The puddlejumper emerged from the stargate and flew leisurely over the planet's surface below. From what John could see on the forward screen, it looked like a verdant world. There was one large landmass that was covered in green and a few small islands in a turquoise ocean. It seemed quite inviting.
Elizabeth sat next to John in the co-pilot's seat, watching the screen in front of her with an eager expression on her face. He knew she enjoyed going offworld, even though she didn't get a chance to do it very often. Ronon and Teyla were in the back of the jumper, both seemingly dozing but capable of instant alertness at the drop of a hat.
John stretched languidly and put his arms behind his head. "Remind me again about what these people have that we want?"
Elizabeth glanced sidelong at him with a small smile. "You'd know if you had been at the briefing."
"Hey, blame Beckett, not me! He wouldn't let me out of the infirmary any sooner, and Rodney's still grounded."
"And of course you didn't delay a bit just to miss a boring staff meeting." She bit back a laugh at John's wounded-puppy expression. "Oh, all right. The Cordarians may have access to Ancient technology. Ladon, of all people, told me about it during our last conversation." In order to maintain their somewhat uneasy alliance, the two leaders had instituted a monthly radio dialogue.
"And you trust him?" John asked incredulously. "I mean, I know they're supposed to be our friends now, but…"
She snorted. "Of course not. However, we do have an understanding." Weir now had a slightly menacing look on her face. "I told him in no uncertain terms that if, for some reason, we don't come back in the same condition as when we left, Major Lorne has orders to cut off all further medical assistance to the Genii."
"Ah," the colonel said after a minute, getting it. "Carson's still treating his sister, isn't he?"
Elizabeth nodded. "She's doing quite well, from what I understand, but needs long-term chemotherapy in order to stay well. I doubt Ladon will jeopardize that."
"Good for you," John said. He turned his attention back to flying for a few minutes, as they were nearing their destination. "So what kind of tech did Ladon say they had?" he finally asked after putting the jumper on autopilot.
"He wasn't actually sure," Elizabeth replied. "My guess is that, despite kidnapping Lorne and his team for samples, his gene therapy doesn't work very well. He still needs us in order to operate Ancient equipment with any degree of accuracy." She shrugged and smiled faintly. "I imagine he isn't too pleased about that."
"No, I wouldn't think so. Well, whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough. Our ETA is approximately five minutes; time to put on your game face."
Elizabeth's eyes sparkled with anticipation.
She woke up as dawn was breaking, started to get dressed, then froze. For a minute, nothing in her bedroom looked familiar to her. She glanced at the coarse woolen sweater that was neatly folded on a chair, thinking that it should instead be a red silk blouse. She also wanted to find a small clip that fit neatly behind her right ear, even though nothing in her possession even remotely resembled an object like that.
The strange sensation of wrongness only lasted a moment, though. Then it was gone, and she was firmly in control again. She was Lyssa, Chief Mediator of her people, and it wouldn't do to be seen as weak or confused.
She stepped outside her small cottage to watch as the village slowly stirred to life. A regiment of the Guard marched by on the brick road in front of her, and they snapped to attention as they saw who was looking. Their Commander, a broad-shouldered man named Ranulf Dar, grinned cheekily at her as he passed. She, in turn, pretended to frown at his hair, which was arranged in ropes in a very unorthodox fashion. It was almost a daily ritual for them.
As the column of soldiers was marching out of her sight, her eye fell on one of the men bringing up the rear. She couldn't recall seeing him before, but he seemed somehow familiar.. His hair was also unconventional – what was it with the military these days? – and there was an intensity about him that was vaguely unsettling. His eyes met hers as he passed by, and for a split second she again felt the strange sensation she'd had earlier.
"John, you can't!"
"I have to, and you know it."
Then the soldiers were gone, and she went back inside her cottage to start the day's business. She expected her first visitor to be Tiana, the village herbalist. The woman was a skilled healer; there were few maladies that did not respond to her concoctions of herbs or roots. "Only the one that matters most," the mediator thought bitterly.
It was late in the afternoon before the Commander finally dismissed them. Normally Josin would be the first into the barracks shower, eager to wash off the day's grime and return home. Not today, though. He knew his wife, Leela, wanted to talk to him about their son, and he suspected it wasn't going to be a conversation he wanted to have.
His uncharacteristic reticence hadn't gone unnoticed. As Josin was lacing up his shirt, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. "You all right?" Ranulf rumbled. He sounded gruff, but the concern in his eyes belied his brusqueness.
