Word Count: 9500
Characters: Mostly Teyla & Rodney, with a little team.
Summary: Rodney and Teyla are stranded and captured, with a valuable burden to carry. Set in some vague season-five or post-season-five timeline (i.e. after Torren's birth).
Notes: This is another of my recently completed WIPs. I started writing it a year or so ago, then decided to resurrect it for sticksandsnark, but utterly failed to incorporate any of my recipient's prompts. Oops. So it's posted here instead.
The rain had stopped, and the absence of the steady pattering sound woke Teyla from a light doze. Rodney slept on, oblivious, shivering slightly in his sleep.
Moving slowly and carefully, she rolled away from his broad, warm back, pushing herself up on one elbow to look out of their cage. Through water-beaded pine branches, she could see patches of wan blue showing between the leaden gray clouds. There was a thin skim of ice on the puddles creeping in from the sides of the cage, turning its sandy floor to mud.
We are high, she thought. Her breath fogged in the air, and she tucked her hands under her arms to warm them. It had been near dawn when the horsemen had stopped to camp, dumping them both unceremoniously onto the rocky ground and building a quick cage of logs and lashed branches around them. With a knife, Teyla thought she could probably have made short work of it. In fact, even without tools, they could easily set themselves free given time and leverage enough.
But she had passed out on hitting the ground, the pain a knife-blade up her already broken leg. She'd come back to herself gradually, with her head in Rodney's lap, his hands fluttering lightly and anxiously over her face and hair with little nervous touches that were more annoying than reassuring.
And the horsemen would not leave them alone; there were always people bustling around the cage, fixing harness and tending horses and retying bundles of stolen goods, while others slept in rough woolen bed-rolls. Teyla had counted about twice as many men as women, but both genders wore the same bright-colored riding pants and coarse tunics mailed with overlapping iron scales; both carried short bows and heavy, curved swords. There were no children anywhere, so she guessed that the rest of the women, and anyone too old or lame to ride, must be elsewhere -- probably wherever they were headed.
"Horse" was Rodney's word for the beasts the raiders rode, as good a word as any. They were shaggy and light-bodied with nimble cloven hooves, and Teyla had not seen their like before. In all her trading through the gate, she'd encountered very few people who rode on the backs of beasts; domestic animals were often used to drag burdens, but the only other riding people she'd known were the desert nomads of Cleg, and their long-legged sand-striders were nothing like these hairy mountain ponies. The Corvani caravanners on the plains of this world had used goats to drag their caravan wagons, before the attack ...
Her mind was drifting. Teyla scrubbed her hands across her face, then looked ruefully at the muddy palms.
One of the horsemen knelt by the cage and shoved a shallow bowl between the bars, along with a chunk of dark bread. "Here. Eat." Their accent was stronger than most places she'd been -- Teyla had to listen very carefully to pick out the words, and Rodney couldn't understand them at all.
"Thank you." Teyla took the offering cautiously. The bowl, she found, contained a lumpy brown stew. The smell made her nauseous, but she was fairly sure that it was only her body's own illness turning her stomach. The food must have come from the steaming kettle hanging over the small, nearly smokeless fire burning in the middle of the camp, the same food everyone else was eating. Why bother keeping them alive just to poison them?
Rodney woke with a snort and rolled over, then groaned as he pushed himself into a sitting position, as far upright as he could get in the low cage. The small bundle that had been curled in the crook of his body was now shifted to his lap, and he kept a protective hand on it while rubbing his neck and shoulders with the other. "God, everything hurts. Is that food? What is it?"
"Stew, I believe." Teyla broke the bread and handed half to Rodney.
"What, they haven't invented spoons yet?" But he fell onto it without further complaint, the two of them dipping their bread in the bowl and sharing it between them. Their captors had not stopped riding the previous day to feed either their prisoners or themselves, just pushed on, with Teyla and Rodney lashed to their saddles. The whole thing was a hazy blur of pain for Teyla, her leg jarred continually with the riding beasts' rough stride. But at some point the flat steppe of the Corvani had given way to rugged cliffs and this damp cold.
"Still no damn gate," Rodney had muttered to her when the raiders paused to water their horses, huddling in on himself in cold, wet misery. "I'm starting to think this world doesn't have one."
"The world is large, and we've seen only a small part of it," she'd said, but it was hard to reassure Rodney when worry and fear gnawed at her own belly.
She saw Rodney looking at her in concern, so she dipped the bread in what was left of the stew and forced herself to swallow a few bites. She felt both hot and cold at once, an achy, ill feeling that made her head throb and her leg pulse in time to her heartbeat.
"Any idea where we are?" he asked in a loud whisper, peering out through the cage bars. It had begun to drizzle again, but this time the rain was mixed with snow, a light slush that melted when it hit the ground.
Teyla wanted to laugh, wanted to remind him that she'd been frequently unconscious during their ride; he was the one who had seen the countryside they'd passed on their way to this place. But he'd spent much of his time hanging over a horse upside-down, just as she had. "I do not know," she said finally. "I have never been here before, nor met these people."
"Can you talk to them? You know, convince them they've made a mistake?"
Teyla let her breath out in a long sigh, and held tight to her patience. Pain, worry and fear had worn her nerves ragged; she wasn't sure how long she could deal with Rodney being Rodney before she'd snap. "I have tried, Rodney. If I could convince them, I would have."
There must have been more bite in her voice than she'd intended, because he folded in on himself. "I know. I'm sorry, just -- I can't do anything, this isn't my ..." His mobile fingers fluttered lightly across the burden in his lap, as they'd done on her face the night before. Little touches, reassuring himself it was still there.
