Pairing: teamfic, a little McKay/Sheppard or OT4.
Beta'd by: dossier
Spoilers: Season Four episodes up to 4.09 The Seer by implication, nothing in particular.
Summary: Human beings weren't meant for any of the things they're doing here, but they wouldn't be human if they let that stop them.
Author's Note: There's more plot than relationships in this one.
"Oh, oh, would you look at that," Rodney said as they exited the space gate over a grim little ice ball of a moon.
John frowned at the dime-sized primary illuminating it as the jumper moved out of the moon's shadow. Either they were a hell of lot farther out than usual or that was a very dim star.
"Doesn't look like much," Ronon commented after peering through the jumper's front port at the dirty orange-brown moon, dreadlocks sliding over his shoulders when he leaned forward.
"Like you know anything." Rodney was intent, fingers dancing over the keys of his laptop, six different displays appearing over the co-pilot's console. "That's an M-class red dwarf."
"Aren't they pretty common?" John asked.
"The most common Main Sequence star in our universe," Rodney agreed. He kept typing and looking and typing some more. Small happy huffs and hums accompanied his work. "Mortenson will be beside himself with some of this data. The day we declassify...."
John pulled up a couple of HUDs himself, checking out what this system had on offer. Okay, they had the moon, about the size of Mercury, beat up as Mimas, and half a dozen others along with a thin ring, all orbiting the blue-green giant planet that filled the view port when he reoriented the jumper. Sensors also registered one planet within the red dwarf's habitable zone, another farther in, a spotty asteroid belt, and two more massive bodies farther out.
"Whoa," he murmured. "Gas giant or ice giant?"
"What?" Rodney muttered then looked up. "Oh. Blue, methane, ice." He stopped and checked a sensor. "Hunh. Maybe not. Looks like a gas giant. The color must be some other trace element. Maybe we can get an atmospheric sample later."
John looked at the deep bands of green, the dark blues and curling, roiling whites. It should have reminded him of Earth's oceans and clouds, but he knew that dark storm high on the curve facing them could hold Earth and Lantea and have room for the seven moons orbiting the planet.
Teyla leaned forward and looked. "It is beautiful."
"Maybe from out here," Rodney said, "but we wouldn't want to get up close. – God, this is such a treasury of information. All the stargates we've used before have been placed near G-types. Try getting the SGC to authorize a scientific mission to study an M-class or check a system with a brown dwarf. They just laugh. No, it's all military missions and G-types. They wouldn't even authorize a day trip to 51 Pegasus B."
"Where's that?" Ronon asked.
"Actually Bellerophon is in the Milky Way. It's interesting because it's a 'hot Jupiter', barely .05 AU from its primary and something that big shouldn't have formed in so close. A scientific expedition aboard one of the 303s or even a ha'tek could have learned whether its orbit had been shifted, how and when." Rodney sighed. "No one in the SGC has time for pure science."
John patted his shoulder. "Sorry, buddy."
Rodney closed several of the displays. "We're here to look for ZPMs," he said, "so we'd better get to it."
"The database didn't say what this system has to do with them?" Teyla asked.
"It didn't even note that it's an M-class star system. Just the mention of a connection in that history text Metzinger has been translating." Rodney brightened. "Maybe there'll be a factory or an R&D installation, something they didn't want to dirty up one of the G systems with."
"Maybe," John said. "So where do we start?"
"Let's try the second planet out," Rodney decided. "It looks like it's tidally locked to the star, but maybe it wasn't when the Ancients were fooling around here."
"If that's the case, we'll need space suits," John commented. He set the jumper on a course for the second planet.
Ronon grunted in displeasure.
Rodney bent over his laptop again. "No, actually, according to sensors, it still has a viable atmosphere. Mmm. Well, it looks like the theories were right for once."
"Sufficient carbon dioxide, at least a bar, and enough heat is trapped within the atmosphere to prevent outgassing on the far side." Rodney hmmed to himself again. "That's how it works with the Land of Light, but it's a freak and orbits a G-type star. No one's ever found a habitable planet in an M-class system." Another sigh. "Of course, no one's been looking, either."
"What's a G-type?" Ronon asked. He added, "Anything like a G-string?"
Rodney's hands stilled on his keyboard. Then he turned toward John. John bit the inside of his cheek and kept his gaze forward.
