A/N: My beta, the enormously patient Ashanome, really had her work cut out for her this time. She waited, and waited, and WAITED - stretching over a four month period - for the dribs and drabs of this story to be sent for her expert editing and never once threatened to kill me. She deserves a big present. I hope I've not ruined all her hard work.
"I don't understand why our time is being wasted on this. More specifically, why a man of my genius is being forced to squander my valuable time in this manner." McKay's strident tones were only slightly muffled by the duffle bag he was carrying clasped to his chest. He was continually bumping into other people on the busy street because of his obscured view. "Ow. Couldn't you have gotten us a better assignment?"
Sheppard, understanding that a reply was not really required, shrugged his own duffle into a more comfortable position on his back. He tightened his hold on the pushcart he was using to move the trade goods Atlantis was offering. This was the third and last trip they had made from the stargate and he was wishing he'd taken Ronon with him instead of the cranky scientist. But Teyla, who was looking forward to their week on the market planet of Cataarn, had gotten that look on her face after listening to hours of McKay's complaints. So he had left her and Ronon to start unpacking while he and McKay picked up the last load of goods.
"I mean, really, what am I supposed to do for five whole days in this place? Just look at it. There is nothing here that could possi – Oh, my God, what did I just step in? Oh, that is just disgusting."
The look of horrified revulsion on McKay's face was almost too much for Sheppard. He cleared his throat to keep from laughing and said mildly, "You know, if you were carrying the pack on your back you'd be able to see where you're going."
"Are you out of your mind? Do you know what that would do to my back? And we don't have a chiropractor in At– at home. Besides, I can see everything I need to see," McKay snapped just before ricocheting off of an awning pole. "Ow."
Sheppard refrained from pointing out that the way he was carrying the bundle now wouldn't do his back any good either.
It was a good four klicks to and from the 'gate, all but the last couple hundred meters through wide lanes. Some were paved with cobbles, but most were just rutted dirt – or mud after a good rain. All the streets were strewn with refuse of one kind or another and all had an open sewer running down one side.
The first Atlantis team to set up the trading booth had tried to get the locals interested in building an enclosed sewer system and establishing regular garbage removal. But there was no local government because no one lived on Cataarn on a permanent basis. There were only merchants who brought their merchandise, traded it with others and then left. While some trading families or cooperatives had what were considered permanent stores – usually recognizable by decorated storefronts and more elaborate awnings – the people who manned them would change frequently.
Anyone who thought they had something worth selling was welcome. For a small fee that was used for upkeep of the shops and to pay for a small security contingent, a merchant could set up shop within the town. Those who didn't want to pay the fee were welcome to spread their wares out on the ground in the open field between the market and the stargate.
Despite the lack of a governing body, or maybe because of it, the Market ran very well. And intriguingly, the planet had not been culled by the Wraith for at least ten generations. The Atlantis scientists had looked for some sort of shield or other defensive system. But, except for the odd piece of technology appearing for sale in the market, nothing had been found.
"I have several projects about to reach a critical stage back in At– at home," McKay hastily corrected himself. "And Ng and Johnson have started fighting over some damned thing or other and I'm afraid the attacks are about to escalate. Zelenka is a great guy and nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but he gets too much enjoyment out of these inter-lab rivalries. He's more likely to cheer them on instead of stopping Ng from backing up all the wastewater from Level 7 into Johnson's personal quarters. While Johnson is still in them. God, are we almost there? Ow! Damn it, watch where you're going!"
Sheppard let go of the cart and rushed forward to insert himself between McKay and the armed security guard he had just collided with. A smile, a quick apology and a chocolate bar later and the guard walked away, throwing one last snarl toward the unrepentant scientist.
"I don't know what he's so upset about," McKay grumbled, leaning awkwardly against a wall and holding his right ankle in both hands. He was careful not to actually touch the muddied boot. "I was the one that had his foot crushed by an over-grown, one man brute squad."
"What is your problem today?" Sheppard demanded, his patience almost at an end. "I realize that this isn't the most exciting mission we've ever had. Believe me, I've been moving us back on the roster for this assignment for months. But I could only do it for so long. Elizabeth finally noticed and I ended up with the choice of coming here or spending a week doing mapping and damage assessment back in the City. Which would you prefer?"
McKay let go of his foot with a sigh and whined, "But it's Mall World. I keep expecting to hear easy-listening music coming out of the walls."
As if on cue, a high-pitched string instrument began playing in the distance.
"I keep looking for a food court filled with giggling teenage girls, too," Sheppard said with a shudder, looking up and down the lane they were currently traveling.
Truth be told, it looked nothing like an Earth mega-mall but the atmosphere was eerily the same. The streets were crowded with people rushing in all directions, intent on getting where they wanted to go, barely acknowledging the people they bumped into. The popular stores were elbow-to-elbow with people gawking at what was being offered or bartering with the attendants. There was no actual prepared food area, but most streets had at least a few booths that offered cooked food or drinks or both.
The merchant town was laid out in nearly straight lines. There were forty-two streets running roughly north to south, with cross streets every fifty meters or so. The store fronts lined one side of the street. They were not large; most were five meters across the front and twenty deep with a loft in the rear for sleeping. There were 'facilities' at the back that emptied onto the street behind, hence the open sewers across the street from all the storefronts.
The shops were all open to the street. They had no doors, no way for the traders to lock up their merchandise if they wished to explore the other shops. Amazingly there was very little theft on Cataarn. Probably because anyone caught stealing was given three choices: return the merchandise, pay for the merchandise or be tied to the stargate to await the next wormhole. Perpetrators of other crimes were sent to the homeworld of the crime victim.
Over the years the marketplace had roughly divided itself into different sections: produce, textiles, medicine and healing, technology, etc. The earlier teams from Atlantis, which tended to offer a little of everything, had managed to find a corner booth on the periphery of the produce and the much smaller technology areas. The store had been manned continually for the past year. Someone who had pulled the duty early on had painted the Atlantis expedition logo over the front opening and on the outside wall and the Athosians – who normally shared the store – had contributed a brightly colored awning. A large piece of slate had been tacked to the building and listed the goods and services currently being offered.
Sheppard could see the stylized winged horse four cross-streets further up. "Come on, McKay. We're almost back to the store. Let's get this last load up there and then you can take a quick rest before we go exploring."
"Exploring? Haven't we seen enough of this cesspit already?" McKay grumbled bending over to pick up his pack. His reaching hand tightened into a fist and shrank behind his back. "Ewww. I'm not carrying that."
Shepard glanced down and rolled his eyes. McKay had dropped his bundle on what looked like a compost heap between two stores. It was a little juicy, but at least it wasn't in the sewer. "Oh, for – Put it on the cart. Carefully. It's already overloaded."
"Who's the genius here? Do you really think I can't arrange a load so it won't shift?" McKay carefully picked out two dry handholds on the abused duffle and arranged the pack on top of the miniature pyramid on the flat-bottomed cart. He let go and then hurriedly threw himself over the shifting packs.
"Yeah, there'll always be a job for you with the stevedores." Sheppard rearranged the bundles while McKay kept them from sliding to the ground. "You better hope whatever is in there hasn't gotten wet or Teyla'll hurt you. That's part of the Athosian goods."
"These duffles are supposed to be waterproof," McKay said nervously, left hand twisting uncertainly before gesturing at the object in question. "Whatever it is is fine. I'm sure."
"'Supposed to be' being the operative phrase there," Sheppard murmured in a mock-worried tone. He grabbed the handles of the cart and started pushing it forward. The load wobbled ominously, but he was able to keep it under control. His shoulders and back strained under the weight. He bet Ronon wouldn't have this much trouble pushing the damned thing.
McKay, constitutionally unable to do only one thing at a time, pulled a handheld scanner out of one of his vest pockets. He walked along in front of the cart, eyes glued to the readout, making occasional adjustments to the settings. When he stopped abruptly in an intersection, Sheppard almost ran him over with the cart.
"Hey, look! Ow!" McKay's head snapped up from the scanner display and he glared at Sheppard while rubbing the back of his leg. "I need this leg to walk, you know. You might want to watch where you're going. I think you damaged my hamstring."
"Somehow I doubt it," Sheppard muttered, wrestling the tottering pile of trade goods to a standstill. When the danger of them sliding off onto the road had passed he looked up expectantly. "So, what did you see?"
"What? Oh! An energy reading. Quite strong actually." McKay stopped rubbing his leg and limping in a circle to gesture with the hand holding the scanner. "That way. Or... Damn it, it's gone again." He stared at the scanner in frustration, making adjustments to the controls. After a moment he sighed in frustration. "No, it's disappeared."
Sheppard glanced in the direction indicated. That was the corner of the marketplace usually reserved for gadgets, mechanical tools and people selling pieces of Ancient technology they had discovered. Most of the Ancient finds were useless to the majority of the Pegasus Galaxy's residents, but the Atlanteans had acquired a number of pieces since coming to Cataarn.
"Well, they've probably turned it off. We can go looking for it later. Come on, McKay, we're blocking traffic here. Look, another fifty meters and we're at the shop. Let's go."
They made it to the store without further incident. Teyla was just finishing up a transaction with a representative from Ram'b. They had placed an order for antibiotics and a vaccine for an illness similar to Earth's small pox. While Ronon helped Sheppard unload the cart, Teyla went over the directions for administering the two different medicines. She had the customer double-check that the written instructions had been correctly translated into their own language. After both were confident that the drugs would be administered safely the transaction was concluded with a ritual touching of the palms. Ronon then accompanied the buyer and his payment of three wagonloads of grain to the 'gate.
Sheppard watched the wagons – really not much larger than the pushcart he had used earlier, but piled impossibly high with bulging sacks – disappearing around the corner. They were each pulled by a single dray animal that reminded him of an ox; except that it was the size of a Shetland pony, with the pony's hair. The animal plodded passively along, without any appearance of straining under the load. He thought about sore knees and back from pushing that damned cart and wondered if it would be worth it to get one of the animals for the shop. They could build it a little stall on the side of the building where they stored the cart.
McKay wandered out from the back of the store, still staring at the scanner. "That power signature is back."
"Thanks for your help unloading the cart," Sheppard said, pulling his canteen off of his belt and taking a drink.
"Are you done already?" McKay asked innocently. "I'm sorry; I just had to, uhm..." He gestured vaguely toward the back of the store.
"Yeah, amazing how that always happens. I saved this for you." Sheppard tossed the smelly duffle toward McKay and watched it bounce off the other man's chest. "It needs to be cleaned."
"What happened to it?" Teyla asked. She had straightened up the mess from the demonstration and was starting to put the display items away for the night.
"McKay dropped it on a pile of rotting vegetation. It's a little ripe at the moment."
"The contents were not damaged were they?"
"No, I wouldn't give him anything that was breakable. It was the tanned crall skins and they were wrapped in waxed cloth. They're fine."
"Thank goodness. I have already had an inquiry about them. Someone who wishes to buy all that we have." She hurried over to the shelf where they were stored. Unrolling the tightly rolled bundle, she inspected the supple skins. Her nose wrinkled at the pungent odor. "We will leave them spread out tonight and hope the... aroma fades."
McKay flinched under the look she directed toward him. His arms crossed protectively. "What? Do you think I did it on purpose? Well, you're wrong. There was this big, huge... really huge guy who ran into me. Practically crushed my foot when he stomped on it. I'm lucky there aren't broken bones. Why are you smiling?"
"No reason, Rodney," she said, her lips quivered slightly. "It is good to know that some things are always the same."
"What does that mean?" he asked, confused. He looked at Sheppard, narrowing his eyes suspiciously when the other man tried to look innocent. "What does she mean?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Sheppard said, careful not to look at the scientist directly. He helped Teyla spread the skins on the display table that they had pulled into the building for the night. "So, Teyla, where do you want to go for dinner?"
She looked uncomfortable for a moment, but pleased also. "I am sorry, Colonel, but I am meeting some friends for the evening meal. I have not seen them since we moved from Athos and I was very pleased to find them here. We have much to discuss."
"I understand. Looks like it'll just be us guys, then."
"One of our first customers invited Ronon to join them on a tour of the ale merchants this evening." Teyla shook her head with a smile. "I do not think he will be back until early in the morning. The ale shops do most of their business after the sun sets."
"Oh," Sheppard couldn't tell if he was disappointed or vaguely relieved that he had not been included in a drinking party with Ronon. He wondered what the big Satedan was like when he had a few in him. "Well, guess it's just you and me, Rodney. You have chess on your laptop?"
"I have a big pile of professional journals I intend to read – and laugh at – while we're here," McKay said, still trying to decide if he had been insulted earlier. He looked at the scanner he was still holding. "But what about – Damn it, it's gone again."
He wandered toward the rear of the shop again, scanner in one hand and smelly duffle held gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of the other. Sheppard watched him go and shook his head.
"Just me, my book and a quiet evening in, then."
Several hours later the shop was dark except for a couple of lamps in the back. Ronon had stopped by only long enough to say not to expect him. Teyla had freshened up and then gone to meet her friends after a brief argument with Sheppard over whether or not she would take her weapons. He had started by saying he expected her to take both the 9mm and the P-90, but had settled for just the 9mm. As that was the result he had hoped for, he was feeling a little proud of his improving negotiation skills.
He and McKay had gone out and explored the local eateries. They had ended up with several skewers of some kind of grilled, red meat and roasted vegetables that they brought back to the shop. One of the food stalls had different fruit juices and they picked up a couple containers of something that tasted like apple cider.
The remains of the food were now pushed to one end of the table where McKay had spread out his journals. He was perched on a camp chair, chortling over one of the astrophysics journals and scribbling corrections in the margins. Every once in a while he would snap his fingers to get Sheppard's attention, exclaiming "Listen to this, listen to this!" before reading off a paragraph or two from an article. He would then snort derisively, say something about how lucky the article's researcher was that he – McKay – was not allowed to publish and then go back to reading.
Previous teams assigned this duty had traded for some amenities. There were large floor pillows for lounging along with the usual folding camp chairs and tables. Some wall hangings had been added to cheer the place up. Sheppard was sprawled on a stack of cushions entertaining himself by losing his thirty-second consecutive game of solitaire on McKay's laptop.
A crash at the entrance of the store had him on his feet instantly, his hand dropping to his 9mm. Rustling sounds indicated that whatever – or whoever – had knocked over the merchandise was still around. He peered into the darkness at the front of the building. Whatever was out there could probably see him clearly, while he couldn't see jack.
"Colonel?" McKay's voice was nearly a squeak. "What is it?"
"Don't know yet," he admitted quietly. He wished there was something more substantial between him and the front than the folding screen that acted as a room divider. "Probably just an animal. Stay here while I check it out. And turn down the lamps."
As he crept toward the front of the store the sounds of furtive activity continued. It seemed to be coming from the rows of shelves just inside the opening. He had just reached it when a movement to his right had him spinning around. He threw up his arm to fend off the dark object coming toward him and received a crack on the elbow for his trouble. He staggered backward and knocked his head on one of the shelves. Cursing, he stumbled into the night air. He was just in time to see two shadows disappearing around a corner.
More cursing and he kicked the side of the building for good measure. He limped back into the store, stopping to pick up the awning pole that had bounced off his elbow. He felt something sliding down the back of his head and ran a hand through his hair. When he looked at the hand he could see something dark smeared across the fingers. Blood. He poked gingerly around the small cut on the lump on the back of his head and decided he would live.
"Is everything okay?" McKay asked nervously. He had left the relative safety of the back of the shop, his 9mm clutched in his right hand and a large flashlight in his left.
"Yeah. Give me a hand getting this stuff back up on the shelf."
Luckily nothing seemed to have been damaged. Sheppard moved the shelves and display table further back from the opening and checked that the perimeter alarm sensors were still in place. When they returned to the living section McKay slumped back down at the table with his journals and Sheppard went to rummage in a cabinet for the First Aid kit.
"It was animals, wasn't it?" McKay asked. He rearranged his stack of reading material, first in alphabetical order, then by date.
"Hmm? Oh, probably. All I saw was a couple of shadows and the lighting is so haphazard out there that it's impossible to say what they were." Sheppard dumped some disinfectant on a gauze pad and slapped it on the back of his head, hissing at the sting. "I wouldn't worry about it. I should have set the alarm by now, but with Teyla and Ronon out for the evening I thought I'd wait until we headed to bed. Which reminds me..." He pulled a remote from his pocket and entered the sequence to arm the sensors. He could see the slow blink of the sensors placed around the front opening and the two smaller windows in the living area.
The journals were shuffled again. McKay's quick, expressive hands hovered a moment and then shifted the order back. "I could build a shield while I'm here. Probably be able to find everything I need in the market. The naquadah generator can power it easily."
Sheppard pressed a clean pad to the cut, applying pressure. "Make a list of what you'll need. You'll have to make sure it doesn't extend beyond the opening. Don't want to piss-off the neighbors or potential customers by zapping them whenever they walk by."
He checked the pad. It looked like the cut had stopped bleeding. He thought about going back to losing at solitaire, but his head was aching now and it had been a long day. Before he could relinquish the remote to McKay, the alarm started beeping.
