Author's Note: This is an alternate ending of the fifth season episode Inquisition. It begins near the end of the episode. Woolsey has finished answering all of the charges. The first statement by Dimas is from the episode, but everything after that is AU. Also, many thanks to Rosalee for continuing to beta for me and correct lots of embarrassing and goofy mistakes.

I've been trying to load this to ffnet for almost a month. I think maybe it's finally going to work! Keeping my fingers crossed . . .

Banished – Chapter One

"Very well," said Dimas. "As that was the final charge, we will recess to deliberate."

Woolsey was escorted by the guards to a small room down the hall to wait for their decision. He sat for a while, but grew concerned as he'd expected the verdict to be arrived at quickly. He was about to ask the guards to take him to Sheppard's team when they returned to tell him a decision had been made and they were to escort him to the courtroom. Straightening his uniform, he fell into step behind them, confident that the ordeal would soon be over for all.

oOo

John paced the length of the cell before pausing to stare out toward the doorway. "I wish they'd just get it over already. I hate waiting. And waiting . . . and waiting."

"Yes, well I'm not in that big of a hurry to be dumped on some uninhabited planet in the middle of nowhere to starve to death so they can say they didn't execute us. Murder once removed. Apparently that soothes their warped conscious," said Rodney with a huff.

"Think positive, Rodney," said John.

"That's what you always say," said Rodney.

"They're coming," said Ronon as he walked over to stand beside John. Teyla and Rodney joined them as Woolsey walked into the room.

John knew immediately that things had not gone well. Woolsey's expression spoke of defeat. His head dropped to his chest for a moment while he processed that and pulled himself back together. "I'm guessing we have a one-way ticket to oblivion."

Woolsey stood there looking at them for a moment before sighing. "Not everyone. They were willing to admit that we had good intentions and that we have done some good. I knew Shiana would vote against us no matter what. Her level of hatred cannot be appeased. I thought I had either with logic or . . . a sort of bribery convinced the other two to vote in our favor. Apparently I have lost my touch."

"We know that you did everything in your power to have us set free," said Teyla.

"How badly are we screwed?" asked Rodney, his lips pulled thin in worry.

"Just tell us, Richard," said John. "We know it's not your fault. We probably came off better with you than we ever would have without you."

Woolsey nodded and glanced at each member of the team. "The council was willing to impart some leniency since everything was done with the proper motives and we have helped quite a few people in the galaxy. But they agreed with Shiana that there had to be some sort of retribution for the many who have lost their lives."

They were silent for several moments before John spoke, a tight knot in his gut. "They still want someone to be banished to that planet for the rest of their life."

Woolsey nodded and looked at John. "They agreed to let everyone else go, but you are to be the scapegoat, as such. You are to bear the sentence alone."

"No," the others cried and began to argue against the plan. John gripped the bars, pooling his strength and pushing the fear and dread to far corner of his mind. "Stop." He waited for everyone to stop talking and looked at Richard. "They go back with you, unharmed, to Atlantis."

"Yes," Woolsey said, never breaking eye contact.

John slowly let out a breath, pushing down the storm of emotions as he took control of his expression. He could do this, as long as his team was safe. "Okay."

"How can you just say okay? This is not okay," said Rodney, his voice rising in pitch.

"Sheppard, no! This isn't fair and we aren't leaving you here," said Ronon, his brow furrowed in anger.

"There isn't a choice," John said, turning to face his team. "You go back and figure out how to find me. Then we never let these bastards trick us again."

"No, John, there must be another way," said Teyla. "We cannot let them abandon you on that planet alone. Someone must go with you."

"No, they don't," John said. "Look, guys, I appreciate the sentiment, but they hold all the cards here. Just . . . go back with Woolsey. All I've got to do is keep myself alive for a while until you have a chance to track me down. Piece of cake."

Rodney shook his head and waved his arms. "No, it's not. Do you know how long it will take to find you with no leads? We'll have to check every habitable planet in the database, and that's assuming this one is in the database. It could take years, colonel."

John's stomach dropped as he thought about spending years piddling around on a planet by himself. Who was he kidding? He probably wouldn't last years unless there were some really good sources of readily available food. Chances are they were sending him to some desert planet to die.

"That may be, Dr. McKay, but as Colonel Sheppard has pointed out, we don't exactly have a choice here. I argued against this with everything I could think of. I even threatened to withhold help from any coalition planet that was attacked by the Wraith," said Woolsey.

"It's all right, Richard," said John when he found his voice. "I know you did what you could. Thank you for getting my team released. For that I'll always be grateful."

