Dark Matter

by

Ryan C. Charles

Author's Note: The discovery of a hidden civilization proves deadly for John Sheppard and Atlantis. This fanfic is set in Season Three between Episode 304: Sateda and Episode 305: Progeny, with references (spoilers) from Episode 216: The Long Goodbye.


Part One: Sarcophagi


Elizabeth Weir, commander of the Atlantis expedition, descended a softly illuminated staircase to the embarkation floor.

The dead go home now. In one form or another, the dead return to Earth.

Sergeant Oliverio and Corporal Sayles died on M7R-768.

There had been a eulogy the previous day. Now the expedition's science and military personnel assembled above her on staircases and catwalks to see the Marines home.

As body bags strapped to gurneys rolled toward the Stargate's glowing iris, Elizabeth reached the 'gate room floor.

She had seen the off world mission report. Recalled that the pre-mission briefing was optimistic. The science teams were looking for Stargates to harvest for a space bridge between the Pegasus and Milky Way galaxies.

Thinking about M7R-768, Elizabeth realized it was not unusual that MALP telemetry provided her first and only glimpse of a world on which two of her people had died.

The visual telemetry had sketched a brace of small summer trees, a powder sky, and a cart track windng between something resembling grain fields. She remembered the vista had seemed ordinary. Grain fields meant civilization but Elizabeth was for putting boots to ground, as her military point man, John Sheppard, liked to say. Since 768 had a population, the likelihood of harvesting the Stargate was nil, so the science teams had stayed in Atlantis. The air was good, she remembered reading on the MALP relay screen, a comfortable seventy-eight degrees.

Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard had taken two teams of Marines-- the second team under Major Lorne --to a settlement. As they neared a cluster of locals at a small outdoor market, Sheppard and the Marines met an ambush. According to the mission report, Oliverio and Sayles were lost in the first flash of weapons fire.

The Marine survivors had maneuvered out of the crossfire and into a position of advantage. Elizabeth supposed the ensuing firefight was over quickly. She was getting used to reading about combat. John Sheppard had a clipped writing style but when there were fatalities he took his time with the details. Thanks to his report Elizabeth could see the incident on the stage of her mind.

The settlement had a timber stockade that overlooked the cart track. The iron-braced gate was open and empty. A market, which John described carefully, was visible at the gateway, scattered with locals in dyed homespun. The structures near the stockade entrance reminded Elizabeth of bothies, little hovels. Beyond the market stood elevated dwellings of better character. Sheppard had called out his usual greeting. The locals had seemed uneasy but the stockade gate had been open and Sheppard and his teams were moving slowly.

They were hit with pistol fire. It came at them in a semi-circle. Sheppard wrote that he heard six shots, which made Elizabeth wonder if four bullets often went astray. Sheppard had looked at her when she asked him and just nodded. She was not to have a satisfactory reply to the errant shot question.

The Marines shot back. That was easy enough to imagine. She'd heard the jackhammer sound of their P90s up close, smelled the hot casings and stinging gas that trailed the guns. The assault weapons were normally cold, except where a Marine's hand rested on the metal, but when they fired the gun barrels heated quickly. Her memory of a projectile charging explosively from a P90 barrel still vibrated violently within her body. Sheppard called what they did on 768 suppression fire. Translation: they shot at what was shooting at them so the ones shooting would duck for cover. She imagined it wasn't easy. No, she knew it wasn't easy. He never said how they did it without hitting the locals. The locals were not the problem, of course. How was that immediately obvious? It was, John wrote. And many of the locals dropped flat, as though competing factions shooting up their market was everyday.

The Marines dragged Sayles and Oliverio under the timber stockade. Idle shots rang out. Sheppard had supposed they were outnumbered. Rogues rarely liked to work hard, although sometimes they got stupid. Rogues, Sheppard said, were used to other rogues. These thugs used the Stargate system to stay ahead of reprisals, each other, and the Wraith. Fortunately, bandits who preyed on farmers were generally unprepared for automatic assault weapons and special ops tactics.

He signed to his teams that he wanted to do more than retreat. Did Elizabeth agree with his decision? No matter. The denizens of 768 agreed with it. He doubled back, this time tactically. The last part intrigued her. What Sheppard could see, what he couldn't see was everything. He would have been on adrenaline by then. When she negotiated a treaty, a high pressure meeting brought out her game. Adrenaline had the same effect on Sheppard. He cooled down, his vision sharpened, and his mind leaped three or four moves into the future. He swept back to the market using what he called precision fire. Translation: he hit everything he aimed at. The rogues broke off and fled toward the higher buildings. Sheppard finished the sweep. It didn't, he said, take long. The maneuver did not allow any of the rogues to double back but some squeezed through an escape tunnel and fled into the countryside.

Overwhelmed with relief, 768's denizens had offered stores and precious stones for permanent protection by Sheppard and the Marines. Sheppard had accepted bolts of linen with which to wrap his dead. He'd made no promise to return.

Elizabeth suppressed a small shudder. The problem on M7R-768 had not grown in a vacuum. Human predators in the Pegasus were prolific and deadly as Wraith.

Sheppard and Lorne closed on the gurneys now, crossing the russet granite floor to relieve the medical attendants who brought the dead Marines from pathology. His handsome, taciturn face averted, Lorne looked hard hit. If Sheppard was doing better, it was only because he was in charge. These moments before embarkation were hushed, like the graveside presence after the minister gave his last word, but they were not a private period of reflection and mourning for Sheppard. Her civilians, in her opinion, got through this better than John and his officers. Civilians spent their grief while military leadership tended toward gravitas and stoicism. Civilians died, too. This embarkation ceremony was for everyone. Soft on military protocol, the ritual that returned the dead to Earth was just that, a send-off and reassurance for the living that everyone went home.

She always attended these departures.

Several minutes passed. Lorne, it seemed, needed more time. Elizabeth looked at Sheppard, concerned.

The stillness was palpable but John appeared inclined to wait as long as necessary.

Hands clasped, Elizabeth started toward the men. She was relieved when the slender form of Teyla Emmagan, the young leader of the Athosians, arrived to her side.

Teyla turned a finely sculpted face to meet Lorne's glance. "There are kindred on the other side searching now for their brethren. These will not be alone."

Lorne nodded and signed to Sheppard.

Well done, Teyla, thought Elizabeth. As usual, the right words at the right time, though she doubted the beautiful Athosian had been speaking of the Stargate and Earth.

Sheppard and Lorne rolled the gurneys through the shimmering pool of the event horizon.

The Stargate rasped and shut down.

John turned from the dormant Stargate.

Lorne walked away. As he passed Teyla, Lorne lifted his hand, one warrior to another, and trudged slowly through the unspeaking crowd toward his quarters.

x x x x x

"Why are we wasting our time on this?" John asked, subdued. His energy was at low ebb. He'd been on his way to the dining hall, hoping lunch would jolt his mood and knowing that it would not.

"Yes," droned Rodney McKay. In the back of the big science bay Rodney had stuffed himself beneath the metallic base of a large rectangular pod. The scientist was up to his elbows inside the pod's guts. His voice sounded tinny under the thing. "Why are we wasting our time on advanced alien technology. Remind me to ponder that when I have nothing more useful to do. You're in my light, Colonel."

John thought, One day a straight answer, Rodney. "You're the one who called me. And I thought you said this thing wasn't Ancient." He regarded the contraption with caution. He remembered that this pod had a kick.

"Yes, I said it wasn't designed by the Ancients. I didn't say it wasn't advanced. The light, Colonel."

The pod's access shield had retracted, leaving a clear view of the dark alloy platform from which the emaciated carcass of an alien had been recovered. John studied what looked like a black acrylic panel, observed the resolution of fine crimson lines and-- unexpectedly --a spark of light. He recoiled. Flashback moment. The throb of light spiked his adrenaline. He clenched his fists and blinked. "Rodney." Okay, was it a close call or a Pegasus moment? Was he still John Sheppard? "Rodney, what the hell did you do?"

Rodney drew his arms free of the pedestal and popped up, smiling triumphantly. "I located the secondary power source."

John felt a tweak of anger. "I was standing right over it."

"The pod already downloaded its imprint file. I'm pretty sure that was a one-time shot."

"You're pretty sure." The last time John saw a flash of light while standing over one of the alien pods he had lost six or so hours to a vicious alien consciousness.

"Yes, well, I was looking for a backup when I found the pilot logs. No backup, as I said, but the logs might ... be ..." Bright red symbols tracked across the liquid crystal display on the pod headrest. Rodney humphed with pleasure. "There, you see. Now if we decipher these symbols, which I should be able to ..."

"It's a mission report," John said.

"Yes, of course it is. What is?"

"It's a mission report. Look at it. Dated whenever, whatever that means. Origin someplace called Alcestis, probably the name of their home world or a base or whatever. Purpose ... to escort the delivery module to someplace called Aedon with something called the dark star and some ship called the warship Proteus." Sheppard cocked his dark head. "Warship Proteus sounds interesting."

Rodney leveled a finger in the direction of the pod's LCD. "You can read that?"

"You can't?"

Rodney stared at him.

John asked, "Whose pod was this?"

x x x x x

Rusty bronze hues mingled with leaded cobalt in panels over the upper balconies outside operations. The low-level light set off operations' displays and consoles, reminding John of the cockpit of an F-302. Leaning on the edge of the video rack, he thought of how many places he'd rather be. He'd spent the last few hours finishing his dailies on the PDA. He'd gotten through the last of the in-person security reports. A military contingent had accompanied a science team to an unexplored section of the city. Check-ins were on time. He'd briefed Elizabeth. The civilians were fine, not counting a few scrapes from collapsed debris. Last year, that section of the city had taken a hit during the Wraith attack. Presently there were no off world missions. He'd gotten a bite to eat with Teyla and the big Satedan specialist Ronon Dex. In the morning he'd sent two Marines in body bags to Stargate Command. A day was ending in Atlantis.

"You're looking at Alcestis, or M2G-884. It's in the Kohal system. You'll remember it," Rodney said, scanning the group. His gaze lingered on John, perhaps because John was looking back at him and not at the star screen. "The 'gate is in orbit."

"We found the pods there."

"Lifeboats," Elizabeth corrected, hands planted firmly on slim hips. "That's the reference I picked up in Phoebus's logs. She called them lifeboats, not pods." Elizabeth had been astonished by her faculty with the deceased alien's written language.

"Yes," murmured Rodney, who repeated an observation of the early afternoon: "The construction of the hibernation pods was nearly identical. It's almost as though they were designed by the same engineer. With that said, I find it, um, odd, that you, Elizabeth, were unable to read Thalan's logs, and you, Colonel, were unable read Phoebus's logs."

"Different solar system," said John, distractedly. Thalan's home world appeared to be M2G-884 in the Kohal system. The home world of Phoebus, who once threatened to release toxic halon gas into the living quarters of stranded Atlanteans, was in the Lyris system. In the Ancient database, it read M2X-991. Phoebus's logs identified her home world as Aedon.

The planets appeared as enlarged glowing points on the darkened star screen.

"Can we assume their civilizations are extinct?" Elizabeth asked.

"We can assume we hope they are," John said, a trifle quickly. The operations personnel and his boss turned to look at him. He reacted with a plaintive look. Bad day, his look pleaded.

"I have not heard of these worlds," Teyla said, a short distance away.

"Nor have I," Ronon seconded.

"Well now we have to go," Rodney insisted, facing Elizabeth.

"Hibernation chamber technology exists in Atlantis and in the database," Elizabeth said. "You've hardly had time to study it. Our team is bringing back new data from the city everyday--"

Rodney began to protest, "Hardly!"

"Honestly, Rodney, what can we learn from so barbaric and aggressive a people?"

Ronon flared an eye brow.

"You mean, people willing to kill everything and anything in order to exterminate an enemy down to the last member of its race?" John stepped in. "Come on, Elizabeth. Crack a history book."

"A second ago, John, you were making noises about burying this project."

"If Rodney wants to go look at a dead planet, we can go look at a dead planet. Not like that's never been done before."

Rodney brightened. "Exactly. And remember what we found there."

All eyes on Rodney, the operations room reacted with stunned silence. It was no longer necessary to remind the scientist the last time he studied the remnants of advanced alien technology he'd wiped out four-fifths of a solar system.

Rodney stammered on, "I'm just saying the people in those pods had achieved space travel. Maybe they left behind a ZedPM. The shielding on the pod alone, I've never seen anything like it. If I'm right those two could have been in stasis a thousand years."

John squared his shoulders, unkinked his back. He looked at Elizabeth. "It's a scouting mission. I'll take my team and put Lorne with backup in a second Jumper. We go through first, he comes in cloaked. He covers us from the air. We'll need anti-personnel systems detection. I'm allergic to boobytrapped ruins. Any life signs, we'll decide based on the layout whether or not to make contact. I'm not excited about meeting any cousins of Thalan and Phoebus. Anybody else on the planet's got to be squatters and just as bad." There was a wire of tension pulling across his shoulders. While he tried to ignore it, John sighed. "Ronon, Teyla?"

Ronon shrugged. No issues there.

"It is fine, Colonel," Teyla said, softly.

John glanced tiredly at Elizabeth. "Do we go?"

She had frowned a little, probably more sensitive to his mood than she was worried about the mission. Lining a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear, Elizabeth dipped her head.

"Go."

x x x x x

It was late evening in the city of the Ancestors. The susurrus of the ocean was palpable through a partially open panel that let in a slight breeze and the salty tang of living things, clean things. Teyla was early for her sparring session. She had time to stare out at the night.

Where were the stars? She could not make out the stars. There were clouds over Atlantis. Shadow lay between the stars and the world that worshiped them.

A man strode the corridor outside the gym. Turning inward, she sensed rather than saw him. His feet moved lightly. He knew how to move without making much sound but he was not very good at masking his mood.

Would he come back? He had seen her.

She stared at an ocean consumed by darkness and heavy as ink.

"Are you waiting for someone?" Lorne asked from the gym doorway.

Teyla made her smile placid. She glanced at him over her shoulder. "I am waiting for Colonel Sheppard."

Something passed over his rigid features and then slid unspoken into his eyes, which gave back the subdued lighting and not much else. He was dressed for a workout, a bottle of water in his hand. His fair skin and dark hair were damp. She suspected he'd gone running among the piers and used the weights in the special room down the corridor. The Marines liked this room. John said the Marines believed tossing about plates and bars of iron made them better warriors.

"You may wait with me," Teyla said, after a moment, turning from the panel. She had already shed her day garb for the loose, breathable fabrics she preferred when sparring. Her bare feet were silent as she crossed the gym floor.

Lorne swung in, a solid man, not very talkative away from his men, hailing from a world that had not prepared him for the reality of this one. He tossed aside his gym bag. He eyed the bench and Teyla's sticks resting side by side.

"This what you work out with?"

She studied him. Never considered that he was mocking her. They had served on missions together. He was not that way. This was something else.

"Yes," she said.

He strolled past her, took up the sticks, handing two to her. "They don't feel like much."

Teyla inclined her head, never taking her eye from him. "No weapon is ever more than the wielder."

"I beg to differ." He sank into a fighting stance.

"Very well, Major." She circled away, loosening her wrists. Searched his face.

He came in rather quickly, body bladed, his balance good. At the last instant, he swung wide, a sort of curving blow, as though afraid to go in too hard or too fast. Perhaps he was afraid he would harm her.

She responded to his weapon first, letting him feel her strength. The power in a blow had as much to do with the way the blow was executed as the muscle behind it. She had no doubt Lorne felt her strike in the core of his body. Then she addressed the wide field he allowed for her attack, namely his breast and belly.

The engagement lasted several seconds. Smarting, Lorne stalked off. His lips drew thin. He focused inward, came around, and sank into his battle stance.

Teyla nodded to him. He was ready now.

He darted in. A good move. When she drew him left or right, he got his feet under him without overcompensating. A warrior, yes. He was impatient, though. They all were, the men of Earth. The longer she engaged them, the harder and more graceless they became. They cherished their brawn. And when they could not meet her sticks they tried to trap her. They were worn and clumsy by then, like bulls. When she snapped her stick off the lateral nerve in Lorne's upper leg, he went down. Getting her stick against his windpipe was an old and cherished move. Stunned, tired, and in pain, he surged against her. She gave the hold a little pressure as if to say, You are going nowhere.

He tapped out and grunted incredulously.

She released him with a victory push and strode off.

"What was that, a warm up?" John's voice.

John surprised her, and she was rarely surprised. A swift look at the doorway showed him leaning into the frame, arms across his chest.

Lorne lumbered to his feet. "Back home we call that a butt kicking, sir."

"We have the same home, Major."

Teyla noticed that Lorne looked less reticent, more relaxed. She smiled a little. "The Major has proven more than a warm-up, Colonel."

Lorne blushed slightly, another surprise. This night was full of small surprises. He grabbed his gym bag. Waving aside her comment, he blew by John and disappeared down the corridor.

"Showing off?" John asked her.

"You have no idea."

x x x x x

"I'm not detecting life signs," Rodney murmured.

No kidding. John swept the debris field in front of him with a dark gaze. "What about power signatures? Got any of those?" He was annoyed that he'd awakened for the mission with the same crappy headache he'd taken to bed.

Alcestis appeared to have three continents. He'd taken the Jumper through the troposphere on the side of the planet on which the sun shone. Under a stark unfriendly brilliance John had flown down the coast of M2G-884's largest landmass. The color of the ocean was off, a kind of avocado green, which made John worry about horrific contamination. Rodney was making disappointed, unintelligible noises at his instruments, so John decided he'd wait to ask.

The Jumper abruptly shifted, jerking briefly but frighteningly out of John's control. The shift felt remarkably like the jolt of the craft under weapon fire, except there had been no attack.

"Is that something I should worry about?" John called to McKay.

Rodney squirmed. "No, no, it's ..."

"Rodney?"

"No, it's, um, completely atmospheric ... tidal, um ... It's wind."

Not very likely, John thought. The craft's inertial dampeners made it all but impossible for its passengers to register ordinary turbulence.

A city in the distance pulled his eye. It reminded him of Manhattan, the way it straddled swaths of water linked by what had once been superhighways and multi-level bridges. Several structures near the water remained intact. These were imposing concrete cylinders with missing windows. The gaping windows were ominous. The towers themselves were alien enough to remind John uneasily of Premina. He climbed above these eerie remnants, then dipped toward what appeared to be the matchstick left-overs of a large city.

It had all, he thought, fallen down rather suddenly. As far as the eye could see, there was ruin. This could be Earth. This could be us. He had seen war brought down to its lowest common denominator, the man in the field, the combatant in a kill or die struggle. War was easy then, the way it must have been in the dawn of civilization. Maybe if it had been then what it was today his ancestors would have nipped that crap in the bud. As it was, he'd seen war at its so-called elevated stage, on planning tables, in cold briefing rooms when the soon-to-be-dead were called targets and no one had a face. Big picture stuff had its place but you didn't forget it after you'd gone down to the nitty gritty, after you'd mixed your sweat with the sweat of a man you had to kill. After he'd done that it was hard to sit in air-conditioned conference rooms and talk about the big picture. His father, long since promoted off the battlefield and into the hallowed halls of the decision-makers, had told him that and he'd always remembered. The big picture, his father said, was about forgetting little details, like the lives of the doers and the done-to, in favor of an agenda.

What was the big picture here? A city the size of New York and it was gone. The people had died quickly, that much was evident-- most of the population incinerated immediately. The blast wave gets the rest. When the big-picture architects drew this on the planning board, what words did they use?

His mood was not improving.

He pulled up, looking for the blast crater. He eventually found six. They were around the world, which solidified his belief this attack had come from orbit. And there were something like striations, suggesting the deployment at a much lower altitude of some of that fine alien technology Rodney was looking for. The striations were at a minimum twenty miles long. They were at least a quarter mile deep. They were tight like surgical incisions, suggesting an intensely powerful laser of some sort.

