Intelligencia

 

By Padawan-Aneiki

 

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.

 

ACT TWO

 

Beckett!  Medical emergency, Sheppard’s quarters!

 

The summons was as startling as it was unexpected.  Carson pushed up immediately from his bed before he was completely awake; one hand swiped over his face and the other one plucked up his radio.  Fitting the little device into his ear with one hand, he picked up his watch with the other; not quite five A.M. local Atlantis time.

 

“Who is this?” he demanded as he snatched up a pair of pants and worked his waking body into them.  “Ronon?”

 

Yeah, Sheppard’s down,” the Satedan’s voice replied over the radio, his tone tense.  “Got a pulse, he’s breathing, but he’s not moving—totally knocked out.”

 

“Dunna move him, lad,” Carson commanded first.  “I’m on my way.”  He grabbed the lab coat from the back of his chair; it was easier to pull it off the chair than to take time to dig in the pockets for the things he wanted.  “Ronon, lad, do ye see any obvious signs o’ injury? Any bruisin’ or bleedin’?”  There was no response for a moment as he headed for the colonel’s quarters; he assumed Ronon was checking his team leader over.

 

No,” Ronon answered when he was finished.  “Don’t see anything; no blood or anything like that.”

 

Carson would take that as a good sign.  “Beckett ta Infirmary; I want a medical team with a gurney in Colonel Sheppard’s quarters, stat!”  Taking the shortest route to John’s personal quarters, he arrived to find the door open with Ronon protectively watching over the prone lieutenant colonel.  “Ronon,” he greeted as the Satedan smoothly rose to make way for him.

 

“Doc,” Ronon responded in kind, watching closely as Carson pressed fingers to John’s wrist, taking a pulse.  “Thought he was dead at first,” Ronon continued, indicating John with a loose wave of his hand and a worried frown.  “His face—it’s too pale.”

 

“Aye, he’s a mite peaked,” Carson agreed as he pulled the stethoscope from the pocket of his lab coat.  “Pulse is verra rapid,” he noted, mostly to himself as he leaned over John’s inert form, working his hand under the teeshirt collar to press the bell against his patient’s chest, listening to heart and lungs.  “Respiration’s a bit too fast.  Chest is clear, though—”

 

“Sheppard gonna be okay?” Ronon asked in spite of it being unlikely that Carson would have much of an idea yet about what was wrong with John, let alone if he was going to recover from it properly.

 

“He will be if I have anythin’ ta say about it,” Carson reassured in a firm tone.  It wasn’t the first time they’d bumped into the unknown in Pegasus and certainly wouldn’t be the last.  Nor was it the first time facing something strange in connection to this particular patient; everything from Iratus bugs and altered DNA to bullet wounds and crash landings.  Carson refused to consider the odds that today could be the day John Sheppard ran out of luck.

 

Ruling out broken bones with a practiced, fast but thorough physical assessment, Carson very carefully shifted John onto his back.  Completely unconscious, John’s head lolled limply with the motion.  Rolling up the lab coat, Carson placed it gently beneath the dark head, mindful of the colonel’s airway.

 

“Doc,” Ronon intoned; the note of urgency in the other man’s voice prompted Carson to peer over his shoulder.  “Look.”  Carson followed the direction of Ronon’s nod with his eyes, and they widened as he realized less than a meter away, was John’s sidearm.  The way John had landed as he’d collapsed had hidden the Glock beneath him.  “What’s the gun for?” Ronon wanted to know, frowning.

 

“I dunna rightly know, but he’s bloody lucky it did no’ go off,” Carson stated flatly as he noted the safety was off.  “We’ll find out; startin’ by askin’ him when he wakes up.”  Fishing out his penlight, he was in the process of checking the responses of each hazel eye when the med team he’d summoned arrived.

 

“Dr. Beckett?” Marie had been on duty; she was at the head of the small team now crowded in John’s doorway.

 

“Be a love an’ get a pressure for me before we move him.”  Carson glanced up at her as she squeezed past the others to join him and he gave her the run-down.  “He’s definitely in shock; pulse 110, a wee bit on the high side.  Respiration’s fast an’ a mite shallow, but his airway is good, lungs are clear.  No apparent injury from fallin’, pupils equal an’ reactive.”

 

Carson was aware of Ronon, pacing behind him as Marie wrapped a BP cuff around John’s arm and produced her own stethoscope.  As she worked, he turned toward the Satedan.  “Easy now, Ronon,” he reassured.  “We’ll find the problem an’ take care o’ the lad.  How did ye happen ta be here so early an’ find him?”  It was more than giving Ronon opportunity to focus some of that barely restrained energy and concern; any clue, no matter how small, could prove helpful in determining what had happened.

 

“Sheppard was late,” Ronon replied with a slight shrug.  “We usually go running a couple of times a week.  When he didn’t show up, I came down here.  Found him on the floor like that, and called you.”

 

“BP one-ten over fifty,” Marie interjected as she pulled the cuff away, bringing Carson’s attention swiftly back to his patient.  The rest of the team was working into the room, carefully maneuvering the gurney around those on the floor.

 

“Right, then,” Carson motioned for the bag one of the others carried; he retrieved an O2 canister and gently fitted an oxygen mask over John’s nose and mouth.  “Marie, lass, start an IV; his pressure needs the help.”  Just moments later they were lifting the motionless colonel on a three-count and carefully placing him on the gurney, and Marie covered him with a blanket, mindful of the IV.  “All right, let’s go an’ get him under a scanner, find out what we’re dealin’ with,” Carson said, and they were on their way.

 

He didn’t have to look to know that Ronon was following close behind.

 

His concern only deepened when the scanner failed to reveal any logical reason for John to be in shock, let alone unconscious, and yet his patient remained unresponsive.  Carson briefly rubbed his knuckles along his jaw as he directed the scanner to make another pass over John’s unmoving body, concentrating on any fluctuation in the readings, no matter how small.

 

“What is it, Doc?” Ronon stood nearby, waiting along with him for some kind of an answer.

 

“I dunna know,” Carson admitted, mystified.  “He’s no’ displayin’ the sort o’ physical distress that a collapse like this would normally indicate.  Accordin’ ta what I have here,” he motioned to the scanner, “the colonel is perfectly fine; no sign o’ internal injury, no bacterial or viral infection.”

 

Something happened,” Ronon stated the obvious, but with bit of an insistent tone.  “Wherever he was going, Sheppard took the gun for a reason.”  The Satedan’s words drew Carson’s attention back to his patient, and he gazed at John thoughtfully, and he could only nod a bit in agreement.  Despite his laid-back appearance and casual attitudes, Sheppard was serious about his duty and responsibilities, perhaps more so than most military personnel Carson knew.  Five years in Pegasus as head of Atlantis’ military operations had only sharpened those instincts and skills.

 

Ronon was right; it was highly unlikely that John would have reacted that way unless there was good reason for it.  Carson reached up and activated his earpiece; as an afterthought he glanced at his watch.  Oh-six-thirty-two.  He had become comfortable with military time over the years.  Carson instinctively looked out the window; dawn was just showing itself on the far horizon, blushes and purples announcing the arriving day.  He’ll be up, Carson thought, in those few seconds before speaking.  “Mr. Woolsey?  We have a wee situation in the infirmary that warrants some attention.  I’m afraid Colonel Sheppard’s become my guest, an’ I’m removin’ him from the duty roster for the time bein’.  I realize ‘tis not the best way ta start the day, but I think ye’d better stop by.”

 

“Now what?” Ronon wanted to know once Carson was done speaking with the administrator.

 

“Now we wait for him ta wake up,” Carson replied quietly.  “An’ hope we can figure out what put him down in the first place so we can keep it from happenin’ again.”

++++++

 

“John?  John, you must open your eyes; it is time for you to come back.”

 

The voice that called to him now was soft, gentle, but persistent and John couldn’t ignore it.  Despite the desire to remain blissfully unaware of the universe in general and himself in particular, consciousness seemed eager to return.  Slowly his head shifted on the pillow, until the familiar throbbing in his temples reminded him how much better it was to just be still.

 

He groaned; it hurt.

 

“She’s right, Sheppard; it’s still way too early for you to be scaring the crap out of Beckett like this, so how about we skip this part and you open your eyes already.”  McKay.  That was M. Rodney McKay, Ph.D. times two, and sounding highly agitated, or at least highly anxious.  John realized a moment later that the first, soft voice wasn’t Elizabeth’s sound-a-like; rather it was Teyla, and now that he knew who had spoken, he could easily distinguish the note of concern in her voice.

 

It took some effort, but he opened his eyes.  “Hi,” he croaked out.

 

He was rewarded by a very warm smile, and Teyla wrapped her hand around his.

 

“It is good to see you awake,” she responded.

 

Infirm’ry?” John frowned slightly.  “How—?

 

“Ronan found you passed out in your room,” Rodney butted in, and there was no mistaking the relieved tone of voice as he crowded closer to the bed.  “What happened?”

 

Wh...what?” The frown deepened as John tried to wrap his mind around Rodney’s worried inquiry.

 

“You have been unconscious for several hours,” Teyla explained gently, sparing a sharp look for Rodney.  “Rodney was just about to get Dr. Beckett, now that you are awake.”

 

“What?” Rodney sputtered. “I wasn’t—oh. Yeah, okay, I’ll go find the witchdoctor.  Be right back,” he promised and hurried off to get Carson.  Teyla followed him for a moment with her eyes, and then turned her attention back to John.  Giving his hand a brief squeeze, she turned to the nearby table and poured a little water from the waiting pitcher into a cup, and then brought the straw to John’s lips.

 

The cool liquid was soothing and very welcome; he managed several swallows before Teyla set the cup aside, and it seemed to sharpen his focus.  “Better?” she asked, watching him carefully.  John nodded a little.

 

“Yeah,” he confirmed as he reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose.  “Feel a little bit like I’ve gone a few rounds with Ronon in the gym, but—yeah.”

 

“Didn’t touch you,” Ronon’s voice rumbled nearby, and John pulled his hand away to see the Satedan pushing up from a nearby chair.  “Except to make sure you weren’t dead.”  There was a slight smirk; John had the feeling it was as much an expression of relief as Rodney’s demands to know what happened.  “Then I got Beckett.”

 

“I appreciate that,” John answered, the hand going back up, this time to rub his forehead.  “Thanks for calling in the cavalry, buddy.”

