I. All Exiles

The corridors outside the gate room were packed with tall, sealed crates on wheeled pallets, some of them so large they would barely fit through the circumference of the stargate. Navigating around them was an adventure, complicated by the automated conveyor belt that had been custom built and installed to move the massive amount of supplies through the stargate as rapidly as possible. It ran down the center of the corridor and made a turn through the doorway into the gate room. Two technicians were completing the connection. Once the last bits were in place, a press of a button would start the pallets rolling on the conveyor belt into the gate room, up the ramp and through the open stargate to Atlantis. In a feat of forethought, someone had even considered that the pallets had to be handled on the far side of the wormhole. The conveyor belt would unfold through the wormhole and roll the pallets forward on the far side.

It would only take a few men to roll the pallets off to the side, but even with them, Rodney predicted a traffic jam at the far side. The crates were heavy and the pallets had bumpers, though. Most of the goods would survive unscathed.

Of course it was all in the way of Rodney's far more important work.

Two airmen dodged around Rodney and the three others with him, nimbly leaping to the other side of the conveyor track and then back, with mumbled sirs and ma'ams. Show-offs. Behind him, Miko squeaked in dismay and juggled her laptop. Markov muttered under her breath. The Russian curse made Rodney smile to himself. Zelenka added a comment on the airmen's parentage in Czech. If Rodney's native language hadn't been English, he'd have added something himself; all of them had been forced to deal with the SGC's charming xenophobia since they arrived, even if they hadn't been treated to an explicit 'dirty foreigner' insult. It made him wonder how the Program ever succeeded in gaining allies through out the Milky Way… Oh, wait, they were so much better at garnering new enemies. He could guess why.

No wonder the Pegasans had taken Atlantis back from the Expedition and forced this four-way treaty down the IOA's throat. The gossip Rodney had picked up, mostly from listening to talk in the mess hall, all blamed it on the traitor, Sheppard, but it seemed pretty obvious the other two Pegasus super powers weren't going to let the Genii Empire get a leg up on them by standing aside and letting them have unlimited access to Atlantis.

If he'd gone with the Expedition in 2004, he would have found some way to stop the allied Union/Coalition invasion of the city. Sam Carter hadn't; he thought that made it pretty obvious she wasn't up to the job of Chief Scientist. Rodney honestly couldn't comprehend the sort of idiocy that left her in charge a year later and denied him the chance to study the Ancient technology in situ. She'd blackballed him, which was just petty; it wasn't like he'd actually groped her that time, he'd stumbled.

He doesn't think about the other reasons she hated him. It hadn't been his fault. They acted like he'd wanted the Jaffa to die and that hadn't been it at all. They'd fried the Russian DHD with the energy backwash of opening an event horizon to nowhere — that hadn't been his idea, Carter got it from a Goa'uld — and no one blamed her. The forty-eight hour limit hadn't been the reason Teal'c died, Rodney'd been right that he was the energy in the buffer and not a binary imprint. No one remembered that part. No, it was always that Rodney had come from Area 51, that Simmons had recruited him, like he'd been working for the Goa'uld. Thinking about it just made him bitter.

Rodney opened his mouth to start yelling at someone — anyone, since he despised all of the sycophantic second rate brown-nosers populating the SGC — about the obvious, idiotic changes that had been made to the ZPM interface. Not that it would do any good. No one here listened to him, not since Carter blamed him for what happened. Even though it was her half-assed bypass of the DHD safety protocols that created the problem in the first place.

He squeezed around another grunt — a female soldier this time and Rodney made sure none of him came in contact with her — and into the gate room.

"Radek. Go up to the control room. I'll need you to watch the monitors after I've fixed whatever they've messed up this time."

Zelenka peeled off without comment.

Rodney hated failing, so he didn't think about it or why Carter really never wanted to see him. What came through the stargate had just barely been Teal'c and died soon after. Without the control crystal in place to mediate formation, Teal'c's pattern had been lethally disrupted by the backwash of energy from the wormhole. Carter still blamed Rodney for her part in it as well as his.

He'd done the math and proved otherwise: if he hadn't, it wouldn't have been Siberia for him; he'd have been fired and blackballed.

But Rodney McKay was still at fault because he told them the truth and everyone hated that, because everyone was stupider than him. Jealousy, pure and simple.

Especially whoever had been messing with this delicate equipment. It would serve them right if he let them blow up the stargate. Idiots. He had expected to have to recalibrate everything to take into account the differing charge on the ZPM they were using and integrate the extra power from the Russian naquadria generators. He hadn't expected he would have to rebuild the entire assembly by hand. Some of the parts had to be hand fabricated in a machine shop, which had meant losing Zelenka's help on the reprogramming. Markov spent more time shmoozing with the SGC bigwigs than she did on the integration project, though she'd deigned to show up today. Most days lately Rodney had only had Miko working directly with him.

Constantly stopping and starting so the stargate could cycle for the continuing SGC mission schedule complicated their work too. He didn't see why, when they were dealing with something as rare as a ZPM or expensive and dangerous as naquadria generators, operations couldn't be shut down for a week. The corridors were full of crates, it was an unsafe work environment anyway.

When he'd mentioned that, General Landry had looked at him like Rodney was shit on his shoe and declared that would trap gate teams with nowhere to go. Which was patently absurd. The stargate had failed on other occasions; that was why the Alpha Site had been established. Rodney didn't even bother telling Landry he'd meant shutting down as in not sending gate teams out in the first place, not marooning them. Landry, that flatulent gasbag, wouldn't have believed him anyway.

Rodney growled as he strode past the SFs stationed at the blast doors leading into the gate room itself. He and Miko and Zelenka had installed the new power conduits that led directly from the ZPM to the stargate the day before. The naquadria generators were in the next room, hooked up in series, ready to take over maintaining the wormhole once it had been opened to Pegasus. They could cycle them as one exhausted its fuel and keep the gate open longer than the traditional thirty-eight minute window without draining the ZPM. It was a work of genius, but was Rodney receiving any gratitude or acknowledgment for it? Of course not.

No, he received an email from Bill Lee, complaining that the new set up hadn't been up and running for their test dial of the nine chevron address Jackson had found in the Atlantis database. Had anyone mentioned that to Rodney before? No, or he would have told them that a nine chevron address would require an order of power more and very likely drain the ZPM, if they could get it to lock on in the first place. They were lucky the dial-out had failed. Rodney had fired an email back at Lee explaining all that. The nine chevron address was back-burnered for the moment.

Did anyone apologize for not consulting Rodney in the first place?

"Hah," he muttered under his breath.

No, what he got was morons who insisted on 'checking' his work, as if they could comprehend even the tiniest, dumbed-down initial fraction of it. As if he were some slob with a high school education and a wrench — no disrespect to the eminently competent Sgt. Siler — not the foremost expert in wormhole physics and Ancient technology alive, with multiple PhDs and more intelligence in his toenail trimmings than the collected brains of everyone in the Pentagon.

Which meant he had to double check everything he'd done to ascertain it hadn't been tampered with over night.

He had enemies at the SGC. Many of them would be more than willing to engineer a disaster just to make Rodney look bad and curry favor with Samantha Carter.

It wasn't paranoia. They really were out to get him. They'd sent him to Siberia, then Antarctica. They couldn't send him any farther away than that without sending him off-world and Carter had nixed any chance he ever had at that. Not that he'd wanted to go off-world; what could he accomplish in some ruin or mud thatch village full of drooling Goa'uld worshipers? He was a man of science, with a keen appreciation of civilization's finer amenities. It annoyed him to be denied the choice, that was all.

At least Markov understood covering your ass and the million and one ways so-called colleagues and smaller minds could find to stab a brilliant man in the back. She inspected the Russian-manufactured naquadria generators each day and had threatened anyone who touched them with or without authorization with being fed to the Moscow Circus bears. If anyone had asked, Rodney would have told them she would do it, too. She'd put Rodney in his place a couple of times the first six months of his tenure in Siberia, before he'd come to the conclusion that the best way to spite the SGC would be to design a better generator for the Russians than Carter's Mark 1s. They'd had an excellent working relationship since.

Rodney paused just short of the metal grate ramp. The stargate loomed, dominating the room, amazing and magnificent not for its age or the potential power locked in the naquadah that made it up — though Rodney acknowledged both were pretty impressive too, he'd like to see anything built by a lowest-bidder corporation still functioning reliably after twenty years, never mind over ten thousand — but for the brilliance of the science that underlay its function. He had to admire it every time he stepped into the gate room.

Markov stopped beside him and tilted her head up too.

Miko ran into Rodney from the back. "So sorry," she whispered. She always whispered in the gate room. She whispered in the chair room in Antarctica. After over two years, Rodney had given up on persuading her to speak up. Or look up from her feet most of the time. Luckily, she was small and he was solid; he barely noticed when she ran into him.

One of the techs working on the conveyor track dropped a wrench and hissed, "Fucking piece of fucking goddamn worthless fucking shit!"

"What'd you hit?"

"My motherfucking thumb."

"Shut up with all the fucking fuckings, Mike, or one of the officers will fucking hear."

"They're not fucking officers, they're fucking civilians and I don't give a fucking fuck, I think I fucking broke it. Fuck."

Markov chuckled and Miko edged around Rodney as if to get a little further away from the two airmen.

"Don't be such a pussy. Look, can we just finish this fucking thing? Then we can go up to the infirmary and get one of the nurses to look at it."

Rodney suppressed a grin.

"Never mind," he said to Miko. "Let's just finish this."

He dodged around the side of the ramp and headed back to the power couplings and conduits connecting the SGC dialing computer to the stargate. Much of the important equipment was hidden back there, though most people never looked past the stargate to the nuts and bolts. They saw a big stone ring, which it wasn't. A stargate was primarily made of naquadah with trinium alloy and crystals beneath the stone facing the Goa'uld had placed over it.

Huh. It didn't look like anyone had messed with yesterday's work for once. If they had, it wasn't obvious. Zelenka would have to check the coding on the program for insertions, but Rodney thought he could have it done in an hour if he wasn't interrupted. It wouldn't need all three of them working in the gate room either.

"Svetlana," he said, "go up to the mess hall and get me some coffee and a muffin. Blueberry if they have — no, wait. Chocolate. That's less likely to be poisoned with citrus."

Miracle of miracles, his toolbox was still where he'd left it the day before when SG-13 had radioed they were coming in hot and the SFs had bundled Rodney and Miko out of the gate room before the iris was opened.

"Miko. Go check that the main power coupling from the ZPM is still shut down."

He knelt next to the conduit cover, then glanced up when he realized Markov was still in the room. "Well? Chop chop."

Markov gave him a sour look.

"The Russian Federation doesn't employ me to act as your coffee maid," she observed.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I know you're going to spend an hour chattering with the Russian gate team that returned yesterday. This way if anyone asks what you're doing, you can tell them. Besides, I'm hungry and there's nothing for you to do in here, since the generators are all ready."

"Ah, then I will take my time," she said and headed away.

"Don't forget," Rodney shouted after her, "Chocolate."

The speakers from the control room overlooking the gate room crackled to life and Zelenka commented, "I don't think he's flexible enough to do that."

Markov's laughter floated in the air behind her.

Rodney opened the conduit cover and set it aside, then frowned and glanced back to where he'd set it. That dull, gray painted box hadn't been clamped there the day before. It was about the size of an external hard drive and unmarked.

"What the fucking hell is this?" he snarled at no one. It offended him by even existing. How was it attached anyway? Rodney shuffled over on aching knees to take a closer look. "Miko, go ahead and hook up the generators to the ZPM feed."

Someone — some drooling, microcephalic SGC baboon — had placed the box on the stargate itself. Rodney couldn't see what was holding it in place, but he did notice a tap going into the wiring that led from the elegant hydraulic system that opened and closed the trinium iris. Rodney frowned harder as he traced the wire back to the box.

Closer examination showed a screw holding the box's metal cover in place. Rodney peered at it. Someone hadn't wanted just anyone with a screwdriver to open it up.

"Miko, handed me the 1mm torx."

"I am almost finished here, Dr. McKay."

"Unless you are using the torx, hand it over," Rodney snapped. He held out his hand, palm open, without looking away from the mysterious box. The screwdriver-like tool, with its star-shaped head, slapped into his hand hard enough to sting. Miko had her own ways of conveying annoyance.

"Thank you," Rodney told her sarcastically and began opening the box carefully. His nerves were making him twitchy. Something felt wrong about this.

"Rodney, what are you doing?" Zelenka asked from the control room.

"Someone's attached something to the iris mechanism," Rodney said.

He lifted the cover off.

"Dr. Zelenka, the connection is complete," Miko announced. "If you could run a check on it?"

"Doing so now, Dr. Kusanagi."

Rodney couldn't shift his eyes from the contents the cover had revealed. "Oh, no," he whispered.

"All systems are operating as predicted," Zelenka reported.

Rodney barely heard.

There was a detonator, a circuit board, and a shaped-charge, all hooked up to the control room connection to the iris. Rodney traced his gaze of the nest of wires. Black insulation on all of them. He thought some were decoys. Whoever had put it together had meant to keep anyone from disarming it, at least not quickly. There were magnets holding it to the stargate and, oh, that wasn't good. If the magnets were disengaged that would trip an anti-tampering measure and set off the detonator.

"Fuck," Rodney breathed out. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucking fuck. Fucking hell."

"Dr. McKay?" Miko asked and bent over his shoulder to see what he was seeing. "Oh."

"Get out of here," Rodney ordered her.

"It is a bomb."

"Yes, and I'd guess it's going to go off the next time — "

The stargate began turning. The alarm for an unscheduled activation wasn't earsplitting in the gate room, but it still made Rodney jerk. He looked up with wide eyes as his brain put it all together. In a few seconds, once the wormhole was established and the energy splash subsided, the iris would cycle closed automatically. Only this time, when the electrical signal from the control room rushed to the actuators, it would divert instead to the bomb and trigger it.

Rodney scrambled to his feet, grabbed Miko's elbow and bolted for the blast door. The SFs on guard duty were already aiming their weapons at forming wormhole.

"Radek!" Rodney yelled. "Don't close the iris, there's a bomb hooked up to it." Oh, God. He was going to die. That thing was attached to the stargate. The stargate made mostly of naquadah and if it precipitated a naquadah reaction… well, there wouldn't be a Stargate Command under Cheyenne Mountain afterward. The caverns housing NORAD would be history as well. Instead there would be a immense crater. Of course, if the chain reaction took out the naquadria reactors next door and the ZPM… Rodney cringed at the thought. Colorado and a large portion of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico would be vaporized. The localized force of such an explosion could easily affect the Earth's axle tilt and rotation. The ecological effects would be unimaginable.

Not that he'd be around to notice and that was what really concerned him at the moment.

"Receiving IDC from SG-19," the gate technician in the control room announced over the intercom. The alarms went on, but the iris didn't engage. Seconds later two men and two women rushed through the event horizon.

"Okay, that was too close for comfort," the tall woman officer announced. Her uniform name tag identified her as Teldy.

"Who the hell's comfortable, Major?" one of the two men asked. Blood was matted to the side of his head.

"Come on, Duotti," the shorter woman, a sergeant, said. "Let's go get checked out."

"What's going on?" Major Teldy asked as she came down the ramp. The sergeant guided the wounded man past Rodney and Miko, who were plastered to the wall in the corridor to make room between themselves and the huge crate waiting to go to Atlantis and currently blocking most of the space.

"Bomb," one of the SFs commented.

The second man, just behind Teldy, hesitated. "Where?"

The SF looked over to Rodney.

"It's attached to the stargate, low, on the left side," Rodney told him. "Magnets and it's been tamper-proofed."

"Joey, think you can — ?" Teldy asked.

"Let me at it," Joey replied. He linked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles.

"Are you insane?" Rodney demanded. "You need to get a bomb expert in here to disarm it."

"You'd better get out of here in case Joey screws it up," Teldy told him.

Rodney stared at her in stunned disbelief. "You're insane," he declared. "Come on, Miko. Before they get us killed with them."

~*~


"Look, Ambassador Weir, it just isn't going to happen," O'Neill said. He held up his open hands as if to show how helpless he was to change the matter.

Elizabeth eyed him skeptically. The loopy, what-am-I-doing-in-charge act didn't play as well when a man had stars on his shoulders. Generals were in charge because they were determined, ambitious and competent. O'Neill was at least two of those things, with a sense of duty standing in for ambition. It made him just as power hungry as any political shark out there. O'Neill meant to protect his people; some days that meant the SGC, on better ones the definition widened to include the entire planet. She suspected Earth was lucky to have a man in charge of Homeworld Security who could even grasp that concept, never mind implementing it on occasion.

She didn't have to like his favoritism toward ex-members of SG-1, however, when she thought they were interfering her work.

"I really have a difficult time accepting that Major Carter's personal bias should affect who I choose as part of my staff," Elizabeth replied. Rodney was a difficult man. She'd had experience with him over the last two years, far more than Samantha Carter ever had, and despite his social failures she recognized that he was as brilliant as he believed he was. Denying herself and the expedition that sharp mind and what Rodney could discover on Atlantis because he wasn't likable was ridiculous. It didn't speak well to Major Carter's professionalism, either.

In her humble opinion, Elizabeth finished in her own thoughts, with a hidden smile.

"Nonetheless," General Landry said. "Major Carter has reiterated her previous declaration, that she will resign the Air Force and her position as Chief Scientific Officer if Dr. McKay is permitted to join the Expedition."

"The Embassy is not the Expedition," Elizabeth pointed out politely. The Embassy, in fact, would supersede the Expedition's authority. She wanted Rodney as her scientific adviser because he was the one man who wouldn't be intimidated by Major Carter's previous achievements. In addition, she wanted the rest of his team from Antarctica because the SGC had front loaded the First Expedition with Americans, freezing out numerous more-qualified scientists from other countries, even when they had appropriate clearances. Her Embassy would represent Earth, not just the parochial interests of the US.

"McKay's not a team player," O'Neill insisted.

Elizabeth folded her hands and refrained from pointing out the Rodney McKay had succeeded in working with the scientists at Area 51, in Siberia, and now ran a multinational research team in Antarctica. His reputation at the SGC was unjustified, though she would never argue that he was a nice man.

"I rather think Major Carter is the one who is exhibiting that characteristic," she said. She'd read all the reports. She knew what had happened and Rodney certainly hadn't won any friends, but he also wasn't the villain of the piece. As far as she could tell, Teal'c had been doomed. Both Carter and Rodney had done everything they could to save him; it simply hadn't been possible. Carter was still letting her grief dictate her choices.

"He would be a walking disaster," Landry added. "Believe me, Ambassador. You don't want him." The condescension in his voice — she could almost hear the 'little lady' — couldn't be missed.

O'Neill winced but wisely remained silent.

"I think I'm a better judge of diplomatic civilities, what and who will be acceptable as part of my staff than either of you gentlemen," Elizabeth said in a frosty tone. "You don't actually have the authority to block my choice."

Landry leaned forward over the shining conference table. "Maybe not technically, Ambassador, but I think we all know that you aren't going to throw away your appointment over retaining McKay. He cost you a chance to go with the First Expedition, didn't he?"

"I'd say Major Carter's intransigence and the strings pulled for her did that," Elizabeth snapped, sparing a glare for O'Neill too.

"He's not going," O'Neill said. He made another face, one implying he was tasting something bad. His hand came up as she opened her mouth and went on, "He's not going off-world. I've got a shrink who will testify that he isn't mentally stable enough if necessary, but the fact is, without Carter around, we need someone like him here." Unstated, but clear, was the determination to protect his friends from a living, breathing reminder of their loss. Ironic, considering O'Neill had tolerated Jonas Quinn in Daniel Jackson's place, unless he believed that that had contributed to the dissolution of SG-1. Maybe that was it. Carter and Jackson had jumped at the chance to leave for Pegasus, certainly.

Elizabeth pressed her lips together. Bias she could fight, cold pragmatism wouldn't be shifted so easily. She would need to find Camille Wray. The IOA human resources representative would know who O'Neill's psychiatrist was. She'd need to talk with the President as well, but only after she'd mustered every argument possible and pulled a few strings of her own.

She didn't say she hadn't given up. O'Neill probably realized it, but if not, she certainly had no intention of warning him.

"Next on the agenda," she said, "is the matter of former Major Sheppard — "

"Should have had him shot," Landry muttered.

Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose. This was the attitude she could expect from Col. Sumner. For an instant she contemplated some horsetrading: she'd give up on Rodney and they'd replace Sumner with someone a little less rigidly hardline. She was going to have to deal with Maj—Mr. Sheppard in his guise as Union liaison. If he picked up on the hostility the military felt toward him — and how could he miss it, when he'd been part of that very culture — he wouldn't trust them and likely would communicate that distrust to the Union Hives.

~*~


Rodney kept thinking about the bomb as he and Miko were hustled away from the gate room. The SFs persuaded Major Teldy to retreat into the corridor too, while Joey — there was a name you wanted associated with someone handling a bomb — inspected it.

It was small, first of all. Upon consideration, Rodney admitted that made sense. Whoever had placed it there had done so surreptitiously, so it had to be small enough to carry into the gate room unnoticed.

If he wasn't mistaken — and he wasn't — it was strictly of Earth manufacture. All of it, including the explosive, which had to mean something, if he could only figure it out. Since it was small enough to smuggle in (or possibly the explosive had actually been obtained from the SGC's own armory), it couldn't do any serious damage to the stargate. Rodney calculated that if it were C4, the bomb wouldn't generate enough force to break the reinforced glass separating the gate room from the control room. Not from where it had been placed.

So if it wasn't meant to blow up the stargate or kill many people, what did the bomb accomplish? Not terrorism, since the classified lid on the program meant no one outside the SGC and its maker would ever know about it. Whoever had made it had been moderately clever. They'd saved space by using the iris mechanism to trigger the bomb rather than mess with a timer and batteries. The iris would inevitably be closed at least once a day, if only to test its proper function, providing a loose but absolute time frame in which the bomb would be triggered.

Was there anything about the date? Rodney couldn't remember if it was the week or the weekend up top. Working in Antarctica, buried beneath the blue ice where every day looked the same under the artificial lights had made dates and even time mostly meaningless. Rodney and his people worked until they had to rest, then got back to it, without holidays. Truthfully, he never had paid much attention to calendars.

He was missing something obvious.

On the other hand, he was feeling significantly better about the odds of his personal survival, even if Joey the not-bomb-tech triggered the bomb, since it was small and he and Miko were further and further away from it with every hurried step. Though a certain part of him maintained that death by runaway naquadah reaction or the explosion of a ZPM was fittingly impressive for a man of his intellectual stature and expertise. Provided anyone was left alive afterward, however, he suspected his name would be lost among the many others caused by a disaster of that magnitude.

He hadn't won his Nobel yet, in any case.

What was that little bomb meant to do?

Rodney scowled as he had to flatten himself against crate as a squad of airmen carrying bomb disposal tools and armor double-timed toward the gate room. His elbow hit the corner and he clutched at, wondering whether the bone had cracked. Careless cretins.

"Are you all right, Dr. McKay?" Miko asked.

"No doubt I'll suffer crippling pain the rest of my life," Rodney replied.

She just blinked at him from behind those coke-bottle glasses. Sometimes, Rodney had the feeling Miko was mocking him, but he'd never been able to isolate any evidence.

"Whatever," he muttered.

His thoughts turned to the little bomb again. It couldn't have been meant to harm the stargate, wasn't positioned to harm anyone, except himself or one of his team unlucky enough to be standing close by when the iris was closed…

Rodney snapped his fingers, ignoring the shooting pain in his elbow. Cracked. Those oafs had made him crack the bone, but despite the agony he had figured it out!

Someone had meant to kill him. It was obvious. Threatened by the prospect of Rodney's brilliance showing them up now that he was back at the SGC, one of his so-called colleagues had attempted murder.

Something had to be done. Rodney's life was in danger. He turned around and headed back toward Landry's office and the conference room where he knew Elizabeth Weir was working on General Landry and General O'Neill.

The sound of the bomb going off stopped him in his tracks. Without thinking it out, Rodney turned and ran back to the gate room.

~*~


John snapped awake from a dream of the hive. The irony didn't escape him; in Pegasus, he'd dreamed of getting back to Earth. He'd still been holding out hope there would be some way he could go back to who he'd been before. Before Atlantis, before the nasce.

He sat up and ran a shaking hand over his face, unsure what had brought him awake in the first place. A sound? Scent? The SGC used air scrubbers on the lower levels, but it still stank all the time to John's enhanced senses, just as the corridors were too bright and dead to the touch. He hadn't noticed the lack of life in Atlantis, during the months of the occupation, but then Atlantis wasn't dead: it responded to John's ATA gene much like the hives responded to the wraith and their hybrids. He hadn't felt trapped until he stepped through the stargate onto Earth again.

At least with Teyla and the drones, and Todd, always Todd, he wasn't completely isolated in his own head. A thin thread of hive sense bound them together at all times, though it wasn't as all encompassing as in the hive since Teyla was of Athos Hive, not First.

A glance found Todd where he'd known eie'd be, sitting still in the chair by the table, hands folded on eis lap, eyes open and watching the door into the John's VIP quarters. The SGC had given Todd eis own quarters, but Todd ignored them and stationed emself to guard John in his quarters — and watch him lest he find some escape, John sometimes thought. Todd breathed slowly, sunk into near hibernation to save energy. Eie hadn't fed since arriving on Earth and wouldn't until they returned to Atlantis.

Todd turned eis head and met John's gaze. The lights were turned down, but Todd's pupils — slit like a cat's, like John's — were still narrowed. Eie blinked slowly, predator lazy.

"What — " John started to ask.

The alarm blaring through the corridors interrupted him.

"An attack?" Todd speculated.

John shrugged and left the bed. He dressed first, then used the toilet, a reversal of his usual routine. A glimpse of himself in the mirror made him stop with a wince. It wasn't that he didn't still look like John Sheppard; the wraith tattoos that ran up one side of his neck and jaw to curl around the orbit of his eye didn't change his features. Those features, though, threw him because they were a decade too young. That… erasure… bothered John more than the cat-pupils, the short, dark claws or the blue tint to his skin that darkened along his sides and back. It still startled him as much as it had the first time he saw himself in an Atlantis mirror; he knew some people thought he'd sold out for the promise of the fountain of youth. If he had, it would have been a devil's bargain. What price perpetual youth, without a withering portrait in the attic? Only another's life, blood on his hands, stranger forever in a strange land, where he got to keep his name but he'd already lost himself. Fuck. He turned away, ignoring his five o'clock shadow, the pallor and darkness of heat differentials under his skin that his changed eyes saw, and the cold in his bones that no one could see.

He pushed aside his unease and, after a moment's thought, began packing everything he'd brought or acquired. Pants, shirts, underwear, socks, toothbrush, odds and ends, all went into the pack neatly, stowed away while Todd watched without comment. He started to tell Todd to pack up eis stuff, then remembered eie hadn't brought any personal belongings through the stargate. He filled the second pack with electronics he'd bought online.

The last zip and buckle closed, John left both packs on the bed and headed for the courtesy telephone. It wouldn't dial out of the Mountain, but he wanted news from SGC security anyway.

The floor rocked under his boots and the Mountain groaned to a distance-muffled boom.

"That didn't sound good," John commented.

Todd got to eis feet.

The phone at the security station rang but no one picked up. John replaced the handset and frowned at it thoughtfully. Instinct insisted they get out before they were trapped.

"We should join the Athos Hive Consul and her drones," Todd stated.

John considered it and nodded agreement. Teyla Emmagan had done most of the negotiating for the Union, while John advised and interpreted what the humans of Earth meant and expected as opposed to what the words would seem to mean. He liked her, though she and the four hybrid humans who accompanied her often seemed more alien than Todd did. Safety in numbers anyway. He and Todd were less likely to suffer some 'accident' with more witnesses around them, too. The SGC's airmen and marines were all professionals, but they were also human, and Todd freaked them out even without the stories the Genii diplomats were telling about the Wraith.

Todd walked fluidly to the door and opened it. John followed em out into the corridor. The Mountain jolted again. He'd expected to see a security force but the station was deserted. Footsteps from the other direction made him turn.

A baby-faced airman John recognized from previous encounters trotted up to them.

"Sirs," he said. He was faking calm. The faking part alarmed John; he wanted to know what he wasn't being told.

"Can you tell us what's going on, Hoskey?" John asked.

"If you could just come with me, sirs, someone else will explain, I'm sure." Hoskey looked spooked under his nervous smile. He had proved himself a talker before. John bet he could get the truth from him in a minute or two.

"Come on, Hoskey. Just clue me in."

"General Landry's evacuating all diplomatic and non-military personnel, sirs," Hoskey said. He called Todd sir, which amused John, though he wasn't interested in explaining why. Hoskey was so green he probably called the women officers sir too. "They're dialing Atlantis now."

"Who's attacking?" John asked. He dodged back into his quarters, grabbed his long coat and shrugged it on, then his pack. Todd never took eis coat off. Eie flicked long white hair back and shouldered the second pack filled with stuff John had purchased with an eye to entertaining himself when he wasn't liaising. The Genii Empire and Coalition worlds all had entertainment of course, but the Union didn't. Spending the rest of his life in a hive or hanging around Atlantis alone when he wasn't explaining the Wraith to the Earth humans and Earth ways to Wraith was a mind-numbing prospect. He'd invested in a couple of high-end laptops and other electronics, price no object, since he was going to be officially dead in a few weeks. Use it or lose it; he had nothing to save for and his family… well, they didn't need money from him or anything else, or he wouldn't have gone to Pegasus in the first place.

"Don't know, sirs. Security on the surface reported energy weapons."

Which had ruled out a national or terrorist attack on the United States with NORAD as a target.

"Zats?" John asked. "Staff weapons?" The Goa'uld weapons were more dangerous than Wraith stunners; made to wound and kill. Wraith wanted their prey live, mostly, though hives, cruisers, and darts all carried heavier weaponry meant to do material damage.

"No one's said, sir."

"Jaffa?"

"I don't know," Hoskey blurted. "but they've already penetrated the NORAD levels."

Crap.

"Jaffa," Todd said. "These are the genetically engineered warrior species used by the… Goa'uld?" Todd's voice did strange things to the word. Eie wasn't used to it.

"Yes," John confirmed. He'd never seen a Jaffa in person, but he'd read up on them when he'd been brought into the Program to join the Atlantis Expedition.

"They have an immature Goa'uld symbiote."

"Right."

"Which accelerates their healing speed," Todd finished and John realized eie wanted to feed on a Jaffa, to taste the different viand of the paired symbiot lives. Hoskey didn't get it, but John got a glimpse through the hive sense: Todd wasn't particularly hungry, but eie was curious.

John didn't let his distaste show. Todd had fed from him out of necessity, John had made the offer for the same reason, but he wondered: would Todd have done it anyway, if he'd known John had the ATA gene?

No way to know now and too late to change anything if he could know.

Maybe… he didn't really want to know.

~*~


The bang from the gate room probably wasn't audible even a level above. Landry and O'Neill both jerked in response, though, while Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, wondering what the hell that had been. Landry picked up a telephone and demanded, "What's going on?"

"Explosion," O'Neill said tersely to Elizabeth. "Small, but — "

"What!?" Landry roared. "Who the hell authorized that? No, do not let anyone else go back in — then get him out — Already? Make sure he gets here ASAP. Get me a report from the control room too." He slammed the phone down, looked at the ceiling and released a deep breath, then faced O'Neill and Elizabeth.

"Well?" O'Neill demanded.

"A bomb just went off in the gate room." He held up his hand. "Apparently, McKay spotted it, then Lt. Duotti decided to play bomb disposal tech and triggered it instead. Report is the stargate is fine, Duotti's on his way to the infirmary, and McKay's been in again and is on his way here."

"Not much of a bomb," O'Neill observed as the door slammed open and Rodney McKay barreled in. His face was smeared with soot and blackened cobwebs were caught in his hair. Elizabeth thought the dark stain on his pants might be blood. An airman followed him, grabbing at his arm, but subsided to wait at the door when Landry waved him off.

"It didn't need to be, to do exactly what it was meant to do," Rodney snapped. His hands moved convulsively, then he folded his arms and closed his fingers into fists.

"And what was that?" O'Neill asked softly.

Rodney didn't hesitate. "The iris mechanism is wrecked — "

"That iris is made out of a trinium alloy that can withstand the energy wash of a forming wormhole," Landry objected.

Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, blah blah, whatever. It does you no good if the hydraulic system that opens and closes it is trashed."

"Can we still dial the gate?" O'Neill asked.

A slender sergeant trotted into the room, carrying a small laptop. He looked uneasy as he whipped off a salute to the two generals.

"Yes."

"No," the sergeant said. A tag on his uniform identified him as Riley.

Rodney wheeled on him, glaring, and the sergeant rushed to add, "Some kind of feedback from the way the bomb was wired into the mechanism; we need to reset the system."

"Fix it," O'Neill snapped.

He set the laptop down on the conference table in front of Landry. "Sir, we need your authorization codes… "

Landry began typing. "Where's Walter?"

"Sir, he was knocked out."

"Is he in the infirmary — "

"No, sir, he's working with Dr. Zelenka to reboot the dialing computer."

"Sergeant," O'Neill said. "Riley, right?"

"Yes sir."

"Get back to the control room, get that dialing computer fixed and dial the gate. I don't care where you dial, just establish a wormhole, right now and keep it open," O'Neill ordered.

Riley looked confused and glanced to Landry, who frowned at O'Neill. "Jack — "

"Hank, there's only one reason to sabotage the iris."

Landry went pale. "Sergeant, go dial the gate as soon as possible."

"Dial where, sir?"

"It doesn't matter, damn it," O'Neill snapped. "We need to keep anyone from dialing in until that iris is functional again."

He turned back to Rodney, who was nodding, wide-eyed, but silent. Riley scooped up the laptop and double-timed out of the conference room. "Did you get that ZPM hooked up?"

"Yes. The generators are ready too," Rodney said. "We didn't have time to run a test dial, but with the new design I pioneered in Siberia, it should be possible to keep the stargate open almost indefinitely — "

"Just do it," O'Neill interrupted. His gaze moved past Elizabeth, then snapped back to her. "Dial Atlantis."

Landry was on the phone again. "Control room," he ordered. "Walter? Good. Once the computer is up, initiate the Atlantis dialing protocol immediately. Yes. Riley's on his way now. What… " Landry's grip on the handset tightened and his expression went grimmer. "Yes."

Alarms began wailing through the facility. Elizabeth winced and Rodney jerked.

"Prepare for a Wildfire Scenario. I want extra security sent to the gate room and the adjoining corridors," Landry went on. "Do we have an ETA?" He listened another moment. "I'm on my way now."

Landry set the phone back into its cradle.

"Deep space sensors are tracking a ship headed for Earth," he stated. "It looks like a ha'tak."

Elizabeth inhaled silently. That could not be a coincidence. "I could talk to whoever — "

"No," Landry interrupted.

"Ambassador," O'Neill said, "if you would go get the Pegasus people and get them down to the gate room, I think it would be a good idea to get them out of the Mountain."

Elizabeth got to her feet. She was confused by the urgency O'Neill obviously felt, but respected that he'd intuited something from Rodney's report that she hadn't.

"Of course," she said.

He nodded to her, paused as he looked at Rodney, and then nodded again. "McKay. Go with her."

"What — ?"

"Go with her to Atlantis. Get your other people and get out," O'Neill clarified. He swung back to Landry and said, "Hank, tell them to start pushing those supplies through the stargate as soon as it connects. The damn stuff is in the way."

Rodney trailed Elizabeth out of the conference room.

"He thinks the SGC is about to be attacked," Rodney said, his voice full of disbelief.

A boom shook the entire Mountain above them.

"Rodney, stay with me," Elizabeth said and started for the VIP quarters as quickly as she could without appearing panicked. If the embassy personnel from the Pegasus powers were harmed or killed, the entire Pax Atlantica might fall apart.

~*~


The back corner of the gate room showed the unmistakable black cobwebby leftovers of a plastique explosion, but the stargate appeared untouched. The rippling surface of a wormhole already filled it. Lorne glanced up toward the glass front of the control room. A long crack bisected it, but everyone behind it appeared all right. General O'Neill leaned over and a speaker in the gate room crackled to life with his voice. General Landry was on a telephone and talking to Colonels Dixon and Reynolds at the same time.

"Major, go through and brief Col. Sumner. IDC has already been transmitted. The Atlantis shield should be down. We're sending through the supplies and everyone we can round up."

"Brief him on what, sir?" Lorne asked helplessly. He'd been in an office two levels up, mapping out the practice run for the trip through to Atlantis when the Mountain began shaking and alarms went off. He only had his pack and weapon and radio because he had been debating exactly what to carry on his person through the stargate and what to ship in a footlocker. Sgt. Siler had shown up and told him to get to the gate room ASAP.

"Earth is under attack. Jaffa are trying to fight their way in from the surface and we have a sabotaged iris. We'll keep the gate open as long as our power holds out to prevent the enemy from dialing in," O'Neill summarized. "Now move!"

A rumbly hum alerted Lorne to dodge out of the way a crate trundling forward and up the ramp to the stargate.

"Yes sir," he said, snapped off a quick salute and sprinted up the ramp to the side of the crate and conveyor track. The crate disappeared through the stargate with a slurp, and then Lorne stepped through.

Stepping through the stargate usually meant a quick blue roller coaster ride, something more mental than not, and possibly just in the head, because all their equipment insisted it was instantaneous and you weren't whole enough to be conscious. Lorne thought the experience confirmed there was more to awareness than the meat that hosted it, but kept his opinions to himself. The Pegasus vets he'd quizzed said the stargates there were faster than the ones in the Milky Way, and one had confided quietly that the wormholes 'felt' green.

If Lorne expected anything different from what he'd experienced before, it was that 'green' effect, not silver and black and icy-cold.

He didn't expect to be launched out of the stargate and narrowly miss a crate and fall on his knees on a metal deck in the dark, with frost chilling his fingers and white on his MP5. He rolled to his feet and out of the way as another crate sent the ones already through the stargate rolling toward him.

"Shit," he breathed. He flicked the light on the top of his weapon on and played it around the echoing black chamber he found himself in. It sure as hell wasn't Atlantis. He'd seen the pictures of its gate room; it was all stained glass and ocean light. This sure as hell wasn't anywhere near as pretty and never had been. He'd bet his boots he wasn't anywhere in the Milky Way either.

Another crate rumbled through the wormhole.

Lorne reached up and activated his radio. "SGC, this is Major Lorne. Something's wrong. I'm not in Atlantis. Over."

What looked like emergency lights were coming on along the floor. They didn't penetrate the heavy shadows, but at least they indicated something was working wherever he had ended up. Lorne spotted two sets of stairs leading up to a balcony on a second level and round doorways that looked like hatches below and on the sides of the warehouse-like space. Metal everywhere, dark, and more alarmingly, streaked with red rust. The discoloration and darkness hid any details, but the space felt industrial to Lorne.

"Sitrep, Major. Over." O'Neill's voice, tense and taciturn. Lorne thought he heard an explosion in the background; he definitely heard someone else yelling.

"I'm in a large room obviously designed to house the stargate, with emergency lights coming on," Lorne reported. "It's all metal, there're what look like hatches, and… " he flicked the light past, then back, and squinted at the stains on the wall, realizing they were more than that, " …Ancient writing on the walls. Everything's in bad shape. The air's not so good and it's cold as hell."

"Major, we can't afford to shut the stargate down and dial again. Where ever you are, we're evaccing everyone we can," O'Neill said. "You're in charge, got that? Over."

"Got it, sir. Over," Lorne replied. What the hell? he thought. Wasn't there anyone senior to him…? Shit. "How bad is it?" he blurted without thinking.

Static answered him briefly, then O'Neill spoke again. "One ha'tak in orbit. We're trying to get someone with the gene down to the Antarctic base. DC and Beijing are gone. Satellites are down; communications with them. Jaffa on the ground; our people are holding them on the upper levels for the moment. When we can't, we'll set the self-destruct and bury the gate. Take care of our people, Major, but don't trust all of them. Someone blew the iris here. Over."

"Yes sir," Lorne replied. He understood what O'Neill hadn't said: that taking out the stargate would isolate Earth again. Make it too expensive to occupy without the access the stargates offered. Give the rest of the world a chance to fight back or hold out until the Daedalus or the Prometheus returned and could take out the ha'tak. "Over."

Whatever happened, the world as Lorne had known it was over too. He wouldn't think of his family; O'Neill hadn't mentioned San Francisco among the targets hit. It gutted him to think of his nieces and nephews dead or under Goa'uld rule.

Realizing that someone in the SGC might have been responsible for that made Lorne burn with a deep fury that nothing would ever ease. Someone who might come through with the people stumbling through the gate right now.

Not only could he not trust any of them, he could not afford to let anyone else take over command from him. If he did, that person could be the traitor.

Lorne winced inside, then raised his voice to direct the first soldiers and civilians coming through on either side of the steady stream of crates still rumbling through. "Watch out! Airman Atienza. Grab a squad and start wheeling the crates out of the way. We'll organize them later."

~*~


Carolyn finished her work on an airman with second degree burns and a penetrating wound to his thigh from a staff blast and left one of the nurses to move him to a bed. Mitchell was hovering at arm's length behind her. She yanked off her gloves and tossed them in the hazardous wastes container.

"Cam, I'm busy here."

"General Landry's orders. He wants you evacced through the stargate."

"Not while I still have wounded to treat," Carolyn snapped at him. "I don't care what my father told you." She headed for the sinks to wash up and put on another set of gloves as two more wounded limped in. A quick visual survey of her infirmary showed her the nurses and orderlies were all busy and she knew Warner was in the OR. "Damn it. Lt. Ford," she called to the young officer who had been getting a final physical before leaving the SGC and the Marine Corps and stuck around to help out when the alarms went off, "can you get them to separate tables?"

Ford, who had been hovering out of the way, moved to the wounded's aid.

Cam grabbed her wrist and Carolyn jerked it loose. "Don't you dare, Cam Mitchell," she told him in a low voice. "This is my job. I am not abandoning my patients."

The sound of gunfire echoed from down the halls. The Mountain had stopped shaking; Carolyn figured whoever had been bombarding it had quit once their own people had made their way inside.

"Jaffa don't care if you're a doctor, Carolyn," Cam yelled.

"Keep your voice down," she snapped back. She started for the sink again.

Cam said quietly, "I'm really sorry about this — " as he pulled her around and slugged her. Carolyn would've gone down if he hadn't been holding onto her arm again. Her vision grayed out and she struggled to stay conscious. She was too dazed to fight as Cam whipped his belt off and used it to tie her hands behind her, then slung her over his shoulder fireman-style. Blood rushed to her head and somewhere along the way she threw up on his heels. There was yelling and Cam's voice, saying, "Take care of her, Ford," as she was slung into another pair of arms unceremoniously and then flying through a wormhole and out the other side, landing on her side hard enough to yell.

Which she did as Lt. Ford solicitously dragged her to her feet and freed Carolyn's hands from the belt.

"Cam Mitchell, you sonovabitch!"

~*~


Teyla ignored the glares from Sora Tyrus as she and her four drones walked behind the Ambassador and the nervous scientist — she could smell his fear; a sharp odor threaded through with an undertone that told her he needed to eat soon — through the low-ceilinged corridors toward the Ancestors' Ring. She felt the touch of the eiee's mind through hive sense and the even more distant sense of eis hive-kin. Sheppard's mind felt like an aa-in, all warrior-caste focus, and less unhappy than he'd been since they had arrived on Earth. Teyla couldn't determine whether that resulted from an opportunity to fight something or the prospect of leaving this planet.

She looked forward to the latter herself.

They paused as Ambassador Weir knocked on the door to the Coalition representative's quarters. Teyla listened as Weir explained to Larrin Traveller and Ronon Dex that the installation was under attack and the Ring had been opened to Atlantis so that they could return there.

Weir apologized for the lack of warning or chance to bring their belongings, promising they would be sent later.

Larrin brushed the apology off.

"We didn't bring anything we couldn't afford to lose."

The Travellers, out of all of the humans in the Coalition, were most like the humans of the Union hives. Life in space made them pragmatic and fast to react. Teyla understood them better than she did some of the humans living and farming on Athos and the other provider planets.

Dex disappeared back into the room and returned with gun belts, holsters, and two of the energy pistols the Travellers used. He strapped one on and handed the other to Larrin.

Weir made a fluttering movement with one hand and her lips thinned in disapproval but she said nothing. Her gaze skittered to and away from the guns. Teyla wondered if she realized the Genii were all carrying concealed weaponry as well. As she and her drones were.

"We'll alert the Representative next," she said.

"Eie is with Sheppard," Teyla told her. She knew Sheppard called the Hunter by a human name, Todd, and the eiee deigned to answer to it, but no one had offered that indulgence to the Earth people. The Hunter had been introduced simply as the Wraith Representative, there to observe and emphasize that the Union was a partnership of both wraith and humans, while Teyla handled the negotiations. Athos Hive was second only to the First Hive and Teyla had led the bargaining between the Union and the Coalition since her father's death, as well as any talks with non-aligned worlds such as Sateda had been. The Hunter had only observed while she took the lead, eis approval silent but present through the hive sense.

Their silence in regard to each other had unsettled the Earth humans, as had the four drones, who were also nameless by the standards of these people. Within Athos Hive, all were known, through scent, genetics and the hive sense, a gestalt rather than a model or symbol of self. Vocalizations were a poor second in comparison with the communication of the hive. Teyla pitied the crippled humans who were not part of the Union.

Their horror of Sheppard's acceptance into the First Hive mystified her.

The SGC had 'given' the hive-kin quarters on a different level from everyone born in Pegasus. The eiee had simply gone to Sheppard's quarters with him and rested there. The Earth humans had tried voicing objections. Teyla had serenely explained that no hive-kin were left alone and any further attempts to isolate Sheppard would be regarded as an attack against them and the Union. Hive sense would have kept them connected over a greater distance than a single level, but she saw no reason to explain that, and allowing the insult would have only encouraged further misunderstandings of what her people would tolerate.

The Earth humans were too eager to trade for Wraith weaponry — weaponry their enemies in their own galaxy had no defenses against — to antagonize the Union. The Union had provided the potentia used to re-establish contact between Atlantis and Earth and, in truth, the Union held strongest sway in the city.

Weir turned to the young warrior-caste with her. "Airman, we — "

"Ma'am, you and the others should get to the gate room now," the airman interrupted nervously. "Airman Hoskey's already gone to get Mr. Sheppard and the Wraith. They'll join you soon."

Weir frowned at him, then nodded. "I see," she murmured then switched her attention from the airman. "If you'll all just follow me, then?"

"Who is attacking?" Ladon Radim asked. He and the other Genii walked with Ronon Dex and Larrin Traveller between them and Teyla and her drones — just as the Coalition of Independent Worlds insulated the Genii Empire from the Union.

Teyla suppressed a bitter smile. Of course the Genii wished to know who the Earth humans' enemy was. They had lied to convince the Earth people to ally with them against both the Coalition and the Union. Now that their lies had been revealed and all four powers would share in the discoveries of Atlantis, they looked to find a new ally to use against them all.

The Genii did not believe that the enemy of their enemy was a friend; the Genii had no friends and only allies of convenience.

When those allies became inconvenient… then the Genii had no more qualms than a hungry iratus, as the proud Satedans had learned to their sorrow.

But Radim's question was still a good one, and she waited with lifted eyebrows for the Ambassador's reply.

"Jaffa," Weir said. "A Goa'uld System Lord. Please, if you would all follow me."

"Parasites," Dex commented meaningfully. His gaze rested on the Genii when he spoke.

"We've never bowed to the Wraith," Sora snapped at him.

"Sora," Tyrus snapped. "Enough." To Weir, he added with an ingratiating smile, "Please, Ambassador. Continue."

The tallest of Teyla's drones turned back and listened, before quietly telling Teyla, "This one suggests retreat deeper into the nest."

Teyla stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. She had to reach up, for this drone was both taller and older than most, with long hair threaded gray. He had served as her security since her first negotiation on one of Athos' secondary provider planets. Time and experience had made him more observant and reflective than the majority of drones. She thought that once they returned to the hive, she would petition one of the Athos eiee to share viand with him, rather than lose all he had learned and become to age and premature death.

"This one is wise," she murmured to him in the old Athosian dialect that survived among the humans aboard Athos Hive, even while it had changed into unrecognizability upon Athos and the other provider planets over ten thousand years.

"Please, ma'am, we need to hurry," the youthful airman insisted to the Ambassador.

~*~


Puffs of dust lifted from nooks and crannies and sifted through the air as Cheyenne Mountain shuddered. Whatever Airman Hoskey said, it took more than Jaffa, even an army of them, to make a mountain shake so many levels below the surface. John wasn't claustrophobic, but he'd been stuck in the SGC for the last couple months, and he didn't want to die here if everything came down on them. When the blows on the surface started knocking the dirt from the cracks, he started worrying.

They were coming up to an corridor intersection and he could hear a mixture of energy blasts and gunfire close by. He lengthened his stride to catch up with Hoskey, while a sense of caution came from Todd through the hive sense.

"Hoskey — "

"Just stay behind me, sirs," Hoskey said softly.

John lifted his hands in frustration. He didn't have a weapon; nor did Todd. They were diplomats. On Earth, diplomats didn't go armed. Next time someone tried to convince him to go along with that he was laughing in their face. Next time, he was shooting them in the face.

The gunfire was definitely getting closer, which meant the energy weapons were getting closer, and leaving aside that the attacking Jaffa weren't likely to honor diplomatic immunity, he wasn't entirely sure some of the SGC people wouldn't take the opportunity to frag him.

"I think we need to take a different route," he said.

"This is the fastest way to the elevator banks, sir," Hoskey insisted. He had an MP5 in his arms and his knuckles were white. Hoskey was a nice kid, but he was out of his depth. The SGC's buried citadel should have been impenetrable. The attack had shaken Hoskey's world view as hard as whatever weapon had hit up top. John knew asking for his sidearm would be useless. Hoskey was going to stick with the orders he'd been given, no thinking outside the box, no arming the freak.

He could smell the ozone burn that went with energy discharges and, more disturbingly, a wisp of smoke. Hoskey paused as the gunfire died away. He ducked his head around the corner. "I don't see anyone," Hoskey reported. He stepped into the corridor.

The blast spun Hoskey, so that he fell face up with a hole burned through his chest. John grabbed his legs and pulled him back under to check for a pulse anyway then helped himself to Hoskey's MP5 and Beretta, along with the single spare clip the kid had carried. Heavy footsteps marched down the corridor toward their intersection.

John angled a glance back to Todd. He didn't offer his partner the Beretta, but only because Todd's hands were too big and the claws at the end of each finger were likely to catch in the trigger guard. Wraith weapons were equally difficult for human hands; they were manufactured in proportion to their average user.

"Can you do that mental voodoo thing?" he asked while checking the safety on the MP5. "Like we did on Atlantis?" Except he would be using bullets instead of stun charges.

Todd frowned, but replied, "Of course."

John shuddered as wispy white things flickered at the edge of his vision and around the corner. He knew they were telepathic phantasms and could do no harm, but Todd was pushing a visceral terror with them. He heard a Jaffa yell and the discharge of a staff weapon hit a wall, leaving a burnt crater in the concrete. Anyone seeing those wraith projections would be convinced that they would die if one of them touched him. He'd been on the receiving end once and never wanted to experience it again.

John ducked low and around the corner with Todd behind him. The Jaffa were screaming now, trying to shoot the phantoms that were among them and hitting each other. John sighted down the barrel of the MP5 and began taking them out with head shots. Todd loped past him as he dropped the last of them and bent over one of the still breathing wounded.

The gurgle from the Jaffa managed to convey the atavistic horror that went with seeing a feeding hand descend on his chest. John scooped up zats and a couple of staff weapons — if Jaffa in armored gauntlets could use them, Todd could too — and anything else that looked useful while Todd drained his victim and moved on.

He told himself he didn't care anyway. They'd killed Hoskey and the kid had been about the only person in the SGC who hadn't treated John like a leper. He wasn't sure Hoskey actually knew what had happened to him, but he had to have heard some of the scuttlebutt about the traitor who sold Atlantis out to the Wraith. If he had, he'd never given it away by word or action.

"Waste not, want not," John muttered to himself, using the humor to distance himself from the situation. The worst part was the traitorous voice in the back of his head pointing out that Todd might share the viand with John later. He missed Todd touching him, the give and take, the perfect release, the perfect belonging, but eie hadn't fed since they arrived on Earth to complete the treaty negotiations. The Union delegation hadn't brought any grubs through the stargate with them, so eie'd been conserving eis energy and had no viand to spare for pleasure.

He handed over a staff weapon when Todd rose to eis feet. Eie had no trouble discerning how to operate it.

"Time to get down to the stargate," John said. He knew Teyla and the drones were on their way through the hive sense; no need to worry about them. The relief made him grin, as did the rush of energy Todd felt, transmitted through their kin-bond. Todd felt good; it made John feel good. No worries; they could fight their way through any Jaffa and John wouldn't be troubled by old loyalties shooting the Goa'uld's soldiers the way he had when he lead the Union assault on Atlantis.

~*~


Then John had carried a wraith stunner instead of a salvaged zat, but the room-to-room and corridor fighting through Atlantis hadn't been too different from this: in both cases, they'd been working their way to the control and gate rooms. He'd been shooting Genii soldiers — not a problem — mostly. Things had only become dicey when John had been faced with marines from the expedition; faces he'd known, if only for a month or two, who were so shocked to see him — alive, changed, with the enemy — that they often failed to even shoot at him. It had hurt and genuinely felt like betraying them for the first time, but he'd made himself keep going when he'd wanted to hesitate, to explain, to convince them to give up.

The Jaffa didn't hesitate.

Neither did John or Todd. It was a beautiful relief, to have no doubts, to move and fight with Todd at his back and an enemy at his front he didn't sympathize with at all.

A piece of flying concrete knocked loose by a ricochet sliced open his arm, but John ignored it and the blood that dripped from his elbow, along with the various bruises he'd given himself taking cover. It wasn't flying, but the adrenaline rush and the tang of pain were familiar friends, really.

He wished he knew the layout of the SGC better, but he'd only passed through it on the way to Atlantis, and the months since returning with the Union delegation hadn't offered him any chances to explore. They were three levels up from the gate room, though, and had to get to the emergency stairwells; the elevators had shut down along with the power. Only dim red emergency lights remained on in the corridors.

The pitch of the alarm had changed to an urgent whoop that kept speeding up as the facility counted down to self-destruct.

He went around the corner fast — faster than before the nasce — and brought the zat up, nearly snapping off a shot before he realized he was facing down a middle-aged scientist going bald on top and clutching a naquadah generator in his arms. Three more folks in white lab coats were behind him, with a female lieutenant covering their retreat. She spun and brought up her weapon to aim at John.

"Whoa, James," he said after reading the name tag on her field uniform. "Friendly."

Her gaze flicked from him to Todd, who made her brown eyes widen, but she gave a nervous nod and returned to aiming down the corridor her group had come from.

"We really have to get to the gate room as soon as possible," the guy with the generator said nervously. "We only have twenty-one more minutes. That is, if the wormhole doesn't fail before then. I'm not sure McKay's generators will really keep it open beyond the thirty-eight minute window — "

"Dr. Lee?" Lt. James said. "You're not helping."

Lee gulped and shut up. His grip on the generator tightened.

"Anyone else armed?" John asked. He had a spare Beretta he'd picked up from another dead man stuffed behind his belt at the small of his back. He'd been using the zat because it wouldn't run out of ammo. At the head shakes from the scientists, he added, "Anyone know how to use a gun?"

The only other woman in the group, her black hair in a stern librarian's bun, stepped forward and held out her hand. "I am not familiar with zats, but I can fire a pistol or rifle." Her Russian accent convinced John along with her confidence. He handed over the extra handgun and another clip.

"Seven Jaffa holding the junction between us and the stairs," Lt. James said. "I'm down to one clip. I can try to cover you while you make a run for it." Her face was white but she was still game, ready to go down so the civilians could get to safety. Whoever said women didn't belong in combat didn't know shit, John thought.

"No," he said.

"Look, you're a civilian and… " James frowned at him and Todd, " …one of the diplomats or something. It's not your job."

John started to say he outranked her as major, then remembered he didn't. He was hive-kin now. He and the Air Force had parted ways; the only reason they hadn't locked him away or handed him over to the ghouls at Area 51 to vivisect was how much they wanted Wraith tech to use against the Goa'uld. Trying to punish John for leading the Wraith to Atlantis — as if he'd had a choice after the nasce — would cost the SGC that trade agreement with the First Hive.

He wished it was more comforting, but it was what it was. He'd be back in Atlantis soon, among other hive-kin, and that was what he held onto these days. He'd miss Earth, it had been home for thirty-six years, but he wouldn't miss the SGC.

Instead of trying to persuade Lt. James, he caught Todd's calm, yellow gaze and nodded. They moved as one. John was faster and stronger than he'd been; Todd was faster and stronger than him. Neither of them were afraid of getting hurt. He hadn't asked for the nasce, wouldn't have wanted it, but for all his anger at the changes it had made in him, John did enjoy the benefits of hybridization.

A zat blast tingled and barely slowed him down as he and Todd blitzed the Jaffa. Once they were in the group, where no one could fire without risking hitting their own, it became a hand to hand fight. He got the feeling the Jaffa were used to being stronger than humans. They had no idea how to take on Todd, who flung one of them into a wall hard enough John heard bones crack.

A knife skidded over his ribs; he retaliated by twisting and snapping his elbow up into the Jaffa's nose, driving cartilageup into the brain. The snake in the Jaffa's gut might provide a hell of an immune system, but it couldn't do anything about that.

John was snarling under his breath. Up close to the Jaffa, they smelled wrong in a way that triggered an instinctive desire to kill. He grabbed the knife from the falling Jaffa's hand, spun, and pushed it through another one's armor where it was thin along the side. The point broke, but John forced the jagged end through until the knife was hilt deep.

Gunfire added to the chaos and another Jaffa dropped. James had put a bullet through his head from the end of the corridor.

John ducked as a fifth Jaffa swung a staff weapon at his head like a baseball bat. Todd caught this one by the neck and snapped it like a terrier with a rat, before dropping the body to the floor.

The Jaffa were all down.

James trotted toward them, the Russian woman with John's spare Beretta behind her. The scientists came behind them, staring with white-rimmed eyes at the bodies strewn on the floor. An immature goa'uld slithered out from under the armor of a dead Jaffa and one of the scientists shrieked as it made for him. The Russian brought the Beretta up and blew the snake's head off its neck.

"Nice," John commented. The Jaffa smelled even stronger dead. Unless it was the dead symbiote. Either way, he wanted to get away from the stench. "Everyone, you'll want to stay back in case any more of those things are looking for a new home."

"God, that's… " James muttered. She jittered a little in place, trying to look at John and Todd and the Jaffa bodies all at the same time. Frightened of Todd, maybe of John too, he couldn't tell, scent wasn't enough without hive sense to supplement it. Definitely frightened of the Goa'uld; the reek spiked when her gaze rested on the dead snake.

John shrugged and winced as the knife wound splintered pain through his side. He almost staggered. Living through the nasce hadn't made pain any less than before, that was for sure. Blood slithered sickening warm under his palm and through his fingers when he tried to clamp the wound shut with his hand.

"You need a doctor," James said.

"We all need to get out of here," Lee said. "Now."

John realized the alarm had become a frantic shriek. "Yeah," he muttered. "Let's go — "

"Oh, my God," Lee blurted, "what is it doing?"

John turned unsteadily. Todd knelt by one of the Jaffa John had zatted during their first rush. Eie ripped the armor away from the man's chest carelessly, then crushed eis feeding hand over one pectoral. The Jaffa arched, screaming into consciousness, as his body withered into decrepitude.

"Feeding," John said.

"It's killing him," James protested.

"What do you think your bullets do?" John snapped at her to hide his own unease. "Just go, we'll be right behind you." He just needed to pull himself together for minute. He wasn't going anywhere without Todd, anyway.

The Russian gave John a nod, but James and the others all fled to the stairwell without thanks or any other acknowledgment. John told himself to save the bitterness. He hadn't expected any thing better.

Todd drained the other unconscious Jaffa efficiently. Eie left the husk and stalked over to John, who backed up until his shoulders hit the wall.

Todd's hand pulled his away from the knife wound.

"I can sense your pain," eie said.

John's breath caught. "We can do this la — "

Todd lifted eis hand — dripping with John's blood — from his side to his breast bone. One claw curled into the hollow of his throat. Instinctively, John arched his neck back, baring it to em.

The viand flooded into him, cold and hot and roaring with life, energy to repair the knife wound and all the other damage. John felt his flesh knit together. He gasped as the normal itch of healing became another fire in his side. The agony and strain were enough to derail all his normal reactions. He needed to scream, but his breath caught in his throat so that he couldn't.

Todd caught him as he slumped afterward, holding John close for a breath, letting John rest his face against the dark leather covering eis shoulder. The emergency lights were flickering faster than John's speeding heartbeat, though, so he gathered himself together and pushed away.

John grinned despite himself. He felt great, like he could take on a whole squad of Jaffa by himself and unarmed. It was the feeding enzyme swimming through his system, even though his body had processed the viand already to heal itself. He laughed to himself as he ran next to Todd for the stairwell.

He'd be high for hours.

He hoped they'd run into some more Jaffa.

~*~


Freezing cold and nausea overwhelmed Elizabeth on the far side of the stargate. The event horizon ejected her forcibly and she stumbled, shaking and sick, into a darkness filled din of shouting and groaning, clattering metal, curses, and the rush and roar of machinery. Flashlight beams cut wild patterns through the blackness that only added to her vertigo and confusion. She tripped and her rebelling stomach emptied itself on the cold metal floor. The sharp odor of vomit told her she hadn't been the only one.

Rodney helped her up, his hands careful and surprisingly respectful. "The stargate isn't supposed to do that," he muttered and she wished she could make out his face, "not since the Earth gate was synced again with the rest of the network. Something's wrong."

Elizabeth thought that was obvious. They certainly weren't in Atlantis. She wiped at her foul tasting mouth and surreptitiously spat.

Rodney guided her away from the rumbling crates that turned the huge room they occupied into a maze. She couldn't see much. Looming shadows and groups of shouting soldiers pushing the wheeled pallets into basic order, intermixed with clutches of civilians milling aimlessly. Flashes of frightened eyes that seemed to expect Elizabeth to have some answer to what had just happened. She'd already lost her diplomatic charges in the chaos.

"The bomb must have damaged the dialing computer," Rodney went on. "It scrambled the input… "

Rodney kept pulling her through the crowd and Elizabeth felt a brief gratitude for his bulk, the breadth of his shoulders, the force of him that made everyone else scramble out of the way. She would have been buffeted and lost otherwise.

"Nine chevrons," someone said in the darkness, harsh and frightened. "I saw the gate light up nine chevrons."

"Nine?" Rodney's voice ratcheted high.

"What the hell does that mean?" another voice demanded.

"That we're a long, long way from where we meant to be," Rodney murmured quietly next to Elizabeth. They reached an empty space beyond the crush of crates and panicking people. He still held her arm as if to steady her. "Will you be all right? I've got to… " He didn't finish and she didn't have the energy to question him.

"Yes," she answered. The terrible chill she'd been subject to was fading; their surroundings weren't more than slightly chilly, but her teeth still wanted to chatter. She was grateful for the darkness that had hidden her from notice as she was sick. Deep breaths, she told herself, keep it together. She'd take this moment to think about what she needed to do next.

~*~


Once he was sure Elizabeth was going to be all right, Rodney headed for the nearest airlock. He ignored the crying and yelling and dodged both soldiers and supply crates. From the instant he heard nine chevrons, he'd guessed the truth, but he needed to confirm it. There wasn't anything for him to accomplish in the gate chamber; wrestling crates and soothing the hysterical were the proper duties of the dumb grunts and well, Elizabeth, who had the whole managing people thing down.

The dialing computer — that duct tape and spit monstrosity of Carter's design — had somehow defaulted to a previous command and dialed the nine chevron address Jackson had found in Atlantis' database. Normally it would simply have failed, but with the ZPM and the naquadria generators on-line it had succeeded in forming the wormhole.

Rodney imagined Jackson would sell a kidney to have a chance to see where the nine chevrons had brought them. As an archaeologist, something even older than Atlantis would be Jackson's Holy Grail.

He touched the cool metal of a bulkhead and suppressed his own gleeful grin, feeling a manic satisfaction. Those bastards had denied him Atlantis and any chance to go off world, but here he was, on an Ancient spaceship. They were probably farther from Earth than Atlantis was.

Rodney couldn't wait to discover how many galaxies this ship had visited and to discover its secrets. The Ancients had built something that could travel between galaxies and remain functional for tens of thousands of years. He wanted to learn everything about this ship, everything they had known, and more.

He found another set of stairs. Emergency lights were on along the floor and where the walls met the ceiling. The air was unpleasantly thin and smelled of iron, but the rust stains running down the metal walls alarmed Rodney more. They had to be relatively recent — in terms of this ship's existence — though they still might be older than any human civilization of Earth.

The stairs took him up and Rodney kept exploring until one hatchway opened and he found himself staring through a wall of floor-to-ceiling ports into space. Stars dopplered into red streaks at the limits of his vision and the ship spread out forward of the view. Rodney walked forward and gaped. The ship's basic shape was one of a gracefully curved arrowhead, but from where Rodney stood he could look down at a city's worth of buildings and installations covering it, domes and cubes and towers. There were landing pads and docks, ports, hatches, and sensor dishes; those he could recognize, but other shapes were inexplicable.

A glance down showed that he stood in a chamber near the top of a massive ziggurat, each step at least one story high, the terraced tops littered with equipment he could spend a lifetime deconstructing.

It was utterly magnificent and Rodney could have stood and looked, finding new sources of fascination everywhere, if he hadn't spotted the plumes of ice crystals venting from a hole torn through a distant building.

The thin air took on another meaning as he parsed what he was seeing. The gases in the ship's atmosphere were freezing as they leaked out into the vacuum of space.

Rodney looked once more and turned away, trotting because running would make him look like he was panicking — he wasn't panicking, he just didn't want to die when all the air ran out, thank you very much — back toward the gate chamber.

He arrived, spotting the DHD from his new angle, and pushed and shoved his way up to where Elizabeth and Lorne were standing.

~*~


Elizabeth waded into the job of calming everyone and urging them toward the double stairways at the far end of the room, where they would be out of the way and safer, she hoped. She didn't know quite when she lost Rodney. He'd pulled a key chain LED flashlight from a pocket and left while she was speaking with Camille Wray, asking who was in charge.

"Ma'am," a young marine said. He had an interesting lilt to his speech; in other circumstances Elizabeth would have tried to discern where he came from without asking him. "I'm Corporal Greer."

"Corporal," she acknowledged.

"Major Lorne would like you to join him."

"Is Major Lorne in charge?" She supposed he would be, since the weren't in Atlantis and Colonel Sumner wasn't here to take over unless someone higher ranking than Lorne had evacuated through the stargate despite not being part of the official second wave; she'd already encountered several scientists from the SGC's labs.

She caught Wray's arm in her hand. "Camille, please come with me."

"That's what General O'Neill said, ma'am," Greer replied. He guided her and Wray to one of the stairways and up to a second level, where a railing allowed observation of the vast gate room. An electric lantern had been hooked to the metal railing, spilling a circle of cool light around them and downward toward the foot of the stairs.

Lorne nodded to her without interrupting giving orders on his radio. Elizabeth took the opportunity to look out and try to pick out who was there. She located the Union negotiator, her attendants, along with the Coalition's representative, her big bodyguard, and the three Genii, mostly because of the space around them. She couldn't find Rodney among the clutches of frightened people clinging to the sides of the room.

Crates continued rumbling through the stargate, with dribs and drabs of people squeezing through on either side of them. The military were directing the new arrivals now while others pushed the pallets of crates aside to make room for more.

She spotted Dr. Zelenka, the blue of the event horizon reflecting from his glasses, and Miko Kusanagi beside him.

Lorne joined her at the railing.

"Any idea where we are?" he asked.

"No," Elizabeth replied. "But Dr. Zelenka was in the control room. Perhaps he might have some answers. Or Rodney, he was with me, but I don't see him — "

Lorne held up his hand and frowned as his radio squawked. Elizabeth recognized O'Neill's voice and listened closely.

"Yes sir, I've got the Ambassador with me. How long?" Lorne said. He looked at Elizabeth as O'Neill's reply came from the radio, tinny and attenuated: "Ten minutes, Major, and the whole thing's going up. Take care of your people. You may be all that's left. I'm sending Riley through with the Genesis back-ups."

The Genesis back-ups were a mirror of the SGC's data banks, digitized copies of almost everything from the Library of Congress, and a pitiful attempt to preserve the cultures and knowledge of Earth in the face of destruction. The plan had been for key people to be evacuated through the stargate to the Alpha Site, along with everything they would need to rebuild civilization — as the SGC knew it — including the collected knowledge of Earth. It had been an impossible plan from the first, one that made Elizabeth wish to cry when she thought of the art and the music and the architecture that the back-ups didn't include.

"Yes sir," Lorne said. He sounded choked, no doubt felt the same. Elizabeth did. Wherever they were, once the Earth stargate was gone, there would be no help coming after them and little chance of finding a way back there. If there was anything left of Earth to return to… She bit her lip and swallowed against the sorrow that rose up at that realization.

"This can't be happening," Wray whispered from beside Elizabeth. "Sharon… Sharon's in DC. She's… "

Elizabeth took her hand and held on tightly. Did it make her a terrible person that she mourned the loss of the Louvre more than her ex? She and Simon hadn't parted on good terms, but he wasn't a bad man. She hadn't wanted him dead…

Two more soldiers came through, women, carrying metal-sided cases, then the slender Air Force sergeant Elizabeth remembered from the conference room, Riley, carrying two more. Behind him, several white-coated scientists stumbled through the wormhole. She recognized Bill Lee among them and Svetlana Markov, who had a pistol in one hand.

Rodney squeezed in between her and Lorne. He faced Lorne and grabbed his arm. "We're on a spaceship and we have to do something or we're all going to die a miserable, painful death."

"Four minutes until the SGC self-destructs," Lorne replied. He rolled his eyes at Rodney, pulled away, and said, "I think it can wait that long, McKay."

