Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna

Prologue

She'd heard rumors as a child; they all had. Koreos, living ghosts. Those taken by the Wraith and returned to the world of men changed. Marked. Cursed. Where they went the Wraith followed, but they could not die by the Wraith's hand. They brought death to all who saw them, all who helped them, and so they stayed away and died alone, forsaken by man and the Ancestors alike.

"Wraith take you," was how you cursed someone. But that really wasn't the curse it was made out to be. True damnation didn't come with being taken by the Wraith.

It's what happened when they gave you back.


One

"Come on, McKay!" John called, looking around the ruins. Rodney had wandered off, muttering vaguely and watching his PDA instead of his feet as he'd stumbled through the destroyed town. Ronon had gone after him and John didn't think there was actually any danger, but there was nothing here to salvage and no one here to save. The debris was cold, the Wraith had been and gone long before they'd shown up, and the chance of any stragglers looking to feed on survivors was slim.

Teyla was standing a couple of meters away, one hand on the butt of her rifle and the other rhythmically clenching in anger, although she'd deny it if he called attention to the motion. It had been a crappy week -- a crappy month -- and the fact that this wasn't the first ruined village they'd come across in the last ten days wasn't helping.

"McKay!" he hollered into his radio. Because while the village wasn't that big, it was big enough that Rodney would have plausible deniability when it came to being in earshot.

"Hold your horses," Rodney radioed back, annoyed. "I've got something here."

John looked over at Teyla, who was now crouching near a pile of crumbled stone masonry and half-burned thatch, moving rubble with one hand while using the other to hold her rifle out of the way. At Rodney's words, she paused and looked up.

"Something like people or something like toys?" he asked. The latter would be useful, but the former would be better for the solemn mood both here and at home.

John by Anna Luna

Atlantis as a whole was going through some sort of collective doldrums, a natural result of everything that had gone on in the last few months. The unofficial motto of Pegasus might be "shit happens and then you get culled," but Atlantis had largely remained isolated from the harshness of life in an unfriendly place. Take away a nanovirus and a Wraith siege and most of the worst happened off-world or out of the collective eye of the city. At least it had for a while. But a long stream of missing and captured personnel -- not all of whom made it back alive -- and the bomb threat in the city and the Goa'uld and Wraith and the Genii and even the looming ghost of their own personal good-boy-gone-bad (Ford's name was on everyone's mind and nobody's lips) and suddenly everyone was feeling less safe and less protected and all of the stepped-up marine patrols in the city wouldn't put the civilians at ease, not after so many of the watchmen had fallen in battle.

"Something like a power spike," Rodney finally answered. "It's completely out of line with what I would have expected here."

John gestured with his head for Teyla to come with him and she stood up. "Because this world wasn't too advanced?" he asked as they started walking along the dirt path.

"Because this world was flattened," Rodney replied, already sounding distracted again. "This is the sort of energy that could power a limited shield."

"That's either very good or very bad," John said as he stepped over a charred bit of what was once probably a wagon.

"Thank you, O Master of the Obvious," Rodney retorted, but John wasn't really listening anymore because something more important than Rodney's insults had come up. He had pulled out his PDA to find Rodney and Ronon, intending to give it only a cursory glance before focusing his attention on watching where he was going (because he lost all cred when it came to bullying Rodney if he was on the limp himself). But now he froze and held up a closed fist for Teyla to do the same. There were more than four dots on the life signs display.

He signaled silently for Teyla to join him and held up the PDA, tapping silently with his fingertip so that she could see the fifth dot. It was impossible to tell if it was Wraith or human, either from the dot on the display or from the fact that it was hiding. He oriented himself on the PDA's map and pointed in the direction of where the fifth dot was waiting and Teyla nodded, heading off on silent feet. John didn't think their dot was a Wraith -- they weren't really a watch-and-wait kind of predator and he and Teyla had been stationary targets earlier -- and, from Teyla's lack of reaction, he didn't think her Spidey-sense was tingling, either. But that didn't mean he didn't fret a little at sending her off alone.

"Ronon?" John asked as he began to trot in their direction. He tried to sound casual, mostly because freaking out Rodney was not what needed to happen before they figured out what was going on. They might have made a sort of temporary peace with the Genii, but Rodney knew that not everyone who'd gotten the wanted posters had gotten that message. There was still a bounty on their heads even if there was nobody to pay and John wasn't prepared to tell him not to worry about that just yet. "Does anything seem weird to you?"

"Besides McKay?" Ronon might have the senses of a Nazgul, but he usually wasn't much for picking up vocal cues, especially irony or sarcasm. (Pegasus was entirely too earnest at times.) But he was better than he used to be and John didn't miss the wary edge in his voice.

"Very funny," Rodney snarled half-heartedly and thankfully completely oblivious. "If I amuse you so, why don't you go play Indiana Jones with Colonel Sheppard and let me work. But not before you move that piece of wall."

There was the not-too-distant sound of rocks and mortar falling against hard-packed dirt, louder than it should be because the rest of the world was so quiet. Noise discipline was pointless -- anyone watching them knew damned well where they were -- but John ran the rest of the way anyway.

"Thank you," Rodney was saying to Ronon as John pulled up. "Now get out of the way."

Rodney was crouched inside of what had once been a short, squat building. The ceiling was long gone and the walls -- the remnants of walls -- were of the same material that they'd found everywhere else in the town, something that looked more like concrete than anything John had previously seen in Pegasus. The stuff was either far more brittle than it looked -- not likely, at least not from his limited testing -- or the Wraith had bombed the hell out of the place. Which wouldn't have made a lot of sense, at least not until Rodney had said "shield."

"Where's Teyla?" Ronon asked, crossing the distance from Rodney to John.

"Looking around," John replied mildly, holding up the PDA. The dot that was Teyla was closing in on the fifth dot. Ronon's brow furrowed and he nodded, but said nothing. "Want to go help?"

Ronon rumbled something vaguely affirmative and trotted off and John stepped over the remnants of the outer wall, an act that had looked considerably easier when Ronon had done it. He ambled over to Rodney, who, now that he was closer, John could see was brushing the dust and rubble off of what looked like a Lite-Brite... if Hasbro's R&D had been run by Salvador Dali. "That's the shield?"

"No, it's what was using enough energy to power a shield," Rodney said, not looking up. John didn't know how he could tell considering that the device wasn't working, but that would only get him another wiseass comment. "I have no idea what it actually is, but it requires a massive amount of energy. Which means there's a generator here somewhere. Which I'd like to find if we aren't going to be running for our lives in the next five minutes."

John looked at the PDA in his hand, at the dot that was Ronon converging on the dot that was Teyla and the mystery dot, which had moved. "Why would we be running? The Wraith have been and gone."

Rodney looked up at him with a withering expression. "Please, Colonel. Let's cut the crap, shall we? You've sent Teyla and Ronon off to investigate something and you're here to babysit me while they do."

John cocked an eyebrow because he didn't think he'd been that obvious -- or that Rodney had gotten that perceptive. "If there were any danger, McKay, I'd have had Ronon dragging you back to the stargate already."

Rodney sighed and returned his attention to the thingamajig he was pulling colored crystals out of seemingly at whim. "While there's an element of truth to that," he said, pulling out a blue crystal that reminded John of an Otter Pop, "you'll forgive my skepticism as your threat assessment skills leave something to be desired."

Rodney jammed the blue crystal into the device like he was stabbing someone.

"There's nothing wrong with my threat assessment skills," John retorted, one eye on the PDA and the other on the purple and orange crystals Rodney was now examining.

"How many times have you gotten captured in the past year?" Rodney asked, warming to the conversation. John got a sinking feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with what Ronon and Teyla were doing. "And that's not counting you running headfirst into the time-dilation field. Or letting your body get taken over by a 10,000-year-old Carlos the Jackal."

John rolled his eyes because for all of the shit he'd stumbled into in Pegasus, he tried his damnedest to keep everyone else from falling with him. "Can we not--"

"Colonel?" Teyla's voice over the radio cut in. "We have found our fifth dot. Her name is Ailinthé."

John pointedly ignored the murderous look Rodney was shooting at him. Rodney had obviously been under the impression that whatever he was being shielded from was an animal or something of similar danger (or lack thereof).

"That's good," he said, meaning it. Survivors were good. Survivors instead of Wraith or bounty hunters were better. "Is she alone?"

"She is alone," Teyla confirmed and the same disappointment John felt was evident in her voice. Where there was one survivor, there might have been others. "And she has nowhere to go."

John looked at Rodney, who rolled his eyes, a sort of 'what else could we expect' gesture that had nothing to do with mockery or lingering anger at being surprised. "Sit her down, feed her an MRE, and see if you can't get anything from her in the way of useful information about what happened."

The mainland settlements were growing full of people like Ailinthé, lone survivors of worlds destroyed by the rampaging Wraith. Many times, they -- or, really, the Athosians -- could find worlds willing to take another able laborer or a woman of child-bearing age. The ones they couldn't place stayed on the mainland as RDRs (random displaced refugees) because Atlantis, for better or for worse, was the only social services network in the galaxy. Charity and compassion were not foreign concepts in Pegasus, but the safety of the group always came first and if people took care of their own elderly and infirm, they were less inclined to take in someone else's.

"How long do you think you're going to need here?" John asked Rodney, who'd gone back to playing with the crystals.

"That depends on how long it takes me to figure out what this is," Rodney retorted, not looking up but gesturing in time with his words with another blue Otter Pop. "And whether it can be moved. And whether we can find the generator because Murphy's Law pretty much requires that it's buried under the highest pile of rubble. Or it's underground."

John looked at his watch. "So a while, then."

"Yes, Colonel," Rodney sighed. "A while. A while that would be slightly less if you'd stop bothering me with questions. Or maybe got me a few assistants. Selikhova has a suspiciously good track record at identifying technology outside of Atlantis. I think she's gotten her hands on some Ancient manual and isn't sharing."

According to the Ancient database, the planet was supposed to have nickel mines and a population with the ability to both extract and process it. Granted, a lot could change in ten thousand years -- mines dried up, knowledge and populations got wiped out -- but they'd gone to see if anyone was around and, if they were, to try to set up some sort of agreement. Those sorts of missions always had a wide leeway with return times; either they ended up coming home right away or they were there for hours hashing out details and drinking ceremonial teas. Either way, Atlantis would be expecting a check-in soon, just to let them know that they hadn't been taken hostage or whether negotiations were progressing.

Ronon appeared before John could decide what to tell Elizabeth, stepping over the crumbled wall and stopping next to him without saying anything. Ronon looked more bored than concerned, so John suspected that Ronon just wanted to get away from where Teyla and Ailinthé were talking.

"Teyla's good?" John asked and that earned him a glare because they both knew that Ronon wouldn't have left her side if he'd thought that there'd been any threat from either Ailinthé or anything else. "Why don't you hang out here and I'll go check in with the home base and let them know that we might have a guest for lunch."

This got him a different kind of glare, but John shrugged that one off because all three of them knew that Rodney didn't actually mind having Ronon watch him because Ronon stayed out of the way, didn't ask questions, and could move heavy things. Ronon was admittedly less pleased with the arrangement, but he could take it out on John the next time they ran. And they both knew that he would.

The walk to Teyla was long and increasingly uncomfortable; it was getting warm out as the sun rose and the stench of putrefying flesh was starting to become prevalent. He found them sitting in the shade of a tree just outside of the town, Teyla perched in a way that prepared her for both fight and flight and Ailinthé on the sparse grass with the contents of an MRE bag spread around her.

At first glance, he didn't think they'd have any trouble relocating Ailinthé. She was young and pretty enough, although currently dirt-smeared and ragged. She didn't look first-blush crazy or crippled or anything beyond the usual sort of traumatized that came with surviving a Wraith culling -- and when did he become adept at identifying that haunted look? -- and there were plenty of worlds that would gladly accept her as one of their own.

Teyla saw him approaching first and so she was prepared for when Ailinthé startled and looked ready to flee, placing a soothing hand on Ailinthé's shoulder and not letting her rise. "Ailinthé, this is Colonel Sheppard, one of the leaders of his people. He means you no harm. Colonel Sheppard, this is Ailinthé of the Selangor."

"Of the Selangor no longer," Ailinthé said with brittle bitterness. "I would bid you welcome, but there is little hospitality left here. Instead, I must gratefully accept your gifts when I have nothing to offer in return."

She picked up the empty carcass of the MRE entree and put it back down.

John made what he hoped was an apologetic face, mostly because of the situation and partly because the MRE had been Country Captain Chicken and not even the marines ate those. He didn't know why Teyla had been carrying it; she didn't especially care for MREs and tended to stick to the pasta-and-veggies ones. But Ailinthé must have been starving because the entree was gone, along with the mashed potatoes, crackers, and peanut butter. The pop-tart, candy, and hot sauce packets were collected together for future use. Ronon used to do that, too, no matter how many times they'd told him that there was always more food waiting, and John accepted the behavior for what it was.

"Don't worry about it," he assured her, trying to wave off her miserable expression. "On our world, it's custom to bring gifts for our hosts. I just wish there'd been more of you to give stuff to."

Ailinthé looked up at him and nodded briefly, accepting his condolences. Two years of this and it never got any easier to come up with words to express regret at someone's whole world getting eaten.

Teyla cleared her throat. "Ailinthé was telling me of her life here," she said, giving John her 'are you paying attention?' look. "And how the Selangor thrived for so long without being touched by the Wraith."

"Really?" John asked, crouching down and tamping down his expression of interest out of respect for her grief. "Because we kind of have a side operation of trying to save as many people as possible from the Wraith and if you're willing to share what you know...." he trailed off, leaving the sentence open-ended. Then maybe we could save some other world the way we couldn't save yours, he didn't add.

Ailinthé laughed, an unpleasant and unhappy noise. "It may be of no use to anyone," she said, gesturing over his shoulder at the ruined village behind him. "For, as you see, it didn't work in the end. But it was a device, left to our people by the Ancestors. It made our village invisible from the outside."

John stood up because his knees were starting to protest. "A cloak?" he half-asked, half-mused. It made sense -- shields and cloaking devices were linked, at least when it came to Ancient technology, but not naturally. Keras and his world had a shield that didn't cloak and maybe the Selangor had a cloak that couldn't shield. Which meant that maybe they should be looking around for a ZPM somewhere. Wouldn't Rodney like that.

