged," McKay said, chin lifting.  That earned him three surprised stares, and he was pleased to finally have something to impart.  He leaned forward. "She told me that her pump would never break down for the same reason the Dendrobian one did.  I get the feeling she knew exactly why the pump broke down, and how it could be fixed."

 

Sheppard's eyes narrowed, "You mean...you think she's the one who sabotaged it?"

 

"No," McKay looked at him, "I mean that she knows how the pumps work.  Better than all the others. She carried the confidence of someone with a great deal of working knowledge."

 

Sheppard grimaced, but didn't disagree.  Instead, he said, "But that doesn't really help us, does it?  If she didn't sabotage it...."

 

"I didn't say she didn't sabotage it," McKay added. "I just...I don't think she sabotaged it."

 

"Huh?"

 

McKay waved a hand from side to side, obviously impatient with his inability to explain. "I'm saying, she has the knowledge to sabotage the pumps, and could have sabotaged the pumps, but I don't think she did."  

 

"Why not?"

 

"I don't know. I think it was the way she worded her threat.  I think she thinks Perrit and Dazy did the sabotage."

 

"Which, of course, isn't true," Sheppard shrugged, "since Dazy didn't kill himself."

 

"Unless..." Teyla tapped her chin.

 

"What?"

 

"Nothing," the Athosian said after a moment.  "Just a thought I had.  It's not important.  Go on."

 

They looked at her briefly, McKay for a second longer, his eyes narrowing as if he knew what she was thinking, before they moved on. 

 

"So," Ronon said, looking at McKay. "If Rodney's right, and Stebbins, Jaquette and Stella are all clear on the sabotage front, who does that leave.  Baylor?"

 

McKay frowned, then shook his head. "No. He doesn’t know enough.  I think he wants to, desperately, but he doesn't have the knowledge right now."

 

"Then who?  I mean, all that leaves is military commander, and we know he didn't do it, because he rescued us."

 

"Delian never showed up this evening to the party, did he?" Teyla said suddenly, her brow furrowing.

 

"No," Sheppard said, "He did not.  I wonder why not?"

 

And for some reason, they all looked at McKay.  Habit, mostly.  The scientist was staring at the floor, but, sensing their eyes on him, he looked up.

 

"What?"

 

Sheppard sighed again, and this time it turned into a yawn.  Between the walking all day and the feast and the alcohol, he clearly needed sleep.  They all did.

 

"Maybe we should call it a night," he suggested, rubbing at this eyes.

 

"One more thing," McKay said, "Just...we're trying to solve something based on impressions and hunches here.  What we need are facts."  He bit his lip, glanced at Teyla again, then plowed on. "Look, whatever you might think of her motives, Councilor Jaquette told me something tonight that got me thinking..."  He looked towards the closed door to the hallway, "I assume Dazy lived here as well, and that his workshop is probably somewhere in this massive house...."

 

Sheppard frowned, "So?"

 

"So, I just think I'd like to see his workshop," McKay replied, looking back at the colonel. "Want to come with me?"

 

"Now?"

 

McKay looked at him, then grimaced.  He saw how tired the colonel was, and, frankly, he was dragging himself. 

 

But, if his hunch was right, he did not want Perrit to know. Plus, he couldn't sleep while all this was rolling through his head.  If he did, he might lose the idea he had.

 

"Yeah," he said finally. "Now." 

______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TEN: THE PLOT THICKENS

 

They left Teyla and Ronon in the room, with orders for one to keep watch while the other got some needed rest.  Sheppard didn't want them all exhausted tomorrow when they returned to the council chambers for "round two."

 

Scowling a little at McKay, he let the scientist lead, trusting both in McKay's control of the life signs detector to help them avoid any of the servants or guards, and the scientist's ability to sniff out another scientist's lab.

 

Without really thinking about it, McKay seemed to be leading them down...into the basement.

 

"Why down?" Sheppard asked, as they paused in a hallway, while McKay adjusted his scanner.

 

Rodney didn't reply, frowning a little at the screen.

 

"McKay?"

 

"There are a lot of people milling around, Colonel," McKay said, obviously not in answer.  He turned and handed the device to Sheppard.

 

The colonel took it, and took in the evenly spaced dots moving about on the tiny screen. McKay was right—there were a lot of dots. He watched them for a moment, before figuring it out.  They were all pacing too evenly, moving too regularly.

 

"They're guards, McKay.  Perrit promised we'd be safe, remember?  She's guaranteeing it by blanketing this place with guards."

 

McKay just hummed again, taking the scanner back.  The noise reminded Sheppard that he had wanted to ask McKay why he had hummed earlier when Perrit had said only people with the amulets could access the water pumps.  He opened his mouth to do so, but McKay was already moving, sliding out of their little hidey-hole and bee-lining for some stairs on the opposite side of the hall.

 

As McKay quietly headed down the stone steps, Sheppard remembered his other question.

 

"Why are we going down?" he asked again in a whisper.

 

"Cooler air.  Preserves stuff better—like paper and machinery," McKay replied just as quietly. "And since they don't really have to worry about water and mold here as much as most places, but they do have to worry about oppressive heat...." he trailed off as they neared the bottom of the stairs they were climbing down.  There was a massive door before them—easily wide enough to fit a car through.  And, better yet, a black lock hung from a chain across the door handle, flashing a small red light.

 

"Oh, great," McKay muttered, running the Ancient scanner over it. "Of course, it's locked."  With a huff, he put down the pack on his shoulder and rooted around for something.  Sheppard just watched, waiting patiently.  Fact was, this wasn't the first locked door they had come across, and probably wouldn't be the last.  When Rodney pulled out his tablet and connected it to the lock, it made a small beeping noise.

 

"Can you open it?" Sheppard asked.

 

Rodney just gave him his patented, 'don't ask idiot questions' look.  "It's the same sort of lock he had on the grates in the pump."  He tapped away on the tablet for a moment. "It's a simple enough mechanism—piece of cake once you have the right frequency."

 

"And the tablet can tell you the frequency?"

 

"No, the tablet transmits the frequency that the Ancient scanner already told me and...."

 

The lock beeped again, flashed to blue and opened.  Rodney gave Sheppard a smug look.  A second later, he was lifting the padlock off, and depressing the handle, opening the door slowly.  It creaked, but not loudly.  Sliding inside, they shut it behind them, and Sheppard looked around for a light-switch.  In moments, the long cellar-like room was filled with soft, pale light similar to the electric lights illuminating most of the buildings they had found here.

 

McKay whistled. 

 

It was Dazy's lab, all right.  And the man was a pack-rat. 

 

Books, loose paper, and fat folder files were stuffed into every nook and cranny of the room, blanketing the floor, shelves and even the walls.  Pieces of machinery and random bits of equipment and technology filled tables, cabinets and bookshelves, almost to overflowing.  Overfilled file cabinets lined the stone walls, while crates and boxes of tapes and more paper created an obstacle course on the flagstone floor.  There were "pathways" through them, obviously well used.  And, to top it all off, almost everything was coated in a fine layer of sandy looking dust.

 

"This could take a while," McKay sighed, taking his pack off his shoulder and letting it land atop a dusty pile...and sneezed.

 

Sheppard just bowed his tired head.

_________________________________________________

 

Ronon slept, curled in on himself, as Teyla paced quietly around the room.  Her right hand rested atop of P90 strapped to her vest, while the fingers on her left tapped nervously against her thigh.  Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard had been gone for about two hours, and though they had checked in fairly regularly every half an hour, it was still making her nervous not to know what they were doing exactly.

 

Truth was, she had an idea of what Doctor McKay was looking for.  The look he had given her suggested they had had the same thought about the sabotage, but without proof....

 

She sighed, stopping to glance out through the wooden slats of one of the tall thin windows, taking in the courtyard below, making sure not to give her position away to anyone who might be watching.

 

There was a great deal of movement out there for the "middle of the night."  She suspected the shadows she saw pacing around were guards.  No one moved like the black-clad warriors that had attacked them earlier.  She was clearly watching soldiers, not panthers.

 

A soft knock at the chamber door startled her, and she looked around. 

 

Despite the lightness of the knock, Ronon had come awake instantly, and was sitting bolt upright on the bed, hand on his gun.  Teyla nodded at him as she walked swiftly past, heading for the doorway.  He rolled off the bed after her, weapon firmly in hand, and moved to stand on the opposite side of the door from the Athosian.  He gave her a nod to show he was ready.

 

The knock came again.

 

"Yes?" she answered softly.

 

"Miss Emmagen?" someone called.  It sounded like one of the servants who had greeted them earlier when they arrived. "Um, this is Dawson—I turned down your bed earlier? Uh...I thought this was Colonel Sheppard's room?"

 

"It is," Teyla replied. "The four of us felt it was wiser to stay in one room, and, as the Colonel's was the largest, we decided to stay here."

 

"Oh," the servant sounded puzzled. "That is fine. If you like, tomorrow we can set up enough beds in this room for all of you.  If we had known...."  He trailed off.

 

Teyla gave a small smile, "That would be nice, thank you, Dawson. Um," she glanced at Ronon, "It is awfully late, is there a reason you have come looking for us?"

 

"Oh," the voice changed from puzzled to embarrassed, "No, no.  Ambassador Perrit noticed that there was still a light on in Doctor McKay's room, and asked me to take him a night cap.  When I found he wasn't there, I thought it best to check with Colonel Sheppard."

 

Teyla eyebrows lifted, but didn't disagree with the logic of that.  Ronon rolled his eyes a little at McKay's typical lack of forethought by leaving a light on.

 

"Doctor McKay is fine—he is here.  He is sleeping." Teyla smiled a little as she looked at Ronon.  Outright lies were not her strong suit.

 

"Ah, right, okay. Um...well...," the servant sounded oddly disappointed. "To be honest, I was sort of hoping to speak with him...and you.  I brought enough drinks for all four of you, if you wanted."  Something that sounded like glasses clinking echoed through the door, and Teyla sighed softly.

 

"We appreciate the offer, Dawson, but we are very tired and—"

 

"I understand," the servant said quickly, "I just...there's something you should know.  About Ambassador Perrit...and Dazy.  Please.  I think it's important."

 

Teyla frowned slightly, and looked at Ronon.  The Satedan's brow was furrowed deeply, but he shrugged, nodding.

 

"All right," Teyla said, "Just hold on a moment.  I'll wake one of my other team-members and open the door."  She turned to Ronon, dropping her voice to a whisper, "Go make it look like there are two people sleeping over there, and I'll let him in."  Ronon nodded and jumped away, quickly stuffing McKay's and Sheppard's packs into their sleeping bags and adjusting them to look like bodies.  

 

After a moment, he looked at Teyla and nodded.  The low light would have to do the rest.  As he moved back over to join her by the door, she swung it open and let in the servant.

 

Dawson came in slowly, practically tip-toeing across the threshold. In his arms was a silver tray with four glasses filled with an amber liquid, and a nearly full decanter.  He smiled nervously at Teyla as she shut the door behind him, then backed up a little when Ronon suddenly loomed in front of him, towering over the smaller man.

 

"Uh, hi," Dawson greeted.

 

"That for us?" Ronon asked, reaching for one of the glasses.  Dawson just nodded as Ronon took one, sniffed at the contents, then smiled.  In one gulp, he downed the strong liquor, and grinned more.

 

Dawson frowned a little at Ronon as he offered the tray to Teyla, who took a glass as well, then he peered into the rest of the large room, noting the two sleeping "figures." 

 

"Can you wake them as well?" he asked. "What I have to say should probably be heard by all of you."

 

"We'll tell them," Ronon promised, handing his empty glass back to Dawson.  "They need rest.  So, what is it you want?" 

 

The servant swallowed, then after looking around for a moment, put the tray on a side-table.  Watching Teyla, he swallowed thickly, grabbed the decanter and unstoppered it.  Downing a healthy amount, he set it down, breathed out through his cheeks, and faced them again.  Teyla sipped hers, a tiny smile on her face as she watched the servant gather his courage.

 

"I came to warn you," Dawson said then. "Ambassador Perrit is not whom she seems.  She may even have killed her own son."  He grimaced at the shocked looks he got, and barreled on.  "Listen, you need to leave here.  All of you.  As soon as possible."  He looked again at the lumps on the bed, then frowned.  Then his eyes widened.

 

"Wait, those aren't....where are Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard?" he asked, his voice growing almost shrill. "I thought you said they were here?  You tricked me!"

 

Teyla's eyebrows lifted, not sure why he would suddenly sound so worried.  "They are exploring."  She took another sip, letting the sugary taste tingle on her lips. "I don't..." she blinked, wondering why her nose felt suddenly fuzzy, "...know when they'll be back.  Why don't you....you...what were you saying?"  She frowned, aware now that her words had slurred.  For a moment, she forgot what she was doing and she looked down at the glass in her hand.

 

"Oh, no," Dawson muttered, shoulders slumping. "This is terrible.  What am I going to do?"

 

"Do?" Teyla repeated, blinking a little slowly.  For some reason, the room had begun to feel strangely warm. "About what?"  She glanced at Ronon, and noticed the Satedan was swaying.  In fact, everything was swaying.

 

"About Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard!  I was supposed to wait until you were all together before I drugged you.  It acts too quickly, and doesn't last long, and I don't have enough to dose you twice!"

 

"What?" Teyla's eyes were burning now, and her world was incredible fuzzy. "What did you say?"

 

Ronon grunted a word that sounded like "Drugged?" but it came out more like a growl as he dropped abruptly like a stone to the floor.  Teyla staggered, trying to keep her feet as she stared at Ronon on the ground and then at the now wildly distorted vision that was Dawson.  The servant grabbed for her, taking her arms.

 

"Quick," he said urgently, "where are they?  Can you tell me where they are?"

 

"Wherrzoo?" Teyla muttered out, though that wasn't the word she was intending.  And as her world went completely dark, she heard Dawson release a very heavy sigh, followed by a rather unhappy sounding mutter.

 

"Ah Damn it.  He's gonna kill me."

_______________________________________________________

 

Sheppard was being shaken awake by a very insistent McKay.  The scientist's eyes were blood-shot and red-rimmed, but also very clearly excited.  Blinking, vaguely embarrassed because he hadn't actually meant to fall asleep while reading through one of the large paper journals Dazy kept, he looked blearily up at McKay.

 

"What?" he croaked, rubbing a hand across his dry eyes.

 

"She was right!"

 

Okay, Sheppard though, that didn't make any sense.  He yawned spectacularly, then asked, "Who was right?"

 

"Jaquette. And Stella too."  McKay was holding another of Dazy's large, leather bound journals to his chest, but the other was holding a schematic, practically shoving it into Sheppard's face. 

 

The colonel growled a little, backing away from the paper, then rubbing his eyes as he tried to focus on it.  It took a couple of minutes, but he eventually recognized it.

 

It was a schematic of the access panel on the outside of the water pump—the one Dazy had pretended to know nothing about.  Sheppard's jaw fell open, and he looked up at McKay, finally wide awake.

 

"Damn, he was a good actor," he admitted. "I honestly thought he had never seen it before.  The way he was going on..." Sheppard shook his head.

 

"Not only that," McKay grinned, obviously proud of himself, "but look at this!"  He dumped the journal he was holding down on top of the open one Sheppard had been using as a pillow, and quickly opened it to a certain page.  McKay tapped at the page, which was covered in numbers and equations. "What do you think of that?"

 

Sheppard stared at it a moment, then frowned.  Yes, he was good at math, but he wasn't a mind reader.  Did Rodney honestly think he could guess what a book filled with mathematical equations was without a frame of reference?  

 

"I don't," he said darkly. "What is it?"

 

"These equations estimate the amount of damage someone cutting into a very specific crystal in a very specific manner can cause."  McKay's grin was smug as hell now, and he stepped back, crossing his arms across his chest. "He did it.  Dazy was the saboteur.  He was the one damaging the water pump."

 

Sheppard frowned deeply. "What?"

 

"Are you deaf?  I'm saying Dazy did it!  He did the sabotage!"  He shook his head, looking down again at the book, and his smile turned to puzzlement. "I just don't know why."

 

Sheppard stared at him for a long moment, then slumped deeply into his chair.

 

"Well, great," he said, nodding. "But now where does that put us?  We figured the saboteur killed Dazy, but since, as you say, Dazy didn't kill himself, who did, and why?"

 

McKay frowned, then shrugged, "I don't know.  Someone who knew Dazy was sabotaging the water pump, I suppose, and wanted to stop him?"

 

Sheppard thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, so how do we find out who knew about it?"

 

Rodney winced. "Well, that's a hell of a lot easier than asking who knew how to sabotage it.  And it means the list of suspects just grew again. I mean," he shook his head, "we know Councilor Stella knew.  Or at least strongly suspected."

 

"As did your Councilor Jaquette," Sheppard added.

 

McKay waved a hand, clearly not entertaining that notion.

 

"Baylor might have known as well," the colonel said, thinking out loud now. "He may not have known the details, but I get the feeling he knows a lot about people.  I bet he guessed that Dazy and Perrit were—"

 

"Perrit?" McKay said, interrupting him. "You think Perrit knows?"

 

"Oh," Sheppard nodded, his eyes narrowed, "I think that's a safe bet.  Ten to one that they concocted the idea together, to guarantee Dazy a job."

 

"And keep Perrit working as well," Rodney said. "Jaquette told me Dazy got her the Ambassador job."

 

"Really," Sheppard sighed.  He just couldn’t be surprised by anything else about Dazy or Perrit anymore.  They'd been played by a true pair of professional cons.

 

"And someone, Stella, or Baylor, or...someone else, took offense."  McKay was frowning.  His upper lip curled, "Which is why they killed Dazy."

 

"And tried to kill us as well," the colonel added. "Because they think we're Perrit's...."

 

"Pets," McKay said softly, eyes downcast. 

 

Sheppard sighed, looking towards the doorway. "Yeah, well, I guess we—"

 

Machine gun fire suddenly flared up in the distant, muffled by the door, but still incredibly loud.  Sheppard jumped to his feet, already tapping his radio.

 

"Teyla! Ronon! Come in!"

 

Nothing but static.  McKay looked at Sheppard, who looked back...and both ran full tilt towards the door.

______________________________________

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE RUN AROUND

 

They emerged from the stairs leading into the basement into a flurry of activity, like stepping out from a monastery onto the Cross Bronx Expressway.  The lights were on full, and khaki clad guardsmen ran all around the first floor of Perrit’s home carrying the Orkidian machine guns tight to their chests, calling out orders to each other as if the whole world was coming down on them.  Quivering white clad servants also appeared to have collected in clumps, cowering in corners and being held at gunpoint by the guardsmen who weren’t moving around in the bright hallways.  For a moment, Sheppard and McKay just paused, not quite sure what to make of it all.  At least the firing had stopped.

 

A beat later, they were pushing through the people, trying to find their way upstairs to Ronon and Teyla.  Every few seconds, Sheppard tried to raise them on their radios, but got nothing in reply.  There was no more machine gun fire, but there was still clearly panic.

 

“Hey!” Sheppard yelled, trying to get someone’s attention, snagging the arm of a guard rushing past. “What the hell is going on?”

 

The guard stopped abruptly, almost as if he had just been shocked, and turned to look at him.  His eyes widened, and suddenly he was shouting at them not to move and yelling at his fellow guards for help.  Seconds later, there were khaki-clad guards surrounding them on all sides, jostling for position, looking torn between holding them there at gunpoint and trying to seem protective.  Sheppard growled—he hadn’t meant for them to be thronged!

 

“I asked what was going on,” he yelled, trying to be heard over the din of people rushing to add to the melee, “not pen us in!  We need to get upstairs!  Get out of our—“

 

“Colonel Sheppard!”

 

Commander Delian’s voice echoed over the others, the tall gray haired military leader moving towards them as effortlessly as a shark through the ocean.  Sharp eyes focused on the two men, sliding inside the pocket the guardsmen had created, his features clearly lines with worry.

 

“Where have you been?” he demanded, sounding almost like an irate parent.  “Are you and Doctor McKay all right?  We’ve been searching for you all over the place!” He was looking the two of them up and down as he spoke, as if for wounds and, finding none, seemed to relax a little. 

 

"Why were you looking for us?" Rodney asked.

 

“Answer that later,” Sheppard told Delian quickly. “Listen, we need to get upstairs to find—“

 

“It’s no good,” Delian interrupted. “They’re gone.  That’s why we were so desperate to find you.  We thought they had taken you as well.”

 

Sheppard’s eyes widened. “Taken?  What do you mean taken?  By whom?”

 

“We don’t know.  All we do know is—“

 

“Delian!” Perrit’s terrified voice screamed from some distance away.  “Commander!  What is going on?” 

 

As a group, they turned towards the long hallway that the voice had called from, in time to see the Ambassador rushing towards them down the stairs at the far end, guards flanking her on all sides.  She held tight to the dressing gown she was wearing over her nightdress, the raw whiteness of her knuckles obvious even from a distance.  Gray hair hung loose and long, running down her back in waves, while bright, scared eyes searched out first Delian’s face, then the Atlantians'.  Her pace picked up as she got closer, almost running down the hall.  The military commander waited until she was close enough not to have to shout before answering. 

 

“There’s been an incident,” he replied, but Perrit wasn’t listening.  She barreled into McKay, grasping his arms and then hugging him fiercely.  The scientist’s expression was priceless—if it hadn’t been for the seriousness of the situation, Sheppard might have burst out laughing at how stunned he was by her actions.

 

"Thank goodness you're all right," she gasped, backing off of him finally and turning to look at Sheppard, appraising him much as Delian had.  Then she let go completely and turned on the Commander himself, resting her hands on her hips and staring furiously at him.

 

“What the hell happened?  I have guards banging at my door, telling me that at least two of my guests have been kidnapped, while you, of all people, were on watch!  Delian!  How could this have happened?  Where were you?”

 

“We were right here!” the commander snapped back, anger flaring up in his eyes for the first time.  “My men were doing exactly what you ordered—to watch for an attack by the Lycastee!  We were not supposed to be watching your servants!”

 

Perrit actually gasped at that. “My servants?  What are you talking about?”

 

“Whoa!” Sheppard yelled, sticking a hand out and physically stepping into the conversation.  “Back up!  What the hell is going on?  What happened to my people?”

 

Delian grimaced, looking back and forth between him and Perrit, then swallowed and sighed.

 

"Ambassador Perrit commissioned me and my troops to guard her house while you were here.  We've been guarding it since news that you would be coming here today was broadcast to Orkidia, to ensure its and your safety.  But," he glanced at Perrit, "we made a mistake.  We were looking for danger from without...not within."

 

Perrit shook her head, obviously not understanding.

 

Delian grimaced. "Your manservant Dawson, Ambassador.  He betrayed you.  He and several others in your employ."

 

Her eyes widened momentarily, then narrowed.  "Don't be absurd!  Dawson has been with me for years!  Where is he?"  She turned around, looking into the clumps of servants still being held at gunpoint. "Dawson!" she called. "Dawson, where are you?"

 

Delian sucked in a tight breath, then let it out. "Listen to me, Perrit.  Dawson isn't here.  He led the group that kidnapped the two off-worlders—the woman and the tall man..."

 

"Teyla and Ronon," Sheppard interjected.

 

"Teyla and Ronon," Delian amended. "And we thought he had taken the colonel and the doctor here as well, but..." Delian glanced at Sheppard askance, "I guess not."

 

"So, where are they?" Sheppard demanded.  "Are you going after them?  Do you have a direction at least?"

 

Perrit, meanwhile, was still shaking her head. "No, no, it can't be true!  Dawson is my most trusted—"

 

"We tried to go after them, but we couldn't," Delian said to John.

 

"What the hell does that mean?" Sheppard snapped.

 

"Are you sure it was Dawson?" Perrit said, almost pleading, her hands gripping the commander's sleeve now. "Delian, please.  Are you absolutely sure?"

 

"Yes, Per, we're sure," he said, gently plucking her hands from his sleeve. "We would not have even known if one of our guardsmen hadn't spotted Dawson and his men placing the off-worlders into a cart out the back.  He shouted for help, which started Dawson and the others firing—that was the machine gun fire you heard; they had stolen weapons from the Vandan barracks. My other guards swarmed in, but Dawson's men revealed themselves to be proficient fighters.  They managed to get to the doors and out to the street. My men tried to pursue them, but the moment they left the courtyard," he looked to Sheppard again, his eyes now showing deep puzzlement, "something happened."

 

Sheppard's eyebrows just lifted, waiting.  Delian grimaced, before continuing.

 

"It's going to sound crazy but," he shook his head, "a massive bright light suddenly flashed, like an explosion without sound, and it threw my men backwards, knocking them all down, myself included.  In the confusion that followed," he sighed, "we lost your people.  I don't know—it was...it was like magic.  We all saw it, and a number of my men are still unconscious from the strength of the blow..."  He trailed off, his eyes filled with his unease and uncertainty.  He was scared.

 

Sheppard stared at him, gauging his honesty, then turned to McKay.  The scientist was way ahead of him, pulling out his small hand-held scanner and taking readings.  After a moment, he nodded.

 

"There is still some residual power."

 

"Residual power?" Delian repeated. "What does that mean?" 

 

Rodney didn't reply, just looked at Delian. "Take us to where you saw this light."

 

The commander frowned, "No.  You should not go outside now, there may still be—"

 

"He's not asking," Sheppard snarled. "Take us out there, now."

 

"Colonel Sheppard, please understand," Delian's eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. "I can't protect you against something like that.  Magic is—"

 

"Oh, please," McKay sneered. "It wasn't magic, you idiot.  It was an energy charge from some sort of weapon. Now let's go."

 

The Commander was frowning, perhaps realizing for the first time that neither Sheppard nor McKay seemed at all fazed by what he'd told them.  Finally, he inclined his head.  "Follow me."

 

———————————————————————

 

It was still fully night outside, the sky still black and starless—the only light came from the electric street lights.  According to the military commander, the sun would not breach the top of the canyon for several more hours.

 

Delian led them out the back-door and through a wide, flagstone courtyard filled with plants and a couple of smaller fountains.  To one side, mews filled with meeners whinnied as they passed by, as uneasy as the people trying to keep them calm.

 

Delian remained quiet as he moved, neither ordering his men to follow him nor to stay back.  Consequently, they followed, and, in some cases, led—taking point to scout for danger.  Even with the threat of "magic," they were that loyal to their commander.

 

McKay's eyes stayed on the scanner, reading in its scans what their eyes couldn't physically see in front of them.  Sheppard knew the scientist was searching for a needle.  He was also confident that if anyone could find it, it would be Rodney. 

 

Keeping close to his teammate, Sheppard's jaw was tense, eyes watching everything around him with the intensity of a hawk.  Words spun through his mind from the last few minutes—Delian's, McKay's, Perrit's—and landed on something Delian said.

 

"Who are the Lycastee," he asked suddenly, looking at the Commander leading the way.

 

Delian's shoulders stiffened, and he glanced back the colonel.  "Lycastee?"

 

Sheppard just gave him a dark look, and the commander grimaced.  Facing forward again, Delian's lips twisted, as if deciding it would be pointless to hold back.

 

"The black-clad warriors who tried to kill you when you first arrived, the same that killed Dazy," he answered. "They call themselves the Lycastee."

 

"So they have a name," Sheppard's eyebrows lifted, and he looked behind him, where Perrit was trailing them, her arms wrapped around her tightly, still holding the robe closed.  Her eyes were on the ground. "I thought you said you didn't know who had killed your son."

 

"I knew the Lycastee killed him, yes," Perrit said, lifting her head to look at him with shadowed eyes. "But I don't know why.  And I don't know who ordered them to do so."  Her chin lifted, "Does that answer your question?"

 

"No," Sheppard spat back. "Why didn't you tell us about them?"

 

"What's to tell?" she demanded in return.  "They're nothing but renegades!  They call themselves fighters for the truth, but they're nothing more than murderers and fear-mongers!  Give them a reason to hate someone, and they do!  Someone told them to hate my boy!  I want to know why! And I want to know who!  And isn't that why you're here? To find out who sent them to murder him?!"

 

The last was delivered in a shrill tone, so loudly that no one could have missed it.  Delian had almost come to a stop, his brow furrowed in real confusion now.  He did stop when he reached the archway at the end of the courtyard, the large opening leading out onto a wide cobblestone boulevard.  McKay kept walking, clearly hearing nothing now but his own thoughts racing in his head.

 

Delian looked hard at Sheppard, "That's why you're here?  To find out who killed her son?  I thought you were here to make sure the other two water pumps weren't suffering the same sort of damage as—"

 

"The Ambassador asked us to look into her son's death while we were here, yes," Sheppard replied curtly, cutting the older man off. "We said we would help if we could."  And with that, the colonel walked away from both Perrit and Delian, moving to stand next to McKay.  Delian watched them, then turned to look at Perrit.  The Ambassador had her head down again, suddenly very interested in the ground.

 

"Perrit?" the commander called softly, though still loud enough for Sheppard to hear. "You didn't trust that I would find the murderer for you?"

 

Sheppard glanced back, hearing something in that tone.  Betrayal.  Perrit sighed and looked up. 

 

"No, Commander Delian," she said, "I did not.  I'm sorry."

 

Delian's jaw tensed, and he turned away from her. Perrit's head bowed—looking more lost than John had ever seen her.  The colonel lowered his eyes, and looked back to McKay.  The scientist was moving in a small circle on the road outside the archway, his eyes focused on the scanner.

 

"What have you got?" Sheppard asked.  "Wraith stunner?"  That's what Delian's description had sounded like to him.  But Rodney was shaking his head vigorously.

 

"No, God no.  This is much more powerful than that. I'm picking up some serious power readings. Something discharged an enormous amount of energy here." He looked up at John. "And it has Ancient technology written all over it."

 

Sheppard's eyes widened, "What?"

 

"These readings are consistent with the frequencies and ranges used by Ancient technology.  This power signature..." His eyes narrowed, and he shook his head again. "I'm almost certain I've seen it before, but I can't place it." 

 

Sheppard grimaced, and looked back at Delian and Perrit.  They were both standing quietly now, waiting for them.  Perrit looked worried by their conversation.  Delian just frowned.

 

"Okay," Sheppard looked back at McKay. "So is there any way you can track them using that thing?"

 

"Them?" McKay's eyebrows lifted. "You mean Teyla and Ronon?  No.  But," he fiddled with the scanner, "I can follow the power residuals."

 

"Power residuals?"

 

"The weapon—whatever it was—emitted a great deal of energy, and technology like that doesn't just shut off when it's done.  It shuts down gradually, like waiting for an oven to cool down after it's been used.  And it's pretty distinct.  I think I can calibrate the scanner to search for the weapon's specific power signature—and if I find it..."

 

"We can find them."    

 

"Yes.  But we have to go now.  The signature's going to fade quickly.  So long as it's still emitting some amount of power—right now, these residuals—I can follow it.  The moment it grows cold, however...."

 

"I get it," Sheppard sighed. "All right.  We've enough time to gear up?"

 

"Yeah.  I think so.  If we hurry."

 

Sheppard nodded, then turned to Delian and Perrit.  The Commander was still frowning, but, now, he was frowning more with puzzlement.

 

"I didn't quite follow that," he said. "Are you saying that you might be able to track your people somehow?"

 

Sheppard nodded, "Yes. And we're going after them as soon as we've gotten our gear from our rooms." He waited a moment, then admitted, "Fact is, we could probably use a little help.  Since this isn't exactly out city."  He looked at McKay, who was just watching him, then back to Delian. "If you're willing to help us, I could use a small force.  Maybe, two, three men who know this city well?"

 

Delian didn't hesitate. "You'll have them."

 

Perrit grimaced, then looked to Sheppard. "Does Doctor McKay have to go with you?"

 

"Yes," Rodney replied.

 

Perrit's shoulders slumped, but she nodded. "I understand."  She straightened, bringing her head up proudly. "Then I'm going, too."

 

"No," Delian stated, before Sheppard could. "You're staying here, Ambassador."  When she looked as if she would argue, he cut her off by holding up a hand. "It's too dangerous, Per. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to you as well.  Please, stay here."

 

Her lips closed, her eyes very soft.  "Fine," she said, sounding incredibly unhappy. "But..." she turned her gaze from Delian to the others and then back again, "be careful."

 

——————————————————————————

 

Delian was as good as his word, and they had three men and two women quietly making their way through the sleeping city following Rodney's lead...including Delian himself.

 

The scientist made a few wrong turns, but, generally, managed to keep a straight path.  It wasn't quick, by any means, and Rodney's occasional swear told them it wasn't easy either.

 

Eventually, he slowed and then came to a stop.

 

The reason why was fairly obvious.

 

They were standing in the main square of the City of Dendriobia—staring up at the massive oaken doors leading into the Council Chambers.

 

"Oh," Sheppard groaned, "tell me you're kidding."

 

"No," McKay said, "Whatever hit the Commander's guards? It's in there."

 

Commander Delian came up on the scientist's other side, frowning.  "You're absolutely certain?"

 

"He's certain."  Sheppard answered for his friend, forestalling McKay's usual self-aggrandizement.  McKay just arched an eyebrow at him, which the colonel returned. 

 

Delian, though, was looking down at the little hand-held in McKay's hands, noting the darkened screen. "But...there's nothing on his...your little machine."

 

"Oh," McKay looked down at the scanner, then shrugged, "That's because the power source I was registering died when we reached this square.  Completely cold.  But I saw enough to know it's in there somewhere."  He waved a hand at the structure.

 

"Then, let's go." Sheppard lifted his P90 and started moving forward towards the stone edifice, McKay right behind him, the scientist putting away his scanner and dragging up his own P90.

 

"Wait!" Delian called, "You can't!"

 

Sheppard stopped, turning to frown at the Commander. "Excuse me?"  The words fairly dripped with sarcasm—clearly, he was not about to be stopped.

 

Delian shook his head, "You don't understand.  While all citizens—and their guests—technically have access to the main rooms of the Council Chambers, the rooms of the individual councilors are all sealed.  I could show you mine, but that is all my authority would allow."

 

Sheppard looked at him a moment, then asked darkly, "So, what you're saying is, our friends could be in there, but we can't go in to look for them?"

 

"Correct. And I'm sorry.  I really can't allow you past the lobby without permission."  At his words, the Orkidian guards with them moved forward, hands resting on their weapons. 

 

Sheppard eyed them coolly, then looked back at the military commander.

 

"In other words, you're not letting me rescue my people," he stated icily. "Because, if that's the case...may I remind you that we are not technically subject to your rules?"  And with that, he made a show of tightening his hold on his P90.  Beside and a little behind him, McKay didn't move, his face alive with nerves about this new "standoff."

 

"Actually," Delian said, breathing tightly, "to be honest, Colonel, I doubt they are in there.  There is no place in the Council Chambers that you can hide people, of that I am certain.  Even if we could go in—you wouldn't find them."

 

McKay's brow furrowed, "Are you sure?  It looks pretty big." He glanced again at the structure. "And who knows how far back it's been carved into the canyon wall."

 

"Not far, believe me," Delian replied. "I have been the military commander for almost twenty years—I know the Council Chambers like my own home.  Unless your people are being kept in one of the councilor's chambers, which I very much doubt—they are not in there."

 

Sheppard's jaw clenched, and he looked at the imposing stone edifice with disdain. "But the Ancient device is in there."

 

"Ancient...?"

 

"Ancestral," McKay supplied quickly. "The weapon you saw was made by the Ancestors.  Like the pumps."

 

Delian stared at him a moment, eyebrows lifted, then gave a single nod. "If it is small," he admitted, "it could more easily be hidden.  As I said, any of the councilor's chambers—"

 

"Seems like a perfect place to hide people, if no one but the councilors themselves can go inside their own rooms," Sheppard snarled. 

 

"I assure you—"

 

"You can't assure me of squat, Delian."  And the P90 was lifted higher in Sheppard's arms. "And you're not stopping us."

 

"Wait, wait, wait, wait," McKay said, stepping slightly in front of John and pressing a hand to his arm. "Look, before anyone starts shooting anyone..." He turned to Delian. "What do we need to do to get the authority to search them?  Because, if we can find out which councilor holds the weapon, we—"

 

"You would need to call a special meeting of the Council," Delian informed them, "and get their permission first."

 

Sheppard's lips pressed together in a thin line, "How long will that take?"

 

Delian grimaced, "Not until morning, at least.  Maybe when the sun is about halfway down the walls, which will be in about four hours."

 

Sheppard stared at him, then at McKay.  The scientist offered no comment—he just waited for Sheppard's call.  If Sheppard nodded at him to back up and get out of the way, he would, even though he obviously didn't want this to go that way.

 

The colonel looked back at the massive stone structure, and his gaze narrowed as he realized he could see light streaming through some of the windows, and at least one silhouette looking down at them.

 

"There are lights on," he stated matter-of-factly.

 

Delian gave a grim smile, "That's because there are guards inside, Colonel.  A number of them.  And they would certainly come out to help me if you tried anything."

 

Damn. 

 

John's sighed heavily through gritted teeth, and looked again at Delian, his eyes narrowed. "All right.  We'll do it your way. For now."

 

“I promise you, I will get you in as soon as I can tomorrow morning,” Delian affirmed.

 

Next to Sheppard, McKay gave the colonel a rueful look, which Sheppard ignored.  Fact was, John hadn't really wanted to shoot the only Orkidian he actually liked on this damned planet.  So, for now, they would go along with the rules—at least, until they got away from Delian and his guards.

 

"All right, then," Delian sighed, signaling to his men to turn around. "We’ll head back to the Ambassador’s, and I’ll leave you in her care while I go get the council members up.  Meanwhile, I assure you that my men will continue to scour the rest of the City in search of your people, Colonel, and I'll personally ask the guards inside the Council Chambers if they witnessed anything odd in the last hour or so.”

 

“Fine,” Sheppard replied, his jaw still tense. Delian gave him a wry look, but didn't try to press the matter.  The Orkidian Commander gave a quick order to one of his men with them, who, with a quick salute, jogged up to the Council Chamber doors.  Delian watched him go, then looked to the two Atlantians.

 

"This way," he said, turning and walking away.

__________________________________________________________

 

The walk back to Perrit’s mansion was quick, but uneasy. Sheppard's annoyance and frustration grew and waned as he considered what might be happening to Teyla and Ronon while they "waited."  One glance at McKay's sour expression next to him told him he wasn't the only one—neither of them were known for their patience.  Still, Rodney had done a fair imitation of Teyla back there, stopping him from going too far and shooting Delian, and it had probably been a good thing.  At least, he hoped it was.

 

As Perrit's mansion came into view, Sheppard sighed and walked up close to Delian, wanting to get in one last question before they were back in the Ambassador’s earshot.

 

“Commander, since we have a little time here, can you tell me," he grimaced, "who exactly are these Lycastee?  The ones who tried to kill McKay and me before.  Perrit painted a pretty ugly picture—they sound like terrorists.”

 

Delian glanced at him, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Terrorists?  That's an odd term.”

 

Sheppard waved a hand. “It means people who try to affect change through terror tactics—you know, like trying to kill two off-worlders helping fix a broken water pump, and successfully killing an unarmed scientist doing the same thing.”

 

Delian winced a little at the description, but shook his head. “No, they are not terrorists, per se, though I can see why you would think to equate that term with them.”  He grimaced, then sighed. “A better term, if one exists, would be to describe them as guerillas, as most of their tactics are military in nature.  As a group, they attack guardsmen and peace officers, and, occasionally, the Council members themselves.  Their purpose is to affect change, not through terror, but through a show of force upon those who have power.”

 

“Sounds like a terror tactic to me,” McKay muttered, coming up alongside.  John noticed McKay was watching the alleyways, looking for danger.  He was definitely getting better.