Rodney twitched and looked even more alarmed, before twisting away from them and shoving his way back down through the crowd trying to come up the stairs. "Typical military moron," he muttered as he went, before cursing everyone in his way.

Below, two Russian gate team soldiers ran through the gate, then an Air Force lieutenant, John Sheppard and the wraith, both armed and, in Sheppard's case, bloody. The feral grin on his face made more than one soldier back down as he and the wraith strode through the milling civilians.

Another crate pushed through the stargate. Then Carson Beckett, supporting a man with a bandage around his head and one arm in a sling, followed by a slim nurse guiding another wounded man, Peter Grodin, and a red-haired man with a gate team patch. Elizabeth couldn't make out the name on the tag on his uniform shirt.

Beside her, Lorne spoke into his radio.

"Sir, you still have time. Come through — "

"Think I'll stick around here," O'Neill said. "You know how it is, forgot to pack my spare skivvies or toothbrush."

"Sir, I'm just a major. We need — "

"You weren't picked to go Atlantis as Sumner's XO for your sweet nature. You can do the job."

~*~


Rodney grabbed Markov's arm when he spotted her and dragged her with him to the DHD. "Can you read any of this?" he yelled as he activated it. The purpose of the equipment was much more obvious than in the Ancient base in Antarctica. They hadn't bothered with aesthetics on the ship, it seemed.

"A few symbols," Markov admitted, then gasped as he brought several screens to life and she correctly interpreted what they were showing. "We are on a ship."

"Obviously," Rodney snarled. "Try to keep up. The wormhole is still open and the SGC is about to set up a nuke which may or may not trigger a runaway naquadria reaction in our generators and overload the ZPM." He scrolled through screen after screen looking for what he needed. There had to be some kind of failsafe or shut off, damn it, the Ancients weren't that stupid… Were they?

Markov sucked in her breath and shot a frightened look toward the blue puddle of light in the circle of the gate.

"Right, right, so if you could help me work here," Rodney said, "otherwise when the self-destruct triggers it will send a blast through the open wormhole that will fry us all to black ash."

Wait, wait, he flipped back to a previous screen, a schematic that mirrored the unlabeled controls on the DHD before him. There, that was it. He could feel the seconds counting down.

Rodney reached around the side of the console and found the hand-sized panel. He pressed it in, but when he looked up, the stargate was still open.

"Come on," he snapped at it and pressed again. With a soundless release, the panel engaged a second time, sinking deeper, and the wormhole blinked out abruptly, shearing a last crate in two and plunging the echoing chamber into near darkness.

Rodney clutched the DHD and sucked in deep breath, ignoring the yelling and screaming that followed, then began trying to discover where the ship's bridge or command center was. They need to shut off the sections that were venting atmosphere.

He was bent close, peering at another schematic, when Lorne grabbed his shoulder and jerked him away. "McKay," Lorne snarled at him, "what the hell did you do!?"

"I shut down the wormhole before we all died along with the SGC, you brain-dead thug!" Rodney yelled back at him. "I have no intention of ever standing in the same room as a wormhole open to a nuclear explosion!"

"Don't you ever pull something like that again without consulting me," Lorne shouted.

"You'd rather we all died while I tried to convince you something had to be done, I suppose," Rodney snapped back. "Fine, you might like to know that I'm trying to find a way to close off whatever parts of this ship are losing oxygen before that kills us. Maybe you think I should set up a PowerPoint presentation and a mini-lecture on what being on a ship in space with holes in it means. I'm sure we'll have lots of time for me to dumb it down to your sub-cretin level of understanding."

Lorne's set features would have had Rodney cowering away from the blows that were surely about to come, if he hadn't been frightened out of his mind by the more important prospect of dying very soon.

"So get out of my way and let me work," he said quietly and shrugged off Lorne's grip on his arm to return to the DHD. He pointed at a nexus deep under the ziggurat and said to Markov, "This looks like the control center."

She looked and nodded. "Yes, I agree."

Lorne whistled. "Greer and, uh, Masoko," he ordered, "you go with Dr. McKay and Dr. Markov and keep them safe."

Rodney blinked at Lorne for a second then headed for the airlock, trailing Markov and his new guard dogs.


II. Last Gasp

The first shot hit Todd in the arm. The second and third impacted eis chest, knocking em off eis feet and into John.

He registered — not as his own sensation, so it didn't disable him — the shock and pain of the hits.

John caught Todd with one arm; adrenaline and enzyme giving him careless strength. He raised the zat he'd appropriated with his other hand while scanning the crowd for Todd's attacker. He spotted Ambassador Tyrus holding a pistol down at waist level. Genii weapons were designed to kill Wraith, but even so it took luck and guts, and Tyrus had lacked the latter. Either that or he was just stupid; he was standing and watching, fearful but obviously thinking Todd was no longer a threat. His gaze met John's defiantly before the panicking crowd obscured John's shot.

Elsewhere in the echoing chamber, Teyla and the four drones responded. The hybrids weren't true aa-in, but they were raised to fulfill the same caste responsibility as the hive's warrior caste and every instinct demanded they protect an eiee or an oan. John knew they were coming; he didn't need the yells of those they were plowing aside to tell him so.

John's instincts screamed that Todd was hit, was hurt, and would die, because John had grown up on Earth, believing that bullets killed, had seen it, and had survived — barely — their damage. The knowledge of how fast a wraith — replete with viand, old and powerful — healed hadn't settled nearly so deep into his mindset. Tyrus had to know better, but he'd still underestimated Todd or he just wasn't willing to get close enough to take a the only sure kill: a headshot.

Fear bloomed inside him — fear for himself, because he needed Todd. Eie was First Hive, partner and friend and more; if Todd was killed, John would be utterly alone. There were days he hated Todd for everything, days he'd honestly wished Todd had killed him in that rogue hive's cell, but at the same time Todd was the only one who knew what they'd shared afterward. Todd would never betray him or turn him away. Ronon Dex had been there for the beginning, but not for the end. Only Todd knew everything. Todd was the only one who knew him. Todd was all John had; John didn't know if he could even survive if he were the one left behind.

It focused John on Todd, made his mind race to needing to stop the blood loss, assess the damage, and he automatically started to yell for a medic as he began to lower Todd down to the deck.

Todd was healing almost instantaneously, though; eie had fed on so many Jaffa, it would likely take cutting eis head off to kill em. Eie straightened and patted at one of the holes in eis coat while letting out a grating laugh full of subsonics that made every human draw back in fear. It affected John too, or he would have been amused that the Wraith did naturally what DARPA had spent millions — probably billions — developing as a crowd control weapon. He tightened his hold on Todd instead in response to the fear, real and induced by the sound waves, that roiled through him.

Sora crowded up behind her father and reached around him to steady his arm. "Shoot it again," she said. "You have to shoot it again; it's still alive."

An airman shoved two scientists out of the way and raised his weapon. The light on top swung over John and Todd, illuminating the blackish blood and the bullet holes on Todd's chest, then the airman swung his aim to target Tyrus and Sora.

"Put down the weapon, sir," he demanded in a shaking voice.

"No," Sora snapped.

Tyrus seemed hypnotized by Todd and didn't look away when Sora or the airman spoke. Todd shrugged out of John's hold and John brought up his borrowed zat. He only hesitated because of the airman, who had an MP5 and might not react well to a zat. Such a worry wouldn't have stopped John if Todd had been in danger from eis wounds; he was a little surprised he still had that much in the way of human qualms left even so, to hold fire until Tyrus made another hostile move.

"You need to put down that weapon, sir," the airman insisted. "Don't make me shoot you."

"It's a wraith," Sora shouted at the airman. "This is your chance. You have to kill it now. Don't you understand!?"

"Ma'am, you need to back away and be quiet. You're going to get this guy killed. Do you want me to shoot him? Because I will if he tries anything."

Tyrus shook his head slowly and said, "Sora, get back," as Todd stretched, shrugged eis shoulders, and grinned at him. They didn't use them after maturation, but the accelerated evolution the Ancients had put the Wraith through had left them a mouth full of shark-like teeth. Any open-mouthed smile was too sharp to be anything but a threat.

The crowd had drawn back to make a little arena for John, Todd, Tyrus, Sora and the nameless airman. Two of Teyla's drones were guarding her, as was right; the other two stalked the perimeter of the circle, just out of Tyrus' peripheral vision. The air reeked with their anger and protectiveness — John was amazed that the humans around them couldn't smell it, too. Their fury burned through the hive sense as well, sending John's heart tripping and his finger tightening on the zat's trigger.

One step forward by Todd — eis want/anger in the hive sense fizzed through John — and Tyrus reacted along with Sora. He raised his Genii-made pistol, with its pointlessly heavy barrel, unsteadily as she yelled, "It wants to feed!"

Maybe Tyrus meant to try for the headshot, but it really didn't matter. The instant Tyrus' tensed arm began to rise, three things happened at once: John threw himself into Todd, knocking em out of Tyrus' line of fire; the oldest of Teyla's drones snatched the MP5 from the airman's hands; and the second drone tackled Tyrus and ripped the Genii pistol out of his hand. In a smoothly coordinated movement, the second drone spun Tyrus out into the open circle, John and Todd hit the deck together and rolled, and the taller drone shouldered the airman's weapon and emptied the entire clip into the Genii Ambassador.

Sora's scream of grief and rage echoed off the ceiling as Tyrus, an unstrung puppet, folded into a heap of awkward limbs on the deck. The thick smell of his blood, pooling across the metal, mixed with burnt gunpowder; John breathed through his mouth while the hair at the back of his neck stood up.

He scrambled to his feet after Todd, still holding onto the zat, watching the soldiers and civilians around them for any new threats. Todd felt frustrated through the hive sense, adding to John's uneasiness.

"You interfered," Todd said in a low voice.

"Yeah, because if you'd fed on him, everyone else here would have turned on us," John replied softly. He could just imagine the reaction to seeing Todd drain someone, here among naive humans. Todd was stronger and faster, but this wasn't their hive. This wasn't like Atlantis, when the beams had materialized wave after wave of aa-in and hybrid drones all over the city and darts flew air cover while Coalition shuttles packed with soldiers dropped from orbit. With just Teyla, John and the four drones besides Todd, they wouldn't be just outnumbered, they'd be overwhelmed. Todd healed fast, but none of them were invincible — human mobs had ripped people limb from limb before.

Todd tipped eis head before accepting John's reasoning without further protest. Eie had been around humans for a very long time, and while Earth humans didn't think the way those from Renus did, there were biologically-based reactions they all shared. Fear made them unpredictable and aggressive; confinement and desperation often made them irrational and vicious. Todd dealt with the Coalition regularly as a hunter of non-Union Wraith. Eie even remembered ten thousand years back, to before the war with the Ancestors, so eie had a better grasp than most Wraith of how differently their two species thought, even if eie didn't always understand. Bridging that gap was part of why John had been brought into First Hive, but he was still grateful that eie listened to him.

Sora was still screaming. Ladon Radim had a tight hold on her shoulders, holding her back from going to her father's body or trying to attack anyone. She twisted and fought until Radim shook her so hard her head snapped back and forth, hissing at her to stop it.

John kept the zat down by his leg as the major who had been slated to take over John's place as Sumner's XO pushed forward until he could see the body.

"What happened here, damn it?" Lorne demanded.

"They killed my father!" Sora shrieked and pointed at John and Todd.

"Oh, shut your lying mouth, digger," Larrin Traveller snapped at Sora as she stepped forward. Ronon Dex shadowed her, looming threateningly behind her shoulder, hand on the butt of his energy pistol. Larrin faced Lorne. "That idiot Tyrus tried to kill the Hunter." She sneered down at the body, shifting on her feet almost as if she meant to prod the body with the toe of her boot. "He was too stupid to even get it right." She flashed an unfriendly grin at John and Todd. "A couple of drones finished it when Tyrus tried to take another shot."

She kicked the Genii pistol spinning across the deck to stop at the toes of Lorne's combat boots.

The shocked and disarmed airman spoke up. "One of them got my weapon, sir."

Lorne took in the airman, Larrin, Sora's grieving and guilty face, then John and Todd. His own expression was sour with stress: no one more senior had come through the stargate, which put him in charge of this mess. A dead diplomat on his hands and an assassination attempt on an alien ally didn't rate highly on his performance so far. John didn't trust him, but he made himself relax and raise his eyebrows. He said, "Your airman told him to put his gun down. What were we supposed to do, let him shoot us?"

"Yes," Sora hissed at him. "You should have died before you joined them. You should beg to die now. I will — "

"Ancestors give me patience," Larrin snarled, turned on her heel and slugged Sora in the jaw. She shook her fist afterward while Sora clutched a hand to her face and glared. Radim grabbed her again to keep her from striking back. Larrin shrugged. "Syaaa, I guess the Ancestors weren't listening."

Larrin lifted her voice to be heard. "Listen to me, you dirtgrubbers, you're on a ship now — in this case, a ship that's leaking air. There's no time for whining and crying. Pull yourselves together or you'll all end up dead."

The air and the fabric of reality shuddered abruptly, twisting in a harsh way that made everything brilliant and wrong for an unbearable instant. It made a wormhole trip — even the frozen one they'd all just endured — seem pleasant in contrast.

"What the fuck was that?" an older woman demanded.

Even Larrin appeared unnerved before she shrugged and said, "Probably whatever drive this ship uses."

Faster than light, John supposed, but whatever it was had been unlike the hyperdrives the hives used to open a window and move through hyperspace before dropping back into normal space. He knew the Coalition used the same technology as the Union. Even the salvaged Ancient warships in the Traveller fleets were based on the same science. If Larrin didn't recognize the feeling, it was likely very different.

"If we're on a ship, maybe we can turn it around and go home," the airman standing behind the major said.

"Someone find a body bag and pick out a place to put it until we have things organized," Lorne ordered. "We need to fix the ship before we can do anything else." He raised his voice. "I want you all to stay calm and refrain from wandering outside the gate room without a military escort until we have a better idea of what we need to do. Dr. McKay and his team are working on finding the ship's controls. If any of the civilians among you think you might be able to help in the repairs, please report to Ms. Wray, who is at the left side stairway. I know you're all confused and scared, but we're all part of Stargate Command and I know we'll get through this, as long as we work together."

Larrin rolled her eyes then stalked over to face off with Todd.

"I know you're old," she said in a low voice. "Maybe even old enough to have fought the Ancestors. That means you know their tech and their words. Better than that loud-mouthed scientist of theirs or him. They're all diggers." She nodded toward Lorne, who was talking into the radio clipped to his tac vest. "I want you to come with me, because we need to know whatever these Tau'ri find out. Someone has to actually find the holes and fix them."

"This one was among the Hunters who drove the Alterrans from our galaxy," Todd purred. "You are wise to ally with us."

"Everyone knows you can't trust the Genii," John drawled.

"Don't think this means I trust you," Larrin spat at Todd while ignoring John. "I just don't trust the Tau'ri either."

"It kept its word," Ronon stated.

Better than Ronon had, John reflected bitterly. He'd persuaded Todd to leave the Satedan off at the first planet with a stargate, trusted Ronon with the coordinates to dial Atlantis and the understanding Ronon would tell them what had happened to John. Instead, Ronon had taken the news that the Lost City of the Ancestors had been occupied to the Coalition. When the Union fleet arrived in the Lantean system, the Travellers had been there too, and no one in the expedition had had a clue that John had survived.

Ronon looked away uneasily when he realized John was glaring at him. John hoped it bothered him. He hoped it fucking haunted Ronon, seeing him so changed, because maybe if he had kept his word, Jackson would have made contact with the First Hive, and John could have gone home instead of undergoing the nasce and becoming something that wasn't fully Wraith or human. He wasn't even like the hybrids raised on the hives; it would never be natural to him the way it was to Teyla and her drones. John had pitied the Satedan, who had lost six years, his entire planet and his people to a culling by a rogue hive, but now he almost hated him. Ronon had been too intent on buying himself a citizenship in the Coalition to give a damn about what that meant for John or the fools who had raised Atlantis and allied with the Genii Empire.

Todd touched him with the hive sense and John let go of most of his anger. It did no good and Todd could feel it. Probably the others could too and John didn't want them to mistake his feelings for rejection of them. Besides, Ronon was just a kid, really; he'd spent years cocooned in a rogue hive after Sateda was culled. Ronon had been shoved into a cell with Todd, who was slowly starving, once it was discovered he couldn't be fed on: the rogues' idea of a joke. Temptation to make Todd break and kill Ronon; torture because he wouldn't be able to feed on Ronon if he did try. Ronon hadn't had any real reason to feel loyalty to John after they made their escape, even if Todd feeding on John had been the means.

Larrin searched Todd's face and John's before turning her back on them and striding away.

Ronon lingered a moment before following her. "Sheppard," he said. "Hunter."

"Satedan," Todd responded.

John ignored him.

Ronon waited another breath before giving up on any response from John.

"I wish to see what the Earth scientist is learning," Todd said.

"Fine, let's go," John agreed. He wanted to be doing something anyway; his veins still thrummed with enzyme and adrenaline. Hanging around the echoing space of this gate room with the stink of frightened humans in his nose held no attraction, and he had no intention of offering any help to the little fucking Major, who likely thought he was so much better than John, with his gate team experience and his uniform and his pristine genome. Not to mention his command, though John wasn't sure he envied Lorne that; he'd never liked being responsible for anyone but himself.

Besides, Larrin was right. They had to fix the ship before they did anything else or they were all fucked.

~*~


Lorne looked up from the personnel list Atienza had handed him when someone in front of him kicked his boot. He'd been aware of someone there, but expected a throat-clearing, not a kick. They needed to set up some kind of infirmary and now he had to add a morgue to that list, and they needed more lighting, plus someone needed to find the can or people were going to end up pissing in the corners and that was unacceptable —

"What can I do for you?" he asked the woman — the Coalition representative, he remembered, the bitchy one who thought panicking a bunch of civilian scientists was the right tack to take, though she looked more like a leather-clad pirate to him — who was glaring at him. What was her name again? He should know this; he would have been dealing with her and other Coalition people on Atlantis. Fuck. Larrin. That was it. She'd decked the screamer, so maybe she wasn't all bad.

"Quit screwing around," she snapped. "You don't have time to worry about anything but the hull breaches. Vacuum is not as infinitely forgiving as planetary systems. When the atmosphere is gone, we're dead."

"Yeah, McKay gave me a hysterical lecture on that," Lorne told her. It wasn't that he didn't take the problem seriously, but even McKay said they had an hour or two. They'd fix it. He had to figure how they were going to survive after that. There had been no plan for this eventuality and he was responsible for everyone. He already had one dead body. He did not need her shit on top of the mess with the Wraith and the Genii.

"He wasn't hysterical," she insisted. "He is right and you're a fool."

His temper snapped suddenly. "How the hell do you know?"

"Because I've lived my entire life on space ships," Larrin replied. "I can see you aren't taking this seriously enough. At least that scientist of yours gets it, even if he is a hatch-locking coward."

"Then what do you suggest?" Lorne asked.

"Search teams. The emergency system to close the airlocks on holed areas has obviously failed, but airlocks can be closed manually."

Lorne wanted to glare at her but her suggestion made good sense. He hadn't wanted to send people poking through unexplored corridors in the ship, wary of God knows what unpleasant surprises it might hide, but McKay was still trying to hack his way into the central control system and if McKay and this very pragmatic, hard-nosed woman were in agreement, time was running out.

"All right," he said and began putting together teams to head out. He put Leonard, Teldy, Ford, and Cadman in charge of a team each, along with a couple of airmen or marines and a scientist volunteer. He still had James and Scott on security for the Genii and the Union, though after the way they took down Tyrus, Lorne didn't think the Unionists needed any back up.

"I'll go too," Larrin said.

"You're not — "

"Not what, Major?" Larrin asked him with a cool sneer. "I know more about ships than anyone else you're sending out." She nodded to Sheppard and the wraith, obviously waiting on her, since the bodyguard was with them. "They'd do more good than your soldiers. Wraith live on hives in space."

Sheppard shouldn't have heard that, but his eyebrow went up and Lorne knew he had. Lorne didn't know why, but Teal'c, with a snake in his gut, hadn't been as creepy as Sheppard with his slit-pupils. He watched as Sheppard and the wraith started through the crowd toward them. He told himself he didn't have any real reason to dislike the man. It was just that something in him couldn't accept the baby-face and the ruthlessness and the way Sheppard's loyalty had completely reoriented. Or maybe that he was scared by the prospect of something just as weird — just as terrible — happening to him. He'd been slated to take over Sheppard's old job, after all.

"Todd reads Ancient, you know," Sheppard drawled on arrival. "Eie says the writing looks basically the same as what the Alterrans were using ten thousand years ago."

"And he would know, I guess," Lorne dismissed the possibility sarcastically. He would never get used to Sheppard calling the wraith Todd. It was too damned surreal. Todd sounded like some slacker hacker with a skateboard and a goatee. At least Lorne didn't have to call the wraith by that name; he remembered from his briefing book that the Wraith didn't use a lot of personal names and he could refer to this one as either the Hunter or the Representative.

"Eie knows, eie was there," Sheppard replied. "Eie's even willing to help."

"I'm sure we'll be just fi— "

"Wasting oxygen," Larrin snarled at them both. She stalked away and joined Cadman's group.

Sheppard smirked at Lorne and said, "Think we'll head down to the control center. Maybe McKay needs a better translator."

Lorne wanted to say that Balinsky knew what he was doing, but the anthropologist had already admitted he wasn't expert in Ancient; his fields of study had been Goa'uld and the transplanted Earth cultures littering the Milky Way. Weir was down there too, but if the wraith really did read Ancient, they could use the help. She wasn't really fluent either and Lorne had sent her down more to handle McKay than to do any real work; it distracted her from making 'suggestions' in regard to every decision Lorne made too.

McKay probably wouldn't agree, but McKay's ego was even bigger than his mouth.

He wanted to order Sheppard to stay away from the control center, because Sheppard couldn't be trusted anymore than the wraith, but he couldn't afford to say no. Besides, he decided McKay deserved to put up with the smirking asshole and the life-sucking alien… and vice versa. "Mehra," he said, waving her over. "Stick with them."

"Yes sir." She popped a gum bubble and saluted — sarcastically, Lorne would swear — then trailed after Sheppard and the towering figure of the wraith.

He was going to put a security detail on the control center as soon as they had this leak sorted out.

~*~


The ship had hatches on every chamber and airlocks between bulkheads, but the makers had been very confident in its shielding. There were no lockers with vac suits and oxy-mix anywhere. It made Larrin's skin crawl worse than going dirtside and standing out under an open sky. Only some of the airlocks had closed automatically. Others were jammed half-closed.

Only a few of them were even equiped for manual closure. Larrin would have known they were on an Ancestor ship just from that. The Wraith-damned warship her people had salvaged showed the same arrogance in its design, even though it was an old hulk. The Ancestors hadn't believed anything they made could fail or be broken. Larrin hated them — that old bitch of ship had lost her friends and family when it failed, refusing to respond to them because they weren't Ancestors and so less important than locking wraith out.

Arrogant bastards. They'd deserved to lose to the Wraith and they'd left Renus defenseless when they fled and turned their last insane creation loose without considering the consequences. The Asurans had been worse than the Wraith, bent on wiping all human life from the galaxy as another tactic in their programmed compulsion to destroy the Ancestors' enemy.

It was almost amusing to imagine the Ancestors' horror if they could have known their last weapon had been the driving force behind the alliance of human and Wraith. Or that their descendants now had to share the City of the Ancestors with both humans and Wraith. What would they think if they knew Sheppard had given the Union the genetic key to all their work? Larrin might wish he hadn't, but she didn't fool herself like the Earth humans did that he'd had any choice about it.

She wished Ronon had convinced Sheppard to come to the Coalition with him. Or snatched him whether he wanted to come or not. They could have used his Ancestors' inheritance. There were women aboard their ships that would have borne his children just to bring his bloodline into the Travellers.

Instead the Wraith had what they'd always wanted, and Atlantis too. If it weren't for Ronon, the Coalition would have been cut out.

It didn't look like any of that would matter to her now. She had to worry about this ship. This damned, old Ancestor ship that wouldn't let anyone close an airlock and was bleeding atmosphere like a sliced artery.

Larrin could feel the soft rush of air pulled down the corridors to wherever the hole was.

McKay — pale as a spacer, soft on the outside, but sharp — was working on the control nexus along with many of the other Earth scientists. Larrin doubted he would unlock the Ancestors' secrets when the Travellers hadn't been able to in generations. She knew he wouldn't manage it in time to make the repairs the ship needed. All of the Earth people were too taken up with theory. A holed ship didn't need someone who understood why its hyperdrives — or whatever this ship used — worked, it needed engineers and mechanics.

She licked the palm of her hand and smeared the wetness on one cheek. The Earth soldier with her and the Unionists pair looked intrigued while the two scientists winced in disgust. Larrin ignored them and turned in place very slowly until the air moving across the sensitive skin of her face chilled the dampness. That told her which way the air was moving. It was a spacer's trick every Traveller child learned along with how to make a makeshift repair of any breach that didn't actually suck a body out into vacuum.

Of course Traveller ships had sealant kits and oxy masks in every corridor and compartment; some of their old hulks sprang leaks each time they went in or out of hyperspace.

"This way," she said and started out in the opposite direction of her cooled cheek, following the draft.

"Air's moving in that direction," Sheppard explained to the others.

Sheppard was right. The air would move faster near the breach. A bad hole would be leaking atmosphere from the rest of the ship like a torn artery lost blood.

The wraith said nothing. It was a quiet one. All the Union Wraith seemed uninterested in any human that wasn't of their hives; the hive humans were the same. It was only the rogues that seemed to want to talk much, and Larrin suspected they just wanted to amp up their prey's fright. Maybe it made them taste better or something. She didn't pretend to understand Wraith psychology.

"Why'd we have to go along with the freaks?" one of the scientists complained.

"You could have stuck around and let McKay yell at you, Franklin," the other one replied. "I think he was ready to take off his shoe and beat someone with it."

Larrin sympathized, though she thought she might simply kick some of the idiots.

It became easier to follow the draft as they got closer — soon everyone could feel the rush of air over their skin. Larrin wished she'd been wearing a jacket when they left Earth, but the SGC tunnels had been climate-controlled and warmer than Travellers kept their ships; heat was cheap on-planet compared to in space. Dirtgrubbers were always extravagant and wasteful of resources and energy compared to spacers. Larrin had sometimes wanted to yell at some of the Coalition consuls — though she didn't have to, they at least listened to her, whether they understood or not. They had no choice: without the Traveller Fleet to defend it, the Coalition would be meat for the rogue hives, at the Genii Empire's mercy, or both.

She came to a stop at a partially-closed airlock. A gap wide enough for a man remained open and it wasn't difficult to see what had gone wrong. Something — meteoroid, kinetic weapon, space junk — had sheared through the bulkhead that held the airlock's controls. As bad as that was, the view beyond the airlock stole her attention.

Sheppard stepped through first, then Todd, and Larrin couldn't make herself stay back either. "Stay here," she told Ronon, who scowled but obeyed.

"It's a shuttle," Sheppard said.

"I'll radio Major Lorne and McKay that we found the problem," the soldier said and stepped away to do so, her voice clear and calm as she identified herself as Lieutenant Cadman and related their location and the route there from the bay with the Ancestors' ring.

Larrin stared past the pilot's seat and the controls that swung down from the upper hull and out from the sides to the gaping opening in the shuttle's front. The Ancestors had built their conveyances with ports to let them use them own eyes as well as sensors. The transparent material was strong as steel and usually insulated by a force field. The force field had failed or been shut down on the shuttle and something had smashed through it.

Air rushed out of the hole left behind. The moisture in it crystallized into an icy plume that whipped outward until it hit the gauzy blue envelope that surrounded the ship as far as they could see. It should have been much, much worse. The only thing Larrin could theorize was that she was seeing a sort of FTL field and it was acting as a barrier to hold the atmosphere inside. That still left a lot of empty volume between the skin of the ship and that field. Too much. There was no way to know how long the ship would remain in FTL state, either. When it dropped out, the breach would become that much worse again.

She twisted and looked back to the airlock. Following a straight line from the hole in the shuttle front port to the airlock showed that the same object had been responsible for disabling the lock's controls. Larrin shivered as she imagined the velocity it would have required.

From this side it was simple to see that the airlock was actually a dock into the shuttle's flight cabin.

Sheppard had dropped into the pilot's seat while Larrin contemplated the damage. The Hunter leaned over his shoulder as Sheppard swung a set of controls in front of him and began flipping through the switches.

"There should be some way to seal the shuttle so it could undock," Sheppard said.

The Hunter pointed at a switch.

"That one?" Sheppard asked. He pointed at the same switch.

Behind her, Larrin heard the soldier step-squeeze through the opening into the corridor. Her radio hadn't worked from inside the shuttle, too weak to transmit through the ship's dense hull. "Major, this is Cadman. We've found the hole. Over."

"It is the symbol most often used by the Alterrans to indicate their word integrity," the Hunter said. "I have seen it on other Alterran ships and facilities."

"It's so weird that you were around for that war," Sheppard muttered. "It's probably too much to hope we can fix the problem from in here, but let's try it anyway."

He flipped the switch and the shuttle's airlock slammed closed, startling a squawk from one of the two scientists.

"Hey, what do you know," Sheppard exclaimed, leaning back and twisting to see the closed airlock. His face fell though a second later.

Larrin felt her chest getting tight too and understood why. She watched the Hunter's long white hair lift with the pull of the atmosphere, now limited to the shuttle, still streaming away. They were about to suffocate.

"Todd, you remember which one opens the lock?" Sheppard rasped.

The Hunter reached past Sheppard and tapped one talon-like nail against the switch to the side of the closure control. The shuttle's airlock opened, connecting them to the ship again. The scientist in with them was gasping by then and Larrin felt lightheaded with lack of oxygen. The wraith didn't appear affected, but Sheppard sucked in several deep breaths before muttering, "Shit."

"What the hell happened?" Cadman asked, poking her head through the narrow gap of that the ship's airlock had left open.

"They got the shuttle to close up, but that left us all here with no air," the scientist blurted. He lifted his hand to his face then pushed it through his short, dark hair. He was a handsome man, though he appeared pained, one Larrin might have been interested in had he been a Traveller or even from a Coalition planet. At least he hadn't panicked yet; that was always attractive.

"That doesn't sound good," Cadman commented.

"No kidding," Sheppard said. He got out of the pilot's chair and came back to study the shuttle's open lock and the half-closed hatch on the ship's airlock. "Uh, Grodin, right?"

The scientist limped over to him and peered at the seal.

"Can you see any way we could close the shuttle's lock from the outside?"

Grodin frowned at the seal and ran his fingers over it. "You'd think there would be a way to open it, which implies… "

"Don't bother," Larrin told them. "There is a mechanism, but you can't access it while the shuttle's docked to the ship." She seen the same design flaw on other Ancestor shuttles. They never bothered with a failsafe mechanism. Ancestor tech worked beautifully right up until it quit and then you were sucked dry like wraithbait.

"Maybe Dr. McKay will be able to figure out something," Cadman said. "He and the Major are on their way."

"They better hurry," Sheppard said as he held up his hand, fingers spread to feel the rush of air through them. "Otherwise… "

Larrin glanced back at where the Hunter still stood, one hand on the head rest of the pilot's seat. Her gaze settle on the integrity switch. They had a solution. On a Traveller ship, it would have been an honor to save so many with a single sacrifice, but she'd already seen enough of the Earth people to know none of them had Ship loyalty. Even she felt hesitant, because this wasn't a Traveller ship, it wasn't home, and the people in it weren't hers.

~*~


Lorne itched to do something himself, but he quickly realized that looming and watching McKay and the others stick their hands in open panels and fool with crystals and conduits only irritated and distracted them. McKay was the only one to actually yell at him for it, but the others scowled or fumbled their tools. He wasn't helping, he was slowing them down.

He made himself back off and talk to Weir instead. She'd organized the other scientists and snagged a couple of unoccupied airmen who knew her from the Mountain to keep watch in the control center, then begun taking the people in the cargo bay with the gate up to the truly amazing observation deck. It was lit by the glow of the FTL drive, and there were padded seats and carpetting; it made a much better place to sit and wait until they knew whether they'd live or die. Lorne appreciated Weir's unasked for help, especially with the civilians, even while he wished she'd keep him up-to-date.

"I think we should assume Rodney will find a solution," Weir said.

"You've got more confidence in him than I do," Lorne replied. All he knew about McKay was that he'd been part of whatever killed Teal'c. Couldn't have really done it or O'Neill and Hammond would have had him out of the program faster than Linda Blair's head could spin, but he was tarred with the NID's dirty brush too. Also, the guy certainly didn't endear himself in person. It made him question Weir's reliability.

The look she gave him was one-half amused and the other long-suffering. "I have confidence in his instinct for self-preservation, if nothing else," she remarked, then added, "and it won't cost anything to open up the supplies and serve everyone a meal." She gave him a quirky smile. "I'd hate to die because someone had low blood sugar."

Lorne chuckled despite himself. She had a nice point and if they did die in an hour, they wouldn't have to worry about rationing supplies.

"I don't suppose there's any liquor," he said.

"Of course there is," she answered. "These supplies were for an embassy, Major. Diplomats run on coffee and champagne. There's a crate of good Scotch in there too."

"I'll see what we can set up," he promised. A sandwich or something sounded pretty good, now that he thought about it.

Atienza showed up at his elbow with his personnel list. "Sir, Corporal Becker was working in the kitchens and Sgt. Biga is great cook. Went to school and everything."

~*~


Rodney's knees ached and his head pounded from peering into the ill-lit panel and a razor-sharp metal edge — torn by whatever holed the shuttle and the ship — ripped open his knuckles as he pulled his hand back.

He was too tired to even curse. Instead he stared stupidly as one droplet after another of his blood plopped to the deck.

Miko's squeak of dismay snapped him out of it.

"Give me something to wrap it," he said tiredly. Why it surprised him that every single one of the mentally challenged SGC scientists stood there with their thumbs up their asses and it was the strawberry-blonde marine lieutenant with the laughing eyes who handed him a clean and pressed handkerchief to wrap around the ugly gash.

"Say spasiba, Rodney," Markov told him. To Cadman, she added, "He had no manners when he came to Siberia and still doesn't."

"Exactly what are you accomplishing?" he snapped at her.

"It's okay, ma'am," Cadman said.

Rodney forced a long exhale through his nose and wondered if the air was already becoming thin enough to affect his oxygen levels. He needed a cup of coffee and a Powerbar or something to level out his blood sugar. "Yes, well, whatever. Thank you, lieutenant." He finished binding the handkerchief over his knuckles awkwardly. No one else had offered to help even that much.

Turning back to the panel opened on to the airlock's controls, he glared at the wreckage of delicate crystals. The power conduits were dead and the power shut off somewhere else when the connection sheared away. It looked like an automatic shut off activated whenever a connection was interrupted. Otherwise the connections would have electrified the bulkhead and fried someone — probably him or Zelenka. He frowned at the mess, thinking about that; if it was true, then there would be power if the conduits were reconnected. It didn't matter, in any case, because even with power, there was nothing he could do. The mechanism was ruined, just so much scrap crystal and metal. There was nothing left to hook the power to.

"I can't fix this," he said, weary to bone — failed again, only this time he'll die too — exhausted with the effort of maintaining in front of everyone and in his own mind. If you're so smart… "There's nothing left to fix. It's garbage."

"Franklin," Lorne ordered, "take over for Dr. McKay."

"But he's ri— "

"Just keep trying," Lorne interrupted.

Franklin — what was he, an electrical engineer? — gave Rodney a frightened glance then sidled close enough to reach into the panel. "Oh, God, this is a mess. He's not serious, is he?" he whispered to Rodney. "No one could fix this."

Rodney closed his eyes and resisted the urge to bend over — bend over because you're about to get screwed again, bend over and kiss your ass good-bye — and slam his forehead against the deck.

He only didn't because there had to be a way and he wasn't going to find it by concussing his brain cells.

"I need something to eat," he told Markov, because she knew him and knew he wasn't joking, "and Zelenka. Where is that little Czech weasel, anyway?"

~*~


McKay's schematic showed the ziggurat as a warren of compartments with the control center at the base. The stargate bay was one level below, along with larger cargo spaces. The search parties reported all the rooms they found were empty of anything not built-in. Lorne had the feeling the Ancients had stripped everything and bugged out through the stargate.

He'd rather not have to find out that it was because the ship wasn't habitable.

He corralled all his officers in one of empty compartments not far from where McKay and the scientists were still trying to find a way to shut the airlock. It had a porthole and emergency lighting; Teldy brought in an electric lantern and set it on the single counter running along two walls to augment that.

Lorne wished she wasn't taller than him, even though he was used to be loomed over by both sexes. He wished he could rely on her without any niggling doubts, too, but Anne Teldy had been in the gate room just before the bomb went off. Lorne centered himself. The Air Force had invested time and money into making him the best officer it could make him. He had the training to handle even this situation.

Besides Anne Teldy, he had Commander Leonard, USN, three Air Force lieutenants, Kennair, Scott, and James, and two Marines, Ford and Cadman. Kennair's arm was wrapped in bandages and zipped inside her jacket for support. The rest of them weren't hurt beyond some scrapes and bruises. Lorne was grateful for that. It still got to him, looking at them, that these six and himself were all that might be left of the SGC officer corps.

Teldy reminded him that he'd left some people out. "There a reason Ledbedev and Semyenov aren't here?" she asked.

"The Russians?" Leonard asked. "Why would we want them here?"

"Because they're both officers," Teldy replied, "with off-world experience." Her gaze communicated the rest: which Leonard didn't have. Nor did Kennair, Scott or James. Ford, of course, had a whole year in Pegasus, and Cadman had been filling Lorne's place on Reynolds' team.

"I don't speak Russian," Lorne explained. He wanted to keep this to the military for the moment and didn't trust anyone to translate for Ledbedev or Semyenov. What he was about to broach was hard enough; he didn't want volunteers, he surer than hell didn't want anyone believing they were being 'volunteered'. Those two and Markov might be the last three Russians there were.

The truth was that the people on this ship might be the last Earth humans there were, barring those few who had stayed on Atlantis.

Christ, he wished Mitchell or Reynolds or anyone farther up the chain of command than him had made it through the gate. He was comfortable enough commanding the military and had felt confident he could have handled acting as Col. Sumner's second-in-command, even took over the Atlantis military contingent if it had became necessary, but he would have had the weight and authority of Earth behind him. He would still have had superior officers and a command structure to support him. Major just wasn't senior enough to be responsible for all of Earth's humanity.

"Here's the thing," he said. "If the eggheads can't get that airlock shut from this side, someone has to close the shuttle's." He waited a beat for that to sink in, since it would amount to suicide. They didn't have enough people to spare anyone, but the numbers were uncompromising. It would be one for the lives of everyone else.

"I'll do it, sir," Ford said.

Lorne shook his head. "No. I'm not ordering anyone or asking anyone."

Teldy shook her head. "You can't," she objected.

Lorne didn't want to, but service wasn't about what you wanted, and neither was being a good officer. He'd pulled the trigger when he had to and pushed just as hard to not shoot when he thought the situation could be salvaged. He hoped to God this one was salvageable, but they needed to hash out what would happen if it wasn't.

"General O'Neill put me in charge," he said.

"Exactly," Teldy argued. "You think anyone is going to listen to me? We need you. I've got the same rank, but not the authority." Again, she didn't say it, but there was Leonard, who had never been off world before they evacced, but was next in line after Teldy. Leonard hadn't been around the SGC long enough for Lorne to guess if he'd give Teldy problems. He couldn't go, he realized, but not because he was in charge. He couldn't go because he couldn't trust anyone else to be in charge and take care of everyone.

"Damn it."

How the hell was he supposed to bond with his officers when he couldn't let himself trust any of them?

Lorne checked out Scott, James, and Kennair. All three of them had on that blank expression cadets learned in OCS. Cadman had hoisted herself onto the counter next to the electric lantern and was leaning forward, hands braced along the edge, and swinging her legs. "Well, I know one person that won't do it," she said. "And that's Dr. I'm-so-important McKay. I don't see how he got his ego through the stargate."

"We'll still need him, so I wouldn't accept if he did volunteer," Lorne replied. Saying that left a sour taste in his mouth.

He checked his watch. Less than an hour remained according to McKay's time table.

"I wasn't asking, you know," he said. "Major Teldy, you will be in command if anything happens to me. Remember we might be all that's left of Earth. As officers, our duty is to protect our country and its citizens. I think the SGC widened that scope to the citizens of Earth and in our present circumstance it applies to everyone on this ship."

"You mean the wraith and those Pegasus people too?" Ford asked.

"Yes."

"I guess so." Ford didn't sound enthused, but then again, he'd wanted out of the Program. Out of the Marine Corps, too, Lorne remembered. Ford hadn't wanted to go back out through the stargate: he'd wanted to go home and take care of his family, once his tour on Atlantis ended.

The radio on Lorne's vest crackled. "Sir, this is Mackie." He was the airman Lorne had left outside the door. "You need to get out here. There's this… ah, thing, it's just floating in front of me. Over."

Lorne resisted the urge to groan what now? and gave Teldy a speaking look before heading for the door. She had her weapon in her hands, as he noticed, did Ford and Cadman. It took the others a moment to catch on and catch up.

He spotted what had Mackie worried as soon as he stepped into the corridor. A baseball-sized sphere hung in the air just above eye level an arm's length from the airman. Lorne raised his weapon and aimed at it. It bobbed in response, then began drifting back along the corridor.

Lorne followed it, with Ford covering his back, while wondering if they had been mistaken and there was someone or something on the ship with them.

The sphere moved at the same speed as Lorne walked, slowing when he fell back. It kept an exact space between itself and the bulkheads, the deck and the ceiling. Lorne listened but the sphere seemed completely silent. Whatever kept it in the air didn't make any noise.

He followed it to the same level as the control center and past that nexus to where another door opened. The sphere went inside and Lorne peered around the door jamb. He didn't know what he expected, an alien or a computer, but he relaxed as he recognized one of McKay's scientists. Zelenka. He was bent over a small screen, but turned and smiled at Lorne.

"Major, excellent," he said. He waved at the sphere. "Svetlana went to find you. You see what we have discovered?"

Lorne waved Ford to stand down and walked in. The sphere moved away from him as if magnetically repelled.

"What is that thing?" he asked.

"I will show you," Zelenka said. He typed into a console and a monitor raised itself. The screen showed a picture of the room the stood in and the two of them from the back.

"It's a camera," Lorne mused. "Remote controlled?"

"Yes," Zelenka answered. "I began thinking, a ship this size, there must be some way to monitor the interior, but the schematics show no surveillance mechanisms. Instead there are these, yes? Easy to direct, less likely to be destroyed or damaged. Very good for searching, I think." He grinned like a kid and added, "And they fly!"

Lorne had to smile back. That was pretty cool.

"Is that the only one?" he asked.

"Oh! No, there is a generous supply." Zelenka pulled another sphere from a line of them in small chamber. "See?"

Lorne didn't see how it activated, but the second sphere came to life and hovered in front of him. Zelenka held up a second device. "Is marvelous, ano? This is the controller."

"What are you calling them?"

Zelenka pouted. "Kinos. Svetlana named them. For Kino-pravda, the Soviet newsreels."

"Doc, I don't speak Russian, so I got no idea what that means."

"Film-truth," Zelenka explained. He sighed. "I would call them something else, but Russians, they are like the tanks they like so much."

Lorne looked at the softball-sized camera with anti-gravity and admitted it was pretty neat, but the point was quickly going to be moot. "Think we could get back to fixing that airlock, Doc?" he asked.

"I suppose that is where Svetlana and Miko are," Zelenka said. "There is only so much room to work, you know, and Rodney is a very good engineer." He peered sideways at Lorne. "You will not tell him I said so."

"Of course not," Lorne assured him. "As long as you come with me and give him a hand." Zelenka would serve as a decent barometer of how much Lorne should listen to McKay's pessimistic bullshit.

~*~


John ignored the scientists bickering in the corridor over how to repair the airlock mechanism. He and Larrin were in the pilot and co-pilot's seats, going over every control on the shuttle. Once it was closed off, whether by someone on the shuttle side or an airlock repair, there would be no more opportunities to learn anything from it.

He ached for the chance to take it out and fly again.

Despite being of Alterran design, he could see how the shuttle would respond. Cockpits built for humanoids tended to share a lot of functions. Ospreys and Earth-built 302s weren't that different from this shuttle. Everything had to be within arm's reach and the critical controls didn't require much movement in case the pilot was pinned by G-force. By that standard the shuttle was more familiar than the cockpit of the Atlantis gateships or a Wraith dart, both of which eschewed physical controls for mental interfaces.

John was good with those too. There wasn't anything that compared to something he could fly with his mind.

This shuttle would have moved with the grace of a drunken cow compared to a gateship, but John still wished they could salvage it. He saw Larrin pat the armrest of the co-pilot's seat with the same sort of fondness. She glanced up and caught him watching her.

"Among the Travellers, it would be an honor to save a ship," she said.

"You're the only Traveller here," John answered.

Larrin leaned her head back, then rolled it to the side to eye Todd. "Would you take my name back, Hunter?" she asked. "Would you make sure it was added to the Ships' Dead?"

Todd cocked eis head.

"Yes, Larrin Traveller. To sacrifice for the hive is also honored among our kin."

She shuddered and looked back to John.

"It's a better way to go than being fed on."

John got out of his seat and left the cockpit.

"It's garbage!" McKay shouted at Franklin. He got right into Franklin's space and was spitting on him as he yelled, face red with fury. "You can't fix garbage! You replace it!"

John squinched his eyebrows together. "Hey," he said, "why not pull the parts from a working airlock?"

McKay abandoned Franklin and wheeled to stare at John. His mouth worked soundlessly, before he blurted, "What?"

John waved at the corridor lined with hatches. It ended at another bulkhead with an airlock separating one part of the ship from another. They'd seen who knows how many during the leak search. "Yank the whole set up from a good airlock, hook it up here." They didn't even need to understand how any of it worked, just plug and play.

"That's it," McKay said. He looked past John and focused. "Zelenka. Get the tool box. Come on." McKay checked his watch. "We have thirty-three minutes. What are you waiting for? Move! Miko, you pull all the crap out of this panel."

"Miko would be suited better — "

"Miko is busy."

John grinned when Lorne had to scramble out of McKay's way. The guy was a jackass and he'd never say thank you for the idea, but no one could accuse him of wasting time debating whether it would work or not.

"What?" Lorne asked, glancing from John to McKay's back.

"You just have to know how to handle people to get the best out of them," John told him. He couldn't help taunting Lorne, even though Lorne didn't deserve it.

"I can't believe it took the half-alien diplomat to figure out an answer!" McKay's voice floated back. "He probably made it through college by smiling at all his teachers. You're supposed to be half-way intelligent, or so your diplomas claim. Zelenka and Markov, of course, are the products of second rate Communist institutions, and it's a miracle they can think at all, but there's no excuse for you, Franklin. None at all. MIT, my ass. Unless that's short for Mistaken and Idiotic Twits. —Markov. Control nexus. See if you can shut down the power to this corridor from there, so we don't have to handle live conduits." He spun around and pointed at Lorne. "Send someone with a radio with her."

John strolled down the corridor and watched McKay and Zelenka rip off a panel and disassemble the mechanism in less than ten minutes. It was impressive and kind of hot. Both of them were intent on their work, synchronized like a pair of a-in at work. No words passed between them. Grodin crouched just behind them, only fumbling once in a while as he supplied each tool they needed. John had always had a competence thing, there was something about watching someone who knew what they were doing, who was good at it, that he always thought probably translated in bed. Of course, experience had pushed a pin into that balloon, because a lot of people were really good at one thing and only that thing because they didn't give a damn about anything else. John still admired an expert, though, along with good team work. McKay and Zelenka looked like they were sharing a brain.

Besides, McKay's impatience was amusing.

Markov radioed that she was having no success in shutting down the power. "Everything is security pass-coded encryption on encryption. Maybe in a week, I could crack it."

"Keep trying," McKay told her. "There should be a breaker, a fail safe, something." He glared at the open panel. "No time. I hope these things are insulated, because I'm about to do this the hard way," he snarled as he reached into the opened panel and jerked the power conduits loose. For a guy that looked soft, a lot of muscle tightened up along his back and in his arm, and he didn't even grunt when his arm hit the edge of the panel, just held on. The lights in the airlock panel went dead and dark.

Todd and Larrin arrived at John's back. "Simple answers sometimes are too obvious to see," Todd murmured.

Larrin shook her head. "I forgot, this ship hasn't been picked over and patched together for longer than any of us have been alive."

Todd chuckled, deep and amused, making Larrin jump and then glare. She was the sort who didn't like being embarrassed or caught out, and she'd obviously forgotten how old a wraith could be.

McKay and Zelenka swept up the parts they'd pulled and headed back to the damaged dock-lock.

"Out of the way, you lumbering blockheads," McKay snapped when two airman failed to stand aside fast enough. He studied the empty space where the one he called Miko had removed all the broken and blackened pieces. "Yes," he said, "this will work. It's a tight squeeze, this is an exterior airlock made to connect with the shuttle so the design's different, but I can do it. Miko, your hands are smaller, so I'll need you to hold the power conduits out of the way."

Zelenka pushed Grodin and Franklin out of the way and settled the toolbox next to him. He handed McKay the first tool wordlessly, followed by the first crystal bracket. McKay worked steadily while muttering under his breath. Lorne shuffled closer, trying to see over McKay's shoulder, and was told, "Unless the sun really does shine out of your ass, Major, and you intend to turn around, get out of my light."

"Eleven minutes, McKay," Lorne replied after checking his watch. He did move back. "How close are you?"

"Closer than anyone else would be, farther away than I would be if I didn't have to stop and answer asinine questions." McKay didn't actually stop while he talked. He extended his hand behind him and snapped his fingers at Zelenka without looking, either. "Crystal two."

Miko's arms were beginning to shake from maintaining the same awkward position. It was a subtle quiver. John saw it and McKay must have, because he shuffled closer to her and muttered, "Lean your knee against my back." Must have hurt his knees on the deck, but he didn't mention that or the uncomfortable contortion it took for him to reach inside the panel. "Hook that one up now."

John couldn't really see, but Miko must have made the connection successfully. The crystals already in place lit up with a soft blue light. A murmur swept through rest of the onlookers.

"Power's back," McKay observed.

Zelenka handed over the next crystal. McKay fumbled, the crystal slipped, and he managed to catch it, but his elbow hit Miko's wrist. A noise of dismay escaped her as McKay shouted, "Watch it!" and jerked his hands out. A spark of current flashed from inside the panel. Miko jerked rigid then flew back, tumbling over Zelenka and falling to the deck. Her head hit with an ugly thunk. McKay twitched and tensed too. The panel went black.

"Is she dead?" Franklin asked uneasily.

The smell of burned skin, urine, and ozone filled the corridor. It dissipated fast, drawn out with the rest of the atmosphere through the leak. McKay dropped the crystal he'd been holding on the floor and groaned under his breath while hanging his head.

Larrin rolled her eyes and slipped past John to kneel beside Miko. She checked for a pulse. "Alive," she reported. "Better get a medic to look at her."

Lorne spoke into his radio. "Spencer. Get Johanson to the shuttle dock. Electrical shock. Over."

McKay twisted and looked at Miko's limp body with his mouth hanging open and eyes wide. Fear and consternation fled over his wide face for an instant before anger replaced everything else. His mouth snapped shut. "Damn it," he complained, "if that's burned out any of these crystals, we'll have to find another set. Zelenka, get up here. I'm going to disconnect the first conduit. Take Miko's place and when I say don't let that second conduit touch anything, pay attention. God, what I'd do for some half way competent help."

He turned back to the job, disconnecting the first conduit and ignoring everyone else working on Miko. He hissed under his breath with every movement. Zelenka took Miko's place. John bypassed the clutch of people seeing to Miko and handed McKay the next crystal when he needed it. As he'd thought, McKay's hands were burned. McKay ignored the blistered flesh though and said nothing.

McKay didn't acknowledge his help or seem to notice the Air Force medic who arrived in the company of Dr. Lam. His movements were slower and painstakingly precise. Miko was loaded onto a stretcher and carried away. McKay's shoulders hunched in response.

John watched him make a final adjustment to a crystal, then take one conduit from Zelenka and attach it, then the other in the opposite order he'd been using before. The interior of the panel lit blue with streaks of white light cascading through the crystals. Zelenka pulled his hands out, then backed away, as McKay shuffled back.

Without considering it, John steadied McKay with a hand on his shoulder as he rose shakily to his feet.

"Well?" Lorne demanded.

McKay slapped his hand on the airlock control. It squealed and then ground the rest of the way closed. A soft huff accompanied the seal engaging.

John waited for anyone to tell McKay he'd done a good job, but in the burst of relieved words from everyone watching, the only thing anyone said to McKay was Lorne's, "It's about time."

"You want to go find out how your friend is?" John asked.

McKay gave him a scornful look. "She's alive. What else do I need to know?" He bent and began replacing tools in the kit with another scowl at John, as if he were responsible for the disarray.

"Typical McKay," Lt. Cadman muttered.

"Thank you, Dr. McKay, for solving the problem, saving us all, and doing what no one else could," McKay said snidely. He winced as he moved his hands, fumbling a tiny probe against another with a clink. "Damn it."

Larrin chuckled and said, "Nice work."

McKay stared at her suspiciously. His mouth opened and closed before he blurted, "Nice? That was — "

"Come along, Rodney," Zelenka interrupted. He lifted McKay's hands away and finished putting each piece back in its place swiftly. "We will find someone to check your fingers and make sure Miko is well, then I will show you the kinos."

"The what?" McKay demanded, immediately distracted from Larrin. "You're naming things. There's no naming things — "

"Blame Svetlana."

"Markov? I'm going to have to talk to that woman," McKay exclaimed as he and Zelenka started away.

John watched them go with raised eyebrows.

Larrin said softly from where she slouched against a bulkhead, "Engineers. They're all like that. I think the radiation gets to them."

"McKay's never been on a space ship before," Lorne snapped at her.

Larrin laughed as she pushed away from the bulkhead. She brushed the back of her fingers against Lorne's check, startling him into jerking back in a way that made John laugh silently. "Engineers are born, Major," she told him before walking away. "You'll learn," she called back over her shoulder.

~*~


Elizabeth walked to the front of the observation deck identified as the exedra and turned her back to the great windows and the vista of stars sweeping past to face the expectant and apprehensive faces of the people gathered. She clasped her hands and smiled at them all.

"I know you will all be relieved to know that Doctors McKay, Zelenka and Kusanagi have been successful in making a repair to the ship's damaged airlock," she announced. "We are no longer losing precious atmosphere."

She let the exclamations fade before trying to go on.

"In addition, Major Lorne's search parties have found what is apparently a kitchen and dining room and food is being prepared there right now, so in just a short time we can all sit down and relax over a pleasant meal," Elizabeth added with a wide smile. "I don't know about you, but when I get nervous, I like to eat, so this is a great relief."

Laughter ran through the crowd as she'd expected, pleasing Elizabeth.

What didn't please her was hearing, "Why'd it take him so long to fix a fucking door, anyway?" from one of the SGC soldiers.

"Hey, you haven't been around long enough to get it, but we end up needing those eggheads all of the time. Some of them are even pretty tough. You couldn't have fixed it."

"I bet I could."

"You're so full of it, Spencer, your eyes are brown."

"Screw you too. I just don't like the guy."

She closed her eyes briefly and reached down deep for more patience. Some people were never pleased, she reminded herself.

"Well," she said, "what are we all waiting for? Dinner awaits. I believe Sgt. Becker said something about SOS. I'm not positive I recognize the dish… "

More than one soldier groaned or laughed and even the scientists recognized the military slang for creamed beef on toast. It wasn't exactly haute cuisine, but Elizabeth's stomach was empty enough she was looking forward to a plate of shit-on-a-shingle herself.

~*~


Lorne shoveled in his food without paying much attention to the taste. Becker and the cook from the SGC had done a good job with the dried beef, powdered milk, canned bread and bottled water. There several varieties of canned fruit being served, too.

He was working on an assignment sheet. The ship had more than enough empty quarters for everyone to have a cabin to themselves, but that might not be the best idea. Two to a room would let him keep everyone clustered much closer. In addition, he needed to set up watch shifts on the gate room.

McKay sat down opposite him with a tray piled high. He began eating fast and then talking without swallowing first. "If you haven't noticed, the air is thin in here. All that atmosphere that was lost. What's still circulating is going to go bad fast, because we've got another problem."

"I could learn to hate you," Lorne said.

McKay glanced up from his plate, brow furrowed and blue eyes widened. "What?"

"You're like that albatross."

"You're making some English literature allusion, I suppose. My brother-in-law would recognize it." McKay waved his fork, spattering the table with cream sauce. "The air filtration system is shot. We're breathing oxygen in and C02 out and if we don't fix it, we'll all die of carbon dioxide poisoning sometime tomorrow." He sawed off another bite of sopping bread and conveyed it to his mouth.

Lorne reminded himself that killing the albatross had been a bad idea. Water, water, everywhere, nor not a drop to drink. Crap. How much water did this ship have? Did it even have water?

Something else to add to his never-ending list.

"Okay, what do we do?" he asked. He'd been thinking once they got everyone assigned a place to sleep, he might snag a couple of hours himself, but that sounded doubtful now.

"I'll find a way to fix it, of course," McKay mumbled. He stuffed a last bite between his lips, chewed and tossed his fork down on the bowl. "Right now."

Well, at least Lorne wouldn't be the only one going without sleep.

"You," McKay said, "have got to pull all your people back. Don't let everyone wonder around."

"This after you had me sending search parties out all over the ship — " Lorne started to say.

"After I — ?" McKay shot to his feet. "Don't lay that on me. If you haven't noticed, this ship is not operating at full capacity. In addition to the damage and the malfunctioning environmental system," he yelled, "it is drastically low on power. If you persist in letting everyone and their brain damaged cousin Rufus switch on the lights and any other button they can push, we will be in even worse shape than we already are!"

"Tone it down, McKay," Lorne told in him in a low, tight voice, but it was already too late. The diners at the tables near them were staring and had obviously heard that they were still in danger.

"I will not," McKay shouted. "I am not one of your musclebound yes men. I am the best chance you and all these other halfwits have of surviving on this ship, but only if you listen to me. I can't do that if I'm gagging myself just to pander to your tender sensibilities."

Lorne surged to his own feet and fisted his hand in McKay's shirt, jerking him halfway across the table. "I'll have you bound and gagged if I decide to, McKay."

McKay went pale and breathed in and out silently. Lorne thought he'd succeeded — if you could call it success to terrify an innocent civilian — but only for a moment. He realized everyone in the makeshift mess hall was staring at them.

"Get your goddamn hands off me," McKay said very quietly. "You need me and you need the other scientists and the only thing your stupid, Neanderthal threats are going to achieve is pissing me off." His voice dropped even lower. "I will make you pay for that. I promise you."

Lorne let go.

"Go fix your damned air filters, McKay," he ordered weakly. He'd just fucked up and he had the dizzy feeling that it wouldn't be the last time or even the worst.

McKay stomped away and Lorne picked up the empty bowls and forks on the table while pretending he was oblivious to the stares and whispers around him.

~*~


Whatever Major Lorne thought, Elizabeth knew that there was no way the wildly-assorted group of traumatized civilians on the ship would agree to double up with strangers when they all knew there was more than enough room to spread out. In addition, there was the question of the Pegasus diplomats: they rated better quarters and privacy. In the case of the Genii, Elizabeth suspected Major Lorne would want to place them somewhere he could station a discreet set of guards. It would be best to quarter the Coalition and Unionists far away from Sora Tyrus and Ladon Radim, too.

She had a small note book and pen along with Camille's list of the personnel on board, and was trying to map out the best arrangements. She had found a bench off in one of the corners of the exedra where the blue light outside the windows helped her see to write, as she hadn't been able to liberate one of the electric lanterns.

"David," she said to her staffer — she resolutely refused to think of the rest of the embassy staff, who had been scattered to the four winds in the run up to leaving for Atlantis, "Would you find Consul Emmagan and ask her what she and her people would prefer for their quarters? I believe the Wraith hives don't have many windows, so I'm not sure if they'd rather have rooms with large or small portholes."

David nodded and left. Before Elizabeth could return to the question of if she should segregate the people who had been slated to leave for Atlantis from the other SGC personnel, Camille Wray slid into the spot David had just vacated. She looked tense.

"Camille," Elizabeth murmured softly. They were getting along, but she recognized ambition. Camille would want a say in what happened, maybe more than Elizabeth would want to accord her. For the moment, however, they were natural allies in the face of the military's tendency to take over. "What is it?"

Softly, Camille said, "There's talk that the environmental system isn't working even though the leak's been closed. McKay and the Major had an altercation in the dining hall. Everyone is talking. They don't trust Lorne or McKay and they want to dial Earth."

Elizabeth was seldom nonplussed, so news that people were ignoring reality in the face of fear didn't surprise her. It still disappointed her. The people at the SGC were considerably smarter than the average person — well, if not smarter, at least better educated — and with a greater awareness of the facts. Apparently that didn't preclude ignoring any facet of reality that contradicted what they wanted.

She slipped the pen into the inside pocket of her blazer and folded the paper.

"How bad is it?" she asked. She'd talked around dictators hyped up on speed and the power of pulling the trigger. Surely she could diplomatically — that made her laugh to herself — persuade everyone to act sensibly. She would have to take charge, of course. The civilians would be happy to have her do so, she knew, when the alternative was Major Lorne.

Of course, she was sorry no one felt any confidence in him. She thought he was a competent officer, if badly out of his depth — and in honesty, admitted she herself was out of her depth. None of her degrees or time with the State Department or the UN had prepared her for this.

She started out for the dining hall, hoping to test the waters there before taking a stand on the matter, but diverted to follow the crowd heading to the gate bay. The pieces of conversation she overheard confirmed Camille's concerns. If the gate works, why don't we use it… I want to go home… This is stupid… don't trust McKay… but they've got the guns… lying to keep us here… how do know it's even… what are we going to… don't care what anyone says… who's going to stop us? Elizabeth found the last exclamation very disturbing. More alarming than that was that some of the crowd were in uniforms.

"Camille," she said quietly, "go get Major Lorne, right now. Then find Dr. McKay."

Camille made a face but didn't argue. Elizabeth hoped she wouldn't dawdle.

"Who knows how to make this thing work?" a corporal with a shaved head called out as he came to a stop at the ship's version of a DHD. There were several screens and keyboards, but it was all incomprehensible, even to Elizabeth — she had a basic reading knowledge of Ancient, but that didn't help with their symbols and abbreviations, or any of the things that were obvious to anyone raised in a culture and meaningless to everyone else.

The crowd shifted nervously.

"Corporal," Elizabeth called out as she pushed her way through, "I think you should reconsider — "

"Oh, come on," the corporal said disdainfully. "None of you Einsteins know how to work the stargate?"

"Do you read Ancient, smart ass?"

"Well, who does?"

"Corporal," Elizabeth tried again, this time adding his name from the tag of his ABU shirt, "Spencer."

"We're going to do this," he snapped at her. "You're not going to stop us." The dim light made it hard to read anyone's face, but Elizabeth felt the same hostility radiating from the crowd. She had underestimated how volatile the situation was.

"I sure as hell am," Major Lorne said before she had to try to reply. Camille hovered behind him and the group of two other officers and several more soldiers standing at his back. He had his hand resting over the butt of his weapon — Elizabeth didn't know what it was called, only that it snapped onto a sling attached to his vest — and looked relaxed but determined. "Stand down, Spencer."

A muscle twitched along Spencer's jaw. Lorne's eyes narrowed as he stared the other man down.

"Stand down," Lorne insisted.

Spencer stepped away from the DHD. Elizabeth shoved her hands in the pockets of her blazer so no one would see they were trembling.

"Listen up," Lorne shouted at everyone. "No one touches the stargate controls without authorization. A guard will be here to make sure of that, with my orders to zat anyone who tries. Got it?"

The muttered acknowledgment from the crowd conveyed their resentment.

Lorne slapped his hand down on the DHD console. "Most of you are supposed to be smarter than me," he went on. "Act like it. Think before you do anything. Turn into a mob and I'll be forced to treat you like one."

"We need to get off this wreck!" someone at the back yelled. "We're just trying to stay alive."

"And I'm doing my best to keep you alive," Lorne replied. His voice and expression softened. "I was on the radio with General O'Neill through the evacuation, people. They set off the SGC self-destruct. I don't know if a stargate can survive a nuke, but I know that more than one bunker-buster was buried under the SGC just in case, and if the stargate's still there, it's buried under the remnants of the Mountain. There's nothing to dial back to."

He looked around.

"Do you get it now? You're the lucky ones. You're alive. You'll stay that way if you do what you're told, too."

"Yeah, like McKay does?" Franklin sniped.

"The Earth stargate isn't the only one," someone else piped up. "Why don't we dial one of the others?"

"Yeah, Major, what about the Alpha Site?" Spencer demanded.

Rodney marched in, looking more irate than ever, his hair in wild tufts and his jaw shadowed. A clumsy and already dirty bandage covered the knuckles on one hand, as though he'd been fighting. He drew himself up and surveyed the crowd in the gate room disdainfully.

"What about the Alpha Site?" he repeated. "I'll tell you. We — that means this ship — Don't Have the Power. Got that? I'll repeat it for the hard of thinking. No power, no dial. As far as we've been able to decipher, this ship is in a galaxy so far from the Milky Way — that's Earth's galaxy for you amateur players — that you can't see our galaxy from here. It's not even a blurry dot of light in the night sky of the planets here."

He reminded Elizabeth of a taller, broader shouldered and infinitely more sarcastic Napoleon as he stood there. His hands were behind his back, pulling his posture straighter, and the Caesar hair cut added to the effect. Rodney's mouth folded down, deep lines cutting in his face to bracket it, as he waited out the reaction.

"I thought we were supposed to go to Atlantis," Adam Brody called out. "Isn't it closer?"

"Closer to what?" Rodney asked. "Define your terms. Yes, the Pegasus Galaxy is closer to the Milky Way than either of them are to this ship. Yes, the wormhole hooking up to the Destiny was a freak accident. The ZPM and naquadria generators shouldn't have had enough power, but there may have been an amplification effect that wasn't anticipated. It doesn't matter, because we don't have either a ZPM or any naquadria generators to try to recreate the effect."

"Couldn't we try to dial Atlantis?" Ladon Radim asked.

"Yeah, why can't we?"

Rodney's look of scorn and disgust would have been amusing if he hadn't appeared ready to walk into the crowd and shake the Genii diplomat.

"Have you been listening at all or are you just too stupid to breathe if it wasn't an autonomic function?" he snapped. "Which is too bad, because you are obviously a waste of precious oxygen. There is no power to open an intergalactic wormhole. Not for thirty-eight minutes, not for thirty-eight seconds, and if you try you will only hurry our already precarious position's slide into disaster."

"McKay," Lorne said. "That's enough. Get back to the air filters. Everyone else, why don't you start choosing quarters for yourselves."

Rodney glared at him before sweeping the same glare over the crowd, then stomped away. People at the back of the crowd began trickling away.

"I need to talk to you about that," Elizabeth murmured from at Lorne's elbow.

"What's to talk about?"

"You don't want the Genii and the Union near each other for one thing," she suggested.

Lorne grimaced at that.

"Good point. All right, come talk to me."

Elizabeth pulled out her piece of paper. "Let's go up to the observation deck," she said. "The light's better."

~*~


The screaming brought everyone running from the observation deck. One of the scientists had backed out of the bathroom and plastered herself against the corridor bulkhead. She pointed inside the cramped compartment. "D—d—d—dead," she squeaked.

Lorne ducked his head inside and confirmed that a contorted body lay on the deck, head resting in a pool of dying blood.

"What happened?" he asked the woman as he pulled her gently away and wrapped a comforting arm over her shoulders. She was trembling so hard he worried she might be suffering from more than fright. He rubbed his hand over her shoulder, hoping the contact would help. It did after another minute; he felt her relax a fraction.

"Bathroom," she blurted. "I get — I needed — but he was — I didn't — "

Lorne took pity on her. "Cadman, Mehra, escort, ah, — "

"Dr. Park," Airman Atienza said.

"Right," Lorne acknowledged. "Take her to one of the bathrooms on the next deck and then back to the observation deck and stay with her."

"Yes sir," Mehra snapped off with a wave at a salute. "Come on, honey."

Lorne gave her shoulder a last squeeze.

Cadman smiled at him before walking after them. Lorne didn't let himself close his eyes. He thought she and Mehra would likely sooth Dr. Park better than he could. Cadman wasn't the first person he'd pick for comfort himself; he'd seen her in the SGC gym a few times, wearing a sweat-wet tee that claimed Bomb Techs Are Dynamite. Cadman projected attitude and she reminded him of his older sisters, but she was probably different when she wasn't worried about rank.

A pang of grief for Andi and Beth and Maggie stabbed through him, but there was nothing he could do for his sisters. He could take care of his people on this ship, though.

That included looking for who or what had killed this poor bastard.

Lorne turned back to the dead man and the crowd peering into the Ancient pisser.

"Anyone know who this is?" he asked. They'd done a headcount after McKay shut down the ship's stargate, but for all he knew this guy could have come through any time during the evac and booked it deep into the bowels of the ship without ever checking back. Whoever he was, he was dead now, and that was just one more fucking disaster to add to the shit load on Lorne's plate already. Another body to join the one they had in the randomly designated morgue.

Fuck. Two dead now in less than twenty-four hours. Evan's command wasn't going to hell; it had arrived.

He glanced around the crowd of lookie-lous without much hope.

One of the scientists, no one Lorne knew, so not part of the second wave Expedition roster, and from the pale green tint to his complexion, not anyone with experience in the field, stepped out of the crowd. "I think it's Darlington."

"Darlington," Lorne repeated. He turned to Atienza, the airman with the personnel list they'd come up with the day before. "Is he…?"

Atienza flipped through the little notebook he'd used, frowning, and then nodded. "I've got a Dr. Reginald Darlington on the list, a biologist," he said. "Was on the orientation tour."

Lorne turned back to the guy that had identified the corpse. "And you are?"

"Brody. Dr. Brody. Adam," the guy said and swallowed hard. "What happened to him?"

