Art By Lily

 

Betaed By ReeAnn

 

EMAIL: Padawan-Aneiki

 

EMAIL: Lily

 

Prologue

 

“How’d we get stuck with this job, anyway?”

 

“’Stuck?’  Come on, L.T.  This is exciting stuff...we’re exploring the unknown, in another galaxy even.  You can’t tell me you’re bored already, sir.”

 

Lieutenant Parker Davis shrugged a little.  “Oh, I’m thrilled.  We’ve found plenty of ten-thousand-year-old dust-bunnies.  Terrific.”  The officer exhaled sharply when he realized he was speaking to thin air.  “Spence?  Spence!”  It was bad enough that they had to drag a bunch of geeks into the guts of the City without losing his only other company, even if it was a jarhead like Spence.

 

“In here, L.T.!”  Sergeant Spencer Halverson called out, bringing Davis and the three scientists assigned to them to a small room around the corner from the hallway they’d just been walking down.  Another small room, that is, as they had run into a series of them with no discernable purpose.

 

“What now, Spence?” Parker huffed.  “This is just a wild goose chase.  If there was anything useful down here, the Ancients took it with them.  This section is completely mothballed.”  Flicking on the light of his P-90, the lieutenant added the illumination to Halverson’s light, casing what looked to be a stripped-down laboratory.  Several of the consoles showed evidence of equipment removal, and one was actually opened up, crystals haphazardly arranged inside and outside.  “See what I mean?  They ripped it all up and carted it back with them when they abandoned the City.  I bet half the stuff is either in Antarctica or at the SGC.”

 

Halverson visibly deflated, even as he wandered over to the broken-up console and inspected the various crystals.  “Half the reason I wanted this one was that I was hoping I’d get to...you know, turn something on, make it work.”  Spence was a relative rookie to the Stargate program, brought onboard when they’d learned he had the Ancient gene.  In a halfhearted gesture, he waved his hand over the console like a magician.

 

“Come on, David Copperfield,” Parker nodded toward the door.  “Let’s get the rest of this over with so we can go eat.  I’m starving.”  He wandered back out into the hallway.  Spence sighed wistfully, glancing around once more before heading toward the door, wishing that he’d found something exciting or important to report.

 

Deep within the console, a light pulsed softly as the door slid closed behind them.

 

ACT ONE

 

Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard frowned slightly in concentration, one foot slightly ahead of the other, waiting and watching.

 

Across from him, Teyla Emmagan smiled just slightly as she effortlessly twirled one of her bantos rods.  Her expression grew quite serious, however, as she took a step to the right, forcing Sheppard to do the same.  “It has been some time since we have sparred,” she said lightly as she observed the colonel’s stance and bearing.  “Has Ronon managed to advance your training?”

 

John snorted.  “If, by ‘advance my training,’ you mean ‘beat the crap out of me, repeatedly,’ then yeah, he’s done that,” he quipped as he hefted his own rods.  His sparring sessions with their Satedan team-mate frequently resulted in multiple bruises, but more recently he’d scored some good hits along the way.

 

Teyla took the initiative, testing the colonel’s defenses with a series of quick strikes.  The sharp crack of wood on wood resonated in the air and she was pleased to find John’s reflexes, already agile, were much quicker and more precise as he blocked each one.  “You have improved,” she declared as they circled each other once more.  “You are faster, more accurate.”

 

“Gotta be when you’re trying not to get smacked upside the head,” John replied easily, circling warily.  Moments later, he went on the offensive, striking high with his left hand even as his right moved toward the opening Teyla’s block made near her midriff with an almost backhanded sort of motion.  The Athosian easily batted away the high strike but just barely blocked the body-shot, forced back a step as she did so.  Momentum on his side, John let it carry him forward, turning at the last moment to sweep her legs.  He only managed to catch her right leg, but it was enough as she took an extra step sideways and he was able to swat Teyla’s upper arm and back as she tried to turn away from the blow.  “You all right?” he asked as she regrouped.

 

“Yes.  Well done, John,” Teyla praised, and John grinned a little.

 

“Almost makes those regular beat-downs worth it,” he said as he waved a rod toward the center of the sparring ring.  “Don’t tell Chewie I said that, though or—”

 

 

Colonel Sheppard, please report to Science Lab 3.”  Rodney McKay’s familiar voice came over the City-wide, interrupting any opportunity Teyla might have taken in that moment to take advantage of John’s brief distraction.  “Colonel Sheppard, Science Lab 3.”