 

“Terror suggests that those who are attacked are terrified by what the Lycastee might do, in part because they are unable to defend themselves, but the Lycastee, until recently, were not murderers.  The people they attacked were those who could fight back—soldiers and bodyguards.  They’re greatest weapon was surprise, but their attacks often did little more than humiliate the ones they went after.  Dazy’s death, however, suggests that they are more desperate, more afraid.”  He eyed the two Atlantians with him, “You must have really worried someone.”

 

Sheppard was frowning, eyes scouting the rooftops the way McKay’s scanned the alleyways, “What sort of ‘change’ are they hoping to affect, exactly?”

 

The military commander grimaced, looking suddenly very tired.  “That’s simple enough.  They want to change the way we’re governed.  Fact is, the under classes are not happy with the way things are—both with the way the Council works and with the way Orkidian society works, with, well,” he waved a hand about, “everything.  They haven’t been happy for a while, and the Lycastee formed when the under classes felt they were not being heard.” He shrugged, “It is their belief, one I’m not sure the basis of, but can respect to a certain degree, that many of our problems can be solved by dissolving the Council in favor of a single leader.  Not just a Chief Councilor, but something akin to a president, commonly elected by all.  The Council would then be relegated to a senate of sorts, and all of its members would be elected popularly as well.” 

 

Sheppard glanced at him, “A president?” he asked, not hiding his surprise. “Really?”

 

“I know,” Delian sighed, “seems outlandish.  Me, I’d just be happy to have a Chief Councilor.  That’s the part I do understand—someone needs to lead.  Someone the people can respect."

 

"Maybe like you?"

 

Delian looked startled, then, glancing at Sheppard, he started to laugh.  Soon he was laughing heartily, shaking his head as they passed through the gates of the main courtyard.

 

"I take it that's a no?" Sheppard replied, when Delian paused for a breath.

 

"Hell, yes," Delian shook his head. "Security and the military are all I know, Colonel.  What do I know of animal husbandry and crop growing and industry?  Or, worse, chancery.  No, keep me far from ever having to pass judgment on people or dealing with feuding families.  No, no, I do not covet that position.  Honestly," he shook his head, his eyes sobering slightly, "I can't imagine why anyone would."

 

There was something in his tone, however, and Sheppard took a guess: "But you know people who do."

 

Delian did not speak, just clenched his jaw, staring straight ahead.

 

"Yes," he stated with finality.  By his tone, this conversation was now over.

 

The timing was perfect, as, at that moment, they passed through the gate into the courtyard of Perrit's mansion.  The Ambassador herself emerged from the central doors leading onto the courtyard at their appearance, bright yellow light framing her thin, silhouetted figure, and waited for them.  She was smiling in obvious relief at their unharmed appearance.

 

Delian’s eyes narrowed somewhat on seeing her, “Thing is, Colonel, there are those on the Council who think the Lycastee, and all others who oppose the Council, are dangerous and should be…crushed.”  He looked at Sheppard, “Me, I'm not so sure that some opposition isn't healthy.  Still, I would do it, if we found out who they were and who leads them, but....” his eyes darkened, “they’ve been too clever about keeping their secrets."  He snorted, "Either way, if you ask me, people who are too afraid to show their real faces don’t deserve a voice anyway, much less mercy.”  He stared at Sheppard a moment longer, then turned abruptly to walk away.

 

McKay sidled up to Sheppard, following Delian’s strong figure as the military commander merged in with his guardsmen filling the courtyard.

 

“Is it just me,” he asked softly, “or was that last sentence about 'real faces' directed at us?”

 

Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted, surprised McKay had caught that, and he shook his head, “It’s not just you.”

 

“He thinks we’re two-faced?” The scientist’s eyebrows were deeply furrowed, “Why?”

 

“I would guess,” Sheppard replied, looking at Perrit's smiling face, “for the same reason that Stella and Jaquette do.”

______________________________________________

 

Ronon groaned slightly, feeling at the wicked headache banging against his forehead, and raised a hand to it.

 

Only to find his right hand wasn't going to go anywhere.  It was manacled.

 

His eyes snapped open, the blurry, dry eyes quickly taking in his surroundings, anger and an old, deep-seated fear flaring inside his chest.  He was in a cage, and his right arm was manacled and chained to a stone wall behind him.  Metal bars surrounded him on three sides, and above his head.  He would not be able to stand in here.  He got to his feet, scrambling to test the distances he could move, and found himself looking through the bars at a pair of very familiar brown eyes.

 

"Ronon," Teyla greeted.  She was leaning against the bars inside a cage of her own, and he could see that she was similarly restrained.  "Are you all right?"

 

"What happened," he demanded gruffly in response.

 

"We were drugged," she answered simply.

 

"By whom?"

 

She shook her head, then winced a little as if it had hurt her to do so.  Her free left hand reached up to knead at her forehead.  "I do not know," she answered.  "He has not shown his face."

 

"'He?'" Ronon said, eyeing her.  "Are you sure it's a—"

 

"Yes.  I heard him through the door," she looked to her left, towards a stout oak door that sealed them in this square concrete room.  "He was chastising Dawson for only getting the two of us."

 

Ronon snorted, looking around more carefully at their surroundings.  Their two cages were set back against the wall, and there was one other, currently empty.  There was nothing else in the room except a couple of plain wooden chairs.

 

Ronon's eyes narrowed, looking at the last cage.  "Why's there only one other cage?"

 

"I believe it was intended for Colonel Sheppard," Teyla replied.

 

"Sheppard?" The Satedan's brow furrowed. "What about McKay?"

 

"That is why our captor was so angry with Dawson," Teyla replied tiredly, still looking at the door.  "Apparently, it is rather difficult to force someone to cooperate by threatening to torture his friends..." she looked back at Ronon, "if the person you wish to threaten is not here."

 

Ronon stared at her a moment, then sighed.  "You mean, McKay.  They want to force McKay to do something, and if he doesn't...."

 

"We would be tortured, yes."

 

Ronon just sighed. "You know, that idea's really beginning to get old."

 

Teyla just gave a tiny smile at that.

 

"So," the Satedan said, shifting slightly on his haunches, "You got any idea how to get us out of here yet?"

 

Teyla's smile faded, and she shook her head.  "Not yet.  But now that you are awake," her smiled returned, "I am certain we can come up with something."

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: THE TRUTH IS RARELY PURE AND NEVER SIMPLE

 

When Delian rejoined them a little while later inside, the Commander filled Perrit in quickly and succinctly on what they had found, and she immediately agreed to provide them access to her council chambers.  She would also be there for the meeting in the morning to make sure all the councilor’s chambers were made available for them to search.  The two Atlantians tried not to appear impatient at these words, wanting only to get up to their rooms so they could slip away.

 

Perrit obviously sensed something, because she soon ushered Delian and his guards back outside, then accompanied McKay and Sheppard upstairs.  As they went, she dismissed the still frightened looking servants dogging them, sending a few to ready her room for her and the rest to go back to sleep.

 

When they finally reached the room John had been sleeping in, she followed the two of them in, wringing her hands slowly.

 

“You will be all right?” she asked, watching as they made a show of taking off their packs and gear.  Her long gray hair hid some of her face, making it a little difficult to guess what she was thinking.

 

McKay shrugged, not bothering to answer.  John gave her a single nod.

 

“Then I’ll go,” she said, backing up a couple of steps but not turning around.

 

And that was as far as she got.

 

For some reason, she paused by the door, hovering on the threshold, her worried, pale eyes watching them with a strange sort of hesitation—it wasn’t even clear that she was seeing them.  Her hands had stopped moving, and were now clenched together so tightly, her knuckles were white.

 

John glanced at Rodney who met his gaze in return—neither apparently knowing what to do in the awkward silence.  Finally, John turned to her, clearing his throat.

 

“Ambassador, we—“

 

She jumped, as if startled, then started to shake her head.  “No, no,” she whispered, “wait.” Turning around quickly, she shut the door to their chambers and then stepped forward, beckoning them close.  A touch bewildered, they complied after a moment, and she clasped her hands together again, raising them to rest below her chin as if in prayer.

 

“I know you’re going to try and sneak out,” she whispered, her eyes clear and, to some degree, dangerous looking, “and try to get into the Council Chambers.  You won’t succeed,” she shook her head, “at least, not easily.  What you need,” she licked her lips, “is someone who knows those chambers and this mansion and this City well enough to sneak you around without getting caught.”  Her eyes were dark now, determined.  “If you…if you just wait for me to change, I’ll go with you.”

 

John’s eyebrows lifted way up on his forehead. “Ambassador, no, we don’t—“

 

“Please,” she pressed, “you need me to help you.”  She took a deep breath, “And I need to find out who killed my son.  If the answer lies inside the Council Chambers, then I’m going with you.  If you say no, I will make sure Delian puts people outside your door and all of your windows. I promise you, you’ll never make it out—not unless you can turn invisible.  Please…I can get you out of here, and in there, with no one the wiser…but only if you take me with you.”  Her jaw locked then, jutting out stubbornly, eyes daring them to challenge her. 

 

And, for a moment, John was reminded of his old battleaxe of a grandmother, demanding he finish his homework before being allowed to go out to play.  Like Perrit, she had been strong and fit and he was certain she could have broken him in two—so he always listened to her.

 

He looked to his right, to McKay, but the scientist was no help in these matters. Rodney simply met his gaze with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to make a decision. As always, this was John’s call.

 

Thing was, John knew Perrit was right.  They could use her help.  Her knowledge of the Council and the Council Chambers could be invaluable.

 

“Okay,” he conceded finally. “But first, you need to tell us the truth.”

 

She attempted to look surprised. “Truth?”

 

“About the water pumps,” McKay said, and suddenly, with all the warning of flash flood, his trademark anger exploded, rounding on the woman with every ounce of frustration and fear he had kept bottled up until now. “What the hell were you thinking?  Are you a complete idiot?!  Do you have any idea how wrong what you did is?  How delicate that machinery is?  You need it to survive, yet you risked something that precious for, what, prestige?  A fancier title?  That is wrong in so many ways!  How could you?!”

 

She actually flinched in response to his harsh tone, stumbling back a few steps, her eyes widening.  “What?”

 

“We found your son’s workshop,” John explained, trying to keep his tone even. He was not about to apologize in the least for McKay’s outburst—he’d almost wished it had been even more scathing.  “We know, Ambassador,” he said. “We know what you and your son were doing.”

 

She stared at him, her eyes searching his face, then turned again to Rodney, whose own face was deeply flushed with anger.  Whatever she saw in the scientist’s accusing eyes had her bowing her head, closing her eyes in misery.  Slowly, she nodded.

 

“Yes,” she admitted, her voice softening with shame. “You’re right, of course,  Dazy sabotaged the pump. He’s been doing it for years, causing it to stutter and raising his value to the community, our family’s importance."

 

"But then, what," Rodney peered at her like he would lab rat, "why did you go too far? Why cause it to break down completely?"

 

Perrit drew in a shaky breath. “Because of you," she said, looking at them both. "When your people first came, particularly your Doctor Zelenka, demonstrating an aptitude for the pump's engineering and technology so far beyond our own….”  She shrugged, “We decided to take a risk.  We knew you could fix whatever we did, especially if, as Lieutenant Cadman told us, you,” she glanced at Rodney, “could work even faster than Doctor Zelenka—which you definitely can.  So we hatched this plan, to use you to solidify our positions in the community.  We billed you as our saviors,” she released another shaky breath, “our guarantee that, for so long as you would come to our aid whenever I or my son asked, the Perrits would always be powerful.  Obviously, no one needed to know that you probably come if any Orkidian asked—but we told the Council that my son and I were the only ones who could secure your cooperation. As a result, Dazy would always have his position and I could even have been named—“

 

“Chief Councilor,” McKay spat.  He twisted around so as not to look at her anymore, shaking his head in disgust.  “God, I hate politicians.” 

 

Perrit just kept her head down, unable to meet either man’s eyes.  John sighed.  For the first time, he felt she had finally told the truth.  He licked his lips, and softened his voice when he continued.

 

“But your plan backfired, didn’t it?  When someone attacked us and killed Dazy.”

 

The Ambassador nodded, glancing up at him before looking down again, and he could see the tears in her eyes.  “I…I believe the leader of the Lycastee figured out not only that the pump was sabotaged, but that Dazy was the saboteur.  They guessed our intentions, and sent those men to kill him…and you.  They were probably waiting to see if you actually would fix this pump, and, once you did, decided to make sure the pump wouldn’t be harmed by us or you ever again.”

 

“So,” Sheppard’s eyes narrowed, “when you asked us to come back here….”

 

“I thought you could figure out who knew about Dazy’s sabotage.  Who really knew.  Either that, or you would draw them out again.  Then I’d know who killed my son.  That and,” she swallowed again, “I wanted to demonstrate that, if we ever needed you again, I could still bring you here.” 

 

John glanced at Rodney, who still had his back to Perrit, and the scientist met his sideways gaze with a taut jaw. They'd figured that out already, but it was still good to hear it confirmed.

 

Perrit ran her hand over face, rubbing away the liquid that had formed in her eyes, and looked up at John with a clear gaze.  She looked younger, for some reason, freer.  “I am sorry for using you,” she said softly.  “I really am.  I never thought...I didn’t think…I thought, with Delian’s protection that you wouldn't be in any real danger….”  She buried her head in her hands.  “What a mess!”

 

For a moment, none of them said a word.  Perrit hid behind her hands, McKay kept his back to her, and Sheppard maintained an unblinking glare, not about to let up on her now.

 

Finally, Perrit took in a deep breath and lowered her hands, revealing redder eyes and cheeks. But there was strength in her gaze now, despite it all, a determination that had probably put her in her position as Ambassador. 

 

“I am sorry,” she said again. “But that doesn’t change what I’m asking for now.”  She lifted her chin, “If you want to leave and get in the Chambers to find your friends, you need me to help you.”

 

John met that gaze, not answering immediately.

 

“You lied to us. Why should we trust you?” McKay asked, repeating the clichéd phrase of too many movies and too many bad days since they had come to Pegasus.  Oft-repeated, because the question just kept coming up, and there was never a good answer. 

 

“You can’t,” Perrit admitted, “and you probably never will now.  But, at this moment, you need me, and I still want to know who killed my son.”

 

Again, not a good answer, but she was right about one thing—they did need her. And right now, there were more important things at stake—two to be exact.

 

“Okay,” John said.

 

“Okay?” Rodney repeated turning now to face Sheppard. “But—“

 

“She’s right, McKay,” the Colonel said, still watching Perrit.  “Right now, we need her.”

 

Rodney grimaced, looking away once more.  John took his silence for acceptance, and nodded at Perrit, who drew in a solidifying breath, the steel back in her frame. 

 

“How long do you need to get ready?” John asked.

 

“Five minutes,” she said quickly. “No more.”

 

“Okay,” he said.

 

She inclined her head. “I’ll meet you in the hall above the kitchen area,” she said, turning to face the door, her hand resting on the handle. “You remember where that is? Good.  I’ll meet you there in five minutes, as I said.  I won’t be late, I promise.  And we will get your people back.  On my life, I promise you that.”

 

And with that solemn declaration, she turned and slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind her.

 

John glanced at Rodney, and saw the scientist was looking down at the carpet.  Where there had been anger, now Rodney’s face was awash in puzzlement.  When the scientist look at him, the confusion gave way to his most stricken expression, as if he had just realized that he was going to have to give up his new puppy.

 

“What?” the colonel asked, suddenly worried. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I…” McKay swallowed down a crack in his voice. “No, I…I was just…” he sucked in a shaking breath, and tried again. “I was just thinking about those Lycastee.  The ones from the water pump.  That woman who'd had the knife...”  He squinted towards the door Perrit had just left by, as if he could see through it.  “If I understand what she just said, they must have thought we were here to keep the pumps working, but not working well. To fix them just enough to maintain them, but not to fix them completely.  Maybe even make them worse.  In other words,” his eyes narrowed, “that we were aiding in the sabotage.”  He glanced at Sheppard, his eyes soft, “I think I get it now, why they seemed to hate us so much.  Why that woman wanted to kill me so desperately.”  He shuddered, his arms wrapping around his frame. “Wouldn’t you?” he asked weakly. “If you thought someone was trying to take away your only source of water in order to control you?  It’s like Mad Max come to life.”

 

John just grimaced, easily recalling the face of the woman who had gotten so close to the barrier she had been repelled by it.  The twisted fury on her face, her determination to kill them….McKay was right.  All of a sudden, it made terrible sense.  Delian had called the Lycastee fighters for truth, and perhaps that's what they thought they were.  But they had killed an unarmed man—that only made them murderers in John's book. 

 

“I was right the first time,” McKay whispered. "I don't like this planet." As he spoke, he turned away from the door and knelt down to pick up the pack he had dropped…and stayed down.  As John watched, another shudder ran through his friend, the scientist holding the pack tightly to his body, his head bowed to his chest.

 

Kneeling, John grabbed his own pack and held out a hand to his friend. “Come on,” he said encouragingly. “I think we’ve been played enough for one day.  Let’s go find Teyla and Ronon and get the hell out of here.”

 

McKay looked up at him, then at the hand.  Shakily, he took it and let himself be helped back to his feet.  Once up, he smoothed down his jacket and shouldered on the pack.  His expression was calmer now, blinking a few times as if to get himself back on track.

 

“Right.” He took in a breath, then frowned, tightening the straps on the pack. “Wait,” he said, looking worriedly at John, “what about the weapon?”

 

John shook his head. “As much as I think she’s finally told us the truth about the pump, I still only trust Perrit about as far as I can throw her.  I’m not risking you, Teyla and Ronon any more for a promise of something that probably doesn’t exist.  Soon as we find them, we’re gone.”

 

Rodney looked down at the floor. “The weapon exists,” he said quietly. “It can't just be a shield—something like that wouldn’t keep the Wraith out for long, not knowing there are 80,000 people hiding behind it.  They'd just bomb it like Atlantis, until whatever powers it runs out.”

 

Sheppard didn’t answer, his jaw tightening. “I know.  But, also, I really don't care.  Teyla and Ronon's safety is the only thing I'm focused on right now.”

 

Rodney nodded, still looking down at the floor. “Are you sure they’re alive?”  It was voiced softly, almost hesitantly, showing just how scared he really was.

 

John gave a sly smile. “Teyla and Ronon?  Yeah, they’re alive.”

 

Rodney looked at him, hearing the confidence in his voice, and frowned slightly. “You sound awfully sure.  Most of the time when you say that, I know you’re just placating me.  But,” his eyes narrowed, “you actually sound like you mean it this time.  Why?”

 

John arched an eyebrow, then pointed over to the small table next to the door.  Four tumblers and a carafe sat on it.  Two of the tumblers were empty, the other two were still full.

 

“Where did that come from?” McKay asked.

 

“Where do you think?”  John shook his head. “Look, clearly, they could have killed Teyla, Ronon and us here, easily.  They didn’t—they drugged them instead, probably because they needed both them and us alive.  My guess is, they still do.”

 

McKay continued to stare at the glasses as John strode forward to the door, then, with a little jump, jogged to follow him out.

 

“Hey,” he whispered as he caught up with the other man, “spotting those glasses?  That was really impressive! I mean, I never saw them there, but you did and in a very Sam Spade sort of way deduced….”

 

“McKay?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Shhh.”

________________________________________________

 

Perrit was as good as her word.  Less than five minutes after she had left them, she appeared exactly where she said she would, in the hall above the kitchens, ready to go.  Her long, silver hair was tightly wound into a bun, and she had wrapped a dark cloth around it.  Her clothes were still made of loose fitting linen, but the color was a deep, dark navy blue, almost the same color as Sheppard’s and McKay’s.  She carried nothing but a small bag on her back, which she explained contained a rope and a few other items necessary to access the Council Chambers.

 

With Perritt in the lead, they wound down through the kitchens and into a storage room.  Inside, Perrit showed them an underground chamber, which was apparently a root cellar, and it had an outside exit on the far side of her compound’s high walls.

 

Trusting her, mainly because they didn’t have any other options, they followed her out and into the City.

________________________________________________

 

Teyla tugged at the manacle, twisting her wrist inside the hard metal, testing its give.  She was fairly sure that, with a little lubrication, she could free her hand.  Of course, that wouldn't do anything for the cage itself.  That was a whole other matter.

 

A quick glance to the right saw Ronon was doing something similar, testing the strength of the chain of his manacle and its connection to the stone wall.  He'd already felt along the edges of the cage's bars for weak spots, as she had.  The look he'd given her after that initial check said he felt the same way about the cages as he did--they were strong.  Too strong to break or bend, even with a means to do so. 

 

What it boiled down to was that they weren't going to get out on their own.  That meant waiting until someone came into the room with them and opened the doors, and then taking them out. 

 

Problem was, no one had done so yet.  Teyla hadn't heard or seen anyone since she woke up, and that was a good half an hour before Ronon (did he have to drink that whole drink in one gulp?).  They didn't even have water to take the edge off, which, assuming Ronon's headache was as painful as hers, was in itself a form of torture.  Her mouth felt like it had a rug inside it.

 

Breathing out heavily, she looked towards the closed door. 

 

Someone had to come eventually.  She and Ronon would just have to be ready.

 

She looked over at Ronon, saw his answering nod and knew he was thinking along the same lines.  She nodded back, then leaned over at spit on her hand, slicking it up as much as she could.  Eventually, blood would take over as the main lubricant, but she would get her hand free.

__________________________________________________________

 

Rodney glanced upwards and found a still pitch black sky, which was a little disconcerting. He had never seen a sky that dark, and it gave him a creepy feeling he just couldn’t express. Either way, it was clear that morning was still a long ways off.

 

None of the three people spoke as they wound their way to the center of the City, padding down flagstone roads, keeping to the darker shadows under balconies and terraces not lit by the electric lights.

 

Soon, sooner than when they have traveled with Delian, they were once more in the main square, looking up at the massive stone edifice.  From the perspective of someone wanting to break in, it suddenly appeared impenetrable, particularly since it was, literally, built out of a cliff.

 

Perrit, however, showed no concern as she sidled around the edge of the square, still keeping to the shadows between the streetlights.  If there were any guards stationed, they did not make their presence known.  Sheppard was actually a little surprised—he though Delian might have been a little worried that he and McKay might try and sneak back.  Apparently not. 

 

Perrit slid down a side alleyway off the main square, avoiding the main entrance.  The alleyway skirted the cliff wall, and a distinct odor of unwashed animals wafted down it.  She didn’t have to explain that this was the route to the main market square.

 

About halfway down the wall, she stopped and looked up.  There, a small window was carved into the cliff-face, about fifteen feet over their heads. 

 

“It leads to a small conference room of sorts,” Perrit whispered to Sheppard. 

 

“And how are we supposed to get up there?” McKay asked snidely. “Fly?”

 

Perrit just looked at him, then slid the small pack off her back.  Opening it, she pulled out a coil of rope and handed it to Sheppard.

 

“The surface is rough enough that it can be free climbed.  I’ve done it before, when I was younger but now…,” she lifted her frail hands, the thin fingers showing her age.  “I do not think I could manage it without a rope.  But…” she arched an eyebrow at him, “I’m sure you could.  Once you’re up, you can secure the rope to something and help Doctor McKay and I up.”

 

Sheppard looked at her a moment, then sighed.  With a nod, he put the coil over his shoulder then looked for a suitable spot. 

 

McKay didn’t hide his worry as the colonel started free-climbing what looked like a sheer rock wall.  Somehow, though, Sheppard was finding handholds and footholds.  In moments, he was nearly to the top.

 

And then a light came on in the room.

 

Sheppard froze, staring up at the window. 

 

It clattered—a hand was pushing against the latch.

 

To open it.

 

Crap.

____________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: SKULKING AROUND

 

Whispering a swear, John pressed himself tightly against the cliff wall, trying to make himself invisible to anyone looking out the window.  Perrit and McKay quickly moved to hug the wall below him, the older woman biting her lip and gripping McKay’s arm. 

 

John’s fingers and toes began to feel the pinch, straining to hold him up, and his limbs began to shake.  He wanted to slide down the rough stone wall, but knew the noise would alert whoever was inside and—

 

“You need a hand, lover?”

 

The voice—soft, feminine and sultry—was impossible not to recognize.  John tilted his head back and found himself starting up at a pretty blonde head leaning out the window, the woman’s eyes looking down at him with clear amusement. 

 

“Jaquette?” Perrit called up from below, her voice incredulous.

____________________________________________

 

Councilor Jaquette backed down off the ladder she had set up under the window, and stepped off, moving away to allow the others to climb down once she had tied the coil of rope to the window frame.

 

John was first, sliding down the ladder without bothering with the rungs, landing with a whumpf and turning around to hold his P90 in a raised position. Jaquette eyed the weapon with disdain, but she made no attempt to move closer.

 

She was alone in the small room, but he wasn’t about to trust her yet.  She said she had been pulling an all-nighter, and happened to catch sight of McKay, Sheppard, Delian and the others earlier through one of the upper windows of her chambers.  She’d guessed, after they left, that they might be back, and had been watching for them.

 

Perrit climbed in next, using the rope, and moved gingerly down the ladder after him.  McKay was last.

 

Jaquette seemed much too interested in watching McKay come down the ladder, and, when she saw Perrit and Sheppard noticing her attention, she blushed slightly.  John snorted softly, hiding his continued bewilderment of it.  Jaquette cleared her throat and her actress mask fell back into place.

 

“I listened a little to the talk of guards and the soldiers,” she whispered, the sotto voce obviously in deference to the late hour and the clandestine arrival of the three people. Her eyes narrowed slightly, “Is what they are saying, true?  Were Teyla and…I’m sorry, what is the name of the tall gentleman….?”

 

"Gentleman?" Rodney asked.

 

“Ronon,” John said, giving Rodney a look.

 

“Yes," Jaquette said, "I can't believe it—they were kidnapped?”

 

"And they might have been brought here," Sheppard said.  Jaquette's eyebrows lifted—she actually looked a little confused by that.

 

"Here?" she asked, looking from him to Perrit, then Rodney. "Why?"

 

Sheppard gave a shrug, "You tell us."  That obviously wasn't the answer she was used to, and Jaquette frowned; some of her persona began to slip. 

 

“And,” McKay said, his expression tight, “one of the weapons used to aid in the kidnapping was brought here.  You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

 

Jaquette stared at him a moment, as if surprised he would ask, then something akin to iron lined her jaws and eyes, and she replied haughtily, “Of course not.”

 

“But,” Sheppard said, a little less belligerently, “you’ve been here, I assume, all night?  You must have seen something.”

 

"I..." Jaquette shook her head. "no. And, as Perry knows," she glanced at the older woman, "the front doors are the only way someone could carry something as large as your friends inside.  That didn't happen. I would have seen them. Or heard them.  Those doors aren't quiet."

 

Sheppard's jaw tensed—he didn't believe her.  If she had been the one to orchestrate the kidnapping, of course she'd say that.  Plus, he wasn’t going to accept the idea that there might not be another way in to bring Teyla and Ronon inside.  The look she flashed him said she knew he doubted her.

 

"So, what did you see?" Rodney asked, still using the same tone as before.  He obviously wasn't giving her an inch either, despite his defense of her behavior earlier.  

 

She shrugged, “In the past two hours?  I saw Baylor and a couple of his minions creeping around.  Though, that’s not unusual.  I also saw Stella at one point, whipping around like a mini whirlwind.  She was alone.”

 

“In the middle of the night?” Perrit’s eyes were puzzled. “What in the world are they—“

 

“Baylor is often here,” Jaquette replied. “He’s a night owl.  I think, like me, he suffers from insomnia.  Stella," she shrugged again, "I’m not sure why she was here.  She seemed in an awful hurry though.”  She looked at McKay again, “So, that’s why you’re here?  To find this weapon?”

 

McKay didn’t reply, still watching her warily. 

 

“Yes,” Sheppard said, glancing at McKay just once before focusing on Jaquette. “Actually, Commander Delian gave us the authority to look in his room, and Perrit here is going to do the same for hers, so…may we also see yours?”

 

She smiled brightly—she was back to playful mode now that they needed something. “Of course! Whatever you need! And…” she leaned in, “I assume you’re also thinking of checking out Curly’s, Baylor’s and Stella’s rooms too, right?”  She gave a conspiratorial wink, and Perrit rolled her eyes a little.  Sheppard just looked uncomfortable.

 

“Well, I….”

 

“Curly?” McKay asked.

 

“That’s her name for Councillor Stebbins,” Perrit said tiredly, “because of his moustache.”

 

“And other things,” Jaquette corrected airily.  “So, whose chambers would you like to see first?  And do we get to skulk around to each? I've never skulked before!  This is going to be fun!”  She clapped her hands together gleefully.

 

“Wait, wait, wait,” McKay raised his hands, “you’re not coming.”

 

“Of course I am, sweet cheeks,” she countered, drawing herself up in front of him. Suddenly, she smiled, “Not unless you want me to start screaming for the guards.”  Her eyelashes fluttered prettily.

 

Sheppard clasped a hand over his eyes, sighing heavily. “Oh for Christ’s sake, McKay, just let her come.”

 

Jaquette grinned and swung around, reaching over to take Perrit’s arm.  “You ask me,” she whispered conversationally to the older woman, “I’d place odds on it being Baylor.  Man is creepy on his best days.” 

 

They were already moving towards the door, and Sheppard glanced at McKay, who was looking at him worriedly.

 

“She can’t come,” Rodney insisted in a harsh whisper after the two women slipped out. “Are you nuts?  She’s flightier than a flock of pigeons!  Plus, knowing my luck with women, she’s the one behind all this!”

 

Sheppard shrugged. “I know, but we don’t have much choice.  And,” he gave a wry smile, “this way we can keep an eye on her.”

 

“Yeah,” McKay said darkly, looking towards the open door the two women had walked through on the far side of the room, “and she can keep an eye on us.”

 

“I thought you liked her,” the colonel replied, walking to the light switch on the wall while McKay stomped over to the door.

 

“I did,” the scientist replied, as John turned the light off. “But I don’t like coincidences.”

 

“Come on, Slovenly Sams! Let's go!” Jaquette whispered joyfully, sticking her head back into the room.  "Or we'll start skulking without you!"

___________________________________________________

 

Teyla wrenched her hand free, emitting a gasp of pain as every nerve ending in her hand felt like it was on fire.  Her wrist was raw, streaks of blood and scraped skin falling off her hand.  Turning, she held the wrist to her chest and looked to the other cage. 

 

Ronon was digging at the pick of the lock on his wrist with his knife, obviously still trying to force it open. The knife was small—the one he wore in his hair—but it clearly wasn't doing a great job.  Still, she was glad to know he had it, and that he might have others.  She had found her knife holster on her leg empty, which was always disturbing.  She hated the idea of anyone with their hands on her while she slept.

 

Ronon glanced at her, his teeth gritted in frustration.  She showed him her wrist and he nodded.  He then looked to the door.

 

Teyla sighed and moved forward to the edge of her cage, using her greater freedom of movement to explore the cage's lock—which she couldn't reach before.

 

Her jaw tensed when, instead of a keyhole, like the manacles, there was nothing but a solid-face. 

 

Technology.

 

Sighing, she looked at the single door to the stone room they were enclosed in.  Still no one had come. 

 

Why hadn't anyone come?

 

Worry began to niggle more at her chest, but not for herself and Ronon.  She was worried for Rodney and the Colonel.

 

Their teammates would be looking for them, probably risking themselves out in the open and in the dark—and likely on their own.  They were in danger—Teyla could feel it in her bones.  Whomever capture her and Ronon still wanted Rodney and John, and the two men would not come easily.  There would be a fight, an ugly one...what if one of them was killed?

 

As John often said, to hell with that.  She and Ronon had to get out of here now.  Had to find John and Rodney and help them.

 

"Are you almost free?" Teyla asked, looking over at Ronon.

 

The Satedan grunted, "Nearly."

 

"As soon as you're free," Teyla said, glaring at the lock as if she could open it by force of will alone, "we're getting out of here."

 

She wasn't looking at him, but if she had been, she would have seen a dark smile on her teammate's face.

__________________________________________________________

 

McKay found plenty things of interest in the rooms they searched, but nothing even remotely like the weapon Delian described.  McKay knew it didn’t have to be large—but it did need to be Ancient.

 

Councilor Stebbins' rooms were filled with nothing but tons of unorganized papers—most of them on agriculture topics—spread out over every conceivable surface.  Councilor Stella’s rooms were, in contrast, spotless and empty—if she had papers, they were neatly filed away. Commander Delian’s room was orderly but plain.  Jaquette’s offices were stuffed to the brim with papers and knick-knacks and toys along with a cot and “home away from home” items—she clearly did spend a lot of time here.  Perrit’s were neat and busy looking, but not as orderly as Delian’s or as empty as Stella’s.  And in none of them they found anything that could be useful.

 

Until they got to Baylor’s rooms.

 

They walked in slowly, since, as Jaquette had mentioned, Baylor had definitely been here earlier.  Still, the room was dark and cool, as if it hadn’t been used at all.

 

As they had done in the last few rooms, Jaquette and Perrit went to pull the heavy curtains, and then McKay turned on the lights.

 

The scientist gasped slightly when he saw the room in color for the first time, his jaw dropping.  Sheppard whistled in amazement.

 

“Man likes his gadgets,” the colonel remarked, walking slowly around the long, hallway shaped chamber, taking in the shelves lining the walls crammed with technology.  Every inch had a different device stuffed on it, most labeled, some not. 

 

“I’ve never been in here,” Jaquette admitted. “Baylor’s so very private.  He always makes us wait outside rather than let us in.”

 

“Yes,” Perrit agreed, looking up at something on one of the top shelves. “He’s been that way for as long as I’ve known him.”

 

“He’s a collector, that’s for sure,” Sheppard said, looking in at something that looked a lot like an old Geiger counter, then frowned when he saw a familiar looking symbol on the side.

 

Genii.

 

“You’ve had Genii here?” he asked suddenly, sharply.

 

“The Genii?” Perrit replied, “Of course.  They have been good, honest trading partners of ours for hundreds of years.  They have not been to our world in many decades, however.  They,” she paused, “do not like to come here.”

 

Sheppard’s eyes narrowed, his uneasiness growing again. “Why not?”

 

Perrit glanced at him, and something strange colored her gaze—an odd coldness. “They lost some people here once, to the desert.  We warned them, as I warned you, of the dangers of being above the edge of the canyon after dark or at any time without a guide.”  She shook her head, turning it to look at something else on Baylor’s shelf, “But they didn’t listen.”  Next to her, Jaquette was looking a touch angry, but her jaw was tightly shut—as if she were holding something more back.  “Anyway,” Perrit finished, “they decided they did not wish to risk the desert anymore, so we only ever see them on their own planet or at one of the bazaars.”

 

McKay glanced at Sheppard, who was frowning.  They both knew the Genii were not the type to be scared off easily—there was obviously more to the story, and both women knew it.

 

The colonel grimaced, glanced at the scientist now by his side, and nodded. It wasn't important right now.  Just another item to add to the puzzle.

 

“All right. You two start down there,” John said to Rodney and Jaquette, gesturing towards the far end of the room. “Perrit and I will look up here.”

___________________________________________________

 

Rodney walked down to the far end of the room, his eyes lighting on the multitude of objects.  He relied on his scanner to provide him with the information he needed—which, primarily, was which of these items still had power. Jaquette followed him, stopping here and there to finger something that looked interesting.

 

After a few moments of looking, Jaquette walked over to the scientist holding something in her hands.  McKay glanced at it for a moment, recognizing the silver-white casing and shape as being similar to the Ancient medical scanner Carson used off-world.

 

“It’s nothing?” she asked, holding it up. “It looks like it's of the Ancestors, but…” 

 

McKay shook his head, “You're not wrong. It’s a scanner, like this one,” he held up the Ancient scanner he was using, “except used for medical reasons.”

 

“Oh.” She looked at the device in her hands again, flipped it over, then held it back out again. “That’s odd.  There’s no switch.”  She frowned, “How does it turn on?”

 

“Oh,” he sighed, taking it from her.  It immediately lit up, and he showed her the small screen.  “There, that’s you, see?  Heart rate, respiration, temper—“

 

“What did you just do?” she asked, her brow furrowed now. “How did you turn it on?”

 

“Ah,” McKay gave a wry look, “um…well…see, some Ancient devices, like this one, will only react to people who have a gene similar to that of the Ancients.  Or Ancestors.  Or whatever you call them.  Anyway, it just sort of turns on when—“

 

“I’m sorry, did you say, ‘gene’? I’m not sure I—”

 

“Oh, right, ah…” McKay frowned, waving a hand around. “Genes are sort of like the instructions that are passed down from parents to child, passing along hereditary traits. You know, like eye color, height, that sort of thing…”

 

“Ah,” she nodded, “I see.  Yes. We have another name for it.  Genes, you call them?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And your people have this…” she frowned, a strange look on her face, “gene, passed down to you from the Ancestors.”

 

He shrugged slightly, not about to go into the differences between Sheppard's gene and his.  They'd learned their lesson talking about the efficacy of Beckett's gene therapy off-world. 

 

“Many of us, yes.”

 

She stared at him a moment longer, then backed away.  Her eyes were troubled looking now, and she grimaced.

 

“I didn’t realize,” she said finally.  He glanced at her, and sighed. Nuts.  He hadn't meant to cause her to back away.

 

“No, no, it’s just a gene,” Rodney said dismissively, for some reason not wanting her to back away.  “Like the one that makes your eyes blue or your hair blonde or…,” he cleared his throat suddenly, waving a hand about again, “…stuff like that. It’s nothing special. And some of us, it's not even all that strong. I mean, Sheppard's gene is—”

 

"Stop."  She frowned, then looked away. "It doesn't matter, just something else fascinating about your little tribe."  She gave him a smile, then turned and put the device back where she found it.  Rodney followed, looking at the little label Baylor had put with it – 'medical device.'  How would Baylor know what it was used for?

 

Jaquette had her hands on her hips now, staring down at the floor as if there might be some larger clue there.  Grimacing, and telling himself to focus only on finding the weapon, Rodney knelt to look at another obviously Ancient object, this one appearing to be a broken power crystal.  The scanner showed some residual power, but it was not the same signature as what was left behind outside Perrit's mansion.  Plus, filaments were missing and a portion was melted, making it useless.  He put it down again and looked up.

 

“You really do know about all of this stuff, don’t you?” Jaquette said suddenly, and she looked serious for once, her eyes on his scanner. “About the Ancestor’s machines, how they work.  Like the pump.  You really did fix it.”

 

Rodney glanced at her, then shrugged. “Wasn’t hard, considering what we normally deal with.”  He stood up again, looking up at something glittering on a top shelf.  “The pump still needs a new part though, so it’s not completely fixed.”

 

“Yes,” Jaquette mused, “Perry did say something about that.”

 

“Pump will go for years without it—did she say that?" He didn't mean to sound distrustful, but he saw a wry smile on Jaquette's face at his obvious irritation with Perrit.  Damn, she was pretty. He coughed into his hand, and made to look at something else on the shelves.  "Anyway, I’m sure we have something back home that can be substituted.  Or we can reverse engineer it, using the materials we have.”  Rodney gave a shrug. “Our plan had been to come back in a couple of months with the new part, and then you’d be all set.”

 

“All set,” Jaquette repeated, fiddling with something on the shelf next to where Rodney was looking, though she clearly wasn’t actually look at it. “And how long would we be this ‘all set.’  How long would the pumps run until you would need to return to fix them again?”

 

McKay gave another shrug, “Probably not until long after we're both dead. Ancient technology doesn’t really have a warranty expiration date.”

 

She studied him. “But it’s broken down once.  It could happen again.”

 

He shook his head. “Only if someone damages it again, or uses it incorrectly.”

