Title: Thermopylae

Author: 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), not me.  Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring these shows to life.

Rating: Gen/T – action/adventure, some angst, h/c...lots of the usual mayhem.

Status: COMPLETE!

Characters: SGA-1 primarily, with a side dish of Beckett and Lorne....

A/N – I made that ship.  Awful isn't it.  I think I should stop pretending I can make art.  At least the background is nice...that's a nice shot of the rings of Saturn. No, I didn't take it. Unless, by "take," you mean stole. Blatantly ripped off.  Skived. Borrowed without permission. Voler (which, technically, is steal not stole, but I'm not French...which begs the question of why I used a French verb in the first place...). Eh, you get the idea.

 

 

Description: Exploring a planet in search of a promised ship, things quickly deteriorate for SGA-1 when the Wraith suddenly show up...

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CHAPTER ONE: TRAP, TRAP, TRAP

 

"I'm telling you," McKay hissed in Sheppard's ear as he stepped up behind him, far too close for the colonel's liking, "this is a trap!  It screams trap.  Everything about it, trap, trap, trap!"

 

"We're fine, McKay," the colonel whispered back, stepping over a small branch on the almost invisible trail they were following.  The long, wheat like grasses grabbed at their trousers as they walked, leaving a sea of rippling gold in their wake.

 

"No, we're not," McKay insisted, getting even closer, his chin almost on Sheppard's shoulder.  "This is a bad idea.  A horrible, really terrible, incredibly bad idea."  He took a breath, and added, "Oh, and did I mention, also a trap?"  He managed to time it with the snap of a twig underfoot, and Sheppard flinched slightly.

 

"It's not a trap," he hissed, trying to put as much warning in his tone as he could muster without raising his voice and alerting their guides or Teyla up ahead.

 

"Oh, okay, right, sure.  It's not a trap, no. How could it be?" McKay prodded the colonel's back from behind with a finger as he whispered, until Sheppard finally turned and slapped it down.  It didn't faze McKay in the slightest, and he got his chin up on the colonel's shoulder again as they resumed walking. "I mean, there's nothing trap-like about this at all, is there?  After all, we're only on an alien planet with people we know nothing about, following them into the middle of nowhere, on the basis of a promise that seems so wildly improbable even I don't believe it. And I'm usually the most gullible one...probably because I trust too easily.  You know," he mused, "I really need to be more cynical about things.  I'm really just too nice most of the time to call people on things..."

 

Sheppard's head rolled back as he groaned, "McKay..."

 

"And can we talk about this forced march up and down these hillock things?" The man behind him pressed on unrelentingly, still miraculously keeping his voice down, though right now, Sheppard really just wanted him to shut up. "You don't find it at all odd that these people's idea of a 'short walk' from their village turns out to be over five miles from the damn gate?  And you know I'm not going to be any good when we have to run this distance back.  And we will have to run it, you know we will..."

 

Sheppard shrugged hard then, forcing McKay's chin off his shoulder and the scientist back a step.  "For the love of God, McKay," the colonel hissed. "Will you just give it up?"  He started walking a little faster in an attempt to get away. "It's not a trap!  Christ, you make a mosquito seem pleasant in comparison!" 

 

"A mosquito? Oh, you think I'm annoying?" The scientist jogged a couple steps to get up close again, his breath huffing a little as he whispered, "Annoying is having no one listen to you when you're right.  Worse, when your life is at stake.  Because you know what this is?  Give you a hint....it rhymes with crap!"

 

"Frappe?"

 

"Ha ha.  Very droll."  He waited a moment, then cursed. "Damn it, and now I'm thirsty."

 

Sheppard drew in a sharp breath, trying to keep calm, mentally counting to ten.  Looking forward, he regarded the two Cutsarkian guides several yards ahead, looking for any sign that they could hear McKay's grousing.  A young brother and sister, both in their early twenties and extremely fit, they were chatting lightly with Teyla. Neither turned to look at them, or changed the cadence of their conversation with the Athosian, so...seemed like they were okay. 

 

Sheppard sighed, throwing a dark look over his shoulder at Rodney.  "Just keep it down, okay?  Worth the risk, remember?"

 

"Yeah, I know.  I was there when Elizabeth said that," McKay sneered. "Against my very wise and, without doubt, soon to be prescient counsel, I might add." 

 

"Oh for...Look, don't forget we have Lorne, Beckett and a bunch of Atlantis' best hanging back by the gate, watching our tails.  If we need help, we'll tell them, and they'll have a jumper through the Gate from Atlantis in seconds."

 

"Fat lot of good that's going to do us when they knock us out, take our radios and sell us to the nearest village for Genii weapons!"

 

"Oh my sweet God!  Will you just give it a rest?"

 

"Will you order us to turn around?"

 

"No."

 

"Then I'm not going to give it a rest.  By the way, in case you missed it before, I think this might possibly be a...oh what's the word I'm searching for...."

 

"Jaunt? Adventure? Odyssey?"

 

"TRAP!"

 

"I am so going to kill you in a minute," Sheppard snarled, turning to look at him fully this time.  Seeing motion close behind McKay, he gave a small smile as he focused his gaze over the scientist's head, "Better yet, I'll have him do it."

 

"What?"  McKay turned, but not fast enough to avoid the ringing dope slap Ronon gave him, a triumphant grin on the Satedan's face for having got close enough to do it without McKay noticing. "Ow!" 

 

Sheppard chuckled, giving Ronon a thumb's up sign. "Nice," he whispered.

 

"Jerks," McKay muttered.

 

"Is everything all right?" the woman guide called back, her brown eyes wide and a little worried.  "Is someone hurt?  We heard a cry."  She looked at McKay, her brow furrowing in concern.  The scientist was rubbing his right hand over the back of his head, refusing to look up. 

 

"We're fine, Innis," Sheppard called back, smiling broadly.  "McKay just tripped."

 

"Yeah," Ronon agreed, smiling even more broadly and backing up to return to his position watching their backs, "tripped."

 

McKay mumbled something unintelligible, but didn't openly disagree.  The young woman looked sympathetic, nodding.

 

"I'm sorry the trail isn't more of a trail," she said. "We rarely travel this far from the village in this direction, even when hunting, because it is so open," she gestured at the nearly treeless landscape around them. "It is simply just not a path walked often."

 

"Then why were you out here?" Sheppard asked.

 

"Because my brother and I like to explore," Innis replied with an exuberant smile. "We're a little different from the rest of our people that way.  Of course, it's also why we found the ship and not anyone else."  Next to her, her brother Fallen nodded in agreement.

 

McKay snorted at the mention of the word 'ship,' but Sheppard just smiled more. "It's fine.  Keep going.  We'll be right behind you."

 

"Walking into a trap," McKay muttered under his breath.  Sheppard nudged him roughly in the ribs.

 

"I'm sorry?" Innis frowned prettily, looking quizzically at McKay.  She was a short haired blond woman, almost Scandinavian in appearance, and normally that was enough to keep Rodney at least distracted, but the long walk they'd taken to get here had taken any such joy out of him. "Doctor McKay," she asked, "did you say something else?"

 

"No, no," Sheppard said, still smiling his most charming smile, "He just said, it's a walk in the park, which is a saying where I'm from meaning an enjoyable hike.  Please," he threw an arm out, "lead on."

 

Her brow remained slightly furrowed, but she didn't deny his statement.  Instead, she just nodded and turned to start walking again with Teyla and the other guide.  The young man, a similarly colored tall blond, frowned a little, but didn't say a word.  Teyla, looking almost short between the two natives, sent Rodney an almost wounded look before moving on.  After all, it had been on information she had gotten that they were here, and she'd been rigorous in verifying it, well aware that the last few missions she'd recommended had all resulted in near disasters.

 

Rodney sighed heavily, but, for the moment, mainly because Teyla's look had caused him some chagrin, he quieted down and refocused his attention on the life signs detector in his left hand....

 

Sheppard, thankful for the reprieve, decided it was a good time to check in with Lorne over the radio (who promptly replied that everything was quiet back at the village). Once done (and with a pregnant look to McKay), he found himself taking more of an interest in their surroundings beyond searching for signs of danger.

 

The countryside they traipsed through thick with the tall, wheat colored grass along with ragweed-like flowers and a handful of scraggly trees rising not much higher than Ronon.  Daisy-like flowers of pink and yellow popped up occasionally, along with thorny bushes that looked as if they had been picked clean of any fruit long before.  Longer patches of the yellow grass reached almost up to Teyla's head, and Sheppard longed to pluck what looked like a piece of weed from her reddish hair as they followed her.  

 

The air around them was filled with sun sparkled dust and soft down—presumably seeds from whatever they had on this planet that was like flax or milkweed—and alive with insects.  Everything around them seemed to vibrate with the noise of the almost invisible creatures—bees jumping around from flower to flower, beetles making straight line flights across the fields, tiny mosquito-like bugs whistling in their ears. 

 

The trail they followed climbed slowly up and down shallow foothills, all similarly covered in the same yellow grass and scraggly patches of forest.  Much of it looked roasted in the humid heat, ready to snap at the slightest breeze, but...it didn't.  The roots were deep—they looked dry and dead on top, but, beneath, were alive and well. 

 

McKay tripped for real as they came down another low hillside, running into Sheppard and pushing him forward a few steps. 

 

"Sorry," McKay muttered, not sounding all that apologetic.

 

"Whatever.  Just be more careful."

 

"More careful?" McKay replied. "You accuse me of not being careful?  You're the one leading us into a—"

 

"Okay!" Sheppard shouted, turning on his heel to meet McKay's gaze directly behind him. "That's it!"  He grabbed the man's arm and viciously pulled him off to the side, towards a collection of thorny bushes about thirty feet away, "You're coming with me!"

 

"What?" McKay was suitably astonished, and let himself be pulled. "Where are we going?"

 

"We're going to have a little chat," Sheppard snapped.  He turned then, looking back to where Ronon, Teyla, Innis and Fallen were all watching them with slightly startled looks. "We'll be right back," he said with a forced cheerfulness. "I've just got to talk to my friend here."  And, the fake grin still on his face, he turned and started walking again, still dragging the scientist after him.

 

"Hey! Let go of my arm," McKay hissed, trying to pull free, but Sheppard's grip was like iron.  "Damn it, that hurts!"

 

"Good," Sheppard snarled, still aiming to get some distance between them and the natives.  Behind him, he could hear Teyla quickly dispelling the concerns of the two siblings.

 

They walked until they were partially within the shade of three tall thorn bushes, and Sheppard whirled McKay around so he could face him, getting right into his face, still maintaining his harsh hold on the other man's arm. 

 

"What the hell is your problem?" he hissed, back to trying to keep his voice down.

 

Rodney's eyebrows shot up, his face flushing with anger as he tried to tug his arm free. "Problem?  What are you talking about?"

 

"You know exactly what I'm talking about!"

 

McKay’s face reddened even more, his chin lifting, “I’m only pointing out some—“

 

“Shove it!”

 

“Don’t talk to me that way!”

 

“Then stop trying to get us kicked off this planet before we find that ship!”

 

McKay stared at him a moment, his gaze narrowing, and, with a burst of energy, wrenched his arm back.  Sheppard let him go and McKay stepped back a couple of feet towards one of the bushes—just out of hitting range.  Not that he believed Sheppard would actually hit him…well, not much.

 

“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it, Colonel?  You’ve hit the crux, right there.  Why am I complaining so much?  Why do I think this is all such a huge waste of my time?  Because it is!”

 

“Keep your voice down, McKay!” Sheppard hissed again.  McKay squinted, but when he spoke again, it was in a whisper.

 

“Fine, I’ll whisper, but that doesn’t make it any less true,” the scientist snarled. “We get word from some rather shifty characters on Belkan that there’s a cloaked ship sitting on this planet, waiting for someone to come along and claim it.  And not just a ship, a space ship, with all sorts of fancy technology dripping from it.  And what does Colonel 'Warship Envy' Sheppard immediately do?  Take it completely at face value and drag the smartest mind in the Pegasus galaxy out on a wild goose chase that practically screams TRAP.”

 

“Teyla virtually guaranteed the accuracy of—“

 

“Oh yes,” McKay snorted, crossing his arms, “And we all know how trustworthy her contacts have been of late.  Let’s see,” he held up a finger, “there’s the ones who sent us to a planet to be kidnapped by Ford,” he held up another finger, “there’s the ones who invited us to trade on a jungle planet, where we were nearly fed to the Wraith,” he held up a third, “there are the ones who led us into a Genii plot to torture you and kidnap me,” he held up a fourth, “there’s—“

 

“Stop it!"

 

"No!  I told both you and Elizabeth that there's no chance this ship is Ancient, not from the description, and we know the Wraith don't bother with cloaks, so it's not Wraith.  So what does that leave, eh?  Furling? I don't think so!  Plus, how has it maintained a cloak for ten thousand years?  The power drain would be astronomical! And another thing, if it's cloaked, how the hell did they find it?  Unless they literally walked right into it, and I can't even imagine—"

 

Sheppard suddenly clapped his hands in front of McKay's face, causing the other man to flinch, but at least it shut him up.  

 

"Listen to me, and listen good," the colonel said, deliberately lowering his voice to near growl level. "Teyla put everything she had to make sure this one was real.  You know as well as I that she would never have even brought it up if she wasn't almost certain these people were trustworthy and this ship real.  She's been gun shy as hell lately, and she's trying to prove herself to us.  And we're going to let her, because she needs this.  She needs to know we still trust her and her judgment.  You get me?"

 

McKay grimaced, "But—"

 

"Are you saying you don't trust Teyla?"

 

McKay looked to the ground, still looking very angry, but also a little ashamed. "Well of course I trust Teyla," he muttered after a moment.

 

"Then behave."

 

McKay expelled a hard breath, then sucked in another, before looking up. "I am not a child.  You don't need to tell me to 'behave.'"

 

A tiny smile quirked at the edge of Sheppard's lips, "You sure about that?"

 

The blue eyes narrowed at the challenge, "I hardly think you're in any position to—"

 

"GET DOWN!" Ronon shouted suddenly, and the two men both jumped a mile, turning to stare back at their teammates.  Fallen was running towards them, aiming a pistol in their direction, Innis and Teyla on his heels. 

 

"I told you!" McKay screamed, only seeing the deadly look on the male Cutsarkian's face as he froze in place, but Sheppard was looking at Ronon.  The Runner was circling around to the side of them, his pistol also aimed in their direction....

 

"Behind you!" Teyla shouted, her P90 in her hands as she moved to get into a different position.

 

Sheppard and Rodney wheeled around, and looked up...as the biggest python snake either man had ever seen loomed over their heads.  It was as wide as a tree trunk, and its head could easily engulf a whole man with one swoop.  It opened massive jaws, revealing the two largest, shiniest, and pointiest teeth Sheppard had ever seen. Slowly, almost teasingly, it reared itself back, preparing to strike... 

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CHAPTER TWO: SNAKES ON A PLANET

 

McKay screamed and Sheppard acted on instinct, throwing himself forward into the other man and sending them into the large thorn bush at McKay's back.  The whine of Ronon's gun discharging, the explosive rattling of Teyla's P90 and the Custarkian's pistols firing burst over their heads.

 

Sheppard kept himself pressed down on top of McKay, holding him down inside the bush as the fight waged over their heads.  Twisting a little, ignoring the pained hiss from McKay at the movement, he managed to look up over his right shoulder and through the branches, watching as the snake absorbed the fire, hissing and snapping its jaws at its attackers. 

 

The hide on it had to be incredibly thick to take all that abuse, but it wasn't impenetrable.  Trickles of red oozed from tiny holes that appeared in the yellowish-green skin on its neck and belly.  Slowly, it was being forced back, away from the two men...until, with a sudden, lightning quick movement, it twisted around and dove back into the long, wheat colored grass...and disappeared.  The only sign of it's passage was the rippling of the wheat as it quickly slid away in the direction of the distant mountains. 

 

It was long gone in just seconds.

 

Sheppard exhaled a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves.  Beneath him, his head on the other man's chest, he could feel McKay breathing quickly and shaking a little.  Slowly, he levered himself up so he could look up at McKay's face.  The scientist's expression was pinched and pale, his eyes tightly shut.

 

"You okay?" Sheppard asked, not liking the man's color.

 

"Sir!" Lorne's panicked voice echoed abruptly over the radio. "Sir, we heard gunfire! Are you all right?  Sir!"

 

Pushing himself up a little Sheppard grabbed his radio, "Hang tight, Major. We ran into some trouble, but it may be handled.  Give us a few minutes."  He clicked off and looked back at McKay, who had hissed again in pain when Sheppard had moved. "Rodney?"

 

"Get...," McKay drew in another shallow breath, "Get off me."  It was whispered, half plea, half demand.

 

Sheppard frowned a little, but put his hands down on either side of McKay to push off...and cried out in pain as they were cut on the thorns of the bush they landed in.  Sudden, horrible realization had him practically leaping up off of McKay and then reaching in to pull the scientist out after him.  The scientist ended up bringing half the now broken bramble bush with him, the thorns gripping at the fabric of his clothes like burrs.

 

McKay whimpered a little as he got upright, and Sheppard turned him around, pulling some of the larger branches off of him.  His trousers were mostly fine, most of his lower body not being inside the bush, but the sleeves and shoulders of his jacket were in tatters, revealing tiny cuts and welts all up and down his arms.  The thick black vest, including the pack McKay always bore and the laptop, saved most of his back from the same abuse, but not completely—there were some tears on his hips, which were going to smart.  There were even cuts on his neck and, probably, though they weren't visible, on his head, if the few visible scratches on his face were any indication.

 

"Aw, shit, McKay," Sheppard hissed, knowing all the paper-thin cuts had to sting like hell. "I'm sorry."  McKay just gave a sort of pained, angry grunt in reply, his eyes still not fully open yet. They remained squinted, like someone fighting back a terrible headache.

 

"Are you two all right?" Teyla asked, suddenly by their side with Fallen and Innis, her eyes going back and forth between them and the grassy plain—still alert for danger.   McKay opened his eyes wide enough to give her a bleak look, but Sheppard nodded. 

 

"Yeah. McKay's got a few cuts--"

 

"A few cuts?" McKay snarked. "If someone hadn't shifted around while pressing me down into—"

 

"But other than that, we're fine," Sheppard finished, cutting him off.  "Thanks," he added to Teyla, his tone softening, "Saved our lives."

 

"Fallen saw it first," Teyla said, indicating the Cutsarkian with her head and wincing a little as she watched McKay shakily pull some of the smaller branches off of him, taking fabric with it. "You have him to thank.  If he had not been as alert...."

 

"I don't understand it," the young blond man said,  almost dazedly, still watching the grass around them with too wide eyes. "The kalakala are nocturnal—they rarely come out during the day.  I don't know what brought it out now.  I'm so, so sorry.  Perhaps, bringing your jumper ship might have been a good idea after all.  I just never thought..." 

He trailed off at the same time Ronon finally reached them, the Satedan walking backwards with his gun in both hands, also keeping his eyes on the long grass. 

 

Ronon glanced at McKay, who looked less pained and more annoyed now as he plucked the last of the thorns from his pants (Sheppard wasn't going to go there), then at the colonel himself, making sure they were both okay, before returning his gaze to the fields.

 

"Are there likely to be any more of those things?" he asked, his tone gruff.

 

"No," Fallen said, still sounding ashamed. "Really, they're rarely seen creatures, almost extinct. Plus, they almost never attack humans—mainly because they know we fight back.  I can only think we must be near that one's nest or something.  And since we wounded it...I don't think it'll try again.  We're probably safe.  Though," he shrugged a little, looking back towards the trail, "we should get back to the trail now."

 

"Colonel Sheppard?" This time it was Beckett on the radio, sounding worried and a little fatalistic at the same time. "Colonel, are you sure you're all right? Should I get help? Or do you need me to come down there?"

 

Sheppard sighed, grabbing his radio, "It's all right, Carson. We're good."

 

"You sure, son? What were you shooting at? And don't say Rodney."

 

Sheppard smiled, and McKay snorted, but didn't say anything as he was still picking at his outfit.

 

"Just some...," Sheppard licked his lips, looking in the direction the snake had disappeared, "Just some local wildlife. But I think we're okay."

 

"Perhaps we should return to the village," Teyla offered, looking at McKay worriedly. He was currently looking at the cuts on his left arm, having shoved up the torn sleeve, grimacing at the tiny pinpricks of blood drying on it, his limbs still trembling slightly. "Major Lorne could probably get a jumper—"

 

"But we're so close now!" Innis said quickly, a hint of whine in her soft voice. "It's not even a mile from here! I..." She paused, looking at McKay, then seemed to deflate in the face of his humorless gaze, her head lowering.  "No, of course, we should turn around.  The crinkle bush is not something I'd like to be pushed into myself." She gave him a soft smile, turning to look back in the direction they had come from, the direction of their village in the mountains, "We shall head back up to the Gate, and get you home.  Perhaps you could return someday when—"

 

"Oh, hey, wait, now...hang on a minute," Sheppard held a hand up, smiling brightly. "We can go on.  McKay's tougher than he looks," he glanced at the man next to him, smile broadening, "aren't you?"

 

"What?" McKay frowned in confusion.

 

"Manly, that's McKay," Sheppard said, grinning mercilessly as he met the scientist's gaze. "He can tough out anything.  It's part of the reason he's on our team." 

 

McKay's eyebrows lifted high on his face, "Are you kidding?"

 

"Come on, Ronon," Sheppard said, glancing at the Satedan, "Back me up."  Ronon frowned for a second, searching Sheppard's eyes, then suddenly nodded.

 

"Oh, right, yeah," Ronon added, "McKay's tough, all right.  He's been through tons worse.  Seen him carrying Sheppard through a swamp, an arrow through his leg.  Really resilient guy."

 

McKay's deer in headlights expression was wide open on his face, turning to look at Ronon like he had two heads.

 

"He can be a real hero, our McKay," Sheppard agreed, smiling at Innis and, by her side, Fallen. "A few thorns won't stop him.  He'll persevere, because that's who he is.  A persevere-er."  He frowned a little at the awful word, but covered it up with another blinding smile.

 

"What are you two talking about?" McKay asked, frowning. "Are you on something?  Did that snake spray some sort of hallucinogenic substance or something?" His eyes went suddenly wide, "Oh my God, are you sick?  Am I sick?"  He looked down at his arm again, this time with panic, "What if it's in my bloodstream already because of these cuts and I'm—"

 

"Now, now," Sheppard had pulled out a bandage from his vest and slapped it hard against McKay's chest, shutting him up, "stop being so modest. Pretending you don't know what we're talking about, and pretending to be afraid of a few scratches.  Innis isn't falling for it," he turned hazel eyes on the blonde Custarkian woman, who had lifted her head at hearing her name, "are you, Innis?"

 

The woman's eyes opened up, "Oh, uh...well...."

 

"No one I'd rather have at my back," Ronon affirmed.

 

"Makes the rest of us look like wimps when push comes to shove, I can tell you," Sheppard said. 

 

McKay was about to say something else, when Innis spoke behind him.

 

"Really?" Innis said quietly, "Is that true, Doctor McKay?"

 

Rodney turned around to look at her, and found her actually looking at him with something other than pity or bewilderment (which had been her two primary expressions since they had met)...she was actually looking at him appraisingly.

 

And McKay's voice caught in his throat. 

 

She really was very, very pretty.  The sun was catching the blond hair on her head, making it shine, and her blue eyes crinkled slightly as she offered him a slightly bewildered smile, eyelashes fluttering a little as she blushed prettily under his scrutiny.

 

"Uh..." McKay's mouth moved, but no words came out.

 

"Come on, tough guy," Sheppard said, clapping McKay hard on the back, "tell her you can go on!"

 

"I, uh," McKay blinked a few times, swallowed convulsively, then looked over at Sheppard, who just smiled back, then back to Innis. She looked hopeful...and, yeah, really pretty.  Slowly, he nodded, "Yeah.  Okay.  Sure.  I can go on."

 

She practically bounced, smiling brightly. "Wonderful!"  Her eyes sparkled as she took a couple steps backwards, sweeping her arm out towards the trail. "You'll see," she promised. "We're really very close.  And there is water next to the ship – you'll be able to clean some of those cuts, Doctor McKay.  And when you see the ship, you'll know it was worth it. I promise you!"  With a final nod, she pivoted and started walking, "It really isn't far!"

 

"Great," McKay mumbled, shoulders slumping as he realized he'd just given up the chance to turn around.  Teyla had kept her head down during the whole exchange between Sheppard, Ronon and McKay, and, when she sidled past, she refused to meet his eye, obviously fighting to keep the smile off her face.  Fallen went next, catching up to his sister and Teyla, to resume their lead positions.  Sheppard clapped McKay on an unripped portion of his shoulder and pushed him forward.

 

"Onwards, eh, McKay?" he said, throwing a grin back at Ronon, who was back to watching their six, and the Satedan gave a conspiratorial nod in return.

 

"That was really, really low," the scientist muttered at his friend, "even for you.  Using my ego against me like that."

 

"Yeah, but," Sheppard shrugged, "it's just so easy to do.  Hard to resist really."

 

"I hate you," McKay said then, giving Sheppard the dirtiest look he had. "You know that right?"

 

"Yup.  I think you tell me that once a mission. Sometimes twice."  Sheppard was still watching the grass intently, but the easy-going smirk on his face was genuine.

 

"But this time," McKay added, "I hate the Laurel to your Hardy just as much."  He glanced back at Ronon, throwing a glare worthy of a Wraith.  The smirk Ronon gave in return was disturbingly Sheppard like.  McKay rolled his eyes, facing forward again and resuming his work of plucking at his sleeves as he walked.

 

"Hey," Sheppard said after a moment, "think you might want to start using the life signs detector again?"

 

McKay huffed, "Oh, so now you think we need it, eh?"  A touch clumsily, he whipped the scanner out.  A few beeps, and his shoulders grew relaxed. "Just us," he confirmed.

 

"Just keep an eye out for fast moving snakes," Sheppard suggested.

 

The scientist snorted, not looking up from the scanner. "I swear, if I die on this mission, Sheppard, I'm so blaming you."

 

The colonel's smirk grew.

 

"And Ronon," McKay added, glaring over his shoulder. "I'm going to haunt you both."

 

A chuckle came from behind them, Ronon having obviously heard that, and Sheppard just nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."

 

"I'd make a really obnoxious ghost too," McKay said, "You think I'm bad alive? Oh...!" He wagged a finger at Sheppard, ready to describe exactly how, then frowned at the knowing smirk on the other man's face.  Growling in frustration at his inability to get the upper hand, he turned and jogged a few steps forward so that he got away from Sheppard and closer to Teyla. The colonel let him, his smirk fading a little as he caught the scientist scratching at his hurt arm.

 

They were still moving steadily downhill now, deeper into the shallow valley.

 

Sheppard's smile fell fully as he returned his full attention to their surroundings.  Glancing back, he saw Ronon was similarly focused on scrutinizing everything around them, his eyes as sharp as ever.  He'd had fun helping him egg on McKay, but whereas before the snake had attacked, he had been alert for trouble, now he looked as if he were expecting it.

 

Joke as they might, they all knew the dangers of a mission like this.  Giant snakes were the least of their worries.  Sheppard trusted Teyla, yes.  But he didn't trust the rest of the Pegasus galaxy.  He'd never let McKay know, but part of him too...was extremely worried this was a trap.

 

But, as Elizabeth had said, the possibility of getting another space ship was worth the risk. 

 

And he did trust Teyla.  It was that, more than anything, that kept him moving forward.

_______________________________________________

 

"Stop scratching," Sheppard hissed, shoving at McKay from behind. "It's driving me crazy!"

 

"It's driving you crazy!" McKay snarled in reply, pushing down the rough tatters of his right sleeve over his bright red, rash covered arm and glaring back at Sheppard. "I'm the one with the grievous wounds here!"

 

"Grievous?" the colonel's eyebrows lifted up. "They're like paper cuts, McKay!  I think you'll survive."

 

"Yes! Paper cuts! Exactly! Paper cuts are evil—the worst kind of wound! They sting and throb and burn for days! And you can't do anything with your hands because—"

 

"I know what paper cuts are, McKay," Sheppard snapped. "I'm just saying, that, unless you want some of those scratches to get infected, you need to stop itch—"

 

"And unless you have some cortisone in that vest of yours," McKay snapped back, railroading over the other man's words, "I think you'd best keep your opinions to yourself!"

 

"How can I?  You haven't stopped griping about your arms and neck since we started walking again.  If I don't talk, you start to repeat yourself. It's worse than a broken record. Oh, poor McKay, suffering from a handful of tiny little scratches..."

 

"A handful?  Did you not see my arms?" McKay threw back the torn sleeve again. "Look!"

 

Sheppard grimaced at the sight.  Okay, so he had a point.  Lots of scratches. 

 

"Well," his upper lip curling a little in disgust at the red arm, white tracks from McKay's nails still visible on the obviously irritated skin, "it wouldn't look so bad if you hadn't been scratching at it non-stop..."

 

"Again, not helpful," McKay criticized. "Cortisone, helpful. Useless words of advice? Not so helpful."

 

"At least try to stop scratching! I don't even think you're—"

 

"Colonel Sheppard?" Fallen waved at them from where he was standing a hundred yards away on the top of what looked like a low rise, his voice raised to cover the distance, "We've reached the site where the ship is." Next to him, Innis was looking forward down the hill, as was Teyla.  There was uncertainty in Teyla's stance, and, when McKay, Sheppard and Ronon finally reached her, they understood why.

 

Before them...there was nothing to see.  Just more landscape.  Yes, they knew the ship was supposed to be  cloaked but...still....

 

"This way," Innis said, stepping off the rise to head down the low hillock into what appeared to be the central basin of this low valley.

 

The sun was high in the sky as SGA-1 moved to follow her, the long wheat-colored grass finally giving way as they stopped on the edge of a football field sized meadow.  Behind them, the pine tree-covered granite mountains housing the Stargate and the Cutsarkian village were hidden inside the shadow of some wispy clouds, but down here the sun was in full regalia, and even McKay couldn't ignore the prettiness of it all. 

 

The meadow itself was lush and wet, covered in hundreds of tiny pink, blue and yellow wildflowers and thick, carpet like green grass. Here and there they could see the sparkling silver lines of dozens of tiny streams coursing through it, feeding the damp loving flora.  A few low bushes were scattered about, and one or two stunted trees, but, generally, it was open...and muddy as hell.  The middle of it, in particular, looked to be one big mud trap.  McKay grimaced as he sank nearly up to his ankle in a really boggy area and pulled his booted foot out with a sickly squelch.

 

"We're here," Innis said, smiling back at them.  She pointed across the marsh, "It's over there."

 

Four surprised faces looked back at her.  There was nothing but open space on the other side, and more wheat grass.  A cloaked jumper, despite being invisible, still left a depression, but nothing pressed the grasses down on the other side.  If there was a cloaked ship there, there should at least be an indication.

 

"I know," she admitted, grinning prettily, "you don't see anything.  Believe me, we were just as surprised as you."  She turned and moved forward, her own booted feet squishing and sinking as she proceeded to walk straight through the middle of the wet meadow.  She got stuck a few times, sinking up to her calves at points, her focus on the ground as she obviously sought the best way through. 

 

"Wouldn't it make sense to go around this marsh thing?" McKay called after her, once more scratching at his arms. "I mean...some of those bogs might be...dangerous.  Might get stuck, you know?  Or, I don't know, sink?  I had a friend who sank up to his chest jumping into what he thought was just a puddle once when I was a kid."

 

"You had friends when you were a kid?" Sheppard asked, unable to help himself.  McKay rolled his eyes.

 

"Yes, I had friends when I was a kid," he replied snippily. "But what I'm saying is," he was almost yelling now, as Innis had gotten quite far away from her brother and the four members of SGA-1 still standing on the edge of the marsh, "you shouldn't be going that way!"

 

"Oh yes, she should," Fallen said, also smiling and moving to follow his sister, his feet sinking more with each step.

 

"Wait," Teyla frowned, "Doctor McKay is right, it does not make sense to cross through the middle of that marsh.  Going around is easier and far less hazardous."

 

"We know." Fallen just grinned. "And that's the point, though, isn't it?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"Your normal person would indeed go around," Fallen explained, "circling the drier edges or sticking to the handful of rocks like stepping stones," He gestured to the sun bleached rocks that, indeed, popped up in certain locations from out of the muck. "But not us."

 

"Clearly not," McKay said, not holding back his trademark sarcasm.

 

"We were out here, just taking a relaxing walk, when my sister made the absurd claim that she could walk through the center of the marsh without getting stuck.  So I dared her to try," Fallen continued, either oblivious to McKay's tone or uncaring, "She took that dare. And that's how we found it."

 

"Found...it?" McKay looked again towards Innis, and saw she was now standing almost right in the middle of the swamp, her hands on her hips and her smile huge on her face.  "Found what?"

 

"This!" she yelled. She raised an arm and slammed a fist into the air behind her...

 

And a resounding clang of metal echoed across the valley. 

 

With a laugh, Innis turned around and beat at what looked like thin air, and the invisible metal rang under her fists like someone hitting the side of a metal boat.

 

"Oh my God," McKay said, mouth falling open, "there really is something there."

 

"She literally just walked right into it," Fallen said, his eyes glittering with excitement.

  

"Hunh," Sheppard grunted, looking askance at McKay, "did she now." 

 

"Well," the scientist admitted, "I did say it would probably be the only way.  So, I was right."  He shrugged, smiling smugly.

 

"How big is it?" Teyla asked.

 

"As wide as four huts pushed together," Fallen said, "but we're not sure how tall it is.  We haven't found any good handholds to try climbing it yet.  The hull is curved, rounded...every time we try to climb it...we just slide off."  He gave a weak, embarrassed shrug.

 

"Then," Sheppard frowned, "how did you know it's a ship?"

 

"Because," Fallen gestured at them to follow him now as he stepped into the muck, "We found a way in."

________________________________________

 

Innis was waiting for them impatiently as the four member of SGA-1 and her brother finally reached her, bouncing a little. She bent down a little when they got to her, and extended an arm inside the cloak—making it look like it was being cut off.

 

"It took us almost a month of searching the outer hull before finding this hatch," she explained, "but we did.  I don't think it's the main door—which we still haven't located, partly because we haven't been able to get past some of the other doors inside—and...well, it may not even be a door, but it gets us inside."  Nodding up at them, she bent the rest of the way over and then, using her hands to guide her, pushed herself into something that didn't look very large..

 

She squirmed a little, obviously having some difficulty, and it was sort of odd watching as more and more of her disappeared, until just her legs were visible.  For some reason, Sheppard was reminded of the magician's trick of cutting a person in half—but still seeing their feet moving. 

 

Then, curiously, she must have pulled herself the rest of the way inside, because she was suddenly gone. 

 

"I'm in!" her voice echoed from the nothingness. "The next person can slide in!"

 

"Hmm," McKay knelt down, reaching out to touch the edges of whatever it was Innis had just crawled through. 

 

"Hang on," Sheppard said, getting next to McKay and waving him back.  The scientist accepted this without a word, backing off to let the colonel go first...just in case there was something waiting for them on the other side.  He absently scratched at a torn bit of fabric on his hip as he waited.

 

Getting down on one knee, Sheppard felt the edges of what felt like a square window, noting absently that the metal was quite rough under his fingertips – rusty?  Pulling out his 9MM, he then ducked his head and arm into the "space," leading with the weapon.

 

He found himself looking up a short, rectangular metal chute, the smell of old metal filling his nostrils.  There was indeed a layer of rust on the edges of the hatch—as if it had been open and exposed to the elements for a very, very long time.  It was just wide enough for a couple of bodies to squeeze through at the same time—McKay would probably be able to get up it without pulling his pack off. 

 

It was lit by artificial light shed from the room on the far side, where Innis was waiting for him.  She was peering back at him down the chute, smiling brightly.  She waved at his face, then gestured for him to come in.

 

"Are you coming?" she asked.

 

Sheppard didn't move for a moment, squinting a little and using his ears.  He could hear her breathing softly, but nothing else.  Lifting his eyebrows, he nodded and reached forward with his left arm.  His reach was just long enough for his hand to catch the end of the chute, and he used it to pull himself forward, sliding in sideways so that he could keep the gun in his right hand and raised. 

 

As he squirmed up the chute — escape hatch? — he found himself noticing that, curiously, the metal was dark and unadorned, making it unlike the other Ancient ships they'd come across.  It was also, thankfully, free of any organic materials, which belied the idea that it could be Wraith.

 

McKay was going to love puzzling this one out.

 

Soon enough, he was through to the room with Innis, and, as he pulled himself the rest of the way through, he put his gun back in its holster and just marveled at the oddly shaped room 

 

He felt like he had just climbed into a tube that had been cut in half. The wall behind him, containing the open chute, was curved, while not more than five feet in front of him was a perfectly flat wall.  The curved wall met the flat one above and below, such that there was no ceiling or floor per se—making the footing a little treacherous.  He slipped a little on the metal floor, his mud covered boots not helping the situation, until he caught himself with a hand and a foot to the flat wall.  Looking to the left and right, he found the "tube" extended for a few dozen yards in each direction, ending at more flat walls containing more square hatches.  The one to his left was open, but the room beyond was dark.

 

The whole thing was lit up at intervals by circular lights a bit like halogen lights, and under each were more hatches along both the curved wall—obviously leading outside—and along the flat wall—obviously leading deeper inside. All those hatches were shut.

 

"Sheppard?" McKay called, and Sheppard turned around to see McKay's head framed by the metal at the bottom of the chute. 

 

"Yeah, come on in," Sheppard said in reply, crouching so that he could see more of the scientist. "But it's pretty tight in here. Might want to suggest Ronon stays outside."

 

"I think he's already planning on it," McKay said. "To watch for more snakes and...stuff."

 

Sheppard just smiled, then made a come in gesture. "I think you'll fit with your pack," he added.

 

McKay frowned, inspecting the inside of the chute with a skeptical look, then shucked off his pack and slid it up to Sheppard.  The colonel took it, then reached inside to help McKay slide in.

 

Fairly quickly, both men were inside with Innis.  Teyla opted to remain outside with Ronon and Fallen, to keep watch.  

 

McKay grimaced a little as he looked up and down the oddly shaped room, eyes surveying every aspect of it, before focusing on the largest of the hatches along the long flat wall. His eyes drifted to the left of it, and narrowed.  Stepping carefully down to it, he studied what to Sheppard looked like a blank piece of wall, then lifted up a hand and pressed it against something...and the lights in the room turned off.

 

Innis gasped, then clapped gleefully when McKay turned them back on again.

 

"How did you know the lights were there?" she asked, almost bouncing in excitement. "We only found it because we were running over the walls with our hands, trying to find the lever or release mechanism for some of the other hatches...and to see if we could get any light in here. But you...you just found it!"

 

"Not really," McKay replied, looking thoughtful as he studied the still plain looking wall where the "switch" was.  "It just happens to be in the same place as the control panel embedded in the walls of one of the engine rooms of...." he trailed off, his lips pressing into a thin line.  "That is, we have something like it back home," he finished lamely.

 

"Home?" Sheppard asked, stressing the word.

 

"Home," McKay affirmed with a single, pregnant nod. 

 

He meant, of course, the engines that flew Atlantis.  Sheppard's eyes widened a little.  Maybe the ship was Ancient, despite the lack of adornment.

 

"Interesting," he said.

 

"Yes, but..." McKay grimaced a little, looking around one more time.  His finger swirled in the air, vaguely gesturing to the whole room, "It's not the same...just very similar.  Like someone was copying them."

 

"Them?" Innis asked.

 

"The Ancestors," McKay answered, looking now to the one open hatch at the end, leading into darkness. 

 

"You have some of the Ancestor's ships where you're from?" Innis asked, eyes wide.

 

"They made our Jumpers," Sheppard affirmed. 

 

"Oh," Innis said, her eyes still wide. "Wow."

 

"You opened that?" McKay asked suddenly, pointing towards the open hatch he'd been studying.

 

"Um, no," she replied. "It was already open.  But what we found through there is how we learned this was a ship.  Follow me."  And she proceeded to step carefully along the curved floor, one hand using the flat wall for balance, heading towards it.  Sheppard and McKay followed, both moving awkwardly.

 

"This isn't a very good design," Sheppard muttered, stepping over a ridge in the metal.

 

"I don't think we're right way up," McKay answered. "Just a guess, but I think the ship's on its side.  This wall," he tapped the long wall they were using for leverage, "is probably the ceiling...or the floor."

 

Innis glanced back at him, then at the wall, then forward again. 

 

Eventually, they reached the end, and Innis was ducking through square hatch.  Once on the other side, she stood and waited for the two men to climb through after her, her hands on her hips.  Unlike where they came from, there was no panel to hit for lights, so she stood in shadowed darkness, lit only by the artificial light through the hatch.  McKay and Sheppard immediately pulled their flashlights as they stood and ran the beams across the new room—which was huge.

 

"You're right," Innis said to McKay as he finally noticed the control panels under his feet, "the ship is on its side," she gestured around her, "although we didn't figure that out until we came in here and realized that all the control consoles were above and below us, and the floor...wasn't really a floor."

 

Sheppard's jaw dropped as he took it all in, marveling at the sheer size of the room after the cramped space they had just left. Mostly, though, he just stared in wonderment at the five huge engine turbines that made up the bulk of the room, sticking out of the wall to his left.  They were huge—he could only imagine what they looked like on the outside. 

 

Looking above his head, he shone his flashlight up at another series of panels at least three stories above his head, along with what looked like mushrooms erupting out of the wall (floor?) facing them—consoles?  He couldn't make out the words on anything from here, or even the language...

 

"This is incredible," McKay called gleefully, kneeling on the floor and running his fingers over the panel under his feet, "absolutely incredible!  This is obviously the engine room, and it makes up the entire end of the ship."  He shifted around, trying not to cover too much of it with his feet while studying it at the same time, adjusting so that he could look at it the right way up. "That half tunnel thing we  just came from must be a storage space, like the baggage area on an airplane."

 

"Can you read the writing?" Sheppard asked, looking at Innis.  She opened her mouth to answer, but McKay was faster, thinking that the question was for him.

 

"It's not Ancient," he said, tilting his head as he studied it, "But there is something familiar about it." His brow furrowed.

 

"It's not Cutsarkian either," Innis added, shaking her head. "Fallen and I even took some of the writings with us to the village elders, but they didn't recognize it either."

 

Sheppard hummed, looking down at McKay. "Well, perhaps Elizabeth could—"

 

"Oh my God," McKay breathed, his eyes widening and his whole body straightening from its crouch over the panel below him. 

 

"What?" Sheppard asked, though the question wasn't so much worried as curious.  McKay didn't sound panicked...more amazed.  "You recognize it?"

 

Rodney looked up at him, his eyes bright. "We have to get Teyla in here."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because this language," Rodney gave a short, stunned laugh, "it's Athosian."

____________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER THREE: INSTANBUL WAS CONSTANTINOPLE

 

Teyla knelt down, her fingers tracing the language on the panel under her feet, not saying a word as she studied the characters.  McKay hovered over her, scratching nervously at his arms as he waited for her to say something either in confirmation or denial.  Innis and Fallen were both inside now with them, while Ronon remained the only one outside the ship.

 

"It is..." Teyla stopped and swallowed, because her voice had shaken slightly and she obviously needed to calm down. "It is my people's language.  Some of the characters are a little...different, but...," she looked up at Sheppard, her eyes brighter than he had ever seen them, "it is definitely Athosian."  Her whole body seemed to glow with the realization, curiosity and pride filling her face, an uncharacteristically nervous smile lifting her lips.

 

"How is that possible?" Sheppard asked, watching her carefully.

 

Teyla just took another deep breath, then shook her head. "I am not sure.  I knew....that is, Charin used to speak of our people's past but...." She seemed to be struggling with something, lowering her head and biting her lip for a moment before once more focusing on the two Atlantians. "There are stories that, before the Ancestors left, the Athosians were once a great people.  Leaders among the humans in this galaxy, and allies with the Ancestors in the fight against the Wraith."  She looked down again, touching the panel one last time, then stood up to face them. "Of course, as with all stories...one can never really tell the history from the legend.  But I had always wondered how far they progressed before the Wraith scourge truly took its toll, before the Ancestors left.  I knew, from some of the old scrolls, that there were once great cities built on Athos and its allied planets, towering as high as Atlantis, and I knew, from the depictions on some of the ruins, that they had mastered flight....But a space ship?"  She shook her head, shining her own flashlight around at the massive engine room. "There is nothing in the old stories about our achieving that."

 

"But, clearly, you did," Sheppard said, smiling softly at her.  She smiled back, then shook her head.

 

"Yes, but," she looked around at the ship, "then where are they?  The ships?  Is this the only one?"  She pouted a little, crossing her arms, looking a little like a teenager who had just learned that her parents didn't leave her the car keys. "And if this really is an Athosian ship, what is it doing here?"  She looked at Innis and Fallen, "As beautiful as your planet is, as far as I know, this planet was not one of the Athosian homeworlds."

 

Innis just shrugged, glancing at her brother, who shrugged as well.

 

"Well, as to the first," McKay said, lifting up his scanner and tapping the screen a couple of times, "one possible explanation is that this was a prototype.  For all you know," he shrugged, "it is the only one of its kind."

 

Teyla gave him a pained look, "Prototype?"

 

"It may not even work," McKay replied, turning his focus to something on the scanner as it gave a soft beep.

 

"The cloak obviously works," Sheppard noted.

 

"Yeah," and McKay frowned then, looking down at the panels, "And has worked for a very long time..." His eyes had taken on a far away quality, and they knew he was talking to himself more than them at that point. Lifting the scanner in his hand, he turned in a circle, then stepped gingerly across to a different portion of the 'floor', pulling his laptop off his back as he moved.

 

"Light please, colonel!" he called out, snapping his fingers.  Without a word (although with a healthy glare), Sheppard walked over and pointed his light where McKay indicated—sometimes it was just easier not to argue.  On his knees now, the scientist quickly wrestled open a panel to reveal the wiring underneath and set about hooking up the laptop and other equipment.  As he worked, Teyla moved around as well, trying to avoid stepping on anything too delicate and checking for more clues as to how this ship was tied to her ancestors.

 

"I just find this so hard to believe," she said, leaning forward to look more carefully at one of the engine turbines. "To think that the Athosian people could have progressed this far scientifically and technologically....It almost puts them on par with your people's level of advancement."  She glanced at Sheppard as she spoke, the colonel just giving her a mild shrug in reply.

 

"Hunh," McKay snorted without looking up from the laptop, which was already glowing with information, "I wouldn't say that."

 

Teyla frowned at his dismissal, anger coloring her features. "Why not?  I would think that this ship is proof enough that they were at least capable of the same level of—"

 

"No, no," McKay shot back, annoyance in his own voice as looked up at her. "Don't be ridiculous.  Of course your people could have been as great as us....I mean..." he shook a hand at her, frustration in his tone, his eyes returning to the monitor which just lit up shiny and blue, "it's actually possible your people, if they did build this, were in fact more advanced than us."  He frowned again, peering more closely at the monitor as something obviously popped up that confused him.

 

"Really?" Sheppard asked, lifting his eyebrows.  Teyla, however, looked even more surprised at the admission.

 

"More advanced?" she repeated.

 

"Why not?" McKay asked, his tone distracted again as he started to type on the keyboard, "After all...they had the Ancestors around to teach them, didn't they?  It's always easier to progress when there is someone to show you the way..."  He frowned again, clicked his tongue, and started to type furiously.

 

"Oh," Teyla blinked a little at that.  "Yes...I suppose that is accurate.  I had not considered—"

 

"Look," McKay stopped mid-type to offer her a level stare, "To be honest, while our people," he stuck a thumb out at himself and Sheppard, "have succeeded in flying to and landing on the moon orbiting our planet—something we did manage entirely on our own, I might add—the level of technology that enabled us to build the Daedalus and the F-302's is way beyond anything we could have created at our current stage of development.  Much of the truly advanced technology we control back home—like the Daedalus' hyperdrive—comes from studying and copying Ancient technology or borrowed from the Asgard.  Of course, who knows where we would be if the Ancients were still around...." He hummed at the idea, retuning his attention to the laptop. 

 

"Wait," Teyla began, sounding oddly tentative as McKay began typing again, "are you saying that you think this ship might have also been based on one of the Ancestor's ships?"

 

"Yes," McKay glanced at her, annoyance once more on his face, "Isn't that what I just said?"

 

"Then the Athosians co-opted Ancient technology?" Sheppard asked, arching an eyebrow.

 

"Not necessarily. From what I'm seeing here," McKay waved at the laptop screen, "it's more likely the Ancients actually had a hand in helping them build it."  He shrugged,  "To my eye, I'm looking at a student's design here. It might work, but it's also a touch impractical and a little fanciful, almost whimsical. I would lay odds this ship was constructed with an Ancient teacher looking over the builder's shoulder..."  Teyla's eyes were wide open now as she listened, trying to imagine that possibility of her people actually working alongside the Ancestors. 

 

"McKay, that's just...total conjecture.  How can you possibly know that?" Sheppard asked.

 

"Just based upon what we see in front of us," McKay answered. "Can't you see?" He waved a hand out at the large room and glanced back and forth between Teyla and Sheppard, waiting for one of them to reply. When neither did, his eyes softened slightly in realization, looking almost sad. "No.  No, I guess you can't.  Huh.  Look, this design, while simple, smacks of Ancient.  In fact..." he started typing again, his brow furrowing as he absorbed the information scrolling past. 

 

"In fact?" Sheppard prompted.

 

McKay just gave a sly smile, hit a few keys, and suddenly the room around them started to hum, causing the four people with him to jump a little.  When he looked up, his eyes were smug. 

 

He'd just revved the engines.

 

"All right!" Sheppard grinned, raising his voice to be heard over the loud noise as the turbines started spinning in the five hubs. "You can get it to work!"

 

"I can get it to work," McKay confirmed, typing away rapidly once more, his eyes intent on the screen in front of him.  "The coding for the computers is nearly identical to that of the Orion.  Once translated into English, it's actually pretty simple to control."

 

"God rest the Orion's soul," Sheppard muttered as he moved over to join Teyla's study of the spinning turbines.  The Athosian was grinning, more excited than Sheppard had ever seen her.  All around them, the room was lighting up as panel after panel burst into life, until the whole room was practically thrumming with energy.  For the first time, they could see the true size of the room—it was even bigger than they thought....

 

"Sheppard," Ronon's voice called over the radio. "I take it you just turned the ship on?"

 

"That's a yes, Ronon," the colonel replied cheerily. "How's it look from out there?"

 

"Cloak's still on.  I can just hear it...and kinda feel it."

 

"Oh, yeah, 'spect that's true.  Give Lorne a head's up about what the noise is, will you?"

 

"Sure."  And the radio chirrupped as Ronon called for Lorne over the radio in the background.  Meanwhile, Sheppard turned to look at the scientist still typing away furiously at the laptop.

 

"Hey, how about dropping the cloak so we can see what the ship looks like?" he said.

 

"And can you open those doors?" Innis asked, pointing to her right.  On the wall opposite the turbines, about a dozen steps led up to a large pair of doors....leading, obviously, into the main part of the ship. "Maybe power up the rest of the rooms on this ship?"

 

"And get it turned right way up?" Fallen added, patting his hand on one of consoles above his head. "Get it off the ground?"

 

"Off the ground...do you think it can still fly?" Teyla asked, her eyes bright.

 

Sheppard nodded, "Speaking of which, what is actually powering the engines? Is it a ZPM?"

 

Teyla nodded, "Does it require the gene to—?"

 

"Stop!" McKay snapped, pushing his hands out to indicate they stop talking. "Just...just wait!  I can only answer one thing at a time!"  He looked over at the Athosian, "Teyla, Can you do some reading for me?"

 

She nodded briskly, not the least bit fazed by the interruption. "Yes, of course."

 

"Great.  On one of those lit panels over there," he pointed off to his left, "I need you to find the one that reads, 'power levels'." 

 

Teyla nodded, delicately stepping over to where he'd indicated.  It was the second panel closest to the turbines. "Got it."

 

"What does it say?"

 

"There are three sets of screens on this one panel," she replied. "The first is labeled 'Main'.  The second is labeled 'Auxiliary.'  The last is..." she frowned, "I don't know this word, although it is similar to our word for extreme speed...."

 

"Hyperdrive," Rodney said, smiling to himself.

 

"Yes," Teyla nodded, "That makes sense."

 

"Are any of them on?"

 

"Uh...well, the panel for Auxiliary appears to be showing activity...."

 

"Thought so," McKay said, typing away furiously once again.

 

"McKay?" Sheppard nudged, arching an eyebrow.  "Care to share some of that brilliance?"

 

"Oh," McKay looked up, "Sure.  Apparently, this ship has three different power sources that it pulls on.  I don't know what feeds the Main and the Hyperdrive power cells yet, but I know what feeds the auxiliary, because I've managed to tap into its diagnostics...a much easier thing to do since it's currently active.  The auxiliary power is what's powering the cloak and systems I've initiated...."  He looked down again at his screen, typing some more.

 

Sheppard waited a few beats, having expected (along with everyone else in the room), that McKay would continue.  When Rodney just continued to type, Sheppard literally nudged him this time, knocking the still kneeling scientist with his shin.  Rodney glared up at him.

 

"What?"

 

"So what's providing the auxiliary power?"

 

"Oh," McKay shrugged, "that's easy.  The sun."  He pointed vaguely upwards. "This ship is covered head to toe in solar paneling.  It's been running on solar power this whole time."

 

Sheppard's eyebrows lifted, "You're kidding."

 

"Nope.  And it's definitely Ancient design.  They're made of the same material as many of the solar panels on....back home."

 

The colonel's eyebrows lifted even higher, "there are solar panels back home?"

 

McKay just stared at him, "Now who's kidding?  You've flown over it, Colonel.  Haven't you ever noticed the massive mirrors on the top of most of the towers?"

 

"Oh," Sheppard shrugged, "I just...I thought they were just decoration."

 

McKay gave him a sour look, then turned his attention back to his screen. "Anyway, I'm going to switch over to main power, to see how much there is and what exactly its source is.  Meanwhile...I should be able to turn the ship right side up by asking the ship to orientate itself on its central axis, which I can do from here.  When I do that, I'll drop the cloak, so you can see what it looks like.  If you want to go outside when I do so..."

 

"Outside? You mean leave you alone?" Sheppard asked, brow furrowing. "I don't think that's a—"

 

"Well, not alone, exactly," McKay said. "I, uh, I need Teyla's help."  He looked up at the Athosian, "You feel up to helping me fly this thing?"

 

The woman practically bounced, but Sheppard held up a hand before Teyla could answer, "Now, hang on, McKay.  I'm the pilot here, remember?  If anyone's going to fly this ship—"

 

"Yes, but you can't read the controls, now, can you?" McKay replied, eyebrows lifting.

 

"Ships are ships.  I can fly anything."

 

"From the control room or the cockpit, yes, probably you can," McKay admitted. "But not from back here.  Frankly, I don't need a pilot to rotate the ship, Colonel.  We will not really be flying it, per se.  Just...shifting it.  All I need is someone to hit the right buttons on the right panels at the right time....and Teyla can do that.  In fact, she's the best one to do so, since I can just tell her what to look for instead of pointing it out."

 

Sheppard frowned, "McKay..."

 

"Colonel," Teyla said, insinuating herself into the conversation by sliding between him and McKay, "please.  He is right.  I am the best one to help."  She gave a small smile then, "After all, it is not as if I have not flown a ship before...."

 

Sheppard stared at her, thinking about how well she'd managed to control the Hive ship.  It didn't make the idea sit any more comfortably with him.   

 

"Teyla..."

 

"Please, Colonel," she pressed, straightening up more in order to seem taller. "I can do this.  I know this is normally your prerogative, but, please...I would like to be the one to help Doctor McKay."

 

Sheppard stared at her for a moment, studying her face.  This was not the Teyla he knew and could rely on—this Teyla was full of a vibrancy he had never seen before. This ship had clearly sparked in Teyla that same sense of childlike excitement that lit up McKay whenever he found new Ancient technology, and it was beautiful on her.  Normally, with the exception of when she saw Atlantis for the first time, Teyla took everything they came across in stride, showing little enthusiasm or thrill for anything.  Like almost everyone they had met in this galaxy, the Wraith had long ago killed the wonder in her.  But this Athosian ship had brought it back…in spades. And, as much as he wanted to be the voice of reason, to take this risk with McKay, he couldn't take this from her. 

 

Of course, it meant placing her completely in McKay's hands, trusting that he would be able to save her as well as himself should something go wrong.  Normally, he wouldn't think twice, because Teyla was even more cautious than he was when dealing with the ambitious and proud astrophysicist, but right now....

 

He closed his eyes and lowered his head.

 

"She'll be fine, Colonel," McKay spat, his acerbic tone telling Sheppard that the scientist was clearly aware of the debate going on inside Sheppard's head.

 

Sheppard opened his eyes to glare at McKay, but sucking in a breath, gave a short nod. "Fine.  But you shut it down the moment you think—"

 

"I know the drill," McKay said. "Go."

 

"We'll go too," Innis said, smiling. "We'd love to see what the ship really looks like."

 

Sheppard just stared at McKay a moment longer, then nodded again. "Right.  Stay on the radio."