"What the hell have your marines been telling, or should I say showing and telling, him?" He turned in his seat and addressed Teyla. "Hit him. I mean it. If you knew – "
Teyla punched Ronon's shoulder. "I know what a G-string is."
Ronon rubbed his biceps. "Ow."
"Baby," Rodney dismissed as he turned back to the front. "In case you were actually interested in more than horrifying me with your ignorance, a G-type is a star like Lantea's or Sol aka Earth's primary or pretty much any sun you've seen from a planet with a stargate. They're stable, relatively long-lived, and seem to usually have several planets orbiting them, at least one within the habitable zone, making it easy for the Ancients to pop in and terraform said planet. Thus the many worlds in both Pegasus and the Milky and even the Ori galaxy with human populations."
"Thus endeth the lesson," John said.
"Go ahead and laugh," Rodney said. "I can remember within my lifetime the discovery that yes, other stars did have exoplanets and I bet you can too, if you weren't too busy getting in some cheerleader's pants to pay attention to the scientific discoveries of the time."
John leaned back. "Yeah, I remember wishing I could see one through a telescope." He checked the course he'd programmed into the jumper's autopilot. "ETA four hours."
Rodney hummed and said, "I'm going to take some readings while we're here, feel free to not bother me until then."
Ronon pulled out a whetstone eventually and began refining the already razor sharp edges of his knives. Teyla tipped her seat back and listened to the iPod John had bought and Rodney had loaded for her. She liked Celtic and folk music, but appreciated the classical library Rodney had included. To John's disappointment, neither she nor Ronon cared much for country or rock. He supposed it might be an acquired taste.
John killed time reading reports Lorne had loaded onto his own tablet. Jumper missions often involved longer transit times than this. He tried to remember to bring something to occupy him without leaving the pilot's seat.
Rodney murmured to himself, fingers clacking over the keys, paused to pull a second laptop out of his pack, which had been carelessly dropped on the deck next to the co-pilot's station, then worked on it too, muttering, "Still not enough processing power," to himself.
John checked the autopilot, then threaded his way back from the cockpit to the main cargo area, ducked into the tiny washroom and took a piss, then washed up. He splashed water on his face and stood over the miniature sink, hands braced on the counter top, while droplets caught on his eyelashes, his lips, the stubble on his jaw, before beading and falling into the sink. Nothing but darkness behind his closed eyelids, soothing, while the cool water refreshed him. The jumper hummed pleasantly all around him and his lips quirked up into a smile.
He fished a bottle of water from one of the storage bins for himself, then another for Rodney, and went back to the cockpit. Rodney took his bottle with a grunt that translated as thanks and busy. John contemplated whether it would be smarter to eat before they de-orbited down to the planet or after. Before, he decided. Rodney and Ronon would be less likely to complain or eat anything indigenous. He wondered if there would be natives, if they'd try to kill them and how long before Rodney told them how important he was.
A fond glance to the side revealed Rodney was still intent, even smiling to himself.
He suppressed the impulse to run his finger down Rodney's exposed nape, over the tender skin revealed by the gap of his collar as he bent his neck. Rodney was dating Katie. He wanted a wife, maybe even children, despite his avowels of loathing them. John wanted to hold onto his career. They didn't do that. They were friends. They weren't going to go any farther than that.
He ran another long range scan at one hour out. The jumper's scanners worked best within one AU. Beyond that they were good, but didn't pick up the little things.
Like a Wraith cruiser in orbit.
"Ah, crap," John groaned.
"What? What?" Rodney said. His gaze lifted from his laptop and settled on John's sensor display hovering over the pilot's console. "Sonovabitch."
A swarm of smaller vehicles arrowed toward them from the cruiser. Cruisers had sensors that could scan much finer and at a greater distance than the jumper. The Wraith had already found them and responded.
"John?" Teyla said. "I am sensing – "
"Yeah, Teyla, we got that," he answered her.
Off went the autopilot as John canceled their course, reversed the jumper and applied braking force to negate their inertia. The instant they were dead in space, he pushed the drive pods for everything, plotting a least time course for the stargate, briefly grateful he hadn't been pushing the jumper to maximum before.
"They know we are here," Teyla told him.
