Huge thanks to Ellex, Patricia, and Cheryl for putting up with me. And thanks to everyone out there who puts up with me, for doing so. LOL!

The verses from the Tao are not all complete, so please don't take them as such. In some cases I used excerpts. Also, I've been informed that there are a few grammatical errors, the kind that spell check doesn't catch, so I ask that you excuse those. I also ask that you leave feedback simply because I can't improve my writing if I don't know how it is coming across to the readers. :) I warn you now, this thing is infected with symbolism. Applauses and criticisms welcome. Enjoy, and thanks! -Kam :)

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The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

-Tao Te Ching 1

"Welcome!" The man that met them at the gate was tall, and dressed in a long, dark grey suit which complimented the towering buildings that surrounded them. The whole image was that of a linear scene of blacks and greys and whites, like a uniform sculpture. He extended his hand, yet another line in amongst a geometrical form. "I am Legit Barial, overseer of the Barus population." His face was small, his eyes and mouth large. Pale skin stretched thinly over an angular bone structure, giving the appearance of a living skeleton.

"Colonel John Sheppard." John shook the hand, taking measure of the surprisingly firm grip in such a fragile-looking man. "This is Teyla Emmagen, Ronon Dex, and Dr. Rodney McKay."

The Legit shook hands in a formal and friendly way with each team member, eyeing them steadily, sizing them up. "I'm glad you are here. It has been a long time since we have had visitors. I'm afraid we operate under a rather strict code that turns away anyone who might travel here for any purpose other than business." His voice had an odd cadence, almost an unnatural sing-song, one word melding with the next like hot steel.

His comment didn't surprise John. His hands unconsciously crossed over the area where his weapon normally would be as he shrugged. "Well, seeing as how we are here for business, I think we're up to the challenge."

The Legit smiled. "Of course. Please, follow me." He made a curt gesture to the suited people that had gathered behind him, and they scattered in different directions with a very professional gait. He turned on his polished heel and started toward a thin alley bordered by two thick buildings.

John glanced back. "Hey, Rodney," he muttered, "whatcha think?"

His friend was taking in the area with a frown. "I feel like I just stepped into a stiff Armani suit."

"They seem very . . ." Teyla gave a nod, unable to find the word she needed.

"Stiff?" Rodney supplied as he walked by.

"Fake," Ronon said flatly.

"Come on, guys," John scolded lightly, "we just got here. You heard Elizabeth back at the briefing. She did say this is a very professional world, and that they do things here very . . .professionally."

"What do they do," Rodney muttered over his shoulder, "print stock tickets for the entire galaxy? It looks like we've just walked into the largest trading firm this side of two galaxies." His voice echoed as the two towers that marked the entrance to the square started to close around them. His line of sight bounced around the walls nervously, visually trying to take the words back.

"She wasn't kidding when she called this place the business hub of the whole planetary system," John said. "I just wish we could've brought our weapons."

"I've got mine," Ronon said.

John turned. "Well, don't let them know that!"

"I don't plan on it."

"Oh, please" Rodney moaned over his shoulder. "What are you going to do, use the strips in a ticker tape parade for target practice? Take down a couple of printers?"

John just shook his head and followed the legit through the buildings. What unfolded before them made them take pause.

It was a scene from a bustling, overpopulated earth city, only there was no chaos in the motion, and very little noise. These people knew exactly where they were going, and did so in smooth, straight lines. There were a few motor-type vehicles on the streets that resembled military jeeps, but for the most part everyone walked. And they walked with their heads held high, with purpose in their step, and without speaking.

It was mesmerizing, to say the least, and rather disconcerting. Rodney found himself caught up in the motion and took one step too far into the wave of people that passed before him. Like seaweed caught in a current, he was sucked in and swept away, unable to force his way back through the mass. The surprise on his face could be seen for only a moment, then was hidden. "Um, a-a little help here?" he called out between the shifting shoulders of business suits.

"Leave it to Rodney," John sighed, and forced his way down the street, staying on the edge of the river of people, seeing Rodney peeking as best he could over the push that was leading him away. "McKay!"

"Let me," Ronon practically growled, and dove into the people, a brown boulder plunging into a grey cascade.

With McKay's dark Atlantean gear, he blended in more easily than expected, but Ronon was able to find him merely by zeroing in on his sense of panic. He suddenly appeared beside the startled man and shoved roughly him out of the crushing crowd, not caring who he had to knock over to do it. They slammed into a metal wall with all the force of being flung from a waterfall. The breath was knocked from Rodney, who did his best to complain, but Ronon remained pressed against his back, waiting until the crowd behind them thinned. It did so with startling speed. The mass suddenly streamed into the buildings that lined the streets, and all of the doors closed at the exact same time with a resounding thump that echoed over the silence.

