NOTES: John-whump with extra helpings of team. Written for this year's SGA Big Bang challenge: write a story of at least 40,000 words in four months. This turned out to be some 60,000 words in the end, and is only the first story in a trilogy set. Unfortunately, with my interest in SGA fading, it's doubtful that the sequels will ever happen - and I have a great many projects to finish in the coming months. Still, I hope you enjoy this story, even if the sequels no longer take place.

The Astonishing Persistence Of Memory: Past Time

Part One

Chapter 1: The Man Without A Past

His limbs tingled beneath the steady ache marching through them.

The glowing blue reflections of the overhead light against the cold floor stung eyes too sensitive to the extremes of dark and light. Figures danced in the light, in the shadows, the merest filaments of shading in what should have been indeterminate gloom, unbearable brightness.

As he rolled over onto his side, he took a moment to examine his hands, the patched and spotty skin, the wrinkling folds of flesh. Aged forty to ninety in mere moments, the years had burned away like gas-soaked tissue. He'd have felt pain anyway, but the stress of the escape had probably added the near-constant effervescent shiver in his muscles and his bones.

Nagging joints protested as he tried to force his muscles to pull him up into a sitting position and only fell back, exhausted. He'd heard of 'strength flowing away like water' and had never known what it meant until now.

Mind over matter only counted when the matter was still in a condition to work.

His chest rose and fell, every inhalation a knife in lungs that no longer breathed but wheezed. Knees screamed on the hard floor, sudden fiery heat in his legs, and he trembled unbearably as he eased himself upright. He tottered - tottered for God's sake - towards the door, and even that much movement was an effort as more than just his knees protested.

He felt like an old man.

With the breath rasping through a throat constricted by age, he forced himself to admit it. He was an old man.

And he was still alive.

Why?

Around him, the cell glowed the indeterminate blue typical of the insides of Wraith hiveships. Outside the hiveship, it might be day or it might be night, or they might be sailing through space, en route to somewhere else.

Where?

"Hey!" He yelled. Or tried to. His voice croaked, vocal chords protesting, the sound shrinking as it came out, a hopeless quaver.

Still, it seemed he was heard, for shadows moved at the end of the corridor, coalescing into three tall figures that strode down the corridor towards him and the 'webbing' that locked them into the room.

Eyes that no longer held twenty-twenty vision squinted at the approaching figure picking out the green skin and the facial tattoos. And then the Wraith was there, just on the other side of the 'door', tilting its head as though it was considering a snack.

Maybe it was.

"I saved your life," he gritted out.

"And so I have spared yours."

He nearly choked as anger and rage and helplessness gave him energy and he lifted one hand with a fierceness that belied his exhaustion. "This is your idea of sparing my life?"

Thin lips tilted at one corner, a smile thin as a knife's blade. "We tend to take a longer view of things than humans."

"We had a deal." He might be old, but he wasn't senile - not yet. And they'd struck a bargain to get free, the two of them. Unnatural allies with a common enemy: the Genii who imprisoned them.

He'd thought that meant freedom.

"We did. And I will keep it. I promise you that."

It began to walk away, dismissing him. He gripped the web, holding on with what little energy he had left. "In your own time, I suppose."

"In my own way," said the Wraith without stopping, without turning around. "You would do no less, were it in your power."

--

Yan woke from dark dreams for the third night in a row, gasping for air in the quiet.

Beside him in the bed, Ivali shifted and he froze. He forced himself to lie back down again and take slow deep breaths, to steady the thunderous pounding of his heart in his ribcage.

Just another dream.

In the pre-dawn dark, the summer air was warm and dry, without the chilly moistness of his nightmares. In the stillness, the millrace bubbled away out on the edge of their yard, a faint ripple of water through the channel, while a night creature chirped into the silence.

Only his heart thundered on.

Yan climbed from the bed, easing himself out from between the sheets so as not to wake Ivali. The washbasin stood by the bed, and he poured water over his hands and pressed his fingers against his forehead to cool his skin down. His hair slicked back for a moment as he ran his hands through the strands, then sprang up in unruly refusal to be tamed. The linen shirt he'd discarded last night was still hung over the bedpost, and he pulled it over his head and went out into the early morning, moving quietly through the common room of the building.

