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...because I did essentially nothing today. Not even change out of pyjamas. Though since I didn't leave the apartment, that would have been sort of wasteful. Tomorrow I will:

-go to the post office
-buy cereal
-get some writing done that is not fic
-go to the credit union
-cook something to use up the last of the asiago

Seriously, Atlantis is pretty much dissolving my brain. This is scary. I haven't gotten this fixated on a show for... um, I don't know, five years? It's quite distracting. And it's actually distracting, because it's making it hard to write other things. *sigh*

And on that note, I give you fic. Technically John/Rodney, but most of it's about Rodney having a mental breakdown. Uh. Yes, I do like to torture characters. Do you think that says something about me? ;)




Keller kicked them off Atlantis. It wasn't cruel or perfunctory, but that tight-faced, I'm-Really-Actually-Going-To-Enforce-My-Authority-Now face that Keller made was pretty final. It wasn't that Rodney didn't like her - because he did, respected her, even - but sometimes he wondered if she wasn't much scarier than she usually came across. She still hesitated to order anyone to do anything and when she got herself all worked up like that, she seemed so uncomfortable about it that most people went along out of guilt. Even Rodney was susceptible to it. At the time, he blamed the lingering effects of the concussion.

It had been Keller who'd told him to contact Jeannie. More specifically, she'd told him to pick a place on Earth or he'd be spending his "vacation" camped out in the woods outside Cheyenne Mountain, she didn't really care. So feeling much put-upon, he'd obeyed, and afterward he'd still felt so put-upon that he'd harangued John into coming, too.

It wasn't as if John had anywhere else to go on Earth, Rodney had pointed out, which had been a low blow, but Rodney was mostly not above dirty tactics if it got him what he wanted. Rodney wanted not to spend three and a half weeks alone with his sister while she complaining about getting kidnapped, blamed everything on him, and talked at length about what a terrible person he was.

Also, he wanted someone with whom he could sneak out and get burgers, because he'd been under threat of vegetarian food from Jeannie since his last visit to Earth.

At least, these were the reasons he listed for John, and if John had doubted any of them, he hadn't said so. If Rodney had doubted any of them, he'd ignored the doubt.

Sam was worried. Rodney might have found that touching if she hadn't been in the middle of helping Keller banish him. She took him aside as they were dialling the Gate, and crossed her arms, and looked awkward, and said: "It's harder than you think it is," and Rodney had stared at her like she was speaking Chinese.

"What is?"

Sam sighed, and frowned at him like he was being difficult on purpose. Under normal circumstances Rodney would have liked to oblige her, because being difficult for Sam was one of his most treasured hobbies, but just then he honestly had no idea what she was talking about.

"McKay," she said, carefully, like she was treading on very thin ground, "one of the reasons I let Dr. Keller convince me you two needed a break is because we haven't got a replacement for Dr. Heightmeyer yet. You know that, right?"

Rodney felt a flush creep up his neck. "Look, I told Keller, I'm fine. If that's what this is about, you can shut down the Gate right now. Let Sheppard go surfing or something without me."

Though even as he said that, he felt an odd lurch in his chest at the idea of John being somewhere else for a month. So he scowled at her. Scowling was always a good fallback; it tended to make people think you were too mean to bother with.

Unfortunately, Sam knew him better than that, and she met him scowl for scowl, but her face looked a bit strained. "Rodney, this isn't negotiable."

"So I've been told," he groused, hitching his bag higher on his shoulder. "But let's stop treating me like an invalid, okay? I'm not going to freak out."

The next look on Sam's face stopped him cold, because for a second she looked like no Sam Carter he'd ever seen, tired and sad and genuinely worried. "Yeah," she said, quietly, "you are. I just thought you'd prefer it if you didn't do it here, where people can see you."

Rodney's face was hot. The bag felt much heavier than it had a minute ago, and at the bottom of the stairs, John was calling for him. "Come on, McKay, we don't have all day!"

