Associative Properties

by Domenika Marzione

"How the hell are we going to get owning service raters?" John asked incredulously as he skimmed the paper in his hand. "How many marine officers are in the Stargate Program? And would any of them know our marine officers without name tags and a roster of the battalion?"

Even though Woolsey was gone and Elizabeth's and his own time under the microscope was gone, it was still evaluation season in Little Tripoli and while the fitreps for the enlisted men were almost done, the OERs were proving more problematic.

Across from him, Lorne made a noise that was something between a grunt and a sigh and meant that he had no idea, either. "Maybe they'll make an exception?"

John looked up and frowned. "Or we're going to wind up with a half-dozen officers on the next visit from Earth," he said, already imagining the scenario. "They'll be TDY'ed out here for one round trip of the Daedalus, ostensibly for long enough to rate the marines, then the Daedalus will suspiciously be late in returning, by which point we'll have had to assign them regular tasks and then the folks back on Earth will decide that since they're already slotted in, we might as well keep them and boom! We've got a handful of bureaucrats just like they always wanted us to have."

Lorne quirked a smile. "They want us to have more officers, true," he agreed. "But I don't think they want us to have more Marine officers. They want us to have officers who'll rein us in, not encourage our more... adventurous tendencies."

John appreciated that Lorne used the plural, even if they were both fully aware that the reason for the lack of faith was John alone. Not perhaps as much as it once had been -- Lorne had gotten into enough trouble on his own in his first year-plus in Atlantis -- but John was still comfortable handing over Lorne's OER to Caldwell and Landry for completion. They still saw Lorne as more victim than accomplice and John was torn between correcting them so they'd stop underestimating his XO and letting them continue to believe what they wanted because it would be better for Lorne's career.

"Joint operations back on Earth are making exceptions more and more common," Lorne went on with a shrug. "Either they'll let us sign off on the evals or they'll get ratings from previous assignments. The Marines are starting under SOCOM this year anyway, so it's not like we'll be going off into uncharted territory if our guys end up having only Air Force raters."

John was about to say something about how the marines in question might feel differently, but his radio chirped in his ear and Elizabeth's voice came through.

"Colonel?" she began. "Have you seen Teyla?"

John cocked an eyebrow. "Umm, not today, no," he replied. He tried to remember if he'd seen her yesterday, either. "Is there a problem?"

In contrast with the first year in Atlantis, when everyone was always living out of each other's pockets and there was practically no division between public spaces for professional and personal use, this year John didn't always see his teammates every day when they were in between missions. Rodney had an entire division to micromanage and his own work to do, Ronon was still prone to solitude but had started to make if not friends then at least colleagues, and Teyla had built a life for herself both within the city and out on the mainland. They still sought each other out, but it wasn't that unusual to not interact on a daily basis.

"We had a meeting set up," Elizabeth explained. "Teyla wanted to discuss some proposals from the mainland. But she's not here, she is not responding to her radio, and Lieutenant Osgeny can't find her on the city map."

"Could one of you have gotten the time wrong?" John asked, knowing that it was unlikely. Elizabeth lived by her calendar out of necessity and Teyla was punctual to the point of frustration. But so much had been so unsettled recently, between the Wraith adventures (all of them) and Elizabeth's recall and return to Earth and not everything was back as it should be yet. "Maybe she's out on the mainland or off-world."

Lorne gave up the pretense of not listening in and put the papers he'd been shuffling down.

"Checking those were my next steps," Elizabeth admitted. "But I wanted to see first if you were either with her or knew where she'd be."

"Sorry," John replied. "It's just me and Lorne and the millstones of military bureaucracy."

He smirked at Lorne, who smirked back.

Elizabeth chuckled ruefully. "You have my empathy," she said. "I'll go see if Lieutenant Osgeny can tell me where Teyla went and when she'll be getting back. Thanks."

John looked at his watch. He was supposed to spar with Teyla this afternoon, so if she'd gone somewhere, she would have to be back soon or else she would have rescheduled.

"Teyla's AWOL?" Lorne asked, dubious expression on his face. He knew as well as John did that Teyla was the antithesis of flighty and she forgot nothing, certainly not when it impacted upon others.

"Apparently," John said with a shake of his head. "Either that or she or Doctor Weir got their signals crossed."

"We're still untangling," Lorne suggested. "Maybe Doctor Weir just entered it into her daybook incorrectly."

Because out of the two of them, Teyla was the less likely to make such a mistake. Elizabeth lived out of her planner, but Teyla had had to survive on what she could remember.

John's radio chirped again.

"John?" Elizabeth's voice again, clearly worried. "There hasn't been a jumper to the mainland in three days and Teyla isn't rostered on any of the parties using the stargate since your last mission."

He took a deep breath and ignored the feeling in the pit of his stomach. "I'm on it," he told her. He stood up and Lorne did, too.

"Start a search of the city," he told Lorne, then tapped his earpiece. "Lieutenant?"

"Sir." Osgeny was probably standing right next to Elizabeth and was undoubtedly expecting some sort of contact.

"Who's out right now?"

Across from John, Lorne was typing on his laptop. There were marines on patrol throughout the city, but this would require extra manpower and that meant finding a platoon or two and pulling them off of their current activities.

"Bravo Three is escorting a field mission from Life Sciences to M9W-215, Weapons One is on MJ5-Q9P for artillery practice, and Charlie Three is on an exercise on M34-KG6 but Lieutenant Gillick in on Ipetia, sir," Osgeny replied, reading off the log.

The marines were unlikely to include Teyla on a trip without rostering her -- plus he couldn't imagine Teyla wanting to go along to watch Salker's men blow shit up; she hated artillery because they reminded her of Wraith attacks. "Is there a chance that Life Sciences took Teyla along and forgot to register the change?"

Life Sciences never did anything the way they were supposed to and this wouldn't be the first time they had caused a panic back in Atlantis because of it. John completely understood why Rodney wanted to punt them over to Medical or, failing that, the Wraith. Hell, half of the time he would be willing to trade them for supplies.

"I'll check with Lieutenant Kagan, sir," Osgeny replied. "They left during his shift and he would have seen her if she'd gone with them."

"While you're at it, dial Ipetia and see if Teyla's with Gillick," John told him. "And tell Doctor Weir that I'll be up to her office as soon as Major Lorne and I get the city search set up."

"Aye aye, sir."

It took only a minute for Osgeny to confirm that Teyla had not gone off with the Life Sciences people. John thanked him, then shook his head at Lorne, who took that as confirmation to get on the phone to one of the marine captains about re-assigning men.

John waited while Lorne finished up his conversation, during which Osgeny checked in again to report that Teyla was not on Ipetia. Scientists got lost in the city with a regularity that both boggled and frustrated the marines sent out to drag them back to civilization, but Teyla had an excellent sense of direction and had never shown any inclination to wander off into the uncleared parts of Atlantis.

The last time someone who'd known better had gone missing in the city, it had been Bates and John really didn't want to consider the possibility that the Wraith had left someone behind when they'd 'visited.' Michael hadn't been allowed to run around during his time here, but he'd proven far more resourceful than they might have wished and anything was possible. Including that the Wraith had the schematics of the city and had planned an attack from within as part of their double-cross.

"Charlie Two is already out in the city and they'll just redirect from where they are," Lorne began, putting the phone back on its cradle. "Weapons Three will be in the gate room in ten. Weapons Two and Bravo Two are in professional development classes and can be yanked if needed."

"We'll hold off on that for now," John said with a frown.

Lorne nodded agreement. At this point last year, they'd been boring the marines shitless with NCO courses because they had nothing else for them to do besides PT and accidentally on purpose terrorizing the scientists exploring the city. But now it often required a deliberate effort to get the classes scheduled and run and neither of them wanted to disrupt one if they didn't have to. "Do you want to run the show from here or the control room?"

"Whichever captain is coordinating can run the show from wherever he wants," John replied. "You and I are joining the search. Your boys available?"

Lorne looked at the clock. "They have to get up soon anyway," he replied with a shrug. "Fletcher's with Weapons Three this month and Yoni'll be with me, but do we want additional medical personnel?"

John shook his head. If there was trouble in the city, then they didn't need to be worrying about protecting civilian doctors.

Speaking of getting teams together... he tapped his radio again, changing frequencies. "Ronon, you there?"

A beat, then "What?"

"We seem to have misplaced Teyla," John began, frowning at how ludicrous the words sounded. "We're starting a search of the city. Meet me in the gate room."

He didn't get an answer and wasn't really expecting one.

Within twenty minutes, everyone who was meeting in the gate room was assembled and the briefing was underway. Radner was Battle Captain by default -- Hanzis was off with Salker's platoon and Polito was still asleep (the captains took night shifts when their platoons did) -- but John was glad of it. Radner had been acting commander of Atlantis while they'd all been on Earth last year and he'd had to supervise the end stages of the siege defense and the start of the repairs, so he knew the city best of the three, better even than Rodney did. Radner organized the search parties into sectors, informing them of sensor dead spots and warning them of the worst of the unrepaired areas and other possible pitfalls. All city exploration had been suspended and marines had been sent to search and guard Social Sciences' compound in E-2, so there shouldn't be anyone running around the city except for them.

"If there's Wraith in the city, then they're hibernating," Radner said when one of the squad leaders asked. "We're running logs to see if the sensors have picked anything up since the hive ship left, but it's been more than a month and it's unlikely that there's been any sustained activity. That said, be careful and don't forget that while Wraith telepathy seems to require close proximity if not contact, they can project their illusions from a distance. So use your brains and your instincts as well as your eyes. We've changed radio frequencies, but be aware of transmissions using old code words or unfamiliar voices."

Back up in the control room, behind where Osgeny was standing next to Elizabeth on the balcony, Rodney could be heard issuing quiet, firm directions. John hadn't asked Rodney to come on the search -- he would have, although John wasn't sure how much arm-twisting it would have required -- but in this case, Rodney was better off staying here and working with what he was good at: Atlantis's sensors and systems. Ogrodnick was there to do his computer magic and Zelenka was on hand because he was still the best person in Atlantis for making Ancient and Earth tech cooperate (and, not coincidentally, for making the two people most responsible for each do the same).

Radner dismissed them with an exhortation to be careful and be wise and John caught Elizabeth's gaze before chasing after Ronon, who was stalking toward the door with one hand on his pistol.


The sectors he and Ronon had been charged with were out toward the south pier, nowhere near where he'd fought the Genii assault force at the grounding station but identical enough in structure that the smells and the echoes of waves against the city bouncing off of the walls reminded him. This wasn't like that, but it was still a powerful memory. The only similarities were that they both had people he cared about in trouble and he had to do something before it was too late. If he wasn't already.

There would be no comfort from the other half of his party on that front. Ronon had gone quiet -- yes, he was always quiet, especially when compared to McKay, but this was him being as non-communicative as possible without actually hindering the search. But just because Ronon wasn't being chatty didn't mean that John didn't know where his head was. Ronon was in Runner mode, hunter and hunted both, and he wasn't looking for just Teyla.

The obvious conclusion to draw from "Teyla is not showing up on the sensors" and "Teyla has not left the city" was "Teyla is dead" and while there were other possibilities that John was clinging to with all of his strength, Ronon was not. They'd given Ronon many things in his time in Atlantis, but they could not give him hope. Ronon was already on to the revenge angle, finding the thing that killed her and doing it right back with interest. Ronon was hunting Wraith or, god forbid, the person who had done this. While they all held Teyla's abilities in such high regard and crime in Atlantis was minimal, that someone from Earth could have done something to Teyla couldn't be ruled out. Nevertheless, John's money was on some unfortunate accident or Wraith. Hopefully the former because the odds were better that they could do something about that without anyone else getting hurt.

This was nothing like the last time he'd gone Wraith-hunting in the city, using Ford as bait (a memory he did not like to revisit because the irony choked him) and maybe being a little more reckless than he'd needed to be. He'd been so sure that even if they did survive, Everett's open disgust was assurance enough that he would be facing so much criticism for his actions that everything he had would be taken away if he didn't do something extraordinary to prove his value and worth.

But this wasn't then and Ronon wasn't Ford and John didn't feel the itchiness of Atlantis herself as she felt her enemies crawling around within her like a virus. Even without the ZPM to power the more refined sensors, Atlantis had had enough juice in her to know she'd been infiltrated. Teyla had had her nightmares, but John had had his as well, a sort of permanent mental queasiness that he'd only been able to realize with hindsight had been some weirdass side effect of Atlantis's fever as she recognized the Wraith within the city as an infection and wanted to fight it off. She'd been trying to tell him about the Wraith and John had made a promise to her and to himself that he'd be sure to listen next time.

Of course, the next time there'd been something Wraith in the city, it had been him and, thankfully, he hadn't been able to hear her disgust. At least not after a while.

Today there was no itchiness, no fever as Atlantis fought off infection, and, with the ZPM in place, it would have been impossible to miss if there was something afoot. (All of the ATA carriers had felt Atlantis's revulsion with Project Michael and her reaction to the hive ship, even those who only had the gene artificially.)

Listening now, opening up his connection with the city slowly so he didn't drown under the waves of sensation, John didn't feel anything he associated with fear or anger or concern. If anything, Atlantis felt a little too cheerful, a little smug, and that kind of worried him a little. Atlantis could get giddy, for lack of a more accurate way to describe non-sentient technology having moods, but she was an even-keeled entity for the most part. She was happy to be occupied by the progeny of her creators, but this was different. This was something closer to satisfaction and that usually meant she'd done something and wanted you to look and be impressed. Like the way a cat wanted to show you the mouse he'd killed.

That was what made him worried.

"What is it?" Ronon asked and John startled, as much because Ronon hadn't said so many words consecutively in the hour-plus they'd been searching as for the fact that John hadn't realized that he'd stopped walking and closed his eyes.

"I don't know," John admitted, not wanting to meet Ronon's questioning gaze but doing so anyway. His connection to the Ancient technology freaked Ronon out the same way it had once freaked out the Athosians and John didn't like playing mystic in front of anyone. "Give me a second."

He closed his eyes again, reaching out carefully for Atlantis because diving in to her was like diving into shallow water -- the other side was far closer than you thought it was and if you weren't careful, you'd hurt yourself. Atlantis didn't communicate with words, more concepts and images and it was part Oracle of Delphi and mostly a galactically fucked-up game of Pictionary where John didn't recognize most of what he saw even if some part of him, the fraction of a percent of him that was Ancient, had some sort of genetic memory and answered Atlantis's call. Early on, when Atlantis could still overwhelm him on a regular basis and seemed to be trying to do just that, he'd imagine a map of the city and try to get Atlantis to use that like some sort of Ouija board. Sometimes it even worked, since most of what Atlantis wanted him to know about were structural problems or systems that could come online if he'd just fix them.

He tried it now, fixing the schematics of the city in his mind. Doing this was a fight, it always was. Atlantis wasn't sentient, didn't understand what he wanted, and they weren't communicating with each other in any sense that he'd ever been able to explain to anyone without the gene. He suspected Atlantis thought him an idiot, in as much as she thought about anything, a beloved idiot but still riding the short bus in terms of comprehending what he was being shown. The map in his mind was overlaid with images of machines, of a room, of the sense of a project long idle finally being put into service, of everything except what he needed, which was a location on the map. He focused on the map again, holding on to it with whatever the mental equivalent of a white-knuckled grip was, and finally, finally he got what he needed.

John opened his eyes and looked up at Ronon, who'd been watching with suspicion and concern. "Let's go."

He started walking toward the transporter, attention only peripherally on where he was walking and mostly on the image in his mind, the bright spot on the map of Atlantis. He couldn't hear Ronon behind him, but felt him nearby nonetheless. He absently waved his hand over the crystals to open the door and waited for Ronon to enter behind him before touching the spot on the screen that corresponded to what he saw in his head.

A moment later, the doors opened up again and Ronon looked at him sharply before stepping out. John followed, still not quite back to himself and not yet alone in his head.

As a result, while the chirp from his radio was not unexpected, it still managed to make him jump.

"Colonel?" Radner's voice came through. "You're out of your sector. Did something happen?"

He didn't want to have to explain over an open channel, so he used the privilege of his rank to ignore parts of the question. "Nothing worth reporting yet. Who's in this sector, Captain?"

"Major Lorne's team, sir," Radner answered, accepting the deflection.

"Major?" John asked. "Can you meet me by the transporter?"

