Not mine. Don't own'em. Didn't create 'em. Stargate Atlantis and all related characters are the property of MGM.

Set sometime in season I.

Eternal thanks to my beta'er NebbyJ! Her patience, encouragement, and sense of humor has been the only thing keeping me from climbing the walls during this whole process.


BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

Weir sensed something was wrong as she descended the steps towards the Stargate. She watched as the team appeared though the wormhole from planet M3H-127. Their hair and jackets covered with a light dusting of snow and they seem smaller somehow. Tears were running openly down Teyla's cheeks. Ford looked positively shaken. Sheppard's expression was one of barely concealed anger, while McKay's face was a mask of stone.

"What happened?" she asked.

Shaking his head slightly in response, Sheppard ignored her question for the moment. "Teyla, why don't you go on to the infirmary for your post-mission check? You too, Ford." Dazed, Teyla hugged her jacket more tightly around herself and walked away. Sheppard put a hand on his Lieutenant's arm, causing him to pause. "Keep an eye on her."

"Yes, sir," replied Ford, looking a little less shaken. Having orders to follow helped give him focus. He was prepared to follow orders. He hadn't been prepared for what had awaited him on the planet. "Ma'am." He gave Weir a nod of acknowledgement before turning to follow the Athosian.

With a look of concern, Weir turned to Sheppard, inviting an explanation but not demanding. Not yet.

The major rubbed his face tiredly. "The planet had already been culled. Weeks ago."

She waited patiently. Teyla was used to such things. That alone wouldn't have had such an impact on the Athosian, or the rest of the team.

"They took everyone over the age of two or three," he choked out angrily.

Apparently that was all he had to say because he left to follow Ford and Teyla without another word. She knew she was missing something vital and looked to Rodney to provide the missing information.

The scientist spoke without any emotion in his voice, his face still expressionless. "They only left the babies, Elizabeth. They might have been okay for two or three days, but not weeks." He turned to follow the rest of his team, shoulders slumping.

Now she understood. The scenario played out in her mind: children - toddlers and infants, suddenly orphaned. How long had the food and water lasted? How many three-year olds could build a fire or care for an infant? How many days had they cried for their mothers before they succumbed to starvation, dehydration, or exposure?

oOo

She had postponed the debriefing until the next morning's department meeting. A good night's sleep had had the desired affect on the team, giving them time to get a little perspective on the situation. Teyla seemed sorrowful but composed and the entire team had been able to distance themselves and report objectively on what they had seen, or at least they were all doing a good job of pretending.

Sheppard shifted in his chair. "It doesn't make any sense. Why would the Wraith wipe out the settlement like that? If nothing else, it's bad…" he searched for a better reference but couldn't find one "…livestock management."

"Maybe they were too inexperienced. Maybe they were punishing the people on that planet for something. Who knows?" said Weir. She poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.

"Maybe they were starving and lost control," suggested Beckett, grimly.

Sheppard looked grim. "Now there's a frightening thought."

"They weren't frightening enough before?" asked McKay, incredulously.

Shooting him an irritated look, Sheppard continued, "I just meant that, before, we were at least dealing with a reasoning entity." At Teyla's angry look, he clarified, "Not that I think they're being reasonable, just that they are following a certain logic which they now seem to have abandoned. A whole new set of rules and we hadn't even figured out what all the old ones were yet." A pall settled over the conference room at that thought.

Beckett cleared his throat. "Should we send a burial detail?" At the look on the team's face, he hastened to add, "I'm sure some of my people would be willing to go."

Teyla was pounding her field shovel into the frozen clay; making little, if any, impact. Sheppard knelt down beside her and gently grasped her wrist, finally causing her to pause. "The ground's frozen, Teyla, we'll never be able to dig out enough with just our field shovels," he said, gently. She gave him a shattered look but said nothing.

Looking around, Ford said, "We can't just leave them here, Sir."

Empathizing with them, Sheppard hesitated.

"We'll cremate them," said McKay, his voice uncharacteristically soft.

Sheppard shot him a grateful glance.

They gathered up all the small fragile forms, wrapping them in what blankets they could find and laying them inside the largest of the thatched buildings. Teyla fashioned a torch and laid it against the edge of the building. She watched as the fire crept up the sides, then threw the torch through the door of the hut and walked towards the Stargate without so much as a backward glance. Ford followed her a few seconds later. McKay and Sheppard waited a little longer, waiting until the flames licked skyward. John turned, meeting Rodney's eyes, and in mutual agreement they left to join their teammates. A light snow began to fall.

"There's no need," said Sheppard, quietly. "We took care of it."

Deciding to close an obviously painfully subject for the moment, Weir moved on to their next item on the agenda. "Very well. I believe you had some handouts, Major?"

The stack of paper in front of him diminished as Sheppard spun the copies across the slick table to each person. "They're military hand signals. I'd like all the department heads to post these and to make sure their people memorize them. I've just included the bare basics."

