Part One
Destination: Atlantis


Sometimes Jehan thought that Vala's trip through Thor's Hammer hadn't really gotten rid of Qetesh after all. Sometimes he wondered if it hadn't left her with some kind of brain damage. Usually those times where accompanied by the reflection that he must have been ribboned once too often or he wouldn't still be following her around the galaxy.

Those times, he reminded himself he could have had Ba'al sitting in his head instead of offering a bounty on it, laid down some cover lies or fire, and hoped being crazy would continue being lucky until they made it back to the chappa'ai or their ship in one piece.

Their latest plan probably pushed that luck farther than it would hold though, explaining why the rest of their crew had abandoned them.

~*~



They had six days left. He could feel the sand trickle of each irreplaceable moment disappearing as they waited at their metaphorical waterhole. The Tanafriti was gone, along with any other options beyond this plan. If it failed, they would have to cannibalize the cargo ship drifting at their bow and limp the al'kesh they were on to the nearest world with a chappa'ai, hundreds of lightyears away.

And Mer would die.

Vala sat at the pel'tak comm station and transmitted an artfully broken up distress call, her voice strained yet collected.

"Help… request assistance...have failed...we have lost power," Vala recorded, using the Jaffa variant of Goa'uld common through most of the galaxy, leaving out any pesky details and making them sound like easy pickings. "Repeat, stranded and in need of assistance, this is the al'kesh Bright Glory of..."

She recorded it and set it on repeat, programming the transmission to run through several long-range comm frequencies with fluctuating power levels.

"There," she said. "Now we wait."

Jehan stared at her. He hated waiting almost as much as she did.

They were both good at it though, thanks to the Goa'uld.

~*~



Sometimes he recited his whole name now, his name, to remind himself of who he was and who he wasn't. He wasn't, in any way he wanted to acknowledge, Jolinar of Malkshur, for instance.

Not any longer, no matter how many of the Tok'ra's memories remained.

He was Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay.

Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay.

He'd hated that name as a boy, had taken shit for it every day of school until he left for university and could insist on being called Rodney instead. But Jolinar had called him Rodney − her voice in his head remained − and he never wanted to hear it again. Never. Not in his head and not out loud − she'd instructed the other Tok'ra to address him as Rodney as well, but never released her stranglehold on his replies.

He wasn't Dr. Rodney McKay, civilian consultant to the Stargate Command and less than enthusiastic member of SG-1, any longer either. The SGC had allied with the Tok'ra at FTL speeds when offered the chance and never once inquired about him. At least the Tok'ra council had made a token gesture toward assuring that he was a willing host.

Of course, Jolinar had kept him silent and faked answering as him. There was no way the other Tok'ra could know it hadn't been him without extracting her.

The SGC hadn't even pretended he mattered.

He'd heard Sam had got his place on SG-1. That must have made her happy. And then Jacob Carter had agreed to host Selmak to save his own life. Jolinar had been careful avoid them. When SG-1 and SG-17 came to Ravenna, they'd been busy off planet.

Maybe that had been pity on her part. Rodney hadn't been forced to see that they didn't care or know the difference between him and Jolinar pretending to be him.

Hosting Jolinar had revealed all sorts of things about the symbiotes, whether they were Tok'ra or Goa'uld. They hated changing hosts for a myriad of reasons, beginning with how vulnerable and instinct driven they were in their natural state. They augmented their own tiny brains with their host's, after all, and a smart host made for a smarter symbiote. Taking a host was dangerous in other ways too: not every Unas or human was compatible. The longer a symbiote spent in one host, the harder it became to adapt to a new one, over hundreds or even in some cases thousands of years, the symbiotes lost flexibility and would involuntarily reject any new host, resulting in death for both.

Jolinar had been frightened that if the Tok'ra council discovered Rodney hadn't been a willing volunteer − or at least amendable in retrospect − they would demand she leave him or even forcibly remove her. Only the death of her last host had forced her out and into Rodney. She hadn't believed they would find another willing host as compatible. And she hadn't wanted to give up using Rodney's brain.

There were days he'd been content with the arrangement too: when Jolinar and he worked in tandem, because she hadn't been stupid − his brain after all − and their symbiosis had offered him access to Tok'ra science and technology that they would never share with the Tau'ri.

Then the ashrak had killed her. Tortured them both until Jolinar couldn't endure it any longer and left Ro − Meredith to put himself back together with a head full of her experiences.

He'd pulled himself together. He'd put himself back together, no thanks to anyone else, and he was never going back. Not to being a prisoner in his own head, not to being Rodney, not to Earth and the questions, the study, and whatever rationalizations were the flavor of the day there. The Tok'ra had wanted him to take another symbiote − to salvage whatever was left of Jolinar. He'd got out before any of the arrogant snakes could decide for him and never looked back. Screw them, he didn't see much difference between them and the Goa'uld, not once it came down the nitty-gritty of symbiote or host.

They were still snakes.

Meredith had his own motto.

Never trust a snake.

He didn't usually think about Jolinar or being a host if he didn't have to, but Meredith had already counted all the bulkhead panels and deck tiles and dismissed his every plan for escape too; the odds of recapture were too high. Odds of recapture and death were even higher. He was stuck on the wrong side − inside − of a Tok'ra forcefield on an fetid Oranian ship that smelled like skunk and sulfur.

Tenat and Jup were both stronger than Meredith too − or any human − and they'd already 'tuned' him up, wanting the secrets to some of the tech tricks he'd built.

His skin still burned where they'd handled him, thanks to the nauseating yellow fluids that seeped from their skins and boiled into the air, adding to the stink. Butyl mercaptan or something similar and probably an evolutionary defensive adaptation. It still made him puke on Tenat at least once.

It had hurt − it still hurt, he thought they'd at least cracked some ribs as well as done painful soft tissue damage; he'd been pissing blood for several days − but on the scale of agony he'd endured under ashrak torture, it hadn't compared. Meredith had grunted and yelled and called them the excrement-eating sons of whores too ugly for an Unas they were and given them nothing else. They'd finally given up because no one out-stubborned Meredith McKay.

No one hated pain more than he did either and he'd given up on reciting pi when the aches had kept distracting and making him lose his place.

Tenat and Jup weren't exactly reliable about feeding him either, never mind what they considered food. If Jolinar hadn't fixed his allergies and hypoglycemia he'd have been in a coma by now.

If he didn't occupy his mind with something though, he'd go crazy soon. He'd analyzed his childhood, his estrangement from his sister, and his divorce. He'd depressed himself wondering what had happened to his cat and amused himself imagining just how bad the contents of his old apartment's refrigerator might be by now if left untouched. Thinking of his refrigerator reminded him of all the Earth foods he hadn't tasted in so long, though, and left him hungry and more unhappy. Remembering all his new favorite meals only reminded him he was hungry, so that was out, and thinking about sex just led back to Jehan.

He kept remembering Jehan's face and imagining it when Vala told him. Vala's mask had crumpled for a moment before she left him behind. Oranians couldn't really read human expression, but Meredith could and hers had been terrible. Jehan's would have been worse.

Mer rubbed his face. He didn't want to think about Jehan alone in the galaxy if this went to hell. Went further to hell. Because he'd felt afraid Jehan wouldn't stay with Vala, despite knowing her longer than either of them had known Meredith. He and Jehan had been together since three days after he came aboard as their ship engineer. He knew how messed up Jehan had still been then; he knew Jehan wouldn't turn to Vala, simply because she had too much damage to do him any good. And if not Vala, then there was no one. Jehan didn't trust anyone else.

"Crap," he said in the quiet that made his voice louder than he'd meant. "Crap, crap, crap."

He had to get out of here and back to Jehan.

If only he'd stayed aboard their ship the way he usually did. Tenat and Jup would never have taken Jehan, because Jehan was their Goa'uld-damned pilot, who they would need to fulfill the bargain. The same went for Vala. Not to mention Tenat and Jup might not be able to conceive that Jehan and Meredith would have enough loyalty to her to come back.

Hard to say. One of them had shown enough perception to realize Vala would try her best to come back for Mer and decided to use that as a guarantee against her double-crossing them. Maybe even set them up so that Meredith would accompany Vala to the meet to check the naquadah was real and genuinely refined, weapons grade. More than they'd ever scored before, so they were naturally suspicious.

Low-lives like Tenat and Jup didn't come by that sort of treasure normally.

Of course, they hadn't. Meredith had been listening to the two of them since they locked him inside the Tok'ra forcefield. They were acting as agents for someone else.

They were also planning to sell Vala and Jehan out to Ba'al.

Knowing did him absolutely no good with no way to warn his partners.

~*~



Jehan didn't recognize the ship that answered the distress call. It wasn't Goa'uld or Hebridan, but the al'kesh's sensor array had been fried by a stray bolt from a staff weapon bolt when they took the pel'tak, and that was all he could make out from the sketchy viewscreen display. If anything, it looked a little like an Asgard ship, but their ships would have dwarfed this one. He was glad it wasn't Asgard; they'd have been in trouble if it had been, no pirate or even Goa'uld, had ever taken an Asgard.

He watched it approach the al'kesh at sublight after dropping out of a hyperspace window and wondered dubiously if it would even have a ring system. Not every space-going species out there used the ubiquitous Goa'uld technologies. Getting aboard would be harder if they had to suit up for vacuum rather than combat and cross the emptiness between the ships. They might even have to scrap the assault plan and play at being sole survivors in need to get aboard.

Once the ship began hailing them on the same frequency as their distress call, in stilted, computer-translated Goa'uld rather than a Jaffa dialect, Jehan stiffened. Prometheus. Human ship, then. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Mer.

Vala met his gaze as he opened his eyes and raised an eyebrow. "I'll take the bridge," she offered. Jehan just nodded.

They donned their helmets and left the powered down bridge, ignoring the dead Jaffa in the darkened, smoke-stained corridors, to wait for their chance.

~*~



The two of them ringed into the boxy ship that had answered Vala's not-so-bogus distress call and separated. They should have had boarding parties with them, but had to make do with surprise and using Kull armor.

The armor they were using smelled like ass inside − dead ass − no matter how many times they'd fumigated it, but it still shrugged off both energy and projectile weapons fire. Good enough. Jehan ignored the reek and kept moving, too busy zatting anyone he came across, heading for the engine rooms while Vala headed upship to secure the bridge, to register how alien it was to the Goa'uld ships he was used to.

Mer had been the one who taught them engineers could be as dangerous as Jaffa aboard a space ship. Normally, Jehan would have been following him, covering him, while they took over, but things weren't normal. Their crew − snakelicking ha'taakas − had taken off with the rich haul from the cargo ship. Reckell had gone with them to make sure no one shorted Vala and himself on their share of the profit from the goods − if they made it back.

No guarantees.

No guarantees, but Jehan didn't care. As far as Jehan was concerned, getting Mer back rated higher than all the ships and weapons grade naquadah in the Milky Way. You didn't abandon a crew mate. He'd have done as much for any of them, not just Mer.

No longer. The rest of them could go to Netu.

If Vala's plan worked they'd fly away with both the ship, the naquadah, and Mer, and rendezvous with their Serrakin first mate on Hebridan in a few days. Jehan had too much experience with Vala's plans to count on that. Something would go awry.

He bared his teeth inside the helmet. He had no problems with ripping Tenat and his partners off, though. Snatching Mer had already broken faith.

Tenat would have to pay for that.

Sooner or later.

He zatted three more crewmen and stepped over their unconscious forms, registering that the patches on their uniforms were names lettered in English three steps further on. Not Goa'uld or Ancient or something even more alien. The wings were US Air Force. His heart hammered a little harder, but he didn't pause.

Jehan stalked into the main engineering  after taking out a raggedly organized group of seven crewmen. The comm jammers Mer had designed kept the crew compliment from coordinating and made picking them off almost too easy, but he found a thin, ponytailed woman working frantically on a panel of control crystals for the hyperdrives, hiccups making her fingers jerk and slowing her down, but enough damage already done he began cursing in Goa'uld before he even stunned her.

One glance told him he would be spending hours, if not several days, putting right what she'd sabotaged.

The patch on her jumpsuit identified her as Novak, L. Jehan stunned her, checked she hadn't hid anything critical on her, then carried her out to corridor and fused the door locks with an energy pulse. It would take even an expert time or a cutting torch to get inside again, but the crystals would still be there when he got back.

He left Novak in the corridor and worked his way back through the ship, checking for hideouts, before heading to the bridge.

Vala had a seat at the navigator's console when Jehan arrived.

"Not Goa'uld," she said in annoyance, looking at the controls. "This will take longer than usual. Their language is gibberish."

He didn't bother correcting her.

Vala shrugged.

"I'm sure I can figure it out eventually. It's rather primitive."

"The engineer got to the hyperdrives," he said.

Vala hissed under her breath.

"Can you fix it?" she demanded.

"Probably." He wasn't Mer, but he'd hung around while Mer did his thing and paid attention. It would probably be easier than working on a Goa'uld ship. "We'll keep the engineer anyway." Keeping the rest of the crew on their prize was out of the question.

He crouched, wrestled the nearest unconscious body onto his shoulder and headed for the Ring Room they'd boarded by. The awkward burden of the bulky man made him stagger and swear.

Vala grabbed the ankle of another man and began dragging him along the deck behind him. The poor bastard was going to have a concussion on top of a stun headache when he woke. That would be the least of his problems, though.

He only noticed the three star rank as he dumped his man in the center of the rings with a groan. Only recognized who it had been after activating the rings and sending him on his way, the memory of the general from Cheyenne surfacing sluggishly − a sour welcome to a base about to be shut down the only meeting they'd ever had. Hammond. Mer had mentioned him. Hadn't mentioned Earth had interstellar ships, though.

It didn't bother him anyway. Screw the lot of them. He owed Earth exactly what he'd got from his home planet since the day Apophis came through the chappa'ai.

Clearing out the rest of the unconscious crew, with just himself and Vala to move everyone, turned out to be exhausting and back-breaking work. They had to hurry and get it done before any of the crew started coming around. A four-wheeled dolly for moving equipment let them sling three or four people together and roll them back to the ring room, at least, and speeded up the process.

"Meredith better appreciate this," Vala muttered. "We could both be on Lator'nin drinking Sels wine if he had paid attention and run when I told him to."

Jehan didn't tell her Tenat's people wouldn't have grabbed Meredith if she hadn't scammed them the last time they came through Freider's Moon. He just rolled a sergeant and a corporal into the center of the ring, kicked one man's feet within the perimeter and activated it. Sweat ran down his sides under the single-suit he wore beneath the armor and his shoulders ached.

He headed out again.

~*~



Jehan stashed Novak and a doctor from the infirmary, a trim and tiny woman who looked more competent than anyone else he saw, in the ship's brig once he found it. He wanted the doctor in case Mer needed better care than Vala could provide once they had him back. Everyone else went to the al'kesh. They just managed it before the stun wore off their first victims.

Prometheus was still drifting, but he trusted Vala to get the sublights online and get them away from the bait before any sharks or do-gooders showed up. Jehan needed to find a maintenance locker and head back to the engine room to repair the door he'd fried, then start on restoring the hyperdrives.

The ship felt hollow and cold without a crew; empty shadows everywhere in the dark passageways. Vala hadn't cracked the bridge controls as fast as usual. Goa'uld tech, scavenged and simplified for Jaffa to use without reading or writing, was the norm through the galaxy. Jehan figured she might be having a hard time with the idiosyncrasies of an operating systems based on an original design.

If they didn't have any luck with it by the time he had the hyperdrive working again, he'd get the engineer out of the brig and persuade her to hack any security protocols he couldn't.

One of the armories was open. Jehan closed it up, noting weapons were missing from several lockers. There were quite a few zats and handguns scattered where crew members had fallen. He'd have to police them up once they made the hyperspace jump.

He'd been in the Kull armor so long his nose had shut down. The helmet restricted his vision and hearing; he didn't pick up that there was someone besides Vala on the bridge until he reached the doorway.

He saw a crewman fire a weapon that probably came from the armory Jehan had noted. It hit Vala's back, the charge sizzling over her armor without effect. Vala turned and raised her zat.

The man fired at Vala again, but without effect.

"Oh, crap," he said.

Jehan almost sympathized as Vala zatted him. The man gave out a pained yell before dropping to the deck, knocked unconscious.

"You missed one, Jehan," Vala chided, turning back to the control console.

The Kull armor kept him from shrugging. More likely Vala had missed him, but it didn't matter. They had gotten lucky: these people hadn't been expecting pirates.

"Brig?" he asked, nudging the man with his boot.

"No," she said. "Tie him up. We're probably going to need someone who reads this language. Besides, he's rather nice to look at. Unlike the rest of this bucket. Haven't these people heard of design and decoration?"

Jehan almost snorted. The lack of the ubiquitous gold and hieroglyphs praising whichever 'god' had commissioned a ship came as a relief to him. Even Tanafriti felt like a flying dungeon some days. Prometheus, on the other hand, felt like a tin can or maybe an aircraft carrier.

He set about securing the man into a chair while he was still out. The combat vest, black tee-shirt and BDU combination didn't offer a clue to his name. Jehan thought that the muscles and glasses both signaled that the man was more likely a ground pounder of some variety than Air Force like rest of the crew. He worked fast and took away the glasses at the end − not being able to see would help keep the man off-balance.

"Have you commed Tenat yet?"

"No. I can't get into the system."

Jehan resisted the urge to remind her what Tenat had promised to do to Mer if they didn't come back with a ship. She knew. Acting unconcerned was just the way she coped.

Vala went back to randomly calling up screens. "This dungeating scrapheap must have sublights, so where are they?"

"I could − "

"Just let me work on this," Vala snapped. "Go make sure there's no one else left onboard."

"I need to work on the hyperdrives, remember?"

"Fine. You might want to find us both something to eat, too."

She sounded so much like the Goa'uld she'd been, Jehan wanted to snap her neck. He breathed out through his nose instead. It was just stress working on both of them. She could fetch her own damn meal, though. He was no one's slave any longer.

On the other hand, he was hungry himself.

He secured a set of plastic ties on their prisoner and left.

"Open your comm," Vala called after him. "I've shut down Meredith's jammer."

Jehan nodded and did so.

It took two tries to find the ship's mess and put together something Vala would eat. By then the comm was providing him audio from Vala and their prisoner, who recovered from a zatting faster than most. Vala must have kept the stinking helmet on; the prisoner still thought he was facing a Kull and started babbling.

Since even Jaffa wet themselves when facing off against Kull warriors, Jehan thought talking at one was crazy, but this guy seemed like he might annoy one into shooting him. He sounded perplexed by finding himself still alive, anyway, obviously well aware Kull didn't normally take prisoners. No doubt he'd figure it out given enough time. Jehan figured Vala was laughing her head off where no one could see, though.

"I'm just gonna talk to myself here for a while, 'cause you're not gonna talk to me. Not that you guys are very talkative, but uh..."

"You may prove useful," Vala said.

Jehan found the mess by accident and then after some thought found bottled water and MREs to take down to the doctor and Novak in the brig. It would ease their headaches and their nerves. He kept listening as their other prisoner asked about the rest of the crew.

"Transported to the al'kesh."

The prisoner claimed they had the wrong guy and that he didn't know anything about the ship. Jehan or Vala or anyone with the survival instinct of a gnat would have lied and faked it as long as they could. Jehan dropped him a notch in his estimation.

Vala seemed set on screwing with the guy's mind. Next she said, "But you are very attractive."

Jehan listened to the poor bastard cough and blurt out, "What!?"

He hoped Vala was just messing with the man and not about to start sleeping with anything on two legs that couldn't outrun her again. She hadn't propositioned Jehan since their one disastrous night together, but she'd been celibate for months now and she usually started up again after something went wrong.

Like losing Mer to Tenat.

Crap.

On the comm in his ear, the other prisoner squeaked a little as he said, "Hey, you know, big guy, I'm flattered, really I am, it's just that, uh, you're not my type. And I'm more than a little disturbed that I might be yours."

Jehan hurried the MREs and bottled water down to the brig, checked the surveillance camera and found both women awake and sitting against a bulkhead shoulder to shoulder. He opened the door and tossed in the bags and bottles.

The red-headed doctor looked up. "What do you want from us?" she demanded. Her eyes were filled with the same anger snapping through her voice.

Jehan took a page out of Vala's play book.

"You may prove useful." He pointed to the food and water. "Provisions."

Novak had her fist shoved in her mouth, but it wasn't stopping the hiccups jolting her with every breath. Jehan winced in sympathy.

Jehan headed for the engine room. If he hadn't been worried about Mer, he would have been laughing a little at Vala's game. As it was, she was wasting time with the cat-and-mouse fun. As far as he was concerned, she had until he made it back to the bridge, then he was taking over.

Jehan missed whatever the prisoner said next as he entered the elevator between decks. Static scrambled the comm connection inside the helmet he wore. The armor wasn't designed with networked operations in mind. Kulls didn't really have enough brain power to work in teams, anyway.

He caught the tail end of something Vala said as he exited.

" − not going to hurt you."

"Thank God."

"Much," Vala continued and added brightly, with just a touch of evil amusement, "I hope."

He felt the shudder of the sublight engines activating a moment later, though, which meant Vala had cracked the system far enough to begin maneuvering the ship away from the cargo ship and the al'kesh, taking them out of range of intership ring transports. So at least she'd been getting something done while she entertained herself.

She asked about long-range transmissions and got nothing.

"You lie."

If anyone would know, it would be Vala. Jehan found a tool box and went to work on the door lock, prying the black-seared facing and keypad off and pulling out wires, methodically trying connections until one disengaged the air seal and the door retracted with a soft noise.

He pulled off the helmet and his gloves once inside and began work. It looked like Novak had been pulling control crystals nearly at random. Crap plan. She'd crippled the ship's chance to retreat into hyperspace if they'd been under ship to ship attack instead of a boarding action.

Jehan sat down in front of one of the computers and began accessing engineering specs. Mer was going to go wild over this ship. Some of the designs had to be from the Asgard. Jehan refused to let himself feel any guilt over stealing the ship. It was what they did and this time they had a better reason than usual.

"Uh, okay, um, look. My name is Daniel Jackson. I'm an archaeologist, a historian. I study ancient cultures, histories of the past, ancient civilizations. Have you heard of Earth, Tau'ri?"

Jehan froze.

Jackson?

Mer had talked about Daniel Jackson, somewhere between scorn and admiration, describing the man who had opened the chappa'ai.

If Mer hadn't told him about Jackson's search for the wife the Goa'uld had stolen as a host, Jehan would have needed to kill him.

So much pain.

A process of trial and elimination eventually got all the crystals back into place. He ran a diagnostic and smiled. The hyperdrives were functional again.

The prisoner cried out and Jehan decided it really was time to get up to the bridge. He didn't want to, didn't want to face Jackson or anyone from Earth, or deal with all the memories explaining who he was would stir up.

He forced himself forward anyway. He still found it unbelievable that the thorn in the System Lords' side, the terrible Tau'ri, were from Earth. He'd held on for so long, alone, believing there was no one else, and they'd been out there the entire time.

They done nothing. He hated them for that.

They had ships.

Jehan brushed his hand over a bulkhead and smiled meanly. They had one less now.

~*~



Vala stripped the stinking armor off piece by piece, leaving her sweat soaked single-suit clinging to her skin, well aware of the man − Daniel Jackson, a name she'd heard here and there around the galaxy, usually accompanied by a Goa'uld curse − had his eyes on her. She flipped her loose hair back off her shoulders.

Revealing she wasn't a Kull didn't make him any more cooperative. She ended up slapping him to remind him who was in charge.

"Ow!" he protested.

Vala leaned in close and used her sultriest voice. "Shall I kiss it better?"

She was making him uncomfortable. Good. Though he was genuinely attractive and she liked men the Goa'uld hated.

"Um, no."

She waited.

"Just don't do it again," Jackson said on the heels of his refusal. "Hey, look, even if I knew what it is you wanted me to do, what makes you think I'd tell you? How the hell do you think you can steal a ship when you don't know how it works?"

"I got the sublight engines going," she said.

She'd get communications soon too, with or without him, or Jehan would, once he had the hyperdrives online again. This would have been easier with more crew, but she and Jehan could do it. And they wouldn't share any of the profit from the naquadah Tenat had promised with anyone else.

"Yeah, so you did," Jackson acknowledged.

"You really expect me to believe you don't know how your own ship works?"

He wasn't a slave born under the boot of a Goa'uld 'god', willing to believe anything more complicated than a big stick was magic. If he didn't know, he could still easily help her. If he wanted to, which she granted he had no reason to.

She seated herself in the command chair next to Jackson.

"Have you heard of Earth, Tau'ri?" Jackson asked her after babbling something about cultures and civilizations.

"No," she lied.

Jackson shifted uncomfortably against his bindings. It was distracting.

"Okay, well, we were on our way to rescue a few friends who are trapped − "

Oh, a sob story. Too bad she had her own. Everybody did, after all.

"I really don't care," she interrupted.

"Look, this really isn't necessary−"

Vala held up her hands and mimicked chitchat. Mer had taught her that one. "Can I have the ship?" she asked. She pretended the other hand was answering. "No? Okay." She stared at Jackson, dropping her hands again. "Discussion over."

He stared back, displaying an annoying stubbornness.

Vala hit the control console with her fist in frustration. The screen flashed a new message: COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM ACTIVE.

"Oh, here we go." She nearly laughed. Another look and she had the gist of how the system worked and opened an transmission. "Tenat of Oran. Tenat, this is Vala, if you can hear me, please respond. I've managed to procure a vessel, bigger and better than what I'd hoped for," she said. She added, "Tenat, if you get this message, I apologize for the delay and will meet at the designated coordinates in one day. Vala out." Maybe that would appease Tenat's bad temper and ease Mer's captivity. She hoped.

She turned back to Jackson and smiled again.

"Now, about the hyperdrive."

She imagined the way the crinkles at the corner's of Jehan's eyes would tighten at the implication he couldn't get the hyperdrives up again.

Jackson sighed tiredly and wriggled against his bonds. Vala dismissed him from her thoughts, thinking instead of which tack they would take with Tenat. Land the ship and do an exchange for Meredith? Lay an ambush of some kind inside the ship? They couldn't just turn the ship over to Tenat or even if he left them the naquadah and gave Mer back, they'd be marooned on that worthless backwater moon with no way to get to the world in-system that had a chappa'ai.

Hyperdrives.

She wondered how fast this ship could transit. Al'kesh weren't as fast as Hebridan racers, so there was room for improvement with most ships. She'd need to see what Jehan had accomplished. If this ship could beat an al'kesh's hyperdrive speed, they could reach the rendezvous ahead of time and bust Mer out first, then renegotiate the deal for the naquadah.

By renegotiate, Vala still meant the three of them leaving with the naquadah and the ship. Tenat certainly didn't deserve either.

She kept working, finding that Jehan had the hyperdrives online again, but when she tried to input a course, the navigation systems shut down on her. ACCESS DENIED. Whichever of the crew had been on duty had password locked it before she managed to stun them all.

"Access is restricted by a code," she told Jackson in annoyance.

"Yeah, too bad."

That sounded just a little too self-satisfied for her. Vala's temper snapped and she swung around and fired an energy pulse at him from her arm weapon. She pulled the shot at the last second, burning through Jackson's tee-shirt sleeve and scoring a searing wound in his arm. Smoke, stinking of burnt flesh and fabric, curled up afterward, twisting in the invisible currents of the environmental system's air circulation.

Jackson jerked and cried out in pain. Vala swiveled her chair enough to face him again, propping her boots against his chair.

"Hurt?" she asked.

She knew it did. The Tok'ra had done much worse to her when they questioned Qetesh and Qetesh had made sure her host endured the worst of it. The torture had gone on and on, until they were inseparable in their pain, until Qetesh broke under it.

She pulled one of the small, less flashy healing devices out of a pocket in her single-suit as he replied affirmatively. She placed it onto the middle finger of her right hand, like a ring turned inward to her palm. A red telltale light flickered on as she showed it to him. "I can fix it."

Jackson's eyes widened and he began breathing even harder, panic and a new level of fear mingling with the pain. "I don't know the code!" he blurted. His gaze strayed between the healing device and Vala's eyes, looking for the telltale symbiote flash.

Vala smiled at him and moved to sit on the console before him. She aimed the device on her hand at his wound and willed it on. Qetesh had used anger and arousal to generate mental force to use both the healing device and a ribbon. Vala focused on her fear. The fear was always there, beneath every other emotion she let show, a fuel she would never use up. The wound on Jackson's arm healed quickly.

The pain went away with the wound. The skin knit without a scar and Vala lifted her hand away. Only the smoldering edges of the hole in his shirt remained to prove there had ever been a wound at all.

"There," she said. "Feel better?"

"You're Goa'uld."

The fear made her reckless. It made her want to prove she was still herself, still in control of her body, to feel something that was all hers. She knew Jehan disapproved, though he never said, the same way she knew all the things he could no longer bear after serving as a Goa'uld plaything.

Right that minute, she wanted Jackson. Well, she wanted someone and Jackson was right there, tied up and accessible. Sex always left her relaxed, the fear that had been part of her since she was chosen to become a host pushed back where it wouldn't interfere with her thinking.

She wanted Jackson, but even if she hadn't, she couldn't bear to have someone think she was a Goa'uld. That was Qetesh. She wasn't Qetesh, no matter how many times she still thought she heard the Goa'uld queen's voice in her head.

"No. But I was once a host to one."

"Which would explain the naquadah in your blood that lets you use Goa'uld technology."

"And how I quickly learned to fly this rather primitive ship." She kept it light. She had to or fall apart. Thinking about Qetesh left her feeling brittle. It reminded her of all the things Qetesh might have done to this man, given an opportunity, and it frightened that she might be forced to use the same techniques.

Worse, that she might just be looking for an excuse to use them.

"Yeah, so primitive, one would wonder if it was worth the bother," Jackson said. Very snippy.

Jehan would be grinding his teeth at the other end of the open comm. He did the flying. Mer and Jehan both agreed Vala was a terrible pilot. She could get a ship in and out of hyperdrive, de-orbit and take off. No one really wanted to be onboard during one of her landings.

"Well, in this case it's the size that matters," Vala told him.

Jackson pinched his brows together and stared up at her.

Tenat wanted a troop transport that could face off with an al'kesh or better. Ships fitting that description weren't just lying around waiting to be snapped up. They'd scouted four different blackmarket shipyards hunting something to pirate before settling on a the cargo ship and its al'kesh escort as the best of a lot of bad prospects.

Vala shifted over Jackson and glanced at his groin and the promising bulge there. "Actually," she breathed softly, "pretty much in every case."

He looked amazed and horrified by the brazen appraisal, which just made Vala want to keep teasing him or to touch him and see what other reactions she could draw from him.

She touched the healed skin on his arm.

"Tell me the code," she pleaded. "Please."

"I don't−I don't know it."

Resigned, Vala backed off.

"Fine."

She needed to consult with Jehan before she resorted to real torture. Maybe the engineer he'd kept on board would be better information source. If Jackson didn't have some use, he'd be better off dropped off at a world on the route to the rendezvous.

With a regretful glance back at him − she really wanted to keep him, preferably tied up and in her bed for a few days and nights − she left the bridge.

She really should have checked the ties. By the time she reached the bridge again, Jackson was gone. With a shrug, Vala dismissed him. She needed to set their course. Jehan would be up in another few minutes. He'd been irritated with her when she found him in the engine room.

Of course, the next time she saw him, Vala meant to twit him over his sub par knots.

She headed for the control console and called up a navigation screen. Jehan had managed to release it and the rest of the controls from the engine room's consoles. Expertise in the language of the ship's builders had no doubt helped him.

"Much better," she murmured to herself.

Knowing they were on a Tau'ri ship had left Jehan quieter and in a darker mood than usual. Quieter for Jehan approached mutism. She missed Meredith's babble and the way Jehan smiled and twitted him. They had to get him back; that was all. She'd survive if they didn't; that was what she did. She didn't know if Jehan would, though.

The scuff of a footstep alerted her to her latest miscalculation.

"Lose the weapon. Move away from the console," Jackson ordered.

Vala sighed theatrically.

"I liked you better tied up."

"Against the wall," he said.

Vala didn't move, watching him, calculating how far she could push before he zatted her. Could she get her arm up and a shot off from her own arm weapon before he did?

"Lose the weapon."

Probably not, she decided. She removed the weapon from her left arm and stripped off the glove she wore beneath it too.

"The suit still absorbs zat blasts," she pointed out as she strolled over to stand in front of a wall screen displaying something about the ship's status.

"Then cover your head."

She turned and said, "So you should let me take it off."

She wondered if Jehan was hearing this through the open comm. He'd expect her to deal with Jackson herself, though, since she'd been the one to leave him out of the brig.

"I think I'll turn the ship around first," Jackson told her.

"I don't know. If I had me at gunpoint, that wouldn't be my first choice."

She could see him think about it − for a second − then push away the temptation. People with principles were always harder to trick.

He went to the control console and began typing. The security code he'd denied knowing, so it served him right when the screen flashed ACCESS DENIED, rejecting it.

"What's going on?"

"I rewrote the access codes, so I'm the only one who can use the navigation systems."

And Jehan, but she thought Jackson didn't even know she wasn't alone and she'd keep it that way until she had the upper hand again.

He waved the zat at her.

"Undo it."

Maybe a small sob story of her own would distract him...

"Listen, hundreds of lives are at stake. I'm trying to save the last of my people − " In a way, that bit was even true. Meredith was one of her crew. She gentled her tone. Looked at him imploringly. " − and this ship is their only hope."

"Maybe if you'd mentioned that off the top."

"Would you really have helped?"

She didn't believe it for a moment. Not for a pirate. Not for Meredith. They hadn't helped him before. Hadn't done anything for Jehan. The Tau'ri were like everyone else in the galaxy; out for themselves, forgetting any individual who fell along the way.

Besides, anyone who allied with the Tok'ra couldn't be trusted in her estimation.

As Meredith put it: a snake was a snake.

"Look, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, we were also on a rescue mission."

A beeping sound came from the navigation console. Jackson checked it. Vala couldn't read the screen from where she stood.

"What is it?"

Jackson checked another console.

"A ship just appeared on our radar. It's an al'kesh."

"This quadrant is crawling with Goa'uld vessels," Vala told him. "Chances are it's not your friends. I made sure that ship was fully disabled when you showed up."

Daniel began typing in commands. "We'll see."

"We have to raise shields and arm weapons."

She really hoped Jehan was hearing this and on his way to the bridge. They couldn't afford to play games any longer with Goa'uld out there.

"I'll try and hail them first."

Idiot!

He began to walk away and Vala kicked out. She sent the zat flying from his hand, then back-handed him across the face. He rocked back and she swung again. He recovered fast and sent an elbow flying into her nose.

She hadn't really expected him to fight back and blurted, "Oh, oh, oh. You hit me."

"You hit me," he pointed out. Reasonably.

Vala wasn't feeling very reasonable.

"Yeah, you know we could just have sex instead," she said as a distraction.

She hit him again, kicked him next and sent him stumbling back part way across the bridge. Maneuvering room was limited by the islands formed by the control consoles. Vala took a run at him and grabbed his ear, pulling him up with every intention of slamming his head back against the deck plating and knocking him out.

Jackson fought back with a grunt. They tumbled, scrambled to their feet, and he threw a punch at her that she dodged. His fist hit a panel beside her head instead.

Vala dropped, twisted and went for a improvised weapon: a red painted cannister mounted on the wall. She slammed it into his groin.

Jackson doubled over.

Vala shoved him back to the console again and slugged him. He fell backwards to the deck again with another gasping grunt.

Gasping for breath herself, Vala reminded herself to practice hand-to-hand a little more often. She was getting out of shape.

Jackson crawled around the corner of the console, caught sight of her, and tried to crawl away. Vala sucked in another breath and leaped onto him. She caught his head between her thighs and squeezed.

Jackson surprised her, staggered up to his feet with her on his shoulders. Vala grabbed an overhead beam, glad for ceilings that weren't as cavernous as an al'kesh's, just before Jackson managed to twist out from under her. That freed Vala's legs though and she retaliated by kicking him back to the deck again.

She jumped down and onto him again.

Somewhere in their tussle, she'd marked him. A red abrasion was bruising up on his cheekbone.

"Are we done?" she asked.

"I am," he panted.

The adrenaline and fear made her stupid. She locked a fist in his shirt and dragged him up, kissing him with abandon.

Jackson jerked back and exclaimed, "You're a fruitcake!"

That hurt.

Vala headbutted him for that and left him on the deck, dazed, as she went for the navigation controls. Someone had to do something about the al'kesh on their tail.

It wouldn't be her, she had time to acknowledge, hearing the telltale sound of a zat powering up before it hit her. He must have aimed for her head after all. The suit ameliorated the effect enough she heard another zat sound before losing consciousness, and Jehan muttering, "Great plan. Just great."

~*~



Daniel woke with a groan before registering his head lay in Janet's lap.

"Ow."

"He's awake," Novak said.

He squinted his eyes open and then let Janet help him sit up with his back to one of the brig's walls.

"I got zatted again."

His head was ready to explode. The glare from Prometheus' uncompromising lighting didn't help. He wondered how close he'd come to the minimum time frame between one zat charge and a lethal second one. Close. The lingering headache and muscle pains seemed worse than usual.

Or, like Jack, he was just getting older.

"And banged around," Janet said.

Daniel opened one eye. There was that. The woman he'd fought hadn't exactly been pulling any punches. She hadn't been the one who zatted him either.

"God, I'm a idiot," he muttered and let his head thunk back against the cold brig wall.

Of course she hadn't been working alone.

The bulkhead behind him shuddered and the hum always present throughout the ship shifted, hitched, then dropped to the subtly rougher sound of the sublight engines. They'd just dropped out of hyperspace.

"Lindsay and I have tried to figure out how to get out of here, but we're not having any luck," Janet said.

"Funny how brigs make that so hard."

Novak let out small half-hiccup, half-laugh.

"At least they're not starving us," Janet said. "That thing, the Kull, came back with more MREs." She held up a bottle labeled aspirin. "And this."

Daniel held out his hand. "Gimme." He dry swallowed the two pills Janet gave him. He knew she wouldn't let him take more than the recommended dose, suspected that was why she measured them out rather than handing him the bottle.

"That Kull probably isn't one, you know," he said. "The one on the bridge turned to be a woman. Who beat me up."

"Really?" Novak asked.

"Really."

She made a small, interested sound. Or maybe she was just swallowing laughter. Janet certainly had a smirk on her face.

"So," Daniel added after some reflection, "this is familiar. Zatted, taken prisoner, zatted, thrown in a cell. Some differences. Jack's not here to piss anyone off."

"Looks like you did that for yourself this time," Janet told him.

"Ouch."

The problem being that along with missing Jack, he was missing Teal'c and Sam or Rodney. If either of them had been in the cell with him, Daniel knew none of them would have been in the cell much longer. Well, if Rodney had been there, he would have been alternating complaints, panic, and hypochondria, but he'd have been working on an escape at the same time. Daniel missed Rodney; Daniel had discovered exactly how often Rodney had been the team whipping boy once Jack's impatience had only Daniel to focus on.

It hadn't been fun.

Daniel didn't know if Jack had never picked on Sam the same way because she was a woman, because she'd been military or because she'd told him off after she'd resigned her commission in the wake of Rodney's loss. Jack just hadn't.

That had left Daniel and his 'pinko liberal pansy ideas' as a target, because Teal'c would not take that shit, not even from Jack.

They'd found a new equilibrium eventually though, with Sam doing Rodney's job, and later, Jonas Quinn doing Daniel's before the Others descended him and he returned, until Anise showed up at the SGC with a double whammy from the Tok'ra: Jacob and Selmak were dead and so was Jolinar, who had been responsible for Rodney's disappearance.

It hadn't been funny, finding out someone they'd assumed was dead was, but that he'd been alive while they hadn't been looking for him any longer. The guilt had eaten them all up; they'd been left with the question of whether they might have looked harder, longer, if they'd liked Rodney McKay a little more. The answers hadn't been pleasant.

And Sam had taken the job with the nascent Atlantis expedition in the aftermath.

"So, did they miss you on the first round up − " he started to ask.

"No, we were knocked out and woke up in the brig," Janet answered.

Daniel nodded slowly.

He didn't think Janet and Novak had been kept back because they were women. So. A doctor and an engineer. Useful people to have around if you thought someone might be shooting at your new ship any time soon.

"Great," he muttered and rubbed his temples. "I have a feeling we should probably brace our selves for a rough ride."

"Why?" Novak asked. She wasn't hiccuping and he wondered if Janet had found a way to cure her or she'd just run out of the energy for it.

"They ringed everyone else over to the al'kesh, but kept you two. They must think they may need you."

"At least we know the crew is alive, though," Janet murmured.

"Yeah," Daniel admitted. "They're not the worst pirates we could have run into. Maybe."

Janet opened an MRE and he choked down macaroni and cheese before falling asleep. Prometheus stayed at sublight or in orbit. Another pirate − Daniel guessed not the woman from the bridge thanks to the lack of suggestive or disturbing remarks − still in Kull armor, brought them more MREs − enough for several days − and a couple of blankets.

Shortly after, the engines changed pitch again. They were dropping out of orbit. Prometheus shuddered as it landed. Daniel was reminded that take off and landings were considered the most dangerous parts of flight. Re-entry of something as huge as Prometheus, without a hint of compromise toward aerodynamics, had to stress the ship to the max. Whoever had the controls knew how to fly, though, the only thing that betrayed they were on a planet again was the groan that ran through the ship when it switched from artificial gravity to local.

"Did we just land?" Janet asked.

"I think so."

"We did," Novak confirmed. "Do you think they'll let us out here?"

"I guess we wait and see," Daniel said, but he doubted it, considering the number of MREs they'd been left with.

They all still had their watches, so despite the constant lights, keeping track posed no problem. They took turns politely looking away whenever anyone need to use the open air toilet and washing up. Running water and a toilet were huge improvement on most of the jails and dungeons Daniel had known, which he told Novak when she went red with embarrassment the first time.

"You get used to ignoring each other."

Janet wasn't bothered. "I'm a doctor. Believe me, Daniel has nothing I haven't seen before and probably stitched up," she explained.

~*~



Mer studied the forcefield again, hoping for any weak area, any chance at getting himself out. Nothing presented itself and he cursed again. Even if he found something, they'd set up the forcefield in the back of their crummy ship's bridge, where they could keep a constant watch on him. While that indicated a quite natural respect for his abilities, Mer could have done with a little more underestimation in this one case.

"Shut up," Jup ordered.

"Come in here and make me," Mer snapped back. He glared at the Oranian.

Jup laughed, a really awful sound, like an asthmatic elephant seal, and went back to massaging or oiling, or something Mer didn't even want to think about seeing, one of his two heavy head tentacle-things.

A wisp of one of Jolinar's memories made him cringe. Those were Oranian sex organs and what Jup was doing in front of him was the equivalent of a woman playing with her breasts. The memory came complete with a picture of an Oranian in full rut, the tentacles swollen and pulsing.

Mer swallowed his gorge.

He could have lived his whole life without remembering that and been a happier man. He felt safe in believing even Jackson wouldn't have cared to see that. Only a xenobiologists would and they were all batshit. The Tok'ra had only been interested in the Oranians until it became clear they were satisfied to bow before the might of the System Lords and glean their leavings. Unsuitable, unreliable and not particularly smart, not like the Tollans, who might have been useful allies, but also proved perfidious in their dealings with the Tau'ri.

Selmak had briefed the Tok'ra council on the Goa'uld's triumph over the Tollan.

Jup bent over the control panel, studying something on a small screen there intently. Mer couldn't see what from his vantage point. He thought Jup was playing a game. He wasn't watching the screens showing sensor readings for incoming ships. Mer was. He coughed hard as it registered a hyperspace window opening and something big sliding through the system to the moon they were waiting on. It was half a day ahead of Vala's last transmitted ETA.

Maybe he couldn't get himself out of here, but he could make it easier for his friends.

"Where's your buddy, Tenat?" he asked. "You really think that if you manage to collect from Vosh and Ba'al, he's going give you that fifty-fifty share?"

"Tenat is on rest shift."

"Riiiight," Mer drawled. "He's probably doing something freaky to his head things."

Jup scowled at him, which kept his back to the screen. The ship de-orbited and disappeared from the sensor's purview.

"Tenat is not a pervert!"

"If you say so," Mer agreed. He let Jup go back to his game and kept an eye on the ship's proximity security surveillance. The Oranians hadn't improved their ship beyond Goa'uld spec, which meant very basic security. Goa'uld relied on their Jaffa to keep watch, rather than spy-eyes everywhere.

He thought the ship had landed just beyond the foothills and checked the camera aimed in that direction more often than the rest. Jup cursed his game.

"Bet you can't win that game no matter how many times you try it," Mer taunted.

"You will see," Jup replied and went back to it, starting from the beginning, all his concentration bent on winning.

On one of the screens, a dark figure crested the nearest foothill and started across the plain toward the Oranians' ship.

Jup crowed in triumph. "Got it."

He needed to keep Jup distracted a little longer. "That's not all you're going to get."

"What do you mean?"

The black figure of a Kull loped steadily toward them.

"You don't really trust Tenat, do you?"

"We're partners."

"Oh, come on. He's double-crossed us. You think he won't do the same to you?" The Kull − briefly Mer wondered if it might be a real Kull sent by Ba'al, because that would be bad, very bad − disappeared inside the sensor's blind spot. "He's still a backstabber. After all, he'd double-dealing everyone else, why not you too? It's an awful lot of naquadah."

Jup stared at him. His head tentacles curled up at the tips, looking shriveled and, Mer guessed, unhappy.

"Tenat wouldn't do that to me."

Mer laughed out loud.

"He's probably going to shoot you in the back right here and leave your body behind."

"He needs me to pilot the ship your partners are bringing."

Mer smiled cynically. "Of course. While you're being his flying delivery boy, Tenat will be all by himself, with all that naquadah. You'll never see him or it again."

"No, I − "

An intruder alarm began blaring finally. Jup spun back to the controls. The screens fuzzed to static. He lurched to the next console and began yelling for Tenat and cursing because the internal comms were down too.

Mer just grinned, recognizing the work of the boarding jammers he'd created as additions to Vala and Jehan's Kull armor. He kept smiling right up until he noticed another ship had entered the system and was on course for their moon.

Vala marched into the bridge, shrugged aside Jup's defensive fire and stunned him.

Vala pulled off her helmet and flashed a pleased grin.

"That went well. Did you miss me?"

"You're my rescue?" Meredith demanded.

Vala shot the controls to the forcefield next, frying them nicely so that it collapsed.

"Who did you expect?" Vala glanced around the bridge. "Anything we should take with us? I mean besides our naquadah?"

Meredith bolted out of his erstwhile prison and grabbed up Jup's pistol − it was an pulse energy weapon and he wanted to analyze it − then stabbed his finger at the al'kesh on the sensors. "No. We have to get out of here. That's one of Ba'al's ships."

Vala's eyes widened. "Egg of a carrion beetle," she muttered. "Bloody Jaffa."

She stuffed the helmet back on her head, rendering her voice ominous and inflectionless.

"Let's get the naquadah and go."

"Forget the naquadah − "

"Darling, it's naquadah."

"It's heavy! I'm not breaking my back trying to carry it."

He followed her down to the hold anyway, grumbling and bitching out of habit. "Do you even know where the naquadah is?"

"Yes."

Vala had found the naquadah first. Of course. Tenat was laid out on the deck of the cargo hold. Meredith skirted around him, thought twice and snagged Tenat's gun too, then stared at the chest holding the naquadah. "How the hell are we moving that? You know how heavy naquadah is?"

"Not to worry, it's all fixed up," Vala replied in that flat, mechanical voice.

Meredith checked and discovered she was right. The naquadah had been loaded on an sled with grav repulsors that made towing it along easy enough once they got it moving.

"They should have included inertial dampeners too," Mer complained not much later.

They were half way across the plain and the chest full of naquadah had no brakes. Once it was going in one direction, it wanted to keep going in that direction. Meredith was sweating under the hot sun and his arms ached, not to mention his bruises and the agony of his ribs. He felt sure that any moment, one might finish cracking in two and pierce his lung.

"Just shut up and help me steer it," Vala snapped back.

"Fine, but if I get shot by a death glider, I'm blaming you."

The sound of a death glider shrieking down through atmosphere followed less than a second later.

"You just had to say it, didn't you?"

Mer hunched over and gasped as he pushed the grav sled faster. He hadn't conjured the stupid death glider by mentioning it, damn it! They came with the al'kesh.

The glider flashed over them while firing at the Oranian ship. Typical of Ba'al's forces: shoot first, prostrate before their god after. Two more followed it.

"Please tell me Jehan's with the ship," he panted as they pulled the naquadah up the first hill. Loose scree slipped under his boots. His shoulders and back were both screaming now, along with every instinct that wanted to run for cover now, now, now. Sweat stung in his eyes and he could swear he tasted blood in his mouth.

"Of course he is," Vala answered breathlessly. "I almost had to chain him to the pilot's chair to make him stay with it, though."

The sled and the naquadah reached the top of the slop and kept going up into the air. Mer managed to keep hold of it and his inertia brought them back down. He wondered if his finger joints would ever be the same. He'd torn his thumbnail and it hurt like a bitch, more distracting than all the other pains he'd already cataloged. "Ouch, ouch, ou − "

He caught sight of the ship, gray and ugly as a hammer-headed metal bird, precariously balanced on the only semi-level stretch of ground available. The native grass and brush had been flattened under it. A boarding ramp dangled obscenely from its belly.

" − ch. Oh my God. Is that − "

"It's Tau'ri!" Vala declared.

Meredith gaped, then recovered. "Never mind that, it's on the ground and Jehan can't put up the shields until we're inside!" he yelled. Out on the plain, the Oranian ship clawed its way skyward, bedeviled by death gliders wheeling and curving around it as it rose. Someone had seen the second ship, though, and more gliders were arrowing toward the foothills.

He gave the grav sled a mighty push and then just held on as it tobogganed down the slope, running just to keep his feet under him. With a wild whoop, Vala latched on too and curled her legs up so that it pulled her along like a pennant.

They crashed into one of the landing struts. Vala let go in time and landed in a rolled up ball. Meredith hit with the sled and howled with pain as something crunched in his knee. The strut creaked and above them, the hull − which had to be pure trinium − boiled and sparked as it took a hit. Showers of metal droplets were flung out into the sun and the ship rocked unsteadily.

He did not want to under this ship if the struts failed. Pancake didn't convey what would be left. Purée, maybe. Strawberry purée.

Meredith dragged himself upright, whimpering with the pain from his knee, and gave the damned naquadah and its sled a push toward the boarding ramp. Vala made it to her feet too and joined him, dragging the sled and Meredith over. Basically, he just held on and used the sled as a crutch.

"Up we go," Vala declared. She was still insanely cheerful. It made Meredith want to hit her. A bolt of energy threw up a geyser of dirt and rocks, along with enough steam to burn bare skin, thanks to the water sublimated instantly by the plasma charge.

They wrestled the sled onto the angled ramp.

"Climb on," Vala told him.

Meredith crawled stomach down over the chest's lid and hung on as Vala gave a great heave and sent it, him, and the sled bumping and skidding up the steps and into the ship's airlock.

She ran in right behind them while Mer was still moaning and trying not to puke, hit the emergency close lock and yelled at the same time, "We're in! Go, go, go!"

Meredith slid off the naquadah chest, wobbled, and braced himself against a bulkhead as alarms howled through the ship. The deck under his boots shuddered alarmingly and he could feel the howl of the sublight engines as they took off. He counted the seconds in his head as gravity tried to pull him down to the deck.

They were out of atmosphere in under sixty seconds and that with some wild sideways maneuvers slowing them down. It took the airlock the same sixty seconds to finish its cycle and spill him and Vala into a corridor.

"I've got to get to the bridge," Vala called. She'd caught hold of the frame of the inner airlock as they went into freefall. She torqued her legs around and pushed herself at an angle down the corridor.

Meredith watched her twist as she flew so that her feet and legs could hit the bulkhead first, absorb her momentum and launch her again, even harder and faster, straight for an interdeck elevator.

"I'm going to the engine rooms!" he shouted after her. "Try to keep Jehan from blowing them before I get there or he'll kill us all."

Unless he passed out first. Little black spots floated around the edge of his vision as he gasped for breath. At least the freefall took his weight off his knee.

Mer fumbled for a handhold, oriented himself, and headed for the back of the ship. He knew how Earth engineers and designers thought. The reactors would always be as far away from the bridge as possible, down in its belly or its ass end.

~*~



Jehan punched the sublights and rocketed Prometheus into the upper atmosphere. Vala had Mer on board and they might end up knocked around, but they'd all be dead if the death gliders got in a lucky shot on the hyperdrives. He spun in the pilot's seat and leaned across the console to slap at the secondary controls that would bring up the shields. The ship slewed and swung as he did so, right into the course of one of the death gliders. It smashed into the shields before they were completely in place and the resulting force translated into spinning Prometheus like a top.

Vala shrieked over the ship comm and Jehan ignored her, wrestling the controls back under his command.

He had his hands full with maneuvering the ship. Someone else needed to man the ship's guns. Mer might be better at it, but Vala had spent several hours practicing dry fire target solutions from the bridge while they were in hyperspace. She knew the controls.

He wished futilely for even a fraction of the crew Prometheus was supposed to carry. He could fly without anyone else, but damage control handled keeping systems online, re-routing power conduits, and keeping everything critical working until there was time to do real repairs. Doing without equaled playing Russian roulette. Alarms were hooting all over the bridge in response to the hits they were taking and Jehan had to just hope none of them were for critical systems, because there wasn't anything he could do about them anyway.

Peripheral vision caught on one of the monochrome-blue toned screens that showed the three crew in the brig. They were thrown about like dolls with each course adjustment. No time to worry about them; they'd certainly be dead if he didn't get Prometheus away soon. Another screen showed Vala tearing off her helmet as an interdeck elevator brought her upship. He ignored it too.

Numbers cascaded through Jehan's mind; time to orbit, time to shield failure, juggling power to the engines for power to the shield, calculating the optimum ratio from second to second. Gravity's grip on Prometheus slipped, friction exchanged for freefall and Jehan had to curl his legs tight to the pilot's chair to hold himself in it, even while he rolled Prometheus end for end like a caber toss, radiation from the sublights' reactor exhausts slicing through two pursuing death gliders, killing the Jaffa pilots instantly.

~*~



Two hours after landing, Prometheus began taking fire. Alarms blared through the ship and Daniel knew he'd been right.

"Brace yourselves!" he yelled just in time.

Prometheus threw itself into the sky, every erg of power pushing it upward, nothing wasted on inertial dampeners or artificial gravity, and the G-forces smashed the three of them flat to the deck. As it accelerated, they slid into one of the bulkheads in a knot of bruised arms and legs.

The pilot sent the ship through a series a maneuvers better fit for a fighter jet or a hummingbird and one deep jolt after another ran through Prometheus as it began returning fire with its rail guns. Each new maneuver sent them sliding in a new direction, until Daniel wrapped his arms around the toilet stand, while Novak and Janet held onto him just in time for the overwhelming press of gravity to give way to free fall.

Prometheus continued to shake under fire and the scent of burning wiring drifted into the cell through the ventilation system. The lights flickered and gave way to red-tinted emergency systems.

"The shields can't take sustained fire of that caliber for much longer," Novak blurted. She let go of Daniel's leg and swam away, arms and legs flailing for purchase and finding. "Oh God."

"Novak! Legs down."

"I'm don't, I can't − I'm gonna − I'm − urk."

Daniel grimaced and swallowed hard as Novak threw up. It floated in yellow-brown globules that ended up in her hair and on her clothes as she tried to get away. Bile edged up his own throat in sympathy.

Prometheus fired once more, then inertia sent Novak and her stomach contents splashing into the opposite bulkhead as the ship accelerated abruptly. Daniel clutched the toilet tighter, locking one hand around his other wrist, since the stainless steel offered no hand holds − designed that way no doubt to frustrate enterprising potential escapees. Janet clamped onto his ankle after sliding down from his knee.

~*~



Vala dived into the bridge, in a dolphin swift somersault, and caught herself with one hand on a control console. She twisted on the fulcrum of her straight arm, jack knifed as she bent her elbow and hit the gunner's seat with a light thump. Reciprocal force threatened to bounce her right out again, sans gravity, but she'd locked legs under the console by then. Her hands were on the controls and the railguns began firing.

"Where's Mer?"

"That's an al'kesh, if you haven't noticed, my darling," she announced, ignoring his question.

Tense with apprehension, he demanded again, "Mer?"

"Headed for the engine rooms last time I saw him. He said something about you killing us all," Vala replied, teeth flashing white in one of her crazy smiles.

Jehan relaxed and fell back into the numbers of flying and fighting. Prometheus wasn't easy to fly; she was cranky and idiosyncratic as befitted the first of her kind, but with finesse, she could fly rings around any al'kesh or ha'tak he'd ever flown.

"Al'kesh inbound on vector five-six-nine," Jehan told her. "Death gliders on four-seven-six and four-nine-six."

"Got him."

Jehan compensated for the force of the railguns firing displacing Prometheus from the track he'd plotted, spitting a Goa'uld curse as he did so. The al'kesh had shields of its own and shrugged off the railgun fire.

"Oh, you're turning into a real pain in the mikta," Vala snapped. She half-floated over the control console, like an anchored and militant mermaid, as she fired again. "Get us out of here, Jehan!"

"Not easy," Jehan snapped.

"Right," Vala said. "Let's try these Asgard systems." She whooped as an energy weapon lashed out at the al'kesh, sizzling through its shields. "Take that! You know, I think these are Ba'al's Jaffa − "

Jehan wrenched Prometheus through an opening between the al'kesh and two death gliders. Ba'al. His heart skipped and rushed. He'd make sure he died with nothing left to revive in the sarcophagus before he went back to Ba'al. Burning up on re-entry would probably serve, but Prometheus had to have a self-destruct too. They needed to find that and re-program so that no one could activate it against them or take the ship from them through force. And so he could be sure Ba'al would never touch Mer or Vala. The only thing worse than going back would be seeing either of them in the System Lord's hands.

Maybe he pushed the ship a little harder than he would have without that thought in his head. An alarm began screaming as the fighter bay lost atmosphere. He routed more power to the shields, pulling it from non-critical systems. Prometheus had carried a crew of one hundred fifteen officers and enlisted. It now held six people. They didn't need to waste energy heating or lighting unused portions of the ship.

The engine room comm activated and he grinned as Mer's voice squawked through the bridge. "Are you trying to break all my bones!? I'm not at my best here, you know, and this misbegotten monstrosity was apparently built by dyslexic monkeys!"

"Hey, Mer," Jehan said.

Power to the sublights jumped eleven percent and smoothed out, letting Jehan put distance between Prometheus and the al'kesh. Vala snagged some of the power and fired the Asgard weapon again, penetrating its shields a second, lethal time. It broke up in a spew of vented atmosphere, radiation and smaller, interior explosions.

"Yes, yes, hey yourself, Mr. Laconic. Get us out of here and when we get together you can stun me by stringing three words together. Now stop trying to kill us. Naquadria is significantly less stable than naquadah − you can't treat this thing like damned ha'tak."

Jehan felt like smiling for the first time since Vala returned to the Tanafriti without Mer. Jehan hadn't been able to say anything then, just settled for glaring at her. He couldn't threaten Tenat and Jup. Couldn't tell Mer he'd come for him. Couldn't have if he'd been there, since any promise would have told the Oranians too much of what Mer meant to him. Promises were too easily broken anyway; Mer knew and Jehan knew as well. They'd both been cut with other losses before.

Prometheu s was easily outrunning the death gliders and the limping, but still intact Oranian vessel.

"Where to?" he asked Vala.

She pulled herself over to the nav console and began plotting.

"Ushbos. We've got enough naquadah to pay for a complete refit and I want this lovely ship to have all the extras it deserves."

He flicked his fingers toward the screen showing the three crew. It looked like Novak had been space sick.

Vala frowned then shrugged.

"I think they'd be a bit safer if we let them off on Hebridan when we meet up with Tanafriti and Reckell."

The three Tau'ri were dangerous, but not that dangerous. Jehan shrugged his acceptance. Right now, at least one of them would be useful.

"Course plotted," Vala announced.

Jehan initiated the hyperdrive and sent them into the coruscating window that opened into hyperspace. Prometheus surged forward into the hyper window like a hound loose from the traces, doing what she'd been made to do with an eagerness he could feel under his fingertips.

The engine comm sounded.

"Hey, could someone get me a crutch or something? Little Miss Greedypants nearly finished the job Tenat started on me."

~*~



The difference as the ship reached hyperspace became apparent a moment later: no more hits on the shield or hull and the nearly soothing, half-audible vibration that meant they were safe again. The alarms stopped and the regular lighting came back up.

The comm from the bridge activated.

"Inertial dampeners are on-line," the cheerful voice of Daniel's original captor announced. "Ship shields are at eighty-nine percent, hyperdrives are at ninety-three, and we are currently three days out from Ushbos. Please orient yourself to the deck. Artificial gravity will be restored at six percent intervals every ten seconds beginning on my mark."

Novak whimpered.

"Mark."

Gravity returned gently as promised, leaving Daniel pressed face down to the floor. Novak made sick noises at the other side of the cell. The smell of stomach acid mixed with the lingering stink of smoke and a hint of ozone. He sighed and got up, moving out of the way, as Janet went to Novak and made sure she was all right before beginning to clean up as much as possible.

Novak had her head under the faucet in the tiny sink, washing the worst out of her hair when the cell door slid open. Daniel had decided the best course was staying out of the way, so he looked up from where he was sitting, while Janet spun to face the door while Novak didn't even look up.

The brig cells were all under surveillance from two cameras that left no corners unobserved. The bucket, mop and towels that the man in the cell doorway pushed inside served as a reminder. The red-scraped welt on one purpling cheekbone and the sweat-spiked dark hair registered a moment later. He pointed at Janet and gestured for her to come.

Janet planted her hands on her hips and glared instead of obeying. "We need to get clean clothes from our quarters," Janet snapped at the pirate.

One flickering glance took in Novak. The pirate sniffed and nodded, then gestured for Janet to come again. "You," he said in Goa'uld. "Come."

"Janet − " Daniel started.

The pirate raised his arm, aiming one of the Kull arm weapons at him.

"I'm going, I'm going," Janet said hurriedly. She skirted around Novak and went to the door. "Lindsay, I'll try to get you a clean jumpsuit or at least some scrubs," she called back before the door shushed shut again.

Novak finished rinsing her hair, wrung it out, and began dabbing her uniform as clean as she could get it with wet hands.

Daniel used the bucket and mop to swab the deck clean. He frowned as he worked. Where had he seen that man before?

~*~



Prometheus had a front viewport that doubled as a screen to display data from ship sensors. The twisting not-color of hyperspace translated into blue-purple seen through it. The sensors filtered and translated their data into frequencies visible to human eyes. It still gave Vala a headache. She still loved it.

Hyperspace was safe.

No one could follow, no one could engage, it wrapped around the ship and kept out all the long cold silence between the stars that otherwise seeped inside her.

They'd set the gravity generators back to their regular setting. She sank down in the captain's chair after Jehan left the bridge and stared at the viewport blankly. Slowly, her heartbeat reverted to a normal speed.

They'd beat the galaxy again, whipsawed the Oranians, the Lucian Alliance and Vosh, the arrogant, self-righteous Tau'ri and even Ba'al. She hadn't expected that whoreson snake. If Jehan...She pushed the thought of all the things that hadn't happened out of her head. They'd won. She could rest for a few more moments. The tremor in her fingers would subside once she had her breath back.

With no one there to see her, she could even let her head loll against the seat back and close her eyes. Just for a minute, she promised herself.

She'd hidden it since Jup put a gun to Meredith's head, but she'd been terrified every minute of every day. No one had seen. No one ever saw. Vala had spent every day of her life in some level of fear. As a child, the fears had been small, circumscribed by the limits of her world, but children grow up and she'd discovered so much more to fear, until the Jaffa came. Until she was chosen and Qetesh taught her terror and despair and how small she was, how helpless, how utterly alone everyone was. She didn't know why she hadn't gone insane. She should have. It had amused Qetesh that she hadn't. Instead, she'd learned to use the fear and she'd also learned to always hide it too, because fear in others was a weakness, and after Qetesh, she couldn't ever afford to appear weak.

Only Jehan knew, but even he didn't see the fear; he knew because Ba'al had taught him all the same lessons Vala had learned from Qetesh.

The same way Meredith knew.

It had been better after she found Jehan, after Meredith joined them, because they weren't alone, but Jehan had shut down when she came back without his partner, only getting quieter as Vala faked her usual good humor and flirting with the rest of Tanafriti's crew, but Vala knew this time her way had angered him. She'd known and done it anyway, because it was the only way she had and because giving away how much getting Meredith back mattered would have only put them in that position of weakness, would have betrayed that both of them needed him, were afraid of losing him.

She'd done her best. Reckell, their second-shift first mate and the only reliable member of the crew they'd been running with lately, had covered too, but it hadn't been good enough to keep the damned crew in line once they had the loot from the cargo ship they'd ambushed. Solek had been looking for an opening for months. Without Meredith, Jehan had been too distracted to keep him in line and Reckell just wasn't ruthless enough − Reckell really belonged on an honest merchant ship. The rest of their cutthroats had fallen for Solek's line and then managed to intimidate Meredith's two engineering crew into siding with them too.

They were lucky they'd been left with the worthless cargo ship and the crippled al'kesh, but then again Solek had likely thought he was leaving them for dead. All without committing an obvious murder that would make the other members of the crew question whether to trust him with their necks. She was going to wring his when she caught up with him.

She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept for more than few minutes. Though the crew of Tanafriti had abandoned them days and days back, she and Jehan had both been on constant watch, then taking and learning to fly Prometheus had occupied them nonstop. If Jehan hadn't been with her, she would have lost the ship back to Daniel Jackson. And then Meredith would be dead, just like he sometimes said, when very drunk but not drunk enough to forget, the Tau'ri had wanted him.

The ironies made her so tired, now that the adrenaline had given away. Even the stiff, leather-covered headrest on the captain's seat felt wonderful behind her head. If she closed her eyes, she suspected she wouldn't open them again until she'd rested finally.

She forced herself up instead, hands braced against the armrests to push herself to her feet, grateful there was no one to see her sway from the exhausted headrush.

"Pain in the mikta," Vala muttered.

This ship had a genuine infirmary, a small but dedicated hospital, unlike almost every other ship she'd ever set foot in. Jehan would have Meredith and the doctor they'd kept in there now.

There would be drugs, too, because humans needed medicine, unlike Goa'uld and Jaffa, who relied on their symbiotes to fight off sickness and heal wounds.

Jaffa didn't even sleep, but she thought the Tau'ri probably had something to keep themselves awake. That's what she needed. She wouldn't trust the Tau'ri doctor to administer it, but Meredith could tell her which to take.

She really wanted to pick out a cabin and lie down in a bed and sleep, no matter how many nightmares she would have, but she knew Jehan would be staying with Meredith for the next shift at least and someone had to stay awake. She wouldn't let Daniel Jackson or the other Tau'ri get the drop on her again.

~*~



Meredith had about decided the floor would do a better job of holding him up than just the wall. The only problem he could see was that sliding down the wall and sitting would involve getting up eventually. He really didn't want to spend the rest of the trip − wherever they'd set course to − in the ship's engine rooms. He didn't trust the radiation shielding, for one thing, even if the US military hadn't turned over building their secret space ship to the lowest bidder. He knew the military-industrial complex and the corners they routinely cut.

He eyed the blackened panel halfway across the engine room where a wiring fire had been burning when he made it the engine room. Using a fire extinguisher had been interesting in near-zero gravity. It had floated him across the room. With the return of gravity, the remnants of the retardant foam were dripping down the bulkhead.

The panels would need to be pulled and the entire section rewired after they came out of hyperspace again. Mer didn't want to try it with the work-around he'd created on the fly still in use.

He sighed to himself in self-pity. He'd be the one doing that work, of course.

The sigh of the door opening made him blink his eyes open, only then realizing he'd closed them. His body had apparently made the decision about the deck too, because he was down on it.

Jehan bolted across the engine room and hit his knees next to Mer. His gaze flickered over Mer's face and the bruises there and over his body, where most of the damage was covered. "Mer?" he whispered. His hands came to rest on Mer's shoulder and his opposite elbow, light and deliberately gentle. "Mer."

Another person had come into the engine room with Jehan, but Mer ignored her.

"Took you long enough," Mer told him with a smile, because in fact Jehan and Vala had done the impossible, faster than humanly possible, but most of all, they'd done it: they'd come for him. "I started to wonder − "

Jehan's expression crumpled from concern and relief into pain. "I wouldn't leave − "

Mer caught his hand and overrode his protest. "If you could, not if you would," he corrected. He slid his arm from under Jehan's hand and twined their fingers together instead. He wanted to pull Jehan closer and kiss him, but his lower lip was split and Jehan disliked public displays. Kneeling on the deck with him and holdings hands was pretty overboard for Jehan.

The woman cleared her throat.

Mer squinted at her and then blinked. Short reddish hair, petite, grim expression, Air Force wings and a major's oak leaves, holy crap, they'd started letting women go offworld and that was −

"Fraiser!"

She jumped in surprise then stared at him with a confused frown. Finally her brown eyes widened as she recognized him despite the beard and the bruises. "McKay?" She visibly pulled herself together and knelt on the other side of him. Her fingers were cool on his neck as she took his pulse and peered into his eyes. "Explanations can wait. I want to get you up to the infirmary and take a better look at your injuries where I can treat them." She cocked her head and ordered, "Breathe in, then out."

Jehan watched her warily as she listened to Mer's hitched breathing.

"Broken rib," Mer told her.

"What else?" Janet demanded.

"This and that," he said. "I annoyed the Oranians."

Jehan's hand tightened on his.

Janet frowned at the engine room's walls and the door. "It will take some time to get a gurney down here − "

"I can walk," Mer snapped. "Jehan."

Jehan helped him up despite looking a little uncertain.

Janet's surprise felt insulting.

"What?" he demanded.

"You've changed."

His ribs screamed at him and he had to pant his way through it. Jehan steadied him and didn't even cringe away from the way he must have smelled at this point. A pointed glare went Janet's way, too. Mer managed to glare at Janet once he could breathe again. "I hate to quote O'Neill, but 'ya think'?" he snapped.

Janet had the grace to say nothing in reply and they made their way to the nearest interdeck elevator and the infirmary, where she examined him with the same clinical but not unkind expertise he remembered from the SGC. Jehan stayed beside him as much as possible and never left the room.

"We looked for you," she said. "Sam resigned her commission so she could look for you."

"Sam divorced me. And she always wanted to go offworld. Besides, I know the truth. The SGC knew I was with the Tok'ra. You decided the alliance was worth more than confronting them over one scientist. O'Neill never liked me anyway."

"You're wrong."

Meredith grunted.

Janet retrieved two bottles from the drug cabinet and handed them over. "Antibiotics. The other's a mild painkiller."

Jehan lifted the bottles from her hand and turned them in his long fingers, reading the labels. Distrust radiated from him. Janet sighed loudly.

"Keep the ribs wrapped for at least a week," Janet told Mer. "Unless your symbiote − "

"Jolinar's dead," Mer interrupted. He didn't miss her either. He liked having his head and his body to himself. He did miss how fast she could have knitted his body back to better health as well as shutting down useless pain signals, though.

"Are you another prisoner of these − " Janet gave Jehan a less than friendly look, " − people?"

He immediately regretted the laughter. His ribs didn't like it.

"Meredith isn't a prisoner," Jehan said.

Janet looked at his and Mer's hands, still folded around each other and nodded. She began cleaning up, dropping empty wrappers into a trash receptacle, emptying the tray of implements into an autoclave for sterilization.

"Unlike me. Or Daniel and Lindsay," she remarked as she stripped off her gloves.

Meredith choked back another bitter laugh.

"You haven't the faintest clue. You think you're being treated badly? We'll let you go on a world with a chappa'ai and you can all go back to the SGC and tell them about terrible ordeal you endured - zatted and kept in the brig for a couple of days." He dropped off the exam table. "Try being a host or a slave for a couple of years."

"Or a couple of decades," Vala said, coming into the infirmary.

Janet's attention switched to her briefly.

Vala ignored her and studied the bandages around Mer's chest. "Ribs?"

He nodded.

"Shall I heal them?" she asked.

She faked it well, but Mer could recognize exhaustion under the mask. "I don't have enough energy," he temporized. "Give it a couple of days. Who's piloting the ship?"

Vala kissed his cheek. "Autopilot, genius. We're in hyperspace."

"Oh. Right."

Jehan tugged his hand. Mer gave her a mock helpless look.

"Better get some sleep," Vala said in a knowing voice. "I'll escort the doctor back to the brig."

"Just a couple hours," he promised.

"I'll relieve you," Jehan added.

Vala waved her hand carelessly. "Take your time. I'm a big girl."

They headed for the infirmary door.

"You could have come back to the SGC," Janet called.

Mer kept walking as he answered.

"Why? They didn't come for me."

~*~


"You know Daniel?"

Meredith's voice was calm, only curious, no accusation or anger. Jehan didn't have to always face him to feel safe. He still kept his back to the wall with anyone else except Vala. Meredith had grown used to him not talking much too; he'd accept the short answer. That made speaking easier.

"I recognized him."

He stirred in the spices, keeping an eye sidelong on Yu's lo'taur. None of the Goa'uld trusted each other enough for any preparations to be undertaken by a single slave. Ba'al was more likely to blow up something than play with poison, but that didn't mean Yu or any of the others trusted his slave. Smart of them. If Jehan had had access to a poison that would kill all of them, including Ba'al, he'd have used it, even if it meant dying too.

Yu's lo'taur surprised him. He didn't look comfortable in his dress or his role. He didn't seem to get that none of them were supposed to get friendly with each other either.

"You knew they were going to eat them?" Jarren asked.

Jehan nodded and began steering the infusion. If it boiled, it would be ruined and Ba'al would be displeased. Since Jehan was the only slave with him, he would suffer that displeasure. Ba'al could be very creative in his punishments. He probably wouldn't kill Jehan this time, since he had no sarcophagus. Or maybe he would. Jehan paused and considered if it wouldn't be easiest to provoke Ba'al into doing just that, here where death could be a real escape.

"Yes," he told Yu's lo'taur. Vague curiosity stirred. Why didn't Jarren know this? "They do that every night for as long as the summit continues." Ba'al's last lo'taur had taught Jehan what to expect so that he could perform his duties properly. Not that he would have blinked at anything the Goa'uld did. Cannibalizing their young? Barely blipped the radar in his experience of what they would do.

Jehan took off his boots and set them next to the cabin's door. He left his socks on. The decks of the personal quarters were coated in rubber. It deadened sound and wasn't as easy to slip on as bare metal, but the cold of space still seeped through it.

Meredith didn't say anything more. That was different. Meredith talked. Jehan didn't know if it was a reaction to the Tok'ra symbiote keeping him silent for three years or if he'd talked that much before Jolinar took him as a host. Maybe both? Usually, Meredith would have already filled the air between them with a constant spill of words. Jehan liked it; he was never much for words himself, even before, and he doubted he'd ever get over the lessons in silence as self-defense he had learned as Ba'al's slave.

He watched Meredith through his eyelashes. The ship's doctor had let him go, so though Meredith was bruised and raw in places, he was essentially okay. The relief made Jehan's throat ache, so he shrugged out of his leather jacket and draped it over the desk chair clamped into place in the knee hole of the built in desk. The whole ship was like that; the design integrated artificial gravity, the same as every Goa'uld ship he'd ever been on, but the builders had still secured everything against freefall. It wasn't a floating palace for a gloating parasite or a toothless cargo hauler. It was a warship. Now it would be a pirate ship.

Their ship unless the Tau'ri took it back.

"What do you think will happen when this is over? To us, I mean?"

Jehan stared at him and frowned, then said repressively, "That is between you and your master."

"Don't you think it is strange that the Goa'uld are letting us see their sacred rituals, hear their most secret conversations?"

Meredith picked his way around the cabin. Barren by Goa'uld standards or even human: it lacked portholes, and the sharp angles were unadorned by any sort of decoration. Not that there had been much, but Jehan had cleaned out the General's gear when he claimed the flag cabin for the two of them, so nothing remained now; they left any personal possessions behind on Tanafriti. Meredith rubbed his upper arms and stared at the bunk they'd be sharing.

"Not to sound like a snake or anything, but I've never understood the military conviction that efficiency has to equal discomfort," Meredith said.

Jehan walked back over to him and wrapped his arms around him from behind. Without his jacket, his arms and back felt the chill too. Meredith felt warm wherever they touched, though, and Jehan leaned into him, rested his chin on a broad shoulder, and contemplated the bunk. It would be a tight fit, but they'd be warm at least.

"Puritans and low bidders," he murmured, startling a chuckle out of Meredith.

"We are definitely getting a different bed in here when we hit Borzin's."

Jehan turned his head and nuzzled behind Meredith's ear, inhaling the scents caught there, acrid, fear-laced sweat, musk and body dirt that a quick clean up in the ship's infirmary had missed. It wasn't precisely pleasant, but it was Meredith and it grounded him and let him exhale a shuddering breath of relief.

"We're renaming the ship too," Meredith muttered breathlessly, squirming but not moving away. " Prometheus. Shitty name. Bound in chains and getting his liver pecked out every day. The only thing worse would be Icarus."

Jehan laughed against his neck.

"Don't laugh. You chased that Hebridan ship right into the corona of their sun the last time."

"We had good shields," Jehan reminded him.

"Thanks to me," Meredith agreed.

"That was a good prize."

The Loop of Kon Garat made for good hunting. The space racers designed for speed and carried no weapons to fight off pirates and the top of the line experimental designs sold for good money on the blackmarket. It took a clever captain, sabotage or inside information, and a crazy pilot to catch them, though.

"May I speak honestly with you?"

"Have you not been honest prior to now?" Jehan replied in a dry tone.

Jarren appeared nonplussed. Did he think Jehan was Ba'al's lo'taur because he was stupid? Did he think Ba'al was foolish enough to choose Jehan for his appearance? His apparent naiveté could only be an act. Jehan certainly didn't buy it.

"Yes, of course," Jarren said, the words fumbling out. "What I mean is, can I trust you that no matter what I say, this conversation will remain between us?"

Meredith laced his fingers over Jehan's and they shuffled to the bed. Jehan dimmed the light and they crawled in under the blanket and sheet, awkward elbows and knees bumping as they stripped each other the rest of the way, finally warming as skin kissed skin. He tested where he could touch without eliciting a wince, skimming his palms over softer curves and bony angles with equal care. Sometimes they bruised each other, but not this night. Rodney's mouth tasted sour, but Jehan didn't care. He cared about the rasp of hairy thighs sliding against each other, rubbing and then stroking, his fingers finding Meredith's balls, vulnerable, secret and hot, weighing them and the rush of Meredith's moist breath into his own mouth. He savored every caress despite the urgency rising through them both. His toes curled when Meredith played with his nipples, just like always, and Meredith laughed, a sweet comfort.

Meredith whispered and whimpered and moaned when they had sex. He told Jehan what to do, announced his approval of any innovation that felt good, asked what Jehan wanted, gasped and panted and let out a bull deep grunt of satisfaction when he came. He listened too, with his eyes and his hands, for the sounds Jehan couldn't make, and took every wordless cue, translating each touch into what Jehan needed. He held on afterward, when he came in a silent, ecstatic shudder.

Nothing had changed. He'd said nothing, but he'd worried. The Lucians could be as imaginatively sadistic as any Goa'uld: eager stand-ins for the fractured galactic powermongers of only a few years before. Apparently, though, some tortures were left for only humans – or human bodies – to inflict on each other.