Rodney and Ronon both looked over their shoulders in amazement at the streets, empty but for one person standing there like a still tumbleweed in a western film. John and Teyla caught up to them, but said nothing as the legit, obviously not concerned by the events, merely beckoned for them to follow.

"You guys okay?" John finally managed to ask as they walked to catch up with the man who was heading back the way they had come, passing the two tallest buildings.

"Yeah. Great." Rodney was no longer so adamantly curious. He hung back slightly, lest he make another foolhardy mistake.

"These people seem very efficient," Teyla remarked.

"Efficient isn't quite the word I would choose," John said. "Freaky is more like it."

"We better figure out just when they do this, so when they're released we can avoid the madness," Ronon added.

John nodded, trying not to linger on the word 'released', and looked up at the tall, grey buildings that lined the streets. They seemed to quiver, as though the multitude of people that entered had filled each one to bursting. As they passed one of the two tall towers that had marked their arrival, John found himself looking back toward the gate. He stopped his team. "Hey guys? Hold on."

They followed his glance, then stared in astonishment. It hadn't occurred to them to look at the gate when they had come through, it was a familiar enough sight, and having the legit there with his party to greet them was a distraction. But now they looked, and the sight unnerved them.

The normally round, elegant gate, was squared.

Rodney took a few steps toward it, then hesitated and looked back at the legit. The older man was waiting patiently, not seeming to care in the slightest that the new arrivals were discomfited by the different gate. Rodney's eyes slid to Sheppard's. "They're all alike," he said. "Everywhere we go, the gates are the same. I mean, same basic structure, same mechanism . . ."

"Apparently not," Sheppard said, rather predictably. He started toward the gate, and felt a tug on his arm.

"Not now," John said without looking back. "You can examine it later."

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, and closed it in irritation. John nodded and gently pushed the man in front of him. He was damned curious as well, but now wasn't the time. Not with their guide steadily walking further and further away. But curious, yes. "Hey Rodney," he quipped quietly, "ever been down a rabbit hole?"

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"You will need these to access areas of importance." Legit Barail tossed small key cards onto the long table. They glistened in the streaming sunlight with a thin metallic sheen. "Be sure not to lose one. It will not be replaced. All codes will be changed, and all access will be lost to you. You will be forced to return through the gate. Is that understood?"

"It is, thank you." John reached out slowly and with a sweeping motion of his hand, pulled the cards toward him. He took one and passed the others to Rodney, who was sitting to his right. Rodney took one with a cautious frown and passed the other two to Teyla. She handed one to Ronon, who pocketed it without a second glance.

The legit smiled at them from across the table. "Now. I have sent for some refreshment, so let's settle down to business. You have heard of us through the Amari, is this so?"

John leaned forward and threaded his fingers together. He sent a quick glance to Teyla, who had also leaned forward and had assumed her negotiation persona. "Yes. We visited their world to help a friend, and he told us of this place. I believe you know of a man named Malachi?"

"I do."

"He was the one that recommended we come here."

Barial leaned back. "Ah, Malachi. It has been such a long time."

"How long?" Rodney asked, ignoring the pained look from Sheppard. He merely raised a brow. They both knew that Malachi was much, much older than his looks revealed.

"I first met Malachi in the Sapora system. He fell in love with a woman who was visiting one of the lesser planets, and moved back with her to her own world." He slowly reached out for a thin cigarette that sat on a metal dish, then reconsidered. "This life wasn't meant for him. He couldn't keep up the pace." John found that easy to believe.

"Everything here does seem to operate with a high level of efficiency," Teyla remarked cooly. "Perhaps you can tell us how you manage that?"

Barial smiled thinly. It took up the whole of his small, skeletal face. "First, I wish to understand why you are here before I reveal such to you. How am I to know you are not here to sabotage our designs, or steal what is ours to use against us?"

Somehow the thought of waging any sort of attack on this place was laughable. John likened it in his mind to attacking an armored car with a toothpick. He looked at Teyla, giving her the cue to continue, and she did with authority. "We are here in good faith, I assure you," she said firmly. "I can understand your concerns. I also know that you have talked with Dr. Elizabeth Weir extensively before our arrival, so having us tell you again what you already know to be true is not only wasting our time and yours, but might be regarded as an insult. We are not in the habit of repeating ourselves."

"Easy, Teyla," John said, hiding his surprise. Even Rodney had sent her a sharp look.

But Barial's smile grew. "Very good. Your Dr. Weir was right when she said she would send a shrewd negotiator in her place. I can see you will speak your mind fairly." Teyla merely raised her chin, allowing her eyes to fall to the table as she sat proudly. She didn't look at her team.

The legit stood and pressed a small back button. The far wall gave way to graphs and lights and maps that made no sense to the newcomers. "This is the Grid. This represents where our action excels, and it relays our agenda. This is but one of thousands, and merely shows what is happening within this sector of the city. The Block has direct access to all screens."

