It’s not so much the heat as the humidity.
John figured just having that thought meant that his brain was turning to overheated mush. Worse, this world had no concept of a stray breeze. Forty five minutes of slogging behind Rodney McKay had proven that. The only consolation was that even Ronon and Teyla – known the base over as having unnatural levels of endurance - looked as wilted as he felt.
“Mysterious energy reading number who-really-cares-at-this-point is now coming from that direction.” Rodney trudged to halt and gestured sloppily off to the right. “And if there is any justice in the universe, it will lead to an air conditioned bunker, staffed by beautiful babes bearing frosty beverages.”
“There is no justice in the universe, McKay.” John absently burst his friend’s bubble as he eyed the thick, chest high grass that was between him and the overhanging trees Rodney had indicated. Just great. At least nothing appeared to be moving in there, so hopefully he wasn’t about to lose a limb. He brushed through it anyway with his P-90, just in case, before stepping off the ancient path.
“Yeah, life’s a beach, and then you die,” Rodney was muttering in response, interspersing commentary with the sounds of gulping water. John mentally marked hydrating off the list of things to remind him to do.
It took several moments to actually push aside enough of the thick brush to see to the other side, and what he saw didn’t look good. The ground dropped off pretty quickly, though it looked mostly navigable. The bottom though was lost amid shadowy green gloom and moss-covered trunks.
“Are you sure there aren’t any life signs?” He tossed the question in Rodney’s direction.
“What? You don’t think I’d tell you if there were?” Rodney demanded, his gestures making the darkened pools of moisture beneath his armpits more obvious.
“This signal has changed directions four times, not including this one. It’s starting to feel like someone’s screwing with us. Have you at least figured out anything about what type of signal it is?”
Rodney shook his head. “No. But what did you expect? It, and this world, was filed under Unknown Alien Technology in the info dump from Elizabeth. Of course I don’t know what it is. This is completely new. Or new to us. This could be the way it is supposed to work.”
Ronon moved in next to John and took a turn looking over the edge. “The forest is overgrown; even the path is almost lost. All we’ve seen since we got here is ruins. Maybe whatever is it is broken.”
John stared down into the shadows. “Maybe. It’s just that I can’t help but feel like we’re being herded somewhere.”
“Again,” Rodney was at his most exasperating, “maybe that’s just how it works.”
“Yeah, that’s kinda the way traps work, too, Rodney.”
“Oh, come on. Since when are you Mr. Voice-of-Negativity? Part of our mission here is to track down advanced technology, and to –”
“Seek out new civilizations and to boldly go – I get it. But for once I’d like to not get caught in the trap.”
“We are not far from the gate.” Teyla was the voice of reason. “Perhaps we should return for reinforcements?”
John allowed some of the tension to drain away, and then gave the surroundings a good once-over before gesturing toward the gully. “Nah. We’ll check it out first. Who knows? Maybe the signal will change again and lead us to a nice breezy beach someplace.”
Richard Woolsey looked up from his computer screen. Chuck was leaning half in and half out of his office. It was days like these that Richard wished the office had an actual door, as opposed to just an opening. That way, people would have to be completely in or out.
He pushed the thought. “Yes, Chuck?”
“Sir, the Daedalus has arrived in orbit and is requesting permission to dock on the East Pier.”
“Tell Colonel Caldwell, permission is granted. Also, please notify the duty Offload & Resources officer.”
“Yes sir.” Chuck continued to hover in the doorway.
“Was there something more?”
“Uh, yes, sir. There is a Dillon Everett who requested an immediate beam in. He says that he needs to speak with you right away.”
Richard frowned. The name was familiar, but he didn’t recall anything extremely urgent that couldn’t have been communicated via comm. “That’s odd. Is he one of the replacement staff?”
Chuck’s expression gave nothing away. “I don’t know. He’s sort of waiting out in the control room.”
Richard’s brows rose toward his non-existent hairline. “Well, then. I suppose there is no time like the present. Send him in.” He took the moments while he awaited his guest’s arrival to tidy his work surface. Putting objects in the proper order helped him to clear his mind for the task ahead. No amount of desk tidying however could prepare him for the man who stepped into his office, leaning on a cane.
“Mr. Woolsey,” he was greeted by his smiling visitor. “You’ll never know how surprised I was when I heard you’d gotten and kept this post.”
“Colonel Everett.” Richard rose to his feet belatedly to shake the other man’s hand. “It’s good to see you’ve… recovered.” The man before him looked 70 years old. The file that the IOA had gone over before he’d been assigned to lead the battle for Atlantis while the city was under Wraith siege had shown a man in his forties.
“Please…have a seat.” He gestured toward a guest chair.
“Thank you.” Everett sank into the proffered seat. “Funny thing about the Wraith feeding – it tears the body down, but leaves the mind sharp. It took time, but I managed to get back on my feet.” He gestured with the cane. “Relatively.”
“Congratulations. That’s good to hear.” Richard was genuinely happy for the man. He would not wish the Wraith brand of accelerated aging on the worst of offenders. But that did not explain what the man before him was doing on Atlantis.
Wraith war veterans didn’t get special dispensation to travel to another galaxy on a billion dollar ship on a whim. And on the off chance the political stars aligned and he did – there would have been a memo, fanfare – something. Judging from his aged appearance, and lack of uniform, he wasn’t there in a military capacity, either. Richard settled back into his chair and waited.
“This is probably what you’re looking for.” Everett spoke easily into the silence as he extended a small device toward him. “I think you’ll find everything there. The short of it is: I’m your new Homeworld Security liaison.”
“I beg your pardon?” Richard was certain he would have remembered being told that O’Neill was thinking of sending a ‘liaison’ to Atlantis. If nothing else, his contacts within the IOA would have given him some indication. Unless . . . .
“Don’t worry. I won’t be a part of your chain of command. Think of me as an… ambassador.” Everett gave him a cheerful smile then pushed himself up from the chair. “I’ll leave you to go through those documents. We can talk later.”
“I’m certain of it.” Richard moved to plug the USB storage device into the side of his computer before the other man had taken more than a few steps toward the door.
“I don’t like this place, Sheppard. It’s too quiet.”
John looked in Ronon’s direction. The big guy was moving cautiously over the thick, mossy undergrowth, checking behind every tree and bush on their right flank.
“Maybe the animals prefer to be where it’s brighter,” John suggested, though he didn’t believe it himself. Tall trees had overgrown the gully, blocking much of the sun from above. There was also something different about the quality of the air at the lower elevation, and the humidity didn’t seem quite so crushing.
Teyla met his gaze with an uneasy look of her own.
“McKay?” John called to the other member of his team. “How much farther?”
“We’re getting close. Very close,” McKay murmured, his eyes locked on something on his monitor.
“How long, close?” John wanted to know. His Spidey sense was pinging like crazy. He’d personally taken on the task of checking out the life signs detector. But like Rodney had said, there wasn’t anything large enough to register as humanoid.
“How about right now?” Rodney stopped and pointed at another wall of green.
John moved cautiously toward it, crunching underbrush as he went. These vines were more stubborn than the leaves had been. Ronon moved in and enthusiastically hacked away at the thicker sections with his sword. John had always thought the sword was cool in a Conan the Barbarian kind of way, and appreciated that Ronon had brought it along.
“It’s a cave,” McKay announced when the sword clanged against a rocky surface. Ronon continued to chop away at what was more obviously the opening, making way for Rodney to get in closer to the cleared area. “Or at least, it looks like it’s a cave.”
“You think it’s something else?” John asked. “Wouldn’t be the first time, as I recall.”
“There isn’t a time dilation field covering the opening, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” Rodney shot back.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to step into another time.” Sheppard really couldn’t resist the urge to yank Rodney’s chain.
“That wasn’t completely my fault, you know.”
“I’m just say–”
“We should leave.” Something in the quality of Teyla’s tone stopped John in his tracks. She wasn’t looking at him, but staring at something on the newly uncovered section of the cave’s outer wall. He moved in to get a better look.
Ronon was already there, and dragged aside the last of the branches. “She’s right.”
John squinted at the whatever-it-was that looked like it had been branded or carved into the rocky surface. It reminded him of a stylized “Z” with horns and fangs. Weird. “What is that?” He reached up toward the symbol then caught himself. No touching strange alien things no matter how innocent they looked. That was a lesson he’d learned and relearned a time or two.
“We must go.” Teyla turned abruptly and started back the way they’d come. John looked after her. He hadn’t seen Teyla so spooked in a long time. Ronon was already following her.
“Come on, Rodney.” He set off after them. Half his team was leaving; he and Rodney would have to go, too. They’d work out the whys on the way.
“Something’s happening,” Rodney called, halting them all.
Even from several feet away, John could see the way Rodney’s hand-held lit up. There were energy spikes all over the place. That meant something; he needed to know what.
“What is it?” He moved back toward Rodney and the cave.
Rodney stopped pushing buttons suddenly, and looked toward the darkened maw. “Do you hear something?”
“Yeah….” The sounds were vaguely familiar. “Sounds like something with wings… could be… bats?”
“A lot of bats. Maybe we should go.” Rodney was already backing away.
“Yeah.” John placed himself bodily between the cave and his friends, and adjusted his grip on the P-90.
“Maybe we should….” Rodney looked at the hand-held and his expression turned to one of horror.
John caught a glimpse. No explanation was needed. He slammed into the other man, urging him back the other way. “Run!”
Woolsey removed the storage drive from his laptop and headed out to the control room. It seemed that for the time being, Atlantis would have a new occupant. At least until he could figure out what was really going on.
“Where is he?” He stopped near Chuck’s station, and looked about the operations center. There was an air of being busy while also watching for his reaction to their surprise guest. The city rumor mill was nothing if not predictable.
“He’s out there.” Chuck gestured through to the balcony on the control level. Everett stood gazing out at the ocean, his cane resting against the railing. Richard wondered just how much of a pawn he was in all of this.
“Arrange to have quarters assigned for him – something near a transporter with adjoining office space.”
Richard then started across the control room. He checked the movement as the chevrons on the gate began to illuminate.
“Unscheduled off-world activation!” Chuck announced loudly.
He did a quick about face. “Do we know who it is?”
“It’s Dr. McKay’s IDC.” Chuck looked to him for instruction.
“Lower the shield,” he authorized.
“Atlantis, this is Sheppard!” The colonel’s voice was nearly lost amid the sound of weapons fire. “As soon as we’re through, raise the shield!”
“Acknowledged.” Richard nodded toward Chuck then moved quickly toward the railing for a better view of the gate. He wanted to ask what sort of trouble they were having, but knew that his questions would have to wait until the team was safe. Sheppard would not respond to such questions before then.
