Proteus

by

Ryan C. Charles

Author's Note: When an enemy becomes an ally, the team runs afoul of the deadliest warship in the galaxy.

This fanfic is set in Season Three between Episode 306: The Real World and Episode 307: Common Ground, with spoilers for Season Two Episode 216: The Long Goodbye.


Prologue: Ashes


"Why was I summoned? Why have you activated the beacon?"

"Petronus Euryton is slain. I am sorry." Aglaia was draped shoulder to toe in a gray, layered cloak. The broad sleeves of her cloak fell back, showing slender arms. Fair, wispy, with long, flowing hair, Aglaia raised a brass urn. "Here is the Commander's son and my beloved, what remains."

The man before her made an unintelligible sound. Stocky, high-shouldered, with a short cap of reddish-brown hair, Nathan Zona wore the uniform of a sub-commander. If Aglaia had known less, she would have mistaken the grunt for emotion. Perhaps it was. The man served a difficult master. Many feared the Commander. Certainly the man to whom Aglaia offered the urn feared the Commander.

Except for Zona and Aglaia, the plains of Kairos were empty. It was a dark day. The grasslands whispered under tumbling storm clouds.

"Who killed him?" asked Zona, roughly.

"The woman who killed him is called Teyla Emmagan." The dark, curving metal of the urn was warm between Aglaia's palms. The urn had nestled inside her cloak as she made her way over the plains of Kairos.

Aglaia's city, and the city of her closest neighbor, were now several days away. Aglaia had come on foot.

It was a duty for which she had pleaded.

"How was his death accomplished? Was his origin discovered?"

"No," Aglaia said, and lowered her arms. The urn had grown heavy. "His death was coldly done by the off-worlder Emmagan. She and her kind have allied with Lady Dirce."

Now Zona blinked, as though before him an image was dashed apart and reassembled. "There is an alliance? Between off-worlders and the council of Kairos? Why was this permitted?"

"It cannot be undone," Aglaia confessed, "although you may tell Commander Euryton that her son tried. I bring failure and I am sorry." Aglaia's features were implacable. "Will you have this?" She offered the urn once more.

Compressing a long, thin mouth, Zona glanced askance. He seemed offended, but then it was likely his mind had gone ahead to the interchange with the Commander, whose son he would present as ashes. Zona tugged sharply at the stiff, dark cloth of his uniform. His uniform reminded Aglaia of photographs from her girlhood, those that she had found when she stole into the hidden places, the old places of Kairos, and learned a truth that she dared not speak.

"You will come with me," said the man, crisply, "and you will tell the Commander of her son's murder."

Aglaia sighed to mask the bubble in her heart, the tiny explosion of adrenaline.

The man nodded for emphasis. He would not carry ill news to Commander Euryton when another could do it. "Petronus was your lover. You should welcome a coming together with the Commander."

Not very likely, Aglaia thought. She offered the man an even look. "I have not been to their base but the people who harbor the killer Teyla Emmagan say their city was taken by the Wraith. They travel the stars now, as you do. The coordinates of their Stargate are a state secret but I will have them, eventually. You know that I will."

The man swung about and gestured. Beneath the troubled sky appeared a vessel with a hull that shimmered deeply, sleekly black. It had not been there a moment ago and then ... it was. Aglaia had been taught by Petronus Euryton that the glassy shimmer was an effect of the vessel's shielding. The shield blended with the hull and rendered the craft impervious to weaponry.

Staring, Aglaia gathered a long breath. Though the craft spanned what would seem a block of the city Kairos, she was aware that this was only a transport ship, one of the smaller vessels that soared to worlds and then flew away under a cloak of invisibility to a ship called Proteus, a vessel of indefinable girth and power. Aglaia had never seen the warship. It was the place on which Euryton had been born.


Part One: Discovery


The office of Dr. Elizabeth Weir ran adjacent to operations in the command tower of Atlantis. When she let them, the windows of her office overlooked sky and ocean. She rarely let them, preferring the subdued tones that were in sharp contrast to the chromatic, busy brilliance of operations. The contrast was a shelter of sorts, an unseen barrier that gave perspective without overwhelming. Sometimes a little distance was a good thing.

Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, visible through her office door, strolled toward her. He was a tall, dark-haired man with changing eyes and a strong face. She paused to observe him. He dressed mostly in black and carried a sidearm. His hair was tousled but short. The only accessories she'd ever seen on him were dogtags, a wristband, and a watch.

She got up. His expression altered as she stood. The transforming look reminded her of something he said once. He liked to share his observations, which she had come to credit. He was good at picking up details. And he was right: she usually stood up when the news was bad.

"Here I am," he greeted her. "What's up?"

Elizabeth clasped slender hands. "Please, John, take a seat."

Rather than sit, he chose to wander. He knew the territory as well as an intimate. He glanced in the direction of operations, leaned against the wall, and crossed his ankles.

"I wanted you to know--" She hesitated.

Reticent, he caught her eye, slipped his hands into his pockets. He never made these moments easy.

She said, "We received communication from Premina."

He flared an eyebrow but said nothing. Sometimes he liked to hold his thoughts. Now was one of those times. He did it well.

Elizabeth hitched her butt to her desk. "Arleus Meta is asking for a meeting. I've agreed."

John waited. He waited some more. "And?"

"I thought you should know."

"Okay, I know." He studied her. "You want me to tell you what I think?"

Elizabeth bowed her head slightly. "I think I have some idea."

"Where are you meeting?"

"I'm not ready to lower our shield to them just yet. I was thinking of going to them."

"Makes it easier. Not interested in letting the Preminian high lord know Teyla and I are alive?"

"No, John, not yet."

"Okay."

"Just okay?"

"They have ZPMs, we need ZPMs. Could be a match. On the other thing, he did let us go. So what if he waited until he thought we were dead."

Elizabeth listened for an edge and thought she found one. "As you say, we need ZPMs."

"It's more than that."

"Well, of course it is. I want to know if there was a change of heart. Certainly, he sounds reasonable."

"In hindsight."

"That's what I mean."

"Well, a grudge can be costly if you hold onto it at the wrong time. On the other hand, he could be homicidal."

Elizabeth sighed. "I'm going to meet him, not declare him my new best friend."

"I say, go meet him. We'll get Ronon up to speed and you should take McKay. Did you need anything else?"

Now she frowned. "I thought you should know."

John uncrossed his ankles, pulled his hands out of his pockets. "Now I know."

x x x x x

"They seem like the devices worn by Preminian soldiers," Teyla said.

"No," Rodney McKay decided. He squinted at the crystal display. Even with the broad flashlight beams and spotlights wielded by the Marines, there wasn't enough light in the corridor or the storage chamber. The sun was setting over Atlantis.

Teyla leaned closer, her long, soft mouth parted in dismay. "Rodney, I am certain of it."

"You mean, the things they wore on the collars of their uniforms?" Rodney aimed a knuckle at the protected display case, which, John suspected, was locked in some way. "No, the ones on the Preminians were smaller ..."

"A different color," recalled Ronon Dex, staring over Rodney's shoulder. The Satedan towered Rodney, and nearly everyone else. Big arms folded inside a coarse leather coat, Ronon cocked his head. "They're black. The Preminians had blue ones."

Striding closer, John settled it. "Same devices. Same size. And the color is off because no one with the ATA gene is holding them."

Rodney twitched, perhaps a trifle excitedly.

They were in an untenanted section of the city, a nice hump from command and operations and the tracts of Atlantis on which the expedition bestowed precious power. Low-level safety lights provided the only hardwired illumination.

Science teams under military escort regularly explored the uninhabited sections of the city. Occasionally, there was a pleasant surprise. When that happened the science team coordinator radioed Sheppard and Dr. McKay.

John said, "No one's touching one today either. At least, not here."

The team coordinator, Dr. Louden, beamed a happy look at her science team leader, evidently proud to have come upon the chamber. "Not bad, eh?"

Rodney barely glanced at her. "Yes, yes--" He directed a glare at Sheppard. "What do you mean, no one's touching them? We can't leave them here." Rodney seemed overwhelmed. When confronted with new technology, the scientist was more often like a kid on a field trip.

"We carry them inside their case," John said. What else were they going to do? Break the glass, pass them out? And if the devices were tiny mines or grenades instead of personal protective shields? Or incubation capsules for viruses? There was no reason to assume the devices were benign just because they had been found inside Atlantis. The city had yielded unhealthy surprises in the past.

Sobering, McKay turned to Louden and directed the retrieval of the case. John watched, interested but not very, cocking his head when the scientists uncoupled the case from its stand. The case was no bigger than an ice chest. The devices were inside compartments about the size of a sticky note. The things didn't shift when the case was lifted. They looked like frozen beetles.

John's neck grew stiff. He'd been watching pretty hard and thinking, too, about the Preminians. Why did it feel as though the Preminians had put the insect-like devices in Atlantis? It had not happened that way, he knew. The Ancients had thousands upon thousands of years ago given certain gadgets to Premina's people. Theirs was technology made to last. And on Premina, it had lasted. For even now Premina's soldiers wended through the galaxy like minor gods, carrying their personal shields and other Ancient tools.

Teyla's hand brushed John's arm. A fleeting touch as she continued by, her head bowed and steps pointed toward the corridor and the last light of day.

John tightened his neck and then released the muscles, smiling faintly. Teyla didn't have to speak to communicate, and she'd guessed that he had turned his thoughts to their forced stay on the Preminian home world.

It's over, her gesture meant.

She was wrong, of course. And in the big scheme of things, what did it matter?

x x x x x

The endorphins had kicked in. Ah, yes. John felt a joyous deluge of pain-numbing juice slathering his nerves and cushioning his bones, increasing the flow of oxygen to his muscles. Lean and wiry, John liked the feel of his muscles pumping, and he liked the way it felt to power his body along the piers at top speed, every sinew yearning to overtake Ronon Dex this time, this one time. It didn't matter that he couldn't do it. Dex added a charge that John's runs used to lack, an edge of throat-clogging adrenaline that burned through John's skin when the Satedan sniffed the last stretch and tried to pull away. It was a race then, not a workout, with Ronon's long, massive legs eating up the ground and John flying after. Working out with a man who had lost the better part of a decade in a life-and-death dodge with the Wraith filled John with purpose. Certainly he had improved his stamina and put on a little speed. More importantly, he had learned that though he could not win, he could keep up. It was cold comfort, but it was comfort.

At the end of the run there were water bottles and towels. John noted with satisfaction that Ronon was sucking wind, as he was, and pressed a towel to his face. The water was cool and sweet, easing the tang in his lungs as he worked to get air to his tired limbs. He kept moving, shaking out his legs and lower back, pleased with the rubbery feeling.

Swinging his arms, Ronon came up behind him. "How's this work? You stay here, I go to the planet with Weir. What am I missing?"

"They tried to kill me."

"Yeah, you and Teyla. I was on Athos, remember? They tried to kill me too."

John stopped and put his back to the railing. The pier was narrow and they were alone. Ronon stilled his arms and leaned on the opposite rail.

John swallowed from his water bottle. "You actually see the one that got you?"

Ronon's expression was inscrutable. "If I'd seen him, he wouldn't have got me."

"That's why you're going. They do what they want and they don't think twice. They won't remember you. And if they do, they won't care because they think they were right."

"Soldiers in war?" Ronon suggested.

"Something like that."

"But not you?"

"Not me. They think I wiped out hundreds of thousands of their people."

"They're putting it behind them," Ronon pointed out. "They want to meet."

"Okay, but they think they killed me."

"I don't get it. I don't get why we're going there."

"Think of it as progress."

Ronon grunted. "Based on a lie. Two lies, actually. And they're big ones. The first lie is that you did something to them. The second is that you paid for it. We can't work past either of those, what's the point in talking to them?"

John started to answer, hesitated, and shrugged. Ronon was right and he knew it. Nodding to show they were on the same page, John took in a little more water. "Some Preminian thousands of years ago backed away from a promise he made to the Ancients--"

"--to make his world a haven against the Wraith, to let in people from other worlds?"

"Yeah, with that shield they got, why not? It was a perfect set up, if you didn't mind getting five doomsday machines in your backyard. I'm thinking back then Premina's population was small. They could've done it, taken in a few refugees. But when all is said and done you're still talking about a big chance the Ancients took, mounting five Arcturus power centers--"

"Why did they do that?"

"Any idea how much power it takes to cloak and shield an entire planet?"

"No."

"Neither do I, but McKay says it's huge. You gotta figure, the Preminians were the Ancients' favorite child back then. They give them the power centers and a shield, Premina says it will take in all comers from all the human worlds ... The Wraith, they see an uninhabited planet ... Nobody's dying. No cullings. It worked. And if the Preminians had kept up their end and took in the refugees, who knows what they'd be like? See my point?"

Ronon glanced away, the muscle in his jaw twitching.

"All I'm saying is, they have a closed culture and some problems they gotta work out. The fact they're reaching out to us is a good thing--"

Ronon slanted a glance at him.

John said, "No, it is. It's a good thing. First of all, it's a milestone for them. Second of all, Premina is billions of people. Only fifty of 'em tried to kill us. That means they gotta have some nice people around, right? We should tell the nice ones they have four power centers when they should have five and anything that spikes power to their planet shield could make the four power centers they got left explode. We should look at the equipment, Ronon. We can probably help them. The third reason we should go and my personal favorite, they got ZPMs." John flared an eyebrow for emphasis.

"All right."

"All right?"

"Yeah, I said all right."

x x x x x

Elizabeth was going to Premina as the leader of Atlantis's expedition and a diplomat. The Preminians, she figured, would care way more about her status as Atlantis's leader.

As leader of the expedition Elizabeth represented control of the Ancient's base of operations, the Ancient's home world Stargate, and the Ancient's repository of knowledge.

She dressed elegantly: a soft top with a formal jacket. No weapons but she stuck with pants and sensible shoes. She had the support of her top scientist, McKay, and Ronon Dex, who had traveled more worlds in the Pegasus than she could imagine. Her military contingent-- John had said the Preminians surrounded their civilians with military personnel on their Journeying --her military contingent reported to Ronon, which was John's idea. The escort consisted of six armed Marines dressed in urban camouflage utilities. She had to admit their presence was comforting, although what Ronon and the Marines would do in the event of an ambush she did not know. John had said Preminian soldiers were Ancient gene-carriers. Personal protective shields were standard issue.

John, Teyla, and Carson Beckett, Atlantis's chief medical officer, saw her off. Through the open wormhole of the Stargate, the Preminians signaled all clear. The signal meant their force shield had been deactivated.

Elizabeth turned to look at John.

On the steps above the embarkation floor Sheppard seemed reticent, maybe a little worried.

Elizabeth signed to him that she was going to be okay. She was, after all, good at her job.

He understood the gesture, lifted his chin, and waved.

"Shall we?" suggested McKay, albeit hesitantly. McKay's tentative tone reflected a primary concern for well being but did not for a second mean he preferred to stay behind. The scientist was strapped in every conceivable fashion with data storage devices and tools to facilitate exploration of the Preminian power centers.

"Yes, we shall." Elizabeth gave McKay's shoulder a squeeze, and then led her teams through the event horizon.

On Premina's side she found a narrow tunnel with spotlights. Her first sense was one of vertigo. The tunnel was claustrophobic in design, which was what one wanted when one built a defensive perimeter around one's Stargate. The spotlights seemed to be an attempt to illuminate for human eyes what was normally lit tactically, as the gun ports most likely relied on ultra-violet and thermal sensors. Below the Stargate was an array of notables. At least they looked like notables. There were several of them regally-appointed in silk and linen suits. A wing of military-looking types hovered in the nearby background. John had been right. The expedition Marines raised no eyebrows and seemed to have been expected. As she flowed down the steps toward the welcoming party, she felt a familiar knot of excitement, a thread that coiled and tightened in her belly.

And now for the introductions. She keyed on an elderly official, only because she did not expect Meta to meet her here.

The elderly official bowed his head and gracefully backed away, leaving her face to face with a youngish man in a gray suit, a man with a full head of waving dark hair, metallic gray eyes, and the strong, sculpted features of a movie star. The image of Arleus Meta on the operations center monitor had not, Elizabeth decided, done him justice. He had seemed young then, but she had not really believed a man in his thirties had been elected to lead an entire world. Now she saw it was true. And he was physically fit, almost strikingly so. She was reminded that leaders were sometimes chosen for charisma. Arleus Meta had charisma.

"Doctor Elizabeth Weir," he said, offering his hand.

She hesitated. In the Pegasus many cultures abhorred touching hands on the first meeting. The Wraith killed with an aperture on the hand. It made sense that Pegasus humans perceived the gesture of extending one's palm as unfriendly.

As she took the high lord's hand, Elizabeth altered her strategy. She should not forget that Premina had been spared ten thousand years of cullings.

"I am honored to meet you."

Predictably, he said: "The honor is ours. Welcome to Premina." A quick glance around. "Forgive the austerity of our reception center. Once we have cleared security, I will conduct you about our world so that you may appreciate Premina's true beauty. Then we shall allow you to refresh and rest. Our best fare is being prepared in your honor. You will be a guest at our personal table. Tomorrow, we may begin our work."

Intrigued, she watched his eyes. The work, as he called it, had begun the moment she stepped through the gate. He was measuring her even now. Not just a charismatic man, then. Not at all. She decided that he was going to be more careful than spontaneous. Everything he did and said would be calculated to elicit a response, a response for which she would be judged. Another thing. This was the man who gave the order to lower the planet shield and allow John and Teyla to be rescued by the Daedalus. No other would have that power while a man like Meta controlled Premina's government. No matter what he said, he would know, this man, that when he released them her people were dying but not dead. The ability to resuscitate either or both was within the skill set of any group able to possess Atlantis. Therefore he would know that John and Teyla most likely had survived. She supposed he would protect that knowledge, and expect it to be protected, dearly.

Elizabeth dipped her head to him. She liked him. They were going to get along.

x x x x x

"Figure out what these things do yet?" John asked.

Dr. Radek Zelenka nudged a clear tray a centimeter in John's direction. The tray held the beetle-looking devices in rows.

John frowned. The more he looked at the oval devices, the more he was convinced their curving stony tops were carapaces. His experience in the Pegasus had fostered a healthy aversion to bugs.

"You're saying it's okay to touch them?" John possessed the Ancient gene that acted as an interface between his will and Ancient technology. If a user lacked the gene, the user could not access Ancient technology. Using the gene, affecting the interface, required training. From the start John had been a natural.

"Go ahead," Radek encouraged, his expression bemused.

John grazed the nearest device with his finger, then scooped the hard, cold little thing into his palm. The beetle stayed black.

"That's disappointing," John said.

"I thought so at first," Radek said, swiveling on his stool toward his laptop. "But then I noticed this."

John leaned over Zelenka's shoulder.

"Put it down," Radek said.

John obliged. Radek's screen had been measuring a wave of some sort. When John put down the device, the wave flattened.

"Did I do that?" John asked.

"Pick it up again," Radek said.

John picked up the device. Radek's screen brightened.

"It's sending a signal?"

"Yes."

"Well, how far and how strong?"

"Don't worry, the signal is going to us. To Atlantis. Since the device activates with the gene, we can assume it's Ancient. But-- big but here --why it's behaving like this, like a--"

"A home movie," John finished.

"I was going to say a data log. The device was initiating a wireless data transfer using an encryption protocol I've never seen before."

"Could be fun. We found these things in a lab."

"Hence, my excitement."

"Although I gotta ask--"

"Why store data in a portable device? Why not use the Atlantis network? I know. I've been thinking the same thing. As you can see, they're bulky. For data storage? Too bulky. Unless you wear them." Zelenka murmured thoughtfully in Czech, then continued on. "But even for a hands-free storage system, too bulky. That's why when we get going we'll be using stand-alones to decrypt. Just in case ..."

"Don't want anymore computer viruses," John said.

"No, no more of those."

"You said, when you get going. You're not downloading now?"

"That will require a few more answers."

"Like?"

"Like how much data is stored in them. Do we even have the capacity outside the Ancient database?"

He and Radek looked at each other for a moment.

John said. "Whoa." He was certain that Zelenka's eyes twinkled. Yeah, twinkled. "You think these things hold part of the Ancient database?"

"Or it could be the database. The devices are very bulky, Colonel, for a bunch of home movies." Zelenka continued to beam.

"Bulky but portable."

"And encrypted." Zelenka faced him. "Don't worry. We'll figure it."

John suppressed the urge to exclaim, Do you know what this means? He just let the warm feeling pass through him. And then Zelenka ruined it by changing the subject.

"Two hours without word, do you think that's a good sign or a bad sign?"

John thought, Give the easy answer. Heck, he'd been doing it all day. "I think Elizabeth is going to negotiate McKay's services for two ZPMs, McKay's going to be like a kid in a candy store, and we're going to teach the Preminians the real meaning of Journeying."

"Uncharacteristically optimistic of you, Colonel," Radek pointed out.

John, walking away, said over his shoulder. "It's the new me." He was several steps away when his com piece hailed him. He paused and tapped the earpiece. "Sheppard here."

"You're needed in operations, sir. Doctor Weir is asking for you."

x x x x x

Elizabeth was impressed from the start. Although John and Teyla had provided ample detail, the scope of the Preminian Stargate complex exceeded her imagination. Her reception, too, was unexpected. She received a standing ovation from the tiers of employees in the workrooms. The passages were hung with banners celebrating her arrival. She saw smiles and she saw querying looks and she saw hope. Not a single negative, not really. The feeling that she was tracing steps taken by John and Teyla when they were bound and in danger, that nagged. She had not done as well as she could have putting the incident to rest within her mind. Both a bad and a good thing. It was good to remember Premina represented a contradictory and fractured society. In their desire to emulate the Ancients, Preminians had absorbed and now reflected a large degree of arrogance. Premina's highest courts believed that recording and then viewing an accused person's private moments was the best way to determine guilt. There was anger here. More so than anywhere else? She could not be certain. But here the people existed in a bottle. Sometimes with the right combination of events contents in a bottle exploded.