"Mr. Woolsey," said Shiana as she strode into the room, smug expression firmly in place. "I assume you have informed your people about what is to transpire. The sentence is to be carried out immediately," she said, staring at John with ill-disguised hatred. "The guards will take Colonel Sheppard to get the supplies he will be given and then you will be allowed a few minutes to say goodbye."

"Wait," said Rodney. "Let us give him supplies so he at least has a chance at surviving this mess."

Shiana shook her head. "That will not be necessary, Dr. McKay. We will give him what he needs to survive. This is not to be a pleasure trip."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, because a basic field kit with food, water, medical supplies, and such is exactly what he needs for a fun filled vacation on planet abandonment."

Shiana huffed while the other two council members looked awkwardly at the floor. "Colonel Sheppard will be given the supplies he will need. Atlantis will honor this or you will be forced to leave now."

Woolsey held up one hand. "Dr. McKay, please. Do not make this any more difficult." He moved his eyes from McKay to Shiana. "The council is within their rights to make life as difficult and miserable as they can since they are being so benevolent as to not execute him outright." Shiana pursed her lips but did not say anything.

Two guards unlocked the door to the cell and John walked out. One of them grabbed his arm and he jerked it back. "I can walk, but thanks anyway," he said sarcastically. As they passed Shiana, he paused and stared at her. "I feel sorry for you and not because of your family. Everyone experiences tragedy. It's how you react to it that determines who you are. By deciding to take the route of hate and vengeance, you've probably condemned even more people to death. "

He sighed and shook his head. "You and the Genii are your own worst enemies. We could have accomplished so much together and instead you choose to waste valuable resources. As long as people like you have any power, the Wraith will continue to rule this galaxy." He walked out, glancing at Kelore and Dimas who were standing in the doorway with their heads bowed. "Enjoy your new queen," he said. "She kind of reminds me of a Wraith queen I met once."

It was childish and probably no one who needed to consider the meaning of his comment cared enough to understand it, but it made him feel marginally better. Realistically, no one would be able to rescue him. He would still hope, but he had to go on the assumption that they would be unable to find him.

The guards led him into a small room down the hall and searched him. Since he'd spent the last few days in a cell, he wasn't sure what they thought he had on him. He supposed he should feel lucky they left him his clothes and boots. One of them went into what appeared to be a closet and rummaged around a few minutes. He returned with a cloth bag about the size of a backpack.

"Here," the guy said, thrusting the bag to him. John grabbed it and looked inside. "You'll find a length of strong twine, a flint, a small knife, and enough food for a few days if you eat light. There is also a container of water. You'll probably want to find a clean water source pretty quickly though because there isn't much."

John stared at the bag and then looked up at the guy. "That's it?"

The guard crossed his arms and jutted his chin out. "You're lucky you get that."

"Right," John said, closing the drawstring at the top. "Don't execute people my ass. You just do it the slow and cowardly way."

The guard ignored him and the two goons headed for the door. As they walked out, his team came in. John expected for one of the guards to join them, but no one did. "I'm surprised they left us in here alone."

"I asked them to give us some time alone since it would be the last time to see you," said Teyla.

"Right," John said, his throat suddenly dry. "Look, guys, I know you'll do everything you can, but realistically you probably aren't going to find me. So I don't want you to feel bad if . . . you know, you can't."

"We won't give up, Sheppard," said Ronon.

"What he said," said Rodney, hooking his thumb toward the Satedan. "Look, colonel . . . John . . . I'll do everything I can. We'll find you so you can't give up. It's just . . . it might take a while."

John nodded. "I guess I need to say something, in case . . . Anyway, you guys are the best. I couldn't have asked for a better team and I have no regrets . . . except maybe skipping the whole being kidnapped and put on trial thing," he finished with a tight smile.

"What did they give you?" asked Rodney, nodding toward the bag.

John winced. "String, a flint, bottle of water, some sort of dried food, and a tiny knife that probably wouldn't cut hot butter."

Ronon grinned and pulled a knife from his hair. The blade was four inches long, almost an inch wide, and looked sharp enough John had no idea how the big guy had kept that in his hair without injuring himself. "Here Sheppard, this is bound to be better than what they gave you."

John took it and breathed out a sigh of relief. "Yeah, a whole lot better." Leaning over, he slid the weapon into the empty sheath inside his boot. "Thanks, big guy." He looked up at Ronon and sighed. "I'm going to miss you guys."

"As we will miss you," Teyla said.

Someone banged on the door and one of the guards yelled, "Hurry up."

Teyla put her hands on his shoulders and leaned in. John touched his forehead to hers, lingering for several moments. "Goodbye, Teyla," he whispered. "Take care of Torren."

She pulled her head back and looked at him, her eyes searching his face. "I will. And you take care until we find you. We will never stop looking, not until we have returned you to Atlantis."