Their weapons and most of the rest of their gear had been left behind at the Corvani caravan, and what they hadn't been forced to abandon, the raiders had taken. But Rodney had fought like a wildcat when they'd tried to take that from him -- kicking and clawing at his attackers, his utter lack of skill matched only by his lack of self-preservation instinct. Teyla had managed to convince their captors that it was a religious artifact of their people, and they'd been allowed to keep it.
"I know," Teyla said, and though it worsened her pain, she scooted towards him. He met her halfway, shoulder to shoulder. They sat that way for a moment, his warmth seeping into her, and then she began to gather a handful of pebbles.
"Oh no," Rodney said, "not this again."
"I believe that you are beginning to master the rules." She began to lay out the nine-by-nine pebble grid for a Skip board. The game was played on many worlds; she'd taught it to Aiden, years ago, but John and Rodney always refused to learn -- at least until she ended up with Rodney as a, so to speak, captive audience.
"The rules are stupid. It's worse than Bridge." But he accepted the handful of pebbles that she gave him. "If I win, can we play tic-tac-toe instead?"
"If you win." She began to set up her swaps. "I do not know what you see in such a simple game, however."
"That's the whole point. There's no use wasting my brain on learning the arbitrary rules to a ridiculously complex game."
She was explaining, again, that one cannot use a Wraith swap to form a four-set without first taking two skips, when the horsemen came to dismantle the cage and drag them out into the wet, falling snow. This time, at least, they were allowed to sit up rather than dangling face-down. Their hands were tied in front of them, and they were given coarse woolen cloaks that helped stave off the loss of body heat. Once again Teyla had cause to curse her broken leg; uninjured, she could have easily overpowered the young woman in the saddle behind her. Surreptitiously twisting her wrists, she found that she was not tied with any great skill. But having watched the riders carefully, she doubted that she could control the fractious horse without the proper use of her legs.
These people were robbers and thieves, but they did not appear to be killers and she didn't think they were slavers, either. The hastily lashed-together cage had been more the sort of thing that one might use to restrain animals than human prisoners, and no one had been taken from the caravan except for herself and Rodney.
The jolting of her leg was a source of never-ending torment. She'd thought that riding in the caravanners' goat-carts had been torture, despite Rodney's grousing, as he walked alongside, that all she had to do was lie back and enjoy the ride. She had been able to feel every bump in the rough caravan road, but at least she'd been able to lie flat. And it had been warm.
She glanced over her shoulder to see how Rodney was enjoying this ride. He rode with all the grace of a sack of potatoes, hunched and miserable-looking. The cloth-wrapped bundle was tucked between his belly and his bound hands, with his forearms crossed over it, as if daring anyone to try to take it from him.
Around them, the snow had begun to collect on the ground, on the trees. It would have been quite lovely if she weren't so cold and uncomfortable, if her leg would stop hurting for just one Ancestors-be-damned minute.
Then the horses topped a rise and Teyla caught her breath, her pain forgotten. The view was gorgeous -- a vast amphitheater of a valley, with snow turning to rock turning to greenery on the warmer valley floor. Mist hung low in swatches and snatches across the rain-washed pastureland below them. Among a silver tracery of streams on the hillsides, scattered flocks of animals grazed, with the tiny forms of riders moving between them.
But what caught her eye most of all was the cluster of slender towers, crusted in green, rising from the middle of the great bowl of the valley. She knew immediately what she was looking at, overgrown and buried in vegetation though it was -- another Ancestral city, just like Atlantis and the one they had encountered whose people called it the Tower.
She looked over her shoulder again to see how Rodney was taking this, and saw him staring down into the valley with his mouth open. His grip tightened just a bit more on his valuable burden, clamping it against his body.
"It's a crater," Rodney said. "The whole valley ... We're sitting in a giant crater. This is what would have happened if we'd brought Atlantis into the atmosphere too quickly on our other planets -- if we hadn't had the ocean to land in."
He was pacing around the confines of their new prison, a round hut with stone walls and a tidy thatched roof. Teyla huddled next to the fire in the middle of the room, feeling pathetically grateful for the dry clothes they'd been given. Rodney had the data device tucked under one arm -- he refused to let it out of physical contact with him, even back while they were still traveling with the Corvani caravan -- and he gestured wildly with his free hand. Outside, rain pattered down, and thunder rumbled over the mountains.
"And this is why we haven't seen any sign of a Stargate on this planet! There isn't one, unless there's a spacegate. This must be how these people got here -- well, their ancestors, I mean."
"But that does not help us to find a way off this world," Teyla said, pulling him back on topic.
"No? I'm not so sure. There might be a functional gate in that city -- hmm, what to call it; I guess Atlantis-C would be a decent name for it, since we've already got an Atlantis-B on that planet with the gene bearers." Rodney cleared his throat. "Anyway, even if not, it's hard to believe there'd be nothing left. We've got to get them to let us into the ruins somehow. I might be able to rig up a subspace transmitter to contact the Daedalus, maybe even --" His voice trailed off and he looked down at the bundle tucked into the crook of his arm.
"How much time?" Teyla asked softly.
"Less than I'd like." Rodney's voice was grim, but quiet. They hadn't discussed the data device in front of anyone, particularly their captors -- neither of them wanted to risk having it taken away. "In the beginning, getting it to draw power from my laptop battery and the power supply from the scanner was the big hurdle -- it really isn't drawing much juice now, just enough to keep the data in the buffer intact. But it won't last forever, and since I don't have either the laptop or the scanner anymore, I don't have any reliable way to check how much energy it's used. At an outside, ballpark guess, I'd say maybe a month? If that." His voice began to rise on a panicky note. "And that's assuming that it hasn't been damaged in all the bouncing around, the rain, the --"
"Rodney." If she'd been close enough, she would have reached out to still him; as it was, she could only use her voice instead. "It will be all right. You can fix this." But, Ancestors, a month; that was much less time than she'd thought. No wonder Rodney had been going out of his mind with worry.