Almost immediately, the puddle rippled as first Rodney then Teyla stumbled through, aiming back toward the event horizon, weapons drawn. With another wet sounding splurt, Ronon slid through on his back, clutching his blaster two handed while he fired on something Richard couldn’t see near the upper portion of the puddle. Lastly came Sheppard, in a posture similar to Rodney and Teyla.
“Now!” Sheppard yelled the instant he cleared the rippling surface.
But it was already too late.
Something black and oily looking slipped through, narrowly missing the top of Sheppard’s head. Mere moments later, the shield hummed into place. Richard’s eyes widened in shock as the oily blob reformed into a flying creature and arched upward, heading directly toward him. He ducked as it flew past.
The security forces that had approached the gate to back up Sheppard’s team refocused their attention on the city’s uninvited guest. It wove between control panels and personnel – cries of alarm erupted as people scattered to avoid the path of the creature.
“Don’t shoot up the control room!” McKay was yelling at the security contingent. Richard silently concurred. They were still working through some of the problems that had arisen during the entire Earth ordeal, never mind the nightmare tangling with the Pegasus variety Asgard had caused.
Someone swung a laptop, before receiving a sharp reprimand for nearly hitting someone else. Everett at some point must have come back in from the balcony, because he tried for it with his cane and missed.
Ronon growled in frustration, obviously struggling to get a good shot. Richard knew from personal experience that the man’s aim was impeccable. He wasn’t sure why he had yet to pull the trigger.
“Set it for stun!” Sheppard ordered, and it all became clear to Richard as the Satedan did something with his weapon and then re-aimed at the creature. Almost as if it realized that something had changed, it altered direction and headed directly toward Ronon and the gate team.
Blue light flew from Ronon’s weapon, stopping the creature mid air. It jerked slightly as it impacted with the stunning blast, and then emitted an eerie, high-pitched screech before it crashed to the floor.
Sheppard, Teyla & McKay surrounded the still flopping animal, weapons aimed, while Ronon repeated the motion that changed the setting on his gun. Just as he re-aimed, a flash erupted from the bat-like creature. It then whooshed into a cloud of blackish smoke that completely enveloped the team.
Ancient alarms sounded, blaring throughout the control room. Richard could only stare as the doors began to slam shut one after another. The visual aura of the city’s shield appeared, rising upward as it encased all of Atlantis. As final testament to their lack of control, all of the Ancient control screens went dark.
Steven Caldwell stepped off of the Daedalus onto the metal-like plating of the east pier and breathed deeply of the rich ocean air. Seven days docked at Atlantis would allow the engineers to affect repairs that couldn’t easily be handled in the void of space. It also meant much needed downtime for his crew, and an opportunity for him to ferret out the real reason for Everett’s arrival.
Initially, he hadn’t thought Woolsey or Sheppard good candidates for the Atlantis Expedition’s command structure. But he’d come to appreciate Sheppard’s methods, and Woolsey was wilier than he looked. It was the unknown that gave him pause.
On the other hand, if there was to be a changing of the guard, it wouldn’t hurt to know when to make himself available.
He would have beamed down with Everett when they’d arrived, but there was an unwritten rule that a ship’s commander be on the command deck when his ship put into dock. There was, however, nothing against having a quiet word with Woolsey now that the docking was complete.
He navigated around the fork lifts and other machinery that were being maneuvered out toward the Daedalus. On past visits, they’d simply beamed pallets and personnel to the deck. But today, the ship was taking up that space. The entry doors of the city were within reach when a distant sound reached him, then suddenly, the doors slammed shut, blocking a pair of stock men who were on their way out.
For a moment they stared at him through the transparent material, looking just as surprised as he felt. Then their eyes focused somewhere across his shoulder. He turned in time to see the city’s shield rising all around him.
“What just happened?!”
“Who raised the shields?”
“I can’t get into the system!”
“Radios are down!”
John staggered in complete darkness as a chaotic array of questions and sounds surrounded him. He couldn’t answer or respond to any of it. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut. The last thing he’d seen had been a roiling black wave of tiny particles coming right for them.
All evidence was that it had smacked him good. He could feel the stuff beneath his hands, jammed against his eyelashes, tickling at the edge of his nostrils. He scraped at it, desperate to get it off. He needed to get a handle on what was going on. But the stuff was thick and resisted his efforts.
“Colonel Sheppard!” That sounded like Woolsey, but he wasn’t close. John’s response was lost, stuck somewhere in his brain. He couldn’t get the words out. His lungs weren’t working.
Something at the back of his throat had closed off and had no intention of reopening. His chest burned with the urgent need to take in air.
“Water! Does anyone have water?” The panicked question came from Rodney, and he was very close. Someone bumped and jostled him. He opened his eyes.
The barest black-hazed glimpse of Teyla, on her hands and knees, coughing, registered and then fire singed along the rim of his eyelids. He jammed them shut again, but the damage was done.
His body chose that moment to try to remember how to breathe.
An initial inhale followed by an explosive cough ripped through him. In some delirious oxygen-deprived part of his brain, he wondered if puffs of black ash were coming out of his mouth. And then, he was on his knees like Teyla, trying his best to lose the black crap, but keep his lungs.
As the coughing began to ease off, he heard Rodney making a fuss distantly. Much closer, though, was Teyla’s voice; weak, but assuring someone that she was fine.
“Colonel, take this….”
Was that Woolsey? John didn’t dare look up, but grasped onto the rough material that was shoved into his hands. He turned and sat on the floor, not caring that he was in the middle of the gate room, and went to work on his face.
“Ronon?” he asked, grimacing at how scratchy his voice sounded.
“He’s okay. He appears to be ensuring that our uninvited guest isn’t going to rise from its ashes.”
John grunted. “Not a bad idea.”
“Do I have to do everything?” Rodney’s voice drew closer. Then, “Hold your head back.”
“Why?” John asked into the cloth that he held against his eyes. He allowed reactive tears to flow into the material, hoping that it would take the burning with it. It was already easing off.
“Because I have water. Unless you’d prefer not to have that stuff washed off of your face.”
“Give it to me. I can do it.”
“How are you going to do that when you can’t see?”
“I know where my face is, Rodney.”
John reached out for the heavy container that was pressed into his hands, then leaned his head back and allowed the fluid to flow over his face. The cool liquid felt wonderful as it spilled over his brow and onto his closed lids. He sensed Teyla moving in closer on one side.
“I believe much of it is gone.” She offered a new cloth when the water ran out that John used to dry his lashes before carefully opening his eyes. The stinging didn’t increase, and he could see.
Richard Woolsey was half-stooped in front of him. Beyond Woolsey stood a man that John had last seen in an infirmary bed, waiting to be shipped out with the rest of the wounded.
John blinked just to be sure. “Colonel Everett?”
“Retired.” The other man’s response was accompanied by a grin. “I see the level of excitement around here hasn’t changed since my last visit.”
John didn’t quite manage a return smile, but looked toward Rodney. His friend’s face was a mottled mess of smeared black ash. His blue eyes were stark against the darker color. “What are the odds that this is the wrong Atlantis at the wrong time?” he asked in a half whisper.
“None.” Rodney sounded defensive. “You’re the one who insisted on a solar flare probability rating before booking missions.”
“It wasn’t like you had to write a program, Rodney. It was in there all along. You just had to turn it on. Besides, with all the glitches since Elizabeth and the Earth thing…”
“Not an alternate reality. Buzz cut is really here.”
“Great.” John looked past Woolsey to Everett. “I’m glad to see you’ve… recovered.” He pushed himself up from the floor, not liking the feeling of disadvantage.
“Now that we’ve gotten that settled,” Woolsey stood with him. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning?”
“I should probably…” Rodney gestured over his shoulder toward Operations.
“Right.” John directed his statement toward Woolsey. “Rodney should be helping figure out what’s going on with the city. If the system is in quarantine, you guys are probably already infected, anyway. Teyla, Ronon and I can debrief.”
“Agreed.” Woolsey nodded.
Rodney was already grabbing his gear and heading toward the steps leading into the control center. Ronon and Teyla moved in closer to Woolsey. So did Everett. Woolsey didn’t seem to react, so John decided to let it go for the time being.
“Was it dead?” John asked Ronon, gesturing toward the black spot that marked ground zero for the bat thing. A pile of ashes, indented by a very large footprint was at the center of radiating lines of soot. The spaces where the team had stood were outlined by clear spots in the dark imprint. The sum of the thing’s parts was definitely more than it appeared to be.
“There was nothing left to shoot,” Ronon replied.
“We should gather whatever is left,” Teyla suggested. “An examination might help us to determine what sort of creature it was.”
“Certainly,” Woolsey replied. “Once we regain control of communications and the city. I imagine there was more than one of these… creatures on the planet?”
“Yeah, you could say that. We were following the energy signature, and after a few detours, it led us to a cave. They came out of the cave – dozens of them. They were pretty hard to take down, and they chased us all the way back to the gate. As you can see, one of them got through.”
“Were you able to determine anything else about the energy signature?”
“Well, we were actually leaving when these bat things showed up.” John turned toward his two team mates. “Teyla and Ronon recognized some kind of danger.”
Woolsey’s attention switched to them.
Teyla shared an uncomfortable look with Ronon, then, “It was the mark of the Zoan. They are… difficult to describe.”
John frowned and looked from Ronon to Teyla. “Well, try.”
“The symbol we saw on the cave is their mark. Yet, no one has ever seen them and returned to tell of the encounter.”
“So, they’re… what? Aliens? People?”
“They’re monsters,” Ronon blurted, putting Teyla out of her misery. “We were all warned about them as children. They prey on the weak and the young. They don’t hunt in the day, only in the night and usually in dark, tight places.”
“Their presence can be felt.” Teyla took up the story again. “Much like the Wraith, but no gift is required. It is the feeling of hairs standing up on your skin; the feeling of being watched by someone or something unseen. When they take their victims, they disappear as if they were never there, even if another is standing alongside. The victim’s screams can be heard even after they are gone.”
“Sounds like the boogeyman to me.” Everett spoke into the silence. “How do we know that those stories aren’t just fairy tales?”
“Let’s not be so hasty.” John raised a hand in Everett’s direction then, continued toward Teyla, “Have you ever sensed one of these Zoan things?”
“No. But the story is very strong among my people. Once the mark is found on a world, word is spread and no one goes there. The warnings have continued throughout every generation.”
John sighed, sharing a look with Woolsey. There was obviously something going on in that cave. Fairy tales didn’t follow them through the gate. Question was, how reliable were the stories?
“It’s real, Sheppard.” Ronon spoke intently. “Everyone knows their mark. No one will remain on a world where the mark of the Zoan is found. I felt them once, when I was very young. They took one of my friends on a training world.”