Josin forced himself to sound casual. "Yeah, boss, I'm good. Just a little preoccupied with getting stuff ready for winter." He busied himself with checking the spikiness of his hair.
The Commander seemed to accept that without question. "I know what you mean. Marna and I are really busting our humps to seal all the cracks in our house. I think it's gonna be a cold one!" He grinned and changed the subject. "How's that boy of yours? Is he going to be joining his dad in the Guard anytime soon?"
If Ranulf noticed that Josin's smile became a little forced, he didn't comment on it. Josin just shrugged. "He doesn't show signs of having made up his mind about anything yet." Trevan was thirteen, an age where most of his friends were choosing their life paths. Josin hadn't pushed him, figuring that the boy would make his decision at his own time. In retrospect, though, he wondered if this was the beginning of the signs that something was wrong.
Ranulf shrugged. "That happens sometimes. Well, he's welcome here if he wants it." Josin nodded and turned to leave, not noticing the shrewd look the Commander was shooting at his back.
A wave of dizziness hit him without warning as he made his way through the town, and he almost stumbled. For a minute, it seemed as if he were somewhere else. His vision blurred, but out of the corner of his eye he could see a city of metal and glass. He was flying over it, then swooping down to skim above the water that surrounded it. The city was beautiful, and it called to him.
Then it was gone, and he was once again on a winding path near the edge of the village. He was so lost in thought that he almost walked right past his house. It took his son's yell to bring him out of his reverie. "Hey, Dad! You live over here, remember?" Trevan smirked at him from where he was sitting on the front steps.
In spite of himself, Josin found himself returning Trevan's grin. "Wise guy." He ruffled his son's hair as he walked past him into the house. "Have pity on your old man. His mind isn't as sharp as it used to be."
Trevan snorted. "Yeah, right." He jumped up and followed Josin inside. "Hey, Mom! Dad's home. Now can we eat? I'm starved!" Despite the obvious jest in his son's words, Josin thought with a shock that Trevan looked much thinner than normal.
Leela emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. "Yes, now we can eat – after you set the table." She pretended to snap the towel at him. "Git!" With a mock cry of fright, Trevan dodged the towel and ran past his mother into the kitchen. When she was sure the boy wasn't watching, Leela fixed her husband with a look that was equal parts fear and despair.
Josin's heart sank.
Later, after Trevan had gone to bed, the two of them sat in the kitchen. "We can't pretend anymore," Leela said in a voice that sounded close to tears.
"We don't know for sure that he has the syndrome," Josin said, hoping that he sounded confident.
"What else could it be? He's always hungry and always eating, but he's still losing weight."
"Is anyone who came into contact with him sick?" That was usually the clincher.
"Not yet," Leela whispered.
Josin lowered his voice. "There haven't been any mood swings. He hasn't become withdrawn or listless," he said, but he was thinking of a boy who was uninterested in planning for the future. He sighed.
Leela heard it. "What are we going to do?" she cried softly. "They'll kill him!"
"I don't know," Josin whispered. "I just don't know."
That night, he dreamt of the city in the sea. He could see more detail this time, like the shape of the spires and the pattern of lights. Oddly enough, the only person he saw was someone who appeared to be Lyssa, dressed in an unfamiliar uniform. He couldn't have said why, but it seemed to him that both of them truly belonged there.
Tiana made her way towards the marketplace, hoping to get her business done quickly. She was due to meet with a newly-pregnant woman at her home, and was going to bring her several herbs to add to her diet to ensure a healthy baby. Some she had stored, but others she needed to buy fresh.
Her honey-colored hair was held back by a headband, but enough had escaped to obscure her vision when the wind blew. One particularly heavy gust almost knocked her off her feet, and it was only the quick action of someone standing behind her that prevented her from sprawling on the ground. Tiana turned to face her rescuer with a smile. It was a gangling youth on the verge of beginning the transition to manhood. "Hello, Trevan. Thank you for helping me to avoid being knocked off my feet!"
Trevan grinned shyly back at her and ducked his head. "You're welcome, ma'am. Glad to help."
"I haven't seen you in quite some time, young man. What have you been up to?"
"I've been helping my mom while my dad's on patrol," Trevan said. Leela was responsible for managing the finances of the town, and he helped her keep the books. "I like trying to make all the numbers add up."
Tiana was amused. Trevan was just like his father in many ways. Although Josin was a soldier first and foremost, he also enjoyed performing mathematical calculations and playing with numbers. "Well, I suppose you come by it honestly… are you all right?" The boy's face had scrunched up into an expression of pain, and he held a hand protectively over his belly.
