Cover Art by Annie

 

Interior Art by Lori

 

Betaed by Sue

 

EMAIL: Pansy Chubb

 

EMAIL: Lori

 

EMAIL: Annie

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard had a reason to be cheerful.

 

"So, Ronon," he called to the big man walking a few yards ahead of him, "what are you doing on your date?"

 

Satedan Specialist Ronon Dex turned to face his team leader, pace slowing only a little as he walked backward through the meadow.  "'S'not a date," he said, but the smirk on his face betrayed him.

 

Sheppard smiled innocently, then raised his eyebrows at the third member of his team.  "Teyla? What did you say Banks told you again?"

 

Teyla Emmagen picked her way through the tall grass beside John, a smile tugging at her lips.  "Amelia said Ronon invited her to join him on a run, and then in some sparring practice."

 

John winked at the Athosian before turning back to Ronon. "For you, big guy, that is a date."

 

Ronon bared his teeth in a feral grin. "Yeah," he said, turning back toward the Stargate, which glinted in the sunlight a short distance away. "Guess it is."

 

"Well, don't let us slow you down!" John called as the runner resumed his ground-eating pace.  "It's not like it's a beautiful day or anything!" He turned his gaze to the sky as Ronon began pulling away. "Great flying weather, too."

 

"Yes, this is a pleasant planet," Teyla agreed.  "It is a shame the Valerians were not interested in trading."

 

"Yeah, well, maybe they'll come around." John shrugged. "At least we didn't make any enemies."

 

"No, the representatives were quite hospitable. I hope they will be more open to negotiation in the future."

 

Ahead of them, Ronon was already waiting at the DHD.

 

"Now, Chewie," Sheppard said lightly as Teyla began to dial, "try not to break our 'gate technician tonight." He ignored Ronon's level stare. "Stitches and cracked ribs are more of a second date thing."

 

Teyla laughed as the wormhole whooshed into existence. "You do not have to worry, John," she said, stepping up to join them on the Stargate's dais. "Amelia can more than take care of herself."

 

"Right, the kickboxing," John mused. "Maybe I should alert the infirmary that an injured and embarrassed Satedan might be visiting them tonight."

 

Teyla laughed again. John was still smiling innocently in the face of Ronon's glare when they stepped through to Atlantis.

 

"Colonel!" Richard Woolsey hurried down the 'gate room steps toward the team.

 

"Commander," John nodded back, "we -”

 

" - are three hours overdue," Woolsey interrupted.

 

John's smile disappeared. "What?" He looked at his watch.

 

"I was getting ready to send a rescue team," the bureaucrat said, frowning like a principal with a bunch of truant students. "I know protocol is to wait six hours, but considering it was your team . . ." He let the statement hang in the air.

 

"We are sorry," Teyla apologized, looking bewildered. "We lost track of time."

 

"I'll say," John said, frowning at his watch.

 

Ronon looked nonplussed by the proceedings.

 

"Well," Richard said, "I suppose you'll have a good story when you brief me in one hour, so –" He stopped short, then craned his neck to look behind John.

 

Sheppard had the sudden suspicion that some kind of animal had followed them through the 'gate, but saw nothing when he looked. "What?"

 

"Where is Doctor McKay?" Woolsey asked. "Did he stay behind?"

 

John frowned again. "What?"

 

"Where's McKay?" Richard repeated with more than a hint of irritation.

 

Sheppard turned to Teyla, who mirrored his confused expression and shook her head.

 

"If this is some sort of prank," Richard huffed at the teams' blank looks, "I can assure you that it's not funny."

 

John looked at Ronon, who merely shrugged.

 

"Colonel," Woolsey demanded, "where is Rodney?!"

 

John turned back to the city’s commander.

 

"Who," he asked, "is Rodney?"

 

 

***

 

Act I

 

Richard Woolsey paused outside his office, allowing his shoulders to slump ever so slightly as he gripped the railing and gazed at the ‘gate room below.  The Stargate was inactive, and it was quiet apart from the usual hustle and bustle of the technicians behind him.

 

But there was a tension in the air that belied the seeming normalcy. It wasn’t every day that Atlantis’ flagship team came home without their chief science officer – much less any memory of the man whatsoever.

 

The commander sighed. Straightening, he adjusted his uniform and turned toward the conference room.

 

“Sir?” Banks called from her station as he walked past.