 

“Colonel Sheppard,” Carson Beckett’s brogue announced his presence before he’d quite reached John’s bedside, and John looked up to see the doctor hurrying toward him, prompted along by Rodney’s familiar incessant prodding to hurry up and fix him already.  “Glad ta have ye with us again, lad,” Carson continued as he approached.

 

“I think we can safely say that we’re all glad he’s awake,” Rodney piped up again.  “But I think we’ll all be a lot better when we know the reason why he was unconscious in the first place.”

 

“Aye,” Carson agreed as he reached for John’s wrist, taking his pulse.  “I must admit, ye have us a bit in the dark on this one.  I’m waitin’ on some bloodwork from Biro’s lab, but ye’r scan came up completely clean o’ the usual suspects, or for that matter, any unusual ones.”

 

“Woolsey’s already ramped up security a bit,” Rodney interjected, one hand dancing rapidly along the ever-present datapad.  “Nothing major, of course; just a few extra personnel in some key areas of the City—” Rodney trailed off a moment, looking up at John expectantly.  “Of course it might help if we had some kind of idea why you took a header in your pajamas with a nine millimeter in your hand.”

 

“What?” John gave Rodney a sharp look. “What are you talking about, McKay?”

 

“When I arrived at ye’r quarters, John, ye were down, unresponsive, an’ ye were lyin’ atop ye’r sidearm,” Carson detailed, “with the safety off.  I’d say by now we’re familiar enough with ye, ta know ye’d never be so careless with a gun.”

 

“Something or someone must have startled you enough to draw your weapon,” Teyla surmised with the others.  “Do you remember what happened prior to passing out?”

 

“I don’t—” John started, and then stopped.  Eyes closed, he shook his head just once, as something tickled his conscious thought, an itch in the back of his mind.  Suddenly his eyes flew open and he exclaimed hoarsely, “Elizabeth!”  The other four looked at each other uncertainly as John tried to make sense of his jumbled thoughts.

 

“John,” Teyla said cautiously, before Rodney barged in unhappily,

 

“Elizabeth is gone, Sheppard.  We watched her walk through the damn Gate, remember?” Rodney’s voice wasn’t harsh, despite his choice of words.  “At least—we’re pretty sure it was her, I don’t—” He was fumbling now, watching John with naked worry.  “Did you, uh, have another dream?”

 

“No,” John answered, his voice a little far-off sounding as he stared upward, thoughtful.  “Not a dream.  I heard her—she called to me,” he finally finished, and that left them all gaping even more than before.  He looked over at Rodney now, and his eyes were alight with realization.  “Yesterday, in the Chair; I think it happened then, too.”

 

“Yesterday, you fell asleep in the Chair,” Rodney protested, folding his arms across his chest and frowning heavily. “Remember?  And you said—”

 

“I know what I said, McKay,” John replied, a little more sharply than he’d intended.  “I just—” He trailed off, a little uncertainly, knowing exactly how unbelievable this all sounded.  “I’m not nuts,” he declared defensively.

 

“I didn’t say—!” Rodney started to exclaim, but shut up the moment John painfully groaned and brought both hands to his temples.  The up-tick in volume seemed to set off a miniature C-4 charge in his brain, and he was vaguely aware of Carson nudging Rodney aside.  A moment later his hands were being pulled away from his head.

 

“Easy, now,” Beckett urged.  “Headache again?”  John managed a tiny nod despite the throbbing ache that seemed intent on splitting his head apart.  “Have ye been hurtin’ since ye came around?” he heard the doctor ask, and again, he nodded slightly.  “All right, John.  Try ta rest; I’ll be right back with somethin’ ta ease it.”

 

Thanks, Doc,” John murmured gratefully.  Letting his head sink further into the pillow, he closed his eyes against lights that seemed far too bright, and winced at sounds that seemed far too loud.  He felt a hand on his shoulder and cracked his eyes open to see Teyla watching him in concern.  “’m not crazy,” John stated, despite the fact that his assertion sounded rather that way; even he would confess to that.  “I heard ‘er, Teyla,” he found himself slurring a little as talking seemed like far too much work.  “I heard ‘Lizbeth.”

 

“No one believes that you are crazy, John,” Teyla reassured, her grip tightening just slightly on his shoulder.  “However we cannot learn anything more while you are in such pain.  Let Carson help you, and together we will discover the reason behind Elizabeth’s contact.”

 

’Kay,” John murmured, letting his eyes slide shut once more.

 

“You can’t seriously be considering this,” Rodney half-exclaimed, pinning Teyla with a skeptical frown.  “Even if we’re right about that having been Elizabeth, there’s no way to establish any kind of communication; aside from the fact they were all flash-frozen when they stepped through a space gate, I’m pretty sure a single Replicator couldn’t transmit a strong enough signal without registering on the City’s sensors, for one thing.”

 

John heard Rodney’s skepticism and simply lacked the motivation to answer it; at this moment, breathing hurt, aggravating the growing migraine hammering inside his head.  He did, however, feel Teyla’s gentle squeeze at his shoulder and could easily imagine the sharp glare she very likely was giving their cynical team-mate.  Granted, he knew Teyla was just trying to keep him calm, knew he was being patronized for the moment.  However, he also knew he could trust his team—all grumbling aside—to look for the answer to something that he knew himself could not logically be happening.

 

“Shut up, McKay,” Ronon threatened; it never ceased to amuse when Ronon, all brawn and rough edges, displayed more tact than Dr. Rodney McKay, resident genius.

 

“I’m only saying that on the face of things, I don’t understand how—” Rodney stopped suddenly and bent his head back to his datapad as Ronon began to glare as well.

 

“Here we go, laddie,” Carson rejoined them, interrupting the contentious moment before it could become a full-blown argument.  John opened his eyes enough to watch the physician introduce the contents of a syringe into his IV.  “That’ll help shortly, I promise.”

 

‘Shortly,’ was a relative term; John could’ve sworn his head was going to crumble into pieces before the painkiller began to make its presence felt.  Finally, however, he began to feel the pull of the drug into drowsiness, the incessant throbbing beginning to dim and then he was asleep.

++++++

 

“What can you tell me about his condition?”

 

In his second visit to the infirmary after learning of Colonel Sheppard’s return to consciousness, Richard Woolsey glanced to his right at Carson Beckett; the Scottish physician stroking his chin thoughtfully while watching his sleeping patient.  Just as Richard, frowning, began to wonder if he should repeat his question, Carson met his gaze, wearing a worried expression.

 

“There’s no’ verra much ta tell,” Carson hedged a bit before motioning toward the sleeping man.  “Ta this point, there’s been naught ta explain the physical symptoms.  The colonel’s sufferin’ a severe migraine headache; apparently it’s been buildin’ in strength the past two days.  Accordin’ ta Rodney an’ Teyla, he’s been holdin’ it off with medication, acetaminophen mostly.  With Colonel Sheppard’s considerable pain threshold, that does no’ surprise me, although he did see me the night before last for somethin’ a wee bit stronger.  As there were no further symptoms, I let him go back ta his quarters with a painkiller.” Carson shook his head slightly.  “There’s no underlyin’ condition present, an’ he’s no’ subject normally ta migraines.”

 

“Of course he’s not,” Richard answered, matter-of-fact, hands clasped behind his back.  “The Air Force would never permit him to fly otherwise.”

 

“Ye’r right, o’ course,” Carson’s agreement carried a perturbed note.  “All I’m sayin’ is that, so far, there’s no medical basis that I’ve found for the symptoms he’s presented.”

 

“So,” Richard theorized, one hand coming out to gesture toward the man in question.  “If the source isn’t internal, then logically it’s something external.  What do you have there?”  He turned his gaze upon the doctor, and took note of the tense expression on the man’s face.

 

“Unfortunately, there’s just as little evidence for any outside influence at this time,” Carson stated, and Richard raised an eyebrow.

 

“And what about your initial report stating that Colonel Sheppard’s indicated, how did you put it, ‘auditory hallucinations’ during the course of his ‘situation?’” he prompted and Carson shifted slightly.

 

“Despite claimin’ ta hear Elizabeth’s voice, he has no memory o’ takin’ his sidearm, or why he thought he needed it.  It’d be my guess, that he’s had some sort o’ sleepwalkin’ episode, a wakin’ dream if ye will.  I’m no’ pickin’ up anythin’ out o’ the ordinary in his EEG patterns, his scan was clean an’ his blood-work’s good.  Mind now, he was in shock an’ completely unconscious when we arrived at his quarters, but I’m down ta guesswork on the ‘why’ behind his collapse.  While it’s no’ unusual ta have fairly vivid dreams as a side effect, from the examination an’ test results, I dunna believe this was caused by an adverse reaction ta the medication he was given, either.”

 

Woolsey sighed softly, both hands again tucked behind him.

 

“Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Stargate program has encountered various phenomena, be it biological or otherwise, capable of interfering with the subconscious or imposing hallucinations upon its victims,” he said, his head slightly canted.  “However, since you and I both know most people don’t drop over unconscious without good reason, keep at it.  I’ll speak to Doctors McKay and Zelenka about running a City-wide diagnostic to search for anything anomalous that could explain the colonel’s condition.”

 

“Aye, that’s no’ a bad idea,” Beckett agreed.  “I’ll keep ye posted.”

 

“Likewise,” Richard responded, nodding once and retreating from the infirmary.  “Let’s hope for Sheppard’s sake we’re successful in finding some answers.”

++++++

 

John.  John, you must wake up.

 

The infirmary lights were low, and it took a few moments for Sheppard to awaken fully and to remember why he was there.  He rubbed his eyes, trying to shake the fuzziness left over from Beckett’s painkiller.  Even with the medication he was a little surprised to find he’d slept so long and so deeply.

 

I turned the lights down for you.  John froze, and pulled his hand away from his eyes.  Glancing through the curtain to his left, he discovered the area around him was the only part of the infirmary where the lighting had been dimmed.  To his right, he found an empty chair; whoever had occupied it was nowhere in sight.

 

Relatively alone, John murmured softly, “Elizabeth?” He cleared his throat and closed his eyes.  “Not hearing this,” he told himself.  “Not hearing this.”

 

You must come to me, John, Weir’s voice replied.  We need your help.

 

John squeezed his eyes more tightly shut; again, the plea for help.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, as loudly as he dared.

 

Please.

 

Sheppard opened his eyes.  It would be easier to slip out at night when he was less likely to be cornered by one of Beckett’s staff, but unfortunately he couldn’t wait that long.  At the moment the biggest obstacle happened to be the IV and monitors that practically tied him to the bed.  Sitting up, he reached around the cardiac monitor and shut it off before tugging at the sensor pads on his chest.  He did the same for the EEG monitor that he’d picked up somewhere along the way, and then turned his attention to the IV stuck in the back of his hand.

