Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna


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."

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

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21 August, 2006