Lost in Translation

by Domenika Marzione

John's been in another galaxy for less than a day; he'd traveled to different worlds, had a city chattering in his head, met aliens, ridden a submerged city to the surface of an ocean, flown a spaceship, gotten into a dogfight with other spaceships, assaulted an enemy stronghold, and might have started the Wraith apocalypse. Not in that order. But, he was quickly realizing, that there were far more subtle ways of getting reminded that he was not in Kansas anymore.

Teyla did not know what a billion was.

She'd asked him how many people were on his world and he'd guesstimated "a few billion" and Elizabeth had revised it to "more than six billion" and Teyla had given them both a blank look of non-comprehension.

"I am unfamiliar with that unit of measurement," she said politely.

John didn't know what to say. Elizabeth, thankfully, did.

"What is the largest unit of measurement in the Athosian counting system?" she asked.

Teyla thought for a second. "Thousands," she finally replied. "Although it is not actually used to count anything -- there is nothing we see that is so great in quantity."

Elizabeth nodded, as if this was exactly what she'd expected. Maybe it was. "So it is a nice way of saying 'very many.'"

"Yes," Teyla agreed with a smile, happy to be understood. "We normally use tens and, occasionally, hundreds, although we do not often use the latter with any sort of accuracy. It is hard to be precise after a point."

"Of course," Elizabeth agreed. "On our world -- in our galaxy, really -- a 'thousand' is ten hundreds."

She waited for Teyla to nod understanding; she did. John's been reduced to spectator, unable to contribute without either muddying the water or accidentally insulting Teyla.

"A thousand thousands is a million," Elizabeth continued. "A thousand millions is a billion."

Teyla blinked, struck still with what John suspected was awe. "There are more than six of these billions on your world?" she asked, almost in a whisper. "I cannot imagine so many people."

John tried to imagine what she might be imagining -- would she see teeming streets like Bombay or Beijing? Would she envision masses of people in rural settings, like a weird Woodstock without the acid or guitars? -- and failed.

"So many people," Teyla murmured, shaking her head. "What is possible without the Wraith."

Elizabeth, professional diplomat, can't come up with anything to say to that.

Eventually, Teyla would learn that humanity, at least on Earth, was capable of doing as much harm to each other as anything the Wraith could dream up. More, even, because the Wraith had never had such supply to work with.

Teyla could not fathom Earth's war dead, especially civil wars ("Your brothers turn against each other with such fury?"), and the genocides in the name of ethnic, racial, or religious purity. John wasn't sure they should be filling her head with tales of Earth's brutality, but Elizabeth thought it important.

"The Athosians see us as descendants of their gods," she told him. "We need allies and you can't be friends with the gods."

John understood what Elizabeth was going for, but maybe thought that it wasn't having the effect she'd been hoping for -- the Athosians weren't seeing them as human with human failings. They were still stuck on 'billion' and looked to the expedition members as people who'd mastered the tools of the Ancestors and came from a place where that which the Athosians held most dear -- life -- was taken for granted. Earth as playground of the godlings.

It's a pleasant evening on the mainland. John's not sure what season it is here, but it feels like late spring in California, which is pretty close to perfect as far as he goes. The sun is setting over the water, the cooking fires are burning brightly, and the air smells of roasting meat and the savory vegetable stews the Athosians live on. It's peaceful after a week that hasn't been and John's grateful.

The Athosians are gracious hosts and they've been out here long enough that the wherefore and why of their being on the mainland is in the past. This is their home, and the Lanteans are welcome guests.

Elizabeth came out this time, a rare night off for her, and the Athosians treat her like a visiting dignitary. John, a more regular guest, is more a well-liked relative, which is fine with him. Ford is maybe the family dog in this scenario, brought along so he can romp around outside with the kids. McKay, citing a dislike of nature and a backlog of work, both of which he attributes to John, is staying home to mind the store.

The visit is more than just a pretext to round up some near-deer for barbecuing; the Athosians have had three healthy births in as many weeks and it's a celebration. Carson and the other doctors offered help with the pregnancies and the childbirthing, but had been gently rebuffed. None of the Athosian women wanted their child to be born in Atlantis's sterile coldness instead of under the trees and stars and, as Carson will easily admit, the Athosian midwives know more about what they are doing than any of the researchers-turned-practitioners imported from Earth. As such, Safir and Carson are present as party-goers more than physicians, although they still spent their first few hours on the mainland doing check-ups.

Somewhere across the clearing, Teyla is laughing uproariously at something; she has a fabulous laugh, one much bigger and bolder than her small frame and serene disposition would suggest. She doesn't laugh like that much in Atlantis, but here among her people, she lets her hair down more, so to speak.

It turns out she's laughing at Safir, who is being swarmed with what might be the Athosians' entire under-ten population. Carson's nearby, offering no help whatsoever, and looking nearly as amused as Teyla as Safir is finally brought down to the ground by a flying tackle by a little girl too small to have reached that altitude and velocity unaided. John squints in the fading light and makes a note to ask Ford later about the wisdom of throwing toddlers at his krav maga teacher.