Arleus Meta strolled at her side. He had introduced her to the members of the Conclave. The elderly man had been Hebban, whom John had described as a pillar of ice. Meanwhile, Teyla and her father had traded with this Hebban for many years. Teyla had considered Hebban a friend. There it was. The contradiction. Both assessments, Elizabeth was sure, were true. Presently, Hebban was a gracious gentleman.

The tall man with wide-spaced, inquisitive eyes and a tentative frown was Michiko, whose responsibilities included management of the Stargate complex and the theory and application of Journeying.

The third man, whose closed face was a perfect mask of civility, was Solon. This was, Elizabeth knew, the man who had told John and Teyla they were going to die. And then he had gone about seeing to the preparations. Solon's job was oversight of judicial matters, a global responsibility that included management of police and correction services. The main prison was a massive structure within the city called Quadrant Hedrex Four. Solon's base of operations was there. In a way, Elizabeth wanted to see this place. A society could be measured, and accurately, by the way it treated its prisoners and elderly. Ah, but she would only ask to visit the prison when she needed a distraction, when she needed to unsettle her hosts.

Arleus took her first into the transport tubes. These were elevated conveyances of astonishing speed. She sat with Ronon, McKay, Arleus and his Conclave watching the city whisk by. Enjoying his role as guide, Arleus pointed out this and that, structures so immense that they lingered in view long enough for him to explain their significance. The Temple of the Supervisory, the Enkindling Museum, the Citadel of Arts.

She asked about the tubes, if they were used ordinarily by the public.

"Ordinarily," he answered. He grew reflective. "We've become an impatient people. Travel anywhere is almost instantaneous. We have become reliant on our transporters and our tubes. The only thing we cannot do is leave this world."

McKay chimed in. "You mean that metaphorically, of course."

Arleus turned to look at the scientist. There was no rancor. "Of course." Now Arleus gazed thoughtfully at Ronon. "I notice that you prefer traditional garb over the uniform of your fellows. Why is that?"

Ronon asked, "How do you know what I'm wearing is traditional?"

"You are not wearing an officer's uniform."

Ronon cocked his head, silent.

Elizabeth stepped in. "We allow our civilian consultants and comrades latitude in this and other areas. We have found that we learn more about our friends when we do."

Arleus studied her while he considered a reply.

She smiled.

"I'll show you our transporters now," he announced. "We can visit the State of Aragona, one of our largest. Our travel time will be brief."

The tube deposited them at a transporter station. The formal reception no longer surprised Elizabeth. She took it all in, accepting that Meta had done a lot of work to sell her and the possibility of an alliance to his people. The transporter station was an giant hub with a concourse, shops, and service booths. There was nothing to tell it apart from the grand train stations of Earth-- except at the end was a vast room that might have been an elevator, if an elevator could be as big as a hangar. The "elevator" closed. Meta touched a screen. The elevator opened. Now she greeted a new group of officials and she was, she found, in another part of the Premina home world. She looked at Meta with surprise. The transporter was Ancient in design. He was a gene-carrier.

Soon as she was introduced to the officials of Aragona, she and her party were led to a tube. Several Aragonan officials accompanied them. The tube shot off through a smaller, less congested city and into the countryside. Immediately a massive structure loomed on the horizon. She and McKay exchanged glances.

Elizabeth pointed with her chin, crossed her legs, and said genially, "I take it that's one of your power centers?"

"The busiest, actually," Arleus shared, soft-voiced. "I was going to say it's the largest but the power stations, the actual power-generating stations, are identical. The facility at Aragona was built to include additional systems of which we are no longer learned. At least, we no longer understand their purpose--"

McKay grunted.

This got a small smile from Arleus. "You are a scientist, yes. Perhaps you would not mind looking at one of our systems?"

Elizabeth flexed an eyebrow but said nothing. Arleus was speaking to Rodney and he went on:

"The system, we assume, is functioning as it was designed but we no longer understand its design."

McKay had sat up straight and now muttered, "I would love to."

"How very helpful of you," Arleus said more to his people than to McKay.

Elizabeth did not miss that Ronon for some reason was now glaring.

The station at Aragona seemed to Elizabeth a bunch of cement blocks slammed together to define a unique structure. The Ancients had infused it with some sort of grace. Of that there was no doubt. But she could tell the building had been raised quickly, perhaps urgently. It was glaringly white and intrusive when compared to its pastoral locale. Other than that, the facility was functional, as she would find when she went inside.

In the public areas the Preminians had overwhelmed the Ancients' preference for "simple but graceful" with their own tastes. Display cases commemorating Preminian history crowded the gallery. The floor had been carpeted, the walls tapestried. The station's interior, however, had been left alone. The inner corridors, offices, labs, and workstations reminded Elizabeth of the color and texture of Atlantis.

Atlantis.

The Ancients had done all this at the end, or near the end of their time in the Pegasus. As Arleus led her through the corridors and labs, Elizabeth couldn't help but wonder what the Ancients were thinking as they prepared to install here the power source that had destroyed the Dorandans. She supposed the Ancients and their allies, the Preminians, had been desperate. Around the time of their leaving, the Ancients recorded a substantial leap in technology on Premina. She believed that the Ancients had caused the leap to assuage their guilt. The Ancients had given up fighting the Wraith and were about to flee the Pegasus to peace, possibly to prosperity, and their children, the humans of the Pegasus, were to be abandoned. This is the best that we can do, they would have told the Preminian leaders. We have made modifications and resolved the issue of power output by creating smaller versions and using several rather than one. But it might destroy your world. What had the Preminians in terms of an alternative? If the Preminian leaders ever doubted their decision, they needed only to venture through the Stargate and visit those worlds left to the cullings. Ten thousand years of peace, that was what this tempest in a cement building had given this world. So, Elizabeth decided, she would not judge the Preminians or the Ancients today. At least, not today.

"You mentioned a system you wanted Dr. McKay to examine," she reminded Arleus Meta.

"Ah." Arleus clasped his hands behind his back. The manager of the power center was with them. Meta gestured. "Show us the trouble."

x x x x x

John stood in operations and pointed sharply with his chin at Lindwall. "Open it up." He gazed distractedly at the active Stargate, exhaled to settle his thoughts. "Elizabeth, what is it?"

Her voice filled his ear. "They got a problem here. I'm looking for some advice."

"I take it they know you're talking to Atlantis."

"Yes, John, but not to whom. Listen, that's not important right now. If they know, they know."

He blinked. "That serious."

"Well, John, it could be. I'm going to put Rodney on."

"Sheppard," McKay's voice blared at him. This was excited McKay or anxious McKay. It was hard to tell one from the other unless John saw him sweating.

"Right here, Rodney."

"They have deep space sensors just like we do, only no one taught them how to use them."

John rolled his eyes at the sarcasm. He remembered how long it took the Atlantis science team to figure out they had deep space sensors. The sensors only activated when there was need.

"I take it they're active," John said.

"Very much so. They have a ship enroute."

Ah, bad news. John compressed his lips. Bombardment by the Wraith was not something Premina needed right now. Premina's planet shield had been designed to work with five power centers. Sabotage, for which the Preminians had blamed John, destroyed one. The remaining four power centers could respond to the increased power demand by effecting a catastrophic overload. The explosion qualified, and this was putting it mildly, as an extinction-level event. A shutdown of the power centers would save the Premina home world but the shutdown had to occur before the power output reached a certain level. And losing the power centers with the Wraith on the way would effectively expose the world as a rich feeding ground.

John asked, "Just one ship?"

"Yes."

John nodded at the irony. Here he was in a position to save Preminian butt. "Okay, the Daedalus is still in orbit. We can burn up some of our drones if they'll let Jumpers through the 'gate. Problem being, one, it'll take time to get the Daedalus there, and two, assuming we can get rid of the hive ship, you gotta know they'll send more. If it's time the Preminians want, that we can give. But taking out the hive ship is not a permanent solution here."

McKay said, "Um, it's not Wraith. What's coming is not Wraith. It's bigger than a hive ship. You can put two hive ships in it."

"Excuse me?"

"I said, it's not a hive ship. It's ... I don't know what it is, but what we know about it I'm sending in a data burst. Get Zelenka on it."

"Okay, what do you want me to do?"

"It's using hyperdrive technology the way a Wraith hive ship does, going in and out of hyperspace--"

"So it could be Wraith."

"I shouldn't've said it wasn't Wraith. It could be Wraith. If it's Wraith, we are so dead, because this makes everything we've seen so far look like a toy."

"Okay, I'm listening."

"If it follows its current path, it'll come out of hyperspace in about twenty hours real close to a planet with a Stargate, M8X-110. I need you to check my calculations with Radek and--"

"Check your calculations?" This was one of those times that made John remember if you lived long enough, you heard everything. "Check your calculations?"

"I'm working with a partial database here," McKay yammered, annoyed. "M8X-110, okay? Maybe you could cloak and see what the ship is like up close and personal."

"Love to."

McKay said, "Really?"

"Be my pleasure. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do today. You did say this was the mother of all Wraith ships, didn't you?"

Elizabeth came on. "John, honestly, we don't know what it is but it's something that could have ramifications for everyone in the Pegasus. Something we've never seen before. I don't mind telling you we're lucky it's their long range sensors picking it up and not ours. This is an opportunity."

He mellowed. "I know it is, Elizabeth. How are they treating you?"

"Considering their beeping little alarm was the reason they sent for us in the first place, not well enough. No, we're being treated like royalty. Honestly. Don't worry about us. Stay safe and keep me informed."


Part Two: The Hollow


Unfamiliar constellations. He had been a stargazer as a boy. Things happened and suddenly there was no time, no inclination to see what was above him in the sky. Practical things, you saw the practical things in the sky when you joined with it, when you got up there in the clouds, like the burn of engines and the wend of anti-aircraft missiles with their fiery clouds and horrific little metallic glints slanting up from the ground. You saw those things. The stars you forgot, except to navigate by. At McMurdo he'd started paying attention to the constellations. At least, he was trying to. The sky at the top of the world, and the sky in the Pegasus would be the last skies he'd ever see unless he returned to Earth and did something else with his life. Always something to think about, especially when he paused to take in unfamiliar constellations.

"It is beautiful, is it not?" Teyla said softly.

John glanced up through the windscreen, then down at his console. The subdued illumination and Teyla's voice brought his thoughts to the present. The Jumper was cloaked. He checked the panel, which flashed on above him, to note the positions of Major Lorne and Lieutenant Shire. Jumpers Three and Five had gone to different coordinates around M8X-110. Intercepting the unidentified ship was critical. Much was due to mathematics and luck. Sometimes luck needed a hand, so John had brought help.

"If you like that sort of thing," John responded to Teyla's comment. He kept his face still against the coming of a grin. He figured she'd give him a look and was not disappointed. "I'm just saying if you've seen one vacuum, you've seen them all."

"And the moons?" she insisted.

Ah, the game was up. He heard in her tone that she knew he was baiting her. He let the game go and shrugged. "Through the clouds that big one was interesting."

Coming up from the planet's surface, he had glimpsed the larger of M8X-110's moons. Through a thatch of forest on the slopes of a far mountain, the big moon had seemed ruddy and particularly ... what had he said? Interesting.

The planet's Stargate sat in a corridor between swaths of woodland. John flashed to that.

"Know the planet?"

"I do not know it."

The Ancient database had named the world Trilo, but nothing could be found about Trilo except its minor significance as a place of pilgrimage for a handful of cultures dedicated to a tree god or a god-tree or something of the sort. The planet had lacked a native population ten thousand years ago and still appeared to lack one, although the Jumper's sensors had detected an abundance of wildlife.

"Who keeps the tract in front of the 'gate cleared?" John wondered.

Teyla shifted in her seat, her expression thoughtful. They were alone. She swung away, murmuring, "That is a good question."

And one that did not need exploring tonight. It was night on Trilo in the way of places without urban centers, without people. That is, it was a perfect dark that one could reach out and touch. When they arrived the moons had been cloaked by the tall trees bordering the wide land that led from the Stargate. The last time John had seen trees that tall he had been camping in the Pacific Northwest. Nothing like nature flourishing unchecked. He wondered what the fishing was like on Trilo.

Teyla made a small sound. "Ah."

John tapped the com. "On me, boys."

Shire signaled back, "I see it, sir."

The hyperspace window with its broad, luminous distortion opened under and within the stars. John thought, Lovely. His belly turned cold, hardening against the reality of the vision to come.

The hyperspace window winked out, leaving a vessel to dominate the sky. The vessel appeared as distant and dark as a black hole.

John grunted, let his eyes flicker back and forth as it advanced, felt the tendrils of discomfort turn and knot and reach for his throat.

On Earth, when he was a kid, his father had shown him rows of fighter aircraft on the tarmac at an air show. He and his father had walked among them, so big, so shiny and far away that John had been glad to have his father's hand to hold. And one day he'd seen similar aircraft land on an aircraft carrier. The vessel coming out of hyperspace presented the same comparison. A hive ship, which dwarfed the Daedalus by a factor of four, could land on this new vessel, could get swallowed by it, as though the vessel making its way toward Trilo was indeed a carrier of hives.

John began to notice more. Dots of light that climbed over its hull. Lit portscreens, he guessed, suggesting a crew of thousands. Apertures that were almost certainly weapon ports. The beast of a vessel, blacker than ink, like the shadow of a shadow, was passing overhead. John craned his neck, swallowing. Symbols that seemed at first alien aligned themselves in luminous order to suggest the word Proteus. The vessel's name. He gazed at the light-pricks on the Proteus's belly, flashes as plentiful as stars. The vessel was so large that its passing was going to take some time.

"It's called Proteus," John transmitted.

Lorne's voice replied over the com: "Looks like a warship, sir."

"Yeah, I see that."

To gel his thought with reality, the beast hiccuped. At least that was what it seemed to do. A dash of light was belched from the vessel's belly into space.

Eyes wide, John put his Jumper on a fast trajectory toward the planet. It wasn't until he halted the Jumper's swoop that he realized he had flinched. The alien vessel's weapon fired too quickly for him to register it on a conscious level. And for it to be accurate ...

He snapped his head to take in another warble in the vacuum. The distortion resolved into a Jumper. Uncloaked, the Jumper drifted a short distance from John. The fractured hull was apparent without instruments. The command compartment, breached, had lost atmosphere, power, and consequently, life.

Lorne shouted, "It's shooting at us! Jumper Three's hit!"

John ordered, "Back to the Stargate!"

His Jumper was already plunging. He threw his mind into it. Teyla seized the console, her body stiffening.

"Dial the 'gate," he whispered fiercely.

"How did they detect us?" she gasped.

"I don't know but they're still firing."

To make his point the Jumper bucked. Teyla was thrown backward and away from the DHD. The Jumper flew in over the top of the Stargate, only now the Jumper resisted John's control. Inertial dampeners and drive controls were shutting down. John swore. The Stargate's event horizon blossomed and puddled as he careened by, his Jumper nosing hard away toward the wooded slopes.

"I believe Major Lorne has activated the Stargate," Teyla exclaimed.

If there was any good news here, that was it, but John could not spare an instant to confirm Lorne's escape. Rattling like a tin can with marbles, his Jumper was fighting like a living thing to give him what he wanted but losing the fight like living things that die. The Jumper was dying. The landscape was altering, going from shadow to something else just as deep and awful. The ground sucked at him. He thought he said something automatic, something that was not a curse, like, "Brace for impact." But it was just as likely he said nothing at all. The Jumper absorbed the torment of trees trunks and branches as it sailed through the forest canopy and across a depression between mountain slopes. The ground reared up and punched.

x x x x x

He unfastened himself, stood up, and sat down again.

Somehow Teyla saw him and froze. "John, are you injured?"

He was a lot of things but he was not injured. He locked his legs and got up, this time overcoming the vertigo. He could not see her in the dark. "I'm good. What about you?"

"I am fine," Teyla said.

"Are you sure?"

Teyla freed herself from the co-pilot's seat and got to her feet. "I am sure."

Then she was sure and he could force his mind to another problem, like getting the Jumper in the air before the behemoth of a ship rained missiles on them.

The drive was offline. He went for auxilliary power. The console flashed to life, as did John's wildly racing heart. With night cocooning them the Jumper's lit interior felt mildly claustrophobic. Was the windscreen cracked? He squinted. No, but it appeared to be developing condensation. What had the MALP said about Trilo? It was cold by the Stargate but not bitterly cold, thirty degrees or twenty degrees ... He blinked. Thirty degrees or twenty? There was a big difference. Think, John.

"Sheppard to Lorne, Lorne come in." John held his breath for five heartbeats. "Lorne, do you copy?" There was no reply. "Sheppard to Reardon." Was the Stargate still active? "Sheppard to command, come in command."

Not a blessed sound, which meant that this was officially a bad day.

"Did Major Lorne get through the Stargate?" Teyla called to him.

"I was hoping you knew that. Nothing on radio." His hand on the console and an eye on the soil- and night-blackened windscreen, John turned his mind to full power.

The vessel responded. A half-second surge, more psychic than mechanical. Then all power faded and the Jumper sank dark and lifeless into its impact crater.

Teyla moaned and lunged through shadow toward the rear compartment. John heard storage bins opening, the crashing of equipment.

Okay, they had auxiliary power, and for a moment full power too. The drive had responded.

John squeezed his eyes shut and willed the Jumper to live for him, this time infusing his desire with a number of promises and a prayer.

Auxilliary power. That was something. Auxilliary power meant life support. Heat, oxygen if they needed it. He sent a signal to the engine. The interior lights flickered weakly in protest. The head's up display showed three problems. One of the drive pods was history. On the drive schematic there was a flashing red bar that he needed to understand but couldn't in the three seconds before all power, including auxilliary, died. Whatever the third problem was, he never saw it.

Okay, that was it. He ignored the drillbit of fear tunneling through his vitals and turned into a cone of light. Teyla had found a flashlight. Good. She possessed the cooler head at the moment and that sobered him. They couldn't stay where they were. Even with the Jumper's engine cold as an ice cube, the crash site was bound to have registered on the sensors of the warship in space. No, the Jumper was a lost cause. And he had to stay out of the past. Yeah, staying out of the past was the more immediate problem, because he was pretty sure he was not hurt, which meant his legs should not feel like water but water was exactly what they felt like.

Get out of here, he thought. Now. Two minutes ago.

"Grab what you can carry," he bit out and found that Teyla was ahead of him.

Ammunition boxes, flashlights, MREs, a first aid kit, and back-up radios cluttered the deck of the rear compartment. Good, she was good.

He hurried into the rear compartment, began stuffing his pockets and tactical vest compartments, hanging whatever else he could find on his utility belt. Ammo went into in as many places as he could stand it. Batteries for the flashlights. He took a radio but didn't turn it on. No sense sending more RF into the atmosphere until they had to.

Without power a lever on the bulkhead blew the rear hatch. John activated it. If they got the chance to reclaim the Jumper, it was a matter of resetting the automated controls.

Now he took his first breath of Trilo air. He resented it. He resented its rich soil smell, because the smell was tinged with the deathroes of the Jumper. It was twenty degrees, not thirty, and thank you very much.

"Cold," he grunted. He was wearing a flight jacket. Teyla handed him gloves. He didn't want gloves right now. His palms itched with sweat. He put them on anyway. If he lost body heat, with no artificial way to get more, that was that.

He stood for a second alone on the ground, letting his feet get acquainted with the hard, frozen crust of an alien world. "Night vision goggles?" he called back to Teyla.

"No." She sounded frustrated.

Why would there be? This was a space jaunt, not a ground hunt. He swore and glanced over his shoulder, pointed his flashlight along the side of the Jumper. Saw the blast mark on the Jumper where the engine pod had been. They were lucky the explosion had not translated into an overload. Say thank you to Ancient ingenuity, John. A plan for all occasions.

He looked up. A cerise moon hung above drifting clouds, doing nothing to penetrate the night.

"Teyla," he called.

"Almost ready."

"We need to get away from this place now."

"I know, I am coming."

Which way? he wondered. He had flown straight, so that way. He flicked his light into the darkness over thick dead grass. The Jumper had crashed in high elevation. The air felt like mountain air. And he remembered crossing slopes when he could see the terrain in the Jumper's lights. Jumpers flew fast, which meant they had flown far. The mountains had been visible above the Stargate but those mountains were a hell of a walk under good conditions. He guessed ten or twenty miles, easy. Crap.

Whatever had found them in space was likely still in orbit. They needed to get clear of the crash site now.

Cinching her belt tighter, Teyla appeared on the ramp. He nodded. Her slender hips were supporting extra gear.

John met her glance. "Ready?"

She gave a firm look and started out of the Jumper at a run.

John stretched his legs and ran beside her.

x x x x x

In fifty minutes the sky blushed and the darkness grew gentle. The pre-dawn sky was like a curtain that drew back on the land below it, showing a flat wedge covered thickly in yellow, matted grass. Pointing to the softening sky, the wedge was like a plateau or a ridge. It was the way to the Stargate. John saw that they were going to have to descend it.

Sunrise was damp but bright, a marigold burn just a bit too far to be of much use. Get to the edge of the plateau, plan what was next, John thought. It wouldn't hurt if Lorne turned around, dialed Trilo, and came back through the 'gate some time in this lifetime.

John keyed his radio. "Sheppard to Lorne."

