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Summary: On Canlaon anything is for sale. Caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware.

Categories: Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard
Characters: John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Action/Adventure, Established Relationship, Team
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 24631; Completed: Yes
Updated: 03 Mar 2008; Published: 03 Mar 2008

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Story Notes:
Written for Pollitt in the 2007 SGA_Santa fic exchange. Many thanks to Mandragora, Moonlettuce and Alyse who beta read this and cheered me on :-)


"Well?"

Rodney glanced up at Sheppard and frowned at him. "Well nothing," he said, suppressing a yawn. It was way too early for this. He leaned on the wall of the cave and pushed himself to his feet, wincing as his knees protested the sudden change. He threw the shattered piece of Wraith Dart back onto the rocks.

"Didn't your mother tell you about littering?" Sheppard jibed and Rodney rolled his eyes at him.

"Yes, of course, it's so important here to make sure that the pristine landscape is preserved." He gestured broadly at the battered cave, bits of destroyed Wraith Darts strewn across the floor, the sides pocked with impact craters. "Not a bad idea though, turning the Gate to face into the side of a nice solid hill," he added.

"I thought you said you could use any pieces we found?"

"When I said 'pieces', I was anticipating that some might be larger than my fist, and not have most turn out to be smaller than your brain, Colonel." He shook his head. "What hitting the rocks didn't destroy, the Gate backwash finished. There's nothing here large enough to identify without more time than we've got, never mind use."

"Then I believe we should proceed to Canlaon," Teyla called from outside. "We can be there by the time the gates open if we leave now."

"Fine. Move it, Rodney," Sheppard said. He chivvied Rodney out with a firm hand on his tac vest, then turned. "Ronon!" Rodney tried really quite hard not to mutter 'heel!' and shrugged innocently when Sheppard threw a narrow-eyed glance at him.

Ronon followed reluctantly. "I still don't think this is a good idea."

Rodney rolled his eyes, and Sheppard raised his hand before Teyla could start. "We already argued this out yesterday. The market may be the only place we can get the seed stock we need," he said to Ronon, "And," he said to Teyla," We are going to be careful, even if you have known them for years. Okay?" He looked at each of them in turn, and nodded, apparently seeing whatever it was he'd been looking for. "Okay then."

-+-

The early morning chill wasn't helping Rodney to wake up in the slightest -- he just felt tired and cold. There just wasn't enough time for everything -- the mission briefing had been argued so long yesterday they'd been delayed to this morning, which gave him extra time in the labs, which segued into a midnight session fixing the DHD and finally getting to his own -- empty -- bed at three am. Empty bed meant no early morning sex, which just went to show how irritated John had been with him. They could have fitted in a quick blow job in the shower, he thought resentfully.

Unexpectedly his foot slid out from under him on the long, wet grass and he nearly tumbled headfirst into Teyla's back, only a hard hand on his elbow stabilizing him.

"You know, McKay, if you got to bed at a reasonable hour, then maybe you wouldn't have these little 'accidents'."

"If Atlantis was in shop floor condition I would get to bed at a reasonable hour," he snapped back. He caught John's eye and added a grudging, "Thank you."

"You're welcome. You okay?" Sheppard's hand stayed on his arm, grip gentling. Rodney nodded. "You gonna fall over if I let go?"

"Thank you, I'll be fine," he said with wounded dignity. John grinned, and Rodney couldn't help smiling back.

The sun was hidden behind the hill, making their footing pretty much invisible. Water was slowly soaking into his pants and socks from the wet grass. Sooner or later he was going to break his neck on the damn stuff. A moment later, Rodney nearly slipped again, grumbling under his breath about stupid planets and stupid Ancients with their stupid ideas about Gate positioning, even as Sheppard's grip on his arm stopped him from taking the high speed route down.

They walked down and around the hill, shaded from the rising sun until they turned a last bend, and then suddenly the light split the air in front of them, slicing past the hillside, an enticing warm wall of sunshine just yards ahead of them, motes rising in it above a track rutted deep into the landscape.

"The road to ancient Canlaon," Teyla said softly, and they all walked a little faster, glad to get out of the shadow of the hill.

-+-

The track was baked hard, cut deep into the plain, the sides a good four feet high. At first Rodney was grateful not to be slipping every few steps, and that his feet and ankles were slowly drying out. Soon though, his drying socks were chafing painfully. The dry earth was pitted and uneven, and crumbled at every step unless he kept inside the ruts, stumbling painfully either way. His feet burned inside his boots, too warm, sore, every joint and muscle bitterly protesting the continuous effort of keeping his balance on the atrocious path.

Sweat trickled down his back, laptop heavy and hot, black vest soaking up the heat and it prickled on his skin. Heat stroke was creeping up on him, he thought gloomily. If it wasn't one thing it was another.

"I should have brought a hat," he muttered, swiping at his forehead. "We're going to die of this heat, you know. Brains curdling inside our skulls."

"You were complaining about the damp a minute ago," Sheppard said dryly, and he replied just as dryly,

"Half an hour ago -- your time keeping is as bad as your navigation, Colonel -- and that was when I was skidding down soaking cliff edges, in peril of breaking my neck. Right now, I'm more likely to collapse from heat exhaustion. Or break my ankle in a pot hole."

Teyla breathed out slowly, nasally, and then said, "The road improves closer to the city. There is much work, and little return in mending roads for the Wraith to walk on."

"She has a point," Sheppard said mildly, and Rodney scowled, overheated and unwilling to concede anything.

"Wraith wouldn't walk to the city," he said, and squinted at the distant walls standing out against the plain. "That doesn't make any sense, you know," he added. "Surely the Wraith can beam them out straight through those walls?"

Teyla smiled, "Not according to their legends. They say that they have not lost a person inside the walls to culling in twenty generations."

"But that's just--" he stopped at her raised eyebrow, and backtracked, "that's just, ah, really, and, so, wow, twenty generations? And it's the stones? Really?" He frowned, "How?"

"Only on this world," Ronon said shortly. "Doesn't work anywhere else."

"I wasn't--"

"Well, I was," Sheppard said frankly, and let the sunglasses slide down his nose to squint at the towering walls, "Really can't beam through?"

"I have not seen it for myself, but it is widely known."

"And people don't come flocking?" Rodney said, puzzled.

Ronon shook his head. "On Sateda we were told that no outsiders were permitted within Canlaon when the Wraith came. Once, the stories say, they would throw people out of the walls to keep the Wraith happy." He stared challengingly at Teyla who glared right back.

"Stories from those who feared what they did not understand."

"Well, it wouldn't exactly be the first time," Sheppard said.

"And the, uh," Rodney waved his free hand at the town. "Bricks?"

"People have tried to take the stone off world to build a safe haven of their own, but it has never worked. They are culled. Only here does the protection hold," Teyla told them, and McKay sighed.

"Atmospheric conditions?" Sheppard speculated, looking up at the innocuously blue sky.

"Protection of the Ancestors, they say," Teyla said firmly, and Rodney couldn't stop an eye roll.

"Maybe we're going to find another ascended Ancient." He scowled.

"Rodney." Sheppard smiled sweetly at him. "We're going to be polite to the nice people who might be willing to sell us grain and meat. Aren't we?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Even if I have to pretend that the local voodoo religion is actually science of any credibility whatsoever." He even meant it -- sort of. He pulled out his scanner and sighted it on the town. Maybe the stone was some odd sort of material or structure that -- he frowned at it, then shook it. He bent closer over it, trying to understand the meaning of the data shifting across the screen. Huh. Then maybe -- he waved it at the team, and frowned harder at the new results. That made perfect sense, which meant that the first set -- he waved the scanner in the direction of the town again then glared at the results disapprovingly-- didn't. "Oh. Hmm."

"Rodney?"

"Busy!" Every time he said anything they would ask what, what? If he knew he'd've said. If he didn't know, then he didn't know. "When I know something, you'll know something, I'd have thought you'd known me long enough to realize this, Colonel."

Teyla smiled, her eyes crinkling, "It is true what he says," she agreed, and Rodney looked at her dubiously, then figured he might as well take it at face value.

"Thank you," he said, and glared at first Sheppard, who just grinned back at him, and then Ronon, who ignored him completely, taking long strides over the uneven ground, apparently untroubled by trip hazards, random boulders and sink holes.

"Sooner we're there, the sooner you can poke at the rocks, McKay," Ronon said flatly. "We need to move faster."

Sheppard nodded and picked up the pace, even as Rodney grumbled about the rough ground and how bad boots were for his ankles and how the packs were getting heavier.

"If your pack's heavy, it's because you packed it, McKay," Sheppard said mildly, and there wasn't really much he could say to that except,

"If I end up rescuing the entire mission, again, as is all too often the case, then you'll be glad that I chose to prepare my pack properly."

Ronon looked interested. "How many knives are you carrying?"

Rodney tried to clamp it down, and only a very faint sigh of exasperation escaped. Ronon might not even have heard it, except he clearly had and was eyeing Rodney in a way that suggested that he was remembering that brute force might only win in the short term, but the results were oh so satisfying. "Three," he said grudgingly. Utility knife on his belt, Swiss army knife in a pocket, and a plastic knife tucked in alongside the MRE, which was a knife, those things were sharp, you could cut yourself on them if you weren't paying attention, even if it wasn't exactly what Ronon had meant. Four if he counted the spork.

Ronon grunted, looking amused, which Rodney decided would do as acknowledgment that he'd won this round, and didn't push the point -- just in case. In an argument with Ronon about knives, not even he would give good odds on himself.

He glanced down at the scanner again and tapped it absently, trying to decide whether it was worth asking for half an hour to study the readings. They really didn't make sense. If he just had the initial data readings from the planet to hand then maybe -- but that was all on the laptop strapped to his back.

He stumbled and a hard hand was on his elbow instantly, keeping him upright even as he yelped and flung out his hands for balance. He didn't lose his grip on the scanner, but it was a near run thing.

"McKay, if walking and scanning is too much for your giant brain to compute all at once, how about you put the scanner down and concentrate on your feet, hmm? Then you won't fall on your face and ruin my day."

"Considering no one except me can manage walking and talking, you're a fine one to talk."

"We'd talk if we thought we could get a word in edgewise."

Rodney smirked, "If you're too slow to keep up, Colonel..."

"Fast enough to catch you," Sheppard said meaningfully, and Rodney had to look away to hide his grin.

"Point," he conceded, gave a last puzzled look at the scanner, and put it away.

"What was so interesting on that thing anyway?"

"I don't know." If there was one thing he hated it was not knowing. Admitting his ignorance was rarely believed, so the next question was hardly unexpected.

"The great McKay found something he--" Sheppard sounded amused, but he was frowning faintly.

"Yes, yes, yes, all very amusing I'm sure," but that was almost reflexive. "I don't see how they're doing it."

"Doing what?" Teyla asked, dropping back a little to listen.

"Hiding the rest of the city."

There was a pause.

"The rest of the city?" Sheppard said sharply. He stopped and pulled his sunglasses off, squinting across the mile or so to the red and gold walls. "There's more of it?"

"Well, it's the only explanation for the level of energy readings I was getting. I'd expect that sort of heat generation from a major conurbation, not a market town."

"It's hot?" Sheppard sounded relieved and he slid his glasses back on one-handedly, clapping Rodney's shoulder with the other. "Maybe they're all cooking breakfast."

"I know you're not actually that stupid, so don't give me that."

"What range?"

"Infra red. On a satellite sweep it would show up like the restaurant section of a mall. Food central, and I'm not talking about what they're eating."

"What's eating them," Sheppard murmured, and winced, adding, "sorry," at Teyla's sharp look. "All lit up, like --"

"Like a nice shiny feeding ground." Rodney winced a little, but hell, it was his planet too.

"As I said before, the Wraith do not eat here." Teyla reminded them. "They have thrived without the fear of being culled."

"Maybe, but that doesn't explain how these people're generating that level of heat without any discernable power structures, or how those stupid walls are keeping the Wraith away." He gestured at the walled city when they just stared at him, and added impatiently, "No smoke. No air pollution."

Sheppard brightened, "Does that mean they have a ZPM?"

Rodney looked at him. "Oh yes, Colonel, I accidentally forgot to mention that in the briefing. No. No ZPM." He paused a second, and nodded when Sheppard said softly,

"What giant underground bunker?"

"Yeah." He squinted at the city then back at the scanner.

Teyla shook her head. "They are not like the Genii, Colonel. They do not hide their power and technology, and they share it with those who can pay for it."

"And we haven't heard of them before because...?"

Ronon grunted. "Because smart people don't like their prices."

"They are expensive, it is true, but they trade with many people, and we may find it simpler to trade for parts than to continue spending our strength in scavenging." Teyla said firmly.

"And we had nothing worth trading," Ronon said tersely.

-+-

The town gates were open, great reinforced things of dark wood, forming a wide arc from the walls and spanning a four or even five meter width, minimum, a sharp contrast to the pale grey slabs paving the road and the yellow stone of the wall. Very decorative. Rodney rolled his eyes. Flashback to D&D-ville. Carts were trundling in, maybe six ahead of them, but more behind them on the road. Each one paused for a moment at the gate, talking to uniformed guards. Something would exchange hands, and then they'd trundle on in. Livestock, people, grain, piles of fruit and vegetables. Everything from creaking covered wagons to tiny two wheeled, one man barrows.

"It is good we are early," Teyla said softly as they waited their turn in the queue to get inside the town walls, "The crowds become much worse as the day proceeds."

Ronon nodded, "The Great Market was just as busy on Sateda most days." There was a little pause, and Rodney looked up at the walls, itching for a chance to walk right around them, figure out the 'protection of the walls'.

The stone was just stone. There was no hidden field embedded in it, no special reflective properties or crystalline structure, no new minerals or energy anomalies -- nothing to suggest why a Wraith beam wouldnt pass straight through. He wasn't sure what good walling the place did them beyond some sort of psychological bolstering that any over-flying Dart would surely destroy.

Granted, the walls were impressive, with great sandstone blocks stacked high and wide, golden in the early morning light and scattered with deep green and blazing scarlet: some garish plant crawling out of crumbling cracks and over towers with the persistence of ivy, the bright flowers hanging bell-like in the dark leaves. They were probably what was causing that odd, not entirely unpleasant smell. He sneezed. The roots were probably eating away at the stone, eroding the sharp, unmorticed edges and slowly pulling it apart, accelerating the work of the weather and pollution. Another few hundred years and the walls would probably be little more than leafy hillock.

"Pretty," Sheppard said, and Rodney glanced at him.

"Yes, if you like the idea of the pretty plant life eating away the structural integrity of something youre trying to live in and one ton blocks falling down around your ears," he said acerbically. "They should tear it all down."

Sheppard looked at him sardonically, "I don't think we're in any immediate danger."

"The city has been here many generations," Teyla agreed, "And they are very proud of the selath. Its fragrance lifts the heart." She smiled, "Small bottles are valued at a sum larger than I have ever seen bartered." Rodney sighed, not irritated enough to press the matter.

"So you'll make a really sweet smelling corpse. If something lands on your head, don't come running to me."