As it turned out, getting their captors to take them into the ruins wasn't hard at all. Staying together was the problem. When several of their captors tried to lead Rodney away, he hung back near Teyla until they attempted to drag him bodily from her. One of them made the mistake of trying to pry his hands off the data device; Rodney lashed out and hit him with an apparently lucky blow in the groin. Another of their captors, a short but heavily muscled woman, shouted and struck Rodney sharply across the face. He staggered, spitting blood, but didn't drop the device.
"Stop it!" Teyla gasped, hauling herself upright. "We must remain together! It is ... it is a -- a great taboo among our people to separate us. We have taken a vow!"
Well, it wasn't entirely a lie, she mused as she hobbled down the streets of the little mountain town, leaning heavily on Rodney's shoulder and gritting her teeth whenever her leg brushed the ground. John would have wanted them to stay together -- the promise was implicit, if not spoken aloud. And, if it came down to it, could the wrath of a god really be so much worse than the wrath of John Sheppard?
They were loaded into a small cart that jolted agonizingly over ruts as they passed through the lone, narrow gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the town, and started down into the valley. The rain had passed, for the moment, but puddles splashed under the cart's wheels. Despite the pain, Teyla was half-drowsing on Rodney's shoulder by the time they finally stopped. She woke with a jolt and looked up, and up, and up, at the moss-festooned towers above them.
Rodney spared only a cursory glance at the towers. Quiet and pale, he raised a hand to the bruise purpling the side of his face; with the other, he kept the data device clamped to his side. His eyes traveled over everything, cataloging it, examining it, but with only a shadow of the excitement and interest that she would normally have expected from him.
Teyla realized with a start how much the last few weeks had worn him down. She was all too aware of her own exhaustion and the wearing effects of constant pain and worry. Rodney didn't have her injury to deal with, but he carried, in a way, a heavier burden.
Teyla had a brief exchange with their captors, fumbling through their only-slightly-intelligible dialect. When she turned to Rodney, she could feel the grin trying to break out on her face; desperately she tried to stifle it. "They say that there is a device for traveling long distances in the ruins, but it was broken, long ago. The caravan people have spread stories that you can fix anything, so they came to steal you because they want you to fix it."
"Well, they have a funny way of asking --" Rodney broke off and goggled at her. "You mean they really do have a St--" He clapped his mouth shut; obviously he'd realized by now that just because he couldn't understand what was being said to him did not mean their captors couldn't understand him. "Damn," he muttered, tucking the data device under his arm to help Teyla out of the cart. "Fix one frikkin' broken water pump and the whole planet wants me for my brain. Story of my life."
But he looked more cheerful and less exhausted as they were led through a hole in the wall that appeared to have been knocked or cut out. Inside, the corridors were dark and crumbling and overgrown with moss, more like tunnels than the sun-drenched hallways of Atlantis that she missed so much. A flickering torch lit their way, making the walls dance around them, and adding to the sense of age and desolation. Teyla felt lethargic depression stealing over her once again, and it wasn't just because of the pain as she hobbled along on Rodney's shoulder. The idea that Rodney could restore anything in this ruined place seemed wildly far-fetched.
As they descended further into the bowels of the place, though, the walls were less overgrown, the corridors more intact. Teyla could recognize the similarities to Atlantis, particularly the distinctive, angular paneling in the more intact areas. The torchlight winked off copper and green, and she struggled with homesickness that was almost physically painful. Torren would be safe, with her people and all of Atlantis to protect him, but would he even remember her? Of course he will, she told herself, but she leaned more heavily on Rodney and tried to focus on the here-and-now.
"Oh, hello," Rodney said, sounding almost like his old self, and Teyla raised her head. The torches could not illuminate the huge space in front of them; Teyla glimpsed the light striking off what might be consoles in the darkness, but for the most part she just got an impression of depth, height, space. High above, she could see rays of sunlight shafting through large gaps where vines and weather, time and age had penetrated the tower above them. Somewhere she could hear water dripping.
"Can you sit for a minute?" Rodney asked. He eased her down, then deposited the wrapped bundle in her arms -- she could feel his reluctance as it slipped from his hands to hers, but it wasn't a lack of trust, she knew; just force of habit at this point. He started forward and the guards stopped him. A brief argument ensued, Rodney gesticulating wildly and pointing into the darkness ahead -- "How can I fix it if I can't even look at it, you moron!"
Teyla, intervening, finally managed to get them to acknowledge that there was nowhere to go, and promised that she would stay here as insurance against Rodney's good behavior. Then she sat on the floor while two young men waited with her, leaning against the wall and idly swapping gossip about girls and crops and the other raiders from the other towns that regularly raided them. One of the youths asked if she was comfortable. Teyla said that she was, yes, thanks -- but she did not take her eyes off the torchlight jerkily descending what must be a set of stairs. She was fairly sure she was looking at a gate room like Atlantis's, but couldn't be positive until the torchlight winked off the top half of a familiar arch; she could see it if she squinted and strained painfully up off the floor.
They could go home.
If Rodney could fix it, of course.