 

The scientist just waved a hand at him, already back to typing away again.  Sheppard brushed past Teyla and back to the hatch, Fallen and Innis on his heels.  As he ducked through, he glanced back at the Athosian, and saw her confident smile as she watched them leave.  She gave him a nod, and he nodded back.

 

Then he was back into the curved outer room and sliding along the uneven floor towards the open hatch to the outside.

 

"And back far away from the ship!" McKay shouted after them, his voice echoing along the metal frame. "At least back to the dry ground!  This thing's going to expel a lot of firepower when it moves!"

 

"Right," Sheppard muttered, helping Innis as she climbed into the chute to get outside. "Right," he said again to himself.

____________________________________________________

 

With Fallen, Innis and Ronon by his side, Sheppard headed away from the ship as ordered, squelching through the mud and leading the way back to the meadow’s edge.  The boggy soil stuck to trouser legs and boots like glue, worrying him a little as he considered how much power it might take to lift the ship up out of this marsh.  Would the ship be able to handle that much power expenditure after all this time?  Was McKay really certain he could do this?  And they hadn’t figured out exactly why the ship was down in the first place…what if…what if McKay was wrong?

 

His thoughts churned and flipped and worried down the edges of his mind, so that he barely noticed when they finally hit the dry ground once again.  If Ronon hadn’t tapped his shoulder when they reached the top of the first rise, he might actually have kept going.  Sheppard grimaced, meeting the Satedan’s eyes and seeing his worry mirrored in them. He shook his head at the tall man, and shoved all his own doubts to the back of his head.  There was no time left for second thoughts.  McKay said he could do this, and Sheppard knew, 90 percent of the time…that meant he could.  Turning around fully, shaking some of the mud off his boots, he tapped his radio.

 

“You’re sure you can do this,” he said into the mouthpiece, the words more a statement than a question.

 

Yes,” McKay replied over the radio, his tone dark with his annoyance at the question. “Teyla and I can do this.”

 

“Okay, then,” Sheppard sighed, brow furrowing slightly. “Go ahead.  Let’s see her.”

 

Roger that,” McKay replied. “Here we go.”

 

Fallen audibly held his breath next to Sheppard as the soft purr filling the meadow rose to a deep, muted rumble, seemingly from nowhere.  The ship’s engines groaned, then sputtered, then rose to a sustained whirr.

 

And, like a curtain being lifted from a window, the ship rippled into view.

 

“Oh,” Sheppard breathed, eyes widening, “Wow.”

 

The damn thing wasn't just a ship, it was a god damned rocket ship.

 

Unlike the Ancient and Earth ships, which were predominantly angles and square edges, and unlike the Wraith ships, which were all points and filigree, what appeared before them was round, long and smooth—it was elegance in a way that made the Daedalus feel like a poor, hick cousin.  The metal covering it gleamed almost white, absorbing and reflecting the twin suns burning overhead like a mirror, and causing the four people standing there to squint and cover their eyes as they were suddenly bathed in white light.

 

“Whimsical,” Innis whispered, nodding slightly as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. “I get what he meant now. It doesn’t seem real.”

 

Sheppard didn’t answer, and neither did the others.  Innis was right—it didn’t seem real.  Part of the colonel felt like someone had reached inside his head and pulled out images from the comic books he’d loved when he was a kid, because the ship resting on the ground before them looked just like the old spaceships people used to depict in 1950s comic strips, right down to the petal like wings on the bottom, protecting the engine.  Had it been standing up on its base, resting on those petal wings, it would have been exactly like something he remembered from the cover of an Amazing Stories magazine. 

 

McKay was going to freak when he finally got a look at it from the outside!

 

But there were other differences as well, now that he looked more carefully.  Stunted wings, a little like shark fins, extended out of the sides of the ship as they watched—flaps? rudders?—and settled into place with a metallic groan.  He saw other lines in the hull as well, where other things obviously extended out of the rocket shaped hull…weapons, maybe?  Until they got it the right way up, and McKay was able to open all the interior doors to allow them the access to really explore the inside, it was hard to tell. In the front, just above the pointed nose of the ship, a series of windows like those for an airplane's cockpit were visible—obviously the control room. 

 

Damn, he wanted to get in there!

 

The smooth metal was vibrating now as the engines roared and flared, getting stronger as they listened.  Nothing sounded wrong, no telltale bangs or hisses to suggest problems…it just sounded old.

 

His radio crackled, and he realized McKay had been trying to speak to him for a while, yelling across the airwaves.  Fiddling with the volume, he listened to the now spotty transmission—interference from the ship's power cells?

 

"...probably...interference from....can hear me? Anyway, just...no ZPM.  Powered by...like the Puddle Jump...'cept fivefold....built for speed...charged.  Should be enough to....for a little while...back to Atlantis at least....okay...up now....damn thing is...stubborn....stupid bog..."

 

Slowly, with a loud, almost ferocious growl, the ship started to lift itself up, and Sheppard could now see the front thrusters churning up air and heat near the ship’s nose, allowing it to hover in concert with the engines in back.  A loud "pop" filled the air, hurting their ears, and Sheppard grimaced and stepped back without thinking, wondering if he should have ignored McKay’s words and been the one inside helping him…but Teyla had been so certain she could do this…and wanted to do it.  And besides, they weren’t going to fly it anywhere—they were just putting it back down on its belly as opposed to its side.

 

Another booming "pop," and Sheppard knew he wasn't the only one to flinch at the loud noise.

 

Mud and water dripped from the underside as the ship raised itself up a few feet off the ground, heat and burn billowing from the engines in back, churning and boiling the meadow behind it.  Yellow Flames burst and flared from one of the turbines—the one that had been the most embedded in the bog—and had probably been the source of the popping noise, but soon settled into the same white hot color of the rest.  They all visibly relaxed.

 

And slowly, with a caution that Sheppard was proud of McKay for, the ship started to rotate in the air.

 

Two things became apparent as it did so.  The first being that, as it turned out, the main entrance to the ship, a large rectangular door, had been buried on the underside. No wonder Innis and her brother couldn’t find it.  It was revealed as the ship turned, hunks of dirt and turf sliding off the silvery metal material. The second, and this one was more interesting, was the discovery of a big hole on the same side, not too far from the entrance, and almost as big as the doors themselves. 

 

Shit.

 

“There’s a hole,” Fallen said suddenly, as if they had all somehow missed it. “You think something inside exploded?”

 

“No,” Ronon replied, his sharp eyes taking in the damage from here, “the metal is turned inwards.  Something hit that ship.  Hit it hard.”

 

“And brought it down,” Sheppard finished quietly.

 

At least now they knew why the ship had been left on this planet.  You couldn’t fly it in outer space with that huge hole—hell, it’d be dangerous to fly it at any serious altitude even on this planet.  At best, you could fly it at helicopter height, but anything more than that and you’d have serious problems with air pressure.

 

Everything seems to be working okay in here, and I think I've solved the interference problem with the radio. Got communications to work with our frequencies.  You should be receiving me loud and clear now, which...according to this, you are.” McKay said then over the radio, obviously gleeful to be succeeding in his endeavor. “So, How’s it look?”

 

“Amazing,” Sheppard replied, both to McKay and to himself.

 

“Except for the big hole,” Ronon added darkly.

 

“Even with,” Sheppard said. “It’s beautiful.”

 

Hole?” McKay’s voice was questioning. “There’s a hole?  I…oh…yes, I see it now on the screen.  Wonder why it didn’t show me that before…? Probably because I didn’t know how to look for it. Oh, wow…that’s a big hole.”

 

“Can it be fixed?” Innis asked, looking across at the two men.       

 

 “Can it be fixed, McKay?” Sheppard repeated her question into the radio.

 

I don’t know.”  There was a brief pause, “It’s pretty big.”

 

“Yes,” Sheppard said to Innis, smiling at her. “It can be fixed.”

 

Hey! Don’t tell her that!”  McKay groused, his voice rising to even tinnier levels over the radio link. “I said, I didn’t know if it could be fixed!”

 

“Which, generally, means it can.”

 

McKay just harrumphed, not bothering to reply to that.

 

Gently, the ship settled back down onto the marsh bed, and the cloak once more settled into place as the scientist turned it back on.  The engines fell silent with a rattle and a gurgle, until, once more, the people on the hillock could see nothing but mud, grass and flowers…and now some pretty charred, smoking dirt.  The smell of burning peat filled their noses, sweet and a little musty. 

 

I’m going to open the main entrance.  If you saw where it was, you should be able to find it pretty easily.  There appear to be steps that fold out from it to reach the ground, just like an airplane.”

 

“What’s an airplane?” Ronon asked, looking at Sheppard.

 

“A plane that flies in the air,” the colonel replied, already moving forward down the hill.  He didn’t feel the sear of Ronon’s glare on his back at the non-answer.

 

___________________________________________

 

With the ship back on the ground, and the engines now off, McKay continued to chatter over the radio about the ship as they squelched back through the bog.  He told them that it had at least three internal "floors", i.e. three levels besides the cargo areas on the top and bottom of the ship like the one they'd sidled through to get to the engine room.  There were rooms for at least twenty personnel, and, yes, he was pretty sure there was a blackbox hidden inside the coding to tell them what happened to that crew.  He was trying to access it now....

 

As they got closer, McKay's voice on the radio trailed off, obviously once more distracted by the technology, and Teyla appeared from out the nothingness, stepping down off of invisible steps into the mud and waving at them, a joyous expression on her face.  As they reached her, she spoke with a speed and excitement that was usually reserved to McKay, describing first the feel of lifting and rotating the ship and then how McKay had managed to open up all the doors to all the rooms, making finding this main entrance fairly easy. 

 

The moment they stepped up onto the step, the ship rematerialized around them, and they got to see it up close.  Try as he might, Sheppard couldn't keep the wonder from his face, and he knew the others couldn't either. The ship was still brightly lit, awash with a soft, pulsing white light, reminding Sheppard a little of the Aurora.  The whole thing practically glowed.

 

They stepped through the main entrance, then down a short, plain, circular hallway, lit on both sides by rectangular lights that were flush with the walls.  Oddly, it reminded Sheppard of something out of the movie, 2001. Everything was in shades of silver, white, light beige or tan....

 

Teyla stepped through another doorway, a bit like the oval doorways one found on a submarine, and into a long central, tubular hallway.  This was likely the spine of the ship. At the far end were the open double doors leading to the darker colored engine room—they could see multicolored lights pouring out of it from the panels, consoles and the tops of the engine turbines.  At the other end....

 

Sheppard looked that way, knowing without a doubt that he was looking at the doors leading to the control room.  Doors also dotted the hall on both sides, leading who knows where.

 

"What's the plan?" he asked, looking longingly at the doors to the control room.

 

"We explore this sucker, what else?" McKay answered, appearing from open doors at the end as he bounded up the steps from the engine room floor and into the corridor, grinning.  "But first, I have managed to find their version of a blackbox recording.  Do you want me to play it?" He strode quickly towards them, all smiles and smugness.  "It'll play anywhere in the ship, since I've tied it into the communications system...."

 

"That's the control room, right?" Sheppard asked, indicating the doors at the opposite end from McKay's engine room with his thumb.

 

"Yup. Good place to start. You want to look at it while we play the recording?"

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, already turning and walking in that direction.  The others turned with him, like moths following a moving lantern.  Behind him, he heard McKay's feet accelerate on the metal floor, jogging to catch up.

 

"Okay," the scientist panted as he pushed up to walk between Sheppard and Teyla, who were in the lead.  He had his data tablet in hand, and he hit a handful of commands as they reached the control room doors.

 

Teyla waved a hand over the left hand side, and they slid open with a soft sigh reminiscent of the doors on Atlantis. 

 

"Wow," Sheppard said again, stepping into the large, white accented room, eyes taking in the huge windows before them with wide eyed excitement.  The windows hadn't looked this large from the outside.

 

From the walls all around them, the recording began to play, filling the space with a softly toned voice.

 

"This is Commander Jorgan Relegar, acting Captain of the spaceship Thermopylae..."

 

"Thermopylae," Teyla repeated, looking pensive as she stepped forward on the metal floor, her eyes studying the cone shaped room.  It was two levels.  They had entered on the main level, the floor running all the way to the pointed nose of the ship.  Before them, several consoles rose from out the floor, circling around a central command chair....

 

"Thermopylae?  That sounds oddly familiar," Rodney muttered as he moved over to the first console, already checking its purpose with his data tablet.

 

"...I am making this recording with the hope that, someday, our people will once again discover this ship and learn of its fate..."

 

Sheppard frowned as he looked up at the balcony over head, hanging over the entrance they had just walked through.  It was short, with stairs leading down on both sides to this main level. A door up there presumably led to the corridor on that floor.

 

"...If you are here, listening to this, then you have mastered the ship's computer and will have already learned that we were brought down by the Wraith while attempting to help evacuate the Lantean outpost on Claris, several star systems over.  We will obviously never make it to the outpost.  I can only hope that one of our other allies will be able to reach them, for the Lanteans' sakes...." 

 

"Wraith," Ronon spat, anger in his tone.

 

"Claris?" Sheppard repeated the name of the outpost, looking over at McKay.

 

"A far-flung Ancient space station that was located near MX3-21C," the scientist replied solemnly as he left the first console and moved to another, "the database described it as completely destroyed.  No survivors."

 

"...Captain Leyda Emeras and Senior Donal Magay were, unfortunately, aiding in the repair of the pulse weapon located on the port side of the ship when the Wraith beam cut through the shield and blew out the side of the Thermopylae. They...and several others lost their lives, but Senior Magay managed, before he died, to adjust the remaining shield strength to give us enough protection to bring the ship down on this planet..."

 

"Magay," Sheppard snorted, "sounds almost like McKay..."

 

Rodney was standing still now, no longer looking at his tablet, but staring into space as he listened to the recording.  "Donal Magay...was an Ancient," he told them. "I recognize his name from the database.  He was their head shipbuilder—Zelenka's sort of got a thing for him," he added with a smile.

 

"Makes sense," Ronon said, peering down a hatch in the floor at some stairs with Fallen.  They clearly led to the level below. 

 

"So you were right," Teyla breathed, running her fingers on the arm of the white leather command chair. 

 

"...We came down on our side, the hole in the hull preventing us from landing properly.  I managed to bring us down on  the largest of the muddy rivers lining this area of the planet, to mask our skid.  We had just enough power to land without damaging the ship further, but...as I said, we landed on our side..."

 

"Well, that explains that," Ronon muttered, looking up at the balcony as Sheppard had done.

 

"...We had hoped to right ourselves, but the Main power cells have nearly burnt out and, at the moment, are not responding to our attempts to recharge them.  The Auxiliary power cells are low, having been used to shore up the shields, and are barely sustaining the cloak now hiding us...."

 

"Were the main power cells low?" Sheppard asked, looking to McKay.

 

"No, they're almost fully charged," McKay replied, shaking his head. "They tapped them into the Auxiliary power cells before they left, and the sun over ten thousand years recharged both."

 

"...The Wraith know we came down on this planet, and have been searching the surface for several days.  They have not found us because of the cloak, but we can not stay here. We have no guarantee that the cloak will remain constant, not with auxiliary reserves so low, and it will take years before the power cells are charged enough to allow the ship to fly anywhere again.  Moreover, we do not have the materials necessary to repair the hole in the hull.  Our only chance is to get to the Stargate we located on the side of a mountain about four and a half  miles from here and perhaps bring back help...."

 

"But they never came back," Teyla said, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

"...If we do not return, or if the Thermopylae is not found until after our names have faded from memory, know that this ship was the fastest ship of its time, and one the Athosian people can be proud of for having helped design. I truly believe that this ship met the requirements of the challenge the Lantean's posed of its allies, and we can be sure in the knowledge that it not only met that challenge, but exceeded it.  There was nothing faster in the skies...."

 

"Challenge?" Teyla said, looking at McKay.  The scientist just shrugged in reply. 

 

"...Unfortunately, our reliance on the safety brought by that speed was not enough to escape the sheer numbers of Wraith bearing down on us or our Lantean allies.  Perhaps it was hubris that brought us to this point, telling the Lanteans that we could rescue their people on Claris, and having to desert our ship on this lonely planet, but I believe..."  there was a pause on the recording, and the faces of the people listening all turned up a little, waiting, "...I truly believe that the Lanteans might have commissioned more like the Thermopylae, had they the time.  But I am afraid...that the Lanteans will lose this war soon.  There are very few of them left now. And when they do lose...I do not know what will happen to the rest of us."

 

Teyla closed her eyes, lowering her head.  Sheppard had moved to stand next to her, and, gently, rested a hand on her shoulder.  Without lifting her head, she reached up and placed her hand over his in thanks.

 

"...At daybreak tomorrow, we will make a run for the Stargate.  I hope that this message will be erased by myself when I return."  They heard the smile in the voice, even if they couldn't see the man making it. "If not, whomever this is that is listening to it...know this ship saved many lives before being brought down.  She was great once. And if it is a Wraith listening to this message...I hope this ship explodes under your control and brings you down in a fireball.  Acting Captain Jorgan Relegar...signing off."

 

Ronon chuckled at the last words, and even Teyla smiled.

 

"I like that guy," Sheppard said, smirking as he stepped forward as far as possible into the nose, and looked out the window at the quiet landscape.

 

"Had a nice way with words," McKay agreed, moving over to the largest of the consoles and started hitting keys.

 

"Do you know what you're doing?" Innis asked, leaning over the scientist's shoulder.

 

"Surprisingly?  Yes," McKay sneered as he continued to work. "I'm hoping to find some information that will help us repair—"

 

"COLONEL SHEPPARD!" Lorne's screamed shout over the radio caused them all to jump, especially since McKay still had it tied into the ship's communications system...it was broadcast over the entire ship. "COLONEL SHEPPARD! RESPOND!"  There was a lot of noise in the background...it sounded like weapons fire.

 

"Lorne?" Sheppard tapped his radio, "What—"

 

"Sir! We're under attack!  The Stargate activated, and four Wraith darts just came through!"

 

"What?  Major, can you get to the Gate?  You have to get Beckett out of there!"

 

"Yes, sir! I know. The gate deactivated when the darts came through, but there are Wraith everywhere on the ground. We're trying to get around them to the gate, but they're everywhere!  We're doing our best to fight them, but we don't have the manpower to—"

 

"We're on our way," Sheppard snapped, hitting the radio. "Let's go!" he called, spinning around and running back into the corridor.  They were at the main door in moments, Teyla, Ronon and the two Cutsarkians already almost all the way down the steps.  Stopping halfway down, Sheppard turned and held up a hand to stop Rodney. "Stay here!"

 

"What?" McKay demanded, "What are you talking about?"

 

"That's an order, McKay!  You'll slow us down.  Stay here.  We'll radio you when—"

 

"But I can help!  I'm part of this team!  You know I—"

 

"That wasn't a suggestion, McKay!  You'll be safe inside the cloak.  You really want to fight the Wraith today?"

 

McKay's jaw opened, then shut, his expression pained.

 

"I'll stay," he agreed weakly. 

 

"We'll call you as soon as we can," Sheppard finished, jumping down the remaining steps.  Teyla, Ronon, Innis and Fallen were already halfway across the marsh.  "Don't follow us!" he yelled over his shoulder as he jumped into the mud and started slogging through it. 

 

McKay watched them until they had all disappeared over the rise, headed back to the village and the Stargate, his fingers curling and loosening by his side in frustration.  Suddenly, he thought of something, and hit his radio.

 

"Don't forget to watch for big snakes!" he called into the comm. "And don't do anything stupid...like...like getting yourself killed!" 

 

Pounding up the trail of dry packed earth, Sheppard couldn't help but smile at Rodney's words over the radio as he chased after the others...

__________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FOUR: UNDER ATTACK

 

"Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger..." Beckett tucked himself into a ball behind one of the stone walls lining the small village, listening to the rattle of gunfire and trying to remain as small as possible.  With shaking fingers, he put his radio earpiece back on—remembering to do so for the first time since he'd taken it off to listen to that child's heartbeat when he first got to this planet.  No wonder he'd lost Lorne and the others!  That, and the fact that he'd already screwed up his orders from the major to "stay hidden or get out of the village" twice—first when he rescued that little girl out of the street before she was swept up by a culling beam, and second when he emptied his 9MM into a Wraith bearing down on the village's apprentice healer, giving the young man enough time to get away.  Now he was trapped in the village with and empty gun and bugger all chance for survival unless Lorne found him soon...

 

Thing was, though he'd lost the major and his men in the melee, he could at least hear them.  He had no idea if any of the darts screaming overhead had actually succeeded in culling anyone yet, but he could guess that they probably had.  The darts had also dropped Wraith on the ground—at least three males and a healthy bunch of drones from what he'd seen—and they were currently in a ferocious firefight with Lorne.

 

At least one dart was down—he'd seen the fireball as the ship lost control, exploding beautifully on the other side of the mountain they were on.  It was the first to come through the gate, so, thankfully, didn't have any humans on board.  The other three however...

 

As if hearing his thoughts, the whine of a dart had him cowering again, the terrifying looking ship speeding overhead and banking downwards, disappearing from view behind the tall pine trees as it careened towards the valley floor.  It caused the sharp, cold mountain breeze to increase in ferocity, and Beckett shivered as the trees undulated around him. 

 

"Beckett!" Lorne's voice over the radio was crisp and urgent. "Damn it, Beckett! Respond!"

 

"Um, hi?" he replied.

 

"Oh thank God! Where the hell have you been?  No, don't answer...just tell me where you are!"

 

"Behind a rock wall on the east...is it east? I mean, the right...the right side of the village.  I'm near the healer's hut, I, uh, I think."

 

"You think?"

 

"Well, um..." he bit his lip, looking around at the pine filled landscape, the ground dropping away pretty steeply on this side of the wall. "At least, I think I am...I might have gotten a wee bit turned around...."  He looked up, and saw the edge of a thatched roof, and caught side of a weathervane. "There's a weathervane above me," he added weakly.  "I...I think it's a dog.  Might be a horse.  Or a goat...Sheep?  Definitely something fuzzy with four legs..."

 

"I thought I told you to get...never mind.  We're coming for you.  Just hang tight."

 

"Aye, hanging tight," Beckett whispered, tucking his head against his legs again as the flash of two stunner beams shot overhead, followed by another round of gunfire.

 

Another whine—a different dart burst overhead from nowhere.  It seemed so close!  He jumped when he saw the streaming white light spill from the underneath, but it didn't cascade close to him.  He heard at least two screams cut off abruptly, however...someone else wasn't so lucky.

 

He felt momentary guilt as he prayed it wasn't Lorne or any of his marines.

 

Feet pelting on the ground and the sudden appearance of another body vaulting over the wall had Beckett scrambling backwards in fear, until he saw Lorne's smiling face looking down at him.  The Major grabbed his arm, gripping it warmly as if to prove he was really there.  Beckett was embarrassed to know that he had needed that. 

 

"Hang on, Doc," Lorne whispered to him, still smiling, though it looked forced now. "We're going to get out of this.  Sheppard's team's on its way.  We're going to be okay."

 

"What...when....?"

 

"They're running back here.  By my guess," Lorne glanced down at his watch, "they should be here within minutes."

 

"But...but you just called them," Beckett said, eyes showing his confusion. "I was there when you—"

 

"It's been almost twenty minutes, Doc.  Hard to believe, I know.  The darts have been chasing the villagers down and around this mountain for a while.  With the cliffs, caves and other natural covers, they're giving them a really good run for their money."  Lorne was holding him down now, keeping him low as the major risked a peek over the top of the rock wall.  The smile on his face abruptly disappeared and he swore softly.  Ducking down, the major checked the magazine on his P90, then fixed Beckett with a sharp look.  "Just hold on."

 

Beckett tried not to whimper, but it was hard to hold back the noise. 

 

Suddenly, Lorne was up, pointing his P-90 over the wall and firing.  Beckett just watched him, waiting.  Flashes of white light impacted the wall around him, but Lorne kept firing...until he was hit.

 

"Major!" Beckett screamed, watching as Lorne was flung backwards several feet by the force of the stun weapon, the white light rippling into nothingness as the major hit the ground and slid backwards down the hill, out cold. "No!"

 

Scrambling over to the man, Beckett checked his pulse, then grabbed for the P90.  It unclipped fairly quickly—thank goodness for small favors—and Beckett had just enough time to turn around and start firing as a huge Wraith drone suddenly loomed over the low wall, pointing his stunner at them.

 

Beckett was only aware of the backlash from P90 firing in his arms, of watching the drone fall backwards, staggering like a puppet.  He didn't hear the second set of gunfire joining his, or even the presence of the second body next to his until a hand suddenly shoved the weapon in his hands down.

 

"Sir," Corporal Johnson...no...now he was Sergeant Johnson, was looking at him in the eye, "Stop.  You'll draw more.  You got him."

 

Beckett just opened his mouth and shut it a couple of times, then dropped the P90 to turn around and check on Lorne again.  Pulling back the man's collar, he checked again for the steady pulse and then looked over at the burly black sergeant.

 

"We gotta find somewhere else to hide," Johnson told him, sliding over and getting an arm under Lorne's right shoulder to lift him up. "Pick up his P90 again and help me with him.  I saw a grouping of large boulders down that way," he pointed to his right down the hill.  Beckett just nodded, his voice leaving him as he got his hands under Lorne's left shoulder...and the two of them dragged the unconscious major through the trees and away from the village.

_______________________________________________

 

Sheppard was panting, his lungs burning, watching as the two younger members of his team disappeared into the trees at the base of the trail leading up to the village.  They were a good quarter-mile ahead of him, as were Innis and Fallen.  The two tall and young Cutsarkian siblings were even faster than Teyla and Ronon—they had already disappeared, their own old-fashioned pistols in hand, clearly planning on protecting their home.  He had never seen anyone run that fast except on TV...when watching the Olympics.

 

His feet pelted the ground, and he should have kept his head down to watch for roots and holes, but his eyes were drawn upwards.  They'd seen that first dart explode and crash into the side of the mountain—good boy, Lorne—but the other three were still buzzing up and down the low-lying mountain, their culling beams cutting through the thick tree cover. 

 

Damn it!

 

His legs seemed to grow stronger as the anger burned in him, and he found himself picking up speed, jumping over branches...and Teyla and Ronon didn't seem so far off anymore.

_________________________________________________

 

Johnson left Beckett with Lorne and the P90, telling him to stay hid and protect the major...then he was gone.  He had two other men out there to take care of. 

 

The doctor tried not to shake as he worked to make sure Lorne was comfortable inside the protection of the boulders, then found himself a place where he could peer through a crack between the massive stones without being spotted.  He couldn't see much—just trees, leaves and more rocks, but he could see the shadows of the darts every time they flew overhead.  And, oh yes, he could hear them.

 

He understood, now, the need for these villages to be inside tree cover.  They were the best protection from the darts.  The ships couldn't fly low enough to cull from this height, so they had to drop the Wraith on the ground to herd people into the open.  But the Cutsarkians were too adept at hiding, using the mountainous landscape to their advantage.  As Lorne said, they were giving the Wraith a run for their money.  Plus, having the added firepower of the Atlantian guns didn't hurt....

 

He checked his watch, trying to guess when it was that Sheppard and his team would get here.  Not that Rodney would be much help...but, hell, he could use his P90 as well as Beckett and extra firepower never hurt. 

 

An odd thought came to him then, trying to imagine Rodney running...At least three miles to the place where the ship was.  How was he going to keep up with the others?  Could he?  Uphill?  Surely, the Colonel wouldn't—

 

A twig snapped nearby, and Beckett instantly tensed, his entire body tingling with the onrush of fear.  Gripping the P90 tighter in his hands, he tried to pinpoint the sound...and realized he could hear at least two sets of feet churning up leaves as they traipsed down the hill towards the boulders.

 

Whoever it was wasn't running...they were stomping.  Which only meant one thing.

 

Oh crap....

 

His radio came alive in his ear, as he heard Johnson talking to someone...Teyla, from the sounds of it, the woman sounding breathless...but he couldn't focus on the conversation.  He just wanted her to hurry!  Ignoring the chatter, he slid around one of the boulders in the direction of the noise as quietly as he could. 

 

Holding his breath, he peeked out from behind the boulder...and saw two drones making their way unerringly towards the stones.  They could obviously guess it was a good hiding place. 

 

Oh no.  "Nonononononono...." he whispered, checking the P90 in his hands.  His palms felt slick, and they shook as he took off the safety.  How many bullets?  He tried to count the rounds through the transparent magazine...and blinked as they blurred.  How many rounds? Did he have enough? 

 

Christ, he was a doctor!  What was he doing here?

 

Closing his eyes, he drummed up all the courage he could, held the P90 close, and counted to ten....

 

Then screamed at the top of his lungs as he broke cover, rolling on the ground and firing up at the two drones practically in his lap.

 

They both fell back, but his one weapon wasn't enough to stop both at the same time.  He couldn't concentrate his fire enough.  He continued to yell even as his eyes started to scrunch shut in fear as one of the drones raised the stunner....

 

Suddenly, the Wraith's chest exploded in red light, sending him flying backwards. 

 

Beckett didn't question, just put all his strength into taking down the other one, not stopping until the drone was flat on his back.

 

Taking his finger off the trigger and still shaking something fierce, he watched as Ronon leapt into view and fired another round from his own weapon at the two drones...making sure they stayed down.

 

The Satedan spun around then, gave a feral smile to the still prone physician, then took off uphill away from Beckett, towards other gunfire.  The doctor just watched him go, dumbfounded. 

 

Part of him wanted to scream after him not to leave!

 

Then he felt the hand on his arm, and Teyla was smiling down at him, on her knees by his side.

 

"Are you all right, Doctor?" she asked, sweat pouring down her face.  She was obviously breathing hard from her run.

 

"I...no," he said, lowering his head and trying to still the trembling.

 

"It will be okay," she promised, rubbing at his shoulder. "We will get you out of here.  Is Major Lorne in there?" she gestured to the stand of stones behind him.

 

"Aye," Beckett said, swallowing as he gathered the strength to push himself up onto his knees, not too proud to accept Teyla's hand under his arm as he did so. "He's unconscious.  Hit by a stunner."

 

Teyla just nodded, getting to her feet in a smooth motion. "Think you can carry him?" she asked, her eyebrows raised.

 

"Where?" he asked, not quite up to speed.

 

"To the gate.  Our best bet right now is to get you and everyone else we can through the gate and back to Atlantis, before the Wraith send any more darts through to find out what is taking these ones so long to cull this little village."  She tapped her radio, "Colonel Sheppard."

 

"Yeah?"  Sheppard sounded breathless over the connection in Beckett's ear. 

 

"I am with Doctor Beckett.  Major Lorne is unconscious, just as Sergeant Johnson described.  We are going to head towards the gate."

 

"Be careful. I'll meet you there with the others."

 

"Roger that," she said. "What about Rodney?"

 

"He's as safe as he can be, right now.  We'll come back with jumpers for him and the rest of the villagers the second we're through."

 

She just nodded, ignoring the puzzled expression on Beckett's face.  Where was Rodney? 

 

Teyla paused a moment, meeting Beckett's eyes for a second, then licking her lips and asking one more question over the connection.

 

"Colonel, what about the ship?"

 

"It's not going anywhere.  I'm sorry, Teyla, but—"

 

"I know," she interrupted, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice, but Beckett saw it clearly on her face.  Now he was more puzzled than ever.  What ship? And since when did Teyla care about that sort of thing?  "I understand. We will meet you at the gate.  Teyla out."  She clicked the radio, then reached a hand out to Beckett to help him the rest of the way up.  He took the hand, but, before he could ask her about what she'd said to Sheppard, she was climbing over the boulders to get to Lorne.

________________________________________________

 

"There's a lot of them, sir!" Johnson yelled into his radio as he ran from the combined stunner fire of at least three drones chasing him, Corporal Dunne and Sergeant Meriwether down a hill. "I'm not sure we....shit!"  The large sergeant skidded to a halt as a Wraith male appeared from nowhere in front of them, grinning its vampiric smile.  The handheld stunner in its hand fired, clipping Dunne as the boy threw himself to the side...and then kept rolling, unconscious, down the hill until he hit a tree.  Young Meriwether skidded down the hillside after him, the blond medic in training firing back at the drones still chasing them.  Johnson fired at the Wraith male and got behind cover, "Sir! We need help, sir!"

 

"Get down!" Sheppard yelled, appearing about fifteen yards away to Johnson's right, firing his P90 at the Wraith male.  The Wraith staggered and slipped sideways, but didn't go all the way down.  He fired at Sheppard, and the colonel ducked behind a tree.

 

Just then, a dart whined overhead, and Johnson barely had time to yell a warning before the culling beam swept down and swept up him, the Wraith male, Meriwether and Dunne....

___________________________________________________

 

"NO!" Sheppard yelled, breaking cover to fire up at the dart as it disappeared from view... and missing it completely. "Damn it!" he growled, lowering the weapon.

 

"Sheppard!" Ronon shouted, "Get down!"

 

The colonel didn't even look, just dove sideways as stunner beams impacted the trees behind where he'd been standing.  The three drones that had been chasing Johnson now stood their ground twenty feet away, firing in his direction.  Sheppard was pinned down behind a large fir, swearing bloody murder as the world sparked blue around him.  Still, if Ronon had yelled for him to get down, that meant the Satedan....

 

There he was!

 

Ronon appeared behind the drones, the blood red light from his weapon hitting each one almost point blank as he took the first two down.  The third twisted, managing to get a shot off (and missing the wiry Satedan), but that was all Sheppard needed to come out from behind his own cover and kill the bastard.

 

Then he was ducking into the trees again as another dart burst overhead, strafing the ground with the culling beam.

 

"We have to take those darts down!" Sheppard yelled to Ronon over the whine. "We won't make it to the gate with those up there!  Plus, they have our people!  Dunne, Meriwether and Johnson are on one of them!"

 

"Colonel," Teyla's voice sounded winded over the radio. "Doctor Beckett and I are at the gate with Major Lorne.  There are at least six Wraith guarding the DHD.  I can not take them on my own without a distraction."

 

"Stay down, Teyla," Sheppard growled into the radio, emerging from the trees as the omnipresent whine from overhead faded. "One of the darts has managed to capture all of Lorne's men.  We need to stop it from going through the gate.  Ronon and I are on our way there."

 

"Three darts?" Ronon said, looking at Sheppard as he pounded up next to him. "Sheppard, I'm all for fighting bad odds, but you, me  and Teyla can't take down three darts by ourselves and take out the guards on the gate."

 

Sheppard didn't answer, just pulled a fresh clip for his P90 from his belt and slotted it into the weapon in his hands.

 

"We don't have a choice," he snarled, turning and sprinting into the trees.

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FIVE: DOWN AT THE GATE

 

Teyla checked again on Lorne, then Beckett.  The physician looked shaken, but he had done everything she'd asked, including lugging poor Lorne on his shoulder down here to the edge of the clearing holding the gate.  He was breathing heavily, his face slick with sweat, his blue eyes peering hopelessly at the obstacles before them.

 

Unlike the village, the space around the Stargate was broad—hence the ease with which the darts had come through.  There was at least seventy five yards between the edge of the trees where she and Beckett now crouched and the DHD.

 

Right now, that distance felt insurmountable.

 

In the background, she could still hear the darts trying to pick up more "food."  She was a little surprised at their tenacity—normally culling raids were short, but these darts were clearly trying to get as many people as they could.  She felt a hint of desperation in the minds of the Wraith on the ground, which was unusual....

 

Pushing the question to the back of her mind, she checked her P90 and waited for Sheppard and Ronon to appear.  Glancing up, she studied the half dozen Wraith stalking the gate—a male and five drones. 

 

She knew Sheppard wanted to both take down the darts and these guards...but she had no idea how.  Even Ronon would be wary of these odds.  Still, taking a breath, she trusted Colonel Sheppard to come up with a strategy...

 

Johnson and Dunne were both good friends to her and her team, and, though Meriwether was new, she had long ago decided she would die for any of the Atlantians, and that meant the newer ones as well.  She would do everything in her power to free those three men and get them all home.

 

Jorgan Relegar had apparently felt it was worth it to die for the Lanteans all those thousands of years ago, and she would do no less for the Atlantians now... 

 

"Hey," Sheppard whispered, appearing from out of nowhere by her side. Beckett looked about ready to jump out of his skin, but Ronon rested a comforting hand on the physician's shoulder, squeezing tightly and calming him down.  Teyla hadn't been as surprised—she'd seen and heard them coming.  She probably should have mentioned that to Carson....

___________________________________________

 

Beckett rubbed a hand across his throbbing head as Sheppard and Ronon settled down on their haunches next to Teyla, the three warriors scanning the area around the Gate with expert eyes.  Frankly, he was more than happy to let them work this out, despite the wish that he could help.

 

"What've we got?" Sheppard asked quietly, looking at the Wraith in front of the gate.

 

"There are still a number of Wraith on the ground," Teyla answered. "Besides those six, I can sense a number still scouring the woods.  At least another half dozen.  I believe they are looking specifically for us now."

 

Sheppard smiled darkly, "Guess we made them nervous."

 

"Pissed them off, more like," Ronon noted.

 

"That," Teyla nodded, "and they want to know who we are.  They know we are not from here, and that we have advanced weaponry. They don't like that."

 

"Lovely," Beckett muttered. "No chance of our just waiting them out then," he said, "with the hope that Atlantis sends reinforcements before they find us."

 

"No," Sheppard replied, his eyes hard as he studied the clearing in front of them. "Besides, they have three of our boys.  They're not getting away with that.  Not while they're still on this planet."

 

Beckett nodded, already knowing that, flashbacks of watching them take down the dart that had scooped Cadman and Rodney up last year crossing his mind. "Right.  So," he looked up, trying to appear tough, "what's the plan?"

 

"We need to secure the gate," Sheppard said. "Once we do that, we should be able to prevent the darts from escaping."

 

"That's a big should," Ronon noted.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, not bothering to deny it. He looked at the Satedan, "You got a better idea?"

 

"No."

 

"All right then," the colonel scanned the clearing one more time, then nodded. "Okay.  Beckett, you stay here with Lorne.  I don't want you to break cover unless you have absolutely no choice, got it?"

 

The physician looked pained, "But..."

 

"It's not a request, Doc.  Teyla,"  Sheppard pointed to a thick stand of trees to the left of the gate.  Between them and the gate were several clumps of rocks, which could be used for cover. "Think you can lay down cover from over there?"

 

"Yes," she replied confidently, nodding at him.

 

"Ronon," the colonel pointed to the right and just behind the gate, where a handful of big rocks edged the tree line. "You're going to have to be fast.  While we distract them, you need to get behind the six.  Get them from the back."

 

"Gotcha," the Satedan nodded.

 

"I'm going to come from those trees there," he pointed to the right of the gate as well, but this time more in front of the gate. "Ronon, I'll be your main distraction.  Teyla, you're going to cover me."  He looked at the two of them, eyes steady and calm. "Ready?"

 

"As we can be," Teyla nodded.  Then, without another word, she was up and slipping away through the trees.  Ronon clapped Beckett on the shoulder, then disappeared as well in the opposite direction.

 

"I can lay cover fire too, you know," Beckett said suddenly, stopping Sheppard as the colonel moved to follow Ronon.

 

The colonel turned and looked at him, then smiled softly. "I know, but I don't want you drawing attention to yourself and Lorne. If we get into real trouble...then go ahead.  Otherwise, stay low and stay quiet."

 

Beckett grimaced, but said nothing more as Sheppard slid away.  All he could think was, weren't they already in "real" trouble?

________________________________________________________

 

Teyla was almost to the place Sheppard had sent her when something caught her eye and she ducked down.  For a brief moment, she thought it was a Wraith, but it soon resolved itself into merely a triangular piece of metal reflecting off a nearby tree.  Frowning, she jumped across a felled tree to look more closely.

 

Someone had hammered a metal triangle onto the tree with a symbol on it she didn't recognize.  The metal was green, the paint flaked with age, and rust marred the edges.  The symbol set in the center was an eight pronged white star, streaked with sap from the tree. 

 

She simply stared at it for a moment, curious and wondering why it felt like she had seen it before, when Sheppard's voice buzzed in her ear asking if she were in position.  Regretfully, she answered him in the negative and left the triangle behind to find her post.

__________________________________________________________

 

Beckett shivered as Teyla's P90 burst into action, laying down a spray of bullets that caught at least two of the Wraith unguarded before the others moved to more defensible positions in front of the Gate.  Then Sheppard ran into the meadow from the opposite direction, diving onto his belly behind a too low clump of rocks and taking down at least one more Wraith.  The remaining two drones and the male now fired in two directions at once, while the two Teyla had hit first slowly started moving on the ground, attempting to get up. 

 

The lithe Athosian darted from her cover to get closer, trusting in Sheppard to cover her.  Then she was firing again.

 

Another Wraith went down, and one of the first she'd gotten stayed down permanently.

 

Suddenly, Ronon's weapon exploded against the back of the Wraith male, who went down with a yell of pain across one of the downed drones.  More red light burst across the field, competing with the white of the stunners.  Just two drones remained up and firing now, caught in the middle of the neat half pincer Sheppard had formed.  They hadn't a chance.

 

Then it happened.

 

A Wraith dart careened down the mountain, headed towards the gate...and started firing on Ronon's position in the clearing.

 

Beckett didn't think.  He got up and started firing at the dart—he had to give them a chance!

 

Clumps of clearing exploded around where Ronon had been as the dart's weapons took down trees and rocks effortlessly.  Beckett could just make out the tall Satedan running deeper inside the tree cover, his head down as he literally ran for his life. 

 

Sheppard was still firing on the drones in the clearing, but Teyla was now firing upwards, trying to clip the dart.  Beckett lowered his weapon, deciding to try and help Sheppard since he was no longer close enough to get the dart.  The last drone went down....

 

And then another dart burst across the clearing from right over Beckett's head, and strafed Teyla's location.  The rocks she had been hiding behind shattered under the firepower. 

 

"Teyla!" Beckett tried to move forward, to get around his cover to see if she was okay.

 

"Stay down, Beckett!" Sheppard yelled over the radio. "Damn it, stay down!"

 

Beckett fell back against the rocks, staring out at the clearing.

 

The Wraith next to the gate were all down, but Sheppard was a sitting duck for the two darts.  The colonel was trying to get to his feet while also firing up at the darts circling around overhead—almost as if they were toying with him.  As the physician watched, the two darts swung around each other and headed back, one still attacking the location where Ronon had once been, the other now shooting directly at the Colonel.

 

No! "Colonel!" Beckett shifted his P90 upwards, to point at the sky, but he wasn't close enough.  "COLONEL!" 

 

Suddenly, the two darts both seemed to lose altitude, as if something had just shoved them down hard.  They both stopped firing, obviously just trying to keep control of their crafts.  One spun off to the side, barely righting itself before crashing into the trees.  The other pulled up sharply, nearly going vertical...and then leveling off, shooting up towards the mountain again.

 

What the...?

 

The air over the clearing rippled, and a silver ship appeared, literally out of thin air.  It dwarfed the two tiny darts now turning around to attack it. 

 

Beckett's eyes widened, watching as the sides of the silver ship opened and short wings came out...with about three missiles attached to the undersides of each of them.  The darts started to fire at the rocket ship—yes, Beckett realized dumbly, it really was a rocket ship—but the silver ship just shot forward between them, spinning around on its axis like a screw and moving impossible fast.  The wind sheer it generated sent the lighter ships and the weapons fire spinning away.

 

This time, the dart on the right couldn't right itself, and it crashed through the pine trees, the metal screaming as it was ripped to pieces.  Beckett blinked as he thought he saw a flash of red hair disappear into the woods in the direction of the downed dart.  Teyla?

 

The dart on the left, however, came around again, and started firing once more. 

 

The silver ship stopped in the air, then dropped as the dart and its fire flew over it.

 

Who the hell was flying it?  Where had it come from?

 

The silver ship climbed back up, and let loose the missiles on its wings.  One missed the dart completely but the other got the wing, and the dart went down in a sharp spiral...and crashed into the trees with a horrific screech of metal and fire.

 

The missile that missed came back around and headed back to the silver ship...and then turned again and reattached itself to the wing.  Beckett's eyes widened.

 

"Okay," Rodney's voice called shakily over the radio, "Can I just say...the autopilot function on this thing is amazing?"

______________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SIX: HAIL MARY NUMBER TWO

 

"Rodney!" Sheppard cheered, standing up in the clearing and grinning up at the ship, waving at it with two hands, "Rodney McKay, you crazy, wonderful, son of a bitch, you!"

 

"That's Rodney?" Beckett asked, completely slack jawed, turning his gaze from the ship to Sheppard. "Rodney's flying that thing?"

 

"Yes, I'm flying that thing!" Rodney sounded typically affronted, though there was definitely an understated tremor to his voice, as if he wasn't entirely believing it himself.

 

"Damn, McKay," Sheppard rested his hands on his hips, "You're rapidly turning into a real miracle worker in my book!  That was spectacular!"

 

"Yeah," Rodney said, then, with a little more confidence. "Yeah, it kinda was, wasn't it?  I mean, can you believe this thing?  All I did was ask it to perform some evasive maneuvers, and try to knock those darts down without using weapons, and suddenly I'm pinwheeling between darts!  Did you see me do that?  Then did you see the way I just dropped out of that dart's way?  That last move...I mean it was incredible!  I was incredible! Wasn't it incredible?"

 

"Incredible," Beckett agreed, though his use of the word was more in line with its true meaning, "Aye."

 

"I gotta get inside that ship!" Sheppard grinned, eyes still looking like a kid's at Christmas. "McKay, you know I hate to inflate that huge ego of yours, but this time...Hail Mary number TWO, man!" He stuck two fingers up in the air.

 

"Well, I try." There was a short pause, then, "Wait, what do you mean, number two?  Just number two?  Where the hell have you been for the last two years?"

 

Sheppard just laughed.

_________________________________________________

 

Sitting ramrod straight on the command chair of the Thermopylae, his whole body still pumped with adrenalin, Rodney peered at the hologram images of the area below him, the screens surrounding him on three sides.  The screens were focused mostly on Sheppard but he could also see Beckett as the doctor stumbled closer to the other man.  Above and below the hologram images, the computer fed him with maps, diagrams, information and lines of coding, all of which he controlled using the pads on the arms of the chair and the data-tablet sitting on his lap.  The chair wasn't meant to control so many things at once...but he really didn't have a choice.

 

"I gotta get inside that ship!" he heard Sheppard call. "McKay, you know I hate to inflate that huge ego of yours, but this time...Hail Mary number TWO, man!"

 

McKay grinned, unable to hide his glee at that as he worked the chairs controls, eyes lifting to read the sensor information coming in about the two downed darts.  "Well, I try," he said off-handedly, trying to sound more humble now and, oh, so not succeeding.  Who was the ace pilot now, Sheppard?  Eh?!  Hail Mary number two, hell yes! 

 

Hang on a moment....two?

 

"Wait," he said, looking back at Sheppard's smiling face on the screen,  "what do you mean, number two?  Just number two?  Where the hell have you been for the last two years?"

 

Sheppard laughed.  Damn him.  Frowning now, his Sheppard-fed ego rapidly overcoming the terror he'd felt trying to control the ship,  Rodney quickly hit the buttons to change the computer mission parameters from "disable Wraith darts" to "find Teyla and Ronon"...because, where were they?  Sheppard was smiling too much for them to be in trouble, but still...

 

"Rodney?" Beckett's voice called then, "What exactly...is that thing? And where did you get it?"

 

"It's what we came here to find, Carson," he replied as he worked, tapping things into the data tablet now. "This is the ship!  It's called the Thermopylae and..." McKay frowned suddenly, because he still couldn't locate Teyla and Ronon using the search functions, and fear started to niggle at his chest.  "Wait, Sheppard...." he started keying commands in more quickly, trying to input clearer search parameters, but the ship wasn't finding anyone, "Sheppard, where are the others? I heard the bit about Lorne, Johnson and the others over the radio, but I can't find Teyla and Ronon on the ground now either....Oh God, tell me their not in one of those things too...." The computer blipped, searching for life signs...and finding too many.  Damn it. He was quickly learning that he couldn't fly this thing and fine tune it at the same time.   It was like trying to drive somewhere new without a map, hoping to get to there by intuition alone.  He was really beginning to freak out now. 

 

"No, no, they're okay.  They're in the woods," Sheppard called. "They both signaled me before they each headed out to chase down the darts you brought down. Christ, McKay,"  Sheppard shook his head and rested his hands on his hips, the smile back on his face, "I still can't believe you're flying that thing!"

 

"Yeah, well," McKay shrugged, even though he knew Sheppard couldn't see him, his ego finally back under control, "that makes two of us.  Look, I'm going to try and land the ship behind the gate.  I think there's enough room..."  The computer blipped angrily, and more information spooled down one of the screens, and Rodney grimaced. "Uh...okay, no, the ship's computer is telling me I'm crazy and..."  Different information popped up, and a location map of the area appeared, an area blinking in red...and the ship lurched forward of its own volition (it did that a lot, actually), heading towards the location. "...Yes, yes, okay, we're going somewhere else. I feel like I'm riding a headstrong horse here.  I'm going to cloak the ship again.  I'll meet you in the clearing in a minute."

 

"Wait! Stop, where are you going to land?"

 

"Honestly? I'm not totally sure.  The ship's picked a clearing not far from here, down the hill a bit.  I think it's near where the second dart crashed."

 

"The ship picked it?"

 

"Yeah...to be brutally honest, Colonel, I'm not so much flying this thing as respectfully requesting it do me some favors.  It's got a computer system that is almost as rigid as an AI...without actually being an AI, thank goodness.  Okay...I'll see you in a minute." I hope, he added to himself.  "Um, I don't like to run far, okay?" he said to the ship, tapping at the arms of the chair to let the ship know.  It shivered a little, and part of him couldn't help but think that the Thermopylae had just giggled. 

_______________________________________________

 

Sheppard shook his head, watching as the silver ship rippled out of sight beneath its cloak as it headed down hill away from the clearing.  The smile on his face faded as Beckett exhaled loudly next to him, the man gripping the P90 in his arms like he was afraid it would go off.

 

"Teyla and Ronon are really okay?" the doctor asked, his face still clearly uncertain about what had just happened.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard nodded, "Like I said to Rodney, I saw them both signal to me before they left the clearing.  Speaking of which," the colonel's eyes darkened, "I thought I told you to stay down?"

 

Beckett shrugged, offering a lopsided smile. "What can I say, I'm not military." 

 

Sheppard's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything else as Teyla's voice came on over the radio.

 

"Colonel Sheppard," she called.  She was using her hypercalm tone now—the Teyla they knew was back...which was a little sad. "Do not be alarmed by the gunfire you are about to hear.  I have reached the dart Rodney brought down first and the canopy is open; the Wraith inside unconscious.  I am going to kill it. Also, you should know that the body of the dart appears to be mostly intact, providing a good chance that we will be able to rescue the people trapped in the buffer."

 

"Oh, thank God," Rodney interrupted over the radio, obviously listening in. "I asked the ship to try to take them down without destroying them, but—"

 

"Good on all counts, Teyla," Sheppard said abruptly, cutting Rodney off, "Go ahead."  Her call had sucked the last of Sheppard's mirth out of him, his mind already rapidly returning to the business at hand.  "Just remember, there may be Wraith in that buffer as well.  Don't release anyone inside until you have back up." As he spoke, he turned and started moving across the clearing to the stand of rocks where they'd stashed Lorne.  He felt Beckett dogging him, jogging a little to keep up with his long strides.

 

"Understood.  Colonel, you should also be aware that there are still Wraith on the ground—I can sense several conversations going on.  There are a good number of them out there.  Also, do not forget there is one more dart in the air.  There were three."

 

That brought Sheppard to an abrupt halt, his eyes widening slightly.  Yes, he had forgotten.  His chin lifted as he scanned the skies....where the hell was the third dart?   

 

The sudden burst of machine gun fire in the direction of the first downed dart filled the air, then stopped abruptly. 

 

"The Wraith pilot is dead," Teyla stated with a dark finality.  Next to Sheppard, Beckett grimaced slightly as he moved past the Colonel to get behind the rocks and check on the stunned Lorne.  Sheppard, meanwhile, pulled out his life signs detector, using it to quickly scan their immediate area.  Wraith still on the ground....

 

Nothing in close proximity, but the range was limited....

 

"The major's pulse has increased and he has begun to move," the doctor informed as he checked Lorne vitals.  He looked back at the colonel, who was focused now on the woods again.  "I imagine we'll see him come around in about ten minutes or so, though he will be groggy."

 

Sheppard nodded distractedly, looking up from the scanner to look once more out at the deceptively quiet woods and sky.  Damn it—they weren't out of this yet. Turning, he looked back to the dead Wraith they'd left near the gate...and froze.

 

The male Wraith was gone.

 

Oh Shit. 

 

"Beckett, get down," he ordered, lifting his weapon up again in his arms and ducking down himself. "Teyla, Ronon...the male Wraith we took down at the Gate has disappeared."

 

"Oh hell," Beckett said, tucking himself down tight next to Lorne and hastily pulling his borrowed P90 in close. 

 

"Not surprised," Ronon muttered. "Seemed a little too easy."

 

"Too easy?" Beckett repeated wonderingly, thinking about all the damage the darts had done to the clearing.

 

"So uh....how many are out there?" Rodney asked, his voice shaky again over the radio. "Do you think?"

 

"Can you tell us?" Sheppard replied, looking down at his life signs detector again.  "Does the ship have biometric sensors like Atlantis?"

 

"Um...I don't know.  I don't think so.  At least, nothing obvious.  But...oh, hang on....Damn ship is trying to land on its side again.  That hole in the hull is really messing with its equilib—"

 

"Rodney, look, stay with the ship," Sheppard interrupted, putting away the hand-held scanner to check on how much firepower he had left.  Two spare clips.  Not a lot.  "With Wraith on the ground, and at least one more dart in the air, you're safer in there."

 

There was silence for a moment, then, "Normally, my extremely strong sense of self-preservation would agree with you, Colonel, but you need me.  Or at least, Ronon will.  I saw the wreckage of the dart Ronon is heading to when I landed. If the people trapped in that buffer stand any chance of being rematerialized, I have to do it."

 

Sheppard grimaced, not answering that, his eyes still tracking the woods around his and Beckett's location.

 

"He's right, Sheppard," Ronon suddenly chimed it. "I just got to the dart.  It's...not pretty."

 

Sheppard's eyes closed, then opened again. "Okay.  But be careful, Rodney.  Take your life signs detector with you."

 

"Right."  McKay sounded as unhappy as him. "Ronon, I'm about a quarter mile south of your location, just so you know.  I'm on the ground now, so...I'm on my way to you."

 

"Gotcha."

 

Sheppard frowned, then, following his own advice, knelt down next to Beckett on the ground. "Teyla," he called, "When you can, I want you to make your way back here."

 

"Why?"

 

Sheppard's eyebrows lifted, "Because you're alone."

 

"I am not alone."

 

"What?" Sheppard tensed up where he stood next to Beckett. "Say again?"

 

"I can hear movement coming towards my position. I will radio when I can."  And she clicked off.

 

"Teyla!" Sheppard barked, looking in her general direction.  "Teyla!"  His neck muscles bulged and relaxed when she didn't respond, his face reddening in annoyance. "Damn it," he swore, turning to look at Beckett.  The physician stared up at him with wide, blue eyes.  He was scared.  Leaving him alone wasn't an option, and Lorne was not going to be moved quickly.  And Ronon wasn't going to leave Rodney, either, once they found each other on the other side of the clearing...

 

Teyla was on her own.

 

Fuck.

____________________________________________

 

Teyla positioned herself behind a tree, exhaling very slowly and evenly, drawing the P90 close to her chest.  Every muscle tensed, ready to spring.  She listened intently to the steady movement of several sets of feet heading in this direction—they moved slowly along the pine needle and leaf covered ground, but not cautiously. 

 

She could not tell, between the sounds of the woods, of the buzzing Wraith chatter in her head, and the sounds of her team over the radio, whether what approached was human, Wraith...or, frankly...snake.  While she attributed the noise to feet, it could just as easily be just one of those massive creatures that had attacked Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay down in the valley.

 

Oddly, she rather liked snakes.  She loved the way they moved, loved their strength and independent nature.  When she was a child, one of her friends had two little snakes as pets. They'd wind around his wrists like bright orange bracelets, warm and soft.  The two tiny creatures were biters, when frightened, but rarely drew blood.  Most of the time, their tiny tongues just licked at fingers, tasting for the salt there, innocent iridescent eyes blinking up at the people around them.

 

When her friend was culled, he'd had the snakes with him.  She remembered hoping the snakes would react by biting and drawing the blood of the Wraith.  She used to have dreams of those two snakes suddenly growing ten times in size and killing all the Wraith on the hive that had taken her family and friends...   

 

The memory brought an odd, cold smile to her face as she waited for the approaching noise to resolve itself.

 

Leaves shifted, a twig broke, a pebble rolled along the uneven ground....

 

She closed her eyes for a moment, straining her ears, trusting her senses, letting the area in which she was standing coalesce in her mind's eye like a map. 

 

The dart was plowed into the side of the hill leading up to the village, covered in the dirt, small trees and the ferns it had unearthed.  The thickly settled pine woods crowded around it, the thin, tall branchless trunks standing around it like foundation pillars.  The few deciduous trees, with their thicker trunks (one of which she hid behind), had somehow been spared from the dart's plunge, and their dead leaves, along with the many, soft pine needles, created a blanket along the forest floor as thick as an animal's pelt.

