Prompt: "You can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor."
Word Count: ~26,000
Summary: Two of the S.G.C.'s top secret agents, Teyla Emmagan and Rodney McKay, are sent to the Casino Atlantis to investigate the suspicious business dealings of John Sheppard...
Notes: Nothing to do with the episode "Vegas," despite the setting. And next to nothing to do with the prompt (...oops?)
There are several cameo crossovers with various other series; knowledge of any of them is unimportant to the actual plot, but if anything seems suspiciously familiar, it's likely with good reason.
[Act 1] [Act 2] [Act 3]
Act I: "The Demands of Mathematically Unviable Capitalistic Chance"
Las Vegas gave Rodney McKay a headache. The city was too bright, too hot in the day and too cold at night, and it kept ridiculous hours. Also the florescent displays and security wiring and anti-cheating radio baffles wreaked havoc on his surveillance equipment.
"I am sure you are up to the challenge," Teyla said patiently, as she hooked on her faux pearl earrings. The left one was molded of a potent sedative that dissolved in liquid; the right one was an explosive. Even in good light they looked real, however, as opalescent as if they'd just been drawn from the sea; one of Radek's better efforts.
"Of course I'm up to the challenge," Rodney huffed. "But I don't appreciate make-work scenarios. This whole place is an exercise in inefficiency. Gambling, for god's sake! Do you know what the odds are of winning a—"
"But we are not here to gamble," Teyla said, slipping the bug into her ear and curling her auburn hair over her earlobe to conceal it. "He is on the floor?"
Casino Atlantis was a new establishment, with state-of-the-art security conveniently monitoring every inch of the floor. Rodney had tapped into the system an hour after arriving. A quick scan of his laptop screens now confirmed their target. "Still at the blackjack tables."
"Is everything ready?"
Rodney checked the audio, and the video feed from the micro-camera in her choker. "Yes, yes, it's all good to go."
"Then I will go," Teyla said, and giving her black gown a final once-over in the mirror, she departed, the hotel door clicking shut behind her.
So as not to be too obvious, Teyla insinuated herself at the blackjack table adjacent to their target, rather than with him. It wouldn't do for him to get to know her face, if they were going to keep up surveillance for a while. However long that was to be—their instructions thus far consisted of 'observe target, record and identify relevant contacts.'
It was an unstimulating exercise for two of the S.G.C.'s finest spies, and Rodney suspected that it had more to do with his inadvertent insult of that cabinet member's son than any pressing international crisis. He'd only given an honest estimate of the boy's IQ; how was he to know whose kid he was? It wasn't like he kept track of the names of every single government official around the world. He wasn't even an American citizen, just a resident.
"Besides," he muttered to Teyla over their radio link, "'dense as a radio-quiet neutron star' was practically a compliment anyway, in his case."
"You are being paranoid," Teyla said in an undertone, hardly moving her lips, the microphone in her choker carrying the vibrations from her throat to his speakers.
"So you said before," Rodney answered, "but here we are in Vegas, playing Peeping Tom on some poor sap with too much money and time on his hands. Someone's getting punished."
"Yes," Teyla agreed, and while the whisper of her sub-vocalizing canceled any overt emotion, her tone was wry nevertheless.
"I've been going over this guy's profile again," Rodney said, turning to his other computers and all the open documents he had gathered since getting this assignment, "and I still don't have a clue why the S.G.C. would give a damn about him—or anyone else, either. He's rich, but he's not that rich; he doesn't have a lot of influential friends, he's not into politics. So obviously it's got something to do with his company, but what...would've been nice if they'd given us a hint, at least..."
Teyla was leaning over the blackjack table to get a better angle on their target—probably giving the dealer quite a good angle as well, considering her low-cut dress. Everybody wins in the spy game. Rodney shrugged off that thought, glancing at the man framed in Teyla's camera, then at the pictures on his screen. In addition to the various corporate profiles and the military ID photos, he'd found the guy's high school yearbook shot—floppier hair and fewer wrinkles, but the long lines of his face were the same twenty years later. A lazy face, not really made for the effort of smiling or frowning, and in Teyla's video feed he was slouched in his seat at the blackjack table, one arm draped on the table like he couldn't be bothered to lift it. About the only energy in him was his hair, which looked like it was on strike, protesting the sleek black satin of his tuxedo, and possibly staging a picket line.
Other than that, there was nothing to distinguish John Sheppard, son of the late Patrick Sheppard. Except for his bank account, of course—along with his brother, he was the co-owner of Sheppard Power, the largest energy conglomerate on the West Coast, as well as numerous other holdings.
It was one of those other holdings that was their reason for being here, Rodney was sure. While the S.G.C. was being particularly cagey with their information, if Sheppard Power were the object, their target would be Dave Sheppard. According to Rodney's preliminary research, the younger brother ran the day-to-day operations; John Sheppard was responsible for the more esoteric branches of the business.
Right now, however, he seemed more responsible for disposing of his family's considerable wealth. Admittedly the blackjack tables were the least expedient way to lose one's shirt, but you don't go to a casino to make money. Rodney hadn't yet found evidence that Sheppard had a gambling problem, but then that was hardly something a family would advertise—
"Rodney," Teyla murmured, and Rodney looked up at the screens.
Not a casino addiction after all, maybe; Sheppard was shaking hands with another man. Tall, East Asian features, younger than Sheppard by several years; a businessman by the cut of his white suit. An important one. Probably Japanese or Chinese, here for a clandestine business meeting, and finally things were getting interesting.
"Who?" Teyla sub-vocalized, turning to get a clear shot of the new man.
"How should I know?" Rodney said, taking a couple high-definition snaps of the man via Teyla's micro-cam. "You know I'm crap with faces. And names, and birthdays—"
Teyla's delicate cough was either chiding or a suppressed laugh at his expense. Either way, Rodney rolled his eyes, told her, "Yes, yes, I'm on it," applying his electronic pen to quickly outline the man's pertinent features for a database scan.