Rodney turned to follow, moving on automatic, but Sam stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked at it like it was some kind of poisonous spider, but she was unintimidated. "McKay," she said, still quietly, "it's a lot easier in the long run, if you just let it happen."

In the end, it was the careful sincerity in her eyes that made him angry, and he jerked his arm free, stomping down the stairs towards the Gate, where John was waiting.

When they landed in Vancouver, it was raining.

The city was beautiful, though, he'd been honest about that much. Even in the rain, which slacked off as they rode into the city, green everywhere, and warm breezes, and people. Rodney did not, as a rule, like people, but just now there was something comforting about knowing there were people ten feet away wherever he went. He really hoped this would pass, because it could get old, fast.

Jeannie's house was in one of those comfortably crowded neighbourhoods with old houses and mid-size yards and people walking tiny dogs everywhere you looked. It was quiet, relative to downtown, though he could hear the distant hiss of traffic as he made his way up the front walk. John finished paying the driver, and jogged to catch up as the car rumbled away down the street.

Rodney didn't need to knock, because as they were climbing the steps, Jeannie opened the door, and Madison cannoned out onto the porch, stopping just short of Rodney, who took an alarmed step backwards before forcibly stopping himself, heart hammering. Madison looked up at him suspiciously. "Hi, Uncle Mer," she said, and Rodney swallowed, wordlessly reached into his pocket, handed her a badly-wrapped package.

She practically trilled. "Thanks, Uncle Mer!" she shouted, running back into the house. Jeannie tilted her head at him.

"Is that going to explode and burn my house down?" she asked, eyes narrowed.

Rodney huffed. "Yes, because I would give a five-year-old something that explodes. It's a Rubik's Cube, all right?"

Jeannie still looked sceptical. "She's five, Meredith," she said.

"Yeah," Rodney shot back, "and she's your kid."

Jeannie shut her mouth at that, and looked surprised, and Rodney realised, belatedly, that he'd just said something nice. "Can we come in?" he asked, sullenly, and Jeannie laughed, and stepped aside.

***

The planet has a green sky, kind of like pistachio ice cream, and Rodney remembers explaining that to John even though John doesn't ask. He's in a good mood, not even complaining about the heat, talking just to hear himself talk. Teyla is nodding politely and smiling her soft, indulgent smile all the way into the city, past unremarkable near-desert scrub and the unending roll of low hills.

They’re met on the main street by People In Charge and she goes smoothly into negotiation mode - which is how Rodney thinks of it, how she gracefully ingratiates herself with most total strangers - and by nightfall they’re getting a tour of the capitol.

It looks like Ava’s hovering around the 1960s to him; everything is bevel-cornered and chrome-chased, the colours riotous and clashing over an underlying skeleton of tourist-Victorian cobblestones and architecture. It makes him think of Brighton, but with that slightly off sense every alien world has, no matter how familiar it appears.

According to Hergaard, a skinny anthropologist Rodney’s decided not to actively dislike only because he hasn’t done anything stupid yet, the Avans have a directed social development more along the lines of western Europe, egalitarian but not communistic, whatever that means.

All it means to Rodney is that their social development is further ahead than their technological development, which is great, he guesses, but not all that interesting, and not really worth his input. Ronon is listening, but not really listening, one hand as always resting gently on his holster. John doesn’t seem all that much more interested than Rodney, but he’s nodding politely along, perking up every so often when their guide mentions unique cultural points like their breweries, because apparently Ava has a pretty complicated culinary culture, or the fact that Ava has a Guild of Courtesans, along with their Guild of Engineers, their Guild of Healers, their Guild of Scribes and about two dozen others.

Rodney knows he should find that interesting, but he’s actually too bored to think about the myriad possibilities of legalized prostitution. All Rodney gets out of the talk is that Ava? Has a lot of Guilds.