 

“The call of the wild,” John joked, shifting both of his rods to one hand and crossing over to the bag he normally carried them in, rooting around for his radio.  “Sheppard,” he responded once he had the little earpiece snugly in place.  “What is it, Rodney?  You know I promised Teyla a sparring session this afternoon.  This had better be good.”

 

Oh, pardon me for interrupting recess while some of us are doing actual work,” Rodney huffed.  As Teyla drew alongside John, replacing her own earpiece, a slight smile played across her features; after five years she was well acquainted with her team-mates’ usual bickering.  “I’ve been trying to raise you for the past fifteen minutes, you know.”

 

“I told you, I was sparring with Teyla,” John repeated, slowly and deliberately.  “Off. Radio.”

 

Well, whatever,” Rodney simply glossed over it.  “I have something important I’d like you to see here.”

 

“I also told you this had better be good, McKay,” John replied, a hint of light irritation in his tone.

 

Must I repeat myself, Colonel?  I said it was important, did I not?

 

John rolled his eyes a little for Teyla’s benefit, but he was already placing his sparring rods into the bag.  “On the McKay sliding scale, where does this one fall?  ’Imminent Death and Destruction’ important, or ‘Crap, There’s No More Coffee’ important?”

 

What?” Rodney squawked, and Teyla suppressed the urge to laugh at the smirk John wore.  “Well, I imagine it’s a lot closer to the first one than the second one—

 

“I’m on my way,” John confirmed.

 

“—although caffeine’s contribution to scientific genius is largely underestimated—

 

“Be there in five, Meredith.  Sheppard out,” John shut off the radio and raised an eyebrow.  “Might as well check it out,” he invited as he gathered up his gear.  “Coming?”

 

“I will meet you in Rodney’s lab,” Teyla confirmed.

 

Upon arriving in Science Lab 3 as requested, Sheppard found McKay muttering to himself and pacing between two tables, each containing a laptop, with the occasional pause at one computer or the other to type something.  McKay was completely absorbed; after a few moments’ observation Sheppard concluded the scientist was genuinely agitated and it was unlikely to be a tempest in a teapot.  Or coffeepot, as the case may be.  He cleared his throat just loudly enough to be noticed, and Rodney paused in his work on one of the machines to look up, startled.

 

“Oh, Sheppard,” Rodney exclaimed, hand-over-heart, but declining to follow it up with the usual claims of a near-death experience.  “Good, you’re here.  Come take a look at this.”  He waved a hand at laptop Number One as John came closer.

 

Sheppard frowned.  “What exactly am I supposed to be looking at?” he asked as his eyes flicked over charts and grids that resembled a lie-detector graph and something that looked suspiciously like a graphic equalizer.  “This isn’t looking all that promising for a spot next to Imminent Death and Destruction.”

 

“Give it time,” McKay replied archly.  “What you’re looking at, is a representation of the City’s power grid, on an incredibly precise scale.  These two,” he pointed at the screen, “are various power requirements according to the Ancient database and our own equipment in real time.  These,” Rodney stabbed a finger at a pair of the lie-detector graphs, “chart actual power being drawn from the naquadah generators and from the Zed-PM by the various systems—Ops, shield generation, sensors, and secondary systems, etcetera, etcetera right down to individual workstations and computers.”

 

“And this thing?” John raised an eyebrow, indicating the graphic-equalizer-looking screen.  “Looks like the bass needs a boost,” he quipped.

 

“Funny, Colonel Eminem,” Rodney retorted but continued.  “’That thing’ is currently tracking a variance between what the system says we need, and what we’re actually drawing.”  He stood back a moment, and John bent closer to the computer, going from one program to another.

 

“We’re drawing more than we’re using,” John surmised after a moment, glancing at Rodney briefly before returning to the laptop monitor.  “A lot more, looks like.”  He reached up and rubbed his forehead briefly as he straightened away from the computer.  “For what?  Where’s it all going?”

 

“Ah, now that is the question,” McKay raised a forefinger into the air.  “I’ve been conducting a City-wide systems sweep over here.”  He moved to the second computer.  “Something is steadily drawing negligible amounts of power from the Zed-PM and the generators, and then dispersing it in a nebulous sort of pattern throughout the City but I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly where the extra power is going.  As you see, right there, none of Atlantis’ primary or secondary operations utilize power this way.”  McKay nodded back to the first computer.

