The Lady in the Woods
There was something satisfying about stepping into the stargate on one world and stepping out onto Atlantis – his Atlantis. John Sheppard didn't consider himself someone who tended to live so much in the past, but the stargate program had given him a healthy respect for the ornery nature of the universe and an appreciation for what passed as normal. Current normal should have been a P.O.ed Richard Woolsey waiting to read him the riot act – or at least the fussy bureaucrat version.
But the rush of transit deposited him into an oddly subdued control room. Techs worked quietly at their consoles, glancing up only minutely at his team's arrival. The scattering of security officers at gate level approached as per protocol. Atlantis's balding leader was nowhere in sight.
John shot a glance toward Woolsey's obviously empty office as he approached TSgt Stockton, the nearest SF on duty. "What's up?" he asked with a gesture toward the glass encased office. He noted an additional couple of security officers outside of the closed doors of the conference room.
"Some delegates from the Coalition of Planets showed up, sir. They wanted to speak with Mr. Woolsey – your name was mentioned, too. They insisted it was something urgent. They're in the conference room."
Stockton was one of the remaining few who had been a part of the expedition since the beginning. John had once overheard him referring to himself as an Atlantis lifer. He completely understood the sentiment.
"Just him or all of us?" Rodney piped up from John's left, interrupting John's consideration of Stockton's words. The SF's droll delivery suggested that he thought that there was something more to the meeting than their visitors had mentioned at the beginning.
"You weren't mentioned by name, Doctor McKay," Stockton responded.
Rodney looked annoyed. "Wha – "
John cut McKay off mid-complaint. "How many? And how long have they been in there?"
He'd been uncomfortable about dealing with the group after they'd captured the team and essentially put them on trial for war crimes against the Pegasus Galaxy.
The group was a good idea in theory, but the heavy handed way they'd handled their business right out of the gate wasn't exactly a sign of completely benevolent intentions on the part of all parties involved. Since Woolsey had committed Atlantis to a larger role in the organization, John had been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Four of theirs, six of ours and about two hours," Stockton responded to John's question. "Everett is with them." The murmurs were growing concerning Everett. Not everyone was comfortable with his officially undefined role on Atlantis. Another shoe he was waiting for.
"Thanks, Sarge." John dismissed the man.
He unclipped his P-90 and handed it off before facing the rest of the team. Ronon's bored look was easy to read – he had zero interest in dealing with the Coalition. One of Teyla's brows was raised in question, awaiting his lead. Rodney was … Rodney. "Why don't you all get out of here and get some rest? We're off the clock for the next forty-eight."
Ronon gave him a quick agreeable pat on the shoulder and made a beeline out of the gate room. It was an effort for John not to look back up at the control center to see if Amelia was at her station. Rumor had it that she and Ronon had plans for most of their downtime. John's money was on a camping trip.
"Very well." Teyla watched Ronon leave with a sly smile, then John remembered that he'd heard the rumor from her. "It has been a most interesting mission. I long for the lesser chaos of dealing with a small child. I will see the both of you later."
John watched her go then turned back to Rodney who was still standing beside him, looking confused. "Got nothing to do, McKay?"
"Is something going on with Ronon?" He pointed a thumb to where the other man had disappeared.
John huffed in amusement at the man's obliviousness and turned and headed up the steps alongside operations.
"Hey, wait. Where are you going?" Rodney followed him.
John didn't look back. "Where does it look like I'm going, Rodney?" He veered to the left at the top of the steps and headed for the open area outside of the conference room.
"Off the top of my head? I'd say you're going to crash the Coalition's party. Which of course I'd have no objection to normally, but politicians and bureaucrats – bore me to tears. I'd more than likely run from one of their parties."
"I didn’t say you had to come," John reminded him with a significant look. Rodney either didn't notice or ignored it.
"Look," John tried another tack, "I just want to find out what's going on and what we might be getting ourselves into, is all."
"And maybe talk them out of it?"
"Well, we are dealing with bureaucrats from two galaxies plus Homeworld Security." A really bad combination in John's book.
"What do you think is going on?" Rodney asked as they stopped outside of the door.
Before John could respond, the tall red doors rotated open.
* * *
John recognized Myrus, the coalition's errand boy. And he'd obviously gotten a new uniform – or a promotion. The plain black long coat that he had worn in times past had a blue patterned band affixed to its lower right sleeve.
