Recipient: x-varda-x

Pairing: light Rodney/Jennifer UST (mostly gen)

Rating: PG-13

Word count: 26,500

Warnings: Blood, graphic violence, OC deaths

Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis, the characters and universe are the property of the Sci-Fi Channel and MGM.

Summary: On a diplomatic mission, Rodney, Jennifer and Teyla are overnight guests in a cliffside fortress. When darkness falls, an attack leaves Rodney a severely injured prisoner, and Jennifer and Teyla must get him back -- even if it means braving the lethal catacombs beneath the fortress with nothing but a couple of P90s plus wits, skill and luck.

Notes: Takes place in early season five, after Daedalus Variations but before The Shrine. Some of the influences on this story include Barbara Hambly's "Darwath" series and the Shrike from Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels. *bows to more talented authors than myself* x-varda-x wanted Rodney het UST (preferably Rodney/Jennifer), Rodney h/c with lots of blood, female POV, an action plot, and Jennifer with a P90. I hope this suits!

"Oh my God, we're in Darwath," Jennifer murmured, staring at the looming fortress as it grew -- and grew, and grew -- in the jumper's windshield.

The fortress was built from the rock of the cliffside itself. Jennifer couldn't even imagine how they'd done it -- the rock appeared to flow smoothly from rough crags into a sleek, blocky exterior, nearly devoid of surface features. It reminded her not only of her minds-eye picture of the fortress in Barbara Hambly's Time of the Dark but also, perhaps even more so, of a Borg cube ship that had crashed into the cliff so hard it had fused with it. There were a few narrow windows and balconies, but for the most part the surface was featureless except for a pair of huge doors at the fortress's lower end, opening onto a large courtyard. Several roads wound down from the cliff into the patchwork of farmland and forest below.

"Reminds you of where?" Rodney asked absently, maneuvered the jumper in for a surprisingly skillful landing in the courtyard.

"Darwath? You haven't read Hambly? Wow, Rodney -- a sci-fi reference you don't get?" Leaning forward in her seat, Jennifer grinned. "Must be too literary for you."

"Well, excuse me if I'm too busy using my brain for more important things than memorizing obscure bits of science fiction trivia."

Jennifer could see that Teyla, in the shotgun seat, was struggling to suppress a smile. "No, Rodney," Teyla said. "You have certainly never done such a thing."

Jennifer bit the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling. Rodney gave the two of them a suspicious glare and then palmed off the jumper's console. "In any case, here we are. The two of you can do your thing, and I can see if there's anything interesting in the Fortress of Solitude here."

At that, Jennifer lost control of her giggling. "What?" Rodney demanded.

Teyla patted his shoulder and rose gracefully from her seat. "I will see if the elders are about."

Jennifer tried, as usual, and failed, as usual, not to be a teensy bit jealous of Teyla's grace and poise -- and her rapport with Rodney. Teyla had known him for five years, after all, and sometimes it was hard not to feel a little left out. The two of them left together, Rodney still sputtering, and Jennifer went to check on her boxes of medical supplies strapped into the jumper's cargo bay, giving herself a minute before going to join the others outside.

When she walked down the jumper's ramp, she found herself in a large plaza tiled in swirling patterns of red and white stone. Beyond the plaza, the valley fell away beneath her, a scenic crazy-quilt of tawny farmland and trees on fire with autumn colors in a host of shades both familiar and strange. A brisk mountain wind, with an underlying hint of frost, made her shiver and pull her uniform jacket more tightly around her shoulders.

Teyla was talking to a couple of tall, silver-haired individuals in flowing knee-length coats -- the elders, Jennifer guessed. She caught snatches of Teyla explaining that she and her companions were travelers from far away who would like to trade useful medical services, in return for allowing Doctor McKay to examine the fortress.

The Neserti had occasionally traded with Teyla's people in the past. According to Teyla, they were a farming and herding people who did some light trading through the gate for things they couldn't grow or manufacture themselves. One thing that was known to their trading partners, however, was that they had colonized an abandoned Ancient structure of some kind in order to hide from the Wraith. Rodney wanted to look at it, and Jennifer had been doing a number of goodwill trips lately to provide medical services to Atlantis's trading partners, so she'd volunteered to offer her own skills in exchange for Rodney being able to examine the fortress.

Skilled labor had actually turned out to be one of the most valuable trading commodities that Atlantis had to offer. Most of the material things they could offer in trade were things that could already be easily obtained -- food and other necessities -- or were prohibited by the IOA from being used as trade items, such as guns or controlled medical substances. But Atlantis was full of highly trained specialists with skills ranging from surgery to agriculture to battle strategy. They had discovered that most of the gate-connected worlds were happy to trade for a few days of the botanists' time, or for a doctor to provide care to a village's children.

Jennifer would have cheerfully provided the medical care in any case. No matter how many times Teyla told her that it would be considered an insult on most worlds to ask for nothing in return, she still felt awkward about treating her lifesaving skills as a commodity. However, she'd managed over time to relax about it somewhat, and view it as an exchange of gifts rather than work for hire.

They'd done this enough by now that the routine was familiar. She smiled and nodded when Teyla introduced her to the elders, then Teyla asked about finding a centrally located but private area where Jennifer could do her thing, and a couple of local healers to assist her and learn the new techniques that she would be teaching. Soon, a set of low outbuildings at one side of the plaza had been converted into a makeshift clinic, and a friendly older woman who introduced herself as Izar helped Jennifer set up and direct her group of local volunteers.

The afternoon passed pleasantly. Rodney and Teyla were off in the fortress somewhere, with Teyla checking in occasionally via radio. The local people seemed to be in good health, generally, with an excellent understanding of hygiene and even a vague grasp on the germ theory of disease, and most of Jennifer's patients had the usual array of small-town complaints -- a boy with a broken leg and an old man who'd cut himself with a farm tool; a parasite infestation or two; abscessed teeth and ear infections; a couple of congenital deformities that she made a note to recommend for surgery back on Atlantis.

She was able to take her time with each patient, since there was no particular hurry. They'd already made plans to spend the night. Teyla's local contacts had told them that there were dangerous predators out at night, and while this wouldn't affect them in the jumper, Teyla though it would be rude to leave so quickly, especially since traveling at night wasn't the local custom. So they would spend the night with the Neserti and Atlantis would check in come morning if they didn't return on time.

Jennifer tried not to think Nothing could possibly go wrong because, well, she'd been in Pegasus long enough to know that something could always go wrong. Still, it was about the closest thing to routine that their missions ever got.

This is my life, she thought in a sudden rapture of delight, looking up at the color-washed stone of the fortress towering above her. Sometimes it felt like she was living in one of the many fantasy and sci-fi novels that she'd devoured as a child. She'd never dreamed that one day she'd stand on a really, truly alien world, surrounded by people who had never seen nor heard of Earth. And yet, here she was: with the wind bringing her the scents of alien flowers, and strange birds flying above her in a sky that was a not-quite-familiar shade of blue.

As the shadow of the cliff crept across the plaza, Teyla called her on the radio. "Everything's good down here," Jennifer said. "We're just wrapping up for the evening. Is Rodney having fun?"

She could hear the grin in Teyla's voice. "He alternates between a child's delight in the things he has found, and irritation at, I quote, the 'supreme idiocy' of those who have allowed the fortress's control systems to fall into a state of disrepair."

"I can hear you, you know," Rodney said over the radio.

"We know," Teyla said.

"Please tell me I'm not the only one who is completely horrified that these people have lived here for generations without ever trying to figure out how any of the machinery or consoles actually work."

"I am sure they tried, Rodney." Teyla sounded a bit exasperated, and Jennifer had a feeling she wasn't hearing the first iteration of this argument. "But glowing screens, while interesting, do not help till the fields or gather in the crops. Besides, most of these things did not work until you brought them online this afternoon with your ATA gene."

"Pfft, ATA gene; there's always a workaround, and I mean, my God, if I were confronted with a room full of alien technology that I couldn't use, the very first thing I'd do --"

"Excuse me, Doctor?" Izar's quiet voice drew Jennifer's attention from the friendly bickering over the radio. "We really must be getting inside," the healer continued when she'd drawn Jennifer's attention. She looked genuinely nervous, and punctuated her words with sharp glances over her shoulder at the deepening shadows on the plaza. "We will be safe within the Stone Heart, but at night, the Hunters come."

Right, the predators Teyla had mentioned. We really ARE in Darwath. "Hang on, let me get my instruments in order," Jennifer said. "It's okay if we spend the night, right?"

Izar looked shocked. "Of course, Doctor. At night, even an enemy would not be turned out into the darkness." She softened her words with a smile. "We are grateful for the help you've offered us, and I am told that Doctor McKay has made several advances into understanding the Stone Heart that will keep our scientific philosophers busy for generations to come. You and your friends are very welcome to eat dinner with my family and shelter beneath our roof tonight."

Scientific philosophers. Rodney must have loved that. "I would be honored," Jennifer said politely, and slung the big refrigerated case of blood samples and antibiotics over her shoulder. "Could I get some help carrying this?"

As Izar helped her secure her supplies into the jumper, Rodney showed up at a trot. "They say it's okay to move the jumper inside the fortress tonight," he explained, brushing past the two women en route to the pilot's seat. "That way we don't have to take everything we need. Apparently the nasties come out when the sun goes down." He snorted as he settled into the pilot's seat. "I mean, obviously whatever they are, they'd be no match for a shield and a couple of drones, but I'd still rather not have to make a run to the jumper through velociraptor-infested darkness if someone forgets their toothbrush."

"You should not take the Hunters lightly, Doctor," Izar said. "We have learned to fear them almost as much as we fear the Wraith."

"Yes yes, fear and dread, I understand." He powered up the pilot's console with a casual brush of his hand. "You coming along for the ride? We're only going, what, a hundred meters or so, but ... well. Everybody should get to ride in a spaceship once in their lives." He looked over his shoulder, and his quick, crooked smile was a little-kid grin. Jennifer's heart fluttered a bit.

"May I?" Izar asked. Jennifer nodded, and the healer slipped into the seat beside Rodney. Jennifer didn't bother sitting down; they weren't going far, so she stood behind Rodney and rested her hands on the back of his seat.

The jumper rose, hovered and rotated through the deepening twilight. Jennifer couldn't help noticing that the plaza had emptied completely; even the ubiquitous stray dogs and cats had vanished. The huge doors of the fortress stood open, spilling lamplight out into the evening. Izar gave a little gasp of delight as the jumper began to move, her wondering smile making her look years younger.

Rodney set down just inside the doors, in a vast, cavernous hall with a high ceiling and smooth walls made of the same patterned stone as the outside. "That was wonderful," Izar said, breathless with delight.

"If you think that's great, we ought to take you on a little flight before we go home," Jennifer said. "Would you mind, Rodney?" She could still vividly remember the first time she'd seen a planet from outer space through the jumper's windshield, the overwhelming disbelief that she was in a spaceship, in outer space. Rodney was right. Everyone should get a chance to do it.

"Like I have time to run tourists around the planet," Rodney grumbled. Izar's face fell, and Jennifer hit him in the shoulder.

"He means yes," she explained to Izar. "That's just Rodney being Rodney. It's, uh, the custom of his people."

"Hey," Rodney said.

Izar inclined her head to him. "Thank you. It isn't me that you should take, though. Dehann would love it far more than I." She looked a bit wistful as she said it.

"What, like there's not room in here for two of you?" Rodney said as he locked down the controls and rose from the pilot's seat. "Dehann -- wait, is that the old lady who followed me around all day? She's ... pretty sharp, actually. Seemed to get everything I was telling her."

Izar nodded. Her smile was quick and shy -- and once again, much younger than her years. "My wife is one of the foremost scientific philosophers of her generation. I know that a journey in your ship would be something she would never forget until her dying day."

"Fine, fine, I'll pencil in 'quick jaunt around the planet' for tomorrow morning."

Jennifer descended the ramp with the memory of Izar's brilliant smile warming her heart. As she stepped off the ramp onto the footworn stone of the floor, the huge doors slammed shut with a boom that echoed through the hall. There was something very final and ominous about that noise. Tipping her head back, Jennifer watched as a series of automated clamps engaged up and down the door: click-click-click-click.

"It's fascinating how much of the original machinery still operates flawlessly," Rodney said at her shoulder. "Even after ten thousand years, without a single bit of maintenance. Heck, we have problems with Earth machinery breaking down after a few months of heavy use, let alone millennia. Granted, they haven't been doing much with it ..." He blinked and looked around. "Okay, Teyla's around here somewhere."

Jennifer fell in beside him, Izar a step behind, as he turned and strode briskly down the hall. "What is this place for?" she asked him. "I mean, why did they build it? Protection from the Wraith?"

"Not at all," Rodney said. "I mean, not as its primary function, anyway. All the old Ancient facilities were very defensible. This one more so than most, I guess, but we were able to pull up enough of the old weather data to show that this region used to be scoured with storms of appalling ferocity. Made a Category 5 hurricane look like a gentle summer breeze. One of the things they were doing here was studying the weather. It wasn't the only thing, though; apparently this place was one of their experimental weapons development labs. The relative isolation of this place wasn't just for the protection of the researchers. They worked on some nasty stuff here."

Jennifer frowned. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"Long, long ago," Rodney said impatiently. "I did mention the whole ten thousand years thing, right? They stripped the place down to its bare walls when they left. Not a thing left except some consoles on the upper level, and an almost completely depleted ZPM buried somewhere at the heart of the facility -- seriously, there's so little power in it that it's not even worth trying to find it, and keep in mind this is me saying this, so you know there isn't much left, right?"

"Still, what sort of bad things are we talking about? Some pathogens can linger in the environment for a very long time. And radiation --"

"Hello, again, me," Rodney said, stabbing a finger at his own chest. "The first thing I did was sweep the facility top to bottom for dangerous radiation or anything else the scanners can pick up. Nada. Anyway, it was mostly guns and such. Improving spaceship armaments and shields, building war machines, that sort of thing -- oh, Teyla, there you are."

"And there you are," Teyla said, smiling at them. "I see that you are being treated to a dissertation on Ancestral weapons, Dr. Keller. I feel almost qualified to teach a course on the subject by now."

Teyla was accompanied by a woman about Izar's age -- around sixty or so, as near as Jennifer could guess, although she often found herself overestimating Pegasus ages by a decade or so. Where Izar was broad-shouldered and stocky, the other woman was slim and tall, but there was a certain similarity between them -- they had the same sharp intelligence in their eyes, and their faces lit up when they saw each other.

"Dehann has invited us for dinner," Teyla said.

"Izar invited us, too," Jennifer said, grinning. "And we're more than ready."

"Excellent!" Dehann exclaimed. "We can continue our conversation from earlier, Doctor McKay."

"And I am looking forward to hearing more of the medical practices of your world, Doctor Keller," Izar added.

Teyla smiled politely. Jennifer recognized the slightly frozen quality of it, because she'd felt much the same whenever she ate lunch with Rodney and Radek; it was the Oh lord, I'm about to endure an evening of nerds geeking out look.

"Food." Rodney rubbed his hands together. "Oh yes. I'm there. Lead on!"

Dehann and Izar escorted them up a set of stairs, roughly hewn out of the rock and obviously a later addition; the chisel marks were clearly visible, and they looked crude and rough compared to the flawless smoothness of the Ancient-made walls. There was no guardrail, and Jennifer looked nervously down into the stadium-sized main hall, where small groups of people were talking and laughing. Some kids had formed into impromptu teams and were whacking a ball with carved sticks.

Lamps on the walls lit the stairs with a warm glow. Jennifer paused to look at one of them more closely. It was not part of the original design, as far as she could tell, but had been placed in an iron holder that was roughly bolted to the wall, using holes drilled into the rock.

"This place would be incredible if it had a fully charged ZPM to power it," Rodney was saying, and Jennifer trotted to catch up. "The lights must have stoppedworking ages ago, and just about everything's been stripped from the interior."