 

The approaching feet moved through the blanket without much obvious care, but they slowed now....

 

By her reckoning, they should be practically on top of the dart.

 

If it was Wraith, looking to free its teammates, or to feed on the trapped to replace their strength....she needed to kill them now. She needed to come out, guns blazing.  But if it was a snake, there was no way she could kill one of those creatures before it finished her.  Meaning, she should remain hidden.  And if the approaching steps were people, she couldn't come out firing, for fear of hurting the innocent....

 

Her eyes opened.

 

And her hands tightened around the P90.

 

Now or never, Teyla.

 

Make a decision.

 

And then it was made for her....because someone screamed and the flash of a stunner beam lit the world around her like lightning.

_______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: TOO MANY DOTS

 

Teyla tensed behind her tree as the world around her once more filled with weapons fire, but this time from single fire revolvers and pistols, not the semi or fully automatic weapons that marked the Atlantians.  And yet, the subtle, miserable sound of the stunner firing seemed almost to overwhelm the louder, weaker village weapons...

 

She had been wrong to think that it had to be either Wraith or human....Her killing the pilot—the noise from her P90—had been a beacon to both the Wraith and the curious villagers, leading them both straight here.  Why hadn't she thought of that?

 

She flinched as the light from the Wraith's weapon lit the shadowed grove over and over;  there was no question in her mind who was winning the fight...

 

But it also gave her the ability to pinpoint his location...

 

Her face hardened, the bones in her cheeks becoming more pronounced as her eyes narrowed to slits.

 

She slid down onto her haunches, to make herself a smaller target, then dove out from behind her cover into the open.  She rolled sideways, ending up on her stomach, P90 pointed up in the direction of the dart.

 

A single Wraith male, muddied black leather coat smeared with its own blood, was standing not more than ten feet away, his back to her.  He was partially hidden behind a tree not far from her position, firing on the handful of villagers—one of whom was Innis. 

 

Teyla didn't even think, loosing a volley of bullets into the Wraith's back, watching him turn around in shock at her appearance, his body jerking with the impacts. 

 

She never let up her concentrated spray, teeth gritting tightly as her arm began to ache from the constant action.  She didn't stop...not until he was on the ground, motionless.

 

Jumping to her feet in a single, fluid move, she was standing over him and letting loose another string of bullets into his chest.

 

She knew this was the male from the clearing next to the Gate, based on his appearance.  This time, he was staying down.

 

Finally stopping her barrage as she heard the hammer clicking on an empty chamber, she looked up sharply, eyes zeroing in on the faces of the villagers tentatively peeking out from behind trees and under the dart.  About four villagers were down—stunned by the Wraith's hand-held weapon.  With a fluid motion, she reached down, grabbed the stunner from his now loose hands, and tossed it to Innis—the blond Cutsarkian being the first to venture out from her hiding place.

 

"Thank you," Innis said, her eyes tinged with both gratitude and some awe.  Teyla looked away, uncomfortable with that sort of look, pulling a new clip from her vest—her last.  "Are you all right?" Innis asked then, causing Teyla to look back at her in confusion.

 

"What?"

 

Innis just pointed to her head, and Teyla automatically reached up to touch her own forehead...and hissed in pain at the tacky cut there.  Drawing her fingers down, she grimaced at the partially dried blood.  She must have been nicked by a bit of the flying rock from the clearing. She noticed the rips in her uniform then as well, more cuts, but nothing was too painful.

 

"I am fine," she said. "It is merely superficial."  As she spoke, she replaced the clip in her gun with practiced ease, the reached up to tap her radio. "Colonel Sheppard, all is well.  I will be in touch soon."  Before he could reply, she clicked her radio again to indicate she had finished talking, and looked up again at the tall blond Cutsarkian, her brow furrowing. "What are you doing down here, Innis?  You should be hiding."

 

"We saw the darts go down," Innis said in explanation, her eyes growing wider as she remembered. "The ship...you got the silver ship, the Thermopylae, to fly!"

 

"Doctor McKay managed that," Teyla agreed, looking across at the four unconscious villagers on the ground around them.  She frowned, then looked up at the crashed dart.  Finally, her gaze returned to Innis, "How many of you are there?"

 

"What do you mean?" she asked, looking around her at the other villagers.  There were still, perhaps, fifteen or so people standing with her.

 

"I mean," Teyla grimaced, "That when these darts do not return soon, the hive they came from will send more.  Worse, the hive itself may come here—which, if it is nearby, is likely.  The Wraith do not like rebellion.  How big is your population?  Dozens? More?"

 

Innis frowned, "More.  There are, perhaps, several hundred?"  She waved generally towards the granite mountain climbing up behind her as she spoke.  At the same time, a brutish red-headed woman stepped forward, moving to Innis's side, brown eyes narrowing as she studied Teyla.

 

Teyla nodded to Innis. "Then you need to get them ready," she said then, her voice deepening as she spoke. "You must leave this place as soon as possible.  We can help you to evacuate to a—"

 

"What?  No!" the red-head next to Innis raised a hand up to Teyla, "Now hang on there, missy.  We're not leaving.  This is our home.  Has been for hundreds of years!  It's kept us mostly safe for a long time."

 

"Vasa is right.  We know how to hide from the Wraith," Innis agreed, though she did not appear to hold a conviction as strong as the other woman's.

 

"That does not matter," Teyla said, shaking her head. "The Wraith, when they return here, will not be looking to cull you.  They will be looking to obliterate you.  The news of what you have done—both in fighting them off and successfully taking down two darts—cannot be spread to other planets."

 

"But we didn't take them down," the red-head woman—Vasa—said, frowning deeply. "You did."

 

Teyla just looked at her, her expression stone. "Would you rather we had not done so?"

 

That earned a moment's silence.  These people had obviously come here because they found great joy in the destroyed dart, and wanted to see it to prove its reality, now...

 

"No," an older man said from the back, his chin lifting. "We are glad you did it."

 

Teyla gave him a single nod, then returned her gaze to Vasa. "But, unfortunately, because of it, they will return to destroy this place.  Completely and utterly."

 

Several sets of eyes widened, but the red-headed woman only narrowed her eyes. "And how would they do that, exactly?" Vasa demanded, crossing her arms across an ample chest. "Wipe out the whole planet?"  It was delivered with a sneer.

 

Teyla just met her eyes evenly.  "Yes."

 

It was delivered so certainly, so definitively, that even Vasa could find no comeback for it.  Slowly, the villager's arms unlaced from across her chest and she looked down at the ground, no longer able to meet the Athosian's cold gaze.

 

"How?" Innis asked, her tone soft.  Teyla arched an eyebrow at the tall blond.

 

"The Hive Ships contain a matter beam that has only one purpose—to render a planet uninhabitable."  Her jaw muscles flexed, remembering watching that beam from the safety of a Jumper two years ago with Sheppard, while they waited for her friend Orrin. "I have seen it in action.  I have also seen many planets that have been wiped clean in that manner.  My friend Ronon is a refugee from one such.  Nothing is left alive—not even the earth itself.  My friends term it a scorched earth policy.  It is a fitting description."

 

That earned her complete silence, which allowed her to finally notice the yelling of Sheppard across the line, demanding to know what was happening.  She was about to answer him when Vasa asked, pathetically:

 

"But...don't you see?  How can we leave this place?  It's all we've ever known, all we've ever had.  Have you ever had to leave your home?  Leave everything behind like this? Do you understand what it means to ask this of us?"

 

Teyla's gaze finally softened, and, without meaning to, her mind went back to the voice of Jorgan Relegar on the Thermopylae.  Where was his Athos? Her eyes dropped, looking down at the ground.

 

"I am Athosian," she said finally. "But Athos..."  She stopped, thinking about the planet they had called Athos for many, many years.  But it was not the real one.  The original Athos had long faded into memory.  But the Athosians lived on.  She looked up again, her brow furrowing.  "Who you are...is not about where you live, but about you—all of you, your families, friends, neighbors....They mean far more than any mere location, no matter how steeped in history or hard work.  You want Cutsarkia to live on?  Then be strong enough to find a place where it can."

 

She watched as they looked at each other, not sure, yet, how to answer her conviction.

 

Sheppard's yelling was also bordering on furious on the other end of the radio.   

 

"I will let you talk," she said finally, turning away from them. "But know that we will help you...if you want us to."  Turning fully, she walked down the hill away from them, her eyes once again scanning the woods for more Wraith.  She clicked the radio.  "Colonel Sheppard."

 

"Teyla!  What the hell is going on?  Are you all right?"

 

"I am sorry, Colonel. I am fine.  It turns out that both the villagers and that lone, missing Wraith from the clearing must have been attracted by my killing of the Wraith pilot.  The Wraith male is now dead—for certain this time.  There are about fifteen villagers with me.  I am trying to convince them that we need to evacuate the people from this planet."

 

"Yeah.  With two darts down...definitely.  Look, are those villagers armed?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Then you have the back up you need.  Go ahead and release the people from the culling beam, and let me know as soon as you can whether our people were on that dart."

 

"Understood."  She glanced back at the Cutsarkians, who appeared to be having a rather intense argument amongst themselves.

 

"And then get the hell back here asap.  That's an order Teyla.  You pointed out yourself that there are more Wraith on the ground and a dart still around somewhere.  Those villagers are sitting ducks while they're still out there.  We need to get them out of here, now."

 

"I know that, Colonel," she said. "But if they do not wish to come with us...."  she trailed off, her eyes again on the woods.

 

Sheppard sighed heavily over the line  "Then do what you can, and keep me apprised  And watch the skies."

 

She grimaced, nodding. "Of course.  Colonel..."  She looked up at the quiet, blue sky. "I think I know why that last dart is hiding."

 

"So do I, Teyla."

 

"It is not simply because of the Thermopylae," she said.

 

"They're waiting for us to activate the gate, and start sending people through.  It wants to finish what it came here for.  People crossing this clearing  to get through the gate would be like a buffet table to the damn thing."

 

Teyla closed her eyes, hearing her own fears repeated back to her, "Yes.  Perhaps, before we start sending people through to Atlantis—"

 

"We make sure the Thermopylae is up there to help protect them."

 

She smiled, not surprised he was already well ahead of her. "Yes."

 

"Let me know what the villagers say.  And, once you've released the trapped, see if there are any more who might be willing to go help Ronon and Rodney with theirs."

 

"I will.  Thank you, Colonel.  Teyla out."  As she clicked the radio, she turned back to the villagers.  They appeared more subdued, most looking down at the ground, others up towards the top of the mountain.  Only two were speaking now, Vasa and another man, and the tone was no longer as confrontational.  As she watched, Innis turned to look at her, meeting her eyes...and gave a nod.

_____________________________________________

 

"There you are," Rodney gasped, jogging up the slight hill towards Ronon and almost falling into him. "After listening to what happened to Teyla, I was so damn terrified that you were a Wraith or had been killed by one or something."  Panting, he held up the life signs detector in his hand, showing his and Ronon's blips on the screen.

 

Ronon frowned, quickly getting behind Rodney in order to give him a powerful shove forwards up the hill, sending them both deeper into the woods. Rodney staggered forward, gave Ronon a dark look, then started walking.  The Satedan got up close behind him.

 

"Keep your eyes on that scanner of yours," he ordered, watching the woods with an intensity that was frightening.  Then what the scientist had said registered, and he frowned.  "Wait, you thought I was Wraith?  Then why did you come towards me?"

 

"Because I was more afraid of being alone, obviously," came the snapped reply as McKay trudged up the hill. "Which way to---ooph!  Do you have to keep pushing me, damn it?"  He gave the man behind him another angry glance.

 

"You have to move faster than that," Ronon replied harshly, giving McKay another shove, nearly sending him into a small pine tree. "Start running."

 

"Running? Is that really—ooph!  Stop that!"  McKay unwillingly started to jog, but had now lost his sense of direction, and he tripped a little trying to get his bearings. "Which way?"

 

"In the direction you're pointed now.  Hurry!"  And Ronon shoved again, this time propelling the scientist forward a good three or four steps. "There may be Wraith on their way here right now.  And who knows when the Hive might send more darts after these ones."

 

McKay sighed but finally started trundling along a fast jog, already panting again on the uphill slope.  He felt Ronon right behind him, almost too close, and started to run faster.

 

In surprisingly little time, he saw the dart...and swore. 

 

It was even worse than he imagined.  From above, it had looked mostly intact when he flew over it.  From down here....

 

"Check the scanner," Ronon suddenly growled, grabbing onto McKay's jacket and nearly bringing him down as he forced him to a dead stop.  The scientist let out a whoosh of air at the abrupt motion, then a tiny whined "ow!" as he was just as quickly shoved behind a tree.  He looked up at Ronon with an annoyed gaze.

 

"What the hell are you—"

 

"Check the scanner!" Ronon snarled again, "And keep your voice down!"  Pressing McKay against the tree with one hand, the former Runner took a quick glance around at the area around the crashed dart, leading his movements with his gun.

 

Still grumbling quietly, McKay did as he was bid, lifting the scanner and checking for dots...just two.

 

"Just us," he said, looking up again.

 

"What's the range, again?" Ronon asked, now looking in a different direction.

 

"Twenty five yards or so."

 

"Can you widen it?"

 

"Not without losing detail.  I'd start picking up smaller things, like tiny animals and stuff.  Maybe even insects."

 

"Widen it."

 

"Didn’t you hear what I just--?"

 

"There's something out there!  Widen it!"

 

With a sigh, McKay fiddled with the scanner.  As he expected, now there were more dots, lots more.

 

"We're surrounded," he said dully.

 

"By Wraith?"  Ronon looked back at him, eyebrows raised.

 

"Probably mosquitoes," McKay shrugged, sighing. "Could be ants. Maybe stoats?"  He gave a tiny smirk at that.

 

Ronon just stared at him, looking a little like he wanted to rip his head off.

 

Rolling his eyes slightly, the scientist shook his head. "Look, it doesn't work that effectively long range.  I—"

 

"Shh!" Ronon punctuated the noise with another shove, pushing McKay's back more into the tree.

 

"Ow," the scientist murmured as Ronon examined the woods as if he planned to dissect them.  Grimacing, McKay decided, perhaps...to defer to the other man's expertise on this.  Ronon was in his element while he...was not.  So, he quieted his breathing and waited....

 

Ronon let up the pressure on McKay's chest, the hand finally releasing the scientist when he understood McKay was going to do as he was told.

 

McKay followed the former Runner with his eyes, interested despite himself as Ronon slid almost silently away from him off to the left, sidling through the trees and along the ground with almost no noise.  Considering all the dead leaves and pine underfoot, that was damned impressive.  He'd read of people doing it, but had never really seen anyone achieve it in reality.  He almost thought it was a made up skill....

 

Ronon disappeared, obviously on the hunt for something.

 

McKay stayed where he was. 

 

After a couple of minutes, boredom set in, and he pulled up the scanner.  Readjusting it back to its standard setting, he nearly screamed when he saw two new dots...right behind his tree.  Another dot shifting around them.

 

Oh...God....Ronon, hurry!

 

He stopped breathing, afraid to look, to give himself away if they didn't already know he was here.  Could they hear his heart beating? 

 

The two dots approached his, moving in sync.  Certain of their prowess, and, clearly, certain of their prey...

 

How the hell did they know he was here? 

 

Oh...he was so screwed....

 

Suddenly, the whine of Ronon's gun discharging split the air, and McKay didn't even think—he just bolted away from those two dots as fast as he could, diving behind another broad tree as the white stunner blast filled his vision...missing him by inches.  Ronon's gun discharged again....Then twice more in rapid succession.

 

Shaking, McKay looked down at the scanner.  Where there had been four dots, now there were once more only two.  His and...please, let it be Ronon's...

 

"Come on out, McKay," the Satedan called quietly, calmly. "The Wraith are dead.  Get working on the dart."

 

McKay closed his eyes for a second, just thanking whomever was up there for putting Ronon on their side.

_________________________________________________

 

Teyla reached into the cockpit, and powered up the dart.  She, like all the marines and scientist's typically sent off-world, had been shown by Zelenka and McKay how to do this, but she had never actually done it herself in practice.  Sending a silent prayer to the Ancestors (both Lantean and Athosian), she keyed in the sequence of commands then grabbed the pilot's joystick, her thumb hovering over the button.

 

"Okay," she called, "Get ready!  If there are Wraith inside this thing, they're going to start firing almost immediately."

 

"We're all set!" Innis called back.  The blond was currently in possession of Teyla's P90.  She was their first line of defense, besides the pistols the others carried. 

 

Teyla nodded, took in a deep breath....then hit the button.

 

In a second, she was on the ground, running around the side of the dart as she listened to the now familiar "shh" sound of the culling beam releasing its cargo.

 

Innis started firing immediately, as did the others.

 

Teyla's 9MM was up and ready to fire as she came around the back, to see one Male Wraith and two drones being pelted by gunfire on three sides. Unconscious villagers released from the beam lay scattered around them on the forest floor.  She joined in the barrage, grimacing as the first drone went down, just missing landing atop a prone villager lying on his stomach.

 

Innis had a maniacal grin on her face, shooting the powerful projectile weapon into the abdomen of the still standing Male.

 

In moments, all three were down.

 

"Stop!" Teyla commanded sharply, already leaping into the pile of "bodies", her sharp eyes having spotted the dark charcoal Atlantian military outfits almost immediately.  Not for a moment trusting that any of the Wraith were actually dead, she dove for Corporal Dunne’s unconscious form, grabbing the P90 still in his hands and unclipping it in one smooth motion.  Then she was up and drilling all three Wraith with whatever was left inside the clip of the young corporal's machine gun.

 

It wasn’t until the chamber clicked on empty that she felt satisfied to have finished the job.  Striding back over to Dunne, she leaned down and pulled a new clip from his vest to slot into the weapon.  As she straightened, she looked up for the first time at the slack-jawed expressions of the Cutsarkians with her.  The pistols they all carried were held loosely in their hands, some even shook a little.  Innis was holding Teyla’s P90 to her chest like a child, breathing hard in deference to its power.

 

For a moment, Teyla didn't understand the perplexity on their faces—after all, they had seen Wraith killed before.  And that’s when she realized that it wasn't killing the Wraith that had shaken them—it was the bodies.  They had never seen anyone released from a culling beam before.  Why would they?

 

“Are they dead?” one man asked, his voice thick with emotion. 

 

Teyla raised an eyebrow, “The Wraith?  Yes.”

 

“No,” the man said, raising a hand to gesture at the villagers lying on the ground.  There were at least ten people who had been released, and they lay practically lifeless.  Teyla gave him a soft, warm smile.

 

“No, no,” she promised, “they’re fine.  They’ve just been rendered unconscious temporarily.  Like being hit by a stunner.  They will awaken soon enough, with headaches and filled with confusion, but alive and very much still with us.  They—“

 

She never got to finish the statement as one of the younger women to the side of the group gave an emotional squeal and jumped down to lift up one of the bodies, a younger man about her age.  Wrapping her arms around him, she just held on tightly, rocking him back and forth, burying her head in his shoulder as she started to cry.  It broke the dam, and suddenly everyone was looking for friends and family and neighbors that had been captured, and Teyla smiled as she moved back over to the three Atlantians soldiers she had found, secretly thanking her own blessings as she reached them.

 

Getting down on one knee next to the sleeping Sergeant Johnson, she rested a warm hand against his face, happy to feel his breath on her palm.  With her other hand, she tapped her radio.

 

“Colonel Sheppard,” she called.

 

How’d it go? You okay?”

 

“Everyone is fine.  Better than fine.  And I have some very good news—Sergeant Johnson, Meriwether and Corporal Dunne are all here and alive.”

 

Oh, thank God,” Sheppard breathed, his voice appearing to echo slightly as she heard McKay say the same thing at the same time, although fainter.  Can you, maybe, employ some of the villagers to help bring them here?”

 

“I already asked them, prior to releasing the beam.  Once they decided that evacuation was their best chance, they agreed to help us as much as they can. Right now, we are going to try and bring as many people to the Gate as possible—I think we have enough strong backs.  Meanwhile, Vasa, one of the village leaders,” she glanced over at the red-headed woman, who, in turn, was watching her, obviously eavesdropping on the conversation, “and a couple of the men are going to find the rest of the Cutsarkians and prepare them to evacuate.  I’m going to give them two of the P90s, as there are still Wraith on the ground.”

 

Sounds good.  Bring them here, and Beckett and Lorne can take them through the gate— warn Elizabeth that we’ll have some new guests.  We can also send some jumpers back, to help protect the rest of the people, for when more darts show up.  The Daedalus is also not far—we can probably get them to fly here in case the Hive shows up…which it probably will eventually.”

 

She nodded, sighing a little, and looked behind her at the group (and meeting Vasa’s dark eyes).  Grimacing, she turned her face away and lowered her voice.

 

“What about the third dart?”

 

You know it will probably show up the second we activate the gate.  I’m just going to make sure that we have the Thermopylae in the air before—“

 

Colonel,” McKay’s voice snapped over the connection, sounding both full of irritation and worry at the same time. “We have a problem.”

____________________________________________   

 

McKay was leaning way inside the empty cockpit of the dart, his feet sticking up in the air as he fiddled with something obviously below and behind the seat.  He swore every so often, throwing little bits of machinery out of his way as he worked.  Ronon stalked the back half of the dart, most of which was a crumbled wreck.  The ship itself looked to have been chopped in half, with just tendrils of wires still joining the two ends like strings of mozzarella cheese; it must have cracked like an egg when it hit the ground.  The front—where the cockpit was—was obviously meant to withstand the most ill-treatment, and was generally intact.  The back…was a mess.

 

“Oh,” McKay’s voice floated up to Ronon’s ear, sounding worried, “that’s not good.”

 

The Satedan turned, watching as McKay levered himself back up out of the cockpit in an ungainly manner, his feet coming to rest on part of a damaged wing.  Ronon disliked the look on the scientist’s face as McKay then proceeded to slide down the wing to look at the area where the ship had split open.  The scientist hissed another swear as he bent to look at some of the exposed wires.

 

“What?”  Ronon asked gruffly, stepping closer to the dart while still keeping an eye out for Wraith.  Every so often he looked at the two dead ones on the ground—making sure they were actually dead. “What’s the matter?”

 

McKay gave him a gloomy look, then hit the radio in his ear, interrupting the conversation running between Sheppard and Teyla.  “Colonel,” he said, looking back at the dart, “we have a problem.”

 

There was a pause on the line, then Sheppard sighed, “What is it?”  No quip, no sarcastic rejoinder…just a tired sounding man.

 

Similarly, McKay’s voice was a flat monotone as he replied, “The buffer holding the energy signatures of the captured villagers is being maintained by residual power—which is quickly fading.  Worse, there is not enough power left to rematerialize all of them.  It's the same problem Radek ran into with me and Cadman.  To get them out, we’re going to have to take the buffer back to Atlantis.”

 

Okay,” Sheppard said, perking up a little.  That’s not so bad. It’s annoying, considering there are also Wraith trapped in that buffer, but we can find a way around that.  Is the problem removing it from the ship?”

 

“No,” McKay said, leaning to the left a little to look more closely at the severed bottom half, his fingers gripping the jagged metal edges of the top half to hold himself in place.  He could actually see the top of the device from here.  The Wraith material cocooning it had protected it, despite the ruin of the rest of the bottom half, a little like the way a car would crumple on impact without damaging the occupants within.  Extracting it would not be difficult.  “No,” he said again, looking at Ronon, “the problem is, the moment I disconnect it from the auxiliary power, the signatures inside are going to start to degenerate.  At best,” he grimaced, “we’ll have half an hour to get it through the Gate to where we can hook it up to a new power source.”

 

“We’re only ten minutes from the Gate here,” Ronon noted, squinting a little at McKay. “If we run.”

 

The scientist snorted in reply, obviously thinking that ten minutes by Ronon’s speed was more like twenty at his speed.  “Even so, getting it hooked up in Atlantis will take Zelenka at least ten minutes to do properly.  Time is going to be really short.”

 

So, what you’re saying is…” Sheppard prompted.

 

“The moment I cut the connection, Ronon is going to have to book it back to where you are, and you have to open the Gate the second he comes.  Get it through.”

 

“Wait, I’m not leaving you out here,” Ronon frowned, standing up straighter.  “You can run fast enough, McKay.”

 

“It’s not that,” McKay said.  He pointed at himself, “I have to get back to the Thermopylae, to be ready for the third dart.  Which means we both have to run in opposite directions as fast as we can.”  He looked into the distance, towards where the Gate was and where he knew Sheppard was probably pacing, “Am I wrong?”

 

There was a pause on the radio, then a very heavy sigh. “Can you show Ronon how to remove the Buffer without damaging it?  Because, maybe he can escort you to the ship, then return to the dart to remove the buffer and get it back here to the Gate.”

 

“Probably not,” McKay replied.  “If it gets cut improperly, it’ll short the whole system, and all those people will be effectively dead.”

 

Ronon just stared at him, then looked away, unable to meet that sometimes terrifyingly too intelligent gaze of McKay’s.  The Satedan liked to think of himself as not afraid of anything…but he knew that was a lie.  Technology was something else, something outside of what he understood.  It was delicate crystals and light touches and proper sequences—he couldn’t shoot it, outrun it, argue with it or pull it to safety...He knew he didn’t have the expertise, and he didn’t want the responsibility of all those people’s lives to be based on how well he could work wires he didn’t comprehend.

 

McKay knew that.  At the same time…there was no way he was letting McKay face the Wraith out there on his own again.  He could practically smell them in the woods around them, just waiting to take advantage of any distraction...

 

I don’t like it,” Sheppard stated finally.  There was an edge to his voice.

 

“You have a better idea?” McKay demanded.

 

Remove the buffer and come back with Ronon.  We’ll take down that third dart ourselves and gate back to Atlantis, without the Thermopylae’s help.”

 

“Oh sure," Rodney sneered. "Why didn’t I think of that?  Because taking down a Wraith dart is such a piece of cake!" He made some flippant hand gestures as he spoke, and Ronon had to turn his head to hide his smile. "I mean, let's just ignore the fact that the dart knows we’ll be waiting for it, and that, ninety percent of the time, they can avoid just about anything we can throw at it short of an M-16 or a rail gun, and let's also ignore the fact that we have no firepower on hand greater than a handful of P90s with nearly empty clips—“ McKay was in full irritant mood now, fairly bristling with annoyance as he spoke.

 

I’m not leaving you unprotected.  There are Wraith on the ground still, and for all you know, they’re just waiting for you to try to get back to the Thermopylae alone!”

 

“You’re not listening to me!”

 

And you’re not listening to me!” Sheppard snapped. “You will stay with Ronon, McKay!  We have absolutely no idea how many Wraith are still out there! Or where they are! This is not up for discussion.  Ronon, you are not letting him alone, and that’s an order.  So, remove the buffer and get your asses back here.  We’ll take that dart down with what we have.”

 

Perhaps,” Teyla called, her voice soothing, “we should wait to free the people trapped in the second dart until after we send the first set of people through?  If we are right in our assumption that activating the Stargate will bring the third dart out of hiding, then perhaps we should just do that…then worry about the people who are trapped.

 

“And if the Wraith on the ground find this crashed dart before we can return?” Ronon asked darkly, his eyes once more scanning the woods as if expecting more to pop out at any second.

 

“Ronon’s right,” McKay agreed. “If the Wraith find this dart, they could either destroy the buffer, or take it with them.  We could lose the people trapped in here.”

 

It’s a risk,” Teyla said slowly, her tone uncertain, “yes.  But…”

 

But we have our people, and that is the top priority—getting Lorne’s team and Beckett home,” Sheppard finished for her, his tone much colder. “Look, Teyla's right. The people trapped in that buffer will just have to wait.  Right now, our focus has to be on our own people and on the Cutsarkians we can immediately evacuate.  There are too many Wraith still wandering around out there, and pretty soon we're going to have a lot of terrified people down here, expecting me and Teyla to protect them...And, McKay, you're probably right about not being able to take out that last dart without the Thermopylae.   You need to get it in the air before we try for the Gate."

 

McKay grimaced, "So, what you're saying is..."

 

"I want to help those people in the buffer too, but we can't right now. Not while the variables are still stacked against us.  How much longer will that buffer stay powered as long as it remains part of the dart?”

 

“A couple of hours,” McKay stated grimly, “at best.”

 

Then we have that time to find that third dart and take it down, and get our  people home.”

 

McKay looked at Ronon, his expression pained.  The Satedan had his head down, hiding his face behind his hair.  

 

Sheppard sighed then, "I just wish..."

 

Ronon looked up when the Colonel didn't finish the thought. "What?"

 

"I should be the one flying the Thermopylae, not McKay."

 

"What?  No, hey," McKay said, perking up as if he'd just been insulted, "I can do it."

 

"He did seem to do fine before," Ronon affirmed, almost lazily.

 

"I know, but he had the advantage of surprise before.  Fact is,  neither of you are pilots, and McKay's not a soldier—"

 

"I said I can do it!" McKay stated firmly.

 

"It's just, I know you McKay. You need direction sometimes—"

 

"Don't you dare," McKay snapped, pointing down at the ground. "I took down two darts less than an hour ago.  You were just calling me a hero, remember?"

 

"I'm not saying you can't do it.  I just know you, McKay. You don't have the instincts to just—"

 

"I do," Ronon interrupted.  "We'll be fine, Sheppard.  We'll get it done."

 

"This is ridiculous," McKay huffed, crossing his arms. "And we're wasting time.  Wraith everywhere, remember?"

 

Sheppard sighed again, this time in annoyance, and when he spoke again, he used that tone of his that brooked no argument.  He’d made his decision, and that was it. 

 

Okay. Fine.  Ronon, McKay…get to the Thermopylae.  Get it in the air immediately and over the Gate.  Do not, under any circumstances, uncloak the ship until you see that third dart.  It'll be expecting you this time, so you need every advantage, and that's your biggest one.  Teyla, get here as fast as you can with our people, and anyone else who can go through now.  I’m sick of this game…that third dart is going to go down.” 

____________________________________________________

 

Sheppard clicked the radio, not to turn it off but just to signal an end to the discussion—not that he actually expected any of them to argue with him anymore—and knelt down next to Lorne and Beckett.

 

The major was blinking up at him, eyes still half lidded.

 

“Hey,” Sheppard offered, giving him a smile, “How’re you doing?”

 

“A bit fuzzy, sir,” Lorne croaked in reply, blinking some more. “Body feels like lead.  And...ugh....pins and needles.” He arched his back as he spoke, eyes shutting tightly against the sensation.

 

“That’s the aftereffects of the stunner, son,” Beckett said, tapping him on the shoulder. “You’ll be all right.”  The physician had stayed quiet through all the exchanges between Sheppard’s team, for which the colonel was grateful.  He liked Beckett, and, on Atlantis, he’d defer to Beckett’s opinion as he would to Elizabeth or McKay, all of them being equal…but out here, the physician was first and foremost someone to be protected, and getting him home was a priority, no matter what.  He’d be the same way with Elizabeth, if she were with them in this position.  Out here, the team was in charge, and he was in charge of the team.

 

“What happened?  Everyone okay?” Lorne asked, shifting a little as he tried to push himself into a better sitting position, his arms shaking like jelly.  Beckett reached in to help him, subtly checking out his vitals as he did so. 

 

“We were lucky,” Sheppard told him, returning his attention to the surrounding area to keep watch, “your team was culled, but we took down the dart…and Teyla managed to extricate them with some help from the villagers.  She's on her way here with them now.”

 

“Lucky,” Lorne sighed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes, “definitely.  The Wraith…they came out of nowhere.”

 

“They always do,” Sheppard noted darkly.

 

“We get to go home now, sir?” Lorne asked, obviously forcing his eyes open again.

 

“Yeah," Sheppard sighed, looking vaguely up at the blue sky overhead, "Soon."

 

After all, he thought to himself, he just ordered McKay to play fighter pilot again with a ten thousand year old damaged ship, and only Ronon to help him...What could possibly go wrong?

_________________________________________

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: ANTICIPATION AND EXPECTATION

 

Despite it all, Ronon and McKay made it back to the Thermopylae without running into anyone—either human or Wraith.  McKay had stayed remarkably quiet the whole time; other than the occasional grunt as he tripped over a stick or stumbled on a root, he didn't complain once.  Ronon never let up his single minded study of the area, keeping them both safe.

 

When they reached the edge of the clearing where the cloaked ship sat, McKay put his scanner down and pulled out a device from his pocket Ronon hadn't seen before.  It looked a little like the iPod Beckett carried with him when jogging.

 

"What is that?"

 

"This ship's version of a keyless entry system," McKay replied, peering into the clearing.  Lifting up the device, he pointed it towards a cluster of rocks...and lights flashed from the nothingness, briefly showing the outline of a door suspended in the air.  McKay was already up and moving towards it even as the light faded, Ronon covering his back. 

 

McKay hit the little device again, and the outline of stairs being lowered from the entrance became briefly visible, the effect almost ghostlike.  In seconds, McKay was jumping up into the nothingness, Ronon right on his heels.  As before, the ship became fully visible the moment he hit the first metal step, but it still startled him a little bit.

 

When the Satedan was inside the corridor leading into the ship, he turned around, raking his weapon's aim over the woods circling them.  In front of him, the stairs started to retract and the door slowly closed.

 

Why weren't the Wraith here?  Surely they would want this ship? Even if they couldn't see it, surely they had heard the engines when it landed.  Every muscle in his body was tensed with the expectation of seeing them filter out of the trees after them...

 

"It's good you're here," McKay called to him, already through this side corridor and around the corner into the main, his voice echoing down the curved metal halls. "I could really use help. Last time I barely had the ability to work both the flight controls and the search functions, not to mention...."  his voice faded into a intelligible mutter as he obviously kept moving, now out of Ronon's earshot.

 

Ronon grimaced, not backing away from the entrance until it was firmly shut.  As it finally snicked closed, he turned and bounded after the scientist, running to catch up.  McKay was already all the way down the central corridor, waving a hand over the silvery panel to open the door to the control room, still talking.  He was yammering about shields now, clearly unaware that Ronon had missed the middle of his speech.  Everything lit up as he entered the control room, almost as if it were happy to see him, and Ronon tried not to show how it impressed him that McKay had learned to take control of this ship so easily.  Of course, McKay got just about everything that he touched to work with seemingly freakish ease....

 

The scientist moved forward, ripping his data tablet off his back and shucking the pack he was carrying onto the floor next to the white command chair in the middle of the room.  At no point did he stop talking—he was a constant source of movement and sound, making the large room somehow seem smaller.   Ronon moved past him to the large front windows, eyes once more on the woods surrounding the ship.

 

"So, I was thinking about trying to untie the shield from the hole in the side," McKay said as he knelt down next to his pack, deft hands quickly setting up the equipment he pulled out from it. "Try to get it to cover the bulk of the ship.  As I said, it's bizarre that it doesn't do that already.  Almost as if the shields were never designed to protect the whole ship, but that would be ridiculous...."

 

Ronon finally backed up from the windows, realizing there was little point to keeping watch now they were inside. Returning his attention to the scientist, he watched as McKay rapidly keyed in commands to the data tablet as he nattered on, nimble fingers flying over the panel's tiny keypad. McKay barely acknowledged Ronon's physical presence, just kept typing, tapping and occasionally hitting reaching around to tap the arm of the command chair behind him. Feeling a little impotent, Ronon crossed his arms.

Finally, McKay stopped to take a breath, and Ronon felt he could jump in.

 

"What do you need me to do?"

 

McKay looked up at him, blue eyes showing surprise for a moment, then narrowing in sharp anger.

 

"You didn't listen to anything I just said, did you?" he demanded.

 

Ronon just shrugged.  He couldn't help it. McKay's voice was a bit like what Sheppard called white noise—he had a habit of tuning it out.

 

"Christ, I wish you were Teyla," the scientist muttered, a little cruelly.  Ronon frowned slightly, finding himself actually hurt by that.  He'd never really been bothered by anything the scientist had said before, but...that had hurt. 

 

Because McKay was right.  Teyla would have listened.

 

Teyla always listened to McKay—everything he said, she absorbed like a sponge, her eyes always watching the scientist with intense focus.  Unlike himself and Sheppard, she seemed to have an uncanny ability to just "get" McKay's explanations, and be able to act on them.  She'd saved their lives a few times when McKay had been unable to finish something, taking those last vital steps to win the day.

 

"I need you to take charge of the weapons systems," McKay growled, returning his attention to his tablet. "I learned, pretty quickly, that controlling the weapons, the ship, the sensors and the shields all at the same time was next to impossible. There was a reason this ship had a full crew.  If I hadn't had the cloak and the autopilot from heaven, I probably wouldn't be here right now."  He stood up suddenly, walking with his data tablet across to a console to the right of the command chair and waved a hand over it.  "This is weapons. I'm rerouting some of the sensors here too." He reached down and started hitting buttons on the panel before him. "You're going to be in charge of taking down the dart."

 

Ronon moved over, staring down at the console, not understanding one thing he was looking at.  Any words written on it were in Teyla's language, not the common one used in trade.

 

"How do I...."

 

"Hang on," McKay snapped, still obviously annoyed as he hit some more keys on the tablet.

 

Suddenly, the touchscreen that filled most of the surface of the console flickered and disappeared....then reappeared, this time with words in English.  That, Ronon had learned to read.  Studying the screen, the sequence of buttons and keys began to make sense, and he nodded.  Okay.

 

"Sensor panels show up as 3D hologram displays around the console," McKay told him, waving his hands about in front of them. "Like the Heads Up Display on a jumper.  I've commanded the one that will be here to focus on life signs, and the one that will be up over there," he pointed a little off center from the console, "to seek out Wraith technology—well, complex technology, most of which should be Wraith. Their stunners should show up, for example. The crashed darts will muddy the readings, as will our own tech, but it might help a little.  I'm guessing the third dart is staying hidden outside of sensor range, so...probably won't see it until it deliberately shows itself."

 

Ronon nodded, "Gotcha.  So," he lifted an eyebrow, "just destroy the dart?"

 

"I'll try to take it down without destroying it first, but...ultimately, yeah."  McKay grimaced and shrugged, obviously thinking about his inability to do that with the second dart.  And, as Sheppard had pointed out, the third one would know they were coming this time.

 

"What are the weapons like?"

 

"There are two different kinds of missiles listed in the weapons section of the ship's database, besides the pulse weapon that, obviously, got destroyed.  I couldn't get one of them to respond...." He tapped again at his data tablet, frowning in frustration then shrugging. "I think those must be depleted, though I haven't had the chance to really verify that yet.  The others seem to work though.  Those are the heat-seekers that I used.  You can control their speed and strength from here..."  He gestured to a panel, which showed different levels of power.  "Even once activated and released, they can be modified to move faster, change to cold seeking, even turn around and return to the ship."  He smiled, "It's a clever way not to lose any missiles you don't use—probably saw me do that before, eh?"  And he smiled smugly, still proud from his earlier success.

 

Ronon just gave another nod—he knew better than to ever encourage McKay's ego—and brushed his hand lightly over large touch screen.  "Makes sense, I think."  He looked at McKay, "And what'll you be doing?  Besides flying?"

 

Rodney's eyebrow lifted, "As if that's not enough?"  He rolled his eyes and turned, already headed back to the command chair. "As I was saying before, this ship is vulnerable while all the shielding is concentrated on "plugging" the hole in the side.  I'm going to try and uncongeal it, because we're pretty vulnerable otherwise.  If that dart were to fire on us right now, we'd probably die." 

 

Ronon's eyebrows lifted, "How'd you avoid that before?"

 

"Evasive maneuvering and a lot of luck." McKay shrugged, stepping onto the dais and settling into the command chair. He rested his tablet on his lap and his fingers started quickly manipulating the arm controls, for the moment ignoring the two sticks that would pilot the Thermopylae. Apparently, they weren't going to be taking off immediately, despite Sheppard's orders.

 

Ronon just frowned a little at that, and, when McKay didn't speak again, turned around again to study the console before him.  With a soft sigh, he threw himself into the task of memorizing exactly where everything was and how they worked.

__________________________________________________

 

Half an hour of gut-twisting waiting later, Sheppard finally heard a soft rumble overhead, a little like being able to hear trucks running along a highway in the distance.  Frowning a little, he looked up at the crystal clear sky, trying to guess where it was coming from...

 

Clicking his radio, he asked, "That you, McKay?"

 

"Yeah," McKay replied. "You guys still okay down there?"

 

"About as good as we were last time you checked in...when I told you to get here fifteen minutes ago," Sheppard snarled.

 

"I know.  I'm sorry.  I've been trying to get the shields to act more...shieldy."

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow, interested despite himself.  Shields? "You have shields inside the cloak?  I assumed the shield and the cloak were the same thing, just like on Atlantis."

 

"Oh, yeah!  Nifty, huh?  The cloak is run on a different frequency than the shields. Why the hell the Ancients didn't do that with their own ships..."

 

"Maybe they did," Sheppard said, tilting his head as he considered the possibilities. "Just not any of the ones we've come across."

 

"Yeah, maybe. Man,  I'd love to see some of their other ships, someday, wouldn't you?  They had fighter planes, you know.  And transport ships."

 

"And cruisers.  At least two different sizes.  Hey, that reminds me, you given any thought to what that Jorgan guy meant when he said the Thermopylae was built for a challenge?"

 

"Oh, yeah!  I've a theory that—"

 

"Boys!" Beckett interrupted, knocking Sheppard's arm where he stood next to him,  "Not to interrupt your musings, but we have bit of a situation here."  The doctor arched his eyebrows high on his forehead, his meaning clear.

 

Sheppard gave a sheepish smile—how the hell did McKay always distract him so easily? "Right, yeah, sorry, doc."  He looked back up at the sky, "So what was wrong with the shields on the Thermopylae, McKay?"

 

"What is wrong, you mean," McKay corrected, the disappointment in his voice thick. "As I said before, at some point, they concentrated the whole damn shield to cover the hole in the side. And now it's being stubborn. For some reason, every time I think I've managed to divert the power, it goes right back to the way it was.  So...we're sort of without shields right now."

 

Sheppard frowned, "You couldn't fix it?"

 

"No.  Not without more time, anyway."

 

"How long do you need?"

 

He heard McKay let out a heavy breath, "How long until Teyla gets there with Johnson?"

 

"She's already here," Sheppard replied, looking over at the Athosian, who was kneeling on the far side of their position, her eyes scouting to the woods around them, on guard. "She just got here with the last of the unconscious villagers from the first dart a few minutes ago.  Major Lorne's awake as well, and ready to move."  Propped up against a tree not far from Teyla, the major perked up at his name, glancing at Sheppard and nodding his agreement.  He was still working on getting his coordination back, but he was able to stand and hobble around a bit and hold a P90 with some effectiveness. 

 

There were also about twenty awake villagers with them, forming an uneven circle and nervously fingering their revolvers.  These were the people who had helped get Johnson, Dunne and Meriwether back here, and also carried their own unconscious people rescued from the dart.  Collectively, they made a massively vulnerable clump of about thirty life signs, and that was the problem...They had to look like a smorgasbord to a dart on the lookout, which was why Sheppard had wanted the Thermopylae overhead watching their backs sooner.  The only things protecting them from being culled right now were the thick trees overhead and three P90s.  At least they had Johnson, Meriwether and Dunne's extra clips now.

 

"Oh," McKay sighed. "Damn. I was hoping for more time. As for how long it'll take... I don't know, Sheppard.  Maybe an hour?"

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow.  "What kind of an hour is that?  A Scotty-I-just-cannae-do-it-Cap'n hour or a McKay-we're-all-going-to-die hour?"

 

"Hey! I resent that.  Christ, you get maligned by one convicted murderer with a penchant for pop psychology monologuing and—"

 

"McKay?" Sheppard wasn't in the mood.

 

"The latter," McKay muttered in disgust.

 

The colonel's eyes narrowed in a grimace—it was time they didn't have.  "Look, McKay," Sheppard sighed, "I'd love to give you all the time in the world, but I've no idea how many Wraith are stalking around these woods, fully armed and pissed off.  And that third dart is so close, I can feel it.  We're surrounded by unconscious people here, and..."

 

"We need to get them through the Gate now.  I know."  McKay paused, and Sheppard was pretty sure he was giving himself a mental pep talk up there. "So let's do it."

 

"Okay, then." The colonel turned around, glanced at the group of villagers with him, then turned away from them, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard. "Look, McKay...as soon as that dart shows up, you take it down.  No heroics.  It's going to know you're up there, and it'll be waiting for you as much as you are waiting for it.  Don't try to take the dart down without destroying it...just destroy it.  You understand?"

 

There was another pause, then McKay released a soft sigh over the radio, "You mean, don't even try to save those people?"

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow, "You had some big advantages last time, Rodney.  They made up for...the fact that you're not trained for this.  But you don't have those now."

 

"I still have a pretty big advantage, Colonel.  This ship's speed and its firepower—it's way more technologically advanced than one dart."

 

"So was Markham and Smith's puddle jumper, McKay," Sheppard reminded him coolly.

 

That earned an even longer pause. "Okay, granted.  But...I might still be able to—"

 

"No, McKay.  We're not arguing this.  Do what I tell you."

 

Rodney didn't reply.  After the pause grew long, Sheppard spoke again.

 

"Okay," he nodded, trusting that McKay accepted the orders despite the silence. "You got sensors up on that thing?"

 

"Yes," Ronon informed them darkly. "Your life signs show up like a massive blot on the landscape.  There are others, however...we can not discern if they are Wraith or not. I have something here that is supposed to pick up Wraith technology, but it's picking up a lot of interference from the downed darts so...not too helpful right now."

 

"Hey," McKay protested, "I tried, didn't I?"

 

Sheppard gave a small smile, "Okay, so, just life signs then.  Are they positioned around the clearing?"

 

"At least three, to your left, at about ten o'clock," Ronon replied.

 

"Okay," Sheppard nodded, looking to Teyla.  The Athosian moved, getting around to that side, in order to send a volley in that direction as soon as they moved.  Beckett got an arm under Lorne, and half carried the man to Teyla's side so that the two of them could back the woman up.  Well, Lorne would back her up, and Beckett would make sure Lorne kept moving.  Villagers, sensing what was happening, started gathering up bodies.  Women carried other women on their backs or children in their arms, men threw men over their shoulders.  One large burly man managed to get the huge Sergeant Johnson over his shoulder with a wince....

 

Looking around at them all, Sheppard wished they'd had more people to act as protectors, but they didn't have the time.

 

"Teyla, lay down cover fire and watch our six.  Lorne, Beckett...you cover the villagers.  I'm going for the DHD.  The rest of you," Sheppard looked to the Cutsarkians, "wait until the wormhole is established, then run as fast as you can to the Gate.  Fire your guns if you have a free hand the second you see a stunner blast, but...try not to hit each other, okay?  And don't wait once you get there, just go straight through the Gate.  Our people will greet you on the other side."

 

They nodded in return, a sea of brave faces beneath their heavy burdens. 

 

Sheppard looked up then at the sky, and clicked his radio.  "Right...here we go.  McKay, Ronon...you know what to do."

 

And without waiting for an answer from above, he jumped away from their hiding place and started to run.

_________________________________

 

CHAPTER NINE: DOWN BELOW AND UP ABOVE

 

PART ONE: THE HAPPENINGS DOWN BELOW

 

Teyla fired the moment the Colonel started sprinting towards the DHD, her weapons fire aimed directly towards the spot Ronon had indicated.  She moved out into the clearing, staying low and aiming for a handful of low rocks not far from their position.  She saw Lorne imitating her...sort of.  The major stumbled along behind, then shifted past her into the middle of the clearing, Beckett's steadying hand around his waist.  Reaching a long slab of rock to use as cover, Teyla saw Lorne fall to his knees behind it, taking Beckett with him.  Once safely hidden, both men started firing on the woods, following her lead.

 

No stunner fire was returned, but that didn't mean much, although Teyla hoped it wasn't because they were firing on some shy visitors or hapless animals inside there...

 

Glancing over her shoulder, Teyla saw Sheppard at the DHD, dialing quickly.  The wormhole burst to life and the colonel was calling for Atlantis to lower the iris as he hit the send button on his IDC.  Then he was ducking down behind the DHD, using it for cover as he fired towards the same location.

 

The villagers started moving....

 

And that's when the first stunner blast seared across the clearing.  Teyla buckled down, firing furiously at its origin, and she knew Lorne, Beckett and now Sheppard were doing the same. 

 

"Move!" she yelled at the villagers, getting in behind them as they lumbered desperately across the grass, bent fully over under the weights they carried.  "FASTER!"

 

Flashes of stunner fire continued to crease the air, but none of them hit anything...yet.  The stunners had better range, and it was only a matter of time before one got lucky with the villagers so out in the open and unable to fire back....

 

Then one did—a woman cried out, crashing to the ground with the weight of another woman on her back, the two rolling into an ungainly heap.  Beckett jumped up, running over to them both, firing as he moved, and narrowly avoided being clipped by another stunner flash.

 

"Oh, to hell with this," Ronon's voice cut across the line, and, despite a yell of "No!" from McKay, a missile suddenly fired out of the nothingness above their heads, straight for the line of trees where the Wraith were.  Apparently, unlike the Jumpers, the Thermopylae didn't need to decloak in order to fire.  Teyla gave a holler of appreciation as she ducked, the blast rocking the trees, exploding everything in that location...Wraith and all.

 

"YES!" Lorne shouted as he struggled up onto one knee, pumping a fist up at the air.

 

"Well, done, Ronon!" Teyla agreed, smiling.  She glanced at Sheppard, but the Colonel wasn't smiling, he was frowning deeply.  Her own smile fell, confused by his expression.

 

"Yeah, well, McKay didn't want me to," Ronon said, and they could almost see the shrug in his voice, "But it seemed stupid to just wait and—"

 

"Ronon!" McKay's voice shouted, "Nine o'clock!"

 

Punctuated by its engine's screaming whine, the third and final dart exploded upwards from behind a smaller hillock off to the left, the nasty little ship firing full blast into the air above the stargate.

 

"Damn it! I told you!" McKay's voice shouted across the comm.. "You just had to show off, didn't you! You gave our position away, you mop-headed moron!" 

 

Teyla gasped as she understood what Rodney meant, realizing that the dart wasn't firing blind...it was firing very pointedly at where the missile had originated from.  Ronon's impulsive act had pinpointed the ship for the Wraith as clearly as if the cloak hadn't existed.

 

"MOVE!" Sheppard yelled, looking away from the ugly flashes of color where the Thermopylae was obviously taking fire, and gesturing frantically at the villagers. "NOW!  Through the Gate!" 

 

Teyla turned to look across the clearing, watching stunned villagers—who hadn't been prepared for the explosion—stumbling back to their feet from where they'd been knocked down by the blast wave, clumsily trying to pick up their burdens as they did so.  It was like watching a whole load of drunk people trying to pick up their passed out friends after a festival.  Beckett was dragging the two women he'd run to protect along the ground towards the gate, trying to get to it quickly.

 

Sheppard continued to shout for speed, and the Cutsarkians tried to move more quickly—but it was no where near fast enough. The air above was filled with explosive blasts and the dart's whine as Teyla jogged towards them, adding her voice for them to hurry as she looked up at the sky.

 

Her eyes suddenly widened in fear as she saw the Thermopylae appear above them, cloak falling away as the ship was shoved sideways from multiple hits along the hull, scarring the silver with slashes of burnt black.  No, no, no...

 

"Move, move, move, you useless hunk of metal!"  McKay sounded more pissed than afraid, and suddenly the silver ship was speeding impossibly quickly out of the clearing and straight for the dart, as if planning to ram it. "No! Not that way!  Are you insane?" McKay shouted suddenly, and Teyla realized with surprise that he was arguing with the Thermopylae.  "What are you doing?"

 

"Go, go, go!" Sheppard yelled, obviously ignoring the highjinks overhead in order to keep covering the villagers finally stumbling up to the gate.  Teyla, tearing her eyes away from the Thermopylae, returned her own full attention on the woods, backing towards the Gate at an uneven jog.  If there were more Wraith waiting to attack out there on the ground, she had to be ready....

 

Above, blasts and the whine of a dart screeched in the background, but no culling beam scoured the clearing...

 

At least whatever McKay was doing appeared to be working.

 

Lorne was near the DHD now, leaning against it. Beckett had reached the gate and had rolled his two burdens through, then turned and ran over to the struggling major.  Lorne had his head down, swaying alarmingly, and Beckett got an arm under his shoulders, holding him up.  Behind them, more villagers passed through the horizon to safety.  Then Lorne looked to Sheppard.

 

"Sir," the major called, his voice tremulous, "what about the rest of the Cutsakrians?"

 

"We're not leaving them behind, Major," Sheppard answered quickly. "Once you and Beckett are through, shut down the Gate and tell Elizabeth we need reinforcements. At least two jumpers and a couple troops of men to get rid of the rest of the Wraith still hanging around."

 

"You're not coming?" Beckett gaped. "But the Wraith in the woods!  You're wide open in this clearing!  How will you avoid—"

 

"I'm not leaving Rodney and Ronon here alone," Sheppard snapped. "Now get through the Gate!  Faster you go, faster you get back here and save our asses!"

 

"Yes, sir!" Lorne shouted to forestall any further argument from Beckett.  He backed up, effectively taking the doc with him, and headed to the Gate.  The last of the villagers were just making it up the stairs as the two men reached it, Teyla flanking them.  She nodded at Beckett and Lorne, before once more turning her attention back to their surroundings.

 

The doc took one last look at the two of them, fear obvious on his face, hesitating on the threshold after the last villager went through.  Suddenly, he opened his mouth, clearly about to say he'd stay behind as well...when Lorne pulled them both through with a sharp tug.

 

Sheppard yelled to Elizabeth over the radio to shut the gate down, then ran with Teyla back across the clearing to the safety of the woods.

 

Once deeply inside the trees, Teyla finally allowed herself to take a breath, her eyes lifting to check on the Colonel.  He was breathing hard as well, shoving a new clip into his weapon and frowning as he tried to see through the branches overhead to see what was happening in the sky. 

 

"Maybe if we climb one of the trees?" Teyla suggested, wanting to know what was happening as much as Sheppard did.

 

"Sheppard! Teyla!" Rodney's voice shouted suddenly over the radio, "Wherever you are, GET DOWN!"

________________________________________________

 

PART TWO: THE HAPPENINGS UP ABOVE

 

"Move, move, move, you useless hunk of metal!"  McKay shouted at the Thermopylae as the dart hit them dead on with several square hits, one of which busted the cloaking device.  In reply to his demand, the silver ship spun...and careened across the sky straight for the dart firing at them.  "No! Not that way!  Are you insane?" McKay shouted, jerking his hands on the controls sticks on the command chair, and obviously getting very little response from the ship. "What are you doing?"

 

“McKay!” Ronon shouted, gripping the edges of the console he stood behind, his feet braced on the ground, “You’re flying us right at it!”

 

“I’m not doing this!” came Rodney’s return shout from the chair.  “I commanded the ship to attack the dart, not ram it!”  The scientist’s blue eyes opened wider as the screens showed them on a collision course with the smaller dart, neither letting up, the silver Thermopylae barely evading the Wraith’s weapons fire.  Surely the Wraith pilot wasn’t suicidal…was he?  Surely the Thermopylae wasn’t either…oh Christ, they were playing Chicken with a Wraith!  The dart was aiming straight for them!  They were going to DIE! 

 

“STOP!” he squealed, throwing his full weight backwards, wrenching back hard on the control sticks as he did so.  "For the love of God, STOP!"

 

The Thermopylae responded instantly, the massive rear engine cutting off…and the ship started to fall.

 

Ack!” McKay yelped, “No, up, up, up!” He pulled up on the sticks, and the thrusters on the front of the ship under the nose came on full force.

 

The result being, that as the heavy back of the ship continued to fall down, the front tipped radically upwards, turning the ship almost vertical to the ground….and then over completely, like a pinwheel.  Ronon yelled in fear; McKay just screamed….

 

And the dart, faced with a sudden wall of silver tipping away from it, was forced to pull up hard, sending itself straight up along the upturned belly of the Thermopylae towards the sky, almost scraping the underside of both ships.  It then got caught in the air currents from the thrusters, sending it spinning head over tail as it careened upwards and to the side…

 

The Thermopylae did some impossible maneuver on its own and righted itself, putting them back on track.  At the same time, the engines flared to life again, shooting them forward like a bullet and going after the still discombobulated dart, as if the insanity of that last move was par for the course. 

 

Ronon was down on one knee with his head buried into his chest, pressed hard against the console, fingers holding onto the console's edges for dear life.  McKay, amazingly, still had his hands on the controls.  Lifting them off (which they did rather reluctantly, since the fingers didn’t really want to uncurl from the sticks), he clumsily tapped in some commands to tell the Thermopylae not to imitate a battering ram again, then blinked up dizzily at the screens around him.

 

It occurred to him that, next time he commanded a ship to attack something, he should probably specify some parameters like…oh, try not to kill your crew in the process.

 

Off on the right hand screen, he saw the dart moving away from them, bobbing and weaving as its pilot obviously worked to get some control back.  It was headed away from the clearing in the direction of the lowlands now, obviously trying to get to a safe distance so it could right itself—which was all good.

 

Frowning, McKay glanced over at the left hand screen depicting the clearing around the Stargate, and saw that most of the villagers had finally reached the wormhole and were going through, ushered quickly by Sheppard, Teyla, Lorne and Beckett.

