Centralization is the beauty of the Ancient design: unity, harmony, efficiency. With all systems feeding into one database, the whole sprawling city controlled effectively from the single room. Rodney has always thought the system was exquisite, perfectly balanced, impeccably engineered. Now he realizes that it is a strategic nightmare, leaving the whole city at the mercy of any group that can secure the Gateroom. The renegades from the Dark Quarter have taken control just as completely as the contingent from Earth once did.
By the evening, there are seven more bodies next to Cadman’s gurney: three people who defied the quarantine and four Marines who attempted to retake the Gateroom. (“Sir?” asked the red-headed lieutenant when they stormed the doors only to find Shah, Roth, Major Michaelson. “What’s going on here, sir?”
“The situation is under control, young man,” Michaelson said. The Marines never knew what hit them, but nor did they hesitate for even an instant. Rodney thinks vaguely that John, wherever he is, would be proud).
There are also two casualties among the prisoners—a Gateroom meteorologist and a surgeon who were caught whispering to each other. The meteorologist was…reanimated is the only word Rodney can think of, to replace Dr. Bantu, who was injured in a firefight with the three people who broke quarantine. The surgeon is not dead yet, although, from the sounds she is making, Rodney does not think it will be long. He looks at the corpse that was Dr. Bandu, discarded with the others. At least now he knows why they save the bodies.
Rodney does not sleep that night. He and the other prisoners, tied to each other by lengths of climbing rope from the geology division, sit up all night in the brightly lit Gateroom. Their captors don’t seem to need sleep. They apparently don’t need to talk, either, which makes them pretty much the worst invaders ever,
Rodney thinks, cranky, sleep-deprived, and rapidly sinking into a hypoglycemic haze. He’s seen enough science fiction movies to know that this is where the evil alien leader is supposed to declaim his plans for galactic domination. That way, when some of the scrappy prisoners escape, as they always do, they can mount a resistance precisely targeted to the aliens’ hubris.
Apparently, in his former life, Major Michaelson had seen the same movies; that’s why he’s not talking. Rodney tries to explain this theory to Elizabeth, whose right wrist is bound to his left ankle, but he must have slipped further into sugar shock than he’d realized, because Elizabeth looks at him with puzzled fear on her face and when Rodney repeats himself, the words slide away.
"Hey You.” Elizabeth’s voice is rusty from a day of silence and slurred from the brutal slaps she received when she protested their treatment. She refuses to call the infiltrate by Dr. Warrell’s name. When the meteorologist turns, Rodney is absolutely sure Elizabeth is going to be shot. Maybe she is, too: Elizabeth's hand closes convulsively on his ankle. But something responds to the authority in her voice, maybe some small fragment of the original person, because Dr. Warrell comes over. Elizabeth talks—she is talking, but Rodney can’t make out the words, just the sounds. And “food.” She says “food,” which Rodney thinks would probably be a very good idea right about now. He opens his eyes to second that suggestion, just in time to see the butt of the P-90 land on his left hand.
It works. As a scientist, an experimenter, a pragmatist, Rodney has to admit that the adrenaline shock of having his fingers smashed does bring him up and out with really amazing speed. The clarity lasts for about ninety seconds, bright and hot; then he’s a whimpering mush of pain. He tries to lift the shattered hand, to cradle it against his chest and keep it safe, but he is tied to Sergeant Saunders and the best he can do is turn his head and throw up all over his own shoes. Dr. Warrell wanders back to his post.
One of the medical team binds Rodney’s hand, using shoelaces donated by the other prisoners; Chuck empties his pocket protector and the pens are used as splints. When Shah brings them PowerBars and bottled water from the mess a half-hour later—the prisoners will never know why their captors decide to feed them; maybe the plan is to kill them off slowly, as they supply of bodies dwindles? maybe they just don't want to appear to listen to Elizabeth?—Saunders soaks his handkerchief and offers it to Rodney to wipe off his face.
“That might be all the water we get,” Rodney says, aghast.
“Well, it’s done now—be a shame to waste it,” Saunders replies.
