Day Minus Six
Local 08:52 hrs
"It's Bill Lee," Rodney said, half-disgusted, as the scientist in question stopped in the middle of the sunlit gateroom and stared around in wonder. John sort of understood the disgust; Lee was blocking everyone else coming through the wormhole behind him, along with the precious crates of supplies being shoved through by the forkliftful. They had less than thirty-eight minutes left, John wanted to yell at Lee to get his ass moving and out of the way.
"Wasn't he on the personnel manifest?" Elizabeth asked. She'd taken a place just on John's other side, close enough that a shift of weight would have their elbows brushing, the three of them gathered to watch the latest intake of personnel from Stargate Command, coming through the stargate rather than aboard the Daedalus or the Apollo thanks to a ZPM discovered in the Milky Way. It had become something like a tradition as the years passed, standing on the control room balcony, overlooking the gateroom, watching the newbies. They hadn't received this many new people since they had first re-established contact with Earth and a lot of them were people from Area 51 and Cheyenne Mountain, and a few were even people coming home, like mustang Lieutenant Eugene Bates, who stepped through the event horizon and guided Lee forward with implacable politeness.
Rodney made a lemon-sucking face. "I'd hoped it was a mistake."
"I'm sure he'll be a great addition to our science division," Elizabeth teased.
"You'll be best friends before you know it," John added, smirking deliberately. "And then you and Elizabeth can play Worlds of Warcraft – "
The horrified look on Rodney's face and Elizabeth's, "John!" made him burst out laughing. Then Rodney pointed. "Felger and Coombs!? No, no, no! I explicitly refused to have them here – "
Elizabeth sighed audibly. "Some of our recommendations were obviously overridden."
Which didn't bode well, anymore than all the new people did. Another bunch of square pegs, mavericks, loners and misfits. Atlantis seemed to be the SGC's dumping ground lately. None of them liked it, even if most of the exiles did better than anyone could have expected them to.
"Hmph," Rodney grumbled. "They'll end up blowing off at least a piece of Atlantis, maybe a pier. Mark my words." He folded his arms over his chest and glared at the scientists tripping out of the way of a squad of marines loading crates onto dollies and rolling them away from the event horizon. "Did they at least send Markov and Colson?"
Rodney stared at the gate. He kept scowling, but John recognized the sadness underneath and searched his mind for the cause. He thought about the list of new and old personnel. There had been no one on it to have such an effect. No one on it, John realized, but someone not on it. Damn. Katie hadn't come back. She'd left seven months before, for a family emergency, and promised to return. Months had passed, with the Daedalus and the Apollo making the trip from Earth, and there had only been messages. Letters Rodney hadn't shared with the team or anyone else.
Rodney sniffed and John clapped him on the back. "Time to torture the newbies, buddy." He checked his watch. Two minutes to shut down. Looked like the show was over for the next six months.
"Fun stuff," Rodney said. "Don't forget to tell all the Neanderthals to keep their paws off everything!"
"John," Elizabeth added as he turned away from the gateroom. "Orientation assembly in the main mess hall, please be there."
"Oh five hundred, I'll be there," he promised. She smiled, her expression indulgent. She knew he hated formalities and speech giving, but he'd be there, standing up with her along with Rodney, providing a united front. Meanwhile, he was going to mess with Bates, just a little. No use letting him know that John had okayed his transfer first of any of the marines rotating in or that he planned on giving him a gate team even though he had just finished OCS. New at officering or not, Bates was the first lieutenant with gate experience he'd received in years and not just that, Pegasus and Atlantis experience. Lorne had actually laughed at how eager John had been to get him back.
He'd turned and was two steps toward the nearest transporter, raising his hand to his radio to check in with Lorne, when the wormhole collapsed with a characteristic squelch. The sudden cessation of conversation halted him in his tracks. That wasn't normal. John turned on his heel, caught Rodney's and Elizabeth's expressions of shock, and strode back.
Elizabeth's features were already smoothing over into her best diplomatic smile, but Rodney's mouth hung open.
John glanced down to the gate room floor and suppressed a frown.
In front of the gate, in typical mission gear, SG-1 – including Teal'c this time – stood with IOA representative Woolsey and General O'Neill.
O'Neill turned his face up, smiled and called, "Got a couple of guest rooms?" He waved at SG-1. "I decided the kids needed a vacation."
"I think we can make room," Elizabeth replied. She headed for the main stairs. Rodney and John trailed her, exchanging a wordless series of looks, raised eyebrows and shrugs that communicated: Did you have any idea? No, you? I don't like this. Yeah, me either.
Local 19:42 hrs
Teyla and Ronon were already at one of the tables that offered a view out the high windows in the night-shadowed and otherwise empty mess hall, chiaroscuro figures with cups in front of them that probably didn't hold coffee considering the leather-wrapped bottle from Khemari sitting between them. Ronon's doing, but Atlantis had never really been dry, not even the first year. John watched them from the doorway for a moment, caught by the sense he should memorize everything. He shook off the foreboding and made his way to the industrial-sized coffee urn, snagging a cup and filling it, before ambling over.
He knew better than to spend too much time reflecting on the past or the future. O'Neill was probably here because of Woolsey and SG-1...Maybe they did need a vacation where they didn't have to pretend about anything. Right. Maybe the Wraith would all join PETA and become vegans. He was tired enough after getting all the marines sorted and in their quarters that his mouth curved up at the thought and he decided that in Pegasus it would be 'Wraith for the Ethical Treatment of Humans'.
"John," Teyla greeted him as he sat. He nodded silently, still smiling. Smiling at Teyla always came easy. She never asked for more than he had to give, which made it easier not to disappoint her. He thought sometimes that he could tell her his secrets. Some day. He wouldn't, but he liked knowing that he might.
He waved his cup toward the bottle. "Give me a shot of that."
Ronon cocked an eyebrow and poured. The liquor had a cherry-red color and smelled faintly of maple and smoke. No one could stand it straight, but it went well in coffee. Ronon kept pouring until John grimaced and said, "That's enough." He sank back in his chair and tried a sip, waiting until it had burnt its way down to the pit of his stomach.
None of them said anything more until Rodney stumbled in. He headed for the coffee urn, poured one cup and chugged it down, then filled it again, drank half of that, then topped the cup off and made his way to the fourth chair at the table. He dropped into it with a grunt. The cuff of his long-sleeved blue shirt had a scorch mark and his hair seemed to stick out in wild tufts that should have had sparks still coming off of them. Or maybe wisps of smoke from the way he was frowning.
"Why are they always idiots?" he asked.
John shifted, shrugged, then hid his grin behind his coffee cup.
"I mean, really, are they getting stupider?" Rodney looked almost bewildered as he shifted his gaze from Teyla to Ronon and then to John. "I swear, they're getting stupider. It isn't just me, is it? Please tell me it isn't just me."
"Kinda," John said.
Rodney pointed at him, opened his mouth, then snapped it closed and just slumped lower. "Gimme some of that awful stuff," he told Ronon and shoved his cup toward the Khemari liquor. "The only way to get through intake day is with the promise of getting trashed once all the new monkeys are locked up in their cages – quarters, I mean." Ronon poured a generous amount of liquor into his cup and Rodney took a gulp, coughing and then remarking wistfully, "We couldn't really put them in cages, could we?"
"Elizabeth would not approve," Teyla said.
"They wouldn't be much use if we kept them all locked up," John added.
"They're not much use anyway."
Everyone snickered. It did usually take from several weeks to several months before the new people integrated. A few never managed and would be shipped back to Earth. A few managed to get themselves killed, still. They went back to Earth too, if there was a body.
Teyla sipped her own drink primly, but she blinked several times after it went down. Since she didn't like coffee much, John surmised she was drinking the straight stuff. Athosians had strong stomachs and iron heads. "I admit," she said, "that Dr. Balinsky was most persistent today."
"Balinsky," John echoed, trying to remember which one Balinsky was: the new anthropologist or the new electrophysicist.
"He bothered you?" Ronon asked.
Teyla smiled and shook her head. "He wishes to interview me about Athosian history and any stories we have about the old city on Athos. And he wishes to come to New Athos to conduct a study. Another study." She sighed.
So, the anthropologist, John figured. The one that had been on SG-13. He had a tentative plan to put him on Bates' gate team if possible. Corrigan's knee hadn't healed right, even with physical therapy, and offworld missions were too hard on him these days.
He took another sip of his laced coffee and shifted his gaze to the windows, away from Rodney. Security and navigation lights glittered out there and a few windows were lit, but most of Atlantis ran dark, powered down to save their ZPMs, the towers black silhouettes against the star strewn night sky of their latest planet. Dark enough he could watch his team mates reflected in the window's mirror. He listened with half his attention as Rodney began ranting about the new scientists, especially the engineers and physicists.
"I told Felger to keep his hands off Artifact 32457," Rodney said. "Did he listen?" He held up his hand and John realized the scorch mark on his shirt continued into a pencil length red burn curling around the heel of his hand. "It was already overheating by the time I got to it and turned it off. Of course, I dropped it and the crystals are shattered, thank you very much."
Rodney flexed his hand. "No blisters."
"Good reflexes," Ronon commented.
Rodney gave out a little grunt. "Then there's Colson. I've got no idea what to put him to work on, his specialty is aeronautics. I suppose I can assign him to the jumpers. Of course, that'll put Lee's nose out of joint, the idiot thinks I'm going to let him dismantle a working jumper...Zelenka will work with Colson at least. Did you know Radek hates Russians? I mean, hates, he started muttering about tanks and stuff in Czech and then said it was him or Markov, since he wouldn't work in the same lab with a Russian."
"Can you not assign her a different work space?" Teyla asked.
Rodney waved his burned hand. "Yes, obviously." He sighed melodramatically.
"Colson," John said. "Is that the guy the SEC went after?" He remembered catching some bizarre news report and hadn't there been aliens...He blinked as the memory snapped into focus. Crap. Not X-File's aliens – that had been an Asgard. Not that he'd known at the time. Not that it would have made any difference.
"Yeah, but it was all a set-up. The NID framed him," Rodney said. "Then the SGC 'disappeared' him to the Alpha site, where he went on with some research, and now he's here."
"Yeah, that," John muttered. He felt sorry for the guy, but things could have been a lot worse. He'd read the files on Colson. The NID or the Trust could have eliminated him in a much more permanent fashion.
"Colson'll be okay," Rodney said. He reached for his coffee cup and nearly fumbled it because of the burn. "It's Felger. O'Neill has to be punishing me for something, sending him here. And speaking of O'Neill, what the hell is he doing here with SG-1?" He looked at John, who shrugged, because he didn't know either. Elizabeth had been closeted with Woolsey and O'Neill for two hours before the general orientation and she hadn't shared what they talked about with him, in the interim.
"Maybe we're the new Siberia," John offered.
"Oh, that's right," John drawled. "That's where they sent you."
Rodney narrowed his eyes and lobed the gibe right back. "Says the man who was flying taxi service in Antarctica."
John licked a finger and etched a point in the air.
"You really have no idea why O'Neill's here?" Rodney asked. "Because, vacation, my ass. He's head of Homeworld Security. He negotiates with alien governments. He didn't stop by for the fishing."
John agreed. He thought he'd stop by Elizabeth's quarters later and see what he could coax out of her. She'd let something slip. She trusted him.
"Not a clue," he said.
"A lot of good you are." Rodney rocked his empty cup, holding it in his good hand. Ronon reached over and added a slug from his bottle, then did the same for Teyla and John. "I wonder if I could get anything useful from Gilmor."
"The guy that's supposed to be Elizabeth's new assistant?"
Rodney gave John a superior look. "Yes."
"Why would he know and not us?"
"I think he might be a little more than an assistant," Rodney told him. "He's probably here to keep tabs on us."
"So, he's what?" Ronon asked. "A spy?"
John stopped with his cup halfway to his lips.
"Probably," Rodney said, sounding gloomy. "We should keep an eye on him."
"Isn't that slightly paranoid?" Teyla sounded doubtful.
"It isn't paranoia when they're really out to get you," Rodney said. "The IOA is just waiting for the chance to pull Elizabeth from command, the Air Force hates Sheppard, and my 'colleagues' are sick with envy, of course, since they'll never approach my level of brilliance. Little yapping dogs intent on dragging down anyone greater than them."
"Right, Rodney," John said. He swallowed the liquor in his cup, thick and syrupy and still laced with the dregs of his coffee, and then stood. "We've both got a long day of herding new guys tomorrow, plus whatever O'Neill drops on us, so we should get some rest while we can."
"Right, right," Rodney agreed, but he didn't move, just ran his hand over his face, the faint sound of his beard rasping against skin audible in the quiet mess.
"Teyla, Ronon, if you want to gate through to New Athos or something and hide out, I'm sure we can find some reason," John told them.
"That will not be necessary, John," Teyla replied.
"Sounds good to me," Ronon said, eyebrows raised at her.
"Lucky bastard." Rodney pushed himself to his feet. "Well, good night to all of you. Tomorrow I have to deal with Captain Hailey."
John bit his tongue until Rodney had gone. He didn't want to get into anything with Rodney regarding the Air Force officer and astrophysicist the SGC had sent this time. He figured a big enough explosion was coming when Rodney figured out Carter was Hailey's mentor.
Teyla caught John's arm before he could follow Rodney out.
"Katie did not return."
"McKay's not going to leave here," Ronon stated.
John covered his discomfort with a shrug. "And give up all the cool toys? Hardly."
"Guess they're over."
He glanced at Ronon and resisted the urge to roll his eyes at him. "Yeah," he drawled, "between two galaxies sort of redefines 'long-distance relationship'."
"Be kind, John," Teyla told him. For all her gentle tone, he knew an order when he heard one. It hurt a little that she thought she had to tell him that, but he'd done nothing to prove he didn't deserve it. "It is a difficult thing, to choose your purpose over your relationships or to have the one you care for make a choice that does not include you."
John met her eyes briefly, then tore his gaze away. Teyla knew. She'd left her people for Atlantis. He knew, too.
"Hey, Rodney's Rodney," he said with a smirk. "He'll decide she was intimidated by his towering intellect and that he's better off without her."
"No one is better off alone," Teyla replied.
He shrugged at her and Ronon and made his way out, heading for the transporter.
A glance at his watch showed him Elizabeth would be in her quarters, but it wasn't too late to stop by. Teyla had made a good point.
Day Minus One
Local 19:24 hrs
McKay frustrated Bill. He had had an annoying habit of stealing Bill's keycards out of his office desk back at the SGC. That was petty. The biggest part of it came from being in charge of the SGC Science Department after Colonel Carter was promoted and finding that meant little to nothing in Atlantis. Part of it was just the man, though.
Who would not listen to him.
"I said no and I meant no," McKay told him on the way out of the lab. "Is it a difficult concept? Do you not understand common English? Are you perhaps deaf? Only the last two excuse you from nearly criminal stupidity."
Bill swallowed the urge to strangle him and followed McKay down the corridor instead. He had to hurry; McKay walked fast and never stopped talking, even when they headed up an open flight of stairs, brushing past a tall potted plant. It had large, oily dark leaves. Bill steered clear of it. He'd never get used to the way Atlantis had so much alien flora.
He admitted to a certain level of paranoia over plants since the thing back at the SGC.
"Aside, from, oh, needing the jumpers for operations, there's the fact that none of the fresh meat – sorry, should I say novices? – is cleared to begin any projects, as I explained in detail in the email you all received in addition to the Science Division orientation held last week when you arrived. You do read your email, don't you, Lee?"
"Yes, but Dr. McKay," he puffed, resenting that McKay wasn't even out of breath.
McKay waved a hand. "No but."
"Both the IOA and the SGC have okayed this project. Over two years ago!" Bill exclaimed.
"They're all idiots," declared McKay. "Oh, not Carter, but how much clout does she have with the political weasels? No, and no, and no again."
"I can take this to Dr. Weir," Bill said. The words made his lips feel stiff. He didn't want to even talk with Dr. Weir. The way she and McKay had manipulated and fooled him before still stung. He'd been incredibly stupid to believe she shared any interests with him, but at the time the flattery had gone to his head. He'd been riding high at the time, heading the SGC labs and in charge of the jumper project.
"Oh, please, like she's going to..." McKay paused at the doorway into the mess hall. His expression softened. "Look, it isn't going to happen. There are three dozen more urgent projects. You'll end up taking charge of at least a quarter of them, so that I can free up Zelenka to handle half the things I want to be working on, because there just isn't enough time."
"I feel compelled to do so, under the circumstances," Bill insisted.
McKay sniffed. "Do as you please. Don't expect me not to say I told you so, though." He dismissed Bill and his concerns, turning his back on him, saying, "I hope they still have some real apples left."
Bill didn't bother following him inside. His stomach felt sour with resentment. He decided to explore the city some more. He couldn't get into the labs or the jumper bay without an authorization, so he had nothing better to do.
Vala walked out onto the balcony attached to her quarters and perched on the rail. She smiled at the stars overhead. Cam would probably comment on how different they were from those seen from Earth. They were, but so what? Vala had seen the stars from a hundred planets in the Milky Way, from the Ori galaxy and now in Pegasus, and though you saw different ones from different places, they were still stars. Considered objectively, the stars were always the same, only where you were changed.
They were always pretty, shiny and full of promise.
She hadn't sussed out why O'Neill had brought SG-1 here, but she knew it wasn't for any 'vacation'. He and Woolsey had closeted themselves with Weir the first day and every day since. From the annoyed looks on Sheppard and McKay's faces, she'd bet no one had told them either.
Would it be worth it to work on Woolsey and find out whatever she could?
She twisted a lock of hair between her fingers.
Probably not. Everyone would just become annoyed with her again, not understanding that ferreting out secrets was her way of safeguarding herself.
She hopped down from the railing and grimaced at the dampness that had soaked into the backside of her BDUs. Now she'd need to change before she tracked down Daniel.
"Come on," Rodney wheedled, "why are they really here?"
Elizabeth shook her head.
Rodney paused and studied her, still holding the apple he'd been pleased to find. Elizabeth had a tray with a light dinner assembled from the lighter foods the mess hall cooks always kept in the public access parts of the kitchen for those who missed out on dinner.
She looked tired and harassed.
"I have as high a clearance as you do," Rodney said. He suddenly felt like he was dealing with a bomb.
Elizabeth's smile was the one she used to cover being worried. "Not in this case," she said.
"Does John know?"
"Okay," he said, still frowning. Carter had been accessing a lot of his work, or at least overriding his secure files, and he'd been set to start ranting about her and Bill Lee and the Zelenka/Markov feud, but he decided to stay silent. Elizabeth looked overstressed already. "Apple?" he offered.
Her smile turned real. "No, but thank you, Rodney."
"You'll tell me when you can?"
"Yes, I'll tell you as soon as possible."
"Tomorrow I have the second contact protocols briefing with Dr. Jackson and the rest of SG-1, followed by an appointment with Jennifer I'm not looking forward to," Elizabeth said.
"Right, right, I'm supposed to be there too, though it's a total waste of my time. Teyla handles all our negotiations." He paused. "Are you okay?"
"We have to discuss some of the research projects Medical has been handling."
Rodney wasn't interested in the voodoo practices or any of the biosciences except where they intersected with chemistry and sometimes robotics aimed prosthetics. His various brushes with programming nanites had left him with even less interest in the sort of playing God doctors indulged in.
"Good to know. I'll just..." He waved his apple aimlessly. "Let you have your dinner and get out of here."
"Good night, Rodney," she told him with gentle good humor, before he left.
Local 05:14 hrs
Dawn always touched the tops of the towers first. Down at sea level, the darkness lingered, the towers' own shadows trapping it. Lorne had painted and patrolled the city often enough that he knew the western side of the base of B Two, the primarily residential tower with the beautiful balconies and pedestrian bridges to the control tower, wouldn't see direct light until the midafternoon. On this world, the fog that curled through the city hid everything at sea level most mornings and condensed to run like tear tracks down the walls. The moisture left corroded, coppery-green stains on the metal.
He pulled his gaze down from the glittering bronze and gold tower tops, down to the ground, to the gray and the red, all the red. He closed his eyes briefly, but could still see her, splayed out, command red shirt and crimson blood, blood dried brown in a pool beneath her head, all darkened and wet on the clay red deck.
The marine security patrol that found her waited nearby, miserable and wet with fog, hands clutching their weapons, young faces pale and shocked. They were watching Lorne, waiting for him to do what had to be done.
He lifted his hand to his headset and contacted the duty officer, giving orders to have security teams close off the sky bridge between the towers, the nearest transporters, and one to report to the base of B Two with some kind of tape or ribbon, cameras and whatever they could rig up to use as evidence kits.
Once they had reported and secured the scene, he motioned the two marines from patrol to follow him and took the transporter to the control room.
In the control room, he spoke with Sgt. Campbell quietly and waited while he opened the command channel and called the Colonel and Dr. McKay, before taking the two marines with him into Weir's office to wait, ousting her new assistant Gilmor unceremoniously.
Teal'c kept pace with Ronon effortlessly, John noted as they sprinted over a catwalk spanning one of the vast, empty industrial spaces. Four sets of pounding footfalls echoed back from above and below. John lengthened his stride, matching the rhythm that vibrated through the metal grid under foot.
Mitchell had gone red-faced and wet about the time Ronon led them in a sprint up the stairs of one of the outlying towers, but he wasn't giving up. John was in a little better shape, because he hadn't tried to match Ronon's pace up the steps. Ronon's legs were longer and a decade younger than his. He pushed himself a little harder and passed Teal'c at the halfway point, trusting that even Ronon would quit soon or they'd miss the first serving of breakfast in the mess hall. His lungs still burned and he heard Mitchell pant something obscene behind him.
John's mouth twitched into a smile. He'd offer to let Mitchell ride along when he took a jumper out later to ease the sting of getting beaten, but he didn't feel like spending twenty hours trapped with a jittery pain in the ass. He'd already done it once, since they'd been deploying relay buoys beyond the edge of the solar system to establish a new long range sensor net for Atlantis. McKay at least could take over co-pilot duties off and on and was frankly more entertaining, too.
The chirp of the radio in his ear almost came as a relief. "Control to Colonel Sheppard." Campbell must have arrived for his shift early again; John recognized his voice. His relief faded fast. He knew that screwed-down-tight tone too, even over the tinny radio transmission. He changed his path and headed for the nearest transporter.
He brought his hand to his ear and activated his headset, panting, "Sheppard here."
"Colonel Sheppard, we have a situation. Possible security breach and a fatality. Major Lorne is waiting to brief you."
"I'm on my way." He turned on a burst of speed and yelled, "Ronon! Keep your radio on and take care of them, I'm on my way to Control."
"Sheppard!" Mitchell yelled, but John ignored him.
He threw himself into the transporter before the doors were fully open, nearly bounced off the back wall and stabbed the central tower as a destination immediately. The doors closed, he blinked, pulled in a harsh breath, and they were opening again into the corridor off the control room. Sunshine spilled through a window onto the floor as he launched himself out and headed straight for Elizabeth's office.
The glass walls were transparent for the moment. He could see Lorne waiting inside, along with two marines. He knew both of them were security patrol. His stomach rolled in apprehension of what they had to be there to report. Security breach repeated in his mind and all the variations of what that could mean.
Campbell looked sick as John went by. "Sergeant," John said. "Have you called McKay yet?"
"Yes sir. He's on his way."
He nodded and kept walking. "Good."
Both marines came to rigid attention as John came. "At ease," he told them absently. Lorne met his eyes.
"Where's Dr. Weir?" John asked.
"She's dead, sir."
"Control to Dr. McKay."
He tapped his radio and snapped, "McKay," as he walked out of the mess hall.
Contrary to what anyone might think, he wasn't lazy and he didn't sleep late. In particular, the first week after supplies arrived from Earth, it paid to hit the mess hall early, before the freshest foods disappeared. He'd spotted a few apples left in the kitchen last night, as well as noting the breakfast menu would include blueberry muffins.
He'd wanted to get in and out before Lee could corner him again, too.
His mind was already in the labs, however. He thought he could put Hailey to work for Zelenka until she figured out that shining on Earth didn't make her a particularly bright light in Atlantis' firmament. Colson seemed to be fitting in among the engineers for the moment. He hated to do it, but Markov could take over some of the projects that hadn't moved forward since Kavanagh left the second time. That would let Simpson concentrate on the super-energy containment materials project and keep her away from Zelenka. He couldn't assign anyone anywhere permanently until the new personnel passed the Psych department's adaptation evaluations. He had to clear an hour from the schedule for each of the new people to visit her, because some people just couldn't function offworld and the last thing they needed was another newbie having a psychotic break in a lab full of dangerous artifacts and delicate equipment.
Rodney had no problem sending the ones who couldn't take the heat back to Earth. They were always dead weight. If they couldn't adapt, they couldn't think outside the box and were useless anyway. Or they were like Katie had proved to be: simply too tied to Earth, to families or responsibilities or their old ideas of the way their lives should end up. He'd given up on all the self-aggrandizing dreams of awards and some picture-perfect life with wife and children and acclaim during the first lonely year they were out of touch and never quite been able to believe again, though he didn't stop talking about it. Then there had been Katie and she'd been almost easy to love, if only in comparison to his other impossible choices.
He missed her, missed waking together in bed and all the sweet, awkward dates they'd stumbled through, even after they were sleeping together. He missed having someone who could say they cared out loud. But Katie had written him – a real letter on paper sent via the Daedalus – that she couldn't leave her parents alone and sick, worrying about her, and apparently she'd meant it. He hadn't really thought she would change her mind.
She hadn't asked him to come back to Earth.
He swiped his hand over the transporter door sensor and stepped inside the closet-sized space once it opened.
"Please report to Control."
"I have work. Someone else can entertain the tourists." Carter wasn't really a tourist. She'd commanded for several months before Elizabeth returned. But she wasn't involved in any of the work Rodney considered urgent presently and the rest of their 'guests' were just a waste of his time in his opinion. He thought they were all scheduled to attend a meeting in the main conference room later anyway.
"Dr. McKay, we have a situation."
Rodney stopped with his hand hovering over the destination point for the lab sector. The breakfast he'd just consumed didn't sit so well, but he was grateful for it. 'Situation' was command code for something too delicate to broadcast even over the encrypted command channel. It encompassed everything that wasn't so desperate that they yelled it in the clear for lack of time but was too important or dangerous to trust that someone hadn't hacked the encryption to monitor it just for fun. Which meant he might not have another chance to eat a real meal for hours or even days. "Crap," he muttered and touched the control tower destination instead. "On my way."
Chuck pointed to Elizabeth's office as soon as Rodney arrived, then hunched over his console. Rodney swore he saw the man wipe at his eyes surreptitiously. Bad sign, very bad sign. Chuck didn't rattle easily.
He waved open the office door and walked inside in time to hear Lorne say someone was dead. Sheppard was still in his running gear, hair spikier than ever with sweat, arms folded over his chest. Rodney watched his expression empty.
"Who is dead?" he asked. "And where's Elizabeth? Shouldn't she be here too?"
"Dr. Weir," Lorne said, looking rather ill himself.
"What?" Rodney knew he must look and sound stupid, but Lorne's words didn't make any sense. He was on a first name basis with Elizabeth, he didn't need to use her title...
"Major," Sheppard said in a low, dangerous voice. "Report."
Lorne gave a jerky nod and stood even straighter. He couldn't conceal the strain in his voice. "At 0438, Security Patrol Gamma – Gomez and Evans – from first shift radioed me. They'd discovered a body at the base of B Two and visually identified it as Dr. Weir's. I ordered them to maintain station until I arrived and confirmed the identification. At that point, I ordered marines to secure both ends of the pedestrian bridge leading from B Two to Control, as it appears she fell from it, the nearest transporter hubs and the scene, before radioing Control to notify you, Colonel. I left the body in situ."
Rodney shook his head. "You can't be right. Elizabeth...That's not possible." They'd only got her back less than a year ago. They were standing in her office, with her knickknacks back on her desk. She couldn't be dead.
"Sir," Lorne said.
He squeezed his eyes shut, holding up his hand to stop Lorne from saying anything more. It didn't seem real, but he knew that wouldn't change it being true. "Okay." He let out a long breath, pretending it didn't hitch from the tight ache in his throat, opened his eyes again and looked at Sheppard. "Okay. What do we do next?"
"Go to the scene," Sheppard said.
Rodney flinched but nodded. He wouldn't be able to accept it until he'd seen for himself and he thought Sheppard felt the same way.
He hoped Sheppard felt the same. His face gave nothing away and the fast flutter of his pulse at his neck could be left over from running with Ronon. Sheppard smiled or laughed, teased and whispered, even yelled. He presented a full range of emotion most days, but always under the tightest control. Rodney had never seen him break down; he'd never seen Sheppard cry – not that he wanted that, because it would take something terrible, something so bad Rodney couldn't imagine it really – but sometimes he wished Sheppard would let the control slip, instead of doling out little glimpses or locking himself down tighter. He wanted to see some sign that this was getting to Sheppard, that he'd cared more for Elizabeth than as a colleague, because he wanted to believe Sheppard cared, period. Even though he knew now wasn't the time or place for Sheppard to do any of that, it still angered him that Sheppard didn't show anything.
"Then we need to bring in Keller or Biro," Sheppard went on. "Biro preferably, she's the closest we have to a medical examiner." He turned to the two marines. "You didn't contact anyone but Major Lorne?"
"No sir," Gomez confirmed. "It was...we could tell there wasn't anything to do."
"And you didn't touch or move the body?"
"No sir!" both Gomez and Evans said.
Sheppard nodded. "Good. Go back to your quarters." He checked his watch. "I want a report from each of you before the end of first shift at 0700. After that, you can hit the mess for something to eat, but keep your mouths shut. Dismissed." Fat chance they wouldn't start babbling to the first fellow marine they saw, but Sheppard wasn't the sort of officer to confine them.
Both men nodded and escaped out of the office, leaving Rodney, Sheppard and Lorne.
"Christ," Sheppard exclaimed softly. He looked away from them now and his Adam's apple worked as he swallowed. The audible breath he drew in gave away the emotion he didn't show on his face and Rodney felt ashamed of his previous thoughts.
Lorne just nodded.
Rodney stared at the carved bowls and figures Elizabeth had restored to her desk once she returned. It occurred to him that while they were standing in silence, her body was lying in the open at B Two. Not right, so terribly not right, he felt a jittery need to bolt, as though he could protect her from the elements. He couldn't, he knew, and he had to keep his head. He didn't even know – "Major. How did she...What happened?"
"It looked to me like she must have fallen from the sky bridge."
Sheppard flinched. "That's more than a hundred stories up."
"Jesus Christ." Sheppard unfolded his arms and reached for his radio. "Teyla? This is Sheppard."
Her answer sounded through Rodney's headset too. He kept the channel for the team's operational frequency open whenever he had it on. A command channel transmission would override it, but nothing else. It let him keep track of the other three through the day. Not that he meant to ever admit it, but he enjoyed their background chatter. When he was working, Sheppard's exchanges with Control and the rest of the team were an excellent gauge of how Atlantis was functioning.
"Can you get to the conference room and babysit Woolsey and the rest of our visitors? Something's come up. Get Chuck to send out for coffee and muffins from the mess. Just keep them in there until I radio you."
"Of course. But can Elizabeth not – "
"No. Just, stall them, Teyla. And tell Ronon to keep an eye on Mitchell and Teal'c. He can take them to the gym."
"We will do so, Colonel."
"Done?" Rodney asked.
"Then let's get this over with." His voice broke a little.
Sheppard looked at him for one breath, still otherwise, then nodded just once. "Major, let's go."
She was lying on her back. Her eyes were open, gone opaque already, and her body looked wrong, collapsed into itself, twisted, untenanted. Everything broken inside her, Rodney surmised, bones, flesh, all crushed on impact. Blood saturated her clothes and bone had pierced her skin. Bile crept up his throat until he swallowed hard, forcing everything back down. Sheppard stared longer than he could. Rodney had to jerk his gaze away, lift his face and stare up at the rich near-violet of the sky at the zenith. He had to squint to make out the silhouette of the bridge far above them. Didn't people lose consciousness and have heart attacks when they fell far enough? He hoped that was right. He didn't want to think of Elizabeth falling, accelerating until impact, and aware the entire time.
He blinked repeatedly, trying to focus; the wrong light making his eyes water. He hadn't gotten used to the difference yet, the different colors of Atlantis' newest home. The moon rotated faster than Earth, twenty-one hours to a day. Dust in the atmosphere dyed its sky in shades most habitable planets couldn't boast.
That same strange light dyed the body's exposed skin a grayish-lavender.
Lorne coughed. "I keep thinking, sir, that if she...well, she wouldn't have jumped," he said.
Rodney glanced at the body again, despite himself, then pictured it tumbling down from the heights. Maybe she hadn't jumped, but she could have fallen. It wasn't impossible. But was it likely?
More likely than Elizabeth throwing herself off the sky bridge.
"Let's get Keller here to make it..." Sheppard stopped and looked away for a few moments. "To make it official." His gaze lifted toward the bridge, distant and dark, details lost against the sky's glare. "Rodney. I want to get up there and see if there's any sign of what happened."
"I'll go with you," Rodney said. He didn't want to stay with the body.
Sheppard gestured him toward the same transporter they'd used to travel from the control room. When Rodney passed him, he caught a whiff of souring sweat over the iodine-laced breeze from the ocean all around them.
They were both silent in the transporter, for the breath it took between hubs and stepped out into the face of two blank-faced marines on guard.
"Sir," one of the said, acknowledging Sheppard.
"Has anyone tried to come through here?"
"Doctors Kusanagi and Johnson, sir. We directed them to take the transporter directly to the lab sector."
Sheppard walked out onto the bridge. Rodney followed him. He'd never liked the bridge. He understood why the Ancients had used it: if the transporters were down it saved time running down and then up stairs in both towers; but Atlantis couldn't afford the gravity field generators that the Ancients had used to keep anyone from falling, throwing or being pushed over the edge of the rails on the otherwise open span, making it far more dangerous than had been intended when they constructed it. The metallic grids flooring the bridge responded to Sheppard's weight and Rodney felt the vibration through his boots and frowned. He hadn't liked it the first time he walked out there and he did even less now.
"Sheppard," he said. "Slow down."
Sheppard glanced over his shoulder. The regular smirk and taunt didn't materialize, though. His, "Yes, Rodney," sounded serious instead indulgent or mocking. His pace slowed until Rodney was walking in stride with him. They were three quarters across when they both spotted the break in the railing.
A section had broken and torn loose. Broken pieces of railing hung on connectors that had twisted and warped under their weight.
Rodney eyed the open space it left. The metal appeared corroded in places, discolored rather than the shiny bright he would have expected. He didn't like the way the entire bridge creaked with each gust of the wind that whined through the towers this high up. "Damn it," he said. "Sheppard, tell your men down there to keep clear from beneath this thing. It looks like several pieces are ready to fall any minute."
"On it," Sheppard said and did so, warning the marines, while Rodney fought a sudden fear of heights to creep in a little closer. One of Elizabeth's shoes had caught, pinned by a twist of metal. A fragment of red fabric fluttered on a sharp spike of dangling metal. He hadn't seen any tears in the front of her shirt. Any rip must have been concealed under her back.
The bridge groaned as Sheppard inched closer. Rodney shivered. The wind gusted damp and grasping and made him want to clutch at the grid under him, chilling him everywhere but where Sheppard's presence blocked it.
Rodney pointed to the scrap. "See that?"
Sheppard's breath ghosted over Rodney's cheek as he spoke. "Her back hit the railing?"
"That's what it looks like to me," Rodney agreed. "The whole city is much more than ten thousand years old, it's been half-flooded, strafed and bombed by the Wraith, and maybe the railing just gave away under her weight."
"Maybe," Sheppard said. "If she was leaning back against it..."
Rodney turned his head, reading the same skepticism in Sheppard's expression he felt himself.
"In the middle of the night. Sure."
Sheppard's gaze flicked to the end of the bridge. "She might have been on her way to Control or her office." He blinked twice, some emotion Rodney couldn't guess at making his lips tighten into a line.
"She might have been taking a midnight stroll," Rodney snapped, "but it doesn't really matter. She's dead." He stopped and swallowed the rest of his sharp words. "Damn it."
"Yeah," Sheppard said. His hand, heavy but comforting, closed on Rodney's shoulder and stayed there as he straightened up, pulling Rodney up with him. "Let's get out of here."
They made it back to the residential tower, but stopped where the wind would keep the marine guards from hearing their words. "You don't think this was an accident," Rodney said, keeping his voice low anyway.
"Do I look stupid?"
"Frankly, often, but I haven't been fooled by the act for years."
Sheppard winced, then murmured, "You might still be surprised, McKay," while staring past him. The wind flattened his hair against side of his skull. Without words, they both shifted until their backs were to it. Rodney shuddered at the damp gusts against the back of his neck and hunched over.
"I doubt it."
He didn't even get a shrug in response. "We need to get someone with a camera up here, video preferably too, and record the scene, then gather any evidence for analysis. – This is going to be a nightmare. Woolsey and O'Neill being here will only make it worse."
"Why are they still here? The Daedalus left last night."
Sheppard shrugged. "No one's told me anything." They shared a glance filled with how much that disturbed them both too.
Rodney gestured to the security camera set up to monitor the transporter hub and corridor before it opened onto the bridge. "I can spend my time more usefully by accessing the feeds from the system. Between that and the one on the Control hub, we should have a good idea of what happened and who was there within an hour."
"Don't you need my or Elizabeth's code as well as yours to access the files?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney snorted at that. "Theoretically yes, but I'm perfectly capable of hacking the system. Not that I'll need to, since I have your codes and Elizabeth's, along with Sam's when she was in charge and Caldwell's command codes for the Daedalus." He'd made a point of obtaining overrides for the Apollo too. He didn't trust Ellis. He didn't say that.
"Don't let me keep you, then," Sheppard said.
"I'll meet you in Elizabeth's office as soon as you're done?"
"Give me an hour."
"Dr. Keller is here, sirs," Lorne's voice whispered from the earpieces.
"Thank you, Major," Sheppard said and added to Rodney, "I should get back down there."
Rodney waited until Sheppard had stepped into the transporter. The doors opened a moment later, the alcove empty again. He stepped inside and tapped his destination. As soon as he had the security footage they could review it, do whatever needed to be done, and start figuring out what happened now, without Elizabeth.
Someone would have to go the Earth and tell her mother. Maybe O'Neill or Woolsey could do that. It would get them off Atlantis as an added bonus.
Jennifer was copying data to flashdrives and deleting everything she could from the servers, working from her office. The one that still had a calendar showing the Highlands on the wall the desk faced, years past the day anyone stopped flipping the months. She'd spent most of the night in one of the biolabs destroying all her samples. The radio headset tucked over her ear, as much a part of every day in Atlantis as wearing shoes, clicked when it activated, alerting her before the words that followed.
"Control to Dr. Keller. Report to B Two Level One immediately. Acknowledge."
"This is Keller. Is this urgent? Do I need a medical team?" Was it already beginning? She'd thought she'd have more time. Elizabeth hadn't indicated anyone else was privy to the medical records, but Woolsey was in Atlantis again and Biro had some of Carson's notes. Jennifer hadn't been able to justify asking for them, so she didn't know if he'd given his friend access to the password locked information or not.
She still thought she'd been right, even if Elizabeth hadn't agreed.
"Report to B Two Level One Quadrant One immediately."
"Right," she commented to herself and she locked the flashdrives with her experimental data in the small safe every department head had before rising. "Like that helps. Where the hell is B Two Level One?" She never could keep the three dimensional grid system used to map the city straight in her head. Everything radiated out from the center where the control tower stood, that was Alpha, she reminded herself, while grabbing a portable emergency kit to take with her. Act normal, she told herself. She tapped her radio again. "Control, which one is Level One again?"
The expected chuckle didn't sound in her ear, just a terse, "Ground floor, residential next to Control on the west side, Doctor. Security has been notified to expect your arrival. Coordinate with Major Lorne, please."
Okay. When Chuck got that serious, something was wrong. Chuck had been running the Control room day shift (and more than one night shift too) as long as Jennifer had been stationed in Atlantis. He never gave away much, maybe because he'd been around since the beginning. She knew that another man, Dr. Grodin, had originally been in charge, but he'd died before she arrived with the second wave of personnel. Chuck was a fixture of Atlantis, as much as McKay, Sheppard, Zelenka, Teyla or Weir.
She stopped next to Marie Ko, her head nurse, and said, "Ask Dr. Cole to take over in the infirmary if anything comes up before I'm back, okay?" Alice Biro was on night shift and probably asleep. Her other choice was the new guy, Kriga, who still radioed for directions from his quarters to the infirmary.
"Do you need a team?" Marie asked.
"I might. Get everything ready, just in case. I really don't know what I'm going to be dealing with, Control didn't say."
She continued out of the infirmary to the nearest transporter hub. She'd grown so used to the flash of light and then the doors opening on her destination immediately, she barely thought about it, and just nodded to the two marines stationed outside the doors as they slid open again, trying to hide how twitchy she felt after sitting up all night.