Sheppard eyed him with amusement. "I guarantee, Rodney, that if one of those stones comes landing on my head, I will not say a word."

"If one lands on your head, McKay," Ronon added helpfully, "I promise not to say a word either."

"Except perhaps peace, blessed peace," Teyla murmured. At McKay's sharp look she smiled beatifically and said earnestly, "It is an ancient prayer for the newly deceased."

He eyed her sourly, but he wasn't certain she was mocking him. And even if she was... He avoided meeting anyone else's eyes and shuffled forward with the queue.

-+-

If this was a quiet day, Rodney wasn't sure he wanted to see it busy. He didn't do shopping. Malls were his idea of hell, online shopping a blessing second only to takeout delivery. He took a bigger bite of the vecris fruit pie, savoring the sour-sweetness blissfully, licking up the juice, and catching the flaking pastry with one hand under his chin.

"Are you listening? You must keep these on you at all times. Do not lose your tokens, Colonel, Doctor McKay," Teyla said firmly, and held out a pair of small bone discs. "They will assure your safety should you be challenged by anyone from the House of the Exterior. And do not litter," she added sharply as he accidentally -- accidentally! Hello! -- dropped the pie's packaging on the sidewalk.

"Challenged?" Rodney said, a little muffled. "This is very good," he added, somewhat incoherently to Ronon through a mouthful of pie. Either way, Ronon grinned wordlessly as he stuffed the last of his own pie into his mouth, red brown juice drizzling into his beard. "You've got some--" he pointed at his chin and Ronon grinned at him and wiped his face with his free hand and licked the palm clean.

"Rodney..." Teyla said firmly, and he sighed.

"I was just getting it." He leaned down and stuffed the sticky paper into a pocket. It would be disgusting in his jacket pocket later, but god forbid it be disgusting on the street. Though to be fair, it was a very clean street, as packed dirt went.

"Thank you."

"Told you you'd like it, McKay." Ronon said, swallowing the last of his pie down, and chasing it with water from his canteen.

"Thank you, yes, I live in awe of your intuition about Earth allergies." His wrist was still a little sticky, and he sucked at the test patch idly. Maybe they could take some of those vecris berries back to Atlantis. "What do you mean, challenged?"

Teyla eyed him sternly. "You were told in the briefing, Rodney. The House of the Exterior monitors and manages all visitors." She held up her own tag, "If you cannot show you are legitimately within the walls, you will be removed."

"Right, got it, hang on to the tag or the INS will get me."

"Any ideas about who we should be talking to, Teyla?" Sheppard had refused the offer of pie, as had Teyla. He was looking at Rodney and Ronon with a sort of horrified resignation. "You two have absolutely no self control, do you?" Which meant that Rodney had two more for later. Sheppard could insult them all he liked. He still wasn't getting the extra pie.

She smiled, "Of course. We are expected at the House of the Exterior."

"Exterior?" Rodney hurried after her, "I thought you said they were just immigration border control? Import and export?"

"Everything that is outside the walls, Doctor McKay, is ours to consider before allowing it inside the walls."

They all turned. The speaker was in his fifties, maybe even older, and Teyla smiled, holding out both hands, palm up.

"Fierb, are you well?" she asked as he brushed his hands lightly over hers.

"Oh, not so bad, Teyla Emmagan," he took a half step back and looked at the rest of the team.

"These are Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Doctor McKay, and Ronon Dex. Fierb is a Master of the House of the Exterior."

Fierb nodded to each of them as they were introduced, but made no effort to touch hands with them. Rodney considered his fingers, and conceded this might not just be because they'd only just met.

"An interesting group, Teyla," Fierb looked expectantly at her, "there must be some tale in this?"

She smiled faintly, "Only the sort of tale too familiar these days. Athos was culled, Sateda also; we joined my friends on their planet, and now we look for ways to survive until Hibernation comes again."

"Hmm. Can't be a day too soon, if you ask me," he said. "What those idiots thought they were doing--"

Sheppard shifted fractionally, and Teyla's hand gripped his sleeve out of Fierb's sight.

"We will survive this, as we have endured before," Teyla said. Fierb looked hard at her, but stopped.

"Well, if that's sorted out, then maybe we can move on to the interesting part of the --ow!"

He jerked his foot away from where Sheppard had stood on it.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Rodney," he smiled innocently, and Rodney glowered at him.

"Yes, that was my foot, you near-sighted clodhopper." He cautiously wriggled his toes inside his boot. Nothing seemed damaged, but it could be too early to be sure.

Teyla ignored them both, "Fierb, it is very fortunate that we found you so early in the day," she smiled at him warmly, "we are looking to trade for grain, seed and foodstuffs, and of course we were on our way to your illustrious House, but this chance meeting may be to both our benefits."

"Hrm," he said, puffing up a little under the implied compliment. "My dear, it has been a poor year, few crops, and less trade, and many deaths among our partners with the Great Culling. We cannot guarantee any deal at all." He was shaking his head, and as Teyla drew breath to speak, he put a hand on her wrist, "But we may be able to accommodate you somewhat. If you and--" He looked at them, seemingly reluctant to pick one from the group.

Teyla glanced at the three of them as though she had no trouble understanding why Fierb was unwilling to invite them all along. "Perhaps Colonel Sheppard could accompany us? And if you would not mind, I believe that Doctor McKay would be interested in the histories of your city. He has a keen interest in architecture and the stories of the past."

"Oh, yes. Keen."

"Ronon, I think you can stay with Doctor McKay," she glanced pointedly at their juice stained hands and faces.

They looked at each other, and back at her. "Yes, mother," they said in unison. Sheppard shrugged, and Fierb looked visibly relieved.

"The Records House would be of most interest to Doctor McKay," Fierb said. "If you walk to the end of this street, and turn left you will see it -- it is not far. The House of Records is the white gated building at the end. And, should you wish, there are public washrooms on your way," he chuckled cheerfully.

"Try not to mess up the books, McKay," Sheppard said brightly.

"Colonel Sheppard, I'm not the one who hasn't yet gotten to the end of the first book I brought with me on the trip. I think I know something about taking care of books."

Rodney turned and stalked away. Ronon quickly caught him up, and grinned at him.

"Not your best come-back, McKay. Maybe you were allergic to those pies after all--" he reached for the small bag tucked into the top of Rodney's pack, "I could help you with that."

Rodney dodged away, ran through the likelihood of getting to hang onto some versus none of his fruit pies, and grudgingly handed one over. "Here. And I'm worried about those readings."

"Have you found something?" Ronon asked, humor gone instantly.

Rodney glanced around, but the street was getting more busy, not less. "I don't want to take the scanner out here."

Ronon bobbed his eyebrows. "Good call."

"Thank you. I can show some inklings of common sense, I assure you, especially when it means we won't get mugged at knife point and our bodies left in a local garbage pile."

"You might get mugged."

Rodney considered that. "Huh. You're probably right. All the more reason that I shouldn't be seen wielding valuable Ancient tech in the middle of a busy street."

"Or talking about it," Ronon said sagely.

"Or talking abou-- Right." He pursed his lips and kept moving up the street. A couple of minutes later, he said softly, "If you see somewhere we could-- you know?"

Ronon smirked at him and Rodney sighed.

"Yes, very mature. The -- you know what?" he said pointedly, jerking his chin towards the scanner in the top pocket of his vest.

"Washrooms." Ronon nodded up the street.

"How do you know?"

"Can smell it."

He sniffed without thinking it through, then grimaced. He swallowed hard, and wished that he had a stuffed up nose. Or some of those clips swimmers used. "Right. Smell."

-+-

Rodney was gleeful as they walked out of the washroom.

"Well?" Ronon murmured.

"I have some ideas," he said, pleased that the trip into unmitigated filth and the horror of squat toilets had had some good points -- like privacy to use the scanner. "We should--"

"We should go to the House of Records," Ronon said firmly, gripping his elbow -- the one already thoroughly bruised by Sheppard earlier that morning.

"Careful, ow! Hey!"

"Quiet. Someone's watching us," Ronon said tersely.

"Really?" He looked around. "Why--"

"Probably Fierb's people. They've got a name for that sort of thing."

"What, spying on guests?

"Yep."

"Oh." Rodney looked around again, trying to spot them.

"McKay--" Ronon growled, and Rodney straightened up.

"I'm sorry, I've not been spied on before, oh, except that's probably not true, but hidden cameras are so much more discreet."

"City hasn't fallen in a few hundred years, I guess you start thinking you want to keep it that way." He looked around casually, and added, "Move it, McKay."

Rodney scowled as Ronon encouraged him with a shove.

"Mind the backpack!" he snapped, mindful at the last second not to say laptop or anything else. In fact, he probably shouldn't make it look like the backpack was important at all, and stymied, he glared at Ronon. "Ow, my back," he said instead, a little louder and shoved a hand under the backpack to rub it. Ronon just looked amused. "Are they still there?" he asked and Ronon just looked at him. "Okay, fine, fine, they're still there." He shrugged a little, "If these people have kept the Wraith out for centuries, then I guess they'd go with whatever works."

"The walls keep the Wraith out. Exterior just keeps the walls," Ronon corrected, and Rodney shook his head.

"No, no, no. The walls are just big pretty rocks stacked in a geometric fashion. Something else is keeping the Wraith out of this place."

Ronon frowned at him. "The legends say that it's the walls."

"And god bless the walls, yes, I got that part. But--" his hand moved towards his scanner then he remembered and stuffed it into a pocket, "--that doesn't make it a fact."

Ronon just shrugged. "Youll figure it out."

Rodney grunted, torn between irritation -- of course he would figure it out, that was what he did -- and a certain gratified smugness at Ronon's confidence.

They kept walking down the street; the sun hadn't yet risen high enough to drive away the shadows, and Rodney tried not to stare twitchily into each doorway and half hidden side street and alley as they passed.

"So these House of the Exterior people have been running things all this time?"

"Yup," Ronon nodded.

Rodney frowned. "Is that normal?" The whole set up was making him uneasy, and he wasnt entirely sure why. The anthropologists, or the political scientists would be having a great time teasing out the details of what was going on here, he suspected. Or possibly not.

"Save it for when we get home, McKay," Ronon advised him.

"But--" he began, and Ronon frowned deeply at him.

"McKay--"

"Sure. Don't ask, don't -- except that doesn't really apply here, although I suppose it might if they're living in some sort of Stalinist police state-- although plenty of free trade going on--"

"Not in public." Ronon growled, albeit quietly. "Not everyone will trade with Canlaon. We never came here. Sateda," he clarified, "Sateda never traded with them," he shrugged, "we never really needed to." His hand brushed over his weapon.

"That's not exactly reassuring," Rodney muttered, but Ronon just pushed him forwards.

"We're drawing attention, McKay. Move."

"Oh? Oh! Here!" Rodney dug into a pocket and handed Ronon a chocolate bar, not without a pang. But in the name of preserving the integrity of the mission, sacrifices would have to be made. Funny how the sacrifices always seemed to end up being his. "There, you asked me for this and I gave it to you. Perfectly innocent."

Ronon ripped open the chocolate and took a big bite out of it, before saying, "They can probably hear us from where they are."

"And you couldn't have told me that-- give me that back!" But Ronon held it away from him.

"You going in or what?" Ronon asked, and stuffed the rest of the chocolate into his mouth. It had melted in his hand and Rodney sighed.

"I'm going in. You're finding somewhere to wash up. Again."

Ronon just looked at him and followed him into the cool foyer of the House of Records.

In the event, Rodney wasn't quite sure whether to be pleased that the librarian in charge of the House of Records had concurred with him about the cleanliness required to handle books, or to be worried that he was now on his own. He assured Ronon that he'd be fine (books aren't known for their lethal scientist eating qualities,), and promised to check in regularly.

As Ronon left he bounced on his heels and rubbed his hands together. "Excellent," he said. "Now, how do I find out about--"

Arde, the master of the Records House, held up a hand, smiling. "Your enthusiasm moves you faster than I. Doctor McKay, this is Teram, and he will be happy to guide you in your research." Teram looked about fifteen years old, all out of proportion and pimples. He bounced on his heels, grinning widely at Rodney.

"Guide?" He looked at the teenager, and said nothing.

"It is a tradition of the House, Doctor," Arde said firmly. "Guests are always welcome, but there are many places difficult to find here -- and once found, difficult to leave."

"Rolling stacks," Rodney muttered, and shook his head at Arde's puzzled look. "Never mind. Guide. Fine." He turned to Teram and gestured towards the main entrance to the records collection. "Shall we?"

"Shall we what, Doctor McKay?" Teram asked cautiously, and Rodney groaned.

"Explore the wonders of the House of Records," he said, restraining himself considerably. He could intimidate after he'd got to the good stuff.

-+-

A little later he was in an alcove, surrounded by little plasticky boxes -- almost like floppy disks if floppies had been four inch cubes that spun on a diagonal axis, and contained what appeared to be something in the region of a petabyte of data each. Warmer than glass, but not oil based. Of course, it was all encoded in an astonishingly inefficient way -- it was blindingly apparent why they needed data storage of that caliber for even the shortest documents, but even so...

"Teram, where do these come from?"

He lifted one of the boxes and Teram tilted his head, clearly puzzled. "Doctor McKay?"

"The data storage units? Where do they come from?"

"That one came from the section on Histories of the Gex; and this one is from the History of the House of the Interior, and--"

"No!" He gritted his teeth and drew a deep breath. "Who makes them? Who puts the data into them?"

"Oh!" Teram laughed, "I almost forgot you were from outside! No, that is one of the higher mysteries. I will not learn such things for many years." He nodded and leaned in confidingly, "For now, I learn the fundamentals, the root and core of the scholarship." He straightened the nearest pile of boxes with a proprietary hand.

Rodney stared at him. "Shelving and filing. Right."

"And maintenance of the readers and copiers." Teram added earnestly.

"Christ, I rated the student help." Rodney groaned and dropped his head onto the desk with a hard thump.

"Doctor McKay?"

"Never mind. I'll just work my way through these."

"If you need any more help, Doctor McKay--"

"I'll shout."

"Oh no, please. You should put your House of the Exterior tag into the slot here, and ask for me when the beacon lights." Teram nodded at him happily, and before Rodney could stop him and ask for more information, was gone. He stared at the pile of books, and slid the first one into the reader. The title sprang up brightly: A History of the Houses of Canlaon

Wait a minute --

-+-

"Where's Rodney?" John said sharply, if quietly. Ronon had come into the Great Hall of the House of the Exterior alone apart from a guard. He'd deliberately caught John's eye and shook his head very faintly. John had excused himself from the haggling at the table immediately, his whole body tensing. Shit. He let the man out of his sight for barely even a half hour and, bam! One missing scientist.

Ronon shrugged minutely, "I don't know. We went to the House of Records: he went inside, I waited outside for him."

"You did what? Ronon!" he snapped, "You know better than to let McKay go off on his own."