He'd once gone through the motions with Vala out of gratitude and to prove to himself he could, but he'd wondered if he'd ever want anyone again before Rodney signed onto the crew.

"I believe the Goa'uld are powerful beings," Jarren said, "that use humans like us as hosts. I believe they use their power to portray Gods so the masses will follow and serve them."

"I agree."

He'd surprised Jarren.

"You know this to be true?

"Yes."

Jarren's frown pleated his brow. "And yet you still serve?"

"As do you," Jehan had snapped.

Thinking about that, thinking about Ba'al, made him shiver and he wriggled closer to Meredith. The bunk was a narrow excuse to tangle his legs between Meredith's anyway. Meredith draped a heavy arm over his back and mumbled about bruises even while he pulled Jehan even closer. All the tension and terror of wondering if they'd get Meredith back finally began dissolving, but Jehan still couldn't sleep.

He whispered, "Hey."

Meredith groaned. "Of course, you want to talk now." He patted Jehan's back though. "Okay, okay. Tell me whatever it is."

"Jackson," Jehan said. "He was serving a Goa'uld."

"Impossible," Meredith said. "Not Jackson. He hates the Goa'uld as much as anyone. When did you see him, anyway?"

"The System Lord Summit, when they accepted Anubis, before Ba'al sent me to his research installation."

Meredith tensed then pushed himself up into a sitting position in the bunk. Jehan sat up too. The sheet and blanket pooled around their waists. Cool air against his sweaty, bare shoulders made his skin goosepimple. "The first thing I'm doing tomorrow is readjusting the environmental controls in this rust bucket," Meredith muttered.

The head of the bunk had a panel of controls for comms and the lights. Jehan dialed the overhead onto low, just enough light to make out Meredith's expressions.

"He was there," he insisted, "calling himself Jarren."

Meredith frowned. "Jolinar and I were on another mission then," he said quietly, the way he did when he picked through the memories the symbiote had left in him. "She always made sure we were were away if any Tau'ri were going to be around − thought someone might guess I wasn't another happy host after all."

That made Jehan grimace. He hated reminders of his time with Ba'al; he figured reminding Meredith or Vala of their imprisonment in their own bodies had to be worse.

"Not that that didn't turn out to be lucky for us," Meredith went on, "since Zipacna's fleet hammered the Ravenna base. We'd have died with the rest of the hosts and Jaffa if we'd been there when Lantash suicided." His mouth twisted downward. "Selmak and her host survived, of course, and oh..." He met Jehan's gaze. "They sent Jackson in undercover since he spoke Goa'uld. I'd forgotten. He was supposed to use the symbiote poison on the gathered system lords."

Jehan frowned.

"Why didn't he?" He would have. He would have taken any opportunity to kill Ba'al and the rest of the snakes. That Jackson hadn't pissed him off. That speaking to Yu might have kept Jackson from killing them made him angry with himself in retrospect.

"How would I know?" Meredith snapped. "Ask him."

He knew he wouldn't.

He'd already said enough.

Y u had been alone in the space station corridor. He held up his hand and Jehan stopped.

"Where is my lo'taur, Jarren?"

"I have not seen him, you lordship," Jehan replied.

Satisfied, dismissing Jehan as though he no longer existed, Yu began to walk off.

Jehan weighed the possibilities. Only one fit: Jarren had been acting as a provocateur. He would report to Yu and Yu would inform Ba'al of his reactions.

He called out softly, "My lord?"

Yu paused.

Jehan prostrated himself. "Forgive me. While you know I faithfully serve my master Ba'al, and therefore hear whatever I say with certain suspicion," he said, "I believe it is my duty to tell you that your new lo'taur cannot be trusted."

~*~


"We're receiving an IDC from the Alpha Site," the replacement gate tech announced. "And a radio transmission."

"Let's hear it," Jack told him.

"This is General Hammond. Request confirmation that the iris has been opened."

Weir joined Jack and they exchanged a glance full of apprehension. She nodded to Jack to give the order.

"Open the iris," he told the tech, "and give me a channel."

"Yes sir."

He waited for the nod and then said, "This is Jack O'Neill, General. You have a go ahead. The iris is open. Come on home."

"Thank you, General. The crew of the Prometheus will be returning with me. Hammond, out."

The first members of the crew were already walking out of the wormhole. They looked unharmed and unhurried, but the slump of their shoulders told another story.

"This isn't going to be good, I can tell," Jack remarked to Weir.

She shoved her hand through her hair, but a single head shake had the dark waves falling back into place, proving that maybe women did have something with the hairdressing. The only reason Jack didn't look like a electrified hedgehog at the end of a tiresome day was the near buzz cut. He forced his wayward thoughts back on track. A quick count of the men and women returning through the wormhole told him Hammond hadn't exaggerated. The entire ship's compliment were returning, trudging down the ramp to line up and wait in front of the SFs always on guard duty in front of the doors.

Weir had her gaze on the gate.

General Hammond, Colonel Reynolds, and Sgt. Harriman were the last ones through before the wormhole winked out.

Weir sighed and murmured, "One hundred twelve."

"What?"

" Prometheus went out with one hundred fifteen crew and five supernumeraries, Sgt. Harriman, Major Fraiser, Dr. Novak, Dr. Jackson, and General Hammond."

Jack looked back at the crowd, his eyes narrowed, searching for the reflection of a pair of eyeglasses or a tiny dynamo of a woman and found neither. "You counted," he said.

Hammond met Jack's gaze through the reinforced glass separating the control room from the embarkation room. Jack kept his face expressionless.

"I counted," Weir answered. "Three crew and three supernumeraries are missing."

"God damn it, Daniel," Jack muttered.

Medical processed Hammond and Reynolds ahead of the rest of the crew. He joined Jack and Weir in the conference room off her office, the one opposite Jack's new one.

"Dr. Weir," Hammond greeted the head of Stargate Command. He nodded to Jack as he took a seat at the table. "Jack."

"Sir."

"General," Weir returned. "Can you tell us what happened?"

Hammond nodded to Reynolds, who recited, "While still within the Milky Way and on course to Pegasus, we received a distress signal. We located it and altered course to provide aid. On arrival at the coordinates, sensors identified a disabled Goa'uld cargo ship and an al'kesh, also damaged. The cargo ship's life support had malfunctioned, rendering its atmosphere toxic. The al'kesh failed to respond to hails, but remained viable. I led a team aboard via the rings."

"On my orders," Hammond clarified.

"We found Jaffa bodies aboard the al'kesh. Before we could ascertain what or who had killed them, the rings aboard the al'kesh activated. We lost communications to Prometheus. Upon arriving back at the al'kesh's rings, we discovered they had been sabotaged, leaving us trapped on the al'kesh. Shortly thereafter, the rings activated and several unconscious members of the crew appeared, including General Hammond. This activity continued until the entire crew were transported to the al'kesh. A head count revealed that Major Fraiser, Dr. Novak and Dr. Jackson were still aboard Prometheus."

"Was there any indication of why they were retained?" Weir asked.

Reynolds shook his head.

"The boarding party ringed onto Deck Four," Hammond said. "I was on the bridge. Intership communications, internal surveillance, and security measures were immediately jammed. We have no way of knowing how many boarders there were, however all crew reports agree they appeared to be Kull warriors."

"Aw crap," Jack muttered.

"By the time qualified members of the crew had recovered sufficiently to repair the damage to the al'kesh ring transports, Prometheus had engaged sublights and moved out of range. Shortly there after, it opened a hyperspace window and transited," Hammond finished.

Weir consulted the file open before her and asked, "What happened to Corporal Herring, Sgt. Wilmox, and Lieutenant Sulimaeo?"

Hammond closed his eyes briefly, visibly regretful.

"Herring, Wilmox, and Sulimaeo died in the course of recovering critical drive crystals from the cargo ship. Carbon dioxide poisoning. Thanks to their efforts members of the engineering crew were able to repair the al'kesh. Without them, we would still be marooned. They performed in the ideal of the US Air Force and Stargate Command and I intend to nominate them all for the highest commendation possible."

Jack looked down at his hands where they rested on the glossy table top. They were looking knobby lately. Some of the hairs on the backs had gone silver. Another sign of getting old, he knew, like his aching knees. Nothing that hit him half as hard as losing another member of his team and another friend, or hell, even a scientist he'd never met, Norfalk or, no, Novak.

"We can't assume the other personnel are...dead just yet, can we?" Weir asked softly. "Is there any reason to believe they were killed in the hijacking of the ship or can we entertain the possibility that they are prisoners or even still free and attempting either to resecure it or escape?"

"We just don't know enough, Dr. Weir," Hammond said.

"MIA," Jack added drearily.

He'd have more hope if someone had told him Daniel was dead. Daniel had died a couple of times now. But this wasn't just Daniel and luck ran out for everyone − even SG-1, especially SG-1, McKay's ghost whispered like Jack's conscience − plus Fraiser and Nor-Novak were part of the mix too. Jack had no faith left that he would see any of them again.

"We'll instruct all the offworld teams to inquire, subtlely, about Prometheus and our people," Weir stated. "Until we know more, there is little else for us to do. I will contact the President and the Joint Chiefs with the news of the loss of the ship."

"I should do that, Doctor," Hammond said.

"Sir − " Jack said.

"My command, Jack," he said, "my responsibility."

All Jack could do was nod.

With your shield or on it.

~*~



Two days out from Ushbos, they decided they had to do something about the three Tau'ri. Ushbos had no chappa'ai, so they couldn't send them back to Earth when they made port. It would have to be before or wait until their next port after the refit. Since there were no human inhabited planets within even a day's detour from their course, after seemed the best bet. Hebridan, as Vala had initially suggested, since they'd be going there and it wasn't under Goa'uld control. They weren't bastards enough to leave three Tau'ri where the snakes could catch them.

That left the question of what to do with them while they were on Ushbos. Keeping them locked in the brig through the refit wouldn't work. Jehan was already uncomfortable with keeping them imprisoned this long. Longer would be against his own ethics.

The mess hall seemed like the best place to meet with them and talk. Food tended to ease tempers.

Meredith went down to the brig and fetched them. Between knowing two of them and being back on his game, Jehan figured he was safe enough. Vala had insisted on knitting up Mer's ribs and the damage to his knee with a healing device. They needed to be on their toes when they dealt with Borzin and the other scum who operated out of Ushbos since the shipyard and port had been taken over by the slaves that once labored there for the Goa'uld.

Meredith objected to playing errand boy, of course.

"Why me? Why do I even need to talk to them? I've got more important things. Borzin's going to be all over the Asgard stuff and I need to know how it works before he and the morons get their fingers on it or half of it will walk out in their pockets."

"Because they know you," Vala told him. "You're Tau'ri."

"So's − " Mer clamped his mouth shut. "Fine."

Jackson was talking before they ever made it into the mess.

" − convince her you can't just steal our ship, Rodney."

Mer walked away from him at that point, so that the three Tau'ri came to a stop just inside the mess hall door. Vala had seated herself on one of the tables and was playing with a salt shaker. Jehan slouched against the viewport with his back to hyperspace. He'd found a cache of candy bars in the supply room off the galley, snagged two for Mer and was chewing on his as they came in.

Mer's nostrils flared as he came closer, catching the scent of chocolate. His blue eyes narrowed and his hands reached forward, trying to snag the candy away from Jehan. "Give me that!" Jehan twisted away from him, laughing despite his full mouth, holding his arm up just beyond Mer's reach.

Mer plastered himself against Jehan as he stretched his hand up. Jehan enjoyed that for a minute, despite the round eyes of Jackson, Fraiser and Novak, but gave in when Mer made a frustrated noise and bit his chin. Mer snagged the candy bar as Jehan batted him away with his other hand. "Take it, I don't want you turning cannibal."

Mer grinned at him and took a massive bite from the chocolate bar.

Jehan grinned back and removed one of the others from a pocket.

Mer's face fell as he compared his half-eaten bar with Jehan's whole one.

"I was going to give you this, but since you wanted that one so much..."

"Bastard," Mer muttered.

Jehan flipped him the second candy bar too before slumping back against the viewport.

Vala kicked her legs.

"Well, here we are," she addressed the other three.

"Yes, about that," Jackson said, stepping forward, "this ship was on a rescue mission when you − "

"Diverted?" Vala offered.

Jackson scowled.

" − stole it."

"Stole is such a harsh word," Vala teased. "Appropriated, maybe. Jehan, what do you think?"

He shook his head. Not getting into this game with her.

"Mer?"

"Hmm," Mer mumbled. "Shanghai-ed?" He waved his hand at Jackson and the others.

Vala sighed and shook her head. She had her hair in a ponytail that shifted off her half-bare shoulder with the movement. Blue light from the viewport shone off the black strands. Like Jehan and Mer, she was wearing a mixture of clothing they'd picked up from the ship's stores. Vala had already customized hers, both the black BDUs and her tee-shirt were skin tight. The shoulders and arms of her shirt had been trimmed away as well. "Annexed?"

Jackson glowered.

"No, really, I think the word is stole."

"If you want to be picky about it," Vala said with a pout.

Jackson gave Mer and Jehan a look of exasperation as he appealed, "God, why is she in charge? She is in charge, isn't she?" His gaze sharpened and settled on Jehan. "Not you?"

Jehan shook his head.

"Hey," Mer grumbled. "I could be in charge."

Jackson rolled his eyes.

"Where's Ushbos and how long are you going to keep us?" the little doctor demanded before Jackson and Mer could get into it.

"We wanted to talk to you about that," Vala said. "That's why Mer brought you here."

"I thought he just wanted to tell us everything that was wrong with the design," Novak muttered.

"It's a travesty to even call it engineering," Mer snapped with his mouth still full of chocolate. "The redundant systems are wasting huge amounts of power without actually improving operational stability at all. Half of the back up circuits are run through the same conduits. Any major damage to the primaries would wipe out their alternates at the same time."

"Half − " Novak started to protest.

"Oh, shut up, it's obvious that once I was gone there was no one left with any intelligence in the SGC. Possibly the entire planet. Sam should have caught some of these problems. I supoose hair dye induced brain damage must have finally set in. Really, my sister could have done a better job. My sister's kid could have too and her father's an English Major," Mer interrupted her. "Of course, when I'm done and Borzin's crew have remodeled it to my spec, this will be the sweetest ship in the galaxy."

"That might impress me a little more if I thought you were going to use it for a good purpose," Jackson remarked.

"Oh, darling, we are going to use it for a good purpose," Vala told him. "The very best. Making ourselves rich."

"While the people this ship was meant to rescue suffer and possibly die." Jackson aimed an angry look at Mer and practically snarled, "Including Sam."

Mer's mouth dropped open. Jehan decided that they didn't need to go after Jackson's precious Atlantis expedition. He'd heard enough about Mer's ex-wife. The wonderous, blonde Samantha Carter could take care of herself. The nav computer had given them the plot course before Prometheus had diverted to answer their distress signal. It would have taken the ship out of the Milky Way. Jehan really didn't want to take a ship across the long dark between galaxies.

"Actually, we have no evidence they aren't already dead..." Novak winced as Jackson and Fraiser both glared at her. "And no reason to think they are, of course. Obviously. No evidence isn't evidence of anything."

"They had a course set for another galaxy," Jehan said.

"Really?" Mer's expression went from sulky and sour to bright and intrigued in a picosecond. "Which one?"

"Dwarf," Jehan answered. "Nav systems identify it as the Pegasus." Everyone but Mer looked at him as though surprised he'd spoken. He looked back expressionlessly. Fraiser and Novak lost interest after a second, but Jackson cocked his head, studying Jehan with renewed interest. Jehan turned his face away, telling himself he wasn't hiding while knowing it was a lie. He shifted uneasily and kept a sidelong eye on Jackson. "Destination was Atlantis."

"The Lost City is a Gatebuilder myth," Vala said.

"No, it just isn't here in this galaxy," Jackson replied.

Mer snapped his fingers and pointed at Jackson. "How'd you get the expedition there? None of the addresses from the Abydos cartouche or O'Neill's little brain download included extragalactic destinations."

"Doing my job, McKay," Jackson shot back at him.

Mer ignored him and even the remnants of the candy bar in his hand. Though that hand moved as he sketched something in the air, before a brilliant smile spread over his face. "Eight chevrons!"

Jackson folded his arms and mumbled, "I hate it when he does that."

"Well?" Mer demanded. "It was eight chevrons, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

Vala clapped her hands. "Children! The question is what we should do with our lovely 'guests'." She looked brightly at everyone. "Any suggestions?"

"Give us the ship back?" Novak asked, not like she seriously thought they would, but still needed to say it.

Vala appeared to think about it before shaking her head. "No."

Jackson looked sour and Fraiser pursed her lips.

Vala slid off the tabletop.

"Well, if no one else does? You can spend the rest of this trip in the brig until we reach Ushbos, where we'll have to tie you up and keep you somewhere under guard until the repairs and improvements are finished and we can take you somewhere with a chappa'ai." She smiled at them. "Or..."

"Or?" Jackson echoed.

"You can give your paroles and agree to make no effort to sabotage or otherwise steal our ship or harm us. Do that and you can stay in your own quarters, go everywhere but environmental, engineering or the bridge, and in general be ever so much comfortable. Doesn't that sound much better?"

"If it makes it any easier to decide," Mer said, "I've changed all the passwords, command codes, and programmed a self-destruct in. Without one of us entering a kill command once a day, the drives will overload and blow everything to pieces. Which one of us has to give the command changes at random from day to day, as does the time frame."

"All of that for us?" Fraiser asked.

"Paranoid much, McKay?" Jackson added.

One mutiny had been enough. Jehan and Vala had both agreed Mer's precautions were more than justified this time. If they'd done the same with Tanafriti, Solek might never have chanced his hand and taken it.

"Hah," Mer said. "It's to keep any of Borzin's shadier connections getting any ideas."

"That's another thing," Vala added. "If we have to keep you under guard, someone will decide you must be valuable."

"And valuable things can be sold to the Goa'uld," Jehan finished.

Or given.

He'd been a gift from Apophis to Ba'al. Lagniappe as Apophis attempted to woo Ba'al to his side in the endless jockeying for position that had followed Ra's fall.

Restless, he stalked over to the coffee maker Mer had gleefully put into use and poured himself a mug of the black brew inside, only to stare down at it, reminded by just the smell that he'd lost any taste for it. Jehan sipped it anyway.

Jackson had been staring at him, frowning, until his face cleared abruptly. "You were on the space station," he blurted. "You were Ba'al's lo'taur."

"Was," Mer snapped at him sourly.

Novak and Fraiser were both staring. Jehan ignored them and watched Daniel silently.

"How could you serve him?" Daniel demanded.

Jehan set the coffee mug down. "No one mentioned it was a choice, unlike the one we've offered you. Parole or brig?"

~*~



Parole was all well and good, but they'd decided they'd each keep one of the Tau'ri with them through each day. Mer insisted on keeping the engineer with him to oversee the work on their ship, soon to renamed once work on refitting it finished, and Jehan had agreed to keep Fraiser with him. That left Daniel for Vala. Just the way she'd wanted it.

Teasing him was just so much fun, even if he was turning out to be quite the prude. Maybe because of that delightful prudishness. Jehan and Mer had had any hint of body consciousness hammered out of them. Neither of them wanted her, either. She certainly couldn't make either of them go red in the face with a few innuendos and the occasional grope.

Not that she would grope Jehan. That would be too hurtful. When Vala touched him, she did it with care and warning and he returned the consideration by relaxing instead of flinching away.

Daniel, on the other hand, spluttered, which she enjoyed the same way she did Mer's rants, but his body sent out all sorts of interested signals. His pupils dilated whenever she leaned close or brushed deliberately against him. Vala did so enjoy being wanted.

They'd made the unanimous decision to sleep in shifts on the ship too, where it rested in one of the cavernous hangars that once serviced motherships, for its security and theirs. For now, she and Daniel had exited the ship and were crossing the immense stretch to a smaller building sitting within it, where Borzin did his personal business.

He caught sight of them.

"Vala Mal Doran!" Borzin exclaimed. "You have a lot of gall, coming back here." He scrunched his face into a furious mask. "Meredith is already infuriating my workers. I suppose you mean to cheat me blind again."

"Borzin, you greasy extortionist slug," Vala replied. "You have the ethics and morals of a warthog three days dead from sweating sickness. If you try to pass of second rate parts on me again, I'll have to remove your chingas and feed them to an alley dog."

They both broke into huge smiles.

"Give us a hug," she laughed and Borzin opened his arms. Vala threw herself into them, wrapping her legs around his waist, squeezing until she felt him rocking under her weight. Finally she laughed and got down. A glance showed her Daniel looking befuddled, nervous and like he wished he was armed. Perfect. The poor dear needed have his assumptions, along with his ego, punctured for his own good. She was really doing him a favor.

"You better have something to pay for all the work Meredith has my people already doing," Borzin warned her.

He gave Daniel and appraising look. "New partner?"

Vala dismissed Daniel casually. "Temp crew."

"Where's the quiet one then?" Borzin asked.

"Jehan's doing a little shopping."

A rude laugh escaped Borzin at that. "He barely talks."

"No one cares when your money's good."

Borzin nodded at that.

"But I don't see Reckell or any of your other regular crew."

Vala shrugged easily. "They're on Tanafriti. " She linked her arm with Borzin's and tugged him into walking with her. "Come along, Daniel."

Business meant matching Borzin shot for shot in his grimy, pinched office space, drinking what was either distilled naquadah or fermented cat piss, ignoring the competing smells of dirt, sweat, hot metal and incense, while exchanging insults and updates. Vala sat where she could keep an eye out. The Lucian Alliance had begun cementing control of Ushbos. Eventually, Vala really would have to stop using the port unless she wanted to pay their even more extortionate fees.

Borzin insisted on regaling Daniel with the tale of how Vala and her crew had stolen the second place finishing ship in the Loop of Kon Garat one year, fitted Tanafriti with improvements based on its tech – his people had done the work − and entered the space race the next.

Outside, heavy equipment competed with torches and welding outfits to overwhelm unprotected ears. Occasionally, a heavy generator would kick in, the vibrations running through the floor and walls. The door to the office stayed open and raised voices drifted in. Ushbos was busier than ever since kicking the Goa'uld out.

"We almost won too," Vala reminisced. "We would have if we hadn't lost time hijacking that shipment of crystals." Her toes curled as she remembered the thrill of that job. It had gone like clockwork. No one on Hebridan had a clue who had pulled it off and they'd made more off the crystal sold on the blackmarket than the Kon Garat prize would have brought them. Only a pilot like Jehan could have done it.

That had been a sweet job.

Still, the kind of prizes they'd be able to take with the new ship would leave that in the dust. Working with the Tanafriti, even the newest, most powerful ha'taks would be helpless against them. They'd lie up off the Passage of Nilor, ambush Goa'uld shipping, and get rich.

An al'kesh came down from orbit to a landing pad near her ship. Vala eyed it, but the crew leaving it were clearly not Jaffa.

Daniel listened quietly as Borzin told two more stories, including the one about raiding one of Ba'al's research installations. It hadn't been a real raid, of course. Ba'al had too many Jaffa. It had been more of a covert extraction of valuable materials...and one lo'taur. Borzin didn't know about that part of it, of course.

Vala steered Borzin back to business after that. They hammered out the terms of their deal using a steady back and forth of insults and threats. Back-up systems, hidden weapon caches, smugglers' compartments, extra weapons systems and sensor packages, all of them cost, but would be worth it when it saved their lives.

"How long?" she asked finally.

"Two months," Borzin said.

"Not good enough."

He held up his hands as though helpless.

Vala named another sum.

"One month," Borzin agreed with a pleased grin. "To be paid in naquadah."

"Would I offer you anything else?"

She joined his laughter.

"I want some remodeling done on the personnel quarters too," Vala decided.

They might as well be comfortable. The ship was home, after all. Jehan and Mer had taken over the admiral's cabin and she had the captain's quarters, but they were unjustly tiny and spartan.

"Of course, of course," Borzin agreed.

Borzin began weaving in his chair. One last shot of liquor and Vala got his thumb and voice prints on a recording crystal. Borzin's head thumped down onto his desk and she let go of his hand. A deal was a deal. Borzin needed to stop drinking with her.

"Passed out," she told Daniel.

"I'm not surprised. How much did you two drink?"

"Not that much, darling. Poor Bor just doesn't hold his liquor too well."

Her own legs were only slightly unsteady. One of the legacies of hosting Qetesh. Snakes didn't like the effect of alcohol, it weakened their hold on a host. Qetesh had permanently altered Vala's metabolism to process alcohol more efficiently and without side effect. That had served her well since. And there were always other intoxicants, though she really preferred sex anyway.

Unfortunately, while she didn't get very drunk, she still got the same hangover. Her head had already begun pounding. By morning, she would be miserable. Maybe Fraiser could be persuaded to provide a painkiller or two.

"Let's go," she said.

"I can't believe you outdrank him."

"Neither can Borzin. He tries a new liquor every time." Vala shrugged. If Borzin ever found something that did knock her out, she shuddered to think what he'd do to her. She knew it would end with her dead, because Borzin knew if it didn't she would come back and end him.

Lucky they understood each other so well. Vala didn't want to find a different shipyard to do the work on her ship. Borzin's people were good at their work.

"Say," Daniel asked as they headed into the city, "what is Jehan buying?"

"This and that. The whole ship's rather uncomfortable, you know, and all our things are still on my previous ship."

"Okay," he said slowly. "What are we going to do now?"

Vala eyed him, then clamped her hand possessively on his arm.

"Daniel, I can hardly go around wearing your awful Tau'ri uniforms now that I don't need to," she sold him. "We're going shopping too."

His groan made her laugh happily.

~*~



The month on Ushbos went quickly, but Janet was happy to leave it behind.

Next port would be Hebridan, where Vala had promised to release them. Daniel knew people there. They'd be able to get home or at least gate to the alpha site.

McKay had been McKay, whether he called himself Meredith or Rodney, but Vala and Jehan had been not unkind. Compared to the treatment she knew many teams had received at the hands of the Goa'uld and their Jaffa, they'd been generous humanitarians. She'd even had the chance to wander through the markets and stores in the port city, accompanying Jehan, with its sandstone walls and domed buildings like blue-painted hives, boots scuffing over a mosaic plaza hosting a fairground, the dust of an alien world settling into her pores. All something she wouldn't have been given the opportunity to enjoy as part of an SG mission, even given the change in regulations that had allowed her to accompany General Hammond's mission, but her pleasure in it was tainted.

Prometheus had been renamed Revenge. As a final touch, McKay and Jehan had painted a skull and crossbones on its hull after the refit and modifications had been finished. Revenge would not be continuing the mission to Pegasus. Janet's pleasant days on Ushbos, Novak's easy if rancorous partnership with McKay, and even Daniel's fascination with a culture that had successfully remade itself post-Goa'uld, came at the price of a failed rescue mission.

Daniel talked himself hoarse and it did no good. Vala Mal Doran was only interested in profit and even the promise of possible treasure in the Lost City didn't move her. McKay was blind with bitterness toward the SGC. Jehan remained an enigma, though he'd flinched when Daniel shouted that they couldn't just leave them behind.

Janet could think of no way to move any of them to change their minds.

~*~


Portside bars on Hebridan were like taverns everywhere in the galaxy, distinguished mostly by the sticky floors being tile or metal instead of wood or dirt, but otherwise: ill-lit, smelling of liquor and unwashed bodies fresh off the tight confines of ships, the furniture usually mismatched and dinged from brawls. Vala felt right at home as she walked in and found the Tanafriti ' s first mate waiting as they'd agreed.

"Vala!" Reckell exclaimed. He spread his arms wide as he greeted her.

Like most taverns, the denizens pretended to ignore each other and watched everything and everyone sidelong while hunching over their drinks. Unless a group started getting loud and happy, but this wasn't the kind of tavern that attracted a partying crowd.

She embraced the Serrakin and then stepped back and said, "The Tanafriti is not at the port."

Reckell grimaced, which looked predatory on his reptilian face, and held up his hands. "Not my fault, Vala. I managed to retrieve your belongings and make it here, but Solek has the rest of the crew in his pocket."

They had taken her ship.

Well, the joke was on Solek, because the Revenge was five times the ship Tanafriti was and it belonged to her and Jehan − and Meredith − alone. No crew shares to anyone else. And they'd made off with the naquadah too. She wouldn't want to be Tenat or Jup right now.

Not that she'd ever want to be an Oranian, but definitely not one of a pair that lost the Lucian Alliance's naquadah.

That didn't mean she wouldn't drop every one of the Tanafriti 's crew, especially that backstabbing ha'taaka Solek, into a vat of hungry beesek leeches if she ever had the opportunity.

"I suppose he kept Jehan's and my prize shares too?" she asked.

"He said both of you would be dead by now."

"Well," she said, baring her teeth in a not-smile, "he was wrong."

"I knew it," Reckell said. "Your things are in storage at the port."

Vala gestured to the bartender to bring them drinks and claimed a table that let her sit with her back to the wall. She paid with Hebridan credit chits bought with naquadah when they arrived and she ringed down to groundside. "So where has the worthless piece of mastage dung taken my ship?"

Reckell sat down opposite her. Once he had a beer in his grip, he answered. "Galar."

Galar, no longer shielded by the Protected Planets Treaty, had turned to higher technology and offering refuge to smugglers, mercenaries and criminals in exchange for protection from any vengeful Goa'uld still out there.

"He's using it to buy himself a place with the Lucians."

"Damn their eyes," Reckell said and drank deep. "They're even pushing here. That's the whisper in the port bars. They want Hebridan to join their coalition."

Vala sipped her own beer and considered. If Solek had the Lucian Alliance and its growing power behind him, taking the Tanafriti back and teaching him a lesson wouldn't be easy, even with the Revenge 's fire power. Some day, though, some day, she'd have a chance. She'd shoot him.

"Not going to happen, of course," Reckell said. "Hebridan didn't bow to the kralniching Goa'uld. These second rate thugs won't have any success, either."

Vala laughed and didn't tell him the Lucians would bribe where the Goa'uld had bludgeoned and have connections with the government before most of the people on the planet had even heard of them. Reckell was proud of his people, human and Serrakin, and wouldn't want to hear that corruption wasn't solely the realm of the Goa'uld. It was kind of sweet.

"Meredith okay?" Reckell asked.

A waitress brought them both two more beers.

"Yes. He and Jehan are staying with the ship."

Jackson, Fraiser and Novak were dangerously innovative. Left alone on the Revenge, they could get out and take it back, despite the modifications she'd paid to have made at Borzin's. Jehan and Meredith hadn't seemed to mind staying aboard. Jehan had probably locked the three others in the brig again so that he and Meredith could spend the day screwing in the flag cabin.

Vala shifted restlessly. Once she finished with Reckell, she needed to find one of the better port brothels and buy a pretty boy for the night. She wouldn't hire anyone that looked like Jackson. She would not indulge any of the impulses Qetesh had left behind, either.

Reckell leaned over the table. "You have another ship?"

Vala leaned in too, a smile playing over her face as she told him, "A Tau'ri ship. Some of the tech on it is Asgard. We refitted at Borzin's. It could take on a mothership. And it's fast."

"Meredith's Tau'ri, isn't he?" Reckell frowned. He didn't like targeting Hebridan shipping − one reason they hadn't laid an ambush on the Loop of Kon Garat lately. "How's he taking that?"

Vala sipped her beer.

"Meredith is disgustingly delighted and lording it over the Tau'ri that are still on board."

"You kept the crew?"

"Only three. We'll drop them off here when we leave port."

She thought about the Tanafriti again. The Revenge was too big to run with just four crew. They needed a second shift at least to operate the ship optimally. "We need to pick up a couple of people before we ship out," she said. "They have to put up with Meredith, of course."

Crew who could tolerate their engineer were hard to find. Vala didn't expect anyone to like him, they just needed to be smart enough to understand Jehan would kill them if they hurt Meredith.

"I'll ask around," Reckell said. "Dushka and Signe might be willing to ship with us again, now that Solek's out of the picture."

"Should have spaced him when he started making trouble," Vala admitted.

Reckell grunted.

"Anyone else?"

"I'll put the word out." He tapped his finger on the table top. "Still no Jaffa?"

"No snakes on my ship," Vala snapped. She shuddered. Jehan and Meredith would both go ballistic if she brought a prim'ta aboard. Bringing aboard a Jaffa on tretonin involved its own array of problems. The need to keep a supply of the drug on hand would make them too predictable. The Lucians had too good a grip on distributing tretonin. "No Jaffa, no Goa'uld, no Tok'ra."

"Any plans for where we'll be going?"

Vala leaned back and stretched. "I'm thinking with this ship, we could lie up off the Passage of Nilor and pick off any ship we wanted."

"Then I think we can pick and choose a crew."

~*~



Third beer into the evening and Reckell lurched off to get rid of the first two. Vala stretched her legs under the table and hooked the heels of her boots on the cross piece under Reckell's empty chair. It screeched over the floor as she dragged it a little closer. Her shoulders were stiff and she arched her back, trying to loosen them up and enjoying the looks she got at the same time. She didn't know what a dominatrix was, but she could guess from the sound and the way Meredith sputtered over her outfits while Jehan asked if she wanted them to pick up a whip to go with them.

"It's about time," a half familiar voice said.

Vala tipped her head back.

"Caias," she said, surprised and pleased to see him again. He usually ran under the radar in the Goa'uld worlds, part of the precarious gray market trade between System Lords, tolerated as long as no one declared blood feud between consignment and delivery and he didn't get caught holding his real, very illegal cargoes.

She rocked the chair with one foot.

"Sit down."

The stocky red-bearded man she'd sometimes worked with before hooking up with Jehan took the chair gratefully and helped himself to Reckell's beer while he was at it too.

Vala studied him, squinting in the dim light, noting the rough wear on his leathers that were just a tad looser than they should have been. Caias had taken on an ex-Goa'uld host and trained Vala in all the ways someone who didn't worship the snakes as gods needed to know just to survive. He'd expected her to share his bed at the time in exchange, so she didn't owe him, but she remained fond of him.

She saw Reckell coming back and flicked her fingers, low, where Reckell would see, but not Caias. Reckell went to the bar instead and pulled out a comm device.

"It's been forever since we saw each other," she said.

"Since you took off on your own, you mean," Caias corrected her. "It's getting hard for an honest merchant to break even, with the System Lords dropping like flies and the Lucians muscling in everywhere."

"You look like you're having a hard time too."

Caias slapped his hand over his heart. "Vala, I'm wounded. Are you saying I'm not honest?"

"As honest as you have to be," she told him. Caias had taught her to always look out for number one, but to leave the mark with a smile. Cheat him and you were fair game; deal fairly and Caias would too. Vala's natural morals − or lack there of − were a bit more fluid. There were partners and you did whatever you needed to take care of them and there were friends, who you took care of if you could, and everyone else should look out for themselves, because Vala wasn't in the business of charity.

Caias fell into the friend category.

He grumbled and finished Reckell's beer in two more gulps. "I could do better if I had a cargo ship, but my last one was confiscated on Galar. Confiscated! I'm flying a tel'tak. You can't carry enough in one of those to make a good profit. And you − " He sobered and caught Vala's hand in both his. "You need to watch you back, you and your partners, Vala Mal Doran. Whatever you pulled this last time, you went too far: there's a bounty on your heads, all three of you, a fortune in refined naquadah for any of you, dead or alive."

"You mean aside from the one Ba'al's offering?" Vala asked, trying and failing to keep her voice even despite the jolt of adrenaline and fear Caias' warning gave her. "Who is it this time?"

"The Lucian Alliance. That bastard Vosh."

Vosh and Netan were the odds on favorites to end warlord of warlords in charge of the Lucians and each of them were constantly undercutting each other. Vosh, no doubt the one who had provided the naquadah Tenat and Jup had lost to Vala, had been trying to obtain a ship Netan wouldn't know about.

She asked how much naquadah was on offer and winced at Caias' answer. Every bounty hunter in the galaxy would be after their heads. Every slimy worm of an informant would be trying to curry favor with the Lucian Alliance by selling anything they knew about Vala to Vosh. This was going to put a real crimp in any operations. They were lucky they'd jumped from Ushbos when they had. Borzin would have happily cut their throats for that much naquadah and kept the Revenge to sell to someone else and Borzin wasn't even the worst out there.

Damn. This wasn't just a difficulty; it made it nearly impossible to sell any cargo they lifted, no matter how valuable, or provision and repair damages to the ship. They might have just surpassed the shol'va Jaffa Teal'c as the galaxy's most wanted. It would be easy enough to get lost with an entire galaxy to hide in, of course, but she had no intention of hiding out in a nunnery on some backwater mud pit for the rest of her life and that narrowed her options significantly.

It wasn't like they could stop in to any of the Goa'uld-controlled worlds. Ba'al kept gathering in more and more territory and he hadn't forgotten about Jehan. A betrayal by a lo'taur was as bad as a First Prime turning shol'va when it came to losing face with the other System Lords. Look what had happened to Apophis...

"This could be awkward," Vala said eventually. She turned a bright smile on Caias though. He'd done her a good turn, so she would return it.

She gave him the coordinates of the disabled cargo ship they'd left behind with the al'kesh full of Tau'ri. "Life support is shot, of course, but if you pick up a environmental suit and some parts, you can ring right in and fix it up," she advised.

"What do I owe you for this largess?" Caias asked.

Vala waved her hand in dismissal. "A favor some day."

Caias looked at the empty tankard ruefully and said, "I've got to go."

She kissed Caias' beard-tickly cheek, patted it, and told him to get a trim. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Caias chuckled as he left.

Reckell rejoined her once the smuggler had exited. "I commed Signe and Dushka. They're in," he said. "Til and Dil have been crashing with them; it wasn't clear, but one of them managed sleep with someone's wife or sister or possibly a daughter back on K'Tau and they had to do a runner. They all need money so they'll meet us at the port in the morning."

"We have another problem," Vala told him.

~*~


They were debating whether they really wanted the twins on board Revenge as they stepped out of the tavern. Til and Dil didn't have any technical expertise; they were cagey about where they came from, but it had been a Goa'uld world, probably one absorbed by a conquering 'god' they had refused to worship. They'd let slip something about temple assassins once, though not whether there were assassins after them or they had been assassins, but they were very, very good with knives and guns. The pair of them had a real hate on for Jaffa too which put them at the front boarding any ship where there would be fighting. The best they could do on a ship, however, was stand watch and yell for someone who knew what to do if any lights started flashing.

They were dependable, though, and once they signed on, their loyalties were never in doubt. With the bounties out there, that trustworthiness trumped expertise. Besides, they had Mer for the tech end and Novak if they could persuade her to stick with the Revenge. Vala wasn't stupid enough to contemplate keeping Novak if she really wanted to go though, even if she'd thought Jehan and Mer would stand for it. Neither of them gave much of damn about other crew; too tied up in each other, but they had some inconvenient scruples on occasion.

Three steps out the door, Reckell stepped in something squishy, cursed and lurched into Vala as he tried to see what it had been. The staff weapon blast seared a hole in the door behind her and left flames licking at the edges.

More blasts followed but Vala and Reckell were both running and dodging and firing zats back in the general direction of the sniper and they all went wide. Vala had brief moment of gratitude that whoever it was didn't know how to handle a staff weapon.

She sprinted for an alley, a dark slit between to buildings, and dodged inside. She flattened herself against the nearest wall as Reckell lumbered in behind her. Thoughts of an ambush flitted through her head. She let Reckell take point and stayed as close to the wall as she could so as not to silhouette herself.

Reckell cursed under his breath. Vala added a litany of Goa'uld to that, but silently. She clutched her zat. At the other end of the alley, she and Reckell hesitated. Hebridan streets were mostly well lit and well patrolled, but response times were slower down around the port. Easier to let the bar brawls burn themselves out before hauling the drunks into jail after all.

"I don't suppose you've been sleeping with someone's wife?" Vala asked.

Reckell checked the charge on the energy pistol he always carried. "No."

"It would have been nice if they'd been shooting at you instead of me for once."

Reckell laughed.

"I'll go first, cover me if you can."

Vala nodded and crouched a little. "Ready?" she said.

"Ready."

"Go."

Reckell sprinted from the alley and across the street, taking cover in an inset store front. No fire came from anywhere. Vala took a deep breath and raced out. No one shot at her either. Maybe the shooter had been working alone.

They worked their way carefully down the street until they could slip into a crowd and lose any pursuers. Portside had too many lights to see the stars but a subtle blurring of sharp shadows and darkness heralded dawn as they reached the city's main landing field. They stashed their weapons out of sight as they made their way through the first gate at port security. They had to sign in to find out which landing pad had been assigned to Revenge. An extra credit chit bought a promise that their names wouldn't be entered into the port system until after Revenge lifted again.

Sleepy dockworkers were shifting cargo from cavernous warehouses into dew-darkened haulers as she and Reckell made for the second gate. Pallets of teka filled the air with their fruity scent. Vala swiped one as she passed, giving the men carrying the crate a cheeky smile.

She ate it in three bites, sticky sweet juices running down her chin. Reckell made gagging noises − Serrakin didn't like teka.

Vala spotted four dark figures clumped together outside the second gate in the safety fence and slowed her stride until she picked out the silver glint of Dushka's short hair.

Closer, she could make out Signe, along with the twins. All of them had duffles sitting at their feet.

Revenge dropped out of orbit according to schedule, hazard lights sparking against the still dark sky, haloed by the damp air. Shimmering waves of heat came off its shields as Revenge lowered onto one of the largest pads in a cloud of quick steam. The landing struts scraped over the metal reinforced concrete. The sheer weight of the ship dug divots from the pad, but only the slightest groan issued from the Revenge as settled its weight in place. Jehan had brought it down with his typical delicate touch.

The warship looked alien among the modified al'kesh and local ships surrounding it, flat gray and right angles in contrast to flowing curves and bronze-sheened alloys; it dwarfed all of them, unadorned, uncompromising, inelegant, and brutally efficient.

The shield flickered off and a boarding ramp dropped open. Meredith strolled half-way down the steps and shouted, "Time is money! Move it!"

Signe noticed Vala and Reckell and raised his hand. "Hey, Vala, is that the new ship?"

Vala winced and began jogging toward the group.

"Down!"

The yell in a familiar voice from behind her warned Vala that whoever was after her hadn't given up.

She dove for the ground. Broken bits of concrete and dirt scraped her elbows and knees raw through her clothes.

The staff blast missed her and hit the Revenge's boarding ramp instead, tearing off a hand rail and sending Meredith scrambling back up the steps in a cloud smoke. Signe, Dushka and the twins scattered, while Reckell spun and began shooting back. Vala rolled onto her hip, fumbled her zat out of her jacket and tried to see where the staff blast had originated.

Til and Dil both pulled energy blasters and began firing. They alternated to some beat only they heard and split wide, triangulating on the shooter. Signe and Dushka grabbed a set of duffles each and ran for the boarding ramp, hunched over and zigzagging. Meredith ducked his head and one of the Tau'ri weapons around the edge of the opening in the ship's hull and began shooting over their heads, providing more cover. The chattering rattle of the Tau'ri weapon sounded deceptively harmless.

Reckell pointed to a cargo cart parked next to the fence around the landing field. Vala wormed her way behind its cover.

Behind her, Revenge's sublight engines howled to life, pouring power into its gravity repulsors. The massive ship shuddered and lifted fractionally. The boarding ramp stayed down, the first step now a half meter off the ground, as the landing struts folded inside and hatches sealed over the ship's undercarriage.

Dushka leaped for the ramp and only half made it, her torso slamming against the steps. Breathless Vyan obscenities rang all the way across the landing field. She dropped the duffles and scrabbled for a handhold on the remaining rail. Signe shoved his shoulder under her ass and lifted. Dushka went the rest of the way up on all fours. Signe bounced up after her and once inside took over cover fire from Meredith.

Til and Dil had disappeared, heading around a small warehouse to flank the shooter. Reckell had some cover behind a couple of crates − the labels revealed they were supplies Vala had contracted to have delivered to the field earlier the day before. Sirens were screaming from deeper in the port, probably set off by the shooting or the bone-shaking roar of Revenge hovering over the pad in a way no ship was meant to for long. Concrete dust and sharp pieces of grit flew up under it.

The huge ship drifted sideways, bringing its boarding ramp closer and closer to where Vala was hunkered down. It loomed, black against the steadily lightening sky, and Vala realized Jehan hadn't activated the running lights. The shield was still down so they could get aboard, but he wasn't making it easier to pick out any vulnerable spots on the hull.

Another staff blast hit the cargo cart and Vala had to scramble aside as it lifted off its wheels and tipped over onto where she'd been crouched. Fire licked up its side. Vala threw herself as low as she could and curled her hands over her head. The flames reached the fuel leaking from a cracked cell and the boom and flare of the following explosion nearly deafened her.

Hands swatted her back, then grabbed her shoulders and pulled Vala to her feet. Reckell swung her around and she saw Til and Dil coming back, supporting a lurching Caias between them. "What − "

Reckell's voice sounded tinny and distant. "They got him."

"Not Caias," Vala blurted.

"Not him," Reckell confirmed as the twins arrived before her.

Til began, "He got − " and Dil finished, " − one of them."

"Oranians," Caias said. He had his arm clamped tight to his side. A dark stain spread beneath it.

Vala reached toward him.

"We got − "

" − the other one."

"Are you all right?"

"Ran into a bit of trouble too," Caias said. "Port authorities found a bit of something I forgot to declare on my tel'tak."

"Can we get out of here now?" Reckell demanded. "Before the port authorities show up here?"

"Come on," Vala told them all. Reckell had to keep a hand on her arm to steady her, but the boarding ramp was only a meter or two away. "We've got a doctor on our ship."

"With an invitation like that how can I refuse?" Caias declared. "Even if your pilot is crazy."

~*~



Jehan set a course to the outer rim and the entire crew gathered in Revenge's main mess hall once they were in hyperspace. The three Tau'ri were let out of their cabins to join in.

Vala explained what had happened on Hebridan, filling in background for those that had been present but were still in the dark − like Meredith.

"Oh, that's just great," he grumbled. They were screwed through most of the galaxy.

"It will only be worse on other worlds," Caias added. "For that much naquadah, Odai Ventrell and the other big guns will be on your tails."

"Yes, yes, we get that," Mer snarled at him. "Do you have any useful suggestions or are you just in love with your own voice? It's not like we didn't have to watch our backs before this." Not with Ba'al still after Jehan − a thought that made Meredith shudder when he remembered what Jolinar had known about that particular System Lord.

Jehan, sitting on the table between Meredith's chair and Novak and oblivious, patted Mer's shoulder sympathetically, and went on eating a granola bar liberated from the kitchen. He hadn't said anything since Vala bolted into the bridge and told him get them out of Hebridan space on a heading for Pegasus. Jehan didn't care where they went as long as he had a ship to fly.

"Daniel has explained where this ship was headed before we took it," Vala said. "The Lost City of the Ancients." Enthusiasm and avariciousness lit her up. She had the bit between her teeth now that she'd changed her mind about heading for Pegasus and, more importantly, out of the Milky Way.

Daniel slipped lower in his seat and bit back a groan.

"Think of it," Vala said. "All the treasures of the Gatebuilders."

"Ancient technology," Meredith murmured. His fingers twitched at the thought of getting his hands on it, in situ, with no one to hound him for explanations or weapons or orders to share the materials with other − sniff − scientists, none of which had a tenth of his intelligence, intuition or education. Only Sam had come close.

And there was the chance of seeing her again, too, but he didn't think mentioning that would count for much with Vala or the rest of the crew. Every time Sam came up, Jehan went tense, too. Best to focus on the technology.

"There's no guarantee anything's there," Novak muttered and hiccuped.

Daniel glared at her.

"Sorry, sorry, ignore me."

"Have you tried chewing something?" Dushka asked her. She'd taken over the kitchens and glared at anyone who trespassed − with little success. Jehan and the rest of them weren't comfortable with her mothering them, but Novak looked like she might appreciate it.

Jehan handed Novak another, still wrapped granola bar.

While Novak tore open the foil with a crackle, Daniel said, "The expedition consisted of two hundred people who may be in trouble and need our help. I think that is the most important thing to remember."

"Only if they're friends of yours," Caias commented.

"There's no reason we couldn't do a good deed and make a profit," Vala said. "Anyone who is against going to the Pegasus galaxy?"

"No Goa'uld there?" Til asked.

"Not that we know of," Daniel replied.

"No Lucian Alliance?"

"No competition at all," Vala crowed.

Til looked at Dil, then they both nodded.

Signe laughed and said, "Why not? Even if it's a bust, we've got plenty of supplies and by the time we make it back, things will have cooled off and the bounty hunters will be after someone else, right?"

Vala laughed brightly. "Caias? Dushka?"

"You know I don't care where we go," Dushka said.

Caias stroked his beard before answering. "I'm temporarily without a ship of my own, so I'll crew with you for a pilot's share."

"Second pilot," Jehan corrected, giving him a narrow-eyed look. "Two crew shares."

"Bit greedy, aren't you?" Caias shot back. "You get a ship share, crew share, officer share and the pilot's share? Plus the net split."

"Get off if you don't like it," Meredith snapped.

"Two and a half shares," Vala offered.

Caias sighed theatrically. "You're a hard lot."

"We are," she agreed with light laugh and a happy wiggle that belied just how true that was.

Her attention switched to Novak, Daniel and Dr. Fraiser. "We'll leave you off at a world with a chappa'ai."

"I'm going with you," Daniel declared.

"Daniel," Fraiser said.

"Someone has to keep them from looting Atlantis."

Til and Dil giggled.

"Daniel, I don't think you'll have much influence in what they choose to do," Fraiser tried again.

Daniel gave her a tired look. "Janet, if I go back, I'll never get another chance. Jack will probably never let me through another stargate."

"You stay, you're just another member of the crew and obey me," Vala told him. "Junior crew. You get a half share until you prove yourself."

He folded his arms and stared at her mulishly.

"Fine."

"I knew you couldn't resist me," Vala teased.

Exasperation obvious, Fraiser lifted her chin. "I've already treated several of you. I imagine you can see the benefit of a doctor joining you?" Her expression challenged anyone to contradict her. "I want a officer share and a crew share."

"You've got it," Mer said, before anyone could object. Jolinar may have cured his allergies and Vala could use the Goa'uld healing device − so could he − but he preferred to have a real, Earth-trained doctor around. Even though he thought they were all making it up as they went along. Medicine wasn't a real science; bodies were all too squishy. He'd trust Janet Fraiser over any other doctor, though.

"Janet, you can't − "

"Someone has to keep you from doing something terminally stupid and it looks like I'm the only one around qualified," she interrupted Daniel. "Besides, Sam is my friend too."

Daniel shut up.

Novak coughed and cleared her throat. "I, um, this is been, uh, very exciting. I think I'd, hic, I'd, hic, like to stay."

Vala caught Mer's eyes and lifted her brows.

"Same shares as the doctor," he said. "She'll take over as second shift engineer."

"Any objections?" Vala asked.

No one said anything.

"Jehan, you and Daniel and Caias can set our course for Atlantis."


Part Two
Scavengers




Revenge dropped out of hyper and into normal space beyond the limit of the star system they'd identified as their destination. Daniel protested, but no one bothered listening to him. Jehan had the con and the rest of their skeleton crew crowded onto the bridge as well, eager to see anything other than the blue of hyperspace outside the ship's portholes. They were all restless, despite the comforts and entertainment options installed on Ushbos.

Mer and Novak were at the main sensor consoles, Caias had nav, while Vala had taken weapons rather than the captain's chair. With only eleven people aboard, she couldn't sit back and just command, she had duties too.

They kept shields up and sensors passive, using the improved package that they'd bought from Borzin, and running quiet with Revenge's power signature masked.

"G type star," Mer reported. "Two planets in the habitable zone."

Jehan kept Revenge drifting, sublights silent and dark, orienting the bow toward the star using chemical thrusters. Distance rendered it a thumb-sized yellow circle, the planets indistinguishable to human eyes.

Vala kept her hand on the control that would throw up shields and arm weapons.

"What are you wasting time out here for?" Daniel demanded. He headed for the comm station. "We should be hailing – "

"We should be quiet and careful," Vala interrupted, "until we know the situation."

"People could be dying while we dink around," he said.

Mer twisted around to watch the conflict. Daniel seemed determined to contradict or fight everything Vala said; he was still bubbling over with resentment toward her.

Vala's eyebrows went up and her tone went syrupy and slow, a sure sign Daniel had her angry too.

"Darling, it's been nearly a year, has it not? Anyone who was dying is already a corpse. If that's so, then we will be too if we barge in like fools." The unspoken but clear opinion of the Tau'ri SOP made Daniel's face redden. Vala flicked a finger and rake thin Signe slipped past Daniel and into the comm officer's seat.

Daniel's problem, Mer decided, was that he kept buying into Vala's surface persona. She got under his skin and he didn't like it, so he didn't want to like her. That made him look for reasons and Vala offered them up in spades, while the rest of the crew laughed at their antics. Daniel didn't like being the butt of the joke either. Maybe he'd gotten too used to being the SGC's golden boy or maybe it still hit too close to the memory of his academic disgrace. Mer found it amusing in a spiteful way. For once, someone else was more disliked than him.

Plus, he had Jehan.

Vala's attention had returned to the star system. "Meredith. Power signatures?"

He switched his attention back to his own tasks. "Nothing at the moment, but we're too far out to pick up something small or shielded using nothing but passive data gathering."

"Any chatter?"

Signe flicked on a switch that transferred the incoming data to audio. The bridge filled with the surf rush of the primary itself, present in every star system and soothing to his own ears. Mer dialed that back to low and they listened to the random radio and microwave croaks and moans, squeaks and clicks drifting out from the planets. The universe wasn't silent, even when there was no air to carry sound. Mer listened for anything patterned, because sometimes the computer filters missed stuff, but nothing caught his ear.

"Nothing," Signe said, his head still cocked. "Probably anything weak wouldn't be coherent this far out."

Vala twirled her ponytail and squinted at the star dead center on the viewscreen.

Finally, she nodded to herself, a decision made.

"Jehan, take us in, one-sixth sublight, forty degrees off the ecliptic. Keep our power profile discreet and the comms silent."

Jehan's hands danced over the controls and Revenge began moving. The nameless Pegasus star appeared to slide down the view screen as he maneuvered the ship. Vala hadn't indicated under or over the ecliptic, but Jehan had chosen over.

"Comm silent," Signe confirmed.

Half an hour in they had more information. The second planet might be technically habitable – it had atmosphere – but no one would want to vacation there. The inner planet orbited the primary at a nearly identical distance to Earth's from Sol. If the Gatebuilders had been in the system then they were likely there.

Still no ships, no technological background noise, no power signatures either. Mer thought the outer planet had some orbital junk or something, but it was darkside from Revenge's perspective and passive sensors could only do so much.

The inner planet had a companion, smaller than Luna, that orbited a little farther out.

They approached it slowly, but there were no defenses, no defenders. Just a beautiful blue ocean world without a single sign of technology, civilization or any sentient inhabitants. They watched a storm sweep over the single landmass. The cloud cover reflected white from orbit.

Dushka said what the rest of them were thinking.

"Pretty, but where's the city?"

"It has to be there," Daniel said.

"Not showing up," Mer said.

"Then you're missing it!"

Mer stood up and gestured for Daniel to take his place at the main sensor console. "Check for yourself."

Daniel shouldered him out of the way and dropped into the chair. His frown grew more bewildered as he went over the same readings Meredith had and came to the same conclusions. His hands moved over the console, fast at first, then slowing to a stop. "I don't understand," he said. He looked up and caught Mer's gaze. "Maybe we're too far up to find the signs of..."

Jehan shifted in the pilot's seat and suggested, "We've got the 302s in the bay."

"You've never actually flown one!" Mer snapped immediately.

Jehan shrugged. "I've flown a death glider. How much harder can it be? At least the control interface is in English."

Mer felt Daniel's interest sharpen and prayed he would say nothing. Daniel was too curious anyway.

"Two words," Mer said.

Jehan looked at him in inquiry.

"Low bidder."

Vala had the captain's chair again and sat with her chin propped on one hand, elbow on the chair's arm. Without moving, she said, "You're sure you can fly one?"

Jehan's smirk was easily insolent enough to deserve a backhand.

"I can fly anything."

Mer rolled his eyes. "You and Han Solo." His mind focused on the 302s. He would piggyback the sensor readings from one and build a better picture of the world below. How long to design the maximum return for time and fuel? The sensors on the 302s were crap; they were dogfighting craft built for close engagements, not stealth or information gathering, but he could tweak them.

He picked up the tablet he'd been using to work out a new program that would let Jehan input a course and open a hyperspace window in half the time it took presently and began entering some general numbers as he remembered them from the 302 specs.

"Mer?" Jehan asked, amusement in his tone.

Mer didn't look up. "I'll have to take the backseat. Give me a couple of hours, I want to load one of the small security packages we picked up from Borzin..." And run a complete diagnostic on the system of the 302 they'd use as well as visually inspect it. "Novak."

"What?" she squeaked.

Mer glanced up. She'd been mooning over the viewscreen and was now giving him the deer-in-the-headlights look. He sighed. "Snap, snap. Come with me."

"Oh. Okay."

"Two hours," Vala said. "I don't want to de-orbit without more data."

Meredith just nodded. A bad landing pad could result in broken landing struts and worse damage. That's why Goa'uld had driven their slaves on Earth and other planets to build the pyramids.

"I'm going to keep going over the data," Daniel mumbled. "There must be something...The wormhole opened, we had MALP telemetry before the expedition went through. The city was here."

"You do that, Daniel," Vala told him. "Dush – "

"I'll make something to eat," Dushka agreed. Dushka was their quartermaster as well as ship's cook, but she'd already inventoried the entire ship in the last month. Until they took on cargo, she didn't have much to do except cook. It had led to some fantastic feasts during the trip, though she didn't quite have a handle on Tau'ri cuisine. Mer had offered her some advice, but he'd had to go back to the engine rooms after the chef knife incident. Besides, her food tasted good if strange and he'd gotten used to strange.

In fact, the only person on the ship who might even recognize normal if it walked up and did a striptease was Janet Fraiser.

It took three days to run a full survey of the planet's single landmass, a proto-continent stretching from the – arbitrarily designated – southern pole past the equator at its farthest point. Scans confirmed the northern pole had a permanent ice cap, but ocean beneath it.

Jehan took the 302 down to the wave tops and gave Mer heart palpitations, but the ocean was too vast and deep for their sensors. The shadows moving in the azure water could have been leviathans or just schools of fish. The sensors blipped once, but Mer had to put that down to atmospheric interference and a cyclonic storm in the distance,which he pointed out with commendable calm – his voice didn't shake or squeak – as something they didn't want to be flying into under any circumstances. Jehan changed course and they outran the leading edge.

Eventually Mer's curses and threats of vomiting down his collar got Jehan to take them back into orbit, though not without a few swoops and barrel rolls indulged in just for the hell of it. Piloting spaceships didn't always satisfy Jehan; he was too responsible to risk the big ships and their crews the way he would just himself.

And apparently Mer, too.

Mer told himself that Jehan's lack of worry about risking his life was just a sign of how close they were. He even believed it after they were back inside Revenge's fighter bay and Jehan was grinning at him before catching his shoulders and kissing him. It almost made up for still finding nothing.

"God, that was great," Jehan said as he pulled away. His fingers flexed against Mer's shoulders and his smile flashed bright in the dim expanse of the 302 bay and all Mer could do was mumble some agreement.

He studied Jehan as they headed back to the bridge. The swinging stride and the loose set of his shoulders, the corners of his mouth still turned up. All and all, he'd never seen Jehan quite so relaxed anywhere or anytime but after sex. It wasn't just flying either; Jehan had been loosening up steadily, week after week, since the Revenge set course for Pegasus.

Maybe it was getting away from the Milky Way and the threat of Ba'al. Even on the Tanafriti, they'd been constantly surrounded by reminders of the Goa'uld; Tanafriti  had been, after all, a Goa'uld ship once, with all that meant.

Mer's steps hitched as he analyzed his own reactions and realized he'd felt it too. Revenge hadn't been built for comfort, but every deck plate and bolt had been made by humans. The only alien touch came from the integrated Asgard technology and it didn't have the same taint of memory.

Jehan raised an eyebrow at him as he stretched his legs to catch up and enter the interdeck elevator with him.

Mer bumped elbows with him. "Nothing," he answered the unspoken question.

Daniel pounced on them as soon as they were through the doors. "Anything? Tell me you found something."

Jehan dodged around him without answering.

"Nothing," Mer repeated himself.

"You didn't look – "

"Jackson, we looked," he snapped. "I want to find the city too. But it isn't here."

"It has to be!"

"Says you."

"Look, those people walked through the wormhole – " Daniel visibly reined himself in, before slipping off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. Staring down at the deck, he said, "We had MALP telemetry. Visuals. Radio contact with Woolsey and Sumner and Sam until the wormhole closed. They said they were in the city."

"Yet the city isn't here," Meredith pointed out reasonably. "I think it's time we checked out the other planet."

~*~



Sumner had begun stationing his marines around the perimeter of the gateroom and the room over looking it before Sam came through the stargate. Only the lights on their P90s stabbed through the dark spaces, slicing through air that tasted thick with age, tracing over smooth angled walls and equipment stations draped in covers, and reflecting crazily through glass and crystal, cutting away the verdigris night. She headed up the stairs to the accompanying noise of pallet after rolling pallet of supplies and equipment being pushed or dragged through the event horizon by the personnel following her. Back at the SGC, forklifts were bringing the largest, while a conveyor belt brought the smaller crates to the event horizon.

She dodged around the MALPs and FREDs already taking up valuable space, cased generators, and a disassembled UAV.

"Get us some lights," Sumner told her brusquely.

She swept a silky dust sheet off one console, finding a dialing console under it, and began hooking her main laptop into it.

"Everything seems dead or powered down," she told Sumner.

Sam hoped he hadn't noticed her shivering. The MALP hadn't told them of the bone deep cold that went with the darkness. It made her hands ache enough she wanted to tuck them in her armpits, but didn't.

"This may take a while. Get one of the naquadah generators up here and I'll try to get you lights and an idea of the size of the city." She wanted Kusanagi, Grodin, and Zelenka on the job too.

"Find out if there's anyone here."

Sure. She'd do that with her magic wand, Sam thought sourly. What did Sumner think they'd do if there were people here? She didn't think there were...but it raised a hell of question about who had rights to this place, didn't it? Descendants or residents? Back at the SGC, Weir had finally ended the meeting on Contact Policy by telling Woolsey it would have to be his call. Sumner's job would be to back him up.

The rest of the expedition poured through the gate, everyone working as fast as possible. They'd drilled for weeks getting their transit time down to a speed that let them bring through mission critical supplies and equipment in the first twenty minutes of the thirty-eight minute maximum window. Sam glanced at her watch. Twenty-five minutes in meant everyone was on this side of the wormhole and SGC personnel were wheeling non-critical items through the stargate and would continue until the power from the ZPM they had in Cheyenne failed. More parts, more food supplies, more ammunition, even the stuff Sam privately dubbed colony and trade goods.

Sam worked by the light of her laptop screen, ignoring the bustle around her, but getting into the console system was straining the battery already.

"I need that generator up here now," she yelled. "And a lantern at least."

"We need to secure the area before we begin any other projects, Dr. Carter," Sumner objected. The little emphasis on her title was a dig. Sam didn't let it bother her. If she'd still been in the Air Force, he would have outranked her, but here and now, Chief Science Officer had parity with Chief Military Officer. Both of them had to answer to Mr. Woolsey, who had just made his way up to second level and begun peering at her screen full of Ancient moments before.

"That's actually what I am trying to do as well, Colonel," Sam told him. She flipped her braid back out of her way. Every time she had to do that she rethought the benefits of cutting it short again, but she hated finding the time to keep a cut looking decent. "Instead of sending your men out to wander blindly through an unknown installation."

"I agree with Dr. Carter," Mr. Woolsey said. He leaned a little closer over her shoulder but kept his hands folded together behind him. Woolsey was not, thankfully, a toucher. "Keep your people close for the moment, Colonel. We need them to move the rest of the supplies as they come through." His mouth folded into a flat line as he met Sumner's gaze without flinching. He added, "As we discussed, decided and rehearsed at the SGC."

Sam risked a glance up. The crazy moving shadows and the blue light from the laptop screen made expressions difficult to interpret, but the muscle twitching in Sumner's jaw gave away a lot.

"Yes, sir," he said.

Sam looked down again. Woolsey was going to have a hard time with Sumner.

A marine and Zelenka both distracted her by arriving with a cased naquadah generator carried between them. Zelenka panted and muttered curses in Czech as they set it down and he dropped to his knees to open the catches. "You do not juggle grenades like tennis balls, you do not sling a generator with power of a nuclear weapon like, like, like box of cheese."

Sam wondered if they'd brought any cheese. She hadn't paid much attention to that aspect of the expedition's preparation; she'd been calculating what they would need to bring for the science department.

"A nuke?" the marine, Lt. Ford actually, asked. "Really?"

Zelenka shot him a venomous look before going back to his work.

The boost of power from the naquadah generator let Sam work her way farther into the system, which appeared to be networked beyond the dialing console. Her Ancient wasn't on par with either Daniel's or Dr. Weir's, but she had a sound grasp of technical terms and some data was self-explanatory to a physicist of her caliber. As she began reading the rapidly displaying screens, Sam's skin prickled with cold sweat despite the temperature.

She watched a dangerously low line fluctuate as Beckett came up the stairs in conjunction with long disused lights sluggishly lighting. Beckett had the rare genetic component that made much of the Ancient equipment respond when otherwise it seemed dead. Watching the correspondence on the power usage and the lights following Beckett made her cringe rather than envy him at the moment. This was bad, she just didn't know how bad yet.

"I have one of my techs testing the air in here, but I recommend we find a way to ventilate these rooms soon," Beckett announced to Woolsey.

"Dr. Carter – "

Sam found another screen. This one displayed an outline of the city, pinpointed a clutch of lights in the center which had to be the expedition personnel, and then showed a cutaway view from the side along with a scale displaying its position. She shuddered. The city shook in response to an echoing boom and a distant section went black on the screen.

"We're under water," Sam said.

"What?" Zelenka scrambled off his knees, leaving the leads he'd been tying into neat cables in a tangle to nearly shoulder Sam aside so he could look at the laptop too.

Sam pointed at the screen.

Zelenka peered at it, then let out a soft, disturbed hiss. "Dr. Carter, this, here," he said and indicated another graph, showing power consumption growing as the city systems began initiating, in contrast to the steady power consumption previous to their arrival, and a countdown tied to the falling power reserve.

"Yes," Sam said. "It's a shield."

She activated her radio. "Colonel Sumner, get all your people back to the gate room. Now."

"I don't answer to you, Dr. Carter," Sumner replied. "Over."

Sam turned to Woolsey.

"If we don't get out of the city in the next five hours, we're all going to die," she said. "Every system one of Sumner's people activates shortens that time frame. We sitting under an ocean. Once the shield over us fails, the water will flood in and drown us all."

Woolsey activated his radio.

"Colonel Sumner, I'm ordering you to fall back to the gateroom immediately."

The pause lasted long enough Sam wondered if Sumner meant to defy Woolsey.

"Acknowledged. Over."

Sam had her headset feeding her the military command channel and one for science. She heard Sumner order all security teams to fall back to the gate room and round up any science department people who had begun exploring. She added her own orders to her people to follow the military commands.

"Can we use our naquadah generators to supplement this shield?" Woolsey asked.

"Not and run city systems too," Sam said. She'd begun a new search, looking for gate addresses. A naquadah generator wouldn't power a return trip to the Milky Way, but it would let them dial the gate to somewhere nearer – if there were any other stargates in the Pegasus Galaxy.

The dialing console yielded a motherlode. She downloaded them to the laptop's memory. Maybe she'd have time later to discern the ranking system. For now she was grateful to have a list of gate addresses.

"We can use a generator to dial the gate somewhere in this galaxy, but there's not enough power to dial back to Earth," she said. "Peter," she ordered through her radio, "I want you hooking up a generator to the stargate. Forget the schedule, do it now. We're on a clock."

"Very well, Dr. Carter," Grodin radioed back.

She pointed at the marine lieutenant who had arrived with Zelenka. "You. Organize everyone to get our supplies back through the stargate once we dial – and get them out of the backwash zone."

"Yes, ma'am!"

He nearly saluted her before double-timing down the stairs and starting to yell. Her officer voice still worked.

"Good thinking, Doctor," Woolsey commented and Sam cringed, realizing she'd usurped his authority right in front of him.

Lights crisscrossed the gateroom as the rest of Sumner's marines filed back in.

"Radek – "

Zelenka already had his own laptop hooked in next to hers. "I am downloading as much information as I can," he said. "We will translate it later, if we are lucky."

Sumner loped up the stairs and joined them again.

"What's the situation?"

"We have to evacuate."

Sumner's eyes narrowed.

"Why?"

"The city is underwater," Sam explained again. "The ZPM powering the forcefield holding back the ocean is approaching maximum entropy. Without – "

Another boom sounded through the city. It shook the floor under their feet. Sam grabbed onto a console edge to keep from falling. Sumner didn't flinch, but he turned his head, trying to identify the direction of the threat.

"Just tell me the bottom line," he snapped.

She was trying, damn it!

" – we have to abandon the city before it fails completely. The sooner we leave, the longer the shield holds," she finished. "If the city goes, so does our only way back to Earth."

"So much for the plan," Sumner muttered.

Sam sighed in agreement. Never mind the enemy, she'd never seen a plan that survived contact with reality. Weeks had been spent gaming every scenario anyone imagined they might face on arrival in Atlantis. None of them had included being under an ocean.

Looking back, they should have. It was Atlantis, after all.

"Where are we evacuating?" Sumner demanded. "I need to send a team through first."

Sam began punching in the first address the dialing console had provided.

"Wherever this takes us," she told him.

~*~




The fifteen hour sublight transit from the inner world to the marginally habitable outer one meant Jehan and Mer were both off shift and in their bunk, Mer using his shoulder for a pillow and drooling, when the alarms went off. It took them an extra minute or two to drag on pants and boots and arm themselves before they went out the doors. Shirts were dragged on while they were in the elevator and they arrived on the bridge in Mer's case with his on inside out.

The alarms shut down as they stepped out of the elevator.

Caias had the pilot's console of course. Jehan had to stifle his irritation; Caias was second pilot and it was his shift. He didn't look up as they came in, just said, "Check the sensors," and hunched protectively over the controls. Reckell was in the commander's chair and nodded to them both.

Mer was already on his way to the console he usually used. Jehan glanced at the viewport, which still showed the planet as a quarter-sized disk at this distance, and commandeered the weapons console. Two keystrokes mirrored one of his monitors to the screens Mer and Caias were working on.

The ventilation sighed in the background, expected, ignored and sublimely soothing. It meant air to breathe along with an environmental system that wouldn't leave them slowly freezing in the dark.

Vala strode in, followed by a distinctly drowsy looking Daniel, and Fraiser,  who looked snappy and put-together as usual. Reckell shot to his feet to get out of her way.

Vala headed for the captain's chair and demanded, "What is it – ?"

Mer straightened up.

"Sonovabitch," he exclaimed. "How did we miss it?"

"Miss what?" Vala asked.

Jehan blinked at the readings on his mirrored screen. Ba'al's horns, it was huge. "We came in on the far side of the system and it's powered down," he said. "Or dead."

Mer typed in a command and the viewscreen went from long range to close up, revealing something dark and glittering sitting in orbit around the planet. It grew as they approached, revealing its true size, angled and armed, falling around the planet without ever falling to it.

"It's enormous," Reckell said. He sounded as breathless as the rest of them felt. "Slow down."

"It's as large as a ha'tak," Caias stated. Under their feet, the deck lurched as he dropped their speed faster than the gravity generators and inertial dampeners could compensate. "Space station?"

Space stations weren't common in the Milky Way, rendered needless between the use of the chappa'ai and ships that could de-orbit without significant difficulty. Most were legacies of civilizations that had clawed their way out of their own gravity well without Goa'uld interference. A few others had been constructed to serve as neutral ground for meetings between various planetary powers.

"Hold station at thirty orn," Vala ordered.

Half a mile out from it, Jehan translated, something he'd started doing since they'd taken Revenge, where all the equipment had Tau'ri notation, whether numbers or language. Old skills he'd thought he'd forgotten had found their way back into his routines.

"Holding," Caias acknowledged as he cut the sublights entirely and fired thrusters to cancel their inertia. Jehan had to admit he had a talent for piloting. Caias handled Revenge almost as smoothly as Jehan himself did. He was more cautious with the ship than Jehan, trusted it less, so he didn't push the envelope. Caias was the guy to keep down the wear and tear. Jehan was the pilot to have at the controls in a fight.

"That's...impressive, all right," Mer said.

The weapons console had a few sensors of its own, geared toward analyzing threats from outside and balancing energy use between shields and offensive fire. Jehan checked them automatically, noting it occupied a Lagrange Point.

"Weapons platform," he identified when the readings came back.

"It's Ancient," Daniel breathed out.

"Thing is old all right," Caias agreed. They could see micrometeor damage now and other marks where it had been hit by something more deliberate and powerful than space debris. The core appeared sound, however.

"No, Ancient," Daniel stressed. "Made by the Gatebuilders."

"Oh. Like this Lost City that we're here to find."

"Yes."

"Guess we should have looked here first after all," Caias said.

"Maybe," Vala murmured.

Jehan glanced up and she was staring at the weapons platform with a thoughtful look. She felt his attention and quirked her mouth in something that wasn't a smile; acknowledgment and humor but not happiness. Most of the damage to the weapons platform had come from weapons fire.

The Gatebuilders were a mystery. They'd created the chappa'ai and left a network of them scattered through the Milky Way, but little else survived from pre-Goa'uld times. Anything that had survived had been scavenged for technology with little attention paid to learning about the race that created it. They hadn't left obvious weapons or defensive systems. Myth had it they'd left the galaxy fleeing some terrible threat – the Goa'uld liked to claim it had been them, the way they liked to claim they'd built the chappa'ai, but Jehan doubted that. Ba'al had been brilliant compared to most Goa'uld and Jehan had heard him curse the Gatebuilders more than once when something of theirs refused to work for him.

Something had made the Gatebuilders create the weapons platform. Something had crippled it and the Gatebuilders – the Ancients –- hadn't bothered to repair it. Hadn't bothered or hadn't had the chance?

Jehan stroked his fingers over smooth keys on the weapons console. The hair at the back of his neck prickled. Something had happened in this star system. Some threat had found it. Instinct warned him if they weren't careful, it might find them.

"Can we get closer?" Daniel asked.

"We're getting closer every second, Jackson," Mer told him with an audible eye roll. "Nothing's still in space. It's all relative. Maybe you've heard of that? Relativity?"

"Is getting closer to it a good idea?" Fraiser asked. She nodded at the viewscreen. "You did say weapons platform, right?"

Vala chuckled.

"Jehan did say."

"The Ancients were too advanced to – "

Jehan coughed, Vala's laughter peeled out, and Caias gave out a sort of disbelieving grunt. Jackson was just too damn naive sometimes.

"They didn't build that thing as a thought experiment," Mer pointed out as Jackson huffed and puffed in response to everyone else's mirth.

"Power readings?" Vala asked. She nodded to Fraiser. "Is it going to shoot at us?"

The keyboard clacked under Mer's fingers.

"It's dead, no sensors, no power to the weapons," he reported after a minute. He looked up at it on the viewscreen. "I bet we could fix it. The power core is intact; it's the distribution that's shot or the control systems, possibly. It may have gone into failsafe shutdown to keep from blowing itself up."

"We'll keep that in mind," Vala said. "Caias?"

"Yes?"

They stared at the weapons platform for a while longer. It appeared tidally locked to the planet, only showing one face to it rather than spinning.

"Slow approach."

"You've got it."

"Mer. Shields."

Revenge shivered as the shields came up, gulping energy down even while not under fire. It moved forward too and down, diving beneath the weapons platform so that its dorsal mounted sensor arrays could take more readings.

"It has to be the largest weapons platform ever constructed," Daniel said eventually.

Jehan snorted. Jackson hadn't seen some of Ba'al's toys. Though bigger didn't necessarily mean better. Ba'al didn't really care about efficiency.

Caias brought Revenge closer and closer to the quiescent weapons platform, while Mer pulled in every bit of data he could from passive and then active observation. Jackson hung over his shoulder. Fraiser yawned with her hand over her mouth.

"I'm going to go get some coffee," she said.

"Oh, good, bring me some too," Mer told her.

"Please," Jehan added, smiling at Fraiser.

Mer hummed to himself as he worked. Jehan slumped down in his seat and let his eyes fall closed, listening with half an ear, and drowsed. The eruption of sound on the bridge audio nearly launched him out of his seat, squeaks and looping wails bouncing off the bulkheads and injecting adrenaline straight into his veins.

"Fuck, Mer – "

"Shut up," Mer snapped. "I've got something on an ultra low frequency. There. That's it."

The solar system background noise dropped out as Mer began filtering, hunting something in the aural chaos.

"Can you hear that?" he asked.

"What?" But Jehan was hearing something. A repeating, shushing whir, the rhythm and repetition just off from what his ears expected.

Mer dialed it up and the pattern became obvious, though still somehow wrong.

"What is that?" Fraiser asked as she came back in. She handed out metal mugs from the galley, steam still rising from the dark contents. Mer slurped his down in without wincing.

"Distress call," Reckell said.

"Not like any I've ever heard," Caias objected.

"Still..."

"It's coming from the planet," Mer announced. He looked up and his eyes were wide with a mixture of excitement and worry. "It's coming from the planet."

~*~




The sinking sun lit the lake fiery orange. Teyla watched the shadows under the trees grow darker, then turned back to the white tents of her people.

Children with masks and white yarn wigs raced through camp all day, underfoot and indulged for once, while the adults prepared the feasts. The excitement of picking out who would suffer all night made them wild with the excitement. Teyla still remembered what it had been like.

Kollinot was more celebration than sacrifice. Five generations had passed since the last Great Culling; the Wraith had not even raided in the last fifteen years. Kollinot meant only that someone picked by the children pretending to be Wraith would spend a cold and hungry night at the Ancestors' Ring. In the morning they would join in a day of ritual mourning and fasting.

Teyla meant to watch everything Charin did to prepare the tuttleroot for the soup this year. She'd negotiated trade agreements on a dozen planets; she could learn to cook at least one true Athosian feast food.

Charin immediately yelled at her to get away from her pots, they wanted to be able to eat the soup, not speculate over Teyla's ability to ruin it.

Outside, Halling shouted at his son to slow down and Teyla laughed to herself. Jinto and the others had found their victim. At least, Halling would have sense enough to take a coat. The year before Toran had picked up a hacking cough that lasted two moons. At least this year he'd be able to stay in and enjoy Charin's food.

The drums were still sounding through the camp though much of the dancing and singing had given way to quieter gatherings of people sipping stout tea laced with liquor, intent on remaining awake through the entire feast night, when Jinto and Wex slipped into the main tent where Teyla was enjoying one of Hathe's ridiculous stories along with Toran, Marta, Wirrat, and Ilite.

"Strangers are coming through the Ring!" Jinto blurted out.

"Jinto's father's with them," Wex added. "There are lots of them."

Teyla shared a faintly worried look across the table with Toran. Halling would bring them to the village to speak.

"It's bad luck on Kollinot," Toran said.

"Don't be superstitious," Teyla told him.

Hathe threw a piece of fruit at Toran and finished his story.

Every world followed different ways. Kollinot was only an Athosian ritual. It meant nothing that newcomers had arrived this night except that they were not familiar with the Athosian calendar.