The door closed behind him, shutting in the sleepers.

Yan stared up at the night sky and breathed the open air and felt a knot inside his belly loosen.

Beneath the blue arch of the heavens and the vivid spatter of stars across the sky, he felt like someone else.

Who, he didn't know.

The man he'd once been was gone, washed away in a stormy flood of the river that had dumped him on the banks close by the village. The children had found him there, clinging to the banks in a torn shirt and rotting trousers, barefoot, bareheaded, and cold.

Yan Stormborn remembered the cold and the pain. He remembered losing things more precious to him than his own life, and remembered gaining gifts he would have given his life to be able to reject.

He remembered darkness and light and a room in which light filtered, blue-green over a loosely-patterned floor.

There wasn't much else he recalled of his life before the river.

Given the tenor of his dreams, sometimes Yan thought it was better this way.

Down by the river, a flight of birds rose from where they'd spent their night. Their chirps echoed out across the quiet village, a waking call to the people sleeping, although here and there along the row of houses, Yan could see the faint glow of a firelight and knew that some people were already awake and preparing for the coming day.

Inside the house, the inhabitants would wake slowly, stretching themselves out as they rose to go out into the gardens or the fields, to prune and plant, sow and weed, and to repair what needed repairing.

Outside, the plaintive squawks of the birds faded as they winged their way over the hills and were gone.

The longing seized him, hard and sudden.

He had to get away.

Yan turned on his heel, moving quickly back into the house where he could already hear the murmur of people rising, and the creak of shifting beds. It wouldn't be long before the house was awake and busy, and he wanted to be away before the others rose and began asking him questions.

Their room was still and quiet, faintly scented with the aromatic woods that were used in the making of the bed, faintly stringent with the herbal bunches that hung from the rafters. But as he closed the door behind him, Ivali turned over in the bed. "Yan?"

"I'm going hunting," he said, crossing over to the chest that sat beneath the window and which held his hunting clothes.

That sat her up in the bed, the faint light of dawn bringing out the line of her jaw, the curve of her throat as she pushed back pale hair with one hand. "So early?"

"Early's the best time," he said, lightly. "I'll be back before night."

"Yan..."

He stopped at the plea in her voice. They'd been lovers for the last two moons - since she'd invited him to share her bed - and if their coming together had been from simple attraction at first, he'd come to care for her easy smile and quiet strength.

It wasn't easy, but then, Yan didn't think caring was ever 'easy'.

"You had the dreams again."

Ivali worried about him, he knew, fretted about his dreams, even as she accepted his troubles. Putting down the vest he'd taken up from the chest, he crossed over to sit on the bed and traced his fingers from her left temple down to her mouth.

"Yeah." Yan bent and kissed her lightly. Their lips lingered as their faces parted. "I need to get away for a day," he said. "And I promised I'd so some hunting for the harvesting week."

In the pale light coming in the window, he saw the faint sweep of light along lowered lashes, before they lifted again to look up at him, and her hand brushed his cheek. "Be careful."

Tempted for a moment to roll Ivali down into the bed, Yan settled for kissing her again - soft and sweet and clinging - and went to get dressed for his hunting trip.

By the time the sun rose over the horizon, slanting gold rays along the crest of the grey-faced mountain, he was on the track that lead out of the village, climbing higher.

As he reached the first and final crest before the forest edge, Yan turned back.

The village nestled on the side of a mountain, surrounded by foothills, and sloping down towards a wide plain where the slender stalks of tava uololo rippled in green-gold waves. Already, the villagers were moving out through the rows, checking the stalks, judging the ripeness of the crop. Before the two moons waxed full again, there'd be a harvest.

And for the harvest, they'd need meat, which was Yan's job.

Yan shouldered his light pack and his weapons, and prepared to head off into the forested hills for some hunting - and paused.

The wind rippling the tava stalks skimmed the village, swirling on the updraft towards the hills and forest, and bringing with it the drying scent of the bean-grain.

The hairs on Yan's head stirred in the wind, but what he saw before him wasn't mountain or plain or village.