 

Jaquette’s gaze sharpened, all softness fading.  “So,” she said, her tone dark, “the pump was sabotaged.” 

 

Rodney frowned. Whoops. Smooth move, McKay.  “Yeah.”  He looked at her, his eyes narrowed, studying her as she had him. “You didn’t know?”

 

Jaquette looked down, “I suspected,” she said. “I wasn’t certain,” she looked up at him, her eyes meeting his, “until now.”

 

He stared at her a moment, but this was outside his abilities, outside of his realm.  All he knew was...

 

He really wished he could believe her.

________________________________________________

 

Nearly half an hour later, they were still moving through their respective sides of the room, but nothing yet had stuck out as a weapon.  Perrit and Sheppard were now once more on the opposite side of the room from Rodney and Jaquette, and the Councilor obviously decided to take advantage of the semi-privacy again.

 

“So, this gene…” Jaquette asked softly in Rodney’s ear. “You said it’s nothing special?”

 

“And I meant it,” Rodney said, pulling what looked like an Ancient screwdriver off of a shelf. “Intelligence is far more valuable than some stupid biological quirk.  The gene’s just a tool like this screwdriver, this,” he tapped his skull with the screwdriver, “this is what’s special.”

 

"Your forehead?" she asked coyly, fluttering her eyelashes again. "It is quite large."  He just gave her a dark look, and she giggled.

 

"That's not even funny," he muttered.  Jaquette actually laughed softly this time.

 

"So," she said after a few moments, "you think you're special because of your mind."

 

McKay snorted. “Special?  Please, I’m above special.  I make special look average.  Genius, that’s me—certified, tested and proved.  Top of the line, no holds barred, will out-think the sphinx even on a bad day, completely and utterly, flabbergastingly brilliant.” He was smiling as he spoke, but, as anyone who knew him would know, he also wasn’t kidding.

 

Jaquette couldn’t stop from smiling as he spoke, and even laughed when he finished. “Oh, that’s right.  Smartest man in the galaxy, right?  Isn’t that what you told me earlier at the feast?”

 

“Just about,” the smirk on his face was very telling. “And, for the record, it’s two galaxies, but we won’t got there.”

 

Her smile grew, and when she looked up again, she was looking right at him, her face barely six inches from his own.

 

“I’ve never really met anyone like you,” she said softly. “Tell me, do you just start off assuming everyone else around you is stupider than you, or do you make that judgment after you meet them?”

 

“The former.  Makes life easier.  Then, if they turn out to be intelligent, I’m pleasantly surprised.”  When she laughed, he gave her a knowing gaze, and added, leaning in closer in order to lower his voice more, “Oh please.  You do the same thing, admit it. That performance when you first met us, for example—treating us like we were nothing more than, as you put it, pets to be admired.  I thought Teyla was going to gut you then and there. One thing I’ve been able to tell about you, Councilor Jaquette, is you’re both a hell of a lot smarter and a hell of a lot cleverer than you let on. You can fool others with that dumb blonde, flippant actress routine but I get the feeling you and I see the world in very simil-mmmph!“

 

Because that’s when she kissed him.

 

He jerked back, surprised.  Her own expression was somewhat nonplussed, eyes widening.  She clapped a hand over her mouth, and, for the first time since he had met her, she looked honestly shocked by something.

 

“I…I’m sorry,” she said, dropping her hand and stepping backwards quickly, almost tripping on something Baylor had on the floor.  “I…I should go.”  Stumbling, she got around him and started to make for the door.  Sheppard and Perrit, still on the far side of the room, looked up at the noise.

 

“Jaquette?” Perrit called softly, “What’s going on?”

 

“I…I have to go,” the blonde councilor replied, hitting the door with her back and fumbling for the handles. “You’re almost done anyway.  I should…I really ought to…look…I’m just going to go.  Good luck,” she said, stressing the words, and looking directly at McKay, “and I mean that.  I really mean that.  Find your friends and get them out of here before something else happens.  Please.”

 

And then she was gone, out the door and shutting it behind her.

 

McKay never moved, just watched her leave with the expression of someone who really had no idea what the hell had just happened.

____________________________________________________

 

“Nothing,” Rodney hissed, walking next to the colonel as Perrit quietly led them out of Baylor's rooms a few moments later. “It was nothing.”

 

“Had to be something,” Sheppard insisted.  “What did you do?  What did she say?  Did she say anything about our guys or about Dazy?”

 

“No, no, nothing like that,” McKay grimaced, shaking his head and blushing deeply. “Just drop it, will you?”

 

“McKay, if it’s got any bearing on where Teyla and Ronon might—“

 

“It doesn’t!”

 

“Then what happened?”

 

If possible, McKay’s cheeks flushed even darker, the color visible even in the low lighting that colored the red stone hallways of the Council Chambers.  He kept his eyes down on his scanner, refusing to look up at the man by his side.

 

“Look,” he said finally, “can we just focus on the task at hand?” He glanced around at the hall, then back to his scanner. "Baylor's rooms were our last great hope, and we found nothing.  We're missing something here."  He lifted his head to look at the back of Perrit’s gray hair, bobbing before him.  “How many more rooms are there?”

 

“Not many,” she replied, not hiding the despondency in her voice.  “Besides the kitchens, the outer conference rooms, and the main halls, which we’re going to see next, all that is left is the main conference room—the one you saw when we first entered.”

 

“Doesn’t look good,” Sheppard admitted. “Maybe he or she already moved the device out of here.”

 

McKay frowned, then shook his head, “But then, why bring it here in the first place?  No, it's here.  It's just protected somehow—a place he or she could hide it and know it'd never be found.”

 

Perrit made a motion for them to be quiet, and they entered into a series of what looked like entrance halls.  A few guards were stationed, all looking very sleepy, and they skirted around them with ease.  McKay kept his eyes mostly on the scanner, looking for any evidence of hidden entrances, but the scanner registered only solid stone everywhere they went.

 

The gray haired Ambassador glanced back at them as they left the front halls, then sighed at McKay’s shake of his head.  She slumped, literally, her shoulders drooping forward heavily as they headed to the last room on this early morning tour.

 

The screen blipped.

 

McKay immediately straightened, and Sheppard noticed, his own head lifting as McKay suddenly bounced forward to Perrit’s side.  She glanced at him, and her eyes brightened.

 

“What?” she asked.

 

“What’s ahead of us?”

 

“The main council chamber.”

 

“That’s it?” he asked, frowning. “But I’ve been there.”

 

“Yes,” she agreed, “You have.”

 

“Big semi-circular room, lots of chairs, kinda like an indoor amphitheatre?”

 

She just stared at him, not understanding.  But McKay was already bounding forward, getting ahead of her.  She skipped a little to catch up, while Sheppard just made longer strides, used to the pace when McKay was on to something.

 

In moments, they were through the main doors, standing exactly where they had been standing almost twelve hours earlier, when they had met the Councilors for the first time.  McKay frowned, looking around at the circular room, then down at his screen.

 

Several doors led off the room, but they already knew where those led.  Above them, pale blue light filtered into the room from the high, thin windows, adding little to the soft night lights accenting the walls from the sconces.  The new day was dawning outside, lightening the sky.  Rodney took a moment to appreciate the end of the endless black, and smiled at Sheppard.

 

Then he was jumping down the broad steps to the floor, intent once more on his scanner, and walking around the long central dais on which the councilor’s table and chairs sat.  Briefly, he glanced at the covered central chair, then promptly forgot about it again.

 

Without stopping he walked right up to the wall behind the central chair and stopped in front of a long, fairly dull looking tapestry.  Frowning slightly, he reached for the tapestry and pulled it up and away, revealing the featureless pink stone underneath. 

 

Sheppard and Perrit were shoulder to shoulder with him in a moment, both looking at him curiously.  McKay looked down at his screen again, then looked up and flashed a grin at the colonel.

 

“Cloaked door,” he said simply…then waved a hand over a section of the featureless wall and walked into solid stone, the tapestry falling into place behind him as he let it go.

 

Perrit gasped, but Sheppard just sighed.  Lifting up the tapestry, he frowned at the wall…then followed him.

 

Perrit gasped again, reaching a hand forward when she found herself suddenly alone in the large room, the heavy tapestry rippling a little with movement where it had fallen back into place.

 

She pranced a little nervously, looking around at the room, then back at the tapestry.

 

Biting her bottom lip nervously, she hesitantly took hold of the heavy fabric and lifted it up, and frowned at the wall.  Reaching forward, she touched her hand to it…and found it solid.

 

Her hand started to shake, and she shut her eyes, drawing it back.  She had no idea what was going on.

 

Suddenly, Sheppard’s disembodied head suddenly appeared, smiling at her where it stuck out of the wall.

 

“Trust me,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt.”  And reaching an arm out, held out his hand.

 

Shaking, still totally perplexed, Perrit took it…and closed her eyes as she walked into the wall.

_______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: PERRIT'S FINAL CONFESSION

 

“I don’t understand,” Perrit whispered, staring around her in wide-eyed awe.  The room they were standing in made the Gateroom on Atlantis look small—hell, it made every room McKay had ever been in look small, barring European cathedrals and the SGC’s gateroom when the ceiling was open.  It wasn’t all that wide—perhaps thirty feet square, but it extended upwards for several hundred feet into nothingness, with massive metal pipes climbing up the walls the entire way.  Ancient consoles and controls filled the room, but they weren’t the dominant technology.  Someone else had later done a lot of work to this room, adding the huge metal pipes and the massive turbines that sat at their base and hooking them up to the consoles. 

 

“How did we…”  Perrit waved a hand towards the open door she had just walked through, which was now sliding shut behind her, then looked up again at the room.  “What is this place?”

 

“I can answer the first, at least,” Sheppard said. “You needed the gene to pass through the doorway.  McKay just didn’t know that until we realized you couldn’t follow.  Sorry about that.”

 

She just shook her head, “Gene?”

 

Sheppard explained it to her just as Rodney had done for Jaquette earlier, while Rodney bustled around the chamber, turning on lights and running over everything with his hand-held scanner.  The whole place just seemed oversized—from the turbines and dozens of pipes to the large control consoles and datascreens and tables.  It almost felt cramped.  It some ways, it reminded John of the auxiliary power room on Atlantis, except that the backdrop here was stone instead of metal and this place looked like someone had dumped all their antiquated junk in on top of the Ancient machinery.

 

Perrit walked around, her jaw dropped wide open, just staring. 

 

Sheppard walked over to McKay, noting the scientist had pulled out his laptop and was already hooking it up.  Try as he might to get used to it, the way McKay seemed to always know exactly what and where everything was in places like this never ceased to amaze him.

 

“Central control?” the colonel asked, as McKay then pulled out his tablet, resting it on a nearby table.

 

“Hmmm?” the scientist looked up, then nodded. “Oh, um, yes.”

 

“To what?”

 

“The weapon that protects this canyon, I would guess,” McKay replied.  “Among others things.”

 

Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted, “I thought we decided it didn’t exist.”

 

“Oh,” Perrit said suddenly, “it exists.  But the means to turn it on and off are not here.”  She walked across to the scientist, looking over McKay’s shoulder at his computer.  After staring at it for a second, seeing the same technical gibberish that Sheppard saw, she backed away. 

 

“Perrit, look, why don’t you just tell us what the weapon is?” the colonel said. “I’m sick of games and he’s going to know in a second anyway.”

 

She looked at him a moment, then grimaced.

 

“It’s not a weapon,” she admitted quietly, “not exactly.”

 

“She’s right,” McKay said, stepping back from his laptop, his eyes wide with discovery. “My God….” he turned to look at the pipes lining the room, then across at Perrit. “You, these machines…” he gestured to the pipes, “you can actually create sandstorms?”

 

She swallowed, closed her eyes, and gave a nod. “Yes.”

 

“You’re kidding,” John said, looking to McKay. “Sandstorms?  Why would anyone want to create a sandstorm?”

 

“Not just any sandstorm, Colonel,” Rodney was long gone now, his eyes glistening with the wonder of discovery, “huge tornadoes of sand, massive, warring hurricanes of the stuff…the scale of it all, it’s incredible!  Nothing on Earth can compare, not even the dust storms in the Sahara.  We’re talking Martian level storms here!”  He started tapping away again at the console, his fingers flying to keep up with the speed of his mind. “Basically, a shield forms over the canyon, just below the lip, then the discs we saw along the canyon edge open up, revealing wind tunnels, hundreds of them.  The turbines capture and direct the wind on the surface through the tunnels, sending the sand flying in all directions. It cloaks the shield cover in moments and creates an impenetrable barrier against anyone or anything trying to break through.”  He shook his head, “Can you believe they’ve actually managed to create and harness a sandstorm? I didn’t know that was possible!  And it’s utterly brilliant!” He was typing away furiously now, his eyes still skimming down the information with his usual insane speed, obviously looking at the schematics. 

 

Sheppard tried to imagine something on the scale McKay was describing, thinking about the ones he’d come across on Earth.  Turning to Perrit, he asked, “These sandstorms—exactly how much of the surface do they impact?”

 

The disappointment in Perrit's eyes at losing this last hold over them very clear but, at his question, she just sighed deeply and shrugged.  “Depending on how much we need, it can cover dozens of acres,” she said. “More, if the planet’s natural weather systems get involved.  And the sands rise high into the atmosphere as well.”  She looked over at Rodney, who had paused to listen as well. “They’ll take down anything flying.  Wraith ships tumble around like kites, and the Hive Ships that try to target us can’t locate where we are through the sand once the storms are in full force.  The few times that I can remember being attacked by a Hive Ship, their weapons’ fire rarely hit anywhere near the canyon.  They just fired blindly at the surface, hoping to hit us but, hitting rock almost every time. And the sands absorb a lot of their power—their weapons just can’t penetrate this sort of surface. It might be different if they fired projectile weapons, but the energy beams just dissipate into nothing. Eventually,” she shrugged, “they give up, believing us buried and gone.”

 

Sheppard’s eyes narrowed, trying to take this in. “If, as you say, they’re firing blindly, then I take it the shield also messes with their sensors?”

 

“So I would assume, yes,” she said.

 

“It’s inspired, using the planet’s natural surface like that.” Rodney shook his head as he continued to read the information before him. “By the by, Colonel, you were right not to allow the Jumper to try to fly down inside.  Anything that attempts to breach the canyon seals it off and starts the turbines.”

 

A new thought came to Sheppard then, remembering something about the shield protecting the water pump, when McKay had told him to pull the red wire, and he turned to look sharply at Perrit.

 

“Your shield,” he said quietly, “is it opaque?”

 

McKay’s typing stopped instantly at the question, and Sheppard saw the scientist look over at Perrit, the same horrible realization in his eyes. “Opaque,” he breathed. “My God, you sealed us in last night, didn’t you?  That’s why we couldn’t see the stars.  I just thought it was cloud cover.”

 

She was looking anywhere but at him, her brow furrowed in obvious consternation.  Sheppard’s own mind was flying now, his jaw strained.  The Jumper.  They had known about the Jumper.  That’s why they sealed off the canyon….But how had they known?

 

“How did you know about the Jumper?” Rodney snarled, his mind having obviously followed the same course as John’s. 

 

Perrit swallowed, then shrugged. “By ‘Jumper’, I assume you mean your small ship?” She glanced at them then back to the floor. “There are three control rooms where one can access the storm controls, one of which is here in Dendrobia.  All three constantly monitor the Stargate and the skies above the planet.  Holographic projections appear anytime either the Stargate is used, or something appears in orbit.”

 

Like the holographic projections produced by the Ancient chair on Mara’s planet, John thought.  “And someone saw the Jumper follow us through,” he said then, his voice lowering to menacing levels.  “So you sealed us in the canyon and started the machines.”

 

“Yes.  They informed Commander Delian, and Delian informed me.  I told him to activate the device.”

 

John’s eyes narrowed, and he stepped closer to her, his anger rippling off of him.  She stepped back, swallowing thickly.

 

“You could have killed them,” John hissed through clenched teeth.  “They barely had time to dial the gate and get home.  They were screaming over my radio!”

 

“No!” she shook her head emphatically. “Believe me, we never meant to endanger anyone on board your—“

 

“You just said the sandstorms can toss Wraith darts like kites!  How did you think a ship like ours would fare!”

 

“At full power, it can toss a Wraith dart, yes," Perrit said quickly. "But we didn’t use full power!  We barely even used half power.  Just enough to drive them back to the Stargate, I promise!”  Perrit almost sounded breathless, needing desperately to be believed.

 

John closed his eyes and looked away.

 

“I swear, we…”  She turned to Rodney, probably hoping to find less fury there. “Delian was afraid of what would happen were they to try to follow you in, so it seemed safer for their sake to—“

 

“Bullshit,” Rodney snapped, his tone just as angry as the Colonel’s. “I might buy that Delian was worried, but not you.  You just wanted to make sure they couldn’t interfere before you had gotten what you needed from us.”

 

Perrit stared at him a moment, absorbing the deserved character assassination.  Finally, and slowly, she inclined her head. “Yes,” she admitted, her tone vividly self-deprecating.  “I do not like things I can not control.” She closed her eyes, drew in a breath, then opened them again, facing them both with as much poise as she could muster. “I assure you, on everything I am, that we did not use full power—we just wanted to make your ship leave.  We would not have hurt your people.” She shook her head, “Believe me, as low as I feel right now, I never meant to hurt any of you, especially you, Doctor McKay,” she nodded at Rodney, “who reminds me so much of how my son used to be before he got caught up in all this.” She looked back to John, “And I really do want to help you find Teyla and Ronon now.  This whole thing has gotten….” She closed her eyes, “out of hand. As much as I want to find my son’s killer, I never, ever wanted any of you to get hurt.”

 

John glared at her, part of him wanting to believe her, but part knowing he never could.  Still—this finally sounded like the truth. Of course, it had all sounded like the truth since she had come clean about Dazy back at her mansion. His instincts were all messed up—he had begun to like Perrit, to believe in her, but now…

 

No.  He didn’t have the luxury to debate this in his head.  Right now, all he could do was find a way to stop Teyla and Ronon from paying the price for all of Perrit’s machinations.

 

“Let’s just move on,” he said, eventually. "We don't have time for this." Perrit just nodded—she was staring again at the floor.

 

“Rodney,” John turned to look at the scientist, who was frowning now at the screens.  He was tapping away again, but not as quickly.  “As informative as this all has been, we still need to find…”

 

“Yes, yes,” Rodney stopped typing, “I know.  That’s what I’m working on.  I’ve got a schematic of the whole structure here.  There are several rooms off of this one…” He tilted his head, “And some extra rooms you didn’t show us in the main structure,” he added, looking at Perrit.

 

“I am an old fool,” she said, sounding quite small now. “I was still holding back, thinking I couldn’t show you the room where the controls for the weapon were, not without giving it all away.” She slumped a little. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Wait, so how many rooms haven’t we hit?” Sheppard perked up, feeling hope for the first time.

 

Rodney shrugged. “At least three off of this hidden room, and two or three others nearby attached to the main structure.  The largest room is over there.” He pointed to one of the massive pipes leading up to the ceiling, this one as wide as the trunk of a redwood. “The door must be on the other side of that pipe.”

 

Sheppard just nodded, “Can you tell if there are any life signs in there?”

 

“Unfortunately, no. It appears to be shielded from the life signs detector. I am, however, picking up some energy signals,” Rodney peered closer at the screen, then looked in the direction of the ‘larger room’ he’d pointed out before. “I think whatever the weapon is that we’ve been tracking may be in there.”

 

“Well, that’s something,” John said, hitching up his P90. “With any luck, we’ll find our people at the same time.” He started towards the door, and Rodney nervously moved in behind him with his own P90 raised, but not before grabbing his hand-held scanner off the console. Perrit looked as if she would go with them, but John shook his head at her.  “Stay here.”

 

She didn’t look happy with the order, but she didn’t say no as they moved away from her.

______________________________________________________

 

Two hours, by Teyla's reckoning.  At least.  Her wrist had stopped bleeding, once she'd wrapped it using a piece of torn jacket.  Ronon was free now as well, rubbing at his own wrist and looking around him as if looking for something to pummel.

 

"Why has no one come?" she hissed, glancing over at him. "Someone should have come."

 

Ronon didn't answer.  He was sitting against the wall, obviously trying to relax, which Teyla had also tried to do.

 

For once, her meditation techniques had failed her.  Maybe it was the drug still in her system, or the growing feeling of fear for her teammates, but she was on the verge of screaming for help.

 

Wait a moment—why not make noise?

 

She turned around, eyeing the manacle on the ground, then at the metal plate that affixed it to the wall.  Perhaps she could loosen it?  At the very least, make a lot of noise trying.  Someone would have to come then—wouldn't they?

 

Lying down on her back, she lifted her feet and slammed her right boot into the metal plate.  It gave a very satisfyingly loud clang.  Smiling, she started to hit it harder, watching as the bolts connecting the plate to the wall started to shake and loosen.  Rock dust shook out from behind the plate. 

 

She could do this.

 

Pausing to catch her breath, she realized the sound of clanging metal didn't stop when she did.  Turning her head, she saw Ronon doing the same thing she was, fighting to loosen the metal plate.  He was having better success than she was—his plate was already a third of the way off the stone.

 

Smiling more, she looked up at where the cage was bolted into the stone—and saw that it was similarly loose. If the noise they were making now didn't bring someone—perhaps they could actually break the cage away from the stone wall?

 

Grinning, she started kicking again, the powerful clanging of metal and stone echoing through the chamber. 

 

She had it about half way off, when the door to the room suddenly slammed open, and she twisted in time to see a woman walk inside, a ring of keys in one hand.  Her eyes were wide, the blonde hair gathered up on her head loose and messy.  Her lips were trembling, her arms shaking, and her other hand lifted to reveal a small gun.

 

"Stop! Shush!" Councilor Jaquette whispered loudly, waving the gun at them. "You have to stop that!  Do you want to wake them all?  You must be quiet, now!"

________________________________________________

 

The two man walked around the large, metal pipe, Sheppard leading and Rodney at his back.  As Rodney had said, when they reached the far side of it, they found a good sized metal door embedded in the rock wall.  Rodney moved into the front and, after tucking the scanner into a vest pocket, rested his hand above the Ancient looking door control.  He glanced at Sheppard, who took up firing position on the far side of the door.  The colonel gave Rodney a nod, and McKay waved open the door and pointed his P90 inside with Sheppard.

 

It was large and, disappointingly, empty. 

 

The room lit up as they peered inside, revealing nothing more than unadorned metal walls and a long lab bench in the middle, on which were strewn a mess of what looked like different Ancient devices.  Rodney pulled out his hand held scanner again and walked inside, heading to the table.  He stopped at the first device.

 

It was the blue amulet, the one worn by Perrit to ward off the wind when above the canyon walls.  

 

Rodney’s jaw tensed, and he looked at Sheppard.  Slowly, he nodded.  The blue amulet matched the signature of the energy signals he’d followed.  It was the weapon. 

 

She’d lied to them again. 

 

“Damn it,” Sheppard whispered, still standing in the doorway.  He was more confused than ever now.  He thought she had finally told them the truth out there, had finally been up front with them.  But if her amulet was here…

 

He just didn’t get it, and from the look on McKay’s face, neither did he.

 

Sheppard grimaced, lowering his voice to a whisper. “This makes no sense.  Why would Perrit take Ronon and Teyla?  And why lead us here, then pretend that she didn’t know this place existed?  And why make that whole speech out there about wanting to help us find them?”

 

“Because she didn’t,” Baylor’s voice called airily, turning Sheppard around in a flash, the colonel’s P90 pointed back out into the main room.  Baylor was standing about ten feet away with one arm around Perrit’s throat and a gun to her temple.  She was clawing at his wrist, her eyes wide and terrified.  “That amulet is mine.”

_________________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER  FIFTEEN:  THE GREEDY ONES

 

“Let her go,” Sheppard hissed, sighting down the P90, moving slowly back out into the main room.  He felt more than saw Rodney appear at his elbow, raising his own gun.

 

Baylor sneered, his face twisted into a truly ugly mask, and he suddenly shoved Perrit towards Rodney before either man could react.   The scientist caught her and helped her regain her feet.  Sheppard kept his weapon trained on Baylor, even though the Guildmaster had lowered his pistol and put it away.  The tall man clucked his tongue at Sheppard.

 

“Oh, please.  You can’t hurt me with that. Drop the weapon, Colonel.  Doctor McKay, drop yours as well.”

 

Sheppard didn’t move. “I don’t think so.” A glance showed Rodney had his weapon up to mimic the Colonel again, with Perrit now cowering a little behind Rodney’s shoulder.  The scientist didn’t look happy, but, then again, he never did when it came to guns.

 

“Really, Colonel,” Baylor said, “aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?”

 

“You had a gun pointed at Ambassador Perrit’s head,” John snarled. “I wouldn’t call that melodramatic.”  His eyes narrowed, “How did you get her amulet?”

 

“My amulet?” Perrit replied. “What—?”

 

“In the room behind us,” Rodney replied. “Your blue amulet is in there.”

 

Perrit looked genuinely confused, looking over her shoulder and into the room behind them.  She gave a small gasp of dismay. “My amulet!”  She looked at Baylor again. “How did you—“  Her eyes suddenly widened. “Dawson,” she hissed. “Dawson got it for you.”

 

Baylor’s sneer grew crooked, as if he were amused, “Yes and no, Ambassador.  Dawson did indeed retrieve a couple of items for me from your home tonight,” he glanced at John again, “but not that.  No, that amulet’s mine.”  He raised his left hand and opened it, revealing another blue amulet, “As is this one.” 

 

"There are three?" whispered Perrit, still hovering behind Rodney's shoulder.

 

John didn't care, all he cared about was that Baylor had just admitted to the kidnapping. "You have Teyla and Ronon," he stated firmly.

 

Baylor just inclined his head and the sneer faded, leaving nothing but a cold determination

 

John turned off the safety on his P90. "Then tell me where they are," he stated firmly. "Now."

 

Baylor slowly shook his head, then sneered again. “You know," he said quietly, "I did warn you to drop your weapon, Colonel.”

 

And the amulet flashed.

 

Air slammed into John like a hammer blow. Before he could even shout, it catapulted him backwards in the air, smashing him bodily into the large metal pipe behind him like a bug hitting a windshield. And the pressure only increased, suspending him there several feet above the ground.  Horribly, painfully, he was crushed into the pipe with the weight and power of a machine plunging nails into sheet metal. The grooves in the pipe dug into his body like knives;  his vest and the P90 pressed brutally into his ribs.  His body and bones trembled, feeling like they were about to disintegrate into a thousand pieces...

 

He couldn’t hear anything, he just knew his air was completely cut off, his lungs desperately trying to draw in breath, to inhale, but it was like someone had covered his mouth with a plastic bag.

 

His eyes began to tear, and he looked down to see a very far-away seeming Rodney putting his weapons down, raising his hands and waving them madly at Baylor, clearly shouting something. Rodney looked terrified and angry. Perrit, too, appeared to be yelling, looking back and forth between John and Baylor, her hands pressed together in a plea, her pale eyes wide and horrified by what was happening.  Her normally dark complexion was absurdly pale now, closer to the yellow of Baylor’s than its normal shade.  For some reason, he found himself imagining how beautiful she must have been when she was young....

 

And then he hit the ground hard, collapsing to his knees, coughing and choking, limbs shaking like leaves in the wind.  All he could think about was breathing, breathing, breathing…

 

“Are you okay?” Perrit asked, kneeling next to him, wrapping her arms around him and helping to hold him up.  He voice sounded like it was coming from down a long tunnel.

 

He tried to nod, but it just prompted more coughing…and then he threw up.  Perrit held on, keeping him upright as he retched.  His chest felt like it was on fire, and everything felt bruised and sprained. 

 

“It’s an ingenious little device,” Baylor said, also sounding far away, “isn’t it?”

 

“What the hell did you just do?” Rodney snapped, sounding closer, his voice wavering between terror and utter hatred for this man.  John clung to Rodney's voice, needing the connection.  He felt disoriented and distant, unable to get a handle on the horrible pain he had just felt.  It was not unlike...

 

Being fed upon by a Wraith. 

 

He threw up again. 

 

Only Perrit's grip on his arms and Rodney's voice were even keeping him conscious at this point.

 

"I just demonstrated the real potential of this pretty little amulet," Baylor said, answering Rodney's question. “Perrit and her predecessors never really thought about what this pretty little device does, although her son did...." Perrit's grip on his arms tightened a little at the mention of her son, and John finally managed to drag his head up, just in time catch an actual smile on Baylor's face. 

 

"You read my son's notes?" Perrit hissed through her teeth, her tone suggesting someone on the edge of screaming.

 

"Oh, yes!" Baylor said. "Dawson brought copies of everything for me.  But your son never really considered all  that the amulet could do—he was always so easily distracted, wasn't he?  Still, he wondered, as I did, how, at just a thought, the amulet can shield the wearer from the winds in the desert.  He started theorizing, but never put those theories into action.” Baylor straightened up a little taller, so that he positively loomed over them from his much greater height. “Well, I did, and I figured it out! Me!" His eyes fairly glowed with pride. "I figured out that the amulet actually blocks out air, down to a molecular level.  Not even oxygen can get through.”

 

“What?” Rodney repeated. “No—it can’t.  That's absurd!  People would suffocate inside the protective shell if—“

 

“Its default is to create an umbrella around the people it protects, not a completely closed sphere, an umbrella that stretches nearly all the way to the ground, but allows wind and air to come in at the bottom.  That’s why you ended up with sand on your clothes despite being inside its protection when coming here—it was kicked up from under the umbrella.”  Baylor pulled the amulet close, looking close to stroking it as if it were a white cat. “But I worked out that this little device could do so much more.  Not only can I create a solid bubble instead of an umbrella with a little extra mental control, I can make that bubble as small as I want and where I want.  I could encase the Ambassador’s head inside one right now if I wanted.” He turned black eyes on the woman, and Perrit flinched next to John, her thin fingers digging into his arms. Rodney moved to step more in front of the two of them, trying to block Baylor's view.  The Guildmaster wasn't fazed, facing the amulet towards Rodney again. “And, of course, I also learned something even more wonderful—I could form walls of solid air and push them out—as your Colonel just discovered.”

 

“Baylor,” Perrit began, almost choking on the name because she'd filled with so much bile, “I do not understand.  How are there three blue amulets?  There has always only been one.”

 

Baylor arched an eyebrow. “Did you never find it strange, Ambassador, that there are three green amulets for accessing the water pumps, but only one blue amulet to provide people protection from the winds on their way there?”

 

Her brow furrowed slightly, but all she said was, “I never questioned, no.”

 

“Which is why I am the scientist,” Baylor said smugly. “And not you.”

 

"More likely," John coughed, glaring up at the man, "he stumbled across the other two in here when he found this place—along with some of the other Ancient equipment we found in his rooms."  Baylor's smile fell at that, his eyes boring into John like a man about to crush an ant. 

 

"Do not test me, Colonel," he snarled. "You should not speak to things you can't possibly understand.  Science is clearly not your realm of expertise."

 

“But it's not yours either, Baylor!” Perrit said, her brow furrowed. “You're a painter, for goodness sakes.  An artist!  Not a scientist.”

 

“I am both, old woman!” Baylor snapped back.

 

"Oh please, not even a little," Rodney sneered.  "Stealing someone else's ideas is not science; it's not even art—it's just plain theft."

 

“How dare you, Outlander!" Baylor shouted, rounding on Rodney. "I am one of the greatest scientists Orkidia has ever known.  Why do you think they named me Guildmaster?”

 

“Because they thought you would be better at administration than real science?” Rodney offered snidely. 

 

The amulet flashed again, and Rodney was suddenly on his knees, his hands around his throat.  He pinched his eyes shut, mouth opening and closing like a fish on dry land, his face turning a fantastic shade of red. 

 

Christ, Baylor was choking him with that thing!

 

“Rodney!” John croaked, fumbling for the P90 he’d dropped with numb fingers.  His limbs still felt like lead, barely responding to his mind’s orders.  Perrit stood up, to get out of his way, but before John could do more than pick the weapon up, it was blown out of his hand and sent flying off to the side.  His right hand turned a bright shade of red, as if someone had just whipped it.

 

Shaking the windburnt limb, he half-crawled over to Rodney, who was breathing again, the scientist coughing harshly as he got his air back.  After making sure Rodney was okay, John turned dark eyes to Baylor.

 

“What do you want?” he demanded, not caring that his voice was as coarse as sandpaper. “What is this about?”

 

“Oh, what everyone here wants,” Baylor replied, sending a sharp look to Perrit, who was now standing shakily behind John and Rodney. “I want control over the water pumps.”

 

———————————————————————————

 

"Jaquette," Ronon snarled, slamming into the bars as if he could reach her from this distance.  Teyla just crossed her arms, lifting her chin, not about to give the woman an inch.  She opened her mouth to demand to know why the blonde councilor had kidnapped them, but Jaquette just waved her down.

 

"No, no," she whispered, "you have to be quiet!  And I mean that! I managed to knock out the guard near the outside door," she said, pulling up a small keychain and jingling it, "but there's no chance there's just one.  Do you want to bring them all running?"  She stepped forward, fumbling with the keys.  "Now, one of these has got to open your cage doors and then we can go and help..."

 

She came to a stop, staring at Teyla's door, frowning in confusion.  Then she looked up at the Athosian, blinking rapidly.

 

"There's no keyhole on your cage door," she said, sounding completely bewildered.  "Why is there no keyhole?"

 

"Wait." Teyla finally loosed her arms, letting them fall by her side and feeling a little confused herself. "You're not the one who captured us?" she asked.  Jaquette's eyebrows shot up, then she smiled brightly.

 

"Me?" She flapped her hand at Teyla, "Of course not, you Silly Shiveara!  Baylor is the one who kidnapped you—that scurrilous little maggot—and boy am I glad I chose to check out his haunts in Dendrobia before Cattleya, where his home is!  I mean, I was worried he might actually have hidden you someplace new or halfway clever, but," she clicked her tongue, "I was banking on his lazy nature. And it paid off! Here you are! Of course," she waved her hand again," I could have been way off—it might have been someone else who took you, but, really, the covetous way Baylor regarded your technology back in the council chambers?  It was obvious.  That man shows more on his face than he thinks he does, the Greedy Herder.  Plus, well, I'll admit to hoping it was Baylor and not someone else, because his guards are such flower petals, you know?  I mean, Stella's guards, for example, are real hard core types. The kind that could twist a human being into a chiloglottis in ten seconds? But Baylor's?" She shook her head, scrunching her nose at Teyla as if she were telling her something wicked. "They're the rejects from the army—I doubt any of them could even wield a gun properly.  The one I knocked out to get in here, for example?  All I had to do was flutter my eyes at him," she demonstrated, swinging her hips a little as she did so, "then bam!" She brought the pistol down in what looked like a solid blow. "Down he went!  But, of course, I never actually expected that the keys I stole from him," she looked miserably at the keys, then at Teyla's cage door, "wouldn't get you out."  She pouted, and looked up at Teyla. "How does it work?"

 

Teyla's realized her mouth was open, and finally closed it.  Swallowing, she glanced over at Ronon, and saw he was leaning against the bars, a similar dumbfounded expression on his face.

 

"I didn't think anyone could talk more than McKay," Ronon said to her.  Teyla smiled slightly, then turned back to Jaquette, who was now leaning over to peer at the locking mechanism as if she could see through the metal.

 

"Oh, uh," Teyla gave a head shake. "The key must be electronic.  A device of some sort, that will open the door."

 

Jaquette frowned some more, straightening up again but still staring at the cage door. "Well, that's annoying.  I was really hoping to—"

 

Footsteps echoed down the hallway outside of the still partially open door, and Jaquette's eyes widened in fear.  Turning, she ran back to the door and shut it, then pressed herself against the wall next to it, closing her eyes.

 

A few moments later, the door was unlocked and slammed open, missing Jaquette by mere inches.  She jumped, but, miraculously, didn't make a sound.

 

Dawson stormed in, his brown hair askew and an angry pucker to his lips. "What the hell are you two up to?" he snarled.  "I get woken up in the middle of the night because you're apparently making such a racket, my guards can't even sleep with pillows over their ears!"  

 

“Oh, yeah, we're real sorry 'bout that,” Ronon sneered, holding his right arm behind his back to hide that it was free. He smiled wickedly. “We wake everyone up?”  Teyla too had her right arm hidden.

 

Dawson narrowed his gaze as he peered at the Satedan. “For your information, yes.  But I sent them back to sleep, promising them that I would quiet you down.”

 

“Quiet us down?” Teyla repeated, lifting her chin. “How?  Drug us again?”

 

Dawson gave a tiny smile, “If necessary.”  He lifted the gun in his hand, “Or I could use more forceful methods.”

 

“Oh, sweety, I don’t think so,” Jaquette called softly from behind him. “In fact, I’d put that down, if I were you.”

 

Dawson spun around, his eyes wide as he found the councilor standing a few feet away, the gun in her hand pointed at his head.  She frowned a little.

 

"Truthfully, little man, I don't like guns, and this one's bound to go off if I hold it much longer, so, really," Jaquette smiled, "I'd put your weapon down and start doing something useful, like helping me free these lovely people."

______________________________________________________

 

“The water pumps?” Perrit said sharply, her tone incredulous. “Baylor, you don't even know how they work!  How could you even consider—“

 

“Doctor McKay will teach me,” Baylor replied. “He’ll show me everything I want to know, and leave behind all his technology to help me control it.”  The sneer was hideous now. “I also learned from Delian that the Doctor managed to prevent the other green amulets from breaching the force field around the Dendrobian water pump.”  He arched an eyebrow at Rodney. “I want you to make it so that only the Cattleyan amulet will be able to access the pumps.”

 

“Just the Cattleyan amulet?” Perrit asked. “Why?”

 

“I’d think that was obvious,” Baylor replied, opening his shirt to reveal what must have been the Cattleyan green amulet around his neck. “No one else will be able to access the pumps.  Just me.  I’ll be able to turn them off and on at will.”

 

"At your whim, you mean," Perrit spat.

 

"And that's different from what you did, how?" Baylor cut back.  Perrit raised her head and steeled her jaw, but she had paled a little at the accusation.

 

“And with the water under your control…” John prompted, finally getting to his feet, though his leg muscles protested.

 

Baylor inclined his head at the colonel, “I’ll control Orkidia.”

 

“Well, I won’t help you,” Rodney snarled, getting up to stand next to the still shaky Sheppard. His chin jutted out. “I won’t help you subjugate these people.”

 

Baylor shook his head, “Don’t be a fool, Doctor.  You’ll do it,” his eyes narrowed, “or I’ll kill all three of your teammates, starting with Colonel Sheppard.”  He raised the blue amulet in his hand again.

 

Sheppard felt it again—the drawing of air from his lungs, the pressure on his whole body, the crushing sensation against his bones…

 

And then it was gone. Without even remembering falling, he found he was on the floor again, gasping for air, and Perrit was holding onto him once more.  He could feel her shaking—or was that him? Rodney was standing directly in front of him now, facing Baylor, so that all John could see were Rodney’s calves and the back of his boots.  There was sand on his trousers.  A lot of it.  Should really have cleaned that off.  Not very dapper, Rodney. 

 

His hearing came back slowly, much more slowly than before, returning to full clarity at about the same time that Rodney moved away from him.  Perrit helped John to his feet, and then propped his left arm over her shoulders. 

 

Lifting his head, trying to get past the horrible headache that had formed, he let her half carry him into the console area of the main room.  She then propped him against a table.  Rodney was already there, putting his laptop and tablet into his backpack, his expression livid.