The darts had launched well before the jumper was close enough to see the cruiser, so he'd already drawn that conclusion. Confirmation didn't make John feel any better.
Rodney had dumped all his astronomical survey programs. "No kidding," he said.
John began calculating relative speeds and distance as soon as he had enough data, the plots showing on his display.
"That's not good," Ronon said.
"Unless you're the Wraith," Rodney sniped.
They were both right. It would be a long race, hours before the darts caught up to the jumper accelerating away from them, but they had speed on their side. The darts would catch up to their jumper before they could slingshot around the bulk of the ice giant and use the stargate orbiting it's moon, though. The Wraith didn't waste energy providing the kind of shields and inertial dampeners that made the jumpers such comfortable rides. They let their regenerative abilities compensate for pulling Gs that would quickly mush a human's internal organs. It tended to even up in a dogfight, because jumpers were more maneuverable than darts, but this wasn't about maneuvering. They were in a race and the darts were flat out faster on the straight-away. Numbers didn't lie and the story was written on the display before him.
"John?" Teyla asked.
He input a couple of alternative courses, plotted a zigzag through the ice, rock, and dust of the ring. None of them slowed the darts down enough to make a difference.
"We're screwed," Rodney said.
"How close do we need to get to the gate to dial it?" John asked him.
"Closer than we're going to get," Rodney snapped.
"Just answer the question. Can we dial it from the gas giant?"
"Okay, okay," Rodney said as he typed into his laptop. "We can try it, line of sight, and maybe we'll get lucky, but it won't do us any good. We might not even get to the gate before the thirty-eight minute closed."
"No, but we could comm Atlantis, give them our situation, make sure Colonel Carter doesn't send through another jumper right into a Wraith ambush."
"Great," Rodney grumbled. "Any last words, anybody?"
"We're not going to die," John said.
Rodney gave him a look of disbelief. "Oh, really? You've received word from on high, because believe me, I'd love to have even an iota of your confidence."
"We're going to duck down into the atmosphere of Big Blue there, down past where the darts can go, and wait them out."
Rodney screeched. "Are you – you are insane! We'll need shields too and shields take energy. They can wait up there until the jumper goes POP!"
"And then they'll go away."
"Like we'll care at that point!"
John rolled his eyes. "I'm not stupid, Rodney. We're not going to stay down long, we're just going to fool them and go to cloak. You've got two hours to figure out a way to make them think we dove too deep and went, as you so elegantly put it, pop."
"Oh," Rodney said, nonplussed. "Hunh. That's not bad. Yes, I believe, yes, I can do that." He ducked his head and started typing. "Two hours?"
"Piece of cake," John told him.
He wasn't kidding though. Two hours was much more time than Rodney usually had to save the day and he wouldn't even be working with unknown equipment and technology. John had perfect confidence in him.
"Anything we can do?" Ronon asked from behind him.
John shrugged. "Dig out a couple of MREs. I'm sort of hungry."
An hour later Rodney looked up from his laptop, studied the display still showing the darts closing on their own position as they approached the gas giant. Clear beyond the holographic display, the vast blue-green curve filled half the view port, occluding everything else.
"Okay, I've got it. You'll need to let one dart get close enough to take a shot at us and hit. We'll cut power to one drive pod and vent some junk out the back hatch, which means sealing us up in the cockpit. As soon as as the hatch is closed again, you take us down into the atmosphere and I will burn out every sensor emitter we have generating a false explosive compression profile. We'll channel the energy from the shut down drive pod to the cloak and get the hell out."
John gave him a friendly slap to the shoulder. "Knew you'd come up with something."
"It will be crowded in the cockpit," Teyla observed. "Will we be trapped in the forward portion long?"
"It'll take a half hour for the jumper to regenerate pressure in the rear compartment," Rodney said. "And anything back there that isn't pressure sealed is going to explode, but the mess will blow out the hatch."
"I'll get the MREs and water," Ronon declared.
"Oh, good idea," Rodney said, perking up. "We may still have a long wait before the darts head back to the cruiser or the cruiser may decide to investigate."
"Don't jinx us," John told him.
"I will help," Teyla said. "We will need to choose what to vent. Rodney, should I – "
"You know what is expendable and what isn't," Rodney said. He looked honestly puzzled. "Teyla, you don't need to check with me. It's not like you're stupid."
The cabin went silent.