"It kept us hidden," Ailinthé went on. "If you didn't know our village was there, you wouldn't see it until you'd passed through the boundary. It had worked for as long as our history goes back, since the time of the Ancestors. We didn't understand how it had failed. And before we could repair it, the Wraith came."

Ailinthé broke down in tears then and Teyla's restraining hand became one of comfort as Ailinthé sobbed. Uncomfortable and not sure how to be of any use, John looked around and back at the village. He was terrible at the whole empathy thing -- calming down an angry villager or talking down an armed soldier he could handle, but weeping women had always been beyond him.

The peculiar city planning made sense now -- it was to keep the place within the boundaries of the cloak. Which had apparently failed, which in turn meant that either the cloaking device was broken or that the ZPM (or whatever other energy source the Ancients had left for it) was dead. All considering, he was hoping it was the former because he had faith that Rodney could fix a broken device, but nobody had thus far been able to recharge a ZPM.

"Listen," he said, crouching down again and ignoring the pop of he knee joint. "We can't change what happened here, but maybe we can make the future not-so-bad. We can help you find a new place to live, help you start a new life away from here."

He didn't want to make an offer to take her back to Atlantis, not until he discussed it with Elizabeth. The Selangor could be like most of the worlds they'd visited that had Ancient toys -- a society blessed with technology far beyond their means to understand it. Or they could be Genii and have much more going on behind the scenes. Or Ailinthé could be like Neera; they weren't lucky enough to never stumble upon another Wraith worshiper ever again. But his instincts and his experience -- both here in Pegasus and back on Earth -- said that the Selangor, whatever else they had been, weren't the Genii.

"Colonel?" Rodney's excited voice came through his earpiece and he stood up, even though he knew that Ailinthé couldn't hear the enthusiasm bubbling through the radio. "I think I've figured out what the device is! You'll never guess, probably because I wouldn't have guessed either, especially considering what happened here and while normally that would put a damper on what sort of a find this is--"

"It's a cloak, McKay," John cut him off, turning to face the village to give the pretense of a not-public conversation. "And it failed."

"Yes, well," Rodney sputtered. "But how did you know?"

"Because I'm standing next to the one person who it saved?"

That got Rodney to pause and for all that John wished for more empathy for himself, he wished it even more for Rodney. Two years in Pegasus hadn't quite stripped Rodney of his peculiar kind of Darwinism, where only the smart survived and only the smart deserved to survive. Rodney wasn't totally lacking in compassion, but he was easily distracted from what amount he did possess.

"Right," Rodney replied after a moment, sounding chastened. John didn't think it would last. "I haven't figured out if the device is broken or if it's out of power. Does she know if it ran on a ZPM or some other source? Does she even know how it works?"

Behind him, he could hear Ailinthé's sobs wind down to choked whimpers and Teyla's soothing murmuring.

"No and now's not the right time to ask." He looked at his watch. "I have to go check in. I'll tell Elizabeth what we've got and we'll see about you setting up a play date."

He could hear Rodney sputter as he translated the words into a time frame. "I can't leave this now," he protested, sounding a little too much like he was whining. "Something like this, even if it's out of power? Do you know what we could do with this? You and Teyla can take our newest RDR back to Atlantis and Ronon and I will be back by the time Carson clears her through medical."

John rolled his eyes. "No you won't, McKay. I know you." He looked back at Teyla and Ailinthé, the latter reduced to an even sorrier bundle of rags and misery, and then turned to face the ruined village again. "You're going to need hours with that thing. Maybe days. Nobody's going to take it. You can come back later with all of the tools and the personnel and a marine guard. But not today."

A put-upon sigh. "I'm going to hold you to the 'days' part," Rodney said. "Give me a half-hour for now."

It would take at least that long to get to the gate, dial Atlantis, and talk to Elizabeth. "Fine," he agreed. "But Ronon's got free license to stun you and carry you back like firewood if it's more than that."

"You don't have to threaten," Rodney replied and John knew from the tone of voice that Ronon was probably looking smug and anticipatory and fingering his pistol.

"Thirty minutes, McKay," John said and cut the connection. He turned around to talk to Teyla. "I'm going to go back to the stargate and get things squared away with the home base. You two will be okay here?"

"We will be fine," Teyla assured, squeezing Ailinthé's shoulder gently. Ailinthé nodded agreement, wiping tears from her dirt-streaked face.

The walk back to the stargate was made more interesting by trying to figure out how the Selangor had hid their village. A cloak was a cloak, but things like energy readings and smoke and suddenly appearing and disappearing birds or beasts would be giveaways. There were trees between the village and the stargate and that had probably hidden most of it, with the rest covered by simple vigilance, but how had the Wraith not managed to notice what should have been one hell of an unshielded energy signature? Probably because they had never checked. The Ancients lost Pegasus because they'd gotten complacent and John believed deep in his heart that the Wraith would lose Pegasus the same way.

The conversation with Elizabeth was brief and to the point -- they had a single refugee and a cloaking device that might work or might not work, might run on a ZPM or might run on something else. And no chance to secure any trade agreement for either processed nickel alloy or nickel ore. The first point got the most discussion because they both knew that they were neither willing nor able to fight Rodney on getting a team back out. It made too much sense. The refugee... They usually tried to take refugees directly to another planet without stopping in Atlantis first, but Ailinthé wasn't going to be an easy sale in her current condition. She looked truly wretched, not artfully abused like Neera or Mara or anything like Sora, who even in her Pretty Amish Farmgirl outfit had had a hardiness to her that had been easily ascribed at the time to healthy living.

He waited for the wormhole to close before hitting his radio. "McKay! It's time to go."

"Fine!" Rodney muttered. "Tell Conan to lay off."

"Conan, lay off," John replied dutifully. "Teyla, why don't you and Ailinthé come meet us at the stargate. We're going home."


Two

When the Wraith would come, it would be in broad daylight, when the sun was high and everyone out of doors. They would fly above the streets in their screaming machines, casting out their invisible nets that swept people away as if they'd never been. The attacks would last moments that stretched to infinities, especially when you were hiding in a place where neither light nor Wraith would follow.

The last time the Wraith came, they came at night. And there was nowhere safe to hide.

She didn't know if she was the only survivor or if there had been others of her world who had escaped. Escaped from what and to what was still a mystery, as was whether it had been miracle or damnation to be spared a quick, painful death in exchange for a life that was no life at all.

Her capture and the torture that followed was remembered only in dreams; that she could no longer stomach the smell of hops or abide to stay in dark, closed spaces was something else entirely. At least that's what she told herself.

They set her free on her destroyed world; returned from whence she'd come, but nothing was the same.

She stayed in the still-smoking ruins, scavenging food and clothing and valuables that she would need to build a new life somewhere else where she did not have to talk to ghosts. Picking over the remnants of her neighbors' lives, she remembered old wounds (Aliver's haughty pride at her silver bracelets) and new secrets (Woleyt's love letters to a woman not his wife had survived the fires) and tried to forget them all, to reduce the growing cache to merchandise without sentimental value. A decade spent learning the art of commerce from behind a tap and keg had taught her that much: if an item was worth more to you than to the buyer, then it was worthless.

She'd been sorting her horde of goods for easier transport when he came, a Wraith who'd snarled and hissed as she'd screamed and fled. Through the town, into the woods, hoping distance would save her. It didn't; he came after her, unremitting and inexorable, finally slamming her against a tree with a cold, clammy hand over her throat. She cried out that she was not for him, that she could not give him what he wanted, but it didn't matter.

Except that it did. Knowing that she wasn't about to be killed by the hand cutting more marks into her chest, she fought back with an energy she didn't know she possessed and the knife she'd carried in her belt since she'd been old enough to carry flagons in the taproom. With the Wraith's blood still coating her hands, she stole his weapon and its belt, returned for her hastily-packed plunder, and fled to the Ring of the Ancestors.

Working in the taproom had given her many addresses to choose from, worlds for commerce and agriculture and hunting, worlds with lush climates and worlds with inhospitable ones. She chose a world with no people, too scared to be around others and not sure whether there were more Wraith following her. She stayed until her food ran out and her fear subsided and then she moved on.

Over time, she parceled out what she had carried with her from her world. Aliver's bracelets bought her warm clothes, soap, a satchel, and boots. Dilvet's sword with its exquisite hilt was exchanged for smaller knives with plainer forms that were easier to carry and less unique. Customs changed from world to world, she had seen that in the taproom, but it was near universal that no one was more reviled than someone who tried to profiteer from the terror of the Wraith. She didn't stay long on any planet and didn't trade more than one item at a time.

The rootless lifestyle was wearying in both body and soul, but she saw no other choice. She'd never be able to tell the truth of what had happened -- nobody would trust her if they knew she'd been caught by the Wraith and then given freedom -- and she wasn't sure that she could build up enough lies to start a new life as someone else. The taproom had seen travelers from many worlds; running into one of them by accident would destroy everything.

It was easier to stay away from busy towns unless she needed provisions; hostels were expensive luxuries that couldn't be fully enjoyed when she had to keep close eye on her belongings and the bustle of the streets reminded her too much of what she had lost. Tiny worlds with small villages were easier; they asked more questions but did not know enough to doubt her answers and they were more likely to give her a meal or a place to sleep without asking for anything in return. She thought she might be able to settle down in one of these small villages, become a farmer's wife instead of a merchant's, and raise children who knew of planting instead of patrons. There were always men looking for wives to replace those lost to childbirth or the Wraith and she promised herself that she would accept the first offer that pleased her.

The first offer never came. Her first suitor not from her world, if she could call him such, was a fruit farmer on Gaedras, a warm, humid planet with lush greenery and a quiet way of life. The Gaedra were not used to strangers, but they had sheltered her when she'd stumbled into their village too exhausted to even speak and refused any recompense she tried to make for their kindness. She stayed until their generosity began to weigh her down more than her secrets did, but returned after a while bearing a gift she knew that they could use: new blades for their scythes. And so began a tentative courtship, first between herself and the Gaedra and then between herself and Ramal, a gentle widower with many trees and three sons.

Ramal would take her to wife without a dowry and nobody among the Gaedra was inclined to criticize, but she would not enter into her new life a charity case. And so she left Gaedra one final time to trade her last remaining possessions from her home world for items she and her new people could use. It took longer than she'd have liked to go among the trading centers and find fair value and so she missed the Wraith's arrival on Gaedra completely. The Wraith hadn't taken everyone, but Ramal was gone. The Gaedra asked her to stay, but she couldn't bear to see another world reduced to char and misery. She left them the gifts that would have been her dowry and never returned.

Instead, she again took up her wandering life, more tired of it than before after having tasted peace and rest. Her wealth was diminishing to the point where she feared that she'd have to trade her body for a meal and so she stayed more and more on worlds where there were no people, learning to live on berries and plants and getting better at killing the animals she shot with the Wraith weapon. She was no hunter, however, and her greatest foraging experience had come from haggling at the market twice a week for her father. Desperate, she returned to her destroyed home world in hopes of finding more in the wreckage, but enough time had passed that others had heard of the destruction of Calpain and the ruins had been picked clean.

There was no honor in thievery; her father had taught her early that it was better to beg than to steal. But he had not lived as she now did, surviving on the pity of strangers and regretting every day the comfortable life she had once led. She doubted that her father would recognize her now. The softness of her skin had been worn away, the suppleness of her form had melted into leanness, and the smile that he'd once claimed could light up a room had not been seen since Gaedras had fallen. There was no air of distressed prosperity about her, just hunger and fear. It got her more safety from those looking for easy marks, but it also got her less sympathy from those who would prefer to give to the temporarily fallen rather than the permanently indigent. Unable to hide what she'd now become, she stole what she was no longer given. She was not dexterous enough to be a great thief, but she had watched the drunk for long enough that she could be a competent one when preying on the diminished. Enough so that it wasn't a man who finally caught her.

The alehouse on Charow was much like the one on Calpain had been -- a central meeting place for the second- and third-tier merchants and traders to relax. Charow wasn't a great trading planet, not a central commerce world where the most prosperous did their business, but it made out all right. Even better now that Calpain was gone to the Wraith, although you'd be hard-pressed to find someone sober who'd be willing to admit such. The alehouse was full after a market day and she'd set herself up well, spending the day at the market and learning the faces of the sharpest businessmen, knowing full well that they were often the most careless drunks.

She'd already pocketed what she'd set her goal to be -- enough local coin to barter for provisions next market day -- and was preparing to leave when she heard the screams. The alehouse was noisy, but one of the natural lulls in the sea of sound had made sure that everyone heard the whine of the Wraith flying machines and the cry of the terrified. Strangely, she didn't feel scared at all. There'd been a rush to the door, but she didn't join it and instead sat down to finish one of the abandoned flagons of ale. What was the point of running? She knew how far she was from the Ring of the Ancestors and understood that it was too late. Either the Wraith would be satisfied with the people running in the street or they'd take everyone and she knew better than to think she could outrun them. If they took her, they'd only have to throw her back again.

It was like something out of a dream to sit with the slaughter outside, like it was happening to another world and not there. Every drop of her energy she possessed, every thought she dreamed, and every move she made had gone toward survival and yet it was all in vain. She feared man more than Wraith -- the one could starve her, but the other was already a permanent fixture in her nightmares. What was death anyway except for eternal rest? She was so very tired.

The Wraith came for her, pointy chin and moist green skin and she watched him, feeling the fear return. She remembered the pain, remembered the ache of them trying to feed on her, remembered the terror of a hand against her throat long ago on Calpain. But it had been a long time ago, in another place, and that woman was long gone. Or so she'd like to pretend.

"You are learning, little one," the Wraith rasped out.

"What are you talking about?" She didn't sound at all brave or fearless and she saw him smile at her tremulous words.

"You were no use to us soft and weak," he replied, head tilted in appraisal. "But you are stronger now and we have waited long enough."

"Waited for what?!"

"For you to be a worthwhile quarry," he answered. He had a sickening smile that displayed vicious teeth.

She felt bile rising. "Quarry?"

