That Which is Always Present

by Domenika Marzione

one

In the first year of Atlantis, Elizabeth had always stopped what she was doing the moment the alarm sounded for an incoming wormhole. It was either one of their two off-world teams (in which case they brought news or injured teammates) or it was trouble (in which case she wanted to know first).

Most of the way through her second year of Atlantis, however, Elizabeth could almost tune out the loud alarm. It could be announcing many things -- one of them still (and always) trouble -- but most of the time it was just marines returning from exercises or missions, off-world teams, or mainlanders returning from a trading trip. It was with both pride and a little sadness that she accepted that they'd reached the point where they were very much like the rest of Pegasus -- the stargate was more vehicle of transportation than vehicle of wonder.

As such, she didn't even pause in her typing as the alarm rang out or when it ceased. They were opening a wormhole to Earth tomorrow and they should at least have some commentary and analysis to send back; the duty fell to her since it didn't look like John was going to have anything else ready beyond the usual mission reports and materiel requests. Medical and Science had already submitted their data packets; it was going to be a light week judging by the file sizes.

"What the fuck is going on here?"

She startled at the loud voice echoing up from the gate room. The curiously silent gate room.

"Ma'am?" Lieutenant Eriksson's voice came through her earpiece. If she leaned forward, she could see the balcony where the gate room officers stood. Eriksson was looking back at her, confusion visible from even this distance. "I think you'd better come out here."

She stood and came around her desk, not running but only barely. She could see the stargate platform from the catwalk and when she looked down, she froze.

"Doctor Weir." Colonel Sumner was looking up at her, surrounded by Lieutenant Ford, Sergeant Markham, and a Pegasus native she didn't recognize. "Do you mind telling me what's going on?"

She took a deep breath so as to speak, but she was having a hard time finding the words. What did you say when the dead came back to life?

Instead, she walked slowly through the control room to the stairs, pausing en route to tell Eriksson to get Rodney and Major Lorne to the gate room immediately and to recall Colonel Sheppard. John was on the mainland with Teyla and Ronon and she very much wished he were here. Even though the sight would shake him deeply, he'd play the stoic, like always, and from his example she'd be able to fake it, too.

"Laganzo, put that thing down unless you intend to shoot me with it," Sumner growled at one of the marines holding their rifles on the newly arrived group. "And where the hell did the rest of you come from?"

She came to the bottom of the steps and Laganzo and one of the other marines shifted over so as to better protect her from Sumner and his... team. Ford and Markham were both looking around, clearly confused, and it made her ache a little to see them. Sumner, too, of course, but Markham had died following her orders and Ford... Aiden. Lost to them before he was lost for good.

"I'm sorry, Colonel," she said, meeting his eyes. He was annoyed and confused; the irritation didn't quite cover up the fact that he, too, knew that something was very wrong. "But I think that you know that you're not where you're supposed to be. And, under the circumstances, we must take precautions."

"Are we not in Atlantis?" the Pegasus native asked. Elizabeth suspected that he was Athosian from the dress and the probability that their Atlantis expedition came into contact with Athos.

"We're in Atlantis, Toran," Ford replied. "Just not our Atlantis."

"Is that so?" Sumner asked, not really making it a question. He had been looking around, but he turned back to face Elizabeth. "Then I'm guessing by the dumb-mute routine of your lieutenant up there that you really weren't expecting to see some of us again."

In the time that she'd worked with him, she'd seen how quick a thinker he had been. She'd chosen him for the expedition because of his smarts as well as his service record. She shook her head, biting her lower lip.

"Oh my god." Rodney was standing just inside the north door to the gate room, Major Lorne right behind him looking similarly stunned.

"Doctor McKay," Sumner said ruefully, turning to look.

"Pegasus can't have a quantum mirror," Rodney half-muttered to himself, starting to walk again after Lorne dragged him by the elbow. He shook off Lorne's hand. "I suppose it could, but could it function as a stargate? And how do we know that you aren't evil clones sent by the Wraith or something? Or from that mist planet. They were all in our heads; they'd know who you were. They were using outdated memories anyway, so this could be--"

"Rodney?" Elizabeth cut him off. "Colonel, this is Major Lorne, our battalion executive officer."

"Good to meet you, sir," Lorne said.

"Battalion?" Sumner, Ford, and Markham said almost in harmony.

"We're definitely not in Kansas anymore," Ford murmured. Rodney was staring at him, Elizabeth realized, and her heart broke a little more for his sake.

Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth gestured toward the north door. "As is probably the rule in your Atlantis, it's standard for all off-world travelers to be medically cleared before they enter the city proper. If I could ask you gentlemen to accompany us to the medical suites?"

"And we'll have to ask for your weapons as well," Lorne added. "All of them."

Sumner looked at her, an expression she couldn't read on his face, but nodded. He unclipped his P-90 and handed it to a waiting marine, then removed his sidearm and finally his knife. The others did the same. Lieutenant Eriksson had recovered from his shock and recalled some of his marines to the gate room; Elizabeth could see an escort waiting for them at the north doorway.

The walk to the medical suites was silent and more than a little surreal. The quartet understood that they were under suspicion, accepting the armed escort with reluctant aplomb. They were examining everything that they passed, looking for differences or clues; Elizabeth was glad that the marines had cleared the hallway so that there were no more surprised faces. She was a little disappointed in herself; after encountering her own alternate, she felt that she should be less thrown by the appearance of other versions of her expedition. If that's what they were, of course. Rodney could be right; they could be here with malice in mind. But something in Sumner's bearing, something in all of their reactions, told her that this was no malevolent subterfuge.

Elizabeth was relieved to see Nancy Clayton and Bill Metzinger waiting in the off-world exam room; Carson or any of the other doctors from the first year might not have reacted any better than Rodney had, especially to Ford. As it was, Nancy and Bill was surprised by the Atlantis uniforms on the three marines and she gave Elizabeth a questioning look before turning back to her new charges.

"Welcome to Atlantis, gentlemen," Clayton said, turning to the quartet. "I'm Doctor Clayton and this is Doctor Metzinger and we'll need to give you fellows a look-see before we let you run around in the city. Staff Sergeant, if you could please take your men outside; it's a little cramped in here."

The escort leader looked at Lorne, who nodded, and then gestured to his men for them to follow him outside. The door stayed open and the marines stayed in sight, hands on their rifles.

Rodney came over to where Elizabeth was standing near Lorne.

"Do you know how this could have happened?" she asked him.

Rodney gave her a distracted shake of his head. "I don't even know what 'this' is. Assuming that they're not clones or shapeshifters or we're not all in some virtual reality, of course. We're going to have to question them before we -- and by 'we', I mean 'me' -- can figure out what, if anything, we can do to send them home."

"They could be stuck here?" Lorne asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, if the reason they're here is the result of some singular event we can't recreate."

"Fantastic," Lorne sighed, then turned away. He went over to Sumner who was watching Clayton draw blood, and began speaking quietly.

"If it's something related to a quantum mirror," Rodney began, then got lost in his own thoughts and didn't continue.

She'd learned all about quantum mirrors in her time heading up the SGC. "If there's one in this galaxy, then the Wraith might have access to it. Or the Genii. Or some enemy we haven't discovered yet."

Rodney's attention refocused on her and he frowned. "I hadn't even been thinking in that direction, so thank you for a whole lifetime's worth of nightmares."

The exams were over quickly enough. The Ancient scanners confirmed that Ford and Markham were genetically identical to the ones they'd known and the only differences were in areas that would be explained by leading unique lives -- different scars, different diets, and other little (and not so little) things that added up to different men. It would take a blood test to confirm Sumner's identity and there was nothing in any database for Toran, who was indeed Athosian. But after Ford and Markham, Elizabeth was prepared to accept that these four men were some other Atlantis's primary off-world team. And the differences were amazing, starting with the fact that Sumner lived. She was almost afraid to ask after their John Sheppard.