 

Swallowing to relieve the driest throat he’d ever had, the scientist focused back on the dart, which finally seemed to settle into a steadier flight path.  As they watched, it suddenly turned on a dime and shot back towards them…and started firing again.

 

“Can I shoot it now?” Ronon asked roughly, back to his feet and leaning slightly over the console, a sickly pallor to his face.  “And why aren’t there any other chairs with harnesses on them in here?” he added with a growl.

 

“Don’t shoot it yet,” McKay answered, trying to smooth the squeak that was still very present in his voice.

 

"But, Sheppard said...."

 

“I said, don't shoot it!  Not until it's low enough to the ground that you can just clip a wing without blowing it all to hell.  There’s a better chance that we’ll save the buffer that way.  I know what Sheppard said, but there are people on that dart, and we need to try!"  He started typing something quickly into his tablet as he spoke, looking for something new he could try to take down the other ship.  "Oh, and as for the chairs…I don’t think the Thermopylae was necessarily made to get into dogfights with darts, so seatbelts probably weren’t a consideration.”

 

“I don’t think it was made to do what you’re doing with it either,” Ronon muttered.  The Satedan looked around at the bridge, noting some of the burnt out consoles and screens, which had exploded when the dart had hit them originally. “We need those?”

 

“I don’t know.  One of them was obviously controlled the cloak.  Not sure what the others are right now.” McKay gave a shaky sounding sigh as he returned his hands to the chairs controls and pressed them forward, working on even more speed, believing it to be their main advantage against the more maneuverable dart.  All around him, the screens showed the smaller Wraith ship heading, once more, straight in their direction.  The Thermopylae, still programmed to evade, shifted around from side to side like a skier on a Slalom course to avoid the dart’s weapons as they accelarated....

 

"McKay," Ronon said worriedly, watching the dart's rapid approach, his fingers curling again to grab at the console as the Thermopylae swerved in response. "I don't want to go upside down again."

 

McKay frowned.  Neither did he.  Damn it, where was Sheppard when you needed him?  He had to...he had to...he could do this.  Flying was physics and math—he could outthink that dart, damn it!  Mentally trying to kickstart his brain again, he tried to guess both the darts speed and trajectory based on the screens in front of him.  The dart's direction was obvious—it wanted to get to the clearing.  The Thermopylae was just in its way. So, maybe he could...attack from another direction?

 

“Okay," he said, swallowing thickly, letting up on the controls for a second to tap away rapidly on his tablet, "I’m, um, I’m going to try to get on top of it, force it down, so you can fire on it.” 

 

“How?” Ronon asked, not hiding the clear distrust in his voice.

 

"I just have to think of," McKay winced a little as they swerved very hard to the right, and he had to grab the tablet to keep it on his lap, "something...."

 

"You're not Sheppard, McKay. You really think you can do this?"  

 

"I don't know, but it would have been a hell of a lot easier if it couldn't see us!" Rodney snapped back defensively.  Ronon just growled at the implied blame, and turned his head back to the screen.

 

"I didn't think that firing that missile—"

 

"Oh, forget it!" McKay snapped, then his tone softened abruptly, "I didn't mean it."  He finished inputting a new set of flying patterns into the ship's computer via the tablet, and put his hands on the controls again.  The dart was pretty damn close now.

 

There was a short pause, then Ronon spoke again.  "So," the Satedan looked back at him, eyebrows raised, "what are you going to do?"

 

McKay didn’t answer…mostly because he wasn’t sure his plan would work.   When he’d attacked the two Wraith darts previously, he succeeded mainly by executing maneuvers he’d seen Sheppard execute before in fights with Wraith darts—or rather, programmed the maneuvers into the ship so that it could execute them on his command—but this dart had already seen all those moves.  So…

 

Time to pull from his dreams.

 

Biting his bottom lip, he pulled hard on the controls to turn the ship to the right, sending it off at an angle.  Thankfully, the dart didn’t follow, its single minded focus back on the clearing…and the vulnerable villagers.  

 

"Hang on," he offered softly.  Ronon instantly got down and pressed himself up against the console again.  His mother hadn't raised a fool.

 

Pulling hard back to the left, McKay hit the button to cut the engines and powered the front thrusters in reverse, effectively, spinning the back end of the ship around, like a car executing a one eighty on a sheet of ice.   Flaring the rear engines again (and ignoring the green look on Ronon’s face at the drop and rise in altitude and speed), he gunned forward, perpendicular now to the dart’s trajectory, and aiming directly for its side…

 

He pulled up at the last second, and the dart went underneath the silver belly of the Thermopylae.

 

Ronon stayed down as McKay hit the front thrusters again to shove the dart down…But the thrusters clearly didn’t like to be used at the same time as the rear engines, because the whole ship shuddered with a ferocity that rattled his teeth.  It was as if he’d hit the breaks on a Ferrari and gunned the engine at the same time.  Emitting a groan, McKay lost sight of the dart on the sensors as the ship spun sickeningly around, the Thermopylae threatening to tear itself to pieces around them. 

 

MmmccccKKKaaaayyyy!” Ronon stuttered through the shaking, holding on even tighter as more consoles blew in the small room like mini fireworks displays.

 

The scientist turned off the front thrusters and slowed down the rear engines, trying to get the stability back.  The Thermopylae calmed down almost immediately.  He whispered a small apology to her as it settled.

 

Letting out a held breath, the scientist gently banked the ship around and called up the screens again to look for the dart.

 

It was gone.

 

“Oh shit,” he muttered, “Where…?”

 

“There!” Ronon said, pointing off to a screen to McKay’s right.  The hologram showed the dart plowing through the tops of trees, but, somehow, not going down.  As they watched, it managed to pull itself up, bits of leaves and branches skittering across and off the wings.  This Wraith pilot was better than the last two.  Damn it!

 

“Shoot it!” McKay yelled, not caring how desperate his voice sounded. “Shoot it now!”

 

“Finally!” Ronon shouted back, getting back to his feet and hitting a series of buttons on his console.

 

Immediately, two missiles erupted forward, and McKay pulled back even more to put the ship in a sort of hover (so as not to be too close).  A quick glance to his left showed that the Gate was shut down—Sheppard and Teyla must have succeeded in getting everyone home.  He grinned…finally, something had gone right!

 

“Uh oh,” Ronon whispered softly, calling McKay’s attention back to the screen showing the dart.

 

“Oh, no,” McKay agreed, his arms stilling on the controls...

 

The dart had executed its own impressive maneuver, pulling a tight turn around the circumference of the now empty clearing and suddenly aimed right for the Gate.  The heat-seekers turned with it.  At the same time, the Gate flared to life, the dart’s own internal DHD having opened a new wormhole.

 

“We have to stop the dart!” Ronon yelled, hitting buttons on the console. “It can’t get through to warn the Hive.  They'll just send more!” 

 

McKay’s eyes widened as he saw the two missiles suddenly increased in speed, the tiny engines on them flaring blue as Ronon commanded extra speed.

 

“No!” McKay yelled, “Wait! Call them off!”

 

“What?” Ronon turned, “If that dart escapes and—“

 

"Shut them down!"

 

"No! I—"

 

“Too late!” McKay yelled again. "Sheppard! Teyla!  Wherever you are, GET DOWN!"  

 

Ronon turned forward to look at the screen…

 

The first missile hit the dart dead on inside the engine, just as the Wraith ship was just feet from the DHD and only a couple yards from the Stargate.  The massive explosion threw the ship up and sideways…half of it taking out the DHD and the rest of the burning engine impacting right into the Gate.  The second missile hit a second later, causing an even greater explosion and sending bits of Wraith ship everywhere, hiding the Gate inside a giant fireball of destruction…

___________________________________

 

CHAPTER TEN: THE FALLOUT

 

Sheppard picked himself up off the ground, frowning a little and looking around.  From McKay’s shout, he’d expected to be surrounded by flames and smoke right now—but the forest was fairly quiet.  Only the faint sounds of fire crackling somewhere nearby were audible, and a dull rumble as the ground shuddered slightly underfoot, as if a large tree had just fallen over.  Still, nothing major.  He assumed that last explosion—which had been close, yes, but not that close—was the third dart going down. 

 

Next to him, Teyla rolled up onto her feet in one fluid motion, her head tilted a little to the side as she also studied her surroundings curiously.  He watched as she moved away from him, headed in the direction of the explosion, her every muscle tensed with watchfulness.

 

He tapped his radio then, looking up through the canopy at the pale blue sky. “McKay?  Ronon?  You okay?”

 

We’re fine,” Ronon’s gruff voice replied.

 

We’re so not fine!” McKay snapped in retort. “We’re so far from fine, it’s not even funny!”

 

We’re not hurt, the Thermopylae’s still intact, and the dart is down,” Ronon said then, as if to modify his earlier statement.  McKay just huffed, obviously not mollified by this.

 

The colonel’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then he shrugged.  Typical McKay doom and gloom, probably because they had almost bit it up there. “Good, so, uh,” Sheppard turned and started to follow Teyla, who was several yards away now, heading at a slow jog towards the Gate.  She still had her head tilted, obviously trying to see through the trees. They could clearly see the smoke rising from the explosion ahead of them, rolling up into the sky like the black ash from a bonfire.  Sheppard had to admit, there looked to be more than from the first two… “McKay, what was that yell for? Telling us to get down?  You sounded like the world was about to end!”

 

There was no answer to that, causing Sheppard to frown some more. 

 

“Colonel!” Teyla’s voice snapped him back to the present.  Looking up, he saw her start to run.  Without questioning, he took off after her…then came to an abrupt halt when he saw what had gotten her moving.  Teyla herself had stopped on the edge of the clearing, her mouth agape.

 

The Gate was on the ground, covered in debris from dozens of pieces of filleted dart.  The DHD was a smoking husk in front of it, looking like a mushroom with the head burnt off.   Even from here they could see…the Gate had snapped off the base, broken by the weight of the ship crashing into it. 

 

Oh Crap.

 

“McKay,” Sheppard said the name carefully, as if testing it on his tongue, and took a deep breath before asking, in a low, deadly tone, “what the hell happened?”

 

We got lucky,” McKay replied, sounding very small all of a sudden.  As Sheppard watched, the silver Thermopylae, with some nasty new small gashes in its side and venting something that looked like a yellow gas, floated into view over the clearing.

 

“Lucky?” Sheppard repeated, looking up at the ship as if he could see through it, “LUCKY?  McKay!  You destroyed the Gate!”

 

Lucky because, the DHD got blown first, cutting power to the Gate just before the ship hit it…”

 

“Oh yes,” Sheppard snarled. “That makes me feel so much better!”

 

I’m just saying…if the Gate had exploded at full power…it could have blown up the entire planet.”

 

Sheppard said nothing to that, he just stared at the Thermopylae floating serenely overhead. 

 

He was going to kill him, this time.  He really was. 

 

Finally, after a few moments, he stated softly again, “You destroyed the Gate, McKay.”

 

Technically?” McKay said, and they could hear him swallow over the line, “Ronon did.”

 

“MCKAY!” Sheppard yelled furiously, absolutely not letting him slough the blame this time. “Damn it all to hell!  What were you thinking?  Do you realize that’s our way home?”

 

It was sort of my fault,” Ronon noted calmly. “If I hadn’t—“

 

“Stay out of this, Ronon!  You weren’t the one in charge!” Sheppard snapped. “Jesus Christ, McKay!  All you had to do was destroy one dart.  One dart!  I could do that in my sleep!  You have a superior ship with greater fire power and you waited until the last second to destroy it?! And you have to destroy the Gate in the process?”

 

“The Daedalus is not far,” Teyla interrupted, watching Sheppard with concern. “They were within range of Atlantis when we left.  I’m sure that they can be here quickly.  As soon as Elizabeth realizes she cannot dial us back, she will—”

 

“And in the meantime,” Sheppard flung back, running over her calmness with a busload of fury, “we’ve Wraith on the ground and who knows how many Hive ships on the way, wondering what happened to their scouts!  Not to mention a whole mess of villagers we can’t evacuate!”  Teyla flinched at his anger, looking away as he continued, “And how about those people still trapped on that other dart, huh?  McKay’s just condemned them to death!”

 

Oh God,” McKay muttered, obviously having forgotten about the second dart.

 

“Colonel,” Teyla was frowning now, “I am sure that if Doctor McKay and Ronon had any other alternative—“

 

“Not now, Teyla,” he ordered. He wasn’t having any of it.  He was mad, damn it. “McKay!  Land that ship, now!”

 

Sure, yes, right,” McKay replied. “I’m putting it down in a clearing about a mile southwest of here, where I landed it before.”

 

“We’ll meet you there,” Sheppard replied, already heading in that direction at a jog.  Behind him, Teyla sighed heavily and started to think about how they were going to break this to the Cutsarkians.

_____________________________________________

 

McKay settled the ship down softly, almost with reverence.  Probably because he wasn’t really paying attention to ‘doing it right’ as it were.  Ronon leaned against his console, casting surreptitious glances towards the scientist as McKay started shutting things down once they were on the ground. 

 

Sheppard was being unfair.  But then, Sheppard, like Ronon himself, had a habit of reacting before thinking things through. 

 

He just hoped the colonel had allowed a little reason to seep in before he came charging in and started accusing McKay of doing it on purpose.  After all…McKay had tried to stop him from increasing the speed on those two missiles. 

 

Ronon pulled himself up a little—time to set that right.  “Hey,” he offered, “about what I did….”

 

“Don’t.” McKay just shook his head, not looking up from whatever he was now tapping into this data tablet on his lap. “It wasn’t your fault.” He stood up from the command chair then, holding the tablet tight in one hand as he did so, and hit a couple more buttons on the arm of the chair. 

 

“Yeah, it was,” Ronon replied, frowning a little. “I fired the missiles, and I sped them up so they’d hit the dart before it went through the Gate. I didn't listen to you when—”

 

“No, Sheppard was right.  I should have had you take it down a lot earlier, just like he told us to." Stepping down off the dais, McKay walked distractedly over to one of the burnt out consoles. “I need to find a way to get the cloak back on,” he said then.

 

“McKay…”

 

“You should check the sensors.  They’re still on-line.  Maybe you can figure out where the Wraith are by combining life signs with the tech sensors.  There should be a way." He frowned at the burnt out screens, waving a hand at Ronon. "I'm sure you can figure it out.”

 

Ronon watched for a moment as McKay knelt down in front of the console he thought controlled the cloak and started to pry open the panel at its base.  Then, with a grimace, the Satedan turned around and tried to figure out how to make the sensors work more accurately.

_______________________________________

 

Sheppard and Teyla ran as fast as they could, following the trajectory of the Thermopylae, but it still took them almost fifteen minutes to reach the ship.  With the gate down, the Wraith would probably be pretty interested in the only still flying ship on the planet—even if, right now, it wasn’t really space-worthy.  Sheppard had been annoyed when McKay didn’t turn the cloak back on, but then, the rational part of him recalled that it was probably because the cloak had been damaged.

 

They reached the clearing McKay had landed in without incident, and Sheppard hoped that was because the Wraith on the ground were either up closer to the village or simply too far away to get here quickly.  Not about to question their good luck, they headed straight for the closed entrance, Teyla reaching up to tap her radio to ask them to open it.

 

At almost the same time, the Thermopylae’s surface rippled…and the ship disappeared from view.

 

“Well done, Rodney,” Teyla said by Sheppard’s side.  The colonel gave her a look.  She didn’t return it, tapping her radio for real this time.

 

“Doctor McKay, Ronon, we are outside the ship.  Can you…?”

 

“I’m dropping the stairs now,” Ronon’s disembodied voice floated down from the area where they knew the entrance to be.  He must have already opened the door. “Hang on.”

 

Trying not to appear too impatient, Sheppard turned his back on the ship to scout the area, just in case.  He saw Teyla do the same. 

 

“Come on,” Ronon said then, much closer.  Turning around again, they saw him half-in, half-out of the cloak, gesturing them inside and up the stairs.

_________________________________________

 

“I got the sensors to combine Wraith tech signatures with life signs,” Ronon told them as he led the way back to the control room at the front of the ship.  “And the range is pretty broad—covering most of this side of the mountain, cutting off at the far end of the village; you know, about where that cliff is." He shrugged a little, "Picked up eight distinct signals—have to be Wraith stunners.” 

 

"Just eight?" Teyla repeated.

 

"Yeah.  Seems we already got most of 'em.  Shouldn't be hard to finish 'em off."

 

Sheppard just grunted, causing Ronon to fall silent as they strode into the white control room, sunlight shining brightly through the windows to augment the lightness of it.  The Satedan continued to lead, stepping over some fallen bits of metal to get to a specific sensor station.  Teyla frowned at the newly burnt out consoles scattered around, and the ripped open panels with exposed wires.  The whiteness of the room had hidden it somewhat, but there was clearly damage here.

 

Sheppard, though, was only looking for one thing.  And he frowned when he didn’t see it.

 

Rodney wasn’t there.

 

“Where’s McKay?” Sheppard asked, looking at the Satedan as Ronon hit some buttons on the console.  Hologram images depicting the side of the mountain appeared on the screen, along with a bunch of blips.  Ronon turned at the question.

 

“He’s in the engine room.  The ship took some damage.”  Master of the obvious, that Ronon.

 

Sheppard studied the control room, “Can the ship fly?”

 

“Short distances,” Ronon shrugged, “So he said.  But not far.  Something to do with power levels.  I didn’t really get the explanation.”

 

Teyla narrowed her eyes. “If it can fly, we should move it to another clearing while it is cloaked.  The Wraith will probably be looking for it.”

 

Ronon nodded, not disagreeing.  “That’s why he got the cloak back online first.  He had to divert power away from something else to do it though.”

 

“What’s the something else?” Sheppard asked.

 

Ronon frowned, his brow knotting in annoyance. “Maybe you should just go ask him these questions.”

 

Sheppard gave a short nod, “Maybe I will.”  Turning on his heel, he left back through the doors into the corridor.

 

Ronon’s brow furrowed. “Sheppard, wait…”  But he was too slow.

_________________________________________________

 

Teyla watched the colonel leave, then moved the rest of the way to join Ronon at his station, her eyes studying the downturned face.  The Satedan had sighed heavily when he didn’t manage to stop the colonel, and now leaned with his back against the console, looking down at the floor. 

 

"Are you all right?" she asked quietly.  Ronon gave an almost imperceptible shrug in reply, then shook his head.

 

"It's nothing."  He lowered his head more, dark eyes tracing the patterns in the metal grate flooring. Teyla just nodded, accepting the non-answer for now.  Standing next to him, she looked up at the 3D images floating around them, and smiled, impressed despite herself.

 

“You did this?” she asked, gesturing to the screens.

 

“Huh?” Ronon answered, looking at her, then turning fully to peer at the screens above his station. “Oh, yeah. Kinda.  McKay started it."

 

Teyla studied the arrays for a moment, before arching an eyebrow at Ronon. "What are we looking at?"

 

"Life signs, mostly. The Wraith are the red ones.  Look,” he pointed to a series of red dots burning steadily away on one side of the screen. "I figure those five dots on the far side of the village are waiting for something, though I'm not sure what.  These two, on the other hand...” he trailed off, showing the two steadily moving red dots headed in their direction.

 

“Are coming here,” Teyla nodded.  She tilted her head at the blue dots sprinkled liberally within the village confines. One of the stationary red dots was surrounded by blue.  “What are those blue dots?”

 

“General life signs not carrying Wraith tech,” Ronon replied. "Those are the villagers."  He frowned, pointing to the one lone red dot surrounded by blue inside the village. “I’m hoping this Wraith is either dead, or tied up somehow.”

 

“That’s Innis,” Teyla said, smiling a little. “I gave her a Wraith stunner, although I don't think she really wants to use it.”

 

“Oh,” Ronon nodded.  “Gotcha.”

 

They studied the map for a moment, before Ronon shrugged. “I say we go after the Wraith on the ground.  Take care of them.  Then let McKay fix this ship.  Maybe he can get it fixed well enough so that, if a Hive does come, we can do some damage.  If not, maybe it can at least get us off this planet.”

 

Teyla nodded, looking around at the still elegant interior, despite the damage. “I would love to take this ship back to Atlantis,” she said wistfully. “But if we can not…I would be just as pleased if it killed as many Wraith as it could.”  She gave a dark smile, and saw it matched on her friend’s face.  Then Ronon's smile fell as he turned around again, looking out the door leading to the central corridor.

 

Teyla saw him looking, and turned herself.

 

"Rodney can take care of himself," she assured the Satedan. "The colonel is angry, yes, but you know how Rodney reacts to anyone angry with him.  He simply gets angry right back."  She gave a small smile.  "I am sure there is a good reason for what happened."

 

“Yeah, but," Ronon grimaced, looking at her, "you gotta understand—wasn’t McKay's fault. I fired the missiles.”

 

“I had guessed as much,” Teyla nodded. “But that does not matter…if it was Rodney who told you when to fire.”

 

Ronon grimaced, “Yeah, he did, but…”

 

“I know,” Teyla soothed, patting him on the arm.

 

“No,” Ronon shook his head, his eyes narrowing in annoyance. “I don’t think you do.  You would have listened.”

 

That earned him a puzzled look, but Ronon didn’t respond to it.  He just turned around, his attention back on the sensors.

________________________________________

 

McKay was kneeling in front of the power control panel Teyla had read for him earlier, arms deep inside the machinery.  He was fiddling with something Sheppard couldn’t see when he reached the doors to the massive engine room, but the expression on McKay's face suggested it wasn't pretty. 

 

Pausing, the colonel simply stood at the top of the dozen or so steps leading down to the main floor below, content for the moment to just watch the scientist work.  McKay was his usual diligent self, pulling crystals and examining conduits and messing with wires with efficiency and confidence.

 

The colonel breathed to calm down the anger still roiling inside.  He knew it was mostly irrational anger, that his emotions had gotten the better of him upon seeing the Gate destroyed, but…

 

After counting to ten, he started down the stairs and took a more careful look around, grimacing at the sight of more burnt out panels and the smell of cooling metal. Something was whirring softly, and he realized that there must be invisible fans inside the engine turbines he couldn’t see, cooling them down.  The Thermopylae had been put through the wringer.

 

“McKay,” he called as he reached the bottom, stepping around a console in order to get to the man on the ground.

 

Rodney leaned out of the panel, looked up at him, frowned, then returned his attention to his work.

 

“Colonel,” he greeted coolly.

 

“McKay, I—“

 

“I think I’ve figured out a way to save those people in the second downed dart,” McKay interrupted quickly, not bothering to meet Sheppard’s eyes as he spoke, arms once more deep into the machinery.  “I think I can connect the dart’s buffer to the main power supply on the Thermopylae.  There’s a singular power conduit in this ship’s version of a mess hall that I can hook it up to.  It won’t be enough to release the people trapped, but it will be enough to stop the signals inside from degenerating.”

 

Sheppard frowned, momentarily forgetting that he’d come here to yell at McKay under the sheer weight of the information that had just been thrown at him.  Worst of all, only one thing really stuck out… “There’s a mess hall?”

 

McKay rolled his eyes a little, “Yes.  There are three levels, remember?  The central level, with the big corridor you just came down, then a level above and a level below.”  He pointed as he spoke, showing doors with ladders leading up to them high up on the main wall, and two doors on this level even with the floor—all were closed and dark. “The bottom level is mostly one big room—hence mess hall.”

 

“Oh, right,” Sheppard nodded, remembering that they still hadn’t really had a chance to explore the ship at all, “I didn’t remember that.” 

 

“Yeah, well, anyway,” McKay’s focus was back on the guts of the console, “once I’ve got enough power going to the mess, we can go get that buffer from the dart.  Hook it up.”

 

Sheppard just nodded, then tilted his head, “Speaking of power, Ronon said there was something wrong with the power levels so that we couldn’t fly this ship too far.”

 

McKay grimaced, and a flush crept up his throat, as if embarrassed, “Yeah. A couple of the dart’s weapons fire managed to impact the main power coils. Took some of them out.  I didn’t realize how much power was lost until it was over. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the shield device covering that big hole in the side expanded to fill every new hole that dart made…though I still don’t understand why.  Anyway, it just drained more and more power.  With main power so low, I don’t think we’re going to be able to fly this thing off this planet unless we want to fly without most of the systems operating, like artificial gravity and life support…”

 

“Or long range sensors or weapons....”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“But…it could, if push came to shove?”

 

McKay just grimaced, “Maybe.  I’d have to do some serious rewiring though.  And there’d be no life support anywhere but controls and back here, not even in the corridor joining the two.  Make a long trip really horrifically awful—especially if we're going to try to cram a bunch of people in here.”

 

“But, don’t we have a hyperdrive?  How long would it be?”

 

McKay shook his head, “We can’t risk using it with all the damage to the hull.  I’m not even sure the ship would let us go that fast, knowing the strain it would put on the shields—if I can get them to behave.  At best…we’ll be able to limp along at medium thrust.  Meaning…slow.  It could take a week just to get to the next solar system.”

 

Hunh.  How long to get to a solar system with a gate?”

 

McKay stopped working for a moment, his hands stilling on the wires, his eyes shifting around as if reading something inside his head…

 

“Two systems over,” he said finally. “P3G-112.  It’s two systems over.”

 

“How long?”

 

“Three weeks.  I’m not sure we have enough power to get that far, though.”

 

“Well…There’s the Daedalus.  If we can contact it through subspace communications, which I’m guessing this ship has, it can come and get us wherever we go. It may be that, just getting off this planet to another that can support life with as many people as we can carry might be the way to go.”

 

McKay grimaced, but didn’t disagree.  Neither spoke again for a few minutes.  McKay shifted deeper into the console, so that more of his body was hidden.

 

“Sounds like a plan, then,” Sheppard said, dispelling the uncomfortable silence.  When McKay didn't look up or lean out from the panel to face him again, he sank down next to him on one knee, crossing his arms over the bent leg. 

 

And then didn’t say anything again for a few minutes.  He realized he didn't know what to say. 

 

For some reason, Sheppard no longer wanted to yell at McKay.  Blaming the man was second nature, because McKay took it.  Even if it wasn't his fault, the scientist accepted blame as quickly and as deeply as he took praise.  His ego was just that big.

 

But Sheppard knew, deep down, this wasn't McKay's fault.  The scientist had been out of his depth.  He had asked him to do something McKay just wasn't skilled at, or even prepared for—he wasn't a pilot and he wasn't a soldier and this ship...wasn't a jumper.

 

The mistake, as always, was his own.  He should never have ordered Ronon and Rodney to the Thermopylae.  They should have found another way.

 

Rodney continued to fiddle, his hands moving quickly and efficiently inside the panel. The only indication that he even knew the Colonel was still there was the small furrow of his brow whenever he accidentally met Sheppard's eyes as he worked.  At one point, he shifted more deeply into the guts of the console, and, unhappily, Sheppard knew it was so he wouldn't be able to see the colonel anymore.

 

At one point, Rodney muttered a small "ow" and Sheppard smiled when McKay shook out his right hand. 

 

"You okay?"

 

"Pinched my finger," Rodney replied, pushing out from the console and putting his right index finger to his lips to blow on it. "Hate that.  I think the Ancients must have had smaller fingers.  Probably related to those same people who invented the 'some assembly required' furniture.  You know the kind—where only if your fingers are half the size but twice as strong could you possible get the screw into the right place?"  He snorted, peered back into the panel, sighed, then slid back in.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard nodded. "I know the kind."   He waited a second longer, then sighed.  "Look, Rodney..." he bit his lip for a second, then plowed on, "I'm sorry I yelled."

 

"Oh God," Rodney muttered, deflating a little inside the console. "You're kidding.  That's why you're still here? To apologize?"

 

Sheppard's brow furrowed. "Yeah," he said, not hiding that he was affronted by that response. "Look, I was kinda pissed off, what with the whole," he waved a hand, "gate destruction thing, and—"

 

"So you yelled at me." McKay's jaw flexed as he pulled out a crystal from the console, looked at it, then placed it on the floor before reaching in for another. "What else is new?"

 

Sheppard pursed his lips, his annoyance growing, "Okay, fine. Yes. I yelled at you.  Though...you kinda deserved it, you know.  I mean, you have to admit, it wasn't your best moment, McKay.  I know you were probably doing what you thought was best, but you should've thought ahead more.  Thought about what was—"

 

"I know," McKay ground out. "You don't have to coddle me, Colonel."  He leaned out from the panel, staring unwaveringly at Sheppard. "I should have let Ronon take down the dart earlier.  I know."

 

Sheppard stared at him, taking that in, then his eyes narrowed slightly.

 

"So you could have?" he asked coldly. "You had the opportunity?"  He hadn't been certain of that until this moment.  He'd just assumed that events had gotten away from Ronon and McKay, that they'd been outmaneuvered and that was why the Gate had been destroyed.

 

McKay met his gaze for a few seconds, then looked away, his features losing their previous confidence. "Yeah," he gave a nod, and picked at a crystal he'd placed on his stomach. "There was a point when the dart was vulnerable.  We could have taken it down.  Ronon even asked me if he could fire.  I told him not to."

 

Sheppard frowned, and all the anger he'd managed to quell surged back to the fore. "So...you actually deliberately ignored what I said to you, what I ordered you to do."

 

McKay grimaced, but didn't deny it.  He just steeled his jaw and he placed the crystal on the floor by his side with the others.   

 

Sheppard's eyes blazed and he stood back up like a shot. "God damn it, McKay! What the hell were you thinking?  You knew the dart could dial the Gate, and you knew it would probably try to escape the moment it had the chance! And you didn't fire?"

 

McKay shut his eyes, then opened them again. "I...I was..." he took in a sharp breath, "I was trying to save the people on the dart.  I thought if I could just—"

 

"Well, you were wrong, weren't you? You were wrong and I was right.  You should have listened to me."

 

McKay's clenched his jaw so tightly at that, it looked like it might snap.  The blue eyes regained some of their defiance as he met the other man's glare. "So I made a mistake.  It’s not like it's my first."  

 

"So you made a mistake?" Sheppard repeated, sneering over the words. "That's all you have to say?  Damn it, McKay, do you think I order you to do things for my health?  You should have taken down the dart the moment you had the chance, but no, you had to try to prove that you're—"

 

"I get it!" McKay shouted at the colonel, glaring at him again, his blue eyes shimmering a little. "I said I was wrong," he added more quietly, turning back to the console. He blinked and put his hands back on the crystals inside the panel. "Look," he said, even more quietly, "I need to finish getting the power back on to the rest of the ship now, so we can maybe save those people in that second dart and get off this planet, so, uh...could you leave me alone now?  I'm sort of tired of being yelled at."

 

Sheppard's eyebrows furrowed, "Tired of being yelled at?" He snorted, "That's rich, coming from you."  He leaned back on his heels, crossing his arms as he glared down at the other man. "No. I'm not going anywhere until I know you've gotten my point."

 

"And what point is that, exactly?" McKay asked snidely.

 

"That you're a jackass, and if you're going to take charge of things, you need to think about more than just how cool the technology is  and how to be the biggest hero!"

 

That earned a moment of complete and utter silence.  Finally, after the air in the engine room cooled from hot to freezing (at least in Sheppard's mind), McKay leaned out from the console and fixed the colonel with a stare so stone cold the colonel almost backed up a step.

 

"Tell you what," McKay lifted his eyebrows, no inflection in his voice at all, "how about, when we get home, you can belittle me as much as you like. Tell me just how childish it was of me to think I could fly this thing without you, and tell everyone that, once again, McKay screwed everything up because of his unmitigated ego and lots of people died. Better yet, tell them how it wouldn't have happened had you been the one flying. How, had it been you, everyone would have been saved. Because that's what you were going to say, right? Well I give you free rein. I don't care. But right now, I need to finish doing this work. So how about you run along back to your fellow heroes and let me be, huh?" And with that, he slid himself so deeply into the console, that he was literally nothing but legs.

 

The colonel drew himself up tight, arms pressed so hard into his chest, his triceps started to hurt. 

 

Fine.  McKay wanted to play it this way? Then he'd play.

 

"Sure, okay, Rodney," he said. "If that's what you want, then that's what you'll get."

 

"Great," McKay snarled from inside the console. "Fantastic."

 

"Couldn't be happier to oblige," Sheppard sneered.

 

"I'm sure," McKay answered, still not showing his face.

 

Sheppard shut his eyes and gritted his teeth.  He did not need the last word.  Turning on his heel, he strode away from McKay, aiming for the stairs without looking back.

 

Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay,” Teyla’s voice called over the ship’s communication system, slowing Sheppard mid-step. “We have a problem.”

 

“Not another one,” McKay sighed heavily, pushing himself up out of the console.  Sheppard was already jogging back to the stairs leading up to the central corridor.

 

“What kind of problem?” the colonel called, taking the steps two at a time.

 

We were tracking two Wraith, believing them to be on their way here, but we were wrong.  They are at the crashed dart that Doctor McKay and Ronon were looking at before.”  She sounded far, far too calm.

 

“Oh, crap,” Sheppard muttered, running faster now.  He was most of the way back to the control room.  The sound of boots running along metal let him know that McKay wasn’t that far behind.

 

Oh,” Teyla sounded strange, as she obviously saw something she didn’t like.

 

“What does ‘oh’ mean?” McKay demanded, huffing a little as he spoke.

 

Sheppard reached the main doors to the control room, and ran up to where Ronon and Teyla were staring up at the screens around Ronon’s station.

 

A cluster of red dots were gathered in one area—presumably where the dart was. 

 

“What is that?” Sheppard asked, taking in a deep breath. “Wraith?”  He counted the dots—there were at least six. “I thought you said you were just tracking two?”

 

“We were,” Ronon answered darkly.  He turned to look at McKay, who came panting up alongside Sheppard, his brow furrowed as he looked at the same screen. “The Wraith somehow released their people from the buffer that Doctor McKay said couldn’t be used.”

 

“It couldn’t!” McKay insisted, his eyes wide. “I don’t…I don’t know how….”

 

“There are no other life signs,” Teyla noted, frowning.  “Should there not also be blue life signs showing up if everyone was released from the dart?”

 

“McKay,” Sheppard frowned, “was there enough power to release just a few people, but not all?”

 

The scientist was staring at the screen, his eyes blinking away.  Finally he looked down, his facing paling. “I didn’t think of that,” he admitted softly.  Radek had found that out the very first time they released anyone from a dart’s buffer that you could release just one life sign at a time, if you could pinpoint it.  Unfortunately for McKay and Lieutenant Cadman, Radek’s attempt to separate the life signs hadn’t been that accurate.  The Wraith, on the other hand...

 

“The Wraith must have a means to distinguish their life signs from the rest,” Rodney said morosely as he wrapped his arms around himself. “I didn’t know they could do that.  They freed their own, and left the rest inside.”

 

Sheppard’s jaw clenched, but, really, he couldn’t blame McKay for that one.

 

“What about the other people who were trapped?” Ronon asked, looking perplexed by the idea.

 

“Releasing those few Wraith from the buffer would have used all the power,” McKay said, not looking up. “The rest…all those trapped people…are gone.”

 

Teyla closed her eyes.  Ronon looked furious.  Sheppard had gone cold, turning his eyes to look out the windows at the blue sky.  McKay still stared at the floor.

 

"They're moving away from the crashed dart," Ronon said then, his eyes still on the screen.  Sheppard turned his eyes back, noting the gathering of red dots was, in fact moving.  But not in the direction they expected.

 

"Why aren't they coming here?" McKay wondered next to him, obviously surprised.  "Surely they saw the ship land?"

 

"The culling beam takes a lot out of you, even if you're a Wraith," Ronon growled, his eyes narrowed. "They're headed back to the village, probably to join the others and...."

 

"To feed," Teyla finished quietly. "Get back their full strength."

 

"Damn it," Sheppard said, bristling.  His back straightened, hand unconsciously tightening on the P90 attached to his vest.

 

"Wait," McKay said, his eyes getting that deer in headlights look of his, "I just thought of another reason.  They could be looking to find the other Wraith still on the ground, to do that mind thing they do," McKay tapped his skull then pointed to the sky, "to call for help. There are eleven of them now—that could be enough.  If there are any Hive ships in the area..."  He trailed off, not needing to finish the statement.

 

“Sheppard,” the Satedan turned to the colonel. “Permission to go and kill those Wraith in the most painful way possible.”

 

Sheppard snorted, then smiled thinly. “Granted.”

 

“Um,” McKay lifted a hand, “If we can spare a minute, I might have something that can help.  I noticed on the ship’s schematics that the Thermopylae," he pointed behind him, "has a small armory….”

______________________________________________  

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE LOWER DECK

 

The armory was on the lower level, which they accessed through the floor hatches in the control room.  On alert, because they’d yet to explore down here, Teyla led the way with her P90, moving slowly but confidently down the stairs to the floor below.... 

 

According to McKay, the lower floor was accessed by two narrow hallways, one on the port side and one on the starboard side.  He told Sheppard that they functioned a little like the corridors on a 747—just without the fear of being run over by the drinks cart.  Teyla just shook her head at that, hoping she never found out exactly what dangerous beast a drinks cart was.

 

Waving a hand over the panel to open the door leading to the portside corridor, Teyla grimaced as the powerful smell of mold and dust assaulted her senses.  Curiously, unlike the central floor, control room and engine room…it actually smelled old down here.  She guessed it had to do with the damaged hull—the ancient hole in the side would have affected this level more than the others.

 

She moved into the corridor, which was dark gunmetal grey in color, and a lot less attractive than the whitewashed central floor.  It was far more utilitarian…and a little depressing.

 

Moving forward, she glanced at the numerous doors on her right, recognizing that they were probably just small, shallow closets.  In contrast, on the left were only three wide doors.  The first clearly read “Armory” in Athosian.  Glancing down at the other two doors, she saw the word for “Kitchen” on the first and, even further down, “Gathering Hall” on the last—which was obviously the ‘mess hall’ Rodney had told her about earlier.

 

Waving her hand over the panel for the armory, the door slid open quietly to reveal…an almost empty room.

 

“Oh,” McKay’s voice was thick with disappointment, pushing past her to look around more carefully. "Damn."

 

“Doesn’t look like they left anything behind,” Ronon confirmed, walking in past Teyla—who still stood on the threshold—and stalking down one wall of nearly empty shelves.  He picked up a couple of left behind objects, then put them down again.  Obviously nothing of note.

 

“Keep looking,” Sheppard ordered as he too walked inside past Teyla. “We could use any help we can get.  We’ve got maybe two clips left each that we got from Lorne’s team—it won’t be enough to kill the…how many Wraith were there?”

 

“At least eleven now,” Teyla said, moving out of the room and back into the hall.  "Six near the crashed dart, and five on the far side of the village."

 

"Right," Sheppard shifted past the disappointed looking McKay to get to some boxes on a far wall. "Maybe there's some ordinance at least...."

 

Teyla lowered her head for a moment, listening to them banging away inside, then turned to look down at the other doors.  Something felt odd, leaving a tingling along her spine, but she couldn't pinpoint what exactly.  It just...for the first time, she felt like they were intruding somehow....

 

Walking quietly down the corridor, she stopped at the door to the kitchen and waved her hand over the panel.

 

Nothing happened.

 

She frowned, and tried again.

 

Still nothing happened. 

 

The frown deepening on her face, she moved a little further and waved a hand over the panel for the mess hall.

 

Still nothing.

 

"Rodney?" she called, backing away. "Something is wrong with these doors."

 

"What?" he called back.

 

"I can not get the doors to the mess hall or kitchen to open," she answered.  She looked back towards the armory in time to see his head pop out.  He studied her for a second, as if questioning why she was even bothering, then curiosity overran reason and he came sauntering out, reaching her side quickly.

 

As she had done, he waved a hand over the panel to open the mess, but it didn't respond.  Emitting a "hunh" of interest, he pulled out his scanner and ran it over the door.

 

"There's power," he muttered to himself softly, "so...why isn't it working...?"  He tapped at the screen for a second, then waved it over the panel again.  "Oh."

 

"Oh?" she repeated.

 

"There's a lock," he informed her, tilting his head.

 

She frowned, "Why?"

 

"I don't know."  He frowned, put the scanner away, then dug his nails into the almost invisible seam around the panel.  With a grunt, he pulled it off...revealing a series of crystals.  He stared at it for a moment, then frowned. "Hang on...."

 

He pulled the scanner out again, then tapped something into the tiny screen. "Okay," he said, his tone still distracted, "I get it."

 

"What?" Teyla asked.

 

"The lock on the door is released using the same code I hacked to get to the black box.  Whatever is inside, they wanted it protected until someone came along who could..."  he trailed off, frowning.

 

"Who could...what?" she prompted.

 

"I don't know.  Finish whatever the crew started, before they had to evacuate?"

 

"But they never finished their mission," Teyla noted. "They never reached the Lantean space station."

 

"I know," McKay frowned, sighed, then hit some more buttons. A second later, he waved his hand over the panel again...and this time it opened.

 

And both people froze.

 

The mess hall...had been turned into a morgue.

 

"By the Ancestors," Teyla breathed, stepping forward to the threshold, her eyes trailing across the large, plain room. It was cool inside—apparently the cloak was not the only thing that had been left running when the ship was evacuated.  It also felt heavy in here, like someone was pressing down on her shoulders, forcing her to work a little harder to move forward.

 

"Well," McKay said softly after a moment, making no move to follow her inside, "now we know what happened to the crew that didn't survive the crash."

 

Every table had a sheet on it, and under every sheet was the unmistakable form of a body.  There were also bodies on the floor, and some on benches.  They had tags on them, presumably identification tags.  Atop each body, at about chest level, was a small glowing, blue object that reminded her of the personal shield device once used by Rodney...

 

"What are...?" she gestured at the device on the nearest body.

 

"They're devices to hold the bodies still, and to help preserve them...a little like a stasis field," Rodney answered, his tone morose.  "There were several found in the room next to the crematorium on Atlantis."  He swallowed, and lifted his hand to look down at his scanner. "It's amazing they're still running.  I'm sure they were never intended to last this long."

 

Teyla didn't respond, realizing it really didn't matter.

 

Moving into the room slowly, she walked slowly up to the first table, glancing at the outline of the face hidden by the white sheet, then to the tag on the chest, written in Athosian.  Her breath stilled in her chest as she saw the symbol above the words—a green triangle, in the center of which was an eight pointed star.  Licking her dry lips, she read the words below the symbol—the symbol of the Thermopylae.

 

Andrea Slocum, Engineer, died honorably in battle.  Survived by a husband, Belem, and two children, Deering and Duykfen.

 

She swallowed thickly, stepping over to the next table, and the next sheet covered body.

 

Halling Elhorria, Second Officer, died honorably in battle.  Survived by a wife, Ismay, and a son, Linton.

 

With a frown at the familiar first name, she moved on to the next.

 

Captain Leyda Emeras, Captain of the Thermopylae, died honorably in battle.  Survived by a husband, Thayer.

 

"Teyla," McKay called softly, and she could hear the worry in his voice. 

 

Teyla didn't answer, moving to the next table.  This one carried the mark of Atlantis on the tag instead of the white star, and, instead of Athosian, the tag was written in Ancient.

 

Donal Magay, Lantean Science Officer, Ship-Builder and co-creator of the Thermopylae.  Died honorably in battle. 

 

"Teyla," Rodney called again. "We need to get going."

 

She glanced back at him, lowered her gaze, and gave a small nod.  With a far more somber air than he had ever seen her carry, she walked quietly back to his side in the hallway.  He shut the door behind her.

 

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, watching her with concern.

 

Her brow furrowed slightly as she looked up at him. "For what?"

 

"Well," he grimaced, "I mean....they're...your people."

 

She gave a tiny smile, "It is not as if I knew them, Rodney."

 

"I know," he said, clearly struggling. "Just, you looked...you know...sad."

 

Her smile grew, "It is all right, Rodney.  I am fine."

 

"Hey, you two!" Sheppard said, grinning as he walked out from the armory and waving at them. "We found something which I'm pretty sure are grenades.  Meaning, we have some extra oomph!"

 

Teyla met his gaze, and Sheppard's grin faltered, aware that he must have just missed something.  When he frowned, opening his mouth to ask what the matter was, she cut him off with a raised hand.

 

"Shall we?" she asked, hefting the P90 in her hand.

_________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: DOWN TO THE WIRE

 

McKay followed Sheppard closely as they made their way through the thick forest, too tired to try to walk with any sort of stealth. Not that he could walk with stealth when he wasn't tired, especially not uphill, but it was the thought that counted.  As he trudged along, his eyes went back and forth between his feet and his hand held scanner, which was currently displaying sensor readings downloaded from the Thermopylae, providing the location of the Wraith. The signal connecting the two wasn't strong, and faded in and out, but McKay easily got it back again every time it dropped.

 

Ahead of them, Ronon did all the stealth for them, leading the way by a significant distance, following his senses, moving fluidly through the trees without a moment's hesitation. He seemed to know where he was going by instinct alone—McKay's hand signaled directions only seemed to confirm Ronon's direction rather than actually pointing him anywhere.  Made McKay wonder why he even bothered coming along. His control of the scanner was the only reason he was with them and not back fixing the ship, and right now he wasn't sure it was a good enough reason.

 

Teyla moved quietly behind, covering their six, also moving with almost no noise.  He glanced back at her, frowning a little at the coolness of her features.  She seemed even more distant than normal, which worried him.  He knew what they had seen in the ship's mess hall had affected her, despite her words, but he didn't really know why.  More to the point, he didn't know how to make it better.  

 

Next to him, Sheppard was fairly stealthy, though how he managed to be stealthy and 'laid back' at the same time was a mystery to Rodney.  It was also pure Sheppard.  He could tell that colonel was still angry with him—could see it in the way he held his head and fixed his jaw—but there wasn't anything he could do about that either.  As with Teyla, McKay couldn’t see any way to fix it.  But, different from Teyla...this time he knew it was his fault. Sheppard had put his faith in him...and once again, he'd failed.

 

And now they were trapped.

 

Because of him. 

 

Meaning, not only could his team die, but a whole lot of innocent people could be killed, culled...their planet destroyed.   Because of him.

 

Ironic, really.  He'd been so sure they were walking into a trap on this planet. Trap, trap, trap, he muttered in Sheppard's ear, almost as if he'd willed it into being. He had accused innocent people and his team of leading him into danger.  Turned out, the biggest danger on this planet...had been Rodney McKay.

 

And Sheppard's trust has been broken again.  Once was bad enough, and it had taken a long time to get it back again.  This time, though...this time...he didn't know if Sheppard would give him a third chance.

 

Christ, why had he argued back in the engine room?  He hadn't meant to.  He'd meant to let Sheppard yell, for the colonel to get it out of his system, knowing that Sheppard didn't really mean it, and would forget why he was angry pretty quickly, as the colonel always did.  But...instead, he had snapped right back.  Almost egging the colonel on, wanting Sheppard to know just how badly he'd screwed up.  Why couldn't he control his mouth?  Why did he always get so angry?  Probably because Sheppard hadn't started off yelling...he'd started off apologizing. It had thrown him off...

 

That and the thought that, if a Hive came now, they would have nowhere to hide.  They'd all die.  Captive and trapped. 

 

Trap, trap, trap.

 

He swallowed, looking around at the surroundings...and tripped on a root.  He returned his attention to his feet and the scanner.

 

Focus, McKay.

 

"Stay focused, McKay," Sheppard said in front of him, frostily, and Rodney shivered at the mental echo.

 

How was he going to make this better?

 

"We're almost to the crashed dart McKay and I were looking at earlier," Ronon informed them in a whisper, speaking over the radio instead of calling back to them.  Sheppard grunted acknowledgement, showing he understood with a thumbs up.  McKay looked down at the scanner again.

 

And then he stopped.

 

Sheppard stopped next to him, frowning.  Up ahead, Ronon stopped as well.

 

"What?" the colonel asked, moving closer to McKay. "Wraith?"

 

McKay didn't answer, just started fiddling with the scanner, narrowing its range and changing it's parameters slightly.  Something had flashed, briefly, in the near vicinity.  It had disappeared again almost immediately, but there had been something there.

 

"How far are we from the dart?" he asked finally, looking through the trees to Ronon who had sidled back into hearing range. 

 

"We're close," the Satedan replied, jerking his head in a certain direction and McKay looked that way as if he could see through the trees. "Less than a hundred yards," Ronon added.  McKay could easily see the frown on his face as the tall man moved closer. "I thought you said all the Wraith had moved on."

 

"They have, or at least," Rodney looked down at his scanner, "all the Wraith tech attached to a life sign has moved on.  At least...I thought that was the case...."

 

Sheppard pushed closer, looking down at the small device in McKay's hand. "What the hell does that mean?  Have you made a mistake?"  The again wasn't spoken, but McKay heard it anyway.

 

"No," McKay ground out, stifling his annoyance at the question.  He fiddled with the scanner some more, changing the parameters even more, and the light flashed again on the screen. "But...."  And then he understood. It was power.  "Oh my God."  Without even thinking, he bounced up onto his toes and started to run.  Ronon was immediately on alert, looking around, as if expecting to be attacked at any second...and McKay blew right past him, running straight for the faint red dot on the screen that he'd managed to strengthen.  It was so faint...

 

The others caught up quickly, easily, and Ronon soon understood McKay's intent...and ran ahead.

 

In seconds, they were at the crashed dart, and McKay was up on the wing, holding onto the damaged upper half and pointing the scanner at the buffer.

 

"There's still power here," he said breathlessly, panting heavily from the run.  He smiled dumbly when he saw Sheppard leaning to peer inside from the other side, the colonel's expression uncertain.  Teyla and Ronon circled the area, weapons raised and ready—everyone was on edge.

 

"Power?" Sheppard's eyebrows lifted, "But you said—"

 

"It's practically non-existent.  Almost like...like the echo of a shout, fading quickly.  But it's there.  The people inside this thing...they might still be saved."  McKay was breathing faster now, his eyes wide.  Sheppard stared at him, frowning.

 

"But—"

 

"I need to take the buffer out now, take it back to the Thermopylae, and—"

 

"McKay, no.  We need you and the scanner to help us pinpoint the—"

 

"I'll show you how to use it," Rodney insisted, already pushing himself up higher on the wing in order to slide into the damaged area. "It's easy.  It's just like using the life signs detector mode, just with a few extra filters."

 

Sheppard shook his head, "I don't want you on your own, McKay.  If you get attacked getting back to the ship, then none of us will ever get off this planet."

 

Rodney frowned, looking down at the buffer, then up again.  He understood—really he did.  Sheppard wanted him close to keep on an eye on him, with good reason.

 

But it wasn't enough to quell the need inside him to save the people trapped in this buffer.  If he could...he had to try.

 

He had to do something right today.  This was something he could fix!

 

"Please," he said. "Please let me do this."

 

"No," Sheppard said, backing away from the ruined ship.  Rodney watched him go. "Not this time, McKay.  There's no time. We can't risk it."

 

"I'll be okay," Rodney promised. "It'll—"

 

"I said no."

 

"Sheppard."

 

"I'm not saying it again, McKay."

 

Rodney stared at him, refusing to let up his gaze.  Sheppard had moved around the dart and was now standing at the base of the broken wing on which McKay was balanced.

 

"Let's go," the colonel stated.

 

McKay's jaw set.  "No."

 

"Damn it, Rodney," Sheppard hissed, stepping closer, "We don't have time for this."

 

"I know."  And with that, McKay grabbed at the edges of the dart and climbed into the wreckage—hissing a little when he cut his shin on a piece of jagged metal.  Just another cut.  He had enough of them—what was one more?

 

"McKay!"

 

But Rodney was already inside, crouched down in front of the damaged buffer, running the scanner over it.  He didn't look up, just found the power points and pulled out his knife. 

 

"What are you doing?" Ronon snapped in annoyance from somewhere out beyond the ship. "We need to go!"

 

"Let him work," Teyla hissed quietly in response.  There was a stiffness to her voice, one which seemed to quell any answer from the Satedan.

 

Sheppard just huffed in annoyance from somewhere near McKay's head.  He had obviously climbed up on the wing and was watching Rodney.

 

The scientist worked efficiently and ruthlessly, cutting cords and slicing through the dart's organic innards.  Finally, he turned and looked up at Sheppard.  As he suspected, the colonel was glaring down at him from a few feet away, crouched on the wing.  McKay looked down at the scanner he'd placed by his leg—he didn't need it anymore.  Lifting it up, he changed the settings on it back to where they had been before—connected to the Thermopylae's sensors—then looked up again at Sheppard.

 

"Catch," he said, tossing it.  The colonel caught it one handed and looked down at it. McKay cleared his throat, "It works in essentially the same way as when it is a life signs detector, but be aware that it isn't anywhere near as precise or accurate.  Fact is, it's picking up a lot of interference from all the tech on this world—ours included. So, anytime the screen seems to fade in and out on you, or loses specificity, or you think it's not taking correct readings, adjust it as if you were changing the settings for distance on the life signs detector.  Like I said, it's easy."

 

Sheppard grimaced.

 

"Take it and go," McKay said then. "I'll be fine.  We know where all the Wraith are and there's no darts to worry about anymore—I won't be in any danger going back to the Thermopylae alone."

 

"You can't be totally sure of that," the colonel said quietly.

 

"I'm ninety-nine percent sure," Rodney replied quickly, looking again at the buffer. "And these people don't have time anymore for us to argue about it.  You need to go and protect the Cutsarkians in the village, and I need to do something to save these trapped people."

 

"McKay," the colonel said firmly, his gaze still on the handheld, "If you don't climb out of there right now, I'll—"

 

"Damn it, Colonel, don't you get it?" Rodney stressed suddenly, gripping the edges of the buffer to pull it out. "I can save them!"  He stared up at Sheppard, willing him to understand. "Please! I can save them."

 

The hazel eyes lifted slowly from the scanner, focusing on the crouched scientist.

 

"I can save them," McKay repeated almost at a whisper. "Please."

 

Sheppard just met the other man's gaze, then shut his eyes, turning his head away.

 

"Please," McKay begged, one more time.  He didn't deserve it, he knew.  He didn't deserve the Colonel's trust that he could do this.  Didn't deserve a third chance.

 

But this wasn't about him anymore.  It was about the people inside the buffer.

 

"Colonel," he let out a shaking breath, "I can do this. You know I can.  I can save them.  Please...Trust me."

 

The colonel winced at the last two words and sucked in a tight breath....Then he was gone, out of sight of the scientist, having slid down the wing and away.

 

"Ronon, Teyla," the colonel called angrily, "Let's go."

 

"What?" Ronon asked. "What about...?"

 

"He's going to try to rescue the people in the buffer.  The rest of us have some Wraith to kill."

 

"But..." Ronon wasn't letting it go.

 

"That's an order, Ronon. We're moving. McKay!" Sheppard called back, "Radio contact!"

 

"Right!" McKay answered to the air. "Good luck!"

 

Sitting still within the dart wreckage, McKay listened as first one...then three sets of feet jogged away from his position.  He closed his eyes for a second, repressing the scared part of him that wanted to call them back, then opened them again, determination filling his frame.  He wasn't going to let anyone down this time.  Straightening, he gripped the edges of the slime covered buffer...and pulled it free of the dart.

___________________________________________________ 

 

Sheppard remained silent as he wove through the woods with Teyla and Ronon, his eyes shifting between McKay’s scanner in his hand and the surroundings, his mind mentally mapping the area for defensible and offensive positions.  They already had a few locations in mind to use near the village as attack points, if they could lure the Wraith to them, but, in case they couldn’t…it was good to have back ups.

 

The other two members of his team did not speak either, their attention focused completely on their surroundings, but the silence was not comfortable.  He felt tension from every member of his team, and it was not just related to the circumstances they found themselves in.  Fact was, though he knew where his own anger stemmed, he did not totally fathom what was going on inside the others' heads.

 

Up ahead, Ronon continued to control point, setting a swift pace that forced his teammates to move more quickly than they might have otherwise.  It was also much quicker than the pace they had kept when McKay was with them—one of the benefits to not having Rodney there, Sheppard knew.  They had a better chance now to stop the six or so Wraith they were tracking before the monsters reached the village.  Of course, that still left five Wraith unaccounted for—the ones near to the village already—but they would have to deal with that when they got back up there.

 

Teyla glided along behind, quieter than either of the two men.  Sheppard wasn’t deaf—he’d heard her solid support of McKay when Ronon had tried to hurry them up.  It hadn’t affected John’s decision to let McKay stay behind, but it hadn’t hurt either.  What was more interesting was the lack of rejoinder from Ronon.  It wasn’t like the Satedan to just give in when there were Wraith to hunt.  Teyla also didn’t always take Rodney’s side in arguments, at least not so pointedly…not that there were sides to this situation per se.

 

Unless they were the sides of a prism—multiple and uneven and confusing.

 

The ground tipped more steeply upwards, forcing them to hike more as they closed in on the plateau on which the village rested.  More trees were down up here, the wind harsher and colder.  Glancing up at the sun, Sheppard noted it had dropped down in the sky—it was about mid afternoon now.  It felt like forever since this morning, when he’d argued with McKay over whether or not this was a trap.

 

His jaw flexed, aware of the irony.  They had ended up trapped, not by the Cutsarkians, but by their own mistakes.  Mistakes he and his team seemed to have made in spades.  In baseball, they called them forced errors.  He understood the true meaning of that phrase all too well after two years in the Pegasus Galaxy.   Hell, he'd known the meaning of it after his first tour in Afghanistan.