 

There was nothing handy with which to stem the bleeding once he’d pulled out the IV; rising unsteadily John pressed the spot into a fistful of the scrubs top he wore.  There was little chance he would avoid some attention, given he was still in scrubs but wandering around the City in his pajamas would be just as unusual and if he was going to make his escape, he didn’t have the time to change anyway.

 

“Where are you?” he whispered.  When there was no response, he grumbled, “Great, John; listen to the voices.”  Except for the sense of urgency, that he had to leave the Infirmary, he had no idea where he was going.  Peeking into the main infirmary area he saw he had a clear shot to the door—amazingly—and started out.  Making it to the hallway turned out to be the easy part, and John, one hand still pressed over the other, started for the nearest transporter.

 

Upon stepping inside, John pulled in a steadying breath, and reached for the control pad on the wall.  He knew where he had to be.

++++++

 

Rodney headed for the infirmary, on his way to see Sheppard.  Beyond the initial team-hovering that was almost a given anytime one of them landed in there, he’d had to return to his lab and the extensive diagnostic work being conducted on the City.  The mysterious power drain was still occurring and he had yet to discover which system or combination of systems was causing the problem.  It was frustrating enough that when some request from Woolsey had arrived in his e-mail that he’d immediately dumped it off on Radek.  The Czech had seemed rather surprised once he’d read it, but Rodney didn’t have the time to deal with it.

 

The power drain was getting worse.

 

Perhaps by only small increments, but it wouldn’t be long before the effects became obvious throughout the City.  Sheppard’s efforts to track the problem via the Chair had been just about as fruitless as the endless diagnostics, which had taken McKay completely by surprise.  There wasn’t supposed to be anything Gene Boy couldn’t do in that thing, and that they had run into a dead end was definitely unexpected.

 

Rodney glanced at his watch as he entered the infirmary and headed toward the curtained off area; he knew he was a few minutes later than he’d intended and he was already apologizing before he’d quite gotten there.

 

“Sorry I’m late; I went by the mess hall for a sandwich.  Can you believe I missed lunch?  I know, I know, completely unusual but I’ve got cookies—”  Rodney stopped in mid-sentence as he maneuvered past the curtain with one hand full of datapad and the other one carrying his belated lunch.  “Sheppard?” he called out uncertainly; the bed was empty.  “Oh, Beckett is so gonna kill you.”

++++++

 

The transporter opened up on a rarely used hallway; it had seen more foot traffic when they’d first arrived, but was only occasionally accessed now.  It was probably just a trick of the mind, but the floor down here seemed colder to his bare feet somehow than the one leading off the infirmary.

 

John made his way unerringly to his destination, and he stepped in as the door slid aside.  Coming to the dais in the center of the room, he stepped up and activated the panel.  He looked up, expecting the holographic projection of the Ancient woman that had so enamored Carson on their initial arrival in Atlantis.

 

He pulled in a sharp breath, totally startled, when Elizabeth Weir appeared instead.

 

Forgetting the IV mark, he grasped the dais with both hands to steady himself.

 

“John,” she said, and canted her head slightly in greeting, just as he might imagine.  For a handful of moments he just blinked, unable to speak.  Could she have somehow—?

 

Elizabeth,” John whispered, shaking his head just a little.

 

“No, I am not Elizabeth Weir,” the projection replied in those patient tones that John hadn’t expected to ever hear again.  “It seemed logical for our first contact, that I assume a face and voice familiar to you.  If you prefer, I can assume another.”  The image shifted and coalesced again, this time into his ex-wife, Nancy, and John swallowed tightly, stunned yet again.  “Whatever form I take,” Nancy’s voice began, and then dropped in register as the hologram turned into Ford, “it will be specific to you, Colonel.”

 

Sheppard licked his lips briefly, his heart pounding and his mouth suddenly dry.  One hand finally left the dais, making a slight gesture indicating movement.  “How about we, uh, go back to the first one?”  Each of the projections had caused various levels of guilt but as the image shifted back to Elizabeth, he couldn’t help but smile a bit; he felt like he could deal with her perhaps a bit easier.  “If you’re not Weir, mind if I ask who you are then?”

 

“I am Atlantis,” not-Elizabeth said, as if it should have been the most obvious thing in the world.  “Can’t you feel it, John?”  The hologram made a sweeping gesture to indicate the room, and quite likely, the City itself around them.

 

A shiver went down his spine, setting the hairs on the back of his neck and on his arms on end in a prickle of gooseflesh.  John swallowed hard as a feeling not unlike activating the Chair or piloting a jumper swept over him, and he found himself nodding in realization, only this sensation was much—bigger, stronger—louder.  Whether that was because he’d been fighting off the migraine, or because the entire City was so much more massive than a little puddlejumper, John didn’t know.

 

The sensation expanded into the harmonic tones he’d heard in the Chair, and for a moment he stood frozen, awash in the sound, the wonder and the growing ache as the sheer presence seemed to press in on him.  A million questions all crowded into his brain like a swarm of drones, and John winced as the tenor of the harmonies, layer on layer, seemed to take on a sense of urgency.  Finally it broke down to a single question.

 

Why?” he choked out, finding himself leaning on the dais for support.

 

“Because for now, you’re best able to hear me,” Elizabeth-Atlantis answered simply.  “And because you’re best able to help me.  And you must, John, you must help me.”

 

“Why?” It was almost as if that was the only thing he knew how to say, and he gazed up at the projection helplessly.

 

“If you don’t, John, there are many now within me who will die.”  Elizabeth’s projected expression grew distressed, a look that John had seen often enough in the tough spots, when there were few choices and slim odds.  They had been there before, and it would seem, in a strange way, they were there again.  The distress was echoed in the multi-layered harmonies around him, to the point where John thought he might forget how to breathe.

 

His knees gave way then, and he slid off the dais, tumbling to the floor in an ungraceful rush.

 

“Any...any way you could...tone it down a little?”  The lights flickered abruptly, and on his hands and knees, John lifted his head a little, vaguely recognizing the problem.  The projection wavered as well; he looked up sharply then and frowned.  “Elizabeth?” He couldn’t help addressing the hologram by the name belonging to the familiar features.

 

The projection appeared to look upward, and its hands rose as it to ward something away before again pinning John with that grim expression; he had the distinct impression that he didn’t have much time before something dire was about to happen, but he didn’t know what that something was, much less how to prevent it.  “Tell me!” he demanded, but was rewarded only by another distortion of the holographic image of Elizabeth Weir.

 

“I cannot stop it, John,” the City answered him by way of Elizabeth’s distressed voice.  “Like those before you, if you do not stop it, I can—and will—harm, maybe even kill, us all.”  The projection winked and flickered as the power fluctuations continued to be in evidence.  The harmonics were breaking down, like the ending of a session in the Chair, only unlike the Chair, this left him shaking and sweating.  “By the time the others hear me, John, it will be too late.”

 

“S—stop wh—what?” John stammered, clinging to consciousness even as grey began to crowd into his vision.

 

“Atlantis, John,” Elizabeth’s distorted voice answered him.  “You have to stop me, stop the City, before I’m too strong for you.”  The projection flickered once more and disappeared.  The lights went out soon after; a brilliant flash before the room plunged into darkness, leaving John on the floor, covering his head with his arms, moaning softly into the silence around him.

 

However, distantly, in that moment the harmonies of Atlantis began to whisper and sing to him again.

++++++

 

“When did he leave the Infirmary?” Teyla inquired as she joined the others in the control room at Rodney’s summons.  Ronon was already there, as well as Richard Woolsey, Evan Lorne and Radek Zelenka.

 

“How am I supposed to know?” Rodney retorted as he fussed with the controls to the City’s sensors, attempting to coax cooperation from the equipment even as the lights twice dimmed sharply around them and came back up.  “Obviously Sheppard pulled off his little disappearing act somewhere between the time you left and the time I got there.”  He swore sharply.

 

“What is it?” Woolsey demanded.  He was beginning to better differentiate McKay’s outbursts, between those that might be categorized as panicked grandstanding, and those that warranted true concern and attention.

 

“I made the mistake of expecting the internal sensors to be the easiest and quickest way to find Sheppard,” Rodney grumbled.  “As you can see,” he thrust a finger toward the unhelpful screen, “that’s not the case.”

 

“The power difficulties have begun to be more noticeable among the general population,” Radek offered helpfully.  “There’ve been reports of lights and consoles flickering, doors opening and closing on their own; whole labs have dropped off the power grid entirely, only to come back with some type of power spike.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Wizard,” Rodney snapped as his fingers continued to fly.  “I think it’s pretty apparent to everyone that the—oh, hello—here we go.” The screen behind him flared to life, displaying the locations of various subcutaneous transmitters throughout the City as Rodney’s fingers commanded the sensors to search for just one in particular.  A single pulsing dot appeared and McKay frowned in puzzlement.  “What’s he doing down there?”

 

“Where is that?” Woolsey inquired; just over a year into his tenure, he was still committing the majority of Atlantis’ inhabited areas to memory.  It was a familiar assertion that vast portions of the City were still being explored, and no one could possibly be expected to memorize it all.  In fact, when time permitted, he’d recently stepped up survey team assignments into previously un-catalogued sections of the Lantian City.

 

“That,” Rodney pointed at the dot, “is the Hologram Room.”  There hadn’t been anything better to call it, after all.  “Beckett discovered it when we first arrived.  It’s an Ancient teaching—”

 

“Something is wrong,” Teyla interrupted.  “He is not moving.”  Her words grabbed their attention.

 

“Colonel Sheppard,” Lorne activated his radio, “This is Major Lorne, please respond.”  The concern in his voice for his CO was more than the military mindset to look out for your own.  He’d served under John Sheppard’s command long enough to gain a good deal of respect for the lieutenant colonel.  “Colonel Sheppard, please come in, this is Major Lorne.”  The power fluctuated once again, but when the command center brightened, the glowing dot representing John Sheppard hadn’t budged and there was no response.  Lorne switched tactics.  “Lorne to Beckett; we got him, Doc.  He’s in the hologram room; we’ll meet you there.”  He was under no illusion that Sheppard’s team would stay behind; but the major waited long enough for Woolsey to give his assent before motioning to the three of them to join him on the way to the hologram room.