Nothing.

"Sheppard to Reardon, come in."

Silence.

He gave it a minute, then shut off the radio. Crap.

The possibility of a fast rescue depended on two things. One, that Lorne's Jumper had made it. Actually, it depended on that very thing. If no one came, then Lorne had gone the same way as Jumper Three, and that meant the tally was four-- four lives John had given to that aberration in space. If Lorne and Sergeant Reardon had crashed but not died, then they were all going for the same place, which meant Lorne would eventually be in radio range. Meanwhile, Atlantis would expect check-ins. The mission was due to miss the first one shortly.

At the edge of the plateau he and Teyla stopped to drink and look around. It was still early morning. The tip of the plateau narrowed to a half-mile by John's thinking and the way down was a bear. The way that looked best was a tangle of shrub and conifers packed into a composition of stone and soil that looked as though it had not seen a human footfall in a century. It was steep but not too steep and going downhill might be relaxing after the jaunt from the Jumper, which was at least five miles, as long as no one put his or her foot wrong.

Before he had a chance to warn her, Teyla knelt down and tightened her boot laces. He did the same, hoping the support of a snug fit was going to be enough.

"Ready?"

"Yes."

"I'll go first." He didn't mind so much taking a tumble but he minded her taking a tumble and disappearing into the ether. On the list of things he could not deal with today, the last item was number one.

The soft snap of wings made him look up. Shadows in the sky, some pretty big birds or maybe the birds were just close. He checked his gear and slid over the side. Softened his knees and tautened the muscles in his legs. The ground under his feet held, which meant the roots of the trees jutting outward were deep. He used them as handholds, tried to stay off his butt as much as possible. From the defile he saw wooded slopes like green and umber humps under a billowy mist. His destination. A skein of wildfowl shifted toward the mist and away, disappearing into the smoky downlands. Meanwhile, soil and stones loosened, albeit not too much, under his boots, crackling downward. Did the sound echo away or was that his imagination? Crap. He and Teyla were like ducks in a shoot like this.

Close to the bottom, the ground softened, slowing him. It was a two-hour descent by his watch. When he stood in the waist-high grass at the bottom, he drank from his canteen, watching Teyla do the same.

A pungent smell wafted to him. As the pulse in his ear quieted, he caught the buzz of insects.

Normally a carcass on a planet populated by wildlife would not have interested him but he was thinking about Jumper Five. What if it had followed him toward the plateau and somehow the Marines were ejected?

He lowered his canteen and followed the sound. The grass was high, so he was upon the corpse before he saw it. Fat flies hovered with no inclination to give up or give way. Did it mean the kill was very fresh or very old? On a planet teeming with wildlife there were bound to be a number of opportunistic scavengers. Had those finished or were they driven off by daylight and slim pickings?

The remains, he saw, were human, and they were indeed picked over. The flesh had been gnawed away and what remained hung in slick strips like raw fat soaked in black blood. The corpse had been snapped, its bones caved in, and the tender organs inside removed like the meat of a lobster. The corpse stank. Last night the temperature had been below freezing, so that threw off things. It was over thirty degrees now. Did that mean the man had been dead several days or one day?

Teyla made a soft, sad sound in her throat and slowly walked away.

John caught up to her in three strides. "It wasn't one of us. I could tell by the clothes."

"Yes, by what remained of them."

"What killed him?"

"That man was killed and devoured by a predator."

She had answered levelly but her mouth had twitched, letting him know she was unsettled.

He swatted at a fly that had chased him, grazed the cold metal of his P90, and nodded. An animal they could handle. He scanned the long swath of woodland opening before them on the slope. "It's fed, so maybe it's not hungry anymore."

"On the contrary. Winter approaches here. Many predators sleep in the cold months and use the season before the snows to gorge in preparation for their slumber."

"Miss Glass Half-Empty."

He got a flared eyebrow and a long exhalation. He brushed her shoulder.

"We've got the scanner. So if it's bad enough to be worried about, then it's big enough to give off a thermal signature. Right now I see nothing." He showed her. "And we got guns."

"Yes," she sighed, "we do."

x x x x x

"Madam, your cafe," murmured the steward, a young woman dressed crisply in white. The steward brought the sweetened dark aroma of roasted beans and her own lavender scent, a synthetic, Nathan Zona supposed, or something the girl had traded for among the agents who frequented the surfaces of the targeted worlds.

The steward put down the crystal service on a table adjacent to the portal by which Madam-Commander Phaedra Euryton paused in contemplation.

Zona waved the girl away and poured for the Commander himself. He carried a cup of sugary black liquid to the thin, rigid figure in the galvanic blue uniform.

Phaedra Euryton stared at the rim of a planet lit, at least temporarily, by the light of its sun. "How is our guest?"

"There have been no difficulties, Madam. The crew has been told the girl, this Aglaia, is a Laranian operative under my supervision. There will be no-- how shall I say it? --unpleasant references to her Aedonian ancestry."

"Was she useful to us, ever?"

"Your son spoke well of her."

"I know that. I asked if she was useful, ever."

"She was instrumental in establishing his cover in Kairos."

"For love of Petronus she did this, betrayed her race?"

"So it would seem."

"We'll keep her alive for now." Generally, the complexities of human nature bored Madam. However, she was, presently, a mother in mourning. The Commander asked the name of the world just beyond her portal.

"The planet is called Trilo, Madam, if one goes by the archives."

"The archives are ten thousand years old," Madam-Commander said, thinly.

Zona tipped his head in acknowledgment. No need to go on in this vein. As she accepted the cup, Zona explained the problem: "We have recovered the Ancient gateship from orbit. There were no survivors. There were, however, two additional gateships. One has vanished, the other is on the surface--"

"Retrieve it at once," the Commander barked, her blue eyes electric with impatience.

"Yes, Madam." Zona lowered his gaze, remembered to breathe. At her severe tone he did not experience fear per se. She had been ... unpredictable since the girl Aglaia brought to Madam the ashes of her son. No, the feeling coursing through Zona was more like the sensation of sailing rather quickly toward one's mortality, while realizing the temporariness of the voyage. "Madam," he went on, "we shall. May I assume Madam wishes to interrogate the pilots of this ship?"

"I think it would be prudent to know from what heap these interlopers stole the ships, yes, and what they were doing spying on us."

"Precisely. However. When we came into orbit, aside from some rather large species of wildlife, there were only two lifesigns on the surface, which we know to be the pilots of the downed vessel. I assigned priority to the retrieval of the ship in orbit. It was a minor task but required all salvage teams on duty. We were tracking the humans on the surface. Recovering them, and their craft, was a matter of time."

"Something occurred."

"Yes, Madam. As we recovered the ship from orbit, the Stargate on the surface activated. There are now thirty-nine lifesigns on the surface. The two we tracked are no longer discernible--"

"If you had tracked them properly, they would be."

"Yes, Madam."

"You have not finished. Go on."

"We believe that more than several lifesigns on the planet are Wraith."

The Commander's thin, gelid face swung to Zona. He studied his boots.

"Why do you believe that, sub-commander?"

"The Stargate has been active for several hours. This does not occur without intervention and a large power source. It is, Madam, a trick of the Wraith when they are culling. And a Wraith cruise ship has entered orbit above Trilo."

She asked, unnecessarily, "Has it seen us?"

"We are cloaked, Madam."

"Do not destroy it. Destroy one and out of the cracks of night come the rest, like cockroaches. Find the pilots of the gateship. I want them before me to answer for their thievery and their agenda. The Stargate, you say, is active?"

"Yes, Madam, with an inbound wormhole controlled by the cruise ship. They do such to prevent escape while they are hunting."

"From what you say, they have brought to this world the very thing that they are hunting."

Zona shrugged. He was not intrigued. Wraith, and the rapacious appetite of predatory creatures, whether on the surface or in spacecraft, were of no concern to Zona, as he was more than occupied with the appetite of the human predator beside him.

x x x x x

Teyla saw the first unusual stones and walked by them. She had been walking hard many hours. Her legs would not obey the first inkling of worry until a passage written on the stone leaped at her, a scrawl in Athosian print that meant, "Tell all that I love--" They were the only words.

The author had used berries to enhance the print, a concoction that would endure many years. Once Teyla had done it, crushed herbs and berries into a bowl and made paint to use on the plain stones in the caves of Athos.

The stones on Trilo were not plain. Long ago there had been temples here, and places within the forest for contemplation and worship. As she entered the forest she had seen an ancient temple, ornate stones heaved one on top of the other and lasered with the images of fantastic creatures and the ancient, stoic faces of gods. The temple had gazed at her through the mist and dust and dense foliage of the old-growth forest. Silent, so silent. It was only bones now, and forgotten. Leading away from it ranged the upright, unhewn stones she and her kind used to call Pilgrim Stones.

When they found the stones on other worlds, Athosians turned away unless invited. The stones marked the boundary of sacred places and sometimes worshipers were protective.

No one tended anymore the stones on Trilo. At least, not in the manner for which the stones were intended.

At first, Teyla had taken the markings for desecration. But who would travel so far from the Stargate to abuse the beliefs of a people long gone? Now she understood.

She understood but kept her feet moving. If in her breast her heart had become an engine, then she would use her fear to feed her strength. John had said that they were only a day and a night from the Stargate. She had not seen the Jumper's instruments and so must hold with what he believed. A day and a night. It was too long, she knew, but she would not say such to him.

A day.

And a night.

She could handle the day but at night the old forest would have them. Looking hard around her, Teyla asked what the lifesign detector showed.

Throughout the day she had asked. And she had asked. Previously, he had answered in the negative. Pretended he did not hear the strain in her query, that he did not notice her pace had quickened.

This time, John said nothing.

Teyla walked on, picking out the trill and warble of birds, the scurrying of pads in the deep underbrush.

"Teyla." It was John's battle voice.

She locked her legs and crouched down, her weapon nose-up.

The forest expanded as she stared into it. With her movement stopped, she heard the voice of the trees. She gazed up into them and gasped.

John had already seen it. Clamping his hand on her arm, he leaped. She pushed off with him, landing a span away from the descending beast. One knee digging into a carpet of pine needles, Teyla fired. The boom of her weapon drowned out John's. All rounds were on target, plunking the soft underbelly of the creature as often as its stony carapace. The spear-like appendages snapped up and in and the creature rolled, using its armor-like shell to protect its vulnerable belly. Its appendages flicked out, propelling it away at a run. Teyla and John stopped firing. A high, shrill wail trailed the creature's flight, silencing the breath of the forest.

Teyla's ears rang. While her hands accomplished automatically the familiar task of reloading, she glanced anxiously around her.

"That was a bug," John growled. He put his back to her as though they were in a hostile arena.

Her lips parted, and she sighed. "I have heard of such things."

He was standing. She stood with him.

"Really? Big as cows, Teyla?" He was not calming down. In fact, she was certain he was growing more distressed. "Because I think I would have remembered if someone mentioned there were bugs out here big as cows. Where does it take you?"

"Up there." Teyla pointed high into the canopy of the forest. The web was thin and transparent as gossamer. Sunlight flickered in it. "It feeds there."

"It's too big, Teyla," John said, drawing her along. They were moving again but a little faster than before. He kept looking up. "It's too big. Insects don't get that big unless they have big things to feed on."

"Did you see it on the scanner?" she whispered.

"I did not. Believe me, I would have mentioned it if I did. But I saw something. Multiple somethings. That way."

They were jogging now. Teyla sighed again. "Our pursuit."

"We have to get out of the area. If they have ears, they heard our fire."

"If they are from the ship, they will have a lifesign detector."

"If they're tracking us with a tool, all the more reason to break hard for the 'gate. That's a bad idea but I don't have a better one." He touched her arm, slowed their steps. "If they are tracking us the old-fashioned way, we gotta be smarter. We need to dig in and wait for help."

"John, digging in won't work."

"It'll work, trust me."

"John, we are on a planet called the Hollow."

Face to face with him, she saw his eyes darken with understanding but she knew he did not understand, that he had never heard of the Hollow. He was getting his mind around the fact that she was going to give him bad news.

He let go of her, got a breath, and lifted his arm. "Let's get some distance from this place first," he said.

x x x x x

An hour later Teyla stood before a long, wide white stone marked with etchings and dye.

"You can read it?" he asked.

"There are markings here," she said with sorrow in her whisper, "that I can read."

"How bad is that?" He knew it wasn't good.

"It is very bad."

He shut his eyes and backed up to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. "Okay, what is it?"

"These are the markings of the bereft, humans taken from many worlds, including Athos, and brought to the Hollow--" She stopped as though taken by emotion.

He gave her a moment, but only a moment. "And?"

"Every now and then," she continued, "we would come upon a man or woman who had traveled many worlds. And the man, or the woman, would tell us of a world to which he had 'gated. On that world he had found only death and remnants of places. It was a place marked with totems, such as this. The totems were once Pilgrim Stones but now serve the farewell words of the bereft, who are brought here against their will to feed the hollow-wights."

He turned his head and looked at her, studying her profile. Her face was flushed and damp. "That bug we saw is a hollow-wight?"

"I do not know what a hollow-wight is. I have never seen one. But, no, I do not think that was it. A hollow-wight would not be so easily defeated."

"Uh-huh."

"It is sport for the Wraith," she hissed, "to hunt the hollow-wight. Not all who are Wraith-taken are fed upon. A small few are brought to the Hollow so that they may be food for the creature, that the Wraith may hunt the hollow-wight at their leisure."

"You mean, the people become runners?"

"Of a sort, but not as you mean. Those that are brought to the Hollow by the Wraith do not leave it. What we know we have heard only in stories. It is what we get from those who wander here ... on their own. We who have heard the stories do not know this place by its Ancient name or the name you found in the words of the Ancestors. We call this world the Hollow."

"And a hollow-wight is ..."

"It is a predator of this world and it has been taught by the Wraith to prefer human flesh."

"You gotta be kidding me."

"I'm afraid I am not."

"So we crashed in the middle of Alien versus Predator, okay, got it. Let's get going."

x x x x x

Elizabeth stood on a balcony of the palace in Premina Prime, gazing over sculpted gardens under the cider sunlight of the late afternoon. The palace in Premina was called the Temple of the Supervisory. The facility, she was told, had been built by Ancients.

"I thought you should know," came the forceful baritone of Arleus Meta, "that the woman you sent for has passed security at our Stargate complex. She will be transported immediately to these grounds."

Elizabeth nodded and looked askance. A diplomatic journey turned security review, yes, this was that. And on that note, she turned to face Meta's striking features. She held his gaze, suppressing the flutter in her throat.

He was, meanwhile, allowing her to take her time coming out with it.

She didn't want him to wait long: "Teyla Emmagan and John Sheppard are on that world, lost on it. You have no idea how I value them, how much they are valued."

The high lord's metallic gaze drifted slightly in thought. "You felt that you needed to tell me." Spoken levelly, it was a question nonetheless.

"Yes," Elizabeth said without pause. "I felt I needed to confront you. We welcomed your advances and found that you were in need. We met your need and two of my team are dead. In addition, two of my leaders are missing. And we can't access the Stargate of that world to help our lost personnel for reasons we don't understand. I've lost two craft and four personnel and still I'm here, waiting to understand what Premina wants from Atlantis."

"You have just said quite clearly what Premina needs from Atlantis."

"And what is that?"

As he angled his head slightly, the corner of his eyes crinkled and tightened. His mouth was soft but unsmiling. "It's fear you sense, Doctor Weir, not deception. I am unaccustomed to fear, mind you. I have never feared failure in myself. Or death." He chuckled a little and turned to gaze on the tiered garden below the balcony. "I accepted those things for myself long ago. And I never feared for Premina until a piece of her was irradiated by thieves and saboteurs. Once one tastes fear, real fear, it is not forgotten. Once one knows that one's vision of security is flawed, peace becomes elusive, imaginary. I tried to give peace to my people at the price of two lives. My people wanted revenge. I never hesitated. I gave your personnel over to die. From the moment I spoke the order and until it was done ..." He shook his head slowly. "It was not very long. Michiko-- you have met Michiko --said that my action was criminal--"

"It was criminal."

"I am not afraid of your judgment, Doctor. I was, however, afraid to be judged by Michiko, who is like an uncle to me. I thought certainly the woman was lost, your Teyla. So I thank you for telling me. Her life, more than Sheppard's, mattered to Michiko." He sighed and tightened his lips. "What can Premina do to recover your valued persons?"

"You have soldiers with personal protective shields. When we can establish a wormhole to M8X-110, we'd like you to assist on the ground."

"I will handpick the paladins."

"You have zero point modules. We need several."

He flared an eyebrow. "You are in need of zero point modules, yet you control the city of the Fathers. Interesting. Zero point modules are in abundance but our supply is not infinite. Our power needs are great."

"Spare two. You'll survive."

"I daresay." His mouth softened again but still failed to become a smile. "In this way, Premina appeases Elizabeth of Atlantis. But I shall require the expertise of your Doctor McKay from time to time."

Elizabeth inclined her head sharply. "We can work out the details of that after we speak with Lady Dirce."

x x x x x

Near dusk a hard rain fell. John and Teyla had come to level ground. The sky vanished in the grizzled latticework of tree limbs and then in the mist of bruised storm clouds. Darkness blew downward in wet sheets on icy wind tinged with the ozone of lightning.

They slowed down. And then they stopped moving at all. Nightfall slammed them inexorably in blackness. It was an excruciating lightlessness full of the clamor of rain. Raindrops drilled the canopy, defeated the leafy ceiling, and pummeled the ground. Drenched and hunted, they went to ground. Against the bole of a tree, where the wind could not come at them and the rain seemed less, they hunkered back to back.

John said, low, "Still ahead, left, right, and behind."

No flashlights now. The danger of using them outweighed their benefit. As John said, the lifesigns had changed direction. And others had come. There were now lifesigns between their position and the Stargate, on both flanks, and behind.

They were in defense mode, and they were freezing, wet, and facing an unknowable term of night.

John accepted, now, that Lorne had died along with Jumper Three but Lorne's death did not explain why a rescue team had not come. The only thing that explained the absence of Jumpers in the sky was the warship in space. A rescue Jumper had come and the warship had fired on it. How many Jumpers would Atlantis send after the rescue ship took damage or was destroyed? The Daedalus had been sent to Premina. Would Elizabeth and Colonel Caldwell, the commander of the Daedalus, redirect the BC-304 to Trilo?

Not a good idea.

He and Teyla would not survive that long. They were cold, they were wet, and they had no shelter. They needed to eliminate what was hunting them and get off Trilo inside hours, not days. And if the warship that had come out of hyperspace stayed above Trilo, what good was the Daedalus? The Daedalus was target practice to a monster like the Proteus.

John palmed his radio, powered it on, and pushed the transmit button. He spoke a few words, waited, waited a little longer, and shut the radio off.

Teyla's chest expanded with a deep, disappointed sigh.

He straightened his spine, feeling his tac vest braced against hers. He needed that contact. "It's not over yet."

She responded by asking about lifesigns.

"Same." He studied the faintly illuminated screen closely. Yes, the same. Crap. Crap.

"They are tracking us in packs, are they not?" Teyla moaned, her mind and his running along the same line.

The party that had appeared to be coming in on their flank had swung to a parallel course. Several blips between them and the Stargate now drifted apart. There were signs closing in, though.

"Two coming, twelve o'clock. I got them." He wanted her to cover the opposite field of fire until the last possible moment. P90 in position, he divided his sight between the palpable dark and the screen. "On my mark," he breathed. He couldn't see a damn thing. The screen said the targets were in theater. If it had been daylight he could have picked them off. A third blip fell in behind the two, pressing closer.

John turned the screen face down on his leg to mute its glow. He inhaled, exhaled.

Rustling ahead, louder than the slap of rain. A twig snapped. He wondered how he could possibly have heard that, and then remembered never to underestimate the abilities of the human body in survival mode. Something was coming willy-nilly, not trying to hide its movement.

There was a groan of pain, a voice of reassurance.

"We have to keep going," the reassuring voice called brokenly. A man's voice.

John felt the chug of hope in his heart, unclipped his flashlight, and tapped the button.

Teyla had turned to the sound of the man. She was standing when the flicker of John's light grazed the haggard desperate figures of a man and woman. The man and woman startled and froze. The light was already winking out, having discovered the arrivals wore homespun, not uniforms, and behind them in the darkness something giant and immense had stopped the cone of light. The beam glanced off a pair of yellow retinas. And then the man flew backward and up. The woman screamed. The man continued upward as though yanked. He disappeared. The slap of the woman's feet told John that she had fled.

He flipped over the lifesign scanner.

The third blip had not pursued. It was holding out there in the darkness.

John made a fist and tapped Teyla three times in the leg. She could not see him gesture but she knew the signal. She dropped a knee beside him, her P90 trained on the dark.

The lifesign detector would be visible to it, the hollow-wight, but it already knew they were there. This was its world and its eyes were made for nocturnal hunting. Would it wonder why they were not running? Was that why it had not moved?

John's mind began to sketch what he'd seen in the half-second of light. He adjusted his aim upward a fraction. It had looked seven, eight feet tall. In the attack, it was bipedal. Maybe it was always bipedal, like some kind of bear-werewolf hybrid. He'd seen its arms close on the man, and he'd seen the man's spine wrenched. A half-second was all it took. And the eyes, John had seen the animal's eyes suspended above a long, slick snout.

With those eyes it watched them now. It was just standing there.

Trying to make up its mind. Trying to understand why they weren't running.

A minute passed, then two. John could hear it making noises now, snorting, doing deep breathing, licking its snout.

He waited another two minutes: an interminable amount of time for a standoff with a creature he couldn't see.

