The Crystal Room

by

Ryan C. Charles

Author's Note: A diplomatic mission turns deadly for John Sheppard and Teyla Emmagan when an old nemesis makes them the target of a technologically advanced civilization.

The fanfic is set in Season Two between Episode 219: Inferno and Episode 220: Allies, with references to Episode 117: Letters from Pegasus, Episode 206: Trinity, Episode 208: Conversion, and Episode 218: Michael.


Prologue: The Crystal Room


As soon as the Conveyors released the compound one by one the room panels hardened to smoky gray. In a sickening moment, John realized he was right about his captors' spying. When the Mediary said his people would watch, it didn't just mean the handful of officials outside the crystal cell. The Mediary had described a live feed to the general population. John did not doubt his captors' determination. The cameras would not penetrate the darkened panels, so that meant the video array had been inside the room the whole time.

Shit. He only had a few heartbeats to replay the last moments. Did it matter that a hostile alien people recorded the final fragments of his life? Yeah, it mattered but there wasn't much he could do about it.

The thrumming in his head became excruciating pressure, like a belt snapped hard around his skull. His hands and feet twitched, reacting to the compound. A different sort of pressure settled around his lungs, squeezing. He wasn't getting air anymore and he was sure he would soon stop trying to find some, which meant he had seconds, not minutes, of consciousness. He rotated his head, the only part of his body still under his control. Like the one to which he was strapped, the adjacent table had been raised on a metallic platform. Unlike John, its occupant was motionless. Teeth clenched, he growled.

Was it possible the compound had already taken her? Teyla Emmagan, leader of the Athosians, lay on that table. She was remarkably strong, so maybe not. Maybe she just wanted to face her death another way.

He couldn't save her. He couldn't save himself. Head to toe, he was a knot of rage. The table to which he was bound was a heavy alloy with full-length slots for retracting walls. When the Mediary demonstrated its purpose, John had been reminded of a display case for butterflies. Pinned under glass was a good way to describe his immediate future. The glass would extend from the bottom of the table, sealing him inside, and the capsule would fill with a chemical that preserved human tissue. The Mediary had carefully explained the origin of the compound but that had meant nothing to John. He had been focused on the part about ending up on exhibit. He had failed to make the Mediary understand the significance of returning to Atlantis. He had failed to make the Mediary understand anything.


Part One: Athos


It was going to take more than a few minutes to relax. Maybe he wouldn't relax at all. He didn't want to admit that. He didn't want to think about how much this place freaked him out.

The tactical teams were checking in. John answered their radio traffic softly, his spine tight, his head swiveling as he moved through burnished shin-high grass. Intent but untroubled, Ronon Dex marched on John's flank. Ronon had a sixth sense for trouble. And the former Satedan Specialist didn't spook. The truth was there was nothing here. Wait, that wasn't so. There was ruin. There was waste. The air had a charred, decaying sting that, John knew, was not really present. He was remembering the stink of burning things and wishing he did not. The forest looked like a giant wing, dark and silent. A cool wind surged and faded in the trees. If he could relax, John was sure he would smell the woodland's rich soil, the crisp and vital tang of autumn, tree sap, and trampled grass.

If he could relax.

"Colonel, what is it?" A few feet away, Teyla looked at him.

John pointed with his chin in the direction of the valley. Through a hoary fog he just made out the ruins of the Ancient city. "Remember we're keeping clear of that place." The comment was more for Rodney McKay than Teyla.

Cradling his PDA, Rodney snorted. This was discussed in mission planning, with Rodney concluding John had become a superstitious nanny. Actually, John hadn't needed to spend a lot time convincing Rodney of the risk. And he didn't like sounding superstitious but he was more than a little cautious. Teyla's people had avoided the ruins, afraid trespass summoned the Wraith through the Stargate. Entering the old city with the Ancient gene might activate a Wraith beacon. John thought of the locket he'd found in a cave on the last occasion he'd visited Athos. Although the cave was in the distant forest, he had activated a transmitter inside the locket when he touched it. And the Wraith had come. Rodney believed the locket had been modified to detect the Ancient gene.

And what about the Wraith?

This mission was about cultivating an ally that poked its head out of the Stargate once every five years. Exploring the Ancient's city would have to wait. A hive ship was on the way to Atlantis. Just one, but it was something. The Wraith on that hive ship knew Atlantis had survived the siege, thanks to Michael, their failed genetic experiment and now an enemy with a personal grudge. If John were Michael, he'd take exception to getting trapped, drugged, altered at the cellular level, mind-wiped, and reprogrammed. But Michael was Wraith, so who knew how Michael had taken it? The point was a hive ship was coming and Atlantis needed friends with technology.

No unnecessary risks this trip, no touching anything. The expedition members would take pictures and record observations. If John approved this mission, he had to be ready to defend the twenty or so Athosians and Atlantis expedition anthropologists who planned to camp on Athos the next three to four Athosian days.

John turned to Teyla, his guide and a member of his team. She was a beautiful warrior who believed the hope of her people lay somehow in Atlantis. She was dressed in a security uniform with a tactical vest, her long, reddish-brown hair tied back. A P90 rested in her capable hands.

"Is it three, or is it four days?" John asked.

"Ah." Teyla sighed. He had asked this several times. He supposed she sensed his uneasiness better than he did and understood the cause. "The Preminians normally are not definite, Colonel, about the day they will come. They are a trade delegation and often delayed by negotiations on other worlds."

Indeed the Ancient database had described the Preminians as traders and explorers. There were additional references in the database, indicating a technologically advancing civilization. The references were uncharacteristically vague. Rodney McKay suspected later entries, the ones indicating Preminian scientific strides, were made well into the Wraith siege of Atlantis, when the Ancients were preoccupied with evacuation.

Teyla had never been to the Preminian home world. Nor did she did know its Stargate address. This was, she explained, as it had always been. Every five years the Preminians came to Athos. They were temperate and inquisitive, fond of history, art, and song. John had rolled his eyes when he heard this. Didn't Teyla say something similar about the Genii? More importantly, the Preminians were generous traders and sometimes offered small but interesting bits of technology. Teyla believed these traders had better, more useful technology that they were willing to share. To whet the appetite of the expedition scientists, Teyla had shown Rodney a little polyfiber tube that Jinto, Halling's son, had in his pocket when the Wraith attacked. The tube, it turned out, was a miniature telescope capable of reaching distant stars and recording what one saw for playback, Jinto had assured them, on a hand-held device that was lost in the Wraith attack. The Athosians had not courted much technology while they inhabited their home world, believing technology brought the Wraith. Still, the Athosians looked forward to trading with Preminians the way John looked forward to fireworks on the Fourth of July.

"Yes, but four days here?" John emphasized, his brow stitched with a frown. He had to admit his eyes and gut were at odds. When he swept the landscape he saw a rustic paradise, a field of grass extending tranquilly to a thatch of woodland that went on forever. The horizon could have been the edge of Yellowstone Park. Could have been but wasn't. Yellowstone didn't have a dead and silent ancient city in the near distance. And it didn't have a dead and silent settlement like Teyla's former home, complete with the debris and mementos of holocaust.

"Yes, Colonel," Teyla said with the patience one might expect from an adult for a child, drawing a glance from Ronon, who had stopped to swill water from a canteen. "The Preminians will make good allies," she assured both men. "They have been fair and loyal trading partners to the Athosian people for two centuries."

John's brow lowered in a deepening frown but he said nothing. He didn't have to.

Rodney tramped between them, his head canted in the direction of the abandoned city. "Never heard that before," the scientist mumbled and moved on.

Teyla sighed again.

x x x x x x x x

With the local area checked out, John insisted on investigating the planet from orbit. Teyla and Ronon were mournfully silent as the Jumper swooped over the ruin of her settlement. John wondered what it was like to come back here, to witness the loss first-hand. He decided he knew what it was like and choked down the memory.

Rodney confirmed the absence of life and power. John delivered the Jumper to Lieutenant Stroebel, who had had the Ancient Technology Activation therapy and was checked off on the Jumper. While the Stargate was still active, John spoke to Elizabeth Weir on the radio, surprised to note a trace of melancholia in her responses. He wanted to know the source of the strain in her voice but decided he had enough to deal with, getting ready to baby-sit a bunch of civilians on holiday.

Elizabeth accepted his report and blessed the mission. While the security teams assembled the tents, Lieutenant Stroebel returned with the Athosians and anthropologists. Teyla had gone with Stroebel and the Jumper. She returned out of uniform, out of her Atlantis uniform. Instead she wore a somber hand-made ensemble with a long jacket that celebrated her place among the Athosians. Her hair was brushed out. Surrounded by her people, the giant Halling at her side, she moved with the implacable grace of royalty. John was sometimes surprised to see her this way, though she moved no less gracefully in tactical gear. He supposed the transition, albeit infrequent, too closely demonstrated her ties to something else, something that had existed in a galaxy unbearably distant from his own. When he saw her occupied with her people he thought about his people, his home, and what was and was not back there waiting for him.

While John gave out the night assignments the Athosians eagerly pitched in, establishing a satisfactory camp before the sudden setting of the sun. Almost immediately the camp filled with the low but companionable murmur of voices. There was hope in the hushed conversations, but there was caution, too, and frequent glances to the Stargate and up at the sky. After a cold supper, the Athosians unpacked and set up a platform ten feet wide and twenty feet long. The dissonant sound of musical instruments practiced solo filled the cool night.

It was a like a Sunday church sleep-out, John thought, wishing he could relax and enjoy it. The Athosians in their colorful hand-woven garments ventured onto the stage, encouraging one another. John was just about to check out the perimeter guard positions when he made out the tall, broad shape of Ronon striding up from the camp.

Ronon crossed big arms over his chest, gestured to the camp, and said, "What are they doing?"

"Apparently these traders we're waiting on, they like to record stuff." John did not realize he would sound so cynical until he spoke.

Barely visible in the darkness, Ronon flared an eyebrow. "Record what stuff?"

"I don't know. Stuff stuff. Singing. Plays. You know what a play is?"

Ronon shot him one of those dark Satedan glances, looking like he wanted to spit derisively but didn't because he was in the presence of a superior officer.

John glanced off. Maybe his uneasiness was catching. "These traders get off making home videos and walking through ruins."

"I thought no one was walking through the city of the Ancestors this trip."

"Teyla says these traders respect that restriction but there are ruins all over the place, in the woods, everywhere. There are inscriptions. It's what our scientists are here for."

"Won't it get a little crowded?"

"Well, I hear these traders are friendly. If they're friendly, they won't mind."

"And we're going to invite them to Atlantis?"

"Maybe. Depends. We'll see." He wasn't going to invite anyone anywhere. If the Preminians were as good as they sounded, Elizabeth would come here and parlay. Elizabeth was good at parlaying.

Elizabeth. Something had been on her mind. Well, John thought, take a pick. Could it be the advancing hive ship or the distraction from defense preparation to court a possible but unconfirmed ally? John sighed and brought his thoughts to this planet, the here and now. Campfires surged in the autumn breeze and they were starting to look a little inviting. The temperature had been dropping steadily since sunset.

He was about to head back when he noticed a handful of Athosians with torches closing on the platform. A woman leaped from among them and bounded to the polished planking. She was barefoot, bare-armed, and very pretty. Her costume was a diaphanous material unlike anything John had ever seen among the Athosians. For one thing, it was impractical, albeit fetching. The woman was Teyla.

Ronon squared his shoulders, interested.

John stared, too.

For the next few minutes John and Ronon watched Teyla spin and step to the airy tune of several wind instruments, a pair of drums, and something that resembled a guitar. John thought the music sounded faintly Celtic. When Teyla whirled the thin gauzy skirt of her costume flew apart, revealing long, slender limbs. John wondered what the Preminians traded for a recording of Teyla dancing. Probably something interesting. Look at her. She moved with the economic fluidity and power of a gymnast and warrior, her face, softened by firelight, relaxed and content.

Sure, she's happy here, John thought. This was an Athosian tradition. And she was among her kind. She wasn't as content when they worked out, or at any time, come to think of it, when she was in Atlantis. Or perhaps she was and he hadn't noticed.

As the dance ended, John made a mental promise to notice.

Ronon shook himself, smiled wryly, and marched off.

The applause of the Athosians and their civilian guests drifted to John on the sharp night wind. He decided to see about those perimeter defensive positions.

x x x x x x x x

Daybreak, the camp stirred. After an Athosian breakfast with tea, the anthropologists gathered their gear and began surveying the local area, each pair accompanied by a security team in contact with John by radio.

Athosian days were short, which, John figured, was something of a saving grace, if he was going to have to stay here three or four of them. It wouldn't be so bad if he could relax but he had given up on that. Too many civilians, too much ground to cover. Plus, it looked like rain, didn't it? The Athosian woods, he remembered, were difficult to negotiate under the best conditions.

John felt a shiver and jerked toward the Stargate. An incoming wormhole. The shock of adrenaline tightened his body. Ronon loped over, weapon to hand. The event horizon billowed outward with a whoosh, then settled into the faintly glowing puddle within the Stargate. The security teams hurried into position, P90s and rocket-powered launchers ready. John felt the chug of his heart and the familiar flash of hot blood in his ears seconds before everything inside him went cool and hard as stone. A firm, heavy silence fell over the camp.

What came through was a tall, densely-made man in a dark blue featureless single-piece outfit that, when compared to the garb of the man behind him, John realized was a uniform. The first six beings through the Stargate were similarly built and uniformly garbed. They were soldiers, each in possession of an ovoid device attached in some unknown way to the back of the hand. They were, on the whole, some of the least friendly people John had ever seen, but then they were coming through the Stargate in a galaxy terrorized by Wraith. The men came forward, one by one, squaring off in a defensive formation, feet spread, hands slightly raised, facing John's teams and the P90s. They were not, he registered, noticeably concerned by the expedition's firepower. The lack of expression matched their garb. The ovoid devices were another matter. John was sure they were weapons.

Teyla came to life, advancing with head and shoulders back and her face settled in its cautious but welcoming expression. She had told him what to expect, so he didn't try to stop her when she strolled between the Preminian guards, up the corridor they had created for their diplomat, and waited.

Presently, a very long, very thin man in a high-collared bronze suit passed through the 'gate. He had a narrow face highlighted by very white skin and deep-set fair eyes. He had a full head of silvery white hair clipped at the neck. John would have guessed his age at about sixty years but he had the feeling he would be wrong. There was something ancient about the man, his bearing, the texture of his taut skin. His eyes, while clear, seemed thick, as though he wore lenses. He blinked those eyes at everything around him, angling his head on a long, thin neck regally, like he was master here instead of a guest.

Teyla planted herself in front of the man and greeted him by name. "Hebban, it has been many days."

John squinted, watchful of Hebban's reaction.

Hebban smiled down on Teyla. It was a smile that knew many things.

Hebban and Teyla touched shoulders and foreheads and Hebban said in a richly textured baritone that surprised John with its forcefulness, "Who are these people, lady Teyla? Who are these new patrons?"

John figured that was his queue. He stepped forward, gestured, and sensed rather than saw his people fall out of defensive posture on his command. P90s were shouldered, launchers lowered.

He called over Hebban's guards, "I am Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard of the Atlantis expedition. We are friends of the Athosians and looking for … new trading partners."

Teyla looked up at Hebban, adding, "I speak for their honor and honesty, Hebban. They risk much to help others."

Hebban made a gesture of his own. Even though his guards faced away from him and each other, they reacted in unison, lowering their hands and bringing their feet together. Hebban waved over one of them, possibly the ranking guard.

"Communicate to our delegation that we are welcome once again on Athos. Bring everything."

At this, Teyla brightened, although her smile remained blandly diplomatic.

Hebban added, "Tell them all is as we expected, and he is here."


Part Two: Athos in Twilight


Elizabeth Weir touched the pad on her console, leaning worriedly to the monitor. The material in front of her did nothing to ease her nerves. Fortunately, or unfortunately, frayed nerves were a kind of "condition normal" in Atlantis. She no longer remembered what it was like to live without the strain, without the electric hum of adrenaline riding her bones.

This database is ten thousand years old, she thought. It wasn't difficult to recall. In fact, understanding the vast passage of time was essential to interaction with Atlantis, to tapping the database, interpreting the information.

In this case, recognizing the age of the data eased her somewhat but not enough. John Sheppard, the anthropologists, and the Athosians had been gone fifteen hours. Not a long time, she realized. Check-ins had been routine. No contact on Athos, a place that had been ravaged by the Wraith not once but many times and would be again, once the Wraith suspected its inhabitants had returned. Which was why the Athosians could no longer live there. The Wraith had a special interest in Athos now.

Because of her. As the commander of the Atlantis expedition, Elizabeth accepted responsibility. There had been many losses. And not nearly enough success.

Miles to go before I … Elizabeth threw back slender shoulders and shook off the "down in the dumps" thing that sometimes overtook her when she spent too much time among reports, logs, and in the text of the Ancients.

She tapped her com piece. "Dr. Beckett." There was no answer. She checked the hour. It was the middle of the night on Atlantis, but like Dr. Carson Beckett she continued to have trouble adjusting to a routine sleep cycle. "Carson."

"Yes, Elizabeth." He was awake, well awake, as she knew he would be while Sheppard and Rodney were on Athos.

"Can you come to my office?" she asked.

He hesitated.

She winced, imagining his big, in-drawn breath, that moment of searching within for strength before stepping up to tackle the crisis. "I'm so sorry, Carson. It's not an emergency. Our Athos mission is on track. I just wanted your take on something."

He exhaled loudly enough to be heard on the com. "Right away, Elizabeth."

She wheeled from the console and got up to stretch the kink from her compact body. The knot in her belly remained. She breathed deeply to release it. No go. You're stuck with me, it said, as long as Sheppard is on Athos.