The man standing to the side and just behind Myrus was dressed in simple homespun clothing and carrying a rolled parchment – he would have easily fit in most of the villages they'd come across in Pegasus. Scraggly blonde hair was cut raggedly around ears that jutted out a little too much. Though he kept his head lowered, he kept glancing about at the city itself.
As Myrus and Awestruck Village Guy moved into the corridor, two other uniformed men became visible. Both were tall and solidly muscled. For a moment, in the shadow of the doorway, John thought he saw Wraith markings on one of them. His hand twitched toward his nine millimeter then he forced himself to relax when he realized that they were simply scars.
"Ah, there you are, Colonel." Woolsey appeared from behind the visitors and made his way out of the conference room followed by Lorne. John did not miss the unspoken 'you're late' in the older man's flat tone. "These gentlemen have come to ask a favor of Atlantis."
"What sort of favor?" John wanted to know. He directed the question toward Myrus, but thought he caught a glimmer of something in Scar's hardened gaze. When he looked at him directly, his expression was one of studied indifference.
"Regretfully we have another appointment, Colonel," Myrus said, looking more annoyed than regretful. "However, I am sure Mr. Woolsey will fill you in on the details." He executed a slight bow before looking expectantly toward Woolsey.
"I'll show them to the gate, sir." Lorne stepped past Scars with a significant look in John's direction then gestured the Coalition group down the stairs toward the gate. The Atlantis security teams from inside and outside of the conference room fell in behind the group.
"What's going on?" John turned on Woolsey as soon as the men were mostly out of earshot. He steered Woolsey back into the conference room just in case.
"What's he doing here?" Rodney demanded with a pointed look toward Zelenka who was still seated at the conference room table beside Everett. A tablet computer was being shared between the two men.
"You were not here, Rodney," Radek fired back.
Rodney didn’t seem mollified, but John didn't give him a chance to voice it. He still had questions that needed answering. "What kind of favor is Atlantis doing for the Coalition?"
"What makes you think we've agreed?" Woolsey asked, looking genuinely confused.
John gave him a pointed look.
"Okay, we're doing it. Or rather, you are. They've requested your team by name."
"And you said 'yes'?"
"You don't even know what it is."
"I do know that the last time my team was requested by name, we ended up in a cell. How can you be sure that this isn't another trap? Maybe they have some new charges to levy. Maybe they're mad because we left the galaxy earlier this year without asking? Who knows?"
"I hardly think it's a trap, Colonel. They simply want us to help set some security measures for one of their new member worlds. They are having problems with some of their important artifacts being stolen. They are merely in need of advice and training."
John tilted his head thoughtfully. "Really?" That didn't sound so bad. On the surface, at least. "Why us; why my team?"
"This is the first thing they've asked of us in our new role. It makes sense that Atlantis' flagship team represent the city in this endeavor. They've even produced badges of a sort. They would appreciate your team wearing these when you're acting on behalf of the Coalition." Woolsey reached into a small sack on the table and removed a handful of square patches containing an image that looked like hands connected through an activated stargate. The background colors were reminiscent of the band around Myrus' sleeve.
"You're kidding, right?" John eyed Woolsey long and hard. Surely the IOA and HWS would have something to say about badges. The furor over them joining the Coalition in the first place had been bad enough.
Woolsey shook his head, the faintest glimmer of humor in his gaze. "I told them that we'd take that under consideration. However, we did agree that you'd meet with the Sylans and discuss the problem of their missing painting."
"Wait," Rodney interrupted. "Did you say missing painting? As in, most likely, awful artwork? What are we, Pegasus CSI?"
"This piece of artwork has great significance within Sylan culture. Tobar Mit – the gentleman who was here with Myrus - is one of the Sylan artisans and a keeper of a similar painting. He brought it with him and Doctor Zelenka scanned it into our computer systems. I think you'll both find it … interesting."
John glanced toward Radek. "Let's see it."
The Czech pushed his glasses up his nose and then spun his tablet, showing them the displayed image.
John stared, wondering if he was seeing Radek's screensaver. When the image didn't change, he took a few steps closer. Surely that wasn't what he thought it was. He blinked and looked toward Rodney.
"Isn't that …" Rodney pointed at the picture, his eyes wide.
"Yeah … I think it is …" John was forced into bemused agreement.
"How'd they get it?" Rodney asked, clearly scanning his memory for any reason that made sense.