 

“I have some of my men waiting outside in the council chamber,” Baylor said. “They can escort us to the pump." The Guildmaster glanced at John, then turned back to Rodney. "We’ll take the Colonel with us—he can help me keep you in line, Doctor.  As for you, Ambassador,” the man’s dark eyes lit on Perrit like an eagle looking down at a mouse, “I’m tempted to kill you now.”

 

“No!” Rodney said suddenly, lifting his head from his packing. “You want my cooperation, you can’t hurt her either!”

 

“I have Colonel Sheppard for that,” Baylor said, shrugging.

 

“Oh, you may think so, Darth," Rodney shot out, "but you really have no idea what I’m capable of! I could rig the pump to allow your amulet access for only a short time and then lock you out forever, or I could have the pump's force field electrocute you after a certain number of uses, turn you into a human light show, or I could just have it cause the amulet explode, taking everything in its immediate vicinity with it…”  He lifted both eyebrows as he trailed off, and John tried not to smile. He couldn't tell if Rodney was lying, which meant he probably wasn't. Rodney's eyes narrowed as he continued, “And, let's face it, you’d have no idea that I’d even done it, since I know you don’t really understand anything about how the pumps work.”  He pursed his lips then, and shrugged. “But if you promise not to hurt Perrit, or my team, and agree to let my three teammates leave immediately once I’ve made the changes, then," he sighed, "I will do exactly as you ask.”  

 

Baylor studied him for a moment, then frowned. “Seems I don't have a choice.”   

 

Rodney didn't answer, just lifted his chin higher. 

 

Baylor snorted. "Yes, fine, you win—I won't kill her.  Now get back to packing your things." 

 

Rodney gave a disgusted head shake and returned to putting his equipment into his pack.

 

“Now, there's just one more thing,” Baylor said then, turning to Perrit. He held out his hand. “Your amulet, Ambassador.”

 

Perrit frowned. “I don’t have it, Baylor. It’s back at the house, in my safe.  I told you that already.”

 

“I don’t mean the blue amulet, simpleton,” Baylor snarled. “I mean the green amulet.  The one that got you in to these hidden rooms.”

 

Perrit’s eyebrows lifted, and she looked down at the green amulet he wore. “That…that’s how you got in here?  Using the green amulet?”

 

“Obviously.  I found out about it by pure chance one day, leaning on a portion of the wall while wearing the amulet.  I assume,” he looked at Rodney, “that you found out about this place using your machines—but that you too used the amulet to access it.”

 

Perrit shook her head, “No, we just—“

 

“I used my machines to open the cloaked door,” Rodney interrupted quickly, glancing at Sheppard. “Finding hidden doors is a specialty of mine, and I’m pretty good at opening them when they’re locked using this.” He held up the hand held scanner.

 

Perrit’s brow furrowed slightly, obviously not understanding the need for the lie, but Sheppard knew why Rodney had done it.  Maybe they might be able to do something with the gene’s help once they got to the water pump.  Anything they can keep up their sleeve until then was important.  He saw Rodney's eyes flick to his, seeking reassurance for his lie, and John met the gaze without blinking, conveying one thought—nice.  The look fortified Rodney enough that he lifted his chin again.

 

Baylor, meanwhile, also seemed to have bought it.  His lips were pursed, but he could see the scanner now in Rodney’s hand, and might have recognized that it was Ancient.  “That object can get you through locked doors?” he asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“You’ll be leaving that behind as well, then,” he said, looking again at Rodney.  The scientist’s jaw tensed, but he didn’t say no.  Baylor nodded at him, obviously pleased.

 

“Right,” he said, “then may I suggest we all go—“ 

 

“Wait,” Perrit’s eyes narrowed, and she straightened. “Wait, I have a question.”

 

Baylor turned his sneering smile on her, “Yes, Ambassador?”

 

She lifted her chin, to stare down her nose at him, “Why did you kill my son?”

 

Baylor’s eyebrows lifted, and he started to laugh.  Perrit’s face flushed red, her anger palpable at the callous reaction.  She stepped forward, as if to attack the taller man, but Sheppard’s hand on her arm stopped her.

 

Baylor finally stopped laughing, wiping a tear from his face. “My dear Perrit,” he said, leering at her from behind still amused black eyes, “whatever made you think I killed your son?”

 

Perrit’s anger faded, replaced by confusion.  “Wh…what?”

 

“Your son was a terrible waste of brilliance, Ambassador, brilliance I had hoped to exploit one day.  No,” he gave a slow head shake, “I do not control those scum, the Lycastee.  Whoever ordered them to kill your son, it was not me.  I wanted him and Doctor McKay very much alive.  How else would I be able to take control of the water pumps without their help?”

 

Perrit stared at him for a moment, her lips parted in disappointed surprise.  Then she suddenly seemed to deflate in on herself, falling against the same console against which she’d propped Sheppard, wrapping her arms around herself and bowing her head.

 

And then she started to cry.

______________________________________________

 

Teyla could see the wheels turning in Dawson's head as the man regarded the blonde councilor.  Jaquette was taller than he was, but that was about as intimidating as it got.  Fact was, she looked…less than deadly.  Still, her jaw was steeled and her lips pressed into a frown as she clicked the safety off on her little gun.   Teyla saw Dawson arch an eyebrow at that.

 

“I won't ask again," Jaquette warned. "Drop the weapon."

 

Dawson suddenly snorted a laugh, turning to look at Teyla and Ronon, his eyebrows lifted in disbelief.  When he turned back to Jaquette, he was smiling.

 

“Well, well, Councilor Jaquette, I must say, I’m surprised to see you here.  I didn’t think anyone knew of this little hideaway of Baylor’s.  How is it you do?”

 

“I know a great many things, Dawson,” Jaquette replied cryptically.  “Although this is the first proof I have that you helped Baylor set up this little home away from home of his. Now I also know how Baylor always seemed to have a copy of Dazy’s inventions before Dazy unveiled it to the rest of Orkidia.” 

 

Dawson gave a small shrug. “Baylor pays me very well,” he confirmed, and his smile grew broader, “and has for years.”

 

Jaquette just nodded, her eyes flicking to the gun in his hand.  “I asked you to put the gun down, Dawson.”  She looked up again, meeting his gaze evenly. “I also want the device that will open these cages.”

 

“Ah, well, there we have a problem,” the man replied, turning to look again at Teyla and Ronon.  “First, I’m afraid only Baylor has the device that will open these cages, and second, I’m not about to put down my gun,” he started to turn back to Jaquette, “because I don’t actually believe you’ll shoo—“

 

Jaquette pistol whipped him squarely across the side of the head mid-turn, her teeth gritted as she put all her strength behind it.  The crack was almost painfully loud, turning Dawson almost all the way around before he crumpled into an unconscious heap on the floor.  Jaquette let out a heavy breath, then looked up to meet Teyla’s gaze.

 

“He should stop underestimating women, don’t you think?” she asked.

 

Teyla just gave a small smile as the councilor stepped over Dawson’s body and then kicked the gun out of his hand, sending it across the floor to Teyla’s cage.  The Athosian grabbed it and pulled it inside.  Jaquette then bounced over to stand once more in front of cage, where she studied the keyless lock for a moment, before looking down at her gun.

 

“Maybe I can shoot it off?”

 

“Shoot what off?” Teyla asked, instantly worried. “The lock?  Oh no, no,” she shook her head, “I do not believe that would be a good idea.  For one, there is no visible keyhole—you wouldn’t know where to aim. You could just damage it so that it won’t open at all.”

 

“Or it could ricochet,” Ronon offered unhelpfully, sounding annoyingly amused for some reason.  Teyla shot him a dark look as Jaquette just frowned.  Finally, the councilor just shrugged.

 

“Well, I can’t really go after Baylor to get whatever it is that will open this,” she said, backing up, “since I don’t know where he is.  So…” She pointed the gun two handed at the lock.

 

“Wait!” Teyla said, backing away from the cage doors, and finding the stone wall in back much too close. “I…wait.  The noise! It’ll bring the other guards.”

 

Jaquette shrugged, her eyes still on the lock she was pointing at.  “I don’t think there are that many,” she said. “We’re in this strange little house of Baylor’s, over on the Cattleyan side of town, built into against the cliff.  There aren’t too many other houses around, and I didn’t see too many guards when I snuck in—just the guy by the door.  Plus,” her eyes squinted at the lock, “I’m pretty sure I can handle them.”

 

“Perhaps, but…” Teyla stared at the lock, then at Jaquette’s gun, her terror clear.  This was not going to end well! “Please! I think we should wait for Baylor to return, or—“

 

“Nah,” Jaquette grinned, looking terribly excited now. “You know, I've always wanted to fire this thing ever since Curly gave it to me, I just never had a good reason to before."

 

Teyla's stomach lurched, "What do you mean you've never fired—"

 

"No more dallying!" Jaquette said, bouncing a little. "Cover your ears, ducky, because here we go!”

________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: RICOCHETS

 

Jaquette staggered backwards from the gun's recoil, the blast echoing around the stone room like a thunderclap, and she screamed as the bullet did exactly as Ronon knew it would—it ricocheted.

 

All three ducked as it pinged around the room, hitting all three stone walls and one light (which shattered in a brilliant array of sparks) before ending up with a thud…in Dawson.

 

The servant came awake with a scream, grabbing at his shoulder where the bullet had hit, his eyes scrunched shut against the pain.  Jaquette jumped back to his side, pointing her gun at him, gritting her teeth a little when his scream faded to an agonized sob.  A second later, he opened his eyes, turning to gaze at her in total disbelief.

 

“You shot me!” he cried, his voice pitched several octaves higher than before. “I can’t believe you actually stood there and shot me!”

 

For a second, Jaquette looked like she would defend herself, say it was an accident, then her eyes widened then narrowed slightly...and she smiled..

 

“Yes, well, I warned you I would,” she purred.

 

“But I can’t believe you actually did it!” Dawson gibbered, trying to sit up while still holding onto his shoulder, and failing.  “Why?  Why do it?” 

 

“Because I’m tired of playing games!” she announced. “I need to free these people, and you’re going to help me, or I’ll shoot you again!”  She jiggled the gun menacingly.  Dawson scooted backwards on his rear, his eyes widening.

 

“Yes, yes, I’ll help! Don’t shoot! Please, I…”  He stopped talking, because the sound of running footsteps turned both their attention to the door.  Jaquette grabbed Dawson’s unhurt shoulder, drawing him up to his feet, and pointed the gun at his head as two more of Baylor’s guards appeared panting in the doorway.  They carried machine guns, and both wore identical expressions of shock at seeing Jaquette with a gun pressed to Dawson’s temple, and his left shoulder bleeding profusely.

 

“Drop your weapons!” Jaquette snapped. “Now! Or I’ll shoot!” She paused, then added, “Again!”

 

“Do it!” Dawson squeaked. “Please!  She’s crazy!”

 

The two men glanced at each other, then reluctantly placed the machine guns on the floor.

 

“And, uh…” Jaquette glanced down at the weapons, then up.

 

“Kick them over to the cages!” Teyla called.

 

“Yes!” Jaquette agreed. “Kick them over to the Outlanders!”

 

Grimacing, the two men kicked the guns over, allowing Ronon to grab one and Teyla the other.  The Athosian tucked Dawson’s gun in her trousers and brought the machine gun to bear on the guards.

 

“Now both of you lock yourselves into the empty cage,” Teyla ordered, indicating the third cage with a jerk of her weapon.

 

“Do as she says,” Jaquette said. “Now!”

 

“Do it,” Dawson whimpered, looking paler by the second. 

 

The two guards walked over to the cage and inside, shutting the door behind them.  It locked with an audible click.

 

“How many more guards are there?” Ronon demanded. 

 

“Just two others,” Dawson said, trembling now. “Each by one of the doors to this place.  The rest Baylor took with him or sent home.”

 

“And where did Baylor go?” Teyla asked.   

 

“To fetch something from the council chambers.  I don’t know what, I swear.  All I know is, he wanted something more than just guns when he went after Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard.”

 

Jaquette’s brow furrowed, “The council chambers?”  She looked across at Teyla, “But that’s where I left them.  Rodney and your Colonel were with Perrit, searching for a clue to who had captured you.” She looked back at Dawson, still partially in her arms, and shoved him away.  “How long ago did he leave?”

 

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, then putting a hand to it, as if dizzy. “Please, my shoulder is killing me!” he whimpered.  “I need a healer!”

 

“Jaquette, wait,” Teyla said suddenly, and a touch angrily. “If you knew where we were, why didn’t you tell Colonel Sheppard?”

 

Jaquette shook her head. “But I didn't know! This was a guess. A chance I took!  I didn't even think it was a good guess until I saw you.  It was pure luck you were here and not in one of Baylor’s other so-called secret homes, or somewhere else altogether with someone else. And...See, I just…I was....” she shook her head, “Oh, fine!  I thought, if I found you and rescued you first, that Rodney might…that he'd…”  She bit her lower lip, then pouted. “Look, it doesn’t matter!  All that matters is that they’re in danger!”  She straightened, pointing her gun once more at Dawson’s head (it had sort of fallen to point at his chest before).  “What is Baylor planning?!” she demanded, her voice pitched a little higher.

 

Dawson blinked at her, then at Teyla and Ronon. “I’m not sure,” he said, looking about ready to keel over as his cream-colored shirt reddened beneath his hand. “He’s got you two.  If he finds Doctor McKay and the Colonel, he’ll probably threaten to have you both killed unless they help him take control of the water pumps.”

 

Jaquette snorted, anger coloring her face. “Oh, that rat!  I should’ve known!”

 

“We need to get out of here,” Teyla said then, trying to keep her voice calm, though her worry for the Colonel and Rodney had just escalated.  “There must be a way.”

 

“Tools,” Ronon said, shaking his bars a little. “Something that can cut through the bars?”

 

“Does Baylor have tools here?” Jaquette asked, jerking her gun at Dawson. 

 

“I…yes.  I believe so.  Please,” he moaned, “I need to bandage this! I’m bleeding to death! Please!”

 

Jaquette’s eyes narrowed, “Oh, just rip off some of your shirt and use that, you gibbering Glossodia! Now,” she pointed her gun at the door, “Show me to these tools!”

 

Still sniveling, Dawson stumbled out of the room, and Jaquette followed.  On the threshold, she nodded back at Teyla and Ronon. “I’ll be back soon!” she promised…and disappeared.

 

Teyla shook her head, then suddenly looked up. “Wait!” she called. “Jaquette!”

 

But the woman didn’t reappear.  Teyla swore softly.

 

“What?” Ronon asked, “What are you thinking?”

 

“That she should leave us and go find Commander Delian,” Teyla replied.  “It will take too long to free us.  If the Colonel and Rodney are in danger, Delian needs to know.  He can send men to help them.”

 

Ronon grimaced, but didn’t disagree.  He did, however, slam his hand against the bars.

 

In the third cage, the two imprisoned guards just crawled to the back and tried to make themselves invisible.

 

—————————————————————————————

 

They walked out of the council chambers without hiding their presence, causing several guards to perk up in surprise at the sight of Perrit, Rodney and John.  After all, they hadn’t seen the Ambassador or the Atlantians come in.  No one questioned, however, not with two Council members present—they just frowned.

 

Once outside in the main plaza, Baylor stopped next to the large fountain, using the sound of the water to mask his voice, in case any of the guards could hear them.  He glanced around the empty, dark square, then leaned towards his men.

 

“Rennolds," he said quietly, "take the Ambassador back to the Den.  Lock her in the empty cage next to the other two.”  He glanced at Rodney, then back to his man, his lips curling a little. “And don’t hurt her, if you can avoid it.” 

 

The man standing behind Perrit nodded, and, taking her thin arm in one meaty hand, he started dragging her away from the square.  Perrit had stopped crying soon after she had begun, but she still looked ready to crumble again at a moment’s notice.  Her last glance was for Rodney, and there was so much anguish in her gaze, the scientist had to look away. 

 

Baylor said nothing else after they left, just turned and walked in the opposite direction from Rennolds.  Rodney and Sheppard followed, encouraged by the rough push of Baylor’s two other men.  The two thugs now carried the Atlantians P90s, 9MMs and, of course, their knives.  John's fingers stretched and flexed, wanting to grab for them—but knowing what would happen if he did.

 

Had any of the group turned around, they would have seen other movement in the square, as one of Delian’s guards slipped out the front door of the Council Chambers and took off at a quiet run towards Perrit’s mansion, keeping to the shadows the whole time.  In addition, a man dressed in solid black faded back into the shadows of a small alleyway, turning to follow Perrit.

 

On the opposite side of the square, a building resolved itself into a livery stable, and Baylor rapped on the door.  After a couple of minutes, a very tired looking old man in his pajamas wrenched it open, blinking out at them with a scowl.

 

“Sun’s not even up yet,” he muttered, rubbing at his eyes. “Woke me up!"  He peered up the sky, "Ancestor's Eyes, it's still night! What sort of time is this that you come knocking?”

 

“It’s close enough to morning,” Baylor replied evenly. “Just prepare a cart for us, Theo.  We’re going to the Dendrobian pump.”

 

The old man squinted at Baylor, then grimaced. “Might’ve known it was you, Guildmaster.  No one else is as rude.”  He shook his head, then waved a hand at him.  “Wait here and I’ll get a cart ready.  Oh,” he had started to close the door again, but stopped, “nearly forgot.” He looked up at Baylor again, “You need a driver?”

 

“No.  One of my men will drive.  Just the cart, Theo. Oh, and a coil of rope, if you have it. And four meeners—we’re in a hurry.  We need to get up top before dawn.”

 

Theo just scowled, but he didn't say no as he shut the door.  They could still hear him muttering behind it, though, as he obviously headed to the stable side of the building.

 

Baylor said nothing, just stood calmly, facing the livery stable doors.

 

After a few moments, John felt himself swaying a little.  Exhaustion and the torture Baylor had inflicted were causing his vision to gray, and he had to blink to stay awake.  Mostly, he just really needed to sit down.

 

The next thing he knew, Rodney had taken his left arm and propped it over his shoulder.  The scientist was also exhausted, but he hadn’t nearly had the life squeezed out of him, so he was faring a lot better than John was.  Sheppard gave him a small, grateful smile.

 

About five minutes later, the leftmost barn door of the livery opened, swinging wide as Theo—still in his pajamas—pushed it open.   He growled at them, then headed back into the interior.  A few moments later, he led out a cart pulled by four meeners.

 

“How far you taking them?” Theo asked after handing the reins over to one of Baylor’s men and stepping back to run a hand down one of the meener’s flanks.

 

“We’re heading to the Dendrobian pump, so as close as we can get,” Baylor replied.

 

“Middle way station—don’t take them higher.  You’ll have to walk the last hundred yards to the top on foot.  Oh, and make sure you leave them there with plenty of water.    Oh, the rope you wanted is in the back—don’t be using that on my meeners though, mind.”

 

Baylor nodded his understanding.  “Pay you on our return.” 

 

The livery owner nodded dismissively, obviously trusting the Guildmaster, and backed once more into his stable, pulling the wide barn doors shut with him.

 

Baylor turned to Rodney and John, and jerked a thumb at the cart. “Get in.”

______________________________________________________

 

When Dawson and Jaquette returned to the little room, Dawson was carrying two hacksaws, which he handed to Teyla and Ronon, respectively.  He had also managed to bandage his shoulder, and, while his pressed together lips still looked very pale, he did have some color back in his face.  Jaquette let him sit down in one of the two chairs, and turned her attention back to the Atlantians.

 

“Will those work?” she asked. 

 

Ronon grunted an affirmative as he started sawing away at his bars, already looking as if he were making quick progress.  The bars were about an inch thick and only about a couple inches apart, so he’d have to saw through at least five to make a space wide enough for him to crawl through.  Teyla could probably get away with sawing through four.

 

“Good,” Jaquette said, “Because I really think I should go and watch the doors.” She glanced behind her to the hall, then back again.  “I knocked out the guard at the front door and dragged him to the back, to where I left the first guard. We then locked them both in this little shed out back.”  She glanced at Dawson, then to Teyla. “But I’m a little worried about Baylor showing up before you’re free.  What if he—“

 

“I’m more worried about him finding Rodney and Colonel Sheppard,” Teyla said, shaking her head. “In fact, I was going to suggest you leave us and—“

 

“Leave you?  No!  If Baylor returns with the rest of his men and—“

 

“We have the weapons you gave us,” Ronon stated, working the saw furiously.  He was a third of the way through the top of the first iron bar already.

 

“We’ll follow as soon as we can,” Teyla promised.  “But you need to find Commander Delian and enlist his help.  Tell him that—“

 

“Oh,” Jaquette frowned, looking away. Then she frowned some more, shaking her head. “Let’s not involve Delian, shall we?  Let’s just get you out of here, then find Rodney and your Colonel and just get you out of here.  It’ll be fine.” She backtracked quickly to the door, “I’m going to go watch the doors.  Dawson, let’s go.”  The servant sighed, lurching to his feet and stumbling over to where Jaquette stood next to the door.

 

“No, Jaquette, wait!” Teyla called, reaching through the bars. “If Baylor has some sort of weapon, we’ll need all the help we can get.”

 

Jaquette stopped on the threshold, her eyes meeting Teyla’s with surprising honesty.  There was something there, some great sense of loss in the councilor’s gaze that made Teyla pull her arms back. 

 

“Ha!” Ronon cheered, and the sound of metal screeching against metal stopped with a resounding creak.  Involuntarily, Teyla glanced over to his side of the room, watching as an intent Ronon started on the bottom of the bar about two feet below where he'd started.  She could clearly see the line where he'd successfully cut through the top.

 

When Teyla turned back to the door, Jaquette and Dawson were both gone.

_____________________________________________________

 

In minutes, they were on the outskirts of the Dendrobia, and Baylor quickly ordered Rodney and John’s hands tied behind their backs.  As bindings went, they were fairly tough.

 

John tried to concentrate on a plan, to come up with a way to escape, but his vision kept graying the farther they got from the lights of the city and into the near pitch blackness of the fields.  Try as he might…

 

The farther and faster they moved...

 

He just couldn't keep his eyes open.

_______________________________________

 

Rodney gave a soft sigh when Sheppard’s head finally dipped to his chest, the too pale colonel succumbing to sleep. Good. The man looked like hell.  The scientist was amazed he’d even lasted this long—and knew it was only sheer stubbornness and worry for him and Teyla and Ronon that had kept him awake.

 

Sighing, he looked up again at the sky, taking in the first streaks of color heralding the false dawn, and wondering if, faint hope, Elizabeth would send the Jumper again before the morning actually arrived. Of course, it hadn’t even been a full day since they’d arrived here—was she even worried?

 

Was she even awake? 

 

Maybe she was sleeping...the whole city, sleeping soundly, comfortable in their beds...

 

God, he was tired.

 

Between the near dark of the canyon beneath the false dawn, the quiet morning sounds and the soft, rocking ride of the cart along the road…his eyelids started to droop.

 

He knew he couldn’t sleep, not with Sheppard out as well. But the long, hot walk down to this place the day before, the lack of sleep, and the brief but extremely terrifying asphyxiation by Baylor’s amulet, had all taken its toll. But one of them had to stay awake, to keep watch. Sheppard needed to sleep more, because he was going to have to save them later…because Rodney didn’t think he could.

 

So he had to keep his eyes open.  He had to stay on alert. 

 

He had to stop yawning.

_____________________________________________

 

Elizabeth watched as Lieutenant Cadman spoke with her team near the base of the stairs up to the Jumper Bay.  They all appeared tense and alert, ready to leave as soon as Elizabeth gave the go ahead.

 

The Orkidians had warned them of the sandstorms, but none of them could have predicted the ferocity of what had been thrown at the Jumper.  Cadman's team was lucky to be alive.  From the description, the ship had been tossed about like a tumbleweed in a tornado, and only their instruments kept them from losing sight of which way was up.  They'd hit several hoodoos on the way out, causing enough damage to the Jumper that Radek took it out of commission, and they'd come close to spearing themselves on a jagged outcropping of rock near the Stargate. 

 

Yes—lucky to be alive.

 

The leader of the Atlantis expedition stared at the quiet Stargate, wanting to dial it now.  To know whether the Orkidians had lied or not about how long the storms lasted.  It would be morning there soon, an hour or so, and they would dial and send through a MALP.  If clear, Cadman was going to head out immediately.

 

Like a knife to her gut, Elizabeth knew Sheppard's Team was in trouble.  She just knew.

 

She glanced over at the clock—one more hour.  Just one more hour and they'd send the MALP.

___________________________________________________

 

Ronon had sawed through the top and bottom of one bar, creating a gap about ten inches wide, and was almost finished sawing through the bottom of the second, when two almost simultaneous gunshots echoed in the distance.  Stopping what he was doing, he grabbed for the dropped machine gun, pointing it towards the door.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Teyla had done the same. 

 

For a moment, there was nothing...

 

Then two sets of footsteps ran down the hall.

 

Ronon raised the gun higher, flipping off the safety.

 

Jaquette burst into the room, blood on her cloak.  She was shaking, and, as soon as she saw them pointing guns at her, she stopped dead and raised her hands.  The gun she carried fell to the floor with a clatter.

 

And Perrit barreled into her, nearly bringing them both down. Jaquette's face scrunched with pain as she bent over, accidentally pushed to the side by the older woman.  Perrit, meanwhile, was staring in horror at the cages. The older woman was as pale as Ronon and Teyla had ever seen her, and her eyes were red and puffy.  "Ancestor's blood," she swore.  Suddenly, Perrit rushed up to Teyla's cage, grabbing at the bars.

 

"I almost didn't dare to hope!" Perrit breathed. "You really are here!"  Suddenly, she grabbed the bar that Teyla had almost managed to saw off (Teyla hadn't been as quick as Ronon) and started to pull, bending it outwards. "We have to get you out of here!  You have to go help them!" 

 

Ronon's heart sank.  He didn't have to be told.  He just growled out a question. "Are they hurt?"

 

"Yes," Perrit nodded. "Colonel Sheppard, he...," she shivered, then started again. "Baylor has a weapon.  He can...I don't know what he can do.  He thinks he can create solid walls of air. I don't know if that is exactly what he's doing, but whatever it is—he nearly crushed Colonel Sheppard.  He also started to choke Doctor McKay.  He stopped, but..."  She looked between the cages, the pure honesty of her terror clear as she started yanking on the bar again. "He'll kill them! I know he will!  As soon as Rodney does what he wants, he'll just kill them and let the sands take them."  Tears started running down her face as she realized she wasn't getting anywhere with the unyielding metal, though she kept yanking, "You have to help me save them!"

 

"Perrit," Teyla said, reaching up to grab Perrit's hands around the bar she seemed determined to bend back—though it hadn't moved more than a millimeter. "Stop!  Listen—you have to get Commander Delian.  Tell him what has happened."

 

Perrit fell backwards instantly at the use of the Commander's name.  Her eyes brightening. "Yes! Of course!  Why didn't I think of that!"  She took a couple steps back, and Ronon could see she was still visibly trembling, her eyes too wide—he wondered if she was even fully conscious. "I'll get him now, I'll—"

 

“I already sent for help,” Jaquette said softly.  “I saw…,” she frowned, staring down at the floor at her dropped gun. “I saw one of Stella’s guards just before I saw Perry. I don’t know what he was looking for over here.  He just came out of nowhere.” She blinked slowly, lifting her head to peer at Perrit. “But he warned me you were coming, Perry.  Said you'd be with one of Baylor's men.  And then he asked if I needed help.” She blinked again, her face paling even further, fading to an almost sallow yellow. “I said yes, but instead of staying," she swallowed and bent over more, her eyes closing, "he ran off.  I guess...," she sniffed, "I guess he went to get help. To get Stella.”

 

“Stella?  But why send for Stella?” Perrit asked, obviously confused. “Why not Delian?”

 

Jaquette lifted her gaze to Perrit, and then, without warning, fell to her knees with a powerful groan of pain, her arms wrapping around her stomach

 

“Jaquette!”  Perrit dove for the other woman, catching Jaquette before she collapsed the rest of the way to the floor.  Her eyes widened as she saw something Teyla and Ronon couldn't on Jaquette's left side. “No," she hissed, "No, no, no. Why didn’t you say something?”  The question was almost inaudible, and Jaquette just gave a head shake in return. Perrit lifted part of the blonde woman's cloak, touching her hand to Jaquette’s side.  When she drew her hand back out, her fingers were dripping with blood...and Perrit froze, just staring down at the red liquid in horrified wonder. 

 

“Ambassador!” Teyla ordered sharply, “Listen to me—lie her on her back and put pressure on the wound—use your jacket. Hurry!”

 

Shaken from her reverie by Teyla's tone, Perrit didn’t question—she just tipped Jaquette onto her side and stretched her out.  The blonde woman muttered something, but Perrit told her to hush as she stripped off her navy colored cloak and pressed it against her wounded side.  Jaquette hissed loudly in pain, her legs pumping a little before settling.

 

"Sweet Shiveara," Perrit whispered as she looked down at Jaquette's tortured expression. "How did this happen?"

 

“How did it happen?” Teyla asked.  Ronon, meanwhile, had gone back to sawing at his cage bars.  He was working furiously now—they had to get out of here now, damn it!

 

“I, we…,” Perrit was shaking even more as she pulled the dark-navy scarf off her head, and used it to help bind her navy cloak to Jaquette’s bleeding side, “Baylor’s man was bringing me around the corner.  We saw Dawson,” Perrit spit the name, like it was a curse, “in the doorway.  He looked a little peaked, but since his shoulder was hidden partially by the door, I couldn’t tell why.  As we approached, my guard told Dawson to add me to the prisoners.  Dawson told him to do it himself, and he turned to walk down the hall.  My guard threw me after him, so I stumbled over the threshold.  I saw Jaquette out of the corner of my eye, hiding behind the door.  My guard followed me inside, and that was when Jaquette ordered him to drop his gun."  She shivered. "But he didn't drop it.  He fired at her…,” Perrit shivered. “Jaquette fired back.  He went down like a dead weight.  Jaquette had her back to the wall, just staring at him…He must of hit her, but she said nothing.  She just looked at me, and then started running down the hall. I followed.  We came here...”

 

“Where’d Dawson go?” Ronon asked then, looking out the door.

 

Perrit shook her head. “I don’t know."  She swallowed. " Foolish woman!" she admonished Jaquette, who now had her eyes closed, "what were you thinking?  I had no idea you were shot!  Jaquette, Jaquette,” Perrit cooed softly, sounding on the verge of tears, “my friend, why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“How bad is it?” Teyla asked, also back to working on her cage doors. 

 

Perrit shook her head, “I’m not a healer. I don’t know. I…I need to get her to a healer…”

 

Ronon glanced over at Teyla, seeing the frustrated expression in her gaze.  They needed to help Sheppard and McKay, which meant they needed Delian’s guards.  They also needed to get out of these cages.  And now Jaquette was injured, possibly dying.  Dawson was on the run—and could come back with more of Baylor’s men at any moment.  Worse, Jaquette had apparently called on the Vandan councilor Stella for help—someone that neither of them trusted and who seemed to hate the Atlantians with a passion…

 

Ronon worked even harder—he was almost there.  If he could get out and help Teyla, maybe they’d be free before Stella got here, or any more of Baylor’s men.  Or…

 

Footsteps ran down the hall towards them.  Perrit looked up at the doors, and they saw Jaquette’s head tip that way as well.  Teyla propped up her machine gun again. 

 

“Shut the door!” Teyla yelled, glancing at Ronon.  She could see he was almost free.  Perrit moved quickly, jumping up and slamming the iron door shut, then, after glancing around the room, grabbed one of the two chairs and propped it under the handle.  It wouldn’t hold for long but…

 

Bodies slammed heavily against the wood, and Dawson’s ferret like face suddenly appeared, peering through the small barred opening in the door.  His face was red, a mixture of sneering arrogance and anger.  Perrit fell backwards with a squeak, landing on the floor, and she crawled over to Jaquette, as if looking to shield the younger woman with her body.

 

“Ha! You think this will keep us out?” Dawson shouted as the door handle rattled against the chair. “This won’t hold! And when we get in there, we’ll kill—“

 

Teyla let loose a string of machine gun fire, and Dawson shrieked, his face disappearing from view.  Perrit screamed at the noise, covering Jaquette’s body with her own.

 

“Ambassador, get her to the side of the room, out of the line of fire!” Teyla ordered, still aiming her gun at the door. “Ronon!  How much longer?”

 

“Almost there,” the Satedan grunted, attacking the bottom of the last bar.  “I’ve almost…got it…”  As he worked, Perrit, shaking visibly with fear, got her arms under Jaquette’s and pulled the now completely unconscious woman over to the wall. She then moved to kneel in front of her.  Perrit had grabbed up Jaquette’s dropped gun when she moved the younger woman, and was now holding it between shaking hands and pointing it towards the door.

 

Ronon growled in fury, not stopping his sawing.  Just a few more seconds…

 

Something loud and heavy hit the cell door with a bang, shaking it.

 

And then it hit again, shaking the thick wood even more.  Stone dust shivered off the hinges and around the frame.

 

On the third blow, the chair slid down…then fell to the ground with a clatter.  Perrit whimpered and closed her eyes, raising the gun in her hands higher.

 

“Ha!” Ronon shouted, ripping the fifth bar free from the cage and throwing it across the room.  Grabbing at the remaining cage bars for leverage, he pushed his body sideways through the opening he'd created, landing heavily on the far side.  Grabbing up the machine gun he'd had, he whipped around as the door finally slammed open and men poured inside, guns raised. 

 

Ronon dove across the room, almost too fast to see, and threw himself bodily at the open door as if to shut it again.  The heavy wood slammed into three of Baylor’s men mid-entry, shoving them to the side and causing them to lose control of their weapons.  Ronon then threw the door open wide and two more men literally fell inside—they’d over-balanced themselves thinking they were going to have to push the door open again, and landed heavily on the stone floor. 

 

Teyla was merciless with her borrowed machine gun, taking down the three men from Ronon’s first parley, and then the two that followed without flinching.  Baylor's men never stood a chance.

 

No one followed immediately after, the remainder of Baylor’s men in the hallway having obviously seen what happened to the first five, and Ronon took advantage.  He rolled into the hallway and found himself facing eight more men. 

 

The surprise on their faces was clear, and before any of them even had the wherewithal to lift their weapons up, Ronon had smashed one into a wall, clubbed another in the face with his fist, and shot a third. 

 

Looking up, he saw Dawson and two more men running away down one direction of the long hallway.  Ronon fired a couple of shots after them, then turned to look in the other direction...

 

The burn of a bullet seared through his upper left shoulder like a hot poker, staggering him.  Roaring in pain, he fired blindly down the hall in the opposite direction from where Dawson had gone.  All he caught sight of was bits of cream linen ducking behind a corner.

 

More shots fired, this time from Dawson’s direction, hitting the wall by Ronon’s head, and the Satedan was forced to fall back into the room with Teyla and Perrit. 

 

He found Teyla still inside her cage, machine gun pointed at the door, a bleak expression on her face.  A glance showed she was unharmed, but she was a sitting duck inside there.  Perrit was up and working the hacksaw on the bars of Teyla’s cage, obviously trying to help her get out.  Jaquette's gun rested near the still out cold blonde councilor—Perrit had obviously never even fired it. .

 

One handed, Ronon grabbed the weapons of the men they’d killed, tossing them over to Teyla’s cell.  The Athosian pulled a couple inside, then returned to her guard of the door with her machine gun. 

 

Dawson and the rest of Baylor's men had stopped firing the moment Ronon rolled back into the room, but they were still obviously out there, probably trying to regroup. Ronon took advantage of the momentary stand-off to rip some fabric from the cloak of one of Baylor’s men and using it to wrap his shoulder.  The bullet had gone straight through—good if one wanted to avoid infection from a trapped bullet, bad if one couldn’t stop the blood loss. 

 

Tying the bandage as tightly as he dared, he grabbed up his weapon again—wishing it was his blaster—and went back to the door.  For a moment, he just waited, listening, then he turned and grabbed the back of one the men Teyla had killed, lifting him up by his jacket like a cat lifting a kitten. Getting a good grip with his good hand, he dragged the body to the door…then slowly peeked the body out into the hall, head first.

 

Gunfire exploded down the hallway from both directions, and he pulled the body back in.

 

Trapped. 

______________________________________________________

 

“Wake up!”

 

Rodney grunted, shaking his head as someone shoved hard at his side.  What?

 

“I said, wake up!  Now!”

 

The shove turned into a sharp slap across his face, and Rodney came fully awake with a start.  Blinking open sticky eyelids, he found himself sitting upright on the cart with his legs stretched out and leaning heavily into Colonel Sheppard.  He'd obviously had his head on the other man’s shoulder.  Embarrassed, he pulled away and tried to get his bearings. 

 

They were at the top of the canyon—how the hell had they gotten up here so fast?  It had taken...oh.  Oh God...the poor things! 

 

Heavy panting came from the front of the cart, and Rodney grimaced at the sight of four heavily lathered meeners with their heads down, the animal’s sides heaving.

 

That bastard!  Didn’t the hostler say not to bring the animals to the top?  Baylor obviously didn’t care, and had driven them the whole way up at a fairly high rate of speed.  It was amazing they weren’t dead!

 

He opened his mouth to say something scathing, but he was backhanded again sharply across the jaw.  He blinked some more, then stared up at the man who had hit him in fury.

 

“What the hell—?“

 

The thug hit him again, a cruel smile on his face.  “I said wake up, Outlander.  I didn’t say speak.”

 

“That’s enough, Les,” Baylor said from somewhere nearby, sounding bored. “Wake up the other one now.”

 

The thug snorted, stepping over Rodney’s legs to stand over Sheppard’s, obviously about to use the same method of waking him up by hitting him.

 

Rodney almost jumped out of his skin as Sheppard suddenly kicked up hard, catching the thug right in the balls. Another kick and the man was on his back.  Sheppard executed one of those insane moves where he pulled his bound hands forward under his legs, then leapt on top of the thug, reaching to grab for the downed man's gun.

 

White light flashed, and Rodney felt a blast of air rush past his face.  Horror filled him as Sheppard’s whole body went rigid, shivering against the intensity of the pressure of the Baylor’s weapon.  The colonel fell off them man he'd attacked, landing hard on his side, his face flooded with pain.

 

“Stop!” the scientist shouted, turning around.  Baylor was standing at the end of the cart, holding the amulet up in his hand. “Stop, for Christ’s sake, stop!  Please!”

 

The light from the amulet died down, and Sheppard went completely limp. 

 

Baylor turned a meaningful gaze on Rodney.  “He tries that again, I’ll kill him, and I’ll send my men back into the canyon to kill your friends.  Do you understand?”

 

Rodney stared for a moment, then nodded dumbly.

 

“Good,” Baylor said.  He stepped back. “Get out of the cart.  We’re not far from the pump, but I hate the sun and I want to be out of it as soon as possible.”

 

It was then that Rodney realized that, in fact, they were drenched in sunlight.  The canyon was still a dark shadow behind them, but the sun had risen over the horizon up here and was drowning them.  It was already hot. 

 

Grimacing again, he got to his knees and crawled over to Sheppard.  Hazel eyes blinked up at him, and the colonel smiled slightly.  What the...was he insane?

 

"You okay?" Rodney whispered, not hiding his worry.

 

Sheppard's smile widened. "Got my knife," he replied hoarsely.  It was so soft, Rodney almost didn't hear it.  The scientist snorted.

 

"You're certifiable, you know that?" he hissed under his breath. "All that for—"

 

“I said, out!” Baylor shouted, and Rodney jumped.  Shaking a little, he turned to look at Baylor.  The Guildmaster was pointing the amulet at him.  The scientist nodded once, and somehow got to his feet despite his hands still being bound.  Slowly, he tottered to the edge of the cart to jump off.