Rodney disappeared part of the way through after he and Lorne questioned Sumner and the others about what planet they had gated in from and whether they had noticed anything either on the planet (M24-G41) or while in the wormhole. Lorne continued with the questions as they made their way, again escorted by the marines, to the control room and then through to the conference room. They were subtle enough from the political and politesse standpoint, Elizabeth was pleased to note, and they were directed toward a single goal: figuring out where in their timeline the new arrivals fit in. Sumner, of course, was aware that his team was being probed for answers and gave them judiciously.

Even so, it was possible to gather just how different their Atlantis was from this one. The differences were so profound that Elizabeth wasn't sure if it was just that the other Atlantis was a year behind their own or that the time lines had diverged so greatly that all points of comparison were moot. The storm had not been complicated by any attacks on the city, for example, so either the other Atlantis had not encountered the Genii or they hadn't angered them to the point that they'd go out of their way to destroy the expedition. There had been no Wraith siege, which they seemed relieved by, but also no contact from Earth, which was a natural disappointment.

They were sitting comparing trade partners, a neutral topic meant to give each other a rest from the pointed questions and maybe provide a few good ideas for when the current crisis was resolved -- and Sumner's team seemed confident that McKay would solve things, when a door to the conference room rotated open and John, Teyla, and Ronon walked in.

Sumner's team stood up at once, a mixture of anger and pain on their faces.

"What's...." John trailed off, stopping short. The shock on his face immediately was hidden behind a mask of calm bemusement. "Oh. Well, I can see why Eriksson was being coy on the radio."

"Teyla," Toran whispered. Elizabeth was not surprised to see tears on his face; Sumner's team had avoided answering anything to do with Teyla and Elizabeth had suspected that their version of her was dead.

"Right," Elizabeth stood up. "Let's do this properly, shall we? Gentlemen, this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, commander of the military on Atlantis. This is Teyla Emmagan of Athos and Ronon Dex of Sateda, members of his off-world team."

John and Teyla tilted their heads in acknowledgment. Elizabeth knew that they were both shooting her looks begging -- demanding -- explanation, but there was no time at the moment.

"You let him walk around free?" Ford asked, incredulously. Ronon snarled back, either a reaction to the comment or to the Ford he knew.

"Lieutenant!" Sumner barked and Ford sat back down a little sullenly. Elizabeth was a little fascinated by this Aiden, very clearly a different man than the one she'd known. He was a more serious officer and less young-seeming, but there were moments when she could see their Aiden in him, at least the one they'd loved and lost.

"We know who they are, Doctor Weir," Sumner went, his voice curiously flat. "And as amused as I am that Sheppard's in charge of your military, you'll have to appreciate that we haven't had the... best of experiences with the man you call Ronon Dex."

"We got off to a bit of a rocky start with him, too," John said, moving forward to take the empty seat next to Lorne, gesturing for Teyla and Ronon to follow him. "But he's kind of grown on us and we're rather fond of him now. And we call him Ronon Dex because that's his name."

"We didn't get that far, sir," Markham replied with thinly veiled hostility as the others sat down. "We had to take him down after he killed Stackhouse and Guttierez. Eversby was in the infirmary for a month."

"Wasn't me," Ronon said quietly, clearly a little disturbed.

"No, it wasn't," John agreed, looking back meaningfully at Ford and Markham. "I'm sure they'll remember that."

"We were just discussing trading partners," Elizabeth said a little too loudly and a little too cheerily. "It seems our sister city enjoys a healthy trade for tava beans."

"Really?" John asked with what she thought was genuine amusement. Sometimes it was hard to tell with him. "Well, maybe you got the Genii who don't have the secret nuclear facility and ruling military junta buried underneath the barn."

Sumner looked at him sharply, but said nothing.

"Nukes?" Ford asked incredulously. "From the planet of the perpetual harvest festival?"

"Where's McKay?" John asked her instead of answering Ford. By prompting him with the Genii, She'd given him the option of either playing nicely or unsettling them. He'd chosen to keep them off-balance rather than to share more information -- choosing vinegar over honey, so to speak. Which was not surprising considering how protective he was of his team and how they'd reacted to Ronon.

"Running simulations downstairs," Rodney answered as he came into the room holding a laptop. "I'm going to need to go out to our M24-G41 to take a look at the DHD there, see if there's some sort of anomaly that could give us a hint as to why theirs opened up a wormhole to another reality."

"Are you sure that's what happened?" Elizabeth asked him.

Rodney gave her the look he always did when she asked what he thought was a stupid question and didn't want to say as much. "As much as I can be without having anything close to scientific expertise coming from our guests," he replied, then turned to Sumner. "How is it that you expect to find a ZPM when you don't bring anyone who knows what one looks like? Or what it can do?"

Elizabeth was relieved when Sumner looked more amused than annoyed. Or at least familiar with Rodney's lack of grace. "We know what a ZPM looks like, Doctor McKay. And since Sergeant Markham can use both an energy scanner and a P-90 without incident, I figure the odds of us both finding a ZPM and returning back to Atlantis alive with it are probably about the same as yours."

Rodney ignored the reply, which is what he usually did when he had no comeback. Instead, he turned to John. "When can I go?"

John looked at Lorne. "Do you want to take him?"

"I'll be bringing at least three from Engineering and several crates of equipment," Rodney warned before Lorne could reply.

"Why don't we let a lieutenant handle it?" John said sourly. Elizabeth knew as well as John and Lorne that Rodney really just didn't want to go with Lorne's team.

"I'll go set it up," Lorne replied, standing up. "Excuse me."

Lorne left, first gesturing with sarcastic flourish for Rodney to precede him. Rodney, as usual, missed the intent behind the motion.

"Why don't you two tag along," John said to Teyla and Ronon. "I don't want him thinking he's actually gotten his way and I don't want him abusing the marines."

"Of course," Teyla said with deceptive mildness. She understood that John also wanted to get her and Ronon away from Sumner's team. She stood, as did the glaring Ronon, and they left as well. Elizabeth didn't think Teyla liked the 'suggestion' any more than Ronon did, but she had too much experience in negotiations to give herself away as obviously.

"Right," John said after the door closed. "So what's the plan until McKay gets back and we get an estimate on how long it'll take before we can punt you back to your world? We don't really have guests too often anymore, actually ever, but I'm sure you'll make do with our current quarters."

The current quarters was one suite. Elizabeth was sure that Sumner's team would manage -- it was a large suite and they had probably gotten used to staying in smaller and less comfortable places together -- but in a city the size of Atlantis, when Sumner's team knew how big it was and how much extra space they had, it would be nothing short of an overt statement of hostility. She didn't know why John was being so intractable -- yes, he was a stubborn man and yes, she had given him the choice on how to play the situation, but this was on the verge of being counterproductive. He must honestly think that they were a threat, or at least he wasn't yet sure that they weren't. Granted, there wasn't much evidence either way, but in the history of the SGC, alternate versions of stargate officers had almost always turned out benign -- or at least seeking out aid for their own troubled world. Of course, John wasn't as familiar with the SGC's history as she was. Perhaps that was it.

"I'm sure we will be able to arrange something if your stay is extended," Elizabeth said, ignoring John's mild-only-on-the-surface look. "We'll know more as to the necessity once Doctor McKay returns."

Sumner nodded. "We understand," he said.

And Elizabeth rather thought he did. This version of the man, one who had had time to get used to life in Pegasus -- even if it were a different Pegasus to the one they knew -- was both familiar and very much not. Almost all of the time she had spent with Marshall Sumner had been on Earth, preparing for -- fighting over -- the mission to Atlantis. The one she had known had not lived long enough to even see the city on the surface of the ocean and she wondered, not for the first time, how things would have been different if he had.

