Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna


"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."

Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6/Epilogue

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21 August, 2006