 

And that’s when someone shot him.

__________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: FINE LINE BETWEEN REBELS AND KILLERS

 

Heat seared his right shoulder, blanking out his mind momentarily of anything except the thought, "Shot! I've been shot!"  He rocked back on his right foot, and for a moment he thought he was going to fall backwards completely as he over-balanced.

 

Then something smacked into his lower back hard, and he was flying forward off the cart, hitting the sand-covered ground two feet below with bone-jarring force on his right side—his head bouncing off the sand.  "I've been shot" became replaced by, "Ow, my neck!" as two sets of feet landed near his head—one in light colored boots that took off running, and the other wearing black, U.S. Military style combat boots that shifted to point at him as their owner knelt down by his side.

 

“Come on! Come on!” Sheppard shouted at him, grabbing at his left sleeve and tugging hard. “Move!” 

 

It was then that Rodney realized that the world was alive with machine gun fire, the sound echoing like thunder in the already overheated air.  Bullets were sending up puffs of sand all around them, almost as if the desert was boiling.  Sheppard yelled at him again, and he followed in the direction of the insistent tugging, crawling and slithering along the packed-sand road to get under the shadow of the cart.  Apparently, the brake was still holding it in place, because he could see the meeners stomping the ground up front, but they weren’t going anywhere.  Or perhaps whoever was firing simply wasn’t aiming for them and they could tell.  Either way, the cart creaked and shifted slightly above their heads, but it didn’t move—small favors.

 

Sheppard shifted around to stare out the back, peering out at the sand dunes with a soldier’s eyes, looking for the source of the gunfire.  Baylor’s two men were firing wildly at sand dunes, trying to hit the obviously well-armed black spots popping up from behind them, but mostly they were just running—presumably in the direction of the canyon.  One of them had a long blood trail running down his leg.

 

“They’re not going to get far,” Sheppard muttered, his expression grim.

 

But Rodney wasn’t paying attention to them.  All he saw was Baylor.

 

The Guildmaster was lying on his back, coughing up blood, dark eyes blinking up at the lightening blue sky.  The front of the man’s linen cloak was wet with blood—he’d been the obvious first target, just as Dazy had been a week before. 

 

The death looked painful, something Rodney would never have wished on anyone, even someone as horrible as Baylor. 

 

The Guildmaster tipped his head, turning to look at Sheppard and Rodney under the cart.  His eyes pinched a little as a tear tracked down from his left eye, then softened as they met Rodney’s gaze.  The man’s right arm pointed at Rodney, then moved and pointed at something else. 

 

The blue amulet twinkled in the sunlight, pristine and perfect—and just inches from Baylor’s outstretched hand. 

 

He had obviously dropped it when he was hit, never even having a chance to use it.  The Guildmaster’s shaking fingers then scrambled at the sand towards the amulet, and his lips formed words as he continued to look at Rodney, trying to tell him something, but the scientist couldn’t make the words out.  

 

“There goes one,” Sheppard muttered tonelessly, and Rodney turned his head.  The colonel was squinting into the distance, and Rodney looked in the same direction. 

 

One of Baylor’s men was down.  The other was staggering, blood all over his light colored clothes.

 

Bile rose in his throat.  He couldn’t watch.  Even after three years, he couldn't get used to seeing it.

 

Forcing down a shudder, his eyes returned to the Guildmaster, wondering how the Lycastee—because it was obviously them—had hit Baylor so accurately, but missed him.  Baylor was still trying to say something, his expression tightening even as it lost all its color.  Blood was staining the sand beneath his body, leaking out of him like a sieve.  It was amazing he wasn’t already dead.

 

And for some inexplicable reason, Rodney felt like he had to do something to help him, to stop Baylor from dying. He just couldn’t let the man die like that.  The amulet was only about a foot away from the end of the cart—maybe if he could get to it…

 

He started to crawl forward, and felt Sheppard shift next to him.

 

“Stop!” the colonel hissed, grabbing at his sleeve. “Don’t! Not yet. Wait until they’ve killed the other one.  They’ll come for us soon enough.”

 

“But—“

 

“There,” Sheppard said the word with finality, and Rodney looked across the sands.  Baylor’s other man was down. 

 

The gunfire stopped.

 

And, for a moment, everything seemed to pause.  The strong winds of Orkidia became the only noise, filling their ears with a constant thrum.  Even the meeners had stopped raving, settling where they were. 

 

Baylor’s eyes closed in the strange silence, and his body gave one last shiver.  Rodney shut his as well, and lowered his head to the sand.

 

“You’re bleeding,” Sheppard said quietly, worry bleeding through his tone as he shifted closer to Rodney. “They hit you?”

 

Rodney frowned, as surprised by the statement as Sheppard seemed to be, mainly because he’d actually forgotten. When he lifted his head again, he saw that the Colonel was staring at his right shoulder.  Frowning, Rodney shifted to try and see what he was looking at. 

 

Oddly, he couldn’t see anything.  His shoulder hurt, but not badly.  He could feel the wetness tricking down his arm, but the vest was in the way. 

 

Of course, that didn't stop him from suddenly feeling incredibly woozy.  Shot! He'd been shot!

 

"I..."  He frowned, trying to sit up to see it better, and knocking his head on the underside of the cart.  "Ow," he muttered.

 

“Let me do it.” Sheppard grabbed at Rodney’s vest with his bound hands and pulled the other man up, until he was almost in a sitting position under the cart, head bent at an awkward angle.  The colonel then pulled at the fabric on Rodney’s right sleeve, and grimaced.  “I think it’s just a graze,” he said softly. “Probably a ricochet of one meant for Baylor or his men.  It needs to be bandaged though.”

 

Rodney swallowed thickly, then frowned, pessimism settling over him like an old well-worn cloak. "What's the point?" he said sourly. "We're unarmed and sitting ducks under here. There's nothing to stop the Lycastee from walking over here and shooting us both dead." 

 

"Maybe," Sheppard said, looking out again at the sand. 

 

"Oh, please," Rodney sighed, "you see another way out this?"

 

Sheppard shook his head, frowning.  "We're not dead yet," he said quietly.

 

Rodney rolled his eyes.  However true that fact was now, he knew it wouldn't be for long.  No, there was no way out.

 

Except....Rodney turned, searching for the amulet.  His eyes widened when he saw that it was gone.  What the...?  He looked at Baylor, but the man didn't appear to have moved. So, where...?

 

He started inching forward again, needing to find the blue amulet. It was their only chance. 

 

“Wait, Rodney,” Sheppard had his hands on his sleeve again.

 

“But I need to get—“

 

“Let me go out first.”

 

Rodney swallowed, but didn’t disagree.

 

Sheppard gave him a tight smile, then said, “Look, it’ll be okay.  I think.  If they’d wanted to kill us, they easily could have.  I’m pretty sure they want to talk to us first.  Maybe we can stall long enough to give us a chance to escape.”

 

Rodney just stared at him.  Sheppard grimaced.  Then, without another word, the colonel crawled out from under the cart and got to his feet, moving to stand a little in front of Baylor’s still bleeding body, holding up his bound hands up before him to show he was defenseless.

 

When no one shot the colonel, Rodney crawled out after him, his progress less than graceful since his arms were still behind his back.  He crawled on his knees over to Baylor first, and leaned over to see if the Guildmaster was still alive.  He'd felt sure the man was dead, but the amulet couldn't have just—

 

Baylor's eyes flew open and he lurched at Rodney, his left hand grabbing at Rodney’s vest.  The scientist flinched back with a shout, but Baylor held on, gripping with what was obviously the last of his strength.  Sheppard twisted, but did nothing once he realized Baylor had stopped moving—the Guildmaster was experiencing death shakes as he peered up at the scientist, black eyes focused squarely on blue. Rodney's eyes widened slightly as Baylor’s started to whisper.

 

“Use it,” Baylor whispered, the voice almost inaudible. Rodney frowned, then his eyes widened as he felt something slipped into his pants pocket. "Save....save—"  Baylor head suddenly went taut, his neck muscles bunching, eyes bulging. A choked sound, and the Guildmaster slumped backwards, eyes rolling upwards towards at the blue sky.  He sneered softly at the heavens…

 

And the dark eyes glazed over. 

 

Swallowing, Rodney leaned back and, for a moment, just stared. 

 

"Rodney," Sheppard whispered, causing the scientist to look up.  The colonel gestured at him to stand up with a jerk of his head.  With a sigh, Rodney clumsily got his feet under him.  With a bowed head, he stepped over Baylor's body to stand at Sheppard’s side.  He knew the amulet was in his pocket now.  Problem was, he couldn’t reach it with his hands bound.  If he told Sheppard to get it—they’d probably be shot the moment the colonel tried.  He sighed.

 

“Now, what?” he asked softly.

 

“Looks like we talk,” Sheppard answered, causing Rodney to finally lift his head.  At least a dozen black-clad soldiers had surrounded them on all sides, climbing over the sand dunes they had used as cover, closing the distance quickly.  A few led meeners—guess Baylor wasn’t the only one to have used the animals to get up here quickly.  

 

One of the black-clad warriors strode in front of the others, tall and straight-backed.  Stopping only a couple of feet from the two Atlantians, he pushed back the black hood to reveal silver hair and creepily cold eyes. Oddly, Rodney found it strange that he wasn’t surprised.  Sheppard was right—it was always the one you suspected the least.  And none of them had ever considered it might be him.  Of all the names they bandied around the night before in Sheppard's room, his was the only one they hadn't brought up.

 

“Colonel Sheppard,” Commander Delian said, his mouth set in a grim line, “Doctor McKay. Whether you believe it or not, I did not want it to end this way.” Delian then looked over their shoulders at something, and before either man could say anything, their heads were grabbed and pungent cloths covered their mouths.

 

After that, everything went black.

__________________________________________________

 

The silence was almost oppressive, broken only by Jaquette's ragged, uneven breathing and Ronon's pacing.  Perrit had given up trying to saw through Teyla's cage bars, and had returned to check on Jaquette, trying to make the younger woman more comfortable.  Teyla kept her weapon trained on the door, rather than let up her guard by trying to get through the bars herself.  She knew as well as Ronon that she would be a ridiculously easy target for anyone coming through the door unless she could fire first.  She barely allowed herself to blink, just waited.

 

Ronon stopped to listen at the door for the second time in so many minutes, closing his eyes, clearly trying to anticipate anyone moving down the hall towards them.  It was all about who could catch who first in this game—and Teyla knew he wasn't about to let them be the prey.

 

"Someone has to do something," Perrit breathed out, her eyes finding first Teyla's, then Ronon's.  "Jaquette...I don't think she..."  She trailed off, scrunching her eyes closed. "Ancestor's blood, why did she have to get involved in this?"

 

"Quiet," Ronon snarled coldly, pacing again. "I need to listen."

 

Perrit opened her mouth as if to retort to the harsh command, but then closed her mouth.  She gave a quiet nod, her eyes more inward looking than outward, and turned back to taking care of Jaquette.  Teyla grimaced, but didn't deny Ronon his anger.  They all felt it.

 

But she knew Perrit cared greatly for Jaquette, and had obviously loved her son deeply.  Her distress for John and Rodney was also clearly genuine.   

 

No, Perrit was on their side right now, and she would do what she could to protect her.  Assuming she could protect anyone trapped inside this stupid cage.

 

Ronon abruptly froze in place, his superior hearing obviously alerting him to something.  Teyla's arms tightened on the machine gun as he frowned and moved closer to the door.

 

Suddenly, gunfire exploded down the hall, loud and powerful. Teyla saw Perrit jump about a foot as she whirled around to face the door.  In contrast, Ronon stayed exactly where he was, head cocked, listening.

 

"Lay down your weapons!" a woman's voice ordered from somewhere down the hall, commanding and fierce.  Ronon's head lifted, turning to look at Teyla.

 

"Stella," Perrit said wonderingly, standing up to face the door.

 

"I said, lay them down, now!" Stella's voice rang again. "Or his throat will be slit!  NOW!"

 

Ronon's eyebrows lifted up high, and he looked back at the door.  Teyla was sure that he, as she did, had thought Stella's order was meant for them.  Apparently, it was meant for Dawson and the rest of Baylor's men.

 

A moment passed, then there was a clatter, as if weapons were dropped to the ground.

 

"Take them away, Cather.  The jail in the Dendrobia will do until they can be arraigned and sent to Vanda."

 

"Yes, ma'am," a man's voice answered. 

 

Ronon moved up to stand next to the open door as footsteps then approached the stone room, and stopped just outside.

 

"Councilor Jaquette, Councilor Perrit and Outlanders, if you are in there, this is Councilor Stella. Do not fire."

 

Ronon set his jaw, looking to Teyla.  The Athosian kept her weapon trained at the door, but gave a single nod.

 

"Come in," she called.

 

"That would be the Outlander Teyla, yes?" Stella's voice called, sounding less than thrilled. "If you do not mind, I would rather hear that from Councilor Jaquette."

 

"She..."  Perrit's voice was a croak, so she swallowed before calling again, "Jaquette can't...Stella, she's been shot.  She needs a healer."

 

There was silence, then, "Oh, this is absurd.  I'm coming in.  You shoot me, you're shooting an unarmed woman." 

 

And, like that, Vandan Councilor Stella swept into the room, followed by about four others, all dressed in head to toe black.  Stella herself wore all black, except that her face was uncovered, the same haughty, strong, and cold face that had greeted them hours before, except this time the disdain was even more obvious.  Despite her shorter stature, she clearly commanded great loyalty from those with her, their deference clear in the way they stood. 

 

Ronon had backed up to stand between Teyla and Perrit, his weapon pointed at them, but he didn't fire.  Neither did Teyla.  They just waited.

 

Stella's icy eyes passed over them, then turned to Perrit.  The Ambassador's eyes were wide and huge as she stared first at the black-clad warriors, then at the Vandan Councilor...and her expression turned furious.

 

"Lycastee," she hissed. "You're...you're the leader of the Lycastee." 

 

Stella inclined her head.  "Yes."

 

"MURDERER!" Perrit screamed, throwing herself at the other woman.

________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THEIR REAL FACES

 

A sea of black interrupted Perrit's mad attack, but the woman barely seemed to notice.  It was like watching soldiers on a battlefield attempting to hold back a berserker—nothing was more vicious than a mother who had lost her son.  Nothing.

 

"I did not kill Dazy, you fool!" Stella yelled angrily, the woman's chin raised high, casting long shadows down on her sharply angled face. "Listen to me, Perrit!  The Lycastee did not kill anyone!  They are not killers!"

 

But Perrit was beyond hearing, ripping at faces and clawing at clothes, trying to get through to Stella and, from the looks of it, tear the small woman to shreds.

 

A loud gunshot suddenly echoed through the room, and Perrit stopped.  So did everyone else.  All heads turned towards Jaquette, who had obviously been brought back to consciousness by the screaming and had fired her small gun at the ceiling.  Her face was ashen, blonde hair matted and glued to her head with sweat, but her expression was stern.

 

"She's right, Perrit," the blonde councilor whispered hoarsely. "Stella didn't kill anyone.  Ancestor's blood, woman, open your eyes for once!" She inhaled a liquid breath. "The Lycastee have never killed, why would they start now?  They make fools of us, sure, and they agitate, but they do not murder.  Only his soldiers know how to do that without fear."  She coughed harshly then, falling back against the wall, "Open your eyes, Perry."  She sniffed, closing her eyes. "And listen to Stella.  She a truthsayer, always has been." She seemed to fade then, as if she'd used the last of her energy. "Just listen to her."

 

Perrit stared at Jaquette, breathing heavily as she absorbed the words that had been bluntly thrown at her.  When she didn't seem about to attack Stella again, the arms that had been holding the Ambassador in place fell away, releasing her.

 

Perrit turned slowly to face the Vandan Councilor, her eyes catching Stella's hard expression, studying the younger woman with the eyes of a person at sea.  Stella met the gaze for a moment, then turned to one of her guards.

 

"Bonner," she said calmly, "go fetch the Dendrobian's main healer and as much of her staff as she has with her, and tell her to hurry. Inform her that the Dendrobian Councilor has been shot and needs immediate attention."  The guard nodded and took off at a run. Stella turned to another of her guards. "Lily, take care of the Councilor until she gets here—do everything you can."  The second guard nodded and slid between Ronon and Perrit, settling herself next to Jaquette and lying her down.

 

When Stella returned her attention to Perrit, the Ambassador was standing tall, her head lifted.

 

"She called you truthsayer," Perrit said. "What is the truth then, Stella?  Who killed my son?"

 

"You already know, Ambassador," Stella replied brutally, "though you have feigned blindness for twenty years.  And the truly terrible thing is, I think the only reason you're not dead as well is that, for some unknown reason, he's in love with you." She snorted, the tone mocking. "It didn't save your son, though, did it?"

 

Perrit stared for a moment longer, just breathing this in.  Finally, she closed her eyes. 

 

"Delian," she whispered.

 

Stella's answering gaze could have cut glass. "You made your son a target the moment you started on the plan to bring in the Outlanders, Ambassador.  The sabotage was bad enough, but involving them...." Stella shook her head. "Of course he acted.  He killed your son for the same reason he killed all those others, and you've known what he has been doing for years.  And you allowed it to happen."

 

"We all did," Jaquette pressed, her voice a thread of its former power. "You didn't stop him either, Stella."

 

"Not for lack of trying!" Stella barked at Jaquette. "But none of you listened! Always outvoted! Always overruled! It's why we need a real leader, one who can act to remove cancers like Commander Delian!"

 

"No," Jaquette coughed again, "you had no proof.  We couldn't know. I only guessed after Delian blamed the Lycastee for that attack a week ago..."

 

"We knew.  She knew," Stella stared at Perrit, who fell back under the face of the gaze, running into the stone wall behind her. "She may even have helped." Stella looked back at Jaquette. "Well there's proof now.  He exposed himself the moment that cretin impersonated my Lycastee in case he failed in his actions, threatening to destroy all we have tried to achieve."  She lifted her chin again. "Those were his soldiers who died trying to kill the Outlanders—he can dress them in black, but they are still his.  A look at the rolls at the military complex should make it apparent."

 

"Delian," Perrit whispered again, covering her face with her hands.  She slid down the wall until she was sitting in a tight ball, pressing her covered face into her bent knees.  She was shaking. 

 

Stella just shook her head in disgust, then turned once more to Jaquette.  The hardness left her face, then, replaced by genuine concern.  Teyla and Ronon both loosened their hold on their weapons, lowering them.

 

"You're a mess, Jacq," Stella said softly. The blonde woman just gave a weak smile, her eyes barely open as she looked up at the other woman.

 

"Got...a bit shot," Jaquette admitted weakly, "trying to save them."  She waved a hand towards Ronon and the still caged Teyla.

 

Stella looked almost as if she would smile back, but then her mask slid back on. Taking in a deep breath, she looked at Ronon, then to Teyla. The Athosian straightened a little as Stella studied the cage and the lock.  She pointed at it. "Is that Dazy's technology?"

 

Teyla frowned in confusion, but gave a nod. "That was the impression we were given, yes."

 

"Good, then this should work."  Stella reached inside her black jacket and pulled out a chain, at the end of which was a small black, rectangular card. "Dazy made me a set of keyless locks for my office," she said. "I'm assuming Baylor stole the technology, which means the mechanism should be identical.  He isn't intelligent enough to know how to change it."  She pointed the card at the cage...and the lock gave a soft click.  Teyla stared at the door, then shoved it open.  She smiled, looking across at Stella with a grateful smile as she stepped out into the room, rolling her shoulders as if she'd just been freed from a straight-jacket. 

 

"Thank you," she said.

 

"I did not do it for you," Stella replied coolly. "I just want you and the rest of your people out of Orkidia, the faster the better."

 

"You and me both," Ronon growled in agreement.

 

Stella regarded the Satedan, craning her neck a little when he stepped closer to her, then gave him a small, dry smile.  Teyla cleared her throat.

 

"Speaking of our friends," she said, "we need to find them. Do you—"

 

"Baylor has them," Stella replied, her eyes narrowed again. "Presumably, he has taken them to the Dendrobian Pump.  I hope he isn't too disappointed when he gets there," she said nastily, "once he discovers that your so-called Doctor McKay is just a—"

 

"No, Stella," Jaquette whispered, opening her eyes again. "Rodney....Saw with...own eyes."  She hissed in a pained breath, and coughed.

 

Stella frowned, staring at Jaquette, confusion on her face for the first time.  "What are you talking about? He's—"

 

"Smart," Jaquette whispered, her eyes closed again, the smile still on her face. "He's so...so smart, Stella...Never met anyone so..."  She trailed off again, her face scrunching with pain as he breathing grew even more ragged.  

 

Stella just snorted. "Nonsense.  He's a charlatan, Jaquette.  You just fell for his—"

 

"McKay is no charlatan!" Ronon growled. "And neither are any of the rest of us.  We are not the liars here."

 

Stella smiled up at the Satedan, "Oh, and I should just take your word for that, Outlander?"

 

"No," Teyla said, "but you can not deny the simple fact that, one week ago, with Dazy already dead, Doctor McKay made your water pump impregnable in just seconds, all by himself." Her eyebrows lifted. "Do you honestly believe Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard survived that attack a week ago by chance?" 

 

Stella frowned, turning to look at Perrit, her jaw muscles tensing and loosening.  When she turned her gaze back to Teyla, it was if she were truly seeing her for the first time.

 

"You are wrong about us, Councilor," Teyla said then. "We are not the ones hiding behind masks. We came here for one reason—to help you. To fix your water pump and to help her," she pointed at Perrit, "find the man who killed her son." Her eyes narrowed, "And now our teammates are in danger because of your people's corruption and greed."  She took a step closer to Stella, ignoring the way the Councilor's Lycastee guards stepped in closer as well. "So you tell me, Councilor, is there any reason why we shouldn't return home and tell our leader to bring our full arsenal down on top of your heads?  Because, believe me, we will stop at nothing to rescue our friends."   

 

Stella's eyes hardened. "Is that a threat?"

 

Teyla inclined her head. "If anything happens to John and Rodney?  Yes."

 

Stella's frown deepened.  Finally, she opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off as footsteps clattered down the hall, and a tall woman dressed all in green pushed into the room, followed by several others.  They descended on Jaquette, nearly knocking over Perrit in the process.  Orders for medicines were demanded and bandages pulled from packs.

 

Stella grimaced, watching the healers work for a moment, then turned back to Teyla.

 

"I will help you rescue your men," she said. "But not because you threatened me." She gave a shrug, "Because you're right. This is our mess, and it's time we cleaned it up."

______________________________________________________

 

Waking up this time wasn't any more pleasant than the last, the only difference being, this time, the slap was delivered by a woman.

 

"Ow!" Rodney tried to draw his head away, and immediately regretted it as his vision swam.  He blinked a few times, then glared up at the black-clad soldier staring down at him. She was dark, from her clothes to her hair to the blackness of her pupils as she met his glare.  He didn't recognize her, but he recognized the look in her eyes—it was the same as the woman who had killed herself throwing herself at the shield.

 

"What the hell is it with you people and slapping across the face?" he spat, struggling into a sitting position, frustrated at the discovery that his hands were still bound behind his back. "Is it a some sort of compulsion?" he asked her. "Some way to cover your obvious mental deficiency?  What?"

 

It just earned him another slap, nearly forcing him to eat sand again, and he breathed through the burn on his cheek. 

 

"Great," he muttered. "Just great." When he looked up at her again, the force of his glare was enough to cause her to move back a step. "I think you've established you can beat up someone with their hands behind their back now," he snarled. "Well done."

 

Her eyebrow tweaked, sneering down at him. "And yet," she said, her voice oddly hollow, "you are still talking."

 

His eyes narrowed, and she smiled, raising her hand again. When he said nothing, she lowered the hand.

 

“The Commander has some questions for you,” she told him. She then looked to Rodney’s right, “For both of you.”  Rodney turned to see Sheppard kneeling in the sand by his side, the colonel’s hands now bound behind his back like McKay’s. Blood dribbled down the man’s bruised chin from a split lip—Rodney wondered how many hits Sheppard had taken.

 

"Peachy," Sheppard said. “Looking forward to it.” 

 

The woman inclined her head to him, then turned and walked away, leaving them alone for the time being.

 

Sheppard glanced at Rodney, his expression grim. He looked pale and red faced at the same time, which couldn't be good, especially not with the sun beating down on them.  Then again, Rodney didn't feel so hot himself.  His stomach felt like someone had used it as a punching bag while he was out. 

 

Blowing out a slow breath, he looked around at their surroundings.  And then started to breathe a little faster, absorbing the horror of just how screwed they were.

 

Sand. Nothing but sand. Endless dunes of sand.

 

“Oh God,” he moaned softly.

 

There wasn’t a single distinguishing landmark anywhere in sight. Where they had been before, they’d had the packed sand road under their feet, the Hitchcockian figure in the distance, a few mesas, even the shiny glint of one of the pumps winking over one of the dunes, to guide them.  Here, there was nothing.  Where the hell were they?  Oh God, oh God...

 

He felt his heart speed up, and the wooziness from before hit again.  What were they going to do? His breath quickened even more, sucking in the dry, sand tinged air, and the sun suddenly seemed to grow much hotter. Screwed…so, so screwed….

 

"Hey," Sheppard called, eyeing him worriedly. "Hey, stop that. I think you've given new meaning to the term, ashen-faced."

 

Rodney looked askance at the Colonel, and he knew his fear was clear on his face when Sheppard grimaced. “I can’t,” Rodney admitted wobbly.

 

“Yes, you can,” Sheppard insisted. “You can.  Come on, it’s okay.  We’ll be okay. Don’t freak out.”

 

"Don’t freak out," Rodney repeated, not hiding the shake in his voice. "Don't freak out? Let’s see.  I've been strangled, beaten up, chloroformed and, oh yeah, shot, within the last few hours.  And now I'm kneeling in the middle of a desert that makes the Sahara look like a Pebble Beach sand-trap." He glanced askance at Sheppard. "I’d say that entitles me to a little freaking out, don’t you?"

 

The colonel gave a wry smile. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I doubt it was chloroform.  Just this world's version thereof."

 

"Oh yeah, that so helps," Rodney said, his eyes narrowing slightly.

 

Sheppard smiled some more, "Plus that bullet only grazed you. It’s already stopped bleeding."

 

Rodney frowned, and looked down at his arm.  The vest was still in the way, though it had been opened as if someone had gone through the pockets—still, huh, they hadn’t taken their vests.  That’s odd.

 

“And,” Sheppard continued, “at least you can't add nearly crushed to death three times by an amulet to that list. I’m still not sure all my bones aren’t broken.”

 

Rodney's jaw shifted, and he rolled his eyes. "Yes, okay, fine. You win in the 'my pain is worse than your pain sweepstakes'.” He shook his head, not about to admit that, weirdly, Sheppard had made him feel better.  Jerk.  He frowned angrily, “Can we get serious, now?  How are you going to get us out of this?"

 

Sheppard snorted. "Me? Why not you?"

 

"Hey, standing in the middle of a room surrounded by fantastic technology, then it'd be me.  But sitting in the middle of a desert surrounded by nothing but ninjas and sand?  That's all you.  Besides," he shrugged, "it's your turn."

 

"How you figure?"

 

"I got Baylor to stop crushing you back in the Council Chambers.  Now you can stop Delian from shooting me.  Seems fair. I stopped the mad scientist. You stop the military despot."

 

Sheppard just chuckled weakly, then visibly winced, sucking a breath to cover his obvious pain.

 

Rodney's whole demeanor changed, worry swiftly overcame anger. "What's wrong?  You okay?"

 

"Yeah," Sheppard replied, letting out a slow breath. "Just need to get my breath back.  Feels like they tried to pulverize my abs.  Took a few hits before you woke up, because they caught me trying to get something out of your vest before you woke up."

 

Rodney didn't reply, just made sure that Sheppard wasn't downplaying how much pain he was in, watching his face for the truth.  When the other man didn't seem to show any new signs of hurt, he relaxed slightly.

 

"What?" he asked.

 

Sheppard frowned at him, "What, 'what'?"

 

Rodney rolled his eyes, "What were you trying to get out of my vest?"

 

"Oh. Nothing," the colonel smiled softly, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Something had fallen out of your pants pocket when they dropped you there. I didn't have time to do more than push some sand over it when they grabbed me. It's somewhere under you now, I think." Sheppard glanced around, "I covered by trying to pretend I was going for your radio—and got punched a few times."

 

Rodney stared at him a moment, then frowned. "So they don't have it?"

 

"No.  Can you locate it?"

 

Rodney shifted, wincing as aches and pains tried to catch his breath.  His fingers scrabbled at the sand, but came up blank.  He didn't have any idea where it was.  He needed to actually look for the amulet with his eyes—which, of course, he couldn't without giving it away.  He shook his head at Sheppard. "Sorry."

 

"Just keep trying whenever they're not looking," the other man replied.  "Which isn't now."  Because several guards were looking at them, having obviously seen Rodney moving around.  They stared, and Rodney shivered a little despite the building heat.  He had rarely seen expressions that cold.  Wraith, when they stared you down, just looked hungry.  The Genii looked greedy. The Asurans looked irate.  These men and women—they were just cold.

 

"So," Rodney prompted, trying to appear meek now beneath that glare, "You have a plan?"

 

Sheppard glanced at him again, a frown on his face. "Other than you finding the amulet, I've two plans."

 

"Which are?"

 

"First, try to talk to Delian, understand what all this is about.  Maybe get him to let us go."

 

Rodney turned to look at where Delian was talking to some of his black-clad soldiers about ten feet away, including the woman.  There were about eight of them, all told.  They all had meeners with them now—which meant they had probably ridden here.  Which also explained why their stomachs hurt so much—they must have been thrown over the meeners' backs like sacks of grain.  He noticed two of Delian’s men were going through a pile of items that had been pulled from their vest pockets, tossing around the bits of technology like a salad. He grimaced at the treatment of his scanner, which was thrown next to his upended and discarded pack.  Presumably, they’d gone through his equipment in that already.

 

"Just on the off chance your first plan doesn't, you know, go so well," Rodney said, drawing in another slow breath, "what's the second plan?"

 

"Pray that Elizabeth sends another Jumper through before it's too late, to save our asses."

 

Without thinking, Rodney looked up at the cloudless blue sky, just in case their prayers were answered early.

 

They weren't. 

 

With a sigh, he lowered his head and looked once more over at Delian.  The Commander was watching them now, his eyes narrowed slightly.  He saw the man glance up at the sky, clearly aware of what Rodney was hoping to see up there, then down again.  The potential threat seemed to galvanize Delian, cutting off the soldier he had been talking with to walk towards them.

 

"Stand up," Delian said, stopping a couple feet away from the two kneeling men.

 

Sheppard's jaw tensed, but he clearly thought this wasn't the fight to have, because he slowly got to his feet.  Rodney watched the painful looking maneuver, grimaced, and, even more slowly—because using his abdominal muscles hurt damn it—he managed to stand up next to the Colonel (and somehow managed not to look down for the amulet in the process, though he had come very close to giving it away). 

 

Delian nodded at them, as if nodding at a pair of obedient puppies, but before he could say anything else—Sheppard spoke.

 

"I need some answers."

 

Delian actually paused, obviously surprised. “You need answers?” he asked, his tone incredulous.

 

“You are obviously the leader of the Lycastee, the one who had Dazy killed and tried to kill us as well,” Sheppard said. “I think we have a right to know why.”

 

Delian's curled his lip at the Colonel, then offered a head shake. "First of all, these are not the Lycastee, Colonel. These are my men—the elite guard of Orkidia.  We simply borrowed the garb of the Lycastee in order to keep our work from being interfered with by the Council." 

 

Sheppard snorted, "So, what, your own private army?"

 

Delian gave a shrug, "They are not mine. They are Orkidia’s. They merely follow me."

 

Sheppard's eyes narrowed, "If you say so."

 

Delian's teeth gritted momentarily, then he was smiling again.  "I never lied to you, Colonel.  I do not want to rule Orkidia; I do not want to be their leader.  That is not what this is about.” 

 

"Then what is it about?" Rodney asked.

 

Delian tilted his head towards McKay. "It's about protecting Orkidia, Doctor McKay.  About keeping this place and its people safe.”

 

“Safe from what?” Sheppard asked, his tone dry.

 

“Safe from everything that threatens it,” Delian replied coldly, turning to look at the Colonel. “And right now,” the man's eyes narrowed, “that means you.”

 

“Us?” Rodney repeated. “What did we do?”

 

Delian stared at him a moment, then turned his gaze to Sheppard, as if he didn't think McKay worthy. “Understand, Colonel, Orkidia is fragile.  It cannot sustain a large population—it barely sustains the one we have.  If one pump were to fail, a third of our population would have to leave—and no one ever wants to leave.  So we keep our birthrates low—no more than two children per family—and anyone who wants or has more than two is banished.  We allow no immigration, and refuse all those seeking asylum.  It’s why we allow so few visitors.  And never, under any circumstances—“

 

“Would you provide sanctuary,” Sheppard finished. “Which you must know is what Perrit offered us in return for our help.”

 

Delian gave a shrug, as if that didn’t matter. “We cannot provide sanctuary to anyone, Colonel. And never to a people as advanced as yours.”

 

“Why not?” Rodney asked, finally lifting his head, his tone honestly curious. “What’s wrong with being advanced?”

 

“Please,” Delian sneered, “and how long would it take for you to overpower us?  For you to use your technology against us?  For you to use our technology against us?  After all,” his eyes narrowed, “haven’t you already done so?”

 

Rodney’s expression was genuinely confused, “What?”

 

“He means the water pump, Rodney,” Sheppard said. “He thinks we helped sabotage it.”

 

“But, we didn’t! That’s—“

 

“Oh, enough dissembling,” Delian snapped. “You already threatened the life of one of the pumps, taking a part from it and insisting you have to return to replace it.  And perhaps, when you do, another part will break, and you’ll need to replace that as well.  And so on…How long before we become so dependant on your expertise that we could not withstand a true take-over?”

 

Rodney’s brow furrowed with anger at the accusation, face flushing with indignation. “How could you even think that we’d do—“

 

“Don’t bother,” Sheppard interrupted, shaking his head. “Delian made up his mind about us before we even set foot here.”  He arched an eyebrow at the Commander, "Didn't you?"

 

"You think I didn't have your people checked out, Colonel?" Delian said, his tone betraying that what Sheppard said was true.  "We asked about you in the markets.  You're homeless, are you not?  You destroyed Atlantis.  Now you seek another protective haven—but you're not going to come here and destroy ours."  He took another step forward, leaning over to stare directly at the colonel. “I will not allow it.”  His eyes narrowed to slits. “Now, you're going to answer some of my questions.  How badly have you sabotaged the pumps?  Who else are you working with?  Is anyone else from the Council is involved besides Perrit?" 

 

Sheppard just stared back at the Commander, his eyes betraying nothing.

 

Delian's lips curled. "What was your plan, Colonel?  Obviously Baylor was not on your side, but what about Jaquette? Stebbins? Stella?"

 

Sheppard just shook his head.  Delian's jaw tensed.

 

"No, I can't see any of them falling for you—except possibly the mercurial Jaquette.  So how were you going to gain control if not through the council?  Just through control of the water pumps?"  His eyes narrowed, "Or perhaps through our shield and weapon?  Is that why you're really here? To steal it from us? To find a way to control it? You knew it was housed in the Council Chamber, didn't you?  Leading me there as if you were looking for your teammates. You think I didn't see right through that façade?  Guessed you were really trying to get me to give you uninhibited access? Well, I didn't fall for it.  But then Perrit took you straight to it, didn't she?  That stupid, fool of a woman."

 

Sheppard's eyes were narrowed slightly, letting Delian work his way through his anger. Rodney watched the back and forth, waiting for Sheppard to start defending them. He was starting to boil, and Sheppard had to know his anger would explode soon enough.  And he was more than happy to let it—because it was becoming increasingly clear that Delian was going to deserve it.

 

"And what about Baylor's weapon?" Delian asked then. "Where is it?  What is it?  We found nothing on his body, other than the Cattleyan Green Amulet.  Is it in that pile over there?"  He pointed at the pile of technology taken from McKay. "Tell me!"

 

Sheppard stayed silent a moment longer, then, slowly, raised his head to stare down at Delian.

 

“You know, you really fooled me,” the Colonel said. “I thought Dazy was good, with his dumb, sweet scientist act, but I really bought you as a good man.  Never once did I see you as mad, or consider you to be a murderer.”

 

Delian huffed, starting at Sheppard with contempt. “Murderer?” he asked. “You dare accuse me of—?”

 

“You killed an unarmed man.  Shot him in the back, and tried to kill us as well without giving us a chance to defend ourselves.”  Sheppard's eyes narrowed, “What would you call it?”

 

“Unarmed,” Delian snorted, “please.  Dazy may have not had a gun, but he was far from unarmed.  Tell me, Colonel Sheppard, this man who stands by your side—how many people has he killed with that science of his, hmm?  How many worlds has he destroyed, without ever having lifted a gun?” 

 

“None,” Sheppard replied without hesitation, though Rodney had gone very still at the accusation. “He saves lives, Commander, he doesn’t take them.  Unlike you, he really is a good man.”

 

“Then you are blind, Colonel,” Delian snapped, “and a liar.  Unlike Stella, who believes you to be mere actors purchased by Perrit for show, I saw what the two of you were capable of.  I was here, you remember, when my men threw themselves at the shield that you,” he glared at McKay, who just frowned in return, “had changed into a deathtrap. My men had the Vandan Amulet, but it didn't work, because you somehow caused the pump’s shield to reject it.  You shot at people who couldn’t shoot back.  My people never stood a chance.”

 

Sheppard didn’t hide his surprise. “Your people never stood a chance?” he snarled. “Your people fired at us without warning!  They shot Dazy in the back! It was by sheer luck that I wasn’t killed as well before McKay was able to change that shield’s matrix, or we would have been the ones lying dead without ever having seen what hit us.  Where was our chance, Delian?  Where was Dazy’s?  How dare you twist what happened and blame us for defending ourselves against your kamikazes?”

 

“You fired when they couldn’t—“

 

“They could have left!  As soon as they knew Rodney had made that shield impregnable, they should have left!  But they didn’t.  They chose their fate, something we weren’t given the opportunity to do.”  Sheppard was wound so tightly now, he looked ready to spring. “Don’t you blame us for your paranoia, Delian.  We did nothing to you.  You attacked us, you killed Dazy, and you are the only one to blame for the repercussions all this will have on your people.”

 

Delian snorted, "repercussions?  You don't get it, do you, Colonel?  We have held off every invader that has ever tried to attack Orkidia.  We will beat you as well."

 

Sheppard's eyebrows lifted. "Invaders. You know, I wonder..." he tilted his head, "Just how close do you allow people to get?  If some innocent merchant or traveler comes through your Stargate, do you wait to determine their intent? Or do you just fire up the turbines?”

 

Delian didn’t answer.

 

Sheppard pressed on. “How many Genii died in your sandstorms before they stopped coming, Delian?  How many Hoffans?  How many others have been swallowed up in the sands?” Sheppard’s tone remained horribly dry as he spoke, befitting the contempt he felt.  And when Delian met his gaze, the answer was written clearly on his face.  Sheppard gave a small smile, not of amusement, but of disgust.  “Just how many have you turned the Ancient’s weapon against, Delian?  How many innocent people have you killed?”

 

"None of you are innocent."

 

Sheppard snorted a laugh. Rodney knew that had answered the Colonel's question.  Perhaps the Genii had once tried to attack Orkidia, as they had done Atlantis, but how many others were killed merely for coming up against Delian’s merciless view of outsiders?  In Delian's mind, everyone wanted in, no matter who they were, and he had made it his job to keep them all out—and he used the sandstorms to make certain of it.