He had an idea. Picked up his flashlight, used it to tap Teyla twice, and pointed it toward the animal. His thumb grazed the button. Holding the flashlight, John pressed the "on" button. And recoiled, grunting. He jumped to his feet. The scanner fell. Teyla picked it up and grabbed his sleeve, urging John away.

Confronted by the light, the animal had raised its head to regard them. It blinked several times. Then shook itself. Indifferent, it bowed its snout to its kill and resumed feeding.

x x x x x

Lady Dirce paused to straighten the lace on her sleeve. "We have for many years cultivated persons to observe the agents of the warship Proteus so that we may understand its purpose."

"Have you anyone on board?" Elizabeth asked.

"We have many agents trained for that eventuality," answered Dirce. "I will not comment further."

"How have your agents fared overall?" inquired Meta, mildly.

Dirce's broad, fleshy face shifted slightly. She looked directly at Meta. "My agents report that Proteus is an abomination outside of our time and space. It has no world in this reality or the other. Its crew is a crew of ghosts, descended of the butchers who poisoned my world. It is a ship of rage. Its only purpose is to destroy."

Meta's gaze adjusted several centimeters to the right of Dirce's nose and held there.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth sent for Rodney and Ronon. "My team should be part of this," she explained.

Facing each other, the lady from Aedon, whose title was Eldest of Kairos, and the High Lord of Premina appeared locked in a contest of wills. Elizabeth did not immediately understand the dynamic, but she acknowledged its significance. She left the meeting table to greet McKay and Dex, and to explain. As she strolled back, she took in Dirce.

The Eldest wore a many-layered ivory gown of linen and lace and well-heeled white slippers. Baubles and bands of silver dangled from her wrists. The ornaments were as small and slender as she was not, like the tasteful pieces in the ensemble of a royal. Her hair was gathered in a swirl of curls, carefully arranged. Arleus Meta was meant to notice the Eldest's status and he did. When he met Dirce he had bowed his head over her hand. He said something, though, about her traveling without bodyguards. Elizabeth supposed he had prolonged issues with trust. Dirce had brought scientists. Her staff sat on either side of her with handheld personal assistants ready on the table.

Meta was still silent. His face, a mask, had grown a layer of muscle she had not seen in previous encounters. She recalled the conversation about fear. This was, she decided, his fearful face. Should she feel pity? She wanted to. Having endured several weeks awaiting the emergence of three hive ships in the skies above Atlantis, she supposed she understood his reaction. He ruled a culture-- how did he put it? --unaccustomed to fear.

"Where were we?" Elizabeth prompted.

Dirce raised a soft hand for patience. She was not, it appeared, even a little unsettled by Meta's glare.

Elizabeth nodded. "Of course."

Well, weren't they a club. Atlantis, playing dead-- and every day a struggle to continue doing so. Five hundred years ago Dirce's world had been ravaged by a pathogen released from the Proteus. The population of Aedon had been made infertile. Her world was dying even as it rebelled against its fate with every chord in its being. Meta's world had been targeted by a vessel with the dimension, weaponry, and sensory array of a god-machine.

Meta spoke: "Doctor Weir, you said your ships were cloaked, and yet discovered."

"Yes, they were."

"We must understand the reason they were detected and implement measures to prevent a reoccurrence when the Proteus arrives over Premina."

"Sounds ..." Rodney began, before lowering his tone considerably, "like a good idea."

"The Proteus," said an Aedonian scientist, "uses temporal displacement technology."

Rodney perked up again. "Does it?"

Elizabeth turned to McKay. "How is that important?"

"Well, I'd need to know more of course. But I'm assuming you mean, its sensors?" He addressed the Aedonian scientist now.

"Weaponry, sensors, shielding, all of it is based on the work of Zotikas, our premiere scientist in the field of temporal physics."

"It has shields?" Rodney mumbled, distressed.

"Its statistics were shared through a data pod sent to us five hundred years ago. We have brought what we know. I can, myself, recite several facts, although I may not grasp their function and I have never seen a warship."

"Please," Rodney invited.

"Firstly, the Proteus is a Darkstar-class warship. It carries point defense lasers, antimatter missiles, railguns with temporal strikers and drones, phased temporal disruptor beams, and temporal pulse cannons. It uses temporal warp shields and--"

"Hold it right there." McKay waved its hand. He appeared on the verge of a apoplectic fit. "What is this thing? Can anyone say Deus Ex Machina? Who built this thing?"

"We did," Dirce answered. "Or rather, we will, five hundred years from now. Ah, but I forget. Five hundred years from now, my people will be extinct. You witness the consequence of manipulating spacetime. [refers to events in the fic Dark Matter. The Darkstar was severely damaged, we may assume, in a battle with others of its kind. We believe it was the only surviving warship. Its weaponry would have been depleted. It would have sustained significant damage. We believe that it left this region of space to--"

"To avoid conflict with the Wraith," Rodney suggested.

Dirce nodded. "And to lick its wounds. For centuries my people feared the warship possessed the means to replenish its weapons. We knew that if it was able to find sufficient raw material it had the technology to repair its breaches. More and more we heard from our contacts and our agents. It is real. It is back."

Meta cleared his throat. "What does it want?"

"On this our agents agree. It will target those worlds with sufficient technology to resist it. When it has annihilated resistance"-- Meta swung his face away --"it will establish itself as a power in the galaxy in order to develop a platform from which to defeat the Wraith--"

Elizabeth waved a hand. "We must not let this happen."

"Will it see us?" Meta demanded. The Preminian world-shield made conventional Ancient and Wraith probes see an uninhabited surface.

"If its sensors can operate out of phase," McKay said, "and it appears they can, then yes, in theory the ship's sensors could detect a cloaked presence."

"You are not asking the right question, my lord," Dirce advised.

Meta looked away, flexed his hands, and then faced her. "Why are they coming at all."

"They know that you are here. We were allies of the Ancients. Your coordinates are known to us. They will be known to the crew of the Proteus."

Ronon Dex, leaning his elbows to the table: "I'm sorry." Elizabeth glanced at him and saw that he was. The Satedan was a refugee and former prisoner of the Wraith. His world was a graveyard. He went on. "You shouldn't wait to evacuate. You'll want to wait to be sure. Everyone does. But if you began here, right now, even still you wouldn't have enough time to save everyone. I've seen your cities. Millions will die. The sooner you begin, the more you can save."

Meta's shoulders slumped but only for an instant. He threw back his chin and stood up. "I will take what you say, what everyone has said, under advisement. For now, I will alert our emergency response centers. That will convene our lead public safety personnel in every region. My Conclave must be filled in. From there, I will ask all of you to address the Supervisory. I will use my authority to initiate an emergency alert, but since you do not know my world, I will tell you that I am not the one who says whether we stay or go. Your assistance, in whatever capacity you offer it, will be appreciated."

"I can help." Rodney raised his hand.

Metal looked down at him dully. "Yes, when it's time."

"No, I mean I can help now. Tell your people this. Tell them to suppose the ship doesn't have proton firing beam things or antimatter missiles. Suppose it just has twenty old-fashioned nukes. Thanks to the data you gave me, if your planet-shield takes any fire power at all I know exactly what will happen. The first power center to exceed its safe-output load will be Aragona. It will go into an automatic shutdown. With Aragona shut down, you'll begin to have holes in your shield and ... well, you can use your own imagination there. When Aragona closes down, the remaining three centers, including Erothena and the one in Premina Prime, will experience surges so rapidly that the shutdown failsafes will, um, fail. They will overload. The containment field simply can't be adjusted to compensate for the particles created within it. Trust me, I know. The technicians will try to shut down the centers manually. It's a mistake, but, um, I guess, the alternative isn't, um, much better. Hard radiation is going to breach the containment fields, killing everyone on your planet."

x x x x x

John searched his pockets for rounds, laid a rack on his leg, and brushed Teyla with his hand. She was next to him on the ground holding the lifesign scanner in her lap to hide the glow. It was a cold display, designed to emit almost no light. Normally, the screen was not a risk but at night on the Hollow the display stood out like a floating square.

When he'd got her attention, he put his face close to hers to muffle the sound of his voice. "Give me your magazine."

She jerked a nod and handed over her used mag. He ran his finger over it. Not empty. They hadn't spent that many rounds on the overfed Iratus bug. Still, he knew better than to wait until a magazine was empty. Only the untrained fired a magazine dry.

They huddled inside shelter of a sort. They'd found the ruins fifteen minutes ago: a pile of stones really, hidden in the wilderness. Teyla had collided with it. Literally. The forest had reclaimed it. If not for the Pilgrim Stones she would have missed what the heap was.

The scope of the ruins was unknown. Alas, exploration of the site had been low on John's priorities. He'd groped the moss and vine-strung stone until he came to a breach wide enough for his body. A sweep of his flashlight confirmed what the lifesign scanner said: no guests. And there was a roof, also stone. Walls were intact, except for a slash high in the far one. The slash was symmetrical, possibly a window at one time or another. The floor was stone but there was nothing visible of it. Soil, leaves-- seasons upon seasons of it --had come in and settled like a carpet. The wind, today, had favored him, keeping the rain out of the structure. The turf was dry. It was the softest, sweetest ground John had ever sat upon.

He worked the rounds off the rack, which was how they were shipped in the ammo bins, then fed them individually into Teyla's magazine. When he had topped her off, he tapped her leg with the magazine. Her icy fingers clamped the magazine, slipping it inside her vest.

He started on his own magazine, pretended not to hear Teyla's teeth chattering. What was the remedy for wet clothes? His mind had been working on that one. He was not undressing on this planet for any amount of currency or prayer and there was no way to dry out their clothes anyway. Unless they risked a fire. There would be no fire. A predator taught to hunt humans would smell a fire five miles away and think fast food. But let the temperature drop another ten degrees and they could kiss each other good-bye. Actually, ten degrees they could handle another night. The air was above freezing now. The rain was evidence of that. At this temperature, the problem was prolonged exposure more than direct exposure.

"What do you see?" he whispered to remind himself he wasn't dead yet.

"There is nothing near us."

"Nothing?"

"No, not at all."

He stowed his topped magazine, put away the unused rounds, and picked up his soggy gloves. He made Teyla give hers to him and then got on his knees, crawled through the dark to wring them out. When he was next to her again, he felt around for her free hand. Ice, pure ice. He squeezed. She squeezed back. He shifted to bring her hand between both of his and rubbed.

Her head drifted back against the stone, an eye on the scanner. "Why hasn't Atlantis come for us?" she moaned.

"I've been thinking about that. I have a couple of ideas, none of them good."

"They will not send the Daedalus."

He shook his head, even though she could not see it. "That would mean Lorne didn't make it and they don't know about that thing in orbit."

"Why would the ship stay here? Perhaps it has moved on."

"No, we're here and it knows we're here. It saw us even when we were cloaked and the people on it are gonna want to know why we were spying on them."

She gave a soft, morose little laugh. "It is good to be wanted by so many."

He let go of her hand and reached for the other. "You say that now."

She took the lifesign scanner in the other hand, gave him the freed hand, and sighed. "Thank you."

x x x x x

How many hours had it been? He could look at his watch but he didn't want to. He didn't know how long the nights were on this world and he didn't want to find out only a short time had passed since the last time he checked.

Some thing had come, passing under the wall with the window. It had lingered, then cut across the ruins, scrambling noisily over stone, debris, and brush. After a while it had moved away and not returned.

Its coming, its lingering, and eventual departure had filled some of the longest moments John had lived in a long time. He sat on one knee, his P90 on the breach in the ruined stone, freezing and burning at the same time.

When Teyla said that it was gone, he crawled back to the wall, pulled his knees up, and listened to the sickening thud of his heart.

Teyla began to shiver. She had been shivering every now and then. Now she was shivering continuously.

He dragged his hand through his hair. "Let me have that."

She gave him the lifesign detector.

He used his free arm to hold her shoulders and pull her head against him. He heard the shift of her weapon, knew that it was trained on the opening in the wall.

"You're thinking about it, aren't you?" he asked.

"I do not know what you mean."

"It's how you push off the fear, keep it together. You figure the hollow-wight's got other people, right? So you know you can handle it if it comes down to it. But you gotta think about it first. You have to wonder if it's fast, if it's going to be slow."

"Yes, I am thinking about it."

"Good. Now, I want you to stop thinking about it. It's not gonna happen."

"I did not open my eyes today, John, and think of this place. It has been a story of my world all my life. Have you ever awakened, John, and found that a nightmare of your world was real and you were within it?"

He pulled her tighter into himself, wished that he could open himself more, bring her through the cold into warmth. There was so much warmth inside him for her it wasn't fair that he couldn't wrap her in it now.

"I'll tell you a story. You remember what I just said about thinking about it, what it feels like?"

"Yes."

"And you remember when you asked me, back in the Jumper, if I was okay, and then you asked again, because I didn't look so good?"

"Yes, I do."

"I hate getting shot down. It makes me think of crap I don't like to think about. Not the going down part. I did that okay. Okay, it wasn't okay, but I could walk, and I had all my parts." The words were coming out of him now, just drifting out like vapor. "It was a few years ago ... okay, a little more than that ... I'd taken a hit on the head ... so even though I thought I got out of the wreck fast, I didn't. I stayed too long. And when they came I wasn't far enough ... I was too close to the wreck. So they were going to kill me, which was what I pretty much figured they were going to do. You get ready as much as you can. Some guy I didn't know put his pistol to my head and some other guy was talking to him. I knew he was senior to the guy with the gun and I knew he was ordering the guy with the gun to shoot. I can't remember having ... a single thought ... for about thirty minutes after that. It's like I blacked out. Next thing I know they're taking me with them. I didn't know why, I was all messed up ... Nothing makes sense after you have a pistol to your head. You change." He stopped.

Her shivering had ceased. She had folded in on him. She breathed softly and for a freaky moment he thought she'd fallen asleep. He angled his head in her direction, tried to picture her tawny skin, the dark, canted eyes, and long reddish brown hair lightly framing her face of anomalous beauty.

"Did you escape?" she asked.

There she was.

He put his head back. "No, there was no chance, not from that place. Some guys ... some guys who aren't around anymore ... they came and got me. But before that the faction that took me, they made me stare at their scaffold all day, where they said they were going to do it. I got so tired of waiting that I just ... you start figuring out how you can face it, is the sword going to be sharp enough, is the guy who's going to do it strong enough. Know what I learned from being there, before I got rescued, I mean?"

"What did you learn?"

"All nightmares are real, if you let them be. I'm between you and your nightmares now. I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere. Why don't you close your eyes and try to get some sleep? It's gonna be okay."

She didn't answer, just lifted her hand to his arm and left it there. In a while he noticed that her chest rose and fell in time with his. This soothed him. Good, it was good enough.

x x x x x

"What's this room called?" Ronon asked the lead paladin. He gestured to closed doors behind which a meeting of Premina's leadership had just begun. The room reminded Ronon of the 'gate room in Atlantis. In size, there was no comparison. The Preminian room was enormous. The soaring walls and open piers-- they were the things that called Atlantis to Ronon's thoughts. The feel of the place was very different than the compressed, busy architecture of Sateda's urban centers.

"We call it the Atrium. We do our important work there. Principal Judicature, its final phase, is decided inside when the case is important enough. Why aren't you inside?" The lead paladin fixed him with large, dark eyes and a curious tilt of her head.

"They're not saying anything new." Ronon strolled past her a few meters and squinted through the tinted glass. He wasn't required to stand still like the paladins or the expedition Marines, who lined the corridor. He grabbed his hips and looked around. "You people should get moving. Too much talking, not enough doing."

The paladins all broke discipline and looked at him. A sign of the times. They were Preminian military but they were people with families too, people who wanted to know what was going on.

The lead paladin stepped out of formation and strolled to his side. "I'm Treyes. I wanted to ask a question. You guard Elizabeth of Atlantis but you don't follow her every movement. Why is that?"

"It's what she wants." Ronon came about, his gaze slanted down at the uniformed paladin. "She trusts your people."

"Will she tell you what they talk about in there?" Treyes asked.

Ronon and the expedition Marines exchanged glances. Ronon said, "Yeah, there's no point in messing around now. The ship is coming."

"That's what they're telling us," a paladin behind Treyes spoke up. "It's real, then? It's what they say it is?"

Ronon opened his mouth to answer and experienced, unexpectedly, a punch in the gut. A note of bitterness rang through him. Best to let it go, he thought. Let the anger go. Not because Sateda was in the past: Sateda was gone. He would let it go because if he held onto the bitterness he couldn't do his job.

When they knew the Wraith were coming to Sateda, there had been this hiatus, a lot of talking, not much in the way of doing, and soldiers trying to sort out what was what amongst themselves.

Ronon said, "It's what they say it is."

Treyes swore like a soldier. In the immaculate corridors the words rang oddly. "During the Journeying, our people were coming back talking about a rumor. That some dark ship was out there. A ship, they said, that wanted to take the place of the Fathers. And when we heard it, we didn't believe it, because there's never been anything as strong as the Fathers--"

"We didn't believe the rumor," insisted one of the paladins. "It had no origin. No past. Where could a ship like that come from?"

"And now it's real," Treyes sighed. "Why does it hate us?"

"It doesn't want to share power," Ronon said.

"I have family," Treyes told him. "A mother, a father, and two brothers and they won't go. No one I know is going."

A Preminian down the line said, "There's a family in my quarter that's going, but no one else is. If they give the signal, my family isn't going."

Ronon's brow creased with a frown. "If you get the chance to go, you should go."

"Go to what?" Treyes asked. "Go to live somewhere to be herded and restrained and killed for food?"

Ronon's frown deepened. She was speaking by rote. There was no real understanding in her words.

Treyes went on. "I hear the ship may just want us to sign a treaty."

Then we'd be enemies, Ronon thought. "The people on the ship don't need allies. And they don't have a good record for getting along with neighbors. The lady in there giving the speech, when the ship went to her world, it dumped poison on it. I don't think this ship does treaties."

"Something will be left," Treyes affirmed. "It's that or nothing. How can they"-- she jerked a thumb in the direction of the Atrium, where the leaders of her world debated her future --"expect us to run to a planet with no shield? To hide in holes, like the people we see when we do the Journeying? Cowering every single moment of every day and every night and praying for just one more day or year of existence? We don't live like animals. We're Preminians. The Fathers favored us because we were worthy. We won't go."

Ronon said, "Life is life." He saw them looking at him like he had questioned the nature of the universe. He gave up and went to stand with the Atlantis Marines.

x x x x x

"You're the chief engineer?" Rodney asked.

A thin, short man in crisp trousers and a white tunic nodded happily. The man seemed fairly young, certainly younger than the lead specialist, who was called Eltin. The specialist had already taken Rodney through the Aragona power center's control room and command-access tube.

Extending his hand, "So pleased to meet a fellow learned in the processes of Ancient mechanics," the engineer said. "I'm Dellon Sibos."

"You shake hands," Rodney exclaimed.

The chief engineer leaned in, reaching for Rodney's wrist. With an amicable smile, "This is how we do it," Sibos said. He pumped Rodney's hand. "How is it done on your world?"

"The same way."

"Oh." Sibos grinned. "Things we have in common." He pointed to the main console in the center of the control room. "Now, I've got some ideas. It comes to us, yes? To Aragona? We're the center predicted to reach failsafe and, well, let down the rest, yes?"

Ambling behind the engineer, Rodney frowned. "It's not a question of letting down the rest. The center is harnessing vacuum energy from this universe. At a certain output level, exotic particles are created and the--"

"--But we fail first," insisted Sibos, who froze mid-stride to stare at Rodney. The engineer's sharp, little features were taut. No more smiles. "Isn't that what you said? You said Aragona fails first."

"Well, yes, but that's because Aragona has the lion's share of the load. Your Vanda center ... When Vanda shut down, Aragona took on its load. I don't know if it was designed this way ... Well, actually ..."

"Can we find out?" urged the engineer curtly.

"Can we find out if it was designed that way? I don't see why we would--"

"Can we effect a redistribution? With your help, can't we do that?"

Rodney realized that Eltin was staring. He threw up his hands. "We can probably configure output if I can make it to the other centers in time with the operative term being in time, but I'm telling you, I ran models based on the data collected during the last crisis." No need to point out the last crisis was the Daedalus's bombardment of the planet's shield. "Over a short or long period of time, your pick, this center will switch to failsafe--"

"If we disable the failsafe?" Eltin asked. "What then? It's a chance, isn't it? Better than turning off the lights and going home."

"For a period of time, yes." Rodney peeled his laptop from his back. "Look at this--"

Eltin interrupted again. "We want to tie in our vacuum energy modules to bear the load. Won't that help us?"

"Zero point modules?" Rodney perked up. "How many?"

"Five," Sibos answered.

"Oh please." Rodney deflated. "Listen, you have to look at this." He set up the laptop, brought Eltin in closer, and ran the simulation. When the screen darkened, Eltin tapped his fingers on the console. His eyes had glazed over. Sibos chewed his lips. Rodney pointed toward the reaction chamber. "That's why the Ancients built a failsafe. Once the power demand goes above a certain level, the breach can't be controlled. Not manually, not at all. Trust me. If you do a hard shutdown, as in manually, this center and a large portion of the planet will be exposed to hard radiation. If you don't, the center will explode. With this kind of power, you're talking about a catastrophic overload and losing part of the solar system."

Sibos said, "Then why do we bother to shut it down?"

Rodney bristled. "Weren't you even listening to me?"

"I was listening. You said we should shut it down. If we disable the failsafe, we change nothing?"

"Actually, I think you'll last about five seconds longer." Rodney nodded for emphasis. "That's as much as you'd change."

"If we disable the failsafe, ignore the manual shutdown protocol, there will be an extinction-level explosion."