Would a Jumper stand up to whatever caused that? John wondered. He doubted it.

Behind him, John heard Ronon's breathing deepen unevenly. They had been cruising the scarred, dead planet about an hour. Ronon's ghosts were many, the wounds fresh, courtesy of a recent, unwanted trip to the ruin of his home world.

Once again the Jumper swerved. This time the wrenching jolts cascaded through the hull, lasting about thirty seconds and sending icy spikes through John's heart.

"Jumper One to Jumper Six, you guys feel that?"

Lorne's voice came over the com. "Roger that, Jumper One. What was it?"

A sign it's time to pack it in, John thought. "Rodney, is this air even viable?"

"Viable, but ... there are ... other issues," the scientist mumbled, choosing to let the vague reply stand on its own.

Good. John traced a trajectory out of the atmosphere. The Puddle Jumper responded immediately. He watched the brazen, alien light fade and dim and become the vacuum of space.

When they were in sight of the orbital Stargate there was a collective exhale.

"Dialing the 'gate," John said, momentarily.

"Wait," protested Rodney, faintly.

The scientist's subdued, squeaky voice made John turn in his chair. "What?"

"Are you dialing Aedon or Atlantis?"

John faced the Jumper's broad forward viewscreen. "Show of hands. Who wants to tour another post-Apocalyptic wasteland and who wants to grab some lunch?"

"Lunch, Colonel," joked Willet, one of the Marines in the back.

"I am in favor of a sandwich," agreed Teyla, who eyed Rodney with an amused half-smile.

"Atlantis," said Ronon, thickly. John thought the Satedan might actually have meant it.

"Dial Atlantis," John said to Teyla. She sat on his right.

"Yes, Colonel." Teyla flared an eyebrow and sighed.

"Atlantis sends the MALP," he informed his crew. "We like what it sees, we check out Aedon."

Banter died as stomachs tightened.

x x x x x

The Stargate was on the ground in a field of tall, burnished grass that ranged outward toward Aedon's cold and distant sky on either side of a paved track badly in need of repair. It wasn't until John got an eyeful of Aedon's vegetation that he recalled the lack of it on Alcestis. He cleared the field, surveyed the surrounding area. Leaving two Marines to guard the Stargate, John piloted the Jumper high into the gelid Aedonian sky. Completed a radio and status check with Lorne. Uncloaked, he turned the Jumper to follow the paved track.

Rodney murmured softly, "This is better." The Atlantis control room had already relayed the MALP's data. There was no Stargate force shield. Aedon's air quality was quite good, the air temperature at the 'gate was forty-two degrees, and there were no armed, angry 'gate defenders or people in general.

John studied the paved track with interest. "So, Rodney, how long ago did what happen on Alcestis happen?"

"Until I know what kind of weapon caused it, I won't know."

Something McKay didn't know. This was a first.

"What was wrong with the air?" Ronon asked, low.

McKay raised a broad, taut face in annoyance but kept his thin mouth clamped.

"Rodney," John snapped. "The entire planet was a rock quarry. Clue us in."

Rodney swung his head from side to side, one hand raised stiffly over his console. "Near as I can tell there was some sort of temporal disruption."

Teyla shifted with interest. "I do not understand."

"And right now neither do I. If I didn't have to answer so many stupid questions, I might be able to--"

"Rodney."

The scientist grunted in exasperation. "Want me to guess?"

"Yes, but guess good."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine. Remember those bands of turbulence you flew through?"

"I remember them very well," Teyla answered.

"My guess is if the Ancients hadn't built their gateships with shielding we'd be dead right now. According to my readings, those bumps were temporal rifts. They ribbon the planet at irregular intervals like, oh, like big invisible ... ribbons. We're lucky we only hit two. And the two we hit were relatively small. If we'd hit one of the bigger ones we could have been torn to pieces."

John locked his throat and scanned the empty track unwinding some distance below him. He nodded to Rodney and tried to form a useful query. Haranguing Rodney about not telling him after the first rift was unnecessary. The scientist had just figured it out. Rodney tended to share mission-critical, life-saving information as soon he got it.

"Okay, scratch one 'gate address from the database. Should we land and check out the Jumpers?" John wondered out loud.

"I'm pretty sure the Jumper's systems would tell you if we were in any immediate difficulty. And we've experienced no significant chronological shift that I can tell."

Just when you think you've heard everything ... A chronological shift, as in a time shift? John's gut and his training wanted him to dismiss the possibility. However, he'd read Stargate Command mission reports. Temporal anomalies were not only possible, they were inevitable.

"How can you tell?" Ronon asked.

"I can tell because the MALP data sent by Atlantis was time stamped, per usual. I compared it to the mission event logs created in the Jumper's data crystal and there's a minor inconsistency."

"Define minor," John said.

"I can't account for thirty-three seconds."

John jumped in his skin. "What the hell does that mean?"

"I'm sure what you're really asking is what is the short and long term implication of our little time trip and I can safely answer that I have no idea. The fact that we're not aware of it is the only comfort I can give you until you stop bothering me with silly questions and let me do my job."

John looked carefully at Teyla, not surprised to find her eyes already on him. "Okay, Rodney. Work."

John, meanwhile, settled his mind on the mission, checked out the strip of pavement with its broad cracks and penetrating vegetation. What happened here? Aedon was Phoebus's planet. According to the alien female, her race had been wiped out in a catastrophic war with Thalan's people. Had the people of Aedon retaliated by causing the temporal disruptions that destroyed Alcestis? What would Phoebus's people be like if they could, and would, do that?

John kept his eye on the horizon and on the road but his thoughts drifted pointedly to his encounter with Thalan. Maybe encounter was the wrong term. Lorne had rescued Thalan's lifeboat in the Kohal system far beyond the devastated planet's orbit and outside the ring of its nearest moon. The entity calling itself Phoebus, the remnant of the consciousness of a warrior of psychopathic determination, had contrived to place John in the position of receiving Thalan's memories. No, not his memories. John was imprinted with Thalan's consciousness, as Elizabeth was imprinted with Phoebus's. The touch of Thalan's mind had not been as spine-wrenching as Elizabeth said her Phoebus experience had been. Phoebus's hatred of Thalan was a kind of molten, soul-blotting bullet heading full-speed and in one direction until something stopped it. In contrast, John remembered Thalan as colder, and on the defense. At times he had seemed weary. It was as though Thalan had in some way triumphed and knew it. But how could Thalan think he'd won his war when nothing, nothing whatsoever, survived the holocaust visited upon his world?

"Colonel," murmured Teyla, softly.

He saw it, too, the haze of something big in the distance.

"Rodney, you seeing a power source?" John asked.

"Actually, yes, but faint."

"We going in the right direction? What about life signs?"

"Yes and yes."

Teyla and Ronon had gone to an edge, their expressions closed, muscles tight. The Marines in the rear of the Jumper straightened up, making sure their weapons were ready.

Alcestis had done this, had left them with the taste of jeopardy and a battle for the survival of their species. The crew's best weapon was John's mind and the Ancient gene that let his mind fire the Jumper's drones.

"Okay, everybody settle down," he advised under his breath. "It's a city and it's an old one."

"I'm not getting a lot of life signs," Rodney confirmed. "Scattered at best. Certainly nothing significant for a city that size." He squinted at the forward view port. "That's huge."

The Jumper had closed the distance quickly and now they were over the outlying towns of a metropolis. The Stargate track merged with an abandoned highway as it passed through the surburbs. The suburbs fell back. Curving, climbing figure-eight highways, viaducts, and a grid of broken, root-spoiled avenues wrapped around bone-white stone and dark alloy, sketching a roughened, antiquated version of what must have been a sleek, thriving picture of urbanity.

John increased altitude for a better look, and to get some warning if there were hostiles in the decaying structures. The Jumper's defense systems detected sophisticated weaponry, but sometimes it was the crude stuff that surprised you. He was thinking of Olesia, the planet with the island penal colony and the flashy homemade grenade that had brought John and his team crashing into a whole lot of hurt.

"Where are the cars?" Rodney asked, momentarily.

"Yes," Teyla uttered. "Surely these roadways were designed for vessels of some sort."

Ronon grunted. "Salvaged for parts."

That made sense. After whatever happened, happened, the Aedonians would have wanted to keep their civilization as close to normal for as long as possible. There comes a point, however, when there are no more Simpsons re-runs, and there's no more air conditioning, no more anything. The city had been used up and it looked the part. All it offered now was space and it offered way too much of that.

"Wraith?" wondered Willet, from the back of the Jumper.

"Possible," John said. "Maybe now and then. Something else, too. Something maybe worse."

"Worse than the Wraith? That explains why there are no people," the Marine decided.

"There is someone." Ronon pointed with his chin.

John saw the movement too. It seemed at first like nothing much, but it was there. He radioed Lorne to stay cloaked and circled back, focusing on what was once an immense plaza or paved market center. Roots breached the stone and vines covered a statue that divided the open space. The statue was plated with alloy. In spite of the vines, the thing looked in rather good shape and it was quite large. John thought he'd seen it before, perhaps on another world.

Near the statue a woman stood waving up at them. She held a white scarf, something dingy and tattered, though she herself appeared to be neither. Very slim in a fair, wispy way, she spun around and around as though anxious to see every inch of the Jumper. Her hair was blond, long, and loose. Her dress was homespun and attractive, showing slender knees and calves in spite of the wind and chill. She wore no coat. When the Jumper landed the woman froze, arms at her side, her expression still and unquestioning.

John powered down, unstrapped, and got up. "Distracting decoy." His voice had gone hard. "Rodney, give me a reason why we should to take this to the next step."

"Significant power source." The scientist nodded for emphasis.

"Where?" John asked.

"From the fluctuating readings, I would say it's under the city."

"That's two or three steps," John said, more to himself. He lowered the Jumper's rear hatch, let in the wan autumn light and a dry, cold breeze. "Teyla, Ronon, with me. Rodney, stay put and stay on com."

Ronon moved quickly to the hatch, where he could have a look at things.

Coming up behind the Satedan, John gestured to the Marines. "Reardon, stay here but keep your team ready. I may want a little show, so don't take a nap."

"Yes, sir."

John strode evenly from the Jumper. He headed straight for the woman. His P90 rested under his hand and he was aware of his holstered sidearm. The woman, however, seemed not to notice that he was armed. She blinked slowly, letting her myopic gaze flicker to Ronon and Teyla before returning to John. She curved a thin, dry mouth into something of a smile and shook back her long hair.

"I am Aglaia." Her eyes slid off just a little, suggesting loss of focus. "Did you travel through the Stargate?"

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and yes, yes, I did." John turned his head to look around. Her backup had to be close. Underground, probably. The pavement looked good for a couple or three or four camouflaged trenches. "What is the name of this world?"

She blinked again. "This world is Aedon."

If she knew that, then maybe she was not a squatter. Maybe he could make a go of this. Maybe he could put her at ease. "My world is called Atlantica. My city was destroyed by the Wraith."

A soft but sharp intake of breath, a connection. "The Wraith have destroyed many cities."

"We're explorers," he went on. "We spend a great deal of time in space. We--"

She screamed. He saw it in her face a second before she let loose, warning enough to jump back but the long, wild shriek still pounded his eardrums. He was sure he was going to hear wailing a long time after he escaped this place. And the face that went with it, the smooth young plane scrunched and reddened, blue eyes on fire.

He jerked his P90 into his shoulder, spun around. Just as quickly, Teyla and Ronon snapped to ready. Meanwhile, plates resembling stone slabs-- alas, not --flew upward, admitting ten or so toughs from the underground. The thugs-- they looked like thugs with their smudged faces, worn clothing, and cold stares --poured into a semi-circle around the trio. They carried small arms, the Pegasus Galaxy's equivalent of a pistol. John had already seen some interesting ones. The Aedonians had not seen the Marines in the back of Jumper One. They did not seem interested in the Jumper at all. They closed on John's team with pistols raised.

John tapped his com. "Deploy." Then he shifted to watch the action, keeping the Aedonians at the tip of his assault rifle.

Reardon's four-man crew sidled out of Jumper One. Lorne had already landed. The Major de-cloaked on the other side of the plaza. Two four-man Marine teams flew out, hurrying to flanking positions. Jumper Six cloaked and, according to plan, went airbore, where it was going to keep its eye on things.

"Would somebody mind slowing down the picture here!" John yelled at the Aedonians.

Teyla added her calming voice: "We do not want to hurt you. We are peaceful explorers."

Less confident, slightly more agitated, the Aedonian toughs froze. One of them called to the woman. "Aglaia, why did you summon us?"

"He said he lives in space!"

The man who'd questioned her edged to the front of the gang. He was tall and broad, like a farmer. His face was thin and intelligent. He did not look older than thirty.

"Is this true? Are you space dwellers?"

"We come from a city that was destroyed by the Wraith," Ronon shouted. "I am Satedan. These are Atlanteans. We are in space because we have no home world. Is that a problem?"

The man lowered his voice and his weapon. "In your travels, have you encountered a vessel called Proteus?"

Teyla brought her P90 down an inch. "No, we have not."

"Are you Alcestians?"

"He told you what we are," John snapped impatiently.

"Alcestians are our mortal enemy," said the young man unequivocally. "It is our sworn right as Aedonians to kill an Alcestian whenever we come upon one, for what their race did to ours."

"Have you ever seen an Alcestian?" John asked.

The young man appeared baffled that such a question needed to be asked. "No, I have not. It is no longer possible to gate to their world. But they will come, one day. The histories do not tell falsehoods. For an Aedonian to kill an Alcestian, that is what we live for."

Sounds way too familiar, John thought. That was it, he was pulling the plug. Maybe last year he would have worked at this a little harder. He might have stuck it out as recently as last week. That was before Sayles and Oliverio were cut down for walking into a village market. Perhaps it was just that he'd been part of the whole Alcestian-Aedonian angst thing, courtesy of Thalan's mind-print, and those six hours had been five hours and fifty-nine minutes too long.

He tapped the com. "Extract. And stay friendly. For now." Paused while Lorne and his men adjusted the muzzles of their P90s downward and started over. They looked menacing but not lethal.

John regarded the lead Aedonian guy. "What are you called?"

His chest pumping with an almost adolescent pride, the Aedonian said, "I am Euryton."

"I'm Sheppard. You in charge?"

"I am."

"Okay, Euryton. Everybody's tensed and you're standing between my people and my ship. The way I see it, the best way to get everybody home for dinner is you tell your people to back up and I take my people back to our ship. We leave, you pretend we were never here."

A puzzled look crossed the Aedonian's face. "If you are not our enemy, why must you speak this way?"

"Believe me, I'm not trying to piss off anybody. Nothing would make me happier than to see everybody put his weapon down."

The Aedonian scanned his crew. "Weapons holstered!"

The bulky pistols disappeared.

John saw no hesitation in Euryton's lads but he still didn't feel good about the set-up.

The Aedonian studied him briefly, then aimed a different, longer look at Teyla. "You bring your females to battle."

John took the opportunity to emphasize a point. "We didn't come here to fight."

"Yet your weapons have not lowered."

It was true. Lorne's Marines were almost upon the Aedonians. Their weapons were pointed down but Reardon's team was still at weapons-up. Ronon and Teyla had not relaxed their posture.

John said, "We're not comfortable yet. I mean, the jumping out of the ground thing, it felt like, I don't know, you didn't like us. Give us some room. We've had a long week."

Euryton jerked his head to the side. His Aedonians began backstepping, their maneuver sweeping them closer to Lorne and his team. To compensate, Lorne and his men stopped advancing.

Lorne locked glances with John.

John answered with a shake of his head. Just stay cool.

Spreading his arms, Euryton followed John's glance to Lorne. The Aedonian attempted something that might have passed for a smile. "Then you may go, all of you, and ... pretend that you were never here."

The way to Jumper One was clear. John ordered Ronon and Teyla to the ship. He went to stand with Reardon and his Marines.

Jumper Six landed and uncloaked.

Euryton spoke again. "Your female is fertile."

John wondered if he understood the statement. Maybe he did not. "Excuse me?"

"Your female is fertile," Euryton called. "Are there many children where you are from?"

John tapped his earpiece. "Major, you're out of there. We're covering."

Lorne signed to his teams, but checked as Euryton leaped through the ranks of Aedonians. Euryton planted himself in front of the Major. Lorne twitched but did not raise his gun. John knew Lorne would understand he was covered six or seven ways.

Euryton extended his hand. He appeared to speak to Lorne but John could no longer hear the Aedonian. Lorne shook Euryton's hand, said something of his own. After that everyone looked happy. Euryton waved his crew toward the statue and the young blond woman Aglaia and together the Aedonians watched the Jumpers fly away.


Part Two: Retribution


The 'gate room of Atlantis sat below the Jumper Bay. The Jumper crews stayed with their craft, following the automated docking procedure on the console as the ships climbed through a portal above the Stargate and powered down.

John pointed his Jumper to its berth.

A few minutes behind, Lorne's ship zipped through the Stargate and abruptly halted, its breakneck speed curtailed by design. The Ancients had built the Jumpers to stop on a dime.

Trudging tiredly toward the bay's exit, Teyla watched Lorne dock and power down Jumper Six.

"He is not himself," Teyla said, very softly. "May I ask him to join us in the dining hall tonight?"

John shrugged. Lorne had just lost two members of his team. Sayles was with Lorne when Lorne was still gating through the Milky Way. John thought about losing Ronon or McKay. Company at dinner wouldn't fix that.

"I gotta shower first," he said.

Teyla smiled. It was a good smile, unguarded, warm, and fresh, everything that John's life was not.

Man, he was glad to be home--

The grating noise of the city alarm shot down John's nerves. The Jumper Bay doors swept shut and the launch portal clamped tight. John looked up in disbelief, then he swore.

Behind him, Rodney gasped, "On no!"

"What is it?" Ronon demanded.

What it was, John thought, was the Pegasus galaxy. The place had something against warm, fuzzy moments.

Lorne and his crew had just strolled from Jumper Six. His gear slung over his shoulder and an expression of dismay on his face, Lorne pointed at the sealed doors. "Colonel, what's going on? It wasn't us, we just got here."

John opened communication with the command center directly below the Jumper Bay. "Operations, this is Sheppard. What's going on?"

Elizabeth's voice: "John, one or all of you just activated the city's automated bio containment system, presumably when you walked out of the Jumper. I want you to sit tight. Doctor Beckett will bring a medical team to you as soon as they suit up. Weir out."

If the emergency involved a biohazard, yeah, then it was kind of telling that Lorne was the last to leave his Jumper.

John stared at Lorne and recalled the Marines had a saying. Go on enough missions and you're playing Pegasus Roulette. It was something the longtimers told the newcomers, a little spice to sprinkle on their Wraith stories and those tales about the Genii and Kolya. John never really liked the practice of taunting new arrivals but he was hard pressed to deny the value of a history lesson.

Wearing a look somewhere on the other side of pissed off, Lorne headed for the tool room bench and sat down.

x x x x x

Elizabeth found her teamleaders in the medlab. This was an area she'd seen all too often in the recent past and the crisp overhead lights were for the moment blinding. Squinting, she looked down to the big biology and diagnostic centers. The immediate vicinity, the long patient ward, was empty now of all but expedition staff gathered in support of Major Lorne and the medlab teams. Lips pursed, Carson Beckett, the expedition's chief medical officer, broke away from the group and made his way to her.

She had an instant, before Carson was upon her, to meet John Sheppard's glance. And a moment to wish she hadn't. As for the rest ... Lieutenant Stroebel, Sergeant Reardon, Teyla, Ronon, and McKay ... It looked like a deathwatch.

Carson tightened his lips. "We're going to have a time with this one, Elizabeth."

"How bad is it?"