Behind him, Ronon shifted uneasily, not sure if they were here to fight or to do something else and trying to prepare for all options.

"On our way, sir," Lorne replied. "Give us five."
 
It was less than five before Suarez appeared around a corner at a jog, coming to a sudden halt when Ronon pulled and leveled his pistol at him.

"Just us, man," Suarez said, hands up in front of his chest until Ronon reholstered.

The rest of the team appeared a moment later and if Lorne was carefully covering his concern and curiosity with an expression of calm faith in his commanding officer, one look at the others told John that they knew something was up and it wasn't good.

"Told you I wasn't imagining things," Reletti muttered to Suarez.

"We didn't think you were," Safir told him mildly, "But your radar in Atlantis seems to be set for water closets and recreational facilities."

"You feel it, too, Sergeant?" John asked, ignoring the banter and the way Lorne's posture changed from forced casual to very concerned.

Reletti made a face. "I've got something, sir," he said, the hand not on his rifle gesturing vaguely by his head. "But I don't know what it is. There's something here Atlantis wants us to see, but I didn't want to look too hard."

John knew Reletti's hesitation had nothing to do with his record for discovering the bathrooms in Atlantis. The ATA-carrier marines were all reluctant in the extreme to let Atlantis back into their heads. Because of his position on an off-world team, Reletti was one of the only ones they'd forced to learn anyway.

"It wasn't dangerous," Reletti added hurriedly. "It didn't feel like a threat or something that could have gone all HAL on Teyla."

John nodded. "I know," he agreed. Reletti wouldn't keep something like that to himself and while Lorne might or might not be able to sense it as well, he wouldn't ignore Reletti's awareness. That he was getting the same feelings as John was both reassuring and worrying.

"Any chance you two are going to tell the rest of us what the hell is going on?" Safir asked with some asperity.

John looked at Reletti, who was looking right back at him with a kind of helplessness, silently imploring him to answer Yoni's question.

"Atlantis has done something," John said carefully, aware of how insufficient his words would be and how they'd be dissected by everyone listening. "And it may or may not be tied in to whatever's happened to Teyla, but I think we should check it out."

"How sure are you about the 'not dangerous', sir?" Lorne asked. It wasn't that he didn't trust Reletti's judgment, but instead that Lorne understood the difference in Reletti's and John's experience and ability levels.

"It's not a warning," John replied with a helpless shrug. "There's no threat to us. Not anymore."

The look on everyone's faces made it clear how insufficient that explanation had been. Ronon looked particularly non-plussed.

"You know how a baby gives you that grin when she's just filled her diaper to bursting?" Reletti asked, looking at Ortilla. "It's like that."

John hadn't tended to many babies, but if that were true, then it was an accurate enough description.

Ortilla frowned at him. "We are going to have to work on your analogies."

"But you get it, right?" Reletti persisted. Ortilla looked very annoyed that he did.

"So we've gotta go find out where Atlantis took a shit?" Suarez asked, confused.

"Yes," Safir told him with exaggerated patience. "Which is why we're going to put Reletti and the Colonel in front to see if they step in it first."

Lorne looked on like he'd seen this show too many times before, which he had. He reached up for his radio. "Control, can you check with our engineer friends to see if there's anywhere in this sector that's drawing more power than it should?"

There was a long pause and they waited, wary of their environment even though John and Reletti had said that there was no imminent threat according to Atlantis. Atlantis's threat assessment skills were not highly valued, by Yoni least of all.

"It's drawing more power than an abandoned sector would, but it's been steady since shortly after the ZPM was installed," Rodney's voice said over the radio.

"Was this place vetted?" John asked.

With the ZPM came literally hundreds of new systems and tools and toys to discover, regulate, and learn how to use and how to disable because they were no longer relevant. More than a year later and Engineering was still working off of the original list, taking a marine escort to various parts of the city to figure out what the hell each thing was.

"Hold on, hold on," Rodney replied, sounding distracted. "Yes. Toivannen and Ferguson were down there last November. The energy output was consistent with shield generation and there were similar stations in other parts of the city, so we let it be. Do you think it's something else?"

Rodney sounded curious and annoyed and a little scared because he didn't want his department's screw-up to be the reason something happened to Teyla.

"I think it's something else," John said, although he didn't know that for certain and didn't know what else it could be if it wasn't part of the shield. "Can you give us a location?"

Another pause.

"Yeah," Rodney replied. "But... can I come?"

John wasn't surprised at the request.

"Full gear," he told Rodney. "And hurry up."

John cut the radio connection and turned back to the rest of the group.

"Do you think it'll be like that time we found the armory, sir?" Ortilla asked, gesturing with one hand in the general direction of E-5.

"I don't know, Staff Sergeant," John admitted with a shake of his head. He didn't remember Reletti reacting to that the way he was to this, but he hadn't spent much time with the sergeant that day and Reletti might not have said anything even then. "Although I hope we don't end up wading through hip-deep water again."

"Amen to that," Lorne agreed wryly.

Rodney was still fiddling with the zipper on his vest when the transporter doors opened, which was good because he missed the marines automatically raising their rifles at the motion of the doors. Instead, he looked up with a kind of grim smile and didn't even flinch when Ronon came over and adjusted his vest and clipped on his P-90 for him, looking him over like he was inspecting a fellow soldier. Which he sort of was, but neither Rodney nor Ronon would say as much out loud, so John didn't, either.

"Which way?" he asked instead.

Rodney pulled out his PDA. "That way," he said, pointing to their left.

Lorne motioned with his chin and Reletti started off, Ortilla following. It was still daylight outside, but they were on the wrong side of the city to be getting much afternoon sun and they turned on the lights on their rifles once they left the main hallway. Rodney held a flashlight in one hand and his PDA in the other and gave succinct directions, letting the marines clear hallways and rooms and not chattering or griping or eating or any of his usual habits when they were out in the field. John thought he knew why. Rodney considered it a point of pride to be dismissive about his competence (or lack thereof) with a rifle or with land navigation or simple safety; all of these were skills that lesser people had to master because they couldn't do particle physics like he could. But this was his domain, his area of expertise, and it was very possible that there'd been a fuck-up and that fuck-up might have cost Teyla something dear (John was an optimist and could honestly hope that Teyla was simply injured; Rodney would go straight to Died Horribly and Slowly).

"Wait," Rodney called out before Suarez could clear a doorway ahead and to their right. "That's it."

John was inclined to believe him; the buzz in his head had been growing steadily more insistent, more present as they'd grown closer. Like Atlantis was a child dragging him along to see what she wanted to show him. Reletti gave him a look that made John think that he felt it, too.

Suarez stood back and waited for everyone else to approach. Rodney was watching his PDA as he walked up to the doorway, ignoring Ortilla's hand poised to yank him back and Suarez trying to keep position so as to protect Rodney from something firing on them from inside.

"Hunh," Rodney said, mostly to himself. "I suppose it shouldn't be that surprising."

John sighed. "Are you going to share with the rest of the class, McKay?"

Rodney looked up, like he'd honestly forgotten that he was surrounded by seven heavily armed men. "Oh," he exhaled. "The energy output is consistent with shield generation both in quantity and form, but I don't think it's generating the shield for the city."

John raised his eyebrows. "Then what is it shielding?"

Rodney, always such an open book with his reactions, looked confused. "I have no idea. But it's nearly identical to the shield protecting the Sanctuary."

Between the proud glee of Atlantis in his head and the gut-punch of Rodney's words, John wasn't sure if he wanted to be dizzy or sick or both.

"Like the one Sheppard got caught in?" Ronon asked dubiously. "In that one room?"

Rodney mastered his perplexed look in favor of one of irritation, which was his standard reaction when he didn't have the answer. "We live in a flying city with transporters. It's not impossible. Talk to the Noeem."

"Are you sure?" Lorne asked, ignoring the reference to his adventures with ascension. "That was a huge shield and it was impermeable. Wouldn't we have noticed that kind of power draw?"

"Not necessarily," Rodney admitted, not even bothering to snap at Lorne for questioning his assessment and John knew right then that that was guilt (not) talking. "We still don't understand most of how this city works. We had -- we have -- no frame of reference to be able to tell what sort of power requirements Atlantis had when she was fully operational. We are using less than a third of her systems, but are at capacity on the ZPM and there could be five dozen reasons for that.

"We could be confusing this shield and its mates with the shield. It wouldn't be the first time we weren't able to correctly trace energy usage. The Ancients didn't exactly leave us with instruction manuals."

"So there are more of these in the city?" Lorne looked aghast and John knew exactly how he felt.

"Maybe," Rodney replied. "The others could be actual shield components. After we deal with this one, we'll get to the others. The Colonel and your sergeant were drawn to this one, so we'll assume that this is where the problem is."

The problem being a handy euphemism for where Teyla had disappeared to -- or just another distraction. John was sure that it was the former, but hoped it was the latter.

"If this is like the Sanctuary," John said slowly, "then why didn't your scientists get trapped? In this one or any of the others in the city?"

And why was Teyla here? They had no reason to think that she had been, but John knew that this was their answer, or at least part of it. But he wasn't sure if it was his own intuition or something he'd gleaned from Atlantis and so he said nothing aloud.

Rodney gestured toward the doorway. "The field isn't around the room. It's inside somewhere. They must not have touched it."

"So let's us not touch it either until we can figure out how to make it stop working," John said, gesturing toward the room. "Will you be able to find it before it finds us?"

Rodney was about to scoff, but John gave him a look and he stopped. "I should be able to," he finally said, holding up the PDA.

"Then let's go," John said, gesturing toward the door. "Gentlemen?"

Ortilla and Suarez led, Reletti being relegated to behind McKay because he not only had the gene, but he also had a propensity for finding trap doors the hard way ("Once!" "Twice." "That doesn't count." "We needed to haul your heavy ass out with a rope. It counts.")

The room lit up when they entered and, to everyone's relief, it looked sadly uninteresting. There was the usual wall of consoles and crystals, tiny lights flashing peach and pink, and a wall of windows that looked out over the city and the beginnings of dusk falling over the ocean. The third wall had shelving, although the shelves were mostly empty, and the fourth had more Ancient computers and what looked like a wide doorway painted on to it.

Rodney was scanning this fourth with his PDA when John entered and he looked over at Lorne, who was standing between Suarez and Reletti.

"If that's it, then I guess we know why the scientists didn't tumble into it," Lorne said as John came up behind him. "I just hope McKay doesn't."

"I heard that."

"Do we know if Teyla was ever down here?" John asked. They'd left the control room before anyone had been able to piece together a decent reconstruction of Teyla's movements before she disappeared.

Lorne shook his head. "This entire sector is nearly one giant dead spot on the BFT sensors. Radner said the transmitter took a direct hit during the siege. We've got nothing out here and we've still got it on the power grid, so we haven't repaired it."

Because who'd have imagined that they'd need to track friends making mysterious visits to isolated parts of the city?

Rodney was turning around slowly in a tight circle, eyes on his PDA. "It's the same kind of energy barrier," he announced to no one in particular. "It's nearly impossible to detect. The shielding is essentially perfect, even better than what was hiding the Sanctuary. If we hadn't had to deal with that, I wouldn't even know what to look for."

"We'll bow to your genius later," John told him. "Can we turn this one off without divine intervention?"

As much as he'd tried to forget about six months of being the Slacker Messiah, he hadn't forgotten that they hadn't gotten out on their own and all of Rodney's genius hadn't been able to free them.

"Give me a minute," Rodney told him, going over -- carefully -- to the console off to the side of the painted doorway with Ronon hovering just close enough to be within arm's reach in case of accident.

Upon closer inspection, John decided that the doorway's borders looked less like paint than those metallic strips people put on their windows and doors for house alarms. Except that it didn't look like it could be anything but Ancient in design and there was no real way to confuse it with something you'd see in the typical subdivision.

With nothing else to do, John tapped his radio and checked in with Radner, who reported that none of the other search teams had found anything so far and that Social Sciences was starting to get antsy that they'd miss dinner if they weren't let out soon. "We're also having a hard time tracking Teyla's moves, sir," Radner went on. "Before she missed her meeting with Doctor Weir, she didn't seem to have any appointments apart from the gym, but we're putting a sign up in the hydroponics garden and the commissary for anyone who saw her to let us know when."

John thanked Radner and exchanged frowns with Lorne. No news wasn't good news in this case.

"Yo, you get your ass kicked yesterday?" Suarez asked Reletti.

John knew that Reletti did stick-fighting with Teyla.

"I did not get my ass kicked," Reletti replied with annoyance.

"What time was your ass not kicked?" Lorne asked with the patient tone of someone used to settling the squabbles of children.

"Seventeen hundred, sir," Reletti replied. "And I already told Captain Radner."

At the other end of the room, Rodney groused at Ronon for looming.

"She seem okay to you, Sergeant?" John asked. He could tell Rodney's annoyance for form's sake from anything he actually had to worry about and this wasn't the latter.

Reletti sighed. "She seemed a little distracted, sir. I nearly broke her arm when she was late with a block. I asked her if she was okay and she said she was and that we should continue. It wasn't my place to force the issue. Although if that led to this, then maybe I should have anyway."

"Then she really would have kicked your ass," John told him. Teyla did not confess weakness easily or well and John knew his own ambushing of her with Heightmeyer had only exacerbated the problem. "Teyla's not like other girls with the talking thing."

Reletti grinned wryly, accepting John's exculpation. "I've got three sisters, sir. I kind of like that about her."

"Hunh," Rodney coughed out and everyone's attention was drawn back to him. "Ronon, go touch the wall inside the box."

Ronon gave Rodney a look, then gave John a look that was both seeking confirmation that John was allowing the experiment as well as some sort of assurance that Rodney wasn't about to vaporize him. John couldn't really give him the latter, but Ronon was more interested in the former anyway.

He put his hand flat against the wall and pushed, but there was no give. "Nothing," Ronon announced unnecessarily.

Rodney nodded, then went over to the space where the door crystals would have been housed if it had been a normal door. In its place was another metallic strip outline and Rodney waved his hand over it like he would to open a door. "Try again."

Ronon did and nothing happened. Rodney made an offended noise. "Fine," he sighed, turning around. "Since it's going to be elitist about whose gene it uses. Colonel?"

"I'll do it, sir," Reletti offered.

John shook his head. "I don't think Doctor McKay is too eager to let me fall through any more force fields, Sergeant," he said. Enough time had passed that he could joke, making light of a situation that had torn him apart inside at the time. He stepped past Lorne and Suarez and crossed the room, catching Rodney's gaze. "You aren't going to let me fall through any more force fields, right?"

"That was your own fault," Rodney huffed back. "You volunteered."

He didn't miss the worry in Rodney's voice, though, or the way Ronon didn't move very far out of the way. Ronon had made it very clear after the Sanctuary how ill-advised he'd considered that stunt to be and that maybe Lorne's marines had the right of it with their protectiveness that never quite bordered on insubordination and yet.

"I thought you were trying to turn it off," John said before he did anything.

The mental noise in the room had been steady, a more strident version of the satisfaction he'd been hearing since he'd bothered to start listening, but it had grown louder as he'd approached the doorway and John knew that this was all tied together.

"It was off," Rodney replied. "Or, rather, it was on but in a kind of passive mode. I want it to be active so we can figure out what it's doing."

"Are you sure it's doing anything besides drawing power?"

Rodney nodded grimly. "First rule of Ancient technology: if it needs the gene, it's not just sitting there."

John took that maxim for what it was worth -- truth -- and then took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and felt for the controls, a little surprised that they didn't reach back. Most technology, especially something broadcasting as loud as this was, was eager for interaction. This... it didn't want him messing with it, he realized. It wanted him to see, to understand what it was (which he didn't), but not to interfere. All the more reason to force the issue.

It was a struggle, an incorporeal wrestling match, but John won in the end, the loud click in his head being echoed by a duller version in the real world. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and stood back, feeling a little drained.

Ronon watched John, muted concern on his face, and Rodney gave him a quick but penetrating look before turning back to Ronon. "Try again," he told him.

Ronon put his hand out and they could all hear the electric hum as his hand came into contact with the field and then passed through.

"Get out of there!" John ordered, remembering how he'd been unable to get free, getting sucked in and trapped in the sanctuary. "Rodney, turn it off!"

Ronon pulled his hand free as if burned as Rodney stood stock still and John sighed with exasperation because one was a relief and the other really wasn't. "You okay?" he asked Ronon.

