The six of them sat around the conference room table back in Atlantis. Elizabeth, John, Teyla, and Ronon had been subjected to brain scans and an overnight stay in the infirmary, but even the Scot had to admit that he could find no residual physical effects from their ordeal. After they'd been released, they left quickly, avoiding any attempts at conversation.
"From what I can tell," Rodney was saying, "it was some kind of memory repository." Once they'd reassured themselves that their friends were recovering, he and Carson had been traveling back and forth to the Cordarian village to do some more in-depth study. "At one point, their civilization was much larger. When it began to dwindle, the Cordarians started storing memories of vital skills."
"Why was this particular set of memories stored?" John asked, his voice harsh.
"And why did their civilization decline?" Elizabeth wanted to know.
Rodney looked uncomfortable. "I'm not sure what sent their civilization into a downturn," he admitted. "If I had to guess, I'd say it was due to repeated Wraith cullings over a short period of time. Apparently at one point, they'd relaxed their policy about euthanizing syndrome victims." He looked down at the table and sighed. "They became much more… draconian after that."
Carson took up the narrative. "These memories are mandatory "viewing" for anyone who would serve as a leader. A reminder that there is a human face to the tragedy."
"They thought it might help to convince us where words had failed," said Elizabeth.
"Aye. The probe was supposed to scan your minds and match you up with the person whose memories would be closest to your frame of reference. That's why each of you got the roles you did, and why the names seemed so similar to your own. "Leela's" and "Trevan's" memories were also available, if anyone had been compatible."
Despite himself, Rodney was fascinated. "It's incredible! We think it's Ancient, but…"
"But it didn't work as intended on the four of you," Carson said, glaring at Rodney for his overenthusiasm. "Your physiology is different enough from the Cordarians' that your own memories partially bled through. The probe tried to compensate by increasing the gain, which is why you all were a bit disoriented for a while afterward."
Teyla spoke up for the first time from where she was sitting next to the physician. "Carson, what exactly is the syndrome?" Her eyes were haunted, and she looked like she hadn't slept very much since they'd returned home.
Even as he answered, he reached over to squeeze her shoulder. "Based on everything we've learned over the last two years, I'd say that the Cordarians represent the initial stage of the mutation process that began when the Iratus bugs bit humans. And yes, Colonel, I know you hate those bugs. Lord knows I do, too."
From Teyla: "I… do not understand."
"When humans were first bitten, DNA exchange took place. That's how the Wraith eventually came about. But the evolution couldn't have happened overnight. There had to have been multiple intermediate stages; I think this is the initial one. You said it yourself – kids with the syndrome can't get nourishment from human food, they drain a small amount of life force so that people around them get sick, and they hear voices."
Now Teyla got it. "You're saying that the voices are actually the Wraith telepathic network."
"Exactly. I suspect the kids don't have any control over the ability because their telepathic ability is only rudimentary, unlike the Athosians with the gift."
"And when they do tap into the network…" John started to say.
"… the Wraith investigate to see what's happening." Rodney finished for him.
Elizabeth rubbed her temples as if her head was still hurting. "So the Cordarians think that the only way to stop these Wraith attacks is to get rid of the precipitating factors."
"Yes." Carson hesitated, then said softly. "The memories you experienced happened hundreds of years ago. You had no control over anything that you witnessed; it wasn't your fault." He looked at Teyla and Elizabeth, then squarely met John's gaze. "Colonel, you never had a son. Teyla and Elizabeth, you didn't actually kill anyone."
Nobody responded except Ronon. "Would the retrovirus help them?"
"No." The physician spoke firmly, without hesitation. "For one, the effects aren't permanent, as we unfortunately found out. Furthermore, the retrovirus was designed to work against full Wraith. The Cordarians don't have the same DNA."
"Damn it, there has to be something we can do!" John protested.
Carson exchanged a glance with Elizabeth. They knew that John liked children, but was there more going on than just that? "Lad, I will do everything that I possibly can to help these people. I don't like to see innocent children die, either."
"What are some of the options?" Elizabeth asked.
Beckett chose his words carefully. "I'd need to do a full genome mapping before I could do anything, since we have no idea what genes are involved. It would also be useful if I could examine a syndrome victim." Elizabeth heard what he didn't say – that he would likely have to attend some autopsies, as well. "In the end, I might be able to come up with a way to turn off the relevant genes. Or if not, then perhaps a method of prenatal genetic diagnosis. It's hard to say for sure."
"What should parents do if that test came back positive?" Elizabeth sighed and stood up. "Well, we obviously won't solve things overnight. Thank you, Carson. Rodney." She looked into John's face for a long moment and seemed about to say something else, but then turned on her heel and left.