"Where you go, we can follow. Where you hide, we will come."

He hissed again in apparent satisfaction and she felt something break inside. She'd known, she'd always known. But she'd forgotten, shoved the memory of what they'd done to her into a tiny box in her mind, tucked it away with the pain and the grief, and never looked at it since. There was 'before' and there was 'after' and she'd stopped thinking of what had gone on in between. She couldn't let herself think of that time because even as she didn't understand the how or the why, the what would have killed her.

"This gift you give us," he went on, gesturing expansively with his feeding hand to indicate the town, "we will accept."

With that, he swept from the room, leaving her alone. The screams had died out in the interim and there was no sound except the distant sound of night birds.

She threw up then, her stomach spasming until there was nothing but dry heaving. She had done this. She had brought death not only to strangers, but also to those she had cared about. Ramal, the Gaedra, and the other worlds she'd been to and returned months later to find culled. It had been no coincidence, no proof of the Wraith becoming more voracious. It had been her all along. She was koreos, a living ghost. Damned by the Wraith, forsaken by the Ancestors, and destined to kill all who came in contact with her.

When she was done sobbing, she found a basin and the well and washed up. Still feeling numb, she stumbled through the ruined town of Charow and collected what she'd need. This time, her salvage was more efficient than it had been on Calpain. Weapons, clothing, tools, food. The odd small bauble that could be traded quickly without haggling. Charow had been prosperous and she took as much as she could carry, intent on bringing it to one of the uninhabited worlds where she could hide until the Wraith came for her.

The detritus by the Ring of the Ancestors was heavy on the ground; many people had tried to flee. She stepped over bodies and belongings and entered the symbols to activate the Ring.

And then she began to run.


Three

Elizabeth and Carson were there to greet them as they came through the stargate. As was most of Lieutenant Murray's guard team, but they were hanging back both to get a better shot as well as to not overwhelm their guest. Not that it mattered with Ailinthé frozen in place by the sight of Atlantis's gate room. If she was going to spontaneously combust or try to kill them all, she'd have to drag her attention away from the soaring arches and stained glass windows.

"Welcome to our home," Elizabeth said warmly and a little loudly, touching Ailinthé's hands to focus her attention. It worked and Ailinthé startled a bit at the contact; behind John, Ronon moved his hand to his gun.

"Down, boy," John murmured out of the side of his mouth. He thought Ronon might have growled back.

Elizabeth introduced herself and Carson and made the obligatory condolences. Ailinthé mumbled thanks in a tiny, tired voice. She had seemed stronger -- and taller -- on her planet, but maybe that had just been the end of the brave front she'd put on for strangers.

"Come, lass," Carson said encouragingly. For all that Beckett sometimes drove him nuts in the infirmary, he seemed to have an endless reserve of professional charm -- at least for patients he didn't have to treat on a too-frequent basis. "We'll get you a nice hot shower, some food, and give you a bit of a check-up to boot."

Not in that order, John added to himself. At Elizabeth's insistence, Safir had tweaked the protocols for incoming refugees so that they were at least made comfortable before being poked and prodded. But even if the body scan and dental exam would wait, Ailinthé could look forward to at least a blood draw and a subtle scan or two before she saw the inside of a shower or sampled the commissary's fare.

Carson reached out with a gloved hand to guide Ailinthé toward the infirmary and she froze again when he touched her shoulder, turning to face John and his team with terrified eyes.

"Do not fear, Ailinthé," Teyla assured her with a smile. "We are coming, too."

It was a veritable parade down to the medical suites. Carson kept up a running monologue with the still-poleaxed Ailinthé, Elizabeth walked with John, and the escort team Murray had assembled followed behind Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla.

The first trip to a planet always meant a more thorough exam than the usual post-mission check-up (which, after two years, had essentially been reduced to asking if they'd eaten anything, petted anything, got bitten by anything, or handled something they hadn't seen before). When they arrived at the rooms set aside for post-mission exams, Doctors Metzinger and Clayton were waiting with packets of fresh needles and a box of test tubes.

With Elizabeth's help, Beckett set Ailinthé up in the semi-private area in the corner, but the rest of them were already used to the drill and just stood around waiting. Not that there was space to move around. Even with Murray's marines waiting outside the open door, it was a little crowded in the small room.

"You do anything I'm going to have to yell at you later for?" Clayton asked John, tying off the tourniquet and flicking the inside of his right elbow with her index finger to bring up a vein. He made a fist without her having to ask.

"Didn't so much as sip from my canteen," John replied, looking away as the needle went in. He wasn't scared of needles and the pain was negligible, but he never liked to watch them be inserted. Conversely, he had no trouble watching his blood fill the small test tube.

"You're supposed to say 'No, Doctor Clayton,'" she said sourly, not looking up from the test tube. "Not give me a reason to give you the Why You Need to Keep Hydrated lecture."

She stopped the flow of blood, withdrew the needle, and pressed a gauze pad to the needle site until John took over with his own finger.

"I'll do better next time," he promised. As she applied the band-aid, Clayton gave him a look that clearly indicated that she didn't think much of those prospects. Nancy had been spending entirely too much time with the doctors who'd been around since the start.

The rest of the exam took barely a minute and Clayton gestured vaguely that she was done before heading off to repeat the process on Ronon. Teyla was already finished and waiting and Metzinger had the grin-and-bear-it look all of the doctors got when dealing with Rodney.

Elizabeth joined him in leaning against the exam bed. "She seems pleasant enough," she said. "Terrified, but under the circumstances, can you blame her?"

It was a rhetorical question, so John didn't answer.

"How long do you think she'd been hiding?" Elizabeth asked.

"Probably a couple of days," John guessed, remembering the bloated, blackening bodies he'd seen. Teyla might know for certain, but he hadn't spoken with her yet. "Less than a week."

Elizabeth nodded. "I'm going to head back upstairs. Stop by when you're done here?"

"Will do," he agreed, looking over to where Rodney was making ridiculous faces as Metzinger drew blood. Rodney was going to want to get back out there as soon as possible, so he might as well start organizing that. He tapped his earpiece to switch it to the military command net. "Matt? You got a minute?"

A moment passed before Polito, their operations officer, answered. "What do you need, sir?"

"Escort service for an engineering team led by Doctor McKay to a recently culled planet," John replied. "The planet was leveled, so I don't think they're coming back, but...."

"But there's no point in not being prepared," Polito finished. "Anything special we'll need?"

Ronon came over and stood next to him, waiting for a decision on what to do next. John gave him a questioning look and Ronon glared back defiantly. John would take this silent resentment much more seriously if Ronon, who thought the medical fussing was just that, was less prone to amusing himself by intimidating the doctors into working faster. But Ronon liked Clayton, so he was probably telling the truth.

"Shovels, maybe," John replied. "There's going to be a wild goose chase for a power source, possibly a ZPM."

Rodney was holding his arm out for his band-aid and John looked around for Teyla and found her in the rear, talking to Ailinthé.

"Joy," Polito sighed. "Do we have a duration or is it just as long as it takes?"

"As long as it takes," John answered, imagining Polito's sour face. It was a mission that was going to be run by the scientists and the marines were going to be miserable by the end of it. "But daylight only."

The rest of the details could wait until the brief-back with the tasked lieutenant, so John was finished with Polito before Rodney could hop off of his exam bed and join him and Ronon.

"Teyla?" John called over. She finished her chat with Ailinthé by clasping the woman's hands in a firm grip and turned to join them. Carson didn't acknowledge their departure -- not even his usual exhortation to call them in case something weird started happening (John still got pointed looks about that) -- and Metzinger and Clayton were already gone. The marine guard would stay where they were until either Ailinthé had been cleared or their shift changed.

"How's she doing?" John asked as they made their way back to the control room.

Teyla took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she formulated her thoughts. "Ailinthé is overwhelmed," she finally said. "I do not believe that she has allowed herself to consider her future at all or to even properly mourn her loss. Everything she knows has been taken from her and now that she no longer has to fear for her own survival, all she can see is uncertainty."

"Well," he said as he waited for the door to slide open, "it'll become less uncertain soon, one way or the other."

Elizabeth was waiting for them in her office. For what seemed like the fiftieth time, they reviewed the mission, describing the town on Selangor and the extent to which it had been decimated by the Wraith.

"It appears to be one of the Wraith's attacks out of anger," Teyla said. "They did not cull everyone before razing the town."

"You try looking for a place to eat and not be able to find it for more than ten thousand years," John quipped, leaning back in his seat. "You'd be pretty angry, too."

Joking aside, though, Teyla was right. The Wraith were overpopulated and underfed. They didn't just bomb the hell out of places for shits-and-giggles.

"Is it possible that the Wraith bombed the town without seeing it?" Elizabeth asked. "That they were just hoping to destroy the cloaking device first? We know that they have some familiarity with Ancient technology...."

Thankfully not enough to realize that Atlantis was cloaked, she might as well have added.

"Unlikely," Rodney replied dismissively. "The device itself is relatively tiny when compared to the size of the cloak it projects. It'd be like looking for a needle in a haystack and they had to know that they'd risk destroying everything -- thereby canceling lunch -- before succeeding."

Elizabeth hit a few keystrokes on her keyboard. "There's nothing in the Ancient database to indicate that they had placed a cloaking device on that planet," she said, looking back up at them.

"Wouldn't be the first time the Ancients conveniently forgot to mention something important," John pointed out.

"No," Elizabeth agreed sourly. "It wouldn't be. But the question remains as to why they did."

"It could be for the same random reason there's an electromagnetic disruptor shield on the Children of the Corn planet," Rodney suggested. "If we've learned anything in two years, it's that the Ancients didn't always have a reason for everything."

John made a face, but before he could say anything, Ronon did.

"But what if they did have a reason?" he asked. "What if we just haven't found it yet?"

Rodney rolled his eyes and gestured with his hands. "Yes, yes," he said. "Believe me, I'd be thrilled to find something on Selangor besides concrete chunks and a cloaking device with really bad timing, but I'm not holding my breath. If we can find a ZPM with any power left in it, it'll be a minor miracle."

One most probably the result of many marines digging many holes, John mused.

"Were you able to tell if the cloaking device was broken or whether its power source died?" Elizabeth asked and John slunk down a little further in his seat because that was just an engraved invitation for Rodney to rant.

"No," Rodney replied on cue. "Because a mission commander who shall be left unnamed decided that it would be unsafe to leave me there with Ronon even though he didn't tell me that there might be a Wraith on the planet waiting for us."

"I didn't think there was a Wraith, Rodney," John sighed, ignoring the fact that he hadn't really been sure of that. "And I told you that you'd get to go back."

"On that note," Elizabeth said before Rodney could finish winding himself up again. "When do you think you'll have your mission proposal ready?"

Rodney shut his mouth as he rebooted from frothing to estimating. "Soon. Right away. I can just give you the outline now, if you'd--"

"How about you write it up so that the marines know what the hell they're getting themselves into?" John cut him off. His marines might think that he let the scientists get away with far too much, but there was no way he was approving any mission that could be reduced to We Just Want to Look Around For a While. Which was what most Science Division proposals read like on the first draft even though Lorne and Radner had spent a week coming up with a template that was supposed to require concrete assessments of time, manpower, and other elements.

"Fine," Rodney agreed with sudden mildness. John had the sneaking suspicion that he may have won the battle and lost the war on this one. "If we're done here, then I'll go get started."

Elizabeth nodded and Rodney got up. Nobody else did because the meeting wasn't really over, just the part that Rodney wanted to be around for.

"I'll have it in your inbox by the end of the day," Rodney said as he left, taking excessive care to step over John's outstretched legs.

After he left, Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow at John, an unspoken request -- command -- to play nicely on this one.

"I've already got Polito putting together an escort," he admitted. Elizabeth's look became a frown as she realized that he'd just been messing with Rodney. John wasn't kidding entirely because he would reject any proposal that just looked to abuse the marine guard -- it wouldn't even get to him; Polito or Lorne would kibosh it first -- but mostly he was yanking Rodney's chain because it was there to be yanked.

"Teyla," Elizabeth said, turning to face her and thus away from John as if she could hear his internal musings, "do you have any suggestions as to where we might be able to place Ailinthé once she's able to be moved?"

Teyla nodded. "There are many possibilities. Once Ailinthé is comfortable considering where she might like to live, then I believe it will only be a matter of seeking permission."

"How long do you think that will be?" Elizabeth asked, more out of curiosity than concern.

Teyla shook her head slowly. "I could not begin to guess," she replied. "The shock is still very strong. When it has lessened, she may remember that she has friends or family on other worlds or places where she would be in familiar surroundings."

Ronon shifted uncomfortably.

"Selangor must have been a pretty isolated world," John said before anyone could call attention to it. Elizabeth was a diplomat and could read most people pretty well, but she had never really been able to understand Ronon and John doubted that she'd realize just how little Ronon wanted to talk about the Satedan refugee settlement. "Teyla and Ronon had never heard of it, plus they had the cloaking device.... Wouldn't surprise me if they didn't get off-world much."

He imagined that they had lived much like Atlantis did -- circumspect trips through the stargate by select personnel so as to keep their living situation a secret.

"In the meantime," Teyla went on, "She will be welcome among the Athosians."

There had to be representatives of more than a dozen worlds on the mainland, but Teyla did not refer to the refugees on the mainland as RDRs and most everyone took care to not do the same in her earshot.

"We appreciate that, Teyla," Elizabeth said feelingly. "Once Carson clears her, I'll leave her in your care."

There wasn't much else to be said about the mission, not until Beckett had finished with Ailinthé and Rodney had put together his proposal for revisiting the site, so they got up and bid Elizabeth a good afternoon.

John hadn't gotten through the control room when his earpiece chirped.

"Colonel Sheppard? Doctor Weir?" It was an unfamiliar female voice. "It's Doctor Clayton. Doctor Beckett asks that you both come down here right away. He says it's an emergency."

He froze. Carson should still be with Ailinthé -- she was going to stay in the infirmary until she was cleared; meals and clean clothes would be brought to her. He looked around for Lieutenant Murray in case he'd heard something from his team. Murray was sitting at the laptop they'd set out for gate room officers, apparently unaware. He looked up when he felt his commander's gaze upon him. "What sort of emergency?"

