Stevenson lunged forward, staff extended from a single-handed grip, and whipped the long wooden pole around in an arc low to the ground, attempting to catch his opponent's legs and drop him into the dirt.
Bra'tac nimbly jumped over the swing, coming down with an overhead shot that caught Stevenson on the left shoulder. He dropped to a knee from the force of the blow, but before he could roll clear of Bra'tac's reach he got the blunt end of the Master's staff driven into the center of his chest, knocking him backward and pinning him to the ground.
"You were not this easy to beat the last time we sparred," Bra'tac admonished. "Something troubles you, and you are distracted because of it."
Stevenson blew out a frustrated breath. "You've gotten faster since last time."
"True enough," Bra'tac said, removing the end of the training staff from Stevenson's chest and extending his hand to help him up. Stevenson took it and the old man pulled him up from the ground with ease. "But something clouds your mind, and as a result your reflexes are dulled."
Stevenson considered stonewalling him, but quickly relented and chose to seek his counsel. "I am having doubts as to whether I can accomplish my mission."
Bra'tac's eyes were locked on Stevenson's and did not waver. "What has transpired?"
"I found one of our sisters, preserved by the Nox."
The former Jaffa's eyes widened with surprise. "Alive, after all these years?"
"Yes. She was held in stasis, mere hours away from death, in the hopes that someday a cure would be found for the plague that wiped out our brethren."
"And she is still there?" Bra'tac asked, believing his consternation was tied to her existence, yet his inability to save her.
"No. With the help of the Nox and the Tok'ra, I was able to find a cure to the plague. We revived her, and I spent many hours talking to her as we fought to bring her back from the brink of death. When we had finally turned the tide and she was on the path back to health she was taken from me by the Shol'va that are our ascended brothers."
"Taken how?" Bra'tac asked in dismay.
"Ascended while I held her in my arms."
"She still lives then? Is that not something to be fortunate for? She has survived where many did not."
Stevenson glared at Bra'tac, but his anger wasn't directed at him. "They could have ascended her years ago. Instead, they left her there to rot until I saved her. They don't care what happens to her, they did it deliberately to spite me."
Bra'tac considered that for a moment. "How can you be sure of their intentions?"
"They didn't ascend her until I had succeeded in healing her. They had hours to do so after we brought her out of stasis. I don't think they would have cared if I'd failed and she'd died, they just wanted to make sure I didn't have access to her. When I succeeded and it was clear that she was going to live they ascended her to deny her to me."
"And now you are wondering whether or not they will interfere with your plans in the future?"
"They are the ones who created the repository of knowledge for this very purpose," Stevenson complained. "Why then would they deliberately work against me?"
"If my understanding is correct, a great deal of time has passed since the Alterrans first ascended to escape the plague. In my experience, I have come to see many people change over time, not all for the better." Bra'tac placed his right hand on Stevenson's shoulder and stared him in the eye. "I know very little of the ways of ascended beings. They are truly an enigma to me. But if they were once like us, then their actions can be anticipated. If they wanted you dead, you would be dead already. They have the power to kill any one of us, if my understanding is correct."
Stevenson nodded in agreement, but said nothing.
"Then their intention is something less than that of a true enemy. What their reasoning is, I cannot know, but what they have not done is as telling as what they have done. They did not stop you, they only took her from you. Now, what does this suggest?"
Stevenson considered his question carefully. "Her presence altered the balance somehow. If I have all the knowledge and abilities of the Alterra, then her presence would have been redundant, and added nothing. She must have been different somehow."
Bra'tac nodded. "They gave you the ability to transform others into Alterra, so it is not numbers they are concerned with. If it were they would have prevented my transformation. They have not done so, so we must assume that our sister was different somehow."
Stevenson shook his head in bewilderment. "I cannot see how."
"Perhaps she knew something," Bra'tac offered. "Something you were not supposed to know. Regardless, it seems they do not want to stop your actions."
"They did not stop me from talking to her," Stevenson countered. "We discussed many things."
"What was her name?" Bra'tac asked.
"Did you discuss your mission with her?"
"She already knew of it."
Bra'tac glanced down at the ground in thought. "Could she have been a threat to them somehow?"
"Not that I know of. Why do you ask?"
"If they are no longer flesh and blood, and have gained considerable power and knowledge in the transformation…could they not also have gained a disadvantage? Perhaps they ascended her, made her one of them, so that she would not pose a threat."
"Why then, would they want my mission to continue?"
"If she was a threat to them, and you are not, then they may simply not care what you do."
"How then can I continue, not knowing when I will become a threat to them and when or if they will step in to either ascend me or stop me?"
"You cannot know. Nor can you assume that is their reasoning. I merely mention it as a possibility. The more options you consider, the more likely you will be to recognize the truth if you ever come across a clue to their true motives."
"So, in the mean time I do what? Continue with my mission or forestall it looking for answers that I may never find?"
"Ultimately," Bra'tac answered with the benefit of experience, "you will encounter things you cannot control. You must then decide not the outcome, but what path you will walk, however long or short it may be."
Stevenson reached up and placed his hand on the elbow of Bra'tac's outstretched arm in a gesture of thanks. "And what advice would you have when potentially facing an invincible opponent."
