Lessons Not Fully Learned by ValleyA
John Sheppard sighed with relief when he saw Major Lorne and his team emerge from their jumper parked a short distance down the street. John was ready to get back to Atlantis. It had been a long boring day of watching their group of scientists, archeologists, and anthropologists mark off another site from their list in the long ago abandoned Atolian city of Penatra on planet MXX-205.
They had recently uncovered information about a possible location for some Atolian cloaking technology – technology that had vanished from known existence centuries beforehand. It was said that the technology only consumed a fraction of the power the current Atlantean cloaking system did. If true, they would be able to pass the technology along to other worlds for use as a defense against the Wraith.
It was a noble and just cause, one that might save millions of lives, and it was the reason why they were diverting so many resources to the project. The only problem was John wasn't feeling particularly noble at the moment. After eight hours of standing around watching others work, he was hungry, tired and ready to go.
It might have been easier to stay if there had been anything even remotely interesting there, but Penatra did nothing to make itself stand out. Lifeless dark gray buildings blended together and stretched out as far as the eye could see, making this once vital metropolis now a cemetery of empty structures.
John briefly wondered why Penatra felt so different from Atlantis. Both had been deserted, but there was a deadness here that seemed to permeate everything. In contrast, the distant hum that had greeted John the very moment he'd first stepped through the Stargate on Atlantis on that fateful day sang of life and vitality. Its steady presence quietly serenaded him in the background of his consciousness whenever he was home, conveying a sense of peace and safety. Everything about Penatra echoed much darker times.
Looking around him, in the heavy mist that hung over the area in a constant drizzle, this city seemed to exude depression. And from the stories he'd heard about the people who'd once lived here, there was probably a good dose of oppression wafting in the wind, too.
He glanced back as the other scientific personnel who had come to replace the current teams disembarked the jumper, including Doctor Zelenka. John strolled over to meet them. Lorne smiled at him as he came to a stop and said, "You look just about as excited to be here as I am."
Sheppard grunted. "It would be one thing if we were having some success, but so far, we've turned up nothing."
"The Atolian civilization has definitely piqued my interest," Radek said with a smile. "Too bad the society faded away to obscurity, because they had several interesting advancements."
"Yes, they did, but their history of being bloodthirsty aggressors who invaded several of their surrounding worlds without provocation tends to detract from their scientific accomplishments," McKay said as he approached them.
Zelenka nodded. "Yes, well, there is that. But they are significant in being the first civilization to rise up in the Ancients' absence and that was with the ever present threat of the Wraith."
McKay held up a pointed finger. "Yes, well, we have yet to find their alleged cloaking technology. This could all be a fool's errand, Radek."
Radek scratched the back of his neck before saying, "I'm afraid our dependence on the Ancients' database to give us much of the Pegasus galaxy's history has left us wanting this time, Rodney, because the Atolians came into existence after the Ancients. All we have is little more than folklore."
"No, there's more than just stories," John said. "There's the history of other worlds who interacted with the Atolians, like the Athosians and Satedans. The cloaking technology was here at one point and if it is still here, we will find it."
"I hope you're right," Rodney said, then turned to Zelenka. "Speaking of which, I've outlined a search grid that the teams have been following. Be sure to radio me if you find anything. This could potentially be very useful for us."
Radek nodded in reply, then appeared a little nervous. "Any sign of the booby-traps that were rumored to be left in their structures?"
Rodney shook his head. "No, that must have been something dreamt up to keep the scavengers away. I would have thought anything of use would have been removed long ago, but I've found some self-contained power sources coming from some of the nearby buildings. They are on the top of the list to be searched next."
"Yes, they must have some importance if they are off the main power grid and supplying their own power," Radek said. "Why do you think that would be?"
Rodney shrugged and pointed to a nearby building. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. That structure there is apparently a huge indoor stadium. It's one of the few buildings in the area that has its own self-generating power source. Why give a stadium such high priority?"
Lorne said, "You know, not to burst anyone's bubble, but it's possible the cloaking equipment and its associated technology is long gone. It would explain why our sensors have failed to detect anything important. The prevailing scuttlebutt is somehow this cloaking technology failed and the Wraith culled this planet, and that's why it was basically abandoned."
John spoke up. "What I don't get is why it's still abandoned. This place isn't exactly Shangri-la, but it's not the pit of Hell, either."
Ronon and Teyla walked up just as John finished. Ronon grunted. "Some would disagree."
Teyla nodded with a serious glint in her eyes. "My people have a word they used for the Atolian people. They were called the Shakher. It means to be devoid of a conscience. The Atolians left death and destruction in their wake wherever they went. It is said their evil spirit still protects this world and will kill any who come to live here."
Rodney made a face. "Oh, come on, Teyla, the Athosian people are smarter than that. Why would they believe something so arcane?"
Teyla's expression turned hard. "You believe only in what you know – in what the facts show you. My people also believe in what the human spirit senses – factors that are not quantifiable – and we are not alone in that belief, as seen by the lack of people repopulating this world, even unto this day."
John put up a hand. "Okay, let's all take a deep breath. Whatever we know about this place, it's worth devoting at least a few more days here."
Radek nodded. He looked at Rodney and said, "Come on, Rodney, let's see your search grid."