"Putting it mildly."

"With that ship up there, up in our sky?"

"In space, yes, but I get your point."

Eltin stepped in. "We'd be taking away any chance of one day having something to come back to."

"Again, putting it mildly," McKay reiterated.

"We're not coming back to anything," Sibos, now matter-of-fact, intoned. "We're not leaving. And if there's anything to come back to, that will be five thousand years away. With this death ship still around, who's coming back? Anyone? Anyone at all? You're telling me I can kill this ship and give my planet five extra seconds. We're Preminians, you know. We don't cower like the Wraith-bait you're used to, the riffraff other side of the Stargate."

x x x x x

The rain had stopped.

John was thinking that he must sacrifice something, or give something away that he cared about to remember being alive to find morning returning to Trilo. There was, though, so much more to living than surviving. There were, for instance, moments like the one just before the second dawn, looking out the window cut in the stone and seeing the sky go from nothing to slate and then to silver. Like feeling the woman you loved serenely sleeping at your side, her body so peaceful that her flesh and your flesh fused; and if you moved, if you moved at all, her head would slip from your shoulder unless you caught her, so you didn't move, you barely breathed while the warmth rose out of her and joined with yours and held you tranquilly in stasis.

It cut him to pieces to wake her. He started and stopped twice, flexing his arm to lift her away but finding instead of resistance her boneless body molded to his side.

But the ground would give way and swallow them if they lingered. The lifesign scanner showed a clear avenue, which they desperately needed to get out of the ruins and back into the trees.

He made himself wake her, said her name.

She came out of her slumber without trouble, though it had only been two hours' worth. Like she had wandered off by mistake, at first her eyes showed surprise. Then her features tightened and her gaze focused.

"I am still wet," she observed.

"Life's not fair," he answered, smiling a little. He got up.

She stood beside him. No smile, but a nod at least.

Time to go.

He took her away from the Stargate and down toward a river that flanked the 'gate. The direct route was no longer practical. When they turned again toward the 'gate, he saw no lifesigns ahead. There was something he needed to know, so it was not necessarily good but it was good enough for the next five miles.

They weren't moving fast as much as careful. She was better at placing her feet than he was and so he let her take point.

The first miles were easy. The river whispered down a steep bank among basalt and moss. Sunlight winked through the soaring canopy the color of ginger ale, too far away to warm anything.

Teyla stopped. Rigid, she swung her head to look at him. "Wraith." She was, in fact, a walking Wraith detector, her senses tuned courtesy of a genetic package hyped by Wraith DNA.

He nodded, his suspicion confirmed. Checked the lifesign scanner in his hand. Nothing yet.

They continued on.

When the lifesign scanner hiccuped, he tapped Teyla's shoulder. She crouched, made sure of her front, then looked back at him. He showed her four fingers and pointed. The lifesigns were in front of them. He pointed again. He wanted to intercept.

She made a question with her expression.

He pointed.

She nodded.

He came up on her side now, then moved out and away, putting about ten feet between them. She matched his pace and they advanced together.

Sounds. He heard voices, which surprised him. Why would anything be so reckless out here? Then he heard a woman sobbing and he had his answer.

He picked up the pace until he had to stop. He held up his fist but by then Teyla had seen them. Her vision was better than his. And she was used to picking out movement in the woods.

John crouched, watching. Saw a blue-white face, white ropes of hair falling on shoulders in black armor. Two soldier Wraith lunged back and forth, picking up what might have been a night camp. The leader-type, tall and thin, had a human girl in his grip. He was giving orders, ignoring her sobs. He sounded agitated, but then the Wraith always had an attitude.

John checked the scanner, then slid it inside his vest. He held up his hand. Teyla turned her face slightly over the top of her P90 to look at him. He signed to her to take one Wraith, the one on her far right. She sighted down her barrel but kept John in her eye. He showed three fingers, then two, then one, then brought his hand comfortably on his weapon. She could fire at any time.

She did not make him wait. The armor-piercing round smacked into the skull of her target. A second or so later, his round plunked the face armor of the second soldier. Two Wraith drones down. He adjusted his aim a micro-fraction and hit the elite, leather-clad Wraith in the chest.

John leaped up, running. The leather-clad Wraith still had his legs and he was using them, dragging his writhing captive by the neck. John understood the Wraith's priorities. The Wraith would need to feed on her to close his wound. John stayed semi-automatic, tapping the Wraith in the torso four times. The Wraith went offensive, swinging around with his stunner rifle up. He made the mistake, though, of releasing the woman. John and Teyla went automatic, chewing the target to bits.

The woman had collapsed, her face in her hands. Teyla clipped her weapon, ran to the woman, and urged her up. "We must hurry," she gasped.

John consulted the scanner, pointed with his chin. With Teyla leading the sobbing woman, they ran back toward the river.

x x x x x

Aglaia smoothed the skirt of her dress and patted her hair. A steward in service to the upper echelon of the Proteus arrived to escort her to the State Room. She knew the way, of course. She had already spent some hours speaking to Phaedra Euryton about her son. And from an early age Aglaia had trained herself to remember her way to and from a place. But she was not one of them. Useful, yes, but intrinsically other, which was significantly worse than just an outsider. Her work as a spy in the intimate circle of Dirce of Kairos guaranteed her life but just in case Aglaia had set about learning what she could about the Darkstar.

The State Room with its traditional brass fixtures, emerald carpet, and crystal sconces was occupied presently by the Commander and senior staff.

Aglaia was ushered among the women and men as the briefing ended and their cold, analytical military minds turned to supper. Expecting no better, she met their chilled acceptance with the listless and distant demeanor of the bereaved. Her act was a bit kittenish for her taste, but it had worked on the Commander, who barely knew her son and so relied upon Aglaia to recall him over and over through the lens of a distraught lover.

The steward conveyed her to the Commander's side and withdrew. Aglaia curtsied, as she had been taught to by Petronus.

The Commander greeted her coolly by turning Aglaia to the portal. "We've come upon a Wraith cruiser, my dear."

Aglaia suppressed her alarm and let her gaze find the soot-black ship among the stars. She blinked. How small it seemed out there.

The Commander turned her head to look over her shoulder. "Sub-commander Zona, instruct the bridge to de-cloak."

Zona all but clicked his heels. He spoke into his com.

Aglaia caught her breath. A moment passed. And then the cruiser began a ponderous rotation to face the Darkstar. Its weapons discharged with a flare. Aglaia almost fell backward but the Commander held her with one arm, held Aglaia close, like a parent.

A stream of amber liquid-- it looked like liquid --flowed from the Proteus. Aglaia did not see the Wraith weapons hit. Certainly, she was aware of no impact. Through the portal, she witnessed the descent of the liquid light, saw how it touched the Wraith vessel and sliced through it like an ancient sword. The Wraith ship drifted to pieces. Its lights went out. That was it. An altogether unremarkable demise.

Aglaia shivered.

The Commander made a sound of satisfaction. "Ah, now, we must dine, my dear. There will be guests within the hour and I must attend to them."

x x x x x

Turning away from the river, John and Teyla came up behind the Stargate. From a half mile out, John saw it. The Stargate was inactive.

He made everybody stop and get down.

Teyla flared an eyebrow. He signed to her: six lifesigns in the vicinity of the DHD, probably Wraith guards hiding.

The inactive Stargate bothered him. He told himself he just couldn't take good news when he got some, but it was more than that. When he glimpsed the humans last night he knew the presence of people on Trilo was a relatively recent occurrence. Given the purpose of the world, any humans that far from the Stargate had to mean the Wraith had come and the Wraith were running them. It made sense, then, that Atlantis had not sent rescue. The Wraith liked to use a ship in orbit to tie up the Stargate when they conducted operations on human worlds. To keep their pet humans from circling back and 'gating home, the Wraith would make sure the Stargate was useless. The Wraith at the camp had reinforced John's theory, but if he was right, why had the Stargate shut down?

He stared, thinking. The Stargate sat in the open on a little plain that ran like a giant corridor cut in the wilderness. The lifesigns were on one side of the plain and grouped together. Not very tactical of them, but sometimes Wraith let arrogance get the better of them. If he stuffed a pistol in the hand of the woman beside Teyla, they could hit the plain hard and concentrate their P90 fire on the trees while Teyla dialed Atlantis. Not his best plan, no, and if any of them took a stunner hit, it was over. It took time to establish a wormhole and the Wraith appeared to be waiting for something.

He signed Teyla close. She came up on his side.

He showed her the detector. "Wraith?"

"There is a strong Wraith presence. I have felt it since we came upon their camp."

"We have to take them down. Can't go out in the open like this."

She nodded. "What about the woman?"

"No, she can't help with this. Tell her to wait until we come out on the plain. It'll be safe then."

Teyla went back to the woman, who listened and began at once to protest.

"What if you're killed?" she gasped.

Teyla hushed her. "Your voice will carry-- you must speak softly. If we are killed, wait as long as you can and try to dial the Stargate. Do not let night find you again upon this world."

John got up and withdrew with Teyla into the trees.

x x x x x

Aglaia sat with Zona at the Commander's table. The second course was upon them before she asked, soft-voiced and lightly, "What guests does Madam expect?"

Zona had raised a bit of braised meat to his lips. He hesitated to award Aglaia the bemused look of an adult for a silly child.

The Commander was more indulgent. "The world over which we orbit harbors spies, dear. We deal harshly with such and have lingered to bring them to our justice."

Aglaia glanced across the room to the portal. The Darkstar had drifted away from the wreck of the Wraith ship. "What people would dare to spy on you, Madam?"

"Indeed," Zona uttered, chewing slowly. His brow furrowed. "If Madam agrees, you may observe the initial interrogation. It may prove distracting in your time of sorrow."

The Commander smiled deeply. "I agree."

Aglaia looked over her shoulder once more. She reached carefully for a glass of water, saying nothing.

x x x x x

"That's him," Ronon said, pointing at the arriving vehicle with his chin.

From the porticoed entrance of the palace, Elizabeth watched McKay get out of the transporter and then hurried down the carpeted steps to intercept the scientist. Her mind was already leaping. "What's the plan?"

He stepped up to her. "The Darkstar has gone into hyperspace. That was its last jump. It should be here inside thirty-six hours."

Elizabeth winced. At least she understood why Meta dashed off and then summoned her from the convening room of the Supervisory, asking her to bring McKay as soon as he returned from Aragona. An official at the power center must have informed.

Thirty-six hours was an appallingly short period of time.

"Did they show you their plan to boost power?" she wanted to know.

"Yes." He cocked his head to the side, his crooked mouth parted to indicate intense disapproval. "They want to tie their back-up ZedPMs into the Aragona power center to try to keep up with the demand for power."

"I take it, it won't work?"

"Not even close." Now he looked morose. "If they had twenty-five ZedPMs, maybe we could start making sense here. But five? No, I don't think so."

She gasped. "Five? They only have five ZPMs in reserve?"

"Yes," he mumbled, growing distracted by his own mental leaps. "How many did you think they had?"

"Never mind. Let's go inside." She joined Ronon, who'd been watching from the landing with his arms folded over his chest.

Rodney's face showed a sudden return to the present. "Did you, uh, did you get to do that tour of their evacuation site?"

The Satedan averted his gaze, said nothing.

McKay blinked, then exhaled. "Oh no."

"It's not as bad as you might expect," Elizabeth supposed, "given the planet was culled less than thirty days ago."

"But that just reinforces this insane notion that they should wait it out."

"Most of them want to wait it out. And I agree, it's insane." She strolled into the palace's vestibule with its soaring ceiling, broad tapestried walls, and marble floors. McKay and Dex followed. "But from their perspective, Rodney, it's like facing the inevitable without the trauma that you see every time you go through the Stargate." The clap of her heels echoed through the mainly empty chamber. She reached the gallery, where uniformed paladins drew back tall, ornate doors with a bow.

They walked a moment in silence, reached the elevator bank, and selected the restricted car.

"Imagine," Elizabeth said, "living your whole life free from fear of the Wraith, but knowing that horror waited for you if you ever left your world. That's what these people are dealing with. They would be facing a life without a shield, without protection, without comfort--"

"I thought you said the evacuation site was set up."

Ronon answered. "It is, if you like refugee camps."

"They've done a good job," Elizabeth added. She had accompanied Arleus and the Supervisory to the ES, the evacuation site, this morning. It was late spring on the ES world, and there had been a warm breeze. However she had been watching Meta more than the pretty grass, his reaction to it. "Considering they thought it up a hundred years ago, it was all right."

Elizabeth had been astonished to learn that evacuating Premina was a concept that had turned into reality long before Meta's term. The selected world had been taken over by the Preminians in the last century. In exchange for a generous boost in technology and protection, the evacuation world's native population had become the site's caretakers. Once the deal was struck, the Preminians built an infrastructure, plumbing, power, and rows upon rows of storehouses. The storage lots contained vacuum-sealed food, tenting, blankets, clothing, tools, and amenities to support over five hundred thousand people.

A little under five hundred thousand souls were registered, Meta had said, at any given time.

Registered for what? she had asked.

She came to understand the need to (one day) evacuate Premina was as woven into the psyche of Meta's people as the Journeying. Ten thousand years ago the Ancients had been forthcoming about the inherent risk of establishing the power centers and the planet shield, so it made sense. The average Preminian may have forgotten the details but the warning was explicit. The emergency evacuation transports, built by the Ancients, were everywhere. Arleus had said that throughout his world's millennia of peace the pros and cons of evacuation were hotly debated, with the balance shifting for and against depending on the views of Premina's leadership. A hundred years ago, the Supervisory ended the debate by giving the right to evacuate-- or not --to individuals. The Supervisory determined, too, that its ability to evacuate those who preferred to leave depended, yes, on the nature of the emergency but more importantly, it depended on preparedness. The government created a registry to which every citizen was allowed to subscribe. A subscriber maintained a thirty-minute readiness kit for himself and his dependents. Within thirty minutes of receiving the ES signal, a registered evacuee departed for Zone One with one case (dimensions specified and strictly enforced) per person. Any hesitation at the Stargate was considered forfeiture of evacuation rights. Drills were conducted in every region to reinforce the gravity of the undertaking. Evacuating five hundred thousand people in a short period of time through a single exit point was a daunting task. The process, Arleus told her, was no-nonsense and well planned. Consequently, the people of Premina had been thinking about it-- had been thinking about whether to stay or go should the need arise --all their lives.

"What if you're not on the list and you change your mind?" Rodney asked.

"Or if you are, and you change your mind," murmured Elizabeth, thinking about Meta. She saw in his eyes that if there was no one to disconnect him from his world and his duties at the appropriate time, then he would be on Premina when it faced the Darkstar. If she had a dollar, she would have bet it. If she had a million dollars. It was not conceivable to a mind such as Meta's that he should survive his world.

Ronon said, "They'll take who they can after the registered ones go, but from what I've seen, they'll have less people, not more, than what they planned for."

The restricted elevator arrived.

Rodney's mouth fell open. "What, are you kidding me?" The numbers boggled the mind. There were billions of people on Premina.

Elizabeth edged into the elevator and selected the floor for the Supervisory, where the elected members of Preminian leadership desired a replay of McKay's doomsday simulation. "Rodney," she said, forcefully, "the site was just culled. You know what I'd be thinking if I was Preminian? If I'd grown up on this world, knowing what I know about the galaxy I'd be thinking five hundred thousand people under the wide open sky spells rich new feeding ground to the Wraith. Know what else I'd be thinking? I'd be thinking at least radiation kills you quick. It's sad, I know. It's not sad, it's tragic but I want you to remember something. If this was happening on Earth, there'd be no evacuation of the general population. They're saving five hundred thousand people in addition to their government and military personnel. Let's try to hold onto that."

x x x x x

Something was behind them now. Not one of the six Stargate lifesigns, but something alone, something with a big thermal bloom. The blip was coming in from the direction of the river in a straight line but stopping a lot, holding for thirty seconds, a minute, then coming in a little more.

An animal. It had to be.

John felt excruciating pressure to charge in, do something, anything, as long as it was fast, but he liked breathing, so he kept to the plan. The thing was three, maybe four minutes away if it kept to its pattern. And it wasn't honing in on Wraith, that was for sure. The Wraith had baited it with something.

John watched the scanner while Teyla got in position. Five of the six Wraith were visible, two together, the others spread out. They had lifesign detecting technology too, so it was possible they could see the three beings coming up on them. The good news-- yeah, there was some --the Wraith were expecting animals and unarmed humans, so they were not in defensive positions.

There you are, John thought, picking out the sixth Wraith in the corner of his eye as the soldier tramped through the underbrush.

He lifted his hand into Teyla's line of sight, showed three fingers, then two, and then one. Go hot. Her P90 sang. He answered with four shots in rapid succession. He shifted on his knee, aimed down on the sixth Wraith and drilled the skull armor. He jumped up, running in. When Wraith fed on humans, body taps with the P90 did not kill them. All of them had gone down but now he saw three were getting up. One had a stunner already in the crook of his arm. John went automatic, unloading into the soldier's chest. The Wraith dropped hard. Teyla fired down on the others. John threw in his support, continued past the bleeding corpses, and slipped out the lifesign scanner.

"Teyla, animal at our six. Not moving but close, it's real close."

She leaped over the Wraith bodies, running by him. He stayed facing the river, P90 up, his eye on the scanner until he was sure Teyla had reached the Stargate plain.

The animal was holding.

Maybe some luck after all. Maybe he'd make it back to tell this story to Ronon and McKay in the mess hall one day.

He broke for the Stargate, all elbows and knees, giving it everything he had. Cleared the scrub, raced onto the burnished grass. Jerked up short.

What the hell--

The distortion didn't seem real at first. It was the hair on his neck that told him to bring up his weapon.

Teyla had stopped, her weapon in her shoulder.

Meanwhile, the distortion resolved into a human ring, a barrier as effective as steel bars.

Human warriors with personal cloaking shields.

John inched forward until he was back to back with Teyla. Didn't bother to count the men or the guns pointed at them. There were, patently, too many to engage. He didn't recognize the uniforms, didn't care to. He did wonder what the animal was doing, and if it was close enough to see the Stargate and notice its preferred prey also hunted itself.


Part Three: Proteus


It was something. All day. One thing and then something else. A frenetic to and fro that reminded Elizabeth of negotiating an accord between warring parties. From the simulation to a replay of the replay for two or three key politicians in a private chamber. To a run-down in front of the Emergency Management Council. Trying to get down tea and crackers somewhere in between and somehow she acquired Arleus, who steered her everywhere introducing her as the one who brought the scientist that warned them. Smiling, smiling, but not too broadly, keeping it serious, but remembering to stay gracious and humble before the venerable old men and women who had tried everything short of bludgeoning to kill John Sheppard and Teyla Emmagan.

The day ended with her riding in the transport tube toward Aragona with Arleus, who had brightened somewhat once he knew the registry had begun evacuation. Was there enough time? she'd asked.

He said a federal Emergency Management estimate claimed the board could move twenty thousand people off-world each hour. Registered evacuees were showing up, which was the part that had worried him. To get twenty thousand people away they had to have twenty thousand people on hand. Apparently, that wasn't going to be a problem.

She'd seen some of the transports going to Zone One and reflected on the tidy movement. Evacuation would not be so tidy on Earth. Different dynamic, she reminded herself. Those few broadcasts she had seen were markedly underwhelming, albeit factual. There was no need to prepare the Preminian people to understand the reality of a planet-killing warship. Such a thing was possible in the Pegasus. The calm, in its way, was frightening. Elizabeth thought of musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic. Was it really that dismal? Perhaps it was. Arleus had gotten used to speaking about it without revealing deeper thoughts. A pity. She was not going to get two ZPMs out of this, which turned out to be almost half the planet's reserves. A hefty fee for two lives and, as he had said, to appease Elizabeth of Atlantis. With the warning delivered, message understood, ZPMs out of the question, why, she wondered, was she still here?

She told Ronon that evacuation had begun so suddenly that it was better they leave on the Daedalus. She said they'd hold until the end rather than disrupt Stargate evacuation, just in case.

In case of what? Ronon asked.

Elizabeth wasn't sure. Lorne was finally able to get two Jumper teams on the planet to look for Sheppard and Teyla. He'd found a woman refugee fleeing from a predator. The predator, he described, was so big that he'd hit it with a drone. Elizabeth confessed that she lacked the imagination to envision such a creature. Lorne said he had recorded it and was happy to show her the image. The woman, meanwhile, had useful but unfortunate news.

Her com tweaked. She pressed her earpiece. "Weir here."

The light in the tube was subdued. Arleus sat with her, away from his bodyguards. His face in shadow, he glanced her way.

"Doctor Weir, this is Colonel Caldwell. What's your situation?"

She raised a hand to her chest, immensely glad to hear his voice. "Colonel, we are on the planet with an enemy warship bearing down, estimated time to arrival twenty-four hours. This ship can see through cloaks and our best intel says that when it gets here, it will try its best to destroy this world."

"Can it?" Short, sweet, and to the point.

She met Meta's gaze. "Yes."

"Very well. The Daedalus will maintain a geosynchronous orbit until such time it becomes prudent to withdraw. I'll have tactical forward to you our evacuation capacity, but I assure you, it's not a lot."

"The planet has a pretty good evacuation plan, Colonel. The only people you'll be evacuating will be Doctor McKay, Ronon, and myself. One more thing. Colonel Sheppard and Teyla are prisoners on board the enemy warship."

"Very well, Doctor. Caldwell out."

Arleus looked at her. "Is your big battlecruiser here, then? The one that fired on us?"

She tried to read him and couldn't. "Yes, it's here."