Teyla gracefully departed from her table and headed for the lavatories, passing by Sheppard's table as she did, close enough to catch a scrap of their conversation. "Japanese, I think," she murmured to Rodney. "No accent, but Sheppard was mentioning Tokyo."
Rodney accessed the Japanese Business Bureau database, narrowed the parameters by estimated birth year and ran the scan. "Got him," he said several minutes later. "Seto Kaiba, CEO of Kaiba Corporation, an international corporation specializing in—huh." Rodney sat back in his chair. "Games."
"Games?" Teyla repeated.
"Video games, board games, card games—kid's stuff. Literally. The hell?" Rodney frowned, drumming his fingers on the edge of his keyboard. "What kind of wild goose chase are we being sent on, here?"
"The most dangerous kind," Landry said, when Rodney put the question to him later that night. The general looked tired—Colorado was an hour ahead of Nevada, so it was almost one AM there. Rodney didn't especially care; it was the man's job to keep them informed, and if they'd been fully briefed before departure they wouldn't require this conversation anyway.
"General Landry," Teyla said, as patient as always, "what danger does Kaiba Corporation represent?"
Landry leaned forward to fill the video's window. "The S.G.C. has reason to believe that KaibaCorp's entertainment business is a front. Until the mid-90s, KaibaCorp was a major defense contractor, specializing in missile guidance systems and long-distance remote combat. The suspicion is that rather than closing shop on their international arms manufacturing, they found a more lucrative, private venue for their production."
Teyla nodded. "Black-market arms dealing. We see."
"Any proof?" Rodney demanded, disgruntled. He'd researched KaibaCorp for two hours and hadn't come across a mention of black-market operations.
"None that the S.G.C. has been able to uncover," Landry admitted. "Until this meeting with Sheppard—it's significant that KaibaCorp's CEO came in person to negotiate the deal."
"Not to mention, they're meeting over a Vegas blackjack table," Rodney said. "Because that's not suspicious at all."
"But of what interest would Sheppard Power be to a weapons manufacturer?" Teyla asked.
Landry sighed. "Not Sheppard Power. One of their holding companies, Ancient Enterprises." Rodney's fingers flew over the keyboard as the general continued, "It was a small private company Sheppard Power purchased—"
"—Six years ago," Rodney supplied, reading off the screen. "And promptly liquidated, so what—"
"Project ATA," Landry said. "And don't bother looking that one up, Dr. McKay; it won't be in any database you have the security classification to access. Suffice to say, while Ancient Enterprises is gone, Sheppard Power has still been accepting funding from various sources for Project ATA for the past six years, under the direct management of John Sheppard."
"'Various sources'," Rodney quoted, "meaning, what—the American military? Other militaries? The private sector?"
Landry gave him a long look, and Teyla nudged him with her elbow, under the table out of range of the general's camera. "Right," Rodney said, "so whoever it is, they're put out that John Sheppard might be trying to sell their pet project to the highest bidder."
"Worse than that," Landry said grimly. "There was concern about the security breach regardless, but if Sheppard is giving Project ATA over to KaibaCorp, rather than any other bidder—KaibaCorp has several significant business connections with Egypt."
"Egypt?" Rodney blanched.
Teyla retained her usual equanimity, her voice level. "You believe KaibaCorp may sell to G.O.A.U.L.D.?"
"It's a possibility," Landry said. "A far better one than the I.O.A. cares to contemplate. Dr. McKay, Ms. Emmagan, for the sake of the world, G.O.A.U.L.D. cannot get hold of Project ATA. Whatever deal Sheppard is trying to arrange must be stopped, by whatever means necessary. Is that understood?"
Teyla changed out of her black gown into the black cat-burglar suit that was ten times as distracting, for all Rodney had seen her in it more than the cocktail dresses. Not that he harbored any inappropriate feelings for his partner, but on a standard one-to-ten scale of female pulchritude, Teyla scored on average a nine point five, and he was only human.
He gallantly kept his eyes on her face (mostly) as he gave her the rundown of Sheppard's hotel suite, three floors down and two rooms over from theirs. While there were no security cameras to access in the rooms themselves—stupid privacy laws, and hotels that abided by them—he'd been monitoring the hall cams, and between that and the directional microphones he'd determined that Sheppard had returned to his room an hour ago. He had showered, and now, from the snores emanating from the bedroom, was sound asleep. The sedative gas capsule tucked into Teyla's belt would keep him that way while she searched the suite.
"Sheppard didn't come with a bodyguard, and he hasn't hired any local muscle," Rodney said, "so you shouldn't have to worry about interruptions. He should be alone, there wasn't any woman with him in the hall—or man, for that matter—and it looks like he's trying to keep this whole deal on the down-low. So with luck he doesn't even suspect anyone's on to him. But that doesn't preclude the possibility that he's personally armed, and he was in the Air Force for a time, so you've got to figure he knows basic self-defense—not that you don't know quite a bit more than basic, but—"
"I will be careful, Rodney," Teyla said, smiling her seraphic smile. She touched his arm in gentle reassurance as she passed him to go out onto the balcony. Getting a good grip on the rappel line, she climbed up onto the railing as effortlessly as if it were a single stair, and stepped off the edge.
Rodney mastered his acrophobia long enough to peer over the edge, watching his partner descend into the night, just another shadow against the hotel's burnished false-copper walls. Then he shivered in the chill of the desert night and went inside to his computers to wait. In a few minutes, Teyla reported over the radio, "I am inside. Sheppard is temporarily sedated. He doesn't have much luggage, I am going through it now, but there are no business documents that I have found."
"Try the safe," Rodney suggested. "This hotel's got Zeira models, easy-peasy. Radek's cracker should have you through the electronic lock in thirty seconds."