They looked out across the fields her people had planted - tava beans, row upon row, and the musky scent that rose up to him was like a mix between wheaten bread and the beany stuff that came with Indian food.

"Looks like it'll be a good crop," he said, with no idea if that was true. What he knew about tava bean farming could be written on the back of his hand.

She laughed as one hand pushed back a lock of curling hair in absentminded grace. "Yes, it will. If the rains will wait until we have finished the mulching, then my people will have sufficient crops for themselves and that which we need in trade."

They turned from contemplation of the tava, heading back to the camp. "You know," he ventured as they walked through the scrubby brush of the mainland, "you could just ask us for the things you need. We'd loan them to you."

From the silence, he had a feeling he'd said something wrong, although he didn't know what. They were getting on well as team-mates. She integrated into the team and the expedition well enough that there were times he forgot she was truly 'alien' - in thought and history, if not in appearance.

It was moments like now that he remembered and wondered if he'd inadvertently insulted her.

It wasn't until they'd reached the end of the track that she turned to him, the sunlight gleaming gold across her hair, her lashes, her skin. "The situation is far from dire." Dark eyes held his in a request for understanding. "Until it is, there is no need to ask."

By which he understood that her people had their pride, too.

Something flashed in his eyes, the glint of sunlight off distant metal, and Yan's gaze focused on the far edge of the tava field. A small group of people in brown leather and woollen homespun stood on the small rise that led off towards the Ring of the Ancestors. As one of them turned, Yan saw the bright glint of shiny metal again - a bared knife - and tensed.

But several of the villagers were already approaching the newcomers, their easy stride and open welcome saying that these people were trusted.

Yan turned away, troubled, not only by his suspicions - there was no-one apart from the Wraith and their worshippers who would want to raid this village - but also by the sudden memory.

He'd never yet remembered his past outside his dreams. Why was he remembering now?

In the dappled sunlight of the forest, surrounded by the rustle and buzz of the smaller creatures of the woods, Yan set careful traps of wicker and wood, designed to capture the smaller creatures alive. His hands worked swiftly even as his thoughts lingered on the memory of the woman and the field.

Her voice flowed through his head, calm and soft, like a hand resting on a tense shoulder, squeezing gently in encouragement. But he couldn't see her face. He knew that she'd stood beside him at the top of the trail that wended its way down to the fields, that her lips had curved as she looked out at her people's work, that she'd thanked him for his offer, even as she rejected it - but her name and her face were blank.

Who was she?

In his dreams, there were other faces, other names, voices that spoke to him in tones that ranged from contemptuous to respectful, from light and laughing to serious and sombre. They called him by ranks and titles that he answered to, by a name that was and wasn't his, demanded things of him that he did his best to give.

And Yan never recalled anything more than impressions when he woke.

Out of everything else that blurred in his mind and his memories, this one woman had managed to stand out.

A steady crackle of leaves and twigs along the trail path below startled Yan from both trap and musings. Something was coming along the trail.

He unhooked his crossbow from his pack with stealthy fingers. Among his arsenal were a shortbow and arrows, as well as a plethora of knives, too, but the crossbow gave him one strong shot before he had to trust to the more chancy arrows. His position on the covered slope was good - something coming along the trail wasn't likely to see him since the browns and greys of his vest blended him into his surroundings. They might scent him on the trail, although he was now downwind of the noise.

The hireni buck trotted out onto the trail below him, bold and curious.

Yan took the shot.

Even as the buck fell, he had an arrow nocked in the shortbow, ready to take a second shot. His descent was as swift as it could be without breaking his neck, and the point of the arrow barely wavered. It had taken some time to accustom himself to the bow and the way the wind and the arrow's fletching affected its flight when he first began hunting, but now he was almost as good as any of the other hunters in the village who'd been doing this since they were old enough to hunt alone.

Still, when it came to the fierce, spring-loaded power of the crossbow, Yan was the best shot in the village.

The creature was in the last of its death throes when he reached it, and he unnocked the arrow and took out his knife.