Lorne looked down at the body. Darlington's limbs were locked in rigor mortis, but it looked like he'd seized up before he died. Hard to tell if he'd pissed himself, but the stench of loosed bowel hung in the air, mingled with the salt scent of blood. The pool under his head had dried fast, probably faster than normal thanks to the fucked up environmental system. Lorne would have to quiz Dr. Lam or one of the other scientists and find out if the higher than normal amounts of C02 in the ship would have had a measurable effect.

He paced over to Darlington's head and crouched to study his face. No wounds he could see. Just the blood on the deck. It looked like Darlington had bled out through his mouth. Lorne carefully didn't touch the body as it occurred to him this might be something contagious Darlington had caught on the ship. That would be the perfect end; another problem he didn't know or could do anything about.

Of course, it could be exactly what it looked like. That prospect made the hair on Lorne's arms and the back of his neck stand up. That's why he'd sent both Mehra and Cadman with the little scientist, Park: in case she'd picked up a passenger from Darlington.

"What happened to him?" someone asked from the back of the crowd.

"Maybe an accident?"

"Did he off himself?"

"Like he didn't want to wait… ?"

"Yeah. Maybe. Everyone knows we're screwed."

"Hey," a louder voice interrupted. "Maybe the fucking vampire did it."

"Wasn't no vampire, jackass," a marine disagreed. "A vampire would've drunk the blood."

"Everyone knows those aliens from Pegasus are some kind of space vampires," the loud one disagreed. "And we've got one on the ship."

Lorne identified the speaker this time. Spencer's shaved head gleamed even in the dim lighting. Lorne twitched a little at the way Spencer was fingering the weapon he carried. This had to be nipped in the bud, before the unstable loudmouth triggered a mob and they headed off to confront the Wraith diplomat. Lorne had seen the pictures and read the reports after accepting the assignment to take over as Marshall Sumner's XO on Atlantis, so he knew Darlington hadn't been killed by the wraith. Darlington's body would be desiccated, his features visibly aged, and his chest marked with a distinct feeding mark if that were the case.

"We don't know what happened to Darlington, Airman, and speculation will have to wait until one of the doctors can look over the body, so you," Lorne raised his voice to address everyone, "and everyone else need to shut your traps. Am I clear?"

Mumbling, nods, and uncomfortable shuffling was the response.

"Anyone not accomplishing something here, clear out," Lorne added.

"I still think — " Spencer mumbled.

"No, you don't," Lorne interrupted him. "But since you're so hot to get involved, you can be the one who wraps up the body and gets it down to the morgue."

The marine next to Spencer chuckled and slapped Spencer on the back. "You asked for that, bud." Spencer scowled and sidled away from the marine. Lorne caught him giving the marine a vicious look and winced to himself.

Theoretically, everyone at the SGC was the best of the best. In fact, they got as many newbies as any other unit. Even the combat vets were new to facing off against aliens and going on missions to other planets when they were first assigned to the Program. Not all of them could adapt, even if they were exemplary models of their chosen service. Others were just assholes, because every service had their share. Some soldiers slid right through the psych evals meant to weed out the intolerant and inflexible before they joined the SGC. Attrition took care of most of them. A couple of months at the SGC, shuffled off to the most boring guard duty stations, usually saw them asking for a transfer. If somehow they went straight to a gate team, guys like Spencer usually got themselves killed.

Or somebody else.

Spencer was one of the asshole percentage. Lorne didn't like himself for wishing Spencer hadn't made it through the stargate during the evacuation, but he did. Spencer was going to be trouble. He only hoped it wouldn't be the kind that cost someone else their life.

~*~


He kept back, sulking, while the Tau'ri fussed over the dead body, speaking up only to maintain the new host's appearance of normality.

He should have hidden the body, but he'd let his eagerness to find another host overwhelm his caution. He'd wanted out and wanted to show his scorn— but then the corpse had been found before he could dispose of it. The Tau'ri would have noticed the disappearance in time, but there would have been confusion and questions. He would have to be much more careful from now on. He had given away a valuable advantage.

Something else that was the last host's fault.

His current host was cursing and threatening him from back of his mind, too stupid to realize he was helpless. That was still better than the last one, who had gibbered and begged, no gratitude, though the soft fool wouldn't have made it through the chappa'ai if he hadn't been taken into the service of a god. The shrieking hysteria had eventually become too much to bear and he had silenced that host's mind. This one was still amusing him. This one had a certain low survival sense, though he wasn't particularly bright — a disadvantage, because Goa'uld used the intelligence of their hosts to augment their own.

It was good to be in a moderately pleasing body, however, one that wasn't uncomfortable and unsatisfactory. Luring this new host in, knocking him out, and then leaving one body and entering another had been difficult and the process exhausting. Jaffa were perfect hosts for immature Goa'uld, and the queens used human DNA when they spawned their young to let them merge with the hosts more easily, but he was older. His first host had been a careless Unas that came too close to the swampy waters. Taking a human was easier than taking an Unas, but adapting to their chemistry was harder.

He remembered the strength of that Unas fondly — strength and intelligence. Though language had been a new concept for him at the time, he had been able to use its memories to pretend to the other Unas. He'd fooled them the way he was fooling the humans now.

He flexed the host's fingers and suppressed an appreciative smile — humans were the best hosts. Usually, at least — the one his Jaffa had captured so that he could infiltrate Atlantis in the chaos of evacuation had been disappointing. He had not been handsome or even healthy. The overweight scientist had not looked anything like the hosts Goa'uld preferred.

He'd lost so much when he left the cloned host body he'd been in and took that one.

There were reasons the first Ba'al kept one host for so long, maintaining the body with the sarcophagus and then cloning it over and over. Such an elegant fit, that one had been: intelligent, adaptable, wicked and willing. The Tok'ra thought they were the only ones who merged, but Ba'al and his chosen host had been one personality before the Tau'ri drove Ra from the First World.

That was the reason the baalim wore cloned bodies and not new hosts. It kept them closer to the first Ba'al. But Ba'al's best, chosen face was too well known to the Tau'ri at Stargate Command. It had been necessary to abandon it.

Eventually, he would find a truly satisfactory host, though it seemed unlikely he would find one that would welcome him. But that wasn't necessary, after all.

For now, he waited and watched. He finished his work and followed several others to the exedra. The humans had scattered themselves around the observation deck, sitting on its benches or standing before the huge window ports. Many of them were still too frightened to appreciate either the ship or the space it sped through. They just wanted to go home.

Humans needed gods. Ba'al saw no reason one should not be him. Perhaps the attempt to subjugate Earth had failed. It did not matter. There were more baalim and other worlds.

A surreptitious survey showed him that his minion was not present, though he knew the man had come through the chappa'ai.

It had not been necessary to slip into the SGC himself, when humans

had so eagerly betrayed themselves. Ba'al had found his cat's paw among the SGC personnel who never went through the chappa'ai. A threat to the man's parents in the central farm lands of his nation, a bribe here and there, then blackmail; it hadn't been difficult. Ba'al could sing sweet praises too and the man was already full of envy. Ba'al had only to feed him what he wanted to hear and he believed every promise, becoming as loyal as a Jaffa bred to service.

Such spies were useful. Without him, Ba'al would not have known when to time his attack on the SGC. The man had played saboteur as well by installing the bomb that disabled their SGC's gate iris.

Something had gone wrong, though. Otherwise, he would not have found himself on this abandoned ship, in danger of suffocating, rather than on Atlantis.

He intended to punish his minion for that.

Anger made him twist and curl around the current host's spine and want to tear and bite. The host's body jerked and twitched as he squealed his anger into the flesh surrounding him.

He made himself calm again before his eyes flared bright. Frustration was not an emotion he had been familiar with before the Tau'ri. He still did not deal with it well, but he couldn't afford to give himself away.

The dark-haired lovely standing next to him at the view port leaned close and asked, "Are you all right?"

"Yes," he replied. He forced out a smile through the unhappy features of his host. "I just think we need to be watching those aliens. They killed one person already. How do we know they didn't kill that scientist too?" It never hurt to sow doubt and fear among the humans. It took root and grew so well without any more encouragement than a word or two. The Wraith and its minions might become a threat. Isolating them from the Tau'ri would negate that.

He enjoyed the way she shivered delicately as well.

"I know. That thing's even scarier than the Goa'uld," she whispered, and added, "I'm Josette Fisher. Linguistics."

He told her his host's name and decided that after he took over the ship, he would keep her. She would make a delightful concubine, one who already spoke Goa'uld, so there would be no painful training period. He'd been fond of dark hair since Qetesh's last host. Such a shame the Tok'ra had captured Qetesh; she'd been marvelously ruthless, if not a match for his intelligence, and fertile queens were quite rare. They could have ruled the galaxy together.

Or she and Ba'al could have, he reminded himself. He was just a clone, sent off to succeed or fail, with anything he gained tithed to the first Ba'al. Or it would have been, if he'd arrived in Atlantis. Since this wasn't, perhaps he should reconsider whether this might not be better, eventually. On Atlantis, he would have had to avoid Samantha Carter and there were the Wraith to deal with, though he had anticipated subverting the Genii early on.

He narrowed his eyes in thought, then smiled. Perhaps this disaster could be turned to his benefit. With the technology of the Gatebuilders from this ship and the Tau'ri to serve him, once he had a more satisfactory host, he would expand his rule beyond the ship.

He would be Ba'al here, with no first to answer to, and Ba'al would be a god once again.

~*~


John stopped into the mess hall for something to eat. He enjoyed the food handed over to him and lingered over each bite. The provision for humans or hybrids carried aboard the First Hive and the Union cruisers had made John want to gag. It was meant to be nutritious, take as little space as possible, and last indefinitely. Just like MREs, only the Wraith didn't pretend it would taste good. Since they didn't eat it, it never occurred to them that it should.

As far as John could tell, drones didn't notice how awful the provisions tasted. He kept meaning to ask Teyla if Athos Hive had better food, but hadn't nerved himself up to it. It seemed disloyal to First Hive.

The cook's version of creamed beef — and the diplomatic dinners he'd attended at the SGC — were one of the few unadulterated good things about being among humans again.

Todd, of course, had no interest in the mess hall. Wraith did drink water sometimes, but anything else was considered, well, as weird as a grown man still suckling from his mother's breast. Just watching people eat made Todd uncomfortable, so eie had left to prowl the corridors of the ziggurat instead. Familiarity with their new surroundings might be useful; radiating disgust through the hive sense while John ate wouldn't. John considered Todd's distaste — hah! — for the matter amusing; Todd was a pervert by wraith standards anyway, but oh, no, eie didn't do that. It gave him a break from Todd, though, which he prized sometimes.

He spotted Lorne on his way out. Lorne waved to the door of the room that he'd commandeered as an office. John raised his eyebrows and mimed me? though it was obvious Lorne had indeed meant him. Lorne gave him a tired nod, so John strolled over.

"What can I do for you, Major?" he asked, while not meaning it at all.

Lorne sighed as if he got that.

"I'd like you to hand over the zats and whatever other arms you have," Lorne said.

John couldn't stop himself. He laughed at Lorne and the gall of that request. Once he had control again, John declared quietly, "No."

"Look, Sheppard — "

"No," John interrupted. "Go try to disarm Dex and Larrin. Go pat down Sora Tyrus and Radim. As a matter of fact, I want to be there and see it myself." He paused and added, "For that matter, are you going to search all the civilians for anything they picked up and brought along? You might want to think twice about having your people armed with projectile weapons, considering what happens when you punch holes in a space ship."

"Damn it," Lorne breathed, but he didn't seem to be particularly angry with John's refusal. Likely, he'd expected it, but wanted to try anyway.

"If there's a Goa'uld in one of you, I'd bet it's armed itself," John added just to twist the knife. "Or brought its own toys."

"Do you like making my life harder?"

John grinned at him.

"I live to spread happiness and joy wherever I go."

A short bark of disbelieving laughter escaped Lorne. "Did the Wraith know what they were getting?" he asked. "I read your file. You were a thorn in the side of every commander you ever had." So he wasn't above sticking it to John either.

"Lucky you aren't my CO then, isn't it?" John replied flatly. At the back of his head, he felt Todd's interest in his mixed emotions, the anger and pain, and returned a reassurance that it was nothing. On that note, he decided to walk out. He didn't bother saying anything more to Lorne, he was pretty sure they'd reached their limits with each other.

~*~


Teyla led her drones down into the depths of the ship. Let the humans take the rooms toward the surface. Such indulgences were vulnerable — nests were best made where the shielding for the engines protected them. The cramped corridors, heat and darkness combined with a deep basso thrum to remind her of a proper hive, though the metal bulkheads did not hold the sense of comfort a living ship did.

She wished they had a seed with them. She herself would be honored to undergo the metamorphosis and what an extraordinary hive she could become with this ship as her framework.

Given enough energy.

Teyla smiled to herself and noted where the lighting alternated banks on and off between floor and ceiling to ration power. Hives were bright to hybrid and wraith eyes; conduits and controls were radiant with heat, responding to intention because they too were part of the hive sense that bound all the wraith in a nest.

The quarters were larger toward the engines, not cramped to give each one a porthole. She liked these much better for here was security.

She found quarters at a junction of halls that pleased her with the lack of right angles. There was space for the Hunter, the hive-kin, herself, and the four drones. Three sub-corridors branched from the main hall, providing alternate escape routes in the case of major damage to the ship. There were extra compartments along each sub-corridor that the nest could expand to fill.

The main power conduits were accessible, too. They could tap them to power the nahn and begin breeding grubs for the Hunter.

Teyla cocked her head and contemplated the probable reaction of the Earth humans to the accelerated production of brain-dead human clones meant only to be fed upon. She thought it would not be… happy. Though it wasn't like the hybrids or humans would be forced to consume the grubs. The desiccated husks were usually absorbed for their mineral content by the hive itself or vented into vacuum. Hybrids weren't cannibals, except under the most pressing circumstances.

Earth humans were no better. Exigency ruled them as well. Teyla had made a point of learning the Earth human's primary language and writing system and studied as much of their history and psychology as she could. It was remarkably complex and intricate compared to the economics and social mores of Pegasus and she had been at once horrified and fascinated.

Amused, she'd pointed out at one point, that they would not have a word for cannibalism if they could not imagine it, and anything they could imagine, humans had at least tried to render into reality. They even worshipped it in symbolic fashion in some of their religions. Take, eat, this is My body. Senator O'Shea had turned red in the face and stormed out.

Negotiations had proceeded much faster without his presence. She hadn't been as successful in correcting their insistence on referring to Renus as Pegasus.

She shrugged to herself and settled on a large and comfortable chamber, flanked on both sides by spaces the drones could pair in. She could have put them in separate chambers, but the drones were more comfortable together, where their mingled scents and body heat would mark the rooms as nest. Solitude would destabilize them. The quad she had with her were the bare minimum for good health and they had all been lonely for other hive-kin, though the Hunter's presence did help by soothing them through the hive sense.

Right now, she needed to tend them herself and re-enforce their bonds. Teyla checked the bed and found bedding kept fresh in a stasis chest. Pleased, she directed one of the drones to make the bed while she stripped away her clothes. The bed was large and would allow them all to nest together, skin to skin.

Three of the drones crawled into bed with her, while the fourth stood watch outside the door. She would call him in later and send out one of the others. Though she shared the bed for the drones' sake, Teyla acknowledged she found their warmth and near-worship, the profound, unshakable loyalty they radiated, deeply comforting.

She was never alone.

~*~


The Ancient numbers were starting to blur when his eyelids slid shut. Opening his eyes again seemed almost too hard to do. Rodney was already working without sleep or real meals, subsisting on Powerbars and coffee, when he informed the military buffoon — O'Neill Lite — that the environmental system was down.

Since then, he had found the actual air scrubbers.

Rodney had been hoping the alert was a false alarm.

Not so.

Opening the scrubbers up had been pretty damn horrific. The black goop that oozed out smelled worse than — well, worse than anything Rodney could compare it to. He heard at least one person stumble off and puke and thatsmelled wonderful in comparison. He'd even seen the wraith back off… which made sense if their sense of smell was more than human-acute. If he hadn't found the bloody handkerchief he'd gotten from the marine and tied it like an outlaw's bandana, he wouldn't have been able to cope. He certainly didn't want to inhale any stray particles from that mess; no doubt it was carcinogenic and allergenic as well as puke-o-genic.

Markov oversaw cleaning out the filters, but that left them still screwed, because they couldn't find the supplies to refill them.

He pried his eyelids open. There was no time for him to sleep.

Calcium carbonate.

Calcite.

Limestone.

Rodney tried another search through the bit of the database the ship would let him access. He knew that there had to be another access point, some other way of interacting and directing the ship than this nexus. These consoles were too limited in scope. The data was there; it had to be. The ship couldn't function without a tremendous number of subroutines and programs, even if it looked like some had begun to fail.

Gypsum.

Replacement filters.

"God damn it," Rodney snarled. "You stupid, arrogant, disorganized, illogical shitheads. It's an air scrubber on a star ship. Don't tell me you didn't have any back ups!"

"Rodney," someone said.

He ignored them.

His finger depressed a key too long and pages of information scrolled before he could read any of it. Why the hell did the Ancients have to write down then up in a zigzag rather than left to right, return, left to right, damn it? He kept losing his place.

"Rodney."

"Shut up, Zelenka," he snapped. "Unless you've turned into a plant. If you're suddenly exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, please tell everyone in the class how to do so too."

Selenite.

Nothing.

"I hate this dingy, goddamned raddled scow," he said, while only just resisting the desire to find a wrench and beat the damn console until it gave him what he needed out of sheer fear. He was, perhaps, on the edge of a meltdown. Anyone with even a quarter of his intelligence would be and the fact that Zelenka wasn't proved conclusively that Zelenka was a drooling idiot.

"Get away from me," he added as he caught Zelenka moving in his peripheral vision. His head was pounding. No doubt everyone was suffering headaches as the air quality went from bad to worse.

Soda lime.

Again the system refused to come back with anything useful.

Rodney scowled at the screen. Zelenka peered over his shoulder, while carefully not touching him.

"Soda lime?" Zelenka asked. "Perhaps there is some among the medical supplies meant for Atlantis."

"Go find out." Rodney rubbed his forehead. It probably wouldn't be enough for the entire system, but even one node restored to proper function would ease the load on the still failing ones. If they could buy enough time to figure out a better solution… "Elizabeth might know… no, why would she, but she may know who has an inventory."

"I believe Major Lorne has already assigned someone to inventory all the supplies that came through the stargate with us," Zelenka pointed out.

"Fine, go ask him," Rodney said.

Lithium hydroxide.

He sucked in a harsh breath when this search failed too.

~*~


Ba'al smiled at his minion. His host's assignment conveniently allowed him to talk with him without drawing anyone's attention.

"You will search the database for any way to return to either the Milky Way or Pegasus galaxies," he instructed the human.

"Yeah, and I could tell everyone who you really are."

Ba'al's smile widened.

"Then, of course, I would be forced to reveal how you knew who I am," he said. "Wouldn't Major Lorne be interested to know who sabotaged the iris that protected Earth's chappa'ai?" He paused and then reflected aloud, "Of course, everyone here would also be interested to know that you were the one to reboot the dialing computer at the SGC, too. Wouldn't they?"

He watched his minion go pale and savored the fear he'd inspired.

"Really, you're far more to blame for what happened than I," he went on. "I wonder what they'd do to you."

"You wouldn't… "

"Betray me and I would have no reason to shield you."

"Okay, okay, I'll do it, but what if McKay's right and there's not enough power?"

"Do not question your god," Ba'al ordered.

While he had begun to consider the possibilities inherent in the situation, he had no intention of asphyxiating on the exhalations of these lesser beings. If the air scrubbers weren't fixed soon, it would be necessary to abandon this ship. In that case, relocation to a better known situation, even the Pegasus Galaxy, would be preferable. Since he would not be taking this less than satisfactory slave with him, it wasn't necessary to explain.

Though if the fool was half smart, the conclusion would be obvious. Ba'al could admit that even Goa'uld, even gods, were predictable in this fashion.

~*~


The shivery, weird sensation of the FTL drive cutting out snapped Rodney into full wakefulness. Zelenka rolled clumsily off the bench next to the wall where he'd been lying.

"What?" Zelenka asked stupidly.

Rodney reached for the radio Lorne had left with him, but it activated first.

"McKay, what's going on? Over."

"The ship dropped out of FTL," Rodney replied.

"Observe radio protocol please. Over."

A rise in the power consumption board caught his gaze. "What the — " He hit the radio transmitter again. "Major, someone is dialing the stargate!" He grabbed his laptop — one of them — and headed for the gate room at a fast trot.

Zelenka fell in behind him.

"Those idiots," Rodney muttered. "I told them. I told Lorne. But what are they doing? Trying anyway, wasting irreplaceable energy in a pointless effort to — "

He trailed off as he reached the gate room and spotted only two guards, one scientist and Lorne arriving down the stairs from the upper level. The gate was dialing at the same deliberate speed the one on Earth had demonstrated.

"Fourth chevron," the woman watching the dialing console announced.

"No one did this, sir," the soldier reported. "The ship went wonky, then it just started dialing on its own."

Rodney shouldered his way past Riley and the woman and began calling up screens. "This is… Oh." He looked up as the fifth chevron engaged.

"What?" Lorne demanded.

"Well, I have found some things out about the ship," Rodney began.

"We," Zelenka muttered.

Rodney waved a dismissive hand. Zelenka had, perhaps, rendered some aid. But then, he'd been literally lying down on the job only minutes before. Rodney felt he deserved the recognition.

"Besides the name, which I may have mentioned? It's Destiny and isn't that just so precious and pretentious? The Ancients weren't actually aboard the ship for long, if at all. It's programmed to follow after three automated ships that seed stargates on worlds. The Ancients either gated to this ship and then off or had already settled the Milky Way and Pegasus through another route. Or ascended." Rodney took a breath and went on, ignoring the way Lorne's eyes were glazing. "This ship collates the data on the stargates that have already been put in place, setting up the network, and if it dropped out here there has to be a reason."

"It's dialing the stargate itself?" Lorne asked.

Rodney snapped his fingers. "Exactly." The six and seventh chevrons engaged as they watched and Rodney tried to pry more data out of the console. "Yes. The searches I've been running must have triggered a subroutine. That or an alert that the processing nodes are malfunctioning made the ship come out of FTL here and dial automatically." He grinned manically. "What we need must be through that wormhole!"

Lorne peered at the blue event horizon. "Okay. First we need some kind of MALP. I'm not sending people blind through the stargate."

A scarlet read-out had began flashing. Rodney stared at it. Ancient numbers always took him a second longer to process.

"It's a countdown," Zelenka said ahead of him.

Lorne looked back. "What?"

Rodney pointed to the display. "That's a twelve hour countdown, Major. I think it's safe to say that's how long we have to go through the stargate, get what we need and get back."

"Why?"

"How the hell would I know?" Rodney snapped. "Maybe the ship's on a schedule. Maybe that's how long an Ancient could survive on the planet. I consider it lucky that we even know that the window's limited. I suggest you put together a team and send them through ASAP, however."

Zelenka tapped his lips. "I think a kino would serve as MALP, Major. I've been experimenting with them. In addition to pictures, they also will register and record sound, temperature, barometric pressure, and sample the atmosphere around them. …I've been testing the C02 content in various sections of the ship."

Lorne nodded. "Do it," he said. "McKay, figure out who you will need with you on the planet."

"Me?" Rodney blurted. Had Lorne suffered brain damage? He had no intention of wandering around some alien planet. His allergies alone made it ridiculous. When he thought of the microorganisms that no one had ever encountered before and how they would no doubt immediately set out to kill him… He was far too important, too brilliant and necessary to risk his life. He should probably have bodyguards, in fact. But Lorne wouldn't go for that. "No, no, no. I won't be going. You'll need either a chemist or a geologist, probably both, and I'm far too valuable to risk… " He drew himself up. "I can accomplish a great deal more here on the ship. Send your grunts. They're expendable." He reconsidered. "Well, obviously they're aren't really expendable, no human being is, but under the circumstances they're more fit for the mission."

~*~


Lorne shook his head. He shouldn't be surprised. It wasn't like anyone had ever claimed Rodney McKay was some kind of action hero. The guy was smart, but so were thousands of others. He shouldn't have expected anything else from him. The truth was, it probably wouldn't be smart to send McKay through the gate. He wasn't an off-world veteran, didn't have the training, and didn't like following orders. Was there any better recipe for disaster than that? Maybe he should be grateful McKay didn't want to go.

He wasn't, though.

It griped at him, because hewanted to go, and already knew he couldn't. The arguments Teldy had offered against him sacrificing himself were the same for taking unnecessary chances. Someone else would take the first human steps in this new galaxy and look up at a sky more alien than anyone from Earth had known before. He'd been on a gate team since joining the SGC and he'd loved that part of the job: stepping through into a new place.

He swallowed back a growl. Now he understood General O'Neill's less than happy expression on his promotion. The stars on O'Neill's shoulders hadn't been a gift of power, they'd been the weight of the Mountain, symbols of his responsibility for everyone he commanded and had given his oath to protect. Then he'd gone on to Homeworld Security.

Not just stars.

A world on his shoulders, Atlas in Air Force blue.

Now Lorne had to carry his own weight.

"Just put together a list of people who can do the job," he told McKay.

~*~


John propped his arms on the railing of the upper deck and watched the first group ready themselves to go through the stiit veya — the Wraith called the stargates the 'short way' — with mixed feelings.

"Oxygen, nitrogen, very little C02, extremely low humidity. Habitable, but just barely," Sgt. Riley reported from the DHD console. Zelenka had dispatched one of his kinos through and it was transmitting back to the ship. He'd gone to retrieve more to take with them.

Checking over his shoulder, McKay said, "Good enough."

"It's a desert," Airman Curtis blurted when the data from the kino switched to a camera eye view from the other side of the stargate.

"No one's planning to settle there," Lorne commented.

At a secondary console, Dr. Park — apparently recovered from finding the dead body — said, "There are four other gate addresses listed in this system."

Curtis jumped on that news. "Maybe one of them would be better." He drifted over and checked out the display on Park's screen.

"Have you forgotten why you're going?" McKay snapped. "This isn't a vacation. This planet has the highest odds of possessing the material we need to repair the air scrubbers. That's why the ship dialed it and not the others."

"A couple of these are actually locked out," Park added. "Maybe they aren't habitable at all."

Franklin wandered over and peered at the console. Zelenka returned in a bustling hurry, followed by a number of hovering kinos. One floated over to the consoles, before returning to its place behind Zelenka. Like the Pied Piper, John thought in amusement.

Major Teldy finished going over Dr. Palmer's gear and patted the blond woman's back. Sgt. Mehra leaned against a crate and popped her gum.

"Can we get on with this?" McKay asked in annoyance. He gestured to the countdown clock. "We're wasting precious time."

"Dr. Zelenka?" Teldy called.

"I am ready," Zelenka replied before muttering, "as I will ever be."

John almost smiled in sympathy. The group before him had a lot in common with the one Jackson sent out into Pegasus when they realized the city might drown in the next hour after their arrival. He'd just walked through the stargate for the first time into Atlantis, then they were desperately searching for somewhere to evacuate to from the city.

He envied this team though for the chance to get off this ship and breathe fresh air for a few hours.

At least Major Teldy was an off-world veteran, along with Mehra. Those two would take care of the rest of their ad hoc team.

McKay bustled over to Zelenka and handed him one of the remotes they'd found stored in a storage space next to the dialing console. It wouldn't matter if the stargate on the planet had a DHD or not so long as they had the remote.

Mehra had taken one look when McKay began explaining the remote and observed, "Sonovabitch, I can think of plenty of missions where that would have come in handy. Thanks, Doc."

"Don't lose it," McKay told Zelenka.

"Yes, Rodney," Zelenka replied, long-suffering but not annoyed.

McKay muttered, "Well, it's not like we can run down to the corner store and get more."

"Yes, Rodney," Zelenka agreed, this time smiling.

"Good man," McKay said and patted his arm awkwardly.

Zelenka trotted over to Teldy and Mehra, joining Palmer, Franklin, and Curtis. Lorne gave them a nod. "You have a go, Major," he said to Teldy. "Good luck."

Teldy saluted Lorne and took a long step into the puddle, followed by Mehra. The scientists followed and then Curtis. Only Zelenka paused to look back. McKay gave him a casual wave; Zelenka flipped him off.

Lorne's radio crackled and John could just make out Teldy's transmission, despite his distance from the floor below. Some of the nasce's changes really were great, like the amped up hearing and sense of smell. John picked up an amazing flow of information just from the way scents changed.

"We're here, sir. Pretty hot and bright. No DHD. Shut down the gate and we'll see if the remote works. Over."

"Acknowledged, Major. Over," Lorne replied. He turned to Riley. "Shut it down."

The wormhole winked out, leaving the empty circle of the gate. John straightened up and curled his hands around the railing. Everyone on deck waited silently, counting off the minutes in their heads. A sigh of relief ran through the gate room as the stargate activated, spinning up and issuing the characteristic rush of excess energy before the event horizon settled.

"Gate Team to Destiny. Over," issued from the radios.

"Acknowledged," Lorne replied. "How's it going? Over."

"Dr. Palmer reports they've found gypsum. Not what we want, but an indication this world should have it. I'm splitting the team into three groups to head out and find a playa. Over."

"Your call, Major. Check in every three hours. Over."

"Got it. Shutting down the stargate next, sir. Over and out."

The stargate shut down again.

Now it was a waiting game.

~*~


White-hot glare off the sand reflected a pale to colorless sky. Dusty could feel her skin turning to leather as she breathed. She'd thought when she hooked up with the Stargate Program she wouldn't be stuck in the desert again. Her second gate mission had relieved her of that notion, but she hadn't been anywhere as bleak as this since the Mid-East.

"I say we try them," Curtis insisted.

"Do you even have the addresses?" Franklin asked.

"He does," Curtis said with a nod to Zelenka. "I memorized two." The shorter man looked up from his remote control which displayed of the kino data, startled and alarmed.

"I — "

"C'mon, show us. You've got those things, you can send them through. Just because McKay says those other addresses are no good, why should we listen?" Curtis argued. Without pausing, he snatched the remote away from Zelenka and stabbed a couple of controls. He growled when his efforts were useless and let Zelenka recover the control without contest. Zelenka ignored him and brought out the kino control, which he used to send the kino high into the air to provide an overview of their surroundings beyond the dunes surrounding the stargate.

Palmer glanced over at the byplay from where she crouched. The glass vial in her hands held a red liquid, which she'd already explained meant the sand around them wasn't what they needed. Major Teldy took that in with a sharp nod.

"Fine," she told Curtis. "We'll dial the two addresses you've got and send a kino through. If Dr. Palmer says they look better than here, we'll send someone through. Otherwise, we're splitting into three groups and heading out in the hopes of finding what the ship needs here."

Curtis went over to Franklin and poked the first address into the gate dialing remote. Once the wormhole formed, Zelenka sent a kino through. Dusty drifted close enough to get a glimpse of the screen. Nasty, she thought immediately: the dim, reddened light showed drifts of black ash, more of it raining down, and a snake of crimson lava creeping down a nearby volcano's flank.

"I can't get the atmospheric and other data on the remote's read-out," Zelenka said. He sounded frustrated. "It may record for analysis on the ship."

"Doesn't matter," Dusty said. "Nobody wants to check that place out, do they?"

Head shakes all around confirmed her estimate.

The second address revealed a pretty vista of greenery, lush flowers on vines coiling up the trunks of trees which had long needles instead of leaves. All the needles pointed straight up. The kino showed a glimpse of blue water in the distance in one direction and higher, heavier trees behind the stargate when Zelenka swung it around.

"Dr. Palmer?" Teldy asked.

Palmer looked intrigued by the Eden-ish prospect, but shook her head. "Not a good prospect for finding calcium carbonate in a concentrated or pure form, I'm afraid."

"Shut it down," Teldy ordered Franklin.

"Hey, wait — " Curtis protested.

"We're on a mission," Teldy reminded him, "not scouting vacation spots." She considered them. "Dr. Palmer, with me. Sergeant, you and Dr. Zelenka and Airman Curtis can work with Dr. Franklin. Everyone head out, radio checks every thirty minutes. Move out."

Dusty gave Major Teldy a casual salute, slung her weapon over her shoulder, and picked up the two empty containers she'd carried through the stargate. Dr. Zelenka tapped a last command into his kino control and tucked it away. He picked up his own empty containers and offered her a tentative smile. Dusty grinned back at him.

"Ready?"

" …Yes."

"Got your water bottles?"

He checked before he answered her. "Yes."

"Okay."

Dusty pondered checking that Curtis was checking on Franklin, but didn't, opting to check Franklin visually herself and not piss off Curtis more than necessary. Then she and Zelenka started up the sand dune in the direction Teldy had assigned them.

Zelenka didn't waste his breath asking questions or otherwise yammering. Dusty liked that. He followed her lead and tied a bandana over his nose and mouth and waved away her sunglasses when she offered him. "I cannot see without these," he said and pointed to his spectacles, but accepted her cap instead and tugged it low to shield his eyes. "Thank you."

"De nada, Doc," she told him.

Half an hour into their hike, she stopped in the shade of a rock outcropping and used the radio. "Mehra here, checking in. Acknowledge. Over."

"Acknowledged. Any luck? Over," Teldy replied.

"Nothing like what Dr. Palmer said we should look for," Dusty said. "We've got another twenty-minutes hike to the top of a major rise. We should be able to spot anything suitable from there. Over." If anything suitable existed within walking distance.

"Gotcha. Over and out."

"Mehra, over and out," she acknowledged, then listened as Curtis reported in that they'd found nothing but rock and the start of a mountain range in their direction. Teldy gave them a new heading and signed off. Since she hadn't mentioned it, Dusty knew her team leader hadn't been successful yet either.

She urged Zelenka to sip his water to stay hydrated and winced over the way the back his neck and his hands were burning. Her own coloring protected her from suffering so quickly.

"Up?" Zelenka asked, eyeing the steep angle of the rest of their climb.

"Afraid so."

He sipped judiciously from his bottle once more then methodically capped and hooked it back to his pack before stepping out of their bit of shade. They found something almost like a path over hard rock instead of shifting dune sand that shaved ten minutes off her estimate of how long they'd be climbing.

That was their only stroke of luck.

Dusty scanned in every direction with her binoculars, but found nothing resembling the dried seabed Palmer said they needed. A haze of green in the distance might have been something more than desert, but was just as likely a heat mirage.

"Climbing any further makes no sense," Zelenka said. "Lime deposits of the kind Andrea described would be below sea level."

"You even have any idea what sea level is on this planet?" Dusty asked.

Zelenka grimaced.

She lowered her binoculars, though, and acknowledged, "You're right about not wasting any more time in this direction. We'll head back to the stargate. Check-in's still a while away."

"Maybe the others will find something," Zelenka offered.

Dusty shrugged. "Let's hope so."

Working their way down stretched a different set of muscles and put the sun in their eyes, but Zelenka only cursed under his breath when loose gravel rolled out from under his boots once and he stumbled into Dusty, nearly sending them both for a tumble. She managed to keep her feet and steady him, though, and the rest of their descent offered no further dangers.

It went quickly enough they didn't stop in the outcropping's shade this time. Dusty would have, but Zelenka pointed out that they were on the clock in regard to the ship. "Less than nine hours now," he said.

She wondered if they'd end up putting together real gate teams after this. If so, she'd definitely nominate Zelenka. He had what it took.

Neither of them were trying to hide their approach as the topped the last dune before approaching the stargate. They were outlined quite clearly against the pale blue sky.

"What the hell?" Dusty exclaimed, then grabbed Zelenka by the arm and pulled him down with her, lowering their silhouette.

Two figures were down at the stargate, where there should be none.

She aimed her weapon down at them. The scope magnified them into clarity; it was easy to identify Franklin and as she swung the scope to the side, Curtis.

"Who is it?" Zelenka asked.

"Franklin and Curtis."

The two men appeared to be arguing. Curtis shifted the muzzle of his MP5 toward Franklin in a threatening fashion. Franklin shook his head, but fumbled and brought out a small piece of equipment.

The gate dialing remote, Dusty realized, shocked.

Franklin clutched it and shook his head again. Curtis crowded close to him and Dusty growled under her breath as she lost any chance of a clean shot at Curtis. She watched in anger as Franklin entered a code into the gate remote. The stargate cycled and the wormhole formed, looking enticingly cool in the bleached heat of the desert.

Curtis pulled Franklin toward the wormhole. Franklin tried to pull away, stumbled and then threw the remote away from himself, into the sand.

They were only steps from the stargate. Dusty hunted for a shot, but Franklin's head kept occluding Curtis' in the cross hairs Beside her, Zelenka breathed roughly. Even without the scope, he would be able to make out the gross movements and the activated stargate. It didn't take a genius to put together what was happening down there; anyone could see Curtis was attempting to force Franklin though the stargate.

Franklin grabbed the barrel of Curtis' MP5. The sound of Curtis firing it cracked through the dry air. Franklin jerked and fell backward.

Dusty took her shot as Franklin fell out of the way. Head shot was the only option she had. That was fine. She hadn't been recruited for the Stargate Program because of her spit shined jump boots. She breathed out and tightened her finger on the trigger.

Curtis tumbled backward through the stargate. Franklin, on the ground, was still moving a little. The remote lay on the sand, a body length away.

Dusty safetied her weapon and scrambled to her feet. "Doc, get out your medical kit," she yelled as she sprinted down the dune, sand and dust spraying out beneath her boots.

Zelenka came down fast behind her.

Dusty radioed Teldy and explained tersely what had happened, while she and Zelenka packed Franklin's wound. He was conscious and murmured something to Zelenka, who replied, "I will check."

"Dial the ship and take him through," Teldy ordered. "We'll keep going. Leave the remote and your water for us. Over."

Zelenka had the kino remote out and was studying it. He gasped, making Dusty jerk her head and look, but then shook his head at her. Something, but not important now, she translated.

"We'll come back," Dusty promised. "Over and out."

She and Zelenka had to move Franklin, which made him scream, before they could redial the stargate for the ship.

"Curtis?" Franklin whimpered.

Zelenka brought the kino remote out and angled it enough for Franklin to see. Dusty glanced over and flinched. Not because Curtis was dead; she'd put the bullet through his head.

He'd made Franklin dial his alien Eden.

It had serpents.

The kino recording showed them, bloody red and shining, slithering out of the emerald-crowned trees and onto the body. Dusty winced as she saw that the snakes didn't have heads. Both ends split into multiple tentacles. Both ends felt the body, twining over it, until they found an appendage small enough draw in. From there, they twisted and humped and bulged and gradually swallowed down until their writhing tentacles ran into another set from another creature. Then they tangled and spat acid that ate into each others' hides and she had to look away.

Franklin was gagging.

Thank God, wormholes through stargates were one-way.

"Make sure that's recorded, Doc," she forced herself to say. Horrible as it was, it would be a damn good argument to pay attention to what stargates the ship locked out. Everyone would need to see.

She retrieved the remote and handed it to Zelenka. "Dial Destiny."

~*~


The long wait for news from the gate mission gave Rodney time to do other things. Miko was back on her feet and apologized for nearly being electrocuted — Rodney magnanimously forgave her — but still a little too woozy to do anything precise. He was checking all of his own calculations three times in the hope of getting two answers that agreed, so he made her his coffee lifeline. When the caffeine stopped working, he'd have to find Carson and hit him up for some uppers to keep going.

Thank God Carson had made it through with them. Carson would be much more liable to give Rodney what he wanted, since he sometimes dipped into his own supplies anyway. It made Carson a very understanding doctor; Rodney would bet he was passing out tranquilizers like candy already. Lam, on the other hand, would likely play hard-nose about the drugs. Luckily, he'd heard she was busy autopsying the dead man.

He frowned at the log he was reading. What was that word? Released? No, left. Did that refer to atmosphere? He wanted to find out when the ship had been damaged and how. Or if there were any other space-worthy vehicles on board, though they'd found a second, undamaged shuttle, while hunting air scrubbers.

"Huh."

It seemed to refer when the last crew had used the stargate, he realized, and decided it would have to wait.

Energy consumption was climbing and he flinched as he compared it to the reserves. They had to shut down everything that wasn't absolutely necessary. What the hell was that draw? He pinned it down to a location and launched himself down the corridors.

"What the hell are you doing?" he snarled at the group standing before a lit up tray.

"Hey, Dr. McKay," one of the skinny Air Force people said. "We found this thing. It'll recharge all our batteries. The only thing we have to be careful of is to get them off before they fry — "

"Take them all off!" Rodney shouted at them furiously. "Off. Off. Off! You're wasting power we can't afford! Go back to your quarters and twiddle your thumbs, but quit turning things on!" He shouldered past, uh, it was Riley, and a pretty woman and swept everything off the tray with his arm. Flashlights and lanterns, batteries of all sizes went flying, hitting the deck grating in a clatter.

The woman immediately crouched and began picking batteries up. Rodney felt an instant of shame, flashing on a memory of his mother cleaning something off the kitchen floor, but dismissed it. He was right, damn it, and if they were too stupid to think for themselves, he'd have to do it for them.

"Idiots," he snarled and stomped away.

Behind him, Riley muttered, "Yeah, I bet he didn't have a problem quitting turning anyone on, 'cause he never did."

Miko was waiting in the control nexus with a mug of precious coffee. Rodney swiped it out of her hand and gulped down half of it. Markov, Grodin and Brody were off checking the water reserves. According to Markov, the ship could crack H2O to replenish some of the atmosphere and store the hydrogen to use in shuttle thrusters. Lorne had sent several grunts with them, since they were exploring deeper into the ship than before. While the ziggurat seemed to house living and operations, the majority of the ship was devoted to its drives, shield generators, what Rodney suspected were weapons arrays, and tremendous processing and data archives. Rodney was shutting down anything and everything not necessary to keeping them alive and the ship operating. The Ancients had locked up all the systems not pertinent to keeping crew or passengers alive behind walls of encryption, though. All the worst offenders were beyond miles of walls of security, which reduced him to screaming at hapless morons trying to recharge the batteries for their iPods.

Rodney huffed under his breath. His head pounded viciously.

"Dr. McKay, perhaps if you stopped and rested, just for a few hours — " Miko suggested.

"Yes, yes, I should sleep away our only chance at survival," he snapped at her. "We've only got a few hours left." He knew what people had said about him after Teal'c died. He'd heard more than a few things even before that, coward among them, but he wasn't going to let anyone — especially that officious twerp Lorne — call him a quitter. He hated to quote a Marvel comic when he preferred DC, but Wolverine was right. "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

He finished the coffee and handed her the empty mug.

"Get me some more."

~*~


At least they didn't have another dead body to add to the growing collection. This time the casualty hadn't come back. Beckett, Johanson and Ko had a gurney and were wheeling Franklin out of the gate room. Lorne hoped like hell they could keep him alive: getting shot by someone nominally on your own side sucked hard.

He wondered if Curtis could have been the snake, but no, they wouldn't be that lucky.

"Talk to me, Mehra," he ordered.

She nodded and offered a quick, concise debrief. Zelenka uploaded his kino data to the DHD console and they got to watch what happened to Curtis' body.

It made Lorne's skin crawl. He'd honestly thought the Goa'uld were as creepy as it got, but the red serpents were worse, like something out of Lovecraft.

Locked out gate addresses were not going to be touched.

He looked at the countdown clock. Half their time was already gone and they were down to one group searching on the planet.

"Sergeant, are you ready to go back?"

Mehra nodded sharply and replied, "You try and tell me not to, sir."

"I will return as well," Zelenka added. He sidled up next to Mehra and straightened his spine so that he met Lorne's gaze without flinching, despite the sunburn, dust and obvious exhaustion weighing down on him.

Lorne almost said no, but Zelenka had his pride. "Okay."

He looked around and began calling out names.

"Leonard, Ford, I want you two to go through." The two Russians were there and, he noticed, geared up. "Dr. Zelenka, do you speak Russian?"

"Yes."

Lorne waved to Ledbedev and Semyenov. "Tell them they're with you, okay?"

As soon as the two Russian officers were within speaking distance, Zelenka began translating.

Lorne looked around again. "I'd like some scientific volunteers… "

Nada.

He supposed he'd been lucky to get one Zelenka out a the bunch. How many Daniel Jacksons were wandering around the world, after all? None of these people wanted to play intrepid explorer. They were all lab monkeys.

Well, to hell with it, Lorne decided. He knew at least one other person with military and desert experience. Just because he didn't like the bastard… He lifted his gaze to the upper level. "Sheppard."

Sheppard, flanked by the Wraith, ambled down a curved staircase.

"We're running out of time. Will you go with the second team?" Lorne asked bluntly.

Sheppard cocked his head, then smiled at Lorne. Lorne couldn't tell if he was happy to be asked, happy at the prospect of getting off the ship as the air quality got worse and worse, or about to tell Lorne to go fuck himself.

"We will go," the wraith said, startling Lorne.

"Uh… " In for a penny, in for a pound. The wraith had just as much on the line as the rest of them. "Can you, ah, handle the heat?"

"It will not be a major factor, Major Lorne," the wraith said.

"Gear up then," Lorne told them both.

Sheppard sketched him a mocking salute and loped over to the new quartermaster temporarily set up by several crates near the DHD. The wraith studied Lorne for a moment more before following.

"Was that wise?" Elizabeth Weir said from behind him.

He shrugged.

"You use what you've got," he said.

She raised her eyebrows but didn't comment as Zelenka dialed the planet again and the second team followed Sgt. Mehra through the puddle. Once they were gone, Weir touched Lorne's arm. "Has Dr. Lam found anything about poor Dr. Darlington's death yet?" she asked.

"Not yet. I know she was doing an autopsy, but with Franklin… " Lorne gestured in the direction the wounded man had been taken. "She might have to help Beckett."

"Of course." Weir's brows pinched together. "He was shot?"

Lorne winced inside.

"Yeah."

"Accidentally?" she asked.

"By Airman Curtis." Who was dead now and lucky Mehra had shot him before he went through the wormhole, if Zelenka's data was any evidence.

"I think we should both go and see how he is," Weir declared.

Lorne sucked it up and agreed. The poor bastard had been wounded by one of Lorne's people, after all. He deserved a sick bed visit. Provided the doctors were done with him and he was up to it; if not, they needed to find out his status.

"We'll need to discuss how to spin this before rumors fly out of control."

"I know," he admitted.

Weir took his arm, which made it look like Lorne was guiding her along the corridors to the makeshift med bay, but in truth, he realized she was leading him. She probably had a lot of experience leading men around to get what she wanted. Of course, the snake would be good at dissembling and manipulating, too. He hoped she didn't notice the flinch that ran through him at that thought.

He was forced to revise his estimate of her, though, when Beckett approved letting them talk to Franklin for a few minutes before he and Lam performed surgery. They were pumping blood into him and prepping an impromptu surgery theater, so talking wouldn't delay his treatment. Weir was at once painfully awkward with Franklin — she had shit bedside skills — and so sincerely concerned it was easy to forgive her. She did a bang up job of distracting Franklin and making him feel better, praising him for standing up to Curtis' demands for the gate remote and making sure the others weren't stranded.

"It was like something in his head just snapped," Franklin whispered.

Lorne squeezed his shoulder gently.

"The doctors are going to make sure you're fine," he said. He believed it. Lam had had her hands in the guts of more than one SGC soldier and kept him alive. No one could fill Major Frasier's shoes, but Carolyn Lam was a dedicated doctor who Lorne had come to respect. He figured Franklin had better odds with her than any other doctor that might have ended up on the ship. Plus there was Beckett, and Marie Ko had been Atlantis first wave and slated to return. "They're good people."

"Don't worry about anything," Weir added.

No doubt if they didn't get the air scrubbers going, Franklin would still be knocked out from anesthesia and slip away in his sleep.

They left when Lam and Beckett scrubbed up.

"I wanted to ask you to speak with Sora Tyrus," Weir said.

Lorne didn't groan, but he wanted to.

"Now?"

Weir gave him a sidelong, amused glance.

"Now."

That was just as unpleasant as Lorne had anticipated. Ladon Radim was there too, along with the guards Lorne had put on Sora.

"I don't want to hear it," he said when Sora started in on how the wraith had killed her father, even though he pitied her. Tyrus had shot first and been about to shoot again. Lorne didn't have any questions that the two Union bodyguards — or whatever they were besides creepy — had been acting in defense. The Wraith Representative would have been dead if it didn't heal insanely fast. "I want to take the guards off you. That means I want your word you won't try anything stupid and homicidal. Is that clear?"

Sora looked mutinous.

"I don't like wasting manpower I need elsewhere."

"Sora," Weir said, "our people don't have the history of hostility with the Wraith. If you could — "

"I don't want to have anything to do with those things or the twisted monsters they make," Sora bit out. She turned away from Weir to focus on Lorne. "How can you look at what they did to one of your own and not understand that they have to be wiped out?"

"The thing is, Ms. Tyrus, I see the wraith and its people trying to help us here," Lorne said. "I see you causing problems."

She made a gesture, a brush of the back of her hand to her chest then pushed out and away that Lorne had never seen. "Its people," Sora repeated. "Yes. They belong to it, live and die for it. They aren't human any longer." She finished in a low voice, "Better to be drained by one of them than to be turned into one of their worshippers."

Radim made the same gesture Sora had.

"You should take the chance you have now and make sure that thing doesn't come back on board," Sora added. "Otherwise you will lose this ship to it the way your people lost Atlantis to them."

"That's not going to happen, Ms. Tyrus," Lorne assured her. There was just the one wraith. There was no way it could take over. The damn Goa'uld was a much bigger threat. It would try to take over. If they managed to fix the environmental system and didn't die, that was what he was going to worry about.

Sora laughed at him. "You don't know as much about the Wraith as you think you do."

"Sora," Radim snapped at her. "Enough."

She glared at Radim. "It's a little late to worry about state secrets, don't you think, Ladon? The Empire has studied the Wraith for thousands of years, trying to find their weak points, trying to find a way to defeat them. The only sure way is to wipe out every last one. That's what all our scientists agreed. Leave just one wraith alive and it could begin again."

Radim addressed Weir. "Those reports were discredited. The Genii Empire does not advocate the extinction of a sentient species — any species. I hadn't realized Ambassador Tyrus was such a radical, nor did War Commander Kolya."

"Gutless, all of you," Sora muttered.

Lorne decided it was time to put a stop to this talk. Sora was a fanatic; anyone could see that. Her father had probably inculcated her with his beliefs through her entire childhood. "If you can't give me your word that you'll refrain from attacking the Union citizens on the ship, you'll have to remain under guard and in your quarters except for meals and medical needs."

Sora spat. "Do that."

Radim sighed theatrically. "I give my word, on the honor of the Genii Empire and my name as a Radim."

"Thanks," Lorne told him.

"I studied science before joining the military, including Ancestor technology," Radim added. "I'd like to offer my own services if there is any way I can help."

"That is very generous of you, Ladon," Weir said.

Radim rocked his hand. "I wish to survive just as much as your people do, Ambassador. I assure you, my offer is entirely selfish."

Enlightened self interest was something Lorne was more inclined to trust than altruism. He spoke to Sora's guards and watched as she was escorted back to the quarters she'd been assigned. Quarters. Cell. There wasn't a hell of lot of difference between the two if you couldn't walk free. Of course, it looked like they were all trapped on this old scow, rats on a sinking ship, so it wasn't like they were much better off than Sora.

"I'd like to talk to her a little longer," Weir said. "She did just lose her father. No one should be alone in the face of that."

Radim lingered after Weir left.

"Something?" Lorne asked.

Radim hesitated, glanced at his guard, then shook his head. Lorne watched him leave, alone and without an escort, and sighed. The sigh became a long yawn. Lorne scrubbed at his face afterward, checked his watch, and decided to take ten minutes to himself before going back to the stargate bay to wait for the next check-in.

He was idly rubbing his finger over a table top, trying to figure out if it was plastic or metal, when Spencer approached. "Major," he asked, "can I take a minute?"

Lorne waved to him to sit down.

"Shoot."

"Sir, I was talking to one of the guys that was assigned to Radim. He overheard some stuff Radim and Ms. Tyrus was talking about, and it's worrying him."

"Are they planning on taking over the ship?" Lorne joked.

"No," Spencer replied, "they're worried about who the wraith is going to eat first." Spencer leaned forward. "It's like some kind of vampire right? It feeds on people. You know it's not going to feed on its own people. When it gets hungry, it's going to be one of us it eats. Or whatever those things do."

"Thanks for that cheerful thought, Spencer," Lorne said.

"Just thought it was something I should mention, Major."

"Consider it taken under advisement. Dismissed."

~*~


Anne had had her head down for so long, watching where she put her feet, listening to Palmer's footsteps behind her, that it took several paces before she registered that they were walking over ground flat as a pancake.

She came to a stop and looked around. They were standing along the edge of plain framed by rocky hills that clearly showed where water levels had lapped away layers before falling, over and over again.

"Hey," she croaked, "is this it? A sea bed?"

Palmer came to a stop. She dropped her empty containers and then her pack to the ground. "I can't keep going anyway," she declared. She dropped down to the white and beige dust and groaned.

Anne took her water bottle out and rewarded herself with two sips.

"Drink," she told Palmer.

Palmer emptied her water bottle. Anne winced at the prospect of sharing hers with the geologist on the way back to the stargate. "Come on," she said, "we're running out of time. Get out your test kit and do your thing." Or I'll leave your worthless ass here, she didn't add. She wouldn't anyway.

A check to the pedometer on her watch showed how far they'd come… and how far they'd have to go back, carrying the calcium carbonate, if this plain had been a sea bed once. It wasn't the weight or the distance that would get to them; it was the uncompromising heat that would result in dehydration.

In the distance, shimmering waves of rising heat reflected the sky in a mocking illusion of the water that had once glittered there.

She looked back to Palmer and found her carefully shaking a glass vial with a red liquid. A smile made Anne's dry lips crack. The red was fading. Palmer held the vial utterly still. She might have been holding her breath as well until the liquid was clear as the long absent water the mirages promised.

"Oh," Palmer breathed. She raised her gaze to meet Anne's. "I didn't really think we'd find it."

"Good job," Anne told her. She glanced down at the powdery stone under her boots. "I guess we get out the shovels now."

Palmer began putting her testing kit away. "I guess so."

Anne activated her radio. "This is Teldy. We've found what we need. Will radio when we start back. Over and out." She shrugged off her own pack and got out the entrenching tool — call it a damned trowel, she thought to herself, because it was a piss poor excuse for a shovel — before setting to work. "I'll dig, you fill," she told Palmer. Giving Palmer the easier of the two tasks made sense; Anne was fitter and tougher and Palmer would need every iota of energy she had for the hike back to the gate carrying the calcium carbonate. It might be necessary to dump their packs to lighten up or… Anne paused and thought. It would be easier to empty the packs and fill them with the calcium carbonate. She'd strap one container on each one too.

Even so, she thought they were running out of time and wouldn't make it back to the gate before the twelve hour window closed.

"Empty both packs," Anne ordered. "Fill them first."

She put her back into digging.

~*~


The heat hit like a slap to the face. John had forgotten how it assaulted the body, exhausting it with just the effort to keep his brain from cooking.

Todd turned eis face to the sun, eyes slitted nearly closed, and hissed. Iratus clustered their nests in cool, dank caves and holes, hunted in the dark, and spun webs in the shadows of thick forests and thickets. Wraith preferred their worlds in permanent twilight by human standards too. Hives were ill-lit to a human eye, organic and labyrinthine.

John wished he still had sunglasses.

Todd stood still on the sand. Eie was absorbing a sense of this world, tasting the air, reaching out with hunter's senses for the presence of any life beyond what intruded through the stiit veya. Desolate as it appeared, John wouldn't bet against there being a functioning ecosystem. Parts of the Empty Quarter and the Gobi looked as unwelcoming.

The two Russians came through the stiit veya last and it closed.

Leonard strutted around like the second coming of T.E. Lawrence, but the veterans gathered around Zelenka. John caught Ford's gaze and rolled his eyes. One benefit of being out of the Air Force was that he didn't have to maintain an officer's decorum with subordinates. Not that he'd ever been very dedicated to that, as more than one superior had noted, John didn't demand the respect due an officer. Only some of them had said he didn't deserve that respect. Funny, he'd returned the sentiment.

He'd always figured his men would respect him if he deserved it; making someone salute every time they saw him just made him an ass.

Ford flinched a little, then a reluctant smile slipped loose.

Todd looked down and shook eis hair loose around eis face.

"No other humans," eie said to John.

Ford drifted over to John's side. He kept a weather eye on Leonard and John between him and Todd, but it was an improvement over the way most of the SGC had reacted since John's reappearance.

"Sorry you got sucked into this mess, Lieutenant?" John asked quietly. He knew Ford had been miserably homesick for Earth and his grandparents from the time they'd arrived in Atlantis to when John had been swept up in a culling beam. He didn't think it had changed in the long months he spent with the Wraith. The Atlantis Expedition might have used the old Pony Express advertisement, orphans preferred, to recruit, but while Ford technically fit that recruitment standard, he'd had a loving family in his grandparents and no problem telling anyone so.

"Not sorry to still be alive, sir," Ford murmured.

John watched Leonard tromp over to Zelenka. He pushed Ledbedev and Semyenov out of his way and annoyance flashed across the Russians' faces. Sgt. Mehra kept station just behind and to the side of Zelenka, the bill of her cap shadowing her eyes, but not concealing the way she watched Leonard and everyone else.

"Which way did Major Teldy go?" Leonard demanded of Zelenka.

"You would have to ask Sergeant Mehra," Zelenka replied.

Mehra recited the numbers without shifting.

"Then we'll send out teams at right angles to that course," Leonard declared.

"Already did, sir," Mehra told him. "Major Teldy's orders. Nothing in either direction."

Leonard gaped then scowled. Ledbedev said something to Zelenka. "What?" Leonard asked. "What did he say?"

Zelenka glanced up from his kino remote and spoke guilelessly, "It is very bright, Captain."

John snorted. He suspected, though he'd never had more than few words of Russian that he picked up in Afghanistan, that Ledbedev had said Leonard wasn't very bright.

"Sir — "

"You don't need to call me sir anymore, Lieutenant," John interrupted.

"Sir," Ford said insistently. John switched his attention to him. "I never said I was sorry about what happened to you. I should have knocked you out of the way of that beam."

John studied him another moment then offered as much absolution as he could, "We didn't even know what those beams were, Ford. It's okay."

"But you're — "

"Not sorry to be alive," John echoed Ford's words back to him.

Ford glanced at Todd, but nodded.

The crackle-scratch sound of a radio activating snapped their attention to Leonard, Mehra and Zelenka. Teldy's voice was hoarse but clear as she updated concisely: "This is Teldy. We've found what we need. Will radio when we start back. Over and out."

John caught Todd's gaze. "We should head out and meet them," he said. "They'll be carrying enough weight to slow them down. We could make the difference to them getting back to the gate in time."

Leonard gave him a look up and down.

"We?"

John bared his teeth at him. "Todd and I could run you down, dance a jig, and not break a sweat, Commander." He added, just to piss off Leonard worse, "So could those two," with a nod to the Russians.

Leonard puffed his chest out and said, "Then you and they better go. I'll stay here and coordinate with Major Lorne on the Destiny." He turned back to Zelenka. "You, tell them."

After a spate of Russian, Ledbedev and Semyenov gave John and Todd considering glances before starting out.

"Wanna go, Todd?" John asked, because he wasn't letting Leonard think he got to give either of them orders.

Todd's agreement came through the hive sense as eie set out after the Russians. John had to lope to catch up, but he didn't mind. It felt good to move and do something, out of that ship, and under a real sky.

~*~


They outstripped the two Russians three dunes out. John paused long enough to make it clear to both of them should keep going too, but only until they bingoed on time. When they had been out as long as it would take them to get back before everyone had to gate back to the ship, they had to turn back, just like a jet had to save enough fuel to make it back to its airfield.

Both men looked mutinous, but one look at Todd's already receding figure, moving greyhound fast, white hair floating behind em, seemed to convince them. Without thinking, John slapped Semyenov — the one who should have been a defensive lineman in the NFL — on the shoulder, then took off.

He paced himself: not sprinting, but fast enough to draw even with Todd soon. They were covering more ground than Teldy and the geologist had in the same time. With any luck, both of them had started back by now. Maybe they could make it.

John hoped so. He might like being off the ship, but this wasn't his idea of a vacation planet.

~*~


Leonard checked his watch.

"We can't wait much longer. There's no point to searching when Teldy has what we need. I don't see any reason to wait around until they make it back," he said.

Dusty resisted the urge to sneer, but it took a real effort. Instead, she pulled a strip of gum from her pocket. Unfolding the silvered paper gave her an excuse to ignore Leonard.

"I think we should stay," Lt. Ford argued quietly. "Sir."

Dusty loved the way he pinned that sir on at the end. Boy could almost be enlisted they way he made that as near to an insult as possible. She slipped the gum inside her mouth and savored the first burst of cinnamon taste. She had a feeling it was the last time she'd get to enjoy.

"Sergeant!" Leonard yelled.

"Yes sir?" she replied.

"You look like a cow chewing its cud. Spit it out!"

Dusty tongued the gum up between her teeth and her cheek and faked swallowing. "Sorry, sir. Mom taught me spitting's nasty. You want to look in my mouth for it?" You sonovabitch.

Leonard gave her a sour look.

"Doctor Zenka — "

"Zelenka," Zelenka corrected.

"Zelenka," Leonard repeated, stressing the first vowel. "Dial the gate."

Dusty hoped Major Lorne bit Leonard's head off when he got back.

"Go through, Lieutenant," Zelenka told Ford after Leonard had marched into the puddle.

"What about you?" Ford asked.

"I believe Sgt. Mehra will stay with me while we wait for the others to return," Zelenka said.

"Major Teldy's my officer," Dusty added. "I'm not leaving without her."

Ford got it. "I don't feel right leaving without them, either, but Doctor, Sergeant, don't wait until it's too late."

"We will not," Zelenka assured him. "Now, go." He made a shooing motion and Ford folded, going through the gate with one last, long searching look in the direction Teldy, Palmer, the Russians, Sheppard, and the wraith had all disappeared.

"We will keep the gate open," Zelenka added. "Besides, someone needs to stay to translate for Lieutenant Semyenov and Captain Ledbedev."

"I'll tell the Major."

Ford disappeared and it was just Dusty and Zelenka again. The stargate made a soft, almost watery noise only noticeable in the near silence. She wondered if Zelenka could explain the noise.

Grains of sand sifted down the dunes, filling in the divots left by combat boots. Dusty watched them for a while and then said, "It's sort of like an hourglass."

Zelenka, standing beside her, flinched.

~*~


Anne had one hand wrapped around Palmer's wrist, not to pull her along, but to keep them together and let her know if the other woman went down. She didn't trust herself to not keep going; heat exhaustion was doing bad things to her head.

She'd lashed a container to the top of both of their stuffed packs. The weight dragged at her, but at least it was balanced and let her lean forward as they climbed each dune.

Coming down was almost as hard. The sand slipped out from under their boots and they'd skid and fall, sliding, until they reached the base or inertia slowed them to a stop. She worried landing back on one of the containers would burst it sooner or later, losing the precious damn calcium carbonate they'd come so far to get.

She kept checking her watch, even though she knew they couldn't move any faster.

"We aren't going to make it," Palmer said.

"Keep walking," Anne told her.

"Maybe if we dropped the packs — "

"Don't you dare."

Looking too far forward made the impossibility of their task slam home, so Anne held herself to one look from the top of each dune. She almost missed the two figures running across the sands toward them because of that and whipped her head back to squint into the distance.

It was two… figures.

One of them was the wraith, she realized, recognizing the long white hair flying out behind its head. The other one had to be Sheppard and she wondered why or how Lorne had sent them through. She found she didn't care, though. They were close.

"Andrea," she croaked. "Come on, help's coming."

"Do we run?" Palmer asked despairingly.

"Not yet."

~*~


Palmer, the blond woman, was scary red and starting to blister, despite wearing a hat. Teldy's lips were chapped white and cracking as she smiled at them when John and Todd reached the bottom of the latest dune.

"The packs are full of calcium carbonate," she said. "Take them."

John helped Palmer take off her pack as carefully as he could and then caught her as she seemed to just fold up. He had a bad feeling that now she'd stopped, she wouldn't be able to go any further.

"And you," Todd said to Teldy, the harmonic tones and subsonics of eis voice somehow flatter in the great bowl of sand and sky. Eie took Teldy's pack, with a five-gallon container strapped onto it, with that gentleness that still sometimes surprised John.

"No," Teldy insisted. "We'll slow you down."

"Not enough to matter," John assured her. He worked the straps on Palmer's pack, loosening and adjusting it to his frame. Todd observed then copied him with Teldy's. "We've got twenty minutes." Maybe a little more, he'd rounded down.

"Not enough."

"Enough," Todd said.

John slid on the pack, let it settle into place, and considered how he was going to get Palmer up the dune and all the ones after it. Dragging her along would be too slow; Teldy was right. She looked like she was two breaths from passing out. Fuck it. He hadn't gone through the SEALs Hell Week or the Air Force PJ's training, but he was tough and he'd survived the nasce.

"Trust me," he told her, before bending at the knees, taking hold of her hips and slinging her over his shoulders. Palmer squirmed and fought for a minute and John's biggest worry wasn't that he lacked the strength to carry her, but that her mass in addition to the pack and container would throw his balance too far off. He swayed and took a stumbling step, then swore. "Damn it, hold still!"

Teldy was staring at him. "A human can't carry another — "

John interrupted her. "Can, but not fast. Anyway, I'm not."

Todd had Teldy's pack on. Eie held out eis hand to Teldy. "Can you keep up or should I carry you, Major Anne Teldy?" Todd asked.

"I'll keep up," she stated grimly.

"John," Todd said. "I should carry the human. I am still stronger than you."

"Faster too. If you have to, get back to the stargate with the calcium carbonate without us."

Todd didn't answer but eis refusal and denial echoed through the hive sense painfully.

"Fine, do whatever you want," John gritted out. "You always do."

He turned and started up the dune, leaning forward.

Teldy collapsed as they came into sight of Ledbedev and Semyenov standing at the top of another dune. John kept laboring forward, while Todd stopped to scoop her up. She was off her head by then, protesting and batting at Todd, but without the strength to do more. Her weapon had been abandoned as too heavy long since.

"Ten minutes," John panted as he came abreast of both men. He let Palmer down into Ledbedev's arms in a tangle of limbs and then desperately shrugged out of the pack. He shoved it at Semyenov. "Go!"

Semyenov hesitated, Ledbedev shouted something, and then the big man was sprinting remarkably fast, shrugging into the pack as he went. John gathered Palmer back and hoisted her again. His leg muscles were screaming along with his lungs. Down the dune in a cloud of dust and sand. Losing the weight of the pack didn't seem to have made much improvement and Palmer was a limp weight, passed out sometime during the first run. That made it easier, so John was grateful.

Ledbedev passed him, running full out with Teldy's pack on, and John pushed harder. Sand showered down over him as Todd bounded down the dune.

The little clock John had always had in his head told him that if they made it, they would be running on fumes and luck.

~*~


"They're coming! I can see them!"

Zelenka's voice came through the radio loud enough for everyone in the gate room to hear.

Rodney clutched the edge of the DHD console. He'd looked up and realized Zelenka wasn't back an hour earlier. Worry he'd never admit to had drawn him to the gate bay along with a crowd of other onlookers. He knew most of them were worried that the team on the planet wouldn't get back with replacement material for the air scrubbers. Only Markov, Miko, and Beckett knew Zelenka; they were the ones who had been exiled to Antarctica with him.

It took an effort of will not to snatch Lorne's radio away from him and yell at Zelenka to come back. Rodney knew how stubborn the man could be and yelling wouldn't move him. Zelenka would do as he pleased, something else only his friends — another thing Rodney would never admit to being — knew about him. Well, Elizabeth probably knew. She saw what most people missed.

"Five minutes," Rodney heard himself announce. This was ridiculous, it was insane, how could there not be some way to stop the ship from leaving them, and any chance of survival, behind? He'd paused his mad pursuit of a key to finding more power to try again to break through the security on the auto-pilot programming when Zelenka went through the stargate. No good, no use, Markov had been shoulder to shoulder with him at the console and her steady cursing had become background noise to every foiled attempt.

"Find some way to keep the stargate open," Lorne ordered.

Rodney paused to glare at Lorne. What did the man think he was doing, had been doing?

He did reach over and pull the mike to Lorne's radio over to him. "Zelenka, stick something in the wormhole, half way," he said. "Not your arm," Rodney added pessimistically, picturing what could happen if the stargate snapped off while someone's limb penetrated the event horizon. "We don't know what will happen, but it'll probably shut down and cut it off."

"I would die here then anyway," Zelenka radioed back, sounding philosophical about it.

"No one wants to clean your dismembered arm off the gate room floor," Rodney snapped back irritably.

The numbers kept flashing, down, down, down. Elizabeth and the IOA woman were up on the observation level, watching, and Rodney cringed at her expression.

A marine, one of the officers, spoke up before Rodney could say anything else. "That won't work. Back in Atlantis, we got one of the gateships caught in an orbital gate, halfway through. The people in the back half were radioing Atlantis, but the front half was, I don't know, between. When the gate closed, it sheared the gateship in two."

Rodney nodded to himself. That was how the stargates worked. They didn't translate anything out the other side until the whole object had entered the event horizon. It had to be a discrete package, whether body or ship or crate. Anything only partially intruded would be lost when the natural thirty-eight minute window forced a shut down.

"Colonel Sumner sent another gateship to investigate. They found the back half of the jumper. We lost four people; the pilots, and the two in back from decompression."

"Dr. Zelenka, I want you and Sergeant Mehra to come back through the stargate now," Lorne ordered.

~*~


Dusty checked her watch. Like Zelenka, she could see the Russians coming and behind them Sheppard and the wraith carrying Teldy and Palmer — fuck me, Jesus — at a run, but the sand was slipping under their boots, slowing them down, and Lorne had just given the recall order.

"Time to get back, Doc," she declared and grabbed Zelenka's shoulders. Over his voluble protests, she marched him to the stargate and shoved him through.

"Come on, Mehra," Lorne radioed. "Over."