"Doesn't hurt," Ronon replied, examining his hand and arm nonetheless.

John turned away and nearly stepped on Safir, who'd reappeared from where he'd been laying low in the corner with Ortilla. Yoni moved around him and on to Ronon, who submitted to an examination of his hand that lasted all of ten seconds before Yoni was satisfied.

"Okay, so what've we got here?" Lorne asked. Everyone had come closer, ready to try and pull Ronon free if necessary, but now they all stood in a loose huddle around John.

"It's like the teleportation field we found in that cave," Ortilla mused aloud. "The one Wiebler got tossed through."

"Except it isn't," Rodney said, eyes back on his PDA. "Structurally, it's identical to the containment shield from the Sanctuary. Which had some kind of image generator that camouflaged it with its surroundings. And also caused pain."

John shuddered a little at the memory of it.

"So why was Ronon able to pull himself free?" he asked. "And what's really on the other side?"

And is Teyla there?

"I don't know," Rodney admitted, something in his tone making John believe that he was thinking about Teyla, too. "But we can find out."

John stared at him. "I thought we weren't letting me fall through any more force fields."

Rodney gave him one of the extra-special Are You Sure You're Not a Potted Plant? looks and held up his tiny digital video camera. "MALP on a stick."

They didn't have a stick, so they ended up letting Ortilla tear one of the shelves off of the wall and Rodney taped his camera to the end of it. Ronon held it as it passed through the field and they waited. Ronon's arms were shaking with the effort when Rodney finally called time and the makeshift MALP was pulled back in.

Rodney was rewinding the video ("Make sure you check the time stamp this time." "Yes, thank you. Because I was likely to forget that traumatic revelation." "It wasn't your life on fast forward, McKay.") when Zelenka called him on the radio to tell him that the shift in power use in that quadrant that had been caused by the activation was a repeat of a nearly identical event almost thirty hours previous.

Everyone looked at each other, all of them thinking the same thing.

"That was pretty much right after we got finished," Reletti said, a horrified look on his face.

"Did you see where Teyla went after your practice?" John asked him.

Reletti shook his head no. "No, sir. We said goodbye--" he gestured to indicate the traditional forehead touch "--and then I went off to PT. She was still putting away her things when I left her."

"But why would she come down here?" Rodney asked, mystified. "Unless you spend your days worried about Atlantis's power supply, why would you even know about this room? There's nothing here that would draw anyone's attention for any reason. It didn't even draw your attention--" he pointed at John "--until today. Why Teyla? She doesn't have the gene."

John had no more of an answer now than he had when he'd first considered the possibility (or had he gone straight to probability?) that Teyla's disappearance was tied in to this device.

"She doesn't have the Ancient's gene," Safir said quietly. "But she does have somebody else's."

The camera in Rodney's hand beeped, but he ignored it, staring at Yoni the way John was staring at Yoni -- in horrified realization.

"Doc?" Ortilla prompted cautiously.

Lorne's marines didn't know, but he did. "But why now?"

Yoni shrugged. "Remember who our recent visitors have been. If this came online during the siege, it is all the more relevant."

When there'd been Wraith all around the city, of course. John turned to look at the force field, imagination filling in where facts couldn't go, instead meshing with flashes of what he'd seen from what Atlantis had shown him. "It's a trap for the Wraith."

 

"Why would Teyla be caught in one?" Ronon asked, as confused as the marines but with the extra layer of fear-turned-fury that came with anything involving the Wraith.

"If it's just supposed to be a prison, then all we have to do is turn it off, right?" Lorne asked Rodney.

"I don't think it's supposed to be a holding cell," Rodney replied bleakly. "I think it's supposed to be a roach motel."

John took a step back because that fit. "The time dilation field."

"Sheppard," Ronon growled.

"Oh, god," Rodney exhaled. "They could have set it to anything."

He held up the video camera in his hand and pushed a button, getting a beep in return.

John couldn't see the screen, so all he could do was watch Rodney's face, which got paler and more scared. "McKay?"

"There's nothing here," Rodney replied in a small voice. He turned the camera so that John and the others could see. "It's just a storage room somewhere in Atlantis."

And that's what John could see; just another of the warehouse-sized rooms that could have been anywhere in Atlantis because they were all on the same level and had been built at the same time. No identifying features and no Teyla, who would have known from the last time to leave some sort of sign.

"That's what happened when we went through the transporters after the Major disappeared," Ortilla said. "Only people and what they were carrying could go through. Everything else just went through to the other side."

"I don't think that's the other side of this wall," Rodney replied. "If this were that kind of transporter, then it wouldn't have gone through at all, it would have hit this wall."

Thirty hours. If a couple of hours had been six months in the Sanctuary....

"Turn it off, McKay," John told Rodney, swallowing his own rising fear. "Whatever you have to destroy to do it, turn it off."

Rodney nodded absently, reaching for his radio. "Radek? Pull together a team to dismantle a high-energy, fully operational shield generator. Make sure Selikhova's one of them and bring equipment for handling interactive failsafes."

John activated his own radio. "Control, how many of the sub-level warehouses are on the BFT?"

The marines had nicknamed the city-wide life signs detector after the Blue Force Tracker system the US forces used on Earth, even though the dots weren't blue.

"All of them should be, sir," Radner reported back immediately. "They were undamaged in the siege."

"Send marines down there with handheld trackers," John said. "Now."

Silence on the radio as Radner followed orders.

"They won't be able to do anything until we close down the force field," Rodney warned him. "The PDAs won't be able to penetrate it and it won't be as simple as blowing up a wall."

"Weapons Two is on their way," Radner reported after a long moment John spent ignoring the questioning looks from Ronon and the marines. "They've got PDAs and breaching supplies."

"Tell Gunny Wilder that they are not to attempt a breach until we get the force field down," John told Radner. "We're looking at the Ancient version of SuperMax."

"So advised," Radner responded after a moment. "Can we get anything down to you, sir?"

John sighed. "Engineering is going to have to take lead on this for now," he said. "Anything Doctor Zelenka wants, he gets."

With that, he cut the radio connection and turned back to where Rodney was fiddling with the crystals at the console. For the time being, he ignored the way the marines and Ronon were watching him, waiting to be told what this was about and why they were so sure Teyla had been trapped by a device meant for the Wraith. He didn't know why Ronon didn't know -- between the search for the cure for John's own buggy episode and how they'd been treated on Thador and John had always thought Ronon knew. Maybe he did and wanted to pretend that he didn't. Either way, it wasn't important right now. Ronon, like the marines, would follow orders without understanding why.

"Can I do anything?" John asked Rodney, who was pulling crystals in and out of their slots.

"Have you suddenly mastered Ancient technology?" Rodney asked sourly. John raised an eyebrow and he could see the realization dawn on Rodney's face. "Oh. I, um. I don't know. Do you think you could get Atlantis to shut this program down and let us get to Teyla?"

John didn't, but he shrugged. "It can't hurt to try."

Actually, it could hurt. A lot. His vision was swimming and he was leaning against the wall for more than just the symbolic connection to the city by the time he reluctantly gave up.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. When he opened his eyes again, Lorne was standing nearby.

"You all right?"

John chuckled humorlessly. "I feel like I tried to shit a pineapple," he replied. "What's the sitrep?"

Lorne grimaced. "Zelenka's en route and McKay doesn't think powering down the city will help."

"Why not?" John asked.

"If it's what we think it is, then it's going to have its own power source," Rodney answered, not turning around. "It would also explain why we haven't noticed the drain on the ZPM. Which you know, hey, good, another Ancient battery when we find the thing and disable it, but right now, it's a pain in the ass."

"Can we disable it from the inside?" John asked. Because that's what Rodney had wanted to do at the Sanctuary.

That got Rodney to turn around. "The Ancients were crackpots, but I don't think they'd give their mortal enemies a chance to power down their own prison."

Right, John sighed.

"There has to be some way to get out -- for the Ancients to get out," Lorne mused. "If they had to go in there for whatever reason or if they got trapped in there by accident. Maybe we can send a real MALP through to look around and see if we can't find it."

"Or Teyla," Safir added, coming to stand between John and Lorne. He looked John up and down, then turned back to Lorne. "There is no sign of her or any of her effects. If this is a death chamber, then it will act fast. It has already been more than one day out here. If there is a speeding up of time...."

He trailed off with a frown and John nodded. It wasn't something any of them hadn't already considered.

John was about to say something relatively useless to that effect when Zelenka's team arrived, escorted by marines. Some of the marines were carrying equipment and some had their rifles unclipped and had been security and John followed Lorne and Safir out of the way so that the scientists could get set up.

"Maybe there's another way to power it down," Lorne said as they watched Zelenka and McKay orchestrate a graceless yet efficient dance among the scientists and the equipment-bearing marines. "It can't be a black hole. Accidents happen, shit happens, and there has to be a back door. The Ancients weren't suicidal."

No, they really weren't. They'd scuttled Atlantis before leaving instead of going down with the ship (city), but they had always intended to return. "We might not like their idea of a back door," John replied, thinking of the Sanctuary. "I'm not keen on Ascending just yet."

Lorne made a noise of displeasure and agreement.

"What I don't understand," Safir began quietly, "Is why this is here. It is a completely unlikely and impractical place to lay a trap for the Wraith."

John nodded. "If that stuff's for the shield, though," he replied, gesturing toward the wall with the peach and pink lights, "then it's not that far-fetched."

He didn't think even he believed that.

"The Wraith would have had to destroy the shield from outside," Lorne countered. "The odds of them getting an agent into the city and then making his way to critical systems to sabotage them...."

When Atlantis had been in her prime, the BFT would have found the Wraith immediately, would have brought soldiers running before anything could be reached.

"So then what is this?" Yoni asked, gesturing with his chin at the gateway.

John thought the real question might be whether what was behind them was really for the city's shield. They'd never figured out what everything in the city had originally been -- for instance, they knew that the medical suites hadn't always been medical suites (they'd found a hospital early on and moved equipment over) and their personal quarters in the first year had been offices and labs and it was always a surprise when anything other than a lab was used for its original purpose. Maybe they'd assumed wrongly that this was the Ancient equivalent of a boiler room. Lord knows, they'd gotten enough else wrong.

Ten minutes later and Rodney was making his way toward them, harried and frustrated and John braced himself because now was not the time to snark back if Rodney needed to unload on him.

"I think we have to go in," Rodney said and it took John a moment to recover from the change in speed -- he'd been sitting on the fastball and here was a curve.

"We what?"

Rodney took a deep breath, like he was preparing to bowl John over with words until John agreed. "I know you're not keen on the idea, Colonel, but I think it might work. And it may be the only way we ever find out what happened to Teyla. The camera was running in real time -- it wasn't sped up like it was in the Sanctuary -- and while normally I'd be all excited about that, there's still no Teyla. Which may mean that Staff Sergeant Ortilla wasn't wrong and she got transported somewhere else that we won't see until we get there. I don't have a lot of hope, not unless there's a food and water supply, which there wouldn't be because it was meant to trap Wraith and kill them and they don't eat or drink anyway -- or at least eat, I don't think even Carson knows about the water thing. But if we take our own supplies, we should be able to stay long enough to find her and get out and--"

"Breathe, McKay."

Rodney did, big gulps.

"Two questions," John began, holding up his hands in the probably vain hope that Rodney would let him get both out. "First, what makes you think that we can get out before we're old and wrinkled and, second, what makes you sure that Teyla's alive?"

The second was more important -- if he knew Teyla were alive, he'd happily barrel in there with food and water and supplies to last until either Rodney got them out or they were too old to care. But if she was already gone, not something he'd like to consider but something he had to consider, then he could not risk the lives of everyone else to retrieve her corpse.

"There's a dead man's switch," Rodney said after John put his hands down. Usually with Rodney, after the verbal deluge came the actual sense-making. "Or a dead Wraith's switch, more accurately. We'll let Linguistics hash it out later. Anyway, Major Lorne wasn't wrong -- there has to be a way for the Ancients to get in and out. If only to clean up the corpses. The trap turns itself off after it's done its job, so that it's still running means that it hasn't, that Teyla -- or whoever else is in there, we haven't done a body count in the city -- is still alive. But it makes sense that the time compression would be much faster than it was in the Sanctuary, so if we're going to go in, then we have to go in now."

"How much time has passed?" Yoni asked, already looking like he was considering what supplies to bring.

Rodney grimaced. "If it's at the rate of the Sanctuary, then it's already been years. If it's set faster, then it could be decades."

"Wait," John yelped, reeling from the news. "How is anyone going to survive that long without food and water?"

"I don't know," Rodney sighed. "But she has been. There have been cases in SGC history of people surviving for half a century in completely inhospitable climates."

"Ernest Littlefield," Lorne murmured. "Christ."

"How sure are you about this dead man's switch, Rodney?" John asked.

"It's practically the only thing I am sure of," Rodney admitted. "We recognize the code in the Ancient programming. It was very effective and they tended to use the same version every time they needed one."

John looked at Lorne and Yoni, who were watching him, then back at Rodney. "So we can get in and get to Teyla. How are you on the getting back out?"

Rodney dipped his head for a fraction of a second and John knew that he had to take whatever came next with a grain of salt because that was Rodney's tell. "I think there's a way to use your gene to turn it off from inside."

It was grasping at straws and John knew he was grasping at them, too. "I'll give the order to pack, McKay, but we're not going unless there's something more concrete than that. Teyla doesn't want to die alone, but she'd rather do that than condemn the people she cares about to the same fate."

They've done more foolhardy things on flimsier premises and this was Teyla. But he'd been where she was and he remembered the sick feeling he'd had when, after the relief had faded, he'd realized that those who'd followed him in were trapped there with him. It was the entire Atlantis command and it had been monumentally stupid (as hindsight and oversight had told them, the latter repeatedly) and John had been both horrified and grateful, but horror had won out. It would break Teyla's heart to know that her team and Lorne's had risked sacrificing themselves to let her know that she wasn't alone. He was tempted to tell Rodney to stay behind so that he could work on getting them out, to go in alone or with Ronon and leave Lorne's team out of this, but he didn't think he could sell such a plan because it reeked of sacrifice.

Organizing the mission was an orderly sort of chaos. Lorne handled logistics, Yoni medical needs, and Rodney pulled together a pile of equipment that he thought they would be able to use in the trap to better aid Zelenka's continued efforts on the outside. John was left with explaining it all to Elizabeth and Radner, neither of whom was shy about expressing their opinion at how reckless it was. But, pointedly, neither objected, either.

Halfway through a discussion on camelbaks versus canteens, Zelenka started yelling in Czech and while it didn't sound like a victory song, it wasn't the stream of angry curses that most of them could kind of parse out by now.

"Guess we're not getting out of this now," Lorne said as they watched McKay and Zelenka and Selikhova huddle over a laptop. They were arguing in some amalgam of Russian and English and it seemed to be about which precedent to follow and John didn't have the foggiest idea about what they were talking about, but he could tell that they weren't violently disagreeing.

"Guess not," John said. "You sure you want to tag along?"

Lorne gave him one of those baleful looks that he reserved for very special moments of Commander Stupidity.

John was saved by a commotion by the doorway.

"And here's the farewell party." He gestured behind Lorne to where Elizabeth had come through the door escorted by Matt Polito.

Elizabeth wanted to see everything up close, at least that's what she said when John asked her why she'd come down. He knew that was only part of it, that she wanted to be able to shoulder her part in this should things go bad, but said nothing because that would be tantamount to admitting that neither had very high hopes for success -- for bringing Teyla back, for getting out before the field stripped too many of their years from them. So instead they made stupid jokes about the Ancients and Sanctuaries and why the hell the Ancients had put such an awful weapon in such a random place until everyone was ready to go.

"Be safe," Elizabeth told them as they shouldered their packs, heavy with water and food instead of extra ammunition. "And we'll see you soon."

"Hopefully very soon," Rodney agreed, his smile faltering.

"Let's go," John said, before any of them lost their nerve. Including himself.

Suarez went through first and they quickly found out that the radios didn't work on the other side of the field, which hadn't been a surprise, but they had still hoped. Suarez also didn't come right back, which was the second test they'd planned and that, too, was expected and disappointing both.

"Once more unto the breach," Yoni sighed as he followed Ronon through, right ahead of John.

The trip was instantaneous, as expected. What wasn't expected was what they saw upon their arrival.

"McKay," John called over to where Rodney was standing drop-jawed. "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."


"What happened to the storeroom?" Lorne asked, looking around.