"They wouldn't let me in with him," he looked vaguely shifty, and with a shock John realized that Ronon was actually worried. "They said my hands were too dirty to be allowed in." He rolled his eyes in disgust at the idea, "So I went back to a public washroom and when I went back a second time, they said he had left. When I hailed him over the radio he didn't respond." He hesitated for a second, and added, "He said he would check in regularly, and if he is studying he might forget --"

"But he wouldn't ignore us. Probably," John amended. "Either he's found something huge or --" His eyes met Ronon's and they were in agreement. "Let's see if I get a better answer."

Ronon moved a little, and John was bracketed between him and the wall. He slid a hand to the radio and tapped it.

"McKay. McKay, get your damn head out of whatever damn geek toy you've found and respond." He paused. "McKay. Rodney, dammit."

He waited, hand over the earpiece to catch the least sound. "Shit. Stay here."

He walked back up to his empty chair and leaned on its back, smiling easily at the others at the table. "Teyla, Fierb, something's come up, and I was wondering if you'd mind putting the negotiations on hold for a while?"

"John?" Teyla asked, rising to her feet immediately.

"Doctor McKay has gone for a walk without telling us," he said as mildly as he could manage. Her eyes flickered to his side, and then back in a fraction of a second.

"I am sorry, Fierb, but Doctor McKay can be a great enthusiast in pursuit of knowledge, and a little forgetful. May we resume this later?"

Fierb frowned at her. "Teyla, you know better than that. The negotiating table is either abandoned or completed. There is no hedging the deal."

She looked at John, waiting for his say so.

"Can we just -- get a pit stop?" John asked mildly, not a hint of his thoughts on his face. Fierb looked confused. "Rain check? Look, we just want to discuss this without disturbing the, the deal, for five minutes and then we'll be right back with you."

Fierb nodded, still looking dubious. "I suppose -- Teyla, I have put aside other business to accommodate you and your friends. If we cannot come to some profitable arrangement, I will have to make an accounting to the House Elders."

"Of course, "Teyla said steadily, "and we appreciate your understanding, Fierb." Teyla looked at him thoughtfully, but only added, "Is there anywhere we may speak without disturbing others?"

Fierb nodded. "Soundproofed chambers outside this door and along the corridor to the left."

"Thank you," she smiled, and turned on her heel.

-+-

"We should not speak too openly, even here," she murmured as they settled themselves into the small meeting room, and Ronon nodded.

"Agreed," he said grimly, then dived straight in. "Teyla, McKay went into the House of Records on his own, and when I went back for him, they told me he'd left."

Teyla rubbed at her ear thoughtfully, and John shook his head. No. No contact by radio.

"But he has his tag?"

Ronon nodded, then at Teyla's somewhat exasperated glare, began to elaborate in a loud voice on the entirety of his and McKay's walk to the House of Records.

"How many men of the House followed you?" she whispered underneath his words.

Ronon drummed three fingers against his belt.

"Wait, followed?" John looked sharply from one to the other. "You didnt mention followed."

"You were told that this might happen, John," she said patiently. "We are traders, and under the protection of the House of the Exterior."

"You said they kept a close eye on off-worlders. Not followed them everywhere they went and spied on them in private meeting rooms," he whispered furiously.

"And so I believed, but clearly not all the stories were as exaggerated as I believed them to be," she whispered back defensively.

John took a deep breath. "Don't you think that might be something you should have told us before we wandered in here, fat and happy?"

Teyla shook her head. "You would not have understood--"

"I understand plenty!"

"John!" she said urgently, and he breathed in and out on a four count. Fine. Right. Quietly.

"We're inside a fucking police state, and we can't find Rodney, who's off wandering on his own looking for a reason why the city is -- hot--" he stopped. "Shit. It's the Genii all over again."

"Canlaon is well known for their," Ronon paused, choosing his words, "their caution." He looked directly at Teyla. "There were reasons we of Sateda did not barter with these people."

"Sateda had its own resources," Teyla said, "Not all are so privileged, and I have always found them fair." Ronon scowled, and seemed ready to argue the point.

"This isn't finding McKay," John snapped, and they both stopped.

"It is not essential we trade here," Teyla said after few seconds.

"We should not put ourselves in debt to them. We should find McKay and go."

Teyla didn't back down. "We are in need of seed for the new season. If we are ever to be free of our reliance on supplies traded in or brought to us," she paused, the implications clear, and John nodded. They couldn't survive forever if they couldn't support themselves. The Menarians had made that clear, and they had only been the first planet to decide that the benefits of selling Atlantis out were higher than the benefits of trading with them. Others had followed suit.

He looked from one to the other, then shook his head. "We'll go back to Athos if we have to; get them the send us cuttings from home the next time the family drops by."

"Colonel Carter will be disappointed."

John smiled edgily. "Right now, I'm pretty disappointed that Rodney is not currently here to argue the point with us. But he's not. We find him; then we go home. If the condition of trading with them is leaving McKay to wander on his own -- assuming that he went of his own free will -- and then become incommunicado.... Then I don't think these are the kind of trading friends we need."

"They have strict rules --" Teyla paused, "We should ask Fierb to talk to the men of the House. They will probably know where he is."

"Yeah. Because they took him," Ronon growled.

"You do not know that!"

"I can add up. No McKay. No armsman. No trace. No witnesses. No radio contact." Ronon folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.

Teyla looked away, slumping a little. "It is a little worrying."

"And if we don't negotiate?"

"We will not starve. We will miss the best season for planting, but we can survive as long as there are no more great storms."

John nodded curtly. "Fine. We go back, tell Fierb that we withdraw from the negotiations, track down McKay, and I kick his ass for forgetting about stranger danger."

-+-

"This is incredible!" Rodney was deep into the oldest areas of the House of Records. "These are -- can I take one apart?"

Teram looked horrified, "No, it takes many years--"

"Of training, yes, yes, I have many years of training," he said sharply and snapped his fingers in demand. Teram looked at him helplessly then moved out of the way. Rodney dived straight for the 'printer'. "Nearly twenty-four years of training, in point of fact," he muttered, "and more education than -- oh. I see. Hmm."

"Hmm?" Teram said warily. Rodney rolled his eyes and waved the boy over.

"Look, here?"

"Yes?" he said hesitantly.

"That's an Ancient crystal. Ancestors to you, probably."

"Yes, elder McKay."

"You knew they had -- why didn't you say so?" he sighed impatiently.

"You didn't ask?"

"Anticipate! A scientist must imagine! Anticipate! Extrapolate!" And obfuscate, he added silently, as he dismantled what appeared to be a defunct and abandoned portable 3-d printer, rapidly cataloging and analyzing as he went, longing for the chance to properly examine the crystals and circuits built in, an odd mish-mash of familiar and strange. Hmm. "What do you put into the hopper?"

"The what?"

"Here!" he pointed at the wide bin that presumably took that material that was printed on -- if it was a printer. "What goes in?" he asked, enunciating slowly and clearly.

"Oh, whatever is to hand. Selathi, waste food, dead leaves. It rejects anything not suitable."

"Organic matter?" He narrowed his eyes at it. "And it extrudes--"

"Whatever we tell it. As long as it's in the data core, it'll make it."

"Do you ever have to add anything -- does it ask for specific materials?"

Teram nodded eagerly. "Sometimes. It wanted sand when we needed a new reader last year."

Rodney sat back, vaguely wishing he knew more materials chemistry. Sand: silicates. And it could take crude organics -- plants and convert them to, what? Carbon. Not just carbon. Hydrocarbons? Plastics. Energy. The reverse of a ZPM.

What powered all of this? The sky had been clear, no signs of industrial scale power generation -- it could have been in the hills somewhere, but the town lit up like a rock concert against an otherwise quiet background. Power without pollution. Naquada would have shown up. Surely it was too diffuse for a ZPM. Several ZPMs? The range though was not sufficient to guarantee -- maybe he could convince Sam to bring the Daedalus, scan the planet from space. He brightened. Then stared at the printer, mouth open. Could this be how the Ancients built their ZPMs?

Objections crowded in, and he shook his head. Later. Later, when he got one of these back to Atlantis and could disassemble it at his leisure. A ZPM printer?!

He snatched a quick look at Teram and said nothing. He was definitely getting himself one of these -- especially if it really did turn out to be a ZPM making machine.

He lifted out what appeared to be some sort of separation chamber, a series of filters getting finer and finer layered grinding plates. At the base a series of trays with some sort of energy based cover. At any rate, he couldnt stick his fingers into it, even with the power off. Must be battery operated. His fingers itched at the thought of a battery powerful enough to run a small force field indefinitely. "How long has this been turned off?"

Teram shrugged. "I don't know. Couple of months?"

"A couple -- a couple of months? Seriously? Do you have any idea -- of course you don't, because if you did, you clearly wouldn't be working here." He followed the wires away looking for the power source. His fingers felt faintly sticky, and he rubbed them together, then sniffed them. Hmm. Floral scented machinery. Novel.

"Teram, what is this? Perfume? he asked Teram, wondering what a chemical analysis would make of those selath plants that the Canlaon were supposedly so proud of. Proud enough that they let its roots pull apart the brickwork of their vaunted walls. There was no reply, just an odd sort of gurgle. "Teram, I said--"

"I dont think he heard you, Doctor."

Rodney turned around sharply, and froze.

-+-

"If you are determined, Teyla, my dear, there is obviously nothing I can do to stop you." Fierb leaned forward, resting his clasped hands on the table. "I should remind you, however, of the terms of entry to Canlaon." He smiled sweetly at her.

Sheppard's right hand clenched into a fist, short nails digging hard into his palm. This 'deal' just kept on getting worse.

"Certainly," Teyla said composedly. "We merely wish to locate our remaining colleague, and we will leave."

Fierb shook his head quickly. "No, you do not understand. You were permitted within the walls on the understanding that you had something to trade. If you are not trading, then your permission to remain is revoked. I am sorry." He paused a beat, "Of course, if we find Doctor McKay, and he has no reason to be here legally, we will have no choice but to obey House Rules."

John gritted his teeth. "House rules?" he said softly.

Teyla shook her head. "I understood that the Rules said that negotiators were guaranteed free status for the duration of their visit."

"Ah, I see how the misunderstanding arose," Fierb said, "an easy mistake to make. We changed the Rules." His voice hardened. "Times are harder now, Teyla Emmagan. Canlaon must make profit where it finds it. We permitted you in, although you consort with murderers and Wraith-Raisers. We will trade with anyone. And all traders are protected under the Rules. But without anything to lay on the table, Teyla Emmagan, of Athos, of Atlantis, you are not a trader, and the Rules of the House give you no protection."

He settled back into his chair and waited.

"I... see," Teyla said slowly.

"Good. I hate it when people play ignorant." Fierb regarded each of them in turn, coming back to Teyla. "So. We move on to a new game. One where we do not lie to each other about ourselves." He nodded to someone behind them and one of the armsmen came forward and dropped three or four photographs on the table, the topmost one showing a very familiar face -- John's own, with Genii writing across it. Well, that explained a lot.

"Our position is... delicate... you might say."

"Delicate, my ass," John said sweetly.

"John, this is not helping," Teyla hissed at him, her face serene as she kept her eyes on Fierb.

"I'm not feeling helpful. This is nothing more than blackmail. We trade with you or you keep Doctor McKay hostage? Is that it?"

Fierb looked taken aback for a moment, and then he chuckled genially. "No. Not at all. As you have split the group, so we have split the Trade. Whether you trade with us or not, Doctor McKay will be discussing his future in private negotiations."

"I am sorry, but as we came as a single group, so we trade and will leave as one," Teyla said firmly.

Fierb spread his hands, "And how will you enforce that? Canlaon has its walls, its traditions. We are protected."

"Protected. Riiight. And what exactly does 'private negotiations' mean?" John asked.

Fierb tilted a mocking smile at them. "That would be private."

"You would wreck any hope of a future trading relationship with both Athos and Atlantis?" Teyla asked. "Do you think our peoples will not come for Doctor McKay? For all of us?"

Fierb shrugged and said gently. "They can come."

-+-

Teyla settled back to the negotiation table, and began again. The haggling was priced higher, information for technology, grain for pharmaceutical manufacturing data. Knowledge for knowledge, Fierb said more than once, and each time, Sheppard ground his teeth.

"We need to be out there, looking for him," Ronon grumbled under his breath, and John eyed the guards in the room.

"You reckon we could take them all if they want to keep us here?" he replied quietly.

"Between the three of us? Yes."

"You want to risk Rodney's life on that?" Because he wasn't about to take that chance. Ronon subsided with one final grumble.

"We should still try. Go and find him. You don't deal with Wraith worshippers."

John's attention snapped back to the table at Teyla's raised voice and the crash of a chair. Teyla was standing.

"Enough! We are either negotiating for Doctor McKay, or he is negotiating for himself. You cannot have it both ways!" Teyla slammed her hand down on the table.

"Of course we can. The negotiations may be independent of each other; if the good doctor chooses to stay--or move on to a new home, we cannot prevent the Trade."

"Then all your negotiations are lies, and the galaxy will know that Canlaon has fallen into corruption."

Fierb laughed so abruptly that he nearly choked, and had to grab a glass of water before he could speak. "Of course you will! You'll blacken our name everywhere, oh it will be terrible. Yes, I should be terrified now, yes?" His amusement deepened, grew vicious, malicious edges. "Ask your young Satedan friend what happens to planets that go after the good name of Canlaon."

Ronon frowned, taking a second to follow the statement through, then with a roar he launched himself at Fierb, who jerked back involuntarily even as armsmen swarmed out of the walls and passages and held both Ronon and John back.

"You? You brought the Wraith down on us?"

Fierb smiled. "We will trade with anyone who has something to bring to the table. One party needs a -- thorn removed; one party needs intelligence about the potential threats to their... activities. Canlaon finds a match for each need. A simple Trade."

Ronon nearly managed to throw off the men holding him, dragging them forward with him as he threw himself forwards.

"Monster."

"Negotiator," Fierb corrected. "You Lanteans have treated with the Wraith; what was your price up on that high moral ground?"

"We never turned them on a world because they were our enemies--"

"What of Olesia? Would they agree? Or of our galaxy itself? Who woke the Wraith, John Sheppard?"

"The Wraith always come," Teyla said, one hand hard on John's wrist. "Saying we woke them is like blaming the water for reflecting the sun."

"We're nothing like you," Sheppard said. "Nothing."

"Oh, you're very like us, Lantean. You just choose to direct your pragmatism to the theater of war. We have chosen the traders' table. Everything has a price. It's just a question of what the market can bear to pay."

"Rodney McKay is not for sale!"

"But you were prepared to bring his knowledge and skills to the table, yes?"

"In the right circumstances, we are prepared to help allies," he emphasized. "People who have proven themselves trustworthy."

"And how do we poor Pegasus galaxy denizens do that, Colonel? From where I sit, it looks like the choices are try and die trying. Unless lives are lost you do not take us seriously. How many Athosians were lost, Teyla Emmagan, because John Sheppard killed the Keeper of the Hives?"

