A/N Written for the Sheppard HC 'Loss of a child' challenge prompt, so it will be a bit on the dark side.

Thank you to Alipeeps and Gigajules for their wonderful beta skills! If something is wrong, I can guarantee I stuffed it after they had beta-ed!

Disclaimer: The copyright for Stargate Atlantis belongs to MGM studios and SciFi channel. It's their playground- I'm just playing in it.

Chapter 1:

I look around me at the barren landscape. The air has an orange tinge; fire orange, hot and harsh and offering no warmth or comfort. The air is burnt, it has a metallic taste that leaves the back of my throat itching. The red desert earth is cracked and parched. If I allow my imagination free reign, it is easy to believe the land has been scorched

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." The famous line meanders into the forefront of my mind. Duvall, was it? My thoughts are elusive, transient. I scan the horizon of the blasted wasteland once again. So hard to think, to concentrate. I can't shake a sadness, a yearning feeling; an ache of absence. I am looking for something.. searching..

The wail of an infant warbles through the emptiness. I snap my head up and look towards the sound, trying to penetrate the distance and pinpoint its source. The weak cry echoes in my head, and I gasp. The sad feeling has intensified. My chest is tightening, burning like the air. I am suddenly certain that I have very little time. A sense of impending.. something.. threat? The land watches me with an expectant oppressiveness. My neckhairs stand on end and there is a small area in the middle of my shoulderblades that itches with the sense that there is a knife blade inches from it. I look around again, searching for the threat my senses scream at me is nearby, but the harsh, arid land is flat for miles in every direction. I set off at a run. I can hear my heartbeat as blood is pumped in rapid circulation, as my arms and legs pump with increasing speed. I feel a tightening in my chest as my lungs start to burn like the air they struggle to suck in as I run faster, faster.

Faster!

I'm not paying attention to anything else except that one fragile sound in an eerily silent world. I have to find the infant before it's too late! Too late for what? I don't know. My thoughts remain intangible and incoherent. But the oppressive sense of danger continues to grow.

Faster!

The horizon doesn't change. The land doesn't change. There is no sign of progress. No sign of movement. I run faster but nothing moves. Am I moving? I can't tell. There is nothing to mark progression in this endless wasteland. No trees, no grass.. no life, except me and the baby whose tiny wail I so desperately follow. The wail gets louder, higher.

"Where are you?" The words echo, louder than they should be, and I can't tell whether I said them aloud or whether I am drowning in the thought. The baby's cry is now a high-pitched scream, almost mechanical. It sounds like.. no! Horror wells up from my stomach in cold waves of nausea, and my legs are suddenly so heavy.. too heavy. I look over my shoulder, and the horror is coupled with a bitter, acrid taste of fear, as I see the Wraith dart behind me.

Faster!

I can't hear the infant anymore. Was it there at all? I was searching for it, it must have been? But I can hear nothing now except the alien whine of the dart as it eats up the distance between us with appalling speed. The landscape bends and stretches in front of me. Dark shadows rise inexplicably from the barren dirt. I can't run! The pearly, luminescent beam from the dart surrounds me and my vision blurs with a white haze. Before oblivion takes me I hear the fragile, piercing cry of the child.

"I can't save you! I'm sorry, little one. I tried! I couldn't find you."

I scream..

John woke up, sitting bolt upright in his bed, the echoes of his scream ringing in his ears. His sheets were a twisted lump around his legs. His dogtags were a cold counterpoint against the sweat beading on his chest and his hair was wet to the point of dripping. His eyes stung too, although he wasn't sure whether that was from sweat or tears. He looked at his clock. 0200 Atlantis time. Damn. He'd only slept for one hour. Four days! Four fucking days this had been going on and he couldn't take much more of it. Grabbing the offending timepiece, he hurled it against the wall as hard as he could, then flopped backwards in despair. He ran his hands over his face, then covered his eyes with the back of one arm, the other resting across his chest. The sleeping tablets Carson had given him weren't working, and the doctor had already refused to give him anything stronger. The emotions of the last few weeks, combined with a bone deep weariness from four nights without sleep finally overwhelmed him.

"Fuck." It was more a whispered moan that a curse, an admission that he couldn't hold on any longer. John finally broke. Rolling over onto his stomach, John buried his head in his pillow and cried.

17 Months Ago:

Elizabeth sat at her desk and listened as Teyla told them what she knew of Lakeesha. At least that's what the local populace called the planet. In typically redundant military style, they'd renamed it PX3-225. Elizabeth thought Lakeesha was a lovely name and she was in a sardonic enough mood to be irked by the more pragmatic map reference. It was like calling New York by its latitude and longitude. She gave a wry mental shrug. She knew her dissatisfaction with all things military at the moment was caused by the blazing row she'd had earlier that morning with Sergeant Bates. When something bugged him, the man was like a pit-bull with something between its teeth. She knew it made him a good security officer; that was why she had given him the position in the first place. When that iron will was pitted against her, however, it took all of her diplomacy skills not to punch him in the nose.