 

Delian was a monster.

 

"Rodney," Sheppard said quietly.

 

"Yeah?" Rodney answered.

 

"I don't think plan A is going to work."

 

Rodney actually laughed at that. "You think?" he asked snidely. "I could have told you that before he walked over here. Everyone knows you can't reason with a madman."

 

And suddenly, Delian was at his throat, grabbing at the front of Rodney's shirt and dragging him up to his toes.

 

"Let him go!" Sheppard shouted, trying to shoulder in between Delian and Rodney, but the military commander paid no attention.

 

"I want the truth!" Delian growled, his face an ugly mask of sweat and rage.  "What was your plan? What did you do to the pump?  What have you done with Baylor's weapon?  Who else are you working with?"

 

"We had no plan!" Rodney spluttered. "And we did nothing to that pump! We only tried to fix it!"

 

"Stop lying!"

 

"I'm not lying, you stupid, paranoid nutcase!" McKay shouted back, his own anger quickly topping out his fear.  "Don't you get it?  We're not here to subjugate or control anyone!  You are all doing a damned good job of that on your own!"

 

"No more games," the tall commander yelled, raising a hand up as of to strike Rodney. Sheppard suddenly shoved at Delian bodily, forcing him back from the scientist, and tucked Rodney behind him.  Delian didn't care, glaring at the two of them with mad eyes as he stood up straight.

 

"I said leave him alone!" Sheppard snarled.

 

"And we're not playing games!" Rodney yelled, trying to step out from behind Sheppard. "We're not playing at all—we're the ones being played!  Perrit and her son thought they could use us—Dazy would break the pumps down, one by one, and they'd call us in to fix them, but they were going to tell you we'd work with Perrit and no one else, which is total crap!  Baylor, meanwhile, tried to get us to work for him, to force us to reconfigure the pumps so they would only work for him, ensuring his utter dominance over you all, and he took two of our teammates hostage to make us give him what he wanted.  And then there's you, with your horde of ninja wannabes, trying to kill us at every turn without even thinking that we might genuinely have come here just to help!  You think we're here to take over?  The forerunners of some dramatic invasion you've dreamt up in your clearly mentally unstable mind?  Then you're frikkin' insane!  Where the hell did you get the idea that we give a rat's ass about your sand covered little hell hole?  You have no idea who we are or what we can do—you just started firing because you’re a xenophobic, close-minded, paranoid psychotic!  What mental breakdown did you have to make you think that killing innocent, unarmed people is justifiable? And you accuse us of playing games?!"

 

Throughout this practically screamed accusation, McKay had managed to move out to stand shoulder to shoulder with the colonel, even though John kept one foot in front, as if ready to push him back if need be.  Sheppard had said nothing this whole time, letting McKay's exasperation and fear speak for both of them.  When he was done, McKay's face was bright red and he was panting, having managed to yell almost that whole thing on just one breath.

 

Delian stared at McKay, eyebrows lifted high.  When he took a step forward, Sheppard was there again, pushing McKay back and standing in front of his friend, staring the taller man down.

 

"You're not touching him."

 

Delian met the stare evenly, his jaw muscles working as he ground his teeth.  Finally, he took a step back.

 

McKay slumped against John's back, pressing his head against the back of the Colonel's shoulder in thanks before looking up again.

 

Delian shook his head at them. "You're not going to tell me anything," he said, "are you?"

 

"McKay just told you everything we know," Sheppard replied. "There is nothing more."

 

Delian studied him a moment, then gave a head shake. "Then we've wasted enough time."  He turned and walked away, heading back to his group of soldiers.  He said something to the woman who had woken them up, and she nodded.   

 

Rodney came out from behind Sheppard's shadow, trying to take a deep breath and push back the feeling of lightheadedness his shouting had generated.  The colonel let him emerge, but didn't shift from his fighting stance.  Even weaponless and with his hands tied, he was obviously not going to go down without a fight, and he would protect Rodney with his dying breath.

 

"I don't like this planet," Rodney whispered weakly.  "Have I said that before?"

 

Sheppard snorted, smiling a little at that.  "Yeah.  Well," he sighed, "as you say, some things bear repeating."

 

Neither said anything else, simply waiting now.  There wasn't much else they could do.  Delian's men finished packing up all of their equipment, stuffing it into their own packs and loading them onto the backs of the meeners.

 

And then Delian did exactly what both feared.  He took one last look at them, smiled coldly, then turned and walked to one of the meeners.  A moment later, he, and the rest of his soldiers, were mounted.  The ram-headed horse like creatures pawed at the ground, raring to go.

 

Rodney's lips parted.  No.  He wouldn't.  He couldn't...

 

"Goodbye Colonel Sheppard," Delian said, then flicked his eyes to McKay. "Doctor McKay.  I'm letting the sands take you—as they have taken everyone who dares threaten Orkidia.  Oh," his smiled deepened, "And thank you for your radios.  With the addition of those we took from Perrit's mansion, we can be much more efficient about this."

 

And then he was gone, riding swiftly away over the dunes with his entire elite guard following.

 

Leaving them alone in the middle of the desert.

 

"You're not welcome," Rodney said weakly.

________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN: SANDSTORM

 

Elizabeth looked down at her watch. 

 

Close enough. 

 

She lifted her head to look at Chuck, who was watching her with his hand poised over the dialing device, waiting.  She was about to nod when the Gate suddenly started dialing on its own.  Straightening, she strode over to his side, to where he was now frowning at the laptop screen in front of him. 

 

"Unscheduled Off-World Activation," he announced com-wide.  The wormhole formed, and information scrolled over the screen. "It's the Alpha Site.  Doctor Simpson's IDC."

 

The radio came to life at the same moment, filling the Control Room.  "This is Doctor Simpson. Eric Connam is here, and I asked him about Orkidia.  Doctor Weir, he says he needs to speak with you right now."

 

"Lower the Shield," Elizabeth told Chuck.  Clicking her earpiece, she answered Simpson's call as she strode swiftly to the stairs down. "You and Eric are clear to come through, Doctor." 

 

The wormhole disgorged two figures a moment later.  The blonde Doctor Simpson was in front, her expression dark. A step behind her strode a man in a long traveling coat and a shallow brimmed hat, the brim lifting to reveal a lined but still very handsome face.

 

Eric Connam stopped in the middle of the Gateroom floor, his eyes seeking Elizabeth as she jogged down the stairs towards them.  His usual bright smile was absent; his mouth set in a grim line.  Elizabeth frowned, slowing as she reached him.

 

"Sheppard, McKay and the others are on Orkidia?" he asked without preamble.

 

Elizabeth inclined her head. "Yes."

 

"Why?" he asked, his tone hard. 

 

Elizabeth's eyes narrowed slightly. "They are aiding them in the repair of their—"

 

"That's why they were there a week ago," Connam said, stopping her. "Why are they there now?"

 

Her eyes narrowed more, and she glanced at Simpson.  The woman shook her head—she hadn't told him anything.

 

"Actually," Connam said, shaking his head, "You know what? It doesn't matter."  He frowned even more, and the knife twisted even deeper inside Elizabeth's gut.  She had never seen Eric frown like that—he actually looked angry. "Doctor Weir," he said, "order them home.  Now.  The Orkidians do not share, and they will kill anyone who threatens their static community.  Whatever they promised you?"  His eyebrows lifted slightly. "They will not deliver.  Bring the Colonel and the others home now, or you will never see them again.  And if you don't," he lowered his gaze, "I will."

 

Elizabeth had to smile slightly at how protective he sounded—she wondered if he even realized it himself. Turning her head she looked up towards the Control Room, to where Cadman and Chuck were both leaning over the rail.

 

"Dial Orkidia.  We're sending the MALP through now."

______________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

Delian led his riders back down the canyon, hitting the wide path at a gallop.  Glancing up at the rim, he checked to make sure they were far enough down, then turned his gaze to his lieutenant on his right. The woman nodded back and lifted the Atlantian radio to her lips.

 

"This is Doxy, are you receiving?" she said into the device.

 

She waited a moment, listening to the static on the device, then a voice came back. "Sure are, Doxy. Barrie here.  These things work well! Clearer than the Genii ones."

 

"So it would seem," she replied. She glanced at Delian, and at his nod, she spoke again. "Seal the canyon, Barrie, and fire up the turbines—full force."

 

————————————————————————————————

 

They were halfway to the Council Chambers when the sky above went suddenly pitch black, blocking out the pale blue of morning.  Stella came to a halt, as did the Lycastee with her. Perrit, Teyla and Ronon came up alongside the Councilor, staring up at the opaque shield that had formed overhead.  Various members of the populace, just waking up, peered out their windows and store-fronts, the same baffled look on their faces. 

 

"What is that?" Teyla asked as the world was quickly plunged into shadow.

 

Stella snarled. "Delian."  She started running now, moving even as the electric lights of the city came to life to show them the way. "We have to stop him. Move!"

_______________________________________________________________

 

"Turn around," Sheppard said, shaking his arms like a snake had gone down his shirt.

 

"What?" Rodney asked. "Why?  And what the hell is wrong with you?"

 

"I still have my knife, Rodney. I tucked it up my jacket sleeve—damn thing's been cutting up my arm since I got it back."  He shook some more, grimacing a little. "We're just lucky Delian's guards suck at searching people."  Rodney peeked behind Sheppard's back, and saw the metal slip out of the other man's jacket cuff.

 

"Yeah, lucky," he agreed dryly, turning around.  Sheppard came up behind him and he felt the press on the ropes binding his wrists together.  He hissed in pain as the rope-burned skin protested, flinching away.

 

"Hold still," Sheppard ordered. "This isn't easy."

 

Rodney gritted his teeth, endeavoring to do as he was told.  He closed his eyes, wishing it didn't feel like Sheppard was trying to scrape all the skin off his wrists.

 

Slowly, he felt the ropes give...then they fell away.  Thank God.

 

With a sigh of relief, he brought his hands forward, rubbing at his red wrists, and turned around again.  Sheppard was looking at him over his shoulder, his own wrists still bound.

 

"Some help here?" the colonel asked. 

 

"Oh, yeah, sorry."  Rodney grabbed the small bowie knife from Sheppard's fingers and started to saw at the ropes around the Colonel's wrists. In less time than it took Sheppard, he had the other man's wrists free. 

 

Sheppard blew the air out of his cheeks, rubbing at his wrists as Rodney had done. "Thanks," he said.

 

Rodney just nodded, handing the knife back. "Now what?" he asked, looking around at the desolate landscape. "Because I'm thinking we're not in a good situation here."

 

"Well," Sheppard said, turning in a circle, peering in the direction Delian had gone. "'Least he didn't shoot us."

 

Rodney snorted, then glanced at the colonel. "And how long before he gets below the rim of the Canyon, and orders it sealed using our radios?"

 

Sheppard's jaw tensed, and he turned to look at the sand around their feet. "We need to find that amulet."

 

Rodney was way ahead of him, falling to his knees to scrabble at the sand dune they stood on, running his fingers through the fine granules. 

 

"I think it's around here," Sheppard said, kneeling by his side and running his hands through a nearby section of sand. "Damn it," he swore, scrabbling as much as Rodney, "Where the hell is it?"

 

The wind around their head suddenly intensified, and Rodney looked up.  The atmosphere felt almost electric, blowing his hair and tingling down his skin.  Turning his head, he looked in the direction where Delian had disappeared just minutes before.

 

His jaw dropped. 

 

A cyclone of sand was boiling up on the horizon, swirling like a dervish. It spun and whirled, picking up speed and strength as he watched.  Soon it was so high, it was as tall as a mountain. 

 

And then it started to spread.

 

Oh shit.

 

The wind began to scream like a banshee as the cyclone grew. It filled their ears, burning their eardrums.  It hurt!

 

"Hurry!" he shouted, digging through the sand, feeling the first scouring hits as sand began to lift up around them and skid across exposed skin.  He'd once gotten caught in a hailstorm at the University of Tulsa, where he'd given a lecture, and it had left streaks of blood across his face where the hailstones had cut his skin.  It was one of the reasons he promised never to set foot in Oklahoma again.

 

This was worse.

 

"Rodney!" Sheppard shouted, looking towards where the sandstorm was obviously gaining momentum.  Rodney turned and looked again.

 

Sand whipped his face, and he held up his hand, trying to see through his fingers...

 

A wall of sand was bearing down on them, as high as the cliff-faces down in the canyon.  It appeared endless and unstoppable, boiling towards them like a tsunami.  It'd be on them in a second.

 

"I've got it!" Sheppard shouted, holding up Baylor's blue amulet as sand whipped around him, beginning to block him from view.  Rodney turned his head and held out his hand. 

 

"Throw it here!"

 

Sheppard didn't hesitate, tossing the blue gem to Rodney, who caught it despite the wind nearly carrying it off to the side.  Sheppard shouted something then, but the wind just ripped the words out of his lips and tore them away before Rodney could make sense of them.  Rodney's eyes widened as he saw Sheppard being lifted up through the dark swirling brown, the Colonel's hands grasping to keep hold of the mercurial ground. The scientist's own body was being lifted, carried up with the force of the wind. SHIT!

 

Rodney held the amulet to his chest and imagined forming a large, solid dome around himself and Sheppard, begging with everything he had for it to work. 

 

The world disappeared with a soft "phwump" just as the sun was blotted out completely, the sandstorm encasing them in darkness as it swallowed them whole.  He fell several feet into the sand dune below, rolling a little down with sand falling all around him like rain.  For a moment, he just lay there, spitting sand out of his mouth and shaking. 

 

Sheppard.

 

Turning his head, he saw the colonel lying a few feet away, the other man's back heaving.  He'd fallen on his front, and was, like Rodney, just lying there for a moment.  Everything was dark except for the amulet glowing brightly in his hands, their only source of light. All around them, dark, almost black sand swirled and heaved in eddies and waves, swimming around the edge of the perfect dome he had created.  It was like nothing he had ever seen before.

 

Still trembling, he got to his knees, and then his feet, staring around at the airless prison they'd trapped themselves in.  He could see nothing through the sand encasing them on all sides, nothing at all.

 

"Well done, Rodney," Sheppard offered shakily, his voice incredibly loud in this soundless place.  The shield had, along with the sand, blocked out the wind.  All they could hear was each other.

 

"Don't thank me yet," Rodney replied. He swallowed, looking to where the colonel was sitting up, rubbing the sand out of his hair. "Because, I don't know about you," he said shakily, "but I have absolutely no idea which direction the canyon is."

 

—————————————————————————————

 

Elizabeth slammed her hands on the railing, watching as the MALP telemetry showed the machine being carried along with a sandstorm so powerful, it made what Cadman had felt in the Jumper appear tame.

 

"It can't last," Cadman said.

 

Elizabeth just nodded. "But we have no idea how long it will take," she said.

 

"I'd heard rumors," Connam noted from the other side, "that their sandstorms were manmade." His eyes narrowed, "Which would explain a lot."

 

Elizabeth glanced at the trader, not wanting to give such a strange notion credence.  But his expression was bleak.  She knew what he wasn't saying—that this storm, if manmade, had been conjured both to keep Atlantis away...and to stop whomever might have tried to leave Orkidia.

 

Shaking her head, she asked, "Do you have any idea how long—"

 

"No," Connam replied, watching the screen with haunted eyes.  He looked at Elizabeth, "How long does it take for something like that to kill someone?"

 

Her jaw tensed as she returned her attention to the screen.  The image showed nothing but swirling, dark sand, as the machine presenting it was tossed around like a feather. 

 

Then it hit something black and dark, and the image vanished.

 

She breathed out, looking over at Cadman.  The lieutenant's face was white.

 

"Shut it down," Elizabeth said, indicating the gate.  Chuck hit the button, and the wormhole disappeared.

 

"Doctor Weir," Cadman said, "We..."

 

"We'll wait an hour and try again," Elizabeth said shortly, turning away from both the lieutenant and the rest of the Control Room.

 

——————————————————————————————

 

Stella walked straight up to the doors of the Council Chamber, not hiding her face or those of the people with her.  Stepping up the broad steps she grabbed the door handles...and found them locked.  Her brow furrowed.

 

"These should not be locked," she said, shaking the handles.  Backing up she looked across at the small windows on either side of the doors.

 

"This is Vandan Councilor Stella.  Let us in!"

 

Banging echoed from inside, and then the window she was looking at opened.  One of Delian's guards, wearing the red sash of the Council Chambers, leaned his head out.

 

"Councilor Stella?"

 

"No, her ugly twin.  Of course it's me, you fool.  Why are the doors sealed?  Let us in!"

 

The guard's face pinched, and he looked behind her to Perrit, Teyla and Ronon, then to the other Lycastee.  He shook his head.

 

"I'm sorry, Councilor, but I can not."

 

"Why?" she snapped back.

 

"Commander Delian has ordered the shield turned on, as the weapon detected a Wraith attack.  As part of his protocol, the Council Chambers have been sealed to prevent the general populace from interfering—"

 

"We are not the general populace, guard.  You know who I am, and you know I am here with Ambassador Perrit.  We are two members of your governing council.  Let us in.  Now."

 

"Councilor, I—"

 

"You do know that Delian has no authority to keep us out, correct?" she questioned.

 

The guard visibly swallowed, "Well, I—"

 

"Oh, that's it."  Stella pulled a pistol from inside her black jacket and pointed it at the guard's head. "Let us in, you gibbering glossodia, or I will use this."

 

The guard's eyes widened, then he disappeared in a flash, shutting the window behind him.  Stella grimaced, then turned and nodded at one of the Lycastee with her.  He stepped forward and pulled a small red ball from his pocket.  Cracking it open like an egg, it revealed a pale white putty.  Pulling it out, he walked up to the doors and pressed the putty to the metal locks on the large, wooden double doors. 

 

Teyla glanced at Ronon, and the Satedan nodded back.  Without a word to anyone, they positioned themselves on either side of the massive double doors.  Stella's eyebrow perked, and she turned to her Lycastee, jerking her head towards the two of them.  At the silent order, a pair of Lycastee lined up on either side behind Teyla and Ronon, while the rest gathered back with Perrit and Stella behind the fountain. 

 

Teyla glanced around and saw many curious faces looking out from doors and windows of the buildings framing the square, watching the confrontation with curiosity and not a little fear.  And, like all of them, she turned her attention to Stella.  The others had all ducked down behind the stone fountain, but the Vandan Councilor stayed standing.

 

With a tiny, dangerous smile, she pulled out a second pistol and pointed both at the putty covered locks.  The smile then grew downright wicked as she pulled the triggers, and the doors exploded outwards in a brilliant crash of light and splintering wood.

 

———————————————————————————

 

"We need to move," John said, wiping at the sweat on his face.  He was dripping, and, glancing at Rodney, knew he was as well.  The forcefield dome was airless—and it was getting very, very hot in here.

 

The scientist nodded, struggling back up to his feet.  He'd been sitting, trying vainly to find something in his vest that Delian's men hadn't taken.  He swayed a little, and Sheppard frowned. Rodney was still absurdly pale, and, though Delian's men had wrapped his shoulder at some point, John had fibbed a little about it being just a graze. The bullet had sliced a chunk out of his upper shoulder, and Rodney had lost a good amount of blood.  

 

He pressed a hand to his own bruised body, feeling the bone deep sores—they were both of them in a lot of trouble.

 

"Can you allow some air in here?" he asked.

 

Rodney grimaced, but nodded. "It'll hurt," he said.

 

"Better than suffocating," John replied.

 

Rodney nodded again, and, like opening up a vent, a whoosh of air rushed past their feet.  Rodney had turned the bubble into an umbrella and sand whipped around their ankles, tearing at their trouser bottoms.  It also let in some needed oxygen, though it didn't do much for the heat.  Sand also swirled loosely inside, a bit like a snow-globe. Except this snow stung.

 

"Okay," Sheppard said, grimacing as he wiped off sand sticking itself to his sweat-slicked face. "Let's go."

 

"Which way?" Rodney asked, peering around at the darkness.

 

"Well, um..."  John frowned, "I don't suppose that thing has a tracking device in it?  Some way to help you if you get lost?  I mean, it was designed to aid the people traveling to the water pumps, right? Surely that would include helping them get through sandstorms.  So...?"

 

Rodney was already studying the amulet, turning it over in his hands.  He then clasped it between his palms (something which cut down on the light considerably, and John shuddered a little at the oppressive darkness) and closed his eyes.  After a moment, Rodney opened his eyes again and shook his head.

 

"Nothing obvious."

 

"Maybe it's like hot and cold.  It might brighten if you point it towards a water pump?"

 

Rodney frowned at him, but, gamely, he turned in a slow circle, studying the amulet as he did so.  And gave a huff of surprise when, sure enough, the light brightened when he faced a certain direction.

 

"So," Sheppard smiled, "that way?"

 

Rodney just shrugged, "Guess so." The lethargic response wasn't heartening, but John would take it.  They started walking, stumbling a little against the air currents rushing past their feet.  It felt a little like trying to walk through the water along an ocean beach at high tide, waves crashing against you, trying to get you to lose your footing. 

 

Rodney stopped suddenly after only a few steps, and teetered. "Whoa," he said, his voice small, face draining of whatever blood it had left.  John was by his side instantly, grabbing the man's arm as Rodney stabilized.

 

"What? What just happened?"

 

"Apparently..." Rodney blinked a few times, swallowed and looked down at the amulet. "It doesn't want us to move."

 

John frowned. "What?"

 

"Must be the mental connection.  Huh." He frowned, then looked out at the swirling sands. "It's using a lot of power to hold back the sandstorm.  Moving against it used even more power, and...it just shocked me."

 

"Why?"

 

"To tell me to eat more greens," Rodney answered, glaring at John. "To warn me not to move, obviously."

 

"Why is it low? I mean, it's lasted this long, why suddenly..."  He suddenly rolled his eyes, while Rodney just lifted both eyebrows. "Oh," he said, "It's because Baylor did the whole, running the shield for too long and for more than it was designed for thing, isn't it?"

 

Rodney actually quirked a smile. "You have learned much, my apprentice."

 

Sheppard winced. "Oh, can it."

 

Rodney chuckled, looking down again at the amulet.  Sheppard grimaced, looking out at the dark, swirling world. Finally, he sighed.

 

"Well, look, we have to move.  Can you override it?"

 

"With what?" Rodney asked, his brow furrowing. "Delian took all our stuff, remember?"

 

"Mentally. Tell it mentally."

 

Rodney frowned, and looked at the device.  A moment later, he tried moving again, and the amulet flickered—but Rodney didn't sway again.

 

"It work?" John asked, studying his friend's face.

 

Rodney sighed. "Yeah.  It didn't shock me. But...I don't know how much power it has. I get the feeling it's pretty low. It may not be enough to get us to the water pump, and if it dies before this sandstorm dies..."

 

Sheppard frowned, once more staring out into the swirling darkness.  Fact was, they didn't know how long Delian was going to keep this up.  It could be minutes, it could be hours.  Beyond wanting to kill them, Delian clearly wanted to ward off any communication with Atlantis until he'd dealt with Teyla and Ronon down in the canyon.  Who knew what he was going to do with them down there, if he knew where they were.

 

And, frankly, he and Rodney couldn't stay in this heat for hours without water.  They hadn't had any water since the party almost twelve hours before, and neither had had any rest.  Dehydration was a very real and very likely danger.

 

"It's a risk we'll have to take. Come on."

 

Rodney stared at him a moment, then, with a despondent sigh, started walking.

 

————————————————————————————

 

Gunfire peppered the plaza upon the destruction of the doors, all of it coming from inside the Council Chambers, and Stella and Perrit ducked down behind the fountain.

 

“They’re shooting!” Perrit said, her eyes wide as chunks of stone and water flew over their heads.  “I can’t believe they’re actually shooting at us! We are their leaders!”

 

Stella just shrugged. “We did just blow open the doors, Perrit.”

 

“Yes, but still…”

 

Stella shook her head and risked a peek around the corner of the fountain.  She saw the ten guards inside had formed two lines, five standing, five kneeling, all firing rifles into the plaza at anything that moved. The two Outlanders were standing on either side of the outer door still, along with several of her Lycastee, obviously waiting for the guards to need to reload. 

 

As if on cue, several of the guards lowered their rifles, to add more ammunition, and that’s when the Outlanders made their move.

 

Her jaw fell open, watching as the man, who still wore a thick bandage on his shoulder from a gunshot, threw himself inside and grabbed two of the guards, slamming their heads together. In the same motion, he spun one of the guards around to use as a shield as several rifles pointed in his direction.  The woman, on the other hand, went in low, grabbing at the rifle of one of the kneeling guards and cracking him across the head with it.  She then whipped the long weapon around like a quarterstaff and two more went flying out of the door and down the stairs. 

 

And within moments, they were standing alone at the top of the steps, with no new harm done to either, while ten of Delian’s guards lay out cold on the stone ground.  They were even still all alive.

 

Wow.

 

She stood up and jogged towards the entrance, not hiding her admiration.  Reaching the top step, she climbed over the pieces of shattered door and smiled.

 

“Do all Atlantians fight this well?” she asked.

 

“They do, although,” the woman gave a shrug, “we do not all fight the same.  I am Athosian, and Ronon here is Satedan.  We fight quite differently from John and Rodney, and from each other.”

 

“Oh,” Stella’s eyebrows lifted, surprised. “You are not all of the same people?”

 

“No,” Teyla gave a small smile. “But we fight as one.”

 

Stella absorbed this, not missing the subtle second meaning in the Outlander’s words—about the value of having allies, something Orkidia has not know for many a year. Corruption is bred from stagnation, and her home was rife with it, with no new blood coming in, and no friends or enemies to face other than themselves.  Smiling again, she nodded to the woman—to Teyla.

 

“It is good to have friends,” she said.

 

Teyla’s smile deepened, and she inclined her head in return.

 

“Now,” Stella said, looking into the interior of the Council Chambers, “there will be more guards, but it isn’t far to the weapon control room.  Perrit,” Stella turned, and was pleased to see Perrit had picked her way over the ruined door to join them.  Whatever she was, the Ambassador was not hiding now.  Blue eyes lifted to meet Stella’s dark ones. “Care to join me in leading the way?” Stella asked.

 

The Ambassador gave a firm nod, and started jogging down the stone hallway, knowing Stella would quickly catch up.  The Vandan Councilor didn’t need to look behind her to know that Teyla and Ronon were following close behind.  

____________________________________________________

 

Delian rode hard, hitting the base of the canyon and turning his mount towards Dendrobia without letting the animal rest.  He had to find those two other Atlantians. 

 

——————————————————————————

 

They were climbing and falling down shifting dunes, the constantly changing landscape not giving them an inch as it slipped and slid beneath their feet.  Rodney took two tumbles (miraculously without losing hold of the amulet) and Sheppard took one, rolling down the sand dune and hitting the edge of the amulet's shield with a painful thwack.

 

Without a word, Rodney helped him to his feet. 

 

John grimaced, taking advantage of the break to rub at his calves.  The muscles in his legs were cramping painfully, and a glance at Rodney saw the same was true for him.  Both were still sweating heavily, which was a good thing. It meant they still had moisture to lose.  For now.

 

John knew what the cramps meant, however, and knew it was only a matter of time before they worked their way up to their stomachs and abs. 

 

They needed to get to that water pump now.

 

Thing was, they could have miles still to walk, and, in the last ten or fifteen minutes of walking, he wasn't sure they had even cleared a hundred yards.  Even pointed in the right direction, it was like walking through molasses.  Climbing up dunes took three times as long as going down, and he was exhausted.  Rodney had to be worse.

 

At least the sandstorm provided one bonus—they didn't have to deal with the sun.

 

The amulet in Rodney's hand suddenly dimmed dangerously, almost going out before brightening again, reminding John oddly of the way the headlights on his car used to dim when his alternator finally failed.  Rodney gave him a very worried look, the kind he saved for when he was facing certain death.

 

Maybe the sun wouldn't be so bad after all.

______________________________________________________

 

Stella picked up the pace once inside, running down a stone corridor towards what appeared to be the back of the edifice.  She moved with an unerring pace, ignoring the guards that stepped aside to let them pass by.

 

Finally, she came to a stop before a strong looking door, this one made of metal.  Teyla glanced at Ronon—both recognized the style.  This door was made by the Ancestors. 

 

Stella waved her hand over the control panel to the left of the door.

 

And nothing happened.

 

She frowned, staring at the panel, then up at the door.  Stepping forward, she banged on the metal.

 

"This is Councilor Stella!  Let me in!"

 

No answer came from the far side of the door.

 

She grimaced, and banged again. "I said let me in!" she demanded.

 

When there was still no answer, she stepped back.  She stared at it a moment longer, then shook her head. 

 

"Blow it," she ordered, looking behind her at the same guard that had blown the doors to the chambers.

 

"Oh, no, wait," Teyla said. "I might be able to help." 

 

Stella arched an eyebrow at her, and Teyla just smiled, pointing at the door.

 

"All our doors at home look like this," the Athosian said simply.  Stepping to the control panel, she held out her hand. "Can I have a knife?"

 

The Lycastee hesitated, looking to Stella, so Teyla tilted her head.  "I already have a gun."  She snapped her fingers, "Give me a knife."

 

Ronon grinned, and Teyla was hard pressed not to return it.  Yes, sometimes channeling Rodney had its uses.  Clearly, they were all rubbing off on each other.

 

A knife was slapped into Teyla's palm, and the Athosian slipped it into the groove in the control panel...and snapped off the cover.  Three familiar crystals sat, all of them lit.  Teyla blew on her fingers, then reached in and pulled the top one out.  The panel crackled and Teyla grimaced, ignoring the shock she had just gotten.  Gritting her teeth, she slid the bottom crystal out and stuck it in the top slot.  Then she looked at Ronon.  The Satedan nodded, pointing his machine gun at the door.  The Lycastee and Stella did the same, a small smile on the Vandan Councilor's face.  Perrit, wisely, stayed in the background off to the side, just watching.

 

"We're opening the door now," Stella called out. "And if we see a gun, we will fire."

 

She nodded at Teyla, and the Athosian nodded back.

 

And bridged the two crystals with the third.

 

The panel sparked and Teyla cried out a little at the shock, dropping the crystal just as the door slid open, revealing three very surprised looking guards.  She had her gun raised as Stella barked out an order for the guards to drop their weapons.

 

The guards stared at all the guns pointing at them for just a moment, then did as they were told and dropped their weapons.

 

"This is treason," a man said, standing up. "You are defying the direct orders of Commander Delian!"

 

Stella's eyebrows lifted. "This is treason?" she demanded. "What dictionary did you grow up with, you cretinous mugrats?  You were just pointing weapons at two of your leaders!  How dare you!"

 

He shook his head, "No, Councilor Stella, you don't—"

 

"Show me the Stargate!" Stella demanded. "And the sky!  Show me the threat that had you raise the shield!"

 

The one who had spoken clenched his jaw shut, and Stella's eyes narrowed.

 

"Fine," she snapped. "You won't show me?  Then get out of my way!"

 

Pushing inside, she shoved the three guards to the side, and reached the console that they had been standing in front of. 

 

Ronon had followed her in, and he grabbed at the three guards and tossed them bodily out through the door for the Lycastee to deal with.  Perrit and Teyla slid in behind and looked around the small room.

 

The equipment in here was definitely Ancestral, but there were a few less advanced pieces of technology tied into it.  It reminded Teyla a little of home, where the Earth equipment was interfaced with the Ancestral technology in Atlantis. Except, this looked cruder.

 

Stella was typing at a keyboard in front of the main console, and was looking up at the screens.

 

The Stargate was inactive where it was immersed inside what appeared to be a hellacious sandstorm.  Stars on another screen showed no signs of any ships in the sky.  No Wraith.

 

"I thought so," Stella hissed angrily.  She raised her hand over what looked like a large blue button.

 

"Councilor!" the same guard called, still watching from the door, "Don't do it!"

 

Stella turned, glaring at the man. "Watch me," she growled, hitting the button.

 

Teyla's eyebrows lifted as the sandstorm circling the Stargate immediately start to die down.  So that's what the Orkidian weapon was.

 

Then her stomach clenched—if John and Rodney had been out in that...

 

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

 

"They're resourceful," Ronon said quietly, squeezing his hand. "If anyone can survive that..."

 

Teyla just nodded. "I know."

 

————————————————————————————————

 

Delian pulled his meener to a halt on the outskirts of Dendrobia, staring up at the sky. 

 

The black shield rippled...then rolled back, revealing nothing but blue.  Sun flooded the canyon floor, and Orkidians around them cheered at the sight.

 

He swore, and looked across at Doxy.  The woman grabbed at the radio in her pocket and brought it to her lips.

 

"Barrie," she demanded, "Who gave the order to lower the shield?"

 

Nothing but static answered her.  So she tried again.

 

"Barrie!"

—————————————————————————————————

 

"Barrie!"  The voice came through clearly over the radio sitting on the console.  Stella peered at it, then looked to Teyla.

 

"That's one of our radios," Teyla affirmed. "Obviously stolen from our room at the Ambassador's.  Whoever is using it, must have taken the other radios from our teammates."

 

Stella frowned, then grabbed it.  She stared at it a moment, then hit the green button.

 

"This is Councilor Stella.  To whom am I speaking?"

 

There was a pause, then a man's voice answered. "Stella! This is Delian! What have you done?"

 

Stella gave a cold smile. "I lowered the shield, Delian."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because you used it against the wrong Outlanders this time," she snarled. "You have a great deal to answer for, Delian.  If I were you," her eyes narrowed, "I would pray that Baylor and the Outlanders are still alive."

 

There was silence for a moment, then, "I will be there soon."

 

"I imagine you will," Stella said.  She lowered the radio, then looked to Teyla.  A moment's hesitation, then she tossed it across to the Athosian.

 

"Thank you," Teyla said.  Stella just inclined her head, and turned to look over at the Lycastee hovering in the doorway.

 

"Fetch reinforcements. We may have to fight this day."

__________________________________________________________

 

Rodney looked up as the first rays of sun broke through the sandstorm cover.  A moment later, the sun came out in full and sand cascaded down the shield, forming a bowl of sand around them as it settled.

 

Instantly, the world went from merely unbearably hot to oven roasting temperatures.

 

"Well," Sheppard said, squinting towards the blue sky, "At least we—"

 

"Don't!" Rodney snapped.

 

"What?"

 

"You were going to say, 'at least we don't have to worry about the amulet running out of power.'  You're like the optimism wheel of fortune!  Stop it, Colonel, and face the fact that this isn't good! I've got cramps on top of cramps, and I'm already feeling nauseous. You think I didn't study up on the symptoms of severe dehydration before coming to work in a desert?  You know this isn't good, so don't try to make me feel better!"

 

Sheppard just smiled. "Listen," he said, shrugging. "The amulet will guide us. It's got to last longer now that it's not holding the storm back. So, we'll get to the water pump, and, with any luck, you can do something brilliant with the technology to get us some water.  It'll be okay."

 

Rodney was about to argue when it happened.

 

The amulet died. 

 

Sand and wind rushed in to their little oasis, burying them up to their thighs, nearly bowling over both men down at the same time.

 

Straightening from his half-crouch, Sheppard stared at the dead amulet, then up at Rodney.  His smile faded.

 

"Okay," he said, suddenly sounding very tired. "You win.  We're screwed."

 

Not so oddly, this didn't make Rodney feel any better.

_________________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY: UNDER THE DESERT SUN

 

Stella walked back outside, smiling thinly at the sun lit courtyard, then turned her gaze to Teyla and Ronon by her side. 

 

“This is not your fight,” she said, then held up a hand when Teyla appeared about to protest. “No, your fight is up in the sands.  You need to find your teammates.  We will take care of Delian.  This has been coming for a long time.”

 

Teyla’s eyes squinted briefly, but she nodded. “Thank you.” 

 

Stella waved her thanks off, then pointed across the plaza to a livery stable, above which hung a sign with the name ‘T. Horstmann’ on it.  A grizzled old man was standing inside an open doorway, watching them.

 

“That man’s name is Theo. He will lend you both meeners…,” she said, then stopped and frowned, looking at Teyla. “You know how to ride?”

 

“Sort of,” Ronon said, not sounding happy.  Teyla didn’t disagree, so Stella continued.

 

“He will lend you meeners on my authority.  Ride up the canyon and find your friends.”

 

“They will need a guide,” Perrit said, moving to stand alongside them, “if they have any hope of finding them.  It should be me, since I know the sands better than almost anyone, but I think you need me here to help you deal with Delian.”

 

Stella looked up at the older woman, and, for the first time, there was no coldness in her gaze. “I think I can deal with Delian on my own, Perrit.”

 

Perrit actually smiled. “I’m not saying you can’t,” she replied, “just that, politically—”

 

“Politically?” Stella’s face hardened. “I don’t care about politics right now, Perrit.  This isn’t about—“

 

“Oh, Stella, of course it is,” Perrit shook her head. “It’s always about politics.  Whatever happens here today, you need the people to support you when it’s done.  They see just one Councilor facing off against another, especially with you wearing the black of the rebels, the people are going to question your motives.  Regardless of whether you win or lose, people will question your right to have fought this battle at all.  But if you have another Councilor by your side—“

 

“Will I do?” a gruff voice asked.

 

The small group turned, eyebrows lifted.  Councilor Stebbins stood in the middle of the square, watching them with his arms crossed.  A younger man stood to his right, looking an awful lot like he might be related to the Councilor, and another man stood with a rifle over his shoulder on his left.

 

“Stebbins?” Stella said, her voice squeaking a little in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Jaquette dispatched someone to fetch me.  The messenger said you needed help, and that everything you’d been saying about Delian all these years was true.  Is that correct?”

 

Perrit gave a short nod.

 

“Then I’m here to help.”

 

Teyla’s eyebrow arched, and she glanced at Ronon.  He just shrugged in reply.  Jaquette's word apparently mattered for a great deal around here. 

 

Stella pursed her lips, then glanced at Perrit.  The Ambassador gave a nod, then turned to face Teyla and Ronon. 

 

“We’ll stop at my home, grab my amulet and any other weapons Delian has not taken from it,” she said, already walking across the square to Theo’s. “Come on.”

____________________________________________________

 

They dug themselves out of the sand slowly, not quiet comprehending how heavy it would be until they tried to move, and the sand fought back.  It seemed almost alive, trying to keep them encased, held in place, as unyielding as iron.  Each few inches up, the sand tried to suck them down again. By the time they were free, both were panting and beyond hot. 

 

Rodney pressed his head to the sand, not caring anymore that he was breathing it in, not caring about anything except not moving anymore.  Everything hurt—his arm, his legs, his chest.  It was as if someone had injected his body with lead, slowing down his muscles, hardening his joints, and turning his bones to glass. His calves in particular felt like someone had just reached into the muscle, grabbed and twisted.  He couldn’t move. He didn’t want to move.  He just wanted to stay here.

 

The crazy thing was, the sand was hot.  Really hot.  He could feel it burning through his jacket, through his sleeves.  He’d once read (prior to moving to Area 51, because, seriously, Canadian? Desert? When did those things ever go together?) that sand reflects sunlight, so, right at the surface, it could be thirty to forty degrees hotter than at knee height. But he was so tired right now, so unbelievably tired, and he just didn’t care.

 

“McKay.”

 

Oh, why was Sheppard talking to him?  Couldn’t he just let him rest?  Just for a minute?

 

“McKay, get up.”

 

Damn it.  He was tired, he was sick to his stomach, he was hot, he had bruises and a bullet wound, he hadn’t eaten anything but a small amount of way too spicy food over twelve hours ago.  Why couldn’t he just lie here for a minute?