High Minister Sarna herself takes them on a walk down the main street that girdles the entire city, sixty blocks long and with all the major dispensaries and manufactories clustered, which even Rodney can see is pretty smart. It’s not until Sarna’s aide leads them up fifteen thousand eighty-five or something stairs - which leaves Rodney cranky, but if he does say so himself, not in nearly as bad a shape as he would have been a year ago - into the main control room of the main Avan power station that Rodney’s suddenly paying attention, because aesthetically it looks Lantean but functionally it looks like nothing so much as an actual working solar array.

He starts firing off questions at the engineers and after a few seconds of stunned silence, Sarna turns to leave, saying she’ll send someone to collect Rodney and his staff when it’s time for the evening meal - they’ve been invited to eat with the Parliament. John just smiles, shakes his head, and leaves Rodney alone to order people around. Rodney shoots him a grin as he leaves, and bends to inspect the array more closely, mind already providing him with the myriad ways they could use an adaptable solar power generator back home.

He pauses for one second at that, fingers resting gently on the outer casing of the core, because not for one moment did it feel strange to think of Atlantis as home.

***

By evening on the first day, Rodney generally thought he was doing fine, and was well into the second paragraph of his mental letter to Keller, telling her how wrong, wrong, wrong she was. A little insomnia and jumpiness was to be expected, after what had happened, but forcible exile to another planet had seemed way beyond harsh. Just went to show that the woman wasn’t really settled in, yet, or she’d be used to the way things were in the Pegasus Galaxy. You didn’t run home and hide under the bed every time somebody pointed a gun at you. You’d never leave the house.

He was still pretty much furious about Sam going along with it, though. That was the only part that really confused him. Five or six years ago he would have put it down to jealousy, or written it off as revenge like he had for the first four months in Siberia.

He paused in the act of unpacking, a shirt hanging half-folded from his hand. God, he’d hated Russia. For one thing, it was always cold, and regardless of how many times John teased him about hating the cold (“You’re a Canadian, Rodney. Shouldn’t you be used to it?” “Just because you can’t convert Fahrenheit to Celsius without calculator doesn’t mean the temperature actually drops twenty degrees at the 49th Parallel, smartass.”), he’d always been more than willing to remind anyone listening that Victoria was in a moderate climactic zone and in no way prepared one for life on the tundra. Also, Russia had terrible food, utterly unreliable hot water and plenty of people who had absolutely no reason to hide their contempt for him, unlike working for the American military where at least people were occasionally intimidated by him.

He’d been angry the whole time, but he’d been incredibly miserable, too; it had been the first time his personality had gotten him actually punished, instead of put out of earshot. It had stung more than he’d ever be willing to admit, because he’d been more than a little in love with Samantha Carter at the time (well, in something, anyway), and it had not dawned on him yet that antagonism was counterproductive when it came to making people like you. He’d never thought about making people like him. In his mind, either they did, or they didn’t, and if they didn’t, it was their own fault.

But that had been a long time ago, and if asked, now, he’d have said he was a
different person than he’d been then. Different enough that sometimes remembering his first visit to the SGC made him just the tiniest bit ashamed of himself. Enough that once in a blue moon he wondered why no one seemed to have noticed the change.

It wasn’t unusual, though. No one had ever noticed him before, unless they had to.

I am not a fourteen-year-old girl, he thought firmly, and took the few strides across Jeannie’s painfully-neat guestroom to open the dresser, deciding to appropriate the top row of drawers for himself. He cast an eye over John’s duffle, still leaning against the wall near the door. That was what he got for dawdling.

He sat down on the bed, staring at the open drawer. No matter how many times he’d insisted to the contrary, Sam wasn’t an idiot. She had to have had some reason for this, even if he could more easily write off Keller’s orders as gross overreaction. And he could no longer bring himself to just write it off as some kind of malice or jealousy. Time had served to make him understand that Samantha Carter was nothing if not soft-hearted. Didn’t mean she couldn’t be wrong.

He was fine.

The knock on the door sent his heart leaping painfully into his throat, and he was half-turned as it opened just enough to admit John’s head and shoulders. He froze, his eyes wide, his right hand clutching at the flowered bedspread and his left hand pressed hard to his chest.