John’s brows rose. Ronon wasn’t prone to flights of fancy. If he thought he felt something, then he did. His mind began to search for plausible explanations within the story. “Well, vanishing into thin air – that could be some kind of cloaking technology.”
“Possibly.” Woolsey didn’t look all that convinced. “How does that explain what happened here today?”
“And if it is some type of cloaking technology, how do you defend against it?” That from Everett.
Woolsey responded to the retired military man. “They obviously don’t want us to know too much considering the way that creature blew up.”
“Something bothers me about that,” John admitted. “I mean, it had us – why not just use an explosion that had some real force behind it? The burst really didn’t do much more than get us really, really dirty.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Rodney’s voice sounded from the observation deck above.
Carson Beckett turned and allowed Jennifer Keller to check the seals on the blue-gray medical isolation suit.
“You’re good.” Her muffled voice reached him as she patted his arm. “Are you sure this is going to make a difference? You weren’t here the last time the city went into lock down. Nothing worked. We couldn’t get the doors to open. Ronon and I were trapped for hours.”
“It certainly couldn’t hurt.” Carson turned to look at her through the clear face plate. She had spoken as if there was nothing to worry about, but he could see the doubts in her eyes. “On the other hand, it could be nothing more than a blown fuse. Someone could have it fixed in no time and we’d have donned this garb for nothing.”
Jennifer smiled wryly. “Yeah. That’d be some fuse to take out communications and lock down the city.”
“It would be that.” Carson grabbed his case from the floor and moved toward the infirmary exit. He held his breath as he drew closer. If the doors opened for him, the quarantine was real; if they didn’t open, he could only wait and hope that someone found a solution.
The doors slid open on his approach.
He turned back to Jennifer. “I guess that answers the question.”
“Yep.” Jennifer looked grim. “I’ll get things set up here for any potential casualties. Send anyone you can find in to help.”
“Aye, I will.” He headed through the open door as he continued to speak loudly so that she’d hear him through all of the layers of protection. “I’ll head to Operations first. Hopefully someone there will be able to get communications back up. That’ll go a long way in isolating any victims.”
“Carson!” He almost didn’t hear her calling him back.
“Yes, love?” He turned and met her gaze through the opening.
“I’m glad you’re here. Sometimes, the things that happen here can be overwhelming.” Light reflecting off the face plate blocked much of her expression, but he sensed her sincerity, and completely understood where she was coming from.
“That it can be. But they need us, so we keep going. This, too, shall pass.” The door slid closed.
“Whatever this is, it’s definitely more than just dirty” Rodney announced to his gathered audience. With a few tapped commands on his tablet, he co-opted one of the larger Ancient monitors. He might not be able to get into the city mainframe, but it didn’t take a genius to power the simple connection with his smaller computer.
“What is it?” Sheppard asked, moving in closer to the larger screen. He squinted at the signal visualization, and then blinked as if he was having trouble focusing.
Rodney frowned, and started to ask if he was okay, but John shot him a look that ended the conversation before it began. “The better questions,” Rodney said instead, “are where and when. I haven’t been able to get into the Atlantis mainframe yet, but I do know why it locked us out and why the city shield activated.”
“How can you tell if you can’t get into the system?” Everett spoke up from the back of the group.
Rodney barely gave him a glance before responding. “Look around – this is a city largely staffed by scientists. At any given moment any number of researchers could be taking readings or running computerized experiments which record ambient data transmissions.” Seriously, where did Stargate Command find these military types? he thought. Their ability to completely overlook the scientific majority was almost genetic.
“And were they? Running any experiments that can help us, that is?” Everett asked.
Rodney refused to be abashed. “Unfortunately, Atlantis has erected a dampening field around at least a portion of the control tower. Until we can get into the system and turn it off, I can’t access anything on the expedition’s wireless network. The city is preventing any signal of any kind from leaving or entering this room. That’s also why we no longer have radio communication, by the way.”
“And Atlantis did all of this because…” Sheppard prompted with a creepy blood-and-ash-shot glance.
“Because it detected this.” Rodney pressed a button and directed their attention to the screen. The static took on a pattern with consistent valleys and peaks. A numeric readout along the side showed other parameters. He gave them a moment to take it all in, then, “I’m sure you’re all wondering what this is.”
“It’s a subspace signal.” Sheppard spoke dryly. Teyla looked as if she’d figured it out as well. Ronon looked like he didn’t care either way, but if someone would point him in the right direction, he’d shoot it. No questions asked. Woolsey and Everett were just looking on waiting for the rest.
“Okay, so yes, it is a subspace transmission. Congratulations, most of the class. What you don’t know is that thanks to this nifty program MRM CommSniffer3000 – a combination of Ancient, Asgard and earth technologies, written by yours truly, we were able to detect it. I had the program running beta test on my tablet when we came through the gate. The program time stamp is 37 seconds after we passed through the event horizon. The MRMCS3000 also provides coordinates. And this signal was coming from there.” He pointed toward the pattern of black ash on the gate room floor. “It sent it right before it exploded. My guess – it was calling for back up.”
“Is that why the shield engaged?” Teyla asked.
“I’d say that’s a definite yes,” Rodney confirmed. “But with two very important twists. The signal is still transmitting.”
“It’s just a pile of ashes. How can it be doing anything?” Ronon’s hand twitched near his gun as he asked. Rodney wasn’t sure how much more of a scorch mark it could be. There was only so much damage the ray gun could do.
“In a word, nanites.”
“What are the other four locations?” Sheppard cut in, but his tone was guarded like he already knew the answer.
“Us.” Rodney met his blood shot gaze and confirmed it. “You, me, Teyla and Ronon. We’ve all been reduced to flashing beacons, alerting the enemy to our position.”
“That’s the best we can do for now,” John told Ronon as he looked down at the pile of ash-covered material. They’d removed as much of the black debris as they could, but a slightly weaker version of the signal remained on the members of the team. Rodney suspected the nanites were circulating through their bloodstreams.
“All right.” Ronon looked longingly at the long over-shirt he’d worn during the mission to P72-548.
“I’m sure you’ll get it back after we get it cleaned up,” John offered, looking up at his taller friend. He gasped when a shadow flashed across his vision. For a brief moment, his friend morphed into something unrecognizable that seemed to be coming right for him. Just as quickly everything returned to normal.
Ronon frowned at him. “You okay?”
“Eyes.” John gestured vaguely. Then, “Why don’t you go help Jacobs and the other marines with whatever Rodney’s got them doing.”
Ronon hesitated, but eventually nodded and headed off. John turned and zeroed in on Rodney. He was bent over this tablet, hitting keys in between ordering the other techs and scientists around.
“I need to talk to you.” John moved in alongside him.
“Busy right now. Trying to take back the city and figure out a way to contain our friendly neighborhood alien-invading technology.”
John glanced around at the other scientists, then dragged Rodney a few steps away. “I need to talk to you now.”
Rodney followed, but pierced him with an annoyed look. “What’s so important?” he demanded, arms crossed.
“Is it possible this thing is linked to those nanites from the first year? The ones that caused hallucinations and brain aneurisms?”
“Maybe. Why?” Rodney looked at him, worry rapidly growing in his eyes.
“I may have been kind of seeing things.” John shifted his gaze away, and then looked back at his friend. “I think it might be getting worse.”
“Oh, God.” Rodney looked terrified, but then his expression turned hopeful. “Maybe it’s something else entirely. You did get that stuff in your eyes. Besides, you’ve got the gene. It shouldn’t be fatal.”
“I may have the gene,” John murmured, ‘but they don’t.” He gestured around the room behind them. “Is there anyway you can find out for sure?”
“Yeah. Yeah, maybe. I could use Teyla’s help.”
“I’ll send her to you.”
Hello? Is anyone there?
Radek, thank God! What’s -- ?
“Atlantis, this is Daedalus. Please respond.” Caldwell cut across the chatter that almost instantly burst across the radio connection. They’d been monitoring the earth based radio frequencies for nearly an hour to receive little more than static. It was about time someone got their act together.
“Yes, Colonel Caldwell. This is Atlantis.” All the voices except one fell to silence.
“Who am I speaking with?” Caldwell asked. He was fairly certain the accented voice belonged to the Czech scientist, but wanted to be sure who he was dealing with. If Woolsey or a military presence was not in control of the situation in the city, then he himself would have to take command.
“Uh... this is Dr. Zelenka.” The other man sounded nervous. “We were only just able to get limited communications online. It would appear that--”
“I can appreciate your difficulties, Doctor. Where is Mr. Woolsey or in his absence, Colonel Sheppard?”
“I believe Colonel Sheppard and his team are off world. Mr. Woolsey should be in Operations, but we have been unable to reach anyone in the control room. ”
“The Daedalus is docked on the East Pier. We haven’t been able to gain access to the city either via the entry doors or by transporter.”
“Really?” The doctor sounded more intrigued than worried. He began to converse rapidly with someone off-mic in rapid science-speak.
“Doctor?” Caldwell tried to regain the man’s attention.
The conversation continued – something about disrupting beacons and possible passive negative shielding. Nothing that made sense or helped to solve the problem at hand. “Doctor Zelenka!” He raised his voice over the link to bring the other man back on task.
“Oh... uh, sorry, Colonel Caldwell, sir,” Zelenka came back on the line. “Atlantis is in quarantine at a level that we were not previously aware of – likely due to bio hazard. The systems are on full lockdown, apparently even scrambling transporter beams.”
“I seem to recall Atlantis previously went into quarantine because the system was too sensitive. Could this be the case now?”
“No, we don’t believe so. Persons wearing protective gear are able to move about freely for the most part. This suggests that the contamination is real.”
Caldwell pressed at his temples. “What is the source of the bio hazard?”
“We do not know.”
Of course they didn’t. Why wasn’t he surprised? “Has the control room been compromised?”
“We do not know. We have only just begun to gather the data. At present, radio communications appear operative in only a quarter of the city. The central tower is not one of those areas.”
“Do you have any suggestions as to a solution to this problem?”
“We are working to regain access to the database so that we may understand the system quarantine level, and perhaps find the source. We also wanted to reestablish communications to make sure that everyone is okay.”
“I’m interested in finding out what is going on in that control room. We need to get eyes in there.”
“Yes – that is on our agenda as well. The system is not allowing even protected personnel into the corridors near the control room. This suggests that control room is the source of the contagion.”
Steven didn’t like the sound of that. “How do you plan to gain access?”
“With a jumper, of course. We are planning to enter the jumper bay from an alternate entrance. Then, hopefully, the jumpers will be allowed to exit the bay and fly within the shield space around the city.”
“Good plan. Two members of my crew are ATA gene carriers. Send a jumper out to me, and I’ll handle the mission myself.”