"It's bad. They infected him with a virus, an extremely virulent one. I've never seen anything like it. We're keeping him in a bio chamber. If we hadn't contained it, the virus could have made its way through the city in forty-eight hours."

She waited. When she was sure he'd finished, she looked past him to Sheppard. Catching John's eye was no easier the second time. "We're sure no one else was infected?"

Carson looked a little offended. "Of course we're sure. The city's automated defenses released as soon as we moved the Major into containment. And to be certain, we tested everyone on the mission. It's just him."

"How is the virus transmitted?"

"It's transmitted in saliva droplets."

"How did he get it?"

Sheppard stepped in. "You mean, how did he come in contact with it when nobody else did."

Elizabeth nodded. "That's exactly what I mean."

"We were getting ready to leave. A local singled him out, probably because he saw me signal him. I didn't hear what he said, they were standing a way off ... but according to Lorne the guy said that on his world when there's been an offense they make amends by clasping hands. Lorne said, 'No offense, friend,' and they shook hands."

Carson interrupted. "There is a tiny puncture on the Major's palm. If the delivery system was sophisticated enough, it could numb the point of entry and give the injection without the Major feeling a thing. The injection was subcutaneous. The Major said he never felt it."

"They infected him with a bio-weapon that could potentially have destroyed the city?"

Sheppard folded his arms. "Looks that way."

Her jaw felt stiff. She massaged it with her index finger and thumb. "Why?"

"So we'd have to go back, get the cure," Ronon said.

"Colonel, what do we know about these people?"

John gave her wide eyes and gripped his hips. "Are you serious? That was Phoebus's home world. I'd say we know more than enough about the people. What we don't know is why they did it. I won't know until I go back and ask the son of a bitch."

"Carson, I want options. What are Major Lorne's chances if we don't go back there?"

"I'm afraid I don't have good news. Now as you know a virus takes encapsulated snips of genetic material and uses it like a program to hijack its host's cellular machinery. This virus is already making limitless copies of itself. It's selectively attacking the Major's respiratory track--"

"What? You mean, like the flu?"

"Yes and no. With even the most virulent strain of influenza on Earth, it would be two days before the Major felt symptoms. The pathogen has already overwhelmed his defenses. In just a few hours it's reproduced and I mean at a catastrophic rate. Even with our strongest antiviral treatment I can't stop it, not in time to save Major Lorne, which I suspect is the point of making such a weapon."

Sheppard said, "A virus like this would go through your enemy's front line in a matter of days."

"It will be fatal," Carson said. "He'll die of hypoxia in less than twenty-four hours and that's if he doesn't arrest or have a seizure caused by the shock of what it's doing to him. Colonel Sheppard has to go back."

"If Colonel Sheppard goes back, his whole team will be vulnerable."

Sheppard shook his head. "Not to a needle but there are other problems. Most of their civilization, what there is of it, is underground. There's an unidentifiable power source and I'm not excited about what that's going to do to our sensors if I have to go looking for this Eurytus or Euryton or whatever his name is. Here's the good news. You don't leave an engraved invitation like this and not expect company to show up for drinks. If we go back, I have a feeling they'll be waiting."

"You don't let a genie like this little bugger out of a bottle without a way to put it back in," Carson added. "They'll know how to neutralize it."

"We see what they want," Ronon told her. "We take it from there."

Teyla exhaled. "We must at least go that far, Doctor Weir. The Major would do that for any one of us."

Elizabeth glanced at Reardon and Stroebel. Their combined and plaintive expression reminded her of Sayles and Oliverio and the loss this team had endured the past week. She looked away. There was no easy way through this one and she got that. Easy wasn't part of her job anyway and she got that too.

"All right, Colonel. You get one shot. And no underground hunting expedition. If you're right about this being an invitation and it turns out they're not waiting, then it's because they just want you dead."

"One thing." Sheppard turned from Elizabeth to Teyla. "You're not coming."

Teyla frowned. "Oh?"

"He talked about you being fertile and he was serious. Maybe the reason he wants us back is to get to you and I can't take that risk. Something wiped the population of that planet and if that something was because they stopped having babies it might be normal for them to take women from other planets."

"I am not afraid."

"I am." Sheppard leaned toward her emphasis. "I am. You think I'm pissed now? If there's a fight, there will be losses. You're staying here. No women on this mission and that's the end of it."

"That's the end of it," Elizabeth seconded. "Mission briefing in twenty minutes. Carson, can you take me to see Lorne now?"

x x x x x

Carson walked her to bio-molecular mechanics. After a brief exchange with Major Lorne and the monitor techs, Carson left her to get back to his specimens.

Elizabeth took a moment to find her balance. She never liked this lab and there was a slight shock in the realization the habitat with its negative air pressure, filtration system, and containment entry was necessary. The bio chamber resembled a huge transparent bubble and it was large enough for a hospital bed, the patient, and a caregiver.

The patient was pacing, Elizabeth saw, in what appeared to be a set of loose disposable scrubs. Lorne's energy level seemed normal, though he looked pale. She saw that his eyes were glassy and rough around the lids.

Lorne gave her a minute, stopped pacing, and pointed to the com panel next to the chamber. "Doctor Weir, hello," he said into his mic.

"Hello, Evan. I came to reassure you we're doing everything we can, including returning to Aedon to find an antidote."

He had been nodding while she explained. "It won't be helping me if somebody else gets hurt."

"I have a lot of faith in Colonel Sheppard."

Lorne studied his hands. "All right. When is the mission?"

"They're going within the hour."

Suddenly, Lorne looked up. "That guy, the guy who shook my hand, he said something funny about Teyla being fertile, about her being able to make children. Sounded really weird. I don't think Teyla should go back there."

"Colonel Sheppard is already on that."

"Okay, good."

"At the risk of sounding cliche, how are you feeling?"

"Well, my head hurts. I'm running a fever. It feels like a summer cold, a little burn in the chest. Ever get a summer cold?"

"It skipped this year."

"Maybe that's all there is to it. You feel like crap and it turns out to be nothing."

"That's what we're praying for."

He looked off. Outside the bio containment chamber technicians monitored his vitals using sensory apparatus invisible to Elizabeth.

Lorne cleared his throat. "So, Doctor Weir, maybe you could get me a wireless pad and a stylus. It'd be nice to do some work in here and Colonel Sheppard can open the files from his computer when he gets back."

She didn't understand. "What kind of work?"

"Actually, I'd like to write my family."

She planted her heels and drew a steadying breath. "All right, if you feel you need to do that, I'll get you a tablet. But, Major, don't you give up on us. We have a few options."

He backed away from the microphone and cracked his knuckles. "Yes, ma'am." Away from the mic his voice came through the barrier thin and distant.

x x x x x

Teyla caught up to John in the corridor. It was night and the hallway lights outside medlab were low. He was partially in shadow.

"I do not relish the thought of you going alone to that planet, John."

"I'm not going alone. I'm taking three teams and three Jumpers, plus a 'gate security team and a Jumper to back it up."

"And if it is the Jumpers or some other piece of our technology that they wish?"

"I'm not that easy to steal from."

"If their only wish is to kill us, all of us?"

"I'm not that easy to kill. Look. You're not going for a good reason. Stay here. Work on the problem from this end. You can check on Lorne--"

"--and worry about you."

"We make all these promises, you and I, and then we break them." He stopped, checked to see if they were alone, and grazed the fine line of her jaw with his fingertips. "We trusted each other before to make mission decisions for mission reasons. We can't stop doing that now. We said we would honor the work we did and not get stupid. You know I'm better when you're with me but this time everything in me is sayin' it's a bad idea. If I'm right and something happens, they might as well dig me a hole right there and then. I'd never leave that planet without you. Tell me how you staying in Atlantis is the wrong thing to do."

She bowed her head. "It is not."

"So you still trust me."

She threw up her chin and looked at him. "I have given many seasons of my life to saying good-bye to those that matter. Do not chide me for wanting it to be otherwise. And you must be careful. I felt darkness in the heart of that place, John, and it was as though the very air we breathed was weeping. Something very bad happened to those people. When something truly evil strikes a world, sometimes the survivors forget that they survived."

x x x x x

A featureless night sky through which drifted a crisp thirty-three degree wind that raked the grass around the 'gate road and reminded John of far away places. Why was there never time to remember? he thought darkly. Why was every place like the last place?

He put Sergeant Reardon on Stargate duty with Lieutenant Vaccaro as support in a cloaked Jumper. Led the rest on a fast heading for the city.

Rodney, dressed in a heavy black flight jacket and combat boots, hunched over his console, making calculations. The scientist was quiet on the flight out and utterly absorbed in the symbols on his computer. Ronon sat fondling his Satedan energy pistol. His face was closed and he wasn't talking.

Stroebel was John's co-pilot. He was the one who pointed out the lights. "Yeah, they're waiting."

Rodney humphed and looked up, intrigued.

John said, "Natural fires, no electricity."

"I hate the way a city looks in a blackout," Rodney murmured. "Reminds me of a tomb."

That got a dark, indefinable glance from Ronon.

The commentary on the Aedonian city ended. John studied the massive silhouette of towers and bridges against the lesser darkness of the night sky. Along the highways and within the concrete canyons bonfires raged, like beacons or borders. There were over fifty of them, big wells of lurid light. The smoke rose and faded on the cold wind. The fires were macabre.

But just fifty? In a city so large?

"Lifesigns, Rodney?" John asked.

"Um, yes."

"How many?"

"Many, about two or three hundred. In clusters. Thirty in the direction you're going."

"What about that power signature?"

"Same as before but I think I can determine its location. It's using an electromagnetic shield of some sort, maybe to protect the people who live near it from the Wraith. It's definitely underground."

"Weapons?"

"Can't say. But I don't think so."

"See anything that would make you think these people are the same people who built those lifeboats?"

"Actually, no."

"Okay. Everyone, we're here." John gazed over the plaza. It was illuminated by a bonfire at each end. About thirty people, as Rodney said, standing around the metallic statue and looking up. No one pointing and no one looking concerned, even though the Jumper was uncloaked. "We have a welcome party," John said. "Everybody on the same page?"

"It's a trade mission," grunted Stroebel, through clenched teeth.

"Yeah," said Ronon. "We ask nicely, then we insist."

John nodded. "Good." He set the Jumper on a smooth patch of stone. Got out of the chair, opened the com through his earpiece. "Jumpers Two and Five, stay cloaked. No movement unless I signal. These people spook easy and we don't have time to do this twice. Acknowledge."

"Roger that, Jumper One."

"Jumper Five copies."

John heard tension and he heard anger, neither of which surprised him. He was channeling a little of both himself. On the way to the rear hatch, he stopped by Willet, who was already on his feet.

"Ready for this?"

"Yes, sir," the young Marine exhaled, reminding John of missing friends and that there were too many of them.

The Jumper hatched drifted open.

Clad in a long homespun coat, Euryton waited a few feet away. His gang hung back, a bit larger than the first one but less menacing. Something about holding the good cards made a man comfortable. Euryton knew he was playing a strong hand.

John strolled up to him, P90 in the crook of his arm. Holding his PDA, Rodney came up on John's right, while Ronon and the Marines kept an eye on their flank.

"What is that you carry?" Euryton asked McKay.

"Hmm, none of your business," Rodney said, coolly. "Say, you want to buy it? It's got a long shelf life, plays video games, and the going price is one dose of the antidote to whatever it was you put in Major Lorne."

Euryton regarded him with a slight smile. The smile failed to reach the Aedonian's eyes. In fact, John spied a flicker of temper.

The Aedonian glanced at John. "Welcome back."

John cocked his head. "Can't say I'm glad to be back. You're invitation was a bit persuasive, though."

"A people like yours, living high and fine on a space ship, I was certain your ship's systems would detect our pathogen. I trust you have isolated your friend."

"We're making him comfortable."

"That will shortly become impossible."

"Which is why we're here."

"To bargain for the restorative."

"Isn't that why you infected him?"

"I infected him," Euryton said evenly, "because on our world, the life of a man is worth very little. You have wealth beyond believing and you, a man, a soldier, spat upon us like we were shadows of things instead of breathing beings. If that is how you look upon us, so be it. You may go back to your ship and your companion will die. After he has died and you have cleansed his bed and burned his garments, then you, Sheppard, may pretend that you were never on my world. And I will pretend the same."

John had listened. And he had understood. He regarded Euryton, now, as he would the chief of a village in Afghanistan, the man who controlled the pathway through a lethal swath of land that his men must cross.

"What are we talking about here? How do we help each other?"

"You came through the Stargate for a purpose," Euryton answered. "What was that purpose?"

"We're explorers. It's what we do."

"And that is all?"

"I'm sensing a serious lack of trust. It's like, I don't know, a recurring theme. You want something we have, Euryton? I noticed you could use a generator, a few flashlights--"

"What you see on the surface is all that the Relinquished are permitted, for fear that more will draw the Wraith."

Now he was getting somewhere. "There are more people under the surface?"

"I am going to take you to meet them, provided you have determined us to be worthy of your time. If you have not, then I bid you fare well."

"You'd see us off, but without the restorative."

"No, Sheppard. The death of your soldier is payment for your arrogance. If you were not interested in my people, you should not have come here."

John bit his lip and nodded. "I'm going to file that away for later. Okay, sure, we'll go under the surface."

"Just you, and these. Whoever is hiding in your invisible flying ships must stay above."

"All right."

Euryton's eyes crinkled. "Are you sure? Once we descend beneath the surface, you will owe your life to the man who infected your friend."

"I said, all right."

x x x x x

There was a moment when Euryton eyed him and no one was moving that John thought this was it, he could go no further. The possibility opened a pit in his stomach, because it meant he'd have to go through the Stargate and face Lorne. Descending with Euryton under the planet's surface was preferable, although not by much. Euryton was volatile and dangerous, a product of-- how did Teyla put it? --something out of the lost ages of his world, a great evil, or just a raw deal. In terms of morality, John had to wonder what Euryton was capable of. Cold-blooded murder, certainly. Abducting Teyla? Also a certainty. You have wealth beyond believing, Euryton had said. On Aedon the men were not valued but women who could produce offspring were in demand. How had Euryton known Teyla was able to have children? That was something John needed to find out. The answer would go a long way to solving the riddle that was Aedon.

"Follow me," Euryton said at last.

John watched the tall Aedonian turn and head across the plaza. John gazed up at the statue, which seemed larger now than it had from the air. The figure was male, robust, stern, and engaging. The Aedonians had cared for it, that much was evident. In John there was a hum of affection, as though he had somehow chanced upon the subject of the sculpture and the encounter had been pleasant.

At the edge of the plaza, John stopped and turned back to regard the statue one final time.

Euryton walked back to him. "Our savior."

"Yours?" John asked. He thought, The old guy's a little too late.

"He is the one who gave the dark matter cube to our ancestors. I am taking you to Dirce. She is our Eldest. If she likes you, she will tell you about Zotikas."

"Is she the one who can trade for the restorative? I ask because I was led to believe there's not much time."

"She is, and you are correct. There is not much time."

Euryton motioned John across a gnarled and decaying boulevard. From the plaza the city extended in all directions, a formidable shadow tinged by distant fire and drifting smoke. John flipped the light on his P90. He couldn't point it anywhere and he didn't feel like unscrewing the mount, but it made him feel better.

A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed Ronon and McKay were following, with Willet and Stroebel bringing up the rear. Arrayed in haphazard formation, accompanied by the rasp of cloth and shuffling footsteps, Euryton's gang drifted along. Only John and Euryton were talking.

"What's the name of your city?"

"This one is called Kairos. There are many others."

"Are they like this one?"

"Do you mean, broken, dead? Yes, they are like this one." Euryton swung an arm with agitation.

John decided to change the subject. "What is it that Dirce does? Is she your boss?"

"She is the one who leads us all."

Jackpot, John thought. Some good news finally. Then he frowned. It was too easy. This never happened unless something immeasurably bad was right around the corner.

"She like strangers?"

Euryton compressed his mouth and gave John a dark grin. "She'll like you."

"Why's that?"

"She likes pretty men. Your genes will grow strong in the womb of our Empyreal, as will the genes of your companions." Euryton saw John's expression and laughed outright. It was, oddly enough, the outburst of a young man, as bright as Euryton was dark. "She will not take you for herself, Sheppard. She is one of us and much too aged for childbearing. And though you would find our Empyreal fair, they will not mate with off-worlders. You will leave your material for storage and implantation."

John decided to let take a minute and recover his equilibrium. "Is that worth a lot to your people, our ... material?"

"There are too few men who can contribute. Most of us are of the Relinquished--"

"The Relinquished being?"

"Those who cannot reproduce."

This world, John decided, was dying. "Is our material worth the restorative?"

"You do not speak as though the trade would be satisfactory." The countenance of Euryton, while not moving much, had altered as he spoke, becoming lifeless and untenanted. John could see it in the residual glow of his downward-pointing scope light. A faint halo of vapor escaped Euryton's nostrils and his slightly parted lips. The visual was scary, like watching Jack Nicholson grin in The Shining.

"There are other things you need," John suggested.

Euryton tramped along, unspeaking.

McKay rushed forward, his boots scuffling against the concrete. "You know when you meet someone if they're fertile or not?"

Euryton shot a glance at McKay. "Yes."

"How?"

"We know the pathogen that produces sterility and we can tell with this"-- Euryton lifted a small gray box with a matte screen from his pocket --"if the pathogen is present."

"You've isolated the pathogen but you can't neutralize it?" Rodney sounded incredulous.

"Five hundred years and, no, we are still trying."

"Maybe if you stuck to the research and didn't get sidetracked by, oh I don't know, your little weapons of mass destruction, you might get somewhere."

Euryton stopped in his tracks.

John rushed between the two men. "He's just saying that maybe he can help you. I don't know what your labs are like. That gizmo, how's it powered?"

"Don't judge us by what you see on the surface."

"Okay, I won't. But don't judge us because we don't understand what's going on here. I'm the one with a man on a timeclock in a bio-shelter, not you. Cut us some slack here. We're trying to help."

Euryton swung away, started walking. "This way."

They entered a broad structure with a double-door. The doors sat at the top of a tall brace of steps. Once under the lintel they were in deep, icy darkness. The light from John's scope solidified to a cone. No light escaped the beam. Euryton disappeared. The walls disappeared. John felt like he was crossing a vacuum.

Euryton's voice: "Turn off your light."

John complied. The scopelight was more or less useless anyway. McKay bumped into him and swore. John put out his hand to steady the scientist. He could hear Euryton's footsteps slapping tiles a short distance away. He followed the sound.

Presently, there was another sound, an engine powering up. John wished he was surprised but he wasn't. These underground places had their secrets. A small glow began in the middle of the void, red and gentle. The illumination deepened until John recognized the power panel of a railcar of some sort vibrating ahead of him. There was just one car and it looked like a mini-subway train. Euryton had opened the door. He gestured.

"Oh," breathed McKay, astonished.

John noticed an raised image on the side of the car. There it was, the face of the statue in the plaza. Underneath, an inscription that intrigued: "All hail Attis." Later, he supposed it was some grim variation of Pegasus Roulette, one he would not, not, get to joke about in the mess hall with the new guys. That he read the inscription at all, and that he read it out loud. There came a troubling but familiar consideration, something he touched upon way too often in the Pegasus. Each time this happened he wondered if maybe he should get another job. And each time he understood that this time it was a bit late for recrimination. As all hell broke loose, John was thinking, "This is the thing that kills me."


Part Three: The Complex


It hurt at first. Then it hurt more, the way the Aedonians tied him up. His arms behind his back, the cord pinching his biceps and elbows together, a third cord on his wrists. Something that felt like a thin chain ran down his back from the collar around his neck, attaching to shackles on his feet.