 

“As much as I’d love to go along with you all to slap his wrist for running off and worrying everybody,” Rodney snarked, “I’m just a little busy here trying to keep the City from falling down around us, so—” The scientist looked up from the Ancient controls; worry clear in his blue eyes.  “Make sure, you know, make sure he knows that I’d rather be yelling at him instead of ten-thousand-year-old power matrices that refuse to be re-routed.”

 

“We will look after John,” Teyla assured.  She briefly patted his shoulder as she moved past him to join Ronon and Evan.  “And you look after Atlantis.”

 

“Let’s go,” Lorne prompted, even though Ronon was already halfway down the stairs leading from the control room.  The major gave a firm nod to Rodney as well, before heading for the stairs himself.  Rodney watched them go; a handful of heartbeats as they left the Gate Room for the nearest transporter.

 

Drawing a deep breath, he bent his head to his task—and his laptop.

 

The entire Gate Room went dark for several moments, before powering up to emergency lighting.

 

“Oh, crap.”

++++++

 

The hologram room was pitch-black when Lorne arrived with Sheppard’s team-mates—they’d stepped into the transporter from a perfectly lit hallway and exited into a hallway that was completely darkened.  Fortunately the major had brought along a P-90 and the mounted light showed the way as the three of them hurried down the corridor.

 

“Colonel!” Lorne exclaimed as he hurried in ahead of Ronon and Teyla.  His CO was curled tightly on his side, arms protectively shielding his head.  Quickly kneeling beside Sheppard and placing a hand on his shoulder, Lorne couldn’t help but wonder at that particular reaction and to be concerned there might have been legitimate reason for it.  The major worked his hand beneath the arm flung over John’s head, fingers finding the carotid pulse easily enough.  To his surprise it prompted a response, a low moan.  “Colonel, can you hear me?”

 

Gotta...make...i’ stop...” Sheppard slurred unsteadily.  Lorne noticed that the colonel didn’t make any attempt at motion, not even to pull his hands away from his head.  “Gotta...stop.”

 

“Stop what, sir?” Evan looked up at Teyla and Ronon, shadowed faces in the limited light provided by the P-90.  They were just as concerned as he was, and he shifted his attention back to the colonel.

 

“John?” Teyla knelt down now, at Sheppard’s other side.

 

Sh...She said...I had...t’ stop it.”

 

“Who, John?” Teyla asked again, gently resting one hand on the crown of his head.  “Elizabeth?” He had ‘heard’ Elizabeth’s voice before; perhaps he had again.

 

“Colonel?  Major?” Beckett’s voice echoed in the darkness, and Evan scrambled to his feet.

 

“Down here, Doc!” he called out, and then glanced down at Teyla.  “Stay with him.”  Picking up his P-90, Evan moved to the doorway, turning the room back to black as the shadows shifted to cover Sheppard and his team.  Panning the scope light down the hallway, he could make out the medical team at the far end; the light he provided allowed someone down there to dig out a flashlight.  Coming back, Evan found that his CO was sitting up, head down, Teyla’s hand at his back.  “Colonel Sheppard?”

 

Have...to...she told me, Major.”  Sheppard lifted his head now.  “She told me...make it stop...and...”  Sheppard’s face, pale even in the scope light of the P-90, screwed up into a wince of pain.  “Too loud...she’s too loud...all around...”

 

“Who’s loud?” Evan was completely puzzled.  “You’re starting to freak me out here, Colonel.  I don’t hear anything.  Who told you to stop—what?”

 

’Lantis...she told me...told me everything, just like she used to.”

 

“Atlantis?” Evan frowned sharply.

 

Sounds lot like...’Lizbeth,” John nodded.  “’Lizbeth said...by time...others hear it’s too late.”

 

Beckett ran in, his team with him.  “Colonel, lad?”  As the physician knelt down in front of him, Sheppard’s eyes rolled back and he sagged backwards; Teyla caught him and eased him back to the shadowed floor.  “What happened here?”

 

“He said he heard ‘Atlantis,’” Evan interjected.  “Apparently sounded just like Dr. Weir.”

 

“Oh crap.”

 

ACT THREE

 

“He’s claiming the City talked to him?”  Richard’s perpetual frown deepened as he looked around the table in the briefing room at the other personnel present.  “Utilizing the voice of Elizabeth Weir.”  In the shadows cast by the emergency lights, it seemed almost like telling ghost stories around a campfire.

 

“That is what he said, yes,” Teyla responded calmly, although her expression was one of concern.  “According to Carson, John has not regained consciousness since his collapse in the hologram room.  Whatever he encountered, it completely overwhelmed him.  I have very rarely, if ever, seen John in such distress.”

 

“Are we certain it’s not ‘Dr. Weir?’” Woolsey stated very carefully.  “After all, the initial appearance of the outcast Replicators coincided with some rather radical power changes throughout Atlantis.  While this current difficulty is nowhere near as severe, it is beginning to become a problem.  Is it possible that somehow a remnant of Weir’s consciousness was retained by Atlantis?”

 

As expected, it was Rodney who spoke first.  “No, it is not.  First of all, ‘nowhere near as severe’ depends on your point of view, but what’s happening now and what happened then are two totally different things.  What happened then was a massive overload of the City’s power grid and basic operating systems; too much power for the system to handle.  What’s happening now is a steady, near-constant low-intensity drain that’s shunting power away from primary systems to God-knows-where in the City.  Second,” Rodney lifted a forefinger into the air, “as I stated before, it’s impossible for a lone Replicator in the physical condition it would be in, to transmit anything.”  He took a deep breath, looking discomfited.  “Look, I don’t like thinking about the alternative any more than the rest of you, but I promise you, this is not some kind of virtual reincarnation of Elizabeth.”

 

“Still,” Richard interjected, “as I noted to Dr. Beckett on my earlier visit to the infirmary, it wouldn’t be our first experience with devices or alien life with the ability to affect the subconscious mind.  Actually, given your experience, I’m surprised the idea didn’t occur to you first.  Dr. Zelenka, where are we in regard to locating anomalies that might indicate something abnormal operating in the City?”

 

“Obviously I would’ve come around to it, but I’ve been just a little occupied with preventing Atlantis from shutting itself down,” Rodney protested, before turning his attention to Radek.  “And when did you start thinking of things first?”

 

Zelenka glared briefly, and then shrugged.  “I didn’t, actually; Mr. Woolsey suggested it in the e-mail he sent to us.  The one you determined I should handle.”  The Czech turned his chair slightly toward Woolsey.  “I started with a sensor sweep of Atlantis and the surrounding area, including the ocean within a several-mile radius, searching for the presence of any alien devices.  Within the sensors’ parameters, there’s nothing to indicate anything of non-Ancient origin in or around the City.  Then I turned my attention to a list of recently explored areas in the South Pier that contain labs with un-catalogued Ancient technology; there seems to be several that have been uncovered but are not yet researched in detail.”

 

“Oh?” Woolsey prompted curiously, and Zelenka nodded, although it was Rodney who answered.

 

“We’ve done a lot of looking around out there, but it’s been slightly more difficult to set aside enough time and people to catalogue each and every lab properly.  We’ve had our fair share of Ancient tech coming back to bite us because somebody wasn’t thorough or careful enough; we lost Carson—the, uh, original Carson—that way.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not to make the trip down memory lane, thank you very much.”

 

“Point taken,” Richard responded thoughtfully; possibly he’d been too ambitious in his plans to further map the City.  “Perhaps we should scale things back to the newly surveyed levels and take the time to study each lab individually before pressing on.”

 

“That would be wise,” Teyla interrupted now, leaning on the table.  “But how does it help John?”

 

“I’m getting to that,” Radek responded, glancing over at her apologetically.  “In comparing the list with internal sensor data, one of the recently discovered labs seems to have been sealed off—from the inside, with a security code in place, locking us out.  It’s as if Atlantis itself has done it; we’re reading no life signs.”  He took a deep breath.  “Furthermore, we’ve begun to detect an unusual signal emanating from the room.”

 

“What kind of signal?” Evan Lorne spoke up; he’d been sitting quietly at Teyla’s right, taking in the geek-speak and holding his CO’s chair while the colonel was incapacitated.  “It something we should be worried about, Doc?”

 

“We don’t know,” Radek admitted, his bearing concerned and his expression perplexed.  “One of its properties is that it seems to contain some type of harmonic pitch, almost like—” Radek groped for the appropriate description.  “Almost like—a tuning fork, the resonant tone when the fork is struck.  Except this signal is not audible; it is beyond the range of human hearing.”

 

“So the question becomes: exactly what type of ‘instrument,’ so to speak, is it tuning, and for what purpose?” Richard wondered aloud.  “Perhaps there’s something in the Ancient database to explain the lab’s presence and raison d’etre.”

 

“Wait,” Rodney interrupted Richard’s musing, turning sharply to Radek.  “Right now, the more important question is: exactly when did you first pick up the signal?”

 

“We noticed it perhaps an hour or two ago.  At first, it was just intermittent but once we knew what to look for in the sensor logs it seems to have started as a single pulse each day, approximately two weeks ago.  At that time it was extremely limited in range; since then it has been increasing both in range and duration.”

 

“Could it actually be that easy?” Rodney exhaled and leaned back in his chair before turning back to Richard.  “Two weeks ago we had several survey teams in the outlying areas of Atlantis, looking for Ancient tech.  My guess is that somebody got stupid and turned something on.  First, we have to figure out a way to get inside that lab, and second, I need to know who was down there during that exploration detail.”

 

“Do you think this lab has something to do with what is happening to John?” Teyla inquired, looking from one scientist to the other.

 

“I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that it has everything to do with what’s happening to the City,” Rodney replied, and then frowned.  “Somebody should probably brief Carson, just in case it turns out to be the smoking gun.”

 

“I can take care of that,” Lorne volunteered; he’d planned to head down to the infirmary to check on his CO anyway.

 

“Very well,” Richard nodded, rising from his chair.  “People, I believe we have some work to do.”

++++++

 

Ronon sighed quietly and shifted in the chair he’d occupied from the moment his friend had been put back to bed.  Sheppard had regained consciousness briefly before exhaustion dragged him into a deep sleep.  Once in a while, the dark head moved restlessly on the pillows beneath; aside from that there was no sign of waking.  Pale features wore a slightly pinched look and Ronon knew what that meant; that even in sleep there was only a partial release from the distress stalking Sheppard in the darkness.