Thanks for knowing me so well, she counseled her inner voice wryly. She'd been sending security and scientific teams through the Stargate for a while now. The fact that some of them didn't make it back was woven into her psyche, a part of her she could not release and did not particularly want to. This was her job and she had wanted this job. She wasn't likely to wish something away when reality got a little heavy. Sheppard, she suspected, would be finishing up his stint at McMurdo in the Antarctic on Earth if she hadn't harassed General O'Neill into convincing him to join the Atlantis expedition. At the time she was launching her "we need him" spiel to O'Neill, appealing to Sheppard's superior officer after Sheppard had so blithely refused to commit, he, Sheppard, knew only a little about Stargate travel, about the expedition. In short, he had no idea what he was in for. He had the Ancient gene and he had the astonishing ability to activate Ancient technology without trying. She wanted him on the expedition, convinced herself that she needed him. No shame in that. And he fit in. He was successful well beyond her hopes. But he ought to have been given the chance to understand, the way she understood them, the magnitude and risk of what he was undertaking.

Carson Beckett appeared in the doorway. He seemed slightly out of breath, which endeared him to Elizabeth. He was a very dedicated, genuinely compassionate man. He was the one who developed the ATA therapy that enabled expedition members without the Ancient gene to interact with Ancient technology. He had created the retrovirus that accidentally infected Sheppard, and he and his team had created the antidote. The result was an effective serum that stripped the Iratus parts from a Wraith, leaving only the human parts behind. No small accomplishment. And he made house calls.

He was making one now. "What's the matter, Elizabeth?"

She put her hands together, stepping around her desk to get a fresh perspective. "The Ancients' database did a really strange job with their entries about the Preminians."

"There's a 'gate address, right?"

"We have that, but did you know no one else does? No one that we know of."

Carson observed her closely. "Yes, Elizabeth, we talked about that in briefing."

"And I said that was a sticking point for me."

"A culture that does not trust is not trustworthy," Carson summarized. Then tipped his head in the direction of the operations center.

Elizabeth understood his reference to the Stargate force shield. "At least we communicate with inbound travelers, we check them out."

"Elizabeth, we're not advertising, you know. We've been playing dead for months."

She waved that away. "I get it that this galaxy is dangerous. But then there's this." She pivoted on the balls of her feet, returning to her console. Scanning the text, she gave Carson the condensed version. "The Ancients cited some pretty big leaps in the technological advancement of these people without saying what those leaps were. And indicated, here, a possible contract between the Preminians and the Ancients designating the Preminian home world a destination for human survivors throughout the galaxy."

"What?"

"I could be reading it wrong but I don't think I'm reading it wrong."

"A destination for human survivors?"

"Like a sanctuary, Carson. A planet-wide refugee camp."

"That didn't happen." He seemed to think about it. "Elizabeth, we've seen many worlds. Nothing remotely resembling such a thing has ever been mentioned."

"But the Preminians have survived and done well enough for themselves, gracing the human-occupied worlds every so many years with their presence as though they were caretakers and not part of the day to day struggle to survive. The Wraith have awakened and the Preminians are making rounds like nothing's wrong."

"You mean, like caretakers who haven't taken much care of anything."

"Or anyone."

"But themselves," Carson interpreted.

x x x x x x x x

Hebban seated himself elegantly on a bench at a makeshift table in the large service tent, spreading the folds of his bronze cloak around him. Handpicked by Teyla to serve the Preminian delegation leader, Drina lay dishes in front of Hebban. The dishes had been brought from the Atlantica mainland through the Atlantis Stargate and warmed over open fire. Each one steamed on its decorative earthenware platter. Hebban pursed his lips, rolled back his sleeves. He appeared pleased.

Outside the tent shiny crates sat in a clearing, goods to trade. Most of the Athosians gathered there to watch the unpacking. In contrast, the Preminians who brought the crates, the men and women of the second wave, stood around the platform readying recording equipment, watching Athosians rehearse with excitement.

John had to admit it looked good. He hovered just inside the service tent, where he scanned the camp through the open flap and waited for his chance to strike a dialogue with the officious Preminian.

Teyla was naming the dishes Drina had presented when Hebban swiveled his narrow hips in John's direction.

John's attention pricked. He took a step forward, thinking the tall man wanted to talk.

Hebban said, "I will find it very difficult to digest this fare while you, Colonel Sheppard, occupy this space."

As though Hebban had spoken another language, John blanked for a moment. "I don't think I got that."

"If you would be so kind as to remove yourself from this space, I may be able to enjoy the generous preparations of these people."

John felt his gaze sliding toward Teyla for explanation. No help there. Teyla's mouth had fallen ever so slightly open. Meanwhile, Drina and the other Athosians looked beseechingly at him.

Okay, now is not a good time, he thought. I'll figure it out later, let it go for now.

He jerked a nod and backed out of the tent. Held just outside the service tent a few seconds, chewing on what happened. Was it the P90? No, Teyla would have warned him. Was it body odor? He had thick skin but that hadn't seemed right to him.

Striding off, he saw Ronon inspecting a few of the community cauldrons smoking happily over the big open fires. John gestured.

Ronon looked reluctant to leave the food.

John pointed with his chin, his expression insistent.

Ronon sobered up and walked over. "What is it?" He sounded ready for anything, but then Ronon usually was.

"Something's not right."

Ronon didn't react. He was too experienced for that. "What do you mean?"

"If I knew what I meant I wouldn't be standing here talking about it." John tapped the com. "Sheppard to 'gate team."

Lieutenant Stroebel piped up. " 'Gate team here."

"Any Preminian security people around?"

"Yes, sir. We have ten of 'em here."

Preminian security outnumbered John's teams. "What are they doing?"

"They're pretty much doing what we're doing, sir."

"Sheppard to Lieutenant Kane."

"Kane here."

"Move all Atlantis civilians back to camp and keep your people alert." John switched off and said to Ronon, "Half the Preminians look like kids at a carnival, the other half look constipated. I just got kicked out of the service tent."

"Why, what'd you do?"

"I didn't do anything."

"You did something." Ronon looked off to emphasize his point. "You usually do."

John rocked his head from side to side, giving it more thought. "I'm pretty sure I was just standing there."

"Want me to look around?"

"But not look like you're looking around."

"Okay." Ronon walked off. Straight and to the point. No need to go around the bush.

John watched Ronon make for a Preminian tent and slip inside. He stayed around long enough to be sure no one noticed, then went toward one of the larger Preminian groups to do a little reconnaissance of his own.

x x x x x x x x

Trying to mingle with the Preminians was embarrassingly difficult and more than a little exasperating. As the Preminians noticed John, the group either dispersed or its members asked him to continue on. After the third rebuff, he caught himself looking around to see if the Athosians and expedition team had noticed the problem. Great. They had.

The Preminians seemed to be doing okay with Rodney and the other scientists. What few security personnel John had allowed to observe the pending festivities were getting on fine.

It was him.

He wasn't going to stop the party and demand an explanation. Nor was he about to let some absurd little screw-up keep him from doing his job. Elizabeth wanted the Preminians as allies. So the aliens didn't like him. Whatever it was they didn't like, John needed to get Hebban to agree to talk to Elizabeth or the holiday was for nothing.

Against the backdrop of the setting sun, Rodney gestured grandly for John to join him. Rodney had planted himself next to a food table. In fact, he appeared glued to it. John shook his head. There was no doubt in John's mind Rodney wanted to grill him about the shunning thing. If Rodney had useful information, he would have been in John's face with it.

John turned in the other direction. As he faced about he saw a spike of light, very thin. A handful of seconds later he heard a familiar thud.

His legs powered him forward. Moving quickly, he tapped his com. "Kane, Reardon."

Nothing.

"Lieutenant Kane, Sergeant Reardon!"

He got nothing.

"Ronon."

He reached three of the smaller Preminian tents. The flash had come from behind the middle tent but the thud had come from inside. John knew the sound a body made when it plowed nose-first into the ground. He'd just heard it.

"Ronon!"

No response.

P90 in position, John shouldered his way into the tent. Not a great entrance, tactically speaking, but something had told him to go fast, so he was still processing the failed com and the pinching in his gut when he jerked short of two Preminian guards kneeling over Ronon Dex.

The guards were on either side of Ronon, one looking up at John, the other glancing at John over his shoulder. Neither guard seemed particularly alarmed.

The one looking up raised a hand to his collar. There was a dark button there. The guard pushed it. He said, still without much concern, "We have a problem in Domicile Six."

John held both guards at the end of his P90, which left his back exposed. Shifting away from the tent flap, he saw a flap at the back of the tent. It looked like it had been created with a scalpel. He let his glance snap quickly to Ronon and up again. Ronon lay face down. A red smudge blossomed on his back. Something dark soaked the ground under his chest.

"Sergeant Reardon, Lieutenant Kane!"

"Your communication equipment will not work here," the guard said.

"It's been working just fine. What did you do to him?"

He was rewarded with an answer. "He intruded in our affairs and breached our security."

"And you shot him?" He was channeling a cold, killing rage but knew that he appeared just cold. Even his breathing was slow.

"He intruded, as you have."

"I wouldn't finish that thought if I were you."

There was a rush of footsteps toward the tent flap. It would have been nice to believe the steps meant expedition security, but John had not told the men he was trying to reach where he was. He was about to lose his advantage. If the com was down he needed to make noise. He was thinking about how to do that when the guard kneeling beside Ronon got up and pointed something at him. John released a controlled burst from his P90, striking the guard. One round would have done it but he didn't want to risk the security personnel taking the sound for something else.

And then John swore.

At each point of impact a greenish haze lifted away from the guard he fired on, indicating a force shield. The guard was unharmed and unfazed. No sign the bullets had jarred even a little.

The guard looked at him a moment, turned his head, and said to a newcomer, "That will bring the rest." His hand stayed up, the ovoid device strapped to it trained on John.

"Yes, it will," Hebban said, a little sadly.

The guard spoke again. "Let me kill him. It would be my honor."

"It would not be honorable in the eyes of our people."

The guard lowered his hand. "As you wish."

Hebban turned to meet John's stunned gaze. "Your fighters will be stopped from interfering. If you wish them to live, tell them to stand down."

"What's going on here …" John let that trail, his voice coarse.

The guard bent down, retrieved a thick page-size document. He held it up, let John see the document was a recreation of himself, like a photograph, with alien symbols jotted on it. "Your warrior found the warrant. We were not ready to reveal our intention, and so he was eliminated."

John looked slowly in Ronon's direction. "Not ready to reveal your intention? What's your intention?"

"To execute the warrant," Hebban announced, "and take you with us."

x x x x x x x x

The next fifteen minutes were perhaps the oddest in John's life. He knew that people in combat lost time. It had happened to him before, but not like this.

He remembered lowering the P90 and walking to Ronon. The guard got up, gave him room. He knelt beside Ronon. He remembered placing his fingers on the column of Ronon's throat and feeling a flicker of a pulse. The wash of blood from Ronon's body was growing, which meant Ronon was still pumping out. Ronon needed Beckett. John needed to get Ronon to the medlab sooner rather than later.

Hebban demanded John's weapons. Without spending a lot of time thinking about it, John unclipped the strap for his P90. He drew his sidearm and gave that to the guards too. When he got up there were a lot more Preminians in the tent. They took his knife, tac vest, and jacket and patted him down. He let them. He had to move this along, get to a place where it was possible to work out a solution that involved sending Ronon to Atlantis as quickly as possible.

Hebban said the guards were going to bind his hands. That brought John back to himself, but he nodded, because it was just a small problem compared to the big picture. Ronon was his responsibility, so he needed to get the Preminians off Athos and out of the way.

Soon as his hands were cuffed behind his back, John let the guards take him out of the tent. John's teams had been organized into a huddle, where they were covered by a dozen Preminian weapons. No one had been tied up, which boded well, but the potency of the ovoid weapon had been demonstrated on Lieutenant Kane, who must have resisted. Kane sprawled on his back, a raw and bleeding wound in the middle of his chest. Teyla knelt by Kane, her chest rising and falling rapidly. John shivered, got hold of himself, stuffed his anger down deep, where it was more useful and he could tap it at a better time.

He did a quick survey. Going by the activity in the center of camp, the civilian component of the Preminian delegation was packing up. The holiday was over, good. This was good. As long as disabling the DHD wasn't part of the evacuation plan, and as long as the Preminians didn't try to take anyone else, this would work as well as any last-ditch, half-ass really bad Plan B. The Preminians just wanted him. As soon as the Preminians left Athos, the expedition could dial Atlantis.

The Athosians had been considered neutral and left alone, which, John realized, was a mistake, but for now the Athosians, including Teyla, were still. Most of them held at the fringes, looking for their chance. He was relieved they were able to do the math on the Preminians without any coaxing. John should have recalled that Athosians valued deeds over all else. And the Preminians had just betrayed two hundred years of trust.

He swallowed to coat his throat, which had gone wretchedly dry. "Teyla."

Teyla was staring at him. When he spoke he saw something shift within her, an emotional rendering she could not keep from her face, reminding him that he was bound.

"Yes, Colonel?"

"Ronon is down. Behind me, in the tent. He needs help."

She straightened, arms slightly raised at her side. She was in her battle stance.

He shook his head at her. "When we're gone get him to Atlantis fast as you can." There was movement among the scientists, Rodney McKay edging forward with alarm grafted on his face. John glanced at Rodney. "Help her. And give Elizabeth a good briefing."

Teyla's face became adamant, unreadable. Her glare settled on Hebban. "Where are you taking Colonel Sheppard?"

Hebban paused to observe the Preminian civilians at their work. Then: "He is wanted on our world."

"The Colonel has never been to your world."

Rodney mumbled, "What world? Your world? How can he be wanted on your world?"

Hebban ignored McKay. "The Conclave accepts that you and your fellow Athosians allied with monsters without knowledge of their true selves. It was foolish of you, but the Conclave understands what it is like to be alone in these hard times--"

John jerked his arm from the grip of his guard and growled, "I've never been to your world!"

Hebban exhaled. "Teyla, it would be best if you dissolved your relationship with these murderers."

She stepped around Kane's body with unconstrained fury. "Hebban, release Colonel Sheppard now. You have been misled and have much to answer for."

Hebban bridled. "Teyla. Teyla, I have always found you a wise and fair leader. Be deserving of the praise of your ancestors. Show wisdom now."

"Is it wisdom, Hebban, to come to my world under pretense and abduct my ally? What is it about Colonel Sheppard that you wish to know? Why was diversion necessary? I would have answered any question that you asked."

"And we would have gone to you, Teyla, but for word among the gateworlds that you do the bidding of John Sheppard and he is never far from your side."

John got a jolt, a warning that screamed she must not go further. She was inching toward danger. "Teyla, this isn't the place and there isn't time."

Teyla went on as though John had not spoken. "As he is rarely far from my side, I know that he has not been to your world."

Hebban's eyes narrowed. "We have Sacred Word rendered in Principal Judicature before the Administrators."

She took a step closer.

John said, "Teyla, I said stop. I'm giving you an order."

The good it did. She took another step. "Your Sacred Word is as nothing to me, Hebban. Colonel Sheppard has never been to your world. I know that he has not because I serve on his team. Where he has gone, I have gone. That is my sacred word."

The tall Athosian Halling moved. A Preminian guard fired at him, missed, and hit the grass. In the twilight, the weapon discharge was a pale blue arrow of light. When the blast struck the ground, after its heat was expended, a slender metallic spike was left behind. The spike dissolved. John only had a moment to register this. Somehow the heat of the shot did not cauterize the wound the spike made. Ronon's blood and Kane's wound were evidence of that. And then the projectile disappeared. That said a lot about the people who created the weapon. What it said John wasn't sure of right now. He filed away the information for later analysis.

Reardon took advantage of the commotion to order the security detail to circle the Atlantis scientists. The security teams' P90s had snapped up again.

"Reardon," John called out, "stay with the civilians. Let Doctor Weir know where they're taking me. Help Teyla and Doctor McKay get Ronon to Beckett immediately. Nobody does anything until I'm gone, understood?"

"Are you sure, sir?"

"They're wearing personal shields, Sergeant. I'm sure that I'm sure."

"Yes, sir."

Halling now stood a dozen strides away from the main group, looking anxiously from side to side. If he bolted John had no doubt the giant man would make the tree line with no trouble. Running, however, seemed the last thing on Halling's mind.

Halling had picked up on the way Hebban was reacting to Teyla's interference, the danger she was creating for herself.

The Preminian diplomat waited until everyone settled down. His narrow face, now mostly in shadow, revealed a quiver of a smile. Chilly as it was, seeing Hebban's shaded face made John start sweating. And his heart was kicking his ribs so hard it hurt.

Like opponents in an arena, Teyla and Hebban regarded one another. The campfires had become the only illumination. The Athosian sun had set.

At last Hebban turned. "We go."

John felt several hands clamp his arms. He desperately wanted to resist but time was not a luxury Ronon had right now. Letting himself get pulled and pushed toward the DHD, he closed his eyes. God, he thought, don't let this get worse. Don't let this get worse.

It got worse.

The Preminians were marching away from the fires with their crates, passing into the deepening night toward the Stargate. Halling, parallel to John's captors, marched along. John didn't want to think about it but why would Halling follow if Teyla wasn't doing the same?

Hebban activated the DHD. Soon there was a blast from the event horizon and a shimmering glow from the Stargate.

How could it not get worse?

The guards were pushing him toward the Stargate when Hebban stopped, turned, and put out his hand. John wasn't in a position to see what Hebban was reaching for, but he knew. God, he knew. He twisted as much of his body as he could, the madness boiling out the pit in his belly, feeding his strength. The Preminians lost their grip but made up for it with fists and feet. Then John was tumbling through the wormhole.

John landed on his hip. He tasted blood in his mouth, felt pinpricks of pain over his face and torso. The Preminians were no longer pummeling him. They didn't have to. He had stopped struggling. He got his legs under him just before the guards wrenched him to his feet. He swung around, dizzy and half-sick with pain and worry.

He winced. It was day on this world and his vision needed time to adjust.

Squinting, he discovered a field studded with relics. This was not the Preminian home world. John knew this world.

Hebban had chosen this ground to meet pursuit, if there was going to be any.