He'd been like this about an hour. And about fifty minutes ago his joints had launched an all-out protest in the form of excruciating pain that kept his nerve ends sawing back and forth in living color. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to cry. What kept him from doing either was that he didn't know where they'd taken Ronon and McKay. Willet had gone down, John was sure. Euryton had knifed the Marine. Beaten and trussed, Stroebel was in the cell with John and he was unconscious.

Pain was nothing new. Nor were the love taps of overly enthused bully boys with an ancient axe to grind. He lived with hard memories of broiling in the sun next to a scaffold in a compound run by guys with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. His captors had told him they were going to behead him and he'd believed them. For hours he had fried under a mirror sky, suffering the sun as it melted his bones. Exploding shells had boomed in the distance, proof that he was connected to something besides agony and this, where he was, what was happening to him, had purpose. The sensation of letting go to the pain was sweeter than the grating, wearying need to fight it but you didn't come back from the madness if you gave in. His father had told him that, though when and where and why John no longer thought about.

It was like that now, the anguish dizzyingly vital. On top of which he knew what he'd done and what it would lead to.

In their initial consultation with Rodney in the science lab, he and Elizabeth stood together over a single lifeboat. They were trying to read the same screen and they had screwed it up. With Phoebus's lifeboat, John missed entire passages. His Earthling mind saw symbols, glyphs, instead of words. Sometimes, though, he recognized something. Then Elizabeth would correct him. When she read from Thalan's screen, the same thing happened. The Aedonian symbol for lifeboat had no meaning in Alcestian. The Alcestian symbol for lifeboat meant 'shoe' in Aedonian.

Attis was the Alcestian name of the man whose face graced the side of the subway train, and in whose honor a statue had been raised. Through Thalan's mind-print, John understood that Attis was a figure in Alcestian history responsible for some great technological advancement. Apparently on Aedon this figure had another name: Zotikas. Although Euryton would have no way of knowing this, the symbol for Attis and Zotikas was the same. No doubt they were, historically, improbably, the same person. Another piece of the riddle of Aedon and, yeah, a nice newbie story. With the long and the short of it being he, John, had said something Alcestian within earshot of the Aedonians and they were going to kill some or all of them for it.

To underscore this point, the cell door opened. With the door shut the only source of light came through a panel in the door. When the door opened he saw a narrow corridor tiled in white. The silhouette of a tall man appeared in the doorway. John squinted and saw it was Euryton. He groaned and wished he could make this harder on the Aedonian. He wondered what it was going to be ... a gun, a knife? He swallowed to loosen the cramp in his throat. Managed to look the advancing man in the eye.

"You don't have to do this. It's not what you think."

"Ssh," Euryton murmured. He dropped a knee and leaned down.

John searched the Aedonian's face and found only emptiness. There was nothing to appeal to. No light, no humanity. Nothing but the vacuum of hatred he, John, had experienced in his ordeal as Thalan's puppet.

The Aedonian set his hand to John's throat. Euryton's palm was hard as old leather. When he straightened, he was smiling a little. "Do you know what I have done?"

"You gave me the virus."

"Good."

"What about my people?"

"With them we will bargain. You came this far for one soldier. Maybe you will go further for three."

Three, the Aedonian said. Not four. Willet was dead.

John winced. "You didn't have to do this. There was an explanation."

"I am not the one who cares to hear it. Tell Dirce. Convince her or the others with you will die too."

x x x x x

The stiffness in her spine brought her to contemplate the number of hours she had gone without rest or meditation. Massaging the frown in her brow, Teyla pressed the pause button on her console, sat back, and yawned.

Across the conference table, Elizabeth hunched over her computer display.

"Have you found anything?" Elizabeth asked.

"I have not. The series of logs Doctor Zelenka has put through the translation program appear to concern a training mission with other craft of a kind called Charon Interceptor." Teyla got up. "Preparing for battle appears to have pleased Phoebus very much."

"Hmm, I must have the same block of logs. She flies a highly advanced fighter craft. It goes into space on board something called a darkstar warship. She's combat proficient. It's clear she's at war."

"I believe the same." Teyla stepped away from her console. "If it is all right with you, I would like to look in on Major Lorne. It has been several hours since I did so."

"Yes, of course. I'll put on a pot of coffee." Elizabeth saw Teyla's look. "It's a figure of speech."

"I know it is, Elizabeth."

"Tell Lorne I'll come by later."

x x x x x

Teyla found the bio lab dark and empty except for the monitor technician, who, she said, had lowered the lighting to help Lorne rest. There were no visitors. Lorne's men had gone with John to the planet and the Marines on security duty could not leave their posts.

"Where is Doctor Beckett?" Teyla asked.

The tech dropped her gaze and sighed. "Grabbing something to eat and a nap, I hope. He was here all night. Everyone else is working on shift but he never stops."

"That sounds like Doctor Beckett. How is Major Lorne?"

"See for yourself."

"If he is sleeping, I would not wish to disturb him."

The technician shook her head. "We gave him a sedative and he's finally letting us administer pain-control meds but my guess is he isn't going to sleep for a few hours, not until he gets a little weaker. Right now he's hyper-vigilant and anxious. Go talk to him. In my opinion he could use the distraction."

Teyla turned to the dim containment bubble. She approached the com. Her breath caught. She released it, slowly, slowly. Lorne had turned his head on the gurney to observe her. She did not want him to see her shock.

"He can't get up to use the mic anymore," the technician advised. "Say whatever you want, he can hear you if you speak up, but you can't hear him unless you go inside."

"Why is that?"

"He has fluid in his lungs. He can't raise his voice very high."

"Then I will go inside. Do I need a safety suit?"

"You don't need a suit, just droplet protection. A gown, gloves, and a face shield will do."

"Where may I find these things?"

The technician got up and padded over. "Here, I'll help you."

A few minutes later, Teyla entered the step-down vestibule. Only after the outer door had sealed did the technician strike a key on her panel, releasing the inner portal. There was a whoosh and a faint pop as Teyla stepped through. A silent but insistent alarm in the form of a red flashing light confronted her. When she pushed the inner door shut the alarm faded. The door sealed with a whisper.

Lorne regarded her from the bed. When she was inside he asked, "Anything from Sheppard?"

She heard the anxiety and a thin wire of pain caught within a phlegmy croak that barely escaped his throat.

"The 'gate team check-in was timely but there has been no news beyond the ground team making contact with Euryton."

Lorne glanced up and then shut his eyes, giving Teyla time to take in his condition. His skin had a thick yeasty hue. The cords in his neck trembled. A nasal canula fed oxygen to his nostrils, its strap looping behind his ears. Intravenous lines coiled from both arms. One connected to a pump that dispensed medicine on demand.

"I am sorry," she said, "that this is happening to you."

"Cake walk," he rasped, blinking at the plastic ceiling. "Beckett says I got twelve hours. Even told me how it's going to happen." He paused for two long, clammy breaths.

She heard crackling sounds each time he exhaled. "Maybe it would be better if you did not speak. You should conserve your strength. I can return at a--"

"Oh no you don't. Nobody thinks I should talk but I gotta tell you, I got lots to talk about. You don't like my conversation, have a seat and you talk. It's the quiet that's killing me. And the waiting, I can't stand this waiting."

"You would prefer that I stay?"

"You think I want to be alone?"

She thought about it. "No, I do not suppose I would, were I in your place."

"So I'm not the best ... I'm not the best company right now."

"You need not choose your words with me."

"Just the same." He inhaled with a shudder. His chest rattled moistly and his gaze was slightly unfocused.

"John will find what you need."

"John." He rolled his head on the stretcher to look at her. It was only a glance. Then his eyes closed wearily and he sighed.

Concern stirred in her. "If my informal address offended the traditions of your military, I apologize."

"Do I look that anal to you? Don't answer that. No, answer that. Do I look that anal to you?"

She let a smile of reassurance move across her face. "If you are asking do I think you are concerned with protocol, the answer is yes, but I do not believe you are overly so. You have always seemed accepting of others."

"You in love with him?"

It was the medication, she supposed. He was in the twilight of consciousness. She knew, too, that self-control disintegrated when one was near death.

She met his gaze. "Yes."

"He know?"

"Yes."

"I didn't take that bet. I should have."

Her chin flicked up and her mouth opened slightly. "Some have bet on my feelings for him?"

"More like the other way around."

"I pray Colonel Sheppard never learns of it."

"I'm not going to tell him."

Worried that he was working too hard to make his rasp carry, she moved closer. "Is it so strange," she asked, "that he and I have found love?"

He glanced at her and away. "I know guys would kill to be him. You could do worse. 'Course I don't see him settling down anytime soon but that's me, what do I know?"

She nodded and looked off. The com had beeped. "Yes, Doctor Weir." She listened. "Thank you, Doctor Weir." She lowered her gaze to meet Lorne's questioning look. "There is a problem with the mission."

He larynx bobbed anxiously. "Of course there is."

"Colonel Sheppard has missed his check-in with the backup team. Doctor Weir would like to discuss our options. I must go to operations but I will come back as soon as I can."

He said quickly, brokenly, "I am sorry."

Placing a hand to his chest, Teyla bowed her head. "It is not your fault. Please try not to worry. John will not give up on you. Do not give up on him."

x x x x x

The Aedonians took off his shackles and collar, threw a rough sack over his head, and put him on his feet. They cut the tethers on his arms but left the rope on his wrists.

Stroebel was awake by then and protested.

Euryton kicked Stroebel in the temple and the lieutenant slumped over.

Vertigo. John felt himself being pushed and pulled between narrow walls. Occasionally he fell into one. This went on an exhausting period. He lost sense of direction and then he lost interest in his direction. When they stopped moving John was dazed. He figured he was running about a hundred and two fever, which annoyed him. If the Aedonians were going to chat him up before they killed him, he wished they'd left him intact, let him face the woman Dirce with his mind clear. There was always time to shoot somebody. Four hours more or less had passed since Euryton bestowed his gift and John was already getting torn up on the inside. The downward spiral toward biological Armageddon was more of a detriment than the end result and that was too bad because the end result was pretty final. Beckett had been concerned the human body wasn't made to wage mortal combat on the scale demanded by the virus. Beckett had put Lorne on system-regulating meds. John had nothing. In a short while he would be a mess.

The hood came off. He blinked hot, heavy eyes at a high-ceilinged thoroughfare of glass and alloy. The walls were studded with ensconced light fixtures. The decor reminded John of a high-end underground mall ... right down to the flamboyant fountain in the galleria. Oblivious to the drama around it, water gurgled pleasantly through the fountain's glass sculpture. The centerpiece of the galleria, however, was a high marble staircase down which a woman in a flowing gauze gown drifted like some aged moth inside a Japanese lamp.

John shook his head, hoping to clear it. She was elderly but not terribly so. Her peach-soft features had some fleshiness, suggesting health, maybe even an easy life. Her mane was heavy and white like the mane of a Wraith, and drawn up into intricate swirls. She wore earrings and a necklace and a ring with a large clear stone.

As she advanced the Aedonians straightened. There was no bowing but the alteration in the Aedonians' demeanor seemed the emotional equivalent of prostration. Uniformed guards had descended with her. These fanned out, garbed as crisply as wooden soldiers outside a toy castle.

She strolled directly to John. "I am Dirce. Your home-ship, where is it?"

Far more than at any time in this debacle, John sensed the criticality of his response. "There is no ship."

"You have said that there is."

"We don't like to share really useful information on the first date."

"You are liars."

"You're killers. Care to start over?"

No one moved. Dirce, the so-called Eldest, gave herself well to stillness, adapting the carapace and temperature of statuary. John could wait her out, though, if only because he had to. And he'd played this game before. The place and people were different but, alas, not very.

"Tell me," Dirce said eventually, a velvet voice dipped liberally in acid, "who you are."

"We're displaced explorers."

"Do you live on a ship."

"No, but we come and go as we please."

"You are conquerors."

"No, we didn't take our world from anyone. We like peace. We like to make friends. You should think about that."

Her ancient and intelligent blue eyes stirred. "You came to my world for a purpose."

"Yes."

"You were sent."

"Yes."

Satisfaction curved her fleshy mouth into a disdainful smile. "By whom?"

"Not by whom, what. We found lifeboats drifting in space. We like to study things. The lifeboats held the consciousness of two beings, one Aedonian and one Alcestian. We kinda figured out there was a war but we're not part of what's going on here--"

"The war is everything."

"Yeah, somebody told me you were going to say that. The thing is, your war means nothing to us. I was imprinted with the consciousness of a man. Are you familiar with the term, imprinting? He was Alcestian--"

"Do you confess, then, that it was your intention to take the part of the Alcestians against us?"

"Hardly. War sort of doesn't have the same ... attraction for us that it does for you. If we wanted to fight, we wouldn't land or try to talk to you first. You should know we're capable of making war without putting soldiers in harm's way."

"As are we."

"I can see that. I've been infected with a virus and we're standing pretty close. Aren't you worried about standing this close to me?"

Dirce seemed for a moment off guard.

Euryton stepped in. "He was given the Kenyon virus."

Her lips parted, then tightened. A temporary lapse. She continued to study John. Eventually, "The pathogen that makes us sterile also makes us invulnerable to the Kenyon. We would not use it otherwise."

John thought about it. "That's convenient." And after a pause: "We'd be interested in seeing your research on the immunity thing. And if you have the cure lying around, let's just say we're in the market for that too right now."

"You had dealings with Alcestians. It is the responsibility of every Aedonian to kill an Alcestian when one is found."

"We're not Alcestian and where are my men?"

"What is the Stargate address for your world?"

"That's not going to happen."

The soft panels of her face shifted perceptibly. "We will likely prove persuasive."

John sighed at this. "Now that's tough talking but I gotta say, it's a bad move. You don't know anything about us. You sent a virus to my world. You stabbed one of my men. You hear anything?"

"I do not understand your meaning."

"Do you hear small arms fire? Hear any drones knocking chunks out of your city? Do you hear the sound of tactical thermonuclear weapons superheating the surface of your world to the consistency of a parking lot that should be habitable in, say, a hundred years? You're reading me wrong and that's a mistake. Just because we put a premium on the lives of your people doesn't mean we're weak. So, no 'gate address. What else will you take?"

Dirce blinked, but that was all. No overt reaction, no tantrum, and no threat. So she could listen as well as make demands, that was good. If her head was as big as her rank that might have proved devastating.

Presently, she gathered back the hem of her gown and whirled away. Raised a finger in Euryton's direction. "Bring this one to the complex."

x x x x x

Voices rose, two-- no three. One scoffed at his fellows in the abrupt, agitated tones of the aggrieved. The second man dryly rebuffed his companion. The third voice was placating, soothing, and female. Dr. Heightmeyer. Folded softly in shadow, Teyla waited on the balcony adjoining Dr. Weir's office. A falling star made her lift her face. She watched until the little light faded in the blushing pre-dawn sky.

The trio of doctors marched away along the catwalk.

"We have learned somewhat that loss is part of risk, and risk is what we do." Kate's words, like fragile wisps drifting on deaf ears.

The first man issued a retort, something like, "Tell that to Evan."

And Heightmeyer-- Kate --sighed, much the way Teyla sighed when she heard the laconic snipe.

The doctors turned toward the science labs, their voices merging in a single hum. After that, Teyla had only a whistling breeze full of ocean smell and her own inner voice that wondered if she had known and then forgotten that Major Lorne's given name was Evan.

She palmed the tiredness from her eyes, and the heat, and the fear too. Time to return to the bio lab.

The tech on duty was male. He glanced up as she entered, then away, tight-lipped. The vigil was hard on all of them.

Drs. Weir and Beckett conferred outside the containment room. Elizabeth's head was down, her arms folded while she listened.

Carson broke off to greet Teyla. He showed no trace of fatigue, no sign that he had foregone sleep. "Any word from Colonel Sheppard?" he asked.

"No, Doctor Beckett."

"Are you here for Major Lorne then?"

"Yes." Teyla tried to smile and failed.

Elizabeth studied her with concern. "Shouldn't you try to get some sleep? The four hours we're giving Sheppard will be gone before you know it."

"There will be time for sleep when this is over," Teyla answered.

Elizabeth bowed her head. "Understood. Doctor Beckett has increased the Major's pain medication. He's coherent but barely. I've had a tablet placed inside as you requested. Doctor Zelenka has managed to get more of the lifeboat logs through the translation program. You can work on them when you're ready."

"Thank you, Elizabeth."

Carson gave her a look of empathy. "Thank you for doing this. Given the current crisis, there's no one else."

Teyla thought of Dr. Heightmeyer's spray of words, which, after all, had been strikingly correct. "Loss is part of what we do," she said. "Will you tell me, before I go in, what to expect?"

Carson was direct. "Based on simulations, I expect he'll go into a coma and pass on shortly after. There's a significant risk of cardiac failure. He could experience a complete shut down of his nervous system. If either of those scenarios occur, you won't have to do anything. Response teams are alerted automatically once the monitors pick up the change in his condition."

Elizabeth said, "I'll call you as soon as the Daedalus is in range of our subspace communication."

The Daedalus was enroute from Earth with supplies. Once the BC-304 battlecruiser was close enough to receive orders from Atlantis, it would begin a five-day hyperdrive run for Aedon.

Teyla excused herself. She put on a sterile yellow gown, surgical gloves, and a transparent face shield. She slipped into the step-down chamber, waited for the inner door to unlock.

Entering the containment room, she noticed the addition of a heart monitor. Its display posted measurements in red and white lines. The Major's nasal canula had been replaced by a plastic non-rebreather mask. A blood pressure cuff hung loosely on his arm. Could he see her? she wondered. He seemed immersed presently in the struggle to stay alive. His lips and ears were tinged gray, his eyes lidded and far away. She could hear his gasps, the faint but grating sounds coming from far within his body. They made her think of falling stars, and other temporary things.

"Hello, Evan," she said.

Inside the plastic mask, he pushed his lips together and licked them. His eyes opened and closed. He turned his head to see her. His throat pumped and relaxed. Then he drew the breathing mask from his mouth and nose.

"You're back."

"I have word about the mission," she said. "It continues, though backup teams were ordered to hold. Electromagnetic interference from the planet's underground hides the Colonel's locator beacon but it is not likely the Daedalus will reach the planet in time. Elizabeth is giving Colonel Sheppard four hours more."

"Then ... what?"

"The backup teams will go into the underground and rescue Colonel Sheppard's team."

He turned away, his grayish features taut with disappointment. "They'll be dead by then."

"I do not believe that to be true."

His countenance unstitched, the muscles beneath it releasing suddenly and then snapping tight as a drum. "Okay," he uttered. "Okay."

She looked quickly for Drs. Beckett and Weir through the curving plastic bubble. They had gone, when she did not see. The tech stared morosely at her over the metallic top of his work station.

"The Colonel was special ops before he came here," Lorne gasped. "Do you know what special ops is?"

"I have some idea."

"In that line of work, you're either good or you're dead." He paused to haul in a wet breath. "The story is Sheppard's father didn't want his son in play like that, too risky. Sheppard's brother was a sailor. The brother died in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole back in 2000. Sheppard had to make peace with that."

"Is it proper to disclose this?"

"Not in a million years."

"Yet you wish to."

"Yeah, I guess I do. Did you know his father was a general in the Air Force, retired?"

"I did not know this."

"Ever seen the Colonel go solo?"

"I have."

"He does what he ... has to."

Yes, that is accurate, Teyla thought. "We all do, Major."

"Rebels shot him down, put him in one of their prisons for eight days. That's not a long time ... if you think about it ... but ..."

"--it is long enough," she finished.

"It gets old real fast. The Pentagon, where my bosses push around a lot of paper ... they said no to a rescue. Retired General Sheppard got all kinds of bent out of shape. The brass in Washington, they tipped their hats to the old man ... but at the end of the day ... yeah ... all the retired general got was nothing."

"I do not think you should talk so much, Major."

"Yeah, I should be saving my strength for all the talking I'm going to be doing tomorrow."