John also turned to go, but Teyla stood between him and the door. She reached out to put a hand on his arm as he passed. "Colonel…?" she said, her voice trailing off.
He looked down at his diminutive teammate, then gently dislodged her hand. "I know, Teyla," he said roughly. "I just can't talk about it yet. Maybe someday, but not now." He gave the briefest of nods to the physician, then walked away in the opposite direction from Elizabeth.
"Are you okay, Teyla?" asked Carson.
"I will be, eventually," she said. "Thank you, Carson, for being here. I do not think I could do what you do. To have power over life and death like that… in some ways, you are stronger than I."
That night, she dreamed of the village. In many ways, it was like the one she grew up in. A small, close-knit community where everyone depended on everyone else for survival. A weakness in one was a weakness in all. But communities on Athos did not kill those they deemed dangerous. They did not… cull… their own people. That was the difference.
But what if they did? Would those few with the gift, the ability to sense the Wraith, have been weeded out? After all, perhaps they, too, might eventually lose control and draw the killers to them. Was it only chance that put her into a society that had allowed her to live to adulthood? In the dream she saw herself on the couch instead of Trevan.
She woke up screaming.
Elizabeth didn't dream that night, for the simple reason that she couldn't sleep. As a diplomat on Earth, she had seen worse horrors and witnessed worse suffering. The death she witnessed via the Cordarian memory device had been quick and peaceful. However, the person whose memories she had experienced had been responsible for it. On Earth, her own actions had never directly led to a killing.
Or had they, and she just didn't know it?
Elizabeth sat at her desk, holding a cup of coffee that had long since grown cold. She had been reading the same report without seeing it for the last three hours. She was deeply concerned about recent events, but especially worried about John. Ever since their return from the planet a week ago, he had been withdrawn and distant. She couldn't complain about his work since he fulfilled his duties as well as ever, but it was as if he had put up an impenetrable barrier between himself and his teammates, herself included.
Rodney was worried, too. He had told her that John was no longer hanging around the labs when not involved in anything else. He was no longer poking around just for the sake of teasing the physicist. And while Rodney would normally welcome the peace and quiet, this seemed downright unnatural. He even used the word "creepy," which was not typically in his vocabulary.
Elizabeth forced herself to put down her coffee and stand up. She walked down to the infirmary and stood outside Carson's door for a long time. She wasn't really sure what she was going to say to him; she only knew that she had to say something or else remain lost in her brooding.
"You know, it generally helps if I can see the person who wants to talk to me."
Elizabeth looked up with a start and realized that Carson had been sitting at his desk and watching her with not a little concern. He smiled and gestured for her to come into his office. "I know I can be a wee bit grumpy at times, but I hope I've never given you the impression that you have to be nervous about coming to see me. Rodney, maybe, but not you, love."
Feeling slightly sheepish, she entered his office and sat down, politely declining the offer of refreshment. "Now, tell me how I can help."
Briefly, Elizabeth related her thoughts about John. "But it isn't just him," she admitted. "I can't get it out of my mind, either. Over and over, I keep seeing the boy take his last breath and Josin – John! – saying that he hopes I'm haunted for the rest of my life." She gave a rueful little laugh. "It's certainly haunting me now."
Carson leaned back in his chair and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Do you think this is a side effect of the device?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly afraid.
The physician was quick to reassure her. "No, no. None of your scans gave me reason to believe that there was any structural change caused by the probe. Unfortunately, I think this is good old-fashioned post-traumatic stress." He shook his head bemusedly. "Although I think that the writers of the DSM meant for the "recurrent and intrusive memories" to be your own, not someone else's!"
She didn't know how to respond to that.
"I think this will fade with time," Carson said earnestly. "You were put in a horrible position, and you thought it was real. Of course it's going to be vivid. But you'll adapt, and it will probably make you a better leader. It's small consolation, I know, but…"
"I hope we can help them," Elizabeth said softly.
Carson smiled again, and this time it reached his eyes. "You're amazing. After what the Cordarians put you through, nobody would blame you for wanting to lock that planet out of the dialing computer."
She shook her head. "They took a great risk, tricking us that way. But it really drove home how desperate they are. How can I not respond to that?"
Much later that evening, Carson walked into the mess hall to get himself a late-night snack to go with the pot of tea he'd brewed in his lab. Normally the only people there at this hour were a few of the night-shift soldiers or Rodney, but tonight John was sitting by himself at a table next to one of the windows. The colonel was holding a cup of coffee and looking out over the ocean. He seemed a million miles away.