Would there be?

John groaned. Pursuit through the Stargate would be a tactical nightmare with an enemy that had greater numbers, personal shields, and superior weaponry.

No one was coming, at least not in the present.

The guards dragged him away from the Stargate. The Preminian civilians were still coming through. Hebban was next, before the final contingent of Preminian military, and Teyla.

x x x x x x x x

"I don't want you to talk to me," John said. He had collapsed in the grass. It was very warm in the sunlight, too warm, and there was no breeze. He was having trouble breathing without pain.

"Please allow me to look at your side," Teyla said. She reached out.

John flinched away. God, she did not get it. "I'm not very popular right now. You need to get away from me."

She knelt sitting on her heels. Hebban and a few of the Preminian military conversed in the near distance. John didn't have to look at them to know what they were talking about.

"You're going to stay here," he said, "when we go, and then you're going to dial back to Atlantis. That's an order." He rubbed his cheek against his shoulder to mop up the sweat. Didn't look at her. Didn't want Teyla to see the plea in his face. Please just listen to what I'm saying. Please just do what I say. It wasn't pride. He'd plead if he thought it would work but it wouldn't work.

"Halling will lead the Athosians to Atlantis. Sergeant Reardon will see to Ronon. I am staying with you."

Every word burned in John's ears. If he had to think up his worst nightmare, he was certain this would be one of the scenarios.

Maybe if he just told her this, she would get it. He lifted his face, caught her wide, worried eyes--

"Teyla." It was Hebban, standing over them.

Teyla jumped to her feet, her long mouth tight.

Hebban regarded her before bowing his head and speaking words that John had dreaded: "Teyla, you must allow my soldiers to bind your hands. You are in our custody."


Part Three: Premina Prime


The Preminian Stargate stood at the end of a concrete tunnel lit by runners. The walls had deep-set pockets that, John suspected, were ports for weaponry. If Stargate Command was designed by a paranoid schizophrenic, the 'gate room would look like this. The tunnel ceiling with its dotted lamps was squat. The biscuit-gray tunnel walls were tight enough to limit maneuvers by Jumpers and Wraith darts. It was long, very long. The tunnel's length gave the Preminians ample time to fire whatever weapons they'd set up in those ports. The slabs of concrete would absorb some, if not all, the fall-out from impact. Personnel were placed at minimum risk.

John had the feeling that he had stepped into a bunker on Bizarro World.

Actually, a Stargate under military control in a facility designed to keep out unfriendlies wasn't farfetched, John realized. He just wasn't used to seeing one in the Pegasus.

A train of shuttle-carts waited just beyond the 'gate. The train came with an escort of military types dressed in light blue one-piece uniforms. No need for tac vests or other versions of armor. The personal shields made the lightweight clothing perfectly suitable.

John was given a shuttle separate from Teyla's. The separation did nothing for his nerves.

At the end of the tunnel a huge blast door unsealed. He blinked as a wash of light hit his eyes. The room on the other side was as big as a C-5 hangar, brightly lit, and busy with pedestrian traffic, bays of consoles, and technicians at workstations arranged like an amphitheater. His senses pricked and shifted to overload. What the hell? If the Preminians' weaponry and their Stargate room had not been sufficient evidence, John was now clued in to certain realities. He was not the hostage of an agrarian culture on steroids. This was not a hybrid civilization that had found some technology lying around and rigged it to manage a couple of basic tasks. The hangar-like chamber was a military operations center much larger and more sophisticated than the one on Cheyenne Mountain. And it was busy. Busy doing what he didn't know but he wanted to know. In fact, he needed to know. Meanwhile his shuttle headed down a track through a second blast door to a transport terminal.

The guards pulled him off the shuttle and stood him up next to Teyla. No one was talking. The Preminian base personnel were well trained. No ogling the prisoners. No unnecessary contact with the brass, if indeed Hebban was "brass," while work was going on. Or maybe Preminian Stargate "trade" delegations hauled back prisoners all the time. In that case, it was business as usual. Given what he'd seen from the Preminians on Athos, John didn't think he was business as usual.

He saw a large bus with blue strobes cruising toward them. It was extremely wide and fit their party, including the Preminian civilians and their crates. On the bus, Teyla was placed next to John. She was tensed, alert, taking in everything. She said once, "I have never seen such a place," but nothing more. He was thinking that for the most part what he saw reminded him of Earth.

The bus lumbered into another tunnel, this one broad and tall and well lit. The bus crawled forward, its nose pointed up a thirty-degree ramp.

We're underground and headed for the surface, John thought. He tried to use the length of the journey and their estimated speed to calculate how far underground the Stargate was, but the bus stopped before it reached the surface.

The civilians stayed put but the military contingent, John, and Teyla got off. A tall, dark-haired man with an intelligent face waited with a team of specialists. He was dressed like Hebban and greeted Hebban coolly, casting his eye over John. Even though John had trouble pigeon-holing it, the look from the newcomer was one John would never forget. John had seen security police at the instant of capturing a truly deviant bad guy. There was always triumph on the faces of the security police, and maybe a little bloodthirstiness that they had to choke down because the latter was inappropriate. Those things were in the newcomer's face, with something extra. Relief? What was it the Preminians thought he'd done?

Hebban said, "I have to file my report."

The new official seemed uninterested in Hebban's responsibilities. "You've injured him," he observed.

"It was necessary. He was trying to stop our taking this woman."

"I should tell you," the newcomer added as though Hebban had not answered, "that I have applied to the judicature to release the woman to her people."

Teyla angled her face to study the new official.

The man went on, "It is not our place to hold accountable the races that are taken in by cultists, opportunists, and criminal organizations. Loyalty to an ally is not yet an offense on Premina."

Hebban pursed his lips. "You should let this woman speak before you complete the application. You will find her remarks pertinent. Meanwhile, I take my leave. My day has been full, Michiko." Hebban and his guards retreated through a sliding door at the end of the platform.

The remaining troops, those from the Stargate, and this new man Michiko and his team, started for a nearer door. The door whooshed open as they neared it, revealing a pristine corridor with a dark blue stripe down the middle.

"We have much to do and very little time in which to do it," Michiko murmured as they moved along. He strolled with hands clasped behind his back, his high shoulders swaying slightly. "Lady, how are you called?"

"I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan, leader of the Athosian people."

"What is the proper form of a address for one of your station?"

"You may call me Teyla. What are we doing here? We have no desire to remain."

Michiko answered without breaking stride, "Our ways may seem … a bit advanced for you, Teyla." She bristled at his tone. "I am working with our system of law to free you. Hebban himself says that you have been a fine and fair presence in our part of the galaxy. At best, you are innocent. At worst, you are deluded. It goes against every custom of Journeying to bring you here."

"But it's okay to bring me here," John interrupted.

Michiko led on, silent. John could tell he was chewing on the idea of opening a dialogue the way any cop weighed the prudence of having a tit-for-tat with a criminal. Finally, Michiko said, "We have the right to defend our existence. In whatever ways we have failed the Ancestors, we do not deserve obliteration."

John's head hurt from the beating. Michiko's statement made it hurt more.

Teyla's eyes had widened. "Colonel Sheppard is no threat to the Preminians."

Michiko nodded. "You are correct. He is no longer."

The corridor ended.

Michiko turned and entered what appeared to be a medical lab. "John Sheppard, the technicians here will heal you and prepare you for transport to Quadrant Hedrex Four. I would advise against resistance. Once you leave this installation, you will find the paladin the only thing between you and the mob." Michiko instructed the guards, "Take him to bay two."

"The mob?" Teyla bit off.

"Three hundred and seventy-five thousand people lived in Northern Vanda. Today three-fourths of that continent remains uninhabitable. Yes, there is a mob. The disturbance is not, ah, normally our way but it is understandable. In accordance with the precepts of judicature we will preserve John Sheppard's life so that he may face the Administrators as set forth in Basic Law. John Sheppard, do you understand? Follow the commands of the paladins. It is in your interest to do so."

x x x x x x x x

Teyla's restraints were clipped and she was given water in a cup. She told Michiko that she would stay with John and Michiko sighed and shook his head but he permitted it. John was led into an examination room and lifted by the guards-- paladin, Michiko had called them --onto the exam table. His bonds were removed and reapplied so that his hands were cuffed in front.

A medical tech engaged a diagnostic plate that lowered from the ceiling. After viewing a report on a console, the technician told the paladin-- the tech would not address John --that two of John's ribs had been fractured. The paladin commander gestured. The tech disappeared. He came back with a tube and inserted an orange cartridge. He aimed the tube at John's chest, flipped a switch, creating an orange-tinted light. He passed the light over John's chest, aiming it back and forth. Then he flicked off the light and said, "He'll be sore a day or two. He should have a sedative."

"I don't want a sedative," John spoke up.

The ranking paladin pointed with his chin. The technician selected a silver tube, which he poked John with. John felt slight pressure but no discomfort.

The technician picked up a third instrument. This one resembled a miniature gun. The technician placed the ball-like tip to John's forearm, selecting uncovered skin, and squeezed a trigger. John suspected the gun had withdrawn blood.

The technician took the gun with him out of the cubicle, did not return. The paladin leader left John on the table, saying John should rest. The paladin dimmed the cubicle lights and went with his men outside, leaving John alone with Teyla.

John looked at Teyla through the subdued light and slowly sat up. His ribs ached but it no longer hurt to breathe. "I don't think my bones are broken anymore," he told her. "We have to get one of those light things."

"Colonel, I do not know how we are going to return to the Stargate. It is heavily guarded. I do not know how Atlantis will find us."

"First of all, Atlantis has the Premina Stargate address, it's in the Ancient database. They'll find us. Second of all … I haven't figured out second of all yet." He was beginning to feel woozy. He asked himself how long it had been since he slept and realized that he cared. That was the sedative working. "Elizabeth is good at talking and this feels like a 'talking' problem. You know, every mission, every time I go through the 'gate is in a log in Atlantis. I can prove I've never been here. Elizabeth can prove it. She'll show them our data, and after we get to the bottom of this, maybe we can figure out how we all get over killing an expedition lieutenant and abducting the Athosian leader."

"It is unforgivable."

"I'm inclined to agree but you and me, we're not big picture people. We're soldiers. We prefer to get even." He was wrong, he realized as soon as he said it. He and Teyla were capable of sacrificing pieces that were important to them in order to serve the big picture. It just hurt like hell. What about Ladon Radim, who had been part of Kolya's strike force and responsible for the death of men on John's security team? Now there was an offense that still kicked, something John still had bad dreams about. Radim had killed Cowen in the Genii coup d'état. He was now an Atlantis ally.

"You are meaning Kolya and the Genii. That, too, was my doing."

"This is not your fault."

Teyla must have flashed to her own thoughts, for she nodded, set her jaw, and said, "It was on my word that you became partners with the Genii."

"Okay, that was your fault. This is not your fault. The Preminians would have found some other way. It could have been worse."

"We do what we must but it has been very hard thus far."

"Okay." He nodded and looked her in the eye. She gazed back, a formidable woman who knew herself and her mind. "Okay, here's the thing. This Michiko says you don't belong here. He says there's a mob problem. Elizabeth is going to take care of this. This is going to be taken care of but I'd feel much better if you went home."

"You need not worry for me, John."

He opened his mouth and shut it. It didn't put him off when she called him John but she did it so rarely that when she did he got distracted. She was doing it now to warn him she intended to argue with him.

"I worry," he told her. "I'm a worrier. Wanna hear how it works? I need to think about us getting out of this trouble. One less person to worry about … is one less person to worry about."

Teyla threw up her chin but her big dark eyes lowered.

This time he'd said the right thing and knew it. She was not only a warrior, not only a woman. She was a deeply passionate leader and she'd lived with violence and loss far longer than he could imagine.

"Very well, Colonel, I will go."

"It's the right thing to do."

"No, it is not."

No, it is not. He couldn't win every battle. Biting his tongue, he rolled back, stretched out on the exam table, and settled his hands on his stomach. In a gesture of good will, he wiggled his fingers.

Teyla flared an eyebrow but understood his meaning well enough.

Ordinarily, the joining of hands would have been awkward, too intimate. Athosians touched foreheads to express fellow feeling, joy, and sorrow. This was not an ordinary day.

She slipped her fingers inside his.

x x x x x x x x

The sedative had taken the edge off John's nerves but did not slow his thoughts. The Preminian tech had taken a blood sample. What was it for? Michiko said three hundred and seventy-five thousand people lived in some place called Northern Vanda, emphasis on lived, past tense. Michiko said three-fourths of a Preminian continent had become uninhabitable because of something John did. John wasn't sure if Michiko referred to an ecological disaster, such as a catastrophe that displaced the inhabitants, or something far, far worse.

John thought about the Preminian Stargate. It wasn't for recreational travel. The installation didn't have that look. Most likely travel was controlled by the military. There would be meticulous records. Unless someone passed through the Stargate pretending to be him, the Preminians knew he'd never used the 'gate on this world. Which left arrival by ship. John realized he knew nothing about Preminian star craft, what kind of ships they possessed, what weaponry their ships carried, if those ships were a threat to Atlantis.

When he got to thinking about the kind of ships the Preminians might have built, he became restless and queasy. The sensation returned him to the present, a room with low lighting, and Teyla standing over him.

He sat up quickly, pinched his face. Shook his head to clear out the drug. He had to get back in the game, figure this out. The sedative had lost to the natural chemicals of stress and trauma. He was still on adrenaline.

There was a sink in a corner. He found the light dimmer. It brought up the lights on touch. The faucet, too, worked on touch but the thing did not release water. It emanated light. Just to see how it worked, John extended his hands. The light was faint, kind of bluish, and just a little warm. After a few seconds under the light the dirt and blood in the creases of his skin and under his fingernails flaked, dissolved, and vanished. Interesting technology. There was a cable with a fixture attached to the wall. He uncoiled the cable and pinched the pressure pad adhered to the fixture. The same light. Only now he could use it on his face. He could use it on a lot of places. When he was done, though, he kind of missed the sensation of cool water against sore skin.

"How does any place get this much technology without attracting the attention of the Wraith?" Teyla murmured.

"That is the essential question, isn't it?" Actually, it wasn't the essential question but it was one of the important ones.

Michiko and his paladin filed into the cubicle. "It is time to go."

John assumed Michiko meant Teyla and was surprised when the paladin came toward him. "What about getting her home?" Meanwhile, the paladin took off his restraints and cuffed his hands behind his back.

Michiko barely looked at them.

The paladin leader approached Teyla, the fiber cuffs in his hand. "Turn around, please."

John cursed. On the list of the world's crappiest days, this one had to be up there. Was there ever a chance the Preminians intended to release Teyla? The little voice in John's head said uh-uh, not likely, which meant the sham had served the Preminians somehow. The how was going to be very important but until he better understood the game he needed to act as though he had no rulebook and no chips.

x x x x x x x x

With Teyla cuffed, the Preminians marched from the medical lab into the bus depot. A broad, squat transport was waiting. It was lacquered blue and printed with gray stars.

"I hope it is strong," Michiko said, tensed. His glance slid toward John, as though John was the reason he had to go to work today.

John was getting hotter by the minute. Too much to chew on. Was Ronon okay? Did Lieutenant Kane, Lieutenant Anthony Kane, have a brother or a sister? John thought it was a sister. What did Teyla have to do with the Preminians' grudge? Did they know, did they have any idea just how easy it would be to get to him through her? What was Elizabeth doing right now and who was she tearing into? How long before Atlantis opened a wormhole and began negotiations? Would he know it when Elizabeth made contact?

The transport powered on and lumbered up the incline. Compared to the bus, the transport had round little windows that looked like reinforced glass. The body of the transport was squat but it sat high on fat wheels covered by alloy, giving the transport the broad base and solidity of an armored car.

John felt sweat shimmy down his spine. Not knowing what was going on in Atlantis, on Premina, or just around the corner was getting to him. His wrists were raw and that was starting to piss him off too.

Up ahead an ethereal brilliance. Ethereal was the best word he could think of because the light was so absolute and unnatural.

The end of the underground. Which put the Stargate about three miles below the surface.

As they drew closer to the tunnel's mouth, the brilliance faded and John saw a floating crystalline apex, like a giant eyeglass lens. He thought he was looking at the side of an alien building until they got closer to leaving the tunnel. Then he knew he was looking at distortion. It was the sky, of course, but there was something like a giant translucent disk suspended in it. At first he thought the disk was reflecting light. Then he thought it was creating light. Finally he realized he wasn't sure what the disk was doing or how big it was.

When he lowered his gaze, however, John forgot about the oddly changing light and the crystal lens.

The transport rolled out of the tunnel into a protected byway. The byway, shielded by concrete walls and a tangle of razor wire, sunk among the long, elegant towers of a vast and energetic city. The towers stood together, many of them cylindrical and metallic, others glass, with a few made of stone. They towered on a grid that made Manhattan look haphazard, rows and rows of these structures sailing as far as they eye could see.

And when the byway ended, John saw the inhabitants of the tower city. He saw them all at once, a surging, congested wave of human faces and arms and teeth-- especially teeth --washing backward through and around the impossibly soaring towers, jamming what must have been walkways, streets, and parks. There was color everywhere but the color John saw the most was the pink of tongues and gums and the ivory of teeth. The transport was proof against sound. No matter. The straining mouths emitted a psychic resonance and the message was fury.

As the transport halted, John recoiled. His feet and stomach registered the cessation of movement and his butt cheeks clenched. The bottom fell out of him and he jumped away from the window, which presently suffered the impact of something hurled from the crowd.

The transport took a jolt in the side. Could a hundred people lift an armored vehicle? John wondered. Maybe they couldn't lift it but they could force it onto its side, breach its doors, and tear its occupants limb from limb.

Now multiply that by a thousand. Still a low estimate.

The transport jolted again.

"Move this thing!" John growled.

Michiko, pale but in control, was slowly speaking into his collar. Ignoring John, he paused to reassure the paladin: "The air units will be over us in another instant."