Before Tiana could do or say anything else, Leela rushed up to her son. For an instant, there was an expression of animal fright in her eyes, but it was gone almost as soon as it had appeared. "Trev?" she whispered.
The boy straightened up and his face relaxed. "I'm fine, Mom. Really. Don't worry – it was probably something I ate for lunch."
"Are you sure?"
Trevan rolled his eyes in typical teenager fashion. "Yes, I'm sure. We should go, or we're never going to finish Commander Dar's account by tomorrow."
Leela stole a nervous glance at Tiana. "All right, then." She nodded to the healer. "Pleasant day to you."
"Thank you," replied Tiana. To Trevan, she said, "Please come see me if anything like that happens again. I have several things that can ease pain in the stomach." The boy smiled as he and his mother turned to leave.
Tiana watched them go, a horrible suspicion beginning to form in her mind. She prayed that she was wrong, because children with the syndrome were never allowed to live. She shuddered, and, unbidden, a vision came into her mind.
A man with compassionate blue eyes dressed in white, radiating fierce determination. "You have to understand, Teyla, that as a doctor I can't just stand by here and let her die. I took an oath to preserve life."
… Gasping, she shook herself free. She felt like she should know the man, that he was somehow a friend of hers. But who was Teyla?
Ranulf sat in a cross-legged position on the floor of the barracks. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was deep and even. Still, he was immediately aware of Tiana as she entered, even though she barely made a sound. His sense of hearing was almost preternaturally strong and was accompanied by an equally acute olfactory sense. He was thus able to identify her by the lingering smell of the herbs she worked with.
Ranulf did not acknowledge Tiana's presence at first. Eyes closed, he continued with his meditation. Only when he had achieved his inner focus did he finally look up at her and nod. "Healer," he said gruffly.
She returned his glance with one of wry amusement. "Hello to you, too, 'Commander.' Still engaging in your battle rituals?"
"Always." Ranulf had come to the village from no one knew where, about twenty years previously. He didn't speak much of his past, but it was obvious that his life had been one of battles and strife.
"I came to talk to you about Josin. Has he been acting any different lately?"
Ranulf thought for a minute. When it came right down to it, how well did he know the man?
"Is that an order, Sheppard?"
"I am beat up, tied up, and couldn't order a pizza right now if I wanted to. But if you need it to be, yeah – it's an order."
Ranulf blinked. Where had that come from? In the brief vision, he had seen himself, Josin, Tiana, and someone else he didn't know. All of them were in unfamiliar uniforms, and their roles were different. He seemed to be under Josin's – no, Sheppard's – command, and she was acting like a warrior instead of a healer.
All he said, though, was, "Josin has seemed a bit preoccupied lately, but otherwise nothing's different. Why?"
She shook her head. "I'm not sure. I ran into Trevan and Leela earlier today, and she appeared to be worried about something. So I wondered if Josin was acting similarly."
"Hmm. Well, like I said, I hadn't really noticed, but I wasn't specifically looking, either. I'll keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, if you like."
"Thank you," said Tiana. And although she didn't elaborate any further, Ranulf knew what she had to be thinking. For all of their sakes, he prayed that she was wrong.
After Tiana had gone, Ranulf settled back into his meditation pose and closed his eyes again. As the silence descended, more strange scenes swam through his consciousness.
Tiana was in the first one, as was another healer. "I understand you have some sort of a transmitter in your back. Well, have a seat. Off with your shirt, let's have a look." Ranulf instinctively growled at the mention of the transmitter, although he couldn't say why.
The scene shifted. He, Tiana, Lyssa, and Josin were in some sort of flying craft. Lyssa and Josin were in the front two seats, talking. "The Cordarians may have access to Ancient technology. Ladon, of all people, told me about it during our last conversation," Lyssa said.
Another shift. The four of them were being guided around the Cordarian village by a pleasant young woman. She was explaining to Lyssa and Josin about the Cordarians' desire to trade for medical technology. Apparently another group of traders called the Genii had come to the village but had not had anything of use to offer. "A terrible sickness afflicts some of our children, and we're looking for a way to stop it."
Ranulf shuddered as he came back to himself. The syndrome – that was the proverbial elephant in the corner. (How did he know that phrase?) Kids who had it appeared perfectly normal at first. Then, when they approached puberty, the trouble started. First they began to lose weight, even though they still ate with healthy appetites. Then came the mood changes – apathy, depression, and bursts of anger. What distinguished the syndrome from the ordinary changes of adolescence were the hallucinations and the sudden sickening of random people around the child.
The Wraith were never far behind after that.