"Is this really necessary," whined Kavanagh.

Sheppard fought for patience and managed to answer pleasantly, "I hope not, but if the Wraith invade Atlantis…"

"I agree," said Weir, immediately backing him up. "There's certainly no harm in it, and it could prove useful." She looked around at the various department heads to see if they agreed and found herself surprised by the intense look on Carson's face.

"Dr. Beckett?" When he didn't respond immediately, she tried again a little more loudly, "Carson?"

He continued to stare strangely at the paper. "It's blurry."

Weir frowned slightly and shot a bemused glance at Sheppard.

"It's been copied a few times," the Major explained. "This is probably the third or fourth generation."

"Copies are never as good as the originals," the doctor said half to himself. By this time, several others around the table were exchanging confused glances.

Sheppard frowned uncertainly. "I can get you a clearer copy if you need it?"

"What?" Beckett asked, shaking off his reverie and suddenly realizing he had become the center of attention. "Oh, no, sorry son, this is fine." Sheepishly, he returned his attention back to Dr. Weir.

"Okaaay," Elizabeth shuffled the papers in front of her. "Next topic…"

oOo

Meeting adjourned, the majority of the morning's attendees made their way to the mess hall to have lunch before returning to their respective departments. One notable exception was Teyla, whom Markham had ferried over to the mainland along with some much needed supplies. She had felt the need to reconnect to her people after witnessing such horror, and also hoped someone in her village might be able to provide a clue to understanding why the Wraith's feeding pattern had changed.

McKay and Beckett were most of the way through their meal, their long-standing argument gaining a familiar momentum. As if sensing impending doom, most the others had found tables elsewhere in the mess hall.

"No, Rodney." Beckett continued to eat, obstinately refusing to give the scientist his full attention.

McKay's irritation was plainly visible. "Why not?"

"I told you, I'm no good with technology."

"That's a load of bull. You use medical technology all the time."

"Why can't you find someone else?" As his irritation level began to increase, Beckett impaled an innocent carrot with more force than necessary. "I do have my own research, you know!"

"Why do you always have to be such a big baby about it, Carson?"

Unable to pretend indifference any longer, he put down his fork. "I nearly killed six people the first time I used the chair, Rodney."

"But you didn't."

"But I could have. I missed the people in the elevator, including Dr. Weir, by just a few inches. Not to mention everyone else on the base and Major Sheppard and General O'Neill."

"But. You. Didn't."

Beckett tried a different tack. "Look, it's akin to me asking you to...to stitch up someone's arm. You might be able to, in an emergency, but you wouldn't want to do it over and over, and you probably wouldn't do a very good job."

That struck an unpleasant cord with Rodney, bringing back memories of the Genii with a vengeance. Without thinking, McKay snapped, "It's not like medicine can't be used as a weapon."

Beckett's face turned to stone and Rodney mentally kicked himself – the Hoffans. Why did he have to go and bring that up? "Look…uh…Carson…" But the doctor was already leaving with his tray in hand. Rodney watched helplessly as Beckett deposited the tray in the designated area and left the mess hall.

"Open mouth, insert foot," Sheppard quipped, putting his full tray bravely on the table opposite McKay. He had apparently been near enough to hear the end of the argument.

"Shut up," said Rodney, rising briskly and returning his own empty tray before leaving the mess hall. He stood indecisively in the corridor a moment. A left would take him to the infirmary, a right to his lab. Not knowing what he would say to Carson anyway, he sighed and made a right.

"Okay you lab rats, playtime is over. Get to work." he barked, entering the lab. Pulling a crumped piece of paper from his pocket, he slammed Sheppard's handout on the wall and snapped his fingers impatiently until someone put a tape dispenser in his hand. "I want everyone to know all of these by the end of the week!"

Those who were talking or drinking coffee stopped and went to their stations. Those who were already working became more industrious. McKay in his regular mood was bad enough. A root canal sans anesthesia was preferable to McKay in a bad mood. Settling at his station, Rodney bent to the boring task of skimming through the various reports of his science teams. Scowling, he flipped through the pages almost violently, as if they were to blame for his current mood. He paused on the third one. "Jameson you have a typo in your report," he barked loudly.

"Sir?" responded the young woman from a station across the lab, looking confused and not a little fearful at acquiring the undivided attention of their demanding department head.

"You have here," he said, pointing to a line in the report even though she was obviously too far away to read the print, "That you're going to expose your naquadah sample to two point five percent radiation." When she shook her head still puzzled, he added, "You've misplaced your decimal it's supposed to be POINT two five percent." As a look of shock and horror that appeared on her face he suddenly realized what had happened. "Are you crazy?" he yelled, dropping the files and running towards her station, but it was too late. An overwhelmingly blinding flash of light and heat was followed instantly by utter darkness.



Yes, yes, I know, yet another explosion. What can I say? I love big bangs :-)