Indeed something was happening with the crowd. People looked up. People pointed. Their fury mitigated by reason, and the desire to avoid discomfort, the crowd was drawing off the transport.

John wondered what the air units did if the people refused to comply. Decided he didn't want to know. So far the crash course in Preminian culture had amounted to shell shock.

The transport lurched onto an avenue under the angry glare of onlookers. As the transport pushed forward a narrow path among the citizenry reluctantly opened. Debris and spittle continued to strike the transport windows.

A turn and a block later, the transport passed through a gate that appeared to have the consistency of iron. The gate opened in the middle and was lodged in a face of formidable concrete.

Michiko said, not without relief, "QH-Four." Quadrant Hedrex Four.

The gate shut. Either the citizens were afraid to enter behind the transport or something had kept them from entering. The transport halted and opened among a brace of unhappy fellows dressed uniformly in gray with dark red stripes on the side.

Michiko guided John and Teyla away from the transport across a cement expanse lit by rows of distant lamps. The new group came forward. Michiko saluted. An older, gray haired man with a pointed chin and deep-set dark eyes saluted back.

"Commander Solon, here are your charges. Welcome." This last part was delivered with derision but John supposed the derision wasn't aimed at Commander Solon especially.

This Solon, uninterested in Michiko, took a moment to study John, look over Teyla. "I hope you don't mind solitude," he said, while sounding like he could not have cared less. "Our accommodations lack imagination but then we never hoped to capture you alive, John Sheppard."

"You know more about me than I know about you," John managed.

Solon indicated they needed to head to the door. "I know enough."

"And you are?"

"I am the senior Conveyor in charge of your custody. The Conveyors on my staff will ensure you face Principal Judicature unharmed. I will make certain that you are fed and kept clean. And that is all I will do, John Sheppard. Which includes speaking to you. It seems our discourse thus far has led me to desire deeply a scouring of mind and body. Henceforth, you will be silent in my presence."

John rolled his eyes. This was going so well.

x x x x x x x x

The passageways of QH-Four were narrow, dully lit, and essentially bare. But at the end of trudging through these clean but dreary halls and stairwells was a platform of white polyfiber and a cube that, to the naked eye, seemed built of crystal and exposed to the Preminian sun. The cube was small, relatively speaking, with just two cells side by side. The walls of the cube were a galvanizing white and the ceiling with its transparent material was astonishingly bright.

The forward wall of the adjoined cells was also transparent, made from the same crystalline material as the ceiling. Solon spoke to a panel that appeared at his command. The wall produced a door that abruptly dissolved, leaving just the doorway.

The Conveyors clipped their handcuffs. Then John stepped through one doorway, Teyla walked through the other. Both turned to watch Solon reactivate the doors, re-creating the solid wall.

Between the cells was another crystal-like barrier, so that Teyla was visible to John, and he to her. The cells were furnished with clean, white polyfiber bunks and commodes. There was no sink, no chest for possessions, no chair or desk.

Solon, staying true to his word, turned his back without speaking, waved away the escort-- the Conveyors --and abandoned John and Teyla to unending light.


Part Four: The Gift of the Ancestors


Elizabeth unclasped her hands and raised her arms to cross her chest. Beckett appeared on the runner above the surgical suite. His mouth looked chewed and there were dark pockets under his gray-blue eyes. He was still in scrubs.

A chair creaked as Rodney, silent and anxious, moved to his feet.

Elizabeth stepped forward.

"He's alive," Beckett told them.

"How's he doing?" she asked. Ronon had survived surgery, that much was apparent from the observation deck. She needed to know the rest. With a wound like Ronon's there were many variables.

"I won't know until he's conscious. Thankfully the bugger went straight in and out but he's lost a lot of blood. We need him awake before we can properly assess brain function. The signs are good, I'll give you that. And we know he's strong."

Rodney sighed audibly, stepped closer. "What about Colonel Sheppard and Teyla?"

"One thing at a time," Elizabeth said, a bit too curtly. To make up for the bite she put her hand on Rodney's shoulder.

Ronon Dex's surgery had gone on an agonizing five hours. In that time Elizabeth had dialed Premina. She had established com with the Preminians, then transmitted into a vacuum. It was a vacuum, as in wasteland, because no one responded. The Atlantis com system told her the signal was feeding and her messages were going somewhere.

No one was answering.

She had paced the operations center, hailing the Preminians as a concerned leader, an ambassador. She cajoled them as a troubleshooter, and finally she harangued them as the aggrieved commander.

Nothing, there was nothing.

They were indifferent, or else amused, leaving Elizabeth to review the archives, worry about Ronon, and seethe.

The truth was she had no idea if John and Teyla were alive. She did not know why they had been taken. And unless the Preminians spoke to her she did not know any way other than force to get them back.

"Daedalus is on its way to Earth. I've contacted Colonel Caldwell. According to the Ancient database the Daedalus can be over Premina in two days," she assured Rodney. "It's now on course to do so. If we haven't resolved this by the time the Daedalus enters orbit, Colonel Caldwell will--"

"--use Asgard beaming technology to get them out of there," Rodney finished, a little breathy.

With more hope than she felt, Elizabeth said, "That's the plan." It was the plan if in two days her people were still alive.

x x x x x x x x

The Ancients had built the Temple of the Supervisory ten thousand years ago. The complex with its rings, columns, and gardens retained, in Michiko's opinion, much of its original splendor. A former High Lord, a Modernist, had succeeded in adding carpeting. That had been before Michiko's time, when the so-called Modernists with their backward concepts and loathing of Arbitists led Premina into dark times. The deep blue floor covering with its symbolic silver half-moons still cast shadow on the brushed bronze walls and immaculate panels of the Temple.

The hallways of the Ancestors now resembled catacombs. Michiko sighed. He was an Arbitist and as such found the dim passages anathema. His Modernist and Revisionist counterparts called the plush dark corridors of the Temple hallowed. Yet it was Michiko's nature to desire the open places of unknown worlds, expansion, and knowledge. Above all, knowledge. Eighty years ago Michiko's politics would have amounted to treason. Yet he would have gladly joined those early Arbitists in expulsion from Premina, his implant removed so no Preminian would ever be tricked into lowering the security shield should he find his way to a Stargate.

It was a significant turn in Preminian events that an Arbitist now held the seat of High Lord.

Michiko served on the High Lord's Conclave.

Entering the High Lord's audience chamber, Michiko bowed toward the front of the room and its venerable occupants, the senior men in Preminian government. He bowed to colleagues Hebban and Solon, already standing in Circle before the heads of Premina's states. Michiko was the last to arrive, so he hurried to take his place at Hebban's side.

Drawing a long breath in anticipation, Michiko took in the room. This chamber, too, had undergone modification. The sloping walls hung portraits of former High Lords. The lavender beams had been muted with tapestry. However the iron dais, which in ancient times had been a throne, and its heavy curving table were untouched. The leader of the Preminian Federated States, an elected official, was still called High Lord but he was, Michiko liked to remind himself, merely a servant.

Michiko suppressed a smile.

Draped in elegant black attire, the servant of the Preminian people rose and lavished Michiko, Hebban, and Solon with praise.

As it should be.

Wasn't it the High Lord who expressed doubt that John Sheppard could be captured alive?

Michiko beamed at the High Lord and the heads of Premina's states.

The High Lord asked presently about their progress.

Hebban began. "We have followed traditional methods. Indoctrination was successful. The defabist believes no one in authority will speak to him unless such speech is absolutely necessary."

Michiko flushed. He had spoken to Major-- to Lieutenant Colonel --Sheppard, hadn't he? So much would go unanswered in Principal Judicature. At the end, the Preminian people would possess only the lean certainty of guilt. In most cases the process did not expose detail and it was detail that Michiko craved. How did Sheppard compromise the Preminian scientists? When did he come in contact with them, since scientists were always disguised as civilian helpers in the Journeying? How had Sheppard convinced the conspirators to give him the implant? The body of Sheppard had been examined. The Preminian's Stargate implant was not on him. There was, however, a micro-device in John Sheppard's arm. Michiko had ordered the technician leave the device intact, a decision hotly contested by Hebban. Yes, it was, as Hebban feared, a transmitter of some sort but its design was not Ancient. And it wasn't transmitting, so its extraction could wait until Sheppard was convicted. Why should they fear a transmitter, active or inactive? No, it was better for judicature to allow Sheppard the belief that there were things the Preminians did not know.

"Why was Teyla Emmagan chosen?" asked the High Lord, still standing. "Protocol called for a colleague of the defabist. The woman is a leader from one of the chosen worlds, not a colleague. The taking of Teyla Emmagan jeopardizes the Journeying."

The Journeying was everything to an Arbitist. The High Lord was a devoted follower of Arbitist convention.

"My lord, it was a matter of practicality," Hebban hurried to say. "The capture of Sheppard had become perilous"-- an exaggeration, Michiko knew, rolling his eyes --"and so was the extraction of an additional Atlantis warrior. Teyla Emmagan placed herself at hand and expressed desire to accompany us through the Stargate."

"Is she culpable?"

It was Michiko's turn to speak. "Indeed she is. I have Sacred Word between Teyla Emmagan and John Sheppard. We placed them together in the infirmary. They freely discussed partnership with the Genii. The name Kolya was spoken."

There was a collective gasp. Michiko congratulated himself for saving this information for the audience.

"This is so," the High Lord acknowledged. "Alas."

Hebban spread his thin arms. "Shall we advance the case to its formal phase?"

"We have enough for Principal Judicature."

Michiko cleared his throat. "Once that is done …"

Solon interrupted, "My colleague wishes to interview John Sheppard."

"To what end?" the High Lord wondered.

"My lord, none of the confessed have ever disclosed the method by which Sheppard's soldiers disabled the power center failsafe. We know the designer of the program, the one the soldiers used to shut down and then power up the crystal, possessed the Ancient gene. I believe that designer may have been Sheppard himself. He has tested positive for the Ancient gene, as Kolya said he would. The soldiers are dead, my lord, as are three hundred and seventy-five thousand of people. Should we not give Sheppard the chance to make atonement?"

"His kind do not desire atonement." This from Hebban.

"He faces a life in confinement. Cooperation in this matter could be traded for amenities and such." Michiko was determined.

The High Lord bowed as an assistant whispered. The High Lord was a very tall man who appealed to the fragmented masses with good looks and mild temperament. His father had been a Revisionist, so the High Lord had attended the wealthy academies. He had worked, too, with his hands, a fact known to only a handful in the Conclave.

The High Lord straightened. "Michiko, the Procurator seeks forfeiture as punishment."

Michiko demonstrated shock. "Forfeiture is barbaric. We have not imposed it in one hundred and fifty years."

"Nevertheless, its application exists in Basic Law."

"But only in the District of Premina Prime. The States have long since abolished judicial execution."

"We are in the District of Premina Prime."

Solon interjected, "Did you believe, Michiko, the people of this world would heal as long as the defabist lived? We have endured ten thousand years beneath the Shield of the Fathers where no one has harmed us--"

"--no one but ourselves." Michiko's teeth had clenched.

"Ah. My friend, Sheppard has been found. Did you think we would leave him as an icon of rebellion, infiltration, and holocaust?"

x x x x x x x x

The crystal cube was responding to John the way Ancient technology answered his thoughts. It took John about two minutes to figure this out, when he got tired of the unnatural light soaking the cube ceiling.

As he thought about shade, the ceiling darkened. Immersed in cool shadow, John blinked. Then he willed the ceiling to admit the harsh Preminian daylight. The crystal unclouded and blazed white.

John turned his attention to the walls of the cell.

Open.

Nothing.

What about the wall between his cell and Teyla's?

Open.

The crystal dimmed, blurred, and presented a doorway.

Teyla, watching from the edge of her bunk with a quirked eyebrow, jumped up. "Colonel, did you do this?"

"I did." He was inordinately pleased, given the reality of a prison cell on an alien world.

"Can you make it let us out?" Massaging her wrists, Teyla ducked through the threshold between the units.

"No, I can't. The front wall doesn't respond. Likely voice-coded."

"Is our holding space responding to your Ancient gene?"

"I don't think it's the gene. You try it."

She backed up, regarded the doorway.

The wall solidified and sealed. She looked through its translucent surface at him, the fine muscle in her jaw shifting.

"I was just guessing," John said, "but that was pretty good."

"I will seek an audience with Hebban."

"Because that went so well on Athos."

Teyla looked askance. "Hebban and I have had no difficulty in the past. Hebban is … older than he looks. He and my father were … " She searched for the word. "They were companionable."

John humphed and went to stand looking out the front wall. "That sounds reasonable. Problem is reason got off the bus a while ago."

She was quiet a moment, then walked to his side. "There is some purpose in this we have not yet discerned."

He chewed his lip, nodding. Gripped his hips. "Aside from all that other stuff, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

Teyla had heard John say this before and understood. "What do you suppose the man called Michiko meant when he said hundreds of thousands of people had perished?"

"He didn't say 'perished.' He said something else." John set his mouth for emphasis.

"He said that a large number of people had perished and a goodly portion of their land was no longer habitable."

John bobbed his head, brow stitched in a frown. "I know what he said. He meant something else."


Part Five: Principal Judicature


John inspected the front wall for a mechanism that would override the lock. The crystal, as he suspected, was seamless. He went to his bunk. Leaving the doorway open, Teyla went to hers. Soon she appeared to be meditating. He watched, wondering how she cleared her mind when she was afraid. He knew she was afraid, because he was.

Between the foot of his bunk and the wall a grainy projection, a hologram, rose out of air and addressed him: "Sheppard, John Sheppard."

John got up. "Teyla."

She was already moving to the doorway.

"I am John Sheppard," he said to the hologram of a dark-haired, thirty-something man draped in layers of dark-hued embroidery. The complex clothing layers loosely resembled robes.

"I am the Mediary," it announced. "My function is to assist Principal Judicature. I am a storage device as well as a repository of judicature knowledge. I place at your disposal the codes and summaries of Basic Law for the District of Premina Prime. You may ask anything."

At last. John opened his mouth to talk.

Teyla jumped in. "Why have we been brought here?"

The hologram shifted to face her. It shivered, processing her request. "You, Teyla Emmagan, are entered on the lists for collaboration in the sabotage of the Northern Vanda power station."

"Define collaboration," John said, his tone hard.

The hologram shivered again. "Collaboration is the possession of guilty knowledge before or after the principal crime and in the furtherance of the principal crime. In Preminian Basic Law, collaborators are sentenced as though they were actors in the offense."

"Teyla has never been to this world."

"She would not have to be present during the commission of the crime to be a collaborator."

"What about me?" John asked. "Why am I on your list?"

"You are John Sheppard."

John waited. The hologram offered no more.

"Yes," Teyla stepped in, "he is John Sheppard. We do not understand the significance of this."

The hologram shimmered. "In the pursuit of Preminian technology, John Sheppard created a device that was used in Vanda to free the power crystal in the central power unit. In order to remove the power crystal, the failsafe was disabled by sabotage. When the power crystal was removed, there was a surge between the units in the states of Aragona and Erothena. Those units detected a criticality but not before the surge translated through the power center in Vanda. Seeing what they had done, the soldiers you, John Sheppard, sent to steal the Vanda power crystal reinserted the crystal. The power center processed the overload. It is believed the area will be habitable in two thousand years."

John asked, "Did anyone die?"

Teyla turned to look at him, her gaze veiled.

The hologram experienced a moment of confusion but eventually answered, "Yes."

John nodded and drifted back a step. "I have to prove I didn't do it."

"You have already confessed," advised the Mediary.

"I what? No, no, I'm pretty sure you got that part wrong. I didn't do it."

The hologram flickered. John's voice, and Teyla's, emanated from its direction:

"I'm inclined to agree but you and me, we're not big picture people. We're soldiers. We prefer to get even."

"You are meaning Kolya and the Genii. That, too, was my doing."

"This is not your fault."

"It was on my word that Atlantis became partners with the Genii."

John lifted an eyebrow. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you're not big on privacy here."

"You have admitted, John Sheppard, that you led Genii warriors to Premina to steal our technology for Atlantis."

John's eyes widened. "We're having a serious failure to communicate. On top of which what do the Genii have to do with your power station problem? Wait, did I just ask that?"

"Acastus Kolya, who was taken into custody in Aragona, gave generous Sacred Word at Principal Judicature. Do you still deny it was you who directed the assault on Vanda?"

"Hell, yeah, I deny it. Anything Kolya says is a lie. I want to see that guy!"

"Why would your people take Commander Kolya's word over Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked, astonished. "The Genii are deceivers who will stop at nothing to serve themselves. We have never partnered with Commander Kolya. On several occasions Commander Kolya has tried to kill Colonel Sheppard."

The hologram flashed. Teyla's voice came out of it: "You are meaning Kolya and the Genii. That, too, was my doing. It was on my word that Atlantis became partners with the Genii."

John pinched his forehead. "Okay, what's your job description again? Your information is out of context. Your witness is a homicidal maniac. Your Basic Law is for shit. I want a lawyer."

Unfazed, the hologram faced him. "What is a lawyer?"

"A representative, somebody who understands your law but takes my side."

"I am the Mediary. I am your representative for Principal Judicature."

"Shit. Shit. "

Teyla gestured plaintively. "What the Colonel means is do you know someone, a person, with whom we may speak, someone who has not made up his mind as to Colonel Sheppard's guilt?"

"I am the Mediary."

John was starting to feel like he needed to shoot something. "You are the Mediary. All right. Here's what I want. I want you to find someone I can talk to, a court official, somebody who knows what's going on."

"That is not permitted during Principal Judicature."

He gripped his hips. "Why not?"

"You are the defabist. No contact is allowed between the citizenry and a defabist during Principal Judicature."

"I said, why not?"

"It is set forth in Basic Law."

"So you got Kolya holed up somewhere, you take notes when he burps and me you shut down. I don't want to ruin your day, but your Basic Law has a lot of problems. What happens if I get screwed in principal whatever you call it? What happens to me then?"