They were not in Atlantis, that much was sure. They were on another planet -- it couldn't be the mainland because there was a stargate -- and while it looked familiar, that was only because it looked like almost every other planet they'd been to. Some trees, some grass, some hills, some more trees. There'd be near-deer in the trees, too.
 
"McKay?" John called over again because Rodney hadn't answered the first time. Rodney was busy looking offended, which was his standard reaction when the universe didn't work out according to his calculations. But as entertaining as it might be, it wasn't very helpful to the situation at the moment.

"How did-- This isn't--"

"It's just like the transporters on the planet with the Noeem," Ortilla said, managing to sound helpful instead of smug. "People get transported and objects without people don't."

Rodney sighed. "Fine, yes," he agreed, turning around and pointing at the stargate behind them. "Then let's dial Atlantis and let them know that, because Radek and the others think we're still in the basement somewhere and most of what I brought won't work at these sorts of distances."

Next to John, Lorne nodded, presumably in response to a query from one of the marines. Suarez went over to the DHD and started dialing. But after he hit the origin key, nothing happened. No click, no kawoosh, nothing.

"I dialed the right code, sir," Suarez said. "I'll try it again."

He did, but the same thing -- nothing -- happened. "Should I dial somewhere else, sir? The Alpha site? Ipetia?"

"Don't bother," Rodney sighed with disgust. "It won't work. If this is a prison planet, then there won't be a way off. I was just hoping that whatever they'd done to the stargate had either broken or worn off after all of these years."

John wanted to tell Rodney that there weren't sure it had been any years yet, but held off. Everyone was assuming some sort of time dilation field -- hell, he was, too. And in the absence of proof one way or the other, they had to go with past experience, which was that time was moving faster than they'd like.

"Oh, joy," Lorne muttered next to John. "Because getting stuck on the planet with the one-way stargate was so much fun the first time."

John looked around. "Well, let's leave a sign that we're here in case they send a search party and then go find Teyla. At least now we know how she survived."

Ronon and Reletti started on that, heading off to the nearby trees discussing what could stand the test of time and elements should they be here a while. That they could probably die of old age before they were rescued was not going to be brought up, not out loud, and John would make sure Rodney didn't start to fixate on that. The Daedalus had taken some pretty bad damage and was limping back to Earth and the Odyssey was essentially unavailable between its own repairs and the Ori assault on the galaxy, so the kind of rescue that had gotten Lorne's team off of their deserted planet was unavailable in the time frame they'd need.

In the here and now, though, Rodney seemed more interested in going to the DHD and trying to take it apart, urging Suarez to use his ka-bar knife to pry loose the panels that covered the control crystals.

"Do we have any life signs on the PDAs?" Yoni asked. He was standing with Ortilla, both of them looking out on to the horizon in opposite directions.

Lorne pulled his out. "Not a one," he replied after a moment. "If Teyla's here, she's not in the immediate area."

John nodded, not expecting the Finding Teyla part of the plan to go any more smoothly than anything else had in the time they've been here. Which had been, according to his watch, fifteen minutes. But it felt like fifteen minutes and not however many seconds it must be on the other side. On the other side of what, John didn't know. How they'd gone from impermeable shields and dead man's switches to prison planets... nothing he understood about this galaxy covered it.

"We're going to be here a while," John said, keeping the irony out of his voice. "So we might as well leave a sign and then get on with securing supplies and figuring out how we're going to search a planet."

Reletti and Ronon finished with their shrine/sign/whateverthehellitwas ("Yo, Reletti, is that Mickey Mouse?") that was certainly built to last, if not also for confusion.

"At some point in the far future, the anthropologists are going to have a field day with that," Lorne said with amusement as they started walking away from the stargate.

John laughed along with him.

Without night vision gear, they decided to stop at full dark. Ronon and Suarez had been hunting on and off for the afternoon and had come up with two near-deers and a rabbit, which was enough to boil into a soup with some of the fresh food they'd brought with them. They set watches, although nobody was really worried about predators of either the two or four legged variety, and it was almost like land nav training on the mainland or exploring a new planet. Except for the guaranteed-trip-home part.

They started up again at dawn. Reletti and Ronon seemed to be taking turns navigating, working out some system between them and John was content to let them do their thing without interruption. He was next to useless without a map the first time through a place anyway and the marines always got fidgety if they weren't doing something. John was well versed in how Lorne's team worked differently than his own did and although his own team was only down one member and he was the ranking officer, it still felt like they were accompanying Lorne's team somewhere.

Rodney was oblivious to any change in group dynamics, eyes on his PDA as he scanned for energy readings, having postulated that the dead man's switch they'd found in Atlantis necessarily had to have some sort of transmitter here on the planet. If they could find the transmitter, then Rodney was sure he could jury-rig it to send a message back home to Zelenka. Reletti had a PDA and was using it to look for Teyla, so John was more than willing to let Rodney do his thing, too, especially with Ortilla walking close enough to keep Rodney from walking off any cliffs.

They were following a stream, going in the direction of the current, when suddenly Reletti stopped the group. "There's something up ahead, sir," Reletti said when John moved up to where he and Ronon were standing. "It looks like a city."

The sergeant pointed and John shielded his eyes from the morning sun, although he could do nothing about the glare coming up off of the large lake it was reflecting off of. He squinted and tried to make out what he was supposed to be seeing. "So it does," John agreed, making out buildings and spires. "Let's go take a look."

Circumnavigating the lake wasn't too bad, although it was a long walk. When they got there, John was unsurprised that it was abandoned -- what else could they expect on a planet like this? -- and let Rodney drag Suarez and Ortilla off to play bodyguard while he searched for their transmitter while the rest of them poked around.

"The architecture doesn't look Ancient," Lorne said as they wandered down a dusty road. "But it's got a few influences. Whoever built this wasn't Ancient, but they knew what that style was."

John tried to pin down the nagging sense of familiarity about the place. Obviously he hadn't been here before, but maybe some place like it. "Hey, Ronon, do you remember ever visiting any place where the buildings looked like this?"

Ronon shrugged. "Didn't visit too many cities."

"No, I meant with us," John elaborated. "Something about this place reminds me of somewhere and I can't nail it down."

"Hunh."

They all stopped and turned to where Yoni was standing in front of a short, squat building, his back to them.

"Doc?" Lorne prompted when nothing else was forthcoming.

"I've seen this sigil before," Yoni finally said, turning around halfway so that they could see what he was pointing at. "The Athosians consider it a healing sign."

John froze.

"Like a caduceus?" Reletti asked.

"No, more like a dreamcatcher," Yoni replied a little absently, tracing the symbol with his fingertip. "Drawing illness and evil spirits away from the afflicted. It is very old and I don't think they quite believe in its power anymore. I've never seen it anywhere else in the galaxy; I didn't realize that it had a wider distribution."

"I don't think it does." John didn't want to jump to conclusions. It had been only once and it had been more than two years ago. "Ronon, do me a favor and go down to the lake front and see if there's a settlement on the far bank. A little recessed and mostly hidden by the trees."

Ronon gave him a questioning look, but complied. If it was there, Ronon would be able to see it.

"What's up?" Lorne asked, motioning for Reletti to stay where he was.

"I think I remember why this place looks familiar," John said slowly. He closed his eyes trying to remember. "We came around the other side last time, not the side with the tributary. And we didn't go through the city; we just sort of skirted the edges. I never saw it up close."

"What are you talking about?" Rodney asked over the radio. "We couldn't possibly have come here because we'd have never gotten home. And I don't remember this place at all."

He opened his eyes and everyone was watching him cautiously.

"I think this place is supposed to be Athos," John said.

"Before it was destroyed?" Lorne asked, confused. "Like a time warp?"

"Oh, for pity's.... if that doorway was a quantum mirror, I am not going to be happy," Rodney grumbled. "Or that fog planet. Trapped in bureaucratic hell for ever and ever. Come on, I don't think we're going to find anything here."

Lorne looked a little nauseated at the idea of a quantum mirror; Reletti just looked confused.

"Sumner left you and Ford on Athos when he came back to report," Yoni said, remembering. "But I thought they lived in tents."

"They did," John agreed. "But across the lake was the old city, the one their ancestors had lived in when the Ancients were still running the galaxy. They'd moved out centuries ago. They figured a moving target was harder to hit."

"Not wrong there," Reletti murmured.

"They thought coming back into the city would bring the Wraith," John went on, feeling a little surge of guilt. It wasn't his fault in that there was no way he could have known, and yet he'd never doubted his own guilt. "But we needed to look for a ZPM -- Atlantis was still underwater and the shield was collapsing -- and so we pressed the issue. Said we'd go ourselves if we had to. We didn't know what the Wraith were and we didn't fear them. And so Teyla brought me here."

To teach me to be afraid.

"And then the Wraith came," Yoni finished. "Are you sure this is the same place?"

"Sheppard?" Ronon's voice over the radio. "There's nothing across the lake."

John frowned. "The hiding place where Teyla took me, I think it should be over there," he gestured in front of him. "It was on the near side the way we came around the lake."

Once Ronon, Rodney, Ortilla, and Suarez rejoined them, they headed off in the direction John had indicated. He understood everyone's doubt -- hell, he didn't want to be right. But he thought he was, anyway.

It took them twenty minutes to get through to the far edge of the city and then John knew exactly where he was going. He was next to useless without a map the first time through anywhere, but put him in a place with landmarks and he was usually golden the second time. It had been dark and raining on that day and it was sunny today, but he remembered this angle of the city. It had been his first time on another planet, his first alien encounters, his first everything not on Earth (or related to the Ancients) and he'd tried to see everything at once.

"This way," John said, starting to walk away from the city. The cavern network was in the trees, away from the city. He was getting a little worried that his memory was failing him -- he didn't yet think that he was wrong -- but then there was the drop where he'd slipped and stumbled with Teyla and, after that, he was sure.

"What's in here?" Rodney asked as they stood in front of the obscured entrance.

"The Athosians used to hide here from the Wraith," John replied. "There's some artwork inside, kind of like cave painting. Except instead of water buffalo and woolly mammoths, there's Darts and scoopy beams."

"Can't hurt to check it out," Lorne said. "There may be some sign of it being used recently. Or maybe the art's different, if we're in some alternate reality."

"Can I be a little weirded out that we're gonna run into our evil twins?" Suarez asked Ortilla, both men standing behind John.

"We may not be evil in this reality," Ortilla replied.

"How do we know?"

"Goatees, man," Ortilla replied. "Didn't you ever watch Knight Rider?"

"So we've got the evil Doc?"

John, fighting not to start laughing, looked over at Safir, who judging by his expression had heard the entire conversation. Yoni seemed to have a love/hate relationship with his razor and, right now, they were not on speaking terms.

"Reletti, sally forth," John said before things degenerated any further.

Reletti, grinning at the obvious attempt at changing the topic, turned the light on his rifle on and moved forward carefully. Ronon went in next and John followed, Rodney behind him. The cavern's entrance was as he remembered it, down to every detail. Which was why he was so furious at himself for neglecting to mention the most important detail until Reletti stopped and crouched down to pick something up out of the dirt.

"Don't touch it!" Sheppard yelled, his voice echoing sharply around the narrow corridor. Reletti jumped back as if it were a grenade.

Ignoring everyone else's startlement, John thought off! at the necklace as hard as he could, with as much 'force' as he could bring to bear on it. He didn't want one of the others accidentally activating it. If they hadn't already. "Ronon, take that outside and destroy it, please?"

Ronon cocked an eyebrow, but crouched down where Reletti had been and picked up the necklace. He held it up and stood, moving past the group toward the mouth of the cavern.

"What the... oh," Rodney coughed out a gasp as Ronon passed by. "Oh, god. We really are in some alternate reality. Or a time warp."

"What was that, sir?" Reletti asked.

My first mistake in this galaxy.

"It's a Wraith tracker," John answered, still 'listening' for it. "I activated it when I picked it up. The necklace was Teyla's and she wore it until we realized what it was."

"And fun times were had by all until that happened," Rodney added sourly.

Reletti was a smart young man; his understanding was reflected in his features.

Ronon returned empty-handed and silent.

"Do you think...." Rodney trailed off. John shrugged. He knew what Rodney was asking and didn't know the answer.

"Let's take a quick look around," he said. Reletti gave him a questioning look. "There shouldn't be anything else here."

There wasn't. The art in the cave was the same, exactly what he'd expected, down to the crude drawing of the Dart.

"Helluva place," Lorne said as they made their way out again. John grunted acknowledgment because he was still half-listening for whatever Teyla had heard to indicate that the Wraith had come. But he heard no whine of darts, just the muttered curse of Suarez from up front.

Lorne gave him a look, then called up to Suarez. "What is it, Sergeant?"

"We're not alone, sir," Suarez replied, an odd note to his voice.

John didn't know what to expect when he finally made it back out into the sunlight, but knife- and arrow-wielding men wasn't it. Six men, all tall and rangy and dressed in what could be Athosian clothes -- or those any of dozen similar planets. They looked like they knew what to do with their weapons, if not necessarily their guests.

"Uh, hi?" John said, making his pose as non-threatening as possible. "We're just kind of looking around. We didn't mean to go where we weren't supposed to."

"Not this time, at least," Rodney muttered behind him, thankfully not loud enough to be heard.

"How did you know of this place?" The leader asked warily. "It has been hidden from man and Wraith alike for generations upon generations."

John took a deep breath. "Kind of an accident, really," he said. "We were hoping to find a village with people in it, but found this place instead."

There was something vaguely familiar about the leader, a man about John's age, and John wondered if it was one of the Athosian kids all grown up. Or this universe's version of them, anyway.

The man gave him a dubious look. "What business do you have on Athos?"

A collective noise from the group as all doubt was removed from the equation. John wasn't sure if he was relieved or not.

"We came here to trade," John said with his best Impressing the Locals grin, the one that promised that he'd be an easy mark to fleece in a deal.

This played better than the Just Passing Through bit had and the leader nodded. "Then you may come to our village and meet with our leader."

"Great," John agreed. He turned to the group behind him. "Let's go do what we came to do."

He got a range of looks back, from Rodney's "I can't believe that actually worked" annoyance to the marines' more casual amusement because officers existed to provide bafflement.

The walk to the village was long, almost an hour away from the stargate, and John wondered how random it had been that they'd been intercepted. There was no way to ask without raising suspicion, so he didn't.

The settlement, when they go to it, didn't look much like the one he'd been to the first time. Certain elements were the same as they were both with the original and the reconstituted settlements on the mainland -- animal pelts and charms and whatnot, but there's no way he would have walked into this village and thought "Athos" the way he had at the ancient city. It was about five times the size, to start with. Whatever was going on in this reality with the Wraith, it wasn't interfering with the population growth to the extent that they were familiar with. Or maybe this is what Athos would have grown to be if he hadn't woken the Wraith.

"This way," the leader said, moving quickly through the crowds. Behind John, the marines were making nice with the kids, offering candy and waving and grinning like the heavily armed Pied Pipers they were. Rodney, Ronon, Lorne, and Safir were a little less at ease with being the focus of attention. He could normally ignore the stares of villagers, the curiosity and the little bit of fear, but today he couldn't. He looked back, trying to find faces he might know, anyone who might know him.

They moved straight toward a large tent and a young girl pulled the flap out of the way as the leader ducked through and John followed, stopping so suddenly once he looked up that Ronon bumped into him from behind and then had to grab him to keep from falling over because John was still staring.

"Teyla," he breathed out. He could hear -- feel -- the rest of the men filing in behind him, but he couldn't take his eyes off of the woman sitting on a mess of pillows. She was older -- much older -- but she'd aged well. Really, really well. And she looked happy in a way that he hadn't remembered ever seeing her, not even before Athos had fallen.

"You know my name?" she asked, curious. She stood up with familiar grace, but a grace weighed down by years and, well, weight. "And yet I do not remember meeting you before."

In all of the variations of what could have happened to Teyla (and, by extent, to them), he'd never imagined a scenario where they found Teyla and, well, she wasn't their Teyla. He'd figured they'd find her, she'd be happy to see them, and they'd get the hell out. The time frame for each of those parts varied with each revelation that absolutely nothing was going according to how they'd thought it would go, but this wasn't on the list. He knew that it wasn't like the fog planet, because then it had been people who had been all too welcoming. But what it was like....

Teyla was standing across from him now and the challenging look in her eyes, welcoming and only a little wary, was so absolutely devoid of recognition that he didn't know what to say.