"I have it open," Teyla said after a bit, "but the attaché case inside is also locked."
"Any manufacturer's logo on the case?"
"An X, red and black. Titanium Class, it says."
"A Xanatos Titanium?" Rodney whistled. "Okay, somebody's serious about keeping secrets. You're not going to get into that tonight."
"And one supposes Sheppard would notice if it were borrowed."
"One would suppose, yeah." Rodney paced a short circuit around the desk, thinking. "Okay, can you get out of there now without leaving any trace? So Sheppard won't know anyone broke in? If you can get another shot at the case tomorrow, I should be able to work something out."
"Provided Sheppard does not complete the deal tomorrow," Teyla said, "but as I see no other—"
Her voice cut off so suddenly Rodney thought the connection might have been broken, but the radio was still transmitting when he checked. "Teyla?" he asked, tapping on the microphone. "Are you—"
With the speaker's volume turned up to carry whispers, Teyla's choked gasp sounded like a shout, agonizingly loud. Rodney dialed down the sound with his left hand, his right automatically groping for his sidearm, in its holster on the desk. "Teyla?" he demanded anxiously.
There was no answer, but Teyla's breathing came in harsh, rapid pants, and when he tuned into the directional mics focused on the room, he made out reverberations, like footsteps, but arrhythmic. Blows—punches or kicks, probably. And that sharper crack was likely Teyla's special ninja rods.
Cursing the lack of cameras in the suite, Rodney carefully filtered out the sounds from the different mics. The snoring in the other room hadn't been interrupted; Sheppard was still asleep, so there was someone else in there with Teyla. Or someones; by the number of blows, there might have been a couple fighters. Or else it was a single person as fast in hand-to-hand as Teyla, and wasn't that a cheerful thought—
"Teyla, do you need backup?" he asked, looking at the cameras monitoring the peaceful hall outside Sheppard's suite, fingers clenched around his Beretta pistol, dithering. If he sent security to Sheppard's room, that would blow everything; but then, if his partner were killed in there, their cover would be just as effectively ended, and Teyla—"Teyla, tell me, do—"
"No," Teyla panted, her breath hissing into the mic. "I am—all right."
There were no sounds from Sheppard's suite now, except his ongoing snores. "Where are you?" Rodney asked.
"Escaped. Window. Going to—roof," Teyla answered. "I may be—observed."
She didn't want her attacker to trace her back to their room. "On my way," Rodney said, only just remembering to grab his blazer on the way out. Fortunately at three A.M. the hotel halls were mostly deserted, save for the party of drunken bachelors tumbling out of the elevator. Rodney made sure his pistol was concealed under the jacket as he impatiently waited for them to disembark, then got in and slammed the close-door button so hard he stubbed his finger.
The stairway to the roof was locked, but Rodney's modified keycard passed him through without incident. He'd already set the rooftop cameras on a three-minute loop of nothing that should pass casual inspection, at least until the sun came up. Once he squeezed through the outside door, he ducked, stooping low on the roof to present a smaller target as he scanned the surroundings with night-vision scopes. Seeing no other people on the building or the adjacent ones, and no telltale glare of a camera lens or laser sight, he made his way toward the other figure on the rooftop, sticking to the shadows as best he could.
Her infiltration suit was heat-reflective, so only her face showed clearly in the scopes, her body not much more than an outline, but the size was right. "Teyla?" Rodney whispered, gun ready in his hand, just in case.
"It is me, Rodney," Teyla answered, still sounding out of breath, but less strained aloud than on the radio. She rose from her crouch in the shadow of the rooftop's raised ledge, headed to him. Even in the dark he could see she was limping slightly.
"Are you okay?" he asked. Teyla looked around the rooftop and Rodney said hastily, "It's okay, there's no one else up here. What happened? Were you attacked, who was it, did you—"
"I was attacked," Teyla said, leaning on his arm when she got close enough, and he quickly put his arm around her waist to help support her. "I could not see by whom. Evidently he was as interested in preserving his anonymity as I was, for he did not turn on the lights."
"At least he was unarmed," Rodney said, as they climbed back down from the roof.
"Not unarmed," Teyla corrected. In the bright lights of the stairwell, she didn't look that much worse for wear, no obvious marks on her face, anyway. Though she'd need to wear a dress with a high collar to hide the bruises on her neck.
The unseemly large, curved and mottled bruises. "Wait, are those the guy's fingers?" Rodney demanded, feeling ill.
Teyla touched her throat. "Most likely."
"So, really not unarmed." Rodney had never cared for people whose bodies could legally be considered lethal weapons. Partners excluded, of course.
"Not only those," Teyla said. "He also had knives."
"Knives? As in, more than one?" Rodney glanced worriedly at Teyla, and then stared. "And why, if he had knives, plural, and fingers big enough to strangle a grizzly bear, are you smiling? Even if you had your ninja sticks—"
"I did have my bantos rods," Teyla said, patting her leg, where the retracted metal rods were snug in their thigh sheath. "And they were equal to his knives. Still, I have rarely met with so able an opponent in hand-to-hand."
"Meaning, he nearly killed you—and you're smiling."
"Adrenaline," Teyla said serenely.
"Clinical insanity," Rodney countered.
The elevator doors dinged and opened, disgorging an elderly couple, up way past their bedtime. They glared at Rodney for blocking their way, and then gaped at Teyla in her basic burglaring black. One of her sleeves was torn, Rodney noticed, the cloth hanging loose from a long rent slicing halfway down the length of her arm, and while he didn't see any blood underneath, it must have been close.
The senior citizens were squinting through their glasses at Teyla's utility belt and the rappel carabiners glinting on it. "Ah," Rodney said. "Um. This..."
"We were attending a costume party," Teyla explained, putting her arm around Rodney's neck and cuddling close, turning her head to conceal her bruised throat.