"I have never known it except as it is now," Dehann said. "My people have lived here since my grandmother's time, when we came as refugees from another world. The Hunters took many of us, until we realized that the fortress could seal us away from them."

"So what are these Hunters?" Rodney asked, and then hastily amended, "You know, actually, forget I asked. I don't say this very often, but I'm thinking ignorance may be bliss if they're actually, you know, that disgusting and awful."

"Most people haven't seen them," Dehann said. "Generally we know them only through stories."

Jennifer could only see one side of Rodney's face, but she saw it settle firmly into his "trying not to offend the locals by telling them their beliefs are stupid" look. "I see," he said. Teyla aimed a kick at his ankle, but missed.

"Oh, I can see what you're thinking," Dehann said briskly. "Believe me, Doctor McKay, I've had thoughts along those lines myself. Unstoppable predators that stalk the darkness? It sounds like a tale to frighten children."

"You," Izar said, "haven't had to tend the wounds or clean the bodies of their victims."

"I'm not saying that there is no truth at all to the tale," Dehann said. Jennifer recognized the signs of a longstanding quarrel, settled into such familiar patterns that it no longer carried any rancor. Her parents had been like that -- but she forced herself away from those thoughts. Her mother had been dead for ten years.

"But certainly they must have nests, and young, and they must be just as easy to kill as any living creature," Dehann went on. "They are not supernatural, and no more fearsome than any other wild animal."

Izar looked like she was gearing up for a rebuttal, so Jennifer hastily stepped in. "Do they attack people very often?" she asked. "These, um, Hunters?"

"Not often," Dehann said.

"Because most know better than to be out after dark," Izar said pointedly. "But there are always a few, from year to year. Children become lost in the woods. Young men, thinking themselves invulnerable, dare each other to sleep the night in the open. Traders fail to reach the Ring in a single day's walking. And, in many cases, it's true that no harm is done. But every so often ..." She trailed off, looking pale.

Dehann took her hand and squeezed it sympathetically. "There was an attack just last month," she said. "A farmer who was searching for some lost goats and was unable to return to the fortress before dark. I didn't see it --"

"You should be glad," Izar said, her normally soft voice raised and harsh.

"And you shouldn't have had to, either. Savarin had no business taking you along with the search party --"

"We didn't know," Izar said. "Bensin might have fallen into a ravine or suffered a snakebite. My skills could have been vital. But ... there was no chance by the time we found him."

She looked so stricken that Dehann hastily turned the conversation to Rodney's research, and by the time they reached the residential district of the fortress, Rodney and Dehann were going strong, talking over the top of each other and finishing each other's sentences. "Oh my God," Jennifer murmured to Teyla. "She's a female Rodney."

"That is a terrifying thought," Teyla said, her dark eyes sparkling.

Izar just watched the argument with a faint smile on her face. During the hours that they'd worked together that afternoon, Izar had mentioned that she was married, but Jennifer would never have guessed the soft-spoken healer would be compatible with someone so, well, different. Her eyes were drawn from Izar to Rodney, hishands choreographing his thoughts as he tripped over his own tongue in a rapid-fire attempt to explain something or other having to do with ZPMs and power conduits in the fortress.

It would never work out. Maybe that's why we haven't ...

She'd enjoyed their one almost-date, after they'd been trapped underground with Colonel Carter, but after that, nothing had really changed. She couldn't figure out if it was a good idea to go ahead and ask out a guy a second time after he said nothing whatsoever about the first time, but maybe, being Rodney, he just didn't know what to say. Or maybe it was his way of indicating lack of interest. The trouble was, she couldn't tell. She didn't want to be annoying and pressure him; as members of Atlantis's command crew, they had to work together no matter what, and the last thing she wanted was for Rodney to think she was some kind of uncontrollable sex fiend.

"Are you all right?" Teyla asked her quietly, as they followed the bickering scientists down a long hallway lined with doorways. Most of the doors were open, and behind them, families or couples eating their evening meal.

"What? Why wouldn't I be all right?"

"You are flushed."

Woops. Teyla was too darned observant. "No, no, just -- I'm hungry," she blithered along. "That's all, just hungry."

Teyla quirked an eyebrow. Way to be subtle, Jennifer told herself firmly. Still ... Teyla was a married woman, wasn't she? Perhaps she'd have some helpful advice regarding her courtship with Kanaan. Except ... to the best of Jennifer's knowledge, they'd only had a couple of what you might call dates before he'd been kidnapped and turned into a mutant monster. So, hmm. Perhaps not a good source of information after all --

A sudden, ear-splitting sound cut through her circling thoughts and made everyone jump. Jennifer had once lived in a dorm with a hideously loud fire alarm, and it had sounded a little like this -- a vibrating, piercing sound that seemed to go straight into her brain.

The sound cut out a few seconds later, then repeated briefly twice. All up and down the hall, open doors banged shut.

"What is that?" Teyla demanded.

"It's -- no, it can't be," Dehann said breathlessly. "It is the signal to retreat to safe areas in case the fortress is ever breached. But that has not happened in my lifetime. We have drills, but --" She trailed off.

"Perhaps it's an unscheduled drill," Izar suggested.

Dehann frowned. "In the middle of the dinner hour?"

Rodney and Teyla looked at each other, and some sort of unspoken communication seemed to pass between them. "I will bring the guns," Teyla said.

"I'll be in the control room. Be careful. If someone broke in --"

"They will probably be downstairs. I know." Turning, Teyla took off running down the hall with the fleetness of a deer.

The whole conversation only took a few seconds, leaving Jennifer stunned. She was still trying to figure out what was going on, and they already had some kind of plan for dealing with it.

Dehann gripped Izar's hand in a quick squeeze. "Go to our chambers and wait for the all-clear."

"What about you?" the healer asked.

"I am the most knowledgeable about the operations of the fortress's inner systems. I must go see to the defenses. Perhaps it's nothing more than a false alarm from all the changes that Doctor McKay and I made today." Dehann kissed her briefly. "Beloved, get your tools ready in case your healing skills are needed. I will be doing the same in my own areas of skill."

Rodney grabbed Jennifer's arm in the same peremptory fashion that he manhandled his underlings. "Come on. Whatever's happening, we need to get you to a safe place. Why don't you go with, uh, what's her name."

There was nothing Jennifer wanted more, but the idea of hiding while Rodney and Teyla put themselves in danger galled her. "I'm coming with you. If there are casualties, I can help."

"I don't have time to --" Rodney began.

"Then don't!"

He stared at her for a moment, then turned away and snapped his fingers. "Dehann. Control room."

Dehann nodded and hastened back the way they'd come, with Rodney and Jennifer right behind her. Jennifer looked over her shoulder to see Izar vanish through one of the few remaining open doors, not without a stricken glance after them. Jennifer wished for an instant that she'd gone with Izar, then forced her mind back to the possibilities in front of her. You may have to do battlefield triage. Think of that. Think of the supplies you need, the procedures you'll follow. Don't think about anything else.

"Think it's these Hunters of yours?" Rodney demanded of Dehann.

"No," the scientist retorted. "It can't be. They can't breach the fortress; they never have. The alarm is a safety measure we never actually expected to need."

"What if someone opened the door for them?" Jennifer asked.

Dehann looked horrified. "Who would do such a thing?"

"People are dumb," Rodney said flatly.

"That would be suicide," Dehann said. "Or terrorism. Or both."

They began climbing more stairs. Jennifer thought wistfully of elevators and transporters. The alarm repeated from time to time, jangling Jennifer's already shaky nerves.

Over the radio, Teyla said in a breathless voice, "Rodney, Dr. Keller, I am at the jumper. There is no sign of anyone attacking and the doors are closed, but there is a great deal of panic. I will be up as soon as I can, but I must --" A scuffling sound, a pause, and Teyla said, "No, little one, don't cry. We will find your mother. Rodney, I must help here."

"I know, I know. Do what you gotta do. Just get upstairs as soon as you can."

They reached a landing and, to Jennifer's dismay, yet another flight of stairs. "What does the alarm tell everyone to do?" Rodney asked Dehann. "I mean, you said you had drills -- what do you all do when it goes off?"

"Most people go to their chambers or the nearest safe room -- anything that can be closed and locked." Dehann paused to gasp for air; she wasn't young, and they were climbing fast. Several members of the Neserti militia in long swirling coats went by them, heading downstairs and carrying stubby Genii guns; they nodded to Dehann on their way past. "Those of us who have duty stations go to them," Dehann continued, resuming the climb. "And that's mostly the volunteer defense force, and those like me who know a little about how to use the fortress's systems."

"Any way in or out of the fortress other than the door?"

Dehann shook her head. "Only the balconies, but there are always guards on them. It is remotely possible that someone might have climbed up, but no one has ever managed to do so without being seen, and the Hunters cannot climb the fortress or they would have done so before --"

She broke off at the sound of a scuffle, a thump, and a cry from above them, followed by two loud gunshots that reverberated painfully in the enclosed space. At the top of the stairs, another of the armed militia came into view. She had long braided hair and was backing up slowly while pointing her gun at someone or something off to the side, out of sight. Her long coat was red. No, Jennifer realized with slowly dawning horror: it was covered with blood. One of her arms dangled limply at her side.

Rodney instantly flattened himself against the side of the stairwell, reaching out to grab Dehann with one hand and Jennifer with the other, dragging them with him and pressing them against the wall. His face was tight and drawn, but calm.

"We must help her," Dehann protested.

"We don't even know what she's fighting," Rodney said in a harsh whisper. "And we don't have any guns."

Above them, the militia woman aimed her gun one-handed and fired. Visible flame spurted from the wide muzzle, and the noise was deafening; Jennifer flinched. Then the woman recoiled and screamed. The air blurred as something whipped through it, so fast that Jennifer could not see what it was. The scream ended in a choked gurgle, and the woman tumbled backwards, a puppet with broken strings. She toppled down the stairs in a flurry of coattails. The gun tumbled free, bouncing down the stairs. So did another object, trailing a dark comet's tail behind it, and Jennifer recognized after a moment's frozen shock that it was the woman's head. She'd been decapitated. The body fetched up after tumbling down just a few steps, but the head bounced down the stairs past them, the long braid lashing around it.

Jennifer would have screamed, but her throat had completely closed up. For an instant she couldn't even breathe. Dark spots danced in the corner of her vision. Only Rodney's hand, knotted on the front of her uniform jacket, kept her upright. Then movement at the top of her stairs drew her numb attention, and she turned her head, looking past Rodney's pale face, past Dehann's frozen look of horror.

She only caught a glimpse of it. It was big -- human-sized or larger -- and dark, and crouched over, moving on two legs with the assistance of its long front limbs, like a gorilla but with a quick insectile grace that made her think of a spider or cockroach. She got a brief impression of light glinting off sharp spines. Then it was gone, ghosting across the top of the stairs and disappearing out of sight. Either it hadn't been aware of them or it didn't care.

For a moment none of them moved or spoke. Then Dehann made a choking sound, doubled over and threw up.

"Jesus," Rodney whispered. "Okay. Um. Is there another way to the control room?"

Dehann wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and nodded. She pointed wordlessly down the stairs.

They just barely managed to keep themselves from running, which would have been incredibly unsafe on the steep stairs and made too much noise besides. The woman's severed head had come to rest on the landing; Jennifer wondered if someone ought to do something, close her staring eyes or something, but she couldn't bring herself to go near it. Rodney did, however, pause to pick up the dead woman's gun, then dropped it again in disgust -- Jennifer could see that it had cracked open in the fall down the stairs, scattering springs and various important-looking bits.

Dehann pointed them down a corridor. This time they did run, and Jennifer didn't stop glancing behind, even after they were already climbing the stairs at the far end.

"Hunters," Dehann gasped. "In the fortress. This has never happened. Never."

"I hate my life," Rodney muttered. "It never fails. Never, ever. And we hadn't even had dinner yet." He slapped his radio. "Teyla? You there?"

"I am here," Teyla's voice came back immediately. In the background, Jennifer could hear the surging murmur of crowd noise.

"We've got problems up here. Big, ugly, mean problems with claws. If they aren't these Hunters everyone keeps talking about, then they're close enough I can't tell the difference. I just saw a woman, a kid really, get killed in front of me." There was a slight hitch in his voice; Jennifer thought she might not have noticed it before she got to know him over the last year.

Teyla sucked in her breath and was silent for a beat before she asked, "Are you still going to the control room?"

"No choice," Rodney said. "If the fortress is full of monsters -- what are the odds? -- then the control room is the only place where I might be able to figure out how many there are and do something about them. Well, that or head for the jumper and get the hell out of Dodge, but --"

"But we cannot run away and leave these people to die. Yes, I know."

Rodney heaved a sigh. "You and Sheppard are a bad influence on me."

"You are an apt pupil." There was a smile in Teyla's voice; then she was all business. "I am coming."

"Hurry. Depending on what we run into, we could need the cavalry. Remember, we're unarmed up here."

"I am very conscious of it, Rodney, trust me."

They reached another corridor at the top of the stairs. It was instantly obvious that something was wrong here: rather than the warm, friendly glow of lamps along the corridor, there was nothing but darkness in both directions. One way led to blackness. Far ahead of them in the other direction, Jennifer could see the glow of lights streaming through a doorway at the end of the corridor. The lights on the stairs behind them lit up the darkness to a gloomy twilight, and she could see the glints of scattered glass on the floor, along with other, dark lumps that glistened wetly. The smell was even worse, a metallic reek overlaid with the stink of urine. Her stomach lurched hard.

"Um ... shit, shit," Rodney muttered, shrinking back down the stairs and looking both ways. "Dehann, which way do we go?"

Dehann lifted a shaking finger and pointed towards the light.

"Well, there's that, anyway." Somewhere else in the fortress, the sharp pops of gunfire were attenuated to directionless noise through the rock. Jennifer shuddered.

Rodney, by habit, started to pace on the narrow stair-step and almost fell off. Jennifer caught him. "Okay," he said. "Okay, we wait for Teyla to bring us some guns, or we go on. I don't think staying here is a good idea. We can go back --" He looked down the stairs, and Jennifer thought he was probably thinking what she was thinking: there was a Hunter back that way too. Rodney looked at the two women, his eyes wide and the pupils dilated all the way out to the edge of the irises. "All in favor of going on?"

"Aye," Jennifer said weakly, raising her hand.

"I don't think we have a choice," Dehann said, her face terrified but her voice calm.

Rodney's shoulders slumped. "Yeah. I know." He looked down the corridor towards the light. "Okay, Dehann, you'll be in front because you know where you're going. Jennifer, between us -- you're the doctor, so, um, if anything attacks us, you have to stay safe to fix us up, right? And I'll ..." He swallowed. "I'll bring up the rear. Okay. Go!"

They went. Dehann might not be young, but with sufficient motivation, she could really move -- Jennifer had trouble keeping up. At one point, Jennifer's foot slipped on something wet and slimy, and she almost went down; Rodney caught her elbow, steadied her, and they ran on through the brightening gloom in the corridor.

At the end of the hall, they ducked through into a large room with a high ceiling. Rodney spun around and began to shut the door. "No!" Dehann gasped, grabbing his arm.

He looked at her, wild-eyed. "What? What part of 'dangerous monsters, no guns' do you not understand? Get off me!"

Dehann didn't quail under his panicked anger. "We can't start closing off corridors at random," she snapped. "This fortress is full of people; we may be trapping some of them, leaving nowhere to run if they expect an open corridor and find a closed door."

Rodney heaved a sigh and wiped his hand across his face. His hair was plastered to his scalp with sweat. "All right. Fine. At least I know where we are now. The control room's just up ahead."

They mounted another short flight of stairs -- Jennifer tried to ignore the burning muscles in her abused legs -- and entered a huge room thatimmediately pinged her as a command-center type of place, like Atlantis's gateroom or NASA's central command in Houston. The room ran along the outer wall of the fortress -- she could tell because there were windows, the first she'd seen, looking out onto a sky filled with stars. There were some banks of computer equipment along the walls, as well as a whole lot of places where corroded bolts in the floor indicated that others had been removed long ago. Glancing around the long room, Jennifer counted six doors. Some might lead to closets, but certainly the place was not built for easy defense.