She frowned and nodded. "How was the Colonel rescued?"

Lorne paused. "Special ops in Afghanistan, those guys, you got some real wild cards ... real winners ... I mean that. Hardcore fellas that don't hear so good when you tell them to scrub their throttle jockey. They'll scorch the ground ... yeah ... if you give them a lawful order, no question about it, no second glance, but don't tell them to leave a man behind.

"The problem, though, without support it takes a few days to mount an op ... And in the meantime Retired General Sheppard gets word his oldest and last son was executed by the locals ... Bad story. Bad ending. Sheppard's father ... passes away from a heart attack. Took just eight days."

"Oh no," she said.

Lorne nodded. "They extracted Colonel Sheppard, he's busted up pretty bad, and then he's got to hear how his dad died. It changed him."

Teyla lifted a gloved hand to his shoulder. "You did not need to tell this to me."

He lowered the rebreather mask, sucked on the oxygen for a while. Took off the mask again. "Why shouldn't I tell you? Do you think it hurts to know what you're getting into? ... By the way, I'm on this limb here with my nose six feet inside another man's business ... I'm not surprised to find Sheppard ... to find him ... out in the Pegasus. Never met him before but I'd heard of him. First thing he did when he got cleared ... first thing he did was ... go against his CO. Run a rescue mission after they told him to sit on his hands. If he was still on Earth ... he'd be freezing his ass off ... freezing his ass off in an arctic paradise ... listening to the gurgling sound your career makes when it's circling the drain. He's got no family ... no one ... he's got us ... he's got his troops ... his job. Guys like that ... guys like that ... they make a career out of being alone. I see it all the time. They get afraid they're gonna keep losing crap they care about ... so they make it about everybody else ... they forget how to reach for something ... Me? I had a woman like you ... if I had ... if ... I'd resign my commission ... build a cabin in Pennsylvania ... tell sea stories by the fireplace to my six kids ... Yeah ... I'd never miss this stuff. I'd never ... miss ... Uh, tell Colonel Sheppard I told any of this ... if you're gonna tell him ... do me the kindness of making sure I'm dead first, 'cause if I'm not ..."

"He will kill you?"

"Something like that."

x x x x x

"Ouch ... ouch ..."

" 'Bout time you woke up." Ronon was wondering when McKay was going to come around. "Stop wiggling, it's just pain. Stay on your side, don't try to sit up. You get used to it."

McKay reacted as though the Satedan had told him mountains could fly. "What kind of Zen bull is that?" His voice arced toward an uncomfortable octave. He dialed it back. "Seriously, are we alive or dead?"

"Feel anything?"

"I feel my arms coming out of their sockets."

"Then we're alive."

McKay sucked air through his teeth. "Yes, I realize that. I meant, how terminal is our situation?"

"Oh." Ronon thought about it a few moments. "They took Sheppard somewhere. I heard them go in about an hour ago. I think the corporal is dead."

"Corporal Willet? Seriously?"

"I heard them dragging him away and I never heard them bring him back."

McKay's voice thinned to a wafer of dread: "You said they took Colonel Sheppard. Did he come back?"

"No, but there were a lot of them and he was on his feet."

McKay grunted. "It's all wrong, it's wrong, it's all wrong."

"They're about taking people from other worlds to use as ovens and seed donors. We insulted them, told them we didn't like it. What doesn't make sense?"

"As refreshing as it was to have that oversimplified, uninvolved assessment of our current predicament, I was referring to some rather obvious, rather glaring anomalies."

"Such as?" Ronon asked matter of factly.

"Remember Phoebus and Thalan? They were from a race that achieved space travel. Their pod design, while lacking the symmetry and efficiency of Ancient technology, nevertheless possessed features far more advanced than anything we've seen here. The imprinting technology, we still don't know what that's for. Why design a pod to suspend life function and store your consciousness if its purpose is to save you from blowing up with your ship and keep you from, say, explosive decompression before rescue arrives?"

"I don't know."

"I know you don't know-- my point is, I don't care what's going on beneath the surface of this dung heap, it's still a dung heap. This culture isn't within two decades of space travel, it isn't within fifty years of getting into space, much less creating the propulsion technology they'd need to send Phoebus to the Kohal system in her lifetime."

"Is that important?"

"Um, yes, it's important ... it's very important. I wish Sheppard were here. He's a better interface with the local flavor than I am and I need answers fast."

x x x x x

Beyond the staircase was a lift large enough to take on a tractor trailer. The lift descended slowly, endlessly. It was like drifting through space.

John asked if his bonds could be loosened or removed.

Euryton smirked but Dirce inclined her white head to one of the uniforms.

"Free his hands," she said.

Euryton's features clotted with anger. "He's terminal. He could do anything, Mistress."

"You are a good Exponent and agent," Dirce replied. "This situation, however, has progressed beyond your talent."

Euryton seethed. "What does that mean?"

Massaging his freed hands, John angled a look at the other man. "It means you had forever and a day to give me the virus. Now we're a little short on time and she wants to make me feel better about her hospitality."

Dirce took in the two men. "He is correct, Euryton. Control such impulses in the future."

The descent continued in strained silence. The lift settled and its metallic portals retracted to reveal a complex of biospheres arranged symmetrically on several levels. The levels reminded John of oil platforms, but only in size. The complex was bright and sterile. The textured, filtered air flowing back at him was cool and dry. The biospeheres themselves emanated a great deal of light. Additional illumination pulsed from guide rails bordering walkways and small squares throughout the complex. In spite of this the ceiling was unidentifiable. Looking for it was like looking up a giant elevator shaft into blackness.

John said, "Impressive. How many people live here?"

Dirce answered without pause. "We are eighteen hundred and nineteen beneath the surface. Of that number, fourteen hundred and nine are Empyreal."

A flow of information at last, a good sign. "Empyreals are ...?"

"Those among us free of the Alcestian pathogen."

Okay, John thought, this was good to know. "I get it. The pathogen isn't passed on by contact."

Dirce strode onto a thoroughfare filled with passers-by. The pedestrians withdrew in deference, leaving lots of room. "The pathogen was at first introduced into our water system. Our ancestors were exposed. The attack was global. Roughly ten percent are immune. That is the way of it. We were once a world of millions."

"How long ago?" he asked.

"How long ago did the gods hang the moons upon the stars?"

She was either evasive or wistful, maybe a little of both, and no matter. Before the slip up at the railcar, Euryton said the Aedonians had been studying the pathogen five hundred years.

They headed toward a central platform and a multi-domed sphere that glowed aqua blue. Histories, John thought. This place had them. There were several, real and imagined, and when he understood them he would use his understanding as a map to his future and the future of his team. He would find a way out.

"Where are we?" he asked.

Dirce threw the answer over her pink, gauze-draped shoulder. "We call this one the Hub. It is the center of operations, our security station, and the access point to our science network."

Good and getting better, he thought. "We need to talk about getting my men out of here."

She widened her strides, ducking through a doorway that appeared from nowhere. A lobby waited on the other side, subdued, textured in lavender and gray and pleasant and ordinary as a corporate reception area. Dirce gestured to a huddle of uniforms, which put itself immediately at her disposal.

"He will need an exam, as will his companions. Do everything." She spun on the balls of her feet, an enormous moth throwing wide pale, vaporous wings. "You will join me, when you are finished, to speak as one leader to another of what may be done. When I know everything there is about you, I will hear your offer."

John cocked his head, sighed.

x x x x x

It was she who summoned Dr. Beckett. The virus had become more than any molecule, single or combined, in any part of him-- it was pain in its pure and unfiltered sense. Lorne told her so. The response teams had come. When his blood pressure spiked they came. Dr. Sharapova stayed some time, speaking to Lorne of things Teyla was not meant to hear. The technician adjusted his instruments, mopped sweat beading Lorne's brow, and worked a fresh sheet under the Major's body. Sharapova had finished her dialogue. Lorne looked away from her, looked away from Teyla.

Teyla could see his fingers twitching in grief.

Dr. Beckett arrived cloaked in his protective gown. Sharapova called him to the bed, this time speaking above a whisper: "The only way to manage this level of pain is to alter his consciousness."

"Aye," Beckett said. He dipped his head for emphasis. "We can do that."

"Will I wake up?" Lorne asked Beckett. It was clear from the strain on his face and the level of disconnection behind his lidded eyes that Sharapova had already answered this one.

Beckett was matter of fact. "If we stop the virus, yes."

"So then this is it?" Lorne's voice had dropped. Teyla barely heard him.

Even so she spoke up. "I will wait outside."

But Lorne said no, and then they all waited until the anesthesiologist gowned up and came in. The sound of packaging unsealing, plastic on disposable fabric, the faint click of a syringe on a metal tray. And no one speaking. Beckett had tightened his hand on Lorne's shoulder. Lorne seemed okay with that. Sharapova tugged at her sleeve and pulled a smile that did not reach her eyes. Teyla had put down her tablet and approached the bed. She was thinking of Athos, lost Athos, and her mother. She was thinking of Peter Grodin and Markham. She was thinking of Sayles, who had laughingly called her a pixie when she beat him at stick fighting. The needle was going in. Lorne was aware of it. Already half-in, half-out of a morphine haze he didn't flinch or struggle. He looked up suddenly, scanning not so much the faces around him as the room itself, which had come to represent the world. Teyla brought him back from that, from comprehension of loss, by brushing his hand and saying, "I honor you."

His brow creased, as though a question formed.

She smiled as warmly as she could and nodded once. "We will not leave you."

He left, though, blinking once and drifting away.

Beckett glanced at her. "Teyla, go get something into yourself and take a nap."

"I am fine, Doctor Beckett."

"You're not fine. Get something to eat or I'll admit you to the infirmary and feed you with a tube."

No, she was not fine. She was not. Now she nodded and made her way from the room into the step-down chamber. Heard her heart thudding, straining, turning on itself. Tears? she wondered. Lorne was not yet slain. There was hope, just not a lot of it. Was that it? The hours here, the vigil? Had she lost herself to this or was she falling into the past? She took off the face shield, gown and gloves and disposed of them in the biowaste bin. By then her breath was hard. She hurried from the room as though she were fleeing-- it was what Dr. Beckett would see, what he would think. Poor Teyla. She was unraveling, losing herself to ... to grief? What or whom was she grieving? In cool corridors suffused with morning light she stumbled. Was that Elizabeth coming toward her? Yes, Carson would have sent for her.

"Teyla ..." Dr. Weir uttered, reaching for the other woman's hand.

"It's John, Doctor Weir. Something has happened to him."

x x x x x

What comes next? Was he still thinking in linear terms? Of course he was. Do this, then do that. Go to the next thing.

John felt his heard skip a beat.

Man, he needed to escape that rut, speed things up.

He sat hunched on a bench in a white room in his T-shirt. Aglaia, the woman from the plaza, and a second woman, younger and waifish with cropped blond hair, attended him. Aglaia had placed a patch under the sleeve of his right arm. "It is an anti-emetic," she'd told him.

No more throwing up. Something to feel good about. The cure would be better. The waifish girl, Cyrene she said she was called, drew blood and took samples of his skin and hair. The surface of her workstation was black granite. She moved along a black sterile floor pad in what seemed like cloth-shod feet. Her gown was soft as Dirce's.

Aglaia said, "You mustn't attempt to have contact with your companions."

McKay, Ronon, and Stroebel had been brought into the dome and were getting similar treatment on the far side of the room. The room was a lab, that much was evident. It was a lab built with rows of granite workstations, long islands of them, ranging as far as he could see. Hundreds of people had worked in this dome. How long ago was that? Every generation fewer children were born. Ten million people became one million, and one million became a hundred thousand. Five hundred years under the cloud of a doomsday weapon-- this sterilization pathogen that remarkably was not one hundred percent effective. And yet ... By year three hundred, ten thousand births, give or take a hundred, and some were immune but most were not. By then this complex must have been thriving. There would have been non-stop activity, every mind, every pair of hands suited to the work conscripted to reverse the death sentence. If the pathogen was in the water, why not leave this world? John thought. Ah, but it was already in their bodies. The ones with immunity were going to reproduce. The ones without were going to be sterile no matter where they re-located. So they started importing donors for their-- what was the word? --Empyreal. For the ones with the immunity. He wondered how that was working out. How isolated were these Empyreal and their donors? How wretched was this place?

Ronon and McKay looked edgy. John shook his head at them, advising good behavior. He had no doubt the four of them could control the lab and its Aedonian personnel. What then? Where was the neutralizing agent he and Lorne desperately needed? Without the restorative, he might as well settle in, because it was on Aedon he would be buried.

Teyla, I never made a promise I couldn't keep ... I will make it home to you ... I will.

In reply, his body superheated. A shockwave of pain. He folded into it, took the ride because he had to. Held his face in his hands, felt the hot dry skin scorching his palms.

The pain rode on and away, but left a ghost of itself. His chest burned. The roughness in his lungs had been there a while. Now he felt a dull ache near his breastbone. Tried not to think about what that was, what it meant.

He steadied his voice. "What do you study here?"

Aglaia said, "Biomolecular mechanics."

He flared an eyebrow. "You're a scientist? I took you for security. I remember you up on the surface."

"I assist Dirce. For her I observe the interaction among guests to our world and the Exponents. Science is my discipline."

"How do you know when the Stargate is active?"

"They know downward, where the cube is monitored."

The cube? Euryton had talked about a dark matter cube. Was that what she meant?

"How do these downward people know?" he asked.

"The wormhole," she said, simply. She wasn't really looking at him. Her forehead was pressed to a scope. "As the first, it is sensitive to others."

"To other what?"

She looked at him suddenly. "You have the mark of the Ancestors."

"You know it when you see it?"

"We know everything about them. They are the ones who ... Gods and fire, what have we done?"

"The Ancient gene that important to you? Is it what you need to solve your problem?"

"Our problem is easily solved," she muttered, agitated. "We lack the conviction of our foe to do what must be done."

He rolled his eyes. Whatever that means.

The woman Cyrene came between them, showing him two more patches. "This will cool your skin and relieve the pain. The other will help you breathe. If you use this patch, you will breathe with much less difficulty. Know that the medicine is hard on the heart."

He offered his arm. "My heart's strong, go ahead. But what I really need is a glass of water. I guess I should hold off on that?"

Unsealing the plastic sheath around the patches, "You should not ingest anything, liquid or solid," she said. "Your body will reject it and if it didn't, anything you feed your system would also feed the virus."

Aglaia explained, "Nourishment speeds up colonization of infected cells."

Cyrene put on both patches. "They will work for a short while, after which we will give you more."

"In the spirit of cooperation," John said, "why not just give me the restorative and stop this damn clock?"

Aglaia and Cyrene exchanged glances. Cyrene said, "You are an Alcestian collaborator."

John groaned. Back to square one.

A uniformed guard came toward him, waving him off the bench. John got up slowly, careful of his balance.

Across the lab, Ronon and McKay stared. John shook his head. McKay looked overly anxious, which was hard to do, given their circumstance. John cocked his head. McKay made a sign that said he badly needed to tell something.

John said, "I need to talk to my men, find out if they're getting treated okay."

The uniform was indifferent. Cyrene nodded. Aglaia got up from her stool and led the way. The uniform followed.

Aglaia put up her hand. John was about four feet from McKay and Ronon. The Satedan and the scientist, flanked by guards, had gotten to their feet.

"She doesn't want me to get closer to you," he said, "because I'm infected with their damn virus."

McKay mumbled, "What? How?"

Ronon glared.

"Long story. The short story is they're immune, you're not, so keep your distance."

McKay opened and closed his mouth nervously. "I may have an explanation for the power fluctuations."

"And that's helpful how?" John asked.

McKay looked anxiously at his guards. "Something big right under us. Something really big."

John saw that it probably was, at least from McKay's point of view. He recognized that gleam in the scientist's eye. "Okay, we'll worry about that later. I need to go with these good people, keep an engagement with their leader. Lorne doesn't have much time."

"Should we, uh, should we just wait here?" McKay asked, haltingly.

John felt sorry for him. "Yes, Rodney. Wait with Ronon. Be good."

Ronon caught his eye with a look that meant, Until it's time to be bad.

x x x x x

The march back up the thoroughfare to the Hub was relatively brief. However by the time John was in the lobby he felt as though he'd run a race. His heart bounced off his chest like a punching bag. Pain arced dully from the center of his chest. It wrapped around his back and flitted to the tips of his fingers. He could taste the thickness of it in his throat. His eyes were like molten stone, too hot to keep open, too hot to close. He wondered what he looked like, if his feet were moving in a straight line or he only thought they were because he was becoming delusional. What if he lost it? No, he couldn't lose himself. He simply could not. Maybe a drink of water would do the trick. Just a little on his lips. How could that hurt? He'd lose his unborn children, that was how, but he'd have a half-second's reprieve from the pain. A trade off. Am I thinking about this? Am I considering this? He grimaced. The pain and disorganized thinking meant he was further along the slope than he thought. He was falling downward--

Downward. Aglaia said the cube was downward. Rodney said something big was drawing power below.

An adrenaline spike. He had made a tentative connection. Febrile as it was, it felt like a hand worth playing. He unkinked his spine, worked on leveling his breath. Slow, not too deep, he told himself. Deep breaths made him cough. He wanted to look steady for the meeting. One leader to another they would speak, Dirce said. He wanted to look like he had something to offer.

She was in the anteroom of a board room. The double doors were lacquered wood, carved by hand. Two men John had not met stood with Dirce. The men were old as she was, fair-haired, and clothed in pastel uniforms. Around the trio fluttered scores of assistants, all similarly dressed, silent, and demure.

Guards hauled upon the wooden doors. The room unsealed with a faint bluster of air. Women and men floated around an oval conference table arranging trays, pitchers, and crystal. What the hell? A young man appeared before him, offering to show him to his seat. The man put him at the far end of the table. A flat black box rested on the table next to a tablet with a stylus. He did not recognize the design, but quickly learned the black box amplified his voice and the voices of others. There was no water or food tray at his seat. In a way he was glad.

Dirce and the elderly men drifted into chairs at the head of the table. The attendants began to leave. Euryton stood at the door in a clean brown uniform. He was opposite a similarly uniformed man of his years. Both Exponents were armed.

Dirce held up her hand. "This is Danaus, our chief military advisor."

The elderly man on her left had chosen a mark on the wall and stared at it. The introduction in no way urged him to redirect his interest. He was like cardboard and silent.

"This is Urian, our chief scientist," Dirce continued after a pause.

Urian scrutinized John with a furrowed brow as though the scientist was only a small nudge away from bewilderment. "Tell us how you came to be on our planet."

Slow down the picture, John thought. They must know he was anxious to please them and win the restorative. Calculate the possibilities.

"You know about the Kohal system," John said.

Though the table was large and long, the muscle twitching on the jaw of the chief military advisor grew visible.

"Yes," Dirce said.

"We are explorers." How many times must he say this? "We traveled through the Stargate and found--"

"None may travel through the Stargate of Alcestis," interrupted Danaus, who now fixed John with a limpid, indifferent gaze.

"The Stargate is in orbit," John said.

They could not refute this. Urian and Dirce tried not to look at one another and failed. The excitement was too much, hope for something John had not begun to understand.

"You have seen Alcestis," Urian said.

"Yes."

Dirce raised and lowered her hand. "Go on."

"We found two lifeboats and brought them to our base."

"To loot them," Danaus supposed.

John looked briefly from face to face. "Do you know what a lifeboat is?"

They did not. They could not even pretend to, though it appeared they wanted to.

"One of them was yours," John added.

Dirce accepted this without hesitation. "Go on."

"We recovered two bodies. Their consciousness was stored in the lifeboat. When I stood over the Alcestian man's lifeboat, his consciousness was imprinted on mine."

Danaus looked questioningly at Urian.

Urian explained. "Imprinting was an experiment in secondary recovery developed when the whiplash theory was respected among the consortium."

