The Devil You Know
As was typical with Rodney, things had just gone from bad to worse, slamming right on into horrible without a look back. Oh, being trapped on Earth isn’t bad enough… how about throwing in a secret base that’s going to try to destroy the city, not to mention the entire planet, to liven things up? Floating in the middle of the Milky Way with a dwindling power supply isn’t bad enough… how about the only hope of saving the city involves working with Todd? And for extra fun, how about Todd has a direct link to the one person you trust most in the universe, and you’re stuck in a Jumper with him hoping like hell he doesn’t decide to hog-tie you and deliver you as lunch to a Wraith?
Yeah, things just got better and better.
Glancing up, he saw Sheppard staring at him like one of those cartoon characters stuck on a life raft who envision the person in the boat next to them as a giant Porterhouse steak, only Sheppard wouldn’t do that, not with McKay. In fact, Sheppard had sat next to Rodney in a boat, helping him row, risking his own life to save Rodney’s. Okay, it had all been in a dream, but the sentiment and risks were the same as if it had been the real deal. So, there was no way John would try to hurt Rodney. No way whatsoever… even though Sheppard had shot McKay once before when John was under the influence of a Wraith device, but that was an isolated incident, nothing more significant than a statistical outlier, and this was… Christ, the way Sheppard was staring at him like that, it was freaking Rodney the hell out was what it was doing.
Forcing himself to concentrate on the connections he was making, Rodney strained to sound as calm and soothing as possible. “Sheppard? How’re you doing, buddy?”
On the few occasions where Sheppard called Rodney ‘buddy’, John had the ability to make it sound as equally comforting and endearing as it did patronizing. When Rodney said it, it skipped all the other sentiments and went straight for condescending.
“Relax, Rodney, I’m not going to eat you.” Sheppard sat back and rubbed at his eyes.
“Of course you’re not,” McKay scoffed nervously. “Why would you even think about doing something like that? Oh, you mean the link thing you have with Todd? You think I’m worried about that? Please. It never even crossed my mind.”
“If I thought you were in danger, I would have sent you with Teyla and Ronon,” Sheppard assured him.
“So I’m not in any danger?” Rodney asked hopefully before clarifying, “From Todd. I mean, not in any danger from Todd. Not you; just Todd.”
Rodney knew John wasn’t buying McKay pushing all his fears onto the Wraith, but Sheppard just sighed. “You’re in no more danger than I am.”
With a grimace, McKay confessed, “That really doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Me either.” Sheppard stood from his seat and stretched. “So, how’re the repairs coming?”
“Do you really want me to tell you?”
“No, I guess not. But you can tell me how much longer you think it might take.”
“Probably another half hour or so.”
“Thirty minutes?” Sheppard groaned. “What the hell is taking so long?”
Rodney was working on a quick disconnect for the ship that would allow him to switch between the normal Jumper power supply and the ZedPM power supply with a simple crystal reconfiguration. It was something they should have done back on Atlantis, but that was never supposed to be an issue. The plan had been to get the new ZedPM, pop it in place, and zip back to the Milky Way where Atlantis was waiting. It had always been an all-or-nothing proposition, either Todd had the ZedPM or he didn’t. There was never any contingency for having to pilot the Jumper to a freaking Hive ship that had been absconded by a new Wraith Queen, mount a covert assault, and reclaim the ZedPM. As much as Rodney wanted to bitch to Sheppard about the extra work… er, that was, bring him up to speed on exactly what he was doing, and tell him why John should be grateful he had the foresight to ask McKay to join his team in the first place… Rodney couldn’t say anything about it without risking Todd learning more than either of them wanted the Wraith to discover.
“Stuff certain people don’t need to know anything about.”
Sheppard looked as frustrated about the secrecy as McKay felt. “Right,” John agreed glumly. “Just… keep at it.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Good plan. Thanks for those rousing words of motivation. Henry V has nothing on you.”
“He died in his thirties, you know,” John pointed out as he moved to the back of the Jumper to look out the hatch. “Stirring speeches only get you so far.”
“Yes, he could have been like you instead− a man of few words and many suicide runs.”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“True, although I have no idea how.”
John shot him a wicked grin. “I’m a sneaky bastard.”
Lucky bastard was more like it. That was the only way to explain how Sheppard had managed to stay alive with proverbial catlike longevity. Rodney’s theory had been to stick as close to the man as he could and hope that same luck rubbed off on him, as well. Apparently, the plan had worked so far, considering Rodney was still here, too.
Sheppard straightened from his slump against the open hatch, and Rodney asked anxiously, “What? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, but Todd’s not happy.”
“Okay, that is just freaky,” McKay noted about Sheppard’s ability to sense the Wraith.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Sheppard agreed before urging, “Work faster.”
“Work faster? It’s not like I’m changing out spark plugs here. This is delicate work on systems that were never meant to be manipulated like this− not to mention I didn’t exactly bring a bunch of spare parts if something—”
“You know, if you spent less time telling me how impossible it was to do this crap, you’d be done by now,” Sheppard snapped.
Rodney did step up his pace then, but it didn’t stop him from pointing out, “You bullying me isn’t going to help me finish any faster. It’ll take as long as it takes to make the repairs no matter how much you browbeat me.”
A few minutes later, Todd entered the Dart bay with half a dozen armed Wraith and announced, “We will be leaving for the Hive now.”
McKay let out an aggrieved sigh. “No, we won’t. The Jumper isn’t ready yet.”
“Then make it ready,” the Wraith ordered. “The Queen has granted my request for an audience. If we do not arrive at the scheduled time, she will grow suspicious.”
“What?” Rodney demanded before narrowing his eyes and looking between Sheppard and Todd. “You two planned this, didn’t you? Just to piss me off.”
“Your ship will not be required to fly very far. She has allowed me to bring a Hive of my own to the coordinates where we will be meeting, as the gate will be inoperable for our use.”
It took Rodney a second to realize why the gate wouldn’t work for them. “She’s in the middle of a culling?”
“That is the plan once they arrive at the location.” When Sheppard cursed under his breath, Todd explained, “This will work to our advantage, as most of the crew will be participating in the culling, leaving only a skeleton crew to tend to the Hive. It will greatly increase our chances of success.”
“And greatly decrease the Pegasus human population,” Rodney pointed out.
“If it will make you feel better, Dr. McKay, I can have my crew participate, as well. They could redeposit the humans they cull at another location outside of their village and away from the Darts of the Queen’s Hive.”
McKay blinked in disbelief. “You’d do that?” Rodney quickly turned to Sheppard before waiting for Todd’s answer. “He’d really do that?”
John seemed to be as surprised by the offer as Rodney, which led McKay to think Todd was actually telling the truth, but it still left one problem Sheppard recognized. “And what about the people the Queen culls?”
Todd tilted his head. “It will be most fortunate for them that friends are on board the Hive where they have been taken captive.”
Rodney threw up his arms. “Great. So, not only do we have to find the ZedPM and overthrow a Hive, but we also have to free a bunch of villagers who have been culled?”
“At least that’s better than her culling them with no one there to help,” Sheppard pointed out.
Rodney gave him a critical once over, not sure if that last statement was Todd’s influence on Sheppard or the stupid heroic shit the colonel spouted off on a semi-regular basis. Regardless, it didn’t seem to make a difference since it didn’t look like they were going to have a choice.
“I still need time to complete the repairs on the Jumper, then go pick up Teyla and Ronon—”
“There will not be time to retrieve your teammates before we leave.” Before either Sheppard or McKay could protest Todd’s declaration, the Wraith told them, “Besides, their current location is where we are meeting the Queen’s Hive.”
“They plan to cull New Athos?” Sheppard actually went for Todd, fisting tightly into the leather lapels of his coat. “You knew that’s where Teyla and Ronon went.”
Todd held up a hand to stop the Wraith with him from shooting Sheppard. “You’ll have to forgive me, Sheppard, but it was the first location that came to mind.”
Both Sheppard and McKay realized what Todd was insinuating. John had been worried about his teammates, and his thoughts had, of course, been on them and where they were currently sitting, no doubt waiting for the Jumper to show up. And Sheppard’s thoughts would have been front and center in Todd’s head, too.
Sheppard released his grip on Todd before practically pleading, “Rodney?” without looking away from the Wraith.
McKay was already trying to figure out how to make the ship operational enough to get them to New Athos. “I can route power to the Jumper to fly it, but there’s no way I can get the DHD working again given the reconfiguration we had to do to accept power from the wormhole drive.”
“You can finish your repairs on my Hive,” Todd offered. “The ship is currently in orbit above this planet.”
“Then I’m going on foot to warn Teyla and Ronon.” Sheppard was already gathering up his gear.
Rodney did manage to stop himself before he specifically accused John of abandoning him, but it was clear enough in his tone− not that he wasn’t worried about Teyla, Ronon, and all the Athosians, but damn it, he sure the hell didn’t want to be on a Hive ship with hungry Wraith all by himself.
“You can pilot the Jumper down to the surface and pick us up before you go to the other Hive with the strike force.”
McKay was about to argue with Sheppard’s flawed logic some more, but Todd actually stepped in. “That will not be possible. If I delay going to the Hive, the Queen will become suspicious and all this will have been for naught, including any plans you have for saving any of the culled humans.”
John’s eyes took on that trapped animal look he got when he realized he’d been backed into a corner. “I can’t just sit back and let New Athos be culled without at least warning them.”
“I can send a single Dart through to advise them of the situation if you want.” When Todd saw Sheppard considering the offer, he pushed on. “I will send my second-in-command. Your teammates will recognize him, and his honor is as good as mine.”
“I thought you were trying to convince me this was a good idea,” John retorted.
“He will see to it that your people are safe from the Queen’s culling,” the Wraith promised. “You have my word, Sheppard.”
Rodney watched anxiously as Sheppard weighed the idea silently in his head. Honestly, McKay wasn’t sure if he hoped the colonel would say yes to Todd’s plan or tell the Wraith to stick it where the sun didn’t shine. Finally, John gave one quick nod of his head.
“McKay, get this Jumper airborne.”
Rodney quickly set to swapping a few crystals to give the Jumper the juice it needed to at least reach the Hive in orbit.
Behind him, John threatened quietly, “If anything happens to them, there is no way you will slip free of me this time.”
Todd smiled at the prospect. “I’ll make preparations to dispatch the Dart as soon as we are aboard my Hive.”
Less than five minutes later, thanks to Rodney, John was piloting the Jumper to the Wraith ship.
* * * *
The sooner Todd fed, the better. John wasn’t sure if those were his own thoughts or the Wraith’s, but it didn’t matter, because the end result would be the same− Todd would eat and the connection would be severed and Sheppard wouldn’t have to worry about giving away secrets about Atlantis or selling out his teammates or the feeling that he was sharing his goddamn head with anyone anymore.
If anything happened to Teyla and Ronon because of him…
John did his best to push that thought aside. No use giving Todd anything else the Wraith could use against him. Kenny would reach New Athos first, and if Ronon didn’t shoot him on sight, he’d make sure Sheppard’s friends were safe, and the Athosians would hopefully have time to escape before the Queen’s Hive started the culling. Of course, no humans on a planet Todd suggested she cull would definitely raise questions, but they would deal with that when the time came.
Nothing like flying by the seat of your pants to keep the day interesting. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the norm for Sheppard and his team. It didn’t stop Rodney from bitching about it, though.
“Once, just once, I’d like to have time to do something right for a change.” The scientist swapped out the wiring from a crystal to the one adjacent to it and checked the readings on his electronic pad. With a shake of his head, he moved the connection to the next crystal in the row.
“You always seem to make things work right in the end,” Sheppard reminded. That wasn’t exactly the truth, considering there was one less solar system in the Pegasus Galaxy thanks to Rodney, but best to think positive for the time being, given their current dilemma.
“Don’t confuse my incomparable genius and ability to perform miracles with doing things right, Sheppard. Good enough isn’t exactly something to be proud of.” McKay pointed to another quadrant of the control panel. “Shine the light here.”
John shifted the flashlight he held to where Rodney indicated. The scientist had killed all the power in the Jumper to finish his reroutes and the Dart hangars of a Hive ship weren’t known for their bright illumination. He could understand McKay’s frustration with how things were going, because he wished that just once a mission would go as planned. Still, at the end of the day, as long as they had a check in the win column, Sheppard was satisfied.
“If good enough keeps us alive, then good enough is all we need,” John countered.
“True,” McKay conceded. “One ‘good enough’ repair coming up.”
Sheppard was torn between wishing they had more time to work on the Jumper and wanting the Hive they were in to be in orbit above New Athos already. If Rodney didn’t have time to complete the repairs, this whole plan would be in the crapper. But if the Queen’s Hive arrived at New Athos first, the chances of losing Teyla and Ronon just shot through the roof.
A disgruntled sigh brought John out of his thoughts. “Look, if I tell you that I’m worried about them, too, will it help you remember to hold the light steady?”
