Only a handful of people remained on their feet. Jennifer was barely standing, exhausted from long hours spent trying to stave off disaster. She had lost too many staff already, struck down whenever her back was turned.
She barely registered it when her radio crackled into life; lack of sleep had already caused her to hallucinate Ancients telling her that everything was fixed, that everyone would be fine, that she could step down now and sleep. "Jennifer," she heard Rodney say at last, his voice shrill and insistent. "We've traced it at last. We've eliminated it. It's over, but Sheppard… Ronon couldn't… Just come. Come now."
As ever, urgency gave her a new surge of energy. When she reached the scene, Teyla and Rodney were crouched over Colonel Sheppard's still form. The injuries were as expected: the heavy blows to the head; the broken ribs from sharp metal corners jabbing into the flesh; the impression of embossed writing, raw and red on the skin; the mark of an ornate screw, painted on the brow.
"But we did it," Rodney said, as Jennifer began to work. He had the air of someone desperate to find consolation in the dark. "We stopped it." Jennifer glanced up, and saw Ronon standing on the defeated assailant, holding it down with his feet. Only a fragment of its writing was visible, bringing with it memories of champagne and celebration; of a party to mark five years of the Atlantis expedition; of proud and solemn words inscribed in brass. Only two weeks before. They had brought this attack upon themselves, in their pride and their confidence. They had unleashed this enemy on the city.
Afterwards, when everything was over and she knew that everyone would live, she was able to sit down and make her report. "The people of Atlantis," she wrote, "were struck down by a deadly plaque."
The words refused to come. John cleared his throat, and tried again. "Uh, Rodney. You're… uh… You look…"
"Different," Teyla said, with emphatic tact. John had been about to say something else entirely.
Ronon just laughed.
John swallowed. "You… uh… Did you touch something? Something Ancienty?" His own hands were about to rest on the nearest console. He snatched them back.
"Your clothes are too tight, McKay," Ronon said, still laughing.
It was too much to resist. "Yeah, Rodney." John looked at him appraisingly. "And you really should fasten a few more buttons. That low-cut look works on--" Catching Teyla's glare, he stopped himself before going any further.
"Yeah," Ronon said, swatting Rodney on the arm. "Maybe you should borrow Teyla's--"
"For the last time, can you people just go away and stop your juvenile jokes." Rodney stood with his hands on his hips, his breast heaving. "I told you I was busty today."
"Oh God." Rodney came to a halt, struggling for breath. "What happened?" He turned a full circle. The ground was disturbed as if from a long and violent struggle, and there was red-- God, the thick red liquid was everywhere. "What happened?" he demanded again. "Where's Sheppard?"
"Gone." Ronon was covered from head to toe with red. "I couldn't… I tried--"
"We both tried." Teyla was crouched on the edge of the water, her arms covered with scratches. "We did everything we could, Rodney, but it was too strong for us."
"We have to get him back." Rodney pulled out his life signs detector. "We have to call for help. A rescue team in a jumper. The Daedalus can beam him out. We have to--" He looked at the others, furious, red-stained, defeated. "What happened to him?"
Ronon cried out wordlessly, smashing his fist into the nearest tree. "He was taken," Teyla said, her voice bleak. "He was carried away by the fierce currant."
Rodney opened his eyes slowly, his hands gripping the sides of his chair. "We aren't dead," he said. "Why aren't we dead?"
"Soft landing." Sheppard grinned at him in the gloom. The glass behind him was coated in something thick and brown, flecked in places with white.
Rodney stood up carefully; perhaps parts of him were hurt without him realising it. Moving to the computer, he began to analyse the strange environment that they had landed in. "Don't--!" he began, too late, as Sheppard opened the back hatch. It splashed down with a thick noise. The smell that came to Rodney's nostrils was unmistakeable.
Abandoning the computer, Rodney pushed past Sheppard and stood in the doorway. The whole surface of the world, as far as he could see it, was brown, except where swirling hillocks of white rose from the surface, and far away, when he turned, he saw globes of dark red, with curved green masts rising from their middles.
"Oh," he gasped, as he crouched and scooped up a handful of the thick brown substance. "We're doomed." He took a mouthful, then another, then another. He had a plate in his pack, didn't he? He wandered over to get it, shaking his head as he did so. "It'll be hours before Atlantis comes to check up on us." Perhaps he could send Sheppard to bring him back some of those distant white hills. "Doomed," he said, his mouth full.
Sheppard looked at him, his eyebrow raised.
"You're the one who crashed," Rodney reminded him. He licked his lips. "And now we're stranded in this endless dessert."
"Just arrived on the Daedalus," Rodney said, drawing out the cork with an air of reverence. "The new Beaujolais." He poured a glass, then held it up to the light, swirling it slowly. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. "Such a sublime nose!"
"Nose?" Ronon frowned in puzzlement. "It's just a drink, right?"
"Or what about a nice Burgundy?" Rodney poured a second glass. "Or is champagne more your sort of thing? No, it's too sparkling, and you're…" He waved his hand in a circle, as if seeking the right word. "You know. Not. Maybe some vintage port?"
"Rodney..." John shook his head impatiently, but Rodney flapped his hand, dismissing John and all urgency with one airy wave. Draining his first glass, he poured himself another. "Quite… quite shpectactular," he managed. "Did I ever tell you guys that you're my best friends. My best friends. Oh, is that chocolate?"