"They didn't abandon it, apparently," Danaus said.

"Probably it was re-tooled for a military purpose."

"Ah," murmured Danaus, satisfied.

Urian said to John, "It was not designed to work between two persons. It was a way to restore memories. If it was your machine, you would use it on yourself. It should not have been used to give you the consciousness of another. Do you retain any of his memories?"

"No, not ... really. We stayed ... pretty much apart. Something may have stayed in here." He touched his temple. "And there were some side-effects." He hesitated.

The men regarded John expectantly. Urian said, "Go on."

But Danaus said, "You were persuaded to the cause of your Alcestian man."

"He and the consciousness of the Aedonian woman devoted every resource of my base to killing each other. My people were expendable. My base was expendable. The only thing I was persuaded to was contempt for you, all of you, and your war."

Through the subtle transformation of facial color and muscles Dirce demonstrated shock. Urian lowered his head and kept it bowed, presumably in understanding. Danaus was unmoved.

John considered asking again for a glass of water. He licked his lips. "What came out of it was some logs, a Stargate address for Aedon, and that's about it."

" 'All hail Attis.' " Danaus steepled his long, pale hands. "Do you recall making this statement?"

"I remember reading the side of the railcar."

"The car reads 'All hail Zotikas.' "

"I can't read Aedonian."

"Do you mean," Dirce said, "that you can read Alcestian?"

"It's an effect of the imprinting."

Dirce's mouth opened, once more revealing surprise. "There is a tablet before you. Design the symbol for Attis."

John picked up the stylus. The instrument burned in his hand. He touched it to the "compose" box on his tablet and drew the symbol.

Dirce and the men studied their tablets, then each other, and were for a moment quiet.

It was Urian who spoke first. "Do you remember the date stamp on the logs of your Alcestian visitor?"

John said, "As a matter of fact, I do. And this spirit of cooperation is great, don't get me wrong. I'd like to keep this up. But you're holding my men on pain of death. I'm not doing that great here. And I have a man dying on my base of something you can cure. You want to work this out, fine. Keep me here. But my men get to go home and the restorative has to go to my base now."

Danaus sighed, then turned his narrow, aged face to Euryton.

Euryton held his superior's gaze for a long moment but in the end flinched away.

Dirce observed the military advisor until the silence became unbearable. She turned to look at John. "Five hundred years ago the man you called Attis built the first dark matter cube. It was a simple construct in terms of our technological evolution but we did not fully realize what he had done. I, for one, have long suspected Zotikas was not of our world. We Aedonians and the Alcestians were once as brothers and sisters. Our worlds were connected by the Stargates and by the patronage of the Ancestors, who once and long ago called Aedon by her first name, Alcestis II. When the Ancestors abandoned us, Alcestis and Aedon were connected in our struggle against the Wraith."

"Were you, now."

"Indeed." Dirce raised her water glass. Before swallowing, she said, "There's no cure, you know. No restorative. Our science has been irresponsible for longer than we have been ... in this predicament. It began with the dark matter cube. What good is temporal displacement except as a weapon? I will not give you pity, although you deserve it. Millions have died, and thousands more will die for what we have done. I will however give you the honor of knowing that you bargain with us for something we cannot give."

x x x x x

That got him. His throat locked and spasmed, giving rise to rolling, chest-deep coughs. Dirce rose from her seat, crossed the interminable length of the table, brought her water glass. He drank from it in gulps. She snapped her fingers. Urian brought a pitcher, refilled her glass with his own hand. He offered it to John. Recovering, John snapped his hand. The glass slipped. Water sloshed the carpet.

He rasped, "Take a sample of my blood, get together what you know about the pathogen, and you send it through the Stargate right now with my men."

Dirce waved her hand. "Call for Aglaia." She leaned over John. "If we do as you ask, will you look at a portion of text for us?"

They could kiss his ass right now. He wanted the sky and the air and the face of Teyla to gaze on. Except he couldn't look at Teyla. He was infected. He couldn't touch Teyla, or breathe the air she breathed.

He stood up quickly.

Alarmed, Dirce fell back a step. Euryton snapped forward but was stopped by a flick of Danaus's wrist.

"You are experiencing distress," Danaus said evenly. "Did you not say that our conflict filled you with contempt? If that is true, sit down. We are no less distressed. We are no less panicked. We have endured this way many hundreds of years. You will survive yours another moment or two."

Aglaia entered the room. "Yes, Mistress."

"Compile the research on the Kenyon virus. Use the travelers' data devices to configure a usable format. Work as quickly as you can. When you have prepared the data, let us know."

Danaus said, "You said that there was one among you who was imprinted with the consciousness of an Aedonian? May we assume she can read Aedonian?"

John compressed his lips. "Yes."

"Will you sit?" Urian pleaded.

John sat. Let his head collapse into his hands, where he held it while Dirce and Urian withdrew to their chairs. Dirce's voice emanated from the box:

"Zotikas is the father of our greatest era and our demise. He is revered elsewhere but in these chambers we understand what he did."

"What they did," corrected Urian.

Dirce's voice turned mild. "The theory being that if he did not father the cube, someone else would have ..."

John let their voices fade. Let them go. He was thinking in linear terms again. Get Rodney, Ronon, and Stroebel to the surface. Stop the clock-- set at four hours past a missed check-in --on Elizabeth's "assault" order. Get everyone off the planet. They could come for him with a bio-containment chamber, or put him in a suit. Everyone goes home.

At the thought his stomach flipped and pain cascaded outward, juicing his nerves with blue fire. Whoever was talking -- it was Urian --became silent. What could they do but watch him go through it? His body was at war with the enemy gathering inside. His body wanted to win. He needed his life. He had promised--

Aglaia's voice murmured through the black box: "Mistress, I have the formatted data."

That was quick. He unfolded his throbbing body, surveyed the onlookers with wearied, fevered eyes. "You have my communication equipment?"

"Yes," Dirce agreed.

"Bring one of the units to me. Give the other units back to my men. Start my men with the data back to the surface."

Dirce whispered to Danaus, who got up and left the room. Silence ensued. John saw Euryton looking at him and thought of several ways he could cross the room before Euryton drew his weapon. If he could make it to the Exponent quickly enough, he'd break the Aedonian's neck. For Willet and Lorne, he'd do it. And Teyla, for making her live the rest of her life with another shattered dream, a broken promise.

Danaus came back with John's com and earpiece. John slipped the earpiece on, activated the unit. "Sheppard to Jumper One, come in."

"Jumper One to Sheppard, good to hear your voice, sir. Need any assistance?"

John leveled a gaze at the other end of the room. No cure here. They infected strangers with no way to reverse the act. They were immune, what did they care? So now Beckett had two or maybe four hours to come up with one in Atlantis. John didn't have to be good to take part in the benefit of that. He just had to make it alive to the Stargate. Meanwhile, a couple of drones here, a few drones there, a fireball in a lot of the complex's important places might improve his stamina. The light show would definitely improve his mood. All he had to do was wait for McKay, Ronon, and Stroebel to say they were on the surface.

He swallowed. "No, we're good. Stand-by for instructions from McKay. Sheppard to Sergeant Reardon."

"Sergeant Reardon on, sir."

"Dial the 'gate. I need com with Doctor Weir."

"Yes, sir."

"Colonel Sheppard," he heard over the com.

"Rodney, I want you and Ronon and Stroebel up to the surface. I want you there two minutes ago. Get that data to Doctor Beckett, tell him there's no cure here, he's gotta do it."

"I'm not leaving you here."

"I don't have time to argue with you!"

Rodney's voice climbed over his: "I'm not leaving you here to perform an errand! Ronon can get the data out to Beckett. He can guard it, the data will get where it needs to go. I'm staying here. I think I know what they're doing in the basement."

John blinked. Tightened his lips. "Ronon."

"Yeah, Sheppard."

"Get that data to Beckett. Lorne and I are dead if you don't."

"It's done."

"Rodney, you can't get close to me. Remember that. You can't let me get close to you."

"I think I understand the concept of universal precautions. Somewhere in this place they'll have the protective equipment I'll need to be in the same room with you."

"John?" This was Elizabeth.

John sighed. He sighed because he knew Teyla was listening. The entire operations team was listening. "Elizabeth. How's Lorne?"

She took too long to answer. Meanwhile, he swept his eyes shut, worked hard at channeling the additional burn of rage.

"Major Lorne passed away thirteen minutes ago. He was in a coma. It was a peaceful transition."

No, it wasn't.

"Understood," he said, low-voiced. He directed a long, cold glare at Euryton. The Exponent stared back. "Ronon is heading toward the 'gate with all the data the Aedonians have on the virus. They call it the Kenyon virus. They never created a cure because they're immune. We got another problem. I'm infected. Tell Doctor Beckett to do the best he can."

"I'm right here, son," Beckett interrupted. "How long ago were you exposed?"

"I don't know, doc. It feels like a long time."

"What are your symptoms?"

"Well, it hurts."

"Altered consciousness?"

"A little."

"Difficulty breathing?"

"You could say that."

"This is important, Colonel. Does their data contain a sample of Aedonian blood? I may be able to synthesize a serum using their antibodies."

John addressed Dirce. "We need a sample of blood from someone here who has immunity."

"We included multiple samples," Dirce said.

"Carson, they're sending a few of them."

"You need immediate hospitalization. You're at risk for cardiac arrest and grand mal seizures. You need to come back to Atlantis right way."

John glanced up as Rodney, led by Aglaia, slipped past the double doors. Rodney wore a transparent face shield, a disposable laboratory coat, and gloves.

"There are doctors here, Carson. They know what's happening to me. They're giving me patches to control the really bad effects. I still have some things I have to do--"

"John, I'm ordering you back to now."

"I'm coming back, Elizabeth. You guys do your thing. I'll keep in touch--"

"Sheppard, why are we discussing this? Get back here right now!"

"Elizabeth, I can't."

Here it was, finally: Teyla's voice, so soft and yet so strong moving within him, moving through him. "Are they holding you against your will?"

John saw Rodney startle and look nervously around, wondering if that was true.

"No, Teyla. Alcestis is a graveyard. They have some text they need translated. Thanks to Thalan's imprinting, I'm the only one in this galaxy who reads Alcestian. Their world is dying. What do you want me to do?"

"You must stay and help them. I will ask Doctor Zelenka to write a translation program for them. Once he has done this, you may come home."

"Good ..."

"Is it safe now for me to join you?"

"No, the water may still be contaminated. The virus, I don't know how many of them are carrying these needles. And there's the other thing we talked about."

"I see."

"This isn't good-bye," he said, roughly.

"Of course not," she responded quickly. "I will wait for you here."


Part Four: Dark Matter


Rodney brought his PDA to the table. Urian made way for him. Rodney looked around, possibly for introduction, a blurb, anything with substance. Dirce turned sharply, anxiously to the matter at hand.

"Did you say 'Alcestis is a graveyard' ?"

"Yeah, you win. Sort of. They died before you," John said.

Danaus swiveled in his chair. "Exponents, wait outside the chamber, if you please."

Euryton stiffened. "Sir, he is terminal--"

"You have been given an order, Agent."

Euryton glared at John, glanced at Danaus, and finally signaled his companion. The guards left the conference room.

Urian explained. "You have no understanding of the importance of this information. We had thought their Stargate was buried for fear of our retribution--"

"They put it in orbit."

"Oh but you see that's completely impossible," Dirce insisted.

"It's in orbit," John said, staring at her.

"We were on the brink of developing star travel when the bioweapon was deployed. We cannot reach space."

John frantically massaged his brow. "I've seen your technology ..."

Rodney looked from Dirce to John and back again. "That technology doesn't exist in this timeline, Colonel. That's what she means." His wandering gaze paused on Dirce. "In this timeline you never built space ships, right?"

Oh here we go. John slowly sat back. He raised his arm, inviting Rodney to continue.

"Actually," McKay said, "that's kind of all I got."

Dirce leaned forward. "Their Stargate in orbit means one or more of their attack ships escaped our pursuit and survived the ensuing battle long enough to retrieve the 'gate and place it in orbit."

McKay was nodding as though Dirce had added two and two and got four.

John stared and shook his head. "Do you have space ships or not?"

"No, we do not but we know much about them. We promise to explain how." Dirce asked, "And you are certain the Alcestian home world is destroyed?"

McKay said, "Utterly. Energy weapons and from what I can tell some sort of temporal displacement weapon, but it's more than that. There are rifts or ... or ... ribbons that for the present seem to be restricted to the planet but why I don't know. In theory time strings should not be bound by ..."

"Rodney."

"I'm saying there's a spacetime rift that may be localized on the planet but may not be local to this timeline."

Urian bobbed his head. "In temporal science we call them ARs. Alternate realities. Normally awareness of an AR outside one's own is improbable. We were given the gift of awareness, how I shall explain later. In our reality, the reality of the persons you recovered and the reality in which we sit discussing these events, our world developed a bioweapon that prevented the Wraith from feeding upon us--"

"Really?" Rodney gasped, snapping erect.

"It made ninety percent of the test population sterile."

Rodney deflated. "Of course it did."

"We shelved the pathogen."

"You should have done more than shelve it," John said.

Dirce folded her hands. "Perhaps you are right. However, we did not develop it alone. Our brethren, the Alcestians, worked at our side. It had been that way time out of mind. Conflict began when Aedon wanted the bioweapon disposed of and Alcestis wished to continue its work. We fought a war for ownership of the weapon. Wraith cullings re-established our alliance. This was one thousand years ago. It was a difficult time.

"As a condition of the new alliance, Aedon agreed to study the weapon further. There was relative peace. Then we successfully launched the first time displacement stream. Many saw it as a weapon. Others saw it as something more. The Wraith had not come in a long time. We forgot our common enemy. The Alcestians turned on us."

"Or maybe," John said, "you turned on each other."

Urian spread his arms. "History is selective. We in this room are not naive. Presently, we discuss two histories, intertwining and yet separate.

"In one circumstance, Alcestis and Aedon build starships. Charon-class Interceptors with pulse canons and temporal disrupter beams. Korudon-class attack ships with phase disruptors and plasma canons. Darkstar warships to carry the Interceptors and the Korudons to battle. The Darkstars were heavy attack cruisers with six thousand souls, temporal disruptors, and point defense lasers.

"I may as well tell you that there is no biological distinction between the Alcestians and Aedonians, only a historical one.

"The reality in which we build our starships, in that world our citizenry is less divided than our governments and as a result our worlds bleed information as alliances among the great families shift. Our worlds progress with only a small divergence in our technological evolution.

"The Alcestians develop the time traverse wave first. Perhaps in some ways, not very many, we Aedonians are fortunate that they did. The consortium of scientists had become reckless here as there."

Rodney interrupted. "You were using time displacement as a weapon but not as a way to move forward or backward in spacetime?"

Dirce snapped, "That technology is dangerous and irresponsible, as you will see."

"The first cubes, which in our present timeline were built five hundred years ago, produced displacement phenomena, or streams, which tore matter to pieces," Urian explained. "There was only one logical use for such technology."

Rodney blinked, lips parted for a question he managed to keep to himself.

Dirce said, "The time traverse wave can never displace a traveler further than the moment when the first cube was created. For a thousand years the Alcestians harbored and developed this technology--"

"Wait." John winced. "Is it a thousand years or is it five hundred years? You keep going back and forth."

"Of course ..." Urian began.

Rodney piped up. "Two timelines, Colonel. In the alternate timeline the first cube was built but it was only good as a weapon. About a thousand years later, they all had space travel and one side had a time machine. The machine can go back a thousand years. I assume it does?" He scanned the room. "Of course it does. That's why we're talking about it. In this timeline, that point of intersection ... or the place the Alcestians returned to in time was roughly ... five hundred years before now?" He glanced at Urian for confirmation. "Yes, five hundred years ago. Two timelines. We're five hundred years in the past."

"We're not in the past, Rodney."

"To them we are. Well, not to them, but to the alternate reality ... and for the purposes ..."

John said, "I get it."

"Oh, good." Rodney exhaled.

Dirce sighed too. "We always believed the Alcestians were developing time traverse waves. We did not react sufficiently. We were arrogant. Our Aedonian scientists said it could not be done."

"Why were you so sure?" Rodney asked.

"The whiplash effect," Urian said, "was one of our most honored beliefs, at least here on Aedon. How were we to know the Alcestians would turn away from science and embrace madness?"

"War will do that to you," John said.

"As I said, it was the highest belief of temporal science. We taught it to our children. It was like a door that closed on the eventuality, or should I say the inevitability, of time traverse technology. In every simulation we performed on Aedon the creation of a time stream destabilized in the form of the go-away end of the wormhole"-- he demonstrated by bringing his hands together --"coming back to meet the stay-at-home end."

Rodney grimaced.

"Why is that bad?" John wanted to know.

"Well, Colonel, theoretically, if the wormhole is traversible and therefore displacing matter in time and space, the distant end of the wormhole turning about means the matter returns younger than when it left, which creates a paradox."

"A paradox that must be reconciled or catastrophic disruptions occur in spacetime."

"Actually, we've found--"

"Rodney," John shut him up. He pointed at Dirce with his chin. "You're referring to something that never happened, not to you. All this technology and space travel. How they came back. You act like you lived it but you didn't."

"No, we didn't. In the AR to which I refer, the Alcestians eventually ignore the whiplash theory. I can only surmise that in their simulations the matter that was launched returned intact and there were no side effects. We cling to that hope. In fact, we depend upon it."

John looked at Rodney for help.

Rodney held up his hands, making imaginary points in the air. "Everything they sent away came back. And I'm assuming they used a traverse containment ... a vessel of some sort ... with shielding to protect it from spacetime disruption ... so essentially the vessel launched and returned with no effect on the occupant and the wormhole collapsed after having made a roundtrip without actually creating a paradox."

"In their tests, not in reality," John decided.

"No, not in this reality. In the other reality, about five hundred years from now, Aedon learns what Alcestis plans to do, which is open a wormhole a thousand years into our shared past and contaminate our water supply with the sterilization bioweapon. Aedon launches a preemptive strike. We send all that we have, two Darkstar warships and five Korudon attack ships. Our fleet is trapped by the traverse wave and displaced along with the Alcestian armada. How do we know this? I will tell you. Once the weapon is unstoppable, an Aedonian pilot named Phoebus, also from the other reality, releases a data module, as per her directive, should she and her fleet fail to stop the weapon's deployment. Now you understand why we are aware of the other timeline. Our people eventually collect the data but it is too late to stop the contamination. Her data however ensures that we on Aedon know of the alternate reality and how this came to be our fate. The schematics of the more advanced dark matter cube are part of the data, as well as certain warnings."

Urian paused, expression reflective, tensed, and perhaps a bit prayerful. This was a tale he must have reviewed a thousand times. He told it that way, fleshing out the sequences with detail as though he'd been there.

Maybe, in a way, he was.

John had listened to playback from flight recorders. You heard the odd things here and there but most of the time you heard what you expected. Most of the time headings, altitude, and other flight data gave a better sense of what happened.

Phoebus's data module had given Urian this story:

She jumped into theater on the Aedonian Darkstar Phaon. Her Charon Interceptor's callsign was Keres 7. The Aedonian ships exited hyperspace within contact of Alcestis's long range sensors. The window for action was narrow. The jump exit point could not be helped.

Immediately the Alcestian satellite weapons began firing. Keres 4 and 12 went out in a blossom of fire that quickly strangled in the vacuum of space. Phoebus called to the pilots by name, but there was no emotion in her voice. Their names were just an emanation, like a grunt. The satellites were hitting the fleet with point defense lasers. The Aedonian Darkstars launched countermeasures. The fake signatures cluttered Phoebus's tactical screen. By now she should have switched to manual. Maneuvering this close to the fleet while taking fire was dangerous. Radiation from plasma discharges confused the Interceptor's automated systems and made her own ships invisible to its array. But she couldn't go to manual. The TID-- target identification device --was the only thing that mattered and it was visible only on tactical. The TID beacon was on board the enemy Interceptor that had the plague. How the TID was placed and by whom and when was classified but she knew the information to be true. The TID was up, it was moving. Her life, and the lives of her squadron, were nothing unless the TID was incinerated in a halo of molten metal.