"Thank you, Rodney."
"Just go," Rodney muttered.
Ronon quietly left the cabin, followed by Teyla. Their voices carried, soft and not quite intelligible, from the rear compartment as they began securing the storage bins.
John opened another display showing the gas giant, the ice moon and the stargate along with their project course. He highlighted several points. "If we approach the atmosphere at this angle, we'll have a ten minute window with a direct line between the jumper and the stargate. Can you remote dial from there?"
Rodney's hands moved directly to the co-pilot's console where it meshed with the DHD controls at the center. "It's possible. Thank whatever gods you like for subspace comms. Radio wouldn't get there in time. Oh and talk fast. Actually, it might be better to record our message, encrypt and compress it, then send it. We don't want the Wraith finding out our plan, do we?"
John angled a look at him.
"Our plan?" he teased.
"I'm the one that always has to come up with a way to make your lunatic ideas work, so yes, our plan." Rodney's chin came up.
"Good enough and that's a good idea. Let's put together the message now."
The darts had crept disturbingly close by the time John finished recording their message.
"Teyla? Ronon? Anything to add?"
"No," Ronon said.
"Jennifer is aware of my wishes should I not return," Teyla explained. "I have left a recording."
Rodney loaded every sensor reading they'd taken, added a message for Zelenka and compressed the entire thing using the same protocol he'd once used to send last messages to Earth. John hoped this mission would end as well.
"Okay," he said and shifted course, diving the jumper toward the gas giant. It fills the entire view port. The jumper skimmed just above the atmosphere, where the magnetosphere captured charged particles and the resulting aurorae played over the poles. There was a thrill to it that never went away – spaceships! – no matter how much danger they were in.
Gravitic and proximity alarms started up. The darts were closing behind them. One took a shot though the jumper was still out of range and it had no effect.
Rodney's hands were already on the DHD, each triangular touch pad lighting under them as he pre-dialed Atlantis up to the last symbol.
"On my mark," John said as the jumper crested to the apex of the curve it had been following, approaching the critical window. It shuddered as the closest dart fired on them again, hitting the jumper this time. The shield pulled energy from the inertial dampeners for a picosecond. John watched the display and held their course, correcting it the way he breathed, unconsciously.
Rodney pressed the last symbol.
They were too far to see the stargate with their bare eyes, but the jumper's sensors registered the energy spike as the wormhole opened.
"Got it," Rodney said. "Sending now."
The dart fired again and the jumper jolted.
"Shield dropping ten percent," Rodney said. "Message away."
"Time for phase two," John said. "Teyla, Ronon, check the cockpit cabin seal, please."
He rotated the jumper on its horizontal axis and dived toward the atmosphere, still moving away from the dart as fast as possible. The blue-green color bled into opaque white as they approached the thermosphere and a pressure alarm began ringing along with the others.
"Can you turn that damn thing off?" he demanded as gravity caught the jumper and began pulling it down and they accelerated.
Rodney didn't even look up from the co-pilot's console. "I could but I think my time is better spent modulating the shield to compensate for the increased pressure. Pay attention."
Teyla settled into her usual seat, behind John. She reported, "Everything is secure."
"Strap in then. You better do whatever it is you do to block them sensing you too," John said. He checked the read-out. "Approaching the mesophere in twenty, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen..."
"They will not touch my mind," Teyla declared. John risked turning his head and met her determined look. Teyla hated being a weak link just as much as he did, as Ronon would, as even Rodney in his own way. He grinned at her and she settled back in her seat. They were a prideful bunch.
The first dart, the one with the real hot dog pilot, was following them down, trying to line up for the perfect kill shot. John jigged and zigzagged the jumper, all the while dropping deeper and deeper, friction against the shield burning into a white-hot light too strong for the eyes. The view port polarized black to protect them and his blinked away orange-white afterimages. The jumper began pulling energy from the inertial dampeners again to strengthen the shield and Rodney groaned.
"Don't barf," John told him.
"Stop trying to recreate the Cyclone ride."
"We're almost deep enough."
"I see that. My program is loaded."
"Entering the mesosphere," John said. He rolled the jumper sideways to the dart, hesitated the fraction of a second it would take the Wraith Baron Von Richthofen to gain a target lock, and kept rolling away.
