Fear of the Dark
Summary: Following the events of Hide And Seek, a nameless fear sweeps through the inhabitants of Atlantis. Did the Darkness really leave for good?
Central Characters: John, Rodney, Elizabeth.
Categories: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, H/C.
Placement: "Hide And Seek" epilogue.
Spoilers: "Hide And Seek", "Rising I, II".
Author's Note: This story was my first attempt at Atlantis fanfic - over a year old, now, and previously only posted on the AtlantisGenGate Yahoo Group. Anyway, because it's my earliest fic, it tends to focus more on plot than on the characters per se. Nowadays, I write John and Rodney friendship stories, almost exclusively. So this isn't really the best example of my work (as much of it as there is!), but despite its many failings, I still think it has some good bits, and I am rather proud of it on the whole. :) So please be nice. ;)
Disclaimer: Rodney and everyone else in Atlantis do not belong to me, more's the pity. They are the legal property of MGM, SciFi, Acme Shark, etc. No infringement on those rights is intended or implied.
"Ah! Careful please, I'm still recovering from the shock of saving the world." Dr. Rodney McKay, basking in the glory of being the hero for a change, was in one of his more agreeable moods. He found the strength for a smug grin despite his weakened condition as the two medics helped him to his feet.
Dr. Elizabeth Weir stood along with McKay and the others in the Gateroom, watching the scientist climbing to his feet and musing on his hidden depths. Who'd have thought, after all that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, that Rodney would jump into the unknown to save them all once it came down to it? Of course, really, he was the only one who could have done it, since the shielding device had imprinted itself on him, and that dark thing – that energy creature... whatever it had been – would have instantly killed anyone else who tried to go down there. Still, the act had taken a lot of courage; and that was a characteristic that Rodney McKay didn't usually bother to demonstrate.
"'Scuse me, sir, but it was only the base that was in danger," one of the soldiers standing by pointed out teasingly to the scientist. And of course, Rodney took the bait.
"Only the base?" McKay turned to blink at the man as if he could scarcely believe his own ears. "How can you say that - you ingrate? I've just saved what amounts to mankind's greatest discovery of all time, not to mention your own worthless life along with everyone else on this planet and all you can say is..." He turned to one of the medics. "Could you watch your step if you don't mind, your big feet keep tripping me up."
Elizabeth held in her laughter at the man's antics. She looked around at the little group. Everyone in the room seemed to be smiling as the reality of the triumph sank in: Major John Sheppard with that infectious grin; Teyla Emmagan, showing her pretty white teeth; Dr. Peter Grodin looking thrilled and slightly surprised at the way things had turned out... All the dangers and fears of the crisis were finally over, thank goodness.
As Rodney and his escort reached the corridor, Elizabeth heard him cheerfully starting to list what he expected once he got to the infirmary. "The bed had better be comfortable; I'm not spending the next week on any kind of dressed-up planking or anything. And a milk shake would just about hit the spot now. Can you get one of those?"
The medic he had spoken to answered in the negative, but McKay managed to take it pretty quietly. "Oh, well, I'll settle for some of that champagne from the other night then. And maybe a sandwich. And a nice, hot bath would be great..." With this, as the group looked after them, they turned round a corner and out of sight.
"Rodney seems to think we've travelled to a vacation resort," Dr. Weir remarked to Major Sheppard, who had also been watching the hero's progress. "I don't envy Carson the next few days."
"Well, I guess McKay deserves it," Sheppard replied with a half grin. "He has a point about that saving-the-world stuff."
No one noticed as Teyla, her sharp eyes having caught something at the other end of the room, hurried off in its direction.
"Very true, Major!" Dr. Weir conceded amiably. "So, now that that's over, I suggest we get back to..." She hesitated, then gave Sheppard a mildly amused look. "Normal?"
She nodded to Grodin, dismissing him back to his duties, and turned to call up to the crew who had just returned to the control center. "I want all the systems checked as well as you can. Make sure that thing didn't do any permanent damage. Major," she turned to John Sheppard, "How would you like to make an announcement?"
Major Sheppard shrugged indifferently. "Sure, why not," he agreed, and they both headed up in the direction of the communications console.
But Elizabeth stopped him halfway up the stairs, her hand on his sleeve as she noticed the Gateroom was now empty. "Where's Teyla disappeared to?"
"Oh," said Sheppard, "she's probably gone to tell her people already. My speech'll be wasted. And after I've spent so much time composing it."
Dr. Weir eyed him with a smile, and they continued on to where Grodin was already busy at the main console. "The preliminary scan shows no damage. It's a bit of a gamble at this point, but I think we're going to be all right."
"Good!" said Elizabeth. "I think it's time we told everyone else that. Could you get the communications running?"
The technician did so, and at a sign from Dr. Weir, John Sheppard stepped forward to speak. "Uh, testing," he started uncertainly, then squinted over his shoulder at the other man. "You sure this thing's on?" Grodin nodded, and Elizabeth raised her eyebrows encouragingly.
"This is Major Sheppard," he announced, having now gotten his bearings, "and I'd like to tell everyone that the thing that was threatening us is no longer in the City. It's gone through the Stargate: the danger's over. So you can all relax now." He leaned over a little more. "I know how hard this has been for every one of you who have families and who have just left their homes, but believe me, it's all over now. And I would like to thank you all personally for having been so patient through this whole crisis."
He stood there a moment longer as if he was trying to think of something to say next, then backed away in a single sudden movement, and fiddled self-consciously with his gun.
Dr. Weir laid her hand on his arm. "Well done, Major," she told him. Then she took a step towards the balcony, gesturing for the others to listen. From the direction of what had been designated as the living quarters for the refugees from Athosia, cheering could be heard.
As she turned back, smiling, Teyla appeared at the top of the stairway. "Major Sheppard?"
The man hurried to her, noticing that she looked worried, and reacting by giving her his prompt and undivided attention. "Yeah? What is it?"
Teyla turned halfway, reaching out to someone behind her on the steps. Elizabeth was surprised to see a little girl come forward to grasp Teyla's outstretched hand. She was about seven years old, very small, and with brown-blond hair pulled back in a tangled ponytail. Her frightened green eyes seemed far too large in her small, pale face.
"I found this little one in a room near here," Teyla told him. "I am afraid she may have been in the path of the Darkness as it came past to the Gate."
"I'll have Beckett take a look at her." John Sheppard assured her, staring at the newcomer. "Though she couldn't have been right in the way..." He glanced back at Elizabeth. If the girl had been in the hall as the thing went through, she would have received a fatal electric shock.
"It may have gained enough charge to cause minor shocks to someone in close proximity without actually touching them, couldn't it?" theorised Elizabeth. "Is she hurt at all?"
"I do not know," Teyla answered worriedly. The girl just stared up at them with her wide eyes, shrinking up close to Teyla.
"Everyone was supposed to be confined to their quarters. What was she doing near the Gateroom?" Elizabeth inquired.
"That's a good question," muttered John Sheppard, crouching down to be on the girl's eye-level. "Hi," he said in a friendly tone. "My name's Major Sheppard. You want to tell me your name?"
The little girl considered him gravely and shook her head.
"Well, you want to tell me what you were doing all by yourself in that room?"
The response to this was a slight movement of the head that amounted to a shrug.
"Did you get lost?" tried Sheppard.
A negative head-shake.
"Were you exploring?"
She signalled a slightly less confident "no".
Hesitation, and then a very small nod.
Sheppard gave the girl a reassuring pat on the head, and looked up at Teyla. "Does she have any parents?"
"Yes," answered Teyla. "She is the daughter of one of the women of my people." She lowered her voice. "Her father... met with an accident in the forest some years ago."
John Sheppard's eyes were full of concern as he returned his attention to the girl. "I'm so sorry. You must miss you father a lot."
A very sad nod and the beginnings of tears in the little girl's eyes.
Major Sheppard changed the subject. "Did you see anything at all when you were in the room? Anything go past the door?"
"Can you tell me what it was?"
The girl finally spoke, her voice lowered to a terrified whisper: "Darkness."
"Did it hurt you?"
"It frightened me," she told him.
"The Darkness is gone now," Teyla told the child comfortingly. The girl seemed doubtful.
"Yeah, it went through the Stargate," Sheppard clarified. "Believe me, I saw it go. Did you hear me saying that through the speakers?"
"It's all gone now, alright? So it can't hurt you."
The girl still looked unsure.
"You want to tell me your name now?" he asked.
After a long pause, she replied almost inaudibly, "Rinna."
"Well, I'm very pleased to meet you, Rinna." He treated her to his most charming smile. "Now, I'm going to take you to one of my friends, and he's going to look at you, just to make sure you're okay. It's nothing to be scared of," he told her, seeing her eyes starting to get their original frightened look again. He extended his arm to her. "You want me to hold your hand?"
The girl thought about this for a moment, then slowly let go of Teyla, and grabbed the Major's hand instead.
"Good." He glanced down and gave the girl a big grin. "Teyla," he said, turning, "would you get her mother to come to the infirmary? She's probably worried."
Teyla assented, and with a look of gratitude in Major Sheppard's direction, set off to do so.
Elizabeth Weir watched as Sheppard followed, chattering to his little companion. She shook her head, marvelling. It was amazing what a knack the Major had with all sorts of people. He seemed to be able to get along easily with anyone at all.
A little later, Rinna was sitting on one of the beds, her eyes darting nervously around the room. She was still holding onto Major Sheppard's hand tightly. A minute later, Dr. Beckett walked up, a stethoscope around his neck.
"Well, well," he said. "What have we here. A wee lassie?"
"This little lady," replied Sheppard, "needs a general checkup. She was nearby when that Dark... thing went past."
"Oh, I see..." Beckett adjusted the stethoscope, and placed it against the girl's chest, much to her obvious wonderment. "Did you feel any tinglings or your hairs prickling?" inquired the Scottish doctor.
The girl shook her head. "No."
"Well! There's nothing wrong with you, lass, that's for sure," he said, putting the instrument away. "What's your name?"
"Rinna," she answered shyly.
"Rinna. That's a lovely name."
The little girl almost smiled at the friendly doctor in return for this compliment. At that moment, a woman, obviously Rinna's mother, entered the infirmary.
"Rinna! I have been so worried about you. Where were you? Are you hurt?" asked the woman as she rushed to the girl.
Rinna jumped off the bed and, running forward, flung both her arms around her mother's legs.
"Oh, Mother, I saw the Darkness, and it was horrible, and it was coming after me; if I hadn't hidden it would have found me and swallowed me up!" Rinna said in sudden stream. John Sheppard raised his eyebrows in surprise at this outburst.
Rinna's mother fixed her gaze questioningly to the men.
"It's alright, ma'am," Sheppard told her reassuringly. "We were just giving her a routine checkup. Rinna's perfectly fine."
The woman, relieved, turned again to her daughter. A s the girl's mother comforted her, John Sheppard was happy to see Rinna relaxing and the fearful expression fading from her round little face. He took the moment's opportunity to inquire after McKay.
"Hey, how's our national hero doing?"
"Ach, don't ask!" groaned Beckett. "He's really in perfect health by now, but all he does is just lie there using the bed and ordering more food."
"Yeah, sounds like he's recovered all right," remarked Sheppard with a grin. "And how's Ford?"