She straightened her coat and covertly checked it for any splashes or stains. She had led trading missions through the Ring for five cycles of the seasons, but had only spoken for all of Athos since wintersend.

Someone clapped outside the tent. Teyla rose to her feet as Halling identified himself and added, "I bring folk from away."

"Enter," she called.

Toran stood as well, but everyone else stayed at the table. Hathe and the others weren't members of the council and were more interested in their meals than talking trade with offworlders.

Halling swept the tent flap open and ducked low as he came in, followed by a fair woman and two men.

Teyla took in their clothes – machine loomed textiles – and their gear, recognizing metal and plastics from her experience with other cultures. Higher technology wasn't unknown to her, just foreign to the way Athosians had chosen to live since the last Great Culling. Tension rolled off all three of them, though the woman managed a small smile.

"I am Teyla Emmagan." She added, "Daughter of Tagan," in case they had come expecting to deal with her father. Tagan's reputation had been spread far and wide through the Rings. Many traders still expected to deal with him.

The military man answered.

"Colonel Marshall Sumner." With a gesture he indicated his companions. "Director Woolsey. Dr. Carter. We have a few specific needs – "

Teyla interrupted him without qualm, disliking the way he'd surveyed her, then looked past her to Toran.

"We do not trade with strangers."

He looked at her with a mixture of frustration and respect. What worried Teyla was the underlying worry she hadn't missed, despite the stone face. The woman appeared most comfortable of the three – Woolsey couldn't hide his apprehension at all, fidgeting and flickering his gaze everywhere – but it was there. These were not people who would go anywhere without reason.

She feared the reason, remembering the Ring tales of a planet falling to the Wraith six years before. Refugees had fled the destruction, though Teyla had never met any of them. Every story agreed that the world the Wraith had destroyed had dared raise its technology to defy them. The weapon she recognized this man Sumner carrying certainly fell within the realms of what the Wraith would not tolerate.

"Is that a fact."

Teyla raised her eyebrow at him.

Dr. Carter elbowed Woolsey, but he just coughed. With a sigh and a roll of her blue eyes, she smiled wider and said, "Samantha Carter. Call me Sam. I know you don't know us, but we'd like to change that. We're sort of in a bind. We don't even know the name of this world; only that it was first gate address we tried that worked."

"You mean the Ancestors' Ring?" Teyla asked.

Carter smiled wider. "The Ancestors?"

Toran coughed and muttered, "Next they will say thy do not know the Wraith."

"That who the kids in the masks were pretending to be?" Sumner asked.

"Yes."

Curious. If these people had come to Athos fleeing the Wraith they would have reacted differently, even if they meant to lie about it. Teyla gestured for them to join her at the table.

"Let us talk."

"Thank you," Sam said.

Though he didn't whisper, Teyla knew Sumner hadn't meant his next words for her, spoken to Woolsey as Sam walked forward: "If these people can't help us, I'd rather not waste the time."

"I think at this juncture, Colonel, anything they're willing to tell us will be helpful," Woolsey replied. He nodded politely to Teyla, acknowledging that she had to have heard them. To Sumner, he added, "This is not a strictly military situation and I am ordering you to let Dr. Carter take point on any negotiations, since she has more experience with first contacts than either of us."

Interesting.

What kind of people used the Ring, yet neither knew the Ancestors or the Wraith?

~*~




It was a ship. Derelict, wrecked, abandoned, perhaps all three; from orbit their sensors only revealed its size and the scar it had scored on the surface, eroded and grown over but still visible from orbit. Big. Scary big. Explanation enough for why the Gatebuilders had built that weapons platform. Pegasus might be a dwarf galaxy, but it appeared everything was bigger here.

The signal remained faint even as Jehan brought Revenge into the lower orbit, less stable stable than the Lagrange Point, but then Revenge wouldn't be staying in orbit ten thousand years.

"Is it farside or nearside?" she'd asked.

"Nearside for another fifteen hours," Jehan replied.

Mer rested a hand on Jehan's shoulder to brace his balance and peered over his shoulder and studied the numbers. "And then it will be dark for ninety days," he added. "Very cold and very dark. The planet has a slow axle rotation compared to most human habitable biomes."

Revenge used a twenty-five hour day and twelve-and-a-half hour shifts. When anyone spoke of days they meant ship days since every planet differed and adjusting with each planetfall made no sense. The planet below them had a four thousand five hundred hour rotation.

"Ninety endless nights," Vala had murmured. Daniel had shuffled back nervously at the way she eyed him as she spoke. Vala hadn't actually pursued Daniel with any real force. She was having too much fun teasing him. Eventually, though, she meant to bed him, if only to show she could. "Think what we could 'accomplish' in all that time."

"Freeze solid," Jehan snarked.

"All the more reason to share a little warmth," Vala volleyed back.

"Get your own boyfriend," Meredith told her. He squeezed Jehan's shoulder and Jehan laughed softly.

Vala had batted her eyelashes at Daniel and then even he laughed.

Jehan still kept Daniel, Novak and Janet at a distance, but no more than he accorded any of the other crew. He'd relaxed enough to joke a little around them, at least, in the long month Revenge had spent traveling between galaxies. The three Tau'ri fit in better than many others had. Before this, only Mer had got some of Jehan's humor. There was a distinct lack of insolence and sarcasm in Goa'uld circles, resulting in some people missing it when Jehan quietly insulted them, unlike Meredith's blunt appraisals and jokes. The Tau'ri understood Jehan and Mer's referents, though, and that confirmed a long held suspicion of Vala's own.

Daniel wanted to ring down to the planet immediately. The level of enthusiasm in the room approached dangerous as soon as he opened his mouth. Mer wanted to gag him, but figured Daniel would just use sign if he did. He remembered what Daniel was like. Instead he tried pointing out everything that could go wrong – it was a long list.

Of course, Vala listened to Daniel and waved off all of Mer's cautions. Not even Jehan took him seriously.

"You're a worrywart," she declared. "This will be fun."

"Like a root canal sans anesthetic," he muttered, but he went along.

Jehan was going down with them.

Til and Dil filled out the roster of explorers. It left Revenge only lightly crewed, another worry.

"Recks," Vala said as she strapped the Kull arm weapon onto her arm, "you have command 'til I get back."

Caias had the pilot's seat again, after Jehan put them in a geosynchronous orbit. When Caias had come on shift again there had been nothing for him to adjust or fuss with; Jehan had made sure of that, making sure Caias knew who was Revenge's real pilot. Jehan really disliked it when Caias did anything without him there and left him no openings.

Reckell glanced at the others who were staying aboard. Dushka and Signe gave nothing away, but they'd be keeping an eye on Novak and Fraiser. Vala doubted either of them would try anything crazy; they weren't fighters and they wouldn't want to endanger Daniel. She wasn't unduly worried on that front. Recks would never let anyone pull something like Solek had again.

The signal and the ship worried her along with that weapons platform

Reckell followed her off the bridge.

The lonely sine wave of the insistent signal went on repeating itself on one of the bridge monitors as she left for level four.

By the time the signal reached the nearest system, whatever had generated it would have fallen away to dust. Solar systems generated a lot of noise even without sentients adding to it; going out sublight, the signal would be lost in the slow history of what had been, propagating snapshots of time out into the cosmos.

That made it all the more desperate.

Jehan and Mer were waiting in the corridor. Both wore partial Kull armor along with whatever they'd picked up on Ushbos to replace the gear lost on Tanafriti. No helmets, but back and chest pieces, shoulders, forearms and leg pieces buckled on over the stun-resistant singlesuits and enough leather to keep those from being torn in a fight.

They fell in step with Vala as she passed without saying anything, just nodding, and headed into the ring room. Til and Dil were already there, armed to the teeth and wearing the customized Jaffa armor they always kept with them.

Daniel hurried in a minute later. Even he had a sidearm in a thigh holster and a P90 on a chest sling. He carried one of the strange weapons he'd attempted to use against her before.

"Anti-Kull weapon," he explained as Vala raised her eyebrows.

"I don't think we'll find any Kull here, darling, and you know it does nothing against a human."

"Let him bring it," Mer said. He waved at Til and Dil's staff weapons. "After all, the Bobbsey Twins get to bring their favorite comforters."

Jehan fondly patted the butt of the pulse weapon holstered along his thigh.

"All right."

"Be careful," Reckell warned them all, reptilian features creased into clear concern, despite the differences in physiology. "Stay warm."

Vala flexed her hand in her glove, checking the firing mechanism for the arm weapon was seated and operating correctly. She echoed the Serrakin well-wish, "Stay warm."

"Right," Mer added, "don't go into hibernation just when we need you this time."

Recks scowled at the reminder of the trick Solek had played to take him out of the equation on the Tanafriti: dropping the cabin temperature far enough to make the cold-blooded Serrakin sluggish and too sleepy to fight when the crew mutinied.

She didn't want to show it, but Vala felt worried. It was the damned distress signal. She kept thinking of the one she'd used to lure in the Tau'ri and how they'd taken Revenge for themselves. No way of knowing how long the signal on the planet had been transmitting or how long that ship had been down there, but the weapons platform had to date to before the Gatebuilders had returned to the Milky Way the last time.

The Gatebuilders had built to last. Any enemy that had frightened them likely had too.

Any enemy that sent the Gatebuilders running deserved respect at the very least.

The story Daniel had told them all, that he'd gleaned while finding the gate address for Atlantis, had more questions than answers, but one thing they knew thanks to the information found at the Ancient outpost on his planet's southern pole: the Gatebuilders hadn't found a cure for the plague they'd fled to Pegasus to escape but they had returned from there anyway. They'd left this galaxy and their city behind and returned to certain death ten thousand years in the past.

They had run.

The crippled weapons platform and the wrecked ship they were about to check out probably dated to the same period.

Vala had a bad, bad feeling.

She curled her hand into a fist next to her thigh and stepped inside the rings along with the others. Jehan and Mer automatically moved to flank her.

"Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Mer muttered. "This whole idea sucks."

Vala rocked her heel down onto the foot control that activated the rings.

~*~




"Location, location, location," Sumner said, patting Bates on the shoulder as they headed out from the camp.

It hadn't been easy.

Bates spotted the ruined city the first morning. Sumner wanted to go there immediately, arguing it had plenty of shelter in that nice little valley on the far side of the lake, but the native Athosians were not happy with the prospect of anyone moving into it. Sam wanted to search it for possible energy sources or information that could lead them to a ZPM, but she knew better than the tromp over the Athosians' objections. It was their planet and arguably their city even if they had abandoned the latter. Making enemies of the first people they'd found in Pegasus would be stupid. Two weeks of negotiations passed before they got their way.

She liked Teyla Emmagan.

The Athosians were cautious but friendly and not technophobes – they had some devices which were maintained with obvious understanding of the principles they worked from despite their low-tech culture. The temporary wire fence around their encampment was electrified to repel nocturnal predators and run from a cleverly-made portable generator that utilized water and gravity. Sam saw many other signs the Athosians were anything but primitive, but something had kept them from ever settling and building since leaving the old city. Sumner might dismiss the threat of the Wraith, whatever they were, but something had bombed that city badly enough its inhabitants fled. Maybe the threat was long gone, but the Athosians still believed in it.

They were lucky they were dealing with Teyla. Toran had a hot temper and sullen suspicion of everyone. He would have clashed with Sumner within a day. Indeed, some of Toran's hotheaded friends were talking smack at the marines on security details according to the daily reports Sumner gave Woolsey. Teyla, though, was thoughtful, intelligent, and not at all superstitious.

When Toran insisted, "The City of the Ancestors is not safe," Teyla had listened as Sumner insisted, "We can handle ourselves."

"The Wraith will come."

She'd shared a disbelieving and worried look with Toran when Woolsey asked, "Who are these Wraith?" Something Sam wondered too. The Athosians were too smart and sophisticated to have abjured developing their own technology without good reason.

The Athosians had never met anyone who didn't know of the Wraith. That convinced Sam they were real. She'd talked with Teyla later and picked up a few other disturbing bits and pieces. The Wraith weren't human. The Wraith had destroyed the city during the Great Scourge – when they drove the Ancestors out of the galaxy. Even Sumner had been worried by that.

"I don't like it that they got their asses kicked," he'd said, referring to the Ancients and why they'd hidden and abandoned Atlantis.

Neither did Sam.

The Ancients could have held their own against the Goa'uld, the Replicators or even the Asgard. An enemy that sent them running deserved respect. She kept thinking of the first five addresses they'd dialed off the Atlantis database as they prepared to evacuate. Four failed to lock and one had a code attached that she'd only figured out later indicated it was in orbit somewhere – they'd been lucky it wouldn't dial at all, whether because the stargate was gone or some failsafe had been built into the Atlantis DHD.

Zelenka and Gall had come up with a theory on the gate address list they'd generated. It began with the gate closest to Atlantis and each one after was farther out. It didn't seem likely that the six gates nearest the Atlantis system had been nonfunctional or destroyed and the nearest that did work lay on a planet with a wrecked Ancient city. Sam could almost hear O'Neill quoting, 'Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence' – and she didn't believe in coincidence – 'three times is enemy action.'

Woolsey didn't want to believe that whoever or whatever had driven the Ancients out was still around. He thought the Athosians were conflating a more recent menace with mythic history.

"It's been ten thousand years."

The Ancients built stargates that had lasted over a million years in the Milky Way. Sam had personally faced off against Goa'uld that were thousands of years old. She warned Sumner not to assume anything they knew from Earth would automatically be true in a new galaxy.

He just raised his eyebrows at her and advised, "Leave the military to me, Doctor Carter."

It took doing, but Woolsey finally won over permission from Teyla for the expedition to send a team to explore the city and determine whether they could set up there. Mostly because the expedition was simply too big to slot into the nomads' encampment comfortably. They needed more permanent shelter or some of the equipment they'd salvaged during the desperate evacuation, brought all the way from Earth, would begin suffering in the weather.

They weren't telling the Athosians about Atlantis.

A quick mutual discussion between Woolsey, Sumner and Sam had followed learning the Ancestors the Athosians revered, if not worshipped, were the Ancients had resulted in an agreement. They would leave Atlantis out of their story. The Athosians didn't seem to object to the expedition going into the city because they weren't Ancestors, but mentioning Atlantis was a risk they didn't need to take. Sam knew Daniel would have disagreed with their decision, but there were more reasons than Jack O'Neill objecting to the loss of another team member to the choice to leave Daniel behind and this sort of dilemma and his predictable response had been among them – along with his pesky predilection to disobeying orders even under fire.

They weren't actually lying about it, just omitting where they'd been between Earth and Athos.

"If the Wraith have never touched your world," Teyla told her sometime during their third week on Athos, "you should go back there." They were hiking through the forest to a group of caves not far from the Athosian encampment. Teyla wanted to show Sam something there.

"We're stuck," Sam explained. "We came through the stargate from another galaxy. It took all the power we had to make the trip. Without finding a ZPM or some kind of power source, we can't get home." She sighed tiredly. A misty drizzle faded all the colors of the leafless forest to wet grays. The dampness slid off Teyla's oiled-leather coat but wanted to soak into Sam's fabric jacket and made her shiver. Both of them were shaking water off their hair periodically.

"Why come here?"

Sam glanced at Teyla. "Here, your world, or here, this galaxy?" she asked. Her boot slipped on some mucky, black-rotten leaves and she had to grab a sapling to catch her balance. She needed to pay attention to the ground.

"This galaxy," Teyla replied. "If there were no Wraith there...?"

"Oh," Sam said. "No, there were no Wraith. There were – are – the Goa'uld." She explained a little. Teyla's hand drifted to the back of her neck. "The power of the System Lords is pretty much broken, but Ba'al and others are still out there," she finished. "Without the technology the Ancients left behind, our world would have been destroyed. We came here hoping to find anything else they left that we could use."

"Except for the Rings they made for all of us, no one but the Ancestors could work anything they left behind."

Sam scrambled over a deadfall Teyla crossed effortlessly and offered something they'd debated telling the Athosians. "A very few of us have the gene – the genetic component inherited from our ancestors – that acts as a lock and key. That's how Jack – General O'Neill – was able to use their command chair to defend our world against Anubis."

Teyla cocked her head and murmured, "The Ancestors are your ancestors?"

"Well, not mine," Sam answered. "I don't have the gene. But some of us. No one's sure if we got it from the Ancients or it's a spontaneous mutation that just serves the same role."

Teyla didn't comment on the connection to the Ancients one way or the other. "I would like to meet your General O'Neill."

"He'd like you." Sam paused. "As long as you didn't bow or anything."

Teyla smiled.

"We revere the Ancestors, but we don't worship them."

"That's good." A flushed heated Sam's cheeks. That sounded so patronizing. "I – We, we're sort of wary of 'gods', you know, because of the Goa'uld."

"There are some who worship the Wraith, hoping that they will be spared when the next great culling comes." Teyla pointed to a narrow opening in a hillside. "My people have hidden here for generations.

Sam followed Teyla inside. A pile of sticks turned out to be old torches left where they would stay dry. Teyla lit one with a distinctly high tech lighter. Her mouth turned up in a smile as she tucked it back into her coat. "My people mastered fire long ago," she told Sam, proving she'd heard some of the scientists' more disparaging remarks about the Athosians.

The torchlight revealed the cave changed into a quarried corridor after the first turn; stone blocks lining a narrow hall that took them farther underground. Teyla led them deeper inside, past off-shoots and dark rooms, to a larger area. Soot from generations of torches stained the walls and low ceiling.

"I used to come here to play as a child," Teyla explained. "My father showed me the way here. Some of us have the gift of sensing the Wraith. He said it was my responsibility because of the gift to guide our people here when the Wraith returned."

That was why the Athosian encampment sat on the opposite side of the lake from the old city, Sam realized. So that they could take cover in the caves if the enemy came back, even though they were closer to the stargate as a consequence.

"This is what I wanted you to see," Teyla said. She raised her torch so that the light fell on the walls and the markings carved there.

Some of the stones were covered in worn writing that looked very much like Ancient. Daniel would have been able to decipher it. Sam could just make out the resemblance. Too much had been worn away or in some cases carved over. The pictures were basic and required no linguistic skill: the destroyed city, the people fleeing, huge whale-like ships over the city and sharp-nosed fliers exiting them to chase after the escapees. Lines reached down from the fliers to the people and then the people were gone. No explosions, which were shown in the cityscape.

Teyla touched her finger to one set of lines. "A culling beam. Charin remembers seeing her two sisters disappear in one."

"I need to show this to our anthropologists," Sam said.

The last pictures showed a small group of people disappearing into a hole in a hill - the cave they were in or one like it. Sam brushed her fingers over the chilly stone, though she had been taught better. The lines cut into it threatened to crumple away. Dust coated her fingertips when she lifted them away.

"These were your ancestors?"

"Yes. They weren't as strong as the Mol or Cimone or the other allies of the Ancestors who fell at the end of the Great Scourge. The Wraith left a few of them alive."

Sam turned. A glint in the dirt beneath their boots caught her eyes. "Why?" she asked as she knelt and plucked a bright metal pendant on an old leather cord from the loose sand and dust. She let it swing, a twinkling silver pendulum.

"Oh," Teyla exclaimed. "I lost that long ago!"

"Here," Sam said. She straightened up and slipped her hands beneath Teyla's loose, heavy hair to tie the cord and let the pendant hang at her throat. The torchlight flattered Teyla's coloring. They were close enough the heady scents of smoky leather and herbs mixed with the rain caught in Teyla's hair filled Sam's lungs. That hair slid over the back of Sam's knuckles as she knotted the cord. The delicate, smooth skin at Teyla's nape felt damp and warm and the pendant flickered as Teyla's pulse sped up. Sam drew her hands away and gave her an awkward smile.

Teyla fingered the pendant and smiled back ruefully at the answer to the unspoken question. The smile that gradually faded before she answered Sam's question.

"I believe they treat humans as their herds, slaughtering us when our numbers grow great enough or if we attempt to defy them. They sleep now, except for a few that watch and remind us they are never really gone."

Which was worse, Sam wondered, to be slaves and puppets or cattle? She'd still take the Wraith over the Goa'uld, but she couldn't be objective. She hadn't grown up in fear of an unbeatable enemy.

She looked around the shadowed cavern as they started out again and said, "Thank you for showing me this, Teyla."

Teyla answered after she had smothered the torch in loose sand just inside the entrance. She left it where it couldn't be seen from outside.

"Someone from your people should know, even if you insist on living in the old city," she explained. "If the Wraith come, you will need to lead them here." She glanced back at Sam, a glint of amusement in her dark eyes. "I hope you paid attention to the path."

"Oh, sure," Sam lied.

The drizzle had condensed into a driving rain while they were in the cave. It drenched them both as they walked back to the Athosian encampment. Sam accepted the invitation to dry off in Teyla's tent and share a cup of stout tea. She figured she had better get used to the toe-curling flavor; the expedition's supplies of coffee were disappearing at a rate she could have predicted if anyone had asked her. The marines drank it to keep awake and alert and the scientist drank it because they were at least eighty percent coffee by blood volume. It wouldn't be long until they were all forced to drink the local tea.

Teyla offered her a voluminous sweater that fit Sam despite their disparate sizes and they sat at the metal grate table and listened to the rain tap against the tent roof. The camp was quieter than usual and if Sam cocked her head, she could hear the lap of water along the lake edge now and then.

"I am curious," Teyla said finally. She had her hands wrapped around a glossy, brightly-colored pottery mug.

"Ask away," Sam told her.

"None of your people have children? None of them are elders?"

"None that joined the expedition," Sam replied easily. "We came knowing we might not find a way home. No one with children was chosen. The same for anyone old enough they might have health problems."

"I see." Teyla smiled. "Toran has suggested that you are all exiled criminals."

Sam choked on her red-colored tea and then began laughing. "No," she coughed out, "it was a plum assignment. A lot of people, including my friend Daniel, wanted to come and weren't allowed."

"Criminals would not have so much valuable and carefully packed equipment," Teyla agreed serenely.

"Or guns," Sam pointed out.

Teyla just lifted her eyebrow, reminding Sam piercingly of Teal'c for an instant.

"None of your people have any personal ties to anyone?"

"No."

"It makes you seem strange, even suspicious to us," Teyla remarked. "We prize our children. To refrain from bearing any or even being with another seems selfish, even irresponsible."

Sam sat back and considered that. The expedition's make up could be interpreted as threatening. Their sixty marines were supplemented by several scientists who were also members of their nations' militaries or veterans. A significant fraction of the scientists had experience on an SGC gate team. Sam had weighted all of her recommendations toward individuals she thought were survivors, not just brilliant but flexible and fast on their feet, based on her offworld missions. But all that competence could be intimidating when it came with P90s, shoulder-fired missiles and uniforms.

She glanced down at her hands. They were scarred by her work and callused from her time on SG-1. She'd never worn the wedding ring Rodney bought in Vegas. She carried it with her on missions until she'd used it to bribe a guard into looking the other way while breaking Daniel and Jack out of a jail.

"I was married."

Teyla sat down her cup.

Sam smiled down at her hands. Rodney would have complained about what she did with the wedding ring if he'd known, moaned about the expense, but she knew he wouldn't have begrudged her use of it really. He just wouldn't have let her ever forget it. Rodney had been one of a kind. She wished he was still around to infuriate her regularly.

"You miss him."

She glanced up, still smiling. "The marriage was an awful mistake, we fought from the first day, but I do miss him. Rodney was brilliant. A brilliant pain in the ass. He would have had my job, I'm sure, if he hadn't..." Sam pulled in a deep breath. "He died. He was on mission with SG-1 and didn't make it back through the gate. The Tok'ra told us later that he'd been killed."

Of course, Teyla wouldn't know who the Tok'ra were.

"We searched for a long time before that," she finished. She hoped Rodney knew he hadn't been forgotten.

It didn't really matter that they hadn't just written him off, any more than it did how furious Sam had been after Selmak mentioned Rodney had become host to Jolinar. They'd lost him. Sam never really believed that Rodney wouldn't have wanted to contact the SGC or at least his sister. It made her doubt her father even when he swore Selmak wasn't controlling him.

Jack had never fully trusted the Tok'ra, of course, but Sam still felt betrayed years later.

Teyla's hand, small and even more callused than Sam's, touched the back of hers.

"But he is remembered."

"You have no idea how much that meant to him," Sam laughed. Remembered, lauded, acknowledged as the genius he constantly told everyone he was, that was what Rodney had wanted. His childhood had really done a number on him. He'd wanted to leave a mark that everyone would remember, but outside the SGC and his sister, there weren't a dozen people on Earth who had missed Rodney McKay or could comprehend the work he'd done. God, sometimes she wanted to cry for him, even now. She squeezed Teyla's hand fast before picking up her tea again.

Teyla turned her head, listening to the voices rising outside the tent. "The rain has stopped."

Sam slurped down the rest of her tea. "Then I should get back to our base."

"Halling or Kanaan will go with you," Teyla said. "I have council duties I cannot leave to someone else."

"I'm a big girl, you know," Sam said. "I can find my back."

"Some of Toran's friends can be...foolish," Teyla told her. "But not with Halling or Kanaan there."

"Well. Thanks then."

Kanaan proved to be the dark, intense young man Sam had already noticed watching Teyla with a certain wistful longing. She had to work to get him to talk to her as they followed the new path the marines had hacked around the shore, but finally extracted that he wanted to study as a healer, but it would mean going offworld to Hoff, since the Athosians last healer had been caught in a flash flood last autumn. Even knowing he wouldn't thank her for it, Sam volunteered Beckett or one of his department to let Kanaan study without going so far from home. At the same time, Sam took note of the planet Hoff. Kanaan provided its gate address when she asked, mentioning that despite a brutal culling they had rebuilt their technological base much higher than most Pegasus worlds.

It had gone full dark by the time they reached the security perimeter Sumner's marines were maintaining. Markham challenged them but apologized when Sam identified herself.

"Should have had your radio on, ma'am," he mentioned, gesturing to his ear.

Sam reached for her ear and cursed, realizing she'd likely lost the headset in the forest. SG-1 hadn't used the smaller radio headsets and she wasn't used to using them enough that she'd noticed losing it. "Damn it." Woolsey would lecture her on irreplaceable assets and he'd be right.

"I will return now," Kanaan announced.

Sam turned. "You should stay here tonight."

Kanaan smiled a little shyly.

"Teyla will want to know you reached your base and no one followed us."

Far be it for her to stand in the way of young love, Sam thought. Kanaan clearly hoped his good deed would win him some points with Teyla or at least some time alone while he reported to her.

"Be careful then and thank you, Kanaan," she said.

"Hey, wait," Markham called. He handed Kanaan a flashlight. "Just in case." He showed him the switch.

"I will return it when next I see you," Kanaan promised.

Markham waved it off. "Keep it. Batteries won't last forever anyway. Should have brought rechargables."

So many things they should have done.

Sam stood with Markham and watched the bobbing light of the flashlight slowly disappear as Kanaan walked back the way they'd come.

~*~




The rings deposited them on the far side of a dune, out of sight of the derelict.

Vala tested her radio. "Revenge, are you receiving this?"

"We hear you," Recks replied, his voice broken up with static but still easily understandable.

"Good enough."

"The signal's not any human language or code I've seen," Daniel said, picking up the argument he'd been waging with Meredith since they isolated the distress call. He barely seemed to notice there were on-world rather than still on Revenge.

"Wow, you think that might be because we're in another galaxy?" Mer asked. That earned him a dirty look that he shrugged off with a smug smile and folded arms. Poking pins into Daniel's sense of importance had turned out to be one of the real pleasures of having him onboard. It almost made up for Janet poking everyone with her needles.

Vala contemplated the planet before her. Barren, dry and cold compared to the watery world where they'd expected to discover the Lost City of the Ancients. She twirled a lock of shiny hair around her fingers. Desert.

"Let's go," Vala decided.

Daniel looked ready to jump up and down.

"Yay," Mer said deadpan.

Jehan's lips turned up in a quiet smile.

Meredith found himself griping, "Six people is not enough to explore anything of that size," even though he'd been the one to argue that if any part of the ship remained intact there would be a wealth of scientific and military knowledge available in the wreckage. Knowledge they could use to safeguard themselves in a galaxy where they knew nothing and no one. They had to go planetside and check it out, no matter how reluctant he was on a personal front. He added, tone sour, "It certainly isn't enough to be safe."

"Nowhere's safe," Jehan murmured.

"Oh that makes me feel better."

The smile they shared did though.

The sand dune gave them a good vantage point on their goal and the rocky plain dotted with belching fumaroles between it and them. Vala started down and the rest of them followed.

Even broken-backed and cracked open, the ship half buried in the sand made Revenge look like a gnat next to a blue whale. Even the largest ha'taks would have been dwarfed by it. Mer pulled his jacket closer.

Til laughed and stroked the shaft of his staff weapon. "We'll keep you safe." His short-cropped, pale hair glinted, like frost on grass lit by a winter sun. His teeth were startlingly bright in his dark face. Dimples folded the ritual scars on his cheeks into new shapes, different meanings, glyphs of emotions.

Dil nodded, but his scars said nothing.

Meredith sniffed and didn't answer, because firstly, that was just the kind of crap that had resulted in him joining SG-1 and ending up with a fucking symbiote twined around his spine, and secondly, he couldn't be sure he had the twins straight – even their scars were identical, some mystic thing from their planet of origin he didn't care enough to ask about – and it might be Dil talking and Til nodding.

"Just don't blame me when this all goes to hell," he muttered.

Jehan peered at the ship and said, "It took a hell of a hit."

"Mmm."

Daniel said, "It's amazing."

"You say that about everything," Mer snapped at him. "Everything's amazing if you're an idiot."

"Are you saying you've seen anything like it before?"

Mer grumbled and Jehan nudged an elbow against his and grinned. He checked one of the fumaroles as they skirted around it. He had a atmospheric test kit with him and it registered nothing lethal but he approached cautiously anyway, wary of the possibility of a sudden geyser of steam until he spotted the crystals frozen around the vent's lip.

"When I said cold?" he remarked. "I don't think I conveyed just how cold I meant."

Jehan peered at the ice fuming into mist before their eyes.

"That's not water."

"Carbon dioxide," Meredith explained, "is only ever ice at less than minus 78.5º Celsius."

"Minus?" Daniel repeated.

"We definitely don't want to spend the night here," Meredith confirmed. He shivered at the thought of a night cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide solid. When he stepped back, a chunk of the sandy rock cracked apart where he'd stood, exposing more CO 2 ice that immediately fumed into vapor. No wonder the planet was mostly desert. The freeze cycle was steadily reducing it to dust.

"I'm sure that is all utterly fascinating," Vala said, "but I'm personally bored. Bored, bored, bored."

"You're always bored," Meredith told her.

"No, darling, I'm never bored if I'm counting money." Vala glanced slyly at Daniel. "Or having sex."

"You should have combined your pleasures and gone into prostitution," Daniel sniped back.

"Oh no. Whores have to work for their money and then there are the pimps. I don't like pimps. I'd much rather steal. Oh, and if I can steal from pimps?" She smiled at the bliss of that imaginary feat. "I do like to do that. Even if it takes a little work."

"Why am I not surprised?"

An insect landed at the edge of one of the fumaroles, then flew up, buzzing around them. Mer ducked away from it. Jehan waved it away from Mer's hair and it flitted over to Daniel and Vala, then investigated the twins. Dil held out his hand and let it land, studying it. The wings were luminescent, shining like tiny LEDs, visible even in the direct sunlight.

The wind, previously behind them, shifted. The reek it brought made them each gag, decay still so thick it coated the back of the tongue. Meredith's eyes watered and Jehan coughed. The insect took off after not finding whatever it wanted on Dil's skin.

"That's awful," Vala exclaimed.

Dil hawked a gobbet of saliva into the sand. The dark spot disappeared almost immediately.

"Change your mind?" Meredith asked immediately, hoping she had.

Meredith didn't have any real idea how long the derelict had been there, but it appeared to still have some function.

Enough function to still send out that attenuated distress signal, at least.

On closer examination the derelict was a dark purple-red, threaded in places with ribs of dark, sick greens, and the source of the stench. It had taken some devastating blow, likely from the quiescent defense station in orbit, and crashed, cracking its main hull open in two places. Like something alive with its back snapped, left to die in the cold sand. 

Left to die seemed more and more accurate as they walked closer, only to stop at the hull, where the bony plates had been cracked open to daylight. A fine dust spilled from the ship, down to where their boots rested on the sand, magenta mixing with umber. The fine particulate drifted up easily and settled on them and the papery material that had separated from the bulkheads and ceilings to hang in ragged veils everywhere.

It was breaking down, the smell told them that, but it had to be self-repairing to some extent to have survived this long. Crippled but alive. Nothing like any ship in the Milky Way.

Jehan brushed a bit of the organic drapery away. It clung like dirty spiderweb and flaked like a dry snakeskin.

A check of the sky showed the system sun apparently motionless above the horizon, the long shadows no longer, but they were near the planetary equator. Night would come abruptly, with little dusk, despite the slow rotation.

Meredith rubbed his hands together. Alien space ship! Alien technology. Maybe not Ancient, but still impressive for its endurance. Not that he was feeling gleeful. No, his hands were cold.

"Let's do this," he said despite his own doubts.

"We're waiting on you," Daniel said.

They scrambled into the break in the hull awkwardly, more dust flying up in choking clouds, but made it inside. Into darkness and a stench that might never completely wash off. It made the Kull armor pleasant and perfumed by comparison. Meredith could feel the odor settling in his lungs, onto his skin, and the dust dehydrating his eyes as he squinted into the lightless interior.

Eventually his eyes began to adapt, but he still couldn't make out more than a darker opening leading deeper in.

One by one they each flipped on some kind of light. Daniel had a fluorescent lantern taken from Revenge's Tau'ri supplies. Jehan had a light mounted on the top of the P90 he'd taken to carrying along with the Kull arm weapon and one of the pulse pistols Mer had appropriated from the Oranians and customized. Mer had its mate in his own thigh-holster.

The magenta dust gave the beams of light sweeping through their cloacal surroundings a nearly solid appearance.

"Anyone see any writing anywhere?" Daniel asked.

"Couldn't read it if we did," Meredith said.

Til began coughing. He waved the dust away from his face in annoyance. The light in his hand sent wild shadows careening over the walls and ceiling. It caught on their faces too. Everyone looked green.

Jehan tapped his shoulder and Mer fell in behind him as he picked his way further in.

Vala paralleled Daniel. She had a zat in her hand. Til and Dil brought up the rear. Til still coughed periodically and muttered to his twin too softly to be understood by anyone else in between.

The deck slanted at an uncomfortable angle, a result of the crash. Mer wanted to brace a hand against the walls to compensate his balance, but at the same time he didn't want to touch anything. The dust and rags were everywhere; the ship was molting. Their lights were also picking up places where the walls were oozing, glistening wet and red or putrid green and purple.

He doubted they were going to like anything that considered such surroundings attractive.

Mer trained his flashlight at one of those spots and watched it suspiciously, waiting for it to pulse or ripple. He felt more and more sure his theory that the ship was an artificial organic construct was right. If he saw anything that looked like an egg, he was out of there.

"We'll find the pilot on the bridge," Jehan said.

"Or what's left of it," Mer added.

"Maybe we can find something useful there." Daniel's voice came from the dark behind them, pitched quieter than usual. His eyeglasses glinted when Mer glanced back at him.

"And then you can earn your crew share," Vala said.

"Anything to get off the Nostromo faster," Mer muttered.

Jehan's teeth flashed, white, fast, equally amused by Mer's gloominess and the reference.

"How do you know?" Daniel asked Jehan. "About the pilot."

"He rode it down."

Jehan stalked away.

Daniel looked at Mer. "What did I say?"

Vala patted his arm. "He's right."

"Okay, but how do you know?"

Mer pointed his flashlight at the floor, keeping it aimed down so that it wouldn't blind Jehan, who had come to a stop at the end of the corridor they were in. "It isn't designed for freefall. Everything has an up and down."

"And it's still basically right side up," Vala finished.

"Oh."

They caught up with Jehan and took a left hand fork that slanted up like a ramp. There were no stairs or ladders, just slopes and winding corridors, knotted as a sack full of snakes. Mer's nose had gone numb, the stink so overwhelming he'd stopped registering it. Their boots scuffed through inch thick dust in places and the skeleton of the ship erupted through its flesh.

Mer suppressed his disgust enough to flake off samples to take back to Revenge's labs for analysis. "Someone – thing – grew this ship," he said. "It's organic."

"I agree," Daniel said. He knelt and poked at one of the ribbed arches where damage had snapped it in two. The jagged break looked like a broken bone. "Here. See?" He held the lantern as close as he could and indicated the dark center of the rib. "Almost like marrow."

"Ew," Vala commented.

They came to stop where the corridor they were following forked again, but both options slanted down.

"It's a labyrinth," Til said, surprising everyone.

"Hey, we're not just muscle," Dil added.

"Anyone have an opinion?" Vala asked. "Right or left?"

"I vote 'go back'," Mer said.

"Meredith abstains," Vala noted.

"Left," Jehan said.

Til and Dil exchanged a look and echoed together, "Left."

"Well, then. Daniel?"

"Sure, why not?"

They started down the left side. Til and Dil used their staffs to brush away the veils of dead material. It tore away and clung to them, settled on hair and shoulders and arms despite everyones' concerted efforts to avoid brushing against it. Halfway down, lights began appearing at random intervals, indicating they were entering a section with some power remaining. It got warmer too, the air turning humid. The lights did little to interrupt the stifling darkness, radiating in a spectrum primarily higher than the human eye perceived. Whatever had lived in the ship had likely seen far up the UV spectrum.

The corridor exited into a vaulting chamber without warning. Five steps into it, everyone stopped. They didn't need their lights to see its contents. Power lit niche after niche, row on row stretching high above them, banks of the pods stretching into distant darkness. The pale, sick green illuminated the contents of the niches: mummified bodies cocooned like a spider's prey, skeletons preserved unfathomable ages or fallen to ivory dust where they'd spilled to the deck.

Wordless, tense and wary, their group headed down the main aisle.

Closer, they could see that something had reached into the pods, thrust through the cocooning and into the chests of the victims inside. Dark stains marked the mummies that were still intact. Their sunken features were all caught in an agonized rictus.

"Anyone besides me thinking chestburster?" Mer whispered.

"Shut the fuck up, McKay," Daniel hissed back.

"What, you saw Alien, don't tell me you aren't thinking the same thing."

Mer crowded up closer to Jehan. Whatever had happened to all these people had had nothing to do with the ship being shot down. Which meant he didn't know what, but it gave him the screaming heebie-jeebies. The other thing was that even a cursory inspection showed it hadn't happened all at once. Some of the bodies had died so long ago they were mostly gone to dust and others...others were relatively fresh, taking into account the pods seemed to retard decay. A trickle of sweat ran down his back.

"We really don't want to know, do we?" Vala commented.

"You really don't," Jehan agreed. He had the P90 ready to fire and aimed at each pod as they passed it, whether it had been emptied or not. He didn't elbow Mer away.

"It could be some kind of transport...," Daniel suggested. Even he didn't sound like he believed it. The remains were human, but the ship sure as hell wasn't.

"In that case, it's had a problem."

"Supplies," Til muttered.

"What?" Mer demanded.

"Cargo," Dil clarified. He gestured with his staff weapon. "Supplies."

Mer shuddered. Oh fuck. He kind of thought Til and Dil were right. No one had anything to say after that and they kept moving, faster than before, falling into a two by two formation: Mer and Jehan on point, Vala beside Daniel, and the twins walking drag. They traversed acres of storage, climbed ramps and faced three more holds filled with old corpses. All had been filled at the time of the crash. Their radios offered nothing but static when they tried to check in with Revenge. The ship had internal shielding, probably against weapons, and the radio interference was just a side effect enhanced by the planet's atmosphere, but the result was the same: they were on their own until they got out.

The ship had to have had some more efficient transport system. Not to mention internal communications, but so far they'd found no sign of either. Only the shape and size of the corridors and doorways gave any clue that the builders – growers – of the ship had been anything close to human in size.

They found the first crewman on the fourth level they'd reached as they neared what they hoped would be the bridge. It wasn't swathed in webbing like the human bodies had been.

"Humanoid," Vala said after Mer's flashlight swept over the body and then returned to spotlight it.

"Not human," Mer stated. He steadied the beam.

It had its back to a bulkhead and had slid down to the deck. It had been tall, though, taller than the average Milky Way human – and from the corpses they'd seen, Pegasus humans too – and had on a leathery uniform that might also have been armor. White, tangled hair spilled over its shoulders and its sunken chest. It had a face, two eyes – closed – and a nose. The mouth was open in a silent scream. Sharp, serrated teeth made for ripping and tearing filled its jaw. Mer had no idea what the slanted slits that angled from next to its nose to outside its mouth did. Dehydration had resulted in the muscles drawing the skin back, exposing what had probably been very sensitive tissue to dry up.

Six holes had been clawed or burned through the shirt over its chest: thumb, four fingertips, and something at the center where a palm would have rested, pressed flat.

Despite his instincts, Mer edged closer and crouched next to the body. He set the flashlight on the deck and fished another specimen bag and sampling blade out of the stuffed pockets of his equipment vest. Jehan edged neared and aimed the light mounted on his P90 at the alien too. Which made Mer feel a little better because it meant the P90 was aimed at his dead buddy, just in case he wasn't as dead as he looked.

He picked up one gnarled, slack hand, noting the brutal talons at the end of each finger and thumb, the heavy rings that were likely some kind of equipment, and carved a slice of skin and muscle from the exposed back of the hand. The skin felt slick, like the shell of a beetle, and was almost chartreuse in color, mottled with darker shades. It had no temperature or rigor.

Looking at the talons again, it occurred to him they would line up perfectly with the tears on the creature's chest, except...

Mer twisted the thing's arm so he could see the palm, looked and yelled, dropping it and scrambling back. He sent his flashlight rolling away. Shadows flared and twisted up the walls.

"Jesus," he exclaimed. "Jesus."

"What?" Daniel demanded.

Mer just sucked in harsh breaths and concentrated on his heart not thumping its way right out of his chest. Vala gave him a hand up, while Til retrieved the flashlight and handed it back to him.

With one unreadable look at Mer and the rest of them, Jehan reached down and caught the thing's wrist. Daniel edged closer and held his lantern up so the light fell on its hand when Jehan turned it palm upward again. This time everyone could see the toothed orifice there. Slack, it gaped open, revealing shark-like rows of razor teeth.

"Ugh," Vala remarked. "That's very, very nasty."

"What kind of evolution results in that?" Daniel asked absently.

"Who cares?"

"Well, it doesn't seem natural. Surely it can't eat with that and it has a mouth. It makes about as much sense as vagina dentata." Daniel frowned down at the hand-mouth. He glanced back at Mer. "Why are you so freaked out?"

Mer finally had his breathing under control again.

"How are you so stupid and still alive?" he demanded. "Did you notice all those bodies we've seen? Every one of them with a mark on their chest made by one of those!"

"It's dead, McKay, even if it did kill them."

Jehan dropped the hand and straightened in a smooth motion, before gliding over to Mer's side.

"Yes, because something killed it," Mer insisted. "Don't you get it?" He aimed the flashlight at its chest again and the telltale mark.

"We need to keep moving," Jehan said. "The bridge should be close."

"Yeah, yes," Mer agreed.

They left the dead alien behind, hurrying even faster, skin crawling and nervier than ever. Daniel didn't say anything. The distinct sound of two staff weapons being armed echoed off the bulkheads. Of course there was no way whichever of the crew had done that was still around, but Mer still shuddered, because it must have taken years to go through all the cocooned humans in the holds, and then move on to other crew members, and he had to wonder why and how they'd let it happen to them. What was the purpose of that godawful mouth in a hand? What did it really do?

It had to do something, didn't it?

It wasn't natural.

Why engineer for that? Because they must have engineered to create that mouth, the same way they'd engineered the organic ship. That implied a mastery of bioscience unknown in the Milky Way.

There had to be a reason, Mer's mind insisted as they finally reached the bridge. He found the source of the distress signal and that distracted him. He looked at the depressions and humps in the living tissue of the pedestals dotting the bridge, obviously shaped to fit hands bigger than his. There were no levers or buttons, just a series of holes he figured out were made to accept the tip of a taloned finger. There were several cloudy half-spheres sunk into various consoles that seemed to serve as screens.

Daniel wandered closer and pulled a camcorder out of his own pack and began recording the alien script flowing over the spheres.

"It's not Ancient, but it's related," Daniel said. "I think I can figure it out given a large enough sample to work from."

Mer peered at the twisting script. "It doesn't look like Ancient to me."

"Just figure a way to hook in your computer, would you? Maybe there will be something in here that can help us find Atlantis."

"Or something to make this trip pay," Vala muttered to Jehan, whose eyebrows went up before he smirked at Daniel's immediate and pissy glare.

Mer did find a contact point for an induction connector. It took another half hour to rewrite one of his hacking programs to the point he could begin copying information out of the other ship's system. He wasn't really interacting with the unknown system. Instead, he was just mirroring it onto a crystal-enhanced memory drive. He'd leave deciphering it for once they were safe back aboard Revenge.

Once he had that going, he snagged Daniel's laptop from his pack and started another download going from what he thought – hoped – was the navigation pedestal. It was in the center front of the bridge. Mer found the bridge very disturbing: either it had been covered or masked or the derelict didn't have any sort of outside view ports or screen.

Jehan prowled and Vala leaned against one of the pedestals and watched the screen of Mer's laptop. She was biting her lower lip.

Til and Dil had stayed in the doorway. They didn't do well with human or Goa'uld technology, beyond being able to use it, and had nothing to do while Mer worked. One of them grunted and the second one said, "Going to check the corridor."

"Don't go too far," Vala told them.

Daniel went on recording as much of the bridge as he could.

Mer's laptop signaled it had filled the capacity of the crystal he'd hooked up. He pulled it and slotted in another, then went to check Daniel's.

Til yelled.

Mer froze and waited.

Two staff blasts sounded, then a furious shout, from just outside the bridge.

Daniel was staring at the doorway, while Vala and Jehan were already moving. "Mer, stay with Daniel," Vala called as she went. Jehan wordlessly caught his gaze for a half second and then bolted out too.

"Grab your stuff," Mer snapped at Daniel and drew the pulse pistol he'd been carrying holstered. Holding it at ready, he used his other hand to shut down his laptop and yank the memory crystal from it. He shoved the crystal in his thigh pocket with the first one. Then, without hesitation, he fired a pulse into the laptop, frying it completely, because he wasn't carrying it out. Finally, he snagged his flashlight again.

Daniel had stowed his camcorder and laptop and had his sidearm in hand instead. He and Mer moved out of the bridge fast but carefully, falling into the routines Jack O'Neill had drilled into them both, covering each other and watching each other's backs.

"Down here," Vala called from the far end of the corridor that had brought them to the bridge. Mer and Daniel double-timed down it. Jehan had his back to one of the greenish ribs that formed the ship's skeleton and was covering the dark opening into another corridor they hadn't explored.

Vala was on her knees next to one of the twins. He half lay against the bulkhead, fair head lolling. "Til," she hissed, "Til!" She caught his chin in one hand and steadied it. Light glistened on his half-slitted eyes and he lurched upward, groping semi-consciously for the staff weapon lying on the deck just out of reach.

Mer sucked in a breath as he noticed a second staff on the deck too.

"Til," Vala insisted, "What happened?"

"Fast," Til mumbled. His hand closed on the staff and he used it, the wall, and Vala to struggle to his feet. "Thought I saw something at the other end of the corridor. Mist. Didn't see it coming until it was on us. I missed." He was looking around. Looking for Dil. "Strong. Netu, it was strong."

Daniel picked up Dil's staff and flicked the control that activated it. The gray oblong at its tip opened in four, ready to fire. He held it in both hands, the way Jaffa did, and the lantern hung from one of his fingers, swinging.

"Was it like the one we found?" Mer asked.

Til nodded and winced.

"Where's Dil?"

No one had an answer.

No one asked how anything could still be alive after so long, either.

"We've got to find him," Til insisted.

"Which way?" Jehan asked.

Til nodded to the unlit doorway into the other corridor. Mer played his flashlight over the deck and they could see the stirred up dust. The footprints were fresh. Some came toward the bridge corridor. More, blurred by speed, went back the way they'd come. There were no drag marks, meaning it was strong enough to carry Dil – a full-sized man – while running.

Til was right. Scary strong and big.

A single, drawn out scream echoed from up ahead, agonized and despairing. Silence followed it.

"Dil," Til identified.

Jehan took point, while Mer tracked with the flashlight's beam, the others banded tight behind them, watching for anything coming up behind them. Halfway down the corridor they found a nest, swathes of cocoon material freshly torn open where it had filled a niche between two ship ribs. It was clean on the inside, none of the omnipresent dust stuck to it yet, and had been ripped open from within.

"Chrysalis?" Daniel suggested. "Metamorphosis?"

"Hibernation," Vala said.

"It picked this place because it knew someone would come to the bridge if that call was answered," Jehan added. "It was waiting."

"For us." Daniel sounded shaken.

"For anyone," Mer stated.

Vala's expression had set. She'd stepped back from Til and was scanning the corridor behind them. The zat in her hands whined, charged and ready to fire. Her voice was harsh as she gave the order.

"Keep moving."

Every shifting shadow threatened to hide an attacker now that they knew they weren't alone. Dil's disappearance left a hole in their group and Til kept trying to outstrip Jehan's fast but cautious forward progress. Both the sound of their boots on the deck, whispering through the dead dust, and their breathing seemed amplified by the fear of what might be wating for them.

The corridor they were in twisted, making a blind corner. Jehan edged up to it, leading with the P90's muzzle. The bulkheads took on an oozy shine by his light. The red and pink reminded Mer of guts.

Dil – the Jaffa armor could only belong to him – lay on the floor. White, wet swathes of the cocoon material wrapped him carelessly and had glued him to the floor. It covered his face. Til gave out a cry and ran to him.

Mer's flashlight beam settled on Dil's chest. Red stains were seeping through the cocoon stuff.

"Oh God," Daniel choked out.

Til had a knife out and started cutting the sticky, semi-transparent wrapping away from Dil's face.

Jehan and Vala were watching the corridor for an ambush, only risking quick glances at their crew mate. Mer tried to hold his flashlight steady and not throw up.

Til peeled a last layer away. His hands froze in place.

"Is he alive?" Daniel asked.

Mer twitched the light up and blurted, "That's not – "

But it was Dil.

Flesh sunk over his skull, dark skin gone gray, wrinkled and parchment dry, blond hair now thinned and white. Rheumy eyes cataracted opaque.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Jehan breathed, turning determinedly away.

Mer gagged and swallowed hard. Now they knew what had happened to all the people in the pods and what the hand-mouth did.

"He's alive," Til said. He touched his brother's cheek, then began slicing him free of the rest of the cocoon. Daniel crouched down on Dil's other side and joined him in the work, until Til could draw Dil up into his arms.

Dil cried out.

"Dil," Til whispered. "Dil. Dilynaras Tulafame." Mer realized he'd never known Dil's real name. Dil had been enough. He wondered if Vala knew or Signe or Dush. Did it matter?

"Ahhhhhh," Dil moaned.

Jehan kept his back to the scene. Mer wished he could. Maybe Janet could do something for Dil, if they could get him back to Revenge. At least, she could figure out what had been done to him.

"Dil," Til urged him, "it's me. I'm here."

Dil's body, so abruptly fragile, shook as he coughed. "Light," he coughed and Mer shifted the flashlight beam so it didn't shine into his eyes, blind though they looked.

"What happened?" Vala demanded.

Dil managed three croaked words.

"Ate my time."

His head lolled back and Til caught it, shifting to support his brother better.

"That makes no sense," Daniel protested.

Looking at Til's decrepit body, young only a half hour before, Mer didn't bother saying anything. Was it any more unbelievable than a civilization of parasites that could possess your body and use everything you knew? Other thoughts intruded. The alien that had...fed...on Dil might not be the only one. Even if it was, it had already consumed every victim in the pods and moved on to its own kind. It had to be desperate, not just for another meal, but for a way off the planet. His heart tripped and sped up. It was probably watching them or waiting somewhere – it would know the ship and all the best places – for the chance to use them to escape.

"It will want to get up to the ship," he said. The flashlight beam wavered because he was shaking. "It was probably starving when it sensed us, but it knows how to ration its food. It knows five of us aren't going to last long. What it needs is to get to the ship."

"It can't," Vala said confidently.

"How do we know that?" Mer heard his voice rising. "How do we know what it can do? What if it's like the Goa'uld? We can't assume we know what's happening here!"

Til turned his head and glared at Mer.

"We're not leaving him."

"Mer," Jehan said softly.

"I didn't say we should leave him." He hadn't meant that, either. "But we should get out of here. Now. With a full decontam and quarantine back on the ship." He would have argued for that anyway given the organic nature of their surroundings. They could already be sick with something and not know it.

The Ancients had died out because of a plague they couldn't cure. It could have reached this galaxy, could have come with them even.

Most people, who weren't Mer, didn't comprehend all the dangers possible around them. He wasn't a coward. A coward would have curled up in a plastic bubble and stayed on Earth, stayed out of labs and away from exotic radiation and guns. All the things he was afraid of were real; most people couldn't be bothered to realize that.

He wanted to stay alive. He wanted his friends alive.

He wanted out of this ship and off this planet.

"He's right," Dil rasped, making them all. "Can't move, though. 'm too weak. Numb." He coughed again. "Doesn't hurt'ny more."

"Maybe you'll get feeling back after a while," Daniel suggested.

"Maybe he won't," Mer responded, still as ever the devil's advocate. "You want to wait around until we find out you're wrong?"

Til tried to shift his brother further upright. The numbness must not have extended to movement. Dil stiffened and cried out. Til lowered him hurriedly.

When Dil could speak again, he whispered. "Kill me."

"No."

"I can't even move."

"I don't care," Til insisted.

"Do it," Dil croaked in an old man voice to go with the ravaged appearance that thing had left him.

Til knelt on one knee beside his twin, only now they appeared as aged father and son, one hand cradling the back of Dil's nearly bald head and the other resting feather light over the bloodied wound on his chest. Mer wanted to look away, but he couldn't, sick with the realization that the mark was like that which they'd found on the mummified crew member. Til's hand fit within the larger hand print.

"Do it and get out."

Jehan crowded his back against Mer's and kept watch for the slithery mist Til had described.

"I can carry you," Til insisted.

"We can," Daniel volunteered.

Mer swallowed against a pain in his throat. As annoying as he often found Daniel Jackson, this was the other side, the man who didn't hesitate to risk himself to help someone, whether he knew  them or not. Damn idealist made everyone else look and feel bad.

"Slow you down."

"This isn't an argument," Til snapped.

He felt Jehan's muscles tense before the P90 fired in two short bursts. Til surged to his feet, swinging around and firing the staff weapon that had been beside him in the same direction Jehan had aimed. The bulkhead sizzled and smoked, flame flaring briefly then guttering out. Afterimages half blinded Mer. The latest jolt of adrenaline made him feel sick. His chest hurt, imagining what that hand would feel like on it.

"Jesus, fuck," he breathed out. "What – "

"Saw something moving."

Dil screamed again, hoarse, the sound cut off as he went limp, unconscious Mer hoped and not dead, when Til ruthlessly lifted him into a fireman's carry.

"Back the way we came," Vala ordered. "No stopping."

They ran.

Three levels down, heading through the stacks of pods in one of the holds, Mer started seeing things. Slithering fog writhing out of the pods, desiccated arms reaching from cocoons glimpsed from the corner of his eye and gone as soon as he looked straight on. Echoes of their running bounced back to them, louder, softer, seeming to just over lap some whisper that he knew he could make out if he could only stop and listen. His breath sawed in and out of burning lungs, but when he slowed for even a stride, Jehan fell back and grabbed his arm, pulling him along.

"There's something ahead of us!" Daniel panted. "We've got to – "

"It's not real," Vala snapped back. "Move!"

Til still had his brother slung over his shoulders. Vala had his staff weapon, while Daniel carried Dil's. Mer could hear the mercenary wheezing. Another wispy flicker tempted him to fire at it, but he kept his finger still on the trigger of his gun. Projection, he wondered, or illusion? Was he seeing things, maybe a hologram, or was something messing with his mind?

He nearly tripped, freaking out over the thought of something else screwing with his mind, worming its way into his head. Not again. Not –

"Sha're!"

Daniel lurched to halt before anyone could pull him along, blinking into an empty pod like he expected his lost wife to be there. Mer and Jehan both stopped too, while Til thudded onward, too focused on keeping going to realize their group was suddenly strung out in the aisle and vulnerable.

Vala turned back to Daniel.

"She's not here!" she yelled at him.

"I know, it was just – "

The attacker came from overhead. It – he – must have been pacing them all along, running along the top of the row of pods. He landed behind Daniel, spun him by the shoulder and pinned him into the empty pod before Daniel could react. It held him by the throat. Daniel clawed and kicked, trying to get free as it reached for his chest with its other hand. P90 fire next to Mer's ear snapped him out of his shock. The bullets stitched across the attacker's bare, green-hued upper arm. Daniel's lantern had dropped to the floor. It's light showed the wounds in its arm already knitting together.

It roared in pain and anger and jerked back the wounded arm, but kept hold of Daniel's throat. Jehan emptied the rest of his clip into it while Vala fired her zat. It howled but still didn't go down. Instead it lifted Daniel higher and spoke. The deep, growling hiss of its words held clicks and squeals that made every hair on Mer's body stand up. Subsonics and whistles too high for the human ear must have made up the empty bits of its speech; vibrating through flesh.

The slits in its face flared wide and it cocked its head. Yellow, slit-pupiled eyes settled on Jehan, who drew his pulse pistol. It grinned and spoke again, this time in Ancient, a language Mer knew thanks to Jolinar and Jehan had learned while serving Ba'al. Daniel probably understood the words. He didn't know if Vala or Til would even recognize it.

"Lantean. Where is your ship? Give me your ship and I will kill you quickly."

"Yeah, that's a deal anyone would jump at," Jehan drawled. He raised his pulse pistol and aimed it. "Let him go."

"Your weapons cannot kill me," it taunted. "I am forever."

"Vala," Jehan said. "Zat him again."

Vala snapped off another shot. It made a spasm run through the alien, but again it shrugged off what would have put any human down.

"I will feed on you last, Lantean," it promised, "after I have feasted on your humans," and reached for Daniel's chest again.

Mer brought his pulse pistol up and leveled the flashlight next its barrel, sighting along the beam of light.

Til's staff blast hit before he pulled the trigger. It burned through the alien's shoulder and lit matted dreadlocks and ragged leather on fire as Jehan and Mer's shots both hit. Red energy enveloped the alien and it jittered, muscles seizing before it fell to the deck.

Daniel crumpled to the floor of the pod. He clutched at his throat and wheezed as Jehan circled closer to the body of the alien, pulse pistol still aimed at it.

"Do we know it's dead?" Mer asked. "You zatted it twice. It should have been dead already."

"One way to be sure," Vala declared. She tossed her zat away with a sneer. "Worthless damned knock-offs – if we get back to the Milky Way, I'm taking the price out of Borzin's skin." She bent gracefully, scooped up the staff Daniel had lost and fired it repeatedly into the body, searing it down to blackened, smoking bone. Til joined her in the task.

Mer's hands were shaking as he holstered his pistol.

Jehan gave Daniel a hand and got him to his feet.

"He called you Lantean," Daniel croaked. "What was that about?"

Jehan shrugged. Daniel started coughing. Jehan's grip on his wrist kept him from doubling over and hitting his knees.

"Who the hell knows?" Mer snapped. "Can we fucking go?"

Til left Vala knocking burnt bits of flesh off the bones with the end of the staff. He strode past Mer and returned to where he laid Dil down. Mer watched him start to pick his brother up and then stop. He guessed before the high keening cry made everyone else jump and stare.

Dil was dead.

Because he couldn't stand to look at Til's pain, Mer looked back at the alien's body and watched it's severed hand and arm flex and move next to Vala's boot.

"Vala!" he shouted at her, trying to get his pistol out of the holster again.

She looked down, shrieked, and leaped away from the hand clawing its way toward her ankle.

Jehan swiveled and fired on the hand. He waited a breath and even though it didn't move again, fired on it again.

Til went on keening.

~*~




Kollinot marked the beginning of the Athosian trade season, when delegations came and went through the Ring, buying and selling what they needed or could spare through the rest of the year when they moved camp nomadically. Any other time of year and they wouldn't have known the Tau'ri were in the old city for months.

Toran and his adherents were still slow to accept the newcomers.

Weeks turned to months though and the Tau'ri proved to be good allies and neighbors in most ways. They were arrogant and ignorant of many things, but the precariousness of their place on Athos made them listen most of the time. Some of their marines and even scientists began joining Athosian trading delegations when they went offworld. Another group of marines had accompanied an Athosian hunting party to one of the uninhabited worlds where vast herds migrated past the Ancestors' Ring. With their guns, it had been easy to kill enough animals to feed both groups all winter and trade the excess for fruits and vegetables that didn't grow on Athos. The marines had taken part in salting and smoking most of the meat, all in good humor.

They were generous in many ways.  Woolsey was exceedingly formal and perhaps too rigid to be a great leader, but Teyla recognized his intentions were good and his care for the good of all his people extended to hers quite swiftly. Sumner was harder to like, but she respected his dedication and obvious skills.

Dr. Beckett and the other healers were willing to apprentice Kanaan as well as offering medical care to any of Teyla's people.

Samantha had introduced Teyla to Dr. Beckett the day after Kollinot, correctly guessing the sweet-mannered healer would win more friends among Teyla and her people than Colonel Sumner or some of the more irascible scientists.

Kanaan couldn't stop talking about everything the Tau'ri doctors were teaching him. It made Teyla hide a smile each time he explained something new. When Kanaan became caught up in telling her all he was learning, he forgot to be shy. Seeing Kanaan's determination and enthusiasm convinced her more than anything else that championing the Tau'ri had been the right choice.

Teyla enjoyed Samantha's clever, alternately pragmatic and idealistic company, as well as her curiosity, more than she probably should have, not just because she found Sam attractive, but because Sam was a strong leader who wasn't constantly testing Teyla and comparing her decisions to her father's. It was pleasant to have someone she could share her own doubts with without it getting back to the Council. It was much like her friendship with Sora Tyrus, in fact. Sam had a better sense of humor, though; all the Tau'ri did, witness the silly and amusing names they'd given the buildings in the old city.

When the Kessat came through the Ring offering goods for salted meat, Teyla took advantage of the opportunity to buy a small sack of the seeds they brewed to drink. Though not exactly like the bitter black brew the Tau'ri drank, the seeds made a similar, invigorating drink. She thought Sam would like it and knew the supplies of coffee were already running low.

She walked to the city with Kanaan. The marines on watch waved both of them through. There had been some incidents early on when Toran's troublemakers tried to sneak in and found out how watchful the marines could be, but they were always welcoming to those they considered friends.

Beckett was in his clinic along with Doctor Biro and several other, including Marie Ko, when they arrived. He greeted Kanaan casually then caught sight of Teyla and smiled wider.

"Ah, lass, you're looking as lovely as a Sunday flower," Beckett greeted her. "Come to see Sam, have you?"

Teyla didn't know what what other meanings that had beyond a sunny day, but it sounded very nice. She smiled back at him and held up the box of seeds. "I have something for her to try out. It isn't the same, but it tastes very much like your coffee." She touched her necklace. "A thank you for finding this."

Beckett cocked his head. "May I?" he asked and gestured to the necklace.

Teyla untied the leather thong that the pendant hung on and settled it into the palm of his hand.

"It's a lovely. You say Sam found it?"

"Yes, I'd lost it as a child."

Tagan had been angry with her, too. The necklace had been handed down to each Emmagan with the Gift of sensing the Wraith for generations. Teyla's childhood carelessness had disappointed her father more than once.

Beckett handed it back to her.

"Thank you, lass. I'll let you find Sam, but remember I'm always happy to see you too," he told her. He switched his attention to Kanaan. "Now, are you ready to repeat to me what Alice told you about cellular degradation yesterday?"

Teyla left them happily staring into the eyepiece of a microscope, examining slides of blood samples, and went to find Sam.

Sam opened the bag of Kessati seeds and inhaled the scent. Her eyes widened and her slightly doubtful smile turned real and broad. "Mocha," she murmured dreamily.

Teyla took that to mean her gift had pleased. "The Kessati said to soak the seeds in warm water but never boil them," she explained. "If the brew tastes salty it's been boiled and will give cramps and other unpleasant effects."

Sam looked a little alarmed.

"Nothing serious," Teyla assured her. The Kessat woman she'd spoken with had told they used the boiled seeds as a laxative. It was safe. They even gave it to their children.

"I'll let you prepare them the first time," Sam said.

They met each other's eyes and laughed.

They took the drink outside with them when it had steeped to a rich, loam brown.

Sam nodded at the towers that had fallen. "We haven't searched everywhere, just the city center and the buildings that looked intact enough to use." Like the one behind them, long and low to the ground. "It looks like everything was stripped before the destruction, though."

When the Ancestors had left it to Teyla's forebearers, the city had been a shell according to Charin's stories. They had risen to the challenge, like the Sumite, the Hath, and the Cimone, and raised arms against the Wraith beside the Ancestors, only to be cut down like wheat beneath the scythe. That was in the stories too, the fall of the city and the Rings that no longer opened.

"No offense, but I've spent enough time living in tents," Sam went on. She tapped the wall. "I like having a real roof over my head. Besides, it's better for the equipment."

"I would miss the sound of the world," Teyla said.

"Which just creeps a lot of my people out."

"The belips are harmless."

"They don't sound harmless." Teyla sipped the seed drink from one of the metal mugs the Tau'ri had brought with them – the wealth to waste worked metal on mugs that could be made from clay or carved from horn or even wood bothered Teyla, though it also explained their arrogance – and watched the sun set red over the water. She liked the taste of it too. Perhaps a trip to Kessat to trade for more would serve Athos as well as the Tau'ri. "And they're good eating."

"Halling brought a brace to the cooks last week," Sam said. "One of the marines roasted them. Tasty. Better than the salted meat."

Teyla agreed, but the salted meat, packed in barrels and sealed, traveled well when spring took them across the plains. It kept them from needing to hunt the winter thin game of Athos. She wondered if any of the Tau'ri would join them when they left the lakeside encampment after the trading season. Surely some of them were wanderers or why would they have come so far from their home that they could not return?

She felt it abruptly: the creeping horror that heralded their presence, hungry and wrong, fingering through her mind, reaching for her, trying to consume her into themselves.

"Wraith!"

~*~


Twenty-four hours in quarantine followed decontamination.

Afterward, they gave the body to Fraiser.

Then they scattered to their quarters – except Til, who had been sedated into unconsciousness – to scrub away the stink and dust in the water showers.

Vala scrubbed her skin red. It didn't help. She pulled on a tee-shirt and underwear and curled on the luxurious bed she'd had installed on Ushbos with the lights turned low. The captain's cabin had been converted into a hedonist's nest, but it failed to comfort her.

Dil was still cold in the ship's morgue.

Vala had never learned to like killing, seeing her friends killed even less. If he'd stayed in the Milky Way, she reflected, Dil would still be alive. What had she been thinking, to come so far from the worlds she knew?

She tightened her hands into fists, until her fingernails dug bloody crescents in her palms.

She didn't cry. Qetesh had never let her cry and Vala had lost the gift of weeping.

When she couldn't stand being alone any longer, Vala left her quarters and padded across the corridor to the door into Jehan and Mer's.

"Let me in," she whispered into the door comm. She leaned her forehead against the cold bulkhead above the controls. Goosebumps ran up her bare legs. The deck under her feet felt freezing. "Let me – "

The door slid open, revealing Jehan, looking as pale and bruised as Vala felt. She looked past him, but didn't see Mer anywhere. Vala parted her lips, but didn't say anything, and Jehan stepped back, letting her in.

He went to a cabinet, fished through a drawer, and threw a pair of socks at her. They were big, but Vala pulled them on anyway.

"Can I sleep here?" she asked.

"Yeah."

Jehan led her back over to the bunk. Mer had piled it with pillows and blankets – she knew it was Mer, because she knew Jehan wouldn't have bothered – but it would be small for three of them. Once they were curled round each other, her back to Jehan's front, a quilt purchased from an Ushbos market pulled up to their throats, Vala twined her fingers with Jehan's.

"Where's Meredith?" she asked.

"Level Two labs."

Jehan's breath warmed through her loose hair. She wished she could turn around in his arms and pull him into her, but it was a selfish desire she knew better than to act on. Meredith wouldn't be jealous of this, but he would be angry if she pushed Jehan for anything he didn't want to offer.

"He and Jackson are trying to decode the data they grabbed," Jehan explained.

"Why aren't you with them?"

She felt him tense then shrug.

"They used to work together. Jackson's better at languages than me, anyway."

Vala wondered if that was all of it. Jehan never said much and he'd become even quieter since they'd added the three Tau'ri to the crew. She tightened her hand on his. She wished they'd marooned all three of them instead of keeping them on. Then Meredith would be with Jehan and Fraiser wouldn't be in the autopsy suite next to the infirmary, taking Dil's body apart to find out what had been done to him. 

~*~




"Base One, this is Golf Papa Oscar. Incoming wormhole. Over."

Boredom flattened the voice of the marine making the transmission from the stargate sentry post. Just the same old comforting channel chatter she heard every day. Sam ignored it.

Trading season meant the Athosians kept the stargate in regular use. Traders came through each day. The sentries Sumner kept stationed there reported them to command and otherwise ignored them unless they came heavily armed. Late in the day for most traders, almost dusk, but some never bothered figuring out the different times on different planets.

"Golf Papa Oscar, acknowledged. Base One, over."

Everyone had a pre-assigned radio call sign when they walked through the wormhole, but she'd bet most of her people had already forgotten them. She generally called them by name, because she knew she'd get a faster response that way. The marines obeyed the military radio protocols that dated back to when comms could either send or receive but not both at the same time; the scientists were much sloppier.

Lt. Ford radioed in that the anthropologists were invited to eat with the Athosians and staying the night. Base One replied with an affirmative. Sam filtered that out too, beyond a passing thought to how much Daniel would have enjoyed Teyla's people. She hoped he'd forgiven Jack for blocking his appointment to the expedition eventually, since it looked like Jack had been right about it being a one way trip.

She tried another sip of the drink Teyla had brought and smiled at the blended taste of something like chocolate and coffee with a hint pepperiness. The air was turning cold enough as the sun set that the warmth seeping through the metal felt good to her fingers. They'd have to figure out something to trade for more of it, once they started running missions through the gate. Woolsey kept waffling but they had to go out and at least look for a ZPM so they could get back into Atlantis. The wall behind her still held a hint of lingering warmth from the afternoon sun, but Sam wished she had on the heavier jacket she'd left inside.

Sam's stomach growled.

Teyla's mug fell from her hands.

Sam's gaze followed it, the bright stainless steel reflecting red from the sunset for a second, before snapping back to Teyla's face. Sharp concerned stabbed through her. Teyla looked sick. In pain. Gray. Something wrong with the mocha tasting drink she'd brought was Sam's first thought, but Teyla's hand went to her head not her stomach. Her other hand was braced against the wall of the building they'd dubbed the Loaf for its shape.

Her next words dismissed poison and frightened Sam much more.

Wraith.

"Crap," she muttered. "How do you know – "

"I can sense them," Teyla snapped. "You must get your people to the caves I showed you. I must go to my people and guide them."

Sam didn't think Sumner or Woolsey would appreciate her crying wolf if Teyla wasn't right. She trotted after Teyla. "When you say you can sense them, what do you mean?"

Teyla gave her an angry, disappointed look. "It is a gift of the Ancestors. I feel their hunger." She took in a deep breath, visibly pulling her control together and tamping down the anger. "It is not pleasant. Forgive me. But we must hurry."

The radio bud in Sam's ear crackled to life again.

"We've got incoming bogies! One, two, three, five – " the speaker cut off.

Sumner's voice overrode the sudden back chatter that followed. "This is Base One Actual. Golf Papa Oscar, repeat. Over."

"Base One, this is Golf Papa Tango. Over." The sentry post was set back where they could watch the path from the stargate where it branched between the encampment and the city as destinations. The marine there had a line of sight on the stargate sentry's post too. A shriek carried through in the background, mechanical and whining like an overloaded turbo. "Golf Papa Oscar is...gone. Bogies are hostile, repeat hostile, fast movers and equipped with air-to-ground weaponry. They're heading your way, Base One. Over."

The scream she'd heard over the radio bud became audible and Sam snapped her gaze to the lake. Sharp-nosed fighters arrowed over the bloody looking water in a swarm, silver bright against the darkness of the trees on the shore. In her ear, Sumner demanded calmly, "This is Base One Actual. Give me a raid count, Tango. Over."

" Golf Papa Tango counts twenty bogies, that's two zero bogies. Over."

She watched half of them peel away in the direction of the Athosian encampment. Part of her noted the cherry-red glow of the triple furnaces in the rear of the aircraft and wondered if they were exhausts. Vicious looking things. The rest continued straight for the old city, streaking low over the cold water.

Teyla had frozen for a second, staring too. "Darts," she identified them. Sam blinked and realized the carvings Teyla had shown her weeks ago were of the aircraft she saw now. Like the Goa'uld, the Wraith didn't bother with changing their designs over the centuries. There were limits to what would fit through a stargate anyway; even the Goa'uld had learned that when they tried out the swing-wing death gliders Stargate Command had dubbed Needlethreaders.

The darts began firing a moment later.

Sam swiped the switch on her headset to transmit on the command channel. "Incoming!"

Searing bright lines stretched toward them, adrenaline slowing their apparent speed. Straight line energy pulses, possibly plasma, Sam thought just before the impacts bucked the ground under her feet and sent her flying. She knew how to fall though and rolled, trying to see if the weapons were point and fire or could traverse angles. Teyla was already on her feet again; Sam was going to lose her if she didn't push to keep up.

"Take cover, take cover!"

One of the broken towers shattered; debris flying into the air. Sam squinted. The light was going fast now with the sun gone. She thought the darts were pounding the center of the city. A stroke of luck if so; the expedition had taken up residence on the outskirts where the lower, sounder buildings had survived previous bombardments.

Sam scrambled to her feet and followed Teyla as she ran. She yelled at everyone she saw to stick to the walls as she ran toward the nondescript two story building where they'd established C3. Remembering the rest of what Teyla had shown and told her, she added, "Don't get caught in the white beam! Watch which way it's coming and dodge after the dart can't correct – they can't slow down and they'll overshoot!"

The darts had passed overhead. In the lull, Sam glimpsed flames on the other side of the lake. The tents of the Athosians were burning.

Teyla skidded to a sudden stop, clutching at her head and then looking up to scream at the sky as the Wraith darts came around again to take another run at the city. Sam caught up with her and tugged her by the arm into a doorway. They hunched tight against the jamb, heads bowed, bodies in contact. Ozone and smoke burned the back of her throat; electricity lifted the hair on her arms and prickled at her exposed skin. The air sizzled with it. Teyla slapped at Sam's hands.

Fire targeted the occupied buildings this time, a tactic aimed at driving people from cover into the open where the beams could scoop them up. Little Breadbox and the Hobbit Hole – she hoped Beckett and the other docs had got out – were burning. The Mushroom had a new hole blown through its dome; all the astrophysics equipment would be gone. The ground heaved again and again and debris pattered down onto Sam's head and shoulders. Dust caught in her eyelashes.

Four marines sprinted past her doorway and out into the open. Two were providing possibly useless cover fire from their heavier SAWs instead of the P90s. The other two were respectively pulling open a case carrying a pair of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles and putting together the launcher.

Sam watched helplessly as one of the white beams swept over the group, missing two and taking two. She still had hold of Teyla and heard her curse in some language the stargate's translation download didn't recognize. She recognized Sergeant Bates, frozen and staring upward, in the aftermath. The other man gave out a cry and pulled the launcher out of Bates' slack hands, lifted it and fired.

A brief instant of satisfaction lit like fire inside her as the dart, hit, went down into the lake, but there were nine more and the ten from the Athosian encampment could join them any minute.

"Get out of the fucking open!" Sam shouted at Bates and the other man. "Sergeant!"

Bates responded, pulling himself together though he still looked stunned. He grabbed the second missile out of the case and sprinted along with the other marine for the cover of a wall with a hint of an overhang.

"My people!" Teyla yelled at Sam. "I have to get back to them!"

"Teyla, they know the way to safety," Sam shouted back. "You'll never get around the lake in time to do any good. We'll have to meet them at the caves!"

They left Bates and the other marine trying to get a bead on a second dart and finished the sprint to the C3 building. Sam threw herself and Teyla through the dark doorway barely ahead of another white beam. Teyla skidded to a halt on her own, while Lt. Ford caught Sam and kept her on her feet. Sumner and Woolsey were arguing. One of her people, Peter Grodin, was manning the portable comms center they'd set up. One of the naquadah generators they'd evacuated out of Atlantis with them sat underneath a makeshift table, providing the power for everything except her own lab in the Loaf and Beckett's infirmary in the Hobbit Hole where they'd stashed the only other two.

Sumner was up in Woolsey's face like a drill sergeant, not yelling but hitting the other man with the low, intense voice of his. Woolsey looked ready to vomit on Sumner's boots, but he was holding his ground. Sam thought she might de-ball them both when this was over, if anyone died because of their fucking testosterone-fueled pissing contest.

"Shut up!" she shouted at both of them.

Sumner rounded on her, caught sight of Teyla and demanded, "What's she doing here?"

"Telling us where we can get to safety until the attack is over," Sam snapped back. She turned her back on him and told Grodin, "Over ride all the channels and tell everyone to rendezvous at the Conch building. Anyone who can should bring their packs and weapons, but they need to get there and stay out of the open."

"Hold it – " Sumner started, but Grodin ignored him and Woolsey interrupted, telling him, "Do it." He flinched with every explosion and chatter of gunfire from the marines, but had himself in control.

A muscle twitched in Sumner's cheek, but he turned to Teyla and asked, "What can you tell me about these Wraith? How do we fight them?"

Teyla looked just as grim. "We have never been able to fight them, but your weapons are superior. They are very hard to kill."

"Base One, this is Baker Foxtrot. We have hostiles on the ground, repeat on the ground. Permission to engage? Over."

Sumner activated his mike and responded, "Permission to engage. All personnel, permission to engage the enemy, Base One Actual out. Over." His attention switched to Sam. "You want to evacuate." Again?

Sam winced.

"I think they're targeting our energy signatures. We need to shut down the generators and get out."

"They will not remain once they have culled as many as they can," Teyla explained. "This is why my people left the city long ago." Her head turned as a new sound entered the cacophony. "Stunners."

Sam wanted to grab a weapon and join the marines, but the naquadah generator was a priority she could handle that they couldn't. She brushed past Sumner and initiated the emergency shutdown protocol. The lights strung haphazardly around the room dimmed as they switched battery back-ups. She began disconnecting power leads as soon as she could and locked the generator into the protective case Grodin provided as soon as she had it completely disconnected.

It would have been better if she could have taken it with them, but Sam knew the heavy, awkward case would slow her and anyone else down too much. The best she could do was shove the case in a corner and pile some junk in front of it.

"Okay," she said, "let's go."

"Ford," Sumner ordered, "stay with Dr. Carter, do as she tells you."

"Sir, where are you going to be?" Ford asked.

"Making sure no one is left behind. Now go, soldier."

"Yes sir!"

Teyla led them out.

Full dark had set and with it the temperature had dropped dramatically. Sam's breath smoked as she stepped outside C3 into a street littered with the flotsam and jetsam of destruction, lit only by sluggish fires burning the brush that the expedition hadn't cleared out. The glowing culling beams were easy to pick out against the night sky as the darts turned and quartered the city for their prey.