The jumper shook, a tremble that communicated itself up through the stick and into John's hands, as the shield absorbed the hit and struggled to compensate for their speed, the increasing pressure, and the hit all at once.
"Now, Rodney!" John yelled. He cut the power to one drive pod.
Rodney's hand hit the hatch release and they vented the rear compartment's atmosphere and all the junk Teyla and Ronon had gathered: containers, bench seats, organics from the recycling system attached to the washroom, spare pieces of equipment, even the arms case. "Let it work, let it work, let it work," Rodney repeated to himself as his hands went to the synched laptop and he initiated the ECM program he'd put together, stabbing at the last button with panicky force. "Done! Cloaking now."
Half of John's sensor data disappeared.
"What the hell!?"
"I told you I'd burn out the emitters!" Rodney snapped. "What did you think that meant? Use the passive data."
John pulled the jumper out its suicidal dive, slowing and channeling the energy they'd built up into a curve that had them skimming along just within the mesosphere at a right angle from their previous course. He monitored the information provided by the passive sensors and grunted as an energy spike bloomed along their previous course. It looked like the Red Baron back there hadn't been able to recover before his dart reached its limits. No other darts had followed them in.
Despite the blaring alarms, the interior of the cockpit filled with the heavy silence of four people waiting, almost holding their breaths, as the seconds ticked away, taking them farther and farther away from the Wraith darts still outside the Jovian planet's atmosphere.
John finally blew out a stale breath and turned to face Rodney. Rodney kept studying his own sensor suite's remaining read-outs for another breath, then looked at John, his eyes wide. "What do you know, it worked."
"Don't sound so surprised," John told him even though he felt much the same.
"You fool them?" Ronon asked.
"Yeah, the rest of the Wraith should think we were shot down."
John rolled his shoulders to loosen some tension and flexed his hand on the stick.
"Shield's holding at eighty-eight percent. The patch route from the drive pod to the cloak is maintaining at ninety-seven point six, which is better than I could have hoped, and we still have absolute structural integrity," Rodney went on. "At this rate and altitude, we can stay here for forty-three point five hours, and still have enough power to achieve escape velocity and return to the stargate. How about that?"
"How about that," John agreed.
It looked like their plan was going to work. The Wraith, despite being long-lived, weren't much for patience. He doubted the darts would hang around more than a few hours. They only had so much life support aboard. Even the Wraith couldn't survive the cold of space or live without air. Besides, they were greedy bastards. The pilots would want to get back to the cruiser and on to the next culling and their share of the feast.
The alarms shut off. The quiet made John's ears ring though he'd become almost oblivious to their blare.
"And stay off!" Rodney muttered, lifting his hands away from his laptop theatrically.
Things were fine for about another minute before John caught a glimpse of their airspeed reading, compared it to the drive output and started calculated what could make that much difference. "Rodney..."
"I see it, I see it," Rodney muttered.
"Christ, is that the wind?" John said as he figured it out. He turned the jumper and let it go with the wind, watching their speed rise as they surfed at over six hundred kilometers per hour.
"Try to stay in the center of the zone," Rodney instructed. "The turbulence at the edges could catch us and we'd end up thrown into a storm bigger than Earth. If we end up in one of the belts, the jumper could get dragged down so far so fast, we might not have enough power to pull out."
"Not as easy as it looks," John muttered, keeping his hand on the stick, correcting and re-correcting as the wind tossed the jumper like a fleck of dust in a cyclone. Come to think of it, that was a pretty good description of what they were comparatively speaking. A speck of flotsam in the big, bad, beautiful universe. Even with inertial dampeners and the incredible technology of the Ancients, this was real flying, and John found himself grinning fiercely.
"Oh, great, you're getting off on this, aren't you?" Rodney commented.
"Six hundred kilometers per hour," John said as he righted the jumper. God, he was windsurfing on a Jovian planet! Sometimes his life won everything. The wind wanted to spin the cylinder shape of the jumper like a bullet, but the constant reorientation stressed the artificial gravity inside. He concentrated on maintaining a consistent attitude.
"Yes, well, some us aren't hardcore adrenaline junkies." Rodney sniffed. He looked out the view port at the roiling, streaming, green, blue, and white streaked clouds of water, methane and ammonia ice. "Blue, blue, why blue? The apparent percentage of methane isn't on par with a Uranian type atmosphere...Hmm."