"Not yet," she replied, back to the puddle, peering against the glare, "not yet… "

Ledbedev was the skinnier of the two Russians. He passed Semyenov, long legs eating up the ground as he hit the flat, and Dusty got out of the way, because he wasn't slowing down for anything. A pack and one of the five gallon containers was strapped to his back, bouncing with each stride.

"Coming through!" she yelled into the radio. "Ledbedev's got it! Over."

Red-faced and sweat-shining, his teeth bared in a grimace of effort, Ledbedev threw himself forward through the stargate. Behind him, Semyenov pounded onto the flat, sounding like a bolting elephant. Dusty snapped her hand to her cap brim in a salute as Ledbedev passed her.

"Mehra, get your ass through the stargate!" Lorne yelled through her radio as Ledbedev breached the event horizon with a truncated slurp.

The last seconds were trickling away and Sheppard was too far away, the wraith was too far away, they were going to be too late. Sheppard was yelling, "Go, go, go!"

Semyenov was coming, his face just as set as his teammate's had been, eyes squinted nearly shut as he pounded over the last stretch to the stargate.

Dusty looked past him — he was going to make it, with another pack and container full of the stuff they needed — to the others. She held her arm up and pointed to her watch face.

Time's running out.

~*~


The first Russian barreled through the gate and stumbled to a stop. "The others are coming, you must hold for them," he blurted in Russian to Radek. "Sem — they are right behind me!"

"Has he got the calcium carbonate?" McKay asked, urgent, his gaze still on the stargate, the blue light of it reflecting off his unshaven face, from his eyes, blue from and to blue. His hands moved convulsively above the stargate controls.

Ledbedev shrugged out of the heavy pack, letting it drop to the deck with a weighted thunk. "Semyenov is carrying more," he said.

"Yes," Radek answered McKay. He raised his voice. "They've saved us."

Semyenov came through the gate still at a run, one broad hand locked into Mehra's tac vest, dragging her stumbling with him, momentum barreling them into a wall of mixed marines and airmen, tumbling them like ninepins.

Everyone knocked down stayed down for a breath, then a voice rang out, laughing and impressed, "Jesus, he's like a goddamned semi truck!" Another marine was thumping Semyenov on the back, telling him good job, while Mehra was handed to her feet.

"I'm glad someone listens to me," Lorne told her, and, "Good job," to Semyenov. Radek translated quietly. Ledbedev joined them and they stared at the rippling blue wormhole.

Another five gallon container of calcium carbonate, along with a backpack spilling a trickle of white powder — more precious than any smuggled drug — was handed over to Grodin and the ad hoc environmental systems team.

"I hope to hell it works," Mehra commented. Semyenov, on his feet again, gave her an apologetic look. She waved him off. "Sheppard and the wraith are carrying Major Teldy and Palmer. They passed the packs to the Russians to make sure they got here."

"One minute," McKay announced.

"Come on," Mehra muttered. "Come on. They were close — "

Radek began praying under his breath. He hadn't believed since he was a child, but the old words were a familiar mantra that sometimes helped him focus and stay calm. The stagnant air thickened in his lungs and his throat closed.

"Fifty-five seconds."

He wanted to shake McKay and tell him to shut up, but at the same time, the way time seemed to slow and stretch reminded Radek of how long a second truly was, in computer time, brain time, even in the realm of nerves and reflexes.

"Maybe we're better off without — " Airmen Spencer said from beside McKay.

"Andrea and the other major are with them," Dr. Park snapped at him.

"Forty seconds," McKay reported bleakly.

Radek looked at the timer racing down, red and remorseless.

He crossed his arms over his chest. To lose those who had done the most to give them this chance would be too unfair, Radek thought, but he knew nothing in the universe cared for such delusions.

"Twenty-five."

"McKay… " Lorne warned, but any order or reprimand trailed away.

At fifteen seconds, Sheppard staggered through the stargate and went down on his knees. He dumped Andrea Palmer's unconscious body forward over his head into a sprawl, and rolled onto his back. His chest heaved as he lay on the deck, sawing bad air into his lungs.

"Johanson," Lorne said, "check them both."

The blond medic was already crouching beside Palmer, checking her pulse before rolling her onto the stretcher Greer and Rennie slid into place. She turned back to Sheppard and ducked as the stargate slurped and Teldy's body flew forward into the gate room, landing on Sheppard as he pushed himself up on his elbows.

"That's it," McKay announced. Radek watched him turn away from the stargate and knew it wasn't callousness. "Brace for FTL." He knew McKay didn't want to see the stargate shut down with someone trapped, even a wraith, on the other side or in it. He saw McKay's shoulders square and his stance firm and his attention refocus. So much was happening — the gate room was a scene of controlled chaos: Johanson was shouting for another stretcher, Sheppard was freeing himself of Teldy, who seemed semi-conscious and combative, Lorne was giving orders to his people even as the environmental team took off with the containers of calcium carbonate — it would have been easy to miss something. McKay recovered his poise, though, and turned back, slapping Airman Spencer's hand away from the DHD console. "Don't touch, how many times must I tell you cretins — "

The timer flashed two seconds left.

Radek held his breath.

The wraith dived through the stargate, somersaulted over and rolled to its feet. Radek watched it shake dust and sand from its hair and whip around as the gate shut down. A toothy snarl — unless that was a Wraith grin — distorted its face. A chattering, clicking noise burst from it, with subsonics which made Radek's skin crawl and everyone who could, draw away.

Sheppard collapsed back onto his back against the deck and began laughing. "Bastard," he choked, "that was not fun."


III. Powerless

"I thought I told you to give McKay's team a hand so they could get some rest?" Lorne asked.

Volker flinched and said, "He threw a coffee mug at me!"

"Full or empty?"

The gaffed-fish look didn't improve the portly astrophysicist's appearance. The outraged huff only came after Lorne had passed him on the way to the meeting he and Weir had called. He wondered when the SGC started hiring third-string scientists; one thing he had to admit about McKay and his group: they worked like dogs. He'd found Volker pissing and moaning about being cut out of the process and told him to report to McKay earlier.

He decided not to worry about it. They'd been on Destiny for nearly three days now and he was starting to get a handle on McKay. The mouth was always running, but so was the brain. He had no manners to speak of and wasn't interested in wasting time on acquiring them.

Two steps further and he heard a set of boots on the deck grating as someone sped up to draw level with him.

Larrin flashed him a wide grin and tossed her hair over her shoulders. Bare shoulders. Lorne looked again. Had she lowered the neckline on the leather and fabric thing she wore? He was either seeing more skin or just noticing it.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?" he asked. He took a chance and smiled at her. Larrin smiled back.

"I want in on your command crew," she declared.

He started to say that wasn't what Weir and Wray were, then bit the words back. In a way, they were. He'd need to pull in a couple of scientists too, besides McKay — who had waved him off with a snarl when Lorne mentioned this meeting — Brody, maybe Markov, and Lam eventually, along with his people. Teldy and a good NCO to get the enlisteds' POV. Larrin did have experience on a ship and she would be a better choice than either of the Genii or anyone from the Union. He could point to her as a proxy for the others.

The shadow of a hexagonal grating fell over her face, their continued motion providing the illusion of the lines moving over her skin. The isolated glimpses of pieces of her features let him notice the fine lines, time's wear, around her eyes and mouth, that he'd missed before. The flashy smile and seductive look were all an armor of attitude hiding someone as stressed as he was and as worried.

"You can observe," he said.

"And advise," she insisted. "You think like a dirthugger. You can't help it."

"Yeah, okay."

~*~


Frustration nagged at him. This host didn't have enough authority. If they'd only been alone, he would have killed McKay for the disrespect the man had shown a god.

He schooled his host's features back into calm, but the rage had already shown, and one of the host's friends was looking at him strangely. He would have to deal with that soon.

In the mean time, he would sow the seeds of doubt.

He couldn't kill McKay yet, but he could make sure no one cared when he did. It would take a more delicate touch than the poison the two Genii spewed about the Wraith and their human minions.

Ba'al adjusted his host's biochemistry. The man had been prone to rage; he couldn't let this body and brain's habits become his. This was why he preferred intelligent hosts. They brought so much more to their service, even if he never deigned to merge with them.

"We're all fucked," Rennie declared.

Ba'al nodded agreement.

"So now we've got air," he added. "So what? We're still trapped and we have to trust McKay? How do we know he's not to blame? He's the one who was working on the stargate, right?"

He sat back and let the others run with it, only prodding them when their arguments threatened to settle.

"We all heard about what he did, right?"

Several SGC vets were eager to relay the story to the uninitiated. Ba'al snuck in another barb when it was finished.

"What if he's the Goa'uld?"

"Right," Riley picked up. "What if he's keeping us here? He could be lying to all of us. Him and everyone who came from Antarctica. Maybe it was a set up from the first. He knew no one was letting him go to Atlantis; he probably sabotaged the stargate."

Ba'al smiled at Riley. That was very well done.

"McKay couldn't have made Jaffa attack the SGC or brought in a ha'tak," Greer said.

"He could if he's a Goa'uld," Riley insisted.

"That guy Sheppard and the other freaks from Pegasus; they're all part alien," Greer muttered. "I tell you, that's just not right. They're the ones that worry me. I don't want to be in the same room with them."

Ba'al agreed and had been doing his best to avoid being alone with any of them. He didn't know if the wraith could sense his presence or not, nor what they would do if they did sense him. Not just a different species, but insects, with a different set of drives and imperatives.

"Sooner or later that thing is going to get hungry," he said. It was only the truth.

~*~


Elizabeth thought they should wait to have this meeting until Rodney and the scientists had a firmer grip on what they would likely be able to do. So many things wouldn't be necessary if it was possible to exert control over the ship and take it back to the Milky Way or dial the stargate back to a friendly planet there.

On the other hand, many of the people who had come through with them were at loose ends, without anything useful to accomplish, which could only cause problems in any sort of long term scenario. If they couldn't get back to the Milky Way and Earth, then the sooner they made plans for a permanent existence aboard the ship, the better off they would all be.

Camille had been talking with everyone and her input would be invaluable. She'd also spent a few minutes somewhere private and emerged with a reddened nose and eyes, but said nothing more about her own losses. Elizabeth regretted that she couldn't be more comforting. Despite her skill as a negotiator and her understanding about what moved people, she had never been comfortable with strong emotions. After so many years of talking people around to doing what she wanted, she couldn't turn off that part of her brain and just sympathize, and when she caught herself calculating how she could use someone's pain it always tripped her up and made her awkward and stiff.

"Are you with me?" she'd asked Camille instead.

"Yes. I don't want the military in charge."

It was good to have an ally. She thought that Rodney and his Antarctica group would also back her, which would provide a power base in counterpoint to the guns Lorne commanded. She'd put together her argument carefully during the long hours they waited for the gate team to return with the material for the air scrubbers.

At least with the environmental system working again, the air had improved and the pounding headache at the back of her brain had faded.

Larrin's presence startled her when she and Camille entered the designated conference room. Elizabeth nodded and smiled at her, though.

Lorne explained, "She knows ships, we need to know what she knows."

"Of course."

Major Teldy smiled as Elizabeth took a seat beside her. Dr. Lam had released her and Dr. Palmer a few hours after their return. Teldy's face remained painfully red up to the horizontal line where her hat had protected her forehead. She was probably going to start peeling tomorrow.

"I have some face cream," Camille murmured to Teldy. She'd carried a purse and a bulging laptop case through the stargate with her. She'd shared some of the cosmetics with Elizabeth, so they both appeared neat and groomed, rather than frazzled and out of control. Both of them understood that looks could be a weapon; more importantly, it would never do to present any appearance of vulnerability to a man.

"Carolyn gave me burn salve," Teldy whispered back. "It's not as bad as it looks, anyway."

Elizabeth wondered if Camille made the offer out of genuine generosity or to build a bond with the only officer of equal rank to Lorne. She hated herself for thinking that way, but she couldn't help it. Everything was part of the game. Major Teldy was a woman and that was something both she and Camille would use if they could.

The discussions went the way she'd predicted to herself: too many variables to contend with, no conclusions. Lorne considered himself in command: O'Neill had given him responsibility for everyone. Elizabeth argued that she was an Ambassador appointed to represent Earth off-world and it hardly mattered whether they were on Atlantis or this ship: they were most definitely off-world, the military had no authority over the civilians, and she should be in charge. She wished they could have presented a united front; Larrin sat back and watched their arguments with sharp eyes. That woman would use everything she saw and heard. Elizabeth already knew better than to underestimate Larrin: she was a canny negotiator who had wrested as much from the IOA as the Union had, despite the Coalition's far weaker position.

Larrin backed Lorne on his desire to explore the ship, citing the possibility of undocumented changes that wouldn't appear on the schematics the scientists had unearthed.

"Repairs can change a layout."

"Manuals and schematics are written up before hand," Teldy pointed out. "Things get changed before they go into production."

"So we send out mapping teams," Lorne said.

"It might be more energy efficient, not to mention safer, if you allowed Dr. Zelenka to use his kinos," Camille suggested.

"Dr. Zelenka is working with McKay on the power problem," Lorne said.

"What power problem?" Teldy asked.

Brody scraped his hands over his thighs and said, "The one where the ship is running out of it."

"Is it as bad as McKay makes out?" Lorne asked. Elizabeth wanted to demand why no one had spoken to her, even if there was little, practically speaking, that she could do.

"It is," Brody admitted.

"Damn it. Anything my people can do to help the situation? Beyond not leaving the lights on when we leave the room," he added with a smile. "I already got the lecture from McKay."

"McKay," Camille said quietly, "may be another problem."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. She thought Rodney had been working since they arrived on Destiny. He had fixed the airlock mechanism, determined that Destiny had dialed a planet with the necessary material to repair the air scrubbers, and at the moment was working on any way to exert control of the ship. She didn't see how that added up to a problem, no matter what the SGC veterans thought of him.

"What the f—hell's he done now?" Lorne asked tiredly.

"There is just a lot of distrust of him," Camille explained. She angled a look toward Brody, who grimaced back as she went on, "and among the scientists, some dissatisfaction that he's become the de facto head of science. They worry that the incident with Dr. Kusanagi was indicative of his methods."

"They think someone's going to get hurt?" Teldy asked.

"Can't blame them," Lorne said. "He's got a history and it isn't one of being careful."

"I'm fully conversant with Dr. McKay's history with the SGC, as well as that of Dr. Carter, Dr. Lee and every other scientist short-listed for the first or second Atlantis Expeditions, Major," Elizabeth interjected. She would have liked Bill Lee to take a larger role in leading the scientists, but he had gently refused her entreaties, down to not attending any of these meetings. "Believe me when I say his safety record is actually superior to most of them. The work the SGC asks of its scientists is dangerous." As Bill had pointed out to her, in fact.

"But most of the people here have just heard rumors and he doesn't exactly exert himself to change anyone's mind," Camille said. "They're scared and he isn't helping the situation by constantly yelling, threatening people, and declaring that anything they do may end up killing us."

Larrin spoke for the first time, interjecting sardonically, "Anything they do may end up killing us."

Camille shot her a dirty look. "Never-the-less. Most of the people who evacuated through the stargate were new inductees on their first orientation with the program. Normally they'd work on base for up to two years before they were evaluated for off-world work. They aren't psychologically prepared for this — "

"Didn't one of the Atlantis shrinks come through with us?" Lorne asked. "Heinman?"

"Kate Heightmeyer," Elizabeth corrected him. "Yes. She's working in the infirmary with Doctors Lam and Beckett. We should probably bring her in on our next staff conference. She and the other Atlantis veterans like Lt. Ford should have valuable contributions to make based on their experience."

"Either that or the stress of being stuck twice will crack 'em," Teldy said cheerfully. "She's going to have to work her ass off." Her grin was shockingly white against the red sunburn.

"I'd like you to stay on top of that situation," Elizabeth told Camille. Lorne frowned at her takeover of the meeting, but seemed to shake off whatever problem he had with her and nodded agreement.

"I'm not sure what I can do," Camille said, but nodded in agreement.

"Just try to oil the waters."

"And report back to us what's being said when we aren't around," Lorne joked.

"Spy," Larrin said.

Everyone else winced.

"I'll handle Rodney if he becomes a problem," Elizabeth volunteered. She wanted him on her side; by mediating for him she could at once act as his friend and build the power structure she foresaw needing aboard the ship. As long as Rodney saw her as being on his side, he would be on hers. She'd already seen that he was very loyal to anyone who stuck out working with him for more than a few months.

"Next problem," Lorne stated. "The… " He clearly stumbled and searched for a different word than he'd originally been about to use. " … Pegasans. The Genii tried to kill the Wraith representative. Now one of them is dead and his daughter is out for blood — one chat with her and it's clear she's a fanatic." He looked at Larrin. "Are you and your associate going to have trouble with any of them?"

"You know we don't call our galaxy Pegasus," she said and crossed her legs. "You may find the Unionists… and the Wraith hunter itself… useful. They don't think like humans and you'll run into trouble with that. They know that, however. You, or I should say they, have Sheppard, to explain things. I imagine that's why he was inducted into a hive — that and his ability to interface with genelocked Ancestor tech."

Elizabeth hid a wince.

"And the Coalition?" Lorne insisted.

"We're used to playing in-betweens with the Wraith and the Genii," Larrin assured him.

Or playing them against each other in order to survive themselves, Elizabeth observed to herself. It was a time-honored strategy for a weaker nation to maintain its sovereignty, after all. She couldn't fault the Coalition for playing the game to win.

Larrin had better skills than she pretended or she wouldn't have been sitting in the room with them. That made her another ally worth cultivating, though it appeared she and Lorne had already struck up an easy friendship.

"Don't worry about Ronon and I. Ronon might have a personal knife to wet, but under the circumstances, he'll keep it sheathed." She kicked her leg and added, "Though if he starts chanting a Satedan revenge oath and slapping his thighs… I wouldn't stand between him and the Genii."

"Great," Lorne drawled.

"You should get Sheppard or Emmagan in here with us next time," Larrin said.

Elizabeth wanted to laugh at the face Lorne made. He'd probably agree to Consul Emmagan just to avoid facing Sheppard. Who was, she admitted to herself, something of a wildcard. It would be too easy to forget Sheppard's priorities weren't the same as theirs when he shared their history, understood their jokes, liked the same foods; entirely too easy to forget he was alien now, if he made any effort at all to hide it.

Or maybe Lorne had just realized he was outnumbered by women in this scenario — even with Rodney and Sheppard in the inner circle. She wondered if he was actually threatened by women in power or just uncomfortable after spending years in the male dominated military sub-culture of the SGC.

It was too bad Sora was such a zealot or Elizabeth would have nominated her too. It would be more than pleasant to be part of a sexual majority for once.

"Last issue," Lorne said. "Who killed Darlington and what we do about it."

Elizabeth sighed because that was just the tip of the iceberg. If they were going to live on this ship, they would have to formulate laws. Even if Darlington's murderer was military and thus subject to military law and punishment, could they afford to lose anyone from their limited numbers? What punishments could they, practically, exert under their circumstances? What, of those punishments, would be it be ethical to use and did they want to have separate formats for civilian, alien, and military?

It wasn't as if any place on Earth had yet come up with a perfect formula. Some systems were better than others, but all had flaws that could be exploited.

No one but Larrin looked happy with the prospect of the coming debate. Elizabeth shuddered to think what she would contribute.

If she was going to be the voice of idealism, then she suspected Larrin, not Lorne, would speak for ruthless pragmatism.

"Let's begin with the question of what to do if the killer is a civilian," she said.

~*~


Teyla grimaced at the feel of her clothes. There had to be some way to clean them aboard this ship, but for the moment, she would settle for washing herself at least. Though she didn't find strong odors as unpleasant as the Earth humans did, she still objected to being dirty.

They were reduced to the clothes on their backs. Keeping clean would extend how long the clothes lasted as well.

As well as some way to clean clothing, the ship had to have some manner of bathing facility. If not one utilizing water, then some sort of dry wash.

While Sheppard and the Hunter had taken part in the planetary mission, Teyla had thought it wise to keep herself and the drones more separate. She had been satisfied to remain in their nest except for fetching meals. It seemed the time to venture out again had arrived. One of the Earth scientists might have already discovered what she needed.

One had.

Lt. James showed Teyla the facility and how they were using it.

"Everyone's using clothes from the supplies for Atlantis. It's mostly Air Force BDUs, but they're clean, you know?" James mentioned. "I could fetch a set for you."

"Would it not be incorrect for me to wear your people's uniform?" Teyla asked. She was tempted.

James held her hand out and rocked it. "My great-grandmother said needs must when the devil drives. No one has spare clothes and the uniforms are what we've got. Major Lorne and Ambassador Weir both signed off on it."

"Then I would be most pleased to wear fresh clothing after I've washed," Teyla replied. She began stripping down. James gulped and averted her eyes.

"I'll just go get — you're tiny, I'll just get everything in the smallest size," James blurted. "I'll be right back."

Teyla folded her dirty clothes into a bundle and handed them out the door to her eldest drone. "Take these back to the nest," she instructed him.

"This one should guard," he said.

"Unnecessary."

Teyla felt confident she could defend herself against any of the humans on the ship and anything the Hunter desired, even viand, she would provide freely.

A hint of disagreement colored the hive sense between them, but Teyla pushed her will across his, smothering it. He took the bundle and loped away. She suspected he or one of the other three would return very soon.

~*~


A shift in the tenor of the conversations around them alerted Lorne to Lam's arrival. The SGC doctor looked exhausted as she stopped in front of the chow line Airman Becker had organized. She summoned a weak smile for Becker as he handed her a bowl of oatmeal. Lorne couldn't hear their low voiced exchange, but from Becker's nod at the coffee machine, he was pointing Lam at some much needed caffeine.

Looked like he'd been right. Lam snagged a mug, filled it, and carried it along with her oatmeal — nothing else — over to the table he shared with the Ambassador and Wray.

Wray opened her mouth, no doubt to ask the same things Lorne wanted to know, but the Ambassador tapped her arm. Wray settled back into silence and the three of them let Lam slurp down most of her meal between gulps of a coffee in peace. She had found clean scrubs, but they managed to look as limp as the hair escaping her ponytail, echoing the exhaustion she obviously felt. An ugly bruise was darkening her jaw purple and green. She ate the oatmeal steadily, chewing like moving her mouth hurt.

"Sorry," she murmured when she finished. "I think the last thing I had after lunch at the Mountain were some puddings Marie got from the chow line yesterday." She worked her jaw from side to side with a pained look.

Authorizing his men to break open the supply pallets and set up the chow line as Weir had advised the first day had had been the right call. It gave them something to do and everyone was calmer with a full stomach. Everyone had been slowing down and not thinking clearly at that point. Maybe he should make sure McKay and the other scientists ate at least one real meal a day though, if Lam was an example. Pudding wasn't enough.

Lam touched her jaw where the bruise darkened it. Maybe she'd been eating pudding for another reason.

"Who clocked you?" Lorne asked.

"Mitchell." Lam didn't sound exactly angry. "Right after he told me Dad had ordered him to get me through the stargate."

"I don't understand," Wray said quietly, frowning at Lam and then at Lorne's reluctant smile. "Did the colonel object?"

Lam shook her head. "I'm the one that objected; I had wounded to care for and that was my infirmary, damn it. So the sonovabitch decked me, tied me up, and threw me through the wormhole."

He wouldn't want to be in Mitchell's shoes if she ever got within arm's length of the colonel again. Lam might be stating it lightly, but she was still mad.

"Well," the Ambassador said, "though you might not be happy to be here, we're grateful for your expertise." Amusement and sympathy laced her words; just the right mix to relax Lam. Girls against the world, her tone said, and Lorne saw Wray nod in response as well. Weir knew how to make people want to do what she asked, instead of compelling them. Probably why she'd been appointed to the Pegasus job.

Lorne hoped they could all benefit from her skills now that they were in a completely different fix from occupied Atlantis. The civilians weren't going to be happy if he tried to make them do things the military way.

Lam sighed and said, "Dr. Beckett is a fine doctor too, you know."

"I'm very fond of Carson," the Ambassador acknowledged with a smile. Right, she'd been in charge of the Antarctica base where Beckett had been working. She'd probably recruited him. Of course, she'd recruited McKay to work there too, so Lorne didn't know if her endorsement reassured him or not. "We're lucky to have both of you with us."

"What did the autopsy tell you?" Lorne asked. There was a time for pussy-footing around and one to be blunt and now was the latter. Lam could take it. She wouldn't have taken a job working on a military base — on an unofficial frontline — if she wasn't prepared for some bluntness.

Lam had been holding her stainless steel mug in both hands, absently turning it; now she lifted it to her mouth and sipped. The ambient noise level in their makeshift mess hall hadn't recovered; the attention on their little table made Lorne wish he'd seated himself with his back to a wall.

"Without a pathology lab or access to the ship's equivalent, I can't run the sample tests for naquadah in his bloodstream," Lam began, "but based on my experience, the body had hosted a symbiote." She twisted the mug in hands again. "Since it tore the victim up getting out, I think it's safe to assume it was a Goa'uld."

"Tore?" Wray asked.

Lam explained, "When a Goa'uld leaves its host, it either chews through the spinal column, severing it, or injects a neurotoxin directly into the bloodstream. They come out through the throat, using the barbed fins along their necks to pull themselves out. Darlington's throat and mouth display typical directionality on the exit wounds. Text book Goa'uld in a hurry."

"Any idea how long it was in him?" Lorne asked.

"Not long. No more than a day, two at the most, I'd say. Darlington wasn't in good health; he wouldn't have passed the physical to go off-world, for example. He was overweight, one eardrum was perforated, and I found a previously undiagnosed malformation in one of his heart valves. The Goa'uld would have repaired all that if it had meant to occupy him for long."

Lam sipped her coffee before smiling sardonically at Wray.

"Kind of ironic that those monsters can do things no doctor on Earth could manage, isn't it?"

"A case of the cure being worse than the disease," Ambassador Weir replied. She'd dealt with a few snakes. She looked worried.

Lorne would have worried if she hadn't.

"So, it probably took Darlington over during the attack on the Mountain," Lorne said. "I wonder if he was handy when it needed a new host or if that was the plan from the beginning."

"Do you think the attack was a feint?"

"It couldn't have known we'd end up here," Wray said.

"No, but it certainly might have intended to infiltrate the Atlantis Expedition," Weir said. "The Goa'uld are as interested in acquiring Ancient technology as we are."

Lorne could think of one System Lord with an obsessive interest in Ancient technology off the top of his head. Weir was probably thinking of the same one. He wasn't going to mention that name out loud. Too much like summoning the devil, even if he wasn't the superstitious kind.

He really, really didn't want it to be Ba'al.

"A spy," he said.

The System Lords would want to know about whatever dangers or alliances the Pegasus powers represented. Not the human ones so much, but any snake worth its naquadah would want to ally with the Wraith. That or make them into hosts; they wouldn't mind literally feeding off their slaves in exchange for a body that healed instantly and didn't age.

One of which they had on the ship with them.

They didn't know whether Goa'uld could possess the Wraith, but Lorne didn't want to find out the hard way.

Wray tapped her finger on the table and caught his attention.

"We need to know who the Goa'uld is now," she said.

Lorne gave her a grim nod in acknowledgment. The snake had moved on from Darlington, who was weak and didn't have the authority the Goa'uld would crave or access to any valuable information. It could be sitting at the table with him right now. He controlled the automatic desire to open the snap on his sidearm holster. The diplomats — he included Wray as one of them — wouldn't like that much. He'd seen it on other worlds; a lot of people thought that if they just pretended everything was all right, it magically would be. In Lorne's experience, either someone fixed things for them or the situation went from bad to hell and you didn't even end up with a hand basket to show for it.

He shifted on the — damn uncomfortable — metal slat bench and reminded himself that channeling Col. Edwards wouldn't win him any friends. The room they'd chosen as a mess hall already had tables and benches, all of it unpleasantly similar to a school cafeteria, hard to break and easy to clean. The lights weren't fluorescent, but the overheads kept randomly dimming, making the shadows flicker and his heart skip a beat. The low ceiling added to his discomfort, despite years of working at the SGC, which wasn't much better. The SGC didn't run to strips of lighting on the floor at least and he could go up top if it got too claustrophobic under the Mountain. The concrete everywhere at the SGC was painted over — admittedly industrial gray — and there were no exposed metal beams crusted with oxidation.

The rust made him nervous: rusted things broke down. He'd caught Larrin peering at the rusty streaks with a hard frown, too. If she didn't like what she saw, neither did he. Maybe he could ask her about when they were in his quarters tonight.

Fixing or keeping the ship running wasn't his job. McKay and the rest of the scientists would have to do that. It would have felt better if he could do something. Lorne smoothed his hand over his face and realized he needed to find a minute or two to shave. One thing he could do was present a neat and clean appearance.

The other thing he could do was snake hunt, but he needed to do that discreetly or the civilians might panic. Edwards had been an old school hardass. Lorne needed to soften his own approach, which shouldn't be so hard. He liked most people. He'd been the one on Edwards' gate team who got along with everyone. But he hadn't been in charge back then and he realized now that it made a hell of a difference.

He turned to Lam.

"Can you figure out a way to identify the Goa'uld in a host?"

Lam gave him a sour look in return.

"Doctors did that seven years ago," she told him. "It's called an MRI and unfortunately no one thought to shove a million dollar piece of medical equipment through the stargate with us."

Lorne faked a smile. If only they had a Jaffa with them or an ex-host that could sense the fucking snake. Might as well wish for power to dial back to Earth, a warm welcome, rainbows and pots of gold while he was at it. Like he'd learned in boot camp: shit in one hand, wish in the other, see which fills up first.

"Think of something," he ordered Lam.

She shoved a lock of lank hair back and appeared to be thinking about it, at least. She was a smart, tough woman — nice-looking too — when she wasn't exhausted and testy.

"I can try palpating the spine," she said. "There's no guarantee, but if it's a large, mature symbiote I might be able to detect its mass. The technique isn't reliable — "

"If it's all we've got, doc, we'll go with it," Lorne assured her.

Shit.

He was floundering. Majors always had the colonels and generals to answer to and to stand behind them, ready to throw around the not inconsiderable weight of command. Lorne had never been this separate before; even off-world there had been the reassuring knowledge that Earth was just on the other side of the stargate. There was always someone up the chain of command from him, somewhere to go. It wasn't like he didn't feel responsible for everyone under his command before, but now he had no one looking out for him. The buck stops here, the cheese stands alone; however he put it, he was it.

It had just hit him, so he knew the civilians and plenty of the military who weren't gate-rated hadn't got it yet.

They were on their own.

It looked like Weir got it. Maybe she'd be more help than hindrance. He needed any help he could get and that included from people like Sheppard as well as Weir.

It sure put a different spin on the men and women who went to Atlantis in the First Expedition. Maybe he should re-evaluate Lieutenant Ford, for instance. Poor bastard. Made it through a year stranded in Pegasus, puts in his papers, and gets swept up and shoved through gate again, was lost all over again. Murphy had it in for that kid.

Then there was Sheppard, with the boyish floppy hair and the way he moved, smooth as a kid, but with the sharp edges of a man twenty years older, and a thousand yard stare from those cat-pupiled eyes. Lorne needed to stop letting Sheppard push his buttons. That meant making an effort to not see him as a freak, since everyone under his command took their cues from him and, of course, Sheppard picked that up and reacted defensively. He knew no one wanted a living, breathing, damning reminder that what could happen to any of them out here might be worse than dying.

Worse even than a snake in your head and wasn't that a kick in the head? Right now, he had to focus on finding the guy who really had a snake in his head — not snakes, though he expected that in a group of three hundred plus, there'd be at least one of those too. If they weren't crazy going in, this situation would be enough to crack at least one of them.

It would probably be him, he reflected, if he went on acting like he was Shane and had to go it alone.

"I'll order everyone to report to the infirmary for a snake check." Keep an eye out; with a smidgen of luck, the Goa'uld would panic and run, giving itself away.

"People are not going to like being under suspicion," Wray said.

"I know."

Weir frowned before addressing Lam. "You mentioned Dr. Darlington wouldn't have passed the exam before going off-world. Could we couch this in terms of giving everyone a physical, something to establish a health baseline, since we have no records?"

Lam began nodding before she finished. "That's an excellent idea. We'll need to take medical histories, at least as much as people know. Ask what medications everyone is on, in case it's something that can't be discontinued, and I'd like to bank blood donations from everyone."

"Sounds like a good idea," he said. He needed to think of these things. He had to take care of these people. They were all his now. "Better make sure there's some kind of storage for the blood first."

"Don't try to teach me how to suck eggs, Major," Lam replied.

He ignored her annoyance and went on, "Set it up. I'll detail a squad for security."

What the hell would they do with the Goa'uld when they found it? No one had found anything that looked like a brig yet. They would have to lock it inside a set of quarters and put guards on the door.

He rubbed his forehead. One headache at a time. They had to catch it first.

~*~


Larrin joined him when the others left.

"Hey," Lorne said. He hoped she wasn't still pissed over the less than ruthless punishments he and Weir had hammered out between them for any offense less than murder. She'd argued that anything that endangered the ship should count as attempted murder, but been overruled.

"Come to my quarters," she said.

"For what?" he asked.

Her smile turned disbelieving.

"Are you a sterntiller?"

Lorne gaped at her. "A what?"

"You prefer men?"

"I — what — no!" He hoped that Sgt. Becker hadn't heard that. Well, if he'd heard Larrin, Lorne hoped Becker had heard him deny it. High school had to be the last time his face had gone this hot.

Irritation and confused crossed Larrin's face. "Then… " Her frown cleared and she spoke slowly and clearly. "I want to have sex with you now."

Becker dropped a tray full of knives and forks, scattering them over the deck and under the other tables in a hail of clangs that rang through the mess hall. The silence that followed had everyone staring at Lorne and Larrin as well as at Becker — he was gaping, switching his gaze between Larrin, who remained relaxed, and Lorne, who had gone stiff and painfully aware of everyone looking.

"You… " Shock robbed him of any other words. His mind had locked up like an overheated computer. " … me?"

"Go for it, sir," Becker whispered — rather loudly — as he knelt to pick up the spilled cutlery.

Lorne was still blinking at her and thinking, at least she isn't under my command, as Larrin stood, grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet. He went with her because he thought they needed to talk about this in more privacy.

A couple of whistles and one catcall reached his ears as they exited the mess hall, alerting him that everyone else thought he had accepted Larrin's invitation.

"Isn't this a little sudden?" he pulled himself together enough to ask.

"What? I want sex. Ronon's still in some kind of Satedan mourning celibacy, and Hivers stick to their own kind, so Sheppard and Emmagan are out." She cocked her head. "McKay would be good, but he'd probably fall asleep if I got him into a bed."

"Nice to know where I fit into your list."

"It's sex. It feels good. We aren't going to bond for life or have babies," Larrin replied impatiently.

Lorne still had his doubts, but Larrin's confidence was a weird turn on. Her quarters were deeper down the ziggurat than the rooms Lorne had chosen and the bed was huge, covered in sheets and down-like comforters pulled out of stasis storage containers beneath. "Right," he said. "No babies. You've got birth control?" Did he? He always had a strip of condoms in his tac vest on missions — better safe than sorry — and, like a tampon, they could be useful for more than their original purpose, but the vest was in his quarters.

"Yes," she said.

He still wasn't committed to going through with it until Larrin started stripping. Lorne started breathing hard, cock hardening fast in his BDUs, and he hoped she wasn't lying. Bareback was still a risk, but he knew she'd been through Medical at the SGC: if she'd had any communicable diseases, she would have been in quarantine.

Standing in nothing but her pants, she glanced over her shoulder at him and observed, "If you leave now everyone will still think we did it."

Her gaze dropped to the bulge at his crotch. "Or maybe not." She unfastened her pants and peeled them down her legs.

Lorne's breath caught in his chest.

"Come on, Major. You never know what will happen tomorrow."

He stripped off his uniform shirt and the tee-shirt beneath, then started on his belt.

~*~


It was alarmingly easy to lie next to Larrin and tell her about growing up in San Francisco with two mothers and three sisters. About joining the Air Force as much to horrify them all as to serve his country. He hadn't even been that crazy about flying. That made her chuckle as they curled around each other. She stroked the back of his neck while Lorne admitted how scared he was that everyone he'd tried so hard to get away from was dead.

"Two nieces, two nephews," he said. "I wish I'd visited more."

"Names?" Larrin asked softly.

"Theodora, Justin, Isabelle, and Ned."

"You were rich."

"Yeah," Lorne said, understanding her effortlessly, "I was." He chanced a touch of his own to her eyebrow, tracing it. "Your people don't have big families?"

"No room on ships for extras," Larrin replied. She leaned in and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Radiation, too."

"Oh."

She shrugged. "I never wanted kids anyway, but it would be nice if others could have them, you know?"

"Is that why your people want part of Atlantis?"

"That would be a bonus."

When they were both almost asleep, he whispered, "I just don't want to fuck up."

Larrin tightened her arms around him. "Then don't. I'll help."

~*~


Ba'al watched until everyone but the two guards were gone from the gate room. He zatted them both from the upper level and strolled down the stairs. His minion was elsewhere, but it hardly mattered. He had no intention of taking the incompetent fool with him.

He had been observing the ship and McKay was right. It was failing, running out of power reserves. Already many of the lighting strips were no longer operating. He wasn't sure if some of the consoles were dead or had been locked down by McKay.

While his plan might not work, the time to try it was running out. He suspected that very soon the ship would no longer have the reserves to open its chappa'ai at all.

He did not suffer a lack of places to go, unlike the Tau'ri. Let them worry about their little planet. He was a System Lord — or would be when he returned to the Milky Way and wrested control away from his original — and commanded multiple planetary systems.

A moment's study proved all he needed to read the console. Ba'al had made a study of the Gatebuilders' language and this appeared to be an older form, but not indecipherable, indeed rather simplified compared to the layers of meaning attached to each letter of their alphabet as he'd first translated it.

Instead of elegant glyphs, the ship required the raw coordinates which it translated into a chevron entry, but Ba'al had retained the locations of several of his favored systems through his move to this host. It was a work of seconds to translate the glyphs he knew into the Gatebuilders' interstellar constructs.

He initiated the chevron sequence while wondering if any of the Tau'ri aboard would be brave enough to follow him through the chappai'ai if it succeeded. The prospect of showing them his power warmed him. The host's body reacted predictably. They were getting along much better now. It helped that they were both sadists.

Equally delicious was the thought of those left behind to the bitter knowledge that they were trapped when they could have escaped. Other Goa'uld underestimated the satisfaction one could take from mental tortures — though Ba'al did like to let his Jaffa enjoy themselves with a prisoner. If they became overly enthusiastic, there was always the sarcophagus. Its use and the consequent addictions added another layer of pain he could dole out, simply by denying it.

But all those pleasures were predicated on his return to the Milky Way.

The ship shuddered and once more there was the blurring feeling of it falling out of FTL. Ba'al braced himself against the console. He disliked this method of travel intensely. Ha'taks were far smoother, but of course the use of hyperdrive post-dated this ship.

Lights went off as the ring of the chappa'ai turned. Ba'al stiffened as the chevrons failed to engage. A groan seemed to shiver through the ship, ending in a shudder of the deck under his boots.

He retreated off from the console to one of the hatches. No doubt someone would be coming soon. He couldn't afford to be seen inside, not if the chappa'ai was failing.

The sounds of runners in heavy boots approaching told him they were coming.

The ring remained empty, spinning futilely.

Ba'al cursed to himself as the blond lieutenant arrived, took in the two unconscious guards with a muttered, "Shit," and radioed for Major Lorne.

~*~


Rodney didn't have to hear the gate to realize someone was trying to dial it. Every light in the control nexus dimmed, a scarlet alert began blinking wildly on the screen before him, and the ship jolted as the FTL cut out.

"What!?" Rodney shouted furiously. "I told them! I told them. That idiot Lorne — "

Zelenka flailed awake as Rodney rushed past the bench he used to nap on.

Two soldiers failed to move out of Rodney's way fast enough as he ran for the gate bay. He shouldered one aside hard enough to hit a bulkhead and knocked the other off his feet. He may have stomped on a hand, from the yelp of pain behind him, but Rodney didn't stop to ask.

The gate was still cycling without a lock as Rodney rushed in. He could feel his blood pressure spike to new highs as he screamed at Cadman, who was staring at the gate and not doing anything.

"Shut it down, shut it down, shut it down! You stupid, idiot, blonde — " Rodney shoved her aside and kicked one of the guards sprawled on the deck out of the way to get at the controls. "Did you screw your way through officer's candidate school or are all Air Force officers brain-damaged and useless!?"

He hit the dialing shut down and the ring stopped. The lights didn't come back up even as the power drain ended. Rodney had to squint to make out the gate in the low lighting from just a few emergency strips along the floor.

With a sense of growing horror, he queried the DHD.

Someone had tried to dial back to the Milky Way.

"You moron!" Rodney screamed. "Sonovabitch piece of shit bastard brain dead pox-dicked imbecile!" His head was going to explode. He could feel his heart racing so hard he thought his blood would blast out through his pores. The darkness at the edges of his vision was indistinguishable from an impending blackout. "Do you know what you've done… "

Rodney let his head hang and clutched at the console as vertigo swung the deck under him up and down, side to side.

Cadman grabbed at his arm and he spun away from her. "Keep your hands of me, you incompetent cow — "

His knees folded under him but Cadman caught him before he fell face forward into the deck. "Dr. McKay, I think you're sick," she said in a tight voice as she levered him back to his feet. "Because normally I think you're too smart and too much of a coward to talk to me like that when I could beat you to pile of mushy shit."

"We're screwed," he moaned, "we're so screwed. You're too dumb to understand it, but I know. I've tried everything and now — "

Another skin-crawling, color-twisting shimmy marked the ship leaping into FTL once more.

"I'm going to get you to the infirmary," Cadman murmured, still holding Rodney up, "okay?"

Rodney clutched her while everything swung around him. His stomach rolled and lurched but he had nothing to come up but coffee and bile and swallowed it back desperately. "All the reserves are gone," he muttered. "Gone. No way off. Can't dial again, stuck, rats on a dead ship." He clutched at her and pushed into her space. "Don't you get it?" Rodney exclaimed. "There's not enough power!"

"Whoa, back off," Cadman snapped, recoiling. "Your breath is bad enough to power something, I swear."

Rodney laughed deliriously. "Doomed, doomed, doomed," he chanted, because it was all hilarious. He was the smartest man on Earth, only they weren't on Earth, they were on some antiquated, automated hellboat on a voyage to nowhere and he was going to die because everyone around him was a pants-pissing cretin. It was a joke. It was a huge, the-universe-plus-every-self-serving jackass-at-the-SGC-hated-him practical joke on M. Rodney McKay. Everything was spinning away, but it would all collapse back. Inertia was like that and eventually the universe itself would succumb to a slow and miserable heat death.

Unless it kept expanding faster and faster until it tore itself apart, faster and faster and faster and fast—

The lights were going to go out; Rodney sped ahead of them.


IV. Extinction

The feel of the ship dropping out of FTL alerted Lorne something was wrong as urgently as a wailing alarm would have. Larrin had the same reaction. She was dressed in the time he took to pull on pants, boots and grab his tee-shirt, pulling it on as he headed out the door.

He grabbed up his belt with his holstered sidearm and portable radio as he went.

Larrin followed him, barefoot, but with the gunbelt that held her blaster slung diagonally over her shoulder. The lights in the corridors dimmed and then the emergency strips along the floor came on, but only every other one and even they were dim.

"Gate bay," Lorne called to Larrin and ran.

He got there in time to see two of his men lying on the floor and Cadman struggling to keep McKay on his feet, while the man muttered something about doom.

Larrin arrived beside him and made the same connections as Lorne: "Someone tried to dial the gate."

"Yeah," Cadman replied.

The already familiar if deeply unpleasant experience of the ship engaging its FTL field shimmered through them. For a brief second, it felt like every atom in his body was being split in two. Colors shifted and ran and his vision doubled. He wasn't sure if it seemed to take longer than previous times or not.

Zelenka, Brody, and Corporal Greer and Sergeant Mehra arrived. "What is wrong with Rodney?" Zelenka demanded. He hurried to Cadman and took up some of McKay's weight. McKay was still muttering, but the words were too slurred to make out. Mehra began checking out the two airmen, feeling for a pulse at their necks and nodding to Lorne.

"Report," Lorne told Cadman.

"I got here and both guards were down," Cadman blurted. "The stargate was spinning but not engaging — "

McKay's eyes rolled up, the whites showing suddenly, and he went completely limp.

"Greer," Lorne said, "Go get one of the doctors."

Zelenka and Cadman eased McKay down. Mehra joined them. More people pushed into the room. Sheppard and the wraith were there; they had to have come up from deep in the ship, down where Emmagan had picked out quarters for the Union contingent. So it probably hadn't been either of them who had dialed the gate. Lorne wondered if it had been McKay. Maybe he'd gone off his head…

"McKay shut it down," Cadman said.

Which meant nothing. Lorne realized Greer was still hovering behind him, watching Sheppard and the wraith. "Greer, I gave you an order," he snapped.

With a last look at Sheppard, Greer turned and went.

"He has not slept more than a hour since we arrived," Zelenka said to Mehra.

"Did McKay dial the gate?" Lorne asked Cadman. He found it hard to believe McKay could have taken out the two guards, but they would have have considered him a threat. It was possible.

Cadman scowled at him. "No, sir. He got here after me."

"Let's hope Billson or Singh can tell us who knocked them out then," Lorne said. Not that he expected that sort of luck.

Beckett, Johanson and Ko hustled into the gate room with a stretcher — less than a full week in and they already had a routine. Lorne scrubbed at his face. Ko's nose wrinkled as she passed him. As soon as the medical personnel had displaced Zelenka and Mehra, he addressed the scientist.

"Check out where they tried to dial the gate."

Zelenka cast one more worried look at McKay. Beckett said, "Don't worry, Radek, I'm thinking it's exhaustion and poor eating habits. We'll have him right as rain and ranting in a wee bit."

Larrin stalked around the console and watched as Zelenka went to work. "I don't know those coordinates," she said. "They must be for your home galaxy."

Zelenka nodded as he worked. "Ano. These are for the Milky Way. I am translating them to SGC designations… " He paused, then recited a gate address. "P9G-773."

Lorne tried to remember that one. "Never heard of it."

Zelenka shrugged narrow shoulders. "It is a large galaxy."

"No damn kidding," Lorne said.

It had to have been the Goa'uld, trying to get off the ship, not giving a damn for the consequences to everyone else.

"Think you could do something about the lights?" he asked.

"There is nothing to be done," Zelenka snapped at him. "Rodney told you this. The power reserves are low — " He gasped. "Oh, no, no wonder Rodney was so — "

"What?"

"I must get back to the control center to be sure," Zelenka blurted and rabbited past Lorne.

Well, shit. It seemed like he did nothing but chase after panicking scientists since arriving on this junk heap. He paused to finish buckling on his belt and holster, told Cadman to assign four guards on the gate this time — two of them on the upper level — and let him know when the two zatted guards came around, radioed Lam to let him know when McKay was conscious, then to Weir to update her. Then he started down to the control nexus.

He supposed it made good sense to have the control center buried deep inside the ship — bridges that were on top should have gone out with sailing ships, they were too vulnerable and no one would be piloting something like the Destiny by eye — but he found it intensely uncomfortable. Deep down and windowless translated to dungeons, prisons, and ha'tak cells for him.

If Lorne was honest with himself — and he tried to be — he disliked Destiny. The whole ship seemed ready to fall apart. It wasn't the damage it had taken; it was the sheer sense of age. All his instincts screamed it was too old to still be working.

It smelled of hot metal, lubricants, oil, ozone and mold. The air was damp; clouds of steam pulsed from vents in the floors and ceilings at unpredictable intervals. Red-orange rust wept down the bulkheads. Brown powder spilled from under panels where whatever insulation the Ancients used had burnt out. Every read-out panel showed red and orange alerts.

His hand brushed against a wet bulkhead and he snatched it away. The steam might keep everything warm, but he'd be glad to suffer a little dehydration, like the crews of the Prometheus and Daedalus did, in exchange for not feeling damp all the time.

He hated the sounds this ship made. Destiny groaned and creaked and clanged, the sounds echoing through the corridors. It hissed when the environmental system dumped steam into the air. A heavy, constant vibration ran through the deck gratings under his feet. The bone deep thump of the drives made him think of a heart and that made him feel like he'd been eaten and was trapped in the belly of a beast.

Larrin had said that the crew had to become the ship's symbiotes, keeping it going so it could keep them alive, just reinforced the notion. He didn't like the idea of living in something's guts.

Talking with her had been good, though, maybe better than the sex had been. Sympathy might not be her strong suit, but Larrin had listened to him and made some sensible suggestions. She'd squeezed his hand and said nothing when he talked about the things that couldn't be helped and pretended not to notice when his voice cracked while telling her about his moms and all the rest of his family.

He'd had long enough to learn most of Destiny's noises, though, and know, like the breath of the air scrubbers working properly, that they meant life aboard this ship.

His heart stuttered and fear flushed through his veins when all the ambient operating noises other than the FTL drive died away and the last of the emergency lighting went out.

In utter blackness, surrounded by terrible silence, he searched for and found a few sounds. The scrubbers were still working and they were still in FTL. Only the former comforted him. He heard footsteps and voices raised in panic. A flashlight beam flickered through the corridor.

"Major Lorne?" Mehra's voice, though he couldn't make out her face through the flashlight's glare. Even when she pointed it at the deck, she was nothing but a dark form beyond the beam's illumination.

"Sergeant," he said gratefully. He'd left his tac vest, which had his flashlight, in his quarters. Never again. There was no natural light in the bowels of this ship, or any ship in space, he realized. From now on, and he was making this an order for everyone, no one went anywhere without a light.

More shadows moved behind Mehra and Lorne tried not to recoil when two sets of eyes reflected yellow-green.

Sheppard and the wraith.

Lorne wondered if they needed a flashlight to see, since even cats and other nocturnal hunters needed some ambient light.

"Who's with you?" he asked, thinking someone else was there too.

Mehra swung her flashlight up to waist height. High enough to illuminate faces without blinding anyone. Sheppard, the wraith, Larrin, Dex, and Lt. Scott. He wondered where Dex had been while Lorne had been with Larrin and when Dex had caught up with her.

"Any idea why the power's out, sir?" Scott asked.

"I think we'd better go ask Dr. Zelenka," Lorne told him, despite a sinking feeling.

"The reserves are gone," the wraith said. "Only essential systems are still running."

Yeah, that was what Lorne had suspected too. He shivered. The air already already felt drier too.

The wraith produced that clicking laughter it had in the gate bay and added, "Our hives cannot venture into the gulf between galaxies. They die like this without a sun to renew their energies. This ship is older than any hive. Our weaknesses are not its."

So the wraith didn't have a solution either. Lorne shoved his disappointment aside — he didn't really want to be beholden to the alien anyway — and said, "Control nexus. Whatever answers there are, we'll find them there."

Zelenka confirmed what Lorne had feared. The scientist was frantically trying to bring even one console to life, while Commander Leonard used a flashlight to help him work, but everything remained stubbornly dead. The dull screens seemed to say it wouldn't be too long until they were as well.

"Rodney warned you."

"But aren't there emergency reserves?" Lorne asked plaintively.

"That's what the ship has been running on since we came aboard," Zelenka replied. "Did you not listen? Establishing a wormhole costs a vast amount of energy, even when a connection is not achieved. Trying to dial the Milky Way… " He shook his head. "All systems are shut down except basic life support and FTL. I do not know which will fail next."

"It's going to get a little cooler," Larrin told him quietly. "But we won't freeze."

"Nice to know" Lorne acknowledged. "Anything else?"

"Listen to your Engineer," she replied.

Lot of good that did with McKay laid out in the infirmary, probably pumped full of sedatives since Beckett had been in charge.

"Anything fucking useful?" He instantly regretted snapping at her when she was trying to be supportive. It was just that his sisters had always done the same thing, but aimed at keeping him from trying anything he was interested in trying. They'd kept it up through his teens, until he left for the Air Force Academy.

Larrin shrugged off the edge of his temper, at least. "Get off the ship."

"There is no power for the stargate," Zelenka said.

"Then curl up with someone you like and hope you go in your sleep. It could be worse."

Lorne wanted to ask if she'd do that with him, because he didn't want to be alone either, but thought better of it. He realized Sheppard's gaze was on him and winced inside. Shouting at civilians and subordinates would look real good in front of the guy he'd replaced in a command position. Real classy, real competent.

He just… He needed one damn day in which they weren't about to die so that he could pull everything together and get on top of it. Lorne suspected General O'Neill would have told him that good commanders managed anyway. He didn't know what Sheppard thought, but it felt like he was failing right and left to him.

All he could do was the next thing. He said, "We need to tell Weir."

~*~


The warm chemical mist provided by the ship's hygiene chamber acted adequately to clean the body and even felt pleasant. Teyla lingered in it, combing it through her straightened hair. She made a face since no one could see. She had none of the treatments she used to keep her hair straight. It wouldn't be long before it reverted to its natural state. The dyes that she used to give it the same beautiful crimson shade as Athos' queen would fade soon too. She had, on Sheppard's advice, already forgone her usual elegant masks of pale paint and cheek markings while on Earth. Very soon, with the exception of her eyes, she would look no different than any human.

She would miss heightening her appearance. Though she had lamented her short stature all her life, a properly painted mask had let her approach the ideal of looking pure Wraith.

More than once, that mask had given her confidence when she took on her duties as leader of her people aboard Athos Hive and dealing with those on the provider planets.

The cleansing mist beaded and slid down her hair. With a good shake, it flew out, splattering against the opaque enclosure. She was startled and pleased to realize it had left her hair dry. The beads slid down the walls to the floor covering, which gave slightly under her toes when she flexed them. There was no drain for fluids; instead the floor absorbed the mist.

She was as dry as she had been when she began, but felt clean, her skin smooth and polished. Maybe the chemicals in the mist would work on clothing too? She frowned. Perhaps not cloth, but leather and other smooth surfaces? She would experiment.

She wished Lt. James would hurry with the replacement clothing.

When the ship abruptly left FTL and the lights dimmed to a minimum she knew there was a problem. Teyla's eyes were more versatile than any human's, but she didn't relish navigating by heat signatures alone. She sank down into a a meditation position and cleared her mind of irritation; her calm flowed through hive sense to the drones. They were disturbed by the power failures, but would stay in the nest. She judged it wisest to keep them safe there, aware that the humans might panic in the dark. She would be patient, recognizing that any change would upset them and no doubt delay Lt. James' return. The Hunter touched her mind lightly, ascertaining that she was safe, then withdrew. She only sensed the hive-kin through em, his mind tightly focused on the ship, but was reassured to know Sheppard too was still well. She would wait.

Her patience ran out shortly after the ship returned to FTL and even the emergency lights failed.

The washing chamber was pleasantly warm and nudity was not uncommon deep in the interior of a hive, but with only the basic life support working along with the engines, the temperature here would drop some. Without some heat added regularly, the ship would cool below the comfortable temperature a hive maintained inside, despite the insulating properties of the vacuum around it, and clothes would become necessary. Though that would change if they entered a star system. Getting rid of heat would be the problem then.

She rose to her feet. She would return to the nest. More heat would linger longer there, nearer to the engines which were at least engaged.

Her bare feet were silent on the deck. Warm and cool spots lingered behind walls and in the air circulation system, but they were settling toward a common temperature.

A mass of heat entered the corridor ahead of Teyla.

"Who's there?" the human called out.

She had to raise her hand before her eyes when he turned on a flashlight and aimed it at her face.

"Whoa… "

The light trailed down over her torso to Teyla's relief, allowing her to squint and see past the worst of the glare. One of the humans from Earth, a male, she identified. One of the appealingly Wraith-like pale ones. Not a threat. By dress, this one might be a soldier — or a civilian who had changed into clean clothes.

"Allow me to pass," she said.

"Sure, you've just got to pay a little toll fee first," he said. "See, this is my corridor."

"I do not understand," she lied. She could smell arousal hormones spiking in his system along with stress adrenaline.

He saw her as a fertile female and wanted intercourse. His scent lacked the complex weave of hive scents that would have made him attractive to her, so she did not consider him as a viable partner for breeding or pleasure. She preferred her consorts pale, which she admitted made her somewhat shallow, but she had always hoped any children she bore to the hive would resemble the Wraith in coloring and height more than she did. Though her coloring had distinct benefits on-planet as a protection against solar radiation, the paler members of the hive processed several vitamins more efficiently, and she knew — had known — her children would not leave the hive.

"Aw, come here, pretty girl," he said. "I just want a little kiss."

Teyla approached him. "This is not your corridor," she told him as he reached for her.

"Don't be such a tease," he replied, "you walk around looking like that — "

Since she didn't want to permanently cripple him and cost the crew his contribution, she snapped the bones in his forearm instead of his wrist joint. He dropped the flashlight and screamed. Teyla used the strength of hybrid genetics to shove him aside so she could continue on her way.

"No," she said as she passed him and added, "You should have one of your doctors set that bone."

He whined and cursed her, but Teyla didn't look back until another flashlight beam interrupted the darkness from behind her and Lt. James — Teyla recognized her scent — caught up to her.

"Are you okay?" Lt. James blurted. She thrust a bundle of clothes toward Teyla. "Here. Atienza was being a dick about inventory, it took me longer — I'm so sorry, I saw Private Clark — whoa, I can't believe you just walked out like this!"

"Why wouldn't I?" Teyla asked. Bodies were bodies. They shared all the same basic appendages and orifices, whether human or hybrid or even Wraith, vestigial or developed, clothed or unclothed.

"Well, someone like that jerk back there — " Lt. James said, then stopped. Her teeth flashed in the faint backlight from her flash. "I wish I'd seen you do that."

Teyla examined the clothing and pulled on the pants, followed by the tee-shirt and the over blouse. She thanked Lt. James and added, "I will return to the ne—my quarters now. My people are worried."

Lt. James nodded. "Everyone is." She hesitated then said, "You can call me Vanessa. If, uh, you want to."

Teyla inhaled silently and analyzed the scents coming from Lt. James. She was not aroused, though she was frightened. It was a normal fear reaction, natural under the circumstances. Other than that, Lt. James smelled clean — she had obviously availed herself of the washing mist already — slightly sweaty, distinctly female, and of the distinct toxins exuded by all meat eaters. A second breath told Teyla that Lt. James was not currently fertile; her cycle had been artificially suppressed.

"I would be pleased, Vanessa, if you would in turn know me as Teyla," she said.

"Sure, and maybe'll you'll show me whatever move you used on Clark."

"Perhaps when we have time."

She flexed her feet against the decking. It was textured to prevent skidding, but bit into the soles of her feet. She wanted her boots.

"You must need a light," Vanessa said.

"I can navigate using heat differentials," Teyla said.

Vanessa said nothing for several breaths. Teyla waited patiently.

"Wow. That's got to be handy. But you still need some way to stay in contact." She unclipped one of the soldier's radio handsets and offered it. Teyla noted Lt. James' own radio was riding in the breast pocket of her uniform blouse. "This is what Atienza was complaining about giving up. It's one of our radios. Please take it with you."

Teyla accepted it with pleasure. It was more awkward than hive sense, but would allow her to monitor the humans' communications.

"It might not come in too well down in the ship's guts, but you can always try," Vanessa added. "You know how to use it?"

"It is not difficult," Teyla said. She'd flown darts, after all. Communication devices were easy in comparison.

Vanessa grinned at that. "Yeah. Okay, I've got to get back to the observation deck."

Teyla thought of initiating an Athosian farewell forehead touch, but Vanessa would not know the gesture and they were not hive-kin or friends yet. Perhaps, given time, they might become the latter. She had had friends from provider worlds before, though they were very different from the people of the hives, Teyla had always been able to discover something they shared — common ground, they called it.

She had been remiss since coming aboard this ship. It was time to build new ties between her nest and these people.

Once this latest crisis passed, she would begin with Ambassador Weir and Larrin Traveller, as well as Vanessa. Vanessa she would teach the bantos rods, she thought.

~*~


John left Lorne demanding Zelenka and the scientists do something; he knew they were out of options. It looked like Lorne and the rest of the people who had tumbled through the stargate in a panic only days ago wouldn't be given the gift the Atlantis Expedition received: they wouldn't have time to adapt and learn to survive with no one to rely on but themselves.

Zelenka and the other scientists from McKay's group got it, but they were still locked out of Destiny's mainframe: the Alterrans had been paranoid and protected the ship's programming behind walls of security, encryption and codes. Todd said they had been that way in Renus too, so maybe it had been cultural thing, or maybe the Alterrans hadn't been explorers for the joy of discovery any more than the SGC was. Given time, Todd believed the codes could be cracked, but time had proven too short.

If they'd possessed every code and password, they still would have been trapped and out of luck. Control couldn't help when every system on the ship was shut down and powerless.

The quiet ate at John's nerves more than the darkness did.

He found his way through the dark corridors by memory and entered the infirmary the doctors and other medical personnel had set up. They'd used whatever had been left aboard the ship, but not much remained and the supplies sent through hadn't included a great deal of equipment. The rooms looked barren in comparison to most medical facilities, more like ones in the war zones John had seen.

But unlike the rest of the ship, they were lit. Three battery lanterns pushed the shadows into the corners and kept him from startling anyone as he came inside. He spotted Lam sacked out on a bed, dark hair loosed to spill over the white sheets. The nurse and the medic were in the next room, visible through an open door. It looked like they were doing inventory; one was using a laptop and the other had her hands in an opened box.

Kate Heightmeyer wasn't visible anywhere, to John's relief. She'd tried to speak with him a few times in Atlantis, and he didn't want to duel wits with her again.

What brought him to check on McKay couldn't really be articulated. John's instincts insisted McKay might have some answers, but maybe he just sympathized with McKay because he seemed like another outsider. John hadn't fit in with the people at the SGC even before they sent him to Atlantis; it seemed like McKay had been treated the same, only he'd been exiled to Siberia and then Antarctica.

Now he was hearing whispers and rumors that faulted McKay for where they were and not fixing everything instantly, but as far as John could see, the poor bastard had been working all out since they came through the stiit veya.

The Scots doctor looked up from a microscope and gave John an inquiring look.

John gestured to the bed where McKay was sleeping. He had an IV in his arm, but nothing else attached.

"Just came over to check on him."

"Well, and it's about time someone did."

John wandered over to McKay's bed and studied him. Asleep, the tension McKay carried in his stance, his shoulders, and his expression was relaxed. He snuffled a little on each inhale. John wondered again why he'd been drawn to check on the man. Maybe he wanted to like McKay because McKay didn't like Lorne. He could be that petty sometimes.

McKay looked pale, but not sickly, although the dim lights gave his skin a blue tinge that made John wonder what it would be like if McKay took the nasce. The want that thought elicited shocked him so much he backed away a step.

"He's just asleep," the doctor said. He left his stool and microscope and came around the foot of the bed to stand next to John.

he weight of the doctor's gaze on him drew John's attention away.

"I'm Dr. Beckett."

"John Sheppard."

"Aye, I know." Beckett's eyes glittered a little. "Do you mind — " He reached for John's face, to touch the blue-green tattoos running up the side of his neck to his cheek and temple or to turn it into the light from the lantern sitting next to the microscope.

John jerked back. "Hey!"

Beckett gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Forgive me. I'm a geneticist, you see, and I can't help but be fascinated. Are the markings a result of introducing the Wraith genetics? There's a definite blue tint to parts of your skin — "

"They're tattoos."

"Could you just turn your head to the right, lad?" Beckett asked. He hadn't picked up on John's distaste for his interest in the changes the nasce had forced on him, too fascinated by the mechanism to notice that someone who had experienced it against his will wouldn't care to discuss the results with an absolute stranger. "Look at the reflectors in your eyes! They shine like an alligator's, lad. How far up the light spectrum do you see?"

John shrugged. "Farther than human."

"Has no one tested you?" Beckett sounded outraged. "It's a sin against science — "

"I'm not interested in playing guinea pig," John snapped.

Beckett finally caught a clue. "There's a reason they put me in a lab in Antarctica. You'll accept my apology, won't you? I hadn't meant to be quite as irritating as Rodney at his worst."

"Yeah, no problem," John said. He glanced down at McKay, who hadn't stirred, even when John raised his voice. "What was wrong with him?"

"Exhaustion, sleep deprivation — do you know the man hasn't stopped to even find himself any quarters? — and hypoglycemic shock. The fool knows he needs to eat nutritious meals on a regular schedule, but he forgets," Beckett replied. "Likely I shouldn't share that with you, but it would be a grand thing if someone would look out for him when he won't do it himself."

"Huh."

"We'll just let him sleep and feed him a decent meal when he wakes up," Beckett went on.

"Right."

"Have you got any idea when the power'll be back on?" Beckett asked.

"None," John answered honestly — without adding that McKay had worked himself into a collapse trying to stave off this failure and there likely wouldn't be any solution. Beckett could learn that from Lorne or Weir whenever they made their announcements. It made him a little more sympathetic to the doctor, who was as helpless under the circumstances as John.

So, he decided to answer Beckett's inevitable next question about his current state. He knew one was coming — curiosity just rolled off the man in waves.

"Forgive me, but what was the experience like?" Beckett blurted out.

"The nasce?"

"The change to your DNA," Beckett said.

John shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. He'd been in a cocoon through most of it; he remembered dreams — clickchitter — but they were disjointed and vague. It began with a fever, he remembered, as his immune system had kicked in and tried to fight off the nasce. He'd already been weak at that point after weeks without solid food, already been addicted to the viand Todd had provided instead, and as his system rebelled and tried to reject the changes, he'd vomited thin bile and sweated blood from every pore. The nasce had swept over him fast, as overwhelming as the queen's mind pushing into his, and as painful. Within hours his joints ached, then his muscles and his head, but by then Todd had been spinning white silk around him that numbed wherever it touched, a funeral shroud for John's humanity.

"Like a cross between Ebola and epilepsy," he said. "I got sick fast. I was unconscious through most of it." Only aware enough to realize with horror that the 'gift' he hadn't wanted was changing who he was forever. "I wouldn't recommend the experience."

"Extraordinary work," Beckett sighed. "I've studied some of the Goa'uld's work in genetics, but your Wraith seem to be far ahead of any other species in biologicals. — Is it always successful?"

Todd could provide exact numbers. Todd's queen had been among the Wraith who designed the nasce in the aftermath of the Asuran conflict. Teyla could tell Beckett the history of the Union better than John could. Her people had been the first to join the Wraith, the first to accept the nasce and become true parts of the hives, to remain aboard the hives even while all but a few keepers and drones hibernated.

"No."

Beckett locked nonplussed and John softened toward him, enough to reluctantly agree when he asked for a blood sample and to not say anything when Beckett groped his neck and spine.

~*~


Rodney woke up with his thoughts clear and his stomach demanding food, the lingering shudder of the ship leaving FTL still crawling over his skin. He also had an IV biting at the back of one hand. The single battery lantern glowing on one of the counters of the room they'd designated as the infirmary at first seemed a kindness to a sleeping man, but his brain caught up as soon as he sat up and saw that none of the ship's emergency lights were on. Only the sigh of the ventilators remained.

His claustrophobia surged to the fore as he felt the weight of the darkness in the ship shift and press around him. Rodney sat up fast, swung his legs off the bed, then sat, clutching the edges of the bed convulsively. He would not panic. He would not — what was that ridiculous mantra from Dune? Right, right. His mind was his best weapon, he had to stay in control even though it insisted on jibbering, no power, no power, we're dead, dead, dead, in hysterical terror. He sucked in deep breaths and recited to himself, Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the mind-killer. Rodney couldn't remember the rest, but that was the important part.

He hadn't even really liked Dune, it was too much about religion and philosophy and all that soft science gobbledy-gook, but he'd always fancied he would have made an excellent Mentat.

Thinking about the book distracted him enough for his claustrophobia let up. Destiny was a huge ship, bigger than many towns, and beyond it stretched the near-infinity of space — Okay, not thinking about space and its critical lack of air. Thinking about the ship.

The ship that was out of power.

Rodney concentrated on breathing and the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear and didn't look up when Carson Beckett bustled over to him and began babbling. Instead he held up the hand with the IV and snapped, "Get this off me."

"You're a fool," Beckett told him, but began removing the IV. "What do you think you accomplish by working yourself into a collapse? You've been sleeping for sixteen hours. See what it cost you?"

"Yes, time this ship doesn't have."

Beckett's fussing slowed to stillness. "Do you really think there's anything you could have been doing that someone else hasn't tried already?" he asked. Beckett sounded more hopeful than skeptical, but unfortunately Rodney suspected there wasn't anything he could have done.

"Zelenka and Markov are marginally competent," he admitted. With direction from himself they were sometimes even brilliant. Miko was reliable too, while satori didn't strike her often, she was better than anyone at spinning out all the minute and fascinating implications of a major breakthrough.

Freed of the IV, Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face, wincing at the rasp and prickle of several days' beard growing in.

"I have a meal for you here," Beckett said, "and you will be eating it before I let you leave."

Rodney opened his mouth to argue, but a pang from his stomach stopped him. "Okay," he said, "okay, I'll eat."

Beckett retrieved a tray and handed it over to Rodney.

"It's cold," Rodney complained.

"Everything is."

He looked up from the tray and realized Beckett's worry applied to far more than Rodney's state of health. His hands were shoved in the pockets of his white lab coat, but he could see the material over the pocket wrinkle where Beckett was nervously pleating it. The ship was so quiet now and Beckett wouldn't know all the implications, but he wasn't completely stupid. No power meant no escape. The prospect of slowly drifting through the abyss between stars forever effectively wrecked whatever enjoyment Rodney'd had in the food, but he methodically ate the rest anyway. It might be his last meal.

After he'd cleared the tray of everything but an apple, he asked Beckett, "Satisfied now?"

"Don't be such a git and forget to eat next time," Beckett snapped back. "I don't want to see you back in here."

"Blah blah blah," Rodney said. "I give your life excitement and you know it."

"Rodney, we're on an alien ship in an alien galaxy and I've assisted Carolyn in surgery on one gunshot wound and two post mortems since arriving, so I think I've had all the excitement I can bear already." Beckett seated himself and looked into his microscope again. He muttered, "It's bloody insanity, is what it is."

"What's so fascinating?"