"Move it," Ford told Woolsey when he lingered, watching them. Sumner headed out in the direction of the Marines' temporary armory.

"Yes, yes, of course," Woolsey agreed and trotted after them without complaint.

"Base One, this is Golf Papa Tango. Over."

Without the comm system she and Grodin had disabled, Sam couldn't break into the military channel. She waited, hoping she'd hear Sumner reply.

"Base One, this is Golf Papa Tango. Respond. Over."

Nothing. Sam glanced back toward C3 and shuddered. The naquadah generator was powered down and in its protective case, but a direct hit could still turn it into the equivalent of a small nuclear weapon, just as Zelenka had told Ford. If that happened, they were all dead.

"Base One, anyone, this is Golf Papa Tango. The stargate's gone inactive and a bunch of the locals are making for it. If anyone's listening, they're bugging out. Over."

Most of the expedition's scientists seemed to be gathered in a milling crowd at the building they'd dubbed the Conch for the way its rooms started large and grew smaller and smaller as you progressed inside, the dimensions illustrating a Fibonacci sequence that had to be deliberate. Not all of the marines though. A streak of fire arched from the roof of a building and intersected with another dart. The explosion as it crashed triggered a small, vicious cheer among the marines who were at the rendezvous.

"Base One, this is Golf Papa Tango. We have hostiles on foot approaching our location. Will be radio silent until relocated to a secure area. – Oh fuck me, they're shooting the Athosians at the gate. We've got to do something – " The transmission cut out. Sam hoped Golf Papa Tango had just gone radio silent without really believing that.

"Everybody take hold of someone's pack or their belt," Ford said. "Don't let go and you won't get lost, okay people?"

Sam decided she'd take the tail end of the line. She could take charge of any stragglers who fell out of line along the way while Teyla led.

She saw her first Wraith just before stepping into the forest and hesitated. Humanoid, but not human, she cataloged the glimpse she caught as the same white beam that swept up victims materialized two of the enemy in a weed-choked street. It let her see the green, almost-shell like shine of their skin, the slits in their faces that flared open and closed and the yellow glint of their eyes. Just that glimpse made Sam shudder with a visceral reaction, the same she felt toward large insects.

The hallucinatory images began not long after. Flickering movement at the corner of her vision. Twisting snakes of mist rising from the frigid mix of leaves and mud underfoot and twining through the tree trunks. Sam itched for a weapon to fire into them, sure there was something else hidden in the creeping fog. She wasn't the only one. P90 fire chattered once then twice and someone started screaming in pain.

She closed up and found Markham busy applying a pressure bandage to Stackhouse's calf, while Smitty babbled that he'd seen something. He'd never meant to shoot one of their own. Sam cursed softly under her breath. Friendly fire casualties were all they needed. Smitty's eyes were rolling white as a spooked horse's would and Sam figured the smartest thing she could do was take his weapon.

The weight of the P90 in her hands made her feel better anyway.

"The Wraith can deceive your eyes," Teyla told them in a low voice. "But it is only trickery."

"They're just messing with our heads," Stackhouse said. "Fuck that shit."

Markham tied off his bandage job and steadied Stackhouse. Sam could barely make out their faces but she thought Markham looked paler than Stackhouse. "We're so boned," he muttered while letting his friend lean on his shoulder.

They all flinched as a dart screamed overhead. Somehow the Wraith were following them. Maybe they'd heard the gunfire. Maybe they had other ways to track their prey.

"We must keep moving," Teyla urged. "They will be in the trees soon and if they are too close we cannot risk leading them to the caves."

"You heard her," Bates snapped. "Now shag ass." He got his shoulder under Stackhouse's other arm so they could move along faster.

The dart came back and they all ran. Limbs slapped Sam's face and arms and once she almost lost Smitty's P90 to a tangled vine. Slick, rotting leaves slid under her boots or they sank into thick, squelching mud, making running harder. Harder for her and harder for the scientists and technicians she could easily outstrip if she wasn't careful. They sounded like a stampede of yelping rhinocerii as they struggled through the night shrouded woods.

Sam couldn't make out anything until it was right in front of her and tripped on a root and landed on her knees and hands, wet and pain tearing through, but Sam just grabbed the weapon up and stumbled to her feet, running faster as the culling beam began stabbing through the bare tree tops. Her ankle turned and she bit back a scream as she careened into a tree trunk, but she kept going.

Bates and Markham and Stackhouse were still moving too slow, hindered because they couldn't move through the narrow openings Teyla used.

Teyla paused and half turned, calling out, "You must hurry."

Another dart was sweeping over them, the screech growing louder and louder so fast Sam couldn't guess which direction it was coming from as it echoed through the trees.

She realized she was about to run into someone else, swerved to the side breathlessly and watched in horror as the culling beam swept where she'd just been, where she'd meant to run next and then caught up Smitty and then Teyla.

Oh God, she whispered. Oh shit.

"Follow me," she yelled at Bates. "Everyone follow me and keep moving."

It took another twenty minutes to reach a spot she remembered from her trek with Teyla, but Sam figured if any of the Wraith were tracking them on foot they had to be utterly confused by her circling and backtracking. She found Zelenka and Grodin among the scientists and told them to make sure everyone kept up, then set a blistering pace for the caves.

There were Athosians already inside when the reached the sanctuary. No torches were lit for fear the light would give away its position.

Sam pushed her way through the crowd of eerily quiet Athosians until she found Halling.

"Dr. Carter," he greeted her in his softly formal voice.

"Halling," she said.

"We feared for your people."

"Thank you." Sam closed her eyes, then made herself give him the news. "Teyla was culled. I saw it. I'm sorry."

"The Wraith have stolen our lives and those we love for ten thousand years," Halling said hoarsely. "We will mourn her."

Sam nodded though he couldn't see her in the smothering dark and worked her way back to where her people were huddled together. She tried to get them to settle and rest, because there was nothing else to do but wait for morning and pray the Wraith were gone by then. There was no heat in the black depth of the caves, but with the space packed with people it became stuffy and almost warm. Eventually, Sam gave into exhaustion and sank down to the floor, where she fell asleep leaning against someone whose hair smelled like smoke and spilled chemicals.

A desperate need to pee woke her. A faint rectangle of dark gray marked the opening in the cave room toward the outside, promising that daylight had come while she slept. She ached everywhere and the cold of the stone under her ass seemed to have seeped through every joint and muscle, leaving her stiff and creaky as she got to her feet. Her eyes had adapted to the dark though and she could make out silhouettes and the glistening reflection of eye whites. The terrified silence of the night was broken by whispers here and there.

She picked her way over to the opening and then followed her nose to the niche that had obviously become an impromptu latrine from the smell. Dropping trou in a room full of people, even if they couldn't see her, almost convinced Sam to hold it, but she didn't know how long they'd be stuck in the cave and she didn't want to end up pissing her pants.

Her face was hot with embarrassment when she'd finished and buttoned up. No one had spoken and it had sounded incredibly loud to her.

She shuffled away and found herself another stretch of wall to lean against where she could watch the rectangle of light brighten.

The sense of someone taller than her and the smoky smell of leather and earth identified Halling before he even spoke when he arrived. Someone else was with him.

"Dr. Carter," he murmured. "Come with us."

She let him take her hand and draw her out of the cave. A heavy overcast and rain greeted them. Sam's eyes still watered as she blinked in the comparative brightness.

"Is this safe?" she asked.

The man with Halling spoke and she realized that it was Kanaan.

"Yes. The Wraith have gone for now."

"We must gather what salvage we can and leave Athos," Halling said. The steady rain darkened the shoulders of his coat and slicked his long gray hair down. "You and your people should come with us."

"The Wraith will return," Kanaan added.

Sam set her jaw. She hated running, but it had only taken ten darts to drive them into the forest last night. The expedition didn't have a secure base, supplies or the manpower to fight an enemy superior in numbers and technology.

"Okay. We need to grab what we can from our base too and stash the rest of it." She blinked rain out of her eyes and stared at Kanaan. "Teyla said she could sense them."

Kanaan stared back at her, his entire being radiating despair and unhappiness. "I have the Gift as well." He added bitterly, "It is no gift. It offers no warning before they come."

"Sucks," Sam said.

Halling retreated into the cave and people began filing out.

"We will send a runner to the Ring and open it," Halling said.

Sam felt stupid as she realized the reasoning. The darts had come through the stargate. The Athosians meant to deny the Wraith use of the gate. "Good idea," she said.

Grodin and Ford found her during the long walk back to the Athosian camp. They had a preliminary headcount of their people and a list of the missing. Sumner and Woolsey topped the latter.

"You're the highest ranking civilian we have left," Grodin said. "You're in charge now."

"Everything's changed," Sam said tiredly as she scrambled over another dead fall. "It's a military situation now."

Ford bounced after her. "Ma'am, you had a higher rank in the Air Force than anyone we have left with us."

Sam didn't want the damn command.

"Colonel Sumner told us all to follow your orders if something happened to him."

"Nice of him to tell me," she muttered to herself.

"It's not like you weren't already making the decisions last night," Grodin pointed out.

"Bite me."

They emerged from the forest onto the trail from the stargate to the encampment. Some of the Athosians hurried ahead, calling the names of those who hadn't reached the caves with them.

The high sobbing scream of a woman had Sam and Ford sprinting forward, weapons in hand. They arrived in time to see Halling sweep Marta into his arms, one hand cradling her head, hiding her face against his chest.

Sam saw the body lying next to the trail, discarded like an empty food wrapper, and thought she would heave. It was gray and papery, skin sunk to bone, with only wisps of white hair clinging to a liver-spotted skull. The bright, beaded red vest had belonged to Wirlat, though. Blood stains soaked through the torn fabric of the vest directly over his heart. Sam was helplessly reminded of the husk left behind by a hungry spider.

"Oh man, oh man," Ford repeated, then stumbled off to the side and tossed up bile and breakfast.

"This is what the Wraith do?" Sam asked Halling.

"We are their cattle."

Sam offered a marine to help bury Wirlat, but Marta pulled herself together and insisted they take the body back to the wrecked village and burn it there.

Dusk fell before they were ready to walk away from Athos. The Wraith had left few bodies behind, but the Athosians gathered those and set them alight on a funeral bier they built from the wreckage of the camp. Flames clamored up the rough scaffolding toward the bodies as the survivors took their leave and began the journey to the stargate.

The fire crackled like laughter behind them and the hot wind of its breath almost pushed Sam along.

Halling found her and shortened his stride to match hers.

"Where are we going?" Sam asked.

"To a trade partner of ours," Halling replied.

"Who?"

"The Genii."

~*~




Fraiser's autopsy yielded little of use. She uncovered an enzyme that had probably been responsible for keeping Dil alive after he'd been attacked. Other than that, all she could postulate was that somehow it harvested the energy generated by the body's cells, while stimulating it to produce more, and accelerated the aging process as a lethal side effect.

"So they're what, energy leeches?" Signe demanded in the crew meeting.

"More like fucking space vampires," Mer said.

Fraiser's analysis of the tissue samples only left them with more questions.

"There's an incredible regenerative ability," she told them. "The enzyme I found in Dilynara's body might even have the same effect or something similar on a human body."

"So, we could sell it, if we could find a way to get it," Reckell speculated.

"I don't see how anyone could pull that off," Dushka said.

"It would very likely be addictive," Fraiser added, prim and disapproving, while glaring at Recks.

The Serrakin was oblivious. "Plenty of people wouldn't care. Might put them on the same level as a Jaffa in a fight."

Jehan curled his lip in a silent sneer. A Jaffa with a prim'ta was stronger than a human and the immature Goa'uld symbiote would heal its host faster and better than human, but the Jaffa on tretonin weren't much better than anyone else, except for their training. Recks was right, though. Anything that let a human heal as fast as a Jaffa would be as popular as kassa. Even if it was just as addictive.

"And crazy as a Goa'uld," Fraiser said.

"So?" Signe asked.

Fraiser glared at him.

"How's Til?" Jehan asked her before she could lay into Signe or Recks over their lack of perceived morals.

"I sent him back to his quarters. Someone should check on him, though."

Reckell sighed and volunteered. "I will."

Jehan relaxed in relief. He wouldn't have known what to say. Words were useless. There had been a time when he knew them, used them with charm, but they were empty then. Formalities to be observed, to present the right face. When he really felt something, his throat closed up as if articulating it would wrench the emotions out of him and leave him with nothing.

Fraiser seemed to approve of Recks looking after Til. She let herself slump and little in her chair and took a sip of coffee.

"What about the samples?" Mer asked.

Staring down into the mug in her hand, Fraiser replied, "Bearing in mind, I'm not a geneticist or a xenobiologist and the equipment I'm working with is limited?"

"Bearing in mind," Vala echoed. She had her amused face back on, all her vulnerabilities once more locked away out of sight and too much skin on display as a distraction again.

Fraiser sloshed her coffee around, delaying answering still.

"There are human DNA sequences in the samples."

"Contamination?" Mer asked.

"I compared it to the profile of everyone on board. Then I ran the tests again."

"No?"

"No."

"What else did you learn?" Vala asked.

"That according to the genetic data in the ship's databanks, the closest thing on Earth is a spider." Fraiser swallowed some more coffee. "Not that that really fits either."

"I noticed the lack of eight legs," Jackson said, "when we were up close and personal."

Fraiser shrugged.

"How would that happen?" Dushka asked. "Human DNA and...something else...together?" Dush was a great cook and a fine ship's quartermaster. When she doled out shares or said stores were running low, she was honest and accurate. She'd had an atypical reaction to the Vorlix and lost all her memories without having her age reset. It had set her apart on her homeworld of Vyan and eventually driven her to leave through the chappa'ai. "An accident? Mutation?"

"Experimentation," Jehan suggested.

He could name three or four Goa'uld off the top of his head that wouldn't hesitate playing with human or symbiote genetics. What else were the Kull, after all? Why not that of an alien bug too?

"Does it matter?" Signe asked.

Jehan watched him stalk around the mess hall, jostling chairs and brushing against the others in an overt display of anger and aggression.

"What've we got so far except one of us dead? There's no Lost City out here?" Signe wheeled and pointed at Jackson. "He's probably been lying to us the whole time."

"Right," Jackson drawled. "And I faked the course information and mission specs in the computers from the damned brig. It's all a conspiracy."

Signe shoved a chair in under a table with a crack of sound.

"I still say we should get the hell out of here while we can." He glared at Jackson. "You, we can leave on that planet you were so hot to get to."

Jehan tracked his movement. He flicked the snap on his holster open and rocked his pistol in it, making sure it was loose and ready to draw.

Vala's voice sounded like a whipcrack.

"Signe."

"What?"

"Enough, darling," she purred. She stroked the Kull weapon strapped to her forearm.

"Fine," he snarled and jerked another chair out to sit next to Dush. "Tell it to Til."

"Til knows the risks, just like Dil did. Just like you did."

"No one said anything about dying like that," Signe grumbled.

"The question," Vala remarked, "is where do we go from here?"

Even a dwarf galaxy was a big place to explore when you didn't have a map or a clue where to go next. A random course might transit a hyperspace tunnel through a star or, worse, a singularity. Jehan was a good pilot and Revenge a good ship, but he didn't want to find out whether an Asgard drive could create a blackhole in a sun. That was Mer and Novak's realm of expertise.

"And I have the answer to that," Mer said. "Nav comp data from the information I downloaded from the ship on Dracula's planet included its previous course. We can backtrack it."

"You translated it already?" Vala asked.

Except for meals, one shower, and five hours spent passed out on their bed, Mer had spent all his time in the lab working on the data they'd acquired.

"Of course. I – "

"We," Jackson said.

Mer glared at him and repeated, " I was able to decipher the spacial coordinates system and translate it into ours. It's available to the navigation system now."

"Did you get anything else from the data?"

"Not yet," Jackson admitted.

Mer sneered at him.

"Math is the universal language. He's still trying to figure out if what they used is a variant of Ancient or just incorporated elements." Mer sniffed. "Soft scientists."

"Can we duplicate the course that brought the ship here?"

Mer snapped his fingers.

"Like that. That ship was slow. Strictly interstellar."

"There were notations that I think indicate it had to come out of hyperspace and rest periodically," Jackson clarified. "In a solar system, so the organics might require radiation to remain healthy."

"Or the hulls may need to grow back," Mer added. "We have no idea of the effect of exposing living tissue to hyperspace raw." Jehan could see him contemplating it. "Hmm. I'm not sure there would be...unless...leaving aside the question of how flesh could enter and stay in hyperspace without supportive technology to keep it there, I think either it would put all the molecules out of phase with each other or there'd be no effect at all." He frowned again. "Except for the insanity."

Amused by Mer's little addendum, Jehan commented, "Except for that, of course."

"What? I'm not suggesting anyone try it."

"Never mind," Vala said. "We can follow their course to whatever systems they stopped in. Which must include planets, because they filled those holds somewhere."

"Right."

"How long?"

"It probably took that ship several months, not including time in-system," Mer said, "but for us, a couple of weeks."

Vala surveyed everyone in the mess hall. Signe looked mulish, but everyone else nodded or shrugged.

"Then we do it."

~*~




Teyla could feel them, all around her, through the pounding in her head and the stinging aches of her body, when she woke.

stickyhungrywantneedclutchneedgrabneedhuntemptymore

Her gut cramped and bile came up. She couldn't stop it, could only feel a vague gratitude she'd been positioned on her side and not her back. Everything in her self rejecting the compulsive, cell deep lust that craved not food or sex but energy.

Nothing could ever fill the ravenous hole inside the Wraith.

It colored every thread of thought and action and endless craving for more and surrounded her, a constant pulse. She could smell it, the way she smelled the ants' nest acid reek of the hive, the way she could feel the warmth of another body kneeling beside her.

"You awake there, Ms. Emmagan?" Colonel Sumner's raspy voice interrupted her horror.

Teyla rolled up onto her knees, not wanting the vulnerability that came with rolling onto her back, too open, too slow, what she really wanted was her feet under her – flight – but her limbs were still too sluggish for that. She took in her surroundings, the deck like rubbery flesh under one palm, warm too. Blue light, red-purple-green walls, like she'd already been swallowed by something.

"I am," she said hoarsely.

Sumner nodded, rose to his feet and offered her his hand to draw her up too.

"Any ideas how we get out of here?"

Teyla shook her head. "No one escapes the Wraith once they have been culled." She stumbled through her first step, shrugged off his steadying hand, and began stalking around the cell that held them anyway. Sumner wasn't the only one with her. Teyla picked out two Tau'ri marines and three of her own people. Grenni was sobbing hysterically. Famke and Brill had their arms around each other.

"Is this everyone?"

"They already came and took away Toran," Famke said in a monotone. She stared over Brill's shoulder at nothing. "We're all going to die."

"I don't want to hear that kind of talk," Sumner snapped.

Teyla went to the barred doorway into their cell and peered out as well as she could.

"Do you have any of your weapons left?" she asked Sumner when he joined her.

"No. They were gone when we woke up here."

Teyla opened her mouth to speak and the pressure of the Wraith around her doubled, stealing her breath. "They're coming," she gasped.

The march of booted feet in the corridor followed on her words.

The crisscrossed webbing over the doorway retracted and seven Wraith entered. They towered over the captives. Six were faceless behind ridged masks. The seventh had its long white hair pulled back from a bare face and a long double goatee. Its yellow eyes surveyed everyone in the room before it pointed one talon at Teyla, then Sumner, then one of the marines. It inhaled, hissed and turned its back then strode out.

The faceless ones dragged Sumner, Teyla and another marine out, not allowing them the dignity of keeping on their own feet and moving under their own power, just ruthlessly clamping onto their arms with their horrible hands and lifting them forward as they walked. The feel of the feeding mouth on the palm lipping against her bare arm had Teyla shaking and swallowing back dry heaves.

The high-caste Wraith led them into a shadowed chamber with a vaulted ceiling lost in darkness. A table had been laid with a feast of human foods, much of it rotten or dried out. Many worlds set out sacrifices of their finest at the stargate each season, hoping it would satisfy them. Others enacted a Kollinot that involved real sacrifices, though that too never kept the Wraith away.

The soldiers were all that kept Teyla upright when she spotted the female Wraith at the head of the table. She schooled herself to not live her life in fear of the Wraith, but she'd never faced one. Never even had nightmares of one like this one. There were no stories of female Wraith.

She jerked her chin up though and locked her knees as the Wraith stalked over to her and fought to give away nothing as it – she – cocked her head, those spiracles flaring open to breath Teyla in. Crimson hair fell over the Wraith female's bared shoulders; it looked like blood sheeting down. Her skin looked almost blue compared to the faceless ones. Teyla couldn't stop the shudder that ran through her. She held herself still and didn't breathe as the Wraith fingered her necklace. The female smiled, dozens of shark-sharp teeth displayed, and said nothing, but Teyla could feel its mind pressing into hers, so cold and ruthless and hungry. So hungry it made Teyla's stomach twist in near sympathy.

When she progressed to Sumner and the marine, Teyla refused to let herself swallow in relief.

A metal-taloned finger caressed Sumner's cheek, rasping against unshaven whiskers, shearing them away. He didn't flinch. "You trespassed." The deep, whispery sound of her voice made Teyla's skin prickle and her bones shake. Vibrating subsonics and barely audible whistles and clicks filled it.

"I don't think so," Sumner said.

"Yeah, fuck off, bitch," the marine added, all bravado and stupidity.

"Such defiance," the Wraith whispered. "Such strength. Is it bravery? Or ignorance?"

Teyla didn't know whether to admire or be horrified by the Tau'ri's insolence. The Wraith would kill them either way. She decided she approved. Better not to bow if you were going to die anyway.

"What world do you come from?" The harmonics of the Wraith's voice changed. The command pulled at Teyla and she wasn't even its focus.

"Earth," the marine blurted.

"It is not among our stars."

The marine whimpered and Teyla gritted her teeth. The demand pulsed through her thoughts. The Wraith pushed in, telling her victim, "Tell me of … Earth. How many more are there of your kind...?" She shivered in something like ecstasy. "Thousands...millions...billions."

"Stop!" Sumner shouted.

She laughed.

"Our feeding ground has not been so rich in ten thousand years!"

The Wraith turned to the young marine and thrust her hand through his clothes to his chest. He arched and screamed, high and thin, the sound echoing back from the walls. Teyla could only glimpse the side of Sumner's face as he flinched in horror. The scream petered away into a wracking sob and cough, then nothing. The faceless holding him tossed the husk away.

"Yessss."

Her attention switched to Sumner.

"Come," she said. She seemed to be teasing. "Join me." She gestured to the fouled feast on the table and the mummified husk that had been Toran, strolling behind it and then stroking the paper-skinned skull. Its jaw dropped open in a silent scream as the Wraith jostled it. "You must feel hunger by now."

The warriors – drones whispered a voice in Teyla's head; she shoved it out in revulsion – pushed Sumner forward.

"Is that the kind of treatment I can expect for my people and myself?" Sumner rasped out.

"All living things must eat," she taunted Sumner. "In this I am sure we are similar."

Sumner remained stone-faced.

"You feel hunger even now. I can sense it."

The drones walked Sumner forward to the center of the room, where the blue light fell down in a circle, and withdrew.

"Yet you resist," she murmured, approaching him and circling. "Why?"

Sumner braced himself into near attention, but didn't answer beyond a contemptuous glance at the table and its ruined food. He seemed through talking.

"What do you call yourself?"

"Colonel Marshall Sumner, United States Marine Corps." He jerked after he spoke, shoulders growing stiffer. The Wraith had pulled that from him against his will.

"Your will is strong." She flicked her fingers at Toran's corpse. "This one begged for its life." The contempt for Toran, for a living, breathing, thinking being made Teyla seethe inside.

"Go to hell."

"I think not," she said. She ripped his shirt open and set her hand against his chest. Fingers flexed and needle-tipped metal nails drew blood. Sumner sucked in a protesting breath. She leaned in close. "Earth..." Sumner's back arched and he cried out. "...first."

"No," Sumner gasped.

His hair began to pale, graying as Teyla watched helplessly. She found herself glad she couldn't see his face.

He repeated himself barely audibly.

"No..."

"How many more years must I take from you before you tell us what we wish to know?"

"Kill me."

"No," she purred, drawing her hand back and gesturing to her drones. "Not yet." She stroked his cheek again. "Rest. You want to live. All things want to live."

The drones picked Sumner up and carried him. Teyla didn't catch any words or signal, but the two faceless holding her jerked her around and shoved her along after them. She tried to keep track of the corridors, but couldn't, her attention continually drawn to Sumner's withered body. One hand dangled loose, slapping against the drones' leg. The knuckles were swollen huge and the skin liver-spotted like Charin's.

The drones dumped Sumner inside the cell then pushed Teyla in after him. The web barring had slid into place before she could wheel around.

"Sir? Sir, they came and took everyone else," the last marine in the cell blurted out. A choked sound escaped him as he reached Sumner and rolled him. "Oh my God."

"Help me sit up," Sumner whispered.

The marine seemed frozen, so Teyla knelt and helped Sumner.

"What happened to you, sir?"

Sumner ignored his marine and caught Teyla's gaze with his. His eyes were rheumy, whited over with cataracts. She wondered if he could really see her at all. His hand tightened on her wrist though when she tried to pull away.

"Ms. Emmagan."

"I'm here."

"You saw what she did."

Teyla swallowed hard.

"Yes."

"She'll get what she wants next time," Sumner whispered. He closed his eyes and panted, his hand loosening on her wrist, but it tightened again as he spoke. "Can't let her know where Earth is. You know what you've got to do."

"Colonel – " She didn't want to do it. She'd never killed despite her years of studying bantos fighting. It went against the reverence for life all Athosians were taught.

"Me and Strummer. Better now than begging for mercy from that bitch."

Strummer was gaping at Sumner, obviously too frightened and confused to understand what was being asked of Teyla. What it meant for him.

"Do it," Sumner commanded.

Teyla struck before Strummer could react. He had bent over Sumner and left himself vulnerable to her. She killed him fast with a punch that sent shattered bone back into his brain. The look of betrayal in his eyes originated in her imagination.

Strummer seized and gasped, his body dying slower than his brain. Teyla pushed him away from Sumner and wiped tears off her cheeks angrily before kneeling beside Sumner again.

"Good job."

She twisted her hands together – callus catching on callus and there was blood on Strummer's face, black in the sick blue light of the hive, but none on her hands – and didn't answer, just looking at Strummer, waiting until his body stilled utterly.

"Don't make it for nothing," Sumner croaked. She knew he was trying to make her angry, trying to make it easier for her, the same way she knew he wouldn't have asked it of her if he still had possessed the strength to do it himself.

She set her hands on his shoulders and touched her forehead to his, greeting and goodbye and for what she was about to do, something more intimate than lovers between them. "Colonel Sumner," she said.

He coughed.

"Call me Marshall."

"Marshall," Teyla repeated. That much she could give him. His name, a voice and a touch, at the end.

"Hell of thing," he murmured last as she slid her hands to his neck, gently closing his windpipe until unconsciousness came and then death.

She arranged both bodies on one side of the cell and sat down on the other where she could watch the door while she waited. She tried to sing a grieving song for Famke and Brill and Grenni, but her voice cracked and fell away. Every sound seemed wrong in the humid confines of the cell.

The bodies didn't have time to decay. The Wraith were ageless and ancient, but still impatient – hungryemptywanting – and She shrieked in fury when only Teyla was brought to her.

She grabbed Teyla's jaw, digging her talons into the flesh deliberately.

"Do you know where Earth is?"

"No."

Teyla let her triumph sound clear in her answer.

"That's why I killed them."

The Tau'ri had been suspiciously closemouthed, refusing to share the Ringpath back to their world or the one they'd come to from it before fleeing from it to Athos. Now Teyla understood their caution.

The Wraith tightened her grip, lifting Teyla off her feet. She bent close and her fetid breath ghosted over Teyla's lips in a parody of intimacy.

"Do you know what you have done? I am the Caretaker for those who sleep," she told Teyla. "When I wish, the others will wake."

She dropped Teyla to the floor.

"Take it," she commanded. "Put a tracker in it and let it run. We will follow."

The faceless took her to another chamber where another Wraith, one of the males, punched something into her back. The pain stole her breath along with the horror of having something Wraith-made in her body. She blindly tried to reach it between her shoulder blades, but failed. The Wraith gave her no chance to recover, instead dragging her back to the Caretaker's chamber and dropping Teyla to her knees before her.

She looked down at Teyla.

"Look up."

Teyla raised her eyes to the ceiling high above. The darkness had given way to light in cell after cell, silhouetting the writhing forms inside. Wraith were crawling free of their cocoons, brought out of hibernation early and they were starving and furious. This was the beginning of a Great Culling.

"We wake. Tell us where to find those from Earth and we will spare your world."

"No," Teyla choked out.

The Caretaker smiled at her. "It is time, then. Leave her on the next world we cull."

Her last words echoed in Teyla's mind after the culling beam left her in the smoking ruins of a village on a world she had never known before.

"Run, little sister."

~*~




The sound of wings caught Jehan's attention. The birds were the first life he'd seen since the bright bugs on Planet Dracula. Five of them launched up from a crumbling red-clay protrusion from the sand, cawing their complaints to the pale green sky. He followed their silhouettes across the horizon then returned his attention to the protrusion, shifting his path to approach it.

Mer made a noise of complaint himself, but followed.

They were on the second barren world they'd discovered. The first stop on the course they were backtracking had been a red giant system with a single tidal-locked planetoid burned down to bare rock. In stellar terms, ten thousand years was less than an eyeblink. The red giant would have been the same when the supply ship paused there. Mer was probably right that it had been a rest stop. Jehan had analyzed the distances involved and the supply ship had never transited beyond a set distance. The red giant had simply been conveniently placed between two other points.

They'd spent only five hours in-system before opening another hyper window.

The protrusion was too regular to be natural. Sand and erosion had worked to obscure the signs but something had once been there. Jehan cocked his head, trying to make out what it could have been.

"Okay, wow, dirt," Mer said. "That's exciting."

"You want exciting?" Jehan asked. "Maybe we can run into some of Dracula's cousins."

"Uh, no thanks."

Jackson walked past them and scanned the area, before saying, "Walls." Red dust crumpled away when he brushed one hand along the surface.

Jehan accepted that.

They'd ringed down to the plateau not expecting to find much except, maybe, a chappa'ai.

The second system had a G-type star and a planet orbiting between where Earth and Mars were if it had been in Sol System. They began picking up readings from old space junk immediately. The planet itself had been a toxic well of radiation and volcanic activity, the atmosphere poisonous with sulfur and carbon dioxide, whatever ecosystem it once possessed choked and dead under the endless night of a nuclear winter maintained by constant additions of volcanic ash.

The planet had been too geologically active for any signs of civilization to have survived, but the wreckage of a space station drifting in orbits that Mer tracked back to an initial O'Neill point told them enough. Jehan kept the shields at forty percent and they didn't linger any longer than it took to determine nothing had been left intact.

Planet two had been in the habitable zone as well, but most of its atmosphere had boiled away, leaving nothing but sand and rock. The magnetosphere had been drastically disrupted and its rotational axis disturbed enough that its poles were slowly tumbling. They'd worn insulated body suits and rebreathers when they ringed down to check a possible energy reading in the vast crater that would have been an ocean if the planet hadn't lost its oceans too. The sky, even at mid-day, had been black and star shot, without any ozone to refract the light. They found no signs of life and the energy reading proved too ephemeral to track on foot. Mer had been in a hurry to get off the planet anyway, worried about the amounts of solar radiation they were receiving, and they'd given up quickly.

System four had an asteroid belt where a habitable planet might have been once. They almost missed the chappa'ai spinning among the asteroids. Without a DHD to dial it or coordinates to use if they'd had one, it was useless anyway. It meant the Gatebuilders had been there once, though, and hinted there might be others in Pegasus.

Mer and Novak spent the transit writing up a program filter for the sensors that would let them scan planets for the naquadah signature of a chappa'ai. Mer started mumbling in his sleep about potentiated energy releases and orbital disturbances and eventually admitted he thought planets one and two had both possessed a chappa'ai – that had been overloaded.

Jackson brushed his hands off on his pants. "There was a city here once."

"You can tell?" Mer demanded. "Because I can't see it."

"I'm an archaeologist, McKay, that's part of what we do."

"Mmmph."

"Can you tell if it was human or not?" Til asked, speaking for the first time all day. He'd come back on duty after fasting two days and two nights down in the 302 hold, sitting with the coffin they'd made for Dil, before they spaced it. A new set of scars defaced the old ones on his cheeks.

"Not off hand," Jackson said, "but the evidence of straight lines and angles inclines me to think so."

"Well, at least there are no skeletons," Vala declared.

"Mmm. There wouldn't be, after ten thousand years, without some preservation and protection. Even metal might rust away."

"Some people build to last a little longer than they do on Earth," Mer told him in a snippy voice. "You don't see the chappa'ai rusting away."

"The network's not always reliable anymore, you know," Jackson sniped back.

"Yes, well, nothing responds well to having holes shot through it."

"Daniel, Meredith," Vala said in a honey sweet voice. "Do you think you could find us a chappa'ai here? Soon?" She pulled a mock frown. "I can feel myself wrinkling."

Mer peered at his tablet, grunting and shifting a step or two to the side and angling it to minimize screen glare. "Right. That way." He pointed to a hill to the left of the way they'd been walking.

The loose red dirt slipped under their boots as they made their way up the hill. Jehan could taste it at the back of his dry tongue, the dust and iron, making him want another sip of the water he had in his canteen. Sweat caught where skin pressed to skin, slick and unpleasant, and dried everywhere else. The unremitting glare from the high yellow-white sun made him squint against a headache.

Vala, lighter and faster than the rest of them, reached the top of the hill first. She stopped, silhouetted against the pale sky, a veil of dust drifting from around her feet, lifted on a breeze they couldn't feel below the summit. She shaded her eyes and then laughed raggedly, using the same hand to point as they arrived beside her.

Jehan let out a whistle.

"Never seen that before."

Two uneven silver horns hung against the sky; the central curve had been sheared away. Sand buried the chappa'ai's base. One of the birds perched on the higher side, its black wings spread buzzard-like, talons outlined against a darkened chevron.

Mer gaped before snapping his mouth shut. "Okay, no, that does not happen in any way accidentally."

The bird gave out another caw and stretched its wings, throwing a black shadow down the side of the dune.

"What kind of weapon could just remove a chunk of a stargate?" Jackson asked no one in particular.

"Why?" Mer glared at the bird and the chappa'ai as though they might answer him. "Why do it this way, instead of triggering an overload?"

There was nothing else left around the chappa'ai. If a DHD remained, it was buried in the sand. Jehan frowned and turned around to look the way they'd come.

From the height of the hill they'd climbed and the sun lowering behind him, the shadows became sharp and clear and he could see where buildings and streets had stretched toward the horizon, a phantom panorama of a great, ghostly city. He imagined it filled with people and thought of the pods on the supply ship.

The aliens hadn't needed a chappa'ai. They had a ship.

Jehan turned back.

"To trap the people here."

That's what Ba'al would have done.

~*~




Their sixth stop yielded a living world, blue and green and streaked with white storms, a jewel after the track of devastation they'd followed. Meredith's additions to the sensors located a chappa'ai on the largest continent.

The energy spike could only be an incoming wormhole activating it.

"It's night down there right now," Jehan pointed out when Daniel wanted to ring down immediately.

"And raining," Meredith added, pointing at the view screen showing them the planet.

"Everything will still be there in four hours," Vala assured him.

"But this is our first sign of anyone alive!"

Meredith added, "Personally, if it's one of the cannibal's friends, I could do without finding any of them alive." He folded his arms. "I certainly don't want to run into them in the dark."

"I want to," Til declared.

Vala sighed quietly to herself. If they weren't careful, they'd lose Til, but they'd lose him anyway if she tried to keep him aboard ship and take someone else down planet with them.

~*~




The light of the Ancestors' Ring went out, leaving Teyla in the mauve and gray dusk of Athos, the sun already gone. Silence, not even the breath of wind through leaves, greeted her, a world of waiting to see what came next. Then a nightbird cried, the sound achingly familiar, and a thousand tiny rustles and squeaks took up again, all the little wild things returning to their existence, unconcerned after all.

Teyla forced herself to move, despite the exhaustion that dragged at her every step, despite wanting to sink down to her knees and absorb that she'd come home. She'd passed through a hundred rings, running, and none had been as welcome as this one.

None had made her want to cry, as she foraged and filched and fled back through the watery wormhole to the next. Hot with shame, yes, she'd been that, and disgusted with herself, but never in tears. She'd banished all tears when she made the decision to run, to fight for every second more of life she could, to thwart the Wraith in at least one small way.

Athos broke her heart before her feet even found the overgrown path to the lakeside camp.

Teyla wanted to cry then, but she couldn't. She hoisted the strap to her pack bag higher on her shoulder, tightened her grip on the long Wraith stunner she'd taken from a careless drone on a world of red glare and giant ferns, and lifted her dry eyes to the horizon as she walked over winter sere grass. It crackled under her boots, dried up and hollow as she felt.

A hundred hundred rings, her feet had carried her through, and finally back. She'd run out of Ring paths she knew and begun choosing the sigils at random before walking through if the Ring opened a way. One day she would step face forward into her death.

Better that than the Wraith.

She'd lost track, running world to world, but at least a cycle of seasons had passed on Athos since the culling. She shivered in cold as she passed between the trees, bare limbs scratching at the bruised sky, black as burned bones. Her feet were chilled and chaffing, wet soaking through the splits in her worn boots, reminding her why she'd come back again.

Too much time had passed to find much to salvage, but Teyla still hoped, because she hated stealing and couldn't stay anywhere long enough to work in exchange. She tried to turn back and away whenever she found herself on an inhabited world, avoided the worlds where she might have known someone willing to help a friend, because anything more than a few hours might bring the Wraith to where she'd passed.

Part of her hoped to find nothing on Athos, because it would mean some of her people had survived to return and gather up what had been left behind the night of the culling raid.

She eyed the pale wall of fog gathering over the black water as the path left the trees. It hid the distant, broken spires of the old city where the Tau'ri had made their camp. Her hands curled into fists, remembering. The Wraith hadn't cared when they came, taking Athosians with the same greed they did the trespassers.

Her stomach ached, reminding her she had no more time for bitterness than sorrow and the last light was rapidly disappearing. She took the time to set her snares as she went, though, fingers deft and practiced.

The leaf-stained rag that had once been one of her people's moon-pale tents caught her eye, tangled in a bramble. Teyla teased the canvas free with dirt-crusted fingers. She shook it free of dirt, rolled it and stuffed in the bag slung over her shoulders. It might make a patch in a shirt, at least.

The earthy smell of of the wet-edged land thickened.

Teyla reached the campsite already guessing no one had passed since that night. Weeds and wind-broken limbs scattered over the path, shifting under her boots, laying traps beneath the thin wisps of ground fog rising from the black soil.

She picked her way through the wreckage of the camp, shadowed shapes lost among the dirt and leaves and grass of a spring and summer passed into autumn again. Even dark adapted, her eyes could make out little. She felt like a fool for coming back, there would be little or nothing of use left to find and no way to spot anything before morning.

Grimly, she set about fixing a place to sleep, beginning with a fire. The Wraith would follow through the stargate, so there was no reason to keep a dark camp. She'd sense them in time to put it out before any of them could spot it. She'd sleep a few hours, then check her snares at dawn. With luck, they'd catch something and she'd take the kill back through the Ring with her after searching in the morning. It meant staying longer on Athos than she had intended, but only her life would be at risk.

She remembered the sealed containers the Tau'ri had had and determined to walk to the old city and check what they had left behind.

Her fingers were numb as her feet before she'd gathered enough fuel to keep a small fire going and her stomach clenched like a fist and she sparked flint over a handful of dry grass tinder she'd gathered on the last world, breathing life into the tender flames until they caught and feeding it twig by twig.

She finally ate once the fire was established. One of her snares had caught a lizard the length of her arm on the last world. She'd cooked it all, eaten half, and wrapped the tail and a haunch in a piece leather she tucked inside her coat. She pared a stick to a sharp, bare point, skewed the lizard meat and cooked it a second time before eating.

Protein was good. On too many worlds she had to make do with grubbing tubers and gathering berries and wild fruit – which only worked if she found a world in the right season. Teyla made herself eat all of the lizard meat and licked her fingers, before buttoning her long coat closed and shifting as close to the flames as she could.

She slept without dreams, a black absence that ignored the patter of rain beyond hunching into a tighter ball, but snapped back into consciousness at the sodden suck of mud under a boot.

She rolled away from the quenched fire and cursed herself for carelessness. She'd relied on her wraith-sense, forgetting there were other two-legged threats. Sooner or later, a slip like that would get her killed. The stunner had been in her hand even as she slept and she brought it to bear on the group of five walking out of the trees, blurred and featureless in the gray half-light heralding dawn's approach.

"Whoa, whoa, easy, we're not here to hurt you." The speaker held his empty hands up. "Don't shoot."

The other three, one towering man with light hair, another man and a slighter figure Teyla identified as a woman, leveled a variety of weapons at her, including an odd, long staff that split in four at the oblong tip. The woman carried a hand weapon that rose above her hand like a striking snake. She recognized a Tau'ri weapon in the hands of the dark-haired man, but only the one who'd spoken dressed anything like the Tau'ri she'd known.

Fog threaded among the trees like Wraith illusions, hinting at movement and phantom figures, threatening to draw Teyla's attention from the real threat.

"Don't move," Teyla said.

"Okay, not moving. Right, guys? No moving. Guys?"

The others didn't move, but they didn't lower their weapons either.

"You know, you're the first human person we've found alive in this galaxy, so we're really glad to see you and not a threat."

The Tau'ri had said they came from a different galaxy. Maybe they had. No other explanation served to answer why else they would have never even heard of the Wraith. Why they hadn't listened and brought disaster down on themselves and her people.

"You're Tau'ri," she croaked, fighting the urge to stun them and leave them for the Wraith who would assuredly eventually arrive. Maybe satiation would slow them in their pursuit.

Teyla sucked in a breath. No. No, she would not do that. She would kill, but she would not sacrifice another human to the Wraith. To do so would render her worse than a wraith worshipper and taint her forever.

"Well, he is, darling," the woman said, walking forward and past the man. "I most certainly am not, nor are most of my crew." She gestured at the wreckage of the camp. "Do you know what happened here?"

Teyla got to her feet, never letting the stunner waver. "Wraith." Her throat ached. How long had it been since she spoke even that many words?

The man in glasses touched his throat. "Wraith? Uh, tall, green and scary?"

Teyla narrowed her eyes at him.

"Fuck you up with their hands?" the woman said.

"Yes."

"Wraith," the light-haired one repeated. She saw the way his hands flexed on the staff. The hate in his voice was as familiar as the landscape around her, but lacked the despair she had heard too often among her own people.

"Of course," the woman said in disgust. She ignored Teyla and picked her way around the remnants of the camp, occasionally prodding something with her boot. Across the lake, the sun rose wide and orange-red, spearing through the shattered towers of the old city and lighting the fog with incandescent fire. It caught on the white lock streaked through the woman's dark hair.

Teyla watched her warily.

The first man lowered his hands eventually. After a glance from her to the woman and back, he said, "My name's Daniel Jackson." Rose-tinted light glinted off wire-framed glasses. "That's Vala." He pointed to the other three men. "Jehan. Til." He shoved his hands in the pockets of his pants. "We looking for a group of people from Earth. Uh. Tau'ri, like you noticed I am?"

"You're looking for them, Daniel, the rest of us are looking for something to salvage from this...what does Meredith call it...oh, yes, a 'wild goose chase'," Vala called to him. Her brows drew together. "It would make more sense to buy a tame goose, wouldn't it?"

"Or you could shoot the goose," Til said. He was watching Teyla. She stared back. The scars on his face weren't any that she'd seen in her trading trips. She recognized ritual work when she saw it, though. Some were old, but two new pink marks bisected them.

"It's a metaphor for futility – "

"We get that," Vala interrupted. "We're not stupid."

An animal gave out a high scream in the brush, startling everyone but Teyla. One of her snares, placed the night before, had caught a belip. She marked the direction it had come from while hiding her amusement that the strangers had all been fooled by the sound and aimed their guns away from animal path she'd used.

Jehan had drifted along in Vala's wake. He scanned the horizon, stilled on catching sight of the ruins, and said, "There." His eyes were dark and his narrow face gave away almost nothing. When he shifted, the sunlight caught in his irises, revealing they were mossy green and lighter than Teyla had thought.

"There?" Daniel and Vala both pivoted and saw the old city at last.

"I don't suppose there's anything left there, either," Vala commented. She spun back to Teyla and arched her brows.

Teyla sneered, disgusted by the realization these people were just scavengers.

Vala sighed.

"If the expedition came here," Daniel said, staring at the ruins, "they would have checked out any sign of technology." He looked back at Teyla, suddenly excited. "Did they go there? Do you know? Are they there now?"

Teyla decided they weren't going to shoot or otherwise assault her. She knelt and picked up her bag. Coming to Athos had been foolish and only hurt her. She needed to head for the ring and move on. She'd retrieve her snares and the belip and clean and cook it on the next world.

"Oh, hey, wait, don't go."

Teyla ignored him and shouldered her bag.

"Please," Daniel called out.

Jehan followed Teyla into the trees, watching as she found the belip and dispatched it with a quick snap of its neck. Its fur, still warm with life, felt incredibly soft to her fingertips and Teyla had to blink rapidly. Once, she would have taken it back to camp and given the hide to Bisan to cure, until she had enough to sew together into a bed covering.

Jehan didn't comment on her hesitation. She liked that silence; it felt comfortable with her own.

The shudder of uneasy awareness that always heralded the arrival of the Wraith caught her unprepared and she dropped the belip from suddenly numb fingers.

"What is it?" Jehan asked.

Teyla sprang to her feet and pushed him toward the campsite. "They come."

Jehan's hand went to one of the small communication devices tucked over his ear that she'd seen the Tau'ri expedition use. "It's a ship."

"It is Wraith," she told him scornfully.

Jehan caught her wrist and tugged. The shriek of a dart tearing through the clouds overhead decided Teyla. They would have the Ring occupied. She turned her hand, but instead of freeing herself from his grip, she locked her fingers around his wrist and pulled him into a run.

The others were under cover of the trees, gazes turned up to the overcast sky as another dart streaked over the lake.

"It's about time," Vala told Jehan. "Caias and Mer say there's another ship approaching orbit. One of those – "

"Wraith," Teyla hissed.

Vala jerked her head to the side. "Nasty things. We're not going to hang about, waiting for them to suck our lives out."

"They will have blocked the Ancestor's Ring," Teyla said.

Vala shrugged. "No matter. We have our own rings that will take us back to our ship."

Til lingered, looking up at the overcast sky, his mouth partly open.

"Til!"

"I want to kill them."

"Not now!" Vala ordered. "Jehan, bring her with us."

Teyla fought as Jehan dragged her out into the open with the others. He lost his grip on her. She turned to run, leaving the fools behind, glimpsed Vala as the woman lifted the snake weapon and then fell as pain enveloped her, worse than a Wraith stun, and then consciousness blinked out.

~*~



"Draculas inbound."

McKay alerted everyone on the ship when another one entered the system.

"We're moving into position to ring everyone up."

Revenge moved smoothly under Caias' direction, but Janet ran her gaze around her infirmary anyway, checking for anything that might go flying if that changed. Then she laughed at herself a little. Her infirmary. On Revenge. She really had integrated into the pirate crew in the last month. They were mostly a likable bunch in their dysfunctional way and she already felt like they belonged to her, the same way she'd always felt like the SG teams were her people.

Pragmatically, she understood she should have taken the offered opportunity to be let off on a planet with a stargate and gone back to the Alpha Site and from there to Earth. She was an officer as well as a doctor. She had a duty to go back and she knew that she had owed it to the SGC to take back word of – to take back the Prometheus –  Prometheus' fate, that Daniel and Lindsay Novak were well, that Rodney McKay was alive.

Meredith. Janet nearly rolled her eyes. Whatever.

She really would like the chance to examine McKay and Vala Mal Doran more closely. Would there be any significant physiological differences between a host survivor of a Goa'uld and a Tok'ra? Had the Tok'ra left naquadah traces behind the way the Goa'uld obviously had? She'd seen Vala use one of the healing devices on McKay and wondered at first if the woman was still a host, but had that clarified soon enough. Did the enhanced strength and endurance Goa'uld hosts exhibited persist after the symbiote was gone? How much difference did it make if it was excised – and how was that done without killing the host, because she'd read all the reports of Charlie Kawalsky over and over and Warner had failed – or if it abandoned a host voluntarily? There would never be another opportunity to learn more.

If she was utterly honest however, Janet would have to admit that it hadn't been scientific interest that had her sticking with the pirates. She'd wanted the adventure and had known, just like Daniel, that if she went back, she'd likely never have another chance at it. Less chance even than Daniel. Daniel had been on SG-1; he'd never been held back just because of his genitalia. The new regs that had let her go out on the rescue mission under Hammond's command wouldn't change any of the military's entrenched attitudes – the new president's change in military policies over women in combat didn't preclude a commander declaring an individual too valuable to other mission aims to risk, either. General Hammond had overridden O'Neill's authority to take Daniel and herself aboard  Prometheus for the rescue mission. He couldn't – and wouldn't – do that twice.

"Crap. That thing isn't as big as the ship we saw but it's definitely the same style," McKay said. "Novak. We may need to reroute more power to our shields."

Janet shuddered at the memory of autopsying Dil. She wanted nothing to do with any creature that could do that to a body. Dil had looked like an old, old man, one who had already been dead and dessicated for years. His body had been aged by its own effort to replace the cells that died as their energy was ripped away.

"Got'em. We're out of here."

She felt the sublights engage and then bare moments later the shift into hyperspace. McKay hadn't hadn't let Caias dawdle over plotting an optimum course this time.

The doors of the infirmary slid open, admitting Jehan and Daniel carrying a small, unconscious woman. Janet didn't waste time wondering where she'd come from. Instead, she directed them to set her down on an examination table.

"Vala zatted her," Daniel said. "She may have other problems, though. She looks pretty rough."

They boosted her limp form onto the table, but it was Jehan who carefully straightened her limbs. The filthy look he sent Daniel conveyed his feelings on Daniel's opinion. Janet hadn't made up her mind about the laconic pilot, since he avoided her and ignored Daniel, but this evidence of a protective side made her inclined to approve. Not everyone had to be a chatterbox like McKay or Daniel, after all.

One look at the woman's face and glimpse of the bones too prominent under the skin of her wrist and Janet pegged her as underweight beneath her clothes. She didn't look rough, she looked stretched to the snapping point, as worn and ragged as the dirty, damp, sweat-smelling leather and homespun she wore.

"What's her name?"

"Ah, she didn't mention that."

Janet gave Daniel a duplicate of Jehan's dark look. She didn't comment though, instead saying, "I'll need to get rid of these and clean her up."

Jehan caught her hand as she reached for the woman. "This may be all she has."

"We can give her clothes from stores – " Daniel began.

Janet interrupted him. "Everything will be here, untouched, when she wakes up."

A short nod and a hint of pleasure in his gaze confirmed Janet's suspicion that there was much more to Jehan than gunslinging pirate pilot. Rags or not, the clothes might have more meaning for this woman than something to cover her body. They needed to respect her.

"Now, get out of here," she told both him and Daniel.

Jehan shook his head, though he did step back.

"She, ah, she might not be too happy when she wakes up," Daniel explained.

"I can't imagine why," Janet remarked sarcastically. Being zatted and kidnapped had left her in a sparkling good mood, after all.

A quiet laugh escaped Jehan where he'd propped himself against a bulkhead to keep watch.

She made quick work of stripping the woman and covering her with a sheet. A collection of knives, a garrote, a blowgun and darts, plus several items she didn't recognize but thought might be weapons too went onto a tray sitting on the next table. She folded and left each piece of clothing there as well. Various tools went onto a second tray. A surprising number of items were concealed on the woman's person, tucked in pockets or tied on with leather thongs, as if she expected to need to subsist on what she could carry on her.

Jehan had been right.

"There are scrubs in the cabinet over there," Janet said, with a shift of her shoulder, as she pulled on a set of nitrile gloves and began her examination. "She'll need the smallest size."

The woman was tiny, the way Janet was small, and that made Janet a little more cautious than she would have been otherwise. She knew how often people underestimated her because of her size. High explosives sometimes came in innocuous packages.

Middle to late twenties, Janet noted, dark dirt under her fingernails and ground into the calluses on her hands. Jehan's silent presence actually reassured her. She wouldn't want to fight this woman; she was all steel-wire muscle under tarnished copper and chopped short, bronze hair.

Keeping the sheet placed to preserve her privacy, Janet rolled the woman onto her side – not without difficulty, working without a nurse or another doctor to help with the limp weight took muscle – and pulled back.

The red scarring on that smooth skin offended Janet as a doctor, but the lump the size of baby's fist sitting over the woman's spine between her shoulder blades alarmed her.

"What is it?" Daniel asked, coming back with the scrubs. He caught a glimpse and automatically took a step back. "Oh, shit."

Jehan practically materialized at Janet's side, one hand on her shoulder, drawing her back from her nameless patient, the other aiming that weird energy pistol at the woman's back. Janet could feel the tension humming through him, though his grip on her was gentle enough.

"That's not a Goa'uld," Daniel said, but he sounded uncertain.

"They don't leave a scar there," Jehan stated.

"Tumor maybe," Janet offered. She didn't believe it. When she shifted, trying to get a better look at the lump without going any closer – symbiotes didn't burst out of hosts like something from a horror movie, but she'd seen the surveillance film of Kawalsky and knew they did augment the host's strength and reflexes – she realized the woman was awake. A dark brown eye focused on her and then the two men.

"Maybe not," Daniel said.

The woman hadn't missed their visceral recoil from the thing on her back. She moved slowly, pulling the sheet around her, quickly locating her belongings on the next table, but not moving for the weapons. Jehan kept his gun trained on her.

"It is a Wraith tracking device," she explained in a monotone. "I am a runner. You must let me leave before they follow me here."

Wraith? Janet felt her eyes widen as she made the connection between the previously unknown name and the creature that had killed Dil. McKay had been calling them draculas.

"Why would they – " she began.

Jehan interrupted.

"They track you through the chappa'ai."

The woman cocked her head, then nodded. "The Ancestor's Ring."

"Is that why they showed up when they did?"

"Yes."

"They put one of those things in everybody?"

"No. They did this when they culled Athos."

Which answered whether this woman knew about stargates and other worlds while reminding Janet of those devastated worlds they'd found following the alien ship's course. Culled. Runner.

The woman's gaze flicked around the infirmary. She didn't so much ignore the gun pointed at her as take it into account and get on with cataloging the rest of her surroundings. The technology didn't appear to intimidate her.

"Why track you?"

In a monotone she answered, "The chase excites them."

Jehan released Janet's shoulder and lowered his gun at the same time.

Daniel asked, "What else can you tell us about them?"

"What else is there to tell? They are Wraith."

"Tell us about yourself. What's your name? Was that your home planet? What happened there? How did you know about the Tau'ri? What happens if they track you down?"

"My people are dead. There is nothing else to tell. When the Wraith find me here, they will feed on you too."

"We can help you," Daniel said. He glanced at Jehan, who gave nothing away. "If you trust us. You could help us too, but even if you don't, we'll still help you."

"Why?"

"Because we can?" Daniel answered with a shrug. He added, "Because we should."

"You owe me nothing."

"It's not about debts."

Janet walked around behind her and studied the scarring and the lump of the tracker. She glared at it, then said, "My name is Janet Fraiser. I'm a doctor. Please stay still. I'm not going to hurt you."

She began palpating the mass of the tracker. There was the main mass and several tendrils extending from it. It didn't shift beneath the corded mess of scar tissue distorting her patient's otherwise lovely skin. The desecration to the woman's body made her grit her teeth.

"Does it hurt when you move or impede your motion in anyway?" she asked.

"It pulls."

"I think it's anchored under the muscle."

"A healer on Kishom told me he could not cut it out with cutting my spine. He would not do it. He feared the Wraith too much."

"Well, I'm not afraid of the Wraith and I think I can get it out," Janet told her.

"If you have time." The lack of hope in the woman's voice made Janet angry.

"Jackson. Go get Mer," Jehan said. "He can find a way to block it or burn it out."

Daniel went without protest. Jehan was the one with the gun.

"In the meantime, we'll get some X-rays and an MRI," Janet decided. She wanted the MRI just to be sure the woman was telling the truth. She added, "After that, you can take a shower and get clean."

"Your stuff will still be here," Jehan promised when the woman looked doubtful.

The promise of being clean seemed to be the deciding element. She cooperated, albeit silently, with the rest of Janet's examination, the X-rays, and remained still for the MRI, despite the painful racket it made. McKay arrived during the scan, sidling in and muttering about X-ray radiation and wrecking his precision instruments, not to mention his health. He did have a case full of equipment from the labs with him and began hooking up several things to Janet's equipment.

"No snake," McKay declared.

Everyone relaxed a little with that confirmation.

He went on looking at the MRI image of the tracking device while Janet took her patient off for the promised hot shower. He was still bent over one of his tablets when she came back.

"It looks partially organic, though," he muttered. "I think it's using her body to power itself."

"What does it do?" Jehan asked. "Exactly."

"It's putting out a subspace signal."

"Could they be following us?" Daniel asked.

"We're in hyper space, Jackson." McKay's sneers hadn't lost an iota of contempt over the years. The silent idiot that punctuated most of his statements could still be heard, too. "It's a sub space signal, not hyperspace. It can't propagate beyond the bubble the ship's generating."

"Well, that's good, right?"

"Mmm. Yes, that's good. Until we come out of hyperspace." McKay looked up from his tablet. "The answer is to disable and remove the transmitter before we exit."

"Destroy it," the woman said, coming out of the showers dressed in pink scrubs that hung on her despite being the smallest size in their stores.

"I need to study it," McKay dismissed her.

"I want it destroyed," she insisted.

McKay opened his mouth to insert his foot and Daniel moved in before he provoked Janet's patient into going for his throat. "What if we could use what we learn to find others like you and get rid of their transmitters?"

"Disable it, study it for one day, then let me see you destroy it."

Jehan kicked McKay in the shin. He scowled but said, "Fair enough."

Janet guided her over to the table again. "You'll need to lie down until the anesthetic takes effect. It may make you nauseous or I would have made sure you ate first."

"No drugs."

"This will hurt," Janet told her.

Standing barefoot and vulnerable in the fluorescent-lit stainless steel and white-painted confines of the infirmary, wet hair matted to her head, eyes bleak, Janet's patient said, "Everything hurts." Her back was straight, her shoulders squared and she held her head up. Everything hurt, but she wouldn't break.

"No drugs," Jehan said, prompting Janet to glare at him. It had no effect, he was gazing into the woman's eyes, and whatever she saw there, she gave a short, sharp nod. An instinctive understanding had already formed between them.

"You have to let me numb your back at least. That's not up for discussion. If you twitch while I'm operating I could sever nerves you need to walk." Janet let the authority of her expertise fill her voice. "If you don't agree to that, I'll have you stunned."

"Very well."

"And I want to know your name."

"Does it matter?"

"You matter," Janet said.

"I was Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan, of Athos."

~*~


Teyla watched the man identified as Meredith examine the device Janet Fraiser removed from her back with a sick fascination. Her back felt stiff, but didn't truly ache. Janet had numbed it but Teyla remained awake through the operation to remove the tracker, just as they'd promised. After the blood-coated thing had been dropped into a waiting tray, Janet had stitched her up without fanfare.

She'd expected Meredith to sweep the thing away immediately, but he surprised her. Instead he donned a ornate device on one hand, with a glowing jewel situated over his palm where a Wraith's feeding mouth was. But the device healed where the Wraith harmed. A deep, almost stinging heat suffused her back muscles as he ran his hand over the wound left by Fraiser's surgery. It felt like thawing out after frostbite, but when he ran his finger down her spine, the sensation was only of skin.

"Goa'uld healing device," he explained when she lifted up and twisted around to see what he'd done.

Janet held up a small mirror and Teyla saw the skin of her back healed smooth and without even a scar. She looked at Meredith, white-faced and sweating from exertion, with new respect. Even Dr. Beckett had not been able to heal as if by magic.

"Goa'uld?" she repeated out of curiosity.

Jehan steadied Meredith and guided him over a chair to sit, then stayed beside him.

"Nasty things that set up housekeeping in your head," Meredith said. "Even the Tok'ra..." He held up the hand still encased in the healing device. "The only good legacy of having had one is being able to use this, really."

"I'll explain later," Jehan promised.

Teyla shrugged, amazed and grateful when she didn't feel the half-painful pull of the tracker in her back, or any pain at all.

Janet offered her the loose pink top she'd left for Teyla after leaving her to wash in privacy. Teyla had stripped it off before lying prone on the operating table. "You might want to put this back on." The doctor's expression was mischievous as she nodded to Teyla's bare breasts. "These two are oblivious, but I think some of the others onboard might notice those."

She bustled away before Teyla could say anything, insisting Meredith drink some bright green liquid. "To balance your electrolytes."

"I'm not hypoglycemic anymore," Meredith replied sourly. "Now give me that damn thing. If I've only got a day to analyze it I don't want to waste anymore time."

His bad temper and irritable manner put Teyla at ease; it didn't admit to any dishonesty. He looked annoyed but pointed to a stool and told her to sit and watch when she found her way to his laboratory later. The ship seemed huge to her, but not like the hive had been. She saw Tau'ri writing everywhere and wondered about Vala's claim that they weren't, but decided to put off that question until later.

Janet had taken her to the mess hall – another room connected to a kitchen – and insisted Teyla eat. "You're undernourished anyway and the healing device only accelerates the body's natural repair mechanisms. You need to eat several times a day and you're going to feel exhausted for at least a week."

After that, she'd taken Teyla to a room full of supplies and told her to pick out whatever clothing she needed or wanted to replace the thin pink scrubs. It had been a relief to replace the flimsy, loose shirt and pants. She couldn't find boots that made her happy, but oh, the socks were a true pleasure, luxuriously thick creations that clung to the shape of her foot, ankle and calf without cutting off circulation. The weave caught on the roughness of her fingers as she stroked them. Janet noticed and pulled out several more pairs and added them to a container she'd been filling with duplicates of everything Teyla picked out.

They went back to the infirmary and retrieved everything Teyla had on her when she'd been on Athos, then took all of it and the supplies, to a nearly empty room. Not completely empty, Teyla realized after a moment in which Janet looked around. There were several small items that must have been personal to someone.

"You can use this cabin," Janet said.

She set the container of supplies on the neatly made bunk. Her hand made an abortive move toward a little statue sitting on the table next to the bunk, but then she left it.

"I'm just two doors down the corridor. Lindsay's across the hall. You haven't met her, she's working down in engineering."

Teyla wondered how many people this ship held.

"Just leave everything here," Janet said. "I'll take you down to where McKay's working."

"McKay?"

"Meredith." Janet made an exasperated face. "The Dread Pirate McKay."

Teyla recognized Tau'ri humor and didn't ask for another explanation, just followed Janet, taking note of the colored lines painted on the bulkheads, the numbers next to the doors, and how the interdeck elevator worked. Janet pointed out a bright red hatch. "Ladders, in case we lose power." Teyla noted there was one on each deck parallel to the elevators.

"Where is Jehan?" she asked and not where is the person who occupied the cabin two doors down from yours or any of her other questions.

"Upship," Janet replied. "He's our mainshift pilot." She paused. "He and Meredith and Vala Mal Doran are in charge." She brushed her hand along a bulkhead. "It's their ship now."

Whose ship had it been before? Teyla filed that question away with all her others.

"Here," Janet said, gesturing to a door standing open to the corridor. "Meredith can bring you back up to the mess hall when you get hungry."

Meredith didn't shift from where he hunched over a keyboard, just glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to the multiple screen displaying the tracker. "Oh, it's you," he commented. "Take stool, sit down and stay quiet."

Teyla didn't mind staying quiet. She'd already talked more than she had in months and her throat felt dry and sore. She watched Meredith study the screens, type and then curse under his breath as he read the results. He crossed the room to a table that held the actual tracker and attached a different set of probes to it, then went back to his computers. The clack of the keys was oddly soothing. Meredith typed very fast, faster than Samantha, but Teyla thought the Tau'ri woman would have been very comfortable in this room, studying the same things Meredith was.

Maybe she had been once. Teyla felt fairly confident this had been a Tau'ri ship. Once. Whoever it belonged to now, Vala Mal Doran, Jehan, Meredith McKay.

The ship wasn't silent, but it was quiet and clean and Teyla's eyes wanted droop closed. She forced them wide and open. She wasn't safe, no matter what her instincts were telling her. She couldn't believe that, not yet.

"There's coffee in the pot," Meredith said, proving he was more aware of her than he seemed. He pointed to the 'pot', a carafe filled with the dark drink she remembered Samantha reluctantly rationing her consumption of, worried the expedition would run out of their supply of it soon.

"I prefer tea," she said.

He swiveled his chair and gave her a narrow eyed look.

"You prefer tea to coffee?"

"Yes."

"When did you ever have coffee?"

"On Athos, when the Tau'ri came," she replied.

"Sonova– " Meredith jumped to his feet. "Where are they? Never mind, if you knew you'd have gone to them to get that tracker out of you. Did they say where they came from? Do you know where Atlantis is?"

Atlantis was the last great city of the Ancestors, where none had gone or come from in ten thousand years, hidden from the Wraith to save it from the Great Scourge.

"They said nothing of Atlantis," Teyla answered, feeling betrayed all over again.

Meredith opened his mouth, then closed it, before saying, "Well, they wouldn't. They didn't know you at first, right?"

Teyla looked back at him silently.

"Uhm. Well. Yes. The expedition went from Earth to Atlantis and then I guess from there to your world." He blinked several times – she noted his sandy eyelashes were long – and then sighed. "Fine. I've got what I can from this monstrosity. Do you want to do the honors?"

Teyla rose from the stool.

"Yes."

He took the gun in the holster tied to his leg and handed it to her. His hands were square, sure, crisscrossed with minute white scars, as he guided her hand to close around the butt of the weapon, set something on the side, and aimed it at the tracker still sitting in the steel tray. He wasn't going to let her hold the gun alone, she realized.

"Just pull the trigger."

Red energy sizzled from the muzzle to the Wraith tracker. It exploded into gooey, charred black pieces. The steel tray flew off the table and hit the wall with a clang, a hole burned through it. The table was left with a cratered scar where it had sat.

"Satisfied?" Meredith asked as he reholstered the weapon.

Teyla wanted one just like it, imagined the hole in the tray blown through a Wraith's chest, and nodded.

"Let's go get something to eat then. I skipped breakfast and lunch and using that healing device is exhausting."

Teyla's stomach growled, reminding her of how long it had been since she'd been able to eat regularly, and she nodded again. Meredith's mouth slanted to the side, but one corner lifted when he heard the embarrassing grumble. He headed for the door and snapped his fingers. "Well, what are you waiting for?"



Part Three
Shattered and Scattered




Exhaustion disconnected Vala's thoughts. Unwanted ones floated into consciousness where she had to ignore them instead of repressing them entirely. When she did repress successfully, they just took over her nightmares.

Wild symbiotes were unpredictable and useless for Jaffa, but all the little prim'ta had to come from somewhere. Qetesh even allied with Ba'al once. She was a queen and he needed larvae. He paid in Jaffa, a pleasure palace, and a solar system.

'Yours,' the larvae hissed from the bellies of the Jaffa. 'Yours, yours, yours.'

Ra killed all his queens once they spawned, killed all his prim'ta when they matured; wanted no rivals. Qetesh didn't offer Ba'al the opportunity to do that to her. She kept the solar system and wiped out one of his fleets with the Jaffa.

There were more larvae than Jaffa, of course, but all Goa'uld had a solution for that. They ate their young.

Qetesh plucked them from the tanks one by one. 'Mother!' they squealed, twisting in Vala's hand. They were delicious.

Some nights Vala didn't dare sleep.

Nights when she did, she might dream about her father, of before; sweet dreams of innocent times that left her swearing and angry when she woke up. Innocent went out the door the first time Jacek got his ass in a crack and saw a way out of it using her. Nothing too low for Jacek Mal Doran – he sold one of her stepmothers to a squad of Jaffa for six hours in a sarcophagus once. Or more than once. The last time Vala saw him he still looked entirely too young.

Vala could even go back to sleep again after those dreams.

When she woke sweating and shaking and crying, she didn't even try. She never slept in the dark anyway, but she'd switch on every light possible just to prove Qetesh hadn't locked her in that black hole in her head again.

Other dreams left her sweating and hot, wet and wanting. Qetesh had spent fifty years wringing every spark of pleasure she could out of Vala's body and Vala had been pretty practiced before she became a host. They'd been well matched in that fashion.

If she couldn't get out and find some entertainment, someone to bed and lose herself with, she'd pamper herself – provided she wasn't in a cell – with beautiful clothes, with jewels, with hot baths, perfumed lotions, and perfect make-up to hide the lines that started showing up after Qetesh wasn't around to keep her young. She'd dress her hair in elaborate fashions. All of it just for distraction and the comfort of security – things to sell, pretty things to help sell herself, coping mechanisms that dated back to before Jacek sold her the first time.

Very bad nights, she relived her first husband calling her pretty girl or fell into a memory of Qetesh's slaves bathing and serving her. Then she would tear all her finery off again and scrub away the perfumes and make-up until her skin burned furious red.

None of those were the worst nights.

The worst were the nights Vala slept and couldn't wake up. She screamed and burned and she couldn't make it stop, couldn't get away, anymore than she had while the Tok'ra 'interrogated' Qetesh for intelligence on Ba'al's holdings and plans.

She hadn't asked Mer, but she didn't think Jolinar had ever locked him out of all sensory input. Qetesh used it as threat more than punishment and Vala always suspected it took a measure of effort and concentration that the Goa'uld queen didn't care to put forth most of the time. Yet, still, Qetesh would arbitrarily deem it worthwhile to terrorize Vala without warning sometimes for the sadistic thrill of it.

The corollary of Qetesh's ability to cut Vala off was that Qetesh could separate herself from experiencing whatever Vala's body endured. That left Vala in control, for all the good it did her.

The Tok'ra didn't live as long as the Goa'uld; they didn't use the sarcophagus. Genetic memory meant each and all were spawned addicts on the wagon. There was no 'just a taste' or 'just once' for the symbiotes. They still lived long enough to become expert torturers, though, and they understood the symbiote/host connections from the inside. They knew every terrible way to hurt a symbiote.

They used them all. The host's suffering was just collateral damage. Breaking Vala didn't even register, it was just part of the process.

The Tok'ra weren't interested in freeing Qetesh's host. The Goa'uld queen was useless to them outside Vala's body, with no access to her brain or her voicebox. Without Vala, Qetesh couldn't answer their questions.

What Vala wanted didn't matter.

Fifty years as a slave in her own body and when Qetesh withdrew control, all Vala could do was scream until Qetesh took control again, scream and writhe and beg for mercy that would never be offered; screaming with the symbiote as Qetesh healed her body, as their memories tangled together, and pieces of them inextricably mingled into one as the Tok'ra crucified Vala and agony burned away every wall separating her from the Goa'uld queen. Until they were one. When they were, the Tok'ra offered Qetesh-who-was-Vala their deal: freedom in exchange for betraying everything she knew of Ba'al and his plans.

They accepted, of course, but they lied. Vala-who-was-Qetesh knew everything either of them had known and used every skill Jacek had taught his daughter to sell their lies back to the Tok'ra. The Tok'ra thought they knew Qetesh; they discounted what the host brought to the unwilling merge. Their mistake. Neither Qetesh nor Vala felt any guilt.

The Tok'ra lied too, though. They did free Qetesh. They sent her through the chappa'ai, just as they promised.

Only they sent her to Cimmeria and Thor's Hammer.

Five days later, starving and dehydrated, Vala crawled her way out. Qetesh might have kept her from going forward under other circumstances, but the symbiote had been just as weak and confused as Vala. Neither of them had known which of them would die.

It never occurred to Vala to reveal that though Qetesh had gone, a fractured construct remained courtesy of the Goa'uld queen's memories. Sometimes she came out if Vala wasn't careful. Only Jehan recognized her without the Goa'uld voice and naquadah eyes. When he recoiled from her Vala knew when to rein the bitch back in.

Qetesh didn't always go easily. Vala preferred not to sleep at all then, because she was afraid of being taken over if she let her control slip. Yet the wearier she was, the closer Qetesh lurked under her skin. Qetesh was always waiting for a chance.

Vala slipped out of her quarters with the intention of visiting the bridge. Afterward, she paced the corridors of Revenge, exhausted but unable to rest. Either her normal coping mechanisms weren't working or weren't available. Dush didn't switch, Signe was asexual, Til was mourning Dil, Mer and Jehan were virtually exclusive, Janet Fraiser looked at her like a lab specimen, little Lindsay screamed victim, Caias was on duty shift, and Daniel might be able to see too much. Vala cursed to herself. She wanted skin. She could always get off with just her fingers, but that didn't provide the level of distraction and connection she desired. She should have brought someone on board she could screw herself mindless with; she should have known she'd need that outlet again sooner or later.

Qetesh whispered she could seduce Lindsay Novak. Vala knew she could, but the Tau'ri engineer was too fragile. Vala could sense the damage coming off Lindsay like blood in the water. The blood could easily become real if Vala took advantage. She wouldn't. Her crew belonged to her. To protect, not to use, Vala told herself. She knew the signs; Lindsay Novak had already been used enough.

Well, if she couldn't fill one hole, she decided in the deliberately coarse thought patterns Qetesh used, she'd fill another. Food instead of fucking.

She headed for the galley.

~*~


Insomnia and interrupted sleep were no strangers to Jehan. Mer usually crashed out hard, as if he had no setting in between one hundred percent on and off. Jehan preferred cat naps and drowsing in company of someone he trusted, which meant either Mer or Vala, but that was if they were awake to be on guard. With Mer so deeply asleep, he had difficulty letting go himself. Tonight felt worse than usual. If Caias hadn't had beta shift, he would have gone to the bridge and plotted hyperspace jumps or run diagnostics. Anything to distract himself; anything except sharing the bridge with another pilot.

The seals that separated his old self from his new life were failing him.

He knew why.

Teyla.

Teyla Emmagan, first speaker for Athos, died when her people were culled. Her world and the life she'd lived both ended that night. Someone else named Teyla had been born in the Wraith hive she described, a mercy killer, an exile, a runner without home or friend. Jehan recognized that sort of devastation and solitude from experience.

John Sheppard died deep under Cheyenne Mountain, on a metal grate ramp lit by the unfamiliar blue flicker of an event horizon. Another life began once the Goa'uld Montu delivered him into Ba'al's service as just another gift sent from Apophis to bribe the other System Lord. He could only go forward from that day, into slavery and through hell; the contrast between his existence and before so sharp it cut until he bled inside. Dreams were torture. So were memories. Each day he came further and further undone, until John had been remade into Jehan.

He had been forced to reject all of his past to survive. He'd been successful even when Mer came into his life, but begun to crack as soon as he stepped onto Revenge's deck. Every razor sharp reminder of Earth let the memories bleed through until Teyla's story had finished slicing him open.

Thinking about the past made his heartbeat speed unsteadily, made the screams and bitter terror come back to him, his time under Ba'al tangled into everything else now because he'd shoved it into the same boxes he kept John Sheppard in after Vala rescued – stole – him. Sweat beaded his skin along with the acrid scent of fear. God, no, he didn't want to remember any of it, not the specifics of being a System Lord's favorite plaything and not the inventory of the pieces of his soul he'd given up to convince Ba'al he could and should be more than that. Existence as Ba'al's lo'taur had been fractionally better, but he'd wipe it all away if only he could.

He'd been slipping lately. He'd said things that the other Tau'ri recognized and that piqued their curiosity and the rest of the crew too. Only Mer had never asked him questions, but he had always felt that Mer already knew everything important anyway.

Jehan almost smiled. If asked, Mer would certainly confirm he knew everything, everything important anyway.

His expression faded into irritation. The hum of the gravity generators ate at his nerves, though usually he ignored it. It reminded him of Ba'al's experimental gravity cell tonight. He glared at the cabin ceiling above him. The blank metal seemed too close. Everything pricked at him, making his skin hot and tight, his muscles jump with every noise or touch. He felt hyperaware of Mer lying beside him in the narrow bed that even with the addition of pillows and blankets seemed monastic compared to the ones in Ba'al's palaces. The slaves' quarters hadn't been luxurious, of course.

Though in comparison to the holding pen Apophis' Jaffa had tossed him into that first day...

Jehan clenched his fists. He didn't want to think about the dark stone room. He didn't want to relive that day.

Mer shifted next him, picking up on Jehan's restlessness.

Jehan turned on his side. He didn't want to remember, but he did. Dushka cursed the Vorlix that had stolen the memories of every Vyan, but it sounded like a mercy to him. Sometimes. He wouldn't want to forget Mer or Vala or all they meant to him, though. Dushka never remembered her husband on Vyan and eventually left. Her husband hadn't remembered her either; no one had remembered anyone after the Destroyer of Worlds unleashed her experiment on the Vyan, returning them to youth for the cost of their memories. Returning almost all of them to youth, he corrected himself. A fraction of the population hadn't been rejuvenated by the Vorlix, and instead reacted as Dushka had. Of course, she left. Vyan hadn't meant anything to her after the Vorlix.

He told himself Earth didn't mean anything to him.

The bottom sheet came loose and twisted around his legs, pinned down on one side by Mer's weight. Jehan kicked his feet free and panted through the panicky feeling. He wasn't in a cage, wasn't bound, and the feeling would dissipate if he didn't lose control. Ba'al was in another galaxy and not about to stroll through the cabin door.

Ba'al.

A full body shudder hit him. Of all the Goa'uld, only Ba'al really frightened him. He knew Ba'al, in all his vicious glory, his malice and his clever generosities that almost balanced each other out. Ba'al was smarter than any of the other System Lords, whether naturally or thanks to his chosen host, but he was just as insane as the others. Of course, Ba'al had a sense of humor too, but combined with the sadistic streak every Goa'uld possessed, it just made him a more imaginative torturer. Jehan closed his fingers around a handful of sheet tightly, pulling in a harsh breath that stayed silent, but only through an effort.

He understood Teyla's terror and hatred down to the bone, because what she felt toward the Wraith, he felt about the Goa'uld.

Ba'al had found Apophis' bribe pleasing despite Jehan's ignorance, because he enjoyed defiance and crushing it. When a new slave had been properly broken and schooled, Ba'al usually lost interest. He hadn't lost interest in Jehan, though, instead assigning him to learn the duties of a lo'taur. Maybe because Jehan matched some idea Ba'al had of what he would want his host to look like, though a lo'taur needed more than a pretty face. No god wished to take a decrepit host however and the lines of age had been etching the features of his current human pet. Jehan had fit Ba'al's needs at the perfect juncture. No doubt otherwise, when Ba'al tired of him, he would have been tossed to the Jaffa to entertain themselves with until one of them killed him.

By that time, Jehan had known enough to recognize that he'd dodged a bullet and to be...almost...grateful.

There had been no escape. He hadn't even understood how to use the chappa'ai until too late. He hadn't – until Mer told him casually one day – known the address for Earth. He'd had no way to know if Earth as he'd known it still existed anyway; if Apophis or some other Goa'uld hadn't already subjugated or destroyed it. Lo'taur was no sinecure, but the position was better than that of most slaves – Jehan had some responsibilities and freedoms other slaves didn't, though he realized all too soon that lo'taurs were mostly doomed in the end. Either the god took them as host or killed them; a lo'taur knew too much of the god's dealings to let any lesser Goa'uld take him or her. Still, there were worse fates than a lo'taur's, worse Goa'uld than Ba'al. He'd felt something that hadn't quite been loyalty, something more like the minor Goa'uld felt, toward the System Lord. Situational loyalty based only on his own survival. If it left him ashamed, there had been no one to know.