Now that their usefulness to the community was assured, Teyla found that they were given regular meals and a great deal of freedom of movement. The only thing they could not do was leave the town's palisade, except to go to "Atlantis-C" with an escort. They both were given matching yellow armbands and ordered to wear them. Many of the other people in this small town of stone-walled houses and tidy gardens wore them, primarily women. She gathered from asking questions that these were people from other towns -- some captured in raids, others merely immigrants. They were not quite slaves but not quite citizens, and they did much of the menial work -- hauling water, slopping night-buckets, working in the fields outside the walls in large groups under the supervision of a citizen-overseer. But they did not appear to be ill-treated, as far as she could tell. Most of them, she was told, would become citizens eventually.
Rodney was treated with nervousness bordering on reverence --the man from the sky, who could fix anything -- but Teyla easily got to know her fellow bondspeople and even some of the armed citizens who guarded them. The accent was becoming easier to understand as she gained more practice. The town was called Fehed, and its people were the Tay-no-Fehed; their town was part of a loose alliance in the area who shared mutual access to the ruins. As Teyla had correctly inferred from the defensive palisade around the town, fighting between the towns in the valley was common. They often raided each other to steal herd animals, "horses" and sometimes take captives. The valley was the only good grazing land in this part of the mountains, which meant that competition was fierce, and traveling anywhere required a difficult trek through mountain passes.
The Tay-no-Fehed, and the others in their alliance, hoped to give themselves a powerful advantage if they could obtain another way in and out of the valley.
"They do not know the gate goes to other worlds," Teyla said. She was sitting at the top of the stairs in Atlantis-C's gateroom, holding the data device in her lap and watching Rodney work. They had been in Fehed for about a week now and for the most part were left alone; there was a single bored-looking citizen-guard sitting in the doorway to keep an eye on them, though at the moment he was reading a book by the light of the candles and oil lamps that Rodney had brought in to light up the area. He wasn't close enough to hear them as long as they pitched their voices low.
"No, and I don't think it's a good idea to tell them, either," Rodney said. "Why rock the boat? Let them get a surprise."
"They will get more than a surprise if the Wraith come through the gate. Rodney, I do not know if this is ethical."
Rodney popped his head out from under a console, his hair in disarray and a long smear of dirt across his stubbled cheek -- he'd given up on shaving after his first experience with a straight razor, and was growing a patchy, feeble excuse for a beard. "Excuse me? This is going to get us home."
Teyla cleared her throat and nodded pointedly at their guard.
Rodney coughed. "Sorry," he said, more quietly. "The thing is, the Wraith already know about this planet. We wouldn't be here if they didn't!"
"But they do not cull here often. The Corvani said that the hiveship that brought us was the first to cull them in generations. Without a Stargate on this world, the Wraith must fly here, and they do not often bother since it is less effort for them to cull a more accessible world. And while the Corvani spoke of cullings in their own past, the Tay-no-Fehed do not -- I think the Wraith may not have discovered this valley at all. We may be opening them up to a slaughter."
Rodney looked as if he wanted to argue, but he sighed and leaned his head against the console. "Maybe this gate has a shield like the one on Atlantis? Or maybe we could tell them to bury the gate after we go through. I don't know, Teyla. We're racing a clock here."
"I know," Teyla said quietly, folding her hands over the burden in her lap. She lowered her voice still further, though the Tay-no-Fehed guard showed no interest in their conversation. "How is that coming?"
"Power is the big issue," Rodney said. "Also the big problem with the gate, incidentally. I've had our friendly neighborhood prison guards searching the ruins for ZPMs -- well, obviously I haven't told them what they're looking for, but I described it. So far they're coming up with nada, nothing, and zip. Even if they can find a ZPM that's not completely depleted, these power conduits are horribly corroded. We're likely to blow up the gate the first time we try to dial it -- which incidentally would take care of your ethical problem."
Teyla looked above them, thoughtfully, up into the tower. "You people of Earth always like to use ZPMs or your naquadah generators, but there are many worlds that rely on other sources of power. Wind, for example, or water."
"We have that on Earth, too," Rodney said impatiently. "But you don't understand how much power the gate draws. It's just not enough. Although ..." He trailed off, following her gaze up into the tower. "There is a lot of wind here. Not so much down on the valley floor, but up where those towers are ... oh, hell, I'm an idiot." His mouth dropped open. "I must be tired, because I'm overlooking the elephant in the room. Remember the storm?"
"Which storm?" Teyla asked, though she also wanted to ask Which elephant? just to see him sputter. They had traveled through many storms with the Corvani; this was a stormy world.
Rodney waved his hands around, the way he did when his brain went faster than his mouth. "The big one, back on Old Lantea, with the Genii -- work with me here, Teyla!"
And she got it then. "Lightning," Teyla said.
"They get a lot of rain here. And thunderstorms. I'm sure this city still has lightning rods, like Atlantis does; the problem is getting the power where we need it, and not burning out the whole system in the process. We may only get one shot at it." Rodney had begun to pace. Now he paused, and looked down at the item she was holding. Going suddenly quiet, he came and sat next to her on the stairs.
"What is wrong?" Teyla asked after a moment. His silence was beginning to worry her.
"That's what's wrong." Rodney stabbed a finger at the data device. "Like I said, if we go with the lightning plan, we're probably going to get one shot at it before we burn everything out. And trying to power up the gate is way, way trickier than just powering up one console. It'd be a lot more of a sure thing to try to bring that thing online and forget about the gate."
Teyla took a slow breath, let it out. "We have to choose."
Rodney nodded. "If we don't choose the gate, we'll probably be trapped here for the rest of our lives. Heck, if we do choose the gate, we might be trapped here anyway, if the power conduits blow up as soon as the juice hits them."
"And then we would have no power to use for any other purpose."