 

“Yes, Amelia?” Richard stopped and turned toward the ‘gate technician.

 

“Would you like me to inform you when Major Lorne’s team reports back?”

 

“Yes, immediately,” Woolsey nodded.  “Good news or bad.”

 

“Yes sir,” Amelia responded.  She paused before adding, “I hope it’s good.”

 

Richard gave her a small smile.  “So do we all.”  He took a step, then turned back, his smile growing a bit more.  “Regardless, I think you’re going to have to cancel your date tonight.”

 

Banks flushed and dropped her gaze. A soft murmur of laughter came from the other technicians, temporarily dispelling the tension. Amelia made an exasperated noise. “Does the whole city know about that?” she asked sheepishly.

 

“No,” Richard shook his head.  Then he added, “But just about.”  He continued smiling as chuckling laughter followed him toward the conference room.

 

The commander schooled his expression just before the Ancient doors swung open for him.  Doctor Carson Beckett, Doctor Radek Zelenka, and a woman in a medical-yellow uniform sat at the long oaken table.

 

“Gentlemen, and lady,” he added, nodding to the woman, “our flagship team has been in isolation for several hours now, and our chief science officer is missing.” He took his seat as the conference room doors whooshed shut behind him.  “I want some answers.”

 

“Right.” Beckett spoke first. “Well, it’s taking some time, but we’re running every test I can think of.”

 

“Should I have Doctor Keller called back from P4X-278?” Woolsey asked.

 

“Ach, no,” the Scot replied. “I daresay those poor people need her more than I do. Besides, my team is handling the workload admirably. And in addition,” he added, nodding to the woman across the table from him, “I asked Doctor Hamri to conduct brief, one-on-one interviews with the colonel, Teyla, and Ronon as part of their post-mission medical checks.”

 

Richard turned to the woman on his right. “Forgive me,” he began, “but it is Doctor Fatima Hamri, correct?”

 

The woman nodded. “Yes. We met briefly when I arrived a few weeks ago,” she responded in a mild German accent. Her complexion was dark, her hair black and close-cropped, and the flag on her uniform jacket red with a single green star in the center.

 

“I remember,” Richard said. “I apologize that I’ve been too busy to get to know you properly so far.”

 

“It’s alright,” she said, smiling. “If the IOA forced a new base psychologist on me without so much as asking my approval, I’d be hesitant to talk to her, too.”

 

The bald statement left Woolsey speechless for a moment. Carson raised his eyebrows, and even Zelenka, who had been absorbed in his data pad since Richard had entered, glanced up.

 

“I assure you,” the bureaucrat said, clearing his throat, “that is not the case.”  Hamri nodded, but didn’t quite stop smiling. “How did the interviews go?” he asked brusquely.

 

“As well as can be expected,” she replied. “They are understandably confused and angry.”

 

“I do not understand,” Teyla said, her posture one of desperate calm. Hamri noticed how the Athosian purposely, almost forcefully, kept her breathing even and relaxed. “I do not know any Doctor McKay. Why is everyone asking us about him?”

 

“Look, I know you’re the new shrink,” Sheppard said with disdain when she interviewed him, “and you’re supposed to be the one asking the questions, but what the hell is going on here?” He glared up at the isolation room windows before she could answer. “Why is my team in quarantine?” he demanded. “And will someone please tell me who the hell this McKay guy is?!”

 

As for Ronon, Fatima hadn’t been able to get anything but monosyllabic answers out of the runner for the entire interview.

 

“Doctor?” Woolsey interrupted her reverie.

 

Hamri blinked and returned her gaze to the commander. “I admit that I have not yet developed a proper doctor-patient relationship with any of them, but I do not believe that they are purposely deceiving us.” She shook her head. “Neither have they been through any trauma that could account for such a memory loss.”

 

“Then what do you believe?”

 

Hamri spoke evenly. “That the memory of Doctor McKay has simply been blocked from their minds.”  She shook her head again.  “That kind of mental manipulation would take days – possibly weeks – of brainwashing.”

 

“But they were gone less than half a day.”

 

“Correct,” Fatima continued. “But I have witnessed several alien technologies during my time with the SGC that are capable of such manipulation. Therefore,” she concluded, folding her hands in front of her, “it is my professional opinion that something similar was used on Colonel Sheppard and his team.”