Bow before your god, Ba'al had commanded, Jehan abd-Ba'al. He had. He'd prostrated himself and the host's long fingers had been cool against his jaw as Ba'al drew him up afterward, making him shudder.

Come with me.

Jehan had gone. He'd served. There had never been a choice until Vala appeared.

John Sheppard would have fought. He wouldn't have served any Goa'uld, he'd been an officer, he would have rather died. He would have died, too. Jehan chose to live, not knowing why, only that he was waiting. Waiting for something, for some day, for some chance he couldn't even articulate to himself, just the hope he could betray Ba'al, would betray him, given the first opportunity. He gave up everything eventually, even hatred, but he lived.

He lived because he might be the last.

But he wasn't John Sheppard any longer. He could never be that man again.

He closed his eyes. There had been so many things he'd thought he'd rather die than stoop to. But he had defied Ba'al and he had died, over and over, only to be revived in the sarcophagus.

Teyla was the same. The last of her people. And if some of them survived somewhere, she was still alone, because she hadn't been with them, and they hadn't been with her, hadn't endured what she had.

Jehan knew alone. He'd been alone until Vala brought Meredith aboard Tanafriti and, in some ways, even after, though by then he'd learned enough about the Tau'ri to know who they were. He twisted in the bed and pressed his nose to the soft hair at the back of Mer's neck. Warm. The soft ends of Mer's hair tickled against his lips. Not alone here, not now. Mer grumbled but wriggled back so they were spooned together.

The slack muscles of Mer's back tightened subtly, a minute clue that Jehan had woken his partner. "Are you awake?" Jehan murmured soft enough to not wake him if he was wrong.

A snuffily sigh almost convinced him Mer had already dropped off again.

"Depends," Mer finally whispered. "Do you want me to be?"

Jehan considered and finally answered, "No."

"Okay," Mer replied. He caught Jehan's hand in his and pulled it around to rest just under his heart. "I'm going back to sleep." He relaxed and his breathing evened out. Jehan smiled against his neck. Mer might think he was faking sleep, but he didn't fool Jehan, nor was he really trying very hard.

Teyla had been forced to tell them her story. Maybe Jehan should tell her his.

Maybe.

He should tell Mer first.

He knew Mer and Vala both had guessed different parts of it. Fraiser and Jackson might think they knew, too. Jehan had never told it to anyone, though. If he was going to, though, he had to start with Mer. Teyla might understand, but Mer deserved to know from Jehan's lips.

"I never dream about Earth," he said.

Mer's hand tightened on Jehan's but his breathing never hitched. He would let Jehan have his say and never acknowledge what he heard unless Jehan did.

"Never," he went on, "but I remember my last day there."

He stopped and licked his lips. His mouth felt dry. Where did his story begin? Did Mer want to know everything or just how Jehan had gone from Earth to life as a lo'taur? He settled on talking about the assignment.

"I was at Cheyenne Mountain because my father cashed in a favor with his pet senator to ground me," Jehan began. "After Desert Storm, he arranged for me to do a tour at the Pentagon. I wanted to go back to school and finish my second degree."

Math. He'd always loved it and his mother had consistently encouraged his interest, diverting his father's plans with grace and love that kept their household peaceful and happy until she succumbed to cancer shortly after John's seventeenth birthday. When his father began trying to remold John after that, he'd resorted to joining the Air Force to pay his way into college and discovered a love of flying that matched his fascination with advanced mathematics. Officer training, flight school and his marriage had followed easily afterward. Everything had been easy until Desert Storm. It had only begun falling apart afterward. Nancy had wanted the handsome pilot, the rising star in the Pentagon, a hero with ambition, two-point-five picture perfect children and a Golden Retriever. John had disappointed her at every turn, though he wouldn't have minded the dog. After the divorce, his father accused him of being stubborn, ungrateful and unnatural. The only thing Patrick hadn't thrown at him had been Un-American.

"Did I say I was married? That didn't last long. And Dad liked Nancy more than me."

He shifted restlessly. Mer's hand tightened on his.

"So I was assigned to some dead program buried under NORAD after the divorce." He wondered where Nancy was and what she was doing in a vague way. She belonged to Earth and not even in that other life, really, but he'd still been fond of her even at the end. She'd had an essential toughness underneath the prettiness; he thought she'd probably done all right.

"Days when I was bored, I'd go down and stare at the chappa'ai. Just my bad luck being there when it spun up," he said before leaning his forehead against Mer's back and closing his eyes, letting himself fall into the past completely.

~*~



Assignment punishment had looked like it had a definite end point. This place was being shut down, officers and airmen were transferred out every day, and the general in charge of the base was simply putting in time until his retirement according to scuttlebutt. No matter what favors Patrick Sheppard had cashed in to punish John for the divorce and turning his back on the career track Patrick and Nancy had envisaged for him, they couldn't keep John on a station that would no longer exist within a couple of months. John had guessed he'd be stuck until the bitter end, but after that the Air Force would put him back in a cockpit.

The ring was the only really interesting thing on the base and no one had cared if he wandered down to the lowest level and stared at it now and then.

It had dominated the room, obviously the center and focus of its purpose, even covered like everything else, including the weapons locker, with tarps. Some judicious snooping had led him to figuring it for a failed piece of technology, one that just took too much energy to be useful, explaining why the plug had been pulled on the entire program.

He hadn't been able to figure why whatever it was had been designed to look like something looted from an archaeological dig, but staring up at it and making progressively wilder guesses had provided him with relief from the boredom and claustrophobia of the posting.

His stop-ins provided a break in the tedium for the airmen guarding it too, he supposed. In exchange for their silence, he'd kept quiet about the long running poker game. A good deal all around for everyone until that day.

Fryatt had been dealing, running patter falling automatically from his lips as his hands moved, dissing his opponents' hands and then telling them to ante up. John had strolled past the table and up to the ramp. He stopped just short and contemplated the tarp-covered ring. It fascinated him. He swiveled on his heel and contemplated the armored glass observation window. Thanks to the darkness on the other side, the harsh fluorescent lights rendered the glass into a glaring mirror. What had been observed from that room, he'd wondered, that had to be buried twenty-eight stories below NORAD? Weapons testing could be done in the Nevada desert or the South Seas. The decorations incised into the stone had bemused him. If it was stone; it conducted like metal, leaching heat from his hand when he laid his palm against it once. His hand had tingled for hours afterward, filling him with a restless wish to go back and look at the ring again, to touch and feel if it really had vibrated for an instant beneath his fingers.

"That's you too," Fryatt told the newest member of the guard shift. "Seven to the deuce, nothing there," he went on as he dealt. Cards flipped onto the table they'd set up just inside the doorway, expertly missing the bowl of potato chips and the cups of black coffee meant to keep them awake through another boring day. Two black berets and piles of poker chips were scattered over the table top too, effectively covering the rest of the surface. "Boss and the eight, nothing happening." Fryatt kept up the patter to distract his opponents. "Queen to the kind, possible straight going there. Eight on the eight and the Jack gets a boss, eight's open."

The newbie, Sgt. Kettering, asked, "Aren't you guys afraid of an officer coming down here or something?"

From the corner of his eye, John caught her giving him a nervous look. John raised his eyebrow at her and smirked. Apparently, he didn't count as an officer, despite pulling a captain's pay. Someone in personnel no doubt knew his combat record, but it hadn't filtered out to the rest of the base. He didn't mind.

The oldest member of the detail, gray-haired Sallee, chuckled and told her, "Trust me, nobody ever comes down here but us and Captain Sheppard." He stretched and grinned at John. "And he never sees anything."

"Not a thing," he agreed lightly. "Can't imagine how I made it through flight school." He might have kept on joking, but the skin on his forearms had begun to prickle. The temperature dropped and the tarp billowed out from the ring, as if the air pressure behind it had changed.

"Does that thing always do that?" Kettering asked suspiciously.

John hadn't seen it do that before, but he hadn't spent endless hours watching nothing happen down here either. Maybe it was a ventilation system kicking on.

"Do what?" Fryatt asked.

John glanced over and saw Fryatt had his head bent over his cards and likely hadn't even seen the tarp move.

"Whatever it is under the tarp," Kettering said. "I just…saw it move or do something."

"Probably the only thing it ever did was cost money," Sallee told her.

He suppressed a snort as Fryatt agreed. The tarp kept shifting. Curious, John walked to the side of the ramp and around to the back wall, checking for any vents pumping in fan-driven air. Not finding any, he studied the tarp again, checking for any strings or wires. Fryatt and the rest of them weren't above rigging up something to spook the new girl or pull a practical joke on an officer, even one they liked.

"I'm telling you that thing is moving," Kettering insisted.

John circled around and silently agreed. The tarp was breathing in and out from the big ring.

"If you don't have the straight, just fold," Sallee taunted, but Kettering ignored him and abandoned her poker hand, joining John at the ramp and looking up along with him.

"Can we take that as a fold?"

"Just finish the hand," Sallee grumbled, "She's out."

John shared a look with Kettering. "Ladies first," he murmured to her. She rolled her eyes. He had both feet on the ramp as a rumble sounded through the room, a deep sound that rattled the metal grate under them. It grew louder and the ramp began to shake. He grabbed Kettering's arm to steady her and they both backed off fast. Fryatt and Sallee and McAfee were all staring as their table shook. Their cards slipped and slid off it onto the floor. Coffee sloshed over the rims of the cups.

"What the fuck?" McAfee blurted out.

The tarp billowed out abruptly and came off the ring, a bird's wing lifting before floating down. The outer part of the ring was moving, spinning, and the crystals set around it began to light. John wondered if half of Colorado was about to be browned-out again.

McAfee began cursing while Fryatt called out, "Sir, you and Sergeant Kettering need to get back – "

"I take it this never happened before either?" Kettering asked in a dry voice. John wished abruptly that he was armed. He turned toward the weapons locker. Fryatt was on the red phone. Sallee and McAfee joined John and Kettering – her first name was Carol – at the foot of the ramp.

Brilliant light seemed to coalesce into white water in the center of the ring that exploded forward at them. As it did, John remembered the hazard marking on the concrete floor, with the red and black warnings to Keep Clear. He grabbed McAfee's arm and pulled him down at the same time he dove outside the danger zone.

Kettering and Fryatt hit the deck as well and whooshing energy rushed over their heads. Even if that was just water, under enough pressure it could hurt them. Sallee scrambled to his feet and to the weapons they'd left by their seats. Fryatt had dropped the phone; the receiver hung on its cord, still swinging.

John rolled to his feet and stared at the glowing blue ripple of something now contained within the ring. It wasn't water, even though it bore a surface resemblance. No, it wasn't even a resemblance so much as the nearest analogy his brain could make to what his eyes were seeing.

It occurred to him that he wasn't really seeing this at all, only a fraction of reality and that it was...something he'd only read about in math and physics journals: a contained, controlled wormhole. Sonovabitch. He wanted to go up to it and look closer.

The sound of guns cocking knocked his sense of wonder askew, but not enough to let Kettering go up that ramp by herself. He started up after her, his longer legs bring him even with her in two fast strides.

"What you doing?" Fryatt demanded.

They were right at the ring, the pale blue glow of it reflecting off their faces. John stretched out his hand. A metal ball dropped through the rippling surface and he froze, looking down at it. It rolled to stop next to Kettering's spit-shined boots. Both of them jumped as it began to glow and then a bar of orange light rose up from Kettering's feet to the top of her head. It returned its course and then did the same thing to John.

He crouched, trying to get a closer look at it. It didn't look like any technology he'd seen before, except the huge ring itself, and he couldn't help being curious not just over what it was or did, but who had made it. It had gone still and dark, so he reached out to prod it with one finger.

Kettering bent next to John, obviously just as intrigued as he was.

"What are you doing?" McAfee demanded. "Don't touch it!"

John picked the ball up, turning to glance at the three soldiers still aiming their weapons at the ring, and coincidentally, he hoped, himself and Kettering. McAfee looked panicky enough to be worrisome.

A slurping, sucking sound made him whip his head around to stare at the ring again even as McAfee's eyes widened. His own mouth dropped open as a man? – thing? – alien? finished walking out of the glowing surface within the ring. Bipedal and armored, taller than human, a giant metallic snake's head topped its shoulders. John tossed down the ball as one gauntleted hand grasped Kettering's neck before she could react.

It disarmed her contemptuously. More of the snakemen poured through the ring and down the ramp. John made a grab for Kettering's lost weapon, intending to wrest it from the snakeman's careless hold.

Snakeman threw the weapon away and caught John by the throat, lifting and choking him with an iron grip, while still holding Kettering in its other hand. Someone yelled, "Hold fire!"

Light flared around glittering gold as a final figure stepped through the ring. John didn't know if he was hallucinating, but the glittering snake's head folded away to reveal a human face: dark, fierce features and an expression of petulant arrogance as familiar as John's last Pentagon assignment. John clawed at his captor's gauntlet as everything grayed out. He tried kicking and that failed too, but the hand at his throat eased enough he caught a gasping breath, staring as the snakeman's helmet retracted and revealed a solemn, human face.

"Jaffa! Kree!" the golden man ordered. "Teal'c, kree!"

The golden man took Kettering from Teal'c. John started futilely fighting again. Kettering fought just as uselessly until the golden man held his hand over her face, directing a bright light from a jewel on his palm that left her limp before she was tossed down to the ramp. John flailed and tried to stab his thumbs into Teal'c's revealed eyes. Teal'c's grip on John's throat tightened again.

"Let them go!"

Teal'c threw John down over Kettering's limp body. The big man covered him and Kettering and John's face mashed into Kettering's shoulder blades. He fought to breathe and not pass out. Kettering's uniform blouse smelled of laundry soap and gun oil; bizarrely, John could smell spice and candlesmoke from the man covering him. Teal'c jerked as bullets hit him and whined off his armor. John couldn't tell the roar in his ears from the sounds of the firefight over him; automatic fire and ricochets and explosions mixed chaotically with the sizzle-hiss of the enemy's weapons.

It ended abruptly, in ringing silence, punctuated by the purr whisper-crackle of flames where the energy weapons had started fires.

"Kree! Jaffa!" head snakeman commanded.

Alarms wailed from further inside the base. John twisted his head to the side and tried to see who had won.

"Tyger. A-lada spryng!"

The strange language reminded John of the Arabic he'd heard in the Mid-East. He groped for something, anything to use as a weapon, but there was only the cold metal grill of the ramp.

The blue light from the ring had gone, but the outer part of it began spinning again, parts of it lighting up and locking in place. Another whoosh of energy flooded out horizontally before forming that blue surface within the ring. Teal'c lifted himself off John and hoisted him onto one shoulder with dismaying ease. John glimpsed bodies down at the base of the ramp from his upside down vantage, more airmen pouring into the room, and the snakemen retreating through the ring, disappearing into that rippling membrane.

Teal'c carried him forward into an endless instant of nauseating cold and shock and handed him off to another snakeman. A smashing blow to the head from a staff knocked him half-unconscious.

His daze didn't clear until hours later. He came around in a stone dungeon among dozens of other prisoners, though he never saw Kettering again. All terrified and unable to understand him or tell him anything. John was left there until more Jaffa came and another man with glowing eyes picked him from the crowd.

~*~


"Montu," Jehan said. "Got my first taste of a ribbon device a minute later."

He'd never known what happened to Kettering. Host to a Goa'uld if she'd been unlucky, a slave if she hadn't, or dead – if she'd been very, very lucky. Montu had taken John through the chappa'ai before Apophis' queen chose a new host to replace the one that had died when she spawned.

"Apophis wanted to win Ba'al into an alliance, I think." Jehan sighed. "I was just...lagniappe."

Ba'al had had his own ambitions and alliances already, of course, but was always one to keep a second and third string plan ready. Despite that monstrous ego, Ba'al had the brains to credit his enemies with their own strengths. It only made defeating them sweeter.

Mer turned and pulled Jehan into his arms. Jehan held himself rigid for a moment, before melting into the embrace.

"You can imagine the rest," he finished.

~*~


She ended up bringing the papers into the SGC and ambushing Rodney in the mess with them. He'd misplaced the first set – he said. He'd taken the second set with him on a mission and Daniel ended up using them to scratch out a translation, though no one would explain why. They just ducked and looked embarrassed. Sam decided not to push for details. But she knew if she didn't get his signature on this set before he left on the next mission they might languish in his mailbox for weeks, depending on what technology the team brought back.

She doubled checked the mission schedule, despite having it memorized, and headed for the mess. Days when SG-1 had an afternoon embarkation, Rodney would come in and work in the lab until mid-morning. He liked to eat early enough that going through the stargate wouldn't involve revisiting his last meal. Sam thought he just needed a couple of hours to nerve himself up each time. Though the Earth stargate did provide a rougher, colder ride than any other in the system according to more than one team – possibly as a result of the SGC's home built dialing computer.

Rodney had claimed a table for himself and hunched over a cup of coffee and a muffin. The paper wrappers to two others littered his tray and he glared at her as she approached and sat down opposite him.

"Talk to Hammond," he told her.

Sam fixed a smile on her face. She'd talked to the General. She'd talked to Colonel O'Neill. They just pingponged her back and forth. O'Neill told her he'd follow orders; Hammond told her he would okay her joining a gate team going if O'Neill agreed. If she kept grinding her teeth and smiling, she'd need dentures soon because all her enamel would be gone.

She tapped a finger on the manila envelope she'd set on the table.

Rodney frowned. "What's that?"

"Final decree. You need to sign."

"That's cold, Major," O'Neill commented from behind her.

Sam kept herself from jumping. O'Neill liked to catfoot up behind people. She'd caught Rodney's tiny head twitch though and that had given him away this time.

She glanced up and faked another smile. "Colonel."

"Major." O'Neill sat down without being invited. "McKay," he drawled. He reached for Rodney's last muffin, but missed, maybe on purpose. The pout was certainly put on.

"Excuse me, did anyone ask for your opinion?" Rodney snapped, all peevish suspicion.

Sam still didn't get the relationships in SG-1. Colonel O'Neill seemed protective of Daniel and obviously respected Teal'c, but the same couldn't be said of Rodney. Rodney generally acted like an arrogant asshole, of course, but O'Neill still insisted on keeping him on the gate team rather than taking Sam on.

"Nope, but if you want to do this in the mess hall, you have to expect some heckling from the peanut gallery," O'Neill replied.

"Who said I wanted to do this here?"

"Rodney, can you just sign your damned name so we can put this hideous mutual mistake behind us?" Sam asked.

"Fine, fine, give it here." Rodney held out his hand for the envelope. Sam took the stack of divorce papers out and handed it over. He immediately snapped his fingers at O'Neill. "Something to write with?"

"Do I look like the pen fairy?"

"What is a pen fairy, O'Neill?" Teal'c asked.

This time, Sam did jump.

"It's like the tooth fairy, only Jack's being sarcastic," Daniel told him, overhead fluorescents glinting off his glasses.

"Sarcasm. Indeed."

Sam offered Rodney a pen as the other two seated themselves too. Teal'c had a salad and Jello on his tray, Daniel had a brimful coffee mug and a sandwich. O'Neill immediately snagged half of it.

"Sarcasm is the retreat of those without the wit to say anything original," Rodney said loftily as he began signing.

Sam swallowed her first response as O'Neill snorted in amusement.

"Funny, Mr. Sarcastic."

"These papers are necessary to dissolve your marriage?" Teal'c asked Sam.

"They make it official. We didn't actually get married in a church," Sam said.

"No, the Little Chapel of Elvis doesn't really qualify as a religious institution under any definition," Rodney agreed. He flipped to the next page.

"Some people would consider all of Las Vegas as a temple to the gods of luck," Daniel mused.

"Considering the house edge, I'd say those're about as false as the Goa'uld," O'Neill said around a mouthful of sandwich.

"There's actually more to Las Vegas than just the strip," Rodney added. He flipped another page.

"And you would know, why?"

Rodney scrawled his signature again and answered without looking up at O'Neill. "Area 51, remember? I worked there before the Air Force brought me in here. I had a house in the suburbs."

"I kind of thought someone pissed off the Canadians so much we had to take you."

The gate activation alert interrupted any response from Rodney. O'Neill stuffed the last of his stolen sandwich in his mouth and left with a casual wave. Teal'c and Daniel finished their meals and Rodney finished the divorce papers, handing them back to Sam. Daniel looked back and forth between them and told Teal'c, "You know, I think maybe we better find out what that alert was about. Rodney, we'll see you in the embarkation room later, right?"

"Unless I discover that invisibility field in the next two hours or someone blows up the stargate."

"Right, okay then." Daniel stood and Teal'c followed him to his feet. "Sam. Always good to see you."

"Good morning, Major Carter," Teal'c intoned.

"Teal'c," she replied. His formality always made her smile.

With a dip of his head to her and a quiet, "We will await you at the stargate, Dr. McKay," Teal'c left them, carrying away his tray.

Rodney flipped the stack of papers closed and shoved it at Sam.

"Here. We're done."

"Rodney, don't – "

He held up his hands, waving them. "I'm not. You're fractionally smarter than anyone else in this benighted facility, always excluding myself, and you're definitely the hottest blonde I have ever had the deserved good luck to score, but your insane dedication to serving in your country's military is just one reason why we do not work."

"I don't happen to consider doing my duty as an officer insane."

"Mmph." Rodney checked the institutional wall clock over the mess hall door, then his watch. Sam knew his mind had already left the subject of the divorce, like their marriage, behind. His thoughts were full of the next mission, full of the stargate, eyes focused on the electric blue and all the worlds and skies on the other side of it.

And this was why, really, they didn't work, not because one or the other of them was smarter, or because Rodney McKay was an arrogant prick half the time and covering his wounded insecurities with bombast the rest, selfish and petty and dismissive of everyone and everything he deemed beneath him. Not because Sam was still trying to prove herself to her father so desperately she still hadn't told him about the drunken trip to Vegas and the marriage that just ended or that she wasn't interested in popping out little blond genius Carter-McKays or any twisted scientific rivalry gone toxic.

The reason she couldn't stay married to Rodney was that he was going through the stargate and she wasn't and when he wasn't being a jackass, when he tried to share some of the sheer, heady thrill he got from that, she hated him for it.

It wasn't his fault; Rodney didn't make the rules, had no respect for them either and had never, among all the dumb blonde insults, ever hinted being a woman should bar her from stepping through the wormhole. Sam had found herself seething with anger over that too. How dare he not even agree with the prejudice and still benefit from it?

She realized she'd closed her fingers on the papers tight enough to crumple them. She had to force them to open and her joints ached. As she smoothed the papers, she felt the weight of Rodney's regard returned to her.

"Sam," he said, the way he did when he really paid attention to her, the way that still made her shiver, months after they stopped sleeping together – sex had never been a problem with them. "Listen to me."

"What?" she forced out. Abruptly, she felt sorry. Rodney didn't deserve her anger. At least he didn't deserve it for the reasons Sam felt angry.

"As long as you're in the Air Force, they're never going to let you go through the stargate."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Give up or get out."

That was Rodney. He didn't waste a lot of time on sympathy for anyone but himself, but he didn't bother with lies and sugar-coating.

"So I should just quit?" Sam demanded.

Rodney held up his hand and she realized he hadn't abandoned wearing the wedding ring yet. But neither had she, though hers was on a chain next to her dogtags. Too dangerous in the labs, she had starting taking it off when she arrived for the day, and after a few weeks just left it off. Rodney worked the plain band off his finger and held it up. Sam felt nonplussed. What was she supposed to do in response?

"That's what you do when you know something isn't working," he said. "Anything else is insanity." He set the wedding band on the table. "I've got to gear up."

Sam stared at the simple gold band. Rodney patted her shoulder.

"If you left the Air Force, they'd have to hire you back as a private contractor. You could set the terms."

He was right, but he was also wrong. She wasn't ready to give up on the Air Force yet. It felt too much like admitting she couldn't beat them by their own rules, even though those rules were written to make sure she failed.

Rodney was already gone by the time she thought to say, "Take care," as she scooped up the ring and headed back to her own labs.

~*~


Lindsay strolled down the center of the corridor. The engine rooms were warm and she'd stripped her jacket off and tied the sleeves around her waist. All she'd had under it was a thin, ribbed gray tank top. Before the pirates took the ship, she wouldn't have dared walk through the ship stripped down to that; she'd kept her jacket on and zipped up everywhere outside her cabin.

She had a yen for some coffee and one of those square, fruit-filled pastries Dushka baked each morning. No one gave a damn if she stayed in the engine rooms while she was on duty shift while they were in hyperspace, as long as she was awake and available. The hyperdrives were humming and under no stress; the refit at Ushbos had brought the ship's systems so far beyond spec Lindsay'd had to whistle at the new numbers.

The empty, echoing corridors didn't bother her. Oh no. Without crowds of crewmen, she could listen to the little sounds the ship made that told her almost as much as the diagnostic sensors. Lindsay did a little shimmy and smiled to herself, then spun and skipped the rest of the way to the interdeck elevator. No one saw her.

The first few days, she'd been sick and frightened, but once she'd been released from the brig along with Janet and Daniel, Lindsay had begun to appreciate the new situation. It was weird, but she hadn't had any friends among the mainly Air Force crew and didn't miss any of them now.

No more hurrying, no more scurrying, no more 'making a hole' for the 'important' crewmen, no more keeping her head down. She'd made a career of keeping her head down, avoiding attention, oiling the waters, and she'd never realized how much she hated it until she didn't have to any longer.

Little Lindsay Novak had always been the good girl, who sat in the back of the class, did her work, and hoped the teacher wouldn't single her out. Not because she wouldn't know the answer; because she would and teacher's pets earned retribution in the schoolyard. She was the epitome of the wallflower cliché and she knew it. Part of her didn't care, part of her had always been hurt, and buried deep part of her was very, very angry.

She had never dreamed of being a pirate queen.

Well, she still wasn't, really. That title had to go to Vala Mal Doran. But Lindsay was part of the pirate crew, she was flying through hyperspace on an adventure, and that was pretty damn exciting while still remaining rather comfortable. She still had her cabin and her things and enough other people from Earth on the crew she didn't feel completely cast away.

She didn't miss her job, because she still did it, the parts that she'd loved, at least, keeping the hyperdrives she'd worked so hard on in perfect condition. Meredith had looked over her work, snarled, "Why weren't you chief engineer instead of that idiot Harvey?" and given her an entire lab to play with when she wasn't busy with the ship's needs. Lindsay felt vindicated, just as she secretly did because Jehan had chosen her to keep in case he needed an engineer. She was the only one who had done anything that might have saved Prometheus from being taken and he'd appreciated that. He thought she was brave.

Lindsay wanted to be brave. Maybe if she stuck with people who saw her that way, she would be.

Life on Revenge was better and wasn't that a joke?

Lindsay scowled, imagining the psychiatrists back at the SGC whispering about Stockholm Syndrome. Science might have debunked the idea that women were more emotional and had weaker minds than men, but she knew what would be written between the lines of any report.

There wasn't going to be a report, though, because she wasn't going back to that life. Not to any of it, whether it was her perpetually denigrating family or always working for another male scientist, no matter how much more qualified she was.

From high school on, life had been disappointing. She'd dreamed of getting away from her life as an unpaid housekeeper for Ed and Joe and her father. University had just provided a new set of people to walk all over her it turned out. The SGC, when they came calling, had seemed like a dream come true. Area 51 had been the same story: only the glass ceiling turned out to be an Asgard forcefield. Nothing changed, there was always someone else in charge, someone else to take credit for her work and if she hadn't loved the work so much, she would have been tempted to sabotage it, just to see Bill Lee and Col. Simmons among others squirm. Except she was too afraid of Simmons and men like him. The security agreements she'd signed gave them the right to do almost anything to her. Lindsay had never fooled herself anyone would miss her if she disappeared one day.

Well, now she had and she wondered how Dad and the boys were getting along. One of them had probably found a girlfriend willing to play house mouse.

"You'll be back, missy," her father had told her when Lindsay mentioned leaving. "Where the hell else are you going to go?"

Lindsay hadn't said, 'My apartment, paid for with my money, like everything in this house.' Her father had never grasped that – glass ceiling or not – Lindsay made more more than all the men in the family. She kept quiet about that quite deliberately. She wasn't stupid; she'd known they'd intimidate her into turning over her salary if they'd had a clue what she received.

She wouldn't have been able to stand up to her father enough to leave if it hadn't been for the months she spent designing and building the hyperdrives along with the Asgard. She put everything into them. Taking even a consultant's position, 'assisting' the Prometheus ' chief engineer in keeping the Asgard hyperdrives functioning, being on the ship when they were in space, had been more than she could say no to, even if she'd been able to refuse a request from General Hammond.

"Assist, my ass," Lindsay muttered.

She might have said no if she'd realized how much the chief engineer was going to hate her.

Mr. Harvey couldn't grasp even the mechanics of the physical hyperdrives. He was hopeless when it came to the actual physics and Asgard science. Those engines were Lindsay's babies – the only ones she ever wanted to have – and without her the ship would have been dead in space before they left orbit. Nevertheless, Mr. Harvey despised depending on a 'horse-faced cunt' to keep his job and made sure Lindsay knew it every day she spent on the ship. He'd done a thorough job of making Lindsay's life miserable by recruiting every other resentful male member of the crew to harass her as well.

She stepped into the elevator and punched the button for her destination deck and gloried in being the only one in it. It wasn't a trap any longer. The time two airmen had hit the emergency stop, shoved her against the wall and groped her breasts before pushing their hands between her legs Lindsay had started hiccuping spastically, something she hadn't done since that unpleasantness with her high school science teacher her senior year. The more stressed she became, the more she hiccuped. She hiccuped so hard she thought she'd throw up on the airmen with his hand down her pants and nodded frantically when he hissed at her to keep her mouth shut before shoving her out of the elevator on the wrong deck.

Sharing the interdeck elevator with anyone had made her hiccup ever since.

The hiccups hadn't come back since the first week after accepting Vala's offer, though. Vala and Dush took her down to the armory and then the gym. "You do this and this and fucking kill any bastard that puts his hands on you," Dush told her as she demonstrated the self defense moves.

"If it's one of our crew, you come to me," Vala added. "They won't be crew after that."

The way Vala bared her teeth, Lindsay suspected they wouldn't be alive either and she liked that. It didn't matter that Lindsay was a woman and not a particularly sexual or beautiful one or the new person on the crew. She thought if she went to Vala, Vala would believe her.

The pirates were a hell of a lot better than her father or her high school councilor had been or the dean or anyone since the cancer killed her mother. She hadn't even considered going to General Hammond or the captain about Mr. Harvey or the two airmen.

Vala showed Lindsay how to use a gun too, something no one in the military had ever offered to do, issued it and ammunition to her. "If you need it, it'll do you fuck all good locked in the armory," Dush interjected over Lindsay's demurrals and then insisted on giving her a taser and several knives too. The cook had a remarkable collection she'd brought aboard with her from Hebridan.

She felt free.

Janet still felt guilty, Lindsay knew that, but she just felt so much relief. Instead of propping up Mr. Harvey, letting him take credit for all her work and undoing every bone-headed idiocy he ordered, she got to work with Rodney McKay – Meredith. Who insulted her whenever she did anything dumb and worked just as hard as she did and understood her babies, even helped make them better. It was almost like working with an Asgard, only Meredith understood that sometimes she needed to eat.

The doors opened and Lindsay walked out without worrying about who would be waiting for her.

She poked her head into the rec room, didn't find anyone, and went on to the mess.

The stranger sitting at one of the tables staring out the viewport at hyperspace made her hesitate only a second. The woman looked too slight to be threatening. Lindsay got her snack from the galley and came back out to the mess.

"Hello," she said.

The woman turned her head and considered Lindsay, unsurprised. She'd had her back to Lindsay, but the viewport provided a pretty good reflection. Lindsay hadn't been quiet anyway as she rattled around the galley.

"Hello."

"Lindsay Novak," she introduced herself.

"Teyla Emmagan."

Lindsay considered her then nodded to the table. "Do you mind?"

"Join me, please," Teyla said.

Lindsay set down her plate of pastry and her coffee. Teyla had a mug of one of Dushka's teas. One of the good ones that didn't smell like burnt guano and lawn clippings. Some of the supplies Vala had bought on Ushbos were disgusting. Dushka and Signe seemed to love them, though.

She sliced off a piece of pastry with the side of her fork and ate it. Couldn't tell the fruit came from the freezers. Of course, she couldn't tell what the fruit had been, either, but Lindsay had never cared much about food. She could cook the things her mother taught her to cook before getting too sick to do anything, all of her father's favorites, and gave up on trying anything new the first time he threw his plate at her.

The pastry was a little dry. Lindsay swallowed hard to get her mouthful down. She followed it with a gulp of coffee and held her breath.

She pushed the plate and pastry across the table to Teyla. She looked like she needed to eat more than Lindsay did. Under the really horribly chopped off hair, she was exquisite, with incredible cheekbones, but even supermodels didn't want to look that thin.

Teyla's eyebrow went up, but after hesitating over the fork for an instant, she tried a mouthful.

"It's good."

She smiled at Lindsay, who smiled back, feeling better.

No hiccups.

"Ever been in hyperspace before?" she asked.

"No."

Teyla ate neatly but fast and Lindsay sympathized.

She checked her watch. Time to get back to her babies. She wanted to recheck the numbers on Number Three's energy consumption during their last hyperspace jump. There had been a small spike when they transited the window that might have been from impurities in the naquadria or the first sign of an impending failure. If she did a comparison with their previous transit and found anything, she'd flag it for Meredith to double check when he came on shift. Technically none of the hyperdrives should need an overhaul yet, but the ship had crossed an intergalactic rift without dropping out of hyperspace once. No one knew how that might affect them, really, not even Meredith.

If she wanted to, if she and Meredith disagreed on something, Lindsay could take any concerns straight to Vala.

The smile on her face probably looked a little foolish to Teyla.

"I've got to get back," she said.

"To?"

"Engine rooms."

Teyla cocked her head. "You are a scientist?"

"Yes," Lindsay told her. "I am. A good one. I built the hyperspace drives." Prometheus or Revenge, Lindsay didn't care. A ship without drives was nothing but a hulk and these hyperdrives belonged to her. Even Meredith knew that, the same way Caias knew Jehan was Revenge's real pilot.

"You know," she said, "you'll like it, if you stay."

Teyla sighed and looked back to the viewport.

"Perhaps I will."

~*~


It slithered into his mouth, into his body and even into his mind. Rodney was helpless to stop it. No one even saw the moment when he reared away from the supine body of one of the wounded and clawed at his own throat. The death gliders were taking strafing runs at the stargate and each hit sent a gout of earth into the air. Fire licked through the grass and panicked natives ran screaming for any escape. Pieces of stone shattered into the air with the lethal force of bullets. Real bullets chattered from O'Neill's weapon punctuated by the roar of Teal'c's staff blasts. Rodney fell to his side next to the already dead former host and seized. Blood gushed from the back of his throat, running from his mouth and down into his stomach, as the symbiote tore through just behind the uvula on its way to his spine.

He had a moment before it gained control to realize the symbiotes wouldn't care how much damage or pain they caused going in. Once in control, they would repair anything that might downgrade optimum host health. This one was in a hurry. The smoke and chaos of the Goa'uld attack hid his – their – body from anyone else, but another refugee or one of Rodney's other team members could run across them at any second.

The fog of war, it whispered, she whispered, lifting the phrase from Rodney's memories, yes. She cranked his head around until he saw Teal'c and O'Neill vanish through the stargate, then had him on his feet and running for the DHD. He watched his hands slap an unknown address into it and activate the center crystal before helplessly sprinting through the new wormhole.

No, no, no, no, no, no, he chanted in his head, growing more and more hysterical as the symbiote now in control of his body dialed another address and took him through it. They didn't stop until another five planets were behind them and no one had a chance of following. Rodney began screaming then – in his head, because even his voice belonged to the symbiote now – and didn't stop until it turned his consciousness off entirely.

Awareness returned uncertainly. He heard nothing, could see nothing, could feel nothing – not any sense of his body, no heartbeat, no breath leaving and returning from his chest, not even the pressure of gravity weighing him in place. He was nothing but a consciousness separated from the physical.

Trapped.

The gibbering terror returned in an instant.

Consciousness snapped off.

His hand pressed down the red center crystal on a DHD. He tried to stop it, though he could feel nothing, just see through his eyes. He tried to hold his breath. The body went on breathing. He opened his mouth to scream and it shut again.

Stop it.

Get out, get out, get out, get out, get out! Rodney yelled in his head.

It knocked him out.

I am Jolinar of Malkshur.

I'm the King of Fucking Siam, Rodney shot back. I don't give a fuck. Get out of my head and give my body back.

You are Dr. Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay of the Tau'ri. It is not possible for me to leave this body at this time.

Then he would make it possible. He would make it unbearable to share his head with him. He'd interfere. Even if he couldn't wrest back control, he could make it a constant fight. He reached for his body at the same time he started a furious, all out rant at the symbiote. He felt his hand move, just a twitch, but then all sensation was gone again. He stepped up the mental volume of his protests in retaliation.

If you force me to suppress your consciousness further there may be permanent damage to your personality. It is not necessary for me to maintain it to use your brain, though I would regret the loss of knowledge wiping you out would necessitate.

Rodney went silent. Even this farcical existence, caged in his own mind with an egotistical, parasitical alien snake was better than erasure.

Fucking Goa'uld.

I am Tok'ra, not Goa'uld!

Oh yeah? What's the difference?

He never figured that one out. Jolinar might have called herself Tok'ra, but somewhere along the way she'd missed out on the whole concept of consensuality. Her host Rosha had died and she'd been forced into the Nassyan man, against her and his will, never managing more than the crudest control and spending all her energy on suppressing his body's natural resistance and rejection of her. Her panicked jump into Rodney's body had provided her with a host body that matched and offered her the augmentation of his genius. Giving that up on the off chance a volunteer could be found that would be half as congenial hadn't been on her program. She was old and didn't use the sarcophagus. Symbiotes lost flexibility and the ability to adapt to new hosts well over time. She feared dying if she had to leave Rodney's body.

She feared the punishment of the other Tok'ra if she left him alive and he revealed he'd been unwilling and a prisoner since she took him.

Of course, that meant suppressing Rodney whenever he might have revealed he wasn't her willing, happy host. He doubted the other Tok'ra cared anyway. When Jacob Carter showed up as Selmak's host, Rodney pendulumed between despair and hope, but Jolinar had become quite adept at faking a Rodney personality. His ex-father-in-law had barely known him – and never liked him – and never picked up on the deception.

He thought at least Jacob/Selmak would tell the SGC that he was with the Tok'ra, but if they did, no one cared enough to contact the Tok'ra and ask to speak with him.

They never appreciated you, Jolinar crooned.

Should have known really that no one cared.

Sam was on SG-1.

Don't need you, don't want you, O'Neill probably took everyone out for drinks to celebrate 'losing' you.

Jolinar was his only link to reality and he began to believe her.

They worked with Anise/Freya most of the time after that, moving from hidden Tok'ra base to secret labs, Vorash, Ravenna, nameless worlds that could only be reached by starships because they would support no life and had no stargate, and right under the noses of several System Lords. Qetesh paid no attention to the worlds she ruled, so long as they supplied sufficient tribute. The Tok'ra kept spies in her court and embezzled funds and equipment through her as well. Once they even slipped into Camulus' laboratories, but they only occasionally ventured out to obtain intelligence undercover and never within the retinue of any Goa'uld, though Jolinar had essentially been a spy before occupying Rodney. His technical skill and genius gobbled up everything on Goa'uld and Tok'ra science Jolinar could supply, though, and transformed it into new weapons and defenses. That made them valuable without risking exposure. Plus Cronus still wanted Jolinar dead.

Rodney stopped wanting to go back. What did Earth have to offer a man like him? Would they ever let him publish and receive the reknown he deserved? No.

It's just you and me, Rodney.

Just him and Jolinar.

They were fine together. Just fine.

Until Cronus' ashrak found them.

~*~



Novak passed her on the way to the galley, giving Vala a funny look.  Vala turned on her heel to watch as the engineer walked away, frowning a little, and trying to figure out what seemed different about her. She finally decided that the mousy woman had seemed at ease finally, something Vala had wondered if she ever did.

Well, she always liked her crew to be happy. Happy crews made for happy captains. Happy crews didn't mutiny. Solek was still a sore spot. Not that she'd ever trusted him, but he'd got the better of her. That rankled. Plus, it established a bad precedent.

Qetesh murmured that cowed crews didn't mutiny either, but Vala disagreed. Scared people did stupid things even if those things would get them killed. Fear left no room for logic – she knew all about fear after all. S hut up, just shut up, she told the other voice in her head. You aren't real. You're dead.

Are you so sure?

Jehan would know. So would Mer. That's why she needed them.

The local woman looked over her shoulder at Vala as she rushed into the mess. Her presence came as a relief. Vala needed someone to distract her from herself; it was what she'd come out to find.

"Teyla," Vala greeted her and received a nod in return. Another voluntary mute; just what the ship needed. No wonder Jehan had seemed to click with her. Mer too, come to think of it, which was just as unusual. Not that they trusted Teyla yet, but the potential was there; they liked her already. So did Vala. Survivors recognized each other.

They'd brought her aboard early in day shift, so she should have been in her cabin asleep. After listening to Teyla's story, Vala understood the sort of hypervigilence that kept Teyla wide awake in the mess hall, though, rather than asleep in the cabin they'd given her to stay in. Teyla probably couldn't rest. She'd been hunted from world to world without pause for over a year. If Vala couldn't sleep with her demon, how much harder would it when Teyla had been pushed past exhaustion for so long that staying still must seem unnatural? Keeping company with anyone had meant condemning them to the death that followed her. Now she was surrounded by strangers. Little wonder she remained awake.

It would take Teyla time to re-adapt to people, especially Vala's crew of misfits, provided she decided to stick with them. Provided Vala wanted to keep her on, because whatever Jehan and Mer thought, it wasn't a done deal. Teyla might not be able to re-insert herself into even their dysfunctional little society. That the damage was permanent was a given, whether it was too great was the question. If so, the cost of Teyla's survival might have been too steep.

She might be able to get along with them and just not want to, too. No guarantee she wouldn't want to get off Revenge at their next port of call, wherever that might be.

No time like the present to sound her out.

"So," she said, taking the seat opposite Teyla, "does anyone in this benighted galaxy drink anything except tea?"

There had been no time to stock any alcohol on Hebridan and the Tau'ri ship had been as disappointingly dry as the Goa'uld and Jaffa kept theirs – most symbiotes disliked handling alcohol in the host's systems and prim'ta made Jaffa suffer for indulging – Vala had expected better of the Tau'ri. Such a disappointment and so much for the vaunted First World culture. No beer, no wine, and no liquor had been onboard – Vala had searched everywhere – other than a single bottle of something called Scotch she'd discovered in the captain's cabin. Ba'al's balls, if she'd only known, she'd have stocked up while they were refitting on Ushbos, even if their beer was worse than watered cat piss.

That startled Teyla. Her dark eyes widened and the twitch at the corner of her mouth might someday remember how to be a smile. She was a stunner, as well as strong.

We could break her.

Shut the fuck up.

You're no fun.

Vala leaned back, rocking her chair and keeping the alarm off her face, and kicked her boots onto the table. Talking to the other voice in her head was a bad sign. She really needed to wrestle Qetesh back into her jar and bury it. Soon.

"Yes."

"Well, the first thing you can do for us is give us the gate address for a world where we can pick some up." She wanted every gate address Teyla could give them. Mer could turn them into galactic coordinates Jehan and Caias could use and then maybe they could transit somewhere those dogfucking Wraith hadn't already crapped everything to Netu and back. "I'm about ready to drink the jet fuel down in the fighter bay or some of Fraiser's disinfectant."

Teyla frowned at her in confusion. "Pick what up?"

Vala rolled her eyes. "Booze. Alcohol. Fruit of the vine? Fermented or distilled liquer? Beer? Mead? Something to get drunk from drinking?" Please, by Hathor's hanging dugs, let this galaxy have alcohol. Vala sighed in relief as Teyla's expression cleared and became amused and knowing.



"Try Belken. Marta came back with a hangover that lasted two days."

"Sounds like my kind of world. Any other suggestions? Places you know through the chappa'ai?"

She didn't ask who Marta had been.

Teyla rubbed her thumb over her pendant. "Hoff sometimes trades liquors. Manaria has mead and the Genii make a beer they serve at their harvest festival. If they have not been culled."

"What do you think they'd take for a few kegs?"

"They are a quiet, agrarian people. They mostly grow tava beans."

Bean farmers. Vala shuddered. Could anything be any more boring than farming? And what did you have to show for it in the end? Dirt under your fingernails and a hunchback from weeding. Revenge did have a machine shop for fabricating parts. Maybe they could make some hoes or shovels and sell them? Of course, all they'd get for them would be beer and beans.

"I am unsure what you could offer them that they would need."

"Need, pfft. What do they want?"

"I do not believe they want for anything they do not have. Their ways are very simple."

Chalking up trading with the Genii as a last, last resort, Vala waved her hand and said, "Never mind them. What about...Belken? Tell me about what your people traded with them."

"Seed grains, out of season fruit, mostly, cured leathers and furs," Teyla replied. "For worked metal items and pottery. There are several enclaves of people from off Belken there, people who left their worlds after cullings."  A sour expression crossed her face. "I had thought the Tau'ri were such refugees when they came to Athos. There were rumors that refugees from a great culling were still searching for a new place to settle that season."

"Sounds like this Belken might be the kind of place we could find out something about the expedition or some of your people."

"I thought you didn't care about the Tau'ri?"

Vala chuckled and tipped her chair back farther. "I do love yanking Daniel's chain. He's just so righteous and indignant. Besides, you never let a potential trading partner know what you really want upfront."

"But now you're telling me."

Vala grinned a shark's grin at her. "Now you're not a trading partner. Now you're on my ship and you're into us for medical care, food, clothes. So, the way I see it, you're either new crew or you owe us – me." She rocked the chair back onto four legs, her feet on the deck, and reached across the table lightning quick to finger Teyla's pendant. "And the only other thing you have to pay your way with is this."

Good thing Vala had fast reflexes or Teyla likely would have caught her hand and broken a few fingers. She slapped the table top with a flat hand, glared, and finally pushed her chair back, getting to her feet and declaring, "No."

Vala laughed because she looked so furious.

"You're almost as much fun as Daniel."

"I would not joke over something so important to another."

"Darling, not everyone is you," Vala told her, almost serious for once.

She'd wanted to see how Teyla would react if she pushed her hard. She'd guessed the necklace had to be important and it obviously was, but Teyla had kept a rein on her temper. Vala didn't expect Teyla to still be sane, but she needed to know that the ways Teyla had adapted to surviving alone hadn't wrecked her ability to function among others. Sometimes when a human went feral they couldn't find a way back.

It would take a while for the worst of the paranoia to give way. Teyla would likely always be hypervigilent, just like the rest of the crew. That was all right. Teyla would fit right in with them eventually.

On the other hand, Vala definitely wasn't getting laid tonight. Going to bed with Teyla right now would be like cuddling up to an unsheathed knife. Vala doubted the other woman could relax enough to climax.

Maybe in a few weeks, she'd ask, since she was sure the poor thing could use a good orgasm or a dozen. Vala suppressed a chuckle, because she wouldn't say no to a dozen orgasms or even just the one. Unfortunately, she was out of luck tonight. For now, she needed to find another way to silence Qetesh. Damn it.

"That was a trick," Teyla said flatly.

"I love smart ones."

"I don't enjoy being manipulated."

"I bet I could change your mind, darling," Vala told her with an outrageous flutter of her eyelashes.

Teyla cocked her head and gifted Vala with a slow, secretive smile full of promises.

"I think I will find my quarters now," she said.

"I'll walk with you."

She got up and headed for the mess hall door beside Teyla.

"I don't need – "

"I'm bored. Indulge me."

"Not tonight – "

"Don't tell me, you have a headache," Vala joked. She didn't know quite what it meant in Tau'ri parlance, but Mer and Jehan teased each other sometimes with the phrase.

"No, I just don't trust you yet," Teyla told her. "The Tau'ri are responsible for the culling of Athos. You say you aren't Tau'ri." She stopped and looked at Vala. "You could be worse."

Vala looked back at her and replied, "Yes, we could. We could be much, much worse than the Tau'ri." She smiled. "But we aren't."

~*~


Sam never hung out in the control room or the observation room slash conference room watching the stargate. She had things to do. The SGC's labs did not run themselves and though she didn't go through the gate thanks to outdated and flat out stupid military rules, she ran everything science related on base. The only scientist who could flout her orders was Rodney and then only in regard to offworld missions.

That had been another bone of contention between them. He resented her rank and position in the essentially military organization of the SGC as much as she did his freedom to go through the stargate on missions.

In honesty, everyone knew that while Rodney was certainly braver than he looked or acted most of the time, Sam had – metaphorically – bigger balls them him. She should have been on SG-1. Or some gate team, at least, but instead she didn't even get to go through to the planets declared safe. The last time she'd had an opportunity, she'd been blocked by some ass in DC's worry that gate travel might affect a woman's fertility. Janet had put paid to that foolishness fast enough, but it had still forced Sam to send Lee instead of going herself.

Bitter?

No, of course, not.

After all, she still got to work with the technology the teams brought back to the SGC, which certainly put her ahead of every other scientist on Earth who wasn't part of the Stargate Program.

Fuck yes, she was bitter, but she hid it most of the time. Rodney was the only one who really saw it, suffered the worst of it, and only because Sam knew he understood. Rodney's civilian consultant status, not to mention his Canadian citizenship, had constantly denied him the chance to work with the highest technology before he was recruited into SG-1, but at the same time serving on a gate team kept him from having the time for any pure research. Both of them were screwed.

Mutual brilliance and misery weren't enough to build a marriage on, though. The divorce had been inevitable. Rodney's signature on the papers had just been the period to the piece.

She hadn't hung about waiting on SG-1 to return when they'd been married; she wouldn't start post-divorce.

The klaxons sounding for an unscheduled offworld activation barely made her look up from her analysis of a Goa'uld ribbon device. There had to be a scientific reason the symbiote/host could use the technology but it remained inert and frustrating for both Jaffa and humans. Unscheduled activations weren't that rare. Sam tended to ignore them.

The base alert sirens that followed snapped her to attention, though, along with the announcement summoning further security forces to the gateroom. She still didn't have any business down there though and instead yelled at the rest of the scientists to go back to work, while she picked up the black phone – the red phone was for emergencies in the labs – and asked the duty sergeant for a status update. As department head and the senior ranking officer in the labs she was responsible for evacuating her people if necessary or keeping them in the labs and out of the way.

"SG-1's coming in hot with refugees, ma'am," the sergeant told her. "Security's escorting everyone to holding and then the infirmary for check ups. Appreciate if you kept your people out of the way."

"Thank you, Sergeant, I will," Sam told him and hung up. She glanced up and caught several people staring at her. "What did I just say? Back to work."

She was five minutes from throwing the frustrating ribbon device at Jay Felger's head and instead was pouring a cup of coffee from the lab pot with the intention of using it to wash down several Tylenol from the bottle in her desk drawer when the black phone rang. Sam snagged the receiver with her free hand.

"Lab 23, Major Carter speaking," she answered. She set the coffee down and opened the drawer. Where was that bottle? She shifted paper clips, pens, a continuity tester, a hair clip and several USB sticks out of the way and spotted the familiar white and red plastic stuffed behind a vo'cum that should have cataloged into storage three months ago.

"Sergeant Harriman, ma'am. The General requests you report to his office immediately."

Sam grabbed the bottle, suspecting she'd need it even more soon.

"Thank you, Sergeant. Please tell the General I'm on my way."

"Yes, ma'am."

Two tabs and a gulp of coffee and she was on her way to General Hammond's office. Harriman wouldn't meet her eyes as she came through, which made Sam nervous.

O'Neill and Teal'c were already in the office. A sick feeling hit Sam as her gaze flicked around, searching for Rodney. O'Neill had his head down and was scratching either dirt or blood out from his fingernails. Locker room showers never got all of that sort of thing out. Teal'c met her gaze and inclined his head formally.

General Hammond rose from his chair as she entered and she managed to snap off a salute not too tardily. "Sir."

"Major Carter," he said. He indicated the single free chair. "Please take a seat."

Sam wanted to stay standing, but she obeyed.

"I know that you and Dr. McKay are no longer married, but considering the recent nature of your divorce and your continuing working relationship, I thought you should be notified."

Sam bit the inside of her lip. Notified. Maybe they'd send a chaplain with whoever went to Vancouver to tell Rodney's sister. Sam was just an ex-wife and co-worker. At least she'd get to hear the truth, though.

"What happened, sir?" she made herself ask.

"Dr. McKay is currently MIA," Hammond said.

No one would be knocking on Jeannie Miller's door it seemed.

"Oh."

Hammond glanced at O'Neill, looking until the colonel straightened from his slouch. "Colonel?" he prodded.

O'Neill scowled at his hands before finally speaking a few terse sentences. "We were on Nassyan when the Goa'uld attacked. Death gliders and an al'kesh. We evacced to the stargate. Teal'c and I were providing cover fire; Daniel and McKay were both helping wounded. I saw him giving mouth to mouth to some guy. Lost track after that. He never made it through the stargate."

The sharp taste of her own blood made Sam swallow. She asked, because it was obligatory and because he was a her friend too, "And Daniel?"

"He's okay. Sprained his ankle. Fraiser's got him. X-rays."

O'Neill avoided her gaze.

"Will there be a...recovery mission?" she asked Hammond.

He shook his head ponderously, real regret coloring his answer. "I'm afraid that would be too costly, Major."

"The Goa'uld will have secured the chappa'ai with Jaffa," Teal'c stated.

"Oh."

"Because Dr. McKay may have been captured," Hammond added, his voice even heavier, "his IDC has been flagged. Security protocols require that we relocate the current Alpha Site. A squad will remain on watch there for the next month and a provisions cache including a radio will be left in place, of course."

"Of course," Sam echoed.

"We will do everything we can to discover what has happened to Dr. McKay," Hammond assured her.

"I know," she said. She did. O'Neill and Rodney might not be drinking buddies or best friends, but SG-1 had set the bar for the rest of the program from the beginning: teams stuck together and stuck up for each other, whatever went on internally. Even if they'd hated him – which Rodney sometimes insisted they did – O'Neill and Teal'c were both too proud to do anything but their best for a teammate.

She angled a look at O'Neill. SG-1 would need a new scientist now. They hadn't realized just how good he was, she knew, but whichever person Hammond assigned would be fighting a losing battle to compare to Rodney. Gall, their newest recruit, had the brains, but he made Jay Felger look like GI Joe. If they had any sense, they would ask Sam to take his place. A hot flush of shame hit her as she realized what she was thinking; Rodney hadn't been missing even twelve hours and she was playing scavenger.

Hammond was watching her and she realized it was time for her to leave.

"Thank you for letting me know, sir," she said.

The rest of the SGC would be buzzing with the news. The gossip vultures would have their beady eyes on Sam, looking for a reaction. She wouldn't give it to them. She wasn't Rodney's widow, wasn't even his wife any longer, and they had no proof he was really dead.

She filed her resignation from the Air Force the next day. She needed to be the one that went on a gate team and Rodney had been right, she would only get there as a civilian consultant who could set the terms of her contract. Hammond tried to talk her out of it, O'Neill tried to refuse to have her on SG-1, and her father showed up when the news got back to him, offering to pull strings to get her into the astronaut program and revealing he had cancer.

Only Teal'c and Daniel backed her up. Teal'c believed she wanted revenge on the Goa'uld for Rodney's death and Daniel convinced she meant to find her ex-husband just the way he still meant to rescue Sha're someday.

It didn't work out that way, of course.

Her father sealed a Tau'ri/Tok'ra alliance by offering himself as a host. Teal'c killed Sha're to save Daniel from Amaunet. Elizabeth Weir replaced General Hammond as head of the SGC. Daniel ascended and descended. They began to put a dent in the ranks of the System Lords. They fought Replicators and politics back home and on the whole Sam preferred fighting the self-replicating, malevolent machines, even the one that looked just like her, over contending with men like Vice President Kinsey. They fought off Anubis in a last ditch battle over Antarctica. O'Neill earned a general's star for that one and the team picked up a new face in the person of Cameron Mitchell, the other flyboy hero of the Battle of Antarctica. No one mentioned Sam's contributions there or at Dakara.

Seven months after Dakara, Weir called all of SG-1 into the control room to observe a transmission sent through the wormhole. O'Neill arrived at the same time the team did. Seeing one of the Tok'ra they'd worked with on Netu and later Ravenna on the screen, O'Neill muttered, "Aw, crap."

"Something I should know?" Cam asked Sam sotto voce.

She shrugged.

Daniel and Teal'c took up silent places in the back of the room.

"I regret to inform you that in the wake of the deaths of Selmak and Jolinar, the Tok'ra Council has chosen to dissolve its alliance with the Tau'ri," Martouf intoned. "Mak shel lo koma ashma."

"Why?" Daniel exclaimed, surging forward only to subside in reaction to a dark look from Weir.

"What about my father?" Sam asked. She'd sort of liked Selmak. The Tok'ra symbiote had done more than save him from the cancer that would have killed him. Selmak had mediated a peace between Sam and her father.

"And who the hell is this Jolinar?" O'Neill wondered.

Martouf's eyes flashed.

"Jacob Carter is also dead," he answered Sam. "And Jolinar of Malkshur took Rodney McKay as her host on Nassyan. It was she who urged the Tok'ra to first contact your people."

Oh, Rodney.

"You had one of our people this whole time?" O'Neill snapped. "You sonovabitches."

"Rodney expressed no interest in returning to the Tau'ri."

Sam risked a backward glance to Teal'c, who appeared stonefaced and yet furious at the same time. Those lying bastards, she thought, and found herself including her father and Selmak, who had to have known, in that condemnation.

"Sure," O'Neill drawled. "I knew the man and Carter here was married to him and I can say without doubt that the last damn thing he ever wanted was to share his body with a snake. He sure as hell had no time to consent on Nassyan." His eyes narrowed and he stabbed a finger at Martouf on the screen. "That whole thing...that was Cronus after this damn Jolinar, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Martouf – or maybe Lantash – admitted. "Jolinar had obtained critical information from Cronus, but been found out before we could extract her. An ashrak was dispatched. It eventually found her."

"God," Sam muttered and dropped into the chair next to Harriman's. She hung her head and then covered her face with her hands. They'd stopped looking for Rodney years ago, but he hadn't been dead. She smeared tears off her cheeks and raised her head to face the camera transmitting back to the other side of the wormhole. "When?" she demanded.

"The ashrak found Jolinar three weeks ago. She chose suicide rather than suffer torture at Cronus' hands," Martouf replied.

"We want the body."

"That will not be possible." Martouf sounded choked and Lantash took over halfway through. "There is no body."

No body then or the ashrak had done so much damage even the Tok'ra were horrified and didn't want anyone to see. Sam was surprised the Tok'ra had told them about it at all.

"You know, the IOC probably won't feel the same, but right now?" O'Neill sneered. "Right now, I'm figuring severing contact with you two-faced bastards is the best thing for us too. You only ever wanted us to do your dirty work for you, anyway."

"Colonel," Weir reprimanded him, but she didn't contradict what O'Neill had said. She tacked a diplomatic smile on her face and asked instead, "Is there nothing we can do to change your minds?"

"Nothing," Martouf said. "The Council believes the Tok'ra's interests and the Tau'ri are no longer congruent. Our numbers are limited and we have lost more operatives in the last three years than in the last three hundred."

"And done more damage to the System Lords than you managed in three thousand years before that," O'Neill snapped. He snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait. That was us. You were the ones with your ass in a crack every time."

"I hardly think so," Lantash replied.

The transmission cut out without warning and the wormhole collapsed.

"Well," O'Neill said with a bright, vicious smile for Weir, "I guess that answers the question of whether to let them in on this Atlantis Expedition, doesn't it?"

Sam backed out of the control room and took off at a fast walk for her office.

"Sam!" Daniel called from behind her, but she didn't look back. She didn't want to talk to him or anyone. Her father and Rodney were both dead and she needed to process that.

"Danny, let her go," she heard O'Neill say. Either he listened or Teal'c was holding him back, because she didn't hear Daniel's footsteps racing to catch up to her. She reached the elevator and pressed the button for her lab and office's level.

She never did cry, it felt too late for that, but she stared at the walls where she'd left Rodney's diplomas next to her own for hours and emptied her coffee pot cup by cup, before opening the thick project outline for the Atlantis Expedition and reading the job offer for chief science officer again. Suddenly Woolsey's one way trip looked a lot better to her.

~*~


Thanks to the Tok'ra interrogation, Vala had Qetesh's knowledge of Ba'al's holdings at her metaphorical fingertips. Ironically, accessing Qetesh's memories of her own past proved more difficult, but she knew, at least in part, that had to do with her own reluctance. The information on Ba'al existed at a remove and didn't threaten to overwhelm or confuse her shaky sense of self.

Six months after 'liberating' a cloaked scout ship from one of Caias' competitors, Vala dropped in on one of Ba'al's planets, where red dust blew on an incessant wind and the sand lapped a little higher at the ochre stone walls each day. The planet had no name and no stargate, just a set of galactic coordinates for navigation purposes. For fifty years, only Ba'al, his lo'taur, and his First Prime knew them, until Qetesh suborned the lo'taur and killed him a during the ill-fated alliance between the two Goa'uld. The climate barely supported the slaves that lived outside Ba'al's fortress. A squad of Jaffa kept the slaves cowed and working, but Ba'al had chosen a low profile and minor investment as a strategy instead of a protective army.

Considering he used the fortress as his experimental weapons development laboratory, Vala figured Ba'al expected to blow it all up some day and didn't want to lose any more of his resources there than were strictly necessary.

Qetesh had always considered Ba'al a bit of skinflint.

The Tok'ra hadn't targeted Qetesh as an informant casually. Qetesh had maintained a greater than normal interest in Ba'al's doings, out of paranoia, admiration, and peevishness. Ba'al no doubt had done the same in regard to the Goa'uld queen. The two of them had shared the closest thing to a love/hate relationship two Goa'uld could manage. The sex was always good anyway and they definitely got the hate part right.

Vala remembered at least one encounter between them since she'd been in the backseat while Qetesh drove and they'd definitely had more going on between them than the average Goa'uld rivalry.

While Qetesh hadn't been interested in provoking Ba'al by raiding the fortress, Vala had no problems with it. Sometimes being a solo act made things easier than commanding armies of Jaffa.

Armies of Jaffa were hard to hide, after all, and required things like food and power for their weapons.

Few people would have believed it, but Vala had patience. She'd acquired it the hard way, before Qetesh. All good thieves knew how to wait; every score was like an ambush, one scouted, set up and then watched until the moment came to pounce. Scams were sleight of hand, all fool the eye and appeal to the mark's greed and credulousness. The greater the greed, the greater the will to believe.

She kept to her stolen scout ship, subsisting on emergency rations and recycled water for three of the planet's months, just watching and learning the rhythms of its operations. The slave village was too small to insert herself into, but she doubted any of them knew anything useful beyond which gate they were to enter by. She placed listening devices close enough to pick up conversations inside their huts anyway.

She observed Ba'al's ha'tak arrive and leave and the al'kesh he left behind via sensors. Inside the smuggler's craft, she was far enough away he could not sense the naquadah in her blood.

Almost all the Jaffa went with Ba'al when he left.

All the better.

Summer wilted the sad gardens in the slave village. Vala slipped out one night and stole a robe from the village washerwoman's line and tailored it to her height, adding concealed pockets for the equipment she'd need.  Rumor in the blackmarket ports had Ba'al creating his own Orak, but she was after other things. Though she wouldn't mind lifting the plans to the body armor those orak Kull things used, a stash of naquadah or a sarcophagus if she happened to trip over any of those in the course of obtaining an updated list of Ba'al's holdings.

She might hate the Tok'ra but she felt perfectly validated in taking their money. Besides, she meant to sell the information on Ba'al's various boltholes, weapons labs, shipyards, and stashes to several other rival Goa'uld. The System Lords might be falling to the Tau'ri – and their own internecine warfare – but there were always ambitious small fry within their courts ready to step up and take their places.

The Jaffa practiced in a courtyard each day. Hand to hand one day, weapons the next, maintenance on their armor the third, then a rest day and the routine repeated. The prime in charge of the fortress led the hand to hand bouts, reinforcing his mastery of the other Jaffa. Vala donned her slave's robe with her equipment hidden in her clothes beneath it and rushed to the side door the slaves used to enter the fortress each day just as the rest of the line disappeared inside. She babbled an apology for being late to the young Jaffa on guard and accepted the cuff to her face. It would bruise dark, but it would heal, and he told her to run and catch up with the others.

Which left her alone in the torch-lit and gilded corridors.

Vala ducked her head and let her loose hair hide her fox-smile.

Hurrying too much would draw attention. Now, where would Ba'al keep his secrets? For that matter, where would he keep his treasure? She tried the labs first but found nothing useful left behind. Ba'al had stripped most of the equipment. The cells in the dungeon were interesting; he'd equiped them with gravity generators that made each one a well. They were all empty, fortunately. She didn't know whether she would have tried to help anyone inside escape or not. The only escape from the planet lay in the al'kesh and her own tiny scout ship.

Disgusted with herself, Vala headed for Ba'al's personal quarters. Anything that valuable would be kept close to hand.

She slipped into a store room and loaded silken sheets and lush toweling cloths into a basket and carried it directly down the hall to Ba'al's sleeping chamber.

"Here, you," a Jaffa demanded of her. "What are you doing?"

She'd expected a guard would be at these doors.

Vala bowed submissively and replied, dropping the name of the chief house slave, "Yubuf ordered me to freshen the god's chambers. I am to clean as well. The dust, it gets everywhere."

"Yubuf?"

"Yes," she squeaked. She hoped nothing had happened in the week since she'd picked up that name while eavesdropping on the slaves talking on their way back the village.

"Proceed," the Jaffa told her.

Vala scurried past him, acting the part of frightened slave without any difficulty. Inside, she lit every candle and torch and cursed the ridiculous Goa'uld penchant for only using lighting that their slaves and Jaffa could comprehend. Or, rather, their fear of either of those learning that they too could use higher technology than flint and tinder. The sacrifices gods had to make to retain their appearance of godhood.

Flame light flickered and threw shadows and made her job much harder but there were no windows in the inner sanctum to throw open. It also made it hotter and she began to sweat under the double layers of her own clothes and the slave robe. She unbelted it and let it hang open. No slaves to languidly fan her. She found the hidden controls to the air circulation system, but didn't want to risk activating it; the noise might alert the Jaffa guard to something out of the ordinary.

After searching the obvious and easy places and pocketing a few useful or valuable geegaws, including a minuturized healing device, Vala began searching for the hidden. There would be a concealed exit that would lead to either – or both – the al'kesh and somewhere outside the fortress. There would be a bunker where Ba'al could take cover and wait out almost any seige. That was the way Ba'al thought, plans within plans, wheels within wheels, responses to every variable, even apparent defeat. Despite their extended lifespans, most Goa'uld were remarkably shortsighted and intent on the instant gratification that came with being 'gods'. Ba'al could and did take the long view; his machinations were deceptive often because their intent lay decades, even centuries in the future. Failure would just initiate another plan.

Really, she was quite sure Ba'al even had a plan that took into account someone stealing all his secret plans and selling them to his enemies.

Vala snickered to herself.

Maybe not.

She tried tapping the gilt gleaming walls randomly, then frowned and began reading the heiroglyphs looking for a clue. Maybe Ba'al's horns? She found where his sigil had been carved over a symbolic chappa'ai and poked it with her finger. Nothing.

Time was draining away.

Vala turned on her heel and looked around the room again.

There, behind the red satin hangings, that was an interior wall that didn't parallel the corridor. She slipped behind the drapery and spotted another set of horns among the paians to Ba'al's magnificence. It was right down at hand level, where someone looking wouldn't see it immediately, but Ba'al could find it without lifting a hand. She felt something when she touched it, but nothing happened.

Of course, Ba'al didn't want just anyone finding his hideyhole.

Vala dug the ribbon device she'd brought with her out from under the slave robe and donned it. The devices did a bit more than inflict pain or knock people out. When she pressed the center jewel to the wall key, it depressed and an entire piece of wall silently swivelled open.

"I thought only a Goa'uld could do that," a smoky voice said behind her. "It doesn't matter. You won't find anything. My master has abandoned this place. Soon no one will be left."

Vala spun and brought the ribbon device to bear. The jewel flared bright.

The dark-haired man who had spoken winced and dodged away from the light. He had a zat in his hand aimed at Vala. It didn't waver.

Vala lifted her chin and assumed some of Qetesh's attitude and bearing. It brought Qetesh rushing forward into her thoughts, of course. The parts of her that had belonged to the Goa'uld queen were quick to examine the man who had discovered her. Qetesh approved of the narrow, handsome face and the red silks and leather he wore. Jeweled armlets glittered on his biceps and gold shaded his eyelids.

"Benna! Ya wan ya duru," she commanded. "Bow, human!" She wished she'd brought the device that mimicked a Goa'uld voice. A trickle of perspiration caught at the base of her throat and ran down between her breast under the leather halter she wore laced tight.

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

"I serve Ba'al."

"You defy a god?" Vala demanded.

" Kel mak goa'uld. Gods don't generally sneak around disguised as slaves," he said. He kept the zat aimed at her. "Not even in Greek myths."

He wasn't buying it.

"You are Ba'al's lo'taur?" she asked. He had the look Ba'al liked in a host: lean and dark. The remnants of Qetesh purred. Vala had to agree. Mostly she was wondering why Ba'al would abandon this fortress. He hadn't known Qetesh knew of it; it hadn't been among the secrets they gave up to the Tok'ra either.

He cocked his head before answering. "Yes."

Vala swallowed and decided to warn him. "You know he'll either make you his host or kill you once you are too old?"

He nodded.

She gestured with the hand encased in the ribbon device. "I was a host."

His eyes narrowed and he proved what Vala has suspected: Ba'al had chosen this lo'taur for brains too. "That's why you can use the technology? Something to do with the snake?"

She nodded.

"You said you were a host?"

"Better to die," she told him, all the ashes of fifty years of despair in her voice.

His mobile features went still.

Hollow and helpless, he said, "The god can undo death."

"The sarcophagus."

He nodded.

Vala shuddered just remembering some of the things Qetesh had done to those who displeased her. She'd been impatient and sometimes killed them too quickly. The sarcophagus let her bring them back and continue torturing them until they were sufficiently, satisfactorily broken.

"That's why I can't let you get away with this, whatever you're doing."

"Run away."

"Run where?" he asked. "There's no one, nowhere." He laughed bitterly. "The al'kesh is locked down. Only a Goa'uld can activate it. There's no chappai'i here, if I could get past the Jaffa. Not that I know the coordinates of my home planet anyway."

He'd thought about it, she understood. Weighed the risk and the reward and found the latter lacking – under the circumstances. Trapped on the planet, he'd only end up dying slowly in the unforgiving desert. Elsewhere, he might have a better chance, but still no place to go. Likely the Goa'uld ruled the whichever planet he'd been born on or he wouldn't have been taken as a slave. Vala bit back a growl of aimless anger. "Even gods die," she gritted out. "A slow knife, through the neck, and make sure you sever the spine – that's where the snake is." She bared her teeth in a humorless, joyless grin. "Decapitation works too. Don't let the snake get out if you can help it; they're fast."

He turned his head away, looking down, and Vala took her chance. She brought up the ribbon device and hit him with a enough pain to knock out even a Jaffa. The zat tumbled from limp fingers even as he folded to the floor.

"Sorry, darling," she told the unconscious form. "Lovely as our chat has been, I really need to keep moving here." She knelt beside him, checked his pulse and arranged his limbs more comfortably, though, then looked at him contemplatively. He really had a lovely mouth, made for smiling and kissing and that hair cried out for someone to run their fingers through it, not to mention that truly delicious neck. She wondered what his name was. Ba'al had excellent taste in lo'taurs, but never kept them too long. How long would this one survive?

It wasn't her problem, she told herself decisively. Though it would be a shameful waste.

She made herself leave him and slipped into the secret passage. Just as she'd suspected, there were two branches. One led to a stripped bunker. A fuming noise escaped her. Ba'al was shutting the entire fortress down and had already stripped it of the very items she'd wanted, just as his lo'taur had said. She'd wasted weeks here and had nothing to show for it except a few trinkets.

Of course, there were two valuable items left here.

The lo'taur had said the al'kesh was locked down, but she guessed that it would respond to the naquadah in her blood. Ba'al wouldn't have wanted to make getting to it too difficult; he wouldn't have expected another Goa'uld or an ex-host on his secret world. Just to be sure, Vala tried the second corridor fork and used her ribbon device to get through the al'kesh's airlock and up to its peltak.

One thing she hadn't needed to learn from Caias had been flying a Goa'uld ship; Qetesh had taken care of that. Vala had paid close attention when they were on any of Qetesh's ships. She slithered past all of Ba'al's safeguards and had command of the al'kesh in under an hour. Soft laughter escaped her as she realized the information she'd come for was safeguarded within the al'kesh's computer banks.

Taking the al'kesh would alert Ba'al that the data had been compromised, but Vala's buyers didn't need to know that. An al'kesh was certainly more valuable than her little smuggling scout craft. She hadn't left anything personal aboard it; she hadn't had any belongings in so long that she hadn't picked up the habit again. If she'd ever had it. Jacen had moved them often enough Vala had learned to confine herself to caring about only what she could carry on her person.

She would take the al'kesh. She'd do much more interesting things with than Ba'al would.

She'd take his other treasure too.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," she muttered as she struggled to drag the lo'taur down the hidden passage and aboard the al'kesh.

Vala didn't do rescues. No one had saved her, after all. She did steal things, however, and she'd bet no one else had ever dreamed of stealing a System Lord's lo'taur.

She named the al'kesh Tanafriti. The lo'taur turned out to have a name. Jehan. She decided to hang onto both.

~*~


Post-ashrak, he sent a coded message back to the Tok'ra through a dead drop. Everything Jolinar had known, he knew, including the comm protocols. He didn't like or trust the slithering bastards, but they were fighting the Goa'uld and maybe some of them deserved to know what had happened to one of theirs. His head felt hollow without Jolinar there. His moved, but it felt awkward and foreign, as though he were the usurper.

He left the world where the ashrak had caught up to them – her – and started using a different name. The first and only time he introduced himself as Rodney, he could hear Jolinar's voice pretending to be him, and nearly vomited. He was who he had always been, though, so he used his name, given at birth, and not some made up one.

Meredith McKay had skills, but most of them were skills he couldn't admit to possessing in a Goa'uld controlled galaxy.

He never once considered returning to Earth and the Tok'ra could take flying fuck out a fifty story window. He wanted nothing to do with them, mostly because he knew they'd do everything in their power to convince him to take another symbiote so they wouldn't lose everything Jolinar had known. Everything might include forcing rather than persuading and no way was he ever letting another snake in his head.

Without Jolinar to muzzle him, Meredith was at least as blunt as he'd once been. He was out of practice at monitoring himself. Not that he'd ever been good at that. Two different smugglers tossed him off their ships in three months. After he'd rebuilt them into something that could reliably fool or out fight or out run any Goa'uld ship, of course. He already had a reputation by the time he washed up on Hebridan. One of the development groups putting together an entry for the Loop of Kol Garat should have snapped him up, but they didn't. His last captain had blackballed him.

Mer smiled grimly when he thought about that; the sonovabitch would be in trouble in six months. The man he'd replaced Rodney with didn't know yellowcake from birthday cake. The first time something went wrong in the engine room, the smuggler and his crew would be screwed.

His funds were running a little low however. The Hebridan port worked like every other port and gouged travellers for everything it could. Goods cost more. Even the fleahole where he'd rented a closet to flop in charged a steep price. The beer was good, though he had to be careful; without Jolinar to regulate his metabolism, he had no head for it any longer.

The mug in front of him had to last for other reasons. He'd stopped into the tavern where spacers hired on crew every day and finally heard something. Someone with an al'kesh was looking for an engineer after it limped in-system on sublights from Netu knew where. He figured he might have a chance to sign on and get his ass off Hebridan before he was forced to start selling, since the ship's captain was probably as desperate as he was.

The cold rush of recognition as someone else with naquadah in their blood approached hit Rodney the same time the leather-clad woman and her  shadow stalked into the bar. Fuck, fuck, fuck, and fuckity fuck. A bitch Goa'uld or a Tok'ra undercover and wasn't that just who he didn't need? That explained the al'kesh, he supposed. He pulled a gun and kept it ready under his table. He didn't bother not staring; she'd felt the same thing he had and unerringly swiveled her head until she found him.

Mer watched her slink across the room toward him and laid his index finger across the trigger, tracking the center of her torso with the muzzle from beneath the table. He hooked the toe of his boot under the nearest leg of the table so that he could up-end it and make a try for the back exit if he had to. If she was Goa'uld, she likely had a shield and his gun would be about as useful as spitting. Her shadow didn't appear to be Jaffa, no mark, and what that made him Mer didn't care to think about too much. Earth had its share of people who had or would collaborate, too.

The sardonic tilt to her smile belied the invitation in the swing of her hips. Sex smoked off her but he'd bet half of it was an act. Plenty of men would be busy staring down her cleavage right up until she slid a knife between their ribs. They wouldn't have Mer's advantage. They wouldn't be wondering what else was looking out from behind her pale eyes.

"Merdith Mackah?" she asked when she reached the table and stopped opposite him.

The shadow stayed a step back and two to the side, making sure Mer couldn't cover both of them and watching their backs at the same time. He dressed all in black too, covered from head to foot and down to his gloved fingertips. Someone didn't like being touched. Mer counted five different obvious weapons. He calculated that meant at least seven more he couldn't see.

"Meredith McKay," he corrected her.

"Vala Mal Doran."

"And?"

He wasn't asking for an introduction to the shadow and let it show, sure she would pick up what he did mean.

She bared her teeth. It wasn't a smile.

"You stink of naquadah too."

"You're not Tok'ra."

She hissed but no telltale gold flared through her sclera. "I'd rather suck off an Unas."

Mer snorted and the shadow's mouth tilted up at one corner.

"Yeah."

"Word is you were," she half-asked.

"And now I'm not," Mer answered.

She nodded, pulled out the chair opposite him and sat.

"Word is you can make an al'kesh run sweeter than honeyed wine."

"I can make an al'kesh do things no one on this jumped up dirtball ever dreamed of," Mer said.

Shadow chuckled once, under his breath.

"Then why are you looking for an engineer's job?"

"I can't be nice."

Laughter burst from her and Mer decided that whatever she was, she wasn't Goa'uld. Their deficient senses of humor always tripped them up when trying to fake being human. Jolinar had been much better at that: she knew how to be self-deprecating. In fact, she'd been better at it than he had. She'd accused him of having an ego the size of Goa'uld's once or twice.

Vala reached back and patted her companion's thigh. "We aren't looking for anyone nice, are we, Jehan?"

Interesting. Maybe Shadow – Jehan, Mer corrected himself – wasn't strictly all hands off, but more like private property. It was academic anyway. Jolinar had taught him to pay more attention to interpersonal relations – she'd been a Tok'ra spy after all – and he couldn't just turn it off now. The humming sense of the naquadah in Vala's blood had settled into the background of his consciousness, but even with the first shock worn off, there was no way to tell whether she still possessed a symbiote or not. That was interesting. It meant that under necessary circumstances he could fake it, too.