"It is one of their most revered icons," Woolsey said. "She is called The Lady in the Woods. She is considered to be the protector of the Sylan people. There were 9 paintings in various places within the village. They believe that her ability to protect is weakened by the absence of one of the paintings. Only the monks in the Sylan monastery know of the thefts – these are who you will be helping."
"Monks? We're going to be discussing security and loss prevention with monks who believe paintings which look suspiciously like the Ancient hologram lady are protecting them?" John had to make sure he understood the lunacy of the mission.
"That's right, Colonel. And you leave in 18 hours. The Sylan's would like to take care of the situation as quickly as possible as there is an impending cyclical weather pattern impending. They would like this handled before it arrives. The Sylan's monastery will have a representative waiting for you on their side of the gate in 18 hours."
"Great. I'll let Ronon and Teyla know," John said. So much for downtime.
Rodney followed him out of the conference room. "I'll hit the database."
"We are to go where?" Teyla asked as she double-checked the brake on Torren's high chair. The brightly colored construct, she was assured, had all of the bells and whistles. Though she was uncertain as to why Torren might need either bells or whistles, John, Rodney and Ronon had seemed very happy presenting it to her as a gift.
"M3X – whatever," John waved off the full gate designation. "The coalition rep called the place Sylan." He stooped slightly and tugged goofily at Torren's bib. The little boy broke into a happy grin, showing his baby teeth.
Teyla smiled as she settled into the chair nearest her son and began to add food items to the high chair's tray. Its white surface was decorated with tiny red fighter jets, blue astronauts, green daggers and pi to ten digits. Torren began actively smacking at the surface of the tray as he practically choked on giggles. The motion threatened his small sectioned plate and sippy cup.
John, apparently seeing impending disaster, backed off from his game with an apologetic look, but Torren was looking for more. Teyla grabbed at one of his flailing hands, kissed it, and urged him to eat.
Seeing that his playmate was going back to more grown up behavior, he turned contently to his tray and began to pick up the carefully cut squares of boiled tava root.
"That looks appetizing," John drawled unconvincingly as he eyed the grayish white bits that were vanishing into Torren's mouth.
"What matters is that it is healthful," Teyla assured him, then returned to his previous statement. "Are you certain that the world we are to visit is Sylan?" There were a couple of other planets who went by names that were somewhat similar.
"Yeah. Pretty sure." John drew his attention from the tray of toddler food. "We're supposed to help some monks with security."
"Sylan does indeed have monks," Teyla agreed thoughtfully as she sought Kanaan on the other side of the mess hall. He was gathering trays for the two of them and would soon complete the task and return to the table.
John followed her gaze, then turned back toward her. "Everything okay?" he asked, his expression concerned.
"Yes, everything is fine," she rushed to assure him. John and the rest of the team were protective of her in many ways. She did not want to give him the idea that there might be problems with her relationship with Kanaan.
She continued at John's skeptical look. "I merely thought I heard something regarding the Sylan homeworld, but am not sure as I have not been to the markets in many days. Kanaan would know for certain."
"Did it have anything to do with a painting?" John asked.
Teyla gave him a curious smile. That was not a question she had been expecting to hear. "I can assure you that it did not."
"Was worth a try." John shrugged. "I'm not sure why they need the whole team there for a mission like this. You and Ronon could more than handle it. Half the fighting techniques the new recruits learn are based on things you and Ronon taught us. The rest is mostly common sense."
Teyla disagreed. "It is good for the people of this galaxy to see Atlantis working in cooperation with other worlds. You and Rodney are the faces of Atlantis, and by extension Earth, much more so than Ronon and I. The four of us working together as a team sends the message that all our peoples can come together as one."
John's lips curved upward into a smile. He would have spoken, but Kanaan arrived with a tray carrying food for two. John greeted the other man and then stood up from the table.
"You do not have to leave, Colonel Sheppard," Kanaan urged John to stay.
"That's okay. I don't want to interrupt your …." John gestured between her, Kanaan and Torren. "Besides, I've got to go break some news to Ronon."
"Just a moment, John," Teyla stopped him, then spoke to Kanaan. "Has there been any word from Sylan lately."
"There has been," Kanaan confirmed her worries. "It is no longer safe to travel there. The swarms are impending. There was much talk of it at Hollister market three days ago."
"Yeah, they mentioned that they were expecting some kind of a weather thing. That's why they wanted to hurry and do this. Apparently they feel like they need our help, storm season or no."