Elizabeth tried to force her attention back to the Athosian warrior but she was having trouble schooling her thoughts. She let the details drift over her, listening but letting her thoughts wander at the same time. Her eyes were drawn to Major Sheppard. He was sitting to her right, opposite the door. She noticed he always took a seat where he could clearly see the door and everyone in the room at the same time. She covertly watched the lean frame that had so casually draped itself across the chair. He seemed as relaxed and laid-back as that lazy drawl of his, but she saw the energy coiled just under the surface. She watched in admiration as his muscles rippled under the slinky black shirt as he draped his arm over the back of the chair.

John fascinated her, sometimes. Not in the school-girl crush way, although she had to admit to fancying him just a little in the very beginning. No, now there was a deepening friendship based on respect and admiration for each other. A love of sorts she supposed, but not the romantic kind. No, what endlessly fascinated her about John was the way he moved. Lazy, sex on a summer morning, sultry movement dominated by an inherent grace. But if you looked carefully, you could see a quiver in his muscles, feel him radiating danger like a coiled snake that could deal out death in a blur of motion that raised grace to an art-form. Elizabeth shivered and once again thanked whatever deities might hear them in this galaxy that he had decided to come. As much as she had respected Colonel Sumner, if things had turned out differently that day, she doubted they would still be alive. Sumner was by-the-book military, which Elizabeth respected, even if she did have some issues with extreme military responses. Unfortunately, the Pegasus Galaxy had never read that particular book. John's more intuitive approach had saved their lives time and again. Of course John noticed her watching him, no matter how covert she tried to keep her observations. The hazel eyes deepened towards green, and she was struck by the certainty that he knew what she was thinking. It was only for a split second, then he flashed her a lazy grin and moved his gaze back to Teyla. Elizabeth wondered, not for the first time, just what the hell the Air Force taught its black ops pilots.

"So, whilst my people were never able to establish trading relations with the Lakeeshan people, I believe it is worth investigating." Teyla concluded.

"And you have no idea why they would not trade with your people?" Elizabeth pushed.

"As I have said, I was very young at the time. I have no memory of the Lakeeshans. I only know what Charin told me as a youth, that my father was very disappointed that the trade negotiations fell through. He was keen to trade with them, as he felt their advanced technology would be of great benefit to our people in defending ourselves against the Wraith. I do not know why the negotiations failed. It is possible they felt we were not advanced enough and had nothing to offer." Teyla gazed impassively at her, and Elizabeth wished the Athosian warrior was easier to read. She sighed.

"Look, Dagan was on your, I mean... umm… the other Elizabeth's list, and there was still a ZPM there. There's a good chance that there's one here too. Also, the Ancient database indicates that PX3-225 was an emergent civilisation. If they were on the brink of technological advancement 10,000 years ago, then it's highly likely they've managed to develop to a stage where they'll be useful to us. What amazes me is that they've avoided being found out by the Wraith. If they can shield their technology from the Wraith..?" Rodney let the question hang in the air. Elizabeth leaned back in her chair and stared morosely at her data tablet, as though it might contain answers to the questions that worried at her.

"We have to go, Elizabeth," John abandoned his slouching position and leaned into the desk. "There are three Hive ships on the way. Without a ZPM to power the shields, we're target practice."

"Plus, we can't ignore the opportunity to investigate their technology! If these Lakers.."

"Lakeeshans." Teyla corrected. Rodney waved a hand at her in acknowledgement and continued unperturbed.

"..have any form of advanced technology we need to find out what they have. They might even have an alternative to a ZPM! We desperately need power.."

"And weapons." Rodney glared at the second interruption. John just grinned at him.

"..and weapons. I need to see what they've got." he finished.

"Alright. You have a go. Organise what you need, and get a good nights sleep; you leave at 0800 tomorrow." As everyone stood to leave, Elizabeth shot John a look, and he unobtrusively fell back to let the others go first. As Ford, Teyla and finally Rodney left the room, Elizabeth stood and walked to the window, staring unseeingly across the 'gateroom. She let the silence grow heavy, then wrapped her arms around her chest.

"I don't like this, John. After Dagan…" She turned and hoped she was conveying wisdom and concern instead of the insecurity and doubt she felt churning in her stomach. "Be careful out there tomorrow. Watch your back."

John flashed her an easy smile, meant to reassure, but the dark acknowledgement in his eyes reassured her more.

"Always do."