Jehan turned his head enough to catch Mer's gaze, revealing green-hazel eyes and a sardonic smile.

Vala sat back in her seat and contemplated Meredith. "Any place you can't go back?" she asked. "Where's home?"

"I'm never going back to the Tok'ra," he replied. "As for home, that'd be kind of hard. Earth has an iris on its stargate; they put it up after the first time Apophis came visiting."

Jehan jerked and drew in a breath.

"Earth?"

"Earth," Mer repeated. Jehan looked eager and sick at the same time and Vala's gaze swung back and forth between him and Mer. "The First World." He waved a hand. "Goa'uld call us Tau'ri."

"The Tau'ri," Jehan said and let out a ragged laugh, "of course."

"Yeah, don't believe that crap about never leaving a man behind they spout," Mer added bitterly. "They sure as hell never tried to save me."

Jehan shook his head, laughed again, and muttered, "I need some air," before striding out of the bar.

"What the hell was that about?" Meredith wondered out loud.

Vala shrugged.

"He's moody." She smiled. "You get used to it. Now, tell me what kind of speed can you get me from my al'kesh?"

~*~


"Ma'am – "

Parrish kept calling Sam ma'am. Trying to be polite and respectful, but the habit just made Sam feel old. She had a rough desk and chair in their temporary, over the tavern headquarters, covered with inventories and mission schedules written on the locally made paper. She didn't give a damn about formality. She didn't have a clue what brought Parrish to her either and his nervousness irritated her, though she tried to conceal that.

"Drop the ma'am," she ordered.

"Yes, m – yes." Parrish gulped.

Sam shoved her hair out of her eyes and decided again to chop it off. "Well?" she demanded.

"Did you reassign Dr. Gall?"

"Did I what?"

Parrish shrugged. "We've been working at the Ellesit farm. He doesn't really know anything about plants, so we were paired together."

Right. Parrish was one of the botanists. Gall was another hotshot astrophysicist. Well on his way to Rodney McKay levels of obnoxiousness, though Sam felt he lacked the spark of genius that justified Rodney's arrogance. An academic hothouse flower. Gall liked to take his time and was young enough to think he had all he needed. He didn't work well under pressure, not real world, 'in five minutes we all die' pressure. He no doubt hated getting his hands dirty – she noticed the dirt ground in under Parrish's fingernails – and taking orders from a mere botanist probably chafed on him as much as the physical labor in the Genii's tava fields. The hope had been that Parrish's genuine interest in the tava vines and quiet ways would off set Gall's personality enough to keep from alienating any of the Genii.

Maybe that hadn't worked after all.

"I haven't spoken to Dr. Gall," she said.

Parrish's thin, horsey face fell. "Oh."

"Why would you think I had?"

Sam braced herself for an answer that ranged from 'he killed the tava and left the weeds' to a lover's spat.

"He hasn't shown up for four days." Parrish twitched his shoulders and shifted awkwardly. "I know he hated to work, but I can't handle my share of work and his too. I  asked some of the other scientists, but no one's seen him. I thought maybe, uh, maybe you'd sent him offworld?" He ducked his head and mumbled, "It's not like anyone would bother telling me."

"No," Sam said. She hadn't anticipated a disappearance. It didn't gibe with Gall's personality. He wasn't as big a complainer as Kavanagh, but he was still more likely to demand an ego massage than go off and sulk alone. She pointed at the other rickety chair. "Sit down."

Parrish gave her a wide-eyed look of alarm, but sat obediently.

Sam sighed silently. "I don't think you would have come to me over Dr. Gall shirking. What else is bothering you?"

"No one's seen him," Parrish repeated. "His pack's not in the Ellesit's loft – I checked. They don't know where he went." He twitched again. "Or they wouldn't tell me. It's hard to tell. They're all so..."

"Closemouthed?"

He nodded.

The Genii had taken the expedition refugees and the Athosians in in exchange for work in their fields and repairs to some older equipment like their water wheel and mill, but they weren't the most friendly lot Sam had ever met. She didn't know if they regarded her people with suspicion on general principle or because they were technophobes. She couldn't fault their generosity. The village didn't have housing for such an influx of numbers, so members of the expedition were sleeping in extra rooms, kitchens, attics, haylofts and parlors in town and out on the farms where many of them were working for their room and board. The marines had a little tent city going as well.

Sam hadn't liked scattering everyone, but none of them had wanted to quibble over the terms of the Genii's charity.

She frowned at the bare, wooden wall as she thought. She didn't like this development, not at all. She'd begun sending teams of marines and scientists through the stargate with Halling's traders, in hopes they'd come across information that could lead them to a ZPM or something equally useful or even some of their other missing people, since an unknown number had fled in company with some of the Athosians. The schedules scratched down on the papers before her didn't include Gall; she knew every name on them after going over and over possibilities with Ford, Cole, Grodin, Zelenka and Bates. Gall hadn't made the cut; he had no offworld experience before joining the expedition and no, as Bates muttered to Ford when Sam wasn't supposed to hear, 'cojones'.

So where was he?

"Uh, there's something else," Parrish said.

Sam snapped her attention back to him.

"What?"

"When I was asking around? A couple people mentioned Lydia Dumais."

The Genii buildings had no air conditioning or no fans, but despite the afternoon warmth of the room, goosebumps formed on Sam's arms.

"No one's seen her for a while either."

Dumais wasn't on any of the mission schedules. She'd sprained her ankle during the culling and been reduced to helping weed gardens until it healed up. She'd shrugged philosophically over the temporary reassignment, taking it with better grace than most of the scientists, admitting she'd helped in her family's garden as a child. Sam had hoped that Dumais' double degrees in nuclear physics and electrical engineering would become more useful if they found any leads to a power source and been grateful to avoid the sharp side of her tongue for once.

Gall might be the kind of man to shirk his new duties, but Lydia Dumais was too proud to give less than her best even to the most menial task.

"Thank you," she told Parrish. "I'll check into this." She forced a smile to her lips. "Don't worry. It's just a mix-up."

Parrish jumped to his feet and nodded. "Yes, I'm sure it is. I mean, we'd know if there were Wraith here, right?"

"Right," Sam agreed. "Kanaan has the Gift and we have sentries watching the stargate."

"Oh. Sure. I guess I'm just being foolish." He waved to the door. "I'll just go now."

"It's probably best not to alarm anyone else," Sam said. "So maybe you should stop asking around for Doctors Gall or Dumais."

He blinked at her.

"Oh. Uh. Right."

"People are nervous enough right now," she added gently, implying but not saying Parrish was among them and might be blowing the matter out of proportion. Lying through her teeth because she was alarmed too.

Another jerky nod from Parrish followed and then he sidled out of the room. Sam pressed the heels of her hands to her closed eyes until colors starred and bloomed in the darkness behind her eyelids.

"God damn it."

She activated her radio. "Sgt. Bates, could you join me in HQ? Carter, out. Over."

"On my way. Over."

She flipped through the brown-tinted papers until she found the housing list, then ran her finger down it until she found the listing for Lydia Dumais. In the village itself, unlike Gall, with a childless couple who had a large front room. No one else from the expedition had been staying there. Dumais had been recruited to SGC on the basis of a list Rodney had put together, one of the bits and pieces Sam had inherited. She'd added her own recommendation to Hammond and later Weir, based on qualifications and an interview.

Bates knocked before stepping in.

"We may have a problem," Sam declared.

"A new one?"

A snort of dry laughter escaped her and she nodded acknowledgment of his hit.

"I don't want to start a panic with our people, but one of the botanists was just here. His work partner has disappeared. One of the engineers may be missing too."

"Who?" Bates asked.

"Brendan Gall and Lydia Dumais. I already checked. They aren't part of our offworld teams." She waved the sentry report log. "They haven't gone through the stargate."

"AWOL?"

Sam shook her head. Gall might do something stupid in a fit of overweening ego, but not Dumais. This wasn't like being on Earth, where no matter how far you were from home, there was always some way back. The expedition members were all each other had of Earth.

"Why?" she asked. "And not both of them. They're not friends or lovers."

Bates leaned back against the door and frowned.

"Scientists," he said.

Scientists, not his usual, contemptuously pronounced civilians. Pointing out the common denominator. Bates had been part of the Alpha Site security detail before the expedition. Experience riding herd on and safeguarding researchers had been one of the reasons to recruit him. Dumais and Gall were both brilliant, even on Earth they would have value. In Pegasus? They might bring any price.

"I want a head count. I want everyone that came here two weeks ago accounted for now," Sam ordered. "Try to do it quietly, but do it."

"Why not assemble everyone?"

"If they are gone and not voluntarily, I don't want to alert whoever took them that we know anything is going on."

"Got it."

It felt too much like locking the barn door, but what else could she do?

Gall had disappeared first. First but not last.

No evidence supported that conviction, but Sam knew. They took Gall first. They thought Gall would be more useful, more knowledgeable, more valuable than a woman and weighed that against believing someone would miss him before a woman, so they took him first.

She ordered Bates and Stackhouse to search for any signs of what had happened when the head count confirmed Parrish's worry. They came back with nothing. She thought about relocating the expedition again, but there were too many teams out with the Athosians with no way to know where they'd went. She didn't know where they could go. Beckett was on Hoff, invited to stay, but that invitation hadn't been extended to anyone else.

A week later Kavanagh dropped off the radar between one daily check in and the next.

No one had gone through the stargate. Aside from their regular sentry, Bates had assigned a covert watcher, someone the sentry didn't know about.

Sam made everyone buddy up, changed assignments, pulled the hard science experts in from any outlying farms on the tenuous basis of Gall, Dumais, and Kavanagh's specialties. The daily check in became face to face and not over the radios.

Tyrus swore the Genii had no idea where her three missing people could have gone. Perhaps they had simply wandered off and become lost, he suggested in a tone so patronizing Sam had to grit her teeth against belting him. Her scientists might not have been Daniel Boone types, but they were smart enough not to wander away. Kavanagh complained about having to go outside to use a latrine. Speaking of latrines, she recognized crap when it was being shoveled over her feet, and thanked Tyrus sweetly for his offer of a search party, telling him she knew his farmers couldn't spare the time away from their crops.

She began plotting how to get Sora, Tyrus' ever-so-curious daughter, off somewhere Cole could pump her full of sodium pentathol.

Billy Abrams and Corporal Mingus vanished next. Rafel and Deela, the couple they were staying with, swore up and down the two had shared breakfast with them, left, and they knew nothing more.

Either the Genii were all oblivious idiots or the Genii were liars.

Sam sent Ford and Grodin to Hoff to negotiate for permission to evac the rest of the expedition there. Manufacturing bioweapons would be better than being picked off one by one. She didn't know what was going on with the Genii, but their bucolic world felt more and more like a trap. With their luck, if the Hoffan agreed, they'd be going from bad to worse, but Sam's instincts were screaming every day now to get out. O'Neill had kept them alive following his instincts; Sam wasn't about to ignore her own.

If it wasn't already too late.

"I do not understand why you wish to leave," Halling said. "The Genii have been welcoming."

Sam shrugged and said, "Sure, but we didn't come to this galaxy to do stoop labor, Halling. I can't ask my people to keep at this." She waved toward a ubiquitous tava field and wrinkled her nose against a psychosomatic sneeze. Most of the expedition had survived the first reaction to the tava pollen. Only Kavanagh had developed hives. Bloom time was passing anyway. "From what Beckett tells us, we'll fit in much better on Hoff."

"But my people will not."

"Halling..." She didn't want to leave the Athosians behind. The expedition owed them.

It was Halling's turn to sigh. "I understand."

"Do you?"

"It is never comfortable to live as a guest, on sufferance. This is not our world either."

"We're grateful," Sam said carefully, "but I don't think we can stay."

Not while some mysterious force was picking her people off, one and two at a time.

"Have you told Tyrus or Cowen?"

"Not yet. I'd rather wait until we're ready to go." She couldn't shake the feeling the Genii were behind the disappearances. She didn't want to give away her plans. "Don't worry, we're not going to steal the good silver on our way out the door."

Halling chuckled and left her staring out over the dusty green tava field, watching her sunburned marines working beside the Genii. The Genii wore sensible hats to protect themselves from the hot sun. The marines wore baseball caps or boonies. The Athosians wrapped their heads in brightly dyed kerchiefs and dabbed soot under their eyes to cut the sun glare. They were all tying the vines up off the ground with twine and sticks. It looked like a picture of intercultural cooperation.

Sam put on a pair of sunglasses and walked back to the village tavern. Two marines assigned as her own security shadowed her. She smiled and nodded to the villagers as she passed them while trying to formulate a plan to search for her missing people that didn't involve screwing the muzzle of a P90 into Tyrus' ear and demanding the truth. She didn't want to abuse the trust Halling and the Athosians had given her and the expedition by bringing them here and vouching for them, but once she had her people out, it might come to that.

She wasn't just walking away without trying to get her people back, not when she was already cursing herself for losing them in the first place. It shouldn't have happened. They were her responsibility now. She should have known better than to relax her guard. O'Neill would have known better. Teal'c would have known better. Hell, Rodney would have known better, with his finely honed sense of paranoia. He'd never have bought the Old McDonald's Farm shtick the Genii were selling.

Rodney would have taken one look and screeched Potemkin Village! before insisting they search beneath the surface.

Sam stopped in her tracks.

Surface?

If there was a surface, there was an under the surface?

She turned around and looked at the village. What was the Genii's secret?

"Ma'am?" one of the marines asked. He was sweating and red-faced in the midday heat and obviously wondering if Sam had finally lost her shit.

"Just thinking, Corporal." She pulled open the tavern door. "Just thinking."

Thinking didn't get her anywhere though, not even hours later. She thought she'd pinpointed when things had changed though: it had been one week into their sojourn on Genea. Right after Ford had authorized using some of their limited supply of C4 to help clear stumps from a nearby field. Bates couldn't chew out an officer for flat out stupidity, but Sam had. She'd dismissed the matter after that, though, because the job she found herself doing, running the expedition – what was left of it – had taken up all her attention. She'd already negotiated an agreement with Tyrus, even though his patronizing manner made her bristle. They needed to establish some kind of base to operate from until they found an energy source that would let them get back into Atlantis and dial Earth. Genea had seemed good enough, it was one of the Athosians' bolthole worlds and with some luck, they might regain contact with some of their missing by staying in one place.

Halling had sent scouts through the stargate to other Athosian trading partners. At least twelve different groups had fled through the stargate during the night of the culling, because they'd hooked back up with that many. It had likely been more. In Pegasus, children's ditties were formulated to help them memorize the runes on a DHD. Travellers and traders exchanged gate addresses and news. Despite the long shadow of the Wraith, the societies of Pegasus were far more knowledgeable than those in the Milky Way. Even panicked and running from the Wraith, the Athosians had remembered and found their way to 'safe' worlds, and they'd taken many Tau'ri with them.

That's how they'd found Beckett. MIA up until then, it turned out he'd followed Charin to Hoff, where his medical knowledge more than paid his way, it turned out. She hoped the Hoffan government would be just as interested in improving their nineteen-fifties era technology on other fronts.

Beckett hadn't said it, but Sam had got the message. The Hoffans were working on a bioweapon that would target Wraith. She should have called him back, but feared he might refuse the order. As CMO – even if Cole, the emergency specialist, would have been the better choice than a geneticist – Beckett occupied an analogous rank to Sam's as CSO. He'd never acted like having balls made him better, but there had always been someone else in charge of both of them. She couldn't guess which way he would go under their changed circumstances; she didn't know him well enough.

She wasn't willing to push the matter, not when she preferred working with Cole anyway.

Now she was grateful she hadn't.

She thought the SGC would send a rescue eventually, once too much time had passed and  Prometheus' refit with intergalactic caliber hyperdrives had been concluded, but had to wonder if the expedition would be around to be found. How hard would the SGC look, with an entire galaxy to search? Would they recognize who they found? Sam sensed the changes already and knew there would be more. The divide between life back on Earth and in Pegasus went deeper than the rift between galaxies.

They needed to find a way back to Atlantis that wouldn't end in them drowning with the city. Now Sam was worrying about finding them a way off Genea.

Zelenka and Miko were working on the problem of an energy source. They needed ZPMs, but she'd settle for coming up with something more powerful than the naquadah generators, something small enough they could transport it through a stargate. Grodin and Angela Bele were combing through the directory of gate addresses they'd pulled from Atlantis before fleeing, translating whatever notes were included. All of them were jammed into the second upstairs room above the tavern. The laptops were too valuable at this point to leave the room. Zelenka had the solar collectors that charged them set up in the window.

"Any progress?" Sam asked automatically as she poked her head inside.

"Nothing yet," Zelenka answered.

Miko didn't look up from her screen. She'd fit herself into a corner where no one would stumble over her and she could work in near silence. Equations reflected off the huge lenses of her thick glasses.

Sam sidled between Angela's chair and Zelenka's, to where she could read the screen over his shoulder. Ancient poured down one window, mirrored by a stilted English translation next to it. The automated translation program Daniel and Weir had labored over was running. Unfortunately, the Ancients hadn't thought or written in a way that made sense in English grammar. Neither did a lot of Earth-based math and physics, of course. Combined with another language, the translator usually rendered the information they wanted most into gibberish.

"Anything I can do?"

"Here, my eyes are beginning to cross," Zelenka said as he scraped his chair back. "I need to stretch my legs."

"May I join you, Dr. Zelenka?" Miko asked.

Sam settled into his chair, wincing at the hard seat, and began reading through the translation while Angela and Peter murmured together, ignoring her.

An hour later, she sat back and pinched the bridge of her nose. Ascension. All the Ancients had been interested in had been abandoning physical forms in favor of existence as energy. Every other notation she found referred to another world abandoned to the Wraith as they'd fallen back through the Pegasus Galaxy. They hadn't cared much for the human societies they'd seeded on those worlds beyond persuading them to do whatever they could to slow the enemy's steady gains. Sam didn't get why Daniel had thought these people were so advanced. She didn't see it. They'd been on top of the technological heap, but an alleycat had more morals.

She frowned and looked around. Miko's chair was still empty. Zelenka hadn't returned either.

Sam shoved her chair back with a screech. Peter and Angela's heads snapped up and they blinked at her, dazed, surprised and alarmed, as Sam jerked the door open.

"Kosciusko," she snapped at the marine outside. "Where are Doctors Zelenka and Kusanagi?"

Kosciusko tried radioing their security.

"Maybe the batteries on their radios are dead?" he offered.

The sinking feeling in Sam's gut told her otherwise. She bolted down the stairs with her security right behind her protesting, "Ma'am, ma'am, Dr. Carter, let us do our jobs – " Out the back of the tavern's door was a forked flagstone path that led to the outhouse on one hand and a summer kitchen on the other. Sam took the left fork. Kosciusko surged ahead of her and began cursing a moment before she saw what he had.

Zelenka and Miko's radios weren't dead. They were lying, one crushed, next to the path. The blood spatter and the evidence of a scuffle led to drag marks. Neither scientist had gone willingly. Sam followed Kosciuscko, bird-dogging the drag marks and cursing more and more obscenely, around the outhouse, where they spotted the first pair of boots. Behind her, Mendez, her other marine escort, began reciting a prayer for the dead.

"Damn it," she said softly. This was too much. The Genii couldn't believe she'd ignore this. She activated her radio. "Lt. Ford, Sgt. Bates, activate Charlie Lima Foxtrot One. Defcon Red. Carter, out. Over."

Static sizzled through her earpiece. Bates replied first. "Defcon Red. Acknowledged. Bates, out. Over."

Charlie Lima Foxtrot One was their emergency evacuation of everyone through the stargate to the empty world where they'd stashed most of what they'd salvaged from Athos. Sam called it Operation Clusterfuck in her head. Defcon Red was the expedition code for weapons hot rules of engagement. She'd just authorized the marines to shoot on their own recognizance.

"Ma'am?" Ford questioned a moment later.

"You have your orders," Sam snapped as she stared down at the bodies of Marine Corporal Allen Henson and Private Donny Wilson, Miko and Radek's assigned security escort. Their throats had been cut. Local insects were just beginning to buzz around the drying blood pooled under them. "Follow them, Lieutenant. Over."

"Yes, ma'am. Over!" She could practically hear the salute.

It was time to bug out, while they still had enough people to get out.

~*~


Tau'ri.

Tau'ri.

Jehan squeezed his eyes shut, but only for an instant, because he was exposed out here, even in the shadows.

Light pollution hid the stars on Hebridan. The lights from the port sheened the sky over head with a metallic blue glare that hurt the eyes. On the ground, garbage reeked from the alley next to the bar. The local version of music, all atonal wails and hisses layered over mathematic progressions rather than the rhythms favored by strictly human cultures leaked from inside the bar and mingled with the distant roar of ships setting down and striking out for orbit. Hebridan was wetter and warmer than many worlds and sweat slicked Jehan's skin under his tight clothes.

God damned Tau'ri.

Jehan leaned against the wall outside port bar, but that wasn't support enough and he doubled over and braced his hands against his knees. He should have known. He should have guessed. But he hadn't. He'd never had a clue.

Goa'uld damned Tau'ri.

He'd mourned his people, Earth, all of it, all of them, all the selfish, thoughtless wonder of an entire world that had never been ground under the heel of the Goa'uld, that had built for itself a variety and intricacy that rivaled the rest of the galaxy, and he had choked on the guilt of his helplessness to save it. Out of all the Milky Way, only Earth had been innocent of the Goa'uld taint. Earth. Of all Vala's arguments after she stole him, it had been revenge that moved him when he'd thought he had nothing left in him to feel. All his sorrow, all his guilt, every risk he'd been taking and pushing Vala to take with their ship until it broke on them, it had all been for nothing. Earth was the First World and the foundations of everything they'd built stood on the sandblasted rubble of Goa'uld domination.

Every suffering soul and condemned slave in the Milky Way could trace their descent back to the First World. They were all orphans of the First World, no matter how many generations removed, and they hadn't just been abandoned, they'd even been forgotten. Anger ran like acid through Jehan's veins.

The Tau'ri didn't need help. They were doing just fine. They'd even stood up to a Goa'uld fleet. They were no more innocent than the cutthroats and entrepreneurs of Hebridan. The Tau'ri had already left a trail of chaos behind them in the Milky Way, though, that reeked as badly as whatever was rotting in the nearby gutter.

Laughter rattled out of him in uneven gasps, the kind of sound that made even the drunks and muggers steer clear of him. Smart of them, because right then Jehan wanted to kill something.

Those fucking bastards. They'd been waltzing around the galaxy all this time. Even he'd heard of the Tau'ri, of Onee and the sholva Teal'c, of Samca'ta, Danyel Jaxen and Mackah – Mackah, who had to be McKay, pale and cynical except for intensity of his blue eyes, with his Caesar hair cut and a face and head that could have modeled for some Roman emperor; he certainly had the requisite brilliance and arrogance according the galactic rumor. The stories had twisted and turned so far as they passed through the chappa'ai though, just as the names had changed, that Jehan had never made the connection. His mouth shaped itself into a snarl, remembering Teal'c. There hadn't been an ounce of mercy in the Jaffa First Prime the day Jehan had faced him. Impossible to imagine the sholva had switched sides so easily afterward.

Quiet, heartfelt curses in a mixture of the languages Ba'al had made him learn slipped out, mostly Goa'uld, but he'd picked up some of the Jaffa subdialects, had some Arabic, and bits of the Gatebuilder's tongue. Ba'al had an obsession with them and collected anything and everything that survived of what they'd left behind, hunting secrets and power.

He'd heard Ba'al amused and admiring by turns by the impertinence of the Tau'ri, but Ba'al's fury had burned for the traitor Jaffa. Jehan had savored the idea of what Ba'al would do to the sholva if he ever fell into his hands, knowing he was wrong to want it and not caring. The taste of bile hit the back of his tongue and he had to twist to the side and throw it up, hoping he'd miss his boots. If Ba'al had ever captured Teal'c, would the Tau'ri have come for him? They hadn't cared enough to come for him...

Ba'al hadn't known Jehan came from Earth. There had been some reason the Goa'uld valued Jehan over most slaves, something Jehan had never been privy too, but it hadn't been a connection to the despised Tau'ri.

Another heave and Jehan wiped carelessly at his mouth.

He wasn't Tau'ri. He refused to be. He had no more reason or desire to return to them than did McKay. They'd let the Tok'ra have McKay, who was obviously too smart not to be dangerous, so they sure as hell weren't interested in getting one used up Air Force officer back.  Jehan couldn't even imagine being back on Earth. What in hell would he do?

Right, he'd be locked up somewhere and debriefed for the next decade. Hakorr kra terak shree. Kresh'taa.

He refused.

The thought of a Jaffa, a First Prime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, of Teal'c of Chulak, striding around Earth with one of the snakes in his belly all along, accepted and protected and considered one of the Tau'ri, nearly made Jehan throw up again. As far as he was concerned, they'd betrayed him; he'd never be one with a people who accepted a Jaffa among them. Goa'uld didn't possess a word for apostate or even recreant and he didn't care much for the alternative, but he'd embrace the epithet anyway.

Sholva, then.

He rejected them.

He rejected them all.

~*~


The basement storeroom under the Genii tavern had no lights.

Flashlights played around through the darkness as Sam's marines searched it. The air smelled of damp earth and beer. She stood back, flanked by Kosciusko and Stackhouse, while Bates ran the search and the others snarked back and forth.

"Blacker than my ex-wife's lawyer's heart," Sergeant Schmidt remarked.

"Divorce lawyers don't have hearts, Smitty," Markham told him. "Here, give me a hand with this barrel."

The barrel couldn't be lifted. Markham found a catch, though, and it and another stack swiveled to the side along with an entire false wall.

"Hey, look at that."

A triangular concrete hatch rose out of the floor to about knee height.

"So much for the Pegasus Pennsylvania," Stackhouse muttered.

"Yeah," Markham said. "Not exactly Amish." He ran his hand around the hatch lip to the hinge and rubbed his fingers together. "You notice? No dust and it's been oiled recently."

"Open it up," Bates said. Schmidt gave Markham a hand lifting the weighty hatch. It balanced vertically – a thick chain kept it from opening further and breaking the hinges.

The shaft revealed under the hatch had three sides.

Markham aimed his P90 down the hole revealed. He flipped on the light mounted over the barrel and played it over the smooth concrete sides. A metal ladder was bolted to one side.

"Great," Smitty muttered, peering down. "Effing bunkers."

"We're going down there?" Markham said.

"Yes." Bates grimaced and then glanced at Sam. "Are you sure, ma'am?"

"Yes," Sam told him.

Sam had ordered the scientists not to let their equipment out of their company and Miko had taken the directive seriously. Miko had taken her laptop with her everywhere. Even on a walk with Zelenka, she'd tucked it in its case and slung the strap over her shoulder, carrying out with her. They hadn't found it at the scene where she'd been taken, so she might still have it, and all of the expedition's laptops were equipped with tracer beacons.

Grodin had had a grid on his laptop screen showing the location of Miko's laptop – and Miko, they all hoped – while Sam was still thinking of it as another equipment loss. She'd walked into the makeshift HQ and gave the order to begin breaking it down for evac and Grodin had grabbed her arm and pointed her at what he had.

"The signal's underground," he'd said. "It cut out. Probably shielded, but I found this." Two key taps and another window opened. "Radiation. Something's generating power down there. I recorded a spike in background radiation that coincided with the tracer disappearing."

"A door opened," Sam agreed.

Grodin nodded. "And then closed."

Sam looked at the time stamp. So close. The entrance had to be close by, even in the tavern, or under it.

Sam had sent Kosciusko for Bates and two squads of marines kitted for search and rescue and helped break down the rest of HQ while they waited. Not heading down to the tavern basement without back up had been a feat of willpower, but she knew better. She knew too much to let herself be taken too.

Bates knew it too.

"Ma'am, you should join the Lieutenant at the stargate and wait for us on the other side," he said.

"We're wasting time, Sergeant," Sam told him. She tapped her radio and transmitted. "Lt. Ford, this is Carter. We have located a hatch behind a false wall in the tavern basement and are proceeding. Over."

"Good luck, ma'am. Over."

He didn't like it, but Bates didn't argue any more.

"Smitty, take point. Remember, we want to get our people back. That's the mission."

"And get out ourselves," Smitty muttered as he swung over the lip of the hatch and began the long climb down. The other marines followed. Sam went almost last and only after Bates gave the all clear. They left the hatch open above and progressed down at least one story.

Sam tested her radio when they reached the bottom. "Lieutenant Ford, this is Carter. Over." All she got was static. Grodin had been right. The underground had been shielded against RF, too.

"Nothing," she told Bates. She looked around. There was some timber work that had nearly rotted out, but beneath that the concrete and stone work remained sound and obviously predated it. Light shafts offered enough illumination to move around. "I don't think this is Genii work."

"I don't think it matters, ma'am," Bates said. "They're using it."

"You're right."

Bates gestured toward a massive metal door. "Shall we?"

Sam nodded.

The door opened with a groan, sliding to the side. A rush of damp, cool air escaped, bringing with it the sound of waters.

The two squads of marines proceeded forward. All of them gaped at the vista that revealed itself before them. An artificial lake and hydroelectric dam system dominated a vast cavern. Lights glittered from buildings along the lake's edge. More clung to the walls of the cavern like angular barnacles.

"Holy shit," Kosciusko exclaimed.

Sam wanted to kick herself. So much for Halling's 'simple farmers'. This had been underneath them since they arrived on Genea.

"Joke's on us," she said.

"Let's move," Bates said and they started down the precarious metal steps bolted into the stone. "Someone's going to figure out we've found their secret soon."

Sam got out her tracker, checked, and found the signal from Miko's laptop. "Our people are down here somewhere. Let's find them before some finds us."

Tracking the laptop's signal took them deeper, down among the buildings, upping the danger of discovery. They skulked along as fast as they could and hoped their luck would hold. The Genii were far more advanced than the face they presented on the surface. Sam began hoping they'd catch up with Miko and Zelenka and their captors without any other encounters.

She knew better.

They were ready when they were discovered, taking cover as a patrol of six men in gray uniforms saw them and fired at them.

The marines flattened themselves against the walls, behind anything bullet proof and on the floor and hosed fire back on full auto. The six men went down.

"Hold fire!" Bates ordered.

Silence.

Sam kept her P90 aimed at the doorway the patrol had arrived through. Kosciusko had her back and two others were watching the the way they'd come. Everyone stayed in place.

"Markham," Bates hissed. He held up his hand and signed for the younger man to go forward, while Bates covered him.

Markham crawled forward on elbows and knees, weapon extended before him.

Sam held her breath, let it out, and realized she could smell blood and someone's belly wound as she pulled in a new lung full of air. Her skin prickled, pulled taut, every hair on end thanks to the adrenaline flood her fast beating heart rushed through her body. Cold soaked through her tac vest from the rough concrete floor. Her knees hurt and her hands ached from clutching the P90 to tight.

"Clear," came Markham's voice. "Six hostiles down."

Sam checked the tracker. The dot was moving faster.

"Let's move, people," Bates said. "Someone heard that."

She got to her feet and showed the screen to Bates.

"Yeah," he acknowledged.

He was looking down at one of the Genii hostiles. Blood glistened dark through the gray fabric of the dead man's uniform. Bates prodded his arm with the toe of his boot. It fell to the side, revealing a gun belt and a side arm in addition to the fallen weapon.

"Doesn't look like they have automatic weapons yet," Bates said.

Sam nodded to one of the shot out lights. "Electricity." She paused then added, "Probably from the dam down there, but the radiation reading Grodin got makes me think they're messing with nuclear power."

"Hostiles," Schmidt said. The rest of the marines redeployed themselves to cover the Genii arriving.

Sam turned to the right and saw Cowen, accompanied by Pockface and a squad of Genii military in the already disliked gray uniforms at the opposite end of the corridor they'd started down before the patrol encounter. Their weapons were aimed at Sam and her people.

"If by nuclear, you mean a force that will destroy Wraith hives with its power," Cowen's unpleasantly confident voice said, "then yes."

Sam considered him and the situation. Zelenka and Miko were with him. The chances of recovering them had just dropped through the floor. Getting out themselves had become all she could pragmatically hope to accomplish.

"Nice. We wish you luck," she said. "Hand over our people and we'll leave you to it."

"That won't be possible. Once we became aware of the technology your people had brought with you, we knew we needed what you know," Cowen said. "But even if we didn't need your scientists, we couldn't allow any of you to leave now that you know our secret."

"What secret? Your underground bunker?" Sam laughed at him. "We could care less."

"People will do anything to survive, Dr. Carter," Cowen said.

She shook her head. "You're mistaking your own lack of principle for a universal truth."

"The only universal truth is that the Wraith must be stopped," Cowen snapped. He waved to Pockface. "Kolya. Get the one we picked."

"With great pleasure," Pockface told him and faded back through the Genii soldiers briefly before leading Kavanagh forward by the arm. He held on of the blocky pistols the Genii soldiers all were carrying to Kavanagh's back.

Cowen said, "The Genii once controlled a great empire of stars. Our starships and soldiers were feared through out our galaxy. The Wraith broke our empire and drove us back, drove us into hiding, into grubbing the dirt like every other primitive herd of human cattle just so we could live." His voice dripped scorn. "But the Genii have not forgotten themselves like the Athosians. We are patient. And we will destroy the Wraith and rule again."

He gestured to Kavanagh.

"With the help of your scientists, your knowledge and your wonderful 'C4', that day will come within my lifetime."

Ford, you damned idiot, Sam thought, using that C4 like that.

"Now, you will put down you weapons and surrender. After that, we will go to the surface and you will radio your people to return," Cowan told her.

"Like hell," Bates muttered.

"If you do not," Cowan said, "Commander Kolya will have to shoot Dr. Kavanagh. He hasn't been as cooperative as Dr. Gall." He walked up to Sam with his hand extended to take her weapon. He thought he had Sam over a barrel and he thought he could intimidate her, either because she had no back up or because she was a woman. Either way, it baffled her until she figured out he'd never really faced up against anyone who had comparable or superior technology or had been in tighter fixes. Not that she meant to take the time to explain she'd saved her home planet once or twice and taken out scarier enemies than Cowan's soldiers.

"Cowan – " Kolya protested.

"I'm going to die of radiation sickness anyway," Kavanagh blurted out. "They have no conception of shielding – "

Kolya snarled and backhanded Kavanagh. Sam took the opportunity caused by the distraction and raised her P90, shoving the muzzle into his gut. Cowan grunted, started to grab at Sam, and froze.

"Do that and I shoot you," she told him.

"Commander Kolya, do something," Cowan shouted. He didn't look away from the weapon still touching his flesh.

Kolya swung himself and his captive away. Maybe he took over if Cowan bought it. Sam followed Cowan with her sights and said, "Let him go and get the rest of our people." What the hell, if she was going to bluff, she might as well bluff big.

"That would take longer than you can risk staying here," Cowan replied.

Damn him for being right.

"You're coming with us then," she replied. "Stackhouse, Smitty, take him."

They sidled up next to Sam, covered by Markham and Kosciusko, and secured Cowan's hands with plastic restraints, then walked him further back among her people.

Sam met Kolya's gaze and thought again that this man wouldn't mind seeing his superior killed by enemy action. For the moment, though, in front of his men, he'd have to act like it mattered.

"We'll release Mr. Cowan at the stargate when you deliver our people to us there."

"I do not think so," Kolya told her with a cool smile.

Kavanagh gave out a small cry as Kolya twisted his arm.

"Everybody back to the surface," Sam ordered.

"You can't leave me here!" Kavanagh protested.

Sam wanted to do something for him desperately, but they were out of options. She could trade Cowan for Kavanagh, but then they would have no leverage and the Genii would have no reason not to start shooting at them. In a firefight, the marines had better weapons, but this was the Genii's planet. They had the numbers. When ammo ran out, numbers always won.

"We'll come back for you," she promised. It was an empty promise and Kavanagh knew it.

They began backtracking out of the underground cavern. There were eyes and guns on them the entire way. Up the steps and through the door, Sam kept waiting for an attack. Kolya followed. That made her feel marginally better. Friends close, enemies closer. She wanted to know what he was doing. He made her trigger finger itch; if it went to hell – further to hell – she wanted a chance at greasing him.

Up the ladder to the basement hatch was one of the iffiest points. The Genii could have an ambush waiting there to pick them off one by one.

Sam held her breath as the first marine started up the ladder. Her earpiece crackled with static and Ford's voice suddenly echoed there and from above.

"Dr. Carter? I've secured the tunnel egress. Over."

The marine on the ladder paused and ducked down far enough to yell, "The lieu's got a squad here. Exit's secured."

"Go first, ma'am," Bates advised. He jerked his head to Cowan. "We'll send him up after you and keep an eye on these guys." Another nod indicated Kolya, who still had Kavanagh in an iron grip, and his men.Sam knew it was time to go along with Bates, whether she liked it or not. With a nod, she set the safety on her P90 and let the sling take its weight, then started up the ladder. Ford gave her a hand at the top.

"I left you in charge of getting out people through the stargate," she snapped at him.

"All done, ma'am," Ford said. "All the civilians are accounted for and on the other side. I've got a squad at the stargate, another between there and here, and men here." He looked a little hurt. Ford did the hurt puppy thing a little too well. Sam suspected he'd been skating on mistakes thanks to it all his life. It was so easy to forgive an error when it was well meant. "We stayed topside."

And risked a hell of a lot of their limited manpower when he had to damn well know she wouldn't have authorized it. Nor would Bates, who might not have Ford's rank, but definitely had more on the ground experience and good sense. Not to mention his lively sense of paranoia, which looked more and more like a survival trait in Pegasus.

"We'll talk about this later," she told him.

Cowan's restraints had been shifted to in front of his body to let his climb the ladder. Two of the marines lifted him over the edge by the shoulders.

"You know," Sam said, "I don't think Commander Kolya would mind if you didn't get out of this alive."

The furious and frightened glare he gave her confirmed he'd picked up on the same vibe.

There were Genii outside the tavern, people Sam had spoken with, shared meals with, and thought she'd known. Now they were armed with incongruous weapons in addition to pitchforks, axes and hoes. They watched with cold eyes as the Tau'ri, leading Cowan, double-timed toward the stargate.

"Stay frosty," Stackhouse said, "you can bet some of them are still out here," as they entered the trees. "And we're on their turf."

Which was likely as riddled with tunnels and ratholes as a Vietnamese jungle. Sumner had been the only member of the military with them that might have remembered the lessons taught there.

The Genii certainly had faster methods of getting to the stargate than overland. Kolya and more soldiers were waiting when they reached it, exiting the shadowed treeline into the sunshine. Clouds of insects buzzed up from the long grass as they entered the clearing.

Kolya still had Kavanagh with him. An ugly bruise was darkening on Kavanagh's cheekbone and his lip had started to split and swell.

"Do you really want a firefight?" Sam asked him. "You may kill us, but it doesn't win you anything but casualties on your own side."

She was sweating and trying to not let it show, but this was when it was all going to blow up in their faces. The Genii weren't going to tolerate being shown up like this. They couldn't stand back and let her people retreat without losing face.

"Let us go. No harm, no foul. You get Mr. Cowan back unharmed and we take Dr. Kavanagh." She didn't look away from Kolya. "Ford. Dial it up."

Ford moved to the DHD and began pressing the keys. Sam didn't care about the Genii seeing the address. They weren't staying there longer than it took to turn around and dial out to their real destination.

The rim of the stargate lit up, lights running around it and the chevrons lighting instead of moving the way the stargates in the Milky Way had. Pegasus gates were faster too. Sam itched for the chance to take a closer look at one herself.

The wormhole opened in a rush of energy and they began edging back to it. Kolya stood still, watching them with the those cold, dark eyes. Ford stepped backwards through the event horizon. The three squads he'd had with him also made it through, each of them making a soft squelch as the surface reformed after their passage.

Eventually, only Sam, Bates, and their last squad stood at the stargate. Bates had taken over the job of covering Cowan.

"Dr. Carter," Kolya said. "You're right about the casualties, but don't think you've won."

"I don't," she said.

They still had Gall, Abrams, Dumais, Kusanagi and Zelenka. Those were her people. Without them, she sure as hell hadn't won.

Sam sidled back until she could feel the surreal, cold lap of the event horizon lapping at her back. It pulled. The soft suction wasn't enough to move her weight, but it couldn't be ignored either.

"Commander Kolya," Sam said. "Why don't you send Dr. Kavanagh over here? We'll let Mr. Cowan go at the same time."

Kavanagh looked terrified. He knew something she didn't.

"No, Dr. Carter, I don't think so," Kolya said. "I believe you and our 'guests' all need to learn that one does not defy the Genii."

He shot Kavanagh through the head. The next shot was aimed at Sam. Or possibly Cowan; Bates shoved the Genii leader stumbling in front of Sam. Genii fire hit him at the same time Bates grabbed her arm and jerked her back through the wormhole.

~*~


Turned out Vala Mal Doran's al'kesh and her partner had both belonged to Ba'al. Until she had 'liberated' them, as she put it with a wicked grin. That meant the al'kesh was as state of the art as any Goa'uld technology was. Ba'al went in for more innovation than most of the snakes.

It meant Jehan was the only member of Vala's crew of cutthroats and desperados that knew anything about running the al'kesh, so they ended up working side by side. Engineers and pilots were much harder to find than thugs and goons. Mer used that to win extra crew shares and command staff rank from Vala before signing on.

Mer didn't get why Jehan had latched onto him at first, though he certainly appreciated the clear 'touch and die' message Jehan communicated to the rest of the crew in regard to hazing him. It left Mer free to call them the musclebound cretins they were when the idiots interfered with his repairs.

Mostly they didn't; the crew were on port leave, raising hell among Hebridan's brothels and bars.

Day three of putting the hyperdrive back together – what had they done, thrown a couple boulders, a Tasmanian Devil and a Slinky in there and shook it? – and Jehan innocently asked Mer, who was cursing the need to custom make a replacement part, if he was missing a flux capacitor.

Mer shot back out of the drive housing, just missed concussing himself, and went red as he sputtered, "You – you – you – "

"Me?" Jehan gave him innocent eyes.

Mer contemplated the spanner in his hand and whether it would hit Jehan if he threw it.

"Get out of my drive room!" he finally shouted and brandished the spanner.

"I'll go get some lunch," Jehan agreed peaceably and strolled out.

"Flux capacitor," Mer muttered after he'd gone. "What does he think this is, a DeLorean?" He crawled back under the housing and went back to prying out the fried components. They were lucky they'd limped into Hebridan, which had a space port and manufacturing industry that could make up a replacement. He forgot about Jehan and his comment until later that night, when he dropped his spoon into the green, gooey soup Dushka the cook had served up and stared at Jehan with his mouth hanging open.

"Something wrong, Meredith?" Jehan asked in amusement.

Mer snapped his mouth shut. If Jehan was from Earth and hadn't said so, then he obviously didn't want it known.

He dug his golden spoon back into the soup. Soup didn't taste any better on gold than silver or stainless steel and he figured Ba'al's ornate spoons and plates would be melted down and sold off to pay for supplies before they shipped out again.

Jehan continued spending time with Mer as they rebuilt the al'kesh's drives. Mer gradually realized that the relationship between Vala and Jehan didn't include sex. They were close as brother and sister, but if they'd ever shared a bed for more than sleeping, they didn't any longer.

He still kept his hands to himself, though. If Jehan came from Earth, then he might not react well to a pass from another man.

He closed up the drive housing and crawled out. One last panel to seal and Tanafriti had faster-than-light drives again. Mer patted the wall. He felt pleased with himself.

"All done?" Jehan asked, making Mer jump.

"Don't do that!"

"What?"

"Sneak up on me. I'll die of a heart attack and then you'll be stuck here forever."

"Been here the whole time," Jehan said.

Mer gave him a narrow eyed look. "Fine," he said. "Yes, I'm done. Faster than humanly possible, may I add."

Jehan tipped his head back and to the side. "You aren't human?"

Arrrgh. "Considering the difference between my intellectual capacity and the average homo sapiens sapiens, that may very well be true. I'm obviously a more advanced product of evolution."

Jehan's lips twitched but he didn't reply.

"Well?" Mer demanded. "Did you want something other than to pester me pointlessly?"

Jehan did smile this time and stepped closer. Very close. Mer had to swallow.

"Jehan?"

He held still, even held his breath, as Jehan swiped his thumb over Mer's cheek. He held it up, showing a gleam of the amber colored sealant Mer had been using.

"Grease."

"Oh," Mer murmured, disappointed.

Jehan reached for him again and Mer relaxed, thinking he was after another smear, but this time Jehan's palm fit warm and steady against Rodney's face and delicately pressed, just enough to tip Rodney's head and make him take a half step closer.

"Oh," he said again, understanding.

Jehan licked his lips nervously and blurted, "Wanna fuck?"

Mer gaped at him then asked, "That line get you anywhere often?"

Jehan flashed a rare, sweet grin. "Don't know, I never tried it on anyone before." He dropped his hand to his side though and just waited for whatever Mer would do next.

Mer finished sealing the last panel with hands that did not shake, because his hands never shook, but his pulse pounded in his ears and his mouth had gone dry. Jehan's jokes were dry and sardonic and mostly shared with either Vala or Mer and not on them. The panel went snick as it locked in place and then he had nothing to do with his hands. Jehan was still close enough Mer could pick out the lines at the corners of his eyes where they crinkled when he smiled and the scruff of beard showing dark on his jaw. His throat moved, giving away a hint of nervousness.

Mer wanted to lick the line of that long throat.

"Don't try it on anyone else."

Jehan grinned. "Yeah?" He leaned in again. Mer felt the warmth of his breath gust over his own lips. He could see the fine grain of Jehan's skin, the little uneven bump over one brow, the flare of golden brown that surrounded his pupils before the iris turned gray-green shading to a dark rim. That explained how his eyes seemed to change from dark to light depending on his mood. They were dark now as Jehan's pupils dilated. He smelled of sandalwood, leather and sweat. Mer wanted to touch him. Wanted to place his fingertips right on the soft, dry curve of Jehan's lower lip and trace it.

"Yes," Mer said and caught Jehan's hand in his. If Jehan had pulled away, that would have been it, Mer would have written the whole thing off as a joke and they would have gone on as cautious friends. Jehan closed his fingers around Mer's, though, and tugged him out of the engine room to the nearest sleeping quarters. His hand was warm and a little damp, giving away a level of nervousness Mer found endearing.

They'd slept together five times since and Mer hadn't picked up any hint that they were going to stop. Not when it kept getting better each time. At this rate of progression, Mer calculated he would die within the next six months of sexual overload. His brain would have melted out his ears before then, though, so he wouldn't mind.

Meredith let his head thump back into the pillows and tried to catch his breath. The breathlessness was a good thing. It kept him from thoughtlessly saying something like, 'Did Ba'al teach you to suck cock like that?' Which would assure he never experienced Jehan's skill again in his lifetime.

As well as likely getting his ass handed to him, because Vala had been right. Jehan was moody. Laconic to the extreme, reticent, taciturn, and, oh yes, touchy. On the other hand, he was smart, tough, and he both found them funny and got all of Mer's jokes, even the most esoteric Earth culture based ones. Meredith liked him and from the evidence of what they'd just done together? Jehan more than liked him back. Jehan preferred showing it instead of saying it, was all.

Jehan made his way up the bed and sprawled beside Mer. Turning his head was about all Mer had the energy left to do, but he managed it and took in his bed partner. Lips swollen, eyes closed, sweat still gleaming on his chest, and Jehan looked good enough to give Meredith pause. He watched Jehan's chest lift and fall to the steady rhythm of his breathing. His belly hollowed just a little with each exhalation and his hands were lax at his sides.

Mer would bet his back teeth Jehan came from Earth, but Jehan's past before falling into Ba'al's hands was off-limits. He doubted sleeping with the man changed that. Or he could be wrong. It didn't happen often, but Mer wasn't certain about Jehan, because he'd already been wrong once.

Originally, he'd assumed Jehan and Vala were sleeping together. They were both beautiful and obviously close – Vala had an entire crew of cutthroats, but she called Jehan her partner. Mer had figured that meant bed partner too. He had written off his immediate attraction to both of them, because no good could come from ticking off Vala by poaching and Vala herself was a little too predatory for his tastes.

A host of Jolinar's memories told Meredith of exactly what Jehan would have done as Ba'al's lo'taur, but survival and necessity were different from predilection. There were no silver linings to Jehan's experiences, though. It would all be trauma.

If Jehan was from Earth then he'd likely been raised to think of himself as strictly heterosexual. Mer had thought of himself as completely straight before hosting Jolinar, after all. Jolinar had preferred female hosts through most of her existence, though, and the wealth of memory she'd shared with him had changed his attitude. Expanded his skill set too; he knew a lot more about a female body from the inside than most men would ever comprehend.

At least he'd thought all that until Jehan made his move.

"You know, you surprised me," he said.

"Wow," Jehan muttered. He stretched and his calf brushed Mer's. "Thanks."

"Not that," Mer corrected him lightly.

Jehan rolled onto his side and arranged himself with his head on Mer's shoulder and a hand on his stomach. Their bodies were still over heated and sticky with sweat, but it felt nice. Affectionate. Mer hitched himself a little higher in the bed and made himself into a comfortable body pillow.

"How?"

"Just you… and me."

"Seemed good," Jehan sighed, obviously reluctant to talk about anything significant. "You were looking."

"I was not!"

Jehan laughed. "You were."

"Okay, but I wasn't going to do anything," Mer admitted. He'd thought Jehan was spoken for after all. If he'd lingered a couple of times outside his cabin door, well, that was because Jehan made him feel less like an exile. It had been relatively innocent. He hadn't wanted to endanger that.

"I know," Jehan said. "But I noticed. First time I ever...realized." He lifted his head and smiled at Mer. "Or wanted too. That's got to mean something, right?"

Mer stroked his fingers over the point of Jehan's shoulder. Jean leaned into the touch. Had he changed Jehan just by observing him? Did that make him the Heisenberg of sex? He snickered silently to himself. When his caresses stilled, Jehan made a grumbling sound and arched, silently demanding more like a pushy cat. Mer resumed the touching and Jehan went loose and pliant, practically melting into Mer.

Jehan mumbled something about 'their rules' Mer didn't quite catch as a yawn overtook him. His jaw popped. "Mmph," he agreed still mulling over Jehan choosing him over all the other options.

"Plus Vala ordered me to say something."

A chuckle slipped out and he felt Jehan shake with silent laughter in response. He'd have to thank Vala. He'd never had a boyfriend delivered to him before. Mer already knew Jehan well enough to guess she must have threatened him with unimaginable embarrassments and humiliations to get him to speak up. Mer had no way of knowing if Jehan had always been crippled on the communications front and he really didn't have a leg to stand on when it came down to it himself, but Jehan really wasn't in good shape when it came to emotions.

"She's the captain," he said finally.

Jehan turned and kissed Mer's collarbone. The tenderest brush of soft lips over skin contrasted with the scrape of beard.

"I'm crap at following orders. Barely made it through – Doesn't matter."

Officer's Candidate School? ROTC? The Air Force Academy? Mer finished in his head after Jehan cut himself off. Jehan had been military; he gave it away in a million ways. Mer felt sure he'd been an officer too. He ignored the slip so that Jehan would relax again, but Jehan had retreated into silence.

He wracked his brain again trying to figure out who Jehan had been, running through the names of the SGC's missing and dead, but he'd never paid any more attention to the soldiers than he had to. SG-1 had been atypically civilian in make-up and when O'Neill had brought along military to back them up, they'd never really integrated. Mer only memorized the names of fuck-ups so he could make sure they never came through the stargate with him again.

When he didn't prod, Jehan relaxed again and patted Mer lightly. "Wanted to," he murmured, then, "wanted you."

"Yeah, me too," Mer answered.

He wouldn't ask, but he could wonder.

Who the hell had Jehan been? He couldn't make the numbers work out. Mer frowned to himself. Maybe he'd been part of the original Abydos mission? That didn't work either. Maybe one of the Asgard had snatched him; the creepy little bastards looked too much like Roswell Greys not to have something to do with all those abduction stories. The stories themselves sounded a lot more believable after you knew there were nasty aliens out there too.

Mer scratched an itchy patch at his crotch and thought he should get up and wash, but decided to wait for early shift. The only wet patch was down where Jehan had been lying between his legs and they were both sleepy afterwards. Getting up, cleaning up and changing the sheets took more energy than he could muster. So did contemplating the mystery of Jehan abd-Ba'al. Knowing who Jehan had been before wouldn't help them run down the Lucian Alliance cargo ship and its armed escorts next shift anyway.

Mer closed his eyes and let himself fall asleep.

~*~


They kept moving after Genea. Sam visited Hoff, but while the Hoffans were more honest about their goals, they still had a whiff of crazy about them. She didn't think her people would be safe there either. Halling and Kanaan were with her and while Beckett and one of the Hoffan scientists explained what they were attempting, Sam saw both of them go grim.

She took the first chance that offered itself to ask them why.

"I do not know if what they are attempting is possible," Halling said, "but the Wraith would have no use or toleration for a population that was immune to feeding. One that actually poisoned them when they tried to feed...?"

"They will wipe the Hoffans out," Kanaan finished. "None will be left alive to spread the secret of immunity to other worlds."

Halling nodded.

"Even the Ancestors' Ring."

"Why don't they realize that?" Sam asked.

Halling sighed heavily.

"They do," he said at last. "But they no longer care."

Beckett chose to stay anyway, after Sam decided against staying on Hoff and put it to him. She wasn't surprised. The Hoffan's chief researcher was a very attractive blond who obviously had something going with Beckett already. Sam left Beckett there and hoped for the best. At least it was his choice and they could check back via the stargate. She negotiated for supplies with the Hoffan Chancellor in exchange for data Beckett couldn't offer and a couple pieces of medical equipment that were too large and heavy to heft from world to world indefinitely, and then they moved on.

Hiring out the scientists to fix or build things and the marines to shoot things kept the expedition members in basic supplies while they looked for power sources or some place to settle. The Genii weren't limited to their own planet, either, and the Athosians who had come with them picked up on rumors there were bounties on all the Tau'ri scientists. Another reason to never stay anywhere too long.

They picked up several strays along the way too, despite Bates' worries about Genii spies. The only Pegasans Bates didn't suspect were the Athosians, but Keras was smart and a hell of lot more mature than Lt. Ford, even if they were the same age.
At least they'd made a small change for the better on Keras' world. They'd never found the source of the shield that protected the tiny village and hadn't been able to offer them any alternatives to controlling their population, but the aged-out there would now have the option of leaving through the stargate rather being forced into ritual suicide or an execution. Keras and several other on the cusp had asked to go with them and Sam hadn't had the heart to turn them away. The marines were integrating them while picking up new hunting and gathering skills in exchange.

Eldon Bel was a different matter. Odd and jumpy as he was -- and who wouldn't be after being convicted of a trumped up charge and sent off to become a Wraith buffet? -- he had a knack for quick and dirty engineering. He was quick to grasp whatever any of the scientists wanted and always came up with something that would work. Without his help, Sam wouldn't have got them off the Olesian prison island and away before the Wraith showed up for the next tithe.

The rest of the Olesian convicts had poured through the gate after Sam and her people and scattered to hell and gone. She hadn't been willing to take any of them on beyond Eldon. Most of them were probably innocent at the time of their sentencing, but survival in the eat-or-be-eaten society that had formed on the island had warped them all. She felt a little bad about leaving them loose to find trouble in the rest of the galaxy. Not enough to even think about sending them back so that the rest of Olesia could go on enjoying their safe, comfortable lives.

The constant wandering was getting to them. They weren't any closer to finding a power source to use in Atlantis, there had been more casualties and they'd escaped betrayal by the Manarians by the skin of their teeth. They needed a base and one with some kind of in place infrastructure. Someplace they could set up the equipment salvaged from Athos and still cached on an empty world.

Someplace the Wraith wouldn't come.

Or wouldn't come back to, Sam thought.

"A culled world," she said to Kanaan. He'd become her defacto chief of intelligence and served as an unofficial counsellor along with Halling. Bates, Ford, Grodin and Cole filled out the other seats in the command tent.

"I'll tell my people to be on the alert." The Athosian refugees still had extensive trading contacts. Sam no longer bothered feeling guilty over taking advantage of them.

"Some place we could put in some quick crops would be good," Halling mentioned. "We can use the Ring to return here or one of the other hunting worlds when we need to, but crops need to be tended regularly." They were camped alongside a major river on a world known as Gersa. The stargate survived intact on a plain where only wind-smoothed lumps of stone remained to mark the city that had once surrounded it. Both plain and the forests beyond it were rich with game. Keras was leading the marines on hunting parties. The meat they brought back and fish they netted from the river would be brought fresh to a market world in the morning, maybe Belken, where the Athosians would trade it for goods they all needed.

"Someplace we can fortify," Bates said. "Sooner or later someone will spill our whereabouts and then the Genii or some dumbass bounty hunters will come calling. We need to be ready for them."

"I still think we should have taken over that world with the Tower," Ford muttered.

"We haven't turned into a gang of armed marauders just yet," Sam reprimanded him. She'd wanted to push the useless, backstabbing 'aristocracy' out of the Tower, and that made her a little harsher than she would have been otherwise. Maybe, if there had been a charged ZPM or the Lord Protector hadn't been able to use the weapons chair and direct drones at groundside enemies as well as the Wraith, she would have. But without Beckett or Kusanagi, they had no one with even a hint of talent with the Ancient technology, and no way to usurp the Lord Protector's control of the remains of Atlantis' nameless sister city. "Besides, the Wraith are far too interested in that world."

The Wraith seemed to be drawn to Ancient tech, whether to salvage it or destroy it, and Sam didn't want to around the day the Tower ran out of drones.

"Anybody else have anything to add?" Sam asked.

Cole raised her hand and said, "If this is a wishlist, then I wish for some place not too hot or wet. We haven't been hit with anything endemic to Pegasus that our systems can't deal with yet, but we've been avoiding jungle worlds where insects might serve as a serious vector threat."

"So noted." Sam smiled at Kanaan. "Did you get all that?"

"I did," he acknowledged.

He must have, because three days later, he brought Sam and Bates to meet with a tall, dark woman in a dingy Belken bar. She wasn't a Belken native; the worn remnants of a uniform and the tattoos on her arms and throat marked her out from the market crowd. So did the triple-barreled shotgun analog holstered at her back.

"This is Haemi," Kanaan introduced her.

Haemi looked them over. Her gaze narrowed when she spotted the P90s clipped to their tac vests and the sidearms strapped into thigh holsters.

"My people are too gutless to return to our world," Haemi said.

"Why?" Sam asked, though she already had a good idea.

"Because the Wraith broke them," she spat. "But I've been back and there's enough left. It could be rebuilt." She shifted angrily in her seat. "If they weren't all cowards who ran because Kel ordered it. They don't deserve to go back. They have no honor left."
Belken hosted a number of refugee enclaves, Sam remembered someone telling her. Haemi's people were probably among that number. Culling survivors, mostly, but sometimes the displaced came from worlds where the technological level had risen high enough to trigger the Wraith's paranoia and bring down destruction on their heads. How much destruction might depend on how long and hard the world tried to fight back. If the people had fled through the stargate before the Wraith blockaded it by dialing in? Maybe the Wraith might have left some of the infrastructure behind. Haemi made it sound like that.

And that was exactly the sort of world Sam wanted to set up their base of operations in Pegasus.

"Go back where?" Sam asked.

Haemi raised her chin and answered proudly.

"Sateda."


Part Four
Salvation



Teyla found the Revenge's practice room on the third day, once sufficient rest and food combined to leave her restless and out of sorts, needing to move. She hadn't stayed in one place – and though the ship traveled, it remained the same inside, where she was – in a year. Running had marked her deeper than the surface; her instincts cried out that she needed to go.

Pacing the endless-seeming corridors and climbing the ladders between the decks taught her the layout of the ship and burned off some of her energy, but the rest of the crew had duties to occupy them and she felt shocked as she realized she was bored. What could she do on this ship, surrounded by technology so very different from the worlds she knew through the Ancestors' ring? Vala had offered her a crew place. Maybe they needed fighters. The ship had obviously been built to carry more than the crew it did currently.

She didn't know if she wanted to stay with Revenge, but didn't know where she would go if she didn't.

She had no other place to stay with Athos gone.

If any of her people had survived the culling, they were scattered through the rings, as lost to her as she was to them.

Her skin pulled tight and itched from the overly dry air in the ship. She didn't know if she could bear its confines beyond one voyage. The shush of its ventilators reminded her of breathing, though Revenge didn't live the way the hive had. The sound rasped at her nerves, but perhaps it could become comforting; a signal that all was well onboard?

It masked the sound of her footsteps too, so that the scarred man – Til? – didn't hear Teyla shadow him down a corridor. She meant no harm from it, but she did not trust these people yet. She'd learned many things from watching those unaware they were observed – like the staff that Til carried was in actuality a weapon of the Tau'ri's enemies.

Til entered a room and she glimpsed him prop the staff weapon against a wall before the door slid shut. The writing beside the door remained incomprehensible, though Teyla recognized shapes from the Tau'ri gear Samantha and the expedition had carried. She would learn it eventually. The Tau'ri's text was lighter and more fluid, even the very upright characters, than Ancestor writing, but more machine-like than Athosian or the trade tongue common through the ring system. Janet Fraiser had taken the time to explain the color codes painted on the decks and walls. Blue indicated a space open to anyone, red was restricted and dangerous, yellow and orange called for caution; Teyla memorized it easily. Their base ten number system took a little more time, but proved worthwhile by allowing her to navigate with much greater assurance.

After a moment, she touched the door control and entered.

Though it was different from the soft dirt bantos circle, she immediately recognized a like space. The equipment she didn't recognize, but the blue mats on the floor were self-explanatory. So, as well, were the wooden staves Til and Jehan were using to spar.

Teyla found a clear space where she wouldn't distract them, sank down and watched the two men. The style they practiced, with the single long stave – perhaps standing in for the staff weapon Til carried? – differed from the bantos fighting she'd learned, but she could see both men were skilled in it. Jehan moved faster than Til, but lacked the sheer strength that Til displayed. Teyla thought she would use the same strategy Jehan used against either man: avoiding blows rather than engage to block, remain out of reach and disarm, then use the stave to bring down her opponent. She knew she could beat either man, though Jehan had an awareness of himself and the space around him that promised he could learn her skills.

If she were to stay with them long enough to teach him. Provided he was even interested, too. It was one of the few things she had to offer, so she considered it.

When Til and Jehan parted and bowed to each other, she remained seated. Jehan retrieved a water bottle and a towel before joining her.

"I would like to practice here," Teyla told him.

He opened the bottle and took a sip, then nodded.

"My people have an art, much like that," she said. "With two rods." She illustrated the length of each bantos. "To defend ourselves."

Jehan considered her, then with a raised eyebrow that Teyla answered with a nod, took one of her hands in his and examined it. Not her calluses, she realized, but the measurements of her palm and fingers, comparing what she could grasp securely against his own grip. His hands were narrow. The nails were clean and cut close to the quick. He touched her with the same impersonal care Janet Fraiser had, very different from the blatant invitation Vala had presented the first night. Teyla found his quiet far more appealing than Vala's seductions. She felt at ease with Jehan.

"Mer can make you something that will fit," Jehan told her. He released Teyla's hand. "Plastic. You'll have to work out the weight with him. Until you can find the real thing."

"I could teach you to fight with the bantos," she offered, "if Mer – Meredith? – would create a set for you as well."

It would not repay these people for removing the Wraith tracker from her back, but it would give her days aboard the ship a purpose until she decided whether to stay or go.

~*~


The Edwe knew nothing of the Tau'ri expedition. They were happy to trade fresh produce for the worked metal tools, shovels and plows and pots produced from the same fabrication labs that Meredith used to create a set of bantos rods each for Teyla and Jehan, but they had not heard of the Tau'ri expedition or even that Athos had been culled.

The Edwe began a mourning song when Teyla told them. She felt her expression freeze and had to hurry away from their gathering, where once she would have joined them.

What good did singing do, she wanted to demand of them. What did building a bonfire and tossing herbs into the flames do? Her hair smelled of smoke and Athos was still dead.

Demios, a man she'd always thought shared her views, hurried after her. She nearly hit him when he touched her shoulder. She didn't, but the possibility that she might have hurt that gentle man made her bleed inside, even as he recoiled from her expression. She shook her head at him and continued away from the Edwe's gathering, out beyond the firelight, into the darkness where she belonged now. Demios went back to the bonfire without her.

A soft footfall alerted her to someone else following her, but this person didn't presume to touch her. Teyla hadn't realized how often she and her people had touched until she met the Tau'ri. Now she appreciated the personal distance the crew of Revenge observed, even the non-Tau'ri.

She turned back and was unsurprised to see Jehan. Silhouetted from behind by the Edwe's fire, his expression was a mystery, only the sharp outlines of his cheekbones and jaw limned in light. The bonfire flicker caught red embers in his shaggy hair as he cocked his head. He watched her silently until Teyla shifted restlessly, lifting an empty hand in an empty gesture just to move.

"I had thought to remain here," she said

Jehan nodded but told her, "You can't go back." It was less of a non sequitur than it seemed, but she hadn't understood until she saw Demios flinch away from her. She'd known the culling would have savaged Athos, but part of her, a naïve place in her heart, had believed she could go back to who she had been once the tracker had been removed from her back. Now she saw that she couldn't.

Staying on Edwe would be trying to go back to her old life, but she didn't fit there any longer. Instead, she had to keep moving forward; still the Runner, even without pursuit.

Demios offered Teyla a place with the Edwe, as she'd known he would, but she made him and his people as nervous as Vala and the rest of the crew did. The difference between predators and prey. Demios was afraid of her now.

She'd changed. Where once she'd understood the Edwe, now they made her impatient and angry. They were too cowed by the Wraith to ever defy them and couldn't even imagine defeating them. They chose to live the best lives they could under the threat of culling, but Teyla couldn't any longer. Dying, even defeated, would be better than accepting.

The Fahn were the same as the Edwe, except no one offered Teyla a place with them and Vala accidentally propositioned a young man and nearly found herself married.

Teyla still persuaded Vala to trade for a stock of the Fahn's hardwoods. Despite Vala moaning repeatedly that the Pegasus galaxy was forcing her to engage in honest trade, that it had nothing to steal and no shipping to prey upon and that all her skills were rusting away, Vala was a shrewd bargainer. Teyla had eventually decided Vala was a much better woman than she seemed. Profit hadn't made them rescue Teyla on Athos and they could have just as easily abandoned her on a planet or killed her when they learned she was a runner and the threat that she had posed. No matter what anyone said, Vala's crew might want the City of the Ancestors, but if that were all, they would be searching for it, not the lost Tau'ri expedition, no matter what rewards Jackson swore the 'SGC' would pay for rescuing its people. The crew was loyal to Vala and Vala was a curious mixture of kind, clever and pragmatic that Teyla admired, despite her theatrical ways. Working with her was easy and amusing.

Meanwhile, the crew were eager to accumulate Pegasus goods that wouldn't deplete their finite supply of refined metals. The hardwoods would be enough to offer on Manaria, where Teyla hoped they might learn something of any survivors from Athos.

After the way the Edwe and Fahn reacted to Vala and Teyla, Jackson lobbied successfully to join them on Manaria.

~*~


Teyla appropriated several lengths of chalyb wood from the trade goods and began work on a proper set of bantos rods. The rods Meredith had made were ribbed to keep the smooth, weighted plastic from slipping, but were otherwise drab and gray. They were excellent practice rods, but didn't satisfy her need to hold onto something that was of her home.

She traced the simplest traditional patterns of Athos onto a piece of paper from memory before she began. She ruined three lengths of wood and left wood shavings in the rec room and the mess, but no one commented beyond Novak silently handing her hard plastic case with carving tools inside. By the time Revenge settled into orbit over Manaria, Teyla had two sets ready for the fire.

Vala wanted fresh water for the ship, so Jehan brought Revenge down to the surface. He landed in an uninhabited area where they could take the water on before approaching the town closest to the ring.

"Always load supplies first, then goods," Meredith said in the rec room the shift before.

Janet Fraiser looked confused.

"In case we have to leave in a hurry," he explained. "Remember Hebridan?"

"Sorry, I was still locked up then," Janet replied.

Meredith flushed and waved a hand. "Never mind."

Revenge shuddered like a beast beset by flies as Jehan piloted it into atmosphere. Teyla joined most of the crew on the bridge and watched as the shields burned white with heat and Meredith's voice sizzled through the speakers from the engine rooms, cursing Jehan and the ship, those who had built it and all their ancestors. Teyla did not know the language he used, but Daniel Jackson was making notes. She worried a little, but Caias and Vala were unruffled and Jehan seemed relaxed even when the ship bucked under their feet.

"Just a little turbulence," Jehan said when Meredith shrieked something vicious. "We're fine. She's made to do this."

"Never mind this hulk has the aerodynamic properties of a brick!" Meredith howled over the comm. "If the anti-grav fails – "

"We're all pancakes," Jehan agreed. Jehan was a quiet man, tending more to sly smiles and rolled eyes shared with Meredith than words, but he became more verbal when the two were separated. They often shared jokes that seemed to go past other members of the crew, though Teyla had seen Janet and Jackson snicker over some of statements that made no sense to her at all.

Pancakes were self-explanatory however and not reassuring, but Jehan's confidence soothed Teyla's worry. Revenge settled onto its landing struts as lightly as a bird came to rest moments later.

"Nothing to it," Jehan said.

The comms muttered something about cocky flyboys and cold water before cutting out.

Meredith, Til, Novak and Vala wrestled a massive, flexible pipe down from the ship's belly and into the glacier melt river close by. Stakes were driven into the still half-frozen earth and metal straps secured the pipe in place. Teyla understood why as it jerked and writhed once the ship's pumps were engaged.

Teyla took the opportunity to finish the bantos rods, choosing a clearing at a safe distance from the landing gear and yet still within the shadow of the ship.

Afterward, Jehan joined her as she gathered the wood for her fire. Meredith trailed behind him, complaining about the damp weather, splinters, and the ice-edged mud puddles. Teyla had already learned this was Meredith's way and ignored him. Meredith's actions were the true gauge of his worth, just as Jehan's were, and they were both there with her.

"So is this some kind of religious thing?" Meredith asked after Teyla laid the fuel into a fire that would produce the proper heat the cure the chalyb wood.

Teyla quirked an eyebrow at him, amused, then lit the fire with a starter Jehan had provided from the ship.

"No."

Meredith gestured to the two sets of rods waiting for the fire. "So, you're just really unhappy with the way these turned out?"

"No," she told him.

He scowled, first at the rods, then at the fire starting to lick through the fuel piled into a cone, and finally at her.

Teyla waited until the trickle of smoke from the damp wood gave way to shimmering waves of heat. She held her palm toward the fire and counted, judging the heat. Sufficient, she decided, and set the rods in an equal square around it. "Perhaps you could watch them with me, Meredith?" she asked.

"Of course." Meredith's frown cleared as he studied her arrangement, before snapping his fingers. "You're curing them!"

"Yes."

The chalyb wood would harden as the natural saps sweated out of it. It left the grain of the wood zigzagged in shades of black and red, too, turning the bantos rods into unique works of art.

"How long?"

The first beads of sap were forming on the bantos rods.

"I will continue feeding the fire until the wood stops sweating," Teyla explained. Chalyb grew on Athos and many worlds besides Fahn, but few people knew the trick of sweating it to change it from soft to hard. She would wrap her hands in rags to protect them and wipe the rods periodically so that the sap wouldn't burn onto the wood. It was hard and tedious work for one person.

"I'll get some more wood," Jehan said.

She wasn't alone.

"Thank you."

It was a tedious task, made more unpleasant when the wind rose and whipped the fire's smoke into her eyes. Meredith watched as she wiped the rods the first times, then alternated the task with her and then with Jehan when he returned with more fuel. They were all blistered and reeked of smoke before the chalyb wood took on the deep glow Teyla remembered from her old bantos rods.

"They are done," she declared.

Meredith swung one of the still-hot bantos rods with his rag-wrapped hands. It hissed through the air. "It's lighter than before." He handed the rod to Jehan, who hissed when his palms came in contact. "Oh, crap, sorry."

Jehan juggled it gracefully and let Meredith exam his palm once he'd laid the rod down. "Fraiser'll have something to fix you up," Meredith promised. Jehan let himself be pulled closer to Meredith, their heads bent together, and Teyla looked away from them. Her chest ached only from breathing too much smoke, not envy.

When she turned back, the two men were apart once more. Meredith was wiping the bantos rods down one last time, carefully cleaning out each groove and hollow, while Jehan knocked the fire apart. Beyond them, the heavy pipe flexed as the pumps chugged on, still filling Revenge's reservoirs.

"Dush will have something ready to eat by now," Meredith said. He handed the rods to Teyla. "These are quite...something."

She hid a smile as she set them aside and grasped his shoulders. Meredith's eyes widened and went still. Slowly, he bent as she tightened her hands and pulled. Little puffs of breath smoked from his lips into the cold air, brushing over her face as Teyla touched her forehead to his and rested there for a moment. She released him once he relaxed into the contact.

Jehan was watching them speculatively.

"These are yours." Teyla turned to Jehan and handed a set to him. "Perhaps you will not earn so many bruises from me using them." She stepped closer and Jehan caught on. He bowed his head without any urging from her and completed the Athosian gesture with that schooled grace she'd observed in him from the first.

"I take it this means you're going to stay with us?" Meredith said when Jehan and Teyla both stepped back.

Teyla tipped her head, then inclined it in ascent.

"I will."

Jehan twirled one of the rods.

"Good."

~*~


The Manarians were a sly bunch. Vala, Caias and Jackson dealt with them, while Teyla and Jehan watched their backs and Til kept an eye on the door.

The Manarian town showed more development than the Edwe or the Fahn, but they still had little to offer that Revenge needed. Fresh produce and meat that could go into the ship's freezers, but no technology, no refined metals, nothing Ancestor made. A few traders had stalls in the market place selling bits and pieces, but nothing functional.

They said they hadn't heard of the Tau'ri. If Teyla hadn't traded there with her father and Halling, Jehan suspected they would have denied knowing of the Athosians too.

Jackson proved his worth, though, peppering Trade Minister Smeadon with endless questions about his culture until the man's eyes glazed and he began answering on automatic. Once he did, Jackson started slipping in other questions, that still seemed to be about Manarian society, but gave away what the crew wanted to know. Enough to make it worth cultivating Smeadon further.

Vala struck the deal for fruit.

"Double-dealing sminchas," Teyla whispered to Jehan, rigid with disapproval. "They demanded twice that from my people for the same goods."

Nothing there to surprise Jehan. The Manarians might have had Teyla's people over a barrel, but not Revenge's crew. They could fly away or just as easily take what they wanted. Jehan had drifted the ship's shadow over the town before they landed in a nearby field. The panic that caused hadn't endeared them to the Manarians, but it had impressed them.

Caias had wanted to extort a cargo from the Manarians using the ship as a threat. None of the rest of the crew had been willing to victimize the poor people of this world. The argument had turned bitter enough Vala had ordered him to ring down with them.

The deal was sealed over a tankard of ale. More ale followed. Caias and Jackson sipped their ales slowly, but Vala matched Smeadon drink for drink, until the Trade Minister was swaying in his seat.

Jackson's subtle interrogation had revealed the Manarians had close ties to an ally called the Genii, the natives of an only apparently agrarian world from Smeadon's description. Jehan listened out of boredom.

"The Genii empire fell a thousand years ago," Smeadon confided to Vala. "But they mean to rebuild it. Once they've destroyed the Wraith." He nodded repeatedly. "They've begun."

"And you are part of it, Trade Minister," Vala cooed to him, "you and Manaria. You will be heroes to the entire galaxy."

If Meredith had been there, he'd have been gagging. Of course, if he'd been there, he'd have derailed the entire negotiation. There was a reason he stayed back on the ship. He hated 'primitive' planets – which encompassed anywhere lacking electricity – anyway.

"We will," Smeadon slurred. "Manaria was part of the empire before, after all."

"A toast to Manaria," Vala declared. She raised her tankard and Smeadon picked his up automatically.

"Manaria!"

Caias and Jackson clinked their tankards together and sipped, while Vala and Smeadon drained theirs.

Jehan angled a glance at Teyla. He knew she'd hoped they would find news of survivors from Athos. So far there had been none. Smeadon shut right up when he spotted Teyla, but Vala had manuevered until Teyla was out of Smeadon's sightline and as the evening wore on, he'd forgotten her presence.

"They've got these scientists," Smeadon slurred. "Not Ancestors, Tor-Tar-Tau'ri." He nodded as he got the name right.

"The Tau'ri are with the Genii?" Vala murmured. She leaned closer to Smeadon.

"Bombs," Smeadon confided. "They're making bombs to blow up the hives while they're sleeping." He hiccupped. "'cept they're wake. Awake. Them."

"The Wraith."

"But it'sss sssstill good," Smeadon mumbled. "Cowen's got these sssscientishs. Athosh wash culled an', an' they got 'way, shome got 'way to Genea." He mumbled something incoherent and then, "Got 'way from Koooolya too."

He tipped his tankard to his mouth. More ale ran down his face than went in his mouth and he fumbled setting it back down, but Jackson caught and steadied to tankard. Jackson's face was blank.

"Din't care 'bout the 'thoshens," Smeadon went on. "Sh–ssscientishes. Got some." He blinked at his empty hands and groped for the tankard again. "Shome. Shome got 'way." Slyly, he looked up at Vala. "You got any scientishts?"

"Not for sale," Vala murmured.

There were good reasons to leave Meredith aboard Revenge beyond his sharp tongue. They'd learned that from the Oranians. Novak was too valuable to risk without reason too; she was even less of a fighter than Meredith, despite the lessons Vala insisted on giving her in self-defense. She might be good some day. She wasn't weak, just unsure. She was getting better under pressure, just like Meredith.

"Cowen would pay," Smeadon told her. "Bounty. For any of them. Tarri. Pay for them."

"Even though they already have some of them?" Vala coaxed Smeadon.

He nodded and blinked; his eyes were no longer tracking with his movements.

"Down in the tunnels," Smeadon mumbled. "Bunks."

"Bunkers?" Jackson prompted.

"Mmmm. Need army t'get down there." Smeadon rubbed at his face and seemed to realize what he'd been saying. His gaze flickered to Jackson and Caias, then he twisted and looked at Teyla and Jehan. Since Jehan had his bantos rods sheathed over his back and hadn't spoken, the Manarians had taken him to be another Athosian along with Teyla.

"You're Tau'ri," Smeadon whispered.

Vala patted his hand. "Not even close, Smeadon. Just interested in anything or anyone that might make us a profit."

"You're not Tau'ri?" Smeadon glanced at Teyla and Jehan again. "But they're – "

"Crew," Vala told him. She tapped her lips. "I wonder, if the Tau'ri would pay to have their scientists back." She smiled. "What do you think, good friend Smeadon?" Her eyes slid to the side, meeting Jackson's gaze.

He shook his head fast.

"No, no, no one could get them out, not even the Satedans, not even with their guns," Smeadon blurted. "The Genii watch the Ancestors' ring. No force, maybe not even the Wraith, could find them and get away."

"But the Tau'ri, some of them, got away?" Jackson said.

Smeadon shuddered.

"When Kolya catches them..."

"Kolya?" Vala repeated.

"Commander Kolya," Smeadon said. Just saying the man's name seemed to finish sobering him up. A good dose of fear could have that effect.

"So, this Commander Kolya is holding some of these Tau'ri," Vala murmured thoughtfully. "He doesn't sound like a man I'd like."

Smeadon's eyes dipped to where her halter showed Vala's cleavage to excellent effect. "He would not appreciate you either."