"His condition is improving. Though I have a feeling it would be improving more quickly if I could find him a bed farther away from Dr. McKay."
Major Sheppard made an "Oh" face, and, a second later, the lights abruptly went out.
"It's okay!" Sheppard called out. "Nobody panic. It's probably just a simple power failure."
For some reason, even though he'd never in his life been afraid of the dark, Sheppard found himself subject to an increasing sense of terror. Something about the lack of light, the blackness filling the room... It seemed so oppressive, striving viciously to crush the life out of him... The moments were stretching on into forever, with no possible hope of escape...
Sheppard fought down the rising panic and forced himself to get a grip. Flashlight. He fished around for the tool, but just as he pulled it out and brandished it triumphantly, the lights came back on. Sheppard shrugged and put the flashlight away again.
The strange feeling had been dissipated along with the darkness.
A voice came over the City-wide announcement network. "This is Weir. That power outage we experienced a moment ago was nothing to worry about. We ran into a few minor difficulties in checking the systems for damage."
"See, what'd I tell ya?" the Major said. "Say, what's the matter?" he asked, noticing that Rinna now looked more frightened than she had been even at first. "It was just a power failure. They've fixed it now."
She didn't even answer, just shook her head to say he was wrong.
"What are you so scared of? The dark can't hurt you."
"Yes it can." Rinna's voice was lowered to the faintest of whispers. "It's going to come back for me. I know it."
"What...?" Sheppard started to ask.
"What is this?" Rinna's mother interrupted him. She had pulled out some sort of necklace from where it had been hidden under her daughter's shirt. "Rinna?"
"It's mine." Sheppard, only a few feet away, could scarcely distinguish the child's voice.
"It looks like Ancient technology," frowned Beckett, trying to examine it more closely.
"Where'd you find that, huh?" Sheppard wanted to know.
"It was in the room where the Dark tried to chase me."
"Now look," John Sheppard told her. "The Dark isn't trying to get you. I told you we sent it away. It's gone now, and it can't hurt you."
"Yes it can. It hurt one of your warriors."
"Well... yeah..." Sheppard conceded reluctantly. "But he's alright now. You want to talk to him and see for yourself? Besides, it's not here any longer, I keep telling you."
"It tried to come back for me just now, and it will keep trying until it has me." There was no doubt in Sheppard's mind as he looked at the girl's wide, grave eyes that she believed absolutely everything she was saying. He couldn't think what to tell her.
"Oh, I know what it is," Beckett announced from where he was examining the necklace thing Rinna had been wearing. "This was in one of the labs. We think it's a sort of personal projector. It makes holographs and things."
"Then it's not dangerous," Sheppard put forth as a half-question.
"No, I don't see how it could be. You need to have the gene to make it work."
Rinna's mother was staring at the device too. "Would it... shine if it was working?"
Beckett raised his eyebrows. "It might. I don't know."
"It was burning like fire. When the lights were out," she volunteered.
Sheppard was slightly disturbed by this. "You sure about that gene thing?" he asked Beckett, who nodded emphatically.
"Perhaps it just glows in the dark?" Beckett suggested.
"I guess so," Major Sheppard answered.
Rinna reached out her hand for the necklace. Sheppard and Beckett exchanged a glance.
"I suppose there can't be any harm in letting the bairn have it," Beckett said uncertainly.
John Sheppard looked at the little girl. To her, it was just a pretty piece of jewelry, and there was really no reason she shouldn't have it, at least for a while. Until someone noticed. He shrugged, and handed it back to her. "Don't tell Dr. McKay or Dr. Weir I gave that to you," he winked.
But Rinna still seemed to be totally petrified from sheer fright. She took the device, but then she just stood there, her huge eyes restlessly scanning the room.
"Look, I've got an idea," Sheppard told her gently, getting down on his knees in front of her. "Why don't you go home with your mom, and get some rest. Alright?"
Slowly, Rinna nodded, and she and her mother walked out.
"You don't suppose..." Beckett broke the silence after a few moments. "That wee lassie couldn't have the gene herself, could she?"
"What?" Sheppard was startled by the idea. "I don't think so. Could she?"
"Well, it is possible..."
"Anyway, what harm could she do? I mean, it's just the Ancients' thing for showing their home movies or whatever. Right?"
"Something like that." Dr. Beckett sounded confused.
"Well then." Sheppard looked satisfied. "What harm could anyone possibly do with that, even if they did know how to work the thing?"
"Oh, waiter," McKay's voice floated to them from further in the infirmary.
Dr. Beckett rolled his eyes. "Here we are again!"
He trotted off in Rodney's direction, and Sheppard decided to tag along.
"Well, what is it you're wanting now, your Majesty?" demanded the beleaguered Carson Beckett.
Rodney McKay was lying with some pillows propping his head up. He held a standard-issue, army type tin cup, which he was shaking around meditatively.
"My glass is empty," he stated.
"And you would like some more, I assume?"
"Yes, actually." Rodney half-turned to fluff up his pillows, found it was too much of an effort, and signalled to Sheppard. "Would you mind... Oh, thank you," he finished as the Major obliged by fixing the pillows for him.
"Why are you just standing there?" Rodney asked, noticing that Beckett was, indeed, staying in one spot and holding the empty cup.
"I have fetched and carried enough food and drink to last twelve men a lifetime in just the short time you have been here," said Dr. Beckett wearily. Rodney blinked. "And I'm wondering: will you ever get tired of eating and decide to do something else?"
"I'm trying to regain my strength." McKay gave the impression, as always, that he was doing everyone in the Universe an enormous favour by deigning such information. "What, do you want me to die of dehydration after all, or what?"
"I don't think there's any chance of that!" scoffed Beckett.
McKay blinked again as he realised something. "That was insulting."
Major Sheppard grabbed the empty cup and sniffed at it. "What is this – champagne?"
"No, for your information, it's apple juice. And since you refuse to provide a suffering hero with anything to slake his thirst –"
"Alright, I didn't say that!" Beckett took the cup back, and prepared to embark on his mission.
"Make sure it's not lemonade!" Rodney shouted after the medical doctor as he left. He then settled back comfortably into his bed.
After a few moments, he noticed John Sheppard was staring at him and grinning.
"What are you looking at?" he inquired, preparing himself to be offended.
"Oh," responded Sheppard, in his most maddeningly casual tone. "Nothing." And he moved to where Aiden Ford was lying, a little ways off.
"Well," Rodney began in a shout, determined to have the last word. But then, as he found he didn't really have anything else to say, he finished lamely at a lower pitch, "Don't... then." He looked around, found a cracker he'd missed, and consoled himself for that less-than-impressive comeback by munching on the aforementioned food item.
Sheppard, meanwhile approached Lt. Ford. He was lying a few beds away, his eyes closed, and his face still with burn marks on it. The Major walked over to the bedside, and stood looking down at his Lieutenant.
Aiden Ford opened his eyes. "Hello, sir," he said.
"Hi, Ford. How you doing? Did I wake you?"
Aiden propped himself up. "No, sir. Just trying to get a little rest."
Aiden nodded, then laughed to himself, shaking his head. "Pretty hard with old Big Mouth over there. The only times he'll stop eating is when he's talking. And I'm the only one around here who can't get away."
Sheppard made a face. "Captive audience?"
"Right, sir. But other than that, I'm just about fine now. Sir?"
"You think you could get me out of here and back on duty – soon?" The young soldier shot a significant glance in Rodney's direction.
Sheppard grinned back. "Sure, Ford. You get fit again, and I'll break you out." He clapped Aiden on the shoulder. "I'll tell Beckett to keep the hero quiet so you can get some rest. You work on getting your strength back."
Aiden looked very grateful. "Thanks, sir, I will!"
That night, for a change, almost everyone was able to climb into bed and get a full night's sleep. And every one of them wished they hadn't...
Little Rinna had a lot of trouble even closing her eyes. The darkness of the room she and her mother shared terrified her. She felt that if she stopped paying attention, it would become the Dark, the thing that was after her. The thing that was looking for her, that wanted to destroy her...
She clutched at her new necklace without quite knowing why. She thought back to the events of the day. The Darkness... She knew it was coming, but there was nothing she could do about it. They all said the Dark couldn't hurt you; Teyla said it feared fire. But Rinna knew: The Darkness feared nothing. It was Nothing. There was no way to fight it, no hope of escape from it. She'd heard them, the people from Earth, when they were talking about it and their voices had sounded everywhere. They hadn't known a way to kill it. And the warrior who had tried to run had been stricken down by it, screaming...
Rinna wanted to close her eyes and ears, to not try to see or hear the small things around her in this huge terrible City. Where were the trees? Where were the sounds of the leaves, and the wind, and the river, and the animals of the night? There was only an enormous, black silence, and the tiny candle flames making the shadows flit. They seemed to Rinna to be coming closer, surrounding her...!
She knew it was gone, through the Stargate to another world. But it didn't matter. The Darkness could do anything. Where there was light, the Dark had killed it as it flew past. It could come again through the Stargate just as it had left. If it wished, it could return for her... And Rinna knew it wished to do that...
No one even understood. She'd tried to tell them, but... No one else knew what it was like, to be so frightened, to have no escape... Rinna didn't know how to explain it. I f only they did understand, then maybe they could stop the Darkness, and she would be safe. Maybe...
Her mother's breathing was already slow and even. Rinna looked over at her: even she didn't know. Rinna was all alone, in the darkness, and the Darkness was watching, biding its time... The huge, malevolent Darkness had all the time in the world. Rinna strained her ears in rapidly increasing anxiety, trying to catch a sound, any noise that would give away the approach of the monster she could feel was hunting her.
But no. Everything was silent. The only sounds were the occasional rustlings which she knew were the rest of her people stirring in their rooms nearby. Everyone seemed to be asleep. Rinna wished she could go to sleep as well. It would be such a relief from this constant, biting fear But Rinna knew she couldn't relax long enough to get any real rest. Not ever.
Even so, somehow, after what were to Rinna long hours of strain and weary wakefulness, the little girl's eyes slowly closed, and she drifted into slumber.
But it was no better than what she had experienced while awake. She was beset by nightmares of the most awful kind. Over and over in her dreams, the Darkness was chasing her, and always she knew she couldn't hope to escape. It always followed her, unseen – but she knew it was there. Even when she couldn't see it, it was waiting... Waiting...! And all the time, it was coming... Coming for her... And no one understood her fear...
Rinna tossed in her bed, whimpering in terror as the nightmares went on. And the orange light from her necklace illuminated her frightened face eerily...
And everyone else is the sleeping City of Atlantis dreamed as well...
John Sheppard, in his own room, dreamed of people – thousands of them. And one by one, in an unending stream, they were led in front of him, and horribly killed by something unseen. And there was nothing he could do. Every one of them begged him to help them, and every time he tried with all his might to do so. But he was frozen where he stood, unable to move so much as a finger and forced to witness helplessly the deaths of so many...
Elizabeth Weir dreamed that she was running through a dark maze. She was searching for something, striving to find the answer before it was too late and everything she cared for was taken away forever. And in the maze were shadowy mirrors, each of which showed someone she'd known in the past. She wanted to reach them, to warn them of the danger she couldn't avert, but no matter how much she shouted, they didn't hear her. And she always had to keep running...