"Yes, right," Rodney said. "She's Catwoman, I'm Bruce Wayne. On vacation," he added, when the old man looked suspiciously at his wrinkled shirt and lack of tie, and Rodney hoped the gun under his jacket wasn't making too obvious a bulge.
The elevator doors closed, mercifully cutting off further inquisition. Rodney leaned against the mirrored back wall. "Sometimes I don't think I'm cut out for this job," he muttered.
Teyla just laughed softly.
To prevent Sheppard from closing his deal, so the briefcase would still be in his room the next night, they asked Landry to call in a favor with the FBI. "Arresting Seto Kaiba is not going to buy you a lot of time," the general warned. "They'll be able to hold Kaiba for twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours on the outside. After that, even if G.O.A.U.L.D. stays out of it, the Japanese embassy is bound to raise a ruckus, and terrorists from Japan are a hard sell anyway, whatever charges we trump up."
But putting Sheppard's potential buyer out of the picture hopefully would give them the chance they needed to sort the mess out. Provided someone else didn't intervene. "You're sure you don't remember anything about the guy who jumped you?" Rodney pressed again. "Accent, voice, anything?"
"He didn't speak," Teyla said, "so I can tell you nothing about his voice."
"What about his fighting style, you can ID those, usually—"
"It was dark. And his moves were not particular to a single style," Teyla said. "School of survival, perhaps—he was very adept in defense, by whatever means. As well as offense."
"There's got to be something," Rodney said. "Some way to find the guy."
"He may be waiting in Sheppard's room again tonight."
"Some way other than you getting ambushed by him again. He might have a gun this time."
"It would not be his ambush, if I were waiting for him."
"But it would be his, if he were waiting for you. You're sure you don't remember anything we could use to track him down?"
"He is a large man," Teyla said thoughtfully. "Six four, six five. And strong. And younger than me, I think, to move so fast and easily for his size."
"Not a guy who would blend in easily with a crowd," Rodney said. "So we're looking for the Jolly Green Giant, with knives. If we were anywhere but Vegas, that probably would help. You didn't break his nose or anything nice and distinctive like that, did you?"
"Next time I will endeavor to," Teyla promised.
So Sheppard wouldn't make Teyla tailing him, Rodney swapped places with her after lunch, assuming the personal watch while she kept an eye on his monitors up in their hotel room. He followed the business mogul from the seafood restaurant, past the blackjack tables, to the dice games, fighting not to roll his eyes. Blackjack could be played to win, if you had the intelligence and the head for figures, and Sheppard had some kind of successful system, to tell by the chips he had cashed the night before. Craps was pure chance, and the house always rigged the odds in its favor; you might as well set fire to your cash and enjoy the flickering flames. It would be about as profitable in the long run.
And Sheppard, from the diminishing stack of chips at his elbow, had even worse luck than probability offered. Rodney sympathized; he'd never had anything resembling luck himself. Except that he had the intelligence to stick to games of skill, and games he was skilled at, rather than hoping for a break that would never come.
Sheppard should have the intelligence, too; according to his profile, he had a degree from MIT, plus the American military wasn't known for giving officer's stripes—or stars, or bars, or whatever came with commissions—to complete simpletons. And they didn't tend to assign them Special Ops missions, either, which was the best explanation Rodney could come up with for the big blacked-out patches in Sheppard's Air Force record.
Special Ops experience might also explain why, after he was booted from the military and returned to the Sheppard family fold, John Sheppard had been given jurisdiction over Ancient Enterprises. If they had been a defense contractor, and Project ATA was some kind of military or quasi-military endeavor...which it probably was, because few other secrets were guarded so closely. Three hours of dedicated hacking the night (or early morning) before hadn't turned up anything revealing about the project. If he had to hazard a guess, Rodney would say it had something to do with biological warfare; before the company's liquidation, there had been a couple geneticists on Ancient Enterprises's payroll, along with engineers and physicists and various other scientists. Really, though, he had no idea.
Ten years ago, he might have been brought on board the project himself—but that was a long time ago, and not something he dwelled on anymore. Spilled milk and the road less traveled and all that. He'd had therapy; he'd worked through it, mostly. And General Landry did still call him "Doctor," in acknowledgment—of his degrees, or perhaps his ego.
But damn, did Rodney want to know what Sheppard had in his guaranteed-almost-unbreakable top-secret X-T attaché case, the one propped against his knees now. And not only because it potentially posed a significant threat to the free world and life as he knew it.
For now, however, he could only watch, as Sheppard lazily drank beer and lost obscene amounts of money. If he was concerned that Seto Kaiba wasn't making his appointment—if indeed they had any appointment today—it didn't show. As unstressed as Sheppard looked now, he might as well be selling a video game. Maybe Sheppard Power was branching out into the entertainment industry, and all Sheppard had in his briefcase were cheat codes for the latest first-person shooter. Or electronic golf. Sheppard looked like the kind of guy who would waste hours on a virtual golf course.
"Sir," the croupier said, "if you don't place a bet this round, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave to make room for those who want to play."
"I'm just getting a feel for the table," Rodney said.
"It's great, buddy," the corpulent man next to him assured. "Last round was so bad, the odds have to be better this time. Can't roll too many more snake-eyes. That's probability for you."
Rodney eyed him. "Have you ever even heard the correct definition of probability? Or is it just the only five-syllable word you know, so you like to toss it around?"
The man's face went lurid mauve. "Sir," the croupier said, with a hint of desperation.
Teyla was snickering in his ear. "Fine," Rodney said, "I'll accede to the demands of mathematically unviable capitalistic chance," and he put down two ten-dollar chips.
When he looked across at the opposite table to see if Sheppard was faring any better, he realized with a start like an electric current that he wasn't the only one. At the next table beyond that, a man was looking over as well—not at Rodney, but at Sheppard. An unusually tall man, and Rodney felt his pulse-rate double at the sharpness of his gaze, turned away before the guy spotted him.