Teyla and Ronon had been in front of him and were partially down the stairs, but both of them stopped as well.

"We had to rush the RDR into surgery," Clayton replied.

"Why?" Elizabeth was already out of her office and on the catwalk between it and the control room. John looked at her and she looked straight back at him, concern writ large on her face. "What happened to her?"

"She's a Runner," Clayton said.

The words hit like a gut punch.

"Fuck," John bit out, turning to where Ronon and Teyla were watching him intently. "Infirmary. Now," he told them.

Ronon and Teyla took off at a run. John went over to Elizabeth, intending to follow her down the back stairs.

"We're on our way."


Four

Sometimes it was as easy as getting to the Ring of the Ancestors first. Most of the time it wasn't.

If she had grown grudgingly used to an itinerant life among strangers, she was completely unprepared for an existence with the Wraith as her only companions. Calpain had never truly gone silent, not even in the dead of night, and the quiet of isolated worlds had made her nervous at first. Now she no longer started at innocent breezes or animals more scared of her than she of them, but instead grew to know them so that she could tell when the innocuous sounds she heard were anything but.

It seemed like most of the sounds she heard were of approaching Wraith. They would come alone at first, a single hunter for single prey. They were quicker than she was, stronger and better-trained and her only chance was to not get caught; they healed themselves of her shallower knife wounds and it would take little effort for them to snap her neck. On Charow, she had picked up an energy weapon more potent than the Wraith stunner, but her shooting was still erratic, especially when she was scared, and she needed distance and time to aim it well.

Despite the imbalances, however, she survived. There were many empty worlds -- those that had never been settled and those that had been settled and then destroyed by the Wraith -- and she stayed as long as she dared on each before moving on. Sometimes weeks, usually just days until her fear outgrew her comfort.

Ailinthe by Anna Luna

With time, her instincts improved and her skills sharpened. And yet she could feel herself wearing down nonetheless. Ill rest and insufficient food could not provide the energy required to be a permanent fugitive. It was hard to subsist by guessing which wild fruits she could eat and by using her mediocre shooting skills to try for fresh meat. Even when she found a planet where there was safety and provision, she couldn't enjoy it, struggling under the weight of knowing that it was temporary, that the Wraith would eventually find her and she'd have to flee once again.

Sometimes she was surprised when she entered a new world and encountered people. Usually they were hunters or, in the case of destroyed worlds, salvagers picking through rubble. She tended to leave worlds that were used as grazing or hunting ground, but she stayed on the ruined ones, figuring that anyone picking through the belongings of the dead deserved to be caught by the Wraith. She would go through ruins herself when she came upon them, but she was already damned. Many times over.

Once, she fell asleep in the bed of a half-collapsed house only to be woken by a trio of leering scavengers intent on taking from her that which she was not prepared to give. They were no match for her and when it was all over, she didn't meditate on the irony of killing men when her self-imposed exile was meant to save them, but instead went through their possessions to take what she needed.

All in all, she rather thought that she was going mad.

The first time simply existing got to be too much of an effort, she tried to treat herself to a day of normalcy. Rationalizing that the Wraith already knew about the big markets, she'd done her best to make herself look like everyone else and gone to swim in the sea of humanity.

She felt like she was drowning. Bustling crowds where she was jostled and couldn't see everything around her terrified. Even in the relative quiet of a tavern, she felt like her true identity was writ large across her face and those around her could see through her pretense. Subsequent trips, made with no aspirations to pass as just another marketer, were no better. The too-rare proper meal would taste like sawdust and be choked down because she needed the sustenance and she would invariably be forced to attend to her business -- trade a bauble for new boots, exchange three raw pelts for one treated one -- and then flee in tears.

She hadn't been to a market in what felt like a year but had probably been only months. Or maybe it had been years. Time was both impossible to judge -- short days on one world and long ones on the next, crossing from day to night and back again -- and completely irrelevant. She would run until she could no longer evade her pursuers and then the Wraith would kill her.

Not that she hadn't given consideration to letting herself be caught. There had been a time when, stumbling with exhaustion and crying tears she'd thought she'd finished with forever, she had stayed where she'd fallen, dropping into wretched doze. She'd been woken by her hunter with a swift kick to the ribs. Unable to muster the energy to get up, she'd curled in on herself and waited for it to be over. The Wraith had simply hissed in disgust and left her. She'd been too drained to even register the reprieve as anything more than a chance to sleep. It had been the only such gift.

At some point, she couldn't say when, she realized that the hunters were coming for her more frequently and in greater numbers. There had been a pattern to the macabre routine -- the Wraith needed time to find her again after each escape, that or they understood that she couldn't run forever -- but it had changed. The respites were fewer and further apart and the chase more unrelenting, her pursuers relying more heavily on their stun weapons while they continued to press their physical advantages. She wore down faster and yet the barrage continued.

More Wraith and less success escaping them left her with no chance to replenish her material stores as well as her emotional ones -- her boots were in desperate need of resoling and she'd run out of food long ago, living on whatever she could catch and eat. She lost most of what she could trade and had no time to acquire new things to barter nor to get the breathing room needed to risk going to a market to beg or steal.

Exhaustion made her both more reckless and less able to manage the risks. She wrenched her knee and battered her side going over a waterfall and still had had to run until she'd collapsed on the buckled joint. She'd even tried fighting back instead of running, but all that got her was bruises and scars -- the Wraith couldn't drain her life, but they could still cause her pain.

Every time she tried to go to ground, they'd come for her all the harder. Her safe worlds, the ones where no humans had ever lived, were no longer safe enough. She had to go between them more quickly, varying her too-usual empty haunts with those planets that simply didn't have a permanent settlement. She stopped caring about the hunters and shepherds who would take their flocks to uninhabited worlds to graze, staying on and hiding even though she knew the Wraith would follow her. Everyone took risks, everyone was at risk, and she just didn't have the energy to be so considerate any more or to bury her bitterness. She resented that she was a beacon for the Wraith while others got to live in a peace and quiet where the Wraith were constant threats but not omnipresent.

Eventually, she reached the end of her endurance. She could run no more. Her boots were gone so she'd been running barefoot and the fruits she'd foraged had made her so sick that she hadn't been able to stand for days. The last Wraith hunter she'd encountered had smashed her face-first into a tree and she kept opening up the wound on her forehead crashing into branches while running through forests. She kept going because the alternative was untenable -- the Wraith didn't want to kill their toy, so they'd just made surrender impossible. She'd collapse and they'd prop her up and torture her until she ran again by sheer instinct.

She'd known what she was doing when she stumbled onto Vergaine, a world with a small village on a coast near the Ring of the Ancestors and a far-flung network of villages on islands in their seas. The main village was small and Vergaine, being mostly water, had a population too disparate to herd or cull easily. If the Wraith came for her, most of the world would probably survive. The Wraith hunted her on foot and they would need their flying ships to cross the Seas of Vergaine. And so she staggered from the Ring toward the village, falling quickly and not rising.

She woke in a soft bed, unfamiliar sounds and smells surrounding her. She'd been asleep for three days, they told her, and she looked like it had been thrice that since she'd eaten. They gave her as much food as she could eat, clean clothes, and asked no questions about who -- or what -- she had been running from. The answer was seemingly obvious, but she did nothing to correct the impression that she had fled the destruction of her home.

The Wraith came on the fourth day. They came in force and they brought their flying ships that screamed as they flew out over the water. In the end, there was no one to lay the blame at her feet for the slaughter of Vergaine. There was no one left, at least not in the main village. When it was all over, the Wraith guards found her and dragged her before their commander, who in turn wordlessly signaled that she should be let go. The lesson of Charow hadn't been lost.

She stayed on Vergaine after the Wraith left, sleeping in the soft bed and eating the food left behind. She found new boots, strong fishermen's knives, and enough supplies to be ready when the Wraith decided that she'd been rewarded enough for her gift to them. With rest and comfort came remorse, but not as much as when she realized that she'd accidentally doomed Gaedras. Her compassion had been worn away, burned for fuel so that she could continue. As much as there were times when she wished she could die, when she considered sacrificing herself so that she could never put others at risk, she knew that it wasn't really what she wanted. She wanted to live.

The Wraith came again on the tenth day, this time for her. She ran.

Once off Vergaine, the cycle began again -- the Wraith chased her from world to world until she dropped, until she was starving and ragged and too bleary to aim her weapon with even her modest ability to hit a target. They caught her, made her pay for her weakness, and then set her free again to try once more until there was nothing left for her to give. It took longer to hit the end point the next time, in part because she was getting better at evading and mostly because there were more emptied worlds to hide on and replenish her supplies. There were more Wraith chasing her, but there had to be more Wraith cullings everywhere. There had always been refugees and abandoned villages, but never in this quantity. Even living apart, she overheard the stories of destruction and terror.

The last time she'd dared visit a town, she'd heard that Prala had been culled. But when she got there, she could see that it hadn't been -- that, or the culling had been far enough back that resettlement had already occurred. It had been a long time since she'd heard the tale and there was no saying how old the news had been then.

She'd come from spending three endless nights on Sidona, trekking through knee-deep snow in shin-high boots. She couldn't feel her feet, the crusted blood oozing from the gash in her right hand had started to freeze, and she'd eaten only snow the entire time. She was so cold -- sweat and Wraith blood had frozen her meager clothes stiff and unyielding -- and so tired and she'd gotten confused constantly as she'd stumbled back toward the Ring so that it had taken almost a day to make a trip that should have only been a fraction of that.

It had been a series of promises made and broken -- one more world, one more night, one last chance to evade her pursuers before she gave in -- that had let her survive Sidona. But now she had done so and she had nothing left with which to bargain. And so when she saw that Prala was very much alive, she didn't fight the impetus to press on, didn't even consider going back or somewhere else. She would have probably been safe on Sidona for a day or two, but only from the Wraith. The cold would have killed her first.

Prala had a small town dominated by an old edifice that dated back to the Ancestors and was surrounded by vineyards and fruit groves. No matter how often it got culled, it would be re-settled because the land was so fertile. She stayed beyond the fields, hidden from sight rather than accept hospitality. It wasn't fair, none of this was, but it was something the balance the ledger.

The Wraith came on the second day, their assault waking her up from the sleep she'd dropped into almost the moment she'd collapsed to the ground. It was over quickly and she hoped that the Wraith would leave her be, but they didn't. Once again, she was dragged before the commander.

"We cannot be bought off by such insufficient fare," he said, annoyance clear. He stalked over to where she was pinned between two faceless guards and ran a clawed fingertip down her cheek, cutting it. "You are a valuable tool. It will take more than this to buy your idleness."

The guards behind her opened fire. Three stunner blasts to the back. She woke hours later, still immobilized. It was a long time before she could drag herself up to standing and find a house with a bed. Knowing that the Wraith would return much sooner than last time, she packed quickly and stayed only a couple of days before moving on.

The Wraith were growing still more ravenous. For the first time, she escaped from her pursuers only to find herself in the middle of a culling. What made it even more odd was that attacking Wraith had no idea who or what she was and tried to feed off of her. She fought them off, using the energy rush from the attempted feeding to kill her attackers and escape into the surrounding forests. After they'd gone, she stayed until the first scavengers came.

The journey from Prala to Selangor took months. She knew it had been at least two before she'd broken her arm (in a fall on a world with no name and only an escarpment near the Ring to make it memorable) and at least that long for her not to need to tie it to her body. The broken arm had cost her dearly; acquiring food was very difficult and her weapon's recoil made one-handed shooting painful and slow. She was getting caught more easily, getting punished for her ineptitude more severely, and it was only a matter of time before she was ready to do anything for surcease.

She did not know of many worlds that would be sufficient to satisfy the Wraith and yet still small enough so that she didn't feel a traitor to her own kind. Most of the likely candidates had either already been culled or had strong ties to Calpain and she couldn't bring herself to doom them. It was not until she found the shards of a green glass vase on a ruined world that she remembered Selangor.

Selangor was a mystery to almost everyone in the galaxy -- nobody went there; if you traded with Selangor, they came to you. She doubted that the Wraith knew where it was, which made it all the more valuable even if it was too small. She knew the symbols for the Ring to get there, but legend had it that such information didn't do any good -- many had gone to Selangor and none had ever found the village there.

She arrived on Selangor in full darkness, with not even a moon to light the way. She hadn't been followed directly, so the Wraith would have to find her and that would give her enough time to find the village. She uncovered a place to hide and waited; it was not long after dawn that the Ring of the Ancestors opened again and others came. They were of the Selangor and she followed them as best she could from a distance, hiding in the trees along the path.

The path went on for as long as the horizon allowed it to be seen and she expected a long day's work, but was surprised to feel a prickle along her skin and to be faced with a busy town that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The Wraith could make you see things that were not there, but how could the Selangor make you not see things that were?

It was not long until she was found out and she didn't know what to expect from the Selangor for her trespassing. They valued their secret above all else -- it was the only way to protect themselves from the Wraith, after all. But instead of punishment or imprisonment, they offered her sanctuary. She was given food, clothing, and a place to stay. The generosity was not without price -- once she was healthier, they said, she would be given a daily task.

She found out about the nature of the magical dissembling in part through her bewildered questions and in part through the chatty young woman who brought her meals. It did not take much to convince Beresth to bring her to the machine of the Ancestors -- everyone on Selangor knew and if she were to become one of them, then it was her right, too.

Selangor posted no guards on the streets at night and she had gotten very good at moving silently in far quieter environments. The machine of the Ancestors was beyond her understanding, but it was beyond everyone else's understanding as well. It would be easy to sabotage the device; the question was whether she wanted to. Once the Wraith came to the planet, they would know where she was even if they couldn't see her. She did not doubt that they would come, even if she didn't know when. Would they accept her offering if they had to destroy it first?

She went back to her room without doing anything. But she spent the next day nervous and distracted, afraid the Wraith would come and that she wouldn't be given credit for her gift. That night, she exchanged parts that looked alike, an arbitrary process with an experimental tug here and a too-strong shove there. It looked the same as it had when she'd approached, but the hum that forever rang in the town was gone. She slipped back to her room and slept deeply, relieved.