 

“Aye,” Carson agreed, “and all their blood work has come back clean, so –“

 

“Wait wait wait,” Richard interrupted with a hand up to pause the Scot, “how can we be sure this is even our team?” He gave them all a knowing look. “The SGC has certainly dealt with parallel universe personnel before.”

 

“No no no,” Zelenka interjected, finally bringing his nose up out of the data pad, “that is not the case in, uh, this case.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “My team has run every sort of diagnostic on our ‘gate and the one on Valeria. We have found nothing abnormal. Also,” the Czech added, forestalling Woolsey’s interruption, “there are no stellar phenomena in the wormhole’s path that could account for such a dimensional transition.”

 

“Besides,” Carson added, “we found something interesting when we put Colonel Sheppard’s team under the Ancient scanner.”

 

“Define ‘interesting,’” Woolsey said dryly as the physician stood and walked to a screen on the far wall.

 

Carson activated the display and pointed to the image that appeared.  “This is Colonel Sheppard’s brain.”

 

Richard didn’t have the medical expertise to agree or disagree, so he simply nodded.

 

“What you see here,” the Scot continued, pointing to a darker spot, “is evidence of subdural hematomas. Bruising.”

 

“In his brain?” Woolsey asked incredulously.

 

“Yes, it’s the same in all of them, not unlike what you would find with a severe concussion,” Beckett explained.  “The trick is that the bruises are very small, and very precise.  We only found them in these specific areas.” He pointed again.

 

“The memory centers,” Fatima added helpfully at Richard’s blank look.

 

“Aye,” Carson agreed. “It holds with Doctor Hamri’s theory that an unknown technology is responsible.”

 

Richard sighed and sat back in his chair.  “Well, at least we know that – “

 

“Excuse me, Commander Woolsey?” Banks interrupted over his headset.

 

He put a hand to his ear. “Yes?”

 

“Major Lorne’s team has returned.”

 

Richard waited a beat. When it became clear that the ‘gate tech had nothing else to relate, he sighed. “Thank you, Amelia. Send him in.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“I’m afraid,” Woolsey said in explanation to the room at large, “that Major Lorne’s team has returned without Doctor McKay.”

 

Carson sighed, looking a little crestfallen. Radek muttered something in his native language and went back to working with his data pad. Doctor Hamri kept her features neutral, her eyes on Richard.

 

The doors to the conference room opened and Major Evan Lorne strode in, still in full field gear.

 

“Major,” Woolsey said, standing. “Report.”

 

“Sir, we got nothing,” Lorne responded with a frustrated, defeated air. “And I mean nothing.  The land is empty for miles around the ‘gate.  We even took the ‘jumper up and did a few scans of the planet.  It’s like Valeria never had any human civilization at all.”

 

“But Colonel Sheppard’s team said they met with the Valerians,” Hamri said, frowning.

 

“Well, if there was anyone on that planet before, they’re gone now.”

 

“Ah,” said Zelenka, standing, “did you - ?”

 

“Got the last fifty addresses dialed from the Valeria DHD right here,” Lorne said, holding up a data pad of his own.

 

“Good,” Radek said, gathering up his things, “we will just need to - ” He was halfway to the door before he paused to look at Woolsey. “Um, if you don’t –“ He gestured vaguely.

 

“Go,” Richard said, waving him away. “You’re dismissed as well, Major. And thank you.”

 

“Sir.” Lorne nodded at him, then nodded at Beckett and Hamri, before following the fast-moving Czech out of the room.

 

The Ancient doors stayed open, seemingly understanding that the meeting was over.

 

“Doctors,” Richard said, addressing both physician and psychologist, “do you have anything else to report?”

 

Doctor Hamri shook her head, but Carson spoke.

 

“I do have a wee bit of good news,” he offered. “The bruising seems to be temporary, and is already healing.” The Scot shrugged. “It’s entirely possible that Colonel Sheppard’s team will regain their memories of Rodney. Gradually – over the next few weeks, perhaps.”

 

Woolsey’s smile was small and sad. “Good news, yes,” he said, “but that will probably be too late to help Doctor McKay.”

 

---

 

“Mister Woolsey!” Fatima called as the commander left the ‘gate room.

 

“Yes, Doctor?” Richard replied, pausing in the hallway just outside the door.

 

“May I walk with you?”