"That way, ma'am," one of them said and nodded.
Jennifer glimpsed Major Lorne and then the body, recognizing it as she approached, her steps slowing. "Oh my God."
"Doctor," Lorne said. "I don't think there's any doubt, but we need you to make it official."
The state of Elizabeth Weir's body made what happened obvious. Jennifer said nothing, just nodded. She sank down to her knees and began doing all the things that went with calling a death. As she did, Lorne told her, "We need to record the scene. I've got someone on the way, don't shift anything you don't have to until he's here."
Jennifer considered that while Sgt. Olawayo photographed everything, followed by Corporal Middleton with a video camera, and afterward as she worked. She didn't like the implications one bit. Working for the SGC meant facing up to dangers from enemies as alien as Replicators, Goa'uld, and Wraith. In some ways, it shielded them from facing up to the threats that weren't alien and all the ugly things human beings did to each other.
The prospect of how messy this could get made her almost wish for news the city had been infiltrated by a Wraith or a Genii saboteur.
She hated herself for it, but as she called for her medical team and a gurney, as Lorne and a marines gently lifted lifeless flesh and laid the corpse into a body bag, Jennifer wondered what this would mean for her and the work she'd taken upon herself to finish. What she'd done last night...had it been necessary?
Elizabeth hadn't specifically authorized it, but she hadn't asked for details when Jennifer proposed restarting the project with a slightly readjusted goal. Of course, Elizabeth had benefited from the very beginning. Without the advances Jennifer had pioneered using what they'd learned from Iratus proto-retrovirus, Elizabeth might have spent decades in stasis, too damaged to live without the nanites. Instead she'd been healed and cleansed of all nanite or Asuran infection. The regenerative possibilities were almost unlimited, but she knew too many people were scared of what could go wrong. Even Elizabeth had begun asking questions after her last physical, questions that had resulted in the meeting scheduled for later in the day. Jennifer had been worried since Woolsey and SG-1 arrived.
Now, though, she couldn't guess what would happen. McKay might be swayed to her side, but she couldn't imagine Sheppard allowing her to continue her work. He had been against using the nanites on Elizabeth and this project cut even closer to the bone.
"Damn it," she muttered to herself, following as the gurney was rolled to the transporter. She thought she might be close to something that would be viable as a generalized treatment, but not close enough to overcome the objections most people would voice. She wasn't Beckett, no one automatically trusted her, even though she wasn't the one who had almost turned their military commander into a giant predatory bug.
The gurney rattled and one edge hit a doorway never designed to clear something its width with people on each side too. The body bag shifted where one of the webbing straps securing it had worked loose.
Jennifer steadied herself against the doorway, overwhelmed suddenly by the realization that that was Elizabeth. Losing Elizabeth was much more and worse than an inconvenience to Jennifer's research. No, she hadn't been a personal friend, but Elizabeth had been someone she had liked as well as respected and obeyed, a woman who had labored to keep Atlantis and all within it safe since the day she set foot in the city. A body Jennifer had fought to keep alive on more than one occasion. Only this time the war had been lost before Jennifer ever reached the battlefield.
It was still Elizabeth's office. Rodney suspected that, in his mind, it always would be; that certainly hadn't changed during Carter's tenure, before they got Elizabeth back. He grimaced as he marched in and set his laptop on the desk.
All the blood and terror and lives that had been sacrificed to conduct the second raid on M7R-227 to rescue Elizabeth and now she was dead. Rodney had to breathe hard and hold still to keep from losing it. John and Lorne had nearly died on that mission. Kagan and DeLorenzo had.
He and Keller had broken their backs finding a way to replace the nanites keeping Elizabeth alive with organic cells. They'd kept her in stasis with the nanites shut down to keep her from rejoining the Asuran merge for months. He still didn't understand exactly what Keller had done to accelerate the cellular regeneration while he reprogrammed the nanites to break themselves down so that her body could flush them out, but it had given them Elizabeth back. Until today.
This time there would be no miracle save; there were no reservoirs of nanites left in Elizabeth's body to reactivate and rebuild her and even a Goa'uld sarcophagus couldn't undo death after all cellular activity failed.
He needed ten minutes, just ten minutes – though he'd prefer a lifetime – to be alone, in his quarters, in the lab, on a balcony, he didn't care where, just so he could shout out his anger and the sheer misery inside. There was never enough time, though, never enough time to process, to even think, and there was always something he had to do. Maybe, if he was lucky – lucky didn't exactly mean the same thing anymore – he'd have time to mourn Elizabeth, another friend lost, before the end of the week. Right now, he had to help find out how she'd died.
God forgive him, he couldn't keep from thinking about what would happen to Atlantis without her even as he worked. O'Neill and Woolsey wouldn't try to put Carter back in charge, would they? His thoughts ran around his brain like a bunch of hamsters on speed, working back and forth between apprehension and fury. What would happen to Atlantis and what the hell had happened on that sky bridge?
The ache under his sternum was a feeling he'd learned to work around.
He paused to opaque the glass walls of the office and then bent over the desk to type. Using Elizabeth's chair felt too much like an invasion. His command codes yielded up the surveillance recordings from the night before without difficulty. He pulled up the feeds from the cameras focused on the transporter hubs and stairwell landings, wanting to have answers before Sheppard made it back, demanding, "What's the situation?"
Rodney glanced up, winced at the ache in his neck and back, and then bent his attention to screen again. Sheppard had showered and dressed in uniform. "I've got the surveillance video."
Sheppard walked around the desk so that he could watch over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney began with the video of the sky bridge. "This is from 2100 to 0700," he said. "I'll start from this morning and roll it back. It should show us whoever was out on the bridge last night."
The screen showed them a grainy black-and-white picture of the bridge, receding from the camera eye in perfect illustration of artistic vanishing point. Images of Rodney and Sheppard walking on and then off the bridge in reverse appeared. In other circumstances, he would have twitted Sheppard over how dorky he looked, prompting Sheppard to mock him in retaliation, until someone, usually Teyla or Elizabeth, put a stop to their banter. Rodney just watched silently though as the video feed emptied, the counter showing the minutes tick back and back, with no sign of anyone passing to or from B Two via the bridge.
"Rodney," Sheppard said.
Rodney frowned. The counter ticked from 0001 back to 2100. "Just a minute, okay? I thought..." He pulled the file holding the feed from 1400 to 2100. Cued it to play in reverse. Elizabeth had been in the mess hall around 1900, as usual picking up her dinner late. They'd crossed paths only because he'd stopped in to snag some of the last fresh fruit from the supply delivery. He'd complained about Bill Lee again and she'd nodded, probably not listening to him at all, before they'd both gone their own ways.
Presuming she'd gone back to her quarters and eaten her dinner, so she had to show up on the feed soon. There just wasn't that much time between when he'd seen her and 2100.
"Rodney," Sheppard said again. "I'm not seeing anything useful."
The sky bridge video remained empty as the counter reached 1900. Then 1800. It finally showed a clutch of Control room personnel including Chuck, Venket, Nandimer, and Kelso crossing. No Elizabeth.
No Elizabeth, no murderer, and, Rodney realized, frowning at the laptop, no sign of the break in the sky bridge's railing.
"That's not possible," he snapped. He double checked the date stamp for the file, then stared blankly, letting his mind run through the possibilities. He jumped back to the first file and fast forwarded through it. Same, same, same, it was all the same until he and Sheppard walked out onto the bridge. Too much the same. Then back, slowing down until he stopped at 0200. The angle didn't show much of the broken rail, but the flutter of movement on the left side came from that piece of Elizabeth's shirt they'd both seen.
Rodney moved the recording back to 0159. The flutter of movement, the different shadows, were gone. The screen showed the bridge whole and empty.
"It's been altered," he said.
He was abruptly aware of Sheppard, of his body heat so close, of his utter stillness. Sheppard wasn't even breathing and Rodney's body had long since learned to interpret that as danger. It made him want to babble. "A loop or a splice. I'll have to have it analyzed, but it doesn't matter which. Someone got into it."
Sheppard's breath gusted against his neck, making the hairs at the nape prickle. "How much expertise would it take for someone to manage that?"
Rodney twitched nervously. "Some. Okay, a lot, because it supposedly takes command codes to access it, but really, half, no two thirds of the people here could manage it, one way or another. It's even possible the cameras were physically modified, though frankly that's just messy compared to what a good hacker could manage."
The electric sense of danger Rodney had been getting from Sheppard suddenly dissipated. He twisted his head to the side and studied him. Sheppard was still tense, eyes narrowed and gaze on the paused picture, his lips pressed into a thin, unhappy line. He blinked and then frowned. "Could Elizabeth have used her command code to do it herself?"
"Why would she do that?" Rodney demanded.
Sheppard shrugged and stepped back. "A meeting she didn't want recorded?"
"On the sky bridge?" Rodney paused, snapped his fingers and pointed at Sheppard. "Of course, this isn't necessarily the only feed that's been modified. I need to go through everything for last night. And then go back. This might not be the first time..."
Sheppard's eyebrows had gone up but he began nodding.
"Can you do that in the next hour?"
"What!?" Rodney stared at him in disgust. "Are you insane? I can't even do it all by myself. Hours and hours and hours of security footage, Colonel. If I can figure out how the data was modified, I may be able to write a program to search through the rest of it for the same thing, but I'm a genius not a magician. I can't just wave a wand and make it so."
"Put a team on it," Sheppard told him.
"Oh, and who shall I use?" Rodney demanded. "The only person I know didn't do this is me! And, by the way, how do you know I didn't do it?"
"I don't," Sheppard said flatly.
Rodney opened his mouth and then could think of nothing to say. That hurt. He'd thought...He'd thought that at least they were in this together.
The hard look on Sheppard's face softened. "But I trust you."
The wave of relief that washed through Rodney left him lightheaded. "Oh. Well. Good. You should."
"You and Teyla and Ronon. Anyone else, not so much."
The moment stretched and Rodney – again – didn't know what to say. Sheppard was looking at him so intently. He ducked his face away and focused on the laptop again. "I should get to work on this."
"We'll find out who has alibis for the time period covered by the altered records," Sheppard said. "You can use them for your team."
"Yes." He'd begun typing again, leaning over the desk.
"You're going to ruin your back." Sheppard pulled Elizabeth's chair out, then pushed Rodney's shoulder. "Sit down."
"That's Elizabeth's chair," he objected.
"And you're going to help catch who killed her. I don't think she'd mind you using it."
Sheppard was right and he could already feel the ache in the small of his back along with the tension in his shoulders. "Okay." He sat down and rolled the chair forward into a comfortable spot, then hesitated, looking up from the laptop. "Sheppard. John."
"Yes?" Sheppard gazed back at him, emotions flickering behind his hazel eyes that Rodney couldn't keep up with even after all these years.
"Someone killed her."
Sheppard crossed his arms over his chest and nodded.
"One of us. I mean, not the Wraith or the Replicators or a Goa'uld. Not even the Genii." It was so damn wrong. It shouldn't have happened this way. Rodney licked his lips, then finished, "One of us. Someone from Earth. Someone on the expedition, someone who knew her."
Sheppard's gaze slid away from his and he replied in a rough voice, "Yeah. Someone." His hands came up and he pressed his fingers against closed eyelids briefly, head bowed, a shudder running through his frame. Then he straightened, snatching his hands away, stiff with embarrassment.
Rodney bent his attention to the laptop again. He'd wanted Sheppard to show some emotion, but now found he didn't want to see it. He knew Sheppard wouldn't want anyone to see. He traced back the loop feed to when it began, looking for anything that would tell him who had been responsible. Nothing distinguished how it had been done, nothing he recognized as anyone's particular style. The alteration to the security feed began at 2000 hours. That created a three hour window someone had engineered deliberately. The obvious reason was the murder of Elizabeth Weir, but Rodney cautioned himself against making such an assumption. There could be other reasons. Not that any that he thought of were any better.
He figured Sheppard had had enough time to pull himself back together and told him, still without looking up, "Three hours. 2000 to 0200. I'll start on a program to track down any other alterations." He'd never get used to the twenty-one hour military clock they were using to match MR3-331's sidereal rotation.
"I'll make sure Lorne is clear and start him on gathering alibis," Sheppard said. "Thanks."
"She was my friend."
Sheppard radioed the infirmary. "Keller. This is Sheppard. Can you give me a preliminary report?"
Rodney could hear the squawk from the earpiece halfway across the room. He could guess at Keller's protests, but the volume dropped and he couldn't actually hear. He didn't need to, following the gist just from Sheppard's responses.
"Then get Biro in there and start. Yes. I'm authorizing it as military commander of the base. It's a suspicious death, Doctor. Fine, four to six hours. Just get on it. I want that forensic autopsy report by the end of the day."
"Colonel Sheppard. General O'Neill and Mr. Woolsey are both becoming somewhat restless," Teyla's voice murmured over the team channel.
Sheppard sighed and replied, "All right, Teyla. Tell them McKay and I will be there in a minute."
"I could be accomplishing more here or even my labs, not talking with – "
"I'm not doing this alone, McKay."
"Fine, fine. Into the lion's den or whatever." He wanted to argue mutinously, but the last thing either of them needed to do was make each other's lives harder. Not now. With a sigh of his own, he shoved Elizabeth's chair back and rose, ready to follow Sheppard to the conference room.
"I shall inform them. They wish to know where Elizabeth is." Not a hint of the curiosity and suspicion Teyla must have felt colored her tone.
"We'll tell them when we get there." Sheppard grimaced and activated his radio again. "Keller. Put Cole and Biro on the autopsy. We need you up here in the conference room. Yes. Now."
Rodney tapped his own radio, opening the channel used within the labs. He needed Zelenka on this. "Radek?"
"Yes, Rodney. Where are you? Colonel Carter and I are waiting to initiate the second series of simulations on the containment protocols and Captain Hailey has already made Opticon throw a cup of coffee at her."
"Tell Opticon to drink the coffee first and just throw the cup," Rodney said automatically.
"I have already done so," Zelenka told him placidly.
"Radek, we need you and Carter in Control. The simulations will need to wait. Just get up here."
Next to him, Sheppard was on the team channel, telling Ronon to bring Teal'c and Mitchell to the conference room.
"We will be there, Rodney."
Sheppard was on the radio again, telling Lorne to report to the conference room with the video and photos of the scene as they left the office. One of the new faces, the guy brought in to act as Elizabeth's assistant, jumped up from a desk console and hurried over to them.
"Colonel. Doctor McKay. Should you have been in Dr. Weir's office without her?"
Rodney looked at him and let a little scorn and anger leak out into his voice. "Shouldn't you be doing paperwork or something?" He couldn't remember the guy's name, just a vague recognition from mutual tenures at the SGC years before. He didn't like that the guy was here now.
He trailed after them as they walked through Control. "I'm just trying to do my job. Dr. Weir hasn't assigned me any duties yet." Of course, she hadn't; no one received a permanent assignment until they were cleared by Psych. Elizabeth had explained that to all of them at the first day orientation and briefing.
"Gilmor," Sheppard said as they reached the conference room. "Go file something." The doors opened for them, despite Rodney's actual reluctance to enter.
Teyla smiled at them as they came in, though she looked slightly harassed. The smile died quickly.
O'Neill didn't appear antsy. He was sitting back in his chair, looking nearly as relaxed as Sheppard usually did, playing with a bright yellow yo-yo, while Jackson had an actual book open on the table next to his laptop and was working. Vala had draped herself over his shoulder and was pointing at the book, apparently disagreeing with Jackson over something there. Only Woolsey looked very impatient and annoyed.
He sat up straight and snapped, "Where is Dr. Weir? We have a schedule to adhere to, you realize – "
O'Neill took in Sheppard and Rodney and sat up. The yo-yo fell to the end of its string, hitting the floor. "Richard," he snapped. Woolsey's teeth clicked as he reacted, closing his mouth mid-sentence. "What's up, guys?"
"A couple of our people and yours are on their way," Sheppard told him. "Let's wait and do this just once."
"All right," O'Neill drawled. "We'll wait. This had better be good."
"Oh, no, it isn't," Rodney blurted out. O'Neill gave him that look, but didn't bite. Instead, he picked up the yo-yo and tucked it into a pocket, miming great patience.
Jackson and Vala were watching them now too, field team instincts alerting them to something wrong. "I take it we won't be discussing second contact diplomatic protocols after all?" Jackson asked. He closed the book, then his laptop, and then put away his glasses. Light flashed off the lenses briefly. Vala sat down in the chair next to him. Her gaze moved between Rodney and Sheppard, watchful and curious.
Rodney took a seat far enough from anyone else that his work couldn't be seen and began searching the records again. Sheppard stayed on his feet and there was the tension again; normally Sheppard would have sprawled in the nearest chair or leaned a hip on the conference table, instead of standing still enough to telegraph how much he wanted to move. Rodney kept his own gaze down or trained outside the windows, because he didn't want to meet Teyla's eyes. She could read his own too well.
The conference room always seemed dark, despite having a door and windows opening onto another balcony. The ceiling was low by Atlantis' standards and the only lights were those on the walls, lit only halfway up from the floor. They'd oriented the city to the same angle as on Lantea, so that the balcony looked to the direction of the sunset. It meant the room always felt cold in the mornings.
The sky, glimpsed through the windows, looked gray and the nearest tower glistened dark and still wet. Two of the native fliers, which biology reported were neither avian nor reptile, soared by. Their large, iridescent scales glittered as they banked through the towers, long tails trailing behind them. Their eyes were on the bottom of their flat, manta-like bodies and they used a echo-location cry that creeped out everyone who heard it, like a horror movie scream that shuddered through your gut. The shrieks made the transparent material the Ancients had used as glass shiver. They were fishers, diving under the water to hunt and floating on the surface to rest, but they'd begun using Atlantis as perches, winding those long whiptails around balcony rails to hang upside down like bats day and night.
Ronon came in along with Teal'c and Mitchell. They looked around and found seats. Ronon leaned against a wall, a little to the side and behind Sheppard. "Who are we waiting on, exactly?" Mitchell asked Jackson.
"I'm not sure," Jackson replied sotto voce. "Maybe Doctor Weir."
"Sheppard took off earlier, during our run."
The doors opened again, allowing Zelenka and Carter to enter. They separated as they entered. Zelenka took a seat one down from Rodney, while Carter joined SG-1. Before the doors had finished closing, Lorne and Keller arrived. Keller had a tablet PC with her. Lorne had a flash drive that he handed to Rodney as he passed. They found places at the table on the Atlantis side.
"That's everyone," Sheppard said.
"Where is Doctor Weir?" Woolsey asked.
"Dr. Weir is why we're all here," Sheppard declared. He stepped forward and straightened to attention. "Dr. Weir is dead."
Mitchell had been rocking his chair back on two legs. The other two hit the floor with a crack.
O'Neill's eyes narrowed. "How?"
Sheppard looked back at him and said, "It looks like murder." He gestured toward Keller, who cringed when everyone's eyes followed.
With an audible gulp, Keller said, "We have her body in the infirmary. Doctor Biro is conducting an autopsy right now. After examining the scene, the preliminary cause of death appears to be from a fall, but there's the possibility that she could have been deceased before that or drugged or..."
"Murder?" Woolsey repeated. His gaze darted to O'Neill and something that seemed agreed upon passed between them. Perspiration shone on his high forehead, while his wide mouth turned down in an expression of deep unhappiness and dismay. "This is extremely alarming. Have you caught the perpetrator?"
Rodney almost recoiled from Woolsey's sudden intensity.
Beside him, Zelenka had begun to mutter. "No, this cannot be true. Dr. Weir is too important and far too well liked. I do not understand." He turned toward Rodney. "Please, tell me this is an extremely tasteless joke, Rodney."
"I'm sorry, Radek, I wish I could."
"But this...how could this happen?"
"McKay," Sheppard said. "Could you – "
"Yes. I can – " He tapped a series of commands in and the holographic display screen at the far end of the room lit with cut away presentation of the city in silhouette. He highlighted the control tower and B Two next to it, rotating the image to show the sky bridge between them. He marked the sky bridge and then the sea level deck where the patrol had found Elizabeth. A single red line connected them. "Elizabeth fell, very likely pushed, from the sky bridge sometime between 2000 hours last night and 0200 hours. We know this because the security recordings of the bridge have been tampered with, replacing video of what happened with a loop that fails to show the break in the railing Colonel Sheppard and I both observed this morning on examining it."
"Who could have tampered with the security video?" O'Neill asked.
Rodney looked at him. "Aside from myself, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Weir?" He shrugged. "We don't have a shortage of smart people here, General. In this room, I'd say that Radek and Colonel Carter are more than skilled enough to manage it and I wouldn't bet that Ms. Mal Doran, Dr. Jackson, or Mr. Woolsey might not have the skills, whether they'd admit it or not. I wouldn't bet you don't."
"So, no easy list of possible suspects," O'Neill concluded.
"No," Sheppard confirmed.
"And that's assuming that it was just one person," Jackson said.
"Oh, thank you, that makes everything much easier." Rodney glared at him.
Rodney turned the flash drive Lorne had handed him into his fingers. He really didn't want to view it. But his wants didn't count for much, he knew.
Sheppard said, "Let's keep the conspiracy theories on a back burner for now."
Rodney loaded the data on the flash drive and clicked the first file labeled Weir, E.: Body in situ. A list of stills popped up and he highlighted the first. It appeared in a window next to the city diagram, brutally graphic next to cool lines of the cut away. Zelenka's breath hitched and he dropped his gaze to the table, saying, "I cannot look at this." Rodney saw Lorne averting his own eyes, too. The litany of Satedan curses growled at a nearly subsonic level behind him came from Ronon, while Teyla whispered, "Oh, Elizabeth." Keller and Sheppard were silent, inured perhaps because the scene had already been seared into them.
Rodney clicked through the rest of the photos, different angles, close ups, everything documented in black and white and color, down to the terrible vulnerability of one pale, bared foot. "On Earth, a fall of thirty-two stories, presuming each story is fifteen feet, will achieve terminal velocity. Elizabeth – " His voice broke and he found some refuge in explaining the simple physics. "Elizabeth fell much farther than that. The amount of energy at impact relates more to velocity than mass and can be expressed as KE=˝mv˛. Kinetic energy is transformed to mechanical energy, potential energy, and a minor amount is released as heat. The mechanical energy is absorbed by the body and the impact surface. Tissue injury results from the body absorbing the energy accumulated during the fall upon deceleration." He clicked to the next picture. "Physics in action."
"Dear God," Woolsey muttered at one point, elbow propped on the conference table, covering his face with one hand, and proving he was human.
With each new picture, Sheppard was studying a different face, watching all their reactions, and Rodney slowed down so that he'd have the time he needed to catalogue them all.
Teal'c, stonefaced and silent, devoted his attention to each image in a manner that communicated respect. He would study each picture. If there were something to see, to gain from them, it would not go unmarked.
Carter winced each time, looking pained.
Vala's mobile features had paled, but shock took a distant place to calculation. She was watching everyone on the Atlantis side of the conference table. Taking apart their reactions, Rodney realized, or trying to parse them, because while biologically they were all – even Jaffa, even the Alterrans once – some version of human; yet, psychologically, they were all alien to each other. Not just Vala and Teal'c, Ronon and Teyla, who were alien to Earth. There were other divides besides the one they'd fallen into in the conference room, choosing their places unconsciously: Earth opposite Atlantis. A hundred other chasms cleaved between each of them, until they were cut so fine no one could ever know another truly. The wonder was that any two people could agree on any 'truth'. Maybe everyone only thought they did. Elizabeth hadn't thought so, though; she'd believed that if both sides would only attempt it, a bridge could always be built.
The irony of that made Rodney's mouth twist downward. Bridges failed.
"That's just gruesome," Mitchell said. "Can we stop with the slide show from hell?"
"Mitchell," O'Neill said, silencing him.
"The autopsy won't be finished for several hours," Keller said. "I'd like to get back to the infirmary. I can't hurry the tests, but I can help get more done."
Sheppard nodded to her and she slipped out of the conference room, the red doors rotating open then closing behind her soundlessly. "I'm assigning Major Lorne to begin interviewing personnel, checking alibis. All interviews will be recorded and in the presence of a civilian. Either myself, Teyla, Ronon or Dr. Zelenka until we have a cadre cleared." His expression gave nothing away as he told O'Neill, "All of you will be questioned as well."
"I can tell you right now, I was down in the jumper bay last night. Didn't see a soul," O'Neill said easily. "Does that put me on the suspect list?"
"There's one more thing to get clear," Rodney said, startling everyone. He lifted his hands away from the laptop and then shoved his chair back before standing. John caught his gaze with a searching glance, then gave a tiny nod, giving way.
"Colonel Sheppard already outlined how we will be handling the investigation."
Rodney looked over everyone else in the room. "According to the terms of the expedition charter, with Elizabeth gone, I'm the acting director until I'm confirmed or the IOA replaces me. "
It didn't surprise John when O'Neill lingered as the rest began filing out. Lorne had left with Teyla to begin interviews. John approved of his choice. Ronon was too intimidating and Zelenka had been too cut up. Woolsey staying behind might have made him raise his eyebrows, but not after Rodney's declaration.
Carter stopped on her way out, patting Rodney's shoulder and telling them both, "I never had the chance to work with and know her the way you did. I'm so very sorry." She was sincere. One of the things John had liked about working with her while she was in Atlantis had been that she didn't play mind games. She had a hell of lot more social skills than Rodney, had to in order to get ahead as a woman in the Air Force, but underneath she was just as devoted to knowledge. They'd had a good working relationship.
He'd back Rodney for Atlantis over her, though.
Mitchell nodded to him and chivvied her and Vala out with him, followed by Teal'c.
Rodney returned to his seat and went back to work, typing rapidly, head down, which left John facing off against a General and an IOA representative, wondering whether and which one of them would try to take over in Elizabeth's absence or if they'd accept Rodney's authority. "Sirs," he said, not as respectful as he might have been, but acknowledging them. "Something you wanted to add?"
"As a matter of fact," O'Neill answered, with a tip of his head toward the open doors. "We briefed Dr. Weir, but the things look a lot more urgent now."
"They were always urgent, General O'Neill," Woolsey objected. He still looked nearly ill. Also crow-like and out of place in his dark, Earth-style suit. "Considering the Trust attempted to destroy Atlantis at least once, I think Dr. Weir found our news important enough to move on it immediately." He coughed and finished. "In light of her death..."
"We gotta tell the Colonel here and Dr. McKay," O'Neill said. "Yeah, I know."
"Tell us what?" Rodney demanded.
John refrained from pointing out that the Trust hadn't been the only ones. The SGC had meant to destroy Atlantis at least once too, and nearly managed it as collateral damage after the attack on the Asuran homeworld sparked their immediate retaliation.
O'Neill waved the doors closed again, then rocked on his heels, sharp eyes considering John and then Rodney. He raised his eyebrows at Woolsey and received frown in response. "Go ahead then," Woolsey said finally.
"NID's been trying to run down all the rogue elements that defected to the Trust since the Kinsey mess," O'Neill said. He gaze strayed to Rodney, whose fingers had stilled on his keyboard, though he hadn't looked up from the laptop. John missed the comforting sound. It meant things were being fixed to his subconscious.
"And?" John made himself ask. O'Neill wasn't visibly armed. But O'Neill was an old pro and had been black ops. John wouldn't bet on the man not carrying some sort of weaponry. He discounted Woolsey as a physical threat; Woolsey was dangerous in other ways. His fingertips tingled from the adrenaline coursing through him. He kept a mild expression on his face, not giving away anything beyond a hint of sardonic impatience.
"Atlantis has a mole."
"Oh, for – " Rodney pushed his chair back and glared up at O'Neill. "Didn't we already go through this? Colonel Caldwell had a snake in his head. We caught him. That's done. If you are insinuating that because I worked for Simmons at Area 51 I'm compromised, I can assure you that you have taken one too many hard blows to the head, General."
"We know it's not you, McKay," O'Neill replied. "That would be too obvious. Besides, you've been vetted back to your first allergic reaction in preschool, courtesy of the CIA and Canadian intelligence both."
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and went on glaring.
"The Trust has an asset in Atlantis, a deep cover operative originally with the NID according to the information recovered from a captured agent."
"So who is it?" John made himself ask, mouth dry.
"All she knew was a codename."
"A codename," Rodney repeated. "Well, isn't that perfect. You're here to play cloak and dagger while we try to catch a murderer."
"Why SG-1? Why not the NID?" John asked. Why not Agent Barrett he wondered. Or did someone think Barrett had been compromised too?
"The minute NID becomes involved, Skorpion will go to ground. If we can't find him, then the NID will take over." O'Neill's expression soured. "I've done my best to keep them out of Atlantis."
"We briefed in Dr. Weir on our arrival and only her," Woolsey said. "Her death seems like an unlikely coincidence under the circumstances."
John shared a glance with Rodney, reading agreement in his eyes and the unhappy slant of his mouth. "You figure this Trust spy killed her?"
O'Neill shrugged. "You gotta admit it's a hell of a coincidence, Sheppard."
John shook his head. "Look, if there is a spy, do you think he'd really do anything this obvious? He'd have to be smart to have lasted this long and this just isn't smart."
"Could be he panicked," O'Neill replied.
"You need to give me everything on this – " Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed at Woolsey, demanding, "Name, name, codename."
"Scorpion," Woolsey said. "Spelled with a K."
"Going for the pretension and the melodrama, weren't they?" Rodney muttered, then continued, "I need everything on him you have. I can use it to narrow the parameters of the suspect search and exclude anyone who doesn't fit."
"You can't assume the mole killed Elizabeth," John interrupted. He narrowed his eyes. "It's too circumstantial."
"Sheppard – "
Rodney interrupted O'Neill. "We can't even assume this 'Skorpion' is real, or if he, she or it is real, is in Atlantis."
"Come on, McKay, the evidence – "
"Is pretty damn slim and points just as easily to you bringing the killer with you among the new personnel," John said, backing up Rodney automatically. He knew Rodney wanted it to be a stranger. It was understandable.
"Do you know how many departments, even entire projects, I've seen paralyzed by a counter-intelligence witch hunt?" Rodney asked. "Dropping a little disinformation into some paranoid's ear is a cheap way to tangle up the opposition. Costs nothing whether it works or not."
"I'd love to find out that was the case," O'Neill said. "But Dr. Weir is dead."
"The information NID obtained indicated Skorpion had been placed in the Atlantis expedition either in the first or second wave of personnel," Woolsey added. "A sleeper."
"Then Skorpion might even already be dead," Rodney declared.
"That would explain why the Trust had to use Caldwell and a snake when they tried to destroy Atlantis," John said. He straightened up. "We'll know when we catch the killer, one way or another. That's our first priority."
"Dr. McKay, if I might have a word with you?" Woolsey asked as O'Neill and John started out of the conference room.
Rodney hesitated, then nodded and remained. John paused at the doors and caught his gaze. No one outside the team would have caught the tiny nod of encouragement he gave, but it shored Rodney up. He could deal with a measly IOA representative. He'd stood up to Wraith, after all.
"Mr. Woolsey," he said. "I'd ask what I can do for you, but I don't actually care, and I'm confident you're going to tell me what you want anyway."
Woolsey straightened to near attention, even tugged his jacket into perfect alignment. "What I, and, by extension, the IOA want is a smoothly functioning Atlantis base."
"Then we're all united, aren't we?" Rodney replied.
"Do you know why the IOA passed over you to take the directorship previously, Dr. McKay?" Woolsey asked.
"I'd imagine because I'm not blonde, perky, universally loved, and was actually here, trying to fix the city, rather than back on Earth," Rodney said. He knew there were other reasons, but he didn't have any intention of admitting they existed much less were valid.
"The IOA objected on the grounds that you had twice when Dr. Weir was incapacitated deferred authority to the military," Woolsey snapped.
"In the case of the 'possession' of Dr. Weir and Colonel Sheppard by the aliens referring to themselves as 'Phebus' and "Thalan', you allowed Colonel Caldwell to assume command."
Rodney crossed his arms and glared. He'd been busy, damn it, trying to override Elizabeth's command codes and keep that psychotic witch Phebus from gassing half the expedition in addition to killing the body of his friend.
"In the second case, after Dr. Weir was critically injured during the Replicator attack on the city, you turned command over to Colonel Sheppard, contrary to the expedition protocols."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. "It was a military situation. We were retreating from an attack and I was a trifle preoccupied trying to repair city systems vital to, oh, living through the next couple hours."
Woolsey pursed his mouth. "Nonetheless, the IOA is dedicated to the proposition that Atlantis remain a civilian controlled enterprise and your actions weighed in the balance against you."
"That's utterly ridiculous!" Rodney complained. "Carter's a Colonel in the US Air Force. You don't get much more military than that without a buzzcut and a Marine hooyah."
"Colonel Carter was the only other candidate with sufficient scientific knowledge and experience, however. Some people felt that while her authority over the expedition would stem from the directorship, her rank would give her a better chance at retaining control of Colonel Sheppard."
"So you're going to appoint her again in my place?" Rodney asked. He felt too weary to fight it. There was no chance of getting Elizabeth back this time, though. He felt he would have to.
"That isn't within my purview at this time." Woolsey hesitated. "And I won't recommend it."
Rodney waited for the unspoken 'but' or 'unless'.
"Unless I see Colonel Sheppard assuming control."
Checking out alibis for Teyla, Ronon, Vala and Teal'c took the next hour, but afterward, John paired each of them with an officer, setting them to verifying that everyone on-duty during the relevant period had been present during their entire shift. That would at least shrink the suspect pool.
Woolsey questioned him about that when John found him, half intent on finding out what he'd wanted with Rodney earlier.
John smiled at him. "If Skorpion is real and came out of NID, then the only people who cannot possibly be the mole are the 'aliens'."
Woolsey looked a little surprised, then nodded. "You make a point, Colonel Sheppard."
"So, you want to go talk to Ronon and Lt. Kalatos?"
"You weren't joking about suspecting everyone?"
"Mr. Woolsey, you're in a position to be very useful to the Trust," John said. "More useful than someone on Atlantis, frankly."
"A compliment I could have gone without, I think," Woolsey said, dry as dust. He opened his briefcase and handed John a disc. "This is everything on Skorpion. A copy was given to Dr. Weir already..."
"It's probably on her laptop. I'll get this to McKay." He used his radio. "Ronon? Mr. Woolsey is ready to be interviewed."
"We're ready, Sheppard."
He glimpsed Ronon and Virginie Kalatos waiting outside Elizabeth's office. Once Woolsey had left, John waited a minute then headed for Elizabeth's quarters to secure her laptop. He wanted to go over what the NID had on Skorpion before handing the disc over to Rodney.
Ko, the head nurse, started the recorder and the video camera. Every part of this procedure would be documented non-stop. Lt. Crown stayed silent and out of the way.
Biro began by opening the bag and visually examining the body. Before the invasive portion of the procedure, there was evidence to be collected. "Alice," she whispered to herself, "do this right."
"Dr. Biro?" Ko asked.
"Nothing, Marie," she replied.
She recited the time and added, "Present are Dr. Alice Biro, prosector, Marie Ko, assistant, and Lt. Angela Crown, USAF/Atlantis Expedition."
A deep breath filled her lungs with air scented with plastic, laundry soap, antiseptic, rubber and the faint, always there odor that permeated the morgue. It was psychological more than a real smell, but sometimes she thought it was in her hair, soaked into her skin like old blood and formaldehyde. It wasn't technically necessary yet, but she had clear plastic glasses over her eyes in addition to the surgical mask, gown, and gloves. It gave her some comfort, a distance and a barrier between her and Death. "Let's weigh and measure her first, then we'll move on to the X-Rays."
She took samples of hair and fingernails, noting irritably that no one had bagged the hands while checking beneath the nails for anything. She swept the body with an ultraviolet light then Ko assisted as they carefully removed each piece of bloodied clothing and sealed it in a bag, holding them before the video camera and describing them. Alice scanned the body a second time, first the front and then after rolling it over, the back, using swabs to sample several stains on the skin, checking for signs of sexual activity, dictating as she took more samples and handed them off to Ko. She recorded a single distinguishing mark, a tiny tattoo of a peace symbol on the inside of the left thigh, just below the juncture of groin and leg. Ko snapped pictures of it for comparison with the medical records already on file. Both of them said nothing unnecessary, unpleasantly aware of the invasive nature of what they were doing, no matter how necessary.
"This is the body of a Caucasian female age thirty-nine," Alice dictated as they worked. "Hair brown, measuring nine inches in length. Irises green." She continued with the height and then the body's weight, after subtracting the gurney's weight from the measurement given by the morgue scale. "The teeth are natural with occlusal amalgam fillings in teeth 30 and 31. There is one tattoo, no missing body parts, and a single surgical scar commensurate with an appendectomy." The ventilation system hummed louder than anywhere else in Atlantis except the biolabs, laboring to push air through the filters, but the morgue still seemed eerily quiet. Every rustle of their gowns, the squeak of the gurney's wheels, the scuff of a shoe, even their breathing seemed magnified out of all proportion. "No other distinctive markings are visible."
Finished with the exterior examination, she and Ko shifted the body from the bag to the table. Rigor had progressed further than expected, but that could be accounted for by Weir's size and exposure to low temperatures. She made note of it anyway.
Alice made herself think of it as a body again and not Weir. That had been a mistake. Weir was someone. This was the subject of a forensic procedure. The hardest part of working in Atlantis for her hadn't been living with the constant danger or the isolation from Earth. She'd accepted that before coming through the wormhole.
The hardest part of her job on Atlantis was that she practiced it on the bodies of people she had known. More than one night had seen her pillow wet with tears she couldn't afford during the day, something she'd never confided to anyone, not even Carson. He would have tried to relieve her of the job, but it was hers and she knew no one else could do it as well. She hadn't been chosen for the expedition for her mordant sense of humor after all.
With the body block in place to raise the torso, Alice stopped once more and centered herself. If there had been signs of strangulation, she would have begun her incision with the neck. She decided to use a standard Y-incision to open the torso down to the pubic bone and quietly described her actions aloud as she worked, retracting the skin and then the superficial muscles from the chest and abdomen, then the cartilage that secured the ribs before removing the sternum. She removed the heart and lungs, weighing and inspecting them, then moved on. Eventually even the spinal cord would be removed in this case in order to detail the damage the X-Rays had shown.
She prepared samples from the stomach and then the intestines to send to toxicology, genetics and biochem for testing.
"Quite the mess," she commented, half to herself, half to Ko, as she worked. She'd never autopsied a body that had achieved terminal velocity before impact and the extent of the damage amazed her even while another part of her wondered at the fact that any of the internal organs were still recognizable. She asked Ko, "Think anyone would ever jump if they saw this?"
Ko shook her head. "Why would Dr. Weir jump?"
Alice stopped in the midst of preparing another tissue specimen. Her plastic protective glasses were sliding down her nose, so she tossed her head to get them back in place without using her hands.
"Who says she did?"
Ko's eyes, the only part of her face visible, widened. "Oh."
"I believe that's why there are two marines guarding the door into the morgue, Marie, as well as Lt. Crown here."
"No offense, Angela," Alica added.
"There's been no alarm, no one's said anything about intruders in the city. The Wraith – "
"I think we'd have already noticed if a Wraith had fed on her."
"The Genii – "
"That'd be nice," Biro said. Crown coughed again and she murmured, "Nicer than it being a member of the Expedition." She finished with the tissue sample.
Ko said nothing more.
"I'm going to open up her skull next. Help me move the body block into place to immobilize her head."
Alice began humming as she worked, beginning the incision through the scalp at the back of the skull. Old song lyrics ran through her head as she detached the scalp from the bone. She'd had a professor who always played Oingo Boingo in the autopsy room. Back then she'd found the way the scalp lifted away to fold over the face creepy. The professor too, but she'd come to appreciate anything that let her detach herself and simply work. Besides, every body was fascinating, the wreckage of an incredibly complex edifice, history etched into flesh and bone. "If you peel away the skin is there anybody there?" she hummed to herself. She'd long since come to her own conclusion; that no, without life, whatever made a person was gone from the body. She still wished she didn't have to know her subjects before they showed up on her table.
She picked up the Stryker saw. She'd got over finding dead bodies creepy, overcome by the fascination, but still found the electric buzz and the spray of bone and blood that came from cutting the skull open triggered a little shudder. The vibration as the blade bit into the bone worked its way up her arms and neck and down her spine and left her wanting to shake herself like a wet dog.
This time it was worse, the bone already cracked and shattered, shifting under the saw, threatening to cave away and sink into the brain beneath. She noted the excessive amount of blood present as signs of hemorrhage and worked as carefully as she ever had, compensating whenever called for. Eventually she managed to remove the brain. It went into jar of formalin for preservation.
