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.