“Right now only Doctor Beckett and I have protective gear and functioning communication. Transporters are still off-line. And I must first--”
“Dr. Zelenka, I understand that you’re looking for a scientific solution. However, extensive experience in military situations tells me that our first objective should be to find out what happened in that control room.”
“Yes, but, it is necessary to –”
“Have I not made myself clear, Dr. Zelenka?”
“Colonel Caldwell, this is Carson Beckett...” Another voice sounded over the radio link.
“Good - you argue with him. I have work.” Zelenka vanished off the line and Beckett continued.
“We need to determine what the contagion is so that we’ll know best how to treat any affected persons. Right now we’re in one of the science labs – it’s the only place we can access the main frame to get the answers we need.”
This was ridiculous. “And I need to know what’s going on in that control room. In the absence of any other member of the Atlantis command structure, regulations are clear. The position falls to me.”
The Scot muttered something Caldwell couldn’t make out, then, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the time or the resources to run all over the city conducting errands for you just so that you can feel in command. We’re going to finish what we’re doing here, and then we’ll contact you. Beckett out.”
Caldwell sat for a moment, stung. He then toggled the communications switch on his command chair. “Marks, have Tyson, Wilson and Stevenson join me in Aft Stores.” If hazmat would allow movement in Atlantis, then hazmat it would be. He made a mental note to have a word with Woolsey about his command structure.
Richard watched as Sgt. Owens passed out beverages to the scientists busily trying to regain access to Atlantis’ systems. Owens moved toward Colonel Sheppard where he sat on one of the lower level steps. Sheppard was rubbing at his eyes, but paused briefly to wave the young man off.
“Are they bothering you?” Richard settled on the steps near Sheppard. It felt odd to be seated in such an unusual place. His back longed for the comfortable chair in his office.
Sheppard opened his eyes and looked at him. Richard tried not to wince at the reddened, speckled corneas.
“It probably looks worse than it feels.” Sheppard looked away, focusing on the area in front of the gate where Teyla was waving one of Doctor McKay’s scanners over the darkened ash. He had recently completed adjustments to the device’s resolution.
“I certainly hope so,” Richard replied.
“The important thing is that I can see.”
Richard couldn’t argue with that.
“So, what’s he doing here?” Sheppard asked. Richard knew who he was speaking about without asking. He didn’t even have to look toward the make-shift snack area where the retired colonel was helping himself to coffee and a Power Bar.
“Officially, he’s the Home World Security liaison. Unofficially....” He allowed the word to linger. Sheppard would get his meaning. “You worked with him during the siege. What did you think?”
Sheppard seemed to consider the question. “He comes off as an arrogant SOB, but in the end... he was fair.”
Richard had worked with the Colonel long enough to know that there was a lot more that wasn’t being said. He considered him for a moment. “He spoke very highly of you in his final report.”
Surprise at first, then embarrassment. “Well, you know. Shared experiences.”
“Hmph.” Richard raised an eyebrow. There was definitely something more there. But nothing that he was likely to get out of the other man without a fight. And he didn’t get the chance, because Sheppard abruptly changed the subject.
“We need to go back.” He said it like he knew he was in for an argument.
“That’s an unnecessary risk at this point.” Richard didn’t like the idea of sending a team back into such a volatile situation with so many unknowns. They’d yet to even figure what this was. He was hoping that once they were back into the system, the database would have some information that would at least point them in a logical direction.
“Trust me, we don’t want something out there that can do this to Atlantis. Our luck, the Wraith have a bead on it already. We need to figure out what else is in that cave and who is on the receiving end of that signal. We can’t afford to ignore this and end up getting blind-sided.”
The colonel was probably right, but Richard needed more to go on before sending anyone back to that planet. He couldn’t justify the risk.
“Rodney!” Teyla’s cry broke into their conversation.
“What?! What is it?” Dr. McKay appeared near the balcony’s railing for half a second, and then he was running toward the steps. Sheppard and Ronon were already ahead of him. Richard himself had only just gotten to his feet by the time McKay shot by.
McKay shouldered his way through his team mates to kneel on the floor beside Teyla. He took one look at the screen, and then snatched it from her hands. “Are you sure this is right?!” he demanded as he pressed buttons and connected the hand held device to a cord coming out of his tablet.
“Of course, I am certain, Rodney. I did it exactly as you asked.” Teyla wasn’t perturbed by McKay’s manner, but her brow was furrowed in concern.
“What’s it say?” Sheppard asked, watching over McKay’s shoulder as he tapped commands into the computer’s display screen.
“Just give me a minute!” Rodney waved the other man off. “Trust me – you want me to get this right.”
Sheppard bit back whatever response he was going to make, and waited.
McKay ignored him, just continued to press buttons and then just as suddenly as he’d started, he stopped. “It’s nanites all right. Very similar to the ones we stumbled on in that Ancient lab the first year.”
Richard frowned. He remembered that report very clearly. Those nanites had been encountered when samples had been released in a water damaged portion of the city. The miniature machines were programmed to attack non-ATA activated humans, causing terrible hallucinations, before the victim died of an aneurism. If he remembered correctly, death took place in a matter of hours.
He refocused on McKay, who was still speaking.
“These nanites are different in one small, but very important way – a portion of the programming that was dormant in the sample from the lab is active. If it’s what I think it is, these nanites don’t just kill non-Ancients, they’ll kill anything human.”
“But the sample from the lab...” Sheppard was arguing with McKay.
“The sample from the lab was likely modified by the Ancients so that they could safely examine it, maybe even develop a cure. Seriously, the Ancients may have had their careless moments, but they weren’t stupid. How dangerous is it to study something that could kill everyone in the city in a matter of hours? It actually makes sense that they would have weakened it first. But it still doesn’t change the fact that whoever programmed these things weren’t just trying to kill non-Ancients.”
“But they’re still basically the same type of nanites. We can destroy them with an EMP.”
“Which would likely work. Unfortunately, we are completely locked out of the main frame. We have no means of communication. We have no way to even ask for an EMP. Unless we figure something else out fast, everyone in this room, and I mean everyone,” McKay pointed emphatically at himself, “is toast.”
Caldwell focused on the city’s outer doors as he led the team of four across the pier. Personnel, who had been moving about earlier, had been called back into the Daedalus as a safety precaution. True to Zelenka’s word, the doors slid open obediently on their approach.
He worked to suppress a grin. Finally, this rescue mission was under way. He made a gesture toward Tyson, and they began the long trek toward the jumper bay.
“There’s nothing you can do?” John demanded. “No way you can get a signal out of here? Nothing around here that can generate an EMP?” He focused intently on McKay. Sometimes the man had to be pushed, even in the face of certain death.
“Regrettably, no.” Rodney pierced him with a look. “If I knew of a way, I would have done it already.”
“What about the main frame? You didn’t leave yourself a back door? Some kind of way you could sneak in? You’ve certainly tweaked the thing enough.”
“Weren’t you listening when I said the wireless was....” Rodney’s eyes got that look. The one John had been hoping for. It meant he had an idea. “Unless....”
“Yeah?” John followed as his friend moved out toward the center of the gate room. Several pairs of footsteps followed them, but John’s focus was all on Rodney.
“Remember when Helia first came to Atlantis?”
John nodded. How could he possibly forget the arrival of actual Ancients to the city?
“She did something and a console came up from right about here.” Rodney waved his hands over the area he meant.
“I remember.” John remembered it very well. That was when the shine came off of finally meeting real living Ancients. Shortly after that they’d been kicked out of the city.
“Well, that console is the Ancient version of a ‘back door’ into the main frame. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to activate it, but it seemed impractical and... it’s... never really worked for me and this is sort of a bad location to take things apart... and really what good is a back door when you’re already in the control room, so....”
“Your point, Rodney?” John growled. Time was a bit of the essence.
“My point is, maybe it’ll work for you and your magic gene.”
“Right.” John got the picture. He tried to visualize what he’d seen Helia do, and then closed his eyes and concentrated. Ancient tech was great in that if you could see the idea of something in your mind the software would do the rest. He felt something shift, and then the familiar sensation of connection – it was almost like sitting in the control chair, but not nearly so intense.
“It worked! I can’t believe it worked!” Rodney’s voice made him resurface.
“Oh ye of little faith.” He tossed the teasing comment Rodney’s way even as he blinked, amazed, at the console. His hands fairly itched to touch the smooth surface. After a moment, he reached up and allowed his splayed fingers to settle within the blue lighted portion of the panel. The words LET ME IN floated lazily through his mind.
The city’s response was immediate. Ancient screens activated, bringing a return to the familiar scrolling symbols and backlit crystals.
“This is great!” Rodney immediately began jabbering. “Do you know what this means–”
“We’re still locked out.” Chuck’s words from above deflated everyone. “The systems are back, but we can’t get in.”
“What? But...” Rodney sputtered.
Someone else yelled. “Dampening field is down. Radios are back!”
“Progress!” Rodney reached for his ear piece. “This is McKay to anyone in the city. We need an EMP generator to Operations and we need it now!”
“We are here, Rodney.” John heard Zelenka’s voice over the connection.
“Dr. Zelenka, where are you?” Colonel Caldwell’s voice sounded over the radio link. John thought perturbed was a good word to describe his tone.
“Colonel Caldwell. We were not able to contact you via radio once you entered the city.” Zelenka’s tone came across as dry, and John thought he heard a Scottish brogue muttering something in the background, but Zelenka continued, “We are in a jumper hovering outside of control room.”
John spun toward the stained glass and couldn’t hold back a grin at the visage before him. Nothing could be more beautiful than Radek and Carson dressed in hazmat on the other side of the jumper’s wide view screen.
“It’s about time,” Rodney grouched. “Did you happen to think to bring along an EMP generator big enough to –”
“It is already done, Rodney.” The jumper was turning so that the back end of the ship was toward the control room. The back ramp was lowering as it went.
“It is?” Rodney’s mouth quirked upward. “I’ve trained you well, Radek,” he added as he moved toward his tablet before yelling at the upper level. “Everyone shut down your computers and any electronic equipment we brought from Earth. Do it fast and let me know when you’re done.”
“Yes, yes, of course, Rodney.” Radek was muttering while the sound of laptops and other equipment being shut down, disconnected and stored in protected cases filled the room.
Once he’d gotten the thumbs up from all of the stations, Rodney did his own once over, before contacting the jumper. “Okay, Radek. Go.”
The last time an EMP had been directed at the city, in the form of a nuclear explosion, John had been running like a bat out of hell to get his jumper away from ground zero. This time, the only indication that anything had happened was the soft chime that sounded before the city’s systems truly came back online. Doors began opening and a cheer went up around the room.