"The Hives awaken, Fierb. If we have no other constant, this is always true. The Hives waken, the ships come, no one escapes the culling altogether. Except here." Teyla's face was grave. "Here, you suffer neither the Wraith, nor any other predators. Are the old stories true? What do you do, Fierb, sell whoever displeases you to the Wraith? Your own kind, and you blame us for awakening them."

"Not my own kind, Teyla. Those who come from Outside. And we flourish for it," Fierb said easily. "My children do not fear culling. My grandparents live yet, and of my siblings, one died of a childhood illness, the rest live and have families of their own. Can you say as much?" He shook his head, mouth a little moue of distaste. "You would have us all suffer as you have, Teyla Emmagan, merely to satisfy your sense of injustice. We merely protect ourselves."

"You live at the expense of others," she said softly. "A man here. A world there. Where do you stop?"

Fierb shrugged. "When the profit dries up."

A rap on the door heralded three armsmen bearing trays. "Lunch?" Fierb asked.

-+-

"This is -- this is incredible!" Rodney couldn't stop himself looking around, taking in everything: and everything was a junk yard of galactic proportions. The deep corridors had led into what Idarial called the deep rooms, filled with gadgets and gizmos and god knew what, just waiting for the right man to come along and -- he stopped himself and blinked, trying not to remember Teram's startled eyes.

Idarial smirked, and said quietly, "This is the work of the House of Knowing. Everything you see here." He gestured widely. "I knew you would understand."

"What powers it?" He didn't understand. He wasn't the kind of man to care more about technology than the life of a boy barely out of puberty.

Idarial looked at him chidingly. "Doctor McKay."

"I know, I know, but the lack of pollution alone--" He shook his head, more and more convinced that they had to have at least one ZPM powering all of this. More, surely. The technology was the most bizarre mishmash of types and styles he had ever seen. "People trade this stuff to you?"

"Exactly." Idarial smiled at him proudly, like a teacher with a backwards pupil who had finally connected the dots. Rodney wanted to say something incredulous, but the red-brown spatter pattern on Idarial's pale blue over coat cum robe thing was more than deterrent enough.

Instead he gritted his teeth and paced alongside Idarial.

"We mostly handle raw materials and power generation here," Idarial said happily, "I understand that you have some knowledge about power sources?" His voice ended on a lift, and Rodney looked back from where he'd been staring -- what looked like a cannibalized Wraith Dart drive unit -- only much, much bigger.

"Impressive, eh? You know what it is, of course?"

"Hive sub light drive," he said almost on autopilot, hands itching to get at it. "What's the core of the unit?"

Idarial smiled at him, "Yes, yes, I knew you would see things our way!" The smiles were starting to get on his nerves.

"I'm sorry, no, actually, I'm not, I have no idea what you're talking about. See what your way? What are you talking about? And what are you doing with one of those?"

"Come and see!" Idarial ushered him over. Several of the people working on the unit looked up, greeted Idarial by name, and went straight aback to variously welding, rewiring, and analyzing computer output with what -- He looked closer. They were analyzing the data with what looked like an SGC laptop!

"Where did you get this?" he snapped, reaching for the laptop. The scientist using it pulled it out of his reach.

"We dealt for it," Idarial said readily. "I believe that one was found --"

"On Hoff," the scientist said helpfully.

Rodney clenched his teeth together. He wasn't going to --"That was stolen from my people!"

Idarial shrugged, "I can't speak to that. The negotiator had salvage title, I believe. You abandoned it when you fled the planet," he added helpfully, as though Rodney was too stupid to follow their paper thin justification for fencing stolen goods. "We'll deal with anyone, provided they have something of value to offer us."

"I see." He leaned in closer over the scientist's shoulder. "And what are you-- reconfiguring the sublight drive. You're not going to get more than about point seven five C out of it you know, no matter what you do." He thought for a moment, "You might get up to point nine if you can figure out a way to make the inertial dampeners strong enough without actually impacting the weight/speed ratios."

"C being your notation for the speed of light?" the scientist asked, frowning. "Our projections suggest--"

"Yes, yes, the numbers might work, but any practical execution will show quite clearly that as you approach light speed particles become exponentially more massive, inhibiting them from crossing the threshold." He shook his head dismissively. "If you want FTL then you'll almost certainly need a complete rethink of your science. We had to develop an entirely new branch of physics just to cope with it."

Idarial nodded, "We need a qualitative breakthrough -- not predictable and not reliable. Not profitable," he shook his head. "Much better if we bargain for the information."

"Or -- wait, why are you doing this with a Hive ship drive?" But he realized the answer even as he asked the question.

"The units are powerful, but not strong enough for extragalactic travel. The Queen who commissioned the work desires that she too be able to join the Hives that can reach the new feeding grounds."

Ice formed in the pit of his stomach. "New feeding grounds."

"Your home world, I am told." He sounded like he'd suggested crossing the street to a new restaurant, not an entire inhabited world. Not Rodney's home world.

"You're building them an FTL drive to take them to Earth and you think I will help you," he said flatly.

Idarial nodded expectantly. "Just so. It would go much quicker if we can come to a suitable exchange of knowledge."

"No!" He was backing away, "That's my -- no! You're crazy if you think I'm going to give up anything to make it easier for the Wraith to feed on my people."

"Please refrain from theatrics, Doctor McKay. Everyone has a price."

"What's the price here? Thirty pieces of silver?" The reference passed Idarial by completely, and he tilted his head quizzically.

"How large would the pieces of silver need to be?" he asked, as though about to order a stack of ingots.

"No! No, I --" he took a deep breath. "There's nothing I can do to help you."

"No?" The look on Idarial's face made the ice spread outwards. "I understand that you can be very cooperative under the right circumstances." He smiled briefly. "Drugs or physical coercion?"

"What? I -- Are you seriously asking me if I have a preference? And I don't know where you got your information but no one has ever won against me, you know." But he couldn't stop the split second glance down at his arm, the scar from Kolya's men still something he didn't look at, didn't touch except with a washcloth between his hand and it. If it didn't exist he didn't have to remember it, even if, in the end, he'd turned their confidence in his information against them.

"And yet, here you are, in our underground labs, on your own, with nothing to help you except some little toys."

"You might think they are toys --" he stopped himself, but Idarial's eyes were already lighting up.

"Not toys? What do they do? They seem too small to do anything but of course the mechanical device is far smaller than anything we've been able to make ourselves."

"So where'd the printer things come from?" Rodney asked before he could stop himself.

Idarial looked surprised. "I'm surprised you haven't worked it out, Doctor McKay. Perhaps you are not the genius you were touted to us as. The printers -- the majority of technology that you see here, is--"

"Wraith," he breathed. Of course. Why stop at doing research work for them? John had said that had been humans on the Hive ships; willing partners, informants. One had tried to seduce John, of course. He could appreciate the impulse even if he didn't approve. Logically, he should have expected something like this. Not all humans recoiled from partnership with the Wraith.

Oh.

Especially if it came with a guarantee that they would remain untouched.

"It's nothing to do with the stones, is it?"

"Stones?"

"That ridiculous story about the city walls. The stones stop the culling beam. It's just, just a lie."

"We have never lied when asked," Idarial said, his face darkening. "We do not lie."

"But you sure as hell don't tell the truth when you hear a lie, do you? You know exactly what the rest of the galaxy would think of your deal with the Wraith."

"We deal with anyone who has something of value to us, Doctor McKay. Wouldn't you? If the offer on the table was freedom from the Wraith for your entire planet? All your people safe, healthy, free?

"You are not the only ones to see the benefit in allying with the Wraith. Turn one Hive into an ally, give them something they need and they will intervene against the other Wraith for you. We have a safe world, Doctor. We have not seen a culling here in six hundred years."

"And in return you work for the Wraith," Rodney said flatly.

"How is that any different to the alliance you made with them?" At Rodney's startled look, Idarial chuckled softly. "Information is always available to those with the right price."

"We were not working for them," he insisted. The difference was small, but they had not sold out anyone else to get what they wanted. Except maybe the newly human Wraith. He winced. That was a hard memory even now, the casual way the Wraith Queen had simply fed off one of her own; no longer Wraith, no longer safe from her hands. The way he'd opened fire on the alpha site... "We thought we had a way to destroy all the Wraith."

Idarial paused. "Truly?"

Rodney shrugged. "We're still ironing out some bugs."

"Perhaps we could help you with that," Idarial said readily, and Rodney met his eyes, trying to see into the man's mind.

Maybe the differences weren't all that great between them. These people were sharing technology; Atlantis had shared systems and bio-weapons. Was the only difference really that it was only when it was his home world on the table as an offer to the Wraith that he cared who was allied with them?

No. There were deals that he still wouldn't be party to.

"No, thanks, I don't think you could offer us anything that we couldn't do better ourselves," he said coolly. "I don't think I have anything to bring to the table, here."

"No?" Idarial said mildly. His eyes lifted for a second to look over Rodney's shoulder. "A pity. However, that does not leave us without options."

He was already turning when a hand holding a pad of something cold and pungent smelling wrapped over his mouth and nose.

"If you are not willing to be a part of the negotiation, Doctor McKay," Idarial said, his voice sounding like it was coming through a distant tunnel, thin and remote, "Then you will be a part of the deal."

-+-

"That's it," John muttered under his breath to Ronon, who was munching on some sort of flaked fish. "I'm going after him."

Teyla shook her head, leaning in. "Have you heard some news of Rodney, Colonel?"

Reluctantly John shook his head. "Not as such, but you keep these guys busy for a couple of hours, and I bet Ronon and I could track McKay; shake this place up a little."

"Follow the explosions and shouting," Ronon suggested, and John nearly smiled at that.

"We can't just leave him like this."

"We don't know for sure that he is even in trouble," Teyla reminded him.

"I have a bad feeling," John said stubbornly.

"Fierb could be bluffing -- the Canlaons are expert negotiators. They have put their best man to the job of bargaining with us. John, I know how these people operate. We have not seen more than the merest beginning of the strategy. I do not believe now that it was an accident that we met Fierb as we did. However, that does not mean we should despair for Doctor McKay." She cautiously touched a hand to his wrist for a second, and then went on, "We must see this through. If we cannot bring this to the real point of the negotiations--"

"And what if the point is to delay us from locating McKay so they can sell him to the highest bidder?" Ronon said.

"They do that?" John asked. "They're slavers?"

Ronon shrugged. "Slavers, recruitment specialists, negotiators. They are whatever gets them the deal they want. The only people that the Canlaon care about are the Canlaon."

"They have been good friends to the Athosians," Teyla insisted.

"Not good enough to offer your people sanctuary," Ronon snapped. "Nor mine." His face darkened.

"I dont think I need to hear any more about the damn Ferengi," John said his back and neck starting to tighten up. "Ronon, you're with me. Teyla--"

She nodded at him. "I will stall the negotiations so far as I may. As long as we negotiate we remain protected under their own Rules."

"We have another --" he checked his watch, "four hours before they expect a check-in back home."

"I can get within radio distance of the gate in fifteen minutes from here."

John twitched his eyebrows up at Ronon, but made no comment. Having run with the man he wouldn't bet against it. Especially if they were in a hurry.

"We call the Daedalus in if any one of us is still missing at check-in."

They nodded and separated.

"Let's go see this amazing House of Records."

-+-

The heat of the day beat down on them, his black t-shirt too hot, but he kept walking, Ronon pacing alongside smoothly, like they had a hundred times before. More. The sun was almost directly overhead, dry, leeching moisture away from everything. Too hot to speak even; it felt like the saliva was drying out of his mouth as he spoke, cracking open his skin and showing too much.

Thats where we stopped. Ronon nodded at an open door. John took a step towards it and recoiled.

Jesus! You went in there? Rodney went in there?

It wasnt as bad this morning. Ronon conceded, not going any closer than he already was.

Forget it. He shook his head, then grimaced.

Ronon waited, and John took a deep breath. Ill be a minute.

It took no time to look around the place, raw sewage running along an open culvert through the middle of it.

He didnt breathe, but that didnt feel all that different.

Outside again he shook his head, already moving briskly up the street, taking in quick gasps of air until the relief of oxygen was overtaken by the way his throat was drying up. He drank some water, offered it to Ronon, who shook his head.

So fucking hot. The light was desert brilliant, echoing off the golden walls until it felt like they walked through towering canyons of sand dunes, etched out with doors and windows; the splashes of red flowers, bright buttons holding down a vast net of green, binding it into place. It was the flowers holding back the stench he could feel crawling at the edges of his senses, roiling his stomach, he was sure of it.

Passersby watched them curiously from under broad brimmed hats; a quick sweep over their bodies and packs, dip to the wrist where they had clipped the bone tags, and a flicker of a glance to the side, looking for the state spies. The shops looked pleasantly dim and cool inside, and they eyed each one, ignoring the bolts of fabric, piles of mismatched tech, tea houses, food shops with haunches of dried meat, flies crawling over the wrinkled flesh; fruit, different and yet familiar, as though the universe had only so many ways to seed itself. Or humans had only so much tolerance for new kinds of plants.

No sign anywhere. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for. Had they kidnapped Rodney, or just -- kept him interested in stuff until he didn't notice he was incommunicado? Was he okay and --

Okay. That way lay insanity and loss of focus.

Should they be asking as they went? They didn't have a picture of Rodney even if they wanted to pass one around, and he wasn't really sure that it would be a good idea anyway.

"This is the House of Records," Ronon said, and John nodded as though his mind had never gone anywhere but their destination. He pushed his sunglasses back up and grinned.

"Washed your hands and face, Ronon?"

Ronon just looked at him, and John's grin widened. "Let's see what they have to say to us this time."

What they principally had to say was, "You can't go in there! Colonel Sheppard! Colonel Sheppard, I promise you, Doctor McKay was not -- no!" as John stalked through the House of Records, summarily slamming open doors, and sweeping rooms with long, fast strides.

"Colonel Sheppard, I assure you that Doctor McKay -- that is the ancient artifacts room! It is climate controlled and--" The man was actually wringing his hands. "Please, some of the artifacts are quite, quite priceless."

John smiled genially at him. "Well, maybe I'll find a priceless artifact all of my own in there then." He examined the keypad, and raised an eyebrow. "Pretty high tech for this place."

Ronon glanced over. "Looks like Olesian work."

Sheppard cocked his head at Arde. "So it does. Do you know what happened to Olesia, Arde?"

Arde wrung his hands some more, not meeting Sheppard's eyes.

When the man made no effort to respond, John added, "We did. Key code, Arde."

"Oh, no, I -- I don't think-"

"You don't have it? Too bad. Ronon, open the door for me." He leaned back to Arde and spoke confidentially, "I love this bit. I never know what he's going to destroy next, but it's always fun. Hey, you don't have anything important on the other side of the wall, do you?"

"No!"

"Cool. Go ahead Ronon."

Ronon smiled and raised his gun to aim it at the door hinges.

"No, here, the, the code, please, let me--" Arde squeezed past John, breathing in to make sure they didn't touch. He flinched as both men's weapons followed him.

"Don't do anything stupid, Arde," John said, still smiling.

Arde visibly hesitated, then slumped a little, and tapped a rapid pattern over the keypad. "Please be careful, there's nothing of any -- Colonel Sheppard!"

