A/N: This was going to be a follow-up, but I decided to make it a stand-alone, not referencing any of the other stories I've written.
Beta: J.A.B. – but any mistakes remaining are my own.
Spoilers: SG-1 Enemy Mine, everything from Atlantis Season 1 and everything up to Michael are fair game.
Warnings: Language, Violence and some very disturbing situations and references. Some places in the story might be hurl worthy!
It was complete devastation . . . and completely devastating.
Lt. Col. John Sheppard stood alone in the middle of a low ceiling bunker made from sandbags and raw local lumber.
The others on his team—Teyla, McKay and Ronon—were waiting outside.
Giving him a moment to pull himself together.
The Listening Post had been his idea. It was to be a way to gather information on their enemies and to get friendly with some of the locals and their trading partners. It was a chance to learn about and share with another culture of the Pegasus galaxy.
It had worked up to a point; they had found three new allies in the short time the L.P. had been operating.
Until they missed a check-in time and Sheppard's team was sent to find out what had happened.
Sheppard swallowed back his nausea as he looked at what was left of the L.P. and the twelve people he sent to man it.
There was dark, clotted blood and rotted flesh.
The Colonel bent down and found what looked like wooden beads mixed with long grass in the hair of one of the dead.
And some type of dark, hard insects swarmed over the raw meat.
The men were butchered . . . but the women . . .
Sheppard knew he shouldn't make the distinction between male and female. They were all Marines and good at their jobs or they wouldn't be out here.
Three of Atlantis' teams . . . three of his teams were gone in the space of a day.
He was waiting for the anger to come and help him out of his numbness, but it wouldn't come.
It was Rodney, but not Rodney. The voice was right, but the tone was all wrong. There was no sarcasm, no impatience and no deeply buried humor.
Just worry and sickness.
"I'm fine." Sheppard stood, looked around one last time and shifted his P-90 so he could grip it with both hands until his knuckles turned white. "Fine."
Only silence answered his obvious lie.
"Did you call Beckett? We need to . . ."
"Yes, he's coming with a team," answered Rodney in a tight voice as he tried to keep his eyes on the walls and not the corpses.
John nodded slowly and then got the hell out of there, almost running past Teyla and Ronon to get to the Puddle Jumper before he lost his lunch.
A week later, Ronon's glare was steady as he propped one elbow on the small refrigerator door and studied its contents.
Each shelf and drawer had been carefully marked with strips of silver duct tape and labeled with the names of those that used the small appliance in the 'break room.'
He could see Teyla's section had a small container of fruit from the last shipment from the Mainland.
A half melted candy bar that the scientist was trying to remold for a snack later currently occupied McKay's space.
Sheppard had a plate that once held three slices of pie, but it was now holding a piece of crust and a smear of something that looked like chocolate.
The rest of the items ranged from cottage cheese to carefully camouflaged beer from Earth.
And no matter how many times Ronon looked, his item was nowhere to be found.
He grunted to himself and stroked his beard. Who would be stupid enough to steal his prized possession he opened just two days ago? An item that was clearly marked with his name on the top?
Ronon slammed the door shut with a pop and started with the obvious suspect first.
Dr. Rodney McKay was oblivious to most things most of the time. Especially when he was working on his computer, or happily contemplating the thousand and one brilliant ideas that crossed his mind every day.
Or worried about a slightly dense Air Force Colonel who was insisting that he was fine after finding three of his teams ripped to pieces.
Except . . . Rodney always knew when he was being watched. Not just watched, but a heavy glare that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
That was something he learned to recognize at a very young age in school.
Early warning was a necessary evil for a child genius who didn't mind sharing his opinions with his peers.
Rodney looked up with annoyance to snarl at whatever idiot was disrupting his work when he saw Ronon.
A very, very pissed looking Ronon.
Coming his way.
McKay, having learned his past lessons well, didn't wait to find out what the big Satedan wanted.
Rodney bolted and hoped he had enough of a head start.
Rodney was gasping for breath by the time he found Sheppard holed up in his once rarely used office. A place that the Colonel now haunted with red-rimmed eyes and a slouch that had nothing to do with his self-proclaimed laziness.
Sheppard looked up in surprise as Rodney ran in and slammed himself against the wall with out spread arms.