Still in discussion, the group meandered toward the building McKay currently had the teams focused on. John let them leave without him. The city was a sea of dilapidated structures. Apparently, the Atolians hadn't built their cities to withstand the ravages of time as well as the Ancients had.
John glanced at the building Rodney had pointed out. What kind of indoor stadium would require its own power supply and what kind of sports would they play there? He dallied with the idea of checking it out for himself. John turned when he heard a noise behind him. It was Teyla and Ronon.
"Are you guys ready to head back?" he asked.
Teyla hesitated. "Dr. Lumsdaine has asked Ronon and myself to stay a little longer since we are more familiar with the stories of the Atolians than anyone else present. Is that acceptable?"
John nodded. "Sure. I think McKay and I will head back soon, though. We can all meet up back on Atlantis tonight."
"Very well," Teyla said, then she left with Ronon, quickly joining Dr. Lumsdaine, who was waiting a short distance away.
As they left, McKay approached. He adjusted the straps of his backpack. "You ready to go?"
John found himself shaking his head. "No, not quite yet. I want to go for a peek inside that stadium before we leave."
McKay frowned at the stadium, as if not thrilled at the thought of lingering any longer.
John added, "You can head on back. I'm just going in for a second."
Rodney shrugged, then pulled out his scanner. "No, that's okay, maybe I'll go with you for a quick look around. There was that semi-interesting power reading I got off of it when I did my initial scan of the area."
"Good, we're both in agreement to make it quick. Somebody said they were having meatloaf for dinner in the mess and I'm hungry," he said as he gestured with one hand. McKay fell into step behind him.
Rodney switched on the interior lights of the stadium. Sheppard was already starting down the stairs toward the lower levels of the stadium. Where the hell was he going? This was definitely more than just peeking inside and Rodney wasn't so sure he wanted to proceed. He thought of all the terrible things he'd heard about the Atolians. Then, he chided himself for being cowardly and for basing his fears on the preconceptions of others, because that wasn't being much of a scientist, but, damn it, this place was creepy.
"Are you getting anything?" Sheppard asked, turning half toward him while his gaze was still on the lower levels.
"Anything like what?" Rodney asked, his voice full of irritation. He was tired and hungry, and he'd just about decided he should have had his head examined for following Sheppard inside the stadium.
This time, John pivoted to view him fully. "I don't know. Anything that might be of interest. Geez, McKay, you'd think we were entering a haunted house by looking at you."
Rodney straightened his shoulders and stood as tall as he could. "I do not."
Before John could respond, Rodney added, "Besides, this place would make anyone nervous."
He fiddled with his scanner, then he sighed and looked at it more closely. "No, there's nothing on my scanner, except the unidentified power source."
He waved Sheppard on. "Let's just keep moving so we can leave. My stomach is growling and meatloaf sounds pretty good right now."
A few minutes later, they were standing on the same staircase, but near the floor level of the arena. The seats in the stadium were dark red, like dried blood, and Rodney wondered if they'd always looked that way or it was a result of tarnishing over the hundreds of years that had passed. He glanced back up at the rising staircase behind them, then at the arena below.
"I wonder what kind of games they played here?" Rodney said finally as he turned slowly with his scanner.
Sheppard scratched the back of his neck. "Who knows? If you listen to the horror stories they tell of this world, it probably wasn't badminton or croquet."
"No, I don't think so... "
Rodney stopped, then swung the scanner around to encompass the full scope of the arena. Sheppard must have noticed what Rodney was doing, because he came closer. "What is it? What did you find?"
Rodney took a deep breath. "Well, it looks like a good portion of the power I picked up outside this place is devoted to this arena area here, more specifically to those six computer consoles encircling the inner edges of the arena."
"Hmm," Sheppard said. "That's interesting. Anything else?"
"Oh, please, let me be your tour guide here, Bwana," Rodney said snidely. "Listen, this scanner will only do so much. It's not a freaking crystal ball, you know."
Sheppard ground his teeth for a long moment. "Fine. You keep scanning and I'll look around."
"I thought you said we weren't going to be here long."
"We aren't, so the faster you scan and I look around, the better. Got it?"
Rodney cursed under his breath, but didn't say anything more. Once they reached the floor level, they passed through a series of gates and enclosures to get into the arena itself. Rodney turned to the computer console closest to him and set his scanner atop it, then he proceeded to hook up his laptop to the console, hoping to get more information that way than by the scanner alone.
After a while, Sheppard came back to stand beside him. "It's a little creepy how this place has all its locks on outside the arena, like they were locking someone inside instead of on the inside to keep the audience out of the restricted areas."
"There's lots of strange things here." Rodney nodded in agreement, deep in thought. "This computer's database seems to be only an instructional guide. There's not a lot of historical references or useful information stored here, except how to program for some game called Beksen."
"That's the game they played here?"
Rodney nodded. "So it would seem... Huh, that's interesting."
"What?" Sheppard asked, looking over Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney started gesturing with his hands. "Each player builds their own hologram avatars, and then they use the avatar to fight for them. The player controls the avatar's actions, so it's really the player that's fighting, but through the avatar, if that makes sense."
"You mean like a Wii game?"