John released the breath he’d been holding, and was just reaching to pat Rodney on the shoulder when the symbols on the gate lit up. The gate alarm echoed around the room.
“Unscheduled offworld activation!” The call came from the control area.
“Oh, what now?” Rodney grumbled.
John silently agreed as he fell into formation with the gathering security team. With an off-hand thought, he sent the console back beneath floor level.
“Do we have an identification code?” Woolsey asked as the event horizon settled into a placid blue puddle.
“No IDC.” Rodney was the one who answered. “But something is coming through.” Moments later the puddle sparked and flashed as an object splattered against the shield. Two more splats followed before the wormhole disengaged and the shield dissipated.
Silence hung over the room for several moments. John felt as if they were waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The symbols lit up.
“Aw crap,” Rodney grumbled. “This is so not good.”
“Where is he?” Rodney demanded as he wove his way back into the infirmary. Most of the staff from Operations had cleared out. He himself had time to be examined, get caffeinated, order Radek to do a quick interrogation of the Ancient database for anything connected to the symbol they’d found on the cave, and beat his own personal best for fastest shower. So, it made no sense that Sheppard, who had announced loudly and to anyone who would listen that they needed to go back to PX2-548, was still off-radio. That could only mean one thing – they were keeping him in the infirmary, which meant something was wrong, which meant –
“Slow down, Rodney.” Carson caught his arm, effectively interrupting his escalating worry and his headlong rush. “I take it you’re here for the same reason as Ronon.” He gestured toward the big guy leaning against the far wall. “Jennifer still has Colonel Sheppard under the scanner. Seems he got some foreign matter in his eyes from the explosion, and –”
“Yes, yes, we were there,” Rodney cut in, including Ronon as he approached. He didn’t need a re-hash, he needed facts. Besides, it didn’t take a genius to discern that black-and-red-shot eyes equaled not good – never mind nanite-induced hallucinations. But the man had insisted that he could see and that everything was fine. He was never believing him again.
“Like I told Teyla and Ronon earlier,” Carson was saying, “we managed to get most of the – for lack of a better word – ash out, but a nearly transparent film has been resistant to normal eye wash procedures. But, as it doesn’t seem to be affecting his vision, we’re not overly worried. The deeper scans are just a precaution. Feel better?”
Rodney slumped in relief, but responded, “No! We have other problems.”
“What sort of problems?” Ronon demanded gruffly.
“Aside from the obvious fact that someone has been repeatedly dialing our gate for the past hour? They’ve upped the ante – they’re sending through signals, trying to duplicate our IDCs.”
“Can they do that?” Carson wanted to know.
“We’ve changed all the codes. And thankfully, no teams are off world at the moment. But, yeah – maybe? And we are going to need to actually go back out there at some point.”
“Can’t we just move the city again?” Carson asked.
“Yes, but that’s a bit drastic. Besides, that would burn through an incredible amount of power. Plus we’d have to find a world, and notify all of our allies and clear it through the Homewold Security, Stargate Command, the IOA, and that’s just for starters.” Rodney counted off on his fingers the number of impediments to that plan. “We’d also have to –”
“Thank you, Rodney. I get the point.”
“The only viable plan is to go back there. The sooner the better.”
“First the Colonel, now you. Why don’t you talk to Mr. Woolsey, he’s the one who has to approve the mission?”
“Actually, that was next… on my agenda,” Rodney said, suddenly self-conscious. It was probably telling that he’d gone to check up on Sheppard first. But, then, Ronon was there, too. “Speaking of which,” he added aloud, “where’s Teyla?”
“Went to see Torren,” Ronon answered.
“And I have work to do. Excuse me.” Carson headed off randomly.
Rodney watched him go, and then met Ronon’s expectant gaze. He looked like he was itching for something to do. Rodney concurred; he’d done enough waiting around. He gave the infirmary a quick once-over to see who was watching then said to Ronon, “Come on. We may as well take the mountain to Mohammed.”
“What?” Ronon asked, his confusion obvious. But that didn’t stop him from following along as they set off toward the central section of the medical offices.
Rodney didn’t bother to explain, just stormed into the scanner lab. Sheppard was moving toward a sitting position. “We need to go back there, and I mean now,” Rodney blurted before Jennifer finished shutting down the machine.
John looked up at him. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” The black-and-blood-shot wasn’t so bad in the dimmer light.
“That’s not going to happen.” Jennifer looked at both of them like they were crazy. She pointed at John. “You’re staying on base, under observation, until whatever’s going on with your eyes completely clears up.”
As John stood and moved away from the scanner, Rodney noticed that the whites of his eyes were shaded an odd gray. “You sure you can see?” he asked, before realizing how bad his timing was in asking.
“Better than 20/20,” John ground out with a ‘thanks Rodney’ look. “What did you find?”
“Even the Ancients didn’t know who these guys were.”
“There’s not a terrible lot in the database. But it is amazing what you can find when you know what to ask for. I did an image recognition scan on that symbol from the cave and it revealed an Easter egg in the Ancient database.”
“Did you say you found an Easter egg in the Ancient database?” The voice was Caldwell’s.
Rodney turned to see Woolsey and Caldwell enter behind them. Neither looked as if they knew the pop culture meaning of the reference.
“Well, actually, Radek did. Usually, an Easter egg is referred to as hidden programming on a DVD movie, or operating system or game, but in this case it probably wasn’t so much hidden as not linked yet.”
“What type of information was included in this Easter egg?” That from Woolsey.
“Well, for one, they weren’t friends with the Ancients. In fact, they were fairly new players to the galaxy, or at least the Ancients had only recently stumbled on them while they were at war with the Wraith. The Ancients didn’t even have a chance to come up with a name for them. There’s only a number designation.
“Turns out those bats are thought to be the Earth equivalent of a UAV or a MALP. The Ancients never actually made recorded contact with the beings that sent them so there is no visual record of what they look like. The Ancients suspected malevolent intent, but, as you can imagine, had their hands too full elsewhere to follow up. So, they did the next best thing. They began a campaign of removing gates from worlds where there was evidence of the Zoan. Looks like they missed one.
“PX2-548 is only about 5 hours away via hyperspace. If we want the use of our gate back, my recommendation is to take a page out of the Ancients’ play book and go back there to remove the gate.”
“Aye, Colonel. It’s about time you put in an appearance.” Carson looked up from the screen of his laptop as John Sheppard sauntered into the Daedalus infirmary.
“Sorry, doc. We were going over some last minute details. Rodney was up in arms about some signal he’s picking up on his new program.”
“Is he now?” Carson chuckled and focused on the other man’s eyes, intending a visual observation. He was happy to see that the redness had faded dramatically, but the gray tinge was still quite noticeable. Previous scans had suggested it was ever so slowly being absorbed by the Colonel’s body. He didn’t expect it to truly be gone for another few days.
“This wouldn’t happen to be the MRM something or other?” He gestured that John should make himself comfortable on the edge of the nearest examination table.
“The same,” John confirmed, doing as he was told.
Carson fished a penlight out of his pocket and prepared to do an initial assessment. Ophthalmology wasn’t his specially, but he’d done a bit of research while on board the Daedalus and the scanners back on Atlantis had given him a bit of a head start.
John shied away from the bright light. “Is that really necessary? I’d think half-blinding me right before a mission is more harmful than not.”
“This is absolutely necessary, Colonel,” Carson informed him. “I need to ensure that not only your eyes but other reactions are within normal parameters. Don’t forget that one of the conditions for your being allowed to go on this mission is that I’m along to monitor your vision.”
“I feel fine,” John insisted. “I’ve had every test you and Dr. Keller could think of and a couple I’m pretty sure you made up. Can’t we give it a rest?”
“Oh very funny. Look to your left.” Carson stood back to observe the motion and to check for any signs of additional irritation or swelling. “I should have probably been in the meeting you just had, come to think of it, to make sure the mission plan falls within medical guidelines. Now look to the right.”
John rolled his eyes before looking to the right. “All we’re doing is taking a couple engineers and a team of marines armed with modified ARGs down to the planet – just in case we have any resistance in the form of our bat friends. Other than that, it’s just a matter of shutting down a gate and moving it.”
“ARGs?” Carson frowned over the word. He’d heard it before but he was drawing a blank now.
“Anti Replicator Guns, remember those? Rodney’s modified them to send a focused EMP. Range sucks, but he thinks they’ll work.”
“Ah. Well, I hope you brought an extra one, because I’ll be with you.” Carson stepped back and signaled that he was done.
John slid off the exam table. “Fine, Doc. But you’d better hurry and get whatever gear you’ll need because we should be heading down to the planet any minute now. We’ll brief you on what you need to know on the way down.”
Rodney frowned and punched a new command into his tablet to see if a different filter would make any difference. That doesn’t make any sense. He tried a different command. Something was still off with the readings.
“What is it, Rodney?” Sheppard called from the seat ahead of him.
Rodney looked up from his place behind the pilot’s seat of the cloaked jumper and noted that they were on course for the gate. The gate was active, the blue of the puddle glowing against the darkness of the surrounding greenery. He could just make out the shape of three oily looking bat creatures. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. He wasn’t entirely sure why Sheppard had dragged him from his readings.
“What’s what?” he asked grumpily.
“What doesn’t make any sense?” John replied, using his annoyed voice.
“Oh – it’s that signal I picked up earlier.” He realized he must have said the thought out loud. “There’s something about it. I feel like I’m missing something.” He hated admitting that, but there it was.
“Missing something like what?” John wanted to know.
“If I knew that I’d know what I was missing. Look, it probably doesn’t matter. Once we get the gate out of there and the auxiliary DHD shut down it’ll be a moot point.”
“All right.” Sheppard seemed to accept his assessment as he brought the jumper to a hover off to the side of the eerie-looking alien MALP wannabes. “Not picking up any life signs. Anything else we should be worried about?”
Rodney did a double check of his instruments. “Nothing aside from the usual.”
“Okay, here we go.” John tapped at his ear-piece. “Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Do you read?”
“Sheppard, this is Atlantis. We read you loud and clear.” Amelia answered the call, which confirmed that this world was still gate-spamming Atlantis.
“How far are we into the 38 minute cycle?” Rodney cut in, working out calculations.
“About ten minutes,” Amelia responded. “But we’ve noticed something new in the signals we’re receiving. Along with the attempted cloning of IDC signals, they’ve begun to send transmissions that appear to be playbacks of Ancient communications.”
“Really?” Rodney shared a look with Sheppard. “That’s weird. How can you tell they’re playbacks? And what are they saying?”
“Dr. Zelenka was able to determine where they’d been pieced together. And Dr. Reines translated them – they’re basically random assortments of words.”