"If you are found culpable in Principal Judicature, you will be executed."

"What did you just say?"

"If you are found culpable in Principal Judicature, you will be executed."

John's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. "Mediary? Did you say your name was Mediary?"

"I am called the Mediary."

"Mediary, I'm going to ask you to shut down now.

The hologram hesitated. "You are dismissing me."

"I'm trying to."

The thing looked wounded. "I will return, then, only as I am summoned. Speak my name when you are ready." The hologram vanished.

Teyla dragged in a hard, ragged breath. "Colonel Sheppard--"

He swung around, held up his hand. Levelly but roughly, "They're listening to us," he said.

x x x x x x x x

Teyla had observed the natural darkening of the ceiling crystal. The end of the Preminian day had occurred some time ago.

Her feet bare, she lay on the bunk with legs stretched and hands folded on her chest. In this position she tried to build an inner energy buffer between her restless mind and the world to which she felt vitally connected. Tranquility was achieved through meditation. Rarely was she unsuccessful. She was unsuccessful tonight.

She or he, or both of them, had willed the crystal that divided their units to darken. She could no longer see Colonel Sheppard but she was aware of his presence. The units were adequately shielded for privacy. She was not concerned about intimate needs. It was his spirit, its turmoil that touched her. She had a mental image of him in the corner where the bunk wall met the front wall, focused on the smooth crystal, willing it to reveal its locking mechanism. This was not a bad thing. Nor was it unusual behavior for John. But too easily she sensed the depletion of his physical and mental strength. He would not panic. She knew him better than that. He was not afraid to die but he was afraid to lie down and that fear spiked to her through the jet wall.

She got up.

Her mind spoke to the wall. Without changing its midnight hue the doorway appeared.

John was where she thought he would be, turning his head toward the movement of the wall. She was disappointed that he did not meet her gaze directly. Instead he rolled his head into the corner, crossed his arms over his chest.

Teyla stopped in the doorway, sensing that he would speak.

"Osama bin Laden," Sheppard said.

She tilted her head, waiting for the rest.

"I'm the Osama bin Laden of this world."

The reference was lost on her but she resolved to stay patient.

"Angry man, homicidal fanatic. Recruited a bunch of disturbed individuals. Committed a crime to punish those who didn't believe what he did. A lot of people died."

She stiffened. "Ah." Brutality for brutality's sake sickened her. A child must be carried the better part of the year before it could be born. A life could be extinguished as quickly as a candle.

"My people were so pissed we invaded two nations. We're still there. Nation-building, we called it. If we could've got hold of him in the first sixty days, hell, even in the first year, I wonder how much of that would have happened. Well, Afghanistan, yeah, that would have happened. The rest I don't know about. One thing's for sure. If we got hold of him, we would have killed him. Killed him bad."

"You are not Osama bin Laden."

"I'm not?" He shifted from one foot to the other, dropped his arms. "Of course I'm not but these people think I am. 'You are John Sheppard.' What the hell does that mean? You are John Sheppard. I'm the poster boy for intergalactic terrorist. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand?" He tightened his mouth and swung away from the wall, pacing the cramped space in front of his bunk. "We're dead if we don't get out of here. Judicature is a joke. This whole thing is a joke. I bet they offered Kolya a deal and to save his neck the son of a bitch got creative. On my world we call that a two-for. He gets me hunted and killed and he saves himself. I gotta ask myself if I'd killed him when I had the chance, would these people have suffered? Would you be stuck right now in this situation with me?"

"I am here because I am a member of your team."

"That's not what I meant." He looked at her suddenly. "That's exactly what I meant."

"We have shared danger before."

"We're dead, Teyla, if we don't get out of here. Maybe I wasn't clear the first time."

"You were very clear, Colonel."

He stopped pacing, sat down, and dropped his face in his hands. His shoulders slumped with exhaustion. "We need to figure our options."

"We will do that when you have rested."

"I'm not tired."

She sighed.

"I got a couple of things pulling at me," he got out. "Like why are these people able to develop this kind of technology on the planet's surface. How come they're safe from the Wraith? And what power center is big enough to take out three-fourths of a continent?"

"I have been wondering about this also. In the morning, if we summon the Mediary, I believe that he will tell us."

John glanced up, nodding.

She went to him, sank to one knee near the head of his bunk. "Go to sleep now, Colonel. I will keep watch."

This seemed to click, as she suspected it would, for he said, "I'll take first watch."

"I have already slept. It is your turn."

He nodded. As he often did on mission, he rolled determinedly into sleeping position. He was military. He would will his body to sleep now that she had calmed him.

Teyla sat on one knee, face forward, expression vacant. At a moment's notice she was capable of drawing into herself. She did so now so that she did not disturb him. Nor did she want to leave him. While she pretended not to notice he shifted a few times, settling on his side with his chin on his arm. His gaze flicked to her and away. She did not acknowledge this, afraid to engage him, worried he would return to wakefulness. His eyes closed. She sighed when she realized they were going to stay that way. In a while his breathing grew even.

Teyla lowered her shoulders, relaxed slightly. She did not move again until morning.

x x x x x x x x

John woke with a tingling sensation in his arm. His chin had come to rest on a blood vessel and now his forearm was pins and needles.

Something normal, something ordinary.

Too bad he knew where he was. An immediate understanding of his plight made him glance at the transparent ceiling. He winced at the infusion of Preminian light, wondering how long the days and nights were around here. And why was the sky so pointedly bright and iridescent?

He brought his legs to the floor, leveraged his body upright. He was alone and felt somehow that he should not be. Memory of fatigue and pain translated through his nerve endings and bones as a shudder.

They beat the crap out of me, then flooded my body with some kind of radiation before pumping me with an alien drug.

He shook what remained of sleep from his head. Remembered that at the end of the day an alien hologram had told him he and Teyla were looking at a death sentence. Then he'd said good night to Teyla so he could figure out if he wanted to puke or tear out the throat of the next Preminian to walk into his cell. Why do one or the other when you could do both?

He should have known better than to grind a homicidal fury with Teyla nearby. It wasn't like she'd miss it. She had a knack for sensing when he was off his game. And she'd pick up on the drug-induced unhinging of his faculties as capably as she sensed the Wraith. It was the woman in her, he supposed, and that fuzzy sixth sense thing that made her question him sometimes.

"It's going to be a long night," he'd told her one time after she challenged him in a Jumper while they waited for access to the Stargate on a world that was enduring a Wraith culling.

Was it right to do anything, anything, to survive? He could have answered from two places within his body and, yeah, depending on where he was and whom he was with, the answer might be different, but what he'd said that night had upset her.

Strength tempered by mercy, power wielded with compassion-- she was a fan of both. Hadn't she thrown in something about honor and dignity? That wasn't in the Jumper, he remembered. No, she'd laid out that artifact from Arthurian mythology earlier in what turned out to be a real long day.

He was learning not to get cranky around her. It wasn't worth the effort. Not when she could turn those Athosian eyes of hers on him. "What?" he'd mumbled that night when she'd given him the look. Yeah, real good, John. Real eloquent.

If he remembered that night correctly, You and your kind are more like the Ancestors than you think was the message she'd intended. He wasn't sure about that but he knew he didn't like to let her down. He knew, too, that she would not hesitate to tell him when he did. She could cut to the bone but she was capable of forgiveness, he intuited, on a level that he could not hope to reach. She hadn't grown up in a condo or a penthouse or on a farm in Kentucky. On her world the devil was flesh and blood and life was too often cut short. When all was said and done she was part of Atlantis. She believed the Ancients wanted them in Atlantis now. And she believed in him. Was that or was that not the definition of the woman of his dreams? The thought twisted the corner of his mouth wryly. Could be heaven, could be hell, he decided, and got to his feet.

"Sheppard, John Sheppard."

He looked at the cell walls, at the ceiling, wondering who was speaking. He saw only bare crystal. He noticed, though, that the walls were humming.

"Yes." Feeling more like himself, he wasn't going to freak out here. Judicature, some sort of formal process, had to occur before there was any killing. This was something new but it wasn't the endgame.

"Disrobe and place your garments in the slot at the front of your cell."

"I beg your pardon."

The person addressing him hesitated, possibly because he did not understand John's question.

John decided to help. "Why do you want me to take off my clothes and give them to you?"

"It is time for hygienic cleansing."

Really.

The wall between his cell and Teyla's was dark. He tried to will the wall to transparent so he could confer with her. The wall refused.

Maybe this hygienic cleansing also was happening on her side of the wall. Which meant the units could be proofed against sound at the whim of their captors.

He undressed, carried his clothes to a slot that appeared as he approached the front wall. The slot literally ate his clothes.

He straightened. The crystal cube brightened and thrummed. It was the infirmary sink light all over again, except this time his entire body was affected. When it was over he felt like he'd been scrubbed with sandpaper, without the sandpaper burn, until he was shiny and fresh. To feel this good, considering, the light must have taken a few layers of dead skin along with a whole lot of grime and bacteria. This technology could solve some problems if it didn't give you cancer. It was technology one might develop if one anticipated a water shortage fifty, sixty years down the road. Maybe the Preminians had anticipated radical population expansion and their planet had limited resources.

The front of his cell spat out the tray. His clothes sat in a heap pretty much the way he'd handed them over, except they were clean, dry, and they smelled better.

He put them on. He let Teyla have another five minutes, and then tried the mind thing with the dividing wall.

The crystal presented a doorway.

Teyla moved toward it, her expression conveying concern. She looked at him hard and exhaled with relief.

"Colonel, you seem … more like yourself."

"Same crap, different day."

She bowed her head in agreement. "Colonel, I fear we must learn all we can about this world as soon as possible."

Yeah, he got that. "Shower looks good on you," he said.

"It was," she commented, "different."

"Ready to give it another go?"

"I am ready."

He called upon the Mediary.

x x x x x x x x

When off-world teams dialed home, a program signaled that Atlantis had recognized an identification code and the force shield had disarmed. An error in this program would be catastrophic, with teams fatally impacting the barrier at the end of the wormhole.

While Elizabeth paced operations, Rodney confirmed the readings on his console. They had stumped him but only for as long as it took him to adjust his thinking outside the box. Radek Zelenka glimpsed his equations, met Rodney's look, and agreed with Rodney's findings.

A force shield protected the Preminian Stargate.

In conference with her science team leaders and Major Lorne, who commanded the expedition's military contingent in John's absence, Elizabeth asked, "What's powering it?"

Rodney shook his head, but only because Elizabeth was missing the important question. "The shield would consume relatively small amounts of power, considering. I'm more concerned with the race that built it. I'm not a hundred percent sure it's not Ancient."

"It is like ours," Zelenka agreed.

"If it's like ours," Major Lorne said, "can't we turn it off the same way we turn off the one here in Atlantis?"

"Okay, if I could do that …" A frown of irritation stitched Rodney's brow. "You do know, Major, the force shield in Atlantis doesn't prevent a wormhole from forming. It allows the wormhole but prevents anything from exiting. Meaning I can't disable the Preminian force shield from this side."

"Yes, but," offered Zelenka, "if we design a transmitter and send it through the event horizon--"

"Assuming, and that's a big if," Rodney cut him off, "we can figure out the frequency the shield is using, we might, and I emphasize might, be able to send a transmitter through the 'gate in active mode. After the transmitter rematerializes it will deliver a code. I mean, we're talking such a small amount of time here--"

"Point zero three seconds," Zelenka informed.

Rodney waved in annoyance. "Yes, thank you. I know how much time it is. I was speaking to Major Lorne. My point is if I created a program that could deliver the right frequency in the right amount of time, I couldn't guarantee how long the shield would stay off."

"Why is that, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked.

"Because the Preminians need only to push a button to reinitialize their shield," Zelenka said. "The shield does not need to power up. It activates at the touch of a control key."

Major Lorne said pensively, "I've seen how fast it goes up."

"So you're saying they'll be able to turn it on again. What if the transmitter did more than transmit a disable sequence?" Elizabeth asked.

"Like what? Like a …" Rodney looked inward, his thoughts racing. "Yes, yes, we might be able to manage that."

Elizabeth dug her elbows into the smooth alloy that edged the conference table. "If it kept transmitting, perhaps."

"It's still very risky, and I mean very, for anyone going through."

Lorne's glance flicked to her. He was a cautious man and operated at another level than John Sheppard. The Colonel would have gone straight to go, but stipulated that he be the one to step through the event horizon and no one else until he secured the on and off switch for the force shield.

"Major, I agree with Rodney and we're working on other options," she assured him.

Lorne turned his broad, stern face toward her. "I'm guessing we'll know the shield is down while it's down?"

"Up to but not including the second it goes up." Rodney nervously drummed the table next to his laptop. "I'm afraid that's the best I can do and I haven't done it yet."

"You will, Rodney. Get to work."

Rodney launched out of his seat, hurried for the panel door. Elizabeth felt his urgency. Sheppard and Teyla were counting on him. Rodney couldn't find better motivation.

Zelenka got up too but hesitated. "Dr. Weir, we must ask ourselves … If the Ancients went through the trouble of giving these people a force shield, what else did the Ancients give them?"

Elizabeth nodded but kept her expression mild. "It's on my mind as well, Radek."

"I'll help Rodney." Zelenka walked out.

She laced her fingers resolutely. "Major, I want you to ready a team. If and when we disable that shield, I want to have you as an option."

Lorne nodded. Despite his apparent reticence, he had been antsy and just this side of lethally pissed since the Athos mission returned through the Stargate. Lorne knew Lieutenant Kane personally. He was not as close to Sheppard but the two men had a rapport that went beyond respect and professional courtesy.

Elizabeth gazed around the room. The faces of her scientists were attentive but calm. She sighed. When had survival become business as usual? Not a question she was likely to give voice today or ever. After so many months in Atlantis that ship had sailed.

"Everyone, you have your duties. Understand Colonel Sheppard and Teyla may not have a lot of time. We'll meet back here in an hour."

x x x x x x x x

The defabist had summoned the Mediary. This was better than good, as far as Michiko was concerned. He delighted in the timing, for it was the hour he took morning refreshment with Arleus Meta in the Haliper Room.

On Temple grounds, the Haliper Room was a special place to Michiko, who relished these morning encounters with his friend. The meetings were outside the purview of the Conclave and as such potentially controversial and perhaps a bit irresponsible. His colleagues Hebban and Solon would think so, if they knew. Michiko had been a mentor to Arleus. Perpetually consumed by work, Arleus no longer lived the life the gods had intended. Michiko truly believed these private meetings kept the younger man sane.

Shown into the salon by one of the elder, loyal personal attendants, Michiko waved amicably to his friend. Arleus invited Michiko to sit at the judicature conference table. There were several chambers in the facility fitted with such stations. Arleus was able to participate in judicature in every wing of his office.

Michiko sat opposite the video table, carefully settling his cup of sweetened black quasim on a foam square. Adjusting his chair, he tried not to look like a boy at a stall full of sugar strings.

The audio was up. Each console was equipped with two-way communication but to address a defabist directly during judicature was prohibited. Sheppard and the Athosian leader should not realize they were monitored by anyone outside QH-Four's installation.

Arleus told Michiko that the Mediary had just appeared. It hovered now in the forward portion of John Sheppard's cell. Teyla Emmagan stood before it, side by side with John Sheppard. The session looked quite formal.

"Did you see the evening report?" Michiko asked, a bit breathlessly.

Arleus nodded, less enthused than his friend. "You can review it by pressing key-ten."

The unedited report. Michiko raised his head, a question ready. With a jolt, he remembered himself and merely nodded. Obviously, there was something Arleus wished for him to notice in the raw transcript.

Even as conversation in the cell drifted from the console, Michiko pressed the key. A screen welcomed him as Arleus Meta. He touched the pad, telling the screen to continue. A transcript appeared.

There it was again, reference to a man, Osama bin Laden, and Sheppard's description of a criminal and a madman. Several lines of text that were in Michiko's official report followed the reference.

I'm the poster boy for intergalactic terrorist.

Michiko remembered that line.

And this:

Three hundred and seventy-five thousand? We're dead if we don't get out of here. Judicature is a joke. This whole thing is a joke. I bet they offered Kolya a deal and to save his neck the son of a bitch got creative. On my world we call that a two-for.

The next part had not made it into Michiko's file:

He gets me hunted and killed and he saves himself. I gotta ask myself if I'd killed him when I had the chance, would these people have suffered? Would you be stuck right now in this situation with me?

Michiko shifted uncomfortably, trying and failing miserably to look Arleus in the eye. "I did not think of this."

"Don't think of it now," Arleus commented rather dryly. "You said you wanted to meet the defabist one man to another, to talk about his offense. If the Supervisory grants your request, you will hear more of what will not be in the file."

Michiko turned his face away. "I did not think of this."

"You did not think he could be innocent? Why would you? I urge you now, think on it no more. We have crossed well beyond the border of certain possibilities."

"I beg to differ."

"Do not argue with me. I know my people better than you do. Observe." Arleus adjusted the volume with a word, pushed his lean body from the table, and fixed Michiko with a stern, watchful gaze.

Sheppard's voice rose out of the console, level and clear: "--how many power centers do you have?"

The Mediary replied by rote: "Several."

"I thought you were a repository of information. Come on, that's not an answer."

While the Mediary awaited input from the Administrators, Arleus tapped a key on his console.

The Mediary answered: "There are four power centers and one thousand, seven hundred automated substations. There were five but no longer."

"In this country?"

"If you refer to the Federated State called Premina Prime, the answer is no. The four power centers exist globally."

"You have cooperative and centralized power distribution? That's interesting. How does that work for you?"

"Power management is not a concern among the Preminian people."

"Really? Why is that?"

"Our needs are easily met."

"How big is your population?"

"We are nine billion, five hundred and thirty-six thousand at last census."

Arleus dropped his chin into his hand, intent upon his console.

Sheppard's words deepened with understanding. "That's a lot of people. But you're not lighting up the homes of ten billion people with four power centers unless you're using subspace technology. Are you? Using subspace technology?"

"Zero point modules have limited use on our world."