"Kind of, but it's much more involved than that. Kind of a cross between a Wii game and Pokemon."
"Pokemon? What the hell do you know about Pokemon?"
"Oh, well, I used to know – wait, what does it matter? I was just trying to explain the concept to you in terms you would understand."
"Like I know all about Pokemon."
"It's a concept, remember?" Rodney sighed deeply, squeezing the bridge of his nose as he tried to rein in his irritation.
Sheppard must have tired of the subject, too, because he said, "Well, I guess that doesn't sound so bad. What kind of avatars can you make?"
"All kinds of combinations. The avatars themselves are totally cool. You have a choice of three different options for your avatar's abilities. They range from defensive to offensive. There's a timer that starts the moment you open the options list. You only have about five minutes to design your avatar, so you have to think fast and make your choices count."
"How many people can play at the same time?"
"There's six consoles scattered around the arena. And you can also play against the system."
"Against the system? That sounds a little like a stacked deck."
"No, not really. They used a randomized program that makes the choices for the computer-generated avatar."
Rodney pressed a button. A ghostly holographic example of a snake-like avatar rose up high above the next console over. The avatar had dark gray scales with reddish edging. Around its neck were dozens of deep purple twills. It had bright yellow eyes and huge fangs. Rodney pointed up at it. "That was the computer generated avatar used in the last competition."
"Sweet." John stepped closer. "What does it do?"
Rodney glanced down at the console. "Uh, it says this one can go invisible. Oh, and those porcupine-like twills behind its neck can fire lightning bolts of electricity at an opponent as a weapon."
"Wow, that is cool."
Rodney licked his lips and glanced at John. "It might be fun just to see what kind of avatars we could come up with," he said softly.
Sheppard's eyes widened and he shook his head. "Do I need to remind you of the debacle that was Geldar and Hallona? No, we are not meddling in the affairs of other civilizations this time. In fact, we aren't going to touch this game at all."
Even as Sheppard continued shaking his head, Rodney pressed forward. "Listen, this setup has no external communication array, so its scope is limited to within the confines of the stadium."
"That's what we thought before about 'the game'. No, Carter would throw us into the brig and leave us there to rot if she knew we were even thinking of playing."
"Only if she found out. And we won't be playing. We'll just be trying our hand at making an avatar. Honestly, it'll take five minutes, then we're out of here."
Sheppard put up his hands. "What part of no don't you understand? Remember where we are... Given the stories we've heard of this world, this could end very badly for us."
Rodney stood back from the console, then pinned John in place with a stare. "Okay, okay, whatever. We don't have to try it if you're chicken."
Sheppard's gaze narrowed. "Chicken? What, are you twelve? Seriously, you're daring me?"
"Consider it a dare if you wish. I don't want to actually play the game, I just want to see who can make the best badass avatar – which, of course, would be me."
"And what if something goes wrong?"
Rodney pointed to himself. "Resident genius here. I'll get us out of any trouble that might arise."
"Famous last words." Sheppard hesitated as he looked wistfully at the avatar looming above them. "They are pretty cool, though..."
"Come on, John. How often do we get an opportunity to try out something like this?"
John shook his head, but it was only half-hearted. Finally, he sighed and muttered, "I guess there's no harm in just creating an avatar."
Rodney pointed to a computer at the other end of the arena. "Okay, there's your computer. I've got the avatar designing program keyed up for both computers. It's just a matter of picking the options as they present themselves. May the best avatar designer win."
"Yeah, well, that would be me."
Rodney grunted. "Yeah, right," he said as he went to work.
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about," John said softly as he gazed up at his fire-breathing dragon he'd just created. It was beautifully alien with two sets of wings, but there were characteristics that reminded him of the earth-based legends of dragons, too.
The Atolian technology was really quite amazing. The reddish-gold colors with hints of teal blue sparkling in its scaly texture gave the creature an almost realistic look. And it was huge, looming twenty feet in the air above them. It seemed to float on the air, its wings flapping gently to keep it aloft.
John glanced over at McKay and Rodney was doing the same thing, staring up at his avatar in awe. "Holy crap, my guy could so totally knock yours on its ass," he said finally, turning to John.
John rolled his eyes. "My guy is twice as big as yours and can breathe fire," he said, though silently admiring the details in McKay's creation. "Yours wouldn't stand a chance."
Rodney's avatar was reminiscent of a sabertooth tiger, but much more lethal-looking with massive fangs and razor-sharp claws. Its fur was orange-and-white with black-and-purple tufts randomly patterned throughout. McKay smiled with a mad gleam in his eye. "Yeah, but bigger isn't always better. Mine is fast, my friend, faster than you can maneuver, with razor sharp claws and death rays that come from its eyes."
John's gaze swept over from McKay's creature to the computer-generated one still looming above them. That avatar seemed to be eyeing John's ominously with its yellow snake-like eyes. Its electrified twills rippled with unspent energy and John found himself taking a step back before he realized what he was doing. Chagrined, he reminded himself it was just a computer-generated illusion, but there was something about the snake avatar kept his defenses on alert.
As if reading his thoughts, Rodney spoke up, "Geez, this was a deadly game. It says here whatever happens to the avatar happens to its user."
John turned toward him. "Huh? How?"