"Mr. Sheppard's blood. He was kind enough to give me a sample when he stopped to check on you. The modifications the Wraith made on his genome are utterly amazing — "

"If you're Viktor Von Frankenstein," Rodney said with a shudder. He pocketed the apple and fled the infirmary while Beckett babbled on about retroviruses and gene therapies.

Green chem lights were taped to the corridor walls at intervals. Rodney followed them upward to the observation deck and asked around for the lieutenant he'd nearly attacked. Lieutenant Cadbury? Something like that. He wished he had a chocolate bar instead of an apple. Honestly, why send fresh apples through the stargate when chocolate would keep so much better? Okay, admittedly, it might be necessary to keep it under lock and key. It just seemed unfair to face impending doom and have to maintain a healthy diet.

He wondered why Sheppard had checked on him. Maybe he'd been hoping to feed Rodney's unconscious body to that wraith he trailed around — it looked like some lamprey-mouthed haunt. Maybe the Wraith were like zombies and preferred brains or at least brainy people. Rodney had always known he'd be doomed in a zombie apocalypse.

Lieutenant Cadman, it turned out, was playing poker with several other scientists and military. He doubted she could make out much in the very dim light of the FTL envelope that came through the observation deck floor to ceiling ports, but she looked up and grinned saucily at him. "Hey, Dr. McKay."

"Lieutenant," he muttered. "I, uh, you, I may have jumped to conclusions when I approached you in the gate room and said some things that, ah, I might, possibly, that is, have made accusations that were at best injudicious and ill-considered." There. He'd done the necessary, as his mother would have put it, and if Cadman didn't accept his apology, he was hardly to blame.

Cadman cocked her head.

"Was that an apology? It's hard to tell. It might be injudicious to just assume," Cadman said while smiling at him. "I bet you know what assuming does."

Rodney drew himself up and scowled at her.

"Yes."

He exited the observation deck with dignity intact, ignoring the snickers and whispers behind him.

Major Lorne was in the control center along with Zelenka, Miko, Markov, Lee, Brady — Bradley? Broöts? Brody! — Elizabeth, that Larrin woman, and that other woman, the one from the IOA. Rye. Ray. Whatever. She wasn't a scientist, so Rodney didn't care.

Rodney pulled out his apple and bit into it. The sound made everyone look at him. Zelenka flung his hands up and said, "You're back. You tell them there is nothing to do when there is no power for the systems!"

"The ship's dead," Rodney said through a mouthful of half-chewed apple. Wray and Elizabeth both winced and Lorne looked disgusted. His people didn't even notice; they were used to Rodney ignoring manners when he was intent on something.

Rodney lifted the apple to his mouth again and froze as they and everything around them fluctuated — that was the only word for it — as even the FTL engines stopped. The stillness that followed made his skin crawl, but even so, even with a mouth full of half-masticated apple, his brain ran through every possible avenue and found a new one. Everything on the ship relied on its power reserves, but a shuttle had to have a separate power source — a strong one to boost it out of a planetary gravity well. He snapped the fingers of his free hand then pointed to Zelenka. "Get that laptop and come on!"

"Come where?" Zelenka yelled after him.

"The second shuttle!" Rodney shouted.

It annoyed Rodney that even with his head start, Lorne and that Larrin person caught up and passed him. He changed his mind a moment later when he turned into dead black corridor and realized the chem lights hadn't been used anywhere but the high traffic areas, which didn't include the winding route to the shuttle dock. Ahead of him, Lorne cracked a lightstick. Rodney followed it, panting and muttering to himself; he didn't want to lose the light and find himself stranded in the dark.

Objectively, he might be sure there was nothing evil lurking in the dark, but the lizard brain was afraid of being blind. The lizard brain might not be wrong either, he thought, considering that they had a Goa'uld hiding among them.

Larrin's exclamation alerted him before Lorne arrived at the shuttle dock. Rodney peered ahead and realized he could see the bulkhead and airlock ahead. Lorne's light wasn't that strong. Rodney upped his speed and arrived as Lorne stepped inside, caught the edge of the airlock, and peered inside.

The second, sound shuttle had internal power, as someone besides himself had already discovered. Sheppard, the wraith and the sergeant who went through the stargate to the desert planet were already inside.

"Sgt. Mehra," Lorne said, "how did you end up here?"

Mehra nodded toward Sheppard. "He asked me to come along when you took that dinner break, sir. Nothing better to do."

"And you didn't radio me when you realized the shuttle had power?"

Mehra looked discomforted. "Got a little caught up, sir." She shifted out of the cockpit back to the passenger section of the shuttle.

"I should have thought of this," Larrin said to Sheppard.

Sheppard smirked at her, then shifted his attention and said, "Hey, McKay, you're up. Take a look at some of this."

Sheppard was in the pilot's seat, while Todd had the co-pilot's place and was operating the controls to bring up a variety of sensor screens. There were less detailed than Destiny's sensors, but still provided an amazing array of data. Rodney pushed between Larrin and Lorne and squeezed in next to the wraith, crouching awkwardly in order to fit in and still be able to see. Proximity to Todd made his skin crawl, but he needed to see exactly what it was doing.

He read the data on display and said, "The ship's entering a solar system. There are at least four planets registering, one's a gas giant. The trajectory — " Rodney stopped.

"What is it?" Lorne asked, crowding up to look at the same screens.

Rodney glanced over at Sheppard, who nodded — he'd figured out what Rodney had seen. If they hadn't been about to die, he would have put some thought into the question of whether Sheppard had been halfway intelligent before the aliens messed with his DNA or if it was a result. Not that medical voodoo was Rodney's area of interest, but he had considered medicine at one time, before he realized it made him sick just reading about all the horrors flesh was heir to.

"Destiny is falling toward the gravity well of a gas giant. According to these numbers, it will sling shot around the planet, altering its trajectory without needing any power of its own."

"It'll be a hell of a show," Sheppard added.

"Like nothing anyone from Earth has ever seen," Rodney agreed. "This would all be so much more exciting if we weren't, you know, doomed."

"You'll think of something," Sheppard said and the complacency almost shot Rodney's blood pressure through the top of his skull.

"Not Superman," he snarled.

"How about Batman?" Sheppard leaned back and grinned at him.

The skin along the side of his neck and his temples was blue, Rodney realized. Blue-ish. It looked like skin, wasn't shiny-slick like the wraith's, but it made Rodney want to run away and scrub himself pink and human at the same time his endless curiosity made him want to find out if the texture of Sheppard's skin was different there. Rodney shook the crazy thoughts out of his head.

"At least Batman's smart," he said.

"Hey," Sheppard sounded offended. "Superman's smart."

"Pfft."

Mehra chuckled behind them and, while Larrin looked confused and irritated, Lorne's mouth had quirked into amusement.

The wraith clicked, making Rodney jump, and said, "No hive has ever approached a gas giant so closely in my memory."

That was interesting. Wraith hiveships were organic and had weaknesses which non-organic ships didn't share. Completely useless information, of course, since they didn't have a hive or even a way to communicate any revelations back to Earth. Maybe there wasn't even an Earth anymore… His breathing picked up and he clutched at the edge of a console until the tide of fear swamping him receded again.

"Like you could see anything from a hive or a dart anyway," Sheppard muttered. "Whoever designed those things never heard of a port or a windshield."

"They are weaknesses in space. Sensor data in three dimensions is far more useful than what the non-augmented eye can apprehend," the wraith replied, unruffled.

"Yeah, but where's the fun?"

Sheppard was right. The only way to deal with this was to laugh at it all. When he'd hoped to go to Atlantis or anywhere off-world, he'd always thought he'd get to go home afterward. He had been unforgivably sloppy in his wishing.

"See what detail you can get on the other three planets," he ordered the wraith.

The question was, of course, had Destiny altered its course to reach this system when the power began failing or was it just the next stop on a pre-programmed course? Thank God he wasn't an English major like Jeannie's husband, or he'd be wondering if you could alter the course of destiny or something equally useless and existential. He wasn't going to think about the English major and Jeannie, though. They were — they weren't part of his life, not before, and not now. He wasn't going to think about why he was alive, because the reasons didn't matter so much as staying that way now.

Zelenka arrived and made a crowing noise before squeezing behind Sheppard to hook his laptop into the shuttle's system.

"Three planets," the wraith said. Its clawed hands looked too massive to move as nimbly as they did over the controls and it tapped most buttons and switches with a talon tip. It paused occasionally to search out some function that wasn't intuitive, but was at least as fast as Zelenka. Rodney itched to sit down and do it himself, of course, but bit back the demand for it to give up its seat. He doubted he could intimidate it the way he did most weak-willed chair-fillers. "Two within the habitable zone, one marginally. The sensors on this craft aren't strong enough to tell more." It added with dark amusement, "Perhaps when we're closer, we'll discover one of these planets will be as lovely as the one with the red predators."

"We could take the shuttle out and survey them," Sheppard suggested.

"The ship's moving too fast for the shuttle to go anywhere and make it back," Rodney said. He glanced around and added, "And not large enough to carry more than a few people and supplies, if we did find a suitable planet to evacuate to."

"What about the stargate?"

Rodney rolled his eyes.

"No power, Major," he forced himself to repeat in a calm tone instead of verbally eviscerating Lorne the way he wanted. "No way to know if any of those planets even have a stargate."

"It's equally possible the stiit veya is in orbit around the gas giant," the wraith said.

"The what — "

"Stargate," Sheppard clarified.

"Why would there be a stargate in orbit?" Lorne demanded. "Anyone going through would killed."

Sheppard and Larrin shared a look and the wraith chuckled, the odd clicking at the back of its throat making the noise strange. Rodney couldn't resist poking at Lorne this time. "What, didn't you read the reports on Pegasus, Major? Some second-in-command you would have been." He sent a smug look Lorne's way. "Sorry. I always get that mixed up. It's the Boy Scouts who believe in being prepared, isn't it?"

"You use a gateship or a dart," Sheppard said. He smoothed his hands over the controls again, pensive, and then patted them. "Better than any jet on Earth. Free… " His voice trailed away.

Lorne sighed. "Great."

"I'm forgetting something," Rodney said as he looked out the front viewport of the shuttle. The shuttle reported they were moving at half the speed of light, so the effects of relativity were neglible. The sands of time weren't running through an appreciably larger opening back in the Milky Way. The gas giant orbited its primary sixty-two light minutes out. Once the ship performed the slingshot, it would take two hours one minute to reach the star, provided the ship survived the slingshot maneuver. Of course, the shields might fail before they technically arrived at the star. Aside from the shuttle there was no way off Destiny. No way out, not even through the stargate.

The stargate…

Rodney snapped his fingers and stumbled upright. "Lee's naquadah generator!" he crowed. "I take back almost everything I ever said about him. He had one moment of genius."

They would send the shuttle out to gather data on the three planets once the ship slingshoted around the gas giant. It could gather data on all three planets and once they had that, they could choose a destination and open the stargate — if there was one, but Rodney told himself there would be. They'd be able to evacuate everyone and the critical supplies, instead of stumbling metaphorically naked onto an alien planet. Possibly he could even hook the generator up to the mainframe and harvest some other gate addresses. It would be critical to take as many gate remotes and kinos with them as they could too.

They would keep the shuttle, of course. With it, they'd have the ability to eventually put satellites and sensor platforms into orbit.

It would be hell, of course, but it was a chance.

"Told you you'd think of something, Bruce," Sheppard said.

~*~


John knew he'd be piloting the shuttle; if Lorne wanted someone else, he was ready to fight over it. The shuttle might be an antique compared to the gateships they'd found in Atlantis, one that didn't even demand its operator possess the ATA gene, but it was closer to them than anything from Earth. John was the only person on Destiny who had experience flying anything like it. Lorne was Air Force, but he'd been on a gate team for years, and the two F302 pilots, Scott and Kennair, were newbies without any experience in anything not built on Earth. Todd read Alterran and might have managed, but eie disliked piloting and small craft. The only question was who would co-pilot.

Even without those arguments in his favor, John knew down to his bones he was the best pilot around. The ego came with getting through flight school, but he had flown more birds than anyone other than a test pilot, even before going through the stargate.

Lorne didn't argue. Larrin wanted onboard and that sparked an argument between her, Lorne and Weir that lasted over an hour, but Lorne just nodded to John and said he trusted him. It made John gnash his teeth.

He wasn't surprised when Larrin won, just waved her into the co-pilot's seat.

Zelenka, a biologist, and a nervous-smelling man named Volker shuffled inside. Clothing rustled as they took seats on the two facing benches behind the cockpit. Lt. Scott and Sgt. Mehra filed in after the scientists.

John closed the airlock and waited. They were dependent on the portable radios to communicate with anyone on Destiny. Mehra and Scott's receivers eventually crackled with Lorne's voice. "McKay says the seal's good on our side. You've got a go. Over."

"Acknowledged. Over and out," Scott replied.

"Ready?" John asked Larrin.

Larrin checked her screens. Like everyone else, she'd resorted to BDUs for something clean to wear. The desert cammie-patterned cloth whispered when she moved, still new and starched stiff. "No red lights."

His screen said the lock was closed, but instruments could lie.

"Sergeant, check the airlock seal visually, would you?" John asked as he went through a mental checklist that combined elements of normal pre-flight, gateship protocols, and a few systems the shuttle shared with darts.

"Looks good, sir," she reported.

"You can tell Major Lorne we're on our way then," he said as he disengaged the docking clamps. The shuttle drifted up from the pad it had rested on, the movement of the clamps shoving it away with only inertia and no gravity to hold it in place. John carefully used the maneuvering thrusters and took the shuttle out from the ship before engaging its engines.

He whistled under his breath.

Larrin laughed.

"This thing's got legs," he said. It was faster than a gateship, but nowhere near as maneuverable as a dart. Darts were attack craft, though; the shuttle was made for exploration. They were moving at ninety degrees from the ecliptic, to allow the shuttle's sensors to gather data without the gas giant's radiation signature blinding them. Their window for gathering data was still tight, since they needed to get back to Destiny before it reached the gas giant. The shuttle was fast, but John didn't want to try to catch up after Destiny swung around that monster. "Dr. Zelenka, you want to get up here and figure out which of our three possibles is going to be our new home?"

"Radek, please," Zelenka told him as he slid into John's seat and hooked his laptop into the shuttle's systems. He kept his eyes down and away from the viewport in front of him. "Dr. Volker, Dr. Amin, you should be able to access the data now."

John stepped into the passenger section of the shuttle.

Volker and Amin both had their laptops open and were typing. Neither of them answered. Scott remained seated on the bench across from them, next to Mehra, who looked bored and ready to take a nap. She caught John watching her and crossed her eyes. John raised his eyebrows and made a face back. Neither of the scientists noticed, but the look on consternation on Lt. Scott's face almost made John laugh out loud.

Mehra was obviously a bad influence. It was time to get back to the cockpit anyway. Zelenka was asking Larrin to reorient the shuttle.

John leaned over the back of Larrin's seat and switched between watching her instrument screens and Zelenka's laptop. He had picked up a lot from Todd and was able to make sense of most it. He said nothing as Larrin piloted the shuttle with a deft hand — she understood zero-gee maneuvering better than he did, and handled the shuttle at least as well.

"Nice."

"Thank you," Zelenka said in an abstracted voice, without looking up once. Something in his voice gave away deep unhappiness and John flicked his gaze to the readouts Zelenka was downloading and analyzing.

Not good. The temperatures he was looking at for that first planet were just miserable — barely survivable. That was the one farthest out from the star, out at the same distance an asteroid belt circled Sol. John hoped the other two were more viable candidates for not actually freezing to death, though it did have a stargate.

Dr. Amin sighed. "Rather like Mars. Not enough oxygen, no good to us."

Maybe one of the other two then, John thought, even as he schooled his face to reflect confidence rather despair. If McKay had come with them, he could have quoted the odds — not good — and filled the shuttle with verbal panic and a healthy dose of scorn for anyone not as freaked out as he was. It would have been easier to deal with than Zelenka muttering under his breath in Czech and the other two scientists' silence. John had always been taciturn, keeping his communications with others all on the surface, but he liked to listen to someone smart getting their geek on. McKay's bitching, from what he'd heard so far, was well founded; that made it kind of fun. It certainly served as a nice distraction, one he would have valued right now.

"Receiving data on planet two," Zelenka announced. "It is… " He cursed. "Venus."

"Not exactly," Amin pointed out. "It's — "

John looked at the numbers and winced.

"Close enough," he said.

Volker coughed and added, "Geologically unstable and if I'm interpreting this data right, it doesn't have a stargate."

"Or a volcano buried it," Amin added.

"So cross Two off our list," John said.

"The ice planet has a Ring of the Ancestors?" Larrin asked Zelenka.

"Yes," he replied. He tapped in a command and another screen flashed on. Zelenka leaned over and pointed to a spike in the otherwise placid read-out. "This matches the energy signature from the stargate on the planet where we found the calcium carbonate. It's identical to those in the Milky Way. Refined naquadah in an Ancient alloy. Very stable."

"But the planet is still too cold," Larrin said.

"Ano."

She silently repositioned the shuttle with a long burn to achieve a straight line sensor reading on the third possibility. It was circling its sun far ahead of the gas giant, its orbit the equivalent of somewhere between Venus and Earth's in Sol's system. Definitely the best of the lot and John had more hope for it than the others.

Hope flared as Zelenka exclaimed, "It has a stargate. Moons… no, it is space junk," and died in the next breath. "It's… oh, no. No." Zelenka spat out a curse before he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

"What?" John demanded.

Behind him, Volker moaned.

"Its magnetosphere has been disrupted; the atmosphere has ripped away," Zelenka explained.

"How?"

"An asteroid impact of sufficient force," Volker suggested.

"War," Larrin said. She'd called up the same screen Zelenka had used to show her the radiation readings from Planet One. Planet Three's were out of sight. She had to adjust the graphic to make it fit the screen's proportions. "The radiation pattern is obvious."

"Not obvious — " Volker argued.

"I've seen planets the Asurans bombarded," Larrin said. "It's always the same, even ten thousand years later."

Scott left his seat and wedged himself into the cockpit. "Is whoever did it still around?"

"There is no reason to think so," Zelenka said. "Space debris in orbit would eventually degrade and burn up on re-entry, but we cannot guess how much there was initially from what remains now. The radiation on the surface is… unlivable."

John added, "They could have done it to themselves."

"It does not matter to us," Zelenka said.

"So we're screwed?" Scott asked.

"Yes, Lieutenant," Zelenka agreed, "we are screwed." His hands moved over his laptop keys before he closed it and disconnected the lead attaching it to the shuttle systems.

John slid back into the pilot's seat Zelenka vacated, but didn't take over from Larrin immediately. There was no hurry now and this would be his last chance to savor flying. Behind and — subjectively speaking — below them, the blue Neptunian bulk of the gas giant was the only thing the bare eye could pick out, but the stars were brilliant and burning so close his breath caught. Just to be in this place, so far from where he'd begun, with an alien star a pinprick of light before him, his hands on controls made before humans lit their first fire, to know that there had been others, would be others, opened something inside him wide. He didn't feel small, he felt enlarged, reverent and awed, gratified by the knowledge of his place in the quantum of the universe.

He'd done things, seen places… There had been Atlantis, its spires glittering as it rose, orbital stargates, ringed planets, labyrinthine hives, fleets of starships leaping into hyperspace… Dawn in Afghanistan, midnight in Antarctica, the sun setting over the Pacific. Most of the time, he'd been moving too fast to appreciate any of it.

None of it shared with anyone; he'd drifted away from everyone who might have mattered. He couldn't be sorry now.

A ping from the shuttle alerted him their window to return to Destiny was closing fast.

"Time to head back," he announced.

Synching speed with Destiny was harder than leaving it and the shuttle struggled, but John was half grateful; it let him concentrate on piloting and nothing else, right up until the docking clamps snapped closed and the airlock cycled open into the ship with a hissing noise.

~*~


Markov and Lee brought the naquadah generator into the gate room. Rodney flinched when he realized it was a Mark I: Sam Carter's first design, inclined to drain or explode unexpectedly. He set to work hooking it up to the DHD anyway. Miko tried to help, but her hands had developed a tremor. Rodney put in her charge of handing him tools and made Lee hold the light, while Markov overhauled the Mark I a few feet away.

She'd drafted Ledbedev and Semyenov as her extra hands and barked orders at them in her St. Petersburg-accented Russian when they weren't as quick off the mark as Zelenka. It made Rodney think of Sheppard and how he'd stepped up and assisted during the airlock repair. He'd been eerily good at that simple task.

The space under the DHD went dark as the beam of the heavy flashlight Lee held wandered off-target.

"Try to aim the light where my damned hands are," he snarled at Lee. Why wouldn't the man save his sulking for when Rodney wasn't doing delicate work that their lives depended on? Then Rodney wouldn't have to endure his inane and useless chatter and cut down his suggestions, which always illustrated Lee's utter inability to grasp how Ancient tech functioned, not to mention the physical laws of the universe. Lee had to be related to someone high up in the SGC; nepotism was the only explanation for his employment Rodney could accept.

He paused to feel gratitude that Coombs and Felger weren't with them. Lee was bad enough.

"Sorry, sorry, but are you sure Dr. Markov knows what she's — "

"Unlike you, Dr. Markov wasn't hired to stutter and make her boss look competent and smart in comparison," Rodney stated.

"I was not — "

"Oh, come on, you make Carter look like the love child of Einstein and Marie Curie."

"I resent that, Dr. McKay."

"Resent away, but keep that stupid light on the crystals. You did one smart thing, bringing the generator, don't make me revise my new estimation of you down again."

His thoughts kept straying from the really very basic work he was doing — any half-brained engineer could have done it, if they understood Ancient, which left out nearly everyone currently alive, never mind on the ship — to the slingshot effect. Where would the ship's current trajectory lead them to after it was flung away from the gas giant? It made no sense for the auto-programming to enact such a potentially dangerous maneuver without a reason. Power reserves had fallen to a critical level, the ship had responded… Had it shifted course when they returned to FTL after the aborted attempt to dial out? Was their current course a response?

If he knew that, he would know whether the slingshot had been set up anticipating the power shut down or not. If the latter, then the odds of finding someplace to live in this system went down drastically. If the ship had changed its course in order to reach this system as a result of the critical power levels, then, as when it auto-dialed the desert planet, it had come to this system with a purpose.

A purpose that involved the survival of its passengers, Rodney hoped.

The sharp edges of the crystals he was working with cut unmercifully into his still-blistered fingertips. It made him lose track for an instant as tears of pain blurred his vision. Rodney blinked them away, muttering under his breath because he had to do everything himself, even though he'd been manfully wounded already — not that anyone cared. He'd heard more than one person ask Miko if she was okay, but the only one who had checked on him had been Sheppard — who hadn't even waited around until Rodney came to again, so for all Rodney knew, Carson could have been lying.

Why the hell hadn't anyone checked for a course correction before the power failed? If Rodney hadn't been unconscious from exhaustion brought on because no one else would do anything to keep them alive, he would have.

God, he could imagine what life was going to be like pioneering on some untouched — read lacking all traces of civilization — planet. His life was going to be hell. Nasty, brutish and short.

The women would have it even worse. At least he wouldn't end up pregnant and raising a child into barbarism as they inevitably lost what fragments of technology they could take with them.

It was enough to make him rethink the entire evacuation plan. Maybe stick with the ship and nice overdose would be a better end.

He half-wished that Lorne had sent him on the shuttle. He knew Zelenka hated flying or anything that resembled it and he could have done everything Zelenka, Min, and Volker would accomplish together by himself.

At least if he'd gone, he would know what they were going to face. Major Lorne had his people frantically repacking everything in its crates, preparatory to sending all of it through the stargate, but the supplies they had were a drop in the ocean compared to what they'd need to establish a colony.

Provided one of the planets in the system even had a stargate and would sustain human life.

Rodney wasn't looking forward to that. He kept replaying the recording of that Airman being eaten that Zelenka had brought back. Oxygen starvation, even actual starvation, definitely won out compared to dying like that.

Rodney flexed his fingers. The blisters hurt so much he'd welcome a little numbness and his skin had dried so much it wanted to crack at the joints.

He doubled checked every connection he'd made, because they couldn't waste power testing anything. The Mark I would power up the stargate once. That would drain it completely: there would be no second chance.

"Everything accounted for?" he asked Miko. He had a horror of leaving something behind when he closed up, probably related to all the stories in the media showing X-rays of clamps and sponges sewn up inside helpless patients by drugged-up, drunken surgeons.

She checked the tools and nodded nervously.

"Yes."

The twinge in Rodney's back transformed into knife-like pain for a breath as he pulled himself to his feet. "Ow." He braced one hand against the DHD's corner until he could unclench his teeth and breathe without whimpering. The infirmary bed had done awful things to his spine.

"Everything ready?" Major Teldy asked, startling Rodney badly enough he jumped and his back screamed in protest again.

"The generator is at one hundred percent," Markov said.

Rodney sucked in a couple of shallow, fast breaths. His voice still sounded high when he answered. "It's hooked up. Now we have to wait for the report from the shuttle."

"They're back," Teldy said. She gestured in the direction she must have come from with her flashlight. "Major Lorne wants you to join the command staff for the briefing."

Of course he did. They would need Rodney's input to make any decisions. He snapped his fingers. "Markov. Go get us coffee and then met us at the shuttle. You — " He pointed at Lee. "Do not touch anything. Do not let anyone else touch anything or I will find a way to make you pay for the rest of your no doubt short, miserable, and worthless life. Miko — " She still looked terrible. "Go have Carson check you're all right."

Rodney used the walk through the dark corridors to Lorne's HQ to run all the numbers on the impending slingshot. What he came up with made no sense, unless…

Crap, he thought, either the power drain or their meddling as they kept trying to get past the auto-programming's security had tripped a self-destruct. By his — admittedly very rough approximation — Destiny was headed close to or into the star at the center of this system. It was exactly the sort of out-of-proportion reaction he'd expect from a group that later became so paranoid they re-designed their technology to only respond to their genetic signature.

"I hope you have a place for us to go," he declared as he walked into Lorne's unofficial office and spotted Zelenka. "On our current course, when the ship leaves the gas giant, we'll be headed into the sun."

"Hello, Rodney, lovely to be back here, I am overjoyed to see you as well," Zelenka replied without looking up from his laptop.

"Yes, yes, whatever. The planets?"

Zelenka looked up finally and shook his head.

"You have got to be kidding me, all three are no good?"

"There was one that was probably real nice," Sheppard offered. "Even had a civilization that put up satellites and other crap."

"So we have to deal with more aliens — " Rodney waved off any potential difficulties.

"Yeah, it was probably real nice, until they blew themselves up."

Rodney sat down abruptly. He was too tired to even muster any anger.

"I give up," he said. "That's it. I'm done."

~*~


"I don't understand," Wray said. "If the planet isn't lethally cold or too hot to survive — "

After hours of explanations from the scientists, Lorne sympathized with McKay's impatience with stupid questions. Wray kept asking the same thing with different wording, as though she could force the facts to change or she was trying to catch the shuttle's crew in a lie. Zelenka had begun ignoring her, but McKay went red-faced and angry on his subordinate's behalf — the first thing about McKay Lorne could really like. Despite declaring himself finished, McKay had gone over every bit of data that had been collected and backed the shuttle crew's conclusions without reservation.

Of course, this would be the time Lorne would have appreciated him shouting that everyone was wrong and showing how, complete with smug self-congratulations, if it meant they'd live.

"When Zelenka said it had an atmosphere, he meant it had, past tense," McKay told her. "Besides losing its atmosphere, the whole planet is irradiated. Hotter than Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, that plant in Washington no one wants to talk about, Bikini Atoll, Hiroshima and Nagasaki all put together, get it?"

"That can't be normal, can it?" Weir asked Zelenka.

Zelenka pulled off his glasses and wiped the lenses on the tail of his shirt, blinking at them from unfocused eyes. "It does not matter. We cannot live there, you understand. There is a stargate there, but we could not safely pass through it. Even a few moments exposure on the surface would lead to radiation sickness and death."

"The whole planet is ground zero," Sheppard added.

"According to Dr. Amin's analysis of the data we gathered, there is little C02 in the atmosphere," Zelenka continued. "So it would be cold as well. Ironic, ano?"

"A hot and cold running hell, in other words," Lorne summed up, wincing to himself.

"And the other two planets are also unlivable?" Wray asked softly.

McKay turned on her viciously.

"That's right. We've succeeded in destroying a piece of technology over a million years old so that we could charge batteries for flashlights! We're stuck, so feel free to scream we're all going to die! If any of you had listened to me, we might not be in this mess, but you monkeys had to wander all over, pushing buttons and turning on every power-draining system on the ship."

"Isn't there anything you can — "

"Headed. For. The. Star," McKay singsonged at her.

Weir touched his arm and reproved softly, "Rodney." McKay snapped his mouth shut and glared instead, which was the closest thing to respect or obedience Lorne had seen from him toward anyone.

"Look, I'm finding it a little bit hard to believe we're headed straight into the sun," Lorne said before McKay could go off again. Wray looked close to tears, whether at the prospect of impending death or from McKay's rage. He forced himself to try a leaf out of Sheppard's book and encourage McKay, though it sat wrong with him to feed the bastard's ego. "Anyway, McKay'll figure something out."

"The course isn't a bull's eye, the ship will skim through the stellar corona, but believe me, we're still fucked," McKay snapped at him. "At our present acceleration, the ship will reach the star in fourteen hours — "

"Fourteen point four two," Sheppard murmured. "We're going to get hot."

"Thank you very fucking much," McKay snarled, angling a twitchy look at Sheppard that prompted Sheppard to angle one eyebrow up in amusement. "Yes. At which point the shields will fail and G-forces will rip the ship apart. The heat will likely kill us before that, of course." When Wray sniffed and wiped at her cheeks, McKay looked at her in horror and added weakly, "It'll be quick, I'm sure."

"Well, if you're an optimist," Sheppard said.

Wray gulped and ran out of the room. Lorne shook his head and hoped she'd run into someone who would look after her. He thought McKay might have been trying to be comforting in an utterly maladjusted fashion, but Sheppard had just been amusing himself at Wray's expense. Lorne had been trying to forge some kind of bond with Sheppard, but Sheppard rejected every overture. His laconic gibes were increasingly as annoying as McKay's self-importance. At least most of them were still aimed at Lorne and he could take it — unlike that last shot, which had broken Wray's composure where McKay's scorn had failed. She'd kept asking those questions because she'd been in denial, not out of distrust. Lorne felt shitty for not seeing that.

"I think we need to take a break for a moment," Weir said.

The faint smile on Sheppard's lips didn't denote any real humor. McKay was looking at him from the corner of his eye, about as subtle an anvil. He let out a coughing sound and said, "I thought all pilots were optimists."

Sheppard shrugged loosely. "Not me. I'm lazy and pessimism's easier." He patted his flat stomach. "I think I'll go find something to eat. The condemned man's last meal, you know."

"Bring me back coffee and a sandwich," McKay ordered. "Carson said I have to maintain my blood sugar."

Sheppard ignored him and strolled out into the corridor. The wraith had waited outside. Only its long pale hair made it briefly visible, but Lorne caught its deep voice, the raspy-purr that he felt more than heard. It spoke to Sheppard, something in its language, filled with clicks and vibrating hums, and Sheppard's voice floated back as he replied. "Not now."

McKay said plaintively, "He's not going to bring me anything to eat, is he?"

"No," Lorne answered.

"Fine. No one cares if the genius collapses from low blood sugar."

Lorne switched his attention back to the group standing around the main column of control conduits. It was dead and dark as the rest of the ship and filled him with despair. "Maybe we can take this somewhere we can sit down and think."

"That's an excellent idea, Major," Weir said.

"That presupposes you have the capacity for the latter," McKay remarked, but followed along to Lorne's 'office' anyway. He snapped his fingers at Zelenka. "Radek. Come on."

An hour later, Lorne slapped his hand down on the table that had been pressed into service as his desk. "There has to be something you can do!"

"Oh, yes, I'll rewrite physics and implement the changes with the power of your demand," McKay fired back. "The universe doesn't care what you want, Major. In a contest between you and gravity, gravity wins. Every time. At the speed this ship is falling toward the star, I seriously doubt that it could reverse course even if it had power."

"It doesn't make sense," Zelenka muttered. "The ship cannot have survived so long and now — poof! — Why now?"

McKay scowled at him and said sourly, "Aside from the sudden presence of a ship full of drooling idiots draining the last reserves of power, you mean?" Sarcasm and contempt laced every word. He folded his arms over his chest to punctuate his statement, body language declaring that nothing more needed to be said.

Lorne wondered how anyone could stand to work with McKay when he was like this all the time. Smart, yes, Lorne could admit the man had him beat a hundred times over in the brains department and he hadn't folded under pressure, but Lorne detested the massive ego and attitude down to the marrow of his bones.

Zelenka frowned back at him. His glasses glinted, opaque white reflection of the blue-tinted electric lantern they were using against the choking darkness, as he shook his head. "Not enough, I think," he replied. "I cannot believe that in the millennia that have passed while this ship journeyed from the Ancients' home galaxy, through the Milky Way and onward, that it has never run short of power before. It seems ridiculous to even imagine that we could arrive, by chance, at just this moment."

Lorne shivered and rubbed his hands over his upper arms, hoping no one noticed. The ship wasn't any colder than before, that was in his head. The air was drying out, though; it stung the back of his throat and sinuses.

Larrin and Markov had joined them. Both women were wearing jungle cammies dug out of the supplies. Markov's black hair was out of its tight bun for the first time, covering her ears. Larrin paced and kicked at the furniture, such as it was, but didn't offer any suggestion. If the lack of ideas fed her frustration the way it did Lorne's, he understood the kicking. He wanted to hit something.

Or someone. McKay was increasingly hopeless, shooting down every idea Zelenka or Markov offered up.

Markov shifted restlessly. The sound of her boots on the metal deck seemed louder than usual. The ship was freakishly silent and Lorne was beginning to get why the people with shipboard life experience liked to be down near the engines. The silence without them ate at the edges of sanity, promising that they were all trapped in a giant metal coffin. They were going to die. Down deep, Lorne wanted to gibber and rant, because there was nothing to fight and nowhere to run.

"Even the best ships sometimes… reach their end," Larrin said quietly. Her eyes flicked as she looked around the shadowed extent of the room. Her expression softened. "This one is old and tired."

A soft, sardonic, "Does it even matter why?" from Sheppard behind him made Lorne jump.

He hadn't realized Sheppard had followed Zelenka in. Lorne turned and hoped Sheppard hadn't noticed his nervous reaction. The pilot leaned back against the wall. When he shifted to face Lorne, the lantern light caught the planes of his face from beneath. His skin looked bluer than usual and the angle of the shadows made him look satanic. At least in the low light he didn't look so misleadingly young, though his eyes reflected the light, bright and green.

Larrin slipped past him and out of the office. Lorne didn't know where she was going and didn't feel like he could ask or stop her. He wished she'd stayed.

Zelenka shrugged; a rustle of cloth accompanied his movement that Lorne wouldn't have heard if the ventilation had been operating normally. The air circulation had cut out with the lights and only came back on periodically. Probably just the bare minimum to keep any C02 pockets from forming. No more steam had appeared from any vents since the power went out.

"I still find it unlikely," Zelenka insisted, "that a computer system that could calculate a successful slingshot using the gravity of a gas giant would result in the ship falling into a star. What is the purpose?"

McKay snorted in contempt. "Fine. You want to know why the ship's throwing itself into the damned star?" He stalked forward to brace his hands on the table and lean over the battery lantern. "Because, aside from my own more careful efforts, every one of the morons on board this ship thinks that because they've got a degree from the University of Crackerjacks, they can hack the security codes on an alien exploration ship, despite the fact that a lobotomized monkey would have better luck programming a VCR than they do. If the ship were sentient I'd be sure it was committing suicide out of sheer horror at having the current collection of witless counter-evolutionists aboard it. As it isn't, I can only believe that one of them has tripped a security self-destruct sequence leading to my completely unjustified death."

"It's all about you, McKay, isn't it?" Lorne snapped before he could stop himself.

"Don't tell me anyone else gives a damn," McKay replied flatly. He pushed away from the table. A jerk of his head toward Sheppard followed. "I think he had the right idea. I'm going to go get something to eat."

"And then what?" Lorne demanded.

"I"m an astrophysicist," McKay said. "No one's dived this close to a sun before. I"m going sit in the shuttle and see what the sensors tell us about stellar behavior up close. I suggest you do… whatever it is that you do."

"What about everyone else?" Weir asked softly. "What should we do?"

McKay looked confused.

"Whatever you want. It doesn't matter. Go get Carson to give you a happy pill if you're going to have hysterics."

"Thanks a lot, McKay," Lorne told him.

"I warned you, over and over, that the power supplies were dangerously low, Major," McKay replied. "You were too stupid to grasp what that meant on a space ship and now we're all paying the price. Don't blame me."

Sheppard pushed away from the edge of the doorway and sketched a mocking salute at Lorne before ambling after McKay.

Zelenka sighed after he left and said, "He takes it very hard that there is nothing even he can do."

"I hate that man," Lorne heard himself say. He hadn't meant to speak. It didn't matter now, but it was unprofessional. If he was honest, one of the reasons he hated McKay was that he'd skewered Lorne's own doubts about his fitness to be in charge. Had his mistakes led to this? Larrin would have acted faster, done things differently, because she had been a captain and had lived her entire life on ships. Sheppard seemed able to deal with McKay; maybe he'd have understood the implications of McKay's warnings and done things differently. Lorne had been so intent on weighing military necessity against what he knew the civilians would tolerate that he had forgotten that guns couldn't coerce the laws of physics. Damn it, McKay had a right to be pissed.

"He is difficult," Weir said.

Zelenka blew a raspberry at her and Markov laughed. She said, "We should find Miko and tell her."

A moment later and Lorne was alone. The cool circle of light from the lantern that never touched the compartment's shadowed corners.

~*~


No one made any announcements this time. The word spread on its own. By the time Rodney sat down at an empty table in the nearly abandoned, makeshift mess hall, everyone knew. Three people were sitting in one corner, one of them sniveling, the other two offering pathetic pats to the sniveler's back.

Rodney wanted a cup of coffee, but once he sat down couldn't bring himself to get up and again and pour himself a mug.

Sheppard had found a can of fruit cocktail and was moodily spearing pieces on a fork, sniffing each one before eating it, chewing slowly. Rodney watched him because he had nothing better to do, wondering where the wraith had gone.

In an hour or so, he planned to go up to the exedra. The blue gas giant would fill the view ports by then. With their luck, the ship would tear apart instead of skimming just beyond its atmosphere. Rodney wanted to be there and see it.

Larrin came in, scowled at the coffee urn, and left with a bottle of water instead. They didn't have coffee in Pegasus. All the terraforming the Ancients had done in the Milky Way and Pegasus and they hadn't introduced coffee anywhere. It was pitiful.

Markov wandered in next, poured herself a mug, saw Rodney and brought him one as well. He accepted it gratefully and said nothing.

Sheppard stirred his fork through the syrup left after he finished the fruit cocktail.

"I wish I had a cigarette," Markov said.

"You quit." Even the tobacco stains on her fingers had faded away.

"I would start again."

"You could ask around," Rodney suggested. "Someone might have a few."

Markov made a disgusted noise. "American."

"Right now, I'd even drink an American beer."

Markov finished her coffee. "You may call me Svetlana now," she said. She rose.

"Why would I want to?" Rodney asked in genuine bewilderment.

She might have quit smoking years ago, but she still had a smoker's raspy chuckle. She patted his cheek before walking away. She left the coffee mug. Rodney turned on the bench seat to watch her go.

"Where are you going?"

"Weir has organized an effort to record messages on a kino. I thought I would add something."

"Like how stupid the whole idea is?" Rodney asked. Everything on the ship would be destroyed once they reached the sun, provided they survived the near approach to the gas giant before that. "What's the point?"

"It's something for everyone to do," she answered. "No one had a chance to make their good-byes."

"Hmph."

"It is better than going to Dr. Beckett for tranquilizers or sleeping pills."

Rodney accepted that and said nothing more as she left. He thought Carson would be handing out his pills with an extra heavy hand in the next few hours. Maybe he already was. The mess hall had emptied, only Sheppard left, and everyone couldn't be on the observation deck. Some of people had to have gone back to their quarters, alone, despite the darkness. Some people preferred to be alone.

He was torn between hiding away and joining a group himself. It was easier to just linger in the mess hall, knowing someone else would come inside sooner or later, giving him the illusion of company without any need to interact with them and the predictable disappointment that always followed.

Sheppard finished playing with the remnants of his snack and cleaned up behind himself. He even came over and picked up Markov's abandoned mug.

"Going to watch the show?" he asked Rodney.

"Eventually," Rodney replied.

Sheppard nodded and drifted out.

Rodney imagined what kind of message he'd leave on the kino and occupied a half hour figuring the best way to launch it from the ship. Dumping it out an airlock wouldn't be sufficient; the kino would follow Destiny into the sun. The shuttle was the best choice. They could take it and put it in orbit around the ice planet. With no moons to perturb its orbit, the shuttle and anything inside it would remain there practically forever. Maybe someone would come after them and find it.

He couldn't think of anything to say that really mattered, no insights, revelations, or enduring truths that would still matter when or if the message was discovered, which was depressing. An apology to Jeannie for never speaking to her after she married the English major? Rodney's mouth turned down. It wasn't like she'd ever apologize to him. Jeannie had made no attempts to heal the rift between them either. All he could say was that he was sorry he didn't know if she was alive, sorry if she wasn't, and that was completely pointless.

Another exercise in futility.

He could narrate what had happened to them, but no doubt Lorne would dictate a report, and Rodney's opinions would be redundant or, worse, disregarded.

Rodney traced a series of equations on the table with his finger. He'd meant to win a Nobel Prize before he was forty. He'd intended to crack the Unified Field Theory, revolutionize modern physics, open the universe to the world, but he'd been recruited by the American military/industrial complex hours after he defended his second thesis and shortly thereafter begun work at Area 51. There had never been time for his own discoveries after that, only uncovering how alien technologies functioned or just how to make them work, like a monkey with a gun.

How sad was that? His epitaph would be: I wish I'd done something else.

~*~


Ronon leaned against a bulkhead and half-listened as the baby-faced soldier in the next room dictated a message to the grandparents who had raised him. As if they would ever hear it. He couldn't fool himself the way the Tau'ri did; he had no intention of leaving any words behind for anyone to hear, but he'd lost track of Larrin in the dark warren of the powerless corridors and ended up with a tense group waiting their turn with a kino instead.

"I meant to come back and take care of you," the soldier said, making Ronon wince. "I know you were proud when I enlisted, but I know what I owe you both for raising me and Lara — "

Maybe it would be better to turn back to the last corridor. He'd rather listen to the sounds of fucking he'd heard there than this. It had sounded like the blond woman was enjoying herself at least.

Ronon shifted uncomfortably. Sex had been easy on Sateda, but he didn't know how it was regarded on Earth. The Earth people were too confusing. He doubted he'd have any problem finding someone willing to spend a few hours in bed if he tried, even if none of the women or men he'd seen so far were whores, but he didn't want to accidentally marry someone just to wet his dick. He wasn't ready to end his mourning just to have sex that would mean no more than using his hand anyway; it would be an insult to Melena and what she'd meant to him. He'd thought of getting laid a few times after he went through the Ring to tell the Coalition the City of the Ancestors had risen, but it had felt wrong then too. Too soon. It still did. He imagined Melena's expression if she knew and all his interest died away. In his mind he understood it had been seven years since Sateda fell, but for him it still felt like only one.

He thumped his head back against the bulkhead.

Sateda had been so bright, so strong, they hadn't needed to join the Coalition. They'd stood alone. Right until they went down alone too.

"You can go next," the woman beside him said.

"Got nothing to say."

"But there must be someone," she protested. "The SGC would make sure your message went through."

"Wraith culled my planet. No one left to tell anything," Ronon told her. It angered him, having to explain. Sateda didn't mean anything to these people. At least in the Coalition no one asked him stupid questions.

The two others with her both turned and stared at him in shock.

"The whole planet — "

" — the Wraith?"

"But there's one on the ship," the woman whispered. He saw her shiver as she fearfully looked around, as if it was lurking just beyond the faint green light from the glowing tube stuck to the bulkhead. "How can you stand it?"

Ronon grunted.

"Union Wraith." They weren't different physically, but Ronon had shared a cell with the Hunter. When the rogue hive had torn him from a cocoon after six years, they'd discovered Ronon was a freak: they couldn't feed off him. So they'd put him in with their captive, just to torture the Hunter. It had been dying when the rogues finally tossed Sheppard in too, but it hadn't fed until Sheppard told it to. Union Wraith didn't think the same way the rogues did.

Earth humans didn't think like anyone Ronon had learned about either. They made no sense. No one but a Union human would do what Sheppard did, but he wasn't like the Unionists either. Maybe Sheppard was just crazy.

Didn't matter. Sheppard did what he did and Ronon lived, the Hunter lived, even Sheppard survived, and the Genii were no longer free to pick through Sateda's bones for what they wanted.

"I don't understand."

"Union Wraith keep some humans." Like Sheppard, because he was crazy and was descended from the forsaken Ancestors and maybe because the Hunter owed him. Or maybe for some Wraith reason Ronon couldn't guess or ever understand. The honor-debt he owed weighed against Ronon, that a Wraith had paid what Ronon had run out on, a reminder he'd barred himself from a warrior's afterlife. He could pay in blood and still not make it right. He didn't believe much in forgiveness. "Genii are the one's who sold my people to the rogue hive."

The Genii were the ones he questioned if he could stand sharing a ship with, another blood-debt unpaid, though he had given his name-word to Larrin for the chance to go to Earth beside her knowing they would be there too. He hadn't been looking for Sheppard, just a chance to tell Sheppard's people the Genii were poisonous liars. They'd already made Ronon an oath-breaker twice. Thrice, since honoring his name-word to Larrin meant betraying Sateda's memory.

Unless Larrin would release him. Then Ronon could kill the two Genii, before finding Sheppard. He'd give Sheppard his knife and his throat, let him wash the debt away with blood before they burned. He still wouldn't join his forebearers, but they wouldn't be tainted by his actions.

He grunted and pushed away from the bulkhead.

Larrin first.

~*~


Sand did awful things to guns.

Dusty sat cross-legged on the bed in her cabin and took apart the weapon she'd used on the desert planet. She'd already cleaned it once after they returned but she found the routine soothing. She didn't need much light; she'd always been the winner in any put-a-gun-back-together-blindfolded contest. She liked guns. If you took care of them, they did what they were supposed to do and did it beautifully.

Her fingers moved over the smooth, metal pieces, disassembling the MP5 neatly. She finished with all the pieces lined up on her left and began cleaning each part methodically. The light from the porthole brightened steadily and she could see even a tiny fleck of lint or dust. As she finished, she set each piece to her right. She didn't hurry.

She didn't want to die on this shitty ship. Okay, she didn't want to die, period. But she wanted to kick some ass, go down yelling and biting and, hell, shooting, if it came to that. She wanted it to be a fight, not this endless waiting.

She wished she taken some leave and visited her family, maybe in time for the Sikh Parade in Yuba City. The Mehras were Punjabi Mexicans, proud to have succeeded and assimilated, and leery of the newer immigrants, but it was still fun times.

Her dad didn't understand why she wanted to be a soldier, but her whole family had supported her when she enlisted after high school, and had ever since. She missed them a lot, right then, all her brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, the uncles who ran away to San Francisco, her fierce grandmother: all of them.

The MP5 went back together just as smoothly as it had come apart. Even though she'd just put it together and knew it was empty, Dusty worked the action and checked again, then set the safety. She'd seen a friend blow a hole in his foot because he hadn't checked one critical time.

The clips came next. She unloaded each one and cleaned it. A jammed clip made a gun into a less than satisfactory club. Grit would wear it out faster.

Finally finished and starting to sweat, Dusty put away her cleaning kit and stripped her uniform blouse off to reveal a black tank top. She fished a laminated photograph out of the blouse's breast pocket, where it always stayed and sat down the bed to look at it.

Her mother, father, three brothers, and two sisters were jammed close to fit in the picture. All of them were smiling. Her eldest brother, the one studying veterinary medicine at Davis, had sent it to her after Thanksgiving.

Dusty brushed her fingers over the picture of their faces and blinked fast. She was not going to cry. Fuck that. She was a rough, tough Air Force sergeant.

She held the picture in her hand, though, and looked at it, hoping they were all right.

~*~


Camille was drunk. Elizabeth doubted she would have confided anything about her personal life — certainly not the girlfriend in DC — under any circumstances other than impending death and shit-faced inebriation. Elizabeth had been sipping her own drink steadily, topping it up from a bottle of very expensive Scotch, and suspected that if she tried to stand up, her knees would provide all the support of a wad of wet toilet paper.

What the hell, she thought, and sloshed a little more Scotch into her glass. It wasn't like she'd be around for the hangover tomorrow.

"Do you know—do you know," Camille said and stopped.

Elizabeth blinked and wondered if she had zoned out long enough to miss something interesting.

"I don't know," she articulated carefully.

"Strom sucks." Camille held out her glass. "Probably really sucks, but he's a shit — that's what I meant. A weasel. A shitty weasel. Weaselly shit. Shit head."

Elizabeth poured for her. Camille waved the glass.

"Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow," Camille muttered darkly. "I was never getting that promotion." She put on an accent, slurred and stumbling over the words by the end: "I need you where you are, Camille. You're indispensi—sensible." Despite the alcohol, she sounded enough like the current head of the IOA to make Elizabeth scowl.

"They're all shits," Elizabeth said, thinking of Simon. Nice to know how broken up he'd been over her decision to leave for a classified position 'over seas'. Three days later he had been seen out with his protégé, a blonde half Elizabeth's age and IQ. The bastard, she knew he'd been screwing around while she commuted between DC, Colorado Springs, and Antarctica. If Earth was destroyed, she knew where Simon died: hiding behind Heidi's surgically-ballooned boobs. "No woman should have breasts bigger than her head."

"Hear hear," Camille agreed. "Do you know… you said you didn't know…"

Elizabeth leaned over the table and said, "You can tell me."

"Don't tell Lam."

That made her frown. "You're hot for Dr. Lam?"

Camille laughed until she hiccuped, waving her hand and the glass of Scotch, sloshing it over her hand. "Landry," she muttered.

Elizabeth made a face. Ewww. "You're a lesbian."

That got her a nod. "That's what I told him." Camille smirked.

"You're — "

"Not that much older than his daughter," Camille said sardonically. She tossed back the rest of her Scotch.

"You're aren't saying he's — "

Camille shuddered. "No! I think he has a thing for Asian women."

Elizabeth considered that and decided they both needed another shot. Luckily, the bottle was still half full.

~*~


Larrin wanted the comfort of tea, nekia really, but something that might release a scent to soothe her nerves. The mess hall the foul brew everyone on Earth preferred and Earth teas. She had already tried all of them and they disgusted her and the coffee made her hands shake.

She passed rooms with the doors open as she prowled through the corridors restlessly. Singing voices harmonized from one and she paused, listening, how sweet the sound, shivering. One singer saw her and gestured to join them, but Larrin shook her head. She didn't have the words or the faith that would let them ring like a hymn. Travellers sang work songs and ballads. Belief wasn't one of their strengths.

She rolled her shoulders, trying to relax a little, and wandered on.

Two more doors were shut before she found another open, light from an electric lantern centered on crowded table. Games of chance were common among every people Larrin had encountered. Again, she hesitated and refused an invitation, though she could have picked up the rules fast enough.

Music from a recording sounded softly from the room, too. More than one pair stood together, swaying to it, though Larrin didn't see anyone following any steps. She let herself be persuaded in and danced — pressed herself into another's arms — to the unfamiliar music. It wasn't sex, but it was better than being alone, and the crowd of bodies in the room reminded her a little of a Traveller crew cutting loose.

Someone brought in a couple of bottles of alcohol — Larrin had been amused when she realized Earth, like so many planets, had entire industries devoted to their plethora of alcoholic drinks — and they were passed around. Traveller ships had stills, because alcohol was useful as a fuel among other things, but they didn't indulge in drinking compared to dirtgrubbers. Drunkenness was discouraged and repeat offenders were grounded, something no Traveller wanted to face. She accepted a cup of the fizzy wine when Atienza uncorked it and drank anyway.

Atienza emptied one bottle and opened another. "Out of the embassy supplies," he said. "Weir said to help ourselves." He handed a cup to a man with a shaved skull. "Come on, Spencer, drink up." Spencer sneered back and tossed the bubbling liquid down in one gulp. Atienza just shrugged and poured again.

She lingered while others came and went, long enough that when she found her cup empty Atienza had disappeared and Lt. Cadman handed her a brown glass bottle instead. Beer, Larrin recognized. Most worlds brewed some variety. She preferred it to to fizzy, fruity-tasting wine.

"So, you and the Major," Cadman said.

Larrin didn't answer as the ship shuddered and jolted. A card player, more inebriated than the rest, slid off the bench, and the electric lantern skidded to the edge of the table before it was caught. She knew if she'd gone up to the observation deck, the mass of the gas giant, striated in a million chilled blues, would fill the windows as Destiny reached its closest approach.

She braced her legs and sipped the beer instead. The ship shook again, Cadman slopped beer on her blouse, and a muffled scream echoed from one of the closed cabins. Cadman cocked her head, but though everyone was talking, no more screams sounded.

Larrin returned Cadman's grin. "Roller coaster screams," Cadman commented.

Asking what she meant would involve a long and pointless explanation — Larrin got the gist anyway.

Cadman went on, "I saw Park go off with one of the scientists and Commander Leonard sweet talked Dr. Palmer out of here an hour ago."

The ship shook steadily, but it didn't become any worse.

A boot scuff on the deck made Larrin turn. She surveyed Ronon's grim expression. "Come to get drunk?" she asked him. She hadn't seen Ronon drink more than a courtesy sip of anything while he was acting as her guard, but she knew how to stay safe on a ship better than he did, so she hadn't kept him at her side and didn't know how he'd been coping. She'd rather deal with his problems than answer Cadman's implied question. She liked Lorne, but she didn't want to be with him right now.

"Going to finish the Genii," he said.

Larrin froze with her bottle half-way to her lips. She lowered it slowly and said, "You'd break your oath?"

"Asking you to release it," Ronon rumbled.

She almost told him yes. It would have been easy; but however vicious and near-sighted she thought Sora Tyrus, the girl was only a product of her father and her culture. She hadn't been old enough to be part of the Genii betrayal of Sateda. Larrin doubted Ladon Radim had been in any position to influence the choices made before Sateda fell, either.

Larrin realized that despite the situation, she'd accepted Destiny as her ship, and the people on it — all of them — as fellow crew.

"No," she said.

Ronon stiffened, betrayed and showing it, but Larrin didn't think he'd care if she tried to explain.

"You gave your name-bond," she said. "You didn't say, 'until I change my mind about it', Ronon."

Cadman wisely hadn't moved or spoken, and Ronon seemed to dismiss her, but Larrin knew she was taking everything in. She suspected Cadman would find a way to warn the two Genii the moment Ronon left them.

"I've broken my word to Sheppard," he growled at her.

"It wasn't your name-bond."

Ronon scowled at her before plucking two beer bottles up and stalking away.

"I'd bet he's on the exedra!" Larrin shouted after him.

Ronon held up a bent pinky finger behind his back, the pan-galactic gesture for a wilting dick. Larrin laughed to herself, despite not really being amused by any of it.

"So, that little gesture?" Cadman asked. "I get it was telling you he's pissed, but what's it mean?"

"That's a softy," Larrin explained.

Eyebrows scrunched together, Cadman thought about it for a second, then laughed. "Unfuck you," she said. "Nice. We give people the finger." She demonstrated, then set her beer bottle aside. "I'm going to get out of here."

"If he goes after the Genii, he won't let you stop him," Larrin told her.

"It won't be up to him."

The ship had stopped shaking. They were falling inward to the star. She decided she'd had enough of the company of strangers and left the little party. Her path took her to the shuttle dock and she let herself through the airlock, wandering inside and settling into the pilot's seat. Lorne hadn't even put any guards on the shuttle.

Destiny now faced the sun at the center of this system. Its light reached into the shuttle's cockpit.

She ran her hands over the controls. She'd understood Sheppard for the first time, watching him, flight so much a part of him that even in a vehicle he'd never seen before he understood what he had to do to fly it. Larrin didn't have that natural talent, but she had enough of the love for a ship to recognize it. Sheppard wouldn't have made a good Traveller: it wasn't the sky he needed, it was the going. For all they lived on starships that leaped through the dark abysses of space, Travellers lived circumscribed lives, the necessities of life on a ship always paramount. Every hyper jump was calculated, every destination chosen for a reason. It stifled Larrin sometimes; it was why she'd fought hard to become a leader, to choose the course for their ships and people.

Sometimes she had just wanted to get away.

If she launched the shuttle, she could fly it to the ice planet and blind dial the stargate there, hope she found a livable world on the other side and not a painful death.

She couldn't forsake a crew and ship, though; she was too much a Traveller to do that.

It was restful and quiet in the shuttle, the soft, nearly inaudible hum of its systems soothed her. Traveller instincts. She couldn't sleep in the dull quiet of Destiny's quarters, if she did drowse, she snapped awake in a rush of adrenaline and the bone-deep knowledge something was wrong.

She swiveled the chair and propped her boots on the co-pilot's seat, leaned back and let her eyes close until something caught at her attention.

Eyes slitted open, Larrin stayed still, picking out what had changed.

The light through the shuttle's viewport was much brighter, a reinforcement structure casting a shadow over her face and hand.

Larrin held her hand up between her eyes and the sunlight.

The light made the flesh at the edges of each finger semi-transparent, outlining them in rosy gold-white.

~*~


Gods did not die. This was not acceptable. His host mocked him and Ba'al twisted around the host's spine, sending shooting agony through his nerves.

He started toward the shuttle dock, but ducked into one of the rooms where the humans were gathered when he spotted the wraith. Ba'al didn't know, but he suspected it might sense his presence if they came too near each other.

Concealing the fury and frustration coursing through him took more self-control than he had exerted in hundreds of years. Tempting as it would be to reveal himself to the fools surrounding him — just waiting to die, like the cattle they were — he had learned the lesson of Ra. Lowly slaves could turn on a god and in their numbers destroy him. He had hidden his ribbon device and shield rather than carry them with him. Without them, he was vulnerable; though he was stronger than any single human, there were many more of them and they were armed.

For that matter, he had once instructed his Jaffa to tear a defeated system lord limb from limb, and they had succeeded.

Ba'al smiled viciously at the memory. How satisfying it had been to catch Lhu between his hands and listen to him hiss and squeal before he snapped the symbiote's spine.

"What are you grinning at?" one of the soldiers asked.

Ba'al glared at him. How dared he address a god so familiarly?

The man had the gall to roll his eyes at Ba'al.

"You're acting weirder than shit."

He ransacked the host's memories and found that this man and his host had been acquainted, though not close friends. It was dangerous, though, that his behavior had been marked out.

"You think it wouldn't be weirder to act normal?" he demanded. "Under the circumstances?"

"Guess not."

His companion handed him a bottle. Ba'al deigned to drink it, though American beer was not one of the improvements on the past the Tau'ri had made.

He faked interest in the conversation that followed and trailed his host's acquaintance to the man's cabin.

Killing him was immensely satisfying and Ba'al took a gleeful pride in how cleanly he'd done it. Gods deserved sacrifices. Even if they were forced to make them to themselves.

That was certainly the only sacrifice Ba'al wished to ever make.

~*~


Sora sat at the center of her bed, knees bent, arms wrapped around them, and rocked. The light was beautiful, bathing the room in honey and yellow, warmth soothing her shakes, but she found no comfort in it. She didn't look up as the door opened or when someone sat on the edge of the bed.

The hand on the top of her head was feather light. Sora risked a look to the side finally. The woman next to her had a half-smile and her eyes were dark with emotions Sora couldn't interpret.

"Hey," she told Sora, before stroking locks of hair off Sora's face.

A tear slipped down to catch at the corner of Sora's mouth. More followed. She turned her head away, ashamed by her weakness. Her father would have been disappointed at such a display. It wasn't the Genii way.

Her father was dead. A hiccuping sob escaped her. She let the other woman wrap her arms around her shoulders and they sat together.

She didn't know her companion's name.

~*~


"This one wants a name," the youngest of Teyla's four drones said.

He came from a hive crèche; he should have been satisfied with service, but the hive sense communicated a welter of emotion that most drones never developed.

If she concentrated, Teyla could feel the same from each of the other three to some extent. They were confused, dissatisfied, and worried, for her and for themselves. Maybe they would bond to the Hunter, if eie would do more than follow Sheppard around like an oan in rut for a new queen — though Sheppard was the oan. The Hunter seemed set on keeping Sheppard away from Teyla, so they were all left adrift and struggling. Sheppard was probably more confused than anyone, brought through the nasce into First Hive, then separated from it.

This came of being too separate too long from their hive, from the comforting embrace of the hive's collective minds all linked through the hive sense where it was impossible to forget one's place or to want more than that.

Teyla hadn't realized the drones could want more.

It hurt her to feel she had failed her drones. A good hive always cared for its own. She stood in the place of queen for these drones.

Hive sense failed to tell her the best course and so did the traditions Teyla had been raised to honor. She wrestled with her own doubts before reaching a decision.

She touched her drone's face.

"A human name?" Teyla asked. They had hive names, their mental and scent signatures each unique and known within the hive. As a negotiator, Teyla used a human name for the comfort of those outside the hive. She'd never thought it important, but clearly there were many, many aspects of life on the hives that she had never questioned.

"Mine," the drone insisted. "A name that is… me."

Teyla felt her face go blank in shock. She didn't think she had ever heard a drone refer to one's self that way, separate from the hive.

"This one too," her oldest drone said, startling her. "Name this one of this hive." He crowded closer to her, tall as the Hunter, skin to skin, with the young one on her other side. They touched her, fingers working beneath the alien garments Lt. James had provided. After a deeper inhalation, the oldest breathed out, "Oaee."

Fertile female.

Queen.

Teyla blinked and shuddered under their touches. If Sheppard was oan, then the eiee must be ready to change. She was lucky the Hunter hadn't killed her, perhaps because the Hunter wasn't oaee yet or because Teyla was a hybrid and not full wraith, or because she wasn't ovulating.

"Kanaan," she said to the young one. "You are Kanaan of Destiny Hive." There would be no time to create a mark for him or the others. "It is an old Athosian name."

Kanaan leaned in and kissed Teyla's cheeks, where she would have drawn two slashes like a queen's if she'd had proper mask paint.

She twisted and raised her hands to the oldest drone's shoulders. He bent his neck until their foreheads rested together.

"Halling of Athos," she named him. "Destiny Hive."

She named the others Marta and Nahkte and wondered how she could bear it if the Hunter came to any of them for a life, when once she would have felt graced to give her own life and never reflected on whether the drones could or would object.

~*~


John watched the entire show from the observation deck, but he chose a spot as far away from anyone else as he could, and a good long stare at the only person who tried to claim a spot on his bench sent the man scuttling away. It was the slit pupils, John thought: there was enough light reflecting from the gas giant to see clearly even if his sight hadn't been augmented and his pupils were probably constricted down to thin vertical lines. He turned back to the viewport. The gas giant wasn't as showy as Jupiter or Saturn, but it had a few paler striations running around its equator and there on the far side, visible as Destiny came around, spun a vast blue-green storm.

Bigger than Earth, John calculated, and any of the system's other three planets, or all of them put together. The species on the ruined planet had probably studied that massive, murky storm through their telescopes and named it something like the Big Green Spot.

Destiny bucked and shuddered as it closed on the giant. People murmured and some left, unable to deal with the vertigo of seeing that they were falling toward its vast bulk. John spread his legs wider and braced his boots flat, surfing the shakes and jolts that threw others from the seats or their feet. The question of why the Ancients had programmed their ships to consider gravity generation a necessity even in an emergency with the power running out nagged at him. Considering Atlantis, they weren't afraid of heights, but a percentage of humans just couldn't deal with zero gravity. Maybe for the Ancients it had been a cripplingly high percentage? Everyone flailing and puking and curling into fetal balls of misery would be a problem in an emergency.

On the whole, he was grateful for their programming choices. Most of the rest of the evacuees would have panicked if the gravity had gone out along with the lights.

Hive sense tugged at his concentration. Todd wanted him. John ignored it, ignored Todd and the slow burn through muscle and nerve that was always his response to the silent siren call; Todd could come to him. It wasn't only arbitrary defiance — he wasn't ready to lose himself the way he knew he would, the way he always did. There would be no second chances at anything after the next two hours.

He'd duplicated McKay's calculations and agreed with the scientist's conclusion. Destiny was going skim the corona of the star. John had no clue how strong the ship's shields were; only that they would fail as the last energy drained away. Either McKay was right and the ship was self-destructing or something had gone wrong with the auto-programming that had kept it moving from star to star across galaxies. He had to admit the former scenario seemed most likely.

Todd tugged at the hive sense again. John slapped up as many mental blocks as he could. Nothing he did could really block out Todd, but eie got the message and honored it. It didn't really make John feel any better: depending on Todd's forbearance, on eis preferring not to command him, didn't change that he had had so little choice.

Everything after the nasce was out of his control, he reflected bitterly, but everything before then too. The Air Force hadn't offered him a choice when they seconded him to the SGC. Carter had wanted someone with a strong gene to go with them since she lacked it. O'Neill might have let John refuse, he'd seemed serious that everyone on the Expedition should be a volunteer, but it would have been a straight ticket out of the Air Force.

He watched Lorne come in from the corner of his eye, but didn't acknowledge him. John felt a little ashamed of how much he resented Lorne, but that didn't lessen the feeling. Lorne was one of the SGC's golden boys, the exact sort of officer every commander wanted as his XO. John had gone to Atlantis as a lightswitch and Sumner had made his contempt clear from the beginning, so that it would be sure to trickle down to all the marines under his command.

If Lorne had said hooking up with the Genii Empire might be a bad idea before they found out more about Pegasus Galaxy politics, Sumner and Jackson and Carter would have listened to him.

Shit.

He'd have a lot easier time taking orders from anyone but Lorne. Weir, Teldy, Teyla, even Larrin. Any woman. He didn't know if he'd always been this way or if it was another effect of the nasce.

The ship had oriented its bow to the sun and the light falling into the exedra grew brighter by the second, limning shadows sharp and unforgiving black in contrast. As they fell into the system, the star grew from a dot to a disc, hot and yellow bright, though still smaller than it looked from Earth, not even threatening yet.

The crowd that had watched through the slingshot grew bored or afraid — his sense of smell caught whiffs of both — and trickled out. Lorne left. Within an hour, John was alone except for McKay standing at the far end from him. McKay paid him the courtesy of not speaking and John returned it, though he liked the silent company.

He closed his eyes and the seething light painted red and orange blotches through his eyelids, bright and phantasmic bursts of primary colors against the darkness. Colors humans never saw and had no words to describe.

Ronon moved quietly for a human, but John recognized his step along with his scent. Every body had a presence made up of heat signatures, metabolic chemicals, electrical impulses and a psionic whisper, a feeling of consciousness, a quantum of thought. John couldn't read it, but in the silence, he sensed its presence.

He didn't shift as Ronon sat at the other end of his bench.

They sat silently long enough for the system's star to become visibly larger.

"Come to offer you my knife," Ronon stated. He set a knife the length of his forearm with a wicked edge on the padded bench between them. "Pay my blood-debt."

John glanced at it, admired the wavering dark lines along the blade, but didn't pick it up. Picking it up would be accepting it. He didn't know what they called the technique in Renus — Pegasus, the SGC called it — but on Earth a watered steel blade like it would have been a work of art and snapped up by a collector.

"No."

Ronon grunted but didn't protest.

John switched his attention back to the sun they were approaching. He imagined he could feel its heat bathing his face, along with the heavy honeyed light filling the exedra. He tipped his head back, realizing that the ship's interior wasn't really as dreary and industrial as it had seemed or at least it hadn't always been. There were glimpses of the warm bronzes and ocean blues he remembered from Atlantis, terracotta reds and burnt siennas, mixed with charcoal grays and sage green metals. The ship lacked Atlantis' high ceilings, stained windows and ocean light, but he could see it had been made by the same culture.

There were corridors down under Atlantis' water line that were as claustrophobic and endless as this ship's. He'd stalked through them at the head of a squad of drones, stunner in hand, until he found himself fighting hand to hand with marines who didn't know who he was or why the Union had come.

He'd killed some of them. The drones had killed, too.

Forgiving Ronon for that would take more than a piece of steel even if he sank it into Ronon's heart.

John flicked his fingers at the seething brilliance before them.

"Doesn't mean much when you're going to die anyway," he said, knowing it made him a bastard, but damn it, he got called a traitor to his face by Sumner and behind his back by everyone else. Even Jackson had looked askance as John tried to explain why allying with the Genii Empire had been a terrible choice, one that would take the Expedition down one of two paths: prisoners or collaborators in speciescide.

They couldn't forgive that the Union took the choice away from them, along with control of Atlantis, and John stood with the Wraith — not even when he was right.

If Ronon had taken John's warning to Atlantis instead of the Coalition …

Todd had taken John to the hive for eis own reasons, of course, but if the Expedition had made contact, if there had been an offer to let the Union come to Atlantis, maybe the Queen wouldn't have chosen the nasce for him.

Since then… John wasn't one thing or the other. Wasn't human, physically, nor really mentally; wasn't a hybrid; nasce or not, he'd never be native to a hive, to its life and traditions and society; wasn't of Earth any longer, wasn't from anywhere in Renus. Atlantis had felt like home for a few weeks, but it too had moved on without him by the time he returned there. The city had still responded to him, but it had rejected his Wraith side at the same time.

He had nothing left to give up except his life, and Destiny seemed intent on taking it along with everyone else's.

"No," he repeated, "there's no point in playing the blame game." If he started, he wouldn't stop until he blamed his parents for conceiving him when they did. He didn't want to go out in that frame of mind. He wanted to find that feeling he'd had on the shuttle, of being connected to the universe, of being part of it all where being part was enough.

Like the hive enfolding him, only bigger, encompassing everything and everyone that ever was or would be.