John stared around the room, then pulled his sunglasses off and stared some more. "Wow."

"You know what this stuff is?" Ronon asked quietly, and John shook his head.

"Some of it. Maybe. But put McKay and Zelenka in here and we wouldn't see them for a month."

If anything, Arde looked more distressed. "Colonel Sheppard, you shouldn't say things like that."

"Oh, really?" John turned slowly and regarded the anxious librarian narrowly. Arde shook his head mutely, then reached back to pull the door to the room closed.

"I need to protect --" he broke off with a squeak as Ronon took two quick steps toward him and gripped his shirt, pulling him up on tiptoes.

"You better not be trapping us in here," Ronon said. Arde shook his head, tugging at the twisted collar around his throat, trying to breathe.

"Quiet in h-here. No surveillance. Closed security feed. I'm the only one -- no sound pickup."

John smiled. Arde didn't look comforted by it. "Convenient."

"Colonel, I," he wrung his hands, "I would not say, but there is Teram, and--"

"I think this is getting kind of boring. Do you think it's boring, Ronon?"

"I was bored ten minutes ago."

John shrugged at Arde, "Short attention span. What can I do?"

"Doctor McKay was taken by the research branch," he whispered. "They wanted to see if he knew what was wrong with one of their machines."

That was a little too pat. "And you're telling us this because ...?"

"They killed one of the junior staff members here." Arde's face twisted with distress.

"Friend of yours?" John said, and almost regretted his light tone when Arde burst out with:

"He was a good boy! He didn't deserve to die!"

"Doctor McKay didn't deserve to be kidnapped and held against his will." He held Arde's eyes steadily, waiting.

"I don't understand why they killed him," Arde mumbled, his voice bewildered and forlorn.

"If it would make you happier I can kill you too," Ronon rumbled into his ear, and Arde yelped and jumped. He didn't get far with Ronon gripping the back of his shirt.

"Ronon," John chided him mildly, "Put Arde down. He only wants to help. You do want to help, don't you?"

Arde ducked his head once, and whether that was meant to be a yes or a submission, he'd take it. "Where's Doctor McKay, Arde?"

Arde bit his lip. "The researchers live below the city."

"Do they?" Suddenly, a bunch of things made sense. "Live in bunkers do they?" Why hadn't he thought of it sooner? The Genii weren't going to be the only ones to figure out that it might be possible to advance technologically if it was sufficiently out of the Wraith's view.

Except... he frowned, no, that really didn't make sense. Rodney had picked up on the abnormal power levels coming off of Canlaon from a few miles away. The Wraith would have been able to spot it from space, easily. So -- what was he missing here?

"They hold our lives lightly because they believe that they are the ones who protect us from --"

"From the Wraith," Ronon snarled.

"From the Wraith?" John said a split second after Ronon. "This isn't telling me where Doctor McKay is, Arde. Ronon, I think our friend here needs a little persuading."

Ronon stepped in close, and Arde stumbled backwards. "No, no, they, they'll, I'll-- It's below. Under Canlaon."

"You already told us that, Arde. Arde, I'm getting kind of tired of this. And Ronon's looking bored." He dropped all pretence of friendliness and looked coldly at the librarian. "You don't want to see what happens when we get bored."

Arde swallowed, and shook his head again. "I'm, I'm trying, I-- all my life, we never. I can't -- but Teram was--"

"Teram was the kid who got killed?" Ronon was oddly kind sounding, and John cut a sidelong glance at him. He was simply watching Arde, a curious expression on his face.

"Yes." Arde suddenly just looked like a sad old man, not the cool professional master of the house that he'd seemed when they first met. "Teram."

"Nice kid?"

Arde smiled painfully. "A good boy. Enthusiastic; prattled on about the least little thing -- oh, he drove us insane at times."

John couldn't help the quick grin, "And you sent him with Doctor McKay? That must have driven Rodney nuts."

Arde laughed a little hysterically, closed his eyes. "They slit his throat."

For one heart stopping moment John thought they meant Rodney and it felt like everything in him, everything, stopped, too frozen to think.

"Rodney--" he croaked, and Ronon was suddenly very close, a knife in his hand.

Arde shook his head, eyes wide, "No, no, they -- They took him away; they wanted to negotiate with him -- skills, knowledge, artifacts. Anything that he wanted to share really."

He ignored Ronon's narrow-eyed stare and asked, "And if he didn't want to negotiate any of those?"

Arde frowned, as though John had asked why the sky was made of marshmallow. "But everyone wants to negotiate, it's just a matter of setting the right price."

John loosened his hands out of the fists they'd curled up into and said softly, "And if the price is his life? Or someone else's?"

Arde wouldn't meet his eyes. "The negotiation -- that's what--"

"Cut the crap," Ronon said abruptly. "If you didn't know something was seriously wrong you wouldn't be dragging us into secure rooms without security feeds to tell us this stuff. Where's McKay?"

Arde blinked, then nodded, straightening up as though the brusque demands had strengthened his resolve.

"Here." He led them to a terminal and swiftly brought up a schematic. He tapped the screen. "This is where we are." He dragged a fingernail down the screen, and the schematic twisted into a three dimensional representation of the building, and the areas beneath it. "Down, and then here, and here to the main halls of the researchers, and then further to the west, here are the guest rooms."

Ronon and John exchanged a look at 'guest' but said nothing. "He may be here. Does that -- will that be enough to find him?"

"You could always come with us," John said, and Arde blanched, his tanned skin fading to the color of cold tea.

"No, I, I couldn't. I can show you the way in, you, you can find him. They'll keep him in one of the guest chambers." He looked anxiously to and fro. "His knowledge is valuable, very valuable. They will not harm him."

"You're sure they're not going to sell him to the highest bidder?" Ronon asked.

"No! I mean, I -- I don't think they would. As long as he has knowledge to trade with us there would be no reason to trade him away to someone else. It would be madness."

"Madness." John looked over Arde's head at Ronon. "McKay. He's doomed."

A smile twitched at the corners of Ronon's lips. "Never knows when to keep his mouth shut. Where's the entrance?"

Arde blinked, "Oh, um, the route I showed you -- do you remember the route?"

"Yeah, but--" Ronon was staring at him and John winced. "Okay, fine. Can you print off a copy of the map?" John asked.

Arde ducked his head a little, "Do not lose it -- and tell no one you have it." Arde reached over and a moment later several sheets churned through. "Here." He glanced at John then at Ronon, and arranged the sheets on the table. "Here, this is the entrance you need. Go right out of here, there's a door on the right halfway down the corridor. Take it and keep heading down until you hit the Halls of Knowledge."

"And we'll know we're there because...?"

Arde pursed his lips. "You'll know."

-+-

Teyla nodded, "Before I can agree to anything I must talk to Doctor McKay. In person."

Fierb shook his head, "Teyla --"

"I am happy to continue negotiations, but we cannot abandon one of our own merely on your word." His eyes flickered away for a split second -- in a negotiator of Fierb's experience and caliber this was astonishing, and Teyla leaned in to press the point. "If you can shift the grounds of the negotiation on me, then I can do so also." She smiled at him.

He raised his eyebrows at her. "I can hardly compare the two," he said.

Teyla shrugged. "I do not agree. All negotiations and trades agreed here are contingent on the agreement of Doctor McKay." Which of course shifted the ground again, from merely a proof of life requirement to making McKay's active participation --and agreement -- necessary. Now to see how badly they wanted to pursue the trade.

"Oh, Teyla," he looked at her, feigned disappointment on his face. "And I had such high hopes for you."

"And I of you," she said mildly.

There was a short silence and then he shrugged. "Very well. If a deal is agreed, Doctor McKay will witness it."

"Freely, and of his own accord."

"Of course," Fierb smiled slowly. "I think he will be very happy with our terms."

"Then we shall continue?"

"Unless you wish to break for food or to consult your friends -- I do hope they are enjoying the House of Knowledge?"

"My colleagues will contact me when they need to do so," she said. And there was that twitch again. She wondered what exactly the three men were up to -- and how Fierb knew about it. They needed time, and she would find them it. "The matter of diagnostic machinery."

-+-

"Two guards," John murmured. "Ronon?"

Ronon's face brightened. "No problem."

"Don't kill them, we just want to get them out of the way, not make enemies," John warned, and Ronon rolled his eyes. He slipped around the corner and John followed. Two shots from Ronon's gun illuminated the corridor before he could even get close enough to attack, and a moment later, the guards were lying on the floor. A quick check reassured Sheppard that they were just unconscious.

"Not leaving live enemies at our back would be smarter, Sheppard," Ronon said disapprovingly.

Sheppard shrugged. "Nobody's dead yet. Let's try to keep it that way."

"Nobody on our side," Ronon reminded him, and when John looked blankly at him, said, "The boy." It took John a moment to remember.

"You never even met him."

"Just keeping count."

John stared at him for a moment then nodded curtly. "All the more reason to show them we're not like that," he replied, and picked up the pace "We're wasting time."

They'd been walking for some time when the corridor widened out --stairs both up and down, and two corridors branched away.

"Got the map?"

They pored over it, but before they could agree on a direction, a rumbling sound from below them followed by a dull boom made them look up.

"That way," John said, relief flooding him. "I think I hear the sounds of a mad scientist."

The room at the foot of the stairs was vast, big enough to house an Ancient warship -- if only they were that lucky. Instead it was filled with technological detritus and scurrying scientists who barely looked up as they walked in.

"Where the hell did all this come from?" John said under his breath. It was meant rhetorically, but a pretty blue eyed scientist sitting at the nearest pile of junk looked up and smiled.

"Deals and Trades, elder," she said. "Have you come to negotiate materials in or out?"

John couldn't think of a thing to say. He'd been expecting shrieks of 'guards!', not cheerful offers to trade.

"Out, I think," Ronon said easily, a warning hand tightening on John's wrist.

John nodded, catching on. "We're down a couple of items back home, and we were kind of hoping, you know..." he trailed off hopefully. She glanced at his wrist -- the tags -- and nodded.

"Of course, elder. I'm not authorized to Trade, but if you see anything you like, just ask for it to be put aside, and we can add them to your negotiation."

"Sounds good. What do you think, Ronon?"

Ronon grunted.

"He thinks it's a great idea too," he leaned in and said with an air of sharing confidences. She blushed. "So, we'll just, you know, look around. Let you know when we're done browsing."

Ronon shoved him away and he waved a cheery goodbye.

"What are you doing?" he whispered, "I was getting information out of her."

"McKay's computer."

"Where?"

Ronon jerked his head off to the left. "Play it cool."

John scowled, but followed.

It was definitely from Earth. The decals had been peeled off, but had left a dirty sticky pattern that was very familiar.

"Fully functional, elder." This time it was a young man who popped up. "Just one careful previous owner." John shook his head.

"Got one at home just like that," he said. "Now, if I had someone who could show me how to use it ..."

"We can negotiate for that, elder," the young man said brightly. "Lessons are available on a fixed rate, variable according to the level of expertise required."

"And if I wanted a lot of expertise?"

"You'd better have a lot to trade," he said cheerfully. He held out a blue rectangular plastic strip. "If you're interested, that's my chit. Daness. Anyone can point you my way."

"Thanks." John tucked it into a pocket and moved on feeling vaguely bemused.

"I'm guessing they haven't noticed we're not supposed to be here," Ronon said softly, waving off another eager to sell scientist.

"Yeah. Keep walking like you're meant to be here," John replied. Ronon looked at him. "All right, fine."

"We should try the radios," Ronon said.

John nodded. He rubbed at his ear, and muttered, "McKay? You there?" There was nothing but static, and he wished he knew what was happening to Rodney.

He shook his head fractionally at Ronon.

"He might be fine," Ronon said encouragingly.

"Weren't you the one talking about slavers?"

"Or he might not," Ronon conceded. "Sheppard, look. He'll be fine. He's too valuable to kill."

"That's not as reassuring as -- " They were interrupted by a loud shout, and they looked at each other, back towards where they'd come in. A number of armsmen wearing the uniform of the House of the Exterior were running towards them. They looked at each other.

"Oops." They ran.

Shots rang out. They split apart almost reflexively, presenting a smaller target area. "You remember any exits?"

"That way!" Ronon called back, nodding off to the leftmost corner of the enormous room.

"Oh, great," he muttered. "I'll see you there," he called back, and kept running, weaving in and out of the piles of ancient junk. One pile exploded as shots riddled it, just missing him as he sprinted past it. He winced as Ancient technology sprayed everywhere, shattering and clattering to the floor. The scientist near the pile shrieked with horror, adding to the cacophony of the outraged House of Knowledge scientists. He glanced back. The scientists weren't impressed. They were desperately protecting their small hoards --in some cases with weapons.

Blue light flooded the place for a second, and he guessed that someone had broken out a Wraith stunner. Red light answered it, and he didn't dare to stop to wonder if Ronon was okay. He ducked low and swung around a mountain of Ancient control crystals, then shouldered roughly into the pile, knocking it over and taking out two of the closest armsmen.

They made a spectacular crash and he quickly fled in the opposite direction from the mayhem as scientists converged, apparently intent on rescuing crystals from the heavy boots of the armsmen.

Two minutes later he ran up to the agreed exit and found Ronon there, holding his gun on a couple of scientists.

"I've got a lead on McKay," he said, and jerked the gun towards the shorter of the two prisoners. "Tell him."

"He's in the private guest quarters," the man said frantically, "Through there, up three flights, on the left, you can't miss it!"

"You better not be lying," John said very softly, and the scientist's back straightened.

"I don't know what you take me for, elder. I've made a Trade and the deal is good."

"Ronon?"

"Information in return for his life."

"Huh. I thought the idea was no enemies left behind?"

Ronon grinned. "I thought we'd try it your way."

John just glared at him.

"McKay?"

John turned on his heel and pushed through the door. There were guards on this side too. He caught one under the chin with his elbow and the other collapsed as Ronon ripped a knife through his gut.

They jumped the bodies and fled up the stairs. Two more guards were disposed of, halfway up the second flight, and John found his heart pounding harder than just the adrenalin and exertion could account for. Third flight, and a corridor. The first door was open, and he glanced inside. No one was there, and he took two steps along before Ronon called him back.

"Sheppard, get in here."

It only took one step to get back, and inside. Rodney's jacket was on the end of the bed, and a stink was rising from a pool of vomit on the floor. There was blood on the sheets, red-brown streaks on the pillows, so much of it, and his whole body jerked to a stop.

"Rodney--"

The room was a good size, but there was nowhere for a missing astrophysicist to hide. He looked around wildly. "Rodney!"

"Bathroom's clear. I found this though," and Ronon held out a SGC issue radio.

John took it and turned it over in this hand. No blood on this, but .... "Shit. Where was it?"

"Under the bed."

John swore in frustration. "Dammit, McKay, where the hell are you?"

Ronon shrugged, and ambled over to the table on the far side of the room. "Looks like he stopped to eat though." Ronon ran a finger through the remains on the plate. "Huh. Tethat. They were serious about negotiating with him."

"What's he doing?"