John looked at Rodney. "Keep Atlantis safe, Rodney. You and Teyla keep Ronon from getting into too much trouble. Try not to let this go to your head, but you're the smartest man I've ever met."

Rodney's eyes widened. "Really? Smarter than Sam Carter?" he said hopefully.

John couldn't help one last jab. "Smartest man I ever met."

Rodney's eyes narrowed for a moment and then his expression went from annoyed to devastated in the blink of an eye. "Take care of yourself until we get there, okay? Promise you won't do something monumentally stupid and get yourself killed the first day."

John nodded, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth as his heart pounded in his chest. "I promise," he croaked.

"What he said," Ronon said, clasping John's shoulder. "You're smart and you can think your way out of problems like no one I've ever seen. Use that. And always remember, we are coming."

John nodded as the door flung open and Shiana stepped inside. "Your time is over. Everyone out."

John watched his team leave and he followed behind them. His two guards took up their place on either side of him. They walked through several hallways, finally stopping beside an unfamiliar door.

Shiana stood beside Dimas and Kelore, but she was the only one who looked happy. "Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, you are to be banished for the rest of your life to a planet of our choosing. There is no escape, so you would do well to accept your fate."

"And by fate you mean dying of exposure or starving to death," said Rodney bitterly. "You people are worse than the Wraith. At least they do what they do to survive."

"Dr. McKay," said Woolsey sternly. "The council knows our position on this matter. As they know that since our interference has led to such harsh consequences, we will never interfere in the matters of any Coalition member again." He stared hard at Dimas and then Kelore, emphasizing the real meaning of his comment.

"That would be wise," said Shiana with a smug grin. "These proceedings have served their purpose."

Teyla arched an eyebrow at the woman. "You could have achieved the same results by merely asking us to stand aside and stop . . . helping those who do not request our assistance. I believe this was more about your perceived revenge against someone for the loss of your family. You could do nothing to the Wraith responsible, so you set Colonel Sheppard as your target. Such emotional injustices are not the sign of a good leader."

Woolsey sighed. "Teyla."

John hid the grin trying to break out at his team's insistence on putting the truth of the situation forward, but he had to stop them before they ended up banished with him. As much as he'd love their company, it wasn't fair to impose the terrible fate on those closest to him just so he wouldn't be alone. And he couldn't bear the thought of Teyla being separated from Torren.

"Thanks, guys, but enough. Let's get on with this so Shiana can go gloat in private." He purposefully plastered a big grin on his face and stared at the selfish woman until she looked away.

"Colonel Sheppard will be sent through first. Your team will wait here so that they do not see the address that is dialed and will then be free to return to Atlantis," said Kelore.

"No," John said, his voice firm and strong. "You let me watch them return to Atlantis and then I'll go through willingly. It's not that I don't trust you guys to be true to your word, but . . . oh, wait. It is that I don't trust you guys to do what you say. The problem with lying and deceiving people is that they eventually stop believing anything you say."

"You do not have a choice in this," Shiana snapped, her anger bubbling over at her loss of control.

"No," John said. "I don't have any control over being banished. But I can either walk through the gate or you can drag me kicking and screaming. I can't overpower your numbers, but I can probably do some damage on the way." He glared at her with all the defiance he could muster. It would be just like these jerks to let him go through and then do something to his people. He would protect them as long as he could.

Dimas held up his hand. "Just let them go through to Atlantis first, Shiana. What difference does it make? You won what you wanted. I only hope we don't all live to regret it."

With a huff, she nodded. "Fine. Let them go through first."

"Thank you," John said with slight bow to Shiana. Then he walked into the gate room with his team, all of them surrounded by guards.

As the wormhole was established, John looked to Woolsey and held out his hand. "Thanks, Richard, for trying to defend us and for at least getting the rest of my team home. You guys better take care of Atlantis. Tell Lorne to have all teams watch their back from now on, no matter how trusted people have been in the past."

Woolsey clasped John's hand firmly. "I will. It's been a pleasure working with you John. Take care of yourself. And don't worry about your men. I'll have Lorne give them the appropriate warning and we will no longer be associating with anyone even rumored to have ties to the Coalition."

Rodney sighed. "Great. Not only do we have Wraith to guard against, but backstabbing Genii and Coalition planets." He turned around and looked at the three judges of the inquisition. "Some days I think we should just abandon them to their fate. Let the Wraith have the ungrateful trouble-making –"

"Rodney," John said, cutting the scientist off and waiting until he looked at him. "Not everyone is like them. One word. Athosians."

Teyla smiled and Rodney bowed his head. "You're right, sorry. We'll just have to find more people like the Athosians out there."