Sheppard frowned in embarrassment that he’d been found out and adjusted the light. “Great, now you’re able to read my thoughts.”
“It’s not like that one takes a psychic link,” Rodney snorted as he reached up into the panel to pull out a connector fiber. “Mainly because… I am… worried… about them.” McKay confessed the last in an all but incoherent mumble and quickly occupied himself reading the computer screen nestled in the crook of his arm.
It sucked caring about people. Contrary to McKay’s accusations to the contrary, John actually did prefer to be alive over being dead, but when you cared about people, you had a tendency to put your life on the line for them. And when they cared about you in return, they were willing to do the same for you. Knowing there were those out there who would risk everything to keep him safe, who fretted over him when he was in danger, was as equally worrisome as it was comforting to Sheppard.
Yeah, okay, maybe sucked was too harsh a word, but the truth was, it was easier in a lot of ways not to care. Unfortunately, that had never been John Sheppard’s strong suit. He couldn’t just stand aside and let bad things happen to good people. Sometimes he was successful and sometimes it seemed like he just made things worse for them in the long run. He was hoping like hell the latter wasn’t the case with Teyla and Ronon and the Athosians.
“Okay, I think we’re ready to try this.” McKay disconnected the leads and waved a hand towards the pilot seat. “Start her up.”
At Sheppard’s thought, the ship flickered to life. From his usual seat, John brought up the HUD and scanned through the readings there. “Looks like you did it once again, McKay.”
“As if there was any doubt.” Rodney moved up behind him and studied the diagnostic reports scrolling on the holographic display. “We’re not at one hundred percent, but it will get us to the Queen’s Hive ship and back, if nothing else.”
“That’s all we need,” John told him in satisfaction. They were one step closer to collecting the ZPM, one step closer to saving Atlantis. Standing, he started toward the back of the Jumper. “You button up things in here, and I’ll let Todd know we’re ready whenever we arrive.”
Rodney was already unhooking his leads and securing the covers back into place. When John returned a few minutes later with fifteen Wraith in tow, Rodney had the case he’d brought for transporting the ZPM held firmly in front of his chest like a shield.
“Okay, this is totally disturbing,” McKay said quietly as the Wraith crammed into the back of the Jumper, his eyes widening as they moved further forward to make room for those coming in behind. “And by disturbing, I mean terrifying.”
What John really wanted to say was, “No shit.” But that wasn’t what Rodney needed right now. Confidence and assurance from his team leader that they were going to be okay was what McKay was craving. Or maybe the threat of ridicule would work just as well.
“Don’t chicken out on me now, Rodney,” Sheppard warned. “I don’t have time to stop and coddle you.”
The fear turned to irritation and the darting eyes rolled skyward. “Since when have I ever needed to be coddled?”
John took his seat behind the controls. “Would you like the list chronologically or alphabetically?”
“How about in order of the psychoses that led you to the misconception that I have ever needed to be coddled?” Rodney sat in the copilot seat in a funk.
The exchanged look of exasperation on the pale faces of the two Wraith overseeing the well-armed, muscular soldiers in the back had John wondering if they had drawn the short straw for this mission. After all, as well as Todd was known throughout Atlantis, it wouldn’t come as any surprise if the reputation of Sheppard and McKay was the stuff of legend among the Wraith. After having to work with Rodney during the attack on the Replicators and again to save Jeannie, John could almost picture the debrief Todd had with his underlings… “They often brag of their military prowess, but the greatest threat from these humans is being taken prisoner and tormented by the endlessly droning prattle of their so-called scientists.”
Regardless of what the Wraith thought of the two men, Rodney was now happily sulking instead of threatening to soil his Einstein Underoos, and that meant Sheppard had accomplished his goal for the moment.
One obstacle down; nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine more to go.
A final Wraith, his long hair flowing past the shoulders of his black leather coat, entered the back of the Jumper. “We are ready to proceed. The Queen has granted permission for the commander’s Dart to land.”
Through the front window of the Jumper, they could see Todd’s Dart rise from the hangar floor and head toward the opening of the launch bay. Sheppard followed suit, cloaking the Jumper so he could shadow the Wraith ship as it traveled the distance between the two Hives.
“Okay, here goes nothing,” John mumbled as they emerged from the Hive into the blackness of space.
He glanced over at McKay who still clung tightly to the case, frowning when he saw the fear back on Rodney’s face. When he followed McKay’s wide-eyed gaze back toward the Queen’s Hive, he saw what had the scientist so frazzled− a sickening swarm of Darts exiting the Hive before them.
“Son of a bitch, it’s a trap!” Sheppard swore, readying weapons to fire as many drones as he could at the onslaught of enemy craft.
A cold, pale hand landed on his shoulder. “Wait. They are not coming for us.”
John stilled his instinct to shoot down the ships, although his horror just grew as the realization of their true target became clear. They were heading for the surface; the culling of New Athos had begun.
“John?” Rodney asked weakly beside him.
Or maybe it was just the blood rushing in his ears that made McKay sound so far away, because Sheppard was suddenly overcome by the desire to join the Darts descending on the planet. Not to save his friends, but to join in the culling, to partake in the feast waiting just out of reach. It was there, oh so close. If he closed his eyes, he could hear the screams of the humans scattering before the culling beams, the anticipation of the taste of their fear causing his hands to shake on the controls. All he had to do was turn his Dart and join them, join his brothers, forget the pathetic Earth people and their petty needs. They were just chattel like all the others, all the others just waiting to fulfill their true purpose, to provide sustenance for their betters, to nourish the Wraith…
McKay’s voice had John’s eyes snapping open and he jerked out of the touch of the other Wraith. They communicated by telepathy, and having these Wraith around him in such close proximity just seemed to make Todd’s desires seem even stronger. Gritting his teeth, Sheppard gripped the controls tighter.
“We’re going to that Hive ship, and we’re finding the ZPM, and then we’re getting the fuck out of here. Is that clear?”
Sheppard was saying it more to the collective conscious of the Wraith, and Todd in particular, rather than to Rodney, but it was McKay who answered.
“I don’t know, you tell me.” The accusation in McKay’s tone was evident.
Nodding his head at Rodney, John promised, “I’m good. This is almost over.”
Almost. Almost but not yet.
Todd apparently gained a little control, too, because he proceeded toward the Hive as soon as the last Dart had left to join the attack, all thoughts of joining in gone for the time being. Sheppard stayed close on the Dart’s six, entering the practically empty hangar, and landing off to the side just as had been agreed. Wouldn’t do for the Jumper to be cloaked only to have one of the Wraith sent to escort Todd to the Queen smash face first into it.
Once Todd was led away from his Dart and the coast was clear, Sheppard opened the back hatch to let the strike teams exit. Each team was made up of four soldiers and one commanding Wraith, and each group had a critical area of the Hive they were supposed to seize.
The Wraith who had touched John a little earlier paused long enough to tell him, “You will find your power source in the Queens’s chambers; there is a compartment behind the throne there.”
John and Rodney had spent enough time on Wraith ships, including the one they had controlled for a while, that they actually knew the layout pretty well. However, knowing where to find the room in question and actually finding the ZPM were too different things entirely.
“How do you know she hasn’t found it and moved it?” Sheppard challenged.
“I do not know,” the Wraith admitted simply before turning on his heels and starting toward the rest of the Hive with clipped efficiency. His soldiers followed on his heels with the same determined stride, and Sheppard and McKay were quickly left on their own.
“Now what?” Rodney asked.
“Now we find the ZPM,” John told him. With a quick check of the life signs detector in his hand, he led McKay toward the chamber, and hopefully the answer to all their problems.
* * * *
Rodney stuck close on Sheppard’s heels as they snuck through the bowels of the Hive. As many times as Rodney had been on a Hive, one would think he’d be used to it by now. Well, one would be wrong… very, very wrong. As a kid, Rodney had always hated haunted houses, especially the ones where people jumped out and chased the patrons. Sure, his rational mind could reason that it was just corn syrup and not real blood, that the chainsaw didn’t have a real blade on it, and behind the hockey mask was some carney with a third grade education working for less than minimum wage. Actually, that last bit was probably just as scary as the horror movie character the poor schmuck was portraying, which was why he had screamed like a girl the first time he went into one and swore never to step foot inside another. Yet, time and time again, Rodney found himself in these situations that would have had Jason himself crying for his mommy in the corner. This one was no exception.
McKay was familiar with the layout of the Wraith ships, although they surpassed Atlantis for confusingly similar corridors and passageways. Sheppard, however, moved through the Hive like he’d lived here all his life, and McKay did his best not to think about the fact that John had some insider information floating around in his head that came from someone who had resided on the ship in the past.
This was helping them, McKay tried to convince himself. Sheppard’s link with Todd was as much an advantage as it was a hindrance, and as long as Sheppard didn’t turn around and start trying to palm Rodney’s chest because he was feeling a little peckish, then everything would be fine. Unfortunately, his internal argument with himself wasn’t as convincing as Rodney had hoped it would be, and he actually jumped when Sheppard did press his hand against McKay’s chest.
John frowned at the response, putting a finger to his lips and pushing Rodney back behind a support when a handful of soldier Wraith marched past them. Rodney sighed silently in relief when the Wraith continued on down the hallway without seeing them. They’d been lucky that those were the only ones they had run into so far, or maybe Todd had been right and the culling was working to help them move more freely through the Hive. Of course, it wasn’t helping Teyla or Ronon or the Athosians, but there were only so many imminent deaths Rodney could worry about at one time. Right now, his own was at the forefront of his concerns.
Satisfied that the coast was clear, Sheppard hitched his head and continued to lead them down the passage. Rodney grimaced at the sight of a shriveled body encapsulated in a cocoon in the wall. McKay had spent time in one of the Wraith pods, and had managed to escape thanks to Ronon and his knife… and exactly where the Satedan had retrieved that knife was something best not dwelt upon in McKay’s book. Unfortunately, the poor desiccated hull before him hadn’t been so lucky.
John noticed what had caught Rodney’s attention and frowned in his own feelings of disgust and remorse. “Come on, the room is just around the corner.”
If anyone could sympathize with the dead body, it would be Sheppard. He’d been fed on by Todd, which, of course, had put them in the predicament they were in now. It was something John didn’t talk about. Not that Sheppard was a fount of exposition on his other death-defying experiences, but that one he skimmed over and changed the subject of quicker than most. Rodney didn’t argue with Sheppard’s desire to keep moving, regardless of the reason, and gladly followed along and away from the corpse.
Just as Sheppard had said, the Queen’s chambers were right down the hall. John studied the detector in his hands before nodding his head. “It’s clear.”
Even with the assurances of the Ancient device, Sheppard held his P90 up in front of him as Rodney triggered the door mechanism and it slid open. Rodney had his own nine millimeter in one hand and still held tight to the case in the other as if his life depended on it, which it very well could, not to mention that of Atlantis.
Once they had ascertained the room was clear, Rodney moved quickly to the far side of the throne. “The Wraith said it was stored behind here. There must be a secret chamber or a cupboard or something…” Moving his hands along the disturbingly skin-like membrane that covered the base of the chair and floor, McKay searched for some sort of mechanism or release that would reveal the hiding spot, but with no luck.
Sheppard joined him, squatting beside Rodney and running his thumb along one spidery spindle at the back of the throne until there was a decisive click. The floor next to McKay’s toe opened up to reveal a narrow cubby. Rodney moved back enough for John to shine the flashlight from his P90 into the hole and the small space glowed a golden amber as the beam of light passed through the ZedPM.
“Son of a bitch, he was telling the truth,” Rodney observed in wonder.
John looked almost relieved to see the power source, as if he’d doubted the truth of it and feared Todd had been manipulating him through their link all this time.
Sheppard carefully studied the ZedPM in its nook. “Remind me to send him a fruit basket once we’re back in the neighborhood.”
“He’d probably eat the delivery guy before the pineapple,” Rodney snorted and started to reach in to retrieve their precious find.
Sheppard stopped him with a hand to his arm before he could. “It might be booby trapped.”
“Todd didn’t say anything about booby traps.” The thought, however, had McKay pulling his hands back quickly.
“Yeah, and he didn’t say anything about having to board an enemy Hive to get it back either,” John reminded, tilting the light to get a view from all angles.
Rodney couldn’t argue that point and looked anxiously to Sheppard. “So, what do we do?”
Sheppard didn’t answer, but he did straighten as if he’d just heard something. Without waiting any longer, Sheppard grabbed the ZedPM, closed the storage space, and stood abruptly, pulling McKay with him.
“What the hell?” Rodney demanded. “I thought you said it could be rigged.”
“Apparently, it wasn’t,” Sheppard told him, shoving him toward one of the darkened side chambers in the room. “And we didn’t have much choice seeing as they’re coming.”
“What?” McKay’s eyes widened in alarm. “Who?”