He was in a tuxedo a good deal pricier than Rodney's maroon velvet, and his short thick hair was neatly slicked back, but something about his stance screamed dangerous. More than his height—and not the hulking intimidation of a bully, but a quieter threat, the kind of aura that made people walk around rather than push past him, without even realizing they were doing it. It was something Rodney never could manage, and Teyla pulled off effortlessly, when she wished; a subtle, primal signal that warned, I could kill you in a second, if I wanted to, so don't make me want to.
"Teyla," Rodney whispered, "Two tables down, third guy from the right."
"Ah," Teyla said over the radio. "Yes. It could be."
Sheppard hadn't brought any bodyguards with him, hadn't hired any. This didn't make sense.
"Sheppard does not appear to know this man is watching," Teyla observed, and no, Sheppard never once glanced at his outsized shadow, like he didn't know the man was there.
So perhaps Sheppard hadn't hired him. Maybe Kaiba had sent the man as extra insurance, if Sheppard wasn't cooperating. Or else Kaiba had been hoping to get out of paying Sheppard's asking price; maybe this guy had been after the same objective as Teyla, and that was why he'd broken into Sheppard's suite.
Leaning his arm on the table, Rodney casually glanced over the room again, his gaze passing over the big man, carefully not resting on him for an instant, but registering his presence, his wary stance, the bump under his tux jacket of a concealed holster. Not just knives, then; or else that was one hell of a knife.
The bulge was more obvious when he moved, swinging into long strides, to follow—Sheppard, who had picked up his metal briefcase and was ambling from the craps table, out of the dicing area. Rodney reached to scoop up his chips.
"Sir!" the croupier said, smiling. "Congratulations!"
Rodney looked at the two sixes on the dice, then at the circle of faces around the table grinning inanely at him. "I won?"
"Boxcars pay out at thirty to one."
Rodney blinked down at his pair of blue chips. "I won six hundred dollars?"
"Rodney," Teyla said in his ear, a little too calmly for comfort.
Sheppard was out of sight when he looked over. "Crap," Rodney said. "Um, craps, rather, that is, you all can share it, on the house, whatever, I've got to go," and waving at his fellow less-fortunate but richer gamblers, he hurried off, leaving his winnings behind.
Rodney couldn't have been more than a minute behind his target, but the main corridor was crowded, and he couldn't spot Sheppard's ridiculous hair over the jostling throngs. His lanky black-clothed figure should stand out against the Atlantis's Art Deco revival glitz and glitter. But then, between the glowing blue bubble columns and the garish carpets embroidered with fake ancient glyphs, it was amazing that Rodney hadn't gone totally blind.
"Teyla," he hissed, "where is he?"
"I don't know," Teyla said.
"What do you mean—rewind the camera footage, this whole place is wired, he's got to be—"
"I am seeking him," Teyla said, very evenly. It was the particular tone she got when things were about to go very, very wrong—calm before the storm, the eerie stillness before an earthquake.
"Shit," Rodney muttered, "how the hell..." He turned around in the hallway, rising up on his toes to try to see over the heads of the crowds.
The big not-bodyguard wasn't in sight, either, and he should be obvious, sticking up a good couple inches over everyone else. So either he had shrunk himself, or he had a cloaking device, or else—maybe he'd decided not to wait until tonight; maybe he'd made his move now. Grabbed Sheppard and the case, and oh, it was going to be a blast, explaining this one to Landry...
When Rodney turned again, he noticed the door—set back in the wall, plain and gray, marked 'Employees Only.' It should have been locked, but it was slightly ajar, the latch not quite closed—someone had pushed through it in a hurry, and recently, if no alarms had alerted security that it had been left open.
Rodney swiped his own keycard to keep the alarms quiet, then slipped through it. The security equipment in the service sections was on a different circuit than the public floor, so Teyla would have trouble accessing it.
The corridor was narrow, thick cement-block halls as plain and quiet as the casino floor was gaudy and loud. Rodney hunched his shoulders against the claustrophobia of the close walls and sterile gray lights, and strode down the hall, one hand tucked under his suit jacket, fingers closed around his Beretta. He passed locked metal doors—keys needed for all of them, not just cards, so he ruled them out and kept going, until the corridor opened into a loading dock.
Ducking behind a crate of boxes to keep out of sight of the gabbing workers at the other end of the dock, Rodney scanned the local area. There were no signs—well, what did he expect, muddy footprints on a sunny desert day? Even Teyla's mad tracking skills wouldn't be much help on concrete and grating.
But there were cameras here, one mounted right overhead; he only barely avoided it. "Teyla," Rodney whispered, "the employee corridor leads to a loading dock, do you think you can tap into the security footage?"
"I can try," Teyla said.
"Try the fourth channel," Rodney told her, "it probably will be scrambled, but if you route it through the—"
If he had been Teyla, he probably would have heard it in time. A rustle behind him, or the thump of a footstep, or something—but there was nothing. No warning, just a crackling red flash across his eyes, too brilliant to hurt, and then absolutely nothing at all.
Rodney didn't realize he was awake until he heard a sound, tried to look for its source and discovered he couldn't see. A panicked half-second after that he figured out he couldn't see because his eyes were closed. Opening them helped with that, but everything was blurry at first, smeared like a watercolor painting in the rain.
It wasn't until he tried to lift his hands to rub his eyes clear that he realized he was tied up, ropes wrapped tight around his biceps and biting into his wrists. The bondage wasn't doing his back any favors, and the tightness of his shoulders might explain the headache. Or else that might have something to do with why he'd been unconscious a minute before.
One of the blurs in front of him moved. Rodney blinked hard until he finally focused his eyes, and then wished he hadn't, when the blur resolved into a large man in a dark tuxedo.