He felt the moment of ridiculous terror pass almost from a distance, cataloguing the speed of his pulse, the flushed, clammy feeling that washed over him and then leached away in the wake of three slow, forced breaths.

“You surprised me!” he accused, more loudly than he’d intended, and John looked abruptly concerned – in the abstract way John did “concerned,” a mere twitch of his eyebrows, eyes running over Rodney up and down in the way that usually had heat suffusing his face for entirely different reasons.

“You okay?” he asked, voice low, and then Rodney was angry again, was up and shoving past him, and stomping towards the sound of voices floating up from downstairs.

Fine,” he hissed, and left John standing there without even looking back.

***

It’s supposed to be a peaceful mission, a reasonably industrial planet which means no sleeping on the ground and a greatly-reduced likelihood of mortally offending alien priestesses. It means actual beds for two nights while Rodney, Zelenka, Simpson, Miko, Ager and one of the two scrawny Norwegians whose names John hasn't learned yet pore over Ava City's central generator. According to Rodney it’s impossibly efficient and adapted from Ancient technology even Rodney's never heard of, and impressive, even for a planet living in the 1960s or thereabouts.

John likes Ava, likes their beer and their paved, crowded streets and that for once, they're absolutely not the centre of attention, the Avans passing them by on their way to and from work and home and school as if they are of no interest at all. They were given a tour of the city, whereupon Rodney went suddenly dewy-eyed over the Avan power generation systems. After that, Rodney spends two days hunched over the power core with his staff and the Avan scientists while John and Ronon and Teyla and the other scrawny Norwegian - whose name is apparently Hergaard - discuss trade with the High Minister, a greying, round-shouldered woman named Sarna, who treats them with brusque, dismissive warmness and is delightfully rude.

John likes her, even while she's verbally lambasting her political opponent in the upcoming election and talking tiredly of minor civil uprisings on the eastern continent. “Separatists,” she says dismissively. “No accounting for them.” She hurries to assure them that the rebels, a new phenomenon and ineffectual thus far, would find the Lanteans of little interest.

Ava has some kind of supposedly-infallible defence against the Wraith, which Sarna flatly refuses to discuss. John makes a note to find out about anyway, if he can; they detected nothing of the sort from the Stargate, but Ava hasn’t been culled in centuries.

Instead, they talk about packaged food and power cells and a drug the Avans have that sounds like it holds off infection better than penicillin, and John neatly sidesteps questions about where he and Rodney really come from while Teyla and Ronon talk about their battles with the Wraith. Sarna's a smart lady, knows what not to ask, when not to ask it. She knows all about them she needs to know, and anyway, she confides with a wink, she likes them.

When the ground shakes, short, sharp, and sudden, late in the morning of the third day, John is on his feet and running before the people on the street have even started screaming. Smoke is rising from the central power station, a hard-edged black gash in the pale green sky.

***

He’d caught himself obsessively watching Rodney’s behaviour for changes from the moment he’d woken up in the infirmary four weeks ago, but shortly given up feeling guilty about it. It didn’t matter why he was doing it, he told himself, just that he knew where Rodney was, and that he was in one piece.

Rodney had actually been more or less normal on the trip to Earth, though John supposed that he’d been angry, and for Rodney anger was pretty much like good booze, which had to have helped. There were differences, though; Rodney had always been paranoid, but before he’d been proud of it, and now he denied being startled or frightened, even when it showed plainly on his face, because everything did.

Rodney’s moment of panic on the front porch was telling, something that had apparently not gone unnoticed, evident in how careful Jeannie was being. Rodney and Jeannie were actually pretty physical, or at least Jeannie was, which had more than once made John wonder just how different her relationship with their parents had been. Jeannie touched people; grabbed hands, touched shoulders, and before, had habitually given Rodney a cuff on the back of the head or a flick on the ear or a pinch on the arm whenever he said something particularly insensitive.