Rodney McKay's dream was one long sequence of disasters. Every time it was something different, but he always knew he could find the answer and fix whatever the problem was if only he could have enough time to think. But each time, something unfightable caused a lapse in time. And as soon as Rodney felt he was nearing the solution – he would suddenly find that he was already too late, and he had failed horribly...
Teyla Emmagan had a dream that her people were all around her. She was afraid that the Wraith were coming, but she couldn't feel their approach. And then, one by one, her people disappeared from right next to her. They needed her protection, and she was powerless to help them as the something took them away, one by one, never to return...
Aiden Ford, in his bed in the infirmary, dreamed that he was alone, lost. He couldn't find the rest of his contingent, and he was stranded. To make it all even worse, he began to suspect that he was being slowly surrounded. Something was stalking him, just out of sight. He tried to shoot at it in a panic, but the bullets had no effect. And the unseen enemy came closer and closer...
Carson Beckett's dream was that there was some strange disease which he couldn't identify raging through the base. One by one, all the personnel were succumbing to it. And something he couldn't understand was causing it to spread even when there was no logical way it could be doing so. He had to discover the solution before it was too late. But at the same time, he knew that, in terms of everything he'd ever learned about medical science, there was no solution...
And all the Athosians in their rooms with their families dreamed, too. Most dreamed of the Wraith stalking them in the forest at night. Others that their people had moved on without them and they were left behind with no idea how to find their loved ones again. Still others dreamed that a dark something was coming for them, or for their families – and they knew, but had no way to stop it or to warn anyone of what was approaching...
And so the long night wore on and on for everyone in Atlantis...
"I wonder if they could do that..."
"What?" Aiden asked, genuinely baffled. He was hoping to be released today, as Dr. Beckett had formally declared him safely on the mend – but that wasn't what he had been thinking about a moment ago. He'd had the most horrible dream the night before, and he was having a lot of trouble getting it out of his head.
So he wasn't really paying attention to his fellow inmate, and he was a bit startled to suddenly hear him speak. He glanced at McKay a few beds over. Unusually for him, the scientist was looking very haggard. In fact, now Aiden thought about it, Rodney had been strangely subdued all morning. But then, Ford had to admit, he himself had been pretty pensive, too.
Rodney ignored the young Lieutenant's question, but kept on talking, apparently to himself. "I can't see any other explanation. I mean, what kind of thing could there be that can cause a Time lapse like that...?"
"What are you talking about?" Ford tried again, his interest aroused now.
McKay turned to look at him with a look of terror barely hidden behind a veil of half-defiant sheepishness. He uttered one word: "Ghosts."
Aiden was frankly disbelieving. "Ghosts?"
Rodney returned his stare. "Yes."
"You believe in ghosts?" Ford was disgusted. "I thought you were a scientist."
Offense crept into Rodney's face. "I am, but I'd like to see you disprove that ghosts exist."
"I don't believe it."
"No, I mean I can't believe what I'm hearing you say. And what's that about – Time lapses?"
"Well, that's how I know they must exist." McKay was on the defensive now. "The kind of power necessary to manipulate Space/Time on that kind of a scale-"
"Woah, hold it!" Aiden felt in need of a little more briefing. "What are we talking about here exactly? I mean, when did this happen?"
Rodney blinked guiltily and shifted his gaze to the side. Then he cleared his throat a couple of times. A furtive glance was enough to assure him that Ford was still waiting, and Rodney faced the fact that he wasn't going to be able to avoid answering the question. Also, he was unfortunately a little short on bravado right now, but he still did his best to sound unconcerned. "Actually... It was in a – a dream."
"A dream?" Aiden Ford wasn't as surprised as he should have been. Nor, with his own nightmare still haunting him, did he particularly feel like laughing. "So what happened?"
This lenient reaction shocked McKay so much, that he actually gave a straight answer to the question. And he was never one to pass up a chance at a semi-willing listener. "Difficult to explain; it was all pretty confusing. But basically, it was that these things kept going wrong, and every time I thought I'd just figured out how to fix it – it was too late." He switched to explanation mode. "Now, to be able to cause controlled jumps in the timeline like that would require unimaginable amounts of power." He'd warmed up quite a lot to his topic, and now he paused again for a response. Sadly, he didn't get anything like what he had been expecting.
"You know, I had a nightmare last night, too," Aiden frowned.
Rodney immediately and obviously lost all interest in continuing the conversation. "Oh. Really." He started rooting around for something to eat as a distraction while the lurking, fearful look returned.
"Yeah. It was weird. I've never had a dream anything like that before." Ford shook his head. "It just sticks with me no matter how hard I try to get rid of it."
Oddly, this got McKay's attention back. "You know, it's funny – but that's exactly how I feel."
"Sort of this – pressing dread of something... happening. I don't know what."
"Yes, that's just it..." Dr. McKay trailed off, thinking with a faraway look in his eyes.
Aiden was staring absently at him as Elizabeth and Sheppard entered the infirmary. Neither of the patients looked up, and the Major also seemed a little out of sorts. He was cheerful enough, of course, but it was a rather forced version of his usual attitude. And Dr. Weir was very pale, very silent and very unsmiling.
"Well, Ford – how're you coming?" Sheppard asked, clapping the Lieutenant on the shoulder. "Beckett's willing to let you out as soon as you want to go. So – what d'ya say?"
"Sure," Aiden nodded with almost total lack of spirit. "I guess I'm ready whenever you are."
"Hey, what's this? Yesterday you were dying to get out and catch up on what was going on in the great big world outside." He gave Ford an inquiring glance.
Aiden hung his head, then attempted to rally. "Sorry, sir. Had a bad night, that's all."
John Sheppard looked shifty. "Really? Couldn't sleep?"
McKay broke in. "No, he slept too much. We both did, and we both dreamed about impending doom." He looked around. "What about you two; any nightmares? Elizabeth...?"
The woman had put a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes wearily. "I – I'm alright. Really," she protested unconvincingly. McKay got up, forgetting to be an invalid in the thrill of professionalism, and offered Elizabeth a seat on his bed – which she refused. She turned to the wall, denying any need of assistance.
McKay switched from questioning Elizabeth to bugging Sheppard: "And how about you, Major?"
"Oh, come on." John Sheppard considered the whole discussion a worthless waste of time. "What does it matter if a few people had bad dreams? Is it gonna kill anyone?" McKay crossed his arms. "Oh, all right," Sheppard conceded with great reluctance. "So I did too. What of it?"
"Well, doesn't it strike you as being just a tiny bit peculiar that we all had nightmares at exactly the same time?"
"So a few of us did. Just a coincidence, or reaction to stress or something. Who cares?"
"First of all," McKay shook a finger at his audience. "We don't know that it's just a few. And secondly, all of us have had a very hard time shaking off the effects."
"He's right, sir," Aiden spoke up. "I can't get the darn thing out of my head."
"And I," Rodney gulped, "have been trying all day – unsuccessfully, mind you – to ward off a sense of coming disaster."
"Well, so what?" The Major threw up his hands, unwilling to give up the point. "You're always thinking like that anyway!"
Rodney was distracted from the need for a riposte by Dr. Weir returning to the circle. "Please, Rodney," she took a deep breath and met his concerned eyes squarely. "I'm alright."
"You see," McKay said, gesturing at Elizabeth. "It's not just my imagination. Though he added to himself, "that admittedly isn't helping too much at the moment... But the point is that something is going on." Sheppard shrugged, still dubious, and McKay turned to Elizabeth. "How is the rest of the base? Everything normal?"
"As a matter of fact," Dr. Weir said, now at least outwardly collected again, "some of the Athosians have reported seeing what they call 'shadows'."
She sighed. "A lot. We have investigated a few of these sightings, and we can't find anything that could have caused it. Teyla can't tell me anything either."
"There, you see!" For a second, Rodney was triumphant; then he frowned. "But what could cause something like this?"
"Hey, you're really serious, aren't you?" Major Sheppard realised.
"Well, I for one tend to be concerned when hundreds of people suddenly become frightened simultaneously and for no apparent reason," McKay answered dryly. "Look, can someone go fetch Carson Beckett? I think his help might be useful. And Teyla, too. I want more on these shadows her people spotted."
John Sheppard, frowning worriedly, nodded and hurried off.
A short time later, the five of them – Aiden Ford had opted to stay in bed, since he didn't feel he could contribute much -- were seated in the infirmary. Everyone was looking more or less as if they'd been through a wringer during the night.
Rodney McKay had, of course, appointed himself as the unofficial leader of this unofficial meeting. "So," he was asking, "are there any traces left from that dark... creature... entity... thing?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, we ran a full scan. We couldn't find any signs of it whatsoever. And all the systems are in perfect working order, as far as we can determine."
"But that thing didn't do anything like that to us." Sheppard failed to see where this was heading.
"No, but as Carson here –" McKay gestured at the doctor, "can tell you, there's a – remote – possibility that it could have something to do with all this."
"The human brain," Carson took it upon himself to explain, "works basically through electrical impulses." He paused. "To put it very simply, that is. So it is possible that certain types of energy, on specific frequencies, if you like, could be affecting us somehow."
"For instance by –" Rodney gazed ceilingwards, "stimulating the fear areas of the brain."
"And we know that this thing was essentially made of energy," Dr. Weir said, comprehending. "So is that what you think is the cause?"
Rodney made a noncommittal face. "The problem is, really, that we don't know what it is. That's what worries me actually. It could be residual energy traces left over by the creature; and possibly, we wouldn't be able to detect them. But I can't be sure."
"So you got any other ideas?" Sheppard raised his eyebrows cheerfully.
"A few. Teyla," McKay turned to the Athosian girl, "your people have been seeing Wraith shadows?"
Teyla was unsure. "Yes, so they say, but that is also how they described the dark creature. I have seen none myself. Nor do I feel the presence of the Wraith."
"Well, I was already willing to eliminate them," McKay said, satisfied. "I assumed that if the Wraith had the kind of technology to do something like this, you would have known – and consequently, so would we." Teyla nodded. "Also, from what I've heard, this doesn't seem like the kind of strategy they'd be using if they wanted to get rid of us."
"That's what I said," Sheppard banged the table, glad to be vindicated. "So what is it then? Another one of those things?"
"Well, that's the funny part." Rodney sounded apologetic. "Well, really, it's not very funny at all but... never mind. Our scans would have shown it if it were there. Also, we're not experiencing any of the freak power failures we did before. However," he held up a finger in something like triumph, "it is possible that the creature somehow affected the central machinery of the City. I mean, we all know that Ancient technology is very complicated and so forth and so on – it's possible it was thrown slightly out of whack."
"And the City itself is pouring nightmare energy into our heads?" Sheppard supplied.
McKay considered this, his head tilted to the side for a long time. Then, "Yeah, more or less, though I can't say I like your way of putting it. 'Nightmare energy'? What is that? Anyway," he went on, abandoning the quarrel over the Major's terminology, "there is also the unlikely possibility that someone's been messing with something here that the Ancients left. But I for one find it hard to imagine what they would have wanted with a device to give you nightmares. And we haven't found anything like that anyway, so I tend to go with my last theory." McKay leaned back, satisfied that he'd done his part very well.