 

“Of course.” He continued his walk down the corridor with the psychologist at his side, nodding to the various personnel who passed.

 

When the doctor seemed hesitant to start the conversation, Richard ventured a topic. “I’m curious as to why you’ve chosen to wear the Moroccan flag on your uniform,” he said. “Your dossier says you were raised and educated in Germany.”

 

Hamri nodded. “My father was German. He met my mother in Tangiers. When I was young, he moved us to Stuttgart.”

 

The psychologist’s explanation ended abruptly. Woolsey sighed inwardly and tried again. “I assume there’s something you want to talk about?”

 

“Yes,” Fatima sighed, clasping her hands in front of her. “I apologize for my blunt words before.” When Woolsey merely looked at her, she continued. “I find that a measure of honesty about myself helps my patients to open up about themselves, and sometimes I bring that technique into situations where it is inappropriate.”

 

“Such as calling out the city’s commander on his actions in front of his subordinates.”

 

“Yes,” Hamri said with a wry smile, “exactly like that.”

 

Woolsey let the silence between them grow for about a dozen steps. Hamri was half a head shorter than he, and he watched her out of the corner of his eye as they walked. Finally, he spoke. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said, making eye contact to show his sincerity, “and accept your apology.”

 

Fatima smiled gratefully.  “I just wanted you to know that I know that the circumstances surrounding my assignment were . . . not ideal.”

 

“And I do know how difficult it is to fit in here as a new arrival.” Richard returned the smile.  “I’m sure you’ll start making friends in no time.”

 

“But in the meantime,” Hamri replied as they came to a transporter, “I’d like to take an active role in helping Colonel Sheppard’s team.”

 

Richard waved the transporter doors open. “I thought you might,” he said as they stepped inside the alcove. “In fact, that’s where I’m headed.”  He punched a spot on the wall map.

 

“To the infirmary?”

 

“Now that we know Colonel Sheppard and his team aren’t a security threat,” the commander said as the doors slid shut, “I have to break the news to them.” A flash of light, and the doors opened on the medical wing. “To be honest, I would appreciate any help you could give in the matter.”

 

“Of course,” Fatima said as they stepped out. “I imagine Colonel Sheppard will not take the news well.”

 

“No,” Richard sighed as they reached the infirmary, “no, he won’t.”

 

---

 

What?!” Sheppard’s bark was so loud that Fatima swore the isolation room windows rattled. “Somebody bruised our brains?!

 

“Please, Colonel,” Woolsey said, raising his hands in placation, “there’s no need to shout –“

 

“No?” John spat back icily. “Somebody went digging through my brain and made me forget one of my team and you -”

 

“John,” Teyla said, her voice soft as she laid a hand on the pilot’s arm. Hamri could tell that the Athosian was seething under the calm façade, but her quiet actions somehow interrupted the soldier’s rant. Sheppard looked at her, crossed his arms, and turned to Woolsey and Hamri, stone-faced.

 

Fatima filed that bit of interaction away for later reference. “Can you describe your visit to Valeria?” she asked. “Did anything odd happen?”

 

John and Teyla looked at each other. When John just shrugged, Teyla answered, “No. I cannot think of anything strange.”

 

“Ronon,” Woolsey called, “what about you?”

 

The big runner had been pacing at the back of the room since the commander had broken the news, reminding Fatima strongly of a tiger in its cage. The Satedan paused long enough to shake his head and grunt a negative before resuming his stride.

 

“All right,” Hamri said patiently. “Why don’t you describe what you do remember.”

 

“Start at the beginning,” Richard added, “when you arrived on Valeria.”

 

John straightened, letting his arms fall to his sides as he subconsciously took on a pose fitting a report to a superior officer. “We arrived at Valerian dawn, about oh-eight-hundred Atlantis time. We walked three miles through the grassland surrounding the Stargate until we reached the Valerian outpost.”

 

“Who is ‘we’?” Hamri prompted.

 

“Ronon, Teyla, and myself,” John answered, a bit uncomfortably. “At least, that’s who I remember.” He fixed Woolsey with a stare. “McKay was with us too, wasn’t he?”

 

Richard nodded, but Fatima spoke before he could say anything. “This outpost – describe it.”

 

“The majority of the Valerian population lives near the forest, about twenty miles from the ‘gate,” Teyla replied. “The outpost is a small group of simple dwellings, which they use for trade negotiations. We met Cador and Emadara there.”