"You have had your time. Go," snapped Shiana.

Mr. Woolsey nodded. "We're leaving." He looked at John. "Don't give up."

John gave his team a small nod. "I won't. I'll be waiting." It took everything in his being not to run after his team and follow them through the gate. He clenched his fist at his side until the wormhole dissolved. If he'd thought he had half a chance of making it, he would have tried. But Shiana had known that was a possibility and surrounded him with guards. He would not give her the satisfaction of seeing him fail a desperate attempt to get home.

"Let's get on with it," John said. "The less time in this cesspool, the better."

Shiana narrowed her eyes and grinned. "We will see how you feel once you step through the gate."

John wrapped the top of the canvas bag around his hand as he watched a new wormhole vortex bubble out. He glanced back at Shiana. "Don't worry. I've prepared myself that everything you told me about this planet is a lie and I'll be lucky to survive the first day. Like I said, never trust anything liars tell you. I hope this makes you happy, Shiana. I hope none of your people ever need the help of Atlantis. Because if they do, you just forfeited their lives. Maybe one day they'll send you to join me." With a chuckle at her shocked expression, John strode through the gate like he was going on vacation.

He stepped from the warm room into a forested world late into dusk. It was much cooler here and John was thankful they had let him keep his jacket. Shivering, he looked up at the darkening sky to see the trees had lost about half their leaves, so it was mid to late fall on this world.

Although he'd been told there was no DHD, he still checked the small clearing around the gate. They had been telling the truth about that at least. He shivered and realized he probably needed to find some kind of shelter and build a fire for the night. He had only walked a few steps when men began to appear from behind the trees.

"Uninhabited my butt," he muttered. He should have known. "Uh, hey," he said, glancing around to count the men and try to figure out who was in charge. There were six men that he could see, but he suspected there were more farther out and behind the trees. What had Shiana sent him into?

A man about his height, but with broader shoulders, a beard, and a receding hairline stepped closer, crossing his arms in a defensive stance. "Stranger. Who sent you?"

"Technically, the self-appointed heads of the Coalition of Planets after a bogus trial in a kangaroo court. Realistically, it was a woman named Shiana."

The man nodded. "She is harsh with those who do not ally themselves with her."

John rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, I kind of noticed. What is this place? She told me it was uninhabited."

"It is . . . at least by civilized people. We are prisoners here, as you are now. Several worlds use this planet to . . . get rid of those they do not want. The Genii, the Landmarians, a few others. It seems this Coalition group had decided to join in. Welcome to Ciardia, permanent home of the unwanted. I am Edan."

John nodded. "My name is John. I'm guessing you're the leader of . . . everyone?"

Edan laughed. "Not everyone. Those who want to have a sort of organized society have chosen me to guide them and speak for them. Those who do not wish to be part of our group are free to move on, farther into the forest to fend for themselves."

"Oh," John said, watching the men as they edge closer and noting that no one looked overly friendly.

"You will be required to share what you have brought with you," said Edan. "Supplies are scarce here so we all contribute what we can . . . for the good of all of course," he said as he waved his hand toward the other men.

"I see. And what if I choose not to join your little group? If I want to fend for myself?" He was pretty sure he already knew what the answer to that was.

Edan's expression hardened. "I'll still be needing the contents of your bag. Turn it over and you may proceed unharmed."

John snorted. "You're almost as bad a liar as Shiana."

"I want his boots, boss. Mine are all wore out," said a rail thin man with long, stringy blonde hair. His clothes were rags and remnants and his feet were covered with patched up shoes that had definitely seen better days.

"We'll see Bhruic. All right John, what's it going to be?"

John clutched the bag, deciding if the contents were worth fighting over. They probably weren't, but if he just handed it over, they probably wouldn't let him leave. He couldn't show weakness to these people. "I think my bag and I will try our luck in a different part of the forest. But thanks for the offer."

He took two steps forward and Edan moved to stand in front of him. "I said I'll be taking the bag. Think of it as a contribution."

John snorted. "A contribution to the gang of thieves that hang out at the gate and rob anyone sent through? I don't think so."

John was aware of the man sneaking up behind him. Dropping, he swung his leg out and tripped the guy before lunging back to his feet. Unfortunately, that allowed the others to move in and the next several minutes were filled with punching, kicking, and jabbing. Some of it was even done by John, but he felt like he took more than he gave. The six to one odds were not working in his favor.

When it was over, John lay panting in the leaf litter with an assortment of abrasions and a couple of bruised ribs. He guessed he was lucky he wasn't dead. As a matter of fact, he was a little surprised by that.