"They come seeking trade," the leader of the men who'd found them announced, breaking the silence.

"I know you don't trade with strangers," John blurted out, hoping to forestall the conversation he'd had two years ago. "But I was hoping -- we were hoping -- to maybe break the ice a little, make new friends...."

The look of bemusement on Teyla's face was familiar, if nothing else.

"Friendship is a commodity most often undervalued," she said with a nod. "I suggest we begin by you telling us who you are, since you already seem to know who I am."

"And what you were doing in the caverns by the old city," their guide added, a little pointedly.

"Wex," Teyla chided and John tried not to react. Wex? Short, pudgy little Wex? Who'd apparently not put on a pound since the last time John had seen him and just grown tall instead.

John ignored Wex's suspicion and introduced everyone, who in turn greeted Teyla with stilted formality, obviously as weirded out by the situation as he was. It was comforting on one level, but not especially helpful. He was hoping Lorne or Rodney, the most familiar with the history of alternate reality shit back in Colorado, would adjust quickly and come up with either plausible explanations or ways to get home or, preferably, both.

There was an offer of tea -- not the knock-you-flat-on-your-ass super-caffeinated stuff they served in the mornings, but the less potent version they drank during the day -- and Teyla and Wex seemed cautiously amused that everyone knew precisely how they liked theirs. Teyla asked questions about where they were from and what they wished to trade and John hated that he had to automatically go with the answers that had nothing to do with Atlantis because they didn't know the situation and this wasn't their Teyla. Lorne and Safir helped him out a little, the former volunteering (the still-quiet) Rodney's engineering expertise and the latter medical aid. Yoni's was the offer better received -- the Athosians were pre-industrial and had managed their own technological needs just fine, but Yoni knew their collective medical history and used it to his advantage with a subtlety John (and everyone else) tended to forget Yoni possessed.

The conversation loosened up a little after Yoni had struck his deal with Teyla, with everyone slowly making the adjustment from "hey, we found Teyla!" to "making nice with the locals about whom we happen to have some insider info." Everyone except Ronon, who pretty much stared at his tea and neither asked nor answered any questions. John wasn't sure why this was freaking Ronon out -- at least beyond why it was freaking the rest of them out -- but he didn't have the time or the liberty to deal with it right now.

The tea went well enough that Wex didn't seem to have any real objections to Teyla's suggestion of a walk around the village.

"Tell me of your world, Colonel," Teyla prompted as they passed by a clearing where children were playing some kind of tag. A couple of the younger ones came flying across their path, the smaller tripping and falling. He was scooped up by Ortilla as he wound up to start crying, given a once-over and a few murmured words, and then set down to return to the game without a tear falling. Teyla watched the scene thoughtfully. "You care well for your children, I see."

John gave an awkward smile since, in truth, they had no children in Atlantis. Whatever experience they had came from elsewhere. "We try. Someone's got to look after us when we're old."

This, too, was a lie -- when they got old, they'd go back to Earth and collect their pensions. He'd always hated lying to Teyla and the fact that this wasn't his Teyla didn't make it any easier.

You didn't really ask people about their families in Pegasus -- not when the Wraith separated parents and children with heartbreaking regularity -- and so John didn't (even though he really wanted to) and Teyla didn't (because she was polite in any reality) and instead they went along to the tent they used as a hospital, the same sigil from earlier in the day on a flag both inside and out. Courtesy of the fact that he'd packed in anticipation of whatever might have happened to Teyla, Safir was able to actually do something instead of just making a list of what he had to bring back next time and that, too, made a favorable impression. Especially after Teyla submitted to the first exam to prove that no one had anything to fear.

"I wish I felt better about how well everything is going," Lorne said as they left the tent, Ortilla staying behind to help Safir. Teyla was ahead of them, talking to Rodney about irrigation. Rodney had helped with some of the layout of the Athosian settlement on the mainland, but not a whole lot. There'd been so much to do in Atlantis and, as he was neither the first nor the only to point out, he wasn't a civil engineer in either sense of the phrase and best leave the work to someone who knew what they were doing. But now he was speaking with the sort of spastic animation he got when he was nervous and talking about water wheels.

"Yeah," John agreed. "I'm still trying to get around how we've gone from being in the guts of the city to... wherever we are. Whenever. What do we do if this is a quantum mirror?"

John had read reports about quantum mirrors, but had only a loose idea of what they actually were and no idea at all about how they worked.

"Get comfy," Lorne replied with a frown. "I'm not even sure what to hope for. We've never actually lost anyone permanently to a quantum mirror, but we've never tried to use a quantum mirror to lose anyone before, either."

John looked around. "There are worse places to crash while we figure this out, but... "

"Yeah," Lorne agreed, the worry on his face turning into amusement as something caught his eye. John followed his gaze to find Reletti and Suarez watching a martial arts training session. A couple dozen men and women of various ages were practicing with sticks and knives and the two marines were watching with interest.

By the time they caught up to where the marines were standing, Teyla had doubled back with Rodney.

"It is our traditional fighting style," Teyla explained and John fought back the urge to reply that he already knew that. "It is not beneficial in fighting the Wraith, but we continue it because it trains the mind and body in ways that are. Do you have similar forms on your world?"

"We have several," Lorne replied easily. "For the same reasons you do. Sergeant Reletti practices one that is similar to yours."

Reletti had his escrima, Ortilla boxed, but John didn't know if Suarez did anything else beyond the Semper Fu all of the marines practice. He only knew about Ortilla because the staff sergeant had lost the heavyweight title on a decision in the Little Tripoli version of the Golden Gloves.

Teyla smiled, one of those pleased smiles and it didn't even cross John's mind that it might mean something else here. He just took it on faith that he knew what it meant for her and for them -- she was pleased that they had something else in common, that these strangers were living up to her expectations as worthy trade partners. John also ignored the sour feeling in his gut that came from the fact that they were misleading her.

"Would you like to try your hand, Sergeant?" she asked Reletti, who looked over her head at Lorne and Sheppard, seeking guidance and, hopefully, permission. John nodded.

"I would love to, ma'am," Reletti replied with a warm smile.

It didn't take long to set up introductions between the two marines and Sitan, the man overseeing the session. Suarez declined an offered pair of sticks, but accepted a wooden training knife instead. John asked Ronon if he wanted to play, too, but Ronon shook his head and stepped away. He asked Teyla if he could have the freedom of the village to wander around and she granted it with no hesitation. Ronon waited for John to nod approval -- and what was John going to do? Bring him to heel like a dog? -- before heading off.

Rodney came over to where John and Lorne were standing; Teyla was still talking to Sitan and the others who had gathered to see what strangers had come to Athos. They watched the marines get set up and partnered off, winning their delegation more brownie points in the process by knowing the formal motions of respect between Athosian warriors.

"What are you going to need in terms of find us a way to get home?" John asked Rodney. "Do you want to look around for a power source still?"

Rodney sighed. "If this is a quantum mirror, then we'd need the remote," he replied, not taking his eyes off of the crowd gathered around the marines. "And I doubt that the Ancients kept it on this side of the mirror."

"So we're screwed?" Lorne asked mildly.

In the field across from them, John could see Reletti's head among the crowd, his short blond hair making him stand out. He took it as a good sign -- it meant that Reletti was still upright and hadn't gotten knocked on his ass yet.

"I didn't say that," Rodney replied a little weakly. At least to John's practiced ears. "I'm not sure that this is a quantum mirror just yet."

John cocked an eyebrow, returning his attention to his companions. "So what's your theory?"

"None of this passes a logic test," Rodney said after a pause long enough that John was about to prod him. "Ockham's razor cuts it all away. Even if the Ancients kept a quantum mirror around as a Wraith trap -- which is so totally like them that I'm not convinced that they aren't -- none of what we saw back in Atlantis seems to be connected to it. The shield's power signature, the behavior of the doorway, the dead man's switch, the change in environments between what we saw in the video versus what we see now? None of that says 'quantum mirror.' I just don't know yet what it does say."

John was willing to take heart in the "not a quantum mirror" thing. Staying in the same reality got them that much closer to rescue or escape. "Does this mean that we don't have to worry about being in another time, either?"

Rodney shrugged. "I don't think we're anywhere -- or anywhen -- that the Ancients didn't think they could get to if they had to."

The crowd around the combatants let out a shout and they all looked over to see what had happened. John couldn't see Reletti, but he could see Suarez and he was grinning proudly, laughing with instead of laughing at, so he guessed Reletti was still doing okay.

"But that doesn't rule out a time warp or something," Lorne prompted Rodney once it was clear that they weren't going to get a good look at the match. "Or another reality. Just that we're not as lost as we could be."

Rodney made a face, one John recognized as Rodney straining to restrain himself. "Well, yes, I suppose. We can't rule it out. But, again, the energy required to maintain a stable connection to another reality or another time is just... if we had that kind of energy, we wouldn't need a ZPM. So while it would be lovely to have that kind of energy source waiting for us in Atlantis, I'm not inclined to buy that as my first choice in theories."

"So if we're not somewhere else or somewhen else," John picked up, "We're back to wondering where in the galaxy we are."

"I've got a theory on that," Rodney began and John and Lorne both turned to him, but Rodney wasn't giving anything away for once. "But I don't want to say anything until I've gotten some proof one way or the other."

"This isn't the time for secrets, McKay," John sighed. Nor for one of Rodney's build-ups to demonstrate his genius.

"I'm not being mysterious for the sake of being mysterious," Rodney huffed. "I don't want to alter any of the parameters of my experiment."

A whooped noise of exultation that could only come from a marine interrupted any possible answer. John and Lorne had both gotten to the point where they could keep straight faces when presented with barking men, but Rodney still jumped like he'd been stung by a bee.

Teyla was coming back toward them, still laughing.

"Your colleague fights very well," she told them, her voice a little breathy, mostly from the laughter and maybe a little from the fast pace of her step and John blinked because the idea of Teyla slowing with age just didn't seem right.

"He had a very good teacher," Lorne told her. He offered his hand to help Teyla over the short fence. She accepted and hopped over with familiar grace, if not familiar ease.

"That is what he said," she replied, nodding thanks and dropping Lorne's hand as she settled her skirts.

Behind John, Rodney makes a noise; they all know who did the teaching.

They continued walking around the village, Teyla giving explanations and details of the Athosians' history that were both familiar and not. Nothing contradicted what John knew about Athosian culture, but he'd never learned a lot about it in the first place, at least not beyond a couple of rituals and rites. Teyla and the others hadn't been so keen on talking right after their world had gotten destroyed and then John had gotten too busy and then the not-quite-schism that sent the Athosians to the mainland and then there had been no more opportunity. When they got home, John figured he should maybe ask Teyla a few questions.

In the near distance, they could see Ronon. He wasn't skulking per se, but John couldn't say that he was thrilled with the behavior. Not enough to do anything about it right now, but enough to say something later. This was weirding Ronon out and he got that; it was weirding all of them out. But just because this was some other version of Teyla and some other version of Athos didn't mean that they could stop treating this like it was any other first contact mission. And that meant behaving yourself.

"I am sorry he is so unsettled here," Teyla said at his elbow and John turned, not realizing that he'd gotten so distracted that it was showing.

"Me, too," John replied. "He's not usually like this. He's usually better behaved. I'm sorry for that."

Behind them, Rodney scoffed.

"He is not of your world originally?" Teyla asked carefully.

"His planet was destroyed by the Wraith," John answered. You left out the Runner thing at all costs; they knew too well through their own experiences what sort of reception that information usually got and how it really was deserved. "We took him in, but...."

"But he still misses his home," Teyla finished, nodding.

John nodded back, although it was another lie. Sateda probably factored in somewhere, but John was willing to bet that this was more personal. Ronon missed Teyla, hated the idea that she was gone and that they'd lost her in the first place. He was avoiding her for the same reason he avoided the Satedan refugee colony -- he didn't want the reminder.

They finished their tour of the village and returned to the tent where they'd met Teyla. There they were presented with more tea and fresh cakes. Teyla excused herself for a moment after a young girl came in to whisper something in her ear and the three of them were left alone. It could have been a trap, but they were all still wearing their weapons, so it would have been a poor one.

"Hunh." Rodney was holding up one of the cakes, a heavy pastry dosed with syrup. "I hadn't realized that the Athosians had almonds on their world. I would have pushed for a trip back to harvest them."

John looked at the cake on the plate. "I don't remember any trees," he said, wondering why that was unsettling him a little. "They were hunters, not farmers."

He'd known it from his visit, but it had come up when the Athosians were moved to the mainland and were starting their own crops. They'd needed help from Botany to figure out what to plant and how to tend to it on terrain and in a climate not familiar to them.

"This isn't the climate for almonds," Lorne said, picking at his own piece. "Maybe they're something else that just tastes like almonds."

Teyla returned then and Rodney asked her what the cakes were made from. It wasn't subtle, this being Rodney, but Teyla wasn't offended.
 
"We trade for the main ingredient," she answered. "It has other uses, but this is perhaps my favorite."

With a girlish smile, she plucked one of the cakes off of the tray.

"You trade for it?" Lorne asked before John could. "There are other peoples on this planet?"

Teyla wiped her mouth delicately. "None that we have ever met," she replied. "They come through the Ring, as you did."

"Then they go back home through the Ring?" John asked, fighting to keep the urgency out of his voice. If there was some trick to getting the stargate to work, then maybe they could all go home without a problem.

"They must, or else they would still be on this world," Teyla answered, brow furrowed in confusion. "Why does this surprise you?"

"Your dialing device wasn't working when we tried it," Lorne explained, shrugging as if it were an everyday occurrence. "Must have just been a one-time thing."

Teyla nodded slowly. "It must have been. We have never been so troubled."

"Do you ever leave this planet?" Rodney asked abruptly.

"I have not been away in many years," Teyla admitted, looking down for a moment before returning her gaze to them. "Commerce is an activity for the young."

John was about to protest that Teyla wasn't old, but then it hit him. "You're afraid the Wraith will come if you go," he said quietly. "That you won't be able to warn your people in time."

Teyla looked at him sharply and John realized that he'd hit the mark precisely and also that he'd said too much.

"Do you have regular visitors?" Lorne asked a little quickly. "We're still new at this trading thing and it's important that we learn the etiquette as well as how to make a good deal."

"Most of our partners in trade have been so for many generations," Teyla said, still wary. She gave John one more look before turning to Lorne. "It will take time for you to build foundations, but they will come."

The conversation continued in the same vein -- Lorne asking relevant questions, Rodney asking abrupt and sometimes impertinent ones, and John shutting the hell up. Eventually, Teyla made her apologies -- she would love to spend more time with them, but there was business that she must attend to and they were free to wander around the village at their whim and to please join her (all of them) for the evening meal. They would be given a place to stay the night, of course, and they could continue their discussions then.

They left the tent after Rodney ate another couple of cakes ("What? They're good! Eating other people's food is a sign of respect!" "No, McKay, it's a sign of gluttony.") and set off to check in on their various teammates. Suarez and Reletti were sitting, sweaty and laughing, among the others who had been training as they watched the younger children go through their lessons. Neither of them were looking too beaten up and both had clearly made a good impression, which was important -- especially if there was a possibility that they were going to be here for a while.

John told the marines to have fun (but make sure they bathed before dinner) and they moved on toward the hospital, which they found as much through remembered scenery as by the noise of crying. They found Yoni and Ortilla outside the tent, the latter holding a child of about ten immobile while the former did some crude dentistry. It wasn't a completely unfamiliar sight -- John had taken enough doctors on off-world clinic visits over the past couple of years -- but it wasn't a comfortable one. Not with the screaming boy and not with Yoni's bloodied hands and not with Ortilla's pained expression. But the boy's guardians were right there, worry and faith written across their faces, and an informal queue still waiting to be examined.

"Oh, god," Rodney moaned, turning away. "Can we come back later?"

Lorne muttered something that could be either agreement or annoyance. "Stay here," he said. "I'll go talk to them."

John turned to face Rodney -- hey, miserable, bloody-mouthed children didn't appeal to him, either -- and was completely unsurprised to see Ronon walking toward them.

"What do you make of the other visitors through the stargate?" John asked.

Rodney shook his head. "It works with my theory," he said.

John sighed with frustration. "The theory you're not sharing with anyone?"