The failure of the mirage was noticed before noon. She was worried that they'd be suspicious of her, but they were suspicious of nobody. The device shut itself down once every few years to renew itself and while this was not an expected time, it must have been necessary and they could only pray to the Ancestors that the Wraith did not come before it was restored.

Their prayers went unanswered. The Wraith came before dark, first hunters on the ground and then flying machines both big and small. This was not to be a culling, then. It was to be a razing. She ran with Beresth and the others into the mines, but the Wraith followed them. She was stunned and dragged back into daylight, dimly aware that she had been deposited near a still-burning building.

After the Wraith left and she had regained the ability to move, she picked through the charred and still-hot rubble for items she could use. Weaponry on Selangor wasn't advanced, but what they had was of fine quality and she exchanged her dulling blades for sharper ones that shone brilliantly in the sun.

On the fourth day after the Wraith had come and gone, she heard the Ring activating. Four days wasn't much time considering that she'd delivered an untouchable world to them, but she'd been prepared and withdrew to the forest to await a chance to escape to the Ring. From a distance, however, she could see that the arrivals were not Wraith. Were in fact humans dressed in unfamiliar clothes and carrying weapons that looked powerful for all of their sleekness. They were too clean and too relaxed to be scavengers, but they picked through the rubble all the same. When she lost sight of them, she waited a while and then set off for the Ring so that if the Wraith did come, they would find the scavengers and not her.

She heard footsteps approaching before she saw who was following. She could run or she could let herself be caught; running might bring the others but she was sure she could overcome just the one should it prove necessary.

"Please stop!" a woman's voice called out. "We do not mean to hurt you."

She stopped. At worst, perhaps she could get one of their weapons. Or a new address to give to the Wraith.


Five

Doctor Clayton was waiting for them when they arrived at the infirmary.

"What's going on, Nancy?" Elizabeth asked as John looked around. Murray's marines were standing off to the side, looking both wary and angry. There was nothing they could have done, but he'd probably have to remind them of that. John wasn't sure he could exculpate himself so easily.

"Exactly what it sounds like," Clayton replied sourly. She gestured for them to follow her over to one of the laptops and typed in a sequence of commands to bring up what looked like an MRI of a back. John felt Ronon's breath on his hair as the larger man was looking over his shoulder, but didn't say anything.

"This is the tracking device," she went on, pointing out the dark spot on the image of the spine. "We found it when giving her a routine body scan. Carson saw it and started prepping for surgery."

"Are you sure that it is a tracking device?" Teyla was standing on the far side of Clayton and John was a little surprised that she could see past the taller woman.

Nancy shrugged. "What else do the Wraith stick in people?"

John looked at his watch; they'd been back almost two hours. Was that enough time for the Wraith to track her to Atlantis? They had an imperfect understanding of how the implanted devices worked because Ronon was their only example and he hadn't been extremely forthcoming when questioned about it. He'd have to be now.

"Did she know it was there?" Elizabeth asked.

"She had to," Ronon answered before Clayton could. Everyone turned to look at him. "They don't drug you when they put it in."

"The skin over the area was long-healed," Clayton added, frowning at the thought of unanaesthetized surgery. "It had to have happened years ago."

"So the odds of her not knowing what it was and what it did are pretty slim," John said. "We better get McKay or Zelenka down here to turn the damned thing off."

Elizabeth stepped away to contact Rodney. His initial response to the summoning was annoyance, then panic, and then finally annoyance again once he realized that the interruption was because they had another crisis on their hands.

John tuned out the conversation in his earpiece to think about his own part. Lorne was off-world with his team doing something John didn't remember as being terribly important; he put his radio on the military main frequency and contacted Murray, telling him to recall Lorne's team and ping him as soon as they were in Atlantis. Bringing back the other off-world parties -- platoons on exercise, a few scientific expeditions, marines on loan as manual labor or providing humanitarian aid -- would depend on what Rodney came up with. They were already running increased patrols in the city, which would keep people from freaking out too badly once word got out -- as it inevitably would -- and there was a city defense plan that they practiced and refined regularly. But all of that was for later; there was nothing the military could do until they had confirmation of incoming Wraith ships. Especially with the Daedalus at least a month from returning.

"How long will the procedure take?" Elizabeth asked, gesturing with her head toward the operating room.

"Metzinger's running anaesthesia and Carson's a quick worker," Clayton replied, looking at the clock on the wall. "I'd say another ten-fifteen minutes? Assuming the tracker's not too connected to anything important, it should take less time than Ronon's did."

"Why?" Ronon turned from where he'd been staring at the image on the screen.

"Because she's unconscious and prone," Clayton replied with a touch of asperity. One of the marine orderlies came up to her and said something in her ear and she nodded. "Excuse me. I'm the only doctor on call right now."

She disappeared into the main patient room.

"Where is the satchel that Ailinthé brought with her?" Teyla asked suddenly, looking around.

"Over here, ma'am," one of the marines called, gesturing to an exam bed half-obscured by a curtain. "We went through it and didn't find anything that looked like it could be Wraith."

John followed Teyla over to the bed, which had a surprisingly large number of items spread across its surface. Mostly weapons. "Girl likes knives," he said, picking one up.

"For fighting off the Wraith," Ronon said from the other side of Teyla. "And for eating."

"Hopefully not without a good wash in between," John muttered, putting the knife down.

Teyla was holding a necklace with a locket. "Do you think...." she trailed off.

"Don't give it to me to find out," John replied, holding his hands away. He turned to the marine who'd shown them the cache. "Sergeant, take all of this down to Engineering and tell them to x-ray or ultrasound everything, make sure there's no technology -- Wraith or otherwise -- in anything that shouldn't have it."

"Aye aye, sir," he replied, gathering everything into the satchel and exiting the room.

On the way out, the marine passed Rodney with one of his minions in tow; John thought this one might be Doctor Stillman.

"Zelenka's on his way to the control room," Rodney said as gestured for Stillman to put the heavy black case he was carrying on one of the exam beds. "We're going to activate the rest of the scanners. It'll use up power, but under the circumstances, it's well worth the expense."

"We have scanners we don't run?"

Rodney looked at him like he was especially stupid. "Of course we do," he replied, opening up his laptop. "Most of them overlap in range and all of them draw significant amounts of energy from our one and only ZPM. Until the Wraith can be a lot more precise about where they come out of hyperspace when they come to blow us up or we get ourselves another ZPM, then we can do without."

Except now, seemingly.

"Sir?" Lieutenant Murray's voice came over his radio. "Major Lorne says he should be back within the hour."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," John replied. Elizabeth was watching him. "I recalled Lorne."

She nodded, then turned back to Rodney, who was typing furiously at his laptop while Stillman adjusted the settings on a small electronic device that looked vaguely like a bomb. "Is there any way to tell whether the Wraith are able to track her signal?"

Rodney sighed. "Not until we can take the thing apart and see how strong its transmitter is." He slapped Stillman's hands away from the device and entered a sequence on the device's keypad. "We're jamming the signal, so whatever damage she can do, she's done already. The tracker we pulled out of Ronon didn't have any biofeedback capabilities, so it's too much to hope for that they think she's dead. The best we can realistically wish for is that they weren't able to follow her signal here or, if they did, that they think she's gone to another planet before they realize which planet this is."

John didn't care for those odds, but there was no point in saying as much.

"Ronon," Elizabeth prompted, "Is there anything that you remember that could be helpful here?"

"Like what?" Ronon had settled into a lean against the exam bed behind the one Rodney had turned into an impromptu desk. He didn't move a muscle at Elizabeth's query, but John could swear his entire posture went from relaxed to fight-or-flight.

"How quickly did the Wraith come after you once you had arrived on a planet?" Teyla asked. She, too, had moved out of the way of Hurricane Rodney and was standing by the sink in the corner of the room with her arms crossed over her chest.

"Depended," Ronon replied.

"On what?" Rodney asked with barely restrained impatience.

"On whether they'd caught me the planet before, on how many I'd killed, on whether there had been anyone else on the planet I'd left," Ronon elaborated, looking at Elizabeth. He was challenging her to turn away, but she didn't. John was a little proud of her. "Sometimes it took days, sometimes it was the same day. The last year, it was quicker."

Which, John realized with disgust, pretty much timed out to when he'd woken the Wraith.

Rodney made a dismissive noise. "Unless we can plot a chart of how long it took versus where in the solar system the planet was, that's not helpful information. The tracker we pulled out of you had enough power to transmit into space and the one in our guest--" he gestured to Clayton's laptop, still showing the image, "-- is not the same model. Taking a wild guess based on the fact that she wasn't completely feral when we found her, it's probably a newer version of yours. Which means it could be more powerful. But, again, it's speculation until we see what Carson pulls out of her."

They didn't have to wait long. Nurse Reilly emerged from the operating room with the device resting in a paper towel after it had obviously been rinsed off.

"Here it is," he said, holding it out. The tracker was tiny in Reilly's massive paws -- the guy could hide a syringe in those mitts -- and still wet. Stillman accepted it and put it down next to the jammer. "Doctor Beckett says he'll be done in ten."

It didn't escape John's attention that Reilly made no comment about Ailinthé's condition.

Reilly went back to the OR and attention returned to Rodney. John couldn't see what he and Stillman were doing, but judging from the perplexed expression on Elizabeth's face, it might not have mattered.

"Radek?" Rodney barked into his radio. "Are there any Wraith ships in the zeta ring or below?"

The astrophysics and astronomy unit had come up with a system for describing distances from Atlantis in terms of concentric circles around the planet. Zeta was the sixth band, pretty far out, near the end of the effective limit of the long-range sensors.

There was an answering mumble of Czech because Zelenka always turned his microphone on before he was ready to speak. "No," he finally said. "Nothing."

Rodney sighed with obvious relief and rolled his neck. "We're fine, then," he said, turning around to face John and Elizabeth. "The tracker's signal shouldn't be traceable outside the epsilon ring -- it's a very powerful little device. The Wraith may not have a clue about hyperdrives, but they have really phenomenal abilities with miniaturization. Which is kind of peculiar considering that those claws of theirs make fine work almost impossible--"

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Ronon twitch slightly at the way Rodney was waxing poetic about Wraith technology.

"Rodney?" Elizabeth broke in. "So you're saying that the Wraith don't know that Ailinthé's here?"

"No," Rodney replied pedantically. "I'm saying that the tracker isn't giving away our position."

"And that is good news." Teyla pushed off of the sink and came closer.

"It lessens the chance of us needing to expect another siege, yes," Rodney admitted. "But if she's willingly walking on to populated worlds knowing she's got the Wraith on her tail? Who knows what other surprises she might have for us."

That, of course, was the real problem.

Rodney and Stillman were still deactivating the tracker when the door to the operating room suite opened again and Beckett came out, still dressed in his scrubs.

"Well, Carson?" Elizabeth smiled wryly. "What've you got?"

Beckett ran his fingers over his face and through his hair. "One more former runner," he replied in a tired voice. "The surgery was fine. She'll be up and about in no time."

"Are we supposed to be thrilled by that?" Rodney asked, not looking up from his task. John kind of felt the same, but managed to keep it to himself. He and Elizabeth were going to have to have a talk about what to do with her.

"What do you want me to say, Rodney?" Beckett retorted. "That she died on the table?"

"It's not too late for that," Ronon rumbled just loud enough for everyone to hear. One hand was on his pistol.

"Ronon," Teyla chided. She didn't sound quite convincing, though, at least not to John's well-tuned ears.

"We will decide what to do about Ailinthé later," Elizabeth announced firmly. "Killing her in her sleep is not going to be an option."

John knew that everyone was waiting for him to say something -- Elizabeth for him to back her up, Ronon for him to not rule out capital punishment, and the others for him to announce that yes, the military really did have a procedure for just this circumstance and the decision was taken out of all of their hands. He could -- lord knows, the Uniform Code of Military Justice probably had plenty to say about disguised individuals sneaking past military guards with the intent to do harm -- but he didn't want to say anything just yet. He wasn't afraid of making a hard decision, but he wanted it to be the right decision and not one out of anger or impetuousness. Because his instincts right now ran toward letting Ronon do what he wanted.

He was saved by his radio chirping. "Colonel?" Lorne's voice, a little winded. "We're back."

"Just in time," John replied, trying not to sound relieved. "Want to come meet us in the infirmary?"

"On my way, sir."

"Damn it!" Rodney barked, shifting everyone's attention back to him. He was still hunched over the tracker, but he was shaking his left hand as if it had been injured. "They've made this even more tamper-resistant than the last one."

"Do you want me to look at your hand, Rodney?" Beckett asked.

"No, because I need it," Rodney snapped back. John couldn't help but grin a little. Rodney was a world class hypochondriac and an even better drama queen when it came to injuries, except when whatever was plaguing him interfered in something he was interested in doing.

Carson rolled his eyes and held up his hands in defeat.

"How long until we can talk to Ailinthé?" Elizabeth asked him.

"Doctor Laurentian is finishing up," Carson replied, gesturing behind him to the operating suite, then waving his hand a little as Lorne and Safir entered the room. Both were still wearing their tac vests, but had lost their P-90s, presumably to their marines. John raised his eyebrows at Lorne, who gave him a clear 'what happened this time?' look. "After that, it should be a few hours for the anaesthetic to wear off. We're going to complete the body scan as well. I don't think she'll be in any condition to withstand intense questioning until tomorrow, however. There are usual after-effects of general anaesthesia and her less-than-prime physical condition will slow her recovery."

John took a minute once Carson was done to catch Lorne and Safir up to speed.

"Wonderful," Safir muttered bitterly when he finished. Safir was the one who designed the protocols for medically clearing visitors to Atlantis and he tended to take each failure personally.

"Nothing you could've done, Yoni," Lorne assured him. "Unless we install a metal detector on the stargate, we're always going to be vulnerable like that."

"We could," Rodney offered, turning around. He was letting Stillman hold the device while he worked, but still had one hand on the tracker. "Turn the platform into a scanning zone."

"And how long would it take anyone to get through?" John asked sourly. "Sidearm, rifle, knives--" he looked pointedly at Ronon, "--and whatever is in our tac vests? And that's just us. We'd make the airport security lines look like a joke."