"Colonel?" Teyla was standing just inside the opening of the store, a curious look on her face.
"Come on in, Teyla," he said, digging the remote out of his pocket again. "Sorry, we had something rummaging around up front a little while ago. Did you have a good time with your friends?"
"It was quite pleasant, thank you. Did you and Rodney have a nice evening?"
"Oh, yeah. Loads of fun. Right, McKay?"
"Yes, yes, of course," McKay said absently. He had the scanner in his hand again, making adjustments rapidly. "The energy signature just appeared again. Can we go look for it now, before it disappears?"
He didn't wait for a reply but hurried past his teammates, heading for the street. Pausing briefly at the opening, his fingers snapped impatiently. "Come along, come along. It could shut off at any moment."
He disappeared into the dark street, ignoring the alarm when it went off again.
Sheppard keyed in the disengage code and handed the remote to Teyla with a rueful smile. "I guess we'll be back in a little bit."
"Take your time." Teyla smiled in understanding.
They weren't gone half an hour. A disgruntled McKay tossed the scanner on the camp table before climbing the stairs to the sleeping loft. Sheppard and Teyla took a few moments to put things away before following.
Ronon returned a couple hours before dawn, singing. Sheppard, awakened by the alarm, thought the song sounded familiar but couldn't place it. The deep voice sounded happy, but also strangely... not.
"Oh, God," McKay mumbled from the cot in the corner. "Klingon opera."
That was it, Sheppard realized with a chuckle. Only not as plodding.
The song reached a crescendo as Ronon climbed into the loft. It ended with an enthusiastic shout just before he crashed onto his cot and started to snore.
The next few days were relatively peaceful. Their nighttime visitors tripped the alarm again on the second evening, but were gone by the time Sheppard reached the front of the store. The alarm was quiet the next night, but had been tripped twice the fourth night. Sheppard suspected that the intruders were of a two-legged variety and warned the others to keep an eye out for anyone who looked like they were casing the store.
In the mornings Teyla would mind the shop. Either Ronon or Sheppard would remain with her in case heavy lifting or a quick trip to the 'gate was needed. The other would trail after McKay as he wandered the lanes.
The scientist spent most of his 'shopping' time in the section of the market devoted to technology. Besides finding the parts needed to construct a shield, he looked over the machines and devices being offered and made disparaging comments. Sheppard found it amazing that the ruder and more abrupt McKay became with many of the merchants the more anxious they were to impress him with their offerings. By the third morning some of them even rushed out into the street when they saw him coming, urging him to come view some piece that had just been delivered via stargate. They were like desperate supplicants trying to win the approval of their king.
It was amusing. It would have been disturbing if McKay had responded to it in any way. But the man was oblivious to anything but the annoyance he felt at being dragged off to look at the latest version of a Pegasus galaxy toaster-oven.
McKay also spent frustrating hours trying to locate the elusive energy source. But after the first day the mysterious signal did not appear until the evening hours, and then only for a few minutes at a time.
Despite his early misgivings at being stuck in a giant mall for a week, Sheppard found he enjoyed wandering the market. After he stopped expecting to see hordes of giggling teenagers, he was able to enjoy the experience. He stretched his meager bargaining ability to its limits trading for some personal items and gifts.
The variety of food was wonderful. The mess hall in Atlantis was much improved over the first year of the expedition, but it was still basically cafeteria food. He talked the others into trying out a different eatery for almost every meal, finding everything from basic meat and vegetables to spicy concoctions that reminded him of Tex-Mex or the subtle flavors like the best Asian cuisine. He knew Teyla collected some recipes and new spices for the mess staff, but it wouldn't be the same back in the sterile kitchens of Atlantis.
They had all been given a list of the things Atlantis and the Athosians were looking for. If a likely source were discovered they would note the location for Teyla to investigate later.
On several occasions he felt as if he were being watched as he wandered the market or when it was his turn to mind the store. He surreptitiously watched the traders and shoppers around him, but could never spot anyone openly studying the shop or the members of the Atlantis team. If it had not been for the repeated triggering of their alarm system he might have chalked it up to paranoia.
In the afternoon Sheppard would be left in charge of the store while Teyla roamed the market looking for items for Atlantis or the Athosians. Under no real illusions as to his bargaining abilities – Teyla had sighed in exasperation when he had proudly mentioned what he had traded for some of his items – Sheppard spent most of his time explaining what Atlantis or the Athosians were offering for trade, what they were looking for and then noting down what the potential buyers had to offer. He would explain that their negotiator was away and arrange for a later meeting, either at the Atlantis store or at the potential buyer's.
On the afternoon of their fifth day as shopkeepers, Sheppard touched palms with a plump little man from someplace that sounded suspiciously like 'Barf', wished him "Good Trading" and watched as he disappeared into the swirl of humanity on the street. The man had delivered a previously agreed upon partial payment for antibiotics, one of Atlantis' most popular offerings.
Sheppard moved the six bags of seed to the pile of goods that they would be taking to the 'gate the next day. It was getting pretty large and he made a mental note to ask one of their neighbors if they could borrow a cart so that they wouldn't have to make multiple trips. The traffic at the 'gate could get pretty heavy and he didn't want to have to stand in line twice if he could help it.
He was about to stick his head around the corner to talk to Melki Tast about the cart when McKay came hurrying out from the back of the store.
"It's started again. Let's go." Waving the scanner, he didn't pause as he headed toward the street.
"Whoa, there. I can't leave the shop unattended. It'll have to wait until Teyla and Ronon get back."
"It will have stopped by then. It hasn't come on this early since the first day." McKay was practically dancing in place, eager to follow the elusive signal. "I don't want to miss it again. Wait, wait. I know. You can ask that guy next door – Milk Toast or whatever – if he can keep an eye on things."
"He's got his own store to watch. You'll just have to wait."
McKay made a frustrated noise, staring down at the data scrolling across the small screen. "I can look after myself. It's the mall, for chrissake."
Sheppard grimaced. Besides the mysterious evening visitors there were the 'Wanted' posters the Genii had circulated. Ladon Radim swore they had been recalled, but they still popped up occasionally. And McKay's lack of social skills sometimes required a buffer. "I'm sorry. We'll go as soon as they get back, McKay."
"You never object to Teyla and Ronon going out on their own."
"They're trained warriors and are always aware of what is going on around them. You have a tendency to get distracted. Which isn't a bad thing," Sheppard added hastily when McKay bristled. "You just need someone to watch your back. I'll go with you as soon as Teyla and Ronon are back, which will be anytime now."
McKay's free hand twisted as he tried to find an argument that would budge Sheppard. Finally it dropped back to his side and his lips pinched together in vexation. "The signal will be gone. Again. But God forbid scientific discovery should interrupt your shopkeeping efforts."
He stomped back to the living area. Sheppard would have followed, but a customer stepped up to the display table at that point. He was kept busy with customers until Teyla and Ronon returned, each loaded down with bundles.
"Hey, guys," he said, reaching out to relieve Teyla of her packages. "Looks like you bought out the whole market."
"No, I was only able to visit ten aisles today," she said seriously. She led the way to the back of the store. Seeing the dining table covered by the parts of McKay's shield project, she started arranging the packages on a nearby set of shelves. "And I only traded at a few of the stores. Most of this is for my people or Atlantis, but I did purchase a few personal items. I picked up some meat pies and fresh fruit for dinner."
"A lot," Ronon muttered, rolling his eyes at Sheppard and grinning. "I picked up some beer."
Teyla, unamused, thrust bundles back into both men's arms and indicated they should be put with the pile to be sent to Atlantis the next day.
"I will make sure the things going to Atlantis are properly labeled later," she added, standing up and brushing her hair back from her face. She looked around at the mess on the table. "Where is Rodney?"
"He's probably upstairs. He's annoyed with me with me right now," Sheppard said, glancing down at his watch. He was surprised to see that it had been over an hour since McKay had wanted to follow the elusive signal. "McKay!" he shouted up to the loft. When there was no reply he trotted up the stairs. "Hey, Rodney, Teyla and Ronon are back. We can – "
There was no one in the loft. Cursing, he ran back downstairs, keying his mike on at the same time. "McKay, report."
Not even any static. He cursed again and reached for his vest where it was hanging on a hook near one of the rear windows.
"What's wrong?" Ronon demanded.
"Damned fool couldn't wait for you two to get back to go chasing off after that energy reading again. And he was mad at me for implying he couldn't take care of himself. Damn it, he must have gone out the back window. I should have been paying closer attention." Sheppard said. He zipped up the vest, automatically checking the contents of the pockets with one hand while grabbing his P-90. "He's probably turned off his comm. I'm going to go find him and bring him back. No dessert for him tonight."
"Do you think there is a problem, Colonel?" Teyla asked worriedly.
"You want some help?" Ronon offered, checking the charge on his weapon before shoving it back into its holster.
"He's probably just caught up in whatever he found. I shouldn't be long. You guys wait here and radio me if McKay shows up." Sheppard didn't wait for a reply but headed out into the late afternoon crowds.
Almost an hour later he had checked in with Teyla and Ronon twice and there was still no word from McKay. He was starting to be more worried than irritated.
He shook hands with one of the multitude of teenage kids who moved around the market hiring themselves out for everything from message carriers to pack mules. "Thanks for the information, Stev. And we'll see you and your friend at the Atlantis store at second bell tomorrow, right?"
Sheppard had followed word of McKay sightings to this final row of the Cataarn market. It had been easy to track him this far. He was such a notorious figure that everyone noticed when he was around. Stev negotiated a contract to move the Atlantis team's purchases to the stargate in exchange for information on McKay. He acknowledged seeing the scientist in an animated discussion with a trader after which McKay had followed the trader into a store.
These stores, at the far end of the market, were not in the most desirable of locations. The people who set up business here tended to have a very narrow selection of items and customers who knew where to look for them.
Sheppard took a moment to contact Teyla and Ronon, letting them know where his search had taken him.
He walked toward the next-to-last store before the cross street. The merchant next door had a tall cylindrical device with a half dozen hoses dangling out of the top propped against the dividing wall. It blocked a clear view into the building. He stepped around the odd contraption and froze.
There was no display table or other indication of merchandise, but that was not unusual as they were well into the twilight hour. He stared into an empty store and a cold feeling started in his chest. Clicking on the flashlight attached to his P-90 he shined it around the blank floor and walls. There was no one inside and no merchandise. He turned to the owner of the cylinder who was busy packing away his stock for the evening.
"Excuse me. I'm John Sheppard. I'm looking for a friend: Dr. McKay. He's a little shorter than me –"
"I know Dr. McKay," the storeowner hurried forward, shoving thick-lensed glasses back up on his nose. "I'm Kep Likke. McKay, he gave me some pointers on improving my self-contained trash-collecting machine," he nodded toward the shiny cylinder. "Of course, I didn't ask for any suggestions but I've noted down what he said and will do some tests. It can't hurt to investigate it. But you said you were looking for the doctor? I saw him speaking with them," his head tilted toward the empty store, "just after the last bell rang."
"Did you see him leave?" Sheppard asked.
"I wasn't really paying attention. I had a customer wanting some repair work done and I was asking questions about the problem. Never noticed when he left."
"How about when the storeowners left?"
"Are they gone? They're like that. You wake up one day and there they are. They never put anything on display but customers show up. And you hardly ever see them leave. It's rare for them to spend the night." Likke stepped into the street and yelled toward the store on the end. "Hey, Mal! Did you see Dr. McKay here earlier?"
The other man looked up vaguely, one eye grossly distorted by what looked like a jeweler's loupe. "McKay? Hmmm, yes. He was next door earlier, going on about an energy reading. The Procurer kept insisting he didn't know what McKay was talking about. They –"
Alarms went off in Sheppard's head. "I'm sorry, but did you call these traders 'Procurers'?"
"That's what they call themselves," Mal confirmed.
"Yeah, they're really standoffish. There's a whole bunch of 'em use that store. Never give you their name. No one knows what world they come from either," Likke added. "They dial a different sequence each time they use the Ring."
"Anyway," Mal continued, impatient with being interrupted, "they invited McKay in to check their stock for this energy signature. Just humoring him, I think. I had a customer arrive to pick up a piece then and didn't see anything after that."
Sheppard barely heard the last exchange. Procurers. A few months ago two men had been discovered living – hiding – in Atlantis and they had called themselves 'Procurers'. He remembered the two cold-eyed men who had tortured McKay and Zelenka. They claimed to have sneaked into the City and to have been living there for six months before being detected. According to the little they had revealed about themselves their people moved through the galaxy, stealing technology and information and selling it to whoever had the right price. They had shared nothing else: not their names, not their home world. And then they had killed themselves, breaking small capsules of poison that had been hidden under the skin of their arms.
Damn, what had McKay stumbled into this time?
He came back to himself with a start. "I'm sorry," he said with an apologetic smile. "I was thinking where to look for him next. Thanks for the information. "
The curious shopkeepers assured him it was no problem, made half-hearted stabs at trying to interest him in their wares and then wandered back into their own shops. Sheppard turned the P-90's flashlight back on and stepped into the empty store, intent on doing a more thorough search. Hopefully, these Procurers weren't as good at covering their tracks as the ones who had invaded Atlantis.
He reached up and keyed his mike on. "Teyla. Ronon. We've got a problem."
"You have not found Dr. McKay yet?" Teyla asked after a brief pause.
"No. And remember those thieves we found in Atlantis a few months back? I think McKay stumbled onto a couple of them here." As he spoke, Sheppard ran his light along the walls, checking the built-in shelves for anything that might have been left behind. "We need to scan for his sub-dermal transmitter, but he has the scanner with him. I want you both to head back to the 'gate. Contact Atlantis and let Dr. Weir know what's going on. Have them send through another scanner and meet me here. You still have the directions I gave you earlier?"
"Yes. I can be there in a couple minutes and help you search," Ronon offered.
"I don't want you two to split up. Get the scanner from Atlantis and then get over here. If you hurry you should be here within the hour. I'm going to keep looking around. Sheppard out," he cut off the communication, not wanting to delay them. Usually he didn't mind that his team members were independent thinkers, but sometimes it kept them questioning orders for longer than he liked.
He had covered every inch of space on the ground floor and was about to start up the stairs to the loft when he felt a change in the air. The stairs started in the far back corner and moved toward the front of the store as they rose to the loft. The area underneath appeared empty, but the difference he felt was coming from there.
It took a few moments for him to realize what he was feeling. The air was different somehow. Not a change in the temperature. And it wasn't a breeze. He finally realized that it felt like lightening had struck close by; the air ionized, with an almost painful sharpness.
It felt like the air around the jumper when it was cloaked.
He was flipping the safety off the P-90 when he heard a clicking sound.
He watched in surprise as the submachine gun fell from his hands.
Agony blazed over his body as nerve endings spasmed and his muscles contracted painfully. The room whirled nauseatingly as he fell and his head bounced on the hard floor. His back arched; arms and legs jerked uncontrollably. Guttural sounds escaped his throat.
Then the pain concentrated in his head and exploded, plummeting him into darkness.
A figure stepped out of the darkness under the stairs, weapon still in hand, and stared at the figure on the ground. After a moment he slipped the stun-gun into a pocket and spoke into a device strapped to his wrist.
"Get everything ready to move. We'll take them with us."
Ronon and Teyla looked at each other when Sheppard signed off, both obviously thinking the same thing.
"I'll go backup Sheppard," Ronon said. He pulled out his blaster and twirled it absently while watching Teyla get her equipment together. He ran it quickly through all the settings before slamming it back into his holster.
Teyla zipped up her TAC vest and reached for her P-90. She shook her head. "No, you should be the one to go to the 'gate. You are the faster runner."
"I'm the better tracker, too."
"And if these traders are from the same planet as the two men we encountered in the City, then they are probably very skilled at concealing themselves. And they have had Dr. McKay for at least two hours now. We need the scanner to track the transmitter as quickly as possible. This is why you should go to the stargate."
He nodded his reluctant agreement.
Grabbing a large flashlight from a shelf, she hurried out. She paused briefly to ask Melik to watch the store for them and then she and Ronon split up. She watched as Ronon's long legs carried him rapidly out of sight around the corner and then she turned in the opposite direction.
Her own pace was not as fast as Ronon's but it was steady. The streets were much less busy now that the sun had set. If anyone wondered about the small, heavily-armed woman running through the streets they were not curious enough to try to stop her.
She didn't try to contact Sheppard, not wishing to give him a chance to reiterate his order to stay with Ronon. She was worried about him searching the Procurer's store on his own, knowing his and McKay's penchant for finding trouble.
Her worries were borne out when she reached the row of stores the Colonel had mentioned. She paused at the corner to catch her breath and watched the darkened shop for several minutes. There was no movement, no sign of Colonel Sheppard. She pressed the squawk button on her radio twice and waited. No reply.
It was hard to appear casual on such a deserted street but Teyla did her best. She strolled past the shop, peering into the dimly lit shops on either side of the one she was most interested in. There were two older men moving around in the back of the stores, apparently oblivious to the potential drama going on beside them. As she passed the darkened store she swept the flashlight on her P-90 quickly around the interior. Except for the empty built-in shelves there was nothing to see with such a fast glance.