 

“Cador and Emadara?” Richard echoed.

 

“The Valerians’ representatives,” John said. “Cador was the leader – early thirties, maybe. Seemed a pretty average guy to me.”

 

“Emadara was a young woman, pretty and a little shy,” Teyla added. “Cador said he was training her in the art of negotiation.”

 

“Yeah,” John agreed. “Couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old.”

 

“All right,” Hamri conceded. “How did the negotiations proceed?”

 

“After we exchanged greetings, they invited us into one of the buildings to share some tea.” Teyla shrugged. “We accepted, and then began discussing trade.”

 

“But they weren’t interested,” John interjected. “Nice people, but obviously not looking for new trading partners.” He crossed his arms again. “So we said goodbye and headed back to the ‘gate.”

 

“And that’s all you remember?” Woolsey asked.

 

Teyla nodded.

 

“Yeah,” Sheppard agreed. “Except that’s not all that happened, is it? Because somehow we lost a goddamn team member along the way!”

 

Fatima cut off the colonel’s outburst with a question. “Did they say why they didn’t want to trade?”

 

“What?” John furrowed his brow.

 

“Cador and Emadara,” Hamri elaborated. “Why didn’t they want to trade?”

 

Sheppard turned to Teyla, who wore her own look of confusion. “They . . . “ she began, then trailed off.

 

“Weren’t interested,” Ronon finished, speaking for the first time from across the room.

 

“Yes,” Teyla said, turning to Fatima. “They were not interested. But . . . I do not remember why.”

 

“Can you remember any details at all about the talks?” Hamri pressed.

 

Sheppard took a deep breath and put his hands on his hips. “No,” he said, then added quietly, “Damn it.” At normal volume, he said, “That’s when whatever happened . . . happened, didn’t it?”

 

“It certainly seems that your minds are suppressing that information for some reason.”

 

“So what are we gonna do about it?” Ronon growled, stalking toward the group and standing next to Teyla.

 

“There is some good news,” Woolsey piped up hopefully. “Doctor Beckett believes your memory loss is only temporary, and that your memories of Doctor McKay will return within a few weeks time.”

 

“Oh, great!” John feigned relief. “Meanwhile, I’ve got a teammate who-knows-where in Pegasus that I didn’t even know I left behind!”

 

Woolsey measured his words. “Major Lorne’s team searched Valeria and brought back the last fifty addresses dialed by their DHD. Doctor Zelenka is analyzing them now.”

 

“And how long will that take?”

 

“Well, we don’t have an exact timeframe for – “

 

“Then it’s not good enough!” John exploded, clenching his fists and beginning his own pacing about the room.

 

“Richard,” Teyla spoke from where she had been deep in thought, “is there no way we can recover our memories?” She looked to John and Ronon. “It may help us locate Doctor McKay.”

 

“I’ve already looked into requisitioning some of the alien technologies capable of memory manipulation and recovery from the SGC,” he answered, “but I’m afraid it will require an awful lot of red tape.”

 

John growled in frustration and ran a hand through his hair. Teyla took a deep breath, and Ronon stared at the city’s commander as if the situation were all his fault.

 

“Is there nothing we can do?” the Athosian asked.

 

“Actually,” Fatima spoke hesitantly as all eyes turned to her, “I have an idea.”

 

---

 

“Kate Heightmeyer used hypnosis on me,” Teyla said to Doctor Hamri as Carson set up the heart monitor next to the infirmary bed. “Will this be a similar experience?”

 

“In some ways,” Fatima said carefully. “She was trying to help you awaken your mental connection to the Wraith, correct?”

 

Teyla nodded.

 

“Aye,” Carson piped up as he finished fiddling with the controls. “It was a successful session.”

 

“Carson,” Teyla said wryly, “the Wraith gained control of me and I struck you in the face.”

 

“Aye,” Carson said again, nonplussed. “Didn’t I just say it was a successful session?” He gave her a wink.

 

Fatima smiled. “We will hopefully avoid anything so drastic this time.” She looked over her shoulder. Sheppard and Lorne were discussing something quietly in the corner while Ronon leaned imposingly against the wall near them. “I think we’re about ready to begin.”

 

“All right then!” Beckett clapped his hands and gestured to the bed. “Teyla, lass, up you go.”