"Fine!" Rodney growled, turning back to the tracker. "So we'll take our chances on the next Wraith flunky who walks through our gate."

"I should hope that that won't be a persistent problem," Elizabeth cut in. She uncrossed her arms and gestured toward the open infirmary door. "Rodney, when you're done, could you join Colonel Sheppard, Doctor Beckett, and myself up in my office, please?"

Well, he knew where he was spending the rest of his afternoon.

Rodney grunted something vaguely affirmative and dismissive.

"I'll be up as soon as I've changed and we've moved our patient into Recovery," Carson said.

"I'll be up in a minute," John promised. "I need to settle a few things first."

There were more than a few things he needed to hash out with Lorne before he got sequestered in a command staff meeting that would no doubt turn ugly.

Elizabeth nodded. "Teyla and Ronon, I don't want you two to feel left out or that we don't value your input," she said. "I would just like to caucus on what the official report to the SGC should include."

"We understand, Elizabeth," Teyla assured her, although John privately wondered whether she understood better than Elizabeth thought she did. "We are available if and when you should need us."

"We will," Elizabeth replied. "I can guarantee that. Thank you."

Teyla half-bowed and, with a slightly sullen and very suspicious Ronon in tow, left the room. Ronon gave John a look as he passed by, part plea that he do the right thing and part warning that Ronon wasn't above taking matters into his own hands if John didn't.

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said by way of farewell and departed also. She, too, gave John a meaningful look as she left. He was starting to feel a little persecuted.

"I'm going to go change," Safir announced. "I have to go beg Computer Science for a modeling and they get intimidated easily."

Lorne cocked an eyebrow. "And you think you'll scare them less in civvies?"

Which was pretty much exactly what John was thinking.

Safir shrugged and gave a wolf-like grin. "If I'm not carrying my sidearm, then it's all in their heads."

Lorne sighed and shook his head. "Stay on radio, please? And tell the boys to do the same."

"Of course," Safir said and went off. John realized that Lorne assumed that Safir had intended to first tell the rest of their team what was going on before he assumed the disguise of a mild-mannered epidemiologist in need of assistance. He forgot sometimes how differently Lorne's team functioned from how his own did.

Safir's departure left just him and Lorne along with Rodney and Stillman; Carson had already disappeared. The marines from Murray's platoon were still amassed by the far wall, standing guard against the unlikely event that Ailinthé got up off of the operating table and tried to flee. John gestured for Lorne to wait for him and he crossed over to where they were standing.

The marines had been resting casually against the wall -- seemingly casually; John knew that they were not dismissing the possibility that Ailinthé really would get up and make a run for it -- but snapped to as he approached. He waved off their gesture.

"How long until you guys are replaced?" John asked the squad leader, looking at his name tape.

Staff Sergeant James looked at his wristwatch. "Ninety minutes, sir."

"We'll consider our guest to be in protective custody," John said, making a face because he had to worry not only about what Ailinthé would do, but also about what might be done to her.

James's answering grimace assured John that he understood, too. "Should we use restraints, sir?"

"As long as the doctors don't object," he replied. "And by 'object', I mean on medical grounds."

They all knew that the doctors (at least those not Safir) would protest if they thought that restraining their prisoner -- and, really, that's what she'd become -- was cruel.

"Understood, sir."

"Orders should be around by the next shift," John said, "but in case they're not...." he trailed off.

"Of course, sir," James agreed with a nod. He'd make sure the replacement squad knew what was up.

"Good." With a final nod, he returned to Lorne, gesturing with a tilt of his head that they should go.

"I'll see you later, Rodney," he called over his shoulder. There was an answering grunt.

"We've got about two hours until all of Little Tripoli knows what's going on," John said as they stopped halfway to the transporter. Gossip among the marines moved at about three-quarters the speed of light. "Unfortunately, we won't have the answers we need by that point."

"Are we really expecting mitigating factors here, sir?" Lorne asked wryly. "I'm sure there's been a case of accidental genocide somewhere in our history, certainly in Pegasus, but...."

"Yeah, I know," he agreed with a sigh. "Once is an accident, but we're probably looking to find out 'how many' instead of 'how.'"

By almost any definition he could muster, Ailinthé qualified as a war criminal. Except if it was an accident. And he couldn't rule that out, not after his own ignorance had ignited the whole Wraith resurgence. As angry as he was at Ailinthé for what she had nearly done to Atlantis -- what she might still have succeeded in doing to Atlantis -- he still feared that part of her actions could be traced back to his own on the Wraith hive ship. Even if Ailinthé turned out to be a Wraith collaborator, going from world to world as a beacon for her masters, leaving destroyed civilizations in her wake.

"I'll get the officers together," Lorne said quietly, as if he knew that he was breaking into John's thoughts. "Let them know what's going on and what we might have to expect."

John nodded. It would also serve to help keep the marines' impatience at bay. Almost all of them had come from Iraq or Afghanistan or both, places where terrorists dressed as civilians in order to maximize casualties. There was going to be no sympathy for Ailinthé on that front. And while John didn't expect any sort of rogue action from them -- not the way he was still worried about Ronon -- there would be a problem with morale if, in the marines' view, the punishment didn't fit the crime.

"What did the SGC do with Goa'uld flunkies that they captured?" John asked. He'd read a lot of the mission reports, but he well knew that what happened in the field was far different than what happened once a prisoner had formally been taken into custody.

"Depended," Lorne said, expression clear that he understood where John was going with the question. "In hindsight, it was a lot of catch-and-release, although at the time it was mostly capture-and-escape."

Escape or release wasn't an option. Not if the Wraith had an interest in her and not if she knew about Atlantis. Whatever the outcome, they would have to be the masters of Ailinthé's fate from here on out.

"Would we have any precedent for execution?"

"I'll look for one," Lorne promised.

John nodded, patted Lorne on the shoulder, and turned to go back toward the gate room.


There was nobody in Elizabeth's office but her, Rodney and Carson still off doing whatever they were doing, and he suspected Elizabeth was hoping that that would be the case. Carson and Rodney were half of the command element, but they were more voting members than decision makers. This was something that was going to ultimately come down to him and her alone.

Elizabeth looked up as he sat down. "I'm trying to write up a summary of what's happened so far," she said. "So we can inform the SGC. I'd like to dial Earth and send this off as soon as possible. Is there a chance I could get you to write up your report today?"

"That depends," he replied slowly. He dragged his gaze off of his hands and to her face. "If I delay, is there a chance we can settle this before we tell the SGC anything?"

It was better to seek forgiveness than ask permission. He knew that, she knew that, and it would all come down to whether Elizabeth wanted to accept the responsibility. Both for what she did or didn't do as well as that for what those under her might do.

"Colonel," she sighed. "We have to tell them what has happened."

He wasn't oblivious to the dangers they faced to their own careers, to Atlantis should the IOA decide that they'd done the wrong thing. Their replacements would be on the next trip the Daedalus made. But if the worst happened, if these REMFs forced them to either release Ailinthé or put her in a position where she could be re-taken by the Wraith or otherwise put Atlantis at risk, what would he and Elizabeth do? They had to act in Atlantis's best interests first and then hope that they survived the review process.

"I'm not saying not to tell them." He sat up from his usual slouch. "I'm saying that we don't have to turn this into an emergency worth a special call to Earth. This won't be the first near-miss we've included in the weekly databurst. Hell, it won't be the fifth."

He didn't doubt Elizabeth's courage. He never had. But he feared for her idealism, for all that it had gotten them to the Pegasus galaxy in the first place. But now that they were here, it was sometimes hobbling. Pegasus didn't play fair and even if he'd consider them both optimists by nature, it was his job to make sure that neither of them were blinded to the ugliness that surrounded them.

"It's not the 'near-miss' I'm worried about," Elizabeth said. "It's what we do from here on out."

"We've handled our own prisoners before."

"That's exactly my point," she shot back. "What's our track record, John? We held Sora until we needed to deal with the Genii, but our two Wraith prisoners?"

While they had both been party to Steve's fate, Elizabeth had never asked him what had happened to Bob. He didn't doubt that she knew, if not the precise details, then at least the general outline.

"I'm an officer before I'm a gentleman, Elizabeth," he said. "I won't sacrifice the people under my protection just so I can stick to the high moral ground."

And he wouldn't let her, either, he didn't add. Didn't think he had to.

"I'm not asking you to sacrifice anyone," she said. "I'm asking you to pause before you administer any sort of frontier justice. We may still be on the frontier, but we're not as isolated as we used to be. We can't make it up as we go along anymore. You of all people should understand chain of command issues."

"Fuck the IOA," John spat out, annoyed by Elizabeth's low blow, not caring if it had been intentional or not. "They're not the ones out here. We are. We can't run crying to Earth every time something happens out here or else we're just puppets."

"Don't you think that I know that?" Elizabeth shouted. "I spent the entire year we prepared for this mission fighting off military oversight and keeping this a civilian expedition. And now that we're back in contact, I'm fighting off civilian micromanagement from a galaxy away. Don't lecture me about puppet strings!"

She took a deep breath to rein in her emotions. "This isn't a matter of how many off-world missions we plan," she went on in a quieter voice, "or what our security looks like or how many refugees we're taking in. This is about whether we have the authority to try someone for attempting to kill the entire expedition."

"It's about a little more than that, Elizabeth," he replied. "We already know that there are Wraith worshipers. What if she's one of them? What are the odds that she brought the Wraith to Selangor? How many worlds before that did she give to the Wraith?"

He was angry at Elizabeth for not realizing -- or not accepting -- how dangerous Ailinthé could be, but he was angrier at himself. It had been his decision to bring her back to Atlantis. He was the one with prior experience with Wraith worshipers; he was the one who had seen how convincing they could be. He'd nearly gotten his team -- and had gotten Ford and his junky sidekick -- killed for that lesson. Which he obviously hadn't learned.

"Fine." Elizabeth gave him a sharp look. "Then who are we to try her for genocide?"

"One of her would-be victims?" Rodney asked from the doorway. He came in with Carson and they both sat. "I hate to be the traitor to my enlightened civilian species here, but I'm singularly failing at mercy right now."

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again. "We can't be judge, jury, and executioner--" she looked pointedly at John, "--before we have the truth. If Pegasus has taught us anything, it is that there are no advantages to guessing the real story. Carson, did Ailinthé say anything when you were examining her?"

Carson pursed his lips. "I didn't perform the physical exam," he said. "There were signs of what I thought was severe, long-term physical abuse and she was in such a fright every time I came close. So I asked Nancy to do it while I processed her blood work. I didn't hear everything that was said, but she never mentioned being a Runner from the Wraith, that much I can promise."

"What did she say?" John asked.

"Mostly the sort of excuses you hear when someone is covering up for domestic abuse," Carson replied with a sad shrug. "Explanations for an unusual number of scars and bruises, that sort of thing. The world she claimed to be from was relatively prosperous, from what you had said, and yet she was malnourished, even by Pegasus standards, and sadly underweight. Her body fat percentage makes Ronon look like Santa Claus. Except for the fact that her muscular form and structure are consistent with what we'd associate with our marines, her physical history reads like a classic victim of severe abuse."

"So she's clearly been a Runner for a while," John said, not wanting Carson -- or Elizabeth -- to get caught up in sympathies for Ailinthé. The only thing she could be pitied for was being made a Runner and that was old news. "Clayton said that the scars from the tracker implantation were years old."

"Aye," Carson agreed. "If those scars and wounds come from being chased by the Wraith, then it's definitely been a few years."

Elizabeth was about to say something when the gate activation alarm sounded. They looked at each other, each thinking the same thing: that Ailinthé had brought the Wraith. Thinking that this proved his point, John got up and went into the control room.

"It's Lieutenant Paik's IDC, sirs," the sergeant at the laptop announced to both John and Lieutenant Murray. "This is their scheduled return time."

Murray looked at John. "Get voice confirmation," he told the lieutenant. There were protocols for dialing in under duress, but the Wraith were also at least partially telepathic.

"Lieutenant Paik," Murray said into his radio, "What's the weather like by you?"

It was the standard voice confirmation question. The reply varied by responder; they had to compare it to their home state (or country).

"Like Jersey in January," Paik answered. "And we're dressed for August. Let us the fuck in before we freeze our balls off!"

"Come on home," Murray said, gesturing for the sergeant to drop the shield and fighting off a grin. "You're good to go."

A platoon of rosy-cheeked marines tramped through the wormhole, looking around to see what sort of crisis had required the extra security measure. Paik and his gunny came through last, looking straight up at the control room. Paik's angry glare faded when he saw John, changing to a more wry acceptance of getting caught in something bigger. When John didn't invite him up for an explanation, he turned to herding his platoon toward the transporter back to Little Tripoli.

With a nod to Murray, John went back to Elizabeth's office.

"It's nothing," he told the waiting trio, not yet sitting back down. He wasn't sure how much more they had to discuss, not if Elizabeth wanted to talk to Ailinthé before even considering courses of action. Especially not if she wanted to talk to the IOA first.

"I don't think we should wait to see what Earth has to say," Rodney said quietly, not looking up. "I caught that much from the hallway. They won't give us drone weapons to defend ourselves, they won't give us the marines or the supplies we ask for, and they're hoarding the naquadria they have under the completely ridiculous pretense that they're not sure it won't explode in the Daedalus's hold."

Rodney looked up then, bleak and serious and nothing at all about beautiful Wraith devices or old grudges about missing supplies.

"The last time we asked for help, they sent a marine colonel to stage a coup," he went on. "I've gotten used to Sheppard's kind of flakiness and I don't want to be ordered around by someone who doesn't see me until they need me."

"Hey," John protested weakly.

"I don't think they're going to assume command of the outpost because we may have been compromised," Elizabeth said. "But they might if we execute a prisoner. That is what I'm concerned about."

If it came down to it and he wasn't able to convince Elizabeth to handle things in-house, John wondered if he'd risk sacrificing his place in Atlantis to do what was necessary with Ailinthé. In Afghanistan, it had been about saving lives -- or trying to. He'd like to think that his reactions here were about doing what was right for Atlantis's safety, not necessarily about vengeance. He wouldn't deny the desire, but he wouldn't throw everything away just to do something that felt good.