"There's no accounting for taste," Jackson muttered. "Even a bad guy can have some." He flinched. Presumably Vala had heard and kicked him under the table.

~*~


"Okay, we know where some of our people are – " Jackson said when they back aboard Revenge.

"Your people," Signe corrected.

They were gathered in the mess hall, except for Caias up on the bridge. An open comm let him listen and comment, while avoiding the rest of the crew. The crew generally debated plans over Dush's food. Full stomachs rounded the edges off the sharpest tempers. Mostly. Vala would do what she decided to do, but knowing what the crew thought informed her decisions. Sometimes.

"Members of the expedition that we are looking for, who will know where Atlantis is," Jackson snapped in response. "Atlantis, remember, the Ancient city you want to loot?"

Vala rolled her eyes.

"Daniel," Janet said.

Daniel gave her a sulky look, but got back on track. Keeping Janet Fraiser, aside from her medical skill, had been a good choice. She managed Daniel better than anyone else. She had natural authority. Vala respected that.

"We should contact the Genii," Daniel suggested. His earnestness made Vala smile even as she shook her head. "I'm sure that they'll see reason. Smeadon was drunk." There he paused to glare at Vala. "Negotiation, not intimidation."

Vala shook her head again.

"There's nothing wrong with intimidation," Signe insisted. "It works. We haven't seen a sign of anyone in this galaxy besides the Wraith having any kind of technology that could contend with this ship."

"With this ship," Reckell muttered, "but we're not exactly an army."

The Goa'uld had had the Jaffa when they needed forces on the ground. Smeadon had said these Genii had bunkers and tunnels. They were ready to defend against the Wraith ships; those defenses would work just as well against Revenge.

"So," Signe said, "we bomb a few fields, show them what we can do. They'll be pissing themselves to give the Tau'ri to us."

"God, that's your solution!?" Jackson yelled. He surged to his feet, chair tumbling back with a screech. His face had gone red, something Vala hadn't seen happen before. "You're worse than Jack and the Goa'uld!"

"Don't you compare me to the Goa'uld!" Signe snarled. He didn't bother getting up, just threw himself across the table at Jackson, murder in his eyes.

Reckell shot to his feet, grabbed Jackson and swung him out of Signe's reach while interposing himself. In a fight between Signe and Jackson, Vala would always bet on Signe. Jackson was muscular and tough for an academic, but Signe had been fighting since he was a child. He was skinny, but he fought mean and dirty. Reckell, though, had size, Jaffa-level strength, and armored scales. He could handle both men. While still holding Jackson out of the way, he shot out his other hand and stopped Signe cold.

"Enough," Reckell growled.

The rest of the crew were on their feet too, wary and ready for things to get worse. Jehan was a step in front of Mer, hand resting on the butt of his pistol. Novak and Dush were ready to duck into the galley. Fraiser had one of the metal meal trays in her hand. Vala wondered how many bar fights the doctor had been in, to have such a good instinct. Those trays were heavy enough to conk most people out.

She noted Teyla had those bantos rods of hers in her hands.

Vala set her hand on her hip, cocked it, and kept her voice low but also dismissive. "Boys, boys, save it. If you've got that much testosterone, you can always come burn it up with me."

Jackson made a moue of disgust. Signe shook off the quick anger and stepped back from Reckell's hand. Unlike Jackson, he never took Vala's flirting too seriously. It just served to remind him she was there and he needed to rein it in.

The rest of the crew subsided into the seats. Jehan leaned against Mer, still coiled tight and watchful, as was Teyla. The Athosian woman had placed herself where she could guard Jehan's flank. Vala didn't know whether to be surprised or not that Teyla preferred those two to Jackson, despite his efforts at bonding with her. Maybe she felt a little jealous that they'd let Teyla in so fast, when Mer and Jehan were usually so skittish about strangers. Useful though, she thought that Teyla made a reliable addition to the crew, one which Vala judged would stick.

"What's going on down there?" came Caias' voice over the comm.

"A disagreement between Dr. Jackson and Sig," Reckell responded.

Caias made a raucous noise, tinny through the speakers, probably loud in the otherwise empty bridge. He didn't get along with either man, barely tolerated the rest of the crew, and was vocally unhappy over the lack of loot so far. Serving as second pilot after Jehan didn't please him either. Vala would have put him off the ship already if they'd still been in the Viastella. She couldn't bring herself to dump her old mentor, though, while they were in Pegasus.

"They won't be 'pissing themselves'," Jackson said. "They'll be digging in and using our people as hostages."

"Your people," Signe repeated, but it was pro forma, because he wasn't stupid most of the time.

Mer shifted in his seat. Jehan's hand, resting on his shoulder, flexed. "I hate to say it, but Daniel's right. Almost."

"Thank you, Rodney."

"Don't call me Rodney," Mer snapped. "And I said almost." His hands came up to make quote marks. Jehan had needed to explain to Vala about quote marks, but Jackson knew.

Jackson pulled off his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose.

"So, do you have some kind of suggestion or are you just breaking my balls?" he asked Mer.

Vala grinned. The good doctor Jackson could dish it sometimes.

Mer's eyes clouded. When he spoke, his inflections were subtly different, giving away to Vala at least that he was reaching back into Jolinar's experiences. Jehan's hand tightened on his shoulder.

"The bunkers are built to protect them from the Wraith, because the Wraith have spaceships. They watch their chappa'ai because they think that is the only avenue anyone else has to assault them."

"Which is why we'll have to negotiate with them," Jackson insisted.

Vala heard what Mer meant. She had Qetesh's memories to draw on. All the Goa'uld knew that trying to send an army of Jaffa through a chappa'ai never worked. The bottleneck that resulted from the limited numbers that could fit through it at once, not to mention the thirty-eight minute limit on a holding a wormhole open, made the other side of a chappa'ai a perfect killing ground.

Which was why the System Lords moved their Jaffa armies and fought their wars with ha'taks. The Tau'ri were a little slow on the uptake sometimes.

"We have to take them by surprise," she said.

Mer nodded.

"They won't be guarding against any covert infiltration that doesn't come through the stargate. With Revenge in orbit, we could ring down an assault team that would go into the bunkers and retrieve whoever they're holding there."

"We still don't have enough people," Reckell objected.

"We don't," Vala commented, "but maybe someone else does." She looked at Teyla. "What about the group Smeadon mentioned? The Satedans?"

Teyla shifted uncomfortably, startled, before saying slowly, "Everyone knows what happened to Sateda."

"We don't," Jackson corrected her.

She narrowed her eyes, but explained, "A Great Culling, the first in generations." She gestured to the weapons all the crew wore. "Their factories, their towers and armies, all were broken. Sateda is a dead world."

Vala caught Mer's gaze on her and nodded. It sounded like the Wraith had done to Sateda what they had done to the first worlds Revenge had found. A fresh reminder of what happened to any world that grew too ambitious. They might customarily leave enough people behind to rebuild a population, but not if they were making an example of a world. The Goa'uld System Lords operated the same way.

The Goa'uld, of course, would have left a few witnesses just to spread the word. Had the Wraith? Smeadon hadn't spoken of the Satedans in the past tense.

"But there were survivors?" she asked, just to confirm her conjecture.

"Those who fled through the ancestors' ring."

"Scattered, I suppose." Vala wondered how they might find these Satedans. It seemed as difficult as finding the lost Tau'ri expedition.

"I had heard that Belsa and Belkan gave many of them refuge," Teyla said. "Belkan takes in those who have skills." The perfect neutrality of her tone gave way her disapproval. "The Satedans hire their soldiers to the traders who sell at the markets there."

Now Smeadon's remark made more sense. Mercenaries. What could they offer the Satedans to fight for them? A promise of whatever loot they could pick up, assuredly, but if they were smart – and if they weren't, they would be useless – they would want something more certain. If they'd been a technological society, then likely they were missing medicines and other manufactured goods. Perhaps, given an example or two, Mer and Novak could provide them with weapons or ammunition. There would be something the Satedans needed.

It would be worth trying this Belkan world. If nothing else, a trade center would be more likely to have word of the other Tau'ri and the Athosians, even without the Satedans.

"Did your people trade on Belkan?" Vala asked Teyla.

"I have been there, though it was years ago," Teyla replied. "But memories are long among the Belkan. There will be someone who will talk with me, I am sure."

~*~


Jehan stretched, enjoying the lazy ache of well-used muscles as he watched Mer desultorily pick up the clothes they'd left in a trail from the door to their bed. He slid his toes under the undershirt lost in the sheets and flicked it at Mer. The squawk of outrage that followed made him laugh with stupid delight.

Mer pulled the shirt off his shoulder – his bare, pink-flushed shoulder – and balled it up. "You're such a child."

Jehan laughed from his belly.

"Come back to bed."

"Ugh. Not until we change the sheets."

"Seem fine to me."

"Because you always roll me into the wet spot," Mer grumbled.

It did kind of smell in the cabin. Jehan lifted his arm, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. Rank. Not so much the cabin, then, as them. He gave in to necessity and rolled off the bed. Time to change the sheets, turn up the ventilation and then indulge in a hot shower.

He started stripping the bedding, frowned, and turned back to Mer.

"Where's your blaster?"

His was in its holster on the nightstand, where he could grab it even in bed. Jehan never got tired of the idea that he had a blaster. It was better than a pistol or a zat as far as he was concerned, especially after Mer tinkered with the charge cells, upping their efficiency seventy-four percent.

Mer paused. "Uhm."

"You don't know?" Jehan asked in disbelief.

"Well, of course, I know, after all I left it there," Mer said in a defensive tone. He crossed his arms.

"I can't believe you left it somewhere!" What good did the stupid blaster do if Mer didn't have it when he needed it?

"It's in the drive control room," Mer snapped. "That's not just anywhere, it's where I work, and I took it off because it gets in the way! I don't actually need a penis extension strapped to my thigh day and night."

"It's useless if you don't have it when you need it," Jehan declared.

Mer rolled his eyes. "We're in hyperspace. That's as safe as it's possible to be by definition. Nothing can penetrate the dimensional bubble the drives create. I'll show you the math if you don't believe me."

Pleasure that Mer thought he could grasp the math almost derailed Jehan. Except he knew Mer had intended exactly that.

"I don't care," he said. "Wear the damned blaster."

"Look, I'll make you a deal. I'll wear it except when I'm working. Even tied down, it catches on stuff when I'm doing maintenance. All the access spaces were designed for anorexic six-year-olds as it is."

He wanted to argue, but it wouldn't help. Mer would just refuse to do even as much as he'd just offered. Plus, Jehan acknowledged, the access spaces were cramped and a thigh holster could easily catch on something.

"All right."

Mer smiled at him. "I'll hang the holster on the back of my chair at the main control console. That's where it is right now."

"Just promise to put it back on when you leave engineering."

"Pinky swear," Mer said.

It was the best deal Jehan was going to get.

~*~



Hendon reached for Teyla's wrist, trying to catch her as she left the table where they'd been sitting. She moved too fast for him and he nearly fell from his chair.

Jehan had his gun out and aimed at Hendon. Til had swung around the cover the rest of the tavern. His staff weapon opened, ready to fire. Jackson shoved his chair back from the table, but didn't draw the pistol they'd issued him. Instead he held out his open hands.

"Hey, hey, let's all just be...calm here," Jackson said.

Hendon drew back his hand. He ignored everyone but Teyla.

"Don't trust the Satedans, Teyla Emmagan," he told her.

Jehan relaxed slightly. Hendon had only meant to warn them.

"Why let them stay here if they are untrustworthy?" Teyla asked.

"Because they're useful," Hendon said. "Because they keep to themselves down in the old quarter or the settlement on Belsa." His gaze flicked to Jehan and Til. "And because they have enough weapons and soldiers to cost us as many deaths as a culling, even if they have abandoned their world."

"That doesn't sound so good," Jackson said after they left the tavern and started for the old quarter, "but I don't think we should judge the Satedans on just one person's opinion. They're refugees, living in a ghetto, of course the majority of the population sees them as a threat. Historically, though it was also based on religious grounds, numerous minorities suffered punitive measures while being tolerated for skills they possessed that were secrets or mysteries to the majority of the population..."

Belkan boasted a city built of stone, though the fortifications had fallen millennia ago and been scavenged. Deep scores and blast marks were still graved into the oldest blocks. The streets were paved in cobblestone with deep central gutters and drains that kept the city from succumbing to disease. The reek of sewage drifted up from the grated drains where the spring rains had backed the system up.

"At least they are not in league with the Genii," Teyla replied. She glared at Jackson. The news of the Genii's long term treachery and Hendon failing to have any news of her people had both been bitter disappointments.

Hendon's warning against the Satedans would be unnecessary. Teyla wouldn't trust again soon. Jehan doubted she even trusted Revenge's crew – not completely. She certainly didn't like some of them, at least not Jackson. Maybe Jackson was too much like Teyla had been before the Wraith made her a runner. Or maybe she had simply noticed that Jehan avoided Jackson when he could and had taken her cue from him.

"Hey, I'm the one who wants to find the expedition – and your people," Jackson reminded her. He waved at Til and Jehan. "These two and the rest just want to… to get rich."

"Careful or we'll sell you to the Genii," Til growled.

The old city of Belkan clustered behind the walls of a former fortress. The streets were tangled and unmarked, but Jackson suggested they follow them uphill, and successfully guided them to a postern in the crumbling wall.

Two large men in leathers and clothes that still showed signs of having once been uniforms stepped into the street when they walked through a stone arch into the narrow, warren-like confines of the old city. Jehan noticed the guns slung over their shoulders. Tri-barreled, shorter than rifles and definitely the product of a technological society, but not from anywhere in the Milky Way. The cartridges they took were three inches long and sausage-thick. Bores big enough to blow a nasty hole through nearly anything too. He wondered how they performed against the Wraith. The Wraith that killed Dil had shrugged off zats and the 5.7x28mm rounds fired by the P90s until several clips were emptied at it. Its wounds had healed at a stunning speed. A shotgun would probably have been a better weapon against it. That's what the Satedans' weapons resembled.

"State your business," one of them said.

"We wish to speak with Dranta Kell," Teyla told them.

Both men were taller than Jehan, eye to eye with Til, who bared his teeth at them, and they were startled when Teyla spoke.

"Don't know that Kell would want to talk to you."

"And you don't know that he wouldn't," Teyla said, all silky steel, and Jehan knew, even if no one else realized, that she was about one breath from putting both men down hard. Teyla was a patient teacher, but she simmered with anger under her calm expression the rest of the time. Had she been like that before the Wraith turned her into a cat-toy, he wondered, or had the poise she still wore like a mask come from real serenity? He didn't wonder long since it meant as little now as who he had been once. This Teyla was the only one they had and he liked her fine.

"Maybe you should tell us first."

"Look, we're here to – "

Jehan glared at Jackson. "Shut up."

"If you'd just let me explain – "

"Let him explain," urged the bigger Satedan.

Jehan ignored him.

"Teyla's doing the talking, remember?"

Jackson glared back at him.

"Got everything sorted out?" the second Satedan asked with an amused chuckle. "Then you should go." He reached for Teyla.

Teyla slipped out of his grasp before he could close his hand on her arm, while Til powered up his staff weapon and Jehan moved to intercept the bigger Satedan.

It took Jehan only a minute longer than Teyla to put his target on the ground; the soles of his boots slipped on the worn-slick cobblestones. The studded bracers on the Satedan's forearms gave Jehan a good grip, so Jehan chose not dislocate his opponent's elbow and threw him cleanly instead. Up close, the Satedan smelled of sweat, leather, gun oil and fear. It was the fear that changed Jehan's mind.

He finished and looked up, spotting Teyla's man was cradling a broken wrist and whining to himself.

"Jehan," Teyla snapped, looking past him.

Jehan's opponent had rolled to his knees and was reaching for a weapon. Jehan dodged and Teyla kicked it out of the Satedan's hand, eliciting a scream, before they both whirled to face the group rushing out a nearby doorway.

Jehan drew his blaster and fired into the ground before a tall, dreadlocked man. The actinic green flash from the stun setting reflected off the cobblestones up the man's leather-clad legs before it dissipated down into the ground. Anyone who had looked at it directly would have a afterimage streaking across the field of vision, a handy side effect that didn't offset the way a blaster pinpointed itself each time it was fired. The men and woman behind Dreadlocks came to a stop, took in the scene, and then one of them laughed. "Hegit, you let this tiny woman disable you?"

"There was no let," Teyla replied. Her cool expression hid any hint of smugness, if she felt it, and her body was coiled tight, ready to keep fighting.

Dreadlocks considered them and nodded.

"What do you want?"

"We came to hire soldiers," Teyla told him. She gave the two men on the ground a jaundiced look. "But I am not impressed."

The tall woman behind Dreadlocks laughed again and remarked, "Well, Hegit and Silon aren't doing sentry duty on a back postern because they're the best we have." She shook her head and grinned toothily, while her eyes watched Til and Jehan and the weapons they held.

Dreadlocks grinned too.

"You want to be impressed?" he asked. He flexed one big hand in a come hither gesture.

Teyla scornfully dismissed the invitation to fight. "I want to do business."

Dreadlocks consulted the shorter man beside him. "Tyre? What do you think?"

Tyre's dark, sharp eyes took in everything about them, first their weapons and then beyond to the state of their clothes, their health, the other manufactured goods they wore, even how clean they were.

Like the rest of the crew, Teyla had traded in some of her battered gear for goods out of Revenge's extensive inventory – crew privilege to help yourself as long as you checked in with Dush to keep the inventory up to date. Revenge had a very extensive inventory, since whoever had made out that cargo manifest had been thinking colony not three-hour tour. Vala had held on to nearly all of those supplies even after the refit. Teyla had on a long-sleeved tee-shirt of the same kind Jehan, Mer and Daniel all favored under her leather vest.

The Satedans and Revenge's crew actually dressed much alike, in a mixture of tough leather, uniforms, and practical native goods, but the Satedans' gear showed more wear and tear. They had to mend and make do, because they couldn't replace anything. It was a subtle contrast, but there.

Tyre nodded at the three of them. "Yeah, I think Kell will want to talk to these people."

~*~


Hendon's warning proved unnecessary.

Teyla mistrusted Dranta Kell immediately.

A big man in his middle-forties, he didn't share the darker skin of most of the Satedans or their remarkable size, though he was tall. He'd likely been a handsome youth, but his features had matured into harsh angles emphasized by his shaved head. His eyes were a neutral bluish-brown, made memorable only by the razor-cold intelligence behind them. Teyla had led trade negotiations with other men like him: they were only fair with their equals.

He dominated the common room of the tavern that the Satedans had taken over as their headquarters. Guards were stationed at every entry. For all they tried to look like mere customers, the Satedans weren't subtle. Unlike Meredith, though, they weren't bluntly honest either. Teyla had to wonder whether Kell had those guards in place to protect him from Jehan, Til and herself or from his own people.

She didn't think it was the former.

Kell didn't bother rising from the chair he occupied. Instead he leaned forward with his elbows braced on the polished surface of the table before him. The table belonged somewhere other than a rough common room with a floor dusted in wood shavings that didn't quite mask the lingering scents of alcohol and vomit. The room had gas lanterns for lighting, like much of Belkan's ring city, but the globes weren't lit, leaving the interior dim.

"So, you're here looking to hire soldiers?"

The dreadlocked Satedan had led them to the tavern headquarters, but the man named Tyre had peeled away. Clearly, he had taken a shorter route to their destination and briefed Kell.

Teyla met his gaze.

"Yes."

"And you know my name." Kell smiled at that, obviously pleased at that.

"I obtained a name," Teyla told him.

"Mine," Kell insisted. He gestured to the dreadlocked man, who had taken up a place at his shoulder. "These are Ronon Dex and Tyre, and you met the rest of Essav Squard and two of our sentries as well. Now, I'd like to hear yours."

Teyla dipped her head.

"I am Teyla Emmagan of...the ship Revenge," she said. Each time she had introduced herself as 'of Athos' the words had been more bitter than a lie. She had left behind Athos as surely as she had Fahn and Edwe and had never even considered staying behind on Manaria. Despite her doubts, the crew on Revenge had given her a home. She would honor that. "These are Jehan abd-Ba'al and Tilawithes Tulafame, also of the Revenge." She paused and added, "And Daniel Jackson of...the Tau'ri."

She watched closely to see if Kell know of any Tau'ri, but his reaction came before Daniel's introduction and focused on something else.

"Ship," Kell repeated in a flat tone.

"Ship," Teyla repeated. "I presume you are familiar with the concept? I understood Satedans were sufficiently advanced that you no longer believed the Wraith were evil spirits?"

A step behind her, Daniel shifted his feet and drew in a breath, obviously unhappy with Teyla's words. She heard the quiet click as his teeth came together instead of a spitting out words and assumed Jehan had silenced him with one of his slit-eyed looks. Those looks had no effect on Meredith or Vala, but Daniel still quailed when receiving one. Perhaps, unlike Vala and Meredith, he wasn't so confident Jehan wouldn't shoot him and dump his body into hyperspace.

Kell considered the four of them. His eyes rested longest on Daniel, correctly assessing him as the mostly likely to give up more information.

"Prove it," he said.

"I have nothing to prove to you," Teyla said.

"Kell," Ronon Dex murmured. He nodded toward the weapons Teyla and her companions carried. "They've got access to technology."

Kell steepled his hands before him, while frowning at Teyla.

"You're aren't a Traveller," he said.

"No," she acknowledged. "I am planet born."

"Hmn."

Teyla waited and said nothing. Jehan and Til were silent too; the only one she worried about was Jackson, but instead of speaking he shifted to catch her eye. His gaze flickered toward Kell and his nostrils flared, a wordless communique Teyla found glass clear. Daniel Jackson didn't trust Kell either and would follow her lead. Teyla dipped her head in a miniscule nod.

"You aren't in charge of this ship then," Kell said. He sat back. "I want to talk to whoever that is."

Teyla glanced at Jehan and raised an eyebrow.

"We figured," he said.

She nodded.

Jehan touched the tiny communication device hooked over his ear. Dushka had found them among the stores. Meredith had modified them, promising that the encryptions he added would render them secure against eavesdropping by the Wraith or even Tau'ri with the same type of equipment. Teyla wasn't used to them yet, but the ability to communicate with the crew on Revenge or on the ground impressed her.

"Got a lock?" Jehan asked. "Teyla found our guy." His finger tapped off the radio mic and he addressed Kell. "Vala's on her way."

"So you say," Tyre murmured.

The flare of white light that accompanied the activation of Revenge's ring transporter turned the tavern headquarters stark. Teyla had to work not to give away her own nervous twitch; she wasn't used to this technology either and the light reminded her very much of a culling beam. The rings were steely blue, etched with Tau'ri markings rather than Ancestor lettering, and fell out of the empty air to stack upon each other with a bone-thrilling shump shump shump, before disappearing upward and leaving Vala behind as the light faded away.

The Satedans jerked and Dex had his triple-barreled weapon aimed at her, while Vala waited out their shock, taking a long slow survey of the room and the men in it, standing hipshot with her hand on her butt of her blaster where it rested in a thigh holster. She had on her regular black leather and the top that was mostly straps and buckles.

"Vala Mal Doran," she introduced herself, throaty voice so full of promises Teyla felt herself react and she wasn't even the target of Vala's seductive attention. Vala hadn't even been trying the first night she'd tested Teyla aboard the ship. Every man in the room shuddered a little and Jackson made a little clicking noise in the back of his throat. "Captain of the Revenge."

Kell cleared his throat.

"Useful trick."

"Isn't it?" Vala replied. Her hips swayed as she strutted over to Kell's table and perched on it, giving herself a height advantage over the seated man. She smiled in approval and purred, "No one said what fine, strapping… big boys you Satedans are."

Kell preened.

Vala tapped his cheek and leaned close enough that Kell couldn't avoid looking at her chest. "We need an assault force, covert insertion and extraction of an unknown number of captives from a fortified, underground bunker. Can your people do that or should I look elsewhere?"

Kell gaped when she sat back and waited.

"We can do that," Ronon Dex told her.

Kell glowered at him.

"The question is why you need us if you've got tech like," he gestured to where the rings had deposited Vala, "that?"

"I need my crew to fly Revenge," Vala replied, "and you for feet on the ground."

"Gun fodder."

Vala bared her teeth at him.

"I can find idiots everywhere. I want professionals who can go in, retrieve our objective, and get out. Not get killed and give away our plans at the same time. Believe me, if we just wanted to kill people, we could do that without leaving the bridge of our ship."

"You don't expect us to manage this without casualties?" Kell demanded.

Vala's laughter had a dark edge.

"Do I look like a fool, Dranta Kell?"

"No," he said huskily.

"Then all that's left is to agree on terms."

"Not quite," he said and closed on hand on Vala's wrist. She held still and kept smiling. "I won't waste my people on an assault through the Ancestors' ring."

"You'll be transported to our objective aboard the Revenge. Your force will be ringed down and picked up the same way, while our ship stays in orbit." She tapped the tiny radio mic and earpiece. "We'll outfit your people and be in constant touch." Vala made 'touch' sound dirty and sexy and licked her lips after saying it. "The ship can provide some very impressive distractions, once we know we won't be blowing up the people we're there to get."

Vala turned her wrist in Kell's grip, a feat of strength given his grip, and one that widened his eyes. Teyla knew it had taken an effort, but Vala acted like she hadn't even noticed Kell holding on.

"Right now, if the Belkan authorities decided to arrest those of us dirtside," Vala went on, "my first mate and gunnery officer might decide to flatten the new quarter of the city or burn all the fields from here to the horizon. We'll make very sure the Genii are concentrating elsewhere."

"Compared to what a Goa'uld would do, that's almost going easy," Jackson muttered.

"Ba'al once had his Jaffa kill every child under ten and every adult over twenty on a planet where some teenager emptied a chamber pot into the street he was walking down," Jehan murmured back. "He considered himself quite merciful."

"I'm sure," Jackson said.

Kell grunted and said, "The Genii? They're a bunch of farmers."

"Apparently not so much," Jackson replied.

"Doesn't matter," Kell said. "We can beat them."

Dranta Kell and Tyre were too intent on Vala and her charms to have heard the soft exchange between Jackson and Jehan, but Ronon Dex had paid better attention to his surroundings. Teyla detected a flare of horror in his expression, before he smoothed his features back under control. She felt the same. To wipe out children as no more than a petulant lesson? The Wraith only took children during the Great Cullings. Otherwise, they left the very young to mature and produce new populations for them to return and prey upon.

Vala had lifted one of the heavy cartridges that the Satedan guns used and was turning it between her fingers.

"Do you still have the infrastructure to manufacture more of these?"

Kell's frown gave away the truth.

"I'm sure we could provide you with a shipment of ammunition, given a sample like this," Vala offered. She'd begun tossing the cartridge in the air and catching it.

"I believe we can come to an agreement," Kell said eagerly.

"Great, now we're arms dealers in addition to pirates," Jackson whispered.

~*~


Janet had lent her support to the plan to rescue the people being held by the Genii, so she figured she had an obligation to make it go as smoothly as possible. She didn't go to the ring room when they brought aboard the five Satedan assault squads, but she made a point to show up at the conference room where the rest of the crew met Dranta Kell and his seconds, Ronon Dex and Liraz Tyre.

Daniel caught up to her just before they sat down and gave a sotto voce warning. "They've got a thing about size, so don't be surprised if they try to push you around."

Given that, Janet felt a little surprised when Kell called out to her at the end of the meeting. "Doctor, yes?"

"Yes," she said.

"I would appreciate if you would allow our medic to liaise with you."

"And your medic is?" Frankly, she was a little surprised that the Satedans even bothered with a medic, but as a member of the USAF, she knew judging an entire culture by its military could be misleading. Kell was a soldier and had to put on a front of toughness that might not reflect his own character, never mind Satedans outside the ones she'd just met.

"My wife, Melena," Dex said. He waited a beat and added sardonically, "She's a doctor."

"Wonderful, maybe we can learn something from each other," Janet said. She didn't let herself blush, despite knowing Dex had read her immediate conclusion of nepotism.

"She's in the quarters we were assigned."

"I'll come with you and show her the way to the ship's infirmary."

Kell exchanged a look with Dex that Janet caught despite both men's annoying height. She just couldn't read it. Maybe Daniel would have, but Janet didn't have his anthropological skills.

"Good, you can keep me from getting lost," Dex said.

"No one told you how to navigate?" Janet asked as she started down the corridor to the interdeck elevator. Dex shadowed her like a large, looming sheepdog.

"Got told to stick with blue or green lines and doors and how to manually close one of those airlocks," Dex told her.

"Well, that's a good beginning," Janet said. "I think I can tell you a little more."

Janet pressed the button for the non-crew quarters deck while Dex watched. Revenge, when it had been conceived as the Prometheus, had never been intended to serve as a troop transport, but the possibility of needing to take a quick reaction force had been factored in. The non-crew quarters deck could be transformed from basic dormitory quarters to cargo enclosures with little difficulty. Though Prometheus had set out with a heavy cargo of supplies for the Atlantis expedition, the possibility they would need to evacuate the expedition in whole or part had been brought up and space allocated to that rather than supplies or equipment.

The Satedan squads, all five of them, had settled into the cabin quarters without comment. There were enough cabins to handle the entire two hundred person Atlantis expedition if necessary, so Janet wasn't sure how the Satedans had divvied up.

"Melena and I took a cabin with this mark on the door," Dex said. He sketched a recognizable twelve. "The rest of Essav are in the next two."

"Essav?" Janet asked. She stepped out of the elevator and started down the corridor. Dex shortened his stride to walk beside her.

"My squad."

She stopped before Cabin 12. "This is it. Remember how we got here?"

"I'm a Weapons Specialist, but I memorized the entire Battle Cycle of Bigar Diys," Dex said. He touched the number code that had been assigned to all the non-crew cabins, 1-2-3-4, and the door slid open. A young woman with curly, light brown hair looked up from a case lying open on one of the lower bunks.

"Ronon," she greeted him.

"Melena," he said and stepped inside the cramped cabin. Janet heard his voice soften. He shrugged in Janet's direction, where she'd stayed in the corridor. "This is their doctor."

"Janet Fraiser," she introduced herself. "I thought I could show you how to reach the ship's infirmary and we could go over what we can and can't do."

Melena smiled at her. "I was hoping for a chance. Your ship – Even Sateda didn't have anything like this. Are the medical facilities equal to it?"

"I like to think so," Janet said. "I had some input on the design. It's a little cramped, but there's a fully equipped OR and extensive emergency care facilities. All the equipment is state of the art." Or better, if you counted that Vala and Mer could both use a Goa'uld healing device.

Melena gestured to the hardsided case she had open. "I was going over my supplies."

Janet eyed the tight quarters and decided being approximately half Dex' size had some benefits. "May I?" she asked with a nod to the doorway.

"It's your ship," Dex said.

"They're your quarters while you're aboard," she told him.

"Come in, if you can get around the grumbak," Melena said. She slapped Dex's arm lightly. "Go count ammunition with Rakai or something. You're in the way."

Dex squeezed by Janet after making a face at Melena. Janet heard him rap on the next door down the corridor.

"Remind me to show you how to use the door chime and intercoms," she told Melena, before bending over the case to see what the Satedan doctor had brought with her.

While what Melena had didn't hold a candle to Janet's infirmary, it still impressed her. Melena explained that Satedan medicine had been considerably more advanced, but she was reduced to what they'd been able to evacuate out through the stargate when the Wraith attacked. That included most of an armed forces treatment element. Melena's explanation made that sound like a stripped down combat support hospital.

"The squads sometimes have a medic," Melena said as they headed for Janet's realm. "We used to get a group of them in for training every quarter. I'm the only doctor who made it through the ring. Perat Squad lost theirs and dragged me out of the hospital to treat the wounded at HQ." Her soft smile disappeared. "I'd be dead otherwise. The hospital where I worked took a direct strike."

"Your people are lucky to have you," Janet told her. "You should start training so that what you know isn't lost."

Melena sighed and pushed her hair back. "I should, but Kell and everyone else are so focused on… Revenge, I guess. Not building again."

Janet pointed to the stylized caduceus on the door into the infirmary. "Anything with that mark on it is going to be medical related. In the elevator, there's covered button with the same mark. In an emergency, you break off the cover and push it: it overrides any other commands and takes you to the infirmary level." She grinned at Melena. "It also activates an alarm, so you don't want to use it without a good reason."

Melena smiled back, then gasped as they entered.

"Let me show you around my realm," Janet said with real pleasure.

"It seems like it would be more efficient if you weren't the only one here," Melena commented after Janet had shown her the operating room.

"It is, but we really only have a skeleton crew," Janet told her.

"How many crew do you have?"

The artless question didn't strike Janet as suspicious. She'd have questions if she'd been on an alien ship among strangers.

"There's Lindsay and Daniel and me," she answered. "Vala Mal Doran and Jehan. Ro-Meredith. Dushka, Signe, Til – we lost Dil to a Wraith – the second shift pilot, Caias, and the first mate's a Hebridan. And Teyla Emmagan."

"But – " Melena frowned. "This ship is far too large for so few."

Janet chuckled a little bitterly.

"Vala and Jehan got rid of the rest of the crew."

Before Melena could ask, Janet added, "Don't ask."

~*~


Lindsay winced as the doors to the fabrication lab opened and she heard Meredith explode: "We're not trying to steal proprietary secrets!"

"Then why do you want our guns?" That was one of the Satedans.

"I need to analyze one – one – of your weapons to find out the tolerances," Meredith snapped. "So that the ammunition we manufacture for you doesn't blow your pot-metal travesties up in your faces."

"Our world stood against the Wraith – "

"Fine, whatever, as far as I can tell plenty of worlds have 'stood against the Wraith'," Meredith interrupted. He nodded to Lindsay as she sidled past the Satedan and headed for her work station. "They ended up flattened." His gaze sharpened along with his waspish tone. "And your boss hires you out in exchange for ammo you can't make any longer, because," he snapped his fingers and pointed at the Satedan, "oh, hey, your planet got smacked down too."

The Satedan growled and started forward, but Meredith extended his hand. "Hand it over." He snapped his fingers when the weapon wasn't passed over immediately. "Sometime this century, if you please."

Lindsay muffled a laugh when the Satedan growled and gave up the weapon he was carrying. Not his primary weapon, she noticed, and wished Vala hadn't agreed to let the mercenaries stay armed aboard ship. He heard her tanyway and stared. She ducked her head and opened the spec file for the weapon. He had narrow, black eyes and she hunched her shoulders under his gaze.

Meredith hefted a testing kit over one shoulder and the Satedan weapon in his other hand. "I'm taking this down to the armory firing range to set up the tests. I'll feed the sensor data back to your laptop," he told Lindsay. The Satedan might as well have disappeared as far as he was concerned. Once we have the specs, we can put together a more efficient sabot and propellant load. You can start on a preliminary formula." He waved the weapon and left.

Lindsay wished the Satedan had gone with him. She gritted her teeth and bent over her laptop, then remembered Vala and Dushka's lessons. She wasn't the same woman who had endured endless harassment on Prometheus and before. The Satedan probably could hurt or kill her, but she'd make it cost him and her friends would kill him, starting with Vala and ending with Meredith. She had no doubt.

Her back straightened. "You can leave now," she told him. Her voice didn't shake and she didn't hiccup. She didn't finger the knife strapped to her arm under her jacket sleeve. Don't touch your weapons, Dushka had told her, learn their weight and check their presence. Touching them just gives away where they are to your enemy.

He came around the work bench and peered over Lindsay's shoulder.

"I'm Liraz Tyre."

"I'm busy," she said, "so unless you want to explain to your boss why he doesn't have his ammunition as soon as possible...?"

He stepped back. "I wouldn't want to interfere with a Specialist. I hadn't realized you were – "

Lindsay decided to take a page out of Meredith's operating manual. "Yes, I'm an engineering specialist, not to mention that I helped design the hyperdrives on this ship and know more about Asgard technology than anyone in this galaxy… I could keep this ship running all by myself if I had to." She turned and could almost see Tyre's eyes glazing. This was almost fun. No wonder Meredith ranted so often. "Why are you still here? Go away."

"My apologies for taking up your time, Engineering Specialist," Tyre said. He dipped his head and left.

Lindsay sat back on her stool and blew out a breath that made her bangs flutter. She'd done it. She'd faced him down. With a giggle, she set her stool spinning. "Yes!" She pumped her fist in the air.

~*~


"I thought you were a High Scholar," Ronon commented as Daniel joined Essav Squad in the ring room. He'd geared up for a mission the way he always had for SG1 with a couple of additions, including the tiny radio headset would let him stay in contact with Revenge and the Satedan assault force.

Instead of a pack carrying video cameras, digital recorders, and a notebook along with survival gear, Rodney – Meredith – had outfitted him with a armored tac vest loaded with extra clips for his Beretta and the P90 clipped to it, extra bandages, and the odds-and-ends they'd learned could save a life. A waterproof container of matches and several candles, chem lights, plastic lockpicks, a multi-tool, fishhooks, needles and a spool of superfine, superstrong thread that could be used as fishing line or sutures, an extra-large tube of wide spectrum antibiotic that Janet made up, spare socks, a small pot of fluorescent paint, and chocolate bars. It made Daniel wonder if Meredith still had the allergies that had prompted everyone on SG1 to carry an epipen or if the Tok'ra had fixed that.

"Mmm," Daniel mumbled. He double-checked the strap on his thigh holster then shrugged to settle everything into place. "I'm a decent shot as long as I have my glasses."

"Why do we need him with us?" Rakai complained. He sneered at Daniel. "Even if he can shoot, he'll slow us down."

Ara didn't seem to dislike Daniel, but she held up the tablet Meredith had programmed for the five squads. "We have the pictures of everyone we're looking for on these things."

"So you'll know them," Meredith said, hustling in and heading for the ring controls. "But they'll know Daniel, making it much easier to rescue them so they'll, you know, cooperate and come with you?" He tapped his radio. "Jehan, synch that deep scan we did on the bunker system to the ring controls. I'm going to do a little fine tuning since we'll be sending everyone underground."

Daniel hid a wince. No matter how many times he'd used them, the transport rings made him far more nervous than the stargate. It was the knowledge of being sent through something solid rather than space. Besides, there was always a stargate at the other end of a wormhole to let him get back. Well, not always, but usually.

"Everyone have their transponders?" Meredith asked. "Remember to stand as close together as possible when you trip one, otherwise you might leave some pieces behind."

"We're ready," Dex told him, taking a place next to Tyre and his other two squad mates. Essav was missing a member; Daniel hadn't had the gall to ask if whoever it had been had been lost in the Great Culling. It seemed pretty obvious and if not, then it was likely an even sorer spot.

Daniel stepped into the ring area. He stood with his boot tip at the foot control, but this time, Meredith would be activating the transport. Essav Squad shifted to put him at the center of their formation and brought the weapons into ready position.

The other four squads pressed back against the walls of the ring room. Daniel caught Naghi and Chisa watching him; he'd chatted with both soldiers in the mess hall, the members of Bilat were younger and friendlier than Nirav and Hanad squads.

"Ready," Tyre said.

Meredith met Daniel's eyes and he nodded. "I'm good," he said while flicking the safety off his P90.

"Transporting now," Meredith said.

Daniel squeezed his eyes shut, only opening them after the flare of white against his lids dissolved. He'd learned the hard way to save his vision.

Essav were all still blinking.

"Move," Daniel told them. He pushed at Ara's shoulder. "We need to clear for the next transport."

They were in a empty, high-ceilinged cavern. Distant light infiltrated from above, but the light on Daniel's P90 did a better job of penetrating the shadows and showing the chamber was empty. The walls were wet. Under the noise of Essav squad getting out of the way, he thought he heard the hum of machinery.

"Transporting," Mer's voice whispered through Daniel's earpiece.

"Close your eyes," Dex told the rest of Essav. He learned fast.

Bilat squad stumbled out of the way and took up places on guard.

"Transporting."

Nirav, then Haned, and finally Chavan squads arrived.

"Low profile," Dex whispered and reminded the others, "In and out clean is our goal, not maximum destruction."

Dranta Kell would stay on the bridge of Revenge with Vala and Jehan. Once the captives were located, the ship would rain destruction down somewhere far enough away to draw the Genii's attention and not take out their subjects with friendly fire.

The Satedans moved fast and silently. Daniel had to trot to keep up with their long legs. He found himself wishing he'd used Revenge's gym and the treadmills there more as he tried to keep his breathing quiet. They worked their way deeper and deeper into the Genii's underground facility – it was almost a city. The Genii weren't wasting power on lighting at least, which made keeping to the shadows easier even in the high traffic areas. Daniel switched the light on his P90 off so it wouldn't give them away.

Two soldiers on patrol in uniforms were silently disposed of as they reached inhabited portions; Ara and one of the Haned taking them out with knives. A woman, likely a civilian given her lack of the gray uniforms Daniel already hated for what it said about Genii society – was choked out and left, tied and gagged, in the shadows of an empty office. The vibrating whine of massive turbines somewhere below grew more noticeable the deeper they went.

The Genii hadn't been nice enough to leave any handy You-Are-Here maps posted anywhere. Daniel had been looking, but none of the doors or corridors had any sort of identifying markings. These people were deeply paranoid. Lacking any clues about where to look for the captives, though, they were going to need to ask questions. He didn't anticipate it going well.

Rakai and Tyre snagged an older man in uniform as he turned into the corridor. He had a mug of something steaming in one hand and a folder of papers. Daniel thought he'd be a good candidate to know something. The drink splashed to the floor and the papers fluttered after it. One of Bilat squad gathered them up and the mug. The dark stain of the liquid could barely be picked out under the dim lighting.

Chavan deployed to keep watch on their six. Two of Haned ghosted forward, a sentry standing in place at the corridor intersection.

"Call out and die," Rakai told the man once he was pinned to the wall. The knife pricking the soft flesh under his chin emphasized the message.

"Who are you?" the man demanded. "How did you get here? We have watchers at the Ancestors' ring."

"We don't need it," Rakai taunted. "We've got a ship." The Satedans had adapted to shipboard life fast. A week in hyperspace and they'd begun talking about how a ship could make it possible to go after the Wraith. Daniel had done a lot of listening. All of Kell's solders were fixated on avenging Sateda. Essav squad and Rakai were typical. The specialists like Dex and Tyre were too pragmatic to think they could achieve much, while the regular soldiers like Rakai thought if they fought hard enough and were the best, they could change… something. Daniel thought Kell encouraged the delusion.

Rakai dug the knife in deeper. "We need some answers."

"I won't help you – "

Tyre punched him in the solar plexus. Rakai pulled the knife back just in time to keep from severing something as the man's head jerked forward. Only his head moved. He couldn't double over thanks to the hold the others had on him. Pained gasps were the only sound he made for several minutes. The Satedans waited impatiently.

"You can answer the question, end up tied up and left somewhere, or you can bleed out right now," Tyre promised softly into the man's ear.

"W–what?" the man panted. "What do you want?"

"The Tau'ri," Daniel said. "Where are you keeping them?"

"Wh–who?"

"The Tau'ri," Tyre repeated.

"The captives, the people who came here fleeing a culling, that you're holding here," Daniel added. Smeadon's story meshed with what Teyla knew; Genea had been one of the worlds the Athosians would have fled to after a culling. The expedition survivors would have gone with them. Then the Genii had seen a chance, he supposed. Scientists probably had little value on most low tech worlds, but for one trying to bootstrap its way to parity or better against the Wraith, the expedition's people would have been a sudden windfall.

"I–I don't–"

Rakai opened a shallow slice along the Genii's jawline. Blood poured down his neck. He whimpered and bucked.

"Please – "

Rakai sliced again, parallel to the first cut.

"Next one goes all the way in."

"Tha'an level! Kolya has them kept on Tha'an level," their captive blurted.

Thaan meant fourth rendered by the useful but often unreliable translation download the stargates helpfully added to the brain after several trips through. Daniel's working theory was that the stargate system propagated a holographic rendering of language through the network. The more often you went through the stargate, the clearer the picture it took became. More people who spoke the same language traveling through the gate also added to the sample pool. Years of SG teams going through the stargate back in the Milky Way had made it increasingly easy to understand other stargate using culture's languages.

That didn't explain why Goa'uld had never translated, but Daniel suspected the gate builders hadn't had parasitic megalomaniac snakes in mind. Maybe they fouled the translator system up for hosts and Jaffa.

"How many?" Tyre asked.

The Genii man frowned, obviously confused that they didn't know how many people they were after.

"Si–five."

"Which is it? Five or six?" Rakai demanded.

"Five!"

"How do we get to Tha'an level?"

"Down this corridor, two lefts, down the stairs two levels. There – there are guards. They'll kill you – "

Rakai sliced the knife deep the third time.

Daniel bit back a protest. Only because he knew no one would listen to him. He filed it away to throw at Vala, though he doubted she'd care. If she did object to the Satedans' methods, what she could do about it? Vala would pragmatically declare that the dead Genii couldn't shoot them in the back.

The directions proved good.

Chavan squad went through the door onto the fourth level first and came under Genii fire immediately. The directions had been good but must not have included something. The Genii couldn't be so paranoid they shot at anyone coming through a door, so they must have had some kind of warning. Maybe a motion alarm in the stairwell.

Essav and Nirav went through the doors firing down the corridor at anything that moved. Daniel followed with his P90 at ready too. Suddenly he didn't mind the Genii proclivity for uniforms. It made picking targets much less nerve-racking. He fired a burst at a soldier trying to fire from a low position. The bone-rattling boom of the triple-barreled weapons the Satedans used mixed with the sharper chatter of the P90 and the Genii's own projectile weapons.

Dex slammed Daniel back against the wall in time to avoid being shot in the back as more Genii rushed in from the same stairwell they'd used, catching the assault force in a pincer. He thought they might be in trouble, because the Genii could keep throwing men at them from both sides, but he hadn't realized just how good the Satedans were. They were professionals on a level that he hadn't seen since working beside Jack and some of the best marines the SGC used.

Using one hand to fire at the Genii, Dex activated his radio with the other and spoke. "Revenge, do you read?" The Satedans had understood the reasoning for radio protocols and memorized them the same day Mer handed out the headsets.

"We've got a lock on your trackers, Essav," Daniel heard through his own headset.

Dex kept Daniel pinned to the wall. His breath brushed Daniel temple, hot and with a hint of the peppers from breakfast in the mess. "Fire mission four."

"One distraction coming up, Essav."

The floor under their boots heaved, though distance and the earth between muffled the boom that must have accompanied the weapon firing down from orbit. Dust sifted down from the light fixtures and puffed up from every crack and cranny. A second and third impact jolted everything. The Satedans rode it out like sailors, snapping shots off that drove the Genii back into the stairwell and the other end of the corridor.

"Move," Dex ordered, doing so himself.

Daniel stuck with him.

The wounded were on their feet, except for one of the Chavan. His squad mates stripped him of anything useful then wrapped his hand around a Satedan grenade before rolling him onto his stomach. As soon as a Genii messed with the body, the grenade would roll loose and detonate.

A long time ago, Daniel would have been horrified. He could remember being that man, but today he approved.

The Satedans began clearing the rooms along the corridor methodically. Dex would let Daniel in to check faces if they found anyone inside. The first three only gave up Genii working at equipment that looked like it dated back to the 1930s or 40s to Daniel.

A spat of Czech from the fourth room had Daniel pushing past Dex. He blinked and merged the bruised and ill-looking man wearing glasses that only had one lens with the ID photograph from the expedition records.

"Dr. Zelenka?"

Zelenka peered at Daniel. "Dr. Jackson?"

"This one of yours?" Dex asked.

"Yes," Daniel said absently. He realized that Zelenka was wearing a manacle on one ankle that chained him to the floor. The chain let him reach a work table, a small cot and a toilet in the corner.

"Who has the key?" Dex asked Zelenka with a gesture to the manacles.

"There is no key," Zelenka replied. He raised his foot. "It is welded on."

Dex nodded grimly. "Get under the cot, we'll blow the chain off at the far end, get the rest off back on the ship."

Zelenka nodded.

Explosive Specialist Tyre knelt where the chain was anchored and began packing the Satedan's explosive in place.

"Who else is here?" Daniel asked Zelenka.

"Doctors Kusanagi, Dumais, Wagoner, Abrams, myself and Brendan Gall," Zelenka replied. "At least, I believe so. Commander Kolya may have taken Gall or Wagoner with him."

"Out," Dex insisted as Tyre held up a hand, fingers splayed.

"On five," Tyre said.

"Take cover," Daniel yelled to Zelenka.

Dex pulled Daniel outside the room. Tyre flung himself after them, counting down as he did. "… three, two – "

Whump.

Daniel pushed his way back into the room, coughing and searching for Zelenka through watering eyes. The scientist had already rolled out from under his cot and was coiling the chain around his leg and anchoring it to his belt to keep it out of the way as he moved. Dex let out a grunt of approval.

"Anyone else chained up?" Tyre asked.

"No," Zelenka said. "With the stargate under guard and myself as hostage, Kolya believed the others would not attempt an escape."

"Makes things easier," Dex said. "You know where they are?"

"Three doors down," Zelenka replied, limping after them. In the corridor outside, he paused to kick a dead Genii soldier then looked sidelong at Daniel. "We are to make them better bombs. The radiation down here is five times normal, though we have introduced them to the concept of shielding."

Meredith's voice whispered in Daniel's ear. "Did I hear that right? Because if they'd put in lead shielding we wouldn't be talking on this radio."

Daniel touched the mic control. "Maybe the radioactive material is elsewhere."

Zelenka interrupted, "Kolya took the first bomb somewhere."

"You helped them make nukes?" Daniel exclaimed.

"Wonderful," Mer announced, "nuclear Nazis."

"Because, of course, obviously we wanted to," Zelenka replied in a sour voice. "Except for you, Dr. Jackson, I do not think these are soldiers of the SGC."

"Yeah. That's… " Daniel floundered. "That's pretty complicated."

"Of course." Zelenka helped himself to a weapon from another dead Genii soldier.

The remaining scientists were in the room Zelenka had indicated.

"Gall's with Kolya," Lydia Dumais stated. She glared at Wagoner. "He's the better bootlicker."

"Come on," Daniel said. "We're getting out of here."

Miko Kusanagi smiled through the tears running down her face. "I am so glad you've come."

"Yeah, now the weasels can get theirs," Dumais said meaningfully, her dark gaze still hot on Wagoner.

Meredith snapped something off-microphone and the rumble of another distant explosion rolled the floor under their feet. The scientists looked panicky and uncertain. Meredith announced, "I can't get a lock for the rings. You have to move up to the level where you started."

"Talk about it later," Dex ordered. "I want each of you with one of the squads for protection until we can transport out."

"Stick with me," Daniel told Zelenka.

Dex pointed out Miko, Dumais, Abrams and Wagoner and assigned, "Hanad, Nirav, take the women. Chavan, Bilat, him and him."

Naghi, from Bilat squad, reached for Wagoner's arm. Wagoner reared back. He shook his head. "I don't know you, any of you, I'm not going anywhere – "

"Eddie," Dumais snapped, "if the diversion keeps making the earth move, the crap ass containment at their refinery facility is going to crack and flood these damn tunnels with radiation."

Daniel twitched. "Radiation?"

Wagoner kept shaking his head. He pointed at Naghi. "They're not from the SGC! We can't trust them!"

"We can trust Dr. Jackson," Zelenka insisted.

"Naghi," Bilat's lead snapped, "just grab him."

Naghi obeyed or tried to; Daniel would never have a clear idea of the order of the scuffle that followed. There were just still frames, flipping past like a stack of pictures being fanned with no accompanying sound. Wagoner grabbed up something from the table behind him, white-bright as a laser or a torch, Naghi howled in pain and fired his weapon as Abrams tackled Wagoner. Flip. Blood spread from a hole in Abram's back. Flip flip. Wagoner's mouth stretched wide and Naghi's hand lying on the floor. The cutting laser rolled to a stop against the table leg, its blade drilling a precise hole into the metal wall beyond and Wagoner's head exploded into red mist.

Sound snapped back on. Naghi was screaming.

Zelenka cursed steadily, a filthy, furious litany of languages that needed no translation under the circumstances.

The laser had cauterized Naghi's stump at least. He wasn't bleeding out. Daniel started forward to check Abrams, hoping he might still be alive too. Dex's hand clamped onto his shoulder.

"We go now," Dex said.

"At least get his hand," Daniel protested. "Janet might be able to do something. Or Vala. We have Goa'uld healing devices… "

Chisa scooped up Naghi's hand, shoved it inside her tac vest, then pulled him to his feet by his good arm. He leaned against her, but stayed on his feet.

The Satedans chivvied Dumais and Kusanagi closer between them and grimly headed out, back down the corridor to the stairwell and up. The Genii were waiting above, prompting a second fire fight. Daniel shoved his Beretta into Zelenka's hands and sprayed bursts of cover fire over head as they stayed low as possible and scrambled up the stairs.

Tyre tossed grenades back down the stairwell as soon as they made the next landing.

"Having fun?" Mer asked over the radio but he sounded grim.

"Have you got a lock yet?"

"We have to have the rings directly overhead to work," Mer replied. "You keep moving."

"Yeah, we're being shot at! You're the damned

The other Genii pulled back up the stairs.

"Cover!" Tyre shouted and lobbed a grenade through the next landing's doorway.

Daniel ducked, taking Zelenka down with him, and squeezed his eyes shut.

Boom.

Dust and bits of cement showered them. Daniel choked and began coughing on the gray powder. His ears rang over the mad thud of his pulse.

"Move, move, move!" Dex yelled at them. He sounded muffled. Gray dust coated his dreads. He caught the back of Zelenka's pants and lifted him onto his feet with a push to continue up the stairs.

Daniel managed to find his own feet and follow. They had to be near the same level they'd ringed down to by now, he thought, didn't they? Tyre's grenade had driven the Genii back. Except for their dead and wounded left behind, the room beyond this stair landing's door seemed empty. Ugly cracks ran up the walls and only one light remained functional, dangling from a wire in the far corner, swinging and throwing crazy shadows.

"I've got a lock on your transponders!" Mer declared. "Groups of six, try to find the central open area of whatever room you're in!"

The Satedans separated into squads, stepping over dead Genii bodies scattered around. Daniel glimpsed Kusanagi hemmed in behind the much bigger and taller members of Nirav squad. She'd lost her glasses.

The rings slammed down faster than usual, engulfing Nirav in light and then vanishing upward.

Hanad stumbled into place, taking Dumais with them. Bilat went next. Chisa and another man had Naghi supported between them.

Ara fired at a head that poked around the twisted wreckage of the doorway.

"Go with Chavan," Dex snapped at Zelenka and Daniel.

Before they could even agree, they were yanked to the center of the room. Daniel wondered if he was shocky. He closed his eyes and opened them to the ring room and Meredith snarling at them to get out of the way. He stumbled off the platform. Janet and Melena had Naghi on a gurney and were wheeling him out as the rings activated one last time, bringing back Essav squad.

Meredith locked down the controls and headed for the door.

"Hey," Daniel called.

"No time, they'll need me in the infirmary," Meredith yelled back, "You'll have to take care of the others!"

The airlock door slid closed behind him with a thunk.

Daniel looked around and settled his gaze on the three expedition members they'd retrieved. The Satedans were still quivering with adrenaline and wild-looking, but the ex-captives looked as exhausted as he felt, only confused too.

"You guys," Daniel said, then had to stop to cough and clear his throat, "you guys know the way back to your quarters. I'm going to," he gestured to the other three, "take care of… um, get our people settled in."

"And perhaps answer some questions, yes?" Zelenka asked, his gaze sharp despite the state of his glasses, as he looked around the ring room.

"Yeah," Daniel said tiredly. He realized he still had the P90 in one hand. He let it swing back down on sling clipped to his vest and gestured to the doors.

~*~


Radek limped after Dr. Jackson, Miko and Lydia trailing behind him. The very large and intimidating soldiers were left behind. He did not know exactly what to expect. While the ship they were aboard was unmistakably of Earth manufacture, he suspected that the lack of SGC personnel beyond Dr. Jackson meant they had not been rescued so much as changed captors. Otherwise, he would have expected to at least see a member of Earth's military accompanying their rescuers. He hoped only that they had not somehow fallen into the hands of the Goa'uld.

"Look," Dr. Jackson said wearily, "I know you're confused. But you may need to wait for some explanations."

Ah.

Radek was not surprised.

"Where is the crew?" Lydia asked.

The empty corridors they were walking had begun to disturb Radek as well.

"Back in the Milky Way," Jackson said. He kept walking. "Janet and Novak are the only others left. McKay – you saw him – is from Earth, but not interested in going back."

Radek had spent the majority of his contract with the IOA working either at Area 51 or in Antarctica. He had met Dr. Jackson on occasion there, in Dr. Carter's company, but hadn't been acquainted with anyone else from the SGC; the Americans had not welcomed the addition of experts from other countries to the program. He had read the censored AARs from the first years of stargate exploration, however, and recognized McKay's name, remembered because McKay had been a member of SG-1, a brilliant scientist, and Canadian. In addition, Radek understood that Dr. Carter had been married to him. He'd been under the impression Dr. McKay had been killed however.

He opened his mouth to ask how McKay had survived, then bit back the words. Best to wait, to listen and observe. If what they were told did not agree with what they knew, then that would tell them much about their 'rescuers'.

The chain he had secured around his leg and into his waist band slithered free and clanked on the metal deck. Jackson jumped and spun, fumbling at the weapon he still carried clipped to his combat vest.

"Pardon," Radek stuttered.

Miko darted forward and gathered up the links of the chain, then silently handed them to Radek. Lydia crowded closer to him; whether to support Radek or for his pathetic protection, he was unsure. His fellow captives had followed his lead since they were taken by the Genii, though he had not sought the authority they'd accorded him.

Jackson took a moment to recover. "Sorry, uh, adrenaline."

"Yes," Radek agreed without irony.

"I'd forgotten – Ro–Meredith could get that off for you, but he went to the infirmary to help Janet."

"I wasn't aware the any of Dr. McKay's doctorates were of a medical nature," Radek murmured. He wondered how Jackson would answer.

"They're not, but the captain and he are both able to operate Goa'uld healing devices," Jackson replied baldly.

Radek shuddered at all the implications.

"We'll go down to engineering," Jackson said. "Novak's there. She'll figure something out."

He had little choice but to follow Jackson. Lydia and Miko remained beside him. Radek didn't know if they realized what he had; from what he understood Jaffa could not use the Goa'uld's devices, only those taken as a host. Which would surely explain how Dr. McKay had been reported dead. He could not guess why Dr. Jackson did not appear even disturbed, only tired and annoyed. Perhaps Radek misunderstood.

The elevator Jackson led them toward opened before they reached it. A lanky man attired in black leather held the door open for them. He eyed Radek and his chain with a dark expression, then turned to Jackson.

"Kell said one of them injured one of his men."

"Yes," Jackson replied. The elevator made the five of them a tight fit. "Naghi lost his hand. Wagoner and Abrams were both killed."

"By Kell's people?"

"Yes."

"Then fuck him and his reparations," Jehan declared.

Lydia choked back a laugh, though Miko jumped.

"Ah, Jehan's… "

"Pilot," Jehan said. The short answer didn't invite any further description. He was looking at the chain, no, the manacle on Radek's ankle. His mouth set in a harsh line. He didn't say anything else, but accompanied them to engineering, where a pale young woman introduced as the aforementioned Novak efficiently first removed the chain from the manacle and then used a hammer and chisel to break the sloppy Genii welding job.

"I could do a better job with a soldering gun," she said and seemed surprised when Radek thanked her. She told them about the Asgard hyperdrives while she gathered her tools. "I suppose your specialties are all theory, but if you know some engineering you could work on them. Anyone else we pick up out here, someone will have to teach them to read English, since everything's written in it."

"In exchange for what?" Lydia asked.

Novak gave an abashed look toward Jehan, who had steadied Radek along with Jackson while Novak struck the chisel against the metal, and now slouched against a console. He shrugged. "Talk to Mer."

"He wouldn't have to spend so much time down here," Novak suggested.

Jehan's thin face lit with amusement and Novak giggled. Miko's eyes widened and she covered her mouth. So it was like that on this ship. Relationships were a good sign.

Radek fingered the chaffed skin above his ankle then slid off the table. He'd grown so used to the manacle's weight that it affected his balance even gone. He grabbed the edge of the table, shifted one of the links of chain and sent it over the edge. The chain poured down to the deck link by link before he could catch it.

Jehan stared at it much as Radek would have a poisonous snake, his face gone pale and set, the lightness of a moment before wiped away. He stood and told Jackson, "I'll be on the bridge. Give them any of the empty crew quarters. We don't want them on the same level as the Satedans." His gaze shifted to Radek, then Miko and Lydia. "The Satedans aren't crew. You don't need to obey them. You aren't crew either, so you don't have work stations or duties. Just listen for any all-ship announcements and do what they say, other than that you can do pretty much what you like. You've got a free ride until we stop at the next planet, then you can decide what you want to do."

Radek waited until Jehan had left to ask Jackson, "What sort of crew does this ship have?"

Novak cheerfully answered before Jackson could.

"Oh, we're pirates."

Lydia laughed until Radek feared she would be sick.

Jackson took them all back up ship and warned them which level the Satedan mercenaries were housed on. He pointed out the way to the infirmary and then the rec room and finished in the mess, where a gray-haired woman served them better food than Radek had tasted in months, maybe years. Jackson explained that they were on the former SGC ship Prometheus, now under the command of an ex-Goa'uld host and hunting the lost Atlantis expedition in order to find and loot the lost city.

"It's up to you," Jackson told them. "But if you don't sign on or offer some useful information, they'll probably dump you somewhere." He sighed. "When it's convenient. Which, admittedly, may not happen too soon."

Radek silently checked with Miko and Lydia. They had learned to read each other while the Genii kept them. Lydia shrugged and Miko ducked her head; both of them acceding to whatever Radek decided. He reserved the option to amend his choice, but felt they were better off aboard Revenge than on their own. Perhaps they might even be reunited with the expedition's survivors eventually.

Jehan, the only one of the 'pirates' Radek had met yet, had not been unkind. Novak, a woman of nervous nature if Radek was not mistaken, seemed at ease with him, had even teased him.

"Don't believe him," the gray-haired woman said as she appeared at their table with a pot of hot water and the tea Radek had asked for in place of coffee. "We'll just space ya."

"Dushka!" Jackson protested.

Dushka rolled her eyes. "Are you sure your name is Jackson and not jackass?"

"McKay came up with that, didn't he?" Jackson accused.

Dushka pinched her lips closed between forefinger and thumb, the gesture alien but more easily understood even than 'zipping' them, before returning to the galley she apparently ruled. The small interchange confirmed to Radek that they were in considerably better circumstances than they had been only hours before. He worried about the Satedans, but knew better than to speak of that yet. Miko delightedly prepared the tea which she shared with Radek, while Lydia savored coffee along with Jackson.

They lingered until many of the other crew passed through the mess hall. Dr. Fraiser arrived with McKay and a striking woman in black leather and a creatively cut-out, skintight red shirt.

"That's Vala," Jackson said quietly. "The captain."

"Food," McKay ordered. "Food, right now. Otherwise I'm sure I'm going to collapse right here." He didn't collapse, but he did take a seat at an empty table, cross his arms on the surface and rest his forehead on them.

"Vala Mal Doran," the captain purred to Radek. She leaned close and he couldn't help looking down her cleavage. "Welcome aboard Revenge. I just know we're all going to get along wonderfully." Her attention switched to Miko and Lydia and if anything, her voice turned huskier and more inviting. "Dr. Kusanagi, Dr. Dumais. I'm delighted we were able to get you out of that loathsome hole and away from those tedious Genii."

"Naghi's hand?" Jackson asked.

Captain Mal Doran straightened up slowly and Radek realized she was exhausted.

"Is fine," she said.

"I reattached it," Dr. Fraiser explained. She had on BDUs and a pale green scrub top beneath a white coat. She slumped down into a chair at the same table as McKay. "Vala and Rod–Meredith were able to use the healing devices. He appeared to have sensation and control when we


"I can do more," Captain Mal Doran offered.

"Not until you and Meredith have both eaten something. Naghi needs rest too. Those healing devices are a huge drain on the body," Dr. Fraiser stated. She scrubbed her hands through her hair, then stretched, before her attention shifted to Radek, Lydia and Miko. "We'll take a look at all of you too."

Dushka set coffee mugs in front of McKay and Fraiser.

"Food?" McKay asked as he groped for his mug without raising his head.

"In a minute," Dushka promised. She handed Vala Mal Doran a bottle of something red and quite obviously not from Earth.

Shortly after, Jehan joined them in company with a face Radek recognized.

"Sle─Źna Emmagan!" Radek exclaimed. "Dr. Carter thought you had been culled." His pleasure at seeing her faded a little. Though he had not spoken to her more than once or twice while they were on Athos, he remembered someone softer. But, of course, that had been before the culling. The terror of the night would never fade, despite the horrors Kolya had inflicted since.

Teyla nodded to him and smiled – a small, controlled smile in contrast to the boundless sorrow in her dark eyes. "Dr. Zelenka, it is good that you have been freed. Dr. Kusanagi, Dr. Dumais, your survival gives me joy. I have found no one from my own people or yours before this, though I returned to Athos."

"The Athosians took us to Genea," Lydia snapped and glared at Teyla. Unlike Miko, who could pretend self-effacement and Radek, who had learned circumspection under the Russians, Lydia hadn't fared well among the Genii; they hadn't appreciated her sharp tongue. She'd expected rescue by the expedition and when it hadn't come, she'd built a hard and bitter shell around herself. She still listened to Radek, but he doubted she would answer to anyone else who hadn't suffered along with their little group.

Teyla bowed her head.

"A mistake."

"Caias and Reckell have the bridge," Jehan reported to the captain. "Kell went down to see his men."

Jehan brushed one hand over McKay's slumped shoulders in passing as he took the next seat. McKay smiled and handed his coffee mug to the pilot, who sipped from it, then handed it back. Radek noticed but dismissed the interaction, too intent on Teyla Emmagan's subtly harder appearance. He wondered how she had survived and if any of those others culled that night had as well.

Dushka brought out plates of sandwiches and finger food. Three were set before Dr. Fraiser, Captain Mal Doran, and McKay. She set more out for everyone else. McKay began eating immediately and loudly. Drippy pieces slid out the edge of his sandwich onto his plate and his shirt. No one paid him any attention.

Lydia tensed to speak again and Radek touched her hand to caution her before she could say anything else bitter. He himself did not blame the Athosians. They had lost their homes, their loved ones and even their planet because of the expedition. If blame were to be apportioned, Radek would set its weight against the Genii, who were as cruel and paranoid as the Communist regimes he remembered from childhood. Which reminded him to remain cautious among these people.

Caution did not preclude kindness in return for the kindness they'd been shown however. He flexed his ankle, relishing the lack of the manacle.

"Though Commander Kolya kept much from us," he said, "the Genii scientists," he curled his lip at so calling them, "were not so security conscious. The Athosians left Genea with the expedition." He sighed. "I do not know any more. Only that Kolya's spies were to look for them as well as any Tau'ri."

Kolya, horrid man, had been furious to have been bested by Dr. Carter. He had not gathered that Carter had been military and thought her just another frightened scientist, nor had he realized the Tau'ri would react so quickly or discover the bunker system hidden beneath their Potemkin village. Rage had even cost him Kavanagh when he killed him. Afterward, he had questioned the captives on where the other Tau'ri might go. Radek and the others still had the scars, but a knife couldn't extract what wasn't there, only screams and lies.

"Wonderful," McKay muttered around a mouthful of food. "We've got a hold full of Visigoths, two dead scientists, and we're no closer to finding Sam and the others than before. This is the crappiest galaxy ever." He winced immediately and glared at Jehan, who must have kicked his foot under the table. The glare turned apologetic when he looked at Radek. "Not that I'm not doing inner cartwheels at having got you three loose, especially since according the mission records, all of you are qualified to take some shifts in engineering."

Radek coughed and then laughed despite himself.

"Yes, I can see that."

McKay took another bite of his sandwich – his third – and asked while chewing, "What were the Genii making you work on?"

Brendan and Wagoner had told Kolya about Atlantis, wetting the commander's appetite for the treasures and weapons of the Ancestors' city. He had demanded they create a power source that would let him take Atlantis and when they couldn't, he'd become obsessed with finding a ZPM. Once in control of Atlantis, Kolya believed he could oust Cowen and rule the Genii. Radek had listened to him boast of his plans while pretending to still be unconscious from a beating. Kolya only wished to destroy the Wraith in order to garner more power for himself. He was a madman and would not listen to warnings. He refused to accept that radiation was sickening all the Genii in the underground city or that returning to Atlantis, even with a power source, would be pointless without someone with the ATA gene.

Radek had stopped speaking of the radiation danger. He'd hoped Kolya would be arrogant enough to handle the refined fissionable materials needed for the bombs.

Instead, Commander Kolya had taken Brendan and his loyalist men to a planet rumored to be the hiding place of an Ancestors' potentia, which Brendan believed might be a ZPM.

"Nuclear weapons," Miko said.

"Their shielding is… very bad," Radek added.

"Oh, god damn it," Fraiser exclaimed. She pushed her chair back and popped to her feet. "Come on. Infirmary now. I want to get an idea of what kind of exposure you've all had. We'll start you on drug regimen and I'll put together a prophalyctic dosage for the Satedans. Stupid, reckless, dumbass idiots."

"I do not believe any of your people were exposed long enough to suffer any after effects," Radek offered, "though I observed a high incidence of what I believe were skin cancers among the Genii personnel assigned to weapons research."

That didn't please Fraiser.

"We're doing this now," she commanded. "Come along."

"Don't bother arguing," Jackson said.

McKay nodded and Jehan intoned, "Resistance is futile."

"Oh, I'm not arguing," Lydia said. She grabbed Miko's hand and pulled her to her feet. "Let's go, Kusanagi. Your bone marrow will thank me."

Miko offered Captain Mal Doran a helpless, embarrassed half-bow as Lydia dragged her toward the mess hall doors. Radek followed more slowly and promised to speak more with McKay later. McKay just waved him on.

Much later, alone for the first time in longer than he could remember, Radek stood in the tiny shower cubicle and allowed the unrationed hot water to run over him and allowed himself to cry in relief. He would not die of radiation poisoning, he would not be tortured, he would not be forced to watch as his colleagues were beaten and cowed into service to a madman or to prostitute his own knowledge to save them. He was as safe as anyone in this galaxy could be.

He'd forgotten to tell them that Kolya had taken both Brendan and the first nuclear device with him to Dagan. Radek told himself he needed to mention that to Captain Mal Doran or someone soon. Perhaps they could save Brendan. Once out of Kolya's clutches, he thought the young scientist might recover and realize nothing good could come of aiding the Genii.

Relief that he was finally free of the Genii himself left Radek feeling fragile and terribly guilty that he was alive. He pictured again poor Wagoner's panic and Abram's futile death trying to save him. They had been only moments from freedom. There was nothing Radek had done that warranted his survival over theirs, only that he had kept his head. He had been a coward; he had not even moved to save Wagoner.

They were dead and he was not. Radek wept until he feared he would throw up the very good food he had eaten. The sobs only ended when exhaustion dragged him to a stop. Radek slapped the cubicle's wall. They were dead and he was alive.

His fingertips had pruned up. If he did not get out of the shower soon, surely someone from the crew would notice the excessive water consumption and investigate.

The crew of pirates, he reminded himself. Pirates. Who would believe it? They had been rescued by intergalactic pirates and alien mercenaries. Radek hiccupped, but held back the hysterical laughter that threatened to overtake him.

He turned off the shower, dried himself and dressed, then returned to the cabin he had been given. He nodded to Miko as she returned from the women's showers and hoped the fogged up lenses of his glasses hid how red his eyes were. Alone once more, he sank down on the cabin's bunk, curled a blanket over his shoulders and fell into a black and dreamless sleep.

~*~


"A ZedPM!" Meredith exclaimed. "You didn't think to mention that before?"

Zelenka shrugged and pushed his glasses back up his nose. Of course he'd mentioned in the middle of the rec room, while Kell was there with Vala. Mer didn't know if she'd slept with the Satedan or not – he thought not – but Kell seemed to be attempting to charm her. It made his skin crawl to watch and he'd been on his way out when Zelenka popped in. The hungry light in Kell's eyes as Zelenka explained about Kolya and the Genii mission to blackmail the Daganese into turning over their religious treasure bothered Meredith too.

"I was, perhaps, tired and confused," Zelenka said. Meredith's gargled, "Arrrgh!" did not appear to move him.

"And it's a ZedPM that you need to reach the City of the Ancestors," Kell questioned. He stumbled over the phrase but had the concept just fine. Mer didn't like it. Kell reminded him of that Lucien Alliance warlord, Netan, only cleverer. Teyla and Jehan had both mentioned the unstable situation they'd left behind on Belkan, where the Satedan refugees were basically untouchable by the local law thanks to their fire power. Kell had tasted power; having done so, he'd want more.

Vala wasn't worried, of course.

"Yes," Mer snapped. "Well, that and someone with this ATA gene. I wonder if I have it?" He needed to go down to the infirmary and have Fraiser do a blood test. The Prometheus mission had the expedition's paperwork, including everyone's medical records; she could compare Mer's results with one of the ATA positives.

"Miko is ATA positive," Zelenka said. He smiled with satisfaction. "We did not tell Commander Kolya this. It is lucky Brendan did not pay attention or remember that."

"Never mind that," Vala said. She latched onto Zelenka's arm, her eyes bright with the excitement and the prospect of loot. "Tell us where this Dagan is, Dr. Zelenka."

"Ask Teyla," Mer suggested. "Once you know the address, I'll run the stargate address through our navigation conversion program." He'd be relieved once they had the Satedans and their payment in ammunition off the ship. Too many of them kept turning up all over the ship and Mer didn't believe they were exercising for an instant. Jehan could plot a course to Dagan after they got rid of them at Belkan. He glanced at the clock over the rec room's door. "I've just got time to pick up something to eat and a coffee before I relieve Novak in the drive chambers."

Zelenka removed Vala's hand from his arm. "Dr. McKay?"

Mer had already started toward the door. "Yes, yes, what?"

"Would it be possible to examine the hyperdrives later?"

"Of course. Bring Dumpy and Kuzugaga."

"Dumais and Kusanagi," Zelenka corrected.

"I knew that."

He had. Did they think it was easy to come up with ridiculous wrong names that were still recognizable? He'd use their proper names when they proved they deserved to be remembered, never mind that his remarkable brain meant he would remember them anyway. Meredith kept moving. A ZedPM! If they could recover a charged zero point module he could rig a power feed to Revenge's hyperdrives. It would make this 'adventure' in Pegasus more than worth their time. Jolinar hadn't been interested in pure research, but they had done a great deal of development work together and Mer had some ideas about marrying Tok'ra technology to the Asgard designs Revenge boasted. Nothing could get through their shields, they could dive into a sun – no, even a ZedPM wouldn't let them do more than skim the corona – they'd be nearly invulnerable to any attack.

He sighed, because of course they would end up using any ZedPM in Atlantis, but it was a lovely fantasy. He put it away with the dream of performing pure research again someday. 

"Come along, Dr. Zelenka," he heard Vala say behind him.

"I'll come with you," Kell said.

Meredith walked faster. If he could get Zelenka and the two others to sign on as crew, they'd be able to take one of the reactor chambers off-line for an hour or two, flush the radiation to vacuum and work on it without pulling Novak off-shift to cover for him. He wanted to inspect the shielding inside. The slightly uneven power feed could be the result of subpar material or a manufacturing defect. The contractors on Earth delivering the parts to the Air Force wouldn't have had clearance to know what they were building, which meant they might have overlooked any number of potential problems. Borzin should have caught anything in the refit, but Borzin was a money-hungry weasel, who no doubt figured if a hyperdrive blew up no one on the ship would survive to come back and make him pay.

He nearly ran into Liraz Tyre just outside Engineering and demanded, "What are you doing down here?"

"I had hoped to persuade Engineer Novak to join me in the mess for a meal," Tyre replied. He looked amused.

Meredith eyed him. Novak had mentioned Tyre being pushy in the material labs.

"Leave her alone," Mer told him.

"As you say," Tyre agreed, still unruffled. "She informed me she was working."

He headed for the interdeck elevator.

Meredith turned and watched the Satedan suspiciously until he was gone.

~*~


Revenge could be cranky sometimes. Little things mostly, related to being a prototype hybrid or to the lack of crew to maintain her at optimum. Jehan had a diagnostic routine running and Recks had the environmental console half disassembled when Vala brought Kell onto the bridge. He glanced up, but dismissed them in favor of puzzling over the glitch in the course calculation program. The bastard mixture of Tau'ri equipment, scavenged Goa'uld technology and Asgard science was amazingly flexible, but Caias had tried to put together a short-cut for calculating hyper jumps using Hebridan math and it wasn't working. There was glitch somewhere, Jehan could feel it, and he wanted to track it down so they could use it the next time he set a course.

"Delma's moon-sized ass!" Reckell cursed. He thumped the monitor with one clawed hand. "I keep getting intermittent temperature variations in hold two." He groped for a tool from the kit beside him and twisted the fit it into the open panel underneath the console. Revenge hadn't been designed for beings as big as Serrakin.

"Problems?" Vala asked. The hold two contained certain supplies that had to be maintained within a specific temperature window.

Reckell snarled and hissed in his native tongue. "If Borzin slipped in subpar temperature gauges, I'm going to go back and feed them to him," Reckell griped, distracting Jehan despite a niggling hint of something wrong.

"He wouldn't have dared," Vala said.

"Eh, I think it might be a loose connection here," Reckell muttered. He dropped down to his knees and crawled under the console again. "Jehan, slave the read-out to your console and tell me if it evens out."

Jehan frowned and did as Reckell asked, checking the temperature and the spikes that were bothering the first mate. "All within normal parameters," he reported. Something kept bothering him.

Something about Kell.

"What's that?" Kell said. "On this monitor?" Pointing to the locked down weapons console next to the captain's chair.

Jehan saw Vala step away from Kell out of the corner of his eye. Kell glanced at the ship's chronograph read-out on the main viewscreen. Vala said, "What? I don't see anythi–"

Too tense. Mai'tec. Kell was too tense. Something was wrong.

Jehan scrabbled to get at his blaster, hampered by his sitting position, as Kell pulled a hand version of the Satedans' larger guns and fired into Reckell's back. He shifted his aim and fired again, this time at Jehan. The bullet tore into his leg and he lost his blaster, rocked by the impact and the immediate agony that rushed from his thigh through his entire body. He clutched at the bloody mess desperately and barely stayed in his chair. Wet heat pulsed between his fingers from the wound. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Everything narrowed down to the pain until the hot circle of gun muzzle pressed against his forehead.

Kell shoved Jehan's head back until his neck arched and swallowing hurt. "Drop you weapon or he dies like the other one," he ordered.

Jehan slid his eyes left. Vala had her zat out and aimed at Kell. Reckell's body lay limp on the deck.

Kell shook his head. "Your weapon doesn't kill. Mine will spatter his brains all over."

"You can't pilot this ship without him," Vala snapped. Kell wouldn't hear the fear in her voice and her face would never give it away, but Jehan sensed it. She'd shake apart later, after she stuffed Qetesh's ghost into its compartment again, but for now Vala would channel the haughty Goa'uld queen. Kell would zero in on any apparent weakness on her part.

"You have a second pilot. One who isn't happy."

Jehan had known bringing Caias with them would be a mistake. He'd assumed the smuggler would double-cross them, not make killing Jehan an easier choice. Turned out it was both. He twitched and whimpered in pain. No matter how tight he pressed into his leg, blood was soaking through his pant leg and running between his fingers. Jehan panted through the pain, trying to focus on the situation, but between breaths he could hear droplets of his blood pattering down to the deck. If he didn't do something soon, he would slip into shock and be useless. Not that he wasn't useless anyway – the only thing keeping him conscious was a murderous fury sparked by knowing Recks was dead.