Once past those shops she hurried to the corner and turned toward the rear of the building. There was the usual sewage trench, but between that and the woods there was a wide strip of grass. Beyond the woods was the river that provided water to the market.
The storeowners here did not bother to draw curtains or shutters over the windows at the back of their stores; there was rarely anyone walking along the grassy strip, night or day.
She crept toward the dark window, ducking low when she passed ones with light spilling out. She couldn't check for tracks. There wasn't enough light for her to see the ground near the building and she didn't want to use the flashlight, afraid it would draw unwanted attention.
When she reached the window she was interested in she crouched patiently and listened. After several minutes she had heard nothing except the neighbors on both sides eating their evening meal and the normal night sounds coming from the woods behind. She gazed up at the window. Perhaps a closer inspection of the shop was warranted.
Teyla stood and leaned across the sewage ditch, hands braced against the windowsill. She stared into the dark shop and then grabbed the flashlight from her belt. Still nothing to see. The flashlight was returned to her belt and she grasped the sill, knees bent as she prepared to boost herself through the window.
It was felt more than heard. A slight vibration under her palms that quickly grew and then moved, rumbling under her feet and moving toward the woods. She had turned and taken several steps toward the trees before she realized that she had nothing to track. The vibration was gone as quickly as it had started. She stared into the dark foliage in frustration, vaguely aware of startled exclamations erupting behind her.
She reached up and keyed her mike. "Ronon. Have you reached the stargate?"
"Just got here. Have you found them?" he answered after a moment, his tone calm and even, not sounding winded from his run.
"No. Colonel Sheppard is not here." She turned away from the woods and grabbed the window, boosting herself up to sit on the sill. "I just felt something moving underground, toward the river. I believe we might need the stronger sensors of a jumper."
"I'm at the 'gate now. I have to persuade some people to move."
Teyla's lips twitched in a small smile at Ronon's understated comment. The line of people waiting to use the stargate at this time of evening could be quite long. But she did not doubt his ability to get immediate access to the DHD.
She shined the flashlight's beam around the floor to be sure she wouldn't disturb any prints. Dropping off the sill, she moved into the store to do a more thorough search.
He hurt. Everywhere.
All of his muscles ached. His head felt as if it was being squeezed in a slowly tightening vise.
Someone was speaking but he couldn't make out the words. It sounded like McKay. He had been looking for McKay, right? His eyes slowly opened and he stared in confusion at the hard-packed dirt under his cheek.
McKay was starting to sound really agitated.
Groaning, he tried to push himself off the floor but had a hard time getting his arms to move.
"He's waking up."
"I'm busy. Shoot him again."
The vise slammed closed on his head and he fell back into darkness.
Ronon stared at the people waiting their turn to use the stargate. Based on the different clothing styles it looked as if at least six parties were lined up at the DHD, including four overloaded wagons. He couldn't wait. He unholstered his weapon as he strode to the front of the queue and fired a single shot into the air.
Several people screamed and there was confusion as everyone tried to find a place to hide. Parents gathered their children in close and crouched protectively over them. At least a dozen ended up cowering under the wagons.
"I'm not going to hurt anyone," he announced calmly. "I have an emergency and need to use the stargate." He stared at the petrified man standing by the DHD, hand poised over glowing crystals. "Now."
The man nodded jerkily and scuttled away.
Ronon cancelled the glyphs already dialed and then hesitated. After a moment he input the Alpha-site address. In an effort to continue the myth of Atlantis' destruction they had standing orders to go through the Alpha-site whenever there was any chance someone could observe the address. If they were coming in hot, or in other extreme emergencies, they could dial directly to Atlantis. He didn't think they had reached that point yet.
As soon as the wormhole formed he keyed his IDC. "Control, this is Dex."
"Good evening, Ronon," Sergeant Thomson replied. "We weren't expecting you until morning, but you're cleared to come through."
"We have a situation here, Thomson," Ronon reported tersely. He glanced around. All the people who had been cowering away just a few moments ago were now leaning forward, eager for a tale to tell. "Get in touch with Dr. Weir and Lorne. Sheppard thinks there're more of those Procurers here and they have McKay. And maybe Sheppard by now. We need a jumper's scanner to track them and some more men to help with the search. Whoever flies the jumper can pick me up here; I'll show them where McKay and Sheppard disappeared."
"Ronon, this is Captain Bingham. You should come through and report to Dr. Weir in person, she may have questions."
He looked at the crowd waiting to use the stargate. The line stretched back almost to the market buildings now. He shook his head. "If I don't stay here and keep the 'gate free it'll be hours before anyone will be able to dial through. Dr. Weir can dial here if she or Lorne has any questions. Tell them to hurry. Dex out."
He hit the crystal to disengage the wormhole. One of the braver travelers started forward. Ronon leaned against the DHD, arms crossed and face impassive as he waited. A raised eyebrow chased off the approaching man.
"I need to keep the stargate clear for a few more minutes."
There was some grumbling, and more than a few impatient sighs. But no one attempted to move him from his spot. People settled down to wait, the smaller children starting to run around again.
"Teyla, did you hear?"
"Yes, I heard," she replied after a brief pause, her tone quiet. "I have examined the inside of the empty store. I found both Rodney's and Colonel Sheppard's boot prints coming into the building, but not leaving. There are at least four other sets of prints. And there are some marks where I believe there was a struggle and something was dragged away."
"You're not still in the building?" Ronon asked, concerned that she would be the next to disappear.
"No, I am watching it from across the street now."
"Good. Leave your comm open in case something happens."
He returned to waiting. One of the market security guards came to see what was causing the delay. The hired help took one look at the tall Satedan guarding the DHD, decided against confrontation and quickly disappeared back into the marketplace.
An incoming wormhole opened in less than five minutes.
"Ronon, this is Dr. Weir." The concern in the expedition leader's voice was evident even in that simple statement.
"I'm still here. How long before backup gets here?"
"Major Lorne is getting a team together and should be coming through within a few minutes. Is there anything else you need at this time?"
"Not right now. Once we find them that might change."
"Understood. We'll be waiting."
The comm fell silent. Ronon appreciated that she didn't demand an expanded report or feel the need to fill the silence with needless chatter. He paced impatiently in front of the DHD. His eyes constantly scanned the surrounding area and people, one hand hovering over his weapon.
After several long minutes Dr. Weir's voice sounded in his ear, "Lorne's jumper is dropping down from the bay now. Bring them home, Ronon. And be safe."
He didn't reply, but turned to watch as the jumper slipped through the event horizon. It hovered briefly and Lorne – who was piloting the craft – pointed to a clear area at one end of the large pasture. Ronon nodded and started running.
"Teyla, Lorne and the jumper are here."
"Understood. I am still outside of the Procurer's store."
Behind him no one moved toward the DHD, too busy gaping at the odd craft flying quietly across the field.
The rear hatch was open by the time Ronon reached it. He didn't slow down until he had sprinted up the ramp and was moving down the aisle to the cockpit. The jumper rose into the air again as he leaned over the pilot's seat and pointed out the direction. "The place where they disappeared is in the last row on the river side of the marketplace. The northeast corner. You can land the jumper behind the buildings. Do Sheppard's and McKay's transmitters show up on that thing?"
"No," Lorne said, peering grimly at the HUD. "The only transmitter showing up is Teyla's. They're either shielded or deactivated. Give me a quick sit-rep."
Ronon gave a terse report of the elusive energy signal, McKay's disappearance and Sheppard's report of finding a store run by Procurers before he, too, disappeared. By the time Ronon finished they had landed behind the row of shops and were disembarking.
Heads popped out of windows, staring at the jumper and the squad of Marines pouring out of it. Lorne did his best to ignore the audience as he sent a half dozen men to scout the area, including the woods. He left one Marine to guard the jumper and sent a second around front to watch the street while they explored the shop. He and Ronon were about to go find Teyla when she appeared at the back window.
"Were you able to detect the Colonel's or Rodney's transmitters?" she asked as the two clambered over the sill. When Lorne shook his head, she sighed in disappointment and indicated the area under the stairs. "I think they were taken underground. You can see how the tracks disappear at mid-footprint. If there is a facility underground this would explain the vibrations I felt earlier."
When the major looked confused she explained about the trembling she had felt. Ronon took the opportunity to examine the other tracks in the store, easily spotting the Atlantis-issued footwear and at least four other sets of prints. He crouched next to the stairs and checked the large slate pavers used as flooring in the rear half of the building. Dirt from the hard-packed earthen floor in the front of the store and street was liberally ground into the rough surface and showed the passage of many feet. He found that the prints next to the stairs did not really vanish but became indistinct, as if someone had lightly swept only this paver. When he ran his hand across the floor he felt a difference in temperature from one paver to the next. He pulled out a knife and tried to pry up the edge.
"Ronon, what're you doing?" Lorne asked. He and Teyla watched as Ronon struggled to get the stone to move.
"There's something under here." Ronon growled his frustration and tried another side of the stone. Still unable to get the paver to move he stood up and grabbed for his blaster.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Lorne said, placing a cautious hand on the taller man's arm. "Are you sure there's something under the floor? 'cause I'm not showing anything on the life-signs detector on a lower level than us." He held up the Ancient device so that Ronon could see the screen.
"As am I," Teyla added. "There was movement underground when I was outside earlier."
Lorne nodded in acquiescence and stuffed the life-signs detector into a vest pocket. "Okay. I'm going to have Sgt. Hiroyuki come in here with his bag of tricks. While he's getting set up – "
Ronon drew his gun and fired at the block of slate. After the third blast there was a loud crack! and half of the paver fell into the darkness underneath.
"Or not!" Lorne lowered the arm he had used to shield his face from flying rock and glared at the taller man. His left ear was being bombarded with requests for information on the explosions. "Damn it, Ronon, we're not ready to go down in that hole." He keyed his mike. "Everyone stand down. We just opened up a doorway leading underground. Michaels, Perez, get in here to watch our six. Everyone else back to your original assignments."
The faces of the market locals started to appear at the front of the store. The Marine they had left on guard was busy keeping the curious from entering.
Teyla added her own disapproval. "He is right, Ronon. You should have waited for back up."
"It was taking too long," Ronon growled, dropping to his belly and shining a flashlight into the hole. "You know what they did to McKay and Zelenka last time. And Sheppard. We can't waste time. It looks clear."
Without waiting for a reply he lowered himself into the hole. There was a narrow staircase, but the first half dozen risers had been damaged by the blasts. He kicked debris from the collapsed flooring off of the remaining stairs. The room he found himself in was square, thirty meters on a side, and filled with the type of equipment he'd grown used to seeing in the labs in Atlantis. Not the same, but similar.
"Do you see anything?" Lorne called down impatiently.
"There's no one down here. Hold on."
Ronon shined the light around various surfaces. A dark stain in one corner caught his eye and he moved closer. The flashlight distorted the color of the liquid, but the smell told him what it was: blood. Not a lot of it, but more than a skinned knee. He picked up two small objects on a nearby worktable – sub-dermal transmitters. He clenched his fist around the objects.
"I found Sheppard's and McKay's transmitters. There's a door. I'm going to see where it leads."
"Wait until I get down there," Lorne instructed. "Teyla, wait here. Watch our backs."
The major was just lowering himself in the stairwell when their comms crackled to life.
"Major Lorne! There is some sort of craft rising out of the ground back here."
Lorne boosted himself back up into the store and hurried toward the back window. Teyla was already climbing over the sill. "Where exactly is 'here', Haas?"
"I'm at the river, sir, approximately fifty meters upstream from the store," came the hushed reply. "Doors opened up on a sandbar in the river. That's where the craft is coming from."
"Okay, we'll be there with the jumper in a minute. Ronon, where are you?" he bellowed impatiently back toward the hole in the floor. The reply came over the comm.
"There's a passage behind that door. It looks like it heads toward the river. I'm going to check it out."
Lorne ground his teeth. How did Sheppard manage to keep these people working as a team? "Don't engage anyone. Report what you find and wait for backup. Michaels, Perez and Horne you stay and watch the store."
There was no reply from the Satedan, but the Marines acknowledged their orders. Lorne vaulted over the windowsill and sprinted up the ramp into the jumper. Teyla was already in the co-pilot's chair. He had the jumper powered up and rising from the ground in record time. He hoped the craft they were looking for was not a spaceship. The jumper could follow it out of the atmosphere, but if it had a hyper-drive they would lose contact with it. With their sub-dermal transmitters removed there would be no way to track where Sheppard and McKay were taken.
All the Atlantis teams had standing orders to keep their ears open for any information on the Procurers. But after nearly six months, they still had no idea what planet the elusive thieving traders came from. They were known on many worlds, but no one knew much about them except that they were shrewd traders of any commodity, everything from grain to the highest technology to information. There were whispers that they were thieves and would even trade in slaves.
The jumper had just cleared the treetops when Sergeant Haas' voice broke over the comm, "Major, the ship is taking off."
Teyla's arm shot out as she pointed to a dark shape rising into the air. "There!"
"I see it," Lorne said. He had the HUD up, scanning the ship. There were five life-signs inside. He had no doubt that Sheppard and McKay were onboard. He opened the comm to all channels. "Procurer vessel, this is Major Lorne of Atlantis. You have two of our people onboard. If you do not land and release Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay it will be considered an act of aggression."
There was no response and the other ship continued rising into the night sky. Lorne cloaked the jumper and chased after it. The Procurer's ship was about twice the size of a Goa'uld Al-kesh, but more utilitarian in appearance. A long rectangle, the only change in the long, boxy hull was in the rear where the engines were mounted.
"They are not heeding you," Teyla murmured, staring fixedly at the fleeing spacecraft as they left the atmosphere of the planet. "How will you stop them?"
He shook his head. "You know the only armament on the jumper is the drones. Have you ever seen this kind of craft before?"
"Without accurate information about how that ship is put together, I'd be just as likely to blow the whole thing up as force it to land." Lorne growled his frustration and opened the comm again, "Procurer vessel, land and release Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay. If you do not, I will use all means necessary to force you to comply. Do you – "
A hyper-space window opened and the Procurer ship accelerated into it.
He heard Teyla's breath catch as the window slammed closed. Grimly, he stared at the spot where the ship had disappeared.
"How will we find them?" Teyla finally asked.
Lorne envied her ability to radiate calmness even in this situation and wondered what she was actually feeling. His own hands were clenched so tightly around the jumper controls he was surprised they hadn't snapped off. Forcing himself to relax, he turned the jumper and headed back to the planet.
"I don't know. Yet."
McKay hated being stunned and kidnapped and pushed around and stuffed into small, malodorous cells that weren't big enough for him to stretch out his legs or allow him to stand up. He was pretty sure that Sheppard – who had been tossed in on top of him – would be equally unhappy about it when he finally regained consciousness.
McKay deeply regretted his decision to climb out the back window of the shop like a randy teenager desperate for a groping session. But boredom and the lure of the elusive power signal had been too great. After days of chasing after the damned thing, he had tracked it to one corner of the market and just needed a little while longer to pinpoint its exact location. He'd had no real hope that it was a ZPM or even a powerful substitute. At that point, he had only wanted to know what it was and why it appeared at such irregular intervals.
Well, his curiosity had been answered. What was it with aliens in the Pegasus galaxy and their secret underground facilities? The Procurers' generator remained shielded as long as the door between the shop and the hidden basement remained closed. When the door opened, the signal would appear on his scanner and that was why it had been so frustratingly intermittent.
Of course, he hadn't figured that out until after he had been stunned, kidnapped and had awakened in the secret lab. He berated himself, again, for not being more wary of the taciturn, nameless trader. When he was invited into a curiously sparse store to view a new generator picked up on some distant world, he had eagerly agreed. He had followed the man into the gloomy rear of the building and the next thing he remembered was waking up, trussed and feeling hung-over, in the Procurers' hidden facility.
Now they were on a spaceship going God-knows-where.
McKay huddled miserably in the dark closet where they had been stuffed. There was no room to flex legs that were going numb, even if an unconscious Sheppard had not been dropped across them. His arms had been pulled behind his back and bound so tightly that he was starting to lose the feeling in his hands as well. His left arm was throbbing where the transmitter had been unceremoniously cut out.
He had had high hopes for that transmitter when he had first awakened after being stunned. Even after Sheppard had come tumbling down the stairs into the hidden basement he was sure that Ronon and Teyla would be able to get a scanner from Atlantis and find them with no problems. Then the man who McKay had decided was in charge of this group of Procurers – and whom he had dubbed 'Moe' – had rolled over a piece of equipment, removed a wand that looked like a microphone and started waving it over Sheppard's body. It was not as compact as the Ancient's handheld scanner but it worked well enough to locate four knives hidden in the lt. colonel's clothing. And it found the sub-dermal transmitters.