"Zero point modules, as in more than one?"

"There are several in operation at a given time."

The voice of Teyla Emmagan: "Mediary, when last did the Wraith cull this world?"

"The Wraith cannot come to our world. They have not tried since the Day of the Ancestors."

"When was that day?" she asked.

"Ten thousand years ago."

"And you've developed without interference … all this time," Sheppard said.

The Mediary paused for authorization. "Yes."

"Have you achieved space travel?"

"Travel into the sky, no. The Wraith have the sky and they may keep it. We do not go there."

Michiko thought he detected something like relief in the Colonel's posture.

"Something protects you from Wraith ships," Teyla stated.

The Mediary paused. "Yes."

"You have a shield," Sheppard ventured.

"Yes."

x x x x x x x x

John had listened to Rodney enough to know a shield over a city capable of stopping the Wraith drew a lot of power. To fire up the shield over Atlantis involved a tremendous amount of energy. Even their naquadah generators were insufficient. A shield that protected an entire planet?

Not with "several" zero point modules, not continuously, and not for ten thousand years.

"And you're saying that when these saboteurs breached your power center in what's that place, they destroyed a land mass the size of … what? How big was the continent that got hit?"

The Mediary told him.

John had no way to visualize the land described by the Mediary but decided it was big. "An overload at a single power center did this?"

"Yes."

"Did you try to stop the overload?"

"Once the crystal was returned, Vanda personnel convinced the criminals to allow them access to the control station. We believe the technicians stopped the overload by powering down the reactor."

"You believe it but you're not sure."

"The area is not habitable."

"You can't go there."

"No."

"Did the power center explode?"

"No."

"But it emitted, what, some kind of radiation?"

"Yes."

Teyla asked, "Did your people build these power centers?"

"They were a gift from our Fathers, the Ancestors."

"A parting gift," John supposed.

"Yes, and on the day they became operational we declared a holiday."

"I'll bet you did. Do you by any chance have people who, say, work on these power centers, do repairs?"

"Each power center is self-sustaining. Its functions are automated. We are only required to monitor the failsafe."

Teyla clarified: "That which shuts down the power when an overload is imminent."

"Yes."

John gripped his hips. "So no one here knows much about them."

"They are not to be trifled with. Every child of Premina knows this. The Fathers were specific about what we could and could not do. The power centers will exist as long as the universe exists."

John got a tingle but decided to keep that to himself. "You mentioned the Journeying. What's that about?"

"For ten thousand years my people have existed within this refuge created by the Fathers. It has only been two hundred years since we began the Journeying but our Journeying has become a sacred custom among my people. We go through the Stargate to other worlds and bring back the faces, artwork, and culture of those worlds."

"But not," John said coolly, "the people."

x x x x x x x x

"He has our measure," Arleus murmured without inflection. He raised his chin to look Michiko's way. "Doesn't he?"

Sheppard: "You're bursting at the seams about now with a nice, healthy population but I bet ten thousand years ago there weren't that many of you. And you had a way to shelter the people of a lot of worlds from the Wraith but you didn't. How am I doing? Did I sum it up okay?"

"Colonel," warned Teyla, softly.

The Mediary had hesitated. Now it said, "We were not so many then as now."

"Very inclusive of you. But then you just started pulling your heads out of the sand the last two hundred years."

"Colonel," whispered Teyla.

"You got any room around here for anybody besides yourselves?"

"We do not permit other races to come to Premina."

"I bet you don't. I bet the Ancestors weren't around when you stuck your 'every planet in the galaxy for itself' sign on the door either."

Arleus still held Michiko's gaze. "Well, he's not a Revisionist or a Modernist. You will probably enjoy speaking with him."

Teyla Emmagan said: "I have danced for you." There was hesitation. "My people have shown you our dreams and given you our fare. Yes, you have paid for these things but I do not take it lightly that in all these years you never said there was a place among the stars where children live with no fear of the Wraith. Even if you took one or two of our young it would have been kindness beyond words."

The Mediary flickered, and went out.

Michiko asked, "Did you do that?"

"Yes, I did." Arleus scratched behind one ear. "I know now why this sounds the way it sounds." He tapped a pad on his console, sat back.

A woman's voice, both hard and anxious, cut in over the speaker. "--eir of the Atlantis Expedition. I beseech you to respond. You are holding two of my people against their will. I would like to negotiate their release. I am confident we can come to an understanding. I know that you can hear me. Please respond." The recording looped. "I am Doctor Elizabeth Weir of the Atlantis Expedition …"

Michiko reacted with indifference. "Why does she think we need anything from her?"

Arleus said, "Because she needs something from us. There is a common theme here. Have you caught on?"

Michiko indicated he was at a loss.

Arleus declined to enlighten but said, "She does not seem a leader content to transmit continuously until she grows tired or bored and gives up."

"She has not attempted to deploy her warriors through the Stargate."

"Hmm, I know, but I would not use that to infer impotence, my friend. They know we have a force shield."


Part Six: Premina in Twilight


"Atlantis, this is the Daedalus. We are in orbit over the planet," said Colonel Steven Caldwell as he reclined in the command chair on the bridge of one of the most powerful deep space carriers in existence.

Awareness of the BC-304's power was essential to commanding it.

Lieutenant Rossi announced crisply, "No contact with other craft."

Caldwell gazed from a perch among the stars of another galaxy.

The world called Premina was swathed in a limpid haze. Caldwell blinked but he wasn't one to ponder reality. This planet appeared uninhabited.

"Incoming transmission from Atlantis," Rossi said.

He drew his hands into his lap. "Caldwell here."

"Daedalus, this is Doctor Weir. Are you able to track Colonel Sheppard and Teyla's locator beacons?"

"There's electromagnetic interference from an unknown source, which is interesting, because we're detecting no life signs on this world. We're running an analysis now."

"Is the interference coming from the surface? Could there be ships nearby?"

"No ships, no satellites. Hermiod suggests there may be some sort of cloaking technology in play that circles the planet."

Rodney McKay activated the com. "I'm sorry, did you say you're detecting a shield?"

Caldwell: "It's a possibility."

"And it's how big?"

"If it's there, it encompasses the entire planet."

Atlantis was silent.

Weir cut in. "Colonel, are you sure you're looking at a shield?"

Caldwell stretched his mouth, moistened his lips, and sighed. "If this is the planet Premina, then it's either cloaked or uninhabited."

"What's powering the shield?" McKay asked with strained patience.

"Hermiod says the power source is undetectable."

McKay: "What does that mean?"

Caldwell rolled his eyes. "It means it's undetectable. Look, I share your interest in the power source but right now I'd like to get our people back. I'm prepared to--"

McKay transmitted, "A source capable of powering a protective shield around a planet for a substantial amount of time doesn't exist. I mean, we're talking about several zero point modules all working simultaneously. And if the Preminians are an industrial society, and we believe they are, then they must be making zero point modules like chocolate candy bars because running a shield that size would deplete their power source very quickly."

Caldwell gazed thoughtfully at the planet. "I thought a zero point module was capable of powering a city for a million years."

"A few thousand streetlights is a lot different than a force shield that covers a planet, Colonel."

"Okay," Caldwell sighed. He was ready to move on. "When do I let them know I'm here?"

Weir said, "Try to contact them, Colonel. It may give them a shock to see how determined we are."

Caldwell nodded to Lieutenant Rossi. "Very well. Daedalus out."

Rossi said, "Sir, I cannot establish communication."

Caldwell scratched under his jaw, lips pursed.

x x x x x x x x

The man called Solon came to the cube and submitted through the tray slot a document lined with questions. "They are for you, John Sheppard, and you alone. When you are ready to advance to Principal Judicature, summon the Mediary, and he will record your responses."

John threw his hands to the glassy wall. "What does that mean, go to Principal Judicature?"

Solon turned and strolled away.

John yelled, "What if I don't want to go to Principal Judicature? What if I don't do anything?"

Solon had reached the landing, where he paused. "If you do not wish to proceed to Principal Judicature, we will infer guilt and move on to Teyla Emmagan. However, if you the principal actor in the offense is condemned, her case will move much more swiftly."

John stared at Solon as he would at any man he knew was trying to kill him.

Solon stared back.

This one is way more than a prison official, John thought.

After doing a little glaring of his own, Solon swiveled his head straight and disappeared through the panel.

Teyla retrieved the document with the questions. She skimmed it. "This is an interrogation."

"It's testimony."

"Colonel, you should see this."

x x x x x x x x

"Rodney, focus." Elizabeth struggled to refrain from snapping but she was feeling a flare coming on.

"It's not possible is all I'm saying. You have no idea the magnitude such a--"

"Rodney, I hear you but right now we have to get the MALP safely through the gate. Focus."

Rodney bit his lip and studied his screen. Looking down at the transmitter readings was better than looking over the gallery at the Stargate, near which stood eight human beings who were about to become desperately dependent on his getting it right.

"I think I'm ready."

"You think, Rodney, or you know?"

It was just the transmitter first. Then the MALP. No people until phase one and two worked. Rodney sucked a breath over the fist in his chest. Still, if the plan worked, he was effectively the instrument by which Atlantis went to war with Premina, an ally of the Ancients.

"It's ready," he peeped.

"Major, go," Elizabeth called from the balcony.

Outfitted for combat, Lorne approached the outgoing wormhole and tossed a dark box the size of an apple.

Rodney watched his screen, concentrating. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen seconds and it was still transmitting. Thirty seconds.

"Send the MALP," he said.

The MALP powered its way to the luminous blue puddle, passing through with a faint squish.

Barely breathing, Rodney watched the telemetry screen. The easy part, this is the easy part, he told himself. MALPs they could get more of. Major Lorne and his Marines were a different matter.

"Receiving telemetry," he said, his voice higher in pitch than he intended.

This meant the Preminian force shield was down and two pieces of Earth-Atlantis technology had breached a hostile world.

Elizabeth and Major Lorne arrived to peer over Rodney's shoulder.

"What's that?" Lorne's tone surprised Elizabeth with its roughness and depth.

Elizabeth was still taken aback by the changes the Marines made mind and body before combat. Even Sheppard gave her pause when he clicked from the everyday to his special ops persona with the efficacy of a veteran. It was something she was going to have to get used to. Fighting for one's life was not a scenario one approached laissez-faire. If Lorne and Sheppard were any less than pros, she and many of the expedition members would have died long ago.

Rodney tightened his face, squinting. "That's really, really dark."

"Is the gate in orbit?" Lorne asked, understandably concerned.

"No, it's not in orbit. I'm reading atmosphere, no toxins, seventy-eight degrees actually. That's …"

"It's a bunker," Elizabeth said at the same time Lorne realized.

A halo of sparks blinded the telemetry lens. The screen went from white to nothing.

Rodney decompressed. The MALP had just gone down in an ambush. Great. He wasn't going to have to worry about killing anyone today. At least the transmitter was still working. He turned back to monitor it.

"That was crossfire," Elizabeth said unnecessarily to Lorne.

He stared at the dead telemetry screen, jaw muscles popping. "Play back the visual. Do it at shuttle speed. Let me get a longer look."

"Huh?" The running of his thoughts had distracted Rodney. Play back for what? "You're not thinking--" He looked up at the shimmering pool inside the gate.

"Let me get a longer look," Lorne insisted.

Rolling his eyes, Rodney struck the keys under his screen, sequencing the images and setting them to loop so he could focus on something that was actually going to help.

Elizabeth and Lorne watched the playback.

Lorne said, "Those are gun ports."

"I didn't see soldiers," Elizabeth agreed.

Lorne blew out his breath as though kicked in the gut. Raised his arm and said, "Stand down," to his men. "What are the chances they're still alive?" he said even though, Rodney and Elizabeth knew, he hadn't meant to.

"They're alive until we know they're not," Elizabeth said, not unkindly.

Rodney muttered, "Elizabeth."

"Yes, Rodney."

"I need to look at our city shield."

"For what purpose?"

He stared at her.

She opened and closed her mouth twice before saying, "You think you can …"

"I think if the people who designed our shield also designed the one on Premina, we can disarm it."

"For how long?"

"Using the same program we're using now, for as long as we want. Long enough to beam out Sheppard and Teyla."

Elizabeth turned away. Disarm a shield that protected a planet? Her throat tightened involuntarily with strain as her training took her to a wider view of present circumstances. She saw the Preminian shield disabled and malfunctioning, which their tinkering with it could easily accomplish. Ancient technology was very old. No one had stayed around to monitor it, repair it. Look at Taranis, she thought. Without its shield the planet Premina would suddenly become vulnerable to ravenous hordes of Wraith. She could save two lives, both of which were dear to her. She could rationalize the destruction the Preminian world shield as a reasonable response to the abduction of her top military man and the leader of her closest ally. And that might be so. What about the millions of Preminian people who had nothing to do with taking Sheppard and Teyla?

"Give me that option," Elizabeth said, eventually, to Rodney, "and we'll cross that bridge as we come to it."

x x x x x x x x

They sat at the back of his cell, butts on the floor, shoulders touching to confer at a whisper. Last night, John had told her the Preminians were listening. Since then they'd spoken at will, but they'd spoken carefully. For instance, John had spoken nothing about Project Arcturus, an experiment conducted by the Ancients that harnessed vacuum energy from space-time. Zero point modules harnessed vacuum energy from subspace. Not bad but they were limited to about a million years, give or take a few millennia, depending on what one did with them. As long as the universe exists, the Mediary had said. That was interesting. Never mind that the last time John had seen Project Arcturus in action there had been a disaster that consumed three-fourths of a solar system. What had Rodney said? The Project Arcturus power source made ZPMs look like alkaline batteries. The problems started when power demand increased. An escalating power demand would cause an unpredictable and devastating reactor breach. The affected area would experience lethal doses of radiation or catastrophic detonation.

It was possible the Ancients had stabilized their experimental power source before placing five reactors on this world. The only thing John knew for certain was if one of these things had malfunctioned, the planet was lucky to still be in one piece.

The Preminians needed some kind of warning. They needed McKay to take a look behind the back door of their little urban paradise.

And he very much wanted to give that warning but at what cost? If he started talking like he'd seen their technology before, he was toast.

That was why he and Teyla huddled by the wall. Just in case she'd read the mission reports from Doranda, he needed her to understand a friendly warning after they got off Premina was just as good, and way safer, than blurting about Project Arcturus inside the cell.

She agreed. That was the easy part.

Now for the questions. He didn't understand their significance. How long had he been a warrior? What was his birthplace? Were his parents living and where?

Teyla was equally confounded. "Why do they not ask where you were when the power center was sabotaged?"

He joined her at a whisper. "Apparently, it's not relevant."

"What is relevant?" Her frustration was obvious.

He was starting to wonder. Dipping his head so he could speak very softly, he said, "Suppose you were an agrarian people, friendly with the Ancestors, doing your part. Maybe a little inquisitive. Always listened when you were talked to. Then one day the Wraith come. And your patrons the Fathers, as the Preminians call them, run to your aid. They tell you they're checking out of the Pegasus hotel but before they go, they give you five experimental and potentially dangerous reactors. They manage not to blow up your world, for which you are grateful--"

"You are saying that the Ancients told the Preminians the power source was unstable."

"Hell yeah they told them. It's that or annihilation, or worse: never reaching your potential as a people, never able to dream of achieving …" He stopped. This was Teyla he was talking to. "So, the Ancients pat the Preminian forefathers on their collective heads and off they go."

"Would not the Ancients use such technology to remain on Atlantica?"

"My guess is Doranda as a visual aid killed that option. They figured they'd return to Atlantis one day, I know I would. Hey, they had a place to go. Some place the Wraith couldn't follow. Me, I'd leave before putting five unstable reactors in my backyard. The Preminians didn't have those choices."

"No, they did not."

He paused, wondering if he was distressing her. A walk down the memory lane of Wraith aggression in the Pegasus was probably not Teyla's idea of light conversation.

"You okay with this?"

"Please go on, Colonel."

"So, here you are, safe in a bubble. But it's a bubble. Have you noticed? These people have no natural enemies. They're arrogant. And they're starved for change. This Journeying thing is bizarre. They go out and record the rest of the galaxy living its life and bring it back here to give their lives some color. They have no concept of privacy, which is what happens when you have no external enemy and you'd rather feel smug than invent one. You turn your weapons on your own kind. The legal system is designed to decide guilt and then not prove it, because proof isn't important. It's sham. It's not real. They like the show. And they like to watch. It's like they're ghosts of something that died a long time ago."

"How does this help us?"

"I need to understand what they want me to say. They want to know about me but they don't want to talk to me. They sent a talking computer-generated program to interview me. They want to eavesdrop but they …" He froze, eyes locked on hers. "Okay, I know you're not a fan of this but I want you to go with me on this one. You ready?"

Her eyes widened slightly with alarm.

"Just go with me, okay?" he said, and kissed her.

Teyla saw him coming in and raised her shoulders. That was the only sign he picked up on that he'd shocked her. He held it a little bit, but he was barely touching her, which was a shame really, until she relaxed. Then her mouth opened and she brushed his lips, just a little half-kiss, but pretty good. She tasted like ginger, spice, herbs or something, that softly fragranted something he got when he kissed the right woman. He remembered the taste, too. Had not realized how often he thought about it until he kissed her again.

Glad she'd gotten into the assignment, John pulled back. In her face, he saw that she understood his thinking. If the Preminians liked to watch other cultures dancing and telling tales, maybe they'd delay the inevitable outcome of this farce of a process to watch a little drama. If they wanted him to open a vein and explain his life to a program that would record his answers for posterity, maybe they'd wait a few days to see a romance. Give Atlantis time to cook up a rescue.

She tipped her forehead to his chest, feigning intimacy, and whispered, "What do we do now?"

"I'm winging it," he confessed.

"Do you think they are watching as well as listening?"

"I think they got something outside this cell that watches when they want to. Don't know when they turn it on."

"What if they never turn it off?"

"We can darken the walls when we want privacy, but for now I want them to watch. I want you to act like they're watching and listening."