It was indeed chocolate. Rodney's questing hand missed. The results were unfortunate.
"Rodney…" John said again. Behind him, Teyla stood armed and ready, patiently waiting for the mission to begin. "Stop it," he said sharply, as Rodney poured himself a chocolate-smeared glass of champagne. "Stop wining, and come on this mission with us."
"…and then I said, 'No, not the red one, the purple one.'" Rodney ended it with an air of triumph. Grinning, he snapped his finger, as if awaiting a torrent of applause.
But nothing but silence greeted him. Rodney's shoulders slumped. Wiping away tears that might have been from laughter, he tried again. "The purple one. Get it?"
Sheppard said nothing at all.
Ronon looked up, his hand gripping Sheppard's forearm. "You remembered the bit about the…?"
"Yes, yes. Llamas. Of course I did." Rodney chewed his lip. "Sheppard," he said. "Listen to me, John. I'll start it all over again. Last night, in the lab. I was hard at work, and Zelenka came in, and…"
The story unfolded all over again. When it was half told, Teyla turned away sharply, her hand pressed to her mouth. It ended, as it always did, in purple.
"I don't understand," Sheppard said, his pale lips moving faintly. Letting out a fragile breath, he sank deeper into the pillow, his eyes sliding shut.
"Sheppard! Oh God, Sheppard, he's--"
"Still alive," Ronon said firmly. He was holding on as if he was never planning on letting go.
"But for how much longer?" Rodney raked a hand across his face. "If he doesn't get the anecdote soon, he'll die."
The first was with Todd. "One, two, three," John counted, as the Wraith held him at the waist with one strong hand. He guided their motion, taking them out beneath the beauty of the stars. Locked together, they moved as one, dancing to a music as old as time.
"Ah, John Sheppard," Todd sighed at last, when they were breathless beneath the moonlight. A dusky pink glow was blooming on his cheeks. "I haven't had such a partner in years. I believe I will abort the attack, after all."
The second was with Michael. "And how I ended up with you," Rodney said, "I don't know, since, well, uh, Teyla… She's your normal partner, and I don't…"
"Just hold me," Michael growled.
"Mind my feet," Rodney gasped, as they whirled through labs and hallways, as hybrids rapturously watched their dance. "Ow! Ow!"
"That was quite wonderful," Michael said when they were finished and flushed beside a sea of blind computer screens. "I believe I will let myself become human, after all, so I enjoy this experience again. Hybrid army, disband!"
The third was with a Replicator. "I… find myself… feeling… emotion," he gasped in wonder, as Ronon's strong arm held him tight around the waist; as Ronon whirled him and raised him and took him to places he had never been before. "Is this… Could this be…?"
Ronon bore down on him, leading the dance, always leading the dance.
"I believe our base code is being rewritten," the Replicator sighed, his eyes starry. "From now and forever onwards, all we want to do is dance, dance, dance."
The alarm fell silent. Slowly, with a sigh of relief, Atlantis emerged from its state of siege. Teyla sighed, smoothing down her ball gown, laying down her fan, her arms empty and the music silent.
"We did it!" Rodney said afterwards, when danger was over and coffee was flowing. "We only had four minuets to save Atlantis, and we did it with one minuet to spare."
"Unscheduled Gate," Chuck announced. "Receiving IDC. It Colonel team."
Woolsey across the console to. "Colonel, what is?"
"What?" The Colonel's voice was muffled by the radio.
"Said, what is?" Woolsey frowned in confusion. Chuck felt cold fist of dread grip his. Oh God, thought, not
"We were," the Colonel explained. "Hot. The!" His voice urgent.
Chuck hand hovered button, as awaited the command. A while, Woolsey sighed, nodding. "The," he ordered.
Chuck pressed button. Colonel team raced the Gate. "The Wraith!" Colonel shouted, but Chuck already truth. "They culled dozen more words!"
And here's an earlier version of the minuet one. I really can't decide which one is better, so am posting both. Of course, this one is kind of ruined by the fact that I've given away the punch line:
"One, two, three," Rodney counted out loud. "One, two, three… Ow! That's my foot, you clumsy oaf. Ow!" Clutching his left foot, he hopped over to the nearest console. "You've broken it! It's broken!""
Ronon shrugged, returning to the edge of the room with the air of someone whose duty was done.
"And you didn't hold me properly," Rodney snapped. "It's supposed to be elegant. One hand here, see, and one hand there, there, at my waist…"
"It's stupid." Ronon muttered. "Wanna see how warriors do it on Sateda? That's a real dance."
"No." Rodney shook his head, holding up his hand. "No, no, no, no, no. That wasn't part of the deal." He rounded on Sheppard. "And you can stop smirking, Colonel Two Left Feet."
Teyla stepped forward firmly. "Rodney, I believe I tried--"
"Yes, yes, you tried." Rodney folded his arms with the air of a martyr.
Sheppard grinned. "Admit it, Rodney, she was too fast for you. Swept you right off your feet."
"I didn't ask much." Rodney turned away, his arms still folded. "You came to me with yet another ridiculous demand. 'Save the day, Rodney. Perform the impossible and save Atlantis once again.' Was it too much to ask for, Colonel?" He waved his hands angrily, his ball gown swirling around him. "Five minuets! Just five minuets, and you couldn't even give me that!"