"I'm not sure what time it is on your watches," she said to Sumner, "but it's well past lunchtime here. Why don't we take a meal break, then see what we can find out both from each other and Doctor McKay's work. We don't quite have an Earth selection of cuisine, but I'm sure there's plenty that we do have that you haven't had a chance to enjoy since you left your home."

"I'd kill for a Coke," Ford sighed with fond nostalgia.

Elizabeth didn't miss John's flinch, either at the choice of words or at yet another reminder of the innocent Ford they'd lost. "That we have in spades," she said, smiling. "Diet and regular."

John stood up. "I'll go see about rustling up some grub," he said. "And check on McKay."

Sumner stood up as well. "Colonel," he began, tripping ever so slightly over the rank. "May I speak to you? Privately?"

He tilted his head in silent apology to Elizabeth and she nodded, accepting it, then turned to John. He looked extremely uncomfortable, but nodded as well. "Of course, sir."

The two men left and the door closed and Elizabeth turned back to Ford, Markham, and Toran. "So have you gentlemen been to M36-441 yet?"


two

"Eriksson, get some chow sent up for our guests and Doctor Weir, please? Make sure there's at least one Diet Coke and an extra helping of mud pud," John told the waiting lieutenant.

"Aye aye, sir."

Sumner followed him to the balcony behind the control room, through the open door and over to the edge. "You're familiar with Lieutenant Ford's eating habits, I see," he said, leaning against the railing and looking out.

"Yeah," John replied. Ford had loved yam mash, had eaten it enthusiastically on every planet it had been offered and then getting double helpings in the commissary when it appeared there. Kid wouldn't touch anything green, but give him something related however distantly to a potato and he'd treat it like it were Christmas.

"How long has he been dead here?" Sumner asked, turning back to face him.

John didn't answer because he wasn't sure how to answer. Or if he should. He'd caught part of Rodney's babbling about alternate realities, knew what a quantum mirror was and that weirder shit had happened to SG-1 because weirder shit had always happened to SG-1. And yet. They'd had two years in this galaxy and the number of times they'd been compromised was really kind of embarrasssing. What if this Sumner was like the evil Terminator in T2, able to take on the appearance of whatever it wanted? What if he was like the Wraith officer on board the Aurora? What if they were there to mine information on the city or on the Ancients or on Earth? The Asgard weren't the only super-advanced race out there; there could be plenty that weren't nearly as benevolent.

"Colonel?" Sumner prompted.

"We don't know that he is," John finally replied, not looking at Sumner. "He probably is, but we won't know until we see a body."

"Wraith?"

"Close enough," John said, finally meeting Sumner's eyes. "But you didn't want to talk to me about the fate of Aiden Ford."

Sumner gave him that little head tilt that he remembered still, the one that conceded defeat without either concession or defeat.

"No," he agreed, looking out over the ocean. "We started off badly, which was my fault, and I wanted to clear the air between us. If McKay can get us back to where we belong, then I would hope that we can bring intel with us and share what we know with you. If he can't... I don't want to make things worse."

Remembering the oddly amenable General Hammond on the mist planet, John gave him a cock-eyed look. But instead of Hammond's earnest amenability, Sumner chuckled darkly.

"I'm a stubborn cuss of a marine, Sheppard," he said. "But I'm not an idiot. If we're going to be here for a while, I'd rather not turn this into a pissing match."

"I don't think you're an idiot, sir," John said, looking away again. When he tended to recall Sumner, it was the tortured man on his knees, not the sarcastic one who'd played alpha dog and yet let him lead the negotiations with the Athosians. "But in two years here, I've had at least three races mucking around in my brain and all three would have been perfectly okay with me and mine dying. You'll excuse my caution just in case you turn out to be the fourth."

Sumner nodded, accepting the response. "In a way, it's good to hear," he said, pushing off of the railing and walking slowly along the balcony. "If we don't get back there, you'll end up in charge of the military. I've never put you in a position of authority. You've never wanted one and I figured that it was for a reason."

Intellectually, John knew that that's the way it was supposed to have gone here, but there hadn't been time to really ponder that particular What If. On the big list of events he wished could have come out differently, there were many others that ranked higher, even here in Pegasus -- worlds he could have saved from the Wraith and friends he could have saved from themselves. He wasn't big on self-reflection and didn't have a good mental picture of where he'd been two years ago, so that he wasn't that person anymore almost didn't matter. He didn't regret who he was now. "I kind of didn't have a choice."

"Necessity is a mother," Sumner agreed. "And speaking of, I'm sorry we reacted to your Ronon Dex. Guy was rabid like a dog when he attacked us; took most of a clip to put him down. Guttierez and Stackhouse were torn to shreds. Eversby's never gonna regain full use of his arm, even if we got him back to Earth."

Eversby had died in the siege, sucked dry by a Wraith and identifiable only by his tags. Guttierez, broken bones and a head wound, had gone back to Earth in the same wormhole that had returned Colonel Everett. Stackhouse was probably asleep in the barracks because his platoon had third shift.

"He was a Runner," John finally said, figuring the knowledge would cost him nothing. If the news would keep any potential invaders away, then it was good to share it. "The Wraith turn the people they can't feed on into training toys. Doesn't do much for their mental health."

"No shit," Sumner muttered, disgusted. He looked up at the sky and they stood quietly for a long moment before he spoke again. "Doctor Weir said that you've had the Wraith attack."

"More than once," John replied carefully.

"You get the automated SAM system working yet?"

John turned to where Sumner had paused by one of the buttresses. Did he mean the drone weapons? Did he want to know if they could defend themselves? "The what?"

Sumner smiled wryly. "Figured that might be a difference between here and my Atlantis," he said a little smugly. "We only found it by accident. Two floors down from the medical suite, fifth panel off of the second door on the right. Busted crystals or wiring or whatever the hell it was. Fix it and it'll bring up a screen on the holographic display in the control room. They're not drone weapons; we don't have the juice to fire those. They're smaller, but we've got a ton of them and we can run the batteries off of naquadah generators. You might be able to rig them to the control chair. We can't run that, either, so it's all theoretical for us."

John understood what this was -- an attempt to prove good faith. Whether it was actually good faith or not was a different matter. He still wasn't convinced that telling him anything was a good idea, but he had to make a choice whether to believe or not to believe before the doubt made him crazy. Elizabeth had chosen to accept the situation as presented and she had far more experience with this sort of thing than he did. He tapped his radio. "Rodney?"

"What?" The annoyed reply came back a long minute later. "I'm busy fighting with your overzealous minions."

"My overzealous minions are only doing their job," John replied patiently. He repeated Sumner's directions to Rodney, who bristled. He didn't pass on to Rodney what Sumner had said would be the effect. If it was on the level, then Rodney would be happily surprised. If it was something nefarious, then best they be looking for everything.

"Is this one of your 'hunches'? One of those vague wild-goose chases you send us on because you think you hear Atlantis when all that you really hear is your own sanity slipping away?"

"McKay," John warned. "Play nicely or you're not getting out there until tomorrow and it'll be Lieutenant Appleman who takes you."

As predicted, that shut Rodney right up.

"Must've been some accident if you remember it that well," John said to Sumner after he'd finished with Rodney. "I don't think even the OCD types in Engineering remember wonky panels off of the tops of their heads."

"It took up all of our attention for a week," Sumner said sourly. "The scientists started three fires and shorted out the control room for the better part of a day. It was memorable."

"We've had a few of those," John admitted. "Flooded rooms, sentient energy clouds, exploding microwaves...."

"Not sure I want to know about the sentient energy cloud," Sumner replied. "The rest I know too well."