"Then I think we should look sad and tired."

"Yeah, that works. You're asking a lot, though." He slipped an arm around her shoulders, surprised by her warmth. Her skin was softer than he ever imagined, he'd found out a while ago and under different circumstances. He cleared his throat, thinking that getting turned on here would be a really bad idea. His hand settled her cheek down on his chest. He sighed.

After a moment, she said, "I can hear your heart."

Why did women say that? he wondered. Like they didn't know the man was alive until they got their ears full of heartbeat.

"I have amused you?" she asked, sensing his smirk.

"No. Yeah. Well, just a little." He relaxed more and traced soft reddish-brown strands behind her ears with his fingertips. "Don't fall asleep."

"I assure you, falling asleep is the last thing on my mind."

He quirked an eyebrow. "This stays out of the mission report."

x x x x x x x x

The last formal session of Principal Judicature occurred in the Atrium of the Temple of the Supervisory. Michiko, dressed formally in cobalt robes, coifed and perfumed, sat quietly in the elevated wing reserved for the Conclave. Below him droned the Clerk of the Supervisory, who had been chosen for his polished, fluid voice. Michiko, who had reviewed the Sheppard files as they were made available, found the lengthy session interesting only for its opportunity to witness the work of the seven Administrators, judges who would eventually-- at the end of session --pronounce guilt.

The lacquered wood and the slate tiles of the Atrium still reminded Michiko of the Ancestors. In the beginning, as the Ancestors instructed and then observed the Preminian forefathers, this room had been their favorite. To know the soul of one's fellow was the greatest achievement. So it was written. Many of the Ancients had become godlike in their ability to comprehend the souls and minds of others. The Preminians had modeled Basic Law to follow the teachings of the Ancestors. The result was pleasing, he believed, and while less than perfect their system of determining culpability had resolved many difficult cases.

It did not need, in Michiko's opinion, the assistance of censors. The deletions from the official file of John Sheppard was not the Arbitist way. It was, however, the Preminian way. He must find it within him to give Arleus Meta and other such forward-thinking men time to implement long due changes that would bring Premina to the path intended by the Fathers.

As for this, the adjudication of the case of John Sheppard, well, this was necessary and ending. Michiko tuned in as the Clerk spoke the words of John Sheppard in monotone. He checked the chronometer above the bronze pedestal of the High Lord to be certain. Yes, it was ending.

Hebban touched his sleeve and nodded. "You seem restless."

Michiko resolved to pay the older man no heed. Hebban would see soon enough.

The Administrators began their vote.

This usually did not take long. Michiko shifted his haunches and listened to the coughs and creaking of old men and old bones. The majority of the Supervisory served the Modernists and Revisionists parties. It was not the Supervisors who elected the High Lord. If a Modernist or Revisionist had been on the pedestal, Sheppard and his woman would be dead by this hour tomorrow.

The Administrators announced their vote. There were three dissenters, which used to occur when Procurators pursued death as punishment. Michiko managed not to smile. In this case, Arleus Meta had parted with personal assets to secure a less than sweeping vote.

Vulnerable to the collective antipathy of the Supervisors, the Administrators voted in anonymity. The guarantee of anonymity had made it easier for Arleus to manipulate them.

Culpability, however, was assigned. As expected.

The High Lord rose on his pedestal, his usual mercurial, youthful form subdued in the flowing formal black uniform of head of state.

He promised the Supervisors he would deliberate with a solemn heart and mind and respond to the Temple as soon as reason allowed.

And, he said, he had burdened one among them with the responsibility of meeting John Sheppard eye to eye.

Michiko rose when called upon and bowed his head in gratitude.

Hebban recoiled as though scalded.

Michiko, when he took his seat, turned slightly to Hebban and said, "There is purpose here you do not as yet understand."

x x x x x x x x

Caldwell jerked a glance at Rossi. "Well?"

"I'm getting a data burst from Atlantis, sir."

Caldwell nodded.

"Receiving transmission," Rossi said tonelessly. "Colonel, it is a code."

"Atlantis, this is Caldwell." He sat upright, brow creased with concentration. "We have the code but cannot, repeat, cannot penetrate the planetary shield to deliver it."

"Colonel Caldwell." Hermiod's inflectionless voice reached Caldwell's earpiece. "Fluctuation in the shield integrity may allow the disarm code to be effective."

Finally, something useful. Caldwell prodded his chin with a finger. "Atlantis, I recommend we fire on the shield."

Weir said, after a pause, "Dr. McKay thinks firing on the shield will substantially strain their defense system by increasing its need for power. It may even cause the shield to lose integrity long enough for you broadcast the disarm code successfully."

"We agree. I'm moving Daedalus into geosynchronous orbit over what appears to be a large body of water. Don't want to hit something soft if we punch through." He dropped his hands to the armrests. "Ready all missile batteries. Hermiod, maintain a scan for Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and Teyla. I want them out of there first chance we get."

"Yes, Colonel Caldwell."

"On my command." Caldwell sighed. "Commence firing."

x x x x x x x x

Michiko arrived at Quadrant Hedrex Four in an armored transporter marked with the emblem of the Conclave. The transporter was led by a war-man with port guns and chutes capable of launching crowd-controlling gas. It was trailed by two security teams and supported by drone air units armed with pinces. He was not normally so cautious with travel. However, the precincts around the installation had shown unrest of late and would likely continue to do so until the special class prisoners were moved or done away with.

Once inside the maximum-security gates, Michiko relaxed sufficiently to begin the mental exercise of launching and hopefully controlling the interview with John Sheppard. He had been trained as a medical doctor and only turned to politics when the Modernists, in his opinion, threatened to make a mockery of everything Premina once stood for. Do away with the Journeying? Yes, they'd wanted that, to turn their collective back on the last opportunity to fulfill their contractual obligation to the Fathers.

Solon greeted Michiko and his party at the ground check-in station. Grim as usual, Solon barely managed to refrain from acknowledging Arleus Meta, who had come dressed as Michiko's aide. The subterfuge was Meta's construct and quite typical of the man. Neither Solon nor Michiko would have attempted to dissuade their fellow Arbitist.

Solon and the Conveyors led the way. There was no talking, just the sound of boots and dress shoes clamoring against stone.

The lighting improved once they reached the cube. The crystal absorbed their footfalls. The cube had been designed to exclude ambient noise in order to enhance audio recording inside the cells. Solon flicked his hand at his Conveyors, who melted away. That left three aides-- two elderly and Arleus Meta posing as one --and Michiko in front of John Sheppard's cell. The elderly aides held transcript devices. Arleus clasped his hands behind his back, gazed thoughtfully into the cell, and took up position directly at Michiko's back.

Solon left them. He had no desire to remain.

Michiko approached the cell of John Sheppard, noting the man appeared to be waiting for him.

At the back of his cell, taking them in, Sheppard leaned into the wall with arms and ankles crossed. Recovered from the flash treatment he'd received at the Zone One facility, Sheppard appeared more like the person Michiko had envisioned. In spite of the lounging posture, Michiko realized he was looking at a warrior. The dead-on gaze fit Michiko's expectations as well. Hebban had mentioned it but at Zone One, when Michiko laid eyes on him, Sheppard had been disoriented by pain.

Michiko palmed the control pad to allow the crystal to absorb his command, then thinned the barrier wall, so Sheppard could hear him.

"Greetings, John Sheppard. Perhaps we might speak."

Sheppard seemed at ease but it was, Michiko thought, the ease of a predator awaiting his moment. "The trial's over. What's to talk about?"

The dividing wall shimmered, creating an opening.

As soon as the doorway appeared, Sheppard straightened. His eyes, indeed his entire body, turned toward the doorway, eliciting a tingle of excitement in Michiko.

The woman, Teyla Emmagan.

Sheppard said, his voice and his face softening, "They're here."

Teyla's reply, low and matter-of-fact, reached Michiko easily. "Shall I join you?"

"No."

The doorway sealed.

Sheppard came forward to stand in front of Michiko. "What do you want?" He had transformed into that other man, the warrior, leaving the lover behind.

"To converse with you. To learn from you. We have time."

"How much time?"

"It is my considered opinion you will not be sentenced to death. The verdict was not unanimous. When a verdict in a case such as yours is not unanimous, it is our High Lord that determines confinement or death. You were able to come to Premina in spite of our security protocols. We would like to know how such was accomplished. Were you among our own scientists? How was the implant obtained and encoded? In exchange for your cooperation, we will--"

"I didn't do it. I never came here. I can't help you."

Michiko nodded quickly. "We understand these protestations are necessary." Especially if you are innocent. He swallowed. "She is a fine woman, is she not?"

Sheppard's expression darkened and, Michiko decided, became somewhat threatening. "She didn't do anything either."

"Yes, yes, we can come to an arrangement here." We must if we Preminians are to live with ourselves ... "I would know, is she wedded or betrothed?"

"None of your business."

"No, it is not. My curiosity for other cultures often gets the better of me. I am a very curious man. Tell me, is not the leader of the Athosians bound to marry the leader of another people in order to bring new strength and blood to her race? I thought that was their way. Until the time of her joining, is it not true that she must stay inviolate or risk losing her value to her future husband, whose offspring will rule two races?"

"She isn't married. She isn't engaged. I'm sure she'd like to be both one day. Want to talk about how to make that happen?"

"I can," said Michiko, "make that happen. If you offered your knowledge of our power centers for her freedom, we, the Preminian people, would be open to such a trade."

Sheppard grew still and quiet. After a moment: "Open to letting her go?"

"If you agreed to share your knowledge while you were in confinement, we would agree to release her to her people. She must sever ties with your kind, of course, but if she agreed to this, we would clear the way for her to go home."

Sheppard nodded once.

Michiko, pleased to have the other man's attention, went on. "You come from the city of the Fathers. You know about our power centers. We do not. The module and software you are said to have designed to disable the failsafe, we would like--"

"See, we're going to run into a problem when you talk like that. I didn't design a module. I didn't design a program. I don't design things."

"Perhaps, if you told us what you did do. What you can do."

Sheppard looked at Michiko as he would a child. "I didn't do anything. Wow. You'd think I'd said that enough times."

"Will this become a difficulty for you then?"

"Will this become a difficulty? Yeah, it might. Up till now, though, it's been a good two days. Thanks for asking."

It was Michiko's turn to look irritated. "Lies will not serve."

"Never doubted it."

"We will insist on the truth."

"Let me ask you something. How many people on your world possess the Ancient gene?"

"Many. The gene is a prerequisite for military service, as personal shields are standard issue. Our engineers must have the gene to maintain the transports at our evacuation centers."

"Your evacuation centers?"

"In the event of catastrophic overload at our strategic power centers, we must be able to get our key personnel through the Stargate as quickly as possible. Is the number of gene-carriers important?"

x x x x x x x x

John studied the long-legged, slim man before him with a mixture of anger and need. Some time ago the Mediary had advised him of the result of Principal Judicature. From that moment, John had assumed the worst. When he was told to expect an official of the Conclave, he had assumed he was going to get really bad news. The Mediary said the Conclave was a body of politicians reporting directly to the High Lord. The High Lord was the man in charge of the Federated States of Premina. What John didn't want, he didn't want to get killed and leave Teyla to go through Principal Judicature alone. Although any time was time and time meant hope.

When the groomed and officious official mentioned Teyla was a fine woman, John began to wonder if his shot in the blind had landed. These people experienced their galaxy only through others, he reminded himself. They were cowardly but desperate for sensation. Unfortunately, they'd received an abundance of stimuli when their power center exploded. Paradise had been shaken. God, he knew how that felt. If they offered him life, even life in confinement, it meant he, along with Elizabeth and Atlantis, still had a chance at finding some way through this.

John said, carefully, "If you have a number of gene-carriers, you were inoculated by the Ancients in order to operate their technology. I am surprised they'd do that and then just let you sit here, all by yourselves, no agenda."

"Ah." Michiko bowed his head. "Some believe it is as the Father's intended, that we the people of Premina were selected over all others to flourish while others were abandoned."

John cocked his head, staring.

"I and others like me do not believe this way. The Fathers intended we become sanctuary for any who came to our planet. We can no longer be that place for which we were intended, for as you have seen we are now too many, but in the beginning we said that we would and for many centuries we were an open, generous people. It came to be that the people who fled to us brought their ways and not all embraced Basic Law. In time, the governments of Aragona, Erothena, Premina Prime, and Vanda came together to work out our differences. It was agreed the Stargate would belong to a single cooperative and the use by others would be limited. Eventually, we stopped accepting other races altogether. It is not a proud period in our history."

"I can see that."

"What about you? Were you so desperate to have our power source that you would condemn hundreds of thousands to death?"

John parted his lips and glanced askance. "Hundreds of thousands? No." He looked at the man directly. "And not for twenty either. Or one life. I'd like to think I'm better than that but I don't know, I've been cranky lately."

"Michiko," a man said to the official's back.

Michiko wheeled around as though goosed. "Yes," he blurted, astonished, it seemed, to have been addressed by the aide with dark hair.

"There is an emergency at Zone One and we should attend to it," the aide said, his gaze shifting coolly to John.

John's brow wrinkled in thought. He was used to meeting authority head on. The aide's oddly direct gaze made him want to square his shoulders, tighten his body.

Michiko turned back to John, disappointed. "We will meet again and all the necessary files will be put in order, so that we can enter into formal accord. For your part, you must tell us what you know about the power centers, the crystals, the reactors, and their function. In return, we will spare your life, and the life of your mate. Is this acceptable?"

"You're asking me?"

"Yes, I am asking you."

"Promise to let Teyla go. That's non-negotiable. She 'gates out of here."

"And in exchange, you will tell us what you did ..."

John said, "I can't ... Look, I know enough about your reactors to help you. What I know is worth her life. You're not getting any confessions ... If that's a sticking point ..."

"If that's a sticking point, you'll what? You will lie?"

John didn't answer.

Michiko nodded. "We will consider what you have agreed to do. It is a place to start." He turned aside, leading his aides from the cube.

x x x x x x x x

She had refrained from arguing with him, which was only the beginning of the odd things that happened that night. He was facing confinement, while she had her freedom to look to. There were worse things.

They were being fed wafers with a clear beverage that tasted too sweet to be water. Teyla ate in his cell. He barely had an appetite, which surprised him. He knew what happened to a body under stress when it didn't get enough to eat. He needed his faculties. As soon as he took a bite, he looked up fast. "What is that?"

Teyla looked up too. Her bangs were in her eyes. She swept them aside, staring at the darkening cube ceiling. "I do not know."

His heart took up a hard, hollow thud. He put down the wafer and went to the front of the cell. "Ordinance," he said, thickly.

"Should we be able to hear if there is rioting outside the complex?"

"It's not coming from the ground. It's coming from the sky."

Teyla lowered her hand to her lap. "The Daedalus has come." She swept her eyes shut but not in relief.

John backed up and swore. "Mediary. Mediary!"

x x x x x x x x

Caldwell contacted Atlantis. "This is Daedalus. We have commenced missile barrages against the shield. The shield is holding."

McKay spat over the com. "Daedalus, we recommend you concentrate fire on one section of the shield. That should force it to drain power from other sections."

Caldwell quipped, "Understood," and gestured to Rossi. "You heard him."

x x x x x x x x

"Mediary!" Teyla added her voice to John's.

The Mediary hologram appeared. As she suspected, because John had finished Principal Judicature, the Mediary no longer responded to him.

"Mediary," she said breathlessly, "you must tell your officials to allow us to communicate with the ship that is in orbit above your world. You must allow us to tell it to stop what it is doing. The safety of your world is at stake."

The hologram digested her request without reacting.

Teyla knotted her fists. "Mediary, do you hear me?"

John lowered his hand to her shoulder. "It's not a computer program like it wants us to think it is. It responds to something. Remember when we asked it certain things, how it hesitated? It gets its answers from somebody somewhere. Apparently, there's no one at the switch right now."

"Colonel, we must make Daedalus stop what it is doing."

"I'm aware of that and open to suggestions."

Teyla surged forward, her tone pleading. "Mediary, please, you must allow us to speak with our people. We are not dangerous, nor do we wish to harm your world." She glared at the hologram, trembling with frustration.

John took a long breath. "Mediary, we believe the Ancestors gave your planet five small models of an experimental reactor they called Project Arcturus. The reactors were most likely set up to coordinate power distribution, because, and this is the important part, when these reactors increase power output they blow up. You don't have five anymore. You have four. I think if four was a good number, the Ancestors would have given you four to begin with. Your reactors could overload if we don't tell our ship to stop firing on you. Two things, bad and worse, happen when these things overload--"

The hologram winked out.

John nodded as though a suspicion was confirmed. "Idiots."

Teyla uttered, "Oh no."

x x x x x x x x

Weir ordered Rodney to dial the Stargate on Premina. From the gallery above the Stargate, she watched the blast as a wormhole formed.

Lindwall, on her left, told her she had communication with the Preminian world.

"I am Doctor Elizabeth Weir of the Atlantis expedition. You are holding two members of my team. I warn you, we have means to render your Stargate security shield inoperative. We also have a battle cruiser in orbit above your planet. We intend to disable your planetary shield by any means possible. In doing so, we may render it permanently unable to function. You must disable your shield long enough for us to recover our people. We do not need to come through your gate or land on your world. Lower your shield for ten counts and our technology will rescue our people with no impact whatsoever to your world or population. Let us recover our people and we will leave your world and never return, I give my word."

She had paced while she spoke. Now she froze, hoping for a response.

The operations team, too, had gone still around her.

Nothing.

She turned her head and saw Beckett standing on the steps to operations. Her heart skipped a beat. Then she told Lindwall to loop her message and broadcast for thirty-eight minutes, which was the length of time the Stargate would remain active.

She closed on Beckett, growing pale. "Ronon?"

"He is conscious and doing as well as can be expected, given the injury. Elizabeth, he says he was shot by a Preminian security officer after he found a picture of Colonel Sheppard in one of the Preminian tents."

"I don't understand."