Five minutes later both he and Sheppard were in need of new jackets and the transmitters were smashed on a nearby worktable. Blood from unbandaged cuts slowly stained their ripped jacket sleeves. McKay also had an aching jaw. He had watched, appalled, as the operation was performed on the unconscious Sheppard. He had protested, loudly. When Moe came toward him the protests had turned to frantic, unrealistic threats. He was pretty sure he hadn't begged. This continued until 'Larry', the second in command, lost patience and punched him in the jaw. Things had been a bit fuzzy for a few minutes, but not fuzzy enough to keep him from screaming when they sliced into his arm.
Sheppard groaned and stirred against him.
"Hey, Colonel, you waking up?" McKay asked gruffly, trying to hide his relief that Sheppard was finally regaining consciousness. "I'd really appreciate it if you would wake up before the drool gets out of control. I mean: teammates and all, but I draw the line at drool."
He squinted into the darkness. The only light was what seeped through the cracks around the door and it did not provide much illumination. McKay was starting to get worried about how seriously the other man had been injured. Moe had not been gentle about getting Sheppard downstairs to the laboratory, simply allowing the unconscious body to roll down the stairs. Then Sheppard had been stunned a second time when he had started to awaken just before the unauthorized surgery.
"Come on, Colonel, wake up and help me think of a way out of this closet and off of this stinky ship." There was no reply. He sighed and leaned back against the wall. "You know, you would think that a group of people intelligent enough to figure out space travel would be smart enough to have figured out how to make those little pine tree air fresheners. I mean, the smell in here is making my eyes water. Which you would find out for yourself if you would ever open – "
The quiet voice jerked his monologue to a halt. "Thank goodness. I was starting to get worried about you. I know you got zapped twice, but – "
"Quiet. Please," came a hoarse whisper.
"What? Oh, sure. The 'I've-been-zapped headache'. I forgot about that. Sure, I can be quiet." McKay remembered his own headache after being stunned once and winced in sympathy. He leaned against the wall, humming tunelessly and hands twisting aimlessly behind his back. He tried to remember everything he had seen as they were being dragged into the ship. It hadn't been much. He had tried to look around as he was led onboard, but the shortest and stoutest of the Procurers – 'Curly', who actually had a head of fuzzy orange curls – had taken great pleasure in hitting him on the head whenever he had tried to raise it. After a minute of fruitless contemplation he leaned forward again. "Is your head better yet? I don't know about you, but I'm – "
The ship shuddered, lifting and tossing them to the back of the cabinet. Sheppard let out an involuntary grunt as McKay's knees slammed into his gut. He started to gag weakly.
"Oh, God! No puking!" McKay begged, groaning over his own pain. He had ended up partially on his side, his head wedged into a corner at an awkward angle. His shoulders had slammed into the wall, almost wrenching his bound arms out of their sockets.
Sheppard managed to stifle his gag reflex, taking deep breaths and blowing them out slowly until the nausea receded. He tried to twist into a more comfortable position, but there was no room. He settled for wedging himself between McKay's knees and the bulkhead. "What was that?"
"The lurch? I think that was the ship dropping out of hyper-space," McKay shifted thankfully into lecture mode. "It jerked like that when it jumped into hyper-space, too. They have a pretty rough transition between the sub-light engines and hyper-drive. Obviously they haven't – "
"We're in a spaceship?" Sheppard interrupted, confused.
"Yes, they moved us while you were unconscious. You took longer to wake up after being stunned that second time." McKay waited to see if there were any more questions, then continued, "Anyway, their hyper-drive isn't as sophisticated as one of the Ancient's or even ours. I think – "
"Do you know where they're taking us?"
"Can't be too far from Cataarn, relatively speaking. They didn't use the hyper-drive for more than a few minutes. And, no, they haven't really said much to me. Except Curly, he keeps telling me to shut up; a real limited vocabulary, that one. I guess I should tell you I've named them so you don't have to. Name them, that is. The Procurers. I'm calling them Moe, Larry and Curly."
He waited anxiously to hear what Sheppard thought of the names. After a few rough starts when they first came to the Pegasus galaxy he thought he was finally getting the hang of how to name the people and things they came across.
"The Three Stooges?" Sheppard chuckled. "Who's who?"
"Moe is the one who stunned you and cut out our transmitters." McKay felt Sheppard jerk against him in surprise. "Yeah, something else you slept through."
"I thought it was the restraints making my arm ache."
"No, we both have massive infection and possibly amputation to look forward to. I know he didn't clean the knife after he finished on you and then started on me." McKay rotated the shoulder of the injured arm, sure that it felt hot and swollen already. He sighed in resignation. "Anyway, they had some sort of scanner, looked like a shop-vac with a microphone attached to the end of the hose. Real low-tech looking," he added with a sneer. "He ran it over you and found a bunch of knives. And our transmitters."
"Great," Sheppard murmured, mentally discarding several escape scenarios. "How many knives did they find?"
"Four, I think. Besides the one on your belt."
"How about the one in my boot?"
"I don't know. You have a knife in your boot?" McKay asked in amazement. He felt Sheppard squirm against him. "What are you doing? Ouch! There's no room in this closet for us to have our own personal space, much as I would like that. Ow! Careful where you put your elbows."
"I'm trying to get at my boot. Can you – "
McKay didn't have to worry about attempting whatever contortion Sheppard had in mind. The door to the cell suddenly opened and light flooded in, temporarily blinding him. By the time he had blinked away the spots dancing in front of his eyes, Larry and Curly had grabbed Sheppard.
He struggled to get to his knees. "Hey, where are you taking him? What are you – ?"
"Shut up," Larry growled, kicking him in the chest and knocking him back into the corner.
The door slammed closed, plunging him into darkness again. He squirmed and twisted until he could press his ear against the door. Over the sound of his pounding heart he could hear Sheppard's cocky tones, the words indistinct. Another voice interrupted, from the cadence it sounded as if it was asking questions. Sheppard spoke again, his tone still easy, confident, and was cut off again. This went on for awhile with the second voice becoming colder, more abrupt.
Then the sound of someone being punched repeatedly, methodically, began. It was a sound that had haunted McKay's dreams for weeks after his first encounter with the Procurers. He closed his eyes and pressed his face against the wall, shuddering as the heavy thuds continued.
"This is not good," he whispered.
Sheppard swayed, the arm being held by Curly the only thing keeping him from tilting over and sliding down the wall. His body felt oddly numb and unresponsive. Except for the pounding headache; his head didn't feel numb at all. He knew these were all symptoms of being shot by one of those damned stunners and that it should wear off soon. Those who'd been shot on Atlantis had recovered within an hour or so. It had been at least that long now and he was more than ready for the vertigo and accompanying nausea to stop.
He took the opportunity to look around while the two jailors relocked the door to the cell where McKay remained. It looked as if they had been locked up in a storage cabinet in the cargo section of the ship. There was a series of the low, shallow cabinets built into the walls and topped by open shelves. A few dozen crates were stacked in the area and he leaned over to look at one that appeared to have Ancient script on it. Curly grabbed him by the collar and jerked him upright.
"Nothing for you there," the portly redhead growled, twisting the material until it threatened to cut off his air and pushed him forward.
"Oh, I don't know," he managed to gasp out, "it might be something we'd be willing to trade for. Why don't we – "
They didn't have far to go. Sheppard kept his eyes open and scanning his surroundings, looking for anything that might help him and McKay escape. There wasn't much to see. The Procurers apparently lived a very spartan life. The bulkheads and decking were dark, the lighting sparse. The layout of the ship was open, no doors or bulkheads separating the different areas except the one separating the engines from the rest of the ship. Going forward, after the cargo area there was a brief section that was apparently the crew quarters: six narrow bunks, stacked three-high on each side of the ship, built into the walls. And then they came to the bridge.
The walls here were lined with consoles that would have looked at home on the set of the original Star Trek: blinking lights, toggle switches and buttons with monitor screens above. It didn't look anything like Ancient technology, but was oddly familiar.
There was a long, narrow viewport across the front of the ship. The view was of stationary stars and on the starboard side a vista of slowly tumbling asteroids.
His captors didn't give him a chance for more than a quick glance. He was thrust into a chair bolted to the decking. Larry produced a knife and sliced through the rope around his wrists.
As soon as his hands were free he kicked out, catching Curly just above the kneecap. The big man crashed to the floor with a pained howl. Sheppard twisted in the chair, reached back and grabbed Larry by the hair. Rising to his feet he yanked down on the captive hair as he brought up a knee, hoping to bash the two together. He managed a grazing blow, but they were both unbalanced and fell together in a heap. Happily, he landed on top and was able to keep an elbow pressed into Larry's neck while he scrabbled for the knife that had fallen to the ground. His fingers were just curling around the handle when the ceiling fell in on him.
His world narrowed to a dark, shadowy tunnel. By the time he was aware of his surroundings again he was propped up in the chair and his hands had been tied to the chair's back supports. Curly was taking pains to tighten the cord binding his legs to the chair legs until they felt as if they were cutting into Sheppard's ankles.
He licked dry lips, swallowing down nausea. "You know, guys, if McKay did something that offended you in any way: said something or touched something... whatever he did, I'm sure we can work it out. I really think that we – "
"Shut up," Curly said, stepping back and taking up a guarding stance. Locking eyes with Sheppard he took gloves from a pocket and pulled them on, clenching and unclenching his fists to settle the leather properly. Chubby, freckle-covered cheeks couldn't disguise the implied menace.
Sheppard broke eye contact with a cough and watched as Larry disappeared back into the cargo area. "No, seriously. McKay is always putting his foot in his mouth, so – "
He saw the blow coming and was able to turn his head to avoid the worst of it. But his cheek still stung and his lip was cut. He probed the injury with his tongue, grimacing at the coppery taste of blood.
"There's really no need for all of this," he said, striving to keep his tone easy. "Why don't you tell me what you want? You never know, it might be something I'm willing to provide without having it beaten out of me."
"Somehow, I doubt that, Colonel Sheppard."
He looked away from the impassive Curly and watched as Larry and a third Procurer approached the bridge area. This must be Moe; the bowl-haircut was unmistakable. But the Earth-Moe had never dreamed of reaching the level of intimidation that this man achieved just by walking into the room. Although tall and physically impressive, it was the cold, dark eyes that had Sheppard tensing in his chair and testing his bonds as subtly as possible. Scar, the leader of the two Procurers who had infiltrated Atlantis, had had eyes like that.
Sheppard made eye contact with Moe and refused to look away. His smile vanished and his tone hardened. "Why don't you let me be the judge of that? What is it that you want?"
"We are aware that the Genii have offered a bounty for you and Dr. McKay. They would be pleased with several others from Atlantis, but you and McKay seem to be their main interest." As Moe spoke, Larry brought another chair for him. He leaned back casually in the chair and a small smile touched his lips but never reached his eyes. "The bounty is quite substantial. You must have done something quite heinous to have the Genii so eager for your capture."
Those damned wanted posters, Sheppard thought. "The Genii tried to take something that didn't belong to them, and I stopped them. Relations were a little strained between us for a while. However, we recently worked out a deal and I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the Genii have rescinded their bounty offer," he said earnestly. He tugged at the cords tying him to the chair, but they were still as snug as the first time he tested them.
"Most fugitives claim they are being held in error," Moe said, obviously unimpressed. "We have sent notice to the Genii homeworld that we have you in our possession. An exchange will be arranged as soon as we hear from them." Moe signaled to Larry who moved behind Sheppard and took hold of his shoulders. "While we wait, there are questions that I would have you answer."
"Frankly, I'm still a little woozy from being stunned earlier. And you're not really offering me any incentive to cooperate."
Moe nodded at Curly and a sledgehammer-sized fist slammed into Sheppard's solar plexus. Air rushed out of his lungs in a whoosh and he struggled for several moments to get his diaphragm to cooperate and draw in another breath. If Larry hadn't been holding him in place he would have toppled out of the chair.
Hard fingers grabbed his jaw and jerked his head up. He glared up into Moe's dead eyes and knew that the wait for rescue was not going to become any more comfortable.
"The only incentive I offer is the absence of pain," Moe said, releasing him and stepping back. "We will begin."
Several keys were depressed on a nearby console and pictures of two men appeared on a screen. Sheppard worked to keep his face blank as he examined the pictures. He recognized them easily as the two men McKay had named Scar and Lacky. They had died, committed suicide, before they had revealed any information about themselves.
"Slightly more than one sun cycle ago, these men went to Atlantis," Moe began, returning to his seat and staring hard at his prisoner. "We have not heard from them since. Where are they?"
Sheppard shook his head sadly. "Atlantis was destroyed in a Wraith attack almost two years ago. They couldn't have – "
The punch was easy to see coming but he could do nothing more than turn his head slightly before Curly's fist connected with his face. His head snapped back as pain exploded in his left cheekbone and eye.
"Please do not lie to me, Colonel Sheppard. We know that Atlantis still stands. Our brothers should have returned nearly half a cycle ago. Where are they?"
Sheppard grimaced at the pain radiating from his left cheekbone, his vision slightly blurry as his eye started to swell shut. "I don't know where you're getting your information, but I was there. The Wraith attacked. We didn't have the power to run the City's defenses and we lost her. I don't know where your men are. Unhh!"
The blow slammed into the same side of his head, in nearly the same spot. Sheppard's tongue was cut when his jaw slammed together and the warm, salty taste of blood filled his mouth. He spit, being careful to aim for Curly's shoes.
There was a brief, stunned silence and then Curly had him by the throat, pulling at him as if trying to get him on his feet while landing blow after blow to his head. Sheppard was barely aware of it as he struggled to draw in a breath. Blood pounded in his head and his vision was beginning to darken when the beating abruptly stopped.
Curly slammed him back into the chair.
His head dropped back and he tried to draw in a deep breath. Blood filled his throat and he choked. Droplets of blood spattered nearby surfaces when he coughed. Leaning forward, he spit weakly and then hung limply from the ties holding him to the chair. He watched blearily as blood continued to drip from his mouth and nose.
He hoped rescue didn't take too long getting here.
He knew that he could take this level of abuse for a while; but McKay hadn't had any training in resisting this sort of questioning. And he worried what these guys would do if – when – they found out that their fellow Procurers had committed suicide while locked in the Atlantis brig. They were enigmatic. They might shrug off the information as the price of doing business and continue with their plans to sell Sheppard and McKay to the Genii. Or they might be an 'eye for an eye' kind of people.
Larry grabbed a handful of his hair and dragged his head back, using it as leverage to get him upright in the chair. Moe leaned forward and gripped Sheppard's jaw again. He was really starting to hate that habit.
"Colonel Sheppard, I'm going to make this a little easier for you. You do not have to admit that Atlantis still stands. If you wish to continue that lie, fine. But these two men went to wherever your people are currently located. Where are my brothers now?"
Sheppard shook his head wearily. "I'm telling you, I don't know who those two men are."
Moe sighed and got to his feet. "No more blows to the head. We don't want to addle his brains."
Curly stepped forward cracking his knuckles and blocking Sheppard's view as Moe returned to the rear of the ship.
Dr. Weir pressed two fingers to the spot between her brows, trying to push back the headache that pounded there. Lack of sleep, too much caffeine and the unrelenting worry of the last twenty hours was catching up with her. She gazed at the series of photos spread across her desk. At first glance they looked like they could be any of the labs in Atlantis. Closer inspection revealed the differences, some subtle: the curvature on flasks or the material used to build the worktables; others not so subtle: the computers, so large and bulky compared to those used by the expedition.
She shuffled the pictures back into a single pile and gazed across her desk at the three people who had just finished making their reports. Each of them revealed their tension in their own way. Lorne stood balanced on the balls of his feet, arms hanging at his sides with his hands clenching and unclenching. His jaw was so tight it made her face ache just watching him. Anger and impatience rolled off of Ronon in almost visible waves as he stalked slowly back and forth behind the others. And Teyla. If she had not known the woman so long, she might have missed the signs of the Athosian's anxiety. There was a tightness around Teyla's eyes that was easy to overlook.
Dr. Weir waved them toward the chairs again, but was unsurprised when no one took advantage of the offer. She didn't feel like sitting herself.
"You found nothing indicating where they came from?" she asked, already knowing the answer, but hoping something had changed since Lorne radioed that they were coming back to Atlantis.
"Unless Dr. Zelenka finds something in the computers we confiscated, no," Lorne confirmed. "The Genii 'Wanted' posters we found indicate they were probably grabbed for the bounty. But where they're being held or where the Procurer's come from, nothing."
"I thought Ladon Radim had promised to have the bounties recalled," Teyla said quietly.
Ronon snorted in disgust. "You can't trust the Genii to do anything they promise. None of them have any honor."
"Ladon did say he would have the bounty withdrawn," Dr. Weir said hastily, not wanting to argue with Ronon again about confronting the Genii leader. "But the posters had already spread to more planets than beyond where the originals were distributed. The word has gone out, but it may not have spread as far as Cataarn yet."
Ronon growled his frustration and slammed a fist into the wall before turning and resuming his pacing. She sighed, wishing she could give in to her own feelings. "I know you don't trust the Genii, but they do have an extensive network of informants out there. I contacted Ladon as soon as you radioed about finding the posters. He's promised to let us know if he is approached about paying the reward and he is going to ask his spies to keep an ear open for information on Sheppard and McKay. He does have someone he can contact, not on Cataarn, when he wants to get in touch with the Procurers. He and I have both agreed it would be best to hold that option in reserve. We don't want to let them know the Genii are allied with us yet."