When she'd gleaned everything from Elizabeth Weir's body that she could, Alice tenderly began restoring it as much as possible. She didn't know if it would go back to Earth for burial or not. While the nanites that had once infected her, then later saved her and eventually been used to rebuild her body when she'd been rescued from the Asurans had been broken down and flushed from her system, the IOA still might not want to take an unnecessary risk by allowing the body to return to Earth. Weir's personnel and medical files probably held some sort of last wishes and instructions on the event of her death, probably entrusting exercising them to Colonel Sheppard or Dr. McKay.
Alice's own file authorized the CMO, whoever it was, to take whatever measures necessary with her remains on the event of her death. Handling the dead held its own dangers and she half-expected to die of some contagion one day. She'd asked to be cremated and her ashes flushed into space above whatever planet they were on, by preference.
When they finally drew a sheet over Weir's face, Alice thought that she'd rather end the victim of some new disease than falling. The autopsy had proved the fall had killed Weir, but it couldn't tell why she'd fallen, not unless one of the tests came back with a revealing result.
"Do you really think someone here killed her?" Ko asked as they were cleaning up. Crown had already gone.
Alice paused as she stripped off her gown before getting rid of it and her gloves. "I don't think she was convinced she could fly," she said finally.
"But...one of us?"
Alice shook her head at the thought, but she did think that and she guessed the Colonel and McKay did as well. They were smart men under no delusions about human nature.
With that thought, Alice headed for the genetics lab. She had two specimens that had tested positive with acid phosphatase that she intended to see processed herself, besides recovering further samples from Weir's clothes. She'd begin with the PSA for P30 to confirm (and thank God they didn't have to actually use rabbits on Atlantis) and then use the Thermal Cycler to start the PCR. She'd use the Ancient equipment that didn't require the gene for more than initialization too, but it seemed important to run all the tests that would be done on Earth. Then whatever they found could be used in a court on Earth, if necessary.
Atlantis' citywide com system activated while she worked, Rodney McKay's clipped voice announcing, "Attention all expedition personnel. This is Rodney McKay. I have the unfortunate duty to inform you that Dr. Weir is dead. An investigation is ongoing. All gate travel, missions, and access to the jumpers are suspended. Please remain calm, continue your work and cooperate with the investigators if they should need to question you. Colonel Sheppard and I will release further details as is appropriate."
Mark Gilmor began composing the coded report he would transmit to Earth on the first opportunity. No one had anticipated this when he was dispatched. He shivered. His activities should have easily gone unnoticed, but now he had to consider the distinct possibility they wouldn't. No one here was stupid and now they would be looking. He attached two files he'd gleaned from Weir's secured safe. Ironic that he'd managed to get at the physical files but hadn't been able to get past McKay's encryptions on her computer. He'd been lucky not to set off any alarms.
The USB stick with the complete autopsy report disappeared completely when John closed his hand around it. He wanted to make everything on it disappear, too. While he was wishing for the impossible, he wanted to turn back time a week and put the shield up on the stargate. Never let O'Neill and Woolsey through the gate or any of the new personnel. Screw the supplies too. He trade them all for Elizabeth, alive, sitting behind the desk he was half-sitting on, while Rodney sat where she should have been.
Keller and Biro were seated across from them. Keller betrayed in a dozen tiny ways a nervousness he hadn't seen in her since she took over as CMO. Biro just looked tired. Her hair was damp from a shower.
"What am I going read in this?" John asked, holding up the USB stick.
"Time of death, cause of death, various histological reports, toxicology, biochem and preliminary DNA results," Biro said.
"Give it to me in layman's terms, please." He handed the stick to Rodney.
Biro bobbed her head. "The fall killed her. Fractured skull, broken neck, broken spine, massive internal injuries, fractures in her other limbs... As to how she fell: I didn't find any trace evidence under her fingernails or on her clothes, but I did find some on her body."
John straightened. Something hot and sick turned over in his stomach and then washed out to his skin. Christ. What had Biro found?
Rodney looked up from playing with USB stick. "What kind of evidence?"
Biro glanced at Keller, who looked away and bit her lip. Biro pressed her lips together, then faced Rodney and John. "An acid phosphatase test revealed a positive result for seminal fluid, on her clothing and on her body. I used a PCR to generate enough DNA to analyze and have started Y-STRs instead of RFLP, because it's faster. They're being repeated because it appears the samples weren't from the same man."
The blank shock on Rodney's face would be hilarious in other circumstances. As it is, John looked away. It gave him a moment to compose his own features and fight down the sick feeling. He heard Rodney's teeth click as his mouth finally shut and then, "Was she raped?"
Biro shook her head. "That isn't something any pathologist can tell absolutely. I can tell you that there was no anal penetration, no vaginal tearing, no swelling, abrasions or contusions of the sort associated with rough sex, and no indication that she had been restrained." She held up her index finger and went on, "Nonconsensual sex doesn't necessarily leave physical evidence, however, and consensual B&D can leave marks that look damning. Neither automatically mean rape. Whoever it was used a condom, the vaginal swabs came back negative."
"You said two," John said. His voice sounded clipped and angry enough that both Keller and Biro flinched. His mind was racing through the possibilities. How many people had Elizabeth been sleeping with? He made himself physically relax, but couldn't release the tension thrumming inside. Precarious didn't even cover his position right now. Every move he made, he knew O'Neill would be watching. He ran his palm over his face and faked an embarrassed smile for the two women. "Sorry. This is..."
Keller nodded swiftly.
Biro gave him a more skeptical look but answered. "Toxicology tests revealed no drugs. Currently, Genetics is working on the seminal fluids."
Rodney looked pained by her little lecture. "This is pertinent?"
"My autopsy showed that Dr. Weir had had intercourse probably within an hour of her death and earlier in the day, up to ten hours earlier. Given the degradation of the second sample, probably at least ten hours earlier."
"I really, really never thought I would be asking this, because Elizabeth's sex life is so, so much not my business – not that I'd been aware that she had one or had one here, because I knew she'd had one before, I mean, that she'd been involved with someone back on Earth and I'd just assumed... Crap." John watched him stop and draw in a breath, wince and ask, "How do you know the samples are from, uh, two different...guys. Men. People. Well, actually, it would just be men, wouldn't it?"
"DNA analysis," Keller said.
"Well, then you should know who the, uh, samples came from."
John looked at Keller, who shook her head, ponytail swishing over one shoulder. "Not that easy. While we have DNA samples on everyone in the Expedition, we don't have any for the new people, which means taking samples and running PCRs and STRs on all of the men, and – "
"– The DNA database is on non-networked server and only accessible with the CMO's code and a command code," Rodney finished. "Of course. I helped set it up myself to keep the data from being altered in the event we needed to run a comparison."
"A comparison?" John echoed, though he knew very well what Rodney meant.
"To make sure someone was who they said they were. Not a clone or an alien, you know?"
Biro frowned before saying, "We need to run a complete DNA analysis of Dr. Weir as well. I'll need the comparison samples to do that."
"I'll need you to unlock the database for me," Keller said. "Then I'll take care of that. It's only a formality."
"Well, there's one problem," Rodney said.
"You haven't been cleared."
Keller opened her mouth, then snapped it closed and glared at Rodney. "Are you accusing me?"
"No, but you're still a suspect. Until you aren't, we can't trust you not to alter something."
"I can't believe your nerve – "
"It's just a formality, Doctor, like you said about testing Eliza – Dr. Weir's DNA," John interrupted. Keller was small, but so was Teyla, and he didn't doubt she could do some damage if she came across the desk and tried to strangle Rodney. "If you'd check in with Teal'c and Lieutenant Bates, tell them where you were last night so we can cross you off the list..."
Keller transferred her glare to him.
"Maybe you could give your CMO code to someone who is clear," John suggested. He nodded to Biro. "Like Dr. Biro here. Rodney could enter his code and she could do the work, run the comparison tests."
"I'm CMO here," Keller insisted. "I'm not stepping aside."
"Then we can't do anything," John said. He shrugged and smiled at her. "Or until Rodney hacks your pass code. You could do that, right, Rodney?"
Rodney was staring at him. "What? Oh, yes, of course, but it isn't like I don't have other things I'm supposed to be doing, like oh, my job, and running my department, not to mention combing through the entire database for any other instances records have been modified. I've got an idea on a way to replace the data we lost – Atlantis has its own surveillance systems. We've never used them, because we don't have codes to access them and it was faster and easier to set up our own system...But I'll pencil in breaking into the DNA database just as soon as I have a free five minutes, how about that? Because that's so much more important than finding pictures of whoever killed Elizabeth as opposed to whoever was sleeping with her." His voice cracked at the end and pointed at Keller and Biro. "If you haven't got anything better, anything more helpful, than airing Elizabeth's dirty laundry, you can both just get out."
"Gladly," Keller declared. She jumped to her feet and headed for the door. "Colonel. When you decide you can trust me, let me know, and I'll start the comparison search for you."
"Now!" Rodney snarled at her.
John shrugged. "I think we'll wait," he said. "Maybe you could set up something to get samples from the new personnel?"
Keller walked out without answering and John wondered what she was hiding. That much anger usually came from fear, something he knew personally.
"I'll begin getting samples from the new intake," Biro said. "We were scheduled to take them during the regular exams, but I can bypass all that and just get buccal swabs."
"Finally, someone who can think for their self," Rodney muttered.
"Doctor," John murmured.
"Colonel," Biro replied, nodding to him. "Dr. McKay."
Rodney had bent over the laptop again, his fingers flying over the keys, and ignored her beyond a distracted wave that barely interrupted the clatter of keys. He kept his head down until the door closed behind her.
"Is it just me or was Keller acting particularly squirrelly just now?" Rodney asked.
John shrugged. He figured the DNA test on Elizabeth was a case of belt and suspenders. They had no reason to think the body wasn't Elizabeth's. But Keller's combative reaction to turning over the job to Biro did ring some alarm bells.
"Yeah," he said, "she seemed a little..."
"Yeah, a little. I say we sic Teal'c on her."
John lifted his hand to his ear piece, opening a channel to the marine officer on assignment duty. "Radner, this is Sheppard. I want Lt. Bates to add Dr. Keller to the top of his and Teal'c's interview list."
John looked at his hands. They curled around joysticks and bantos sticks and gun butts perfectly well. They'd turned blue and alien once. Some women had liked playing with the dark hair that grew on the backs, but that always made him want to twitch away. They weren't too callused, but there were nicks and scars. There was a purple-black bruise under one thumbnail, where he'd smashed it over a week ago, back when everything had been normal. Elizabeth had asked if it still hurt just the night before. He curled them into fists.
Rodney cleared his throat.
"Did you know...?"
"That she was sleeping with two people?" John asked, sounding and feeling bitter, even though he had no right. Elizabeth had been human. He shouldn't grudge her whoever it had been. She'd given enough for Atlantis, she'd deserved to have something too. He'd even told her that after the first siege. He hoped it hadn't been that smarmy sonovabitch Braden, though. He made a note to himself: Braden belonged on the suspect list. It had taken more than one no before he stopped trying to date Elizabeth; in fact, he'd only given up after Beckett and Houston and DiAmato were killed.
"Yes. I guess."
John made his hands open and smoothed them over his thighs, pressing hard. He so did not want to have this conversation. He hated getting personal and this was like tapdancing through a mine field. Or maybe getting chased through one by a bull, considering Rodney's usual determination and lack of tact.
"I know, really, none of our business," Rodney went on, "but at the same time I feel strangely excluded, that she had this whole part of her life that we – or I at least – had no clue about, when I thought, well, I thought we were friends. Of a sort. In as much as she was the boss and I'm not exactly the most emotionally observant person." He glanced up and caught John's gaze. The corner of his mouth had turned deeply down. John's breath caught and he hoped he hid what he was feeling. He probably did, he'd had enough practice over the years, and Rodney's pained expression didn't change. His gaze didn't sharpen in that way John had learned to dread sometimes, when it was turned on him. "I suppose I feel better that you didn't know, too."
That was almost too much. John sucked in a breath. "I – "
"I wasn't bragging, you know," Rodney went on. "I think that if we really work all out on it, I can break the security around the integral Atlantis surveillance system and translate into something that we can use. Two, maybe three days, depending on if I can assemble a small team of programmers. I know, we have to wait to use people who have been cleared and can you believe Keller? You don't think she's hiding something, do you?"
"Rodney, I – "
"Really, really, she must be." Rodney's eyes could look huge sometimes, when he was amazed or upset, like they opened up to pull in more, when John's narrowed to shut everything but his purpose out. "Oh, God, do you think she's Skorpion? Second wave, that would fit and who would look at one of the doctors. It's diabolical! She could have killed us all!"
"She's not Skorpion," John stated. Though he thought she was hiding something. Everyone was hiding something. Sometimes it was something that could be used against them. Sometimes it was just some tiny joy they didn't want anyone else to stomp on. Sometimes it was an old pain. But everyone had something to hide and everyone, eventually, lied. If not to others, then to themselves.
"You don't think so?"
John smiled. "I know, okay?"
"Look, now that we know Elizabeth had...someone, I think we better search her quarters, see if there are any clues. I'll pick up Teyla to help," John said. He needed to go through Elizabeth's quarters before anyone else got to them. Just in case. Even a woman as smart as Elizabeth Weir might have written her command codes down somewhere or kept something that shouldn't fall into the wrong hands. She'd had a lot of classified material on her laptop, but that might not have been all of it. "Unless you want to."
"Oh, no." Rodney grimaced and repeated, "No. Teyla. Teyla would be good. We can trust her. Elizabeth di–did."
John nodded. Rodney looked oddly crumpled and smaller. His shoulders slumped. John pushed both his first and second impulses, to say something comforting or to say something outrageous and irritating, back down into silence. Not now. Not when he was about to go through a dead friend's things, looking for anything that would tell who had been with her last.
"Do you ever think she trusted too easily?" he heard himself ask. He hadn't meant to, never meant to give away so much of what he thought and felt, but Rodney's openness regularly undid his own defenses.
The question garnered him a penetrating stare from Rodney, until John had to duck his head. "Just..."
"No," Rodney said. "She didn't trust blindly. She chose to trust. She had faith in me when no one else did."
John thought of the oak leaves on his epaulets. Elizabeth had had faith in him too, when practically no one else outside Atlantis did. He'd done his best to be the man she thought he was, even while holding the rest of himself separate. There was so much he could never give anyone.
"Yeah," he breathed.
"I should – I could really use Zelenka's help," Rodney said. "I just don't know."
"Whether I should tell him we're looking for someone Elizabeth was sleeping with," Rodney answered. "Of course, with my luck, I'd find out he was...Ew. No. Not a picture I ever wanted to have in my mind."
A snort of reluctant laughter escaped John. "Me either."
He considered the question. "Tell him." Better if Zelenka heard the straight information, than picked up whatever rumor ended up floating from the labs. John winced. Whatever rumor had already come out of the labs, he corrected himself. He didn't have any illusions that Gomez and Evans had managed to keep their mouths shut either. By now, even without the disruption and interviews, most people in Atlantis had to know Elizabeth had been murdered. "And, err, ask him."
"If he and Elizabeth...?"
John shuddered. "Yeah."
"'Cause he's your buddy," John told him, adding a little smirk just to annoy Rodney. Better ticked off than drowning in grief.
"You couldn't back me up?" Rodney asked.
"Sorry, Rodney," John said as he headed for the door. "Got to get Teyla and go through Elizabeth's rooms. Unless you want to go through her stuff?"
"In other circumstances, there would be a certain prurient thrill," Rodney admitted, "but today, not so much."
"I'll radio you if anything comes up."
"Right, right. Okay. Yes. Radek..."
John was almost out the door when Rodney called quietly, "John. Be careful."
"Always am." He swiped his hand over the sensor.
"In what universe?" Rodney grumbled.
John was, though. He'd been careful ever since he was eighteen, a cadet in the Air Force Academy, and facing losing everything. He'd had no idea then what he was sacrificing so he could stay in and have a chance to fly.
"Must be the next one over," he said and walked out, hand to his radio, opening the team channel. "Teyla? Got a job for both of us. Meet me at Dr. Weir's quarters."
"We all need our sleep here in Atlantis, Lieutenant," Dr. Keller said. They were in her office, sitting across from her desk. The door behind them had been left open so that she could monitor activity in the infirmary.
The office smelled like industrial cleaners, the sea and Dr. Keller's faint, floral perfume. To Teal'c's nose, the perfume did not come from Earth. If he inhaled deeper, the infirmary's scents were identical to those at the SGC. No doubt all the supplies shipped to the expedition were provided by the same contractors and manufacturers.
Teal'c studied her. She looked young, hardly older than Cassandra, and even had a ponytail, but as all Tau'ri looked young to him, even the eldest, even their veteran warriors, his estimation might be flawed. All the Tau'ri were as children compared to the lifetime of a Jaffa. Or they had been. Without symbiotes, the youngest Jaffa would not live the extended lives their enslaved parents had. Someday the trade might embitter them, but the choice had been made. Their people had seen the truth and the rebellion had been inevitable.
No one could have anticipated the Ori. Nor could their Goa'uld 'gods' have saved them.
Beside him, Lieutenant Bates' expression didn't shift.
"I've been stationed here before."
Keller blinked, obviously discomfited by Bates' flat delivery and uncompromising demeanor. Teal'c made an effort to appear less intimidating than normal, since Lieutenant Bates seemed most comfortable assuming the mantle of 'bad cop'.
"I don't remember ever reading your file and I know I haven't seen you before – "
"I was part of the first expedition."
Keller mustered a smile that faded as Bates leaned forward. "Enough chitchat, Doctor. Tell us where you were last night from nineteen-hundred to oh-three hundred hours."
"Asleep in my quarters. I told you."
"Can anyone confirm that?"
"You're pretty lady. No one's sharing your...quarters with you?"
"No," Keller snapped.
The background noises of the infirmary suddenly increased, several raised voices and new people entering in a commotion.
"Excuse," she said and left her desk to stand in the doorway and monitor the events in the infirmary itself.
Teal'c nodded and Bates said nothing, just watched her with nearly palpable suspicion.
The voice of the nurse they had been briefly introduced to on arriving in the infirmary, before she left Keller's office, drifted to them. "We can handle it, Dr. Keller. Corporal Hajosty tripped on one of the pads in the gym."
"Have Dr. Cole look at him and after he's scanned, if it's even a sprain, get a set of films for his Earthside records," Keller instructed.
She turned back to them. "Is there anything else I can do for you, gentlemen? I do have my own duties to get back to."
"No, ma'am," Lieutenant Bates said. He stood up. "Though it would make everyone's life a lot easier if you could provide us with some proof you were where you say you were."
"Well, I can't, Lieutenant."
Lieutenant Bates left the office without any farewell.
Teal'c rose to his feet and said politely, "Dr. Keller. It would be most helpful."
"Well, I'm sorry, but I just don't have anyone to vouch for me."
"Unfortunate, indeed." He nodded once and followed Lieutenant Bates away.
The Tau'ri were strange: adaptable yet rigid, curious yet unwilling to see their own blind spots. They regularly wrested victory from defeat simply because they did not accept defeat. Or when they did, they had a determination to cost the winner as much as they could. Sometimes they simply made the cost of winning against them too high, triumphing through stubbornness. Yet other times, they seemed to give away too easily, so that their defiance ran like an underground river, abiding by the creed of live to fight another day, bowing their heads but not their spirits. When they fought enemies as powerful as the Goa'uld and the Replicators, it was their strength. But the same determination often turned into a weakness when they fought among themselves. He'd seen it in all of his team mates, O'Neill, Daniel Jackson, Colonel Carter, even Cameron Mitchell: they would pursue something far beyond when it stood to harm them and others, convinced that their intentions could make it right.
He wondered why Dr. Keller was fighting their investigation, because he might not be able to accurately gauge the age of a Tau'ri, but he had lived among them long enough to recognize a stonewall when he saw it.
He would make a note of it. In his experience, the Tau'ri could be remarkably short-sighted, though their adaptability usually compensated for their failures.
Their failures, though, they broke his heart. So much greatness so often come to ruin.
"Where were you last night, Dr. Vogel?"
"In my quarters, reading the latest Physics Quarterly and a letter from my sister Gretchen," Vogel replied.
"How very exciting," Vala commented.
Vogel glared at her. "We do not all crave the 'exciting' life. Engineering has been in an uproar since the latest people arrived and we can do nothing new until knowing whether any of them will stay. A night in my quarters with no emergencies can be very pleasant."
"It's the same at the Fort," Lorne told her, smiling as if to say he knew exactly what she meant, two insiders united against Vala's interloper status. Vala knew this routine from Cam: Good cop, bad cop. "Except we kick back anyone who can't hack the posting a little faster."
Vogel relaxed slightly. "You could not be faster than McKay. He only allows a week to settle in or not and that on Dr. Weir's insistence."
She frowned at both of them. "I also ate a piece of chocolate that my mother sent, wrote a thank you note to be delivered via the next databurst and painted my toenails. I do not understand why you want to know. What is this all about?"
Lorne glanced at Vala. "Ah..."
"You don't need to know," Vala told her, inwardly gleeful because how many times has she heard that? "Just answer Major Lorne's questions."
"Why is she here?" Vogel demanded.
Lorne sighs. "Because."
"If the labs weren't already at a stand still, this plucking us out to ask questions all morning would have ground everything to a halt," Vogel said. "Does Dr. McKay know about this?" She paused and shook her head. "Of course he does. We would all have heard the shouting if he wasn't party to whatever this is."
Lorne muffled a chuckle. "McKay and the Colonel are both busy."
"You don't have any way to confirm you were in your quarters all night?" Vala asked.
"No," Vogel snapped, giving her a very dirty look.
Vala shrugged at Lorne. "No alibi."
"Yeah," he said, all regret and sympathy. "Dr. Weir was killed. Plain old human murder, Dr. Vogel."
Vogel stared at him.
"You may as well go back to the labs," Lorne told her.
Vogel nodded, her face blank with shock, and left wordlessly, waving the next person into the room they were using. Vala really hoped whoever it was would have something more interesting to say. When they'd started, she'd imagined learning all sorts of useful secrets, who was sleeping with who for example. Instead, the Atlantean personnel had turned out to be horribly, horribly boring people who were either working or sleeping – really sleeping. The only interesting things had been the three scientists and two marines who had admitted roping three of the new personnel into the floating poker game and fleecing them the night before. At least they'd all alibied each other, Lorne had observed, before putting the marines on report and firing an email off to McKay's inbox.
Everyone seemed so shocked by the murder, which surprised Vala, since murder was an ancient human tradition, one that predated Ancients, Goa'uld and wormhole travel while maintaining its popularity through the ages. Sometimes the Tau'ri were so determinedly blind to reality and even their own natures.
She smiled as Dr. Lee came in. He was sweating and looking around the room nervously, but she tended to have that effect on him since that time she groped him while snagging a key card from his wallet.
"So, Dr. Lee, how are you liking Atlantis this time around?" Lorne asked.
"Well, it's quite a bit different when you're actually living here, isn't it?" Lee said.
"That's right, you were here with Colonel Carter after we moved the first time," Lorne acknowledged, smiling and easy. "Anyone ever thank you for your help back then?"
"I really didn't do very much."
"Hey, no one's in the SGC if they aren't good at their jobs," Lorne continued. "We've made quite a few repairs since then. The city looks a lot better."
"It does," Lee said with a nod. He warmed to the subject. "I took a walk around last night. I took some pictures, just for my own private collection, obviously I couldn't show them to just anyone back on Earth, but I like to chronicle my travels and Atlantis is really quite marvelous, isn't it? I've been looking forward to restarting my gateship project here."
"That's right, you were taking a jumper apart back at the SGC before the Colonel...appropriated it to get back to Atlantis, weren't you?"
"Yes, I've been trying to persuade the SGC to requisition one to work on since then," Lee said. "It's been very frustrating. I really hoped things would be different here."
"We kind of need all the jumpers," Lorne pointed out. "Maybe Dr. Z will let you work on them with him, though, right?"
"There's a lot more to Atlantis than the jumpers, anyway," Lorne added. "Have you seen...?"
Vala sat back and listened as Lorne encouraged Lee into an enthusiastic description of his wanderings and then prompted him, "I'd love to see those pictures. I paint, but I'm never satisfied I've really caught the look of the city."
"Oh, well, I seem to have misplaced my camera. I'm sure I just put it down someplace," Lee answered. "It'll show up."
Sure it will, Vala thought cynically.
"Did you run into anyone last night?" Lorne quizzed him. "They might know where it is or remember something. Maybe someone even picked it up."
"No, no, I didn't see anyone really," Lee replied.
Vala sighed to herself. Not exactly useful. Maybe they could find his camera and check out the pictures, check the time stamps and where Lee had been using it. They finished with Lee, leaving him in the suspect pool along with Vogel and a dozen others..
"I want to find that camera," Lorne commented.
Vala raised her eyebrows.
"It just seems funny, that he's not more interested in getting it back."
That did seem strange, but the Tau'ri generally were.
They called in Dr. Bryce and began all over again. No one asked why they were being questioned any longer; word was out.
Rodney swept into John's room without knocking or even hesitating despite the late hour. He'd always figured if John didn't want him coming in, he would have reprogrammed the lock to refuse to recognize Rodney and John never had.
"Hello, Rodney, nice of you to stop by, did you have any particular reason?" John said without looking up from his laptop. Blue light from the screen glossed over his hair. He'd taken off his uniform shirt and the black t-shirt that had been beneath bared the bent line of his neck, the curve of shoulder and spine. A key clacked as he closed whatever he'd been working on, leaving a second window open.
Rodney paused because he didn't often see John working at the desk in his quarters. He didn't often see John working at the desk in his office either, but that was because Rodney tried to stay away from the section of the city the military had staked out as their own, dubbed it Fort Forlorn, including John's office. He didn't have any difficulty breezing past Lt. Metzinger, but Senior Master Sergeant Delany scared him. When Delany said the Colonel was busy, no one got through the door to his office. Rodney suspected that on those days, the Senior Master Sergeant didn't let John out of the office unless it was an emergency either.
He blinked and then continued over to the desk, setting his own laptop down beside John's. A glance showed him John had a spreadsheet open, listing alibied personnel, unalibied and those who hadn't been interviewed yet. It looked like he was setting up a schedule of interviewers for the next day, expanded to utilize some of the people they'd cleared earlier in the day.
"I thought you'd want to know. The loop wasn't put in place to cover Elizabeth's murder," he said.
John twisted his neck to look up at Rodney. "You received this knowledge in a vision or...?"
Rodney resisted the urge to thwap the back of John's head. "Psychic Friends Network."
"Idiot," Rodney said. He braced one hand on the desk, leaning over and opened a file on his laptop. "Here. See this?"
"I see it," John said, which was Sheppard-talk for explain.
"It's a file. It's the file with the footage of the sky bridge." He moused over and opened another one. "And this is footage of the residential corridor outside Elizabeth's quarters." One more. "And this one is from the security camera covering the transporter hub serving both. All of them showing a peaceful, empty picture."
Rodney glanced from the screen to John's face, smiling at his own brilliance and the chance to explain it all to John, until the tense set of John's features hit him.
"And I haven't been able to trace who copied the original footage and uploaded it, though presumably that's the same person who did a neat job of making sure the security feeds switched over to these files last night," he said. "And a week ago. As well as twice a week on average for the last year."
"The last year," John repeated.
"Well, actually, I've only checked back that far, but if I find earlier instances, that's going to point to someone who has been around awhile."
"You've got to check all the way back to the beginning."
"I will," Rodney said. "I just – I thought you'd want to know this."
"Yeah," John murmured. He dropped his head forward and scrubbed a hand against the back of his neck. Rodney resisted the urge to rub away some of the tension locked in John's muscles. They could stand close enough to feel the heat coming off their bodies, grab any body part necessary when they were under fire, even exchange a manly pat on the shoulder, but John had made the line clear: too much physical affection would be rejected. Rodney didn't know, even now, if John genuinely didn't welcome intimacy or if a lifetime in the US military had ingrained caution and repression too deep to surmount. He'd done his best to abide by the unspoken rules between them. He had even moved on and found something good with Katie, only Katie was gone, had been gone for months, and the old feelings were staging a fierce comeback.
John sighed and stretched, something in his neck cracking and making Rodney wince, and repeated, "Yeah."
Rodney shifted a step away. "I can check the access dates, now that I've found the files."
"Go to it," John told him and vacated the desk chair.
Rodney sat down, soaking in the heat left by John's body. It made his breath stutter and he had to close his eyes.
"You okay?" John asked. Rodney thought he felt the skim of a hand almost touching him, the air shifting his hair, but John's hands were at his hips when he opened his eyes.
"Fine. Tired. Thinking about..." Your hands, your skin, he thought and finished, with a silent apology to her, "Elizabeth." He immediately felt guilty because John did touch him then, fleeting press of fingers to back of Rodney's neck, thumb brushing once along the tendon. Then John retreated all the way to his bed, sitting down, hands locked onto the edge, head hanging and shoulders taut. He felt a huge surge of guilt, mixed up and painful, because he'd got what he wanted using Elizabeth's name, but he'd reminded himself of her loss and sucker punched John with it too.
He fumbled for a distraction and settled on the Trust. "Do you think it was Skorpion?"
"What?" John lifted his head and looked at him, quizzical and cautious.
"That spoofed the surveillance."
John shrugged. "I guess."
"Hunh." Rodney reflected on that. "I guess I've been trying to believe if there was a Skorpion, he was already gone. You know, someone like Sumner or Bates."
"Bates is back. My newest lieutenant," John said absently. He flopped back onto the bed, a smile curling his mouth. "He went through OCS, back to the SGC, then requested posting back here."
Hard to know what to think about that. Bates had been a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but on the other hand, he was one of the original expedition and that was a bond none of them could ever dismiss. They were getting thin on the ground too. Pegasus ate the inexperienced and the veterans at nearly the same rate. He hoped Bates didn't still have it in for Teyla. He shrugged. Teyla could handle Bates. "Has he met Ronon yet?"
John chuckled. "Not yet."
"They'll either hit it off or kill each other."
Another huff of laughter greeted that sally. John sat up with an enviable lack of pushing with his arms. "You going to chat or work?"
Rodney turned back to his laptop. "I can do both, I am a genius, multitasking isn't exactly a challenge," he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John bend and take off his boots, leaving them half-laced and lined up where he could shove his feet inside without wasting time in the event of an emergency.
"You know," he added, deliberately not watching as John set his Beretta on the table next to the bed, then unbuckled his thigh holster, just listening to the thunk and rustle, "Considering the information that the NID has uncovered, which is shamefully little, Skorpion has to be American. The Trust came out of the National Intelligence Department. They probably only recruited citizens."
"You worked at Area 51."
"Yes, but I'm brilliant and they needed me, besides, it isn't like they trusted me."
"Stupid of them," John said without much interest.
"Exactly. Narrow minded." Rodney typed in another command while thinking about it and skimmed the log file that appeared. "Nothing the first year. The second, oh, yes, here, this the first time the loop is in place, two weeks after we got back from Earth. Well, I guess that proves something, but I'm not sure what." Rodney pecked at the keyboard, trying to come up with anything else and failing. "Whoever did this knew how to cover his tracks, I can't trace this. I guess that rules you out." The rustling sounds behind him stopped then started again. "Have we determined that Elizabeth didn't do this?"
"You think Elizabeth was Skorpion?" John asked.
"Well, she was American and Kinsey did want her as head of the SGC..."
"You're really reaching, Rodney."
"I know. If Elizabeth was Skorpion, then who killed her? The whole thing is ridiculous. If the Trust had a deep cover agent in Atlantis, they wouldn't have needed to snake Caldwell," he said.
"Well, they might not have trusted Skorpion to be willing to off himself. Commanding the Daedalus gave Caldwell's Goa'uld an escape," John offered up after a long, unpleasant silence.
"Mmph," Rodney replied. His stomach grumbled almost painfully.
"Didn't you eat?"
He'd meant to and could feel the effects of skipping dinner, but hadn't been able to go to the mess hall. The twin thoughts of the radio call that morning and seeing Elizabeth there the night before made the thought of walking in there alone unbearable. If he'd stopped her, insisted she eat with him, or followed her and indulged in a little complaining more maybe nothing would have happened. Her killer wouldn't have found her alone. But she'd looked tired and worried and for once, Rodney had held his tongue and let her go, trying to do that sensitive thing he never quite got right. It made his head throb in rhythm with his pulse and his aching stomach, thinking about it.
John handed him an MRE.
"Since when do you keep MREs in your quarters?" Rodney demanded while opening the bag.
"Since the Genii, actually. I've got some cached around the city, along with some C4, even a laptop in case I get lucky and you're on the run with me."
Rodney spooned up a bite of spaghetti – cold, but he didn't honestly care – to hide the smile that triggered. John thought being on the run with him would be lucky. Never mind John thought they might be on the run inside the city. Weirder things had happened and Rodney appreciated that John had thought of more than guns and ammo. Of course, John was utterly paranoid, but Rodney approved of that in anyone assigned to keep him safe.
"You would be very lucky if I was with you," he mumbled, stabbing the fork at John, flicking his shirt with a spot of sauce.
John fingered it off. "Well, if I couldn't have Teyla or Ronon..."
John flicked the sauce back at Rodney, then padded back to his bed. "You going to work in here?"
"If you don't mind. Otherwise, the morons will keep coming by my quarters to complain."
"No, go ahead. I'm going to catch some sleep. Wake me up if you find anything new. Don't poke around my laptop, there's no porn."
"That's what you say."
Rodney nodded and finished the MRE, while John stretched out on his too narrow, too short, made for Ancient midgets bed. He stretched and reached the light control built into the head of the bed, dialing it down, so that the room fell into dimness, except for the desk lamp shining next to the two laptops. He shut down John's and closed it without peeking at anything, then began working on breaking the access codes for Atlantis' own security system. He done it once before, but then the Ancients from the Tria had changed everything, followed by the Asurans, and Carter had instituted some measures from the SGC. He could do it, but it would take some time; he had to translate all his language into Ancient to work with the systems they hadn't synched with theirs already.
John's breathing evened out and slowed. The faint snuffle Rodney recognized from movie nights when John fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. It made him smile to himself. John didn't sleep easily in just anyone's presence; just him, Teyla and Ronon.
Carson, when he'd been alive, had been one of that select group, but not Keller.
Keller, he thought tiredly, needed to get her head out of her ass. Or they needed to get a new CMO, because she was slowing down the investigation. If she didn't hand over the codes for the DNA database to Biro tomorrow, he'd have to assign someone to hack it, which established too many bad precedents. Done once, it could be done again.
He had a hard time considering her a suspect, but according to Teal'c and Child's reports, she'd stonewalled them over her whereabouts the night before. That didn't exactly remove her from the list in addition to the lack of cooperation on the DNA testing. What were they going to find in a comparison? That it wasn't Elizabeth who fell from the sky bridge?
Rodney made another note to himself. They needed to assign a team of structural specialists to evaluate the sky bridge, whether it could be repaired or not. Either way, they had to stabilize it. Otherwise more pieces would come down and Elizabeth might not be the only victim. He rubbed at the crease between his brows. That sky bridge had survived more than ten thousand years. If the railing failed under Elizabeth's negligible weight there had to be a reason. He didn't buy sabotage and that worried him even more. Teams would have to examine the other bridges and catwalks throughout the city, in case it wasn't a fluke failure.
He'd have to go over everything with Elizabeth –
He groaned softly to himself. His back ached, his head ached, the spaghetti MRE in his stomach felt like boiled lead washed down with acid. The laptop screen blurred, the glare making his eyes water.
He'd have to go over the possibility of structural failure in the city with John. Not Elizabeth.
Rodney pushed John's chair back and tried to stretch. The chair spun, leaving Rodney clutching the edge of the desk while his balance caught up with his head, and looking straight at John.
John was on his side, faced toward Rodney, eyes still closed, mouth slightly parted. Rodney looked at him. At least one of them was getting some rest. He kept looking, hoarding the opportunity, because there was no one to raise their eyebrows, no one to see his expression, and it was better than thinking about Elizabeth, falling and falling...
He scooped up his laptop, dragged the chair closer to the bed by digging in his heels and pulling it, then kicked his feet onto the bed next to John's and settled the laptop on his thighs. John snuffled again and shifted, then settled deeper into sleep.
Rodney worked on his password cracker for a while, then gave up and looked at the video of the sky bridge again. He watched images of himself and John, then reversed it and watched them go back to the transporter. With a click of a key he switched to images from the transporter hub at the base of B Two, watching Lorne and the marines, Keller, himself and John again, all moving backwards. He watched everything back to the moment Elizabeth hit the ground, flinching at the silent pictures. Forward again, watching the creep of blood from beneath her torso, the arrival of Gomez and Evans, Lorne, himself and John.
Another click or two and he followed John's path back to Control, from camera to camera, transporter hub to hub, out to the outer extents of Atlantis, finding him running with Ronon, Mitchell and Teal'c. He watched them on grainy video. John wasn't as fast as Ronon, but he ran the same way, loose and natural, with an easy motion Teal'c and Mitchell lacked. They disappeared from the screen and he flicked to the next camera on the grid, using the time to pick them up again. It scratched at his thoughts, something...Something. He was a genius, but he was tired and heart sore.
Time stamps and transporters.
Rodney snapped his fingers.
"Of course," he muttered.
Instead of looking at what wasn't there, he needed to look at who disappeared. Who dropped off the grid, who showed up without a corresponding entrance into a transporter hub. He would have to cobble together a search program that could handle tagging everyone in Atlantis and tracking their transporter use, but once he had it, finding Skorpion would be as easy as balancing a checkbook.
"I am so a genius," he crowed.
"Wh–?" John muttered, waking and blinking at Rodney. He propped himself on one elbow. His face was sleep-soft, pillow-creased, beard shadowing his jaw like an everyday bruise. "McKay?"
"I. Am. A. Genius." He wanted to cup his hand to John's jaw and test the rasp of stubble against his palm. He wanted to see John's eyes flutter closed at his touch. He didn't move.
John looked at Rodney's feet. "A genius with his boots on my bed. Jesus. Your parents just kept you in a box and brought you out to go to class, didn't they?" He kicked, barefooted and ineffectually, at Rodney's boots. "Off."
"Fine, fine," Rodney said. He pulled his feet off the bed, set aside his laptop and then unlaced his boots. His feet immediately felt better out of them. With a sigh of pleasure, he propped them back on the bed and wriggled his toes.
"I suppose that's better than sticking them up on a table, but just barely."
"I've figured out a way to pinpoint whoever was using the blank in the surveillance."
John's eyes narrowed and he scooted up until he was sitting, forearms propped on his bent knees. "Tonight?"
"Sometime tomorrow, probably."
John stared at him.
"How sure are you about this?"
Rodney flapped his hand. "Ninety-nine percent. Don't fall over yourself congratulating me."
"Congratulations, Rodney," John said. His voice had gone flat. His hands were clenched into fists.
Rodney took a chance, scooted the chair over, reached and curled his hand around one fist, slowly unfolding tense fingers. John's hands were warm, dry and callused from bantos sticks and P90s. Part of Rodney catalogued the feel of them, because the moments when they touched and he could memorize the experience, rather than being in such imminent danger that it barely registered, were rare. "We'll get whoever killed her," he promised. "We will. I'll find out whoever is behind the hacks."
John closed his eyes briefly, pulled in a deep breath, then squeezed Rodney's hand before pulling away.
"I know you will."
"Genius, remember? What do I need a science team for, anyway?" Rodney said, wanting to erase the bleak look on John's face, more than willing to play the bumbling ass if it would just distract him. John hadn't looked this bad when they left Elizabeth behind on M7R-227. He hadn't looked so old and worn when he was facing flying into a hiveship with a bomb. The only time Rodney had seen John like this had been during the exile to Earth, in a quick blink of farewell, before Rodney went to Area 51. He'd hated it then, hated it now.
"I know, you are a science team," John replied. He smiled a little, but Rodney knew the fake smiles from the real ones, and this one was forced.
He pointed at John and declared, "Exactly!"
John scrubbed at his face with the heel of his hand. "Exactly," he repeated. "So much for sleep."
She fell away, mouth open in a scream that went on and on until it blended with the constant sound of the wind. Her body receded, falling farther and farther from reach. Her hands stretched up, pale and empty, until she disappeared into the fog wreathed round the base of the towers.
Waking provided no relief from the nightmare. Just a replay, constantly there through every breath and act. She'd understood in that unclaimable instant that fate had betrayed her. In memory, the railing failed once more. Elizabeth Weir screamed helplessly and no one else heard or saw anything.
Guilt threatened to swamp any other thoughts. It had to be suppressed and hidden, like shaking hands shoved into pockets so no one could see.
No one knew who had been there. No one needed to ever know.
Local 05:09 hrs
Four different subdepartment heads ambushed Rodney as he stumbled into the commissary, entirely too early, desperate for coffee and the comfort of carbohydrates. They had heard, everyone had heard, the citywide announcement and the rumors were only going to grow wilder and wilder with so little to speculate on, but he believed John had hoped they would have more to say today: such as that they knew who had done it.