"You should find out about the energy thing. Damn near killed us all," John said as he joined Sumner at the railing again. "Kinda got lucky that we stopped it before it did."

Sumner nodded, eyes on the horizon. "If we're here for any length, I'll match you mishap for mishap."

"Not that I'm not eager to hear about how trying to keep this place in one piece is apparently against the laws of time-space theory or whatever the hell got you here," John said. "But I think you'd rather be home."

It wasn't just that Ford, Markham, and Sumner were dead. It was also that he had to fight the urge to perform, to show them that Atlantis was doing well in their absences, that their sacrifices had been worth it. But there was no purpose to that, not really. Sumner could be floored by the Marine Corps efficiency of Little Tripoli, Ford could envy the lieutenants with their own missions and actual time off, and Markham could finally be content that enlisted men were no longer doing officers' jobs and it wouldn't make a difference. The men he wanted to thank -- to apologize to -- were lost forever.

"Ford's gone," Sumner began quietly. "Markham?"

"I had to train Markham to fly a jumper so that we'd have a second combat-capable pilot," John said, remembering the sergeant's dislike of the idea. He'd only finally agreed after realizing that Carson Beckett was the other choice. "He died in a jumper, chasing a Wraith dart over the city. Took Smith with him."

Sumner nodded somberly, accepting it for what it was -- a casualty of war. "Figured something like it. I'm dead, too, I gather?" He looked over at John. "There's a chance I just went back to Earth, but I'm thinking that wasn't it."

John sighed. "No, that's not it."

"In the siege?" Sumner asked, almost converationally, as if they were comparing notes on target practice. "Weir said you lost a lot of people then."

"We did," John agreed. "Forty dead, that many more wounded.... Do you really want to know, sir?"

Sumner shrugged, not looking at him. "Not if it was that dishonorable, but maybe even then if it's something we can use to save my Atlantis. 'If you can't be a good example, be an object lesson' and all that crap."

"It wasn't dishonorable," John replied quickly, then paused. "Only a couple of people here know. I guess it's just down to me and Elizabeth."

And then he told Sumner what had happened and what he'd done.

In his nightmares, the phantom Marshall Sumner had always called him a murderer, accused him of fragging, of cowardice, of taking the easy way out by cutting his losses instead of fighting to save him. But this Sumner just sort of chuckled mirthlessly and sucked loudly on his teeth.

"Not the ending I would have picked," he said. "Still, I've seen people drained dry by the Wraith, so I can't say I would've chosen differently. Can't offer you absolution, either, but I don't think you're looking for it."

There was nothing John was prepared to say to that, so he didn't.

"I guess that explains the difference between our Pegasus and yours," Sumner went on and John felt the familiar pang of guilt. "Our Wraith are still mostly sleeping, I suppose. Wonder how many more hives we can find before they wake up."

"If we knew where any of them were, I'd tell you," John said, meaning it. "We usually don't find them until they're on our doorstep."

"That's usually the way of it." Sumner agreed. "They haven't come to us yet, but it's only a matter of time. They've culled too many worlds where the people know who -- and where -- we are. Most of 'em are probably lunch, but all they have to do is interrogate one."

Sumner gave him an ironic smile, one that clearly said 'like they did here with me.'

"They'll probably show up regardless because they're Wraith and they're like that," John offered, "But they were so eager to get here because they know about Earth and know that it's a place they want to be. Without that, Atlantis itself is just another place to destroy and there's no real hurry to do that as long as you don't go out of your way to piss them off."

Despite the millenia of history, the Wraith didn't consider Atlantis a threat, more of a nuisance. One that hopefully they'd think they were relieved of for a while.

"I'd rather be ready when they do come," Sumner said. "We can fire the missiles, but they'll be useless against anything bigger than a dart."

John made a maybe-kinda-depends face; he'd seen how RPGs could take down million-dollar helicopters if struck in the right spot. The cave-dwellers in Afghanistan had figured it out, as had the khat-addled militias of Somalia. It wasn't as simple as that with the Wraith, but if one nuke could take out a hive ship, there was always hope.

"How did you find your ZPM?" Sumner asked.

"Got it from Earth, actually," John replied, not quite ready to give up Keras's world or even the loons over in the Brotherhood of Fifteen. But he'd consider the latter before Sumner's team left. Melina and her gothic novel crew wouldn't miss it. "You're just going to have to put your faith in General O'Neill."

Sumner snorted. "And that's how I got my ass parked in another galaxy with no way home."

"There's that," John agreed.

"Was kind of hoping the Genii had one," Sumner said after the door to the control room opened and then closed. John realized that they were taking away the designated smoking area for the control room personnel. "They're fleecing us on those damned tava beans. I'm guessing you're not trading for those anymore."

"We never actually got to try them," John admitted.

"Supposed to be like soy beans," Sumner told him, making a sour face. "The Athosians showed us how to process them. They said that you can make them taste like anything, but we've got marines on KP and they know fuck-all about what to do with tofu."

John laughed despite himself and Sumner joined in. For a moment, they were almost colleagues, despite the weirdness.

"The Genii really have an underground nuclear facility?" Sumner finally asked.

"Ours do," John replied, shrugging. If Sumner really was going to be here a while, he'd hear all about the Genii-Atlantis conflicts. "Your world may be different. Next time you're there, take a look in their barns for secret hatches half-hidden by hay. And then see if Sora shows up with a tommy gun."

"Sora?" Sumner repeated, both eyebrows up. He gestured with both hands to indicate Sora's most noticeable attributes. "That Sora?"

"That Sora," John confirmed. "She's the lieutenant of their commando team. We had her in the brig for six months. Tyrus was some mucky-muck for them and Cowen's their leader. He's a little cracked."

"I noticed," Sumner said.

"McKay thinks they're all going to die of radiation poisoning," John added.

"McKay's been there?" Sheer surprise from Sumner.

"He's the first guy I picked for my off-world team," John replied, enjoying Sumner's shock. "Yours doesn't get off-world much?"

Sumner snorted. "Our resident delicate flower prefers climate-controlled environments."

"Not popular?" John asked dryly. It pleased him perversely to realize that he might have had an improving effect on Rodney. He'd never really considered it any more than he'd considered what effect Rodney might have had on him.

"First guy the city'd throw to the Wraith," Sumner said, sounding very much like he'd be the one offering to lead him out there.

"This one's not so bad once you get to know him," John said, mostly to let Sumner know that he'd have to tread differently with this Rodney. "He's mostly all bark now. Still peels the paint every once in a while, but I think it's mostly to keep in practice. But don't tell him that I think he's been defanged."

Sumner laughed, this time less harshly. "Considering that you're the one McKay spends most of his time tormenting...."

John almost asked what his role was in Sumner's Atlantis, but decided against it. He didn't want to know.

"We should go back inside," he said instead. "Get you some chow, see whether Lorne or McKay have emerged victorious from their grudge match."

He didn't offer to take Sumner to Little Tripoli to see the marines at work and at play. It would be too disconcerting for those who had been part of the original expedition -- Laganzo was looking a little flustered still -- and they'd have to pass by The Wall, where Sumner could see his own photo and Markham's among the KIA and John would have to explain why Ford wasn't listed among either the dead or the missing.

When they came back into the control room, Lorne and McKay were by the corridor that led to the conference room, pretty much where he'd left them. Rodney was looking annoyed and Lorne had the long-suffering patient look he got when the only thing keeping him from drawing his personal weapon was the knowledge that he was winning the argument. Which meant that Rodney should quit while he was behind or he really was going to get stuck with Appleman.

"Well, I guess it's my fate in this reality to get interrogated by scary women," Sumner sighed as they headed back toward the small conference room.

"I'm sure Elizabeth--"

"That's called gallows humor, Sheppard," Sumner told him, then waved his hand at the crystals to get the door to rotate open.


three

"You think you're going to be done soon, Doctor McKay?"