 

John straightened up, a dubious look on his face.  “Sure it’s not just an efficiency issue, or a...distribution glitch?”

 

“Please,” Rodney scoffed.  “First of all, I’ve already thought of that and run a diagnostic evaluation on the entire system.  It’s not a malfunction.  Remember the run-in with the Ancient ascension device?  Back when I was a super-genius, I modified the system to make it the most efficient power delivery system in two galaxies.  Those modifications are still in place.  I bet not even an Asgard could improve on it.”  He paused.  “That is, if there were a few around here who wanted to try.”

 

John just gave Rodney a wise look.  “I’m just as happy that there aren’t,” he stated flatly; he didn’t even want to think about the renegade Asgard coming back to Atlantis.  One hand strayed briefly back to his forehead before gesturing at the computer that was trying to track down the source of the discrepancy.  “Looks like you’ve got a puzzle on your hands,” he commented before canting his head.  “But not exactly up there with imminent death.”

 

“Well,” Rodney rubbed his hands together, “not at the moment, no, but as you know a power drain like this could cause some serious problems down the line—it could interfere with the sensors, cloak, the ‘Gate—”

 

“Of course it could; I got that,” John stated flatly.  “But we’re not there yet, not even close, according to this.  You’ve got more than enough time to figure out what’s going on.”  The colonel grinned.  “I mean, this doesn’t look like an impossible feat in need of a DNA-manipulated super genius; I’m sure your everyday genius will be fine.”

 

It was worth the look that McKay gave him.

 

“May I remind you, that my ‘everyday genius,’ as you so blithely put it, is considerable all on its own, thank you very much,” the scientist snapped as he turned back to the first laptop.  “It’s saved every life in Atlantis—including yours by the way—more times than you have fingers and toes for.”

 

“Including the extra ones that just came in?” John asked casually, gesturing toward the door, where Teyla was entering the lab.  Annoyed, Rodney looked up to see who had joined them, began to type, and then looked at John again.

 

 

“Probably,” he sniffed and leaned over the computer once more.

 

“What is the situation?” Teyla asked as she looked from one team-mate to the other, her bearing alert and ready.

 

“Not exactly death and destruction,” John said calmly, as he picked up the gym bag with his bantos rods that he’d left by the door on entering.  “Yet,” he amended when Rodney glared.  “Rodney’s found a glitch with the City’s power system; I’m assuming he’s reported the problem to Mr. Woolsey?” John cocked his head, his expression asking Rodney to produce a ‘yes’ in reply.

 

“Yes, yes, of course,” McKay confirmed, a hand waving them off.  “Our esteemed leader has been duly informed.”

 

“And?”

 

“And, he reacted about the same way you did; the City’s not about to vaporize itself, go ahead and investigate, keep me posted, so on and so forth,” Rodney declared, huffing a little.

 

“Well, there you go,” John waved a hand at the computers.  “Atlantis isn’t about to vaporize; go ahead and investigate the problem, and keep me posted.”

 

“Thank you for that insightful summary.  I’ll be getting back to work, now.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Sheppard raised an eyebrow before looking to Teyla; belatedly realizing she had changed from her sparring outfit into more typical clothing.  “Guess going back to the gym isn’t gonna happen.”

 

“Perhaps we can try again later,” Teyla answered apologetically.  “Torren is scheduled to receive a...vaccination, from Jennifer soon.  She said he is likely to be quite cranky for a time afterward—”

 

“Of course he’s going to be cranky,” Rodney interrupted; a distasteful look on his face.  “He’s about to get stabbed with a big needle in his little rear-end.  What?” he exclaimed as he realized the other two were looking at him.  “That’s enough to make anybody cranky.”

 

“—and I thought I would get something to eat before I must take Torren to the infirmary,” Teyla finished.

“I could deal with lunch,” John agreed, hefting the bag and following Teyla out into the hallway.  “Mind if I come along?”

 

“I think I can be persuaded to bear your company, Colonel,” she replied lightly as they continued on.

 

“Hey!  Hey, I could deal with lunch, too!” Rodney called out after them, but too late as the doors closed behind his teammates, leaving him to his computers and this one rather annoying problem.

++++++

 

Bare feet padded along the corridors of Atlantis; the quiet slap of flesh on cool floors in the middle of the night disturbing no one but providing a counterpoint of sorts to the pulse throbbing in the walker’s temples.