 

Fatima reached out a hand to block the other woman. “No, Carson, I’m sorry,” she said. “I was unclear – Teyla is not the one I will be hypnotizing today.”

 

The Scot furrowed his brow. “Then, who –“

 

“Doc,” Sheppard called, finishing his conversation and making his way toward them. Lorne disappeared out the infirmary door, but Ronon followed the colonel. “We about ready to start?”

 

“Yes, but –“

 

“Good,” John said, shifting his attention to Hamri. “I want it to be me.”

 

Carson and Teyla looked taken aback by the news. Ronon, however, didn’t bat an eye.

 

“John,” Teyla said, “are you sure – “

 

“Yeah,” the pilot cut her off. “My team, my missing man.” He looked her in the eye. “My responsibility.”

 

Carson’s face still betrayed his surprise. “All right,” he conceded. “Go on and lie down, then. I just need to make an adjustment to the sedative level.” The physician raised an eyebrow at Hamri, and she walked with him to the cupboard across the room as Teyla and Ronon helped their team leader get settled.

 

“Nice call,” Beckett said softly as he measured out the medication. “How did you know?”

 

Fatima chuckled just as softly. “I have worked with soldiers a very long time,” she said simply.

 

---

 

“Colonel Sheppard,” Fatima said, keeping her voice calm and level. “Tell us what happened when you arrived on Valeria. What do you see?”

 

The infirmary lights had been dimmed, and Ronon and Teyla stood in the shadows off to the psychologist’s side. Doctor Beckett sat beside the bed, quietly monitoring the colonel’s vitals.

 

Colonel Sheppard looked, for all intents and purposes, as if he were asleep. His breathing was deep and even, his eyes closed, and his limbs relaxed. It had taken Fatima quite a while to get him into this state – the soldier was not one to let his guard down easily – but with patience and the help of Beckett’s mild sedative, she had finally completed his descent into the trance.

 

When Sheppard spoke, his voice was as relaxed as his body. “A big meadow,” he began. “It’s early morning. No clouds. Gonna be great flying weather.” His lips quirked in a tiny smile.

 

“Who is with you?”

 

“Ronon, Teyla . . .” The smile disappeared. “And a man . . .”

 

“Describe him.”

 

“Great,” Rodney said the moment the wormhole disengaged behind him. “Look at all this grass! How far is the outpost again?”

 

“Just a few miles, McKay,” John said, slipping on his sunglasses. Ronon and Teyla were already walking toward the distant tree line. “No sweat.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Rodney griped as he stepped off the ‘gate’s dais. “Do you have any idea how much pollen you inhale with each breath in a place like this?”

 

“Do you?”

 

Rodney scowled. “It’s a lot, okay? More than enough to trigger an acute hay fever attack. But we couldn’t take the ‘jumper, oh no! ‘A little exercise, McKay,’ you said, as if you didn’t already make me go running with you three times a week. And mind you, that’s three times a week I could be doing something important, like improving the city’s defenses, or researching the Ancient database, or any number of other projects that Zelenka will probably blow up in my absence . . .”

 

“He’s really loud,” John said simply.

 

Fatima caught Beckett’s amused smile.

 

“What happened next?”

 

“We walked to the outpost. The Valerians met us.” Sheppard shifted slightly on the bed. “We drank tea.”

 

“Are you sure there’s no citrus in this?” Rodney asked as Emadara handed him a cup. “Because this will end very badly if you’re wrong.”

 

“It’s fine, McKay,” John said, taking a sip of his own tea. It reminded him of chamomile. He smiled at Emadara, who shyly averted her eyes as she went to the other side of the table to serve Ronon and Teyla. She was a tall girl, thin and pale, with long white-blonde hair and blue eyes.

 

“Just drink the damn tea, McKay,” John muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

 

“Fine,” Rodney huffed, sniffing experimentally at the cup. “But if I die from anaphylactic shock, I want my tombstone to say, ‘It’s Sheppard’s fault.’”

 

John pasted on a smile as Cador finished the pleasantries he’d been exchanging with Teyla and took his seat at the head of the table. He was about Sheppard’s height, with a ruffled mop-top of wavy brown hair that made him look younger than he was.

 

“Again, thank you for joining us,” the Valerian said. Emadara took her own seat quietly next to him, eyes still avoiding the Lanteans. “Tell us – what have you to trade?”