 

“Rodney, come on.”  There was a prod at his shoulder. “Open your eyes.  You have to move.  We both do.  Come on.”

 

“Why?” he asked, though it came out muffled.  He felt sand coating his lips and on his tongue, like he'd been sucking on a towel coated in gravel. 

 

“Why?" Sheppard sounded strangely far away. "Is that what you said?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m assuming that hissed noise was a yes.  Listen,” he felt a hand on his neck, light and trembling, “you have to move.  We have to get to water.”

 

“Elizabeth’ll send a Jumper.  They can bring us water.”

 

“I have no idea what you just said.  You’re talking into the sand, McKay.  But if I heard you say ‘Jumper’, the answer to that is, so what if Atlantis sends one now?  They don’t know where we are.  We don’t know where we are—Delian could have taken us to the far side of the canyon, for Christ's sake. Even if they try to find us by locating the subcutaneous transmitters, they have to get in range of them for them to show up on their scanners.  They don't know what direction to start looking, and this is a big, big desert.  How did you put it?  It makes the Sahara look like a sandtrap?"

 

"Pebble Beach."

 

"Okay, that was completely unintelligible.  It sounded like, Ethel Leech."

 

With a supreme amount of effort, Rodney pushed up on his elbows and peered into the too bright world at Sheppard.  The man was a black smudge in another otherwise orange landscape.  He was actually pretty close.

 

"Pebble Beach," he said, taking care to enunciate.

 

And then he threw up.

 

Sheppard, remarkably, didn't do more than flinch.  He just grimaced, then rested a hand on the back of Rodney's neck. 

 

Rodney wasn't entirely sure how long it lasted, but, when the black spots dissipated, not only did his stomach feel like someone had just ripped it out, but his head was pounding and there were more black spots in his vision than just Sheppard.

 

"Aw, God," he muttered, trying to push himself back up, away from the smell. Hands on his arms pulled, and he grimaced only slightly as muscles pulled on his hurt shoulder.

 

When he was finally standing, though teetering like a drunk, he found Sheppard standing by his side, brushing sand off of him.  He had to smell now, but the other man didn't care.  There was something dark and haunted in the other man's gaze as he tried to get the sand off, and Rodney frowned.  Finally, he shoved Sheppard away.

 

"Enough," he croaked out, wishing he had more saliva in his mouth to get rid of the rest of the taste. 

 

"You're still sweating," Sheppard said, sounding intensely relieved.  Rodney grimaced.

 

"Whoop de doo," he muttered, and looked down at the ground.  Wasn't he carrying something before?  Something important.  His right hand clenched into a fist and loosened.

 

"Come on," Sheppard said then, tugging at his sleeve. "We have to move."

 

"Why?"

 

"Rodney..."

 

"No, really," he looked up, peering into the shadowed hazel eyes. "We don't know how far it is.  Wouldn't it make more sense to conserve our energy?"

 

Sheppard grimaced, and shook his head. "There's no shade here, Rodney.  Worse, it's still morning.  I don't know how much hotter it's going to get, but..."  He drew in a breath, shaking his head. "Look, we know we were headed towards a water pump.  You've got a good sense of direction, weirdly, and I'm hoping you can remember what direction we were heading before you amulet turned off."

 

"But the distance...?"

 

"I know. It could be two miles, it could be fifteen.  We don’t know.  I get that. But I do know that we can’t wait here and pray that Delian doesn’t crank up the turbines again, and I know that if we don’t get water soon, we’re not going to survive long enough for anyone to find us.  So,” he drew in a breath, “we have to move.”

 

Rodney stared at him, then tried swallowing, and the towel came back, sticking inside his throat.  He coughed harshly, which did little to help the headache.  He put his hand to his head, and tried to ignore the small tremor he saw when he raised it. 

 

"Okay," he said.  The amulet.  That's what he'd had before.  Weird that he'd forgotten.

 

He turned and looked at the small depression of sand where they'd been trapped.  The amulet was next to it, right where he'd dropped it after it died.  Before it did, it had been leading them...He turned his head, and his photographic memory didn't fail him.

 

"That way," he said, pointing vaguely towards the sun.

 

Sheppard grimaced. "To the left or right of the sun?"

 

"Left, by maybe four, five degrees."

 

"Okay."  Sheppard took Rodney's left arm in his hand, grasping his forearm just above the rope burn, and started them walking.  Rodney tried to draw it free, but Sheppard held on.

 

"Hey," he said. "You don't have to pull me."

 

The look the colonel gave him then was one of determination. "Yeah," he said, "I do.  Because I'm not going anywhere without you."

_____________________________________________________

 

Ronon found his blaster, where it had fallen inside his sleeping roll, and Teyla her vest, but most of their equipment and other weapons were gone.  Consequently, the stop at Perrit's was very short.  When the woman found them downstairs in the hallway, she'd changed into white clothes and held two scarves, which she held out to them.  "To protect your heads and faces from the wind and sun," she explained.  She then handed them a couple of bladders of water each, to sling across their bodies.  The bladders were long, and Teyla had to wonder what sort of creature had a stomach as long as this.  Some sort of mammalian snake?

 

She finished wrapping the scarf around her head, and looked up again, her mind now skipping to her memories of the endless desert above the canyon rim. "Perrit," she said, her worry leeching into her tone, "do you have any idea what direction...?"

 

"I have an idea," the Ambassador replied, slipping on a machine gun over her robes to match those carried by Teyla and Ronon. "They will be within fifteen miles of one of the water pumps. My guess, he took them towards either the Vandan pump or the Cattleyan one.  Those two are out in the barren."

 

"Why fifteen miles?" Ronon asked.

 

"Because Delian's not a fool.  Everyone can get lost in the desert, even those most acclimatized to it.  The Vandan Amulet, like my Dendrobian one," she parted her robe to show she was wearing Dazy's green amulet next to her own blue amulet, "will lead you towards any water pump provided it is within fifteen miles of where you are standing.  Delian would not risk getting lost himself, and fifteen miles is more than enough to kill a man in the desert not knowing where they are.  A mile walking across those dunes can feel like ten." 

 

She was walking as she spoke, heading outside to the courtyard where some servants stood with their meeners.  Teyla and Ronon followed, trying to get used to carrying the strange water holders.

 

"When you say the Vandan and Cattleyan pumps are 'out in the barren', what did you mean?" Teyla asked, momentarily balking at mounting the spindly creature standing before her.

 

"The Dendrobian pump is marked by a few distinguishing landmarks—mesas, buttes, that sort of thing.  The Cattleyan and Vandan pumps, on the other hand, are out in the barren, meaning," she gave a small grimace, "you see nothing but sand, although you might see a rock wall or two in the far, far distance." 

 

"So," Ronon said, "the middle of nowhere."

 

Perrit glanced at him, then gave a nod. "Yes.  I just hope that, if Baylor is still alive, he will have his amulet to guide them." She grimaced, looking off into the distance, towards a canyon edge she could see from here.  For a moment, she didn't move, warring emotions coloring her features, but then the diplomat finally came back, and she stepped across to mount the meener in front of her.  Teyla and Ronon did the same, neither hiding their unhappiness at riding the creatures, however calm they seemed right now.

 

Perrit nodded to them, and they took off, riding full tilt out of the courtyard of her mansion.

 

One of Delian's soldiers watched from the side, his eyes following them as they took off.  Nodding at another guard standing nearby, he turned and jogged towards the center of Dendrobia.

_________________________________________________________

 

John kept his hand glued to Rodney's arm, pulling him up every dune—some of which were as large as small hills—and dragging him down the other side.  When his friend flagged, he just tugged harder.  He'd lost one man to a desert once.  He wasn't about to let that happen again.

 

They staggered and slipped, tripped and fell. At some point, his legs had taken on a sort of rubbery feel, like they would bend too far and bring him down, but, somehow, he stayed upright.  And he continued moving forward.  And he held on.  He kept Rodney going.  Because keeping Rodney going...kept him going.

__________________________________________________________

 

"Oh, Ancestor's blood," Perrit swore, pulling back hard on the reins, causing the meener to skid a few feet on the flagstone road.  Teyla and Ronon skidded with her, and all three stared towards where a force of several hundred guards were gathering in the distance, in the same direction as the path up out of the canyon.

 

And Teyla remembered that they'd passed by the Military Compound on their way here.  Apparently, Delian had gone to get reinforcements before facing Stella.

 

"I need to warn her," Perrit said, her eyes wide.

 

"I'm thinking she already knows," Ronon noted, pointing towards where several figures dressed all in black were standing not far away, watching the same gathering of tan guards.  "Those are hers, right."

 

Perrit just looked pained, her eyes flicking from the Lycastee to Delian's forces. 

 

"I did this," she whispered. "I've destroyed Orkidia."

 

Teyla glanced at the woman, her expression softening. "No, Ambassador.  Stella was right—from everything we have seen and learned since coming here, this was a long time coming.  You just provided the brand that finally set it alight.  Whatever happens here today—it was not your fault."

 

Perrit closed her eyes tightly, and the internal war she was waging was evident in every tense muscle in her thin frame.

 

Finally, she opened her eyes.  She looked, for want of a better word, desolate.

 

"We can not ride past that," she said quietly.  She turned her horse, her gaze searching the canyon walls around them.  "There are a few other paths out of the canyon, though none as wide or as quick as the main road that leads to the Dendrobian pump and the Stargate. Still, there is a narrow one near the Cattleyan water pump, and, being as that are is under Stebbin's control...." she trailed off, her eyes narrowing in one particular direction.  Then she nodded, and looked at them. "Follow me."  She kicked her horse, sending it running in a direction almost ninety degrees from their previous course, heading towards farmlands and a part of Orkidia they had not seen.

 ___________________________________________________________

 

It wasn't until the arm was literally wrenched from John's grip that he caught on to the fact that Rodney had been trying to get his attention for a while.

 

"What is wrong with you? Wake up! You have to listen!"  Of course, it wasn't shouted.  It was hoarsely delivered by someone who sounded like they'd spent the day screaming at the top of their lungs.  But, for Rodney, it was as close to shouting as he could probably get right now.

 

He blinked, and his vision cleared from the pinhole it had narrowed to.  God, tunnel vision.  Literal tunnel vision.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd had it so bad.  He was also shaking, and, now that he had stopped, a headache started to pound at his skull like someone had set up a construction crew in there.  He turned, blinking wearily at his friend.

 

"What?" he said, his own voice a painful croak. Without realizing it, he'd been walking with his mouth open, and he was finding closing it oddly difficult.

 

The relief on Rodney's face at his finally paying attention was clear, even despite the ugly reddish color it had taken on.  He looked like a lobster.  Except that man's lips were pale.  Chapped.  That can't be good. 

 

"You okay?" John asked, blinking through the gray haze. His eyes seemed to have a sort of film covering them, and he had to blink a few times to clear it.

 

"No.  And neither are you." Rodney drew in a painful sounding breath, which didn't sound like it got far past his mouth. "Just listen, will you?"

 

John frowned, looking around at the still featureless landscape.  All he could hear was wind.  That constant skin-scouring wind. 

 

"Listen," Rodney insisted softly, closing his eyes and swaying slightly.  Oh no, John thought, none of that!

 

"Wake up!" John snapped. "No eye closing!"

 

The blue eyes cracked open, and there was a semi-glare underlying them. "I'm trying to focus, you idiot."

 

"Focus with your eyes open."

 

Rodney gave a sigh, then rubbed at his head, kneading the dry skin, leaving white streaks in the red. "Look, I'm just trying to make you hear it.  It's low, really low, but it's there.  We're heading the wrong way.  We need to go that way."  He pointed vaguely to the right, then went back to kneading his forehead.

 

John frowned.  He didn't understand.  All he could hear was that high pitched screaming in his ears. 

 

His ears hurt, by the way.  The top of them stung like he'd been rubbing them in stinging nettles, while his inner ears pounded with a pain all their own, counterpointing the agony in his head.

 

"There's nothing out there, Rodney," he said.  God, he was so tired.

 

Rodney looked at him, frowned, and sighed again. "Okay, I know. It's like the treble's too high. Just think...think...bass.  Listen for the bass.  Ignore the screeching of the violins.  Focus on the bass."

 

Oddly, that actually made weird sense.  But John still didn't understand what....

 

His whole body froze when he heard it.  A low rumble, almost imperceptible.  He wouldn't have heard it if Rodney hadn't made him try to listen for it.

 

"What is it?" he asked.

 

Rodney gave a small smile, and his lips visibly cracked.  No blood came out—it was like he had none left to spare.

 

"Remember..." He swallowed, wincing when it obviously yielded nothing. "Remember when I turned on the water pump?  The noise it made?"  His voice was almost gone.

 

"A deep rumbling," John said, trying to source out the epicenter, turning a little to the left and then the right.  He remembered thinking then how loud the pump had been, and how they could probably be heard for miles...

 

He'd been exaggerating in his head.  At best, that rumble should only be audible from a couple, maybe three miles away.  

 

He looked up, staring in the same direction Rodney had pointed. Next to him, the scientist smiled.

 

"It's close," Rodney rasped.

 

John snorted a laugh, and glanced at Rodney. "We might make it," he said, not hiding his wonderment.

 

Rodney's smile softened, turning almost wry. "Yeah," he whispered. "I think you might."

 

And then he collapsed. 

____________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: FINDING THE WATER PUMP

 

 “You so owe me,” Sheppard rasped, his eyes glued to the sand directly in front of his shuffling feet. “So, so owe me.”  His eyes narrowed, thinking about Rodney’s ‘it’s your turn’ comment from earlier. “This goes way beyond tit for tat, McKay.  You’re going to owe me three, maybe four life saving rescues.  No.  Five.  Five, because, damn it, this isn’t about madmen or military or guns, this is about me, carrying you, across a desert.”

 

As he spoke, his voice barely louder than his breathing, he shifted the body hanging over his shoulder slightly, trying to find a less bone crushing position.  His ribs felt like they were about to collapse in on themselves like an accordion.  God, it hurt.  Everything hurt.

 

“You couldn’t have waited?” he continued, his vocal cords burning slightly, hating to be used.  He didn't care. “You couldn’t have waited until we could at least see the water pump?  No, oh no.  You just collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.  No warning, no last helpful words of advice regarding a certain impassable shield, no nothing.”

 

His foot slipped on the downward slide of a dune, and he braced, letting the sand carry him down.  He’d learned, if nothing else.  He could use the sand, sometimes.  The less you fought your environment, the better.

 

“Because you know what’s going to happen when we get to the pump, don’t you? There’s a shield protecting it.  A shield requiring an amulet that we don’t have. And how am I supposed to know how to get past it without you?” He sucked in lungful of overheated air, then let it out, feeling it burn his already scalded throat. “You’re supposed to come up with the fancy technology fixes, McKay, not me. You said it yourself.  I feed you ideas, but you do the actual work.  Sort of like, you have the idea of how to use a gun, but you let me do the firing.  Well, you’re not changing that dynamic now.  When we get there, let me tell you, you’re going to wake up and take over.  Find us the way in, because I’ll be done.  It’ll be my turn to collapse, got it?  I’ll faint, and you carry me.  Because, seriously…the carrying bites, McKay.”

 

He started up the next dune, digging his toes in as deep as he could, trying to get purchase as the sand pushed against his legs. 

 

“Did I mention how much you suck?” John asked in a whisper, leaning into the incline, feeling McKay shift again, sliding forward slightly across his shoulder. “Because you really suck right now.  What, you thought I’d just leave you out there?   No, you didn’t.  You knew I’d carry you, didn’t you?  You know me, know I’d never leave you behind.  So, of course, you faint. Leave me with the heavy work.  As usual.  Knew I’d pick you up and sling you over my shoulder. Knew I'd get you the rest of the way there. Never mind that I feel like hell.  Never mind that I’ve been out here as long as you have.  Never mind that, three times, Baylor nearly squeezed the life out of me.  You’re damn lucky I didn’t get that reperfusion thing, McKay.  Lucky I’m still strong enough to lug your ass.”

 

He crested the top of the dune, and started down the other side.  He didn’t stop to get his bearings, didn’t even look up.  He just watched his feet, kept them moving. 

 

His heels pressed into the sand, and he slid again.  Down…down…down…

 

His legs nearly gave up when he hit the bottom of the swell.  He wondered at how they were even still holding him up.  Holding them up. 

 

“I’m just saying,” he continued, “you don’t have the right to abuse my friendship like this.  You should have held on, stayed awake.  I warned you not to close your eyes, but did you listen?  No.  Just trying to focus, you said.  Called me an idiot.  Well, this idiot is going to save your life, and you are going to pay me back.  You are going to owe me.  And, for the record?  Saving everyone in Atlantis doesn’t count. Saving the team doesn’t count. The only saves that will count will be those that just save me. You got that?  Then, when you’ve done that five, six times, maybe, and I stress the maybe, I’ll think about saving your life again.”

 

The ground was trembling.  Ever so slightly, it was trembling.  A constant thrum.  The water pump, pulling up water from some aquifer, dozens of feet below the ground.  It was getting louder.  And he was grateful.

 

He had been following the noise, following the sensation of rumbling that he could feel in his bones.  He didn’t trust his eyes anymore.  Everything was gray, despite how bright the world should have been.  And he’d already walked through at least one mirage of the shiny water pump.  He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. 

 

He was nearly to the top of the next dune.  It felt like he was cresting Everest.

 

“And even then, I’m going to have to think about saving your life.  Because, if I didn’t mention it before?  Carrying you is now on my list of top ten things I never want to do again.  Not over my shoulder.  Not on my back. Not in my arms.  And never, never, in a coffin, you understand?  Whatever happens from now on, you are going to stay on your own two feet and walk of your own volition, and you're going to stay that way until I'm dead.”

 

He stepped over the edge, pressed his foot down and let it slide.  His other foot caught up, pressing into the sand.  Left, slide, right, slide, left…

 

Bottom.

 

He breathed out heavily, his ribs burning as he inhaled.  He had stitches and cramps and shin splints and aches on top of aches.  Nothing was going to work right for weeks after this.  Nothing.

 

“I am going to expect weeks of sucking up for this.  Weeks.  And you back me with Elizabeth, no matter what.  Sure, you usually do anyway, but occasionally you side with her, and that’s no good.  You side with me from here on out.  Every time, got it?  Every god damn time.  You're going to be my mini-me, understand?” 

 

He dug into the incline, toe pressing in as deeply as he could get it.  His calves were on fire, fighting the uphill press.  Come on…come on….

 

Up, up, up, up…

 

His vision suddenly went black, totally without warning.  His body just went down, and he went down with it. 

 

Backwards.

 

He was rolling.  McKay was rolling with him.  Falling, crashing, bones stretching and twisting and turning to jelly. 

  

He landed at the bottom of the swell, rolling up the next dune and coming to a stop.

 

Oh God.  Oh God, that hurt.  That really, really, really hurt.

 

He tried moving, but nothing reacted. 

 

“McKay,” he whispered.  His voice was almost inaudible, even to himself, the wind easily overpowering it.  Mostly, he was just forming the words on his tongue, saying them without volume.  But he believed Rodney could hear him anyway.  Just as he had to believe that they were both going to survive this. 

 

“Come on,” he whispered again, to himself this time. “Get up.  You have to get up.  If you don’t, he’ll die.  He can’t die.  Get. UP.”

 

His hands were tingling, and his arms shifted. 

 

“That’s it,” he said, feeling them press down on the sand beneath him. “That’s it.”  He was pushing up, pushing to his knees…

 

Rodney lay a few feet away, on his stomach.  Still unconscious. 

 

Sheppard wiped the back of his hand across his lips, trying to get rid of some of the sand, smacking his lips slightly at the saltiness he tasted.  It tasted oddly good.

 

“Rodney,” he said again, leaning over to the man on his right.  He pressed a hand to the man’s neck, waiting until he could feel the pulse, feel the breathing.  He was still in there. Leaning forward, he grabbed at the back of the vest, pulling on the fabric, winding his hand into the mesh.

 

And then he pulled.

 

Rodney shifted. 

 

Sheppard pulled again and got to his feet.

 

He turned, bent over like an old fishwife, his right hand still gripped inside the back of Rodney’s vest. 

 

And he started to drag McKay behind him.

 

“Once more into the breach,” he muttered, peering up at the incline that had nearly killed them.  The wind had already scoured away almost all evidence of their fall down its side. 

 

He dug his toe into the sand and climbed.

___________________________________________________

 

Teyla tried to quell the feeling of sea-sickness as the meener pulled itself up the path to the Cattleyan water pump.  Unlike the main path, this one was narrow and uneven with large rocks littering the way, forcing the meener to make dozens of small jumps.  When it wasn't jumping, it was dancing and skidding on the loose stone and pebbles—it amazed her they were still upright.  She could feel every muscle in both her mount's body and her own as she struggled to keep her seat, the animal shifting sideways and jumping as often as it flat out ran.  They were amazing creatures, but, the higher she got, and the steeper the drop off from the edge of the trail became, the more she had to concentrate on just keeping her balance.  Her jaw ached from gritting her teeth too hard.

 

She tried to keep her eyes on Perrit, leading the way, and to listen to the sounds of Ronon following behind her.  She would not be able to help her teammate if he fell, and it increased her nervousness. 

 

Suddenly, there was a crackle in the distance.  Perrit pulled up, her eyes wide, halting the meener on a flat portion of the trail.  She twisted in the saddle to stare behind her, towards the city, now just a sprawling collection of homes and buildings in the distance.

 

The crackle was gunfire. Rifles. Cracks and small booms echoed off the canyon walls.  Then came the staccato peppering of machine gunfire.  Perrit seemed frozen in place, her body a taut string of nerves.

 

"Perrit!" Teyla called, pulling up just next to the woman. "Perrit, keep moving."

 

The Ambassador flinched, and looked at Teyla.  Her jaw steeled a moment later, and she turned her head forward.  With a click of her tongue, she got her meener moving.

 

Teyla glanced once at Ronon over her shoulder, saw him watching her.  He gave a nod, and she nodded back.  It helped center her, and she turned her attention forward, on just getting to the top.

 

John and Rodney were up there, and she was not going to let them down.

———————————————————————————

 

Two more dunes, and John wasn't sure he was even conscious still.  It felt like a dream.  A horrible, thirst-deprived, unending dream.  The only thing that kept him from just lying down, from giving up, was the man he had somehow managed to sling over his shoulder again.  The dragging hadn't worked, not after he had a moment of terror thinking Rodney might have died when he wasn't looking.  He'd scrambled at the man's throat, almost strangling Rodney in his desperation to make sure he was still breathing. 

 

When he'd found him still there, he'd almost cried.  Probably, he would have, except that he had no tears.  And, for the first time in his life, he felt how much it hurt to not have tears in your tear ducts.  The muscles contracted, the eyes begged for moisture, but nothing came.

 

So he'd just picked Rodney up, draped him across both of his shoulders like an oxen yoke, and kept one hand on the man's wrist, holding it at the pulse point.  He soon found himself stepping in time, taking comfort in the steady rhythm.

 

He struggled up one more dune, steady as she goes.  The top sliced the cloudless blue sky like a knife-edge, and he pushed his legs towards it, forced them to stay up. 

 

He reached the top and lifted his head to look into the distance.  Dried, cracked lips broke into a smile and he almost fell to his knees. 

 

The water pump.

 

He stood atop the dune, staring down at the sandy plain below.  The cone shaped pump was a shining, silver diamond in the middle of the endless yellow.  Unlike the mirage from before, this one had depth and strength. Even better, it cast a shadow.

 

He knew it wasn't the one they'd been to before.  The surroundings were too different.  But he didn't care.

 

He slipped and skidding down the far side of the dune, almost falling in his haste.  Two lesser dunes later, and he was staggering up to the structure, aiming straight for the black shadow it cast, a vivid black swath that almost seemed alive to his tired eyes.  He crashed to his knees the moment he reached the black, relishing the sensation of cooler sand, and rolled Rodney off his shoulders.  Resting the other man on his back, he pressed his forehead against the other man's chest.

 

"We made it," he whispered.

 

Black started to encroach in on his vision, as his body felt his desire to stop.  To shut down.

 

"No, no, no," he whispered, looking up, squinting through the headache. "Not yet."

 

Sitting up, he blinked up at the pump, and frowned.  He couldn't see the shield, but he knew where the edge of it was, by the lack of sand. 

 

He had to get inside.  That meant getting through the shield.  But how?

 

The obvious answer was to find a way to take the shield down. 

 

"Okay," he muttered, "think this through.  You took it down once, when McKay had you open that outer panel.  You did it with a touch, but could anything open it?  If you hit it right?"  He exhaled slowly, looking down at the unconscious man with him.  Then he moved down the body to Rodney's feet and started to undo his shoes.

 

After all, metal passed through the shield without need of an amulet.  Perhaps clothes—like shoes—could as well. 

 

Quickly, he had both of McKay's boots off and he got back to his feet.  Now, to find the panel.

 

He wiped his arm across his mouth again, to get rid of the sand on his dry lips, and walked back out into the sun. 

 

"Find the door, first," he muttered.  He shuffled forward, his feet barely lifting from the ground as he began a slow circle around the cone, gaze locked on the smooth, silvery surface. 

 

He was almost 3/4 of the way around when he saw the fine lines edging the doorway.  Holding up a hand, he fixed the location in his mind, then backtracked to where the outer panel should be, mentally picturing where it had been on the other pump.

 

He blew out a soft sigh of relief when he found it.  It was almost invisible, but he could see it. 

 

Hefting the first of McKay's shoes, he aimed...then tossed it at the panel.

 

The shield rippled as the boot passed through, but the boot's trajectory was dampened down as the sand was pulled off of it.  Consequently, it hit the outside of the water pump a few inches below the panel.  Still—it had proven he could toss something through.  Heartened, he accommodated for the shield's pull and threw the second boot.

 

It sailed through perfectly, and hit the panel.

 

Which opened.

 

He whooped, actually bouncing and nearly collapsing when his legs protested, buckling.  He staggered, trying to get his balance back.  Breathing heavily, hands on his knees, he looked up and smiled at the open panel.

 

Three wires—white, red and green.  His smile faltered when he recognized just how close they were together from this distance. Too close.  They were also really, really small. 

 

Refusing to give up now, he pulled the knife out of the sheaf on his pants, hefting it in his hands.  His plan was to throw it and sever the white wire.  The problem was, if he hit the wrong one, namely the red one, he'd seal them out forever.

 

His aim had to be perfect. 

 

Well, he may not have Ronon's skill, but he was pretty good with a knife.  He could usually hit the target he aimed at.  The problem was, nine times out of ten he was off by a few centimeters.  He couldn't be off by a few centimeters here.

 

The knife felt cold in his fingers, which was incongruous.  It should be hot, but it was barely registering against his skin. 

 

He doubted it was the knife.  The skin was probably burning, but he couldn't tell anymore.  He had to do this.  For both their sakes.

 

He lifted his arm, his eyes never leaving the white wire.  He tested his arm's strength and follow through, faking a few practice throws.

 

Then he gripped the knife a little tighter, drew his arm back...and threw it.

 

The knife landed with a satisfying thunk in the panel...to the left of the white wire.  It had hit nothing at all.

 

For a moment, he just stared at it, quivering in place.  Useless. 

 

Somehow, he just...he thought...because he needed it so badly...that it would hit true.

 

Dazed, he turned away, staring out across the sands.  His footprints bringing him here were already fading.  Soon to be gone.

 

He blinked, and shuffled stepped back to the shadowed side of the water pump, to McKay still lying insensible on the ground.

 

"Rodney," he rasped, trying for some sort of sound.  He got up next to him, fell to his knees, and grabbed at the front of the man's jacket, fisting his hands into the fabric.  "Rodney," he rasped louder, pulling Rodney up.  "Wake up."

 

Rodney's head fell forward to his chest as he was tipped up. 

 

"No more lying down on the job," John whispered, giving him a shake. "Wake up.  I need to get us inside.  How do I get past the shield?"

 

He tipped Rodney all the way to a sitting position, then let the man's upper body bend forward over his legs.  John wrapped an arm around his back, gripping him tightly to hold him up.  He could feel him breathing, but he also knew it wouldn't last. It might already be too late for him.  For both of them.  He rested his forehead against the man's shoulder, in imitation of the way Rodney had rested his on John's shoulder before.

 

"Wake up," he begged softly. "Rodney, wake up.  I'm not letting you die because we can't get past a shield.  You need to wake up."

 

But Rodney didn't. 

 

———————————————————————————

 

They reached the top of the canyon, and the relief both Teyla and Ronon felt was palpable.  A short break to grab some water for themselves and the animals, and they were moving again.

 

In minutes, Perrit was pointing ahead, and they could see the Cattleyan water pump in the distance. 

 

The meeners sensed their riders need for additional speed, and picked up the pace. 

 

Ronon almost threw himself off his mount's back as they came up alongside, running on foot around the pump in a wide circumference.  Perrit climbed off her meener and strode inside the pump, the shield rippling as she passed through it.

 

Teyla stayed on her mount, standing up in the stirrups and peering in a circle at the almost monochromatic landscape.

 

When Perrit emerged a moment later, her lips pressed together thinly, they knew. They weren't here.

 

They had picked the wrong water pump.

______________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: SAVING EACH OTHER'S LIVES

 

"They could be anywhere within about fifteen miles of here," the Ambassador said, looking around at the endless sand. 

 

"Or they could be at the other pump," Ronon muttered, his frustration clear as he grabbed a fistful of sand off the ground and tossed it.

 

Teyla's eyes searched the surroundings, still looking for any sign of human passage. 

 

Perrit grimaced, then gestured in one particular direction.  "That is the way to the Dendrobian pump, which is probably where Baylor was taking them.  If Delian wanted to leave them somewhere, and get back to the main path down quickly, he would have put them somewhere between here and there."

 

Teyla studied that direction, eyes skimming the dunes, hoping for something.

 

"We could spread out, stay within visual distance, but head that way," Perrit suggested. "I'll keep us centered with the amulet and—"

 

"They are at the other pump," Teyla said then.

 

That earned her a moment's silence, then Perrit asked the question. "How do you know?"

 

"They've had time to find their way here, if they were close enough," Teyla said. "And Colonel Sheppard would not do anything less than get Rodney to the pump as quickly as possible, and Rodney would do the same for the Colonel.  So," she gave a small nod, "they must be at the other pump."

 

Perrit frowned. "But if you're wrong, and they're lost somewhere out there..." she gestured to the sands. 

 

Teyla drew in a breath, then closed her eyes.  When she opened them again, she was even more sure.  "They are at the other pump," she said again.

 

Ronon was already mounting his meener, but Perrit appeared uncertain.  Her eyes kept drifting in the direction of the Dendrobian pump.

 

"Perrit," Teyla said, "Please.  Trust me.  Can you take us to the other pump?"

 

The Ambassador grimaced, but gave a nod.  She walked back to her meener and remounted, turning the meener's head around to point in a direction away from the sun.  "Follow me," she said.

_________________________________________________________

 

Sheppard lifted his head, eyes far away from this place, as something obvious occurred to him.  Something so obvious, he was embarrassed that he was only realizing it now.

 

He looked down at Rodney, at the still features of the man's profile.

 

"You weren't worried," he whispered in wonder, raising his head even more.  "You weren't worried about getting through the shield." 

 

Rodney made a production out of anything he was worried about, or which he thought might take him some sort of effort to control or work.  Whether it was a small lab console in Atlantis, or the entire operating system of the Daedalus, he talked about it like he was going to be giving birth to it.  But the entire staggering walk here, he hadn't brought up the shield around the water pump once.  Had he been expecting John to find some way to sever that white wire, he would have been talking about it, worrying about it, moaning about it...But he hadn't.  Because he hadn't been worried about it.

 

"Why weren't you worried about the shield?" Sheppard asked, turning his head to peer at where he knew the shield to be.  "You knew we didn't have an amulet, knew I couldn't be expected to cut that wire first try, so...."

 

He trailed off, and his mind started to buzz with forgotten memories, thoughts and unasked questions. 

 

When they’d arrived here the second time, and Perrit had lead them down into the canyon, McKay had hummed his ‘not necessarily’ noise when Perrit had stated that the amulets were the only way to get past the shield.  John had meant to ask what that meant, but he'd forgotten all about it in the melee that followed.  Which meant Rodney had known then of another way, and one that he must have believed John would be able to figure out.  Or perhaps he thought John already knew, which is why he didn't bring it up.  But why?

 

What was it he was supposed to already know?

 

He closed his eyes, trying to remember when McKay first worked on the shield.  He’d taken it down, then put it back up to reset the pump and get it working again.  But John had already tried that route, tried getting to those three wires.  That couldn't be it.  So...

 

Rodney had also worked on the shield during the firefight, expanding it so they could get to Dazy, to retrieve his amulet, and to make the shield impervious to bullets, and….

 

Hang on a minute.

 

John rolled his eyes, closing them in shame.

 

Oh good God.  Rodney was right. 

 

He was an idiot.

 

Like a movie reel, he played what had happened when they were first attacked inside his head, his ears ringing with gunfire and McKay’s terrified voice in his ear.

 

McKay squealed, throwing his arms over his head as sand was sprayed up around them, bullets rapidly pelting the soft earth and pinging against the metal of the water pump behind them.  Sheppard was already up and firing back, his P-90 braced on the shallow dune they were cowered behind, firing at anything that moved.  Dazy's body was, morbidly, providing some cover—it was probably why they weren't dead yet. 

 

"Get inside!" he yelled at Rodney, "Crawl to the door!" 

 

McKay complied immediately, yelping as more sand erupted around his crawling form as he practically rolled inside the force field.  The attackers were also apparently firing on anything that moved.  Sheppard kept up his spray until McKay was inside, then grimaced at the realization that now he was trapped.  He couldn't get up to follow McKay without cover fire, but he couldn't stay out here either.  Eventually one of the bullets would....

 

"Roll inside the force field's edge!" McKay suddenly yelled from the darkened interior.  "Now!"

 

Sheppard acted instantly, rolling sideways.  It only took one roll, and he glanced up in time to see a bullet hit the force field about the height of his raised shoulder and stop.

 

They'd rolled inside the shield.  They'd just rolled right through it, without a thought.  Dazy had been on the outside, dead, his amulet no longer working.  They shouldn't have been able to get back in, and yet they had just rolled back inside.  And McKay had known right then and there...

 

"You okay?" Rodney asked.

 

"Yeah." John replied. "You?"

 

"Fine, fine...scared shitless, but fine." McKay sucked in a breath, then looked back out the door.  "Dazy?"

 

"Dead."

 

"Really?" Rodney sounded surprised. " Then how...oh. Must be attuned...."

 

And the scientist had trailed off then, already on to the next idea.  Never finishing the statement out loud.  But John knew what the rest of it was now.  That might have been the slowest catch up to a Rodney McKay idea he'd ever had.

 

The shield was attuned to the ATA Gene.  They didn't need an amulet.  And now he also knew why McKay hadn't offered up the fact that the gene had given them access to the control room down in the Council Chambers—because he hadn't wanted Baylor to know they didn't need the amulet in either place.  They could walk right in to the pump just as easily as they had walked into the room.

 

Sheppard sat up fully, his eyes widening, then narrowing.  He twisted around, looking at the edge of the shield a foot behind his back.  Lying McKay down again, he turned on his knees and tentatively reached a hand to touch the shield.  He’d seen it kill a woman.  If he was wrong about this…

 

Well, let’s face it.  Could he actually hurt more?

 

His fingers stretched forward, and, stopping to hold his breath, he reached and touched the edge of the shield.

 

And watched his fingers pass right through.

 

"Oh," he groaned.  McKay was never going to let him live this down if he told him.  Well, clearly, he wasn’t going to tell him.

 

Especially now that he finally knew he could save both their asses. 

 

His heart beating faster in his chest, he forced himself back to his feet, and he leaned over to grab for McKay’s wrist, and pulled.

 

Moments later, he was dragging the scientist behind him like a child dragging a broken teddy bear, making his way to the side where the door was.  He stopped a moment, glancing over at his knife still in the panel, then, with a small sigh, he stepped forward and walked through the shield.  It was like walking through a cool shower—and it was wonderful.  Sand was pulled off of his clothes, face and hair.  Even his lips felt cleaner, and he no longer had grit in his eyes. 

 

The door slid open before him, bathing him in cool, moisture laden air.  God, he loved the Ancients right now.

 

He staggered inside, pulling an equally sand free Rodney in with him, and stopped in the middle of the room.  Water bubbled and churned inside the glass tubes, pulled up from below, and everything looked beautiful.

 

A tiny part of his brain wondered if he wasn't a little bit high.

 

Settling McKay where he was, he staggered over to the main console and turned it on with a touch.  Pressing his hands to the surface, caring nothing for the symbols and keys and crystals, he bowed his head and begged for the Ancient pump to give him water. Rodney hadn't been worried about getting water from the pump either, so John figured it might be just as simple as asking for it.  He was dying of dehydration, he told the machinery, his friend was also dying, he needed water…

 

There was a soft “shush” behind him.  Feeling almost like he was floating, John turned to discover that a small portion of the wall had slid open to reveal three glasses.  Apparently, everything on this planet was done in threes.  As he watched, two spigots appeared and filled two of the glasses with water.  Another spigot then appeared, and it dropped a white powder into both glasses, the powder dissolving instantly, leaving behind nothing but clear, clean looking water.

 

He wasn’t sure what the powder was, but if the pump understood his mental prayer at all, it was probably electrolytes and salt. 

 

With a shaking hand, he reached in, hoping that the whole thing wasn’t a mirage.  He’d planned on coming in and using his knife to cut into the glass tubes somehow in case just begging the Ancient machinery with his gene hadn't worked.  But this was much better.  Provided it was real.  He wasn’t sure he trusted that it was real…

 

His fingers clasped around glass, cool, smooth, soft glass. 

 

Drawing out the first cup, he lifted the liquid to his lips and just moistened them.  They stung a little, but it was a refreshing sort of sting.  Tipping the glass back, he took a small sip, and closed his eyes as the salty-tasting water slipped over his tongue and into his burning throat. 

 

Opening his eyes, he stared for a moment at the second glass, which he hadn’t taken yet, then turned and walked around the console to the center of the room.  The other glass would keep.  He knew where they were now.

 

As soon as he reached the other man, his knees buckled, and he barely kept the glass upright as he landed hard on the metal floor, dizziness and pain washing over him with equal abandon.  Steeling himself to stay awake just a little longer, he got one hand under Rodney’s head, tilting it up.  Pressing the glass to the pale, chapped lips, he let a small amount spill out into his mouth. 

 

Rodney coughed slightly, then, wonder of wonders, he swallowed. 

 

John took another sip from the glass, his vision darkening as he focused almost entirely on the sensation of the wetness across his lips. 

 

He then dribbled more water into Rodney’s lips, and watched him cough again for a minute before swallowing again.

 

John smiled.

 

And at some point, sometime after he was sure both he and Rodney had drunk at least a quarter of the glass, he couldn't fight it anymore.  His vision had begun to spin, and his hearing had faded to a sort of dull roar. It was worse than being drunk. He set himself down next to his friend, patted his chest one more time and let his hand slide down to rest on Rodney's good shoulder.  He didn't even remember closing his eyes, just felt strangely cold as the world disappeared in a wash of black. 

 

The Ancient machinery around them whirred and reacted, sending more moisture into the air in reaction to the damaged bodies it sensed lying on the floor.

 

It also sent out a distress signal.

 

———————————————————————————

 

Elizabeth was pacing, feeling the clock ticking in the back of her mind.  She had said an hour.  It had been 57 minutes.

 

She glanced out of her office towards the control room, to where Chuck was, once again, watching her, his hands resting atop the DHD.  She could see that seven of the eight symbols were already lit.  He was just waiting for her to say go.