"She'd be up for a lead role in the Pegasus version of the Nuremberg trials," Rodney said. "I think we might have a case for execution."

"Why are you so bloodthirsty?" Elizabeth asked him, then looked up at John accusingly, like she thought that he'd influenced Rodney. They both know it didn't work that way. "How many times do I have to repeat that we don't even know what the truth of the story is?"

"And you think we're going to get it from her?" Rodney retorted. He sat up straight.

"I think that we need to stop going around in circles and wait for Ailinthé to talk to us," Elizabeth said, edges of real anger in her voice. Elizabeth rarely got truly angry -- it pretty much took Rodney blowing up a solar system to get her beyond the limits of her control.

"Elizabeth, you know that I have no love for solutions where force is the first option," Rodney said. "But what are we supposed to do? Lock her in the brig from now until the end of time? Send her to Earth so that she can enjoy the comforts of Cheyenne Mountain? Put her on the mainland with a big, scarlet G on her shirt for Genocidal? Toss her through a wormhole to that planet Lorne's team got marooned on because the DHD didn't work? What punishment fits the crime?"

John suspected that there would be a long list of marines willing to accidentally-on-purpose misdial a space gate for Ailinthé.

"Come on, Carson," Rodney prodded. He was being feisty and if you didn't know him better, you'd think it odd. But John did know him and saw the fear as well as the anger. This was Rodney staving off losing his nerve. "You've been sitting there all quiet and inoffensive. Where do you sit on this?"

Everyone turned to Carson, who really had been doing a great impression of an empty chair. He bit his lip and looked straight ahead, not meeting anyone's eyes.

"I took an oath to preserve life," he said in a low voice. "'First, do no harm.' I'm working on the retrovirus that will hopefully stop the Wraith from killing us all. And yet here I am and you're asking me how I feel about a woman who may have murdered how many people? Who tried to murder me and mine, even. I don't know how I sit on the issue, Rodney. Professionally, I have only compassion. Personally... personally, I think that if we asked Ronon into the room and asked him if he'd ever willingly gone to a planet knowing that it would bring the Wraith upon them, then I know what his answer would be. I think we all do."

Carson's words hung in the air.

"How long until she can talk, Carson?" John finally asked before the silence got profound.

"I'd say wait until tomorrow," he replied, shaking himself out of his little reverie. "She'll be conscious in a few hours, but I don't think you'll get anything useful out of her until the morning."

John nodded. There was nothing that was really time-sensitive. Her belongings had already been confiscated and the body scan would have turned up any other surprises.

"I think we should all wait until tomorrow," Elizabeth said, standing. Rodney and Carson stood as well.

"I'm going to get back to the lab," Rodney said. "Sloznik's an idiot savant, but he'll be done with the specs I took from the cloaking device on Selangor."

He left from the back entrance. Carson made a vague gesture of farewell and followed.

John turned to leave through the gate room.

"Colonel?" Elizabeth called after him.

"I have to go check in with Lorne," he said. He didn't really -- Lorne had proven often enough that he was perfectly capable of running Atlantis's military without him -- but he didn't want to stay and talk to Elizabeth. She was right; there was no point in arguing in circles any more.

Murray was talking to Lieutenant Eriksson, presumably his replacement as gate room officer, as John passed through the control room. He nodded to them both, then stopped when he remembered that he hadn't passed on his orders to Murray's men. "Eriksson," he began, turning around. "You've get a team on guard duty for the prisoner in the infirmary. She's sedated, so I don't think we'll need a whole squad."

"Captain Radner already mentioned it, sir," Eriksson replied with a nod.

"Right," John agreed ruefully. Which meant Lorne was already done briefing the captains. "It's good to know I'm purely for redundancy and decoration."

"We're just very efficient, sir," Eriksson offered, fighting off a grin. Murray, as usual, was already losing that battle.

"Carry on, gentlemen," John said, shaking his head and turning back toward the concourse.

Instead of going to find Lorne, he decided to check in with his team. "Ronon?" he asked into his radio as he walked to the transporter. There was no answer. "Ronon?" he tried again as he got to the transporter doors. Again, nothing. He tapped the earpiece to switch channels. "Lieutenant Murray? Where is Ronon Dex?"

"I'll track him down for you, sir," the lieutenant replied.

He stood waiting as Murray presumably got the scientist at the internal sensor to track Ronon down.

"He's in the gym in Little Tripoli, sir," Murray finally replied. "Third sublevel."

"Thank you," John replied with a sigh. Ronon was taking out his frustration by beating the crap out of marines. He could leave Ronon there to work it out on his own, but John sort of suspected that Ronon would run out of marines before he ran out of anger. He waved at the crystals to open the transporter doors and tapped the stop for Little Tripoli.

He heard Ronon before he saw him. A roar, followed by a thud and a grunt, echoed down the hallway. The doors swooshed open for him and he found himself in a large room half-filled with marines. And Teyla, who was sitting on the side with thinly veiled concern visible beneath the outward calm.

John waved off the first marine who was about to announce his presence and crossed to the side where Teyla was, dropping down next to her. Ronon didn't so much as pause in his match with Staff Sergeant Laganzo, who seemed to be at least not making a fool of himself, if not necessarily holding his own.

"He's been here since the infirmary, hasn't he?" John asked Teyla.

She nodded sadly. "His anger has not abated," she said. "He is taking Ailinthé's actions as a personal betrayal."

"It kind of makes sense," he replied, wincing as Ronon landed awkwardly as Laganzo kicked his left knee from behind. "He made the sacrifice and she didn't."

"This is not helping," Teyla said, gesturing toward the fighting area.

Ronon bounced up to both feet and charged Laganzo, grabbing him in the midsection like a linebacker and slamming him down. Laganzo took a long minute to catch his breath and then tried to get up, but Ronon put a foot on his chest, pinning him down.

"I better go interrupt before he does permanent damage," John said, standing up again. He whistled loudly, drawing both Ronon's and Laganzo's attention.

"Hey, Ronon, what have I told you about the marines?" he asked as he stepped on to the mat and started walking toward them. Ronon turned to him, a little out of breath and a lot wild-eyed. "They are all off warranty when it comes to repairs. If you break one, we're going to have to buy a replacement. And we don't have the budget for that."

Ronon breathed loudly through his nose and took his foot off of Laganzo's chest. And then he extended a hand so that Laganzo could get up.

"You all right, Staff Sergeant?"

"Yes, sir," Laganzo replied. "Just got to go get a shovel to scoop up my ego."

"Good," John said. "I think I'm going to borrow your sparring partner."

"Set to, sir," Laganzo said, then rubbed his jaw. "But watch out for his right hook."

"I'll keep it in mind," John said.

Laganzo smiled and left them.

"So, up for a run?"

Ronon glared at him, then started walking -- stalking -- toward the door.

"I'll take that as a yes," John muttered, then turned to wave to Teyla before jogging after him.

He had a locker with sneakers and running clothes and so, once he got assurance that Ronon would wait for him, he changed. It was against the rules to leave a firearm in a locker but, under the circumstances, John figured a little rule-bending wouldn't hurt.

Lacking a proper track, the marines had marked out running paths of various durations with colored paint. Following the red trail was a five kilometer circuit, the green ten, the blue twenty-five. John was completely unsurprised when Ronon chose the blue path.

"If we're doing this, then we're going at my pace, not yours," John warned. Either Ronon would agree and slow down, or he wouldn't and he'd be out of sight by the first kilometer marker. Ronon slowed.

They didn't say anything for a while. John couldn't imagine what was going through Ronon's head. Ronon didn't talk much about being a Runner, even less about the time before. If he'd ever met another Runner, well, he hadn't said anything about that, either.

"What's going to happen to her?" Ronon asked at around the 8km marker.

"Don't know yet," John replied. "Gotta give her a chance to explain."

It was late enough in the afternoon that the sun was very close to the horizon, making it huge and blinding when they looked to their left while they were traveling in their current direction. Of course, Ronon was to his left.

"If she can't?"

"Then we figure out who's going to punish her and what that punishment should be."

John knew that Ronon understood why they couldn't just kill Ailinthé. From what he'd gathered, Sateda had been a relatively advanced world and had to have had a code of laws. What he didn't know was whether this would be one of those moments when the Runner, a creature of instinct, ruled the Satedan. There were plenty of things Ronon simply chose not to understand.

"Shouldn't be so complicated," Ronon said after another few minutes.

"No, it shouldn't," John agreed. "But we have to do it the right way. Or else we're no better than she is."

They didn't say anything for the rest of the run.

The rest of the day went normally; he showered and changed, found Lorne and verified that he really was kept for decoration, ate dinner, found Teyla and made sure she didn't need to wear him out for her peace of mind, went by the infirmary and learned from Doctor Abelard that Ailinthé had woken briefly and been unable to do more than drink water and puke, checked in at the control room to make sure that everything was fine and ended up spending half an hour debating PAC-10 versus Mountain West and why Clemson would never win with Eriksson, and returned to his quarters to find emails from Rodney and Elizabeth as well as a list from Lorne of which paperwork needed to get done before the weekly databurst. None of it got done before he fell asleep.


"It didn't fail."

John looked up from his coffee. "Huh?"

Rodney was waving a tablet notebook. He sat down across from John and tried to nick one of John's french toast fingers, which was impermissible under the best of circumstances and certainly not when he was being oblique when only one of them was fully caffeinated. John slapped his hand away.

"The cloaking device," Rodney elaborated, still eying John's tray. John strongly suspected that Rodney hadn't been to sleep yet. "There's nothing wrong with it."

"How do you know that?"

Rodney sighed. "Because Sloznik got the lab bench in AT Lab 5 to disappear."

"Oh," John said. He didn't want to ask if that was with a second device or a virtual model or what. "So did a crystal fall out or something? A wire get unplugged?"

"The crystals were in the wrong slots," Rodney replied, reaching out and taking John's cruller with a satisfied smirk. Two years and Rodney had never picked up on the fact that John always had decoy food. "It was sabotage."

It was John's turn to sigh. "Can we prove whether or not she did it? Fingerprints or something?"

"If I'd known that this was going to be Da Vinci's Inquest," Rodney said sarcastically, "I'd have dusted for fingerprints before I left it."

"Are you speaking Canadian at me again?" John knew what it was; Rodney had spent six months arguing with Ford about which was better, that or CSI. Ford was gone before they got a chance to get the DVDs and settle the matter like couch potatoes.

Rodney sneered and bit into the cruller. "The odds of there being two people in Selangor who were out to doom the planet...."

Were minimal. John nodded, accepting the conclusion for what it was.

"When is she getting questioned?" Rodney asked after he went off to get a new cup of coffee. And his own french toast fingers.

John looked at his watch. "Elizabeth's not usually open for business for another hour," he said. "It probably won't too much after then."

Rodney nodded thoughtfully. "I'm going to put together the proposal to get back to Selangor today," he said, daintily dipping a strip of french toast into the lake of maple syrup. It wasn't really maple -- they could only order the imitation stuff from Earth, so Botany had spent a week finding the closest analog on the mainland. The Athosians had at first thought that they were crazy, but were now firm believers in the stuff. "I think we'll be looking for a ZPM."

"Yeah?" John asked and Rodney nodded, mouth full. "Well, don't get your hopes up too much just yet. Elizabeth may decide that it's a matter of you fixing the cloaking device there instead of bringing the power source here."

"Why would she do that?" Rodney asked, swallowing hastily. "The place was leveled. It'll take years to rebuild, plus they'll have to bury the corpses and clean everything up before they gets started. And who would the 'they' be, anyway?"

"Any RDRs who don't want to live on the mainland or get dumped on the first willing planet?"

Rodney glared at him, then went back to his french toast fingers.

John felt a little like the Pied Piper by the time he got to Elizabeth's office. After Rodney had come Teyla and then Ronon and Carson had joined the motley parade en route to the control room. Lorne, at least, was already there. Not everyone could go question Ailinthé, so it got narrowed down to John and Elizabeth and Teyla and Heightmeyer because Carson and Rodney bowed out saying that they had no idea how to question a criminal and Lorne put himself on unofficial Ronon-watching duties. And everyone accepted that they needed a shrink along.

After it was over, about all John could say was that it had been wise to keep Ronon out of earshot because even Teyla was a little stunned after Ailinthé had finished speaking.

"By US -- and most Earth -- standards, she'd be deemed competent to stand trial," Heightmeyer said when they'd all reconvened in the conference room. "She understands that what she has done is wrong. She just considered it necessary for her own survival."

Ronon, his chair pushed back from the table, spat out something in a language that nobody understood, but the meaning was clear.

"It is impossible to judge someone on the basis of whether they would be willing to sacrifice their own life in return for the safety of others,' Teyla said slowly."It is an act of supreme bravery and selflessness."

"Ronon did it," Rodney cut in. "Hell, more than a few people in this room have as well. Not to mention those who weren't as fortunate."

There was a note to Rodney's voice and it was no great insight to realize that he was thinking about Griffin and his sacrifice for Rodney's life. It could be Peter Grodin, or Brendan Gaul or any of the other scientists who'd died so that someone else could live, but Griffin was the most recent and the most painful for Rodney.

"We have to be prepared to accept that, at least among Runners, Ronon was an exception rather than the rule," Elizabeth replied.

"I do not believe that to be the case," Teyla said. "What little I knew of Runners before we encountered Ronon was that they were exiles, that they lived apart. Not that they were doom-bringers."

Teyla's oral history aside -- and that was usually far more accurate than what they'd ever associated with gossip before -- the problem was that they had a sample size of two, one who had apparently kept his honor and one who hadn't. Which one was the exception? John didn't even think Ronon knew.

"Why are we even looking for a 'why'?" he asked, feeling a little tired and a lot disgusted with what Ailinthé had told them. "We're sitting here looking for a justification for what she did, but the fact is that she never had to choose me-or-them. She led the Wraith to certain planets so she could get a vacation."

Ailinthé had been clear on that -- she was sure that the Wraith wouldn't kill her. She'd broken down weeping when she'd explained how tired she'd been, how she had been unable to go on. But John couldn't accept it. He understood intellectually that Elizabeth was right, that not everyone had the stomach to be the hero. He'd seen that in his own career, guys who were completely stand-up men who just couldn't go the extra step when it came down to it. Ailinthé hadn't had a nice staff officer job waiting for her, but he refused to believe that she had really exhausted the possibilities when it came down to finding a way to get the Wraith off her back for a week.