Teyla looked hesitantly toward Kanaan, then back toward John. "Not storms, swarms. It is called swarm season, as in …"
John grimaced, clearly getting the point. "Bugs."
"I am afraid so."
"Great," John grumbled and turned to leave Teyla and her family to their meal.
"There is more, John," Teyla called to him.
He turned back, not entirely sure he wanted to know what might be worse than swarms of bugs.
"There are stories … it is said that falling under the influence of the swarm leads to madness."
"You've got to be kidding me," John said, though he knew Teyla wouldn't joke about something like that. It didn't help that Kanaan was wearing a look that suggested he'd just figured out where Teyla was going to be going next. And he wasn’t' happy about it.
"It is why the Sylans put out the warnings. Though I have never experienced a swarm, I am told that there are none who have ever been caught in a swarm who had not been warned beforehand."
* * *
John turned away from Ronon's door. He'd tried the gym, the mess and now his quarters – no joy. He wanted to try one more place before he broke down and tried him on the radio.
"Colonel Sheppard -- just the man I was looking for."
John turned at the soft sound of a cane tapping along behind him. "I'm on radio." He slowed his steps to accommodate Everett's more leisurely pace.
Everett slowed even further and gestured to a nearby balcony. "I thought something a little more face to face was in order."
John nodded his agreement and followed the other man through the doors that slid open on their approach. The truth was he'd had mixed feelings about Everett since he'd been assigned to Atlantis by Homeworld Security. He wasn't the same take-no-prisoners business-as-usual marine commander that he'd been when he'd come during the Wraith siege – that John could deal with; he understood it. But the quiet man who did more watching than talking John didn't get. He figured he was about to get an education.
"Are you planning a mission briefing with your team?" Everett asked. Gone was the relaxed demeanor of just moments before. The military commander was back. It immediately raised all of John's hackles.
He narrowed his gaze. "Should I?" His time in command of Atlantis and dealing with Stargate Command had taught him a thing or two.
"You know your team, Colonel. It's the Coalition that is the unknown. My recommendation would be to keep an eye on them."
"Last I checked, you weren't in the Atlantis chain of command," John reminded him.
Everett genuinely looked amused. "I'm not. And while I might be retired, I'm still a military man through and through. Like you, Colonel, and I'd venture to say that you have some of the same instincts as myself … and General O'Neill."
That got John's attention. "Homeworld Security has a greater than usual interest in this mission." He didn't need to make it a question.
"Homeworld Security has an interest in anything that relates to the security of Earth and its possessions, both in our home galaxy or elsewhere."
John gave Everett a humorless chuckle. "So it's the Coalition then. Is that why you're really here?"
Everett stared at him for a long moment. "It's always good to know the lay of the land in case one needs to step in."
"You've already spoken with Woolsey?"
"This is nothing official, Colonel. Just wanted to get your thoughts on the matter at hand."
John studied the other man. "I don't trust them."
"As well you shouldn't."
"I'd also like to know why my team was specifically chosen."
"Yes." Everett nodded.
"The only way I'm going to find out is by going." John made a decision. He needed to go make some arrangements. "Was there anything else?" he asked. At Everett's slight headshake, he turned and headed back into the city just as Ronon's voice sounded over his radio.
You looking for me?
"Yeah. Sorry, buddy, there's been a change of plans. Meet me in Rodney's lab."
* * *
"Come on. Seriously? Is this all you've got?" Rodney demanded as he glanced through the information on Radek's computer screen. Rodney himself could have pulled up more on Google.
"There is not much there, Rodney." Radek made his excuses. "There was a small settlement on M3X-457 at some time before the Ancients left Pegasus, but there is little information about them. We do not even know if the current occupants are descendants of those settlers."
Rodney wasn't impressed. The team would be leaving in the morning and he preferred to be better prepared. "That's what you had two hours ago. There's got to be more to the place than suspicious looking paintings and monks. Maybe you're just not looking hard enough."
"I have been searching non-stop with fine tooth. If you can do better, you are welcome to try." The Czech pushed dramatically away from the table, waving Rodney toward the space.
"I would, but I'm a little busy right now calculating the precise spacing between the Sylan stargate and the surrounding trees based on MALP telemetry only."
Radek's brow rose. "Really? Why would you want to do that?" He seemed far more interested in Rodney's project than his own.
Rodney had no intention of sharing. "That information is need to know."
Radek huffed. "Fine. I need you to know that I am tired and going to bed. Good night, Rodney."