Rodney deflated, slumping until his shoulder touched hers. "No, and probably no ability to try the same trick again until after a whole lot of repairs I don't have the tools or materials to make. Basically, we can gamble on the long shot that might give us everything -- or the option with the better odds that can give us --" He nodded at the data device. "... them."
Torren, Teyla's heart cried, a single wrenching instant of unbearable pain. Then her arm curled over the precious burden that she carried. "Rodney, it is no choice at all. Getting home is not our first priority."
"Are you sure? You're the one who's got the most to ..." He saw the look on her face, and went silent, then ran a hand over his jaw, scraping across the stubble. "You're right. We can always take another try at the gate, if this doesn't work."
"Of course we can," Teyla said, knowing the odds were not good, knowing also that they needed the hope or they would never try at all. "Of course."
Thunderstorms were an almost-daily occurrence now, but the Tay-no-Fehed told her that the storms would taper off as they headed into winter. Rodney is right, Teyla thought -- they would have one shot at this, and no more, at least not until next year. Torren will be walking by then, she thought, and then banished that thought down to the depths of her brain, where it could not hurt her with its sharp edges.
Trying to explain to the Tay-no-Fehed what they need done, without explaining what they actually hope to accomplish, was tricky. If there was one thing Rodney was good at, though, it was ordering people around, and soon he had a dozen volunteers up in the tower, cleaning moss and dirt and birdshit out of the conduits that would soon, if all went well, carry energy down to the gate room.
Teyla wasn't able to help with the major repairs, but she spent a lot of time wedged under consoles, cleaning crystals and reconnecting power conduits under Rodney's directions. Her leg was healing, she could tell, but she was reluctant to try her weight on it yet. She was also more concerned than she wanted to share with Rodney at how badly her muscles had atrophied in the weeks of forced inactivity since she'd broken it trying to stop one of the Corvani's runaway goat carts. The cart had been stopped, the children in the cart unharmed, and the Corvani had set it well, but that was before the raid and the rough ride over the mountains. She knew that it would be well in time, but would it heal straight, or would she always limp? Would she ever again regain the fleetness and grace that she'd enjoyed since childhood?
Drawing a breath and letting it out in the darkness beneath the console, she reminded herself that her own health was not the most important thing. If they were able to return to Atlantis, then certainly the healing technology of the Ancestors would be able to fix the damage. And if not ... well, there were worse things than limping.
As if in response to her thoughts, a familiar hand patted at her good leg. It was strange, Teyla thought as she slid out from under the console, how familiar she'd become with Rodney over the past three months they'd traveled together. She could pick out his touch from a dozen random strangers brushing her in a crowd, could recognize his voice through the babble in a crowded room. Lying on the floor, her head finally free of the console, she squinted up at him in the flickering light of a half-dozen lamps scattered around the room. The changes had been so imperceptible that she hadn't really been aware of them as they traveled, but he'd slimmed down and hardened; the hand that he reached down to help her sit up was dirty and callused. His beard was growing in, and his hair was getting long enough that he'd impatiently tied it back with a piece of string; it still stood up in fluffy abandon on top, though. Wearing a tunic of brown and red Fehed homespun, he looked nothing at all like the scientist who'd sat down opposite her in the jumper three months ago, taking off on a mission like any other, before their world turned upside down.
Oblivious to her scrutiny, Rodney squatted beside her with an unconscious grace and economy of movement that he probably didn't even realize he'd picked up through all that walking and horseback riding. He was wearing the data device in a sling against his side. The Tay-no-Fehed seemed to have eventually accepted the religious-duty explanation and hadn't bothered them further about it.
Rodney kept his voice low, with frequent glances at their guards and the assistants clambering around on the scaffolding up in the tower. "I think we're pretty much done. I've got them doing busywork right now -- they don't realize it, of course. All I have to do is connect the final set of leads and we'll be in business. All we need now is a storm."
"One rarely needs to wait long for that, in this valley," Teyla said.
Rodney gave her a tired ghost of a smile. "True. Though they already seem to be tapering off ... but no, no, think positive, Rodney." He smacked himself in the forehead with a grimy hand. "Now it's just a matter of waiting, and making sure that we're here when the storm hits."
"I could also appreciate some food."
They emerged into the light of a brilliant sunset, with thunderheads mounting in the blood-colored sky, already obscuring the upper peaks of the mountains across the valley. Teyla jerked her head at them; she saw Rodney nod, and then he beckoned over the nearest of their guards. "Teyla, tell him that I think I'm nearing a breakthrough -- I think we should work into the evening."
Teyla translated. The man frowned. "You won't have anyone to help you. The stock have to be brought in, and people will want to spend the evening with their families."
"I know. But Rodney is very stubborn when he gets his mind set, and ..." Teyla leaned a bit closer. "He can be rather difficult when he is frustrated, as I'm sure you have noticed."
She could see by the looks on the faces of everyone within earshot that they had, indeed, noticed. After a little more conferring, the guards agreed to have some food brought down from the town, and Teyla promised that they'd finish their work by midnight. If this storm hadn't broken by then, it probably was headed out onto the plains rather than down into the valley anyway.
They ate sitting outside, in a freshening breeze. The far side of the valley was obscured with a curtain of rain, and lightning danced in the clouds as the sky darkened. Their guard had changed, and there were more of them than usual -- a young man and woman with short bows and a no-nonsense look about them, and an older man whose name Teyla did not know, but she'd seen him around and knew that he was closely involved with the town's defenses against raiders.
"They think we are planning something," she murmured to Rodney. "They have not had this many guards on us since we began working on the city."