“Perhaps they are trying to communicate with us?” Teyla spoke up. “Their language and behavior may be very different from ours.”
“Or maybe they’re trying to trap us,” Ronon put in. For the moment, Rodney was siding with Ronon. Friendly overtures didn’t usually include hallucinations, brain aneurism and death.
“Another unsolved mystery.” Sheppard gave his opinion. “We’re going to take out the hostiles on this end and get the gate shut down. Sheppard out.”
Rodney only half listened as Sheppard rallied the troops after setting the jumper down. He took the time to gather his computer equipment, slip the ARG over a shoulder, and then waited for the all clear – all the while trying to work out the bizarre signal in the back of his mind. Once the bat-MALPs had been eliminated, he strode out toward the DHD.
Marines were being directed to specified areas. He wasn’t sure what Sheppard had Ronon and Teyla doing. He focused solely on getting his part of the mission taken care of. He bent beneath the lip of the DHD and went to work. The panel came off easily enough, and everything looked perfectly normal.
“What are you doing?” Carson’s voice sounded from above Rodney’s shoulder, nearly causing him to knock his head on the underside of the control device.
“Carson! Don’t do that! Don’t you have some thing, or better yet, some place, better to be?”
“I’m here to keep an eye on Colonel Sheppard, as you well know.”
“So go keep an eye on him. He’s over there!”
“Lovely.” Carson gave him a look, and stalked off in Teyla’s direction.
Rodney sighed. For a brief moment he felt bad, but he was really working against the clock here. The team was counting on him.
He turned back to the DHD and looked more closely at the components nestled into the space. And then he saw it. One of the auxiliary control crystals was definitely rigged. Although he couldn’t say for sure how the modification worked, realizing it was there answered a few questions with regard to how the gate had been dialed without a person to do the dialing. He yanked the crystal from its mooring and stood up from beneath the device.
“Sheppard!” He waved the component. “Found it.” He caught the readings on his tablet. “And not a moment too soon. We have incoming. A lot of incoming.”
John nodded in Rodney’s direction, then, “Okay, everyone. Time for phase two. Carson, I need you here beside me. Everyone else, get to your positions. Major Lorne, group B is all yours.” McKay moved closer to Sheppard and Carson along with Teyla and Ronon. They formed a loose semi-circle before Sheppard tapped his radio.
“Daedalus, five to beam to the cave entrance. Stand-by on Major Lorne’s command to beam down the engineers.”
John had to refocus for the dimmer surroundings as they re-materialized a dozen yards away from the cave entrance. Late afternoon meant that even less light reached this section of the forest.
“This place is a mite creepy,” Carson murmured from his side.
John ignored the comment. “Life signs?” He shot the question toward Rodney as he took a few moments to acclimate to the area, taking in the stillness that seemed to permeate.
“No. Just us. ” Rodney’s response came quickly.
“Same signal as before, but no movement. Maybe they sent everything they had for the gate. We did just disable it.”
“Yeah. Or maybe wherever those things come from, they have to recharge?” John tossed the idea out. “There probably isn’t an unlimited supply.”
“Why have we found no indication of the beings who manufactured those creatures?” Teyla asked over her shoulder as she covered her own bit of geography. “The responses that we have seen thus far indicate some manner of intelligence.”
“Maybe they’re gone,” Ronon suggested. “Or this is some kind of trap that they come and check every now and then.”
John really didn’t like the sound of that. “Let’s get this done,” he said and moved in closer to the cave entrance. It was even darker in the more densely forested section. He looked toward the Zoan symbol, then blinked and looked again. The previously stylized “Z” look of the thing had transformed into something much more. Colorful glowing lines of various lengths interspersed with other small shapes shown behind the “Z” and extended a few inches below the character.
“Whoa.” He stopped. “Teyla - what do you make of this?” He looked over at his Pegasus Galaxy teammates. “Does it look like any language you’ve seen before?”
Teyla looked at him oddly, but moved in closer to the symbol. She took it in for several moments. “It is the sign of the Zoan, as we saw on our previous visit.”
John frowned at her. “But there are things there that weren’t there before.” He pointed at the symbol, tracing above the area he was referring to. “Like the glowing lines, here and here, and the squigglies right there. It looks like it could be some kind of written language.”
Teyla looked from him to the cave to Ronon and back to him. She seemed at a loss for several moments. “I do not see what you describe, John.”
John looked at the rest of the gathered team. “Do any of you see what I’m talking about here?” He wasn’t crazy. He saw what he saw.
“All I see is a weird looking Zed.” Rodney spoke up as if settling the matter. But the nods he received from Ronon and Carson confirmed it.
“Perhaps it has something to do with the film over your eyes,” Carson suggested. “Normal human vision covers a limited range of the visual light spectrum. Perhaps the remnants of the nanite ash are allowing you to see beyond that range or in another way entirely.”
“Right now, that isn’t exactly reassuring, Carson,” John replied.
“But wait – maybe this can help us,” Rodney butted in. “What if there were things the Ancients missed because, like us, they couldn’t see what was literally right in front of them?”
“I don’t see how this helps us,” Ronon said. “There’s no one here, and we don’t read the language.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” John interrupted the argument. “Carson, in the middle. Rodney and I will take point.” He clicked on the light of his P-90 and led the way without waiting for any opinions to the contrary or for Carson to decide he needed to do a field eye exam.
The darkness closed in around them immediately, obscuring everything but the circle of light created by their movement into the earthy-smelling environ.
“What do you see?” Rodney’s whispered question rang loud in the darkness.
“It’s dark,” John shot back, giving Rodney a look that he probably couldn’t even see, and didn’t have a chance to respond to. The light of the P-90 revealed a solid rock wall and two other narrower passages, which veered off at right angles.
“This way.” Rodney gestured to the right-most passage. The cave walls were smoother here, and reflected the light around the space. The passage was about ten feet wide and easily as high. The farther they moved along Rodney’s specified route, the more regular the tunnel’s proportions became.
Quiet reigned as they continued deeper into the cave. The change was slight, but the passage was moving them on a decline that was taking them farther under ground.
After several minutes John saw a faint glow ahead. He glanced cautiously between his teammates for any indication that he wasn’t the only one seeing it. No one else was reacting. “I’m guessing no one else can see the glow about twenty feet ahead.” He drew the team to a stop.
“What does it look like?” Rodney asked.
“I can’t really tell. We’re too far away. It’s not very big. It’s up pretty high on the wall, though.” They continued on until he could make out the symbols more clearly. Although he was more convinced it was a written language, he still had no idea what it said. “Definitely more of that same kind of thing as outside,” he confirmed out loud for his team.
“This is weird,” Ronon murmured.
“You’re telling me?” John shot back as he continued beyond the symbols. Rodney, following a few steps behind him, came to an abrupt stop.
“What is it?” John asked. That hadn’t sounded like a panicked, hell-bats are coming sort of uh oh, but it couldn’t be a sign of anything good.
“Hold on a minute.” Rodney took a step backward and then came forward again.
“Huh.” His brows went up as he pointed a finger in the general direction of the symbols that only John could see. “I don’t know what that says, but I know what it means.”
“How’s that?” Carson spoke up from where he stood across from Rodney.
“We lose radio contact and transporter lock beyond this point,” Rodney announced. “There is something different here. Maybe the composition of the walls have changed, or we’re within the influence of a dampening field of some kind. Whatever it is, this is the drop away point.”
“All right. I’ll contact Caldwell and let him know what’s going on. I’d like to get an update on how the gate extraction is going anyway.” John stepped back across the line.
He watched Rodney ignore him as he made the contact with the orbiting vessel. On the opposite side of the markings, he showed no sign of hearing Caldwell’s side of the conversation. He was intent on something on his computer.
“How are they doing?” Rodney looked up distractedly as John stepped back into the radio-free side of the tunnel.
“Still duking it out with our bat friends. Caldwell says that the ARGs are showing signs of losing their effectiveness.”
“Losing their effectiveness, like how?” Rodney demanded, his mind already switching gears.
“Like in we need to hurry up and find those control systems,” John re-directed him. Then, “Ronon, Teyla, stay here. Caldwell’s going to send down a couple of people to stand guard in case they need to get hold of us quickly. Once they get here, explain the way back out and then follow us.” They both nodded their agreement and John, Rodney and Carson continued at a faster pace.
“We should be pretty close,” Rodney said as they reached another branching passage. “This way.” He directed to the left.
“Good. The sooner the better.” John dropped a Chem Light as they made the turn to show Ronon and Teyla the way to go.
“I’ve been thinking about that energy reading from before – you know, when the Daedalus first arrived in this star system.” Rodney spoke as they walked.
“Yeah, and after in the jumper, and half the time we’ve been on this world.” John let him know that he’d been paying attention.
“Okay, so I may have been a little preoccupied. But, I think I may have figured it out – at least partly.”
“Really?” John threw him a half grin. He wasn’t surprised. As much as Rodney complained about being Answer Guy, he liked having the answers. His big brain seemed to be wired to work at the problem until he found some kind of solution.
“I think there might be a base in orbit. Nothing large, but it’s the only thing that makes any sense. It would explain the signal location changes we saw when we first arrived. It was probably poling other points on the surface. And it would certainly explain the strange signals we picked up when we arrived.”
“But wouldn’t the Asgard sensors have picked up anything like that?” John was more curious now, too.
“Maybe not. Different perspective, remember?”
“So, how do we find this station, and what does it do?”
“My COMMsniffer’s already caught a whiff. I uploaded a beta version to the Daedalus mainframe. It’s been working the problem since we’ve been here. Maybe we combine that with your eyes…” Rodney sounded hopeful.
“We don’t know how much longer the Colonel’s eyes are gonna do whatever they’re doing. That film will likely wear off in the next 36 – 48 hours. The effects may go away sooner,” Carson said.
“It just needs to last long enough for us to figure out what it is,” Rodney argued.
John tuned them out as he focused on something ahead of them. He couldn’t put his finger on what had changed. “Stop!” he ordered. “There’s something different here.” He studied the machined look of the corridor ahead and realized that the space in front of the wall to the left seemed to be vibrating in place. The wall looked like tiny granules of sand that were being displaced by a deep bass noise, but there was no sound at all.
“What is it?” Rodney asked. “The readings are much stronger here.”
John took that as a sign that they weren’t seeing the motion. He moved closer to it and stopped in front of the space.
“There’s just a wall, but there’s definitely a stronger reading from that direction,” Rodney said.
John reached out toward the vibrating wall and tried not think about all of the bad ways this could go - they had a mission to accomplish. The engineers wouldn’t be able to get down to the planet to uninstall the gate until they took out those bats. And the best way to do that was from the source. So . . .