It was normal, John could always tell, because Jeannie didn’t seem to think about it; Jeannie hugged as easily as she slapped. In Rodney’s case, both always seemed to be affectionate, executed with a certain grimness as if she were making up for lost time, doing something for Rodney’s own good. So it was customary, but Rodney always looked surprised by either kind of contact.

Eventually it dawned on John that Rodney always looked surprised when anyone touched him. When they’d met, Rodney had projected an aura of repulsion obvious to anyone, an unconscious flashing neon sign broadcasting don’t touch me, stay away. But after growing to know him better, John had come to suspect it was largely self-defence. Meeting Rodney’s sister had cemented the observation.

Afterwards John had found himself making excuses to touch Rodney more often; a pat on the shoulder, a clap on the back, a squeeze to the arm, sitting in slightly closer proximity. Teyla and Ronon had seemed to pick up on it and done the same, knowing or unknowing. If Rodney had noticed, he hadn’t let on, but he had become marginally more relaxed over time, at least with them. John tried not to think too hard about how he’d no trouble at all coming up with excuses.

Jeannie hadn’t hit Rodney once since they’d arrived, though, which relaxed John considerably. She did seem to be watching both John and her brother as carefully as John was watching Rodney, and John made a mental note to expect a conversation in the near future, if the sly, worried look she was wearing meant anything. It seemed Rodney didn’t notice her being careful, though, probably because she seemed to have decided to make up for it by picking fights.

Rodney and Jeannie argued constantly, in a friendly, comfortable way that John found weirdly adorable. It wasn’t exactly bickering, which didn’t really go anywhere, because when Rodney and Jeannie argued it was toward an end, usually to fix something or make something or establish something. It could go on for hours, and John found it almost comforting, familiar ambient noise like a television turned on in the background. He sat at the kitchen table with Madison, shelling peas into a big green bowl, because Jeannie was one of those strange people who got everyone involved in the preparation of a meal.

Just now, they were arguing about hockey. John wasn’t paying that much attention until he realised they were comparing statistics. Then the words “New York Rangers,” and “bloody Americans” came up, and John felt honour-bound to say something, even if it was something unintelligent, like:

“I always thought ‘Canuck’ was a weird name for a sports team. What does it even mean?”

The sudden mute horror that descended on the kitchen was funny, but John restrained himself. “You shouldn’t say that, Uncle John,” said Madison solemnly, shaking a finger at him in a way that had to be inherited.

John smirked, and then pointed his own finger at Rodney. “I happen to know you don’t even like hockey.”

Rodney gave him a scornful look. “I’m not convinced anyone actually likes hockey,” he said easily. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the geometric appli—”

Jeannie cut him off, rolling her eyes. “The thing is, insulting the Canucks is sort of like setting books on fire. It’s just not something you do.”

John absolutely did not pout at Rodney’s sister. “You just spent fifteen minutes talking about how much they suck,” he pointed out.

Jeannie shrugged. “Yes,” she said, in the same gentle tones she used with her five-year-old daughter, as though he weren’t quite clever enough to understand, “but that’s us. You’re an American. It’s different.”

Belatedly John picked up on the delicate emphasis: It’s not something you do. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.

“I thought you two grew up in…” John pretended to search his memory, and then looked at Madison for help.

“Victoria,” supplied Madison cheerfully, without looking up. “On Vancouver Island. I’ve been there. They have a submarine in the museum and it goes down into the harbour.” She pointed vaguely west with one hand, the other using a pea pod to mimic a descending sub, complete with sound effects.

Rodney made a characteristically dismissive gesture with one hand. “Don’t be ridiculous, Victoria doesn’t have a hockey team. It’s twenty blocks square.”

“And I wouldn’t go around badmouthing the Canucks where people can hear you,” Jeannie added warningly. “People get a bit funny around the season, especially if they know you’re an American.”

John grinned at her. “Is it that obvious?”

“Yes,” said Rodney, deadpan.