* * *
Teyla stared at the tangle of spiky green leaves that were pressed against the outer window of the hovering jumper. Early morning light filtered green through the occasional spaces between the branches.
"That's … close." Ronon's dry comment drifted forward. Teyla, seated in the co-pilot seat, could not disagree with his observation. She had never known a jumper to be flown to a world with such tight quarters near the gate.
"I thought you said it would fit, McKay," John groused back in Rodney's direction. His hand gripped the joystick as if he might have to make an adjustment at any moment.
"It does fit. Those are leaves, not branches."
John did not find Rodney's answer satisfying. "There is still the little problem of we haven't started moving yet. Do you have the course ready?"
"I'm working on it. I need a minute – I have to recalculate a couple of things." Rodney bent low over his computer. "Just … don't move."
John made a face, but did as he was told.
"How did you convince Mr. Woolsey to allow you to fly a jumper to this world?" Teyla asked. John opened his mouth to speak, but Rodney beat him to it.
"It involved a lot of complicated equations, genius programming and missing sleep." Rodney continued to input commands on his computer as he spoke.
"And lots of arguing," Ronon added.
"But mostly complicated equations," Rodney corrected.
Teyla looked toward John for clarification.
"It's a long story," was all he would say.
Teyla smiled knowingly. "Yes. I am certain." She imagined that John had told Mr. Woolsey that he was going to have to trust him. He rarely resorted to that particular argument – only when his instincts seemed to overwhelmingly support a conclusion that he was having trouble explaining to Atlantis' leader. Mr. Woolsey always seemed to acquiesce in those instances.
"Rodney, you done with your complicated equations yet?" John asked.
"Almost. It should appear on the HUD … now." The heads up display sprang to life as if on cue when Rodney pointed toward it. A trail of dots showed a path to what looked to be a clearing nearly a mile from the gate.
John did something at the controls and winced as the jumper began to rise slowly upward, brushing against the leaves and other greenery in its path. Teyla tensed at the nearness of some larger branches and trunks. John was going to have to very carefully change the direction of the jumper if they were to maneuver among the thicker greenery above them.
"Wait! Something's wrong!" Rodney's warning sounded in the quiet vessel, startling Teyla. John's grip on the flight control stick jerked and the jumper thudded against something solid before the ship came to halt.
"What is it?" John looked back toward the scientist, leaving them hovering against the thick bark of a tree.
"Huh? What?" Rodney looked up, distracted. He seemed to only just realize that the entire team was watching him expectantly.
"Did you not just see what happened?" John demanded, then gestured toward the front window. "That's gonna leave a mark."
"No, it isn’t." Rodney waved the comment off and returned his attention to the tablet computer. "But there is something very weird going on with the jumper's power levels."
"Weird in the sense of I've never seen anything like it before. If I hadn't been working with the navigation controls I might not have noticed it. But the jumper is definitely using power at a much faster rate than normal. The power ratios of the active systems aren’t adding up."
John scanned the flight controls. "Are you sure? Everything seemed to be okay before. I didn’t notice any change. Could some other systems have kicked in – some that we might not have used before?"
"Maybe. but based on these consumption ratios, it would have to be a lot of systems or one that uses a lot of power." Rodney frowned as he continued to work. "It almost seems external, but that doesn't make any sense."
"Should we head back?" John asked.
"No." Rodney dismissed the idea. "There's a lot of usage, but we should be okay. Once we land and power down, the consumption will drop to zero. We should still have plenty of power to get back to Atlantis."
"What about the cloak?" John asked.
"The cloak could be a problem."
"No, we need the cloak." John was insistent. "We are not leaving the jumper sitting out in the open without it."
"It uses a lot of power," Rodney argued.
"Based on current consumption, how long can we keep the jumper cloaked and still have enough power to get back to Atlantis?"
Rodney shrugged. "Maybe … twelve hours give or take."
"Okay. Within eleven hours, no matter what, we're out of here," John stated.
Ronon settled against the trunk of one of the towering Sylan trees. There were more broken small branches and green needle-like leaves on the ground than he figured was normal, but he wasn't going to complain. It had been kind of cool to see Sheppard trying to move the little ship with as little damage as possible.
Ronon was sure that with every scrape of branches across the hull, Sheppard was thinking of Woolsey's condition for allowing them to bring the jumper – that the jumper be returned without a scratch. Ronon's experience was that even saying that was asking for trouble, but Woolsey could say what he wanted.