"We are planning something," he retorted. "Now listen. Are you sure that -- I mean, you're totally on board with using the power for the --"
"Yes, Rodney. I am. How can you ask me that?" She regarded him steadily until he looked away.
"I thought you were. I just needed to know that we were both on the same page here." He stood and brushed himself off, then gave her a hand up and passed her the single wooden crutch that the Tay-no-Fehed had given her. Teyla glared at the hated thing, but it was better than leaning on Rodney's arm like some kind of appendage.
The Atlantis-C gateroom had become very familiar to her over the last couple of weeks, and outwardly it was still just the same: the flickering lamps, the dead consoles with their wires pulled out in hanks, the makeshift scaffolding in the tower. But tonight there was an oppressive sense of expectation, a tension that even their guards seemed to feel -- they milled around restlessly, not talking to the two prisoners, but glancing skyward every time that thunder rolled faintly outside.
Rodney got Teyla settled by the main console that they'd decided to power up. "I'm going to hook up the main leads now," he said, nodding upwards to the tower above them. "I can't afford to wait until the lightning actually starts striking us, because whatever unlucky sap is up there when it hits is gonna get fried."
"Are you in danger?"
"Not -- much? I mean, to the extent that being a hundred feet off the ground with nothing between me and a fatal drop but a rope made out of cow hair is ever going to be safe. But if I don't get up there now, it's going to be even less safe. And it's not like you can go up there with, you know, the leg."
"I know. Please be safe."
Despite or possibly because of his dubious reassurances, Teyla kept an eye on him until he was back on the ground. Meanwhile she busied herself checking connections on the console. She was surprised at how well she understood this work now; she'd been making a good start on it back on Atlantis, but the last couple of weeks had been a crash course in emergency Ancestral systems repair.
Rodney touched down on the gateroom floor with visible relief and stripped out of the makeshift rope harness, then came trotting up the stairs. Thunder crashed nearby, making them both jump. "I think we're pretty much ready to go," he muttered, bending over the console so that he could talk to her with his head turned away from the guards. "Connect those two wires to that crystal there, while I get this side."
Teyla did so, watching out of the corner of her eye as Rodney knelt behind the console, visible to her but hidden from the guards. He slid the Wraith data device out of its sling onto the floor and began to hook up wires to it, fastening it to his improvised interface hidden in the guts of the console.
"Are you sure ..." Now that they were so close, Teyla's throat was tight with the awareness of how horribly, catastrophically everything could go wrong. "What if the power surge from the storm damages it?"
"Oh, it absolutely would," Rodney said, and her heart jumped into her throat, "if I didn't have about a dozen systems in place to modulate the power. Believe me, the console will only power up if it can do it without blowing anything out, and the storage device only gets power if the console gets power. I'd be more worried about what Larry, Curly and Moe over there are going to do when things start happening, because believe me, once the lightning starts to hit the tower, it's going to be really obvious that something's happening. And actually, there's another problem that's going to come up in the unlikely event that this actually does work."
"Wraith," Teyla said immediately. She'd been thinking quite a lot about this; she'd had plenty of time while wedged under consoles to think about things that could go wrong.
Rodney gave her a sharp glance of mingled surprise and resignation. "Yes, somehow it doesn't surprise me that you've already thought of that particular issue. I'm sure it also hasn't escaped your notice that we're completely unarmed."
"Do not worry, Rodney. I will take care of them. They will be very confused, and I believe that I can magnify their confusion and keep them paralyzed for a short period of time."
"How long is a 'short period of time'?"
"How likely is it that the lightning will power up the console without blowing out anything important?" Teyla countered.
"Uh ... I don't know? I've never tried anything like this. I can't give you more than a rough ballpark figure --"
"Neither can I, Rodney."
"All right, fine, point taken." He glanced past her shoulder; Teyla flicked a glance too. The older guard was walking their way. "Psst, company."
Rodney pulled an access panel off the console and stuck his hands into the opening, blocking the guard's view of the Wraith device, while Teyla swiveled her body around to intercept him. "Hey," the guard said. "You just about done? Doby just went outside and the storm's getting bad. If we want to make it back to the village, we'd better leave soon."
"We have a few more tests to run," Teyla said.
The guard leaned on the console; Teyla surreptitiously shifted her position to keep herself between him and Rodney. "Look, you folks didn't grow up in these mountains," the guard said. "I did. We can get flash flooding, landslides -- you name it. I don't want to try walking that trail in the darkness in a storm like this, and I don't think you do either."
A deafening clap of thunder made them all look up. Teyla's eyes lingered on the dark heights of the tower, looking for the telltale flicker of electricity, but so far all was calm.
"Tell him I just need to find out why the power's not getting from the upper level to the gate," Rodney said impatiently. "And I'm nearly done with this diagnostic. If I have to start all over again tomorrow, it'll cost us almost a full day."
"He says --"
"I understood him." The guard frowned at them both. Teyla could see the suspicion in his eyes; he clearly knew that something was wrong, but they weren't doing anything that was noticeably different from what they'd been doing every day for weeks.
The woman shouted something from the doorway that Teyla wasn't quite familiar enough with their dialect to catch. The guard's frown grew darker. "Well, apparently it's raining hard now and the trail's getting dangerously slick. I guess we're here 'til the storm passes, so I hope you know what you're doing."
With a final withering glare, he turned and stumped off to talk to the woman. Teyla slumped on the console and then leaned over to ask Rodney, "When do we start getting power?"