“Todd and the Queen,” Sheppard explained in a hiss. “Now, shut up before they hear us.”
John pushed Rodney back against the wall, hoping the darkness and the thin membrane that separated the closet-sized space from the rest of the room would be enough to conceal them. The door slid open again before Rodney could question more, and he pressed back into the shadows even further when Todd and the Queen entered the chamber.
The Wraith queen was almost as tall as Todd, and pale, cotton-candy pink hair hung down to the narrow waist of her filmy gown that fluttered as she walked− although, walk didn’t do her justice, as it wasn’t nearly arrogant or imperial enough a word for the way she moved.
“I must confess to being surprised by your request for an audience to declare your fealty,” she told Todd as she made her way to stand by the throne. “It could mean only one of two things; either your Queen is dead, or she is weak as I have suspected.”
Todd deflected the question by pointing out, “She assumed control of this Hive in this very room.”
The Queen sat, hands resting regally on the metal arms of the chair. “And she will lose control of many more here, as well. It is only disappointing that I will not have the opportunity to show my dominion in the same manner as she did with her predecessor.”
Todd bowed his head in silent acquiescence. “It is true that, as her primary commander, I hold a certain amount of… sway over her alliance of Hives.”
“An alliance that you will deliver to me,” the Queen stressed.
“That should not be a problem,” Todd promised before hesitating. “Although…”
The Queen leaned forward as if challenging Todd to question her plan. “Although what?”
“It is the Hives; they have come to recognize me as speaking for their Queen. They have been ordered to do so by her.”
Rodney almost snorted at what he was hearing. Leave it to Todd to try to scam a Wraith Queen. Although, if anyone could, Todd would be the one.
The Queen, however, didn’t seem to be buying it. “And they shall quickly learn to recognize that I speak for myself.”
“Of course, my Queen,” Todd dismissed smoothly. “I am sure they will acknowledge your authority… in time.”
“In time?” The Queen bristled at the suggestion. “It is apparent that your previous Queen has been lax in her duties to you and the rest of her faction. They will be most grateful to have a Queen who knows her place and theirs.”
“I have no doubt they will. However, there are many Hives of the alliance spread across the galaxy; until you can grace each with your presence, someone must provide the direction they so desperately seek.”
“And you are the one to do this?” The Queen seemed almost amused by the proposition.
Todd bowed deeply. “I wish only to offer you my services in this matter.”
“Do you also wish to offer the services of your follower who is hiding behind my throne?”
Rodney couldn’t see either Sheppard’s or Todd’s expressions given the low light and angle of where he was standing, but he could see the way Todd hesitated in straightening, and he could feel the way John tensed beside him. McKay also noticed something else; the Queen had said follower, single, which meant she only knew one of them was there. Considering the telepathic link the Wraith shared as a whole, she had more than likely picked up on the link between Todd and Sheppard.
John evidently had come to the same conclusion as Rodney, seeing as he pushed the ZedPM into McKay’s hands and stepped forward toward the two Wraith. McKay grabbed at his arm, unable to say anything as that would give him away, too, but Sheppard pulled out of the grasp easily and continued forward.
Stupid, suicidal, self-sacrificing… Rodney thought bitterly as Sheppard stepped into the light beside Todd. If there was a bus to throw himself under anywhere in sight, John Sheppard would be pushing people out of the way to reach it. And all Rodney could do was cradle the ZedPM and watch Sheppard go for it.
* * * *
It was hard to tell if Todd was happy or angry that Sheppard had stepped forward as he stammered, “My Queen, allow me to explain…”
John, however, wasn’t concerned with Todd. McKay had the ZPM, and if Sheppard could convince the Queen that Rodney had taken it and left, maybe McKay and Atlantis would have a shot of making it through the rest of the day.
The Queen stood and took a step toward Sheppard, eyeing him like he was a curious pet. “Would you also like to explain why he stole the Lantean power device for you?”
“It wasn’t for him,” John told her, resting his arms casually on his P90.
“Then elaborate,” she ordered, addressing Sheppard for the first time.
“Sorry, that’s classified information.”
Sheppard’s cockiness faded as the Queen reached a hand forward to run a finger along the side of John’s face. He dropped to his knees, even though he struggled to remain on his feet. He’d been through this before, more than once, and it was always the strangest sensation to be telling his body to do one thing as it ignored him completely. John could feel her mind prying into his and he mentally fought her. This was different than the link with Todd; with Todd, it felt like someone was standing looking over his shoulder, it was the feeling that someone was watching him even though John couldn’t see them. With the Queens, it was the sensation that accompanied the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. It was wanting to squirm out of his skin and not being able to do anything but sit and grind his teeth as the hand scraped across the slate over and over again.
Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
The words echoed in John’s head like a slightly out of synch chorus of voices, each a metal bit drilling into his brain from a different side.
Where? Where? Where?
He could fight this, he tried to tell himself. Rodney’s life depended on it. Atlantis depended on it. Pushing back the truth, John tried his best to believe what he was about to tell the Queen.
“Gone,” Sheppard managed to choke out. “Long gone and safe.”
“Then that is most unfortunate for you,” the Queen informed him, ripping at John’s vest with one hand and raising her other in preparation to feed.
John could feel the conflict of emotions from Todd… anger that he’d been found out, frustration that he couldn’t stop the Queen, and even a bit of jealousy that she was going to feed and he wasn’t. Then they changed just as quickly to surprise as Rodney stepped forward with the ZPM case in his hands.
“I have it!” McKay insisted desperately, balancing the open case in one arm for all to the see the ZPM stored snugly in the foam lining inside, and pointing his sidearm at the precious power supply with his other hand. “I have the ZedPM, and you can have it as soon as you let him go. Otherwise, nobody gets it.”
It was a good threat, one that showed clear enough on Rodney’s face, and had the Queen lowering her hand with a frustrated hiss. She wasn’t going to feed on Sheppard, but she wasn’t about to release her hold on him, either.
John still couldn’t move, much less stand, but he was able to growl, “Goddamn it, McKay!”
“What was I supposed to do? Sit there and watch her feed on you?” Rodney’s tone was accusatory as he righted the case before he dropped it, but he still held the gun on the ZPM. “Believe me, I’m not happy about this anymore than you are.”
The Queen ignored their bickering; evidently deciding they weren’t worth talking to, and addressed Todd instead. “What trickery is this?”
“It is trickery,” Todd agreed, and John could feel something shift in the Wraith, as if all his planning and hard work was finally falling into place. “But not against you, my Queen.”
John could feel something else from Todd− anticipation. And it was bad, really bad.
“Rodney…” Sheppard ground out in warning, and the Queen’s mind closed in around John’s like a steel trap to keep him from speaking anymore.
“Explain yourself,” the Queen ordered of Todd, as if suddenly curious to see what he had planned.
John didn’t need to be curious, because he knew. He knew exactly what Todd planned to do and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop it.
McKay’s eyes darted from Sheppard to Todd to the Queen. “I’m serious, I’ll shoot.” His gun wavered from the ZPM, to each of the two Wraith, and back again.
The warning, however, was ignored as Todd made his move. For a half-starved Wraith, he moved pretty damn quick, and the case with the ZPM was yanked away from Rodney before McKay even had a chance to react. The case dropped with a thud, but the ZPM stayed safely in its foam packing.
As soon as the case hit the floor, Rodney fired wide and missed, and Todd had McKay’s gun flying with a hit to Rodney’s forearm. The gun skidded within a few inches of John, but he couldn’t reach it. Hell, he couldn’t even use the two guns he had on his person thanks to the paralysis being forced on him by the Queen.
“Wait,” Rodney begged, stepping back as Todd advanced on him with a hungry snarl. “I thought we were partners in this. Remember?”
Todd ignored McKay, just as he ignored the pleas Sheppard was sending him mentally not to do it. The pleas quickly turned to threats when Todd grabbed Rodney’s shirt-front and shook the scientist hard. That was when John realized Rodney wasn’t even wearing his vest. Why the hell wasn’t McKay wearing his goddamn field gear like he was supposed to be? Although, that just made it easier for Todd, and John had to push down the reflected urges coursing through his body wanting Todd to do it, wanting to feed, needing to feed.
“We help you; you help us… that’s how it works.” Rodney was babbling now, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head away from what was about to happen. “That’s how it works between us. You don’t… oh God… you don’t eat us! You don’t… Sheppard!”
Rodney’s argument was cut off with a gasp as Todd slammed his hand into McKay’s chest. John managed little more than a grunt of protest, still unable to move or speak thanks to the Wraith Queen, and now unable to look away from the horror before him. McKay was growing older by the second, and Sheppard’s breath stuttered at that first sweet taste of Rodney’s life force, then all protests died as Rodney’s fear and awareness of what was happening to him spiked and sent a surge through John’s body. McKay knew he was dying, he knew it and still he fought against it. That futile defiance rolled over Sheppard in waves as Todd took even more, and John found himself pushing the Wraith to go further still.
McKay was slipping quickly into the same age his hologram had appeared when Sheppard had traveled into the future. That version of Rodney had saved John’s life by doing whatever it took, by sacrificing any chance of happiness in his life in the hope that somehow he’d be able to restore the world to the way it should be. It really wasn’t that far from what this Rodney had done by stepping out and exposing himself to two Wraith, only this time things had turned out so much worse for McKay.
John could see the terror on Rodney’s deeply lined face, but worse yet, he could feel it. That initial rush he’d shared with Todd was vanishing, fading with every second of Rodney’s life the Wraith was consuming, and the thrill of the kill was being overcome by Sheppard’s own revulsion. Yeah, the link between John and Todd was dying as the Wraith finally fed, but the cold hard fact was that Rodney was dying with it.
Rodney continued to grow older, his skin wrinkled further and became mottled with age, his hair whitened and thinned, his blue eyes grew waxy and clouded. With each age spot and gray hair on his friend, John fought harder against the Queen’s hold on him. It was useless, but he couldn’t stop, he wouldn’t stop. Rodney deserved that at least. He deserved a whole fucking lot more, and if Sheppard lived long enough to escape the grasp of the Queen, Todd would die for what he was doing to McKay.
It had only been a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity before Todd pulled his hand away and Rodney dropped in a withered heap to the floor, looking so much like he had in Sheppard’s dream from a few nights before when John had found McKay’s corpse. John fought to pull in a breath and it had nothing to do with the hold the Queen still had on him. Rodney was… fuck… he was…
Sheppard couldn’t even bring himself to think the word in regards to McKay; Todd was the only one John wanted to be describing when he used terms like dead or deceased. The link between Sheppard and Todd was severed completely, at least as much as it would ever be. John couldn’t sense anything from the Wraith anymore, but he really didn’t need the bond to tell what the Wraith was feeling. Todd was breathing heavily, savoring the rush of the feed, reveling in his renewed strength, and John did his best to will that son of a bitch dead since he couldn’t carry through with the desire with his bare hands.
The Queen stepped toward McKay’s body that lay on the floor and studied it curiously. “He still lives,” she pointed out to Todd.
Sheppard exhaled at the news, a shudder of relief stuttering down his spine. If Rodney was still alive, then there was still a chance that John could force Todd to restore his life.
“Yes, he does,” Todd agreed. “These two are to be my gift to you.”
The Queen seemed intrigued. “A gift?”
“I lured them here with promises of the Lantean power source.” Todd swung his arms wide. “Who better to help integrate the Lantean technology with our own than those familiar with their operations and possessing the gene to make them work?”
The Queen paused to consider the possibilities. “What you propose has merit, but only if they are loyal to me.”
“Then you yourself may turn them if that is your desire.” Todd placed his hand over his chest and bent his head. “I live only to serve.”
John had seen what the Wraith could do to a person when they became addicted to the feedings. Hell, Ronon had been little more than a lapdog to them when they had turned him, and his withdrawal had been long and painful after his team had managed to rescue him. With McKay’s brains and expertise in both Wraith and Ancient tech, he’d have another SuperHive built in a few weeks. And to think that Todd had this planned all along as a way to regain his status among his own kind… Sheppard couldn’t wait to get his hands on the bastard.
The Queen’s pleasure at the plan, however, faltered when her own second-in-command came into the room. “My Queen, there is a problem with the culling; there are no humans on the planet.”
“What?” she demanded in outrage before turning on Todd. “What have you to do with this?”
Todd looked as innocent as he possibly could. “I assure you, there were humans on the planet when we departed to meet with you. My own scouts provided the reconnaissance information; it is why I suggested this world.”
At least Teyla and Ronon were safe…unless Todd had double-crossed them on that, too, and the entire population of New Athos was taken by Todd’s forces before the Queen’s Hive had arrived.
“I will see to this myself,” she told him, before warning, “and I will not be easily swayed by gifts if you have deceived me.” Stalking toward the door, she stopped long enough to retrieve the case with the ZPM and take it with her. Without turning, she ordered her commander, “Keep them here. I will return to deal with them shortly.”