 

He’d remained in the Infirmary instead of going with Teyla to the conference room.  “Let the others talk,” he’d told her.  “I’m staying.  He shouldn’t be alone when he wakes up.”  It was a likely reason covering the real purpose for staying, to keep Sheppard from trying to run off again, and hopefully, keep him out of restraints.  Given his patient’s troubled frame of mind, Beckett had briefly considered the bindings until Ronon volunteered to sit with his ailing friend.

 

Motion nearby drew the Satedan’s attention and he looked up to see Major Lorne coming toward the partially-curtained-off area containing Sheppard’s bed.  Ronon had come to respect Sheppard’s choice as his second in command, as both a good man and a good soldier, and he gave the major a slight nod.

 

“How’s he doing?” Lorne asked quietly.

 

“Sleeping,” Ronon answered succinctly, and cocked his head slightly.  “Came to for a few minutes...hasn’t been awake since.”  He looked over at Sheppard’s lax features as he spoke.  For a moment the only sound between the three men was that of the cardiac monitor announcing the colonel’s heartbeat.

 

“See Dr. Beckett around?” Lorne asked, and despite lowering his voice, the major’s request seemed almost unnaturally loud.  He and Ronon both stilled momentarily when Sheppard’s head turned slightly toward them with a soft sigh.  When the colonel didn’t stir further, Ronon turned back to the major and pointed him in the direction where he’d last seen Beckett.  “Thanks.”

 

As the major moved off to corner Carson, Ronon settled back into his chair, arms folded across his chest and returned to his watch.  The silence was short-lived, however; it wasn’t long before Evan returned, tagging along after Carson.  “Doc?” Ronon said, taking note of the doctor’s quick pace.

 

Carson went right to John’s bedside, and to the EEG monitor.  Ronon watched as he intently studied the readings and then reached up the touchscreen, tapping a pair of controls.  A different reading showed up, and Carson exhaled sharply.  “Bugger!  I missed it completely.”

 

Three pairs of eyes stared at the monitor in momentary silence.

 

“Missed what, completely?” Ronon asked.  Carson pursed his lips, clearly displeased with something, before glancing back over his shoulder at Ronon.

 

“Major Lorne just informed me there’s an Ancient device, in a sealed lab, that may be the cause o’ Colonel Sheppard’s difficulty,” Carson prefaced.  “I’d thought about the possibility that he might be sufferin’ the effects o’ some kind o’ machine, but there was no’ any neurological evidence indicatin’ an overt influence.  An’ it was right under my nose the whole time.  As we all know, Colonel Sheppard’s ATA gene is near ta off the chart.  With so much Ancient technology surroundin’ us, the lad has a constant level o’ specific, correspondin’ neurological activity as a matter o’ course.  This activity increases when the colonel interacts with a particular piece o’ technology, say the Ancient chair or the puddlejumpers, affectin’ particular brain wave frequencies.”

 

“Isn’t that true of any ATA carrier, Doc?” Evan wanted to know, and Carson nodded.

 

“Aye, ta the degree that any ATA carrier operatin’ an Ancient device will have an increase in neurological response, it is.  However, the difference is that on any given day, the colonel naturally registers a high level o’ measurable activity without even touchin’ anythin’.  Ye an’ me, just standin’ around?  Without intentionally activatin’ somethin’, the pair o’ us together would barely show up on a scan profile in comparison.”

 

“So what’s it mean for Sheppard?” Ronon asked, impatient to get to the point.

 

“What it means,” Carson admitted unhappily, “is that the colonel’s normal EEG readin’, with his elevated level o’ response ta Ancient tech, masked this.”  He pointed to a particular reading on the monitor.  “From this, I’d say he’s in contact with somethin’ strong, that’s gettin’ stronger.  If I was a bettin’ man, I’d say it’s rather fair odds for whatever’s in that lab from the Major’s report.”

 

Ronon looked over at Lorne taking note of the tension in the man’s bearing. Clearly whatever else the major understood of Beckett’s explanation, he got the part about John being in contact with something strong enough to hurt him, and Ronon gave him a sharp nod.

 

“So we shut it off,” he declared with a shrug; it seemed pretty obvious to him.

 

“McKay and Zelenka are working on it,” Lorne confirmed.  “Right now we can’t get at it; the geek squad says Atlantis itself closed off the lab with some sort of command code in place.”

 

“Get some C-4, blow off the door,” Ronon insisted, glancing over at Sheppard.

 

“I would no’ advise it,” Carson said, his brows tucking into a frown.  “If there is a connection between this device an’ Colonel Sheppard it would be best ta understand what it’s doin’ before we start unpluggin’ an’ breakin’ things.  Who knows what stoppin’ the thing full force would do ta him?  With all the neural activity takin’ place, interruptin’ the connection could cause irreparable damage, possibly even kill him.  I dunna want ta take the chance.”

 

“Not only that,” Lorne added, gesturing to his radio.  “On my way up here I suggested the same thing and McKay said that trying to force our way into a lab sealed by the City could set off some kind of booby-trap or something.  So the C-4 is out, for now.”  The major canted his head slightly.  “Except as a last resort.”

 

The infirmary was one of the few places where the power problems hadn’t been as severe, but now the lights flickered and dimmed, and several laptops shut off completely; in the dimmed emergency lighting, Carson looked at his companions.  “Let’s hope that turns out ta be later rather than sooner,” he commented anxiously as Sheppard’s monitors stuttered to a halt.

++++++

 

Rodney typed as fast as humanly possible on a normal day; on a day when he was trying to prevent certain doom, he typed faster.

 

“What are you doing?” Radek exclaimed.  “If we’re going to save Atlantis, we need to find a safe way around this before we lose power completely.”

 

“The power’s not going to go out down here,” Rodney declared, pausing just long enough to indicate the immediate level around them.  “At least, not yet.”  He shook his head slightly.  “If I’m right about these readings—that thing in there—whatever it is, has been what’s siphoning energy from the Zed-PM and naquadah generators and then dispersing it throughout the City.  It’s very cleverly designed; the distribution pattern is incredibly intricate.”  He looked up briefly, found Radek giving him a puzzled look.

 

“It’s dispersing power throughout the City.” Radek repeated.  “Then why is everything still operating on emergency standby?”

 

“That’s what I’m trying to find out, before we lose access to the Ancient database.  You, work on getting us into the lab, hmm?”

 

“So far, I’m not—”

 

“Oh, no,” Rodney’s fingers suddenly stopped moving, and Radek looked up to find him gaping at the laptop screen, scrolling rapidly through information.

 

“What?  What is it?” Zelenka turned away from his own work to see what McKay had discovered.

 

“We are so screwed.  Well, not you, you don’t have the Ancient gene—but those of us who do are totally screwed.”  Rodney reached up for his radio, hoping that communications weren’t already down.  “McKay to Woolsey; come in.”  No response.  “McKay to Woolsey.” He tapped his earpiece once again.  “McKay to anyone in the control room, do you read me?”

 

“The power losses must’ve taken down internal communications.”  Radek stated the obvious, but Rodney declined to comment on it.

 

“Keep at it.  Are any of the transporters still operating?”

 

“Some of them.”  Radek nodded.  “The one at the end of this hall is still working.”

 

“Good,” Rodney turned and snatched up his laptop, closing the lid.  “I’d hate the hike back and time is of the essence.” With that, he broke into a run and headed for the transporter at the far end of the hall.  Radek watched him go a moment, blinking at the sudden silence, before returning his attention to the task at hand.

 

It was not done, however, without a good deal of cursing in his native Czech.

++++++

 

Wakefulness came reluctantly, and John resisted it at first, vaguely remembering it hurt more to be awake than asleep.  At last, however, there was no escape, either from waking up or from the sibilant sounds invading his thoughts, and his eyes cracked open.  They widened quickly when he realized he was mostly in the dark, literally, and then groaned as his head reminded him it was still attached.

 

“Take it easy.”  Ronon’s voice sounded quietly just to his right, and John turned his head.  In what little light remained, he could make out the Satedan slouched in a nearby chair, and he had no doubt Ronon was there to keep an eye on him.  He carefully turned his head back, winced a little as a vise seemed to tighten around his skull.  “Still hurting?” Ronon dropped his volume even further, and John closed his eyes briefly.

 

“Yeah,” he finally managed, swallowing thickly and reaching up with one hand to rub vainly at his forehead.  “What happened?” he asked, hand leaving his head to gesture into the darkness beyond.

 

“We’re losing power,” Ronon said succinctly.  “McKay and Zelenka are working on it.”

 

“Yeah,” John said softly, his tone startled.  “I know.”

 

“What?”  Ronon sat up straighter.

 

“I know,” John repeated, and he shifted a bit, starting to sit up.  “She told me.”  He looked up and saw Ronon pushing up from the chair.  “She told me where they are, what they’re doing, everything.”

 

“Who? Atlantis?” Ronon’s eyebrows lifted as he stood there, and in the spare emergency lights, it made his face look a little creepy, actually.

 

“I know it sounds a little crazy—”

 

“Hmm,” Ronon grunted noncommittally.

 

“—but I’m telling you the truth,” John insisted.  “Rodney can’t stop this, Ronon.  I have to get down there.  I—” John sucked in a sharp breath and bowed his head sharply; a moment later he felt Ronon’s strong hands steadying him.

 

“Down where? You’re not going anywhere.  Beckett’ll make you sleep or tie you to the bed,” Ronon pointed out helpfully, and while John could appreciate the fact that most doctors didn’t like their patients sneaking out on them, he didn’t have the time to stay in bed.  Things had moved faster while he’d been asleep, faster than even Elizabeth-Atlantis had considered.

 

“Ronon, listen to me,” John gritted out, reaching up with both hands to grip Ronon’s forearms.  A sudden clatter happened off to the right and both men peered into the shadows behind Ronon to see a flashlight on the floor, along with Carson Beckett, down on his hands and knees beside the dropped light.

 

“Doc!” Ronon called out.

 

“Carson!” John exclaimed at the same time, and suddenly he knew he was too late.  “Get me over there,” he demanded, but when Ronon started to turn away without him, John grabbed a fistful of his sleeve.  “Ronon.”

 

Maybe it was his expression; maybe it was the nearly desperate tone of voice John couldn’t hide, but Ronon sighed at last and slid his arm behind his back, carefully helping him to his feet.  By the time they reached the doctor, two other members of the medical staff had come as well.  Carson had come up from his hands, but was still kneeling on the floor, and even in the dim light he looked a little dazed.