Cleaning and dressing the kill was a messy, bloody business, but Yan worked quickly, and before the sun was at its zenith, he had the hide from the flesh and most of the meat cut from the bone.

Then he had a problem.

There was only so much he could carry, and he'd reached the limit of his pack. He'd planned on small game today, mostly birds and bouncers - the small, hopping creatures that burrowed deep and had good meat and good fur. A full hireni had not been in his calculations and he couldn't carry it all back at once. But if he left it out here, scavengers would take the meat, and in the heat, it would spoil.

Yan sat back on his heels, contemplated the half-buck, and narrowed his eyes.

Some time later, he was on the trail back to the village, his pack full of the heavy meat, his hands and knives washed and clean.

It seemed a longer walk back to the village than away from it, but somewhere in the memories he couldn't recall were other treks, harder and harsher than this one, carrying a heavier burden, and struggling beneath the weight of someone else's expectation. By comparison, this was easy.

At the top of the path that led along the ridge of the mountain towards the village, he saw the bustle of more people in the streets than was usual in the noonday and frowned a little. As he neared the village, a group of children scrambled out of the brush cover with squeaks and squeals, most of them paying him no attention, although a couple of the older ones stopped.

"Did you get anything from the hunt, Yan?" Hanya asked, her small sun-dark face looking up at him with interest.

"I got a hireni," he said, smiling. "I came back to get help with the rest of the meat, though."

Her eyes widened, even as one of the other boys begged, "Can we come?"

Yan shook his head as he came down the trail with them. "Not this time, I think. We seem to have guests in the village."

The boy - Tirel - shrugged, wrinkling his nose. "It's just some people who haven't been here in years."

"Not years," Hanya said, "Whole generations. And they haven't been here in generations, but Tobrinna and Duray have met them off-world before."

Which explained the greeting he'd seen from the top of the hill. Yan listened to the children bicker as they went down the mountains and followed them, trying to think of whom he could co-opt to help him bring back the meat. If there were to be guests in the village for dinner tonight, then they'd need the meat all the more.

Ivali came to meet him as he entered the village, holding out her hands to his. "You hunted well?"

"Brought down a hireni. I'll need to take someone back to get the rest of the meat - I left it in the river..."

"Later, Yan. There are guests in the village."

"So I heard. Look, give me enough time to get the stuff in the pack to the cellar..."

"You can meet the Athosians on your way," she said as they moved through the various clusters of people gathered in the streets. Guests to the village were rare enough that work tended to stop for the day - but for those few who didn't feel like being social.

Yan let Ivali lead him up the street - it was easier than protesting - and into the main square where trestle tables had been brought out, and the guest-feast was being arrayed. Duray and Tobrinna were seated with the five guests and the village leader, Erthana.

"And here with Ivali is Yan, our newest addition to the village. He's been out on the hunt this morning. Yan, these are the Athosians..."

Erthana trailed off as two of the Athosians - a man and a boy - rose to their feet, their expressions astonished.

"Colonel Sheppard!" The boy's voice cracked an octave in those two words - two words that meant nothing to Yan, although the Athosians' expressions suggested it should.

He was young, his face lengthening from a boy's round softness to a man's lean planes, perhaps fifteen or sixteen winters old. His gangly growth echoed the whipcord height of his father - the resemblance was strong enough to see - but his eyes, unlike his father's astonishment, shone with hero-worship.

And their faces meant nothing to him.

There was no resonant echo of memory from any of the quintet, not from the three who sat wide-eyed but silent, not from the two who stood looking at him with slowly-growing expressions of confusion.

Unlike the flashback on the hill, he felt no answering thread of pleasure or recognition from their faces or voices, no resonant memory, only what they gave him now.

What they gave him now was identity.

They recognised him. They had known the man he'd been.

Ivali's hand convulsed around his. He squeezed it gently in reassurance as he looked from man to boy, and the back to the man again.

"You know who I am. Who I was."

The Athosians looked at each other, trading gazes, trading confusion.

It was the man who spoke. "Yes."

Yan's eyes narrowed, "Tell me."

- TBC -

Notes: The plan is to post this in parts during the month of December, finishing up by Christmas. An update should come out every few days (amidst other stories, of course).