"Zat him," he croaked. "I'm bleeding out."

Vala ignored Jehan and said with sweet venom, "Caias doesn't have the command codes. Without Jehan or Mer and myself, this ship will self-destruct in thirty-six hours."

"Still don't need him, then," Kell replied. "I sent Tyre to get the mouthy ass-fucker."

Mer. Fucking hell, Kell meant Mer.

"With you and him," Kell told Vala, "I don't need this one." He jabbed the muzzle of his gun against Jehan's forehead again and Jehan swayed back. He grabbed with his right hand at the console to keep from falling out of his chair.

The heel of Jehan's hand landed next to the covered switch that would initiate a shipwide alarm and lockdown.

"I'm going to pass out in a second," Jehan slurred for Vala's sake. He hissed in pain and batted clumsily at Kell's gun with his left, flicking blood into Kell's eyes. It distracted Kell long enough to flip the cover off the switch. Kell took a step back and wiped at his face. The gun remained aimed at him, but no longer in contact. Good enough. "Kill him."

Jehan tripped the switch and threw himself onto the deck as the alarms shrieked through the ship. Zat and gun fired together. He hit on his wounded leg and screamed, unable to do anything except clutch at his wounded leg, his universe reduced to pain. A bullet exploded into the nav console which showered sparks onto his neck and face.

A second bullet ricocheted until it shattered the forward viewscreen in an explosion of plastic and crystal.

Jehan curled away from the console and squinted at the body that collapsed beside him. Energy from the zat blast chased over Kell's body. He managed to lift his head as Vala stepped over Reckell.

"I knew I could rely on you, darling," she said as she kicked Kell's gun away and stood astride him.

The zat in her hand whined as it powered up. A second hit, so close to the first, would kill.

"Qetesh would make him pay and pay and pay," she said.

"You aren't Qetesh," Jehan panted.

Vala glanced at him, unsmiling, and said, "Sometimes I am."

Jehan shuddered, half expecting her eyes to flare gold and her voice to echo. It made his skin crawl when Vala showed how much of the Goa'uld queen had become part of her. He would have flinched away if he hadn't been on the edge of passing out.

She looked down at Kell. "Rak'lo najaquna shel're hara kek."

It is time for you to die, Jehan translated. Fine by him. The bridge reeked of gunpowder, ozone, and blood and Reckell's body lay under the environmental console, already decaying.

Vala zatted Kell a second time.

~*~



The colorful rec room reminded Teyla of her people's tents. The furniture was heavier than they'd used, but it was low and comfortable, piled with lush furs and soft pillows covered in silks and velvets. Intricately patterned rugs layered over the cold deck and tapestries decorated the bulkheads. Small lamps that gave a warm light in place of the ship's normal illumination, which made everyone look wan, were placed conveniently. Musical instruments, toys and games from many worlds of the crew's home galaxy were left out for everyone, along with the Tau'ri's ubiquitous laptops. A gold-encrusted sphere balanced on a pyramid incised with hieroglyphs projected holographic performances and a wide version of the viewscreens on the bridge displayed moving pictures instead of tactical data on one wall.

She was playing roes, a tactical game of dice standard through most of Pegasus, with Ronon Dex, Signe, Dushka, Til and Daniel. Signe had picked it up fast but Daniel was swiftly catching up; Til and Dushka were losing everything but their skins to Ronon. One of the Tau'ri scientists they'd freed had curled up on a lounge and started talking with Melena Dex.

Dex rose to his feet with a scowl as Rakai, Chisa, and Ara marched inside with guns in hand. Rakai aimed at Til. Chisa and Ara covered the others.

"Explain," Dex ordered.

"Kell's orders," Ara said when Dex narrowed his eyes. She looked faintly apologetic as she nodded at Melena. "He didn't trust her not to warn their doctor."

"Or because I would have told you it's stupid," Ronon growled. He glanced at his wife and his frown softened. "Go to our quarters and stay there. You'll be safe."

"I was safe before your idiot friends started waving guns around," Melena argued.

Teyla shifted and scooped the six carved dice into her hand. They weren't much as a weapon, but flung into an enemy's eyes, they could slow and distract. She had her knives and her bantos rods, but the Satedans were familiar with such weapons. She did not know whether Daniel carried a weapon, but Signe and Til were both armed. She doubted Dumais had a weapon and couldn't guess how she would react. If the Satedans had not been armed, she would still have accepted such odds gladly, for she was very angry at the Satedan's failure of honor.

They were despicable as the Genii.

"What's going on?" Daniel asked.

Teyla glanced at him sidelong. Despite the oblivious-seeming question, he wasn't naive, he'd gone into the Genii bunkers with the Satedans. He'd been on some kind of team with Mer at one time; there was a story there, but one held almost as closely as Jehan's secrets. Daniel sometimes started to argue with Meredith, only to stop himself with an obvious air of guilt. Janet Fraiser knew, but would not speak of it.

"Kell is taking this ship for Sateda," Rakai declared.

"None of you can fly it," Daniel said. "You can't read English or Goa'uld. How do you think – "

Rakai grinned at him.

"You'll do that for us, Scholar. And you others will fly it for us."

"Not by Hathor's tits," Signe interrupted. He shoved his chair back and came to his feet, hand going to the weapon he carried at his belt.

Teyla snapped her hand out and clutched Til's forearm when he would have lurched to his feet and attacked too.

Rakai shot Signe. The loud crack of the projectile weapon echoed as Signe grunted and fell backward. The wail of the basic ship alarm jolted everyone, as if the gunshot had set it off. The alarm was carefully calibrated – no one could ignore it, but it didn't overwhelm anyone's voice, allowing orders to be given and heard. What it meant under the circumstances was anyone's guess.

Teyla gritted her teeth and resisted the need to go to Signe side as he folded to the deck, bright blood spilling from his belly through his fingers, a spreading pool of it staining the edge of one of the rugs dark. Ara and Chisa were vibrating with adrenaline. Any quick movement would push them over the edge, into pulling their triggers. She had no desire to have a fist-sized hole punched through her body. Signe rolled onto his side, hand going to the wound, kicking at the floor with one heel as whimpered in pain.

Melena pushed her way to her feet and started toward him.

"There are two pilots and we can make that scrawny one we grabbed from the Genii take the engineer's place or the skinny girl," Rakai stated. "The rest of you are only alive to make them cooperate."

"For Sateda?" Dex muttered. "Sateda's gone. This is all for Kell."

"Kell is Sateda now," Rakai insisted.

"Kell destroyed Sateda!" Melena shouted. "He's nothing but a murdering monster – " Chisa shifted her aim, almost pointing a weapon at Melena. Dex moved faster than Teyla expected – or Chisa – and closed his hand over her gun hand, putting himself between it and Melena.

"Never aim at my wife again," Dex growled. His hand tightened over Chisa's until she was sweating with pain, her knees folding.

Melena dropped down beside Signe and began checking the wound. "He isn't dead," she snapped. She glanced up and caught Dushka's gaze. "Help me."

Dushka met Ara's stare and tipped her head, receiving a nod in return. She rose from the table slowly and went to kneel beside Signe.

"Dex!" Rakai shouted, "let her go!"

Dex tore the gun out of Chisa's hand.

"Ronon, we can save him if we get him to their infirmary," Melena called before the confrontation between the two Satedan men could escalate.

"Get him up," Dex said. "We're going there now."

"Ronon – "

"He's no threat like this. Or in the infirmary."

"Let us go now, Rakai," Melena added, "or the next time you're wounded, you can save yourself, because I won't."

"Fine, go," Rakai acceded. "The rest of you stay here until Kell gives other orders."

Dex and Dushka pulled Signe up between them and staggered for the doors while Melena pressed a make shift bandage to the wound Teyla thought would be lethal, no matter what skills Melena or Janet Fraiser possessed.

Teyla's hand was still clutching Til's arm. She felt the muscles flex and contract, but his face was expressionless when she risked a glance at him. Daniel was quiet but tensed as well.

"I think he broke my hand," Chisa complained, cradling it to her chest.

Teyla made a note that Chisa would be weak on that side and she was disarmed now too. That left Rakai and Ara with guns.

Only Ara kept an eye on Teyla, even though they'd seen her put down two of theirs on Belkan. They were all Wraith-tall and so confident in their size as well as their skills; they didn't see her as a threat.

Teyla knew Ara was the real danger of the two Satedans left to guard them.

Daniel fidgeted with his glasses, drawing Rakai's attention. Ara stared at Teyla. That meant she couldn't see Lydia Dumais slowly draw a closed laptop closer. Chisa dropped onto a blue sofa and tried to wrap a length of leather around her rapidly swelling wrist. Til growled under his breath and Rakai sneered back at him. The unsteady wail of the alarm clawed at all of their nerves.

"I'm going to shoot that Wraith-damned alarm if it doesn't shut up," Ara snapped.

She flinched and half-turned to the doors as the airlocks thunked closed without warning. Teyla flicked the dice into Rakai's face then dived toward Ara. Dumais jumped to her feet and used both hands to slam the laptop into the back of Chisa's head repeatedly. Daniel and Til shoved the low table in front of them forward into Rakai's legs. He went down as Ara spun back and fired where Teyla had been, but Teyla wasn't there. Instead she tackled Ara's legs and brought her down. She rolled to her own feet, kicked the gun away from Ara's hand, and disabled her in five fast blows. Ara was bigger than her, but so were the Wraith, and Teyla had survived a year as a Runner.

Til had Rakai down and was methodically beating him unconscious.

Lydia Dumais picked up Rakai's gun and handed it to Daniel once he'd straightened his glasses.

Teyla walked over to the upended game table and retrieved Ara's gun.

"Well done," she told Lydia.

"That laptop's history."

"I do not think anyone will be upset." Unless it was one of Meredith's, but Jehan would quiet him.

"Should we tie them up?" Lydia asked.

Daniel joined them. "I think so. We might be in here for a while. The airlocks only close for emergencies."

Til dropped Rakai's unconscious form back to the deck and got to his feet. He stirred Rakai's torso with the toe of his boot and when that got no reaction, nodded in satisfaction. A trickle of blood made its way from his nostril but he wiped it away without concern.

"Vala probably vented the corridors," Til said. "Keeps everyone where they are."

Daniel glanced at the airlock doors. "So we're probably safe enough for the moment?"

Til nodded confidently.

"Vala and Jehan will deal with Kell and the others. If they don't, Mer will blow up the ship."

"Yeah," Daniel said, "that's… not exactly reassuring."

Til shrugged and began ripping long strips off one of the heavy silken throws covering the furniture to tie up the three Satedans.

Teyla shared a look with Lydia Dumais. The other woman seemed unbothered by the prospect.

Once Til finished securing Rakai, Chisa and Ara, he walked over and nodded to Lydia Dumais. "You bought yourself a crew share, I figure."

Lydia looked interested. "For what?"

"Fighting for the crew. Up to Vala and Jehan and Mer whether you stay, but they'll pay you out a share for the trip on that basis, even if you don't stay on."

"Hmmm."

"Oh, come on," Daniel muttered. "Am I the only one who isn't enamored of this space pirates crap?"
 

~*~



Lindsay was off shift, but she couldn't resist showing off her hyperdrive babies to the scientists they'd rescued. Vala wanted to recruit all three of them and Lindsay knew the hybrid tech would be as big a selling point as the relative safety of the ship. Meredith could be overwhelming, too. Besides, she was damned proud of her designs.

Meredith was telling Zelenka he was wrong about something when she came in, so Lindsay smiled at Kusanagi. "Come over here," she said, "I'll show you how we've merged the Asgard protocols with Goa'uld materials in the refit."

"I am honored," Kusanagi said.

Lindsay grinned at her. "You're going to love this." She gestured for Kusanagi to come around the control console. "I'm Lindsay, in case no one told you."

"It would please me if you called me Miko."

"Great."

"Where in Anubis' unspeakable depths did you get your degree!?" Meredith snapped at Zelenka. "It's not base ten!"

"It is a Tau'ri ship!" Zelenka yelled back.

"Not any more!" Meredith shouted back.

Miko looked alarmed, but Lindsay kept smiling. Meredith yelled at Jehan and Vala all the time, Reckell and Signe and even Daniel. He expected them to yell back. He smiled at her the day she called him a constipated, arrogant bastard with his head up his ass. He and Zelenka were going to get along wonderfully.

The door sliding open for Tyre and a squad of Satedans made her heart stutter with terror, but Lindsay didn't panic. The awkward L-shaped angle of the drive chamber was a result of the shape of the hyperdrive generators, but it meant the console where she and Miko stood wasn't immediately visible from the door. Lindsay snagged Miko's sleeve and dragged her down out of sight.

Miko's eyes were wide behind her thick, scratched glasses, but she was silent as Lindsay stuffed her into the knee well and squeezed in beside her.

"You don't belong down here," Meredith snapped at Tyre. That dismissive tone grated any time it was leveled at someone. "Get out."

"Kell wants you on the bridge, ahr-danp," Tyre sneered.

Lindsay guessed ahr-danp meant something disgusting and insulting in the Satedans language. She didn't dare raise her head to see either Tyre or Meredith's expressions.

"Sokar take Kell and what he wants," Meredith said. "You aren't in charge."

"Kell wants you alive," Tyre replied, "he didn't say anything about in one piece."

Lindsay worked her smaller knife out of its hiding place quietly. Her palms were greasy with sweat. She gave it to Miko who looked bewildered, but gripped with tightly, while Lindsay slid her favorite out of the sheath at her belt. Teyla had told her to carry two. She thought after this she'd add a couple more to her collection.

"Time you learned your place," Tyre said. "Chali, Agha, watch the little one."

She didn't know exactly what to do, beyond not get caught – Jehan had thought she was a threat when he and Vala took the ship. Lindsay swallowed. If she could get to the auxillary control room, she could lock down the ship, shut down life support, even vent atmosphere. If nothing else worked, she could threaten to blow the hyperdrives, either killing or stranding them, if the Satedans didn't give up. She just had to stay free.

That meant being forced to listen as the Satedans beat Meredith, her breath coming too fast, incandescent rage burning under her breast bone. How dared they!? This wasn't like the way the Prometheus had been taken. Zelenka spat a litany of curses at the Satedansholding him. She could hear the thick thud of fists hitting flesh and Tyre laughing as Meredith sobbed for breath. Tyre's laughter sounded like her brother's had every time he'd broken something he knew Lindsay loved.

There had to be something else she could do. The knife she had wouldn't be enough against five trained soldiers so much larger than herself, even though Lindsay was shocked to realize she had no compunctions about using it. Miko probably knew less about fighting than Lindsay did, though from the set expression on her face, she was ready to charge out to Zelenka's rescue.

Lindsay needed a better weapon. A zat would be nice and she had every intention of carrying one from now on, but for the moment she'd settle happily for anything.

Anything being the blaster Meredith hung in its holster over the back of the chair at the main control console.

The chair was turned the wrong way, seat facing her and the back away. She could spin it, but the Satedans might see. If she crawled around, she lose her cover. She'd never fired anything like the blaster either. It might take her a second or two to figure out its safety and power settings.

Lindsay figured she'd only have one chance.

She leaned close and put her lips against Miko's ear. "Miko, I need you to create a diversion," she whispered.

Miko stared at her.

Lindsay pointed at the blaster in its holster. "I can stun everyone with that."

Miko took a deep breath and nodded. She pressed close to Lindsay and murmured, "I would be honored."

Lindsay swallowed. Okay. They were going to do this.

Meredith was making gutteral, horrible sounds now and she was afraid Tyre and his thugs were having too much fun to remember to keep him alive. "On three," she breathed.

Miko wriggled out from under the console, still clutching Lindsay's second favorite knife, crouched and waited until Lindsay was out and in position with her hand on the chair, ready to spin it.

"One," she mouthed.

Miko went up on her toes and the fingers of one hand like a runner. She kept a white-knuckled grip on the knife with her other hand.

"Two."

Lindsay exhaled silently and focused.

"Three."

She spun the chair. Miko erupted from behind the console, screaming, and went over the console. Lindsay grabbed the butt of the blaster and drew it. It was big in her hand, but her thumb fell naturally on the safety and she flicked it up into the stun setting. She aimed over the console and shot the Satedan holding Meredith against the bulkhead. Tyre snapped his head around and saw her.

Miko crashed into the man closest to the console, Chali or Aghal, as Zelenka twisted, kicked, and bit at him. She slashed the edge across her target's eyes, shrieking in Japanese, then whipped it at the hand of the other man who had been holding Zelenka.

Tyre started to pull his own weapon and Meredith began sliding down the wall onto the man Lindsay had stunned, tangling his legs between the ankles of the other thug.

Lindsay squeezed the trigger again and again, spraying the room with stun blasts. The edge of one caught Tyre's arm and he dropped his gun. She aimed the next time and hit his legs. Swung the blaster, aimed and hit the chest of the last man before he could kick himself free of Meredith.

Miko's first victim had his hands clamped over his eyes and was screaming, blood and fluid running down his cheeks. She and Zelenka had the other man down, ripping at him with the mad savagery of long pent up terror. Lindsay thought they'd already killed him.

Lindsay staggered to her feet, supporting the weight of the blaster with both hands.

Tyre tried to wrest a gun from one of his stunned fellows. Meredith got there first. Tyre tried to roll away as Meredith lifted the Satedan gun and aimed it at him. Lindsay wondered if Meredith could even see; both of his eyes were swelling shut while blood ran from his nose and his mouth.

Lindsay stunned the blinded Satedan, then aimed at Tyre again.

"Don't move," she ordered. Her voice was shaking.

Tyre tried to get to his feet.

"I said don't move!" she yelled. She didn't want to shoot him again; she didn't know if the blasters worked like zats did. Too many stuns might kill him.

Meredith spat something unintelligible, blood spraying out with the word.

Tyre's knee folded under him and he sprawled face down, but his fingers scrabbled over the deck, reaching for his lost weapon.

Lindsay fired. So did Meredith.

The ship wide alarms began shrieking.

Meredith forced himself to his feet using the bulkhead. He spat again and wiped at his mouth with the back of the hand still clutching the Satedan gun.

"We have to secure here and then get to the bridge," he slurred. "Ze – you, get a weapon."

Zelenka pulled back from the body under him. Slick red painted his face and hands. "Yes, yes," he croaked.

Meredith stayed propped against the bulkhead. Lindsay watched him waver and point the gun at the stunned Satedans. She flinched as he pulled the trigger again and once more, killing the last man.

Lindsay averted her eyes, but that left her looking at the mess of blood, hair, bone and gray matter that had replaced Tyre's face. She doubled over and vomited convulsively.

Being a pirate had been supposed to be fun, not… this.

~*~



Janet had never heard the infirmary alarm outside of drills. The cycling wail made the hairs on her arms stand up and the lack of any announcement over the shipwide comms disturbed her, but she did what she'd been trained to do. She scrambled to set up for incoming casualties, setting out trays of instruments and unlocking the drug cabinet for easier access, then scrubbed up and donned a set of sterile gloves. She finished as the doors opened and four people came inside at a stumbling run. Three people really, two of them carrying a third, and Melena Dex doing her best to keep him from bleeding out.

Signe. Damn it. He was a cross-tempered asshole, but Janet had never expected to see him shot. She caught glimpse of the wound; that was a bullet wound. She'd sewn up enough of them in her career as an Air Force doctor to know.

"What the hell the happened?" Janet demanded even as she pointed at the exam table. Dex and Dushka hefted Signe up, while Melena kept pressure on the wound in his gut. "What's going on?"

"Kell's taking the ship," Dex said.

"Well, good luck," Janet snapped. "It's not like there isn't a precedent."

"Kell's trying," Melena amended.

"Did you shoot him?" Janet accused Dex as she yanked out the sterilized trays of instruments.

"He got in Rakai's way," Dex replied.

"He didn't have to shoot him!" Melena yelled at her husband. She was soaked in Signe's blood from breast to thighs, fingertips to shoulders, furious and scared.

Dushka headed for the doors and he caught her shoulder and dragged her back. "You're safer in here with us."

Janet grabbed a set of gloves and threw them at Dushka. "Put those on." It gave Dushka something to do; Janet figured Signe had all of Dushka's germs anyway.

She pointed at Dex and Melena. "You, get out of the way. Melena, scrub up. Dush, help me roll him onto his side, I need to see if the bullet exited."

"It did," Dex said as he retired to the doors.

Signe's lips were turning blue-gray. His head lolled to the side and his blood pooled on the table and ran over the edge. Janet gritted her teeth, sparing a instant to wish she could use the Goa'uld healing devices. Signe was a mess; the Satedans' ammunition had been designed to to maximize damage. Still, she had him in her infirmary, she had everything she needed – except a trained trauma team – and she knew she could save him.

"Tell me what to do," Melena said as she pulled on her gloves.




~*~



"Are you really bleeding out?" Vala asked.

"Not quite," Jehan said, gritting his teeth.

"Good." She found his blaster and shoved it into his hands. "Cover the doors."

"You could get rid of his body," Jehan suggested. One more zat would do it, disintegrating Kell's body into nothing.

"We may need proof of death."

He contemplated that and decided Kell's head would suffice if it came to that. Reckell had that machete-sized knife; using it on the bastard that killed him would have pleased the Serrakin. The hole in his leg made thinking hard, no matter what he told Vala, he'd definitely lost too much blood. Any qualms he might have had about mutilating a body were swamped in the red haze of pain pulsing through him with each heart beat.

Vala took a seat the main console and typed in a series of command strings. She hooted as the armored airlocks thunked closed; they were proof against staff blasts and anything the Satedans had with them. "Gon'achs," she muttered. Security feeds flickered over the main screen, showing empty corridors, holds and then narrowing down to the cabins and shared spaces and engineering. "Oh, you – That's it, that's my girl."

"Who?" Jehan asked. He carefully didn't move, because every twitch jostled his leg and he didn't want to scream. His arms were trembling, too. "Mer?" he repeated.

"Our lovely Lindsay," Vala caroled. "Now just stay there." She typed in another command. "Everyone is locked in now."

"Mer?"

"Mer's alive," Vala answered.

Relief blurred everything for a breath. Part of him had been holding its breath since Kell mentioned Mer. Mer was okay, though; Vala said so. She didn't lie about things like that, not to Jehan.

The blaster was getting heavier, weighing too much even with both hands holding it up. The muzzle dipped as another pulse of dizzying pain made him whine under his breath. His head dropped down onto his chest and he jerked it up, jerked the blaster up too, until Vala caught it and set it aside. He blinked at her and realized he'd lost some time. She crouched next to him, looking concerned, without a hint of Qetesh left in her expression.

She held up her hand, palm toward him, showing him the small healing device she always carried.

"This will hurt," she told him.

He knew. The healing device would cost them both energy they couldn't spare, but he needed to be mobile again. He nodded to her to do it. They'd pay the piper later, after the crew and their ship was secure again.

The healing device could feel almost pleasant, warm and tingling, when used on minor scrapes and bruises or to ease muscle cramps, but on a serious wound it burned. Vala swayed, her face strained, and kept her hand pressed to his wound. Unlike a sarcophagus, without a symbiote to regulate and maximize the body's metabolism, the Goa'uld device exhausted both healer and the healed. His flesh melted together, the blood flow slowing with each vessel that knit back into a whole, and fresh pink skin closed over the dimpled hole. Jehan sucked in his breath and fisted his hands against the sensation of every cell in his leg frying until the pain faded into nothing.

Vala rocked back and breathed hard.

"Enough," Jehan said.

She shook her head.

"Not enough. You need the muscles too." She reached for him again. It didn't hurt so much this time, which he took to mean the nerves had been fixed already.

They stayed on the floor after Vala finished.

She was still better off than him; the healing device hadn't replaced his lost blood. He need fluids, food, and rest. Vala would be fine once she'd had a meal.

No time for that.

Jehan levered himself up and limped to the security station. He found the feeds from engineering and drive chambers first. Mer was… He growled under his breath as he caught sight of Mer's bruised and bloody face. Novak was puking and Miko Kusanagi was… Jehan winced. Pretty much doing to one of the Satedans what he'd have once done to Ba'al given the opportunity. Maybe. He didn't know what he'd do if he faced Ba'al again. Try to kill him or go down on his knees.

Vala staggered over and braced herself against the console as Jehan opened the comm.

"Mer, we've secured the bridge."

Mer lifted his gaze to the security cam even as the tension and energy animating him seemed to disappear briefly. He squared those broad shoulders and slurred an answer within a second.

"It's about time."

"We underestimated Kell," Vala said.

"You think?" Mer's scowl was a thing of… not beauty certainly, but striking between his temperament and the damage to his face. At least Jehan thought so. "Now turn off that alarm before my ears start bleeding along with everything else!"

Vala cut the alarm. The silence that followed made their ears ring.

Jehan began scanning the other feeds, finding all the rest of their people either under guard in the rec room or in the infirmary, except for Caias. Janet Fraiser and the Satedan doctor were elbows deep in surgery on Signe. Jehan immediately dismissed his nascent plan to cut the gravity generators and lights. The most of the rest of the Satedans were trapped in the main armory and hold two, with a few exceptions – including a squad in Caias' quarters.

The smuggler didn't look happy. He was trying to bypass the airlock controls and get them out of his quarters into the corridor unsuccessfully.

He didn't appear under duress.

Jehan glanced sidelong at Vala.

"I see it," she admitted. She bared her teeth at the image. "We'll leave him there for now."

Caias was going to have much more to be unhappy about soon. What the hell had he been thinking? That he and Kell could use Mer as a hostage to Vala or Jehan's cooperation? The original crew of the Prometheus might have been able to eventually work around the safeguards and booby traps the three of them had put in place, but the Satedans couldn't manage it.

Jehan cycled the feeds back to the rec room. Vala chuckled rustily.

Daniel and Teyla were holding the Satedan's guns while Til tied them up securely. Lydia Dumais was frowning at a laptop that had obviously been used as a weapon.

Only Dumais looked up as Vala used the comm and said, "I see you don't need any help. Daniel, I'm sure you remember where the brig is. Why don't you introduce our friends to their new accommodations?"

~*~



Teyla noted Jehan's limp in the next day, but dismissed it as unimportant. Meredith still carried the bruises and swelling from his beating and kept up a steady litany of complaints about it, but he too would be all right. Signe remained under Janet's care.

They had survived the attempted takeover, but not unscathed, and the crew seemed shaken and off-balance.

The Satedans and Caias were locked down in their quarters or the brig, with the exception of their casualties. The dead were in a refrigerated morgue attached to the infirmary, the Satedan dead and the crew's only casualty.

After a short debate in the mess hall – chosen not because anyone wished to eat, but so they could avoid the rec room – those that knew Reckell best decided to give him what Daniel called a 'burial at sea' modified for space craft.

Seventeen hours later, Teyla arrived on the bridge dressed in her best leather and an embroidered vest. The rest of the crew were gathering there too.

The main viewscreen was dark until Miko slithered out of the access panel beneath it and said, "Try it now." It came alive with the blue infinity of hyperspace.

Vala beamed at Miko, who had her head propped against the bulkhead and was sitting still. "You're a treasure."

"Oh, yes, absolutely a treasure," Meredith muttered from where he was still repairing the navigation console. Environmental had been restored faster, once Teyla had checked hold two and discovered the glitch was a result of the Satedans breaking in and not faulty sensors. "Hooking up a viewscreen is remarkably difficult compared to, say, replacing Asgard technology that tells the ship where we are so that we can go where we want to and not exit hyperspace in the middle of a red giant or a planet." He glanced up at the viewscreen and grunted, adding, "Though, admittedly, most of the SGC's monkeys couldn't set the clock on a microwave. Good work."

Miko nodded and no one else bothered her. None of the crew had slept since the assault, and if she could rest there, they'd let her.

Janet greeted Teyla softly, looking immeasurably weary.

"Signe?" Teyla asked, fearing the worst. On Athos, a wound such as he'd taken would have been a death sentence.

"Stable," Janet replied. They both shuffled out of the way of Jehan and Meredith. Vala stood in front of the repaired main viewscreen. It showed a distant circle of light, Belkan's sun, dimmed by distance and filters. "I sedated him, otherwise he would have tried to get up here for this." She was older than Teyla had realized on their first meeting; all of the crew were. Exhaustion etched age into her face now, tiny lines and pinched lips giving her away. "McKay should be in a bed too, but if I tried to force him, he'd refuse." She sighed and stuffed her hands in her white coat. "He used to be such a whiny hypochondriac."

"Ow, ow, ow," Meredith said, pulling his hands back from the navigation console and sucking on the fingertips as sparks flared. "I said cut the power to the console!"

Teyla raised her eyebrow at Janet.

"Worse," Janet said.

"He is a survivor in his way," Teyla said. She respected that. She found Mer amusing most of the time; she rather treasured that. She hadn't had much to laugh at or anyone to laugh with until the crew picked her up on Athos.

"Tough when it matters," Janet agreed.

"No one saw that back at the SGC," Daniel said as he joined them. "Either that or the Tok'ra really changed him."

"Sometime soon?" Jehan prompted Meredith, leaning over him as he worked, one hand resting lightly at the back of his neck.

"Working as fast as I can."

"We're dropping out of hyper in twenty," Jehan said. "It'd be nice to be able to get back there if we need to run."

"Like that never occurred to me," Meredith snapped. He arched his neck back into Jehan's touch, then bent again to finish installing the replacement parts on the console. "Next time, shoot up something a little less critical."

"I'll make sure to let the next bad guy know."

"Ah, okay, that's got it."

Vala strolled over as Jehan slipped into the navigator's seat in Mer's place. "Ready?"

"Of course," Mer replied.

Vala leaned past him and activated the ship comm. "Brace for hyperspace exit."

Jehan glanced up at her. "Brace?" he complained. "I'm better than that."

She grinned. "Just fucking with them."

Dushka entered the bridge and stopped beside Daniel, Teyla and Janet, while Zelenka and Dumais wandered over and settled on either side of Miko.

"Where is Til?" Teyla asked.

"Sitting guard on the missile racks," Dushka said.

Teyla nodded. She'd joined Vala and Janet in washing Reckell's body and winding it in white linens. Til and Jehan had taken it after that, to place it in a missile casing Meredith and Zelenka had gutted. It was loaded in the first missile tube now, waiting for the ship to return to real space.

"Now," Jehan said. He pressed a button and the roiling blue light surrounding the ship peeled away before them. Revenge reverted to normal space in a brilliant splash of radiation.

Belkan's sun appeared on the viewscreen, smaller than it appeared from the planet, and dimmed by the ship's visual filters.

"Everybody ready?" Jehan asked.

The three Tau'ri got to their feet.

"Tak mal arik tiak," Jehan said.

"Tak mal arik tiak," Meredith and Vala echoed.

"You will not be forgotten," Daniel translated for Teyla. "It's Goa'uld."

Teyla bowed her head, touched her necklace and repeated the words in honor of the Serrakin first mate, adding a simple prayer to the Ancestors to guide him to peace and safety.

"Initiating launch," Jehan said.

The missile case holding Reckell's body burst from the launching tube, seemed to drift, then began moving steadily away from the ship toward the sun. The viewscreen showed it briefly, light reflecting off its length, but the tactical display showed its path along the course plotted for it.

"Main burn commencing now," Meredith said.

On the screen, the missile's engines lit, plasma bright, and it sped away.

Teyla gasped as the engines went out.

"Burn through complete," Meredith said. He seemed pleased. "It'll reach the sun in two years three months and fourteen days."

"Set a course for Belkan," Vala ordered. "I want the rest of them off my ship."

"What about Caias?" Dushka asked.

"Him too," Vala said in a hard voice.

~*~



"Vala, my lovely, you know I didn't plot with Kell," Caias protested. He'd shaved off his beard. The smooth jaw and chin didn't improve his wide face. His eyes cut to where Jehan and Teyla guarded the door to his quarters, uncompromising and uncorruptable, and back to Vala.

She gritted her teeth and forced a smile. Qetesh would have had him flayed alive before the crew for betraying them, for being caught even considering such an action. She felt much the same. It had taken an effort not to order the majority of the Satedans spaced too. She'd enjoyed herding them through the corridors by opening and closing airlocks and slow venting atmosphere instead. Once the Satedans were secured and Reckell honored, that had left Caias. Dealing with what to do about him was the captain's job.

"It was just business," she murmured in a throaty tone. She wanted him to explain why more than a confession. There would be no trial. It would be her decision, backed by Jehan and Mer, and no one else's. She'd been the one to bring him aboard. "I do understand."

Caias grinned at her unrepentantly.

"It's a lovely ship," he said. "I could make a fortune with her back in the Viastella, especially once I got rid of the goons. You can't blame me for taking advantage when Kell came to me with his little plan."

Jehan drew his blaster and rested it in the crook of his folded arms, silently sending the message that he could and did blame Caias.

"You could have made a fortune crewing with us," Vala replied, stung.

Caias rocked back and scowled at her. "You aren't smuggling or hijacking, Vala. You've let the Tau'ri suck you into playing do-gooder. It's almost sickening."

That rocked her back. She glared back at Caias. Do-gooder? She had every intention of flying away from this adventure with a profit that would make the greediest Goa'uld weep. Just because it was turning out to be a bit more complicated and dangerous than expected or that they'd helped a couple of people out, didn't mean that plan had changed. Vala sniffed and said haughtily, "You needn't be insulting, Caias."

"Name one thing of value we've obtained since coming to this galaxy," Caias demanded. "Just one."

"We did pick up that very nice wood and the fresh fruit from Fahn," she said.

"And traded it. Like honest merchants," Caias objected.

She hated to admit it, but they had made honest deals for the goods they'd moved so far. Maybe Caias had a point. She'd never been particularly interested in honest work. It was so boring.

"Vala, you should have allied with those Genii – "

Jehan growled from his place behind her, silencing Caias, but it was too late.

Vala sighed dramatically.

"I've been a prisoner," she explained to Caias. So had Jehan, so had Meredith, and in another way, so had Teyla. They would never be willing to ally with anyone like Genii. "No."

"So, now what?" Caias asked.

"Since you threw your lot in with the Satedans, you can leave the ship with them," Vala decided.

~*~




The fires burning in Belkan weren't visible from orbit. A cold wind whipped acrid smoke into their faces once the rings deposited them in the same small plaza in the old city where they'd first met the Satedans. The cramped, cobbled streets were empty.

Jehan glanced first to Teyla and then Ronon, before drawing his blaster. He activated his comm with his other hand.

Mer's voice sounded through the earpiece of his comm set.

"What's going on down there?"

"Are your people always so shy?" Teyla asked Ronon.

Ronon grunted and headed for the tavern. "Solen!" he shouted. He pulled the door open and poked his head inside before entering. "Solen Sincha!"

Jehan motioned Teyla to join him as he activated his mike. "Ring down the ammo, Mer."

"I still don't see why we're paying them after what they tried," Mer complained. The rings flashed down and up, leaving behind a pile of crated ammunition for Satedan arms.

"They did what you hired them to do," Teyla commented.

"Oh, fine. Whatever. Let me know when you're ready to have the rest of the backstabbing gon'achs ringed down."

With a huff of laughter, Jehan motioned to Teyla. They caught up with Ronon as he backed out, followed by Sincha and two more Satedans. They were all tight-wound, but moving slowly. They headed straight for the crates and began moving them inside. Ronon nodded to Jehan and Teyla.

"Could have used this six days ago," Sincha muttered.

"Six days?" Teyla echoed.

Jehan caught that too. They had only left Belkan seven days ago. Whatever had happened had come on their heels. He glanced around again, noting several black-seared craters in the stone walls. He squinted. Those marks had come from aircraft. He raised his eyes and scanned the sky, half expecting the manta-like silhouettes of death gliders to appear.

"Some kind of raiders?" he ventured.

"Wraith," Ronon said.

"Not a culling," Teyla said, scanning the streets. With the appearance of men from the tavern, others were sidling from out of the houses and businesses. They scurried and flinched in the way of survivors of a recent attack. The thud of a dropped crate and Sincha cursing sent a thin man down the street into hysterics. The woman with him pulled him back inside.

"Raid," Ronon agreed. "Solon says there were three darts. Blasted the walls down, snatched up anyone out in the streets and went back through the Ring."

Teyla froze for one swift breath.

"As though they were hunting a runner," she said. She traced one finger over the necklace she wore on a leather thong, a habit of hers.

They finished moving the crates and followed Sincha back into the tavern. "Where's Kell?" Sincha asked. He went behind the bar and drew tankards of ale for all of them.

"Dead," Ronon said.

Sincha grunted and took a deep draught from his own tankard. "Wraith-bringing danp," he said and wiped foam off his upper lip. "Probably deserved it."

Ronon grunted.

Jehan tapped his mic back on. "Mer? Go ahead and send down everyone and check the long range sensors."

"Why?"

"They had Wraith here a week ago."

"Crap. Sending down the first group now."

He heard the rings and light flashed through chinks between the shutters over the tavern windows.

"'S not just here, either," Sincha said. "Fahn and Edwe were both culled."

Jehan set his tankard down. "Fahn?" They'd been there. The people had been mostly agrarian and friendly once they recognized Teyla. Their woodcraft had been exquisite, their houses built deep in a forest of monster trees, intricately decorated to blend into the landscape. Despite their fear of the Wraith, they hadn't been beaten down and broken the way many people in the Milky Way were – they didn't believe the Wraith were gods.

"Manaria too," one of the barflies added.

Mer and Teyla had destroyed the transmitter they pulled out of her. The Wraith couldn't be tracking Revenge. He checked Teyla and she looked ill, gray under the usual warmth of her skin.

"Last batch except for Melena and the bodies," Mer said. "I'm not getting anything on short range – No, wait, there's subspace signal coming from the planet. I think – Hyperspace window opening!"

Teyla jerked and gasped.

"Wraith!" she gasped. "The Wraith are coming!"

"We've got an incoming Wraith ship – " Mer shouted. "Oh, Hathor's tits, it's huge!"

The shriek of a dart diving through the atmosphere made Jehan draw his blaster. A series of explosions followed as it strafed the city.

"Get out there where I can ring you up!" Mer yelled.

Ronon followed Jehan and Teyla to the door. "No!" Sincha yelled. "We have to hide. There are tunnels under the basements."

"Melena," Ronon said.

Jehan ducked his head out the door and saw a white beam sweep over one of the Satedan squads they'd just ringed down. Caias was with them, lumbering slower than the long legged Satedans. They all disappeared into the beam as the dart sped onward. He tried to judge how long it would take to turn and a second dart screamed over head.

"Not so easy!" he snapped into the mic.

"Get out there," Mer said. "Jehan, it's firing on us and I don't know how long our shields will hold."

"Right."

He knew Teyla was hearing the same transmission, so he caught her eye and nodded to the open plaza.

She nodded back grimly.

They sprinted for the center of the plaza. Ronon bolted after them. A dart dove toward them, sweeping the culling beam beneath it like a broom. There was no cover. Jehan stopped and began firing the blaster at it. Teyla's P90 joined in, firing up at the speeding craft. The dart jigged to the side abruptly, black smoke pouring from one of its engines.

"Mer – "

Ronon hit him, sending both of them tumbling to the cobblestones and out of the path of second dart. They landed within the ring target area.

Teyla skidded next to them and called out, "Now, Meredith!"

The rings snapped down.

Jehan rolled onto his feet and ran for the bridge. Revenge shuddered as he reached it. Vala moved smoothly from the pilot's station to weapons as Jehan took his place. He didn't let himself look up at the looming Wraith hive on the viewscreen, intent on plotting a escape course and the calculations to open a hyperspace window.

"Shield at seventy-eight percent," Mer said. His thick lip blurred his usual sharp tones. He hunched over his console and typed constantly. Jehan knew he was manually adjusting shield frequencies faster than the computer programs would, inspired genius predicting the next shift and foiling the harmonics that would let a weapon break through. He summed his work up in a single word. "Holding."

"It's mostly been the small craft," Vala said. She had a firing solution on her screen and Revenge shuddered as a railgun opened up on the nearest dart. She began correcting the solutions for the wave of darts launching toward them as Revenge shifted into sublight and left orbit.

The railguns kept firing on the darts until the distance rendered their fire ineffective. The hive kept moving in on Belkan while the darts pursued them. They passed the fifth planet's orbit and Jehan initiated the hyperspace window.

Vacuum and darkness peeled open in a coruscant flare of exotic radiation. He checked the shield integrity to make sure the shield bubble was sound.

"Jump," he said.

Revenge flew into the window. It snapped closed behind them, tearing apart the darts that had followed them and lacked sufficient shielding to survive hyperspace.

"No one mentioned Wraith hives were that big," Vala said in the silence that followed.

Jehan leaned back in his seat and began wapping at the dirt on his pants from hitting the cobblestones under Ronon. He spared a thought for the Satedan, but figured he was likely still in the ring room with Melena, unless Teyla had gotten them out of there.

"That thing could eat a ha'tak for an appetizer," Mer declared eventually.

"Slow," Jehan said. The sheer size of the hive had made it slow to maneuver thanks to inertia. Probably. It had been headed for the planet, though. Maybe they hadn't seen what a hive could really do if it wanted. The hair on the back of neck stood up at that thought.

"We thought the downed supply ship we saw was big," Mer went on. "That was nothing."

"And the cruisers we saw over Athos," Vala added.

Mer bent back over the console and made a series of adjustments. Jehan checked read-outs and saw what he'd done: deforming the bubble to shadow the dimensions of the ship took less energy than maintaining a sphere that primarily held only vacuum. He left the chair and dodged over to the internal security station.

"That damn subspace signal I caught on the planet," Mer said, looking up with a stunned expression, "it's on the ship now."

"But we can't be tracked in hyperspace," Vala said.

"We can't stay in hyperspace forever," Mer replied. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead and winced as he brushed a bruised and swollen spot. "It's got to be the Satedans."

The bridge doors opened, admitting Teyla, Ronon, Melena and Til.

"What?" Ronon demanded.

"It's not them," Jehan said wearily, meeting Teyla's gaze. "Fahn and Edwe and Manaria were all hit before Belkan."

Mer followed his sightline to Teyla and shook his head. "No. The transmitter the Wraith used on her is gone."

Vala considered Teyla briefly, then shook her head. "Whatever is going on, Teyla isn't responsible."

Teyla straightened her spine.

"I must be."

Jehan stared at her, then rocked out of his chair and onto his feet, striding over to her. "This," he said, lifting the leather thong at her neck and the intricately made pendant hanging from. "You had this on Athos. We didn't go through your gear. There must be something in your gear, a tracker the Wraith planted on this or something else."

Teyla's hand rose and closed around the pendant.

"Nothing," she whispered, "I had nothing but what I wore when the Wraith took me." She jerked the necklace loose. "Nothing but this. Samantha found it in the caves the day Athos was culled."

"Still, we need to go through everything you carried aboard," Vala said.

She glanced at Melena and Ronon. "I suppose we're stuck with you until we get wherever we're going."

"I set course for Dagan," Jehan said. He touched Teyla's shoulder and bent to rest his forehead against hers. He felt her trembling at first, trembling that slowly stilled in calm.

"We'll start with the necklace," Mer said. "Let's get down to the labs."

Jehan waited for Vala to stroll over after catching Ronon's eye. The Satedan waited patiently.

"He saved me from a culling beam," Jehan told Vala. He doubted Ronon or Melena would have any chance among their fellow Satedans – if there were any left after the culling of Belkan.

She studied Ronon again, suspiciously. "You want a place with this crew?" Ronon and Melena hadn't been part of the assault by Kell. Without them, Signe would be dead, and now Jehan owed Ronon his life.

"Yes," Melena said immediately.

Ronon scowled but shrugged. "Got no place to go back to," he admitted.

"Crew share each," Vala said.

Out in the corridor, Mer raised his voice. "Can you get a move on? I need to go by the mess hall and get something to eat."

~*~


Teyla fingered the pendant in horror. Memories of her mother tying the thong around her neck as a child mingled with the wet, cold night the Wraith culled Athos, her people and the Tau'ri fleeing white beams into the forest, Samantha lifting it from the sandy cave floor, Dr. Beckett admiring it, the Wraith lifting it on one talon and baring its serrated teeth in a mockery of a smile.

"This," she said. "This brought the Wraith to Athos?"

Meredith took it back from her and turned it over, the silvery knot shining in his blunt fingers. "Probably," he said. "There's definitely a subspace transmitter hidden within. It's not just a transmitter though."

Vala and Jehan were respectively perched on a counter and leaning against its edge. Dr. Zelenka and Miko Kusanagi had joined them as well. Zelenka looked up from a laptop. "No, very much more."

"I don't understand," Teyla said. "This was in my family for generations. How could it – "

"Because it didn't start transmitting until it was triggered," Meredith interrupted. "While I was testing it, it stopped transmitting. Then Kusanagi came in to work on it and it started again. Zelenka handled it and it stopped. It's calibrated to respond to people with a specific genetic marker, aka the ATA gene. You don't have it, but someone who does touched it and triggered it when you found it again."

"Samantha?"

"No, we've got the records on the expedition and she wasn't a positive. Kusanagi and Beckett and Markham were the ATA positives."

She remembered Beckett admiring the necklace and swallowed bile.

"So," Vala said thoughtfully, "if it was triggered again after you joined us, that means someone on our crew has this ATA gene."

Teyla nodded.

Meredith looked at Jehan.

Jehan looked startled and mouthed, 'Me?'

"You," Meredith said. "You set it off without even touching it."

Jehan paled and tensed. "So all those people on Fahn and Edwe... "

"It is my fault," Teyla said. "I brought you to them. I exposed you to this thing."

Her words failed to soothe and Jehan shook his head before stalking out of the lab.

Meredith took a step after him, then stopped. He turned back to Teyla. "We can disassemble it and deactivate the transmitter."

"No," Teyla said. She snatched it from his hand, dropped it to the floor and ground it under the heel of her boot, bearing down with all her weight until she felt the pendant shatter. "It is a tainted thing."

Meredith grimaced at the bits revealed when she lifted her boot.

"We could have studied it."

"Go find Jehan," Vala told him. "Teyla was right."

~*~


Mer studied the sensors as Jehan brought Revenge into orbit over Dagan. He found the stargate and began searching for the nearest population center or any power spikes that could be the ZPM.

The radiation spike made him jerk back from the laptop.

"What is it?" Vala asked.

"Just a minute," Mer muttered, typing in a new set of parameters.

The readings were ugly and damning.

"Someone nuked them," he said.

"The Genii," Lydia Dumais said from the environmental console. "Commander Kolya."

"Why?" Daniel asked. "Why would he?"

The fallout was drifting in a fan from a single point, carried on the wind, but would spread to the stargate soon.

"To teach them a lesson, if they refused to do whatever he wanted," Zelenka explained. His features were slack and his hand trembled when he pushed his glasses up into place again. "To test the bomb we built him." He scrubbed his hands through his wild hair before straightening his glasses, whispering, "Brendan… "

"How very unpleasant this Kolya must be," Vala mused. "So the ZPM is gone?"

Mer studied the readouts again and found another, cleaner energy spike, one that was static. Once he filtered away the nuclear radiation it was unmistakable.

"No, it's there," he said. He pointed out the reading. "It's still there."

"Then we'd better go get it before this Kolya does," Vala stated.

"There is much activity at the stargate," Zelenka said.

"Of course there is," Mer snapped. "Anyone that can still crawl is using it to get away. Most of them have already taken too many rads, but they probably don't know that." He glared at Zelenka. "Let's just hope your Kolya stuck around too close and caught a dose too."

Jehan leaned over, caught Mer's shoulder under one hand, and squeezed. Mer calmed himself down, but didn't apologize to Zelenka. He doubted it would help the other man's guilt. Instead, he picked out a natural spot to ring down, near the location of the ZPM, but still outside the fallout zone unless the wind changed.

"I'm going down with you," he told Jehan. "It's not like we could go anywhere without you anyway – you're our only pilot."

Jehan gave him a look, because both Mer and Vala could pilot; they just weren't brilliant at it. Then the corner of his mouth kicked up.

"I would prefer to remain on the ship, myself," Zelenka said.

Mer decided to let that go; Zelenka and the other two had good reason to stay aboard the ship. They wouldn't be close enough to see the direct devastation of the Daganese city, but the knowledge would be heavy in the air while they were groundside.

They assembled in the ring room: Mer, Jehan, Vala, Ronon, Til, Daniel, Teyla and surprisingly, Lydia Dumais. Vala and Jehan were in their Kull armor and Til had his staff weapon; everyone carried heavier armament than usual, along with dosimeters.

Mer missed knowing Reckell had the bridge while they would be gone. He checked his blaster was in his thigh holster again and tugged at the flak vest Jehan had insisted he wear.

"Everybody ready?" Vala sang out.

"As we'll ever be," Mer muttered.

They ringed down to Dagan.


Part Five
Pegasus Luck



Sam was proud of her people. Pegasus was a merciless teacher, and no matter how fast the Tau'ri learned, they'd started behind the curve. Every time they were too slow, it cost them someone lost or buried, and without the Athosians they would have lost more, but she didn't think any other group could have survived what they had.

It wasn't just her Tau'ri any longer either. One of the first lessons had been that they were the intruders, the aliens in Pegasus, and without the SGC, its guns and Earth's millions strong population and infrastructure to back them, they were little more than refugees. The expedition couldn't afford an us and them attitude, not toward the Athosians, and it had been the same with the Olesian renegades and the aged-out girls and boys from Keras' world that they'd picked up along the way.

The contrast between the integrated expedition and the way the SGC treated Teal'c and their allies struck Sam as shameful when she thought about it.

She missed Teal'c. She sure could have used his help.

One of the other lessons Pegasus had taught them: secure the goddamn gate. Sam never went through to a new address without two teams, one to explore and one to watch the stargate and make sure they had a way to retreat.

It paid off.

She still had Jamie's blood on her face and hands when Alpha Team made it back to the stargate, but Bravo Team had been waiting for the sniper when he tried to make a run for it.

He was lying on the ground, hands and feet zip-tied and Haemi resting her heavy boot on the back of his neck when Stacks and Kanaan set the body bag down. Bates greeted them from his station at the DHD. The other two members of Bravo, Ares and Mandy Beringer, were still on watch and not apparent, but Sam knew a simple hand signal could recall them on the double.

"Sergeant," Sam said, "good work."

Bates gave her a narrow-eyed look that took in the blood spatter and the Genii long gun they'd recovered from the sniper's nest. Sam had got over thinking he was judging her when he did that; Bates had got over thinking she was weak. These days she knew her pit bull first sergeant was only checking her for damage out of professional and personal concern. Sometimes she even thanked the ghost of Marshall Sumner for insisting on bringing along Eugene Bates.

"Do you think he was aiming for you or just any of the team?" he asked.

Sam looked dispassionately at their captive. "Don't know." They needed to find out however. Otherwise, she'd have been fine with letting Haemi break the bastard's neck.

"What about the locals?"

Sam made a face.

"We won't know until we interrogate him."

She didn't say she was sure the Traheyar had been in on it. Why the hell else would a sniper have been set up here? This guy wasn't some crazy in a clock tower. If Jamie hadn't seen something – they'd never know what, he'd bled out in minutes, whimpering in Sam's arms – Sam's blood and brains would have been all over the wall, instead of Jamie's all over her. He'd stepped in front of her with the same dedication as a Secret Service agent taking a bullet for the President.

Sam would never forget that. Jamie Markham had died to keep her alive.

She had to live up to that.

"Get him up," she said to Haemi. "We'll take him with us. I want Alice on hand when we begin questioning him." The Genii seemed like the kind of fanatics to go in for poison pills. Along with the rest of Pegasus. Another lesson the Tau'ri had been slow to pick up on: the societies of Pegasus suffered from ten thousand years of Post (and Present) Traumatic Stress Syndrome and they used a radically different framework to make their risk/reward assessments. Sometimes their definitions of win and lose were incomprehensible to humans from the Milky Way.

Bates whistled a local bird call – skelli were very much like sparrows and common on almost every world that wasn't frozen or a desert; dumb or brave, they'd fly into an open wormhole in flocks – and Beringer and Ares ghosted out of the tall grass like tigers. Bates had already turned and begun dialing their first proxy planet. Another lesson, never dial direct, never let anyone know where you lay your head. No one knew the Tau'ri (the meaning had changed, because half of them had never set foot in the Milky Way; Tau'ri meant expedition and expedition meant Sam's people, all of them, where from no longer pertinent) had established their home base on Sateda.

Sam scrubbed her fingers over her cheek. Dried blood flaked under the pads. She grimaced and glanced over. Kanaan and Stacks had the body bag up again and Haemi had jerked the sniper to his feet.

"I can't walk like this," the sniper protested. He hadn't said anything before so Sam hadn't heard his accent. Genii. It didn't surprise her, not considering the gun he left behind when he rabbited under the counter fire from Kanaan and Stacks.

"Hop," Haemi growled at him. "Or I drag you."

Kanaan and Stacks took Jamie's body through the wormhole.

"Ma'am," Bates said. Bravo wouldn't back out until she went.

Sam nodded and walked tiredly through the event horizon, while the sound of Haemi's fist hitting the sniper almost made her lips twitch upward. It wasn't quite a smile, but she hadn't really smiled about anything in a long time.

~*~



The Genii sniper didn't scream, because they didn't torture him. Haemi and Bates and Torrell would have if they needed to, Stacks was angry enough over Jamie to do it if Sam had asked, but it would have hurt him in the end, and Sam wasn't letting that happen. Not Stacks, not any of her people, even to the ones who could do the hardest things and walk away sane. For Pegasus values of sane, at least… No, she corrected herself. Outside of Earth, the same values ruled in Goa'uld space too.

She tried not to think about the Goa'uld too much. After she joined SG-1 she saw enough to scar her forever. After she found out about Rodney… She'd had to get out. It was that or brew up enough symbiote poison to take out every snakehead in the galaxy, starting with the goddamned Tok'ra. When she'd been offered the Atlantis expedition, Sam had jumped at it. A chance to get away from the unending Goa'uld conflict, to study Ancient science in peace.

Oh, the irony.

She pushed it out of her head, because it wasn't relevant any longer. No wasting time on regrets when there are answers to retrieve from a murderer. Just because they wouldn't physically torture the sniper for what he knew didn't mean they wouldn't get what they wanted from him.

Sam had Alice, after all, and Alice Biro had a bag full of magic.

Arthur C. Clarke magic, at least.

They'd had to learn Pegasus' tricks, but they had more than a few that Pegasus never thought of and chemical interrogation topped the list. God knew, the next world they visited might slip them all a truth serum from hell, but so far the Pegasus societies seemed to prefer beating people up and the Wraith had their telepathic whammy. Sam didn't know why no one used chemicals here and didn't care, either.

Alice brought their 'guest' around on cocktail of hypnotics, stimulants, and painkillers. In his altered state of consciousness, he didn't even realize all his inhibitions were gone. Halling ran the interrogation: his gentle mien and native Pegasus accent setting the Genii man at ease on an unconscious level, while the Tau'ri's sharp accents tended to set the locals' nerves on edge. Ten thousand years of linguistic drift had been accelerated even further by the cullings; if human language in Pegasus and back on Earth had the same Alterran roots, the chasm of time between them was still too deep to bridge. Even with whatever the stargates did to translate, they sounded wrong to each other on some level, though the Athosians assured them that after a few trips through the stargate together the effect had faded.

The sniper was strapped onto a gurney, a makeshift light shining down into his eyes. If he turned his head, he could see Halling. Sam and Alice, Peter, Kanaan, Torrell, Haemi, Aidan and Bates were all in the room too, listening and watching, but out of sight behind a sheet hastily tacked up like a privacy curtain.

Bates swallowed something unsaid, his expression sour and vindicated when the sniper mumbled dazedly, "Commander Kolya's orders… take the head off… Tau'ri… furious he lost them."

Halling asked another gentle question.

"Supposed to kill her."

That confirmed Sam had been the target.

Halling asked how the Genii had known Sam would be on Traheyar.

"Spies. Got one somewhere in the village. Sent back a description when he heard the Tau'ri would be coming back to pick up the trade goods," the sniper muttered. A stupid grin spread over his features. "Commander promised me a place in the City of the Ancestors if I kept the Tau'ri busy."

Sam shared a look with Peter and Bates. It sounded like Kolya and the Genii were up to something new, beyond trying to grab any Tau'ri scientists they could. Like they thought they really were going to make it into Atlantis. She wondered if they'd browbeat Zelenka or Kusanagi into coming up with some kind of power source.

Halling murmured praise and encouragement, slipping more questions in.

"Every Genii on every world was told to find one of the zeepeems," the sniper slurred. "The Quindozum has one hidden."

Fuck.

Peter twitched and gave her a wild look, one that was all hope and apprehension. If the Genii got into Atlantis first, they were screwed. They'd never dig those pasty-faced bastards out. Plus they had Kusanagi, one of…

Sam began cursing. It would be Markham they'd lost. That just left Beckett with an ATA gene that could actually initialize gene-locked Ancient tech. They'd have to retrieve him from Hoff.

"He's very angry," the sniper mumbled.

Sam jerked her head toward the door, not wanting to interfere with Halling's rapport with the sniper. The others followed her out.

"Anyone ever hear of the Quindozum?" she asked.

Haemi and Torrell shook their heads. Kanaan frowned. "Yes, but it isn't not the name of a planet. The Brotherhood of Fifteen were a monkish group that worshiped the Ancestors. They were wiped out in the Great Culling of Dagan. Or so the stories my ama told me say."

"We send a couple of a teams after Beckett in the morning," Sam said. "In the afternoon, we head for Dagan. If the Quindozum worshiped the Ancients, they may have collected all kinds of tech and hidden it there. Any objections?" She looked around but no one's face gave away anything but excitement. "We need that ZPM and more importantly, we need to make sure the Genii don't get their hands on it."

"You'll go to Hoff?" Bates asked.

"Yes. Beckett's a civilian and we don't want to antagonize the Hoffans if we don't need to."

"A ZPM," Peter breathed.

"We don't know if it has a charge," Sam cautioned him.

"It's only the second one we've even heard of," Peter said.

They'd all agreed they weren't going to sink to depriving a planet of kids of their shield when they discovered the shield on Keras' planet ran off mostly depleted ZPM. Peter and Sam had actually tinkered with it, fixing some failing connections that were operating at less than optimum efficiency. They'd also ended up taking on all the kids who were aged out at twenty-five and expected to suicide. Sam winced at the memory of the fight that had seen Keras knife Ares. They'd ended up with Ares joining them too after taking him through the stargate for Alice to fix up.

The marines had taken Ares on. Keras had joined one of the Athosian trading teams. They got a few people from their planet every few months now, ones who were willing to dare going through the Ring rather than follow tradition there. Not all of them came to the expedition, of course.

Halling slipped out of the building, an essentially intact small office block the expedition had fixed up and occupied. "I believe it is imperative we go to Dagan as soon as possible," he said. His expression gave away exhaustion and horror.

"That's the plan," Sam said.

"You know this planet?" Aidan asked him.

Halling nodded. "Yes, Teyla and I both took traders there occasionally." He frowned. "Yatar believed Kolya had some way of forcing the Daganese to give him the ZPM," he added. "I request permission to send Marta through the gate. She isn't as well known to the Genii as either myself or you," he nodded to Sam, "and may approach my trade contact there without alerting any Genii spies."

"Agreed," Sam said.

"I believe Allina will agree to return with Marta and talk with us," Halling continued.

Sam approved. With the exception of the Genii, the Athosians' contacts were usually godsends. Having a local along always moved things faster, too.

"What could Kolya have to threaten the Daganese with?" Aidan speculated. "It'd have to be pretty big and bad, right?"

"I do not know," Halling replied. "Yatar became increasingly confused and Dr. Biro insisted we stop."

"We can get more out of him later," Bates said.

"I can," Haemi agreed. She slipped a knife out of her sleeve and ostentatiously picked at the dirt under her nails with the tip.

"No one can now," Alice contradicted her from the doorway. She looked worse than Halling had. "He just coded." She scrubbed at her face and added in irritation, "And I wasted a lot of drugs I can't replace trying to bring him back, the selfish little bastard."
 

~*~


The Hoffans weren't best pleased to see them when they came through the Ring, though they greeted Sam and her team with stiff courtesy. Sam impatiently sat through a semi-formal reception hosted by the Chancellor Minor along with her team, and then a meeting in which she assured the Chancellor Major that they hadn't come to ask for anything that wasn't theirs.

"Dr. Beckett and his equipment," the Chancellor Minor said.

"He is Tau'ri," Sam replied. "Also," she added with a smile, "a friend I often miss."

The two Hoffan politicians exchanged a pained look before pasting on their own smiles.

"Of course," the Chancellor Minor said. "We've been remiss."

"If you could take us to see him?" Sam said.

It required a little more negotiation than that. Sam eventually agreed to leave most of her team at the stargate, but the Hoffans allowed Kanaan and Sgt. Stackhouse to accompany her.

"Dr. Beckett is working with Purna TeLoal at the University of High Learning Hospital," the Chancellor Minor said as he led them through the underground halls Sam had grown used to encountering on almost all developed Pegasus worlds. Wraith culled from the air, so humans went underground to hide themselves and anything beyond subsistence farming from the Wraith. "She is the lead scientist in our effort to discover how to stop the Wraith from feeding."

"How's that going?" Sam asked with genuine interest.

"They have made great strides with Dr. Beckett's aid." The Chancellor Minor gestured to a set of a stairs. "I'm afraid we will need to take a camion from here. The Chancellery isn't connected with the University or the Libraries."

"Not a problem," Sam said.

They emerged into late morning light, traces of the last of the river fog dampening their hair in the few minutes it required for the Hoffans to bring around a transport. Sam studied the black-puffing vehicle in fascination. Steam-powered with eight wheels and an articulated middle separating the passenger compartment from the engine and steering in the front, it maneuvered through the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Hoffan city and the sharp corners neatly.

Hoff reminded her of what she imagined Victorian London might have been like – if Earth's larger native fauna had boasted eight legs rather than four. She wondered how much Earth mechanics owed to pragmatism and how much to mimicry of the natural world, then reflected that nature itself was the most pragmatic of all, so maybe it all added up to the same thing. The thoughts kept her mind occupied as they crossed the river, leaving the gold-painted dome of the Chancellery and the stargate behind, and trundled toward the high white walls of the university.

As the last of the fog burned away, the grids of windows on the multi-story building reflected the sunlight, making Sam wish for a set of sunglasses.

"Dr. Beckett is working here?" Kanaan asked as they got out of the camion. He craned his neck back and squinted at the building. The University hospital stood proud and untouched, the white stone facade almost flaunting itself against the blue sky.

The lab Beckett shared with Purna and the other Hoffan scientists reminded Sam of her high school science class room; a wall of windows lit a room with tables, glassware and beakers, gas burners, blackboards, and papers. Here and there were pieces of equipment salvaged from what the expedition had brought from Earth, running off a single naquadah generator set up in one corner.

Beckett was bent over a microscope, dictating to a young man, while Purna prepared more slides.

The Chancellor Minor cleared his throat.

Purna glanced up and smiled at them. The light gleamed over the pale hair she'd pulled back in a smooth bun. She touched her small hand to Beckett's white coated back.

"What is it?" he muttered without pulling away from the eyepiece.

"We have visitors," Purna said. "It's the Chancellor Minor and your friends."

"Carson," Sam called lightly, not wanting to startle him badly.

Beckett straightened up and smiled at her, before his expression closed down and became mutinous. Sam realized persuading him to come with her would be hard if it was possible at all. She tried to come up with a different strategy while Purna and the Chancellor Minor exchanged greetings.

"Sam," Beckett said. "You look… " He paused to actually look at her and she realized the uniform was getting a little ragged and was embellished with leather and homespun picked up from market worlds. She knew how she looked. She'd washed her hair that morning with flower-scented soap salvaged from a building the expedition used now, ducking her head into a bucket of barely lukewarm water to rinse the suds out and dried it with a piece of ragged blanket. Pegasus didn't overflow with hair salons, so her bangs were a choppy mess and the rest was drawn back in a practical braid. They were eating well enough; hunting fresh game on uninhabited worlds and trading it for fruit, vegetables and tava flour. One of the ironies of Pegasus: the Wraith weren't interested in human food so crops were seldom destroyed; the populations usually fell well within their ability to provide for themselves despite primitive farming methods and food storage. Sam actually carried a little more weight than she had when they arrived from Earth; all of it hard-working muscle. "Well enough," Beckett concluded.

"Thank you," she replied automatically, as if he'd said the more acceptable good.

"And what brings you back here?"

Sam shook her head a little.

"I need a reason to check on one of my people?" she asked. Keeping it casual as long as possible seemed her best bet. Maybe she'd figure out something to lever him out of here.

"I'm sorry if I'm wrong, but if I were a betting man," Beckett said, "I'd chance that you aren't here to visit." He managed to look apologetic and defiant at the same time.

Purna touched his arm again. "Carson, that's unkind."

"But true," Sam acknowledged.

"What do ye want then?"

She straightened her shoulders at the same time she felt Kanaan and Stackhouse both stiffen on either side of her in reaction to Beckett's tone.

"Fine. We've got a line on a ZPM, but we lost Jamie Markham last week."

Kolya had Miko Kusanagi. She'd had Jamie Markham. Now Beckett was the only other with the ATA gene. If they got the ZPM, they would need him.

"We could use your help back at our base," she said. The Hoffans didn't need to know more than whatever Beckett had already told them.

"I'm needed here," Beckett insisted. He hadn't been with the rest of the expedition after the culling on Athos. He hadn't been with them during the break for freedom on Genea. He'd been here, on Hoff; all the things that had bonded the rest of the expedition to each other: their isolation and loneliness, the fear, the desperation, the terror of the Wraith, had worked to bind him to the Hoffans instead. It wasn't fair to say he'd gone native; they'd all gone native. Beckett had shifted loyalties as a matter of psychological survival. Sam didn't have to like it, but she could see what had happened.

She shouldn't have let him stay on Hoff. It had been a mistake.

"We are very close to a breakthrough."

"On what?" Sam asked curiously.

Purna's face filled with enthusiasm.

"Before the last culling here, our people were close to discovering a way to stop the Wraith. The researchers responsible were lost, but their work was saved," Purna explained eagerly. "With Car – Dr. Beckett's help and your equipment we've been able to recreate their work and move it forward."

"How far forward?" the Chancellor Minor asked.

"Testing!" Purna exclaimed. "We'll require volunteers and of course there's the difficulty of arranging a controlled encounter with a Wraith, but, sir, we are so close."

"You want to test human subjects with the Wraith?" Sam exclaimed.

Beckett looked nervous and unhappy, but nodded. "The scientists here discovered an element that kept the Wraith from feeding, even killed them if they attempted it. Purna and I have replicated the element. It will take a lot of work but we'll be able to inoculate the entire population against the Wraith."

Sam bit her lip. Beckett had spent most of the last year in a Hoffan laboratory, while she and the rest of the expedition had hopped from world to world. She'd seen the devastation the Wraith left behind when they were defied. The reaction to a population that couldn't be fed upon would be ruinous. Yet she could see from Purna and the Chancellor Minor's faces that any argument would fall on deaf ears. Building toward this goal kept the Hoffans sane. It gave them something to strive for, to live for, and they couldn't live without it. They couldn't let themselves hear the flaws. They couldn't give up.

Beckett had been drinking the same Kool-Aid.

"Eventually, I'll marry the treatment to a virus to deliver it to everyone in this galaxy," Beckett said.

Sam gaped at him for a moment. Even with the gate system, that was a pipe dream. There were worlds with orbital gates in Pegasus and the Hoffans had no way of vectoring their 'cure' there. Nor any right to change the genetic make up of unknowing humans everywhere without their consent.

"It won't – "

"It will work if everyone is immune, don't you see?" Beckett explained. "It has to be everyone. That's how we'll wipe out the Wraith – the same way vaccinations wiped out smallpox back on Earth!"

"You're talking about engineering a live virus vaccine," Sam said, "and administering – no, releasing it on unknowing people. Carson, you have to realize how it could backfire, leaving aside the questionable ethics of doing so."

"No one would refuse the chance to become immune to the Wraith," the Chancellor Minor declared.

"Of course not," Sam agreed, though she wasn't so sure about that. People weren't predictable. There were Wraith worshipers out there. They wouldn't wish to partake. The Wraith wouldn't sit back and accept death by starvation, either, any more than Sam would, and if the end couldn't be stopped, then she – and she'd bet the Wraith were the same in this respect – would make someone pay before that. "But this won't make any of you immune to the Wraith's weapons."

Purna looked startled, as if she hadn't even considered that, while the Chancellor Minor's expression soured.

Convincing the Hoffans they were signing their own death warrant wasn't Sam's job; taking care of her people was, and that meant getting Beckett back on board. He had a strong expression of the ATA gene, even though interacting with Ancient tech freaked him out.

"Look," she said, "if we can get back to the city, we'll need you, but just as important, there will opportunities there to work out all the kinks in your immunization process." She carefully said 'the city' and not Atlantis, not the City of the Ancestors. They already had the Genii obsessed with getting there and taking it over; they didn't need the Hoffans joining thet horse race too.

"Well, I'm not leaving my wife and my work to go haring off with ye after a ZPM on the chance we'll get to go back," Beckett snapped mulishly.

Sam kept her own expression and voice calm and smooth. Wife? "But you will come when we have it?" Fuck it, she decided. They'd come back and get Beckett when they were ready to use him and his ATA gene. He could stay here and play house or mad scientist to his heart's content until then. Thank God, if they needed someone stitched up, they still had Alice Biro. She might act like she had a split personality – caustic and quick when she was working, fluttery and nervous when they talked socially – but she was saner than Beckett as far Sam was concerned.

Some people might have considered they were in deep kimchee when they preferred the aid of a pathologist to the expedition's lead doc, but then Beckett was a research geneticist by preference. At least Alice saw the bodies she handled as humans that had felt something once.

Beckett gave Purna an uncertain look. "If… and Purna would come with me, aye." He straightened. "I could accomplish a great deal much faster with better equipment and manufacturing facilities."

Sam nodded, while feeling a little sick. If they had to rely on Beckett to get the city up and running…

"Good enough," she said. "We'll check back here when we know more."

"Yes, I'd like to test our inoculation on non-Pegasus natives," Beckett said.

On a cold day in hell
, Sam thought. Christ. She turned away, schooling her expression into neutrality. "It was good to see you," she lied. "We need to keep up with each other." She addressed the Chancellor Minor. "I've taken up too much of your time, but it's very much appreciated. Perhaps you could spare a little more and accompany me back to the Ancestor's Ring?"

Since they'd obviously worried she meant to take back Beckett and the medical equipment, the request to leave – without either – pleased the Chancellor Minor. "Of course," he said. "If we take the camion, I might show you some of Hoff City's lovelier aspects."

"Be careful," Sam told Beckett before taking her leave.

Stackhouse and Kanaan, who'd been silent whileposing as bodyguards, stayed quiet until they were all through the Hoffan stargate with another precautionary hop dialed and the wormhole splashing open.

"Ma'am," Stackhouse asked, "is he bugshit crazy or what?"

Sam shrugged.

"Both?"

~*~


At the moment, morning on Sateda corresponded with sundown on Dagan, an approximately thirteen-Terran-hour difference. (Sam was aware of the irony of using a time-keeping unit based on the daily rotation of a planet in another galaxy, but it was easier for her people to follow an arbitrary system than to continuously figure new systems for every planet they visited– plus their watches were all made on Earth. Everyone in the expedition had had English as at least a second language for the same reason, which had resulted in it becoming the default the stargate translating system had acquired too, much to Patel's disgust.) By the time she returned from Hoff and Marta brought Allina back from Dagan, the sun was lowering over the broken outlines of Satee, Sateda's wrecked capital city.
Sam decided they should eat, debrief, and brainstorm, before putting together the mission brief. They'd rest through the Satedan midday, gear up and set out in time to arrive on Dagan just before dawn.

The long summer light would give them a better window for reaching the city, speaking with the Elders there, and returning to the stargate that way.

According the Marta, the stargate on Dagan occupied an otherwise empty meadow and wasn't guarded. A wide road of quarried stone led from it over a forested ridge, before dropping down into the valley where the Daganese had built their main city at the confluence of two rivers. The valley itself was rich and heavily farmed, a green-and-gold checkerboard that supported one of the largest concentrated populations in Pegasus, maybe sixty to seventy-five thousand in Dahzanziade itself and another twenty in the smaller city at the other end of the valley.

Allina confided that Kolya and the Genii were on Dagan, in pursuit of a treasure the Ancestors had entrusted to the Quindozum, for hiding from the Wraith. The Genii had been helpful at first, especially the scientist they brought with them – Sam recognized Brendan Gall from her description and winced – but increasingly arrogant, until the Dagan Elders had tossed them out of the city. Kolya had returned with armed men and threats after that. Guns weren't unknown on Dagan, though they hadn't progressed to automatic weapons, and Allina seemed confident that her people had the numbers to overwhelm Kolya if he tried anything on their home ground.

Sam had explained that while she would like to acquire the potentia, it was more important that the Genii didn't; they were offering their help either way. Allina had agreed to accompany them to Dahzanziade to talk with the Elders.

They could feel something wrong as soon as they walked through the stargate. A deeper than normal silence nagged at their senses; the animal life was scared, too quiet.

"Bravo, you have the stargate," Sam ordered. "Don't interfere with anyone, don't even let them know you're around, unless you recognize Kolya." She paused. "I trust you remember what he looks like?"

"Hard to forget that pock-faced evil bastard, ma'am," one of the marines who had covered the retreat on Genea commented.

"Well, don't shoo–don't kill him if he shows up," Sam said. "We might be able to use him to trade for our people."

"Yes, ma'am!"

A hundred yards down the road, they met the first refugees, a farming family with possessions bundled on their backs, two kids and a sheep-thing that looked like a walking mop on a lead. The mother carried a lantern and the father had a locally manufactured blunderbuss clutched in his hands.

They stared at Alpha and Gamma teams with wide, white-ringed eyes wincing away from the beams from the flashlights mounted above the P90s, but said nothing. Sam radioed back to Bravo Team to watch but not interfere if they went through the stargate.

Red sky at morning, Sam thought, sailor take warning.

The trickle of people walking out of the valley thickened as Sam and the rest reached the top of the ridge and cleared the trees just after sun up. They looked increasing bad, exhausted and terrified, carrying fewer possessions. They didn't speak, though some of them were crying. Some had burns, always along one plane of the body – it niggled at Sam, like they were something she should know or remember.

Past the darkness of the treeline, the view of the valley still in night's shadow and the blush of the morning horizon should have been spectacular. Sam fished her binoculars out of a vest pocket and focused them, tracing the thread of white stone road through gray-green squares of fields in cultivation onward to Dahzanziade. She expected to find stone walls, wattle, daub, half-timbers, and brick there. Blackened matchsticks jumped into her field of vision instead. She sucked in a harsh breath, jerking her face away from the sight, before forcing herself to look again. The swollen sun rising red and dust-tainted over the valley limned blasted wreckage in a terrible circle.

She thought of the Genii, with their bunkers and hidden city, 'acquiring' scientists, maybe not just from the Tau'ri, and what a dedicated science program could produce in just a few years, what the United States had built with terrible swift determination. The Manhattan Project hadn't been driven by species survival either.

The haze of dust and smoke distorted the sun, fouled even its light, turned it shuddering and baleful.

"Jesus," one of Gamma said, looking down into the dead valley with his own binoculars. "What's the name of this place again?"

"Dahzanziade," Peter said. His voice shook.

"Peter," she said. "Radiation."

Peter cursed under his breath and fumbled through one of the equipment packs to find the portable rad counter. He cursed again as he activated it.

The initial cloud of debris had cleared, but an ominous haze still hung over the entire valley.

The Geiger counter clicked into a frenzy.

"Do we turn back right now?" Sam asked him. She stepped closer to read over Peter's shoulder.

"We're okay for the moment, but the sooner we get out the better," Peter said. He angled the screen so she could see it better. Sam agreed. He added softly, "We can't let anyone who would do this get Atlantis."

Even if we all end up taking too much radiation, she heard unsaid. Well, it wasn't like Sam had figured to die of old age anyway. If you worried about that sort of thing, you didn't sign up for the military, never mind off world. Sucky way to die for a soldier, for anyone; how did you shoot back at gamma rays?

"Which way do the local winds blow?" she asked Allina.

Allina was still gaping down at the destruction. It was impossible make out anything in the seared crater, everything at the hypocenter of the detonation had been vaporized and concentric rings of blown out wreckage encircled it. Beyond that the thermal blast had flash burned everything that hadn't been destroyed by the initial shock wave. They were too late to observe the mushroom cloud, but Sam considered that lucky. The Genii had set off the bomb on the ground, unlike the air bursts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it had sent up irradiated debris. Only the lighter particles were still the air, waiting for the wind and rain to settle them back to earth and permanently poison Dahzanziade and the valley.

"Allina."

Allina had tear streaks on her cheeks. She waved downward and then up the wider river. "From the sea toward Zlebeyade. The rains too."

Sam cursed softly. Pegasus luck. The winds would take the fallout straight to the second city. She wondered if it would be worthwhile to warn the people there to get out before they were poisoned.

Allina had grabbed a passing woman and demanded, "What happened? Were you there?"

"No, no," the woman replied. She tried to take another step, then gave in to Allina's grip. "I don't think… anyone escaped."

"Was it the Wraith?"

Always the first question in Pegasus. Sam bit her lip and didn't say, 'No, it was the motherfucking Genii that nuked your home, probably because they tortured some of my people into showing them how.' It wouldn't help the situation.

The woman shrugged and said, "No one has said."

The bloated sun teetered on the shimmering horizon, bloody light tracing shadows abnormally black, lending everyone's face a feverish tinge.

"How?" Allina demanded, more of fate than the poor woman, but the woman answered as much as she was able.

She said, "Just this terrible light and thunder before sunset," she answered. "There was a cloud and a terrible, burning wind. The cloud rose into the sky so high you could see light on the cap after the sun went down." She glanced back to the valley and shuddered. "The Ancestors have cursed this place."

Peter opened his mouth and Sam stepped on his foot. Let everyone call Dagan cursed; it would keep most people from coming back and dying of radiation sickness. They'd need to set up something at the stargate, maybe carve a warning in Ancient and Trade Runes, warning off travelers, because eventually the bodies would rot away, but the radiation would still be waiting, invisible and lethal.

"I have to find my family," Allina blurted out. "I have to–the Elders–there must be someone." She took two stumbling steps forward before Peter caught her in his arms.

"You can't," he said gently. "You'll die. There's only death down there. Anyone there… Allina, I'm sorry. They're gone."

She looked at Peter mutely.

"How can you know?"

"It's a weapon that was used on our world," Peter replied. Sam admired his carefully phraseology.

"By the Genii?" Allina asked.

"No," Sam said, "not by them." She wondered if Kolya had another bomb ready, if he'd return and threaten Zlebeyade with Dahzanziade's fate if they didn't give him the ZPM. If they hadn't. Kolya struck her as the kind of man who would want to use his new weapon, even if he'd gotten what he wanted. She still dreamed about him shooting Kavanagh. If the Daganese had thwarted or humiliated him… He'd want to see what his bomb could do even if they hadn't; she'd encountered enough of his type in the US military, too.

Allina looked back to the valley. "There must be some survivors, someone who escaped, someone… "

"Most of them will sicken and die within a few days to weeks," Peter said. "Radiation poisons them, even when you can't see it."

Allina clenched her jaw.

"We found where the potentia must be hidden a week ago," she said. "I will show you."

"Not if it's too close to the city," Sam said.

Allina pointed to the right, up the ridge, in the direction of the distant sea.

"You didn't say you knew where it was," Peter