She flipped through the pictures again and longed for a cup of tea. "I assume, Major, that you have a team ready to go on a moments notice?" She waited for Lorne's nod before continuing, "I've contacted the Daedalus. It would take them almost three days to return to Atlantis, but less than one to reach Cataarn. Colonel Caldwell said he'll head toward Cataarn, but stay far enough away so that they, hopefully, will not be picked up by any sensors."
"He can contact Lieutenant Singh when the Daedalus gets within hailing distance. Singh and his team are staying on planet in a cloaked jumper, keeping an eye on both shops." Lorne rubbed the back of his neck. "That reminds me, we need to send someone to cover our shop or to close it up. There's a low theft rate on Cataarn, but an unattended store might be too much for some people to resist."
"Ronon and I would be happy to return to the market," Teyla offered quickly. Ronon stopped his pacing and stared at her in surprise. "There is little we can do here but wait for others to supply us with information. We can watch the store on Cataarn and we can talk to the people there. Perhaps we will discover some piece of information that has been overlooked. And it is possible the Procurers will return there to trade Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay for the promised bounty."
Ronon looked pleased with that possibility and nodded his agreement. Dr.Weir hesitated briefly, glancing at Lorne to see his reaction to the proposal.
"Teyla is very good at getting people to open up," he said and then eyed the hulking Satedan. A tired smile curved his lips. "Ronon, not so much. I'll send a couple of Marines with them, dressed in civvies; could be our uniforms are putting off some of the locals."
"All right, you two can go back to Cataarn." Dr. Weir looked from one to the other. "No one goes off on their own. If you get any leads you dial Atlantis immediately; don't go after them by yourselves. I don't want to lose any more people on this. Am I understood?"
"Of course, Elizabeth," Teyla murmured agreeably and then raised an eyebrow at Ronon until he muttered something. She smiled gently. "We will be ready to leave within one half of an hour."
Dr. Weir watched as they trotted down the stairs toward the 'gate and disappeared into the corridor leading to personal quarters and the armory, among other things. Disappeared. She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself, even though she wasn't cold. When she turned back to Lorne she could see what he was going to ask. With one last, brisk rub of her upper arms she moved behind her desk and sat, pulling her laptop toward her.
"No, I'm afraid I can't let you go back to Cataarn too. Besides taking over Colonel Sheppard's duties until he returns I need you to coordinate the search. This is probably going to require you to work with the Genii. Is that going to be a problem?"
A tic started in his jaw, but Lorne was able to grind out, "No, ma'am."
A sympathetic smile appeared briefly on her face before she frowned. "I also want you to work directly with Colonel Caldwell. But keep me in the loop; let me know all plans before they're implemented."
Her eyes drifted toward the floor-to-ceiling windows of her office walls and to the stargate visible on the floor below. "We'll get them back."
Lorne relaxed fractionally, a small smile twisting his lips. "Those two have the damnedest luck. They might not even need our help. But, yes, we'll bring them home."
He was turning to leave when the 'gate came to life. Before he reached the door the technician's voice was echoing over the City's speakers, "Unscheduled 'gate activation."
They exchanged a worried glance and then hurried into Control. The tech was just releasing the shield when they arrived.
"It's Lieutenant Singh. He's coming through."
They started toward the stairs leading to the jumper bay and glanced toward the stargate, expecting to see a jumper emerge from the event horizon. When two blindfolded figures, closely followed by Singh, stumbled through the 'gate instead they stopped and stared.
The young lieutenant barked out an order to stop then looked up at Control with a grin. "I think we caught something useful, sir. Ma'am."
Dr. Weir and Lorne hurried down the stairs to the 'gate room. The two blindfolded figures appeared more disreputable the closer they got. Their clothes were muddy, grass-stained and had been ripped in several places. Any exposed skin was smudged with dirt. Their hands had been bound in front of them, and they each had a bandage wrapped around their left forearm just below the elbow.
"We captured these two in the underground lab," Singh reported. "Our sensors showed them entering from the river side, out on that sandbar. We waited until they got to the main lab, tossed in a flash-bang and then hit 'em with a stunner. We located the suicide capsules right where Doc Beckett said they'd be and removed 'em while they were still out. They're still a little groggy from the stunner. They haven't said anything since they woke up."
"Excellent work, Lieutenant," Dr. Weir praised, her mind already running through the possibilities of this development.
"I second that, Singh," Lorne added, "but why'd you walk them back to the 'gate? Where's the jumper?"
"I had the jumper drop us off at the stargate and then go back to monitoring the Procurers' facility, sir. There might be more of them waiting to come in. And it's the middle of the night on Cataarn, nobody near the 'gate, so I figured it would be safe enough to gate straight home. Oh, I forgot about these." Singh shrugged off his backpack and handed it to Lorne. "That's everything we took off of them. A couple of those stun-guns, knives. Each of them had a communication device. And the tall one had some kind of device, about the size of a life signs detector. I don't know what it is and they're not talking."
"I'm sure Dr. Zelenka will be able to figure it out," Lorne accepted the bag and passed it over to one of the 'gate guards with instructions to deliver it to Zelenka. "Very well. Escort them down to the brig. Get those clothes off of them and I want them both thoroughly searched. I mean thoroughly, Lieutenant," he emphasized, remembering the consequences of their failure to discover the suicide capsules on the previous prisoners. He didn't want anyone to have to go through that again. "Let Beckett know. He'll probably want to check them. But I want two guards in there at all times."
"After you get them settled, get on back up here. Teyla and Ronon are heading back to Cataarn and you can gate out with them."
"Yes, sir." Singh took one of the guards to help escort the prisoners and the small contingent left the 'gate room.
"This is beginning to look more like a prisoner exchange," Lorne said with a grin.
"Definitely a new bargaining chip," Dr, Weir agreed, a small smile touching her lips. She started back up the stairs to the Control room. "Do you think we'd get any information if we question them?"
"Just asking? No. Passive psychological conditioning would take days or weeks, at the very least. We could send Ronon in. See if he could intimidate them into talking. But, if these guys are as fanatical as the last two, we won't get anything out of them."
She nodded, having expected nothing else. "We need to speak with Ladon Radim. He's done business with them; he knows more about them than we do. If they don't get in touch with him about the reward, we need to know how we can contact them. I'd like his input on how best to approach the Procurers about getting our people back. I'm afraid we'll have to trust his opinion on this. He's still waiting to see if the Procurers contact them; you'll need to go to him. Are you ready for that?"
"I don't suppose I'll be allowed to take my P-90 and some grenades when I go?" Lorne asked dryly.
"Let's try for a slightly more friendly presentation this time," she said dryly. "Before you go, be sure to send a message to the Daedalus about this development. Caldwell likes to be kept up to speed on all the details."
"Don't worry, ma'am, I'll take care of it," he said, looking much less tense than he had twenty minutes earlier. "And I'll brief Teyla and Ronon on the new development."
McKay slouched in his corner of the cabinet. He was desperately tired, but his body ached so much from the cramped position he was forced to maintain that he couldn't sleep. At least not restful sleep. He had dozed off a couple times, jerking back to painful awareness when he started to slump over.
And listening to the unconscious Sheppard wheezing in the opposite corner was not conducive to restfulness.
He wasn't sure how many hours had gone by – ten? twelve? – before the lt. colonel had been returned to the holding area. Even bruised and bloodied, Sheppard had made an abortive attempt to escape before being shoved back into the storage cabinet. His hands still tied behind him, he drove a shoulder into Curly's chest and managed to knock the Procurer to the floor. Unsteady from whatever had been done to him during the previous hours, he lost his balance. He tried to twist so that he would land on top of the Procurer but missed, falling backward between two crates. Before he could sit back up Curly shot him.
McKay, who had started wiggling his way out of the cabinet with some indeterminate plan to help Sheppard, gulped in dismay when the stunner was shoved into his own face.
"Back in the cell, little man," Curly growled.
A booted foot shot out and caught McKay in the chest, knocking him back into the corner. A moment later an unconscious Sheppard was dropped on top of him.
"Hey!" he yelled when the door started to swing shut. "Can we have some water? And something to eat?" The door slammed shut, but he simply raised his voice and continued, "I don't know what your plans for us are, but I have a medical condition that requires me to eat on a regular basis or my blood sugar drops, I go into a coma and die." He waited for any sort of reply, but only heard footsteps walking away. "Idiots," he muttered.
He did his best to get Sheppard into a more comfortable position. Although, from the brief glimpse he had gotten of the man, he didn't think any position would be particularly comfortable. Besides the face, Sheppard's boots had disappeared and his feet were bruised and swollen. And from past experience McKay was sure there were other injuries. The Procurers were not squeamish about how they acquired information.
McKay chewed on his lip and told himself that he was not afraid of these thugs. As a geeky child genius he had endured physical abuse at the hands of fellow classmates in school. He was past being intimidated by physical threats, he lectured himself. The trembling hands and the empty feeling in his belly were not caused by fear. It was his hypoglycemia. He was going to go into hypoglycemic shock and die before having to endure more torture at the hands of a Procurer. A small nervous laugh escaped him when he realized he was actually hoping for a massive drop in his blood sugar.
He was still giving himself pep talks when Sheppard finally started to stir. Relief almost triggered his babble reflex, but he remembered the post-stunning headache and managed to quash the impulse.
"Are you awake?" he hissed as quietly as he could. "Are you okay?"
Sheppard groaned and moved sluggishly. When he finally settled down he leaned against the back wall, his breathing harsh. "McKay? Where are we? You okay?"
McKay nearly groaned out loud. They definitely did not need an amnesiac Sheppard. "Kidnapped by Procurers? Stuffed in a storage bin on a spaceship? Any of this sounding familiar?"
There was a brief pause and then, "Oh, yeah. Damn Genii."
He had to strain to make out what Sheppard was saying; the words were slurred and muffled sounding. When he figured out what had been said, he did groan. "God, I knew those stun-guns were going to scramble your brains. No, not the Genii. The Procurers."
Sheppard made a noise that might have been a choked off laugh. "I know the Procurers took us. They're selling us to the Genii because of those damned reward posters."
A faint spark of hope. "And you told them that the reward had been rescinded and they beat you up to relieve their frustration? And they are even now returning us to Mall World? Although I haven't felt the engines come back online yet and it's been several hours since they brought you back to our lovely home away from home. Maybe they're having a problem. I could offer my – "
"– services. If it means we get out of here faster I have no problem offering my technical expertise," McKay offered hopefully.
"McKay, they didn't believe me," Sheppard explained quietly. His voice took on a slightly humorous tone when he continued. "Apparently everyone they capture for bounty claims the same thing. Go figure."
"Yeah, go figure," McKay agreed bitterly. Could nothing take the easy path in this damned galaxy? "So, if they didn't beat you up in misplaced anger at losing a lucrative finder's fee, why do you look like you almost survived a train wreck?"
Sheppard hesitated. "They want to know about two guys they say went to Atlantis and haven't been heard from since."
"You mean Sc –?"
Harsh, wet-sounding coughing interrupted McKay. When Sheppard continued he was speaking in short, gasped phrases. "I told them... Atlantis gone... no one there... showed me picture... of men... never saw them... "
McKay waited for Sheppard to continue, but the other side of the storage closet was quiet except for the sound of uneven breathing. Worried, he gently nudged the other man with his foot, but got no response. "Colonel? Sheppard?"
The raspy sound of the lt. colonel's breathing evened out eventually. He didn't like the way Sheppard was breathing, but at least the man was breathing. He cursed the miniscule dimensions of their cell, his bound arms and his inability to help his friend.
He thought about what Sheppard had been saying, or trying to say. Sheppard didn't want the Procurers to know about Scar and Lacky? Well, he could understand that. The Procurers were not the most patient and understanding of people. So, he just needed to keep his own mouth shut about their deaths. He could do that. Sure he could.
The memory of buckling under torture when Kolya had invaded Atlantis popped out of the dark corner where he kept it, but he shoved it back down. He had been surprised on that occasion, not expecting the quickness or the viciousness of the attack. Now that he knew what he had to look forward to he could prepare himself.
Besides, he never wanted to have to apologize to his team members for that sort of failure again. None of them blamed him. But he blamed himself.
He was repeating his new affirmation – "You're Canadian. You're smarter and better educated than these hooligans. You can take whatever they dish out." – when the door to the cabinet slammed open. He winced and turned his head to shield his eyes from the sudden glare of light. He blinked watery eyes and caught a glimpse of an unconscious Sheppard, face grotesquely swollen, before he was dragged from the cell.
"Hey! No need to be so rough. Ow! Listen. Sheppard needs medical attention. He's having trouble breathing. I don't know why you think the Genii want him, but I can guarantee you they would prefer that he was alive when they take possession."
Larry ignored him except to jerk on his arm when he stumbled.
"Excuse me. So sorry to inconvenience you as we race through the ship, but my legs are numb from sitting in that damned cupboard for God-knows-how-long. In fact... Oh, yeah. Needles! Ow, ow, ow!" He stumbled and dragged his feet as much as he could.
He tried to keep his head and eyes moving as they passed through the ship, assessing everything. Maybe there was something that would help them escape. If either of them were in any shape to try an escape.
When they reached the bridge area his eyes lit up. He tried to keep walking, wanting to see every console and determine its function, but Larry jerked him to a stop and pushed him into a chair. He leaned forward, trying to see the nearby bridge station. He was barely aware of his hands being untied and then fastened to the chair along with his legs.
Moe was standing at the center console, directly under the narrow window, making adjustments on the touch-pads laid out on its surface. The odd design, different from the other stations, caught his eye. He had seen that configuration somewhere before. It was raised above the others. There were a half-dozen clearly delineated ovals placed seemingly at random over its surface, with touch-pads scattered among them.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember where he had seen them. It had been dark. The console stood alone. A pale hand moved...
His eyes flew open and he gawked about him with renewed enthusiasm. "You've adapted Wraith technology! This is fantastic. I've acquired some pieces of Wraith tech recently and have been trying – "
Curly's casual backhand had McKay's head rocking back on his shoulders. "What the hell is the matter with you people? I come to talk to you about an energy reading and you kidnap me. I try to compliment you on adapting an alien technology for your personal use and you slap me? You guys have a bad habit of overreacting."
"He is a religious man, Dr. McKay," Moe said, turning from the console, "he doesn't believe that lesser peoples should speak unless asked a question."
"Lesser people?" McKay snorted in derision. "I don't know where he got the idea he's better than me, but I'll be happy to show him why he's mistaken."
"You'll never convince him that you are equal to him, let alone superior in any way. Now, I hold the same beliefs as he does, but I'm more liberal," Moe said and the smile touching his lips had a shudder running up McKay's spine. "You may speak as much as you like... so long as you are providing information I want."
McKay swallowed nervously, but managed to work up a sneer and some bravado. "So now it starts. You think you can intimidate me, force me into betraying my people. Well, do your worst. I think you'll find that Canadians are tougher than our reputations would lead you to believe."
"We shall see." Moe brought up the pictures of Scar and Lacky again. "As I told Colonel Sheppard earlier, two of our brothers infiltrated Atlantis – or wherever the people of Atlantis fled when the city fell. The colonel insisted on maintaining this myth. They left almost a full cycle ago and should have contacted us by this time. Tell me what has become of them."
McKay stared at the pictures and felt the small muscle at the corner of his eye start to quiver. He kept his face turned toward the monitor, hoping the telltale tic wasn't visible. "I've never seen those men before."
He didn't hear Moe step aside. The series of blows that landed on his ribs and abdomen had him moaning in pain. He leaned forward as far as his bindings allowed, curling his shoulders forward protectively and tightening the muscles of his belly too late to guard the tender organs underneath. When it stopped all he could do was groan, drawing in shaky breaths.
While he worked on calming his breathing he kept his gaze firmly on the tips of his boots. The fear that he had felt earlier was still there, but it was now layered under a thick coating of contempt and anger. He had given up cowering from bullies in his teens... well, mostly. He tried to avoid the pain they seemed to relish meting out, but the overwhelming emotion he felt in these situations was disdain. When his breathing had calmed somewhat he looked up.
"'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent'," he said in a voice that shook only slightly, more from anger than fear he liked to think. "Isaac Asimov said that. You probably don't know who he is. He was a very wise man from my planet, with these really huge sideburns. He was a scientist, a biochemist, which I guess is a real science. Not like medicine, which it's sort of related to – "
The beating seemed to last longer this time and was concentrated on one area, on the left side of his torso. Larry held McKay's shoulders, keeping him upright. Bound as he was, there wasn't much he could do to lessen the blows. He tried to hunch over, protect the targeted area, but that just earned him a swift punch to the solar plexus that left him gasping for air and fighting down nausea.
It finally stopped and it took him a few minutes to catch his breath. He tried to ignore the dull, throbbing pain emanating from his side. Probably a ruptured spleen , or at least severe kidney damage, he thought. There was a kidney over there, wasn't there? He was going to have to spend the rest of his life on dialysis, probably die waiting for a donor-kidney because he had a rare tissue type, all because he couldn't ignore a stupid energy reading. Once they were rescued he was never going to wander off on his own again. Ever. Unless it was safe.