After Safir is safely subdued and there is the call for everyone to eat (after first thanking the Ancestors), Teyla finds John as he is working his way though a full plate. She sits down next to him, a heavy plate of her own not spilling a drop.

"Everyone's looking good," John says. "Kids are certainly doing well."

"They are very fond of Doctor Safir," she agrees, cutting a bite-size chunk of meat off of the piece on her plate. Athosians don't have forks; they have spoons and everyone has a dagger that gets used for everything. John's still a little ungainly with the process, thankful that Athosian dishes are really more like wooden pasta bowls than anything that would go on his parents' table on a Sunday, but Teyla makes it look graceful and even elegant. "And he is of them."

"It's good that he likes someone," John replies, grinning cheekily at Teyla's chastising look.

"I hope that Atlantis will soon see its own children," she says after chewing and swallowing.

It's all John can do not to choke. He takes a long drink of his small beer instead.

Teyla's watching him closely. "Have I misspoken?" she asks, concerned. "Is it taboo to speak of such things to outsiders? I know that it is not a topic broached often in Atlantis, but..."

"It's not taboo," John assures her, since that's the primary point. "You've done nothing wrong."

She nods, not quite believing him.

"It's just..." he trails off, unsure how how to explain this and deeply embarrassed that it's him who has to and not, say, Carson or Elizabeth or Safir. "For the parts of our societies that we come from, having children is... something that's... planned. Or usually planned. And it's something we do when we feel the circumstances are... optimal. Otherwise, we tend to either abstain or... take precautions."

Teyla's brow is still furrowed.

"Precautions to prevent pregnancies?" she asks, as if she suspects that's what he means but can't believe that it's really what he means. "And you believe that the circumstances in Atlantis are... less than optimal?"

John's been in Pegasus long enough that he can appreciate her lack of comprehension. As far as this galaxy goes, you don't get more optimal than Atlantis with its safety and comfort and secure food sources. And with a galactic population barely hovering at replacement rate, every baby is necessary and every live birth is a celebration; there is no such thing as birth control. But he's also still an Earth native and, even if he didn't see the expedition as a professional enterprise with guaranteed privations when it came to vices and entertainments, he cannot imagine wanting to bring a new life into being in Pegasus.

"By Earth standards, they aren't," he says, frowning apologetically. "We didn't come out here to build a society -- we didn't bring everything, or even most things, we'd think necessary to start and sustain a fully functioning polity. We came out here to work and left our comforts and our children at home."

The SGC had been surprisingly realistic about personal conduct expectations during mission planning, but it had made it very clear that pregnancies of any type were to be avoided. He doesn't know the details, doesn't want to know the details, but is aware nonetheless that almost every woman on the expedition is using some kind of contraceptive precaution. He knows the marines (and some of the civilians) are either trying to -- or already are -- lifting the skirts of the Athosian women despite orders not to and are willing accomplices when it comes to scratching the itch of any woman in Atlantis. It's why part of Medical's robust supply of condoms is stashed on the floor that's serving as a barracks and why he hopes they're using them.

Teyla's focusing on pushing her vegetables around with her spoon and John worries that he's caused more damage -- either between the two of them or between their two peoples -- than he can fix himself.

"Is this what 'progress' is?" she asks, half to herself. "That the bearing and raising of children is no longer the most important obligation a person has to their family and their people? Will we, too, one day move beyond cherishing those ties above all else?"

Family is big among the Athosians. Huge. Everyone can rattle off their ancestors going back generations, even when a great-great-grandfather came from another world. The oral history project that the social scientists are conducting with the Athosians is fascinating in part because of the way they concentrate on the accuracy of the memories, or at least coming to an agreed-upon history -- Teyla and Mirjat are something like fifth cousins twice removed, but they can both trace their lineages back to common ancestors and they have identical stories for those parts of their family trees. John only knows the name of two of his great-grandparents, let alone their siblings' names or where they came from and what they did.

"No," John answers. "It's not true on Earth and it won't be true here, either. Even if all of the Wraith drop dead tomorrow. Remember how we keep telling you that you shouldn't judge Earth by what you see in Atlantis? That goes for this, too. We're not a very good sample. All of us were chosen for this because of what we could do professionally -- and then, after that, if we could get through it personally. We're not representative of anything."

Except that Earth had the luxury of punting their best and brightest into foreign galaxies and thinks that Pegasus is no place for children.

"One of these years, once we get back in touch with Earth," John continues when Teyla's attention doesn't move from her stew, "you'll come visit and I'll take you to the playgrounds and the toystores and you can see just how much we love kids and how well we try to treat them."

Teyla looks over and gives him a smile. It's not one of her "everything is okay" smiles, but it's one of her "everything will be good enough" ones and, under the circumstances, he'll take it. "I shall look forward to it."

feed me on LJ?

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15 August, 2009InstanceEndEditable -->