 

Carson Beckett glanced up from perusing a medical file as the infirmary doors slid open to admit a barefoot, disheveled, pajama-clad John Sheppard, and he frowned slightly.  “Colonel?” he greeted, placing the file aside and rising from the work station.  “Are ye all right?  What can I do for ye?”

 

John rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.  “Hey, Doc,” he replied gamely with a brief, albeit strained smile as the hand strayed from the base of his skull to scrub across his forehead.  “How’d you end up pulling the night watch?  Get on somebody’s bad side?”

 

Carson’s frown deepened as the colonel’s stance shifted from one foot to the other.  He might not be the original Carson Beckett but he knew John Sheppard well enough to be aware the colonel was in pain, awkward mannerisms aside.  It was in the slight tightening around the hazel eyes, the careful movements despite the casual slouch, the hint of paleness in his complexion, and yes, the obvious signals in John’s bearing and tone of voice.

 

“I volunteered,” Carson answered John’s rhetorical question with a somewhat deadpan look, before motioning to a nearby infirmary bed.  “Come on, lad, I can see ye’r hurtin’.  What’s troublin’ ye?”

 

“It’s just a headache, Doc,” John resisted the invitation to be poked and prodded.  “No big deal; figured I’d sleep it off but that’s not working so well.”  Carson was unsurprised at the colonel’s refusal to be examined, and he folded his arms across his chest as John continued, “I just wanted to come down and get something to take the edge off.”

 

“How about ye tell me how long that headache’s been botherin’ ye first?” he prompted, and John grimaced in reaction.

 

“Uhm,” he fumbled a moment, reaching up to rub at his temple.  “It came on sometime, I dunno, maybe around lunchtime.  I went up to the mess hall with Teyla, had a sandwich, took some Tylenol; went on with my day.  But it never really went away.  Tomorrow we’ve got Woolsey’s staff meeting and I said I’d help Rodney in the chair room with some diagnostic test thing he wants to run.  I don’t really want to do either one without some sleep.”

 

“Are ye sayin’ Mr. Woolsey’s meetin’s run a mite on the borin’ side?” Carson kidded, but he was observing his potential patient keenly as he took the few steps necessary to join the colonel.

 

“I’m saying I’d like a few hours’ sleep, preferably in my own quarters, rather than anyplace else,” John stated, his tone somewhat diplomatic yet his expression, albeit a little pale, was somewhat amused.

 

“Aye,” Carson agreed, but still reached for John’s wrist nonetheless, taking his pulse and using the few moments to take stock of the man up close.  While there was a slight squint to John’s eyes, the colonel didn’t seem to be photosensitive, and neither was he presenting any overt symptoms beyond the obvious sleeplessness.  Short of hustling John beneath a scanner to check him over head to toe, there wasn’t much the physician could do beyond the absurdly appropriate cliché, ‘Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.’

 

“Carson?” John murmured after a few moments of standing there with his forearm being held captive while he was visually scrutinized, and the doctor released his wrist.

 

“Sorry, lad.  Are ye experiencin’ any other symptoms? Nausea, blurred vision?”  He couldn’t have said for certain what was prompting him toward the extra caution, but there was a niggling concern brewing in the back of his mind.

 

“Just the headache, that’s it, I promise,” John declared flatly, tiredly.  Carson nodded and patted his shoulder.

 

“All right, I’ll be right back with somethin’ that’ll tone down the thumpin’ head.”  Giving John a reassuring smile, Carson headed for the cabinet containing the particular medication he was after.  Tearing off a strip of the blister pack, he returned and placed the pair of pills into the colonel’s hand.  “That should help ye sleep as well.  Take ‘em with plenty o’ water, an’ if ye dunna feel better in the mornin’, I want ta take a look at ye.”

 

“Thanks, Doc,” John murmured gratefully.  “I’m sure I’ll be fine; I just gotta get some sleep.”

 

 

“Off wi’ ye, then,” Carson encouraged; John mock-saluted him with the small blister strip containing his salvation and started out of the infirmary.  John paused at the door, however, and glanced back with a wan but somewhat wicked smile.

 

“See ya bright and early in the conference room...BYOE.”

 

Carson’s puzzlement was evident in a faint frown.  “BYO—?” he began.

 

“Bring Your Own Entertainment.  The part about the new requisition forms is likely to be...a little dull.”