Still, just remembering the way Sheppard had nervously checked out the front of the jumper after they landed was funny. However, it didn't stop the feeling that he could be doing something besides hanging around near a stargate waiting for a monk who probably wasn't coming.
"Where is he?" McKay demanded for the fifth time. And like the other five times, Sheppard answered, "He'll be here. He's only about ten minutes late. This is not a big deal."
"How about there is no one aside from the four of us within LSD range – that would suggest that there's no one even close. Speaking of close – why are we even here? Does anyone else besides me think it's ridiculous that we're essentially here about a missing painting?"
Sheppard didn't respond.
"Hey – maybe we missed him. We probably would have been here sooner if …."
Ronon rolled his eyes away from Sheppard and McKay, already tired of this argument. Teyla stood several paces closer to the forest, keeping watch into the dense area beyond the trees. He saw her forehead crinkle as she winced and closed her eyes for several moments.
He was moving toward her when she opened her eyes and focused on him. "You okay?" he asked softly. Teyla was rarely ever down. For someone so small, she had the constitution of a Satedan rage ox.
"I am fine," she said in response to his question, but Ronon could still see tiny pain lines around her eyes.
"Liar." He called her on it.
"It is just a headache, Ronon," she insisted. "It simply began suddenly. It is already beginning to lessen."
"What's already beginning to lessen?" Sheppard came up behind Teyla. McKay heard the question and came over, too.
"I am fine. It is just a headache." She was beginning to get annoyed at all of them. Ronon figured either the pain was worse than she was letting on or they were being over protective. Or both.
"Rodney has Tylenol and aspirin." Sheppard gestured toward the pack on McKay's back. "Why don't you take a couple? It can't hurt."
"Very well." She gave in and took the paper pouch of pills from McKay while the rest of them looked on.
"Are you our guests from the city of the ancestors?" A heavy female voice sounded behind them. Ronon spun; his hand automatically went to his blaster. He was brought up short by the two individuals behind him.
A stocky woman with iron gray hair was dressed in a rough brown robe belted over a long lighter brown tunic over darker pants. She was accompanied by a slightly younger and thinner man of similar height dressed the same way. They both wore blue-gray stones set in what looked like copper on leather thongs about their necks.
Neither of them looked very dangerous.
"Where did you come from?" McKay demanded in his squeaky scared voice.
The woman looked at McKay as if he wasn’t smart enough to be let out alone in the forest before she gestured to the space behind her. "We come from the monastery. Were you not told to expect us?"
"No. I meant— " McKay was ready to argue, but Sheppard cut him off.
"We were." He stepped forward in front of McKay with a welcoming smile. "I am Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, this is my team: Dr. Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex and Teyla Emmagan."
The woman studied Sheppard for several moments before introducing herself. "I am Meltis." "This is Tobar." She gestured toward the man by her side. He kept his eyes lowered and looked uncomfortable.
John nodded at the man who barely looked up. "We've met. Tobar visited Atlantis yesterday."
"Yes." Meltis didn’t seem happy about that. "We are very busy with preparations for the Swarm. His absence and your visit were poorly timed."
Ronon saw Sheppard bristle. "It was our understanding that you invited us."
Meltis shot another look toward Tobar before setting her glare on Sheppard. "Monks of Sylan have no need of anything from your people. We are self-sufficient and have been for many, many generations. It is the younger generation that seeks to buck the old ways."
"May I ask," Teyla spoke up, "if you are against our visit, why were you sent to meet us?"
Meltis took a deep breath and pressed her hands together. Her angry expression melted away. "There is a saying on Sylan. He who feels he has the least to learn is the one most desperately in need." She offered Teyla a small, wry smile.
"There is a similar saying among my people." Teyla tilted her head slightly forward with a smile of her own. "Perhaps we can learn from each other?"
Meltis studied them. "Perhaps. For now, our assignment is to escort you to the monastery grounds and that is what we shall do. Come."
Ronon fell in beside Sheppard as McKay and Teyla moved off after the two monks.
He noticed that Meltis moved with surprising stealth and grace through the forest, leaving little evidence of her passing. Tobar, while obviously mimicking her technique, did not do as well. Any practiced tracker would be able to follow him. Ronon's curiosity about the woman increased as they moved deeper into the woods.