“Yes, my Queen,” the loyal Wraith promised, turning a wary eye to those he was left to guard.
As soon as the Queen exited the room, Sheppard slumped to the floor, finally released from her mental hold. The guard pointed his stunner at John and disarmed him quickly. Sheppard honestly didn’t care. At this point, they’d lost the ZPM with almost no chance of recovering it, their only ally on the Hive had turned out to be a two-timing piece of shit, and McKay was… John didn’t even want to consider what he’d managed to drag Rodney into this time. Sheppard looked over to where McKay lay on the floor and was surprised to see his teammate staring back at him.
“Sheppard?” the aged man called weakly.
“Rodney…” John exhaled harshly and crawled the short distance to McKay’s side. The Wraith guard didn’t challenge him, probably figuring there wasn’t much either man could do now anyway. “Don’t worry; you’re going to be okay.”
The handprint on McKay’s chest cut through the fabric of Rodney’s shirt, revealing red, angry skin beneath it. It hurt like a son of a bitch; John knew that from personal experience. Sheppard started to reach out and touch the wound, as if he could share in the pain with Rodney the same way he’d shared in the thrill of causing it with Todd. The memory made Sheppard’s stomach twist and roll, but he swallowed down the bile and concentrated on another memory that involved a similar handprint weeping blood on his own chest given to John by the same goddamn Wraith. It wasn’t a pleasant memory by any means, but Sheppard didn’t want happy thoughts right now, because he didn’t deserve happy thoughts. He’d fucked up but good this time, and it had been Rodney who had paid the price.
“I promise…” John’s voice went rough around the edges and he cleared away the huskiness. “You’re going to be fine.”
Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s wrist. “Don’t… don’t let her…”
McKay’s touch was whisper cool, his fingertips smooth as paper, and his skin haunting in its translucence. He reminded John of a threadbare, cotton sheet; one that could rip and fray if it wasn’t handled with the utmost care. John suddenly found himself in a flashback of helping his mother change the bedding in his room when he was a small boy. He could practically smell the floral aroma of fabric softener on the air, feel the spring of the bare mattress where he sat and bounced in the giddy anticipation of a child. Next was the sharp contrast between the hard snap of the cloth as his mother spread the sheet wide, and the way the linens billowed above him before floating down to swaddle John into a mass of giggles and cotton and… delight.
It was rare John Sheppard ever felt delight these days. Rarer still that he thought of his mom; it had been so very long ago it was hard to remember those times, even when he tried. Hell, when he was able to recall a memory, she was more the feeling of a smiling face than an actual curl of lips and flash of teeth he could picture on a flesh and bones person. Sometimes, though, she came to him unbidden, as if to remind John that all good things, eventually, come to an end.
“John… you can’t…” The squeeze of Rodney’s frail fingers brought Sheppard back to the here and now, where something really good was about to come to an end if John didn’t do something about it.
Placing his hand over McKay’s, John shook his head to stop the man from saying what Sheppard knew he would. Don’t let the Queen turn them. Do whatever it took. She couldn’t have access to everything they knew about Atlantis. Rodney was right; of course he was right, it was why the Wraith wanted McKay in the first place. With their knowledge of the Ancients, not to mention the Coalition of Worlds in the Pegasus galaxy, this Queen could be the most powerful entity the humans and other Wraith had ever gone up against. The thing was, Sheppard had already gone down that road with Sumner, and he honestly wasn’t sure he could bring himself to do the same with McKay.
“It’ll be okay,” John promised again, before looking up to glare daggers at Todd. “And you’re dead.”
“I suppose that remains to be seen,” Todd told him, glancing at the Wraith who was guarding them all.
If the Queen decided Todd had double crossed her, Todd was right, he was as good as gone. Todd would be dead while Sheppard and McKay became pawns of the Wraith. John could only hope he had got a chance to kill Todd himself before the Queen did.
* * * *
When the gate on New Athos finally activated, Ronon looked up from where he sat in the grass with Teyla and Kanaan. “It’s about time,” Ronon groused, covering his worry over Sheppard and McKay with irritation at how long it had taken them to fix the Jumper and arrive at their rendezvous point.
He took up his sword that sat across his legs and stood, ready to get this whole sneak attack on the Queen’s Hive underway. This entire setup reeked of Todd’s scheming, and Ronon wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Todd had been planning this since the moment he stepped through the gate and onto Atlantis all those weeks ago. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Todd had starved himself in hopes that the bond he had with Sheppard would strengthen and give him the control the Wraith had always wanted over John. Maybe when Sheppard was back in his right mind and not trying to feed on his teammates, he’d let Ronon shoot Todd once and for all.
The final chevron lit, but it wasn’t the Jumper that came through the liquid blue surface of the ring. Instead, a Wraith Dart climbed high into the midday sky before circling back around to where the three humans stood staring at it in alarm.
“Wraith!” Kanaan exclaimed, grabbing Teyla’s arm as he turned toward the village. “We must warn the others!”
Ronon was fast on their heels as they started to run for the trees, but he slowed when he glanced back over his shoulder to see the Dart hovering above a small clearing near the gate before setting down. That wasn’t normal Wraith behavior, because Ronon was sure the craft had spotted them, or else it wouldn’t have circled back around to begin with.
“Wait,” he called to the other two as he slowed to a stop on the trail. “Hold up.”
Teyla had stopped, too, and moved to join Ronon to study the Dart. “Why is it not pursuing us?” She tilted her head curiously as the canopy of the Dart slid back and a Wraith stood from the pilot seat to wave an arm at them.
“Is that Kenny?” Ronon asked in surprise to see Todd’s second-in-command obviously trying to gain their attention.
“Perhaps there is a problem,” Teyla observed, starting toward the Dart.
Ronon fell into step beside her. “There’s been a problem ever since Todd came up with this plan.”
Kanaan called to them in distress as they moved toward the Wraith. “What are you doing? There could be more arriving at any moment.”
“We know this Wraith,” Teyla explained. “He is loyal to Todd.”
“Do you trust him?” Kanaan asked warily.
Ronon snorted and pulled his gun, wavering between the stun and kill setting. “I wouldn’t go that far.” He finally settled on stun. If this was a trick, they might need Kenny alive to find out what happened to Sheppard and McKay.
“Stay here,” Teyla ordered Kanaan. “If this does not go well, you must warn our people.”
Kanaan didn’t seem happy, but he nodded in understanding. Teyla and Ronon walked the short distance to the Dart, guns raised cautiously before them.
As soon as they were close enough to be heard, Ronon shouted, “Where are Sheppard and McKay?”
“There has been a change in plans,” Kenny explained, keeping his hands where they could see them.
“What has changed?” Teyla demanded, her P90 trained on the Wraith. “And why?”
“The Queen granted permission for our Hive to meet with hers,” Kenny told them from his Dart. “The repairs to the Lantean craft were not complete, so I was sent to inform you that your people will not be coming as had been intended.”
Teyla wasn’t any more pleased than Ronon was, and it was clear in her tone. “Then how will we assist with the mission on the Queen’s Hive?”
“You will not,” the Wraith told them simply. “Besides, the Queen plans to cull this planet when she arrives to meet our Hive. I suggest you evacuate the humans on this world if you want them to survive.”
Teyla’s eyes widened in distress. “The rendezvous point is here?” Teyla barely waited for the nod of Kenny’s head before she turned and began running toward the village.
Ronon, however, kept his gun on Kenny and considered switching the setting to kill. “How long do we have?”
“Long enough for most to escape if they act promptly.” Kenny seemed almost amused by the predicament, and maybe a little hopeful the Athosians weren’t a quick moving people.
“Can you hold the gate open so no one else can dial in?” It was a Wraith ploy typically used during cullings to keep the local population from escaping through the gate. If Ronon could turn it against them and keep any of them from dialing in, then all the better.
Kenny gave a slight nod of his head. “I can.”
Ronon hitched his gun toward the gate. “Then do it.”
“Where shall I dial so that the humans can escape?”
Ronon shook his head. No way he was giving the address of a safe planet to the Wraith. “Anywhere you want. We’ll dial again when the villagers arrive.”
Sitting back in his seat, Kenny activated the gate. Ronon had no clue what was on the other side and he really didn’t care since it couldn’t come through. Nothing could, which was the point. When the first group of Athosians approached the gate with Teyla at the lead, Ronon had the Wraith turn off the gate and exit the Dart to join him as he went to meet up with his teammate. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to have a Wraith in a Dart when all Ronon had was a hand gun.
The Athosians were gripping tightly to the small amount of precious possessions they carried, and a woman started backing away when she spotted the Wraith coming toward them.
“Do not be alarmed,” Teyla assured her with an arm around her shoulder to keep her moving toward the stargate. “He is… a friend.”
The woman didn’t seem too convinced, and the look on Teyla’s face said she didn’t really believe it either, but for now, Kenny didn’t appear to be a threat, at least with Ronon’s gun in his back. Still, the sooner they hustled everyone through the gate and to safety, the better.
Teyla dialed the gate, and Ronon stayed back so that Kenny couldn’t see where the Athosians were going. After the first wave passed through, she walked to where Ronon stood guarding the Wraith.
“Will there be a problem with so many people going to a different world?” Ronon couldn’t help but think of the conversation they’d had earlier with Halling about the reluctance of other worlds to accept refugees.
“They are going to the Alpha site,” Teyla explained. “The teams stationed there were recalled to Atlantis so quickly when the distress call came from Earth that all the supplies and structures were abandoned in place. If my people must remain there for an extended period, there will at least be food and shelter until they can sustain themselves on their own again.”
Ronon nodded in approval before looking around and furrowing his brow. “Where’s Kanaan?”
“Helping organize the evacuation.” Teyla looked back toward the direction of the village. “I should return to help. There is a hunting party that is out and some want to seek them out to warn them. As much as I wish to find them, I fear there will not be time, and we will only be risking the lives of those in the search party.”
“I can locate them in my ship,” Kenny offered.
Teyla and Ronon stared at the Wraith skeptically. Ronon raised his eyebrows at the suggestion. “And what do you plan to do with them when you find them?”
“Bring them here so they can evacuate with the rest of your people.”
“Sure you will,” Ronon snorted.
“Do you not realize what I risk by coming here? If the plan to overtake the Hive fails and I am found out by the Queen, my life is forfeit.” Kenny shook his head in disgust. “I cannot believe I have risked my life for the lives of humans.”
Teyla studied the Wraith closely before slowly nodding her head. “Very well.”
“Are you serious?” Ronon asked in shock.
With a frustrated sigh, Teyla raised her arms. “What am I do to, Ronon? They will not stand a chance against the Queen’s Darts, and we do not have time to go on foot. If we have any chance of evacuating them, this is it.”
Ronon shifted his weight in disgruntlement, but didn’t argue. “Fine. It’s your choice.”
Addressing Kenny, Teyla informed him, “There are five of them; they were heading toward the mountains to the east.”
Kenny gave a single nod before walking back to his Dart. As they watched the craft lift off, Ronon murmured, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I,” Teyla agreed. “I must return to the village. Will you stay here and make sure those we send make it through the gate?”
“You know I will,” Ronon assured with a narrow-eyed glance toward the quickly retreating Dart.
Teyla gave him a grateful smile. “We will return shortly.”
A steady stream of people continued to arrive, sometimes in large family groups and others straggling in as ones or twos. Ronon ushered them through the gate, keeping an anxious eye to the sky for Kenny. When the Wraith finally did return, the whine of the Dart had the group of Athosians who had just arrived shouting and pushing toward the gate.
“It’s allright,” Ronon yelled to be heard over the panic, although even he had to admit he was surprised when five villagers appeared from a culling beam near the gate. Ronon shook his head in disbelief; the bastard had actually come through on his promise.
The three men and two women from the hunting party ran to join the other townspeople who quickly explained what had happened. One man anxiously asked after his family, looking up when a woman walking down the trail called his name in her own relief. The man ran to join them, taking the little girl Teyla was carrying to help the woman who held a baby and led a small boy by the hand.
Teyla left the family to their reunion and walked over to Ronon. “This is the last of them,” Teyla told him as she watched Kanaan and Halling carry an older man on a stretcher with his leg splinted against a recent injury. “And I see our hunting party was returned safely.”
“I’m sure it helps Kenny out somehow,” Ronon grumbled at the small gloat he could hear in Teyla’s voice.
“As long as they are safe, that is all that matters.” Teyla glanced at the Dart then up into the sky, as if she could see if the Hives had arrived far up in orbit above them. “And if he was trustworthy enough to return the hunting party, perhaps he is trustworthy enough to take us to John and Rodney.”
Ronon nodded with a reluctant sigh. “Yeah, I’d been thinking the same thing.”
They sure couldn’t do much sitting on New Athos or the Alpha site, but on Todd’s Hive, they had a much better chance of reaching the Queen’s ship if Sheppard and McKay needed help.