 

John slipped from Ronon’s grasp, dropping down to the floor in front of Carson.  He grasped the doctor’s shoulders with both hands, drawing Carson’s attention to him.  “Doc?”

 

“What are ye doin’ out o’ bed, ye stubborn bugger?” Carson demanded, but there was little strength to his protest and it was clear his attention was divided.  John simply nodded seriously.

 

“You heard her, didn’t you,” he said quietly, and it was a statement.  Blue eyes looked up, startled, and Carson realized what John was saying.

 

“Aye,” he murmured faintly, looking at John with a sense of wonder.  “The loveliest sound ye ever heard, like music on the Highlands.  An’ I swear I could hear my Mum.”  Carson blinked then, a little puzzled that the Ancient City would sound like his mother back home in Scotland.  “She said she’d look after me.  Did she tell ye that too?”

 

John anticipated Carson’s collapse; he shifted quickly to support the unconscious doctor the short distance to the floor.  “Get him to a bed,” John ordered the nearby nurses.  “And get as many beds ready as you can; you’re about to get a lot more patients.  Ronon?”  John looked up at his waiting team-mate.  “You got it now?  I gotta talk to McKay.  Radio?”  He held out a hand.

 

Ronon shook his head.  “They’re not working.”

 

John swore. “Okay, okay just get me down there to that lab.”  He grimaced sharply as Ronon pulled him upright and his head screamed at him in protest of the swift motion.

 

“You okay?” Ronon asked, and John looked up long enough to give the taller man a glare.  “I mean—you think you can walk, or do I gotta carry you?”  He glared harder and Ronon half smiled.  “Good enough for me.”  John shakily started out, knowing without looking that Ronon was closely shadowing him.

 

The infirmary door opened on emergency power and a pair of John’s men came in.  One was leading the other, who was barely staying upright.  “Help!” the lieutenant exclaimed and John motioned to one of the nurses to come along as he hurried toward the pair.

 

“Davis?” John addressed the lieutenant while the nurse got an arm around the unsteady Marine and guided him to a bed.

 

“Power’s down in the mess, so we were just sparring in the gym.  Spence said he heard music coming from somewhere, but I didn’t hear anything.  And then he said his head hurts.”  The lieutenant leaned forward as if divulging a secret.  “He keeps talking to his kid brother, but he’s back home in Montana going to college, according to Spence.  I knew something was wrong, so I brought him down here, sir.”

 

“Does he have the gene?” John demanded sharply, a sick feeling spreading through him. The lieutenant blinked, surprised by the question and John reached for his forearm, grabbing his wrist.  “Does Spencer have the Ancient gene?”

 

“Y...yeah, he does.  Why?”

 

John didn’t bother to answer the question, instead he looked at Ronon.  “Stay here and give them a hand.”

 

Unable to disguise his worry, Ronon demanded, “What about you?”

 

“I’m fine,” John declared, despite knowing it wouldn’t fool Ronon at all.  “Be back, buddy,” he promised and then headed out, determination settling into his features as he did.

 

He was about to engage in maybe the hardest fight of his life.

++++++

 

Rodney raced from the transporter to the control room.  He huffed a little as he did so, but he didn’t even stop for the stairs, running up as quickly as he could.  “Mr. Woolsey!” he called out as he topped the stairs and barged into the command center.  “Mr. Wool—”

 

“Dr. McKay?  What is it?” Woolsey emerged from his office, and Rodney stopped hard right in front of him.  “Dr. McKay?”

 

“We have to get everybody with the Ancient gene out of Atlantis,” Rodney declared, one hand flapping in the direction of the Stargate.  “And soon, before we lose power to the Gate and people start dying.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Richard’s frown, already present, deepened.  “Atlantis was designed to be inhabited and operated by people with the ATA gene.”

 

“Yes, yes it was, but we’ve got a problem.  A big problem.”  Rodney placed the laptop down on an open space and pointed at the screen.  “I found our lab in the Ancient database, and guess what?  It housed the control room for an Ancient experiment that, surprise, surprise, went horribly awry and had to be shut down.”

 

“What kind of experiment?” Richard asked, an appropriate tone of caution in his voice.

 

“Apparently when the Ancients were first designing Atlantis, they were also experimenting with some seriously intricate artificial intelligence constructs on a scale we’ve never even dreamed of back on Earth.  They were trying to design an intuitive AI that would respond to the ATA gene for real-time interaction with the users that I can’t even begin to describe.  They made some modest gains, and when they built Atlantis, they decided to take their experiment to the next level.”

 

“They created an AI for Atlantis?” Richard was incredulous.

 

“Not for Atlantis,” Rodney said, showing the City administrator the schematics.  “The AI is Atlantis.  The entire City was built with a fine network that runs through the floors mostly, some of the walls.  As you know, the Ancient gene produces specialized reactions in the brain and nervous system of the carrier, allowing him, her, or it to interact with Ancient technology.  This network was designed to transmit directly to the brains of users in close proximity.  With the thing running throughout the City’s entire superstructure, there’s no way to not be in close proximity—”

 

“All right, so what’s the sticking point?” Woolsey wanted to know.

 

“The sticking point is, unlike other Ancient technology, a true AI wouldn’t operate within the same static parameters as it started with.  As it gains more experience, an AI develops, grows—becomes stronger.  According to the Ancient database, the stronger the Atlantis AI became, the greater the incidence of neurological damage among the general population in contact with it.  As more and more of them were injured, the Ancients tried to fix the problem, but eventually it came down to physically dismantling the control lab and deactivating the network.” Rodney pulled in a breath.  “Apparently, not so much on the whole dismantle and deactivate thing.  When our intrepid explorers entered the lab two weeks ago, one of them inadvertently re-activated the network, and ever since then it’s been drawing energy from Atlantis’ power grid and redistributing that energy to itself throughout the entire City.”

 

“So this is what’s affecting Colonel Sheppard,” Richard declared, and Rodney exhaled.  “Now we know what was being ‘tuned.’  Every ATA carrier in the City.”

 

“I should’ve guessed it was connected, but I...I was a little pre-occupied trying to figure it out.  But right now we have to get the gene carriers out of the City, possibly offworld.”  Rodney hesitated a moment. “There were deaths at the height of the experiment; the AI literally overpowered the Ancients trying to interact with it.  Fried their brains, in a perfectly non-technical explanation kind of way.”

 

“I see.  As you know, City-wide communications are down.  If you know of another way to summon them all here to the Gate-room—?”

 

“Do you hear that?” Rodney straightened away from the laptop, a slightly mesmerized look on his face.

 

“Hear what?” Woolsey cocked his head and listened.  “I don’t hear anything.”

 

“It’s amazing,” Rodney murmured, closing his eyes.  “It’s like every perfect piece of Mozart, layer on layer and—Jeannie?” His eyes snapped back open with a puzzled frown.  “Sheppard heard Elizabeth.  And I get my sister?”  He blinked, trying to think back off as hard as he could to the encroaching AI.

 

“Dr. McKay?” Richard intoned worriedly.

 

“As long as I think ‘leave me alone’ really, really hard, it’s not killing me,” Rodney quipped, taking a deep breath and pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache he could feel building.  “I’ve got to get back down there; I’m sure Zelenka hasn’t managed to crack the code yet and we have to dismantle that signal before we start losing people.”

 

“Good luck, Dr. McKay,” Richard said with a soft sigh. “Good luck to us all.”

 

ACT FOUR

 

Teyla made her way into the infirmary, guiding along with her a scientist she had found in one of the hallways.  Anja had been curled up on her knees, weeping.  In the course of the disjointed conversation that followed, Teyla learned that the chemist, from a place on Earth called Reykjavik, was suffering from a terrible headache, and whose mind was being overrun by the same melody over and over and over again.  While a lovely tune, Anja was simply at the place of begging it to stop.

 

“Dr. Beckett!” Teyla called out as she helped Anja navigate through the unusually crowded Infirmary.

 

“Beckett’s not here,” Ronon’s voice answered as he made his way to the two women.  “Well.  He’s here but he’s sick too.”

 

“What is happening?” Teyla looked around at people in various states of distress.

 

“Something to do with the Ancient gene in their blood,” Ronon said.  “They’re all hearing Atlantis, like Sheppard.”  Teyla absorbed that a moment.  Atlantis was speaking, truly?  Her eyes fell on Carson Beckett, some distance away in a bed, being tended to by one of his nurses, and she turned sharply to see an empty bed nearby.

 

“Where is John?” she asked anxiously.  She knew he had a very high amount of the valued gene of the Ancestors, and she couldn’t imagine him not being as ill as, or more so, than the others.

 

“He left to help McKay,” Ronon answered, his expression tightening.  “He ordered me to stay here, and give the docs a hand with people.”  He gestured to Anja.  “Let me take her; go find Sheppard.”

 

Teyla, her arm still around Anja, glanced aside once more and found a nearby gurney.  “Come, Anja, you need to rest,” she encouraged, helping the trembling scientist toward the gurney.  They only managed a few steps before Anja lost consciousness, sagging in Teyla’s grip.  Ronon stepped in, lifting her into his arms and carrying her the remaining distance.  As Ronon carefully deposited the woman on the gurney, Teyla cornered the nearest medic and brought him to help.  Once that was done, she grasped Ronon’s wrist and pulled him aside.  “With the sensors and communications down, it will be much harder to locate John should he not be with Rodney, and I will need your help.”

 

Ronon looked around the infirmary, and while it seemed to be filling quickly, Beckett’s people were on top of things.  His gaze fell on Anja and then shifted to Teyla.

 

“Okay,” he agreed simply. “Let’s go.”

 

“We will begin with Rodney’s lab, and if they are not there, then we will proceed to the lab he and Radek are attempting to access.  They believe it contains a device that is causing the City’s power loss, and quite possibly, everything that is happening to John and the others here as well.”

 

The pair of them left the infirmary, hurrying along toward Rodney’s main laboratory where he did the bulk of his work when he wasn’t offworld.  They quickened their pace as they passed others who were clearly ATA carriers afflicted with the same problem as John and Carson; one had a hand on the wall as if communing with the City.  More often they found people dazed, or sometimes unconscious.  There was no radio to summon medical help for them, and worse, no time to stop.

 

“McKay!” Ronon came to an abrupt halt at the entrance to Rodney’s lab and as she followed him in, they found Rodney leaning hard on a table, head bowed.  A box of assorted Ancient crystals was in disarray before him, weakly illuminated by a flashlight sitting nearby.  They drew alongside Rodney on either side, and Teyla put a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Rodney?” she spoke his name gently.