John, already on edge, stood up quick enough to send his desk chair flying. He hadn't heard an alarm or any announcements over the radio, but Rodney was clearly running from something. "McKay? What the hell?"
Rodney waved a hand at his face as if trying to force air into his lungs. "He's . . . trying . . . to kill me!"
John's 9 mil was out as he swiftly crossed the room to the door. He peered out, looking for anyone suspicious. "Who?" he demanded.
Sheppard deflated with a sigh and let his head drop. He put his gun away and leaned against the doorway, suddenly tired. "Ronon? What did you do this time?"
"Me? Nothing!" McKay paused to think over the last few days. "Well, nothing this past week—"
"What about last month's little incident with the transporter?" John folded his arms across his chest. God, he wished he could go back to last month. "He was stuck in that thing for three hours."
Rodney had recovered enough to peel himself from the wall and match John's lean against the solid surface. "Please, he has no proof that was me."
"Since when did that ever matter to Ronon?" asked Sheppard with a raised eyebrow.
McKay's face went from annoyed to slightly panicked. "You, ah, have a point there."
Sheppard turned his head to look out the door and McKay shifted uneasily.
Sheppard shook his head. "Nope. What did he say when he was trying to kill you?"
John asked the question, but the conversation went to the back of his mind as the images of the L.P. slaughter popped up behind his eyes. He turned away quickly, his hand brushing the handle of his 9 mil for reassurance.
Rodney was rambling along about Ronon staring at him, but he knew John's attention was gone once again.
Since they found the bodies, Sheppard hadn't been the same. He was aloof from his team and found every reason he could to leave the non-Earth military members behind when missions were assigned.
Carson had some theory about this incident coming so close on the heels of them thinking that Lorne and his team were killed, that the Colonel just needed some time to process what happened.
Rodney could tell this was more. Even after the Lorne fiasco, Sheppard had never lost his gut-based style of command.
And Dr. Kate Heightmeyer, the psychologist, had just scheduled Sheppard for sessions and the Colonel willingly went with no complaints.
Still, he was like a robot around his friends and teammates. He just seemed . . . empty.
"You can hide out here if you think it will do any good," said Sheppard suddenly, cutting Rodney's chatter off. "But he is a tracker, he'll find you eventually."
McKay lost no time in taking the extra chair in the office and putting his back to a wall.
And decided to use this time to sound out Sheppard.
"So . . . Elizabeth record the messages to the families yet? From the L.P.?"
Sheppard stiffened at his desk. "No, I told her I'd do it this time." He picked up a stack of papers and shook it so that it fanned in the slight breeze. "By hand."
Rodney was shaken. That John was taking this so hard that he was actually doing this by hand, when in the past he had done everything possible to pass the responsibility for family notices to Elizabeth. Well, except for Ford and Sumner.
"Oh. How's it going?"
John raised a shoulder, his eyes down. "It's going."
When Rodney opened his mouth again, Sheppard cut him off. "Look, McKay, you can hide out here for the moment, but I need to get these done. A little . . . quiet would be good."
Rodney sat back in his appropriated chair and frowned at the top of John's lowered head. "Sure."
Nothing more was said and Sheppard was soon called away for a new mission.
A mission that, once again, didn't include his team.
It was an extended scouting mission, a basic sweep of the new area that was being considered for an emergency site, but Sheppard was anxious.
He just couldn't seem to shake the bad feeling that crawled into his brain on each and every new mission. Flashes of torn flesh and blood caught him at inappropriate times.
He tried to push it away and concentrate on the mission, but it was becoming harder and harder to force himself to think away from Atlantis.
It wasn't right, but he was glad he'd left Teyla, Rodney and Ronon behind on Atlantis. He knew they were beginning to question his reasons, but he didn't want civilians out here at the moment.
One klick to the north of the gate, Lorne looked over his shoulder at the Colonel and slowly nodded.
Without looking at the teams, the Colonel made a quick motion with his left hand and the soldiers scattered into the trees and behind cover.
The radio popped as the members broke squelch to signal their readiness.
Lorne moved closer to Sheppard. "All clear," he whispered.
Sheppard nodded. "Go," he barely whispered back.
Lorne sent the signal for the team to continue forward.
"Stay close," whispered the Major as he slipped past his CO.
Sheppard raised a hand in reply.