Rodney looked up from where the laptop was streaming the last fifty addresses dialed by the DHD, matching them up to those that had entries in the Ancient database. They didn't have the database accessible -- just the index of planetary entries took up most of the laptop's hard drive -- but it might be useful later on, when frustration led them to crazy, nonsensical decisions and whim-following in the hopes of finding the needle in the haystack.

"Don't rush genius, Lieutenant," he said when Patchok looked ready to hover.

Patchok didn't roll his eyes, but he clearly wanted to. Next to him, Ford (¬Ford in Rodney's mental dialogue, a negation of logic embodied and clad in camouflage) grinned and Rodney had to look away, back to the symbols on his screen.

He didn't know how the others were handling it with so little fuss. Elizabeth could play gracious host because she was a diplomat and presumably had training in the art of not getting unsettled. But what was Sheppard's excuse? Or Teyla's? Both of them were rolling with the waves, accepting the arrival of these visitors from another reality with the sort of aplomb with which they greeted every new experience. It was the sort of optimism that got them allies and friends as often as it had them walking into trap after trap and while Rodney didn't think that Sumner's team meant them any harm... how could they stand it?

Being around this Aiden Ford, even if he wasn't their Ford, made him almost physically ill. The air around ¬Ford almost stank of doom, of an inevitable fall, and Rodney didn't know how the others weren't choking on it like he was.

"You don't need genius to know that we're not going to get anything from this DHD," Zelenka called over from where he was perched on one of the empty equipment cases. Hunched and peering over his glasses, Radek looked like a confused owl.

"Yes, well, I'd rather get our full amount of nothing now instead of needing to come back later just to verify its uselessness," Rodney retorted, turning back to his screen. A few of the gate addresses were familiar to him -- planets they'd been to, mostly -- and he knew that Radek was right, but he also knew that he wasn't quite ready to sit in his lab in Atlantis and stare at the screen there yet.

They'd been on M24-G41 for a few hours, long enough for the marines to get a little restless after finishing up the scans Rodney had set them to doing when they'd first arrived. There were two marines with the ATA gene, which meant that they could use PDAs to sweep the area for any power sources or energy readings; the other marines were given Geiger counters to check for radiation. The radioactivity required to destabilize a wormhole at its origin point was massive, so whatever had happened on the other M24-G41 wasn't happening here, but if there were enough ambient particles, then maybe they'd get an idea. It wouldn't be the first time a gate team had had an explosion follow them through a wormhole.

"We're going to have to check in soon, sir," Patchok said. "I'd like to be able to give them a return time."

It was framed politely and agreeably; Patchok had been playing nicely all afternoon -- amenable to the point that Rodney was suspecting that Sheppard had said something to him -- but the slight tone of warning was clear. Pick a time or I will.

Rodney looked at his watch. "Another hour, Lieutenant," he said.

Patchok nodded and turned to walk away, ¬Ford tagging along behind. The two had spent the afternoon chatting amiably, comparing careers and commanding officers and what they thought about Atlantis until Rodney had barked at them to let him work in peace, unable to concentrate any more on his own tasks when ¬Ford was burbling happily about his time in South Carolina before he'd gotten the assignment to Antarctica. They'd moved away, but not far enough for Rodney's straining ears to hear tales of another Atlantis's mission. If Patchok was disturbed -- Rodney was sure that all of the marines knew about Ford, their Ford, even if they'd never met him -- he certainly didn't show it.

"I don't know what you hope to accomplish here, McKay," Radek said from his perch. Radek, too, seemed unfazed, if not necessarily unaffected. "Whatever happened to tear a hole in the curtain between our realities, I don't think it happened on M24-G41. Theirs or ours."

Rodney sighed and rolled his neck. "I don't think so, either," he admitted. "But it's the best we can do in terms of retracing their steps."

As his neck popped loudly -- you'd think Medical would have imported a chiropractor by now -- he looked up. It was late afternoon on this world and the moon was already visible, faint in the blue sky. And then he realized. Snapping his fingers, he stood up quickly, the motion of putting the laptop aside automatic by now.

"Lieutenant Ford?" he called over. ¬Ford turned, along with Patchok. "Could you come here, please?"

¬Ford ambled over, the same helpful grin in place. Rodney forced himself to look at ¬Ford's face and meet his gaze. "What's up, Doc?" ¬Ford asked, pleased with himself for a joke that had gotten old even before they'd left Antarctica.

"Look up at the sky," Rodney instructed, pointing up. "Do you notice anything different from the M23-G41 you were on?"

"How likely is--" Radek began, but Rodney cut him off with a peremptory gesture.

"Lieutenant?" he prompted.

¬Ford was different from their Ford in many ways, even from the Ford from before. He was more serious, presumably the result of spending his time as the subordinate of Sumner, who had no sense of humor, instead of Sheppard, who merely had a bad one. ¬Ford carried himself more like the Marine lieutenants who currently wandered through Atlantis and less like the excited kid who happened to be wearing an officer's uniform. But Rodney hadn't spent the last several hours surreptitiously listening to him without realizing that the two Fords were more alike than they were different. And their Ford, the one who'd been flustered by science and too fond of explosives and so devotedly loyal to Sheppard and maybe (privately, when nobody else could see) had been Rodney's friend.... that Ford had loved the stars. On off-world missions, they had spent hours trying to discern constellations like a cosmic Rorschach test, trying to find the same star from different worlds, arguing about what to name them and whether the constellation was a woman with bared breasts or just a bear. This was not that Ford, but Rodney was willing to bet that ¬Ford counted the suns and moons of each planet he visited just the same.

¬Ford scanned the sky, looking around and turning in a slow circle, then doing it again. "There's a sun missing," he finally said. "Or maybe it was a planet or a really bright star. But there was something right there--" he pointed to a spot in the sky over the stargate. "And it's not here."

Zelenka started muttering in Czech, the sort of annoyed rumble of words that Rodney didn't understand but knew that meant that he was annoyed at a wild guess (that he hadn't made) panning out.

"Can you be more precise?" Rodney asked, gesturing at the stargate. "Stand where you were when you saw it and show us again."

¬Ford trudged over to the stargate, past the collection of boxes and the trolley and the marines standing gate duty on this uninhabited world. He ran up the steps the the gate itself, turned around, and came back down the steps as if he were arriving on the planet. He stopped a few paces from the gate, closed his eyes for a moment, took another step, and then turned. "It was over the second notch," he said, pointing again. The stargate itself had colored plates in low relief at regular intervals.

"Williams!" Rodney called, startling the engineer who had been examining the stargate itself for anomalies. "Get a reasonably accurate positioning on where he's pointing, please?"

Williams put down what he was doing and went to the equipment trunks to pull out what he'd need. Rodney turned back to Radek, who had come to stand next to him.

"Supernova?" Radek asked, not really making it a question. "It would have enough energy to disrupt a wormhole."

Rodney nodded. "And that is roughly in the direction of Atlantis."

Radek cursed in Czech. "Which means that to send them back, we'll have to find another unstable star. We don't even know if the one that sent them here was an innie or an outie."

"An innie or an outie?" Rodney repeated, turning in disbelief.

"You know what I meant," Radek said dismissively, waving his hand and turning to retrieve his laptop.

Rodney did, but that was so not the point. "You spent how many years of research to reduce stellar phenomena to belly buttons?"

He followed Zelenka back to his perch, continuing to talk. "The problem, of course, is going to be sending them back to the right reality. All we can reasonably be sure of is that we can kick them out of this one. There's no saying that we can get them back to their point of origin."

Radek shrugged. "There are no certainties in life. Here? Some chance is better than none at all."

"How very Bohemian of you," Rodney muttered, then went to his own forsaken laptop. "Lieutenant?"