From the gate, Halling called to them, “Teyla, we must go.”
After a quick, silent exchange with Ronon that they were actually going to go through with their plan, Teyla joined Halling and Kanaan at the gate. “Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay are on a mission on the Queen’s Hive, one Ronon and I were meant to join. We now have a chance to fulfill our duties.”
Halling’s eyes widened as he realized what she intended to do. “The Dart? You plan to travel in the Dart back to a Wraith Hive?”
“Halling, our people will be safe at the Alpha site,” Teyla tried to explain. “It is now time I met my other obligations to my team.”
Seeing he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Teyla, Halling turned to Kanaan to appeal to her better sense. “Kanaan, tell her this is madness.”
Teyla and Kanaan stared quietly at one another for several seconds. It was clear that Kanaan didn’t like the idea of Teyla running off to a Hive ship when she was literally a few steps from safety. On the flip side, Ronon knew the two of them had discussed her role on Atlantis, on Sheppard’s team in particular, and Kanaan’s support had been a key reason she had returned to duty following Torren’s birth.
Kanaan’s worry softened into a reassuring smile. “Come, Halling, Teyla and Ronon have work to do, as do we.”
Teyla exhaled in relief that Kanaan had seen things her way and returned the smile. Halling, however, seemed even more surprised by Kanaan’s willingness to let Teyla go than by Teyla’s desire to leave.
“Kanaan,” Halling contended, “surely you see the folly of such an undertaking even if Teyla cannot.”
Kanaan ignored the argument, instead countering, “Our people will be waiting for us and there is much to do to settle everyone.” He then turned to Teyla and told her meaningfully, “We shall be awaiting your safe return, along with that of your team, on the Alpha site.”
“I shall do my best not to keep you waiting long,” Teyla promised, watching the men finally carry their injured neighbor through the gate.
Teyla waited until the gate shut down before returning to Ronon’s side so they could walk the short distance to the Dart together. Once there, Kenny frowned at them in confusion.
“Will you not be joining the other humans?”
“No,” Ronon told him, looking up into the heavens above them. “We need a ride.”
A slow, sly smile spread across Kenny’s face as he nodded in understanding. Ronon could only hope Halling hadn’t been right, because this was starting to feel more and more like madness by the second.
* * * *
And to think, just a couple of years ago, Rodney had tried to sneak past Sheppard and base security at the SGC so that Todd could feed on him. The thought had him actually chuckling, although it came out more as a rasping cough. It was an old man cough, because that’s exactly what Rodney was now− a forty-one year old, old man.
Sheppard looked down on McKay anxiously. “Hey, are you okay?”
Rodney almost laughed again at the question, because the answer was a resounding, ‘fuck no’. He hurt everywhere; although the burning in his chest made the aches in every joint in his body seem minor in comparison. His breathing was becoming more and more ragged, reminiscent of an asthma attack. This, however, had nothing to do with allergies. He was dying, of old age, of the effects of the Wraith feeding, of whatever.
Sheppard’s worried voice turned McKay’s attention toward his friend. Even with his shadowed eyesight, Rodney could see the worry written all over John’s face. No, it was more than worry; it was guilt. Pure, unadulterated guilt that he had let something like this happen to one of his teammates. Honestly, the whole thing was Sheppard’s fault. If the man would somehow learn to curb those self-sacrificing tendencies of his and stay hidden for once, none of this would have happened. Sheppard, however, would never change, and neither would McKay.
“I’ve been fed on… by a Wraith!” he wheezed. “I think that qualifies… as not okay.”
If possibly, John looked even paler than he had before. For a second, Rodney worried that he shouldn’t have been so rough on Sheppard, then he started to worry that Sheppard was going to puke. That would be great; fed on by a Wraith and thrown up on all in the same day.
Sheppard steeled himself and managed to keep his lunch down. “I’m going to fix this,” he promised yet again.
Rodney could feel Sheppard tense, as if he was ready to spring on Todd and force him to return McKay’s life, regardless of the fact that the Queen’s loyal minion was standing right there. As much as Rodney wanted John to do just that, Sheppard stunned wouldn’t do either of them any good, and it sure the hell wouldn’t help Atlantis if they were both turned by the Queen.
Squeezing Sheppard’s wrist he still gripped, Rodney tried to tug him closer. “Listen, I need to tell you… tell you something… important.”
A wave of dread passed over Sheppard’s face, and too late, McKay realized what John thought he was trying to do. Rodney, however, had no intention of trying to say goodbye. Sheppard, nevertheless, pulled away from McKay with a tense, “Save it,” and stood to face Todd.
“Restore him,” Sheppard ordered. “Do it now.”
“I cannot do that now, Sheppard,” Todd told him, eyes flicking to the guard.
John crossed his arms and kept his eyes locked on Todd. “The Queen can turn us both when she gets back, but right now you need to heal McKay.”
“That will not be possible,” Todd informed him.
Sheppard had apparently reached the end of his rope, because he launched himself at Todd, grabbing him by the front of his leather coat. “Listen to me, you life-sucking piece of shit, you restore him…”
That was as far as John got before Todd, his strength renewed by feeding on Rodney, shoved Sheppard and sent him flying through the air to land on his back several feet away.
“I have told you, now is not the time,” Todd growled.
Sheppard was trying to push himself up, obviously dazed by his hard landing on the floor. The Queen’s crony moved a little closer to Todd, an appreciative smile on his face at the treatment Sheppard had received, and his stunner dropped slightly to his side. That was apparently the opening Todd had been waiting for, because he knocked the gun away with a roar, kicked the guard’s feet out from under him, and dropped to slam his palm into the chest of the shocked Wraith before anyone in the room registered what was happening, including the Wraith Todd was now feeding on.
The Queen’s second-in-command howled in outrage, even as he withered a few feet from where Rodney lay. It didn’t take long before the guard’s screams faded and all that was left was a shriveled husk dressed in black clothing. Todd pulled his hand away, studying the feeder with a look of wild-eyed amazement on his face, before a visible shudder ran through him.
Sheppard and McKay had seen the results of Wraith cannibalism the first year they’d been in Pegasus and that particular Wraith had been stronger, faster, and harder to kill than any Wraith they’d seen before or come across since. Apparently, Todd had just had his first taste of one of his brethren and was feeling the full force of the effects, and by his speculative expression, he seemed to be considering the future potential of what he was experiencing.
Rodney didn’t realize John had crawled his way back over to where he lay until he heard a boggled, “What the fuck?”
Todd took a deep breath and all his composure fell back in place. “Now I can restore Dr. McKay,” he announced calmly, and proceeded to do just that.
Heat seared through Rodney’s body as his back arched off the ground and everything went white in his field of vision. Through the din in his ears, Rodney thought he heard someone calling his name, but he couldn’t be sure. He was too busy trying to ride out the palpitating waves of fire that were radiating from his chest to his fingers and toes then back again.
The heat and electricity coursing through him was easing, and Rodney gulped air into his hungry lungs. He felt like he’d just run ten miles, and the funny thing was, he felt like he could run another ten, no problem.
“Rodney!” A less than gentle pat to his cheeks had McKay blinking Sheppard’s face into focus. “Rodney, come on, answer me!”
“Hey,” Rodney greeted a little breathlessly with a punch-drunk grin. He felt like he was floating, and he couldn’t help but wonder how Sheppard was floating with him.
John’s head dropped almost to his chest and he sucked in a breath before lifting it with a smile of his own. “Hey. You feel better?”
“I feel… awesome,” Rodney assured, sitting up with Sheppard’s help, and swaying slightly with the accompanying head rush.
Sheppard’s hand steadied McKay where he sat. “Yeah, well, don’t push it; the crash is pretty bad when it comes.”
Of course, Sheppard had experienced this before, and it had been from the hand of the exact same Wraith. As John hoisted Rodney to his feet, McKay couldn’t help but wonder if that made them Wraith Buddies or Feeding Brothers or something like that. He’d have to ask Sheppard when he had the chance. Too bad Ronon had been fed on by different Wraith or he could have been part of the club, too.
Another thought hit Rodney out of the blue and he snapped his fingers and blurted, “Oh, I wonder if this means we’ll have a link, too!”
Sheppard grimaced at the thought as he bent to retrieve his handgun from the floor. “And I thought there couldn’t be anything worse than the one I had with Todd.”
Rodney closed his eyes and concentrated, a little disappointed that he couldn’t sense Sheppard despite John’s comments. Fortunately, he couldn’t sense Todd either.
The Wraith in question was already heading for the door. “Come. The Queen will learn of my deception soon enough. We must return to my Hive; she will open fire on it as soon as she confirms there are no humans on the planet.”
Sheppard ignored him, simply fired a single shot into the Wraith’s back instead. It wasn’t a lethal wound, especially for a Wraith who had just fed, but it was enough to have Todd staggering before turning with a snarl.
Still holding the nine millimeter out in front of him, John regarded the Wraith with narrow-eyed defiance. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t empty this clip into you right now.”
“I have restored Dr. McKay’s life as you asked,” Todd challenged.
Sheppard simply shrugged and shot him once again, this time in the shoulder. “That’s the only reason why I won’t reload and empty a second clip into you… maybe.”
Todd grabbed his injured shoulder and growled at the way John really seemed to be enjoying shooting him. Rodney had to admit he was kind of enjoying the hell out of it, too, which went a long way in explaining the small giggle that bubbled up. It was a decidedly very un-McKay-like sound, and that fact had him helpless to stop a second childish laugh.
“Hey, can I do it?” Rodney implored eagerly.
John just shrugged again, but held his gun steady on the Wraith. “If anyone has the right to shoot him, I think it’s you, McKay.”
Rodney patted at his thigh where there was an empty holster, then started looking around. “Crap, where’s my gun?”
“I think it fell over there,” Sheppard told him with a wave of his own gun, apparently willing to wait until Rodney found his weapon.
McKay scurried to where Sheppard had indicated, halting his search to declare, “Oh my God, I think I just figured out a way to prove existence and smoothness of the Navier-Stokes equation!”
Todd, however, didn’t seem impressed with Rodney’s mathematical breakthrough and was also quickly losing patience. “Sheppard, we do not have time for this. My teams have finished their work, but it will not take long before the Queen discovers what we have done… especially if you continue to shoot me.”
Sheppard didn’t seem too fazed by the irritated warning. In fact, he appeared to be on the verge of doing it again, but McKay reached out and grabbed Sheppard’s arm to stop him as something broke through the buzz of thoughts that were filling his head.
“Wait a minute,” Rodney reminded. “Your teams were supposed to be retaking the Hive.”
Sheppard nodded slowly in acknowledgement of what McKay had just pointed out. “That’s right. If they finished their work, then there’s no need to hurry since you have control of the ship. But that wasn’t what they were doing, was it?”
Todd sighed in frustration that they were taking so long to go over this now. “I cannot retake this ship with such a small force when there is a Queen on board, not without the assistance of another Queen like I had before. I could, however, regain information that will help me in the future to weaken her, as well as keeping that same information from her.”
Todd’s confession had John taking a step forward with his gun. “And we were just a distraction to keep her busy while they finished their mission.”
“No,” Todd told them. “You and Dr. McKay were meant to retrieve your power source; she is much more of a threat to my alliance with the ZPM than without it. What happened here was simply an impromptu modification to the plan to buy us more time.”
“An impromptu modification—” Sheppard bit off the words in disbelief before grinding out, “You fed on McKay!”
“In my weakened state, I never would have been able to overcome our guard if I hadn’t. It was always my intention to fully restore Dr. McKay.” When John seemed to be wavering between belief and stubborn denial of what Todd was telling him, the Wraith pushed a little more in his need to leave the ship. “Can you not shoot me again just as easily once we are off this Hive?”
John lowered his side arm and began clipping his P90 back into place. “We’re not going anywhere until we get the ZPM back from the Queen.”
Todd didn’t have a chance to state his argument against the idea, because that finally reminded Rodney of what he was trying to tell Sheppard when he had attacked Todd.
“We don’t need to go after the ZedPM the Queen has,” Rodney announced with a smug grin as he located his sidearm on the floor.
“She took the case with the ZPM, Rodney,” Sheppard told him. “You may not have noticed since you were a little… out of it, but I didn’t come all this way and go through what we just did only to lose the one thing that can save Atlantis.”
“Oh, but see, that’s where you are wrong.” McKay darted back into the shadows to retrieve his vest and the attached backpack he’d intentionally left behind when he’d exposed himself earlier. “No, she took a ZedPM, the one we burned out sending Rod back to his own time to be precise.” Digging into the pack, Rodney pulled out his spare t-shirt and unrolled it to reveal the fully charge power source hidden within.
“You brought a decoy ZPM?” Sheppard demanded in something between amazement and irritation.
“Yep.” The pleased grin just grew and Rodney rocked back on his heels.