"Alright," Elizabeth leaned forward in her getting-down-to-business manner. "So what do you suggest we do about it, Rodney?"
"That's the trouble, actually." The scientist looked a little bleak as he exchanged a glance with Beckett. "I can't see that there is anything to do in practical terms but run another systems check and hope that whatever this is just -- wears off."
Dr. Weir nodded. "I see. Well, we'll do that then."
McKay appeared to be thinking deeply and thus, of course, was talking. "I mean, we're in a totally alien atmosphere here. We really haven't a clue what it could be, once you get down to it. I mean, there might be something we can't detect in the air of this planet that affects our physiology this way. Or it could be the power systems of the City itself taking effect over time. After all," he pointed out helpfully, "we have only been here a few days."
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at Dr. McKay, a cautious half-smile showing at the corners of her mouth. "Rodney, what's your point?"
He shrugged philosophically. "Only that it might not be connected to that creature at all. It might be the lighting here – or a slight vibration in the floors. We can't tell. And we might have no way of fixing whatever it is, or even of figuring this out." McKay stated all this depressing stuff very matter-of-factly. Apparently, it didn't bother him.
But Dr. Weir didn't want to hear this kind of thing. It wasn't practical, and it wasn't good for morale. "Well, why don't we focus on the things we can do." She sent Rodney a significant look, and turned to Dr. Beckett. "I don't suppose that this could be a reaction to stress as the Major suggested? Or the result of some kind of radiation we received from that... creature while it was here?"
"I have thought of that," the doctor replied. "But if it is either of those things, it'll pass in time."
"So that's it then?" Elizabeth wanted to know. "No other ideas?"
McKay waved a hand for attention. "The only other thing I could come up with was that it might be a reaction to travelling so far through the Stargate. But it's apparently affecting the Athosians, too, so..." Rodney shook his head in summation. "No."
"Alright," sighed Elizabeth. "Does anyone else have any suggestions or ideas at all?"
Teyla's voice came quietly in answer. "My people are very troubled. They say that the Ancestors do not wish us to be here. They say that this City is still their home."
Rodney McKay's mouth went down at the corners, and he looked very spooked indeed. "Please don't say that to me," he begged in an undertone.
Sheppard almost laughed at this as he shifted about impatiently. Why on Earth – strike that – in the Universe did they have to sit around and listen to McKay's crazy ideas instead of going out and doing something? Come on.
Dr. Weir, while casting a sternish look in the fidgety Major's direction, chose to answer Teyla rather than striving uselessly to calm Rodney down. Sometimes she really felt like this job was a huge one-person juggling act... "Try to reassure your people, Teyla. I know how difficult this is, and they must be very frightened having lost their homes and their loved ones so recently. But really, there is nothing to fear right now."
Teyla smiled in gratitude. "Thank you, I will tell them that. And now I must go. My people will be nervous if I stay away too long."
As she got up to leave, Elizabeth stood up, too. "I think it's time we all got back to work. It'll keep our minds off –" a deep breath, "—things, and there's always work to be done." She attempted a bright look around the room, but she didn't feel quite up to it. Moreover, she knew she didn't look up to it: she could practically feel the careworn lines tracing her forehead. But she couldn't let that show. Her behaviour must always be that of the leader, the reassurer.
"So let's all do that, shall we? Dismissed."
Dr. Weir stood a moment longer after the room emptied, trying not to notice how grim and... dark everything felt. It was as if some sort of murky and depressing cloud had descended over the whole of Atlantis. She could feel it... Waiting... Coming closer...
With a repressed shudder, Elizabeth hurried from the infirmary.
Elsewhere, the Athosians went about their business, but in unwonted silence. A pall had fallen over the City of Atlantis, wrapping all the inhabitants in a veil of foreboding. Everyone understood that something terrible was coming... Soon...
The nightmares of the preceding night haunted them all. An inescapable doom hung over their heads, or lurked barely outside of their vision. Many thought it to be the Wraith. Others that is was the revenge of the Ancestors for desecrating the Ancient City. Still others didn't even know what they believed it was. Just a nameless something preparing to pounce...
But it was there. Always present, in a half-seen gloom – if you were foolish enough to look. Some fought it, refused to glance nervously over their shoulders or peer into corners. Others were beginning to understand that such resistance was utterly useless. There was no way to win against such an enemy...
One woman from Athos hurried past towards her quarters without sparing a glance to the rest of her people as she went by. She was being chased, she knew it! She couldn't hope to escape... And yet she had to keep on running. Perhaps she would be safe in her room, for a little while at least...
She had seen them. Things. Shadows. Something malevolent that lurked in the dimness of unlighted hallways. And watched...! It was omnipresent, she could always feel it just behind her, just out of sight... Always watching and closing in... It was her nightmare coming true...
With a moan, the woman leaned against the wall, covering her closed eyes with her trembling hands. How could she even think that there was any way to avert what was coming? She knew it was inevitable. It was far too powerful, too much for her to fight... No chance, no hope... Only fear and despair... Forever...
Dimly she sensed a hand on her arm, a voice through the haze. It seemed to be asking something. Asking her? She wondered. But she had time to think at least... Every moment lasted for centuries... Or hours... or months... It didn't matter.
There was only one thing to do, one course to take if she wished to have any peace: She must let the something come to her. Stop running... Invite it in... If she lost herself, how could it find her?
The woman slowly lifted her head. She did not see the figures around her. All she saw were the shadowy things that waited... They were coming for her...! She let them.
The lights in the corridor dimmed and with a scream of terror, the woman sank to the floor.
The unofficial meeting called by McKay and Dr. Weir had scarcely been concluded before the first case was reported. An Athosian woman, according to eyewitnesses, had suddenly and inexplicably screamed and collapsed. Dr. Carson Beckett promptly had her rushed to the infirmary, and declared her to be in a state of shock.
However, as he confided to Dr. Weir and Major Sheppard, he couldn't determine the cause. Any cause. Scrupulous testing showed that it wasn't any detectable form of virus, bacteria, vitamin or mineral deficiency or excess, or any kind of poison, as far as they could make out. And you could hardly attribute a sudden collapse to the technical fault in the lighting that had occurred simultaneously. In addition, the lights had come back on moments later.
Many more cases followed the first in quick succession. Within the space of an hour, more blackouts were witnessed and almost two thirds of the entire base, including most of the Athosians, were down with the mysterious malady. The medical team had filled the infirmary to overflowing with patients, and then, as even more arrived, they had to be placed in other large rooms nearby.
They tried quarantining for a little while, but it did absolutely no good: the disease spread all the same. Either it conveyed itself through some medium they couldn't begin to understand, or the symptoms had shown up too late, after the damage of contagion had already been done. So they gave that up entirely, and focussed on finding a solution. But so far, Dr. Beckett, working constantly, could come up with no possible reason – and no way to cure it.
"I don't understand it," he cried in frustration to Elizabeth and the others who were holding another conference, this time with Lt. Ford present after his release from the now-packed infirmary. "They're all in a state of shock; that's clear enough. But I don't know why, and they won't respond to treatment."
"We've –" Elizabeth paused, weighing her words. "We've had reports of – things being sighted, but we couldn't verify anything." From where he was sitting, Rodney looked quietly disturbed. "Is it possible that this – whatever-it-is is having a hallucinogenic effect?"
Carson shook his head. "I really don't know."
"It does seem to be linked with the power faults we've started experiencing," said McKay in bald understatement.
"I don't know what to tell you," apologised Dr. Beckett. "I should have been able to isolate a cause by now... But... I can't seem to save them."
With a concerned look to Teyla, Sheppard inquired, "Are they getting worse?"
"No, that's another queer thing. They're all stable. But no matter what I do, their condition doesn't improve."
"They are all still unconscious?" Teyla asked anxiously.
The harried doctor nodded. "Every one." He buried his face in his hands. "This shouldn't be happening this way. I'm a doctor, there should be something I can do." His voice fell to a mere murmur, but everyone heard what his words were: "It's just like that dream."
Aiden Ford started violently. "Really? I was just thinking it was like my dream."
Everyone looked around the room at everyone else, no one willing to pursue the subject further, but all unwilling to drop it.
"This is ridiculous," Elizabeth finally said tightly, trying to break the spell. "I know we're all in a very poor state to cope with this right now, but there is nothing after us, or... or any inevitable disaster hanging over our heads. Carson just said that the patients are all in a stable condition." She gave all the assembled a determinedly reasonable glare. "This will give us time to find the cause, and a way to remedy it. But if we all panic now, nothing good is going to come of it. Is that understood?"
She got a chorus of Yes-es and Yes, ma'am-s in response. And then there was a lot of silence.
"You know," Rodney McKay's subdued voice came at last. "There is one theory I didn't mention last time." No one told him to go one, since they all knew at heart what he was going to say, but he kept talking anyway. "Maybe our nightmares were a – a warning."
"Please, Rodney –" started Elizabeth. But since this was exactly how she'd felt all along, she couldn't think of a convincing contradiction to give him. Nor could anyone else.
So he went on. "I know this is very similar to what happened in my dream. Personally, mine was all about a coming doom that I kept trying to avert. And – couldn't. And, I'm guessing it was the same for the rest of you."
John Sheppard deliberately gazed off in the opposite direction. Elizabeth looked down at the table they were seated at. Teyla looked straight at Rodney, and didn't answer him. But Beckett signalled acquiescence, and Ford said, "Yeah... That's what mine was like alright. I t was just the feeling of it. I was so... helpless. It was awful..."
"Alright, Lieutenant!" Dr. Weir practically shouted. "I said that was enough!" She knew she was overreacting, but the constant atmosphere of terror and despair were starting to tell on her nerves.
"But isn't it worth thinking about?" McKay asked. "I mean – what was your dream like, Elizabeth?"
"I have no desire to discuss it, Rodney," she said sharply.
"But we need to find the answer. Maybe we're looking at this whole thing the wrong way." For once, Dr. McKay sounded very small.
"Alright," Elizabeth responded, still angrily. "So granting it could be a warning. Whom is this warning from?"
Rodney seemed to have shrunk quite a lot, and the look in his eyes was frankly scared. "Well, Teyla's people are all talking about the Ancients..."
"Ghosts!" Elizabeth snorted. "Rodney, you are a scientist: try to think like one!"
"But that's just it," McKay continued, throwing both prudence and self-respect to the winds. "Ghosts aren't science! And if that's what it is, there's nothing I or anyone else can do!" He had such a pathetically frightened note in his voice, almost pleading to be reassured somehow. Though no one could really have managed it.
But Elizabeth wasn't going to try. She had positively reached the end of her rope. "Rodney, this is absurd. There are no such things as ghosts. And I don't want to hear another word about this nonsense!"
And she swept out of the room, not trusting herself to stay any longer.
Beckett followed a moment later with a sigh to return to his medical conundrum.
Major Sheppard patted the upset scientist's arm as the rest stood up. "It's okay, McKay. We're all a little worked up right now."
McKay shook his head. Time slowed, the single moment Rodney was experiencing stretching on impossibly... Into forever... Time kept on doing this, and it frightened Rodney. Time wasn't supposed to do things like that. It couldn't. At least – not by any rules he'd ever heard of. But did that mean it couldn't happen at all? Maybe not. What if there was something – something that followed rules he couldn't even begin to understand? He was beginning to believe there wasn't an answer; not one he could ever comprehend, that is. As long as it was something... real, well, that wasn't so bad. You just had to figure it out. But now... It was starting to look like it wasn't...