 

Shaking his head, Carson couldn’t help the quiet chuckle that left him, as John escaped the Infirmary.  It faded away, however, as he hoped the colonel would indeed be fine come morning.

++++++

 

Having taken the painkillers, John gratefully crawled into his bed, pulling the blanket along with him as his aching head found the pillow.  Sighing softly, he closed his eyes, willing the medication to work quickly; the stubborn throbbing made his head feel a few sizes too small for his brain.  John curled onto his side, pulling the pillow down with him.  Gradually painful tension that had plagued him all day began to give way to comfortable drowsiness and he made a mental note to thank Carson again later.

 

The line between conscious thought and dreaming blurred; John felt a little fuzzy and was still awake enough to mentally grumble about it, but the whispering felt more surreal, like part of a dream.  The first voice was feminine, and soft; it reminded him of Elizabeth in a way, and below the drowsy layers he felt a brief stab of guilt.  It was joined by others—male, female—a multi-layered sound that John still just barely registered it was so quiet.

 

The whispering continued, indistinctly but persistently, weaving in and out of his awareness until it dragged John back to wakefulness.  He uncurled slowly, uncertain at first just why he was awake until he heard it again, and he frowned heavily.  It was going to be a long enough day as it was; Carson’s pills were supposed to be buying him a few hours’ rest before he had to face it, and now people were talking outside his door.

 

Grumpily pushing up from the bed, John shuffled to the door and palmed it open.

 

“You know, some of us are trying—to—” He paused as the door opened onto an empty hallway, and the frown deepened as he stepped out and looked both ways.  There was no one in sight, and as he cocked his head, listening, he could no longer hear the sibilant voices.  “—sleep,” he finished to himself, running a hand through his hair.

 

Irritated, John made his way back to bed and sat there for a moment, listening, but there was no sound aside from his own breathing.  Tiredly he collapsed back onto his bed, closed his eyes, and finally dropped off to sleep.

++++++

 

“You could’ve at least pretended to pay attention,” Rodney grumbled as he powered up his datapad.  “I’m almost an hour behind now, thank you very much.”

 

“I said I’m sorry,” John tried not to snap, but he couldn’t help the slight edge to his tone.  “I told you, I didn’t sleep all that well last night.”  He slouched a bit as he continued down the hall with the scientist, exhaling slowly in an attempt to release his irritation.  They entered the chair room, and as he waited for Rodney to get set up, John absently rubbed the back of his neck.

 

“Be that as it may—” Rodney replied distractedly as he plugged his datapad in and entered a pair of commands, “—sitting through a second explanation of the revised procedure for tracking department inventories was sheer torture.”

 

John grimaced; he couldn’t have zoned out during something quick and easy to repeat, that would be far too easy.  Instead he’d nearly dozed off at the worst possible part of the presentation, necessitating a repeat of some of the information he’d missed, much to Woolsey’s displeasure and McKay’s continued dismay.  The only reason he’d managed to avoid falling into the clutches of a concerned Beckett was the continuing energy drain on the City; McKay had claimed the inability to conduct his next set of tests without parking John in the Chair.

 

Whether or not that was technically true, John had latched onto it, blaming his tiredness on leftovers from the painkillers and a shortened night’s sleep, promising that he’d turn in early and get a real night’s rest.  Carson had threatened him with a battery of tests if he didn’t; Rodney just snorted, stated nobody in the City ever got a real night’s rest, and proceeded with dragging John out of the conference room.

 

“Trust me, my first thought of the day isn’t ‘how can I make McKay’s life more miserable,’” John contended, although he dredged up a grin apart from his irritation and tacked on, “At least, not today.”

 

“Oh, funny,” Rodney replied blandly as he finished his preparations.  “Okay, then,” he changed subjects in the next breath, “sit down and bring up the City’s power regulation matrix; we’ll start there.”

 

John exhaled and pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning on, crossing over to the Ancient Chair. He glanced at Rodney briefly, received a ‘come on, hurry up’ motion for his trouble, and then tiredly sat down.  The familiar blue glow announced the Chair’s response to the presence of his ATA gene, and John slid backward as the Chair tilted away to accommodate him.  He couldn’t quite keep a yawn from slipping out, even as the usual sensations of sitting in the Ancient device flowed over him.