There were about a dozen people in the room, clustered around some glowing screens. As Dehann and Rodney started towards them, Jennifer lagged behind -- her eyes were drawn to dark streaks and smears on the floor, forming drag marks that led to several vaguely human-sized forms wrapped in dark-stained coats. She swallowed when she realized what she was looking at. There had been fighting here already. How many of those Hunter things were loose in the fortress? How many people had already died?

She heard gunfire somewhere distant, and picked up her pace, running to close the distance between herself and the others. Maybe it wouldn't help, but at least some of the Neserti in the room had guns.

Rodney unceremoniously pushed a Neserti scientist out of the way and peered at the screen. Muttering under his breath, he stroked the screen with his fingertips to rotate and zoom whatever it was showing him. To Jennifer, it just looked like a bunch of colored lines.

"Why is this happening now?" asked one of the other Neserti. His face was splattered with drying blood. "There have never been Hunters inside the fortress before."

"Perhaps we turned something on that we shouldn't have," Dehann said.

"That's ridiculous," Rodney snapped, face intent on the screen. "If they're animals, there's no way that it should make any difference what we --" He paused, a thoughtful expression crossing his face, and turned to look at her. "But what if they're not? What if they're some kind of machine?"

Dehann opened her mouth to reply, when she looked past Rodney and her mouth froze open, her eyes widening. Jennifer's head snapped around.

Three of the Hunters had entered the control room.

In a numb moment of clarity, Jennifer found herself thinking that they were even bigger than she'd realized when she'd glimpsed the one at the top of the stairs. They were basically bipedal, but crouched over with their long upper limbs resting on the floor. Each arm had a long backward-curving blade sweeping back from wrist to elbow, but that was hardly their only form of armament -- their entire bodies were covered with spikes, scales and other sharp shiny things. They had comparatively small heads, low and flat, with no visible eyes. The edges of the blades on their arms glistened dully with blood.

The light of the lamps and glowing computer consoles in the room seemed to bother them. They crouched lower, hesitating just inside the doorway. When they moved, it was loose and graceful and shockingly fast; they seemed to flow from one position to another with no transitional state. For such large creatures, they made hardly any noise at all, just a dry whisper of movement.

No one moved. Jennifer was pretty sure she'd stopped breathing.

Then one of the Hunters whipped forward, so fast it was nothing but a blur, and slashed out with its arm-blades, slicing the nearest Neserti into pieces. He didn't even have a chance to step backwards or scream before he tumbled to the floor, separated through the torso and hips.

"Shoot them!" someone screamed. Several of the Neserti unloaded their guns into the nearest creature. The Hunter jerked as bullets skittered off its exoskeleton in bright flares of sparks. Some of the shots found its leg, and it went to one knee. They can be hurt, Jennifer thought, still in that crystal-clear mental state, though she could feel a haze of panic starting to crowd in around the edges. Rodney planted a hand on her chest and pushed her back towards the computer consoles, shoving her behind him.

But then the other two creatures leaped into the fray. One Hunter slashed off the hands of a Neserti holding a gun; she fell, screaming in agony and terror. The other one beheaded a Neserti scientist and, swinging its other blade-arm at the same time, slashed across Dehann's body, slicing open her chest and severing her arm at the shoulder. Jennifer flinched as a hot spray of blood splattered across her face. Dehann crumpled to the floor, her face frozen in shock. The Hunter pivoted with that incredible blurred speed and whipped its blade around to finish the Neserti with the missing hands as she writhed in agony.

Rodney moved faster than Jennifer had ever seen him, grabbing the nearest thing at hand -- the gun the woman had dropped -- and swinging it like a club to deflect the arm-blade. The impact tore it out of his hands, but the blade missed the injured woman and instead sliced into the side of the computer console. The screen went dark in a loud crackle of sparks.

The Hunter whipped its other blade through the air and opened Rodney's arm from shoulder to wrist. He screamed hoarsely and staggered backwards. The return swing would have cut off his head, but for the nearest Neserti dropping her gun and grabbing him by the collar, hauling him backwards. The blade missed his throat but slashed across his forehead instead, opening a red line that quickly poured blood down his face. His radio was knocked off his head and crunched underfoot as the Neserti dragged him away from the Hunter.

Those Neserti who were still alive and armed opened fire on the Hunter, driving it a few steps backwards. The other two Hunters came up to flank it, one of them limping, and for a moment, the three of them faced the humans without moving. Then the one that had struck Rodney darted forward and, unexpectedly, gripped him under the arms with the long spiky fingers of both hands, picking him up as if he weighed nothing.

"Hey!" Rodney yelled, twisting in its grip. His face was a mask of blood, his arm and side sodden with it.

Teyla burst into the room at a run, her chest heaving, with one P90 in her hands and another slung over her shoulder. She took in the situation at a glance, then opened fire at the back of the rightmost Hunter. A deafening fireworks display of gunfire sparkled on its exoskeleton. It whirled around and she gave it a blast of full auto in the face. It shrieked, a metallic screech, the first sound any of them had made. Then all three of them -- with one still carrying Rodney -- skittered towards the far end of the room and vanished through the door they'd come in. Rodney had stopped struggling; Jennifer thought he might have passed out. The one that Teyla had shot lagged behind the others; obviously injured, it bounced off the edge of the doorway when it went through.

"Rodney!" Teyla shouted, and then turned, whirling towards Jennifer, and unslung the spare P90 from her shoulder. "Catch!" she yelled, and threw it. Jennifer reached for it automatically as it tumbled end over end, and somewhat to her own surprise, felt it slap into her palms. Teyla dashed after the Hunters, leaped over a fallen Neserti like a runner at a track meet, and vanished through the doorway in pursuit.

No one moved. No one spoke. They all just stood staring for a moment. Then Jennifer drew in a shaky gasp and said, "I'm a doctor. I -- I can -- let me help, please."

Dehann was alive, moving weakly and trying to speak, but arterial blood spurted from the stump of her severed arm. Jennifer slung the P90 onto her back and knelt, whipping off her belt and slapping it around the stump. "Help her," she called to anyone in earshot, jerking her head at the woman with the severed hands, whose agonized writhing was growing weaker as she bled out. Oneof the unarmed Neserti scientists moved to obey, emulating Jennifer's actions with a long sash that had been wrapped around his waist and chest.

"Jennifer," Teyla said over the radio, sounding out of breath.

Jennifer freed up a hand to tap her radio, smearing blood over her cheek. "Yeah."

"I found where they got in." Teyla paused for a couple of hard breaths. "A hole in the wall, going into the cliff -- it looks like some sort of panel that was closed, but is now open. It is cleverly hidden as part of the rock. Behind it, there is a tunnel."

"Rodney?" Jennifer asked, swallowing. Her mouth tasted like blood. It was on her lips, on her face, in her hair.

"Still with them. I am going to follow. Rodney is leaving a blood trail, but I cannot rely on it. If they get away, we may never find him again."

"O-okay." Jennifer twisted the belt tighter around Dehann's upper arm. She had QuickClot in the jumper but nothing here, nothing she could use. The crazy thought crossed her mind of trying to cauterize the injury with one of the lamps, but the pumping blood had already begun to slow. The floor was awash in it, and Jennifer's knees were soaked. She tried to think of anything useful she could tell Teyla, anything that might help. "Teyla, Rodney said that he thought the Hunters might be machines, not animals or, you know, weird-looking people or anything. If that helps at all."

"Thank you; I will keep that in mind," Teyla said. "I will stay in touch via radio."

"Okay," Jennifer said again. Rodney. Oh, Rodney. But if anyone could take on a whole nest of whatever those things were and get him out, Teyla was that person.

She freed a hand to reach out and grab the leg of one of the uninjured Neserti. "You. Hold this." Then she went to see what could be done about the others, all the while trying not to wonder how many other Hunters were in the fortress, and what they were doing now.

Throwing herself into battlefield triage helped calm her mind. One of the other injured Neserti was still alive, but his guts were spilling out from a surgically clean cut across his belly. Jennifer got one of the others holding pressure on it, while mentally sorting through the medical supplies in the jumper. She was going to need to set up for field surgery. Thank God they'd moved the jumper inside; now that she'd seen what the Hunters could do, she wasn't going out there at night for love or money.

She had to force herself not to radio Teyla and ask what was happening. Checking her watch, she was stunned to discover that only a few minutes had passed. Her time sense was completely shot.

She kept replaying the last moments of the fight in her head, trying to assess Rodney's injuries in her mind's eye. How badly had he been hurt? There was an awful lot of blood. She wasn't so worried about the head injury -- head wounds bled a lot, and it had missed his eyes or anything vital -- but the arm ... that could be very bad if he couldn't get the bleeding stopped by himself.

And all this was assuming that the Hunters hadn't just killed him as soon as they separated him from the rest of the group.

Not helping, Jen. Not helping at all.

"Jennifer?" Teyla said in her ear, as if in response to her thoughts.

"Teyla! What's going on? Have you found him?"

"No." Teyla's voice was soft; Jennifer could hear the scrabbling of feet on rock. It sounded like she was climbing something. "There is an entire system of tunnels under the fortress. I am fairly deep in them now. Can you hear me adequately?"

"There's a little static, but it's pretty clear."

"I have been marking my way, in case it becomes necessary to follow me. When we miss our check-in tomorrow, John -- Colonel Sheppard will send backup."

"You'll be back before then," Jennifer said, with confidence she did not feel. "With Rodney."

"I hope so," Teyla said quietly. "I am not encountering quite so much blood now. I assume he has found a way to bind his injuries."

Or else he'd bled out and was now dead, but Jennifer choked off the words before she could speak them. "Yes. That's good."

"I will inform you if anything changes, Jennifer."

"Thanks," Jennifer said. Her voice sounded small and miserable even to her own ears.

The control room had been turned into a sort of improvised field hospital and command center. Some of the Neserti militia came in carrying more wounded, and the healers began to trickle in. Jennifer glanced around at the open doorways -- They really could have picked a more defensible location, couldn't they? If something comes to attack us, all these injured people are going to be like lambs to the slaughter. Then she wanted to laugh at herself. How times change, don't they, Jen. Who would have guessed that Mike Keller's little girl would be carrying an assault rifle and assessing the defensive capabilities of a fortress built by aliens?

Izar entered with baskets of bandages and medical herbs in both hands, but when she saw Dehann among the wounded, she dropped them. "Oh, no," she cried. "Oh, no, no."

Jennifer caught her hands. "It's all right, she's -- well, not okay, obviously, but I think she's going to pull through just fine." She didn't say anything about the missing arm. Izar could see it just as well as Jennifer could. On Atlantis, she might have been able to save it, but here, with no ice, no ability to do anything but the roughest field surgery -- no, she pushed those thoughts away. She was doing the best she could. They all were.

Izar's eyes filled with tears. She pressed her hand to her mouth. "I should have been there," she whispered.

Jennifer shook her head. "There was nothing you could have done. Really. Those things --" Words failed her, thinking of Rodney in the Hunters' hands.

Izar drew a breath, and visibly pulled herself together. "Do you need supplies from your ship, Doctor?"

Jennifer had been trying not to think about that. The idea of traveling through the dark corridors of the fortress made her sick with terror. At least here, there was some kind of safety in numbers, and armed guards around -- though she'd seen how the Hunters had cut through them like dry grass, and ... okay, bad thought, bad thought. "Yes," she said, squaring her shoulders. "If you and your healers can take things from here, I'll go get antibiotics and painkillers from my supplies. That should tide us over until we can get more medical help from Atlantis."

Which wouldn't be until some time after they'd missed their check-in tomorrow morning, since they had no one to fly the jumper -- but, no, bad thoughts again. She forced herself to concentrate on the next task: getting to the jumper.

A very young-looking member of the militia offered to come with her. He introduced himself as Kian, and though Jennifer was pretty sure he couldn't be more than nineteen, he carried himself like he knew what he was doing. "We work with the Genii sometimes," he explained as they descended the flights of stairs, peering alertly into every shadow. "I've gone on some ops with them."

So those really were Genii guns. Jennifer decided not to probe that too closely; politics were Teyla's and Woolsey's problem, not hers. "Do you think there are any Hunters still in the fortress?" she asked softly, gripping her P90 with sweat-slick hands.

"No way to be sure. There are a lot of places to hide in here. We haven't had any more reports of attacks or injuries since they took your friend, though." Checking behind another door, he added, "I wouldn't count on getting him back. The Hunters don't usually leave people alive."

"They don't usually come into the fortress either," Jennifer pointed out.

"Yeah," Kian said, giving her a long look. "That's true."

"What are you -- look, we didn't do this on purpose!"

Righteous indignation pushed back her fear for the rest of the trip to the jumper. Guilt had begun climbing up over it by the time that they got there, though. It did seem likely that Rodney and Dehann had done something to trigger the attack, even if it had been an accident, and now dozens of people were dead or badly injured because of it.

As Jennifer fumbled for the jumper's hatch control, a burst of static in her ear made her jump. "Jennifer," Teyla said sharply.

"Teyla! What's happening?"

"I have been discovered," Teyla said, speaking rapidly. Her words were punctuated the sharp staccato of gunfire. "Rodney was right, they are machines. Jennifer, I need you to tell John --" Then she gasped, and the radio went dead.

"Teyla? Teyla!"

No answer. Just static.


"What's wrong?" Kian asked her. "Your friend?"

"She's in trouble." Jennifer swallowed, sick with fear. It's just me now. Oh, God. It's just me.

In the morning, they would miss their check-in and Colonel Sheppard would surely send another jumper to investigate. But that was hours and hours away. In the meantime, Rodney was injured and maybe dying in the catacombs, and Teyla was -- no, she couldn't think it.

Jennifer stood on the jumper's ramp, desperate with indecision. Then she swallowed hard, and ran into the jumper. She began to drag out her gear. "Kian, can you get a couple more people to help us carry things? There's going to be more than just the medical stuff."

Kian nodded, and trotted down the ramp. Jennifer made a neat pile of the cases of medical supplies, then turned to the rest of the jumper's cargo storage. She'd never been involved with stocking the jumpers, and she didn't go offworld very often. She had no idea what was in here. But there had to be weapons, right?

She did not find any other large guns besides the P90 that she was carrying, but there were two small handguns in their own cases, as well as spare clips for the P90s. She found a rugged plastic case with what looked like grenades packed in foam, and another that contained little wicked-looking black canisters that said STUN GRENADE in small white letters at the top. All of these -- except one gun that she belted at her waist -- went into a small rucksack she found in the storage area under one of the seats. She threw in the jumper's portable first-aid field kit, along with a few other things from the supplies she'd brought with her: IV supplies including a bottle of saline, morphine to supplement what was in the field kit, a couple of hemostats -- she had to stop herself from taking enough supplies to kit out a small field surgery, but the knapsack was heavy enough already. As an afterthought, she took all the flashlights she could find: one big heavy one, and two smaller ones.

She very carefully did not think about what she planned to do. I cannot believe I am doing this. I'm a doctor, not an action hero. But just as surely, she knew that she couldn't wait in safety until help arrived in another twelve or fourteen hours. If Rodney and Teyla died because she'd done nothing, she didn't know how she could look at herself in the mirror.

Kian came back with two farmers he'd tapped to help carry supplies. Jennifer loaded them up with the cases of medical equipment and then looked over the jumper carefully. Was she forgetting anything? If she was, then there was nothing she could do about it. She picked up the last case of medical supplies and the rucksack.

"You are going after them," Kian said, as she closed the jumper's hatch for what she fervently hoped would not be the last time. "Aren't you."

"I don't really have a choice," Jennifer said, hoping that she sounded brave rather than miserable and terrified.

The young militiaman stared at her thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "I'll come with you. Let me round up my team."