John shifted and jabbed an accusatory finger at Rodney. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“Just following your orders,” McKay pointed out, still beaming in pride. Rodney held up the ZedPM and turned it to catch the light, watching as the oranges and yellows seemed to glow from within. They really were quite pretty even when they weren’t saving the city and all her inhabitants.
The frown on Sheppard’s face morphed quickly into an approving curl of his own lips as the jabbing finger waggled appreciatively. “McKay, you are one sneaky bastard.”
The comment brought Rodney out of his admiration of the beauty of the ZedPM and he grinned even wider at the compliment. “I am, aren’t I?”
The smiles on both their faces wavered when the entire ship shook. “What the hell was that?” Rodney demanded.
“The Queen must have opened fire on my Hive; that is the only reason mine would return fire while we are still on board.” Todd waved an arm, as if to prove his point when another blast hit the Hive. “The battle has begun; we must leave immediately before she realizes that her shields have been disabled.”
Sheppard looked at the vest McKay still held in his hand. “Suit up; we’re getting out of here.”
Rodney quickly but carefully put the ZedPM back in his pack and slipped into the vest. He hadn’t been lying to Sheppard when he told him he felt amazing, and he still felt incredibly pumped and ready for anything. John, however, wasn’t convinced given the way he pulled Rodney back from his attempt to take point.
“I’m the team lead,” Sheppard reminded. “That means you stay behind me and keep that ZPM safe. That’s your number one priority, McKay− making sure Atlantis gets the ZPM. Got it?”
“Really? That’s our top priority? Saving Atlantis?” Rodney rolled his eyes. If anyone knew how important the ZedPM was, it was McKay. Hell, he’d been fed on by a Wraith in order to protect it. “Because I thought it was letting you use Todd for target practice.”
McKay started for the door and was pulled up short by a hand snagging in his backpack. “Behind me, Rodney,” Sheppard stressed yet again.
Honestly, it was a little hard to focus. Rodney felt like he’d drunk two pots of coffee in less than an hour, and his mind kept darting from one thought to the next. All he wanted to do was get moving… and eat a massive ham and cheese sandwich… with an entire bag of Doritos. Front, middle, or behind, he didn’t care as long as they were going. He hoped this Wraith-induced rush lasted until they returned to Atlantis, because he genuinely thought he had a chance of holding his own against Ronon in the gym if it did last that long.
Sheppard paused at the door long enough to check the life signs detector, then nodded over his shoulder to Rodney. “We’re clear.” Then he hitched his head at Todd. “You lead the way. I may not be the only one who wants to use you for target practice.”
Todd sneered but walked cautiously out into the corridor. Another hit to the Hive had them all staggering to stay on their feet. “Christ!” Rodney exclaimed. “I’m not so sure taking down the shields was such a good idea if we just end up blown to bits by your own Hive.”
Todd steadied himself against the wall. “Without the shields disabled, we would not be able to leave the Hive.”
Rodney reached out and grabbed Sheppard by the elbow in an attempt to keep them both on their feet when a successive blow rocked the ship.
“There may not be a Hive to leave if they keep this up,” John noted before straightening and trudging forward a few steps before returning the favor and catching McKay when the ship quaked again.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the blasts stopped. The three of them looked around in wonder, and it was McKay who finally asked what they must have all been thinking. “What the hell happened?”
“At this point, I don’t care,” Sheppard confessed. “Let’s just take advantage of it.”
Neither Todd nor Rodney disagreed as they ran toward the hangar and the waiting Jumper. Unfortunately, their good luck ran out when they ran into a unit of soldier Wraith who opened fire on them just outside the hangar.
Sheppard pushed Rodney back behind a support as he sprayed P90 fire into the corridor then ducked back as the Wraith returned fire. Todd was across the hallway from them, pressed behind another strut after firing the stunner he had taken from the dead guard.
John studied the life signs detector and saw even more Wraith coming up from behind them and turned it for McKay to see. “So, got any big ideas for how we get out of here?”
The thing was, Rodney had a ton of big ideas… how to redistribute the power flux through the city shields to limit the drain on the ZedPM, how to blend the shields and the cloaks on the Jumper to decrease the drag coefficient when they entered a planet’s atmosphere from a space gate, hell, even how to cut off two minutes from his walk to the cafeteria so that he wouldn’t miss the crispy edges of the tuna casserole during lunch.
Regrettably, none of those brilliant ideas were going to get them past the Wraith and to the Jumper a few meters away.
* * * *
Teyla and Ronon followed Kenny through the heart of the Hive and into the control room. Teyla’s extremities still tingled slightly from the culling beam. The sensation was not unlike the Wraith stunners but on a much lesser scale.
“Status report,” the second-in-command ordered as soon as they arrived.
The Wraith at the controls glanced back at the humans, but when Kenny only stared at him waiting for an answer to his query, he finally responded. “We have had no word from the strike teams as of yet, but the Queen’s Hive has not increased its security posture either. They launched their Darts for the culling a few moments ago.”
Kenny nodded as he brought up a readout to scroll Wraith script on the large screen that displayed the Queen’s Hive floating in the blackness of space. “I saw them as I returned from the surface. It will not be long before they discover that there are no humans on the planet.”
The Wraith whom Kenny had relieved was taken aback by the news. “No humans?” He looked back at Teyla and Ronon with an accusatory glare that had Ronon fingering his gun.
“I was following orders,” Kenny told him pointedly, “and you will do the same.”
The second Wraith backed down quickly enough, but not before another glower toward Teyla and Ronon. He then turned and busied himself at a console to his right.
Ronon moved up beside Kenny and pointed to the Hive on the screen. “We need to get on that ship.”
Kenny shook his head at the idea. “That will not be possible until our teams finish their assigned tasks. The Queen reengaged her shields as soon as the commander’s Dart landed.”
“So what are we supposed to do in the meantime?” Ronon demanded in frustration.
The Wraith’s answer only served to aggravate Ronon even more. “We wait.”
Teyla stepped forward then, placing a hand on Ronon’s arm to pull him back. “I do not believe we will have to wait long.” Not that Teyla was hopeful that would be the case, but given the situation, she was soon proven correct.
It was less than half an hour before the second Wraith told Kenny, “The Queen’s Hive is hailing us.”
Ronon stopped his pacing at the news and Teyla found her grip on her P90 tightening unconsciously. Kenny looked back at Teyla and Ronon, who understood that they needed to stay out of the picture that would be projected to the Queen’s Hive.
Satisfied that the two humans were out of sight, Kenny ordered, “Open communications.”
The Queen’s image appeared, the girlishly pink hair a sharp contrast to the anger even Teyla could sense from the female Wraith. “What is the meaning of this insolence?”
Kenny assumed an innocent expression. “What have we done to insult you, my Queen?”
“The planet is empty of humans!” she snapped.
“That cannot be,” Kenny insisted. “I confirmed their presence myself earlier today. Perhaps they are just well hidden. I will deploy Darts immediately to assist—”
“I am recalling the Darts that were to partake in the culling as soon as they destroy the settlement,” the Queen informed him as she cut him off. “You will stand down, lower your shields, and allow my Darts to board the Hive. By all rights it is mine and it is time I showed the crew who is truly in command.”
Kenny dropped the ploy to appease the Queen and straightened. “That will not be possible.”
The Queen seemed even more shocked by Kenny’s response than by the fact that New Athos was deserted. “You dare to defy your Queen?”
“I am only following the orders left by my commander. If you would allow him to tell me otherwise…”
“You will do as I say, or you will follow your commander into death along with the humans he brought onto my ship,” the Queen threatened.
Teyla couldn’t stop the indrawn breath at the news about John and Rodney. Ronon’s eyes narrowed in a bloodlust she had only seen in him a few times before and she feared he would expose them.
“You are saying they are dead?” Kenny asked with a note of doubt, and Teyla realized he would be able to sense Todd if he tried. And if Todd still lived, that meant the Queen could be lying about John and Rodney, too.
The Queen heard the suspicion as well, because she backtracked to say, “They will serve as a warning of what will happen to traitors on my Hives. I am sure it is a lesson that will be worthwhile for your crew.”
That was all the confirmation Teyla needed that while their teammates had been captured, they still lived. Now, more than ever, she and Ronon needed to find a way to reach the Hive and help John and Rodney.
“Now, lower your shields and prepare to be boarded,” the Queen ordered once more.
“I cannot do that,” Kenny told her defiantly.
“Then you can die,” she snarled before giving the command, “Fire all weapons.”
The screen went black right before the bombardment hit the Hive, buffeting it enough to have Teyla reaching out a hand to steady herself.
“Return fire!” Kenny yelled above the din of the weapons hitting his ship.
“You cannot do that,” Teyla pleaded. “Our people are still aboard her Hive.”
Kenny wasn’t about to be swayed. “You heard what she said; they have been captured. Our only hope is that the strike teams were able to disable the shields and we can cripple her ship.”
“I am reading direct hits on the Queen’s Hive,” the second Wraith reported. “The shields are down.”
“Send us over in a Dart,” Ronon tried to reason with him. “Now that the shields are down we can mount a rescue.”
“She has already deployed her Darts. Ours will be cut to shreds if we launch them.” Ignoring Teyla and Ronon, Kenny told the other Wraith, “Continue firing all weapons.”
Another barrage of weapons fire hit the Hive and Teyla grabbed hold of the console where Kenny stood giving orders. “Please, a single Dart, that is all we ask.”
“I will not lower the shields to launch a Dart under this heavy fire,” Kenny told her with finality.
That was when an idea came to Teyla. “What if your Queen ordered you to stand down and make contact with the other Hive so that I could negotiate her surrender?”
Kenny looked at her incredulously. “You no longer resemble a Queen.”
“She would not need to see me if the communications had been damaged during the battle.”
Ronon quickly caught on to what Teyla was proposing. “If there is a cease fire, a single Dart could slip through easily enough.”
Kenny weighed his options silently for a moment before ordering, “Ready a Dart and the backup strike team to depart as soon as the firing stops.”
Ronon hesitated, obviously concerned with leaving Teyla behind on the Hive by herself.
“Go,” Teyla urged. “I will be well. This may be the only chance John and Rodney have.”
Ronon nodded and turned to trot toward the Dart hangar. Teyla watched him go, hoping this would work because now all three of the men on her team would be counting on her to enable them to return safely. Taking a deep breath, Teyla prepared herself, reaching deep inside to that place of darkness and primal urges that most times she kept tightly under wraps. This time, however, she let it loose, let it flow through her, and let her mind reach out to brush against the Wraith collective on the Hive.
Kenny must have felt it, because he told the other Wraith, “Contact the Queen’s Hive that we wish to negotiate a cease fire, but block visuals.”
It took only a moment before the disembodied voice of the Queen came across the communications on the Hive, accompanied by an order to halt weapons fire. “It is about time you surrendered to your better.”
Teyla pushed out even further with her mind, searching the other Hive’s shared consciousness until she found the one she was searching for, and slammed against it with all the force and authority she could muster as she put the same into her words. “No, it is time that you relinquished my Hive back to your better.”
“You,” the other Queen snarled before regaining some control. Although, in her mind, Teyla could feel the way the Queen’s confidence faltered. “You have finally seen fit to show yourself… although you cower behind darkness.”
“Our communications systems have been impaired,” Teyla challenged. “However, the Hive on which you stand has sustained far greater damage. It would be wise for you to return it to its rightful owner before I am forced to destroy it and you with it.”
“It is I who will destroy you once and for all,” the Queen goaded. “Then I shall assume control of the other Hives in your paltry alliance.”
Teyla knew they had the upper hand in the situation, especially considering that the shields were down and the Queen’s Hive was sitting defenseless. She threw all that surety into her thoughts. “You are in no position to make those sorts of threats. You are well aware I have teams on that Hive, but you do not know how many or the extent of the damage they have already wrought. Your shields have been disabled, your defenses have been compromised, and your arrogance will be your downfall if you do not relinquish my Hive back to me.”
“And the Lanteans I have captured?” the Queen taunted. “Once I have turned them to serve me, I will have all of their knowledge at my fingertips.”
Teyla’s lips curled into a vicious smirk as she spoke with absolute certainty. “The Lanteans are loyal to me, and that will never change. Atlantis stands behind me and my alliance and we will be your doom.”
The Queen’s confidence wavered a little more, but it did not stop her from threatening, “The Lanteans fell before and they shall fall again. It is almost sad that you will not live long enough to see it.”
The comms went silent and Kenny studied the readouts on his console. “The Queen is powering weapons again.”
Teyla pulled away from the Wraith mentally, staggering more from the disorientation and exhaustion that followed quickly on the heels of such an undertaking than from the blast to the ship.
“Did it gain us enough time for the Dart to reach the Hive?” she asked hopefully.
“The Dart arrived in the hangar safely,” the second Wraith reported.
Teyla breathed a sigh of relief to hear it, but it was short-lived given Kenny’s order to return fire on the Queen’s Hive. She could only hope Ronon was able to locate John and Rodney quickly so they could make their escape.