His hand went right through – no pain or anything - he took a step forward, ignoring the warning cries from the two men behind him. He stepped backward after a second and found himself back in the corridor. “It’s this way.” He grinned at the pair, and broke another couple of Chem Lights, dropping them in front of the wall.
“Couldn’t you have waited for me to check it out?” Rodney demanded. Carson looked none too happy, either.
“There was no time,” John assured them. “Either of you got a Sharpie?”
“Yeah,” Rodney replied, still looking disgruntled as he searched his pockets.
John wrote a quick note and placed it under the lights. “Come on. I think this is the place.”
They stepped through together. By the surprised looks, John was pretty sure they were seeing what he was seeing. The new space reminded him of a circle within a circle. The inner circle was recessed into the outer circle. The outer circle sloped downward at a steep angle leading to the inner section, which also had a ceiling that was significantly lower. John figured it was about 8 feet high.
The outer circle was perhaps five feet wide, but its ceiling was much higher than the inner section. Recessed lights shone dimly high up within the walls ringing the outer area
“This is different,” Rodney said. “I wonder what this room is used for.”
“It’s bloody creepy if you ask me,” Carson piped up.
John couldn’t disagree – there was definitely an eerie feel to the place. He took a moment to mark the doorway leading out with another Chem Light. “I think there may be something over there.” He gestured toward a section farther along the outer circle where a wide area of grayish material connected the two circles at the ceiling.
They moved to stand beneath a vibrating square, which was just above John’s head. He pulled out the Sharpie and drew a square directly on the stone outlining the three foot by three foot space. He then reached a hand up into the area, and found that, like before, it went right through.
“What do you bet that’s the control area?” he asked.
“How are we supposed to get in there?” Rodney complained. “There are no ladders or anything.”
John was already working on that problem. “Give me a boost. I’ll check it out.”
“Are you sure there isn’t someone up there?” Carson didn’t seem to like the idea at all.
“There are no life signs. And this place has been abandoned except for those bats every time we came. It’s more likely this place was left on automatic and is just plain deserted. We have to move forward if we’re going to finish what we came here to do.”
“All right.” Carson stooped and helped John climb up into the new section. John felt for the corner of the floor and hoisted himself up into the space.
“Wow!” he said as he got his first look at the new room. “Rodney, you’re going to love it up here.” He looked up and around at the controls and flashing devices up along the high walls and at something that looked like a console, except it was set pretty high up. “It’s kind of tight up here though. Only one of us can probably fit comfortably at a time.”
“So, you get out, so I can get in,” Rodney said, sounding anxious to get started.
“Okay – give me a sec.” John tried to outline as much as he could of the glowing text on what looked like command buttons. He hoped that would help Rodney to figure this thing out.
Minutes later, they’d switched places, and John was ready for an update. “Rodney? Anything?”
“I’m working on it!” Rodney yelled down at him. “Alien technology, remember?” Then, “Oooh, that’s interesting.” The area around the control room became transparent and John could see McKay standing above them in the control space. Rodney waved.
“That’s pretty cool. Now, can you shut down the bats and fix whatever’s blocking communication?”
Rodney gave him a dirty look. “I’m working on it.”
“You really are a genius, Rodney,” Carson called up to him.
“Do you really have to stoke his ego like that?” John murmured.
“Doesn’t hurt too much every now and then,” Carson replied with a grin.
“Speak for yourself,” John shot back.
“I can hear you, you know,” Rodney said.
“Yes, we know,” John responded.
Carson wandered away from beneath the control section. “I think whomever these beings were, they were physiologically tall and thin.”
“What makes you say that?” John asked, following.
“When you pointed out the symbols, they were fairly high up. Much higher than the usual range for a humanoid who averages about 5 feet 10 or so. Even Wraith controls are within human parameters. And that control room Rodney’s in is high and narrow. Perhaps they prefer high narrow places in dim areas.”
“Okay, I’m following you, Doc,” John encouraged him to continue.
“It’s interesting that the form of life they used to emulate for their UAV is a bat. Bats navigate with a form or sonar. From what you described about the walls seeming to move, it’s possible that these beings use a more evolved version. Humans design their technology based on the world that they’re familiar with. It wouldn’t be a stretch that parts of the Zoan technology may have to do with manipulation of sound in registers that are higher or lower than what we can hear.”
“That actually makes a lot of sense, Carson.” Rodney cut in from where he was working. “I only caught that last part, but it’s giving me an idea.”
“Good. Hurry up. Bats to kill,” John said.
“What about this area?” John turned back to Carson, and gestured down into the inner circle.
They moved into the recessed space and looked up at the higher section. “Maybe storage?” Carson tried.
“Maybe.” John doubted it. There was a disturbance in the air – almost like a sonic shift, that really made sense in light of what Carson had just said. Then Ronon and Teyla appeared in the upper section of the room, looking mildly confused at having just seemingly walked through a stone wall. They immediately headed downward into the lower circle to greet them.
“The guards are waiting as you asked. Colonel Caldwell says that things are becoming more difficult. He has requested an ETA.”
“Rodney?” John called upward toward the clear wall space.
“Wait a minute, I’m on to something. I think I’ve found a way to switch the power from the bats to another system.”
“What’s the other system?”
“I’m not sure yet. It looks like… I don’t know. But I’m switching it… now.”
John caught the change almost immediately. There was a faint shimmer that seemed to wink in mid air. “That definitely did something. Good job, Rodney! Now, how about communications? We need to know if that actually worked.”
“Would you like for Ronon and I to go back to see if Caldwell has noticed a difference?” Teyla asked.
“Yes, go,” Sheppard agreed, frowning as the shift he’d sensed began to take on faint color. He could see it whirling around them. It was starting to make his head hurt a little.
Teyla and Ronon nodded, and headed back up toward the outer circle level. There was a bright flash of light as they neared the top. Their bodies tumbled back down into the circle at John and Carson’s feet.
“Rodney!” John yelled as he stooped to check on Teyla. Carson was already checking Ronon. They were both conscious, but clearly stunned.
“What happened?” Teyla asked groggily.
“I think there’s some kind of force field around this area,” John answered their confused looks at the same time as he communicated the problem to Rodney.
“Some thing is very very wrong!”
John caught the panic loud and clear in Rodney’s tone. “Rodney! What did you do?” The whirling that had started around the lower circle was increasing in intensity. His eyes were starting to burn.
“I turned something on… I don’t know what it is. I just…”
“Well, turn it off, let us get out of here, and then turn it back on.” That sounded perfectly reasonable to John.
“I – I can’t.” Rodney’s terrified voice reached him through the growing swirls. “The system won’t let me. Whatever is happening, it’s building up toward something. It has to finish.”
John stared intently up at Rodney watching him work frantically at the too high controls. “I think I can switch it to a separate area. It’ll be much stronger, but it should work.”
John felt tentative relief. “Where are you moving it to?” he asked. The last thing they needed to do was to run into it.
“There! It’s done.” Rodney looked up and around as if waiting.
The swirling colors that were moving around John, Teyla, Ronon and Carson seemed to sink beneath floor level and then reappear surrounding the control room where Rodney was standing.
“No! Rodney!” John ran up out of the lower circle, and stopped just on the other side of the field that surrounded his friend. “What are you doing?!”
“It was the only way,” Rodney told him, his stance showing his resolve. “Besides, I think I know what this does. If I’m right and it is a transport system to the space base, then I know you’ll find me. You’re probably the only one who can at this point.”
“What if you’re wrong?” John hated the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Then, so long, John.”
The whirlpool of energy coalesced in a brilliant flash containing more colors than John’s brain could comprehend. His synapses whited-out and the world receded.
Steven consciously resisted the urge to pace on the command deck. This mission had been going on for far longer than it should have. The fact that Sheppard’s team had returned with one man down and one missing, presumed dead wasn’t helping matters.
A chime from Marks’ station caught his attention. “Major Marks, please tell me that sound means that we’ve picked up a signal from Dr. McKay’s subcutaneous transmitter.”
“No, sir, I’m sorry.”
“What is it?”
“It seems that long range sensors have detected two vessels approaching.”
“You sound confused, Marks. What kind of vessels do they appear to be?”
“Difficult to tell, sir. The sensor data is sporadic, and the readings are anomalous. But whatever the objects are, they’re moving steadily toward us.”
Steven sighed internally. “How long before they’re in visual range?”
“Current speed and heading – they will be in range in a little over an hour.”
“Let me know immediately of any changes. Open a channel to Lorne’s team.”
“Channel open, sir.”
“Major Lorne, what’s your status?”
“Looks like the docs are wrapping up. We’ll be ready to beam up the gate itself within a few minutes.”
“Good – finish up and get back onboard as soon as you can. I’d like to be out of this star system within the next thirty minutes.”
“Put him down here,” Carson ordered, directing Ronon toward the nearest examination table as soon as they rematerialized in the Daedalus infirmary. Even though he’d still been recovering from the shock he’d received in that cave laboratory, Ronon had insisted on carrying Sheppard back to the beam out point.
“Now, the both of you,” his pointed gaze took in both Teyla and Ronon, “Dr. Meriwether is waiting to get you checked over.”
“Carson.” Teyla didn’t need to say more, her eyes and Ronon’s simmering anger said it all. But there was nothing Carson could do; he could only take care of the living. And to do that, he needed to keep moving lest his own emotions overtake him.
“I need to see to Colonel Sheppard,” he said gently. “We’ll figure out the next steps afterward. Please go with Dr. Meriwether.” He gestured them toward the waiting physician, and watched them go. He then gathered his nerves, and quickly made his way back to Sheppard’s bed. The nurses, efficient loves that they were, had already removed his tac vest and were working on his blood pressure.
“Alright – I’ll need a CBC for starters,” he said as he acquired a stethoscope. “I’ll also -” He was just leaning over the colonel to begin his examination when John’s eyes flew wide open.
“Rodney? Where’s Rodney?” The colonel focused heavily bloodshot, still gray-tinged eyes on Carson. Fear and desperation were obvious in the dark gaze. When Carson took a moment too long to answer, Sheppard tried to sit up, his eyes darting around the room.
“Calm down, John. I need you to relax for me,” Carson told him in soft, measured tones. “We need to get you checked over so we can make sure everything is okay.”
John refocused on him. “If Rodney isn’t here, then everything is not okay.”
“John!” Teyla and Ronon stormed back into the examination area with two Daedalus medical staff on their heels.
“Teyla. Ronon.” Sheppard latched onto his team mates for answers. “Where’s McKay?”
“We lost him. He disappeared in the flash. He’s gone, John.”
“No.” John wouldn’t accept that answer. “He’s not gone. He’s waiting for us to find him.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed and moved past a nurse who quickly scurried out of his way. He ripped off the BP cuff and tossed it down behind him.