The enemy armada was off the surface and closing. From the surface of the enemy world, now, drifted balloons of anti-assault fire. The weapon streams would be target-defined and deadly, but they would have to break off before the traverse wave initiated. For this reason, Phoebus was glad she had to negotiate the fire. Her mothership, Phaon, had taken damage and was drifting from the planet as though its thrusters were gone. Its sister Darkstar, the Ophelos, was still launching Interceptors. One of its launch bays had taken a laser strike. A handful of Korudons were taking on the satellites with their heavy strikers, while the rest tried to clear the way for the Interceptors to reach the enemy fleet.

It was all moving too slowly for Phoebus, for suddenly the floaters from the surface stopped. The charges hung in the vacuum, then drifted on and away or detonated, clearing a corridor for the traverse wave. Phoebus screamed.

The enemy armada was so near but its launched Interceptors were between her and the enemy Darkstar Proteus, which harbored the craft she wanted, the TID-marked machine whose data was uploading on a carrier stream to her data module, although it did not know it.

She sounded out the pilot's house name: Thalan. It read the same in Aedonian as in Alcestian.

The traverse wave. She could not see it but her tactical could. The wave registered as a spacetime disruption. The enemy TID, attached to Thalan's Interceptor, headed for it.

Phoebus plotted a vector. This took a few seconds. Her Interceptor refused the command. The automated systems were programmed to avoid displacement streams. Her on-board computer saw a weapon.

Phoebus cursed and unlocked the computer. She switched her systems to manual, vectored toward the stream. The enemy Interceptors and Korudons were firing rail guns across the void. Their fire disappeared into the darkness. A one-way trip, this was. Only one way in and no way out. Still she pricked the wave, she and several others. Her eyes had clenched with a startling dose of fear. She opened them quickly.

It was like passing through the Stargate. The wave had a gelatinous texture. Resistance was minimal. Her systems shuddered, then reset. When she came off manual, the computer hicupped. It was looking for the interface that strapped all on-board systems to the same time and date. It found a Darkstar server still up and running, the computer on board the Ophelos, which had followed her in. She saw, too, her own Korudons and Interceptors, and while happy about their company, she hastily got out of their way. They were flying blind, all of them. The enemy armada was in the wave too. The TID told her so but she could not see them through her viewscreen.

The wave withdrew or dissipated or she passed through it and she was again over enemy Alcestis. Of the two Darkstars, only the Ophelos was with her. The planet offered nothing in the way of defense. It sat in the great inkwell of space like a blue-green stone, a thousand years in her past.

The enemy Darkstars had emerged from the traverse wave and were opening hyperspace windows.

Phoebus gazed at Alcestis, innocent and abandoned Alcestis, a while-- a long while, with her heart right up there in her throat.

But while she only thought about it, the Ophelos veered. It needed the Interceptors and Korudons to land before opening a hyperspace window to Aedon. Phoebus set course for its only operational bay, calling out encouragement to the weapons officers of the Ophelos. They all did, her brothers and sisters in the Interceptors and Korudons. And just after she landed the Ophelos fired. She couldn't get out of her bird to look at the displays. She had to talk to the flight deck crew on her com. What did they launch? The flight deck told her the Ophelos had gifted one-thousand-year-old Alcestis with a sixty-ton package. The crew was jumping up and down but Phoebus was reticent. The fight wasn't here, not yet. And a sixty-ton package was tac-speak for six antimatter missiles. The six accounted for half the Darkstar's missile compliment and were overkill on anything but another Darkstar, which had shielding to throw off the blast. In theory a Darkstar could take six missiles anywhere but aft and on the nose and maintain hull integrity and radiation shielding. What if theory proved correct? The enemy had two Darkstars on the way to a younger, defenseless Aedon.

x x x x x

Urian finished. "During the battle, which takes place over these very skies"-- he gestured upward --"four hundred and fifty years ago, a lone Interceptor of Alcestian design breaches our atmosphere and deploys the bioweapon. The pilot who releases the weapon is known to his pursuer."

"His name is recorded in our secret archives," Dirce said, "as a man with the surname of Thalan."

Urian nodded. "Phoebus said she and her ships fired on his planet. Additionally, it is the belief of the scientists of Phoebus's reality that Alcestis would be subjected to tidal forces in spacetime because the wave returned empty of all matter which it transported--"

"Empty? If it's empty there's no paradox." Rodney shook his head in confusion.

"There is a paradox," Urian disagreed. "Not in their reality, but in the other."

"Oh. And the Aedonian fleet, it obviously survived the displacement in time due to shielding of some sort? Did you build shielding for your ships because of the temporal weapons you were using?"

"I am led to believe temporal shielding was standard on all craft by this time," Urian said.

"Well that explains ..." Rodney saw John's scowl and clamped his mouth tight.

"That explains what?" Danaus asked.

Rodney squirmed and burst open. "The shielding on the lifeboats we recovered, it's unlike anything I've ever seen."

"We must," Dirce exhaled, "see the lifeboats. We must see them now."

"Not possible." John shook his head once, the muscles in his face stiffening.

Urian clasped his hands tightly. "Why is it not possible?"

Danaus was the one nodding, his understanding folded within the cloak of experience. Like a parcel he did not need to nudge to rediscover, so close was it to his soul, he seemed at peace with his understanding of John, and somewhat reconciled. He did not meet John's eye exactly but he appeared to want to. Meanwhile, he tapped his arm slowly with the tip of a finger.

Uneasy, Rodney muttered, "They're, um, too big. We can't ... the way ..."

"The answer is no," John said.

"Of course." Rodney stared uncomfortably at the table.

"May we send a delegation to your base to study it?"

"Are you kidding me?" John threw up his hand, tucked in his upper lip, and ah-ha-ed like he'd seen his way. "You have prisoners here. Donors, you call them."

Urian and Dirce exchanged baffled glances.

"He means the off-worlders," Danaus explained.

"Oh and by the way," John threw out there, "nothing you've said so far gives you the right to take women from other worlds to make your babies."

Urian blanched.

Dirce flushed indignantly. The slightly puffed-up look was a world away from the elegant moth she had appeared when John met her.

"We do no such thing!" she exclaimed.

John turned his head to look at Danaus, Euryton's boss. "Oh I bet you do."

Danaus said nothing.

However, "We trade," Dirce insisted, "for new blood in our breeding cycles. There are many willing to live free of the terror of the Wraith. We offer comfort, protection. We offer reverence. You have no idea of what you speak. The Empyreal habitat is paradise. Our guests are treated well."

"You use the barren ninety percent of your population as bait for the Wraith?" Rodney questioned.

"Those that are barren--"

"The Relinquished," John remembered. "You call them that."

"You have an outsider's view of our ways," Urian accused. "Not that I, at this pass, blame you for them. Those whom you call bait are carriers of the pathogen. In the beginning of our torment, the Wraith came as they always did. When they realized we could not be fed upon, they came less. I suspect they studied us. Ultimately, our predicament has bored them. We are not worth eradication. Yes, they still come, but they take only a few. We shut down our lab when they are in our skies. It is the only time we shut down the lab."

"What lab?" McKay blurted.

x x x x x

The cube lab, below.

On the lift, John leaned into the oiled wall, beaming his will into his knees, which wanted to buckle. Rodney held his arm.

The lift settled abruptly. Urian, watching John uneasily, muttered an apology. John raised his eyes to the face of the Aedonian scientist until the scientist looked away. A giddy hollow extended from John's stomach, like a cool shadow with tentacles feeding into his veins. This was better than the fiery heat of the Afghan sun but a little too much like the cold nights. The memory sickened him. Too much spun on that experience. It had cost him. He needed to focus on the here and now, stay on his feet, get through the next quarter hour.

The lift doors swept aside. There had been a pause while Urian and Danaus bypassed a security protocol. A concrete landing appeared. Rodney said, "Careful," to John, who nearly stumbled.

Trailed by mute assistants and Rodney and John, the Aedonians leaders padded to the railing.

The landing fell away. The space below looked like a cavern in which an immense and intense cube of alloy glowed beneath relentlessly brilliant lights. Technicians flowed around it, absorbed by data visible on monitors surrounding the cube.

"Oh," Rodney said.

"Does this impress you?" Urian had recovered his mood. "You look upon the first cube constructed on Aedon five hundred years ago. This is Zotikas's version of dark matter containment."

"May I assume you have improved on the original?" Rodney said.

"Indeed." Urian strode ahead.

The landing led to a corridor with blast doors. After the wide open hangar-like space of the cube lab, the closed hall felt mildly claustrophobic. Dirce and Urian strolled side by side to a second set of doors. These opened on a long, high room walled with alloy shields and teeming with Aedonian scientists.

"We produce the new cubes here," Dirce said. "We won't go in far." The room, it appeared, ran on into the distance. "The reactor is that way. It's a long walk and you've no need to see it. Come this way."

Dirce strolled to a workstation, waited while the scientists greeted her and drew off, and then touched the monitor screen. "Do you see?"

Rodney let go of John and shouldered past the Aedonians. "It's small."

"It doesn't have to be large," Dirce agreed. "And we use two now. At the same time."

The monitor showed a lab with two cubes the size of armchairs connected to platforms no wider than three or four feet.

"You are looking at the recreation of the design left for us in the data module sent from the future."

John groaned. "Don't say that again."

Rodney's eyes glistened. "Inside the cube you've--"

"Yes," said Urian, softly.

"How?" Rodney pleaded.

"We will share with you our design and data if you will bring us one of the lifeboats."

"Colonel," Rodney exhaled tightly, "they have a black hole containment device."

John said, "I know what they have."

"Amazing. The black hole maintains its own containment field?"

"Yes," Dirce said. "It is the only way to harness the required energy."

"Well, not the only way ... but, yes, yes, I see."

Dirce added, "We have learned to apply the time traverse technology several ways. We abandoned the wave model used by the Alcestians--"

"Too reckless, too unpredictable," Urian interjected.

"--in favor of the temporal bubble. The distance achieved by the traveler is determined by the creation point in spacetime of the second cube. That is why we maintain the obsolete model in the hangar. It is the only way we can--"

"--go back far enough to stop the Alcestians from poisoning your world." Rodney slapped his leg and looked up in thought. "That's your plan, your solution?"

Danaus nodded. "It is our only solution."

"No, it isn't," Rodney muttered, "but I doubt you'll listen to me."

"What my friend is saying," John sighed, "is you go back, they go back, how does it end?"

"Actually," Rodney corrected, "I was going to say that nothing here will change. In the new timeline, maybe, but the problem in this reality doesn't go away because you alter something in the new one. You'll still have your population issue in the here and now."

Urian and Dirce stared at him.

John spoke to their silence. "Okay, so you already know that."

"We've done nothing but this work since we found the data module," Urian explained. "We were on the brink of space travel and the development of temporal weaponry. None of that has come to fruition. This is all we do."

"So you can go back," John supposed, "and hit them first."

Dirce pursed her lips and lowered her gaze. "I do not blame you for your outlook. We must return you to your base, I see that. Will you look at the text for us?"

"Show it to me."

"--And try to remember that in the past we have nothing with which to reach the Alcestians. We are not advanced enough technologically to damage them. It is the ships in the sky that come to us, the ships from the future. We know where to go to prevent the contamination. We know how to prepare now. That is what we will do if ever we are successful in our endeavor to transport a person through spacetime."

"You haven't done it yet?"

Urian leaned toward the monitor, touching the screen. "We found that the thing we lack most is the thing we need most."

Rodney snapped his fingers. "Shielding."

"You may hold the very breath of our civilization in your hands," Dirce addressed John. "We have come to wonder if the temporal shield technology was native to another race on another world. There is little about its design in Phoebus's data module. We can't manufacture it, including the materials that make it work."

He glanced at her and away, edged to the chair in front of the monitor, and looked at the text floating across the screen.

"Why don't your archives call up the written language on Alcestis?" he grunted.

"The first people of our world to manage this crisis were shortsighted and blind in their outrage--"

"--I can relate," John muttered.

Dirce nodded slowly. "Books by Alcestians were erased. Every reference, every ... eradicated. It soothed us somehow. We assigned no significance to this passage in Phoebus's data module until recently. It was not immediately recovered. Now we believe it is an intelligence report intercepted by--"

"It's a transcript of the audio logs from the sterilization module mission," John sighed. "There's no punctuation, which makes me think the transcription was done digitally through an automated program. We have them on our home ships." He frowned. "How would Phoebus get this?"

Rodney wondered, "If she hacked their systems in flight?"

"Maybe. Wouldn't that be hard to do?"

"Similar technology, so maybe and maybe not."

"I'm not Aedonian and reading this is pissing me off. You know, your people could've found out about this a long time ago and decided not to tell anyone. It'll make you want to forget the language. You sure you want me to read this to you?"

Urian touched the screen again. "Yes, and when you speak, we'll record you."

John covered his face with both hands and pulled at his skin to loosen it. He slowly sat down.

x x x x x

The lift powered up. The occupants were silent in a way that both isolated and bound them. They were each separately and collectively appalled, John noticed, to the point of speechlessness. After speaking so long and without inflection the altitude changes and headings used by Thalan as he prepared to launch Armageddon, he was okay with the quiet.

The lift stopped suddenly. Dirce had fingered the panel. The doors retracted. She pushed past John, saying, "Come with me."

They stepped upon an enclosed walkway. The walkway hung above a vast chamber of biospheres and courtyards and tiled paths. The chamber ranged as far as John could see. He looked closer and recoiled.

Dirce knew him now and understood. "We are in containment. They are free of anything we might bring here with us. You cannot harm them."

It was a world unlike anything John had ever seen. It was a carefully constructed, aesthetic park settled around domiciles and people of both genders and every age. He saw the children first. There were so many. The school-age ones were in clusters. They settled in large groups around adults, perhaps as they learned. There were clusters at play. They wore every color imaginable, sending up through the changing light a rainbow of life and vitality. In contrast, the Aedonian surface, even the lower labs, were wintery voids. The older children gathered in smaller groups, walking or sitting or working alongside adults. Women drifted together, erect, healthy, and in every stage of pregnancy, although many were not pregnant. Those who were not carried infants and toddlers or moved along with men, like couples. The purpose of this Eden was plain: procreation. It was idyllic and serene and possibly a bit bizarre. The Aedonians would have created work among the Empyreal to satisfy boredom, but the people who lived here would understand their uncontaminated wombs and seed were the barrier between extinction and continuation and so every day they would celebrate their place, their contribution, and hardly lack for more.

John said, "Where are the off-worlders?"

"That term, as you use it, does not mean what you think it does." Dirce lifted her arm and lightly touched his. "We have many dealings with other worlds. If you do not know this, it is because we do not speak our true names. Among the worlds we have visited, here and there the people whisper dark star and they have heard of the Proteus. It is possible that ship survived the attack of the starcraft that pursued it from Aedon to Alcestis. Do you remember the Aedonian ships that were caught in the traverse wave?"

John nodded.

"If all were not destroyed in that battle ... if the Proteus is a functioning, manned Alcestian warship, our slow demise may have amused its survivors. We would be unable to defend ourselves against such a vessel. We are careful therefore not to draw its interest."

"We've never heard of a dark star anything or a ship in this galaxy capable of taking on the Wraith," Rodney informed.

"Then you are fortunate," Dirce suggested. "That ship, if it exists, is no friend of ours, nor has it made friends among other worlds. We have heard it spoken of only in fear."

"Oh." Rodney gazed inward. "Note to self, the big warship with point defense lasers and temporal disruptors is not friendly. Thank you."

"We grow our grain on other worlds," Dirce continued. "We bring water for the Empyreal from lakes and rivers not our own. Their garments are woven from wool shorn elsewhere. The Empyreal touch and consume nothing that springs from Aedon. But the term off-worlder, as we use it, is a contributor who chooses not to live among us. We collect material as it is offered for study and reproduction."

"Those that wish to live among us are tested and screened thoroughly. We would not," Urian added, "allow into the Empyreal habitat one who does not comprehend his or her worth."

"No matter how he or she came to be on our world," Danaus insisted, knowingly. "Surely, that is plain to you now."

"Well, they could be drugged or brainwashed," Rodney mumbled.

John said, "They're not." He tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard to Reardon."

"Reardon here."

"Dial the Stargate." He looked at Dirce. "You've spent a lot of time on one thing and less time on others. If you can figure out how to control your psycho Exponents, there's someone from my base who might want to trade with you. My people are good at some things, maybe better than you are at some things, I don't know. I'll tell her what I've seen. For starters, I'm sure I can get her to send over a translator program free of charge in case you run into anymore Alcestian logs."

"Sheppard, this is Weir."

"Elizabeth, can we prep one of the lifeboats for transport to Aedon?"

"I don't understand, John."

"There's something in the shielding the Aedonians want to study. It means a lot to them."

"I think we can do that. What about you, John?"

"How's Doctor Beckett coming along?"

Elizabeth told him.

He nodded. He had not expected to hear otherwise. "He's still at it, okay. I'm going to need something so I can board a Jumper and head back. There are no suits on board and I don't trust anything else."

She exhaled loudly enough that he heard the relief.

Beckett's voice came over the com. "We'll take care of that. Are you near the Stargate now?"

"No, I'm in the city. There's no way to make it to the Stargate without getting on a Jumper. I'm heading to the surface." As he told the lie-- well, it wasn't really a lie; he intended to head up soon --he gazed down at the little domes, the groomed parks and immaculate walkways, the open-air classrooms and couples walking hand-in-hand. "I'll wait in the plaza. You'll find it. Follow the Stargate track and then look for the statue."

"We're on our way."

Dirce grazed his arm again. "Thank you."

John said nothing.

She added, "I deeply regret--"

"Can we get out of here?" he said.

She nodded. "You are wearing a medication patch that has been helping you breathe. I will supply you with others, but you should know the medication is wearying to the heart. You may not choose to put on another. In any event, your technicians may study the medicine and perhaps modify the dose to keep you comfortable."

John looked at her and away.

Rodney said, "We'll take it, whatever you got. Our, um, ships are pretty fast when they want to be. Can we head up now?"

x x x x x

The Jumper sat uncloaked on the pavement, the lifeboat about twenty feet next to it in the peach haze of late morning. By John's calculation, it was late morning on Atlantis too.

Daylight hurt John's skin and eyes. He hunkered down inside himself and tried not to look like he was lightheaded and losing awareness as he and Rodney approached in a motorized cart, something from below ground, with Danaus and the escort Exponents. Euryton was not with them.

John and Rodney left the Aedonians and started the last hundred steps to the Jumper on foot. Rodney steadied him.

John blinked. The Jumper's military contingent ranged across the stones armed with P90s, their faces behind splash shields and their hands gloved. They made him understand that among his kind he had become anathema. His understanding was jacked to mortal fear when the medlab team came out of the Jumper, led by Beckett, in red bio-suits. They carried a bio-tube and that scared John in a way he could not, or would not, comprehend. He thought of the cloaked Jumpers. If Beckett had brought the bio-tube, then another Jumper had come from Atlantis with the lifeboat. He felt the gazes of his men. And the pressure under his breastbone, that too he felt. Again. Like a dumbbell sitting on his chest. It was getting heavier and he knew what that meant but he was less afraid of that than the bio-tube.

"I'll take a suit, Carson. I'm not getting in that."

"You can hardly walk."

It was a coffin, he thought. That was what it looked like.