* * * *
John pushed Rodney’s head back out of the way as he attempted to peek around the support they were hiding behind. McKay usually wasn’t this careless; hell, usually he would be curled in a ball in the corner to avoid any flying shrapnel. This, however, wasn’t the typical McKay. That big-ass genius brain of Rodney’s was usually going a million miles an hour, and after what Todd had done, John knew it must have kicked into overdrive to the point that McKay really didn’t know exactly what he was doing, he just knew he wanted to be doing it.
In a way, Sheppard could relate, seeing as he’d been in the same boat as Rodney was now. After Todd had restored his life, John had stayed up all night shadow boxing, jogging, hacking into McKay’s computer to try his hand at solving a few problems with the citywide sensors, and eating every salty snack he could get his hands on before he crashed and crashed hard. Carson said it was a result of the Wraith enzymes prompting his adrenaline levels to skyrocket and knocking his electrolytes completely off kilter. Regardless of what caused it, John woke up sometime past noon the next day, sprawled in the middle of the gym, his head pillowed on Rodney’s open laptop with Cheetos in his hair, and McKay standing over him holding a rolled up physics journal declaring, “Bad Colonel!” before whacking him across the nose.
So, yeah, John could sympathize… although The Journal of Applied Physics was pretty damn thick, and just because McKay’s K, P, and Shift keys never worked right again was really no excuse for physical abuse… but that didn’t mean Sheppard planned to sit by and let Rodney’s discombobulated brain get him blasted by a Wraith stunner.
“Keep your goddamn head down!” Sheppard ordered as another blast flew past their position.
Rodney pulled back all of, oh, say, a millimeter, and observed, “I really think we could make it to the Jumper. All we have to do is bob and weave.”
John just stared at McKay as the man demonstrated his proposed technique where they sat. “On second thought, stick your head out there and take a big ol’ blast to the face. At least if you’re unconscious, you won’t be suggesting stupid shit like that.”
McKay frowned at the comment. “Well, then, what do you propose we do, Mr. Scaredy Pants?”
Sheppard was about ready to shove Rodney into the line of fire just to get McKay to shut the hell up when the Hive shook violently once again. At that point, McKay’s idea of pulling a Butch and Sundance move was actually starting to sound pretty good in comparison to being on board the Wraith vessel when it was ripped apart, especially if one bought into the mythos that Butch and Sundance had been successful in bobbing and weaving their way past the Bolivian army.
Checking the life signs detector again, John saw their options of what to do were dwindling fast. “Crap, here come the others.” Taking Rodney’s hand that gripped the P90 strapped to the scientist’s vest, Sheppard pointed it behind them. “Shoot anything that comes down that hall. Got it?”
McKay nodded in understanding and licked his lips in anticipation of the pending gun fight, and Sheppard decided a slightly meeker Rodney McKay was preferable to this Rambo-esque model he’d found himself teamed with on this mission.
Before Rodney had a chance to squeeze off a couple hundred rounds of ammo, Todd raised his hand, “Hold your fire; my troops are among those approaching.”
John did a quick tally of the dots on his screen. “I didn’t bring that many guys with me on the Jumper.”
“They are being pursued by the Queen’s forces,” Todd informed him after stunning a large soldier Wraith. Unfortunately, there were plenty more where he came from.
“Great,” Sheppard grumbled before directing Rodney, “Try not to shoot the friendlies.”
McKay threw up an arm in exasperation. “How do I tell the difference?”
“If they shoot at you, then you shoot back.” John told him, obviously grasping at straws. “Otherwise… don’t.”
Sheppard did his best to ignore the way McKay was staring at him like he was a complete moron, and instead busied himself letting loose a barrage of gunfire on the Wraith blocking their access to the Jumper.
Rodney was soon busy shooting at Wraith himself, letting out a war cry as it he did that had Sheppard worried he was going to have to tackle the man before he went running into the fray in a berserker rage. Although, with the enemy closing in on both sides, that was going to be their only option soon.
“Sheppard, do you copy?”
John tapped his earpiece in surprise at the voice he heard there. “Ronon? Where the hell are you?”
“In the hangar with backup from Todd’s Hive,” Ronon told him. “Fall back and we’ll clear the way.”
Sheppard’s relief at hearing they had reinforcements diminished slightly at the advice. “No can do; we’re cut off.”
John could hear Ronon’s gun firing through his radio and evidently the Satedan and the Wraith with him were also under attack. “They aren’t going to wait,” Ronon warned. “Take cover. Now!”
Sheppard wasn’t sure what the Wraith had planned, but he yelled, “Get down!” to Todd, even as he pulled Rodney back from his shooting zeal and pushed them both to the floor.
The concussion force of the explosion from behind the Wraith blocking the hangar door rushed over Sheppard in a tangible wave that pressed the air from his lungs, followed almost immediately by a rain of debris over his back and his arms that were covering his head. The world wavered around him, time seemed to slow, and his vision went in and out of focus.
“Sheppard?” Whoever was calling his name sounded like they were talking to him from the other side of a cement wall, but by the rubble scattered around them, John doubted there were any walls standing nearby. “John!”
This time, the name was accompanied by a shake and Sheppard realized it was Rodney. McKay was still half under him from where John had tackled him before the blast and the scientist was trying to wiggle free.
“Here,” John promised with a groan as he rolled onto his back to free McKay, his voice echoing loudly in his head above the ringing in his ears.
The room went black for a second, but a hand on Sheppard’s chest had things come back into focus to reveal Rodney staring down on him in worry. “Are you sure?”
“Sure as I can be.”
John let McKay help him sit up when his own attempts failed and he took the time to look around the corridor. Wraith bodies, and a few parts no longer attached to those bodies, lay strewn among chunks of metal and the funky skeletal material that made up the structure of Hives. Across the hall, Todd stirred, sending small pieces of debris tumbling from his back, and Sheppard honestly wasn’t sure if he was happy or disappointed to see the Wraith still alive.
“What the hell hit us?” Rodney demanded as he took in the destruction.
The cotton ball effect in Sheppard’s ears was improving, but he still found himself reading McKay’s lips more than hearing the man, which would have been much easier if there had only been one Rodney instead of two wavering in front of him.
“Counter attack,” Sheppard clarified. He looked over McKay and his double as the images merged and split causing John to blink rapidly in an attempt to bring Rodney into focus. “You okay?”
“Better than you,” McKay scoffed before asking, “Who mounted a counter attack?”
Apparently Rodney had been too caught up in blowing away Wraith to hear Ronon calling through the radio, but the sight of the large man trotting through the obliterated entrance to the hangar answered McKay’s question.
“You two all right?” Ronon kept a wary eye on the passageway behind them. The explosion evidently had those Wraith not knocked flat by the blast turning tail and running. Although, that was likely to be a short-term fix to the problem.
McKay looked up in surprise to see their teammate. “Where did you come from?”
“Caught a ride on a Dart,” Ronon responded shortly, helping to pull John to his feet. “We need to get out of here.”
“Won’t argue with you there,” Sheppard agreed wholeheartedly as the hallway spun around him. “Teyla?”
“She stayed back on Todd’s Hive to buy us a little time with the Queen,” Ronon told him, keeping a hand on John’s arm when Sheppard’s knees wobbled. He didn’t wait for Sheppard to regain his balance before he started pulling John toward the hangar.
That information about Teyla had Sheppard digging in his heels and pausing long enough to turn back to address Todd. “You coming?”
John wasn’t sure how receptive Todd’s crew would be to them returning to the ship without their commander, and Sheppard had had enough of escaping from Wraith Hives for today. As much as he would have loved to walk away and let Todd fend for himself, Sheppard knew their best chance of retrieving Teyla would be to have Todd firmly in tow.
Todd seemed to be caught off guard by the offer, but he recovered enough to nod slowly. “Yes, we will accompany you.” Several of Todd’s troops had also regained their feet and gathered around their commander to await his orders.
Sheppard didn’t say anything else to the Wraith, instead, he simply let his own men lead him down the hall and through the now oversized doorway to the hangar.
Rodney looked at the hole in awe. “Seriously, what did that?”
Sheppard was wondering the same thing, because he’d never seen a portable Wraith explosive device that was capable of that much destruction. Ronon’s answer was to hitch his thumb at the Dart he’d arrived on that was now using its culling beam to pick up the soldiers it had delivered.
“They fired a Dart in the hangar?” McKay’s eyes widened in shock. “They could have killed us just as easily as saved us.”
“I told you to take cover,” Ronon defended, not slowing as he continued to pull John along.
Sheppard was still fighting the disorientation of being blown up, but he couldn’t help but agree with Rodney’s assessment… especially considering he’d been blown up by a goddamn Dart weapons discharge. “Thanks for that, big guy,” he offered dryly.
“Wait, the Jumper’s over here.” McKay corrected their course, pulling out the remote from his vest to trigger the back hatch open, then jogging ahead and into the back of the craft. By the time they reached the Jumper, Rodney was already in the pilot seat running through the startup protocol.
Ronon raised his eyebrows at the sight. “Somebody’s eager to leave.”
“Yeaaaah,” Sheppard drawled, knowing full well that was only part of it, and a very tiny part at that. But they were almost out of this mess with all of his team alive and safe and the ZPM recovered, and the last thing John wanted to think about was how that almost hadn’t happened. He’d bring Ronon and Teyla up to speed on exactly what happened soon enough, but for now, Sheppard just wanted to pretend everything had gone as planned and no one had been hurt, including him.
“You’re in my seat, McKay,” John announced as the Wraith filed into the back of the Jumper. There were fewer than had originally come on the trip from Todd’s Hive, but the Queen’s Hive had lost even more than Todd.
Rodney snorted and triggered the back hatch closed from where he sat. “I doubt you could find this seat if Ronon didn’t help you.” McKay wasn’t going to wait for Sheppard to argue with him some more. He lifted the Jumper from the hangar floor and started toward the launch opening right behind the Dart that was returning to Todd’s Hive. “So, just sit down, shut up, and hold on for the ride of your life.”
The Dart they were following opened fire on the Darts that had been recalled from the surface and were still firing at Todd’s Hive. With the Jumper cloaked, McKay couldn’t fire the drones, but he executed a near perfect corkscrew roll to avoid weapons fire that was intended for the Dart.
They couldn’t feel the movement because of the inertial dampeners but it was clear enough through the windshield and Ronon actually reached out for the back of the seat he’d dropped Sheppard into just in case he did start to fall.
“What’s gotten into him?” Ronon asked of McKay.
John scrubbed at his face with a low groan. This promised to be a long, long day until McKay finally came down for the Wraith high. Sheppard found himself glaring at Todd as much for causing Rodney’s current behavior as for nearly killing him.
Todd’s mouth curled into a cunning smirk. “I would be more than willing to help you feel as energetic as Dr. McKay.”
“Ronon, shoot him,” Sheppard ordered with a scowl at Todd’s offer.
“Really?” Ronon asked eagerly, gun already aimed at the Wraith.
“No,” Sheppard sighed, “not this time. But I’m sure you’ll get your chance.”
“Dammit,” Ronon grumbled and lowered his sidearm.
Todd didn’t seem concerned with the threat, in fact, he actually laughed, which was always freakier than hell to John. “Oh, Sheppard, you really have no sense of humor, do you?”
It took all of John’s self-restraint to not let Ronon go ahead and kill that son of bitch after all.
* * * *
Sheppard zipped his remote control car around the stack of pallets, the back end fishtailing wildly as it crashed into McKay’s ankle. Rodney’s only response was to snort loudly before shifting on his makeshift bed on top of the pallets and settle into the more steady rhythm of his previous snoring. John rolled his eyes and backed the car over an empty potato chip bag before taking the small sportster for another trip around the storeroom in the basement of Atlantis. He looked up at the sound of Teyla’s voice.
“I thought we might find you two here.” The smile on her face faded when she saw Rodney sprawled on his back with legs dangling over the side of the stack of wood.
Ronon winced. “How long’s he been out?”
“About an hour… give or take,” John informed them, picking up the car and setting it on the crates he was using as a seat. “Although he only stopped talking about twenty minutes ago.”
“And why is he in his current state of undress?” Teyla asked, screwing up her face at the sight of Rodney wearing nothing but a t-shirt and boxer shorts.
John shrugged. “He said it had something to do with lowering his wind resistance while we were racing. Apparently, his pants were somehow hampering the reflexes in his wrist and slowing down his use of the controls.”
“Are you sure we can trust what he did with the ZPMs?” Ronon asked, his grimace just growing when Rodney mumbled something about cheese whiz in a sleepy and decidedly sultry voice.
Sheppard spread his arms wide. “We have lights, don’t we? Not to mention a functioning star drive.”