He tried not to let his eyes be drawn to the oddly gloom-enshrouded alcoves of the room... He kept seeing things there. He hadn't a clue what they were, of course – but he thought they might be ghosts. Were they hallucinations? Well, it didn't matter, because ghosts could do that too, he supposed. Whatever they were, they defied the laws of science. What was the use of knowing everything there was to know, when none of it applied? There was no logical solution, so how could he fix the problem? And they were coming... It was just like his nightmare... He'd known this would happen. He couldn't stop it, he didn't see how... Was there any use even in trying...?
Time resumed its normal course. The Major was still next to him. Of course. "I can sense it all the time, pressing down on me." McKay's gaze flitted furtively up to John Sheppard's face. "Can't you?"
Sheppard avoided his eyes. "Ignore it."
McKay laughed mirthlessly. "How can you ignore something like this? It's rampaging the whole base! I mean, who knows who it'll come for next?"
"You talk like this disease thing has a mind of its own," Ford said worriedly. McKay just stared at him.
"Look," tried Major Sheppard, as he helped Teyla up. "I agree with Dr. Weir. It's not going to do anyone any good talking like that. You'll only make everyone more scared." He escorted the Athosian girl from the room, leaving the last two behind him.
"I don't think I can be more scared," muttered Rodney fearfully.
Seconds later, as the lights unexpectedly went out, Sheppard and Teyla heard Aiden shouting that the scientist was down.
Teyla stood in the infirmary, watching as Beckett and his team of assistants bustled about. They had been running tests and administering drugs to the victims of this plague for over two hours now, but with no effect. None of the patients so much as stirred despite all their best efforts.
Teyla sighed wearily. All she wanted now was to relax, to forget. But so many of her people were in here, and she felt that, even if nothing could be done for them... her place was at their side. But as time wore on – too slowly? too quickly? – she could feel despair clutching at her. She had decided that it would not take her, that she would fight it. What was there to fear?
The dream... She had to keep that out of her mind, she told herself. Her dream had foretold that her people would all be taken from her, one by one, while she must stand by helplessly, with no way of aiding them. This much had come true. But that did not mean that there could be no way of saving them. Nevertheless... She closed her eyes. There was an urge always at the back of her consciousness, nagging at her to just give in... And it would be such a relief...
The Major spoke next to her. She hadn't sensed his arrival, which was very unusual.
"They just told me Ford's gone down with it."
Teyla glanced up at Major Sheppard. He hadn't been in her dream... Perhaps he was the answer, the one who could solve this dilemma. Instinctively, Teyla felt that if anyone could, it was the Major.
"Have the doctors found the cause of this yet?" she asked.
"No, they're still working on it." He ran a hand across his forehead, and dared a halfway grin. "How about you, Teyla, how're you holding up? Not thinking of falling over on me or anything?"
Despite everything, Teyla felt the corner of her mouth curving up at this question. "No, Major. I may not be feeling as well as I might, but I do not think I am in any immediate danger."
John Sheppard weighed this answer. "Good," he decided.
Teyla raised her eyebrows, looking at him, intently inquiring. "And what of you, Major?"
Sheppard seemed startled by her question. "Me? Uh..." He shrugged laconically, treating the subject as if it wasn't really all that important. "I've been better, but... I'll live."
Teyla nodded, accepting his rather evasive response. She surveyed the room. Beds and mats were crowded in tightly, wall to wall, as close together as they would fit. And on every one was a motionless form. The medical staff, some volunteers replacing incapacitated professionals, walked between the rows, doing what they could... Teyla was struck with the atmosphere of the room: As if it were... waiting for something. To be roused from its silence and gloom, perhaps...? But who would be the one to bring that about?
"I have never encountred a disease of this kind," she commented to Sheppard.
"And you still don't think the Wraith could be responsible?"
"No, I am sure they could not. It is not their way to spread illness or... fear. They prefer to attack and feed upon those whom they can catch." Her face took on a grim expression as she thought of the monsters whose shadow her people had lived all their lives under.
Shadows... Something moving in the shadows... Or... Was it the shadows themselves that were moving...?
Major Sheppard spoke again, discomfort evident in his tones. "Look, Teyla... I want to apologise. We still don't know if this -" He waved his hand around the packed room. "- is somehow our fault." He looked down at her, remorse written all over his face. "You didn't need this. And all I can say is, that if we did have anything to do with all this... I'm very, very sorry."
Teyla heard him out, But now she dismissed the self-accusation with a smile. "It is not your fault, Major. You are doing your best to save my people!"
Something in the Athosian girl's last sentence had made it almost a question, so John Sheppard agreed, tentatively, "Yeah, of course."
"You mean us only good," Teyla told him, placing her hand on his arm. "You have nothing to apologise to me or my people for in that."
A haunted, guilty look still hung in the Major's eyes. Teyla knew that nothing she could say could make him believe that this wasn't his fault personally – somehow. But she hoped that her assurance that she didn't hold him responsible would help.
Major Sheppard obviously couldn't think of any reply. So he just stood there, next to Teyla, and eventually noticed Carson Beckett coming in their direction. He looked totally exhausted, Sheppard saw. His eyes were full of worry, and his face was pale.
"Major, I wanted to tell you that Lieutenant Ford's condition is stable, so he isn't in any danger, as far as I can determine." The doctor's gaze wandered over the packed room. "Just like all the others..."
"I know he's in the best hands," Sheppard said, far more confidently than he felt. He was becoming increasingly convinced that nothing could help these people's condition... But he refused to acknowledge that he thought that.
Carson didn't appear convinced either. In fact, he seemed too tired to even think about it.
"And McKay? How's he, still just the same, I suppose?"
Carson turned to where the scientist was lying on one of the beds. Sheppard found it a little creepy that he was so still... He was used to seeing him wandering around, fooling with Ancient machines and making annoying remarks.
Carson had a lost expression in his eyes. "I don't know what to do for them..." he murmured.
Sheppard withdrew his attention from Rodney, giving Carson a concerned look. "Hey, doc, you look like you could use a rest yourself. Why don't you take a break?"
Beckett shook his head. "There's no time for that. No time..."
The Major sprang forward as the lights dimmed to catch the collapsing doctor.
"Hey, we need help over here, Beckett's gone down!" shouted Sheppard to the other medics.
Teyla felt herself removed from the ensuing bustle as the lights went back up. Could this be real...? If so, her last hope for her people was surely gone with Carson Beckett... And all about the infirmary, strange, half-glimpsed things moved in the shadows, coming closer...
Soon, now. Soon it would all be over, one way or another...
Teyla succumbed as well to the disease that was sweeping through Atlantis. Most of her people had already been stricken, and she fell, by their side as long as she had the strength to stand.
A couple of Carson's assistants continued striving to find a cure – or even a cause – for the mysterious plague that was spreading throughout the City, but none had much hope of discovering the answer. Beckett himself had already done just about everything he knew how, without the slightest reaction of any kind. The victims just lay there, unconscious, and nothing could be done to rouse them or to affect their state in any way. The two doctors and their ever-dwindling band of untrained volunteers were very close to giving up by now. In fact, everyone left conscious in Atlantis had pretty much descended into a state of total despair.
Elizabeth Weir was no exception. As she sought a few brief moments of solace in her room after checking on the progress of the depleted medical team, she couldn't help but think how hopeless it all was. She shook her head wearily, feeling as if none of this was even real any more... She'd tried and tried to get these ideas out of her head, but while all her friends... All the people she was personally responsible for were slowly failing and probably dying... And Time wore slowly and inexorably on and on and on... Why wouldn't it stop?
No... Why had she ever suggested coming here? All these people – their deaths were her fault and hers alone. Rodney and Carson and Lt. Ford... all gone. And soon John and Teyla as well... Why? Elizabeth rubbed at her temples distractedly, feeling the darkness and the fear and the pointless remorse flooding her mind. It didn't even feel as if these thoughts were her own somehow... No, they were part of her dream, that horrible dream... Yes, that was what was doing this... The dream... The Fear from the dream... That's all this was really: a dream...
If only she could just give up, stop this vain struggling. Just a little peace... A little break from the constant pressure, the nagging worries... There was nothing she could do now after all... It would be so simple... Just to give in...
Everything, the whole Universe, had frozen to a halt as Elizabeth looked up. The room seemed sort of... foggy, as if it were filled with a dark cloud. Elizabeth almost smiled in relief. Time itself had finally stopped, and there was only silence and utter aloneness... Nothing more... She'd tried so hard to find a way to win... But it was too late... Now it was coming... The Darkness of inescapable, petrifying, terrible doom... It was coming for her, to swallow her up... And there was no way out... No way to fight... No use to try...
Elizabeth was startled to hear a klaxon sounding in the distance. She staggered to her feet, surprised to find that she'd somehow fallen onto her bed. She frowned, trying to figure out how that had happened, but then gave it up. There were more important things to think about. That alarm meant that there was an off-world activation of the Gate. And she, Dr. Weir, was still the leader of this facility. She had to see what was going on.
Vaguely hoping that she didn't look quite as awful as she felt, Elizabeth made for the Gateroom at a stumbling half-run. Managing to get up the stairs with slight difficulty, she found that Major Sheppard was already there, looking out over the balcony. Elizabeth noticed from the strangely removed plane she was now existing in that his face was drawn with repressed emotions, and there was a haunted look lurking in the back of his eyes. He didn't turn around as Dr. Weir came into the Control Centre. The technician manning the controls was not Peter Grodin: he had succumbed long ago. Well, it seemed long ago... Time didn't behave correctly any more. Just like Rodney had said... Poor Rodney. Had he been right all along...?
Elizabeth realised she was just standing and silently staring. She attempted to rouse herself: This really wouldn't do at all. She addressed the technician.
"Any idea who that could be?" She kicked herself at the stupidity of the question. Of course he wouldn't know! And it couldn't be anything good. "Is the shield up?"
The man, white as a sheet she noticed, nodded wordlessly in reply. Elizabeth, with nothing else to do, mentally wandered again... She felt so... out of phase with the rest of existence. She found her gaze was resting absently on the Major's bowed back. She moved closer to him.
"Where's Teyla?" Elizabeth asked.
Sheppard continued to stare blankly at the Stargate. "She was with her people and she caught it... I don't know, a while ago."
Elizabeth didn't answer, and John Sheppard didn't seem to expect her to. She walked to the edge of the balcony, watching the flickering patterns of the event horizon playing over the walls and floor below. They were somewhat dampened by the semi-transparent shield that covered the gate, but this didn't account for the strange dimness that had settled over the whole area.
And as she looked on, something totally inexplicable happened, making everything seem all the more dreamlike and unreal: Something came through the Stargate. It passed right through the shield, as if it didn't even exist. It was, in fact, the same huge, black cloud thing that they'd banished through the Gate the day before. Except now it was far larger, far darker, and it exuded such an aura of terror and hopelessness that Elizabeth sank to her knees, and John Sheppard grasped the railing desperately.