"And The Block would be . . .?" John asked.

Barial turned. "Our governing party."

"Of course."

He smiled again. "I am surprised your Dr. Weir didn't mention them."

John met his gaze evenly. "I ask for verification purposes only."

"I see." His eyes probed the colonel before returning to the screen. "The Block is the deciding factor in all circumstances. The Block is responsible for us, and it is through these screens that we are able to keep touch and keep everything moving."

Rodney shifted uncomfortably and leaned toward John. "I think these people have been assimilated," he muttered.

John cleared his throat over Rodney's comment. "I can see all this," he waved at the screen, "will take more explanation than we probably have time for," John said, "so why don't we cut to the chase. Are you going to help us, or not?"

The legit raised his chin. "You want to examine our technology, do you not?"

John leaned back, flipping his palms upwards in submission.

The legit nodded. "I suppose it would be easier to just show you around. I understand you are interested in the unfortunate past of our warfare?"

"I have it on good authority that you possess weapons which may be of help to us."

Again Barial smiled, and John was beginning to hate the sight of it. For some reason it set him on edge, like that fragile face before him would crack and reveal something nasty. "We have many that are out of commission. We also have many that have the power to destroy this world, as well as your own. Are you sure this is what you want?"

"It is."

"And may I ask why?" The legit smiled thinly. "You will excuse if my question seems rather personal, but we are talking about weapons. How am I to know you will not use our generosity against us?"

"There is an enemy. The Wraith. You have heard of them?" Teyla let her question linger.

"Ah, yes. I see. And you need a way to defend yourselves."

His nonchalant manner about the Wraith disturbed John. "We just want to see what you have," he responded slowly.

"Of course. And there is more." Barial looked at Rodney, who shifted.

"There is?" Rodney asked.

"There is always more."

"Oh. Yes. Well," Rodney rubbed his thumb against his forefinger nervously, "your technology is obviously more advanced than what we are accustomed to."

"It is."

Rodney said nothing more, just let the statement hang.

The legit stood. "I will show you what you wish to see, with the blessings of The Block. But first, I have been asked to show you to your rooms. You will stay here, we have living accommodations on the top floor for our honored guests."

The phrase 'honored guest' brought a touch of ease to John's face. "Now this sounds more like it," he said. "Lead the way."

Barial nodded and pressed the panel beside the door. It slid open gracefully and efficiently. "I have also taken the liberty of providing you with the uniforms of our district so that you will not be stopped and troubled by unnecessary questions. There are several sizes and styles to choose from, you may take your pick."

"Resistance is futile," Rodney muttered, and received a sharp elbow from John.

"Thank you," he said, giving Rodney a look that plainly said, 'shut up'. They boarded the elevator unit as a group, and proceeded to lose their stomachs as it shot to the sky.

The doors opened to a much brighter beige corridor, bookended by huge glass windows. The legit signaled for John's access card, and pushed it into the slot. "Another reason not to lose this," he said casually as he pushed the door open, "there is a lot of useful information in here."

"I'll keep that in mind," John said, taking the card back. He fully expected for the rest of the team to be lead down the hall, but they stayed. Feeling like he was letting people into his own private area, which was a place even he hadn't seen, he entered.

One side of the wall was made of windows overlooking the city. The room was beige like the corridor, surprisingly, not the constant grey that seemed to decorate the world. There was some art work on the walls, metallic sculptures of lines and angles that essentially mapped the framework of the city below them. And the sight below them . . . .

Rodney took once glance, and turned green. "Uh, just how high up are we?"

"This is the tallest building in the city. From here," the legit walked fluidly across the room and looked down, "you can play God."

"Or The Block," John supplied.

He turned slowly. "Exactly."

John walked over and tested another door, which was locked. Rodney was still obsessing over the height of the suites. "Does - does my room have the same view?" he asked the legit, a bit shakily.

"All rooms are identical."

"Oh." Rodney instantly paled and sank into a chair.

John grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him up. "Oh, go on, Rodney. Maybe there's a hot tub."

"Yeah?" It took only a moment for John's comment to process before the thought occurred to Rodney to check, now, and he hunted out John's bathroom area. He returned with a smile.

"What is this 'hot tub'?" Teyla asked, taking the pleasure on her teammate's face.

John refrained from telling her that he would be happy to demonstrate, and merely sent the legit a pointed look. The legit gave a slight bow in agreement and ushered the others out. "Hey," John called to their backs, "reassemble in one hour, right here."

As it turned out, John found he couldn't wait for an hour to do anything. He was restless, and knew his team was as well. The clothes that had been laid out for him were comfortable enough, considering they were all suits. He chose a dark, crisp cut that made him want to don midnight tinted sunglasses and strut alongside Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to the strains of 'Men in Black'. He gave the suit a tug, spiked his hair with deft precision, and examined himself in the mirror. Then he walked out and hesitated at the door next to his. There was no way to enter, not unless . . .he pulled out his card and studied it, then studied the odd markings on the door. He turned his card over, and swiped it through. The lock clicked open.