"Escaping or negotiating," Ronon said. "Either way, he's not here. What are you going to do about it?"

John very deliberately opened his fists and took a deep breath. "What if he's badly --" He couldn't even finish that in his head, much less out loud.

"Might not be him," Ronon walked over and examined the sheets. "Can't tell." He sniffed at it and frowned.

"What?"

"Not sure it's blood." He tore a long strip off one of the pillowslips and passed it to John, who stuffed it inside a pocket. "We can check later if we have to."

"If he's had some sort of head injury--"

"He's not here now, and they're treating him well," Ronon said nodding towards the table and its cleared plates. "Tethat isn't cheap. Off of Andal it costs as much as a good sized weapons cache. They really want something from him."

John looked around the room, and picked up Rodney's jacket. "Let's go see if we can do something about that, then," he said, pushing all the 'what-ifs' away as hard as he could.

-+-

Earlier

His face hurt. It felt sore, like a chemical burn, or the aftermath of aftershave on sunburn. He pressed his hand against the sore patch, right over his mouth, and winced at the touch even as the coolness of his hand seeped into his raw skin and eased it. He needed some water. Wash his skin free of whatever the hell he'd managed to get on it, and wet his throat.

He sat up, one hand still pressed against his jaw, shifting it to and fro absently, trying to soothe the whole area. He blinked a couple of times before his surroundings registered clearly.

Then he blinked a couple more times.

The room was large and airy. Natural light flooded in from one window, a breeze rippling light drapes on the windows. He was in a big, comfortable bed; the other end of the room held a couch, a pair of chairs, a table holding a tray with a jug of some dark liquid and some food -- and his pack!

He scrambled across the bed and stood up, then grabbed for the mattress as his knees buckled and he collapsed back onto it. "Oh god." He swallowed hard, then swallowed again, trying to hold the thin taste of bile back. "That wasn't fun." He lay very still, he was curled awkwardly on top of one arm but he didn't dare move and give his stomach any further votes in the puke/don't puke stakes.

He closed his eyes, hoping that sensation of spinning would ease, but instead it started to feel like the bed he was lying on was swaying in great, rolling waves while staying utterly motionless. Lights swung lazily behind his eyelids, kaleidoscopic and dizzying, and suddenly all he could think of was not being on the bed when --

Damn.

Well. On the positive side he'd managed to not puke on the bed. He rolled onto his back and tried not to think about anything at all. Particularly not the smell.

Where were the others?

"John?" he tried, but his voice cracked halfway through and he had to swallow and try again. "John? Teyla?" He thought about it for a moment, and turned his head slowly and carefully, first one way and then the other. He couldn't see them, but they might be on the floor. "Ronon?"

He reached one hand to his ear, but the radio was gone. "Should have known," he muttered. He probably ought to sit up and check the rest of the room. He thought about that for a while, then swung his feet around and sat up.

"Oh god." His stomach lurched alarmingly and he decided to sit very still and contemplate his pack, miles away across the room. If he could just make it over there, he would have all his equipment and -- he wasn't sure what next, but it would undoubtedly be brilliant and he would barely need any rescuing at all.

Wait. Where was Ronon? Hadn't he been with Rodney? "Ronon? Where are you? Ronon?" he called, and took a look around the room, now that his body had quit protesting. No reply, and no sign of any of the others. He frowned, trying to unscramble his rather disjointed memories.

No. He'd told Ronon to go wash his hands. To leave him all alone among clearly evil kidnapping aliens and go wash his hands. Because clean hands were more important than oh, not getting kidnapped.

John was going to kill him. If the aliens didn't beat him to it.

The silence was kind of unnerving. It wasn't that he was ungrateful for the quiet, not with his head gently imploding. He wasn't used to there being absolutely no one around any more. If he woke up alone, well, that was unavoidable some days, even if he wasn't really used to it any more. He deliberately forced his thoughts away from that, and back to the current situation.

"Is there anyone there?" he called. "Hello! Sick scientist here! If your hostage dies, you're not going to have much to bargain with, are you? I have allergies! And a medical condition! If that's the wrong sort of food, I'll die!"

No one replied, and he drew a couple of deep breaths. Pack. And maybe some water. And escape.

The door opened and Idarial walked in, all smiles.

"Doctor McKay, you're awake!"

Memory flooded back, and Rodney stood up, perhaps a little too abruptly, because when he was paying attention again he was being guided, a solicitous hand on his elbow, and just, no. He jerked away, and Idarial simply smiled as though that was what he had intended all along.

"Please, take a seat, Doctor." He pulled out a chair at the table. "Doctor?"

Rodney sat. Idarial settled himself the other side of the table, and lifted a jug. "Vecris juice. I believe you have already sampled the fruit it comes from."

He hesitated, and Idarial's smile slipped somewhat. "If you prefer, I can find something else."

"I'd prefer to be with my friends," Rodney said sharply. "You've already drugged me once, how do I know you haven't poisoned that too?"

Idarial shrugged and poured himself a glass, and sipped at it. "Please yourself," he said and sipped again, pointedly.

"Vecris? Like the pie?" Rodney said and reached a hand for a glass, "Well..."

"We have no reason to harm you, Doctor McKay," Idarial put his glass down and leaned in, "We wish to negotiate with you."

"I --" Memory flooded back and he jerked back. "You said I'd be part of the deal."

Idarial nodded. "The change of status was premature. Your friends are eager to discuss matters with you."

"What do you mean, eager," he asked, mind instantly filling with a dozen different scenarios, "Oh my god, you're threatening them to make me do what you want! Well, it won't work! I won't do it!" He folded his arms defiantly.

"No, of course not. Your friends are all fine. We simply want to trade information."

"So you can wipe out my planet! I don't think so!"

"We will offer your citizenship here if you wish. It is a great honor and seldom offered."

"Let me see, betray my planet and defect! What a wonderful idea. No!"

"We will not make this offer again," Idarial warned him.

"Good. No. I won't give you faster than light engines."

Idarial smiled faintly. "Very well. Just out of curiosity, Doctor McKay, do you even know how to make them?"

"Of course I -- well. Sort of. We originally got the design from the -- what have you done to me?" he asked, horrified, and clapped a hand over his mouth.

"We find that vecris encourages ... truthfulness. And speech." He drank again, and added, "Also, it has a very pleasant taste."

"But, but, you had it too, it was everywhere out there," he waved vaguely at the windows.

Idarial nodded. "We always tell the truth; it is other who lie and attempt to gain advantage from our ignorance. So, you do not actually know how to build such a engine?"

"What will you do to me if I say no?"

"Ask you for something you do know."

"And what is that," he asked warily.

"The location of your home world is probably too much to ask, but that of your galaxy? There are many other worlds there, doubtless. Could you pick your home galaxy out on a star map?"

"Probably, but I won't."

"Not even for your friends' lives?"

What were they doing to them? Oh god. Mutely he shook his head.

"Very well." Idarial rose. "Please, eat. There is nothing in the food other than what you see. Tethat, murmin, and the sauce is genja and mal. Nothing drugged or poisonous."

"Oh like I'm going to take your word for it!"

"Or there is food in your pack," Idarial said, and Rodney stared. "We are not thieves," the man added, apparently offended. "We have no need to steal when we can trade."

"Hah! Your idea of trading is pretty close to other people's ideas about stealing," Rodney snapped back, and was gratified to see Idarial's serenity broken by a look of fury. It didn't last.

"As you please, Doctor. We will resume this discussion later." He turned on his heel and stalked across the room to the door, tapped out a sequence of numbers on the keypad. It opened and he caught a glimpse of an armsman on the outside.

"Wait! What are you doing to them? Please?"

Idarial paused, his hand on the door frame. "For that information, Doctor McKay, I would require you give me something of equal value." He bowed politely, and closed the door quietly behind him.

-+-

His hand shook as he filled a glass with water from the faucet in the bathroom. He hesitated for long seconds -- a dozen different ways they could have spiked the glass, the faucet, the water suggesting themselves to him -- but he had to drink something to get that taste out of his mouth. He rinsed and spat, rinsed again, then gulped the rest of it down.

His headache began to fade, and he was pretty sure that the rest would fade with food. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and scowled. His jaw was red and still felt sore, but not as much as before. He sluiced the skin a couple of times and dried it off. It didn't look any different, but the cool water had felt good.

Next: food. He checked his pack -- two power bars -- and he ate one down swiftly, considered the second, and stuck it in a pocket instead.

The food on the table smelled really good.

He ignored it and went back to his pack and checked it swiftly. He still had his three knives -- he conceded that the spork wasn't likely to save his life unless this turned much more bizarre than he was expecting. Nothing like weapons, but apparently they wanted to be able to sell their highly collectible Lantean scientist with the full action pack, because nothing was missing.

He turned on the laptop, and scowled as it refused to boot. He switched out the battery for the supposedly fully charged spare and scowled further when nothing happened. He knew he hadn't used the laptop that much, and he was pretty sure he hadn't been out long enough for anyone to use the batteries up, so either they'd been replaced or had the charge dumped. Bastards.

Presumably they'd had a good look first, and he wished them joy of decrypting the thing. Why use up all the battery power if -- he stopped, trying to think what was on there if they did break it. Nothing pointing to Earth -- that was mandatory. Nothing even with the Atlantis gate address, or that of the alpha site. Not much meaningful research -- you'd have to be close to his level of understanding of physics to even decipher the equations, and that assumed that the notation was the same which it never was. Nothing sensitive; no gate addresses or recipes for starting your own game of global thermo-nuclear war. Which didn't make it safe. It might even be very interesting to someone smart enough.

He sat back and looked at the scattered contents of his pack, and absently pulled the plate closer and forked up a mouthful of the green stuff. Hmm. Maybe there was something he could do. He took a long look at the keypad by the door, then eyed the light fitting in the ceiling thoughtfully, and pulled up a chair.

-+-

"Ow!" Rodney tried to keep it down, but dammit, that hurt. He shook out his hand then blew on it, and, at a muffled sound from by his feet, thought to check on the guard, who was sprawled out on the floor, eyes rolled up in his head and moaning. As he watched, the man attempted to get back up.

"Oh for -- what does it take?" he muttered. Knocking someone out always looked much easier in films. And less painful. Much less painful. Although, maybe he should have taken a lesson from how bad they were at science and not assumed that the depiction of fighting was -- he lifted the man's head and let it drop on the floor, hard. "Sorry," he whispered, "but it's definitely you or me, and it's not going to be me. Arent you unconscious yet?" He did it again, then prodded the man in the ribs. "Good."

He looked around for somewhere to dump the man, preferably with a lock. The first door opened on what looked like a tiny janitor's room, the second some sort of bedroom, the third bore a depressing similarity to a room he'd once had to run a seminar for ten undergraduates on vector analysis that had somehow degenerated into an excruciating exegesis on the difference between vector and scalar fields. The fundamentals of analytic calculus reduced to 'because I said so you lackwits!'. Not his finest -- janitor's closet?

And it was even lockable, he thought happily, and pocketed the key as he headed along the corridor. He needed to head up -- or at least, he amended, find a window to find out what floor he was on.

He spared a passing regret for the non-universality of numbering schemes. Every wall he passed might have the floor number painted on it in luminous paint, but it was all interior design to him, he thought morosely. The last time he'd gone anywhere he'd been heading down stairs. With Idarial.

His hand automatically moved up to tap his radio, and hit skin.

"Shit." He'd forgotten for a moment, and it could have fallen out anywhere -- or been taken, Idarial's snootiness about 'theft' notwithstanding. Which meant that the radio frequencies were probably compromised and Sheppard didn't know. They were going to kill him.

Assuming he got out of this alive, he added.

Wait. Janitor's closet? He turned on his heel and headed back. There had been some very familiar smells in there.

-+-

As they turned the corner they ran into someone dressed more like Fierb - tunic and baggy pants -- than the armsmen who'd been chasing them.

"Shit," Ronon muttered and brought his gun up.

"No, wait, can I help you? I am Idarial of the House of the Exterior and can--"

"I don't like the price," Sheppard said.

"But I haven't even offered terms--"

"Too bad. Ronon!"

"Gentlemen, perhaps we could -- "

"You heard the man," Ronon said shortly and shot Idarial in the chest. He collapsed to the floor, stunned. A guard came around the corner behind them, and Sheppard grabbed him, slamming him into the wall, one hand fisted in the collar of the guard's shirt, twisting hard. The man was struggling hard, and almost pulled away, his face turning purple as Sheppard's chokehold tightened. Sheppard slammed him back against the wall.

"What did you do with him?"

"Who?"

"McKay. Here, how about I offer you a deal -- I get information, you get to live." He tightened his grip again. The man croaked something his hands swatting ineffectually at Sheppard's.

"I didn't catch that," Sheppard said politely, "Maybe you'd like to try again?" He loosened his grip fractionally, and the man made a determined effort to escape, kicking viciously at Sheppard's knees. In response he leaned in closer and pushed one forearm across the guard's throat. "I have no problem killing you if he's dead," he said very softly into the guard's ear.

The man's heels drummed against the wall, and then he went limp. He stepped back let him crumple to the floor. "We really need someone who knows something."

"Did you kill him?"

Sheppard crouched. "Not dead," he said. "Going to complain?"

"Bet every dead body goes on a tally somewhere. It's going to be easier if they're not all on ours."

John blinked.

"Need a place to put them, though," he said.

They were just stacking their newest acquisition in a handy side room, when another explosion rocked the place.

They met each other's eyes; Ronon was smiling widely, and John realized that he was too. "I guess maybe McKay got fed up of waiting for us," he said.

-+-

They ran back towards the sounds of the explosion. Ronon jumped the stairs, and John followed, adrenalin and fear pushing him hard.

"One floor?"

"Search this and then down one."

"We could search faster if we took one each," Ronon suggested.

John hesitated then nodded. They could both take care of themselves. McKay -- Rodney could too. Mostly.

He opened the door on the next floor and called a quiet "good luck" to Ronon as he vaulted down to the next flight of stairs. "Check-in in ten minutes."

"You worry too much," Ronon said over the radio, and John went through the door unaccountably cheered.

"I think he was on this floor," he said casually over the radio, and waved his hand in front of his face. The smoke was almost impenetrable and had a strong smell of ammonia.

He edged through the smoke noiselessly, keeping to the walls. He nearly tripped over a body, and crouched for a second to check it wasn't McKay. The man was blue in the face, and John touched a hand to his throat. Damn. At least one on their account then.

"McKay?" he called softly, then coughed, the strong chemical smell getting to him. What the hell had Rodney done?

Someone stumbled up out of the smoke and he stepped back. The body shape was all wrong, too thin, too short even hunched over and coughing helplessly. He let them go past unhindered and pressed on, holding his sleeve over his mouth to try and cut the noxious atmosphere.

Another body on the ground, in the uniform of the armsmen who'd been chasing them earlier. Alive this time. He dragged the body to a door back a couple of yards, and shoved the man inside. The air was clearer, and he breathed in deep. He dug in his pocket and pulled out the strip of pillow slip, streaked and gory looking and tied it over mouth and nose. It might help some.