The impulse to reject his probably suicidal offer rose in her, but very briefly, before she squashed it down. The more backup she had, the more likely she'd survive this insane adventure and come back with everyone she'd gone down for. "Thank you, Kian."

After yet another trip up interminable flights of stairs -- her calves were going to hate her in the morning -- Jennifer dumped the last of the medical supplies on the floor in the control room. The place blazed with light; someone had had the bright idea of bringing up more lamps, driving away the shadows in the corners.

"You saw me use most of this earlier," Jennifer told Izar. "I'm sorry I can't stay to help you."

Izar looked up from where she knelt beside Dehann. "Where are you going?" She took in Jennifer's weapons and the rucksack. "Oh," she said quietly.

"I'm not going alone," Jennifer said. "I have some of the militia going with me." She went quickly to her knees beside the Neserti woman. "Izar, if we don't -- anyway, in the morning, our people are going to send more fighters through the gate if they don't hear from us. You need to tell them exactly what happened. Oh, oh! Rodney thinks maybe the Hunters are machines rather than some sort of animal; tell them that, too. That will make it easier for them to help."

Izar nodded to all of this, her face pale and set.

"Doctor," a hoarse voice said. Jennifer looked down at Dehann. The Neserti scientist's face was white and beaded with sweat, but her eyes were lucid and focused on Jennifer's. "Good luck finding your friends," Dehann said quietly.

"From both of us," Izar added, clasping Jennifer's shoulder. "You are very brave."

Jennifer shook her head. "No, I'm not. I'm just scared, and desperate."

Izar's tight face dissolved into a warm smile. "And that makes you braver yet." She looked down at Dehann, whose hand was clasped in hers. "But I can understand. If it were Dehann, I would go too."

"What?" Jennifer said, startled. "No, no -- I'm not --"

But then she thought of Rodney's rare, real smiles, of the quick deftness of his hands flying across a computer console or manipulating a soldering gun. Let's face it. I want to help Teyla, but no matter what the crisis, she can probably handle herself way better than I can. It's Rodney I'm going for.

As she straightened up, Kian joined her with three others, two men and a woman. "We're ready," he said. "Doctor, this is my training-unit team -- Trina, Kopari and Dersis. Guys, this is the doctor from Atlantis."

They were all so young, no older than Kian. Jennifer couldn't believe that they made her feel old. "Thank you for coming with me," she said. "Hang on. I have a few things that might help us."

Jennifer opened her rucksack and passed out grenades, explaining how to use them. She hoped that grenades still worked like they did on TV, anyway; it would really suck if it turned out they had a safety now or something. She also passed around the stun grenades -- "Though I don't actually know what these do, or what their range is," she warned them. "If we have to use them, I guess it probably won't matter as long as they do something." She handed Kian the big flashlight, and the smaller flashlights to two of the others. She'd be able to use the light on her -- well, originally Rodney's -- P90.

She tapped her radio again as she followed Kian and his team out of the room. "Teyla?" There was no answer. "If you can hear me," Jennifer said, "we're coming to help."

They followed splashes of dark, drying blood to a square hole in the wall, the height of a human. Someone had covered it with boards and piled large stones in front -- Jennifer couldn't see how it could possibly stop the Hunters, but at least it would provide some warning as they broke through. There were also about a dozen militia members in front of it, guns pointed towards the hole in the wall, and like the control room, the area blazed with the light of dozens of lamps.

Kian spoke briefly with the person who appeared to be in charge, a rugged-looking man with a patch over his left eye. He turned and gave Jennifer an appraising look, then nodded to her. It looked respectful rather than a tacit acknowledgment of stupidity.

The militia began pulling back the stones and boards. "We're closing it up after you go in," Eye Patch Guy said. "We'll listen for you, and let you in when you come back."

But they certainly wouldn't be able to get in fast. Jennifer tried not to think about that. Considering how fast the Hunters could move, if it came to a chase, she had a feeling that they wouldn't make it as far as the exit anyway.

A cool draft blew from the opening when it was uncovered, making the lamps flicker. Kian nodded to his commander and then stepped through the hole, gun at the ready. Jennifer followed him, with the rest of their little strike force at her back.

She snapped on her P90's light. The steady white beams of their flashlights illuminated a rough-looking tunnel hewn from the rock of the cliffside. Unlike the smooth surfaces in the fortress, this had a hasty, utilitarian look to it. Possibly it had been some sort of maintenance corridor, or maybe it was added at a later date for unknown purposes.

The tunnel almost immediately branched into two, one sloping up and the other sloping down. Kian gestured with his flashlight at a small chalk arrow scrawled on the wall, pointing towards the downward-sloping tunnel. "Your friend?"

"I hope so," Jennifer said. Striding forward, trying to look confident, she nearly stepped on a rust-colored stain on the sandy floor, and took a quick step backwards. Blood. Probably Rodney's, said the rational part of her brain, while the rest of it gibbered quietly in worry and terror.

They followed a series of chalk arrows, mostly downward-pointing. Every so often, Jennifer tried Teyla's radio again, but no one responded. It was possible that Teyla had gone so deep that her radio could no longer reach the surface. Yeah. That's it. Nothing to do with monsters at all.

"I've heard rumors of catacombs under the surface," Kian said quietly. Jennifer glanced at him and saw that his face was set and strained.

"Yeah," one of the others agreed. Jennifer thought it was the one Kian had introduced as Dersis. He was short and stocky, with his dark hair drawn back in a ponytail. "Mom always said they sealed them up when our great-great-whatevers moved into the fortress."

The female member of Kian's group, Trina, cleared her throat. "My dad said it was just a rumor, that the catacombs don't really exist. Though I guess he was wrong, since we're, you know, in them right now."

"Probably didn't want you trying to find your way down here," Dersis said. "You know how parents are."

"How old are you guys?" Jennifer asked in spite of herself.

It turned out Kian was the oldest, and he was only nineteen. Holy moley, Jennifer thought, I'm the grownup here. Most of her life, she'd been the kid: the wunderkind years ahead of her peers. Even on Atlantis, she was younger than most of the staff in the medical division. The sciences weren't quite so uneven, and of course there were quite a few of the military who were pretty young, but it was still unusual for her to be the oldest person in the room. She didn't get that very often.

As they went deeper, it got colder -- a deep, aching chill in the air, reminding Jennifer unpleasantly that the sun had never shone in these lightless places. The tunnels seemed mostly natural, although in a few places it looked like they had been widened and enlarged, so long ago that the tool marks were crusted with calcite deposits. This doesn't really have an Ancienty sort of look to it, Jennifer thought, especially when she compared it to the glossy regularity of the fortress.

"Stop!" Kian whispered, and they all halted. "I thought I heard ..." He cocked his head to the side, listening.

Jennifer listened, too. It wasn't perfectly silent down here, as she would have expected; there were small sighs and cracks and pops -- the sounds of rock and air, expanding and contracting, settling and shifting.

And somewhere in the darkness, there was a whisper of sound. It could have been just another echo of the rocks talking to themselves. Or it could have been something brushing lightly across stone, a footstep that was almost but not quite silent. It was impossible to tell where it came from with the deceptive tunnel acoustics.

Kian held up two fingers, pointing quickly backward and then forward. The four Neserti broke into pairs: Kian and Trina pointing their guns ahead into the darkness, and the other two aiming behind them. Jennifer was in the middle; she swiveled back and forth, wishing that she could look both ways at once.

The tunnel was about ten feet wide here, with a low ceiling punctuated by small dangling fingers of calcite. The blue-white beam of the powerful flashlight that she'd given Kian lit up the tunnel for about twenty feet ahead of them, until the tunnel jogged sharply to the right. She could just pick out the pale ghost of another chalk arrow pointing around the corner. Behind them, the spotlights of the much weaker flashlights danced across the floor and walls near Dersis and Kopari. Reflected light illuminated the tunnel dimly for a little ways beyond that, and Jennifer strained her eyes, trying to discern shapes in the faint light. Had something moved?

"Ancestors!" Kian shouted behind her, sounding angry rather than terrified, and his gun barked sharply. The sound was deafening in the tunnel. Jennifer spun back around, swinging up the muzzle of her P90, but all she managed to do was point it at the back of Kian's head. She caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye, and something went past her, impossibly fast. Jennifer felt the wind of its passage brush her cheek, and smelled a sudden metallic stink -- her brain took a moment to catch up and recognize it as the smell of old blood. One of the kids screamed, and the wet slapping sound that followed could only be the sound of an arc of blood hitting the wall. Flashlight beams danced wildly, making it difficult to concentrate or focus, but she saw the light glinting off the spikes and ridges of a Hunter's great bulk, so close to her that it only had to spin around to decapitate her. Blood dripped from its arm-blades.

Kian yelled wordlessly and fired past Jennifer's ear. The noise hit her like a physical blow. The Hunter jerked and spun around, and Jennifer, acting largely on autopilot, brought up the P90 and pulled the trigger. The recoil almost tore it out of her hands and the flash half-blinded her, but she emptied a point-blank burst of full auto into its face. The Hunter shrieked and leaped twenty feet down the tunnel in a single bound. Its control of its body was not perfect; it clipped the wall with one shoulder, throwing it off balance, and landed in a crouch, scrabbling to recover and get all its limbs under it.

"Get down!" Kian bellowed, and he threw something the size and general shape of a rock over Jennifer's shoulder at the Hunter. Jennifer's first thought was What the hell and then her brain caught up and screamed Grenade! Kian grabbed her shoulder and dragged her down.A moment later, a wave of sound hit her along with a stinging wash of gravel, and the ceiling collapsed in a roaring avalanche.

Jennifer coughed and blinked grit out of her eyes. It took her a minute or two to pull her thoughts together: she was lying facedown on the floor, and the steady beam of a flashlight laying next to her revealed that the air in the tunnel was choked with dust. Around her, she heard coughing and muttered curses. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she looked behind her and saw floor-to-ceiling dirt, gravel and rocks. The pile tapered away to within a few feet of her; in fact, some of the rocks were scattered around her boots.

"Um, I guess we're not going back that way," Jennifer said, and then a coughing fit made her lose her balance and fall to the floor again.

A hand patted her shoulder, and she looked up to see a stranger -- no, Kian, his face a mask of dirt. He'd pulled a fold of his shirt over his mouth. "Those are good weapons you gave us," he said, and then, over her head, "Is everyone okay?"

Trina's voice was very small. "I – I -- um, I think Dersy's -- Doctor, can you --?"

"Let me see him," Jennifer said, pushing herself up on shaky arms.

But it only took one glance to show her, in the pitiless glare of the flashlights, that Dersis was beyond her help. The Hunter, in the brief moment it had been among them, had divided his body into pieces. The walls and floor were splashed in his blood.

"Oh, Dersy," Trina whispered, closing his staring eyes with her hand.

"I'm sorry," Jennifer said, her throat thick. They were just kids. "I'm so, so sorry."

Despite her worry for Rodney and Teyla, Jennifer couldn't bring herself to begrudge the extra minute or two that it took Dersis's friends to arrange his body into the closest thing to its previous condition that they could manage. Kian took off his own coat and laid it over Dersis, though it left him in his shirt sleeves, shivering in the tunnel's chill.

"Maybe we could carry him," Kopari said.

Kian shook his head and squared his shoulders, straightening up, becoming a leader rather than a grieving friend. "No. Not now. We can't afford the extra weight. We'll come back and get him, though. We won't leave him here."

"I'm sorry," Jennifer said again.

He looked at her sidelong, but there was no blame on his face. "Don't be. You're risking yourself for your friend. We chose to be here with you -- and besides, there's no guarantee that the fortress is any safer right now."

He was right, she knew, but that didn't make her feel any better.

Trina wiped her filthy hand across her eyes, and looked back at the blocked tunnel. "Do -- do you think it's dead?"

They all stood still for a moment, studying the heap of rocks. Nothing moved or made any noise. "I guess so," Kian said after a moment.

"So they can die." Kopari's voice was fierce.

Kian nodded. "They can die." He nodded at Jennifer's P90. "And that gun works better than our guns do."

"I think it's mostly that it fires a lot of bullets," Jennifer said. Speaking of which ... She ejected the half-empty clip and replaced it with a full one from her backpack. She only had two more after these, but she tried not to think about that.

They moved on. The Hunter had come from up ahead, so Kian arranged himself, Kopari and Jennifer into a triangle formation, with their guns and Kian's big flashlight pointed forward. Trina covered their backs.

After a couple more twists and turns, something low and dark in the farthest extent of the flashlight beam made Jennifer's stomach jump into her throat. Kian signaled a halt, and after a few moments during which the dark thing did not move, they approached very slowly with guns at the ready.

Jennifer couldn't figure out at first what they were looking at, as they walked closer and the dark lump grew in their flashlight beams. It was a low dark ridge, like a pile of dirty laundry scattered across the floor of the tunnel. Then, when it was almost close enough that she could have reached out and kicked it, she realized suddenly that it was the body of a Hunter, with one arm severed and its head blown away. Black ichor coated the floor in a viscous film, glistening in the light of their flashlights, along with the glint, here and there, of brass shell casings. The air was heavy with an oddly familiar stink, metallic but not really like blood.

Jennifer flinched back instinctively. "Ancestors," Kopari whispered, and made a sign across his chest with his free hand. Jennifer didn't need an anthropologist to tell her that it was a sign for warding off evil.

Kian had blanched along with the rest of them, but after a moment he knelt and rested the flashlight in the crook of his arm, reaching to touch the dark ichor and raising his fingers to smell it. "This is like the blood of no creature I've ever hunted."

And suddenly Jennifer knew what the smell in the air reminded her of -- her grandfather's barn, where he worked on his tractors. "Teyla said that Rodney was right," she said. She shifted the P90 so that she could lean down and -- shuddering -- wipe up a little of the spilled dark liquid on her fingertips. It was greasy and a bit gritty, and when she sniffed it, the smell reminded her enough of motor oil or hydraulic fluid that it was obviously related.

She looked at the dead Hunter with no less wariness, but was able to summon a clinical, detached interest, viewing it through her diagnostician's eyes. It still did not look like any machine she was familiar with. There were no exposed wires or tubes in the dark, deformed mess that used to be its small flat head. And it's dead -- or what passes for dead in a machine. Deactivated? The head must be some kind of control center. Jennifer pursed her lips, staring down at the dead Hunter. What would Rodney think of this, if he were here? How would he use it to his advantage?

Well, it's a dumb design, for one thing. For a minute, her inner voice did sound a little bit like Rodney. If you're designing a robot that looks like an animal, then why put its brains up top, where anyone would think to look for them? You could put them anywhere in the body, and they'd be better protected.

But clearly the head did something. She remembered the damaged Hunter back in the control room, the one that Teyla had shot in what passed for its face -- the way it had stumbled into the doorway when it left with the others. And she had done the same thing to the one she'd shot just now; it had bounced off the wall when it leaped down the tunnel to get away from her.

All right. They use the head to see -- that makes sense; it's on top of the body. But that's not where the brains are, or whatever controls them, because shooting them in the head doesn't do anything except blind them.

"Uh," Kian said. "Are you done? 'cause that thing is giving me the creeps, and the longer we stay here, the farther away your friends are going to be."

"Just a minute, please." She swept her P90's flashlight beam down the Hunter's spiky body. The Hunter seemed to be covered with many overlapping scales of what she'd taken for chitin at first, although if it was a robot, then probably the exoskeleton was made of some sort of metal or ceramic plate. Some of the scales were warped and scarred where it had been shot, either by Teyla or by the Neserti militia back in the fortress.

Most of the black goo was coming from the raw dark mess where its missing arm had been. Given how heavily armored the thing was, Jennifer wondered how Teyla had managed to do that. A concentrated burst of fire from the P90, maybe? Or had she tricked the Hunters into attacking each other?

In any case, it was the only other visible injury besides the squashed and deformed head. Jennifer squatted down and peered at the wet black gleam of the severed arm's stump. Actually, it was more like a concavity, and inside, she could see little bristling bits of something or other -- filaments and wires, maybe, or ligaments, or something in between.