Across the craps table, the guy had looked tall; up close, and with Rodney tied to a chair, he could have gone for a career as a sequoia impersonator. Rodney had to rock back his head to look at the man's face, and he wasn't that close. He was standing several feet away, arms crossed, staring down at Rodney with the impassive patience of a man completely in control of the situation.
Rodney swallowed, trying to wet his throat enough not to squeak. "Um. Hello. I, um, think there might be some mistake..."
He realized as he said it, turning his head a little, that he no longer felt the pressure of the radio bug in his ear. And when he felt at his wrists with his hands tied behind him, his watch and special cufflinks were gone.
"Ah, hell," Rodney said weakly. "Umm. Maybe there wasn't a mistake after all..."
Captain Sequoia shrugged, massive shoulders going up and down.
Rodney glanced away from him, trying to take in the room. High ceiling, modern light fixtures, no windows, brown cardboard boxes—he had no idea where he was. He could have been in the Atlantis's storage area. Or another casino's, or another building. His skin itched with the dryness of air conditioning. For all he knew, this was a different city, or a different state. Different country? Who knew how long he had been unconscious...
Unconscious. And he didn't even remember going down. His gaze flew back to his captor. "Oh my god, did you actually knock me out by hitting me on my head? Did you give me a concussion? Do you have any idea how much my brain is worth—it's insured, by three governments—well, two governments, and a multinational advisory committee—that's how valuable it is, and you bashed me over the head with, what, a two-by-four—"
"No, I didn't," the big man said. "Used this," and he drew his gun, which wasn't actually a gun but some sort of space-age glowing-red-energy-cell blaster that wouldn't have looked out of place in Harrison Ford's hands. For that matter, it didn't look out of place in the big guy's hands, either; it looked like it fit there, and had fitted there for a good long time.
"You hit me on the head with a—a phaser?" Rodney gaped.
The man's mouth twitched, much like Teyla's when she was suppressing a smile. "Didn't hit you," he said. "Shot you."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. "As I notice an encouraging lack of bullet holes in my body, I'm assuming that enormous overcompensating firearm is actually a taser?"
"Kind of," Sequoia said, in a way that indicated it really wasn't at all. "Got stun." He thumbed a switch on the side of the blaster, which hummed alarmingly in response. "Got kill, too."
"Stun," Rodney repeated, calmly he hoped, over the panic gibbering in his head. Other than the S.G.C., there were only two organizations that he knew of with access to true stun-weapons—one, if you discounted rumor and hearsay. Even if you didn't, they were seriously bad news—and the other was G.O.A.U.L.D..
This was not good in ways Rodney didn't want to even think about. Much less live through. It had been a while since he had been treated to G.O.A.U.L.D. hospitality, and he had zero interest in repeating the experience.
Teyla would be looking for him, he reminded himself. Even if the big man had taken his equipment, the subcutaneous transmitter was still in his arm. And Teyla had been on the radio with him when he was attacked; she'd know he was in trouble...
Provided, of course, that Sheppard wasn't in bigger trouble—they had their priorities, and insured or not, Rodney, like all the S.G.C.'s agents, was ultimately expendable. And Teyla would do what she had to, to complete the mission. They were the best, and that was what the best did. If Landry didn't okay his rescue, then Teyla wouldn't be coming.
All right, then. You're a secret agent, McKay; time to start acting like one. "There is a mistake being made here, and you're the one making it." Rodney said, as brazenly as he could manage, with his throat so dry his voice was cracking. He debated whether it was worth asking for water. Somehow this man didn't look like he would be sympathetic to the rigors of dehydration headaches. "You don't want to mess with the people I'm—"
"Spy General Control?" the big guy said, and smirked when Rodney's jaw dropped. "Wasn't hard to figure out."
Rodney tried to remember if he'd forgotten to take his S.G.C. ID card out of his wallet. He wasn't supposed to have it with him on a mission, but such trivial details occasionally slipped his mind. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm under the employ of Sheppard Power—"
"Yeah, no," said the human sequoia. "Not with these," and he held his big fist up before Rodney's nose, opened his fingers to reveal Radek's special cufflinks glittering in the middle of his palm. "HMX?"
"Octogen? Oh, yes, because I'm dying to blow off my own hands thanks to a wayward speck of cigarette ash. No, it's an octanitrocubane polymer—"
"Detonator's in this?" the big man interrupted, holding up Rodney's watch.
"Um, no," Rodney said. "Of course not, why would you think—don't touch that!"
Captain Sequoia smirked wider, showing off painfully bright white teeth, and removed his big finger from the watch's inset knob.
It belatedly occurred to Rodney that had he simply let the man set off the explosives, he would now be minus one captor, or at least have a maimed and bleeding and mostly helpless captor, while he himself would have been outside the blast range; and really, there was a good reason why Teyla was the primary field agent, with all her enviable unsqueamish practicality...
"S.G.C.," the big man said, nodding to himself, as he slipped the watch and cufflinks back in his jacket pockets. "Knew you didn't look like G.O.A.U.L.D.."
"Of course I'm not—wait, you're not G.O.A.U.L.D., either?"
Sequoia's obnoxious grin died, folding into a grim line.
"So, what, are you working for Sheppard after all, then?" Rodney asked. There was probably a more subtle way to inquire, but his mouth was bone-dry and his head hurt even if he wasn't concussed, and if he were going to be messily killed in the near future, he'd at least like some answers before he went.
The big guy shook his head and ran a hand through his short hair, hesitating at the end of the motion like he was expecting there to be more of it. "Not Sheppard," he said. "Private interest."
The man shook his head again.
"But you're after Sheppard," Rodney said. "Or what Sheppard's got."
"Yeah." The big man strode forward, until he was looming over Rodney, blotting out the light above and throwing him into shadow. "So what is it?"
Rodney craned his neck and peered up at the colossal silhouette, trying not to hyperventilate. "What is what?"
"What Sheppard's got."