Soames, smelling of peppermint tea and Vicks and trying to loom over Rodney, complained in a high-pitched nasal voice, threatening to quit and go back to Earth (Rodney wished, but they hadn't found anyone better to take over meteorology). He was between Rodney and the coffee and six-foot-six or not, that wasn't tolerable. Rodney shoved past and ignored the squawk and near tumble into a table. Soames was a mosquito, annoying but easily slapped down.
Yin was different. A foot shorter than Soames and a hundred times tougher, she kept her mouth shut and actually handed Rodney a cup before speaking. She'd been brought in during Carter's tenure to head up the entire xenoecology department after four years with the SGC. She'd made Katie Brown and three others leave, but neither botany or biology had had a containment break or any other incident since her arrival. Rodney didn't actually like her much, but she kept the flora and fauna mavens under iron control, which meant he didn't have to deal with that part of the science department himself and he liked that. Federov from Archaeo/Anthro and Nunes Corte-Real from Legal/State were hovering on each side of Yin, obviously letting her take the lead and speak for them. Federov was second wave, but Nunes Corte-Real had only arrived six months ago.
Rodney slurped down the bitter, over-brewed coffee and nodded to her to start.
"How soon will you arrest Dr. Weir's killer?" Yin demanded.
"When we know who it is," Rodney snapped. He glared around the mess all, making all the staring idiots duck away. "Or maybe you thought we've just been twiddling our thumbs?"
"What about the security systems?" Nunes Corte-Real asked.
"Not as useful as you would think," Rodney said. If he mentioned it had been interfered with, the rumors would only grow worse. Someone would undoubtedly freak out and then they'd find themselves with more trouble and missing an on-call psychologist. Why the hell had Elizabeth thought they needed a lawyer on Atlantis more than a shrink?
"You realize that by interrogating people without proper legal representation present any case you make is irretrievably compromised?"
"This isn't Earth. Reread the papers you signed before coming here," Rodney told them. "You agreed to be subject to the expedition's legal code, which includes, I quote from memory, 'the exigent suspension of civil rights at the discretion of the expedition's leader when agreed upon by the two or more of the Chief Military, Medical, and Science Officers'. Everyone signs those papers." He'd looked it all up during the night, because he wanted to know exactly what they could do. John had taught him to break the rules if he had to. Elizabeth had taught him to do things by the book when you could and save breaking the rules for when it really mattered.
"That clause was included in the original expedition agreements because of the possibility it would lose contact with Earth," Nunes Corte-Real objected. "And we don't have an expedition leader, since she's dead."
"It's still there, though, and you signed it," Rodney told him. "What, didn't you read the fine print? Civilian control devolves to the next most senior member of the command staff. Me. In the event of a military emergency command transfers to the CMO. We aren't conducting a coup." He edged around Yin, who was frowning ferociously, and poured himself a second cup of coffee. "Besides, no one had been interrogated, you gibbering buffoon. They've asked people to provide alibis. Sheppard's saving the thumbscrews and waterboarding for the ones who don't."
"Why not just sic your team mate on them the way you did Dr. Kavanagh?" Federov asked.
"Do you actually want a murderer running around Atlantis?"
"I want to know I'm not going to be locked up in a room with Colonel Sheppard's pet caveman."
Rodney choked on coffee and laughter, splattering Nunes Corte-Real in the face. Yin found a napkin and handed it to the choking, coughing legal adviser, waiting until Nunes Corte-Real had wiped his face before speaking. "Stop being an ass," she told him. "We need to cooperate and get this over with so that we may return to our work."
Nunes Corte-Real and Federov retreated sullenly, Nunes Corte-Real muttering about lodging formal complaints with the IOA. Yin stayed, frowning, and followed Rodney while he filled his tray.
"If I had a schedule of who will be interviewed, I could assign people more efficiently," Yin said.
"Sorry, talk to Sheppard," Rodney said around a mouthful. He ate as fast as he could, slurping more coffee between bites, mind already reviewing the work that needed to be done in Astrophysics and Engineering as opposed to what could be reasonably delayed. He waved his fork, spilling scrambled eggs, ignored them and stabbed a sausage link instead. "He's got some kind of list."
"Thank you," Yin told him, prim and expressionless.
"If you don't like my manners, try eating with the caveman," Rodney told her.
Yin sighed. "Nothing will get done today."
"Welcome to my world," he mumbled.
Yin stood and nodded to someone behind him. "All right."
Teyla took Yin's place across the table from Rodney and smiled at him. She looked tired. Splitting her time between Atlantis and New Athos did that, though John sometimes took along Cadman as fourth on their team to give her a break.
"Good morning, Rodney."
Teyla was a soothing person to eat breakfast with. She could always sense when you needed to just fuel up, rather than talk, and calmly settled into her own meal of fruit and oatmeal. Ten minutes later, she wished him good luck as he finished and hurried off.
He hadn't even reached the transporter when his radio activated, transmitting John's impatient voice.
"McKay. Where the hell are you?" "On my way," he said, stepping in. "Are you in Control?"
"Just get up here."
"I'm sorry, I can go without sleep but I do need to eat," Rodney grumbled. He stepped out of the transporter and headed through control, ignoring Jimenez and Chuck. Jimenez looked half-asleep, as always – the man only had one setting, amble, and even in the midst of an emergency usually looked like he'd been startled out of a nap. Chuck managed a nod and shoulder point toward the doors to Elizabeth's office.
John was lingering in the doorway. Maybe he just didn't want to go in there without Rodney.
"What now?" he demanded as he swept past John and inside.
"More reports," John said, "and we have a meeting with O'Neill and Woolsey in an hour to brief them on whatever we've found. They want to be kept in the loop."
"I'd like to keep them in the brig," Rodney muttered as he set up again. "What's the first report?"
John handed over a USB stick. "Here. Forensic on Elizabeth's quarters. Lorne put Yamata and Singh on it."
"Yama-Oh, the one from Chemistry? I thought that was Yamaguchi."
"It is. Sgt. Yamata was with the MPs before his transfer to the SGC," John said. "Singh's one of the biologists, he's alibied and he worked for the Chicago Police Department as a crime scene tech for three years. That's the closest we've got to trained investigators."
"Right, right, whatever."
Rodney opened the files and began skimming. John leaned over his shoulder and read, his scent, soap and hair gel, teasing Rodney with every gusty breath.
"What does it say?"
"You can read, can't you?" Rodney asked.
Rodney blinked at the words and tried to concentrate. DNA analysis on the specimens still hadn't been completed. The examination from her quarters had yielded plenty of evidence, but again nothing to tell who she had been with, only who had been there. The list included John, Daniel Jackson, Woolsey, Teyla, Zelenka, Ronon, Keller, Lorne, Gilmor, Colonel Mitchell, and General O'Neill. Colonel Ellis was also on the list, but the Apollo wasn't in port, which cleared him. He considered that a shame; pinning something on that arrogant sonovabitch would have been satisfying.
Just to the side of him, John snorted, "We can't all have been sleeping with her."
"Yes, I think Teyla and Keller are out of question. Though..."
The swat to the back of his head didn't even come as a surprise. "Tell me you didn't think the same thing I just did," Rodney protested.
"Rodney." John just sounded tired. His hand settled on Rodney's shoulder and stayed, surprising him. "We're talking about our friends."
"I know. I'm sorry. It's hard enough thinking she was with someone." He paused and corrected, hearing his own disbelief as he spoke. "Someones." He looked at the list again. "There's no one on the list who couldn't have visited for a legitimate reason and no way to tell when they were there. I mean, you...when did you go to Elizabeth's quarters?"
"The night O'Neill and the rest of them arrived I went by and asked her why they were here," John said.
"Right. Perfectly innocent."
"Rodney." John's hand tightened, fingers digging into Rodney's collarbone. "I need to – "
"What have you got?" O'Neill asked, walking into the office, deceptively casual, hands in his pockets, followed by Mitchell and Jackson. His gaze flicked from Rodney to John and back, pausing for a moment on John's hand resting on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney rolled his eyes.
John actually straightened to something near attention. "General O'Neill. Sir."
O'Neill waved negligently. "Ease up on the formality. Where's the investigation?"
"Progressing faster when we aren't interrupted to give useless updates to suspects," Rodney snapped.
O'Neill's eyebrows shot up, but he tucked his hands in his pockets and nodded. "Fair enough."
"You and Col. Mitchell and Dr. Jackson could tell us why and when you were in Elizabeth's quarters," John said.
"You seriously consider us suspects?" Mitchell asked, somewhere between disbelief and offense.
Jackson ducked his head, pulling off his glasses and polishing the lens with the hem of his shirt.
"Until you have alibis."
"Woolsey and I were there to talk about the...thing, figure out how to narrow down who it is," O'Neill said. "Day after we got here."
"What thing, Jack?" Jackson asked, suddenly engaged. He clearly didn't know. "You never explained why you decided we all needed to come to Atlantis, just showed up with Woolsey in tow before the dial-up."
"Danny – "
"Why did you need SG-1, General?" Mitchell asked.
"Because I'm fairly sure none of you have been compromised by the Trust."
"Sonovabitch," Mitchell exclaimed. "The Trust?"
"Why didn't you tell us?" Jackson asked.
"Danny, you and Sam have never been much in the way of liars. We didn't want to spook our spy," O'Neill said.
"Right now, what we need to find is who killed Elizabeth," John cut in. "Dr. Jackson. When did you visit Elizabeth? And why?"
"We had tea in the morning," Jackson recited. "I brought her a tin of English breakfast tea – she used to drink it in Antarctica. We discussed translating Ancient texts and the difficulties of determining whether meaning had drifted in certain words from the older material found in Atlantis' database and what has been recovered in the Milky Way. We argued over pronunciation." He kept blinking and fidgeting as he spoke and moistened his lips once.
"The day before yesterday morning."
Rodney added that to the timeline of Elizabeth's movements he was building.
"We'll just let you...get on with it," O'Neill said. "Get out from under foot. Keep me posted. I'll talk to Woolsey."
"We'll do that," John told him.
"Come on, Daniel, I think they still have coffee in the commissary. One more cup and you can probably vibrate right out of your skin. Colonel Mitchell, you too."
"Hey," Rodney said after they'd left. "Why didn't you ask Mitchell what he was doing in Elizabeth's rooms?"
"I'd rather ask him alone. I want to talk to Jackson again, alone, too, because O'Neill's right. He's a shitty liar."
"Really, you think he was lying?" Rodney hadn't noticed anything, but he'd been busy glaring at Mitchell. He didn't like the man and never would. Mitchell just got on his nerves.
"Or leaving something out," John said. "And believe me, I'm an expert on that."
"I'll explain later. I'm going to get Ronon and ask Mr. Gilmor some questions. I want you to go through the operating system and make sure nothing else has been modified or sabotaged."
Rodney twitched at the very thought. The Trust had done it before when they had a Goa'uld in Caldwell. He'd made sure it would be impossible to do that again. But if Skorpion had enough time and skill and the ATA gene, there were other vulnerabilities to exploit. He wanted to get right on that, but...
"I can't do that and keep working on getting the Atlantis surveillance stuff."
"Worry about that after you're sure the gate isn't going overload or the fire control system smother us all," John ordered.
He had to triage the projects facing him. Like some of his own pet research projects and the paperwork that went with assuming Elizabeth's job, even helping find who had killed her had to take second place to making sure no one else died. He'd have to start delegating, beginning with aspects of the investigation, but not the command decisions. Woolsey's heads up had made that clear enough.
"I'll turn it over to Radek."
John asked, "Can he – "
"Not as fast as me, but he's motivated."
Vala flounced past Daniel and into his temporary quarters. She headed straight for his bed and dropped on it as theatrically as she knew how, managing to even bounce, before kicking off her boots and turning her head to look at him. Daniel stopped in the middle of the room and looked back at her with that disapproving, pursed-lip look made her want to do something really outrageous just to spite him.
Instead, she rolled onto her side and propped her head up with one hand, elbow on the mattress. She wriggled around as much as possible, getting comfortable and wrinkling the coverlet she pulled loose.
"Vala – "
"Daniel," she whined at him.
"Do you have to do that?"
"Make a mess of everything?"
His gesture encompassed more than the rumpled bed and Vala kept her expression open and smiling while refusing to be hurt. Daniel sometimes seemed to be the most hurtful person she'd ever met, because he made you care what he thought of you. But the only people who really seemed to live up to his standards were Teal'c and Sam, though Vala wondered if that was only because he had her to disapprove of so vehemently now.
"Yes, Daniel," she said. "I like messes. They're interesting."
"I suppose you think Dr. Weir's murder is interesting too?"
"In a way. It's fun watching the liars wiggle round like worms on a hook – wait – fish on a line," she corrected herself before he could. She'd heard that one from O'Neill.
"Well, you would know about lying," he said and headed for the desk where he had a pile of books he'd insisted on adding to his pack before coming through the stargate.
"Darling, I only lie about the big, important things," Vala said lightly. She rolled onto her stomach and laced her fingers together under her chin, then kicked her feet into the air. "And the itty-bitty things."
"And any time the truth is less than convenient," Daniel concluded.
"You know me so well. So, therefore, I am an expert on the subject and I have to say that I think Dr. Lee is lying like a toupee."
"Why?" Daniel looked interested.
Vala frowned. "He just is. I don't know why, but I know when a man is, and he is."
"He's probably just stressed over this whole thing and having to work for McKay," Daniel dismissed her.
"I think I should follow him."
"I'd look good in a trench coat and fedora, don't you think? And a dress, of course. I've got the gams for it." She envisioned herself dolled up like one of the women in those black-and-white films, the ones Cam had on DVD. Noir. She liked the ones with the dangerous dames. The ones who had a gun hidden in a garter, who got away with their schemes and maybe a lot of money.
"No," Daniel snapped. "You don't have a dress with you or a fedora – Vala, tell me you don't."
The man with the strange accent was always the bad guy in those films. Very often a spy, too, she thought.
"Then there's Zezenksa – "
Vala waved one hand languidly. "He didn't even notice me when I sat down next to him at lunch. That's not natural."
"He's quite obviously up to something nefarious. Also, at lunch, I asked Dr. Lee about his camera that he told Major Lorne he'd lost. He had the nerve to say it must have been stolen!" She rolled over and sat up with her legs crossed Indian-style. "And, really, Daniel, do you think there are many thieves in Atlantis?"
"Aside from you?" He pulled in a long breath and mouthed numbers, counting backwards again she knew, then exhaled. "Don't make more trouble."
She widened her eyes at him. "Me?"
"You're still here?"
Radek lifted his head and blinked, trying to clear the afterimages of Alterran programming language from his vision. Rodney's face, moon-pale, floated against the darkness of the lab. His mouth moved, sliding sideways, and the words arrived on delay.
"Of course I am," he answered.
Radek groped for his cup of tea and lifted it. The dregs at the bottom of the cup were cold, witness to how long he'd been working since getting it. His neck and back ached, now that he thought of it.
"Far be it for me to discourage obsession or working overtime, but have you even changed your clothes since yesterday?" Rodney asked. "Whoever is behind this is no slouch. If he turns to sabotage to cover his tracks we'll – I'll – need you to be sharp."
"I am very close, Rodney, to unlocking the internal city surveillance system. It is much more efficient than ours, but highly protected. The Ancients did not want it to be abused."
"More likely they just didn't want everyone able to check up on what they were up to," Rodney said, in the sour and disillusioned tone that colored all his remarks about the Ancients since Doranda.
"Perhaps," Radek admitted. He shoved his hands through his hair compulsively, pushing the greasy strands away from his face. "I wish to keep working on this. To know who killed Dr. Weir and see them punished."
Rodney looked at him, so much more aware and perceptive than he had been when they first met. Radek wished he hadn't spoken. Rodney knew him very well, well enough to hear what Radek hadn't said. The things he didn't want to admit even to himself. But Rodney was still Rodney and he didn't hesitate to speak.
"You want to know who she was sleeping with if it wasn't you."
Radek refused to admit it, but the flush that heated his face betrayed him. "If this person killed her, yes. I want to know. Then I wish to shoot them."
A dozen expressions flickered over Rodney's face, too many and too fast to completely decipher, except the nod and the harsh, "You aren't the only one."
"I trust you and Colonel Sheppard, Rodney, but doing this makes me – It lets me not think about her."
Rodney picked up his laptop with a nod. "I know."
"I will have it by tomorrow."
"I'll tell Sheppard." He hefted the laptop. "At least we know the city hasn't been sabotaged again. I had an idea last night that I'm going to try to use to track transporter use. If it works, we won't need the surveillance for more than corroboration."
"Good luck," Radek told him.
"Get out of here and get some sleep before you fall over," Rodney replied as he headed out of the lab.
"Once I've finished the next stage," Radek promised.
A tray clattered down on the desk next to Rodney's laptop, startling him. After he'd left Zelenka, he'd gone by Elizabeth's office and taken advantage of the quiet to continue the work checking for sabotage had made him abandon. The scent of tomato and chili wafted on steam made him glance over. Sloppy Joes, Pegasus style: made with ground mystery meat and served on Athosian flat bread. The chips on the side were yam orange and made from a tuber they traded iodine to the Derahi to get.
"Hey," John said. He lifted Rodney's hands off the laptop and pushed it away.
"No, wait, I'm busy – "
"I went by the lab. Zelenka said you'd gone. Can't have you keeling over." John's face was more serious than his words.
"You got this for me?"
John perched himself on the corner of the desk. "No. Actually, I picked it up for myself, but I'd bet you haven't eaten either."
The food smelled good, the spices covering anything odd. John picked up a chip and ate it with evident enjoyment. With a small sigh and glance at his laptop, Rodney reached for one. "Radek's still in the lab?" he asked around the mouthful. He checked his watch. It had been hours.
"No, I had Ronon with me, told him to carry Z out if he didn't shut down on his own." John began the messy process of splitting the Sloppy Joe, until Rodney couldn't stand it.
"Oh, for the love of God, give me that, you're going to end up with sauce on the walls!" He succeeded where John had failed, shoved the smaller portion to the side of the plate and bit into his share. John watched him, eyes crinkling at the corners, and then licked sauce off his fingers. Rodney concentrated on chewing and not choking. John looked at his significantly smaller share then picked it up and began eating too.
"So what are you doing here?" Rodney asked, after forcing down an almost painfully large bite.
John's eyebrows went up then he gestured at the tray since his mouth was full. Rodney grabbed a handful of chips and shoved them into his own mouth. They needed salt, which he blamed on Keller and the nutritionists.
"I need to check the schedule of canceled missions. There may be some we shouldn't just leave hanging."
Rodney looked at him in disbelief. John winced. "Fine. Teyla cornered me and kept repeating 'treaty obligations' over and over until I said I'd check. Don't want to default, we need all the friends we've got." He picked up a chip and turned it over and over between his fingers. "She also said that we should have some sort of state funeral, invite representatives from our allies."
"You think the IOA would go for that?" Rodney asked. He needed to remind Teyla she should see him about something like treaty obligations. It wasn't John's purview as military commander. Teyla was right though and he should have thought of it himself.
"I think it would be a nightmare from a security standpoint, but even the Genii respected Elizabeth. If we don't do something, rumors are going to fly." John paused. "And Teyla really wants to do it. Some Athosian thing."
"Elizabeth would have liked it, I think," Rodney said.
"Yeah, I do too."
He reached for his radio and commed Teyla. "Can you come to Eliza – my office?"
Local 05:13 hrs
John read through the reports submitted by Lorne and the other interviewers, looking for something, anything, that he could use. He'd hustled Rodney out of the office and away from his laptop after feeding him last night, sicced Ronon on Zelenka, and that had slowed them down. They were both too stubborn to let him get away with that twice. They'd work until they dropped, hit up Keller for uppers, and go back to work until they got what they wanted.
He wondered how soon someone would have the guts to point out that he didn't have an alibi.
Taking over Elizabeth's job kept interrupting Rodney's work, too. Discussing various treaties with Teyla and scheduling mission to begin again as soon as possible had taken time away from the investigation, too.
Atlantis needed some kind of internal investigation unit that wasn't the MPs. They needed professionals who could devote all their time to catching the killer.
Giving it up for the moment, he set out to find Woolsey. He could at least feel out whether the IOA would allow Teyla's idea of memorial service with their allies in attendance. They would have to schedule a visit to PX2-55G. Commissioning a brass plaque there would be faster than sending for one from Earth, but once they did, news of Elizabeth's death would spread from there to other planets.
Instead, he found Teal'c waiting patiently, hands folded behind him. He inclined his head to John. The streak of gray at his temple freaked John out, reminding him of his own six months in a time dilation field. What if he'd been stuck there fifty subjective years?
"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, may I wish you a good morning?"
The formality usually made John want to grin. Even Teyla had never been that stiff and the guy had been with the SGC for more than ten years, so he probably wasn't ever going to loosen up. Today, he just said, "Teal'c."
"Lieutenant Bates and I have finished questioning those you indicated."
"Good." John wanted coffee. He needed to get Rodney somewhere private where he could talk to him and Rodney could freak out without everyone seeing and hearing. He'd tried once the day before only to have O'Neill walk in and didn't relish the prospect of what would have come spilling out of Rodney's mouth if he'd been just a little further along in his confession. "I can put together another list."
"I believe more benefit would lie in re-interviewing Dr. Keller and Mr. Gilmor," Teal'c said.
Keller had been acting squirrelly. It could be stress, insecurity and worry over letting Rodney and him tromp all over her medical privilege, but he kind of doubted it. Keller was bullheaded when it came to doing her medical duty. They'd all been clashing since she took over Beckett's post.
"Okay," he said, drawing it out. "We'll get to that."
"Colonel," Rodney said from behind him. "Teal'c." Rodney had two laptops pressed between his arm and his side, and a tablet and an extra large mug of coffee in his hands.
John reached over and helped himself to the coffee. He needed it. His eyes were gritty and dry and he was considering propping them open with small sticks.
"Hey!" Rodney protested.
The caffeine hit the pool of acid in John's stomach and threatened to come up again. He handed the coffee back with a grimace. Time to figure out who else had been eliminated from the suspect list. It kept getting shorter, but not fast enough for him.
"Let's do this," he said as Teyla and Ronon arrived. He wanted to get some kind of command staff meeting finished before facing O'Neill again. For the moment, his team was it, since Keller hadn't been cleared. He plucked a laptop from Rodney's arms, while Teyla rescued the tablet.
Ronon propped himself against the door.
"O'Neill was in the jumper bay like he said," Rodney began.
John stayed with Rodney in Elizabeth's office after the briefing, claimed the couch and opened his own laptop. One email had arrived since he'd gone through the morning's reports.
Biro kept it brusque and to the point.
Unable to obtain full profile via Nuclear Y-STRs. Am using RFLP on MtDNA from samples. Slower, but it will let us exclude more people. Obtained blood types. Thought you'd want them before I finish my report.
Still unable to access DNA database to run comparisons.
John compared the two types listed to the men on the list of people who had been in Elizabeth's rooms. Once he'd eliminated those who didn't match he was left with himself, Gilmor, Jackson and Woolsey.
He sent an email back to Biro, telling her to keep the information to herself for the moment.
After he clicked send he glanced up. Across the desk from him, Rodney was watching. "Anything?"
"Email from Biro," John said. "You should have it too."
Rodney checked. "Yeah, it's here."
"We have to do something about Keller."
"I didn't want to," Rodney admitted. "But under the circumstances..."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "She's not doing herself any favors."
"You look like crap," Rodney told him.
"Thanks. You look so much better. Only not."
"I swear Zelenka and I are going to crack this. He's concentrating on getting pictures of who went in and out of Elizabeth's quarters – "
"Who went out on the bridge with her would be a little more useful."
A wave of Rodney's hands acknowledged that. "He's a little obsessed."
"Come on," John said, getting to his feet, "let's get out of here for a few minutes. I need to talk to you about something."
"I'm close, John, just another couple hours – "
"I know," John said, feeling desperate. "Can you just listen to me – "
"I'm assigning Miko to getting the pass code," Rodney overrode him. "And I think I'm going to have to put Alice Biro in charge of Medical."
John closed his mouth with a snap. What the hell had he been thinking anyway?
The light knock against the door jamb and pause, despite the door opening immediately, belonged to someone with more manners than most Lanteans still possessed. John swallowed his words and looked to see who it was.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Daniel Jackson murmured.
"Yes?" John said, shoving down the annoyance at another interruption. Rodney started typing again, the soothing clatter of keys a message that he wanted John to deal with whatever it was and let him get on with his work. Morning had just begun to creep past the gas giant MR3-331 circled despite the late hour and he couldn't read the expression on Jackson's face in the low glow of Atlantis' conservative lighting.
MR3-331 had looked like a good hiding place: no stargate, no human or other sentient population, breathable atmosphere, low background radiation, never terraformed or used as an outpost. Neither Wraith nor Asurans would look for Atlantis on a moon swinging around a gas giant that circled its sun once every ten years. MR3-331 orbited PR7-331 every thirty days, so they'd designated that a month. One day a month, the gas giant completely occluded the star Anthropology said the database named Demet for the entire twenty-one hour day of its third moon. Someone had dubbed it Dark Day and tension ratcheted up until it arrived each month; John could feel it himself, but knew it was only a small part of what had his nerves ready to shatter.
"I'd like to tell you and Dr. McKay something."
Rodney stopped and looked over the screen of his laptop. The twenty-one hour days were getting to everyone, John included, but Rodney worse than any of them: he looked puffy and pasty, with bruised bags under his eyes and a tic at the outer corner of one eyelid. Working their normal hours meant taking them out somewhere else, mostly sleep, and the deficit had begun to affect everyone in the city. John felt it himself and had heard Lorne say seriously there weren't enough hours in the day.
"Oh, look," Rodney said, "they've been separated. I didn't realize you'd scheduled surgery to finally have General O'Neill amputated."
Jackson sent a dirty look Rodney's way, then straightened his glasses and faced John. "I wasn't completely candid when I was questioned."
John relaxed a little. He'd guessed, after all, and meant to question Jackson again, only to end up going over all their trade treaties with Teyla, pinpointing which ones would have to be renegotiated in the wake of losing Elizabeth. Some of the cultures they dealt with only honored personal commitments. Teyla had wanted to plan missions to each world, but he had held her off. Eventually, the IOA would put someone new in as director, maybe even Carter again, and there was no use in doing anything until then. He didn't say that he might not even be around. He still hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"We're all ears," he said.
"In fact, we aren't," Rodney objected. "I'm busy, so why don't you two go have a heart-to-heart somewhere else?"
John shrugged at Jackson. "The conference balcony has a history and a view, Dr. Jackson."
Jackson sighed and said, "I'm not actually very fond of balconies."
They ended up on the balcony anyway. John started to lean against the railing, then thought twice; they hadn't received a report from Structural Engineering yet on why the sky bridge railing failed. If he ever went over the edge, he wanted it to be deliberate. Jackson stayed a full step back. They watched the stars fade as the sky went from black to indigo, peach-pale light glittering wet off the east sides of the smaller towers stretching out on the piers.
"It's still beautiful," Jackson said.
John knew what he meant. He could see the scars, the gaps where they'd been forced to bring down entire buildings because of the asteroid damage, others that had to be patched together with Earth materials because they housed systems too important to bypass, but the city still made his breath catch in his throat, with its grace and symmetry, soaring towers and lotus calm. Their time in Atlantis had scarred it, just as it had left its scars on all of them. It hurt to see perfection marred, but they were still there, still fighting when the Ancients had run away, and he was proud of that, of his city and his people, and it was more beautiful for that.
"It's kind of creepy on the other side," he told Jackson. The gas giant loomed between them and the sun, blocking out the light and the stars. As MR3-331 rotated, they would see the sunlight first haloed out from the bulk of PR7-331, while they were still in night, then more would become visible: a great pale sickle bisecting the sky like a giant's scythe, clear and ominously there through the entire day, leaving them only half a sky. "Tomorrow's Dark Day."
"Don't you hate it?"
"You get used to it." John shrugged. "You've lived on worlds besides Earth. You know."
That startled Jackson. "I suppose it's no stranger than the Land of Light. You're right. Humans seem to be infinitely adaptable."
He looked ready to start a lecture, so John interrupted it before he could begin. "What did you want to tell me?" He looked out over the water, but kept Jackson in his peripheral vision.
John waited without moving.
"I wasn't as forthcoming as I should have been, but Jack and Cam were both in the office and it didn't seem that important, I know I didn't have anything to do with Elizabeth's death," Jackson said. "But I was talking to Sam and she mentioned most investigations were about excluding possibles, which made me realize that you probably do need to know." He sucked in a breath. "But I hope Jack doesn't."
"That will depend on what you tell me," John said.
"I slept with Elizabeth."
"You don't seem surprised." Jackson sounded faintly irritated.
"You both had a lot in common."
"Yes, we did, but it wasn't a romance. We – It started in Antarctica, after Jack had to be put in stasis to keep him alive. I felt alone and Elizabeth felt overwhelmed even though she did a great job in charge of the SGC, because no one really wanted her there, and it...happened. We were friends."
He kept his mouth shut and Jackson went on, compelled to fill the silence.
"She told me this was the last time, you know? She had someone here. And that was part of why I didn't want to say anything. I didn't want whoever that was to know."
"Did she say who?"
"No, just that she was happy. It wasn't a great big romantic love, but I can't believe that whoever it was could have killed her." He didn't think Jackson had killed Elizabeth. Or even that he'd kept silent to cover his own ass. The man probably did think staying silent would have been better.
John decided to throw him a bone. "Okay. Thanks for coming clean. It makes things simpler." He breathed in, the iodine-scented air wet and cold against the back of his throat. "Dr. Biro's running DNA analysis on two specimens from Elizabeth's body. If you give her a DNA sample she can rule yours out and concentrate on identifying who the other belongs to."
"Not that it was you." John grimaced. "But that it could be you...Yeah."
"I wish...I don't know. That this hadn't happened," Jackson said.
One of the whiptails dove onto the balcony, making them both stumble back. Jackson blurted something John suspected was in Goa'uld. John cringed, hoping it wouldn't scream. The sound made him want to shoot things. It balanced on the railing for a moment, black and glistening, wingsails spread out and rippling, the mouth located between its belly-eyes dilating and contracting, then coiled its tail around a baluster and then let itself fall so that it hung down.
"Was that a mouth?" Jackson asked.
"I think I know why the Ancients didn't want to live on this planet."
"Xenobiology says they're harmless. They don't eat anything larger than their mouths and the stinger venom isn't even as strong as a honey bee's," John recited.
"Still," Jackson said. "Are they all the same size or do they get bigger?"
John shuddered. Just because they hadn't seen larger whiptails didn't mean there weren't any. He counted several other tails wound about the balusters.
Rodney pressed the key to start his program and smiled before sitting back in the chair. Done, finally, despite delay and distraction.
What a damn mess. John was acting off and Rodney hadn't had the time to figure out if it was grief or something else. He hadn't had the time to do half the things he should and Teyla had come in at one point, asking him to speak for Elizabeth in a ceremony of farewell, which amounted to writing and giving an eulogy. She'd mentioned that several people had complained to her about O'Neill 'poking around' where he didn't belong, which just capped off his day after having Keller escorted out of the infirmary.
Alice Biro was now interim Chief Medical Officer. She hadn't wanted it before and still didn't. Rodney was starting to understand why.
He watched it begin to run, information scrolling across the screen, facial recognition matching to times and transporter use, showing exactly who got on and where and then where they got off. Of course, it couldn't account for the stairs or the dead zones – he'd known how many blindspots and dead zones there were but hadn't anticipated how difficult it made accounting for everybody – but it would let him exclude at least some suspects and check some alibis. He watched it collate for another moment, names matched to time stamps to transporter hubs, in and out, on and off, people moving from residential to the mess, the infirmary, the labs, marines reporting to the control room, guards going off duty, taking their weapons back to the armory...It wasn't hard to extrapolate where someone took the stairs or cut between the towers using a sky bridge.
He considered getting a cup of coffee, but the program was processing faster than he'd anticipated. He couldn't bring himself to look away as the list began to form.
Mark Gilmor. Sergeant Eliza Davis. Lt.Col. John Sheppard. Jennifer Keller. Dr. William Lee. Head Nurse Marie Ko. Corporal James Witinsky. Dr. Dira Venket. Colonel Samantha Carter.
Rodney waited for another name to pop up. While he did, he crossed each possible off. Davis, Venket, Carter and Ko were all women. Keller too. Witinsky disappeared off the grid in Davis' company. They'd probably spent a little quality time together in one of the sensor dead areas. Gilmor and Lee were both new arrivals and the hack went back to their second year. That left Keller and one other, but Keller did reappear on the grid coming from the biolab.
He checked that. She'd been in the biolab all night, then gone to her office. She'd said she was in her quarters. What the hell?
And then there was...
He saved the results when the program finished, then purged it from the rest of Atlantis' servers. Afterward, he closed his laptop and stared at the glass wall between Elizabeth's office and the control room. His radio activated once, Simpson wanting him to deal with Jay Felger.
"Is he going to blow up the city?" Rodney asked without stirring. His hands rested on the closed laptop case. He couldn't find the energy to yell, not while his brain kept racing around and around like a hamster on a high, desperate to find an exit.
"No, but he – "
"Then I don't care. Deal with it yourself. McKay, out." He finally moved, shutting off his radio. His eyes traced over the consoles as he thought about what he needed to do next, what he should do, and settled on what he was going to do. O'Neill was out there, playing the buffoon, poking around, asking questions. Rodney watched him rescue a cup of coffee when he startled Chuck, laugh, and then begin chatting. O'Neill wasn't waiting for them to uncover who had killed Elizabeth, he was doing his own investigating. And there, over near the corridor that went to a transporter hub, Teal'c was lurking. Watching O'Neill's back, because they were hunting a spy and murderer.
O'Neill casually questioned Chuck and Jimenez while Rodney sat in Elizabeth's office, doing nothing but watching. Once he laughed, turning his head and meeting Rodney's gaze. Rodney didn't look away, though his heart thumped painfully fast in his chest. O'Neill couldn't read the panic rising through him from that much distance. He didn't know Rodney's tells the way his team did.
He waited until O'Neill left the control room, trailed by Teal'c like a shadowy guard dog, before raising his hand to his radio and opening the team channel.
"Do you know where Sheppard is?"
"Can you not radio him yourself or use the control room sensors to locate him?" she asked.
"It would be a bad idea."
The pause that followed meant Teyla was trying to guess exactly what was wrong, because he wasn't babbling or spewing insults or urging her to hurry up.
"I believe he is questioning Mr. Gilmor again, along with Ronon."
"His office," Teyla answered. "Rodney, what is the matter?"
"I can't talk about this now, Teyla," he said and cut the transmission.
He walked into Sheppard's office without announcing himself. Gilmor almost jumped out of his seat, but John just raised an eyebrow at him, while Ronon looked impassive as ever from his place leaning against the wall just behind Gilmor. Rodney glared at all of them then pointed at Gilmor.
"You. Out. Now."
"McKay, we aren't quite finished here," John drawled. He looked indecently relaxed, considering how angry Rodney felt and how much of that had to show on his own face.
"Oh, no," Rodney snapped. He nodded for emphasis and turned his finger pointing on John. "You're finished. You are completely finished." He turned to Ronon. "Get the weasel out of here right now and make sure no one interrupts us."
Ronon straightened away from the wall, unfolding his arms. He glanced at John, half in question and half in amusement.
"Go on," John said. He wasn't looking at Ronon or Gilmor, just watching Rodney, his eyes wary while his mouth still smiled.
"Let's go," Ronon rumbled at Gilmor. Gilmor shot out of his seat and to the door with obvious relief. Ronon trailed after him, loose and predatory, and nodded to Rodney as he went.
Rodney manually engaged the door lock behind him, then spun around and stalked over to John's desk.
"Look at this," he said, setting the laptop he had brought with him from Elizabeth's office on John's desk and spinning it to face him.
"What am I looking at?" John asked him.
"Don't play stupid, not now," Rodney snapped. He opened the laptop and the last program he'd run.
John dropped his gaze to the laptop screen. Rodney could see his attention sharpen, the flicker of his eyes over the information - the damning information - there. "Okay," he said slowly.
"Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm not looking at one of maybe six people on this base with the access and the skill to futz surveillance and get away with it, tell me you aren't the only one who has been around since it began," Rodney said. He slapped his hand down on the desk, making the laptop jump and a pile of papers slide off the edge. "Tell me you didn't step into a transporter and go off the grid for two hours while the surveillance outside Elizabeth's quarters is spoofed, then reappear from another hub half an hour before the loop runs out? You're nowhere during that period, Sheppard, nowhere the cameras are working. Or did the transporter coincidentally hang up for just those two hours? Can you tell me that?"
John kept his hands flattened on either side of the laptop.
"Jesus! God damn it!" Rodney exploded. "You moron! You arrogant, brain-damaged ass! The evidence says you're a Trust agent and that you killed Elizabeth!"
John jolted to his feet. "I didn't kill Elizabeth!" he snarled back at Rodney.
"Anybody who finds this is going to think you did," Rodney said. "Why didn't you tell me you were sleeping with her?"
John closed his eyes briefly then snapped, "I've been trying to for the last three days! I just – You think I didn't know what it would look like as soon as I realized when she'd been killed?"
"If you'd just left the security feed alone, we'd have video of whoever did it, but no, that's too easy for Atlantis. It's only what they're there for!" Rodney's voice rose. "I can't believe - Wait, I can believe you're that stupid, but did Elizabeth know what you did?"
"Yes, damn you," John yelled back. It didn't matter how loud they got. Atlantis' soundproofing meant no one would hear outside the office door. "She had as much to lose as I do!"
"No, I really don't think she did, because she wasn't going to be suspected of murder, just a lapse in sense and taste!"
Taste? John thought crazily. That was just mean. Rodney didn't need to be so insulting. The thought was so wildly inappropriate to the moment that it popped the bubble of anger in him. His fists loosened and he held his hands out, open and empty. Without the anger, he didn't have any energy to defend himself. He dropped down into his seat and laced his hands over the back of his neck, elbows on his knees. "If I'd just stayed another half hour, she'd still be alive," he said, hanging his head. "That's all I can think, if I'd just stayed."
He wondered if Rodney believed him. If he didn't...John was finished. He had done too many things to cover for himself, made more compromises than he wanted to remember. Some days he thought he'd lost himself along the way. The rest of the time he tried to hold onto the person he'd made himself since reaching Atlantis. He wouldn't try to stop Rodney from doing whatever he felt he had to, though; he wasn't that far gone.
"I never stayed, not once," he whispered. If this was the end of everything, then to hell with it, he'd indulge in a little honesty. The truth tasted bitter, though, because he didn't like what it said about him much. "I never wanted to."
"I never wanted to know this," Rodney said.
"I know," John murmured. He couldn't make himself look up.
"Why what?" he asked. He didn't want see whatever Rodney felt spelled out on his face. He dropped his hands and let them dangle, and kept his eyes focused on the floor between his boots. He twitched the toe of one boot over a scuff mark left by the wheel of his desk chair. "Why were we sleeping together? Why didn't I tell you? Why did I – "
"Why screw with the security system?" Rodney interrupted. "I don't – I think I can figure out the rest. You and Elizabeth, a lot of people always believed you were sleeping together."
John stared at his feet.
"They couldn't prove it."
"What?" From his voice, Rodney had moved closer.
"Security footage of me going in and out of Elizabeth's quarters would have been proof. Sooner or later, someone would have used it against Elizabeth."
"Somehow I think you're talking about something I'm not getting."
Elizabeth had pulled strings and cashed in a lot of favors to keep John in Atlantis as head of the military. More than one general had assumed John had slept his way into that position. Even when they did, though, they'd looked down on Elizabeth for it more than him. None of them had ever considered there might have been other factors, other interests behind the scenes, involved in his confirmation as military commanding officer. Not even Elizabeth or she would never have hinted to him that he had her to thank for his new rank. "There's always someone like Kavanagh watching, looking for dirt to use," he said. "The IOA would have pulled me or her or both of us if too many rumors got back to them."
"They wouldn't – "
"No one's indispensable, Rodney, not even you. Soldiers and diplomats are a dime a dozen."
Rodney said nothing and John stared at the toes of his boots. They needed a shine. The soundproofing worked both ways: nothing from outside his office penetrated and the nearly inaudible hum of Atlantis itself became as noticeable as the sigh Rodney huffed out.
John jerked his head up and stared at Rodney.
It was Rodney's turn to look down, shamefaced. "Did you sleep with her to...to...to keep her sweet? To get her on your side?"
John had no words.
Rodney flailed a hand through the air in front of him. "I'm sorry. Sorry. I know Elizabeth wouldn't have and you...What about her boyfriend, the guy on Earth? When did you two...?"