"Do you think you can roll it over for me?" Jennifer asked Kian.

He shrugged and prodded it nervously with his foot, kicked it harder, then nodded to Trina to come help him. Between the two of them, they shifted the body enough that Jennifer could see that its back was a gory mess in the general vicinity of the scapula, or where a mammal would have a scapula, anyway -- on the same side as the severed arm.

And suddenly she could see how Teyla had killed it. The control unit must be in its heavily armored chest. Teyla had managed to sever the arm and then, by luck or deductive reasoning, had shot its control unit through the unarmored place where the arm had been.

Go Teyla, Jennifer thought.

"Are you done?" Kian said. "Because, I don't want to rush you, but we're sort of like fish in a puddle here."

Sitting ducks, Jennifer translated mentally. "Yes, I'm done. I think I know how the Hunters can be killed, more reliably than just randomly shooting at them." Thanks to Teyla -- brilliant, brave Teyla.

Where was she, anyway?

She started to explain as they began walking, but almost immediately they came upon another Hunter's body. This one's chest was blown to bits, just a mangled mess in the middle of its sprawled-out limbs. One side of the tunnel had partially slumped, but not enough to block their forward progress. The body's legs were covered, though, and they had to clamber over the pile of rocks and dirt.

Jennifer was able to fill the gaps more easily this time. Having figured out how to kill them, Teyla must have used a grenade or some other kind of explosive on this one. Jennifer paused for a minute to look at the grisly body: this one only had one arm-blade. The other was missing, leaving its arm oddly bereft and thin-looking. Ichor or oil wept from the ragged flesh.

"So to kill them, you have to destroy their chests," Kian said. "Damn. That's not going to be easy."

"Crushing apparently works too," Trina pointed out. "Because that one we killed back there is pretty dead."

"We hope," Jennifer said, glancing behind her.

"Hey, Doctor." Kopari came up to them carrying a glinting bit of metal in his palm. "I saw this in my light -- it's one of your people's things, isn't it?"

Jennifer took it from him. She recognized it immediately: a radio, twisted and crushed.

Teyla's radio, probably. Jennifer shivered, remembering her last conversation with Teyla. "Yes," she said. "It's my friend's." Is. Not was. There was no sign of human blood, no body. She dropped carefully it into her pocket.

They walked for a while with no more arrows, and just as Jennifer was starting to feel choking fear and grief rise up in her throat, the dancing beam of Kian's flashlight illuminated another little mark pointing ahead. Jennifer's breath rushed out of her. Teyla had lost her radio, maybe been injured, but she was still all right -- at least, enough to continue leaving a trail for those who came after her to follow.

The arrows led them through an interlocking series of big caverns -- this made Jennifer intensely uncomfortable, because the Hunters could come at them from any direction. She was too nervous to even enjoy the interplay of color and shadow on the walls, though under other circumstances, she thought she'd probably be delighted. When the tunnels closed in around them again, she felt as if she'd been holding her breath for hours.

Kian signaled a break and passed around a canteen along with some sort of dry, stiff foodstuff that looked like a stick and sort of tasted like one too. Jennifer fell on it gratefully, though. It had been a very long time since lunch.

As they sat chewing in the flashlights' glow, Kopari said suddenly, "Does anyone else hear anything?"

They all, even Jennifer, reached for their guns. "Like what?" Trina said.

"I'm not really sure. It's just sort of a noise. I've been hearing it for a while now."

Jennifer strained her ears. She thought that she might hear what he was talking about -- it sounded a little bit like static on a distant radio. But maybe it was just the rushing of the blood in her ears.

"Well," Kian said, "if it's dangerous, there's not much we can do about it. I guess we may as well get moving."

As they continued walking, the noise got louder, until Jennifer could hear it easily -- and feel it, a deep vibration through the soles of her feet.

"It's water," Kian said suddenly. "Like an underground river or someth-- whoa, stop."

Another Hunter's body loomed ahead of them, a wet-looking black heap in the flashlights' beams. Jennifer clenched her teeth so tightly that her jaws hurt. This was the fourth Hunter they'd encountered, counting the one they had killed earlier, which meant there were definitely more than just the three in the fortress. Probably a lot more, since there was not yet any sign of either Rodney or Teyla.

There was no question at all about how this one had died. It was impaled through the chest with what Jennifer thought at first was a huge sword, then realized was another Hunter's arm-blade, probably the one that had been cut from the body they'd found earlier. Jennifer stared in disbelief as they approached. She could not imagine the amount of strength it must have taken to drive that blade through the body of such a creature. Surely Teyla couldn't have done it -- or could she? Maybe anything was possible if you were angry enough.

They skirted the body carefully. Jennifer thought about Teyla, down here alone in the dark. It was bad enough even with Kian's team around her. Teyla was alone, had lost her radio, and -- Jennifer scanned the ground for shell casings, and saw none -- probably out of ammo, since she'd attacked this Hunter with an improvised weapon rather than shooting it.

Even so, Teyla had taken out three of them -- at least -- all by herself, when five armed people had lost one of their number and triggered a cave-in while trying to kill just a single Hunter. And she hadn't turned around and come back. Out of ammo, or so low that she'd rather attack a robotic killing machine with what basically amounted to an improvised spear, still she went on.

Jennifer had witnessed the bond between gate teams from the outside, on the many occasions when one team or another had come through her infirmary. But this slammed it home in a visceral way she'd never experienced before. Just as Colonel Sheppard and the others had come for Teyla on Michael's hiveship -- even injured and exhausted as they were -- so Teyla would go on through the darkness and however many Hunters she found, until she either got Rodney back or died trying.

It was almost scary, that kind of loyalty.

But Teyla could not keep winning her fights indefinitely, no matter how resourceful and skilled she might be. She was alone, and tired, and running out of weapons. That's why we have to find her first. We're her backup.

The rumble underfoot and the low, steady white noise grew louder. Then Kian gasped, "Whoa!" and stopped Jennifer with an arm across her chest. Jennifer froze. Not fifteen feet ahead of them, the floor disappeared. Beyond, there was nothing to catch and throw back the flashlights' beams, nothing but blackness.

The air felt different here: wet and heavy, saturated with moisture. Jennifer remembered a similar effect from the times she'd gone hiking with her dad in parks that had waterfalls -- the air around the falls was cool and damp in just this way. The rocks to each side of her glistened with condensation. Ahead and below, the unseen river thundered in the dark.

Kian crept cautiously forward, testing the footing. He peered over the edge and played his flashlight down. Jennifer glimpsed the beam for a second, as it reflected from spray or dust in the air. Then he turned back and beckoned to them. "It's all right. I don't think the bank is undercut here."

Jennifer joined him, along with the other two, at the edge. They all aimed their flashlights downward. The river was so far below them that the beams couldn't give them a clear look, although Jennifer caught occasional dim flashes as light reflected from the tops of eddies or rapids.

"Who could have guessed?" Trina murmured. "I've lived in the fortress all my life -- we all have -- and I had no idea this was down here."

Jennifer was a lot more worried about how they were going to cross it. Shining her flashlight up and across, she could see the matching cliffside across from them. It wasn't really that far, not more than forty feet or so, but it may as well have been on the moon.

"We don't have any rope, do we?" Kian asked, echoing Jennifer's thoughts. She shook her head sadly. Of all the things she'd gathered at the jumper, the idea of bringing rope had not even occurred to her. Mostly she was focused on not getting killed by the giant alien predators.

"Maybe we can climb down," Kopari said.

"And then what, smart boy?" Kian demanded in a tone of withering scorn. "That water's moving pretty fast, and it's probably cold as the clifftops at Midwinter."

"Down!" Trina snapped, cutting across their banter. Jennifer saw what had alarmed her as the words left her mouth: a flicker of movement on the far bank, flitting in and out of the flashlights' glow. They all went down to their bellies -- Jennifer, by this point, didn't even need to be dragged along -- and, at a chopping motion from Kian, flicked off the lights.

The darkness was absolute. As soon as Jennifer turned off her light, the horrible fear hit her that it had been a grave mistake. They couldn't hear small noises over the roar of the river. They would have no way of knowing if something was creeping up on them --

A light appeared on the far side of the river, so bright in the pitch darkness that it stabbed painfully at Jennifer's eyes as the beam probed across them. Then the unseen hands that controlled it pointed it down at the ground, leaving only the backwash of reflected light to dimly illuminate the figure holding it: definitely human, short and stocky, wearing loose dark clothing. The figure raised an arm and waved at them.

"Teyla!" Jennifer gasped, and scrambled to her feet. "Teyla!" she shouted across the river.

Teyla called something back, but it was lost in the roar of the water.

"We finally found her, and we can't even talk to her," Jennifer said in frustration.

"Well, she definitely got across somehow." Kian squinted over at her. "Though it looks like she's wet. Maybe she did swim."

"That's not going to work for us, though."

Teyla waved again to get their attention, and then made broad, sweeping gestures, pointing downstream.

"I think she means 'follow the river'," Trina said.

There turned out to be a path of sorts, or at least a narrow place between the wall and the edge of the cliff where they could walk. It was horribly slick with condensation from the river. Jennifer clung to the rock face and tried not to think about it -- or, worse, about meeting a Hunter on this narrow track. It wouldn't even have to attack them; it would merely need to knock them off into the river.

Teyla paralleled them on the other side. The gap between the two banks gradually narrowed. After about ten minutes of walking, Teyla stopped them with a sharp wave and pointed up. Jennifer looked up and her jaw dropped. Above their heads, a section of the cliffside had come loose, fallen and become wedged, tilted at an angle between the cliff walls like a giant child's building block.

"Oh hell no," she said weakly.

"Doesn't look like we have much choice," Kian said as he examined it with his flashlight. "And we can't go back. One way or another, even if we forget about rescuing your friend, we have to get over this river."

"I'm a good climber," Trina said. "I'll give it a try."

The base of the tilted block was some ten feet or so above their heads. Trina scrambled up the rough, scarred cliffside like a monkey -- Jennifer backed up hastily, just in case Trina's weight on the improvised bridge caused it to crumble, but it didn't shift at all. Trina reached the other side without incident and slithered down to join Teyla.

"You next," Kian said to Jennifer.

"I -- no -- I'll cover your back --" Jennifer began.

"Just go," Kian snapped. "It's your friend that's in trouble, right? We'll be right behind you."

And they were risking their necks to help her -- had already given their friend's life, in fact. How could she be any less brave, in the face of that? "Okay," Jennifer breathed, and she slung the P90 over her shoulder with the pack so that she had both hands free.

On her first attempt to climb the cliff, she only made it a couple of feet before missing a foothold and sliding back down in a shower of rocks. Kian muttered something -- Jennifer was glad she couldn't hear it -- and gave her a boost from below. This time, she got her feet under her. She used to climb trees in the backyard when she was a kid; this wasn't too different. Just don't think about what's under you.

She had to squeeze her eyes shut and just reach out and trust in order to get onto the rock bridge. When she opened her eyes, she was on her hands and knees, looking down at the black abyss below her. Kopari was following her up the cliffside, while Kian waited below, looking up as his teammate climbed. Beneath him, the path that they'd followed looked no wider than a thread, even though she knew she wasn't that far above it and it wasn't really that narrow. For an instant she remembered the stomach-dropping sensation of a rotten rope bridge giving way under her on New Athos, the feeling of her feet swinging free in empty air.

Don't look down. You can do this. Jennifer raised her head quickly from the dizzying drop beneath her, so that she was looking back up the river. In the dim penumbra of the combined flashlights' glow, something moved.

"Oh no," Jennifer whispered. "No, no way ..."

Three Hunters were coming their way along the bank, all three on Teyla and Trina's side of the river, moving with terrifying speed.

"Hunters!" Jennifer screamed, pointing.

Teyla and Trina spun around and looked back the way they'd come. Kian shouted something Jennifer couldn't quite make out, but his wild arm-waving was eloquent enough: Get back to this side!

But just then, one of the Hunters jumped. It sailed across the gap between the banks, caught the far side effortlessly and resumed its rapid scrabble towards the humans. Now there were Hunters on both sides of the river.

Trina settled her Genii gun into the crook of her arm. Teyla, to Jennifer's horror, drew her military-issue KA-BAR knife from the sheath at her belt, leaving the P90 dangling from her vest. She really was out of ammo.

"Teyla!" Jennifer yelled, trying to get her attention. She began to move, crawling on hands and knees as fast as she could. The rock was cold, wet and slippery, but she was too terrified of the Hunters to spare more than a moment's thought for the drop into the river. Then she reached the rock face on Teyla's side of the river, planting herhand against the cliffside to stabilize herself while she unslung one strap of the pack. "Teyla! I have more bullets for you!" she called down.

Teyla looked up with a quick, bright grin, holding up the hand that wasn't holding the knife. Jennifer fumbled in the pack, but everything felt alike to her shaking, numb fingers. Damn it, damn it -- no, that's the medkit --

Trina's gun thundered, and the leading Hunter flinched, but barely slowed.

Jennifer's fingers closed on something that was still nothing like a P90 ammo clip, but it felt smooth and deadly and she could not remember what it was. She pulled it out. STUN GRENADE, said the white letters at the top. Maybe this would be even better. "Teyla!" Jennifer yelled. "Catch!"

She tossed it down. As it left her hand, she had a brief unpleasant vision of the stun grenade pinwheeling into the river – or, worse, Teyla lunging to catch it and going over the side. But she needn't have worried; Teyla's hand moved to follow her inexpert throw and caught it neatly out of the air.

On the far side of the river, Kian's gun barked. Kopari was braced against the cliff, having to use one hand to hold on. He couldn't shoot like that, but he fumbled in his pocket.

Jennifer finally managed to find the spare clip she was looking for, just as Teyla shouted, "Close your eyes and cover your ears!" Jennifer let the clip fall back into the pack and flattened herself to the rock, twisting her head away and wrapping her arms over her head, because when Teyla said things like that, she meant business. Well, I wanted to know what those things do...

The darkness behind her eyes lit up with a painful red flash, and an earsplitting cascade of impossibly loud noise rolled over her. Her arms may as well have been wet tissue paper for all they did to protect her ears. It took Jennifer a moment to realize that things had fallen silent again; her ears were still ringing, and she felt dizzy and sick to her stomach. She pushed herself up on shaking arms and peeked over the edge of the rock bridge.

There was no sign of either of the two Hunters on this side of the river. Then she managed to locate one, some fifteen or twenty feet below its last position, clinging to the side of the cliff above the water. The other must have simply fallen in.

Jennifer swung her head around, looking for Kian and Kopari, just as a tremendous concussive thump! sent a bolt of pain through her splitting head. Dust billowed from the opposite side of the river, and a great shower of rocks cascaded into the water, along with one hapless Hunter.

The grenades definitely leveled the playing field somewhat.

It took her a moment to spot Kopari. He'd lost his grip on the cliffside and slid back down -- and, from the look of things, had very nearly gone over the edge, too. Kian was hauling him back up onto the trail.

"Jennifer!" Teyla called up to her, and Jennifer wrenched her attention away from them -- it looked like they were both all right, anyway. "Jennifer, I need to reload!" Teyla's voice sounded thready and far away through her ringing ears, echoing weirdly as if they were all underwater.

"Right," Jennifer muttered, fumbling around in her backpack. The last remaining Hunter was already pulling itself back up, but until it got back on the trail, Trina couldn't shoot it -- the lip of the cliffside trail itself was in the way. Both Kian and Kopari fired at it from across the river, but nothing happened except a lightshow of sparks. The Genii ammo just couldn't penetrate its armored body well enough to cause major damage.

The spare ammo clips had once again vanished into the depths of the backpack. Wait. I'm an idiot. Jennifer unclipped her own fully loaded P90 from her vest. "Catch!" she cried, and dropped it. Teyla slid smoothly underneath like a runner sliding into base, and caught it out of the air.