"Hmm?" John prompted.
Rodney waved one hand. "Working with nothing but passive sensors means I'm having to speculate. I think I'm seeing trace parts per million of copper in some form. Certainly aerosol ammonia hydrosulphide, ethane, methane, hydrogen deuteride, before we get down to the helium and molecular hydrogen. Fascinating as the concept of helium and hydrogen acting like metals is theoretically, I have no desire to try to see it first hand.”
"What's that mean?" Ronon asked.
Rodney grinned. "Well, in a sense, if this planet had been just a little bit bigger, a little denser, it would have gone off like a bomb. A little more mass and this could have been a red dwarf. But I was talking about the weather, so to speak. Science is still undecided about Jupiter's meteorology, even my genius isn't up to deciphering that of an exoplanet in another galaxy in under thirty minutes." He snorted. "Please."
"What's...Uranian?" Ronon insisted. "And Jupiter? Or a red dwarf?"
"Oh." Rodney looked slightly embarrassed and John felt bad too. "A red dwarf is another name for a M-class main sequence star. Uranian refers to Uranus, a planet in our home system. So's Jupiter."
"And it's like this one," Ronon concluded. "So it could have turned into star if it had been a little bigger."
"Well, yes, in a broad sense."
Ronon sat back, apparently satisfied. A soft, melodic hum behind him told John Teyla had resorted to her iPod again.
John's fingers were beginning to ache, locked onto the stick, and the realization that he might have to keep this up for hour on hour, maybe an entire day, didn't seem so thrilling and fun any longer.
"How's the re-pressurization going on the rear compartment?" he asked.
Rodney checked. "Twenty minutes, but it's going to cold a hell of lot longer unless we waste a lot of power to reheat it. It isn't like that out there – " he waved at the storm of ice crystals they were flying through, " – is going to warm anything up. Minus one-forty Celsius when I just checked."
"Well, unless the medical kit was moved upfront, someone's going to need to retrieve it. I'm going to need something to keep me awake."
"We could switch off, do shifts...," Rodney offered. He trailed off as he watched John fly, the jumper constantly feeding data on its state through the pilot's console, and then his gaze drifted to the view port and the cold blue hell surrounding them. "Maybe not."
"No offense, Rodney – "
"I'm nowhere near a good enough pilot to handle this," Rodney stated. He turned. "Ronon?"
Ronon stood and awkwardly shifted several containers that had been piled between the second seats and the cabin hatch. He pulled one with a red cross emblazoned on it forth and set it on his seat. There was no room otherwise. "This it?"
Rodney craned his neck. "I think so. Let's hope no one helped themselves to the uppers that are supposed to be in there."
"Rodney," John growled.
"Come on, Colonel, your marines aren't any more saintly than my scientists."
John bit back an unkind comment about Rodney and uppers, because while he'd seen Rodney strung out on them, it had always been necessary and John had usually been jacked up too. Sometimes speed was all that let them get through a crisis. Hell, he was the one who was going to need them sometime in the next twenty-four hours.
And Rodney had it right: uppers were the favored drug in Atlantis population, military or civilian, anyway, after good old alcohol. He supposed he'd rather have someone stealing it than setting up an unauthorized drug lab somewhere in Atlantis.
"Looks like every thing's here," Ronon said. He tossed a bottle to Rodney. "This what you want?"
Rodney checked the bottle. "Yes. How did you – ?"
"Class?" Rodney echoed. "What class?"
"Cole and Bright gave a series of EMT classes a while back," John said. "I didn't know you'd gone to them."
"Seemed like a good idea." He could hear the shrug in Ronon's voice. "With Beckett gone..."
"Oh," Rodney said and tucked the bottle of uppers in his jacket pocket. He caught John watching. "Say when you need one."
Ronon closed the medical kit and set it atop the rest of the containers, then slumped back into his seat. "We're stuck until the Wraith leave?"
"Pretty much, buddy."
"I'm going to sleep then."
John concentrated on not getting caught in a wind shear. Rodney grumbled and then bent his attention to the read-outs, remarking, "We may as well learn something since we're here."
The chronometer read two hours and fourteen minutes later when the jumper began bleeping another alarm.
"I thought you shut that down."
"I did," Rodney snapped. "This is a different..."