 

John had never come up with words good enough to explain how it felt; the closest description was a tingling in his spine, like a very faint static charge, running through his nervous system, although that was a poor analogy for it.  That initial connection, almost like a buzz in the background, was followed by a warm feeling that began in his hands, where they pressed against the armrest controls, and spread upward through his arms and then throughout his body between one breath and the next.

 

The physical sensations were nothing compared to the mental ones.  As the Chair “connected” him to Atlantis’ systems, he became hyper-aware of the massive City.  He knew, like a sixth sense, the City’s general operational status.  Shield generation, availability of the star-drive, how many drones were at his disposal all flooded into his mind like a standard checklist.  The power at his command thrummed through him, making him aware of the tiny fluctuations that occurred as McKay made adjustments through the datapad.  It was a heady sensation, that feeling of becoming a living link in Atlantis’ considerable capabilities.

 

John reached for the information Rodney had requested, and was aware of it flowing through him, in a way, as the schematic appeared above them.  He didn’t bother to open his eyes; he knew it was there, floating in blue holographic detail.  John manipulated the controls and zeroed in on specific readings and controls as Rodney asked for them, only half paying attention to the various grumblings, mutterings, and cursing that alternated throughout the exercise.  Instead, he found himself zoning a little on the hum of the City, ever present, as he brought up another set of schematics for McKay.

 

The hum deepened—coalesced—separated into tones.

 

John frowned just slightly.  The distinct notes, almost voice-like, caressed him like soft fingertips on his skin.  They were so ephemeral, barely a breath before melting back into a singular buzz at the back of his brain once again.  Each one, barely distinguishable from the others, washed over him along with the rest of the usual sensations he received from the Chair.

 

“What was—?” John murmured to himself.  He blinked his eyes open, head turning to view Rodney, who was still busily working.  He realized after a moment that somehow he’d still been aware of Rodney’s requests as a completely different schematic hovered above them and Rodney didn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by it.  Okay, then, John thought, closing his eyes once again and centering his attention back on the City.

 

The Chair, McKay, the room around him faded away from conscious thought as he focused on the familiar hum of Atlantis, his connection amplified by the Ancient Chair.  It was some moments before the tones reappeared, first one, then three, then five and then more, maybe many more, still barely detectable but definitely in harmony.  John listened; it was the most amazing thing he’d heard in five years of living in and defending the ten-thousand-year-old City.  Something, he realized—with some surprise—that he’d never heard before.

 

Sssheppard.

 

“Sheppard!”

 

John sucked in a startled breath, awareness flooding in on him and bringing with it an annoyed—and somewhat anxious—Rodney McKay, hand hovering in midair between them.  Rodney’s hand fell away as he realized John’s eyes had opened.  Deactivating the Chair and sitting up, John blinked dazedly and reached up to massage his right temple in a vain attempt to appease the miniature Ronon in his head bashing his brain with a sparring rod.

 

S’body said m’ name,” John mumbled, not entirely with it just yet and the look Rodney gave him was nothing short of astounded.

 

I did,” Rodney declared.  “I have been for the past five minutes; it’s about time you woke up.”

 

“What?” John frowned in confusion.  “I was just—”

 

“You fell asleep, and I couldn’t wake you up.” Rodney supplied the obvious, his arms now folding across his chest to hide the fact that he’d been anxious enough to check John’s pulse.  “What’s the matter with you today?  I mean, you look like crap,” Rodney fumbled, concern clear in his eyes despite his demanding tone.  John closed his eyes briefly, willing away the ache that seemed to spike behind his eyes and thunder through his temples.  When he looked up again there was no trace of Rodney’s affected annoyance; only the anxious concern remained behind.

 

 

“Lack of sleep can do that,” John groused, not particularly caring at the moment if he sounded ticked off.  “Weird dreams,” he muttered after a moment, and ire drained away into puzzlement.  He glanced at Rodney again, and the scientist was watching him intently, probably waiting for some kind of explanation.

 

“And?” McKay finally prompted, his gaze unwavering.  “I’ve seen your dreams; they’re too much like your day job.”

 

“And—” John trailed off, as if trying to draw up the memory and he shook his head slightly.  “It wasn’t anything like that.  I think—I think I heard something.  Kinda sounded like Elizabeth,” he admitted, and wasn’t surprised at the predictably sorrowful look on Rodney’s face in response.  It was, months later, still too soon after their brush with Elizabeth’s ‘consciousness.’  Too soon after the Replicator housing that consciousness walked through the Stargate into open space to protect the City.  Unbidden, John shivered.