"After we came back from Earth." John paused. "She told me about Wallace moving on one night on the Daedalus. She was lonely. Who else could she turn to?" He'd been lonely too, then and afterward. Still. Always. He shrugged uncomfortably, because his own motives had been much more complicated than loneliness. Elizabeth might have guessed at them, though not all, but Elizabeth's diplomatic expertise meant she saw more than most. At least she had thought their relationship was a two-way-street, both of them giving as well as getting from it, neither of them in love. He hated talking about his feelings, any feelings, but he'd do that before he laid bare the rest of it, the calculating intention to, as Rodney had just put it, keep her sweet.
"You weren't in love. Wow, doesn't that make it sound so much better. Oh, wait, I think I meant sordid."
"Fuck you," John snapped.
"Was that ever on the table?" Rodney replied. His chin had gone up and he glared back, too bitter to be intimidated. He had the upper hand, after all. John had no idea what Rodney would do next. He felt a little sick, thinking about either: what Rodney might ask and what he might offer in return. He hadn't had an honest relationship with anyone since leaving the Academy, not even his wife.
John looked away. "Air Force, remember?" he made himself say. Please, he thought, please don't use this to get what I couldn't give.
"I'm sorry." It was true. John was sorrier than Rodney could ever know, but everything had changed once they were in touch with Earth again. Whatever freedom being marooned might have offered had been gone and John had done what he had to do. Not that sleeping with Elizabeth had ever been his last choice – that would have been Landry – but John would have done the entire Joint Chiefs if it meant getting back to Atlantis. He'd tried to walk the line, though; he'd tried to be a friend, and still enough of a dick that Rodney's feelings wouldn't get any deeper, because he wasn't stupid, he had known what Rodney wanted from him.
"You realize you've screwed the investigation up, slowed us down?" Rodney asked.
"I know," John said. But they would still have had to check out the security breach if he had come clean. His word wouldn't have been enough. "Do you believe me?"
Rodney seemed to consider it.
"Yes. Mostly because you aren't usually an idiot and if you'd killed her, you would have found a way to alibi yourself instead of making yourself a prime suspect."
A chuckle escaped John. Nice to know Rodney didn't think he was too stupid to get away with murder. It threatened to get away from him and he clamped down, stopping the rest of the laughter that bubbled up at the irony.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked. He'd come around the desk while John was flirting with hysteria and was watching him skeptically. "You're not going to start sobbing or something, are you?" The prospect seemed to alarm him.
"Yes. No." John sat up straight. "What a mess."
"You should have told me."
John agreed. He should have. Every instinct had told him to, but everything he'd ever been taught had said otherwise.
"I was a little thrown when Biro told us she'd been with someone else," he said.
"Oh. Ah, yes, I suppose that did complicate things," Rodney replied. He reached past John and typed into the laptop. "Since it's not you, we should look at the others on this list. I'd discounted the women."
John read the list and lifted his eyebrows. "You don't really think Dira Venket killed anyone? She's so..." He searched for word and finally settled, "calm."
"Teyla's calm," Rodney said. "Doesn't mean she's not dangerous."
"Okay," he drawled. "Why would Dira Venket kill Elizabeth?"
"Ah, that's the question, isn't it?" Rodney asked. "Now, if we posit that Keller really does have something she'd hiding, which seems more likely since she lied about being in her quarters, by the way: she may have a motive. Or maybe Sam has secretly been seething ever since Elizabeth took over as director again. Or Gilmor..." He frowned. "What has Gilmor told you?"
"Some very interesting stuff, actually," John said. "He says he was breaking into Elizabeth's safe the night of the murder. Apparently, he works for the White House, answers to the President, but not our Mr. Woolsey." He shrugged. "That's what he says. We can't confirm until we dial Earth again. He's not off the list."
"Oh, that's just perfect," Rodney muttered. "You know...the real question is, did the killer know about your hack and take advantage or was it a coincidence? Were you being set up?"
"Hunh?" Rodney repeated. "Is that all you can come up with?"
"Well, if they knew enough to set me up, they knew about me and Elizabeth. Why not just use that against us both instead of taking a hell of a risk?" John asked.
Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed at John. "Skorpion."
John started to speak, but Rodney plunged on, forestalling him. "The Trust mole. It had to be the mole. Elizabeth probably figured out who it is, or knew something that would blow his – " Rodney nodded to himself, " – or her, Keller definitely fits, cover, and so Skorpion lures her out onto the sky bridge and pushes her over."
"Because the mole magically knows the railing is going to fail as well as the time frame I pulled my trick with the security feed," John said. Rodney was the master of sarcasm. He picked it up immediately and his face fell.
"Oh, oh. You're right. But that means it probably was a impulse crime, doesn't it? No one was setting you up." Rodney stared at the laptop screen and tapped his finger against his chin.
"Rodney." John swallowed around a painful tightness in his throat.
Rodney's brows pulled together.
"Rodney," he tried again.
Rodney twitched and then turned toward him. "What?"
"You believe me."
"What? Of course I believe you."
The relief hit him dizzyingly hard, making John glad he was already sitting. Rodney waved a hand at him, then snapped his fingers. "Don't faint."
"I don't faint."
"You just – You're all white and sweaty." Rodney stared harder at him. "You think I'd have come in here if I thought you were a murderer? Please. Rodney McKay, remember? I leave stupid heroics to the lesser intelligences. Don't think for an instant I'm not still furious with you. Elizabeth, too, only she's...not here. I'd yell at her if she was, though."
That made John smile. Rodney saved himself for the smart heroics. Like a test pilot going down, still trying right up until he augered in yelling 'I told you so' instead of 'oh shit'. Not that Rodney would appreciate that comparison. He'd be quick to point out that he (almost) never crashed and burned. He get past this. He'd forgive even this, given enough time.
"Better," Rodney commented.
"Thanks," John said.
"Mmm. I'm thinking."
John waited silently, stifling his impatience, the sparking adrenaline knowledge that Zelenka was never far behind Rodney. He was running out of time. If they didn't find Elizabeth's murderer before Zelenka figured out John was the one who had been with Elizabeth – They had to. That was all. It made him twitch and want to run, want to take a jumper and fly, push through the wormhole and go.
He closed one hand into a fist, digging his nails into his damp palm. He'd wanted to take his chance and leave everything – every obligation, responsibility, every chain – behind more than once. Sometimes the urge toward that illusory freedom thrummed under his skin and it wasn't the leash that held him back, but knowing he still had something to give. He didn't want to leave everyone behind, not any longer, but what if this was it? He couldn't safeguard Atlantis, the makeshift family he barely admitted to himself that he loved, from a cage.
The coldest, calculating part of him whispered fly. Go now, don't wait until it is too late. But he was going to keep trying everything, right up until the ground filled the windscreen and time ran out.
Rodney's laptop pinged. He flicked a finger and said, "It's the assessment from Engineering on the sky bridge. It probably won't help us find the killer, but I'd better skim it at least."
"Fine," John said. "I'm going to comm Teyla. She's been going through Elizabeth's personal laptop. Maybe there's something there."
"Let's hope so. You're running out of time."
He looked up, startled, and caught Rodney watching him, looking pissy and angry and more than a little bitter. He didn't look like he doubted John, though. It made something twist inside him, knowing Rodney still trusted him. Despite however John had hurt him, Rodney was on his side.
"It's a good thing it's my turn to save you," Rodney said.
He still had a chance.
Teyla gave Rodney a very searching look as she came into John's office. She knew something was up, which didn't surprise John. She had Elizabeth's laptop with her, the one he'd shoved into her hands when they searched Elizabeth's quarters. Teyla had packed up Elizabeth's things before; he'd figured there was no one better to trust with any personal stuff on there. He didn't think Elizabeth had ever been foolish enough to document their relationship anywhere. Part of him had thought it would be easier if Teyla found out via Elizabeth's laptop, though, and hoped she had. At some point, he'd realized that either he would tell Rodney or Rodney would find out on his own, and if Rodney knew, then he might as well trust Teyla and Ronon too. He did trust them, but he kept secrets easier than he gave them up.
No wonder Rodney was so angry. He really failed at the friendship thing sometimes.
"John," she said, "I've found a transcript of notes Elizabeth dictated that I believe may be useful."
"Yeah?" he asked. "What?"
"Don't mind me," Rodney grumbled. "Go right ahead and act like I'm not even here, invisible even, and I'll go on working."
"Hello, Rodney," Teyla said. "I see you found John." The indulgent affection in her tone warmed the entire office.
"Yes, yes, I did," Rodney mumbled and hunched over his computer. "Thanks."
"I think the invisibility cloak needs a little work," John added.
Rodney held up one finger.
Teyla took the third and last chair in the office, scooted it up to his desk and opened Elizabeth's laptop. John rolled his chair closer so that he could see the screen too.
"Here," she said. "She speaks of her worries over what has brought General O'Neill and Mr. Woolsey back to Atlantis. She doesn't wish to believe that anyone of our people could be a mole for the Trust and speculates that the search is actually a 'stalking horse' aimed at uncovering evidence the IOA or the SGC can use as an excuse to remove her." She turned her head and gazed at John steadily. "Or you."
"Yeah, that's no surprise," he said.
John read the last line of the entry.
'If anyone on Earth knew, both of us would lose our positions.'
It didn't actually name him, but Teyla could read between the lines better than anyone. Of course, maybe she'd guessed before.
"Not actually helpful, even if it is true," John said, feeling rueful.
"Perhaps," Teyla acknowledged. She scrolled to the next entry, made the night after the new personnel intake. If she'd sparred with Ronon or worked out with anyone else that day, she'd showered since. She'd let her hair grow longer lately. The ponytail she wore it in draped over her shoulder, close enough that John could smell something, maybe a hint of Pegasus flowers – the Athosians used them to scent their soaps – mingled with hints of stout tea, candle incense, and salt. Rodney hummed under his breath as he read, interspersed with small huffs of annoyance. John savored the moment, missing only Ronon, memorizing it.
"Here," she said.
'Without access to records on Earth, I can't be sure, but I believe Gilmor is the same man the President placed at the SGC to monitor General O'Neill when he was promoted and took over. Either he has resigned or is undercover. I'm tempted to just ask O'Neill, because...'
"She was right," John commented. "Gilmor admitted it." That didn't give him a much of a motive to kill her. The only thing that would happen to him was being sent back to Earth. Gilmor was the kind of guy who got killed by someone with something to hide.
The entry broke off there and Elizabeth didn't return to the subject. Apparently these had been notes to herself. Instead it switched to a new subject.
'I may have to send Dr. Lee back to Earth. For the second time, he's attempted to go over Rodney's head by coming to me. I don't think he's going to offer anything useful enough to counterweight the trouble that will cause. Not that I have any intention of authorizing him to restart a project that would only recapitulate Radek's work over the last five years. It's frustrating trying to deal with him. I wonder if he's read any of the reports and papers our scientists have sent back since we arrived in Atlantis.'
Rodney would blow a gasket when he read that. John slid his gaze to the side and caught Teyla smiling too.
"I do not envy Dr. Lee," she murmured.
"Who? What?" Rodney demanded, proving he wasn't completely lost in the engineers' report. "Lee? What now?"
"He really wants to take a puddlejumper apart," John said.
'I have to see Jennifer. Something is wrong. It's different than the nanites, but I feel it. I've asked her several times about the treatment she used to get rid of them. Her answers have been evasive. I'm worried. She pushed Rodney into reprogramming the nanites as a therapy. I'm not sure where she would stop if she thought she was saving a life.'
Teyla clicked into another file. "She had an appointment with Dr. Keller."
"She didn't look sick," John said. She'd been fine when he'd seen her last.
"No, this appears to be one where Jennifer was coming to her," Teyla said after checking.
"Mmph." Rodney slowed the speed he was scrolling through the report and frowned. His mouth tightened, lips flattening. He'd stopped listening to them.
"Rodney?" Teyla asked.
Rodney ignored her.
That wasn't good.
"Did they find something?" John asked. He got up, wanting to see what had Rodney so intent. Had the railing been sabotaged?
"Oh, crap," Rodney said.
"Rodney?" This time Teyla's inflection rested on the second syllable, question and demand at once. Her dark eyes reflected the same worry that jolted through John. He braced himself to find out how screwed they were.
Rodney looked up and said, "We can't stay here."
"What?" At least Rodney hadn't gone into five-minutes-to-our-inevitable-doom mode.
"We have to find a different planet."
John pulled in a silent breath and asked patiently, "Why?" They had studied MR3-331 for weeks before choosing it. It wasn't pleasant, but it would keep them safer than the worlds the Wraith and Asurans knew. Everyone had agreed it was the best choice out of the options they had. What the hell had they missed?
"We made a mistake," Rodney said. "The atmosphere isn't harmful to humans or any of the materials we use on Earth, but it catalyzes a corrosive reaction in the primary alloy the Ancients used to construct Atlantis."
"How bad is it?" John asked. He envisioned the twisted towers falling, bending and breaking, eaten away, the explosions and fires that would inevitably follow, the city dissolving into the sea. What if it hadn't been anyone who killed Elizabeth? Maybe she'd just been the first fatality as the city fell into ruin. His hand twitched, ready to move to his radio. The stargate should be good. It was primarily assembled from naquadah. The Earth equipment synched into Atlantis could dial it. "How much time do we have to evacuate?"
"Whoa, the city's not going to fall apart in the next five minutes, Colonel," Rodney said.
John relaxed minutely.
"We have to relocate, the sooner the better obviously, but we don't have to panic," Rodney went on. "Iron burns on exposure to oxygen, but it takes time for anything to rust away. This is similar."
"Why haven't we seen other signs of it?" John asked.
"That's the insidious aspect of it," Rodney said. "Come on. Let's get out of here for a minute." He stood and headed for the door. John trailed behind him, followed by Teyla. "It could have been worse than a railing breaking." He sighed. "Not worse for Elizabeth, but if this hadn't been discovered, eventually – "
"The city would have fallen down around our ears?"
"There could be serious impairment to the structural integrity of the city, maybe enough that we couldn't use the stardrive to get away."
John scrubbed at his face and then shook out his shoulders. He hated to think of Atlantis crippled and trapped. Under the circumstances he found himself identifying with the city.
As they went out, John used his radio. "Ronon?"
He resisted the urge to say 'Here, where?" and told him instead, "Meet the team at – "
"Quadrant Three, C Five, north balcony," Rodney said.
" – Quadrant Three, C Five, north balcony."
"What, is he too busy eating?" Rodney sniped.
"I heard that. On my way."
They reached the balcony and John paused before the door. "Is this safe?"
Rodney blinked at him, then at the balcony. "Would I be stepping out here if it wasn't?" He walked out and waited for Teyla and John to join him. "Don't lean against the railing, though. I picked this balcony for a reason."
John gazed west. The sun burned on the horizon, swollen smoky-red, edges shimmering in the orange haze that rose from the dark sea. Whiptails soared just above it, their bodies black silhouettes against the last light. Fiery reflections lit the western towers brighter than blood while their long shadows stretched behind them, dark tethers drawing the long night in.
Ronon joined them and stood, arms folded, waiting with surprising patience.
John turned away from the sea and the darkness that seemed to rise dream-like from the burning water, creeping up the towers as though they were already drowning. Light and shadow gilded and hid Teyla's face by turns, gold glinted from the tips of Rodney's eyelashes and reflected from the buckles on Ronon's vest and bracers.
"Dark Day tomorrow," Ronon commented. The carved bone skull in his dreadlocks seemed to watch John, while Ronon looked westward.
"I certainly won't miss that," Rodney said.
Ronon grunted, his version of asking 'what the hell?'
"We have to move Atlantis again," Rodney explained. He gestured to the railing where shaped steel had been fitted in place to repair damage that dated back to the first siege. Engineering had worked hard, coming up with a formula that tinted the metal close to the same shade as the alloy the Ancients had used. "See here?" Rodney ran his finger along the join. The steel gleamed. Next to it, a dark, wet-looking stain seemed to creep beneath the surface of the original portion of the railing. When Rodney pressed his thumb down the railing dimpled.
"Jesus," John muttered.
"That looks bad," Ronon commented.
A harsh chuckle escaped Rodney. "Yes."
John poked his finger at the dimple. The surface felt exactly the way everything in Atlantis did: smooth, body temperature, ceramic. Underneath, though, it gave in a deeply disturbing fashion. That was very different.
"The whiptails have an interesting biochemistry according to botany. Very interesting. Botany apparently forgot to mention one particular aspect of it: they're little fluorine gas factories," Rodney said. "Medical made sure the atmosphere here wouldn't make us sick, checked for lethal bacteria and viruses, and that's about as far as they looked into it." He frowned in obvious disgust. "Usually the materials Atlantis is made of are about a billion times tougher and longer lasting than anything from Earth. Engineering did a quick test to see if anything reacted. Nothing did. No one counted on the native fauna taking a liking to the city and breathing an electronegative element on it."
If John remembered his elements right, fluorine was a halogen and the gas was poisonous. "Why didn't Chemistry or Eco pick up on it?"
"It's not even enough to qualify as a trace gas in terms of atmosphere and only detectable because the whiptails have been converging on Atlantis like pilgrims to Mecca," Rodney answered.
John dug his thumbnail into the corroded railing. "There's a coating."
Rodney nodded. "Very good. You're exactly right. Everything in Atlantis is coated in a long lasting – and when I say long I mean thousands of thousands of years long – sealant. The sealant is perfectly fine in this or many even stranger, even acidic atmospheres. The alloy beneath, which is the basic material used to build all of Atlantis, is not. We'd still be just fine if the city hadn't taken such a beating, but everywhere the sealant has been broached, the alloy is boiling off molecule by molecule thanks to the fluorine build up."
"And so we must leave here before too much damage is done," Teyla concluded. "It is not already too late?"
"No. It might have gone on much longer without anyone noticing if Engineering hadn't analyzed the railing Elizabeth went through." Rodney sighed and flicked at the join between the steel replacement railing and the original, corroded section. He didn't seem to notice John's hand only a finger's breadth away. "They looked it up. That sky bridge was nearly taken out by a dart. Some debris actually scored the railing, opening it up to the atmosphere here. There's a dozen other spots on that bridge that have probably been too weakened to be safe and hundreds of places where we've done repairs like this. Surface stuff, but environmental has been pumping local atmosphere through the city since shortly after we arrived here, so it's inside too."
"Why're you telling me and Teyla?" Ronon asked. "Seems more like something to tell Carter and O'Neill, maybe Woolsey."
Rodney turned his head and looked at John. "Colonel Sheppard has something to tell you."
"Thanks, Rodney," John drawled while glaring. He'd pretty much figured out that Rodney had got them out here for more than the alien rust demonstration. He even meant to tell Teyla and Ronon. He just didn't appreciate being maneuvered, especially by Rodney 'Bad with People' McKay.
Ronon turned an inquiring look at him. Teyla merely smiled.
"Well?" Rodney said. He waved his hands at John. "Go ahead."
John narrowed his eyes. "Fine." He faced Teyla and Ronon. "I was sleeping with Elizabeth."
Neither of them even blinked.
"Oh, do not tell me you both knew," Rodney exclaimed.
"I did not know," Teyla answered. She studied John. "You were both very...discreet."
"He screwed with the security surveillance," Rodney said. He sounded sulky.
Ronon snorted at that. "That's what bothers you?"
"Well, not entirely."
"I didn't kill her," John said.
Teyla reached over and placed one hand on his forearm. She had strong fingers; they squeezed and he knew if she tried she could leave bruises, despite the size of her hands.
"We know that, John," she told him, gentle and certain.
Finally, Ronon said, "You wouldn't have done it that way."
John met his gaze, but couldn't read it. The last sliver of the sun sank under the horizon and darkness hid what Ronon thought, despite the lights flaring on through the expanse of the city.
Local 08:31 hrs
John ducked into the infirmary reluctantly, looking for Alice Biro. He found her in the CMO's office – it hadn't been Carson's in years, that office, but he never had thought of it as Keller's, really – elbows on the desk, fingers threaded through her short hair, reading an actual paper report spread out before her. The rest of the office remained shadowed and unlit, but light from the reading lamp she'd set up on the desk reflected off the papers onto her face, etching crows'feet at the corners of her eyes and highlighting threads of white at her temples.
"Hey, doc," he said quietly, not wanting to startle her.
She raised her head enough to blink at him owlishly and he realized she'd probably been working through the entire night, trying to pick up the reins they'd wrested away from Keller the day before. She'd chewed her lipstick off somewhere along the way, leaving a pale pink outline. The office needed more light than a reading lamp. Some kind of light would be necessary, even in rooms with windows, all Dark Day. Biro took her time recognizing him, enough that John took another step inside, so that she could make out who he was.
"Colonel Sheppard. Just the man I wanted to see."
"Really? Why does that worry me?"
Biro managed a tired smile. "Maybe because you remember that I worked with Carson on treatment for the proto-retrovirus."
"No, considering you both got me back to good as new, that's not a problem," John assured her.
"While you were recovering from the retrovirus, I alternated with Carson to give him time to sleep," Biro said. "There were some very unpleasant stretches when we couldn't sedate you."
"I don't remember." He did his best to never think about his time as a bug. There were dreams, but they weren't quite nightmares. Asleep, sometimes, he was free. Once he'd lost himself, there had been no horror and it only returned when he woke. Not something he ever confided to Heightmeyer during the mandatory sessions after he recovered or anyone since then. He didn't think that was what Biro was talking about anyway.
"Not consciously." She shuffled the papers before her together and closed the file. Noting his interest, she added, "Carson's personal notes on your recovery. There were aspects he considered irrelevant to the medical aspect and kept out of your jacket."
John blinked and then frowned. What would Carson have left out?
"You were delirious," Biro said. "And in a lot of pain. Carson didn't believe anything you said, when it was even understandable, belonged in the official record." She smiled kindly. "He left me the notes on patients I'd also treated."
"In any case, that isn't what I wanted to ask you about."
"I'd like your permission to run DNA comparisons between your samples and Dr. Weir's, both before and after your infection."
"Shouldn't they be the same?" John asked. Carson had assured him he was one hundred percent human. The way he'd been able to pick up flying Darts or survive multiple Wraith feedings when Kolya had him didn't mean anything; he'd always been tougher and smarter than he looked.
Biro gazed at him solemnly.
His arm itched where the small blue scar left by Ellia's bite remained. He'd never pushed Carson about the entire mess with the retrovirus. He'd been too grateful to get back to normal and Carson had been so upset, it had seemed cruel to ask anything more. He should have pushed. Carson hadn't risen to the top of his field of genetic research because of his sweet bedside manner; he'd been as driven as Rodney, though he'd had better people skills. Good enough skills to divert John any time he'd started to ask about the dime-size patch of blue on the inside of his forearm.
"They aren't," he stated.
"No. Carson's retrovirus changed your DNA. The changed segments are simply 'turned off'."
John resisted the urge to fidget. "Okay," John said, faking casualness. "Sure. Go ahead and do your...thing."
"Thank you," Biro told him. "I ran a comparison of Dr. Weir's DNA from her body and the control sample last night. There were some inconsistencies."
"Wait, you mean that isn't – "
"No," she interrupted and held up her hand as if to physically stop him. "It is Dr. Weir. The inconsistencies are...I recognize them."
"You want to check for remains of the Iratus genes in Elizabeth's DNA." His mind raced through all the possible reasons for that. "Before I...went buggy, Carson's retrovirus made me heal faster."
Biro bobbed her head. "Exactly, Colonel." She watched him hesitate and said, "That wasn't what brought you here, was it?"
"No," John replied. "Christ." He scrubbed at his face and then pushed back any thoughts of Keller playing God. He had other worries for the moment. "While you're doing those comparisons? You can check and confirm that Daniel Jackson and I were the only ones Elizabeth was with."
"As in sleeping with," John confirmed.
Biro blinked at him. "Oh. Oh. Why didn't you – "
"I wanted to keep it quiet. I still want to, so if you could run the tests without the rest of the lab finding out? I'd like to keep this within the command staff."
"But I'm not – "
"You're CMO now."
She pursed her lips, but then nodded. "Very well, Colonel."
"Thanks, doc." John flashed her a small, but heartfelt smile and headed out. "Just send the test results to Rodney and me. Any of them."
He felt better after getting that out of the way. Things had snowballed after Rodney found the hack and assumed the killer was responsible and then O'Neill and Woolsey had dropped the bomb that Atlantis had a Trust mole. If O'Neill and his bloodhounds hadn't been there, he'd have had the sense to be upfront from the beginning, instead of withholding the truth.
He nodded to a couple of Marines on patrol as he strolled down the hall toward the nearest transporter. Doubled patrols since the murder. He'd worked out the amended roster with Lorne and Radner, but they couldn't keep it up nonstop indefinitely. They would have to think about a curfew system instead, only that would go over like, well, like handing Rodney a tall glass of orange juice, since the scientists all reserved the right to pull all-nighters and/or head for the labs at any hour they were gripped with a sudden scientific satori.
When he reached the transporter, he opened the radio link the team channel on his headset. "Rodney?"
"Snippy this morning. Someone didn't get enough sleep last night."
"Someone might have been busy trying to figure out how to save someone's else's ass."
"And I appreciate it, buddy," John told him with a sing-song lilt. He did appreciate it, but talking seriously wasn't their way. Talking about it over the radio, even the encrypted team channel, wasn't a good idea anyway. "So, I'm going to take a run by the sky bridge and where we found Elizabeth."
John shrugged, knowing Rodney couldn't see. "Just...looking for anything we missed."
"Hunh. Okay. I'm heading for the conference room. O'Neill's probably already there. Whoop-di-do."
"Aw, Rodney, remember to play nice."
"Bring me a donut from the mess. And stay off that bridge."
Rodney's snort was followed by the click of his radio going off. John stepped into the transporter and a moment later stepped out onto the landing leading to the sky bridge. It looked different in the dark, footlights running halfway up the arch to where the railing broke, then nothing until it reached the control tower. The city spread in every direction, lit up in an eerie inversion of a normal night sky while the sky above was the utter dark of eclipse, starless and wrong. John had no fear of heights, but it still threatened to inflict a bout of vertigo.
It had been night when Elizabeth fell, but not this oppressive blanket of darkness.
John started out onto the bridge, just a few steps, imagining how it had been, wondering what exactly Elizabeth had been thinking. She hadn't confided in him about Skorpion. He'd left her quarters before she had left the bed, physically relaxed after the sex, but still worried by having O'Neill and Woolsey and SG-1 in the city.
Elizabeth had known how to handle them. He and Rodney were doing all right, but it wasn't the same. Carter hadn't been a bad choice to lead the city, but she hadn't had Elizabeth's commitment to Atlantis. Carter belonged to Earth. John grimaced. Of course, the IOA had loved her for just that reason. They weren't out on the sharp end, even Atlantis was a fairy story to all of them except Woolsey, and Pegasus, the people of another galaxy, wasn't real to them at all. Elizabeth had seen beyond that.
Three days didn't offer near enough time to get used to not having her to consult, to advise and lead. His head didn't want to accept that she wouldn't return somehow. They'd got her back before and that made it harder.
He'd owed her so much. She'd always had his and Rodney's back. Knowing she held Atlantis had let them go out on missions knowing their people would be there for them if they ran into trouble.
It seemed particularly bitter that the city had failed her. It must have felt like a betrayal as painful as the push that sent her over.
What had brought her out here that night anyway? She'd been sex soft and sleepy when he left her bed, watching him as he dressed to leave, the way he did each time they were together. He'd tried to wheedle a little more information from her, asking if O'Neill and Woolsey were investigating anything or anyone in particular.
"It's not me, is it?" he'd asked, while sitting on the edge of the bed to lace up his boots.
"Do you have something to hide?" Elizabeth had replied. She looked at his curiously.
"Yes." She'd smiled at him, bright and amused, then stretched languidly. "What terrible secrets are you hiding, John?" Besides the ones she guessed at, she didn't say, but he heard.
He'd finished tying his other boot and stood. "Nothing they're going to find on Atlantis."
"Get some rest. We've got the second contact protocols briefing in the morning." Elizabeth had sat up and begun fishing for her own clothes.
"I was planning on sleeping through it," he'd joked.
"I know," she'd laughed.
At least, he'd left her with a laugh, John thought. She must have decided to dress and head for the control room to get some work done while it was quiet and no one would bother her.
With a sigh, he turned around and went back to the transporter. There wasn't anything to find on the bridge, not even a whiptail hanging from it.
The base of B Two didn't offer any new answers either, but John went there anyway. There were no marines guarding the scene any longer. Only the taped outline of the body remained as a sign anything had happened there. Even the stark, terrible bloodstains were gone. Little marked Atlantis, nothing as transitory as a human life, certainly. He looked up but couldn't pick out the bridge against the eclipsed sky.
Morbid thoughts for the morning, but the weight of darkness above seemed to call for it.
He poked around, checking out the alcoves and corners, the odd turns and blind alleys that made up Atlantis on the sea level deck once you were outside the buildings. He'd come to the conclusion the Ancients hadn't spent much time outside. Except for the plants they'd left behind to die when they evacuated the city, Atlantis didn't have much in the way of green spaces. No parks or gardens. Just the hydroponics sections set up to grow fresh produce and supplement the environmental systems.
They hadn't liked bodies much. Everything in Atlantis, from its metal and glass to the solitary-sized beds pointed to an aesthetic that celebrated technology in its clean and most sterile beauty over the pleasures of sensation. Even that had been too physical for them eventually and they'd turned to ascension and left the flesh behind entirely.
The Ancients had been old, though, as a race, when they built Atlantis. They weren't really the same people who went out, searching out worlds, building stargates, exploring the galaxies. John knew he had bias against them; he'd given up believing in the basic goodness of the Ancients long before the crew of the Tria tossed everyone out of Atlantis.
He found nothing new and no excuse to avoid briefing O'Neill.
"Rodney? I'm on way," he said into his headset. He'd detour to the mess and grab coffee for both of them. Rodney's reply made him wince. He was still furious with John.
The feeling of doom under his sternum was just Dark Day paranoia. His hand went to his thigh holster, compulsively checking his sidearm, though. He didn't think he could string this out much longer without Rodney's help.
John kept his own tone even.
"Yeah, I didn't find anything new. Be there in ten minutes."
Something had been up with McKay since the day before. Jack didn't need to be a rocket scientist to have figured that out. While he'd been casually quizzing the control room staff, McKay had been nose to the grindstone in Weir's office, clearly visible through glass walls, bent over one of Atlantis' ubiquitous laptops and mainlining coffee. Then Jack had looked up and McKay was watching, face set in a thunderous frown, and that was all McKay had been doing. Not working, not yakking on the equally ubiquitous bitty radio headsets everyone in the city wore, not even moving.
Jack didn't figure himself for the world's foremost expert on Rodney McKay, but he knew wrong when he saw it.
He'd even considered strolling into that office and taking a crack at getting McKay to spill, but knew that friendly chitchat or not, the instant he did, one of the control room staff would be on the radio and Sheppard would arrive in rabid Rottweiler mode – Sam had described it during a more than slightly drunk dinner at O'Malley's after returning from Atlantis – before Jack could get anything out of the scientist.
So he'd let it pass, figuring he'd hear all about it at the morning briefing the Atlantis command staff were treating him and Woolsey to each day. Or he'd corner McKay and get out of him afterward. He figured he could still intimidate the guy, even if he wasn't the man Jack remembered first meeting. If that hadn't all been an act...The NID insisted McKay was absolutely clean, but then they would, if he belonged to them.
Jack squeezed his eyes closed. Long term, deep cover assets were the hardest to root out. No matter who it turned out to be, it would damage the Atlantis Expedition. Anything Skorpion had access to and everything the asset had done would be compromised, called into question, leaving every relationship and choice tainted. Doubt made people question and hesitate at the wrong moment; doubt was a killer. Some people would never believe, either, and that sewed its own variety of distrust.
Damn, he'd hated this kind of double-triple think back when he'd been black ops and worse when he'd been the one playing his team. He had to keep it in mind all the time in DC, even under the Mountain, but he'd slipped and let himself think Atlantis was a different environment.
It made him angry with himself. He knew better. Different planet, same shit. Put three humans together anywhere and sooner or later they'd lie to each other about something.
He opened his eyes again and watched McKay, wondering when he'd slept last.
"So where's Sheppard?" he asked as McKay finally showed up in the conference room.
"Busy," McKay snapped back. He thumped his laptop down on the conference table before dropping gracelessly into a chair. McKay began ranting about negative electromagnetic bonds and whips or whiptails, losing Jack when he got to the heavy metals, which were presumably manganese and aluminum and not loud rock, though from Jack's perspective, in Pegasus it could go either way. "It's not like we didn't have enough problems with a murderer on the loose, your stupid spy hunt and trying to do Elizabeth's job on top of our own, no, now I have to make sure Chemistry, Eco, Xeno, and Medical don't blow it again and land us somewhere even worse."
"Worse?" Jack prompted.
McKay glared at him and explained, "We've got to relocate to a different planet within the next three weeks, thanks to the flying fishs' bad breath."
Jack held up his hands. "That's some serious halitosis." He hadn't realized this sort of thing got to McKay. To be fair, maybe it didn't under normal circumstances. Then again, he'd never quite got the Atlantis' staff's operating dynamic. They got the job done, but they were all a strange, spooky bunch.
McKay snorted. "You only say that because you've never got up close and personal with a Wraith." He cocked his head and listened to something on the radio headset, then activated it. "Done playing detective, Sherlock Holmes? I'd like to get into the labs before lunch today." His attention reverted to Jack. "Sheppard'll be here in about ten minutes. I know his 'I'll be right theres'."
The conference room doors opened. The Czech guy, Zelenka, came in looking like he'd been pulling all-nighters since the murder without benefit of changing clothes, shaving or showering. His hair clung lank and greasy to his head, ruining the Einstein thing he'd have had going on otherwise. The blue science uniform shirt really showed coffee stains. The manic light in Zelenka's eyes made it clear that most of the coffee had not been spilled. He clutched a laptop in one hand and made a beeline toward McKay. It didn't look like he'd even registered Jack's presence.
McKay didn't look happy to see him.
"Radek, I told you to get out of the lab and sleep – "
"Yes, yes, you are very concerned for me," Zelenka snapped. Up went his free hand to push his glasses back into place. They slid back down his nose in the next breath. "Enough to make me suspicious."
McKay's mouth fell open. "I resent that."
"I have it," Zelenka said.
McKay's gaze dropped to the laptop Zelenka clutched. "I'm impressed. Listen, why don't you head into Elizabeth's office and I'll go over it all with you as soon as I can. Have you read Engineering's report on the damage to the city? Fluorine. What kind of creature generates fluorine?"
"This cannot wait."
McKay shot an unhappy look at Jack. "Fine, we'll both go over it in Elizabeth's office. General, if you'll excuse us?"
"Why not do it here?" Jack asked. He wished he'd brought his yo-yo with him. Something about it tended to drive people like McKay batshit. Irritated people often said things they hadn't meant to, especially when they underestimated him as well. He tried to look dumb; he was good at that.
"I'm sure it's something that will go so far over your head you won't be able to even see it with a telescope," McKay said loftily. He even managed the arrogant sneer to go with the insult, but the way his hand opened and closed into a tight fist gave him away.
"No, no, the General should see this, I think," Zelenka declared. He twitched away from McKay and set his laptop on the one arm of the weird-ass adjustable conference table. His hands trembled, making Jack wonder if he'd kept himself going with more than caffeine. His face looked gray as he glanced up at McKay. "Is Colonel Sheppard."
"No, it's not," McKay hissed at him. He slapped his hand down on the cover of the laptop, keeping it closed despite Zelenka's efforts. The mixture of fear and anger and resentment flickering over his wide face told Jack that whatever Zelenka had, McKay thought he already knew about it and had been trying to keep anyone else from seeing it. "Radek..."
Zelenka just shook his head fast. Hair fell over his glasses. Both men looked sick. "I cannot – You are biased – This I will not hide, Rodney! You do not know – The surveillance shows – "
McKay went sickly white. "It can't..."
Jack sidled over as Zelenka pried McKay's hand away from the laptop. He watched as Zelenka typed and then looked up as the picture on the laptop screen mirrored on the conference room display screen. It looked like surveillance from the halls of Atlantis, but in color and resolution beyond any security system Jack had ever seen.
"I have spent last two days writing programs to access Atlantis' system," Zelenka said. "This is the first part I have found. The corridor outside Dr. Weir's quarters. There's is more, pictures of the sky bridge, the transporter hubs, everywhere. I will get all of it eventually."
The time stamp – Jack assumed it was a time stamp – was in Ancient. He never had got the knack of reading it, much less speaking it, even during the six weeks he spent hanging out with the real Ancients from the Tria. Not like most of the Atlantis people. Even the marines stationed in the city ended up with a working knowledge of the language. One of the first things Sheppard did was run them through a quick-and-dirty language school these days. McKay was probably as fluent as Daniel.
"What's that say?" he asked.
Zelenka typed in a simple command. The Ancient script flickered and transformed into Arabic numerals.
"Well, that's useful," Jack drawled. "Only...not."
Zelenka went on typing. The picture of the corridor remained empty, while the numbers clicked forward.
Another set of numbers appeared beneath the first.
"The first is Atlantis' own internal time. The logs go back to the launch of the city," Zelenka explained. "Second is local time. I can add conversion for Earth."
"That's good enough," Jack said.
"Elizabeth wasn't killed in her quarters," McKay protested. "This is a waste of time, Radek. Go back and get us the logs for the sky bridge."
"I am sorry, Rodney," Zelenka said.
On the screen, John Sheppard strolled into the frame, walking directly to Weir's door and swiping his hand over the chime sensor, then waiting with his hands in his pockets, until the door opened. The angle didn't let them see Weir, but his lips moved and he smiled. Then her hand appeared, two fingers running along Sheppard's jawline, before he walked inside her quarters and the door closed.
"Sonuvabitch," Jack said.
Zelenka ducked his head. With another tap to a key, he set the numbers spinning forward, the picture of the empty corridor and the closed door to Weir's quarters remaining unchanged.
The picture went black at 1.5.15.0012.
Jack turned his head to look at McKay. "You want to do it?"
McKay crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "Do what?" he demanded.
"Question him," Jack said.
"Why? Because he slept with Elizabeth? Despite my own arguments, stupid still isn't a legal crime." The level of venom in McKay's voice belied his argument.
"Withholding evidence is," Jack told him. "Apparently Colonel Sheppard is the last person to have seen Dr. Weir alive, something he neglected to reveal. That certainly looks suspicious."
"He told me," McKay snapped, chin in the air. "That's enough."
"No, it isn't." Jack turned his attention to Zelenka. It might be what had him such a filthy mood. "How do I – "
"Radek, you don't take orders from him," McKay interrupted.
Zelenka flinched and hunched over the laptop.
"McKay – "
McKay talked over Jack's weary attempt to explain the facts of the situation to him. "Finish this the way you should have before coming in here. Find the rest of the surveillance. This is circumstantial." His hands scribed angry patterns through the space before him then he scrabbled at his hair as though he meant to pull it out. His gaze strayed back the stilled picture on the laptop screen: Elizabeth Weir's hand on Sheppard's face. Something spiteful flickered in his eyes. "Shit. Shit."
"Rodney," Zelenka said. "They were having an affair. He lied – "
McKay rubbed both hands over his face and added, "Get me proof."
Jack straightened his shoulders and shut his mouth. A glance at Zelenka showed the man already busy at the laptop. McKay had him cowed or maybe he wanted to find proof Sheppard had killed Weir. He'd been fast enough to come in here with what he'd already uncovered. Jack walked out of the conference room to control. "Radio," he said to Campbell. Campbell looked past him and he realized McKay had followed him halfway, was shaking his head no, and Campbell was going to obey McKay, not him.
"How do I talk to Colonel Sheppard?" he asked. He'd try getting Sheppard up here the easy way first. McKay had said he was on his way before, but it had been longer than ten minutes.
He heard McKay's voice behind him, low and intent. It didn't really register though, until he heard, " – their way to arrest you. Radek cracked the city surveillance."
Jack turned around and stared at McKay in genuine disbelief. No one had said a damn thing about arrest.
"What the hell did you just do?"
The twist to McKay's mouth spoke to something dark and nasty that disturbed Jack down on a very visceral level. He really didn't understand these people.
Given warning, Sheppard might do something reckless, even if he wasn't guilty. He glared at McKay. He dragged the comm tech out of the way and radioed Mitchell on the citywide channel. "Colonel Mitchell. I need you or Teal'c to find Colonel Sheppard. Everyone should be on the look out for him." He didn't like to say it, because it implied something they didn't really know, but he added, "You might want to keep in mind he's armed. He could be dangerous." He turned back to McKay, who looked horrified. "You made this necessary."
McKay didn't move.
"No. I..." McKay shuddered.
"What?" Jack asked.
"I told him to run."
Jack wanted to shake him. Hell, he wanted to punch him, but there were two marines on guard at the door who might jump the wrong way if he assaulted the current civilian head of the expedition. The head of Homeworld Security might technically command them, but that was a pretty tenuous authority. Everyone in Atlantis was used to obeying McKay and Sheppard. And Sheppard, Lord help him, was a little too used to being hung out to dry. Without knowing the circumstances, he could think anything was going on up here in the control tower. In their line of work, you get warning from a team mate, you take it to heart and go to ground until you know what the hell is going on.