Carson walked to the serving counter, greeted the corporal on duty, and came away with two cheese danishes. (Not exactly nutritious, but more likely to tempt a hungry man.) He walked over to John's table, sat down, and had pushed one plate under his nose before the colonel finally reacted. "Not hungry, Doc," he said after a minute.
"Eat," Carson said firmly. "If I could surprise a black-ops trained pilot like that, you're obviously not at the top of your game."
John was startled into a brief chuckle. Then he picked up his fork and started to methodically demolish the pastry. "Satisfied?" he asked after he was finished.
"Not really," said the physician, "but this'll do for now. How long are you going to keep things bottled up inside? Until something explodes?"
The colonel's expression turned to stone. "Maybe," he said. "I'm certainly not going to talk about it to anyone else who went on the mission. And, no offense, Carson, but I really don't want to talk to you or Heightmeyer, either."
"No, of course not." Carson concentrated on his own danish for a few minutes and waited. "You can't out-stubborn a Scot," he finally pointed out.
"Maybe yes, maybe no." He ran a hand through his unruly hair and glared at his friend. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"
"Yes. Now tell me what's really bothering you."
"All right, you really want to hear it? Fine." John started to talk. He told it all in a flat tone of voice, leaving out none of the particulars. Even at the worst points, he ruthlessly delivered all the details. He described what it was like to watch someone you thought you trusted put down a member of your family like a dog. "All nice and tidy," he said bitterly.
"I know I said it before, but that wasn't really Elizabeth or Teyla. I don't think that's what they'd do in reality."
"No?" John almost whispered. "You yourself said that the probe matched people with "compatible" memories. It could have chosen to "cast" either of them as someone else, but it didn't. What does that tell you?"
Ah. Now he was beginning to understand what was eating at John. "It tells me that the ladies in question, when faced with a no-win situation, would act to maximize the number of people they could save. It's not something I would fault them for."
"I know you would," Carson said quietly. "It's what got you into trouble in Afghanistan." He held up a hand as John started to protest. "I'm not faulting your viewpoint, either. It's made you an incredibly effective commanding officer. But I think you need to consider both sides when a situation is this complicated."
"What about Taranis?" John challenged. He wasn't going to let it go. "I could have cut our losses after a few loads of people on the Daedalus. Instead we saved everyone."
The physician sat back and looked at John shrewdly. "This bothers you, doesn't it? That you might not always try to save as many as you could, especially if it puts your own people at risk?"
The colonel slammed down his fork and stood up. "Do me a favor. Don't try to psychoanalyze me, Carson. If I wanted that, I'd have gone to Heightmeyer. And before you get any ideas, it's not going to happen." He strode out of the mess hall without looking back.
Carson sat there in his wake. Given John's personality, he wondered if there were any other possible way the conversation could have gone. Probably not. "At least I got him to express an emotion!" he thought wryly.
John was tired. His conversation with the physician had left him feeling physically and emotionally drained, but his body still refused to relax. So he tried running a few laps around the city. That didn't work.
He tried sitting on his bed and strumming his guitar. That didn't work, either.
So finally he gave up and grabbed his gym bag. John had been avoiding the gym because he wasn't in the mood to deal with other people, but a workout was probably the only thing that would release enough tension to allow him to sleep. When he got there, he was pleased to find the place empty. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and began a series of stretching exercises that he'd been taught by a physical therapist after landing the wrong way on a parachute jump.
When he was done, his eye fell on a set of sticks that the Marines were using to train with Teyla. Thoughtfully, he picked one up and started to swing it. Then he picked up the other one, dropped into combat stance, and started to spar against an imaginary opponent. He twirled a stick and thrust it, following up with a low, cross-cutting sweep. With his other hand, he executed a series of short, sharp jabs, imagining the expression on Teyla's face if she saw that her pupil was actually practicing.
She'd been a member of his team for so long, and fit in so well, he forgot sometimes that she was also leader of her people. Had she ever been forced to do anything like what the real Tiana – or whatever the woman's name actually was – had been compelled to do? Not that he'd ever admit it, but Carson had probably been right when he pointed out that John had a tendency to put the welfare of his own people above people he didn't know. He didn't believe in "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" crap.
Truth be told, it did bother him a little. He wasn't callous or unfeeling, after all. But he felt that he was the only one he could rely on to keep his people safe, whether his people were his team or a non-existent son. And wasn't that just fucked-up! Heightmeyer would have a field day if she knew. She'd spout some psychobabble about fear of loss, or separation anxiety, or something like that.
Simply put, though, John just didn't think he could trust people. And it hurt every time he was proven right, especially if it involved people he thought he could have faith in. But to dwell on that for too long meant going crazy, so instead he continued to battle his invisible demons with his very tangible Athosian fighting sticks.