"I don't know. I thought we already would've --"
There was another deafening crack of thunder, and this time, the tremendous crash was accompanied by a sound that made Teyla think of a giant piece of canvas being ripped in two -- a crackling, tearing sound. Light dazzled her eyes, racing down the tower in a series of zigzags. All the consoles around them flickered suddenly to white-blue brilliance for a fraction of a second, then just as suddenly died. Something exploded high overhead, and Teyla covered her head while Rodney sheltered the Wraith device from the debris raining down around them.
"What's happening?" the guard bellowed across the room.
Rodney must have gotten the gist of it, because he yelled back, "The lightning just blew one of the circuits we repaired today! This -- this is bad! You need to send someone out to let me know what the tower looks like from the outside!"
He wasn't a bad liar, when he put his heart into it. Teyla started to translate, but broke off as another explosion echoed around them. The consoles flickered to life again; when they flashed out this time, the console under her elbow stayed alight. "Rodney," she gasped.
"I know, I know!" His hands flew over the keys, bringing up a schematic on the flickering screen.
Lit by blue-white flashes, the guard crossed the room towards them, shouting, "We all have to get out of here! This place is coming down around our ears!"
"Just a minute!" Teyla shouted desperately. "He's trying to fix it so that the -- the whole place doesn't explode! If you make him leave --"
The guard seized her arm. "Do you understand? If we don't leave now, we're going to die!"
"If we leave we will die!" Teyla protested, struggling with terror that wasn't entirely feigned. They were so very close --
"Teyla," Rodney said sharply, a note of warning. Teyla turned her head to see a silvery Wraith-beam stab from Rodney's interface out into the room, sweeping through the open space in the middle of the circle of consoles. Startled, the guard yelled and let go of her arm. The intense, dizzying awareness of Wraith hit Teyla, and she swayed, her eyes fixed on the figures left standing in the wake of the beam -- a cluster of Wraith drones, and two not-Wraith that drew her attention: John and Ronon, both of whom stood still for a moment and then keeled over as the stunning effects of the dematerialization caught up with them.
Teyla heard a wordless yell of triumph from Rodney, a babble of startled and threatening shouts from their guards, but she'd closed her eyes and fallen back against the console. The Wraith were, as she'd hoped, confused and stunned. Their connection with their Queen had been severed -- the Queen, and the hive, were probably many light-years away by now -- and they had no idea what to do. So she swooped in. Be still! she ordered them, and pictured them as weeds in a gale, flattened beneath the blast of her will. Do not move! I am your Queen! Await my command! DO NOT MOVE!
She'd gone mind-to-mind against a Queen; these simple minds were easy to seize. But, as she knew from experience, the hard part was holding them. They squirmed inside her like insects crawling under her skin.
Around her, sounds had gone slow and muffled, as if they reached her ears through water -- a dim, meaningless babble that resolved slowly into shouts, thumps, distant explosions. Something struck her forehead, a sharp flicker of pain that snapped her head back. She could not spare the attention to care, but she managed to free enough of her mind to crack her eyes open. Light, shadow, movement -- a blaze of sparks -- a shadowy figure that turned out to be Rodney, standing, holding Ronon's blaster in both hands; he must have taken it off Ronon while she was distracted. Red light dazzled her and the deep thump-pow! of the gun hit her eardrums a moment later. Something exploded overhead; Rodney turned and screamed her name -- she saw it in flashes, as if illuminated by a strobe light -- and she rolled to the side, rolled right off the console that was holding her up and landed on her back on the floor.
The pain was awful, a white sheet that came down across her eyes, her mind. For a minute there was nothing, nothing but the pain and the desperate need to hold tight to her control over the Wraith. If they broke free, then they'd kill her, kill Rodney, kill her team --
As her mind began to clear, she became aware of a thin line of cold steel pressed to her throat. Teyla blinked, squinted. The older of their guards crouched above her; she could see the stubbly point of his chin, the dark rumpled sleeve of the arm that held the sword against her exposed neck. Without moving her head, she rolled her eyes towards her toes, trying to see what else was happening. In the periphery of her vision, through a veil of her eyelashes, she could just make out Rodney -- looking terrified and defiant, pointing the blaster at them with his awkward two-handed grip.
Sound became words; words became speech, became a voice above her saying, "What have you done? Doby and Charma are dead, and if you really think you can shoot me before I cut her throat --"
"They're not dead, they're stunned, you moron, and I wouldn't even have had to do that if they'd've dropped their weapons when I told them to." Rodney's voice was ragged with desperation and fear. "Look, just let her go. All we want to do is leave your backwards, muddy planet; that's all we've ever wanted--"
By that point, Teyla managed to scrape together enough concentration to snap up her arm in a move she'd often practiced with Ronon, breaking the guard's hold on his weapon. The sword clattered to the floor -- she felt the sting as it nicked the side of her neck -- and she flipped him onto his back. "Rodney!" she gasped, feeling her grasp on both the Wraith and the struggling guard slipping. "Stun him!"
She let go just as the red light coursed over the guard. He convulsed and went still. Teyla's fingertips tingled with pins and needles. She looked up; Rodney was staring at her.
"Your, uh -- neck is bleeding," he managed.
Teyla shook her head wildly. Her hair had come loose from its ponytail and swung in her face. "It does not matter! The Wraith --" She had to stop talking; their scattered minds were spinning out of her control -- it was like trying to keep her hands on a dozen marbles, all rolling in different directions.
But Rodney got her point; he braced his feet and flipped the blaster to its "kill" setting before firing at the Wraith -- out of Teyla's sight but, unfortunately, not out of her mind. "Some help would be really nice here!" he yelled in the general direction of their comatose teammates.