"If possible, find a means of defense. No one is invincible, despite appearances to the contrary. And if you find yourself inadequate to the task…seek out a more powerful ally."
Stevenson's head came up suddenly, and Bra'tac sensed his emotions shift. "What is it?" he asked.
"Something I had overlooked," Stevenson answered cryptically.
"Is it something you must attend to now?"
"No," he answered, guessing at his meaning.
"Then might I suggest we resume your training with a clear mind. Your strength and speed as assets over weaker opponents…they will not save you against an even match. Even I, with my incomplete transformation, have bettered you every time we have sparred. You must learn technique, you must learn skill, and you must learn what it is to be a warrior."
"And the only way to do that," Stevenson answered for him, "is with time and training. Lots and lots of training."
Bra'tac smiled. "Indeed, my friend. Let us continue," he said, retrieving his weapon from the ground.
Stevenson extended a hand and his staff lept up from the ground into his grip. He quickly swung it up and around into a guard position and waited for Bra'tac to strike as he cleared his mind of all thoughts of the Ascended Empire and the Shol'va that were his ascended brothers and sisters.
"What do you mean, 'you don't feel right?'" Sheppard asked Teyla.
"Being a mother doesn't feel like I thought it would," she said in a loud whisper so that others in the commissary wouldn't hear. "I find myself putting the interests of my son over the lives of others that I could be saving from the Wraith."
"He's your kid," Sheppard emphasized, "he's gotta take priority."
"But to what point?" Teyla asked emphatically. "How many lives is a few hours with my son worth? That galaxy is still at the mercy of the Wraith, how do I justify abandoning it to spend time raising my son?"
Sheppard glanced around at the nearby tables then leaned in closer towards Teyla on the opposite side of their table. "Where is all this coming from? You've saved countless lives already. You don't owe anyone anything. Your son is going to need you by his side growing up. That's where your responsibility lies."
Teyla bit back a comment amidst a small tear fighting to form inside her left eye. "Many Athosians live sedentary lives. They are passive, rarely leaving the village or their family unit for more than a few days. I am friends with several of them, and they are good people who will fight to defend themselves and their fellow Athosians if they have to, but they are not capable of leaving their people, their village, and going off to help others. They have ties, bonds that keep them linked to their family and friends. Those bonds give them great strength and a commonality that has helped them survive beneath the constant threat of culling by the Wraith, but it has also created limitations. It forces them to live very contained, defined lives. That's not the person I am, John. And it's not the person I want to be, yet I seem to be becoming her none the less. I feel trapped…helpless. I know what I need to do, but I can't without abandoning my son, which is unacceptable."
"Whoa, hold on," Sheppard said, holding up his hand for her to stop, which she did, swiping away a few new tears at the same time. "What is it that you need to do but can't?"
"Fight the Wraith without reservation. Train day and night to strengthen myself and become as potent a weapon as possible to be used against them. I am a fighter, John. In the past we didn't stand a chance against the Wraith. Now things have changed. First when I met you, and now with the hope that Stevenson brings. I joined your team, knowing that I was serving my people best by fighting the Wraith to one day free the Athosians from the threat of culling once and for all. Many of my people disagreed with my actions, believing that I was betraying them, abandoning them. I had doubts myself, but my purpose was always clear."
"Now, I have a son to consider. And I hate myself for it. I'm compromising my integrity to meet his needs. I don't go on some missions because I don't have someone to look after him. So perhaps someone is fed upon by the Wraith that I could have saved, and I didn't because of something as unimportant as watching over a child. Torren would have lived if I had just left him alone in my room. Is his comfort really worth the life of another person?"
"Why are you thinking like this?" Sheppard pleaded with her. "This is nonsense."
"No it's not," Teyla countered. "It's true. And I'm stuck. I don't have a choice. I'm a mother and that's not something I can resign from. The part of me that won't abandon someone to their death at the hands of the Wraith is the same part that won't abandon my son. I have to choose between the two. I have to sacrifice someone, and that appalls me. I don't wish Torren ill, I love him deeply, but if I had to do it over again I would not choose to have a child."
Sheppard was left speechless, and reached out to take Teyla's hand sympathetically as he searched for the right words…any words to say. As it was, he was interrupted before he could say anything more.
"Teyla, are you alright?" Stevenson asked.
"Yes, I'm fine," she said, burying her emotion deep inside where none could see. Stevenson could sense her mood, though, with his telepathy. Out of respect for her he didn't press the issue. Instead he turned to Sheppard.
"Mission…you and you only," he said in his incomplete English.
Sheppard raised his eyebrows skeptically. "You're actually asking me to go on a mission?"
"Yes," Stevenson answered simply.
"Well, that's a first. I've had to beg and annoy twice as much as Rodney ever did to go on any mission with you. What changed?"
"I need a pilot. You are best we have."
Sheppard smiled egotistically. "Well, I can't argue with that," he said, belatedly remembering Teyla. He glanced over at her apologetically.
"Go," she said evenly. "He rarely asks. Have fun," she said, forcing a smile.
Sheppard raised an eyebrow at her, but her expression didn't budge, so he shrugged and jumped out of his seat. "Where are we going?" he asked Stevenson eagerly.
Sheppard paled. "You mean…Earth?"
Stevenson nodded. "Home."