The Hunter regained the path. Trina opened fire. The bullets made it jerk a bit, but otherwise did no visible damage. It crouched, and then leaped forward with that shocking, blurring speed.

Teyla stood her ground, bracing herself with the P90 snug against her body. The Hunter closed on her. Trina, out of bullets herself, fell back, retreating down the path as fast as she could manage in the poor light. The Hunter leaped at Teyla, its lethal blades flicking out to the sides, too fast to follow.

Teyla fired off a cool, controlled burst at the Hunter's head. The flat head-box exploded in a shower of sparks, and then Teyla dropped flat to the trail -- almost too slow, as a blade whipped through the spot where her neck had been a split second before. Momentum from its leap carried the Hunter beneath the rock bridge and out of Jennifer's sight, but she heard Trina shriek.

Teyla spun around, raised the P90, but did not fire. Trina must be in the way. The Hunter came into Jennifer's view again on the other side of the bridge, backing carefully down the trail, just as Trina reappeared on Teyla's side. She'd lost her gun and her shoulder was a mass of gore. Teyla fired off another controlled burst from the P90, swinging the muzzle. The bullets ripped along the Hunter's arm and through its shoulder, nearly severing it. That had to have been how she'd done it before. Now, though, she was lacking the angle to make the kill shot. The Hunter needed to turn and present its side to her.

Jennifer swallowed hard, and drew her handgun. "Hey!" she yelled. "Hey! Ugly!" She gripped the gun in both hands and squeezed the trigger, emptying it at the Hunter. Most of the shots missed, but two or three struck home, pinging off the ruins of its damaged head and shoulders. The little gun couldn't do a thing to hurt it, and she knew it. All she needed to do was get its attention off Teyla for a minute.

A lot of its sensors were obviously knocked out, but it froze, swiveling slowly -- the wrong direction, unfortunately, presenting its unwounded side to Teyla. Then it leaped, straight up, about ten feet. It caught the cliff and clung there like a giant spider, turning the ruins of its head from side to side.

Jennifer couldn't move, couldn't breathe. This end of the bridge was higher than the other, but the Hunter was still only about fifteen feet away from her. She'd seen how fast it could move. All she could do was crouch on the bridge, frozen into stillness, and wait to die.

Then another gunshot came from the far end of the bridge. Kian and Kopari had climbed up while Jennifer's attention had been on Teyla, and now Kian was down on one knee in a sniper's stance. He fired again, the shot pinging off the lower part of the creature's chest. He was trying to do what Jennifer had suggested -- take it out with a chest shot -- but his bullets just couldn't get through its armor.

The Hunter jumped again, landing on the bridge. It almost overshot, but with feline grace it swayed and caught itself, settling back into a crouch with its injured forelimb dangling. Jennifer was pretty sure that her heart stopped beating for a moment. It was only a few feet away from her. She could almost have reached out and touched it. Even in the dim light of the flashlights below, she could see the rippling, waterlike effect of its scales sliding over each other as it moved.

Kian couldn't shoot again -- Jennifer was directly behind it. She could see him through the space between its legs, looking frustrated as he swept the gun back and forth, trying to get an angle where he wasn't endangering Jennifer. Then he did something unexpected: he tilted the gun up and fired into the air.

The creature swiveled around, facing him and crouching to leap. As it did so, it presented its wounded side to Teyla -- a perfect angle, since the damage was mostly on the underside of its arm, and she was beneath it, shooting up.

The P90 fired several times -- single shots in rapid succession. The Hunter jerked like someone had shoved a taser into it, all its limbs flailing; the blade of its uninjured arm whistled above Jennifer's head. Then it tipped over the edge and fell, vanishing into the dark water beneath.

For a moment no one said anything. Jennifer finally remembered how to breathe.

"Everyone okay?" Kian called over the roar of the river.

"I need something for a bandage," Teyla said from below, her voice businesslike and sharp.

That jolted Jennifer out of her paralysis. "Hang on. I'm coming down."

After what had just happened, the challenge of scrambling down a cliffside with nothing but a four-foot ledge between her and a watery grave did not, somehow, seem so awful. She slid to a stop beside Teyla in a shower of rocks. Trina was sitting at Teyla's feet, head bowed, clutching her blood-soaked shoulder with one hand. Jennifer knelt next to her, unslung her pack and began to dig out medical supplies. Naturally, the first thing she laid hands on was the damn spare P90 clip. She handed it up to Teyla and then laid out her field kit.

Trina's shoulder had been sliced to the bone; those arm-blades were sharp as scalpels, and Jennifer couldn't help admiring the precision and sharpness of the cut even as she cleaned and stitched it.

While she worked, she heard introductions going on over her head, and then Teyla sat down crosslegged and deftly replaced the clip on her P90. She looked like she'd been dunked in the water awhile ago; her hair was plastered to her head, but starting to dry. There was a huge bruise across one side of her face, and dried blood smeared around her mouth and nose.

"I'll take a look at you after I'm done with her," Jennifer promised.

"I am fine," Teyla said shortly, checking the action on the P90.

"What? No you're not! Look, at least take some Tylenol or something." Jennifer gestured to the field kit with one gloved and bloodstained hand.

Teyla sighed, but one corner of her mouth twitched in a smile. She tore open a packet of Tylenol and gratefully accepted the canteen Kian handed her.

"You look like you've had a long day," Jennifer said. "We found some of your, um, kills."

"They are machines," Teyla said, handing the canteen back to Kian after taking a few long pulls. "There is some sort of computer inside them, and damaging it is the only way to stop them."

"I know," Jennifer said, and Teyla raised an eyebrow. "Hey, we saw the ones you killed. Nice job, by the way. Um, gruesome, but nice."

Teyla's smile was broader this time, though pulled down by swelling on the bruised side of her face. "I managed to destroy two of the three that took Rodney, but could not attack the third for fear of hurting him. Then they sent more after me. I used all my ammunition, and was forced to escape by jumping into the river."

"You jumped?"

"Only by necessity, believe me," Teyla said. As she spoke, she reloaded Jennifer's P90 with their last full ammo clip from the rucksack, and handed it back to her. She'd also found the other handgun, Jennifer noticed; the handgrip poked out from one of her tac vest's pockets. "Once I was able to climb out, I made my way back, and I have been exploring. I found where they are keeping Rodney, but without weapons, was unable to get close to him."

Jennifer's head snapped up. "Is he okay?"

"He is alive," Teyla said. "As I said, I could not get close." She nodded to Trina, who was heavy-lidded and slumped from the dose of morphine Jennifer had given her. "Can she travel?"

Jennifer sighed. "I don't recommend it," she said, laying a clean dressing over the wound. "But I can't think what else to do. We sort of, er ... collapsed the tunnel behind us. I mean, not on purpose, but. We're stuck."

"Well, the Hunters are said to roam the forest, so assuming this is where they spend their days, there must be other ways in and out of the catacombs," Teyla said. She sighed and stood up. "I would not suggest we spend any more time here. More of them may come."

Kopari gave Trina a hand. Teyla led them, with Jennifer behind her, and Kian brought up the rear.

Jennifer's heart was in her throat until they veered away from the river, following a narrow, upward-sloping tunnel. Teyla paused to consult more marks she'd chalked on the walls, and led them along a tunnel so low that even Jennifer had to bend over to avoid whacking her head on the ceiling.

"This is not the way I went at first, nor the most obvious way," Teyla said softly. "But I have had some time to, as John says, scope out the lay of the land. Be quiet. We are near."

A moment later, she flicked off her P90's light. The others followed suit. At first, the blackness seemed as oppressive as it had back at the river, but as her eyes adjusted, she realized that she could make out the dim shapes of Teyla and Kian's team around her.

Teyla moved forward slowly, cautious in the dark. Jennifer followed. The light grew brighter, and Teyla slowed until she finally stopped completely, silhouetted against light that stung Jennifer's dark-adapted eyes. Teyla beckoned, and Jennifer and Kian came quietly forward to join her.

They looked out, and down, into a large cavern. It might once have been a natural cavern, but if so, it had been enlarged and then buttressed with a heavy-duty metal scaffolding. The columns and crossbeams were bent and corroded with age, despite their massive size. Electrical conduits snaked along the walls. Most of the light came from a set of computer consoles in the middle of the room -- Jennifer had thought it was impossibly brilliant, but actually, as her eyes continued to adjust, she realized that it was not much brighter than a sleeping computer monitor or the reflected glow of a child's night light in the hall. It just seemed bright after the utter blackness in the tunnels.

But the computers were not the thing in the room that drew her attention.

Rows of Hunters stood on the floor, lined up along the walls. Each one crouched on its haunches with its long forelimbs braced in front, its squat head drawn down against its shoulders, unmoving. There must have been fifty or sixty of them, two rows deep. Jennifer swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. Then she saw Rodney. He was slumped against the wall next to the room's single high, arching doorway, with his injured, blood-matted arm drawn against his chest. A stone-still Hunter crouched on either side of him, and another in front, facing him, also immobile.

A handful of ambulatory Hunters prowled the room. Jennifer couldn't see any particular purpose to what they were doing; they wandered around seemingly at random. Occasionally one would leave the room through the doorway; sometimes another would enter. Usually there were five or six of them at any given time. Their aimless yet vigilant movements made her think of bees protecting a hive.

"How many flashbangs do we have?" Teyla whispered.

"Flashbangs?" Jennifer whispered back.

Teyla gestured impatiently. "Such as you threw to me earlier."

"Oh -- oh, uh, we used one, so three, I think. Unless Dersis still has one." She couldn't remember if Dersis's friends had taken the dead boy's weapons. It seemed too macabre to even think of it.

"Dersis? No, never mind." Teyla shook her head. "I am fairly sure that light does not hurt them, not permanently, but they are designed to operate in low light conditions, so it disorients and blinds them."

She produced a coil of rope from somewhere under her jacket, noticed the other two looking at her, and whispered, "What?"

Jennifer shook her head. "Nothing. Just ... next time I have to wander around an enemy-infested maze, you get to do the packing."

Teyla smiled and shook out the rope.

"Do we actually have a plan here?" Kian asked. He looked over his shoulder at Kopari, who was trying to get a semiconscious Trina to drink some water. "We can't leave her alone, so Kopari will need to stay with her. That just leaves the three of us to take on a room full of ... those."

"I am still working on an escape plan," Teyla admitted. "I think that with sufficient distraction, which the flashbangs will provide, we should be able to snatch Rodney without undue difficulty. What happens next is the difficult part."

Jennifer decided that she didn't want to know what would constitute undue difficulty, if this wasn't it. "There's nowhere to go that they can't follow."

Teyla nodded. "I am open to suggestions."

"Wait for Colonel Sheppard," Jennifer said immediately. "He'll have a dozen well-armed Marines and he's probably done this kind of thing hundreds of times."

"Retreating with an escort of Marines will be no less problematic, given the enemy's numbers," Teyla pointed out. "We will simply risk more lives. And Rodney ..." She glanced into the room below them, her brows drawing together in a frown. "I do not know if he can wait."

Jennifer didn't, either. He hadn't moved in all the time they'd been up here, and she knew he'd lost a lot of blood. He might be in shock. She couldn't tell from here if he was breathing, but after they'd come all this way, she refused to believe that he would be ungrateful enough to die before they could rescue him.

"We could hole up somewhere," Kian suggested. "Find a cave or something, use one of those explosive devices to seal the doorway -- those are pretty awesome, by the way. I hope you guys trade for 'em, because I bet the Elders would be willing to offer just about anything to get some."

Great. Woolsey was going to love this. Now we're intergalactic arms dealers, Jennifer thought.

"We might reserve that as a last resort," Teyla said. "I do not think it should be our primary plan, however. Aside from the high probability of collapsing the ceiling on ourselves, the odds of being found before our air runs out are slim. Our radios do not work through a great deal of rock, and mine was damaged beyond repair in any case."

"I still have mine," Jennifer said, "but, yeah, another vote for not burying ourselves alive, please."

Teyla did not seem to be listening. She was frowning down into the room below. "You know, Kian ... I think that there might be another way to apply your idea that would be less likely to result in our deaths."

After a few minutes of debating the particulars of Teyla's plan in rapid-fire whispers, they had a basic strategy that Teyla and Kian, at least, seemed to be happy with. Jennifer thought they were both crazy, but she'd been overruled.

"I'm just saying," Jennifer said, as Kian ran off down the tunnel to implement his part of the plan, "that there are about a million ways this could go horribly, catastrophically wrong. What if the ceiling caves in -- I mean, when it's not supposed to? What if there are a hundred other tunnels like this one? What if we use up all our heavy offensive weaponry and then have to fight?"

"The alternative," Teyla said, leaning cautiously through the doorway to secure the rope to the nearest support strut, "is doing nothing, waiting for hours or even days for help to arrive, and watching Rodney grow weaker until he dies." She looked at Jennifer. "You know what you are supposed to do?"

"Yes, of course." It wasn't a difficult plan -- that is, there weren't a whole lot of steps to it. It was just a very stupid one. "Teyla, this plan -- I don't think there's time for you to get out. Not unless we get a lot more time on the flashbangs, or Kian gets back faster than we --"

"I will get out," Teyla said firmly. "I plan to return to my son. Take care of your part, Jennifer. I will take care of mine."

They waited. Nothing happened. This gave Jennifer time to think of more things that could go wrong.

"What if Kian runs into more Hunters on the way?" she whispered. "How long do we wait before --"

Somewhere below them, clearly audible through the doorway, there was the thump of Kian's gun. Teyla sat up straight; this was not part of the plan. The ambulatory Hunters in the room swiveled around, and all but two of them ran through the doorway.

"Oh Kian," Teyla murmured, smiling. "Risky, but clever."

A moment later, they heard the deep bass rumble of an explosion in the hallway, and a billowing cloud of dust rolled through the doorway. Teyla was already on the move, leaning out and flinging a flashbang into the room below. This time, having learned from experience, Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut, plugged her ears with her fingers and pressed her forehead against the floor. The wave of sound still made her ears ring, though.

"Go!" Teyla shouted through the humming in her ears, and Jennifer, saying a quiet prayer, leaped out the cave mouth like a bungee jumper.

The rope knotted around her body brought her up short with a sharp, painful jerk. Teyla lowered her in a series of sharp jolts -- a moment of freefall, a jarring halt, and another moment of freefall. They had no time to waste, and they'd agreed that Jennifer could not descend the rope by herself, so Teyla and Kopari had to get her down as quickly as possible so that Teyla could follow. Her feet touched down, and she began to untie the rope as fast as she could. The rope jerked, and above her, she heard the clangs as Teyla rappelled down the scaffolding, freeform. She did not dare look up, though. The two remaining ambulatory Hunters, as well as the three guarding Rodney, were blundering around, bumping into walls and things. They waved their arm-blades in the air, making her think of nothing more than giant, confused cockroaches. It was almost funny, but one of those blades could still cut her.

Teyla hit the floor and shouted "Go, go! They are already starting to recover!" She had the P90 at the ready and another flashbang poking up out of the pocket of her tac vest.

She was right: the Hunters' movement was becoming more purposeful. None of the ones along the walls had moved, which was unexpected; Teyla had suggested they might have to contend with a whole room full of wide-awake, annoyed and confused robotic killing machines. At least one thing was working in their favor.

Clenching her teeth, Jennifer ran to Rodney and knelt beside him. "Rodney!" she snapped, shaking him. "Wake up! Get up!"

He blinked up at her. Even in the dim light, she could see that his skin color was awful. "I like this dream better than the last one," he mumbled. "My head hurts."

"Come on, let's go. We're getting out of here." Jennifer slid her arm under his, wrapping it around his rib cage. Rodney let out a pained gasp, but she steeled herself. This was no different from hurting a patient in the course of a necessary exam. She had to get him to run, no matter how much it hurt, or they would die.

Rodney staggered along beside her, half walking, half being dragged. "Jennifer!" Teyla yelled. "Duck!" There was a sharp chatter of P90 fire, as Jennifer fell to her knees and dragged Rodney along with her.