The controls jerked under John's hands, but it wasn't a rogue gust of wind this time. The jumper was changing course on its own. John tried to wrestle it back under control, but gave up about the time his wrist started to creak. "We've got a problem," he said.
"What? Yes. This is...I'm registering a beacon."
"No kidding. Something just took over the jumper," John told him. He held up both hands to emphasize the whole 'not flying, not in control' part. The jumper did respond enough to show show a plot course and highlight a destination deeper within the mesosphere. Much deeper than John wanted to go, though just barely still within the jumper's pressure tolerance.
"Sheppard," Ronon said.
"Don't ask me."
Rodney typed, looked, typed, tried several things on the co-pilot's console, then leaned over and tried them on John's console. Nothing changed.
"Rodney?" Teyla asked as he slumped back into his seat, hands dropping to rest listlessly on his thighs. She'd yanked the earbuds from her ears and leaned forward. "What is it?"
Rodney lifted his hands. "Don't ask me. I mean, it's Ancient and it's locked some kind of automated approach protocol into the jumper, overriding the pilot's controls. It's taking us down to something, but I can't tell what. Maybe some kind of research station."
"You don't know," John said.
"No, I don't," Rodney replied, clearly annoyed. "You take great delight in pointing out that I don't know everything and any time I get anything wrong, so please, go ahead. Snicker. Mock. And when we all die a horrible, horrible death, you can blame it on me, because there's the joke: Rodney McKay isn't perfect or omniscient." The thread of bitterness in his words kept John from laughing.
"Rodney, we do not expect you to be perfect," Teyla said.
"Of course not."
John got it. They didn't expect Rodney to know everything or be perfect, not really, though they depended on him to figure something out when they were in trouble. Rodney was the one who expected himself to be perfect.
No wonder he was so screwed up.
They sat silently through the rest of the trip down to whatever had control of the jumper.
An obviously Ancient but bizarre looking installation finally appeared through the haze of slush and aerosols. Angular, iridescent bronze spikes reached out from a latticed central sphere surrounding seven toruses of graduated size, each turning within the circumference of the previous one. Lightning or something equally energetic flashed constantly within the toroids. Something like sails spread in veils between the points of the spikes, glimmering like the aurorae at the poles. The entire artifact spun, rolled, and bobbed constantly, swimming on the wind currents. It loomed closer and closer, filling the jumper's view port, glowing streaks and swirls of lights sparking off the jumper's shield, then curling around and encompassing it. As they did, the jumper's power usage dropped from near critical to near dormant. The wind howl that they hadn't heard or felt so much as sensed on some mental level disappeared. The spikes resolved into towers the size of the Sears Tower, etched with the patterns the Ancients had loved.
"Teyla, did I happen to load Strauss' 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' on your iPod?" Rodney asked. "Theme from 2001? I feel like I'm in a Arthur C. Clarke novel."
"Or maybe Niven," John said.
"Mmm, yes, though mostly I suspect we're being scripted by some Stephen King wannabe hack. Life-sucking vampires, really, it's so pulp era."
"It looks like a giant virus," John said.
"Oh, way to make me feel so much better!"
The jumper drifted nearer and nearer until a hatch irised open and they were inside the octagonal base of one tower. It settled into a docking bay with a jerk and a metallic clunk that was familiar from Atlantis.
"We're here, where or whatever 'here' is," John stated.
Rodney pointed to the power read-outs. "And the jumper's recharging, so we have some chance of getting away from here."
"Good to know."
"What is this place?" Teyla wondered.
From what John could see through the view port, the bay the jumper had come to rest in had no other openings beyond the hatch to the outside. A intricate mesh of silvery metal like that on Atlantis' control chair covered the entire interior of the bay except the various docking points. It looked like the bay had been equipped to accept more than one type of ship, but it didn't even have a floor, just one continuous interior wall.
"I wonder if this is what Metzinger's citation referred to," Rodney said.
The mesh lining the bay's wall began to flash with lights running along its strands.
"You know, I don't like the look of that," Rodney said.
"I think we should leave," Teyla added.
The lights grew brighter and began moving faster and faster.
"Yeah, me neither," John muttered. "Do you have any clue what – "
The mesh flared to blinding brightness, white filled his vision and then his brain, overwhelming and unbearable.