"How—how should I know? You're the one trying to steal it!"
"So are you," Sequoia said. "That was your partner in Sheppard's room last night."
Rodney gulped. "Who?"
"I've fought G.O.A.U.L.D.. She wasn't G.O.A.U.L.D.. So she must be with you." The big man glanced meaningfully around the confines of the storage room. "Guess she'll be here soon. You must got some tracker on you."
Oh, shit. "I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney babbled, "I wasn't stealing anything from Sheppard, and I don't have a partner, that's ridiculous. Look at me, do you think anyone would have the tolerance to be my partner for more than a day—"
"What does Sheppard have in that case?" the big man asked again. When Rodney just stared at him, he reached under his tuxedo jacket and drew his blaster, held it up in Rodney's line of sight and very deliberately flipped the switch on the side. The energy cell where the hammer should be pulsed blood red. "Not on stun now," he said.
"Yes, because I'm sure to be happy to answer all your questions when I'm dead," Rodney said caustically.
"Not going to shoot you," Sequoia said calmly. "You talk, I'll put it back on stun."
Rodney stared at the blaster. Teyla was freakishly fast on her feet, and her standard outfit, like Rodney's tux jacket, included para-aramid fiber paneling that made Kevlar look like cheesecloth; it was rated for armor-piercing rounds. But this was no ordinary firearm, and the best ballistics protection didn't help if there were no ballistics, only an energy charge strong enough to stop the heart.
Please, Rodney thought with a flash of uncharacteristically suicidal impulse, let Landry not have okayed a rescue mission after all. It would be just his luck if he managed to get two of the S.G.C.'s top agents killed, instead of just his own incalculably valuable self. Probably karma for winning that stupid dice throw. "What if I told you I don't know what's in Sheppard's case?" he asked.
"Then why steal it?"
"Why were you trying to steal it, smart guy?" Rodney snapped. "We were going after it because that's what we were told to do."
"Right," the big man said, his deep voice so flat that Rodney couldn't tell if he were being sarcastic or understanding.
"I'm telling the truth," Rodney said. "We're just operatives, the expendable labor force. They don't tell us a damn thing, it's always only need to know, and they'd probably prefer that we were incapable of thinking for ourselves, if it wasn't for the pesky problem that intelligence agents require a certain modicum of actual intelligence to carry out their duties, though obviously not as much as I myself—"
"Shut up!" The big man, whose stone-cold poker face had been growing steadily more uninterpretable the more Rodney spoke, suddenly spun around, corkscrewing down into a low crouch, with his blaster aimed at the shadows cast by the highest stack of boxes.
Rodney shut his mouth and listened, but didn't hear anything. But then he wouldn't, if it were Teyla—"—Myself," he hastily resumed, raising his voice and picking up speed for the sake of distraction, "because, clearly, I am far ahead of the median IQ for this sort of work—wasted on it, you could say, but I had the clearance, and not much in the way of other options, after that little matter with the—"
The muffled thud of a silenced gunshot was still loud in the close quarters, and Rodney flinched. The jerk of the big man's shoulders wasn't him taking the bullet, however, but ducking out of its way in the nick of time. The shot ricocheted off the cement floor, and Rodney caught the gleam of Sequoia's white teeth as he twisted back around, bringing his blaster to bear.
"Watch out!" Rodney hollered. "He doesn't have a gun, he's got a—a phaser, with a kill setting—"
The big hand that cracked across his jaw might as well have been a two by four; it snapped his head back hard enough to set his ears ringing, and he tasted blood, which was always nauseating. But at least it hadn't been in vain, because when he dragged up his head, Captain Sequoia's killer space blaster lay on the cement, out of reach, while the big man himself grappled with a lithe blur of black catsuit and auburn hair and flashing silver sticks.
That Teyla had her ninja rods out and the guy was still standing was disconcerting. Any reasonable human being should be curled up on the floor in bruised and battered agony by now. But the human tree didn't seem likely to fall anytime soon. He'd ripped off his jacket and tossed it aside, so the bulk of his muscles were visible, straining under his white shirt. And he still was grinning, as he blocked one of Teyla's swings and then swept his big leg around.
Teyla jumped over the kick as nimbly as a schoolgirl skipping rope. She was smiling, too, Rodney saw in a glimpse, fierce and feral, and how the hell had he ended up partnered with a certified crazy woman, again?
Rodney squirmed in the chair, yanking at the ropes binding his wrists and ankles. Right now they looked evenly matched, but if the big man got a chance to go for his blaster—Teyla wasn't using her sidearm, hoping to take the guy down alive, but he might not take the same considerations.
Then Sequoia got in a lucky blow, catching Teyla in the neck and sending her staggering back into the boxes behind her, knocking over the stack. She tripped, didn't lose her footing entirely but faltered, and the big man stepped in to press the advantage.
"Teyla!" Rodney shouted, and tried to lunge forward. He succeeded in rocking himself onto his feet, still tied to the chair, curled over like a hunchback. He tried to hop, but overbalanced, felt himself begin to tip, but it was too late to compensate. He hit the cement hard on his shoulder, jarring his teeth together, and the metal chair legs crashed on the floor with a crack like a gunshot.
The big man snapped around, ready for attack, and then stared down at Rodney, sprawled on the ground with the chair folded around him like some failed exoskeleton prototype. For a second he gaped—only a second, but it was enough. Teyla threw herself forward, tucking her legs in as she rolled, and came onto her feet again holding the red-lit blaster.
"Do not move," she said evenly, and the firearm was rock-steady in her hands, though her shoulders heaved as she panted for breath.
Sequoia looked down his blaster's barrel and put up his massive arms. He wasn't smiling now, at least. Blood was trickling down the side of his face from a cut on his cheek; Teyla had gotten at least one good crack in.
"Who are you?" Teyla demanded. "Who do you work for?"