 

“Getting...getting harder to...to ignore,” Rodney stammered.  With a supreme effort, he shook off the mesmerizing presence of the City and lifted his head.  Immediately one hand moved to his forehead, and Teyla could see it was shaking.  “Just like...Jeannie, too...you know?  L—little sisters and...their...d—dolls, and their...s—stupid boy bands, and, uhm,” Rodney’s grumbling subsided into an uncomfortable groan and a heavy wince.

 

“Rodney,” Teyla kept her voice soft, realizing that Rodney must be suffering the same sick headache as John and Anja.  “Rodney, you must focus.  Listen to me.”  She squeezed his upper arm gently.  “Where is John?”

 

“John?” Rodney echoed with a dazed blink, managing to focus on Teyla’s face.  “He...he’s in, in the infirmary...I gotta s—stop the City before it kills him.” The scientist seemingly found his focus, and he began to root through the box of crystals; apparently he had been looking for something just prior to their arrival.

 

“No,” Teyla interjected, her hand moving from her team-mate’s shoulder down to his wrist, stilling his movements in the box.  “John left the infirmary in order to help you.  Has he been by here?”

 

Rodney shook his head just slightly, and then squeezed his eyes closed when that small motion made his head throb.  “No,” he swallowed.  “I think I’m...I’m gonna pass out,” he murmured thickly and Teyla was aware of Ronon coming closer in case Rodney indeed lost consciousness.  Teyla looked up at the Satedan, concern in her eyes.  Rodney was their best hope of rescuing them all; if he could not complete his task it could be disastrous.

 

She inhaled sharply as an idea came to mind.  “Atlantis has been speaking to you, has it not?”  She canted her head slightly, watching Rodney closely.  He had indeed become a shade or two paler, and was swallowing convulsively as if fighting not to be ill.  “Rodney?” she pressed gently.

 

“Yes, yes, yes,” he murmured but his tone was far too distressed to be truly snappish.  “Sounds like, uh, sounds like Jeannie.”  Rodney swayed on his feet; Ronon’s hand was quickly at his right shoulder blade, firm and steadying.  “She, uh, the City k—keeps telling me to ‘let go,’ but...if...if I let go, then J—John’ll die and I can’t let that, no, n—no, no, no.”

 

“Have you spoken to Atlantis in return?” Teyla asked, hoping that at the very least, they could learn where John was through Rodney.  At best, perhaps the City would even respond to a request to let him in, if such a thing was possible.

 

“I keep telling it...to shut up,” Rodney took a shaky breath.  “Apparently it’s n—not taking requests.”

 

“Try again,” Teyla tightened her grip on his wrist just a bit, the touch enough to center Rodney’s attention.  “We must find John, Rodney.  Ask the City where he is.”

++++++

 

John stumbled sharply and his shoulder connected solidly with the wall; he raised his head just enough to look a little farther down the corridor.  The emergency lighting was barely enough to navigate by, yet at the same time his pounding head appreciated the cool darkness in the City’s lower levels.  What he wouldn’t give about now for some of Beckett’s painkillers—the headache had ratcheted up a few notches and his nauseated stomach threatened outright rebellion.

 

He stayed where he was for a moment, pressing his forehead against the cool wall.  The melodic tones were everywhere; there was no escaping their intrusion into his thoughts.  Yesterday he’d fairly marveled at the City’s intricate harmonies in the Chair Room, today he figured if it went on much longer he’d be a prime candidate for a padded room complete with straitjacket.

 

John, Elizabeth’s voice, strong and chiding, touched his mind and John breathed out shakily.  This is what I feared.  Many I am here to help are being hurt.  Why didn’t you stop me?

 

“Couldn’t,” John answered; his voice husky with the strain of just staying on his feet.  “You knocked me out back there, remember?” He chuckled softly.  “You’re a lot like her, you know?  Elizabeth, I mean.”

 

In what way?  There was almost a tone of curiosity about the question that made John smile faintly.

 

“You’re a lot tougher than you look,” he declared.  “All...crystal and glass, pretty architecture.  Check out the past five years.  I’m sure you can do that.  See all the stuff you’ve survived?” He swallowed convulsively as his stomach bucked uncomfortably.  “You survived Wraith, a killer storm, asteroids; San Francisco Bay.  Hell, you’ve even survived McKay.”

 

John was surprised when Atlantis responded with Elizabeth’s amused laughter.

 

Rodney wasn’t the one who crashed into me with one of the Lantian vessels you call ‘puddlejumpers.’

 

“Okay, well, then, to be fair I didn’t die, either.  So you and I survived each other.  Call it a draw.”

 

Rodney can hear me now.  He’s resisting but I will overtake him soon, the City told him somberly.  You must end this, John, I’m nearly too strong for you now; you can feel it, I know you can.

 

“Yeah,” John agreed, lifting his head away from the wall.  “I can.  You know what this means, don’t you?”  He put one foot ahead of the other, and began making his way unsteadily down the corridor.

 

I do.

 

“You know, this is all very ‘2001,’ right?”

 

I was built to help protect those within these walls and yet the result of my programming is the exact opposite.  I’m flawed, John.  You must not think of me as Elizabeth Weir, or even as Atlantis.

 

There was no response John could make to that; he simply swallowed hard and forced himself to continue moving.  She was right, after all; he had to put any idea that he was about to kill a friend out of his mind.  The City of the Ancients had always welcomed him, even if they hadn’t recognized it at first.

 

He knew better now, and it was a bittersweet truth.  It would continue to do so after its newfound voice had been silenced.

 

John stumbled to a halt in the doorway of his destination, leaning hard on the frame as the door slid aside; like the AI lab level, there was still power here. He was pretty sure he knew the reason why, but he didn’t ask the City.  He simply forced himself away from the door, defying the urge to pass out, and walked into the center of the room, where the Ancient Chair awaited him.

 

Taking a deep breath, John glanced upward.  The wonder of it all had pretty much been buried by the threat the AI posed to the expedition, not to mention the relentless pounding in his skull, but for just a moment John allowed himself to revisit it.  Behind the weight of Atlantis’ presence as it bore down on him, were those amazing harmonies, intermingling and haunting, beautiful and painful.

 

Finally John sat down in the Chair and as ever it activated effortlessly, tipping back and calling the resources of the Ancient City to his command.  He sucked in a startled gasp and stiffened as Atlantis made contact through the Chair.  If the connection felt like a static charge before, it was like grabbing on to live current now, and for a brief moment John felt nearly paralyzed as he realized the growing power behind it.  He found himself breathing hard and he forced himself to calm down, to focus; first things first.

 

Concentrating to the best of his ability, John discovered what he needed to know and then began by turning the City’s tricks back onto itself.  He siphoned off power from the intricate network at various junctions and directed it first toward internal communications.  The quicker he could talk to someone, the better.  Staying conscious, however was proving a little difficult and John blinked away black spots from his vision.

 

John.  His name thundered through his brain and John cringed.  The first ones tried to divert power from me as well—it served no purpose.

 

“Yeah...  Well, give me time,” John ground out and did his best to ignore the fact that the City still sounded like Elizabeth.  He couldn’t give it an Achilles heel to latch onto.  Bit by bit, he siphoned the power he needed, stubbornly refusing to back down despite the growing discomfort of being connected to the City.  While Atlantis recognized what had to be done, its programming entailed a basic survival mechanism; it was resisting his efforts with what he could only describe as ‘turning up the volume.’  His head ached unmercifully and he was sitting nearly rigid in the Chair, unable to move even if he’d wanted.

 

Forehead bunched into a deep frown, John did his best to suck it up against the pain and keep working.  Every ATA carrier in Atlantis was dependent on him to stop this thing.

 

On the control pads, his hands began to tremble.

++++++

 

“Ask the City.  Ask the City, right,” Rodney looked at Teyla, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes.  Where’s Sheppard?  It was a little bit like asking ‘Where’s Waldo?’ but he didn’t think there would be much appreciation for the comparison.  Come on, Jeannie.  Tell me where he is already.

 

Mer, Atlantis responded.  Rodney choked a bit.  Atlantis was calling him by his hated first name? So not fair.  John is...  Rodney never heard another word as the pain finally overwhelmed him and he collapsed silently into his waiting team-mates’ arms.

 

++++++

 

Ronon had been expecting McKay to pass out; the man was white-faced with pain and shaking like Satedan jhuru trees in a stiff breeze.  When the scientist abruptly crumpled into him with barely a whimper, Ronon caught him easily and carefully bore him down to the floor.  Fingers instinctively pressed into McKay’s neck for a pulse, and he nodded up to Teyla to indicate he’d found it easily enough.

 

“We’ve got to get to Sheppard,” he said as Teyla knelt down at McKay’s other side.

 

“We cannot just leave him here, and since it would be difficult to summon help, I will stay with him,” Teyla said confidently.  “You must find John yourself.”

 

Ronon grimaced; he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of leaving McKay without some kind of medical help but he knew that Teyla was right.  Time wasn’t exactly on their side and Sheppard, while stubborn, could just as easily be collapsed somewhere in a hall or elsewhere within Atlantis.

 

“Where’s that lab he and Zelenka were working on?”

 

“It is some distance from here but it is accessible by transporter if you can locate one that is still working,” Teyla instructed.  “It is in the lower levels of the South pier, in one of the recently explored sections according to the information Radek provided.”

 

“Take care of him.”  Ronon indicated McKay with a nod and Teyla nodded back, silently affirming she would not leave their injured team-mate alone.  Rising swiftly, Ronon moved into the passageway beyond the lab and struck off at a run, determined to find Sheppard.

 

Careening around a corner on his way to the nearest transporter, Ronon came to a dead stop—lying in the middle of the hallway was Evan Lorne, and the major was convulsing.  Ronon hesitated a brief second, a desperate glance at the transporter at the far end, before dropping down on one knee to help.  Lorne’s body trembled and bucked beneath his hands as the major seized for long minutes.  There was nothing to gain by wishes, but right at the moment Ronon wished he could call for help for Lorne so he could go on after Sheppard.  He knew in his gut that the delay might well be deadly.

++++++

 

John pulled in a shallow breath as he made a final re-route, trying to stay a step ahead of the City’s insatiable pursuit of the power he was diverting for his own purposes.  It was a little cat-and-mouse, a lot exhausting, and as hard as the hardest flights he’d ever made into Afghanistan.  Sweat trickled from his forehead but he couldn’t move to wipe it away, his hands stiff and rigid on the Ancient Chair’s control pads.  Swallowing tightly, he tipped his head back a bit and took a gamble that he had what he needed.