"Good, that's good." He nodded once. "I don't want to see you trapped here because you were so generous with your aid."

Not a word, she noticed, about Sheppard and Teyla. She said, "I don't want to see anyone trapped here."

x x x x x

When John saw the transport ship-- it was big as two city blocks --he thought, It's smaller up close. Forgot he'd seen the other ship up close, too.

This one was waiting above the trees and cloaked like the marines who had taken his weapons and vest and cuffed his hands behind his back. A shuttle drifted to the surface, scooped them up. The marines on the shuttle and the marines on the transport ship were not talking. He tried only a little to get them to. Suspected they were disciplined and therefore difficult to provoke. Which helped him to let go of the hope that he was dealing with marauders, freelancers. The latter could be bought, the former manipulated. He shook his head. Why did this happen? He would rather be ten miles from the Stargate on Trilo than headed into space with this bunch. At least on Trilo he had a chance.

The marines stayed with their prisoners in the transporter's cargo hold. While they waited for the transporter to dock with the warship, John saw his damaged Jumper. The marines had recovered it.

He looked around a little harder. There was nothing useful to be learned from the military uniforms. They were dark, too immaculate for field work. He recognized rank and unit insignia displayed on the uniform sleeves and thought he'd seen the symbols before. The insignia made sense to him. He scanned the bulkhead looking for signage and realized he should not be able to read what was printed there but he could. Not all written languages in the Pegasus gave him trouble, but most did. He read the cargo bay signs as easily as he read English, which meant the ship was Alcestian. It was the only Pegasus language he read perfectly, the remnant of an unpleasant mind-meld with a crotchety, pissed off Alcestian warrior.

How bad was the situation now? Elizabeth had allied with Alcestis's ancient enemy, Aedon. The alliance was not exactly billboard news but it was possible the Alcestians knew it. Come to think of it, there weren't supposed to be any Alcestians left. Their planet Alcestis was done for. The race was extinct.

When this bunch staged a come-back, they came big.

This was going to be a problem.

x x x x x

The transport flew inside the warship. The marines took John and Teyla by the arm, marching them out the cargo bay hatch into a pressurized hangar. John saw four transporters the size of the one he'd traveled in nestling behind the hard yellow lines of the launch run. The hangar bay was the size of a New England town. The marines needed a shuttle to cross it.

John felt something course through his body, something the warship did. He didn't suppose a person ought to feel the Proteus maneuvering. He suspected something worse. The Proteus had gone to hyperspace. Which put in mind the mission, the one he'd forgotten about when the Proteus started shooting a day and a half ago. Rodney had said the warship was going to Premina.

x x x x x

Beyond the hangar bay stretched a network of astonishingly tight passageways lit dismally by runners of shielded lights in the bulkheads and ceiling.

Things began to pick up speed, like imagery on a DVD on fast play. No sound, just visions too fast for comprehension. Surface stuff. Color and motion without meaning.

More marines coming on, then passing by. Endless intersections of corridors full of uniforms, men and women, young and old. The marines seemed indifferent to John and Teyla. The marines were all going somewhere, going somewhere fast, like people on a city sidewalk rushing to lunch, heading to work. An entire world carried on here.

The images slowed down when the escort reached the brig. The marines pushed their prisoners through connecting tunnels into a holding chamber with spotty alloy walls and a stained floor. The chamber smelled faintly of distress: a pungent mix of sweat and urine. The odor started John's heart going in a familiar zigzag. Illumination came from a single recessed overhead lamp. The marines freed their hands and withdrew, leaving John and Teyla to themselves. They were undoubtedly being recorded. And, "I am still wet," Teyla said, presumably as an attempt at humor, before perching on a metal bench. She aligned wayward strands of hair behind her ears and closed her eyes.

Tired in his arms and legs, John molded his spine to the wall and massaged his brow. The inactivity was supposed to help him think but his brain was going cottony with fatigue and fear. He felt like he'd been kicked a lot of times and for his trouble picked up by a cyclone. No, worse: a blender. This ship was going to grind him into pieces.

Teyla gripped the bench, extended her legs, and bowed her head.

As she did, one of the walls lit up. Teyla sat straight, staring. John lowered his arms and came off the bulkhead, facing the dissolving wall. The alloy became a clear screen with a tall, fifty-ish lady with short, gray-streaked dark hair standing next to a middle-aged officer. There were others poised behind the couple but for the present the woman and the officer were the only faces John cared about.

The woman spoke. "I command this vessel. You intercepted it. You spied on it. You will tell me how you came to know where and when it would exit hyperspace. You will tell me the name of your employer. And you will tell me how you acquired the vessels of the Ancients. Do these things and I may reconsider the inclination to push you out the nearest airlock. You may begin now."

John opened his mouth but just had to stop because he was sure he was going to stammer. The same weakness he'd experienced after the Jumper crashed sucked at his mind. The nothingness in the center of him was coming up into his throat, getting in the way of his will. Fake it, he ordered himself. Come on, John. Sometimes it helped to pretend there was something with which to bargain, or the people he was dealing with actually wanted a reason to let him live. He organized his thoughts along the lines that pretense served better than reality. Found his wits. Started using them.

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. My base was capable of picking up your movements on deep space sensors. You're something we've never seen before. We came to learn about you."

"Indeed," murmured the man, the middle-aged officer.

The woman stared at John as though she thought her glare could peel the paint from a boat. "Your base is military in nature?"

Not time yet for a lie. "We're primarily explorers," he said, "but some of us are military."

"That does not explain your possession of the gateships."

"Our base belonged to the Ancients. We can access their technology."

Something akin to interest flickered in the woman's eyes. "How many among you use the Ancient technology?"

A possible negotiating point? "I don't think that's information you need to know right now. Let me ask a question. Who are you?"

The woman's gaze flashed to Teyla.

The Athosian rose under the woman's scrutiny. "I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Taggan."

The woman's attention snapped to John. "Do you possess a Stargate?"

"Yes, we do."

"You will provide me with coordinates to your Stargate--" The Alcestian woman stopped. Her features drained to a perfect alabaster. Conversely, her eyes deepened into twin wells from which no light escaped. She turned back to Teyla. "How did you say you were called?"

"I am Teyla Emmagan."

The woman's chest expanded raggedly.

John saw the woman gesture and jumped between the chamber door and Teyla.

The door flew open. Two marines, pistols drawn, charged in. One angled around John, gun rising. The other trained his weapon on John.

Feeling behind him to make certain Teyla was there, John pedaled backward. "You're gonna have to shoot us both," he growled to the nearest man. He darted a glance at the woman behind the screen. "What is this?"

In contrast to the stark, wide-eyed face, the woman's voice was toneless: "Stand aside, young man. You have until I count to three."

Both pistols were elevated, barrels on John's chest.

"One," the woman said.

John felt Teyla flinch from his hand. He reestablished his grip. She was trying to step away from him, and if she did, then it would mess up his plan something awful.

"Two," the woman behind the screen said.

Teyla put a little fight in it, forcing him to turn and wrap his arms around her. She could break free, but she'd have to throw him to do it.

Three did not come. Meanwhile, he pinned Teyla to his chest until he felt her resistance subside. He cupped the back of her head and turned to glare at the Alcestian woman.

The middle-aged officer leaned to the commander and spoke. The woman stepped away from him and the screen. She disappeared through the small gathering at her back. The screen darkened, became a bulkhead of alloy.

Receiving instructions through earpieces, the gunmen turned heel and departed.

John let go of Teyla and swallowed. "Don't do that again."

Her face was a knot of fury. "They were going to shoot you!"

"No, they weren't. People who have questions don't get rid of you until they get their questions answered."

She began to pace, her little feet coming down hard, her fists hard as rocks.

He looked at her, looked at all that compacted fury, and saw that, yes, they had declined to shoot him but they were definitely going to shoot her and he didn't know why.

Did the reason matter?

Yes, no, maybe. Yes, because if he understood it he could use it. No, because there was simply no way he could do another thing with his life if they took hers. Maybe, because neither of them was dead yet and every minute they were breathing was a chance to work the problem.

"Did you know that woman?" he rasped.

"No." Clipped, but breathy too, like she was scared.

"You sure?"

"Of course I am sure!"

Then he knew how this was going to go. She was coming toward him now, signing. He followed her to the bench and folded his legs, sitting next to her while his insides turned squishy under the hammer of adrenaline.

"Whatever they want, John, you must not give it to them."

He was watching her face, the fresh sheen of perspiration on it, the urgency in her eyes.

Should he nod? She'd figured out what was next. He decided to nod.

"There is nothing about them I would trust," she insisted, meaning they were going to kill her anyway. "They seemed ... determined."

Should he nod to that too? He didn't want to and just stared.

"Say that you will do nothing foolish," she whispered.

How did she define foolish? Was this foolish? He put his lips to hers, held her chin at the tip of his fingers, and tasted her desperation but also let her taste his. After a while he was tasting something else, feeling something else. He pulled away first. Lingered a moment in her eyes, then looked away.

"They have no intention of asking nicely," he said, his voice rough. "We just saw nice. That's as nice as it's gonna get."

"I have come to that, John Sheppard."

"You think I'm up to it?"

"When I am around you, I feel only fire and love. I think you can do anything."

x x x x x

Madam-Commander had rounded on her. In the prison. She had curled her thin gray lips and barked, "Is that the one?"

Aglaia had looked past Madam to the screen and the couple on the other side of it. How addled should she seem?

"I believe so, but how could Teyla Emmagan be here? Maybe it's only someone who looks like her." Aglaia had chosen kittenish over addled, but she didn't want to overdo it. She did the Darkstar's business and must at least on some level appear competent.

Madam-Commander swept by, nearly running her over.

Zona stayed at the screen, which Aglaia believed was shielded now from their side. She approached Zona, stood beside him.

"It is her," Aglaia said, a little startled.

Zona seemed happy. Aglaia had never seen Zona happy. It was a little frightening.

"She'll work this bur from her bottom," the sub-commander intoned with delight, "and after, you will see, Phaedra will be quite pleasant for a time."

Did he mean the Commander? Aglaia looked ahead and wondered if the stains in the other room were blood. She thought so. "What will Madam do?"

Zona observed the couple speaking together on the bench. "We need the coordinates of their Stargate. The man will tell us and then we'll probably do as Madam prefers, jettison them from an airlock. She enjoys the look on their faces as they wait for the depressurization. We'll probably do it one at a time, which also pleases the Commander."

As Aglaia wondered if there was an airlock in her future, she saw the man and woman kiss. They knew what was coming. The man looked composed, the woman dangerous, but after they kissed they just looked sad.

"May I watch?" she asked.

"The Commander will expect you to watch the woman who killed her son meet her future."

"Yes, of course. But I meant, may I watch you interrogate the man? His name is John Sheppard. He is the leader of the soldiers who serve Dirce's new ally. If you get the coordinates of his Stargate, you will have the means to stop the alliance."

Zona turned aside, extended an arm. He was positively beaming. "We're preparing now. Come with me."

x x x x x

Zona was a happy tour guide. Aglaia moved around him as though in orbit, busily hanging on his words, watching the movement of his hands at the control station keypads and the systems that required his login code or the swipe of his command card. A technician was doing most of the work, but when he needed administrative access he motioned to Zona.

Apparently, activating the session and moving the prep sequence to standby were administrative-level functions.

"We're almost ready," Zona assured Aglaia, as though concerned she might grow bored.

The prisoners were in the medical lab on the other side of the control room screen. Zona had ordered an incapacitating gas released into their cell, and after they had fallen down, his marines had gone in and scooped Sheppard and Teyla from the floor. The gas wore off quickly. Sheppard was already coming out of it when they put him in the module. Module was Zona's word. The module looked like a cross between a chair and a table to Aglaia. The metal was molded to accommodate the human body. It was partially upright with long armrests. There were straps for everything, every limb, three for the arms alone. She imagined the metal was cold and the straps hard. Sheppard tested them but didn't move much. A man in a lab coat put an intravenous needle in one arm, and then the other. The lab man connected the needle with tubing to machines fixed in the wall. Sheppard watched him do this but mostly Sheppard watched the woman, Teyla, whom they put against the wall in front of him. Her restraints came from fixtures in the ceiling and the floor. Her wrists had been hauled over her head and her feet anchored to the ground.

The lab man signaled the control room and walked away from Sheppard, out of the lab. There were marines on either side of Teyla. They held drawn pistols and one held a pistol and a knife. The knife was a brute, with a wide shiny blade. When Zona saw it, he chuckled.

"Good visual," he commented. "You will understand how important the visual is. This is mostly bloodless but very powerful." Now he signed to the control room technician. "Time is short, man."

"Yes, sir." A button was pushed.

Aglaia leaned forward to see which one. "What did you do?"

"We're making Sheppard uncomfortable. It's a very basic compound designed to elevate his blood pressure, increase his heart rate, and facilitate a perception of distress. Oh, and we added a little spice, so he feels pain too."

"Yes, and he's already helping us," the technician murmured.

"How do you mean?"

"Usually I have to work to find out what my subjects fear," Zona answered. "That's not a problem here. He's dwelling on it as we speak. The compound will hurt just enough to teach him he's no longer in control, that he can't get through what we're going to do by numbing his senses or turning away."

Aglaia saw that Zona was right. Sheppard's breathing had changed. His face, framed by damp, dark hair, was shiny. He pulled against the restraints as his eyes glassed over, pupils constricting until his irises seemed gray.

"Now what?" Aglaia asked.

"We leave him this way a few hours, monitoring his vitals, of course. He'll begin to adjust to the increased stimulation, although he will not be able to adjust to the pain. When his vitals show signs of stabilizing, we'll start the hallucinogens. Sometimes it's over in minutes. Sometimes it takes half a day."

x x x x x

The guest quarters in the palace in Erothena overlooked the city proper. Elizabeth pulled her fingers through her hair and sighed. She had gone for air and now found the hours just before dawn every bit as lonely as those on Atlantis. She had showered the old-fashioned way. Unlike Colonel Sheppard's prison cell, Elizabeth's upscale rooms offered personal cleaning systems with and without water. Her curling dark hair was still damp.

On the balcony, she swept the network of lanes between the lower, distant towers and slowly, slowly pulled back.

Nothing was moving. Traffic lights flickered from red to green, universal symbols in every culture, but there were no vehicles in the lanes. The scrubbed sidewalks were empty. Even the towers seemed lifeless, their lights snuffed, their rooms untenanted.

The registry had finished evacuation one hour ago. Arleus had been with her when he received word. He had taken a huge shuddering breath, the first sign of emotion he'd displayed in a day, and turned to his mentor, Michiko, saying, "Now we begin to push."

The registry was such a small fragment of the population. Erothena was very much tenanted. By appearing in public, Arleus meant to encourage more of his people to go to the ES.

Michiko had followed Arleus to Erothena, the first of Meta's live appearances. The older politician was close-mouthed around Elizabeth. She suspected he disapproved of her access to Meta these last days. But Michiko was peaceful around Meta, like a human rock garden. There was no doubt from whom Meta was getting his strength. After the news that the registry had evacuated, Meta had forwarded his speech to Michiko, who made it into hardcopy and sat down to read it aloud.

Elizabeth left the men to each other, made her way down a corridor guarded heavily by cold-eyed paladins. She entered her quarters and showered.

Rodney was back at Aragona, tying in the reserve ZPMs while ceaselessly haranguing the engineers about the futility of the effort. Ronon had stayed with Elizabeth in this, their fourth stop in twelve hours. No one was sleeping. Wasn't it John Sheppard who said, "Sleep is overrated." She thought about John and what was happening to him, what was happening to Teyla on the warship.

Time to check in with Colonel Caldwell. It was eight hours to the estimated arrival of the doomsday weapon.

Caldwell clicked on.

"How are the stars, Colonel?"

"Far away, Doctor." He was not the sentimental sort and holding the hand of a friend of a friend during a deathwatch was not his idea of a mission. "Do you have an estimate on how long you're needed on the planet?"

She tried to make it sound like it wasn't her, like it wasn't about how badly she wanted to save Arleus. "Doctor McKay is boosting the power source at one of the stations. He should be done, he tells me, in about four hours."

Caldwell's interest was pricked. "Will boosting the power source have any effect?"

"No, we don't think so, but the high lord asked us to try."

"I see."

"If you see this flying monstrosity, Steven, run. I mean it. If you see it, you can't help us. We'll get to the 'gate. Don't try to be a hero."

"Understood. Caldwell out."

x x x x x

Aglaia didn't want to be in the med lab. She wanted to watch from the control room, where the computer did the hard work. There were chairs in the control room, and pitchers of water. The med lab, in contrast, was uncomfortably close, a whirlwind of humanity, and the lack thereof, with no access to lab systems. Her purpose, she gleaned, was to observe. Observe what? she wondered. Why was it the Alcestians thought they were especially knowledgeable when it came to suffering? She had seen enough misery.

Zona needed to be near Sheppard now. The hallucinogens had not altered Sheppard's consciousness, but they made it impossible for him to discern illusion from reality. He was, in essence, living a nightmare. The marines struck Teyla. And Sheppard surged against his restraints, fingers like claws, shouting. The knife cut her arm. Sheppard's reaction blew Aglaia back a step, but Zona chuckled. The sub-commander ordered the marines to rough the woman over a little more. It wasn't much, as far as Aglaia was concerned, but Teyla cried out. Her gasp elicited a scream from Sheppard. Aglaia covered her ears. She understood the process now and saw what Sheppard saw, the way he saw it, and it sickened her.

Zona held the tablet over Sheppard, saying, "You can end it. You can give her peace." The tablet displayed the symbols of the Stargate.

Sheppard ground his teeth, holding on.

The marine punched Teyla in the stomach. Honestly, the woman hardly reacted but Sheppard saw it another way. The marine grabbed her by her hair, put his knife against her breast.

Zona leaned down. "We have no intention of going to your base. You're making this harder on her than it has to be. We only want to verify your story. Help me to help her."

Teyla cried out to him, startling Aglaia, who swung toward the other woman. Didn't Teyla realize that any sound played through John's filter like a staccato shriek of unqualified agony? Too late. He screamed, and screamed. When the room quieted, they were all wrung out, except Zona, who presented the tablet.

"Must she continue to suffer? Help us verify your story. It's all we want. Show me the Stargate coordinates for your base." Zona put his finger on the tablet. "I'm just going to point. When I reach the first one, nod. That's all you have to do. Help me to help you."

Teyla strained at the end of her bonds. That was how Aglaia knew Zona had won. Sheppard's lover told her, told the room by the way she stared at him, hardly moving, barely breathing, her eyes standing out like dark coins.

Zona pointed, pointed again, and again, and Sheppard's head moved.

"No!" Teyla sobbed.

"Make her be silent," Aglaia ordered the marine but Zona clucked mildly and shook his head.

"The more she cries, the easier it is for him to see our way of things. Isn't it, Sheppard?"

Teyla sank back, knees soft, her weight on her wrists. Aglaia thought that she was crying but the woman's bruised face was averted, so Aglaia's wasn't sure.

Zona pointed to another symbol, and to another. He continued pointing until Sheppard nodded. Zona purred, "Good. And now, for the next?"

x x x x x

Aglaia stood still as she could, toes squeezing the hard floor of her quarters. She was looking for her balance, and she was praying, but to what god she was not sure. The gods had all become one thing, and that thing was a data stick clutched in her hand.

She brought the data stick in the urn, sealed it in plastic surrounded by the remains of Petronus Euryton. The Alcestians had searched and scanned every inch of Aglaia but they had not touched the ashes of the Commander's son. They gave the urn a wide berth and let Aglaia keep it while she, Aglaia, awaited her audience with the Commander. Retrieving the stick once she was on board the Proteus had been easy.

She turned now to her mirror, wound her blond tresses into a knot, and pulled onto her slender frame the crisp colors of an Alcestian marine. She stood in the mirror, studying her reflection. Was she afraid? She didn't think so. Was it too soon? How could it be?

The Darkstar had arrived at a planet and was, the com had announced, settling into orbit. The ship's personnel were locked into their duty stations. The corridors would be empty.

She summoned a steward. Zona had said that she could join him on the bridge. Since she had enjoyed the destruction of a man, he supposed now she was ready to observe the destruction of a planet.

Until the steward unlocked her quarters, she was sealed inside. She must wait for the escort.

A white-clad man appeared. He watched her walking toward him but did not understand the significance of her attire until she had taken him by the throat. He was strong but she was fast, and she was determined. The dinner utensil punctured his throat just below the larynx. She had gone behind him so as not to get on her any blood. He slid away from her, gurgling. She could have been cleaner about it. Now she must wait until it was finished, to be sure.

She took his access card, cleaned it on a table napkin, and hurried into the corridor.

She'd been watching the marines walk, especially the females. Their hands clasped behind their back, their heads tipped back. If the security cams caught her, they'd see a messenger or an officer's aide moving between battle stations.

The way to the med lab.

It was on a different level, in a different section of the ship. The steward's card let her on the lift, let her pass between sections. And when she was outside the med lab control room, she tapped the intercom, made her voice sweet.

"It's Aglaia. Sub-commander Zona has asked me to take your report to him on the bridge. May I enter?"

The technician unsealed the door, smiled at her. He had darkened the room for comfort and now swilled from a bottle of water. "It's quiet in there. She's not moving and he's so high he doesn't know what end is up. If you want, I can compile a progress file and shoot it over the secure network to the sub-commander's aide. You don't have to walk all the way back there. You can stay here with me."

She put on a grin that felt as plastic as his bottle of water. "Thank you, I'd like that."

He sat up straight, tapping his access code into the keypad.

"Have the marines gone to their duty stations?"

"They had to. We're in Battle mode."

"So we're all alone?"