"Look," Rodney began, annoyed. "If I'm right, then telling you -- hell, even you figuring it out on your own -- may screw everything up. In ways I'm not sure I can fix. So let's pretend that this is just another one of those Ancient engineering problems that I don't explain to you because you wouldn't understand it, okay?"

John held his hands up in submission because it was better than wringing his neck. "Fine."

"Good," Rodney retorted.

"Miss anything?" Ronon asked.

John turned his glare on him. "Don't get me started with you," he warned.

Ronon, chastened, stopped looking so amused.

Lorne returned, giving John a questioning look that he shook off, and they continued their amble around the settlement. Rodney pulled out his PDA, not explaining what he was looking for, and John pointedly didn't ask. They wandered until it was time to get back to the heart of the village for dinner -- John was more than passing familiar with Athosian meal schedules -- and managed to collect the now-clean marines (Ortilla having changed his shirt) and a reasonably presentable Safir en route.

Athosian meals weren't really communal, but nobody ate alone and everyone was provided for. There were other guests at Teyla's fire, some children (drawn like flies to the marines, Safir, and McKay) and some of the village elders. The food was familiar -- they'd all been to enough pow-wows on the mainland -- but, mindful of his earlier transgression, John was careful to ask about some of the dishes that were particular to the Athosians and did not have analogs among other cultures.

The evening beverage wasn't tea, but some sort of flower infusion dosed with milk and honey (Botany had had a hellacious time trying to first identify it and then figure out where it could grow on the mainland) and John had had to growl under his breath at Rodney for him to at least take a sip of his because there was no plausible reason for Rodney to already know that he disliked the stuff.

They answered questions as they ate, sticking to the kinds of stories they usually spun when visiting new worlds. They were new to planetary exploration, John told Wex, who seemed to have a position of some authority within the community, having recently discovered a list of addresses. They were plagued by the Wraith, but not often, and most of the time gave as good as they got. These were acceptable answers and the slight frisson of tension faded. The children, sticky-fingered from syrupy cakes, were slowing down; one was settled comfortably on Safir's lap, half-drowsing as Yoni spoke to one of the old women who'd joined their meal, and a couple of boys were sitting with the marines and teaching them some game. That part, at least. was familiar.

Eventually, the evening ended and they were led to a large tent to rest for the night. There were furs strewn across the floor and suede pillows and the ridiculously warm alpaca-like blankets that were so prized in Atlantis and John and Lorne both expressed their genuine gratitude to the young women who'd led them. John figured Rodney would be the most thrilled at the arrangements -- it would probably be a more comfortable night than they got in their own beds in Atlantis -- but his expression was pinched and he looked more headachy than pleased.

Without Teyla among them to require some semblance of modesty and decency, preparations for sleeping went quickly. Nobody spoke as they stripped off weapons and arranged blankets and pillows, but as Ortilla tended the small fire in the center of the tent, Yoni cleared his throat.

"I think we have a problem."

John looked up from where he'd been fixing the laces on his boot. Safir was watching him, so John gestured for him to go on.

"When I was giving Teyla her exam," Yoni began slowly, "I noticed some old wounds. Wounds our Teyla had been treated for. Wounds that I had treated her for."

All motion in the tent ceased. John put down his boot.

"You sure?" Lorne asked from across the tent.

Yoni nodded. "Without a doubt."

Safir had tended to many of Teyla's worst injuries in her time with them. John didn't doubt that he remembered.

"So why didn't she remember us?" Reletti asked on behalf of everyone else.

Yoni made a gesture of helplessness. "I asked her when the injuries had occurred and she either didn't remember or had some other story," he said. "That in itself is not unusual, especially considering the trauma surrounding at least some of those wounds. But the way they healed... it is not consistent with how they should have healed -- how they will heal in time."

"She's always been a fast healer," John said, knowing he was grasping at straws. But he didn't understand why Teyla would have forgotten them, either. That, in its own way, hurt as much as the thought of them not being able to get home.

"That's the thing," Yoni countered. "Without getting into details, her wounds are decades behind where they should be."

"That makes no sense," Lorne said, shaking his head.

"It makes perfect sense," Rodney said and everyone turned to him. "Teyla doesn't know how those wounds will heal on her."

John waited for Rodney to go on, but he didn't. "Speak, McKay."

"We're not in an alternate reality," Rodney blurted. "We're in a virtual one."

"We're on a holodeck?" Suarez asked, incredulous. "Like Star Trek?"

"Shut up," Ortilla told him.

John felt like he'd been smacked upside the head with a frying pan. "It's like the Aurora, then?"

The crew of the Aurora hadn't remembered that they'd been in a VR, either.

"Maybe, probably," Rodney agreed absently. "The difference is that they were all connected to stasis pods. Their VR was supposed to keep them entertained while the stasis pods kept them alive. This VR isn't supposed to be keeping anyone alive."

"It keeps the Wraith distracted while it starves to death," Lorne said, half to himself.

John let his head drop. Under his bare feet, he could feel the fur. And it wasn't real. Nor was Teyla's aging. Rodney's theory contradicted everything his senses told him and yet he didn't doubt Rodney's assessment, not after his other adventures in false realities. "So how do we get out?" he asked, looking up again and turning to Rodney. "You tried winking out like you did on the ship, right?"

Rodney nodded. "You can try, see if it can be overridden by someone with a stronger genetic connection, but I wouldn't expect that to work. It's got to be shut down by the one who started it."

"Which would be Teyla." Lorne sat down heavily.

John closed his eyes, trying to feel for Atlantis the way he always could in the city, the way he usually could anywhere else they encountered Ancient technology. But he got nothing back. Which had been the result in the Sanctuary, too.

"It explains the complexity of the dead man's switch," Rodney went on and John opened his eyes again. "She's driving the VR, presumably unconsciously. It should turn off when she no longer can do so -- and, hopefully, when she no longer wants to."

John took a deep breath. This was good news, he supposed. They weren't lost in space or time. They were probably somewhere in Atlantis and it was just a matter of time until Zelenka and the others found out where and got them out. But it didn't feel like good news.

"To go back to our earlier question," Lorne said, "Why doesn't she remember us? Allowing for the VR to confuse the hell out of her when she entered it, why doesn't seeing us trigger something?"

Rodney shook his head, not having an answer he liked. "If this was designed as a Wraith trap, then it would make sense that there's something here that would inhibit realization that this is a constructed reality. A knock on the head, virtually speaking. It's accessing her memories to build this environment; there's no reason for the information flow to be unilateral."

"And a good chance something could go wrong if the Wraith in question isn't like the Wraith they had in mind," Yoni added.

Rodney grunted agreement and John felt his hopes sink a little. It made sense, as much as any of this did. Things in Atlantis that were meant for the Ancients didn't always work the way they wanted because none of them were really Ancients. So something meant for the Wraith wouldn't work as intended because Teyla wasn't really a Wraith.

"Can we just tell her?" Ronon asked and everyone turned. Ronon had said maybe ten words all evening and they'd all been related to food or sleeping arrangements.

"We're going to have to," Rodney replied, frowning. "I don't know if we're acting on the VR or not, if we're informing the reality or just reacting to it. Either way, all of us together won't be able to end the program."

Looking around at his team and Lorne's, visitors to Athos welcomed by Teyla,  John decided that what was really bothering him wasn't the practical matter of getting the hell out of here. It was that 'here' was a reality where Teyla had never encountered the Atlantis expedition, where she'd never met John, who had in turn not brought about the destruction of her world and woken the Wraith. Teyla was one of the people John cared most about -- in any galaxy -- and her fantasy was apparently that she'd never met him.

"Where are we now, sir?" Ortilla asked.

Rodney laughed, a short, sharp, ugly sound that John could hear was edged with nervousness. "I have no idea. Probably still in Atlantis, although no bets on that. Passed out on some floor somewhere. Lying around until we starve to death. Which is, remember, the purpose of the exercise."

"We won't starve to death," Yoni retorted with a sigh. "We can go a couple of days without food or water. You know that. And we'll last even longer if we're unconscious."

John knew both Safir and Rodney were thinking back to the episode with the shield as well as to the fog people planet.

"What about Teyla?" Lorne asked.

Yoni shrugged. "She's had a thirty hour head start, so it's more important that we get out so we can get her out," he agreed. "But I wouldn't get excited just yet. Especially if time is moving as fast as it appears it is."

"A year an hour," Reletti said, half to himself. "More or less. So we've only been gone a couple of minutes?"

A virtual time dilation would seriously screw with their heads, but that's all it would screw with. John never wanted to go through that sort of disassociation again, forgetting everything about Atlantis with the passage of time while nobody else realized he'd even gone missing, but for everyone else's sake, he preferred it to the other options.

"Maybe. It doesn't really matter," Rodney replied. "We need to get out as quickly as possible."

Ronon looked to stand up then and there, but John picked up his pillow and pounded it into submission, if not form. "And we'll start that in the morning. I think Teyla will be a little more receptive to our crazy talk if we don't come barging in to her tent in the middle of the night telling her she's really not who she thinks she is."

Ronon relaxed reluctantly, leaning back as if under protest (it probably was, but John's reservoir of patience was a little drained and he'd take what he could get) and the others slowly got back to preparing for sleep.

"At least I noticed this time," Rodney said quietly, only to John, as they arranged blankets and pillows next to each other. "It wasn't like last time, on the fog planet, when I only noticed the little incongruities and not the faulty premise."

John didn't look up, mostly because Rodney seeking comfort was a very touchy business and had to be handled delicately. Rodney didn't like admitting weakness or fallibility and if John didn't have the patience to deal with Ronon's fears, he had less of a choice in dealing with Rodney's because Rodney would be useless if he spazzed out. "It was your turn," he said.

"I suppose," Rodney replied. "I just...."

"Go to sleep, McKay," John told him, not unkindly. "We've got a computer game to bust out of in the morning."

Morning on Athos started before dawn with gruel flavored with berries and the strong tea that John had never quite gotten to like, although he'd drink it if there were no other alternatives. Which there weren't, not here. Everyone was a little subdued and Teyla noticed, but before she could do more than ask if they'd slept well, Reletti and Ortilla started in on Suarez for having more honey than tea in his cup and the teasing was enough to both relieve the tension and distract Teyla. Wex showed up with two sons trailing behind, spoke quietly to Teyla for a moment, then bid them good morning and left, his children following once again.

John volunteered himself and the others for work in the village should it be necessary, but Teyla assured him that it was not and, moreover, it would be hard to conduct business if they were both hauling skins to the tannery. The marines still found things to do in the village, taking an unwilling Ronon with them, and Yoni went off to the hospital to check up on his patients. That left just Rodney, Lorne, and himself.

"Do you want help?" Lorne asked after Teyla stepped away again to attend to another villager's questions.

They hadn't really discussed any sort of plan, but John had expected the burden of talking to Teyla to fall to him and was a little relieved that he had the option of doing it without an audience. This was bound to get personal, for Teyla and probably for him, and he'd rather there not be witnesses.

"Let me try on my own first," he said.

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked. It was clear he didn't want to be there, but Rodney would ask anyway and hope that John said no. "We could--"

"Go get underfoot somewhere," John told him. "Spend some quality time with Major Lorne."

Lorne gave him a look that John might have been more worried about were they back in Atlantis, but Rodney just exhaled with relief. They were gone by the time Teyla returned.

"It is just us," Teyla said as she sat down at the table across from him.

John nodded, looking down at his tea mug. "I figured we'd talk better without all of the distractions."

"There is something you wish to say to me," she said, not really making it a question. John looked up and she smiled. "With age comes the wisdom of experience. I can see your hesitation. Please, if our two peoples are to be friends, then there must first be honesty."

John sighed and knotted his fingers together around the mug. "I don't even know where to start. It's nothing bad," he assured her quickly as he saw her eyebrow raise in curiosity. "It's just... complicated."

"I shall do my best to follow along," she told him, reaching out with one hand to touch his gently. "Speak."

He took a deep breath. "How much do you remember about your life?"

Teyla's brow furrowed in confusion, then smoothed out. "I was born on this world and have lived here ever since," she said. "We have moved our village since that time so as not to give the Wraith any more advantage, but I have known these tents since my birth. Why do you ask?"

John forced himself to meet and keep her gaze. "About thirty years ago, more or less. Do you remember visitors from another world dressed like I am? They didn't know about the Wraith. They found out the hard way."

Teyla sat up from where she'd been leaning on the table. "I remember no such visitors," she said, looking at him intently. "But that does not mean that there were none here. We suffered our most devastating attack in many generations by the Wraith around that time and many lives were lost, including my own father's. Were your kinsmen here? Is that how you knew my name?"

John shook his head, both to answer her question and out of his own frustration. "You didn't meet any offworlders then?"

"I was not on Athos when it happened," Teyla said in a sorrowful voice. "I was away on another world, my father's emissary in a trade meeting. It was the last time I left Athos."

John took another deep breath and let it out slowly. He'd known last night that this is what it would be like, that Teyla had erased any trace of Atlantis's interaction with her and her people. It made sense -- why not forget the worst things that had ever happened to your people? -- but it still hurt to have it thrown in his face like this, to have it go from suspicion to fact. "It wasn't," he said.

"It wasn't what?"

"The last time you left Athos," John said. "You came back with Halling, Talva, and a few others, picked over the wreckage, and that was the last time you left."

He'd been there, unable to look at Teyla because he'd been so wrapped up in his own guilt -- he'd cajoled her into going into a place that she believed would bring the Wraith and the Wraith had come. And then he'd assured that they'd never stop coming. Teyla's pain wasn't the only reason they never spoke about that afternoon or why they'd never gone back.

"I do not understand," Teyla said. "You speak of an event that did not happen, that you would barely be old enough to remember with accuracy even if it had, and while I do not know who would have told you about Halling or Talva...."

"You're younger than I am," John broke in. "I've never asked by exactly how much, even though we've pretty much figured out the conversion rate between Athos and Earth times and you probably know. But you are. And both Halling and Talva are alive and well back home -- back outside of here, at least. And Wex is still as wide as he is tall and this isn't your life, Teyla, as much as you wish it were. As much as I wish it were."

There was a commotion outside, but John ignored it and so did Teyla. He wasn't sure she even heard it. She was staring at him as if he'd just turned into a Wraith. Maybe this was the equivalent.

"You don't remember and I don't know why you don't remember, although I can get why you wouldn't want to, not compared with this. But we're running out of time," he plowed on. "You're the only one who can get us home."

She wasn't even trying to speak, just watching with awe and horror.

"We've been though this before," John continued, talking now as much for himself as for her, just to get words out and hope something clicked. The Rodney McKay school of diplomacy. "You got stuck in my head, which was all sorts of embarrassing, and after it was all over, you asked me how I knew when nobody else did. And I told you it was because it was all wish-fulfillment. It was everything I wanted, or at least that I thought I'd wanted. Toys, comfort, my chain of command not hating my guts, my friends not having died, and, hey, you were there, too and I'm still not sure if it was just random or for some other reason that the two of us really aren't ever going to talk about. But I knew then. And you know now.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm sorry that I'm taking you away from everything that makes you happy again. I'm sorry that I'm destroying your world again. But this isn't real. This isn't how the story goes."

"Stop."

It came out as barely a whisper, but John did. He was all talked out anyway, unsure of what to say. He wasn't used to a Teyla who was a stranger -- who at least saw him as a stranger. And possibly a threat.

Teyla rubbed her forehead as if it hurt. This was enough to give anyone a headache, John figured. Like when he'd found out about aliens and space travel and McKay had nearly fried his brains in the damned control chair.

"What you say is impossible," she said slowly, like she was trying to convince herself as much as him. "I remember my life here. All of it."

John could hear the doubt in her voice, so small that nobody else would pick up on it, not anyone who hadn't spent so much time with her.

"You don't remember all of it," John countered. "You don't remember Atlantis. You don't remember me." You don't want to remember us.

She shook her head.

"Doesn't it seem weird that all of us know about your customs if we've never met? How we take our tea and whether or not we like tuttleroot soup? How we know how to formally begin and end a sparring session? You are Reletti's teacher. You're mine, too, but he practices and I don't."

Teyla held up a hand. "If I am somehow afflicted by something that has robbed me of my memories of you, then how does nobody else recall you, either? I am an elder here, but I am not the oldest."

She was grasping for logic where there wasn't any.

John bit his lip before answering. "Because they're not real."

A more violent shake of her head. "They are as real as you or I!"