“Now, wait just a minute.” Carson tried to slow his patient, but ended up only running after him as he made for the infirmary exit. “Rodney’s my friend, too. Colonel Caldwell has been scanning the planet’s surface looking for any trace. Do you really think you can do any better than that?”
John turned back to face him. “He’s not on the planet. He’s on some base in orbit around this world, waiting for us to find him; waiting for his friends to come and rescue him. Do you understand what I’m saying, Carson?”
The pieces clicked in place in his mind so loudly Carson thought he heard the sound. He remembered clearly waiting for his friends to save him from Michael’s clutches. Even as the months passed, he’d never truly given up hope. And Rodney had been on about something in outer space.
“I’m going with you,” he declared, taking the leap of faith.
John turned and started walking again. “No, you’re not.”
“Do you really think you’re going to be able to convince Caldwell without my medical recommendation?”
“I have it on good authority that Colonel Caldwell is a little miffed at you.”
“Where’d you hear a thing like that?”
“You want to do what?” Steven stared at the group standing before him. Sheppard was looking a little rough around the edges and Dr. Beckett was still wearing a stethoscope. Teyla and Ronon were backing them up.
“We need to use McKay’s program; he’s installed it on the Daedalus network. It’ll help us find the base that he was transported to. And once we find it, we need to be in line of sight.”
“Because only you can see it?” Steven asked, just for confirmation, because even though this was team Sheppard, and he’d heard some pretty crazy things from and about them, this one topped the list.
“Yes.” Sheppard didn’t even blink. He believed every word of what he was saying, and he’d stand by it, no matter how it sounded.
“It’s really a technological marvel,” Beckett was saying, “I believe the microscopic ash that made up those bat creatures likely also allowed them to navigate. The substance has had an unexpected effect when exposed to the human eye. It is somehow interacting with the Colonel’s -”
Steven shot a fiery glance the physician’s way. “Don’t bother with the explanations, Doctor.” Then, back at Sheppard. “Do it, but make it fast. There are two unknown and unidentified vessels headed this way. I have no intention of having this ship anywhere near here when they arrive in just under an hour.”
“I’ll need Dr. Novak’s help. She’s already up to speed on Rodney’s program.” Sheppard didn’t bother to argue for more time.
“Sir?” Lorne gave John a confused look as his team passed him, Teyla, Ronon and Carson as Lorne’s team was on their way out of the jumper.
“No time to explain,” John responded to the half asked question on the move. Then, to Teyla, “How much time do we have left?”
“Forty-two minutes,” Teyla responded.
“Rodney would appreciate the irony,” John said and settled into the pilot’s seat, doing a mental preflight as he went. The jumper was off the deck and moving before the ramp completely sealed. He signaled his departure and guided the small ship into the dark of space.
Rodney had, of course, been right. The base was hidden on the surface of the planet’s moon. John had spotted the large vibrating section of ground from the Daedalus video feed once they’d managed to get a location on the source of the fluctuating signal. The entryway was too small for a vessel the size of the Daedalus, but a jumper would fit just fine. The Daedalus remained in synchronous orbit above the otherwise nondescript mound of moon rock as the jumper shot forward. They arrived in under a minute.
Up close and personal, the bouncing-sand-particle look made John want to rub his eyes. The door was much larger than the jumper and took up the whole of the view screen. The perspective of seemingly flying into the ground wasn’t helping.
“Daedalus.” John squinted as he spoke into the radio, bringing the ship into a hover nose-to-ground above the entry. “We’re going in. See you in a few.”
“You’d better,” Caldwell replied. “Daedalus out.”
“If he’s not careful, we’re going to start to think he likes us,” John remarked, easing the vessel forward. He hoped that this door would be just as friendly as the others on the planet had been. He breathed a half sigh when they came through the other side into absolute darkness.
The jumper’s outer lights illuminated on demand at the same moment the HUD came up. Two notices flashed, one transmitting a directional beacon. “He’s here. The jumper’s picking up his transmitter.” John felt a weight lift from his heart. “Can you get anything on his life signs from this?” he asked Carson.
“Only that he’s alive and stable. Not much more,” Carson replied.
“How are we supposed to get inside?” Ronon asked, staring out the view screen at the large metal tubes and fittings which were set at regular intervals above and around them.
“I don’t know. Maybe Rodney can help.” John tapped his radio and tried to reach his friend. There was no response.
“Perhaps his radio was damaged,” Teyla offered.
“Yeah, maybe.” John continued to guide the ship slowly forward into what was beginning to feel like diving deeper into a well. Finding Rodney was going to be a problem if they couldn’t even find the door. Then the darkness evened out into a dead end. John brought the jumper to a halt.
The wall wasn’t vibrating for him. He bumped it just slightly with the nose of the jumper and received a muted thump for his efforts. “This isn’t helpful.” He backed the jumper away from the wall and turned back in the other direction.
“You aren’t seeing anything out of the ordinary? Anything that looks like it might be a way in?” Carson asked. “Perhaps the effect has worn off.”
“This area looks well used and some of the surfaces are scarred.” Teyla spoke thoughtfully from beside him. “It reminds me of the underside of Atlantis.”
John’s eyes widened. “Or one side of a docking rig. I’ll bet this isn’t a dock for a lot of ships. This is a dock for one ship.” He looked around at the tubes and interlocks and it all made sense. He turned the ship toward the wall and began to slowly rise back toward the entrance. “Look for a symbol or anything that looks like it might be an airlock.”
“And what exactly would an alien airlock look like?” Carson wanted to know.
John shrugged. “Like something that looks different from everything else.”
“There.” Teyla pointed to a portion of wall just ahead. “It bears the sign of the Zoan.”
John directed the jumper in closer. This section of wall was smooth, no pipes. Nothing. He looked at the HUD, noting that Rodney’s life sign was not in this section of the facility. All he probably needed was a nudge.
He turned the jumper and headed away from the ugly Z. The ship lurched slightly as the drone was released. John ignored Carson’s cries of surprise as he rammed the barely glowing weapon into the smooth section beside the Z. He allowed his eyes to go unfocused in deep concentration as he worked to minimize the intensity of the drone’s detonation.
“Colonel! I can’t believe you just did that! You could have blown up this entire base and Rodney and all of us with it!”
“Relax, Carson. There was no more time to try to figure out how to get inside. Now we have a door.” He piloted the jumper toward the new opening. The little ship might have a few scratch marks, but he was able to maneuver it inside. From there, another vibrating area led to the pressurized area of the base.
“All right. We’re here. How much time?” John turned to cloak the ship then started out in the direction of Rodney’s sub-Q.
“Twenty five minutes.”
“We can do this.” Ronon grinned confidently.
“That’s the spirit.”
The inside of the base was all dark surfaces. They moved through the corridors quickly and without resistance. Only one other life sign shown on the LSD; not a single energy spike indicating a swarm of bats might be on the way.
John supposed that being able to hide in plain sight literally was an excellent tactical advantage. He had a feeling whoever these guys were, they’d be rethinking security for their remote bases once they figured out that someone had gotten the key to their house and rearranged a few things.
“I think this is it.” John came to a stop outside of a tall section of wall at the end of a long corridor. The door’s surface seemed to extend all the way up to the ceiling. With a final check of the LSD, he led the team through. There had been dim lighting in the corridors, but in this room the darkness was so complete, it seemed as if the meager light from their P-90s was being absorbed before it reached more than a few feet. Even the flooring was different. Their footsteps were oddly muted as if the floor was literally drawing the sound away.
“Rodney,” John called into the surrounding darkness, shining his P-90 around them. The words sounded flat. He could make out narrow alcoves full of consoles placed around the perimeter of the wall to the right. The individual consoles were reminiscent of the control room in the cave.
“McKay.” Ronon joined in when there was no response.
Teyla headed off to one side while John moved farther forward. After a dozen paces, his light caught a raised section of floor. Rodney lay crumpled at the base of it, his tablet inches away beside his head.
“Rodney!” John called, then, “I’ve found him. Over here.” He ran forward and knelt near his friend but waited for Carson to do the examination. Rodney lay half on his side; a thick trail of congealed blood was visible along the side of his face.
Everyone gathered near and waited, dividing their attention between Carson’s practiced motions and ensuring that no last minute surprises came at them out of the darkness.
“He’s obviously suffered a nasty bump to the head, but there are no obvious broken bones,” Carson finally announced. “His breathing is okay for the moment, but I really need to get him back to the Daedalus to figure out anything more.”
“All right.” John rested a hand briefly against Rodney’s shoulder, though he knew he wouldn’t feel it. Then, “We need to get moving.”
“I’ve got him.” Ronon stepped forward and pulled McKay up into his arms. Carson grabbed Rodney’s tablet and stowed it with the rest of his equipment.
“Teyla, time?” John asked as he led the way out.
“Looks like this is going to be a photo finish.”
“Shouldn’t you be resting?”
Rodney looked up from his tablet at Teyla’s voice. Sheppard and Ronon stood behind her, both wearing obnoxious expressions. He would have rolled his eyes, but concussions and eye-rolling didn’t seem to be good bedfellows at the moment.
“This is restful,” he argued, going back to the data on the computer’s screen to tap an added command before setting it at his bedside. “Besides, I think I might have made a little bit of headway in figuring out how to create a filter so we can see in Zoan vision.”
“I don’t think they’re going to be inviting us back with open arms anytime soon,” John said. “We barely managed to get you out of there and jump into hyperspace before their ships arrived.”
“But we still know next to nothing about them. Now that we know they’re out there, we should, as you would say, gather some intel. We still don’t even know what they look like.”
“Or why they take people from certain worlds,” Teyla added.
“Or how they’re going to react to our taking their stargate,” John put in.
“Well, they kind of started it when they spammed our gate and tried to break our codes,” Rodney defended. “Besides relocating gates is a tried and true technique; the Ancients did it. They’ve got to be used to it by now.”
“They’re probably not used to us blowing holes in their space stations from the inside.” Ronon threw the statement out there.
“Wait? You what?” Rodney looked at Sheppard askance. “What is it with the two of you and blowing things up?”
“It worked, didn’t it?” John looked wounded. “How else were we supposed to get you out of there?”
“We did it to save you, Rodney.” Teyla interrupted the argument. “Despite odds and evidence to the contrary, John would not let us give up on you.”
Rodney’s face heated in embarrassment. “I know that. Thank you all, by the way, for... you know, saving my life and what not.”
“You started it.” John smirked, but there was something more serious in his eyes.
“He’s always starting something,” Ronon teased.
“Perhaps we should start lunch,” Teyla suggested.
“Lunch sounds good,” Rodney agreed.