Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna


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."

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

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21 August, 2006