"Eyes and ears!" Teyla shouted, and Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut, then remembered that Rodney probably didn't know what was going on and tried to put her hand over his ear instead of her own, with the result that the detonating stun grenade left her staggering, sick and woozy again.

"Oh, you have to be kidding me!" Rodney sounded a little less weak and more annoyed. Squinting through watering eyes, Jennifer saw that his eyes were screwed up, his face twisted in pain. "Flashbangs again? Do you people not understand that I rely on my vision?"

Teyla dropped down on Rodney's other side. She said something. Jennifer pointed at her ears. "They're recovering even faster than we'd feared!" Teyla yelled, sliding an arm around Rodney's other side and hauling him bodily to his feet. "At this rate, I don't know if we have enough flashbangs to give ourselves time to get to safety!"

"Hi, Teyla," Rodney said as she and Jennifer hauled him along as fast as they could manage. "Warn me next time you decide to blind me?"

Teyla gave a soft, chuffing laugh. "I am sorry, Rodney. There was not time to tell you our plan."

"Well," he mumbled, "I hope it's a good plan."

Jennifer and Teyla, between them, began to secure the rope around him. "Basically," Jennifer said as she tried to remember everything she'd learned in Girl Scouts about tying knots, which wasn't much, "our friend up there is going to pull you up. And then he's going to pull me up. And hopefully this will happen before we run out of flashbangs."

Rodney blinked. "That's a really terrible plan."

"I tried to tell them," Jennifer said, bending to pass the rope between his legs and trying not to think too hard about that, "but did they listen?" Teyla had turned and stood with her back to them and the P90 at the ready, a small dogged presence, guarding them from the weaving, blundering robots.

"Wait, wait." Rodney began to struggle. "What about Teyla? That's not going to work! How many flashbangs do you have?"

"One more," Teyla said over her shoulder. "I will be guarding your retreat."

"One! What? No! That's suicide -- for you, at least! Untie me and get me to the console. I think I can stop them all."

Jennifer looked helplessly at Teyla as Rodney began undoing her knots one-handed. "Rodney," Teyla said, "you are badly hurt and not thinking clearly. You are wasting time we do not have."

"You," Rodney said flatly, "are wasting your life. For me. No way." His one-handed struggles with the knots were only managing to pull them tighter. He groaned in exasperation, stopped pulling, and gave Teyla a desperate look. He was filthy, exhausted, obviously drawing from his last strength just to stay upright, but there was an intensity in his blue-eyed stare that Jennifer couldn't look away from. "Teyla. Remember on the other Daedalus, when I said I'd get you back to your kid? I meant it then. I still do. Trust me."

Teyla closed her mouth on whatever she was going to say, and drew her knife. With two quick slashes, she slit the ropes. "Go," she said. "Jennifer, help him. I will hold them off."

A miserable, terrified part of Jennifer's brain screamed at her that they were all going to die, that they were throwing away their one chance to get up the rope to relative safety. But --

-- trust me, he'd said. And Teyla did. This was the faith that had carried her through the darkness and the danger, the power that had given her the strength to drive an improvised blade through body armor that could stop bullets -- the bone-deep confidence that he had her back, and she had his.

Trust me, Rodney had said. Moments earlier, Jennifer had jumped into freefall with nothing between herself and death but a flimsy rope and confidence in the strength of Teyla's hands. Now, she threw herself into another dive on nothing but the intensity of Rodney's confidence in himself, and in Teyla, and in her.

This was what being part of a team meant -- or, Jennifer thought, a family, a couple. For an instant she thought of Izar and Dehann, two people who were so different from each other (like me and Rodney) but still, their trust in each other shone through in everything they did.

This was love. This was the leap of faith that her parents and grandparents had taken, the risk that soldiers took every day, the risk that every human being chose to take when they walked up to ring that doorbell with flowers in hand, when they saw the sonogram for the first time, when they stood on a battlefield and saw the incoming fire and knew how it was going to end. Trust me. Even when it went beyond all logic. Even when it meant certain death if your partner didn't do the impossible and reach out a hand, against all odds, to catch you.

Jennifer felt the ground fall out from under her feet, but Rodney's solid bulk on her shoulder grounded her and brought her back down. With Rodney hanging onto her and bladed death all around them, she ran across the floor, hauling him up when he stumbled and nearly fell. She smacked into the cluster of consoles, barking her shins but somehow managing to protect Rodney from running into them too. The keys were all labeled in some weird angular script she didn't recognize. It could be Ancient, or Wraith for all she knew.

"I really hope you can do this fast," she gasped, unslinging her P90 and getting it ready.

Rodney snorted. "Hello, I'm me." But his right arm dangled, useless, at his side, with fresh blood seeping through the tattered sleeve. He was having to type with his left, and she could see him leaning his hip on the console, letting it take part of his weight. Sweat beaded his pale forehead. If she could have spared a hand to touch it, she knew she would have found it cold as ice, as his blood pressure dropped and he teetered on the brink of hypovolemic shock.

"The Ancients made them, I'm pretty sure," Rodney said as his fingers flew across the keys. Jennifer had known him long enough to know that he actually thought better when he was multi-tasking, but she still had to stop herself from trying to make him shut up and concentrate. "They recognized what I was -- I don't know if it's the ATA gene that did it, or if somehow they knew that I was the one who'd initialized all those systems in the fortress." He stopped speaking briefly, though he was still typing. Somewhere else in the room, Teyla's P90 let out a deafening burst of gunfire. "But they didn't know what to do with me. They brought me here, but wouldn't let me near any sensitive equipment. I think --" He paused, and Jennifer, out of the corner of her eye, saw him sway and start to slide sideways. She reached out a hand, caught him by the jacket and steadied him. "Mmmff," he said. "Thanks. Uh, what was -- yeah -- I think they just don't know what to think of me, to the extent that they can think at all. I'm kind of an Ancient but not really, and it's got them all mixed up --"

He'd stopped typing. "Rodney," Jennifer said tightly. "Hurry."

"Yeah. Right. Hurrying."

Jennifer heard a sharp clang, and spared a glance to see a Hunter's arm-blade slicing a chunk out of one of the metal support beams, only missing Teyla by virtue of her incredible dancer's reflexes. Teyla had at least three of them after her, but that left a couple unaccounted for. Jennifer spun around just in time to see one of them crouching on the far side of the bank of consoles, preparing to spring. "Teyla!" she yelled, her voice cracking with terror. "I think they can see us!"

"Flashbang!" Teyla shouted from across the room.

Jennifer threw her arms over her face, braced herself for the flood of sensory overload. She was going to have permanent hearing loss from this, she just knew it. "Rodney?" she said, lowering her arms and blinking away the stinging tears. "Are you okay?"

"For certain values of 'okay'," Rodney muttered, but she could hear the quick clatter of his one-handed typing.

The Hunter that had been about to attack them stumbled into the consoles, bounced off and set out in a new direction. Jennifer's whole body was a coiled spring of tension. They were out of flashbangs now. This was it. If Rodney couldn't crack these things' programming before the Hunters recovered -- which, if the previous times were anything to go by, would be measured in seconds rather than minutes -- they were all going to die.

"Huh," Rodney murmured. "That's weird." Jennifer gave him a fast, worried look. He was staring at the screen, his eyes glazed.

"What's weird?" Jennifer asked, scanning the room for Teyla and finally locating her behind one of the support beams. She was slapping their last clip, the half-empty one, into her P90.

"I can't ... think." He looked up at her, eyes wide and pupils dilated. "Sam, I have to do this and I can't think. I can't even remember what I'm supposed to be doing."

"I'm not Sam," Jennifer said, swallowing terror. "Rodney, you're hurt. Your blood pressure is crashing and you're going into shock. And that's bad, but not as bad as what's going to happen to us if you don't fix this and make these robots stop attacking us."

"I don't think I can," he said, staring at her.

"You can." Jennifer forced down her fear and the conviction that they were all going to die, instead pushing as hard as she could to exude the same kind of quiet confidence that Teyla radiated out every pore. She was pretty sure that all she managed to achieve was a sort of constipated look, but she tried. "Fixing things is what you do, Rodney. Teyla trusts you, and I trust you, and if Colonel Sheppard were here, he'd probably tell you to, uh, stop messing around and get back to work, right? Because you can," she said, and realized as she said it that she believed it, really truly believed it. "You can do it."

Rodney swallowed, took a hitching breath, and bowed his head to brush his fingers down the screen, scrolling through lines of blue text in alien script.

Teyla gave a sharp cry. Jennifer spared a quick look to see her picking herself up off the floor, shaking her head. One of the Hunters, perhaps less affected by the flashbang than its peers, was orienting on her with deadly intensity. Teyla took careful aim and fired at its head, but it dodged. Dodged the bullets. Jennifer stared, then jerked herself back to her own surroundings in time to see that the one that had been threatening her moments ago seemed to be shaking off the flashbang-induced disorientation, swiveling its head around in a slow, searching pattern. The Hunters knew that there were intruders; they were just struggling to find them.

This is it, Jennifer thought. Her brain telescoped down to a cool narrow focus, the same way she got when she was in surgery, when everything depended on a microscopic twitch of the scalpel. She took careful aim at the recovering Hunter, pretending that she was on the range where Major Lorne and sometimes Colonel Sheppard made her and all the other civilians go once a week, and squeezed the trigger. She missed utterly. Come on, Jen. Like you told Rodney -- you can do it. She squeezed the trigger again, and, somewhat to her own shock, hit it in the sensor box that passed for its head. Two of the Hunters were already staggering around with damaged sensor-heads -- Teyla had clearly been busy while they were having trouble defending themselves. Jennifer aimed again, but this time, when she squeezed the trigger, the Hunter ducked out of the way before she had time to complete the action. All she did was waste precious ammo shooting at the wall.

They were learning.

Maybe she should've put the P90 on full automatic, but she was afraid to do that; she didn't want to run through all her bullets, not when her aim was so poor at anything other than point-blank range. But it hardly matters -- if these robots kill us with bullets still in our guns, that would be a stupid way to die.

"Rodney ..." she said out of the side of her mouth.

"Working!" He sounded like he was barely holding it together, but, well, so was she.

The Hunter came at her, blurring with speed, and Jennifer flipped the P90 to full auto and opened up on it. Dying with a full ammo clip is stupid, she told herself firmly. It was impossible to hold the muzzle steady with the recoil jerking it all over the place, but the Hunter veered off from the deafening rattle of gunfire, blue sparks fizzling from its smoking headbox. Jennifer, gasping, stood her ground, with Rodney behind her. Protect him while he saves us, she thought. I can do this. I can do this.

The Hunter spun gracefully around and spread its arm-blades out to either side of its body. Jennifer pulled the trigger, and it fell on an empty chamber. Just as she'd feared, she'd emptied the gun. She watched the Hunter leap into the air, raising its blades to kill her, and she thought, I tried. Rodney, I tried.

A small round object bounced off the floor behind it, and exploded. The Hunter's body caught the brunt of the blast, but the shockwave knocked it forward. Its head separated at the neck, pinwheeling in a lazy whorl of black fluid. Jennifer threw up her arms in front of her face. Bits of metal or ceramic carapace rained around her and Rodney, and the creature's mangled body slid to rest mere inches from her boots.

Almost immediately, it began struggling to rise, and then Teyla landed on its back, mashing it into the floor. She drew the handgun from her tac vest, aimed at the middle of its shredded back and opened up. It seized violently, its blades rattling on the floor, and then went still.

"Did you --?" Jennifer gasped, getting her breath back. Her forearms stung and her jacket was torn with a hundred tiny cuts.

Teyla shook her head. She pointed up. Kopari was leaning down from the tunnel far above them. He'd thrown their last grenade.

"How are you doing on ammo?" Teyla asked quietly, stepping up to stand beside Jennifer.

She shook her head. "Empty."

Teyla smiled grimly and raised the handgun with a firm, decisive movement, one hand rock-steady on the trigger and the other locked beneath its grip. She flicked her eyes to the pistol belted at Jennifer's hip. "Do you have any more bullets?"

"No, I used them all back at the river."

"Ah well." A faint, rueful grin touched Teyla's lips. "I think I have two or three bullets left in this."

Jennifer couldn't believe she was doing this, but she found herself actually smiling back, because there was nothing left to lose anymore, and there was only so much terror you could endure before it just ... went away, leaving a weird calm in its place. "For a moment there I thought we were in trouble, Sundance."

And Teyla, impossibly, laughed. Obviously Colonel Sheppard had succeeded in his mission to make the entire Atlantis base watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Another Hunter rose up behind the dead one, swinging out its arm-blades. Teyla's gun popped off two quick shots. They did nothing at all. The blades swung out, and began their return swing as it leaped forward. Teyla's next shot produced nothing but a futile click.

Jennifer closed her eyes.

Rodney crowed, "Yes!"

Jennifer opened her eyes just in time to see the Hunter freeze in place, one leg ahead of the other, blades out to strike. Momentum continued to carry it forward -- it plowed face-first into the floor right behind the dead one, and did not move.

"Yes!" Rodney said again. "Look, look! I've just put them all on standby ... and, wow," he added, reading the screen, "looks like there were sixteen more out on patrol, so, well, good."

Jennifer gasped for air. Even Teyla looked shaken. Rodney looked around and stared for a moment at the robots on the floor.

Teyla recovered first. "They are all frozen like that, Rodney?" When Rodney didn't answer, she repeated his name until he looked at her, blinking, pupils blown wide.

"Uh, yeah," he said. "I think. I hope. There are schematics of the tunnel system in the computer. You -- you need to --"

And then he folded up, going down. Teyla lunged and caught him in a graceful slide. Then she turned him over to Jennifer, who rolled him onto his back. His face was white, his arm sodden with blood and his face plastered with blood and dirt. Jennifer looked up at Teyla. "My med stuff is all up in the, you know, ceiling tunnel thing. I have to get him up there, fast."

Teyla helped her carry him to the still-dangling rope, bits of it scattered on the floor where Teyla had hacked them off. Jennifer stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out how to arrange anything approaching a medically ethical transport system for a badly injured patient; then Teyla yanked hard on the rope, getting Kopari to drop them a few more feet of it, and Teyla began binding it around Rodney. Around them, the robots stood like statues, silent and unmoving.

"This could make his injuries worse," Jennifer fretted.

"I do not see that we have a choice," Teyla said, and gave the rope a sharp tug, then stood back. Jennifer chewed on her lip and tilted her head back, watching as Rodney rose slowly above the floor of the room. Blood fell in a slow blip -- blip -- blip on the floor.

"Schematics," Teyla said suddenly, and jogged to the consoles. She stared at the screens for a moment, then touched them with her fingertips, running her fingers purposefully across the display as Rodney had done.

"What?" Jennifer didn't want to take her eyes off Rodney as he dwindled above her, haunted by a superstitious fear that her inattention would cause him to fall.

"Schematics. That's his word for maps on computers, maps of objects or places. A map can show us the way out of the tunnels."

Jennifer dragged her eyes away from Rodney, to Teyla with her attention fixed on the computer. "Can you find us a way out of here?"

"Yes. Hush, please." Teyla rotated the display -- Jennifer caught a glimpse of glowing lines flashing and receding. Teyla pulled her head back and let out a satisfied sigh. "Ah. I have found it. Jennifer, do you see anyplace in here to print something?"

Jennifer looked around. "No."

"Ah, well." Teyla stared at the screen so intensely that Jennifer wouldn't have been surprised if the plastic, or whatever it was made of, had melted under her intent gaze. Her eyes darted back and forth. Memorizing, Jennifer thought.

Teyla raised her head, snapping herself away from the screen. "Jennifer? It is time for you to go."

"Oh." Jennifer hadn't even noticed the rope slap the floor beside her. "Oh. Yes."

Teyla helped her tie herself to the rope. The ascent was, she found, infinitely worse than the descent, if only because she had more time to think about it. Also, she was spinning. When she got to the top, disoriented and somewhat sick, Kopari and Kian hauled her over the edge.