Both of them were wearing such identically ominous expressions that John couldn’t help laughing. But Rodney shook his head, sober. “I’m telling you,” he muttered, “rioting in the street.”

***

Rodney is elbows-deep in the power core when the air starts to hum. He doesn’t hear it at first, but feels it in the floor, buzzing up through his knees and into his spine and making his teeth hurt.

“What’s that noise?” he asks of the air, because it’s now starting to be really uncomfortable. On the other side of the room, Miko is making a pained face and covering her ears.

It’s a second before the Avan technician working next to him jerks back out of the machine, jumping to his feet, looking up as if he expects the ceiling to fall. Rodney does likewise, because he’s not an idiot. There’s another noise now, on a lower register, distant shouts and bangs.

Zelenka rises to his feet, looking perplexed, glancing from the ceiling, to Rodney’s face. “Rodney?” he asks, “what is happening? Are you in pain?”

Rodney’s about to snap that no, he makes faces like these for fun, and then suddenly there's gunfire and something scorches his cheek and people are shouting.

And then someone - he thinks Simpson - is pulling him down to the floor as it shakes, hard, beneath them.

Five seconds later someone else entirely is pointing a gun in his face and screaming. He hits his head, or something hits him, and he slips away from the world into the dark.

He’s only out for a few minutes, he’s told, and while waking up to Zelenka’s face is not one of Rodney’s fondest fantasies he’ll take what he can get once he’s awake, because they’re surrounded by crazy people with guns.

The rebels, at a glance, make Rodney think of pictures he's seen of guerrilla soldiers during... god what was the last ridiculous American police action? Rodney's first impression is of a collection of dirt-streaked faces and sweat-stained motley, and they're not wearing uniforms, but there's a certain common concession to simple cuts and heavy boots and body armour even Rodney can tell has been scrounged from a discard bin somewhere. They've got the hollow-eyed look of desperate men, which is the first thing that makes his hands want to shake, but they don't, because you don't show hostage-takers you're afraid, even if you are.

Their leader comes striding into the control room five minutes after the explosion, and the wind is shrieking at irregular intervals through the broken window, raising gooseflesh on Rodney's arms. The Avan scientists are whimpering and huddled together, and one woman screams and then starts to cry when he pulls back his hood.

Rodney doesn't see what's so goddamned special. The rebel leader looks like a filing clerk while he has his thugs point a gun at each of the scientists in turn, pointedly ignoring the Lanteans while he questions them, but none of them say a word, except for the weeping blonde, who really just babbles. The chief technician Orsa, a bland brown-haired man who was previously finding Rodney at least a little amusing, is white-faced and shaking with fury.

“Who the hell are you people?” Rodney demands loudly, wincing as the volume actually hurts his own ears, and he instinctively covers them with his hands until the wave of dizziness subsides. What is that? Why is he dizzy? Is he concussed?

But the leader sees him and looks thoughtful, and then delighted

"My name is Eron Vaal," he says, with chilling courtesy. "Welcome to Ava, Doctor McKay."

It takes Rodney about thirteen minutes, while Vaal and his men secure things and discuss things or whatever terrorists do when they’ve just captured a power station, to work out that only the ATA carriers in their party - himself and Miko - felt the device (whatever it was) powering up. Which means that it’s Ancient. Which means, fuck, that it’s probably going to be hard to find and deactivate.

Assuming there’s any of it left. The north side of the tower is gone, open to the air and the city thirty stories below, and there are little patches of smouldering floor between where they’re kneeling and the drop-off. There’s still a faint, irritating buzz in his ears, though, or not really his ears, he supposes.

Orsa explained it to them before they started working; that the array is automatically made independent of the city during an emergency, and this is an emergency. That the lockdown protocol will keep anyone from going in or out, and is on a timer that can’t be deactivated from the outside or the inside.

That nobody will be coming to rescue them, and he figures that out right before Vaal tells him, smugly, that they are his prisoners. That the tower is under his control. That the city is helpless.