 

Repressing a sigh, he looked down again at the scanner, and frowned to find that the screen was showing far too many dots—interference clouding the link to the Thermopylae’s sensors.  Shaking it a little, he was forced to take his other hand off his weapon to try and adjust it, something he hated doing. Even so, as he played with the device, the screen flickered but didn’t improve.

 

“It’s easy,” he sneered, repeating McKay’s words from earlier.  He snorted, wishing McKay’s ‘easy’ was the same as his ‘easy.’  He wasn’t an idiot—hell, he actually knew himself to be pretty above average in the smarts department—but he wasn’t McKay either.  Not many people were. 

 

“Has it stopped working?” Teyla asked quietly, rolling up alongside and glancing at him.

 

“No,” Sheppard frowned, “It’s still working, just not properly.  I tried to adjust it but—“

 

“We have to keep moving,” Ronon snarled from up ahead. “We don’t have time to waste.”

 

Sheppard looked up, then down again at the scanner.  With a sigh of disappointment, he called up the menu and switched it back to a life signs detector.  Three dots on the screen…and a handful in the near distance, about where he had last seen the dots depicting Wraith tech.  The range was suddenly much shallower, and the information less precise, but it wasn’t as if they hadn’t been this blind before.  And, if those dots were the Wraith…

 

They were close.

 

He held up a hand, stopping Ronon from moving forward, and jogged up to the tall man’s side, Teyla on his heels.

 

“Way I read this,” he said softly, holding up the scanner, “they’re only about fifty yards ahead.  They’re still together in a clump, and still headed towards the village.  With McKay out of the picture, our best bet is the gauntlet movement similar to what we executed on P3L-211. Probably safer than the pincer. Ronon, you up to it?”

 

The Satedan smiled nastily. 

 

That answered that question.

 

“Okay then,” Sheppard nodded, “let’s do this.”

 

“Are we certain,” Teyla asked quietly, “that the other five Wraith are not close enough by to ruin the affect of the gauntlet?”

 

Sheppard shook his head. “No.  But if they are…we’ll be more protected than with a pincer.”

 

Her eyebrows arched, but she nodded.  There wasn’t much choice in the matter, and she knew it. Again, Rodney would have been the one to provide that warning or information regarding the other Wraith, but he wasn’t here…

 

Because Sheppard had let him stay where he was, trying to save people…that probably couldn’t be saved. 

 

Sheppard just hoped he hadn’t made yet another mistake by doing so. 

___________________________________________

 

It was quick and furious.  Ronon was the bait, running in front of the Wraith like the perfect decoy, firing on them, getting all six to follow.  The group had included one Wraith male and five drones, and the drones didn’t even pause, tearing after the Satedan like stray cats after a fat mouse. 

 

Ronon ran through a shallow hollow, with boulders on both sides, and then dove to the side, into a shallow divot.  The Wraith ran through the hollow after him…and Sheppard and Teyla popped out from behind the boulders to mow them down.

 

It was effective and quick.  Even the Wraith male, usually the one to hold back, had run hungrily in the wake of Ronon’s decoy.  They must have been desperate for food.

 

When the six were down, Teyla and Sheppard tossed a couple of the grenades from the Thermopylae into the mix of still moving bodies…then ran uphill towards the village as fast as they could, not knowing what the blast radius would be.  Barely four seconds passed before the whole hillside reverberated with the explosion, sending up a massive puff of fire into the air that quickly dispelled into smoke.

 

Falling into the suddenly much steeper hillside—they were close to the village now—Sheppard coughed a little at the smoke and pulled out the scanner…and found it was once more on the fritz.  Whatever McKay had done to tie it into the ship's sensors was now fouling with its mainframe—even the LSD function was down.  Grimacing, he stuffed it back in his pocket and pushed himself up off the incline, trying to see through the smoke....

 

Surely, nothing could have survived that.

 

“We still have at least five others to deal with,” Teyla reminded him as she stood up next to him, looking up the hill to where the trees thinned out.  They were practically on top of the village now, and they no longer had an effective means to locate the other Wraith.  An hour before, five red dots had glowed on the far side of the village, probably waiting for their brethren to join them.  They could only assume they were still there. But if they weren't....

 

Sheppard considered for a moment, then tapped his radio. “McKay?”

 

Yes?” There was no hesitation, as if the scientist had been waiting for it.

 

“Where are you?”

 

Back on the ship.  I’m in the mess, trying to hook up the buffer to the power source. I'm nearly done. That boom…That was you, right?  Are you all okay?”

 

“It was us.  We’ve taken care of the Wraith down below, but the scanner isn’t working anymore.  We don’t know where the other Wraith are.  Can you help?”

 

There was a pause, then, “Yeah.  I’ve almost got this—I just need a minute more.  Can you wait a couple of minutes?”

 

Sheppard’s eyes pinched. “I don’t know.  Because, shockingly, I don’t know where the other Wraith are.  Gee, if only someone with access to a ship's sensors could help me with that...”

 

There was silence in response to the obvious mocking tone of the colonel, then, “Let me get up there.”

 

Teyla was still peering in the direction of the village.  Ronon was up and prowling, his eyes looking down towards the basin where they’d just set off the grenades, still trying to see through the overwhelming amount of smoke.

 

Okay,” Rodney was panting now, having obviously run up the steps from the lower level, “I’m here.  Calling up the sensors to check the village and…  He trailed off with a sharp hiss.

 

“And?”

 

They’re in the village.  They’re surrounded by blue life signs…that are disappearing. Sheppard, you weren't kidding. I...I think they’re feeding.”

 

“GO!” Sheppard shouted, turning and running up the hill.  He hadn’t needed the prompt—Teyla and Ronon were already moving.

____________________________________________

 

McKay stared at the sensors on the Thermopylae, hands gripping the console tightly.  He wanted to be there, to know that the others were okay.  He should have stayed, been there with them.  He'd kept hoping it wasn't as bad as it was, that the Cutsarkians weren't in as much danger from only a handful of Wraith, but zooming in on the village...

 

Watching those dots blink out one by one...

 

Oh God.

 

 

He swallowed, remembering how just one Wraith—Bob, as Sheppard had called him—had taken down an entire team of armed and guided marines led by Sheppard with just one stunner.  If Teyla hadn't shown up a few seconds later with another team...

 

His eyes followed the three blue dots running towards the village, frowning at his inability to do anything but watch.  What could he really do?

 

He closed his eyes, then opened them again. 

 

He had to get that buffer hooked up in that macabre room.  Just two more minutes, and then back up here. 

 

Turning, he jogged back out of the room and down the stairs.

 

On the screen, a single red dot reappeared just south of the location Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon had just left...and then another....

 

————————————————————————————

 

Elizabeth crossed her arms tightly over her chest, fingers digging into bare skin above her elbows, staring up into the sky as the Daedalus lifted from its dock and shifted around, angling itself up towards the night sky over Atlantis.  Its engines flared blue, and she shielded her eyes against the bright light as the ship rocketed away, disappearing into the darkness until it was just another shooting star inside the black firmament.

 

Caldwell hadn't even questioned.  The ship had landed just long enough for the bulk of the passengers to disembark. Then it was back in the air with Beckett and Lorne and a full contingent of Atlantis' finest on board to back up the Daedalus crew.

 

It was an eight hour journey to Cutsarkia.  She just hoped they wouldn't be too late.

 

 

————————————————————————

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE CLIFF

 

It was like stumbling in on a massacre.  The Wraith had stunned entire groups of people, leaving piles of them on the ground like so much driftwood.  Only a handful were the desiccated husks they'd been fearing, but it was enough to set their teeth on edge. Sheppard's eyes hardened as he stepped over a collection of bones inside flapping cloth, the fabric blown by the cold wind cutting through the heart of the village.  It could be his imagination, but it felt like it really was getting colder—like winter was coming early up here.

 

As they moved, the three Atlantians did their best to stay hidden, using the buildings for cover, but, fact was, there wasn't anywhere good to hide.  When the Wraith had come initially, the villagers scattered to the woods, and with good reason—the village was open where it rested on the plateau, halfway up from the valley floor and under the shadow of the large granite mountain.  Three sides were ringed by trees, and one side was open to the valley, long slabs of smooth granite stone that fell away, almost all the way to the wheat colored grasses of the valley.  It was easy pickings for a dart.

 

If they hadn't asked the villagers to evacuate, they would not have returned to the village to be caught like this by the remaining Wraith, like lambs to the slaughter.

 

Something more for the Atlantians to be proud of, Sheppard thought grimly as he spotted another pile of bones off to the right. 

 

Ronon led the way, sliding in and out of the "alleys" between the ramshackle wooden huts and cabins, the structures reminiscent of the temporary structures of an old west town.  Surprise was obviously their best advantage, although the Wraith couldn't be stupid—they had to know the Atlantians were coming.  The problem with these Wraith is that they were now hopped up on their kills—the superhuman aspects of the creatures would be at their peak, making them not only harder to kill but stronger, faster and able to do those impossible jumps they did...

 

Sidling up along one of the more substantial buildings in the town, Ronon stuck his head out from the corner to look at the main street, then back again. 

 

"There are three up ahead, one male, two drones," he informed quietly. "They seem to be moving around the unconscious villagers, inspecting them for some reason."

 

"Making sure they're asleep," Sheppard spat, "for when the Hive comes to get them."

 

"Where are the other two?" Teyla asked softly. "There were five on the sensor screens."

 

Sheppard frowned, then hit his radio.  "Rodney?"

 

"Hang on."

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow at that response. "I can't hang on, Rodney," he snarled into the radio, "because I'm surrounded by bodies and Wraith, as you should plainly see on the screen.  Tell us where the Wraith are."

 

"I can't, I'm not in the control room. Hence, 'hang on.'"

 

Sheppard's eyes widened, "You mean...McKay! I thought you were watching our backs?!"

 

"I didn't think you'd be so quick! I can't do everything!" came the whined reply. "I had to finish hooking up the—"

 

"Look out!" Ronon shouted, shoving Sheppard forward hard into the dirt ground, as a stunner blast slammed into the side of the wooden wall they'd been crouched next to.  Teyla was already firing, diving behind some boxes...her aim focused behind them into the woods.  Ronon leaned away from Sheppard, firing in the direction of the street.

 

"Hell!"  Sheppard swore, pushing up against the wall again and trying to stay low. They'd been boxed in! "Rodney! I need information!  They've got us pinned down!"

 

"What?  Already? How did you manage that?"  He heard Rodney running, then, "Where are you?"

 

"Damn it," Ronon hissed, suddenly pulling his weapon back.  "Sheppard...we need another way out of here!"

 

"What? Why?"

 

"The three Wraith in the village...they're using the villagers as human shields.  I can't fire on them."

 

"They were waiting for us," Teyla spat over the powerful noise of her weapon. "We walked into a trap!"

 

Sheppard hissed a swear, looking to the left and right down the narrow alley they were trapped in, then looked forward at the building directly opposite.  With a growl, he shot out the window.  Ronon, understanding the intent, added a blast for good measure, and then Sheppard leapt from the ground and ran forward, trusting Teyla to cover him, and dived into the building...into a wooden slatted kitchen, complete with a half eaten meal.  Leaning out of the shattered window, he started firing in the same direction as Teyla...and she and Ronon jumped through the window after him a moment later.

 

Ronon immediately ran into the next room—the front parlor, for lack of a better term—and jumped onto the ladder in the middle of it that lead to a loft.  Teyla blew past him to the front door of the house and looked outside.  Shaking her head at Sheppard because of what she saw there, she went through another door into another room of the house, to find a different exit.

 

"MCKAY!" Sheppard hissed, jogging to the front to see what Teyla had seen, and grimacing at the sight of two Wraith holding unconscious humans to their chests like ragdolls as they stalked the building.  One of the hostages was Innis. "We're trapped like rats here!  Give me something!"  He ran back through the kitchen and into a back pantry like room, which led to a backdoor.  There was a Wraith peering in through the glass, reaching for the knob.  Without pause, Sheppard started firing through the glass, driving it backwards.  He heard Teyla firing from somewhere else, probably from the front door—she must not have found another way out.

 

"But I don't know where you are!" McKay argued plaintively.

 

"I know!  And had you been watching our back, you would know which ones were us.  Damn it, Rodney!"

 

"I'm sorry!" It was more defensive than apologetic—pure Rodney.

 

"Look, we're obviously going to be the only three blue dots that are moving, with Wraith closing in on them, so look for that!"  The Wraith he'd shot at had ducked and gotten behind a shed, and Sheppard took advantage of the moment to return to the front.  Teyla was waiting for him.  She indicated with a jerk of her head for him to follow her, and she ran through the door into the room she'd been in before....and shattered another window identical to the one that had gotten them in here.

 

"Right, right...are you together?"

 

Sheppard had jumped through the window after Teyla, and looked vaguely up at the roof, realizing he actually wasn't sure where Ronon had gone.  Had he found a way out of the loft?

 

"No," he said, returning his attention to his own predicament. "Ronon's on his own.  And Teyla's splitting off from me now."  As he spoke, he pointed her into the next building.  This one had a side door.  She nodded understanding and went inside.  He followed her, pointed her towards the back, then went to the front.

 

"Give me a moment.  Keep moving. Where are you, approximately?"

 

"West side of the village, in one of the houses."

 

"Right, right...just keep moving...."

 

"Just keep moving," Sheppard sneered mockingly, diving out the front door to get behind a water trough on the front porch of the building.  He spotted the two Wraith again, still dragging humans with them, and saw they had been about to enter the house he and Teyla had just left.  Where was the third?  Wasn't there a third?

 

"Okay, I've got you and I'm thinking that's got to be Ronon over there... Is Teyla not moving?  Oh no...is she..."

 

"I am fine, Rodney," Teyla informed him tersely. "I am moving...now."

 

Sheppard fired at the two Wraith, catching them in the back as they leaned into the house, their overconfidence finally giving him something to shoot at, and then ran across the wide main street, wanting to get some distance between him, Teyla and Ronon.  Stunner fire arced overhead, but nothing hit him as he dove into a new hut.

 

"Yes, I see you, I think, which means....Teyla, on your left!"

 

Machine gun fire exploded from somewhere and Sheppard glanced over his shoulder down the street. Stumbling out of an alleyway, he saw a drone being forced back, bullets exploding against his chest in a ray of sparks.  Smiling grimly, Sheppard went to a side door and into an alley, then into the next house over by another side door.

 

"Ronon...if you can hear me, there's at least one Wraith near you in the direction you're heading and...oh...apparently you killed that one."

 

"I know!" Ronon snapped over the line. "Help Sheppard!"

 

The colonel tried not to smile, he really did, but the grin was on his face as he ducked out the door and into the main square of the village, getting behind another water trough.  Tucking himself down, he checked his P90.  It was low.  Damn.

 

"McKay?" He considered inching up to look over the top of the trough. "Any advice?"

 

"There are three near you. One is coming up behind you, and two are to your left.  Can you see them?"

 

Sheppard arched an eyebrow, thinking that, if he could see them, he'd probably be unconscious right now.  The one coming up behind must be the male they'd spotted earlier, and the other two the drones he'd just fired at the backs of, the ones with the hostages.

 

"Hang on!  They're...the two on your left are moving away from you...."

 

"Which way?"

 

"To the far side of the village.  I don't...wasn't there just an open faced cliff there?  Where are they going?"

 

"I don't care," Ronon suddenly hissed, "So long as we can box them in!"

 

Sheppard frowned—it did seem odd.... 

 

A floorboard creaked by him, and he turned in time to see the Wraith male pop its head out the door of the building he'd just come out of.  Firing, he pulled another of the grenades from the Thermopylae and tossed it inside after the retreating male.  Then he jumped out from behind the water trough and into the street again, trusting McKay's reading of the sensors that the other two Wraith had moved on. 

 

Diving onto the ground in the middle of the street, nearly tripping over a few of the villagers, he turned in time to see the building explode outwards.

 

Gotcha.  He smiled grimly.

 

"I think you killed the one coming up behind you, Colonel," McKay told him. "Unless you just knocked it out."

 

"Thanks," he sneered, looking at the smoking husk of the structure.  "I'm pretty sure it's dead."

 

"You're welcome," McKay sneered back.  For some reason, Sheppard found himself smiling at the tone. 

 

Jumping to his feet again, he started jogging towards the far side of the village.  If he was right, the two Wraith running from the village towards the cliff were the last two Wraith on the ground.  He'd just killed one; Ronon had 'apparently' killed one (according to Rodney); and he was pretty sure Teyla had finished off the drone whose chest she was perforating...

 

Jumping over more sleeping bodies, he heard running steps coming up behind and didn't have to look to know they belonged to Ronon.  He was getting very good at 'hearing' his teammates footfalls.  Teyla was probably not far behind him...ah yes, there she was...

 

This end of the village opened up against a granite cliff face.  It wasn't completely vertical, but it was treeless, long slabs of granite rock falling away from the plateau edge for a good twenty to thirty feet before running up into trees again.  Not far below the tree line, the ground opened up to the wheat-like grass covered lowlands where they'd found the Thermopylae. 

 

The wind cut up with a roar, and Sheppard found his outer senses becoming dulled as he ran, while the inner beating of his heart seemed to get louder and louder.

___________________________________________

 

Rodney stared at the screen, still leaning forward over the console, watching the only three moving blue dots heading swiftly towards the far side of the village.  He frowned a little, noting the two red dots heading down and away from the plateau, aiming for a steep, granite cliff face which, if they threw themselves down it, would land them down in the valley below absurdly quickly.  He considered the near indestructible nature of the Wraith, their insect like ability to drop from enormous heights, and guessed that this was the plan.  They would get away easily. 

 

He tapped his radio, considering telling Sheppard this (if he didn’t guess already), when his eyes were drawn to a different part of the screen.  The map had shifted based on his interest in his team, his hands pushing it to its extremes in order to get as close to his team as possible, but…

 

Gritting his teeth a little, he backed off, taking his eyes off his team for a second, and scrolled back into the village proper.

 

Three red dots.

 

For a moment, he didn’t breathe.  Villagers?  Did they wake up and pick up the stunners?  The red dots were just life signs overlaid with Wraith tech, it didn’t necessarily mean they were Wraith and surely…

 

Surely he had seen Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon extinguish three Wraith in the village.  He was sure he had. 

 

But the Wraith could also mask their life signs—when they were hibernating…or playing dead.

 

Reaching up, he tapped his radio, “Sheppard.”

 

A moment went by, then Sheppard, breathing heavily over the line, responded with a curt, “What?”

 

“The sensors say there are still…that there are life signs in the village using Wraith tech.”

 

What?”

 

“There…they could just be villagers. Waking up. But…but they could also be Wraith.  I can’t tell.  Are you sure you killed all the other Wraith?  Totally sure?”

 

There was a pause, then, “Look, right now we have to get the two that are getting away.  Soon as we do that, we’ll head back to the village.”

 

“Um…”

 

Just tell us if it looks like anyone is following us, Wraith or not, okay?”

 

“Okay.” 

 

Leaning back, McKay watched the red dots in the village, then scrolled back up to watch the chase.  He was getting close to the edge of the ship's sensor range.  If those Wraith went off the cliff, he wouldn't be able to follow them either.  Hopefully, Sheppard would stop them before that happened.

_______________________________________________

 

Ronon sprinted past Sheppard on the right, running to get around the Wraith they were chasing, and Teyla disappeared to his left, cutting down through the trees to get below the first shelf of the granite falls.

 

That left him alone as he skidding up to the cliff area, his eyes focused on the two Wraith dead ahead.  They were almost to the edge.

 

“Stop!” he yelled.

 

As two stunner blasts nearly took his head off, he wondered why he’d shouted.  Diving to the ground, he started firing.

 

Red light blasted from the right, as Ronon joined his attack from that direction.  Teyla’s P90 blended in a minute later, and Sheppard stayed on the ground, firing up at the two Wraith…

 

Who ignored it all as they jumped off the edge.

 

“Damn it.”  The colonel jumped back to his feet, running closer to the edge.  Ronon fired again, his shot aimed down as he appeared from out the trees to the right, aiming down the rock face.  Teyla appeared on his left, her gun also pointing down.

 

Sheppard stopped several feet from the edge…then moved forward more carefully.

 

With Teyla and Ronon flanking him on two sides, he peeked over the edge.

 

And got hit with a stunner blast, right in the face.

________________________________________

 

“Colonel!” Teyla jumped forward, but she wasn’t fast enough to stop Sheppard’s slow topple off the edge, the colonel falling face forward off the granite. She heard Ronon’s shout at the same time as the Satedan fired two blood-tinged blasts into the space, but it wasn’t until she was standing almost where Sheppard had been that she saw what had happened.

The two Wraith had jumped down to a ledge, one which allowed them access off the cliff face back to the woods about a dozen feet down, and had obviously just been waiting for the Atlantians to simply look over the edge--and they'd hit the Colonel dead on.

Ronon's blasts had hit one of the Wraith--Sheppard fell right into the muscular drone, sending them both careening off the edge…and out of sight.

“No!” she yelled, reaching out a hand as if she could somehow have stopped it from happening, stopped Sheppard from falling even further. And to fall into a Wraith…

Backing off from the edge, she turned in time to see Ronon firing at the other Wraith on the ledge below, missing the large creature as it literally leapt ten feet to another ledge, and then again…getting away. McKay was shouting in her ear at the same time, wanting to know what was happening, but she didn’t know how to respond, didn’t know how to tell him…

Her breath caught as she looked to the Satedan’s stricken face when he finally stopped firing…then screamed against his groan of agony as she watching him hit from behind by a stunner, collapsing to the ground.

Whipping around to face the village, P90 raised to fire, Teyla never even got a shot off as she too was taken down by a stunner blast, collapsing in a heap on top of the cliff.

________________________________________

 

Rodney couldn’t understand what was happening.  The sensors had shown three blue dots moving quickly, then the middle one moving too quickly—much, much too quickly—hitting one of the red dots and then disappearing off the sensor grid.  He heard Teyla’s yell for the colonel, and his heart froze in his chest. 

 

“No,” he hissed, then, tapping his radio, started yelling, “Teyla! Ronon!  What just happened? Was that Sheppard?  He's outside my sensor range! What happened? Teyla!  Ronon!  Answer me!  Teyla!”

 

Panning backwards, trying to broaden the sensor range, he froze to see the three red dots outflank the two blue dots now unmoving on the far side of the village.

 

"Teyla," he called, his voice softer now, "Ronon...please...answer me...Teyla! Teyla, please!  There are more Wraith coming! You have to move!  Teyla!"  He stared down at the console, wishing for more power, more specificity, more information.  He fought with the controls, trying to expand the sensors.  "Sheppard," he whispered. "Sheppard....Please, answer. Please..." He closed his eyes, seeing that blue dot disappear again off the grid in his imagination. "Tell me you're not dead," he begged.  His hands curled uselessly over the console.  There was nothing he could do.  "Teyla, Ronon, please answer."

 

When he looked up again, he saw that the red dots were on top of the two stationary blue.

 

Then jumped a mile as a new, terrible voice echoed over his comm.

 

"Human," the Wraith growled over the radio wave, "you will pay for what you have done."

_______________________________________

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: FALLING DOWN

 

The male Wraith knelt by Teyla, pulling the earpiece off her ear, hearing the chatter from the scared sounding human on the other end.  It was the human, he guessed, on the silver ship.

 

"Human," he growled, "you will pay for what you have done."

 

There was a startled squeak over the line, and the Wraith sneered. 

 

"What?" the human asked, a high pitch to his voice. "What I did?  What did I do?"

 

The Wraith's sneer grew.  They were all such feeble creatures, but this one sounded pitiful even by human standards.  He would take pleasure crushing him when the time came.

 

"Do not attempt prevarication with me, Human.  You and your Atlantian friends—and yes, I recognize the uniform on this female—flew that ship and killed many of my kind.  Do you think us fools?"  As he spoke, he spat out some black blood from his mouth, the liquid landing just inches from Teyla's slack face.

 

"I...no...of course not. I...oh God, are they okay? Please don't hurt them."

 

The Wraith's black eyes narrowed, focusing on the smooth skin of the female human before him.  Reaching a hand out, he ran the edge of his nail down the side of her face, feeling the warmth burning from her.  Humans were always so hot.

 

Forcing back the urge to feed, he stood up and looked around, catching the attention of the other Wraith with him.  There were only five of them left now.  Another male, like himself, and three soldiers.  The humans thought they had killed him and two of the soldiers down below, with that grenade, but the same rocks that had provided the humans protection in that gauntlet maneuver had protected the Wraith as well--that and the bodies of the Wraith that had not survived the ambush.  The other male with them had survived the attack in the village--he had merely been stunned by the grenade the now dead Atlantian had thrown.  The last soldier was the one that had led the three Atlantians into this trap. 

 

Only five left of the nearly thirty that had been sent to cull this planet.  After they'd lost so many in the battle with that other Hive....

 

Oh yes, the humans would pay for this!

 

He nodded at the other male, but asserted his superiority by virtue of age and experience.  The other male, still young, with only two lines in his tattoo, nodded acceptance.  That established, the older male turned his attention to the radio again when the human on the other side started talking like an impatient child.

 

"Hello? Did you hear what I said? Please don't hurt them! What are you doing? My teammates, are they—"

 

"Shut up, Human." He sighed, feeling sickened over what he was about to say. "One of your teammates is dead, yes, but the other two are alive and unharmed." He looked over at the tall, hairy human, then back to the smaller one in front of him. "They are my prisoners.  I could feed on them, and on everyone in this pathetic little village, but...."  He trailed off, looking off into the distance.

 

He heard the human on the other side of the radio suck in a breath. "But?"

 

"I want to get off this planet more.  You have a ship that can fly.  I assume it can fly into space.  It has rocket capabilities."

 

"It...it...What?"

 

"Fly us off this planet, Human, and we will spare the villagers."

 

"Fly you off this...but why do you need my ship?  Don't you have your own?"

 

The Wraith arched an eyebrow.  How dare he argue!  "You destroyed those, Human.  And I warn you not to remind me again!"

 

"I don't mean the darts!  I mean your Hive!  Surely your Hive could come and—"

 

"Enough!"  The Wraith shook his head—he had never come across a human so contrary! "Our Hive is damaged.  We came here for food, to sustain us while it is being repaired.  We have no other way to leave this place because of you. Your ship will fly us off this planet!"

 

"I...it can't."

 

"You lie! I saw your ship's engines! It was made for space flight!"

 

"Yes, it was.  But it's damaged. Did you not see the huge hole in the hull, or the additional damage your—"

 

"I saw, Human.  You will fix it.  You will fix it and fly us off this planet.  You have a cloak. If you have a cloak, you have a shield that can seal those holes."

 

"But, you don't understand. I can't!  There isn't enough power. It's not like I can just whittle an energy core from—"

 

"You will stop speaking now!" the Wraith spat, anger filling its voice. "Do not lie to me again, Human!  You will fix that ship!"

 

"I...but, I—"

 

"We will be at the clearing where the ship is in half a turn, Human.  Decloak the ship and let us on board.  You will then fly us out of here.  If you do not, your friends will die in front of you, and it will not be quick."

__________________________________________________

 

Rodney closed his eyes, hearing the click as the radio was turned off, preventing him from attempting to say anything else to stop this from happening.

 

But what could he do?

 

He dragged a hand over his face, covering his mouth as he opened his eyes again, blowing out a held breath between his fingers.

 

Sheppard...was dead.  Teyla and Ronon were alive, but not for long if he didn't acquiesce to the Wraith's demands.  And the villagers?  Innis, Fallen, and all their people still alive?  What of them?  Would the Wraith really leave them alone?

 

What was he going to do?

 

He released another breath, this one shallower.  His jaw trembled, his hand started to shake, his eyes started to fill... 

 

Was Sheppard really dead? 

 

He leaned over hard across the console, suddenly feeling completely paralyzed.  Everything seemed to go still, both inside and out.  His hands, his heart, his lungs, his mind....

 

Not like this.  Not like this! 

 

He shut his eyes again, then opened them again.  They moved around the room, but his mind wasn't making sense of what he was seeing.  Nothing was making sense! 

 

They had been so close!  They'd killed so many Wraith, taken down four darts, gotten the injured home, and just a handful of Wraith left...how did this happen?

 

And now...and now....

 

He was so sure...he was so sure they'd do it.  They always did it. Sheppard always saved the day—it's what he did! Sheppard always fixed his mistakes, always pulled off the miracle, always!  Sure, sure, it was skin of their teeth sometimes, but...

 

Oh God.

 

Dead?  He couldn't be dead.  He just couldn't!

 

He stared at the consoles, panels and walls in the control room, trying to find something, anything, that would tell him what to do. 

 

But nothing did. 

 

Sheppard....would be yelling at him right now.  He'd be shouting, demanding Rodney come up with the goods, figure out the solution, solve the problem.  And he would. 

 

But without Sheppard here...

 

No. 

 

No, God damn it.  He wouldn't accept this.  Because Sheppard wouldn't accept this.  Wouldn't allow him to give up.  Not now.  Not ever.  Sheppard would yell and scream and berate and bully and push him until he got found a way.

 

And he wouldn't stop listening to his best friend now.  Especially not now.

 

His eyes fell to the Athosian language, the character heavy script lining so many parts of this ship.  At the same time, the sun streaming through the windows seemed to light up certain words, making them almost glow in his sight.  He could not read Teyla's language, other than recognizing the odd word here or there, but he knew the one word that seemed to glow brighter than all the rest on the panels before him.

 

Power. 

 

His jaw closed, and the blue eyes lifted, no longer seeing the room around him, but the plan forming in his head.  The thin lips set in an angry line, accentuating the unevenness of his features—it was the look he got whenever he was pushed past his limits, but refused to give in. Not while he could still move and had something at which to channel his anger. 

 

Right now, the Wraith believed that they had the power in this equation. 

 

He was just going to have to show them how wrong they were. 

 

"Half a turn," he whispered, guessing that to mean about half an hour of time.  Nodding, he turned and bolted out of the control room, heading towards the engine room at the other end of the ship.  He would have to be ready before they got here....

_______________________________________________

 

Pain.

 

It wasn't the most pleasant sensation to wake up to.  Whether it was that crick in the neck from sleeping awkwardly on the pillow, or waking up with something banging away at the inside of your skull after a long night with Jack Daniel's, or the result of something more deadly, it was something no one enjoyed.

 

And yet, it seemed to be the norm when stationed in the Pegasus Galaxy.

 

So, Sheppard thought, the next question was, why was he in pain this time?

 

Annoyingly, at this moment...he had no idea.

 

Trying to stay still as shooting barbs of agony spiked through his body at every slight movement, he attempted to recall where he was.

 

The air was cool as it brushed across his face, ruffling his hair and nipping at his ears and nose, probably bruising them red.  Drawing in a deeper breath, he realized it smelled like winter, and Atlantis didn't do winter.  He was off-world.  Listening now, he heard the wind whispering through trees—the shush of swaying leaves and branches, combined with the distinctive scent of dead leaves and pine, telling him he was near a forest. The cold rocky ground beneath him was unyielding and slanted, as if he were lying on a slab of granite, spread eagled like Prometheus on the rock.  It felt like the side of a mountain...

 

And the first pinprick of fear nestled inside his chest.  Prometheus had been bound, to be fed upon by the eagle, which came to eat out his liver.  And it suddenly seemed incredibly important to move...so that he wouldn't be eaten.

 

But not by an eagle.

 

Fear was a powerful motivator—it intermingled with the pain in his limbs, his back, his bones, and dominated all of it, forcing the pain to the back of his conscious mind.

 

Slowly, hazel eyes opened, their vision blurred.  Blinking, and finally awake enough to lift his hand to rub at them, he managed to gain some clarity.

 

He was lying on a rock, on his back, angled almost forty five degrees towards the sky.  He was on the side of a hill, or mountain, looking out at a green and yellow valley.  Below him, there were trees, and beyond that, a golden valley floor that seemed to stretch on forever.  For some reason, it reminded him of New Hampshire.  He'd hiked the White Mountains with his father when he was a kid, when the older man had been stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base.  He couldn't have been more than seven or eight, but he still remembered climbing up those granite mountains with his dad, standing in the ridges and opening his arms wide, letting the cool air try to blow him down, and grinning proudly when it didn't.

 

Then, they'd lie down on the granite slabs like this one, soaking up the sun for a long time before finally getting up to climb back down the mountain, back to reality, to civilization, to his father once more forgetting John was even there....

 

He grunted and, shaking off some seriousness dizziness, managed to lift his upper body up onto his elbows, wincing as pain radiated down his back.  Bruised? Strained?  Probably both. 

 

Blinking slowly, his eyes rolling a little, he forced himself to focus on his legs.  For some reason, he hadn't managed to get them to move yet.  Resting on his elbows now, he stared down at his right foot, eyes narrowing when it still didn't twitch.  For a long moment, he just glared, demanding a response.  And finally...

 

There.

 

His right foot moved.  Sluggishly.  Pain roared up his back again, and he hissed at the sweeping belt of agony.  Breathing through it, he looked to his left leg, which was bent, foot trapped partially under the right leg, and at an ugly angle, and he tried to do the same thing—get it to move. 

 

He became aware of a different kind of pain then, this one throbbing and deep, originating from the limb and climbing up through his body to a point right behind his eyes.  The harder he fought, the more intense it became, until it started to overwhelm his senses, bringing blackness to his vision as he concentrated on just getting his left leg to shift.  His eyes started to close, the wind faded to the background...

 

And then something growled. It was dark and low and menacing, like a storm threatening on the horizon.

 

Sheppard's attention came back to his surroundings instantly, training overcoming all else, and he turned his head, ignoring the spike of pain that the motion brought.

 

He had to turn more, finally pushing himself into more of a sitting position, in order to see that, on the same slab of rock about two feet above him...was a Wraith soldier.

 

A Wraith soldier that was waking up.

 

It suddenly occurred to John why he wasn't dead.  He'd obviously fallen to this point, and it should have killed him.  Unless...the Wraith had to have hit first, and he'd landed on top of the Wraith, then slipped off.  It was the only explanation.

 

Fear growing stronger in his breast, he looked around frantically for a weapon...and spotted his P90 about ten feet away, tucked in between this rock they were lying on and the next one down. 

 

Trying not to groan too loudly, he pulled himself around—not trusting his still seemingly unresponsive legs—and tried to slide down to the weapon.  But the rock was not smooth—it caught at his clothes, preventing him from moving easily. 

 

The Wraith soldier growled more, and John doubled his efforts, pulling himself along...just a few more feet...just a few more....

 

Suddenly, the "sticky" rock seemed to let him go and he fell into the gap where his P90 was, crying out in agony as his back lit on fire from the impact.  The growl grew more insistent, and John, fighting back tears of pain, blinked back up at the rock face above him.  The Wraith soldier was rousing, pushing himself up off the rock. 

 

Slapping around for the machine gun, Sheppard's fingers curled around the cool metal and brought it around.  A quick glance showed the magazine was nearly empty.  And he probably didn't have another clip.  He'd have to make this count...

 

The soldier staggered to its feet, sliding a little on the rock, trying to keep its balance on the harsh angle. 

 

John released the safety, and the Wraith must have heard, because it turned its faceless mask in his direction.

 

It might have roared then, or made whatever that weird sound was that the drones made, but John didn't hear it.  He just fired, gritting his teeth against the renewed pain in every muscle of his body as the P90 rocked in his arms...until it was empty.

 

The soldier was down, lying face down on the rock just feet from Sheppard, having slid down when it landed.

 

But it wasn't dead.  Even as Sheppard finally pushed his own body to get up, to get to feet that he could barely feel, his right leg alive with pins and needles, and his left a burning slash of agony, he saw the Wraith moving its fingers.

 

Swearing, Sheppard stepped gingerly onto the slab below this one, and cried out again as his left leg bent and wobbled, sending him down on his side...and he rolled down to the next slab of rock, slamming into the edge of it with bone jarring impact.

 

"Fuck!"

 

The world was spinning around his head now, but he didn't have time to wait for it to right itself.  Dropping the P90—because he needed his hands more than the empty weapon at this point—he clambered along the rock, dragging himself to a more level piece of ground, his hands already raw from the rough stone.  Climbing to his clearly unsteady feet again, he somehow managed to stumble and limp down a brush filled gap between granite slabs...and into the woods below.

 

Behind him, the Wraith growled again.

________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: MAKING THINGS HAPPEN

 

McKay was literally tearing the engine room apart.  Using a piece of dislodged metal banister from the staircase leading up to the central corridor as a crowbar, he ripped open consoles, the floor and the walls, exposing conduits and crystals and wires, trying to make the room appear far more damaged than it actually was. 

 

After fifteen minutes of this, panting from exhaustion and feeling the sweat pouring down off his face and body (he’d even removed his shirt to do this, something he never liked doing), he nodded in satisfaction at the devastation he’d wrought.  Dropping the “crowbar,” he stumbled over to the left hand side of the room, where a massive black conduit with a diameter thicker than his fist lined the wall.  It was the main power line, like the ship’s central artery.  Lines fed off the line further along the wall, feeding the various different functions of the ship.  Above and below it, two thinner conduits, representing the auxiliary power drive and the hyperdrive, seemed almost spindly in comparison.

 

Pulling his knife from his belt, he checked again to make sure main power was offline, then proceeded to cut into the thick black conduit where it dipped close to the auxiliary line.  Once he had enough of it exposed, he grabbed a bunch of loose copper wires he’d pulled from a different section of the ship and tucked them under his arm.  Then he grabbed his data tablet off one of the consoles and connected to a mini-scanner from his pack.  Inside the main power conduit, hundreds of smaller lines of all different colors filled the tube, and he used his data tablet to quickly isolate four specific power usages – communications, the power to the mess hall, shields and navigation.  Quickly, he severed the connections and, using the loose copper tubing, created a sort of bypass of sorts, connecting them all to auxiliary power.  That way, no matter what happened, they would stay up and running.  Luckily, the cloak was already tied into auxiliary, so he didn't have to worry about that.  Auxiliary was still almost fully charged, which was a relief.  Once done, he covered the hastily put together bypass with some paneling, so no one would see it.

 

Then, checking his watch quickly to make sure he still had some time left, he grabbed a power coupling he’d found in a storage room off the mess hall and moved further down along the main power line, closer to the central power core.  Once he had the location he wanted, right in front of the main console station in the room, he grabbed the fat, black conduit and started to wrench it free of its mouldings inside the ship’s wall, the metal braces reluctantly ripping free as he pulled.  He needed the conduit to be loose and at least touching the ground in front of this station.

 

Grunting in frustration when it didn’t just give under his weight, he pulled and pulled and pulled…until the conduit was hanging well out of the wall, touching the ground in a sloppy “U”.  Breathing so hard now that he could barely hear anything over the sound of his own harsh respiration, he rested for a moment before shaking off the dizziness of exhaustion.  Swiping a hand over his damp forehead, he got down on one knee and quickly started to saw the conduit in half with a long bread knife he’d gotten from the kitchen.

 

It took almost a full five minutes to complete, and he hastily checked the watch to see how much time he had left—almost none.  He vaguely hoped either Ronon or Teyla had woken up (he’d assumed—hoped—that they were stunned, not killed) and fought their captors a little, slowing the Wraith down.  He renewed his sawing…almost there…

 

Finally, the thick conduit split in half.  With a smile of exhaustion, he attached the coupling and rejoined the two ends of the severed main power line together, reforming the link.  The coupling didn’t quite fit the size of the thick power line, but it was close enough.  It didn’t have to get them far.  Just far enough.

 

Standing, he wiped his arm across his sweat slicked forehead again and looked around the now completely wrecked room.  It looked like a tornado had hit it, followed by some grenade blasts.

 

Perfect.

 

Sucking in a breath, he turned and jogged through one of the lower doors to get to the bottom level.  There was water in the kitchens still.  It was stale tasting, but it was water.  He needed to clean himself up before they came, so they wouldn’t suspect…

__________________________________________

 

Sheppard skidded down the hillside, groaning in pain as his left knee collapsed again under his weight, sending him down hard on his side.  The slope was too steep for walking, and he was only staying upright half the time by death grips on pine trees and birches. 

 

He could see the woods lightening down below, thinning out and opening to the wheat covered fields he’d seen above. It was like running towards a sea of spun gold, glittering in the distance. If he could get there, and get his bearings, maybe he could get to where McKay had landed the Thermopylae.  He just had to get around the mountain first…

 

Because, yes, he remembered where he was.  Remembered, and hated himself for being so unbelievably stupid.  He’d fallen, literally fallen, right into their ambush.  The Wraith were insect like, and he’d forgotten that, forgotten just how agile they were.  He had gotten complacent, remembering the ease by which they’d dispatched so many soldiers on Sateda, but those monsters weren’t high from a culling. It just hadn’t occurred to him that the cliff wasn’t really a cliff, but just a steep rock wall, and insects can climb walls…

 

He emitted another cry of pain as, again, his left leg gave way, and he wrapped both arms around a sycamore-like tree to keep from falling, the smooth, dappled trunk feeling almost soft as he hugged it.   

 

God, he was so tired.

 

Resting his forehead against the cool, green trunk, he just let himself rest for a second, get his wind back.  His left leg and his back were burning with pain, and he could feel that the left trouser leg was “stuck” to his calf.  He was bleeding.  It was even possible that he’d broken something, but the flight instinct had been so strong that he hadn’t even had a chance to look. 

 

Fact was, he was afraid to.

 

Just then, the sound of something crashing through the woods above him, sliding and running down the forested slope, became terrifying clear.  It was after him, and his only two weapons were his field knife and his 9MM.  Not much use against a Wraith. Especially an injured and hungry Wraith.  This one needed him to heal, and it wasn’t going to stop until it got him.

 

Breathing in deeply, he pushed away from the tree and continued his uncontrolled half-run, half-slide down the mountain.  His only chance was to stay ahead of it, until he could find someplace or something to use to attack it.

_____________________________________________

 

A quick wash with a towel and a water basin, and McKay was running up the stairs from the lower level into the control room, tugging his shirt back on, wetness trickling down the back of his neck from his damp hair.  Jumping out onto the main deck, he went straight to the control chair, checking on power levels.

 

They were weaker than they had been—not surprising—but there.  It would be enough to get this boat in the air.

 

Letting out a pent up breath, he moved over to the console controlling the shield, and made sure it was online as well.  As before, the power build up was over the holes in the hull, keeping them sealed.  He still hadn’t figured out why he couldn’t divert the shield to cover the whole ship, but, at this point, it didn’t matter. Besides, he was going to turn the cloak into a shield anyway—didn't really need two.  It might even help.

 

Speaking of which...He jogged over to another console to check that the cloak was still off—which it was—and then moved to another panel to check on navigation. On-line and strong—if he had a little more time, he could divert the front thrusters from...

 

Human.”

 

McKay jumped, eyes looking up at the sky as if somehow, the Wraith might be standing just outside the control room windows.

 

“Um,” he swallowed, tapping at his radio in his ear, “Yeah?”

 

Let us in.  Now. Or they die.”

 

Biting his lip, McKay looked around the control room one more time, then, with a hard swallow, turned around and walked swiftly through the main doors to the central corridor.

 

“I’ll be right there,” he replied shakily.

 

He had a plan.  He just hoped he had the guts to put it into action.

_________________________________________

 

Sheppard skidded to a stop inside the tall, yellow grass, falling to his knees inside a small depression, the ground dimpling unevenly beneath his feet.  He’d made it to the open, valley floor, and had run for a couple dozen yards to this point, only to trip when he'd heard a Wraith in his ear.  His plan to try to reach the Thermopylae had just come to a screeching halt at the voice, thinking momentarily that it was the Wraith chasing him that had spoken and his mind emptied of all other ideas except “hide!”  But it wasn't the Wraith behind him—this Wraith was nowhere near him.  Falling onto his ass, he leaned over, bowing his back over his bent legs and trying very hard not to throw up. 

 

Shakily, he put a hand to his ear…and touched the earpiece that was still lodged there.

 

He’d completely forgotten about his radio.  It was still on, wonders of wonders, but, at this second, he was very, very glad that he hadn’t used it.

 

Let us in,” he’d heard the Wraith say over the line, the tone venomous, as only a Wraith could command.  "Or they die."  Even Ronon at his most malicious could not imitate the sheer malevolence that the Wraith could instill in even the simplest words.

 

And then he’d heard McKay’s scared sounding answer: He’d be right there?  McKay was letting them on the Thermopylae?  Their only way off this planet; their only safe haven from the Wraith and any Hive that might come to finish the culling the darts had started?  He was letting them on board?  Where the hell were Teyla and Ronon?  What was McKay thinking?

 

He started to straighten up, but gasped instead, pain overwhelming everything for a moment—apparently, his back had decided it liked this hunched over position…and seemed to be stuck.   The muscles on his back had seized up, cramped to the point of unyielding.

 

Oh hell. 

 

He had a Wraith on his tail, damn it!  Now was not the time for his body to give up the ghost!  They’re just bruises!  A strain or two!  Come on!  Get up!  Straighten up and get moving! 

 

Not that he knew now where to move to.  All he knew was, he needed somewhere to hide, something more than just long grass.  He needed someplace he could get some strength back, think of a strategy, and maybe a way to now save that stupid, idiotic, fool of a scientist!

 

He heard movement somewhere nearby, the heavy, clumsy footsteps of an injured Wraith as it crashed through the wheat, searching for him. Injured and angry and desperate to feed—it would find him if he didn’t move.  It almost sounded like it was coming straight for him.  It was also too damn close.  Did it know where he was?

 

Damn it…he had to move.  HE HAD TO MOVE!

 

Putting his palms down on the ground, he resolved to push himself up on his arms, get his butt in the air and his body to push up after it.  His body would not betray him now, damn it.  His back would bend; his left leg would support his weight; his eyesight would stay clear!  He would move—he had to get away, had to help McKay, had to GO!  Looking around, he noted that the grass was tall—as high as his chest in some places.  If he could stay low, maybe he could even….

 

A slow hiss to his left stilled his movements completely. 

 

Oh…

 

Shit.

 

Wasn’t that just perfect.

 

Curling back in on himself, he slowly and cautiously turned his head in that direction.

 

The snake was nothing but a head, the rest of it hidden in the grass.  It wasn’t the same one—this one was browner, the head had more stripes.  The massive yellow eyes blinked at him, curious.  If possible...it looked even bigger than the first one.

 

He just stared back, barely daring to breathe.

 

This just wasn't his day.

 

—————————————————————————————

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: FACING DOWN THE ENEMY

 

The snake hissed again.  It didn’t move towards him immediately, just watched him, head swaying side to side almost lethargically.  Maybe…maybe it wasn’t hungry? 

 

It moved forward slowly, the head inching towards him, long, forked tongue darting out of its mouth as it slid ever closer.  Sheppard considered pulling his knife.  His gun.  Anything.  But he was frozen, hampered by his own injuries and the sheer shock of (once again) being faced by something out of a bad sci-fi horror movie.

 

He heard crashing movements through the grasses behind him again, and he remembered the Wraith.

 

Oh man…he was in a bad sci-fi horror movie.  And he was about to die.  Trapped between an insectoid human with vampiric tendencies, and a python with a head wider than his entire body.  Wraith vs. Python, coming to a theatre near you…

 

The snake inched even closer, and Sheppard watched in horrible fascination as the tongue darted out and touched his bare, dirt and blood covered arm. 

 

He swallowed hard as the head moved forward even more, until the side of it was butting against his left arm, trying to dislodge it.  Sheppard gave in, pulling the arm back and away, and the snake sidled in so that its head was on his lap, pushing his bent legs flat with a gentle pressure.

 

It moved a little, then settled down, so that the weight of the whole head was pressed against his quads.

 

And then it closed its eyes and hissed contentedly.

 

Sheppard just stared at it, left arm still raised in the air, shaking.

 

It couldn’t be serious.  This couldn’t be happening. 

 

The snake shifted, made an annoyed sounding hiss, and one large eye opened, swiveling up to look at his face.  Sheppard’s eyes widened. 

 

Oh for God’s sake.

 

Slowly, trying to still the shaking, he rested his left hand on the snake’s head.

 

And, unbelievably…it purred.

 

Well, it vibrated a little, which was almost like a purr.  Terrified beyond rational thought, Sheppard stroked the smooth, scaled head, trying not to shake so much that the snake decided to change its mind and eat him instead.  Dirt encrusted fingers traced the patterns on the scaled head, and the snake shifted, clearly pleased, eyes shut again. 

 

“Good snakey,” he whispered, the words sounding pathetic even in his own ears. 

 

He wasn’t even sure he was conscious anymore.  Maybe he was dreaming.  Maybe he was dead.  Because giant snakes aren’t dogs, and this was waaaaay too freaky.

 

The crashing feet came closer, stumbling a little, and he heard the Wraith growl again.  But now he couldn’t move.

 

The growl grew louder.

 

Sheppard turned, ignoring the twinging back, and peered over his right shoulder.

 

The Wraith, covered in its own blood and lit garishly by the late afternoon sunlight, glared down at him like Leatherface…just without the chainsaw. 

 

It growled a third time, the sound more reminiscent of a broken muffler than a lion…it only made it more horrible.

 

Sheppard gave it a weak smile, and raised a finger to his lips. 

 

“You’ll wake the snake,” he whispered, then pointed at his lap.

 

The Wraith cocked its head.  For a moment, it just seemed to study him, then it stepped forward, moving around him…or rather, limping around him.  It stared at the snake resting its sleeping head on Sheppard’s lap, and snorted.

 

Then need overcame any caution the sight might have offered the Wraith, and it lunged forward at the Colonel, right hand outstretched.

 

Sheppard yelled and fell back, dislodging the snake on his lap and pushing away with his arms, trying to get some distance. 

 

The python reared up to nearly twelve feet high in an instant, wide awake and hissing, knocking back the Wraith as it did so. 

 

The Wraith stumbled, then roared and lunged at the snake.

 

The python, faster, quicker and far more terrifying, simply slid back out of its way, opened its maw and dived down…and bit the Wraith in half.

 

It swallowed the top half whole, flinging its head up and back to aid in the motion.  A second later, it dove down again and sucked up the legs.

 

All in less than a second.

 

Sheppard, his back still very much making its annoyance at all this movement known, had fallen backwards, sprawled inside the tall grass, and was now just lying there, propped up on his elbows.  He stared up at the python, eyes wide open in horrible fascination as he saw the two Wraith shaped lumps sliding down the python’s neck, trying not to think about the creature being slowly dissolved as it moved.

 

His own stomach lurched a little, nausea letting itself be known despite all his best efforts.

 

The python swiveled its head, black blood still dripping off its chin, and stared at him.

 

God, it was huge.

 

A second later, its head was on his chest, pressing him down so he was lying flat on his back and…purring again.

 

The Colonel fought back a powerful wave of dizziness, his head resting on the cool ground, watching the clouds drift past...as the weirdly dog-like snake made itself even more comfortable, sliding off the stiff vest covered ribs into the softer stomach area.

 

It purred louder, hard head digging into his diaphragm and stomach.

 

It wasn't going anywhere for a while, Sheppard realized, when it finally stopped moving.  He was stuck.

 

Thinking that, if he ever tried to describe this to someone, he was only going to get laughed at mercilessly (particularly by McKay), he rested his left hand on the snake’s head again…and gave it some half-hearted pats. 

 

I'm sorry, guys, he whispered to himself.

 

But the snake was also very warm from a long day of sunning itself and dry and, oddly, soothing, and, as his pats became more like strokes, the still badly hurting Sheppard unwittingly found his heavy, tired eyes closing…

_________________________________________

 

McKay lowered the stairs to the outside, swallowing hard at the vision before him on the ground.  Five Wraith stood semi circle in the clearing next to the ship, staring coldly up at him, the captives in their hands appearing almost small in comparison.  They said nothing to him as the steps hit the earth, but they didn’t need to—they threatened by mere presence. 

 

Releasing a pent up breath, McKay stepped to one side as they started to climb up the steps, his eyes studying them as much as they studied him.  They looked away first—apparently, he wasn’t worth spending much time on.

 

There were two males in the long black leather and three soldiers--all of them covered in soot and blood or showing signs of recent battle.  The taller of the two males led the way, marking himself as the leader, and he dragged Teyla along with him by a bruising grip on her left arm.  The Athosian woman was awake, if looking a little unsteady on her feet.  The cut on her head from earlier was bleeding again, trickling slowly down the side of her face. She blinked up at McKay as they reached the top, her face expressionless, but he could see something that looked like betrayal in her eyes. 

 

Obviously, she would have rather died than let the Wraith on the Thermopylae.  He just wasn’t that strong—he would have given up the Thermopylae in a heartbeat to save her and Ronon. Unfortunately, right now, he was still in danger of losing all of them…unless his plan worked.

 

Ronon, meanwhile, was still out cold, slung over the shoulder of one of the soldiers.  By guess, he had woken and had fought back so viciously that they had been forced to stun him again.  McKay was relieved, to be honest.  He didn’t think he could face two scowling teammates right now.  Plus, it explained why he'd had a little extra time to finish his plan.

 

The other two soldiers pushed three villagers in front of them—and McKay met Innis and Fallen’s eyes as the two tall, blond siblings were shoved past him.  The third villager was a handsome young man with a split lip and dark, curly hair, chin raised in defiance.  McKay didn’t know him, but there was no mistaking the black look in the boy’s eyes when he glared at McKay.  It was blame.     

 

McKay backed down the tubular hallway as they stepped into the entrance corridor, then turned and stepped into the central corridor as soon as he could shut the door behind them.  Without a word, they followed him to the control room, and he felt their presence behind him like a massive weight on his shoulders, trying to bow him down. Upon entering, they moved around him to better study the sleek, white room more carefully, still dragging their hostages with them.

 

The control room itself was still relatively pristine, despite the few burnt out consoles, and it retained its air of sleekness.  Even the Wraith seemed to appreciate the simple, modern design as they looked around.  The sun was very low in the sky now, reflecting the early evening timeframe, and the white walls were lit in rose and orange from the cascading light through the windows.

 

Finished with his examination, the Wraith male gripping Teyla turned black eyes on McKay.

 

“Give me your communications device,” he stated, holding out a hand. McKay stared at him a moment, then, with a set jaw, pulled the earpiece from his ear and his radio from his chest and handed them over.  The Wraith let them drop to the ground, then crushed both under his foot, earning a wince from McKay.  The creature then returned his dark gaze to the scientist.

 

“Will it fly?”

 

“It will need constant watch by someone in the engine room,” Rodney answered, “meaning me, but, yes, it will fly.”

 

The Wraith nodded, “Then do it.”

 

McKay shook his head once. “No.”

 

The Wraith turned fully, stepping closer to the scientist to peer down on him. “What?”

 

“Let the villagers go,” McKay said, sucking in a fortifying breath and lifting his chin. “I accept that you need hostages, and you have my team for that.  But let the villagers go.  They weren’t part of our agreement.”

 

“You were not asked to agree to anything,” the Wraith snarled, upper lip curling in disdain. “This is not a negotiation.”

 

“Well, it is now,” McKay said, wishing his voice wasn’t squeaking as he spoke, ruining his attempt at Sheppardian bravado. “Let the villagers go.”

 

“This human,” The Wraith jabbed a finger at Innis, who jerked back a little in response, “dared to try to use one of our own weapon’s against us.  These two,” he gestured to her brother and the other young man, “tried to stop us from feeding on her.  They will pay for their insolence.”

 

“I don’t care.  Let them go.”

 

The Wraith stared at him, and a slow, dark grin split his face. “Or what, Human?”

 

“Or I will not—“

 

A sudden, heart-wrenching scream from the left turned McKay around, his eyes widening as the younger Wraith male fed on the villager he didn’t know.  He pulled back quickly, but it was enough to turn the man’s hair gray and add wrinkles to his face where before there were none.   The young male Wraith smiled evilly at McKay, holding up his feeding hand, still covered in the villager’s blood.  The young—now older—man was breathing hard, barely staying upright on shivering legs.  Innis gripped his arm to keep him standing, her eyes filled with tears as she looked back at Rodney.

 

"Doctor McKay," she whispered, drawing his name out like a plea.

 

McKay lowered his head, unable to meet her terrified gaze.  She was desperately afraid, and she wanted him to do whatever they asked…but he couldn’t. It was too dangerous.

 

“Do you still wish to argue, Human?”

 

He opened his eyes again, lifting them up to stare at the Wraith.  Sheppard would have quipped something now, thrown a joke to show he was not willing to let them get to him, but McKay wasn’t Sheppard.  His defensive mechanism wasn’t humor—it was anger.

 

His eyes narrowed, the fury that had been building in him since losing Sheppard flaring into life. They were not doing this to him!  They were not changing the rules!  Damn it, didn't they know who they were dealing with?!  His cheeks reddened, the veins on his forehead stuck out, and his eyes glittered.  He lifted his chin higher, staring down his nose at the Wraith.

 

“It’s simple,” he stated quietly, the words reverberating with scorn and derision. “You need me to fly this ship.  You need my knowledge for it to work.  If you want my cooperation, for it to be freely given without hesitation, you will let those villagers go.  If not, I will spend every second of my time attempting to sabotage this ship and then you will never ever get off this planet.  I will run it into the ground first, inside the biggest explosion you have ever seen.”  He crossed his arms. “Do you still wish to argue, Wraith?”

 

The Wraith stared at him, eyes unblinking.  For a moment, there was a stand off—McKay’s powerful rage versus the Wraith’s equally powerful ego.

 

When it did finally speak, it wasn’t to answer McKay’s threat.  Instead, it asked, “How long to get to the next star system with a stargate.”