"Can I have his boots now?" asked Bhruic, leaning over to grab John's foot. John immediately kicked the man full in the face, breaking his nose. Bhruic yelled and fell backwards, one hand going up to his bleeding face.

"You have to get them off me first, jackass," John said, sitting up and pushing his back to a tree. He could tell the knife was still in his boot and he'd rather not lose it or his shoes. Pushing himself to his feet, he realized someone had already relieved him of his leather jacket and he shivered in the cold.

"Congratulations. Six of you just fought to take a bag of pitiful supplies from one man. I can see why you guys are so proud of this community thing you've got going on. I'm afraid I won't fit into the social structure you have set up here because no way am I going to survive by stealing things from others. So if you'll excuse me, I think I'll be on my way."

Wiping the blood oozing down his chin, he headed into the forest, taking the path that left the widest birth between him and Edan's thugs. He was encouraged by the observation that they were breathing as hard as he was and sporting their own set of scrapes and bruises. He was hyperaware as he walked away, half expecting them to come after him until he heard Edan speaking to his people.

"John?"

Taking a deep breath, he turned around to see the silhouette in the fading light. "Are you sure you won't join us? We could use someone who fights like that."

"I can't do that," John replied. "It's not who I am."

Edan considered this and then nodded. "Suit yourself. But your chances of survival are better with us."

"I'll risk it," he said as he turned back and began walking. As soon as he had put enough distance between him and them that he could no longer hear the gang of thugs, he quickened his steps. He didn't trust Edan not to wait for him to drop his guard and then send someone after him. After about an hour, the moon came up and shed enough light he could almost see where he was going. Spraining an ankle right now could be a death sentence.

A few hours later, he stopped and constructed a couple of traps and then climbed up into one of the trees that still had quite a bit of leaves left. The sore ribs made the climb that much more difficult, but he grit his teeth and pushed on until he was settled on a thick branch to rest. It was almost dawn when he heard rustling on the forest floor. Peering between the branches, he saw Bhruic and a short pudgy guy wading through the leaves, making no attempt at being quiet.

"I don't see him and I'm tired. Maybe we should go back, tell Edan he got away," said the fat guy. Either they had a really good food supply or that guy hadn't been here long.

"No, no, he's got to be close. Edan said if I killed him, I could have his boots and I want those boots."

"They probably don't even fit you. Why is Edan so keen to kill this guy? Usually we just chase folks off that don't want to cooperate so they don't crowd into our food supply."

"He's worried he might come back and try to-"

At that point, the two slobs who obviously had no military training walked right into the trip wire that he'd constructed from vines, releasing a log that plowed into them from the front. John quickly climbed out of the tree. Since neither one had enough awareness of their surroundings to even duck, they took the full force of the log.

Bhruic was nearly dead, the log catching him in the throat. Blood bubbled out of his mouth and nose for a few seconds before he stopped breathing, his windpipe crushed. The fat guy had caught it in the chin, snapping his head back and breaking his neck. John sighed. It was purely self-defense, but it always bothered him to kill, especially when it was totally senseless, like this.

"Idiots," he muttered. After a moment, he searched them for anything useful. Bhruic had a pretty decent knife and long piece of thin rope curled up and hooked to his pants. The other guy had a flint, a small bag of dried meat, and John's water bottle.

He stared at the pair for a moment, overcoming his aversion to taking clothes off a dead man so he could wrestle the coat off the short guy. It had been big on him, but it fit John fairly well. The brown fabric was coarse and rough, but it warmed him almost immediately. Unfortunately, it smelled to high heaven so on the first warm day, he'd have to wash the thing.

Once he'd taken anything that could help him survive, he covered the bodies with branches and dead leaves. Anyone paying close attention could see something was being hidden under the debris, but so far these guys were not all that impressive in the observation department. He wasn't even sure if they'd come looking for the two missing thieves, but if they did, he wanted to throw them off as much as he could.

He climbed up one of the trees with almost no leaves to see if anyone was visible following him or the dumb duo. After several minutes of seeing and hearing nothing, he climbed down and spent some time laying several false trails leading away from the bodies. He then made sure he didn't leave a trail in the direction he was going.

John spent the rest of the day traveling, trying to cover as much ground as possible while leaving little or no trail. He silently thanked Ronon and Teyla for the lessons that he was now using. He was going to have to find a safe place to spend the night because he needed some sleep before he got sloppy and ended up dead. He was tired, sore, and hungry so he needed to find a place soon.

About an hour before dark, he found a large tree with a hollow space about ten feet off the ground. He had noticed a weird place in the trunk and climbed up to check it out when he found the opening to the space inside. It was small, but he could curl up and hopefully keep a lot warmer than he had been last night. Now to find some food since he'd eaten the two pieces of Pegasus beef jerky for lunch.