Rodney walked to the wall behind him and pressed a button, ejecting a drawer containing a folded white jumpsuit. He held it up for John. "The contestant wears this. One size fits all. The computer and jumpsuit monitors the action going on above between the avatars and activates whatever it needed to keep things consistent with the contestant's experience."
John chewed on the inside of his cheek. "So, whatever happens to the avatar happens to its user." He took a deep breath and shook his head. "You know, this doesn't sound like fun any longer. I think that snaky computer-generated avatar could kick both of our butts. It's time to go."
Rodney nodded and was just starting to put away the jumpsuit when Teyla's voice came over the radio. "Colonel, I understand you haven't passed through the Stargate yet. What is your location?"
John reached up and tapped his headset. "Not far from where you left me. I'm with McKay inside the indoor stadium, but we're getting ready to – "
Teyla cut him off. "No, John, you must leave immediately. The arena is a very dangerous place."
John stiffened, glancing over at Rodney. "How so?"
"They used to conduct battles to the death there."
"To the death?" McKay asked, his voice breaking.
John whirled his fingers. "Okay, that's it. We're on our way out. Give us a minute and we'll meet you at the gate – "
"Uh-oh," Rodney said softly.
When John looked at him, Rodney added, "I can't exit the program."
John walked toward him. "Then leave it running. Let's just get out of here. I've got a very bad feeling about this place all of a sudden."
John passed him, heading for the gates to exit the arena when he noticed for the first time that the gates were closed. When he looked closer, he saw they were also locked. He rattled them hard, but the locks held. "Crap," he said. "We're locked in."
John turned to Rodney. "You said you could get us out of anything. Now, you've got to live up to your own press and you better get busy."
Rodney went to work on the computer console, then his laptop, before he became still, not saying anything for a very long minute. He brushed his hand over his head and stammered as he finally admitted, "Okay, in – in my zeal, I may have inadvertently activated the entire game system, instead of just the avatar design, and that might have initiated the locking system on the gates."
"Damn it, Rodney," John said through gritted teeth.
Rodney gestured with his hands. "But not to fear, I'll figure out how to bypass the security protocols and get us out of here. Just give me a minute."
John thought of Carter's expression when she found out they were stuck – in a game no less and he cleared his voice. "Uh, Teyla, don't – um, don't tell the others about this just yet," he said uncomfortably, glaring at Rodney.
Rodney licked his lips, then started working a little faster.
Teyla's voice was grim as she said, "Understood. Ronon and I will be there shortly. Stay on the alert. You are in grave danger."
"Rodney, have you made any progress at all?" Teyla asked as she stood at the gate entrance into the arena, speaking through the bars.
"Yeah, I think so – well, it's not much yet, but – "
"Damn it, we're going to have to tell Carter about this, aren't we?" John said, running his fingers through his hair as he paced. "You're taking the hit for this one, Rodney, not me. All I wanted was a peek."
"If I hadn't come along for your peek, I wouldn't have wanted to activate the systems and we wouldn't be stuck here now, so you can take the hit."
John put up a pointed finger. "Oh, no, you cannot say that you – "
"Enough," Ronon growled. "What do we do now?"
Rodney sighed. "I don't know. Just give me a moment to think."
Teyla tapped her fingers on the bars. "The Atolians took huge numbers of slaves whenever they invaded other worlds, then would force them to compete until the death. The competition would go on for days. They thought it good sport. Thousands died for the entertainment of the masses. This was a glorified death pit."
John held up a finger. "Uh, if you could refrain from using terms like death pit while we are still trapped inside here, I'd appreciate it."
Teyla nodded. "My apologies." She tapped her fingers again and said, "Perhaps, if you act as if you were going to begin the battle, you would be able to override the system at that point? The system must come to a stopping point if neither competitor fights."
Rodney scratched at the back of his neck. "I guess it's worth a shot. We've got to do something before Radek and Sam have to be told about this. We'll never live it down if it comes to that."
"No, you'll never live it down, Rodney," John interjected.
"Oh, please, we're in this together."
"Don't remind me," John said tersely. "Seriously, McKay, what were you thinking?"
"Don't give me any bull. You were thinking it was cool, too. Just – just put on the jumpsuit and let's get this over with."
Ronon's voice was grim. "You guys sure you want to start this? The Atolians played to the death."
Both Rodney and John stopped short, glancing at each other, then Rodney said, "The security protocols might open up for me if we actually start the battle. All we have to do is stop the competition when that happens."
"And if the security protocols don't open up?" John grumbled.
"They will. I can do this," Rodney said, turning back to the computer console.
Ronon pulled his weapon. "Wait, maybe I can blast through the locks. Stand back," he said, preparing to shoot.
There were several rapid blasts, but when the smoke cleared, the locks were still in place. Rodney cursed under his breath. Teyla said, "What if you were to destroy the computer consoles?"
Rodney shook his head. "I already thought of that. Each terminal is heavily shielded, probably just as heavily as those gates."
Teyla said, "I do not think there is any choice. We must contact the others."
John shook his head. "Not just yet. We'll put on the jumpsuits and activate the avatars, and maybe then Rodney can see a way to stop it."