"It's not that simple, Colonel," Elizabeth sighed. "There's an argument to be made that she was essentially being tortured by the Wraith. We have to be careful of how we judge someone's actions under torture."

John knew that Rodney was looking at him and he refused to acknowledge it. This wasn't about him and his scars. He'd considered Elizabeth's point earlier, during restless sleep and morning PT. But there had to be a limit.

"Everyone breaks if goes on long enough," he said. "But it can't be a free pass. The Wraith weren't asking her to lead them to a good lunch spot. She did that on her own. Again and again."

"Pavlov's dog," Heightmeyer said quietly. "Conditional reflex."

"Learned behavior," Carson elaborated at Teyla's questioning look. "We react to certain situations in a certain way based on previous experiences."

"It certainly fits here," Heightmeyer said. "She was rewarded the first time that she led the Wraith to a populous world. She repeated the experiment later and that established a pattern."

"But she's not a dog," Lorne protested. "Nobody's denying that what she went through -- what Ronon went through -- was sheer hell. And that her judgment was affected. But she always had a choice. Ronon lived for seven years by finding another way and -- forgive me, buddy -- but his judgment was affected, too. How hard did she look for an alternative instead of taking the easy out? She always knew that what she was doing was wrong and yet she kept doing it."

After another hour, everyone had to agree that Ailinthé had knowingly and willingly sacrificed at least three worlds to the Wraith, understanding completely what would happen as the result of her actions. John suspected that they were all in agreement about what had to be done as a consequence, even if some -- namely Elizabeth and Carson -- weren't ready to say it out loud.

"Come walk with me, please, Colonel," Elizabeth said as the meeting broke up. He nodded and followed her out to the balcony off of the control room, not looking at anyone else.

The wind was kicking up and they went to lean against the railing close enough together so that they could hear each other without shouting into the breeze.

This was their usual spot to have private discussions, which usually ranged from discussing sensitive information to when they came out here to fight without eavesdroppers. He was anticipating the latter and while he normally didn't like being dragged out here to be yelled at, he was willing to give it back in spades over this. He couldn't let the IOA -- or Elizabeth's fears for their censure -- put them in a position where Ailinthé would become a security risk. She knew Atlantis existed and she was willing to trade anything to the Wraith for survival and they couldn't let her walk away from her crimes.

He took a deep breath to begin speaking and Elizabeth held up a hand, forestalling him.

"I'm not naive, John," she said, turning to face the water below. "I've presented conference papers on Rwanda, studied Nuremberg and Simon Wiesenthal, read the newspapers on Darfur. I understand what she has done. I understand that there has to be a price paid."

The wind whipped her hair into her eyes and she pushed it away roughly.

"My role as leader of this expedition is part sovereign leader, part ambassador, and mostly bureaucrat," she went on. "Within the scope of my various roles, I have to do what is best for Atlantis."

"So do I," he shot back.

"Yes, you do," she agreed.

Her words were oddly formal, like she was doing a bad reading of a strange play. He looked at her curiously and she turned to face him. He was about to question her when she cocked an eyebrow and suddenly it all fell into place.

"Why--" She put her hand over his mouth and met his eyes with a serious gaze. He nodded that he understood and she removed her hand.

He didn't think it would go this way. Not that it wouldn't come down to an assassination -- he'd loosely entertained those ideas already -- but that Elizabeth would be tacit conspirator.

"I should go. I think I've got an appointment with Teyla to get my ass kicked," he said. Rodney would have to stay oblivious -- he'd be the first person to tell you that he couldn't hold that kind of secret. Same with Carson. Lorne might figure it out on his own, but he'd have to stay in the dark, too. If the worst happened, then he wanted Lorne untouched so that he could stay.

She nodded, then turned back to lean on the railing.

John left her to go back to the control room.

"The databurst is in three days," Elizabeth called after him as the door slid open. "Be nice to Major Lorne and don't have him ghostwriting all of your paperwork, please?"

"Yes, ma'am."


Six

She was bound to the bed on the second day, tied at the wrist to the rails, only freed to eat or to visit the outhouse (which was indoors). It was a peculiar kind of imprisonment; their hatred against the Wraith's indifference, their gentleness against the Wraith's rough care. After they found out that she was koreos, they stopped speaking of sending her to another planet to live, but they took away the Wraith beacon and so she still considered herself free.

Ronon came to visit her on the third day. He hadn't spoken to her at all since the first day. He wasn't of these people, was another of their foundlings, and she expected that he hated her because his world had been destroyed by the Wraith and she was their tool.

He pulled up a stool and snarled at the guards and they stood back, clearly afraid of him.

"They've decided what to do with you," he said without preamble. He didn't look at her, rather over her, as if he couldn't stand the sight. "They're giving you back to the Wraith."

She stared at him and he finally looked at her, challenging and angry.

"Why?" she asked, biting her lip to keep back tears. It didn't work and she could not reach up to her face to wipe them away. "How could they do that after freeing me from their control?"

An ironic smile from Ronon. "Because you lied to them," he replied. "Because they don't want to help murderers."

"Then they should just kill me," she protested, pulling at the bindings on her wrist. The metal railings made enough noise to draw her guards closer and Ronon drove them back again with only a look. "They don't understand!"

He put his hand on the one of hers closest to him and she felt warm metal against cool skin. He squeezed hard enough to hurt and she looked up at him. He stared back at her, challenging her to be quiet. She did.

"I do," he said in a low voice.

She shifted so that her body was between her hand and the guards' view. Turning her wrist slightly, she could see a folding knife in her palm.

"Use this to do what they don't have the courage to," he said, his voice almost a rumble. "Go to the Ancestors before they give you to the Wraith."

She had enough movement in her wrist to put the knife in the waist of the pants she'd been given to wear. It would keep there until she could go to the outhouse and find a better place for it.

"Why are you helping me?" she asked in a whisper.

"I was once a koreos, too," he answered.

She stared. He stared back.

"They didn't give you back," she accused, looking away first.

"I didn't lie to them," he said. "I didn't confess to killing worlds."

"Did you?" she shot back, looking up again.

"I never let anyone else bear my burden," he replied. He stood up. "They're taking you to their prison tomorrow. Find your way to the Ancestors tonight."

He left her then.

She feigned sleep for a while; it was hard to tell the passing of time when she couldn't see the sky. But it was enough to turn over Ronon's news in her mind. She understood their decision -- she would be a gift to the Wraith in return for peace. But she had no intention of letting the Wraith have her again. And she didn't want to use Ronon's gift to do what the Wraith would not. She wanted to live.

If she could escape from this world, then the Wraith would never be able to find her. She remembered the way to the Ring of the Ancestors from where she had been brought, which could not be that far away from where she was now. She had not seen where they entered the Ring's symbols -- it was something she always looked for when coming to a world -- but it would be close to the Ring; it always was.

Her guards were strong and armed, but there were only three of them and however strong they were, they weren't Wraith. Three days of food and comfort and medicine had left her feeling stronger than she had ever remembered being. The folding knife Ronon had given her was thin, but it was sharp and it would suffice. She would have to leave without her satchel or her boots, but that would be a small sacrifice, especially if she were able to go among people again and acquire new provisions.

The night would be easiest -- her guards remained, but everyone else disappeared. There would be a doctor -- a small, fine-boned woman --but the other patients would be asleep and the noise from the hallway would be less.

She ate her meal, taking the opportunity to flex and stretch her wrists, hands, and arms. The guards watched her move, but not with any wariness and they let her sit for a while after she'd finished eating without binding her again. She was bound again until it was time to sleep and then she was taken to the outhouse once more. Her legs were a little unsteady from lying abed, so she jumped up and down in the privacy of the room, washed her face as she'd been expected to, and took the knife from her pants, testing the opening mechanism so that she could do it without thought.

She emerged from the room slowly and shyly, docile under the guards' eyes. Two waited outside the door for her and the third by her bed, one hand on his pistol. She waited until they were in the open, as far open as the cluttered room got, and then she moved. The blade open in her hand, she sliced at the neck of one guard, feeling the knife cut easily through skin. The second guard reached for her and she ducked, kicking out and twisting free as the chaos began. Shouting for the doctor, shouting for more guards, and the third of her original detail was running for her, running after her as she fled into the hall, levering away from another man dressed as her guards were.

In the hall, she had to turn left, straight until the doorway, right along the next passage, left again at the second door. She heard heavy boot steps close behind her, running fast and shouting loudly. At her, for others, she neither knew nor cared and then it didn't matter because he disappeared. The halls confused her, so unlike what she was used to and so similar to each other. She feared herself lost, worrying that she'd have to hide in its passageways until she could make her escape from this fortress, until the doorway to her right opened and she could see the Ring beyond the guards who came toward her.

"Freeze!" one bellowed at her, weapon aimed at her. "Hands over your head!"

She did as he said, waiting for the six to draw closer. Six was too many to fight off at once, but what choice did she have? She could try to grab one of the pistols they wore on their thighs.

"Put your hands against the wall," the same one ordered. "Feet apart. Move and we shoot."

Closer, closer, until she could feel a large hand on her wrist. As he grabbed, she spun, pulling the pistol from its lashing and--


Epilogue

John went to the medical suite after Captain Radner politely assured him that he could oversee the cleanup of the hallway and the taking of statements for the official write-up. He passed by the area where Eriksson's marines already had the mops and buckets out, the casings retrieved, and had seen to the transportation of Ailinthé's body to the morgue. The marines who'd been involved in the shooting were all in the small conference room, sitting silently under the watch of Eriksson's gunnery sergeant. It would be a clean shoot, of that John had no doubt, but it had still been the killing of an extremely unpopular prisoner in their custody and they needed to play it by the book.

Once in the infirmary, he was greeted by a stoic Elizabeth, clearly affected but keeping her reaction under control so that she could comfort the still-shaken Doctor Yee. Elizabeth gave him a meaningful look, the sort that would normally translate as "we'll talk about this later," except for the fact that they couldn't.

The two injured marines, Sergeants Mooney and Pence, were surrounded by their squadmates as well as the marine orderlies. Mooney had taken a knife to the neck and was lying on a bed, but Pence only had a badly sprained wrist and was sitting on a stool with his wrapped right wrist on his lap.

"Judging from the noise you guys are making, I don't think I need to ask how Mooney and Pence are doing," he said as he came up to them. "But I will anyway."

"I'm fine, sir," Mooney said in a hoarse whisper. His neck was bandaged neatly. "I'm not supposed to be talking, though."

"Sergeant!" A voice warned from across the room. John turned to see Safir's back as he was writing up notes; Safir was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had obviously been called in for the occasion. "Keep quiet now or you'll be sounding like Don Corleone forever."

Mooney grinned, but said no more.

"You good, Pence?" John asked, gesturing with his chin to the bandaged arm.

"Yes, sir," Pence replied.

"Dude's just gotta jack it left-handed for a couple of weeks," Sergeant Grier told the marine next to him.

"You can always help," Ferdidi told him.

"That's your job, Dog."

John left the marines to their humor with a shake of his head and went over to Safir. "Well?"

Safir gave him a tiresome look. "Well, Mooney is luckier than he has any right to be. Your Runner only nicked his jugular and she did it in the infirmary so he didn't bleed out. His tracheal damage is minimal because she hit a cartilage ring at the wrong angle. He'll be fine in a couple of days. Pence isn't hurt enough to give narcotics to."

John nodded. "Thanks."

"I'm only doing my job," Safir replied with a shrug. "Or Yee's job, actually, but we can leave that aside for now. If you want to give reassurances of value, however, tomorrow you can make sure to tell Beckett and Clayton that this wasn't their fault."

"Uh, okay?" John agreed slowly.

Safir stood up. "They did the exam and they will be wondering why they didn't notice any weapons on her person," he said evenly. "If they missed the knife that nearly gave Sergeant Mooney a tracheotomy, then they will both feel very guilty."

John stared at him. Safir wouldn't be inferring what it sounded like he was inferring -- would he? Safir stared right back, however, as if he were daring John to call him on it.

"I know that I felt very ashamed that I had missed just how many weapons Ronon hid on his person when I performed his exam," Safir went on, still holding John's gaze. "I was fortunate that Ronon turned out to be a friend. But my similar situation and my assurances will mean a lot less than yours will. Carson has his delicate flower moments and Nancy is low on the totem pole and will fear her dismissal from the team. A word from you or Doctor Weir would go far."

John, still not sure whether Safir was helping him with his story or browbeating him into exculpating his colleagues, exhaled slowly. "I'll make sure they both know that there was nothing they could have done here."

Safir gave him a curt nod. "Good. Now I'm getting out of here before Yee decides that she's too traumatized to work to the end of her shift. Goodnight."

Safir left and John stood where he was, still thinking the doctor's words through. Yoni was shrewd, suspicious, and had spent the better part of a year on Lorne's team. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility that he'd figured it out. He wasn't worried about Safir talking, but he was worried that if Safir had figured it out so easily, then everyone else would, too.

Elizabeth came over and leaned against the counter across from him. "Yoni said that everything was fine when I asked. Did he say something different to you?"

John gave her a crooked smile. "Since when has Safir pussyfooted anyone?"

Elizabeth tipped her head in amused acknowledgement.

"He just wanted to warn me that Doctors Clayton and Beckett might need a little positive reinforcement tomorrow," he went on in the same light tone. "For missing the knife when they gave her the exam the first day."

"Oh," Elizabeth replied after a moment. "I'll be sure to meet with both of them tomorrow, then."

John looked around the infirmary. Doctor Yee had gone back to her station, the marine orderlies watching her carefully. The crowd around Mooney and Pence was still there, but they looked like they were about to break up so that the healthy could go back to their posts.

"So it's over," Elizabeth said, pushing off of the counter. "For now."

"For now," John agreed. Both of them knew that it never really would be.

"This galaxy has brought out the best in us," she said as they made their way to the exit, "But I hate that it has consistently found new ways to plumb our depths."


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21 August, 2006