He forced himself to unclench the hand gripping the mug tight enough to break it. "Yes and no. You'll have to get McKay to explain how everything works. I was never a Trekkie. But they're not any more real than my friends were back when we were in the Colorado Springs in my mind. We just wished that they were."

Teyla was about to say something when Lorne and McKay came running into the tent.

"You fixed it?" Rodney asked John, hopeful and breathless. He looked at Teyla. "Do you remember who you are?"

"No," John answered for the both of them, annoyed at the interruption even though the conversation wasn't going very well. Rodney was impatient, but Lorne knew better. "I thought we were going to go find you."

"That was before we had our Matrix moment," Lorne explained with a rueful frown. "Everything kind of flickered for a second and we thought that was a sign."

John hadn't noticed anything. "Are you sure?"

"It was like a glitch on a DVD," Lorne said, nodding. "Nobody but the two of us noticed it, though."

Ignoring Teyla's bewildered look, John turned to Rodney. "Could this be Zelenka figuring out whatever it is?"

Rodney grimaced. "Maybe," he said. "Or it could have been Teyla."

All three of them looked at her. Teyla looked back, a little wide-eyed and very frightened. More frightened than John had ever seen her and he hated that he was the cause.

"You believe us, don't you?" Rodney asked, crossing the tent to come to the table. "You know that this isn't real. That this a giant, mechanically-induced hallucination. That--"

"Stop!" Teyla and John both shouted.

"Jesus, McKay," John gritted out. "Back off."

"I'm not doing this to hurt her," Rodney retorted, annoyed and serious. "But she's running out of time and I don't know what sort of corrective features this program has. What it could do to her -- or to us -- for not sticking with the program."

John looked at Lorne, who nodded. He'd go gather everyone else.

"Listen to me, Teyla," Rodney began, sitting on the far end of the table on Teyla's side. "I know it sounds like we're making no sense. But we're not crazy. We're not here to hurt you. We're here to save you. We're your friends and we care what happens to you. Sheppard's right -- whatever he said. This place isn't real and it isn't safe for you anymore. It won't be safe for us, soon, either."

Teyla closed her eyes and two tears rolled down her cheeks. On impulse, John reached out for her hand. "Teyla, please."

"I used to dream," she said in a tiny voice, barely more than a whisper. "I used to dream of a place I had never been. It was the home of the Ancestors. I do not know how I knew that, but I was sure of it."

"Atlantis," Rodney told her, voice gentler than it had been before. "You live in Atlantis."

"I have not dreamed of that place in many years," she went on, gripping John's hand tightly. He squeezed back. "I had forgotten about it until you arrived. But now you say that this is the dream and I do not know what to do."

"Have faith," John told her. "When we first came to Athos -- the real Athos -- with our crazy story, you chose to believe us. Believe in us. And it cost you a lot, but you've never stopped believing in us. Believe us again, Teyla."

"This is all that I remember," she said, the hand not gripping his wiping tears from her cheeks. "Whatever the truth may be, this is all that I have known for so many years. You are asking me to refuse everything that I believe myself to be."

"We're asking you to accept that you're more than you believe yourself to be," Rodney corrected, not unkindly.

They were quiet for a moment and John could hear the bustle of the village outside the tent. He didn't know what he'd do if they were interrupted by one of the Athosians; the scene probably looked threatening from the outside. Hell, it probably looked threatening to Teyla, too.

"What would happen to everyone here?" Teyla asked. "If I were to accompany you."

John looked at Rodney and silently pleaded for him to break it to her gently.

"They'd live on in your memory," Rodney said after a pause. "This place is built out of your memories, so they'd stay there."

He didn't know what they'd do if Teyla had to watch her constructed world disappear around her, melting into the warehouse or wherever they actually were.

A rustle from the tent's entrance and Ronon appeared. He gestured behind him and John nodded. Lorne's team was waiting outside.

Teyla's grip on his hand suddenly tightened and John turned back. Her eyes were closed tightly and she was very obviously in pain. "Teyla!"

"It hurts," she gasped, then fainted. Ronon came across the room in a heartbeat and John leaned across the table as Rodney slid down and between the three of them, they kept her from hitting the floor. Ronon carried her over to the pillows in the rear.

"Safir!" John called.

Yoni was there almost immediately, pushing them aside and muttering to himself as he worked. When he sat back on his haunches, John leaned forward.

"There's no way to tell if the cause is internal or external to the virtual reality," Yoni said. "It's too soon for her body to be affected by something like dehydration, but we don't know what sort of physical environment she's in -- that we're in, too."

John looked over at Rodney. "'Corrective features'?"

Rodney shrugged. "This place was built to kill everyone inside," he said bleakly. "Anyone who can escape the VR can escape the physical space."

"So we have to wait here until she wakes up?" Ronon asked.

"If she does," Rodney replied.

John looked at Yoni, who grimaced.

"It's more than a simple faint," he said, then looked behind John. "And perhaps we'd better start worrying about what the Athosians will think that their leader has fallen ill surrounded only by strangers."

John looked over his shoulder to the tent entrance. Beyond it, he could see the marines and Lorne, who had been paying attention to what was going on with Teyla but were now talking to the locals in a conversation that was getting heated. People were always walking in and out of Teyla's tent and the fact that Lorne and the marines were trying to keep that from happening was bound to draw even more attention.

"Crap," John sighed. It was better that Lorne was trying to talk them out of this than him or Rodney, but even Lorne's amazing placation skills were going to be put to the test.

"Sorry, sir," Lorne said a half hour later as they were herded back to the tent they'd slept in, hands behind their heads. Wex had been in no mood for placating. Their weapons were taken and their packs commandeered and guards were posted and this was starting to look not very good.

"You did the best that you could," John replied with a shrug. "They didn't kill us right away, at least. Can they do that if they're not real?"

"Yes," Rodney said as he settled himself on what had been his bed only a couple of hours earlier. "A gunshot here won't lead to us bleeding in the real world, but our brains won't know the difference."

"Great," John sighed, then turned to Ronon. "You still carrying?"

Ronon gave him a look in response that clearly indicated that that had been a very stupid question.

"Do you have enough to share with the class?"

Ronon nodded, pulling out a few knives and then putting them back in their hiding places. The marines, who hadn't seen the act before, were impressed.

"Did something happen to Teyla because of the flickering, sir?" Reletti asked once they'd been quiet for a few minutes.

"You saw it?" Rodney asked.

"Yes, sir," Reletti replied. "When we were going out to the training fields. The whole world flickered, really fast, like the power had been cut for a second. And then again right before the Colonel called for Doctor Safir."

John looked over at Rodney, who looked back, a thoughtful expression on his face. "If I'm right, and I usually am, then the flickering was caused by Teyla questioning this reality. Her fainting could have been the VR's defensive reaction or it could have been something external or it could have been some glitch caused by the fact that she's only genetically similar and not genetically identical to the intended target. In which case there could be brain damage and I have no idea what we'll do."

"So we still don't know if we can wake her up," John summarized, rushing past the notion of brain damage before Rodney could elaborate or anyone else could dwell on it. "And that's still our only way out?"

"Until she dies?" Rodney asked rhetorically. "There's always a chance Radek and Selikhova can figure out what's going on. Selikhova is uncanny with that sometimes. Do you know that she identified--"

"Later, McKay," John cut him off. "We need to get back to Teyla and see if we can't wake her up."

"The Athosians are probably working on that for us," Lorne pointed out.

"But they don't know what they're doing," Rodney retorted. "Their medicine is roots and herbs and folk lore. At least we have a real doctor."

"Ah, the circumstances by which the great Rodney McKay finally confesses that medicine is a science," Yoni muttered, sarcasm posing as gratitude.

"I didn't say that," Rodney retorted.

"How would you like to work this, sir?" Lorne asked a little louder than necessary.

Scouting out their prison, sadly an activity they were all getting too good at, was done by hand signals and in silence. Ronon and the marines did the legwork and Lorne pulled back furs and blankets to draw up a representation in the dirt. Ronon gave the marines knives so that they could cut eyeholes in the duck cloth that the tent was made out of. In a short time, Lorne's map grew, becoming a schematic of first their immediate surroundings and then further out as the sun rose and sightlines improved. They'd gotten far enough in one direction to be mapped to the edge of the village when Yoni, who'd been on watch, whistled.

The map was covered by the time Wex strode in, two armed men behind him. John thought it was a really inopportune moment to realize that Wex kind of looked like Faromir from the Tolkien books.

"Come with us," Wex told Yoni, who was sitting indian-style on his bedroll.

Yoni looked over at John and Lorne. John nodded -- they needed to get Teyla the best care possible and, Rodney's backhanded comments aside, that was Safir. Yoni got up slowly.

"He doesn't go alone," John said. Wex and the Athosians thought that they were responsible for Teyla's falling ill and they would expect Yoni to know how to fix it. John had a high opinion of Yoni's martial skills, but he didn't want Yoni taking on the entire village guard by himself when they found out that he couldn't wake Teyla.

Wex turned. "And who are you to dictate terms?"

"The one responsible for him going home in one piece," John replied evenly. "Besides, he needs his assistant."

Ortilla, thankfully, picked up on where John was going and made to rise -- slowly. He was a big man, bigger than Ronon even, and he could be intimidating simply by moving.

"Assistant," Wex repeated, testing out the word and finding it improbable. Which was understandable.

"Where is my gear?" Yoni asked, breaking the tableau. "Where did you take the satchel that I brought?"

"We'll retrieve it," Wex said, still looking at John and glancing at the now-standing Ortilla. "Let's go."

Ortilla didn't ask for permission, just tagged along and Wex allowed it. Yoni didn't turn back, but Ortilla did, a quick nod to Lorne before ducking through the tent opening. John looked over his shoulder and saw the concern on Lorne's face before it disappeared.

"They'll be fine," John said, mostly because it was expected. He believed it, mostly, too.

Lorne grimaced. "Yeah."

"I'll go sit watch," Rodney said, standing a little clumsily. "Let's just get the hell out of here."

Lorne pulled back the fur covering the map and John took Ortilla's place as observer along one wall.

They were fed, lunch brought to them by two young men who wouldn't meet their eyes or answer their questions. Reletti thought that one of them had been a sparring partner the day before.

The plan wasn't that complicated -- get out, get their weapons, get Safir and Ortilla back, get Teyla, and get the hell out of Dodge. Hopefully in that order. But it was complicated by the fact that the Athosians weren't your typical rural pre-industrial society. They were hunters, trained to use their wits and their senses against their prey, and they weren't real. The not-real thing was good in that they didn't have to worry about collateral damage (they didn't want to be reckless, but there couldn't be any harm in doing damage to a computer-generated construct) and it was bad because Teyla had imagined them into being and Teyla thought the world of Athosian hunters -- which, Rodney warned, could make them idealized to the point of being unbeatable.

If they'd had night vision gear with them, they'd have waited until darkness. But without goggles, the Athosians (real or virtual) were better suited to night action and so they chose to go before the sun fell.

They cut a flap in the side of the tent that was nearest to another and thus didn't have any traffic alongside it. Reletti slipped through -- his skills was better suited to urban recon than either Ronon or Suarez -- and they waited for him to scout out their planned route. John took comfort in that it seemed like the Athosians really weren't used to having prisoners; the guards were protecting only against a breakout through the one entrance and hadn't done even one circuit around the tent. They'd taken their visible weapons and that had been deemed sufficient.

Reletti was taking longer than they'd have liked, but there weren't any audible indications that he'd been caught and so they waited. Nonetheless, when he returned, rolling through the flap with no warning (and nearly getting filleted by Ronon for his stealth), they all breathed a sigh of relief.

"We'll be fine through the village," Reletti began after they'd convened around the map, gesturing at a path with his finger, "but we're going to have a problem if we follow the river back to the old city. It's all flat and open for the first five klicks. There's a shallow defilade on the other side of the river, not enough for full protection but better than nothing, but I didn't see a crossing and there weren't any boats. The surface current's not that strong and we might be able to get across if we rope together."

"What about the other direction?" John asked. "Against the current."

Reletti grinned. "That was going to be my recommendation, sir. If we can clear the village without getting spotted, then we can take advantage of the forest to hide us on the horizon. We can follow the river upstream -- the bank is pretty firm and rocky enough that we won't be leaving tracks -- and maybe we'll find a place to cross. And we'll be going away from the stargate, which is not where they'll be guessing we'll be headed to escape."

They'd chosen the old city to hide in because it was an urban environment and evened the odds a little, but it really didn't matter where they hid so long as they didn't get found. It's not as if they could use the stargate if they got to it.

"Did you get a bead on our people?" Lorne asked.

"Yes, sir," Reletti replied. "They're in Teyla's tent, along with all of our gear. Doc was arguing with someone when I got close enough to hear. He said something about trepanning not being a good idea."

"No shit," Lorne replied sourly. "How heavy is the guard there?"

"At least a couple of guys on Doc and Ortilla, sir," Reletti answered. "Wex and some others keep going in and out. It was hard to get close enough to get a good look inside."

John nodded. "You did good, Sergeant."

"Thank you, sir."

John looked at the map as Lorne added in Reletti's details. They needed a way to get to Teyla; it didn't sound like any sort of assault on the tent would be a good idea.

"We should start a fire."

Everyone looked over at Ronon.

"It'll distract everyone," Ronon went on. "If this isn't real, then there's no damage."

"It'll work," John agreed, then looked back down at the map. Teyla's tent was in the opposite direction of where they'd be going if they went against the current of the river. "But where do we set it to draw people to where we won't be going and still misdirect them into believing we're heading for the stargate?"

Ronon pushed out of his crouch and came over to the map, putting his finger down in a spot that was on the opposite side of the village from the river, near the hospital and granary.

"Everyone'll rush to save the sick and the food," Lorne murmured. "Hey, at least we know it'll work."

Because it had on Malthusa.

Ronon was chosen to play pyromaniac, mostly because he was restless. He returned quickly, nodding when John asked him if he'd done what he wanted, and then they waited.

On a world lit only by fire, the smell of smoke wasn't necessarily a cause for alarm, so it took a while. When it did, however, it was a doozy. There were necessarily routines and assigned jobs in case of fire, there had to be, but the Athosians were used to a tent catching, not half of their village. Ronon had set several fires that were now growing into a unified blaze, at least that's what it sounded like, and soon it was time to act.

John went over to the guards, who drew their knives when he popped his head out of the tent, but he put his hands up in submission and they relaxed.

"We can help," he said. "With the fire. Six extra pairs of hands can carry a few more buckets. You sound like you need all the help you can get."

The older of the guards gave him a cock-eyed look.

"Listen," John went on in his best Placating the Locals voice, "We're only being held because of a misunderstanding and a coincidence. We didn't do anything to Teyla. We only came here to trade. We've helped with your sick and we've played with your kids and we've eaten your food. I'm sorry that this isn't working out for either of us, but you guys aren't going to be very good trade partners to anyone if your village burns down."

After a moment's thought, the older guard nodded. "You may help, but do not take advantage of us in our time of crisis."

"Wouldn't dream of it," John said mildly. He turned back to the tent. "Come on, guys."

Reletti and Ronon took down the guards easily. Suarez and Ronon went running for Teyla's tent with the instructions to get their gear and bring Ortilla, Safir, and Teyla to the river. John let Reletti lead the rest of them away from the heat and smoke of the fire, which was creeping steadily toward tragic inferno. John knew that this wasn't real, that he wasn't risking the lives of actual people, but it was still not the best feeling he'd ever had while escaping from custody.

They had to avoid the bucket brigades, so getting to the river by the trees took longer than they'd have liked. They made it, though, and the other half of their group showed up two minutes later. Ortilla was carrying a swaddled Teyla and Safir, Suarez, and Ronon were carrying their gear.

"Let's go," John said once they were all armed and ready.

Reletti took point, moving them quickly to the narrow strip of rock and hard-packed mud that ran between the start of the forest and the muddier edge of the riverbank. It was still afternoon and the sun was behind them as they half-ran, trying to gain as much ground as they could before it was discovered that they were missing. Ronon was bringing up the rear, keeping an eye on McKay and watching for any pursuers, and John looked ahead, trying to see what was ahead of them beyond merely "away."

They stopped after the first hour, mostly so that Ortilla and Ronon could switch Teyla between them. The ground was growing less even, not to the point where it would prove difficult (although John didn't miss Rodney's tired sigh as he collapsed to the earth once they halted), but enough so that it would slow them down some.