It came, slower and more distant than when he had been flying, but John found that calm again, and best of all, reaching for it made him let go of the anger brewing inside. Something strung too tight and twanging eased away, instead of snapping.

"Let it go," he said. "Let it go, Ronon. This is what we have and there's no way to know that any other choices wouldn't have led somewhere to something worse."

What-ifs would kill you — he'd learned that after Afghanistan, flying over the blue-white expanses of Antarctica. Ronon was just a kid, he'd spent years wrapped in a cocoon, for him the end of Sateda had been something still bleedingly immediate.

"Can't let it go with the dishonor on me," Ronon insisted.

"I can forgive you," John told him, "but I can't absolve you." He nodded to the knife. "Cutting your throat wouldn't do it either." He met Ronon's eyes, until Ronon lowered his. "I'd say it's something you have to live with, but… " John waved to the surface of the star. They were close now; he thought less than a light minute out, but didn't check his watch for elapsed time. Destiny's shields were still holding and either they or the viewport material filtered the light into something he could look at without being instantly blinded. John didn't want to look away; when the ship failed, it would be spectacular and fast.

Ronon's rough chuckle reminded John of when he'd been tossed in the cell with Todd and the Satedan. He'd mentioned the Genii and rescue and Ronon had laughed, rough and pained, and begun, along with Todd, John's education in the truth of the Renus Galaxy.

"Not for long anyway," Ronon said.

John leaned his head back and laughed too, letting his throat plates rattle and rub, giving the sound a clicking purr.

At the far end of the exedra, where John had nearly forgotten him, McKay took two steps forward and pressed his hands flat to the view port, his entire body inclined forward, peering intently. The movement triggered predatory reflexes and John's attention snapped to him in time to see McKay slap the transparent surface and yell, in a mixture of anger and exultation, "Sonovabitch!"

John got to his feet. "McKay?" he called. Ronon rose too, a brow quirked in curiosity.

McKay hurried toward them, his hands already sawing at the air, cupping it like he was juggling ideas, with a manic grin lighting his face.

"We should be burning up by now!" McKay declared gleefully. He grabbed John's left hand and brought it up, pointing to the face of his watch and the time. More than two hours had passed since Destiny left the gas giant.

The reflex to pull away when anyone not-hive touched John didn't so much as twitch. McKay had a big hand; it wrapped around John's wrist in a sure, warm grip and John stared because it felt so good. No one outside the hive had touched him so casually since the nasce. McKay seemed to have dismissed any worries about him, though.

"You'll notice we're still here," McKay went on. "That's because the ship is harvesting energy from the star. That's why it set the course to take us so close!"

"Are you sure?" John asked.

McKay laughed and flung both hands out as the lights came back on. "Am I sure? Am I sure?" he repeated. "What do you think?" He rubbed his hands together. "Oh, those sneaky, crazy Ancient bastards."

John laughed and swatted at McKay's shoulder. "Good job, McKay."

"I — what? I didn't do anything."

John lifted his shoulders and grinned at him. "What do you think it's using? Solar? Nuclear? Plasma?"

"Plasma," McKay answered immediately, "at least to power something else… It could be using the star to power an opening into subspace and charge some precursor of a zero point module… I have to get to the control center and monitor what's happening and I need Zelenka and Miko and Markov and Lee, maybe Brody and, God, it pains me to say this, but Volker… " McKay started for the door at a running walk, still talking even faster than he was moving. "This may be the greatest opportunity we've ever had to understand how the Ancients created their ZPMs — " He was out the door and John was still standing next to Ronon, feeling a little dazed, the grin still on his face.

~*~


The humans surprised em again. The one called Markov found eis quarters and knocked on the door. She carried a flashlight and was followed by one of the devices they called kinos.

Eie had been still, waiting in a near hibernation state. Hive sense had conveyed a little of the matings between Teyla Emmagan and her chosen among the four drones. She wasn't ovulating, so there would be no issue, but the desire she and the drone had shared had suffused the hive sense. It had drawn the other three closer to her, cemented her place at the center of their universe. Eie had felt it, even picked up images from her; Teyla projected more clearly than many aa-in.

It had been near torture to em, triggering conflicting instincts.

Teyla acted like a queen. Eis instincts demanded eie subordinate emself to a queen. At the same time, Teyla didn't produce the pheromones that compelled that subordination. That made her a competitor. Newer instincts stirred with eis changing hormones and demanded eie eliminate any rivals.

Eie had stilled eis mind to deny both impulses.

It would have been easier if John would have responded to eis need, but John balked at serving. The longer eie let John go without taking viand from John and returning the 'gift of life', the harder he fought against wanting it. Eie could sense the roil of emotions that John hid on the surface, including the acid resentment that sometimes tainted his every thought of em and the hive, if not the idea of the Union.

Dealing with John required a delicate touch, but fascinated em as nothing had in thousands of years. Part of emeven regretted forcing the connection between them and engineering John's absorption in the First Hive without giving him the knowledge to make a choice. John would never be easy in First Hive. That was another part of his attraction for em; no hive born oan, even a human hybrid, would respond to an eiee as John did to em.

More important than attraction was eis loyalty to the Hive. The prospect of adding the Alterrans' control gene, complete and functional, to the Hive had been an opportunity that couldn't be ignored.

Eie had also been able to see the opportunity that John represented for em. Eie would have found a way to take him away no matter where they had ended up, whether they had returned to Atlantis or stayed in the Milky Way. In time. Even the Alterrans had not held time in the palms of their hands the way the Wraith did.

Sunk deep into a trance state, eie had not heard Markov's approach.

"Do you want to record something before we launch this thing?" Markov asked without preamble.

Eie considered and then smiled. The site of eis sharp teeth disturbed Markov, but she didn't step back. "Just look into the camera eye and talk," she instructed.

Eie stepped forward. The kino rose slightly from where it had been hovering, so that its camera eye floated at the same level as eis eyes.

In the oldest of First Hive languages, eie made a single declaration. Where an Earth human would have signed off, eie said, "I am the one John Sheppard calls Todd."

Eie waved a hand before the camera eye.

"Is that it?" Markov asked.

"Yes."

Eie watched her leave then went back to eis meditation. Teyla and the drones were sleeping presences in the hive sense, making it easier. The plan eie had seen since eie first arrived on the ship turned behind eis eyes. Its beauty satisfied needs even the viand never satiated and made waiting for John easy enough.

If any Wraith ever viewed the kino recording they would understand that eie had anticipated the course of the change to come.

When the lights returned, as eie had anticipated they would, eis patience thinned to a fine thread and eie went to find John. While the humans celebrated cheating a death that had not in fact been particularly threatening, eie would reinforce the ties between em and eis chosen.

~*~


Everyone trickled into the stargate bay. It was deep inside the ship and it had no view ports, so the searing light didn't reach it, but with the power returned, its own lighting illuminated the cavernous space brighter than it had been since they arrived.

Rodney nodded with self-satisfaction. The ship had been running low on reserves even before their arrival. Without the stop at the desert planet and the attempt to dial the Milky Way, it might not have resorted to the slingshot trick and gone straight for a sun that fit its needs. They'd been responsible for the trial they'd just endured.

He stood back while Lorne announced the good news to the crowd, receiving a cheer in return. Some of the drunks were so far gone they just wanted to cheer anyway and all of them were going to be suffering from hangovers in the morning. Elizabeth and Camille Wray were barely holding each other up.

It was nothing new to be left out, especially of a celebration, and Rodney didn't want to be down on the deck dancing — in some cases lurching — with strangers without music. He suspected Sheppard didn't either, from his expression, but Sgt. Mehra got him to spin around with her, followed by Cadman and then Major Teldy when he proved himself deft and appealingly graceful. The tall guy with the dreadlocks got dragged into it too. Even the two Genii were there, showing their faces again. He spotted Zelenka and Markov stumbling through some East European folk dance; at least, Rodney hoped that's what it was. Either Radek was trying Cossack kicks or he had just fallen on his ass.

That just meant more time alone with the computers for him. It might take months, but Rodney had little doubt they'd have control of Destiny within a year if they dedicated themselves to it.

He gave Lorne a mocking salute and headed out, passing Todd in the corridor.

Rodney paused and turned around, calling to the black-clad back moving away from him.

"You figured it out, didn't you?"

Todd paused and looked over its shoulder. Rodney hid a shudder.

"Yes," it answered.

"You could have told us!" Rodney snapped, annoyance displacing his apprehension.

"I had no proof."

"Well, next time tell someone anyway! Tell Sheppard and he can tell me."

Todd inclined its head. White hair swished over its shoulder.

"I shall consider it, Dr. McKay."

Rodney hesitated where he was as Todd continued on its way to the gate bay — was it going to join the dancing? — uncertain if he felt vindicated or freaked out that it knew his name. Everyone should know who he was, but Todd? Sheppard must have told it. That warmed him, the way Sheppard's, "Good job," had in the exedra.

He wondered what Sheppard would say if — no, when — Rodney solved the problem of controlling the ship.

Something better than Lorne said, he'd bet.

Rodney bounced on his heels, suddenly invigorated. He had work to do. He'd show Lorne and all the rest of them, but Sheppard wouldn't be surprised.

~*~


Todd had eis hand on John's shoulder as they walked into the quarters eie had chosen. The air already felt steamy again. The rush and wheeze of the environmental system pumping moist air helped him relax too.

Would have made him relax, if he hadn't been hyper-aware of Todd's hand and what it could do to and for him.

His gait was already uneven as he tried to keep his pants from pinching his hardened cock before the door slid shut behind them. His skin felt tight with need.

Todd loomed at John's back, an unseen but tinglingly there presence. John drew himself as tall as he could, resisting the urge to lean back into em and sink into the weird satisfaction of being smaller and weaker and the object of care. He always held onto his control as long as he could. He hated how much he wanted to give that control up to Todd. A man shouldn't like it so much; he'd been taught that, though the knowledge seemed faraway and unimportant with Todd's scent enveloping him, soothing and arousing him at the same time.

His breath caught as Todd's hand moved from his shoulder to the crown of his head and pushed forward just enough to bare the nape of his neck. A whole-body shudder hit him when Todd leaned close and inhaled John's scent there. He began panting softly. Desperation for it was already rising through him.

"Are you going to — "

Todd closed eis teeth — sharp, shocking — on the back of John's neck. John grabbed at eis arm as his knees failed and eie wrapped eis other arm around his waist to hold him up. Those teeth closed tighter and John could feel the instinct running through em to bite down and shake him through the hive sense, but that same connection guaranteed his safety. His cock jerked against the confines of his pants as John gave in and gave himself up to em in response.

The instant he submitted, Todd released him and spun John to face em. Eie pushed one hard thigh between John's, giving him something to squirm and frantically rub against. His panting came interspersed with whimpers now. A wet spot marked the obscene tent at the front of his pants where the head of his dick pressed against the confining leather. He clutched at Todd's arms and rode against eis leg urgently, while Todd's hands cupped John's ass and lifted him effortlessly. The claws at the tips of eis fingers were sharp enough to punch through the thick leather, but eie did no more than exert a dull, bruising pressure that ratcheted up John's excitement. Eie pulled and spread John wider as eie raised him up, drawing a rasping moan from down in John's chest. Wanted, wanted, wanted so much, more, more, more. Eie clicked low in eis throat; the vibrations made John's entire body shake in response. He couldn't control his hips or the noises he made or the words spilling out, begging Todd to please do it, to take what eie needed from John.

He keened in frustration and eagerness as Todd slid his body down eis until his feet were on the floor again, strong hands arranging his body as eie wanted it, like he was a doll. His dick jerked and leaked harder at the touch of eis fingers on his bare skin. Todd teased them both, drifting eis claws through John's chest hair, flicking one tight nipple, then sinking a claw just through his skin. He could hear himself chanting do it, do it and couldn't stop now, couldn't breathe, he needed so much.

A flex of long fingers and Todd's palm and the rima there sealed to John's skin. He squeezed his eyes shut, anticipating the pain to come and holding onto eis shoulders to ride through it. He wanted the pain too and felt ashamed of that, but it made everything better, God, so much better. It was impossible to even imagine sex that didn't have this. It humiliated him to want — to need — this so much, more so since the return to Earth, with its reminders of what others would think if they knew, but John was too far gone to care now.

"Yeeeesss," he rasped out, both permission and plea. There were occasions Todd drew out their foreplay so long John climaxed without more than eis hand on him and then the feeding was agony. He hated those times because he would still beg for em to feed on him afterward. The enzyme rush that accompanied feeding was no longer physically addictive, but the mental component was just as strong. Todd had conditioned him to want the giving and the taking in the weeks after they escaped the rogue hive, when the gift of life had been all that kept John alive aboard a cruiser with no food other than a few cocooned humans. He'd thought viand was better than cannibalism; what was he supposed to have chosen, consuming or being subsumed? He'd been lost before he'd understood what Todd was taking from him in exchange.

Always, a flash of terror accompanied the instant before Todd fed. John's heart felt like it would hammer its way out of his chest. The animal that lived under all conscious thought reacted to the predator; the dichotomy of submitting while the chemical cocktail that went with the fight or flight response flooded through his body made for a high he'd come to crave the way he'd once pursued the jolt of adrenaline that accompanied flying in combat. His breath hitched in response as Todd clicked audibly, faster and faster, betraying eis own excitement. John could taste it in his head, the tangled threads of hunger and pleasure, other instincts triggered in Todd by his own arousal that only the oaee should have felt, not an eiee. Eis feelings for John as an individual were there too, acceptance and protectiveness that he'd never known before. It made him tilt his head back and bare his throat in complete submission while he rocked his hips against em, rubbing and twisting and whining for more.

It felt like a knife going into his flesh and twisting, but it felt like he imagined getting fucked would; John arched his back and pushed into Todd's hand to give more. John wished he'd remembered to at least open his pants; his hard dick was still trapped and the combination of friction and pressure added to the sensation of helplessness sweeping through him. The pain only meant the pleasure was to come; his body and his mind had both learned that well and were long past ready.

Dizzying weakness sapped the strength from his limbs and his field of vision constricted to just Todd's yellow eyes. The pain expanded through him until nothing existed beyond it and Todd, until John was lost in it, his own mouth open on a soundless cry. Eis spiracles gaped open along with eis mouth in an expression of Wraith exultation few humans had survived seeing.

His dick was jerking in his pants, the orgasm already there, as Todd gave it all back. The rush hit John like a sledgehammer to the head, rapture, and all he could do was hang onto Todd and mewl in mindless pleasure.

Still shaking with the aftershocks, John let Todd half carry him back to the wide bed and lay him out on it. His breath sawed in and out and he clenched his fingers in the bedding as he craned his head up to watch em unbuckle strap after strap as eie undressed. The long black coat came off first, hitting the deck with a heavy leather slap. John almost sobbed as Todd propped eis boot on the bed to pull it off, followed by the other, each one joining the coat with a thunk.

His dick hadn't flagged since his orgasm. John fumbled his belt open and shoved his pants down his thighs. They were soaked anyway, the leather stained through so that anyone would know, the thick smell of come choking him with every breath. It made his face burn thinking about it, the way his dick was red and wet and still so stiff that he had to slide his hands up his bared thighs and touch himself, his breath catching as he glided his thumb just under the head. Fuck yes, he needed more, was ready for more, could barely hold his head up to keep watching Todd and his own hands on himself. He didn't care about the red wound over his heart, blood trickling down to slip between his side and the inside of his upper arm. It would heal quickly and for now the hot sting only turned him on harder.

Todd removed the rest of eis clothes methodically, revealing eis body, long muscle and green-blue skin smooth over androgynous angles and curves. Unclothed, eie looked neither male nor female. There were no breasts, no nipples, just muscle sheathed in a layer of fatty tissue that could mimic cleavage given a sufficiently plunging neckline. Dark blue horizontal markings mimicked the segments on an insect's abdomen. A tight slit bisected the smooth skin between eis legs like a scar. Eie stroked eis fingers along its length, that vibrating hum from eis chest going uneven and fast in a way that made John pant and tighten his fingers around the base of his cock because he was already too close again.

His throat threatened to close and he began clicking back at Todd as eie climbed on the bed and straddled him. Eie carved eis claws down eis sides, drawing dark blood to run down and drip on John as the scratches closed before his eyes. Fast. Eie hadn't needed to feed; less than a full week ago eie had gorged on a dozen Jaffa lives. Eie wanted him and this, the forbidden, oaee sex. John licked his lower lip, then bit it, trying to hold back a groan as he kicked and squirmed himself free of the rest of his clothes. Eie ran eis hand over John's semen-wet groin before smoothing it over the slit, working it open wide, clicking and keening, hips working in the air above John. He held onto himself and breathed in shallow pants, clicking back at em involuntarily. Flushed and sweating hot, his body was exuding its own miasma of oan pheromones, singing that he was ready to rut.

Despite the return of power on the ship, the room was dusky-dim by human standards. Todd's pupils were dilated, eyes shining when the faint light refracted from within them. Chatoyant eyes and chiaroscuro body, limned in colors humans couldn't see, veiled in a cloud of mind-altering pheromones humans couldn't sense, the lines of heat arrowing down Todd's torso to where eie pushed fingers inside emself seemed to pulse. The scent rising from em went straight to his balls, made them draw up tight and hard, heavy with the need to pump himself inside.

The same musky, demanding scent, threaded with sharp notes of anise and alcohol, had drowned him in the darkness of the First Hive, when Todd brought him to the Queen after the nasce. He'd come in his pants when the Queen's pheromones hit the new sensory organs in his nose, begged to please oa as he folded onto his knees and crawled to oa, had been helpless to say no as new instincts overwhelmed any sense of self that didn't serve the hive. Hadn't wanted to say no, wanted to obey. He'd needed to obey: it had filled him, swallowed him up and made obedience and fucking his place in the universe. John had never in his life belonged so deeply or felt so right in his skin; hive and queen were all and he was perfectly part of it. The remnants of John Sheppard, the man from Earth, had been horrified by that abject submission, that dismissal of all self-will and individual worth; the new Sheppard had given himself up to it, with a joy that still called to and chilled him now.

The Queen's swollen ovipositor had been beautiful to him; so had the vestigial blades that had sliced ribbons through the skin of his belly when he fucked into the wet slit it emerged from, thrusting in below and pinning the ovipositor between their torsos. Oae had fed him the gift of life when he came and he'd hardened over and over again, fertilizing the hive's next brood of eggs, convulsing in an endless orgasm that left him nameless and utterly oase.

His survival had pleased oa and he'd sobbed with happiness as oae had commanded him to help Todd lead the hives to Atlantis.

He shuddered, remembering, knowing that somewhere in Renus, his children were Wraith maturing in their nutrient ovipods, nurse-caste inee dedicatedly tending them, that carried his genes. His legacy would be a hatch that possessed the ATA sequence and could interface with Atlantis' tech as easily as the Alterrans had.

Todd pulled eis ovipositor from the top of the slit and sank down until eie could rub it against John's groin, wetting it with the precome slipping down from the swollen head of John's penis to his testicles. John gasped and bucked, sliding the two shafts together until the sensation seared through him, burning thought away. Todd's ovipositor was slender, less deeply colored compared to the Queen's, but the first time eie had teased it into appearance John's mind had reacted even faster than his body, sinking into that languid space in which he gave up everything to oa. Todd was still eiee, eis scent too acrid, but when eie placed eis hand on John's chest and the gift rushed through him, he yielded and came into eis body the way he'd given himself to the Queen.

Every time.

Wraith and human voices in the back of his head had whispered, "Wrong," then and he hadn't cared. Still didn't. No one had asked if he wanted to join the Hive — home, safe, home, loved — and he had to fight the way he wanted to give himself up to the feelings it compelled from him. He'd offered Todd viand and Todd had given it back, but taken John's will — then the Queen had taken even his species. Whatever he wanted now he hadn't chosen, so he had submitted to em, a pointless, issueless coupling; the only rebellion he could summon. Later, away from the hive and the mind-numbing pheromones saturating it, he'd remembered himself, but he couldn't shake the desire that sparked through his flesh at just the touch of Todd's hand. He couldn't slip that leash.

He could never go home.

If the SGC and Earth had welcomed him rather than called him a traitor, if his pupils weren't slit and the pale skin at his wrists and inside his elbows, along his sides and inside his thighs hadn't been shaded faintly blue, if his fingers hadn't ended in indigo claws, he still couldn't have stayed there.

He'd been an exile before he'd stumbled through a one-way stargate onto this Ancient ship.

He hated Todd for that.

Now he didn't even have the comfort of the hive surrounding him.

It didn't stop him from bowing his body into an arch, muscles taut, air keening out him, as he sank deep into em. The muscles that held the orifice closed when eie retracted eis ovipositor clenched around him while the room buzzed with the harmonics of their frantic clicking. Todd tensed and ground emself forward and down, dragging eis ovipositor over John's belly and then rolling eis hips back.

John grabbed eis wrist and slapped Todd's feeding hand to his chest. It hurt, the scab from the first feeding split open, and his eyes rolled back in his head.

"Now," he begged, his voice a wrecked rasp, the human word all that he could still hold onto of self-awareness.

Todd took and John screamed, convulsing inside em, then it all came back, every cell in his body exploding with life, pumping it into Todd as Todd fed life into him. His hips rocked in and out and his dick spurted, a trickle of the gift holding him at the shaking, exquisite peak, not letting the climax end until Todd quivered and a thin, greenish liquid seeped from eis ovipositor.

Eie braced emself over John and reached down with eis feeding hand to loosen the muscle still holding John's finally soft cock inside em. Once they were disconnected, eie rocked back onto eis heels and retracted the ovipositor inside again. Satisfaction and satiation radiated through the hive sense, with an undercurrent of smugness, of a secret gloated over; John couldn't tease any sense from the brief glimpse, couldn't make himself care. Instead, he floated in the contentment that came with providing for em. Nirvana. It was hardwired into his mind at this point, that squirming delight in submission, the sweet gratitude that should have belonged to an oaee, but that Todd had perverted toward emself. John couldn't think past it or deny it while it lasted. Couldn't hold any thoughts in his head at all. Until his body processed the enzyme and the euphoria of the mating pheromones wore off, he didn't have to repress or think or remember he hated Todd, because he loved em.

He loved em and had to wriggle around to happily rest his cheek against eis knee, while his throat plates rasped in an approximation a purr. His body was still boneless with satiation. Eie played with his hair. He'd pleased em. Everything was easy. All was good. All sense of self was extinguished. This one's mind was empty.

"This one serves well," Todd said.

This one melted closer to em, whimpering gratefully at the praise.

~*~


The drip drip gave away to silence and the fluid on the deck began to congeal at the edges. Fingertips just skimmed the surface where one limp arm dangled over the side of the bed. The light through the cabin's porthole brightened until even the shadowed places in the room were lit in color. The brown glass of an empty beer bottle lying on its side where it rolled after it fell transformed to bitter amber.

Raoul Atienza didn't blink. The deep slice across his throat gaped wide. The scarlet flood it loosed spattered the ceiling and the far wall, ran down his chest and soaked the bed under his body.

Ba'al nodded in satisfaction at his work.


V. Host Hunt

"Anyone seen Raoul?"

A frisson of uneasiness fluttered in Lorne's gut. He'd begun to think that command instinct, the way every good officer knew when something was wrong, was just a bone deep conviction that something was always wrong. The absence of one airman from the impromptu 'we're not gonna die' party was not a portent of impending disaster. Atienza had probably drunk himself into a stupor and passed out somewhere.

Just because even Teyla Emmagan and the other Unionists had shown up, along with the Genii, and everyone else Lorne could think of, including Franklin, hobbling despite a healing gunshot wound, didn't mean anything had happened to Atienza.

He half listened to the mutter of questions running through the room. Hey, where's Atienza? He's missing the dancing. If you call that dancing. No, I ain't seen him since earlier. Someone oughta go find him, get him down here. Lorne caught Airman Mackie's arm as he passed.

"You know where Atienza's bunking?"

"Sir. Yeah, I know."

"Take, ah, take Chu and make sure he didn't drink himself into a coma or something."

They were lucky no one had swallowed a massive dose of pills or hurried the end with a bullet. He didn't want to lose a soldier because he'd choked on his own vomit.

"Yes sir."

He'd been persuaded to dance with Carolyn Lam — who looked as exhausted as ever, but was smiling — and was considering a beer, when his radio crackled.

"Sir, we found Atienza," Mackie said. It was an open channel and anyone with a radio or standing near Lorne could hear him. "He's dead. Over."

It took two deep breaths before Lorne could answer without yelling Motherfucker and throwing the radio across the room. He was surrounded by a growing pool of silence, everyone looking at him, waiting for his answer to Mackie.

"Natural causes?" he asked. "Over."

"Someone cut his throat, sir. Over."

He hid a shudder. If the snake had been in Atienza, it had been right next to Lorne dozens of times since they came aboard, even at his back when they were alone.

Lorne pinched the bridge of his nose while whispers spread through the crowd. Finally, he turned to Carolyn. "Would you come with me? I think your team is going to have to do another autopsy."

~*~


Lorne delayed the meeting of the ad hoc command staff until evening. It let everyone get past their hangovers, clean up and pull themselves together, in addition to giving the doctors time to finish the autopsy on Atienza.

Just thinking about Atienza made him furious.

In the smothering darkness, with everyone moving from cabin to cabin, drinking and fucking and praying or playing, depending on their natures, no one had noticed anything. Everyone agreed Atienza had been with a group at one point, but no one knew when he'd separated or if anyone had gone with him or followed him. No one had cared. Lorne couldn't even say that the Goa'uld was responsible. The possibility that the crew included a human murderer in addition to a snake was one he wished had never occurred to him. Lorne's investigation stalled and he was left frustrated, hoping the autopsy would offer some answers.

The command staff had expanded again. The wraith showed up this time, following Sheppard in, and Ladon Radim sidled into the room behind Wray and Weir. Lam showed up to give her report, along with Kate Heightmeyer. They settled into seats that Sgt. Mehra had organized for the meeting. Lorne started to object then gave up on it, because he'd want to know and have a say if it had been him.

"No sign of a Goa'uld," Carolyn stated.

Weir and Wray both looked pinched around their mouths and eyes. Teldy and Cadman were both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, though, enough to make Lorne wince to himself.

Commander Leonard arrived shaved but still smelling of sex; each of the Unionists and Sgt. Mehra had sniffed and winced, moving away from him.

"Is that good news or not?" McKay asked.

Next to him Zelenka didn't look up from his laptop, but added, "Why kill him?"

"Anything else you can tell us about how he died?" Lorne asked Carolyn.

"I'll write up a report, but I'm not a forensic pathologist, I'm sure there is a great deal of information that I'm not catching," she said. "A sharp object, probably a knife, was used by someone quite strong, probably as big as or larger than Atienza, to slice open his throat from left to right."

No clue to who had killed Atienza other than it probably hadn't been a woman or a small man, unless it was the Goa'uld with its superior strength, in which case Carolyn's probabilities went out the window.

McKay, looking bruised and exhausted but cheerful for once, said, "On a better note, the ship is pulling away from the star and its energy reserves are at one hundred percent capacity. You can complete that survey without triggering a disaster now."

"Does that mean we could dial home?"

Markov shook her head. "No. The ship simply isn't equipped to power an intergalactic wormhole."

"We're going to decipher the programming language though, thanks to what happened here," McKay added. "When we have that, we'll be able to take control. We might be able to take the ship itself back to the Milky Way."

"How long?" Lorne asked.

McKay scowled at him. "Months. Maybe a year before we're in control. Since we're living in the ship, it's kind of important not to break it while figuring it out."

No arguing with that. "Take your time and do it right," he said.

McKay's half heard sniff didn't even annoy him this time.

"We should also look into acquiring water somehow," Markov mentioned. "It isn't critical yet, but it could be a problem if we aren't prepared to replenish our supplies before they're gone."

"The same goes for food," Lam pointed out.

"Perhaps we could grow some of our own?" Weir suggested.

"Hydroponics," Zelenka said.

Larrin shifted in her seat, somehow drawing everyone's attention to her before she spoke. Weir could do that trick too. Lorne made a note to watch them and learn it. It was better than yelling Listen Up! She looked around. "Water again."

"How self-sufficient were your ships?" McKay asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. "Can we recreate anything you did?"

"Not as self-sufficient as we'd have liked," Larrin admitted. "That's why the Fleet allied with the Coalition; we got supplies in exchange for defending worlds against outsiders."

Teyla Emmagan, who had followed Sheppard and the wraith in, steepled her hands and added quietly, "The hives are dependent on provider planets as well. It is a delicate balance."

"Provider planets…," Wray repeated. "They provide people for the Wraith to feed on?" She was watching the wraith as she spoke. Other eyes were drawn to it, where it stood behind Sheppard's seated form.

"They do not!" Teyla snapped. "They provide food stuffs for the humans living on the hives and energy for the crèches where the grubs are cloned and force-matured." She visibly calmed herself. "That is a vile Genii lie."

Lorne opened his mouth and shut it. He didn't want to know what the wraith considered a grub, whether it was insect or human. It probably wasn't even a bad pun in Wraith or Ancient. If he bent his mind to it, he could probably remember the briefing reports he'd read in preparation for Atlantis, something about brain-dead clones; it was irrelevant now. They didn't have cloning factories sitting around after a war to put to some other use.

They might have labs and greenhouses or the shipboard equivalent, though. If not, then some area or hold they could retro-engineer to do the same job. Like Markov said about the water, they'd be better off if they started planning ahead for the worst case scenario.

"I want to send out search teams, mixed soldiers and scientists, to map out the ship, see what's here that the schematics don't necessarily show," he said. "Catalog all the damage, so we can begin fixing the critical systems first, and maybe before we're on a countdown."

Everyone chuckled.

Kate Heightmeyer, present for the first time, nodded. "It will give everyone a sense of purpose; it certainly did on Atlantis." She glanced at Sheppard. "Major, don't you agree?"

Sheppard had slouched into his seat, extended his legs, and leaned back against the wraith. The guy looked kind of wrecked, to Lorne's eyes, and rolled his head toward the shrink slowly. He blinked at her and then seemed to shake himself into focus, straightening away from the wraith. "I was just the lightswitch, remember?"

Heightmeyer's gaze sharpened, but Sheppard just cocked his head, highlighting the tattoos and letting a hank of hair flip over one eye, letting out a quiet but distinct clack sound that made the psychologist jump. Sheppard smiled with that same mean edge he used on Lorne. He wondered what Heightmeyer had done to piss Sheppard off and if it had been before the Wraith took Sheppard or after he led them back to Atlantis. He got the feeling, either way, Sheppard didn't appreciate prying.

Heightmeyer gave up and addressed Lorne and Weir instead. "Accomplishing something toward their own comfort and security will certainly help ameliorate the climate of fear on the ship," she stated.

"Barring some magical fix, though," Lorne said, "we need to think about augmenting supplies from planets. Feeling good about ourselves isn't enough."

"Twelve hour window doesn't leave us much time to find something, test it, harvest and get back," Teldy pointed out.

It did present a problem.

"For water, if we could find a source within relatively close reach of the stargate, we could lay pipe, hook up a pump, and send it through the open stargate into reservoirs set up in the stargate bay," Zelenka suggested thoughtfully.

"Awkward," Markov said. She shifted her shoulders. "Possible. Many ifs."

"It's still only an idea," Lorne said, "but if we can't think of anything better, we'll probably try it. It wouldn't hurt to figure out what we'd need to do it. We'd need to be able to set up fast."

Teldy nodded agreement and added, "Then we need gate teams to scout things out on a short clock."

"Volunteers," Weir said.

Lorne sighed before he laid it out for her. "Ambassador, everyone on this ship is its crew now. Unless they want to get off, they have to pull their weight. There's no room for a divide between military and civilian." He caught Larrin nodding approval from the corner of his eye. Zelenka, Markov, Brody and McKay looked less than thrilled, but none of them spoke up.

"It would still serve you better to assign people who are willing," Weir insisted.

"I'm not going through unless it's for a specific job that needs my expertise," McKay said. "I can accomplish more on the ship."

"I would go," Zelenka said.

"Dibs!" Sgt. Mehra piped up, grinning at Zelenka in approval, and startling laughter from Teldy, Ford, and, surprisingly, Sheppard.

"You won't get Palmer through the stargate again," Commander Leonard said. "She's still freaked out over what happened the first time."

"And you know this, how?" Lorne asked.

Leonard had the grace to color up a little. "I just know, okay? We, uh, talked last night."

Larrin laughed loudly. "Your people were doing a lot of 'talking' last night, Lorne. It was like being back on a Traveller ship."

God, he didn't even want to ask. If there had been fraternization going on, he didn't want to know, not under the circumstances, not when he didn't have a leg to stand on if the question did come up.

"Major," he said, "I want you in charge of putting together at least four gate teams. Different specialties: science, supplies, diplomatic, security."

Teldy blew out a breath. She and Mehra shared a look, that silent conversation Lorne had seen before in long married couples, cops, and gate teams. Mehra nodded at her.

"Myself, Sgt. Mehra, Dr. Zelenka since he volunteered," Teldy said, "Semyenov, Ledbedev, Ford, and," she paused and looked apologetic, "Sheppard."

Sheppard straightened up and frowned at her.

"What?" Leonard exclaimed with a dirty look toward Sheppard and the wraith. "He's half alien!"

"And Teal'c was all Jaffa," McKay snapped scornfully, "it's not like that was a problem for the SGC."

"He's a traitor," Leonard protested. He glared at McKay. "Should have expected something like that from you, though."

"You're a perfect argument for why he had to bring the Wraith into Atlantis," McKay fired back. "Narrow-minded, bigoted, right-wing, xenophobic, obtuse, jackbooted thugs. Never seen it before? Shoot it. Disagrees with you? Shoot it. Is it too big to shoot? Then, by all means, blow it — "

Wonderful, Lorne thought, and just controlled the desire to send his own dirty look Teldy's way. She'd obviously guessed her choice would kick over an anthill.

"McKay!"

McKay snapped his mouth shut with a mulish scowl. Sheppard was looking at McKay wide-eyed. "I can stand up for myself," he said.

"I wasn't defending — I can't stand idiots," McKay replied venomously.

Lorne held his hand up. "Commander. In case you didn't hear what I just told Ambassador Weir, everyone on this ship is crew now. That includes the Union diplomats and Mr. Sheppard." He sucked in a breath. "The only ones who get a say in whether Sheppard or anyone else is on a team are the other team members."

All the others Teldy had mentioned nodded their assent.

"Sheppard?" Lorne asked.

The wraith said something in its language, all clicks and vibrations, not looking happy. Teyla Emmagan's head came around and her eyes widened; Lorne swore she opened her mouth and sucked in air to taste it. Sheppard stared back at the wraith and replied in the same language, ending on a long rasping noise. The wraith tried something else and Sheppard snapped back at it, left his seat, and crossed the room to sit down between Mehra and Zelenka.

"Oh, look, trouble in paradise," Wray muttered very softly. Weir hissed something in her ear.

Sheppard smiled at Lorne and said, "I've got nothing better to do."

~*~


Teldy organized three more teams in the following days. None of them stuck with the four person squad traditional at the SGC. Ford backed her, saying they'd lost teams out of Atlantis before they beefed them up; four person teams couldn't work and maintain a secure perimeter.

A week after Destiny abandoned the star where it had replenished itself, it dropped out of FTL in a system with one stargate and auto-dialed. The countdown timer was for only four hours.

Lorne debated, but sent Teldy's team through with instructions to stick close to the gate. Zelenka's kino showed a vast grassland and six-legged herbivores crossing it in massive herds.

Dusty followed Anne through the stargate and took a position to cover everyone else, scanning the distance, and wishing she still had some gum. She'd been chewing gum to hide her nerves since her first overseas posting.

Sheppard ghosted by, moving without any noise at all, swiveling his head and breathing in deep. The rest of the team joined them, Semi and Ledbedev clustered close on Dr. Zelenka.

"Any idea what the ship thinks we need from here?" Ford asked as he stepped through the gate into tall, yellow-tinted plants. Major Teldy stopped at the edge of the area the opening wormhole had scoured down to bare ground. Close examination showed the stuff was more like bamboo straws than grass, but flexible with brown veins pulsing up the sides. Ford came up next to her, crouched and poked a finger at one, but Sheppard caught his shoulder and pulled him back.

"Don't do that."

Ford glanced up. "Why?"

Sheppard sniffed loudly. "Acid."

"But the animals are eating it," Ford protested.

Zelenka muttered, then spoke louder. "You will note, the animals are eating the reddened plants, which have died off and dried out." He studied the read-out on his kino control.

"Semi," Teldy said, "get those gloves on. We'll take a sample back to the ship."

"Some of the dried stalks as well," Zelenka added.

One of the bison-sized beasts picked its way through the straw-stuff. Huge as it was, not one of its six, padded feet crushed one of the live straws. The massive head boasted three eyes that bulged out and swiveled sufficiently to all focus on one thing or angle separately and see all around it. A ruff of porcupine-like quills surrounded its mouth. It squealed at the gate team. Its hide, unprotected by hair or scales, was a deep burgundy color.

"Stay back," Teldy said, "no quick movements. We've got no idea how fast it can move or if those spines can be launched."

Sheppard sidled to the side, drawing the animal's attention.

"Sheppard," Teldy whispered.

"Someone dial the damn gate," he replied even more softly.

The ruff of spines around the animal's mouth flexed.

"That doesn't look good," Ford breathed out.

Dusty lifted her MP5 to her shoulder. Flicked the selector to full auto and set the sights on one of the creature's eyes. If it was anything like a grizzly or a buffalo, it could have a bony plate over its brain thick and hard enough to ricochet or stop a bullet unless it came from a Barrett .50 caliber. Since she didn't have one — didn't think one had come through the stargate from the SGC with them — she'd hope for penetration through the soft tissue of an eye.

Behind her, the stargate began spinning.

"Everybody back through the gate the second I say go," Anne said. "If those things spook, they may stampede right over us."

"I've got a shot," Ford reported.

"Da," Semi said.

The muscles on its second set of legs tensed, rippling under the skin, and its rearmost legs came up. It was about to launch itself at Sheppard.

"Sheppard," she said steadily. The cross hairs stayed unwavering on one square-pupiled, chartreuse eye. The sound of the wormhole stabilizing set the animal off. Dusty watched its pupil dilate and fired. The clip emptied with a single squeeze. Sheppard dived with inhuman speed to the side. She heard Zelenka squawk as someone — maybe Ledbedev — shoved him through the stargate. Ford, Semi and Major Teldy were all firing at the animal as it charged forward, scarlet blood splattering from it, and the others all around were squealing and bugling.

The stupid thing just wouldn't fall down. Dusty slapped a new clip into her weapon and emptied it at its legs.

"Go, go, go!" Anne shouted.

Sheppard rolled onto his back and fired up into its belly as it leaped over him. It faltered as first one leg and then a second were crippled, but it kept coming. The others were running toward them now.

She and Sheppard, Anne and Ford were the last ones.

"Go!" Anne yelled again, running for the stargate herself just ahead of the animal.

Dusty loaded a third clip, but couldn't fire out of fear of missing and hitting Anne or Ford.

Sheppard flipped to his feet and shot another leg out from under the beast. Anne went through the wormhole and the animal crashed down finally, unable to balance and run on just three legs. It fell half way through the stargate, with just its third quarters kicking at the ground on their side.

Dusty shared one wide-eyed look with Sheppard and Ford, because it was blocking most of the stargate. The earth under her boots shook with the force of the rest of the herd running toward them.

Ford gave a shrug and a crazy smile and ran toward it, jumping onto its back and scrambling through over its shoulders.

"Shit," Dusty exclaimed.

"On three?" Sheppard suggested.

The stench of acid filled the air as the herd crushed the living straw-stuff under their feet. Dusty swore she could smell their hot breath too.

"On one," she blurted and raced for the stargate.

Sheppard matched her and they both ran up the animal's back, ducked the top of the stargate ring, and tumbled out the other side over its head. The give of its warm flesh gave her the heeby-jeebies.

The gate room deck hurt like hell when Dusty landed on her hip.

"Shut the gate down!" Anne yelled.

The animal's carcass slid forward with a jolt.

McKay hit the shut down and the wormhole winked out.

Corporal Greer helped Dusty to her feet and commented, "Maybe we can barbeque it."

~*~


They never did find out what Destiny had thought they'd get from the planet of bisopines. Maybe it had been barbeque. The scientists gave a tentative okay to eating the one that crashed through the stargate as long as the meat was cooked at a temperature that broke down the single toxin present through most of it.

Rodney assigned every linguist they had, starting with Josette Fisher, to trying to find out some key to the planetary auto-dialing. They needed to know what they were supposed to be looking for on these planets, because danger obviously wasn't reason enough to lock any address out.

Lorne ate one plate of the bisopine's meat to set an example.

Weir joined him, balancing a plate of her own, a single slab of the over-cooked, purplish flesh on it, and murmured, "It's not really terrible."

"You hate it too, don't you?" Lorne asked.

"God, yes," Weir said. "I thought eating sheep's eyes and grubs were the limit."

Beckett was eating enthusiastically, he noticed, along with the two Genii and Cadman. Two of the Union drones were sitting with several marines, Larrin, and Ronon Dex. He wasn't sure, but it looked like Dex, the drones, and the marines were competing to see who could consume the most, with Larrin overseeing. The wraith was nowhere around; Lorne had already noticed it stayed away from the mess hall and any gathering involving food. McKay had already plowed through his plate and disappeared back to the control center, followed by Sheppard despite Lorne's invitation to sit with him.

"At least it's not haggis," he said.

Weir's peals of laughter caught more than one person's attention. She grimly sawed another piece of meat off and chewed it until no one was looking, then discreetly coughed it into her fist and a napkin she quickly hid. She flushed when she realized Lorne had noticed. "It's that or throw up."

It really wasn't that bad. Lorne forced himself to eat. He'd dined on some weird stuff while off-world. This wasn't any different. "At least we won't starve." There had been speculation among the scientists whether there would any eco systems with compatible proteins humans could digest at all.

"I contemplated vegetarianism while in college," Weir said. "I'm rethinking my choice to remain a meat eater." She said it with a wan smile.

"It'll get better."

"I sincerely hope so, Major."

"Hey, no one got hurt on this mission. That's an improvement."

~*~


Destinystopped for four days in the next system. The only thing they could find of use were the wild tubers growing in the swamps surrounding the gate. After careful testing, they discovered both the green tops and the roots were edible, even nutritious. They looked like a yam, only more pink than orange, but that was the only resemblance. The greens were bitter and the cooked roots were sour. Despite being immediately, universally loathed by everyone except Nahkte, Marta, Halling and Kanaan, Lorne organized everyone capable, set sentries, and they spent most of three days harvesting every root they could dig up.

Destiny didn't have vermin. Yet. Although one of the biologists mentioned they'd have to be careful or they'd bring something back without knowing it.

Markov started making worried noises about the water reserves again. Lacking any better plan, Lorne authorized Zelenka's suggestion that they try pumping it through the open stargate. Finding some kind of flexible piping and equipment they could cannibalize to build a water pump proved harder than anyone anticipated. The Ancients had taken nearly everything that wasn't bolted down.

They confirmed the infirmary was set up in the ship's infirmary and brought most of the equipment on-line, with the exception of the bank of stasis pods in the lab adjoining it. The pods were power gluttons and unnecessary; they would re-evaluate if someone was hurt too badly for the docs to handle.

Fisher found an inventory that gave them their first good news: the ship had been outfitted to set up a colony and according to the inventory everything was still aboard. Finding it became another priority, since it included an array of equipment they needed.

"Replacement parts," Brody said. "The ship has to have them."

"Or make them," Markov agreed.

Lorne glanced at McKay, who nodded too.

"If it can make parts, it can make anything else we need, except food," Larrin said.

"Medicines."

Larrin gave Carolyn a nod, accepting her correction. "Properly, I should have said biologicals."

Anne made a note in her PDA. "Even some of those can be manufactured by our chemists, though, right?"

"Some," Carolyn admitted.

"If you can set up a secure lab space with the right equipment," Sheppard said slowly, watching the wraith next to him, "Todd's very good with… biologicals."

McKay twitched and looked up. "I think Major Lorne and Elizabeth will agree with me when I say we aren't ready for that."

"And won't be for some time," Elizabeth confirmed, saving Lorne from having to lay down the law. They were all getting along better. He thought they might even make a go of this mess if they could just catch the Goa'uld. Until then, they were all still in danger.

Sheppard folded his arms and shrugged. The wraith — Todd, damn it — appeared unruffled.

"How are you doing on finding a way to control the ship?" Lorne asked McKay.

"I've already achieved more than should be humanly possible," McKay declared.

"Yeah, but how close are you?"

McKay glared at him and muttered. "Months. Five. Maybe six."

"It is very difficult work," Zelenka added soothingly. "But Sheppard has been helping too."

Lorne mouthed his thanks to Sheppard, who shrugged uncomfortably. As a response, it was an improvement over his usual hostility. He was making inroads with the ex-officer.

"It might go faster if you weren't both haring off to other planets and playing with your flying spy-eyes," McKay snapped.

They agreed to try the pump plan the next time the ship stopped on a planet with water.

"It's not going to work, you know," McKay griped after Zelenka had hurried out, talking animatedly with Markov and Brody. "The stargates only move discrete objects. That's why they only work one way. You'll keep feeding the pipe into the wormhole, but it won't arrive on the ship until it is cut off. It's not a magic doorway."

"Yeah, McKay, I get that," Lorne told him. "Have you got a better suggestion?"

"Ice."

"Wonderful."

~*~


Radek's idea didn't work. Destiny gave them three days access to a rainforest planet with four different edible fruits and a blue pool of water fed from a misty waterfall. After twenty-four hours spent trying to work around the physics of the wormhole, Radek had to give up and join everyone else gathering fruit, while teams of military stood watch in shifts.

The coughing started perhaps a day later; he couldn't be sure, he'd been exhausted and fallen asleep for at least sixteen hours after Destiny left that system, and woken to sheets soaked with sweat. Still feeling tired, he'd resorted to shoving them off the bed and promising himself he'd get them clean later.

He staggered into the control nexus and received a snide greeting from Rodney. "Oh, you're back. Get all your beauty sleep?"

"Rodney, I am tired," he said and sank down on the bench where he napped sometimes.

"By all means, rest up, it isn't like I'm doing this all by myself," Rodney replied. "Or that any of your ideas are useful, other than to pinpoint the most ridiculous and wrong possibility. I suppose that saves me some time."

Radek cradled his forehead in his palms. A tickle in his throat made him swallow back a cough, then another one. He suppressed that one too, but the third bubbled up despite everything and he covered his mouth and doubled over.

Rodney spun round from the console where he was working and stabbed a finger at Radek. "Oh, no. No, no, no. No coughing, no sick people. Out. You have to get out. You know what a delicate immune system I have. Take yourself and your germs away."

Rodney's immune system, like the rest of him, was about as delicate as an ox. He'd never been genuinely sick once in the time Radek had known him. The hypochondriac precautions he took had nothing to do with it in Radek's opinion. The genius brain was housed in a body that could have been a stevedore. Anyone who thought Rodney was weak, with his whimpering over his back and his allergies, had never seen him wrestle massive generators and other equipment into submission.

However, he felt crappy enough to obey Rodney's peremptory order without argument in this case.

A stop at the mess hall for some sort of juice he could take back to his cabin seemed to be all he would be good for today. Maybe he would chance a bowl of some of the oatmeal that Becker served every morning shift to try to settle his stomach and then he would go back and sleep some more.

The tickle in his throat was back. Radek smothered another cough in his elbow.

"Out, out, out!" Rodney yelled while backing away from Radek like a vampire confronted by a cross.

The sneeze burst out just before he reached the mess hall and Radek had to prop himself against a bulkhead for a few breaths. His head had began aching in rhythm with his pulse. He felt positively creaky, like his joints were about to crack if he bent them too far.

Radek blinked and wondered if maybe he should be in the infirmary.

The sound of sneezing and coughing from inside the mess hall, along with yelling, mixed with another bout from himself. Radek pushed himself off the bulkhead finally, promising himself coffee to clear out the awful taste in his mouth. He made it three steps inside, in time to see Airmen Rivers double over coughing and knock a tray from Rennie's hands, before Rivers hit his knees. The sound of the metal tray hitting the decking and Rennie yelling shot through Radek's temples like a red-hot poker.

Rivers had been working with Radek on the planet. They'd both been soaked before they gave up on the pumping scheme. Radek hated admitting Rodney was right, because he lorded it over him so much, but he couldn't change the physics of the stargate wormholes. Discrete objects were all that could be transmitted other than waveform phenomena like radio frequencies. Otherwise each wormhole would suck through too much atmosphere.

The question of whether it would be enough to actually affect the local weather patterns briefly entranced Radek. He wondered if they had a meteorologist with them who he could ask. Radek shook his head. Why had he been thinking that? He'd meant to get something here, hadn't he?

Sweat broke out over his body and he struggled to focus. He was so hot; it was hard to think. Rivers was still kneeling on the floor, coughing convulsively. Rennie was crouched beside him, looking worried, while several others had grabbed their trays and moved away from the scene.

Radek cleared his throat, coughed hard enough black spots appeared before his eyes, and tried again.

"I think Airman Rivers and I need to report to the infirmary," he stated.

Rennie glanced up, gave Radek a sharp-eyed look, then back to Rivers.

"They're sick?" Spencer exclaimed. "Crap. They were both on that planet — "

Ah, Radek wanted to say, it was inevitable. They were careless, took no precautions, and now they would pay a price. This galaxy had not been touched by the Ancients; its worlds were not terraformed. Its dangers would be alien to them. Some would be so different they would be immune, and there would be some dangers for which they would have no immunities. He would have explained, if his swimming head and burning lungs hadn't made just keeping his feet an effort.

"Infirmary," Corporal Greer said. "Rennie, help Rivers. Doctor, I've got you."

"Why me?" Rennie whined.

"Because you're closest and so you've already been exposed more than anyone else," Greer pointed out pragmatically.

"Shit, shit, shit," Rennie grumbled.

~*~


Carolyn still had on gloves, goggles, and a surgical mask. She met with Lorne outside the overflowing infirmary. Even with the hatch locked closed behind her, he thought he could hear coughing.

"They're smothering," she said. "Their lungs are filling with gunk faster than they can cough it out. I already have Rivers, Riley, Zelenka and Sora on oxygen, but it won't be enough. Carson wants to try putting a drainage line in one of Riley's lungs." She shook her head at that plan.

Lorne leaned back against the bulkhead and asked, "Do you know how it's spreading yet?"

Carolyn sighed. "Best guess, bodily fluids. Coughing, sneezing, spitting, sweating, kissing… "

"Screwing?" Lorne finished with a weak smile.

It got a short laugh from her.

"Probably."

Lorne waited, hoping she'd have more to say.

"God," Carolyn murmured, "we're running out of room in here." Her throat worked as she swallowed before adding, "I think we're going to have to try the stasis pods. I hate relying on technology I don't understand."

Which meant getting McKay down to the pod chamber to get them running again, since he'd been the one to disable them. That would be a fun job; McKay had gone into full hypochondriac withdrawal. He'd probably want to wear a hazmat suit just to come to this deck.

"At least no one new has caught it in the last — ," Lorne said.

The sound of boots, heavy on the decking, and an argument interrupted him. Carolyn looked past Lorne's shoulder and muttered, "Shit."

Lorne swiveled and spotted the problem. He'd spoken too soon. There was a new patient and not one he would have predicted.

The wraith was carrying one of the Union drones. Sheppard, Teyla, and the three others were trailing behind it at a distance, kept back it seemed by the volume and speed of the wraith's voice as it clicked and buzzed and reached an earsplitting, squealing chitter before concluding with a rattling hiss aimed at Sheppard that sounded like steam from a busted radiator.

Teyla started forward, only to have two of the healthy drones grab her arms and pull her back.

Carolyn had the hatch into the infirmary opening already.

"Get her in here," she ordered.

It struck him that he hadn't paid enough attention to the Union drones to realize one of them was technically female. He could see the differences in all of them when he looked again. Either they'd changed or his eyes had opened.

"How long has she been sick?" Carolyn asked. The wraith swept in past her. It carried the drone effortlessly.

Teyla jerked her arm free of the drones, took a step forward, then stopped as the tallest and oldest of the three spoke. "That one is diseased; that area is filled with contagion."

Teyla made a rattling sound herself.

"I have been exposed, so have we all, in the nest," she snapped at the drone. She raised her voice. "Marta showed none of the symptoms, Dr. Lam. She became abruptly confused and collapsed only minutes ago."

The wraith set Marta onto an empty bed.

"Crap, crap, crap," Carolyn muttered loud enough Lorne could hear her. "Aren't you supposed to have stronger immune systems than humans?" Beckett and Johanson joined her, working around the wraith fearlessly.

"No," the wraith said. "We merely regenerate our cells more quickly in response to damage." It pressed its hand against Marta's chest. Marta bowed up in a curve from heels to shoulders and her mouth opened in a hoarse cry. Her eyes snapped open, rims of amber around dilated pupils. She rolled to her side and expelled a gout of murky green mucus onto the floor and lay panting afterward.

The doctors and Johanson jerked back and stared.

"What the hell did you just do?" Carolyn demanded. She reached around Marta's shoulder and set the bell of her stethoscope on her chest, listened, and looked amazed.

"The gift of life," the wraith said. It stepped back from the bed, giving the pool of gunk a wide berth.

"Can you do that for the others?" Beckett asked eagerly. "Can you heal them too?"

"That one is not healed," the wraith said. "If I were to give more, I would be forced to feed sooner."

"The Hunter provided Marta with sufficient energy to clear her lungs," Teyla said to Lorne. "She is still infected."

From beside him, Sheppard added, "This is bad."

"I'd never guess," Lorne said. The wraith looked no different than ever, though he knew it had been yelling at Sheppard and the others on the way.

"Hybrids usually shrug off human illnesses," Teyla explained.

"Eie doesn't want any of the rest of us to catch it."

Lorne looked back and forth between them, and to the three other drones, and thought what it would be like to be the only one of your species, trapped far from home, among less than friendly strangers who were also desperate. The Unionists were the closest thing the wraith had to fellows. All it had was Sheppard and the five from another hive.

Four if Marta died.

Lorne would be obsessed with keeping them alive if it were him in the same situation.

"I didn't know they had names," he blurted.

The wraith exited the infirmary. It cocked its head at Teyla. Teyla straightened her shoulders. Before she answered, the tallest drone spoke again. "We remain loyal to the hive." He paused. "To you, eiee." He paused a second time, slit-pupiled gaze sliding over Sheppard and lingering on Lorne for a moment. "We are not a-in. We are awake. We are named."

"They've been corrupted," Sheppard said with a chuckle.

"Changed," the wraith said. It inclined its head to the drone. "We are all changed. I must change too."

"And still changing," Teyla continued. "But we still serve." She arched her neck, turned her head slightly the side, emphasizing the vulnerability of that posture. "We provide viand when you need."

Lorne glanced between them, feeling strongly he was missing some subtext beyond the fact Teyla had just confirmed that the wraith fed on the hybrids in the hives. Sheppard cast Teyla an unreadable look and shifted to put himself between her and the wraith. The funny thing was the move seemed less about protecting Teyla than keeping her away from the wraith.

"I accept your service," Todd said formally.

Teyla's shoulders relaxed, her whole body relaxed, and the three drones subtly radiated relief even Lorne couldn't miss. Sheppard tensed and scowled in an opposite reaction. Lorne wanted to interpret his body language as jealousy, but didn't let himself; they were all too alien, even Sheppard, and what could he be jealous of anyway? Being fed on didn't sound like a joyride to him.

"Move to a new nest, one without risk of contamination," Todd ordered Teyla and she nodded. "I will join you."

"It will be done," Teyla promised.

Todd looked at Sheppard, made that clicking noise, then strode away. A moment later, Teyla and the three drones were gone too, presumably to locate new quarters, leaving only Sheppard with Lorne.

"I've been told to stay away from anyone in danger of getting sick," Sheppard commented, humor and bitterness twisted through his words. "Todd's freaked out."

"Is that what it looks like on a wraith?" Lorne asked. "Is he afraid of catching this thing?"

Sheppard laughed under his breath. "Todd isn't a he, you realize."

Lorne blinked at him.

"What? Should I be calling him… her?"

"No. Eie doesn't care."

"So why tell me?"

Sheppard gave him a strange look. "I thought maybe you should know, considering," he said. "Look, I'm going to go hang out with McKay. Todd figures that's safe enough."

~*~


Eie decontaminated in one of the ship's hygiene chambers. The return of full power had activated several previously dormant systems, including one that cleaned clothing and bedding. Eie put eis leathers through two cycles, to clean and to decontaminate. Even the jeweled, platinum-and-naquadah pendant First Hive's queen had given to em, the only piece of eis history and hive eie would keep, went through the cycle. Eie had no intention of risking spreading the sickness currently infecting so many of the humans to eis oan or the Athos hive-kin.

Fear made itself a constant under eis skin. Eie ruthlessly blocked it from hive sense and blocked the disturbance Teyla and the three drones — named, eie hissed, still nonplussed — felt. Eie even severed all but the thinnest thread of connection to Sheppard. A clear mind was necessary to evaluate the current danger.

The humans were in danger from the disease, but eie had not expected the hive-kin would be affected. Eie had worried only that those humans eie had already marked for the nasce eventually such as McKay and several females — would succumb, not that Sheppard or Teyla or the drones might fail. Eie did not feel fear, true fear, often. It made em aggressive and dangerous, another reason to stay away from the others.

Halling, Kanaan, Nahkte, Teyla and Sheppard were eis most precious resource. Once eie finished the change to oaee, sowing the nasce among the other humans would become a possibility, but none of them would ever share what those five and the sick drone in the infirmary shared with em. That had been the reason to share life with the weakened one, rather than drain what viand remained in it, as would have been done in a proper hive. Eie was not, no matter what Sheppard said, sentimental.

That was why eie had not wanted Sheppard on one of the gate teams. Oan were precious, not to be risked. That was the role aa-in and even eiee were meant to fulfill.

If eie had completed the change to oaee, Sheppard wouldn't have defied eis wishes. Sheppard wouldn't have been able to want something other than his queen's desire.

Eie regarded eis bared body. Were eis markings darkening? Eie inhaled, but the chemical beads were too efficient and had stripped eis scent from eis skin and the air around em. If eis pheromones had shifted, eie couldn't tell yet. The pledges from the drones and Teyla were not the truth eie craved now. In the hive, loyalty was chemically guaranteed. The human ability to choose — and betray — confounded the Wraith. They could conceive of such a thing only mentally, never viscerally.

Instinct and the will to power — eie didn't fool emself over the latter — made em want to create eis own hive, hatch eis own eggs, continue eis species in security… and it made em want an oan. The Alterrans had twisted human and iratus into the Wraith and with sentience had come dissatisfaction. The taint in the fruit of knowledge, Sheppard had told em in response to the story of the birth of the Wraith. Even so, eie could not ever plot the downfall of eis queen or First Hive, not until eie became a queen and commanded a hive in competition.

Known could not be unknown, Sheppard said. Perhaps. For the oan, for aa-in and a-in, even the inee, known could be unthought. Eie shuddered pleasantly, thinking of Sheppard when he found that peaceful place, when the hive sense settled into placid contentment and devotion.

How could Sheppard not crave it?

Eiedid not understand, but had long since marked the anger and humiliation that stained the hive sense when Sheppard reasserted self-hood after they had shared and mated. Understanding why wasn't necessary, to know Sheppard did not want the mindless life of an oan that would be his once eie became oaee.

Or would it be mindless?

Eie considered the Athos drones. Had they always had that capacity, to consider themselves as separate beings, or had it happened because they were separate from the pheromones of a queen?

Would they revert?

Would they remember?

Eie did not like these thoughts. They filled em with doubts.

Eie smoothed the scowl from eis face. Some changes were not better. Eie had not liked seeing Sheppard on his knees before First Hive's queen. It was wrong, an eiee should not be able to feel… jealousy, but eie spent so much time out of the hive, eie had flirted such a change before. The emotion had faded while they stayed in the hive, but returned once they were away from First Hive. Sheppard's reaction had exacerbated the situation, souring the hive sense with his fear and revulsion.

Eie had been pleased that Sheppard would stay mostly in Atlantis, stay himself, and not join the oan of First Hive permanently.

Would Sheppard be Sheppard if he did not know himself? If he did not defy em?

No.

It wouldn't be the same. He wouldn't be the same and eie would… miss the defiant push and pull between them, the satisfaction of another mind matching eise.

Sheppard hadn't been revolted when eie fed from him and returned the gift of life. Not until after the nasce, after it stopped being an exchange freely given, eie realized. The nasce had made Sheppard lesser.

Eie didn't want that.

~*~


Even with the power restored, lights down in the control nexus were set low; it made reading the screens easier. John found it soothing compared to the excessive artificial lighting the SGC had favored. Even Atlantis' upper towers had been on the too-birght side to his changed eyes.

McKay had on a dust mask, goggles and purple nitrile gloves. He peered at John through the barrier of clear plastic, despite his peremptory, "I've disinfected everywhere Zelenka touched in here."

John could read the real terror in his eyes. He could smell it, too. He understood the emotion better than he might have only hours ago. The Thumps would have already killed Marta if Todd hadn't fed her the gift of life when she collapsed in the infirmary. Anything that could take down a hybrid that fast and lay out so many of the crew over night was damned scary. They were utterly alone against it. McKay was too smart not to see the situation for what it was.

Anyone else who saw the danger clearly no doubt envied McKay the gall it took to act on his fear.

A pile of MRE packages and a box with sealed, bottled water sat on one bench. McKay wasn't risking trips into the mess hall — either because Rivers had collapsed there or out of distrust of any food not brought from Earth.

"Yeah, everyone knows how… dedicated you are," John said. He held his hands up. Todd had considered McKay 'safe' for John to associate with, which was hilarious or disturbing, depending on how John wanted to take it.The whole wanting to touch McKay thing was getting stronger. John wanted to give McKay a comforting pat on the back, but didn't want to see him flinch away.

"Why are you here anyway?"

"You mean, besides the draw of your magnetic personality?" John drawled.

"You're mocking me," McKay stated in a flat tone.

"Only a little." He actually was drawn to McKay, who flat out said whatever he thought, and was oblivious to most of the undercurrents swirling through the ship's unwilling crew. He found himself worrying about McKay for the same reasons.

"So what do you want?"

"Got any scut work?" he asked. "I read Ancient. I can translate some more files for you." He was at loose ends. Todd didn't want him near Teyla or the other drones or anyone who had gone to the last planet, though the lack of quarantine protocols meant everyone on the ship had already potentially been exposed.

"Fine, fine, I suppose you might be marginally useful," McKay said. He shuffled over to another console and screen and activated it, then hooked a laptop to it. "Read through these. Flag anything pertaining to the ship's course or command codes."

"Great," John said sardonically. He supposed someone had to do it, but he anticipated being bored as hell and having a headache before the day shift ended.

"This is all environmental," John told him. "If you want to cook someone in their cabin…?"

"I'll keep that in mind," McKay said.

They worked in a comfortable silence for a while. John slowly relaxed into the rhythm of the work.

"Any news from the infirmary?" McKay asked eventually.

"No."

McKay paused and then left his current console. He went to another. "I wonder if there's anything in here that could help?"

John closed his laptop and joined McKay, leaning over his shoulder but keeping his hands behind him. "What have you got?"

"I'm looking for the medical database," McKay said. "It should tie into the infirmary equipment inventory somehow. Look, here's the control system to the stasis pod bay."

John whistled through his teeth. Those things ate energy like a blackhole ate light.

"Look, there," he said, as a line jumped out at him. "The one that says Treatment Options. Try it."

Even in gloves, McKay's fingers moved over the alien controls with an efficiency that reminded John of piloting.

~*~


Marta died between one check and the next.

Carolyn turned back from giving Riley another chest-tapping and the drone had stopped breathing. She hadn't noticed over the noise she and Riley were making, along with Ko and Johanson helping two other patients at the far end of the room. She sucked in a hard breath, more aware of the air and the movement of it into and out of her lungs than she had ever been, along with the reek of sickness and disinfectant, and stared at the still body. She barely resisted the impulse to throw something and shout; anger gushed from an open well-head somewhere inside her and wanted to spill over on everyone and everything.

She hadn't asked for this, damn it. Damn Cam Mitchell and Lt. Ford and her father for saving her only to leave her faced with this. Despite the interesting equipment the Ancients had built into the ship, she had about a quarter of the things she needed to treat her patients if they'd had pneumonia, which she at least understood. It presented like an anti-biotic resistent pneumonia, but she had no idea what she was really fighting: bacteria, virus, prion disease, fungus, parasite, or something so damn alien Earth taxonomy didn't even conceive it. Nothing she or Carson did was helping. Very little of it even offered her patients a modicum of comfort. Each time she thought she had a handle on a treatment, the patients got a little better, then went sour again.

"Carolyn?" Carson spoke from behind her.

Carolyn stepped back to Marta's bed. She checked for the pulse she knew had already gone, then checked her watch. "I'm calling it. Time of death — "

"Oh bloody hell."

"We'll need to do a post mortem. Maybe we can figure something out from the pathology."

"Someone needs to go tell Major Lorne and the poor lass's people," Carson said.

"Get Kate to do it," Carolyn ordered. She picked up the tablet she was using to keep records and quickly entered the time of death, before disconnecting the IV in Marta's arm and drawing the sheet over her face. Even if their infirmary had boasted privacy curtains, it wouldn't have mattered. None of her patients had the energy to notice anything outside their own struggles to draw in enough oxygen. In the next bed, Riley hadn't even registered Carolyn's absence. He stared glassily at the ceiling, gasping desperately with each breath under the oxygen mask. Already his lips and the beds of his fingernails were tinged with blue again. Even if Riley had been conscious enough to realize what had just happened, Carolyn was too tired to try to hide it.

"We've got to start putting the worst of them in stasis," Carson insisted.

Carolyn considered protesting, but why not use the technology they did have and save using the limited supplies, as well as working themselves into collapse?

"Okay." Carolyn swiped the back of her hand over her forehead and swallowed rather than clear her tightened throat. Coughing, even the normal kind, sent a spike of terror through everyone in the infirmary now. "I'll tell Major Lorne."

~*~


"There you are, you wee bastard," Beckett said, wrecked and tired and viciously pleased, his hand slapping down on the counter as emphasis.

Carolyn looked up at his words, forgetting the ache in the small of her back, the crick in her neck, and the headache based equally on tension and eyestrain. "Carson," she asked, "have you — " In the next room, Johanson thumped her fist between Anastacia Mohl's shoulder blades rhythmically, the gagging and coughing overwhelming Carolyn's words. Sgt. Mehra and two other volunteers performed the same services to other patients, while Marie Ko caught a badly needed hour or two of sleep despite the noise.

"Yes, come look at it. The bloody thing is eating the lungs and triggering a hellish over-reaction on the part of our immune systems," Carson said.

She left her own seat and hurried over to where he bent over a microscope. Carson had good vision; she didn't even need to adjust the focus. Their guilty party swam in the center of the slide. In looks, it resembled an amoeba; how it functioned inside, Carolyn couldn't guess yet, but there was the cause of the Thumps, visible in a slice of Marta's lung taken during the autopsy.

"It's huge," she exclaimed. If it had been a virus, Carson wouldn't have found it with this microscope after all. No one had tucked a spare electron microscope in their jacket to bring along after all. She was still shocked by the size of this thing. It didn't enter cells; it surrounded and consumed them.

"I'm thinking that's a good thing," he said. "Surely we can design a treatment that targets this nasty little hitchhiker without killing our patients."

"Meanwhile, an immuno-suppressant might help for the short term," Carolyn said, designing the stopgap measure in her head. It wouldn't stop the parasites from harming the patients' lungs, but it might be the difference between them drowning in dead parasites and phlegm.

"I'll work on finding something that will kill these without harming our patients, then," Carson said, "while you buy us all some time."

With any luck, they'd manage it. Then they could take Riley, Sora, and the others already consigned to the stasis pods out and treat them.

If the immuno-suppressants didn't work as she hoped, Carolyn knew she would be interring Radek Zelenka and several others in the pods before the night shift.

~*~


The face masks and goggles everyone donned once Beckett solved the mystery of the Thumps would have given Rodney a thrill of vindication, if he hadn't been freezing. He pulled another blanket around his shoulders and cursed the ungrateful bastards, all of them. Everyone else was huddling together for warmth, but did anyone offer to stay with him? Just because he'd been right to take basic precautions against becoming infected?

A lace of frost spread over the bulkheads, ice crystals precipitated out of the steam still venting from the environmental system, and the temperature in the ship kept plunging.

It would stabilize at 0°Celsius in another hour according to Rodney's schedule. Sheppard had done the math for him. The pilot had proved more useful to have around than Rodney would have ever believed. Everyone, in Rodney's experience, asked stupid questions; Sheppard at least understood Rodney's explanations.

He didn't know what to think of the fact that Sheppard touched him sometimes. Rodney found himself watching Sheppard whenever he could and he didn't think Sheppard touched anyone else as often or as casually as he did Rodney. He liked that; it made him feel singled-out and special, as well as warm. He wished to hell he was warm right now.

God, he was going to end up a Popsicle before the forty-eight hour cycle Lam and Beckett had demanded completed and killed off any damned Thumper germs lurking in the damp and warmth of the ship. They hibernated while in any damp niche, just waiting for some unlucky creature to inhale them so they could start eating and reproducing, but they popped like zits at freezing temperature. That last was Corporal Greer's description. Rodney couldn't shake it out of his brain, no matter how he tried.

Boiling worked too and hard radiation, but they couldn't exactly survive either of those options, so it was forty-eight hours of freezing.

He was going to lose toes and maybe fingers to frostbite, he knew it. Another shiver made his teeth chatter. If one more person made a remark about how he should be used to the cold, he was going to find out how to selectively space certain people's cabins.

If Zelenka weren't so sick, Rodney would have doubled up with him. As it was, he couldn't even use Zelenka's quarters. They were probably crawling with Thumper germs. Parasites. Things that wanted to kill him.

He shoved his hands into his armpits. At least Zelenka was going to be all right. Lam was treating — torturing, if you asked Rodney — him by inducing hypothermia. Carson swore it would work, though Rodney thought it reeked of voodoo. Radek had been deemed still strong enough to survive, though; unlike the four people they'd consigned to stasis pods.