"If you don't count the spies--"

She moved up behind him and cut hard into his jugular. A better job this time, for a girl who was out of practice. She used her muscles to keep him in his chair, then slowly wheeled the chair away from the console.

Located a data port, inserted the drive stick, and tapped the keys to see if the technician's code was going to let her download medical research.

Her glance flicked to Sheppard. She remembered him on Aedon standing by the statue of Zotikas. Had he noticed her? Would he remember? She'd thought him handsome; she'd envied his woman, because the woman, whoever she was, could give Sheppard children and she, Aglaia, was barren. They had been in the square together-- Sheppard, Teyla, and Aglaia --when Dirce said to Sheppard: "I do not take you for a man of short vision. I know that you are fair and generous."

Teyla had given Aglaia a reason to board the Proteus but it was Sheppard who gave Aglaia's people the greater gift. In her fashion, Dirce had learned that Sheppard read Alcestian symbols. Using her alliance with Atlantis, Dirce asked for a translation program. It was beyond believing that Atlantis had this technology. Aglaia was told that Sheppard participated. In addition to helping his scientists write the program, he had, on request, written certain phrases in Alcestian. Those symbols appeared now on the med lab monitor. Aglaia had memorized them. Once Petronus was shot, she had a short window of opportunity. She was good at some things. This was one of those things.

The technician's code worked. She typed a search string, typed it just the way she'd practiced, using the Alcestian symbols, then raised her gaze a bit to take in the man strapped into the module. That bastard Zona had kept the IVs flowing. The sub-commander was going to come back and start all over again, make Sheppard show him Stargate coordinates and see if Sheppard answered the same way. The coordinates that Sheppard gave Zona matched a world in the Darkstar's database. The database said the world was uninhabited but ideal. It would be a world an advanced people such as Sheppard's would choose if their city, as he claimed, had been destroyed by Wraith and his people uprooted. Therefore Aglaia was annoyed by Zona's insistence on a second session. Were there inadequacy issues in Zona's profile?

Here we go. The search string yielded seven entries in the database registry. Oh, yes ... She picked the one she recognized, prepped the file for download. Execute.

Now for the upload. She called a file on the stick to the med lab server. With the file saved on the server, she logged off as the tech and logged on as Zona. She'd waited as long as possible to use an administrative login because she knew Zona, as a bridge officer on duty, was logged in elsewhere. On her world, security protocols would perceive the second login a breach. Of course security on Aedon bordered on excessive. And, see, here, the workstation accepted the login. She located the new file and launched it, working easily through a series of prompts. Sheppard's translation had been spot on.

Until Sheppard arrived on Aedon, Aglaia's simulation sessions had run with Aedonian printed symbols.

The file had come to Aglaia's people through the same data pod that delivered the warship's schematics. The virus had been written for Darkstar systems, using an Aedonian model, which was the only model to which its author had access. The virus was for the present behaving like a software update.

Aglaia took the stick, pocketed it. She left the control room through the lab door and stood for a moment in the dim, sad little room.

Teyla startled to some sort of life. Her bruised face twisted with contempt. "What more do you want of us?"

Aglaia rounded on her. The sound of Teyla's voice could rouse Sheppard to a reaction. Aglaia had had enough of that.

"I wish you no harm, Teyla, but you must be silent, I beg you."

Aglaia hurried to a counter and rummaged through the drawers. In a moment she acquired a syringe and a vial. She drew the vial's contents into the syringe.

She brought the syringe to Sheppard. Was surprised to find him watching. He was going to draw her into his delusion, she realized, but how could she help it? He sank back as she grabbed his IV line. When he turned away she knew he thought she was killing him. She pushed the medication into the line. He turned to look at her again. There you go, she thought. On your way.

He passed out.

She worked the IV lines from his arms. She didn't dare shut off the flow from the control room. She suspected flow levels were being monitored remotely, probably by Zona. She dropped the lines on the floor, then withdrew the catheters.

One by one she loosened the module straps, left them hanging.

She turned to Teyla. It occurred to Aglaia that perhaps she should not get any closer until she explained.

"I am Aglaia Linos. And you are Teyla Emmagan. You killed the warship's commander's son when he was on assignment as a spy on Aedon. Do you remember? You made it possible for me to come here. You are a hero among my people and I thank you. I'm going to need you to assist me with Sheppard when he wakes up, so you must listen to me now."

The other woman stared levelly, expressionlessly, which scared Aglaia somewhat.

"Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I understand you perfectly."

"I gave Sheppard a heavy sedative, I mean a heavy one. He went to sleep but understand that he's so loaded with stimulants he's going to wake up very fast. The hallucinogens won't have anywhere near enough time to flush from his system. We can hope that if the sedative is working at all, he'll at least wake up with some control, provided we don't push it. You should be standing near him when he wakes. It would be nice and safest if you introduced me. Have I mentioned yet that we have almost no time, no time at all?"

"What is it you need us to do?"

"I have to find a communications station that will send a signal through the ship's shield on subspace--" She held up her data stick. "I have to send this data to my people. There's no way off this ship but if you help me get this to my people, I'll help you with whatever it was you came here to do."

"We came to do nothing."

"They caught you spying."

"We came to see the ship. We meant none on it harm."

"It means to harm you. I serve Dirce of Kairos." As if the name evoked something profound, the other woman's expression changed. "This ship is about destroy a world. If you find that as troublesome as I do, I propose we do as much as we can to harm it before they catch us."

Teyla jerked a nod. "Untie me."

Aglaia crossed to her and while she worked on Teyla's bonds, added, "When they hit you once, Sheppard saw them beating you over and over. The drug is supposed to produce the extreme of every action, so imagine the worst possible consequence of the beating. When they cut you, he might have seen them opening your stomach but not allowing you to die. When you screamed, he heard you screaming over and over. I am sorry to be blunt, but I did not want you to judge him weak."

Teyla lowered her arms and braced herself while Aglaia freed her ankles. "He is not weak. He gave them nothing. I would rather he had not prolonged it, but prolong it is all he did. He would never betray his people."

Aglaia straightened and regarded Teyla. She supposed her explanation of the torture had not impressed the other woman. She did not imagine Teyla was right. But she let it go. Sheppard was starting to come around.

x x x x x

Teyla-- the name had played in John's mind every moment waking or sleeping in some form or another for two years. He had grown accustomed to the texture and taste of it on his tongue but the way the name sounded inside, stroking the chords of his body, was something unique and astonishing. The mystery of it-- he could say that, because he was inside the enigma, comfortably living within it, yet waiting for it to burst like a waterfall over a cliff. The mystery of it never hurt him. He came alive when she walked into a room. She made it easy to do remarkable things.

Even to die. Because he had let her die, but that was a certainty going in, what he and Teyla had talked about, what he had promised. In the end the warship's masters had given him the way out. He didn't understand why the Alcestians committed their brutal acts and then opened the door like that, gave him the way out, but it was okay now, because Teyla was at peace and the blond assistant was letting him die too. Which meant the Alcestians were satisfied with the Stargate address. Their ship was in hyperspace enroute to Premina-- how could the warship actually 'gate to the coordinates he'd supplied, check it out? He'd given them the old Alpha site, which was unsuitable now for humans and scoured of any link to Atlantis. The Wraith had found it. The warship's masters were welcome to it. It was one of only a handful of Stargate addresses John knew.

And when he gave it to them, the Alcestians kept their end and withdrew the serum that was keeping what was left of Teyla alive. The Alcestian officer had made the deal. What they had done to Teyla in front of John ... was difficult. A compression of agonies that must be experienced and then let go of. For him it had seemed a transition beyond comprehension, beyond shock, leaving one last surety: There was no going back for either of them. Very little remained of her, just shreds of flesh and broken bones kept alive with drugs. But they'd let her go, so to speak. And that was their mistake, because now they had nothing to hold over him. At least she was saved. And suddenly it was his turn.

He had turned away. His arms were strapped at the wrist, elbow, and biceps. A good excuse not to fight, although to fight was his nature. He was almost glad the decision was taken from him. Sometimes he'd wonder what it would feel like to know his aircraft was going down and that at the end of a freefall there was going to be nothing. The drug the woman gave him made him feel like he was falling. The sensation was familiar but not overwhelming. At the end, instead of nothing, he found a window with some sunlight in it. The window was in the back of a limousine, where he sat holding a woman's hand. They were dressed in black, and when he realized this, he understood that they were at Arlington, they had to be at Arlington, and he was giving her, giving to Teyla, the last bit of himself, the hardest, darkest part of himself, a secret he could give no other. His head was down. She asked him to look at her. Although this was unlike her-- she allowed him his silent moments, normally --he raised his face to take in the wan light in the window.

--Open your eyes, John.

Were his eyes closed? His eyes weren't closed.

--John, look at me.

He was trying instead to find the words to explain the cemetery, their black attire, the limousine, and the significance of bringing her here. If she would let him find the words, he could be free of them and the power those words had over him.

--John, open your eyes!

He did. There was a bit of a shock. But then that fell away. His brain simply shut down. Became a vacuum. Empty. The lights were down but he saw her perfectly. Her face first, and her hair tied back but some of it in her eyes. Her shoulders, her arms, her hands. He smelled her skin, smelled her life, watched her breathe.

Teyla passed her fingers through his hair. "Say who I am."

"I know--" His vocal chords complained. He swallowed hard. "I know who you are."

"Do you know where we are?"

He had trouble there. He shifted on the table and made his arm go up. His hand found its destination against her cheek. "I'm a little fuzzy there."

"We are on the ship. They gave you a hallucinogen and made you think they were hurting me. You are still under its effect. We have given a sedative to counter the hallucinogen. You are tired but you must get up now. We cannot stay here."

He said, "Look at your face. They hurt you."

"John, we cannot stay here. Sit up slowly and do not believe anything your eyes tell you."

His eyes told him her wrists were bruised and circled by welts. His eyes told him her arm was bleeding.

Teyla was drawing him forward. He went with her, planted his feet, and locked his legs.

He reconnected his brain and was immediately rewarded with a feeling akin to a thousand medium-sized marbles pressing into his bones. The pain made him want to wretch.

The lines of the room blurred together. The distortion messed with his depth perception. Did she say she'd given a sedative? His stomach flipped and knotted. Where was his head? Was he looking at a hallucination now? How would he know?

"Are you really here?"

"I am here. You are standing-- can you walk?"

"I think so." He looked around and saw the blond woman. Decided that if Teyla was real, then the blond Alcestian was real too.

His hand shot to his sidearm holster, found the holster was not there.

"No, John! She is our friend. She freed you."

"Why would she do that?" he demanded.

"I work for Dirce of Kairos," the woman said. "You may not remember--"

"I remember you tried to kill us."

"If you were yourself, you would realize my presence now speaks for itself. Your instincts are going to be off until you recover. Teyla's already told you what you need to know."

He didn't like that answer. He wanted to fight it. He wanted to retreat, too, into a corner with Teyla and that, he knew, wasn't right either. If he couldn't see right, then maybe he couldn't think right, and he should listen. Or maybe listening to the blond woman was the mistake and--

Teyla said, "She has a data storage device that she must take to a com station. We must help her. Her world ... needs this data. The signal must penetrate the ship's shields and yet go undetected. Once we have done this, we must find a way to disable the ship. It is about to fire on Premina."

Okay, he understood that. "Where are our weapons?"

"I can't get those for you," the woman said.

"Can you get anything at all?" He felt hostile. "Why should we trust you again?

"I uploaded a virus to the ship's computer."

Did that qualify as a ray of sunshine? "What kind of virus?"

"Ultimately, it will isolate their primary systems from command control, including life support, helm, and weapons, and execute a shutdown of those systems. But the ship has gone to Battle mode. There are only two conditions under which the ship won't perform software updates. Those are when the ship is on aux power and when it is in Battle mode."

"What is Battle mode?" Teyla asked.

"Where I'm from," Aglaia said, "we run our security on time zones. On one day, it might be all right if Lab C was unlocked during daylight hours. On another day, Lab C might be access card only. Do you see?"

"Battle mode is a time zone?" John looked at Aglaia and rolled his hand, as if to say, Speed this up.

Aglaia headed toward what looked like two large bins. She froze, nervously monitoring John's reaction. "I'm looking for lab coats. Is that okay?"

"Fine. Keep talking."

"The Darkstar operates in one mode or another at any given time. Ready means regular time zones and access. There's a Restricted mode for when the ship is in dock and it's running with a skeleton crew. In Battle mode, the ship's Intelligent Systems diagnostics and updates are suspended. Ancillary functions go to lockdown. Card access is mandatory on all levels. Login timeouts are extended. The ship does everything it can to protect itself while ship personnel focus on attack and defense."

"So the virus isn't going to help here?" John summarized.

"No."

"Aux power-- you need to send a subspace communication, right?"

"Yes."

"To where?"

"We have relays set up on different worlds. It's a risk but--"

"The little Ancient ship you shot down, do you know where it is?"

"Both of the Ancient gateships are in Forensics Engineering on the hangar level. And I didn't shoot at your ships. I'm not Alcestian. I was ordered to gain the trust of Petronus Euryton when we learned he was not who he said he was. He said he was from a sister city. All that I have done has led to this moment, the chance to help my people. I do the bidding of Dirce of Kairos."

John wasn't sure but he thought he was starting to buy Aglaia's story on its merits. "Auxiliary power in the Jumper will run communications and life support. If I don't power up the drive, I should be able to send a subspace communication."

"The hangar level is above us."

"Can you get us there?" Teyla asked.

x x x x x

Aglaia showed Sheppard the steward's access card. "In Battle mode, the only personnel in the ship's passageways are the crew's aides, dietary workers, and medical staff. There's a security section that monitors cameras. We have to put on lab coats and look like we're medical."

"Are there cameras in Forensics Engineering?"

"Probably, but I guarantee no one will be watching them. It's really not an important place and the planet is much more interesting. The crew appears to enjoy its work."

"No one's going to be in the halls?" Sheppard asked.

She had gone to stand by the control room door. The location put the greatest distance between Sheppard and her neck. She didn't like what his body language was telling her.

"Just the people I specified. I didn't run into anyone when I came to get you." A useful half-truth, she realized, after he tilted his head a little to give her a deeper look.

"John, are there any residual effects of the drug that you're aware of?" Teyla asked.

"I want to crawl under something, I can't make my hands stop shaking, and I can't see so good. Does that count?"

Teyla sighed and looked askance. "You seemed a little better. We will get through this."

"We will? I thought we were stuck on a warship run by a commander that wanted to kill us. Maybe those facts are residual effects of the drug, too."

"The John Sheppard I know would not dwell on those things," Teyla protested.

He looked at Teyla like he wanted to suggest she pay more attention. He turned to Aglaia. "The access card will get us through all the doors?"

"I won't know until we get going but here's the problem. If we use it and the card is denied, it makes an alarm."

"That's a problem."

"The biggest problem is the accessway from the lift to the hangar. After that we'll be okay. The hangars are isolated by function. There's an Interceptor hangar, a transport ship hangar, another hangar for the Korudon cruisers. They have repair bays and salvage bays. I think the one we want is one of those smaller ones that won't have any people in it while Proteus is in Battle mode. All the hangars open with a keypad code. I have the code."

That was an outright lie. The hangars' pedestrian hatches opened by keypad and access card both. She was trying to show herself useful to Sheppard's drug-swamped mind, in case he needed to fight the impulse to strangle her.

"I can get us through," she emphasized, and that was probably the full truth. "We should get into lab coats."

x x x x x

The com chirped, interrupting Elizabeth as she viewed Arleus's last speech on the room monitor. She was in Premina Prime, inside the Temple of the Supervisory.

Before settling in Meta's private salon to watch the broadcast of his final speech Elizabeth had spent several hours wandering the palace.

The grounds were deserted, permitting Elizabeth unobstructed access to all the old rooms and the inner sanctum of the old Ancient complex.

When she got back Arleus was already giving his speech. The speeches, she'd heard, were having some effect. From Erothena and Aragona alone another hundred thousand had reported to Zone One for evacuation. The new arrivals brought the ES site's population soaringly close to the desired five hundred thousand.

Arleus's speeches appealed not to panic or reason, but to patriotism. His speeches were crafted to stir courage to face the unknown.

One hundred thousand people was not a big save but it was, Elizabeth acknowledged, something.

Rodney was at the Aragona power center and about to leave. He needed, he told Elizabeth now, to have a final pow wow with the engineers.

The Aragona engineers wanted Rodney to disable the failsafe. She listened to Rodney's explanation. Asked a few questions. He answered without hesitation. He was certain of the outcome.

The gravity of his request settled like a stone within her. His request presented dire issues for John and Teyla as well as Premina. Briefly, her eyes misted.

Rodney correctly interpreted her silence as hesitation. "It's your call, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth collected her thoughts. "Understood. Weir out."

Actually, it wasn't her call. Wait, that wasn't true. Did you ask a drowning man, one that you could not save, for permission to haul yourself from the sea before you, too, drowned? As for John and Teyla ...

Elizabeth sat quietly waiting for Arleus to return from the studio. He was only a few minutes. He wanted to see her off, he'd said. Wasn't it time?

It was time. For all of them.

Caldwell did not want to use the Asgard beaming technology after the Darkstar exited hyperspace. With a ship as advanced as Proteus, the beaming technology, he believed, could be the equivalent of sending up a flare. The Daedalus's position was already precarious.

No, it was time to go.

Meta came back to the salon and while his paladins could see him crossed the anteroom in brisk strides. When the outer door shut, his gait became a ponderous shuffle. The air billowed out of him in an audible exhale. He put his hand over his eyes and met Elizabeth at the edge of the salon.

What had been unseemly until now came forth as the most natural of acts: she embraced him.

He put his arms around her, touched the top of her head with his chin, and abruptly let go. By way of passing on good news, he said, "My parents have gone to the ES. I didn't think they would. They had previously declined."

"It's something," she said.

He slipped past her to settle at a private bar. "Still I see too many children, far too many, in the windows of the residence towers. They stare out." He poured from a decanter. "I have no idea what they see, what it must be like to sit with their parents and hear this."

"Arleus, I must ask you something."

He brought a glass of amber liquid. "It's made from apples. It's bitter and sweet. Try it."

She took the glass and let some of the liquid touch her tongue. Apple cider. She smiled a little.

"Why are you smiling?"

"Even though we got off to a very difficult start, we have more in common than you know."

"What must you ask me?" He sipped. "Out with it. No, I'm not leaving my people. You can't mean to ask me that. Something else?"

She lost the words, staring at him. Her lungs deflated. Something akin to pain nudged her heart a little. "Even though the survivors need you to begin their tenuous future with them?"

"They have Michiko. He is the true leader. I am a face, a voice. I will broadcast to my people until our communications array fail. They will expect it."

"I doubt that, Arleus, but that's not what I meant to ask, not yet anyway."

"What did you mean to ask?"

"Your power centers' standard protocol says that if the failsafes don't work, the station engineers should perform manual shutdowns."

He jerked a nod, a frown stitching his brow. "Yes."

"Doctor McKay says the combined radiation from the centers leaves no doubt as to the outcome."

"Yes, I've seen enough simulations to last ... a long while. What did you mean to ask?"

"Assuming the Darkstar ceases its attack after the manual shutdowns, your world will be uninhabitable for hundreds of years."

"The most favorable estimate has been five thousand years."

"Of course."

"In the meantime, the warship is welcome to Premina," he said, tightly.

"You miss my point. The Darkstar does not know what will happen when your shield collapses. The Darkstar is relying on its weapons to destroy you."

"They may offer surrender."

A bleak and unlikely possibility but one that was being bandied about. Elizabeth bowed her head. "If they do, they do. You would surrender?"

"Immediately."

"And hope for the best."

"Yes." He turned away, shoulders low, both hands tight around his glass. He sat down in front of her. "Have you asked your question yet?"

"No, I haven't."

"It's distasteful, then."

"Very much so."

"We've discussed distasteful things quite often in the last few days. I think our friendship can stand one more."

"Doctor McKay thinks if you set aside protocol at your power centers and allow the breach to happen, the resulting explosion will expand into space and reach the warship."

He raised his face, moved his gaze to intercept hers, and held on.

Elizabeth felt her hand around her glass begin to tremble.

Arleus jumped up, headed to the bar, and selected a different decanter.

x x x x x

The hangar slotted as Forensics Engineering was the size of an F-302 bay on the Daedalus. Lieutenant Shire's Jumper sat on the deck in a section marked off by bold black lines. There was a computer workstation next to it. Panels had been removed from the Jumper, and there were wires running from the bulkhead to the Jumper's exposed boards.

John swung toward the Jumper at a lope. He staggered a little and slowed down.

Teyla caught up to him. "John, what are you doing?"

He didn't answer. Reached the rear hatch, gripped the edge, and steadied himself. His mind flashed over with grief. The hull breach was right in front of him.

"John," Teyla insisted.

It's the drug, it's the drug, he scolded himself. Do what you came to do.

He staggered inside. "Check the compartments for weapons, tools, anything we can use."

She checked. "These have been emptied," she complained.

He got on his knees under the console, looked for the main data panel. Most likely they'd found it but they were using the Jumper's systems to download it. Judging from the cables, they'd been interrupted.

He pulled the panel and scampered out. "All right, let's look at their workstation."

He led Teyla out of the Jumper to the portable workstation parked nearby. He waved Aglaia over. "Do your login thing."

"That's dangerous," she said.

He glared at her. "You want this ship out of Battle mode or not?"

She stepped up to the keyboard, logged in.

Meanwhile, he turned around looking at what he had to work with. The launch was protected by a force shield rather than launch doors. For a second he stood looking at the vacuum of space, at nothing. Would the force shield let objects from the ship pass through it? Maybe he could get the force shield to deactivate by depressurizing the bay.