Teyla gritted her teeth as black spots danced in her vision. Four of the Wraith were down, and five more still standing, struggling against her control. She had not expected so many. The pain in her leg clamored for her attention, sawing at her concentration with small rasping blades. She wondered if she'd rebroken it when she'd fallen. "Rodney, that one -- I can't hold --"
Two of them broke free at the same time. They did not know where they were or what their Queen's orders would be, but they recognized a human enemy when they saw one. They went left and right; the one on the right raised its stunner, and Rodney oriented on that one, firing at it -- he damaged its arm, knocking the stunner out of its hands. But the other one was leaping for him --
Ronon reared up, right under its boots; he seized it and threw it down the gateroom stairs. The Wraith bounced out of sight. Teyla heard an ugly crack as it hit, and felt its awareness extinguished at the back of her mind.
It was obvious that Ronon had been, as John might say, acting on autopilot -- now he stood swaying, looking around. Teyla could see his quick mind sizing up the situation as he shook off the lingering fog of the stun. The Wraith that had tried to shoot Rodney was on the move; Rodney fired at it twice, missing both times and blowing holes in the wall.
"Give me that," Ronon said impatiently, and Rodney threw the blaster at him. The throw was misaimed, but Ronon leaned and caught it anyway. Four quick shots took out all of the remaining Wraith, the three that weren't moving and the one that was. Teyla felt each one die, a sharp pain and a relief at the same time, and sagged back into the console. Her mind was her own again.
Ronon lowered the gun and seemed to come fully to himself.
"Hiveship. Lost the jumper. We escaped, but --" he trailed off, rubbing his head and looking around him. "Where -- This isn't Atlantis."
"No kidding. Long story. Really long story." Rodney scrambled over to John, knelt down to smack him sharply in the face. John made a gargling noise. "Sheppard! Wake up! Wake up, damn it." Rodney leaned forward, shielding John's face from falling debris. "Hey, sleepyhead, get with it!"
Teyla heard John say something garbled and sleepy, ending in a querulous "... Rodney?"
"Yes yes, hiveship, escape, et cetera; Teyla and I shot down the dart that nabbed you, and you've been in a Wraith data buffer for three months. Now I need to --" His head snapped up and he scrambled to his feet, trading places with Ronon, who'd come unsteadily to his side. "Get him down to the gate," he said, pointing, and ran to the console where Teyla was leaning.
"Three months?" Ronon repeated.
"Busy!" Rodney snapped without looking over his shoulder.
Looking up, Teyla saw the blue glow of the console bathing his face, and for the first time in all of the action, she realized the console had never powered down. She felt as limp and wrung out as an old dishcloth, but managed to find the strength to ask, "Rodney, where is the power coming from?"
"I saved it," he said breathlessly, typing as quickly as he could. "Too long to explain. Didn't know if it'd work. Under some conditions the crystal network can act like a battery, well, really more of a capacitor, but it's very limited and temporary -- like I said, no time to explain -- I can't believe it worked!" He ran to another console, the one with the DHD, and began hitting the big keys with the Ancestors' gate symbols.
The symbols around the edge of the gate lit up. Teyla could smell a burning reek of frying electrical components. "Rodney --"
"I know, I know! Ronon, tell me you have your GDO and radio, please."
"I have my GDO and radio," Ronon said, hauling a woozy John down the stairs with one of John's arms slung over his shoulders.
"I expect a full report when we get home," John slurred.
"You can have it in rhyming couplets if you want, I don't care, if this just works!" Rodney hit the last key, and Teyla held her breath, only to let it out in a tremendous sigh as light flooded from the gate into the room. It flickered and then settled into the rippling blue pool of an active wormhole. Teyla didn't think she'd ever seen a more beautiful sight.
"Atlantis just sent back confirmation, McKay!" Ronon called up the stairs.
"Well, go, go, go! We don't have much time -- seconds, maybe; minutes at the most!" Rodney ran to Teyla, and knelt to scoop an arm under her shoulders. "C'mon, c'mon, hurry, hurry."
"We're waiting for you!" Ronon called.
"Well, stop that!" Rodney yelled back, grasping Teyla firmly around the ribcage. She threw an arm over his neck. "Sorry, sorry," he muttered, hauling her to her feet. "This is gonna hurt. Where's your crutch?"
"I do not need it. There is no time." She leaned on him, and clenched her teeth not to cry out or complain. But she couldn't help glancing back at the slumped bodies of the stunned Tay-no-Fehed. "Rodney, will they be all right?"
"They'll be fine," Rodney snapped. "The Wraith are dead and the storm's almost over. They'll wake up with headaches and -- sorry!"
She'd slipped on the slick coating of moss and moisture on one of the stairs, stifling a cry of pain behind her teeth. Her leg was a constant blaze of agony now. She'd definitely cracked the bone open again when she'd fallen.
But they were returning to Atlantis -- beautiful Atlantis, with beautiful, beautiful drugs. And Torren. And drugs.
"McKay!" Ronon bellowed.
"We're coming! Just go!"
They'd reached the bottom of the stairs, and Ronon finally went, dragging an uncooperative and muzzily protesting John.
As Rodney helped Teyla across the short distance separating them from the gate, she reached her hand up and spread her fingers in his long hair, drawing his head down to press his face against hers, temple to temple. She felt his beard rasp against her cheek. He was warm and solid, and she leaned into him, feeling him lean back into her.
"I knew that you would get us home," she said quietly, into the fuzz on his cheek. "All of us."
He laughed, sharp and shaky. "Well, that makes one of us, then."
Teyla smiled, and felt the corner of his mouth move against hers, tugging into a reluctant smile that followed her into the vastness where the stars swim -- and through, and out, into a brilliant Atlantis afternoon.