Or the three who had died. Jesus, Bill Lee might not have been a genius, but he'd been harmless, and Rodney would never have wished such an end for anyone.

Rodney shuddered again.

Sheppard had been there, working beside him, when he had just stopped, not even breathing, for a five count. Then he'd moaned as though he was getting sick only to whisper, "Dead."

"What?" Rodney had snapped.

Sheppard had blinked his eyes back into focus and answered, "Marta's dead."

"Marta who — wait, how do you know?"

"Marta of Athos Hive."

Rodney remembered his sinking feeling, his silent Oh fuck — because if the Thumps had killed one of the hybrids, it was going to kill some of the others who were infected too.

Sheppard had left the control center then and only come back later, irritable and snappish as Rodney himself, with the news the doctors were putting the worst-affected into the stasis pods. He'd stayed away after that, leaving Rodney to work in the pod chamber adjacent to the infirmary with Markov and Brody instead. Rodney didn't blame him; he flinched at the noise from the infirmary of the patients coughing, gagging, and fighting for oxygen, reminded over and over that one of them was Zelenka.

Twenty-five hours later, Beckett and Lam had their solution and Rodney was desperately rewriting code for the environmental system, inducing life support to drop to a temperature that definitely didn't support life. With every change he made, the system tried to reset to default and even Miko's programming skills were stressed to the limit.

They'd only started making real progress after Sheppard started doing Rodney's calculations, letting them work fast enough to finish the reprogramming before the system reset.

So now he was freezing to death, alone and miserable. Miko had assured him she would be with Svetlana and several of the other women. It would serve everyone else right if forty-eight hours from now, they emerged from their orgiastic cliques, found his frozen corpse, and only then discovered they needed Rodney turn the heat back on.

Of course, Miko and Sheppard knew what he'd done and could probably undo it.

He had a cabin, but it was large and empty; it held nothing that made it Rodney's. Besides, he told himself, someone needed to stay in the control center and monitor the environmental system. It would be hellish — and embarrassing — if the freeze cycle finished too soon and they had to endure this a second time.

Rodney pulled his feet up onto the bench with him and wrapped his second blanket around his boots. It was too cold to go to sleep; he'd never been able to sleep with cold feet anyway, but he managed a half-drowse.

"M-m-mcKay?" A hand jostled Rodney's shoulder and he blinked his eyes open. Sheppard was bent over him, weird eyes shining, clutching his arms around himself, and looking as concerned as a half-alien with chattering teeth could.

"What're you doing here?" Rodney slurred.

"L-l-look-k-ing for y-you," Sheppard chattered back at him. "Damn, it's c-c-cold."

"No shit, Sherlock," Rodney snapped.

Sheppard looked worse than Rodney felt, despite being wrapped in an Arctic-rated parka and cold-weather pants. His hand was still on Rodney's shoulder. He tightened it, pulling Rodney further upright. "C'mon, you c-can't stay h-here alone."

"Great, if you've got a suggestion… " Rodney's voice trailed away as he realized the only suggestion Sheppard would have would be staying with him and the other hybrids. He tensed as he imagined humiliating himself by cuddling up to Sheppard and Sheppard responded by letting go and stepping back. His face had gone blank as polished stone, then he sniffed and frowned.

Rodney felt stupid and slow with cold, but his brain still moved faster than most. He dropped his boots to the floor and said waspishly, "Well, what are you waiting for? Help me up. I mean, at least I know you and your—your posse have been observing proper precautions during this ordeal."

"That's r-right, M-mcKay," Sheppard replied and levered Rodney to his feet. His fingers felt like ice.

"My God, have you never heard of gloves!"

"I've heard of them, I just don't have any," Sheppard said.

"Wait, wait," Rodney exclaimed as Sheppard tugged him toward one of the corridors, "let me grab the blankets."

Sheppard paused long enough for Rodney to scoop his second blanket up and drape it over his shoulders too, then led the way out of the control center.

"I really should stay — "

" — and freeze to death," Sheppard overrode Rodney's weak protest.

"Who exactly is going to be there?" Rodney asked.

"There?" Sheppard asked. Now that they were moving, he seemed to be warming up, his teeth no longer clacking together halfway through his words.

"There, there, wherever you're taking me."

"The new nest."

The prospect of cuddling up in an alien 'nest' should have bothered him more, but any promise of getting warm took the edge off his normal finickiness.

"Teyla, Halling, Kanaan, and Nahkte will be there. Todd." Sheppard cast him a look. Rodney tried to appear unaffected. He really hated everyone else on this ship. "Ronon Dex. The rest of the gate team, except for Major Teldy and Ford."

Sans Radek, too, since he was undergoing Beckett's hypothermia treatment, which left Ledbedev, Semyenov, and Sgt. Mehra. He wouldn't be the only Earth human there, at least. It mystified Rodney, since the military members of the gate team could break Radek like a twig, but Radek liked them all, particularly Mehra, or so he'd said. Maybe it wouldn't be so strange.

He focused on the other alien Sheppard had mentioned and the one he hadn't, since they'd come as a matched pair.

"Where's Aeryn?"

Sheppard squinched his face up then raised his eyebrows.

"You mean Larrin?"

"Larrin, Aeryn, whatever," Rodney dismissed his mistake. Since she looked like she'd strutted out of a Wormhole Extreme knock-off, he didn't see why he should be mocked for confusing the woman with a character on TV.

"I figure Larrin's with Major Lorne," Sheppard said. In an undertone Rodney wasn't sure he was supposed to hear, he added, "Tearing him a new one, I hope, for not making sure everyone was buddied up for this."

Rodney picked up his pace and stuck close to Sheppard as they made their way deeper into the ship. A kino bobbed along behind them for a while, then departed, before they reached the Union delegation's new quarters.

"Welcome to Union Hall," Sheppard said.

"Okay, this is bizarre," Rodney said once he was inside. The hybrids were cuddled together in one heap and the others were sort of stiffly huddled in proximity on the far side of the extra big bed, individual blankets wrapped around them.

Rodney didn't even see Todd until he caught a glimpse of pale hair at the center of the hybrids' pile. Huh. Judging from this, the Wraith didn't like cold. He'd figured Sheppard was just cold because he lacked any body fat.

"No kidding," Mehra remarked from her spot next to the mass that was Semyenov. "C'mon, get in here. Semi's like a furnace."

Sheppard gave a shudder that Rodney would have bet had nothing to do with cold, then climbed onto the bed and wriggled his way into the space between the humans and the hybrids. Just enough space was left for Rodney.

"C'mon, McKay," Sheppard said.

It was better than freezing to death in his sleep and it was more than that, too. If Lorne had forgotten about Rodney, Sheppard hadn't, and there were three other humans here, offering him a place too. He'd refused friendship before, held himself apart to protect his feelings — or pretended no one mattered to him — but that strategy was already a failure. Maybe he could allow a himself to trust a few people?

"Get in here," Mehra ordered, "and bring those blankets with you. Trust me, none of us bite."

Rodney gave in, shoved his doubts down and joined them. He fitted himself between Dusty and Sheppard and let the wonderful warmth soak in from each side. When he had relaxed enough to fall into a drowse, he felt Sheppard take his hand. It felt right to hold on in turn.

It even felt good.


VI. Adaptation

Dusty knew she wanted to learn bantos the first time she went looking for Sheppard and found him and the wraith sparring with Teyla. Sheppard was leaning against a wall, actually, watching the petite woman and the towering alien go round and round. Teyla was handing Todd his ass. The light was for shit in the half empty cargo hold the Unionists had taken over, but it didn't seem to bother either combatant, nor did the obstacles. They went around or over or used them.

"Holy shit," Dusty commented. The vicious crack of staff against staff shivered through her bones, testament to how hard both Teyla and Todd were going at it.

Sheppard grinned at her. He'd stripped down to a tank shirt and loose BDU pants, with a towel looped over one shoulder. Dusty could see how the blue tint barely visible on his face darkened over his shoulders and back. The tattoos at his temple and the side of his neck coiled to end at the top knob of his spine — at least as far as she could see. Sweat made his skin gleam.

Teyla spun in a blur that ended with her sticks smacking the back of Todd's hands, knocking its sticks loose.

"I want to do that," she added.

"Me too," he said.

It was pretty damn amazing. Teyla was shorter, slighter, lighter, and on the wrong end of the muscle mass ratio. She still danced around her opponent with an unruffled grace, meeting or missing his blows on her terms.

"Damn, she's fast."

Sheppard nodded, but said, "What she is, is good. Todd's just as fast as her. So am I. That's something else."

"How long do you figure she had to study to get that good?" Dusty asked. She figured they could miss the first part of Major Lorne's latest gate team briefing. Things on the other side of the wormhole always tossed a spanner in any plan anyway. Their team still needed to find a new scientist to replace Doc Zee; he was out of the infirmary, but the doctors agreed the Thumps had left his lungs too scarred to be running around alien planets, especially the ones with lower oxygen ratios than the ship or funny gases added to the atmospheric mix.

"A long time," Sheppard answered. "Teyla's older than she looks."

Since Teyla looked like she was in her twenties, younger than Dusty, she was at once shocked and not surprised at all. She'd already got the idea that Todd was almost unfathomably old compared to her life span.

"Think she'd teach me if I asked?"

"She's willing to teach me, and she's giving lessons to Lt. James," he said, "so I think so." Sheppard gave her another bright grin. God, he must have been a heartbreaker before he went to Pegasus. Not that he wasn't still good-looking, but no one was crazy enough to cross Todd to make a pass.

Which said a hell of lot about their little crew. They'd settled in enough and accepted the Unionists to the point some people were at least looking at Sheppard and Teyla and the three surviving drones. The Unionists were fitting in too. Dusty had seen Nahkte and Halling talking with several of the marines. Human beings — maybe Wraith too, for all Dusty knew — couldn't remain in a constant state of terror. The crew was already adapting; eventually what had been unthinkable and unbearable would be every day life.

Look at her, asking for stick fighting lessons from the alien warrior woman and going through the gate with a guy half the SGC had called a traitor and she couldn't think of anyone — except Anne — she'd rather have at her back.

"So, mission briefing starts in," she glanced at her watch and winced, "ten minutes ago."

Sheppard wiped as much sweat off as he could and scooped up his shirt. "We'll tell him I made you late," he said.

"You just like pissing him off," Dusty observed. She glanced back. Teyla and Todd were still sparring. Todd had recovered its sticks and the clack of them hitting Teyla's seemed almost rhythmic. "How long will they stay at that?"

"Until Teyla drops," Sheppard answered as he buttoned up his shirt. "She's better than Todd and she might kill him if she really tried, but she can't outlast em."

~*~


Watching McKay work steadily on the programming problems, Ba'al knew that the humans would assume complete control of the ship eventually. When they did that, he would need to be ready to take control of them. For the moment, McKay was useful, doing work Ba'al would need to otherwise, work his host certainly couldn't take part in without revealing himself.

He had other aims.

A ship this size, headed into the unknown, had to have armament. The Gatebuilders had not been pacifists. Most Goa'uld weapons were developed from reverse-engineered Gatebuilder technologies.

Ba'al had been responsible for many of them.

He took his opportunities where he could to slip away and explore the depths of the ship. The Unionists' move to different quarters made it easier for him, a rare bit of luck he hadn't engineered. It would have been even more convenient if they had all succumbed to the Thumps, of course. He felt confident, however, that he could dispose of them when it became necessary.

They weren't as annoying as McKay. Ba'al looked forward to the day he disposed of McKay. He hoped he would be able to do it himself, but if he had to manipulate the crew into doing it, he intended to be present. He wanted to hear the blowhard scientist scream.

That would mean getting closer to him, of course, and McKay wasn't close to anyone except Zelenka, Markov, Kusanagi, one of the doctors and the Wraith hybrid. It would be impossible in Ba'al's current host. Maybe it was for the best that the Unionists hadn't all died of the Thumps.

Sheppard, for example, might make an excellent host.

He had no intention of remaining within this one any longer than necessary, certainly.

First, he had to find the ship's weapons systems, enable them, and make sure he had sole control. If the ship had any security or personnel control systems, Ba'al needed to take those over too. Until then, he needed to avoid the Unionists, but that wasn't hard. They still didn't associate with most of the crew outside of the mess hall and Sheppard serving with the primary gate team.

~*~


Andrea watched Leonard dress. She felt too limp to move herself. Not yet. It was annoying to not have a private bath. If she wanted to get rid of the sweat and the sex smell, she'd have to dress and use the communal shower thing down the corridor.

As he sat to pull on his boots and lace them up, she considered asking Leonard to take his used condom and get rid of it himself.

That made her laugh to herself, because no way in hell. Not only did she not have the gall, she knew very well he'd ignore her.

The truth was Leonard was an astonishingly good fuck, but he wasn't a lover and he wasn't a friend, and Andrea didn't actually like him.

She suspected he didn't like or respect her either. He was an arrogant bastard, some of which might be due to being an officer, but most of it probably just came naturally.

"Tomorrow night?" she asked him.

"If we don't go off ship," he said when he stood.

Andrea yanked a sheet up over herself as he opened her door and stepped into the corridor.

"Don't thank me or anything," she muttered to herself after the door closed again. "Jerk."

She needed to rethink sleeping with him. Screw 'off ship', she was just going to be unavailable from now on. The decision galvanized her and she scrambled out of her bed, changed the sheets, dressed and headed out to clean up.

~*~


Lisa watched Leonard get himself a cup of coffee before sitting down with Scott, Kennair and Ford. She could tell just by the way he walked that he'd just gotten laid. Again. Palmer, probably, though Lisa wouldn't be surprised to hear Leonard was dipping his wick elsewhere too. He was just that kind of guy. It made her a little sick, just watching him put the moves on Kennair, for example.

It made her angry with herself that she half wished he'd look at her.

She brightened up and made herself smile and invite the dreadlocked guy from the Pegasus galaxy to sit with her. He had to be ten years younger than her and was a little intimidating, but Leonard wasn't even in the same category as this guy. Lisa had never slept with anyone that good-looking, but the way she looked at it, the limited population on the ship meant everyone would have to date outside their leagues.

"Ronon, right?" she asked as he sat down.

He gave her a wary look and nodded.

"I'm Lisa."

God, up close he was even better looking than she'd realized. The beard and the mane of heavy dreadlocks along with his height made him look very menacing from a distance, but up close she could see how smooth his skin was and that his eyes were soft and sad. He was a still kid. Definitely younger than her.

"Is there something you want?" he asked. If he'd sounded impatient, the question would have been harsh, but he seemed friendly enough, just uncertain why she was approaching him. That proved how young he was, right there. Any guy from Earth who looked like him would have no doubts.

"I thought you might like some company," she said.

He raised an eyebrow, proving he might not be from Earth, but he wasn't stupid. He got it now. The smile he gave her wasn't mean or anything, mostly sad again, but Lisa settled back into her chair feeling disappointed anyway. It wasn't going to happen with Ronon.

Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and all that crap. He still seemed like an okay guy. He wasn't laughing at her, at least.

"Aren't you lonely?" she asked.

"Aren't you?" he replied.

"Yes," she answered honestly. "Lonely and scared and sometimes company can just be… company… if that's okay? Someone to sit with or talk to."

Ronon looked skeptical.

"Really," she stressed, genuinely meaning it too. Sitting eating together, not even talking, would still be better than sitting alone. If she was feeling isolated and lost, how much worse must it be for him? The only person he knew on the ship was his boss, and Larrin looked like an intimidating bitch. Also, how annoying was it that Larrin had already jumped in bed with Major Lorne? Lisa had to give her points for moving fast, though.

Ronon nodded finally.

"Could you… " Lisa paused and realized she really needed to have thought this out more. She'd introduced herself with the idea of hustling him off for some mutual sexy times, no conversation really needed, and now she had no idea what to talk to him about. "Maybe you could tell me about what you did before we got stuck here? I heard someone say you were a bodyguard."

"I was a close-combat weapons specialist in the Satedan First Militia when the Wraith culled us," he said. He tapped a finger to the tattoo on his neck. "Mandatory duty. Before that I was at the… collegia? I had my Third and meant to finish a Fourth in battle song history after my service period. I was waiting to get out of the service to get married too."

"Tell me about, uh, battle song, then," Lisa offered. She had utterly missed the target with this guy. Which went to show, didn't it? She needed to adjust her world view. Also, he'd been engaged. Propositioning him had been especially maladroit. She didn't know how long it had been since he left his world, but the fact he mentioned the fiancee showed how important she still was to him.

"Satedan battle song had a recorded history of fifteen centads." A tiny bit of challenge sounded in his voice. She immediately recognized the academic under the soldier exterior from it. It put her more at ease than before.

She ate a piece of sour fruit while thinking 'wow' to herself.

"Start with what battle song means," she said, "and then maybe why you wanted a Fourth in it."

The light changed as someone stopped at their table. They both looked up, Lisa in surprise, Ronon warily. Cam Balinsky had his tray, from which he'd already eaten half his meal, in hand. Sonja Damji hovered a step behind him with a mug of coffee.

"I overheard," Cam said. "Would you mind if Sonja and I joined you?"

"Why?" Ronon demanded.

"I'm an anthropologist."

Sonja fluttered her fingers over her mug and spoke softly. "Linguist, but it would be such a relief to hear about anything that isn't all about this ship and the Ancients. I spend every day translating entries and when I sat down just now, that's what everyone was talking about."

Ronon gave Lisa a quick glance that held a question, Do you mind? Lisa smiled back. He tipped his head to the empty bench space at their table. "Welcome to Introduction to Battle song," he said. He had a fantastic smile, which flashed abruptly. "You might want to get some thigh pads if you want to learn any of them."

"Thigh pads?" Cam echoed.

Ronon shifted on his bench, spreading his legs wider, his boot nudging Lisa's foot accidentally. He beat out a complicated rhythm against his thighs with his fists.

"Like that," he said.

Sonja immediately leaned forward. "Do the rhythms have specific meanings?"

Ronon looked at her with real pleasure. "They did at one time."

Lisa sighed to herself and went back to eating. It wasn't that Sonja was gorgeous. She didn't think Ronon was any more interested in Sonja that way than Lisa. But Sonja was interested in what Ronon knew. She could already seeing them bonding.

She glanced at Cam. He was nice enough looking, if you liked redheaded men. He was listening to Ronon too, but he caught Lisa's gaze and she detected a glint of humor directed at her. Maybe she could think of something they could talk about. At least they had an entire planet worth of things in common.

~*~


Larrin braced herself over Lorne and twisted her hips. She liked the way his eyes lost focus when she rose up and then squeezed as she slid back down his cock. Hell, she liked him too or she wouldn't still be fucking him when he didn't listen to her outside the bedroom worth shit.

She smiled as he dug his heels into the mattress and pushed up into her, responding by using her weight to keep him pinned.

"You're going to kill me," he panted, while he slid his palms up and down over her thighs. They slid over the sweat slick skin, leaving a trail of heat behind. Cool air from the ventilation vent above the bed made her skin pebble up in reaction.

"Just a little," she promised.

She leaned forward, keeping her hands on his shoulders, never his chest, and bit at his lower lip hard enough that it would be puffy the rest of the day. She wanted everyone to know what the two of them were doing. Captain's whore wasn't a role she'd ever lowered herself to before, but for the moment it provided some maneuvering space. If he'd face facts and institute a real power structure and crew responsibilities, she would assume something closer to her natural place: first officer or second-shift under-captain.

Lorne's hands slid between her legs to where he fit inside her and then to her clit. The gun callus on his thumb rasped over the nerves there and Larrin shook.

At least fucking Lorne wasn't a chore. He was a pretty sweet man in bed and a decent one out of it. She wanted to give him her complete loyalty, but he kept making little mistakes that scared her for everyone on the ship.

He bucked hard into her and thumbed her clit again. Larrin bit his lip as her first orgasm shuddered through her. The muscles in her thighs trembled. She rode it out, making herself keep moving, making it last that much longer, and taking Lorne to the edge again.

Last week, she'd managed to come four times before letting him jump into hyper.

~*~


Carolyn stopped in front of the running stasis pods. Four were lit, with read-outs she'd learned to interpret. She let herself look at the figures inside, because they were still alive. Potentially. If she or Carson formulated a better cure for the Thumps than half freezing a victim. These four wouldn't live through that. So they waited in limbo.

She wondered if stasis allowed for dreams. Her dreams weren't that pleasant. She hoped that stasis was like a switch instead. On. Off. On again, awake, with nothing between.

Otherwise, any prolonged stay held too many potential horrors, like a sensory deprivation tank with no escape.

She didn't want to be trapped in her own head. Too long and she'd go mad.

On. Off. Suspended. Awake. Waiting. Dying. What happened to the stasis pods if the ship ran short of energy again?

Carolyn rested her fingers against the lid of the pod holding Sora. The Genii woman hadn't closed her eyes; she seemed to glare at Carolyn. The blue coloration made it seem it should be icy cold, but the pod was at room temperature. The clear material didn't even soak in the warmth from her touch, though she did leave a smear of oils behind. It bothered her enough she used the cuff of her shirt to rub it away.

She wanted to say, 'We'll fix this, we'll get you out,' but it would have sounded stupid with just her standing there. No one in the pods could hear her. Besides, it would be a lie and she tried not to lie to her patients.

There were pods that were running dark, after all, holding the crew's dead in stasis too.

~*~


The radios failed as often as they worked, thanks to the ship's radiation shielding, but the kinos had no difficulties. With Zelenka barred from going off-world thanks to his lungs, he had taken over monitoring them. A kino accompanied every survey team working through the ship. Since they recorded for later download but didn't transmit audio back live and didn't have speakers, a set of simple movement signs had been developed: continue, hold in place, return, and stop. If a kino made a continuous zigzag X in front of a hatch or doorway, the teams knew better than to go through. Three zigzags down left meant go left, three right meant go right, the kino floating up over their heads meant go forward. If it hit the floor, they were to stay where they were.

Spinning meant head back and write up their reports.

It worked surprisingly well, as long as Zelenka or whoever was monitoring was on the ball.

Rennie's, "Oh, hey, check these out," drew Larrin across the corridor from a mostly empty hold — a few pieces of damaged equipment, all of it big — and into the compartment the other half of her surveyors had opened. The kino hovering in the hall slipped in just behind her. It gave a little bounce that she interpreted as excitement. Excitement she shared.

Rennie had found a locker and gear compartment. Half of the lockers held a hardened vacuum suits made for working outside the ship. The others were filled with tools. A little more exploring and they found an airlock that would take a suited person out onto the hull.

Larrin pulled a suit out and began checking the seals, amazed as ever by the endurance of everything the Ancestors had built. She'd want to do a water tank test before she did a space walk in it, but on first inspection the suit was good to go.

EVAs weren't her favorite trick, but Larrin couldn't suppress a smile. With the suits and the equipment stored in the other lockers, they could repair the damaged shuttle. It irked her to have it sitting, crippled, on the other side of the airlock that McKay had repaired.

~*~


"No," Lorne declared.

"Why not?" Larrin demanded in return.

"Because none of our people are trained to work in vacuum."

"Well, they'd better learn if they want to live on a space ship!"

"None of them do, damn it." Lorne jerked his head, indicating the rest of the staff. He didn't want to have her mad at him, but damn it — "We're not spacers, Larrin. All we want is to find a way to get this ship back to where we can gate off and get home."

Todd chuckled from eis place standing behind Sheppard, the reverberations sending goose bumps down Lorne's spine. Todd looked subtly different, but Lorne couldn't pin down what had changed.

Sprawled in the seat next to Teyla Emmagan, Sheppard smirked at him. "Don't bet on it, Major," he said.

Baffled and annoyed, Lorne drew a blank on responding to that.

Larrin didn't give up easily. "It doesn't matter what they want," she argued, leaning forward, all intensity and nerve. "You have to take command."

"Right, Lorne, stop dicking around," Sheppard added.

Lorne gritted his teeth. He couldn't tell if Sheppard meant anything he said or was just pushing him for the hell of it. Some day, though, Sheppard was going to poke this bear once too often and Lorne was going to punch him. Then he was going sit on him and make him stop with the cryptic shit about the Wraith too. He had the sudden suspicion that while he focused on the obvious problems, a danger subtler and deeper than the Goa'uld might standing right there with them.

"I am not in favor of Major Lorne assuming more authority than he's already exercising," Elizabeth commented in a tight voice. She gave him an apologetic look. Strain showed through her usual diplomatic mask. "We should hold steady to our current plan."

"Your current plan is stupid," Larrin declared. "Look, you don't plan for the optimum outcome. You plan for the worst possible scenario. We need to take steps now under the assumption that we will spend the rest of our lives on this ship. It needs a captain and since your people are in the majority, Lorne is the practical choice."

Damned with faint praise, indeed. She hadn't said he was the best choice. Lorne decided to be grateful Larrin thought he was even passably competent to command.

"We should put it to a vote," Wray suggested.

Larrin threw her hands up in total disgust. "A ship in space cannot operate as a democracy."

Hadn't Lorne used the same argument with his parents when he defended the military chain of command to his moms? Homesickness stabbed through him. He pushed it back down. Shit, maybe Larrin was right. Maybe he needed to start calling himself the captain and solidify a chain of command that included more than the military.

"Map me out a rough idea," he said.

Larrin smiled brilliantly at him.

"I won't sign off on this, Major," Elizabeth warned him.

"If we make it back to Earth, I'll be glad to take my lumps," Lorne replied quietly. He squeezed his eyes shut and didn't say, if there's anyone left on Earth to care about their tiny contingent. If the Goa'uld had succeeded in taking down the SGC… He could hate Larrin for being right in this case; she was trying to help him. Lorne opened his eyes, the decision settling into the marrow of his bones. His responsibility, and that of everyone else on this ship, excepting the Pegasans, was to assume control of Destiny, take her back to the Milky Way, and if the SGC had fallen, take Earth back from the Goa'uld.

Before they could do that, they had to deal with their own Goa'uld problem.

"Carolyn, how are the blood tests coming?" he asked.

She gave him an incredulous look. "Major, in case you didn't notice, Carson, Kate, and I have been dealing with a potential epidemic," she snapped.

"Somehow I missed that," Lorne replied, prompting an incredulous snort from McKay. "Have you collected samples from everyone?"

Carolyn had her hands resting on the table before her. She pressed her fingers down hard enough the knuckles turned white before she answered. "There's a contamination problem."

"What?" McKay blurted. "Come on. That's ridiculous. Unless someone deliberately…."

Carolyn nodded tiredly. "Marie found them this morning. They're useless."

Lorne gritted his teeth. "So we start over and this time I assign two guards to secure the samples and you and Beckett check each other's work."

"You think it's one of us?"

He didn't. He couldn't imagine a Goa'uld faking the commitment Carolyn, Beckett and the rest of the medical staff had displayed. It wasn't impossible, though. "I think it's someone, and when we figure out who, an unquestionable chain of evidence will reassure the crew."

Wray asked the next hard question. "What will you do when you identify the Goa'uld?"

"Find out what the hell happened back on Earth first," Lorne answered, knowing it was an evasion. That wasn't what Wray wanted to know. He suspected the Goa'uld would force his hand… hoped so, in fact, because otherwise he'd have to execute an innocent host along with the symbiote. They didn't have any way to successfully extract a Goa'uld. He'd run into enough snakeheads; he knew it wouldn't give up and leave its host. Not when they didn't have canopic jars with stasis fields.

Though they did have the stasis pods.

"If we can capture it, we'll try to convince the snake to leave the host with the promise of putting it into stasis. If it won't, then they'll both have to go into a pod until we find a way to extract the Goa'uld," Lorne said.

Wray looked surprised, Elizabeth looked disturbed, and he had to wonder if they'd meant to use it against him if he was forced to execute the symbiote and host. Jesus, he hated having to think like this all the time, playing at politics and paranoia, walking the fine line of using the aliens and not coming off as an 'alien-lover' to the conservatives among the crew, and using his authority without abusing it. He didn't want to become a Jonas Hanson, he wasn't a god, and he knew he didn't have all or even enough answers. That's why he'd resisted declaring himself captain so strenuously.

"I hadn't considered that possibility," Elizabeth said.

"Maybe you'll be able to persuade it," he suggested.

"I still say we should repair the other shuttle," Larrin muttered.

"After we find the damned snake," Lorne promised. "Next issue?" he prompted Major Teldy.

"Doc Zee's off my team," she said, "I'd like Dr. Markov to take over his place."

Lorne nodded, following Teldy's logic. Ledbedev and Semi Semyenov were picking up English fast now that they weren't on a team that was segregated from everyone else and the other members of Teldy's team were picking up Russian from them, but Zelenka had been their go-to translator in the field. Markov could take up that role as well as fulfilling any scientific duties.

"Ask her."

Elizabeth coughed. "This isn't critical information," she said, "but one of my staff has volunteered that he had intended to grow some potted plants in Atlantis. The seeds were in the belongings that were being sent through the stargate. The quartermaster turned the container with them over the other day and he's volunteered to start them for sharing."

"What does he have?" McKay asked excitedly.

"Mostly herbs," Elizabeth said apologetically. She consulted her PDA. "Basil, parsley, rosemary, chives, thyme, ah, two varieties of sage, some flowers, dill, tomatoes and strawberries."

"Oooooooh," McKay moaned. "No oregano? No onions?"

"Sorry, Rodney."

"No, no, I'll never badmouth your staff again," McKay promised. "That's brilliant. Someone should assign this guy his own assistants."

"Why put him in charge?" Lorne heard himself ask and wanted to kick himself immediately.

McKay gave him a dirty look.

"Because if he was bringing seeds to Atlantis, he likely knows how to start and keep them alive. I wouldn't trust any of the botanists to manage that. They're good at studying plants, not growing them."

Lorne polled the rest of his staff with his eyes. Several of them nodded agreement with McKay.

"What's this guy's name?" he asked Elizabeth.

"David Walters."

Part of her embassy staff, Lorne reflected. Putting him in charge of growing plants and propagating them from his seeds, plus — maybe — anything they picked up from local worlds would be a lot more useful that having him do scut work. Win-win, from Walters and Lorne's points of view.

"We'll want to work out with him what he needs, but I think McKay's right," he said.

"Wonders never cease," McKay muttered.

~*~


"Hey, where the hell have you been? Every time I try to find you, you've disappeared. Keep your radio on."

Ba'al looked at the Corporal and considered breaking the man's neck for the pure pleasure of it. He restrained himself. It wasn't time yet. He had only found the critical internal security systems in the last week.

"I've been around," he said. "And I keep my radio on. You know how this boat blocks shit."

Corporal Greer nodded.

"Fine, but don't go wandering around by yourself."

"Can't hang out in the mess hall all day," Ba'al said, picking out his host's memories to fake how he'd answer. "Becker wants me to wash dishes."

Greer chuckled and replied, "I get ya."

He didn't, but Ba'al meant to change that, very soon.

The kinos were becoming a potential problem too. So far none of them had followed him down into the ship. One had showed up in an equipment room when he was stealing tools, but he'd faked returning the tools and left without giving away that he'd noticed it.

Lorne had begun organizing the crew. While Ba'al approved of greater efficiency — Lorne would have made a fine Jaffa First Prime, but without a queen Ba'al had no larval symbiotes to implant on a re-engineered human — but it made hiding what he was doing harder.

He couldn't even use Riley, since the fool had contracted the Thumps and ended up in a stasis pod. He planned to remove Riley from that pod as soon as possible and watch him suffocate. The rest of the Tau'ri would be required to watch, to learn the cost of failure in service their new god.

Ba'al waited another day and even performed some of the 'scut' work Greer directed him to undertake — he planned to flay Greer some day, very slowly, using the knife himself — before retrieving the duffel bag of tools he'd stolen and slipping back down to his find.

The work went slowly. Ba'al was forced to first re-route each monitor circuit that would have alerted McKay or any of the other scientists working in the control nexus before he began the delicate task of creating a new control mechanism coded solely to himself. He had an excellent grasp of Gatebuilder programming protocol, but these older examples were hardened against interference to an extent he hadn't encountered in the Milky Way. They had grown complacent there, only later introducing their frustrating gene-locked technologies. Whoever had built and programmed Destiny had been deeply paranoid, whether that their own crew would attempt to take it over or entities from outside the ship. Both possibilities had been taken into account, which was what was slowing McKay and his people down too.

Taking over the environmental and life support system might have given him even greater leverage than a weapons systems would, but it was monitored as well as being the second most heavily secured system. Doing so would have endangered himself, as well. Ba'al wasn't Ra; he had observed and learned from the First World's rebellion against Ra. A god must cow his subjects, they must venerate and fear him, but the fear must not be pushed into hopeless despair. Despair made humans irrational and dangerous. The key to power was to always be sure one's subjects had something to lose.

He attached the stolen laptop to the next crystal and began reprogramming it.

Among his first changes when he assumed control would be encouraging the humans to procreate. Birth control would be outlawed. Humans were so protective of their young; they made marvelous hostages. He would need them to breed anyway. Without a sarcophagus to prolong his hosts' lives, Ba'al would have to move to a new host regularly. He preferred a large pool to make his selections from when the time came to honor a slave with his presence. His hosts would live longer and remain youthful on the surface long past any normal human life span, but without a sarcophagus the human body did eventually fail beyond what any symbiote could cure.

Ba'al paused in his work.

The Wraith didn't age. He didn't like the appearance of the Wraith, but the hybrids were intriguing. He'd only considered it lightly before, but perhaps it would be worthwhile to retain one or two of them as potential hosts.

Ba'al smiled to himself. If the hybrids made superior hosts, he would be sure to breed those characteristics into his human slave population.

The wraith itself would have to die. Ba'al suspected it had its own agenda. No doubt it meant to take the ship over too. It needed humans to feed on and the only humans in this galaxy were on Destiny.

He'd seen how fast the wraith had healed when the Genii ambassador shot it. It would be entertaining to see how long it could endure Ba'al's more creative tortures. The lack of a sarcophagus meant curtailing most of his favorite practices, but perhaps not with a Wraith.

He would find out.

~*~


"You, come with me," McKay ordered while pointing at John.

John looked up from his mashed stuff from a planet with no name — it tasted okay with some salt and pepper — and said, "I have a name, you know."

"I can't be bothered," McKay said.

"Yeah, neither can I," John replied and ate another forkful. Okay might have been a generous description of the taste after all. He dropped it back in the bowl with a sigh and glanced up. McKay was shifting back and forth on his heels, his hands fluttering in front of him, the shape of his mouth giving away his effort to either bite back some comment or come up with a persuasive argument. John already knew he was going to agree. There was something about McKay's unapologetic focus and lack of pretense that set him at ease, despite the lack of any connection through the hive sense.

"Wait, no, you — you know who I — oh, you meant — you have to," McKay exclaimed. He drew himself up straight and added, "Please."

John raised both eyebrows at him, amused by the pugnacious expression and the way McKay's hands moved like he wanted to grab John and drag him out whether he wanted to go or not. It wouldn't have been as amusing if McKay had been capable of doing that, of course. Todd could and even when eie didn't, facing the possibility infuriated John. Sometimes he liked McKay just because the guy was such a contrast to Todd.

"All right, all right."

McKay's startlement morphed into a gleeful smile.

John got rid of his tray and tagged behind McKay. "So where're we going?" he asked. Sometimes he liked McKay enough that he wondered about that smile and if he could taste a smile with a kiss.

"Survey found a chair," McKay said.

John slowed down.

"I'm thinking you don't mean one of the many chairs and benches that are pretty common on the ship," he remarked.

That got a snort from McKay. He kept striding down the ill-lit corridors — full power didn't mean the ship was lit much brighter than it had been when they arrived — floor light illuminating him from below one second, rich amber light tracing hexagonal filigree over his forehead and shoulder the next. He had a zipped-neck, ribbed, dark olive sweater on. The ribs stretched wider where it pulled across the breadth of McKay's back and his biceps.

"Hardly," McKay said.

They headed past the control nexus and a kino started to pace them.

"Hey, Zee," John greeted the man operating it.

It bobbed in acknowledgment.

"My God, can you stop with the ridiculous socializing crap? It's an utter waste of time." McKay dodged a gush of steam from a ceiling vent casually. The dampness in the air made his hair curl a little at the ends. John liked the heat and humidity; it felt like the hive. Before the nasce, he'd loved the cold, not that he hadn't felt it, but now it was different, slowing his thoughts and reflexes in a way he was too aware of to ever ignore. Not that many people were complaining about the steam heat; after the freezing decontamination, everyone was enjoying the comparative warmth. The ship's empty corridors and holds still held a lingering chill that John wasn't sure would ever fade. Heat, like life, was always fighting on the losing side.

John stretched his strides and caught up to McKay, walking beside him. The kino hovered next to his shoulder. McKay looked back and smirked at it.

"Why am I not surprised?" he murmured. The kino gave a little shimmy of agreement, making John laugh. McKay ducked his head to hide a smile. John half expected McKay to lead him out to the edges of the surveyed areas, but instead McKay opened an airlock that had previously been red-lined and led him into a round chamber not far from the control nexus at all.

"Here," McKay announced. "We got past the security yesterday and found this room."

John followed McKay inside. Cold blue light fell from a circular opening above them. Sonovabitch. John stopped, shocked, though why confounded him. Destiny was an Ancient ship.

McKay stopped before the chair at the center of the room and declared, "It's a neural interface chair!"

John was not as excited as McKay and muttered, "Whoop-di-doo."

"Oh, fine, it may be all old hat to you, you've sat in the control chairs in Antarctica and Atlantis, but do you realize how far we can advance our understanding of how to reprogram and control this ship using this chair?" McKay blurted. His face shone with excitement and his hands described vast leaps in tandem. He patted the top fondly and gave John an expectant look.

John circled the chair, eying it skeptically. It looked as uncomfortable as both control chairs he'd experienced before, but rawer, more like a prototype. The chairs in Atlantis and Antarctica hadn't had restraints built into them. Or a headset kind of thing that looked likely to drive its spikes through someone's temples and into their brain.

"Yeah," he drawled, because he could guess where this was heading and didn't like it one bit, "What's this 'we', kemosabe?"

McKay stood on the opposite of the chair from John. He scowled in disgust. "Fine, you. You'll get all the credit — "

"I don't want the credit," John snapped, "because I don't want to sit down in that thing." The chair wasn't on a dais, but he stepped back from it anyway. The metal deck had insets and markings, circles and arrows straight out of a Midwest crop circle, and he didn't trust it. They were probably access panels, but… John had had enough surprises in the last year and a half. Plus, frankly, he didn't trust McKay not to try to wrestle him into the chair if he strayed too close. The integrity of John's body and mind had already been violated enough times. He was taking a pass this time. Someone else could take the hot seat.

Mouth hanging open in shock wasn't a good look on anyone; even Rodney McKay looked thick as two planks. He closed his mouth finally, lips thinning and outlined in harsh white.

"You have to!"

John folded his arms and glared back at him.

"Like hell."

"But you have the experience. You're a pilot, you're not completely stupid, and you read Ancient, so you'll be able to understand the ship. You have the ATA gene!" McKay started out annoyed and his voice pitched up to a yell as he listed the reasons John needed to sit down and use the neural interface.

"In case you haven't noticed," John shouted back, "this ship doesn't have ATA technology!"

"You're still the best choice," McKay insisted. "The chair will be calibrated for an Ancient's system. I talked to Beckett. You test closer to Ancient baseline than anyone, even O'Neill! It'll work for you — "

"I did," John told him stiffly, "but that was before the nasce. I still have the ATA, but I'm farther from the Ancients than any unchanged human on this ship. Get Beckett in the chair, not me." He didn't mention that the last time he sat down in Atlantis' control chair and used it, the reaction afterward had left him helpless and sick for days. It had known he wasn't an Ancient and it hadn't wanted him.

"Carson'd piss his pants," McKay said in distraction. He was staring at John as if seeing him for the first time. "Oh my God."

"Just getting it, McKay?" John snarled. "They changed me. I'm not human any more."

"You're human if you think you are," McKay insisted. "You're human enough."

No, I'm not, John thought. Not enough. No one else thought so either. McKay was crazy. John just hadn't noticed before.

McKay turned away, walking out of the circle of light from above. He stood just beyond the edge, his back to John. John considered walking away, but decided to wait him out.

"It will probably kill whoever sits down in it, if you won't," McKay said without turning to face him.

"You're aren't going to guilt me into this."

"It's a similar technology to the headhugger that downloaded the Ancients' knowledge into O'Neill's brain," McKay went on. "If the Asgard hadn't intervened, it would have killed him in a week or two."

"That's your argument?" John asked incredulously.

"Yes, because even if O'Neill had died, he had two weeks in which he was able to use the Ancients' knowledge to save Earth and the Asgard. You could get this ship back to the Milky Way. Show us how to build ZPMs."

"And die."

"Maybe," McKay admitted.

"Fuck you," John said bitterly. McKay was the coward everyone had said; he'd been wrong about the guy. Selfish didn't even cover it.

"Look, Sheppard, I'd do it," McKay called out. He turned around and took a step toward the chair. "I will if I have to, but I'm not an Ancient, I don't have any of their damned genes, and I'm not like you — I don't heal as fast as I'm hurt. It will probably kill me or fry my brain and I won't even get the two weeks of usefulness out of it."

"Not good enough," John insisted.

"I can get Lorne to make it an order."

"Good luck with that, you bastard," John told him and marched out.

~*~


Rodney knew he was being a jackass. Sometimes he just couldn't stop himself.

Sometimes he didn't want to, but this time he almost felt bad over it.

"Tyrant. Dictator. Power-mad Napoleonic wannabe," he declared and did it where as many people as possible could hear him. "We've got a possible shortcut to controlling this ship and Mr. Military Macho suddenly has principles? Oh, pull the other one, please. He doesn't want us to get back. If we do, he'll lose his dysfunctional little fiefdom."

The soldiers looked angry, but he saw his words hit home with more than one civilian. Rodney grinned nastily and stabbed at the horrible concoction they were calling the mess hall's daily 'special'. At least it wasn't the stuff that had given him the runs for three days or the yellow stuff that nauseated everyone. Someone needed to talk to the cooks about using all the local foods, because stretching supplies was one thing, but they were taking it to extremes lately.

"Rodney, you need to stop this," Elizabeth hissed at him.

"Why?" he demanded. "It's the truth. We need Sheppard to sit in that chair and tell the ship what to do. Lorne refuses to give the order."

"John Sheppard doesn't answer to Major Lorne," Elizabeth snapped. "He's an accredited diplomat and citizen of the Union."

"He's on a gate team. Besides, you were at the same meeting where Major Mucky-Muck declared everyone on the ship was crew and had to pull their weight." He sounded whiny even to himself, trying to justify getting what he wanted at the expense of someone else. He really made a terrible friend, he'd always known, and the whole idea that he could change had been a hypothermia-induced delusion.

"There's a difference between that and being compelled to perform an action that may kill you," Elizabeth said. Her face was pinched and pale with anger. "Don't pretend you wouldn't object just as strongly if it were you being strong-armed into a dangerous choice, Rodney."

"You don't think I'd do it?" he demanded.

Elizabeth stood up.

"Frankly, no."

It felt like being slapped, because he'd considered Elizabeth his ally and his friend. Rodney sat back silently and re-ordered everything he'd believed in regard to their interactions. Obviously, she valued his intelligence and contributions. Just as clearly, she had no respect or fondness for him at all.

"Thank you for making that so clear," he said distantly. It hurt a surprising amount. He hadn't been involved with her, they were merely colleagues, but it definitely wounded. He wouldn't have thought it would, if he'd analyzed the possibility. Not that he wasted his time deconstructing his emotions and relationships. It inevitably led to disappointment.

"Rodney… "

"Excuse me, but I'd like to finish my meal. I need to go back to work, since I have several months more of it ahead of me than I'd hoped for," he said without looking at her. He was two for two, Sheppard and Elizabeth — Dr. Weir, he corrected himself — but at least Sheppard had believed him.

Elizabeth remained standing beside the table for several more moments, but Rodney had perfected the ability to eat and ignore bullies and idiots while still in grade school. He concentrated on the lumpy texture of the mashed roots and calculated how many bowls he would have to eat to fill the current bowl with nothing but the lumps, given the average volume of the lumps so far. It kept him from looking up at her and finally she left.

He tightened his grip on his spoon and resisted the urge to throw it at the back of her head.

It had been years since he felt quite so betrayed by someone. She was really very, very good. Rodney had learned to suspect generals and other scientists, along with lawyers and doctors, of being out to get him. He'd never encountered a negotiator of Elizabeth Weir's caliber, however. She'd fooled him. She'd even defended him to the SGC at one point. Now there was irony. He wondered if she'd been lying then and if she'd failed because everyone but him had seen through the lies to her real estimation of Rodney McKay.

Well. Lesson learned. Diplomats were just another variety of snake, just less honest than the Goa'uld variety.

~*~


"Leonard," Lorne said after the staff meeting ended and people were wandering out of the room.

Leonard paused and looked at him inquiringly.

"I want you to put together a security team for McKay."

A combination of expressions flitted over Leonard's face, but the only things Lorne could really pick out were unhappiness.

"Why me?"

"You've got enough seniority to stand up to him, for one thing."

"Yeah, sure, I'm not going to let a egghead boss me around, but why a security team? McKay may think he's hot shit, but I can't believe you've bought his crap."

Lorne laughed despite himself and Leonard joined him.

"He is important," Lorne finally managed to explain. "Maybe even irreplaceable, even if he is a world-class pain in the ass. He's just the kind of guy the Goa'uld might target, too. If he asks, that's why you've got people shadowing him. Never less than two, just in case."

Leonard made a face but nodded. "Okay, I get it, but — "

Lorne held up his hand and gave a quick look around for any kinos. He didn't want this part on any record.

"I don't trust him," he went on. "We need to keep tabs on him and, right now, we need someone to make sure he doesn't do something stupid because he's pissed." He did not want McKay trying to use the neural interface chair because Lorne wouldn't order anyone else to do it. Unlike Weir, Lorne thought McKay would do it, because he was a determined, contrary sonovabitch.

Leonard nodded at that. "You sure we can't make Sheppard use that chair?" he asked, proving he had been listening during the meeting. It would have been hard to miss McKay's ranting, admittedly.

Maybe he could have, maybe he couldn't, but sticking Sheppard in that chair wouldn't make him cooperate and use it for their benefit. Some things people had to do willingly. Put a gun to a pilot's head and tell him to crash somewhere, he might obey, or if he was Lorne (or someone as stubborn as Sheppard) he might say go ahead and shoot. Or crash the plane into a target he picked instead. Pushing Sheppard into doing something that might kill him wasn't going to make him want to save the rest of them.

"I've still got some ethics, Commander," Lorne said. Besides, Sheppard might change his mind if they just kept McKay from antagonizing him further.

Leonard shrugged his acceptance. Lorne wished he knew the man better. He seemed more restrained today, but Lorne couldn't figure if what he was seeing was really there or not. Maybe Leonard was just adapting to their new circumstances. Lorne had been braced since the beginning for the crew to show their worst sides; desperate situations brought that out in people along with the best. He'd pegged Leonard as one of the former, but maybe he'd been wrong. He shrugged off his doubts.

"Go on, put together three shifts," he said.

Leonard gave a casual nod instead of a salute and strode out.

He was smiling.

Lorne went back to his laptop and studied the proposed chain of command and duties that Larrin had drawn up for him. It wouldn't work exactly the way she'd laid it out. It lacked the checks and balances and any idea of individual rights that the civilians and even his military would demand and Lorne himself considered necessary. He could build from it, though. He began writing down his first thoughts on that.

A knock to the bulkhead door heralded Corporal Greer.

"Sir?"

"Come in."

Greer stepped inside, saluted, and then approached. His eyes and face were still young, but he looked worried. He'd slid into filling Atienza's responsibilities and more without difficulty, and the shape of his older self was forming under the still smooth skin of youth.

"What is it?" Lorne asked.

"Spencer's missing, sir."

Lorne saved his notes and closed the file. Greer seemed seriously worried.

"I take it you don't mean he's late again or even AWOL," he asked. As AWOL as you could be on a ship, anyway. Lorne had made it clear to all his people that they were to take it easy on anyone who needed a little time to themselves to deal with the situation. Most of them wouldn't want to admit they were bad off enough talk to Heightmeyer; that carried a stigma no soldier wanted to accept. Time off, leave, fucking, and even getting shit-faced drunk, those were the time-honored ways of coping with the bad shit the military saw. Lorne had let everyone deal the best they could within limits.

"He's been hiding out a lot," Greer admitted, "but no one's seen him in twenty-four hours. Not even in the mess."

Lorne thought about it. Greer wasn't one to jump to conclusions or get his panties in a twist over nothing. If he was mentioning it to Lorne, he had reason.

"You think something's happened to him?"

"It wouldn't be the first time on this ship," Greer said.

They had Atienza and Darlington's bodies in stasis pods as proof of that.

"One hour," Lorne said. "You can organize search parties while we wait. I want a kino with each one."

"The survey teams are already organized, sir," Greer suggested.

That was a good idea. Now if someone would find a way to make the radios work through out the ship…

Sheppard and the Unionists didn't solve the problem, but they offered a temporary work around. It made Lorne's skin crawl when he thought about, but it worked. The three drones, Sheppard, and Todd accompanied the survey teams hunting through the ship for Spencer. Teyla Emmagan sat down next to Lorne and Zelenka in the kino control room and they communicated through her.

No one had mentioned the Wraith and the hybrids were telepaths. Not outright.

He watched the monitors showing the four teams moving through the already mapped sections of the ship. Greer had added two armed soldiers to each team and they were clearing the rooms fast, no need to figure out what anything was, just checking for Spencer.

Dusty and Sheppard were working with Larrin's team. Todd had joined them, because where Sheppard went Todd went. Watching the screen, it became obvious that Todd stuck closer to Sheppard and subtly placed itself between him and Dusty or Larrin. It was almost funny.

He watched Todd and Sheppard both swing their heads toward a branching corridor. The kino feed even showed those slashes on Todd's face opening wider. Sheppard's nostrils flared and he opened his mouth like a snake. Lorne half expected to see him flick his tongue out, but he didn't, just cocked his head and said something to Larrin.

Beside Lorne, Teyla straightened to perfect attention and spoke. "The Hunter believes they smell blood and decay."

"Crap," Lorne said while Zelenka cussed under his breath in Czech.

They watched as the survey team and the kino followed Sheppard and Todd, who were both moving fast, focused and intent. Even through a screen, Lorne was struck by how predatory the two of them were. Though Dusty and Larrin weren't too out of step. Park and Foster trailed behind them, with Rennie bringing up the rear as cover. They stopped in front of one of the big airlocks that opened between the heavier bulkheads that tended so far to separate critical systems on the ship.

Todd started to open the airlock. Sheppard turned and stared up at the kino.

Teyla jerked then turned to Lorne. He recoiled because whoever was staring out of her eyes, it wasn't her. Her carriage, her expression, it was all different, and he could feel it before she even opened her mouth.

"Major, whatever's dead smells exactly like the dead scientist did."

Zelenka twitched but kept monitoring the other screens.

"Sheppard?" Lorne asked.

Teyla's mouth opened, but her inflections, even the tone, echoed Sheppard's sometimes nasal speech. "Cool, yeah?"

Freakish, Lorne thought. Forget the space vampires, now they had demonic possession. No, screw that, it was entirely too much like a Goa'uld symbiote. If her eyes had flashed gold, he wouldn't even have been surprised.

"Creepy," he croaked.

"I am still here, of course," Teyla said and there was no question it was her. "Do not be disturbed."

"Too late for that," Lorne said. He leaned forward past Teyla to address Zelenka. "Go ahead and signal the other teams to come back."

Teyla sighed and slumped a little, her eyes closed. Zelenka's hands were working the controls to the kinos, moving them to signal the survey teams, when all three drones turned to face the camera eyes and nodded. On the screens, Lorne saw the three of them address the other team members and he would have sworn their lips moved with the same words simultaneously. The hairs on his arms stood up in reaction.

"I have informed them," Teyla said. She tipped her head to the screen that showed Todd and Sheppard. They were entering through the airlock, the lights on the floor and overhead coming on in reaction. Simple motion sensors, but it still seemed creepy.

Todd lifted his head, inhaled and then led the team straight to where a body had been shoved into a corner. Eie clamped one hand on the shaved skull and lifted so that the kino could see the dead man's face. The body moved with the head, but it gave. Todd's heavy claws bit through the dead man's skin, but drew no blood. Rigor mortis was passing.

"Spencer," Lorne said.

Sheppard crouched in front of the body, his back to the camera, and all Lorne could see was the tip of his head as he looked up into Todd's gaze.

"The question," Teyla said and this time Lorne recognized Todd's voice, "is what brought this man and his killer to this compartment."

On the screen, Todd and Sheppard both turned to look somewhere to the side. Zelenka swiveled the kino to see Foster and Park examining a console. Several access panels were open. A bag filled with tools — Ancient tools that weren't on any inventory to go missing and draw attention — lay on the deck beneath them. Spencer, or rather the snake in him, had been busy doing something.

Todd and Sheppard joined the two scientists. The kino zoomed in close, displaying the screens on the console.

"Weapons," Zelenka said. "These are manual controls and access to weapons systems. The offensive ones appear to be in need of repairs." His voice cracked. "But that screen? That is internal security measures. They are online."

Todd spoke through Teyla again. This time Lorne was too distracted by the implications of what they'd found to feel more than vaguely uneasy.

"Your Goa'uld was attempting to program internal security weapons to respond only to itself or someone with its encryption keys."

"I do not understand why this man Spencer is dead," Zelenka said. "We would not have found this out if he had not gone missing."

"Someone else found him before us," Lorne said. "Whoever it was, the snake's in a new host."

Probably pissed as hell, too, since this couldn't have been part of its plan. Though without the Unionists, they might not have found the body so quick. The Goa'uld had no doubt intended to get back and move it. Greer's gut feeling along with the Wraith had foiled it.

They'd gotten lucky.

Lorne didn't think they could count on that happening again. They had to find the Goa'uld.

"I will check the kino data," Zelenka said. "The raw feeds are recorded from all active kinos, though we have only monitored those actively being directed to follow the survey teams. But if I search for Corporal Spencer, perhaps I will get lucky and find who followed him."

~*~


Radek didn't get up when Teyla left, despite his impulse to. He considered her a lady and his mother would have been disappointed in him, but it took very little to leave him breathless since his recovery. It bothered him that he would never again step through the stargate as part of Major Teldy's team. He had been terrified each time, but the camaraderie of the team had quickly enfolded him. The prospect of his team going without him along to keep them safe in his fashion (as they guarded him in theirs) saddened him.

He hoped that the friendships they had forged would endure even when someone else took his place going off world.

Major Lorne remained in the other seat and said, "Let's start."

The raw data feeds were easily accessed. Radek had done little but experiment and learn the kinos' ins and outs since the doctors 'retired' him. He could not even keep up with Rodney's frenetic rush from console to console in the nexus, but slow, patient work remained within his abilities.

It felt rather like he had become a guardian of everyone's secrets. The kinos could be directed remotely, as he did for the survey teams, but left to their own devices, they patrolled through the ship randomly. Movement attracted them, or possibly body heat; he'd calculated they were sixty-seven percent more likely to surveille an occupied compartment than an empty one.

The crew were becoming as oblivious to them as they would have been security cameras in a mall or department store.

Most of what the kinos recorded was repetitive, boring, and meaningless. On occasion, one showed something embarrassing. Radek considered it his duty and responsibility to make sure no one else saw those private things. No one needed to see who beat off while washing in the hygiene chamber, who used a suppository, David Walters when he stroked the tiny, delicate leaves of his precious seedlings and sang to them or Camille Wray sobbing herself to sleep each night. He had made a note of where Inman and one of the marines were setting up a drug lab, but chose to say nothing to Major Lorne on the matter until he had a better understanding of what they meant to produce and its purposes.

He could not read lips, so he could never be sure he was interpreting a scene between two people properly, after all.

"I want you to assign a kino to Ambassador Weir, the wraith, and Dr. McKay," Lorne said.

"You realize I am not the secret police and have no desire to be mistaken for such?" Radek replied. He went on scrolling through the raw data, looking for Airman Spencer, though he did not like this development. "I am not a spy, Major."

"They're all potential targets," Lorne said. "I need to know who is approaching them."

Radek sniffed, then coughed hard, his vision graying out. He had to clutch the edge of the console until his airways recovered enough to speak again.

"Does Ambassador Weir know about this plan?" he asked.

"I'll tell her," Lorne assured him.

"I will do it, if she comes to me and confirms this is so," Radek said reluctantly. He suspected that if he did not acquiesce, Major Lorne would have him removed from the kinos' control and replaced by someone with fewer doubts.

Rodney's suspicions of the military now seemed much less like paranoia.

"Ah," he murmured as he stopped the playback with the screen showing Spencer and poor Airman Atienza. Neither man glanced even once toward the hovering kino. He thought they had been unaware of it. "This is interesting, ano?"

Lorne leaned forward and they watched as Spencer appeared to argue with Atienza before smiling and holding up his hands in acquiescence. Atienza turned his back to Spencer and the camera view shifted, following the movement, revealing both men were in Atienza's quarters. Radek gasped as Spencer's eyes flared gold, he grabbed Atienza from behind without warning, and drew a knife across his throat in a single, expert movement.

"Fucking hell, this was recorded the whole damn time!" Lorne exclaimed. He slapped the edge of the console furiously. "We could have had the bastard." His breath whistled in and out of his nose twice and Radek fought not to shrink away from the anger radiating from him.

He occupied himself by activating the facial recognition program he'd written to occupy his thoughts while monitoring the survey teams. Watching monitors and directing kinos wasn't enough, he had to work on something too. The program had been easy, a mock up of versions he'd reverse engineered as a student. Translating it to the ship's programming language posed some difficulties, but he thought he had it debugged.

Once the program was running, he focused it on Spencer's face and let it sort through the raw data.

The program hit quickly and Radek started it running, hoping for something to distract Lorne.

Two guards at the stargate crumpled and Spencer strolled into the frame, followed by Sgt. Riley. The kino showed them try to dial the stargate and then run as Lt. Cadman arrived.

"Sonovabitch," Lorne breathed out. "What the hell was Riley doing?"

"We cannot ask him," Radek said. "He is in a stasis pod. Taking him out would kill him."

"That doesn't really bother me," Lorne replied.

"He could not breathe, so he could not answer," Radek pointed out.

Lorne shoved his chair back and rose.

"Well, at least this clears McKay of being the SGC saboteur," he said. "I'm going to… I'm going to talk to Weir. Don't show anyone these recordings."

Radek sighed to himself.

"I will go on looking for anything that might show who the Goa'uld is in now," he volunteered.

"Right, you do that," Lorne said as he left.

~*~


Carolyn closed the stasis pod on Corporal Spencer's body and activated the field. It would stay there until someone removed it, suspended unless or until the power to the pod failed. She didn't want to contemplate what would happen inside in that case. The pods were air tight. The decomp gases would have nowhere to go.

Frankly, she thought immolating the bodies in the stargate backwash would be better than saving them. It was just ghoulish to keep the bodies once the autopsies had been performed. If people preferred burial, then they should bury them on a planet. Carrying the dead with them this way had to be bad for everyone psychologically.

Ambassador Weir and Wray had argued otherwise though and Major Lorne had let them win. Carolyn had seen her father do the same thing with her mother, before the divorce. He'd let her win the arguments he didn't care about, never anything that mattered. Right up until Mom had walked out, taking Carolyn with her. Dad hadn't won that one.

She covered her mouth to silence a small, morbid laugh. Stowing the corpses in stasis was definitely better than the Nahkte's suggestion.

The hybrid had suggested they eat the dead.

It had been a salutary reminder that the Unionists were alien, not so much in their appearance or DNA, as in their culture. Carolyn forgot sometimes.


~*~

"Do your people have any traditions or cermonies for your dead?" Lorne asked. He wanted Larrin to stay a little longer, instead of dressing and leaving, and she usually would if he asked her questions.

"Everything is recyced on our ships," she said.

He played with her hair while he chose his next question. Saying that there was no way they were doing that with their dead would be a good way to push her into leaving.

"No funerals?"

"No. First child born next inherits the name, unless they died for the ship." She shifted and stroked her hand of his belly. "No fair making anyone carry that kind of history."

"Huh."

He caught her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. The crew's mood seemed sour to him since Spencer's death, like their ability to keep on hoping was stretched too thin.

"I was thinking about some kind of memorial service for everyone that's died since we got here."

The problem was whether to exclude on include Curtis in honoring the dead.

"Maybe after you catch the Goa'uld."

That made sense. Once the snake was gone, then they could acknowledge what had happened to Spencer and Darlington. Atienza, too. Lay them to rest. He liked that.

Lorne lifted Larrin's hand to his lips and kissed it.

~*~


Rodney observed the kino following him for three days. Unlike the unwanted security he'd been assigned, the kino made no attempt to hide that it was monitoring everything he did. Et tu, Radek? It hovered just above his shoulder, just outside his peripheral vision, recording his every keystroke, steadily ratcheting his temper into the stratosphere. He couldn't punch that self-important blowhard Leonard, keep the enlisted idiots from following him everywhere, even stationing themselves outside the washroom when he showered, so his ire shifted to focus on the mechanical surveillance.

Bastards, all of them, but he'd thought better of Zelenka.

There was no one on this ship, really no one period, he could trust. They would all use him, but they'd discard him like garbage the minute they had what they wanted from him.

Destiny was like a body. It had a voluntary nervous system, programming that Rodney had already mastered, and parasympathetic and involuntary systems. The involuntary systems were the hardware, the parts of the ship ruled strictly by physics. The parasympathetic, though, that was the one he hadn't cracked yet. It was protected against overrides and changes because so much of it was critical; mess with some of its operations and the ship died, like interrupting the beating of a heart.

So they thought they'd watch what he did until they didn't need him to do it any longer? Rodney would show them.

He accessed another portion of the ship's system and began typing, rerouting programs, finding Zelenka's shambling zombie of a facial recognition program, improving it, and then hijacking it. It was child's play to overwrite the kino programming from the control nexus and he did it in pure Alterran code, none of Zelenka's hodgepodge pidgin half-measures. Now, let the little backstabber try to spy on him. He'd programmed the kinos to erase anything monitored with his face in it.

Instead, the screen would repeat his own little message for all of them.

Screw you, fink.

~*~


He and Weir had miscalculated in regards to McKay; hell, in regard to all of the scientists. Lorne didn't see any quick fix either. His soldiers had to talk to him, but everyone else was giving him the cold shoulder. Zelenka had asked him into the kino room the day before, pointed to the screen with McKay's message and given him the dumbed down version of what else McKay had done.

The first words out of Lorne's mouth had been, "Fix it."

Another mistake.

Zelenka had smiled at him and replied, "I cannot. McKay has locked me out of kino programming."

"Then get someone — "

"He is a genius. He thought of that."

Lorne marched out of the kino room and down to the control nexus. He didn't make anything of Zelenka slowly following him. McKay was waiting for him, arms crossed, chin up, glowering and defiant. Leonard and Sgt. Mehra were there, so at least someone was watching McKay.

The irony of the matter was Lorne just wanted McKay kept safe from the damned Goa'uld. If he could have assigned two guards for everyone, he would have. He'd hoped the kino surveillance could augment the limited number of people he had and let them get some rest sometimes, because he'd finally figured out McKay worked insane hours.

"Undo it," Lorne ordered.

"Make me," McKay taunted him.

Leonard took an abortive step forward. "Let me, Major."

That was a bad, bad idea, worse than any of the mistakes Lorne had already made. He shot his hand out in a stop gesture to Leonard, but he heard Zelenka's steps racing away behind him, and Sgt. Mehra had somehow relocated herself one step from blocking Leonard or his advance toward McKay.

Soldiers were people, under all the training. Some of them were sadists and others were looking for someone to tell them what to do all the time. Some of them would follow any order and others couldn't do it to save their lives. Some of them would follow an officer into hell and back out, right up until the officer gave an order that violated the principles they were supposed to be defending. Then God help him.

The way Mehra was looking at Leonard, he need God on his side, because he'd just rolled right over her line in the sand.

"Stand down, Commander," Lorne snapped. He wanted to salvage what he could from this situation. He straightened his shoulders and clamped down on his own temper — this was his fault, he could man up and admit it at least to himself. "McKay."

"I've put up with a lot of shit from the SGC," McKay said. "If you think I'm going to let you march me around under guard and spy on me every time I take a piss, you can think again."

"That's not — "

"You can get someone else to hack the ship too," McKay added. "I quit."

"You quit?" Lorne repeated. His temper flipped; McKay could push his buttons every damned time. Well, he could push back. The one thing he'd figured out about McKay was that he couldn't stand to be outshone. Keep him away from the technology for a couple of days and he'd go crazy with boredom and frustration. He'd fucking ask Lorne to let him go back to work. "Fine. Get out of the nexus right now." He pointed to Mehra. "Sergeant. Relieve Dr. McKay of any equipment — "

Footsteps again and, god damn, there were Todd and Sheppard, with Weir and Wray right behind them.

"Hey, Dusty," Sheppard said, pushing past Lorne hard enough to jostle him, and coming about with his arm slung over McKay's shoulders. "McKay. Let's go down and look at that weapon system. I've got a bet going with Todd that you can figure it out faster than em."

Lorne was exquisitely aware of Todd standing behind him, along with Wray and Weir watching and listening, as Sheppard scooped up McKay's laptop and tugged him out of the room. He couldn't describe the scent coming off Todd, but it seemed like it was stronger every time they were in a closed room.

Zelenka arrived, wheezing so hard Lorne feared he'd collapse. McKay gave Zelenka a scornful look, then transferred his glare to Lorne and muttered, "Get your pet to do it." Mehra followed Sheppard and him out without waiting for any direction.

"What the hell was that?" Weir demanded.

Zelenka was doubled over, fighting to breathe. Todd stretched an arm out and grasped the back of shirt, holding him on his feet effortlessly.

Lorne shook his head.

"A fuck up." He turned to Leonard. "If I misinterpreted what you meant just now, I apologize, but Commander, don't ever offer or order someone under your command to 'make' one of our crew do anything."

Leonard nodded and said, "Yes sir," and Lorne knew he had a problem with this one.

Todd chuckled, the throaty, rattling sound making Lorne's skin crawl, as it stepped around him. "Come with us, Radek Zelenka."

Zelenka shot Lorne a venomous look and went. "Ano. I do not like the company here."

Lorne felt positive that there wasn't a scientist in the crew who would cross a street to piss on him if he was on fire once the story made the rounds of the crew.

~*~


John kept his arm around McKay's tensed shoulders as he got him away from Lorne. He couldn't quite believe Lorne would have ordered or let someone 'tune' McKay up, but when Zee ran into him babbling they were going to hurt Rodney, every protective instinct, human and Wraith, had been triggered. He might be pissed at McKay, but he'd brought him into the nest. That made McKay — almost — part of the hive. Enough that John moved fast to intercede.

Once he'd arrived in the nexus, he'd gone alert. That smell had been there, the one he'd been picking up all around the ship. Then Todd followed him in and the scent he'd been responding to had been swamped by eis changing pheromones.

He realized Mehra was hurrying after them, but didn't slow his strides. "Sir," she panted, "I wouldn't have let them."

"Nice to know who's on my side," McKay sniped.

"Don't get that confused," John advised him. "Zelenka's the one who ran for help."

He felt McKay's rigidity increase for a breath, then he relaxed and mumbled, "Maybe Lorne made him do it."

"See?" John said. He kept guiding McKay down through the ship to the compartment where they'd found Spencer's dead body. He turned McKay away from the drag stain on the floor and steered him to the semi-eviscerated console.

He knew the instant McKay focused on the technology. A little huff escaped the scientist and he surged forward. "What ham-fingered fathead made this mess?"

"The Goa'uld," John answered. The decaying blood stench was thick in the room, even a day later, turning his stomach more now than it had when they discovered the body. Todd's scent had been tickling at his senses then, distracting him, the way it had even in the control nexus moments ago.

He rubbed between McKay's shoulders unconsciously, comfort more for himself than anything else. John made himself stop as soon as he realized what he'd been doing, although McKay didn't seem to object. Their disagreement over the chair seemed to be forgotten on both sides, for which he was glad. He'd missed McKay's company.

McKay had half of his upper body squeezed into one access point and was giving John and Mehra orders by the time Todd arrived with Zelenka. He acted like nothing had happened between Zelenka and himself and Zelenka seemed relieved to follow his cues. John and Dusty backed out of the way and let the three scientists do their thing.

Dusty tapped John's arm and said quietly. "I'm going to get Vasily and Semi down here to look out for him, 'kay? Don't leave him with just one other person."

John frowned at her. "What?"

"Look, I don't know what the kino thing is," she explained, "but I'm here to make sure the Goa'uld doesn't get McKay. Since we don't know who it is, there has to be two guards, in case one's the snake."

John frowned and said nothing as she trotted away. The scent in the nexus had been just a trace, a taint in someone's sweat. It could have lingered and not been from anyone even there, but it had been the same as the blood-soaked stench that had persisted on Spencer's corpse. He walked back to bloodstain and breathed in with his mouth open, trying to tease out the scents still hanging in the room.

Was that the smell of a mature Goa'uld? The scent from the Jaffa at the SGC hadn't been particularly distinct, but they only carried the larval forms. He hadn't paid enough attention to remember now.

He tugged at Todd's attention through the hive sense, but Todd was preoccupied with reprogramming the crystals that Spencer had used to bypass the original control conduits. A sense that they would explore this possibility later, with Teyla and the hybrids, answered him before Todd shut John down.

Sulking a little, John found a good spot to sit and sank down to the deck, his back propped against a bulkhead where he could watch McKay, Zelenka and Todd while keeping an eye on the airlock hatch too. He stayed until Dusty, Vasily and Semi showed back up, then gave them each a suspicious sniffing.

Dusty mumbled, "Hey, it's not like we have an unlimited supply of deodorant, you know."

Vasily gave John a weird look, but Semi grabbed John's shoulder and theatrically mock-smelled him back with a loud laugh. John grinned and slapped the big man on his back, rocking him. Semi was used to being pretty much the biggest, strongest guy in a room — he out-bulked Ronon Dex, though he was slower — but only laughed in startlement.

Zelenka immediately chattered to Vasily and Semi, explaining the events of the shift John thought, and both men looked disgusted enough John felt confident no one would be strong-arming either McKay or Zelenka while he wasn't around.