 

McKay’s jaw flexed and he gritted his teeth before answering. “Three weeks, without hyperdrive.”

 

“This ship has a hyperdrive—those engines are designed for hyperdrive.”

 

“Yes.  But with the damage to the hull, I don’t trust—“

 

“You need nothing except life support in here and the engine room.  Divert all other power to the cloak in order to create a strong enough shield to block that hole.  With hyperdrive, how long to get to the next star system with a gate?”

 

McKay’s jaw clenched, hating being patronized. “Two days, at least.  But I can’t—“

 

“If you can make this ship capable of hyperspeed, I will let these villagers go.  If not…we need them, Human.  I think you know why.  Three weeks is too long.”

 

Rodney’s eyes darted to the right, touching briefly on Teyla’s and seeing the uncertainty in them, before he looked back at the Wraith.

 

And, slowly, he nodded. “I’ll need help.”

_______________________________________

 

Two Wraith soldiers, the still unconscious Ronon and the villagers stayed up front, while the two Wraith males and one soldier escorted Teyla and McKay to the engine room.

 

The Athosian’s eyes widened upon seeing the destruction McKay had wrought, but she quickly shuttered the expression before the Wraith saw it on her face.  Still, she did shoot one appraising look at McKay before they were shoved down the stairs to the floor below.  He tried to give her an answering look in return, one that said that, “yes, he did this because he had a plan,” and “no, he wasn’t sure it would work”, and, for good measure, “yes, its almost all superficial,” but that was a lot to try to convey with a mere look, and her arched eyebrow in return suggested he probably hadn’t succeeded.  Best guess, she now thought he had gas.

 

He started speaking the moment he hit the metal flooring, pointing things out and explaining what sort of help he might need to convert the cloak and strengthen the shield. 

 

Funny thing about Wraith—they apparently were created of the same gene pool as office managers. They wanted to be in charge while, at the same time, didn’t actually want to do any work.  Accordingly, the younger Wraith male would half-heartedly push some things around at McKay’s direction, but the older male just glared and the drone did nothing but stand there and loom.  It meant that, despite McKay’s request for help—he really wasn’t getting any.

 

Eventually, he convinced the older male to let Teyla go so she could give him a hand, and things began to move more quickly, despite the two males watching everything they did.  One thing McKay knew, the Wraith were not stupid.  They grasped technology very quickly, so he tried to keep his fixits both simple and with as little explanation as possible.  It wasn’t easy—his naturally didactic nature kept trying to emerge as he worked.  He was grateful for Teyla’s quiet presence by his side.  She grounded him more than any of the others ever could.

 

Finally, after about an hour’s worth of work, he pushed away from the central console in the room and, with a sly look at the still very much exposed central power line lying nearby, he turned to the Wraith leader and nodded.  It was done.

 

They could go.

______________________________________________   

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: UP, UP AND AWAY

 

Sheppard came awake with a start as he felt the weight on his chest lift.  A soft hiss, and he saw himself looking up into the golden eyes of the python only a foot away from his face.  Fear gripped him again, wondering if, finally, he was about to be dispatched just like the Wraith, but the snake just stared…and then its tongue darted out and licked his nose.

 

His eyes had scrunched close instinctually, and when they opened again...he was alone.

 

The sky was awash in the colors of dusk—the horizon was maroon and gold, and above that, shades of blue from pale slate to dark indigo.  A few stars were beginning to twinkle, welcoming the burgeoning night, and a warm breeze shifted the long grass around him, a soft sound.

 

And for a moment, he just considered the amazing fact that he was still alive.

 

Then more insistent thoughts and pains intruded on the brief peace the snake had granted him.  His injuries became more obvious, shivers of pain rolling up and down his left side from ankle to his head.  A headache began to beat inside his skull, the stress of everything that had happened to him in such a short time just too much for his brain to handle.  His back had gone past hurt to sheer and total discomfort.  It felt like someone had pulled every muscle, then beat on it for good measure.

 

He was going to feel this for a long time.

 

With a grunt of sheer determination, he pushed himself up onto his elbows, shaking off the lethargy of exhaustion, pain and being overwhelmed. 

 

"Okay, John," he muttered, "time to get up.  You've three teammates to find, rescue, and get home." 

 

He hadn't considered the possibility that Teyla, Ronon or Rodney might be dead.  He refused to.

 

First, he needed to assess and bandage his injuries.  Second, he had to get some food and water in himself.  And third, find a crutch.  Looking around at the soft moving yellow grasses, the golden color faded to yellow in the shadowing world, he grimaced.  He had a powerbars and bandages, but he'd need to move to find the rest before it was too dark. 

 

Once done, he would head towards the Thermopylae...and figure out the rest of his plan when he got there.

 

With a groan, he levered himself to his knees and finally...his feet, hopping a little on his good leg, and telling himself that the mind-numbing pain was all superficial and psychosomatic...

 

Yeah, right.  He was so screwed.

—————————————————————————————

 

Innis touched the side of McKay’s face for a brief moment as she, her brother and the other young man left the ship.  There was no smile on her face, relief at being freed, just sadness. 

 

He grimaced in return, pulling away from the touch and looking away, keeping his eyes averted until all three of the villagers were on the ground and moving swiftly away from the ship into the woods at a jog, the two siblings providing support to the now injured third.

 

Closing the hatch, he met the dark eyes of the Wraith leader standing next to him.  The creature sneered a little, then turned and walked away.  Clearly, he saw no harm in letting McKay walk behind him—he knew the scientist didn’t have it in him to try anything.  Ronon or Teyla would have taken the opportunity to attack, but all McKay could do was try to keep up with the creature’s long legged stride.  The silent walk back to the Control Room felt like a death march to the scientist, and his thoughts kept running back to Sheppard…

 

And whether the colonel would agree with what he was doing.  Probably not.  But it was all McKay could come up on his own.  Sheppard was right—he wasn’t a pilot or a soldier.  But he knew physics and machines, and he’d be damned if he’d let these damn Wraith outsmart him.

 

Inside the control room, Ronon sat cross-legged against one wall, wide awake now and with a ferocious glare for anyone who looked his way, including McKay.  Only Teyla avoided being on the receiving end of his fantastic rage.  His hands were bound behind him, but McKay trusted they wouldn’t be for long—something McKay was relying on.  Above the Satedan, two Wraith soldiers stood sentry, as if waiting for Ronon to try something.   It was almost a mark of respect for the Satedan that the Wraith leader had given him two guards instead of just one.

 

Teyla stood in front of the control chair, her hands now also bound, her chin lifted proudly. 

 

McKay met her eyes as he walked over to where she stood, then stepped up on the dais next to her in order to initialize the command chair for flight.  The Wraith leader would stay up here with Teyla and the two soldiers watching Ronon.  The younger Wraith male was going to be with McKay in the engine room, along with the third soldier.

 

A few tapped keys, and three hologram screens popped up in front of the command chair—one showed the engine room in its complete disarray (so the Wraith leader could keep an eye on McKay), one showed the planet outside, and one was a star map.  A few more tapped keys, and a yellow dot appeared on the star map.

 

“That’s the planet with a working gate,” McKay said, pointing at the star map and glancing at the Wraith leader as he spoke.  “I’ve programmed the ship to fly there automatically.  You won’t really need to do much except keep an eye on the various controls to make sure they are working properly.”

 

“I thought this ship needed a pilot,” the Wraith leader said, stepping up onto the dais with McKay and settling into the white leather chair, like a king settling on a throne.  McKay couldn't but feel like it dirtied the chair, like an ink stain.

 

“Not for preprogrammed courses, and certainly not for when we're in hyperspace, which we will be for most of the time.  Since we don’t have to worry about being attacked or what have you…” he frowned then, and looked at the Wraith. “Do we?”

 

“No.”

 

Probably a lie, McKay realized, seeing as someone had damaged these Wraith’s hive ship, but it didn’t really matter.  “Right.  Anyway, as I was saying, since we don’t have to worry about being attacked, the ship can do the actual flying. Plus, it’ll also be easier for me in the engine room to make the necessary adjustments to keep shields and the engines in line with the pilot’s maneuverings if the pilot is a predictable computer.”

 

The Wraith stared at him without blinking, measuring the response and looking for the lie.  Luckily for McKay, he wasn’t lying.  Not about that anyway. 

 

Eventually, the Wraith nodded. “And if I need to take command?” he asked.

 

McKay met Teyla’s eyes for a moment, then pointed to the controls on the right hand arm of the command chair. “Hit any three buttons simultaneously,” he said, pointing down at it.  His eyes lifted to Teyla’s again, and when she narrowed her gaze for a moment, her expression speculative, he knew he’d gotten through.  He wanted her to know this—and to be able to act on it.

 

She gave a tiny nod, and he sighed stepping down of the dais.

 

“That’s…that’s pretty much it,” he said. “As soon as I get back to the engine room, we can seal the two rooms and take off.”

 

“Then go,” the Wraith sneered.  McKay nodded, turning to leave.  The other male Wraith and one soldier moved with him. 

 

He stopped in the doorway, as if remembering something, then looked back at Teyla.

 

“Remember Jorgan’s message,” he said, turning from Teyla to Ronon on the ground off to the side, “be strong.”

 

The wraith male with him hissed, shoving McKay in the back to propel him forward, so the scientist didn’t get a chance to see if what he said had registered. 

—————————————————————————————

 

Ronon was already working on his bonds, the knife he’d had up his sleeve already slicing through the sticky material the Wraith had used to tie his wrists. 

 

He’d been stewing in anger ever since he’d awoken, wanting to tear these Wraith limb from limb for what they had done to Sheppard.  And here…here McKay was helping them.  Most of the time, he tried to give McKay the benefit of the doubt, but this was the most despicable thing he could have done.  Letting the Wraith have this ship?  Teyla's ship? And to get away like this, after killing Sheppard? Given a chance, he would have rather have been killed than let them get away, but McKay seemed to just bow and scrape to their demands. 

 

He’d listened as McKay told them how to operate the various screens and controls.  The usual officious tone was muted, but there.  He talked too much, as always.  Ronon had never wanted to make McKay shut up more than right now.  Why wouldn’t he just shut up?!

 

And then, finally, McKay said they were ready to go.  To leave.  Meant leaving Sheppard behind.  What if he wasn’t dead?  What if he was dying, needing them?  McKay of all people knew how wrong that was.

 

He wouldn’t watch as the scientist was lead away.  He was not willing to give him that honor.

 

And then McKay had called out those last few words.

 

“Remember Jorgan’s message.  Be strong.”

 

Ronon’s head snapped up, turning to look at the scientist in the doorway.  McKay was staring at him, willing him to…what?

 

Jorgan’s message?

 

Then he was gone, and the door shut behind him and sealed.  There would be no life support in the corridors or rooms between the engine room and control room, to conserve energy.  No way for Ronon to know what the hell the scientist meant by that.

 

He looked up at Teyla as she was dragged over to his side and dumped on the floor next to him, her arms similarly bound behind her.  He waited until the lead Wraith walked away before turning to look at her.  She moved so she was sitting on her legs, her calves below her bound hands.

 

“Be strong?” he whispered to her.

 

“He meant,” she whispered back, her voice barely audible, but knowing he’d be able to hear her, “Be ready.” He saw her shift a little, and then a flash of metal…she was getting her own hidden knife out from the sheath on her leg.

 

Ronon looked back again towards the doors, eyes widening slightly.  Then worked to cut through his bonds even faster.

—————————————————————————————

 

McKay walked down the steps slowly, his stomach twisting and tying itself into knots.  Behind him, he heard the heavy shush of the engine doors closing and sealing behind them.  Glancing at the Wraith male to his right, he winced at the almost hungry look in the creature’s eyes. 

 

Moving a little faster, he made his way to the central console and started firing up systems. 

 

The drone moved over to stand several feet away, almost blending into the wall. 

 

Hitting a few keys, three hologram screens similar to the ones he’d put up in the control room appeared above the console.  One was a star map, one a topographical schematic of this planet, and one was the control room.  Looking up, he saw the lead Wraith watching him from the chair—as if he could see through the walls directly to McKay.

 

With a swallow, McKay looked down and started hitting more keys.

 

What is taking so long?” the lead Wraith demanded over the communications system.  McKay looked up at his image on the screen, eyes narrowed in annoyance.

 

“I’m just initializing the shield systems.  I’ll be done in a second.  Just hold your horses.”

 

The leader snarled, and suddenly McKay was shoved several feet to the side, landing hard on his hip.  For a second, he just saw stars, dizziness invading his senses, and then he was being dragged to his feet and shoved back into the console.  Blinking away the fuzziness around his eyes, he looked at the Wraith male standing next to him, trying not to be revolted by the yellow-toothed grin.  Bastard had enjoyed hitting him.

 

“Do not talk back,” the Wraith said, his sibilant tone slightly higher pitched than that of the leader. 

 

McKay wanted to answer, he really did, but some rational part of him finally put its foot down, and he clamped his jaw shut tightly. 

 

Getting back to work, McKay started to move around.  When the male guarding him got in the way, he quietly asked for more room.  The male stared for a moment, then moved around to the other side of the console.

 

McKay tried not to show how relieved he was. 

 

“Okay,” he said, looking up at the screen, “Here we go.”  He hit a button, and the engines roared to life behind him.

 

Damn, they were loud.

—————————————————————————————

 

Sheppard wobbled, leaning hard against a boulder and trying not to throw up.  He could barely move.  The world spun around him and he was beginning to lose his fight for not just mobility, but consciousness.  He had barely made it a hundred yards from where he’d been, moving through the long grass vaguely towards the tree line and the path up to the village (because there was no way he was going to be able to go back up the same way he’d come down).  His body had brutally reminded him of his injuries at every step, slowing him down more and more.

 

How the hell was he supposed to rescue anyone feeling like this?

 

After a couple of minutes focused simply on trying to breathe, he pushed off the rock.  He couldn’t think about the how, right now.  He just had to get to McKay and the others before…

 

And then he heard it—the soft purr of the Thermopylae’s engines. 

 

Swallowing hard to dispel his queasiness, he turned to his right in time to see the silver ship slowly lift itself off the ground.  It rose from the shadows of the darkening landscape, then came into stark, glittering relief as it caught the rays of sunlight up high in the sky.  It moved slowly, blue light rippled across the pockmarked surface, filling in holes.  McKay must have turned the cloak into a shield.

 

“No, McKay,” he whispered, his heart beating harder inside his chest, “No.  Don’t…don’t…”

 

But, obviously, he was.  McKay was helping the Wraith get off this planet…and leaving Sheppard behind.

__________________________________________ 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THE BAD PLAN

 

McKay was sweating—the heat from the engines combined with his see-sawing emotions of terror and anger were melting him down.

 

He glanced up at the screen depicting the control room, and saw that the Wraith leader was now standing, staring up at both his own screens and probably beyond them to the windows. 

 

With a nudge of a finger, the screen backed off a little to show more of the room, and he could just make out Teyla and Ronon against the wall.  Teyla was watching him, he could see, her eyes focused directly on his image projected on the control room screen.  Ronon had his head down.  His legs were curled in and tense—he looked ready to spring up at any second.

 

Teyla moved, perhaps sensing she could be seen, and he saw her shift so that her jacket fell of her shoulders.  For a moment, he didn’t understand the point of that…then he figured it out—if she stood up, the jacket would fall further to cover up her hands…which probably weren’t bound anymore.

 

Her eyes were sharp and aware, bright, and she gave a single nod when she saw his eyes on hers.  She was telling him, without uttering a word, that they were ready for whatever he had planned.

 

McKay lowered his head, and nodded to himself. 

 

He just hoped he was as ready as she was.

 

Turning, he glanced at the screen to his left, seeing their location.  He’d purposefully steered them away from the mountains and towards the grass covered flatlands and muddy meadows, and their lift off was slow.  They hadn’t gained much elevation.  He hoped the Wraith hadn’t noticed.

 

Why are we still in the atmosphere?” the leader demanded, turning his laser-like gaze back on McKay through the screen.  McKay flinched, wondering if he looked as small as he felt right now. 

 

So much for their not noticing.

 

“I’m, uh,” he dropped his head, hitting some more keys on the console, “I’m having some trouble with the shields.” He looked up at the male standing opposite him, the creature still showing him his full set of pointy yellow teeth.  “Could you go over there,” he pointed to the next console, “and check the shield strength output for me?”

 

The Wraith stared at him, not blinking.

 

“Please?” McKay asked.

 

“Do it,” the Wraith Leader said over the comm..  McKay glanced up at the screen.  The leader was no longer staring directly at him – probably following the progress of the other Wraith as the male moved over to the console McKay had pointed out.

 

Now or never.

 

Turning, McKay walked back to the black power cord he’d pulled down earlier and cut in half. Stepping over the part with the poorly fitting coupling he’d applied, he turned around and hefted the cord up so that he held it before him, one hand on each side of the coupling.  His fingers tightened around the thick cord, its width wider than his hands, the power vibrating through the thick, black coating causing his palms to tingle.  The coupling, ill fitting as it was, was still loose and tiny sparks jumped out to sting at the backs of his hands.

 

Ow,” he hissed, pushing the two ends tighter inside the coupling.  Those sparks had hurt.

 

Oh, this was so not going to be fun.

 

“What are you doing?” The Wraith leader was peering at him again, arms crossed over his chest.  The two Wraith in the engine room with McKay were suddenly on alert, moving in his direction.

 

“Stay back,” McKay ordered, wishing he could say that as forcefully as Sheppard would have.  Looking up at the screen, he took a deep breath, and a strange calm settled on his chest. “Small change in plans,” he told the Wraith, and held the power conduit up higher. “We’re not going anywhere.”

 

The Wraith’s eyes narrowed.  Without waiting to see what McKay’s threat was, he had jumped across the room and was pulling up Teyla by her arm.  The Athosian hissed, but didn’t fight as she was dragged back to the middle of the room, her face reddening in anger.  Ronon, however, had gotten up on his knees, only to stop there when two stunners were placed on either side of his head.  He only had eyes for Teyla.

 

“Whatever it is you think you have in your hands, Doctor McKay,” the Wraith Leader said, shaking Teyla a little. “I would drop it.”

 

“It’s the main power conduit,” McKay replied, gripping the cord tighter. “And if you try to—“

 

The wraith male in the engine room suddenly roared and jumped up onto the main console before McKay, arms splayed wide.  The scientist screamed in fear, falling back into the wall and ripping the coupling holding the two ends of the power cord apart.

 

Instantly, the room went completely black except for the light from the communications screen and the crackling white electricity arcing out of the ends of the power cord in McKay’s hands.  The ship lost all sense of balance as well, and it tilted sharply, practically lifting them all off their feet.

 

McKay shoved the two ends together and the room powered back up…as did the engines.  The Thermopylae resettled itself, and the engines righted it into a sort of hover. 

 

It had only been a moment, but the point had gotten across.  McKay wanted to grin, to shout out his glee, but instead he just stared hard at the two Wraith in the engine room with him, daring them to try that again.  The male Wraith was standing well back now, standing at about the midpoint of the engine room and holding onto a different console—and there was black blood on his chin.  He must have fallen on his face when the ship tilted. The faceless drone had moved closer to the male, but was also keeping his distance. 

 

McKay looked up at the screen showing the control room.  Teyla was still in the Wraith Leader’s grip, but he had thrown one arm back to grab onto the arm of the chair, obviously to keep himself upright.  Ronon was on his feet, but the two drones, equally sure footed, had managed to keep their aim on him, the stunners now pointed vaguely up at his chest.

 

So, nothing much had changed…except the obvious….

 

McKay did smile then, his natural arrogance coming through, and he lifted both eyebrows as he started to speak.

 

“As I was saying,” he sneered, “before I was interrupted,” he glared at the Wraith that had almost attacked him, “in my hands is the main power conduit.  You've seen what happens if I separate them.  If, on top of that, I plunge them into the main console in front of me, it will destroy this ship's computer completely, along with any chance you might have to retake control of it. The Thermopylae will then crash and burn, taking you down with it," he gave a tiny smile, "in a big booming fireball.” 

 

The Wraith leader was unblinking, meeting Rodney’s eyes in clear challenge. “You would not dare,” he hissed. “You would die as well.”

 

“Probably,” McKay said, “but rather that than watch you feed on my friends.”

 

The Wraith Leader quirked a smile, and McKay caught motion out of the corner of his eye.

 

“Stay BACK!” he yelled, seeing that the Wraith male with him had sidled forward a little. He held up the cord and pulled it slightly apart, causing the ship to shudder a little around them and the lights to flicker.  “Back off!  Now!”

 

The male stared at him, sneered…and backed off again.

 

“They’re not going to be fast enough to stop me,” he said, looking up at the screen again. “You know that right?”

 

The Wraith Leader’s eyes just narrowed, so McKay pushed on, setting his jaw and building on his inner Sheppard.

 

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said, hoping the shaking he could feel in his arms wasn’t evident on screen. “You’re going to let Teyla and Ronon go, give them your weapons, and they’ll stun you.  We’ll then lock you in a room in this ship and we’ll take you to another planet…then drop you off.”

 

The Wraith Leader’s hideous smile grew, “And you think we should just trust you not to kill us.”

 

“I’ll give you my word.”

 

The Wraith Leader snorted, “Your word is meaningless because, unlike us, you have no honor.  You have already gone back on the deal we had.  We let the villagers go, remember?”

 

McKay stared at him, and swore inwardly, wincing.  Crap, he’d forgotten about that.

 

“Now,” the Wraith Leader continued, “let me tell you what is going to happen.”  He pulled Teyla in tighter and raised his right hand over his head. “Either you put that power cord down, or I feed on this female right now.  In front of you.  Your choice, Doctor McKay.”

 

“Do not do it, Rodney,” Teyla ground out, earning her a shake from the Wraith. “Jorgan’s message, remember?” 

 

Rodney had a moment of panic, thinking of Teyla being fed on, but then the Wraith male in the engine room with him smiled again, and he steeled his resolve.

 

“Let her go,” he said, drawing the two ends slightly apart, so that electricity visible crackled along the seam.  The lights flickered again. “Or I’ll take us down.”

 

“We do not negotiate,” the Wraith Leader warned. “And we do not surrender.”

 

“Let,” Rodney took in a breath, “her,” and another, “go.”

 

“Put the power cord down,” the Leader threatened in return. “Or she dies, screaming and in pain.  She is strong,” he added, almost lasciviously, “she will make a great feast.”

 

Rodney’s jaw was trembling, his heart was beating, and the sweat pouring down his face felt like a torrent. 

 

His eyes flickered to Teyla’s, and she arched an eyebrow back at him.  Then she shifted her left arm…and he saw the knife glint.  She arched the eyebrow higher.

 

And suddenly, the Wraith Leader’s patience wore out.  He yelled something inarticulate and threw his hand towards Teyla’s chest.

 

Rodney pulled the cord apart, plunging the rooms into darkness again except for the crackling white energy arcing between the two ends.  Like a strobe light, it lit up the Wraith soldier diving for him, massive green arms outstretched and snarling.  He didn’t even think as he angled the two ends forward, plunging them into the armored chest of the creature as it landed on top of him.

 

Instantly, the faceless drone was flying backwards across the room and into one of the engines, his chest literally on fire from the electricity, the sound of grass breaking telling McKay the soldier had cracked one of the casings protecting the turbines.  The smell was horrific, like burnt meat.

 

Turning, Rodney had just enough time to lift the two crackling ends up in front of him as the beam of a Wraith stunner flared into his sight.  Apparently, the Wraith male had decided to shoot him instead of attacking him.  It would have worked too, except that the discharge from the power conduits was too strong—it just absorbed the stun weapon’s strength, though McKay’s hands felt oddly numbed afterwards.  It was good, in a way, because he was sure his hands were being whipped by burn marks from the electricity.

 

Then the Wraith male was leaping at him, trying to get over his head and behind him.  McKay just turned and watched him leap, hitting the wall over McKay’s head like Spiderman and then falling, obviously intending to shove McKay down into the floor.  McKay just crouched down and held the power cords up, and the Wraith got two jolts of energy up its legs from its feet, sending it spinning and screaming away from him and into the main console. 

 

Blinking in the confusing light, Rodney could just make out the Wraith male falling to the other side of the console, its eyes rolling closed.

 

And that’s when he remembered they were all falling—fast.  In the confusion, the imbalance of the floor under his feet hadn’t felt so extreme…he was sliding forward…

 

“RODNEY!” Teyla’s voice screamed over the comm., and McKay looked up.  The communications screen was still there, but it was difficult to see.  Like here, the Control Room had no power, but it had natural light streaming through the large windows.  He almost gasped in relief at seeing Teyla’s perfect and unaged face fighting to get the controls on the chair to work. “Rodney, can you hear me?” Her eyes lifted to the screen. “Rodney, please! I can't see you!”

 

“Teyla!” he shouted back, grinning madly.  They had done it!  They had fought and killed the Wraith Leader and the two soldiers—he knew they would!  “I can hear you!  Are you all right?”

 

“No!” She looked up at the screen, her eyes terrified. “Rodney, we are crashing!  I can’t stop it!  How do I stop it?”

 

“Oh,” he started trying to get the ends back together, but they had twisted in his hands…the coupling wasn’t lining up...probably because his burnt hands wouldn't stop shaking. “Hang on! I’m trying to get this back together.  You should still have navigation, use that!”

 

“Rodney, it is no good without power!  I can steer, but we are falling too fast!”

 

"It's okay! I planned for that.  The shield is at max capacity, it will cushion us, but we'll still feel the impact.  Aim us for the meadow!  It'll absorb the crash, just like it did before."

 

"I...I already am, but..."

 

"Trust me! I rigged it so that, even if we hit, the ship will stay intact! It's stronger than it looks!  But you'll still need to brace your—"

 

"We're tilting!"

 

And she was right, McKay skidded sideways as the ship started to turn.  Damn it, it was trying to land on its injured side again!  What the hell!

 

And without power, they wouldn't be able to right it.  "Just hold on!"

 

"The wings...."

 

"Aren't extended—they should have pulled in when the engines shut down! We'll be okay!"  Damn it, why wasn't this coupling rejoining?...Oh.  It had melted. Fused. Shit. "I..."

 

"Ronon!"  Teyla's shout then was different, and he looked up to see the Athosian leap out of the chair to get to something behind her.  He lost sight of her.

 

"Teyla!  Teyla, no!  You need to steer us..." McKay jumped when he saw something tan thrown across the screen.  Was that Ronon...?  And then he saw movement in the back—the doors to the corridor? Opening?  What the hell was happening up there?

 

“GET DOWN!” Ronon shouted suddenly from somewhere, and Rodney’s eyes widened as he saw Teyla thrown bodily into the chair and over it, landing in a heap in front of the dais.  He was about to yell her name again when she suddenly shook her head and looked out towards the front of the ship, and threw her arms in front of her face.

 

And she screamed.

______________________________________________  

 

Sheppard watched in shock as the Thermopylae plummeted out of the sky, a high pitched whine accompanying the sight as it swerved towards his location.  It had bobbed twice, as if having trouble with power, but each time it regained altitude and seemed to hover.  Prior to that, it had been slowly rising and circling, gaining elevation slowly, too slowly.  Sheppard had been trying to work out McKay’s reasoning for that—because he was sure McKay was behind the slowness of the take off—but then it all seemed to go to hell.  It was if the ship were confused, didn’t know where to go…and then gave up altogether.

 

And now it was coming down.

 

He just stared, mouth open, watching as the beautiful silver ship careened towards the ground.  At first, the wings caught the strong air currents, allowing it to ride the wind a little, gliding down on a 45 degree tilt instead of a 90 degree spiral, but then the wings suddenly retracted, leaving the ship to pierce the sky like a missile. He sensed someone was trying to keep it upright, to steer it towards the marshlands where it had been hidden for so long, because it was definitely aiming in that direction, but there was no slowing of its speed as it fell…

 

And then it was out of his sight behind the small golden hills, the wheat-grass covered hillocks masking its final seconds.  But the sound…the sound was there…a high pitched whine, reaching a crescendo like a scream…

 

The earth shook beneath his feet when it hit, and dirt and water exploded up in the distance, a line of spray like an ocean wave...and then nothing.

 

Sheppard let out a breath.  Maybe they were okay...

 

And then it exploded.

______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN:  IN A HANDBASKET

 

Sheppard felt what he just witnessed slide through him, and for a moment the world seemed to freeze. 

 

Until he remembered to breathe. 

 

Sounds came back, and he staggered forward. It wasn't just one explosion.  There were two. Two explosions, almost on top of each other, powerful and ear-ringing.  His eyes watered from the sound, even if he could not actually see the ship, he could see the destruction in his mind's eye.

 

“A giant fireball,” he whispered, as a mushroom cloud of fire and smoke erupted upwards from the ground behind the low lying hills.  Jorgan’s last words.  If the Wraith took the ship, the acting captain had wanted it to go down in a giant fireball.

 

Looks like McKay had given Jorgan his wish.

 

Sheppard fell to his knees, the pain he was in mixing with his flashbacks of Afghanistan, filling his head with images of burning planes and dead pilots…dead friends.  He hadn’t been able to get to them in time, to help them.  He’d lost so many…

 

He didn’t even know he was crying until he wiped at his face and felt the wetness there. 

 

For the first time since he had woken up in that hospital in Afghanistan after learning that three of his best friends were all dead, he wished he had died as well.

 

Because it had just happened again.

______________________________________________________

 

McKay opened his eyes, blinking through the smoke filled air and wondering a little at the fact that he could see.  There shouldn't be any light in here, and yet shadowed daylight...moonlight?...filtered through the blackness, cutting through the dirt and grime and fire.  He could hear the crackle of flames from somewhere, and the buzz of dying electricity…

 

He was amazed he hadn’t lost consciousness—at least, not in the "you hit your head" sense of losing consciousness.  Temporarily blacking out, that he knew he had done.  The world had disappeared for him for a time, returning only in dribs and drabs, as if he had been blinking really, really slowly or had been watching events lit by a strobe light.  He just had to rejoin the images together, put them in a logical sequence and he'd understand...

 

He’d felt the impact, felt himself thrown up and away from where he was standing behind the console, still trying to get the power cord back together, and then he was flying.

 

Thinking about all the power coursing through the power cord, being thrown away from those two ends had probably saved his life.

 

He recalled the brutal impact with the stairwell, and then falling down into a heap and being tossed around on the floor and walls of the ship as it skidded and flopped, driving what had to be an incredible divot across the landscape.

 

The shield was supposed to keep it together.  Between the converted cloak and the actual shield, the ship should have been contained as if inside bubblewrap, cushioning the landing like falling onto a mattress....but something had exploded.  Two massive explosions, one nearby, so close it had momentarily blinded him as he ducked behind the stairs...

 

The room had split apart around him, things falling and splintering and landing on top of him.  The engines had screamed, the plexiglass coverings on the turbines had split, and now...now he could see natural light. That meant sky—a hole, or a cut in the hull.  The Thermopylae had broken up.  But...but....Why?

 

Why hadn’t the shields worked?

 

Not enough power?  Perhaps the main shield had reset itself to just cover the holes…again.  He’d spent so long trying to get that to fix itself, and thought he had, but…

 

Even so, the converted cloak should have compensated.  It should have been enough.  This should not have happened!

 

But he was seeing light inside a room with no windows.  It had happened.  He'd killed her.  Killed his ship. Killed Teyla's ship.  Teyla...Oh God...

 

Okay...think it through.  Even shields can't protect completely against impacts, he knew.  The skin might not break, but the body could still be badly bruised.  A ship was no different.  It had crashed, and perhaps the shield had held up for a moment, just enough to stop the worst of the damage, but she’d crumpled internally, bled from the inside, split from the inside out...?

 

But that didn't explain the explosion. Or rather, explosions.  There were two, were there not?  One, right after the other. Something had exploded. What had exploded?

 

The weapons?  The last of the heat seeking missiles under the wings? No, no, that made no sense.  They weren't active.  They wouldn't have exploded.  So...so what else could it be?  Some ancient protocol?  Something the Athosians had pre-programmed, like a self-destruct that he hadn't seen in the ship's computer?  But, why would it have activated?  Mere presence of the Wraith?  No, then it would have activated earlier.  The power being cut?  No, that made no sense...

 

Something...something illogical had to have happened.  Something he didn't consider.  Something...

 

His head hurt.

 

Speaking of which....

 

How was he still alive?  From the sounds and sights and everything, why hadn't whatever exploded killed him?

 

And why couldn’t he move?

 

And what about Teyla and Ronon?

 

Oh God…what had he done?

 

———————————————————————————

 

Teyla stood on the bridge of the Thermopylae, her arms crossed, looking out at the starlit world beyond the windows.  They were in space.  She tilted her head, wondering when that had happened.  She frowned slightly, turning her head to look around at the white control room, and realized...there was no damage.  The walls were pristine, almost gleaming.

 

"Teyla Emmagen, Daughter of Tagan."

 

She jumped slightly at the calling of her name, the formal title not lost on her.  Turning, she unclasped her arms and faced the back of the room.  A man stood by the control chair, leaning slightly against it.  He wore a dark forest green uniform, one she didn't recognize.  When he crossed his arms, she saw the emblem on his sleeve—an eight pointed white star.

 

He smiled at her. 

 

Her lips parted, studying his face, searching it.  He was handsome—older and dark haired, with a refined look about the edges of his tanned face.  Dark brown eyes smiled as much as the mouth, and she found herself smiling back for a second, before frowning.

 

"Who are you?" she asked, crossing her arms again.

 

"I think you know," he replied cryptically, smiling and lifting an eyebrow in a familiar way.  Her expression opened, realizing she had heard his voice before...over a broadcast.

 

"Jorgan?"

 

—————————————————————————— 

 

"Ronon?  Teyla?  Are you there?"  The voice was staticky and panicked, but persistent in Ronon's ears.  "Ronon?  Teyla?  Look, if either of you are awake, and just ignoring me because I crashed the Thermopylae and it apparently exploded because of it, then I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. Teyla, I never meant this to happen.  I don't know why it exploded and I don't know why you're not answering because communications should still be working and I don't know why I can't move because I can't see what's holding me down though it's clearly really heavy and I think it might be the stairs but I can't tell because I can't see that well—which I may have already said but I'm scared and prone to repetition when I'm scared, which you know--and I don't know what is happening out there and if...if...and...and..." The voice audibly gulped, probably because the speaker realized he'd started speaking so quickly and at such a high pitch it was beginning to lose coherency, and that he needed to take a breath. "I'm sorry. Please. Someone talk to me.  Anyone? I'll even talk to you if you're a Wraith.  I...okay, I didn't mean that. If you're Wraith and ignoring me...please go on ignoring me.  Just...go about your business.  Unless that means hurting my friends, then don't go about your business. Just...just...Oh God, I can't do this!  Someone! Anyone!  PLEASE TALK TO ME!"

 

Ronon's eyes opened somewhere in the midst of all that, and he frowned.  At the last plea, he swallowed thickly, and managed a very weak, "McKay?"

 

"Ronon? Ronon! Oh, thank GOD!  Are you okay?  Is Teyla okay?  What's happened? Are you hurt?  Is Teyla? Do you know what exploded?  Something exploded!  I don't—"

 

"McKay," Ronon said again, frowning, "Shut up." 

 

Miraculously...it worked.  McKay shut up.  But, one thing Ronon knew, he wouldn't shut up for long.

 

Slowly, he recognized that he was lying on his side, wedged between several unyielding pieces of metal.  It was like he'd been stuffed into a box. Without thinking, he tried to lift both arms up to grab at the edge of the box in order to pull himself free...and pain exploded from right arm.  He yelled something inarticulate, blinking through the red haze that suddenly clouded his vision and blocked his ears.  It wasn't until the pain began to fade that he realized McKay was yelling again.

 

"...hurt! You sounded like the world just ended!  Is it you that's hurt?  Or Teyla?  What is it?  Where are you hurt?  Can you move?  You're not dying, are you?  Please, please tell me you're not dying!  I can't...Ronon, please!  Talk to me! Ronon! Are you okay?"

 

Ronon let out a wheezing breath, and blinked his eyes open again.  They'd scrunched closed when the pain had first registered.  Tilting his head, he looked at his right arm, and found it twisted uncomfortably close to his body.  Dislocated.  Damn. 

 

Gritting his teeth, he tested his left arm again and found it moved without too much difficulty.  There was a nasty cut on his forearm, but it was just a long scratch.  Nothing he couldn't deal with.

 

McKay continued to yammer on over the communications system.  He was shouting, but there was a weakness to the chaotic jumble of words, like a man at the edge of his mental breaking point.

 

"McKay," he said again, closing his eyes and releasing a calming breath, "You need to be quiet for a moment."

 

Again, it worked.  But again, Ronon knew it wouldn't work for long.

 

He was right.

 

"Can you...can you at least tell me...what's wrong with you?"

 

"That's what I'm trying to work out right now," Ronon replied coldly.  Gripping the edge of something with his left hand, he pulled forward.  His legs, heretofore numbed, started to tingle with an intensity that he usually only felt after being hit by multiple stunner blasts.  It wasn't pleasant.  But, it also meant he was alive and blood was pumping to his limbs—meaning he should be able to move them once they'd re-acclimated.  Pulling himself more out of the tight space he'd been pressed into, he got far enough out to twist and lie on his back.  Confident that he wouldn't slip, he reached his left hand down and hooked it under his left thigh and pulled...levering the leg out of the space.

 

Once free, he moved it...and found he could move the right one as well, now that it wasn't trapped under the left.

 

He blew out a tired breath.

 

"Ronon?"  McKay sounded tentative, like a child about to ask their parents to explain why their favorite pet had just died.  "Ronon, are you okay?"

 

"I'm hurt," he replied tersely, noting the blood on his legs.  His left outer thigh was cut and bleeding sluggishly.  He'd have to wrap it.  It was much deeper than the cut on his arm.  Looking up, he noted a jagged piece of metal not far from where he was lying—part of a ripped open control panel.  There was red blood drying on it.  His own.  Great.

 

"I know you're hurt, you lummox.  Are you hurt badly?"

 

Ronon had to quirk a smile at that.  He didn't know what a lummox was, but he knew it had to be an insult.  He much preferred an insulting McKay to a scared McKay.

 

"Not sure yet," he replied honestly.  He'd really only begun to catalogue what was wrong with him.  Still, he knew he could move.  Mostly.  Except for his right arm.  Once he was sure he could stand again, he'd take care of that.

 

"Well, are you bleeding? How about your head?  Is your head okay? I mean, I know you have all that hair, which is probably almost as good as wearing a helmet, but I know you've cracked your skull before.  I was there on Sateda, remember?  Saw you after...right, not the best time to bring that up.  Um, so, back to your injuries.  What about bones?  Break any of those?  Leg, arm, rib..."

 

"McKay," Ronon blew out another breath, testing the strength of his ribs.  They were definitely bruised.  He might have cracked one or two, if not in the crash, then when the Wraith had thrown him across the room.  And hadn't that been embarrassing.  "I said I don't know yet.  You need to shut up and let me work this out."

 

"But...I mean, maybe I could help?"

 

Ronon arched an eyebrow at that, "How?"

 

"I could...I could...I could name every possible thing that could be wrong with you, and you could check off what is and is not damaged.  I memorized the Merck Manual, you know.  And Grey's Anatomy.  And I've read a lot of the major medical journals...well, at least the ones that had illnesses that I thought I might have contracted...and I've been to lots of doctors...and, well, I went to school in Boston, see, and there are all these famous hospitals there, and you can't move without tripping over an MD or a PhD more than willing to expound on the wonders of their research, especially after a few beers or glasses of wine, and, if it was a date, even more, which is neither here nor there, anyway I...uh...forgotten what I was...oh right.  Your hurt.  Your...Ronon? Ronon?  Are you still there? Oh no! You didn’t pass out, did you?  Ronon?"

 

"I'm still here," Ronon replied, though, at the moment, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to admit to that.

 

"Oh, good.  Anyway, point is," McKay took in a deep breath, "if you told me what was wrong, I might be able to help."

 

Ronon snorted, not believing that for a second.  "I've been on the run a long time, McKay."

 

"What?  What does that have to do with anything? So what?"

 

"So, I know how to take care of myself.  You get chased by Wraith for seven years, you get good at patching yourself up."

 

That earned a moment's silence, and it was wonderful.  Sadly, also short-lived.

 

"Yes, well...you're tough.  I know that.  I saw you take an arrow to the calf, once, remember? And then you pulled it out like it wasn't any more bothersome than a toothpick.  But, that being said, it wasn't like it was sticking through your stomach...or your ass, right? I mean, you could be bleeding from a terrible internal injury right now and I ...oh...oh God...are you?  Are you bleeding out?  You have to get a bandage on that! Now! Find something!  Anything!  Are you wearing your coat still?  Use that! Or—"

 

"I'm not bleeding out, McKay.  Got a deep cut down my leg, but I'm okay."

 

"Your LEG?! That could be arterial!  The iliac artery!  You have to stop the bleeding!  Have you even—"

 

"Got to deal with the fact that I've only one arm first, McKay," Ronon replied, getting a little tired of this conversation.  He shut his eyes, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted.  Why wouldn't McKay shut up?

 

A few seconds later, the Satedan's brown eyes opened in surprise.  McKay had shut up.  And suddenly...he was worried.

 

"McKay?"  He pushed himself upright on his good arm, ignoring the pain in his ribs.  "McKay?"

 

"You only...have one arm?"  It was laced with absolute dread.

 

Ronon's eyebrows lifted, and suddenly he realized what McKay must be imagining.  He couldn't help it, he started to laugh.

 

"Oh no...oh God. You're hysterical!  You need to breathe, Ronon!  Breathe!  Come back to me!  You can't go crazy on me now!  Ronon, please!  Ronon!"

 

"No, no, McKay, McKay stop!" He tried to stop the laughing, because McKay was right about one thing...it wasn't as funny as all that. And it was scaring him a little that he could not just calm down.  Finally, though, he managed to quit laughing, and he blinked away some of the spots in his vision that the laughter had caused. He swallowed, and looked around him for the first time at the control room.  It was dark.  "I'm okay."

 

"What?" McKay's voice was trembling.  He was clearly terrified, wherever he was. "What are you saying?"

 

"I have two arms," Ronon said. "One's dislocated."

 

There was a huge sigh of relief over the staticky connection. "Oh. I thought...oh. That's okay then."

 

"For you, maybe."  Ronon blew out a breath, and decided to try and stand. The tingling in his legs had just about faded now, replaced by dull throbbing from both limbs. Still, neither felt broken.  Reaching out his left arm to grab the edge of a piece of metal jutting out near him, he braced himself and levered himself upwards to his feet. 

 

Another groan unwittingly escaped his lips, but he was up.  Teetering a little, he bent over, slowly breathing through the pain and working on getting his equilibrium back.

 

"Oh, I know it's bad.  I only meant, better than not having your arm at all.  No, no, dislocated shoulders are definitely bad things," McKay took in a breath, clearly back to his usual level of chatter.  Ronon sighed. "I mean, I assume it's your shoulder and not, say, your elbow, right? Anyway, I do know that they're supposed to hurt like hell."

 

Ronon straightened up, clearing his mind and looking around more carefully.  His right arm hung loose by his side, unfeeling.

 

"You know, in the movies...you know what I mean by movies, right?  Sheppard said he'd been showing you the Indiana Jones ones.  Not sure why he likes...anyway, I'm digressing.  In the movies, the heroes are always dislocating their shoulders.  I think it's supposed to make them look tough, or something, when it doesn't cause them to scream like a girl when it happens.  Like most people would.  I mean, it hurts, right? You yelled, and that says something..."

 

Ronon got his bearings.  The ship was partially on its side again, though not as fully as it was before.  It just seemed to be tilted slightly.  The floor was angled, but not severely.  He'd been wedged beneath a console on the port side wall near the back—he must have slid in here when the ship crashed.  Last thing he remembered, he was standing near the doors to the central corridor, where he'd been about to chase after the Wraith Leader.

 

He looked in that direction, and grimaced at the ripped open and blackened doors.  The explosion had done that.  The room was otherwise very dark—filled with shadows and darkness.  The sun had obviously gone down.

 

"There's this one movie, Lethal Weapon, where the hero—this actor, Mel Gibson...oh, you should have seen the way the women in my college used to swoon over him!  You'd think he was God's greatest gift to the earth, the way they used to carry on.  I heard he's made a bit of an ass out of himself lately though.  I don't really follow the entertainment news that comes through, but I hear he's not as hot as he once was.  Of course, there are probably a whole bunch of younger guys that have taken his place.  Actors that look like Sheppard—all rakish hair and charm and..." 

 

Ronon was reeling a little, a wave of dizziness taking him by surprise.  Where had that come from? Oh...blood loss.  He looked down at his leg.  It was bleeding more.  Need to do something about that.  He needed his arm.  Turning he looked around.  There.  A solid piece of wall without anything sticking out of it. That should do. He stumbled towards it.  Then he stopped, because he realized McKay had stopped talking.

 

As much as he kept wanting McKay to shut up, he couldn't deny that it worried him every time the scientist did.

 

"McKay?"

 

"Huh? Oh.  Yeah. Sorry. I was thinking about...anyway.  What was I talking about? Oh, right, Sheppard. No! No...Mel Gibson.  Lethal Weapon.  Yes."  Ronon heard McKay take in a shaking breath, and he shook his head.  He reached the wall and turned around so that he gripping the edge with his left hand. "In Lethal Weapon—and this is patently outrageous, so don't even think I'm suggesting you try this—Mel Gibson's character always dislocates his shoulder, and to get it back into place, he just sort of slams it into a wall—"

 

Ronon slammed his right shoulder into the wall with enough force that it shook the metal. He shouted in pain, the agony blazing down the limb as it clicked back into place from the force of the slam.

 

There was silence on the line, then, with a tone of pure disgust, McKay spoke again. "You just did that, didn't you?  You just slammed your shoulder into a wall."

 

Ronon was resting his steaming head against the wall, his right arm alive with pins and needles that made the ones he felt earlier in his legs seem like nothing.

 

"You really are just a walking cliché, sometimes, aren't you? Where the hell did you come from? Every girl on Atlantis' fantasy? I call Sheppard "Kirk," but... my God, you're frikkin' Mel Gibson, aren't you?  You know what this means, right?  I am NEVER going to get the girl now."

 

Ronon lifted his head up, frowning a little.  McKay still talked as if Sheppard were with them.  Perhaps he was.  Slowly, he tested his right arm.  It moved, albeit reluctantly.  His fingers curled spastically, and he had to concentrate on getting them to curl with intent.

 

"Ronon? Are you still there? You didn't just faint on me, did you?"

 

"Still here," the Satedan muttered, trying to get the energy to move some more.  He had to bind his leg.  Damn, he was tired.  He just wanted to sleep a little...

 

"Oh, thank God. So...you bind your leg yet?  You really should do that now, if you've got your...as you put it, arm, back."

 

Ronon gave a weak smile, and tilted away from the wall. "I know.  You don't have to remind me."  Although, considering he'd almost fallen asleep there, maybe McKay did.  Not that he'd tell him that.

 

"Good. Good. And um...I know you're busy but um...is Teyla...?" His voice trailed off, filled once more with fear and dread.

 

Ronon suddenly straightened fully, his eyes widening.  Teyla!   He turned around, staggering a little on his still wobbly legs.  "Teyla!" he called into the room.

 

"Is she not there?  Ronon? Where is she?"

 

"I don't know," the Satedan snapped back, fully alert now. How could he forget her?  What was wrong with him?  He took a step forward on his bleeding leg...and nearly went down as it threatened to crumple.  Damn it! He didn't have time to be weak! "Damn it!" he repeated out loud, frustration boiling through him.

 

"What? What? Ronon! Talk to me!"   

 

"Leg's not cooperating."

 

"Bind it! Then look for Teyla!  You're no good to her if you bleed to death!"

 

Ronon resisted the urge to roll his eyes—mainly because his head hurt—and looked down at his leg with a glower.  With a growl, he grabbed at the bottom of his leather shirt and pulled.  The thread that pieced the ragged pieces together was stubborn...but gave with a sharp enough pull.  Ripping the leather free—it should be long enough—he wrapped the strip around his leg and then tied it tightly, ignoring the fierce pain the action brought. 

 

McKay was yelling in the background again, but he didn't listen.  He had to find Teyla.  It was probably what McKay was yelling about anyway.  Then...he remembered that not listening to McKay was something that had gotten him into trouble before.  Shaking his head, he forced himself to pay attention.

 

"...At least tell me what you do see!  She has to be there somewhere.  I last saw her by the command chair.  Someone had thrown her into it, then she looked forward and...and she screamed..." He could hear McKay breathing shallowly, and there was guilt in his tone now.

 

Still, he'd been right.  Listening to McKay had helped.  The command chair?  It gave him a starting point.  "Okay," he said, a bit breathlessly because he was still in a lot of pain, "I'll go look."

 

McKay didn't answer, and Ronon imagined the scientist gritting his teeth in impatience.  It occurred to him then that he didn't know if the scientist himself was hurt. 

 

"McKay?"

 

"What? You find her?"

 

"No," he staggered forward, the uneven ground preventing him from doing it with any grace, "I'm near the back of the room.  I was near to the doors when the explosion happened.  I sort of slid into a corner.  The room is a mess.  I," he frowned, looking up to see if there were any holograms floating overhead that he hadn't noticed before—there weren't. "I forgot to ask you if you were hurt."

 

There was a moment of silence, then, "No.  I'm okay.  I think."

 

"You think?"

 

"No, I know. I'm fine. I'm not hurt. Cant' move, but... I'll explain later. Find Teyla."

 

Ronon frowned.  There was something the scientist wasn't telling him but, frankly, he couldn't do anything about it right now.  He fell into a couple of consoles, then stepped around the bodies of the two Wraith soldiers on the ground near where he'd been held earlier.  He smiled a little at their appearance—the two idiot creatures had stunned each other when Ronon had leapt away from them to help Teyla.  Unlike the males, the soldiers really had little in the way of brains.  Killing them later hadn't been hard—the slashes across their necks were deep and penetrating, the black blood still bubbling out of both. Grim, but effective.  No, the only tough one to kill had been their Leader...

 

He grimaced.  Don't think about that now.  Find Teyla.

 

"Come on, Ronon.  The room's not that big.  Or...or is it?  What happened? Is the control room intact?  Oh my God, I never even asked you what it looks like!  I never asked—"

 

"It's intact," Ronon replied, as if realizing that for the first time. "Mostly." Near the doors to the central corridor, there was damage, but, amazingly, he was telling the truth. There wasn't that much damage to the rest of the room. Although. looking up, he noticed one of the windows had shattered.

 

He frowned, noticing, for the first time, just how dark it was out there. He was staring at the stars and at two really bright moons. One was full and shedding a surprising amount of light. The other, in a different part of the sky but still visible, was only three quarters full. It appeared smaller—probably further out in orbit.

 

Sighing, he peered into the darkness, there were a lot of shadows.  He blinked a little when his vision grew fuzzy again, and shook his head.  Stay awake, Ronon!

 

Opening his eyes again, he raked his eyes across the different corners, until...there.

 

"I see her," he announced.

 

McKay audibly sucked in a deep breath. "And?"

  

"I don't know," Ronon replied.  He let go the console he was holding onto and stumbled down the floor towards the nose of the ship.  Teyla was lying on her front, sprawled on the floor right under the three large windows, her hair covering her face.  Something glittered all over her back and in her hair—as if someone had sprinkled her with silver.  From here, he didn't see any blood, but that didn't mean anything.  "Teyla," he called, sliding closer, falling into the dark shadowed corner.

 

His legs protested as they impacted the "end" of the ship in order to stop his slide, but he ignored the pain.  He was next to Teyla now and he knelt down on his good leg, reaching a hand out to touch her neck.  The glitter was glass.  She was the reason the window was shattered—she must have hit it.

 

For a moment, he just waited, listening and feeling...waiting for the telltale thump.

 

And it came.  He let out a heavy breath.  Thank the ancestors.

 

The pulse was strong and steady.  If she were bleeding somewhere he couldn't see, the pulse wouldn't be that strong.  She was also breathing softly, regularly.  It didn't seem labored.

 

"Teyla?" he called again, shaking her shoulder slightly.  She didn't respond.  He brushed more of her hair back, then sucked in a breath at the damage to her forehead.  There was a deep, red-tinged bruise along the side of her temple and running down her face, mixing with the dried blood from the earlier cut that Beckett had bandaged.  Damn.

 

Leaning back on his leg, he lowered his head.

 

His eyes opened.  McKay hadn't said a word since he said he'd found her.  He looked vaguely in the direction of the engine room. "McKay?"

 

"Ronon?  Are you...is she...?"

 

"She's alive," he said finally.  "Unconscious, but alive."

 

A held breath was audibly released over the line. "Thank God," McKay muttered weakly.  Ronon gave a tiny smile and tugged the jacket she still wore up higher over her shoulders and then brushed more of the long hair from her face.  She just looked asleep.

 

"You thank him a lot, your God," he noted.

 

"Today? Yes, yes I do."

_________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY:  MAKING SENSE OF THE SURROUNDINGS

 

Sheppard wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there.  His eyes were open, but staring at nothing.  It seemed to take an enormous amount of effort to refocus them on his surroundings. 

 

Still surrounded by the wheat-like grass.  Still on his knees.  Still alone.

 

He felt dead inside. 

 

Something just turned off, shut down.  He didn't know how to explain it, but, in some ways, it was a good thing.  The pain from his injuries seemed to fade in the wake of it, appear less intense.  Hell, everything felt less intense.  As if he were drunk or high.

 

Turning his head, he looked down at the patch of ground he'd fallen on, noting that it was sort of cold.  Everything was sort of cold.  Like the world had been leeched of heat.

 

In the time since he'd seen the Thermopylae crash, the sun had gone completely down.  In its place, two very bright moons filled the sky, providing more than enough light to see by, though everything was now tinted in white, blue and black.  The one exception, as he looked in the direction of where he’d seen the ship go down, was a red-tinged glow that seemed to put the edge of the rise before him in stark relief.  It was like standing in the parking lot at the beach at night, looking over at the glow of the bonfire on the far side of the dunes. 

 

He blinked slowly and looked up at the sky.  The smoke was still pouring out from the crashed ship, blocking out the navy firmament with its millions of stars, the color of the smoke blacker than the night could ever be. 

 

He wondered what the ship itself looked like.

 

He had to find out, to see, even if part of him really didn't want to.  Didn't want to see the proof that it had come true, his greatest fear.

 

That he had lost them.

 

He took in a breath and let it out. 

 

He had no choice.  He had to see it.  He needed to be ready to take them home when the Daedalus came.  Needed to be ready to explain...why he had failed to save his team.

 

He gritted his teeth and moved to stand up...and flopped back down again when he got almost no response from either leg.

 

He pursed his lips, took a breath...and tried again....

 

This time, he stayed upright, but only barely, his legs shaking worse than a leaf in the wind.

 

Turning, he looked at the blackened edge of the woods behind him, the woods he’d been skirting before.  He needed a crutch. 

 

With that rather dull thought in mind, he stumbled backwards towards the darkness.

 

Had he looked up, he would have seen the village up above in the mountain—the village they’d saved—lit up with tiny torches.  A number of them looked to be moving.

______________________________________________

 

"Am I dead?" Teyla asked, frowning at the casual looking Jorgan Relegar still leaning against the command chair.  He shook his head.

 

"No."

 

She contemplated that for a moment, studying the floor before her. "Then I am dreaming."

 

He frowned, considering that, then shook his head again. "I am not sure you are doing that either."

 

She stared at him, confused. "Not dreaming? Then," she waved a hand around, "what is this?"

 

"Somewhere in-between, I believe," Jorgan said, hopping off the dais and walking towards her.  He looked at her uniform, then up at her face, curiosity lighting his eyes. "Is that the new Athosian uniform?"

 

Her lips parted, and she blushed.  Shaking her head, she plucked at the charcoal grey sleeve of her Atlantian jacket. "No.  This is...," she frowned for a second, not sure how to answer the question properly, then shrugged. "This is the Atlantian uniform.  Worn by the people now living in Atlantis.  The Athosians work with them now."

 

His eyebrows rose, surprised. "People?  Meaning..." he tilted his head, "not Lantean?  Because, I would assume, had you meant Lantean, you would have said Lantean."

 

She shook her head slowly, not lifting her head to meet his gaze, "No.  Not Lantean.  The Lanteans are gone.  Long ago.  They left this galaxy ten thousand years ago, returning from whence they came."

 

"Ten thousand years..." Jorgan breathed, stepping back, absorbing that slowly.  He turned and walked in a small circle, then stopped abruptly and looked at her. His face had broken into a huge grin, bright and brilliant...and again, oddly familiar to Teyla. "Then the Athosians live on?  They survived?"

 

Teyla just arched a smug eyebrow. "You think our people could be so easily eradicated?"

 

Jorgan's smile fell into a small "o" of surprise, and this time, he was the one to blush.  He smiled sheepishly.

 

"Of course not," he said, smiling more. "Still, it is nice to know."

 

Teyla nodded. "Yes, it is."

 

He looked at her, then around the bridge of the Thermopylae.  He sighed then, sounding oddly content.  "I missed this ship."

 

She looked around, grimacing slightly. "It," she sighed heavily, "it does not look like this now."

 

"Yes, I know." Jorgan frowned, then shrugged. "But it was beautiful, wasn't it?"

 

She just kept her head down.