It more than filled the Gateroom, and it paused there a moment once it was all through. Then it headed off deliberately in the direction of the living quarters and the infirmary. As it seeped past, the edge of it brushed over the trio on the balcony. Elizabeth almost lost consciousness at the assault of helpless fear on her mind, but she remembered the people: all the people in the infirmary who needed her help now. She rallied as the Darkness left to hunt for other prey.
Elizabeth got up, though she wasn't sure how she did it. Sheppard had the same idea as she did, apparently. And as they both hurried towards their goal, Elizabeth noticed that the technician had fallen – he was the same as everyone else...
The first thing the pair saw as they arrived in the infirmary was one of Beckett's assistants, motionless on the floor. Others of the unofficial medical team were lying where they had fallen. They rushed to the other rooms: The same. The Darkness was nowhere to be seen, and everyone was still alive, in the now-too-familiar comatose shock – but now there appeared to be no one left conscious in the whole of Atlantis except for Elizabeth and Major Sheppard.
They went on towards the assigned living quarters, absolutely silent. Their footsteps echoed eerily in the stillness. It was as if the City, after being dead and deserted for so long, had returned to that state once again. The desecrating Life that had infested it had been driven out. She thought of Rodney and his ghosts. Maybe he had been right after all. It didn't matter now anyway... They walked on, the sounds of their footsteps not echoing, but seeming to die as soon as each was made. And everything else was so still...! Elizabeth felt that the silence would drive her mad.
Beside her, Sheppard abruptly held up a hand for his companion to listen. Elizabeth strained her ears, trying to hear through the silence that was beating against her brain. Then she heard it: Some small child sobbing. Sheppard, at a run, went towards the sound. Elizabeth followed a little more slowly. Walking in this direction was like walking entirely the wrong way. All her instincts were against it, as if she was heading straight towards the edge of a cliff... She pushed the foreboding away at the sounds of crying up ahead, and ran the rest of the way.
She was in time to witness Sheppard drop to one knee in front of a little girl with blondish hair, bent over the prone form of an Athosian woman who could only be her mother.
"Rinna?" Sheppard was saying. The girl lifted her tearstained face, and Elizabeth saw it was indeed the same child who they'd found after the Darkness had gone – an eternity ago. The one who had been so frightened. Around her neck she wore a chain with a strange pendant that glowed with a powerful, fiery orange light, like a living jewel.
"Rinna, what happened? Can you tell me?"
Elizabeth shuddered. Being in this room was like standing at the centre of an electrical storm. The air was so charged, it almost hummed. Her skin seemed to tingle with the energy. And the heavy, oppressive atmosphere of depression was far, far worse... It repelled her, made her want to leave. Elizabeth had to forcibly restrain herself from running back out into the hallway, where it was safer.
"It got my mother," Rinna said to Sheppard. Her face was very pale and bleak and frightened as she went on, "Now nothing can protect me. The Darkness will come for me next."
"What do you mean?" asked Elizabeth. "How do you know that?"
"It already got everyone else, except us," she explained tearfully. "It took my mother, so now it'll find me. It's already come back... It's looking."
Sheppard was peering at the strange necklace with a very attentive frown on his expressive face. "Rinna," he said with a note of tight urgency. "Rinna, take off that necklace!"
Elizabeth, looked at him, puzzled by this. Without turning around, Sheppard brought her up to date. "It's Ancient. It might be the whole answer! Take it off, Rinna."
"I can't!" she shook her head.
"You have to. Look, I promise you, everything's going to be alright, just take off that necklace."
"No, I can't." Her green eyes, widened in terror and despair, spoke eloquently of her helpless denial. "No one can protect me. The Darkness is too powerful. I thought my mother could, but it got her too...!" She buried her little face in her hands.
"Rinna, I'll protect you." Sheppard's gentle tones carried worlds of assurance. "I promise."
"You can't fight it..." But the faint hope dawning in the child's gaze belied her words.
John Sheppard's jaw tightened. "You bet I can! You won't get hurt as long as I'm here – and I mean that. Alright?" She nodded. "Now can you take off the necklace?"
"I – I'm afraid to!"
"But you don't have to be afraid, Rinna. I'm right here, and I won't let it get you." Seeing she was still reluctant, he changed tack. "Then can I take it off; will you let me?"
Rinna signalled "Yes" very hesitantly, but it was plenty for Sheppard. He reached out his hand for the jewel, but as he touched it, he recoiled as if he had been hit by lightening. Elizabeth ran to him and her voice calling his name mingled with Rinna's resumed tears. And the constant undercurrent of fear that had relaxed ever so slightly in the past few moments beat down again with more force than before.
"John! Major Sheppard! Can you hear me? John!" For a few moments, Elizabeth was afraid he wouldn't come back. The thought of being alone in this now-hostile environment... But then, to her enormous relief -- both for selfish and altruistic reasons -- his eyes flickered, and he muttered something totally unintelligible.
He opened his eyes and sat up slowly, as if every movement was a battle. "I'm fine," he grated shortly. He looked at Rinna, who had calmed down a bit. "See, Rinna? It's not going to get me. You're safe. But you have to get that necklace off, and you have to be the one to do it. Do you understand me?"
Rinna seemed confused. Her eyes darted around the room restlessly.
"Do you understand, Rinna?" Sheppard repeated.
But she wasn't listening any more. The girl's eyes widened as she stared at the doorway. The necklace glowed brighter, sending off glittering beams of light. And Rinna screamed in terror, for in the hall outside, the tendrils of the Darkness could be seen. Creeping closer... It had started to come in already. John Sheppard knew he only had seconds. With the dark cloud seeping into his mind as well, the fear making it almost impossible to think... He deliberately turned his back to the Darkness.
He grabbed Rinna by the shoulders, and spoke to her very seriously, trying to get through to her. "Rinna, you've got to take off that necklace, do you hear me? You can stop this!"
In a corner of the room, Elizabeth had sunk down against the wall. The Darkness was so huge! And it was getting bigger all the time. It was flooding her mind, and there was nothing she could do. Multiple half-perceived horrors lurked in the cloud, waiting to pounce. There was no way she could fight it... But she had to keep trying! She had to hold on...! But she knew she couldn't for much longer...
"No, it's too late!" Rinna told him.
"It doesn't have to be!" He looked at her as earnestly as he knew how. "Rinna, this doesn't have to happen. You can fix it all, banish the Dark forever."
Sheppard glanced at Elizabeth's hunched figure amid the murky gloom. Her eyes were wide, staring blankly at a million terrible nothings advancing on her.
"I can't!" Helpless tears of strain and frustration streamed down her cheeks. "You don't understand!"
Rinna had broken out of his hold, and backed against the wall, staring at the Darkness and oblivious to everything else. Sheppard tried to reach her again, but every movement was a struggle, as if he were trying to stand up with multiple gee's pressing him down.
"Rinna!" he called to the girl. "Listen to me!"
But she didn't seem to hear him. And as the Dark came flooding into the room, she fled through it, out the doorway.
The murk thinned a little as she left and the bulk of the Darkness followed her. With a great effort the Major got up. He grabbed Elizabeth from where she had half-collapsed against the wall, and pulled her with him, out into the hallway.
But it wasn't much better out there. The Darkness apparently no longer needed to confine itself to any specific area: It was everywhere at once. A thin fog of it hung in all the hallways, all the rooms as far as Sheppard could see. The whole atmosphere was permeated with its presence, if only thinly.
John Sheppard supported the partly conscious Elizabeth, trying to see where Rinna had gone. The only way to save himself and everyone else in Atlantis was to find the girl, and tell her, convince her to stop this. She was the only one who could, he knew that for certain now. But she wouldn't know that until he told her. She obviously had no idea that she herself, her own fear was what was causing this chaos.
Elizabeth's eyes opened, trying to focus on Major Sheppard. "What was-?" She trailed off, not finishing her question.
"That Dark thing," Sheppard answered, helping her down the hall. "But it's not real; it's just some kind of projection of Rinna's fears."
Elizabeth almost asked for more of an explanation, but she decided to give it up. She didn't feel as if she would understand the answer, no matter what it was. It was too complicated to try to think about. Everything was very confusing right now. She'd find out later.
Sheppard kept talking, whether to her, or to himself, Elizabeth wasn't quite sure. "She must have headed for the Gateroom. It's the only place I can think of that she would be going. I need to get her to deactivate that Ancient thing, or we'll all be dead."
They'd gotten to the Gateroom now. The gloom hung far thicker there... It was harder to fight against. Elizabeth closed her eyes. Sheppard looked at her anxiously. "Just... leave me here. I'll be fine," she told him. The Major nodded, and gently let her down onto the floor. Her eyes flickered shut, and she appeared to lose consciousness.
Sheppard pushed aside his concern for her; there wasn't time. He hurried off, scanning the room for the little girl. "Rinna!" He glanced around the main level, hoping she would hear him and let him find her. "Rinna!" Suddenly, the Stargate came alive, being dialed by someone... And Sheppard saw Rinna up on the balcony, pressing in the symbols.
He leaped up the stairs two at a time, and reached the girl just as she had entered in the last chevron. The Gate opened, the wave from it far too little to pierce the gloom. The light of the event horizon seemed to be choked almost out of existence by the ever-present Darkness around it.
Major Sheppard looked away, and grabbed Rinna as she tried to run down the stairs. "Rinna, stop, you have to listen to me!"
Rinna struggled wildly, hysterically trying to free herself. "No! Let me go, the Darkness will come and find me if you don't!"
As she said this, the huge black cloud of the Darkness started boiling into the Gateroom, bringing with it its horrible, unfightable terror. And despair...
But John Sheppard knew what it was now. And he knew he could fight it. He had to.
"Rinna, listen, the Darkness is only in your mind. You can make it go!"
"No, I can't! It's too late now!" She stopped suddenly, staring at the cloud of nothingness as it rose higher and higher. It was going to drown her... To swallow her up and never let her free...
John Sheppard watched as the blackness cut off the Stargate from sight completely. Then it seemed to gather strength. Impossibly, it grew even bigger... It rose all the way to the ceiling, and hung there, threatening as a thundercloud, and as dark as oblivion. Then, without warning, it came crashing down over them, a huge wave of Darkness, completely enveloping them...
Sheppard couldn't see anything. There was only Darkness, all around him, everywhere... There was nowhere to go, nothing to do. No way to get out.
He couldn't feel Rinna any more. She wasn't next to him any longer. He was lost, alone in infinite Nothingness...
But he had to find her somehow. This wasn't real, he reminded himself. It was only in his head, a projection of Rinna's feelings. She was here too, then. And he could reach her if he tried hard enough...
"Rinna? Rinna, where are you?" He wasn't sure if his voice was actually carrying anywhere. It sounded as if it was echoing in a very small room, a box just around him. But he knew that wasn't the case. She was probably right next to him, in reality...
He reached out his hand, willing himself to touch her, to find her... Reaching into blind Darkness. He felt sure that something else would latch onto him any second... He had to pull his hand back or the things that lurked within the Dark would get him...! No, it was just a trick. There was nothing to be afraid of... He reached out further...
... And caught hold of a little girl's hand. "Rinna." He could see her now, barely, through the blackness surrounding everything. "Rinna, please: You can stop this."