He drew a deep, shuddering breath, "Uhm, where was I? Oh, yes: biochemistry being related to medicine, which is a pseudo-science at best. But that's neither here nor there. Mostly he wrote. He wrote hundreds of books, about dozens of subjects. He even wrote fiction. Mostly science fiction, some real – "
Moe's mild command was accompanied by another backhanded blow that snapped McKay's head to the side. His nose started to throb in time with his heartbeat and he felt something sliding over his lip. He grimaced in disgust when he tasted blood.
"Ugh, yuck," McKay muttered, tilting back his head and hoping that the bleeding stopped quickly. He glared after Moe as the Procurer approached one of the stations on the far side of the bridge, fitting a headset over his ears. He made several adjustments to the dials on the console and a muted conversation began.
McKay strained to hear what was being said, but couldn't make out a single word. At least Curly and Larry didn't take the opportunity to start pounding on him again. He started examining the other stations, identifying some of the configurations for communications, life support, navigation and other typical functions. There was more equipment that he recognized as being adapted from Wraith technology, but none from the Ancients. Which was strange. All the other 'advanced' societies they had met in the Pegasus galaxy seemed to have a basis in Ancient science.
He chewed his lip as Moe finished the conversation and returned. "I... I noticed you had a rough transition from your sub-light engines to hyper-drive. As I was saying earlier, I have some experience with Wraith tech – which I see you've adapted quite a lot of – and with starship engines and I could look at them for you, if you like. Smooth out the change over. In fact, I'd love to see what you've done. It would help me with my own research."
"As interesting as that might be, Doctor, we do not have much time left together. We've just received a reply to our message to the Genii. We'll be leaving soon to turn you and Colonel Sheppard over to them."
"The Genii? Why are you taking us to them?" he asked, stalling for time.
"For the bounty, of course."
McKay huffed in disgust. "There's no bounty. At least, there isn't one now." He paused, the niggling worry from earlier surfacing. His hands twisted inside their bindings and his arms jerked as he tried to gesture. "Unless Ladon Radim has lied about rescinding it. Wouldn't be the first time they've lied. I swear, the Genii can't be trusted any farther than... well, not very far. But no, he's still hoping that we'll help them with... with their little project."
"Their nuclear bomb?" Moe asked, smiling sardonically when McKay looked at him with dismay. "Yes, we're aware of their experiments. If they do not kill themselves before perfecting the process we will be acquiring the schematics. The Masters are interested in it. But we digress. We leave to meet the Genii within one bell. Before we go I will have an answer to my question."
But McKay wasn't paying attention to the implied threat. He stared around the bridge at the adapted technology, his mind racing. How had he missed this?
When Moe grabbed his chin and jerked his head up he had to bite his tongue to keep from blurting out his discovery.
"Where are our brothers, Dr. McKay?"
He shook his head frantically. "I couldn't tell you."
"Couldn't or wouldn't, Doctor?" Sighing as if in disappointment, Moe stepped back and signaled to Curly.
McKay sucked in a breath and tightened his muscles in anticipation as the stocky Procurer stepped forward. When the first punch landed his breath escaped with a yelp. Pain that had subsided to a dull ache surged anew. He choked down a sob of pain, tensing his entire body in anticipation of the next blow.
It didn't fall.
An alarm blared. A flashing light on the station next to the main console wrenched the Procurers' attention away from him. Larry hurried over, depressed several keys and data started to scroll across the monitor above. Moe let out an enraged hiss and grabbed McKay by the back of his neck, forcing him to look at the monitor.
"What is this?"
"What is what?" McKay squeaked, blinking eyes still watery from pain. He squinted at the screens, but couldn't make out what was there before Moe jerked him back around. "Ow! Watch it! You're going to give me whiplash. And how can I tell you what's on the screen if you don't let me get a good look at it?"
"The Lantean ship just came out of hyper-space. Your ship," Moe growled, shaking him by the neck. "How did it find us?"
"The Daedalus? How the hell should I know how they found us? You took our transmitters. I admit I'm great, but I'm not omnipotent. I've been locked up in a cupboard for the last day."
He met Moe's eyes and matched him glare for glare, refusing to back down even when the hand on his neck tightened bruisingly.
"They are passing us by." Larry's quiet voice broke into the stand off.
Moe didn't break eye contact or loosen his hold. "Are you sure?"
McKay could practically see tension draining out of Moe's body. The grip on his neck eased fractionally.
"Can they track us?"
There was a brief, uncertain pause before Larry spoke again. "I believe if we keep the asteroid belt between us until we are ready to go to hyper-space that they will not notice us."
McKay hoped that his eyes didn't flicker and no other facial tics occurred to betray him. Unless this ship had some sort of shielding that he was unaware of, or the asteroids were composed of an unknown element, the Daedalus should have no problem tracking the Procurer's ship. He figured the reason he was still tied up in this chair and not enjoying some food and good drugs in the Daedalus' infirmary was that the Procurers had adapted the shielding the Wraith used that kept the Daedalus from beaming things through it. More than ever he wanted a chance to get his hands on this ship.
"Is this correct, Doctor? They can't see us?"
"If they had seen us, do you think they'd be leaving us behind?" McKay had not trouble putting an irritated tone into his voice. He waited anxiously, struggling to maintain eye contact with Moe, while he waited for the other man's reaction. He wasn't aware he was holding his breath until it escaped with a quiet whoo when Moe released him and turned away.
"I want to send another message to the Genii. And move the ship to the opposite side of the asteroid belt," the Procurer ordered quietly and then turned back to McKay. "We have some work to do before meeting the Genii. We will have to postpone our discussion. For now. I am sure I can persuade Ladon Radim to allow us to continue... speaking to you about this matter."
Curly cut the ropes holding him in the chair and pulled him to his feet. The room tilted and he found himself leaning against Curly, who shoved him away with a growl of disgust. Only a chokehold on his collar kept him from falling to his knees. McKay rubbed trembling hands over his aching head and looked over at Moe.
"I was serious earlier when I said I had a medical condition. If you want me conscious when you hand us over to the Genii then I need something to eat. I'm surprised I'm still able to stand," he admitted with a twisted smile. "I guess unrelenting fear is a palliative for incipient hypoglycemic shock. I'll have to let Carson know."
Moe studied him silently for a few moments and then nodded to Curly. "Give him a nutrition drink before returning him to the cell. Don't let him touch anything but the bottle before you get him tied up again."
As he was being pushed off of the bridge he heard Larry announce, "The Lantean ship has reentered hyper-space."
His shoulders slumped. What the hell was Caldwell up to this time? Surely the Daedalus' sensors hadn't missed this ship? Admittedly he had snatched up all the decent brains for Atlantis, but some of the personnel onboard the Daedalus – both Air Force and civilian – were a close second. And Hermiod, as annoying and condescending as he was, would not be fooled by a ship attempting to hide near an asteroid belt.
McKay was still grumbling mentally to himself when he was jerked to a stop in front of a set of doors next to the crew's beds. He stared longingly at the lumpy-looking mattresses while Curly pulled a bottle of piss-yellow liquid out of a cupboard and removed the cover.
He took a cautious sniff. It smelled as unattractive as it looked, but not enough to keep him from drinking it. He could feel his whole body starting to shake now and he didn't want to risk a more severe reaction.
He said a quick prayer that there was no citrus in it and tilted the bottle to his lips. The drink had a strong chemical flavor and left a slimy feeling on his tongue, but he managed to down half of it. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth while he concentrated on breathing through his swollen nose. When he was sure it wasn't going to make a reappearance he wiggled the bottle at Curly.
"Can I give the rest of this to Sheppard?"
The bottle was snatched from his hand and tossed into a tall narrow drawer which, judging from the smell, contained trash and accounted for the rancid odor that permeated the ship. A hissing noise started as soon as the drawer shut. Without thinking McKay reached toward the wall, looking for controls.
A hand closed over his and twisted.
He heard a pop and then he was on his knees, a scream echoing in his ears. The pain was sharp and fierce at first, but quickly settled into a hard throb that danced up and down his arm, his hand trembling now from outraged nerve endings rather than low blood sugar.
He was barely aware of his arms being wrenched behind his back. But the knots being pulled tight around his wrists caused a new sob of pain to escape. He cursed the involuntary tears that rolled down his face, hating that the sadistic Curly would see them.
"What happened?" Moe demanded somewhere behind them.
"He tried to touch something."
It was quiet for a moment and he heard an impatient sigh.
"Get him back to the cell."
Curly's meaty hand dug into McKay's collar again and yanked him to his feet.
His gait was unsteady as they walked back to the storage area. Fear and hatred and confusion and disdain – all of these emotions roiled about in his head helping to distract him from the pain.
God, he hated bullies.
Lorne exited the wormhole at a trot and headed immediately for the stairs leading to Control. He didn't slow down until he was at Dr. Weir's door.
"The meeting's all set for twenty bells local Cataarn time, the middle of the night. That's a little less than three hours from now," he reported.
"They're going to do the exchange on Cataarn?" she asked, her brow rising in surprise.
He nodded. "I was surprised, too; they must know that we're still looking for them there. But Radim suggested that they're arrogant enough to believe they can complete the transaction and not suffer any consequences from us – other than not being able to show their faces on Cataarn again, of course. But the Genii say the Procurers have 'offices' on dozens of planets."
"Well, we'll just see if we can't surprise them ourselves," Weir murmured. "I assume you made arrangements on how to handle the meeting before you left the Genii?"
Lorne nodded. He pulled a sheaf of paper from his vest and spread it out on Dr. Weir's desk, revealing a photographic map. "We're going to keep it as simple as possible. The meet is approximately ten klicks from the 'gate, well out of sight of the market. The Genii are going to openly walk there, directly from the 'gate. I'm leaving a couple of Marines in our store in case there are other Procurers still watching it, but I've already contacted Teyla and Ronon and told them to report back here."
"I wouldn't want to be the one to try to explain to them why they can't participate in this mission." A brief smile touched Weir's lips before the frown returned. "But if the store is being watched won't it raise suspicions for them to disappear like that?"
"I understand your worry, ma'am. I thought about having them rendezvous with Singh's team, but it would be more suspicious for them to disappear in the market than for them to simply come home. While they're walking to the 'gate they're going to talk about being recalled. It's not the best cover, but it should hold long enough."
He paused, waiting to see if she had any questions, but she just nodded and indicated he should continue. He pointed to a clearing on the map between the town and the river. "Singh's team is to remain on-site in the cloaked jumper. Once Teyla and Ronon arrive, we'll collect the prisoners from the brig and head back in a second jumper, remaining cloaked. To keep anyone from wondering why the gate activated and nothing came through, I'm gonna send a couple of Marines through and have them go to the store, as if they're replacements for Teyla and Ronon."
The finger that had been indicating the clearing swept down, past the town and stargate to a large meadow south of the market. Before he could continue the sound of the stargate activating, quickly followed by the City's klaxon and the duty tech's voice announcing an unscheduled incoming wormhole interrupted. They both turned toward the bank of windows looking down on the 'gate room and watched as Ronon and Teyla emerged from the shimmering wormhole.
While they waited for the pair to reach Dr. Weir's office their comms clicked and the Communications tech announced that a transmission had been received from the Daedalus. Weir pulled it up on her laptop and turned the screen so that Lorne could read it also.
Teyla and Ronon arrived while they were still bent over the desk. Teyla waited patiently, but Ronon tossed his duster over the back of a chair and started pacing.
When she had finished reading, Weir looked to Lorne for his reaction. He was frowning, but looked more thoughtful than concerned. He glanced up after a moment with a slight smile.
"Colonel Caldwell thinks fast on his feet," he said reassuringly. "I don't think –"
"What's happened?" Ronon demanded.
"Sorry, didn't mean to ignore you," Lorne apologized. "We just received a message from the Daedalus. Apparently they dropped out of hyper-drive on the far side of the Cataarn system, near an asteroid field. They immediately detected a ship that matched the description of the Procurer vessel attempting to hide in the field. Caldwell decided to give no indication they had detected the ship and continue on to the planet. They made a scan and sent a couple of radio messages to the personnel at the store to cover their presence and then jumped back into hyper-space."
"Why didn't he beam Sheppard and McKay off the ship?" Ronon challenged. "I know without their transmitters we can't tell one person from another, but there are only three Procurers. There are enough soldiers on the Daedalus to take care of them."
"Hermiod did attempt it, but the Procurer ship has a shield similar to the Wraiths. I wish it could have been that easy," Lorne replied, kneading at the tense muscles at the nape of his neck and wishing for some coffee. He tried to remember when he had last slept then decided he really didn't want to know.
"You do not think the Procurers will be suspicious of the Daedalus showing up so near the meeting time?" Teyla asked worriedly.
"They might be, but there isn't much they can do at this point except not show up for the exchange. They can't change the details now; Radim and his team had already left for the meeting when I left the Genii homeworld. Radim says the Procurers are fanatical about not backing out of a deal. If they don't show for tonight's meeting, they'll contact Radim again and set up a new time and place."
"Are you sure about that, Major?" Weir asked, starting to look doubtful.
He shook his head. "Nothing's certain, ma'am. But if we trust the Genii on this then I'd say the chances are excellent. Radim said the Procurers have promised to deliver the Colonel and Dr. McKay to them. He also said that you might not be able to trust them if you turn your back on them, but they'll fulfill any contract they make."
He stepped back up to the desk and tapped the map. "Things are about to get really busy. Let's go over the game plan. And I need to send a message to Daedalus, let them know the strategy."
"And then?" Ronon growled impatiently.
Lorne smiled grimly. "We grab our prisoners and go get the Colonel and Dr. McKay."
Sheppard's head came up sharply at the sound of McKay's scream. Without thinking he tensed his muscles and pulled in his feet in anticipation of rising. The simmering ache of his abused feet blazed up, sending shafts of pain flaring up his legs. Groaning, he pressed the slightly less uninjured side of his head against the wall. Harder and harder he pushed, imagining the pain flowing out of him and into the cool metal. After a few moments he could feel it lessening again and he sagged in relief.
He heard scuffling outside the door and McKay's querulous voice. Whatever had caused that agonized shout had, at least, not cowed the man. Before he could even think of implementing any of a half dozen unlikely-to-succeed plans the door was flung open and McKay was shoved in.
There was much thrashing, indignant shouts and grunts of pain. A booted foot entered the fray a couple of times too kick limbs that fell outside the confines of the cabinet back in. The door slammed shut and they were locked in the dark again.
Harsh breathing gradually slowed.
"You okay?" Sheppard asked, enunciating as clearly as he could without moving his jaw.
"What did you say? Am I okay? I suppose you could say 'No" to that. The bastard dislocated my wrist," McKay snapped angrily, then spoiled the effect by sniffling wetly. "Just reached over and twisted it almost all the way around."
"Thanks for the sympathy. I think all that flailing around just now knocked it back into place. I can move my fingers again."
"Good," Sheppard murmured. "Umm, could you move your feet?"
"There's no room in here, Colonel. Where do you suggest I put them?" McKay grumbled.
"Please. Off of mine," the quiet plea came out almost at a whimper.
"What? Oh! Sorry."
They had ended up facing each other in the cramped confines of the cabinet, their knees pulled up toward their chests. McKay managed to wriggle his feet off to one side and then nudged them gently back under Sheppard's, who released a shuddering breath at the easing pain.
"Sorry, again. I saw your feet earlier. They look painful."
Sheppard 'hmmm'd' non-committally. "What happened?"
There was a brief pause, and then a clearly alarmed McKay muttered, "You don't remember what happened to your feet? Oh, God, you do have a brain injury. You're probably going to –" An impatient growl brought him up short. "Oh, not your feet. You want to know what happened to me while I was gone?"
"Yes." Sheppard rolled his eyes and would have grinned if it wouldn't have hurt so much.
"Well, Moe asked me about Sc – those men, like you said he would. He did his super-villain riff, I made a few comments to show them the futility of trying to intimidate me and they resorted to physical violence. I think I acquitted myself rather well, although I probably have a bruised kidney or a ruptured spleen. Or something like that."
"Congratulations. Why'd they stop?"
"They got a message about meeting the Genii and then the Daedalus showed up. Before you ask – it's hurts just to listen to you try to talk – it passed us right by, as if they didn't see us. Jumped back into hyper-space."
Sheppard stared into the darkness.
"Why would Caldwell do that?" he asked out loud, more to himself than to elicit any information. Why had the Daedalus left them here? He had no doubt the Earth ship had detected the Procurer ship.
"Ahhh, that's the question," McKay said with a hint of satisfaction in his tone. "Did you notice that the Procurer systems were adapted from Wraith technology? No? Well, took me a few minutes to figure it out. That's why Caldwell left us sitting here, I bet. If the Procurers have the same shielding the Wraith use, then he couldn't snatch us out of here."
Before Sheppard could reply the ship gave a lurch and they were tossed to one end of the cabinet. He hissed in pain as his feet were trapped between them. McKay groaned over his own aches and pains.