"You idiot," he said, feeling tired and old in the way his aching knees had never made him feel.
McKay was back on his radio. "Ronon. Teyla. Find Mitchell and Teal'c and stick with them until you find Sheppard. Get him up here so we can straighten this mess out."
"You knew he was seeing Weir?" O'Neill asked.
Rodney looked away. That seemed to infuriate O'Neill, then he sighed and shook his head. "Since when?"
Carter arrived in time to hear that and looked from Rodney back to O'Neill. "What the hell is going on?"
Major Lorne sprinted up the main steps from the gateroom level and came to a halt with a quick salute for O'Neill. "Sir?" Lorne sounded bewildered as well as worried.
"McKay and Sheppard have been holding out on us."
Rodney ignored Lorne. He'd doubted John because of Zelenka's obsession and then he'd succumbed to his own resentment by sending that radio taunt to John, without thinking how John would hear it.
"I think I rank everyone here – " O'Neill started.
"We went over this. I don't answer to you," Rodney interrupted. "I didn't have any obligation to tell you everything."
"I let you and Sheppard run with the investigation, which was obviously a mistake, but Carter should take over – "
Rodney glanced at Sam. She'd been waiting for this, he knew it. The worst part of it was knowing she would do a better job than him. She had before. As much as he respected her, that made a tiny part of him hate her. It made him more than little sick to his stomach, along with the niggling doubt that had taken residence when John hadn't answered his radio call, hadn't mocked him and appeared to defend himself. He didn't know which was worse: wondering if maybe John had killed Elizabeth – but why? – or that he could think it of his friend. She was watching him, looking understanding, and he wished she hurt the way he suddenly did, twisted inside with worry and uncertainty and the bitter jealousy that had poisoned him since he saw that image of Elizabeth's hands on John.
Lorne sidled around O'Neill and Carter and addressed Rodney, "Doc? What the hell is going on?"
"Your idiot commanding officer was sleeping with Elizabeth, my idiot subordinate found a way into the city's internal surveillance showing him arriving at her quarters on the night in question." He didn't finish his thought: This idiot just made the whole situation worse. Rodney sucked in a deep breath instead. "I may have spooked Sheppard into thinking something's wrong up here."
Lorne's gaze slid to the side and he winced.
"Just stay here for now, Major, until we decide what to do next."
"You've got it."
Rodney nodded at him.
"Thank you," Rodney said. "Just...just stay on your toes."
"Like a ballerina, doc."
Rodney turned his attention and his disgust on Jimenez. Carter and O'Neill were speaking quietly for the moment. "Put me on citywide and stop letting him push you around."
Jimenez looked blank and cowed, but didn't move. Totally and utterly hopeless. Rodney was sending him back to Earth just as soon as he could dial the gate. Before Rodney had to hit him or have an aneurysm, Chuck shouldered his fellow tech out of the way and nodded to Rodney. "Go ahead, Dr. McKay," he said.
"This is Rodney McKay," Rodney said. He swallowed and went on, "Colonel Sheppard, please join us in the control room. Everyone else, just go about your work and...stay out of the way while we get this mess cleared up."
"McKay," Ronon's voice sounded in his ear. "I'm with Teal'c."
"Good," Rodney snapped. "Now find Sheppard and get him up here if you have to stun him."
"My gun's in the armory. I've got Corporal Danzinger's Beretta. I could shoot him."
"No! No, don't do that," Rodney yelled him. He hoped Ronon hadn't done any permanent damage to Danzinger, whichever marine that was, getting his side arm. "Unless he's going to shoot you. Just...let him go if it comes to that or shooting him."
Teyla radioed in on the heels of Ronon's contact. "I have joined Colonel Mitchell and Vala Mal Doran, Rodney. He is armed with standard weapons. I have a hand stunner."
"You heard what I told Ronon. The same goes."
Rodney so seldom used obscenity that the sudden litany of it over the team radio channel sent a bolt of adrenaline through John faster than any alarm klaxon. His hand was on its way to his radio, when the rest of the words registered.
"Sheppard, they're onto you."
The jolt of adrenaline and the shock pretty much obscured whatever was being broadcast on the citywide comm. He was screwed. He'd always known it could go down like this. At least Rodney had warned him.
John sucked in a quick breath and started moving. Transporter first, even though they could be tracked, because he was too close to the heart of the city. He chose a destination hub that would let him disappear into one of the sensor dead zones. A handheld lifesign detector would work there, but no one in the control tower could track him. He didn't spend more than a second thinking how familiar this was or why he'd made plans for this. Regrets would only slow him down. He had to get out of the more populated areas. Instinct took over. Fight or flight and he wasn't ready to fight a panicked scientist with a standard issue side arm, because he wasn't sure which would be worse: taking one down or getting shot because he didn't.
He loped down a corridor that went from pristine and bright to water- and smoke-stained, barely lit by the remaining banks of dull white emergency lights in one stride. Dead zone. John knew them all, better than anyone; he'd been mapping them since they arrived in Atlantis. He knew the distant reaches where the shield had collapsed in the first hour, before the city rose, and the dark corners and low places that still held the phantom odor of stagnant water and mold even after being exposed to vacuum.
He felt it when he went off the grid.
John wanted to thank Rodney for the warning, but didn't dare. He could only receive passively. A radio transmission would let the pursuit triangulate on him.
It shouldn't be too hard to avoid most pursuit. He'd put together the patrol patterns, he knew how Lorne and Radner and all his officers thought. Predicting the search wouldn't task him. SG-1's people were a different matter, but they were handicapped; they didn't know the city intimately and wouldn't be receiving any help from Rodney. Eventually, though, the big guns would be brought in, organized searches, like a line a beaters moving through the grass to flush a tiger.
He kept moving and hit one of his caches, pulling out a lifesigns detector, a set of NVGs and a Wrath stunner. A couple of Powerbars and a canteen went into his pockets since he hadn't had any breakfast. A glance at his watch reminded him a security patrol usually swept this section within the next ten minutes. He could hear voices and moved out silently, heading deeper into the unused dead zone.
Rodney didn't know how long until Woolsey showed up and whether the man would go on backing him or not. He just stopped himself from rubbing his hands through his hair, knowing the standing on end thing didn't do anything to make him look any better. Eight hours uninterrupted sleep and a good meal were all he needed – he'd settle for three and the damn donuts John hadn't been able to bring him. He hated politics, possibly more than the Wraith.
"Major, I want extra guards on the jumper bay and here in the control room."
Lorne nodded and moved away, speaking softly into his own radio.
Rodney rolled his eyes in response. "What? We're in a floating city. The only way out is the stargate. No one is going anywhere as long as all the DHDs are under guard."
"Okay, good point," O'Neill admitted.
A sarcastic comment sprang to his lips, but Rodney swallowed the words, instead spinning on his heel and heading back into the conference room. Radek backed out of the doorway, clutching his laptop to his chest like a shield. He looked sweaty, apologetic and terrified. "Rodney, I am – "
"Don't." Rodney poked a finger toward Radek's face. He waved it to hide the way it wanted to shake. "Just don't. You're obsessed and jealous. Believe me, I recognize the stalker-like behavior. Go back to work and get the footage of her murderer instead of who she was sleeping with!"
"Colonel Sheppard should have – "
"Colonel Sheppard informed me, Teyla, Ronon, and unless I'm mistaken, Alice Biro. You don't have my job yet, Radek, no one was obligated to brief you."
"I am sorry, Rodney."
"Apologize to Sheppard," Rodney snapped.
He stalked back into the control room, sent Venket stumbling out of her seat with a silent glare and took over the console. Instead of slaving the image to one of the larger screens around the room, he kept it minimized to the console, and called up a cutaway image of the city. Life signs showed in clusters and singles, scattered through out the occupied and in use sections. He typed in a command to filter out all the groups and watched a single sign blink from one transporter hub to another far out at the edge of the city. The diagram showed the city as it had been on their arrival, pristine and intact.
On the screen, the dot disappeared into a sensor dead zone, one of the areas damaged or literally gone. "Off the grid." He wasn't surprised. "Just keep your head down until I have things under control here," he murmured at the missing dot.
Carter approached from behind him. "Can we track his subcutaneous transmitter?"
Rodney smiled sourly. "No. He has to activate it to send out a signal."
"That's new," Carter commented.
"That's a little improvement we came up with after one of the more technologically savvy bunch of mercenaries started using them to hunt our teams down."
She bent over his shoulder, one hand on the back of his chair, the other reaching past him to change the display. "Colonel Sheppard knows where the sensors are damaged, doesn't he?"
"You know he does," Rodney said.
Carter turned her head enough he could see her lips quirk into a small smile. "Then we should vector our search parties into those sections."
He always forgot how fast she thought on her feet.
"Our search parties?" he asked.
"Why don't you radio Colonel Sheppard to turn himself in?"
Rodney pushed his chair back, making her stumble away from the console. "Because..." He didn't know if John would and he didn't really want to find out.
"Rodney, have you considered, well, that he may not be innocent?"
"No. Go away. He told me he didn't kill Elizabeth and I believe him."
Sam patted his shoulder.
He ignored the attempt at comfort. The Medical Department tone on his radio jerked his attention away. He was almost grateful.
"Biro. I've got something."
"On the killer?" He stopped, stock-still, his hand still on the headset.
"Indirectly, if at all," Biro said.
Rodney pushed aside any disappointment. Alice Biro didn't like to waste time. She'd never comm him in any kind of crisis without reason. "Give it to me quick and dirty."
"Dr. Weir's DNA analysis shows the same Iratus characteristics Colonel Sheppard's has – "
"What the hell!"
"I think you need to find out exactly what Jennifer has been up. Biro out."
Fuck. He had stood next to Keller, looking at Elizabeth in the stasis chamber that had kept her alive since they'd shut down the nanites in her. 'I have a treatment,' she'd said. What the hell had she done?
He tuned to the military command channel and used the only name he could remember. He turned and pointed at Chuck.
"Comm Bates. I want Dr. Keller in the control room ASAP. She should be in her quarters. Use force if necessary. Someone killed Elizabeth and I intend to know who before the day's over, whether it's Sheppard, Keller or someone else. "
Richard Woolsey found his position working for the IOA satisfying most days. Most days he dealt with bureaucrats, much like himself, though not as clever. He was accustomed to hidden agendas. But then there were the days when he faced people who risked their lives, instead of their next pay raise, on a regular basis. He respected those people more than he ever let himself reveal to them.
Not that he wasn't cognizant of their agendas, hidden and otherwise, but they tended to subordinate the personal to the big picture, which he found distinctly refreshing.
The various announcements over the citywide comm found him still in the mess hall. As usual when he spent any time in Atlantis, he'd spent more time than normal just trying to choose his food. The toast was purple. The eggs were from Earth but reconstituted and about as appetizing as wet yellow sawdust. The bacon looked like bacon though, so he took several strips along with a bowl of oatmeal and a red-and-purple swirled fruit he hadn't seen on previous visits. It looked a bit like a very shiny pear.
"These aren't sour, are they?" he asked one of the servers.
The corporal glanced at the fruit and shook his head. "They're sweet, sir. Don't worry. Everything we serve is screened for allergens before we serve it here. Everyone has been trained in dealing with anaphylaxis and we're only seconds away from Medical with the transporters."
Richard didn't know whether to be impressed or terrified. He didn't bother mentioning he could find his way around just fine. "Is this because of Dr. McKay's medical conditions?" he asked curiously. He felt all right lingering to question the corporal, who must not have realized Richard had been in the city before; there was no one else in line behind him. He might have come with O'Neill this time to keep track of the hunt for the Trust mole, but it never hurt to take the metaphoric temperature of the expedition.
"No, Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Keller insisted after Dr. Parvati reacted to the grain from PX4-D38. She's allergic to nuts, only no one realized the peko grain would give her the same antigenic reaction. Botany had tested it for toxins and everyone else was just fine."
Yes, he remembered a report on that passing over his desk. There had been speculation about introducing peko along with tava to the Milky Way. The Chinese had been enthusiastic; both were extremely fast growing and higher in protein than soy without requiring excessive fertilization or particular climate conditions. Seed stock samples were in stasis in the expanded Antarctic facility.
The gossipy corporal shrugged and went on, "I guess something similar could have happened back on Earth. Anyway, Ko and Stackhouse got her to Medical and she was okay. Before that, Private Milligan died from eating some berries he brought back from offworld and didn't get cleared."
"I see," Richard said.
"Anyway, no one's ever got sick from the pearples."
Richard suppressed a smile at the name.
"Yeah, I don't know who started calling them that," the corporal said, grinning. "That's just what everyone's called them since I got here."
"Well, thank you," Richard checked the name tag, "Corporal Applethorpe."
"No problem, sir."
He turned away, intending to find an empty table and was stuck by the darkness beyond the mess hall's windows. "When does the sun come up today?"
"We're behind the Eight Ball all day, sir."
Richard hesitated, but had to ask. "What?"
"No sun today, sir. We're on a moon and the gas giant we orbit will be between us and the sun all day," Applethorpe told him. "The Colonel's the one who calls it the Eight Ball."
Applethorpe seemed almost proud of Sheppard's joke.
The pearple turned out to be delicious. Richard almost regretted trying it, knowing he'd never taste one again once he went back to Earth. Not for a long time, certainly. Eventually the stargate program would have to be declassified, because nothing remained secret among governments, certainly nothing that had involved as many people and deaths as the stargate programs had over the years. But he knew it would be years after declassification before perishable foodstuffs were introduced into the trade equations of an already delicate global economy.
He didn't regret taking a table to himself rather than joining Dr. Lee, who he had met in passing at the SGC during the semi-annual science division audits. Lee kept watching the doors and jumping at every clatter or raised voice. During the time it took to eat his fruit, Richard observed Lee spill his coffee twice and flip a fork onto the floor.
Jackson joined him. Jackson usually liked to talk, but apparently not until he'd communed with his extra large cup of coffee. He nibbled toast spread with something thick and green that Richard felt safe in assuming had never seen the Milky Way in between hunching over his cup and breathing in the steam.
Richard finished his bacon, which was bacon and just crisp enough, and his oatmeal, which might have been made from the aforementioned peko, but tasted fine with a spoonful of sugar. He'd bussed his tray and obtained a cup of tea to sip, when Lee tripped past him, nearly sloshing it over the front of his suit.
"A little jumpy, isn't he?" Richard commented to Jackson after Lee apologized and rushed off.
"Dr. Lee – "
McKay's voice blared over speakers somewhere. Jackson's head jerked up, his eyes narrowing.
Everyone else in the mess hall went silent. Richard could feel the weight of being watched and recognized the hostile atmosphere coalescing around them. When people began speaking again, their voices were too low to catch even from the next table.
"Something's going on," Richard commented. He set his tea down.
"Yes," Jackson agreed. "I think we need to get up to the control room and find out what."
Richard didn't look around, but he wanted to. "Yes, before we're lynched. I didn't feel this unwelcome when the Asurans invaded." Maybe the atmosphere was what had gotten to Lee. He paused and then added, "Though Commander Helia and her crew certainly came close."
Jackson almost smiled. "I forgot you were here for that."
"That is not something I'll ever forget," Richard told him emphatically. He'd always known he wasn't 'hero' material, but between the bouts of bowel-loosening terror there had been moments of utter humiliation at how useless he was when faced with real danger. He'd hated knowing he was going to die and hated himself more for clutching at every moment they might survive a little longer, even though he knew they needed to find a way to stop the Asurans coming after Earth, even if it meant dying even sooner. He'd been terrified every instant and so sickeningly grateful when Sheppard, McKay and their motley team showed that he'd nearly wept. He hadn't cared that they'd stolen a jumper and disobeyed orders, not if it meant it saved his ass. He hadn't even cared that they did it more to save Atlantis from the Daedalus' orders to nuke the city than for him or O'Neill.
Whatever anyone thought, it hadn't been O'Neill's support that returned Elizabeth Weir and her renegade Air Force colonel to command of Atlantis after that.
It had been Richard.
He might be a coward, but none of them were, not even McKay, and he'd seen just enough of what the Pegasus galaxy could throw at their people to know it would take people like them to survive it. Officers like Abraham Ellis and Stephen Caldwell were good at their jobs, just as Richard excelled at his, but they didn't have the luck or the flexibility Atlantis needed.
He'd been among those who backed either McKay or Sheppard to take over as director for Weir before, but he'd been overruled by factions that either didn't want Sheppard in charge or didn't think McKay had the political skills.
He and Jackson made their way to the transporters.
They arrived in time to interrupt a two way shouting match between McKay and O'Neill, refereed by a softer voiced Carter.
"NO!" McKay screamed at O'Neill, red-faced and surprisingly intimidating. "Try it and I'll have you locked up!"
"Like hell you will!" O'Neill snapped back. He turned his attention to Major Lorne, who was hovering just outside the periphery of the argument. "Major, I'm ordering you – "
"Don't do that, sir," Lorne said. "I've seen Dr. Zelenka's security recording and it doesn't show Colonel Sheppard doing anything illegal. I won't arrest him on your say so and I can't arrest the acting director of the expedition for...whatever it is you think he should be locked up for."
"Obnoxious arrogance," O'Neill griped.
"Not illegal, sir," Lorne said.
Richard felt impressed. Of course, Major Lorne's loyalties were with his regular commander, not General O'Neill, but McKay had Lorne and therefore the Atlantis military backing him already.
"General O'Neill," he said. "Director McKay."
They both shut up and turned toward him. McKay recovered first, his flushed face fading to a more normal, healthy color.
"Jack?" Jackson remonstrated from beside Richard.
"Sheppard lied," O'Neill stated, flat and angry, his glare switching from Richard to McKay to Jackson before settling back on McKay.
"He didn't tell you, which is an entirely different thing," McKay said. His chin jerked up.
"Why's he running then?" O'Neill demanded. "Why isn't he up here?"
"Because I told him to," McKay replied, imbuing his words with enough acid scorn to eat a hole in a steel plate.
"Would someone tell me what Sheppard lied about?" Jackson murmured to Carter.
"He and Dr. Weir were involved," Carter replied.
"I still say he must be hiding something." O'Neill sounded sulky. "And I want him up here, talking."
"If you touch me, Lt. Bates, I'll – " Keller's angry voice snapped everyone's attention to the two marines and Lt. Bates, who were 'escorting' Keller into the control room. They must have found her in her quarters; she was dressed in civilian casual clothes and had her hair loose. She was also furious and ready to assault Bates.
Bates looked equally angry but in better control.
"Ma'am, we have our orders," he told her in a tight voice.
"Put her in the conference room," Rodney ordered.
"McKay, if you sicced these goons on me, you'd better hope you never need to use my infirmary again," Keller told him.
Richard pitied him if he did.
McKay appeared remarkably unmoved. He gestured Major Lorne and Colonel Carter over. Richard listened and raised his eyebrows at what he heard.
"This is bullshit!" Jennifer shouted before Bates guided her into the conference room, then stepped out. Two marines stationed themselves at the doors.
Sam didn't know exactly why Rodney had insisted they interrogate Jennifer again, but he'd heard something on the radio before sending for her.
"Doc," Lorne said to Rodney, sensible and quiet as Sam remembered him always being. "Maybe you'd better let Colonel Carter and me handle Dr. Keller."
Jennifer had clearly been seething from her treatment by Lt. Bates.
"She hates my guts already, McKay," Bates commented.
Rodney glanced at him. "You haven't lost your touch."
"She'll be more comfortable," Lorne commented.
"Like I care," Rodney snapped, but he nodded. "Sam, would you?"
"Of course, Rodney. What are we supposed to be asking her?"
"Ask her why she lied about her whereabouts the night of the murder. My analysis of transporter use puts her in the biolabs and then off the grid until she shows up at the infirmary in the morning. She never went to her quarters at all."
Sam sucked in a deep breath. She hadn't expected that. "Okay, that's not good."
"You can ask her why Biro found traces of Iratus DNA in Elizabeth's body, too."
It was Lorne's turn to choke a little.
Sam glanced at him. "Major, are up for a little good cop/good cop?"
"Sure. We can change up and I'll go bad cop if we have to."
"Then let's get in there," she said.
They walked in and Sam sat down opposite Jennifer. Lorne leaned one hip against the table and smiled at her. Sam thought he did nice guy better than anyone she'd ever met.
"Look, Dr. Keller, we know you're not telling us something," Lorne said. He didn't make it an accusation, just a friendly observation, with a hint of teasing laughter in his eyes. The man should have gone into interrogation.
Jennifer's mouth quivered faintly.
One of those freakish flying things screamed in the dark outside the doors to the conference room balcony, making all three of them flinch. Sam thought if she had to hear those things all the time, she'd end up requisitioning a machine gun from the armory and waste a lot of ammunition raining fish guts all over the city. The shriek made her bones ache.
"I hate those things," Sam confided. "Did anyone know about them before Atlantis was flown here?"
"I didn't know," Jennifer said with a glare at the balcony doors and beyond. "Or I would have classified them as a psychological detriment."
"I've had to tell five different marines they don't get to pretend they're skeet," Lorne told them. He leaned forward and said sincerely, "Jennifer. Come on. It can't be so bad. You're aren't going to tell me you killed Dr. Weir. Anything else is small potatoes."
"Damn it," she whispered.
"Hey, you know you can trust me."
"Jennifer," Sam said, "I know you're mad at the way Rodney's acting, but he's under the worst kind of stress. Right now, he's worried John may have had something to do with Dr. Weir's murder and he's flailing for any excuse to blame someone else."
Jennifer's mouth fell open. "Colonel Sheppard?"
"You know how close they are."
"They're team," Lorne reminded. "So if you would just clear yourself, thing's would be a lot better. He's got some program that proves you weren't in your quarters when you said."
Jennifer rubbed her hands over her arms, then nodded. "Okay. Don't hate me?"
Sam tried to hide her reaction. She couldn't help finding that plea manipulative. Jennifer always had used insecurity to deflect others from holding her responsible for her actions, Sam remembered. Something that had always confused Sam since Jennifer was a highly qualified physician and researcher. Not only would she never have been considered for Atlantis otherwise, but she wouldn't still be Chief Medical Officer now otherwise. Asking Lorne to pardon her for something without any idea what it was seemed unpleasantly disingenuous. She couldn't imagine Janet Frazier or Carolyn Lam ever trying it.
"How could I ever hate you, Doc?" Lorne replied.
After a glance at the door to make sure it was still closed securely, Dr. Keller finally spoke.
"I spent that night in Biolab Three, destroying my virus samples."
She hesitated, but Sam knew the words were going to come now. Jennifer wanted to tell someone. She wanted to justify herself and she wanted to protest. She'd said, 'my' virus samples. It was something that mattered to her.
"I've been working on Carson's retrovirus."
She held up her hand and went quickly, "Before you condemn me, Major, my research is not aimed at trying to transform the Wraith into humans. That plan was a failure, I know. The Wraith proved that even without their memories, their instincts and psychology were too ingrained for them to ever function even within a society of their own. I know."
"Then what the hell have you been doing?"
Sam felt disgusted and disturbed, but Lorne looked tremendously bothered. He'd come off the table and begun pacing back and forth, shooting bewildered and angry glares at Jennifer.
"It – I began when we got Dr. Weir back from the Asurans. I knew there had to be a way to save her. If I hadn't done something, she'd still be in stasis. Using the nanites was always a stop gap measure, until her own body could repair itself. I found a way to make that happen fast enough that Rodney could shut down the nanites without killing her."
Sam considered saying something, maybe pointing out that Dr. Weir was dead anyway, but bit her tongue. That would sound and be petty. She didn't point out that Jennifer hadn't needed to go so far. There had also been a mission on the boards at the SGC to trade for or recover a sarcophagus. Dr. Weir's nanites could have been deactivated and her body placed within it, healing her safely. Sam had asked for and received assurances from General Landry that they would get one somehow. With Goa'uld out of power through out the galaxy it wasn't as hard as it had once been.
"You experimented on Dr. Weir?" Lorne demanded.
"It was that or keep her in stasis forever," Jennifer insisted.
Sam thought it unlikely considering his reactions earlier, but she asked, "Did Dr. McKay know?"
Jennifer shook her head. "No. I told him I'd found a treatment in the Ancient database and I needed him to kill the nanites. I pushed him into using the nanites to save Elizabeth before, but I don't think I could have convinced him using Carson's retrovirus – even with the modifications I made – as a therapy was a good idea. Besides, he would have taken it to Colonel Sheppard and you."
"You bet he would and you know they would have never authorized it," Lorne snapped at her. All the friendliness had disappeared. "You know 'Michael' has been experimenting, creating his own army of monsters, right?" Major Lorne asked. His voice pitched up in disbelief. "How was this different?"
"I saved her life," Keller insisted. "That's my job."
"Not at the expense of the patient staying human."
Sam shook her head, but mostly agreed with Lorne. She'd read all the files, she knew the history of the retrovirus, from the Wraith turned human turned Wraith they'd finally wiped out with a nuke, to 'Michael' the renegade, to the men who died in an Iratus cave trying to retrieve enough eggs to save Sheppard from converting into a monster. Then there were the Tarani who died as Michael's experimental subjects. She thought playing with anyone's DNA was too dangerous, doing it to someone without their informed consent was monstrous.
For the first time, she thought Keller might be capable of murder. If Weir had found out about what had been done to her, she would surely have done something, and Keller...Sam could not guess how Jennifer Keller might have reacted in light of this new vision of her.
"I know – "
"But you never saw those things, did you?" Lorne asked. "He wiped out the Taranis using them for test subjects, killed a squad of marines and almost got Colonel Sheppard's team too."
"No, but that isn't the point," Jennifer – no, Keller – said. She leaned forward. "I'm not a mad scientist, Major. The Iratus have a huge potential. The Ancients didn't succeed in introducing the regeneration properties into their genome, possibly because of previous creation and addition of the ATA, but we can succeed where they failed. Carson's proto-retrovirus, the one that caused Colonel Sheppard's transformation, didn't turn Dr. Weir into a hybrid, it didn't even survive beyond the point when her immune system recovered enough to wipe it out. It could be the key to – "
"No way Dr. Weir authorized that," Lorne declared.
"She knew I was working on some of Carson's projects."
"Fine. She thought I was refining the gene therapy to achieve a better than forty-nine percent success rate. But I know this is more important. The enhanced speed and strength, the accelerated regenerative abilities that Colonel Sheppard exhibited early on, before the more obvious changes evinced themselves, those could save so many lives," Keller said. "If I can isolate and manage to only introduce those changes, it could save so many lives...Carson let his personal feelings of guilt over an accident get in the way of his research. I've gone over the research the Ancients did on the Iratus. They were attempting to immunize themselves against the plague they left the Milky Way to escape – "
Sam sighed. She didn't exactly 'worship' the Ancients, but she had a healthy respect for their accomplishments. She had a hard time believing that they'd created their own bane in the form of the Wraith while trying to escape another. Though it demonstrated the sort of Catch-22 irony that marked a lot of history. Like buffalo stampeding over a cliff.
"You knew the IOA would never authorize this," Sam said. She would never and the IOA were considerably more conservative. Not to mention having serious doubts about Elizabeth Weir. There had been factions who hadn't wanted her back, whether in charge of Atlantis or not. The Chinese had been particularly vocal.
Or maybe they would, she reconsidered. Politicians regularly ignored dangers in their eagerness to obtain new gains, whether they were weapons or other riches.
Keller sat back. "What I know is that the IOA would attempt to take advantage of it, if they thought for a moment I could succeed. They'd try to use it before it is perfected. That's why I've kept this a secret."
"What else have you done?" Lorne demanded. Sam didn't think he was playing at bad cop any more. "Who else have you been experimenting on?" He leaned over and got right into Keller's face. "Did you kill Weir because she found out?"
"There are activity logs in the biolabs. Check Bio Three, they'll prove I was there all night," Keller said finally. "I swear I didn't kill her. I'm a doctor. Everything I did was to keep her and my other patients alive."
Lorne shook his head in contempt. "Talk about the road to hell." He glanced over at Sam. "Some day we're all going to up on war crimes charges." He looked back at Keller. "You're going to right there in the dock with the rest of us."
Keller looked away. Sam did too.
Even O'Neill blanched as Sam and Lorne repeated what they'd learned from Keller.
Rodney glanced at Woolsey, wondering if she wasn't right. Would the IOA try to take over Keller's research rather than stop it.
"We'll deal with this later," he decided. "Bates, take her back and confine her to her quarters and post a guard. Arrange to have her meals brought from the mess hall until told otherwise."
He commed his primary lab next. "Simpson. Send Miko to Biolab Three. I need her to go through all the activity logs for the last week. Start with the night of Dr. Weir's death. Get me the results as fast as possible. That means tonight, not sometime after your next knitting meeting." He didn't wait for her protest. "McKay out."
They were all staring at him. Fine. They could do something instead.
"Sam! You and Lorne, go search Colonel Sheppard's quarters, see if he's hiding anything beyond cheap porn and sex wax."
"Sex wax?" Jackson echoed.
"For surfboards, sir," Chuck offered up.
Rodney favored him with an irritated glare.
"Just," he waved a hand at Jackson, "go with them." Back to O'Neill. "There. Two of your people. I think you can count on them to keep Major Lorne from nefariously hiding any incriminating evidence."
"Get out of here," O'Neill snapped at the three in question. Then he glared at Woolsey too before stomping back into the conference room Bates had already cleared.
Woolsey was left. Rodney nodded at him reluctantly.
"I really hate it, but thank you," he made himself say. "For the director thing. Earlier."
"Completely unnecessary. The IOA has been very firm in their desire that the American military not take over control of Atlantis," Woolsey said. "I'm merely following their directives."
Rodney snorted but said nothing.
"I'm already sick of this," Rodney said to no one, though Chuck nodded in understanding. Or maybe fear.
"Hey, I promise I won't shoot Sheppard or anything," Colonel Mitchell said. He held up open hands and smiled at Teyla, clearly meaning to charm her.
He did not charm her.
She did consider slapping him, but sighed instead and followed him and Vala deeper into the abandoned industrial zone on Pier Three, where asteroid damage had never been repaired beyond the systems critical to the stardrive and shields.
On reflection, she thought it was the deliberately manipulative aspect of Colonel Mitchell's attitude that annoyed her most. John had certainly charmed and flirted with her on their first encounter, but he'd treated her as an intelligent adult from the beginning as well. He'd always heard her, even when he hadn't listened to her. He had no difficulty admitting she or anyone else knew more about some things than he did.
Listening to Colonel Mitchell talk about SG-1's missions, missions she gathered had occurred before he had joined the team or even knew of the stargate, had grown very tiresome.
It wasn't clear if he actually thought she was stupid or just ignorant. Entirely too many of the Tau'ri equated native with primitive. Unlike Ronon, Teyla didn't appreciate that as an edge. She didn't wish to ever need an edge against her allies.
She didn't mind having one over the enemy however, so she made no attempt to quiet him as he prattled on. His voice would certainly give away their presence if they came within the same sector as John.
Next to her, Vala Mal Doran rolled her eyes theatrically. Colonel Mitchell stalked ahead of them, faintly hunched over his weapon, and did not see his own team mate hold up her hand and make mocking talking gestures at his back.
"I see," Teyla spoke finally. "That is why you have your finger on the trigger of your handgun."
"Just taking precautions," Mitchell said, a trifle sheepishly.
"Darling, I think if you shoot Colonel Sheppard you'll find yourself in the infirmary," Vala told him. She widened her eyes. "Or the morgue."
Teyla had equipped herself with a hand stunner from the small number they had in the armory. It had been designed and manufactured in Atlantis itself, by their own scientists, based on the Wraith stunners they had recovered during their very first year in the city. They still didn't hold a stable charge for more than a day or two, but the scientists were inordinately proud of them. Even Rodney.
"Teyla wouldn't hurt me," Mitchell declared. He looked over his shoulder and grinned at Teyla, silently inviting her to agree.
Teyla raised her eyebrows then nodded to Vala. Mitchell's expression fell.
"I still say this is utterly useless," Vala went on. "Do you truly think Colonel Sheppard killed Dr. Weir? Also, did you hear Dr. McKay?" She smiled broadly. "So authoritative, it just gave me shivers."
"John did not kill Elizabeth," Teyla said. "I am quite sure of that." She did not understand why he had retreated into the maze of damaged industrial sectors rather than face his accusers, but she knew there were political currents among the people of Earth that escaped her. General O'Neill and Mr. Woolsey had brought some secret with them to Atlantis, along with SG-1, first entrusting it to Elizabeth, then to John and Rodney. There had been no opportunity to ask John, but she thought no one else in Atlantis had been told.
"People do the strangest things in my experience," Mitchell disagreed. "That's how they surprise you."
"Well, I consider myself an excellent judge of people and I think he must have been sleeping with her," Vala stated. Clearly that settled the entire matter in her mind. "Now, if you must pick someone to have killed her by pushing her over a railing, I think you should look at the scientists. Much more likely."
They entered an echoing space at the bottom of a building that stretched many stories above them. The opaque white blocks of emergency lighting were dim at best, dull and lightless at worst, with no pattern to which survived. Teyla could feel the extent of the space in the quality of their voices, the hint at a metallic echo, but even the nearest walls were lost in shadow.
"Do you have a suspect?" she asked Vala.
"Perhaps the little man with the glasses?" Vala said. "The one who works with McKay. I saw the way he watched Dr. Weir. Very interested in her. Small men can be quite temperamental." She caught Teyla's sour look. "No? Well, there is Dr. Lee. Never trust a man with a ponytail, I say. Plus I know he lied about his camera – "
The sound on his headset kept fuzzing out into static. He had no sense of the situation. He'd missed even the open channel communiques since he entered the damaged section. The relays that boosted radio reception throughout the city despite the shielding in most buildings had been destroyed out here. Neither Teyla or Ronon were transmitting on the team frequency, either to keep it clear for Rodney or because they knew John would be dialed into it too. He thought they would give him a break, but he couldn't be certain.
He knew that someone would figure out they needed to search the damaged sections for him if he had to hide out for long. Ronon certainly would and Teyla had a disturbing propensity for reading all of his intentions.
Right now, he needed to get out of this section, across the city, and then into one of the shielded areas. Several of the labs were shielded against even the life signs passive observation. Rodney had scathingly mentioned cats, Heisenberg, and then that the Ancients hadn't been satisfied with thought experiments when it first came up. John had been eating a pearple at the time and hadn't paid much attention, because he wanted to finish and grab the last one in the bowl at their table before Ronon did. He remembered the part about the shielding though and thought one of the labs would be a much better hiding place, one where few if any people would think to look for him. If a colonel hides in a city, is he really there if the sensors don't say so?
Maybe he was if a room to room search found him, but Atlantis was the size of Manhattan, mostly empty even now, and John knew that unless someone who knew him figured out where he was going, he could avoid any searches indefinitely. Of course, that assumed he'd never need to eat or sleep and would be willing to become some sort of ghost in the machine, but he had no intention of running for longer than it would take to hijack a jumper and get through the stargate.
He had no intention of letting O'Neill's people or half his own team catch him. That would be embarrassing, after all. Ronon already took an unholy delight in any excuse to stun him. He wasn't going back to Earth and a cell.
Time to set up an ambush. Ronon had paired up with Teal'c. It would take every skill John had to take out those two. There'd be no room to dick around with Mitchell and Mal Doran at the same time. So he'd take them and Teyla out of the equation first. He'd treat anything he heard over the radios as potential disinformation, since they knew he was listening in.
He moved carefully. Atlantis had plenty of creaky spots even before the fluorine started eating they city up and a loud footfall could echo through some of the buildings as clearly as a yell. He knew how to move silently within this realm though he realized he'd need to keep in mind that even seemingly sound portions of it could be compromised by corrosion. It was even more likely here in the damaged zones.
He turned off his radio, listening for pursuit while he circled toward the noise of voices, turning hunter himself. The night-vision goggles came in handy as he progressed deeper into the unpowered areas, where even the emergency lighting was unreliable if present at all, while no stray light from the eclipsed day outside made its way so deep. He'd added a web sling to the Wraith stunner and let it hang over his back like a rifle, keeping his hands free, still thinking out his plan.
Ronon would be smart enough to use the other group as both a stalking horse and bait for John, but he didn't know if Teal'c would. He could turn that around though, because the bait had value not only to him. Of course, there was only so much he could do without crossing the lines he'd set for himself.
Teal'c didn't know that though.
He kept it in mind, though, as he tested a catwalk and worked his way over it, perched on a sound railing and made a jump the wall with gridwork that would support a man, if you once reached it. He had odd little flashes of memory of fast climbing it once before. He didn't have the same insane speed and strength he had then, but he could still reach the same hand and footholds. Ronon had been a ground pounder on Sateda and didn't think in three dimensions as easily as John did. He hoped Teal'c didn't.
Every joint in his fingers hurt by the time he reached the ledge he wanted. A little judicious wiggling and he had a knee on it. From there he managed a crouch and duckwalked to where it turned a corner and hid him from all but one catwalk. He had the vantage and would see anyone stepping out before they had a clue the shadowed ledge hid anything except ten thousand year dust.
It let him aim the Wraith stunner down to the open deck below, too, where the emergency lights still glowed just enough to blind anyone looking up into the shadows. Or anyone looking down using NVGs. He pushed his up out of the way and settled for using his own eyes.
It made a perfect killing floor.
John made himself as comfortable as possible and then went into sniper mode, breathing and waiting, without moving. Not that the ledge gave him much room to move. It was barely wider than his body. Getting down would be a bitch too: he would have to lower himself until he hung from his fingertips, then kick himself away from the wall and drop onto the nearest catwalk, which was a pretty decent drop.
Of course, if he miscalculated and missed the catwalk, the drop would probably be lethal. So it was all relative.
Sometimes he wondered why no one had ever wondered how an Air Force pilot with no black ops background knew the tricks he knew. Did the brilliant minds all just assume he was some kind of military genius? He pushed the question aside.
Any searchers would pass through the shell of this building, though, and that made the risk worthwhile. The damaged corridors leading off from the nearest transporter hub would funnel them to it as they hit dead ends and doorways that opened into nothing, where an asteroid the size of a house had sheered away one face of a tower and the factory space next to it.
The cold metal under him leached away his body heat, not quite enough to make him shiver, just enough to be aware of its touch, the slow chill working its way through the fabric of his BDUs and his uniform shirt into his flesh. He flexed his toes inside his boots, grateful for the extra thick socks he'd special ordered from Earth for himself and the rest of the team. Rodney hadn't been the only one with blisters the first year and John hadn't forgotten. His elbows ached where they rested on the ledge.
The stunner felt warm under his hands and where he nestled his cheek to it. Freaky Wraith technology always felt slightly alive. At least the stunners weren't slimy like the insides of a hiveship.
Hiveships reminded him of the Wraith, particularly the one Kolya had caught. John called him Zigzag the one time Rodney had asked, because he called all the Wraith something. Take away their real name, give one of your own, it was a power game, an interrogator's trick. It hadn't ever worked on the Wraith. Zigzag had a Wraith name that John had heard in his head, something that didn't translate into a vocalization at all. He kept that part to himself. The Genii had been clever, catching Zigzag, the same way Kolya had been clever enough to ambush John and take him. Not clever enough to unseat Radim. Not clever enough to realize that he'd given John and Zigzag both reason enough to ally against him.
John snugged his cheek closer to the butt of the stunner.
The Genii were smart though, especially Radim. They had their spies everywhere. He'd tried to coax Elizabeth into seeing Atlantis needed its own covert intelligence network, but had backed off rather than give away too much. Elizabeth had preferred honesty and negotiation and when that failed, using force like a sledgehammer and not a shiv. As did the Air Force, so John mostly kept his mouth shut.
He waited and the voices came closer.
Mitchell's voice carried. Vala kept picking at him, complaining in a way that reminded John of Rodney. One corner of his mouth kicked up in a sardonic smile. This was why they always ended up stunned or surrounded at spear point while out on missions. He rolled his shoulder as much as he could without shifting off the ledge, loosening his muscles, and drew in a deep, silent breath. The stunner didn't have a gunsight, but John had used them enough to be comfortable. It was an energy weapon and operated in an undeviating straight line until the charge hit something or ultimately dissipated. He didn't need to calculate drop or compensate for a wind. Just point and shoot, like a video game. He could hear Teyla's quieter responses now.
Mitchell had point. He worked his way forward cautiously and he did have a P90. Vala moved behind him. John didn't see a weapon on her. Teyla had their six and carried a hand stunner. She must have checked it out of the armory special for him. Her head swiveled as she tried to study all the shadows surrounding their group.
John waited until they were all in the clear, as far from cover as they would get. He held his breath and listened for any sign Teal'c and Ronon were near.