Rodney shrugged and went to the drawer containing his jumpsuit. There was very little conversation until they were both dressed in the sleek white jumpsuits. McKay began to type on his console, then he stopped and shook his head. "There's nothing yet. We'll have to proceed to the next step. John, you can activate your avatar from your computer. When you do, the sensors in the jumpsuit will adapt itself to you. Your movements will be translated to your avatar."
"You mean I've got to flap my arms like wings?" John asked in disbelief.
"No, not quite – though, that would be quite interesting. No, you'll see what I mean in just a moment."
Rodney pressed a button on his computer console, then he pressed one on the chest of his jumpsuit. John followed Rodney's movements. Instantly, their avatars assumed John and Rodney's postures. John glanced over at Rodney. "Anything?"
Rodney studied his computer, then shook his head. "Things are opening up, but not enough for me to get into the right system. At least, not yet. We've got to keep going. At least, this time, it's just our butts on the line and not whole civilizations."
John glared at him. "Maybe you can do what you did with the last computer game we played and cheat."
"Cheat? Please. I do not cheat. I just play any game I'm playing using every element possible."
"Then use every element possible and do it fast."
Rodney nodded and typed something into his computer. The computer-generated snake avatar disappeared. "All in good time, my boy. Okay, I'm going to start," Rodney said. "Just a simple jump towards you."
Rodney pulled himself in, coiling his muscles, then leapt at John. Rodney's minute movements were multiplied several times by the avatar and John watched as Rodney's avatar slammed into his. The collision sent John flying backwards and he hit the wall hard. It knocked the air from his lungs and made the back of his head hit hard against the wall.
John dropped to his knees with his hands blindly out in front of him on the floor as he gasped for air. His hands were the only thing keeping him from falling forward face first. Everything was blurry and he was definitely dazed. He heard Teyla call to him and Rodney exclaim, "Holy shit, what the hell was that? All I did was jump a little."
John shook his head to clear his vision, blinking several times as Rodney approached him, apologizing profusely. John put up a hand to stop Rodney, both versions of him, then slowly lumbered to his feet. When the room around him stopped spinning, John said, "Is that what you meant by whatever happens to the avatar happens to its user?"
Rodney wiped a hand over his face. "I overshot my target. I meant to stop right in front of you, damn it. I'm so sorry."
John nodded and his double vision eased off a little more. "It's fine. I'm okay. Just check your computer and see if you got any useful intel from what just happened."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. Go."
Rodney hedged for a second, then ran over to his computer. John followed slowly behind him. It was disorienting to see their avatars moving above them as they copied their movements... or maybe he was still dazed from the hit he'd taken. He rubbed at a sore spot on his leg and his hand came away with blood on it.
"Damn," he whispered.
Teyla saw the blood at the same time he did. "John, how badly are you hurt?"
He put his hand back to the sore spot and felt a hole that went through his jumpsuit and pants, then found a gouge in his skin about three inches long, but it didn't feel very deep. "It's okay. Looks worse that it is. I must have been grazed by one of McKay's claws."
Rodney glanced up at John's avatar, who was sporting a similar wound on its leg and paled. He stepped toward John. "I – I did that? Crap, I'm sorry."
"I know you're sorry. We're both sorry for allowing ourselves to get into this situation. Now, just live up to your promise and get us the hell out of here."
Rodney frowned, then nodded and went back to the console. "There was something... " he started.
His fingers began to fly over the keyboard so fast John couldn't keep up with them. If the truth be told, John's head was still spinning a little. He glanced at his leg again and saw the trail of red staining the thigh of his jumpsuit was spreading, but he didn't have time to address the wound. That would come later... that was, if they survived.
"Yeah, yeah," Rodney said, "I think we're on the right track here."
"How long til we're free?"
Rodney swallowed, his eyes lingering on John's leg before meeting John's gaze. "Oh, well, all I said was that we were on the right track, not that I was about to free us. That's gonna take a little more work."
"Work? As in what?"
"Let me play with the data and we'll see."
John looked around nervously. "We won't have to fight anymore, will we?"
"No, not at the moment. I think I can use the data I have already and extrapolate what I need."
John sighed with relief. "Good, because I'm all for sitting the rest of this one out."
John was just starting to relax a little when an alarm sounded and several overhead lights started flashing. "What's that?" he asked quickly.
Rodney looked around. "Uh, I don't think we're gonna be allowed to just sit out the fight."
"Crap," John said, straightening his stance. "What can they do if neither one of us wants to fight?"
McKay frowned and continued to work on his computer. The alarm and flashing lights continued to increase in intensity. Even Ronon looked like he was starting to get nervous, then Rodney stiffened and John knew things had definitely gotten much worse.
Rodney looked up at John and said, "Oh, no."
Out of the corner of John's eye, he caught movement above them, then he saw the computer-generated snake avatar reappear above the far console, its electrified twills rippling with power.
John put out a hand in the direction of the snake avatar and his dragon avatar simulated the movement above them. "Oh no is one hell of an understatement, McKay."
Rodney's voice went up an octave and he spoke very quickly, "What were these Atolians? Some futuristic gladiator wannabes? Damn, I can see Russell Crowe flexing his muscles as we speak!"
John warily started edging away from Rodney in an effort to draw the computer-generated snake avatar's attention, because McKay had to keep working to get them free.