Rodney saw the glitter of something between the man's big fingers, realized with a start that it was the silver band of his own watch. And the man had tossed his tuxedo jacket aside; it lay in a crumpled heap of black fabric at Teyla's feet, and in its pockets were Rodney's cufflinks—
"Teyla, look out, the tux—!" he shouted, as the man hit the detonator.
Teyla threw herself aside, arms crossed over her face, as the jacket went up in a burst of noise and white flames that would have been giddily impressive in the lab, but was a good deal more rattling in the field. Rodney felt a blast of heat across his face like a furnace door had been opened, squeezed his eyes shut as he instinctively flinched back.
When he blinked away the brilliant afterimages, the tuxedo had been reduced to instant ash, and the big man was nowhere in sight.
Teyla picked herself up off the floor. Her sleeves looked a little singed but otherwise she was unhurt, and Rodney heaved a sigh of relief as he let himself flop down on the ground, as well as he could, still being attached to the folding chair.
"Rodney, are you injured?" Teyla asked. She tucked the big man's blaster under her belt, then drew a serrated knife from her belt and sliced through the ropes around Rodney's wrists and his ankles.
"I'm okay," Rodney said. "Relatively speaking," though it hurt to stand, with his back cramped and pins and needles tingling through his limbs. Teyla took his hand and helped pull him upright. He looked around the storage room, the fallen boxes and the broad scorch mark on the floor, like someone had been roasting illicit marshmallows. "Are we still in the Atlantis?"
"The basement, yes."
"Funny that security hasn't gotten here by now."
"I believe your abductor may have deactivated the alarms," Teyla said. "And I believe I kept them deactivated, if I properly understood your program. I thought it might limit potential casualties, going in by myself."
Rodney rubbed his sore wrists. "I'm surprised Landry let you come in without backup."
Teyla's deep brown gaze slid off Rodney's face to fix on a point on the wall past his head. "I may have neglected to appraise the general of the situation."
Rodney blinked at his partner. "You didn't tell Landry?"
"There was little chance to do so," Teyla said stiffly. "And little need. With your implant I could trace your location, and while this room was blocked from the security cameras, I monitored the surrounding area and determine there was no ambush. It was faster to proceed at my own discretion, rather than wait for General Landry's decision. Especially when I wasn't sure he would make the right one."
"The right one?" Rodney repeated in confusion, then shook his head. "So what about Sheppard?" he asked, as they made their way out of the storage room. The narrow corridors beyond were empty of employees. Rodney eyed the security camera in the corner and wondered if one of them might have caught the big man escaping—probably he had been too careful for that, but it was worth checking. "Did you find him?"
"No," Teyla said. "He wasn't in any of the camera footage I could find. I was thinking he might perhaps have been kidnapped with you. Or is this other man in Sheppard's employ after all?"
"I don't think so, no," Rodney said. "He seems to be after Project ATA, too—working for a private contractor, it sounded like. Not G.O.A.U.L.D., either."
"So he abducted you to eliminate the competition?"
"Maybe." Rodney frowned. "He wanted to know what Project ATA was. Or what was in Sheppard's briefcase, anyway."
"Then why did he not abduct Sheppard instead?" Teyla asked. "Or did he already take Sheppard, perhaps, along with the briefcase, and was hoping for your cooperation in whatever he wished to do with it?"
"I don't know. He wasn't talking like he had Sheppard, anyway. Though in that case, we still don't know what the hell happened to our actual target."
"G.O.A.U.L.D.?" Teyla said, as always brave enough to put voice to the unmentionable.
Rodney suppressed a shudder. "I hope not." He didn't know John Sheppard from Adam, but he wouldn't wish that fate on anyone except his worst enemies—and most of them were G.O.A.U.L.D. anyway, so. "We don't know for sure if they're involved. And if they are trying to purchase Project ATA through KaibaCorp, they wouldn't need to snatch Sheppard anyway. It's more likely someone else has him, and Project ATA—we just have no idea who." And wasn't Landry going to be thrilled to hear it.
Still in the service corridors, Rodney borrowed Teyla's handheld computer—his abductor having taken his own, and likely blown it up along with the jacket—and plugged it into a local hookup to check the building schematics. He found them a route back to the hotel proper that skipped the casino floors; they could do without the crowds after this afternoon. His tux was wrinkled, and Teyla's sleek black outfit was enough to inspire riots even without the scorching at the edges.
They still faced a few stares in the elevator, but Rodney squared his jaw belligerently and Teyla met all raised eyebrows with a steady, equanimous gaze that stifled any questions. When they were alone again in the hallway, Rodney remarked, "So we should probably contact the general."
"Yes," Teyla said. "I can do it; I did fail to locate Sheppard."
This was why Teyla was such an infuriating partner—it was more comfortable to lay the blame on people who weren't so calmly accepting of it. "Yes, but...I'm the one who lost track of him in the first place," Rodney admitted.
"We were both watching him," Teyla said. "And once you were captured, I made the decision to look for you before him."
"I thought you were looking for me hoping to find Sheppard with me."
"Yes," Teyla said. "But you were the one I knew I would find."
"Well. Um." Rodney ducked his head as he dug in his pocket for their door's keycard. "Anyway, I'm personally glad you picked the option that meant I didn't get killed. Thank you."
"You are welcome, Rodney," Teyla said, smiling at him warmly for no discernible reason.
He found the card, pulled it out, but before he slid it through the electronic lock, he automatically checked the handheld, and frowned. They had hung the do-not-disturb sign on the handle, but, "It looks like someone's unlocked this since—"
Their hotel room door cracked open, enough to admit the slim black barrel of a pistol, aimed at Teyla's head. Behind the gun, John Sheppard's gold-green eyes studied them lazily from under his ridiculous hair. "Hi," he drawled. "Welcome back. You two want to come in here—slowly, with your hands on your heads—and explain why you've been following me?"