Patchok jogged over. "Sir?"

"We'll be ready to go as soon as Doctor Williams is finished with Lieutenant Ford." He gestured at the equipment cases. "You can pack up now."

Patchok raised an eyebrow. "I can? Why, thank you, sir."

Rodney was pretty sure he'd just been insulted, but Patchok left him before he could say anything else. The lieutenant was already summoning idle marines to collect their cargo.

"Ortilla, bring your squad in to help load the trolley, please?"

A half-hour later, they were back in Atlantis. Rodney left Zelenka and Williams to oversee the safe return of their equipment to the proper labs and went up to Elizabeth's office. After having completely forgotten about the dissonance in the excitement of the supernova, Rodney nearly stumbled as it slammed back into him with the force of a body blow. Sumner and Sheppard were in there with her.

"Good news, I hope?" Elizabeth said, looking up expectantly.

"Well, yes, maybe," Rodney replied, feeling oddly embarrassed before his audience. He didn't know why -- it's not like he'd ever cared what their Sumner had thought of him. "We may have figured out how our visitors got here."

"And?" Sheppard drawled. Next to him, Sumner leaned forward.

"We won't know for certain until we plot out the coordinates and render a model," Rodney began, "but we think Colonel Sumner's team may have opened a wormhole either close to or through a star going supernova. It's established fact that wormholes are affected by planetary gravitation -- for sufficiently large masses -- and large values of stellar energy. What is produced by the blast wave of a supernova would more than account for how they -- you -- ended up here."

"That's wonderful, Rodney," Elizabeth enthused. "This should put us on the road to being able to return Colonel Sumner and his team back home."

Rodney made a face at her optimism.

"You don't think so," Sumner said flatly. Elizabeth's brilliant smile dimmed a bit.

"There's no way to determine what kind of supernova -- and we're taking a leap by assuming that that's what it was -- occurred," Rodney replied, looking at the space between Sheppard and Sumner. "If it was a white dwarf drawing material from another star or simply a massive star imploding under the weight of its own gravity."

"Will that matter?" Sheppard asked. He was sitting more upright than usual, Rodney idly noted. "A star exploding is a star exploding. Right?"

Rodney rolled his eyes and sighed with irritation. "You really did get your aeronautical engineering degrees out of a Cracker Jack box, didn't you?"

"Cut them out of a box of Count Chocula," Sheppard replied. "I'll take that as a 'no.'"

"Take it as a 'we don't know,'" Rodney admitted reluctantly, narrowing his eyes at Sheppard's smug grin. "If we understood precisely how sudden energy fluxes affected wormholes, then we might have a better answer. And no, before you ask, we can't experiment. We don't happen to have a handy list of stars that could pose as likely candidates for going supernova."

"Is there any way we can find one?" Elizabeth asked.

"Or make one?" Sheppard added, looking surprised when everyone turned to him. "What?"

Rodney thanked whatever impulse kept Sheppard from pointing out that Rodney had already obliterated most of a solar system.

"We can try to recalibrate some of our long-range sensors," Rodney said before Sheppard's inner muse could strike again. "Our first area of exploration should be the span between here and M24-G41, which, before you ask, we cannot traverse in a puddle jumper. It would take light years."

"Is this something the Daedalus can help us with?" Elizabeth tapped a key on her keyboard. "It should be back within a month."

Sumner looked uneasy with the prospect of waiting that long, but said nothing.

"I'm sure we can put it to good use," Rodney agreed. "But there's no reason to wait so long to start the search. It's not impossible that the same star that went supernova in Colonel Sumner's reality could yet be intact in ours. If it isn't, we'll keep looking."

Elizabeth nodded. Rodney looked at his watch. "I'll let you get back to work," she said and Rodney nodded, accepting the get-out-of-flail-free card for what it was. He took the back stairs to the transporter, thereby avoiding ¬Ford, and made it down to his lab unmolested.

Williams was already synchronizing his laptop to their mainframe and Zelenka was jabbering away in rapid-fire Czech to Novetny, their resident modeling genius. And, sitting on a stool out of the way, was ¬Ford.

"Doctor Williams and Doctor Zelenka said that I could come down and watch you guys," ¬Ford explained when he noticed Rodney staring. "Is that okay?"

"That's fine," Rodney answered a little too quickly. "Why wouldn't it be fine?"

"Uh, because I seem to weird you out more than I do everyone else around here?" ¬Ford asked by way of reply.

"You don't--" Rodney caught himself in the lie and stopped. "You do. Very much, to be honest. But that's no reason for me to be rude. Please stay. Just, you know, keep out of the way."

"Aye aye, sir!" ¬Ford answered happily.

Rodney cocked an eyebrow because he'd so rarely heard their Ford actually use that phrase. Maybe Sheppard had told him to lay off or something. And then Williams finished syncing the laptop and Novetny nearly tripped over himself leaving the room so that he could start his work, Zelenka trailing behind and still giving instruction.

Rodney sat down at the bench and opened up his own laptop, immediately connecting to the in-house network. He skimmed the subjects of the emails that filled his inbox -- routine bureaucrap, mostly -- and was setting his IM to "Don't Bother Me Unless Something's Exploding -- No, Really, Don't" when ¬Ford spoke again.

"Did the me of this reality just die or something?" ¬Ford asked. "I mean, we kind of noticed that you all look at us like we're ghosts, but... I get different looks, you know?"

Rodney didn't reply, didn't stop typing. He didn't know what to say. Nobody had told him "Don't tell this Ford about our Ford," or anything similar. ¬Ford belonged to another timeline, so there wasn't any chance of the Grandfather Paradox kicking in -- hell, they had a greater chance of cascading entropic failure (a side effect of reality-hopping that he'd intentionally kept quiet about; it wouldn't matter for Sumner or Markham, but if their Ford was alive somewhere, it could affect ¬Ford).

"And, well, this is just going to come out wrong," ¬Ford went on, "but... you -- my you, the one in my reality -- he and I don't really, you know, talk. I'm not sure he'd miss me if I were dead. And I'm guessing it was a little different here or maybe you watched me die or something or.... And I'm sorry if I'm bringing up something you really don't want to talk about. If you want me to go away, I will. "

"It was different here," Rodney finally said, unable to keep pretending that ¬Ford wasn't talking. He didn't turn around, didn't think he could bear the earnest look on ¬Ford's unmarred face. "You -- he -- and I were on Sheppard's off-world team together, along with Teyla. We spent a lot of time together. Not all of it quality time, but enough of it was. I... I don't have a lot of friends -- I'm sure that's true of your Rodney McKay -- and, well, he was one of them. In a mostly-annoying, little-yappy-dog kind of way."

"Oh," ¬Ford said quietly.

"We don't know if our Aiden Ford is dead," Rodney went on, suddenly unable to stop. The pressure had been building and now the words had to escape. "He probably is -- I think Sheppard's the only one who really believes that he isn't. And I'm not sure if I'm hoping Sheppard's right or wishing that he's wrong."

"He did something," ¬Ford realized aloud. "And you can't forgive him."

"I don't know if I can," Rodney admitted. He'd said these things to Heightmeyer and they hadn't made him feel better. They didn't now, either. "I'm not sure how much of it is his fault and how much of it was beyond his control. He wasn't himself the last few times we saw him. He'd changed and if the initial change was an accident, then I'm not sure the rest of it was."

The withdrawal from the Wraith enzyme had nearly killed him. He couldn't have -- wouldn't have -- done it on his own, not without so much help. And that experience had only complicated his own feelings toward Ford, making him both pity his erstwhile teammate and hate him for not being strong enough. Because he knew from Sheppard that Ford had been forced to detox in the Wraith cell and had still gone right back for more as soon as he was able to. Rodney wouldn't deny that he occasionally wished for a return to the Mentat-like state he'd been in while on the enzyme, but he'd always understood that the cost wasn't worth the advantage. Ford... had never seen. Didn't want to see. Didn't care to see. In the junkie that Ford had become, Rodney had always seen the shadow of the good person, the good marine that he'd been. And that left him wondering how much of the scary, psychotic Ford had been lurking in the man he'd called his friend.