John shouted, "Teyla, get the others. It's time to screw the consequences and call in backup. Get everyone you can in here on the double. I'll keep this thing busy until you get back."
Teyla took off running. John could hear her calling Carter on her radio as she took the stairs two at a time. Ronon drew his weapon and moved closer to the locked gate. The snake avatar slithered closer toward John's avatar, making John swallow hard. He just hoped he could dance with this snake long enough for the others to return.
"Keep working, McKay," John shouted, then he turned to Ronon. "There has to be some type of camera that the computer uses to track the combatants and copy their movements for the avatars. Our odds might improve if we can take it out."
Ronon nodded and started searching the area around the arena. John's gaze went upward and he found one. "Ronon, there's one above you at eleven o'clock."
Ronon nodded. He aimed and fired smoothly. The blast caused the images of all three avatars to waver and fade for a moment before they were restored, but it didn't destroy the camera. "It must be shielded, too," Rodney shouted.
Before they could try again, the snake avatar made its move. It vanished. For a moment, John thought it was something McKay had done. His first clue that McKay wasn't behind it came with a bolt of electricity that struck the ground a few feet from where John was standing.
John responded by doing a quick tuck-and-roll away from the blast and narrowly missed another bolt. He was just getting to his feet again when there was a bright flash and the snake avatar stiffened and fell to one side.
John glanced up at McKay's avatar, then at Rodney. "The death ray?"
Rodney nodded with excitement. "I wasn't sure if it would work or not. You have to press that button on the chest of your jumpsuit for your offensive weapon to activate. I don't think the death ray really killed it, but it did immobilize it for a moment."
John nodded, eyeing the snake avatar warily. "Keep working, Rodney. I'll see how our friend likes a little shake 'n bake."
He moved closer to the snake avatar, his own dragon avatar above him flapping its powerful wings as it moved closer, preparing to attack. Just as he was about to press the button on his jumpsuit, the snake avatar disappeared again.
"Crap," he muttered, then he backed closer to the wall behind him so the snake avatar couldn't slip behind him to attack. "Rodney, watch out! It's gone invisible again!"
John's hair was standing on end as he caught a glimpse of the snake avatar right before the next bolt hit. The strike was so close it made John's left shoulder tingle a little, but the bulk of the electrical shock was absorbed by his wings. He darted away and called to McKay, "It must have to become visible in order to fire its lightning bolts!"
John took a deep breath and depressed the button on his jumpsuit, and blew out, aiming away from Rodney and hoping he'd at least get close to the snake avatar. The resulting fireball was much more spectacular than John had anticipated.
"Holy smokes!" Rodney shouted. He blinked a couple of times and added, "Pardon the pun."
John's fireball hadn't hit the snake avatar but it did illuminate its shape as a shadow against the flames and John made a running dive, hoping to hit the snake avatar with one of his dragon claws. He connected, but it was more of a glancing blow than a real strike.
He swung around, ready to make another strike when the snake avatar released three lightning bolts in rapid fire. John worked on instinct alone, wrapping his arms up and ducking his head down underneath them to protect his face, then he tucked his legs under his wings as much as he could.
John's defensive weapon was invulnerability – a rock-hard hide covering his back and wings of his dragon avatar, and he used it to protect himself. Even with his eyes closed, the resulting brightness from the lightning bolts were enough to be sensed, but his wings shielded him from harm.
The air still tingled with electricity when he heard McKay's tiger avatar growl, and then there was a bright flash. Another death ray attack from McKay, John decided. When John looked up, Rodney was in front of him in a defensive posture, trying to protect him.
John grumbled, "Damn it, get back to work, McKay! I'm okay!"
John moved forward, inserting himself between the snake and Rodney. Rodney cursed under his breath. "You really have a thing about letting others look out for you, you know. You're welcome, by the way!"
"All you need to concentrate on is getting us out of here, okay? I'll take care of the rest."
Rodney returned to his console. John was distantly aware of the approach of others filling the stadium, but he had no time to think about it. He had to keep moving. He had to keep that snake off McKay or else they were both dead.
It took everything Rodney had not to leap in front of Sheppard again, but Rodney was so close to breaking through the security system. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted now. He tried to ignore what John was doing but it was almost impossible with all the blinding bolts of electricity striking the ground (and hopefully not John).
Rodney glanced up in time to see John's avatar spew a long stream of fire and he smiled. "Barbequed snake," he whispered.
"Rodney!" Teyla called as she came to a stop beside Ronon.
Lorne and Radek were right behind her. "What can we do to help?" she asked breathlessly.
"The terminals, locks and cameras are all shielded, but I think if everyone fired everything they've got at the same time, you might be able to overload the shielding on one system or the other. I'm almost through the security protocols, but I wouldn't be offended in the least if you broke us out before I finished!"
Teyla nodded. "Understood!"
Ronon added to Rodney's instructions to the others as Rodney spared a glance in John's direction. He had the whole 'spew fire then wrap his wings around him in protection against the release of lightning bolts' routine down pretty good.
John was just coming out from under the protection of his wings again and was in the process of sprinting away when an unexpected lightning bolt struck him on the lower right leg. The impact added to his momentum. He was thrown head-over-heels and he rolled several meters across the arena before coming to an abrupt stop against a wall.