He slid out again and kept going, checking bodies as he found them, moving as swiftly as he could in the murky corridors.

"Rodney," he called, over and again, less and less sanguine about locating his lover with every step.

Static sounded in his ear, and he put his hand up. "Ronon?"

"--ppard, got -- " static crawled all over the transmission, and he couldn't make anything out.

"Say again, Ronon. You're breaking up. Please repeat."

Another burst of static, and then "--clear. Coming--" and gone again. He let go of the ear piece when nothing further came despite his repeated requests for Ronon to repeat. "Shit."

Back? Or keep going? Maybe 'clear' meant that the floor below was clear. If there was no smoke there Ronon could have made much better time, and be done already. So was he coming up after John? Or was something else going on?

He took another step and collided with someone coming the other way. He found an arm, twisted and drove the blocky attacker into the wall.

The man grunted, and John hissed. "Shut up! Not a word."

"Right, fine, first you leave me to --" the man paused to cough "-- rescue myself, and then you beat me up when I'm nearly dead from breathing in all this crud." A hand flailed and John let it, dropping his grip and turning the man around and pinning him to the wall with his body.

"Jesus."

"No, Colonel--" Rodney grunted as John kissed him, a quick hard press of mouths together, and pulled back.

"What the hell, McKay?" he hissed sharply. "You do not, ever, dump Ronon and go off by yourself."

He kissed him again, his hands running rapidly over Rodney's body, looking for any injuries.

"I'll -- mmph -- admit that I might, perhaps, have been more trusting than I should, but John, listen." He pushed Sheppard back. "We have to get out of here."

John glared at him, "Now you want to get out?"

"Oh, like you thought they were bad guys!"

"Not until you vanished and they told us they were going to trade you offworld as a slave."

"Really?" Rodney sounded interested and John rolled his eyes.

"More or less."

"What does that mean?" John turned and, one hand wrapped in the front of Rodney's tac vest, dragged him back towards the stairwell.

"Do you even know where you're going?" Rodney asked.

"We're meeting Ronon and then we're getting the hell out of here," John said sharply. "Now move it."

"Anyone would think you weren't pleased to see me."

"Rodney, not the time--"

"Okay, okay. I just --"

"Jesus." He pulled Rodney into the stairwell, checked it swiftly and found Ronon coming up the stairs towards them.

"Found him, huh?" Ronon said. "Found something else. Come on." He headed back down and John followed.

"Wait, wait, have they got a Wraith down there?" Rodney said urgently, and they both stopped, looking back at him.

"Wraith?" John said. Like this entire thing wasn't bad enough. Wraith too?

"They trade with Wraith, Colonel."

"We know," Ronon said grimly. "They traded Sateda to the Wraith. They'll deal with anything, if the price is right."

"They did -- " Rodney's jaw dropped. "Ronon, I--"

"Never mind," he dismissed. "No Wraith down there, but do you think there are some here?"

"They're building a Hive ship. With an intergalactic drive," he said looking between them. "We have to stop them!"

John nodded. "Where is it?" he asked tersely.

"I don't know exactly, but I'd bet it's something to do with those readings I was getting earlier. And," he added thoughtfully, "I'd bet that the power source I couldn't identify is some sort of hybrid Wraith/Ancient generator, which would explain why it didn't make sense on the scanner. Oh. I wonder--"

"Doesn't explain why it didn't get picked up by the MALP," John said grimly. "We need to change that."

"Yes, yes, but first, stop the Wraith getting the first step to culling Earth?"

"How?"

Rodney grinned. "I have a couple of ideas about that. They wanted me to help them out. Maybe I should take them up on that offer."

"They'll test it and find out."

"Yes, but we won't be here, with any luck. We just need to find the guy who took me, and sort something out."

"You want us to go back in there?"

Rodney nodded.

"And trade with people who are working with the Wraith? Am I the only one who thinks that is a really fucking bad idea?" John exploded.

Rodney blinked. "Or we could just leave," he offered tentatively.

"Yes. Let's do that. Except we haven't got Teyla," John snapped, and Rodney looked aghast.

"Where is she? You left her on her own with those--"

"Are you going to tell Teyla that we should have stayed and looked after her? She's the one negotiating for your life right now. You're the one who need rescuing."

"Hey, I rescued myself, thank you very much!" Rodney protested, and Ronon's hand went over his mouth.

"Shut up, both of you. You're wasting time." He turned Rodney and said," Are you going to listen?" Rodney nodded, wide eyed. Ronon removed his hand and Rodney stepped back.

"Did you give them any information," John asked quickly. Rodney shook his head.

"I don't think so," he said. "I was unconscious for a while --" John's eyes went to his head, remembering the bloodstains on the sheets back in that room.

"I'm fine!" Rodney said impatiently. Ronon frowned behind him. "Got a lump here," he said, poking lightly at the back of Rodney's skull.

"Ow! I do? Oh my god, those heathens hit me. And stop poking me," he rounded on Ronon, who pulled his hands away.

"Looks pretty minor to me," he said, mostly to John, who felt a knot of anxiety loosen. At least Rodney wasn't badly hurt. And John had him back.

"Minor?!" Rodney protested, and John turned him around, immediately seeing the matted patch of hair.

"It didn't bother you before, so I'd say it's pretty, minor, yeah," he agreed with Ronon, but brushed a gentle hand over the bump, just in case. He let his hand slide down to Rodney's neck and tugged him close, pressing his face to Rodney's neck and taking a second, just a couple of seconds, to breathe in his relief. "You're fine. Okay?" His grip tightened, and Rodney leaned into him.

"Okay."

"We need to move," Ronon said.

John smiled into Rodney's neck, and straightened up. "Let's go."

-+-

Teyla shook her head. "I cannot agree final terms until I have spoken to the rest of my team." The sun was low in the sky, and they were rapidly heading into the last hour or so before their check-in. They needed to get back up to the Ring, which would take time in itself. Perhaps it would be as well if they missed the check-in.

Colonel Carter had had the final word over the argument whether or not to come here. Teyla glanced at the windows set high in the negotiation hall, and sighed. A jumper could get in, but it would be stuck here until the Apollo arrived. The cave that the Ring was set against was deep enough for three or four people to stand in and avoid the backwash, but not anything bigger. There was a way, she'd used it herself, but when going through with goods, the Canlaon always sent the people through first, and the goods after, unobserved by anyone. She'd never seen it, and of course, despite Ronon's --now proven justified -- reservations about trading with the Canlaon she'd been sure that it would not matter. They could get back through the Ring themselves, and would not need a Jumper. She might have been living this down for months, except that they had all made mistakes as bad, over the years.

"Your 'team' are making themselves very difficult," Fierb said, his mouth pinched and sour looking. The geniality had worn off long since.

Teyla put on a sympathetic look, "Really? How ...annoying." She quelled her sudden urge to smile broadly. "Have you not been able to contact any of them?"

"There appears to be some difficulty communicating with the House of Knowledge." His teeth were gritted, and she did feel some sympathy for him, but on the whole, she preferred being on this side of her team's efforts.

"Oh," she reached over and helped herself to a slice of nut bread and slathered it with sweet vecris preserves. "Oh, I do like this. It's always one of my best memories about trading here."

"Please, have some more," Fierb said magnanimously, some tension easing about his eyes. "Perhaps we can include some as a sweetener for the Deal, for an early conclusion." He looked almost hopeful.

"Oh." Teyla licked at her fingers and contemplated another slice of the nut bread. She probably shouldn't. Even if it was delicious. "Did you find out what that earthquake was, earlier?" she asked as though she'd just thought of it, and Fierb's face pinched up even tighter. Oh dear. It had been Rodney, then, she thought happily, and took another slice after all.

-+-

They made their way back the way they had come. The House of Knowledge was in total disarray and those people who saw them seemed much more interested in getting out of the way than accosting them and demanding reparations.

"Wow," Rodney said as they entered the great hall that John had mentioned with all the science-traders. "You really did a number on this place -- oh my god, look at those!" He dived for crystals scattered all over the floor. John, who had been feeling quite pleased with himself winced. "What heathen did this!" Rodney wailed, picking up crystal after crystal, "Broken! Look!" He thrust the clouded crystal up at John.

"Now's not the time, Rodney," John said briskly.

Rodney looked narrowly up at him. "What do you mean now's not -- you've got your guilty face on! Did you do this?"

"It could have been your explosion," John said quickly, and took a step or two backwards. Casually.

Ronon leaned over, orientated himself within the hall, and patted John on the shoulder. "Nah, it was you when you pushed them all over and took out those two guys. It was great." He grinned at Rodney who seemed likely to explode.

"Thanks, buddy," John said to Ronon.

"No problem," Ronon smirked at him.

"Rodney, we really ought to be going!" People were starting to stop running away. It wouldn't be long before someone came back, and that could only lead to trouble. More trouble, he corrected, watching Rodney paw through the crystals.

"Wait, there might be some --"

"Now, Rodney!"

Rodney scowled and got to his feet. "I'm not going to forget this, Colonel."

"Be glad you're around to remember," Ronon said tersely. "Duck!"

Rodney dropped to the ground as bright blue light passed straight through where he'd been standing. Ronon fired back and a crash and scream suggested that he'd caught not only the attacker but possibly valuable merchandise. His team did the best collateral damage. They waited tensely for a half minute or so, but no further shots followed.

"Good shot," he said to Ronon, who looked vaguely offended: all his shots were good.

"Uh. Thanks," Rodney muttered, as Ronon pulled him to his feet.

"Welcome."

"Look, I'm pretty sure this is a control crystal for an Ancient hyperdrive--" Rodney said urgently, and John snapped his attention back to him.

"What?"

"They've got an FTL hyperdrive somewhere here, John."

"But not working, right?"

"Well, no, not when I saw it--"

"You saw it?" John grabbed his shoulders, "You didn't mention you'd seen it."

"On the way down here. I'm sure I mentioned that."

"No, Rodney. You didn't."

"Oh. Um. Wraith/Ancient hybrid power source?"

"Yes?"

"Probably powering the ship they're building."

John considered giving in to his urge to swat Rodney upside the head, and remembered the existing injury at the last moment. His hands flexed open and shut a couple of times. "There are times, McKay..." Rodney took a precautionary step back.

"I can find it!"

"You sure?"

"This is me, not you, Colonel. I can find my way out of a paper bag. Unlike some people."

"His point," Ronon observed. "We should move."

Rodney jammed the crystal into a pocket and swiftly picked up another three, picking them out of the mess. "Some people," he muttered.

"Hyperdrive!"

"This way," he said, and headed confidently to the back of the hall.

"We didn't come in this way, did we?" John said quietly to Ronon as they wove their way down the crowded aisles between the stands.

"Nope." He nodded to another corner "Over there. And we went out back there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and John tried to line the room up with what he remembered. "Wasn't there someone with an SGC computer back by the door we came in?"

"Where?" Rodney turned swiftly.

"I thought you had a computer of your own?"

"Yes, but we've been hemorrhaging the damn things. Practically every time a mission goes bad they're the first thing to get abandoned, and retrieving a few of them might be a nice bonus to this really, really shitty day I've been having."

"But the -- "

"Hyperdrive, yes. I'll get the hyperdrive, you get the computer. There's another one attached to the Wraith drive anyway. If you get the one you saw that would be useful."

He paused and flapped his hands. "Well, go on then."

"We're not splitting up." John said definitely.

"Oh please. I've already rescued myself once today. I'm pretty sure that Ronon is perfectly capable of stopping off and picking me up a nice laptop, oh, and hey if they have any spare batteries -- they wiped the charge on mine -- that would be good."

"Rodney!"

"It's important, John." He looked like he meant it too. Damn. He looked over at Ronon who shrugged. "Where's the hyperdrive unit, McKay?"

"In a secondary hall down two flights of stairs from the main entrance. It should be about fifteen minutes that way," he said. Ronon nodded. "Oh, um, you might need something to barter." He pulled the crystals out of his pockets and shuffled through them unhappily. "Well. That's the one we need the least, I guess," he said dismally, and slapped one into Ronon's waiting hand. "Try not to spend too much."

"Try not to get captured," he said, and jogged off into the depths of the hall.

"I do not believe you just sent Ronon off for a shopping trip."

"We need that computer, John."

"You said, but -- " He gestured at the devastation, mostly courtesy of their running battle with the Canlaon law enforcement.

"You're right. I bet Ronon gets a really good price." Rodney strained to look back across the hall. "Maybe we should all have gone--"

"Hyperdrive, Rodney. Focus. You can turn Ronon into your personal shopper some other day when we're not fighting for our lives and trying to stop the Wraith reaching Earth." John figured that the easiest thing was to get out. He could scream once they were all safely home. Also, discuss prioritizing on missions and while in combat situations with both Rodney -- which didn't surprise him because it wasn't a normal month if they didn't end up having that talk-- and Ronon -- which did surprise him, because usually Ronon was very goal orientated with regard to blowing the crap out of the other side.

"Oh. Right. This way."

-+-

Her radio clicked in her ear, and then clicked twice more.

"I think I need a break," she said. "If you would excuse me?"

"Of course," Fierb said. "We could break for the night if you prefer, pick this up tomorrow?"

Fierb looked almost anxious. Teyla shook her head, instincts warning her not to take this as the sign of weakness that it seemed.

"Thank you, I expect my team will be back shortly."

"Oh?" Fierb's gaze flickered to her headset, and she carefully kept her face expressionless.

"Indeed," she said, and rose to her feet. "Perhaps a short break to refresh ourselves?"

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Fierb agreed, his face brightening, and she wondered what he thought he was going to be able to do in the next half hour that he had not managed in the previous three. "Shall we reconvene here?"

"Unless you wish to move the negotiations somewhere else?"

There was a long pause, and Fierb said, a little too late to be casual, "We could take this to the House of Knowledge. We would be able to meet your friends there."

Ahh. They hoped to trade off a breakout with a hostage. "No, thank you," she smiled. "Colonel Sheppard asked me to stay in the House of the Exterior until the negotiations were concluded, or he -- and Doctor McKay and Specialist Dex -- all returned."

"Very well," Fierb said wearily. "Please, avail yourself of our hospitality as long as you wish."

"Thank you, old friend, I appreciate your generosity," Teyla smiled.

Out of the negotiating hall she swiftly found the relief rooms and made use of them, then tapped cautiously on the radio, the water still running loud in the background.

"Colonel?" she whispered.

"Teyla, good to hear you. We were getting a little worried when you missed your check-in."

"Major Lorne, I am most pleased to hear your voice," she whispered. "Where are you?"

"On the way down to the city with a couple of Jumpers of Marines, ma'am," he said cheerfully. "Where are you?"

"But how will you return to Atlantis, the cave is too small to --"

"Don't worry about that. Doctor Zelenka has a couple of ideas about how to get a Jumper back out of that Gate, even with the tight quarters, and the Apollo can be here in less than a day if it has to." Lorne paused then added, "What about the rest of your team?"

"I'm -- not sure where they are. Doctor McKay was, we think, kidnapped, and Ronon and Colonel Sheppard went to find him."