"Where're you going?" McKay demanded as John started out, proving he paid more attention to what was going on around him than he usually let on.

"I'm going to sniff around for snakes," John said. He still wasn't sure that the scent he'd picked up was a Goa'uld, but if it was, he wanted to find it first, then he'd tell Lorne.

Unless it was Lorne.

Lorne probably knew if that was the case.

~*~


Svetlana felt uncomfortable with being the only scientist except Brody who would attend the staff meeting. She would have boycotted too, because while McKay was not a pleasant person, he deserved the same rights and respect they all did, but she also felt she needed to present her findings. She had a plan. She felt it was a valid plan based on their understanding of Destiny's systems and programming and she wanted to try it as soon as possible, because the changes she saw affecting the people on this ship were disturbing her more and more.

She slid her gaze to the side, to study Todd. Hadn't anyone besides her noticed it was shifting? Its skin was bluer, she'd swear, and its entire facial structure was thinning. She'd mentioned this to Zelenka, but he'd only shrugged and told her she was imagining it. It was a fool-the-eye thing; it had shaved off the wispy goatee on its chin, that was all.

Svetlana didn't think it had shaved. Its glossy skin showed no signs of beard. The pores were invisible, if it even had pores the way humans did.

"Our progress has slowed without Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka's insights," she admitted to Lorne and Ambassador Weir. "But we have a basic understanding of Destiny now."

"Enough to turn it around?" Lorne asked.

Brody shook his head fast. "That's just it. We can't. That's why the Ancients stripped the ship. It can't be turned back."

Ambassador Weir sat forward, frowning, and requested, "Please explain."

Svetlana let Brody go ahead. Before she proposed her plan, she wanted it clear that it was based on more than her theories alone. If McKay had been present, she feared he would have eviscerated it so well that Lorne and the others would have stop listening. Her plan went against McKay's every instinct. She didn't like what she wanted to do either, but she was Russian; she had learned pragmatism. Sometimes, you had to sacrifice just to break even.

Destiny, Brody explained, had been purpose-built. Everything they had decoded had pointed to this; their latest discovery, a fragment of the original first officer's log translated by Sonja Damji, confirmed their theory. The ship was its mission. It had no facility to be reprogrammed, because it was not programmed in the sense they thought of programming. Following the seed ships leaving stargates behind, collating the data they gathered and left, allowing the Alterrans to gate aboard it and then off to use those new stargate networks, went beyond hardwired to hardware. There were no shut downs, no facilities to control it. Destiny was an arrow in flight.

It could be stopped, it could not be steered.

"What kind of idiots design a ship like that?" Lorne wondered and Svetlana agreed.

Larrin was looking at Svetlana. "You have an idea."

Svetlana stood up, hoping it would add strength to her argument.

"Yes. Adam has said, an arrow in flight," she began. "A real arrow eventual reaches a target or fails, inertia and gravity dragging it down. Destiny's FTL drive renders it into an inertia-less arrow, one that never falls, on a flight that never ends."

"Very poetic," Commander Leonard remarked.

Ignoring men like him was a skill Svetlana had perfected over her career. Leonard was irrelevant. Weir and Lorne, possible Larrin, were the ones she needed to convince of her solution.

"To extend the metaphor," she went on, "an arrow may be stopped. It may hit a shield or it may be knocked down."

Larrin and Lorne were both listening and she thought the wraith was watching her with interest.

"Or it can be knocked from the bow before it launches," she finished.

Larrin, to Svetlana's surprise, made the conceptual leap before she could outline it.

"You want to sideline the FTL engines while Destiny is in-system," Larrin stated.

"Yes," Svetlana confirmed. "Destiny has more than one FTL field generator; they work in tandem to encompass the entire ship. Disabling even one should, in theory, keep the ship from shifting into FTL. My proposal is that we stop Destiny in a system with a viable planet."

"We'd be stranding ourselves," Ambassador Weir said. "I don't see how that is a beneficial outcome."

"It wouldn't be," Svetlana hurried to explain, "but if I may return to the arrow metaphor? Once the ship has been stopped, we can go into the actual hardware and re-orient it. That done, we repair the FTL field generator and it launches us back to the Milky Way."

"We'd essentially rewrite the data in its systems to make it think that it is going forward when it is going back," Brody clarified.

"One mistake in the falsified stellar data and the ship could end up lost forever between galaxies," Larrin pointed out. "Lying to your ship is wrong."

"It's a ship, a machine," Svetlana said, confused. "We would not be lying to it, merely providing a different data framework."

"This would not be possible with a Hive," the wraith commented. It sounded neither approving nor disapproving. Intrigued, maybe. "There is always an awareness that remains… "

"This ship isn't sentient or aware," Svetlana insisted. "It isn't alive. There's no AI."

"The Ancients seemed prejudiced against any line of research resulting in artificial intelligences," Brody said.

The Wraith began laughing. It said, "A rejected egg must not be allowed to hatch or it will turn on the Hive."

"Hive ships aren't artificial," Teyla Emmagan added.

"Yeah, I don't have the faintest idea what any of that means," Lorne said, "but I want Dr. Markov to organize whatever we need to do to try this plan as soon as it's feasible. We've already been on this ship for weeks."

"Have you consulted Dr. McKay or Dr. Zelenka?" Weir asked.

"I will before we implement it," Svetlana assured her. "I am not arrogant enough to devalue their input. He and Radek have both been involved in repairing the ship's weapons systems, though."

"Oh, that should be a pretty scene," Lorne murmured. Svetlana didn't think he'd meant her to hear, but she suspected he was right. Rodney McKay would object vociferously and fight tooth-and-nail against the idea of deliberately wrecking anything on this ship.

"Dr. Heightmeyer, what have you got for us?" Ambassador Weir asked.

Svetlana opened her laptop and half-listened to the rest of the briefing while she worked.

"Drugs may become a problem," Heightmeyer said.

"What, marijuana or coke? How would anyone get it?" Teldy asked.

"Uppers and downers," Heightmeyer replied, "are available from the medical stocks, and if not, the crew includes several chemists, biochemists, and numerous others who have a more than adequate grasp of the science involved. I'll remind you that on Earth it doesn't take a college degree to put together a meth lab."

"Should we be worrying about someone blowing something up?" Lorne asked.

Svetlana looked up in time to see Heightmeyer smile and shrug. "If there is a lab set up, it will be on a small scale. My point is we have to deal with the underlying reasons people want the drugs in the first place."

"Yeah, they're trapped, scared, and want to go home," Lorne said.

"Your alienation of Dr. McKay hasn't helped matters," Heightmeyer told him tartly.

"He's a prima donna."

"It's split the crew between those who believe you must have relieved him of his duties and put him under guard for some crime and those who see you as an overbearing tyrant." Heightmeyer's tone didn't give away her opinion. "Rumors are to be expected in a closed community, but I see this threatening to grow out of control, Major. It's a hostile environment and under the circumstances, I'm worried it will explode into violence."

"Which is why I want guards on the bastard," Lorne said wearily.

"It does more harm than good when you isolate someone that way. You've made him a target for resentment and fear."

"Well, it's too damn late now, isn't it?"

Heightmeyer pursed her lips and didn't respond.

"I think I should mention, there are quite a few people who are disturbed by your 'relationship' with Ms. Larrin," Wray said.

"Mzzzzzz?" Larrin echoed. "Is that a rank or what?"

"It's no one's business," Lorne snapped at Wray.

Wray gazed back at him complacently. "You should know, there's a budding blackmarket shaping up too…"

Larrin hummed it. "Mzzzzzz." Her eyes narrowed. "Don't call me that again."

Svetlana had already traded her wool socks for a half a bottle of vodka. The blackmarket was nothing to her and held no interest. She tuned out the rest of the briefing. She would present her plan to McKay, so it had to be flawless, otherwise he would rip her to pieces.

She allowed herself to dream for a moment of success; congratulations from McKay, Zelenka, the scientists of Earth, a better position in the Russian Federation's Stargate Program or secondment to the SGC's science department, and the small comforts of home.

With luck, she would have socks again and more than half a bottle of bad American vodka, at least.

~*~


"I thought you said this wouldn't work?" Lorne asked when Rodney joined them in the Number Twelve FTL field generator compartment.

Feeney and Perkins, his latest watchdogs, stopped outside the compartment in the corridor that led from Number Twelve's compartment to the other eleven field generator compartments. Presumably, they trusted that Lorne, Weir, the Wraith and the scientists gathered in the compartment weren't about to implant Rodney with a snake and that Rodney wasn't about to flip his lid and attack anyone.

Rodney gave Lorne a jaundiced look and answered, "It won't. I'm here to say 'I told you so'." He checked his watch as the countdown to Destiny jumping to FTL again approached. He expected the ship would still attain faster than light speed even without Number Twelve.

The consoles and screens devoted to Number Twelve were all powered down and dull. Only the compartment's emergency lighting illuminated the open access panels and the partially dismantled bulkhead that gave access to the actual field generator. The critical parts that Markov's team had removed to take it off-line were secured on blankets with duct tape. The banality of that makeshift security ratcheted Rodney's blood pressure out of sight. He supposed they were lucky some grunt hadn't just tossed all of it a garbage pail.

Markov had her hands wrapped around her elbows, giving away her own doubts. "All our calculations — "

"All your calculations, which are based on a false premise; prima, that you even understand the faster than light mechanism these drives use," Rodney corrected her.

Sheppard rolled his eyes at Rodney and the countdown hit zero.

The ship screamed and shook, parts of it shuddering into double-vision FTL fields that torqued bulkheads and cracked airlock seals as they tried to tear free. Human shrieks joined the pained sound of the ship trying to rip itself apart. Markov's knees hit the floor and she caught herself with one hand, the sound of bone cracking cleaving the clamor. Feeney and Perkins didn't have time to scream as they were caught in the shear between normal space and the eleventh field generator's FTL field. Pieces of them flew into the compartment; through the shimmer of the field the rest of the bodies had already fallen to the deck. Destiny kept straining against the physical universe and Rodney wondered if it would succeed in tearing away from the Number Twelve compartment that anchored it.

The field generators shrieked to the edge of overload, loud enough Sheppard and Todd both clapped hands over their ears, and Rodney could only see Lorne's mouth move, the words lost in the din.

Abruptly, the FTL fields winked out and the field generators ran down to silence. Around them, the ship groaned and creaked, the sounds of metal popping and flexing everywhere sending shudders of terror up and down Rodney's spine. Any one of those pops could presage a hideous death by decompression if the hull was giving way.

Rodney's ears rang. Weir said something. He squinted at her and made out her next words from the shape of her lips.

"Is that it?" Weir asked. "Did it work?"

Markov climbed to her feet while cradling her broken wrist. "No," she said, strained and dull.

Under Rodney's boots, unheard, the deck began vibrating steadily, a familiar sensation that went with the FTL field generators spooling up to engage again.

The lights went out; the screens and consoles related to Number Twelve were already dark. Blackness folded blanket thick around Rodney. He groped for and found his flashlight, switching it on. Others were switched on fast too — one of Lorne's better commandments had been making sure everyone had one. Rodney didn't wait for orders, he headed for the opened bulkhead, sweeping the flashlight beam over it. He wanted to live and the subtle vibration of the FTL field generators running up was growing stronger.

Destiny had endured trying it without Twelve once. There were no guarantees the ship could take the strain twice.

Rodney snapped the fingers of his free hand. "Lights, lights, lights," he ordered. "I need everyone aiming at the machinery. Svetlana. Aim over my shoulder and tell me if I miss anything. Brody, help Radek, Miko and Todd."

He hadn't thought it would work, he'd told everyone who would listen, but he'd never believed it would wreck Destiny. Now he was terrified it was going to kill them all. When would people begin listening to him?

"What are you doing?" Lorne yelled.

Rodney paid no attention. Destiny couldn't withstand the stress of only partial envelopment. Sheppard was there, already at his side, the pilot was a godsend in many ways, he did what Rodney said without asking stupid, time wasting questions. Radek and Todd were already working side by side at the main console, Miko and Brody were returning power to the secondary control mechanism — thank God, because Rodney was a genius, but he couldn't exist in three places simultaneously and these things had to be done at the same time to work.

Elizabeth had Larrin's and her flashlights and was aiming them into the field generator.

Larrin had hold of Lorne. His flashlight was rolling across the deck, throwing crazy shadows. Rodney ignored all of them and plunged his hands into the FTL field generator. He ripped a chunk of tape away and pulled down one of the narrow conduits that glowed blue-white when connected to power, reattaching it. "Sealer," he snapped.

"It isn't working!" Larrin yelled at Lorne. "It will tear the ship apart if the field generators engage again without this one. They have to get it back on-line!"

"It's that one," Markov said behind him and a moment later Sheppard laid the tool, one of the tools found on the ship, that acted like a heatless welder to seal pieces of alloy together, into Rodney's grabby hand.

Destiny groaned like it was in pain and alarms began wailing as the emergency lights flickered back on. Rodney couldn't help paying attention to the pulsed rhythm of those wails. Different alarm patterns meant different things. He snapped, "Markkov, part," and recited 'fear is the mind-killer' to himself and when that failed, started on pi.

Thud after thud shuddered through the ship, as airlocks closed in response to the sensors reporting breaches. Destiny did have emergency protocols, but they'd been off-line until Rodney's team reactivated them. Of course, sealing all the airlocks meant they might end up trapped with vacuum on the other side of an airlock at any second. Life on a spaceship was just one delight after another.

"Hull breach," Larrin said.

Number Twelve compartment's airlock hatch closed slower than it should have, even with movement sensors triggering the slow down Radek had programmed to keep the locks from closing on anyone. Stress had likely distorted it so it no longer fit to specification. No way to know if its seals still worked despite the damage. Well, not until air started whistling out.

Markov's flashlight beam disappeared and her hand came over Rodney's shoulder with a part. Oh, that was right, she was working one-handed. He slotted the heavy piece of alloy into its place and made the turn that locked it. His elbow hit something and sparked pain all the way up to his shoulder. He felt skin and flesh part like butter against a crystalline edge sharp enough to shame a samurai's katana.

"We can't worry about it now," Rodney replied. God, he could smell Feeney and Perkins' blood, thick and sick-sweet, now the compartment was sealed up. The edge of the FTL field… Unless that was his blood. He could feel it sliding, warm and wet, over his forearm. He'd never imagined anything as awful as the shear slicing those men in two. Teal'c, dying on the gate room floor at the SGC, had been the most horrible death he'd seen before arriving on Destiny. Now he had Curtis, Feeney, Perkins, Darlington, and Spencer to bleed through his nightmares to the soundtrack of every Thumps victim choking for air. He kept sleeping in different quarters every night, hoping he'd find one where he didn't wake up tearing scarlet serpents from around his throat. It was a miracle he hadn't broken down into a gibbering wreck; he needed to get some more of those pills from Carson. He couldn't afford to sleep otherwise, not with those things in his head.

He wondered what exactly would happen to him if he still had half his body shoved inside this monster while it was only half repaired and trying to power up. Crushed, electrocuted, something more esoteric and agonizing than he could even imagine — and he had a very good imagination for disaster — or something that would result in him dying slowly, in terrible pain?

It would probably make what happened to Feeney and Perkins pretty, if there was anything left at all. Rodney suspected the field generator would blow apart, killing him and everyone in the compartment instantly. What a goddamn stupid design the Ancients had used. Twelve damn field generators and just one breaking down would kill the ship. Either that or Markov's team had managed to disconnect some failsafe mechanism along with crippling Number Twelve. He put no stupidity past anyone but himself.

He needed to work faster, but there wasn't room and everything had to be right the first time. His blood was pattering into the generator at an alarming rate. He could only hope it wouldn't short something out. The tension was settling in his back; if they lived through the next thirty minutes, it would spasm all night. Rodney twisted himself, trying to reach a critical connection without backing out and coming at it from a different direction, but he couldn't lift himself high enough —

"Don't freak out," Sheppard said and his hands were at Rodney's hip and thigh, lifting him high enough he could reach his target without difficulty. He wondered if Todd was proportionately stronger than Sheppard as Sheppard was to an unchanged human. That would be scary. The position itself was precarious and unpleasant, the weight of his body resting on two narrow hands hurt, but Rodney ignored that and sealed the next conduit. Sheppard immediately lowered him enough to get one leg, then the other under him, supporting himself again.

"I'd tell you to not do that again, but you just saved me five minutes that might save our lives," Rodney muttered. "I'm going to have bruises though."

"You'll be alive to complain about them."

"Yes, there's that."

He started crawling back out, one hand braced on a casing, closing and connecting everything he'd left for after he got his body out of the way. A glance at the consoles showed him Radek wheezing and working, head in the access opening underneath and Todd standing over him. The tick, tick, tick Rodney had been hearing were Todd's talons hitting the control keys.

Miko was waist deep in the access to the other set of controls. Brody was muttering under his breath to her. Sweat gleamed on his face.

Rodney checked the blanket, but saw no forgotten parts. Markov had pressed the duct tape back down, making it easier to check fast.

Destiny was shivering. Rodney could feel it was ready, moments, maybe seconds from trying to return to FTL travel again.

Sheppard steadied Markov as Rodney pushed past her to get to where Brody was working. "Out of the way," he snapped — at Brody, not Svetlana, later he'd apologize for hitting her arm. "Is the air getting thin in here?"

"No breeze," Sheppard said.

"Great, we'll suffocate on our own exhalations," Rodney replied. "Miko, have you got it?"

"Yes."

"Then get out," he said and powered up the console and screens as soon as she wriggled free.

"Well, if the ship doesn't break apart first," Sheppard went on. He was busy closing the radiation shield over Number Twelve. "Can someone give me a hand? I'll hold, someone seal."

Brody hurried over to him.

"I vote for carbon monoxide poisoning," Radek called breathlessly from the deck. His voice was muffled but clear enough. "Painless, just a matter of going to sleep. Or so I have heard."

"Yeah, but your corpse is all bright red," Sheppard objected. "Me, I've always wanted to go out fast, with a splash."

"No water around here," Rodney heard himself banter back, because as morbid as it was, the humor was steadying his hands as he worked. "Maybe we can arrange a really big explosion for you."

"That would do," Sheppard agreed.

"Shut up, Mary Sunshine," Lorne snarled from where he was holding a light for Radek. "We aren't going to die."

"Because you say so?" Rodney snapped at him. "Svetlana, tell me you backed up — "

"Yes, the original programming is segregated to — " She shouldered in next to him and pointed to the schematic on display. " — here."

"All connections test sound," Todd announced.

"I am out," Radek added breathlessly.

"Close the bulkhead," Rodney told Sheppard. "Seal it."

He dumped all of Markov's routines and rerouted to where she had stashed the originals. A moaning vibration trembled through the ship and into his bones. One of the other field generators had already activated out of synch with rest. In a flash of insight, Rodney realized the odd doubling effects and discomfort that accompanied entering FTL before were the result of the same. All of Destiny's FTL field generators needed to be tuned back to each other so that they engaged simultaneously. He silently promised the ship a real tune up if she would just hold together a little longer.

Another field generator fired and the ship wailed, alarms, alerts, its very frame protesting the unimaginable stress.

On the screen before him a bar indicating power usage filled fast. Rodney considered telling everyone to stand away from the equipment, but the equipment was the ship and surrounded them. If something blew, there would be no protection.

"Sealed," Sheppard yelled.

"Four, ten, nine, two, and one," Radek gasped. He stood at the first console that showed readouts from the other eleven field generators. Destiny shook, a seizure threatening to break bones, its and theirs. Todd steadied Radek when one jolt would have tossed the slight man down like a doll. Lorne and Larrin were braced in a corner with Weir behind them. Miko had stayed on the floor; she had her arms wrapped round a stanchion. Rodney clutched the edge of his console and tried to ride it out. Sheppard stumbled to his side while Brody and Markov found anchors of their own.

"Six!"

The jerk sent Sheppard flying across the compartment. He hit a bulkhead, the sound lost in the cacophony, and lay still. Rodney tightened his hold on the console as Destiny bucked and strained.

"Seven, eight, eleven!" Todd's voice carried.

That was it. Rodney resisted the urge to close his eyes.

Power to Number Twelve reached one hundred percent.

Fired.

The FTL field shivered into existence starting with the field generator and expanded, slow enough that Rodney could see the effect before it encompassed him and moved outward to mesh with the other eleven. A quiver ran through him that he thought came from his very cells.

Destiny settled, not into silence, but into smooth progress. The screen before Rodney showed Number Twelve functioning in the green, at ninety-nine percent, more than sufficient to do its part.

The hull breach alarms were still pulsing. Larrin was venting a stream of obscenity that didn't make any sense. Rodney wasn't sure if the thudding he heard was his panicked heartbeat or something outside him. He stared blindly at the screens, afraid to look at anything else. He wasn't willing to turn and find out that Sheppard was dead.

"McKay," Lorne said. "McKay!"

Rodney whimpered under his breath. He couldn't make his hands let go of the console. He cranked his head around and watched Todd lift Sheppard's limp body tenderly. Please, no.

"Go—Good job," he made himself say. "Everyone."

Sheppard stirred and got his feet under him, though he still swayed in the wraith's arms. "Yeah," he croaked. "No boom."

Rodney felt a wild, hysterical smile form on his face.

"Maybe next time?"

"Oh, yeah," Sheppard breathed. Blood dripped steadily from a gash that ran from his forehead into his hair. It joined the mess on the deck from Rodney's arm.

Radek, Svetlana and Miko started laughing. In a second it infected Brody and Larrin too. Lorne just shook his head, smiling, muttering, "Sonovabitch."

Weir looked at them like they were insane.

Brody blurted, "I think I pissed my pants."

"Don't sweat it, doc," Lorne told him. "I shit mine."

A fist pounded against the airlock and yelled, "Anyone in there!?"

"Yes, so get us out!" Lorne shouted back.

It took several marines working from outside along with Todd, Sheppard, Lorne and Rodney to lever the out-of-true airlock hatch open.

Someone had cleaned up Feeney and Perkins, Rodney noticed gratefully. The gush of fresher air made him realize how badly it stank inside Number Twelve's compartment, and he sucked in a deep breath.

"Everyone okay?" Major Teldy asked.

"Banged around," Lorne told her. He was looking at the blood and flesh on their side of the airlock. "You know — "

"Yes sir," Teldy said.

"The hull breach?" Larrin asked.

"Seals two bulkheads back," Teldy reported. "We're pumping that sealant we found into them. Dr. Volker says the hull's okay; we're not actually losing atmosphere."

"Volker's an idiot," Rodney said. "I need to get to Control and make sure."

Teldy looked to Lorne, who gave a tiny nod, Rodney noticed with annoyance.

"Corporal Greer, make sure no one bothers Dr. McKay," Teldy said.

To Rodney's surprise, Sheppard fell in step with him. He had a roll of duct tape in his hand; he used it and a pad made from the tail of his shirt to bandage Rodney's bleeding arm as they walked.

"Don't you need to have your head fixed?" Rodney asked. He suppressed the urgent desire to touch Sheppard and make sure he was essentially unharmed. What if he had a concussion? Sheppard could be bleeding in his brain right now. Rodney decided Control would wait while he made Sheppard see Beckett or Lam.

Sheppard swiped at the blood on his face. It flaked away. "Naw, I heal fast now. Someone can look at it when we get you to the infirmary."

Rodney's eyes widened as he realized the gash was gone and he stopped. Sheppard stopped with him, concern creasing his features. Despite his own intentions, Rodney found himself tracing the line of healed skin across Sheppard's forehead down to his eyebrow with his thumb. He rubbed a little more blood away there and shivered with remembered fear and sudden heat.

"Sirs?" Greer prompted them.

Rodney glanced at Greer, two steps behind them. "Just a second." He whispered to Sheppard, "Indulge me. Let Beckett check."

"Okay," Sheppard said, as if Rodney asking was all it took.

Rodney wanted to ask other things, but swallowed the questions down. He felt better with Sheppard walking beside him, Sheppard looking out for him, the way he had been since the kino incident. Since then, Sheppard seemed to be over being angry with him about the neural interface chair. Rodney decided not to rock the boat. He wasn't ready to talk about the attraction building between them. He'd check Volker's findings, then go to the infirmary and make sure Carson looked at Sheppard once his arm was stitched up.

~*~


Ba'al considered his new situation. Lorne's orders kept him just within reach of everything he needed to know to take over, but always under someone else's eyes. This had to change. Avoiding the Unionists had become more difficult too; Sheppard and the wraith were both circling around McKay in a way that tugged at Ba'al's instincts. They were targeting the scientist.

He had never bathed so often in his existence and felt a genuine admiration for the quality of the Gatebuilders' washing chemicals. Without them, even his most assiduous efforts to suppress the chemical markers of his presence in a host would have been too little.

McKay, though, there was a thorn in his side. The man had undone all of Ba'al's careful work on the internal security systems and safeguarded them against reprogramming. Ba'al would have to get the command codes from McKay, Lorne and Weir, then get past the guards posted on the compartment with the relevant crystals.

Not impossible for him, of course, but rather like the Terran recipe for tiger tail soup.

Heightmeyer — interfering mind-witch — kept working to ameliorate Ba'al's careful molding of the crew's emotions and beliefs, but she was laboring under a handicap Ba'al didn't share. No one really trusted or believed a 'headshrinker'. He made sure to strengthen that distrust along with the hostility toward McKay and the 'aliens'. Also the 'alien-lovers', like Major Lorne. The man had certainly done Ba'al a favor by taking Larrin to bed. Anyone who didn't resent and envy Lorne now, was suspicious that he had been compromised.

Lovely euphemism, that: compromised. The SGC had so many of those phrases. All of Earth did, in fact, and Ba'al had enjoyed using them.

He'd meant to kill McKay himself, to draw it out and enjoy it, but now he needed the man gone before one of the Unionists managed to identify Ba'al's host. He'd seen Sheppard literally sniffing around.

Killing Sheppard wouldn't solve the problem either, because there were the other Unionists.

Besides, Ba'al had decided he would have the man for his ultimate host.


VII. Toxicity

That annoying scent, the one John would catch and then lose repeatedly in the corridors and mess hall and sometimes in Rodney's hair was drifting off Dusty.

"What the hell is that?" he snapped. His nerves were on edge thanks to Todd, whose pheromones were a mess, a constant come-close-get-away blast that made John hang out anywhere Todd wasn't, until he couldn't stand it another minute and had to check that Todd was all right. For the moment he was in one of his avoidance periods and had hooked up with his team mate on her way down to take a shift of Rodney-watching. He leaned close to her and inhaled, but the scent was elusive, too faint to nail down, teasing at his bad temper.

"Hey, what is with you?" she demanded and shoved him back, her hand flat to his chest.

John would never say it, but he treasured every time Dusty or Rodney or the rest of Destiny's number one gate team laid hands on him like he was just another guy. He rocked back a step and held up his hands. "There's this smell, damn it," he admitted. "I get it off you once in a while, like you brushed up against whatever it comes from."

"So?" she asked. Her boots thunked on the metal deck in contrast to John's silent steps. Even the noise was annoying, along with any bright lights.

"I think it's the Goa'uld."

"Well, fuck," she said, "have you told Major Lorne?"

John gave her a look. "I said, I think. I can never track down who it's coming from."

"But you get it off me?"

"Sometimes, sometimes there's a whiff around Rodney, sometimes in the mess hall and the corridors." John shrugged. "The air scrubbers make it hard." Normal scent concentrations were dispersed very efficiently on Destiny now that the environmental system was operating at one hundred percent. Most of the time John appreciated not living with a barracks reek, but it made tracking difficult unless something stunk atrociously.

Dusty checked her weapon out of habit. "Well, I don't hang out with a lot of people outside the team," she said.

"It isn't anyone on the team."

"Is that why you're sniffing everyone's neck all the time?" she asked. "I thought it was some Wraith thing, the way you and the others keep huffing and puffing at everything lately."

"No, that's Todd," John said absently.

"What, he's in rut or something?" Dusty kidded.

"Eie," John corrected her. "And it's not rut. It's complicated." Todd's change to oaee was accelerating. John suspected he wouldn't be able to smell the Goa'uld if it weren't for the ramp-up of his own senses in response. Kanaan, Nahkte and Halling were going through the same thing, Teyla too to a lesser extent: they were all responding to the need to protect the nest against any threat to a queen.

"Mmm," Dusty hummed noncommittally. "Look, I saw Leonard, I mean Commander Leonard, in the mess before I geared up. He's going to be ticked if I'm not there for my shift before him." Dusty made a face, but didn't comment further on Leonard. She didn't need to; John had noticed how she'd maneuvered things to always be on shift with Leonard. He didn't think it was because she had a thing for the officer.

She tucked a strand of crow-black hair behind her ear and John noticed the neat dimple in her earlobe of a simple piercing. No one in the hives had piercings, he realized, any punctures healed up perfectly. Which was why the Wraith used tattoos rather than scarification.

They stopped at a branching corridor. Left led down to where Rodney was working on the offensive weapons. Right would take John back around to the second mess hall they'd opened up the week before. He'd heard Biga were experimenting with the sour fruit from the last star system.

"See you later?" Dusty asked. John's stomach grumbled before he could answer. Dusty laughed. "After you've eaten."

He sketched a mock salute her way and went right.

~*~


Commander Leonard was an intriguing individual. He reminded Ladon of more than one Genii officer. If he'd been pressed, Ladon would have had to admit that such comparisons were not complimentary to either Leonard or the Genii. Ladon had long ago mastered the art of holding his tongue in regard to his private estimates, however.

Leonard was smooth too. None of the other men gathered around realized he was working them, ever so subtly, into a bloodthirsty frenzy. Lt. Scott saw what was happening, but missed how Leonard kept stirring the pot. Leonard kept tipping another tot of whiskey into Scott's mug and the young man was half-way to passing out already.

Ladon added a few muttered slurs and complaints when anyone's attention drifted his way and kept his profile low.

"Major Lorne put me in charge of watching him for a reason," Leonard said, "and not because McKay's so valuable. The Major doesn't trust him."

"Thought it was because of the Goa'uld," Fernandes mumbled.

"Maybe," Leonard agreed, "but maybe because he knows McKay's keeping stuff back. You know, he's just happy as a pig in shit, playing with the technology, ordering people around. I see it every day."

"I hate that pasty prick," Goodnight muttered into his mug.

Leonard poured Goodnight a little more whiskey from the bottle he'd brought to their table. "Not as much as I do," he nearly purred.

Ladon blinked and wondered where the yellow light he'd seen reflected in the surface of the whiskey had come from. Leonard glanced up and held out the bottle with an inquiring lift of his eyebrows. Ladon shoved his mug forward. He'd realized who Leonard reminded him of in that instant and in consequence wanted nothing less than to draw the man's interest. Leonard reminded Ladon of none other than Acastus Kolya, a man who had assassinated his last rival by loosing an iratus in his home. The nest it started had to be firebombed out of existence, coincidentally incinerating all evidence of any of Kolya's other crimes.

Ladon didn't believe in coincidences.

Leonard laid a heavy hand on Scott's shoulder and bent close, murmuring. Ladon doubted anyone else was sober enough to listen, never mind make sense of what Leonard said.

"Listen, Scott, you know the Major's got to keep Weir and the civilians sweet. There's things that need to be done, that he can't just order someone to do," Leonard said. "A good officer knows how to take up the slack, how to do what needs to be done without waiting for an order."

Scott nodded drunkenly. "Initiative. Forward thinking," he mumbled. "That's what they taught us."

"Exactly," Leonard murmured.

Next to Ladon, Fernandes proved he'd been listening after all. "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest," he said into his mug, meant for no one else to hear. He suddenly lurched up from his seat and said, "I'm done here." The rest of the men watched him leave without protest, other than Hang's snickered, "Lightweight."

Ladon hadn't thought the Tau'ri worshipped technology to point of calling scientists priests, but perhaps they had in the past.

"I can't touch McKay," Leonard went on, "I've got orders to watch him and keep him secure, but if someone else came around, when I wasn't on shift or was out of the room…"

"Why?" Rivers asked.

"He knows more than he's telling," Leonard said and so softly, "Maybe he was working for the Goa'uld." He checked his watch. "I've got to pick up my gear and get down to deck seven. That's where I'll be watching McKay today. Me and Sgt. Mehra. For hours and hours, watching him screw around and pretend he doesn't have it all sussed out." He grinned and lifted his mug, the mug he'd been drinking out of all afternoon without topping it up. "'Cept when I take a bathroom break."

"Yeah, sure, get out of here," Kessler said.

"You remember what I said, Scott?" Leonard prompted. "Let the men do this, keep it all unofficial, for Major Lorne."

"I remember, sir," Scott replied.

Leonard patted Scott's shoulder before leaving.

"You know what I heard?" Richmond blurted over his third glass of mixed Embassy whiskey and the wicked high-proof stuff Fisher had begun producing in one of the empty labs. "I heard McKay's the reason the Markov plan didn't work." He bobbed his head up and down. Several others at the back table in the mess hall nodded to each other.

"I think he's the Goa'uld," Goodnight slurred.

"Nah, Lorne'd space him."

"Would not, McKay's Weir's pet, didn't you know?" Walters said. "That's why the Major's got a guard on him. He figures she and McKay're gonna take over the ship." He nodded to himself. "And why not? You want to answer to the damned military the rest of our lives?"

Walters glanced at Volker with raised eyebrows. Half the men at the table were military. It was difficult for Ladon to conceive any sort of world where the military wasn't the ultimate authority. The Empire and the Genii Legions were synonymous. Every man and woman put in their service; the ambitious used the Legions and the conflict with the Union to claw their way up the ranks, usually over the bleeding back of anyone less ruthless.

Ladon still didn't know what to think about Lorne; if he was canny and twisted as Legatus Cowen or a fool without the experience or will to grasp the reins of power that had fallen to him. Ambassador Weir and Camille Wray were easier to understand; there were more than a few wives who exerted power in the Empire through their husbands, subtle and dangerous women, some of them true partners with their husbands, others using their spouses as catspaws and decoys, rather than climb the military ladder themselves. Sora Tyrus would have become one of them in time.

It made him wonder if he really wanted to go back to the Empire. Kolya might have deposed Cowen by now.

"Screw that. McKay's the reason we're not going home right now," Rivers argued. "He's got the command codes, he's like some power-mad crazy, and he doesn't want to go back. You know the SGC wouldn't let him go through the stargate." He dropped his voice and whispered, "The aliens know. You see how the traitor is all over him all the time? They know. He could sit down in the neuro chair and take us straight home."

"That doesn't make sense," Volker muttered, but low.

"We could find out," Goodnight insisted. "Goa'uld heal up real fast, right?" He cracked his knuckles. "Want to assist in some interga — interrogation?"

"Asshole, you've never even interrogated a bunny rabbit," Rivers bitched back at him.

"Bet I could make that pansy sing."

"How much?" Deacon demanded.

"Pack of smokes and two Hershey's Almond bars."

"Fuck, deal. I'll give you my iPod if you make him admit he's working for a snake," Norman said. "Hell, I'll buy dinner at O'Malley's if you can make him take us home."

He and Deacon looked at each other and laughed. "You're such a dumb ass," Hang told Goodnight.

"Fuck you, you squinty pissant," Goodnight snarled back.

"Guys, guys, easy," Scott slurred at them.

"Whatever you say, Butterboy," Rivers muttered.

Ladon sipped his whiskey and considered. It was amusing, how Rivers and the others around him had forgotten that by their lights, he was alien too. Human, but not from their planet. Surely that was stranger than Sheppard, who had been changed by the Wraith, but still shared the same culture and home world with them. But he wasn't surprised. Sheppard looked different from them and Ladon didn't. Life in the Genii Empire's military had shown him people weren't rational in their hatreds. His people's obsession with destroying the Wraith had long since morphed into a propaganda tool the the Genii elite used to stay in power. Legatus Cowen, while in charge of the Department of External Security, had brokered covert agreements with rogue Wraith hives to target unaligned worlds like Sateda, frightening others into joining the Empire.

Ladon had seen the way frightened men turned on each other before, on anyone they considered weaker, and, often, those best equipped to save them. As an agent provocateur, he'd manufactured just such situations. He recognized all the techniques, even if he didn't understand the subtle prejudices being manipulated among the Tau'ri. He didn't know why Commander Leonard had been fanning the flames of resentment against McKay exactly, but it would soon reveal itself. Leonard had left this group with enough alcohol and hints that Ladon knew they would do something soon. They felt helpless and Leonard had led them to believe they could change that by targeting McKay.

He considered defusing the situation, then dismissed the possibility. If he tried, they might remember he was an outsider too and turn on him. Ladon had only himself to rely on aboard this ship.

Of course, it hadn't been any different during the tenure on Earth. His job had always been to observe and manage Tyrus and Sora if they went too far, while gathering vital intelligence for the Empire.

He'd been a scientist once, he reflected wistfully, before the military took him and made him a spy.

"I think we should grab McKay and make him give up the codes, stick him in that chair and then we can go home," Kessler declared. There was a round of drunken agreement from from Deacon, Hang, Rivers, and Goodnight. Scott looked unsure, maybe even scared, then squared his shoulders.

"Just to find out what he knows," Scott blurted. "Just scare him a little."

"Sure, sure," Goodnight said.

"How do we do that with guards around him?" Norman asked.

"His alien buddy isn't there," Kessler pointed out. "Saw him in the other mess. Don't why they let those things eat with us humans."

"That leaves two guards."

"Nah, just one, the sarge from Teldy's team. Commander Leonard'll step out," Rivers said. "You saying we can't take her?"

From Kessler's expression he wasn't exactly certain. Which showed he was marginally smarter than Rivers in Ladon's estimation. He had a clear picture of Sgt. Mehra and, in a fair fight, she'd make pasted chissi out of Rivers and Kessler.

"Maybe if we surprise her," Kessler said. "Knock her out."

"Yeah, you do that," Rivers taunted.

"What's she going to do, shoot us all?" Norman laughed.

"Wait, what about Commander Leonard?" Walters asked with a frown.

"Man has to take a piss sometimes, doesn't he?" Goodnight said with a sly smile. He'd been listening to Leonard after all. "We knock out Mehra, he can say we knocked him out too, yeah?"

Ladon sucked in a silent breath. He needed to decide now if he was going along, getting out, or going to Major Lorne with the information. His made his decision, unwise though he suspected it to be. If things unraveled too fast, too far, he would re-evaluate. He did not want to find out what Commander Leonard would use in place of an iratus.

"Let's go," Rivers said, getting to his feet.

"Are we sure about this?" Volker asked apprehensively. Of all of them, he had the best idea of what McKay could or did know, but he was a soft man, a follower, and afraid to speak up. Ladon had seen the same kind in the weapons R&D labs of the Empire.

"I'm sure," Norman declared. "He's a puddin' man. A couple good shakes and he'll do anything you tell him."

Ladon doubted that, but he followed along as the rest of the group, no, he'd call them a mob now — if Scott thought he was in command of them he was both drunk and naïve — made their staggering way out of the mess hall and down the corridors to where McKay was currently working.

He noticed Scott use his radio once they were on the same level. "You might want to step away for a few minutes, sir."

~*~


Leonard's radio crackled and he cocked his head. Dusty glanced up. They didn't usually get anything so deep in the ship, but it was funny, sometimes a freak transmission would come through real clear. Other times, they couldn't make the radios work between adjacent rooms. Close by was usually better, though, and if someone was on the same deck, they'd mostly get through.

"Sir?"

"Static," he said.

Dusty watched him shift restlessly from foot to foot. She wasn't surprised when he spoke again.

"Sergeant," Leonard said abruptly. "You're on your own for the next ten minutes."

"Sir?" Dusty asked cautiously. Lorne's orders were two guards at all times. Not that she thought the Navy puke would be any good in a fight. Idiot couldn't even remember to take a piss before going on duty.

"Piss break," he said.

"Yes sir."

The closest bathroom — thank any god you liked the Ancients had the same anatomy and needs, so their ship had bathrooms — was two corridors away. The Ancients might have had the same needs, but Dusty wondered if they'd had bladders the size of a Zodiac boat, because they hadn't bothered to make the facilities easy to get to or common. Leonard would be gone ten minutes just getting to the closest one, never mind however long it took him to take a leak and come back. He always took his time.

She watched him walk out then leaned back against the bulkhead and sighed. Guard duty always sucked. Boredom had always been her bane, she hated to sit (or stand) and do nothing. She couldn't even nap while on watch, every soldier's favorite way to kill time.

It was no use trying to talk to McKay. He was humming to himself as he worked, consulting his laptop and then typing stuff into the Ancient keyboards, checking the screens, and going back to the laptop. The few times she'd tried to strike up a conversation, he had either been annoyed by the interruption or drowned her in an ocean of technical stuff way over Dusty's head. If Sheppard came around, then it was fun to listen to the two of them. Sheppard would say something dumb deliberately, wind McKay up, and then grin as the scientist ranted. Then he'd say something that proved he'd understood at least the basics all along and set McKay off all over again. McKay had started touching Sheppard lately too, letting his hands linger, and Sheppard just soaked it up. If she'd trusted anyone besides Anne and Zee with what she was seeing, she'd have been laying bets over when they'd fall in bed together. Sheppard and McKay were both unknowingly sweet, but she worried over Todd's reactions.

She hoped Sheppard would show up. Maybe she would say something about it to him.

The way Leonard always managed to absent himself when Sheppard was around was a big, honking plus in Dusty's book too. He'd take off and someone with a lower rank would show up ten or fifteen minutes later to take his shift.

She was daydreaming about her grandmother's tamales and the unrelenting summer sun back home, trying to remember the exact hot, dusty, cloying scent of the tomato fields in August, when Lieutenant Scott and the drunks pushed into the compartment.

"Sir," she said, slowly, because half of her brain was still back in California, and the rest of it wasn't ready to shoot an officer, fellow soldiers, and at least two civilians. "I think you guys should turn around and go sleep off whatever — " Scott reached for her weapon and Dusty started to raise it, but she was stupid and slow, thinking Scott was too dopey and drunk to be a threat. Kessler and Hang were on either side of her though, grabbing her, and Deacon pistol-whipped her with a goddamned chrome crescent wrench that glinted at the corner of her eye.

Dusty's head rang hard and she couldn't coordinate her moves. Hang and Kessler got her hands behind her and forced her down to her knees while she was still seeing double and wondering if she was about to watch Scott's eyes go gold, even though he was protesting, "Shit, don't hurt her, no one said anything about assaulting anyone. We're just here to ask some questions."

Sure, Dusty thought, and I'm Marilyn Monroe.

Things really turned to shit after that.

~*~


Rodney had been tinkering. He wouldn't admit it, but basically tinkering was all he could do until they ascertained the vacuum suits were still good. The remainder of the repairs to the offensive and defensive weapons would have to be done outside the hull. He'd been putting off telling Lorne or anyone because he was afraid of space-walking; he knew he'd have to go out and do most of the work himself.

He didn't pay much attention to his two watchers. Mehra made him feel almost as safe as Sheppard did although Leonard was like a rock in his shoe. He did his best to ignore the annoyance until he could get rid of it. He registered Leonard leaving the compartment with only relief and frowned at several lines of code. He could re-route data from one of the undamaged hull sensors to offer limited feedback on the servos moving the alpha bank of launchers. It would be crude, but let them adjust any major deficiencies in aim.

He didn't even look up when he heard Mehra's 'sir', figuring it was Leonard, only realizing otherwise from the scuffle.

"McKay!" the shout from Rivers made him spin around. "We want to go home. You're going to make that happen, you understand?"

What the hell — ? Rodney gaped because three other soldiers had Mehra on her knees, there was blood in her usually neat hair, and she looked spitting mad. Others were pressing into the compartment too, and, God, was that Volker?

"Have you lost your tiny excuses for minds?" he demanded.

"You all need to get right out of here," Mehra told them. "Lt. Scott, you really need to rethink — "

Rodney gaped as Scott told one of the men holding Mehra, "Kessler, shut her up until we're done," and Kessler covered her mouth with his hand. The reality of what was happening asserted itself with that single order. Then Deacon and someone else grabbed Rodney. He caught a glimpse of buzzed brown hair and a name tag that said Norman. They shoved him back against the console and his laptop clattered off, its plastic case shattering as it hit the decking.

"Do you have any idea how long it took me to accumulate the data on that!?" Rodney screeched at them. He tried to reach down for the laptop. Maybe he could salvage the hard drive at least…

"You tell us how we get home," Goodnight demanded. "C'mon, we're going to stick you in that chair!"

"I can't — "

"You're going to do it. We're going to make you do it."

"Hey, we can't go too far — " Scott said weakly.

"Says you, sir," Rivers said with a wild laugh that promised these men were past listening to or following orders and maybe even sanity. "Let's show him what happens when you fuck with us!"

Rodney tried to pull free and was stopped. Their hands were rough and a fist punched into his face snapping his head back. Pain exploded through his nose and another blow forced all the air from his lungs. He flailed, trying to fight, but the sheer violence of the attack overwhelmed him. He went down to the floor and instinctively curled up the way he had in the schoolyard as a boy, trying to protect his head and his groin. Instead the blows rained onto his thighs, his back and his shoulders.

"Fucking McKay," someone growled, jerking his arms away from his face, "you're going to tell us how to get home!"

"I don't know," Rodney answered, fear breaking his voice. "I don't. I swear! Do you think I want to die out here?"

"You probably sabotaged the stargate and got us stuck here!" The miasma of alcohol and bad breath nearly choked Rodney as he was held up nose to nose with one of his attackers, a fist wound in his collar, twisting it tight enough to choke. Rodney clawed desperately at the zip so that he could breathe. It gave and on his first breath, he snapped without thinking, "You're insane!"

His interrogator backhanded him, one side of Rodney's face and then the other. The back of Rodney's skull bounced on the decking, another pain in the blurring aggregate.

"Oh, God, if you give me brain damage, you'll never figure out how to direct this ship," Rodney begged.

"Stop, damn it, that's an order!" Scott shouted futilely.

Rodney hated him more than the men hitting him, because Scott was useless, useless, he wasn't doing anything to help Rodney, was just standing there —

"You assholes!" Mehra was shouting. "Get away from him! What the hell do you think you're doing? You can't get away with it. Get — Hey, no, no, you're going to kill him! Stop. Stop. Lieutenant, you've got to stop them, you know this is wrong, you know — " Someone gagged her again after that, the words spiraling into muffled, furious howls.

"You already know! You're lying!"

A boot slammed into Rodney's back. Agony whited out his consciousness. Another kick and someone screamed. He was only half aware it was him. They kept hitting and kicking and yelling, explosions of pain and bewildering violence, hands and knees pinning him on the deck, open and vulnerable. It was so fast, so senseless Rodney couldn't grasp it. The pain came, layers and spears, impacts, no respite, no lull between waves and he couldn't breathe, couldn't understand why, what had he ever done to deserve this —

One last glimmer of clarity made Rodney open his eyes. The edges of his vision were blurred, but he could see Volker standing behind the men actively beating Rodney to death. He couldn't hear anything any more and blood filled his mouth, broken teeth threatening to choke him as he fought for a air.

Why? he tried to shape the question. Why?

He never understood. Physics, computers, engineering, mechanics, they were all easy. Why, he could ask of them, and figure out the answers.

He didn't understand why anyone would do this. He'd wanted to try the neural interface chair; Lorne had been the one who refused.

He didn't understand — there was too much pain. Rodney went away gratefully.

~*~


"Fuck, she bit me!"

Her mouth freed of Kessler's hands, Dusty spat blood in his face and said, low and so furious she quivered with it, "You cocksucking, gutless motherfuckers." She was going to do more than bite one of them. A trickle of blood tickled as it slid down her temple. She could feel it itching and drying in her hair where the sonovabitch had clocked her.

She ignored the creeping fear that she wasn't going to have the chance. She was tough, but she was restrained, surrounded by out-of-control men. The real possibility that they would kill her too made her heart thump faster and her stomach roll. The chance that they'd rape her was there as well. She'd come to terms with that threat after she'd enlisted; she'd told herself it could happen to her anywhere. One of her mother's friends had been assaulted in the Raley's parking lot on a Thursday evening; two of the girls she'd gone to Chico State with had been date-raped — one by her boyfriend. That was part of why Dusty had joined up and she'd told herself if it happened, she would survive. She wouldn't let them cow her and she wouldn't let anyone pretend it was anything but what it was.

Kessler and Hang still had her immobilized, but she could feel Kessler's single-handed grip loosening. Her head pounded and her vision still had a nasty double-effect going on. Dusty readied herself anyway.

Dusty lifted her chin and said poisonously, "What next? Are you going to rape him too or maybe me?"

"No one's going to fuck anybody," Deacon protested, looking up from punching McKay over and over. He looked so offended it was surreal, with the blood on his knuckles.

"I wouldn't let that happen," Lt. Scott said.

"Yeah, sure." Dusty put all her scorn and disbelief into her voice. Scott was going to accomplish a lot without the radio Rivers had relieved him of and Richmond immobilizing him.

"We should stop," Scott said.

Oh, God, really, they should stop? Did Scott really think that weak-assed objection was going to make a difference? Dusty had served under some worthless officers, but Scott was going to take first prize in the fails-to-command-fuck-all category. She hoped it was just booze that made him so stupid and that the Air Force Academy hadn't actually graduated and appointed a moron as a junior lieutenant.

Goodnight kept kicking McKay. Blood glistened on the deck and McKay's body moved limply with each kick. He was either unconscious or already dead.

Hang was laughing. He pointed. "He pissed himself," he cackled. The smell grew stronger, mixing with the sweat and alcohol stench coming off the men.

Dusty opened her mouth again, to tell every one of the dickless shits that if McKay was dead, she was going to kill them. She snapped it shut. She wasn't warning them like some dumbass cunt in a movie. She relaxed the muscles she'd been straining. Maybe having the Goa'uld on board would be a good thing. The snake had cut Atienza's throat. She'd use the same technique on these bastards.

"What are you looking at?" Rivers demanded.

Dusty gave him the dead-eyed look she'd perfected years before.

"Nothing," she said tonelessly.

Rivers was on her list. She looked away from him, taking in each of the other men in the compartment. They were all going on her list.

Volker glanced at the open airlock. "Shouldn't we get out of here?" he blurted.

The assault hadn't taken long, Dusty realized, but long enough that Commander Leonard should have been back by now. She'd always known he was a pussy, but now she thought his absence was deliberate. He went on her growing list with an asterisk.

"Kessler," she said to him, conversationally, "take your hands off me." She'd worked her way into a better position and had her feet bent in her boots, the soles at the toes on the deck, ready to push herself to her feet and free. Her head continued to hurt like hell, but she ignored it.

Kessler gave her a wild, white-around-the-eyes look and did so. He stepped away and looked back to McKay on the deck. "Goodnight," he squeaked as the other man seemed ready to slam his boot into McKay's unprotected face. It was already a mass of blood and snot and swelling bruises. Just looking made Dusty sick. "Goodnight? I think you're killing him."

Hang gaped at Kessler, seeming not to realize that he was the only one left holding onto Dusty and the danger that put him in.

Dusty cast her gaze around, looking for her weapon, seething at herself for letting it be taken away. She'd hesitated, because she didn't want to shoot civilians and an officer. Her assignment had been to keep McKay from being snaked — she would have shot a Goa'uld host in a second, but she'd known they weren't all Goa'uld and hesitated for the critical instant because she couldn't tell which one it was. If one of them even was the Goa'uld; she had no way of telling. No one warned her to expect a mob.

Scott, Deacon, Kessler, Volker, Hang, Goodnight, Norman, Richmond, Rivers, Leonard, and there had been someone else with them. Radim. Dusty narrowed her eyes. Radim was gone. She didn't let herself hope he'd come to his senses and gone for help. He'd probably just rabbited.

Hang was still gaping at McKay, giggling to himself. Dusty twisted and headbutted him in the balls with all her strength and weight. Her head felt like it would split open for an instant, but Hang lost his grip on her as he let out a high-pitched scream, doubled over and went down on his ass with Dusty sprawled over his legs. Dusty rolled off him and onto her feet smoothly. She resisted the urge to kick him as he writhed on the deck.

Dusty was already moving like a missile for Goodnight, who was frozen, staring at Hang, who had begun puking between shrieks. He screamed louder than McKay had, but no one was holding him down, after all.

She didn't hesitate this time and the rest of the mob were slow with booze and associated stupidity. Goodnight went down under her assault and screamed when she kicked the back of his knee with a enough force to cripple it. Dusty wanted to finish the job right there and then, but she had a greater responsibility.

McKay.

If he wasn't dead, she had to keep him from ending up that way. He needed medical attention more than she needed to take out her temper.

The booze was wearing off and two of their number were on the floor. The rest of the little mob were feeling the crash as the high of violence wore off and reality reasserted itself. Dusty glared at them all as she crouched beside McKay and felt for a pulse. She found it, but his face was swelling so badly she worried he might not be able to breathe even through his mouth much longer.

Boots clattered and she looked up in time to see Volker bolting out of the compartment, followed by Richmond and Kessler. Scott hovered, looking horrified, while Deacon was trying to get Hang on his feet. She heard him whimpering, "I think the bitch busted them."

She sincerely hoped so.

"Lieutenant," she bit out, "he needs medical attention now. Go get it." Get out of my sight, she didn't add, you sorry piece of shit.

Scott hovered another moment and Dusty screamed at him, "Go!"

McKay was on his side. She thought he'd be better off that way and instead worked her fingers gently into his mouth, trying to clear his airway and flinching at the feel of broken teeth and something wrong with his jaw. "C'mon, McKay, just hold on," she murmured, not really hearing her own words, "you're a sonovabitch, you need to show them you can get through this, just keep breathing, I know it hurts, I'm going to kill them all, I am, I'm going to fuck their shit up for good, I swear."

She groped for and found her radio, shouting into it for medivac and back up the way she would have in the field, doing it from habit, forgetting the radios only worked for short distances on the ship.

"C'mon, McKay," she crooned. "Stick with me, stick with me. I'll let you watch me fuck them up." He could have a ringside seat. His irregular pulse stuttered and she cursed in the same soft tone. "C'mon, don't die on me. Don't — You're stubborn. Don't quit. Show these bastards you're tougher than they are. McKay — Rodney, don't give up. Rodney — "

~*~


John's hands twitched as he hovered between heading down to look in on Rodney in the deck seven compartment or checking the nest. He could feel that Todd was in the nest through the hive sense. Todd radiated restlessness and irritability even at a distance; eie had already driven everyone but Nahkte out of eis cabin. John didn't want to put up with that, but couldn't stay away much longer. Maybe he could check the nest fast and then go find some peace listening to McKay complain.

He had made the decision when the quick tattoo of running footsteps on the deck from behind him made him turn.

Seeing Ladon Radim approaching caused John to tense.

Radim slowed to a stop several arm length's away. He looked disturbed and was breathing hard. It tripped all of John's internal alarms. Radim was smart and nearly always poised with a small, knowing smile. Of the Genii, John considered him the most dangerous, because he wasn't a fanatic about the Wraith.

"Radim," he said.

Radim hesitated, frowning, then said, "Dr. McKay and Sgt. Mehra are in trouble. Weapons compartment, deck seven. I am looking for Major Lorne or Major Teldy."

"In his office," Sheppard said. "What kind of trouble?"

Radim seemed to gird himself and trotted past John close enough John could have grabbed him. "Get medics," Radim answered and broke into a run again. "And your team."

The possibility that Radim was luring him into some kind of trap occurred to John, and he didn't dismiss it, but he put it aside. Dusty was part of his team and Rodney was… Rodney was his friend, something John had believed he would ever have again, even if they were never anything more.

He activated the radio he carried, despite its unreliability, and gave his orders without thought to his lack of authority.

"Medical team to the deck seven, weapons array compartment, ASAP." He switched to his team's channel and said, "Major Teldy, Ladon Radim just reported trouble and possible injuries in the weapons array compartment. I'm on my way, could use back up. Sheppard, out."

He could run faster than everyone but Todd on the ship, but where you started from could be a handicap. Semi and Ronon, both sweaty and obviously fresh from a sparring session, entered a corridor ahead of him, running in the same direction. John's sharp hearing caught the sounds of others coming behind him. He could pick out the rhythm of Teldy's lithe stride and Vasily's heavier steps farther behind.

A kino flashed by John's head, moving faster than he'd ever seen one, but it would be useless once they were in the weapons array, thanks to Rodney's own interference with the system. John stretched his legs and ran harder, a sense of disaster settling on his shoulders.

Hive sense told him Halling and Teyla were running too. They all knew Todd had already chosen several crew members to become part of their hive eventually. Nahkte remained behind to guard the nest and Todd, along with Kanaan.

~*~


Johanson was bandaging Mehra's head when Lorne arrived. McKay and the docs were already gone, leaving only the bloodstained deck, the reek of piss and vomit and blood, and several other members of Teldy's team pacing in the outer corridor.

Teldy was crouched in front of Mehra, talking to her.

Lorne looked around and figured out someone else was missing.

"Where's Leonard?" he asked.

Mehra jerked and tried to stand up, making Johanson suck in a breath and curse. Lorne caught the wince of pain on Mehra's face from the movement.

"Stay down, sergeant," he ordered.

"Sir," Mehra said. "Commander Leonard left for a personal break and did not return before or after the assault." She reached for the bandage and Johanson slapped her fingers away. "I do not know his current whereabouts."

"Anne, have you got what happened?" Lorne asked. Mehra looked ready to keel over or puke. He didn't want to run her through a repeat of any questions Teldy had already asked.

"Most of it," Teldy said.

"Give it to me," he instructed.

Teldy rose to her feet smoothly, touched Mehra's shoulder, and joined him in the cleaner air of the corridor. She gestured and Lt. Ford silently withdrew along with Halling, giving them at least the illusion of privacy.

"It looks like a bunch of guys got hold of some of the new booze, a bottle of something better to hide the taste, and tied one on," she relayed. A glance at the compartment and the puke inside was accompanied by a wrinkling of her nose. "Judging from the puke, anyway."

"A bunch of drunks doesn't usually result in disappearing commanders, knocked out sergeants, and civilians in surgery," Lorne pointed out. His ever more hair-trigger temper stirred, the flame of frustration fanning it to a harder boil with every new fact or almost fact. "Who hit Mehra?"

"Deacon, she says," Teldy reported meticulously. "She gave me a list of everyone involved." Her expression was straight out of the academy, nothing showing except a certain darkness in her eyes. "She says Lt. Scott was involved."

"Fucking hell."

Teldy cut her eyes to where Johanson was still working on Mehra. "She thinks Leonard was too."

"And you?"

"What do I know?" Teldy replied. "I got here with Sheppard, McKay was down, and Dusty was trying to keep him breathing. No one else was left here."

"Where is Sheppard?"

"He took Semi and Vasily and went with McKay and the docs."

Lorne rubbed the back of his neck, though it did nothing to unknot the muscles tensed there. He watched Johanson guide Mehra to her feet and hover, though Mehra didn't sway. The teeth-gritted expression on her face spoke more of fulminating anger — Lorne felt it himself — than pain. "I want Leonard found," he ordered. "I want that list of names and every one of them locked up. I want — "

"We don't have a brig."

"Put them all in a compartment with a bucket. Issue Ledbedev and Semyenov zats and station them outside with orders to use them if the prisoners try to leave," he snapped.

"They're guarding McKay," Teldy pointed out. "And a couple of the people Dusty named are civilians."

Lorne gritted his teeth. "Ford," he said. "And someone who isn't on that list and won't cave."

Teldy grimaced and said, "Me, then." She shifted uneasily. "What about Radim?"

Radim had been the one to alert Lorne, Sheppard and everyone else too. Lorne hadn't considered how or why Radim had known anything to warn them about. Weir would shit a brick if he locked up a alien diplomat.

He stomped back into the compartment, ignoring the smell, and demanded, "Was Ladon Radim here?"

Dusty scowled, but answered, "He came in with them, then got out before Goodnight lost his shit entirely."

"He alerted Sheppard and then me," Lorne said.

"I guess I didn't see him, sir," Dusty replied with a faint smirk.

"Thank you, Sergeant." Lorne glanced at Johanson. "Let's get her up to medical. Major, you have your orders."

He glanced back at the mess and added, "Someone get a sample of the puke, get it analyzed, just in case."

Teldy glanced back into the compartment. "You think the booze was bad?"

"I'd rather think that than the alternative," Lorne said. The alternative was the crew were out of control and that would be a hell of lot harder to fix than shutting down a still or a drug lab.

~*~


Carolyn walked out of surgery, leaving Beckett and Ko to move McKay from the theater into the ship's intensive care bay. She wasn't surprised to find Sheppard, Ledbedev and Semyenov waiting outside; they'd helped push the gurney while she and Beckett radioed Ko to set up for emergency surgery.

For all the good it had done.

McKay had still been breathing when they got him there; he was still breathing now. He would, but only for a while longer. She didn't have a ventilator to put him on. It would only delay things in any case.

Lorne and Weir were waiting too. She caught a glimpse of Johanson with Mehra in one of the curtained off examination areas.

Weir was lecturing Lorne, wire tense and intent, and Lorne was stone-faced and immovable.

Sheppard was the first one to see Carolyn and watched her warily. He looked braced for bad news. He was a smart man, after all, and had seen the state McKay had been in.

" — just lock them all up like animals," Weir declared.

"Why not?" Lorne demanded in return. His gaze focused past Weir to Sheppard and landed on Carolyn. "Doctor."

"Major," she greeted him. "Ambassador." She nodded to Sheppard. It felt strange to not have any rank or title to address him by. Hospitals and the military had left her feeling wrong-footed when she couldn't pigeonhole someone. Sheppard wasn't a patient, wasn't family, but she couldn't quite shake the feeling he had some sort of rights. Friend, maybe, which wasn't to be sneered at, though she felt sorrier for her news if that was so.

Sheppard's expression closed down.

"How's McKay?" Lorne asked.

The damages were so extensive, Carolyn began with one picked at random. "Broken wrist, dislocated elbow, broken ribs, punctured lung, ruptured spleen, damage to the kidneys, the liver, testes… "

Weir looked ready to throw up. Carolyn hadn't got to the best part yet. Maybe it was mean, but after trying to stitch together the wreckage, she sympathized more with Lorne's lock up the animals approach than Weir. She stared Weir in the eyes and silently dared her to look away.

"Broken jaw, broken nose, broken teeth, cheekbone, rightside ocular orbit, detached retina and damage to the optical nerve in one eye — "

"Sweet Jesus," Lorne whispered.

Sheppard was rigid except for his hands; he was clenching his fists then working the fingers open one by one. A rasp like a rattlesnake whispered from him.

" — multiple skull fractures," Carolyn continued to the finish, "and brain damage." She didn't bother mentioning the muscle damage, the other sequelae to a brutal beating. She could feel that muscle at the hinge of her jaw twitching again. She wasn't sure why McKay was even still alive, despite receiving prompt care. They'd fixed everything they could, Beckett elbow deep in McKay's torso sometimes while she had picked bone fragments out of exposed brain matter.

"We've made him as comfortable as possible."

Sheppard blinked slowly.

"How long?"

"How long?" Weir echoed, raising her eyebrows at Sheppard. "Obviously — "

"Obviously, he's dead, he just hasn't stopped breathing yet," Sheppard interrupted. He looked at Carolyn. "Right?"

"With the extent of the damage from the pieces of bone in his cerebrum — " She watched Lorne wince. " — if he does survive, it will be as a vegetable," Carolyn confirmed.

"Still say things just got 'a little out of hand'?" Lorne snapped at Weir.

Sheppard gave Carolyn a sharp nod and started out the main hatch, distracting Lorne from Weir before she could answer.

"Where are you going?"

Sheppard glanced back over his shoulder. "To get Todd."

It obviously wasn't what Lorne had expected and Sheppard was gone, leaving Carolyn as baffled as Lorne looked. She'd expected Sheppard to say he was going to kill the men responsible or something equally theatrical and violent.

She rolled her stiff, aching shoulders. Maybe Sheppard wanted the wraith's company. She didn't care at the moment. Instead she left Weir and Lorne arguing without her input. She still needed to examine Sgt. Mehra, though she trusted Johanson's evaluations.

Mehra agreed to stay over shift in the infirmary and Carolyn began slowly cleaning up. A shuffling, uneven noise made her glance up.

Hand clutched to his bloody head, leaning against the edge of the open hatchway, Commander Leonard mumbled, "Someone whacked me on the head. What the hell is going on?"

~*~


Commander Leonard said he'd been knocked out from behind on his way back to the deck seven compartment. He hadn't seen anything. There was no proof otherwise. Lorne had to swallow his suspicions and let him go once Carolyn gave the okay for him to leave the infirmary.

Questioning the rest of the culprits on Mehra's list proved even more frustrating. With McKay comatose and no kino data, it was Mehra's word against theirs and everyone of them lied, alibiing each other and covering any slips on the details with claims of being too drunk to remember clearly. Lt. Scott threw up while Lorne questioned him, but said he'd passed out.

"I don't know what happened after that," Scott mumbled. He couldn't meet Lorne's eyes, couldn't even look up from staring at his boots. His pathetic, "I don't know what happened… " made Lorne want to shake the truth out of him, but he left Scott confined to quarters.

Kessler had a bandage on his hand, but examination showed a fresh burn obscuring any imprints of Mehra's teeth. Lorne gave him mental points for thinking to cover the evidence up. Burning yourself was hardcore. Kessler qualified for that peculiarly military category of smart-stupid.

Ladon Radim claimed he been on a walk to clear his head after leaving everyone else still drinking, seen Mehra giving McKay first aid, and run for help.

Lorne could feel how this was going and hated it, but didn't see any way to prove guilt beyond Dusty's testimony, which Weir insisted couldn't be depended on, since she had a concussion.

"She could have knocked out Commander Leonard, attacked Rodney, and hit herself in the head to cover it up," Weir argued.

"Do you actually believe that?"

Weir sighed and said, "Any defense attorney would make that argument."

"What, you're saying we should try them?"

"Are you giving up on the rule of law?"

"Which laws?" he demanded. "Civil or military? Which country's?"

She went in with him to interview Hang.

"Something happen you'd like to explain?" Lorne asked, pointing to the bag of ice Hang clutched to his crotch.

"Not really, sir," Hang muttered.

"It looks like something to me."

"Me and Goodnight got in a fight over a bet. He kneed me in the nuts," Hang lied.

"Goodnight going to tell me the same story?" Of course he was. The two of them had had plenty of time to cook it up together.

Hang mumbled, "He'll say it was my fault."

"You're sure Sgt. Mehra didn't do that?" Lorne asked. "Are you sure that every one of your little gang is going to stick with the story? If just one of you slips… "

"Don't know what you're talking about," Hang insisted insolently. "Sir."

Lorne slammed out of Hang's quarters and slapped the bulkhead. "That lying piece of shit. I should space all of them."

The rest of the interviews were as non-productive.

"I want blood tests on them all," he said. One of them could be the Goa'uld or lying about being drunk. If they were using drugs, he needed to know that too. "Civilians too," he told Weir. "I don't care if they 'decline', understand?"

Lorne marched into his office with Weir behind him and found most of the rest of the unofficial command staff already there. Zelenka and Markov, arm still in a cast, were perched between Anne Teldy and Teyla Emmagan. Wray sat opposite them with Brody, Heightmeyer, and Balinsky. Larrin was leaning against his desk. Sheppard was pacing back and forth, glaring at everyone, while Todd sat still as death. The wraith looked like it had lost weight; its heavy leather gear hung loose on it.

Lorne didn't want to contemplate what they'd do if Radim was right and Todd was getting hungry.

"If any of you here haven't heard, a mixed gang of civilian and military assaulted Dr. McKay," Lorne announced. "He's in the infirmary. Dr. Lam doesn't expect him to recover. The only witness to the attack was Sgt. Mehra, whose eye witness account is questionable thanks to the head wound inflicted on her by the same bastards. In all likelihood, these same people were responsible for ambushing and knocking out Commander Leonard."

He stalked around his desk and braced his hands on it. Everyone was watching him intently.

"I've tried to do this the way Ambassador Weir wants," he went on. "So a good man is going to die, a man we've relied on to keep all of us on this ship alive, and the perpetrators are going to get away with it."

He straightened up.

"That isn't good enough. As a major, as the de facto head of the military, I don't have the authority to do anything about it."

A slow survey of everyone in the room with him showed him clearly who understood and would side with him and who would be his opposition, with the exception of the three Unionists. As ever, he couldn't read Todd or Teyla, and Sheppard was so wound up over McKay nothing else was getting through. Lorne was really too fucking furious to care who was on his side in this, because he was doing it anyway, God help them all.

"As of right this fucking now, I'm declaring myself captain of this ship," he stated.

"You can't do that," Weir protested immediately, the way he'd known she would.

"Watch me."

Wray and her cronies looked angry and apprehensive, about what Lorne had expected. Balinsky gave him a nod, though. The only member of Dave Dixon's team to make it to Destiny, even if he was an anthropologist, it was no surprise he got it. Someone had to be in charge and he had to have the juice and the balls to use it.

"Larrin, you're second captain, under-captain, whatever you want to call it, on the off-shift. Anne, you're still my XO," Lorne went on. "Everyone gets a rank, everyone knows exactly who they have to answer to, and everyone does their damn jobs. Anyone who fucks with that endangers everyone else. Trials and punishment will be at my discretion. Anyone who can't live with that gets off at the next planet."

He gritted his teeth.

"This shit is never happening again. I blame myself for what happened to Dr. McKay. His attackers won't get the punishment they deserve, because I let the situation spin out of control and they expected to be judged under the old rules. Never again."

No one spoke. Lorne glared at them all, breathing hard.

Markov finally stirred and said, "About Dr. McKay… "

"Dr. Grodin will take over as Ship's Engineer," Lorne said. "Same rank as Major Teldy and Dr. Lam. Fourth in the chain of command, functionally third."

"It's Star Trek," Brody muttered.

"You have a problem, Dr. Brody?" Lorne demanded.

Brody ducked and shook his head. Wray glared at Lorne but said nothing. She'd be one to watch, he knew.

"Good."

"Anne, Larrin, stick around. You too, Ms. Wray, Ambassador. We're going to assign everyone a job and a rank, print the whole damn thing up and pass a copy out to everyone on this ship when I make the announcement. The rest of you are dismissed."

Before any of the others could speak, Sheppard came to a stop. His sudden stillness after the constant movement snapped everyone's attention to him.

"Todd can save McKay."