"Ah, geez," John whispered as he clutched his lower leg close to his body.
Rodney didn't hesitate. He ran forward, stopping right in front of the snake avatar, then let loose with his death ray gaze. At the same time, he reached out with his free hand, raking his razor-sharp claws against the snake's underbelly.
The snake avator hadn't anticipated Rodney's move and it was caught by surprise, but then its tail whipped out and struck Rodney from the side, sending him back towards his computer console.
All of a sudden, the air was filled with the sound of automatic weapons fire and blasters and maybe even a grenade or two, Rodney wasn't sure. His head was still ringing from the blow he took, but he was scrambling to get back to John's side.
John pushed him away. "I said I was okay, Rodney! Keep working!"
"Fine, damn it, just fine! Excuse me for trying to save your life!"
Rodney didn't bother to look in John's direction as he stormed away. He wasn't ready to deal with John's own version of a 'death ray' gaze.
Once he reached the computer, he did spare a quick glance and saw John was getting to his feet again... or more accurately standing up on one foot, because the other leg barely held any weight at all.
Rodney shook his head and closed his eyes. He was close. So very close. The almost done kind of close and he didn't have a moment to waste.
"Watch out, John, it's gone invisible again!" Ronon shouted and again Rodney fought against everything inside of him to stop and help John.
Rodney was worried about John and not himself when a series of lightning bolts struck the wall behind him, just barely missing Rodney's head. That surprised him. Before Rodney could process the danger he was in, John came flying through the air.
"Get down!" John hissed as he grabbed Rodney and pulled him down, right before another barrage of bolts struck the wall.
"But – but you told me to keep working no matter what," Rodney said as he sought to untangle himself from John.
Instead, John wrapped his arms around the two of them and cowered down. Another series of lightning bolts hit, but John's wings absorbed most of it. When it was done, John raised up, his face shiny with sweat and pain and some weird kind of adrenaline-induced high – the kind that usually hits right before you pass out – and he gave Rodney a toothy grin. "Invulnerability is one awesome defensive weapon."
Rodney opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, John pushed Rodney to the side. "Get down!" John exclaimed, then he spewed fire. When he was done, he added, "Finish shutting this thing down! I'm getting tired, I'm hungry, and my leg hurts like hell!"
Rodney nodded and pulled himself back up to the console. Just to be on the safe side, he gave John some cover fire by sending the snake avatar another nasty dose of death rays.
"Finish it!" Sheppard hissed as he moved forward on the attack.
"Right," Rodney said to himself.
There was another long burst of weapons fire, and the sound of dragon's fire battling lightning bolts, but Rodney was immune to any of it by then. All he had to do was insert one more set of code and the system was down. When he hit the last key, the computer console went dark and Rodney slumped over it and let out a long sigh.
"McKay, you okay?" Rodney heard John shout hoarsely to him.
Rodney rose from the computer console, shaking his head. "Yeah, but I'm not the one who just got seared by a lightning bolt."
The gates opened up and the people from Atlantis started streaming through. Ronon and Teyla were first, followed by Lorne and Zelenka. People were shouting orders and others were running around following those orders. It was crazy. And in the pandemonium that ensued, Rodney had to fight his way through the group to get to John's side.
By the time he got there, Teyla was cutting away the lower half of John's pant leg and Ronon was removing John's boot. When he was done, Ronon held up the boot for everyone to see. There was the hole through the sole of John's boot caused by the lightning.
"Easy, John," Teyla said when John made motions of getting up.
She pointed to an ugly red blistered area the size of Rodney's fist on the side of John's left calf. All it took was one glance for Rodney to decide he didn't need to look at John's leg again, unless he wanted to lose his appetite for dinner. The burn looked bad. It narrowed as it trailed in a half-inch strip all the way down to John's right foot, ending at his little toe. The whole thing looked like it would hurt like hell, but John waved it off as nothing.
"I'm fine," John said, looking like he was anything but fine. "Everybody just relax a little."
"Pfft," Rodney muttered, putting a hand to his forehead. "If you're fine, I'd sure as hell hate to see a serious injury."
Keller and a medical team pushed through, and Rodney stepped back to allow better access. Teyla stood and stopped beside him, placing a hand on his arm. "You did well, Rodney."
"Not well enough to prevent that."
Rodney gestured toward John's leg even as John shook his head and said, "It's not that bad."
Jennifer looked up from John's injury and told him, "You've got first and second degree burns here, Colonel, and you are going to lie still until I finish assessing the damage done."
"Okay, Doc, okay," he said finally.
He glanced up and met Rodney's gaze. There was definitely pain in Sheppard's eyes, but there was also gratitude and relief.
Teyla drew Rodney's attention back to her when she said, "Do not worry. I believe he will be fine. Jennifer does not seem overly concerned. This could have ended much worse."
Ronon stopped beside Rodney and patted him on the shoulder. "Good job."
"Good job," Rodney whispered, shaking his head. "I almost get us both killed and people are congratulating me like I'm some hero."
"You are a hero, Rodney. Never forget that," Teyla said, squeezing his arm. "Now that we have your situation resolved, perhaps we can discuss the matter of how you got into it in the first place?"