 

“Teyla did the negotiating, ‘cause I’m not very good at it,” John continued. Hamri sneaked a glance at the two Pegasus natives behind her, but neither was letting any emotion show.  Sheppard frowned. “Cador talked a lot.”

 

“Describe him.”

 

“He keeps droning on and on.” Again, John shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “And . . .”

 

“Yes?” Fatima prompted. “And?”

 

“And . . . something’s wrong.”

 

Rodney’s soft snore jerked John from his reverie. He’d known that his team – excluding the ever diplomatic Teyla – had been zoning out Cador’s words, but he didn’t think the slumped scientist would actually fall asleep.

 

“McKay,” he hissed, turning to elbow the physicist. Instead, the room spun around him, and he had to grip the edge of the table to keep from falling out of his chair.

 

Cador’s droning voice stopped abruptly. Sheppard managed to focus enough on the Valerians to see that both of them were watching his team intently.

 

“Cador,” Teyla said, and John heard a slur in her voice, “what . . . what is . . .” The Athosian tried to stand, but Emadara put a hand on her shoulder.

 

“You should stay seated,” the younger Valerian said gently. Teyla’s legs buckled, and she sat heavily.

 

Ronon was more successful in getting to his feet, drawing his blaster as he did so. But Cador, moving with what seemed like supernatural quickness to John, knocked it out of the Satedan’s hand before the big guy could even aim.

 

Sheppard tried to draw his own sidearm, but it felt like his limbs were moving through molasses. Across from him, Ronon lost his balance and went crashing to the floor. John saw him try to get up once, twice, before he finally lay still.

 

John made it halfway to his feet, fingers still fumbling with the clasp on his holster, before vertigo hit and sent him stumbling. His shoulder hit the wall behind him, and he slid down in a slump.

 

The room seemed very far away now, and John watched through clouded vision as Emadara guided the limp Teyla to rest on the table, head pillowed on her arms.

 

“That was unacceptable, Dara!” Cador snapped suddenly. “You didn’t brew the tea nearly strong enough! This one almost shot me!” He gestured angrily at the prone Ronon.

 

“I – “ the girl said, clasping her hands nervously, “I’m sorry, but – “ She suddenly balled her hands into fists and dropped her arms to her sides, raising herself to her full height and looking the older Valerian in the eye. “But if you had gotten me the extra bara root I asked for, I would not have had to be so sparing with what little I did have!”

 

“Stop complaining,” Cador sneered. “I will get you more tomorrow,” he said, moving toward the still-snoring McKay. “The others will be here soon. Help me move him.”

 

The two Valerians began to lift the scientist under his lax arms, and John’s eyes slid shut, and darkness took him.

 

“They took him!” John shouted.

 

“Colonel!” Hamri called, trying to be heard over the frantic beeping of the heart monitor. “Colonel, listen to me!”

 

The pilot’s eyes were open, staring at nothing, as he tried to sit up. Beckett held his arm on one side, Ronon on the other.

 

“Bring him out,” Fatima heard Teyla’s voice at her ear. “Wake him up now!”

 

“No!” John shouted as he struggled.

 

“Colonel, I’m going to count backward from three,” Hamri said quickly. “When I get to one, you will be fully awake again, calm and rested.” She completed the countdown as fast as she dared.

 

John stopped struggling. His eyes focused again. He looked at Beckett and Ronon. “They took him,” he repeated, slumping backward in exhaustion. “They took him and we didn’t even know.”

 

Carson and Ronon let go as the pilot closed his eyes again. Fatima took a deep breath and looked at Teyla, whose breaths were coming nearly as fast as Sheppard’s.

 

The sudden silence was broken by a voice from the shadows near the door.

 

“So,” Woolsey said, stepping forward, “one mystery solved.” Everyone but John turned to the commander. “But,” he added, “where is Doctor McKay now?”

 

---

 

Down a white hallway, in a white room under a white light, Rodney McKay woke up.  The surface under his back was hard, and his newly conscious brain briefly registered a series of straps holding him down.

 

“I’m sorry, Doctor McKay,” said a disembodied voice from somewhere in the room, “but we need you to be conscious for this part, to make sure the nerve endings have connected properly.”

 

Before he could even think about speaking, a white pain shot through him, and his scream echoed down the corridors.

 

To Act II