Below him, Teyla lifted her face, looking up as though she sensed his presence. Maybe she did. He'd never asked if her freaky Wraith genes had let her sense him when he'd gone buggy. He hadn't wanted to know. He hadn't said anything about the way she'd smelled to him then, either: better than anyone else in the city, like...hive. He figured she wouldn't want to know that. Now he wondered if she had and maybe, considering what Biro had said, still did.
That was a worry for another time.
He centered his aim on her torso and took the shot, shifted his aim and fired on Mitchell next, taking out the group in order of danger.
Vala moved faster than he'd anticipated. She raced forward, toward him, and nearly found cover before John could shift his aim and stun her too. She even produced a zat and got off a shot.
It sizzled harmlessly off the catwalk he'd be using to get down and she fell, one arm twitching painfully. The zat hit the floor and skidded beyond her reach.
John winced. He'd grazed her with his shot, so instead of being knocked out, her nervous system had overloaded. Unlike the pins-and-needles sensation of recovering from a full stun's paralysis, a graze felt like being hit with a giant taser. He didn't want to stun her again; sometimes a second shot knocked out the autonomous nervous system too. So she'd just have to suffer through it.
He scrambled and made his drop to the catwalk, ignoring the metallic clang that echoed through the building and the jolt through his ankles and knees. Even if Vala managed to find the zat again, she was still too fried to fire it accurately.
He kept the stunner aimed at her though as he made his way down. By the time his boots were on the deck, she'd recovered enough to curse and hold her head up. Her hand still flopped like an electrified fish, though.
All three of them had radios on, but even if the mics were open, no one would be receiving the transmissions from the dead zone in the building. He listened instead for any hint the noise of the ambush had drawn Teal'c and Ronon, staying in the shadows beyond Vala's line of sight, watching her while he waited. If she was really clever, she might have faked the graze and be playing possum, waiting for him to show himself.
John waited until he was sure no one had heard anything and Vala's twitching and shakes were too prolonged to be faked.
Vala had rolled onto her back. She twisted her neck as he approached. John moved far enough to keep her from straining anything. The shakes were easing off and she managed to sprawl provocatively.
"What now, Colonel?" she asked.
He'd never admit it but Vala's throaty voice did get to him a little. She always sounded just a little wrecked and amused over it.
"Now you keep in mind that your reflexes are still shot and don't go for the knife I'm sure you have somewhere on you," he told softly. "And I tie you up."
"Oooooh, kinky," she purred.
"Or I could stun you again, knock you out like Teyla and Mitchell. I just thought you might appreciate skipping the whole unconscious and drooling part of the program."
She blew a lock of black hair off her lips, tipped her head far enough back to take in Mitchell's sprawled out form, and sighed. "It doesn't sound as much fun as the bondage." A quirk of an eyebrow gave away her continued amusement. "Are they...?"
"Just stunned," John assured. "I wouldn't hurt Teyla."
"Or a lady?" Vala batted her eyelashes at him.
"You really think Mitchell's a lady?" John asked with a grin.
"He can be sort of prissy," Vala said.
John knelt beside Mitchell and found the plastic restraints he'd bet himself that Mitchell would be carrying. Meant for him, but they worked just as handily on Vala. He secured her hands behind her, then her ankles, and after a moment's thought, used her belt to effectively hogtie her.
He also found one knife while he was taking her belt off.
"A girl needs to protect herself," Vala said. "Don't tell anyone I had it?"
"I think they probably know." Who the hell did she think he'd tell? Fellow fugitives?
Vala shook her head. "Of course, but as long as no one mentions it, no one has to do anything about it."
John shifted her around until she could pillow her face on Mitchell's calf while lying on her side.
"By the way, owww, this really still hurts," Vala told him.
"I know, but at least you aren't lying there waiting for a Wraith to come finish you off."
He moved Teyla over to Mitchell too, arranging her in a recovery position. It got cold out this far, but they'd stay warm enough tucked together until they came around. He retrieved the zat, then Mitchell's P90 and several clips.
"I don't believe you'd use that on anyone in Atlantis," Vala commented
John shrugged. "I wouldn't want to."
She hummed. "You shouldn't have run."
He ignored that. "Don't work too hard getting free. In an hour or so, Teyla will come around and cut you loose."
He pulled out his life sign detector and scanned, finding two dots moving slowly through one of the topless towers nearby. Ronon and Teal'c, he thought. Any marines would be working in squads. They were working their way toward his location.
"Gotta go," he said and moved back into the shadows.
"Sheppard!" she shouted. "I think I know who killed Weir! Sheppard! I'm on your side!"
John cursed himself for not gagging her and broke into a run.
Stalking Sheppard, knowing he might be hunting them back, seemed too familiar to Ronon. It made him irritable. It threw his instincts off, because the other times he'd been after Sheppard, it hadn't really been him, only his body, possessed by Thalan or transformed by a retrovirus. Ronon was realizing he'd never really gone up against Sheppard when he wasn't impaired.
Teal'c had never contended with the twisty way Sheppard thought, period.
He'd known Weir's 'keep all the guns locked in the armory' edict for those off-duty, including him, had been a bad idea. He hadn't had time to retrieve his own energy pistol and instead found himself carrying Corporal Danzinger's side arm, appropriated when he passed the guard before catching up with Teal'c.
"Colonel Carter indicated that Colonel Sheppard would 'go to ground' in one of the damaged sections of the city," Teal'c said.
He still didn't like the Earth military's guns. When he'd first arrived in Atlantis, he'd been arrogant enough to consider them primitive compared to a Wraith stunner or his own pulse pistol. He'd gradually come to appreciate the damage they did. Wraith didn't shrug them off quite as fast as an energy weapon's hit. When Thalan fooled him and shot him in the chest, he'd started hating them. He'd never had a clue how much one of those slugs the guns shot could hurt.
Almost as much as the bitter feeling of trust betrayed, though it had been his own fault. He'd let Thalan fool him.
They passed deeper into a shadowed former factory. Half the building was gone, open to the black sky, offering glimpses of the sparkling lights of the rest of the city. Teal'c moved nearly silently, leaving Ronon to his own thoughts.
A clang echoed in the distance. Ronon froze, listening, trying to pinpoint the direction. Ahead of him, Teal'c stilled as well.
Ronon wasn't sure if he was hunting Sheppard or making sure Teal'c didn't catch him.
He wasn't as certain of Sheppard's innocence as his other teammates. Sheppard was far more complex than McKay guessed and more deceptive than Teyla believed. Ronon saw a man who held himself one step away and was always calculating, weighing every word and action and whether it would give away too much of himself.
The distrust made him angry with himself, but he couldn't quite dismiss it. Sheppard was friend and teammate and commander, but Ronon had seen friends turn on each other when Sateda was culled. Kell had betrayed everyone they had been sworn to protect, just to save himself and a few chosen others. His old squad had bought their lives in service to the Wraith and had used their ties to him to get at McKay. No one was certain forever, even when they meant to be.
The sound faded until Ronon could only hear his own breathing and Teal'c's, the creak and rustle of their clothes, and the weary whine of the wind through the higher towers.
"I believe it came from that direction," Teal'c stated. His weapon pointed in the same direction Ronon would have chosen.
Ronon shrugged. He'd go where Teal'c went. He wasn't ready to actively help, wasn't ready to consider the real possibility of Sheppard the killer.
Teal'c studied him. Distant light gleamed off his face. The gray in his hair showed only as a pale smear, but the golden tattoo gleamed.
"If Colonel Sheppard is innocent, he should return to the control tower and explain his actions," Teal'c said.
"He might," Ronon replied. "Everything was fine here until you people from Earth showed up."
"O'Neill and the rest of SG-1 are honorable fighters."
"Doesn't mean they couldn't changed," Ronon said.
Ronon nodded toward the direction Teal'c had indicated. They began walking.
"Do you believe you know Colonel Sheppard so well?" Teal'c asked.
Ronon didn't answer. .
Vala's voice, distant but clear, snapped them both to attention.
"It's about bloody time," she called.
The temptation to smile at the heap Sheppard had left her and the two others in almost won, but Ronon kept his face blank.
"Teyla?" he called.
"Sheppard stunned her," Vala said. She wriggled around, but couldn't get her hair out of her face, so only one large, dark eye was visible. "Come on, Muscles, untie me."
Teal'c and Ronon lingered in the shadows just outside the clear space where their teammates were.
"I fear you were left here as bait," Teal'c told her. "Which way did Colonel Sheppard go?"
"That way," she answered with a head jerk. Teal'c skirted the clear area and kept moving. Ronon drifted after him. "Wait! You aren't going to just leave me here like this?"
"You aren't hurt," Ronon said.
"Just my feelings!" she shouted after them.
"He'll have gone up."
Teal'c appeared to consider this. "I do not believe he will move too far away from a transporter," he said.
They moved upward.
Vala wasted another ten minutes pouting, then wriggled and twisted her way off Cam and over to Teyla. On the chance that Teyla was still paralyzed but conscious by now, she said, "I am not groping you. I want that quite clear. Whoops. Not that you aren't very attractive," as she fumbled her fingers blindly over the other woman's body. Eventually, she found what she wanted. "Ah, I knew you'd have at least one."
She fumbled the knife out of its sheath, cursing as it sliced open the heel of her hand – apparently Teyla believed in keeping her knives very sharp – and then fumbled some more, until she had its hilt pressed tightly between her heels. Then she began dragging the plastic ties binding her wrists against the blade.
Only the awkwardness of her position made it take three passes and she cut open the sleeve of her shirt when the ties gave away.
As soon as her hands were free, she cut the other ties and checked on both Cam and Teyla. They seemed fine.
"Damn," she muttered, looking at the blood running down her wrist. Very sharp edge. It had barely hurt, but now it stung like acid. She shrugged though, used the knife to cut away the rest of the wrecked sleeve and used it to wrap up her hand.
"Listen," she told the two still forms. "I hate to leave you like this, but you'll be fine, and I have an idea. Only I'll need proof. No one ever takes just my word." She smoothed Teyla' hair away from her face. "I can't imagine why."
After some consideration, she took the sheath for the knife from Teyla, tucked it in the back of her pants, and headed out of the damaged sector.
"I'll find someone with a working radio and tell them where you are," she promised.
She would, too, just as soon as she found what she was looking for. After all, how hard could it be to bypass the locks on the residential quarters?
John watched but he couldn't get a bead on either Teal'c or Ronon. They stayed near the walls, avoided the open spaces, and never even cut Vala loose when they found her. He cursed silently to himself and withdrew, working his way in a circle. He wanted to get above them again and he wanted to keep them from getting between him and a transporter.
Of course, Ronon knew that, which made everything harder.
He had ears like a bat, too, so John had to move slowly, keeping every step as quiet as possible.
"Have you considered that Colonel Sheppard may be the Trust agent we have come here to apprehend?" he heard Teal'c ask Ronon.
John held his breath. It was a trick of acoustics that let him hear them. They were on the other side of a wall, but the ceiling had come down in several areas, and it sounded like they were right next to him.
"Doesn't matter," Ronon said.
Only Ronon would think that.
Wait. Considered? This wasn't what he'd thought. John wanted to yell his thanks, while cursing himself for letting Rodney spook him. Instead he calculated where both men would have to exit, into a cross corridor one level up, where a cat's cradle of catwalks crisscrossed over vaulted manufacturing space. They'd cleared out the wrecked and rusted machinery months ago over the protests of Engineering, who had wanted to study the factory's control interfaces even if they couldn't fix it.
He didn't really relish the thought of stunning Ronon and Teal'c – okay, he did, but it was a petty impulse he'd ignore – so he decided to fool them both and get out of this sector entirely. There was a transporter up there that actually worked despite the lack of sensor feedback to the control room, if you programmed a specific destination into it rather than just indicating the area of the city you wanted. He'd take it into one of the shielded lab sections. He could lay low there and monitor the radio and citywide comms again. Wait them out, because they couldn't lock the city down forever. He grimaced to himself. If he had to, he could take a hostage; if things had gone this bad, they'd believe him if he threatened someone.
Two-thirds of the way over the catwalk above the approach to the transporter, he felt a prickle at the back of his neck. Not a sound, but something changed in the air, a subtle stir of currents reacting to other forces than his own passage. John stilled, glad for the dark colors of his daily uniform that were easily lost in the dim reaches. He looked skyward first, narrowing his eyes, trying to find the hint of a silhouette on the open gridwork higher up. His skin still tingled though telling him Ronon had anticipated his strategy. His teammate and Teal'c were somewhere near in the darkness. Moving slowly, he pulled the night-vision goggles back down over his eyes.
It took a breath to adapt to the world limned in shades of green. John had never liked NVGs much; he lost too much of his peripheral vision using them. In the darkness of the hollow factory, though, they were very useful.
He panned his gaze slowly, giving his brain time to interpret the black and green shapes, to pick out a human form even if it wasn't moving, looking for the glitter of an eye or the reflection from a bit of polished gear, a buckle or a scope lens. Somehow, he knew they were waiting, watching the transporter, like lions at a water hole.
They were and John had to bite back another curse.
Either Ronon or Teal'c had found the perfect hide. They had an easy bead on the approach to the transporter and cover on three sides. The metal gridwork of the catwalks would disperse a stunner bolt harmlessly and a trained sniper would need luck to put even one bullet between the railings at anything but a perfect right angle.
He flashed back to hunting the Genii invaders in similar circumstances. He hadn't cared then about ricochets and had emptied more than one clip to garner just a few hits. Sparks had flown up and men had died, from organ damage, from blood loss, from shock that went untreated. More than a few of them hadn't though; they'd only been wounded. They'd died when lightning coursed through Atlantis thanks to Rodney's last minute save, when the shield finally went up. He tried not to think about them, the burnt meat stench that had lingered in his mind along with the flare and thud of bodies hitting the gate shield, lingered long after a marine work detail had cleaned up the charred corpses afterward. He'd been protecting Atlantis and his people. He told himself that; his old refrain, everything, anything, to keep his people safe. Why else had he made the sacrifices he had to stay in the Air Force, even before he ever heard of the Stargate Program? He sank down into a crouch, one hand braced on the metal gridwork under his feet, fingers curled through the openings. The cold metal stung his bare skin, burning like the memories.
He wouldn't shoot Ronon. Couldn't. Or even Teal'c, though the reluctance felt more perfunctory in Teal'c's case.
The most irritating thing about where Ronon and Teal'c had set themselves up was that if they just turned and looked up, there was a section of John's catwalk in clear view. A section he'd have to retreat over to avoid their little trap.
He pondered how long they might be willing to wait and didn't like the odds. His legs would cramp and he'd betray himself before Teal'c lost patience. Ronon wasn't as good at waiting as Teal'c, but he was disciplined and competitive enough to stay with him. There was no chance of waiting until they gave up. They wouldn't.
John had begun contemplating suppressive fire, aiming high and just making noise so they would need to keep their heads down while he crossed that open stretch, when Teal'c spoke.
"We know you are there, Colonel Sheppard."
John stayed perfectly still.
"All methods of egress from Atlantis have been secured," Teal'c went on. "What point is there to eluding us?"
Well, he did have his pride. That and his suspicion that Mitchell might not have balked at shooting him, especially if they'd connected John to Skorpion. He breathed in silently and waited, without shifting his position. The muscles in his thighs began to burn, but he ignored them.
"What do you think you are going to do?"
John ignored him. He'd wait until they stopped thinking he was there before he tried retreating.
He wasn't any better at patience than Ronon, but circumstances called for it. Teal'c didn't speak again. John watched through the NVGs. Teal'c didn't stir and Ronon only moved his head to scan their surroundings. The small of his back itched. He ignored that too, like the headache the green tint to his field of vision gave him.
Minute by minute passed, slow as stalactites forming. John didn't look at his watch. How long they'd spent meant nothing here. It would only become critical if they were all still here when the sun rose the next day, when the light would betray the three of them to each other.
"Sheppard," Ronon said and that made John pay attention, "do you trust McKay?"
He'd swear Ronon was looking up, looking straight at him, but he knew he couldn't be seen, not where he was crouched down. The railings broke Ronon's face into enigmatic slices and the flat effect of the NVGs wrecked any chance of reading his expression.
"You trust Teyla? You trust me?"
John's hand tightened on the metal beneath it, until it hurt, until the marks would be red and deep on his palm.
The words were on his tongue, bitter as medicine, as poison, and weren't those the same things sometimes? Too much of the one becoming the other. That was truth too. Ronon, he thought, you sonovabitch, you're good at this.
"Come on, Sheppard, you want us to trust you, you have to trust us," Ronon said. "Quit dicking around."
It only took her two tries to open the door control panel and bridge two crystals with a third. The door slid open and Vala grinned. Hah! Daniel might have spent his time debating the ethics of the Ancients imprisoning some energy entity for ten thousand years and whether it was sentient; she'd paid attention to the part of the report that had McKay explaining how to hotwire Atlantis' doors. Much more useful.
She slapped the panel back in place and slipped into the room just ahead of a security patrol. She could hear their boots clomping down the next corridor.
"Just in time," she murmured to herself.
The second thing Vala did anywhere, after finding all the escape routes, was determine the guard schedule. Atlantis made her nervous because there were really only three ways out and one of them wouldn't work for her: stargate, starship or jumper. The quarters she had just broke into bothered her for the same reason. The Ancients hadn't gone in for back doors and this room didn't even boast a balcony.
She didn't know exactly why she'd become convinced she'd find something in here, just that she'd been watching the last day and her instincts were all on the alert.
A glance around the spartan room told her little. The markings on the walls were in Ancient and meant nothing to her. Maybe they meant nothing at all and were only decoration.
Vala began with the desk. She found files, manila folders filled with papers, esoteric Tau'ri math and photocopied journal articles covered in highlighter and post-it notes. None of it useful.
She checked the bed, then the washroom, and every hiding place she might have used herself. Nothing. She stopped in the washroom and cleaned the cut on her hand, before retying her makeshift bandage a little tighter. Then she wiped up the spot of blood that had dropped on the floor.
Back to the main room. Atlantis really didn't go in for luxury for its newcomers. The guest quarters were plush in comparison. Vala really didn't get this puritan ethic. Stoicism in the face of necessity maybe, but why not indulge yourself when you could? And the Ancients were worse than the Tau'ri. These beds were a mockery. One could hardly have any kind of interesting fun in a bed that left you afraid to move for fear of rolling off. Did they all sleep still as saints laid out on a tomb? Admittedly, the Goa'uld taste for plating everything in gold could be off-putting, but unadorned concrete and steel weren't much better.
She stood in the middle of the room and turned a slow circle. Her skin crawled a little, the silence getting to her. Atlantis' soundproofing meant she would have no warning of anyone coming in and no place to hide.
"Well, I didn't want to do this," she remarked out loud and went to the closet and began going through it. The Ancients had storage bins that were the same as Tau'ri drawers, just hidden instead of in furniture in the open.
She started at the bottom and worked her way up. Casual clothes, pants, uniforms, shirts, socks, underwear...Vala grimaced. Not something she'd needed to know about. She checked under it anyway.
A smile curled her lips. Not exactly an imaginative place to hide something, was it? Well, well, well.
She looked at the camera in her hand and checked. Yes, the memory card was still in it. She took everything else out of the underwear bin and made sure there were no other memory cards hidden anywhere.
"I knew you lied," she said. She balanced the camera in her hand. "And I'll bet this is going to tell me why."
Sam had been unsure about coming back to Atlantis, even as a visitor. Command had been a prize, sure, that every woman in the officer corps wanted, proof she could and had played as hard or better than the men who won promotions in what seemed like half the time with half the ability she had, but it had also been the hardest, loneliest time of her life. She'd spent ten years going through the stargate. She'd thought she was easily the best qualified person to live offworld, to command Atlantis in the absence of Elizabeth Weir. She'd been wrong.
She had had the skills, but it turned out those were not enough.
No matter how much effort she put into it, Sam hadn't found the rhythm of life in Atlantis. She'd always been a half-beat off. She'd been painfully homesick from the first. She'd remained an interloper sent from Earth, destined to return there eventually, through out her time in Atlantis, and she'd only really grasped why after she had come home.
She was Tau'ri, through and through, and proud of it.
She'd had to come back to Earth to get home; Lanteans were home.
John Sheppard didn't belong to Earth anymore. Neither did Rodney McKay or most of the people in the city. Their first loyalty belonged to Atlantis.
It made it impossible for her to believe even for an instant that Sheppard was a Trust mole or that he'd killed Elizabeth Weir. News that they'd had an ongoing affair only confirmed her conviction that Sheppard loved Weir. Sam knew that was sappy and romantic sounding, even in her own head, but it wasn't. She'd seen the same love in Rodney, in Radek Zelenka, in Major Lorne and many of the others. She'd even seen a reflection of it in Stephen Caldwell's eyes the first time the Daedalus arrived and she greeted him. He'd looked for Weir, looked past Sam for one painful instant.
Elizabeth Weir had inspired an amazing degree of loyalty.
"I'm just not comfortable with this," Daniel said. He'd come to a stop in the middle of Sheppard's quarters and stood with his arms folded, looking mulish and not offering any help in the search.
Major Lorne looked equally unhappy as he and Sam went through his commanding officer's personal belongings. They weren't finding anything at least. In fact, they were finding so little it might have been suspicious under other circumstances. A picture on a night table, Athosian candles, golf clubs and magazines, a surfboard, a poster, not much to show for a life, but Sam was an Air Force brat herself and she guessed Sheppard had never developed the habit of accumulating things.
Anything useful would be in his personal laptop. Sam sat down at his desk and booted it up. It didn't take her long to hack Sheppard's password, but the laptop only yielded the reports and programs she would have expected. No journal, no secrets.
She sat back at last an hour later. Lorne had finished and was tidying the evidence of his physical search. Daniel had planted himself on the edge of the too small bed and was flipping through a well-thumbed copy of War and Peace. One finger held the place of a scrap of paper. Without looking up, he asked, "Find anything?"
"Nothing," Sam said.
Lorne held up his hands. "I've never been happier to report coming up empty."
Daniel held up the paper. "Well, unless this means something, I think we can call it quits."
Sam took the scrap and glanced it, then chuckled. It was nothing more than an order form torn from the back of one of the golfing magazines. Various order numbers were circled. Sheppard probably amused himself picking out all the equipment he would order and have shipped to Pegasus. It had never gone beyond that or there would have been more than the single golfbag and clubs, but she imagined it was like window shopping. She chuckled and handed it back to Daniel, who slipped it back between the pages of the book.
He set it back on the night table and they trooped out of Sheppard's quarters.
"Back to the control tower?" Major Lorne asked.
"I think so," Sam told him. "Now that Ja–General O'Neill's cooled down a little I think he'll listen to us. I'm a little surprised by Zelenka not having all of the surveillance records before he presented them."
Lorne shrugged. "You probably never saw it, but Doc Z's always had a...thing for Dr. Weir. I think it just got away from him, sort of. McKay'll make him wish he hadn't."
Sam smiled because she had no doubt of that. Rodney was as loyal to his team as SG-1 had ever been to each other and his bickering friendship with Sheppard had been one of the startling things she'd had to get used to when she'd commanded them. Atlantis hadn't really worked out for her, but she'd still learned some lessons.
Without thinking about it, she and Lorne took a right where the corridor intersected, walking in stride. Daniel started to take the left, then realized they weren't with him and hurriedly caught up. "Hey, isn't the transporter in the other direction?"
"It is," Lorne said, "but – "
" – That particular transporter always hiccups and deposits you at the ground floor of the control tower," Sam finished. "It's a long climb up."
"The one the next level down here ends up getting you there faster," Lorne said as they took the stairs down to the second residential level, where the newest personnel were lodged until they found better. They turned a corner and Lorne abruptly stopped.
Sam peered past him in time to see Vala slipping out of a door where she definitely didn't belong. SG-1 along with Woolsey and O'Neill had been using the much nicer visitors' quarters two levels up. The balconies had spectacular views.
"Vala," Daniel said, long suffering and tired, "what are you up to?"
Vala held up something. Her hand was wrapped in a bloody bandage made, it looked like considering her one bare arm, of her own shirtsleeve. "I've got it, Daniel!"
Sam ignored her worry over the bandage, since Vala seemed otherwise fine. "Where are Cam and Teyla?"
"Is that a camera?" Lorne asked.
"Exactly!" Vala exclaimed, nearly bouncing on her toes. She settled slightly and added, "Colonel Sheppard stunned them, but he missed me."
"And you left them?" Daniel demanded.
"They'll be fine. He's much too fond of Teyla and the rest of his team to hurt anyone," Vala dismissed him. She extended the small, silver and black piece of technology in her hand toward Lorne. "Guess who didn't lose this after all?"
Sam and Daniel shared a confused glance. It was just a digital camera.
"Holy shit," Lorne said. He looked stunned then briefly as calculating as Vala at her worst. His mouth thinned into a hard line. "Is there actually anything useful on it?"
Vala nodded. Emphatically.
"We've got to get this up to McKay and General O'Neill," Lorne said.
"That's what I thought as soon as I found it," Vala agreed, smiling so widely it should have hurt.
"Would one of you please tell me what's so important?" Daniel asked.
"Okay," he said. Okay, he could do this. He would do it.
John squeezed his eyes closed for a breath, then pushed himself upright. His knees creaked and ached. He shoved the NVGs up and blinked until his eyes adapted as much as they were going to. The strap that held them tight to his head had bit into his temple and the skin there stung as blood rushed back in.
"Easy does it," he called down to Ronon and Teal'c. Without the NVGs on he couldn't see what they were doing, but they screwed with his depth perception too much. "I'm going to come over there. Let's all stay calm."
"We are waiting," Teal'c stated.
He knew they could see him as he walked forward. He half expected Ronon to whip out his pulse pistol and stun him, though he felt relatively confident Ronon would stop Teal'c from doing anything.
"About time," Ronon said when they were facing each other. "I'm getting hungry."
"Hey, I missed breakfast too," John said, matching the light tone. He held his hands out, empty and open, where Teal'c could see them. He kept his eyes on Teal'c, searching his face for the first clue that he'd made a mistake .
"Please place your weapons on the floor and step away from them, Colonel," Teal'c instructed him. "Slowly."
John unclipped the P90, kept his hands away from the trigger and placed it on the floor. He followed it with his 9mm, then the Wraith stunner slung over his back. Teal'c quirked his lips.
"Now, the knives."
John smirked and laid out the combat knife he kept on his belt, a stiletto from one boot, then a small throwing knife from the other, then the Swiss Army knife he carried in a pocket and the second throwing knife he had hidden in his tac vest.
"Hunh," Ronon commented, "didn't know about that one."
John added a flashbang grenade to the pile, then a square of C4, followed by a case with detonators inside. He didn't add a couple of things neither Teal'c or Ronon would realize he carried: a wire garrote sewn into the waistband of his pants, a set of lockpicks, or the zat he'd appropriated from Vala, currently tucked into the back of his belt, hidden by the tail of his uniform shirt.
Teal'c nodded for John to step away from the pile. Ronon did his thing where he made all of it disappear, except the Wraith stunner.
"Specialist Dex, please secure the Colonel's hands," Teal'c said.
John took another step back and declared, "No way."
"You heard him," Ronon told Teal'c. John sent him a grateful look.
The silence that followed stretched and stretched, until John's nerves thrummed and he tensed, ready to dive for cover, but Teal'c finally gave in with a single nod.
"So, I guess we all head for the control tower now," John said to break the tension.
"I'm still hungry," Ronon commented.
"You're always hungry," John said as they stepped into the transporter. "Bum a Powerbar off McKay when we get there. I could use one too." He activated the secondary control system that let him use a series of symbols to program in their destination. "Ready?"
"I am," Teal'c said. The blue light from the wall mounted control gleamed off his skin, reflecting from his eyes. He kept his P90 at the ready and didn't let Ronon get between him and John despite the transporter's tight quarters.
"You're the only one who actually likes those things, Sheppard," Ronon complained as the flare of light enveloped them, before the doors opened onto the well-lit corridor just off the control room.
John was calculating whether he could take out Teal'c and Ronon plus whoever was in the control room, dial the gate, and run. Bad odds. He'd have to take a hostage to manage it. Venket would be his best bet. She was tall enough to use as a body shield and a pacifist who had refused everything but the mandatory self-defense training even the civilians had to take.
Rodney's fingers actually itched with the desire to push Zelenka away from the computer and do the work himself. He forced himself to step away and instead ended up hovering over the comm station, waiting for any news from the out of touch search parties. They had heard nothing since Teal'c and Ronon slipped off the grid following Mitchell's group into the dead sector. The frustration of just waiting made him want to snap and snarl and do something, but he knew Woolsey was watching and O'Neill – who knew what O'Neill might be plotting – couldn't be left to his own devices. He couldn't afford to narrow his focus to one task and so he waited.
He didn't do it well, but neither did O'Neill, who crisscrossed the control room in an intricate pattern that still orbited the comm station just as much as Rodney did. Jimenez' shoulders hunched every time the two of them approached too close together.
"Perhaps some coffee...," Woolsey suggested once.
"You want to go get it, fine," O'Neill told him.
"Don't interrupt Zelenka ," Rodney snapped. " And no food in the control room. I am sick of cleaning crumbs out of the DHD." He aimed a glare at Chuck, the worst offender among the control room staff. Chuck rolled his eyes.
"In the conference room, then," Woolsey said.
No one moved to go get any coffee. Rodney twitched and bit his tongue and fielded a frantic radio call from Simpson. "No, no, yes, no, don't let them near it," he snapped as she babbled. "Oh for – Get a marine, get a gun and shoot them, I don't care, just keep them out of my lab space. Yes, I will make sure they go back to Earth, where hopefully the SGC won't let them play with the kind of toys that destroy planets. Yes, I promise, an entire week of simulation time if you just take over the labs until the end of the day, Simpson." He shoved his hands through is hair and contemplated pulling it out by the roots. Maybe another day. "I swear, once we have the current crisis wrapped up, you can have the day off. Then I'm going to give you Zelenka's job and send him to – " he raised his voice enough to be heard in the gate room a level below, " – service the shield on Planet Kidkill!"
Woolsey stared at him like he'd lost his mind and O'Neill had one graying eyebrow cocked. Rodney lifted his chin. "Believe me, you don't want to see what those little monsters can do with finger paints and braids."
O'Neill snorted, apparently unwillingly amused. Then he spoke and took Rodney by surprise. "Riding a desk is a bitch."
"You're used to being out there with your team, doing, right? This is harder. When I got my stars, I found that out."
"Luckily, I've never considered myself some kind of action hero, so I can adapt."
Zelenka walked over. He had his glasses in his hands and folded, then unfolded the earpieces over and over. "Rodney."
"What?" Rodney spun and almost lunged at him. "Have you got the rest of – What?"
"Atlantis failed to record anything from the sky bridge. There are major failures in its internal surveillance systems where processing power or conduits were pre-empted for more critical sensor operations. It prioritized for those sectors that had the heaviest traffic and the sky bridge didn't make the cut."
Rodney slumped between breaths. "How utterly, perfectly predictable."
"I am sorry."
"Don't tell me you're sorry again," Rodney told him. "Just get out of here. Go help Simpson protect the labs from Felger and Coombs."
Zelenka stayed out of reach, taking the stairs down to the gateroom and heading for a transporter on that level instead of passing Rodney. Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose.
Sam's voice over the radio saved him from whatever he would have done next. He had no clue what it would have been; his brain felt like three-day-old gruel. He wished Woolsey had gone and brought them all coffee.
"General O'Neill, McKay, we're on our way back. We didn't find anything in Colonel Sheppard's rooms."
I told you so, Rodney mouthed at O'Neill.
"But Vala has something she thinks we should look at."
God, what? Vala? Vala Mal Doran, space ditz and Orici mama? What the hell could she have besides some pocketed silverware and a case of interstellar clap? Rodney groaned. She'd been with Mitchell and Teyla...He pressed past Jimenez and radioed, "Sam – "
Lorne's voice interrupted, answering his worries. "Just go with it, doc."
Rodney hesitated, but then let it go. He didn't think Lorne would be backing Vala or anyone else if Teyla had been in danger. Lorne had his priorities straight; he'd proved it already this day. "Okay. I want answers when you get here."
"T, good job!" O'Neill exclaimed.
Rodney jerked around and found himself staring at Sheppard, Ronon and Teal'c, who had just come from the transporter.
"In point of fact, I did not secure Colonel Sheppard," Teal'c said. "He joined us voluntarily."
"Cleared my name yet, Rodney?" John asked.
"Not yet," Rodney admitted. "I told you – What the hell were you thinking?"
"Yeah, there's no way anyone has any evidence I killed Elizabeth, because I didn't," John said. He shrugged, belying the tight look around his eyes. "So, why the hell should I go into hiding?"
"The guilty flee," O'Neill suggested.
John smiled and nodded at him. "Exactly, sir. Sorry for the trouble, but I've gotten into the habit of listening to Rodney, even when he screams and says run."
"I did not – I do not scream," Rodney declared, distracted from the question of what John did have to run from.
"Yes, you do," Ronon said.
"Got anything to eat?"
"My God, no, I don't have anything to eat, do I look like a cook to you?"
"You'd be good at it," Ronon teased.
John strolled over and leaned against the comm console next to Rodney. "Sure you haven't got a Powerbar on you?"
"What? No? No, I – Of course, I would be good at it, that isn't the point, are you both brain damaged!?" Rodney blustered. Why did they both have to be so frustratingly blasé?
"Oh, good, you're all here."
John's smile widened and became a little more real as Vala strolled in, followed by Sam, Daniel, and Lorne.
"Well, everyone but Teyla and Cam," Vala amended after looking around. She batted her lashes at John and smiled back. "Someone stunned them."
"Consider it a training exercise."
"Teyla isn't going to be happy," Ronon commented. Rodney winced. No, she wasn't. There would be bruising and those looks she could give, that made you feel smaller than an electron.
"Sir," Lorne greeted him. "Doc." He tapped his radio. "Lt. Crown? Put together a team and retrieve Colonel Mitchell and Ms. Emmagen. They've both been stunned."
John nodded to Lorne and added, "East Pier, Quadrant Nine, fourth building from the nearest transporter, ground floor." He glanced at his watch. "They should start coming around in about a half hour."
Lorne relayed the location. "Take them to the infirmary to be checked."
John pointed to Vala's hand. "I didn't do that. What happened?"
Vala waved her bandaged hand. "Oh, this? Your friend keeps her knives very sharp and I couldn't exactly see what I was doing, but it's really fine." She held up her other hand, clutching a camera. "I told you I had an idea. Since you didn't stop to listen to me, I had to get free myself – " She leveled a glare at Teal'c and Ronon. " – and find the proof. You can all apologize and thank me later."
"Vala," Daniel said. He swallowed back the impulse to apologize for her. The Atlantis crew didn't seem bothered, Jack would mock him later, and Vala would just be egged on to greater outrageousness.
"Shut up, Daniel," Vala replied and she'd gone serious.
She handed the camera to McKay, who juggled it like a radioactive lemon. "What?"
"You have to look at the pictures."
"Come on, McKay, it'll be just like a slideshow," Sheppard quipped. "It'll be nifty."
McKay shot a dark look at Sheppard, repeated, "Nifty," in voice oozing sarcasm, but they all trooped into the conference room, where he immediately produced a cable to attach to the camera. As he did, he complained, "I'll have you know I was never an A/V geek."
Despite his protest, it didn't take McKay a minute to hook the camera up to a laptop and begin displaying the contents of its memory card on a large projection screen.
Vala seated herself on the table and swung her legs. Teal'c placed himself at the door and kept his gaze on Colonel Sheppard. Daniel found a chair and watched as the pictures showed him some decently framed, some badly jiggled, and at least three thumb blurred images of what looked like Florida, two kids, a freckled and exasperated woman in a red and blue bathing suit, and then more pictures of the same kids and woman in the backyard of a house. Something about the quality of the light made Daniel think the pictures had been taken in Colorado, maybe even Colorado Springs. Each one had a date time stamped into one corner. The first were several months old.
Sam cocked her head, looking at the kids and the woman, then gasped. "Oh. That's Bill's ex-wife."
"And his children," Teal'c said. "I have seen several pictures of them on his desk at various times."
"So, why are we looking at this again?" Jack demanded. He'd taken a seat too and begun drumming his fingers over one knee.
"When we interviewed Dr. Lee," Lorne said, "he mentioned taking pictures. He said he'd misplaced his camera."
"Under his underwear," Vala remarked. She tsked. "Of course I looked there. In case you're interested: briefs."
"Really, I could have lived without that image the rest of my life," McKay muttered.
Jack pointed at him and nodded and Dex snorted. Sheppard leaned toward Vala and asked seriously, "No lemons or dinosaurs or smiley faces?"
Without looking, McKay smacked Sheppard's arm.
Daniel decided he didn't want to know why.
"Boring," Vala said. "My underwear on the other hand – "
"Vala!" Daniel interrupted.
"You are such a prude. I don't understand how an anthropologist can be so repressed."
"I just don't think anyone here is interested in your choice of underwear," he said and then wished he could just bury his head for the next week.
"Okay, pictures of the SGC, more pictures, the labs, Sam, Sam's as–behi–Sam from behind," McKay narrated, drawing Daniel's attention back to the picture show. "Sam, Sam, Cam, the gate, the gate, Midway Station, hunh, a really interesting piece of equipment, is that Asgard?"
The time stamps were closer and closer to the current date if they'd been on Earth.
"And now we have Atlantis," McKay said as a picture taken somewhere in the city appeared.
Lorne listened to a report on his radio, then murmured, "Mitchell and Teyla are being checked. Looks like they're both fine. Mitchell's still out, though."
Everyone looked at Sheppard for a moment. He managed to look insulted. "Hey, I got the drop on them, but I used the stunner."
McKay grunted. "Teyla is going to leave you black and blue the next time you practice with her."
Sheppard winced. "Ouch."
More pictures of Atlantis, from the first day they arrived, then through the following week.
"He does know he could never show these to anyone, right?" Jack asked the room at large.
"He likes to chronicle where he's been," Sam said. "For himself. And someday the program will be declassified, of course."
"Of course. I hope this is going to actually show us something useful soon."
The time stamp on the pictures caught Daniel's attention as the pictures showed the city late in the day, a dim and bloody sunset over the alien sea, fuming mist rising from the water. He calculated the difference in hours in his head and blurted, "These were taken the night Elizabeth was killed."
"Exactly," Vala said.
Everyone watched the next pictures intently. Night fell and several pictures showed the towers sparkling against MR3-331's night sky.
And then a photograph showed the sky bridge.
Empty and whole.
Two more shots were taken from on it, looking outward. Then a swooping, blurred shot followed as though the photographer had been startled and turned. It showed a smeared figure in red and black, pale face, dark hair. One more picture showed the slender, this time recognizable, figure on the bridge, in focus, an uncomfortable, slightly forced smile on her fine features. She had one hand up in an awkward, greeting wave.
"Elizabeth," McKay said, his voice flat and shocked.
"Biro's autopsy placed time of death within a one hour window," Sheppard stated. His face had gone blank. "According to the time stamp, this picture was taken twenty-five minutes into the window."
"Why the hell would he kill Elizabeth?" Jack asked.
Daniel just stared at the picture on the projected screen. Less than a half hour after it had been taken, Elizabeth had been dead, all the vibrant life snuffed out, that brilliant mind reduced to so much decaying flesh, Elizabeth Weir stopped. Not. Undone. It made him ill, as did the realization that the person responsible had been someone he knew, someone who had come from Earth with them. There was no spy, no Trust mole, no conspiracy or reason for what had happened.
"Ms. Mal Doran," Woolsey said, startling Daniel out of his dark spiral, "who does this camera belong to?"
"It's Bill Lee," McKay answered before Vala could. "I can't believe it, but it's Bill Lee."
John sighed to himself, because now he had to be grateful to Vala. None of them had looked at Lee and seen anything more than a slightly rotund, middle-aged, well-intentioned but geekish scientist. Zelenka was more threatening, since John knew exactly how competent he was. William Lee was a fade into the background personality. John hadn't even thought of him since Arrival Day.
"I told you I didn't kill her," John said sotto voce to Rodney.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, you did." He had that frown on his face that said something was still bothering him, scratching at the back of his mind. Sooner or later, Rodney would get it, John knew. He couldn't leave a mystery alone, even one no one else realized existed.
He looked away from Rodney and studied the picture on the screen. Elizabeth probably hadn't thought much about Bill Lee beyond irritation. She hadn't considered him a danger. Her expression showed no fear.
"So...why?" O'Neill asked what they were all wondering. "I mean...Lee? It just doesn't compute."
Glances were exchanged and a tumble of possibilities were suddenly offered.
"Could he be a replicator?" Sam asked.
"Alien shapeshifter?" Rodney offered.
"Clone?" Jackson said.
O'Neill grunted again.
"Brainwashed?" Lorne piped up.
John watched as the possibilities multiplied. "By who?" he asked.
"NID? Trust? Some unknown to us interest? Aliens."
"Anyone sure he isn't a robot like Harlan made?" O'Neill questioned.
"Android," Jackson corrected him absently. "And I think their power sources would have registered on Atlantis' internal sensors."