 

A flash of brightness, and her eyes caught the door off the control room leading to the balcony opening.  Connam strode inside with Simpson, the woman gripping his hand.  She dropped it the instant they were back amongst people again.  Elizabeth had to smile slightly, touched by the tiny moment.

 

Then she was striding out of her office and nodding at Chuck.  The wormhole formed before she reached his side.

 

"Okay," she said, "Send through the—"

 

"Doctor Weir?" Doctor Simpson sounded confused, and Elizabeth paused, turning to look at her.  The scientist was staring behind Elizabeth at the main console screen.  Simpson's eyes shifted to meet Elizabeth's, then back to the screen. "Atlantis is picking up a distress signal from the planet," her brow furrowed deeply, "and it includes medical information."

 

Elizabeth swiveled in place to stare at the screen behind her, her eyes quickly translating the information.  Her jaw steeled, and she pointed a finger at Chuck. "Send it down to the infirmary." At the same time, she hit her radio. "Doctor Beckett, we have a situation." Her eyes narrowed, "How quickly can you be ready to go off world?"

___________________________________________________________

 

Perrit was riding hard, leaning low over her mount, and Teyla and Ronon imitated her riding style as best they could, just trying to keep up with the skilled rider. 

 

Teyla wasn't sure how far they'd come, or how quickly they were moving, but she could tell it was fast.  The meeners knew how to run.  She had a vague memory of Dodge, when Connam's large dram was allowed to full out run.  The creature had outrun a land-vehicle.  The meeners, if she were able to judge by the speed of the scenery sliding past, were even faster.

 

Perrit shouted something, but it was lost in the wind.  But Teyla knew what she had been pointing out.  She could see it.  The Vandan water pump.  The silver structure shone, beckoning them to hurry.

 

Ronon pulled up next to her, smiling tightly. Hope in his gaze.  Teyla felt it too, her heart beating faster in her chest.

 

The door was open.  Someone was inside.

 

As before, the meeners seemed to put on an extra burst of speed, and, within minutes, they were skidding to a halt in front of the pump, the animals spraying sand up like an ocean wave.

.

Perrit reached the pump first, leaping off the back of her meener and running inside, her green amulet glowing as she breached the shield.  Teyla was only a half-second behind her, proud that she only staggered a little when she finally slid off the meener's back.  Ronon almost went down when he jumped off his mount, his legs bowing ominously, but he straightened and was on Teyla's heels as they followed Perrit inside. Teyla barely felt the shield rippling around her, pulling the sand and dust off their clothes and skin.

 

Then Teyla was running, sliding down onto her knees next to Rodney and John.  The scientist was on his back in the middle of the floor, and Sheppard lay on his side, his hand resting on Rodney's shoulder.  Next to John, a glass was upended where he'd apparently knocked it over, and water pooled on the ground by his head. 

 

"John?" Teyla called, pressing a hand to his neck, letting out a held breath when she felt a pulse. "Rodney?"  She pressed a hand to the scientist's neck next, then to his cheek.  Both were still alive, but both felt dry as paper...and just as fragile.  Her eyes catalogued the bruises on their exposed skin, the sunken eyes and cheeks, Rodney's gunshot wound and the amount of blood on the bandage, the rope burns on their wrists....All that was nothing if they did not get fluids into them now.  But, at this stage, water wasn't going to work. 

 

They needed Carson.

 

"I can ride to the gate," Ronon said, leaning over Teyla's shoulder.  She looked up at him, and gave a nod.

 

"Hurry. I do not think they—"

 

She was interrupted by the staccato of machine gun fire outside.  It was a short spray—obviously only intended to get their attention, and to serve as a warning and a threat.

 

"Perrit!" Delian's voice echoed from outside, and Perrit emitted a cry of surprise, covering her mouth with her hand. "Outlanders Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex!" Delian continued, shouting hoarsely. "We know you are inside.  Come out with your hands raised, and no one will be harmed!"

 

"Huh," Ronon muttered, moving quickly to the door, his blaster in both hands as he pressed himself against the curve of the wall next to it. "Funny. I don't believe him."

 

"No," Teyla agreed.  She gave one last look to John and Rodney, resting her hand briefly on John's head, then turned to look at Ronon. "Neither do I."  Getting back to her feet, she moved to the door to stand on the opposite side of the open doorway from Ronon.

 

"What is he doing here?" Perrit asked, her bewilderment clear.  She was standing off to the side, wringing her hands together. "He should be down in the canyon.  We heard guns firing."

 

"Apparently," Teyla said, a frown on her face as she peeked out the doorway, "he still believes we are the greater threat."  Outside the door, she spotted about half a dozen figures in both black and tan using dunes as cover, machine guns pointed towards the pump.  She did her best to track their movements, but, until they started firing or someone actually got close, she was going to hold her fire.  Their ammunition was not endless.  Ronon obviously felt the same, because he too held his fire, his eyes tracing the dunes that she could not see from her vantage point.

 

Teyla looked back at the Ambassador, who was now staring down at John and Rodney on the floor.

 

"Perrit," Teyla said, getting the older woman's attention. "Can you do anything to help us?  Adjust the shield, for example, like Rodney did?"

 

Perrit grimaced, but gamely moved over to the active consoles.  She studied the information on them, then, slowly shook her head, wrapping her arms around her thin frame as if afraid to even try.

 

"No," she said softly. "I'm sorry.  I...I never paid close enough attention when my son showed me how it all works.  I know the basic commands, but nothing more."

 

"Basic commands?"

 

"Turn the pump on and off, and...that's about it."  She looked up at Teyla. "I'm sorry."

 

Teyla sighed, and returned her attention to the landscape outside of the water pump.  She hadn't really expected anything, but she had to try.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Perrit pull a silk scarf out of the small pack she carried.  Moving back to the two men lying on the floor, she knelt down and wet it in the pool of water next to John and Rodney.  She then started to run it gently across both their lips and across their sunburned skin. 

 

"Perrit!" Delian shouted again, and Teyla saw Perrit flinch. "Ambassador, we do not want to harm you!  But you must understand the danger you have put us in!  If you surrender, I promise, no harm will befall you!"

 

Ronon snorted. He looked back at the woman, who had stilled in her ministrations.

 

"Perrit!" Delian shouted again. "Please!  Come out!  We could have killed you already, without providing this warning, but we are trying to give you a chance to redeem yourself.  Surrender to us, and help me end the battle down in the canyon!"  He paused, then added, "I'll give you a couple of minutes to think, but..." he paused again, "Perrit, you know what the right thing to do is."

 

Teyla saw Ronon shake his head, his features betraying his clear frustration. "We're trapped again," he muttered.

 

Teyla nodded.  She knew.  Ronon turned his attention back to Perrit, who was still staring off into space, the older woman's expression inscrutable.  He frowned slightly, glancing at the machine gun Perrit was carrying, then to Teyla.  He raised an eyebrow. 

 

Teyla just pursed her lips, and gave a single head shake.  She knew what he was thinking—what if Perrit suddenly turned on them to save herself?  She was in a perfect position, kneeling over their vulnerable teammates.  All she had to do was place the gun to John's head and order them to drop their weapons.  Or she could simply turn her weapon on them, kill them both dead. 

 

"Ronon?" Perrit called, and Ronon looked back at her briefly before returning his attention to the outside.

 

"What?"

 

"Did..." she paused, as if unwilling to ask the question, then continued. "Did you or Teyla see Baylor out there at all?  He's not inside here, and..."  She trailed off, grimacing down at the two men she was caring for.

 

"No," Ronon said. "But I wasn't really looking."

 

"I did not see him either," Teyla said. "Why?"

 

"Just," Perrit tilted her head, staring down at them, "they do not have an amulet with them."  She seemed to drift a moment, lifting her hand to rest it lightly on Rodney's forehead, then gave a quiet nod.  Teyla tensed, and she saw Ronon half turn, in case he needed to point his weapon at the Ambassador. 

 

What Perrit hadn't said out loud was that, somehow, Rodney and John must have found a way to enter the pump without an amulet, which could— if Perrit subscribed to any of Delian's paranoia about Outlanders—make them more of an actual threat.  Of course, Teyla knew the Atlantians would never take advantage of it.  But did Perrit? 

 

Slowly, the older woman stood up and turned to face them.  She met their gazes evenly, then smiled softly, obviously not missing anything in their expressions.  Without a word, she moved to stand just behind Teyla, and turned her gaze to the floor.  Ronon kept his gun primed to fire on her if need be, but Perrit made no move for the gun she carried. 

 

Actually, her right hand now rested on the blue amulet she wore around her throat, next to the green one that had granted them access.  Ronon grimaced at her strange quiet, then turned his gaze to Teyla.

 

"What do we do?" he asked.  Teyla met his gaze, then gave a headshake. 

 

"I do not know."

 

"I do," Perrit said, finally lifting her gaze to meet theirs. Smiling once more, she lifted the green amulet from around her neck and held it out to Teyla. "Take this."

 

Teyla frowned, but she took it.  "What are you doing?"

 

"Baylor found another use for this amulet," Perrit said, holding the blue one tightly in her hand now.  "I'm going to find out if I can use it as he did."  She stepped forward, as if to walk around Teyla to the outside, but Ronon thrust his hand out, stopping her.

 

"Are you crazy?  What are you doing?"

 

"Saving Orkidia," she replied. "I hope."  She looked down, then over to Teyla.  "May I borrow your radio?"

 

Teyla stared at her a moment, then, without a word, handed her the radio.

 

Perrit depressed the green button and held it up to her lips. "Delian.  This is Perrit.  I'm coming out, and I want to talk.  I think I deserve that after all these years." She drew in a breath, then added. "I will not be armed."

 

There was a pause, then, "What about the Outlanders?"

 

"They are staying inside, and they will remain armed."

 

"How do I know they won't shoot me?"

 

Perrit gave a nod, obviously having expected that. "For the same reason that I'm going to trust your soldiers not to shoot me.  If they kill you, then I assume I will die as well.  What do you say?"

 

The hesitation was longer this time, but, finally, he answered. "I accept."

 

Perrit lowered the radio, staring out into the sands for a moment, clearly not really seeing them.  She then turned and handed the radio back to Teyla.

 

"Your people will come for you soon, of that I am certain," she said calmly, meeting Teyla's gaze without fear or worry. "But I have to do this."

 

"What do you mean?" Teyla asked, frowning.  "Do what?"

 

"Delian is a great leader, but he is a military leader, not a leader of the people.  His soldiers do not think for themselves—and that is his greatest weakness."  She looked down at the machine gun she carried, then up at Teyla. "May I have the pistol you carry?"

 

Teyla arched an eyebrow.  A moment later, she pulled out the pistol they had taken from Dawson and handed it over.  Perrit slid it inside the cream jacket she wore, then looked up at the Athosian.

 

Teyla grimaced. "Perrit..."

 

But the Ambassador shook her head.  Smiling lightly, she reached up and touched Teyla's face lightly. "Thank you for everything," she said warmly, and shifted her gaze to encompass Ronon as well, then Rodney and John. "All of you."

 

Teyla frowned, not understand the thanks, but before she could ask, Perrit had lowered her hand and turned to the door.  Settling her shoulders, the Ambassador lifted her head and moved to stand in center of the doorway, letting it frame her for a moment.

 

Then she strode out into the sunlight.

 

"She's going to kill him, isn't she?" Ronon muttered quietly, watching Perrit drop her machine gun to the ground and walk forward with her arms raised. 

 

"Yes," Teyla said, her gaze on the black clad, silver-haired man stepping over a dune and walking towards the Ambassador.  Delian held onto his machine gun, but he didn't point it at Perrit.

 

"They'll kill her if she does," Ronon said, his jaw tensing.

 

"Yes," Teyla replied quietly. "She knows."

___________________________________________________________

 

Perrit let Delian walk up to within three feet of her, then held up a hand. "That's close enough," she said softly.

 

The commander nodded, and stopped. The machine gun he carried was hanging by a strap from his left shoulder, and he made of show of tucking it against his side so that it wasn't pointed at her.  The closest he would get to also being "unarmed."

 

The two people faced each other quietly, one all in black, the other all in white.  Sand swirled and eddied around them, but didn't touch them.  Perrit's blue amulet saw to that.  Delian tilted his head.

 

"You wanted to talk," he stated quietly.

 

Perrit nodded. "Why are you here, Delian?"

 

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly before answering.  His eyes were soft, meeting hers with regret.

 

"They're too dangerous, Perrit.  These people," he glanced towards the water pump, "they know too much about us, about the fragility of the water pumps and the weapon, and the damage they've already caused by their mere presence..."  He shook his head, clearly blaming the fight down in the canyon on them, if not other things, and focused back on her. "You should never have brought them to Orkidia, Perrit.  It was a mistake.  But," he pressed his lips together, "we can fix it still.  I have to believe that."

 

"By killing them?" Perrit asked.      

 

"Yes."

 

She stared at him a moment, then glanced to one of his soldiers aiming his gun at her.  She continued to stare, until the man lowered his gaze, then she looked back to Delian and shook her head once.

 

"I still do not understand, Delian."

 

He grimaced.  "I'm sorry," he said. "Per, I know you don't want to hear this, but the Outlanders can't be allowed back through the Stargate.  If you had just asked around at the markets you'd know—these people are desperate; they have no home.  If these two are allowed to return, how long before they come back, this time with troops?  With more of those invisible ships?" He shook his head, "They want we have, Per, as everyone in this galaxy does—they want freedom from the Wraith, meaning they want our home.  Can't you see?  They've even managed to turn us against each other—Stella, Stebbins and Jaquette down in the canyon, Baylor up here...And now you." He shook his head again. "They can't succeed, Perrit. And the only way to ensure that they do not win is to make sure they never get the chance to report back to their leader."

 

Perrit absorbed this stoically, her eyes showing nothing of what she felt. "Yes," she said quietly. "Fine.  I understand why you wish the Outlanders dead, but what of the Lycastee down in the canyon?  Of Stella and the others?  Shouldn't you be down there with your troops? I would have thought dealing with the Lycastee—with your own people—would have been more important?"

 

"No.  The only danger, the real danger, is inside that water pump." Delian pursed his lips, but shook his head. "My men have orders to hold the Lycastee in the main square, but to avoid harming them.  Once this is over, I will travel down, with, I hope," he nodded at her, "you at my side, and we can talk this out with Councilor Stella.  Get her to lay down arms and see reason."

 

Perrit's eyebrows furrowed slightly. "I do not believe Stella will be so easily talked down, Delian."

 

He gave a small smile, "With you on my side, Perrit, I believe we can make her listen.  And if not," he gave a small shrug, "perhaps there is a common ground we can find.  I do not wish to quell all rebellion, but we need to ensure that no one is hurt because of it.  Together," his smile grew, "I'm sure we can accomplish peace.  We can make Orkidia safe again."

 

Perrit just stared back.  Delian's smile fell again.  He shook his head.

 

"Per," he said, and there was a plea beneath his tone, "you know I have to do this.  I have to kill them.  I take no joy in this, just as I took no joy in killing Baylor or the other two Outlanders, but the threat they pose to Orkidia has to be dealt with. Don't you see? They are the source of the poison, and I need to destroy it before it's too late.  It's the only way I can make sure that you and everyone else will remain safe. It's the only way Orkidia can remain secure, inviolate. You know this. Once the Outlanders are gone, the rest will fall into place, as it has always done.  But they—"

 

"It really was you, wasn't it?" Perrit asked then, softly. "Part of me didn't really believe it." She swallowed, "But I do now."

 

Delian frowned, obviously not getting the non-sequitor.  "What?"

 

"You killed my son."

 

The commander stopped breathing for a moment, then, swallowing, he gave a nod. "Yes.  I had no choice, Perrit.  It was the only way."

 

"You killed my son, Delian," Perrit said again, her eyes narrowing.

 

Delian's jaw tensed and loosened, and he gave another nod. "I did what I had to, for Orkidia."  He met her gaze evenly, "And I will do it again.  Perrit, please understand, I--"

 

"Did you honestly believe," Perrit said, almost whispering, "that I would forgive you for that?  That I would understand?  Do you not get this, Delian?  You killed my son!"

 

Delian frowned, and he shifted back a step. "Per..."

 

But Perrit was shaking her head, "No, Delian, no more words.  You've said enough."  She looked up at him, and there were tears in her eyes. "My son was my life, Delian. My life. And you took that away."  She tilted her head. "Why did he not get this warning, Delian? This, this," she looked around, "this chance to speak to you?"  She took a step back from him. "Because you love me?  Is that it?"

 

Delian's face looked pained, "Per, please, you know how I feel about you, but it's not important right now. Please, just listen—"

 

"No," she said, her voice shaking, "I will not. I've had enough of this horror, Delian.  My son is dead, my friends are dead or dying, Orkidia is falling apart, and you, the one person I trusted more than anyone else...."  She stared at him, and raised a shaking hand to her face.  "The one person whom I...I..." She let out a shaky breath, and lowered her hand, shaking her head. "What kind of a man are you, Delian, that you could just shoot my son in the back, and then tell me, to my face, that you had no choice?"

 

Delian was the one with the stoic expression now, all cold hard lines and steeled jaw.

 

"He brought these Outlanders here," he said, his tone as dark as pitch.

 

"Yes," Perrit said, tears rolling down her face, "And so did I.  And you know what, Delian?" She gave a pained smile. "I'd do it again. So, you'll have to kill me now as well.  And you'll have to kill Stella and Jaquette and Stebbins and everyone else who might threaten your walled in little world." Her eyebrows lifted. "Is that what you are prepared to do?  Kill everyone you've sworn to protect? Kill everyone you love?"

 

Delian just frowned at her, then looked away.  When he looked back, all softness was gone from his gaze.

 

"I'm sorry, Per," he said.

 

She shuddered, but nodded, obviously expecting this.  She took another step back, and her left hand wrapped tightly around the blue amulet hanging from around her neck.  It shone bright blue between her fingers, and seemed to get brighter as she met his gaze.

 

"You killed my son, Delian," she repeated one last time. "I will not let you kill anyone else."

 

Blue light flashed, blinding everyone in the vicinity, so no one, not even Delian himself, blown back by a wall of air, saw Perrit pull out the pistol and fire it at his heart when he landed.

____________________________________________________________

 

Teyla blinked, trying to rid her vision of black spots.  Neither she nor Ronon had been prepared for that flash of light—fact was, she wasn't sure exactly what happened.  It looked like Delian had been shoved backwards, but no one had touched him.  And then, just as suddenly, Perrit had shot him.

 

The Ambassador stood alone now, staring down at Delian lying on the ground a few feet away from her.  The pistol fell from her fingers, and she seemed to crumple in on herself.

 

Delian's men suddenly screamed in agony, and both Teyla and Ronon flinched as machine gun fire filled the air, every gun aimed at Perrit.

 

She never stood a chance.  She didn't even try.

 

Teyla averted her eyes, breathing out slowly, trying to lessen the volume of the gunfire in her ears.  Swallowing, she looked up at Ronon, who was still staring grimly out the open door, his gun raised.

 

Then, just as suddenly, the machine guns were aimed in their direction, and bullets started to rain down on the water pump as loud as explosions inside the metal structure.  Both she and Ronon were forced to duck fully back inside, backs pressed to the frame on either side of the open doorway.  Consoles sparked and exploded from ricochets through the open door, and a glass shattered in a small space located behind the main console.

 

Teyla braced herself, covering her ears with her hands, waiting it out. When the amount of fire finally waned, she turned and started firing out the door with her borrowed machine gun, aiming at anything that moved.  Opposite her, Ronon did the same with his blaster, covering the other side of the dunes.     

 

She ducked back inside when they started firing again in full force.  More of the water pump took damage, and she grimaced when the glass tube in the center cracked from an impact, and water started to dribble and spray out of it.  Delian's men didn't care about the damage—their gunfire was the uncontrolled fury of those who have lost a beloved leader.

 

Frowning, she looked up to make sure Rodney and John weren't hurt, and almost gasped.

 

Rodney was looking at her.

 

"Rodney?" she called.  Ronon looked at her in surprise, then back at the scientist.  He gave a quick smile, which Rodney didn't return—or couldn't.  A bullet smacked into a console above Rodney's head then, and the scientist's gaze shifted upwards to look at it.  Ronon went back to returning fire, his sense of purpose obviously renewed.  Teyla, though, felt how light her borrowed weapon had become—she'd run out of bullets soon—and knew she had to risk moving away from the door.

 

"Cover me," she said to Ronon. He gave a quick nod, firing more vigorously, and Teyla was on her feet immediately, running in a bent over position to reach the scientist's side.  The whirr of Ronon's blaster filled in the space behind her as she skidded down next to Rodney.

 

"Rodney," she breathed, kneeling next to him, smiling even as more bullets ricocheted inside above her head.  "Rodney, can you hear me?"

 

His blue eyes were half-lidded, but they had followed her movements, and still were.  His lips formed a word, and Teyla smiled.  He'd tried to say her name.

 

"Yes," she said. "It's me.  We're here."

 

He gave a tiny, painful looking smile, and tried to speak again.  His lips formed another obvious name—Sheppard—and he turned his head to look towards the unconscious Colonel.  Teyla nodded again.

 

"He's alive," she said.  Rodney tried another smile, but it faded almost immediately.  His eyes started to close again, and Teyla grabbed his hand.

 

"No, Rodney, don't.  You can't fall asleep.  We..." she glanced back at Ronon, who was obviously firing out the door at anything that moved, then back to the scientist. "Rodney, we need your help."

 

His brow furrowed, but the words obviously meant something, because his eyes blinked open and he tried to speak again. Leaning her ear closer to his lips, she just made out the whispered words.  He was asking where they were.

 

"The water pump," Teyla replied, sitting up to look at him. "And we're under fire."

 

He frowned, and Teyla leaned in to hear him again.  When she sat up again, she was shaking her head. "No, we didn't bring you here.  We found you here already." She lowered her head, squeezing his hand tightly. "Rodney, I need to know, can you...," she licked her lips, ducking as more bullets pinged over head. "Can you do what you did before?  Make the shield impervious to bullets?"

 

Rodney blinked at her, and his eyes drifted down to her stomach.  He lifted his other hand slightly, pointing to something there.  She looked down, and realized he was pointing to the amulet hanging there from the band around her neck.  She nodded.

 

"Yes," she said encouragingly, lifting up the amulet. "I have Perrit's green amulet.  Does that help?"

 

His lips moved, then stilled, obviously giving up on speech. Instead, he just managed a small nod. Teyla smiled in relief, but it faded when Rodney suddenly frowned and his head tilted back.  His expression now evidenced pain, and she didn't understand why.  She reached down and grabbed his other hand, pressing it together with his other and between her own. 

 

"Rodney?" she called. "Rodney? What is it?"

 

His lips moved again, so she leaned over to hear.

 

"Can't move," he whispered, and even in a whisper, she could hear the pain he was in.

 

Fear spiked through Teyla at the words, but she knew that, unless they did something soon, it wouldn't matter.  None of them could survive in here—those ricochets could be just as deadly as a straight shot.

 

"If I can get you to the main console," she asked him, "can you fix the shield?"

 

Rodney stared at her for a long moment, then gave a nod.  Teyla gave a quick smile of relief, then slid her arms under him, pulling him away from John and into a sitting position.  He gasped out a pained breath, and Teyla tried to hurry. 

 

Wrapping her arms more fully around his torso from the back, she started to pull, backing them towards the main console.  Rodney's head lolled forward, and he made no more noises—either of pain or to say something.  She couldn’t see his face—she just hoped he hadn't passed out again.

 

She shrieked when a bullet whizzed past her ear, pressing herself into Rodney and down, trying to protect them both.  Ronon swore loudly, and there was an increase in weapons blasts from his gun. 

 

Breathing hard, she lifted her head and started pulled Rodney again, sliding him across the metal floor, grateful for how smooth it was, even if it was now littered it bits of burnt metal and, to some degree, water.

 

It seemed almost painfully long, but she finally maneuvered them behind the main console.  Using it as a brace, she pulled Rodney up, propping him up on her knee, and then on the console itself.  She tried not to think about how much it felt like she was shifting deadweight.

 

Finally, she had him propped almost completely upright, leaning half on her, half on the console, her arms wrapped around his torso.  She tried to lean to the side, so she could see his face—to see if he was still with them.

 

But her worry was answered when his left hand lifted and rested on the console.  The fingers trailed across the crystals, then down to the round keys.  He started depressing buttons, slowly and methodically.  The small screen at the top of the console started streaming information, and Teyla tried to follow it as it move from screen to screen.

 

She wished she could see Rodney's face.

 

"Gah!" Ronon shouted, flinching back from the door, and Teyla watched as he fell to the side, shaking his left arm.  Blood splattered from a new stripe across his bicep. 

 

"Ronon?" she called.  He shook his head at her, but kept it down so she couldn't see his face behind his dreads.

 

"I'm fine," he growled, out, and, as if to prove it, he was back at the door, firing out into the sands.

 

Teyla gritted her teeth, and hugged Rodney a little closer.  "Hurry," she whispered in his ear.

 

She felt him give a short laugh at that.  She frowned a little in annoyance, about to ask what he found funny, when he suddenly became much heavier, his hand slipping from the keys.  Lifeless. 

 

"No!" she shouted. "Rodney, no! Not yet!  Please, you have to stay awake long enough to—"

 

"He already did," Ronon said from over by the door, his tone slightly awed. He was staring outside.  Teyla frowned, not understanding.  

 

"What?"  She was confused, because they were still clearly firing. "But I can still hear..."  She trailed off when she realized that, unlike before, the bullets were no longer ricocheting inside the water pump, nor were they hitting the outer surface.  Still holding Rodney tightly, she leaned over the console in order to see more clearly through the open door.  Her lips parted in wonder, watching the almost beautiful light display as the bullets impacted the shield like tiny blue fireworks, but none passed through.

 

"He did it," Ronon said with a smile, falling heavily against the door frame.  He put his blaster back in his holster and reached up to grab at his wounded shoulder—it was bleeding through the bandage again.  With the stripe on his other arm, he was a mess.

 

And Rodney was obviously out cold again, showing no reaction at all as Teyla finally let him crumple to the floor with her.  She settled him on his side, pressing a hand to his sternum to check his breathing. 

 

Ronon was chuckling now, obviously enjoying watching the soldiers outside slowly figure it out.  They slowed down their fire, then stopped.  He then peeked his head out of the door, presenting more of a target.

 

The gunfire picked up again almost immediately.  Ronon couldn't help it—he laughed, turning his gaze back to Teyla.  His smile disappeared instantly upon seeing her face.

 

Teyla's gaze shifted from Ronon down to Rodney.  She lifted her hand from his chest.  He wasn't breathing.  She wasn't even sure she felt a pulse.

 

"Teyla?" Ronon's voice was strained.

 

Teyla licked her lips, lowering her head.  "I think he's...," she trailed off.  "Rodney, he...I don't know if...."  She couldn’t finish. 

 

"No," Ronon swore. "Not now.  Not so close!"  He was sliding over to Sheppard still in the middle of the floor, pressing a hand to the colonel's neck, leaving blood on the man's skin. "We're not losing them!"

 

Teyla just bowed her head further, wanting to pull Rodney close again.    

 

"DROP YOUR WEAPONS!"

 

Ronon lifted his head, and turned to look at Teyla, who met his gaze with one equally wide-eyed. A moment later, both were on their feet and jogging over to the door to look outside.

 

"I said, drop them!" Major Lorne ordered fiercely, stepping over a sand dune.  He was flanked by close to two dozen Altantian troops.  Ronon and Teyla then looked up, as three puddle jumpers uncloaked overhead, weapon bays wide open on all of them.

 

It was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.

______________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: TAKING THEM HOME

 

Teyla nearly cried in relief as the Atlantian troops appeared over the top of the surrounding sand dunes, easily outflanking the five remaining members of Delian's troops.  A half dozen more Atlantians stayed behind cover but partially visible, their P90s covering their fellow soldiers.  Despite being obviously outmanned and outgunned, the Orkidian soldiers stood their ground, forming a defensive circle around Delian's body.  Perrit's they ignored.   

 

"Now!" Lorne shouted. "We will not tell you again!"

 

"Who are you?" a tall Orkidian woman in the middle of the group demanded.

 

"They are Atlantians," Teyla announced, walking forward, feeling the shield ripple as she stepped outside of its protection.  She sensed Ronon coming out behind her, but staying near to the door.  He was trying to cover her but not get too far from the two men inside. Teyla lifted her head. "These are our people, and are here for us.  If I were you," her gaze narrowed, "I would do what he says."

 

"Don't move!" the Orkidian woman shouted, pointing her weapon at Teyla.  The Athosian stopped, and anger filled her frame.

 

John and Rodney did not have time for this.

 

"Lower you weapon, Orkidian," Teyla snarled, practically vibrating with fury. "Do not compound your already irredeemable mistakes with further idiocy."

 

The woman grimaced, shaking her head. "We will protect Orkidia from—"

 

"Protect Orkidia?  You call this protecting Orkidia? You are nothing but murderers! You killed your Chief Scientist, your Guildmaster, and your Ambassador. You're threatening to kill even more of your people down in the canyon.  That is not protection, Orkidian, that is sedition. It is treason. You have betrayed the very people you swore to protect."  She stepped even closer, gripping her machine gun tightly, her eyes narrowed to slits. "Do not think that we could not easily kill you now, but you do not deserve such a quick end.  You deserve to be tried and sentenced by your own people.  And you had best hope that they will treat you more mercifully than I want to at this moment. Now get out of our way."  She walked forward, right up to Perrit's body and raised her weapon to point at the Orkidian female soldier's head. "I said, get out of our way."

 

Sense finally seemed to sink in, and the tall Orkidian soldier in the middle slowly lowered her weapon.  When the other Orkidian soldiers looked at her, she gave them a nod.  A moment later, all of their guns were on the ground and their hands raised.

 

"About bloody time!" Carson Beckett's wonderful accent billowed out over the wind. The physician climbed up over one of the dunes, a soldier who had been obviously holding him back scrambling after him, trying to slow him down.  A wave of tan followed him, as Carson's medics trailed their chief, including Doctor Cole.  Cole went straight for Perrit, while Carson bee-lined to Teyla.

 

"Teyla," he said upon reaching her, "Ronon," he looked towards the water pump, "are you two all right?  Atlantis received medical data but...you two appear to be standing...?  And where are Rodney and the Colonel?"

 

"I am fine," Teyla said, finally lowering her gun, "but the others are not." She seemed to deflate, no longer caring as Lorne and his men bundled the Orkidian soldiers off to one side. Cole stood up with a grimace—Perrit was clearly beyond help. Carson meanwhile, was eyeing Teyla up and down for injuries.  She shook her head at him. "Carson, I said I was fine. Rodney and John are....They are inside, badly hurt, and I do not know if they're even still...."

 

She trailed off because Beckett was already jogging away from her, and his medical team followed, all carrying various pieces of equipment and cases.  "No!" she called, suddenly recalling the amulet around her neck—he would not get past the shield without her help. "Wait!"

 

But Beckett had already reached the pump and had gone inside, the shield rippling around him without stopping him.  Teyla paused, surprised.  Maybe the amulet worked from this far—

 

The air came alive with electricity and light, causing everyone outside to flinch back.  Sergeant Greene, one of Carson's medics, had stopped just inside the shield and was staring with bewilderment down at another of the medical crew, who was lying out cold about a foot away.  Cole and a few others were standing dead still a couple yards from the pump, as if afraid to move.  The man who was out cold had been rejected forcefully by the shield, while Greene and Beckett had not.

 

Carson appeared in the doorway, staring down at the downed man, his eyebrows lifted high. "What the...?" 

 

"I am sorry," Teyla said, panting a little as she came back inside the shield, the amulet now glowing a soft green. "There's a shield."

 

"I can see that," Beckett said, looking at her. "But how did I..." he looked at Greene, and his eyes narrowed in comprehension at what he and the Sergeant had in common. "Oh, the gene."  He frowned, turning a sharp blue eyed gaze on Teyla and Ronon. "But you don't have—"

 

"Yes," Teyla said again, "I am sorry.  This is the key." She lifted the green amulet. "Everyone can come in now."

 

Carson just stared at her a moment, then looked around. "Greene?"

 

"He's alright, sir," the medic replied, finishing a quick check on the downed man. "Coming round already.  I think it just gave him a nasty jolt—good thing he wasn't running after you more quickly."

 

Ronon appeared behind Carson, his face pale from his own injuries. "Beckett, John's—"

 

"Yes," Carson hissed, looking at Ronon then past him into the water pump.  He straightened, turning back to Greene. "Tell Lorne to get Trent back to a jumper," he ordered. "Meanwhile, I need you and everyone else inside. Rodney and the Colonel need fluids and two stretchers.  Greene, you've got Ronon. He's got a bullet in his shoulder, even though he's trying to hide it, the bloody fool.  Cole," he glanced at the woman, "you've got Rodney—watch his breathing, it was very shallow when I checked on him, barely discernable. I'll take the Colonel.  We need to move fast." And with those snapped orders, the doctor disappeared inside once more, already knowing that his orders would be followed.

 

Teyla walked through the door more slowly, trying to stay to the side as Doctor Cole brushed past. People swarmed over her team, John, Rodney and Ronon all being cared for. Carson and Cole were calling out orders, and the medics rushed to comply.  The water pump was alive with voices, alive with hope.  She fell back against the curved wall of the water pump, her vision graying for a moment as she felt the responsibility lifted from her shoulders.

 

Vitals were taken, fluid bags were ripped open, IVs inserted, stretchers brought in...It was all a blur for the Athosian. 

 

When John was carried past, his face seemingly bloodless, his lips paler than she had ever seen, she started to shake.  Rodney followed, and someone was pumping air into his lungs with one of those bags.  Carson gripped her arm briefly as he went by, then followed.  Ronon was last, walking slowly under his own power, his good arm over Greene's shoulder.  He glanced at her, his eyes sunken and haunted.  She just gave him a nod, and, finally, with one last look at the destroyed and now littered water pump, water still spraying from the busted pipes, she followed them all out.

 

Outside, one of the Jumpers was loaded with John and Rodney and Carson's crew, and it disappeared without even a goodbye.  Ronon was urged inside another Jumper, and Teyla could see the medic that had been jolted by the shield sitting on a bench, his head in his hands. 

 

One of the Atlantian soldiers was waving at her to hurry up and join them.

 

And, strangely, she found herself shaking her head.  Not yet.

 

"I can not go yet," she said softly.  She glanced at Lorne, who was watching her with a frown.  He was standing still next to Perrit's body, while the rest of his soldiers and one last Jumper continued to guard the Orkidians.  Teyla straightened. "I need to take Perrit home, first," she said.

 

Lorne stared at her a moment, then, slowly, gave a nod.

 

——————————————————————————————

 

The Jumper glided quietly towards the top of the path leading down into Dendrobia.  Teyla had informed Lorne that they should land the Jumper there, since she was still not sure if Jumpers could pass through the black shield she had seen.  Of course, it meant they would have to go the rest of the way on foot, but perhaps the time would give her a chance to figure out a way to get to Stella through all of the Orkidian troops still down in the canyon.

 

It wouldn't help that they would be escorting five Orkidian troops as prisoners, and carrying several dead bodies with them, including Delian's and Perrit's.  They were all in the back of the Jumper under guard, and the silence from back there was horrible.

 

Teyla felt wasted and tired, and she desperately wanted to go home, to be with her team.  But she had to finish this first.  Perrit deserved to be taken home.

 

Lorne, curiously, seemed to understand.  Like John, the major had a strong sense of honor, and she appreciated that now.

 

"Hunh," Lorne grunted, drawing Teyla's attention up from her study of the Jumper floor. "Looks like they know we're coming."

 

Teyla frowned, standing up and moving forward to look out the large window.  Sure enough, there was a small group of black clad troops on the ground.  For a moment, Teyla was terrified that it was more of Delian's guard, but then she recognized the small, black haired woman standing in front of what was clearly a cart. 

 

Stella waved at them. 

 

"How...?" Teyla wondered, completely bewildered.

 

"Friend or foe, Teyla?" Lorne asked, his eyes narrowed.

 

"Friend," Teyla said, still confused.

 

"Righty ho, then."  Trusting her judgment without question, Lorne turned the Jumper around and landed the ship close to the group.  Teyla walked to the back, sliding past the disarmed Orkidian soldiers without a glance, knowing Lorne's team would protect her.  She opened the back hatch and stood her ground as it lowered.

 

Stella stood just outside, her rifle casually hanging from the strap on her shoulder, her sharp eyes studying the ship and then Teyla.

 

"Teyla Emmagen," she greeted.  It was not coldly given, just sad. "Well met." She glanced at the Jumper, "And nice ship.  Bit boxy, but I can see how that's functional."

 

Teyla stepped down the now open ramp, not even trying to keep the confusion from her face. "Councilor Stella," she said, glancing around at the Lycastee with her, before turning back to the Orkidian leader, "How...?"

 

"Turns out, Delian's soldiers refused to engage us," the councilor replied, giving a half shrug. "After a couple of warning volleys, his troops simply yelled at us to hold our fire until Delian came.  I realized then that, probably, Delian must have gone after you first.  Everyone is still waiting down there for Delian to appear.  Sneaking around them to get up here was actually quite easy."

 

Teyla frowned. "Delian did come after us."

 

Stella gave a nod back. "Yes."

 

Teyla frowned, "And I'm afraid that he and Ambassador Perrit are—"

 

"Dead," Stella finished. "We know.  It's why we're here—to collect them from you."

 

Teyla tilted her head. "But how did you know?"

 

Stella gave a weak smile.  "Interestingly, the weapon center in the Council Chamber had another function we did not know about."  She sighed softly. "While we were waiting for Delian to appear, one of my men was watching for anything he could see using the weapon's video projections. Normally, they only show the Stargate and the sky.  Turns out, they can also see inside the water pumps.  Not long after you left, my man came and informed me that, without prompting, one of the screens had started broadcasting a distress signal from the Vandan water pump, along with Ancient information that he guessed to be medical data.  It was also showing an image of the interior of the pump, and a portion of the outside."  Stella frowned, turning to gaze into the interior of the Jumper, at the Orkidian soldiers standing there and the bodies lying on the floor. "We saw and heard everything," she said to the soldiers, "and it has all been recorded. You not only caused the death of three of our government's leaders, but you willingly and recklessly damaged the water pump. Your trial will be swift and out in the open for all of Orkidia to see, and your punishment," her eyes narrowed, "will be long and painful." 

 

At her words, Delian's soldiers all lowered their heads, unable to meet Stella's judging eyes.

 

Stella stared at them a moment longer, then turned back to Teyla. She crossed her arms in front of her and bowed deeply before the Athosian, in a deep version of the Orkidian bow.  When she stood up, her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

 

"Thank you, Teyla Emmagen, for returning our Ambassador to us, and for providing us with the proof we need to finally rid ourselves of Delian's corruption.  I pray that the cost was not so great that we will not recover, and that you and your people will continue to remain our friends.  Based on the destruction these filthy mugrats," she spat in the direction of the Orkidian soldiers, "caused the Vandan water pump," she turned back to Teyla, "I think we may be needing your help now, more than ever."

 

Teyla just stared at Stella a moment, then, slowly (and stiffly, exhaustion making her feel old), she bowed back.  When she straightened, she held out her hand in the way of the Atlantians.  Stella frowned a moment, then stepped forward and held out her own hand, obviously unclear as to what this meant.  Teyla moved in order to grasp the other woman's hand firmly with her own.

 

"I pray that the Ancestors see you though these changing times, Councilor Stella," Teyla stated quietly, "for I know the days ahead will not be easy.  But if anyone can see it through, I am confident it will be you.