 

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, before turning to face her. "What is it?"

 

She looked at him, her eyes feeling suspiciously wet. "I...I am sorry," she said.  "This...the Thermopylae was your legacy.  And now it's gone.  Destroyed."

 

"Destroyed?" Jorgan stared at her, his eyes sparkling with something akin to amusement. "On the contrary, Teyla Emmagen, you brought the Thermopylae back to life.  And for that, you have my undying ungratitude."

____________________________________________________________

 

Hey, McKay,” Ronon called over the ship’s communication system, and McKay could hear him shifting around in the control room as he spoke, “What did you mean when you said you couldn’t move?”

 

“Oh,” Rodney sighed, “just that.  I can’t move.”  He grunted, trying to move his right arm, but it stayed stubbornly wedged under the edge of the collapsed stairs lying on top of him, and his left was equally pressed down on the other side.  He curled his left fingers and tugged, but, though he could move the arm a couple of centimeters, it was otherwise fettered. “I somehow got under the stairs leading up to the central corridor, and they fell on me, so I’m stuck.”

 

Just stuck.  Not hurt?”

 

“No, not hurt.  Bruised and uncomfortable, but, near as I can tell, not hurt.” 

 

It was funny.  McKay remembered thinking vaguely about getting under the stairs for protection, but didn’t know when he had actually done it.  But clearly he did, and they must have collapsed on top of him in the explosion, literally pinning him down.  It had probably saved his life to be under here, but the consequence was, annoyingly, he was trapped.  Metal was twisted across his torso, almost like an elaborate cage.  His chest was relatively unencumbered, so he could breathe just fine, but both arms were ensnared inside the metal, almost as if he were shackled, imprisoned by the ship for his part in its loss.  Similarly, though he could see just make out the tips of his boots and turn them side to side, most of his lower body from his stomach down was hidden under the long slabs of bent and burnt metal.

 

Mostly, he was just really, really uncomfortable.  His back had started to ache from the position, and he was also really horribly tired.

 

Good,” Ronon stated. “And I’m guessing those two Wraith with you are dead— blown up—right?”

 

Rodney sighed, “Yeah.  Think so.  Nothing’s moving in the rubble, so, yeah.”

 

Just think so?  McKay, be sure.”

 

“Did you miss the part where I was stuck under something heavy, Ronon?  It's not like I can just get up and go check!” He huffed a little, then continued. “Look, this room is a smoldering wreck.  Plus, after what I did to them, there’s no way they survived…”

 

“What you did to them? What did you do to them?”

 

“Hit them with the power cord.  Zap!  No more Wraith.”

 

Ronon chuckled over the line, then it faded. “Good.  So…you don’t need me to come down there, then.”

 

Rodney opened his mouth, about to say that, yes, of course he need him to come down here, needed him to get him out of this mess, but then he remembered Teyla.  If she woke up alone, or if she were more hurt that Ronon was telling him…

 

“No.  You can’t leave Teyla.  Like I said, I’m not actually hurt. And, I mean, I can talk to you from here, so, I’m okay.”

 

Yeah, about that.  If there’s no power, how is the ship’s communications system still working?”

 

“Auxiliary power is still on-line.  I tied a bunch of things into it—navigation, shields, communications between here and the control room, the mess hall…” He trailed off, thinking about the buffer he’d attached to the power grid in the mess.  Did it survive?  He swallowed and shut his eyes.  Don’t think about it now, McKay.  Just don’t.  Obviously not listening, his arms pulled again at his metal restraints, trying to get free, needing to act.

 

Huh.” Ronon didn't sound impressed.

 

McKay stilled his arms, mind already on something else. “Oh, that reminds me.  Ronon, you need to shut down the shields so that people will be able to get to us.  The Daedalus, for example.  If I tell you how, think you can do it?”

 

Ronon just grunted, and McKay gave him some quick directions.  Pretty soon, a low hum that had been buzzing in the background lessened and petered out.  At least it was something. 

 

Done.  Gonna go back and sit next to Teyla now.”  He sounded very tired, and, to McKay's ears, a little weak.  It was worrisome.  Ronon never sounded weak.  He sighed.

 

“Okay.”

 

McKay rested his head back on the metal floor and looked up, staring up at a gap in the ceiling that he could see above his head.  It was nighttime, and the natural light flooding the room was indeed moonlight not sunlight—white, pale and eerie. From what he could tell, the back end here had cracked open in several places when the room had exploded outwards, and the smoke was funneling out in steady quantities. Fire still burnt somewhere that he couldn’t quite see in the massive room…

 

He still didn't know what had exploded.  Of all things, the engine room should have been designed to prevent explosions.  It just didn't make any sense!

 

He sighed again, a heavy, exasperated sigh.  He hated this.  Hated not knowing, not understanding....

 

He took in a breath and thought again about the others.

 

Ronon had stopped talking to him. Obviously, now that he knew McKay was okay, the Satedan was done with the conversation.  But McKay wasn’t.  He desperately wanted to know more about Teyla, about what had happened, but he could hear Ronon’s dwindling patience for chatter in his voice and finally decided that pushing the Satedan wasn't going to get him much right now.

 

Still…

 

Something popped faintly off to his right, like a wet stone on a fire, and he frowned. 

 

Don’t think about it, McKay.  It’s just the ship settling…

 

He took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.

 

Okay.  He couldn’t do this.  The silence was killing him.  More so than anything else.  He needed Ronon to talk to him.  Needed to know they were okay.

 

He closed his eyes and counted to fifty. Right, that should be enough time.  He opened his eyes, took in another deep breath, and called out.

 

"Ronon?"

 

"What?" It was sharp.  Ronon was not pleased about being bothered again.  Not surprising.

 

"Um...I just...so what's wrong with Teyla?"

 

"I told you already. I don't know."

 

"Well, can you, you know...describe her to me, or something?  Where is she in the room?  Where are you in the room?"

 

There was a long pause, then a sigh. "She's down near the nose of the ship.  She must have been tossed here, probably as much by the explosion in the corridor as the crash.  Near as I can tell, she's knocked her head really bad. There's bruising all along her forehead.  I don't like it."

 

"What about her body?  Anything broken?  Can you tell if she hurt her spine?"

 

"No."

 

McKay waited a moment for him to continue, then frowned in annoyance. "No, what?  No, you can't tell, or no, there's nothing broken?"

 

A longer pause, then, "No, I can't tell.  I'm just sitting next to her now.  I don't want to touch her. Beckett said, if the jumper ever crashed, I should avoid touching any of you if you were unconscious."

 

"Yeah, yeah," McKay sighed, nodding.  He knew that—had been told the same thing by Beckett himself. "Right."  He looked around the room a bit more, and then stopped, spotting something he didn't want to see. 

 

It was a hand.  A white hand and part of an arm hidden within a black leather coat.

 

The male Wraith.  It was lying about ten feet away, hidden behind a console station.  He couldn’t see the rest of it, just the arm, but…it looked pretty lifeless. Surely the shock from the power conduit had killed it, just as he’d told Ronon.  It couldn’t have survived that.  It had killed the other Wraith, right? The drone?  Turning his head more, grimacing when it pulled at muscles that weren't supposed to twist that way, he tried to see towards the other end of the engine room, where the Wraith soldier had been thrown.

 

But there was too much destruction to see anything. It was just smoke and death down there.  Nothing could have survived that.  No way.

 

He let out a held breath and looked up again at the ceiling through the gaps in the twisted remnants of the stairs.

 

Then he frowned.  It occurred to him that he didn't know if the other three Wraith were dead—the ones in the control room.  He'd presumed as much, because, surely, if they weren't, Ronon wouldn't be sitting calmly next to Teyla, but...still...

 

And maybe, if he asked, he could get Ronon to talk to him a little.  After all, Ronon had asked him...

 

"Ronon?"

 

"What?"  Oh, he was definitely not happy with being interrupted again in his solitary vigil over Teyla.

 

"I...I was wondering what happened?  In the control room.  How did you take down the Wraith?"

 

The now expected paused occurred, then Ronon snorted. "Why?"

 

"Just...well, it occurs to me that...I guess I wanted to make sure the Wraith up there were dead.  Are all three Wraith that were with you dead?"

 

There was a fairly long silence, then, "Yes." He said it as if it were obvious.

 

McKay sighed, trying not to get annoyed with the monosyllabic responses.  "Oh, well, good.  Good.  I thought so but...well....look, come on," he whined, "tell me what happened, will you?  I couldn’t see what was going on in there that well, and I don't know anything about what happened after I pulled the coupling apart."

 

"The what?"

 

"The power cord.  It's why we crashed, remember?"

 

"Oh. Yeah.  That was a dumbass thing to do, McKay."

 

He grimaced.  Dumbass?  Ronon was spending too much time with Sheppard.  "I know," he agreed softly.

 

"But effective." 

 

McKay tilted his head.  He suddenly realized there wasn't any actual blame in Ronon's voice—he almost sounded...amused?

 

"Are you laughing at me?" he demanded suddenly, angrily.

 

"No."

 

"You are!  Effective?  You call this effective?  I blew up the SHIP, Ronon!  That's not effective! That's suicidally STUPID!"

 

That earned a long pause, until, finally, Ronon asked, simply, "What?"

 

McKay swallowed, shutting his eyes for a moment as guilt washed over him.  Then he opened them again. "Look, I...I didn't expect us to...I knew, or guessed, that we might crash, but I didn't think...this destruction...."  He trailed off, and swallowed again.  His throat tasted salty—he was swallowing tears.  The only reason it didn’t freak him out was that no one could see him.

 

"What are you talking about?"

 

"We shouldn't have exploded!" he shouted, finally letting his anger to come out again. "I don't get it!  I can't understand why the ship's in pieces! I don't get why there's so much damage!  The Thermopylae should still be intact!  We shouldn't have—"

 

"You thought the crash wouldn't hurt the ship?" Ronon sounded honestly curious.

 

"Well, yes, it was supposed to hurt a little, but not much.  Despite the steepness of our descent, the shields should have prevented us from being too badly damaged. I honestly thought....I honestly believed we'd....that it would be okay if we just braced ourselves.  Of course, we ended up not really being able to brace ourselves, but it didn't matter did it?  We crashed and this...this happened."  He looked at the ruined engine room, at the twisted, burnt metal surrounding him. "I just...I miscalculated somehow...."  He sniffed, swallowing roughly and tipping his head back in frustration.  How could he have made such a horrible mistake?  How could he have been so wrong?

 

"Huh.  I was wondering why we weren't dead.  Explains a lot.  You were right—we should both have held on when we hit.  Had we just held on, we'd probably—"

 

"Are you kidding?" Rodney’s eyebrows shot up. "Ronon, look around you! The ship EXPLODED!  What I said explains nothing!  I was wrong!  I obviously missed something enormous in the ship's make up, something that caused it to frikkin' BLOW UP.  Don't you get it?  We're alive but for the grace of God!"

 

"The ship didn't explode," Ronon said then, his tone confused.

 

Rodney stilled, blinking slowly.  Then he frowned, "Um, I hate to break it to you, Specialist Ronon Dex, but...yes, it did.  There were two explosions.  One here in the engine room, with me.  I can see sky.  And there's all this smoke and," he paused, heard the telltale crackle again, "and fire.  That doesn't happen just spontaneously, you know."

 

"There's fire there?"  Ronon sounded worried. "Wait, I thought you said you were okay?"

 

"Yes! Yes, I'm fine! For now.  Look, the fire is pretty far from me.  Stop changing the subject!  My point is, you're wrong!"

 

There was a pause, then a slow chuckle.  Rodney frowned some more.  This was getting annoying.

 

"Ronon! Stop laughing at me!  You were probably unconscious or something when it happened!  Believe me, I know explosions!"

 

"So do I, McKay," Ronon crowed.  He sounded horribly pleased with himself, as if he knew something McKay didn't.  "In fact, I'd guess I know these kinds of explosions better than you."

 

Rodney's brow was furrowed so deeply now, his forehead had started to hurt. "What are you going on about?"

 

"The explosions, McKay.  It was the Wraith.  The Wraith Leader, and I'm guessing the Wraith in the engine room with you, blew themselves up.  The Leader ran into the corridor—to get to you, I guess, but then Teyla screamed.   I saw him turn to look back at us, and then he hit the self-destruct on his arm just as we crashed into the ground."

________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: ONE MORE STEP

 

Sheppard stumbled and nearly fell for the third time in so many minutes, and ended up leaning heavily on the stout stick he’d found.  It was taller than he was, gnarled and young, and he was so grateful for its strength as it took the bulk of his weight.  It really was about the only thing keeping his traitorous body upright—that, and willpower. 

 

He knew he was moving by almost sheer stubbornness alone now, mentally pulling on a combination of Ronon's strength, Teyla's endurance and McKay's anger.  They were waiting for him, giving him the fortitude to keep moving.  All he cared about now was getting to his team, his friends, his family. 

 

There was movement in the grass around him, the long wheat shifting and fluttering and...hissing.

 

Great.  More snakes.  So long as they didn’t come out, he was fine.

 

Swallowing, he stayed still for a couple of minutes, willing his body to last just a little longer, to go just a little farther, forcing back the darkness fuzzing at the edge of his vision.

 

Finally, he felt strong enough to move again.

 

Gripping the staff in two hands, feeling a little like Charon pushing the boat across the River Styx towards the land of the dead, he continued his painful journey towards the Thermopylae.

___________________________________________

 

Teyla looked down at the floor, as confused by Jorgan’s apparent gratitude as she was about being in this place.  How could he be happy?

 

“Teyla,” Jorgan called, drawing her attention back up. “What's wrong?”

 

She shook her head—maybe he just didn't know, didn't understand the extent of the damage.  She stepped forward, hands gripping into loose fists by her side.

 

Jorgan,” Teyla bit her lip, "I do not think you understand."  She swept an arm out, "the Thermopylae crashed.  The Wraith on board blew themselves up.  The ship, it—"

 

"...Is just a ship," Jorgan interrupted. "Admittedly, a great ship, but still, just a ship."

 

Teyla's lips parted. "Just a ship?  How can you say that?"

 

The young man shrugged, crossing his hands behind his back and walking to the far side of the control room, looking up at the closed doors to the corridor.  "Did you not tell Vasa today that is not about the place you live, but about the people?  That friends, neighbors and family mean far more than any mere location, no matter how steeped in history or hard work?" He looked back at her, amusement in his dark eyes, and she was struck again at just how familiar they were. "Well, the same is true of things as well, Teyla.  And this ship, as beautiful as she was, was just a thing."

 

She took a step back, a little surprised to have her words thrown back at her so accurately.

 

Jorgan shook his head, turning to face her and opening his arms.  "Come on, Teyla, you know this already. You know the true worth of things—except possibly yourself.  What good is a ship with no crew and no purpose?  What good is technology with no one to operate it?  What good is a city, even one as magical as Atlantis, with no people in it to keep it alive?"  He looked up, his hands gesturing to the encompass the room.  "The Thermopylae was built for greatness—something which could only be achieved by the people who flew her.  And the same thing is as true today as it was then."

 

Teyla frowned. "But..."

 

"Ten thousand years ago, this ship was brought down on its first trip out of port.  It never made it to its destination, never finished what it started. Its crew, all of us, died on this planet and were forgotten. Just like the Thermopylae itself. It never saved anyone--it was just another crashed ship. Today, four people brought it back to life.  And, without any of the knowledge, expertise or even the piloting skills," he gave a sly smile, "of its original crew, those four people achieved more in one day than the Thermopylae ever achieved when she was pristine.  You made this ship matter again, which, in turn, made us matter again. And that, Teyla Emmagen, is why I am grateful." 

 

Teyla just closed her eyes and let his words wash over her.  Suddenly, her mind was filled with images of a distant time, of faces she didn't know and places she didn't recognize, of a silver ship filled with promise and pride, of a desperate, unauthorized plan that brought it down before its name could be added to the history books....

 

And understood. 

——————————————————————————

 

Ronon waited, listening to McKay's heavy breathing over the comm.. He couldn’t believe McKay didn’t know about the Wraith blowing themselves up.  It was rare he knew something the other man didn’t.  "McKay?"

 

"I...I didn't blow up the ship?"

 

The Satedan smiled, shaking his head. "No, McKay.  You didn't blow up the ship.  I thought you knew."

 

Clearly not.”

 

Ronon just smiled some more, settling closer to Teyla.  He’d been plucking glass out of her hair as he spoke to McKay.

 

“Well, they did.”

 

Why did they do it? Just because we crashed?”

 

“That, and I expect the Leader was angry with Teyla.  She had cut his feeding hand off.”  The Satedan smiled, “Pretty cool, that.”

 

She did what?”

 

“The moment you turned the lights off, I jumped to get to Teyla, but she was even faster than me.  All I know is, one second she was in the Leader’s grip, the next, the Wraith was howling and holding onto the stump of his right arm, and Teyla was free.  I took over the fight with the Leader then, and Teyla killed the two Wraith soldiers, slit their throats while they were stunned.  Then I guess she tried to take command of the ship.  At least, she did until she tried to help me after the Wraith threw me across the room. After that, all I remember seeing is the Wraith Leader escaping through into the central corridor, and we crashed.”

 

There was a pause, then, “Wow.”

 

“Yeah.”  Ronon continued to pick at the glass—the pieces were getting really small, some just slivers.

 

So, really, Teyla killed them all.  Not you.”

 

Ronon paused, then frowned and looked up. “What?”

 

Teyla.  Killed the Wraith.  Got the Leader to blow himself up.  You just got tossed around the room a bit.”

 

Ronon’s frown grew dark.  Instead of answering, he returned to removing glass shards. 

 

Hey,” McKay said after a pause, “Oh, come on. I was just kidding. Trying to…to make this all seem less horrible, you know?”

 

Ronon just snorted.  He didn’t see the need to lighten anything.  This was just the way things were.

 

Okay, I’m sorry.  I take it back.”

 

Ronon shook his head.

 

Ronon?”

 

He sighed, “What?”

 

Just…just checking.  So…I guess the Wraith Leader must have told the Wraith soldier who was with me to blow himself up as well.  That mind thing.

 

Ronon nodded. “Would assume.”

 

Funny.  I mean, that soldier shouldn’t even have been alive.  I jolted him with so much power…crazy.  They’re really, really hard to kill, aren’t they?”

 

“Sometimes.  Depends on how recently they’ve fed.  These ones had all fed recently and well.”

 

There was a shuddered intake of breath over the comm.. “Yeah.  Right.  There’s um…no, no, forget it.”

 

Ronon was considering asking “forget what?” but then decided he didn’t really care.  He finished with the glass in Teyla’s hair, and ran a hand through it to make sure.  Satisfied, he let it fall to the side, so that her face was uncovered, and moved on to the collection on her back.

 

Ronon?”

 

The Satedan rolled his eyes.  Why couldn’t McKay be quiet for five minutes?  “What now?”

 

The Wraith…they didn’t feed on Sheppard, did they? I…when the Leader told me he was dead, I…I…”

 

“Sheppard fell off the cliff, McKay.  The Wraith didn’t feed on him.”

 

Oh, thank God.  I was afraid that—”

 

“Yeah.”  Ronon had to cut him off—being reminded about Sheppard was not something he needed to deal with right now. 

 

He had most of the glass off Teyla’s back—it was faster going than the hair, and the pieces were bigger. Plucking off the last of the large pieces, he sighed and sat back, looking around the cool room. His leg still throbbed painfully, and he could see blood seeping through the leather. It needed a proper bandage, but he didn’t have one. His right arm was in nine kinds of pain, reminding him what a bad day it had had, and his ribs hurt from being thrown. Part of him just wanted to close his eyes and lean back against the wall and forget all this had ever happened. 

 

Ronon?”

 

Oh, that was it.  “McKay, I don’t want to talk anymore.  Can you do that for a little while?  Not talk?”

 

There was a pause, then, a little angrily, “No.”

 

“Well, fine.  You talk, but I’m done answering. I need rest, McKay, and I can’t rest with you blathering constantly in my ear." 

 

blathering?"

 

"Blathering."

 

McKay snorted. "Big word," he jeered.

 

Ronon opened his eyes, staring vaguely towards the black central corridor, face reddening with anger.  He was about to answer, when he realized that was exactly what McKay wanted.  So, instead, he sealed his jaw and closed his eyes again.

 

There was a longer pause, then, "I'm sorry."

 

Ronon sighed.

 

"Ronon?  Ronon...please.  Come on.  I'm sorry.  You can't not talk to me."

 

"Sure I can," Ronon replied lazily.

 

"No, you can't!"

 

A dark smile touched the Satedan's face.  He didn't answer, just listened as McKay started to breathe faster.

 

"You can't do this, Ronon.  You can't do this because I can't SEE YOU!  Don't you understand? Your voice is the only thing I have to hold onto right now.   I’m scared and trapped and I have no idea what is going on with Teyla or you.  I don’t know if you’re more hurt than you’re telling me, which you probably are, knowing you.  The only way I know if Teyla is still alive is if you tell me she is.  And the only way I know to stop myself from completely  freaking out over the fact that my best friend is dead and lying at the bottom of a cliff is to focus on the fact that I may not have also killed the two of you as well!  And, frankly, I don’t see why it’s so damned hard for you to do me the kindness of talking to me!”

 

Ronon's eyes had popped open in the middle of that, and widened as it continued.

 

Damn.

 

With a pained groan, he drew his knees up and rested his elbow on them, propping his aching head on his hand.  He was listening to McKay breathe over the comm. now, the respirations hiccoughing slightly.   Slowly, he drew in a slow breath. 

 

“I’m sorry,” he said finally.

 

McKay didn’t answer.  Probably embarrassed.

 

“Look,” he leaned his head back again, resting it against the wall. “I’m not much of a talker, McKay.  You know that.”

 

Yeah...I know.”

 

“And I’m not really used to…to other people relying on me for stuff.  That is, people rely on me to fight for them, sure, but…not to just talk.  I don’t do that.  Haven’t done that in a really long time.”

 

I…”

 

“I’m not even sure I know how.  I got so used to silence, to the point where I started to crave it.  To me, silence is safe.  Noise...noise means danger.  It means people and Wraith and alarm bells and culling beams...Even the smallest noises, whether it be someone tiptoeing outside the door, or the sound of gas releasing, or the slide of a knife out of a sheath…” He grimaced, looking down at Teyla, “And sometimes, when so much has happened, like now, I just…I need a few minutes, you know?  I need it to be still.”

 

There was a soft sigh, then, “Yeah. I get it.  I just…I’m a little…sorry.”

 

Ronon lowered his head again onto his hand, and used the thumb to knead at his forehead.

 

He let it soak into him then—the quiet.  He could hear fire as well, crackling from somewhere in the distance—probably the central corridor.  As long as it stayed there and didn't come here, all was well.  He didn't like fire. 

 

He listened to McKay breathing over the comm.  It was oddly soothing.

 

Finally, checking his watch, he saw that five minutes had passed.  He smiled.  When you got right down to it—McKay was a good man.  He deserved better from him. Ronon looked up.

 

“McKay?”

 

Yeah?” It was tentative, nervous. "Can we talk now?"

 

Ronon snorted. "Yeah."

 

"Okay.  Thanks."

 

There was a pause, and, when the scientist didn't say anything more, Ronon frowned. "McKay?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You're not talking."

 

"Well, you put me on the spot, didn't you? I'm trying to think of something you'd be interested in.  I know you tune me out half the time, so I'm trying to think of something you'd think was worth listening to."

 

That earned a frown from the Satedan.  Speaking of listening...He shifted up and took a breath. "McKay."

 

"Oh, come on! Give me a minute! I'm sure I can think of something! I can always think of something!  Just let me—"

 

"McKay, I'm sorry," Ronon said, interrupting the other man.

 

That earned a questioning moment of silence, then: "For not talking to me?  No, I understand.  Really.  It's okay, I—"

 

"No, not about that.  About earlier.  I'm going to stop doing that."

 

"Doing what?"

 

"Not listening to you.  I should have listened to you."

 

"What?  When?  'Cause, to be fair, I think I've been mostly talking nonsense—in other words, blathering—since we crashed."

 

Ronon gave a small smile at that, accepting the apology.  He shook his head. "No, McKay.  I mean, when we were fighting the third dart.  I should have listened to you.  I'm not going to make that mistake again."

 

There was a longish pause, "Ronon, no.  Sheppard was right.  I always think that I can do anything I put my mind to, but there's a reason I can't fly a jumper in a straight line. It's the same reason I suck at pool.  I just don't have the talent for it.  Sheppard does.  He told me not to mess around, and I did."

 

"It wasn't all your fault.  I gave away our position, and I am the reason the stargate was destroyed.   Worst thing you did...was turn us upside down."

 

There was a short laugh at that. "Well, there might be some truth to that.  But, fact is, had I just shot the dart down in the beginning—"

 

"You'd wonder if you could have saved the people trapped on it for the rest of your life."

 

McKay didn't answer that, just sort of stopped breathing.  Ronon gave a sad smile towards the heavens.

 

"And so would I," he finished. "It's why I didn't fire when I could have. I could have ignored you, McKay, just like I did before.  But I didn't.  I wanted to save them as much as you did."

 

"Ronon..."

 

"Next time, you'll listen to Sheppard, and I'll listen to you.  Deal?"  He smiled slightly.

 

Again, McKay didn't answer. 

 

But this time, the pause grew too long, and Ronon's smile fell.  Soon it became a frown. 

 

"McKay?"

 

"You're right.  Let's not talk anymore." Short and tired sounding.

 

Ronon shut his eyes.  Damn it.  He replayed his words in his head—why had he brought up Sheppard like that?  Hell.

 

"McKay."

 

"I thought you wanted to rest."

 

"Yeah, sure.  Look, how about we just talk about...something else."

 

He heard McKay sigh, then, in an oddly perky about face, "Okay."

 

“Right,” Ronon repeated.  He swallowed, then forced a small smile onto his face.  He could do this. “So, uh, what do you want to talk about?”

 

Um, actually?” McKay’s breathing had accelerated, and Ronon frowned, the tension returning to his shoulders. He could hear metal rattling—like a prisoner trying to escape their chains. “I, um, I think I may need you to come here after all.”

 

Ronon frowned, “What? Why?”

 

There were two Wraith with me.  One, the soldier, he blew himself up, like you said.  The other...didn't.  And I thought it was because he was dead but…but he’s awake and...oh God, Ronon he's crawling towards me.”

 

Ronon was moving the moment McKay said the word, “Wraith.”

_______________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: THE HARDEST TO KILL

 

Ronon grabbed up one of the dead Wraiths' stunner weapons and limped forward, sliding awkwardly across the uneven floor.  McKay had stopped talking, but he could still hear him breathing in terrified gulps.

 

"I'm coming!" he shouted, "Just hang on!"

 

"Hurry," was all McKay managed, his voice warbling over the comm. 

 

Ronon frowned as he pushed past the partially shut, burnt doors and into the central corridor. 

 

And stopped.

 

In front of him was, essentially, a wall of black smoke.   He had thought, from his perspective in the control room next to Teyla, that it was just lack of light that made the corridor so dark, but now he was here...this was much, much worse.

 

Swearing, he limped further forward, getting as close as he dared, coughing fiercely as he tried to peer through the almost wall-like smoke, already sweating heavily from the heat.   He was climbing upwards, and the incline seemed to grow steeper as he moved, harder to handle with his bad leg, though he knew that had to be an illusion.  Through the blackness, he could make out flashes of fire, tiny pockets of flame somewhere up ahead.  The Wraith Leader had picked the worst possible location to blow himself up—or the best, depending on perspective.  Ronon remembered how just one Wraith soldier's self-destruct had reduced a massive barn to rubble on Sateda, nearly taking him with it.  Whatever explosive the Wraith Leader had worn inside his armor, it was equally as devastating...if not more so, because the middle of the ship was nothing but a smoldering ruin.

 

Swearing, he pulled up his coat to cover his mouth and ducked down.  He had to get to McKay—which mean he had to get through this smoke.  Limping forward, he bowed even further, bending his legs more as he tried to get through the wall of heat and acrid smoke...and fell hard on his bleeding leg when it suddenly refused to bend anymore.

 

Swearing, coughing more harshly and trying to ignore the pain radiating from his abused ribs, he pushed himself up...and fell again as a particularly thick puff of smoke blew over him, choking him—the pain in his lungs so intense it blinded him.

 

Scrabbling backwards, back to the cool, clean control room, he was gasping for air, trying just to get his eyesight back as he coughed up everything in his chest. 

 

Still lying on his side, he peered back through red, watering eyes at the wall of smoke. 

 

There was no breathing in there—he'd die if he tried that again.

 

He had to find another way.

——————————————————————————————

 

McKay continued to fight, trying to free his arms, his legs, anything, but he was well and truly stuck, the sharp edges of his impromptu cage cutting at his wrists.  Knees banged up against the stairway slabs pinning his legs; the heels of his boots pushed against the floor for leverage.   Fingers grasped and pulled at bits of metal he couldn't see—hoping beyond hope to find some sort of lever that would free him. 

 

His eyes never left the terrifying sight of the slowly moving white hand, inching its way up the tilted metal floor. Like something out of a horror movie, he watched as more of the Wraith become visible—the arm, a second arm, a ghastly mop of white hair, black blood smeared in the dreads....McKay pulled harder, beyond desperate now.

 

The creature gave a low, pain-filled hiss and lifted its head, revealing its face for the first time.  McKay abruptly froze when the head tilted upwards and black, sunken eyes focused on the scientist inside his metal cage.

 

Rodney's heart leapt into his throat, and he gasped for air, tugging even more fiercely to free himself.  The dull throbbing pain from his lower back sparked a burst of sharp pain, and he held back a scream of agony.  What the hell was that?  His eyes shut, squinting against it, riding the pain out, and when they opened again he felt the stickiness of tears on the sides of his face. 

 

On the verge of hyperventilating, he looked back towards the Wraith.

 

It was still inching forward, pulling itself by its arms, hungry, desperate eyes locked on the scientist. 

 

"Help...," McKay whispered without sound, finding, for the first time, that he was so scared his voice had really and truly left him. 

_______________________________________________

 

Sheppard stood atop the rise, staring down at the mess below him. 

 

The Thermopylae...was just a ruin.

 

The ship had snapped in half like a broken pencil.  The roof and top level of the front half—the one they never got to explore—was joined to the back by only a few strands of black cable, while the bottom, where the mess hall had been, looked to have crumpled in on itself, twisted and bent up out of the marshland.  That bottom section was where most of the red-tinged glow emanated from, fire licking at the cracked edges. The middle of this ship was essentially a blackened hole, and fire was clearly visible—the morbid part of him wondered if it was the bodies in the mess hall that Rodney and Teyla had found that burned so well. 

 

Huge, roiling clouds of smoke rose up from it without seeming pause.

 

The nose of the ship was half buried in the mire, tilted partially on its side towards him, though he could still see the windows clearly.  One appeared shattered, the moonlight catching the jagged edges.  There was no light inside—the control room just looked cold and empty.

 

Ronon and Teyla were probably in there.  In that darkness. 

 

The other end of the ship—the engine room—had broken up while still retaining its shape, like someone had slashed at it with a carving knife. It was tilted away from him. Huge gaps were visible along the hull, and smoke poured from them as well. 

 

McKay would have been in there.

 

He closed his eyes. 

 

Then, like a whisper on the wind, he heard it.

 

"Help..."

 

Sheppard's head shot up, and something flared inside his chest, snapping the lid closed on the Pandora's box of emotions he'd been feeling.  Without thinking, he stumbled down the rise, barely using the crutch as he reached the edge of the muddy ground, only thinking about getting to the ship as fast as he could.

_____________________________________________ 

 

Ronon got back to his feet as soon as he was back in the control room, using one of the consoles for leverage.  Still coughing painfully, he staggered towards the middle of the room, falling against the back of the white command chair.  Glancing down at the nose of the ship, he saw Teyla still lying sprawled on her front—she hadn't moved.

 

Frowning a little, he considered his options, trying to break through the haze that still seemed to fog his mind.  Turning, he looked up at the stairs to the top level, thinking that, maybe, he might be able to get through that way.  Like the bottom level, there were actually two corridor hatches—meaning a corridor on both the port and starboard sides.  Swallowing down some bile, he saw that the port side one was open...and smoke was leaking out of it, slowly filling the top of the room.  Glancing up at the other hatch, he saw that it was closed...

 

Shaking his head, he staggered over to the stairs and started to climb to the closed door.  Upon reaching it, he grabbed at the handle and pulled...

 

And nothing happened. 

 

He yelled, beating on it, trying to get it to open, but the hatch refused.  It was as sealed as tightly as if it were merely another part of the wall.

 

Swearing, and aware that he didn't have the time to continue to fight it, he stumbled back down the stairs and to the main floor.  His leg was killing him, like a knife was being driven into the limb and twisted.  Panting with exhaustion, he reached the hatch leading to the stairs to the lower level.  Maybe...maybe he could get through down there.  Maybe the explosion had only moved upwards, not down.

 

He half fell down the stairs, landing hard against the door at the bottom.  Sweat poured down his face, and he swiped his arm across his head to wipe it away.  Backing off, he swiped his hand over the control panel and the door opened.

 

With a grateful sigh, he pushed past the door and into the narrow corridor...and found the smoke to be even thicker down here.  Fuck. Coughing again, wondering how he was not literally coughing up blood yet, he turned....

 

The door had shut behind him. What the hell?  He'd never even heard it!  Frowning, he waved a hand over the panel on this side.

 

Nothing happened.

 

"No!" he yelled, slapping the panel. "No! You were just working, damn it! No!" He banged against the unyielding metal, "McKay!" he shouted, "I'm stuck!  The door won't open!  How do I get through it?!  McKay!"

 

He stopped, looking upwards, waiting for the answer to be given over the ships comm. system...but none came.

 

And he remembered—communications between the control room and the engine room only.  Not the rest of the ship. 

 

FUCK!

 

Bellowing in anger and frustration, he threw his weight one more time against the door, trying to shake it loose, but it didn't move.  Exhaustion hit like a hammer then, and he found himself leaning against the warm metal, closing his eyes as he felt his lungs fighting against the smoke.... 

 

No!  He would not be beaten by this!  Ronon's eyes opened, bright and angry.

 

Turning, he glowered at the wall of smoke about ten feet away even as he used his coat to cover his mouth again.  There was no way through to the engine room through that. 

 

His eyes shifted to the left and right, taking in the doors on either side of the hallway, searching for another way.  Some on the right might lead outside.  He knew the ones on the left didn't. 

 

And, like that, the simplest of plans came to mind.  His eyes narrowed, and he gritted his teeth into an ugly smile. 

 

Coughing again, he turned into the first door on the left—into the armory.

_________________________________________________

 

Teyla opened her eyes and looked up at Jorgan.  Her eyes were shining, breathing hard with the wonder at the world she had just been allowed to see, if only briefly.

 

"Jorgan..." she whispered, her tone filled with awe, "I..."

 

"Teyla," Jorgan's eyes were dark, all trace of his earlier playfulness gone. "Something's wrong."

 

Her brow furrowed. "Wrong?"

 

He looked behind him, towards the central corridor.  "He won't reach him in time, though he may kill himself trying to."

 

She frowned, surprised by the change in tone. "He? What? I do not...."

 

Jorgan looked back at her, brown eyes pinning her in place—and she knew where she had seen them before.  She gasped, about to speak, but he shook his head, holding up a hand to forestall her words.

 

"There is one Wraith left, Teyla," he said quickly. "A young male, contained inside the engine room.  His spine is shattered, his legs paralyzed, but he can still feed, and, right now, that is all he is focused on.  And there is a human trapped in there who is well enough to bring the creature back to full strength."

 

"Engine room..." Teyla looked down, then up again, her eyes wide. "Rodney?"

 

"You need to wake up, Teyla.  Now."

_______________________________________________

 

Teyla's brown eyes rolled opened slowly, her mind aware only of two things.  She was cold, and her head felt like someone had slammed an axe against it.

 

Blinking, she lifted her head off the metal grate flooring, frowning at the fact that she could still feel its imprint on the side of her face. 

 

Slowly, she tilted her head up so that she could look out at her surroundings.  It was dark, very dark.  Shafts of white light poured in from somewhere over her head, but, otherwise, there was no light anywhere in the control room in front of her.

 

She must be down near the nose of the ship, because her view was of the back of the control room, including the blackened doors leading to the central corridor.  The acrid smell emanating from them indicative of the Wraith Leader's last gift to them.

 

Trembling, she started to push herself up, pausing only when she wasn't sure if she could make it.

 

"Teyla," Jorgan's voice called.

 

She stilled, then, slowly, lifted her head to look up at the origin of the voice.  A shimmering figure stood at the top of the stairs before a partially open door leading to the third level—the top level.   They had not yet gone up there.

 

"Teyla," he called again, the handsome face becoming clearer as she looked, "You need to hurry.  The others are coming, but, as I said, they will not be fast enough."

 

She frowned even more, but she didn't disagree.  Shakily, she got to her feet and stumbled forward.  She aimed first for the bodies of the two Wraith soldiers off to the side.  Looking down at them, she noticed one of the stunners was already missing. Ronon.

 

With a grimace, she bent over to grab the other stunner...and nearly toppled as her equilibrium was sent reeling.  When she finally got her balance back, she found herself leaning against the wall next to them...but the stunner was in her left hand.

 

Swallowing down the sickness she could feel, she looked up again.  Jorgan still stood up there, waiting for her.

 

"Hurry," he called. "I'll do what I can to get you there, but you must hurry."

 

She didn't even try to understand that.  Instead, she just lurched forward and grabbed at the edge of the stairwell leading upwards.

_____________________________________________

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: FIRE AND DEMONS

 

Teyla pushed open the door leading to the port side corridor on the top level, using brute force to shove it back wide enough to allow her to slide through.  It barely gave, and it was a testament to how small she could make herself that she even fit through.  No wonder Ronon didn't try it.  That, and the smoke was probably a strong deterrent.

 

Coughing as thick smoke roiled overhead, blanketing the ceiling in a curtain of black, she stayed low, following the still shimmering figure as he moved along the corridor in front of her, also staying low.

 

Jorgan turned, beckoning again for her to hurry, to which she replied with a tiny glare, such as she would give Rodney or John.  Did he not understand how hard she was focusing on just not falling on her face?  But she knew what was at stake, and she forced lethargic limbs to move more efficiently, to step more lively.

 

The smoke thickened, and she held an arm over her mouth, coughing more.  Her eyes started to water, blinking more than they stayed open.  She wouldn't have made it if she hadn't had something to follow.  Even then...the smoke was quickly becoming overwhelming. 

 

She began to drift a little, mind cutting out on her, and her lungs burned as they fought to inflate.  Her legs grew harder to lift, and she was slumping, needing to press a hand to the wall to stay upright.  The distance wasn't far, and yet, between the pain in her head and the heat and fire, it seemed to grow longer in her eyes, unending.

 

She became aware that she was taking a steadying step backwards for every two forward up the inclining corridor.  

 

Jorgan stopped suddenly and held out a hand, stopping her.  She fell into the side of the corridor almost gratefully, coughing harshly and desperately wanting to run away from the stifling heat.  He didn't explain why he had stopped, just waved a hand over one of the many doorways on this level that Teyla had been ignoring.  When it didn't respond to him, he frowned, then looked at her.

 

"Can you...?" he asked, looking a little sad as he pointed at the door.  She just nodded and stumbled forward, waving a hand over the panel...and the door opened to reveal a small, compact berth.  She moved inside, thankful for the abruptly cool room, and felt Jorgan follow her. She stopped as he slid past her to stand in the middle of the room.

 

It was sparse.  On the left was a small shelved alcove, filled with books, and then a narrow, twin-sized bed.  The far wall contained a small desk, on which were numerous stacked papers, a computer like monitor, and a small, leather trunk.  On the right was a built in closet and another alcove, in which was a small sink.

 

There was a skeleton lying on the bed, looking a little like someone had just crawled in there and died. 

 

Teyla didn't have to ask to know whose it was. 

 

"The survivors were ambushed by the Wraith when we tried to get through the Stargate back to Athos," Jorgan said quietly, looking down at his body. "I escaped with a couple others, but we were all just too badly injured..." 

 

He frowned suddenly, as if remembering hurt too much, and seemed to shake a little, like throwing off a bad dream.  Turning to face the closet, he gestured to it.

 

"I have a spare uniform in the closet, and there should still be some water in the pipes.  Enough, I hope, for you to soak something and wrap it around your mouth."

 

Teyla nodded again, and moved forward, opening the accordion closet doors.  She stared for a second at the green jacket hanging there, then, quickly, took off her own jacket and tossed it into the sink.  Then she grabbed Jorgan's jacket and looked at him, asking permission.

 

He was smiling softly. "I'd be honored," he said.  She gave him an embarrassed smile, and slid the jacket on.  Then, she went to the sink, wet her jacket under the faucet—the water coming out in spurts, until finally dying—and wrapped it around her mouth. 

 

It felt better to breathe through the wet—she found the smoke didn't burn her throat as much now. The dripping fabric was also a relief, cool against her skin and neck.

 

Jorgan was already sliding out of the room, and, with one more glance at the tomb-like room, she followed him out.  

_______________________________________________

 

Sheppard fell to his side, white hot pain lancing up his entire left side as he pulled his throbbing, clearly broken shin out of the mire.  The marsh caught him, cushioning his fall, but also sticking to him, sucking him down deeper into the thick mud.  He could barely breathe, feeling hopeless, a failure because he couldn't even cross a hundred feet of swamp.  He gasped, looking up at the ship, the silver hull only a few yards away now.  He just need to reach it, then find a way to get inside, to climb into the engine room—to find Rodney.

 

Pulling in a hard, tight breath, he grabbed at his staff and stuck it vertically into the ground, then pulled himself up, furious at his weakness and at the power mere mud had over his body.

 

Just a little further.  A little further.    

 

Had he turned around, he would have seen a sea of torches bobbing their way down the mountain from the village, like a rain of fire. 

_________________________________________________

 

Ronon ripped the thick tape with his teeth, and taped another Athosian grenade to the curved hull in this small side room off the corridor.  He had about three of them taped to the metal, equidistant apart.  He hoped it was enough to blow a hole big enough for him to fit through.

 

Because he was not dying here, and no one else was either.

 

There'd been enough of that today.

 

Looking at his handiwork, he grimaced.  Then turned to hobble back to the armory. One more grenade couldn't hurt.

________________________________________________

 

Rodney's left hand found something, a piece of shorn metal.  Fingers scrabbled at it, pulling it closer, drawing it in to his palm.  He didn't know how long it was, didn't know if it was disconnected from the mess around him, didn't even know if it was going to be of any use, but having something in his hand, something he could hold onto, was better than nothing.  The metal fit inside his hand, like a knife handle, and he gripped it as tightly as he could.

 

His gaze remained fixed on the Wraith, the creature's progress hampered by the hideous fact that half of its left leg was missing, cut off from the knee down.  Did it even know?  Did it even care?

 

There was nothing in the creature's hideous, glassy eyed stare but hunger as it focused unblinkingly on McKay, dragging itself painfully slowly across the metal floor.  It was just feet away from him now, at the edge of the debris that used to be the staircase.  Soon, it would crawl up the rubble and be on top of him, taking his life, just as it had taken half the years from that young villager up in the control room. 

 

Ronon...wasn't going to make it.  If he could have just come through from the control room, he would have been here by now.  Something had stopped him—it was the only explanation.  McKay just hoped whatever it was that had stopped the Satedan, that Ronon had won...

 

Rodney's jaw trembled, and he turned his head to look down towards where the lower half of his left arm lay hidden beneath a metal beam.  He pulled harder, felt the sharp edges of whatever was underneath the beam rip into his wrist, even as he fisted the metal shard tighter in his grip....

 

"Come on," he whispered, tugging harder, and he felt skin rip. "Come on," he repeated, begging now. 

 

He turned back...and found the Wraith leaning over him, inches away, grinning yellow teeth and black bleeding gums.  It was holding itself up with its left arm, gripping at part of McKay's metal cage somewhere over the scientist's head.

 

McKay screamed.

 

The Wraith's laughed maniacally as its right hand drew back almost slowly...

 

And plunged down.

 

McKay's scream swelled to a terrific roar of pain as his chest was hit.  Simultaneous mixing of unused adrenalin and enzyme ripped his left hand out of its prison, and suddenly powerful arm muscles drove the metal shard deep into the Wraith's chest in one smooth, swift punching motion.

 

The Wraith's own scream echoed Rodney's as it fell backwards off the metal cage, unable to hold itself up, a seven inch long piece of half-burnt metal sticking out of its rib-cage.

 

McKay was on his right side where he'd twisted his body to plunge the "knife", his left arm resting against the edge of the metal cage.  The limb had started to throb, low and dull, like he had broken a bone. His back, which before had also been a source of low and dull throbbing, was afire with pain, and he knew he'd done something bad there too.

 

On the floor a couple feet away, the Wraith whimpered, staring down at its death.

 

McKay lifted his left hand up, and saw the long, deep cut running halfway from his palm to his elbow.  Blood streamed from the slash, running down his arm with nothing to stop it.

 

And he started to laugh.

 

He'd saved his life...by committing suicide. 

 

And, for some crazy reason, he was sure he had just heard Sheppard call his name.  It just made him laugh more hysterically.

________________________________________________________

 

Sheppard stared up at the ship, the screaming still echoing in his ears.  One voice, then two...and so much pain. 

 

"McKay!" he shouted, still dragging himself along by the staff, the mud still trying to draw him deeper and deeper into its depths.  "McKay!" 

 

And then he heard laughter.

________________________________________________________ 

 

Teyla stared at the massive gap before her, where the ship had obviously snapped in half, separating the front from the back. She felt lightheaded and sick, wondering what this ghost expected of her.  She was not superhuman!  Jorgan stood on the other side, waving at her to jump.

 

It was at least fifteen feet wide, if not more.  She could not jump that far.  No one could!

 

"You'll make it," Jorgan said, gesturing more furiously. "You have to.  Or you will never forgive yourself.  You have to jump!"

 

She looked at him, eyes disbelieving, and shook her head. "It is impossible," she whispered through the jacket still covering her mouth.

 

"No, it is not."  Jorgan looked behind him, as if he could see into the engine room, then back at her. "Use the wires."

 

She frowned, then looked up.

 

Several thick black wires hung strung between the two sides of the ship.  They barely looked strong enough to catch her, much less keep her from falling.

 

"You will not fall.  Use the wires.  The ship will not let you fall.  Please, trust me.  He has no time left.  You must do it now!"

 

"But," she looked down at the stunner still in her left hand, "the weapon, I—"

 

"Throw it," Jorgan commanded.  She stared at him, swallowed, and drew her arm back like a javelin thrower.  Snapping her arm forward, she threw the stunner as hard as she could towards the opposite side...and watched it miss.  It hit the edge of the top level and fell down, clattering to a stop somewhere down below inside the smoke filled lower levels.

 

"No," she whispered, eyes tearing as she fought to see through the smoke to where it had landed.

 

"Doesn’t matter," Jorgan insisted.  "You'll find another.  You have to come now!"

 

Looking up again at his shimmering face, Teyla wondered why she was listening to a ghost, wondered if she was even awake.  Perhaps she was still lying unconscious in the control room...or perhaps she was dead....

 

"You're not dead, damn it!" Jorgan's hands fisted by his sides. "Listen to me, Teyla Emaggen, your friend will die if you do not move now!"

 

She looked up at him then, and once again saw the familiar furrowed brow and bright, dark eyes. 

 

The eyes of her father.

 

"Now, Daughter of Tagan!" Jorgan shouted. "NOW!"

 

She flinched...and backed up, for a running start, never taking her eyes off Jorgan's.    

 

She swallowed, drew in a breath....and ran.

 

Pushing off from the ripped edge of the ship with one foot, she flew...and grabbed onto the overhead wires.

 

Gravity took over, and she fell, still at least a yard from the other side, the floor of the top level already too high for her ever to catch.

 

The wires overhead caught as she dragged them down with her...and snapped...

 

And she swung, down past the edge of the top level and into the bottom half of the central corridor.  The wires caught the edge and she was propelled forward. 

 

Training took over as the broken wires slackened, and she dropped and rolled down the shallow incline...and hit the doors at the bottom—the massive doors leading to the engine room.

 

For a second she just breathed as she lay there, as if trying to remember how.  She was pretty sure she hadn't taken in any air on that entire plunge.  Her hand found something lumpy by her left side, and she looked down.

 

The Wraith stunner she had thrown. It had fallen down here.

 

Jorgan appeared before her, a smug smile on his face.

 

"Told you," he said smugly.

 

She lifted her eyes to glare at him, half tempted to snap back, but found it just took too much energy.  Instead she pulled herself up, the wraith stunner back in her left hand.  Turning, she looked for the panel to open the doors to the engine room.  Sliding over to faintly glowing panel, she waved a hand over it...and the doors started to open.

 

"And for the record," Jorgan added softly, suddenly, his voice right in her ear. "I don't have your father's eyes.  He has mine."  She turned around to see him give a single, proud nod...just before he disappeared from sight. "As do you," the wind added.

 

Teyla paused, staring at the empty space where he had just been, overcome for a brief moment.

 

Then sound returned, in a full cacophonous boom.  And not just because her ears popped—because something had just literally exploded on the other half of the ship.  Her eyes widened as the wind suddenly grew louder, the fire crackled higher, and three more explosions rocked the area.    She fell back against the edge of the now open doors, then caught them more tightly when her feet found nothing but air on the far side.

 

And then the odd, hysterical sound of someone laughing weakly floated up to her.

 

Turning, she looked into the shattered, blackened remains of the once amazing engine room, eyes widening in shock as the devastation.  Straight down, where the stairs should be, was rubble...and Rodney McKay.  She could see him, lying in the middle of it all, giggling, his left arm resting against his chest...the shirt and arm covered in wet, very red blood.

 

Looking further, she saw a Wraith sitting on its haunches a few feet away.  It was still breathing, staring down at a sliver of metal sticking into its chest.

 

Without thinking, she raised the stunner and fired, hitting the Wraith dead on.

 

It toppled backwards with a sigh, as if grateful.

 

The laughter stopped with the light.  She looked down to find Rodney staring up at her, blue eyes wide with wonder.

 

“Teyla?” he called, his scratchy voice cradled in disbelief.  In return, the woman gave him a soft, almost tender smile.

 

“Rodney,” she whispered, the joy in her voice evident. "I made it."

___________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: REUNION

 

"How?" Rodney was still blinking bemusedly up at her. "How are you here?  Ronon, he said—"

 

"That I was unconscious? I was.  I am not certain for how long, but..." Teyla sighed, and moved to sit down on the edge of the door, her legs dangling over.  She was looking for a place she could jump down without injury, but there was a lot of debris on the floor of the engine room.  The whole room was black from the explosion, ruined and melted, as was much of the equipment in here.  There were even small fires still burning away at the far end, near the engines.  The damage Rodney had faked was now real.  This ship would never fly again.

 

Liquid filled her eyes, and she frowned, quickly wiping it away before he could see.  It was not important now.

 

"But I woke up, and..." She trailed off, realizing it would sound mad to say, and the ghost of Jorgan Relegar told me you needed help. So, instead, she smiled, "and I heard you calling for help."   She loved Rodney McKay like a brother, but brothers don’t have to know everything.

 

Rodney frowned, "Really? After Ronon said he was coming, I don't remember calling..." He stopped, blinked, and his eyes seemed to roll away from her, as if he were suddenly hit by a wave of dizziness.  He blinked again, frowned, and focused back on her.  "Teyla?  Is that really you?"

 

Teyla's brow furrowed, and she realized, with some horror, that the red stain on his shirt, were it an older injury, should not still be red...nor growing.

 

"Rodney," she looked at him, "What is wrong with you?"

 

He gave a small smile, "Just bleeding.  A lot."  He seemed almost drunk as he laid his left arm open, palm side up.  Teyla's eyes widened at the blood pouring from the slashed cut.  "And," he added, frowning up at her now, "I'm not sure you're real. You look a little too healthy for someone I might have killed.  Plus, I heard Sheppard call my name a minute ago.  I think I might be hallucinating."

 

Teyla frowned, her worry going up another notch. "Rodney, just...just hold on," she said, renewing her search for a way down. "I am really here, and I am coming down there."  Damn it, she had to get down!  But it was so dark, and most of what she could see was deep in shadow.  The light from the fires on the far side of the room, and the light of the bright moonlight pouring in through the gaps in the hull, weren't strong enough to illuminate the area behind Rodney's prison of rubble.

 

Suddenly remembering the stunner in her hand, she looked again at the scientist. "Close your eyes," she commanded.

 

He didn't question, just turned his head away to the right and did as he was told.  She then shot the stunner down into the space directly below the doors, shielding her eyes a little as the blue, electric light sizzled and dissipated across the area.

 

On the right, the stunner highlighted a small space clear of debris.  It was about twelve feet down to the floor of the engine room.  She'd have to be careful.

 

"Rodney, look at me."

 

He did.

 

"Catch."  She tossed him the stunner.  It landed on his chest, earning an unhappy flinch from the scientist, and then clattered off to the side, away from the Wraith.  He had made no move to catch it.  She sighed—foolish of her to think he could right now.

 

"Felt real," he mumbled in puzzlement, turning his head all the way to the left so he could peer at the stunner now resting awkwardly on the metal debris. 

 

"Because it is, Rodney," she said, sliding to that side and turning around.  "Just hang on."

 

"That's what Ronon said," Rodney muttered, closing his eyes again. "Where is Ronon? He was supposed to be on his way here.  I don’t know what happened to him.  I'm afraid the Wraith got him.  Did the Wraith get him?"

 

Teyla stopped for a second, startled by the question.  Stilling for a second, she closed her eyes and opened her other senses....

 

No more Wraith.  Just the one on the floor that she had just stunned.  The last was still not dead.  She'd have to finish that creature off at some point.  But she needed to get to Rodney first.

 

"I do not know where Ronon is, Rodney," she said finally, opening her eyes and turning herself around.  "But there are no other Wraith—we killed them all. We are safe."  She leaned off the edge of the doorway, using her arms to prop herself up, so that she could lower herself and hang down by her hands.  She had to move slowly to avoid injury, even though every worried nerve in her body demanded she hurry up.

 

Finally dangling fully stretched out, she knew she was still a good five feet, at least, from the floor below.  But needs must...

 

Preparing herself, she took in a fortifying breath...and dropped.

 

She hit the floor and rolled, running almost immediately into the rubble and landing awkwardly. She hissed back a swear and rubbed at where her shoulder had hit something hard.  Her shins vibrated with pain from the impact, but nothing had broken or was sprained, just strained. 

 

Looking up, she realized Rodney was now hidden from her, and inside something that was far bigger than it had looked from above.  The side of it was piled higher than the other, where Rodney was.  She'd have to climb up and then inside to get to him.

 

But before she did....

 

"Rodney?"

 

"Hmm?"  He stilled sounded a little drunk.

 

"Is there a first aid kit in this room?"

 

"Probably."

 

"Where?"

 

"No idea."

 

She sighed, grimacing wryly.  Right, why would he know?  She forgot, sometimes, that Rodney was not omniscient--he just always seemed to be. 

 

"But," he said, and it sounded like he yawned a little, "might be near one of the doors.  They often put those sorts of things near doors."

 

Teyla looked up, then up even more.  Her shoulders dropped when she saw a gray box with a medical looking symbol attached to the wall next to the main doors that she had just dropped from.  Damn.

 

Shaking her head, she realized she'd just have to make do.

 

She reached up to touch the extra coat she still had wrapped around her neck, looking a little like a weird scarf now that it was no longer wrapped around her mouth. It worked well as a smoke barrier; it would work just as well as a bandage.

 

With that in mind, she put a foot on the edge of the rubble and started to climb gingerly inside.

_________________________________________________

 

He felt small and old, leaning heavily on the stout staff, staring up at the massive hull.  Fact was, now that he was here, in touching distance of the Thermopylae's rear section, Sheppard realized he hadn't considered how he was going to get inside.  The main door, in the center of the ship, was obviously no longer an option (considering the center of the ship was currently toast—and those four minor explosions he'd just heard didn't bode well for its stability), and, as the ship was no longer on its side, the hatches on the bottom of the ship were not accessible.  Hence, the only way in was if he could somehow climb up to one of the holes in the hull created by the initial explosion.

 

Problem was, the nearest one was a good three feet above his head.  He wasn't getting up there, not without help.  The hull was still smooth, nothing to hang onto, even if he had two good legs.

 

So he stared, hazel eyes tracing the edges of the hole he could not reach, his mind mentally tracing the aches and pains in his muscles and legs, hands gripping so tightly to the wood in his hand, it was amazing it didn't snap.

 

He closed his eyes.  A couple of minutes ago, he thought he'd heard voices—Teyla's quiet, calm tones and Rodney's strident ones.  But they had stopped, and he wondered if he hadn't imagined it. All he heard now was....

 

His head shot up. Someone was slogging through the mud around the far side of the ship, not hiding an almost frantic pace.

 

Dropping his staff, he pulled out his 9MM and aimed towards the back of the ship, his cold, mud covered hands gripping the solid metal, his teeth gritted tightly as he waited.

 

A dark, mud covered figure came around the side, trudging away determinedly with his head up, eyes staring up at the hull, obviously also looking for a way in.  It stopped when it saw Sheppard and froze, widening eyes glittering in the moonlight. 