They leapfrogged through the alien jungle with deliberate and coordinated moves.
It was a shock to Lorne's system when Sheppard's usually laid-back voice came harshly over the radio, breaking the relative silence of the landscape.
"Lorne, I think you should see this!"
There was the sound of retching near the end of the transmission and Lorne lengthened his choppy stride and raised his P-90.
What he found when he reached Sheppard almost made him loose his own stomach contents.
In the trees were garish displays of bones and dried meat . . . a collection of torn flesh that swayed gently in the wind was covered with dark insects.
Lorne had a sudden flashback of Colonel Edwards' mining operation when they found Lt. Ritter 'displayed' by an Unas. He'd felt like his stomach was trying to come up through his throat when he threw up back then.
"Sirs? Sirs?" came a soft, distorted voice from their left.
Sheppard straightened up and spit the taste out of his mouth to see their most inexperienced soldier, Reichmann, turn white and then flush red.
John knew the feeling.
Keeping his P-90 at the ready, Sheppard moved closer to the youngster. "Go ahead. I'll watch your back."
At the Colonel's words, Reichmann turned quickly from the others and lost his last meal on the ground. His retching and choking gasps made both of the senior officers' throats hurt in sympathy.
Sheppard spat again, turned to Lorne and saw the man point to the obscene trees. He reluctantly looked back and saw the woven rope braids that hung down like strange Christmas decorations between the 'bodies' on the branches.
Some of the ropes were black, seemingly steeped in old blood. Others were the color of sunflowers and ripe oranges.
"The hell?" muttered Sheppard as he turned to check on Reichmann before he moved any closer to the exhibit.
Reichmann was still bent over with his hand pressed to his right temple. He was back to being pale.
"Okay?" asked Lorne when he knew damn well that the young man was anything but.
"Yeah . . . yes, sir."
Lorne nodded and let his gaze take in the rest of the two teams and the trees as Sheppard moved in closer to the macabre exhibit.
Half of the Atlantis personnel looked as if they were ready to be sick and the other half looked as if they were clenching their jaws to keep from being sick.
John moved in to study the display and almost gasped when he recognized the patterns of beads. God, it was so close to what they found at the L.P.—
"Pull back," Sheppard suddenly hissed in his radio. He gave the hand signal as Lorne glared at him.
Yes, the Major was not pleased.
"Fall back. Now."
"And you, sir?" Lorne's glare turned acidic.
Sheppard ignored him as he stepped carefully closer to the horrible art.
"Major, fall back and send three back to contact Atlantis about this. Dr. Weir will want to know. Tell her . . . tell her it looks like what we found at the L.P."
"Yes, sir," replied Lorne reluctantly. "Are you sure, sir?"
If they were in any other situation, the Colonel would have smiled at the aggravation he was causing the tense Major. But not right now.
Sheppard moved closer to the tall gnarled trees with the copper colored leaves. He let his eyes travel up to the tree canopy above and noticed that the nasty demonstration went all the way up to the sky.
It made him dizzy to look so far up so he focused on the bones and ropes that were closer to the ground. The whole thing made him feel small and vulnerable.
Now that he was closer, he could see wood-like beads and pieces of woven grasses tied to the ropes and the bleached bones.
The colors were interesting in their intensity but he soon turned from that issue to look at the bones themselves.
The Wraith bones he identified almost immediately. There were hundreds of Wraith soldier skulls with their ghastly bone masks and large frames.
What intrigued Sheppard the most was the smaller sets of bones that showed long fangs and huge claws.
It didn't make sense. The Colonel turned around to study the other sets of bones that dangled above the ground with their mouths agape and rotted flesh.
The Colonel was about to turn back to his anxious 2IC and order him to pull back again when he heard movement in the leaves.
He was instantly on guard, his eyes narrowed as he looked at the nearby branches.
The shout almost made Sheppard jump. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder and take his eyes off the potential target.
"Sheppard! Behind you!"
It felt like slow motion as John Sheppard turned trying to get his weapon in the right position to fire. He could hear the tat-tat-tat of P-90s and the yelling of Lorne over the radio to the teams.
Then a heavy something landed on his back and he went facedown into the dry leaves and forest mulch.
A blow caught him behind his left ear and all sound and sight faded away.
TBC . . .