"I shouldn't have brought it up," ¬Ford said. "I'm sorry."

"No, no," Rodney said, waving him off even though he was still sitting with his back to ¬Ford. "It must be horrible for you. You show up in a place where everything is the same, except that it isn't, and then on top of that, you find out that your counterpart--"

"Turned out to be the evil twin?" ¬Ford supplied. "Yeah, that kind of sucks."

Rodney turned around, finally, to look at ¬Ford. He looked distressed and Rodney didn't know what to say or to do to make things better. Because whatever Ford had done, it shouldn't be on this young man's head.

"Is there a chance that whatever he did, I'll end up doing?" ¬Ford asked.

"I don't know," Rodney admitted."The places where our timelines aren't the same, that's where this falls. And it really did start with an accident."

¬Ford gave him a wry grin, one that would have looked too old on their Ford. "Doesn't it always?"


four

She found Toran in the atrium, sitting quietly beneath a large alap tree, half hidden by its fronds. The two marines serving as guards and escorts were a respectful distance away and she knew better than to ask them to leave; instead she nodded to them and they nodded back, a silent agreement to pretend privacy in a situation where there could be none. It was all right -- Athosians were used to living in view of everyone else.

"Toran," she prompted when he didn't notice her standing right before him.

He startled at his name and stood. They touched foreheads, as though they were old friends greeting each other after a long separation, even though in truth they were but strangers to one another. And yet they were not strangers at all.

She had barely known Colonel Sumner except as a man who did not seem to either appreciate or accept her; were it not for his bravery and sacrifice in their prison cell, she would not have mourned his loss beyond that which was polite. Sergeant Markham had been a genial face, a lively young man in a group of same; she knew him better through his death, as one of many weights John Sheppard carried with him and would not share.

Of the two most familiar to her, the Aiden Ford who had come through the gate pained them all; the grief and guilt of what their Aiden had become warred with the unaffected good humor of the man they were presented with. Toran, however, was for her alone to mourn; Colonel Sheppard was the only one still with them who had met Toran and he didn't seem to remember their admittedly brief encounter. She had had to explain to Elizabeth that Toran had died that first night in the Wraith hive, the other casualty beside Colonel Sumner, the one nobody spoke of because nobody knew. Elizabeth, of course, had been most apologetic.

"It is very good to see you, Teyla Emmagan," Toran said in a low voice. "I did not think I would do so again until I went to the Ancestors."

She had suspected from his reaction to seeing her in the conference room that her alternate was dead, so this confirmation did not hurt as much as it might have. "Nor I you," she replied. "Our Toran has been lost to us for a long time."

They sat beneath the alap, close but not touching. Her Toran had been a confidant and an ally; if she had been anyone but the leader of her people, he might have become more. But taking a lover from among those she led would have upset the delicate balance of power, so friends they had remained.

"Doctor McKay believes that he has figured out the reason for your arrival in our reality," she said, not quite accepting the word as it rolled off of her tongue. "And that, given time, he may be able to return you to your own."

She had seen many things in her time in Atlantis, but this was much harder to accept than watching the devices of the Ancestors come to life or marveling at the ways of Earth. Even the trickery of the mist people could be reduced to an especially effective illusion of the mind, a step beyond what the Wraith could do. But this, this was something else entirely.

"I must admit to being eager to return," he said, a wry smile replacing the wary concern. "I find all of this... a little beyond me. Much of what I see here is just as it is in the Atlantis I know, but...."

"But it is discordant," she finished. "I agree. It is why I hesitate to offer to bring you to the mainland to see the rest of our people. They would be very glad, but also very confused."

What she did not say -- what she did not need to say -- was that the reappearance of Toran, no matter how she tried to explain that it was not their Toran, would be viewed as a sort of trick of the Wraith. The only ones the Wraith gave back were those they marked (Ronon) or changed (her own ancestors). The way the people of Atlantis looked at this new Aiden Ford, that is how her people would look at Toran.

"Your people live on the mainland?" Toran asked, genuinely surprised.

"Yours do not?"

Toran shook his head sadly, then told her of how his Athosians had quickly grown uncomfortable living in Atlantis and had left. They had moved to Akai, a world they had long hunted on when winter came to Athos. The Wraith had found them there and the few survivors of the second attack had fled to Atlantis, where they lived once more.

It was odd listening to him, she thought, and hearing of what amounted to an alternate past, the effects of her own choices not made. She and Halling and the elders had indeed discussed leaving for Akai, but then Halling had broken his foot and by the time it had healed, they had gotten over the worst of their unease and decided to stay.

When Toran spoke of his life in his Atlantis, it seemed both very much like her own and nothing like it at the same time. He did not speak of his role with the same satisfaction that she would have in his place. He was uncomfortable among the Lanteans and in the City of the Ancestors still and had not built the bonds of friendship that she had; he earned his keep in Atlantis, but had not yet found it a home.

He served the same purpose for Colonel Sumner's team than she had done with then-Major Sheppard's -- guide and chaperone to a group of voyagers whose innocence was their greatest attribute and worst weakness all at once. The Lanteans' absolute refusal to accept the dominance of the Wraith attracted Toran the way it did herself -- they forced you to believe in what you would never have even imagined on your own.

But from what Toran said -- and what he didn't say -- there were differences between their Atlantises that went beyond the people who lived there. As she tried to explain them, Teyla found herself smiling as she described the almost impetuous way of life that had developed in Atlantis their first year, the sort of lurching from crisis to crisis to victory to near escape that had been as exhilarating as it had been exhausting. It had been like running over unsteady ground toward a great prize, she told him, never quite sure where or even if the ground would give way beneath their feet. Toran smiled in return; life under Colonel Sumner and Doctor Weir was not often exhilarating, although it was frequently exhausting.

Toran had never been a man for great adventure, so she was not surprised to see him look slightly horrified as she detailed some of their adventures within and without the city. He told her of some of his team's trips, of how first meetings with new worlds never got easier, and it seemed that Colonel Sumner took a far more cautious approach than the one she was used to. He was recounting to her how he had taken Colonel Sumner to Belkan and how they'd nearly had an incident when the marines refused the traditional glass of ale when Sergeant Markham joined them.

"Captain Hanzis said that you'd be here," Markham explained, refusing Teyla's offer to sit. She thought that he looked as if he had been crying, but did not want to say as much. The marines, she knew, were very sensitive to that sort of thing.

"Are you well, Sergeant?" Toran asked, apparently feeling no such restraint.

Markham nodded, a rueful smile on his face. "I was doing a favor for the other me."

Teyla raised her eyebrows.

"Your counterpart is dead in this world, is he not?" Toran asked.

"That's pretty much the point," Markham said, developing an extraordinary interest in the alap tree rather than look directly at them. "I recorded a video to get sent back to Earth. A kind of goodbye to his parents. The me from this reality didn't even have a death letter to send home."

Teyla remembered the way Ford had spent time with each expedition member in the time before the siege, recording messages for their families. None of them could tell the truth about where they were or what sort of threat awaited them. Was this not just the same thing? "I am sure that Sergeant Markham's parents will find comfort in seeing their son one last time," she said before Toran's dubious expression could find form in words.

"I hope so, ma'am," Markham replied, a wry, embarrassed look on his face. "I'd offer to take a message back for you, but everyone in our reality would know that it wasn't really from their Teyla."