 

“I never said anything,” Rodney cleared his throat awkwardly.  “But for days after—after the Wraith siege, that first year, I dreamed about Ford.”  The look John gave him made Rodney grimace, and the scientist hunched his shoulders and returned to the computer, but his curiosity drove him on.  “That was, uh, were you were dreaming?  About Elizabeth, I mean?”

 

John stared now, his brows furrowing into a frown.  “I, I don’t know,” he said uncertainly.  It was as if the past fifteen minutes had simply vanished into the ether, and he suddenly felt impossibly tired.  “Let’s just get this over with,” he finally declared.  Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and reactivated the Chair.  The sooner he finished poking around in the City for Rodney, the sooner he could get out of here and crawl into the biggest bottle of Tylenol he could find.

 

“Are you sure you, you know—” Rodney straightened away from the computer, watching his rather pale companion closely.  “This is gonna—this might take awhile.”

 

John sighed heavily, but nodded anyway despite the echoing ache the motion brought along with it.  “Yeah, I’m sure.  Let’s figure this thing out already so we can get out of here and do something else with our day.”  He was sure that McKay could see right through him, but presently he didn’t care.  After a moment, the scientist made his first request, and John concentrated on the Chair, accessing the specified information.  Doing his best to ignore both the pulsing headache within and the enticing hum of the City without, he simply paid attention to the directions he was given and the ragged tattoo of McKay’s typing.

++++++

 

John.  John.

 

John bolted upright in bed, a tangle of bedding around him and a thin sheen of perspiration on his forehead, breathing hard and yet—yet it didn’t feel like the aftermath of any number of nightmares that could be counted on waking him up at odd hours of the night.  It felt more like it had as a kid, being awakened to start the day, or— No, John realized, frowning slightly.  It felt like a radio summons in the middle of the night, and for a brief moment he nearly snatched up the little earpiece at his bedside.

 

John.

 

Sheppard froze at the sound of his whispered name.

 

“Elizabeth?” he said hoarsely, barely able to speak.  He listened intently, but he heard nothing, sensed nothing aside from his still pounding heart.  “You’re losin’ it, buddy,” he chastised himself and pulled at the blanket pooled around his knees, aware of a faint nagging ache still present at the base of his skull.  After leaving the Chair, John had barely managed to get down half a sandwich and three Tylenol for the raging headache.  More of them had followed as the day went on, but amazingly this time the little pills managed to keep the throbbing to a tolerable level, allowing him to go through his day with a minimum amount of fuss.

 

Unhappy with the recent direction of his dream life, John exhaled roughly and returned to his pillow, tugging the blanket with him.  For long seconds, he stared into the darkness, his throat constricting as he replayed that last moment in his mind, the Replicator’s gaze before she stepped into deep space.  There was nothing more definitively Elizabeth Weir than sacrificing herself for Atlantis—again.  Having to leave her behind on the Replicator homeworld was one of the hardest things he had ever done.

 

John.  This time there was no doubt; he was wide awake and had heard his name.  John sat up instantly, frowning, listening.  “What?” he finally asked.  “Who are you?  Where are you?”

 

I am here, John, the reply came.  John looked around alertly, but there was no-one—and nothing—to see.

 

“I don’t see anything,” he stated flatly, into the dark and quiet.  There was another lengthy pause, and just when John was about to reach for his radio to summon—somebody, McKay maybe—it came back.

 

John!  You have to help me...help us all!  The radio was forgotten as the urgent plea had John scrambling to his feet, instinctively switching on the desk lamp beside his bed and then turning it off just as quickly when the light pierced his eyes like a blade.  He bowed his head sharply, cringing from the headache’s unexpected, savage return.  Blinking away after images, John fumbled awkwardly beside the lamp; finally his questing fingers found his nine-mil and he pulled it free from its holster.  Come quickly!

 

Wh...Where...?” he murmured as he turned unsteadily toward the door.  “I’m coming,” he promised, despite having no clue where he was going.  The nine-mil in John’s right hand, the heel of his left went to his forehead as the summons was issued again, seeming to pummel his brain.

 

John only managed a few steps before his legs gave way and he crumbled to his knees, handgun abandoned to the floor, both fists pressed against his temples.  The voice was finally silenced as he collapsed completely, just shy of the door, as the crushing tide of pain and darkness swept him away.

 

To Act II