"Damned ribs. Well, we're heading back to Cataarn. Their hyper-drive is even less efficient than I thought. They only made it to the outskirts of the solar system with fifteen minutes of usage earlier."
Sheppard closed his eyes, trying to think, to come up with something that would allow him to get McKay away before the exchange took place. The Genii might be acting as Atlantis' ally in this situation, but he did not – could not – trust them. After several minutes he looked up in frustration.
"I'm sorry, McKay."
There was a surprised silence. "What are you sorry for?" McKay finally asked in a worried tone. "I should be apologizing. We wouldn't be stuck in this closet if I could keep my damned curiosity under check. I swear I'm never going to wander off on my own again. If you tell me not to," he added hastily.
Sheppard shook his head. "I appreciate the apology, but don't make promises you can't keep. No, don't get your back up, Rodney. You know you won't remember this promise the next time some piece of tech grabs your attention. You won't be able to help yourself." He shrugged his aching shoulders, forgetting McKay wouldn't be able to see. "I'm apologizing because I can't think of a way to get you out of this. The only plan I've got is to create a distraction – which will probably involve me falling on my face because I'm barely able to stand on my feet – and having you run away as fast as you can. Which is the plan we're going to go with. The meeting place will be fairly close to the stargate since the Genii will have to walk there. You run back to the market as fast as you can. If you have to, run straight through the middle of the market to our store, screaming like a little girl. Lorne undoubtedly has – "
"Just stop right there," McKay said indignantly. "One, I don't scream like a little girl. I wish Radek would stop telling people that. Two, there's no way I'm leaving you to the Stooges' tender care. And three, can't we at least pretend the Genii are trustworthy allies?"
"Do you want to trust them? You know that if they do break the treaty then they could take us anywhere and Atlantis may never locate us. We have to at least try to get away on our own – at least one of us does."
"I'm not leaving you."
"No. Forget it," McKay said stubbornly. "We both try to escape or we take our chances with the Genii."
Sheppard resisted the urge to bang his head on the wall. Sometimes he wished McKay was as selfish as so many people – McKay included – thought. Unfortunately though, the man was as stubborn and irritating as everyone – except McKay – thought.
"Fine," he growled. "I'll distract the bad guys and we both try to get away. But don't wait for me, damn it. I'll try to keep up," he promised, knowing there was not a hope in hell of it happening. "If I can't, I'll hide. You keep on going. Get help and come back."
There was silence and he could clearly imagine the stubborn look settling on McKay's face.
"Do I have to make you promise?"
More silence, and then a reluctant, "No. I'll go."
Sheppard leaned back in his corner, flexing his hands, trying to keep the blood circulating. After a moment he sighed and said, "You're lying. Aren't you?"
"Of course I am," McKay admitted mildly.
There was no more talking. They settled back, conserving their energy. In a few minutes McKay murmured "Should be slowing down anytime now," and they were able to brace themselves, to keep from being tossed around when the ship dropped out of hyper-space this time. A short time later there was a heavy thump and the sound of the engines shutting down.
"Well, we've landed," McKay announced unnecessarily. They listened to the creaking and popping of the engines cooling down. If they strained, they could hear the Procurers moving around in the ship, but no sound of voices. Finally, their ears popped and he added, "And we're on planet air now."
Sheppard leaned forward. He could feel the adrenaline starting to pump through his system again, sharpening his clarity and dampening the pain. "Listen. If we're lucky, Lorne's going to be out there with a bunch of Marines. But we can't count on that. Are you ready?"
The door of their tiny prison was snatched open. Blinking in the sudden light, Sheppard got a quick glimpse of McKay nodding before he was dragged out of the cabinet. Curly used a bone-crushing grip on one arm and a hand fisted in the neck of his shirt to pull him upright.
Despite anticipation, the pain of bearing weight on his feet almost sent him to the floor again. His knees buckled and his breath escaped in an agonized wheeze. He struggled to straighten his legs, gasping at the pressure around his neck when Curly didn't release the hold on his shirt.
"Ow! Watch it, you intellectually-challenged buffoon. You people have no qualms about trading in damaged merchandise, do you?" McKay protested behind him. "The Genii aren't going to pay the bounty on me if I'm a drooling idiot because you keep slamming my head into things." There was a scuffling noise, ending in a solid-sounding thud. "Yes, just like that, you dolt."
Sheppard instinctively tried to turn to help and was shoved face-first into the nearest wall. Sharp stabbing pain reawakened, radiating up to his eye and down his jaw to his neck. Tears of pain slid down his face to mix with the fresh blood flowing from his nose. He rapidly blinked the one eye not swollen shut, trying to clear his vision as he was pulled away from the wall and pushed forward.
His pace was a hesitant hobble. Each step was an agony and his legs tried to collapse each time his weight shifted from one foot to the other. The sluggish feeling from being stunned was not helping his equilibrium. But he told himself that he'd been in worse shape and managed to get himself and his team out of harm's way. He was determined that when the time came he'd get McKay away.
He couldn't allow himself to believe anything else.
A large cargo door was open near the bulkhead separating the engine area from the remainder of the ship. Sheppard and McKay were pulled to a halt several feet from the opening. Because of the harsh backlight in the ship they could see out, but anyone standing in the field outside could not see in.
And there, within the wash of light from the ship, Ladon Radim stood speaking to Moe with a pleased expression on his face. Four Genii soldiers were arrayed in a rough semi-circle a few meters behind him. As they watched, the Genii leader stretched his lips in an ingratiating smile and offered his hand to the Procurer, who ignored the gesture.
"Well," Sheppard said, shaking his head wryly, "Elizabeth is going to be so disappointed."
"Look at him. He sure is happy to be getting his filthy hands on us," McKay said bitterly.
"You can't really blame him, McKay. I mean, I've ticked them off pretty thoroughly and you... Well, you've got a brain the size of a planet. Any despot trying to upgrade his weaponry would kill to get you." Sheppard kept talking, hoping to keep McKay's mind focused and angry rather than allowing it to slip into panicked and not-thinking mode. "Of course, he'll have to contend with the solar system-sized ego that comes with the brain."
He continued to scan the area visible from where they stood. His depth perception was off because of his swollen eye and the darkness limited how far he could see, but a dozen meters or so beyond the bargaining pair the trees started. He kept his gaze roving between Moe, Radim and the woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone moving within it.
"My ego?" McKay sputtered indignantly. "Pot to kettle, Kirk."
Nothing was moving. Of course, Marines were good at not moving. Damn it.
"Now you're just jealous 'cause all the Ascended women dig me," he murmured absently. Something, he wasn't quite sure what, in the darkness behind Radim's left shoulder caught his eye.
Before he could determine what it was Moe turned and signaled to his men. A hard shove between his shoulders had him moving forward again. As they neared the open doorway he eyed the metal-mesh grating they would have to walk down to reach the ground outside. He'd never be able to do it. It was almost too painful to walk on the smooth decking. He drew in a deep breath.
"Move it, McKay!"
He threw himself back against Curly. Using that for support, he drew up both legs and lashed out, shouting against the pain he knew was coming. His feet rammed into Larry's shoulder. The Procurer was knocked off balance at the top of the ramp and forced to release McKay. Sheppard caught a glimpse of a surprised-looking McKay and then he crashed hard onto the decking.
"Move!" he roared again.
Unable to get to his feet with his hands tied behind him, he rolled, trying to reach the edge of the ramp. He saw Larry falling off the ramp to the left. McKay was running down the middle of the ramp, yelling wordlessly the whole way. The scientist's head was lowered with shoulders pulled up around his ears, as if for protection. And he was running right toward the Genii.
A boot caught Sheppard in the back, kicking him closer to the ramp. He looked over his shoulder. When the foot slammed into his ribs again he hooked one arm over it, tugged it in close and rolled. He didn't let go until he reached the edge, dropping over the side to the damp grass six feet below. He immediately climbed back to his feet, leaning against the ship for support.
McKay was just passing Moe, whose face had twisted into a snarling mask. Sheppard noted that the Genii, while they looked surprised, were not reaching for their guns nor attempting to stop McKay. Moe, on the other hand, was reaching for his stunner.
Sheppard grabbed a quick breath and sprinted toward the Procurer.
The adrenaline was definitely pumping now. He could barely feel his feet or his other injuries. The overall numbness was gone. He felt great.
He heard the familiar sound of a Wraith stunner just before he lowered his shoulder and slammed into Moe. They hit the ground hard and skidded.
Sheppard rolled over and got to his knees, making sure to pin Moe's arm underneath. He looked up to check the situation and then sagged in relief. A small smile twisted the corner of his mouth.
The Genii soldiers had surrounded their leader near the edge of the clearing and were being ignored. Pairs of Marines were moving in to check on each of the unconscious Procurers. Several more were leading two bound men out of the woods. Lorne followed this group. He was speaking with someone on comm, but broke off to come and crouch by his commanding officer.
"It's good to see you, Sir," Lorne said, pulling out his combat knife and cutting through the bindings on Sheppard's wrists.
"It's good to be seen, Major." Sheppard hissed at the pain when he moved his arms around in front of him again. He moved away from Moe, sat down on the grass and accepted the canteen that was held out. He swished a mouthful of water around in his mouth and then spat, grimacing at the pink tinge. He took another mouthful and swallowed. "And it's damned good to see you guys. I was wondering how we were going to get out of it this time," he confessed. He looked around. "McKay?"
Lorne looked up from the zip-tie he was using to bind Moe's wrists. "He's back there," nodding back over his shoulder toward the woods, "with Teyla and Ronon. They're getting him untied." He finished with Moe and came back to Sheppard's side. "Looked like you were doing a pretty good job of escaping a few minutes ago, Colonel. You surprised us, kicking those guys out of the cargo hatch. You knocked out the big one."
"I did?" He looked around in surprise. A Marine had just finishing tying the large Procurer's hands; Curly was lying still, his eyes closed and a large bleeding gash across his forehead.
"Yeah. That's okay, our plan wasn't as exciting. When the Procurers landed I sent a subspace message to the Daedalus to come on in. We were waiting to make our move until we knew you were both here. Then we were going to offer a straight trade: you and the doctor for those two over there," Lorne said, nodding at the two unknown Procurers. "If they didn't go for it, or if there was any trouble, Caldwell would beam everyone to the Daedalus."
Sheppard nodded. "Sounds like a good plan. Sorry I messed it up," he added. He started to smile, but stopped when the pull of the muscles sent pain spiking along his jaw and up to his eye. The adrenaline wore off as quickly as it had kicked in, and all the aches and pains came rushing back.
Lorne watched his commanding officer with concern. "As soon as Daedalus gets here to take the prisoners off our hands and secure the Procurer ship, we'll get you back to Atlantis. I have a jumper about a hundred meters south of here."
"Looking forward to getting home."
"I can under –" Lorne broke off abruptly, raising one hand to his head. "I read you, Daedalus. I have five prisoners for you to take charge of and I could use some extra men to secure their ship."
Sheppard watched as the major went off to supervise transport of the prisoners. The three Stooges were still unconscious, but the other two were staring at him, their dark eyes cold. He shuddered. Those people specialized in creepy.
McKay came tottering out of the woods, flanked by Teyla and Ronon. His left hand clutched a powerbar as it swept animatedly through the air while he talked, apparently trying to make up for the hours when it could not aid in his monologue. His other hand, swollen and starting to show bruises was held tight to his chest, although the fingers moved about as if wanting to join the conversation. Someone had applied a field dressing where the sub-dermal transmitter had been cut out; the only other immediately visible injury was a reddened, puffy nose and two black eyes. Sheppard noticed that his posture was better than normal and suspected his ribs were bothering him.
"And it was the most disgusting, oily thing I have ever drunk in my life," McKay was saying, his voice muffled as he tried to speak around a bite of the powerbar. "I'm just lucky it didn't have any citrus in it. I can't believe I didn't think – "
He must have finally noticed the small group of prisoners surrounded by their guards. He jerked to a halt and his face, already pale from pain and fatigue, turned green. Sheppard saw him swallowing convulsively.
Teyla was glaring angrily at the prisoners while attempting to get McKay to start walking again. Ronon appeared calm until you looked into his eyes and heard the low, rumbling sound coming from his throat. One large hand flexed restlessly next to his large pistol.
"Hey guys," Sheppard called out, wanting to distract them all.
Before anyone could respond there was a flash of light and the Procurers disappeared. Another flash and a half dozen Air Force SFs took their place. His team was used to the phenomenon and took the transition in stride, although Ronon growled in frustration and his hand slapped against his holster.
The Genii on the other hand were startled and lost their stoic composure; all except for Radim. He spoke quietly to his cadre, bringing them back to order. He caught Sheppard's eye and started across the clearing, arriving at the same time as the others.
He greeted McKay and Teyla with a courteous nod, which they returned warily. Ronon, however, he exchanged glares with. He hated the way the giant Satedan enjoyed looming over him, trying to intimidate him. Finally, he looked down at the Atlantean military commander.
"Radim," Sheppard replied, his lips twitching a little as he watched the power struggle between the Genii commander and Ronon. Teyla knelt at his side and handed him an ice pack. He activated it and held it against his face while she started bandaging his arm. It had started bleeding again during the struggle at the cargo doors. "I owe you an apology for the unkind thoughts I was having when I first saw you out here."
"Unavoidable in light of our past history, I suppose," Radim murmured. "I hope that our assistance in this operation will help to ease the tension between our peoples."
"We wouldn't have needed your help if you hadn't issued those damned warrants in the first place," Ronon snapped, taking a step closer to the Genii leader.
"Ronon," Sheppard said warningly.
Ronon snorted in anger when he saw the determined look in Sheppard's eye. He stalked off to join Lorne and the SFs.
Ladon Radim smiled in triumph, and Sheppard had to resist an urge to say something that Weir would make him apologize for later. McKay, face tight with indignation and never one to be worried about offending someone, opened his mouth to fill the breach.
"So, Radim," Sheppard said hurriedly, earning him a glare from McKay. God, he wished he could just lay down with a large icepack for his aching face and ignore everything going on around him. "I'm sure Dr. Weir will be in touch with you soon to express Atlantis' official thanks. But I'd like to thank you myself for your help today."
Radim looked a little startled, but pleased. "And I wish to apologize again for the wanted posters. We will re-double our efforts to let all the worlds where they were placed know that they are no longer valid."
"We appreciate that," he said, glaring at McKay when the scientist mumbled, "It's the least you can do." He agreed with the sentiment too much to tell McKay to apologize. So he pretended not to hear it and ignored the offended expression on Radim's face.
"I believe that Major Lorne is almost ready to leave this place," Teyla announced, slightly amused at all the suppressed animosity. She did not care for the Genii either, still feeling betrayed by their lifelong deception, but was content to follow Dr. Weir's wish to treat them as allies. She turned to smile at Radim. "I am sure that you and your men are ready to return to your home. It is quite late and a fair walk to the stargate."
Radim nodded, amused by the subtle hint that they should go. He bowed to Sheppard. "Please tell Dr. Weir that I look forward to hearing from her. And I hope that you and Dr. McKay recover swiftly from your adventure."
He signaled his men to join him and they marched off into the dark woods.
"Thank God they're gone. Now we can go home." McKay lowered himself stiffly to the ground next to Sheppard. "I need to talk to Radek about what I want to look at first on the ship. And someone needs to get out here and make sure everything is shut down until a research team arrives."
"I wouldn't get my hopes up about the ship, Rodney. Weir might not let you keep it."
"What? Why not? It's not like they're going to be using it any time soon. I mean, they're kidnappers. They'll be in jail for years. Hopefully for the rest of their lives."
Sheppard shook his head, hating to be the one to burst McKay's bubble. "Who's going to put them in jail? This is Cataarn. The only laws here are against stealing. You know Weir isn't going to want to set up a judicial system and a prison on Atlantis."
McKay stared at him resentfully, the two black eyes giving him the appearance of a disgruntled raccoon. "This sucks," he finally muttered in a tight voice.
"Massively," Sheppard agreed sympathetically.
"Do not worry, Rodney," Teyla said soothingly. "I am sure it will take a week or so for Elizabeth to decide what to do with the prisoners. Surely she will allow you to study the ship during that time."
"That's something, at least. Crumbs." McKay continued to glare at nothing in particular, the fingers of his uninjured hand rubbing together in an agitated manner. "I can't believe it," finally burst out of him, his voice rising with each word. "I can't believe that those psychotic, Wraith-worshipping kidnappers are going to get off scott free. Why can't – "
"What did you say?" Sheppard demanded.
"They are what?" Teyla asked simultaneously.
Impatient at the interruption, McKay snapped, "I can't believe that a bunch of kidnappers are – "
"No, what did you call them?"
"Psychotic, Wraith-worshippers. Which I suppose should qualify them for the loony bin, instead of a regular prison, but I don't suppose Elizabeth will let us set up one of those either. It would keep Heightmeyer busy though."
"Why'd you call them that? How do you know they Worship the Wraith?" Sheppard demanded, although he knew in his heart that McKay was right.