"They would," Sam and Rodney chorused.
"Zatarc," Teal'c suggested.
"He didn't suicide," Jackson disagreed.
Woolsey coughed discreetly. John looked at him. "Mr. Woolsey?" he prompted.
Woolsey steepled his fingers and leaned forward. "Shouldn't we consider more mundane reasons first, before the alien possession or influence? Dr. Lee has both an ex-wife and two children. Blackmail or threats to their safety could explain why none of you can think of why he would kill Dr. Weir."
John nodded because he thought Woolsey made a good point. Everyone went through a full psych evaluation and physical prior to shipping out for Atlantis or stepping through the wormhole. After the experience with Colonel Caldwell, the Asgard beams had been equipped with filters that triggered an alarm if they detected Goa'uld or Tok'ra DNA in anyone beamed aboard the 303s. Anyone using the wormhole was confined to the base once their final, pre-mission physical had been done. Those included MRIs and complete body scans that would pick up any artificial implants, along with screens for an enormous variety of endemic Milky Way diseases, parasites, drugs and vermin. He gone through the entire process twice since it had been instituted at the SGC.
"We could just get him up here and question him until he tells us," Lorne said. "Sirs."
O'Neill snorted and looked at Rodney. "Well, Director?"
"Major," John said, "since this is your idea, why don't you and a couple of the marines ask Dr. Lee – politely – if he would join us here?" He let himself smirk at his XO. "No need to make a citywide announcement."
"No need, sir," Lorne agreed.
Vala said, "Hey! What about me? I'm the one who figured it out."
Sam smiled at her. "All right. Tell us how you knew about the camera, Vala."
"Well, Major Lorne and I questioned him and he was obviously lying, sweating and twitching, and while many men have that reaction around me, he didn't have an alibi and wouldn't hold eye contact when he mentioned losing his camera," Vala explained. "That's a mistake amateur liars make, explaining things they shouldn't mention at all."
"You being an expert on lying," Jackson commented.
Vala gave him a hurt look. "Yes, Daniel. I'm very good at it."
"Well, I'm grateful," John told her.
She flashed him a blinding smile. "Believe me, I will collect. I'm thinking jewelry to begin with, then – "
"Not that grateful," John said. The next time they had a chance to pick up something as part of a mission, though, he'd find something and send it to her. He could always write it off toward good trade relations. He winked at her, keeping up the casual front, but wanted to slump down and maybe gibber a little in relief. He felt like his muscles and his mind had both been reduced to overcooked spaghetti. It looked like he might still be going on missions for Atlantis, thanks to Vala and his team's confidence in him. He knew if Rodney hadn't stepped up, O'Neill could have had John hustled through the gate back to Earth and a quick trial before any new evidence was uncovered. If it had been uncovered, because Vala would have gone back with SG-1 too and none of the rest of them had looked twice at Bill Lee.
If they could just get the story of what had really happened on the sky bridge from Lee, maybe O'Neill and Woolsey would take the man, along with SG-1, back to Earth. Once they were a galaxy away, John would feel a lot safer.
A spark of selfish anger quickened in him at the thought of Lee, sitting and lying to Vala and Lorne, perfectly willing to let someone, anyone else take the fall for the murder he'd committed. His hands curled into fists. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to leave Lee alone with him. Ever. The sonovabitch had cost them all Elizabeth and nearly cost John everything that mattered to him.
Rodney bumped his shoulder against John's. "Zelenka is going to grovel to you," he said in a low voice. "Don't let him off too easy." Carter had taken a seat with O'Neill and Jackson. They were talking quietly. Woolsey sat a little separate from them and seemed to contemplate the projection screen.
Ronon sat down next to John, sprawling and leaning. "No more keeping all the guns in the armory. Takes too much time to get to them in an emergency."
"Yeah," John agreed. "It must have broken your heart to miss out on a chance to stun me."
Ronon grinned at him. "Told you. Never gets old."
John relaxed fractionally and opened his hands. He slanted a glance at Rodney. "So, I think you owe me a save."
Rodney looked pained. John's smile slid away. Rodney looked genuinely upset, not irritated, annoyed or frustrated at John's teasing. "Hey."
"I would have found a way," Rodney said.
"Hey, I know," John replied, looking him straight in the eyes. He did. Ronon had been right. He trusted Rodney, trusted him even more than Teyla and Ronon.
"Good." Rodney coughed. "Good. Of course. I just – I want you to believe that."
"McKay," Ronon said. "He wouldn't be here if he didn't."
John laughed because they still didn't have a clue and it kind of hurt.
Bill had been reading through some of Radek Zelenka's work. Much of it hadn't made it back to Earth. Zelenka had put together what were essentially repair manuals for the jumpers and Bill had to admit that they were masterpieces in their way. Zelenka had mastered not only an understanding of what could and did go wrong with them, but how to fix them and how to convey that, even to non engineers. But almost anyone could replace a car part given a repair manual; it didn't mean they understood the physics of the internal combustion engine. No, he assured himself, his jumper project, aimed at truly deconstructing and re-engineering the basic science that underpinned the jumpers, was still viable and necessary.
He tried to convey that repeatedly, but no one listened to him here.
And now the jumper bays are locked down, guarded by stone-faced marines and he can't even access the jumpers. The other scientists work hunched over or clumped in little groups, whispering, sharing sidelong looks that leave Bill and all the other newcomers out.
Nancy Simpson threw a screaming fit, though, when Jay Felger attempted to work with a piece of equipment he theorized would generate a localized shield/cloak. All the scientists in Atlantis have been around McKay too long. Even if Jay's experiment had failed, the worst it would have done would have been taking down the Earth mainframe. Atlantis' operating system and database would have been completely safe.
"We can't run down to Circuit City and pick up a new one any time we want!" Simpson hissed. She'd physically grabbed Jay's wrist and pulled him away. "We're in another galaxy, in case you missed that memo."
"But – "
"Write up a proposal with the numbers and a stated goal, just like everyone else," Simpson told him. She looked around the lab, catching the eye of every new person, then raised her voice. "Atlantis is not a box full of shiny new toys for you to take apart. We live in this city and our first goal is always to keep it functioning. If that isn't pure enough for you, go back to Earth. Otherwise, do the jobs you're given, put together your research proposals and if they're sound, Dr. McKay will allocate you the time and equipment."
The problem, Bill decided, was McKay. McKay would decide. McKay was in charge and he wouldn't even listen to anyone who hadn't been in Atlantis at least six months. Bill had tried.
Then he had tried to talk to Dr. Weir.
He'd emailed her, asked for an appointment repeatedly, and finally managed to get her alone...
Bill pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. They'd been assured the atmosphere of this planet held nothing harmful, but his eyes always hurt and his sinuses kept filling up with a disgusting mucus. His guts churned uncomfortably, acid burning in his belly and coming up when he made himself eat the food in the mess hall. It was all the wrong colors, the wrong tastes, the wrong smells and weight, even the light, or the lack of it today, preyed on his mind as well as his body. He'd gone to the infirmary, but the doctor who had given him his physical had been gone and the nurse on duty had given him only a cursory exam, handed him a packet of tissues, and said it would clear up as soon as his body adapted. He couldn't tell her that he hadn't slept for three nights, that the shadows were starting to twist and reach for him, that he jumped every time someone spoke to him.
He wasn't going to think about that anymore, but he kept hearing the screech of tearing metal. He stayed inside and tested each step suspiciously. Atlantis was old, didn't anyone else worry that it was a wreck, about to fall apart? Of course not. They hadn't been there and seen...
A rustle and sudden silence snapped him back to the lab. Major Lorne had come in and was speaking with Simpson. She pushed her hair off her face and nodded, then pointed to Bill's area. He shrugged his mental fog away and listened while feeling around and pocketing the small laser cutter he'd been working with earlier. He felt better with that in his pocket for some reason. He didn't let himself think about why.
"Go ahead, get him out from under my feet. Take Felger too."
Lorne smiled. "You're stuck with him, Dr. Simpson. Sorry."
"Not as sorry as I am."
They walked over to Bill.
"Hey, Dr. Lee," Lorne said. "Could you come with me? You're needed up in the control room."
"Oh. Oh, of course." Bill stood up and surreptitiously wiped his palms on his pants. "Should I bring my laptop?"
"Naw, that won't be necessary."
He followed Lorne out into the corridor. Two marines fell into step on either side of him. Bill licked his lips and asked, "What's going on?"
"Just being careful," Lorne told him. "Colonel Sheppard might show up. You never know."
Bill swallowed bile. Did these people really think Sheppard had killed poor Dr. Weir? Why? He was completely out of his depth and afraid to ask the questions he needed answers to.
Lorne hustled him into one of the transporters that still made Bill incredibly nervous after over a week. He didn't know if he found the casual way the old hands used much of the technology around made him more or less confident. The transporter didn't give him any time to contemplate that either. Light burst around them and then the doors were opening. Bill's stomach did a turn and roll that came strictly from his reaction as he let Lorne lead him through the control room to a set of tall red doors. They rotated open then closed silently behind them.
Everyone in the room looked at Bill.
He looked at the projection screen and wondered if his heart might just stop beating.
"I – I – I – " He could get anything else out, especially when he saw Colonel Sheppard, eyes furious and narrow, seemingly held in his seat only by McKay's tight grip on his arm. He noticed Teal'c and that huge alien Dex circle the room until they were at the doors, closing off any path of retreat.
"We were hoping you could answer some questions for us, Bill," Samantha – Colonel Carter, he corrected himself – said.
"I..." He licked his lips, mouth dry, and bobbed his head. "Certainly. Any help I can give."
"Start with why you killed Elizabeth," McKay said. His hand remained locked on Colonel Sheppard's wrist, closed almost cruelly, knuckles white. Like holding onto the soldier was all that kept him from erupting to his feet, too. Bill considered McKay temperamental and often out of control; he'd heard him scream at Coombs a few days ago, before he'd curtailed his time in the labs in favor of the control tower. Now he'd gone cold, harsh, his voice flat and inert.
"McKay!" Colonel Carter exclaimed, echoed by Daniel Jackson and General O'Neill.
"I don't understand," Bill said, though his own voice had gone weak.
"Don't act any stupider than you actually are," McKay replied. "Just tell us the truth."
"But why would you think I would..." Bill couldn't keep his gaze from darting back to the projected picture then down to his camera hooked up to McKay's laptop and back up. He blinked hard. He'd been surprised when she walked out on the sky bridge. Surprised and pleased at the turn of luck that had him there when he really wanted to talk to her about the jumper project. The quickly masked annoyance on her face had gotten to him, though.
"Dr. Lee, please don't waste our time or yours," Mr. Woolsey said once Bill's own words had trailed away. He looked annoyed too.
Bill hated the way so many people looked at him like that. General Landry often looked irritated, but he knew Landry didn't comprehend half of what Bill said and chalked it up to that. He'd hoped that in Atlantis, which was meant to be scientific research base, and boasted the finest minds Earth could boast, he wouldn't come up against the brick wall of the military's constant demand for useful results.
"Are you denying that is your camera?"
"I lost it."
"Or that you took the photographs on it?"
"I lost it!" Bill yelled. He glared at Major Lorne and Vala Mal Doran. "I told you I lost it."
"But you lied, Bill," Vala said.
"Why would you lie about that?" Major Lorne prompted. "Why wouldn't you tell us you had seen Dr. Weir the night she died?"
"Makes you look bad, Bill," General O'Neill added. "Real bad. Like you were hiding something."
"In his underwear drawer," Vala remarked. "That's where he hid it."
"If you'd been smart, you would have really lost that camera," Lorne said. "Atlantis is a big place. You could have dropped it from the balcony of one of the towers. It would have smashed into pieces."
Bill gulped, feeling sick and frightened. They were circling around him with their words, hemming him in like a pack of wolves, and he had no way to defend himself. He had no defenses. He was weak and they kept taking turns, darting in to tear another piece out of him.
"You know what happens to things that fall very far, don't you, Bill?"
"Things. Or people," Dr. Jackson added morbidly.
"Stop, stop it," Bill said.
"Bet you feel stupid now," O'Neill carried on. He'd rocked his chair back and laced his hands over his waist. He studied Bill and his eyes were dark and sharp and unforgiving as an old, scarred pack leader.
"How did you get it?" Bill blurted out, knowing he was being as stupid as O'Neill and McKay thought him, but angry again, the way he'd been when she dismissed his attempt to persuade her to let him continue his project. She'd turned her back on him and he'd remembered how she fooled him on Earth, sweet lies and pretending to be interested in his interests, when she was just fooling him for McKay.
"We searched your quarters, of course," Vala told him.
Colonel Carter coughed hard.
"You had no right!"
"Quit bleating," McKay said with a sneer. "We had every right. We're investigating a murder."
"A warrant," Bill exclaimed, surging forward, wanting to wipe the sneer off McKay's arrogant face, "you couldn't have had one." He pulled himself up as Colonel Sheppard surged to his feet despite McKay's hold.
"John, no." McKay caught at Sheppard again and pulled him back down, but Bill couldn't look away from Sheppard's face. No one could doubt this man could commit murder. Bill thought Sheppard wanted to and would gleefully kill him right in front of everyone in the room. Sheppard didn't say anything, though, and only shrugged off McKay's hand with a quick jerk of his arm.
"Bill, you agreed to be subject to the authority of the Atlantis Expedition when you came here," Colonel Carter said. "Warrants aren't necessary."
They'd already tried and found him guilty. Bill tried to fight down the panic. Panic made him do things he regretted, it made him awkward and guilty-looking. He should have got rid of the camera. He could have written to Corinne. She would have sent him pictures of her and the kids.
Part of him had rebelled at that, though. Destroying his camera somehow had equated with hiding what had happened – he hadn't done it, it hadn't been on purpose, it hadn't happened – and admitting to himself that it had.
"You know what astounds me?" Dr. Jackson said. "You were perfectly willing to stand aside and let someone else be blamed for Elizabeth's death."
Sheppard stirred then and spoke for the first time. "Just admit it, you sonovabitch."
A hard swallow couldn't open up his throat. Bill's voice pitched up embarrassingly.
"I didn't mean to."
Lee looked imploring, much to Rodney's disgust. The man even wrung his hands. Rodney had to grit his teeth and concentrate on his own breathing, in and out to the slow rhythm Teyla counseled for meditation, to keep a handle on his temper. ...hadn't meant to, that wasn't a damn excuse.
Beside him, John practically vibrated with leashed rage. It had been a horrendous day so far for him, too; bad enough his normal mask had slipped so far anyone could see the emotions he usually kept under lock and key, if they knew to look. Rodney didn't reach for him again, though. He'd used up his reserve of allowed touch and, frankly, much inclination to save Lee from him if John's control finally broke.
"You have to believe, I never intended to harm Dr. Weir."
"Nonetheless, your actions did have that result," Teal'c said.
Lee jumped like he'd been hit with a pain stick and shuffled down one side of the room, putting space between him and the – granted – obviously dangerous trio of Ronon, Teal'c and John.
"So," Rodney said, "you aren't an agent of the Trust or some branch of the NID or some other intelligence agency. You aren't being blackmailed. You aren't part of some conspiracy to take over or destroy Atlantis or Earth. You haven't been brainwashed or converted to Origin or taken over by aliens. Right?"
"Of course not!"
You don't even have that excuse, Rodney wanted to say, but didn't. Lee glared at him. Rodney worked at it and kept his expression mostly blank.
"How could you think any of those things?" Lee demanded. "A conspiracy? Don't be ridiculous."
Apparently, indignation cured the stuttery near paralysis that had come over Lee when he faced them all and even the apologetic babble. "It was an accident. I lost my temper. I admit that, I lost my temper with Dr. Weir. She was being utterly unfair," Lee said.
Rodney had to grip his own thigh, hard enough it hurt, to channel his own anger and stay silent. Unfair? Unfair was Elizabeth dying because of this man. She'd been the fairest person Rodney had ever known, even when it had been a struggle for her. He wanted to rail at Lee and the universe at the unfairness of losing her, of endangering John, of everything, but he didn't. Life wasn't fair and even he had grasped that. Not youth, not beauty, no goodness or brilliance accorded anyone more than luck in the end; you could improve the odds with hard work, but essentially you were always at the mercy of fate.
"She should have given me the jumper project. She owed it to me," Lee bleated on. "She destroyed my work when she tricked me and you stole the jumper. All my work lost, but I could have recreated it here and made even more progress." He gave Rodney a sulky, nasty look. "But you wouldn't authorize it. I tried to get an appointment with her, but she wouldn't even talk about it. Just said you were chief of the science department and she wouldn't over rule you."
Everyone in the room looked appalled and Rodney realized why. This was just such a petty reason for Elizabeth to die. Because she'd played decoy while Rodney hacked a password years ago?
"When I saw her on that bridge, I thought I could finally convince her to change her mind. But she just said no and started to walk away. I was angry, I grabbed her arm to catch her." Lee's eyes were glazed, remembering the confrontation. "She said I was lucky we were alone, if someone had seen me do that, she would have been forced to act on it. I just snapped. I pushed her into the railing. I wanted...her to just listen to me," Lee finished.
"But it broke."
Lee had progressed over to the doors onto the balcony. He gestured to the railing there and repeated, "It broke and she fell."
"Why the hell didn't you come clean?" O'Neill demanded.
"I panicked. I thought what if I'd left a mark on her wrist, how would it look, and I couldn't explain. I went back to my quarters."
"And just left her there for someone else to find," Rodney said. "Someone else to be blamed."
Lee cast a guilty look at John.
"I never imagined anyone else would – "
"You didn't turn yourself in when you knew otherwise," John murmured, his voice a rasp that made even Rodney shiver.
O'Neill sat up straight. "McKay," he said. "I'm not arguing your authority here, but I want to take him back to Earth. We've got the set-up to handle a trial dealing with classified matters and you aren't really equipped to imprison someone."
Rodney glanced at John, trying to gauge how he felt, then visually weighed everyone else's feelings.
"Should just cut his throat," Ronon muttered.
"We've got something called rule of law," John told him, quiet and tired, but certain, and Rodney drew a measure of strength from having him there beside him, still whole and standing for the way Elizabeth would have wanted things done. Neither of them were as good as her, but maybe they could remind each other when they had to.
Rodney cleared his throat. "I agree. I mean, I agree it would be better if Dr. Lee was tried on Earth."
"No," Lee protested.
"Consider yourself lucky, Dr. Lee," Woolsey said. "With a good lawyer, you'll get off on a manslaughter charge, as distasteful as I find admitting that. You'll do your time in a high security prison. All of your time, with no parole if I have any say about it."
"No, no, it was an accident." Rodney froze as Lee grabbed Woolsey and dragged him out of his chair. Lee's hand came up, holding a small, humming laser cutter. Woolsey's eyes bugged out as he tried to see the implement pressed under his chin.
"Get back! All of you get back!" Lee shouted at them.
"Bill, what are you doing?" Sam said. They'd all shot to their feet, but she was nearer than the rest of them.
She held out her hands, trying to placate Lee. Rodney hoped everyone would let her talk, because she'd worked with Lee more than any of them. Maybe she could get through to him. He recognized the panicked look in Lee's eyes. The man had moved past rational thought, into pure fight or flight, and he wouldn't be thinking clearly enough to grasp that he had no way out.
Teal'c, Ronon and Lorne were all maneuvering for clear shots, but Lee had backed up to the balcony doors and Woolsey, if he had the wit to try it, couldn't drop and give any of them a shot. Not with that laser cutter snugged against his Adam's apple. Rodney could see the flesh reddening from the stray heat. Rodney cursed the lack of stunners. Lorne and Ronon both had regulation 9mm handguns, while Teal'c had a P90. They only way they could safely shoot without wounding Woolsey too would be by aiming for Lee's head.
"You have to let me out of here!" Lee yelled. "It wasn't my fault! The railing broke. I want to go home. You're going to dial the stargate and I'm going to go back..."
"Rodney," John murmured, leaning close, breath hot against his neck, reminding him how much he had wanted to grab John and hug him when he showed up with Teal'c and Ronon, even as he'd felt sick with the thought that he might not find a way to clear him.
"I've got a plan. Just keep between me and Lee."
Wonderful. John's plans usually involved attempted suicide or major embarrassment for Rodney. "Lee, listen to Sam," Rodney called out as he got to his own feet, positioning himself so that Lee wouldn't be able to see whatever John was doing, "no one has to get hurt. No one shoot, okay? Let's just calm down."
Sam flashed him an approving smile. O'Neill had Jackson by the collar and was dragging him out of Lee's proximity. Vala caught Jackson's arm and helped hustle him away.
"Bill, think about what you're doing. Mr. Woolsey's done nothing to you. Don't make this worse," Sam said. "Come on, I know you, you're a good guy, a good father, I know you never meant to hurt Elizabeth, but if you do this, no one will be able to help you. Please, think about Corinne and your kids."
"I am! I can't go to jail, they'll never understand, it'll all be classified and they'll never find out why, they'll think I'm a killer," Lee replied. He sounded near tears, but the arm wrapped around Woolsey didn't slacken, despite the way Woolsey's hands clawed at him. "No, I'm going home and he's coming with me so no one do anything stupid!"
Sam shoved her hands through her hair and took a step closer.
"Get back! Get away from me!"
"Bill, you can't just make this go away."
Lee's face paled, but then he said, "I'll get Corinne and the kids and we'll go to...Nicaragua. Or Rio."
Jackson murmured wearily, "You hate South America. Remember?"
"It won't be like that – "
Beside Rodney, John shifted smoothly, reaching behind him and pulling a zat from his belt. Rodney glimpsed it and didn't have to be told to keep himself between Lee's sight line and John until John had it opened and charged.
Sam's voice muffled the distinct sound of the zat charging.
"Rodney," John said.
Rodney stepped out of the way and John stepped up, raising the zat and firing on both men. The laser cutter snapped off as Woolsey and Lee both fell to the floor.
"Teal'c?" O'Neill sounding disbelieving. "You left him a zat?"
"I was not aware they were available in Atlantis," Teal'c answered. He separated Woolsey's unconscious form from Lee's and recovered the laser cutter.
John lounged against the table. He examined the zat and grinned. "I like our hand stunners better. They look like guns, not – "
"Oh, shut up," O'Neill snapped. "I know what they look like."
John kept grinning.
"You took a chance, Colonel," Sam said. "What if Bill had managed to cut Mr. Woolsey as they were knocked out?"
"Not really. I've used that thing. It's got an operator safety; you have to turn it on and keep squeezing the handle or it shuts down."
"Well, Sheppard, it looks like you've been cleared," O'Neill said.
"Yes sir. Thank you."
"Thank your friends." O'Neill sighed and suddenly looked his age. "We still didn't get Skorpion."
John stepped away from them, handed the zat to Vala – so that was where he'd got it – and began speaking with Lorne. Rodney listened with half his attention. "Let's get them both to medical until they come around. Then I want Lee in a holding cell and guards on him twenty-four/seven. Consider him a suicide risk," John told Lorne. Lorne's eyebrows went up, but he shrugged his acquiescence. "I don't want another casualty on our watch," John added. "Make sure everyone knows that."
"Yes sir." Lorne walked a few steps away to begin using his radio.
"Sir?" Sam asked. "Are we really sure Brooks wasn't messing with us? Maybe we're chasing a phantom."
Ronon drifted over to Vala and she handed him the zat to look over.
"Maybe," O'Neill acknowledged Sam. "Either way, I think we've done enough damage here. We'll take Lee and Keller back when you open the wormhole again. At least we'll be home in time for Christmas."
"Felger too," Rodney said. "My staff are ready to lynch him or me, if I don't get rid of him."
"Come on, McKay, he isn't that bad," Daniel protested.
"Then you won't mind having him back."
O'Neill chuckled. "Glad I'll be in DC then. Any other requests, McKay?"
Rodney folded his arms and thought about. "I'll make a list."
"You do that," O'Neill said. "I'll make sure we lose it." He grimaced. "You can expect a contingent of NID investigators to show up once this mess is straightened out. No one's giving up on finding Skorpion."
A squad of marines and the medical team arrived and Rodney let the tide of events sweep him out of the conference room, only catching John's gaze once before they were separated. John lifted his hand and smiled. Rodney nodded and headed for Elizabeth's office. There were still all the regular tasks of running Atlantis to see to and he needed to figure out some suitable but still useful punishment for Zelenka, something that wouldn't result in his second in command resigning in a snit. There was something still niggling at the back of his mind, too. Maybe, if he could take five uninterrupted minutes, he could figure it out before the end of the day.
Cam woke to the sort of pins-and-needles he associated with having his foot go to sleep while sacked out watching football instead of the unmistakable pounding of a zat hangover. It didn't take him long to figure he'd been knocked out by something though. His mouth felt dry as the Mojave and his entire body felt like had done the foot thing, which wasn't exactly pleasant.
Voices murmured, familiar and without tension, above him, so he took his time cataloging his situation: lying on a bed, familiar scent of hospital disinfectant, a hint of light shining through his eyelids, limbs heavy and spiked with that not-quite pain; so probably not in too much trouble. He recognized Daniel's voice and the occasional word from Vala.
" – started in Egypt, of course. Qalqashandi, an Arab, recorded a solution that is still used on ciphers, based on counting the frequency of the symbols in the cipher text."
"I asked how they would do it, not history lesson – "
Cam pried one eye open, winced at the lights, then opened the other just to be contrary. The copper-green ceiling didn't look like the infirmary at the Mountain or aboard ship. Memory supplied him with his likely location: the Atlantis infirmary.
"Any monoalphabetic substitution cipher can be broken using this analysis technique, given a sufficiently large enough exemplar cipher text," Daniel droned on.
"Unh," Cam managed to groan.
"Oh, look, he's awake!" Vala exclaimed with what Cam suspected was relief.
"Yeah," he slurred and did his best to push himself up in the bed. Novocaine. That's what it felt like – like he'd been shot full of Novocaine, a sort of numbed sensation. He could tell everything was still there, it just responded real slow. "So, what'd I miss, kids?"
"Purple octopii from the seventh dimension arrived and revealed our universe is a bad soap opera," Daniel said seriously.
"And?" Cam prompted.
"Woolsey expressed his intention to change our uniforms to hoopskirts and sea shell bikini tops."
"McKay was polite."
"Ah, ah, ah, now I know you're fibbing," Cam said. "Really, what happened?"
Daniel's smile faded. "Bill Lee confessed."
"Dr. Lee?" Cam couldn't believe it. The guy was a harmless shlub. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. "I'm confused. Why'd Sheppard – was it Sheppard? – stun me?"
A boot scuff told him someone else had joined his bedside gathering.
"It was me," Sheppard drawled.
Cam snapped his eyes open and stared at Sheppard resentfully. "Well, that sucks."
Sheppard shrugged and smirked. "It's better to give than receive." He looked tired but relieved and most of the tension that had been riding him since SG-1 arrived in Atlantis had disappeared. Not all, but Cam figured with his job, Sheppard never really relaxed.
Cam flipped him off.
Sheppard returned the gesture, though he never stopped watching Daniel. "Look, I've got to check on Teyla. Vala can tell you how brilliant she was."
"I was, you know," Vala said. She hopped up onto the bed, hip to hip with Cam, and patted his chest with a hand wrapped in white gauze. "Positively brilliant."
Sheppard gave them all a loose sort of wave and wandered past Cam's bed to the next alcove, where Teyla Emmagen rested. Ronon Dex loomed nearby. They spoke together, too low for Cam to catch.
"We're all going home tomorrow," Daniel told him. "We'll be taking Dr. Lee and Dr. Keller with us."
One of the doctors, wearing a tag that identified her as Cole, came by and checked Cam's reflexes. "You're fine," she told him. "Stick around another couple of hours, though. Once in a while someone who hasn't been stunned before develops a minor arrhythmia and we like to watch for that." She smiled and moved on to Teyla's bed, speaking to the three Lanteans, before pulling the curtain to a third alcove. Cam caught a glimpse of its occupant.
"Is that Woolsey?"
"Colonel Sheppard had to zat him along with Dr. Lee," Vala said.
She'd begun kicking her heels against the underside of Cam's bed. He swatted her knee. "Quit. Why?"
"He tried to take Woolsey hostage," Daniel answered.
"Okay, tell me everything," Cam ordered.
That took another hour, interrupted every fifteen minutes by Cole checking Cam and Vala explaining her brilliance. His eyes were drooping by the time he'd heard it all.
"So, basically, I got stunned for nothing?" he asked, feeling grumpy and put upon.
Vala patted his shoulder. "Absolutely."
"Get some sleep, it'll be back to mission status when we get back to the Mountain," Daniel advised.
Cam wanted to argue, but it was true. Compared to SG-1's usual missions, this had been a vacation. What that said about them, he didn't care to think about too hard.
He let himself sink back into a doze buoyed on the current of Daniel lecturing Vala on...something.
"Black Chambers became common through out Europe. Revolutionary America didn't have any official cryptographic organization. They mostly relied on men of the cloth. Benedict Arnold used a method that relied on both correspondents possessing the exact same edition of a book to decipher the code. A series of numbers would translate to a page, a paragraph and a letter in the book."
"Is that your version of a lullaby, Jackson?" McKay asked.
Cam levered an eye open. McKay caught him at it and smirked.
"Here to see me?" Cam asked.
"Oh, hardly. I'm sure you'll be fine." McKay winced. "I've got to talk to Woolsey now that he's awake again."
Cam winced too.
"Ignore him, Vala," Daniel said. "This is quite interesting. For example, imagine I had a copy of War and Peace, the exact same edition that Colonel Sheppard has. If he were to give me a message with the numbers five, eleven, four, then I would open my copy to page five, find paragraph eleven, and find the fourth word in it. Eventually I would have decoded the message. If I didn't have the exact same edition, of course, I'd probably come up with gibberish. And of course, the message might be in a second or even third cipher iteration, so that even if one were cracked, it would still be secure."
"You come up with gibberish anyway," McKay muttered. "Vala, I owe you, but a marine will still be searching your gear before you go through the stargate tomorrow."
"Well, don't think I won't collect eventually," Vala told him with a small pout.
"Mitchell," McKay murmured and continued on his way.
"Charles Wheatstone and Lyon Playfair invented the 'Playfair System' in 1854," Daniel went on. "It used paired symbols in encryption for the first time."
"Daniel, darling, can I just say, 'snore'?" Vala interrupted. "Codes are what we have computers for."
"You're missing the point entirely, as usual," Daniel said.
Cam let his eyes close again and even managed a little snore.
Dr. Cole released Teyla once the pins-and-needles let up. John had aimed for her torso, so she'd been paralyzed and dazed, but not as out of it as Mitchell. Ronon was with her when she woke and assured her everyone was safe, Elizabeth's killer had confessed, but she felt out of sorts.
It only grew worse when John arrived at her bedside. He smiled and acted relaxed, but his eyes never stopped moving. An orderly dropped an emesis basin and he flinched. He looked hunted and it made her angry.
Rodney's arrival only ratcheted up his tension. He watched Rodney with a sad wariness that Teyla didn't understand.
She bit her tongue until they were out of the infirmary, John and Ronon walking beside her.
"You shouldn't have stunned me, John," she told him. She didn't have to yell for him to hear the anger and hurt.
"Yeah, I did," he said.
Teyla stopped in the corridor, forcing John to stop. Ronon continued several steps, perhaps deliberately separating himself from their confrontation. She tipped her head up and glared until John met her gaze.
"Look," he said, "if things were...I didn't want you implicated in anything, okay? I didn't want anyone saying you were in it with me. Enough people are suspicious of you and Ronon, just because you aren't from Earth. You remember Bates, don't you? Well, he's back and he was never really the worst anyway." He stopped and licked his lips. "I just didn't want you caught up in my mess."
"I do not agree," she said.
"Yeah, no surprise."
He ducked his head, as skittish as she'd ever seen him, and it made no sense. Unless Rodney had not forgiven him yet for the affair with Elizabeth. She had watched John refuse to encourage Rodney for years, just as Rodney had kept his feelings to himself, in a silent pact that pained her to watch. She knew this might have driven a wedge between them. Rodney had to be hurt by finding out.
"Is it Rodney?"
John stared at her, his face a blank mask, even his eyes opaque.
She reached for his shoulder, but he shied away. "I'm sorry. I've got to – I've got to go."
She watched him walk away and wondered what she'd missed.
Ronon joined her. "Everything settled?"
"I do not think so."
Local 03:31 hrs
The lights didn't respond when he stepped inside his quarters. One of the other moons was just past full though, passing between MR3-331 and Eight Ball. Its dim, blue light showed him a single, still figure sitting at his desk. It traced the line of a cheekbone, the bridge of a nose, making it appear more aquiline than normal. Shadow concealed the rest.
Rodney walked a few more steps into the room, stopping where the moonlight fell blue across the floor, wanting somehow to remain in shadow himself, too. He could keep a secret, but his face gave away all that he felt.
"I should have expected this," he said. The door behind him slid closed and locked. Once it did, the lights inside came up slowly the way he'd programmed them to. Polished metal gleamed where it shouldn't have been, drawing Rodney's gaze. He supposed he should have anticipated that too, once he figured it all out. He should have expected this visit from Skorpion.
John didn't move. His Beretta lay on the desk within a few inches of his hand. He watched McKay steadily, but the exhaustion of the last days showed on his features and the shadows under his eyes.
"Rodney," he said. His voice rasped.
"What now?" Rodney demanded. He nodded at the Beretta. "Hard to explain if you use that on me. Unless you mean to tell everyone I'm Skorpion. That has a certain poetic irony, of course. Considering you're Skorpion. Right?"
John sighed. Rodney tensed as he closed his hand on the butt of the Beretta, but all John did was release the clip and then clear the chamber, before setting the pistol back down with a click, still racked open. "I knew you'd figure it out," he stated in the quiet that followed. He sounded as tired as he looked, but he held his head up.
"You told me."
John's eyebrow went up and he asked, "I did?"
Rodney nodded. "I said, 'They're saying you're a Trust agent and that you killed Elizabeth!' Remember?"
"And you said, 'I didn't kill Elizabeth'."
"Because I didn't," John said. The quizzical expression on his face was so familiar it cut Rodney inside because he had no idea if anything he thought knew had ever been real when it came to John.
But he pointed at him and said, "Exactly. You never said, 'I'm not an NID agent, I'm not a Trust mole, I'm not Skorpion'!"
John rubbed the back of his neck. His smile was rueful. "Yeah. I've never been very good at lying to you, Rodney. I knew you'd figure it out, so what was the point?"
He had been magnificent at lying. No doubt he still was. Rodney made his feet move anyway, finally; fairly sure now that even if John was Skorpion he wasn't going to do anything to him. Anything lethal, at least, though he might be – maybe – lying to him. New lies. Different lies. Whatever lies Rodney wanted to hear, because eliminating him wouldn't serve any purpose now. Rodney'd had time to put together his own failsafes, his deadman's switch, files and warnings that would go out to the SGC, to Lorne and too many others, if anything happened to him. He hadn't yet. He hadn't, but he could lie too and say he had. But he wouldn't, because John was still John first and foremost. "So what the hell do I do now?" he asked as he dropped down to sit on the edge of his bed.
John lifted his shoulders in a 'no-idea' move. "If it helps, I've never done anything to harm Atlantis or even the SGC. Even sleeping with Elizabeth wasn't completely calculated, you know. We were friends, too."
Rodney snorted. "Kirk."
"Bond, at least," John protested, but his tone was flat. "Whatever you decide, you need to figure it out before the wormhole's opened to send O'Neill and everyone back."
"Thanks a lot," Rodney told him.
"Hey, you're in charge now. You get to make the hard decisions." John smirked at him.
Rodney braced his elbows on his knees and hid his face in his hands. He was so tired. Had Elizabeth always been so damn tired, so weighed down by the terrifying responsibility she'd carried? He didn't look up as John left the chair and crossed the room, settling on the edge of the bed beside him. The warm pressure of his thigh against Rodney's should have been reassurance and comfort. So should the hand that settled tentatively between his shoulders.
John was touching him, it was all that Rodney had wanted for years, and he could only wonder why. Why now? Why, when John had subtly refused every opening before, had flat out said no when Rodney had the drunken guts to proposition him the one time. Part of him kept thinking, was this how it began with Elizabeth?
Part of him didn't care.
He twisted until he faced John, watched his eyes narrow and then the pupils dilate as Rodney leaned in closer, fisted one hand in John's shirt, and kissed him. John's hand on his back flexed as his mouth opened for Rodney. They kissed with their eyes open. Rodney couldn't read what John thought, but his lips were soft and parted. So close, Rodney could smell faint hints of sweat and fear on him. He knew those smells, thought he could pick out John in the dark by scent.
"Rodney," John breathed, "If we – "
"Shut up," Rodney interrupted him. He pushed John back onto the bed and straddled him. John could stop him if he wanted. John could break his neck if he wanted. Of course, he'd have to explain why...Rodney kissed him again, almost smiling as their teeth scraped together. John spread his legs and groaned, while Rodney fit himself between. He ground down and felt the matching pressure of an erection push up against his. John licked his way into Rodney's mouth, desperate and shuddering under him, hands plucking at their clothes. Rodney got with the program, struggling to strip them both without separating, fumbling with belts and buttons until they were both bare.
John was stretched out on the bed, one hand clenched in the cover, breathing hard. Rodney knelt over him and looked his fill, until John made a hungry, breathless sound, his throat working, and then he began touching, thrilled by the way John responded. That wasn't faked, nor was what the shudder that ran through his frame as Rodney nudged his legs open meant or the way John's cock swelled, darker than the rest of him, the tip smearing wet against his belly, but they didn't have lube or condoms and he couldn't hold out long enough to find any. He settled for both of them rocking and rubbing against each other, leaving anything more complicated for another time, rolling onto their sides, tangled together. John keened against Rodney's shoulder when he came, breath hot and damp on his skin, fingers pressing into his back and hip. The warm wet on his belly and the scent, sharp and unmistakable, pushed Rodney into his own orgasm, brilliant and hard, over almost too quick, leaving him panting against John's sweat-damp temple.
John ran his hand up and down Rodney's back and stayed pressed close. His mouth tickled against Rodney's shoulder as he began talking. "I haven't done that since I was eighteen."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. He almost said 'don't lie' and he must have stiffened, because John tensed too and his voice sounded more strained than before. "With a guy." His voice turned bleak. "Not because I wanted to, anyway. Not with anyone I wanted."
"Oh." Rodney wanted to ask why not and why hadn't John said yes, why hadn't he said no this time, but he was afraid he knew. Did John mean he hadn't wanted Rodney? Had he considered this the price of Rodney's silence on some level? He didn't want to think so, any more than he wanted to think of John whoring himself as part of his – what? – cover? Mission? That had been Skorpion. Rodney wanted to believe he was in bed with John and not the Trust operative. Suddenly, he needed to know: "Why the Trust?"
It seemed like John wouldn't answer. No clock ticked, but Rodney could sense the moments trickling away. He twitched when John finally spoke.
"I was stupid and careless and we got caught. They were going to throw me out of the Academy. And then the NID showed up and made me an offer. They made it sound...They made the whole thing go away." A soft shuddery breath warmed Rodney's neck. "It wasn't like I'd agreed to work for another country. I told myself that. I was working for the Trust for years before I realized my handler had gone over and taken me with him, given me their objectives."
"Fuck. You couldn't – "
"What?" John asked. "Quit? Turn myself in? Right. I thought Atlantis would be far enough to get free, but it isn't. There's no way out."
Rodney cupped his hand around the back of John's – John's – head. The hair was silkier than he'd imagined, cooler too, but warmth gathered under his palm as he cradled John closer.
He tried to figure it out. He felt John relax against him, turning and moving closer, one hand coming to rest on Rodney's belly, then slowly growing lax. The slow breaths against his neck told him John was drowsing. Had it been some twisted version of ethics that kept John from sleeping with both of him and Elizabeth or had he still been repressing? Maybe he just hadn't wanted to deal with one more layer of lies to keep straight. He doubted he'd ever know, even if John told him, because he'd never be able to trust John's words again. He tensed and John stirred, disturbed, muttering, "Trouble?"
"No," Rodney told him.
John snuffled and rubbed his belly, sinking back into sleep. Rodney let himself drift. Exhaustion claimed him finally and he slept until morning, waking to find John still beside him.
He studied John's stubbled jaw, the dark fan of his eyelashes, the lines etched at the corners of his eyes, the faint frown between his brows that sleep hadn't eased. He couldn't trust anything John said, but could he trust what he did? There was no hidden agenda in the way he'd risked his life over and over for Atlantis, for Elizabeth and Rodney and Teyla and Ronon. No secret objective had sent him up in a jumper against a hiveship.
He watched John wake and blink at him, the sleepy smile that faded into doubt as consciousness caught up with memory.
"So what are you going to do?" John asked. "They're going to keep coming, keep looking, and not just here. Back on Earth, too."
Rodney looked at him helplessly.
"I don't know."
Local 11:14 hrs
Received: 4.12.09 11:14 hrs