He was startled, but he managed to hang on to the sticks and straighten up out of his fighting crouch. He'd been so intent on his workout that he hadn't heard anyone else come into the gym. "Hi, Teyla," he said without turning around.
"Your form is improving," she said.
"Thanks." He waited, but she didn't say anything else. "Was there something you wanted?"
Teyla's voice sounded tired. "I was having some difficulty sleeping, so I thought to come here to center myself. I should have realized I wouldn't be the only one."
Now John turned to face her. There were dark circles under Teyla's eyes and she was paler than usual. From the looks of things, she was having as hard a time as he was. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I know the feeling." He hesitated, then gestured with one of the sticks. "Care to join me?"
In answer, she reached into her own bag and took out her sticks. They bowed to each other formally and settled into their typical stances. At John's nod, they began slowly circling each other. Teyla lunged first, and John neatly blocked it. She raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't comment on his skills. Then John lunged back, and for awhile neither of them concentrated on anything other than the battle.
The first time they slowed down, John asked, "Did Charin teach you to work with medicinal herbs, too?"
"She tried," was the reply. "Unfortunately, I was no better at recognizing useful plants than I was at cooking with them."
"Huh. Well, at least you did okay when learning first aid skills from Carson."
Teyla launched another series of blows, effectively ending the conversation for the moment. The next time they needed a breather, she said, "Dr. Beckett was a very good teacher, yes. Why do you ask?"
John shrugged as best he could while staying alert for an ambush. "Just curious," he said casually. "I was just trying to figure out why that probe matched us with those specific memories."
"I see. So have you?"
"Have I what?"
"Figured it out." A hint of anger had appeared in Teyla's voice. Suddenly, she feinted to the left, then sprang towards John's unprotected right side.
He managed to parry the attack. "I don't know," he drawled. "Guess it wasn't for your medical skills… or ethics."
Teyla froze and dropped the fighting sticks. "How can you say that, John?" her voice cracked.
John knew he shouldn't be doing this. His teammates certainly hadn't deliberately set out to hurt him; they hadn't had a choice in what the probe forced them to relive. And Teyla's presence in the gym tonight was evidence that she was also having trouble dealing with what had happened. Nevertheless, part of him wanted to lash out and make sure he wasn't the only one hurting. "The probe obviously decided you were compatible with someone who could kill an innocent child. What am I supposed to think?"
Stung, she snapped back. "As a leader, you learn that you are responsible for many other people besides your friends and family. Part of that is knowing that you can't save everyone. Perhaps there was a reason you were not matched with someone in command!"
John was beginning to have an odd sense of déjà vu. "And you alone decide who to save?"
"I've always done the best I can for my people. What else do you want from me?"
Thinking back to a night in a jumper waiting for a man named Orrin, John threw Teyla's own words back at her. "Too much, I fear."
Teyla looked like someone had slugged her in the gut. She walked over to the window seat and sat down heavily, putting her face in her hands. After several minutes, she whispered, "I think I finally understand what you meant that night."
John felt his anger begin to slip away. He sighed and sat down, too. "Yeah. Likewise."
"Do you know why I can't sleep?" she continued. "It's because I saw how they treated someone who could hear the Wraith. Obviously, I can identify with that."
John looked down at his hands. "There but for the grace of God..."
"Yes." Then, tensing as if waiting for the explosion, "And if those of us with the gift ever lose control of it, perhaps the Cordarians' solution is actually the kindest option."
She was expecting him to go ballistic, thought John. He couldn't blame her – that was certainly the impression he'd given. But it wasn't going to happen. "I don't see it that way," he said simply. "They've had thousands of years to deal with this. In all that time, they couldn't have figured out something else to do?"
She just shook her head. John realized he couldn't even begin to understand her dual perspective on recent events. One thing he was sure of, though. "I've learned a few things in this galaxy. One of them is that the only one you can absolutely count on to help your family is you. And I intend to do just that, right up to the minute I stop breathing."
Teyla smiled faintly, the first one he'd seen out of her all evening. No doubt she was remembering the awkward conversation they'd had on the Daedalus. Well, he meant it. His team was his family just as much as if they had been related by blood. Actually, given everything they'd gone through, perhaps the term "blood relative" needed to be redefined.
They sat there in silence for a long time. John still sensed a slight reticence about Teyla, and he also had a few issues left to work out. But they'd made a good start tonight. When she stood up to leave, he rose, too. Hesitantly, she reached for his shoulders and inclined her head, and he joined her in the Athosian greeting.
A good start.
Note about the title: This story was inspired in part by the Star Trek Next Generation episode "The Inner Light." Like Picard, the team will always remember this.
Thanks to all who reviewed. This was a difficult story to write, so the reviews are welcome.