 

John dropped his aim, unwrapping his left hand from the weapon.  Even in the half-light, there was no mistaking that hair and build.

 

Ronon just stared back, jaw open.

 

"Sheppard?" the big man asked softly, wonderingly. 

 

John huffed a laugh, just as awed, then grinned.  "Hey," he said.

 

"You're..."  Ronon seemed unable to finish, and he swallowed harshly.

 

"Alive," John agreed. "As are you."

 

Ronon moved forward absurdly quickly then, and Sheppard suddenly found himself grabbed by the back of the neck and drawn into a tight hug.  John shut his eyes as his head was pressed against Ronon's shoulder, and, with his left hand, weakly patted Ronon's back.

 

"I'm glad," the taller man mumbled softly. "We thought—"

 

"Same here," John replied, just as softly, feeling the life return to his chest when Ronon had said, 'we'. "And me too, old man.  Me too."

 

They stayed that way for a second, then, almost as suddenly as Ronon had initiated the hug, John was pushed back and Ronon was looking up at the ship.

 

"We have to get inside," the Satedan stated fiercely. "McKay's in trouble."

 

Sheppard frowned, and looked up. "What kind of trouble?"

 

"Wraith."

 

Sheppard grimaced, looking askance at the warrior. Then he looked back up at the ship.

 

"Where's Teyla?"

 

"In the front of the ship.  She's hurt—unconscious. I had to leave her, because McKay needed me more.  Said a Wraith was crawling towards him."  Ronon frowned, also looking up, "I had some trouble getting here...."

 

Sheppard's grimace turned into a frown, remembering what he'd first heard.  "I heard him scream, so loud I think it echoed," he offered quietly. "It's been quiet since."

 

Ronon was looking at him fully now, then shut his eyes, lowering his head.

 

"I got trapped," he said, misery in his tone. "I couldn't...I knew there wasn't time to waste, but the damage...."

 

"Hey," Sheppard cut him off, shaking his head. "Don't." He looked up at the hole he'd been staring at. "Can you boost me up there?"

 

Ronon nodded, "Yeah."  The warrior moved forward so that he was squatting down in front of the hull, staggering a little as he settled.  It wasn't like the Satedan to be clumsy, but Sheppard guessed it was just tiredness.

 

"Stand on my shoulders, hands on the hull," Ronon said, "and I'll lift you up.  Soon as you can get a handhold, start pulling yourself up.  I don't think I can lift you all the way on my own."

 

Sheppard frowned, looking at him. "Why not?"

 

Ronon just grunted, not looking up from where he was crouched. "I'll tell you later."

 

Sheppard accepted that with a nod, and, grabbing up his staff, limped over.  Ronon looked at it, but said nothing as Sheppard leaned on the staff in order to step up onto Ronon's shoulders.

___________________________________________________

 

Teyla finished wrapping Rodney's arm, using as much strength as she could to tighten the fabric.  She was using the sleeve from her Atlantian jacket, which she ripped off by its seams.  With a soft grunt, she finished tying a knot with the ends, then looked up at the scientist.

 

Rodney was staring at her, blinking slowly.  He hadn't made a sound during the whole procedure, and she was getting very worried. 

 

"Now, you said you'd also hurt your back?" she asked quietly.  He just nodded.  He was still lying partially on his right side, so she stood and stepped over his chest.  She could do nothing about the metal pinning him down—she'd tried just moving the piece holding down his right arm, but it was stronger than she.

 

Kneeling now on his left side, she nudged him to turn a little more, which he did without a word.

 

And she hissed a soft swear.  Even in the shadowed light, she could see the dark stain leaking down from a small cut on his lower back, about the size of a knife slit.  Studying the dark metal underneath where he was lying, she saw a triangular piece of thin metal sticking up, the corner of it stained with blood.  He must have been lying on top of it, then, when he'd moved to stab the Wraith, had dislodged himself—hence, he was bleeding badly from this cut as well.  She couldn't tell in the half-light how much blood he had lost, but his disorientation and lethargy was scarily telling.

 

With no proper bandage for this wound, she simply bunched up the rest of her Atlantian jacket and pressed it against the wound.  There was more than enough material to prevent him from hurting himself further on the metal corner.

 

"Lean back," she ordered, "all the way.  With any luck, your weight will be enough to stop up the cut on your back."

 

"It's cut? I thought maybe it was just strained," he mumbled. "How funny."

 

He did as he was told, lying back so that he was staring up at the broken hull overhead.  He seemed mesmerized by the stars he could see. 

 

Teyla watched the fabric scrunch up beneath his back—it would have to do.  It was all she had.

 

Teyla sighed, and pressed a hand to her own beating head.  She was so tired. 

 

Shaking it off, she stood and, after teetering slightly when her balance failed her, managed to stay up.  Sucking in a breath, she climbed back over to his right side and sat down next to him in a space she had cleared.  It wasn't very big, but she could sit.  Hell, she could probably even lie down...

 

Suddenly, the idea of it seemed incredibly tempting.  She needed her rest—her eyes were barely staying open as it was.  Something nagged at the back of her mind—something important she needed to remember—but, now that she was sitting...no, lying...down and now that there was nothing more she could do for Rodney...

 

"Teyla?" Rodney had tilted his head towards her, blue eyes squinted in concern.  "Are you okay?"

 

She gave him her best confident smile, trying to ignore the paleness of his face and lips. He looked half dead, lying there. 

 

"I am fine," she replied, settling closer to him.  She touched the top of his right arm, just below the sleeve of the T-shirt he wore, and wondered a little at how cold his skin was.  The engine room was stifling—so hot as to be almost desert like.  He shouldn't be cold.

 

She took off the dark emerald green jacket she wore, fingering the soft material for a second, then laid it across his chest (she had not missed the five holes in his T-shirt, or the wounds underneath—she didn't need to ask to know just how close they had come to losing him),  and covered him up to his neck.  He frowned, lifting his head to look down at it.

 

"Where...?"

 

"One of the closets on the third level," she replied. "I believe it was part of the uniform of the Thermopylae's crew."  He continued to frown at it, but Teyla no longer cared.  Instead, she snuggled up against his side and rested her head on his right shoulder, nestling in the crease there.

 

"Teyla?"  He sounded puzzled by her action. "What are you...?"

 

"Getting warm," she lied, closing her eyes.  She felt him breathing now, the slow rise and fall of his chest a soothing sensation.

 

"But, what if...I mean, Ronon could...He might think—"

 

"If he were here," she replied, cutting him off, "he would do the same.  Just rest, Rodney."

 

She felt him take in a deeper breath, then let it out in a sigh. 

 

"Thank you," McKay said finally. "Thank you for coming, and for...for saving my life."

 

"You are most welcome," Teyla replied without looking up. "And thank you for saving ours as well."

 

He took in a sharp breath then, and Teyla's eyes opened slightly.

 

"Teyla...."

 

"Yes?" she asked.

 

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm really, really sorry."

 

She frowned, her eyes opening more fully, even though she really didn't them want to.  Tilting her head up off his shoulder, she looked at his face, studying the unhappy expression.  He wasn't looking at her—he was staring up at the stars again.

 

"Why are you sorry?" she asked.

 

He shut his eyes, frowning miserably. "I crashed the Thermopylae," he said, his voice heavy, leaden.

 

She lifted her eyebrows, cursing mentally when it stretched the wound on her head, and sighed. “Rodney, you did what you did to save us.  How is that wrong?”

 

He blinked, then frowned. “Because the ship is a smoldering husk?”

 

She lifted her eyebrows again, and frowned again, because, again, it had hurt.  "Rodney..."

 

"I destroyed your heritage, your legacy."  He blinked, and she smiled softly at the sight of the liquid in them, threatening to fall. "If I were you, I would never forgive me."

 

"Rodney..." She rested her head on his shoulder again, making it clear that she wasn't about to do anything of the sort, "you are wrong.  You did not destroy my heritage."

 

"I hate to point out the obvious—"

 

"I learned something today, Rodney," she soothed, cutting him off softly, "because of this ship, and because of you and the others.  My heritage is not the Thermopylae," she smiled and closed her eyes, the silver ship still shining in her mind's eye. "My heritage is the people who flew it.  My heritage is knowing I am descended from people who would risk their lives for their friends and allies, who would fight the Wraith to their dying breath and never give in."  A puff of warm air brushed over her now bare arms, and she snuggled closer to him. "This day," she whispered, "we have shown ourselves to be worthy of that heritage, of their legacy. When the Daedalus arrives to rescue the Cutsarkians from this planet, we will have succeeded in completing the mission my ancestors were prevented from completing.  And for that," she sighed, deliberately echoing the voice that had spoken to her before, "I thank you."

 

Rodney continued to stare up at the broken ceiling overhead, absorbing her words and turning them over in his mind.

 

Teyla's breath evened out, her head warm against his shoulder.

 

"You're more than worthy of that heritage, Teyla," he whispered quietly, closing his own eyes.  "More than worthy."

_______________________________________________

 

Sheppard grunted, pulling himself deeper into the dark engine room through the jagged hole he'd used as an entrance, coughing a little at the density of the smoke.  He was on the floor, somewhere down near the turbines, and he could see next to nothing in the shadowed darkness except the brief flash of a small fire between the rubble. 

 

Finally feeling enough solid floor beneath him to risk standing, he hissed a little when he tried to grab a nearby piece of console to use for leverage.  The damned thing was blisteringly hot!  Shaking out his hand, he blew on his fingers and tried to locate something else that could help him, as well as a way through the chaos to wherever Rodney might be. 

 

Something suddenly whacked his shoulder and head, then landed with a clatter by his side.  He frowned for a second, first looking up to see what might have fallen, then down to the object by his side.

 

His staff.  Ronon must have thrown it up from outside.  He smiled—smart man.

 

Propping it upright, he used it to pull himself to a standing position—at least as close to standing as he could manage at the moment.  A chunk of wall overhung his position, looking a bit precarious.  Thinking that moving quickly away from it might be in order, he started forward, aiming for what looked like the middle of the room somewhere up to his right.

 

Huge pieces of machinery blocked his path, like silent sentries, trying to prevent him from moving anywhere fast.  He had to crawl through and under collapsed bits of wall, around half blown open consoles, and over bits of technology that were probably not even recognizable to Rodney anymore.

 

It took him time just to move a handful of feet, and he was still coughing lightly as he finally pushed through a piece of fallen ceiling to get to the center of the room where it was clearer.  Looking in the direction of the main doors to what had been the rest of the ship, he saw that this side of the engine room had suffered far less smoke and fire damage, but there was still mess.

 

Moonlight streamed down from the massive cracks in the hull overhead, lighting up the pile of rubble beneath the main doors.

 

And, for a second, he just stood and stared at the picture in front of him.

 

About five feet away on the floor was a Wraith male.  It was sprawled on its back, black blood pooling out of its chest from a long sliver of metal driven through its armor. 

 

A few feet beyond, a strange conflagration of fallen metal rose up steadily like a junk pile at a garbage dump.  The stairs, he realized, which must have collapsed.

 

And halfway up inside the pile of rubble was Rodney.  Lying on his back, most of his body hidden beneath metal except for his head, chest and the tips of his feet, the scientist was laid out like a Norseman on a funeral pyre.  And curled up next to him, her head on his right shoulder, was Teyla.  They looked asleep.

 

He had to watch for a minute before he was satisfied that, yes, they were both still breathing.

 

His eyes closed, and after a moment, realized he was shaking.  A smile cracked his face, and he looked up, sucking in a breath and blinking away the water in his eyes.  

 

He pulled himself forward a little more, using broken consoles and his staff for balance. 

 

When he reached the Wraith, he looked down at it, studying its face.  He frowned when he realized it still breathed as well.

 

They were worse than cockroaches.

 

Pulling out his 9MM, he cocked it, pointed it at the Wraith's head....and fired.

 

On the pile of rubble, McKay visibly flinched at the loud noise, causing Sheppard to look up.  Rodney was breathing hard, his head turned towards the colonel, bloodshot blue eyes wide.

 

Sheppard smiled and, after holstering the gun again, pulled himself forward, stopping only when he was on the edge of the rubble pile.

 

"Hey," the colonel called, smiling some more as he set the staff on the edge and leaned against it. 

 

Rodney blinked a few times, frowned a little, then gave a shaky nod. "Hey."

 

"You okay?"

 

The scientist blinked more slowly, then gave a tiny smile. "So what are you then?" he whispered, his voice scratchy from obvious exhaustion. "My golem? Come to show me the consequences of my hubris?"

 

Sheppard frowned, confused by the reference, then he looked down at his attire and understood. He hadn't really noticed before, but he was covered in mud, almost from head to toe.

 

"Oh, this," he waved his free hand at his clothes before looking up again. "You landed in a swamp—I had to practically crawl through the muck to get here.  Thanks for that, by the way."

 

McKay frowned slightly at the answer, but said nothing in return, just squinted his eyes a little.

 

After a moment, Sheppard cleared his throat and spoke again: "Right, so...to repeat the question, are you okay?  What about Teyla?"

 

"Teyla's asleep." McKay's puzzled frown faded into a wry grimace, a hint of his usual snappishness in his tone. "As for me," he snorted a laugh, "what does it look like?"

 

Sheppard tried to see more of the Athosian, but could see no obvious wounds other than bruises—of course, he couldn't see her head from this angle.  He also studied the metal "cage" imprisoning McKay, and gave a small shrug.

 

"Damn, McKay, you really did it this time, didn't you?"  He smiled slightly and gave a short chuckle. "Guess you called this mission, huh, Rodney?  It really did end up with you...oh, what's the word I'm looking for?"  He tapped his chin, hissing a little when he found it stung a little.

 

McKay stared for second, then slowly began to smile.  "Rhymes with frappe?" he suggested, smiling a little more. "And crap?"

 

"That's the one.  Guess it's the past tense version of the word now, though."

 

"I don't know," Rodney mused, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them again, "I think it was more of a jaunt...or perhaps an adventure...."

 

"Certainly, an odyssey," Sheppard agreed. "Except in this one, I didn't lose my crew."

 

Rodney smiled some more, his eyes still a little confused as he watched the colonel lean against a piece of fallen machinery.  Sheppard studied Teyla now, frowning a little at the fact that she hadn't woken when Rodney had, but somehow knew there was not much he could do about it right now.  He returned his gaze to Rodney, noticing how pale the other man was.  The scientist looked like he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.

 

"So," Sheppard tilted his head, "just trapped, then.  Nothing else wrong?"

 

Rodney's smile grew. "Other than being dead, you mean?  I think I'm fine."

 

"Dead?" Sheppard frowned at that, not sure if Rodney was kidding or not. "You're not dead, Rodney."

 

"Are you sure?" McKay rolled his head back so that he was peering up again at the ceiling overhead.  His eyes closed. "Because I think I might be seeing dead people," he added in a soft mutter.

 

Sheppard snorted, ducking his head a little to hide the smile. "I'm not dead, Rodney." 

 

"Ronon said you fell off a cliff, Colonel," Rodney replied with eyes still shut, the hint of snap still in the tone. "People don't survive falls like that."

 

"You crashed a spaceship that exploded, Rodney," Sheppard replied, echoing the soft snap. "People don't usually survive those either."  He frowned, moving a little more forward, his voice softening. "It nearly destroyed me when I saw this ship explode, Rodney.  Losing the three of you...."  He trailed off, not wanting to remember that feeling right now.

 

Rodney frowned, his eyes opening again.  Sheppard sighed, and somehow managed to smile again. 

 

"Of course, technically," Sheppard shrugged, leaning a little more on his staff, "the ship exploding was the Wraith's fault.  Least, that's what Ronon told me.  They screwed up your plan, huh?"

 

McKay glanced at him, then, slowly, a hint of a smile creased his lips, before fading again.  Sheppard's own smile faded, his eyes locking on his friend's.

 

"Listen to me, Rodney.  I'm definitely alive.  So are Teyla and Ronon.  In fact," he turned, looking back to the other end of the engine room, "I'm supposed to be finding a rope or something to help the big guy get in here."  He turned back to the scientist, and found Rodney's blue eyes filled with a conflicting mix of hope and deep-seated fear.  The scientist looked like he was drinking in Sheppard's presence, really seeing him there for the first time.

 

"Are you...." Rodney swallowed, shut his eyes, then opened them again.  "Are you really here?  Like Teyla?  Are you really, really here?  Because...if you're not...I don't..." He swallowed again, eyes brimming with unshed tears. "Colonel...I don't think I could handle..." He sniffed, grimaced and asked again, "Are you really here?"

 

Sheppard stared at him a moment, then moved forward, stumbling a little on the edge of the rubble, before managing a few wobbling steps up.  When he was even with Teyla, he leaned over and held out a hand.

 

Rodney lifted up his left to match it, the whole limb shaking as he stretched forward.  Sheppard said nothing about the tightly wound bandage around the wrist or the dried blood marring the pale skin, just grabbed the cold hand and gripped it hard.  He held on for a long moment, meeting Rodney's still scared gaze.

 

"I am really here," he promised.  He lifted his eyebrows, "Okay?"

 

McKay's lower lip trembled a little, but he nodded.  Sheppard smiled, and made to pull his hand back, but McKay suddenly strengthened his own grip.

 

"Colonel....I should have listened to you," he said. "I knew you were right, and I should have listened."

 

Sheppard stared at him, then shook his head. "Doesn't matter."

 

"No, it does," Rodney gripped even harder. "It does matter.  I'll listen from now on.  I will.  I promise."

 

Sheppard's eyes squinted a little, easily reading the desperation in the other man's face.  Rodney meant it.  Slowly, with a smile, he shook his head. 

 

"Rodney," he gave a tiny snort, "please, you are never going to listen to me."

 

"No, I will. I will.  I made a mistake, a huge one. I won't—"

 

"Stop.  Forget it."  Sheppard wished he wasn't so damned tired, because he really wasn't up to having this conversation now. "Rodney, you not listening to me is something I have learned to accept, even rely on, a long time ago.  Probably from the moment you showed up to save my life after Gall died on that planet, despite my orders for you not to.  Doesn't mean I'm not going to keep trying to teach you the error of your ways, but..." he smiled and shrugged, "I think the day you do follow my orders to the letter will be the day we really do die."

 

McKay frowned, his brow furrowing in confusion. "But..."

 

Sheppard shook his head. "McKay, you, Teyla and Ronon are the three most bull-headed, arrogant, and frustrating pain-in-the-asses I know." He gave a tiny smile, and tilted his head, eyes looking away from Rodney to Teyla. "But you are also the three smartest, quickest and bravest."  Hazel eyes lifted to meet blue. " I know you are not going to always follow my orders, that you are going to have crack-pot ideas and crazy, insane plans.  If I wanted people who followed me blindly, I'd have marines on my team, not three civilians, and especially not two people who aren't even from my own galaxy.  It's bad enough one of you is Canadian."  He leaned a little closer, as much as his hurting leg and body would allow. "The people on my team are the people who are going to save this galaxy, Rodney.  They're the best.  And if it means...a blown up Stargate or two?  I can live with that.  Provided they do too."  He gave one more squeeze to the hand in his, then let go.

 

Rodney let him, the limb falling to his chest, fingers curling in the green material covering him.

 

"Then...we're okay?" McKay asked, his voice sandpaper soft.

 

"We never weren't," Sheppard replied.  Then he suddenly grinned, "Doesn't mean I'm not going to pick on you to an inch of your life when we get back, though."

 

McKay grinned at that, his whole face lighting up, and a wicked glint came to his eye. "Well, you can certainly try."

 

Sudden, loud movement came from somewhere back in the direction of the engines, and Sheppard whirled around...and nearly lost his footing on the rubble.  As soon as he was stable again, he pulled his 9MM...and then dropped it again.

 

Ronon shoved through a heavy piece of metal, sending it off to the side, and grinned up at Sheppard.  The grin fell when he saw McKay...and Teyla.  The Satedan's eyes widened at the sight of the Athosian, his jaw dropping.

 

"How...?"

 

"I was about to ask you the same thing," Sheppard replied. "How'd you get in here?"

 

Ronon looked back up, and the grin returned. "Oh.  The villagers.  They're here, outside.  They want to help," the grin broadened, "any way they can."

________________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: JOY TO THE WORLD

 

Sheppard was sitting on the rubble, leaning back against the metal that was currently boxing in McKay, one arm resting on Teyla’s calves curled by his right hip.  Ronon sat up near McKay’s head, looking down at the scientist and Teyla, both sleeping.  

 

Around them, torches were set up in a ring, shedding much needed light throughout the engine room.  The Wraith corpse had been hauled away and dumped somewhere, Sheppard didn’t ask where.  The fires at the other side of the room were being put out, as were the ones in the mess hall and the center of the ship.  Amazingly, they found McKay's dart buffer still intact near the engine room end of the mess hall, and it was still hooked up to the auxiliary power system through the wall.  Its location had saved it—had it been in the front of the ship, power would have been cut the moment the overhead wires joining front and back were snapped.  There wasn’t much power left in auxiliary, but there was enough to sustain the buffer for a few days at least—especially since it was no longer being used for the shields.

 

Villagers were currently making all four of them as comfortable as possible with blankets and hot drinks, and Innis was pulling out bandages and medicines from the two cases that Beckett had left behind.  She would hold up bottles for Sheppard, and he’d tell her what each could be used for.

 

He knew he was slurring as he spoke to her, feeling both warm and sleepy as he watched her lay things on the ground.  He knew those feelings would disappear in a minute, when Innis, Fallen and the others started trying to clean them up and fix their wounds, but for now…now, with his team around him and alive…he was happy.

 

“Thank you for coming,” he said finally.  He’d already said it to some of the others, but Innis and Fallen were the two he knew best, and he wanted to make sure they knew how much he appreciated their presence.

 

“I am only sorry it took us this long to come down,” Innis said, shaking her head as she worked. “We had to convince the others that the kalakala would not attack, and that, surely, if we found any surviving Wraith, that we could kill them.”  She smiled up at him, then over at Ronon, who was blearily watching her now as well.  “We have your weapons, by the way.  The Wraith just left your guns atop the cliff.”  Ronon smiled in return, clearly happy at the news.

 

“What are the kalakala again?” Sheppard asked, wiping a hand through his hair, and grimacing when he felt the clods of mud.

 

“The giant snakes,” Innis replied.  “You remember—one attacked you and Doctor McKay earlier.  We saw no others when we ventured down, but old fears are hard to overcome.  Really, I can’t imagine one coming out unless provoked.”  She smiled again, then gestured to someone behind her, so she missed the tiny smirk on Sheppard’ face at her comment.  A moment later, a young man came toddling up with a couple of buckets of water.

 

“Are they warm?” Innis asked, peering up at the man.  He gave a tired looking nod.

 

“Boiled on the fire, as we were taught by Doctor Beckett.”

 

“Good,” Innis smiled, and looked back at the Colonel.  “I’m going to clean and set your left leg now, and I presume you’ll want a..." she hesitated, as if unsure of the right words, "'shot' of this morphine first, correct?” She held up a syringe with a measured dose inside.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, giving her a nod.

 

"All right, then.  Are you ready?"  She made a move to remove the syringe from the protective plastic.

 

“Oh, uh, wait…” Sheppard held up a finger, not really wanting to get doped up just yet.  “Hang on.”  He turned his gaze to Ronon, “Wake up McKay, will you?”

 

Ronon stared at him, then leaned over and jostled McKay’s shoulder.  The scientist didn’t react.

 

“McKay,” Ronon muttered, shaking him a little harder. “Wake up.  Sheppard needs you.”

 

That earned a frown, then a sigh.  Blue eyes fluttered partially open, and peered unhappily out at the world through long lashes. “What?”

 

“McKay,” Sheppard called, “You hear me?”

 

“No, go away,” McKay replied, closing his eyes again. “Bug someone else.”

 

Sheppard lifted his eyebrows, and looked up at Ronon again.  The Satedan jostled McKay’s shoulder hard this time, and the scientist gave a pained grimace, pulling the shoulder away from the heavy hand.

 

“Damn it, my back! My back, remember?” he muttered in annoyance. “Don’t do that!”

 

“It’s just a shallow cut, McKay,” Ronon replied, “I checked. Didn’t go much deeper n’ an inch or two. You’ll be okay.”

 

McKay just harrumphed, and opened his eyes again, focusing at some point beyond both Ronon and Sheppard. “Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, you sadist," he grumbled. "What do you want?”

 

“Sheppard’s got a question.”

 

“Shock.  What does he want?”

 

He,” Sheppard said loudly, to reassert his authority, “wants to know how long it will take the Daedalus to get here from Atlantis.”

 

McKay sighed and frowned, his nose pinching as he obviously went through some calculations in his head.  “Um,” he licked his still pale lips, “I’d guess about eight hours or so.”

 

“It was scheduled to dock in Atlantis at about 1800 hours, Atlantis time.  So, when was that in this planet’s time frame?”

 

“You’re so annoying,” McKay replied, closing his eyes again. “Find my tablet, it has the exact time difference in the upper right hand corner.”

 

Sheppard tilted his head, “McKay, do you recall the setting your in?  I don’t think your tablet is readily handy.”

 

McKay opened his eyes again at that, and frowned unhappily.  “My laptop too, I presume,” he noted quietly.

 

“I’d say it's shish kebab, yeah.”

 

McKay sighed sadly.  “Someone needs to download what’s left in the ship’s database onto something else then. It needs to be preserved.  Tell whomever comes from the Daedalus to do that.”  And McKay shut his eyes again.

 

Sheppard stared at him, rolled his eyes and nodded at Ronon.  The Satedan shook McKay again, adding a twist into the shake and earning a singular groan of true irritation.

 

“Oh for God’s sake,” McKay muttered, “What now?”

 

“You didn’t answer his question,” Ronon said. “When’s the Daedalus gonna get here?”

 

“That’s not what he asked,” McKay replied snidely.

 

“No, but it’s what he meant.”

 

“He already knows the answer.  He knows the time difference because I told him several times before and after we arrived on this planet.  He knows what time it is now.  He can work it out for himself.”

 

“McKay,” Ronon said, nudging him. “Just tell him.”

 

"He's just being lazy.  I'm tired, bleeding and trapped under a ton of heavy metal...he can do it himself."

 

"McKay..."

 

But Rodney just closed his mouth, the still colorless lips set in a firm line.  Ronon was about to speak again, but Sheppard held up his hand.

 

“Rodney,” the colonel called.

 

“Rodney’s asleep,” McKay replied. “Try back later.”

 

“If you don’t help me,” Sheppard wheedled, “I’ll sing something.”

 

McKay grimaced, and his eyes opened, narrowing to slits as he peered down at Sheppard. “You wouldn’t.”  Sheppard could play guitar, and he knew music, but his singing voice…left something to be desired.

 

At which point, the colonel launched into a surprisingly perky version of Three Dog Night’s 'Joy to the World,' complete with terribly improvised instrumental.

 

“Jeremiah was a bullfrog! Dun, dun, dun Was a good fried of mine! Dun, dun, dun. I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine, and he always had some mighty fine wine. Singing, joy to the world! And all the boys and girls! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea!  Joy to you and me!  Joy to the world! And all the boys and girls!  Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea! Joy to you and me!…”

 

McKay’s face scrunched up in pain, and color touched the cheeks for the first time since they found him as he obviously fought his gag reflex.  Around them, the villagers stopped, watching Sheppard like he had suddenly gone crazy.  

 

When he got to the verse about being a "high flyer and a rainbow rider, a straight shootin' son of a gun", Innis started to hum along to addictive little refrain that followed, and someone else actually tried to tap the beat on the debris.

 

“STOP!” McKay shouted, using the last of his strength. “Please, for the love of God, Sheppard, stop!”  The effort left him panting, but he was awake.  He glared at Sheppard, the expression on his face so dour he looked like someone had just told him Canada was being annexed into the U.S. “Okay! Okay, you win.  My God, that was just...just cruel!”

 

Sheppard just grinned. “So, Answer Man, what’s my answer?”

 

McKay’s glare lessened, until it was mostly just a sneer. “I need to know what time it is here first.”

 

“Around 8 turns,” Innis supplied.

 

McKay closed his eyes, and his breath evened out.  Finally, just when they thought he had gone to sleep again, he opened them.  “A little less than five hours, maybe four and a half, if they left immediately after arriving.”

 

Innis stopped pulling things from Beckett’s case, her hands stilling over the materials.  The other villagers, where they had been slowly clearing the engine room to make room for when more Atlantians arrived, had paused as well and some looked up towards the sky. 

 

Then, slowly, they returned to their activities.  They knew they were leaving, but now they had a time frame.  To them, it had probably sounded very final.

 

Less than five hours, Sheppard mused, watching them.  To the villagers, they probably hoped it would be longer, but to him…he was worried it wouldn’t be soon enough.

 

Sheppard’s expression soured, looking at McKay.  The scientist’s eyes had closed again, and the brief dots of color on his face faded, his skin returning to its wan appearance.  He appeared to be asleep again. He'd loved getting a rise out of the man, to see him respond normally to him, but he knew it was just fleeting.  Frankly, he couldn’t tell how much blood the scientist had lost—he just didn’t have the expertise, no matter how many wounds he’d seen in his life.  There seemed to be a lot on the floor, but was it too much?  Sheppard just didn’t know.  All he knew was they needed to wrap that left arm in a real bandage, one that wouldn’t cut off his circulation, which Teyla had nearly done with her jacket sleeve.  At least the one of his back appeared shallow—but infection was a nasty possibility.  Thankfully, the scientist seemed to be past the phase where he might have gone into shock…at least, Sheppard hoped so. 

 

Five hours…  

 

And he and Ronon were in a similar boat.  Ronon’s leg wound was deep, and he’d lost a significant amount of blood as well, not to mention getting it covered in mud.  Sheppard himself hadn’t lost much blood, at least, not that he could tell, but his broken left leg and sprained right were in a world of pain, and he knew, now that he was sitting, he wouldn’t be getting up again without a lot of help.  His back had already begun to seize up.

 

But the one he was most worried about was Teyla.  She had not woken once since they’d found her, her head still resting on McKay’s shoulder.  Even when Ronon had lifted the scientist a little to check on his back, she hadn’t stirred. 

 

And it was scaring him.

 

They needed Beckett.

 

“McKay?”

 

Rodney didn’t answer, and gave no sign of having heard.

 

Ronon made to shake his shoulder again, but Sheppard shook his head. “No.  But…try Teyla again, will you?”

 

The Satedan’s expression darkened.  He didn’t look happy at the request.

 

“I’m hoping it’s just a nasty concussion, and, if it is, waking her every so often is necessary,” Sheppard said. “If it’s worse, there isn’t much we can do, and you probably won’t wake her anyway.  Either way, if we can awaken her…we need to try.”

 

The Satedan closed his eyes, then opened them again.  With a gentleness he didn’t show McKay, he reached down and shook Teyla’s shoulder.

 

“Teyla,” he called, “wake up.”

 

She didn’t.  Just as she hadn’t woken up the first time he tried about half an hour ago. 

 

“Teyla, please.  It’s Ronon.  You need to wake up.”  He shook her arm again, more forcefully.  “Wake up, Teyla.”

 

McKay opened his eyes, obviously awakened by the shaking.  He watched as Ronon tried a third time to wake her.  The scientist tilted his head back, looking up at Ronon sitting there, then, with a sigh, he dislodged Ronon’s hand from Teyla’s shoulder and touched his own cold fingers to Teyla’s face.

 

“Teyla,” Rodney said quietly. “We need you.  Wake up.”

 

She didn’t respond, so McKay pinched his blood caked fingers around her nose...and pulled hard.

 

Instantly she jolted up into a sitting position, eyes wide open and blinking, and stared in utter confusion at McKay.  She was clearly disoriented, and she swayed a bit before Ronon stabilized her with a hand to her left shoulder.  One hand went to her nose, and she frowned, not at Ronon…but at McKay.   

 

“Rodney?” she asked, swallowing as it came out a little rough.

 

“Hi,” he replied. “I guess that worked, huh?”  She frowned at him even more deeply.

 

“Did you just pull my nose?”

 

“You told me your father used to do that when you wouldn’t wake up, and threatened to use it on me when I didn’t get up fast enough when we were off-world once.  Figured it might still work.”

 

She stared at him, then blinked slowly. “You remember that?” she asked softly, clearly surprised.

 

McKay just closed his eyes. “I remember everything you tell me,” he muttered, already half asleep again, “except the names.  All those people you know..." He sighed. "Just too many names to remember…”  His voice trailed off at the end, to the point of barely being audible, and he was clearly asleep again by the time he rolled the last “r”.

 

Teyla watched him for a second, then seemed to realize she herself was being watched.  Her brown eyes blinked a few more times, finally noting the brightness of the room around her, then down to the hand on her left shoulder.  She stared at it for a moment before lifting her head to the left to see Ronon. 

 

“Ronon?” she breathed.

 

The Satedan gave her a nod in reply, then looked over her shoulder and nodded again.

 

She turned to the right, and her eyes widened upon seeing Sheppard.  Slowly, her frown lifted into a beautiful, thankful smile.

 

“Colonel?” she asked, clearly having as hard a time believing it as the other two. "Is that really you?  We thought..."

 

“I know,” Sheppard replied with an answering grin. “It's good to see you too, Teyla.”

____________________________________________ 

 

The minutes stretched out, and the villagers settled down to wait with them, obviously even less willing to risk the dark now than before. 

 

Teyla had quickly succumbed once more to sleep after being woken, and they let her, fingers crossed that they would succeed in waking her again in a couple of hours.  McKay fell asleep immediately after having the jacket sleeve loosened and a new bandage wrapped over the saturated black fabric, and they didn’t disturb him again.  Despite the torches and the blankets they managed to drape on him, his temperature remained dangerously low.  But, as with Teyla, there was nothing more they could do.

 

Ronon tried to stay awake, but it was clearly a losing battle and Sheppard finally ordered him to sleep...and the Satedan didn't argue too hard.  The colonel now had three sleeping teammates all lying within inches of each other.  Ronon, at one point, had slipped down so that his head was on Teyla’s waist, where she slept on her side, her head still on Rodney’s shoulder. 

 

It was almost as if they were afraid to be away from each other again. 

 

Sheppard still had his arm on Teyla’s leg as he tried, valiantly, to stay awake as well.  He was probably the only one to get any real sleep before this, thanks to that snake.  But between the agony of having his leg cleaned and set, and the other various cuts on his body cleaned (he had a nasty head wound—who knew?), and now the pain-killers…he was having a really hard time keeping his eyes open.

 

But he wanted to keep watch over them.  At least until Beckett came.  Then he’d turn them all over.

 

Innis had kept him company for a while, telling him what she knew of what had happened on the ship, but she had wandered off now, probably to talk to some of the other villagers.

 

Sheppard tipped his left arm up, to look at the watch. 

 

Still three hours to go.

 

He could make it.  He would make it.

_____________________________________________

 

“Colonel Sheppard?  Son?  Can you hear me?” 

 

Sheppard felt something touch his face, then jostle him lightly.  He felt something else lift his arm, and a soft needleprick a second later.

 

"Colonel?  Colonel, wake up, son.  We're here.  Can you wake up for me?"

 

Gamely, John tried to do exactly that.  Slowly, he blinked his eyes, trying to see through the blur.  He knew it was Carson.  That voice was more distinctive than anyone else's. 

 

"C...son?"

 

"Yes, lad.  It's me.  I need to know what's wrong with you besides the leg.  And anything you can tell me about the others..."

 

"Sir," another voice called from somewhere, "I think Ronon's coming around."  It sounded like a marine, but Sheppard couldn't pinpoint who it was.

 

"They were both worried about Miss Emmagen and Doctor McKay in particular, Doctor Beckett," a woman said.  Probably Innis.

 

"Carson," Sheppard tried again, licking lips that felt impossibly dry.  His mouth felt like it was filled with cotton balls. "Carson...McKay's trapped...."

 

"I know, son.  They're going to beam him out as soon as I tell them I'm ready.  He has at least two nasty lacerations that I can see.  Do you know if there are any others?  Or if he's injured anywhere else under there?"

 

Sheppard still hadn't managed to clear his vision.  He was looking at the world through a strange sort of thick film.  He blinked a few times.  Hell, even his eyes hurt.

 

"Don't know. Couldn't see down his legs.  Said he could move them both, though.  A little."  His throat was hurting now, like someone had poured sand down it.  He coughed harshly at the thought, and he felt warm hands rubbing at his chest and back, tilting him up a little off his makeshift resting place.

 

"Okay, son, that's fine...We'll figure it out, not to worry.  We're going to beam you up, now, Colonel.  We'll get all four of you home, I promise."

 

"Wait, wait," Sheppard grabbed at Beckett's sleeve, "McKay...told me...There's a buffer," he said at last.  "Need to rescue the people..."

 

"Innis told me, Colonel.  And I know about the database as well.  We've also got some folks do a quick exploration of the other decks for anything else we can salvage before we leave.  It's all sorted, trust me."

 

Sheppard smiled at that, and patted Beckett's sleeve (or at least, what he hoped was his sleeve), before closing his eyes again.  "Good man, Carson. Good man."

 

"I try," Beckett replied, the smile in his voice clear. 

 

The presence lifted away, and Sheppard felt oddly colder because of it.  He was about to try to open his eyes again when Beckett said something like "go ahead, Hermiod," and then the world outside his eyelids flashed bright....and everything went dark again.

____________________________________________________

 

When he woke again, he was lying on a bed.  One leg was elevated in a cast, and he studied it for a moment, trying to recall again exactly what he had done to it...

 

As he did so, he focused beyond the leg to the rest of the room...and smiled.

 

He was home.  Atlantis's walls rose up pink and warm from the floors, and he could see a window on the far wall that showed the ocean.  The sun was blazing.  It was a beautiful day.

 

Sighing softly, his brow pinched a little when memories came back, and his heart-rate increased.  Breathing more quickly, he turned his head to the left and right, searching the infirmary for...

 

Ronon.  Right on his left.  The Satedan was curled, but his feet still stuck out over the edge of the bed.  He was asleep. 

 

Sheppard smiled slightly, and looked to his right.  There were monitors and machines in the way but...yes.  Had to be Rodney.  He couldn't see the man, but he saw a left arm swaddled in bandages.  Had to be.

 

Which only left....

 

He tried to push himself up on his elbows, struggling with both the lethargy and the weakness in his limbs. He had to see....

 

The increased heart rate must have alerted someone, because a nurse was jogging quickly towards him.  Maria.  Thank God. 

 

"Maria," he croaked, the name coming out more like a strangled moan.  He coughed harshly, and she had a straw to his lips the moment he lowered his fist from his mouth.  He sighed gratefully when she pulled it out, and opened his mouth to speak again, but she raised a hand.

 

"I know what you want to know.  Ronon's to your left.  He'll be fine.  A few broken ribs, a very sore shoulder, and some blood loss due to that wound in his leg, but otherwise, he's all right.  I tell you, he's tougher than a three-day old steak—he never had any sign of infection, almost as if he was immune to every bug in the Pegasus galaxy." She shook her head, smiling a little as she looked at the Ronon's shaped lump in the next bed. "He'll be up and around long before either you or Doctor McKay, I would imagine."  She moved around behind him and leaned him forward, so she could fluff his pillows. 

 

"Wha—" Sheppard tried, but Maria just shushed him with a pat on his shoulder.

 

"Rodney's to your right.  Poor boy, he lost a lot of blood, and there was some worry about infection, but he's so stubborn—just refused to let it get him.  He's coming back well, and will get better even faster once he wakes up fully, like you."  She finished with the pillows and pushed Sheppard back against them.  Then she reached down and pulled up the device to raise and lower the bed, hitting the button to raise it. 

 

"And—"

 

"Teyla, well, I can tell you, we were very worried about her.  From all outward appearance, that knock on her head...," Maria clucked a little as Sheppard was raised, her eyes watching his monitors as she spoke. "Well, we feared the worst, but," Maria shrugged, "when we finally got her in for a scan, the contusion was not as deep as it appeared.  No sign of bleeding or hemorrhaging, just a very nasty concussion. She must have some very loving people watching over her."  She smiled, and looked down at him.

 

"So, she..."

 

"Was released this morning. She's resting in her quarters—but I know that Doctor Beckett is looking in on her regularly.  I imagine she'll be by to see the three of you soon enough, though.  She was very worried about her boys."

 

Sheppard's eyebrows lifted at the phrase "her boys," but Maria just smiled at him. 

 

"Actually, there are a number of people worried about the lot of you, including a large number of refugees.  They're currently camped out on the east pier, while we find them a new home.  A lovely blond young man and his sister have been by numerous times, seeking information."

 

Sheppard frowned then, wondering just how long they'd been there. "How long—"

 

"Three days, Colonel."  She gripped his bare arm tightly, "For you and Doctor McKay, it was a long three days."

 

"Me?"  Sheppard was confused.

 

"You got a nasty infection as well, Colonel. Your leg...," she frowned, then sighed and smiled again.  "It's all right now.  Everything is all right.  We're just glad to have you back."  And with a final pat to his arm, she twirled around and walked over to Ronon to check on his vitals.  The Satedan wasn't hooked up to any monitors, so she very lightly checked his pulse using her fingers and her watch.

 

Sheppard watched her for a moment, then turned to look to his right.  Now that he was elevated, he could see more of Rodney.  The scientist's face was turned slightly towards him, his skin still looking extremely pale with dark shadows under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks. 

 

He watched for a moment, listening to the monitors all around, assuring him of the life still beating within.

 

And after a while...without even noticing it...he fell asleep again, a soft smile on his face.

_____________________________________________

 

Teyla stood just outside the edge of the curtained infirmary area housing her team, watching Colonel Sheppard's face soften as he fell back to sleep.  In her hands was the jacket that they had cleaned for her, the soft green material now sporting a few dark stains that refused to fade, but she didn't mind.

 

She didn't mind at all.

 

She heard quiet footsteps come up behind her, and then a warm hand on her shoulder.

 

"One hell of a mission," Carson said quietly.

 

Teyla smiled, and glanced at him. "One hell of a journey," she amended. 

 

He met her gaze, and smiled back, though she could tell he didn't quite understand the point of her word change.  Giving him a nod, she stepped forward and headed towards the bed on the far side of Rodney.  She wanted to be there when they woke up next time.

__________________________________________________

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: THE STORY OF THE THERMOPYLAE

 

"...the next thing I know, McKay yells 'stop!' in this both terrified and really furious voice..."

 

"Pure McKay."

 

"Yeah, true.  Anyway, he yells 'stop' and the ship does; it just stops, coming to a dead halt and...of course, falling.  He freaks again, yells something like, "up, up, up!" and guns the...what did you call them again?"

 

"Thrusters."

 

"...yeah, thrusters on the front of the ship, so the back end is falling, but the front is lifting and...flips over.  Just like that.  I got under the weapons console and just hung on!"

 

Sheppard's laughter at Ronon's story was grating, because there was no questioning at whose expense it was at, and McKay snarled as he floated back to consciousness.  He then heard Teyla's soft voice joining the conversation.

 

"He flipped the Thermopylae upside down?" she breathed, no mocking in her tone, just awe. Rodney liked Teyla. "On purpose?"

 

"Well, not sure about the purpose part, but it sure confused the Wraith.  Dart nearly went into us before spinning off out of control in a different direction.  McKay righted us a second later, and then aimed us after it."

 

"What then?"  Sheppard asked brightly. 

 

"Well, the Wraith got pretty far away.  I...asked McKay if I could shoot it, but...he had a better idea."

 

"A better idea?" Sheppard repeated, drawing the words out a little.

 

"Well, like I said, the Wraith was sorta far out," Ronon replied, sounding uncomfortable, then he ploughed on, as if to avoid any response to that. "Anyway, the dart swings around and heads back, firing and missing.  The Thermopylae's swimming from side to side, like a fish in a strong current, avoiding every shot.  I looked back at McKay, and he's got that look on his face. You know the one—the look he gets when he's about to do something that's probably both unbelievably brilliant but also incredibly stupid at the same time?"

 

Sheppard laughed, and Rodney gritted his teeth.

 

"We know it well," Teyla said, her tone warm, amused.  "Saved our lives on numerous occasions."  Yeah, Rodney really liked Teyla.

 

"While also almost killing us, of course," Sheppard noted, and McKay, still not quite awake, could see Sheppard lifting his finger in his mind's eye, to make his point.  Jerk.

 

"We're all still alive," Teyla replied, her tone even warmer.

 

"Aye, often barely," Beckett's sly voice chimed in.  Ah, so the master of voodoo was there as well, was he?  McKay tried to shift on the bed, but his limbs felt leaden, too heavy to lift easily.  He frowned, and a headache started to pound behind his left eye.

 

"Anyway," Ronon pulled them back in, clearly wanting to continue his story, which was a bit unusual for the normally taciturn man, "McKay gets that look, tells me to hold on, and we're suddenly whipping sideways at this crazy angle.  Before I know what's happening—to be honest, I wasn't sure what was happening most of the time—we're swinging back around like a canderhass, and—"

 

"What?  Canderhass?" Beckett says, stopping the conversation.  "What is a canderhass?"

 

"It's a...uh...It's a fish...well, more like a crustacean...." Ronon paused.

 

"Like a...a...I do not know how to describe it.  It has a certain way of moving, however, which...which...oh dear." Teyla was clearly stumped as well.

 

"Show me," Sheppard said.

 

"Oh, okay. It moved like this...."  There was some shuffling, then something snapped sharply, and Rodney jerked at the noise, startled.  He felt a hand quickly rest on one of his ankles and squeeze lightly.  It was a gentle touch, soothing.  Whoever it was, they must have seen him flinch.  He was lying on his left side, his legs curled under him. Probing down with the leg that wasn't now being held—he found someone sitting on the end of his bed. The hand stayed on his ankle even after he touched the person and pulled his foot back.

 

"Heh," Sheppard snorted, obviously in response to Ronon's comment.  "Gotcha.  We call it pulling a one-eighty, though it's usually done in a car." Sheppard was not close enough to be the person on McKay's bed...he sounded too far away.

 

"Okay, whatever you say," Ronon replied off-handedly.  When he continued, though, there was pride again in his voice, "So, he whips us around and, this time, it was definitely on purpose.  I saw the look on his face—he meant it.  Pretty cool, actually.  And then we're aiming for the side of the Dart, on a collision course, like we're going to broadside it.  Last minute, McKay pulls up and the front thrusters come on...."

 

"While the engines were driving you forward full throttle?  Oh, the ship couldn't have liked that!" Sheppard laughed.

 

"It didn't. McKay was talking to the ship almost the whole time as he flew—I don't think he even knew he was doing it—asking it to forgive him, begging it to help him a bit more. And it righted itself pretty quick—I think the ship kinda liked him. It was weird. And his move was effective.  The Dart was shoved into the trees.  Should've taken it down, but, somehow, it came out again.  Wraith had luck on his side, the bastard."

 

"And rotten luck on ours," Carson said, quietly.

 

"There was a lot of that," Teyla agreed solemnly.

 

"Bad luck the Wraith came in the first place, maybe," Sheppard said, "but bad luck for them we were there.  Took down four darts, killed over thirty Wraith, saved all our people and almost all of the Cutsarkians...." He trailed off into a soft silence, and Rodney could imagine him lifting his eyebrows as he regarded his team.  Rodney found some of his annoyance at the colonel fading away.

 

"Very true," Teyla agreed, and the warmth was back.

 

"So then what happened?" Carson asked.

 

"Well," Ronon made a sound like he was shrugging, "after that, the dart must've decided we were too much for it, and it headed straight for the Gate.  I shot two missiles after it, but the dart did this amazing turn and...McKay told me not to fire on it, to let it get away, but...." He paused, and you could hear the awkward guilt in his hesitation.

 

"It all worked out in the end," Sheppard said then, clearly cutting off the man before any guilt or remorse could be worked into the story. "Besides, if it had gotten through, they probably would've sent more darts back."

 

There was a pause, then, Ronon spoke again, "Suppose."

 

"Sounds like Rodney really outdid himself," Carson said. "Flying like that. Never knew he had it in him."

 

"He didn't either," Ronon agreed.

 

"As with all things," Teyla said, "you never know until you try."

 

"Of course, with Rodney," Carson mused, "he usually doesn't try until he has no choice."

 

That earned bright laughter from anyone, even Teyla, and Rodney scowled some more.  He hated it when they did this—didn't they know he was right there?  He shifted again, and the hand on his ankle tightened its grip.  What the hell? Whoever it was thought he could get away?  Meanwhile, the laughter died down, until there was a sort of comfortable silence. 

 

"Damn," Sheppard sighed finally, "I wish I'd had a chance to fly that ship.  Bet it was amazing."

 

"You get to fly everything else," McKay muttered, "It was my turn." He managed to break the seal on his eyelids as he spoke, allowing light to filter in through his long lashes. "And, despite what Dreads there says, I saved your ass, so laughing at me is not nice." It took a few determined eye blinks, but he managed to focus a glare on the spiky haired lump in the bed to his left.  Sheppard grinned cockily back.

 

"I thought I got to tell everyone how much better it all would have been if I had been flying," Sheppard teased, his eyes dancing as he met the scientist's gaze.

 

McKay scowled.  He wasn't in the mood to be teased.  He didn't really feel in the mood for much of anything to be honest.  He lifted his head and blinked some more, trying to see who else was here.

 

It was Teyla on the end of his bed, her hand on his ankle. She smiled warmly and squeezed it again when he looked at her, and he scowled a little less, resulting in a frown.  He didn't move his ankle.  She looked well, except for a bandage on her head.  Much of the temple and left side of her face was a mottle of yellowing bruises as well.  She appeared a little pale, but, otherwise, well. 

 

His eyes shifted to see Carson sitting in a chair between the beds, his feet up on Sheppard's bed and his lap filled with paper that he had apparently been writing notes on.  The pen was forgotten in his hand as he too smiled at McKay.

 

That was a lot of smiling in his direction.  It was a bit much.  He wasn't a child in need of attention.  He thought about moving his ankle from Teyla's grip....

 

One more eye shift, and he saw Ronon sitting on the end of Sheppard's bed, leaning forward—because if he leaned back he'd probably knock into the colonel's elevated left leg.  The limb was trapped inside an air cast from thigh to ankle.  Hunh.  That looked like it hurt.

 

Good.

 

Ronon wasn't smiling at him.  He was just arching an eyebrow.  That was definitely better than a smile.

 

He finally turned back to Sheppard.  The colonel was no longer grinning.  He looked concerned.

 

"You okay?" he asked, worry clear in his voice.

 

"Oh, right," Carson said, as if startled. "Where's my head?" Papers scraped against each other as the physician stood up without grace.  McKay watched him for a moment, then closed his eyes again.  It was too much effort to pay attention.  A moment later, he felt a hand on his head. 

 

"Rodney?" Carson asked softly. "How are you feeling?" 

 

The answer was obvious—he felt sick.  Nauseous and disoriented, like he wasn't sure which way was up. His head hurt, his left arm felt bizarrely numb, and his back felt strained. But...at the same time...he also didn't feel up to sharing this news with everyone staring at him.

 

"Fine," he mumbled.

 

That earned a moment's silence, then Beckett was picking up his right arm and taking his pulse.  McKay opened his eyes again, and this time, everyone was watching him with real concern.  He frowned again, but more in confusion this time.  Why were they suddenly worried?

 

"Can you tell me what hurts, Rodney?" Carson said, putting his arm back down and pulling out his penlight. "Is it your arm?  You managed to curl your fingers for me yesterday, remember?  Can you do that again for me now?"

 

McKay blinked a few times, the frown fading into confusion and then real anxiety. Remember?  He didn't remember anything of the sort!  He looked up at the physician, eyes opening wider. "What?  Why, is there something wrong with me?  What is it?  Is there something wrong with my arm?  Why are you all looking at me like that?"  He shifted his left arm as he spoke, and flexed the fingers of his hand—they seemed to work, although his arm felt oddly weak and the movement slow, difficult. "Oh my God, is that permanent?"  He looked up again, wide awake now and scared. 

 

Carson was about to flash the light in his eyes, but McKay's questions and sudden liveliness obviously stopped him.  He looked puzzled, then, slowly, he straightened, a knowing smile on his face.

 

"Oh, I see."  Carson nodded, tucking the light away in the pocket of his lab coat. "Your arm is still healing, Rodney, but Doctor Morrison is confident it'll be just fine.  I take it you're just feeling a bit out of sorts, yes? Hence the pissy mood. That's to be expected." 

 

"Expected?"  McKay's brow furrowed, taking the news about his arm in stride. "I'll have you know I feel like I'm going to throw up all over your shiny white shoes, you poor excuse for a care-giver!  And 'out of sorts'?  Is that a medical term?  Where did you earn your degree—Make-It-Up-As-You-Go-Along University?"

 

Beckett was smiling more broadly, and he nodded.  Turning to look at the others, he gave a tiny shrug, "He's just fine."

 

"Well, I was! I'm not so sure now!" McKay huffed, and he tried to shift onto his back, only to hiss when the movement pulled something that felt like duct tape on his back, holding his skin together.

 

"Hush, Rodney," Carson said, patting his head in an infuriatingly parental gesture, "and don't lie back just yet—we just changed the dressing on your back and it's probably still a wee bit sore."  He smiled and backed up a step. "I'll get you something for your stomach."  Turning, he nodded at the other three before stepping around the chair he'd been sitting in, heading out of the curtains separating McKay's and Sheppard's beds from the rest of the infirmary.

 

McKay watched him leave, brow furrowed in both confusion and annoyance that his injuries and obvious illness were being so easily dismissed.  He looked again at his left arm and moved the fingers again.

 

"You really okay, McKay?" Sheppard asked, his tone quiet.  Rodney looked up, and met the hazel eyes evenly.  Oddly, the genuine worry in them calmed him down a little, and he was able to think again about the others.

 

"Yeah," he said finally. "I guess so.  How about the rest of you?"  He glanced down at Ronon and Teyla as he spoke.

 

"We're okay," Ronon nodded.  Teyla smiled again.  "Sheppard's got the strained back from hell though."  The Satedan glanced at the colonel, who gave him a sneering smile back.

 

Rodney grimaced, then looked around, as if just realizing where he was for the first time. "Oh, hey. We're home," he said, and then frowned a little in bewilderment.

 

"Just noticed that, did you?" John grinned.

 

"Clearly," Rodney replied snarkily. "How did we get back?"

 

"Daedalus came and got us," Ronon explained.

 

"Oh," Rodney frowned.  He was looking at Teyla now, and his logical mind realized that her bruises were fading.  Which meant...time had passed. "How long ago?"

 

"Four days," Teyla supplied.

 

Rodney's eyes opened wide, and he tried to sit up...and hissed in pain as his back pulled.

 

"Don’t do that," Ronon suggested.  Rodney gave him a dark look.

 

"Yes, thanks for that," he snarled.  He frowned again, "Four days? Wow."

 

"Yeah, apparently we all slept through most of it," Sheppard said, sounding a bit sheepish.

 

"You too?" Rodney asked him, curious.

 

"And me," Ronon said, raising a hand. "Really embarrassing."

 

"Huh," Rodney frowned again.  He opened his mouth to ask another question when he caught Beckett bouncing back towards them out of the corner of his eye.

 

"Here we go," Carson said cheerily, holding up a small cup of water and some pills.  He rested the cup on the table next to Rodney's bed, then took Rodney's right hand and dropped the pills into it. "Swallow those."

 

Rodney stared at them a minute, then did as he was told, chasing them with the water.  The liquid felt good sliding down his dry throat.  Carson, meanwhile, sat back down in his chair and stretched a little before settling with his arms crossed.  He smiled at Rodney, who was crushing the little plastic cup in his right hand into a ball.

 

"There now.  You'll soon be—"

 

Rodney suddenly threw the empty plastic cup at him, and it hit the doctor square in the middle of his forehead.  Carson jumped slightly, clearly surprised, then gave Rodney a dark look—making no move to pick the cup up.  Rodney grinned.

 

"Guess he's feeling better already," Ronon supplied, grinning as well.

 

"What was that for?" Carson demanded, his arms crossing more tightly.

 

"I had to hit someone for that little make-fun-of-McKay story," Rodney answered, smiling smugly now. "You're the least likely to retaliate."

 

"Oh, you think so, do you?  Well, I'll..."  He trailed off, his hand reaching up to touch at the radio in his ear—the only one of them wearing one. "Yes, Elizabeth?"  He waited a moment, then smiled.  "Of course, lass." He looked up at the others. "I can say with some certainty that they are all up for visitors, seeing as they're already all visiting each other.  Even Rodney appears fully awake for the first time in...what?"  He paused again, his blue eyes lifting to look at Teyla. "Yes, Teyla is here.  I'll tell her."  He lowered his hand and smiled up at the Athosian, "Elizabeth is looking for you.  Halling is visiting from the Mainland and wants to discuss some things."

 

Teyla sat up straighter, looking oddly uncertain at the news. Rodney couldn't even bring himself to complain when the grip on his ankle tightened almost painfully, seeing the nervousness in her frame.

 

"That's good news, isn't it?  You can tell him about the Thermopylae," Sheppard said, sounding a little tentative.  He was no fool—his brow had furrowed at her reaction.

 

"I...yes," she said, sliding forward off Rodney's bed to stand up, "I just...I am not sure yet what I can tell him."  She frowned again, then straightened her shoulders and nodded a farewell to all of them.  "I will tell him as much as I can.  Thank you."  With a smile, she turned and left.

 

Sheppard frowned some more, then looked at Carson. "Has anyone been doing any research into the archives a