Security, be damned.

He walked in cautiously, not knowing which of his team members had shacked up beside him. Seeing a door that corresponded with his own, he decided the two separate rooms were actually a double room, with an adjoining door that was locked. That would explain the behavior of the card. There was a faint vibration beneath his feet that told him not only where the room's occupant was, but who it was. He walked into the bathroom without ceremony and scared the shit out of Rodney McKay.

"DO YOU MIND?" the man shrieked, and pulled his only towel into the swirling water, covering himself.

"Relax, we all know the effects water has on . . ." John drawled impishly.

"Oh, you are so juvenile!"

John just laughed as he sat on the edge of the hot tub. "Jesus Rodney, you just couldn't wait, could you?"

"Hey, with our track record off world, I figured I should do this while I was still in one piece, okay?" He glowered, trying to keep the towel from swirling away from his nether regions.

John just shook his head in amusement, taking in the broad frame and the angry eyes. "I could've been Teyla."

"I wouldn't be so lucky."

"Surprised you didn't offer to show her what a hot tub was. Then again, you always have been a greedy sort."

"Are you finished?"

John tapped his watch as he stood. "Ten minutes, you need to be dressed."

"I'm getting out! Would you?" He made an impatient gesture towards the door. And reappeared moments later wrapped in a soaked towel with a grumpy expression on his face.

John sighed and found the linen closet. "Here." He tossed a fresh towel to his friend, then eyed the suits. "You prefer black or grey?"

"Depends on the cut," a disembodied voice said. A moment later, Rodney walked out, this time wrapped in a dry-ish towel. He eyed the suits. "You haven't left yet."

"Been so long, I thought maybe you forgot how to put one of these things on." John pulled out a dark grey and held it up.

"I'd think Ronon would need the help, not me." Rodney snatched the suit from John and made the mistake of looking out of the huge window beside the bed, and swallowed heavily. He backed away. "Why'd they have to put the bed beside the window?"

"You kidding? That's a killer view!"

"Exactly. Move it for me, will ya?"

"What?"

"Colonel, please. I-I can't sleep over there."

John sighed and shifted the bed to the far wall. Fortunately the frame was on rollers. "Better?"

"Now get out so I can change."

John merely turned his back, and smiled at the disbelieving snort behind him. After a moment he heard the sound of one leg sliding quickly though crisp material. "Truth is, I wanted to talk with you before we all met up."

There was a hesitation, a faint rustle, and a surprised, "yeah?"

"Yeah." The rustle stopped, and John turned. "Huh. Never actually seen you in a suit before."

"Enjoy it while it lasts." Rodney said, tucking his shirt into his pants. The grey was just a shade darker than his SGA suit. The lines were crisp and the color set off the lightness of his eyes. "What?"

"Don't know." John stood before him, analyzing, then gave a nod of approval. "You look good."

"You think so?" Rodney straightened his collar and walked to the bathroom mirror.

"Yeah, I do." He picked up Rodney's jacket and helped him shrug it on. The shoulders were brushed down. Then he regarded their reflections, standing side by side. "Elizabeth needs to see us now."

"She'd never believe it." Rodney rolled his shoulders back. "Damn, we do look good, don't we?"

"That we do."

"Think I see why they all wear suits here." He rolled his shoulders again. "This feels good. Wonder what Ronon looks like?" The question was innocent enough. Dreads and all that, Rodney wasn't expecting much.

But then, this was Ronon. The thought had them exchanging glances and hurrying out of Rodney's room.

The result was, in a word, debonaire. It wasn't right for a man to clean up so well. His black suit accentuated his tall frame, his unruly dreads were neatly pulled back tight behind his head. His shoes were polished. Rodney looked down at his boots. "There were shoes?"

Ronon glanced down at Rodney's filthy boots, and raised an eyebrow.

"Be right back." He turned and was stopped short at Teyla's arrival.

Her skirt was just right. It was straight, not too short, not long, just above the knee. Her legs, her waist, her breasts, everything looked just as it should on a woman, and then some. The men would have been totally flummoxed if not for her tripping steps in her high heels.

She leaned and fell onto Rodney's arm, and pinned him with a glare. "Tell me you do not torture the females of your world in this manner."

"I . . ." he looked down at his boots and carefully handed her off with an apology.

"Only heels?" John asked.

"You look hot," Ronon said helpfully. Teyla responded by stripping her shoes from her feet and snapping the heels off. Then she broke the shanks of the shoes until they lay flat on the ground.

"Until I find a suitable substitute," she said, forcing her feet back in, and stormed into John's room.