“I, uh, that. Thanks,” Rodney says, and his mouth is dry but his eyes are damp.
It’s a funny feeling: Rodney’s never been anyone’s mascot before.
There are nearly twenty-four hours of radio silence, and John can only assume that if the Lanteans had retaken the city, someone—probably McKay—would have made a major announcement. One time, he thinks that he hears the sound of distant gunfire, but he can’t be sure. In basic, they tell you to that if you’re ever separated from your squadron, the best thing to do is stay calm, sit still, and wait until someone comes for you. For the first time in his life, Sheppard considered doing just that. After all, he is alone and defenseless in a city where he can’t even turn the lights on anymore. He’s just one more civilian in need of protection—worse than a civilian. He serves no practical purpose here on Atlantis. And he’s tired. Good Christ, is he ever tired! Of course, he was exhausted even before he sat up all night, waiting for news that never came. He stretches out at the very edge of the loading dock, pillows his head on his vest and waits, watching the new sun burn all the stars out of the sky.
The sky above Atlantis is like nowhere else John’s ever been. He’d told that to Rodney once and the scientist had snorted. (“Well, you’re
easily pleased, Colonel! It’s sky
: ozone and precipitate and reflected mid-frequency energy. There’s literally a whole universe
of it out there!”) But even Rodney couldn’t explain why the sunsets were so glorious on a planet with no air pollution to speak of. John’s always thought he could watch the Lantean sky all day, but this is the first time he’s actually gotten the chance to do it. He’s lost track of time, dozed maybe, wakes when the alarm on his watch tells him it’s time for another of Farouqi’s injections. He opens his eyes to face one of those magnificent sunsets and suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to wait anymore.
Is it possible to take the door of its hinges somehow, since it won’t open to his command? Or maybe he could swim, although that would mean leaving his vest and all its supplies behind. John looks around at the battered crates and pallets, the firmly sealed door. My kingdom
, he thinks, my kingdom for a ‘jumper
Thinking of flying makes him look up, and looking up makes him consider the flat slabs that make up the unfinished ceiling. Surprising how quickly things go once he gets moving: in twenty minutes, he’s built a pile of all the crates and cartons light enough to move and is carving away at the joint between a ceiling panel and a support beam with the can-opener attachment of his swiss army knife.
He finds himself talking to the ceiling, to the city—c’mon, just a little more…give me just a little bit…almost there
—the way he does to finicky planes and uncooperative ‘jumpers. When his hand slips and he scrapes a gouge into a ceiling panel, he actually apologizes. The scrape must hit a weak spot or something, because the panel loosens. John can peel up one corner, squeeze his hand through, then one arm. He kicks off from his makeshift ladder, dislodging one of the crates, but by the time it cracks open against the floor, he’s already hoisted himself into the ceiling space and he does not look back.
Awkward in his vest, John crawls through the tight space between the ceiling and…well, he can’t actually turn his head enough to see what’s above him. The floor of the next level, or maybe a section of one of the huge ducts, some as wide as hallways, that run through the city like veins through a vast organism. The flashlight John holds with his teeth generates just enough light to keep him following the line of the support beam. His direction is pretty much determined by which sections look like they’ll take his weight. He crawls along for about fifteen minutes, sees nothing but flat metal surfaces and the occasional cable, before his knees start to protest.
“Eh, what the hell,” John says, just to hear his voice echo, and since here is as good as anywhere, he sets to work on another ceiling panel. It’s easier lifting from above than it was pushing from beneath, but his left knee nearly gives out when he drops from the ceiling to the room beneath. He suddenly remembers hobbling along the pier with Ronon, one day last spring, and the Satedan asking if it was true that John had once hurt his knee jumping off the garden shed in an attempt to fly. He puts the memory out of his head and shines his flashlight along the walls. He’s in a corridor, but not one that he recognizes immediately. Must still be toward the edges of the city. There’s a transporter at the end, which makes John think he might be near sector 14. He presses his hand to the transporter door—hello? It’s me. Anyone home?
—but nothing happens. Not that John was expecting something. Not much, anyway.