They made much less ground in the second hour, as could be expected, but the river was narrowing and John had hope that they'd be able to cross it soon. They stopped again for a couple of minutes and drank from their canteens in silence. Yoni checked on Teyla, but she was stable.

It was during the third hour that the first flicker happened. At first, John thought it was simply trick of his eyes, an effect of exhaustion -- they were all pretty much going on empty by now. But after it happened again, Reletti halted and everyone else stopped and looked at each other and then at Teyla, who was back with Ortilla. But Teyla was as unconscious as ever.

"Does this mean something's happening on the outside, sir?" Suarez asked.

John looked at Rodney, who was watching Teyla with a horrified expression. "Maybe," he answered, turning back to Suarez. "Hopefully, it's Doctor Zelenka working a miracle."

Nothing happened after ten minutes, so John got everyone moving again. They were walking now and John had neither the energy nor the impetus to force a faster pace. The flicker, whatever had caused it in the outside world, was a harbinger of the end in here. One way or the other. John hoped with everything he had that it was Zelenka's doing and not anything being done to Teyla.

There was another set of flickers about half an hour later, the world flashing like a strobe light in a disco. Everyone stopped, momentarily disoriented and unbalanced. Ronon, carrying Teyla, took a knee.

"What's going to happen if this--" Lorne gestured to indicate the flickering around them "--is because of Teyla?"

Rodney shook his head, not wanting to speak of her death. "The simulation should end," he said simply.

"So we'll all wake up back in the real world?" John asked. He hadn't really focused on that possible outcome. He'd concentrated solely on getting Teyla out safely. "We'll all be let go?"

A shrug. "This wasn't designed to trap humans or Ancients," Rodney replied. "There's a chance that the VR will continue and control will devolve to the next person through the trap, which was Sergeant Suarez, but I'm not counting on it. The dead man's switch is there for a reason."

"Don't wanna wake up in your fantasy world," Reletti told Suarez with a frown.

In the end, they neither woke up in the imagined reality of Sergeant Suarez nor in an empty warehouse in Atlantis.


"Just give me the aspirin and leave me alone, Clayton."

"No such luck, babe. Now stick out your arm or I get the very nice sergeant to do it for you."

John opened his eyes to the very familiar sights of the infirmary.

"Hey."

He turned his head to see Elizabeth perched on a stool next to his bed. He grinned at her, but it turned into a grimace as he tried to sit up.

"Headache?" she asked quietly, reaching over to the table for a glass of water and a medicine cup when he grimaced. "Thankfully, that seems to be the worst of it for everyone."

John took the pills and the water, then looked around. Everyone was accounted for, including -- thank god -- Teyla, who was the only one under covers and dressed in scrubs. Lorne was sitting up, talking quietly to Radner and Polito, and Rodney was on his bed talking to Carson. Ronon got up when John looked over, ignoring the muted protest of the nurse, and crossed the room toward John and Elizabeth. Ortilla was sitting next to Suarez and Patchok while Reletti was still unconscious on a bed in the corner. John wondered if it was a gene-related thing.

"How's Teyla?" John asked Elizabeth as Ronon came to stand on the other side of the bed.

Elizabeth frowned and shrugged. "A little worse for wear, but the scan came back clear. She's mostly just sleeping it off, Carson said."

"And Reletti?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Sergeant Reletti is just sleeping. He was up earlier, but dozed off again. Lieutenant Patchok and Major Lorne seemed unsurprised."

John nodded as much as his splitting headache would allow. "You good?" he asked Ronon, who shrugged.

"What happened?" John asked as Clayton waved to him from Yoni's bedside. Yoni was saying something unpleasant to her, but she was ignoring him judging by her smile and his frown.

"Doctor Zelenka found a way to turn off the trap's shield and the marines blew out a wall to get you out," Elizabeth replied. "At least that's the short version."

The longer version would not doubt be more entertaining and informative, but it would also come with endless meetings and a lot of paperwork, so it was a tradeoff he was willing to make for now.

"Is there a chance that we've got any more of those things in the city?" John asked, smiling ruefully at Clayton, who was now standing at the foot of his bed reading something off of her tablet.

"We're still looking," Elizabeth replied, then turned to Clayton. "Do you need me to get out of your way, Nancy?"

Clayton shook her head no. "Colonel Sheppard is in here enough that we have all of his records up to date," she said with a wry smile. "Yoni's just getting work done because he's eight months overdue for his annual physical and Carson figures he'll take what opportunities he can get that don't involve tying anyone up or down."

John smiles a little ruefully. Good to see that something positive out of his propensity to return to Atlantis bloodied and dented.

The clock on the wall said that it had only been about six hours since they'd gone into the VR, but John still felt like he'd just returned from a three-day mission. After getting permission from Clayton to get up and move around and promising Elizabeth that he'd check in with her tomorrow morning (it was already close to midnight and she was yawning), John ambled over to where Lorne was sitting with the two captains. Ronon didn't follow, instead disappearing out the door. John knew Clayton had seen him leave, so apparently it was allowed.

"Doctor Z thinks it's an illegal experiment, sir," Radner said when John asked about whether they'd learned anything about the trap. "It's not listed anywhere on the rosters of equipment to use against the Wraith, but they're doing a full search of the Ancient database and the first hit that came back was a failed proposal for something called a 'mind trap.' But it should have never been built, or at least we haven't found where they changed their mind."

"Unless they never bothered to record the change for posterity," Polito added. "Which would be completely unlike the Ancients, who were so scrupulous with their documentation and their ethics."

Everyone grinned at the sarcasm. The Ancients had sucked at paperwork.

"But considering where it was," Polito went on, "It probably was being done on the sly. Social Science's contribution to the evening thus far has been to inform us that the building had been some kind of scriptorium."

'They're still upset about being quarantined, sir," Radner added dryly. "We made them late to supper."

Because of the hour and everyone's busy day (in the real world and not), they agreed to move all of the important discussions to the following morning. Polito let Patchok rouse his marines -- Reletti reacting with a bit too much force when Suarez woke him by grabbing his ankle -- and, with Radner, took them off to be reunited with their platoon.

"You're going to stay?" Lorne asked him, gesturing to where Ronon had reappeared at Teyla's bedside. John nodded. "I'm going to go spring Prince Charming before he does something I'm going to end up regretting. Good night, sir, and let me know if there's anything you need."

"Thanks," John replied, patting Lorne on the shoulder as he walked over to where Teyla was lying. Ronon had brought over an extra chair and kicked it toward him as he approached. Behind him, John could hear Lorne soothing an irate Safir and Carson and Clayton laughing.

"McKay's eating," Ronon said once John was seated.

"What else is new?" John asked rhetorically. Teyla looked like she was sleeping -- a little drawn, maybe, a little pale, but otherwise okay. Like she always did. And it was odd after three days of seeing her so much older. John slid down in his chair and prepared for a long sit.

Carson came by after Lorne had herded Safir out of the infirmary.

"We're giving her fluids, but she's really quite well off," Carson said. "We'll run some tests once she wakes up, but there was no damage on the neurological scans that we did. Doctor Laurentian went over them and he's cleared her pending no other problems."

What Carson didn't say and what John didn't bring up was that Teyla's "other problems" were all going to be in the realm of the other head doctor in Atlantis -- Heightmeyer.

John had gotten settled, arms crossed on his chest and eyes closed, by the time Rodney returned. He was carrying styrofoam cups in one of the cardboard holders they put out and a paper bag.

"Here," Rodney said, handing one to John and one to Ronon. Tea with milk and there were blueberry muffins in the bag. Rodney had his own styrofoam cup of coffee; he'd have brought real food if the kitchen had been open.

"Thanks," John said, sitting up so that he could drink. "You talk to Zelenka?"

Rodney nodded, but had to finish swallowing before he spoke. "Bastard's going to be unbearably smug," he griped, which was Rodneyspeak for him being impressed. "Apparently there were some power fluctuations corresponding to when we first met Teyla -- she may not have recognized us, but she was apparently aware that something was wrong. Radek was able to trace the energy source and located it with the first flicker -- the one Teyla was responsible for. The flickers we saw on our marathon were them fighting the backup power relays. They disabled it and here we are." Rodney stretched stiffly. "All of that was in our heads, but why the hell is my body so sore? Carson had some explanation, but it was all hocus-pocus."

The familiarity of Rodney bitching was comforting, as was the tea and the muffin and the fact that nobody was very worried about Teyla. The other dubious advantage of being such a frequent visitor to the medical unit was that he had a very good read on most of the doctors and how to determine what they thought from what they said and how they acted. Neither Clayton nor Carson were hovering and Safir had let Lorne manhandle him out of the infirmary and that, more than verbal assurances about neurologists and Ancient scans, let him relax a little.

Teyla woke briefly around dawn, a quiet gasp waking John. Ronon either hadn't slept or was faking it and Rodney was still snoring quietly, his chin on his chest.

"Hey," John said quietly, touching Teyla's hand. She started, then smiled weakly as her eyes focused. "How're you doing?"

A regretful sigh. "I am... confused."

"Understandable," Clayton said from the other side of the bed. John hadn't even noticed her approach. "But you're back in Atlantis, safe and sound, and if you can manage to be a better patient than your teammates, you'll be sleeping in your own bed tonight."

John made a noise of protest, mostly because he was supposed to and partially because he really wasn't a bad patient -- just a frequent one.

Clayton booted him, Ronon, and a groggy McKay out of the infirmary so that she could examine Teyla without an audience. Rodney mumbled something about ergonomics and the infirmary and went off to the transporter with a vague wave. John told Ronon to go get some sleep. He himself went back to his quarters to shower and change because there wasn't enough time to get another nap in before the day would begin in earnest.

It was three days before John found time to go look for Teyla and when he did, he couldn't find her.

It was just as well that Teyla wasn't cleared for off-world travel because there was no possible way John could have justified dumping everything on Lorne. There had been the endless amount of paperwork for the "mission" and the revelation of a Wraith trap prototype in the city and its ramifications, plus the seemingly endless reports from Engineering and then Social Science's translations of relevant bits of the Ancient Database, and then the meetings that went along with each.

On the other side, Teyla had been kept occupied by debriefs, counseling sessions, and her own methods of dealing with what had happened -- going to the mainland and ferocious matches against anyone capable of fighting back (in any style; she'd left a tidy bruise on Ronon's cheek and had gone through most of the marines Safir trained).

But, on the third day, things were slowing down a little. The marines had been escorting scientists throughout the city pretty much nonstop looking for other "aberrations" on the power grid and repairing as many of the broken BFT sensors as they could. It was generally accepted that this adventure could have been halted before it began if the control room had been able to tell that Teyla was even in the sector. As to why Teyla had been there... they were still working out how to phrase that in the official documentation. That there had been some sort of lure seemed to be likely -- Teyla described an unquenchable impulse to go to that room, an urge that had grown stronger with time until she'd fallen prey. That it was keyed in to Wraith DNA was almost guaranteed -- nobody else reported any urges to wander in forbidden areas of Atlantis. What that meant and when it had started.... nobody knew.

The lack of answered questions would be the legacy of this adventure. Nonetheless, the beast of bureaucracy had to be fed and Elizabeth was still crafting a statement for the databurst while John had already signed off on the AAR plus attendant paperwork put together by Lorne and Radner.

"Hey," John began as he sat down across from Teyla. He'd finally given up trying to find her and, of course, that's when he'd found her. "You're in my spot."

The hydroponic garden with its high, sunny atrium and explosion of flora was Teyla's preferred location for reflection and quiet. The balcony outside, mostly shielded from the strong breezes by tubs of marsh grasses and planters housing sturdy shade trees, was John's hiding place (in the sense that he was there to be easily located by people not Lorne and yet left alone except for matters that couldn't wait). Which was why, he suspected, that Teyla was out here -- not so much to wait for him, but to avoid the curiosity and pity she'd find inside. Atlantis wasn't as cozy as it had been, but it was still a small town with a small town's propensity to know everyone else's business sooner or later.

Teyla was sitting on an Athosian blanket and she looked like she'd been meditating. She looked up at him and smiled. "I am sorry," she said. "I did not think that you would be out here now."

John gestured toward the glass wall that separated inside from out. "Do you want me to go?"

"No," she replied, shaking her head. "I am glad that you are here."

"Well, good," he said, putting down the laptop he'd carried out with him and opening it up. He figured that if Teyla wanted to talk, she'd start talking. Women baffled him in ways they perhaps shouldn't still, but he'd learned that Teyla was best not pushed into anything.

Even without the Great Holodeck Adventure, there was still a shitload of reports and paperwork to do. The OERs were still unfinished and they were still down a lieutenant after Morrison's death. John was most of the way through Polito's annotated list of executive summaries of everything else that had gone on that week (highlight: Lt. Kagan 1, Zoology 0; lowlight: Lt. Paik getting befuddled by the geography of M1J-4K5 and leading his marines into quicksand on a night exercise) when Teyla spoke.

"I am sorry."

John's fingers hovered over the keyboard. "For what? Sitting in my spot?" he asked, knowing full well that wasn't what she meant. "I'm a forgiving guy. Besides, now I get to see what Lorne stares at when he's pretending to listen to me."

She looked at him fondly for a moment, then down at her hands. "For what you may have seen while in the virtual reality." The last two words came out with a different emphasis, bitter and unfamiliar.

"I'm the one who should be apologizing," John replied, dropping the clueless act. "We were the ones rampaging around in your head."

Teyla made a noise of burgeoning protest, so John went on. "Besides, what I saw was far less embarrassing than what you had to put up with in my headspace."

The pubescent crushes, the greedy materialism, the breakdown... yeah, Teyla got off easy.

"I have wondered if our previous experience with a... false reality based on our fears and desires would made our experiences greater or less painful than they might have been otherwise," she said after a long moment. "It is not comfortable to have private thoughts made so that they are open to others. Doctor Heightmeyer spoke of violation, but I am not sure that it is the loss of boundaries that distresses me. Or, rather, that that is not all that puts me ill at ease."

John had had this conversation with Kate, too. Years ago now, before he'd found himself flayed open physically as well as mentally so many times that he wondered if he could ever properly hide everything again.

"You don't have to worry about anyone talking," John said, understanding that this wasn't the crux of the issue, but needing to reassure her anyway. "What we saw isn't for public consumption. Not within Atlantis and not back on Earth. Everyone's not going to know what happened -- not that anything bad did."

Teyla shook her head. "It is not everyone that I am worried about."

John didn't know where she was going, so he didn't say anything.

"I am very grateful for all that you have done for me and for my people in the time that we have known each other," she began slowly, looking straight at him so that he couldn't look away. "We have learned much from each other, I believe, and I have never regretted welcoming you to our fires."

"I've never doubted that, Teyla." It's not the truth, hasn't been the truth since before this most recent misadventure, but that's his own private guilt and not something to be shared.

"I fear that I have given you reason to," she said. "And for that, I apologize."

John grimaced. "You don't have anything to apologize for," he repeated, trying to give weight to his words. "What we saw? That wasn't a slap at us. It was you wanting happiness and peace for your people and there's nothing shameful about that. I think if we'd been in anyone else's head, we'd have seen the same thing. Hell, you saw it in my head -- Mitch and Dex alive and well. We all dream of undoing things that hurt us."

At least the things that they knew how to undo. John had yet to have a dream that resolved some of his other hurts.

"Yet it appeared that all of my desires were filled by undoing the moment we met and that is not what I believe," Teyla said emphatically. "I wish that Toran and the others were still with us, but...."

"Nobody thinks you wish you hadn't met us."

A patient sigh, the one she reserved for when he was being especially dull-witted. "It is you that I am worried about having hurt, John."

"Oh." He gave her an embarrassed smile, then grew serious. "I'll admit that the thought crossed my mind a few times. But it wasn't a matter of you hurting me."

Which was perhaps a little more than he wanted to say because it got him the expectant look that meant that Teyla was not going to drop this.

"We've both had a few years to accept what happened," he went on with a sigh, looking down at the report on his laptop screen, "but everything that happened, even if it happened in ignorance... it's something I live with. Something I'll always live with. I wouldn't blame you for wishing I'd never set foot on Athos. I'm glad you don't -- really glad -- but I would have understood. I did understand."

"No, you did not," Teyla told him. She reached out to touch his knee, the closest part of him to her. "But I hope that now you do."

He nodded, more for her than for himself, but he kind of had the feeling that she knew that, too.

 

 

feed me on LJ?


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4 February, 2007