"Kian!" Jennifer gave him a quick hug. "You're okay!"

Machismo asserted itself, and Kian just coughed and blushed. "This is your friend?" he asked, turning to Rodney, who was lying on Kopari's coat.

"Yes." Jennifer dropped to her knees beside him. She reached out a hand, groping for her medical kit, and was not even sure who slapped it into her hand.

She gave him a light dose of morphine and got to work. He'd lost so much blood that she had trouble getting an IV in him, and there was only the one bottle of saline to put through it. But it was better than nothing. And she wished she'd been able to work on his arm hours ago, when the injury was first inflicted. Rodney needed that arm; there was the danger of nerve damage, muscle damage ... She tried not to think of that, and cleaned and stitched his arm as well as she could, while Teyla held a flashlight. He'd need a better stitching job and possibly surgery back on Atlantis, but this would keep it from getting any worse. She bound it to his chest to keep it immobile.

The cut on his forehead had scabbed over, but not without leaving an ugly mess of caked blood. Jennifer gently cleaned it. It could probably do with some stitches, but it was his face; this could wait until she had better light and better facilities.

"Jennifer?" Teyla touched her shoulder lightly. "He can have my jacket if he needs it."

"Thank you," Jennifer said, helping Teyla tuck the jacket around him. He was still unconscious, limp and chilly as they manipulated him. When her patient was comfortable as could be expected, she raised her head and looked around. "Um -- Kopari? How's Trina doing?"

Trina was sitting against the wall with Kopari's arm, as well as his coat, wrapped around her shoulders. She was starting to shiver. Jennifer gave her another dose of painkillers, then went to check on Rodney, who was still out.

Teyla came back from peering down at the Hunters in the cavern below. "They are still frozen," she said to Jennifer's anxious look. "If Rodney says that they will remain that way, I believe him."

"It's not that I don't believe him, it's just that I don't want sudden surprise death machines," Jennifer murmured, and busied herself packing up her medical supplies.

Teyla seated herself at Rodney's head, and laid a hand on his forehead, carefully avoiding the bandaged gash. Gently rubbing his temple in small circles with her thumb, she said, "Tell me how he will be."

"Well, uh -- I don't know? He's chilled and he's lost a lot of blood. Ideally, we need to get him tucked in somewhere warm and dry, not in a damp, cold cave. On the other hand, we don't have any way to move him."

"Can hear you," Rodney mumbled. "Not dead yet."

Jennifer took his hand. "We thought you were unconscious."

Rodney blinked, his lashes flickering. "Has the world always been this ... fuzzy around the edges?"

"I gave you some painkillers," Jennifer said. "Ideally, we'd like to walk out of here, or else we'll have to wait for Colonel Sheppard to come find us in the morning."

"That sounds embarrassing."

Teyla's lips quirked. "We can travel slowly, and stop a lot."

"Yeah, whatever. Help me up."

They got him on his feet with some difficulty. He sagged against Jennifer while Teyla gathered up their things and shouldered the backpack. Jennifer had a brief macho moment when she thought about taking it herself, then squashed it.

Kopari and Kian helped Trina to her feet.

"Do you think you should check on those Hunter things again?" Jennifer asked, looking back over her shoulder at the dim glow from the tunnel mouth. "I mean, I really don't want to meet one on the way."

Rodney snorted, his head lolling on Jennifer's shoulder. "I tripped their maintenance override. They won't be going anywhere."

"Unless someone pushes the wrong button," Jennifer said thoughtfully. "Maybe it would be good to come back later and, you know, shut them off for good."

Rodney groaned. "Can we get out of here first?"

Teyla led the way. Their progress was slow; they stopped frequently to let the injured members of the group rest.

"You know what I don't get," Jennifer said to Rodney on one of their breaks. He was leaning on her, which was really kind of nice. "The Ancients made these things, right?"

"Probably," Rodney said drowsily, his head resting on her shoulder.

"So why in the world did they put them down here in these catacombs? And what's up with that control room at the very bottom? I don't get it."

Rodney was silent for a moment, then he said, "Product testing?"


Rodney nodded, and winced when the movement tugged at the cut on his forehead. "Yeah. That'd be my guess. One extra advantage to having the fortress in the mountains is that it comes with a bunch of different environments -- forests, cliffs, rivers, snow and so forth."

"Category 5 hurricanes," Jennifer said.

He smiled. "Yeah. That too. They could test the things they built, including the Hunters, in all kinds of different conditions. A mostly-natural labyrinth with an underground river sounds like an ideal testing ground."

"And the hidden control room at the heart of the maze?" Teyla asked, sitting down on his other side.

"What is this, Ask the Mangled Scientist Day?" Rodney closed his eyes. "Speculate among yourselves."

"Maybe it's the end of some sort of obstacle course?" Jennifer said after a moment's thought. "Like, a training ground for Ancient super-soldiers or something." She frowned. "Wow, that's a disturbing thought."

"Or perhaps it is not as isolated as it appears," Teyla mused. "The stairs in the fortress looked like a later addition to me. Did they also to you, Jennifer?"

"Yeah, I had the same thought," Jennifer said. She noticed that Rodney's eyelids had cracked open again; he was listening.

"They must have had a different way of getting around inside the fortress, then."

"Oh!" Jennifer said. "Transporters. Long since shut down, I suppose."

Teyla nodded. "So perhaps there was once a transporter to this control center as well."

"You two," Rodney said, "scare me." But he sounded impressed.


They emerged from the tunnels at last, into a dark stand of trees under a sky filled with unfamiliar constellations. Kian's team bunched more closely together, and Jennifer remembered that they had grown up knowing that you didn't go outside at night without risking death.

Hopefully that would no longer be the case.

"I know where we are," Kian said. He pointed in a direction that looked pretty much the same as every other direction to Jennifer. "The farms are down that way, so the fortress is only a short walk to our left."

"Define short," Rodney said tightly. He was leaning more heavily on Jennifer's shoulder, his breath coming in short, pained gasps.

"Do you need more painkillers?" she asked him.

"I need the infirmary and a bed. I do not need a trek through the wilderness." Rodney perked up a bit. "Wait. Someone can go and get the jumper."

"Someone," Jennifer said, "like you, because you're the only person on this planet who can fly it."

Rodney drooped. "Yeah. Right."

Kian was right, though -- it wasn't far. Casting about in the woods, the young militiaman found a trail that led to the fortress, and soon its walls loomed above them.

Getting someone to let them in was the tricky part. They argued through the door with the guards for a good twenty minutes before someone finally brought the elders down to approve opening the doors enough to let them slip quickly through.

But, as dawn brightened the sky, they were finally, finally safe -- in a suite of guest rooms provided by the Neserti, with hot water for baths and (thank goodness) food. Rodney was in no condition to fly the jumper, so they'd decided to wait for Atlantis tosend help; it was only a few hours anyway. Jennifer got Rodney settled on a bed and he immediately dropped off to sleep.

Jennifer cleaned up, ate, and then contemplated lying down for a nap. Her eyes felt gritty and her whole body ached. But she could sleep on Atlantis, and she had some patients to check on first.

She went into Rodney's room, and paused, surprised at the sight of Teyla stretched out next to him on the bed. She was lying on top of the blankets, fully clothed and fast asleep. Her face was turned away and she wasn't touching him, just lying there, looking more relaxed than Jennifer had ever seen her.

Jennifer interrogated herself for signs of jealousy and found that there was none, just the same sort of urge to go "awwww" that a pile of sleeping kittens might have evoked in her. Rodney looked like he was sleeping peacefully as well, so she closed the door quietly and went looking for the Neserti healers' ward.

Earlier in the night, the ward would certainly have been a scene of chaos, an emergency room in the midst of a crisis. Now it was quiet but for the occasional moan of a patient. Jennifer located Trina, with Kopari sitting next to her, holding her hand. "Kian's taken some people to retrieve Dersis's body," he told Jennifer, pitching his voice low so as not to disturb her.

"I'm so very sorry about your friend," Jennifer said. She looked down at Trina, taking in the girl's improved color. "How is she doing?"

Kopari frowned. "The healers said that she may lose some use of her arm."

"We might be able to help," Jennifer said. "We have excellent physical therapists on Atlantis, and I would be happy to have my surgeons take a look at her shoulder, as well."

"You'd do that?"

"Kopari," Jennifer said, sitting down on the edge of Trina's bed, "we owe you. All of your team. I could never have gotten to Teyla on my own -- I would've been out of the game when that first Hunter showed up." Permanently, but she didn't want to think about that. "And Teyla was out of ammunition and weapons. My friends would be in terrible danger or dead, if not for your help and Dersis's sacrifice. We're more than happy to give you any help that we can offer."

A smile lit up Kopari's weary face, a little sad, but genuine. "Kian probably wouldn't mind if you threw in some of those explosive devices. He really liked 'em."

"Um," Jennifer said. "Our, uh, leaders will have to work out that part." She had a feeling how both Sheppard and Woolsey would feel about selling military ordnance to Genii-allied worlds, but these people had saved her life and rescued Rodney, damn it. "I'm just in charge of the medical stuff. But I can promise that you guys have my department at your beck and call, as far as I'm concerned."

She sat with Trina for a bit while he went to get something to eat. The young woman did not wake, and when Kopari relieved her, Jennifer went to find Dehann and Izar. She located them in one of the handful of private rooms in the healers' ward; apparently their status, as well as the severity of Dehann's injuries, accorded them that much privacy.

Izar rose to hug her. "We heard that you and Kian's team had come back with your friends. I'm glad."

"Oh man. You and me both." Jennifer let herself sag into Izar's hug for a moment. In her line of work, she usually ended up giving comfort and reassurance, not receiving it; she couldn't help enjoying the feeling of being on the other end for a change. Pulling away, she looked down at Dehann's pale face. Guilt stabbed at her.

"She is alive," Izar said quietly. "That's what matters to me."

Jennifer smiled. "And we'll do everything we can to help. I have some antibiotics in my med kit -- the drugs I told you about, that help reduce infection. I used most of them this afternoon during the medical checkups --" She paused. Right. It was the next day now. "I mean, yesterday afternoon. But I can give some to Dehann and the other casualties. When we establish contact with Atlantis, I'll have some more brought over."

Dehann's eyelids flickered. "Oh," she said in a soft sleepy voice, and smiled up at Jennifer. "Did you get your young man back?"

"He's not mine," Jennifer said, a little too quickly, she realized an instant later. "But, yes," she added, and grinned down at Dehann, relief melting her. "We got him back."


Jennifer had wandered back to Rodney's room to check on him when the Atlantis search party arrived. Rodney and Teyla were both still asleep. Jennifer was so tired that her eyes felt like they were full of sand, but she was so keyed up that she suspected sleep would not come easily. She was combing her still-damp hair in front of an attractive but not especially reflective brass mirror on the wall when the door opened and Colonel Sheppard stepped inside. He was fully loaded for an assault -- P90 in hand, suspicious bulges in his tac vest -- and had his soldier game face on. Jennifer was looking at him, though, when he swept the room with his 90-yard soldier stare and got a good look at Rodney and Teyla sleeping on the bed. That was the point when the soldier face turned into the staring-at-kittens "awwww" face. Then he looked at Jennifer quizzically.

"Hello, Colonel." Jennifer straightened her back and tried to look somewhat professional. "Has anyone filled you in on what happened?"

"Bits and pieces," Colonel Sheppard said quietly. He let the P90 dangle from its vest clip and strolled into the room, casually dipping a hand into his vest pocket. Jennifer grinned when she saw what he'd pulled out: a small digital camera. He snapped a picture, then another from a different angle.

This time, the flash woke Teyla, who blinked and sat up, then saw the camera. She sighed. "John, that is not kind." But she was smiling.

"Hey," the Colonel said, stuffing the camera back into his pocket. "Call it payback. I let you guys go offworld without a military escort, and all I ask is that you come back on time with no battle wounds. And look what I get instead."

"Right, because we did it on purpose to annoy you," Rodney said without opening his eyes. Then he cracked his eyes open and glared generally at the world. "Ow. Oh God, ow."

"Rodney, let me look at your arm." Jennifer sat down beside him on the bed and pulled back the blanket. She could tell from the heat radiating off him that he was running a mild fever, and there was some seepage through the bandages. She looked around for her med kit, just as Teyla handed it to her.

As she peeled his bandages back to look, Rodney squinted up at Sheppard. "So what did we miss while we were crawling around in monster-infested tunnels? City blow up or anything?"

"Nah," Sheppard said. "I kicked Ronon's ass at Halo, no matter what he claims. Pizza night in the cafeteria, and by the way, they tried to do it Hawaiian-style with those weird blue fruits from 754 that taste like pineapple. The results were ... interesting. And not very pizza-like."

"Pictures?" Teyla said promptly.

"Or it didn't happen," Rodney put in. "Ow," he added.

"Stop moving," Jennifer said. There was definitely a bit of infection -- not bad, but it would be worth keeping an eye on.

"Of course," Sheppard said. "Emailed them to you two already. So, yeah, that's about it." He sat down on the end of the bed, and added casually, "Oh, and also, you guys missed your check-in and we scrambled the cavalry. You know. The usual."

Which was probably about as close, Jennifer thought, as the stonefaced Colonel would ever come to saying You guys worried me. She sometimes wondered if Sheppard was more demonstrative in private -- if the team got to see a more relaxed, less guarded, more human Sheppard than the one she knew. She'd asked Ronon one time, but he just said blankly, "You mean like, drunk?"

Possibly it was just that his team was fluent at reading Sheppardese, because Teyla leaned across and patted him on the shoulder with the hand that wasn't holding Rodney's.

Jennifer taped up Rodney's arm again. "You're doing fine," she said, patting him gently on his uninjured shoulder. "For a guy who went hand to hand with killer robots, that is. But I do want to get you in the infirmary as soon as possible. Do you need another dose of painkiller?"

"You have to ask?"

She smiled and cracked open a plastic case of tablets. "Sorry, silly question."

"Hear that, Sheppard?" Rodney said as she pressed a water bottle into his good hand. "Killer robots. Hand to hand."

Sheppard laughed, but he looked -- proud, maybe? "This I gotta hear. Preferably in the jumper, people. C'mon, let's roll."

"Where is Ronon?" Teyla asked, stretching and sliding off the bed with feline grace. "I am sure that he's here somewhere."

"Yeah, I think he was giving the Neserti tips on defending the fortress or something." Sheppard frowned as he gave Rodney a hand off the bed. "Was I imagining things, or did I see Genii guns on some of these people?"

"Sheppard, these people helped pull me out of a cave full of killer robots," Rodney said. "I think we can safely ignore any inconvenient political liaisons they may have had."

"Also," Jennifer said, because no one else seemed to be mentioning it, "Teyla killed, like, ten robots all by herself."

"That's my girl." Sheppard punched her in the shoulder.

"Yeah, there was some serious girl action-heroing going on," Rodney said, and staggered. "Whoa, wow, pills taking effect now."

Jennifer slid an arm around him from the good side. "C'mon, Rambo; let's get home, why don't we?"

Sheppard and Teyla seemed to be deep in some kind of comparison of past action-heroey exploits. As she and Rodney followed them out of the room, Jennifer leaned over and whispered to Rodney, "You were very impressive."

"Really?" Rodney darted a quick, shy look at her.

Jennifer smiled and pushed her nerve a bit. "I was impressed."

Rodney went pink, darted a look around and then whispered back, "You too. What with the big gun and all."

And a better opening she would never get. "Why, Doctor McKay," Jennifer said, feeling her own cheeks go hot, "you have a nice big gun yourself."

Rodney spluttered, and Jennifer giggled, and then Sheppard wanted to know What the heck are you two laughing about back there? despite Teyla kicking him gently in the shins -- and it was morning, and they'd survived the night. It was a good morning. Jennifer closed her eyes, and leaned against Rodney, and laughed.