Beckett scrunched up his face, strode up to John, and touched him. John thought, Did he just inject me with something? Which would explain why he was suddenly falling down. Rodney and Carson pulled at his arms to ease his descent to the pavement. John was never sure if they were successful.

x x x x x

Everyone was home. The evacuation of Sheppard had occurred without the city's automated defense systems going into alarm. Elizabeth had met the rescue Jumper on the embarkation floor, then stood outside its rear hatch as the medical teams brought Sheppard back to life. Cardiac arrest on the planet, Beckett said. She'd watched the team work from a distance. The drama reminded her of another mission, another return, and another miracle, but more than that she had been worried that Teyla would try to go inside the Jumper and Teyla was not wearing protective clothing.

Rodney caught up to them as they followed the medical team to the infirmary. "Teyla."

Elizabeth slowed her steps but Teyla did not. Soon the Athosian was well ahead of her.

"Teyla," Rodney called. His hand was out.

Elizabeth paused. "What is it, Rodney?"

"Oh, this?" He colored a little, his face pinched and tired. "It's a recording for her. Sheppard made me make it when we were, um, on our way to the surface."

"If you want I can give it to her."

"No, I'll ... We're going the same way, I'll do it."

Elizabeth and Rodney continued to the medlab in silence.

x x x x x

Teyla stood outside the bio-containment shelter. Intently watching the action through the plastic, Ronon held just behind her. The resuscitation team had been working several moments. It was a long, dangerous time, Teyla felt. She glued her hand to her mouth, felt the needlestick of pain in her chest each time she drew breath.

Elizabeth came up alongside her. "What's happening?"

"He arrested again," the tech answered.

Teyla was unable to compose the words.

Rodney McKay moved to Ronon's side, his gaze fixed on Carson and the flurry of activity inside the chamber. Briefly he saw his reflection. It frightened him.

x x x x x

Teyla felt the pain release, felt the cool comfort of relief easing through her veins. Carson had pushed away the crash cart and now performed an assessment routine with his team. Teyla could see the monitor with its pulsing color.

"It's good, right?" Ronon asked.

Elizabeth and Rodney exchanged glances.

Ronon's question went unanswered.

x x x x x

Beckett left the chamber first. Teyla watched him strip his bio-gear and trudge out to them. She shut her eyes, gathered her breath, and waited.

Carson compressed his lips, glanced down, looked up, and let his gaze pause on Teyla. He flinched away, and so she knew. Before he said it, she knew.

She listened to his words, although she did not understand them. By themselves the words described the occurrence of biological ruin, a body under siege, and a heart weakened by two attacks. Words. But words had no right to be cruel, so she pushed them away until they were empty sounds. Beckett was confident he and his team would synthesize a cure but the cure was several hours, if not days, away. John, he said, was moments or an hour from cardiac arrest. His heart was dying.

Someone lay his hand on her shoulder. She thought it was Lorne, to whom she'd spoken of loving John, and when she remembered that Lorne had died, she began to cry.

How many years since she shed tears? If she did it more often it would not have wrenched her as it did, swimming up from the hollow of her body like acid, taking everything, and leaving nothing. Did she shock them? she wondered. Where had the light gone? Who took away the light? Through her tears she saw only darkness.

x x x x x

She is small and alone. Even in his presence she feels this. There is no easement, no balm, and no escape. But she smiles. She has no right to look into his eyes and show the road that lies before her. It is not his fault. He is traveling just the same, away and away, and will need what courage she can spare.

I can spare none and no matter. You are welcome to it all.

John has returned in this small way, momentarily lucid amid the tubes and machines. The dying only come from the shadow in this manner to say good-bye. This visitation is the gods' gift, her people used to say. The physical form has no sway against the soul, and the soul knows when its time is short.

When he opened his eyes, "Hello," he said, roughly, through the hard plastic of the breathing mask.

Now she applies her smile. It is as bright as she can make it. "Hello."

He makes a weak gesture, mutely asking her to remove his mask.

She obliges.

"I made it back," he whispers.

She listens for double meanings, the physical and the soul speaking at once. One knows what it wants, the other knows what it needs.

"Yes," she says.

"Where is everybody?"

She lifts her hand. "Your friends are just beyond the plastic. They are right here with you."

He cannot see that far, she knows. He nods anyway.

"Tell them ..." He stops. His brow furrows. He is feeling it now. He knows it is coming.

She passes a gloved hand through his hair, traces his face to erase his frown. "Don't be afraid of it, John."

"I'm not." His eyes glisten and close.

Her heart lunges, but not yet ... not yet ... The machines tell her he is with her still.

His larynx bobs unsteadily. With his eyes closed, he whispers her name. His breath passes parted lips. His chest stills.

The machines make no sound, for Dr. Beckett moments ago turned off the alarm. She has been waiting since for the monitor to show her that John's heart no longer beats. And now that it has, now that she sees, she is aware that for a very short while John will be closer to her than ever. He will try to remain, she knows. She is motionless and prayerful as he passes from within his body, as he tries and fails to remain at her side, as he leaves her.


Part Five: Lifeboat


"You sent for me?"

Elizabeth felt the small, thin voice of the other woman pass through her like a blade of grief. They had not spoken privately. Would they? McKay told her Teyla would see no one. In time, perhaps. But now ...

Her conference room was full. She should have warned Teyla but that might have delayed the meeting. The meeting was, or had seemed to be, everything.

"Yes, Teyla. This is the leader of the Aedonians, Dirce Icelos. She is here with her chief science officer, Urian Inessa. They and their attendants join us with a proposal I thought you might like to hear."

Teyla looked only at her, which was the younger woman's way of hiding anger. "Yes, Elizabeth," she said.

"Please have a seat," Elizabeth said.

Ronon angled away from the table to observe Teyla. Teyla had found a wall to study and then committed, it seemed to Elizabeth, a great deal of effort to doing so.

She cleared her throat. "The Aedonians have a problem related to an event that occurred outside spacetime." She waited to see if Teyla understood or was even listening. She began again. "They believe their problem can be solved by recreating this event, but there are difficulties associated with this. First, they have only recently discovered a way to displace organic matter in time and space and two, they can only displace matter a short period for fear of endangering a valued resource that they will use only when all elements of their technology have been deemed sound. Therefore, Teyla, the window to act is short."

"Within twenty-four hours," added the cool, tempered voice of Dirce Icelos.

Elizabeth tilted her head. "Teyla, do you understand?"

"Yes, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth nodded. "All right. The Aedonians believe they can displace a traveler using their technology somewhere between a few minutes ago to twenty-four hours into the past. That displacement will be local and temporary. The science is very specific about this. The traveler will be able to leave her vessel but she must return to it within a mandated period, or, Teyla, the present may suffer dangerous rifts in spacetime."

Teyla's eyes had flickered to life. Elizabeth had not realized how unlike life they had been until the Athosian focused. She turned her head to look at Elizabeth.

"You would risk this?"

"To save Corporal Willet, Major Lorne, and Colonel Sheppard, I would."

Rodney uh-hummed. A finger lifted. "That's not ... It's not entirely correct ..."

"Rodney," Elizabeth cautioned.

"You would not save them in this timeline," the woman Dirce advised, "but in another, what was done may be undone if we are prudent and we are wise."

Teyla jerked her head sharply to take in the Aedonian. "I understood Doctor Weir perfectly." She shifted her gaze and mellowed. "Have I been chosen to go on this mission?"

Elizabeth sighed. "Firstly, it must be someone who was on the initial mission to Aedon. If we stop contact with Aedon altogether ..."

The Aedonian scientist spoke up. "We must meet. We must."

"Yes, go on," Teyla insisted.

"You and Ronon left the Jumper with Colonel Sheppard. That makes you and Ronon the best candidates."

"Sheppard's more likely to listen to you," Ronon said.

"But I thought you said that I cannot be there."

"Yes, you can. And so can I," Dirce said. Lips pursed, she glanced at Elizabeth. "May we see the second lifeboat? We must be certain the memory transfer module remains intact."

x x x x x

She chose this room for its comfort and her connection to it. The process was not precise, the Aedonian woman had said. There could be "drifting." Ten moments, a half an hour. It was a problem they must work out, the Aedonian had murmured, slightly distressed. Teyla had wondered how a woman so cold felt distress and said that she would manage if she returned too late and encountered herself at an awkward time.

"Talk to no one else," the Aedonian had pleaded. "You cannot imagine the risk--"

"You have told me. I can imagine it." And Teyla had gone away. The Aedonian had winced, she saw that before she left. How had John touched her? Teyla wondered. They had not come to Atlantis because they needed to. Doctor Weir would still trade with them. Lost lives, while lost, were not barriers to alliances. Well, they were barriers to some.

Once the device activated Teyla had expected to sleep or become disoriented. Neither occurred. It was day and then it was something else until suddenly it was night. She released herself from the lifeboat, left the lid retracted.

Was it possible a time could stir the senses as deeply as a place? She went to the panels through which she had looked for stars. Sayles and Oliverio were slain. That pang had been fresh. It was fresh no longer.

The lifeboat would alarm her other self, but that could not be helped. She left the panel to stand by the doorway.

It was not a long wait.

"Teyla" strolled in carrying her equipment, dressed to work out, distracted-- as she, the Teyla from the future, recalled --and therefore easily surprised.

The equipment bag slapped the floor with a thud. Her "younger" self froze.

This was the moment that mattered most, the one the "other" Teyla must use immediately or lose forever.

"John needs you to listen and do as I say," she gasped. "He will die if you do not."

Her other self had slipped into a defensive stance, one hand halfway to her com.

"It must be as I say or you may change too much."

"Change too much?"

Oh this was odd. To see herself as she never had before, to hear her voice from the lips of another. "Yes, change too much. I have no time to speak of this. You must stand with me at the lifeboat and learn what I know. If you do not, you do not. And so you will learn of it another way. And then you may try to save another the pain that I know, but it will be too late for you forever."

The Teyla who had come to work out lowered her hand. She straightened.

The "older" Teyla waved herself to the lifeboat. "It was Doctor Weir who ordered this. Go on. I am told it will not be the way it was for Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir. Our consciousness is ... ours. There will be no conflict, no fading, and no death. Nothing should stop the memories from coming to you but to be certain you must write down what you learn and you must go to the place where you write our memories before tomorrow's mission. Do you understand?"

Her alter nodded. "I understand."

When it was done, Teyla helped her alter to the bench. She reeled away, hurried to the lifeboat, and prepared to climb inside. She turned to look at herself, at the horror grafted on her counterpart's face, and tears welled in her eyes.

"You need not always be so strong. When you are stiff, you cannot bend but you can break. And it is not necessary to fight Major Lorne when he comes tonight. He would be content to speak to you if you simply tell him you are willing. He misses his world and his people and it would be good should he and Colonel Sheppard become better friends."

Her alter sprang up. "Wait."

"I cannot!" She could not. Every sense in her body told her so.

She slid into the lifeboat and sealed the machine. The automated system sensed its passenger and began the shift forward. Night became something else, and then it was day.

x x x x x

She rises from her bed. It is still early but there is no use trying to stay still. Her belly is taut and the wires of muscle in her legs and arms are kinked from strain. While she stretches to clear the toxins of stress from her body the sun rises over Atlantis. The calisthenics are performed without thought but the caterwaul of emotion hovers just beyond the gate of her mind. The other was correct. The imprinting was confusing at first, but only at first. There was no struggle or loss of self. There were no convulsions. Truly, it is for this purpose the imprinting was created.

Memories flow even now, sweetly, bitterly, and (yes) violently, like rivers that converge in a white storm of rage. She can feel the memories of the other. She can taste them. There is no place big enough inside her body or her thoughts to hide from them.

She dresses for the mission. When it is time she starts toward operations. Technicians, scientists, and security Marines cross her path. She is silent. None of them notice that she is alone. Her expression is placid, although her mouth twitches at one end. He will notice that. He always does.

Outside the Stargate room, as she turns the corner, she hears the familiar voice: "Where the hell were you last night?" John's tone, of course, is easygoing. She is certain of it.

The remark is accompanied by Ronon's companionable chuckle.

When she does not speak or stop, John calls to her. He sounds confused now, even concerned, but he will not take issue, not yet. A missed workout is a small matter. They are together so often.

She should answer. She should slow her steps to walk beside him. She does neither. To turn, to look on him, as he looks back at her, would cut to the bone.

She walks faster. The embarkation floor is full of Marines headed for the Jumper Bay. There is no more commentary from behind. Ronon and Sheppard understand the complexities of a troubled mind. Ronon, tonight, will tap her arm and mumble, "What's up?" He will not press her on a mission. John will become extraordinarily polite or coolly professional and he will allow her silence. He will show nothing of what it means to him when she is aloof or upset. As assurance of this, he strides past her inside the Jumper Bay and calls his team leaders to him. John. He wears the black uniform and boots, his shoulders are high, and his eyes are clear. She sketches his face with her gaze. She can never grow tired of looking at him.

"Your leader looks through me as if I were not there," she once told him.

"Do I?" he had asked.

"No."

She has loved his eyes, and the way he looks at her, since. When he looks at her sometimes she forgets to speak.

She cannot speak now, and no matter. Shoulder to shoulder with Ronon, she listens to John talking over last minute items with his teams leaders. There is Lorne a few feet away and intent on John's words, his arm resting against his P90.

It begins with Lorne.

John finishes the final prep. Teyla waits until the teams have dispersed. She catches John's eye. "Might I fly with Major Lorne's team on this mission?"

He does not think about it: "No."

"Colonel, I--"

He has a look now and it is not a good one. She must come back from the place where emotion wails and remember the world that she owns, the place as it is-- not as it will be. She clamps her mouth and strides past him to Jumper One.

This will not be easy.

The howl within her deepens as they visit Alcestis. Her other self-- she has adopted that Teyla's reference, for through the imprinting they have become one --her other self remembers that the Alcestis mission was difficult, but it was not this difficult. John has a decidedly sharper edge. Rodney is allowed to hide inside his data, as John speaks to him less. Ronon, frowning, watches her often.

When they arrive on Aedon, Teyla vigorously massages the muscle in her jaw.

John says, tentatively, "Are you okay?"

"Yes, Colonel."

He shifts immediately to a dialogue about Alcestis with Rodney. She watches the windscreen, unspeaking.

They reach the plaza.

There is the woman called Aglaia ...

Teyla palms grit from her eyes and gathers a long breath. She notices Ronon is staring again and he is concerned. She turns to him. "Do not worry about me," she says.

"Well, somebody better," John says, low. "You should get checked out when we get back."

"I am fine."

"And to prove it, get checked out when we get back. You should see yourself."

Ronon leans forward. "You don't look good."

McKay's voice joins his. "You know, you really don't."

She sets her jaw. "I am fine." But after she insists, feeling still the collective will of her team against her, she smiles. It slips out, like a startled breath. Here are her brothers and her friends and the man that she loves. The woman who crossed time trusted her to cherish them.

"That's better," John says, but then he drifts away, his thoughts on the mission, landing, and keeping them safe.

Aglaia, alone in the plaza. Teyla looks for words and the moment to act. So many chances, and too few. The Aedonian woman screams. The Aedonian warriors climb from their trenches. She recognizes the face of Euryton, loose and changing and secretive. When he speaks his name it is too late for the mission. John wants to leave. To leave is good, but Euryton must not touch Lorne.

Teyla sees, unexpected, the arrival of three persons. A woman leads them, gowned in pale, fluttering gauze. Her hair is long and white and reminds Teyla of her other self and the noblewoman from Elizabeth's conference room, the one to whom John might have meant something. The Aedonian warriors are surprised. Most back up in deference. Apparently, it is not normal for these persons of rank and their bodyguards to greet strangers. Euryton hangs in the front. Presently, he stands alone. His features clot with confusion, and his eyes show little storms that astonish Teyla with their depth. Who is this man? He is not, she realizes, what he seems.

Dirce Icelos and her entourage reach the plaza. The woman aims a momentary and meaningful look at Teyla. Teyla dips her head slightly and very quickly. They are kindred through the imprinting technology. Alone among the others, they have seen the future.

Engaged by the newcomers, John stalls his extraction command. Euryton's men do not disperse toward Lorne and his men, as they did in the other timeline. Euryton greets his leader. There is an older man Teyla does not know. He asks Euryton to report. Euryton says, "It is nothing. They are the stuff of gutters but quite arrogant about it."

He was not so provocative before. Teyla is surprised.

John turns toward the Aedonian. He too wears a look of surprise but in John there is something else, as though Euryton has shown more than he intended.

Dirce says crisply, "You will withdraw, Agent."

A succession of emotions flash across the Aedonian warrior's face. He settles on contrite.

"I have overstepped," he announces, genially, to John. His weapon is holstered. His smile is bland. He shuffles toward John with his hand extended. "On my world, when there has been offense where none was intended, we clasp hands--"

Teyla's eyes crinkle with focus. Euryton is, it appears, not so much after all. He is just another dog in the rubble, a scavenger who has come to prefer the taste of decay. Deconstruction pleases him, and bringing good things downward with him into the shadow of his own ruin--

She shoots him. The sound of her shot vibrates through the plaza, and her body, like an insult. Dazed, Euryton jerks backward, turns his head to look at her, and collapses.

There is a moment of stasis. And in Teyla the wail of fear and the heat of despair fades. She inhales, exhales. The stillness ends. Lorne and his Marines snap P90s to upward. John, too, raises his weapon. Reardon's Marines train weapons on the Aedonian warriors. No one questions her. That is the trust between them. They know her. The questions will come later.

Dirce glides forward. She kneels near the fallen man's body, pauses there, and rises. She is facing John. "You do not know us, but we have need of one another, I sense it. Will you take our good will, that which I offer as the leader of my people, to yours and allow us time to mourn our dead and begin again?"

John stares at her as though she is speaking an alien language.

Dirce says, "Your warrior saw the needle. It would have killed you. She was right to act and we acknowledge that. There is much about us that you do not know. Please allow us to begin again."

He lowers his P90. "He was trying to kill me?"

Direce nods. "Yes."

"Is that something a lot of you like to do?"

Dirce smiles coolly. "I do not take you for a man of short vision. Do not try to show otherwise. I see through your mask and know that you are fair and generous." When John says nothing, Dirce continues. "If nothing more, I know your soldiers will kill to protect you."

John nods. "I'll tell the base commander you want to talk."

"In doing so you will earn my gratitude and that of my people."

The Marines withdraw. Teyla follows her team to Jumper One. She takes the co-pilot's seat and settles in.

The Jumper purrs to life. John looks at Teyla and away, looks again, and says, "Less talking, more shooting, why didn't I think of that?" On the death of Euryton he says no more.

She will write her mission report, as he will. In the other timeline, Elizabeth ordered her to omit reference to the dark matter cube and the lifeboat. We will grasp this technology in normal trade with the Aedonians. We do not have to expose ourselves to the probability of alternate realities ... just yet.

I have not the words, Teyla realized.

"Back to the 'gate," John said on open com to his teams.

"Jumper Six to Jumper One, roger that." Lorne's voice.

All is as it was intended and life, Teyla remembers, is sweet.


Epilogue: The Message


Rodney's voice, soft and yet insistent, drifted over the com: "Teyla, will you let me in?"

He had come before. He would again. She released her door and stood up.

He shuffled forward looking only at her. He took her hand gently, placing within her palm his PDA. No, it was not his. But it was warm from his touch and it was ready to open a file.

"I'm sorry," he said and awkwardly leaned in. He kissed her forehead. "Push play." He nodded for emphasis and shuffled out.

Her door sealed. She sat down. And waited. And waited.

She touched the button.

Oh, yes. John's voice. What else would it be?

"Teyla ... " Was he in pain? He was. She pressed the PDA to her breast. "Teyla ..." He meant to say more. She could feel him trying and giving up, searching for another way, something less and yet more. She heard the heavy, rugged sound of his breath. And, finally, something softer, his voice, reaching toward her like the fingers of a hand: "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you ..."


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.