Rodney opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times, trying to think of what to say, then he saw Sam Carter moving down the stadium stairs. That wasn't good. She had come all the way from Atlantis to check out the situation for herself. Oh yeah, he was sure this wasn't going to be pretty.
Rodney tried to not be obvious that he was forcing himself to walk slower for John's sake as they went down the street. John was walking with a cane and an obvious limp, but at least he was moving.
While John had been stuck in the infirmary, and much to Rodney's dismay, Zelenka's team had found the cloaking technology. Normally, something like that would have ruined Rodney's day – because he really hated being bested by Zelenka – but this time, Rodney didn't care so much.
John could have died, along with Rodney, but they didn't. All in all, things weren't so bad. They would analyze the data from the cloaking technology and if it worked as described, then they would start distributing the technology to their allies in the Pegasus galaxy.
Jennifer had given John a two hour pass to check out the discovery for himself, then he had to return to his quarters for the night. They had even had time to hit the messhall for some meatloaf before coming to Penatra. Now, they were on their way back to the jumper.
John glanced over at Rodney, obviously feeling the uncomfortable silence between the two of them as much as Rodney was, and said, "It's too bad you weren't there for the discovery. You should have at least been there for that."
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, well, I couldn't very well abandon you after you got injured trying to save my life and all. I mean, you are a member of my team. Besides, it would have happened on Radek's watch anyway, so I guess it's not the end of the world."
Rodney gestured towards John's leg. "How's the leg holding up?"
John glanced down at it, but didn't slow down his pace. "It's okay. I guess we were pretty lucky in general. I mean, according the Atolians' records, nobody had ever made it out of the arena alive before."
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, we make a good team. My brains and your... what would you call what you do?"
John smirked. "Madness?"
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, something like that. Like I said, my brains and your... whatever kept us alive. We make a good team."
Rodney chuckled. "I think Ronon wants to frame your boot and put it in the rec room as a trophy."
John grunted. "Never thought about the lightning bolt moving on down my leg after it hit me."
"Lightning is merely electricity looking to go to ground, seeking the path of least resistance, and moving down your leg and foot to escape into the ground through your boot makes for quite a story. You know, I remember reading once that there was a forest ranger in Virginia who had been struck by lightning at least seven times that they could document. Seven freaking times, so consider yourself lucky."
"Believe me, I do."
They arrived at the jumper and Rodney made his way to the pilot's seat. Sheppard started to argue about flying the jumper himself, but Rodney shook his head. "Keller's orders. You're under the influence of pain medication, therefore, no flying."
"Fine. Whatever," Sheppard said with a dejected air as he eased himself into the copilot's seat and carefully set his leg into a comfortable position.
Before Rodney powered up the jumper's systems, he glanced over at John. "Did Sam say anything to you about what happened? You know, about us playing a game with... uh, life-and-death consequences again?"
Sheppard's forehead furrowed with a deep frown. "No, she didn't. Did she say anything to you?"
Rodney shook his head. "Uh-uh, And I don't think that's a good sign... although, Teyla did say Sam never had a chance to come back to Atlantis to check on you in the infirmary, because of the discovery of the Atolian cloaking technology."
"Yeah, true, but then she was gone by the time we just stopped at the discovery site."
"Do you think she's avoiding us?"
"Avoiding us? Of course not. No, if Sam had a problem with us, she'd address it straightforward. She's the Stargate veteran, after all."
"So, we're okay?"
"Oh, no, I wouldn't go that far. We're definitely on shaky ground right now."
"So, do you think we should mention it to her? I mean, you know, seek her out about it?"
Sheppard's eyes widened. "Are you crazy?"
"Well, it's not like she doesn't know."
"What if she's just gonna let us slide with it this time?"
"What if she's not?"
They both swallowed hard. Finally, Rodney said, "I guess we'll find out sooner or later."
John sighed. "Yeah, that's what I'm worried about."
They sat in silence for a moment, then John shook his head, sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. "No, forget that. Whatever she does, I guess I'm good with it."
John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Because we shouldn't have been there in the first place. And in the second place, there's just something sweet about controlling a fire-breathing dragon and surviving an attack by a snake that can shoot lightning bolts. It makes a man grateful for experiences that can only be found in the Pegasus galaxy."
Rodney chuckled. "Yeah, being a sabertooth tiger capable of shooting death rays from my eyes was pretty great, too. Man, it would be so totally awesome if we could try it again. I think this time I would go for the ability to – "
John's gaze went ice cold and Rodney had an inkling that he'd just stepped over some invisible line. John's voice was low and steady as he said, "You mean, try it again, as in playing a game meant to be played to the death? A game that already almost killed the two of us?"
Rodney knew he'd definitely crossed the line by that point and attempted a little damage control by back-peddling. "No, of course, not actually playing. I meant, if I could modify the technology so that it wouldn't be so dangerous, we could – "
"Rodney." John's tone held very little patience. "For a genius, you can be a real idiot about certain things."
"What?" Rodney asked incredulously. "You act like my creative brilliance is something I can turn on and off – "
"Just fly the damned jumper."
Rodney tightened his grip on the jumper controls and forced his gaze to look straight ahead. "Fine. Whatever. Flying the damned jumper."