Sheppard’s team had arrived back on Atlantis victoriously with the ZPM almost two days earlier to find Woolsey making final evacuation plans with the SGC. McKay stopped all the shutdown protocol that was taking place, insisting he knew a way to not only save the city, but to return it to Pegasus where it belonged. Rodney was still riding high from the Wraith feeding rush even as he was riding herd over the Atlantean Geek Squad like the love child of Leonardo Di Vinci and Leona Helmsley. He filled up three white boards with calculations and schematics on how to eke every ounce of power from the remaining ZPMs they had recovered from the underwater base in concert with the fully charged one they had recovered from the Hive to allow them to fly the city back to the Pegasus galaxy even as he demanded someone make him lunch and make it snappy.
Radek had contended it couldn’t be done, that the drain would be too much, that the best they could hope for was to make it to the nearest habitable planet in the Milky Way… and then he had gone silent when Rodney completed his computations with a flair of his hand. Sheppard thought the little Czech might actually cry for a minute as Zelenka studied the flowing script on the board in stunned silence.
“But those are the gates…” Zelenka had started in awe.
“Yep,” Rodney agreed with a gloating smirk.
Radek just continued to stare at the boards. “And you would use them like…”
“Pretty phenomenal, huh?” McKay’s tone said he didn’t need Radek’s confirmation of his brilliance, but he couldn’t wait to hear it just the same.
“Rodney, this is… it is…”
“I know,” Rodney agreed with a megalomaniacal grin. “It’s a thing of sheer beauty and pure genius.” He draped his arm around Radek’s shoulder. “You might want to note this day for future reference, just in case they want to interview the little people I met along the way.” The haughty tone vanished in a frantic snap of fingers. “Oh, we should have a camera to capture this for posterity.”
Zelenka hadn’t even argued as Rodney ran off in search of a way to document his monumental achievement, he had only started barking his own orders to get the team of scientists moving faster still. But after a couple of hours, even saving Atlantis with ground breaking science had begun to bore McKay’s hyped up psyche, and he’d left the work to his minions to go challenge Ronon to a caged death match in the gym. The bruises visible on Rodney’s bare shins showed how well that had gone down, although Ronon was sporting a few marks of his own that just had Teyla and John smirking at the big guy. Sheppard had a feeling that Teyla’s smiles also had a lot to do with the fact that if Rodney’s plan worked, she would be reunited with Kanaan in a few days as opposed to a few months. That had been enough to convince Kanaan to remain behind to help the Athosians settle into the Alpha site instead of returning with Teyla to Atlantis where it sat in the Milky Way.
By the time they were ready to try McKay’s plan for getting them back to Pegasus, Rodney was on his third meal in almost as many hours. It hadn’t been that hard to convince the IOA to allow them to return to Pegasus considering that the city’s mere presence on Earth had nearly cost them the planet. John had taken up his seat in the control chair while McKay stood nearby with a tube of Pringles cradled in the crook of his arm as he monitored the city’s systems on his laptop.
“Okay, you don’t want to gun it, Sheppard. Just take her out smooth and easy. Smooth and easy is the key to developing the hyperdrive window, that way we’ll be able to maintain it that much longer for each jump.”
Returning to Pegasus using the wormhole drive was out of the question, at least while they remained in the Milky Way. The power draw was just too much even with the fancy computations McKay had come up with for synergizing the ZPMs, but each partially charged ZPM would allow for a short jump. The exact distance traveled varied depending on the amount of charge left in the power source. If all went well, over the next two days, the jumps would place them at the location of the old midway station and then they’d be able to put Rodney’s truly brilliant plan into action.
“Smooooth and easy,” McKay had reminded once more before cramming a mouthful of chips into his mouth.
John had cracked an eye open. “You know, it would be a lot easier to concentrate on smooth and easy if I didn’t have to try to drown out the incessant crunch of potato chips.”
Rodney had simply rolled his eyes and reached into the bottom of the tube for the last of his snacks. “Suck it up, flyboy, and light this candle. It’s almost dinner time.”
Sheppard had closed his eyes again, pushing aside his hopes that he’d get his chance to whack McKay repeatedly with a training sword, and gently started up the stardrive. It had worked like a charm. After several successful jumps, John had felt comfortable enough that the city wasn’t going to explode that he turned the operations over to Carson and Lorne for the successive jumps to come. That way, he could concentrate on more important things, like trying to keep Rodney from making too big of a fool of himself as his manic side ran wild thanks to Todd’s feeding… and documenting them with the camera McKay had found when John couldn’t protect the scientist from himself.
You know, for posterity.
A photo of Rodney passed out and half naked definitely qualified. Snapping the picture with the digital camera, John beamed cheerfully at Teyla and Ronon as he slid the apparatus back into his shirt pocket with a little pat.
Teyla tried her best to look disapprovingly at John but couldn’t hide the way her lips threatened to curl up at the corners. “Speaking of stardrives, Dr. Zelenka wanted us to find you to let you know we have exited the hyperdrive window at the previous midway station location.”
“Guess that means we’re back to work.” Hopping down from his perch on the crates, Sheppard walked the short distance to where McKay was sleeping and gave the man a brisk pat to his chest. “Rodney! Rise and shine! It’s genius time.”
McKay sat up abruptly, hair standing on end as he looked around the room with bleary eyes. “What? Did you find the nachos?”
“Not yet,” Sheppard told him with mock sympathy. “But it’s about time to try out your theory with the stargates.”
“Oh.” Rodney attempted to stand and his knees gave out as soon as his feet hit the floor. John caught him by one arm and Ronon grabbed the other to keep him from going down completely. The near fall didn’t seem to faze McKay at all as he looked dazedly between his two saviors. “Do we get nachos when we’re done?”
“We’ll see what we can do, buddy,” Sheppard promised as he and Ronon led the scientist toward the transporter.
“Are you really sure you want to try what he came up with?” Ronon asked yet again when McKay looked up at him and smiled drunkenly.
“It’ll work,” John assured. “Radek checked it over half a dozen times.”
While the little jumps had been sufficient to get them almost to Pegasus, each had burned out one of the ZPMs they had recovered from the base on Earth. But now that they had reached the first of the Pegasus gates in the no man’s land between the two galaxies, the gate in the city would be able to communicate much easier with its sister gates between here and the planet Atlantis had left. McKay’s plan had been to do something similar to what they had done with the Jumper and route the ZPM power through the DHD, but on a much larger scale to harness the power in the various gates still stored in the computer macro for the old gate bridge. In theory, this would allow them to form the wormhole they would need to take the city home.
Chances were it would also blow the power supply to the gates they used, but it should reserve the majority of the power in the fully charged ZPM for the operations on Atlantis. Seeing as most of the gates were doing little more than floating meaninglessly in the voids of space, sucking dry their power supply wasn’t such a big deal. Of course, hearing that it would cripple any gate tied into the loop had Sheppard requesting that one more be added. Todd may have helped them recover the ZPM, but it had come at a price that still had John fighting a chill every time he pictured McKay lying withered on the floor like he had been. Not to mention the entire mind meld shit Sheppard had put up with. So, if the gate outside Todd’s secret base happened to quit working, John wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. In fact, it might actually help him sleep well for the first time since the Wraith had stepped foot in Atlantis.
“Should we not help Rodney put his clothes back on?” Teyla suggested.
Sheppard took a second to study the man who was making himself comfortable on Ronon’s shoulder− that was until Ronon jarred him off when he started snoring again. Rodney roused enough to shift to lay his head on John’s shoulder instead. Sheppard let him; it was a short trip in the transporter and John had to admit he was still feeling the twangs of guilt associated with being responsible for McKay ending up in this condition in the first place. McKay had nearly died, and if he wanted to use Sheppard as a makeshift pillow for a short trip to the hub of the city, then John would let him.
“At least his pants?” Teyla continued as the transporter door opened onto the busier portion of the city.
Then again, what was the point of having Rodney alive if John couldn’t take advantage of humiliating him when the opportunity arose?
“Nah, he’s good.” Sheppard assured her with a shrug that had McKay glancing around in befuddlement when John and Ronon led him into the corridor full of people who stopped to stare at the half-dressed head of science.
Radek scurried over to meet them when he saw them heading down the hallway toward the chair room. “Ah, Colonel, we are ready to begin.” The Czech frowned at the way McKay smiled benevolently at him. “Is Rodney okay? Should he not be in the infirmary, maybe?”
“We’ll drop him off afterwards. He wouldn’t want to miss this, his crowning achievement.” All but dragging a semi-lucid McKay into the chair room, John pulled the camera from his shirt and handed it over to Radek. “You might want to document his reaction for future generations.”
Zelenka grinned wickedly. “That is wonderful idea, Colonel. I am sure Rodney will be very appreciative.”
Given the way Rodney was drooling on Sheppard’s shoulder, John couldn’t wait to see McKay’s reaction to the photos. Maybe Sheppard would even put together a scrapbook for him when all was said and done. The thought just made him smile wider when Radek snapped a photo of Sheppard’s team gathered around the man of the hour.
“Rodney,” Sheppard called with a shake. “We’re about to try out the wormhole drive.”
“’Kay. Have fun,” Rodney mumbled contentedly without opening his eyes.
Sheppard let Teyla move in to help Ronon support McKay’s weight, and then he crossed over to take his seat in the chair. When Radek nodded they were set, John keyed his radio. “Control, this is Sheppard. We’re all ready down here with the chair.”
“Copy that, Colonel,” Woolsey answered through the open radio channel. “We’re dialing into the gates now.”
Sheppard leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, feeling his way through the controls of the city. The stardrive hummed in the back of his mind, almost eager to respond to John’s commands. John felt a mental lurch in Atlantis and he knew before Woolsey reported back that the connection with the multiple stargates had been accomplished and they had all the power they would need to form the wormhole.
“The chevrons are locked, Colonel Sheppard,” the expedition leader informed him.
Radek chimed in quickly. “Power levels are stable. We are ready to proceed.”
That was all the confirmation Sheppard needed. “Activating wormhole drive now.”
John had gone through stargates more times than he could remember. On foot was a slightly bumpier trip than in the Jumper, but this was a sensation all its own. The entire city seemed to be pulling taut like a rubber band, then just as quickly it released. The feeling of rolling through the loops of a rollercoaster was replaced with speed, the kind that had John’s stomach twisting into a knot as he fought to control it and harness it. Just when he thought he’d never get it under control, it was over.
“We have confirmed coordinates,” Woolsey announced with equal parts excitement and relief. “We are back above Atlantica.”
Sheppard ignored the cheer that went up through the city; instead he concentrated on the navigational data he was receiving mentally in order to direct Atlantis back to her proper landing site. They’d made it this far, he wasn’t going to screw it up on a crappy reentry.
“Power supply is at sixty-three percent,” Radek reported with his own relief. McKay’s calculations had been right on the mark and they’d have plenty of power left to operate the city and keep her safe… if Sheppard didn’t blow it.
The data was more for the rest of the expedition than Sheppard. John was receiving all the information he needed directly from the source, and he put all his effort into setting down Atlantis in one piece with the least amount of expended power he could manage. He’d done this before, but this time really wasn’t much easier. Trying to control an entire city as it plummeted through the upper atmosphere of a planet was never going to be easy, even with his gene.
“Shields are holding,” Zelenka told him. “But it would be best if you could slow our descent, Colonel.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” is what John really wanted to say as he fought to pull in the reins on the ship.
All he was able to grit out was, “Working on it.”
Sheppard ignored the tendril of sweat that ran along his temple to his jaw and concentrated a little harder. Somewhere in the background, John could hear Radek counting down the distance between the city and the ocean surface. He tried not to think about how alarmingly fast it was closing and also how the power supply in the ZPM was dwindling further. It wouldn’t do them a hell of a lot of good to come all the way back here and be on the verge of losing power in their only ZPM. John quickly decided a rough landing was worth a little extra power, so he gripped the arms of the chair even tighter, and willed the Ancient spacecraft to slow enough not to do any major damage.
Atlantis smacked against the surface of the water hard enough that John could feel the jolt through the chair along with the accompanying bobbing of the city. Opening his eyes, he saw several people picking themselves up from the floor. It was probably a good thing McKay had been out during the whole event because Sheppard had kissed the hell out of the ocean this time around.
But it was worth it, when Zelenka told him, “Power supply at fifty-eight percent and holding.”
Sheppard smiled at the news, and he smiled even wider when Woolsey came across on the radio.
“Colonel Sheppard, on behalf of the entire expedition, I’d like to thank you and your team for helping to bring Atlantis home.”
John looked over to where Teyla and Ronon stood supporting Rodney and returned their grins. Soon, Kanaan would be reunited with his family. Soon, they’d be helping the Athosians reestablish their settlement. Soon, they’d have to deal with the new Wraith Queen as she tried to exert her control across Pegasus. Soon, there’d be new threats and new adventures and new worlds to explore.
But for now…
“Thank you, Mr. Woolsey. Glad to be of service.”
… it was just good to be home.