It was almost dark when he found the kenasia berries. His team had seen them on several worlds. Ronon pointed them out because that had been a fairly consistent food staple for him when he was a runner. The distinctive lobed leaves and the way they grew in patches on the ground made them easy to identify. John filled his pockets with them and headed back to the tree. He wanted to be inside the hollow before he lost all the light.

He dumped the berries on a flat branch just outside his hollow spot so he wouldn't squish them. He didn't have a lot of water left, so that would have to be a priority tomorrow. Folding himself into the tree hollow with bruised ribs took a few minutes of moaning and cursing. Once inside, he could reach out and grab a few berries to eat. He left a handful for breakfast, wrapping them in a large leaf in hopes nothing else would get them during the night.

Pulling the coat tightly around him, he drifted off almost immediately after he stopped moving. He jerked awake during the night, a rustling noise sending his heart rate up. He listened, straining to make out what the sound was. A breeze blew moisture in and he realized it was raining. Twisting around where his back was turned toward the opening in the tree, he curled back up and went to sleep, thankful for the relative dryness of his hiding place and the warmth provided by the coat.

oOo

John blinked his eyes open to cramped darkness and had a moment of panic when he didn't know where he was. When he tried to move, his body protested and all his muscles locked up. Grunting with the escalating aches and pains, he stilled to get his bearings and to get his body to stop screaming at him. Everything came flooding back, bringing the discouraging dread with it.

After a few minutes, he got himself turned around so that he could see out of his hole. The rain had stopped, but the forest was shrouded in the grayness of early morning clouds and fog. The air was damp and cool, producing a shiver. Great. Awake for two minutes and things were already looking up. Shaking his head, he scolded himself for the pessimistic attitude. At least he was still alive.

He pulled himself out of the hollow, stretching protesting muscles and joints that had stiffened during the night. His bruises ached, including his ribs. On the bright side, breakfast was sitting there waiting for him, the banished and screwed version of breakfast in bed. His growling stomach demanded attention, so he unwrapped the berries left over from supper the night before. There weren't enough to be filling, but it kept his stomach from feeling like a totally empty pit.

After checking the surroundings for any sign he'd been followed, he carefully climbed out of the tree. The bark was slick from the rain, making him move slowly so as not to fall. Once on the ground, he walked around getting the rest of the kinks out, allowing a few groans to escape. Once he felt human again, he set off in his original direction. The view from the tree had shown a small mountain not too far away and that sounded like as good a destination as any.

He went as quickly and quietly as he could, shifting directions back and forth and trying to hide his trail. He found some roots Teyla had shown him once and another patch of berries, but he knew he would need something more substantial soon. Maybe he could take time to hunt some small game tonight. He had to keep bringing his focus back to his surroundings because his mind kept drifting to his team, to Atlantis. They would be looking for him, but realistically, unless someone high up who knew his location had a sudden change of heart and told his people, the likelihood of them finding him in his lifetime were practically nil.

Late in the afternoon, he came to a sheer rock wall, the lower levels of the mountain. He began following the edge, hoping eventually it would provide an access point so he could cross it. He figured if he could make the other side of the mountain, the likelihood of anyone coming after him would be very small.

Normally he'd try to stay close to the gate, but the circumstances were a little different than the norm. For one thing, rescue, if it ever came, would be in the distant future. He still had his subcutaneous transmitter, no doubt due to the council's confidence that Atlantis could not find the planet, so in the event they did come, they could track him. They would have to come by jumper or the Daedalus because they knew there was no DHD. And who could forget the gang of thieves hanging around the gate, making it impossible to stay close and stay alive.

John stopped in his tracks. He'd wandered into a small clearing around the mouth of a small cave. A tall, thin man with graying hair stood before a fire pit staring at him. The man set one hand on the knife hanging from his belt. John held his hands out, palms up.

"Hey. Look, I wasn't trying to intrude on your place here. I was just following the side of the mountain around, looking for a place to cross. I'm not after your stuff or here to cause trouble." His eyes strayed down to the fire, the hunk of meat cooking there obviously the source of the incredible smell he'd been distracted by.

Clearing his throat as he looked back at the man, he motioned away from the cave. "Look, like I said, I didn't mean to intrude. I can just go around and leave you to . . . cooking your supper." He licked his lips and tried not to look as hungry as he was.

"Why are you here?" the man asked without moving.

John dipped his head to one side. "Like I said, I was just following the mountain –"

"Not that," the man said irritably. "Why are you on the planet?"