She was crying now, sadly, hopelessly. "No, I don't know how."
John Sheppard forced himself to sound calm – calmer than he felt. "Just take off the necklace. Will the Dark to go away. You don't have to let it keep you here like this."
The little girl avoided his eyes.
"You just have to stop letting it frighten you." Rinna said nothing. Sheppard waited.
Finally, she did speak again, very softly. "But you don't know. You don't understand, even now... I thought you would once you saw how horrible it was, and how it's after me."
"Rinna, I do understand. I know how it feels for you -"
"No!" She was angry now. "You don't know! You can't! No one does. They never understood..."
Suddenly, the Major noticed the Ancient necklace again. It was radiating beams, rays of living fire. They spun around, weaving patterns in the air...
... Then John saw glimmering pictures in the Darkness, glowing with colour against the backdrop of endless night. A man was standing in front of him, looking down at him. The man smiled, and he knew he was safe...
But then the man was gone. People were carrying him back on a stretcher. There was blood on the man's pale face. His eyes were closed, and he lay so very still... John could feel the aloneness, the desperation and insecurity. Nothing was safe now. Who was there now to turn to for protection?
Then explosions... Running with a woman into hiding... Trying to escape... A huge, empty place... People, strangers all around... Where was home? Were they lost...? Where were the trees, the stars...?
And then, like an animal, a living, malevolent storm, the Darkness swept in, filling his vision... And all the bottled-up terror, and helplessness, and despair rose to meet it... And they mingled together, each the same as the other...
Then the pictures were gone. And there was only white, bleak-eyed, tearstained little Rinna before him in the Dark. She looked at him, her green eyes very large in her drawn, fearful face.
"You see?" she asked with quiet sorrow. "It's no use to fight."
John Sheppard took her by her shoulders, looking and talking to her as if she were an equal. "There's always a use in fighting. That's what life is, Rinna."
Rinna shook her head, and her voice trembled. "But I don't want to fight any more."
"No, no. It isn't useless fighting, Rinna. It's fighting for hope."
She gazed up at him, and he saw that she was trying to understand, that she did believe him. "Life is hope, Rinna. The hope to keep on until things get better."
He took a deep breath in the oppressive silence that was part of the Darkness. "I know what you've been through. I know how hard it was for you when your father died and you lost your home... But all those people – your mother, and all your people, and my friends – they need you now." He looked her, trying to get through to her, to make her understand, though he couldn't make her see as she had shown him. "You can give them hope, and a chance to keep on living. Only you."
The empty Darkness was impenetrable around the two of them. They were one little island in a sea of shifting, surging, desolate fear. Rinna blinked up at John Sheppard, trying to see through her tears. "Teyla said that everything fears something. But how can Fear be afraid?"
Sheppard grinned at the girl. "Teyla was right. And you know what?" Rinna shook her head. "Fear is afraid: Fear is afraid of Hope."
Rinna looked down at her feet, thinking about what he'd told her, considering what she could – what she should do...
"Don't give up Hope, Rinna. If you keep on hoping and trying, there's always a way to win. You just can't let anything ever make you lose Hope. Or you'll lose everything."
All at once, Rinna lifted her eyes from where the ground should have been, and her intensely green gaze met Sheppard's. But now he saw a light in her still-tearful eyes that hadn't been there before. "I'm going to make the Dark go away," she told him. And, for once, she sounded confident.
It happened so quickly that John Sheppard could hardly remember it properly afterwards. Rinna turned to stare into the black Darkness all around them, and there was an all-encompassing flash from the jewel she was wearing...
... And the Darkness just dissolved. It dissipated almost in an instant, as if a wind had come from everywhere and banished it from existence. The air was suddenly completely clear again. As if the cloud of Darkness had never even been. John found himself on the floor of the control center, blinking in the sudden light that was everywhere. Rinna, he saw, was right next to him. And the Stargate was still on. He reached over and shut it off.
Then he turned, and gave Rinna a big grin. "See, I told you you could do it. Good for you, Rinna!"
She smiled back at him, very shyly. The jewel of the Ancient necklace had gone dark now. Rinna glanced at it thoughtfully. Then she reached up and slowly lifted it over her head, and off. She stood silently for a minute, dangling the device from her hand. Then she asked, "You said they'd be all right if I destroyed the Darkness?"
He patted her on the shoulder. "Yes I did. And take a look..."
He pointed to where Elizabeth was stirring down in the Gateroom. She looked up confusedly as Sheppard and Rinna both walked to the balcony. "Major? What happened?" He didn't answer. He just waved to show her everything was okay. Which it was now, finally.
Further off, down the corridors of the City, he could hear noises now: the sounds of everyone else awakening. Atlantis was coming back to life – again, for the second time this week. Sheppard smiled down to the little girl next to him, showing rather than saying his appreciation. He gave her a congratulatory pat on the head. "You did it, Rinna."
But her attention had been abruptly jerked elsewhere. Someone was calling from the direction of the Athosians' living quarters... "Rinna! Rinna, where are you?"
And Rinna was off down the stairs and into one of the halls like a shot, calling back, "Mother! Mother!" She tossed the necklace to one side as she ran, and it fell unheeded to the floor. Sheppard watched appreciatively as the girl threw herself on her mother and cried tempestuously in joy and relief. He almost wished he could do the same himself. Almost.
More people were crowding into the Gateroom now, all of them asking questions, and none of them knowing the answers. Dr. Weir was shouting something to him, but he'd just noticed that this whole ordeal had taken a lot out of him. Sheppard leaned against the wall wearily, and slid down against it into a sitting position as he listened to all the babble below. He closed his eyes languidly and thought about going to tell them all what had happened...
But – no. What he needed more that anything was a good, long nap...
And there was absolutely no time like the present.
Within an hour, almost everyone in the City had completely recovered. And by the next morning, things were nearly back to normal in Atlantis. However, Dr. Weir was reluctant to schedule another off-world mission until she was sure there would be no more repercussions.
She accordingly called a meeting, and now she, Dr. McKay, Carson Beckett, Lt. Ford, Teyla, and a convalescing John Sheppard were all seated around a table in the room they'd recently designated for meetings and such.
Elizabeth looked around the table: it was good to see everyone on their feet again. The Major, granted, was still looking a bit groggy, but he had insisted on coming; and had vetoed the plan of holding this conference in the infirmary for his benefit. He claimed he was fine, and consistently refused any offers of help or unusual treatment of any kind. This despite the fact that he had been diagnosed as a case of severe physical exhaustion. Whatever he had gone through fighting the projections of Rinna's fears and winning the day – and he wouldn't talk about it – it had obviously been an enormous struggle, mentally and physically. And that had taken its toll.
But Elizabeth wasn't worried: Dr. Beckett had said that all he needed was time to recuperate. In fact, in response to constant badgering of one form or another from a very bored John Sheppard, he'd already given his patient a tentative all-clear – provided he took it easy for a couple of days. And Teyla appeared determined to make sure he carried out this provision.
Elizabeth herself felt perfectly normal by now. One good night's sleep had cleared up all the obvious after-effects of the crisis for her, and all the rest of the City had reported the same. Aiden Ford and Teyla were both alright, it seemed. And Rodney was certainly back to his old self. Elizabeth eyed the large sandwich he was munching on, considering whether or not to say something about it. Major Sheppard beat her to it.
"Well, you've obviously got your appetite back anyway, McKay."
Rodney spoke with his mouth full. "I was out longer than the rest of you. I need to make up for lost time."
Sheppard made an "Oh" face. "Well, it looks like you have half the stores in there. Has it occurred to you that there are other people to feed here?"
"Of course." Rodney rolled his eyes. "But if we don't have enough food left for me to make myself a sandwich – we're in trouble."
"Well, if it was only one sandwich..."
McKay blinked offendedly at the Major, but Elizabeth cut them off. "We aren't quite to the point of rationing yet. That'll take a few months."
Rodney raised his hand worriedly. "Wait a moment – a few months"?
"Assuming we don't find any new sources of food," she clarified, "we will eventually run out of supplies, Rodney."
"Oh, wonderful." Rodney took another large bite of his sandwich, looking doom-laden. Everyone else stared at him, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Our food stores aren't an immediate concern –" Elizabeth said, scandalising McKay. "But Rodney, do you really have to eat during the meeting?"
"Yes, Elizabeth, I do." He glanced around the room challengingly. "I've been so busy checking the systems and running diagnostics that I haven't had time for anything but a chocolate bar all morning."
"Really!" put in Sheppard with exaggerated mock-surprise. There was a chuckle from Aiden's end of the table.
"For your information," started Rodney, annoyance very evident in his voice, "I have been working very hard, and if you have nothing better to do -"
The Major held up his hands. "No offence, McKay. Just a joke."
This made him feel better. "Well," stated Rodney, getting a little of his own back, "it was a remarkably poor attempt, even for you, Major."
"Alright, Rodney," Elizabeth had decided that it was a good time to change the subject. "Did you find anything when you were running those systems checks?"
"Nothing wrong, if that's what you mean, no." McKay wasn't quite through being huffy yet. "But I didn't actually expect to."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that you were right," Dr. Weir said with a private smile.
"Yes," replied McKay, turning smug. Major Sheppard snorted. Ford laughed silently. Rodney blinked, ostensibly ignoring both of them.
"Then we can move on to what is really my primary concern." Dr. Weir surveyed each in turn around the table. "Namely, how have you all been affected by this?"
"C'mon," said Sheppard, "the effects were obviously... done once Rinna took that Ancient thing off. We've been through this."
Elizabeth met his eyes squarely. "Until I'm absolutely sure there won't be any repercussions – I'm not authourising any off-world travel."
McKay broke in, waving the last of his sandwich. "You know, for once, I think the Major may be right."
"Oh, thank you – again!"
"You're still welcome. I mean, I'm fine."
Dr. Weir shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I can't be certain this soon. As of yesterday, almost everyone in this room was in shock." She gazed around the table, and everyone – except Teyla – looked uncomfortable. Teyla just seemed slightly amused. Elizabeth turned to Beckett. "Carson, you haven't seen anything worthy of concern so far?"
"No, Dr. Weir. Frankly, I don't really expect any dangerous reactions..."
"See?" said Sheppard. Elizabeth gave him a look out of the corner of her eyes.
Dr. Beckett continued with a somewhat guilty glance at the Major. "But I'll need about a week to be positive."
"What?" Sheppard was horrified.
Carson explained apologetically, "I'm sorry, Major, but it's the best I can do."
Rodney wasn't pleased either. "But that's ridiculous. I am fine, Elizabeth."
"Yeah, he's fine," agreed Sheppard.
"And so is everyone else," McKay went on. "There's no reason to believe that there could be any recurring physical effects of this. There's been no evidence of it."
Beckett took it upon himself to attempt an explanation. "I'm afraid medicine doesn't work that way, Rodney." Rodney rolled his eyes. "By the time we have evidence of the danger of relapse, it could already be too late. I just need a little time to be certain that isn't going to happen."
"A week?" said Rodney wearily. "That's 'a little time'?"
"Actually, ma'am," volunteered Ford, "he's right. I do feel – fine!"
"Alright, that's good," responded Elizabeth. "Teyla?" she asked, turning to the Athosian girl, "How are you feeling?"