"You think he was kidnapped?"

"He may have gone of his own accord," Teyla said with a sigh, and Lorne chuckled.

"Situation normal then, ma'am?"

"Oh yes," Teyla agreed. "Although I believe you may be able to track Doctor McKay's progress by the falling buildings."

"Falling. Buildings." Lorne sounded amused.

"There have been at least two large explosions in the past hour or so. I believe that the Canlaon were not expecting them," she said blandly.

"Nobody expects Doctor McKay," Lorne said. "Are you okay for now?"

"Yes, but your presence, perhaps outside the walls, could prove most helpful."

"Roger that. Let us know if you need us in a hurry."

"I shall do so, Major. This is not secured, so -- "

"Understood. Standard extraction plan 4R then," Lorne said.

"Agreed."

"Lorne out."

Teyla rested her head against the cool tile wall for a second, then straightened up. An unexpected resource, though not as secret as she might hope. Still, the channel was encrypted. Even if she and Lorne were eavesdropped on, Fierb's men should only be able to get her side of the conversation in the clear. She had revealed the presence of another player in the game, but, she rather thought, this might not necessarily prove a mistake.

She straightened up. No. Played well, this could turn out for the best.

-+-

"Here," Rodney edged up to the corner, and peered around, then ducked back. "Yes, that's it."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure," Rodney said.

"Because the last three times you've said that, it was something else entirely."

"No, no, no, this time I'm sure." He turned and looked seriously up at John. "I recognize the corridor."

John rolled his eyes, and took point. "Watch my back, okay?"

"Got it." Rodney crept slowly behind John, watching the rear, John's Beretta in his hand. John stopped, and turned his head.

"Rodney?"

"Yes?"

"My back, not my ass."

"I know what to watch, Colonel." Rodney sniffed, keeping his eyes on the corridor. "You aren't that irresistible."

"Aw, but Rodney," John whined ,and Rodney couldn't help grinning.

"Down, boy," he murmured, and heard John chuckle under his breath.

"Oh hey, look at that," John said a moment later, and Rodney felt a tug on his shoulder.

He leaned against John's back to peer through the open door. "Yeah. That's it," he said softly. The hall wasn't quite as big as the one they'd left Ronon in, but it came damn close. The Aurora probably wouldn't have fitted in there, but the Daedalus would, easily.

"Okay, that's kinda big," John murmured.

"Size queen," Rodney muttered, but without any real force. John wasn't wrong about the size of the engines in there. Not even a whole ship. Just the engines. "I told you I'd know it when I saw it."

"I'd be surprised if you didn't," John admitted. "Damn."

"And they're building it for the Wraith to go munch on Jeannie," Rodney felt a little sick at the idea.

"Just on Jeannie," John stopped and cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Well, not specifically. But the general effect would be the same," he conceded. "And the rest of the planet, too," he added when John didn't stop eyeballing him. "All right, all right. Stop it."

"Stop that," John nodded at the giant engines. "Are those really going to get them to the Milky Way?"

"Not if I can help it," Rodney said grimly. He wrapped his hand around John's wrist. "Be careful."

John nodded, his eyes softening for second. "Keep your head down and don't get killed."

"Deal," Rodney said, wryly. "You deal with that lot, I'll deal with this," he said, and headed down the steps towards the diagnostics station. John followed him slowly, taking up a position on top of the engine.

Fortunately for John, the engine wasn't powered up, which meant Rodney couldnt take the easy option of throwing a literal spanner in the works. Powering it up would certainly attract the sort of attention that John would disapprove of. Not to mention frying Sheppard.

Which meant doing something drastic to the programming instead. In the long run, probably a better idea anyway. He took a look at the diagnostics board and smiled broadly. They had another SGC computer wired into the damn thing. Bunch of idiots.

He tried out the keyboard, but it insisted on a password. "Oh, I don't think so," he muttered, and accessed the back door that every SGC computer that passed through his hands acquired. "That's better. Now, what've we got here?"

-+-

Sheppard was starting to worry about Ronon -- not much, just a little -- still carefully watching both Rodney's back and the entrances into the hall. No one came -- perhaps the mayhem in the great hall had convinced everyone that the better part of valor was getting the fuck out.

He checked his watch. Two hours past check-in. With any luck reinforcements were on their way. Teyla was still holding off the worst of Fierb's people -- he was pretty sure the use of the Wraith stunners meant that the Canlaon hadn't yet written off any chances of dealing with his team.

Rodney was safe, if a little battered -- and he ignored the impulse to look round, double check on him. Just Ronon to account for. He turned his head abruptly at the sound of running feet. He knew that pace.

He lined up on the door and waited. Seconds later Ronon swung through, and ran down the steps two and three at a time, looking enormously pleased with himself.

"Got it?"

"Got them," Ronon smirked at Rodney, who squeaked at the slap Ronon laid on his back, but made no other protest, instead jerking his own laptop off his back, and ramming in one of the battery packs Ronon had brought.

"I could kiss you!" he said joyfully, "But I won't," he added hastily, and Ronon flashed a quick smile up at John.

"Just as well," he agreed. "You killed it yet?"

"Nope, but with this, my friend, we're going to have ourselves a Wraith barbeque, friends invited," He beamed up at Ronon and then turned his smile on John, who shifted uncomfortably.

"Cool." Ronon leaned in, "What's that for?"

"Leave it be!" Rodney snapped. "And don't touch that either! Look, just go and sit next to Sheppard and be manly or something, okay?" Ronon slapped him on the back again, and swung himself up to perch on the engine casing next to John.

"You okay?" John asked, just in case. Ronon just looked at him. "Okay. Just thought I'd check."

Ronon grunted.

"Done!" Rodney grinned up at both of them. "Well, come on, let's get out of here."

"It didn't blow up."

"Yet, my friend. It didn't blow up yet, which I would've thought you'd be grateful for considering you're sitting on the damn thing."

"It's not the only one," John reminded him.

"Oh, wow, is it, I didn't notice, what with the giant engine standing right in front of me and everything." He laughed a little grimly. "They didn't fix the backdoors on their stolen SGC laptops, and you know what, I'm going to let them keep these ones."

"You're so generous, Rodney," John said, a slow smile burning onto his face.

"All heart," Rodney agreed. "Now, we really probably shouldn't be here when they fire these up."

"Rodney, just how big an explosion are we talking?"

"Take out the damn planet," Ronon said eagerly.

"Not that big."

"Take out the engines?" John said hopefully.

"Not that small. I think we're a fair distance outside the town walls here, so it shouldn't kill everyone in Canlaon."

"Shouldn't?" John lifted an eyebrow.

"Well, I wouldn't want to hang about here to find out," Rodney said, swiftly packing up. "Talking of which?"

"Yes. I don't like this place. Let's pick up Teyla and go home."

"Agreed."

-+-

A commotion outside the negotiating hall caught Teyla's attention. She kept her eyes on Fierb, who didn't by so much as a flicker show that he heard or saw anything untoward. An armsman came up from the door behind Teyla -- it made her back itch, having it to the door, but no matter -- and whispered into Fierb's ear.

He nodded once, and the armsman retreated. "Teyla, I believe that we may be able to come to an agreement," he smiled broadly at her.

"Oh?" She arched an eyebrow at him.

"I believe I have one of your conditions met."

"Hey! Get your hands off me, jackass! You're going to regret this so much, you don't even know!"

Teyla smiled at the table, and turned. "Rodney, you are well."

"I'd be better," he was allowed to wrench himself away from the armsmen holding him, and hurried over to her, "if those testosterone soaked pea brains hadn't decided to drag me halfway across the city."

"Truly?" She frowned at Fierb, who glared portentously at the offending armsmen.

"I shall discuss their techniques for crowd control very firmly," he said. "Please, Doctor McKay, accept my apologies for such rough handling, and do take a seat."

"I am not a crowd," Rodney grumbled, but took the seat offered to him.

"Rodney," Teyla said under her breath, "where are Ronon and Colonel Sheppard?"

He bounced slightly in his seat, "Let me take it from here, Teyla."

"Rodney?" she said, very doubtfully.

"Trust me! Or, okay, we have a plan. Just follow my lead."

"Very well."

Rodney sat up straight, his smuggest look in full force. Fierb looked worried. Teyla could relate.

"Okay, Fibble, here's the deal. We know what you want, and we'll let you have it, and in return we're going to leave here with everything we currently have in our possession, and we'll never come back. How's that sound?"

"Unusual," Fierb said, a faint smile pulling at his mouth. "Doctor McKay, perhaps you should leave negotiations to Teyla Emmagan. She is exceptionally skilled." He nodded to her, and she felt a pleasant glow of accomplishment. She might not like anything about the Canlaon or this place any more, but that did not negate the value of the compliment. Indeed, it raised its value further, that she had so impressed them when so very anxious about her teammates.

"No, Fierb," she stilled his protests with a slightly raised hand. "Doctor McKay has my fullest confidence." He turned and smiled blindingly at her.

"Thank you." He cleared his throat. "Let's not waste time," he said. "You are building intergalactic hyperdrive engines for the Wraith, that they may prey on my native galaxy. You want the co-ordinates, and the schematics of a faster than light drive."

Fierb's eyebrows twitched.

"I will not give you the co-ordinates of my home galaxy -- what do you think I am? Anyway, never mind that. I can give you the galactic location of another inhabited galaxy, which may be to the Wraith's taste."

"Rodney!" Teyla stared, horrified. "You cannot condemn an entire galaxy to the scourge of the Wraith. Your name will be cursed for a thousand generations!"

"But not here, and not back home, Teyla," Rodney said fiercely. "That's what matters. Trust me."

"But--"

"John and Ronon agree. It's the only way."

Teyla shook her head but said nothing more.

Fierb shook his head. "And how will we know that you are not tricking us in some fashion?"

"You don't," Rodney said. He reached over and poured himself a glass of vecris, "May I?" He took a sip. "I could be lying. I could be about to destroy this town and everyone in it. I might be on the verge of blowing up your stardrives. Or I might be telling the truth. If I'm telling the truth, you've gained immensely, and we've got the things that interest us. If not," he shrugged. "You lose nothing."

"And what do you want?"

"The seed stock Teyla negotiated for; the fabrics and metals." He threw a smile at Teyla. "And a bottle of selath oil. A big one, mind."

Fierb swallowed, once, twice. "You want to barter away this information for what we would have traded medicines and trinkets for?"

Rodney nodded. "We don't like you. We dont want to trade with you, but you have things we need. All I want is to go home," and he looked tired, Teyla realized. There was a knot on the back of his head, bloody and matted, and he smelled terrible.

"Where is this galaxy?" Fierb said cautiously, and Teyla bit her lip.

Rodney smiled, apparently knowing as well as she that the trade was all but sealed.

"Celestis. I'll show your scientists. Oh. And I'd strongly recommend you test your engines out of atmosphere. The energy they convert when they work at full power could destroy a planet."

Fierb nodded, once. "Done."

Teyla leaned forward, a hand on Rodney's under the table. "And done. Sealed by Atlantis." She held out her free hand. And Fierb placed his into it, palm down.

"Sealed by Canlaon," he said, and they both stood.

-+-

Teyla shuddered with relief as she walked out of the hall.

"We feared for you, Rodney," she murmured, and tightened her grip on his hand.

"I'm fine," he whispered back, noisily, and she smiled.

"I am glad." She turned and pulled him down to brush her forehead against his, mind to mind. "I imagine Colonel Sheppard is also glad." They walked on after a moment's quiet.

"Not so's you'd notice," he grumbled, and rubbed at his wrist, but he was smiling, and she bumped into his side, and he bumped her back.

"The Marines are here," she said a few minutes later, as they waited for Canlaon to fulfill their side of the Deal.

Rodney grunted. "Sheppard thought so. We're probably going to need the Apollo to get them out of here, of course."

"We could wait."

"We really don't want to be here any longer than we have to," he said.

"What have you done, Rodney?" she asked quietly, fear in her heart.

"Nothing -- if they pay attention to the instructions."

"And if they do not?"

"Then the hyperdrives will explode as they reach the trans-light zone. It's not entirely precise," he looked unhappy, "mostly because once you reach fractions of c weird stuff starts happening and it's more probabilistic than mechanistic, but. Mmm. Within point zero five of c, plus or minus. Boom."

"What if they try the engines on planet?" she said warily.

"I really hope they don't do that," he said, and his face was bleak. "I've warned them in the strongest terms not to do that."

"But they have no means to make orbit to test outside of atmosphere!"

"Oh, don't they?" He shook his head. "They've been working on Wraith Hive ships for generations, at a guess. I'd bet they've hived off a little for themselves, as it were."

Teyla couldn't believe her ears. "They --"

"I saw it, Teyla. Me and John and Ronon. They're outside with the Marines, just in case Fierb changes his mind and decides to keep me after all."

"You cannot kill them all, Rodney. They are not all guilty. And not everyone on this planet is in this town."

Rodney nodded. "I know. But, Teyla, they've all profited. I shouldn't think there's a person here over the age of fourteen who doesnt have a very good idea of what is going on. They've kept back technology and medicine, they've bargained for the safety of their world and made advances so that the Wraith could better cull others."

"They trade with anybody," she said, almost to herself. "Anybody."

"Yes."

The first cart was full, and the carters were roping down the boxes and barrels on the second.

"Hi! Hi! Heya!" The first cart slowly groaned its way out of the great wooden gates, the carter slapping his reins against the oxen to encourage them. Teyla waited silently with Rodney. They would follow behind the second cart.

Fierb approached, one hand outstretched. "Doctor McKay! Teyla, my dear."

"The scientists are satisfied, then," Teyla said, when Rodney remained silent.

"Very satisfied. I'm surprised you haven't heard their howls from here," he said, smiling broadly.

"Good."

"Tell them -- tell them to be careful," Rodney said abruptly. "They must not try this in a planetary atmosphere. It runs the risk of igniting the atmosphere or even blowing half the planet apart. It's nothing to fool around with."

"I will tell them," Fierb promised. "I have told them, and they understand. Oh, this is a wonderful day, I cannot express what we owe you. If you ever return, we will give you the same over again, twice over."

"This is plenty," Rodney said. "Just get them to our transportation sites, and we'll do the rest."

Fierb nodded, and then touched his forehead to Teyla's, shook Rodney's hand, "This is how you people do it, yes? Good. Good."

-+-

Up on the hillside, the Gate had been turned around.

"It is on a pivot," Zelenka said excitedly, "See, very clever. A little tricky to keep the wires untangled, yes. Perhaps if we set it up as wireless, they could do it even remotely."

"We're not coming back, Radek," John said softly. Zelenka looked bewildered as Rodney walked straight past him. John followed Rodney and they stood close together in the shadow of the puddlejumper as the Marines loaded everything up from the carts.

"Radek," Teyla said, turning a bottle of some dark, slow moving liquid over in her hands, "What does it mean, 'thirty pieces of silver'?"

Radek stopped and stared at her, at the carts, at McKay huddled into Sheppard. "A price too high, Teyla. A price too high."

-+-Finis-+-