"Oh, that." John blushed, feeling stupid. He wasn't normally so dense. "My people and I tried to help out some villages and we've been fighting the Wraith. A bunch of planets formed this Coalition and they decided we were doing more harm than good. I got elected to be the scapegoat for the whole city, so here I am . . . being punished for trying to help, but apparently not being very good at it."

The guy's eyebrows went up. "You are from the city of the Ancestors . . . Atlantis?"

Now it was John's turn to look surprised. "Yeah, how'd you know?"

The man let his hand drop from his knife. "It is a long story." He pointed to the meat on the spit. "I was very fortunate in my hunt earlier and have more than I can eat before it goes bad. Perhaps you would like to share it with me and we can trade stories."

John sighed, a little startled at how relieved he was, both for the food and the company. "I'd actually like that very much if you're sure you have enough. Name's John Sheppard and I have to admit, I'm getting tired of berries."

The man laughed and pointed to an old log sitting on the other side of the fire. "I am certain. Have a seat friend and rest. You will be safe here." He poked the fire with a long stick, moving he embers around until it flared hot again. John sat down, although he kept his eyes and ears open, watching for any sign of a trap.

After turning the meat, the man sat down on the other log. He had clear blue eyes that reminded John of Carson and a scruffy beard. He looked to be in his late forties, but if he'd been here long, that could have aged him faster.

The man looked up with a small smile that held no humor. "I am Neran from the planet Hoff."

John's eyes widened. "Hoff?" Oh, crap. "Uh, look, I'm sorry about everything that happened. Carson, our doctor, he tried to get them to hold off using the serum until it had been tested some more."

Neran waved a hand in dismissal. "I know. Chancellor Druhin could be quite . . . stubborn once he'd made up his mind. I didn't want to participate, but . . . well, the government people were sort of insistent once the vote had been taken." He looked at the fire, randomly poking it with his stick. "My wife and daughter died. I was unfortunate enough to survive."

They sat silently for several minutes, John unsure of what to say. Eventually he blew out a breath and looked up at Neran. "I'm sorry, I really am."

Neran shrugged, but his expression showed the pain he was trying to mask. "I left Hoff after they died. I was too angry to stay and support the government that took them from me. I moved to another planet where a distant cousin lived, tried to start over. It was culled a few months later and someone saw a Wraith try to feed on me and fail. They thought I was some kind of Wraith worshiper."

"That's why you got sent here?" asked John.

"Yes. No chance to defend myself. No proof of their claims. I had been living peacefully with them for months. Helped deliver a baby, helped neighbors put in crops. And they just screamed at me and dumped me here because of something they did not understand." He looked up at John, his face tired and worn. "There is no justice, no loyalty in people."

John sighed. "Tell me about it. They were going to send my whole team to this God-forsaken place, but our current boss talked them out of it. Apparently Shiana was determined that someone should pay for her losses and as the military leader, I got elected."

"She is part of this coalition?"

"Yes, they had three people appointed as judges and we were supposedly tried. Shiana, Dimas, and Kelore, if those names mean anything to you. We figured out the Genii were pulling some strings behind the scenes to get us out of the way. They apparently see themselves as the military presence of the Pegasus Galaxy."

Neran huffed out a breath. "Ancestors help us if those scourges are given power. Maybe this is not such a bad place after all if it keeps us from the likes of them."

John snorted. He liked this guy. "You may have something there. On the other hand, though, someone needs to be out there keeping an eye on them."

Neran sobered and stared into the fire again, mumbling something in an unfamiliar language under his breath. After a moment, he sighed and poked the fire again. "I see you are bruised. You encountered the parasite who robs those sent through the gate."

John rubbed his sore ribs. "Yeah, Edan and his gang. Did they rough you up when you were sent here?"

"No, I was already here when he came through. A few of them came with him, while others he has added from those who were here or those who came after. They are parasites who take from others so they do not have to fight for survival as much as the rest of us. I had a route through the forest to collect food enough to provide my needs. They took it over and told me I could move or they would move me. That is how I ended up here. The food is not as varied or as plentiful, but I make do. At least they do not bother me since I am so far away."

John nodded. "I'm hoping to find some place like that for myself. I was telling the truth when I said I was looking for a way over the mountain. I figure they sure won't come after me then. I . . . I may have killed a couple of their men who came after me. I need some space between us."

"I understand," Neran said. "If you continue the way you were going, you should find a place about a quarter day walk where you can begin crossing. I have not followed it far so I do not know if it will take you all the way over."

John smiled and nodded. "Thanks. All I need is a place to start and I'll figure the rest out."

Neran leaned over to check the meat. "Ah, I believe our dinner is ready." He used his knife to cut off a hunk of meat and placed it on a flat, smooth piece of bark that apparently served as a plate. After handing that that to John, Neran used rag to pull a clay pot out of the coals and removed the lid. "Kharana roots and vanita," said Neran, sticking a carved spoon into the mixture. "Help yourself."