His Jumper was on a tow in the middle of the hangar. He was looking at it from the side. The rear hatch appeared to be closed with cables. It was possible the Alcestians didn't know how to reset the manual switch. It was possible, too, no one on the salvage crew had the Ancient gene.

He swung back to Aglaia. "Okay, can you find ship commands?"

She said, "I can't read this."

"What?"

"It's unfamiliar. I trained to upload and download files, not navigate their system."

He walked up to her, shifted the monitor to him. "This is an engineering menu. How do I get to something that lets me see everything?"

"Try the registry," Teyla suggested. "That's what we do at home."

"How do I find their registry?" John asked Aglaia.

"We only did this in simulations."

"Okay, then, pretend it's a simulation. How do I get to the registry?"

"Up here, this is a search tool. Tell it to find the registry."

"Tell it to find the systems menu," Teyla piped up.

John liked Teyla's idea better. He selected the search tool and typed System Menu. The screen presented a login window with a generic warning that unauthorized access was unhealthy. He pulled Aglaia in closer. "Log in again." She did. The screen now gave him something that looked like a panel with buttons. He selected the button that said Arc. It felt right.

The screen presented another login window.

"Here. Log in again."

Aglaia typed Zona's code, then watched with the others as the screen flashed a warning. "What's it saying?"

"It's saying you're already logged in and do you want to log out of there to log in here."

"Say yes," Aglaia suggested.

Teyla and John gasped, "No!" at the same time.

"If you log off the ship's bridge officer, I think that he will notice," Teyla said.

John pulled away, heading at a jog for his Jumper. Teyla stayed with Aglaia.

John climbed onto the tow. Reaching the back of the Jumper, he inspected the cables, located the release, and opened the hatch far enough to get in. The back compartment was as he left it, maybe a little dirtier. He stepped past the junk he and Teyla had left on the floor, stopping at the console. He wanted aux power only. Concentrated on just that. The Jumper's console illuminated. Life support? A diagnostic panel appeared in front of him. Good. It meant he didn't have to die on the Proteus. He could die in space.

He knew they were over Premina. Aglaia had said so. With a sigh, he activated the com.

"Sheppard to anyone. Anyone listening?"

"Sheppard, Caldwell here. Where the hell are you?"

"If you can't see me, that's good news for you. Now you can use your imagination."

"Understood. Anything we can do to help?"

"I'll get to that. Right now I want you to standby for a data burst. It's marked for Dirce, the lady from Aedon. Got that?"

"Daedalus is standing by."

John waved in the windscreen. Aglaia was fixed on the workstation monitor but Teyla saw him. Teyla tapped Aglaia's shoulder and led the Aedonian to the Jumper. John met the women at the rear hatch.

"Give me your data stick. I'm going to use one of our PDAs. The PDA will take the stick and transmit the file wirelessly to the Jumper's database. Then we're going to swipe that guy's access, which will probably get us killed, and take the ship out of Battle mode."

Aglaia said, "I want to watch you send the file."

"Get in here, then," John said.

Meanwhile, Teyla jumped off the tow.

John stuck his head out. "Wait!"

Teyla looked up at him.

"See if you can figure a way to depressurize the hangar, preferably on a delay."

"How much of a delay?"

"Nothing too comfortable. Make it forty-five seconds."

She nodded hard and vanished.

He picked up one of the PDAs from the rear compartment, led Aglaia to the console, and took her data stick. "You watching?" he said, a bit contentiously.

Aglaia wisely chose not to answer.

"Sheppard to Caldwell."

"Caldwell here."

"Sending databurst-- now."

"Received. I've contacted Doctor Weir. Is Teyla with you?"

"We're both here. We're both okay."

Teyla was climbing into the Jumper. "John," she called softly. "There's a depressurization command station but I can't read it and it needs an authorization code."

"Colonel Caldwell, can you standby please?"

"Standing by."

John said, "We gotta get the cables off the rear hatch. Then I need to reset the hatch." He looked at Teyla and Aglaia. "Why are we not moving?"

Teyla slipped outside. Aglaia hurried to join her. It took five hard, long minutes to lower the hatch completely and uncouple the cables. John reset the manual switch, then tried the hatch on auxiliary power. It worked.

He looked at the women. "Who's faster?"

Teyla said, "I am."

He wished he'd just picked Aglaia. "Where's the depressurization command station?"

Teyla took them there.

"Log in, please, Aglaia."

The Aedonian obliged.

He looked at the activation sequence, then followed it. When he reached the Delay command screen, he saw that he could accept the default, which was the equivalent of two minutes, or enter a manual delay time.

He turned to look back at the Jumper. Took in Teyla, checked out her legs. What if she tripped?

"How are your legs?" he asked her.

She rolled her eyes.

"Okay, don't trip. My boat don't go till everyone is on it."

She smiled a little.

He gave her forty-five seconds, showed her where the Execute command was, and told her to push it on his signal.

"Come on," he gasped, taking Aglaia by the arm.

The monitor by Lieutenant Shire's Jumper still showed its query. Did they want to log out the sub-commander at whatever workstation he was using and log the sub-commander into the ship's command functions through the Forensic Engineering terminal? Yes. Aglaia completed the login and stepped aside.

John looked at the screen. The Alcestian flag was the desktop. At the top of the screen was a menu. A status window had opened just beneath it, showing the ship's mode with a flashing icon. John selected the icon. The screen queried his choice, giving him the option to exit. Why couldn't life always be this simple?

He chose, Yes. The status window changed color and declared the ship's status was a mode called Ready.

"How long will it take your virus to launch?" he asked Aglaia.

"In our simulations it always ran right away."

John pointed at the Jumper, told her to run.

He ran behind her but stopped in front of the tow. He signed to Teyla.

She pressed the Execute button and bolted. A speaker honked a warning. Red warning globes began whirling. He hopped up on the tow. As Teyla reached the tow, he dipped down, caught her raised hand, and lifted her to him. He ran into the Jumper behind her, shut the rear hatch.

"Everybody belt in," he called out. Teyla joined him in the front compartment. "This is going to get scary. We're going to lose power a couple of times. Just hold on, okay?"

"I am ready."

The Jumper shifted on the tow, going weightless. John switched to full power. Drive on line. Without the resistance of gravity, the Jumper swung about on the first try. The maneuver was smooth, the controls responsive, and then the console went dark. No com, no life support, just the soft, cooling lightness of floating in a vacuum. John stifled the swell of panic, which he attributed to his altered perception. He concentrated on full power, got it, and pushed the Jumper toward the stars. It was a three or four second burn before the controls darkened again. Enough to give the Jumper forward momentum, to keep it from bouncing off the launch bay rim, to get the Jumper away and into space.

He asked for auxiliary power now and got it. Communications and life support on line. He checked the diagnostic panel. The ship was begging him not to ask for full power again.

He smiled inwardly. He wouldn't need the drive again. In fact, engaging the Jumper's drive now would be suicidal. When the Darkstar detected the depressurization of the hangar bay-- and its sensors would detect it soon --the warship would scan the hangar's region of space for anomalies. The ship's security personnel might not notice the missing Jumper right away. No matter what, the responding security staff would have to repressurize the hangar to get inside. Of course the ship had cameras and could use them to investigate the hangar's depressurization. John was counting on the empty tow to look innocuous ... as innocuous as a tiny cylinder of metal with no heat signature drifting beyond the warship's shield.

He had to do one more thing and he had to do it fast. "Sheppard to Caldwell."

"Caldwell here."

"I'm in a Jumper outside the warship's shield, which solves one problem but not the main one."

"I'll see what I can do."

"There's not much you can do while the warship's still here. Something tells me it'll detect the beaming technology if you try to use it."

"Agreed. You should know if the planet goes, and it might, you could be in for a rough ride."

John swallowed. "Which means you might have to leave us here. If there's a way to get us, when you get our locator beacons, there'll be a third lifesign with us. It's friendly. With that said, do what you have to do."

There was a brief hiatus, while Sheppard thought about how he was going to answer the expected query.

Caldwell, when he came back, made it: "Anything you'd like me to pass on?"

"Yeah. Tell the team good luck."

"Will do."

"And it's probably a good idea if we go to radio silence. So if you get us, you get us."

"Very well."

"See you on the other side, Colonel."

"On the other side, then. Caldwell out."

x x x x x

Sub-commander Zona snapped his tongue against the roof of his mouth, pulled his torso forward in the big, plush chair, and tapped his screen. His attention was forward, as usual, on the shielded viewer in which the rim of a planet presented itself. He had grown to manhood looking out the portal at some planet. He was bred to loathe the view for many reasons, but mainly for the connection to otherness. The planets visited by the Proteus were not worlds, per se. Proteus was the only world that mattered to Zona, since the home world, Alcestis, may the gods keep her, was gone. They came and they went, the planets in the viewer, even when he was a boy. Only recently had he acquired a taste for raining fire on them. The inhabitants, who knew the meaning of world, those Zona held in contempt. What claim could they have to soil, water, and sky when he had only metal, the lightlessness of nothing, and artificial atmosphere? If it was a question of worthiness, he had no difficulty tapping his workstation screen. And Madam was waiting.

Nothing happened.

Zona was looking expectantly over the shoulders of the Commander, whose place on the bridge was forward of his and closer to the viewer. It was a full thirty seconds before he realized the command had been rejected.

The Commander swiveled in her chair, her long legs crossed at the ankle, her cold eyes on him.

Zona panicked. Directed his attention to his screen. Tapped the Execute command again.

His screen mocked him. Invalid command. Moreover, it demanded to know who he was.

Zona cursed. How could his login time-out in Battle mode? He checked the systems status and was alarmed to note the system had gone to Ready. Something was wrong. Someone had screwed up and someone was going to pay. To embarrass him this way, and during such an operation.

He pecked anxiously at his keypad. His screen asked him if he wanted to log out of Forensics Engineering and log in on the bridge. He growled. Was the computer serious? Why would he be logging in if he didn't want to log in? A foul-up had occurred and he'd have someone in pieces for it.

"A moment, Madam," he muttered, attempting a level voice.

The screen accepted his login and reported, among other things, that while he had been logged off a hangar had depressurized and the ship's systems had gone from Battle mode to Ready on the order of Sub-commander Zona. This information caused a bead of perspiration to form at the base of Zona's spine. He tapped the Systems icon, selected Battle mode, and was confronted by an Intelligent Systems query: did he or did he not want the software upgrade to continue?

Idiots!

He chose, No. His screen confirmed: "Are you sure?"

Madam rose to her feet, facing him.

Zona tapped, Yes. He was damn sure.

That appeared to end the comedy moment. He sucked in his breath, then re-entered the fire sequence, which was not his job, but he was not about to order the ensign to do it and have everybody on the bridge, the personnel gaping at their screens at this very instant, start jabbering about the mess he'd made of a simple maneuver.

He positioned his forefinger and touched the button for Execute.

A stream of light blossomed under him, and then the light was in front, hard and straight as a spear, heading for the planet.

The Commander turned slowly. She adored the light of Weapons Away, was intoxicated by it. She sank into her chair. It was possible, Zona hoped, that she would forgive the delay. He certainly had no intention of ever mentioning it.

x x x x x

John felt a mild jolt. Nothing bone-shattering, just nerves. The liquid fire of the Proteus's weapons surprised him. He was rigid for a handful of seconds. But then his body unkinked and he felt inordinately tired.

Without looking at her, John held his hand toward Teyla.

She settled her hand in his, sighed when he squeezed.

It took a long time, it seemed to John, for the first missile to reach Premina's shield.

The detonation cascaded across the world-shield in broad strokes of molten gold, coral, and silver. The effect resembled a particularly bright rainbow.

The shield held.

John sat forward, eyes narrowing.

Then came the second missile, joined in space by a third and a fourth.

Aglaia stood for a moment at his shoulder. He heard the low whistle of her breath.

The second missile met the shield, blossomed, and sank. The shimmering rainbow did not appear. The missile had penetrated. The third missile followed, soaring past the mark in space where the shield should have been, a diving gasball. As the second missile landed, phosphorescent vapor mushroomed toward space.

Aglaia made a sound that could have been a sob. She turned away and went to sit on the bench in the rear compartment.

"It has not failed completely," Teyla whispered to John.

Teyla meant that the fourth missile had met a remnant of the shield. The prismatic cascade began but abruptly ended in a giant, luminous wave. The flare started upward from the surface and in a gasp imploded, as though the planet had sucked its breath. John tightened his fingers around Teyla's hand, and it was in this manner, his hand firmly clasping hers, that they appeared on the bridge of the Daedalus. He stood facing Caldwell's chair. John's disorientation was minor. It had happened to him enough now that he adjusted quickly.

Teyla pulled from him and spun anxiously toward the expanding cloud of fire in the viewer: the planet that had finished its gasp and now was spewing its fiery dying matter into the darkness.

John glanced about for Aglaia, found her staring back at him.

The boiling vapor that had swallowed Premina was growing, but also it was shrinking. The Daedalus's sublight engines propelled them rapidly toward a hyperspace window. Were they going to make it? John saw the hazy white-blue maw of the hyperspace window reaching for them. From another direction something else was reaching for them. He imagined the Proteus was trying to move as well. Did its crew understand the power of what was coming at them? Most likely, it did not.

There was nothing left to see now.

The Daedalus entered hyperspace.

John felt the skin lifting away from his bones. He grew aware of Caldwell, the Colonel's pallid face, his hanging jaw. Although there was nothing now to look at but the flare of hyperspace, the faces of the battlecruiser's bridge crew were riveted on the viewer. John saw Elizabeth behind Caldwell, her features stretched and her eyes glistening. Next to her was a tall man that John did not know, a man with short dark hair and grayish eyes. The man looked slightly mad, if such a thing was possible. His face seemed to be unstitching, recovering, and coming undone again.

John moved at last, gesturing to Aglaia, to bring her with him. They were all going to sick bay.

At the exit point, where the corridor let onto the bridge, John turned back. The man with Elizabeth had turned his head, turned it sharply, and was staring at John. The man's eyes were not gray, John realized. They were the depthless color of steel. John would not have noticed except they were also quite wide, as though the flesh that surrounded them was melting. There was a scream in those eyes louder than any sound.

John looked away first.

Teyla had turned too. John drew her to him, leading her into the corridor.


Epilogue: More Ashes


Elizabeth scanned her PDA screen absently and nodded as Caldwell joined her in the passageway.

He cut his strides to match hers. "Soon as Hermiod thinks it's prudent, we'll go back to the area, scan for debris."

"Do you think the warship survived?"

"I think no such thing but you know as well as I do, Doctor, out here we don't take chances. How's Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and Teyla?"

"Awake, finally." Sheppard had slept a long, hard sixteen hours. Teyla was out for twelve hours. "I guess they needed the rest. They were suffering from dehydration and Colonel Sheppard had been drugged. Your medical team is trying to identify the compound now to determine any residual effects, but ..." She saw Caldwell react to that and added firmly: "The important thing is they're fine. I expect them both to be cleared soon for duty."

"Very good, Doctor." Caldwell pursed his lips. He turned at the next intersection, leaving her to enter one of the small dining halls alone.

Her destination. Sheppard's team was waiting for her. McKay and Ronon Dex sat across from Sheppard and Teyla at a table in the corner. If they had been talking to one another, they were quiet now. Mugs of coffee sat between them, untouched. Ronon leaned protectively toward Teyla while Rodney looked at his lap. They'd all been through hell.

She approached the table, her expression neutral. "I just wanted to give you an update."

John looked up at her. He tried and failed to smile.

"We'll be over the Preminian evacuation site in a couple of days, and then we're on to Atlantis. Rodney, Ronon, if you're in a hurry to get back, you're welcome to go down to the surface of the ES and 'gate back to Atlantis." No need to explain why Sheppard and Teyla could not beam to the ES.

"What are you going to do?" Rodney asked.

"I'll be going the long way." She had no intention of going to the surface of the planet with Meta. Given the nature and tone of her last interchange with Meta, Elizabeth considered the idea unthinkable.

"I'm staying on board," Ronon murmured.

"All right. A couple of pieces of news, then. The Preminians considered it the right thing to do, in the event of an emergency evacuation, to empty their prisons and let the prisoners 'gate off world. Provided they had time."

"How very ..." Rodney searched for some flashy, witty word and then seemed to give up. "How very tolerant of them. Did they have time?"

"Yes, they did." Elizabeth paused for a thoughtful moment. "John, in retrospect, I found everything you said about Premina spot on. What do you do with your convicted felons in a situation like this? Believe me, there's no easy answer. The Preminians in fact discharged these people. Their leaders wouldn't take prisoners to the ES--"

"Why would they?" Rodney wondered. "They have enough mouths to feed."

John sat up straight. He knew where Elizabeth was headed. "She means the Preminians let convicted felons, people they didn't want to kill and people they didn't want to take care of, loose on the rest of the Pegasus. She's saying they discharged their responsibility by dumping it on someone else. It's a habit with them."

"Exactly. As a result, Acastus Kolya is now a free man."

"What?" Rodney blurted.

"That's a problem," John said. He was looking at Elizabeth when he spoke and took it as a bad sign when she immediately nodded.

"Ah," sighed Teyla, her mouth tightening. "After committing an act so hideous the Preminians were willing to kill us because of it, the man responsible goes free and yet John is still a wanted man among their people."

"That's the problem," John elaborated. "I don't care how crazy things get. Somewhere on the front line of whatever prison they had him in there was somebody who should have taken care of him. And you know what I mean. Hey, I felt their anger. They're not forgiving people."

"I knew they still thought you did it," Rodney said. "But are they that blind? They shifted it all to you?"

"That was evident from the beginning." Teyla glanced at John and away. "Although Kolya was imprisoned, my impression was that he was rewarded for the lies he told."

"Is that true?" Dex asked Elizabeth.

"More or less, yes, I'm afraid it is. Now for some good news. The Aedonians received the data burst and thanks to the translation program, they're analyzing the Alcestian pathogen in a way they've never been able to in the past. I'm told it may lead to a breakthrough in their research." She hesitated. "That's good news, folks."

"Yes, it is," John agreed. This time he did smile. "Who was the man with you on the bridge?"

"The man standing next to me was Arleus Meta." She watched John's smile slip. "He waited until the last moment to evacuate." John's expression continued to darken. Elizabeth felt it like a kick in the stomach. She supposed it would have been less so if she were able to reassure John. However, she could do no such thing. The significance of Meta and John together on the Daedalus would have to be addressed. Candidly. Fortunately for Elizabeth, today was not the day for brutal analysis. "Arleus gave us the means to destroy the Proteus. He authorized the engineers at the power centers to ignore the manual shutdown protocols and let the overload occur. It was the difference between death by hard radiation and ... what we saw. He didn't have to do it. If the Proteus had left any part of their world intact, maybe in a few ..."

"Elizabeth," Rodney groaned, "after five thousand years, what would have been there to go back to?"

She nodded. "I know that. Still, your home is your home and Arleus could have refused."

"Well, then, I should thank him," John said.

Elizabeth thought about that, frowned, and said nothing.

x x x x x

The corridors of the Daedalus are known to John. Leaving sick bay, he stretches his legs. Breathes deeply, slowly. He feels okay.

In many ways the texture and sound of the battlecruiser sooth him. He sleeps more than he is used to, but the docs tell him the sluggishness will pass. The burn in his chest is not physical, and that too will pass. He needs work, but he can wait for that. He feels that he has time.

Passing an intersection between the crew's quarters and the dining hall, John spies a man coming toward him. Is this an encounter he has been avoiding or looking forward to? A mixed bag. Still, he needs to know.

John slows his steps. "I'm sorry," he tells the figure of Arleus Meta. "I'm sorry about what happened. We tried to stop it."

Meta clasps his hands behind his back, tilts his head. They are even in height. And now John remembers the man. He saw him on Premina posing as a guard or a clerk outside the crystal cell. John isn't sure how he feels about that. Meanwhile, Meta says, "Yes, your Doctor Weir was generous enough to tell me. Thank you."

What's the vibe here? Good or bad? It's hard to tell. John decides it's time to move on.

Meta puts out his hand and takes hold of John's arm.

John looks down at Meta's hand.

Meta lets go. "The shield stopped the first weapon, did you see that?"

"I got my hopes up," John answers tentatively.

Meta nods once, and then leans toward John's ear. The Preminian's proximity is enough to set John on edge but his proximity is not the problem. It's what Meta says that bothers him the most: "If we'd had five power centers, do you think we would have survived?"

John supposes he could answer. There is an answer, a logical one. A rational one. It's an answer Rodney or Elizabeth would have given on demand, and probably had, over and over. No, the question is not about an answer.

Meta tips his head to the side, waiting for John to react.

John turns without backing up. Their faces are almost touching. John finds the metallic eyes up close reveal something uncouth, unrestrained, and indefinably feral. Meta's eyes deliver a message. They are literally icy with fury.

"It's your call," John says, because he knows he must, and because he knows there will be no second chance for Meta and for himself if he does not. "I'd tell you to think it through, but you're thinking it through. I'd tell you to give it time, but I don't know, you have people more qualified than I am who can tell you that too. I could tell you again it wasn't me, but you don't really care anymore. None of you do. So I'll tell you something you can use. Come after me and I'll kill you. You touch Teyla again and I'll kill you. You hurt Elizabeth, if you hurt anyone on my team, the expedition, anyone I care about, anyone I know, I'll kill you. You don't want to go to war with me. Go take care of your people and trust me when I say this, I intend to take care of mine."

John steps back now, turns, and leaves the high lord standing alone in the passageway.


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.