"That is quite all right, Sergeant," she told him, nodding in appreciation. "It appears that some of the greatest differences between our realities are in path our people have walked. I do not think that anything I might say would be of value."

Markham shrugged. "You never know, ma'am," he said. "At the start, when we didn't know friend from enemy, there was talk that you might've had something to do with the Wraith attack on the Athosians on Akai."

"Sergeant!" Toran looked horrified, turning to her with an apologetic grimace. "It was never thought of by us, Teyla. You must know that."

She smiled as best she could. "It is all right, Toran," she assured him. "There were similar suspicions raised here, when Colonel Sheppard's team was attacked by the Wraith several times on other worlds."

Markham, to his credit, did not look vindicated.

"They were wrong," Toran said hotly. She suspected that his ire stemmed from the accusations of his own world, not hers. "You have obviously forgiven them, but--"

"Actually, they were correct," she admitted. She did not want to tell Toran or Markham about her more physical connection to the Wraith, but this could be shared. The embarrassment and anger at the initial suspicions, as well as the horror at their validation, had long faded. Sergeant Bates and his neverending suspicion were long gone. She explained the necklace and its nefarious design.

She expected the response to be amusement, but while Markham had the knowing look of someone who was quite used to John Sheppard accidentally activating the devices of the Ancestors, Toran grew pale.

"We brought that necklace back with us from the Hive ship where you were killed," he said in a whisper, barely audible over the ambient noise in the atrium. "I remembered it from when you used to wear it every day. I kept it with me as a remembrance of you and so it was with us on Akai."

"Fuck," Markham muttered, smile gone. "Did you bring it back with you after the evac?"

Toran shook his head. "My tent was destroyed when the Wraith came," he said, looking down at his hands. "I came back to Atlantis with little more than what I was wearing."

She took Toran's hands gently, unknotting them and grasping firmly. "There was no way you could have known," she told him firmly. "Just as there was no way I could have known. Do not blame yourself for what happened. The fault remains where it has always rested: with the Wraith."

The words meant nothing, as she knew too well. Many nights she had stayed up, wondering what choices she could have made that would have saved Toran and her people's home. There was nothing she could have done that would have saved her own people without damning the Lanteans; to not explain the Wraith would have been as good as leaving them to be culled. And the longer she knew the Lanteans, the better she understood that there would have been no way to explain the Wraith without some sort of proof. There were no such threats where they came from; they would have thought her stories ridiculous. It had taken her a long time to find peace with what had happened, as innocent as her role had been. Toran would find his own peace in time as well.



"Jumper Two to Atlantis," a disembodied female voice announced over the intercom. "We have visual confirmation of phenomenon. Stand by for transmission of energy readings."

The control room was crowded, despite it having been closed to all inessential personnel. It seemed as though half of the science division was present, scurrying like purposeful bugs from console to computer to console. Teyla stood with Ronon on the concourse, leaning against the railing that looked down upon the stargate.

"Send it when you're ready," McKay replied. Teyla could hear him, but not see him. "Can we get a video feed as well?"

It had taken more than a week's searching to find the first star near enough to conditions that were deemed favorable. She did not understand most of what was going on; her knowledge of the stars was limited to how to tell time and direction at night. In this she and Ronon were alike, which was why both of them had chosen to remain in Atlantis rather than occupy space on the many missions to investigate possible leads.

"Still working on it," Colonel Sheppard's voice responded. "But for the record, it looks kinda cool."

"Of course it looks cool," Rodney replied, irritation clear. "You're watching for one of the most amazing astronomical spectacles known to man."

There had been three false alarms so far, stars that fit all of the requirements the astrophysicists and astronomers had laid out and yet somehow failed to do what they were supposed to do. Three times already, then, they had performed this odd ritual of congregating and waiting and tempers were getting shorter with each misplaced hope. Nevertheless, Colonel Sumner and his team stood waiting on the platform below, prepared to leave through a hastily-established wormhole.

"Jealous, Rodney?"

"Yes, yes I am," McKay said. "Now stop gloating and get the data transmitted. It'll take us a few minutes to model the blast wave radius."

She had said goodbye to Toran three times already, only to then take the next meal with him after his departure had been postponed. They had parted with wry smiles again this morning, prepared to repeat the post-failure ritual again and yet hoping that they did not have to. Now, Toran stood next to Lieutenant Ford -- he was not Aiden to her, despite his affability and unfailing politeness. Lieutenant Ford had spent his time in Atlantis with the other lieutenants, none of whom had known the original, and Teyla had been struck by how much he resembled them in temperament rather than being a strong copy of the young man she'd considered a friend. The one she had known had laughed more, been much more relaxed, and she wondered if those differences had led to his downfall. But there was no one to share her theories with; John did not want to discuss him and Rodney had been far too busy.

She did not think it surprising at all that John had volunteered to take as many of the jumper missions as the other pilots; he, more than anyone else, seemed to be affected by the appearance of the men who had died in their reality. He hid his feelings well, as he always did, but she had known him for far too long to accept what he left on the surface for others to see. She had seen the mist people's attempts at bringing his dead friends back to life and his forced, brittle good cheer of the past fortnight was too similar to his reaction to that. She also knew that there was no point in pressing him; his practice sessions had taken on an edge of frustration and anger and she took that as an accurate indication of his true emotions.

"Data stream commencing," the woman's voice said. "Are you receiving?"

"Yes we are, Mary," Doctor Zelenka replied. "Starting the model now."

"What are they doing?" Ronon asked her, gesturing with his chin toward the control room. He had not bothered to attend any of the previous attempts to send Colonel Sumner's team home.

"Doctor McKay believes that opening a wormhole through the exploding star will send Colonel Sumner and his men back to their reality," she said. "At least that is how I understand it."

Ronon made a face. "Sounds like a wild guess."

She acknowledged his reaction with a wry smile. It did and she did not think that anyone felt differently. "It is a chance and it is one that Colonel Sumner feels worth taking. Were it us that were lost, I'm sure we would accept any 'shot in the dark' to get us back where we belonged. It is not that different from some of our own improbable escapes."

Ronon grunted reluctant agreement and turned back to watching Colonel Sumner pace slowly on the platform below. Ronon, unable to imagine an Atlantis not directed by Colonel Sheppard's casual hand, found Sumner curious. While he had seemingly forgiven Sumner and his men for their murder of his counterpart and had pronounced him a good leader of men, he had also made it clear that he did not think that he might have chosen to stay in Sumner's Atlantis -- or that he might have been asked in the first place.

The exchange between the scientist in the jumper and those in the control room continued; Teyla did not even pretend to comprehend what was being said or what it meant except that this fourth try seemed to have a greater chance of success. After a curt back-and-forth, the stargate was activated and kept open by sending radio signals through, even though there was nothing on the other side. Elizabeth made her way from the control room balcony down to the platform. She handed something to Colonel Sumner and grasped his elbow firmly in farewell.

"Blast wave in ten," Zelenka announced in a loud voice. "Nine, eight, seven, six...."

Sumner and his team had already moved to the stargate and were standing in a line, ready for their cue. Up on the concourse, the tension was almost palpable and Teyla had to relax her grip on the railing.

"Go on one!" McKay shouted.

"--Three, two, ONE!"

They disappeared through the wormhole and it closed a long moment later, but not before a muted bang could be heard.

"Good luck and god speed," Elizabeth said quietly in the silence that followed.


epilogue

"Well," Ford sighed, "We're definitely on MJ3-229. The question is which one."

Sumner looked around. It wasn't a planet they'd been to before. Wasn't a planet anyone had been to before judging by the tall grass. "One way to find out, Lieutenant."

"Dialing Atlantis, sir," Ford replied, high-stepping his way to the half-hidden DHD. The chevrons engaged and they waited for the kickback before pulling out their GDOs.

 

feed me on LJ?


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19 May, 2007