“How do you know who I am?” Rodney asks, approximately eighty thousand horrible, paranoid possibilities racing through his mind, but they’re better than thinking about right now.

“You’re quite well known, Doctor McKay,” Vaal tells him, still smiling that stupid, self-congratulatory smile, and even Rodney, who doesn’t consider himself a particularly violent person, wants to punch him, repeatedly, until he stops moving.

“When one is planning a revolution, one seeks out whatever resources one might, and you might be interested to know that there’s more than one party offering substantial rewards for the delivery of any Lantean.” He pauses to study his nails, and adds: “Dead or alive. But the price is higher for alive.”

“So this was all some big set-up to get me?” And he knows how it sounds, because he’s had it explained, how it sounds, but let’s be honest, it’s not the first time it’s ever happened.

To his right, Zelenka still manages to shoot him a deeply sarcastic look, even with one hand pressed to the cut on his temple and one lens of his glasses cracked down the middle. Shut up, Rodney thinks at him furiously, shut up, shut up, this is not the time, you can make fun of me later. But there’s still something comforting in the way that Radek can still manage to prick holes in him with this many guns aimed in their direction.

To his - he thinks - relief, Vaal laughs. Rodney’s not a - okay, he is an insufferably proud man, but it still makes him flush with embarrassment. “No,” Vaal says, “this was a genuine political uprising, Doctor McKay. Minister Sarna was meant to be touring this station today, but it seems your arrival has caused her to re-arrange her schedule. But our secondary objectives have so far been successful.”

“The power station,” mutters Zelenka.

“The power station,” agrees Vaal, and leers at Rodney again. Rodney doesn’t think he means to be leering, but that’s how it comes out. Rodney doesn’t trust people who can’t control their facial expressions. “And your presence is an unexpected bonus, though I admit I was hoping for Major Sheppard too.”

“He’s a Colonel now,” Rodney corrects automatically.

Vaal ignores him. “The tower will remain in lockdown until it is released from within - which is impossible,” he counts off on his fingers, “until the time limit has passed, or until you, Doctor McKay, aid us in unlocking our treasure.”

“Unlocking your--” Rodney never knows what to say when the bad guys talk like this. The instinct is to laugh, because god, they sound like bad cartoon villains, but they’re in the Pegasus galaxy, where no one has ever heard of Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom. Sometimes sincerity is so tragic, but sometimes it just scares the crap out of him. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Vaal nods to one of his thugs, who disappears briefly into the adjoining alcove, and returns a moment later with… well, it looks like a vacuum cleaner, at first glance, matte-silver and vaguely spherical. It’s unquestionably Ancient, though - Rodney’s spent too many years absorbing the Ancient aesthetic sense not to recognise the curving lines, the pale colours of the thing sitting on the circular centre console.

It’s about the size of a breadbox, and that thought skitters with hysterical laughter across the surface of his brain, because somewhere, somehow, something had to be the same size as a breadbox.

“What is it?” he asks, curious despite himself.

“We believe it’s a transportation device, something that would be extremely useful in our campaigns,” Vaal tells him. “This world was once a colony of the Ancestors, Doctor McKay. There’s a great number of their lost devices buried in the ruins along the eastern coast, but only members of the Guilds are allowed to retrieve them.” He spares a nasty look for the huddled Avan technicians.

“The device we uncovered on the coast was much like this one,” he points at the breadbox, “but it was damaged beyond repair, and our intelligence told us another of its kind had been brought to the city.”

Rodney stares at it. “And you want me to what - kiss it better?”

“Your knowledge of the Ancestors’ technology is renowned, Doctor,” Vaal says, raising his eyebrows. “In any case, none of my men - nor almost anyone on Ava - has the power to activate most of the Ancestors’ machines.”

He looks significantly at Rodney, who feels suddenly angry. He’s going to have to have a talk with John about sticking his finger into every Ancient light socket he comes across, if everything they say and do is now being shared on the Pegasus Galaxy supervillain mailing list.