"He said to remember Ladon Radim and the wanted pictures he and Teyla found when we believed Major Lorne had been killed."

"Yes, I remember."

"He said it was one of those and the picture was Colonel Sheppard's."

x x x x x x x x

Michiko approached the broad metallic desk of the High Lord of Premina. The private office was dim, its only illumination the garden panels that remained open to the evening air.

"You sent for me, my lord?" Michiko uttered, dry-voiced.

The High Lord tossed something in a long-fingered, sinewy hand while intently studying a screen raised above his desk. "It seems you have half your answer, my friend, and all you had to do was wait."

Michiko gasped as the High Lord unceremoniously tossed a small black object into his hands.

"It is a device that, while operational, transmitted a disarm frequency to our Stargate, or so our technicians tell us." The High Lord's features were composed, yet there was decidedly something wretched stirring within his eyes. "It is a relatively simple construction. When it pierces the event horizon, as it rematerializes, it emits a burst that tells our security shield to turn off."

"Sheppard used this," Michiko mumbled, astonished, "when he came for our power source?"

"Did he come for our power source? If you disregard Sacred Word, then yes, since this is, apparently, his technology and the technology of his people. Is this device noted in any file of Principal Judicature? While we are reflecting on what we think we know, where is word that my Stargate security teams permitted an unscheduled wormhole traveler to reach Zone One, leave that installation, and set up in Premina Prime?"

Michiko looked wounded. "It is not in Sacred Word, my lord. Testimony rendered in Principal Judicature showed Sheppard arrived on Premina with an implant given by our scientists. He was most likely disguised as one of them, thereby breaching our checkpoint."

"Here." The High Lord rotated a monitor that showed a woman in a red shirt speaking with authority. "She is comely, isn't she? She says that she can disable the shield of the Fathers."

"She cannot."

"Of course she cannot. However, she resides in the city of the Fathers and has at her disposal their technology."

"If she could, she would have by now. "

"I agree." The High Lord rose slowly from his chair. "Yet I do find it disturbing the power centers at Aragona and Erothena are reporting instability in the reactors."

Michiko deflated, eyes flickering here and there as he fought to organize his thoughts. "Tell me how I may serve you, my lord?"

"You can forgive me, my friend. The rest is being seen to."

"Forgive you?"

"It is the first test of our resolve in ten thousand years. As it falls to me, on the recommendation of the Supervisory, I have chosen defiance. You will lament this course for its Modernist view. However, I am at this moment content to affirm Premina is alone in the universe. Our people need no one to survive. Our world is inviolate."

"The gods will forgive you, Arleus. I may not."

Arleus Meta nodded. "We will meet later, when it is done."

x x x x x x x x

The Mediary did not return.

John supposed, "The remaining power centers have failsafes. If they keep coordinating the power demand as they were meant to … I think as long as the failsafes work right, the reactors shouldn't overload."

"And if we damage their world shield, who will repair it?" Teyla asked, distressed.

"Maybe it won't break," he tried to give her something. "Maybe it will fluctuate and give just enough room for Daedalus to beam us out."

The possibility calmed her somewhat, though not enough that she would sit down, return to her cell, or finish her meal.

The steady boom above the atmosphere, like faint but stirring thunder, made it easy for Solon and the Conveyors to reach the cube without John realizing it until he saw them outside the cell.

"Teyla Emmagan," Solon said.

Teyla faced him, stiffening.

"I have brought a medical technician to take a blood sample. Will you come forward and extend your arm through the aperture?"

She regarded the elderly figure of Solon with suspicion. "Why do you need a sample of my blood?"

John saw the official hesitate and felt claws of ice invade his gut.

Solon said, "Our chief method of execution is by gas. In order that you do not suffer needlessly, we wish to test your blood. If your physiognomy is resistant to the compound, it will take a long time for you to die. We can make an alteration if we are aware there will be a problem."

John supposed they didn't care if he suffered or they used the blood sample they took from him when they healed his ribs.

"She hasn't had a trial," he said.

"By executive order, you and she are condemned to death. Will you come forward, Teyla?"

"I will not." Every line in Teyla's body hardened to do battle.

John slid up beside her, conflicted. Solon seemed in a hurry but a blood test took time. If John ordered Teyla to take the test, the Preminians would have to wait until the test was done before trying to kill them. If he let Teyla choose and she chose according to her nature, the next event might be a long nap.

"Go do it," he rasped.

"I will not," she said again.

He lowered his voice but gave it an edge that, as long as they were in the field, she would recognize as an order: "Teyla, go do it."

She tightened her belly and her jaw. When she twisted her head to glare at him, she showed the tendons taut as bowstrings standing out in her neck.

He pointed with his chin. Said, "Please," to make her re-think the pummeling she was considering giving him.

She marched to the front of the cell and thrust her forearm through an aperture that appeared at Solon's command. A medical technician stepped forward. John waited until the tech had taken the sample and Teyla had pulled in her arm to ask, "How much time?"

Solon threw him a look. "We will commence immediately."

"After you test her, you mean."

"Yes."

John started toward the front of the cell. "So how much time is that?"

"It will be long enough to make peace with your gods." Solon shot a look at Teyla before marching his people out of the cube.

Teyla whirled around. A groan escaped her throat. "They cannot do this."

"Yeah, they can. This is why they went looking for me. This is what they think they need to do so they can get on with their lives."

Over a breath simmering with anger, she asked, "What do you mean?"

"The Preminians are making decisions based on centuries of near-isolation."

"They are wrong!" She knotted her fists. "I have known Hebban many years. I was not born the first time he came to my world!"

"You and I don't matter, Teyla. What's real doesn't matter. We're only real in the way we impact them and only as a distraction from the fact they're stuck here for eternity and this is all there is. These people don't care about what goes on off world, they never have."

"I do not believe I can accept that they intend to kill you."

John looked at her and saw, yes, she was definitely headed for a rough moment. Didn't mention that they were in the same boat. He couldn't locate the words even if he wanted them. Instead he threw his arms around her shoulders. She was starting to shake. He was sure it was fury more than fear but it was violent, as though a storm erupted inside her and wanted to get out. He held her so that it could get out and not harm her. Her hands caught his arms, digging in. It hurt a little. Might have hurt a bit more if he was thinking about it. But he wasn't thinking about it. He was thinking about her and how to help her through the storm.

It ended with a whoosh of air that she flung from her as though she'd been under water and he had just brought her to the surface. When she stopped trembling, he gathered her in. Cupped the back of her head. His arms found her frame small in size, they always did, but his mind and his heart knew her strength. He folded her to him, just let her breathe.

After a while he let go. He didn't want to look at her face, wasn't ready yet for that, although he knew she hadn't cried. Wouldn't cry. This wasn't the girl next door. He'd cry first.

"There's time," he uttered, slipping away to work that out in his head. The shield overhead just had to fail a little. Only a little. Teyla still had her locator beacon and there was no reason to believe his had been removed when he was in the infirmary.

She gave him a rigid nod. "I know there is, Colonel. We are still alive."

"Yeah, we're still alive." He began to pace.

They were running out of nervous chatter. The cube would open any minute, any second now.

x x x x x x x x

Caldwell stood on the bridge, hands loose at his side. "Atlantis, this is Daedalus. We're recording fluctuations in the shield's integrity. We have transmitted the disarm code and we believe the code has reached the surface. The code doesn't work. Hermiod is attempting to modify the program."

"Understood, Colonel. We're doing everything we can at this end."

Caldwell returned to the command chair. "Be advised we have been unable to locate Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and Teyla's beacons."

"How is your ordinance, Colonel?" Dr. Weir queried.

"We're not there yet," Caldwell replied, "but we will get there sooner rather than later."

"Dr. McKay is making adjustments to the program. We'll data burst his program as soon as it's ready."

x x x x x x x x

Arleus Meta used the tips of his fingers to smooth the skin over his brow. His screen space was economized to allow power center status reports to appear next to the observation point reports and updates from QH-Four. He was perfectly capable of balancing competing priorities.

Civil unrest had grown to unmanageable levels as the population realized that an unfriendly ship was at war with them.

The power centers were calling the fluctuations the most extreme they had ever seen, with Aragona, the center closest to the weapons fire, reporting the highest number of alert messages. With the example of Vanda fresh in the memories of the scientists, there was general panic and shouting for full shut down. As a ruler of Premina, Arleus was privy to the doctrine that warned against manual intervention at the power centers, especially manual shut downs and manual power ups. If they shut down manually, that was it, the station was finished. Only an Ancient or someone with knowledge of Ancient technology could re-initialize the automated system. He could deactivate the shield. Deactivation of the shield would alleviate the demand for energy but expose the planet to fire power from an enemy in orbit.

The observation points contributed nothing but Solon at QH-Four had sent word that he had eliminated the final barrier to conducting the executions. Did he, Arleus, want the executions done separately or together?

Separately would be best for the populace, which would welcome the distraction from the bombardment. Killing Sheppard and Teyla one after the other took longer. But it would involve two separate orders. Arleus found the prospect of issuing the order twice distasteful.

He sent back to conduct the executions at once and together. Then let his gaze inch toward the image on the screen of a dark-haired woman imploring him to treat with her.

Hundreds of thousands? No. And not for twenty either. Or one life, John Sheppard had said.

Arleus Meta clasped his hands in front of him. You are a better man than I am, Sheppard. I am quite willing to kill two.

x x x x x x x x

John sat with Teyla on his bunk, elbows on his knees, his face angled toward her. He was whispering, "They're coming. Here's what you're going to do. You're going to remember no matter how south this goes, up to the moment our hearts stop beating somebody can stop it or the Daedalus can get us."

"I am fine, Colonel," Teyla said.

He studied his laced fingers. "I know you are. Nothing happens to you unless it happens to me too. We're going to be okay."

"I have no intention of leaving your side," she exhaled. "If we are freed of this existence, I shall still be with you."

He brushed her cheek with his knuckles. Her skin was hot, almost feverish. That went through him like a knife. He stood up, held out his hand. Solon and crew had appeared outside the cell. He needed to face them, and so did she. Teyla took his hand and drew herself to her feet. He gave her hand a squeeze, then let go.

The front of the cell dissolved and formed an opening. Solon and a small army of Conveyors entered.

x x x x x x x x

Michiko watched his screen as tables were wheeled into the cell for the condemned. Platforms for the tables were engaged.

He no longer saw John Sheppard and Teyla Emmagan. The man who used to be Sheppard, the man Michiko had hunted for the High Lord of Premina, had disappeared some hours ago in the fog of untruth for the sake of expediency. The woman, Teyla, though she breathed, had become like the man, a ghost. It was customary to refuse to speak the names of the dead in the moments and days between death and entombment. This man and woman would never be entombed, and so they would be forever present . . . and forgotten.

The man and the woman waited in the grip of Conveyors. Solon's men held the prisoners at the end of their batons until the tables had been prepared. The man who used to be Sheppard was taken to the left, the woman to the right. The man resisted only a little, his resistance token and perhaps residual. He seemed to understand that he was outnumbered and in Solon's power. The woman did not resist at all.

When the condemned had been secured, Michiko summoned the Mediary to explain the process of death and what would happen after the man and woman had died. The Mediary demonstrated the ultimate function of the tables by extending the crystal until it had encased the man and the woman. Thusly would they endure eternity in their final place in the Forum.

The man said his people would not allow their bodies to remain on Premina. He wanted to be sent back to Atlantis.

The Mediary refused and quoted Basic Law, making the man angrier.

The dividing wall had been dissolved, enlarging the chamber. The tables were positioned side by side. The Conveyors and Solon departed the chamber. The man turned his head and said to the woman, "I'm right here," to which the woman replied in her small, tender voice, "I know you are, John."

x x x x x x x x

The Conveyors bound Teyla to the table first. She went unresisting, her head up and shoulders back, her mouth set in defiance.

When it was his turn John found it difficult to submit to the table. The Conveyors forced him onto its hard, cool surface, then activated restraining bands for his wrists, waist, ankles, and knees. The Conveyors filed out.

The room panels hardened to smoky gray as the compound released.

The first sign of distress came from a sudden alteration in consciousness. John suspected the compound displaced oxygen or affected his body's ability to use it and he was suffering from deprivation.

The thrumming in his head became excruciating pressure, like a belt snapped hard around his skull. His hands and feet twitched involuntarily, reacting to the lack of oxygen. A different sort of pressure settled around his lungs, squeezing. He wasn't getting air, which meant he had seconds, not minutes, of consciousness.

x x x x x x x x

The gas came. The man struggled. The woman didn't. She hardly moved at all. When the man was about to succumb the images of the man and the woman blurred. There was an iridescent light and an astonishing distortion. Michiko blinked, and the man and woman were gone.

Michiko stood up in his office, breathing hard. He wasn't sure how he felt about what he had just seen. He listened to the sky. If he was right, if in his heart he was right, the roar of rage from the throat of the monster above his planet would be soon silence. If he was wrong, the beast would continue its assault until its weapons depleted or the shield failed.

Michiko clenched his eyes, ears straining.

One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three …

The canon in the sky ceased.

He sighed, leaned down, and touched the pad that gave immediate access to the High Lord of Premina.

"Yes, Michiko," Arleus Meta said.

"You have seen what I saw?"

"Yes, Michiko. Is there something I can do for you?"

Michiko flushed, embarrassed to have assumed Arleus would react as he did, believe as he did. Still, he said it. "If Sheppard and his people were what we expected, they would not have ended the attack. We killed two of their kind."

Arleus said, "I am occupied now with affairs, Michiko. Perhaps we can discuss this at a later time." Arleus ended the link.

Michiko stared at the panel with his jaw hanging. Arleus! What have you done?

x x x x x x x x

Caldwell said, "We have them."

Elizabeth asked, "What's their condition, Colonel?"

"That's being determined. I can tell you they were exposed to some sort of toxin. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard is in and out but responding to treatment. Teyla is on life support. I'll have our med team relay updates every fifteen minutes. Should that do it?"

"Colonel," said Weir after a moment, "thank you. Good work."

Caldwell said, "Excuse me but we didn't do it. The shield fell on its own. We got a lock and beamed them to Medical. Once we had them the shield went up. It was a ten-second window. We believe the Preminians let them go."

x x x x x x x x

"Unscheduled off world activation," Lindwall announced throatily. It had been a rough few hours.

Weir approached her console.

Lindwall said, "Receiving a transmission."

"Let's hear it."

There was a cackle, like digital noise, followed by a man speaking. The man sounded young as he murmured, "Greetings, Doctor Weir. I am Arleus Meta, head of the Federated States of Premina. I believe we have much to discuss."

"I have a visual," Lindwall confirmed.

Weir frowned. This man-- and his silence --was responsible for the last two and half days. She wanted to see his face.

"I am Doctor Weir. You need a lesson, Arleus Meta, on the proper way to make friends." She was looking at a strong face, good looking and implacable, with cropped dark hair and light-colored eyes. It was not a face that smiled often but it bore the clarity of intelligence. "You exposed two people to lethal gas."

"Doctor Weir, I will make amends for the silence and distance of my people if you will agree to accept apology for the loss of your personnel and Teyla Emmagan from one who believes there is much to be learned by the mistakes of the past. Meet with me. You will not find me ungrateful."


Epilogue: Atlantis in Morning


Elizabeth gently clicked her laptop shut, pushed to her feet, and went to the medlab.

As she walked in, Ronon shifted from his back to his side, which, she'd been told, he did a lot. He was afraid to "heal stiff." She had smiled when she heard this. There was normal and there was normal. Today normal was knowing the status of every member of her team.

Ronon, stiff or not, was getting better.

She crossed to his bedside.

He looked up, then away, uneasy being flat on his back. He looked at her again, a faint, Ronon-like smirk bending his mouth. "The last time I landed in post-op, you put me here."

There you go, Ronon. Level the field. He was good at that. Meanwhile, she burned red to her ears, flashing to unpleasant memories of losing her mind and will to the consciousness of a deranged alien entity.

Ronon sobered and pointed his chin at the curtained cubicle across the way. "She going to make it?"

Elizabeth turned to look. There was just enough space in the curtains to see John Sheppard holding vigil at Teyla's side.

"Yes, she's breathing on her own and her life signs are stable. We're just waiting for her to wake up."

Ronon said, "They saved my life."

Elizabeth cocked her head, unsure what he meant.

"They could have fought. On Athos. More would have died but they could have fought. They drew the Preminians off world so our people could get me back here." He flicked a glance to the curtain. "They saved my life."

Elizabeth appreciated his sentimentality. And she was always glad for a reminder that Ronon Dex had a softer side.

"Again, you mean," she said.

He glanced up at her. "What?"

"You mean, they saved your life again. We do that for each other a lot around here."

He sighed.

"Get some rest, Ronon." She padded to the curtains, stopped at the opening, and waited for John to glance at her. "How is she?"

John looked a little rough himself. He was pale and he had lost weight. When he wasn't at Teyla's side, he was two beds down opposite Ronon, where Carson Beckett preferred him.

"She's good," John said, a little tentatively, like he needed to believe that. "If you keep talking to them, sometimes they wake up faster."

"True," Elizabeth agreed. "Make sure you're looking after yourself."

"I'm good."

"I can see that. Would you like something to eat, a Turkey sandwich maybe?"

"I'm not hungry. You go, though." He resumed his vigil.

Elizabeth wanted to squeeze his shoulder, hold his hand, do something. She saw what he'd been through in his report, but there was more to see, much more, in the shadows under his eyes and the downward turn of his mouth. So she didn't go any closer. He seemed to need the space.

x x x x x x x x

John saw the sluggish flutter of Teyla's eyelids, practiced a couple of smiles so when she got her eyes open he didn't scare her back into a coma.

"Hello," he said.

"Where--" The word caught in her throat. "Where are we?"

That was easy. "We're home."


DISCLAIMER: "Stargate SG-1," "Stargate Atlantis," and its characters are the property of MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp., Showtime/Viacom and USA Networks, Inc. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations and story are the property of the author and may not be republished or archived elsewhere without the author's permission.