He follows the corridor until it runs into another, flips a mental coin, turns left. He sees no one, hears nothing, eventually stops sliding along the wall and just saunters down the middle of the hallway, randomly touching doors, occasionally stopping to concentrate all his energy on just one. Open sesame, Rumplestiltskin, Please
—John tries all the magic words he knows and when he hears the swishclick
of a transporter door opening, he actually thinks for a moment that he did it. Until he hears the footsteps.
On the third day, Gate team-5 dials. Shah cuts Chuck loose from the rest of the prisoners so that he can read the console, careless enough that he slices Martha Simmons and SPC Friedrichson in the process.
“It’s Sergeant Harper’s IDC,” Chuck confirms. He is pale and unshaven and he stumbled three times climbing the stairs in his untied boots. His bootlaces are holding Rodney’s ring finger together. He looks automatically to Elizabeth for confirmation to open the wormhole, but before he can do anything, Michaelson pulls him back.
“Fine. That’s all.”
“But I haven’t—that’s…you can’t leave them there
“They’re three hours
ahead of schedule,” Chuck says, and Michaelson smiles his big Texas smile, because he’s confiscated all the radios and watches, but apparently some part of him remembers that Chuck is notorious for the clock in his head. “Something might have happened! It could…be an emergency,” Chuck finishes lamely, belatedly realizing whom he’s speaking to. The Gate tech looks so dejected that, from Rodney's vantage point on the floor, he actually seems to shrink a few inches as he turnes to shuffle down the stairs. And then, so quickly that he takes everyone by surprise, Chuck breaks away from his escort and dashes toward the console. He ducks, he dodges, and almost, almost makes it. Not that he could have dialed fast enough...but still, Rodney will think, later. Still. If Chuck had been wearing two good shoes...well. He almost made it.
John unslings his P90 and presses his back into a corner, right next to a door that won’t open: he’s got no team at the moment, so Atlantis will have to watch his back. He loses the footsteps for a minute—someone’s being careful, two someones, at least—then hears them again, then loses them for good. Silence. Silence that’s something more than quiet. Familiar silence, and John hits the floor just in time to miss the stunner blast. Ronon’s so tall, he always does shoot high.
“Careful, there, big guy,” John says, holding out a hand to Ronon can help him up. The Satedan brings their clasped hands to his forehead because…. Well, John’s not exactly sure what that gesture means, and he’ll have to remember to ask Teyla because, for the first time, he begins to think he might see her again. They just might get out of this situation alive.
Ronon leads the way back to the transporter—it recognizes him—and talks without looking at John. “Invaders through the ‘gate. Don’t know who they are, exactly, but they know the city. They have the Gate Room and they’ve locked down most of Tower 1. They know we’re here—they have lifesigns detectors—but they haven’t come for us. Don’t know why.”
John mouths the word. “Wait—what?!”
Ronon shrugs. “S’what Zelenka calls it.”
The transporter doors whoosh open on another empty hallway. “Wait here,” Ronon says, before ducking around a corner. John hears voices, low, then more footsteps, and suddenly there’s a crowd. Zelenka is pumping his hand, Lieutenant Rivens is pounding him on the back, and Miko throws herself into his arms and sobs.
“Uh, wow. Hi—how’s it going, Riv? Er, nice to see you, too, Doc,” John tries to shake hands, accept greetings, and calm Miko all at once. He’s in mid-sentence when he’s shuffled into one of the east-wing labs and runs out of words.
Zelenka really is running a Samizdat-style counterinsurgency, and the lab looks like a cross between a garage sale and a military base camp. There are weapons ranging from scissors to ‘zat guns laid out on the lab tables, along with bits of machinery and webs of wires. One of the whiteboards has been placed flat on two lab stools to form the surface for a giant field model of the city, built out of paper clips, copy paper, back issues of the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Compounding,
coffee mugs, and test-tubes.
John bends closer to examine the Erlenmeyer flask that represents the gate room. He fingers the fringe of yellow post-its that surround the stapler labeled “tower 4.”
“We are preparing a diversionary tactic,” Zelenka explains.
“Huh.” John studies the model. “Need any help?”