“What makes you think I--” he says, hardly stuttering at all, but gives it up when Vaal inclines his head in a gesture that says, with all the clarity of speech, that Rodney is being both ridiculous and trying, and there’s a flash of something else that sets Rodney’s fingers twitching for the sidearm they took away from him twenty minutes ago.

“Look,” he amends, he thinks remarkably steadily, given the circumstances, “whatever moronic plan you have, you might as well toss it right now, because in about ten minutes our people are going to be busting in here with all sorts of Ancient weapons…” He trails off, because Vaal is looking both stormy and amused.

“Were you not listening, Rodney?” hisses Zelenka. “We are locked in.”

“Correct,” says Vaal, slapping his own knee. “In any case, the Parliament has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists.” He spits the words, like they taste foul. “We’re stuck in here, unless you find us a way out.”

“Me?” Rodney sputters, “are you completely insane? Why would I…”

Vaal has gotten easily to his feet. He’s not tall, but he’s got an easy lift to his shoulders, and the half-dozen men with him look to him instinctively. He might look like a filing clerk but Rodney’s been in Pegasus long enough to recognise hero worship, and even when it might be justifiable.

Vaal might be a fucking psychopath but his men believe in him, and god help them all, he’s sincere.

He’s calm-faced as he turns back to the Avans and asks: “Can you disable the lockout?” and the technicians are silent, except for Orsa, who straightens his shoulders and spits on the guy's boot.

Rodney really, truly doesn’t see it coming, though he knows he should have. Vaal goes hard-eyed, and quick as a whisper of air, pulls out a knife and slashes Orsa's throat, ear to ear.

It's one quick movement, no wasted energy, the arm goes up, and left, and down, and Orsa is on the floor bleeding and choking and twitching, but not for very long. The time between the spitting and the gurgling is maybe four seconds.

Rodney jerks back from the body, which falls at his knees, and almost knocks over Simpson, who has both hands pressed tightly to her mouth. Rodney thinks for a moment, with conviction, that he might throw up. Knives are so much untidier than gunfire.

Behind him, Miko makes a tiny noise of dismay, and Rodney thinks the temperature in the room has dropped for a few seconds before he realises that no, it's him that's gone cold.

“You will repair the device,” he eventually hears Vaal saying, and he looks up into cold dark eyes with no hint of patience or mercy in them. “You will transport us out of here. And I will kill one person every hour until you do.”

He feels his team - his team, Zelenka and Simpson and Miko and Ager and even the new guy, what the hell’s his name, Henriksson - frozen behind him, and it feels as if everything has stopped, but he knows it’s only wishful thinking.

A few harsh, constricted breaths later, he’s moving after all, reaching for his tablet and plugging it into the device. His head is still hurting, and hurting worse with the persistent buzz in his ears. He watches as string after string of base eight Ancient code jitters across his screen.

Rodney fucking hates base eight.

***

Madison solved the Rubik’s Cube by suppertime, and came running into the dining room to plunk it proudly down next to Rodney’s plate. “Have you got another one?” she asked expectantly, and Rodney grinned, involuntarily.

“I--” he tried, and then: “not with me.”

“Oh.” Madison looked disappointed, and then turned to her mother for an appeal.

“Mad, be grateful,” Jeannie chided, looking amused. “Go wash your hands.”

Madison went, placidly enough with only a hint of a pout, but Rodney picked up the cube and turned it over in his hands. He caught Jeannie’s eye and grinned at her with his I-told-you-so face, but Jeannie just went on looking amused.

“What?” she asked, smirking as she reached for his plate. “I should feel thwarted? I didn’t say she wasn’t smart.”

“Uh huh,” Rodney said, handing it over. “I’m just remembering that of the two of us who could do secondary algebra at five, it wasn’t you.”

“Uh huh,” Jeannie rolled her eyes. “And of the two of us who could spell, it wasn’t you.”

To his left, John pretended to have a coughing fit into his napkin. Kaleb played along, and pounded John on the back.

Go to Part 2

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Chandri MacLeod
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