John dipped about a third of the food in the pot onto his bark plate as Neran served himself a sizeable chunk of meat. He peeled off a small section of meat a little at a time as the temperature allowed. Popping it into his mouth, he was reminded of grilled pork with a slight wild taste.

"Hmm, this is good," he said nodding. His stomach growled at the taste and smell of real food. He started to scrape up a bite of the root mixture with his hands, but Neran handed him a flattened, carved spoon. "You're very creative. Thanks."

Neran smiled. "There was a need. I improvised. I have found it better than eating with my hands, and less messy."

John nodded and scooped up some of the vegetables. "This is good, too. Reminds me of a cross between potatoes and turnips cooked with onions."

Neran laughed as he chewed. "I have no idea what any of those things are, but I am glad you are enjoying it. It feels good to share a meal with someone after all this time."

"How long have you been here?"

"Nine hundred seventy-three days. But who is counting?" Neran looked at his food, refusing to make eye contract. They ate in silence for several minutes and John felt better and better as his belly filled and his body warmed.

When they were done, John helped carry the dishes down to a stream a few minutes walk away so they could wash everything off. He filled his canteen while he was there and then they carried everything back to camp. Neran put the dishes away inside his cave.

"You should stay here tonight and you can set off in the morning."

John's eyes widened. "Really? I mean, I don't want to intrude or anything."

"It is just one night and you'll be rested for your journey. We can have left over deemari meat in the morning so that you may leave rested and fed. You still have far to go."

The man seemed sincere, but John had been fooled in the past. He didn't want to spend the night trying to sleep with one eye open, but he didn't relish the idea of spending another night in a tree either. He sighed. "I'll stay the night. It's gotta be better than cramming myself in the hollow of another tree."

Neran chuckled. "Indeed, I should hope so."

They sat around the fire for a while, warming themselves and talking. The longer he was there, the more comfortable John felt. Eventually he even stopped looking over his shoulder, although he never gave up listening to the sounds of the forest for anything that seemed out of place. Well after dark it began drizzling again, so they went into the cave.

Neran had a bed of dried leaves and grass with a thin, threadbare blanket. A shelf of rock had an assortment of items, including the homemade dishes and utensils. He had also attached torches to the wall and one was lit, providing light in the room. "I'm impressed," John said.

Shrugging, Neran rolled out a mat made of dried grass weaved together. "This is not as thick as my bed, but it is still better than lying on the ground. Normally we could pile leaves underneath to make it softer, but everything is wet from the rain."

"Hey, it's a lot better than where I slept last night. Thank you again for letting me stay the night. It's also a lot dryer in here than I would be out there."

"It is fine. As I said before, I am glad for some company." Neran sat down on his bed and John did likewise. Suddenly, John was exhausted, mentally and physically. He looked around the cave and realized in a few years, this would be him, assuming he survived that long. It hit him that he would probably never see Atlantis or his friends again. He closed his eyes and pictured himself squeezing the life out of Shiana while she begged for mercy, but it didn't help.

"I am sorry," said Neran as if reading his mind. "I know how you feel. Some days it hits me anew again, that this is my life for the rest of my days. I sometimes think of giving up, of just letting elements or starvation have me. But I cannot. My Leena would expect more of me. And so I continue."

John sat silently for a few minutes, pulling himself back together. "Do you know if there are others like you here, that are here due to ignorance or vengeance instead of crimes they have committed?"

"I have encountered a few in my time here. Some of them are dead. Some joined Edan in order to survive. A few spread out to live away from the gate and the thieves that infest that place. Most are true criminals."

John nodded. "So, on the off chance my people eventually figure out where I am and come to rescue me, I'll take you with me if you want to go."

Neran smiled. "I believe that is a dream that is unlikely, but I appreciate the thought. I would be honored to be taken from here." He tilted his head to one side. "Would it be possible to see the city of the Ancestors?"

"Oh, I think I could arrange that," John said with a smile.

"We should rest now. You will have a long day tomorrow."

John watched as the man got up and went outside for a few moments. He returned quickly and put out the torch. "I had to set the traps around the cave. If anyone comes around, we will know it before they are close enough to harm us."

"Sounds like you've thought of everything," John said, lying back on the mat. "Thanks again." He didn't know if Neran replied because he was asleep in moments.

TBC

The story is complete and is three chapters long. I hope to post a chapter each day as I finish going over them one last time. I can't help continuing to tweak them as they are never good enough to satisfy me. Basically I just finally get tired of looking at them.