"I didn't tell you? Back in the cabinet they stuffed us in? I thought for sure I had. I know I meant – "
McKay shot him an irritated glance. "Okay, okay. It was while they had me upfront, questioning me. I had noticed all of the altered Wraith tech, and I was wondering where they got it all. The oh-so-charming Curly would smack me whenever I brought it up. Moe mentioned that they were very religious men, then later while we were discussing the Genii's nuclear program he mentioned that their 'Masters' were interested in acquiring the specs on it. And it just leapt out at me – these nut jobs are Wraith worshippers. I mean, look at them. They're doing their damnedest to imitate Wraith mannerisms. They bring stoic to new heights of... of stoicism," he petered out uncertainly, suddenly realizing that Sheppard was no longer paying attention to him.
Sheppard stared down at his bruised and swollen toes. This made sense, an awful, hideous sense. The cold, haughty attitude was indeed Wraith-like. Unlike the fawning worshippers he had met on the hive ship, these expressed their reverence by adopting the appearance of their gods. He shuddered. This was even more inexplicable to him than the worshippers who groveled in the hope of escaping a fate as Wraith food. And apparently the Wraith approved the effort, if they were using the Procurers as their agents in the marketplaces of the galaxy.
"If this is true, then it explains why there has been no culling on this world for so many centuries," Teyla murmured, echoing his thoughts. "You did not tell them what you suspected, did you?"
"No, of course not," McKay said, incensed. "I do know how to keep my mouth shut, you know."
"I am sorry, Rodney," she apologized. "I only meant that I am afraid that they will remove their protection of this planet if they find out that their secret is known."
"Oh. Well, that's all right then," he conceded, mollified.
Sheppard shook his head. This was getting more and more complicated. He needed to speak to Caldwell. Without thinking he turned his head and started to call out to Lorne. Pain stabbed up to his eye from his jaw and down his neck. He groaned, pressing his lips tightly closed against other unmanly noises that wanted to escape. His hand came up, wanting to press against the pain, to push it away, but managed to stop himself in time. Damn. He just knew his jaw was broken.
"Colonel, are you all right?" Teyla asked, starting toward him.
He waved her off, waiting for the pain to subside before looking up. He cleared his throat and reminded himself to keep his jaw still while talking. "Would you call Lorne over for me, please?"
A few moments later the major dropped into a crouch at his side.
"What do you need, sir?"
"McKay was just explaining to us why he thinks the Procurers are Wraith worshippers," Sheppard started.
"Are we sure about that, Sir?" Lorne asked, and then added hastily. "No offense, Doc. I'm just hoping you'll say 'no,' Colonel. I mean, Wraith-worshipping: that's pretty disgusting."
"I agree with you. But we're as sure as we can be without asking them point blank." Sheppard looked back at the Procurer's ship. "Do you have an extra comm?"
One was produced and Sheppard fitted it into his ear.
"Daedalus, this is Sheppard. I need to speak with Colonel Caldwell."
An unknown voice asked him to wait. Caldwell came online almost immediately.
"This is Caldwell. What can I do for you, Colonel?"
Sheppard explained their theory about the Procurers and the Wraith. "Dr. Weir is unlikely to want to keep the prisoners in Atlantis. And I think we'd get more useful intel out of them by tracking their movements, see who they meet up with."
"It would indeed. And what do you want the Daedalus to do?"
"Stay onsite for a few days. It'll depend on how long McKay can talk Dr. Weir into letting him keep it to study." He felt his lips twitching at the suddenly hopeful look on McKay's face. "There'll be Marines on the ground, but I'd like Daedalus as backup security."
"That we can do," Caldwell said agreeably. "We'll need to let Earth know we'll be late starting our return trip. You know, Sheppard, some of my scientists would like a crack at that ship, too."
"Ah, you'll need to discuss that with Dr. Weir and McKay, sir," Sheppard held up a hand in a 'wait' gesture when McKay started vigorously shaking his head 'no'. "I'm sure someone will get in touch with you about that in a few hours."
"I'm sure they will," Caldwell said dryly.
"Someone will contact you shortly to arrange to take the prisoners off your hands. I think we're about ready to get out of here. Thanks again for assisting with the rescue, sir. Sheppard out."
"Anytime, Sheppard. Caldwell out."
He removed the earpiece and handed it back to Lorne.
"I'm going to brief the men, sir. Then we'll be ready to leave."
"The sooner the better, Major."
"Yes, sir. Be right back."
McKay gave a big sigh and lay down on his back, propping his injured arm carefully against his side.
"How's the arm, Rodney?" Sheppard asked, aching to follow McKay's example.
"Want my icepack?"
"God, no. Your face needs it more than my wrist."
"That bad, huh?" Sheppard watched as McKay's eyes started to close tiredly and shook his head. "Don't go getting comfortable down here, Rodney. Lorne says the jumper is about a hundred meters out."
"You're not going to walk that far."
"Yes, I am."
He frowned at McKay, who frowned back and nudged one of Sheppard's bare feet with his own boot clad one and then smiled smugly at the resulting hiss of pain.
"Yeah, you can walk. Ronon'll have to carry you the last ninety meters at least. Wish I had a camera," McKay commented mildly. Denied sleep, he ripped open another powerbar and took a large bite.
"Rodney, do not bait the Colonel," Teyla said reprovingly. She looked up from checking the bandage on Sheppard's arm and glared at both men. "And John, do not be childishly stubborn. You know you cannot walk that distance without a great deal of pain."
The men gaped at her in astonishment, surprised at her scolding tone. They looked at one another, each silently questioning the other, and then shrugged in confusion.
"Lorne says the jumper'll be here in a minute," Ronon announced, reappearing at their side. He dropped down next to Sheppard, and looked around restlessly. After a moment he growled, "I didn't get to shoot anything."
Sheppard felt himself finally starting to relax. "Sorry to disappoint, big guy. I kind of feel like shooting something myself."
A few moments later the sound of the jumper approaching reached them. He watched critically as the pilot maneuvered the craft into a landing on the far side of the clearing.
There was a scramble as people got to their feet and collected their gear. Sheppard told himself it was only ten meters. He could make that distance easily. He sucked in a deep breath and looked up to find Ronon eying him.
"You try to pick me up and I'll have to hurt you," he threatened.
An eyebrow rose and a small smile flickered across the Satedan's face. "Really?"
"Yes, really. Just help me up."
He held up a hand. It was grabbed, there was a quick tug and he was on his feet. Pain immediately spiked up his legs and his breath escaped in a weak gasp. He felt his arm being pulled over Ronon's shoulder, an arm went around his waist and most of the pressure was taken off his feet. The pain went from hellish to merely bad.
"You sure you want to do this?" Ronon asked quietly.
Sheppard nodded jerkily. "Yeah, just get me to the jumper." He could see Teyla and McKay staring at him in concern. He managed a small smile and then he had to concentrate on not howling.
The walk to the jumper went faster than he thought. He collapsed onto one of the bench seats in back, panting with sweat dripping down his face.
"Don't expect me to help you out of the jumper when we get back to Atlantis," Ronon said, sitting on the opposite bench. "Dr. Beckett'll make us both sorry."
"I think I've gotten it out of my system," Sheppard said. Turning sideways, he propped his feet on the bench to keep them from being kicked or stepped on. He was pretty sure sobbing in pain would not help his command image.
He watched as Teyla and McKay boarded, followed shortly by Lorne. They got settled in the cockpit and the ramp closed. He felt the change as the jumper rose in the air. A smile curled his lips and he leaned back with a sigh; he liked how the ship spoke to him even if he wasn't the one piloting it.
They were going home.
Ten days later
"Cut that out before you tip over and break your neck, or worse, damage this station," McKay snapped.
Naked toes, shaded purple with sickly greenish and yellowish streaks continued to wave in the air.
"You're just jealous 'cause you can't do this," Sheppard teased, smiling smugly. His hands lightly gripped the rim of the large tires on the wheelchair, continually moving and adjusting the chair just enough to keep his seat tilted at a precarious forty-five degree angle.
In answer, McKay pulled a Snickers bar from a pocket. He took his time opening the wrapper, holding it clumsily in his casted right hand. As he slowly pulled back the wrapping, he raised his eyes to be sure Sheppard was watching. Locking eyes with the glowering lt. colonel he raised the candy bar to his nose. He took an exaggerated sniff down its entire length, paused to smile and give a contented sigh and then took a large bite.
"Bastard," Sheppard grumbled under his breath. His jaw was wired shut to give the broken bones a chance to heal and he had been reduced to a liquid diet: broth and gruel and whatever odd tasting 'shakes' the mess came up with. Last night they had presented him with a 'pot roast shake.' It hadn't tasted bad exactly, but it had been odd.
He watched as McKay ate the last bit of chocolate and had to swallow quickly to keep from drooling. He'd give anything to be able to chew... well, anything. The liquefied diet had quickly palled, but he still had four to six more weeks before the wires were removed.
On top of the odd diet, he was stuck in this wheelchair for at least another week or so. He hadn't believed Beckett when he'd been told that his feet would become even more sensitive than they had been immediately after being beaten. But they had. For several days he hadn't been able to stand anything touching them, not even the lightest of sheets. The extreme sensitivity was gradually fading, but that was why his feet were uncovered. The medical staff had even wrapped the chair's footrests with lamb's wool, to provide a cushion from the cold metal.
So, he couldn't eat. His movements were very restricted. Add to that Beckett's refusal to allow him to perform even the lightest of duties and he was damned bored.
That was one reason he was here in Control, bothering McKay. It helped relieve his own boredom and, from the looks he was catching from the Control personnel, it was entertaining the techs, too.
"Hey, Rodney, look what I can do now," he demanded. Still balancing carefully, he started turning the wheels slowly, one clockwise, and the other counter-clockwise. The chair started to turn on its axis in short, jerky movements.
McKay grunted impatiently, refusing to look up from the data streaming across the monitor. "I thought you were going to help Radek by turning on artifacts this morning."
"Been there, done that. Look."
"I'm busy here. In case you've forgotten: the Procurers were released this morning and we're monitoring their activity. I want to make sure all the sensors and subspace beacons we hid on the ship are working. We were only able to test the passive ones; we couldn't test the active signals until the ship is moving."
Sheppard nodded. He knew all of this. He had been consulted on the plans while he was still confined to a hospital bed.
The Stooges and the two who were captured later had remained silent the entire time they were held in the Atlantis brig, not even speaking with each other. They ate and slept. They were taken to the bathroom facilities, one at a time, on a regular basis since none of them would request the privilege.
Everyday, each prisoner would spend time with Lorne or another interrogator, refusing to respond to any of the questions put to them.
Dr. Weir had denied a request to use passive conditioning – sleep deprivation, etc. – to try to elicit answers. As expected, she had also decided that she did not want to start a permanent jail facility in the City. She gave the scientists ten days to gather as much data from the Procurer's ship as they could and to hide tracking equipment on the ship. The hope was that they would be able to gain intelligence on both the Procurers and the Wraith.
And so Moe, Larry and Curly and the two unnamed associates had been released this morning. They had been taken from their cells, their wrists bound with zip-ties and dark hoods pulled over their heads – just as they had been when they had arrived in Atlantis ten days earlier. They were led to the stargate. Their wrists were then freed but the hoods remained in place.
Lorne issued a final warning: don't interfere in Atlantis' business, don't harass Atlantis' people. Atlantis will not be so lenient in the future.
He then informed them that their ship was where they had left it, that they were free to go. And then they were pushed not so gently through the 'gate. A cloaked jumper was already on the other side to monitor their movements.
Sheppard had watched the show from Control. He'd been surprised by a chill of uneasiness that had settled in his belly. Even hooded and bound, the Procurers exuded a haughty coldness. After the first couple days back in Atlantis he hadn't had any nightmares about the kidnapping and torture, no flashbacks, none of the usual signs of PTSD. He had done the obligatory sessions with Heightmeyer and gotten signed off. But now he couldn't shake the feeling that this – releasing the prisoners – was going to backfire on them.
But those were Weir's orders.
He glanced back at McKay who was studiously ignoring the mini-drama taking place in the 'gate room. But he could see the tight lips and trembling hands McKay was trying to disguise with continuous movement. That was when he decided to stay and keep the scientist company.
An hour earlier the 'gate had opened and they were notified that the Procurers had entered their ship. A few moments later a subspace signal was received from a tracking beacon on the ship confirming the cargo hatch had been opened, and that five people had boarded the ship.
"I know all that, Rodney," he said now, still moving the chair in restless circles. "They might not make an attempt to leave the planet today. It may be days. Are you going to stay here the entire time?"
"Listen, Sheppard," McKay snapped, turning abruptly from the monitor. "I don't need you to –. Oh, my God!"
He hadn't realized how close Sheppard and the chair were. When he turned, his hand came up in a sweeping gesture and his cast brushed across the bottom of the chair's footrest.
It wasn't a hard contact, but it was enough to upset the precarious balance.
The wheels slipped. The chair toppled backward. And Sheppard's head bounced when it hit the floor.
There was a stunned silence. No one moved.
Sheppard lay on the floor, his feet in the air, startled by the sudden change in altitude. He stared up at an aghast McKay and burst into laughter.
Almost immediately he groaned and pressed a hand to his aching face. His shoulders continued to shake in silent laughter.
"Damn, McKay, you just had to ask me to leave," he gasped weakly. Hazel eyes, still surrounded by fading bruises, sparkled with humor.
"Leave," snapped McKay and turned back to his monitor.
This caused more snorting laughter, followed by groans. "Oh, God, please don't make me laugh."
The techs on duty in Control looked between the two men, wondering if someone should intervene and help the colonel up from the floor.
After a few moments, an amused voice rose from the floor. "Rodney, you gonna help me up?"
McKay sighed with exasperation and looked at the man on the ground. "I'm not allowed to pick up anything heavier than my laptop. Apparently bruised kidneys are very tricky. I could need surgery like that if I'm not careful." He looked around for the nearest underling and snapped his fingers at the tech manning the communications board. "You there, whatever your name is, come help the Colonel up off the floor."
The tech hurried over.
While Sheppard and his chair were being helped off the floor the stargate activated. In a few moments the 'gate technician announced that Sergeant Thomson was reporting in from Cataarn.
McKay keyed his mike and turned back to his keyboard and monitor. "Sergeant, what do you have for me?"
"Just thought you'd want to know the Procurers are firing up their engines," the Marine reported.
"Good, good," McKay said. "Don't shut the gate yet." He stared intently at the monitor. After a moment he rapidly typed in an instruction and then waited again. His fingers moving restlessly. "Ha," he finally said, tapping the screen. "There it is. Sergeant?"
"Are they moving yet?"
"They're just taking off now, sir."
"Excellent. Good, good, good. That's all. You can shut the stargate down now." McKay went back to staring at his monitor. "Left the atmosphere," he mumbled to himself in a few minutes.
Sheppard waited patiently. He knew McKay and Zelenka had spent a lot of time planning where to place the tracking devices on the ship, hiding them from the Procurers sight and shielding them from their sensors. He hoped that the equipment, and its concealment, worked as well as the two scientists anticipated. The intelligence on the Wraith and the Procurers would be invaluable. He had an uneasy feeling that they would need it.
When McKay announced "Hyper-space!" he rolled over and tapped on the console to get the scientist's attention.
"Can we let Daedalus know she can break orbit and head back to Earth?"
"Hmmm? Oh, sure, sure. The beacons are going off just as we planned. We're not going to have a problem tracking it."
Sheppard nodded to the communications tech to send the prepared message.
Now he waited not so patiently for McKay to break away from the obsessive screen watching. He was tired and he wanted to get something to eat. And McKay was looking washed out.
He gave McKay fifteen more minutes of screen time and then knocked on the console again.
"They're in hyper-drive. The beacons are working correctly. The system is recording the data. You don't need to keep babysitting it."
"What are you on about?" McKay asked, looking up vaguely.
"Dinner. Let's go get some food. Or you get some food; I'll get whatever weird concoction the mess personnel have devised for me tonight. I'm beginning to suspect they're enjoying my predicament," Sheppard grumbled.
"I'm not hungry. Just had a candy bar, remember?"
McKay started to turn back to the monitor, but Sheppard put up a hand to stop him.
"Yes, I do remember, you rotten bastard. Come on. It's lasagna night. You know you love it; and Cook always saves you a corner piece." Sheppard saw he was wavering and brought out the big gun. "You know when Carson let you back on light duty he didn't mean you could hunch over a computer for ten hours on your first day. Don't make me tell on you."
McKay rolled his eyes, but got to his feet. "All right, I'm coming. I'd better get a corner piece and they'd better still have garlic bread."
Sheppard whirled his chair around and led the way out of Control, nodding to the techs as he passed by. "There you go. You'll feel better after you've abused the mess personnel and eaten some pasta. God knows what they have for me."
"Maybe they'll throw some in the blender for you."
"Do you think a pizza and beer shake would taste good?"
Summary: Sheppard and McKay go to Mall World, get kidnapped, beat up and rescued. A usual day at the office for them. This story brings back the same race of bad guys as in my story "No Good Deed", but is not a continuation of that story and you don't need to read it first.