"I am as well as ever," Teyla conceded with a smile. Sheppard and McKay looked hopeful. "But," she qualified, "I understand your concern."
"Oh, please!" cut in McKay angrily, slightly startling Teyla. "It's over and done with, we're all fine, so what's to stop us going through the Stargate?"
"I can't take that risk, Rodney." Elizabeth was immovable.
"The risk's so small, it's hardly worth mentioning."
"We don't know that," Elizabeth pointed out.
"But we do know that the Wraith aren't going to wait around for us," Dr. McKay argued. "We need power and information, and we need them as soon as possible. And we can only get those –" he pointed roughly in the direction of the Gateroom, "– out there."
Dr. Weir nodded cautiously. "I see your point, Rodney."
"Good. And since I'm fine, Ford's fine, Teyla's fine, and the Major's fine –"
"Yeah," clarified Sheppard, "I'm ready right now."
"No, Major," Teyla said in a firm undertone. "You need to rest."
"No I don't, Teyla." He shifted in his chair, and grimaced, put out at his own poor physical condition. Teyla just looked at him. Sheppard cleared his throat. "Well, maybe a day or two..."
"Alright," said Rodney. "If we must, day after tomorrow."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I can't do that. As long as there's a chance of a relapse –"
"McKay's got a point, can't we at least shorten it a little?" pleaded Major Sheppard.
Dr. Weir pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair. "Carson?"
Beckett sighed. "I really don't know..."
Teyla spoke up, "All my people are also well. I believe that within a few days –" she shot a glance in Sheppard's direction, "- we will all be... fine. "
Rodney stared expectantly at the medical doctor.
Carson Beckett finally gave in. "Very well, unless I see symptoms of a relapse within four days-"
"Thank you!" said Sheppard.
"I suppose that's something," said McKay.
"Good," said Dr. Weir, glad to have it finally settled. "Then we'll plan for a mission in four days. In the meantime," she looked to Teyla, "if you and your people could tell us what you know about the Wraith?"
Teyla nodded. "Of course, Dr. Weir. My people and I will give you any information we can."
"Thank you." She addressed the general assembly, "Dismissed."
John Sheppard spoke to Teyla as he climbed to his feet. "How's Rinna, by the way? I haven't seen her since I was – released from custody." He glanced suggestively at Beckett where he stood at the other end of the room, discussing something with Elizabeth and McKay.
"She is very well. And happier than I have seen her in many months, thanks to you, Major."
Sheppard tried to wave it off. "She did it herself."
Teyla broke in. "Rinna told me how much you helped her. She said that it was due to you that she was able to conquer her fears."
"She should give herself more credit," Sheppard said positively.
"Perhaps," answered Teyla.
Sheppard thought he'd change the subject. "How's Jinto?"
"He is well. In fact, he and some of the other children have been requesting that you tell them another story of your world."
"Really?" John Sheppard was flattered – if also a little surprised.
At that moment, Rodney accosted the duo. He nodded briefly to Teyla, who returned the gesture, but it was obvious that he planned to talk to Sheppard. "Major."
"It's been puzzling me how that Athosian girl got that Ancient projector device," Rodney said conversationally.
"And?" Sheppard wasn't committing to anything.
"I just happened to wonder if you could shed some light on it." He stood back and looked disquietingly knowledgeable.
Sheppard shrugged, and glanced sideways. "How should I know?"
"Oh, I was talking to Carson, and I just thought you might," Rodney said airily.
Sheppard subtly made a face at the smirking scientist.
During this exchange, Elizabeth Weir had moved to depart, planning to leave with Dr. Beckett, who had to get back to his infirmary – though this was now thankfully devoid of patients. She opened the door now to reveal a largish crowd of Athosian children in the hallway outside. They all scrambled up from where they had been seated on the floor.
Teyla stepped forward, her eyebrows raised questioningly. "Children?"
"We want to talk to Major Sheppard." It was Jinto who came forward; he appeared to be the spokesman of the group.
The Major beat Teyla to an answer. "Yeah, I'm here. What's up?" Sheppard joined Teyla and Elizabeth at the door, slightly bemused at the crowd.
Jinto enlightened him: "You promised to tell us another story." All the other kids nodded enthusiastically.
"You want to hear another one?" Major Sheppard was still slightly disbelieving of this.
But all the children were very sure of their affirmative.
"Major?" Elizabeth, standing on the sidelines, was dying for an explanation of all this.
"The other night, I was –" he gestured vaguely and scratched his head, "telling the kids a little story."
"Oh?" Elizabeth exchanged a glance with Rodney, who, for some reason, was looking very superiour. "What story was that?"
"It was, uh..."
Before Sheppard could finish, Jinto explained: "It was of a creature called Jason that wore a..." He hesitated, recalling the word, "... hockey mask." He was then promptly distracted, as were most of the other children, by Aiden who, always eager for company, was stealing the stage with his talk of games.
Elizabeth almost laughed at the Major's face. "I think I'd like to hear your stories, too. Have room for another listener?"
"And me," said Rodney swiftly.
"I thought you were scared of this kind of thing," Sheppard said caustically.
"Actually, no. I, uh, got over that." McKay looked proud of himself.
"Really?" Elizabeth was interested. "How did this happen?"
"You realise how silly you were?" wondered the Major.
"In a manner of speaking, yes." Both Sheppard and Elizabeth were clearly baffled by this answer. "Actually, I realised that, if they were as scary as I thought they were – we'd all be dead right now."
Sheppard shrugged. "Cheerful."
Elizabeth crossed her arms. "I don't understand: that stopped you from being afraid?"
"Yes, of course. You see, that means that either they can't be bothered with us at all, or they aren't actually powerful enough to do anything. At all." Rodney paused, looking triumphant, but, not getting any congratulations, went on, "Which is good, obviously."
Elizabeth was amused by this, though she couldn't quite comprehend it. "I see."
"Besides," went on McKay, "if some little girl with an Ancient device can do all that –"
"Have you figured that out yet, by the way?" Elizabeth wanted to know.
"Yes, I have. I should have thought of it before –"
"Yes, you should," said Sheppard emphatically.
Rodney ignored him and kept going, "- it's the mental component of Ancient technology again. Apparently, it can project actual feelings and other sensory perceptions in addition to visual ones. It's just a little more complicated than I thought it was."
"So all your ghosts really were just your imagination," grinned Sheppard teasingly.
"Oh, yes, it's very funny, isn't it," McKay said – insincerely.
"But it's taught you to stick to logical explanations in the future and not let your fears run away from you," Elizabeth told him. "Isn't that a good thing?"
"Oh, right, look at me – I'm thrilled."
Elizabeth just shook her head at him. If he didn't want to see the bright side, no one could make him. She had learned that from experience.
The Athosian kids, tiring of Aiden's company in the meantime, had started clamouring for Sheppard again. "Alright..." John stopped, catching sight of a familiar face. "Rinna!"
The little girl, all smiles now, ran forward and hugged him. "Hello, Major Sheppard!" she said.
"Hello to you, too. How're you doing?"
"I want to hear the stories of your world, too," she told him happily.
Sheppard frowned with mock-seriousness. "You sure you're up to it? It's pretty scary stuff."
"Jinto told me your first story already," she assured him earnestly. "Of the creature like a Wraith that could not be killed."
"You know," said McKay aside to Elizabeth, "this should be interesting, I never saw these movies."
"Mm, neither did I," replied Elizabeth, one eyebrow raised.
"Really?" asked the grinning Ford. "I've seen all of them. Good movies."
"And he said," Rinna went on, as oblivious to outside conversation as all children are when they know what they want to say next, "that you are telling of something called the Nightmare on Elm Street next."
Sheppard cleared his throat uncomfortably, thereby alerting all the Athosian kids to a possible hitch in their plans. He and Rodney and Elizabeth all looked at each other. "Actually, I think we'd better wait on that one..."
This announcement was met with the chorus of "Aww!" and "Why?" that is the generally accepted response to this kind of situation for kids in every galaxy.
It worked against John Sheppard. "You want that one? Okay." He conveyed the impression that it was really all the same to him either way. Some of them started pulling at his shirt. "Right now?"
They all nodded again. Teyla put in a word. "Children, Major Sheppard –"
"Major Sheppard," finished John for her, "can handle telling the kids a little story." Teyla, of course, let it go at that, and they all started to make their way down the hall, Aiden coming along with the group.
But Rodney headed off in the opposite direction. "Hey, McKay," called Sheppard, "I thought you wanted to hear this."
"I do." Rodney seemed to consider that enough of an explanation; he didn't elaborate.
"Well, we're all going this way," said Sheppard, very seriously.
"Oh, really," McKay answered sarcastically. "I hadn't noticed."
"So where are you going?" the Major questioned patiently.
"I need some lunch."
Everyone who had attended the meeting raised their eyebrows at this disclosure. McKay blinked at them all, mystified by their obvious shock. "What?" Then he caught on. "Oh, the sandwich? That was breakfast."
Sheppard raised his eyebrows higher. "Breakfast."
"And now you want lunch?"
"That is the usual order," McKay said pointedly.
"Well then..." John Sheppard winked at Ford, Teyla and Elizabeth, and started to herd the crowd towards its destination. "Better hurry, McKay, we're not waiting!"
Rodney looked both ways, from the commissary area to the retreating group of Athosians and Earth humans, undecided as to what he should do. "Oh, thank you!" he shouted.
"You're welcome, McKay," Sheppard called back.
After a few more moments of hesitation, Rodney turned to follow the crowd into one of the rooms, and sat down grumpily.
Aiden sat next to him, and produced a chocolate bar. "Here, sir."
Rodney eyed it warily, then unfolded his arms and accepted it with a curt, "Thank you. Though," he added, unwrapping it, "I don't know how much good you're expecting a candy bar to do against starvation."
"I'm not expecting anything, sir," Ford said, straight-faced.
"And it's not 'sir'," Rodney corrected, biting into his chocolate. "You should call me 'doctor' if you're going to call me anything."
"Oh, right," said Aiden, still not giving anything away. "I hope the candy helps; wouldn't want you to die."
"Don't be sarcastic," Rodney preached around a mouthful of chocolate.
Elizabeth stood next to John Sheppard, watching Teyla helping everyone find a seat. "You know, John, I think these last two days have taught us all something."
Elizabeth quoted: "'We have nothing to fear except Fear itself.' Roosevelt, I believe." Her eyes followed little Rinna, who had ensconced herself snugly right near the front of the room. "He was right."
"I'd say, in our case – we have a little more than that," Sheppard pointed out ruefully.
"True," conceded Elizabeth. Then her gaze met his, earnestly. "But it's good to be alive, isn't it?"
John Sheppard nodded.
Then Teyla said they were all ready, and Rinna ran forward to pull John to his own seat, which was directly in front of her own. Elizabeth took a seat next to Teyla, and saw Rinna's fearless, dancing green eyes grow larger than anyone else's in her anticipation as the Major began.
Elizabeth realised that all this – whether they held out against the Wraith, whether they won or lost – it wasn't only about their survival any longer. There was far more at stake here. Yes, they would pull through. They had to, for all the children like Rinna who had spent their lives in fear and sadness and despair. They were all those children's hope.
And it was good to be alive to give that Hope.