 

“Sheppard to Woolsey,” he called out hoarsely.  There was only silence in reply, and John prepared to duel Atlantis again for the precious power necessary to reactivate communications.

 

Colonel Sheppard!” Richard Woolsey’s voice contained a measure of both relief and puzzlement.  John didn’t give him a chance to elaborate on either.

 

“City-wide is available, but I don’t know for how long,” John explained in a rush.  “Announce an evacuation order for all personnel with the ATA gene, dial the ‘Gate and get as many of them offworld as you can.  Send them to the Alpha site.”

 

Colonel, I don’t know—” Woolsey started, but John cut him off.

 

“Do it now!” he commanded, putting as much urgency as he could into his voice.  “If we don’t get these people out of Atlantis, there’s a very good possibility they’ll end up dead.”

 

Dr. McKay made me aware of that fact earlier,” Richard replied dryly.  “Aren’t you supposed to be in a bed yourself, Colonel?

 

“I’ll get back around to that eventually, I’m sure,” John responded in kind.  He closed his eyes in a tight wince.  The City’s presence was a knife digging around behind his eyes, through no fault of its own and he couldn’t help the groan that broke from him.

 

Colonel Sheppard?” Woolsey’s voice took on a tone of worry.

 

“Just...get them offworld, Sheppard out.”  John was relieved and gratified when the City-wide announcement was made calling all ATA-gene carriers to the Gate room for an immediate evacuation.  But he couldn’t relax yet; he had to stop the AI from growing any further, and that was going to mean cutting off the power to it entirely until Rodney and Radek or whoever else could get in there and physically shut the lab down.

 

John, Elizabeth’s voice carried a note of concern.  You cannot keep this up for long before you begin to suffer for it.

 

“Then help me already,” John gritted out irritably, “by shutting up so I can think.” He took as deep a breath as he could, steeling himself for the hard part.  Practically digging his hands into the Chair’s control pads, he concentrated on denying all the stolen power from the lab housing Atlantis’ artificial intelligence.

++++++

 

Ronon exhaled sharply as Lorne abruptly sagged into stillness, and he looked down the hall at the transporter there; he just hoped there was still power to that one or he’d be going the long way around and Lorne needed help as well.

 

Suddenly he straightened as comm chatter abruptly returned and Ronon heard the order given for the Ancient gene carriers to report to the Gate Room.  Immediately afterward he summoned help for Lorne and pushed to his feet, making for the transporter as fast as he could before power was cut to it, on top of the lights and everything else.  Stepping inside, Ronon made his choice and waited to emerge on the other side.

 

Exiting the transporter, he made his way through the lower level until he found Radek, working away diligently to break the code keeping them from the lab within.

 

“Ronon!” the Czech exclaimed, sounding startled.  “I must admit I was hoping it was Rodney, because this is just—Celek džunka, Celý nesmysl—junk, complete nonsense.”

 

“Sheppard here with you?” Ronon demanded.  When the Czech shook his head, Ronon swore and reached for his earpiece like he should’ve done before getting into the transporter.  “Sheppard, where are you?”

 

H...hey, buddy,” John’s voice was strained, and even over the radio Ronon could hear the note of pain in it.  “Just giving...McKay and...and Zelenka a...hand.”

 

Ronon frowned.  “How?” he asked.  “Where are you?”

 

Ch—Chair,” John’s voice murmured faintly.

 

“I’m coming,” Ronon announced firmly, and just that quickly was leaving Radek behind.

 

I am helping with the evacuation,” Teyla’s voice came next, and in it was the unspoken imperative that Ronon look out for Sheppard.  “I will be with you as soon as I can.”

 

That’s okay, Teyla,” Sheppard reassured softly.  “Be done...s—soon,” he promised.

 

Ronon just growled and ran for the transporter as fast as he could.

++++++

 

John’s arms shook, perhaps he was shaking all over but he could feel it in his forearms the most.  His heartbeat throbbed heavily in his temples and the crush of the AI on his awareness made him feel as though he might be smothered where he sat.  Cutting the power to the lab was proving to be a challenge, but he kept it up.

 

Colonel Sheppard.”  Woolsey’s voice cut into his efforts and John gasped, suddenly flung out of the fight while the administrator spoke to him.  “We seem to be having difficulty keeping the ‘Gate powered sufficiently to get everyone through.” Whether someone had told Woolsey where he was, or if the man had guessed it on his own, John didn’t know.

 

“G—got it,” John managed and he tried to head off Atlantis from sucking the power to the Stargate dry.  “Tell me...wh—when they’re all through,” he gasped. “I can...only h—hold this for s—so long.”  He focused on redirecting vital energy to the Stargate.  “McKay...out there?”

 

Dr. McKay has been evacuated to the Alpha site,” Woolsey answered, and John swallowed hard at the realization that Rodney had been overwhelmed by the AI as well.  “What’s your status down there?”  John didn’t have a chance to answer before Ronon barged into the Chair Room, his eyes alight with concern in his normally impassive features.

 

“Not good,” the Satedan answered for John.  “Sheppard’s in bad shape.  Got to hurry up and get everybody through so we can get him out of here.”

 

Just a few more minutes,” Woolsey pleaded.

 

“Th—that’s ‘bout...all...I got left,” John agreed but he concentrated as hard as he could on keeping the Gate operational for the necessary time.  His eyes tracked over to Ronon.  “N—need you to do me a favor,” he said hoarsely.

 

“What?” Ronon stepped closer, looking down into the pale, sweating face of his friend.  “Whatever you need I’ll get it.”  John nodded a tiny fraction, grateful that it was Ronon.

 

“Get...Marines and some C-4 and...blow the lab,” he ordered.

 

“Asked McKay about that before,” Ronon replied tensely.  “He said it was a bad idea.”

 

“Probably is,” John whispered, his voice strained.  “I c—can’t stop it.”  Ronon hesitated.  “Buddy...you have...t—to do this,” John cajoled. “I won’t...m—make it ‘less you...kill it.  Get the C-4.”

 

John closed his eyes, concentrating on what he had to do to survive.

 

When he reopened them, Ronon was gone and Teyla had arrived.

 

He managed a small smile.

++++++

 

Ronon took five non-ATA Marines with him back into the depths of the City, with enough C-4 to not only take down the door but the rest of the lab and its contents, too.  He didn’t like the idea of blowing the thing up while Sheppard was still connected to it, but he believed the colonel when he’d said he couldn’t hold out for much longer.  There had been desperation in the hazel eyes that Ronon had only seen rarely, and he knew it was going to be the only way to get Sheppard out of the Chair.

 

“Fire in the hole.”

++++++

 

Teyla watched helplessly as John struggled to stay conscious; Atlantis was slowly crushing him before her eyes and there was nothing she could do about it.  His breathing was ragged and punctuated by soft, painful moans.  He had ceased responding to her some minutes ago, just after Ronon had been dispatched with the order to destroy the lab.

 

Fire in the hole,” she heard Ronon’s voice in her ear.  Bare moments later, something close a screech howled through the air that even she could hear, and in the Chair John cried out loudly as well.

 

The Chair deactivated abruptly, moving upright.

 

John spilled out like a discarded rag-doll, falling to the floor in a heap.  Teyla knelt beside him, carefully turning him the rest of the way to his back, and quickly checking for a pulse as the lights suddenly flared up around them.  “John?” she queried softly.  “John, can you hear me?”

 

John didn’t move or answer.  “Medical team to the Chair room!”

++++++

 

Rodney slipped behind the curtained-off area of the infirmary, settling down with his lunch beside the bed as he had been doing every day for almost two weeks.  The bed’s occupant was as still as the day he’d been brought in from the Chair Room, and Rodney was beginning to run out of running commentary to fill the silence.

 

John’s face was still waxy pale and sickly looking, and the cardiac monitor continued to keep pace with his heart.  Carson had said something about neurological shock but no evidence of permanent brain damage.  However, Rodney had stopped hearing much at all after the word ‘coma’ had been spoken.

 

“Most everyone is back to work now, recovered and all that,” Rodney explained around a mouthful of chicken salad sandwich.  “Except for you of course, and Lorne.  Well, technically Lorne’s on light duty; the sprained wrist he got during his seizure isn’t going to get much in the way of scheduling duty rosters and briefings and the like, but he can’t go offworld until that’s better.”  Rodney swallowed and took another bite, chewing thoughtfully as he watched Sheppard breathe.  “We found more in the Ancient database about the AI experiments but since the whole lab has been obliterated, it’s not going to do us much good. Although, we did find out that it was able to tap directly into the memory centers of our brains in order to incorporate as much of our experiences into the interface as possible—you know, now that I mention that, that must be how I ended up talking to Jeannie.”

 

I almost...ended up with my ex-wife.”

 

John’s soft voice startled Rodney so badly that he nearly dropped the sandwich completely, hastily putting aside his plate and pulling his chair closer.  It was so good to see John’s eyes open that Rodney got a foolish little grin on his face.  “Almost? You mean you got a choice?”  He tried to put on an aggrieved tone but the grin ruined it completely.

 

“Well, yeah, kinda,” John managed a smile of his own despite feeling as if he’d been run over by the proverbial bus.  “Might as well face it, McKay; Mom loves me best.”  John made a general motion indicating the City.

 

“Hmph,” Rodney snorted, but the grin remained.  “It’s about time you woke up, you know.  Two weeks of boring lunches with nobody to talk to gets a little old.”

 

Two weeks?” John exclaimed, and Rodney nodded, a little more seriously now.

 

“Beckett said your body reacted the way it would if you’d suffered significant brain trauma by putting you into a coma, but relax, you’re all still there,” Rodney got out in a rush.  “Let me go get him; he’s gonna want to poke and prod and ask you things so we might as well get it over with so we can get onto more important things, during your convalescence, like chess.”

 

“Okay,” John agreed, and Rodney hurried off to find Carson.

 

Silence descended then, and John stared up from his pillow into the high ceiling of the infirmary.  All crystal and glass, pretty architecture.  The City was still here; but in the wake of Rodney’s departure, John was keenly aware of the AI’s absence, and he felt a twinge of melancholy for what had almost been.

 

In that quiet moment, however, John contented himself with the knowledge that Rodney, as well as Carson and the rest of the ATA carriers were safe.  Their voices would take up the slack, fill in the gaps, and that was enough for him.