* * *
John liked this mission less and less. The last thing he wanted to deal with was being heckled by a bunch of monks who never wanted them there in the first place. Hopefully Teyla would be able to work some of her magic on Meltis. Although, that was going to be pretty hard to do since the older monk was setting a fast pace and didn't seem to be up to talking.
Rodney was having trouble managing his hand held devices and watching his step over the narrow path. Teyla was on top of it though, telling him to be careful on one spot that contained a lot of overgrown tree roots.
John continued his perusal of the surrounding forest. The forest was getting denser. He knew that after a while, it would start to thin again as they drew closer to the meadow he'd seen in the fly-over. The meadow opened into the area occupied by the village. Beyond the village was the monastery.
"What the …?!" Rodney stopped suddenly, forcing John to adjust course to keep from plowing into him.
"What is it, McKay?" John moved around to face the still man.
Rodney didn't speak or even look up from the LSD, but kept frantically trying to adjust the display.
"Rodney?" John frowned, and placed a hand on the other man's arm. Something was definitely not right here. Rodney threw the briefest glances to at their monk friends, before two-handedly extending the life signs detector toward John.
"I think … something may be wrong with it," Rodney said. "You should take a look." He tilted his head to one side – the side that the monks were on and pretended to scratch his neck.
John took the LSD. Maybe it would help him make sense of Rodney's behavior. He stared down at the four blinking lights for half a second before what Rodney was getting at registered. He looked back up at Rodney.
Words weren't needed for the conversation they were having. The monks didn't show up on the life signs detector. That didn't bode well. They could have some sort of technology that prevented that. They could be Replicators. They could be … ghosts. They could –
"Take it easy," John said out loud to forestall the panic he saw growing in Rodney's eyes. "This could be … well, anything."
"Is everything okay with your artifact?" Meltis asked, approaching.
"Uh … yeah, it's just … on the fritz," John told her, then handed it back to Rodney. "We might need a few moments to fix it, though."
Her expression changed to one that reminded John of his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sumak. "As I have already made clear, there isn't much time. I must deliver you to the monastery so that we can move on with Swarm business. You may fix your device there."
"Oh, it shouldn't take much time at all," he insisted, then to Rodney. "Why don't you take a couple of quick scans – check it out?"
Rodney scrambled through his tac vest for his scanner, while John made eye contact with Ronon and Teyla. They had both moved into good tactical positions, with Teyla's being nearer to Meltis.
"We would not request a few moments if it were not important," she said in the soft reasonable tones that were all Teyla. "I am certain we shall be on our way very soon."
"Yeah, soon," John echoed the sentiment as he continued to hover near Rodney, willing him to hurry up with the results of the scan.
Meltis eyed them with suspicion, but acquiesced. "Very well," she said. "But just for a short while. You do not seem a woman who would presume unnecessarily on our time." Her glare in John and Rodney's direction made it clear that while she might think that of Teyla, she wasn't so sure about her companions.
John might have felt guilty if he wasn't annoyed by the whole mission in general. No one wanted off this world more than he did, and it wasn't just about doing the Coalition's bidding or the jumper's shield or even the fact that swarms were on the way. Something just felt wrong and he couldn't put his finger on it.
Rodney's scanner beeped and his eyes widened. He shared a quick look with John, before speaking to their monk friends. "Those are nice … er ... necklaces you have there. Are they part of your monk …dom?" He gestured toward the dull looking stones tied with leather straps that hung around both their necks.
Meltis frowned, and then touched her stone reverently. "These are sacred objects passed on to us from the Lady. She provides them for our protection."
"Yes, of course," Rodney said with a flat look that almost hid his sarcasm. He was getting better at not - at least obviously - scoffing at the beliefs of others. "Did she happen to give you any other items?"
Meltis eyed him oddly. "Why would you ask such a question?"
"Oh, uh ... because I'm curious by nature. You see, I'm a scientist and I like to learn why things do the things that they do and what --"
"Is it fixed?" John demanded, trying to derail Rodney's runaway train of thought.
"Yes, yes. It's working now. Good to go."
"Good. Ready." John aimed the last toward Meltis. This time, Ronon and Teyla took point. John had a few things he wanted to discuss with Rodney.
* * *
Rodney fell in behind his Pegasus team mates as John walked beside him. "What's going on?" Sheppard asked. "You find anything?"
"Well, they're still not showing up on the LSD, but I'm pretty sure it has more to do with those things around their necks than anything else."
"Why do you say that?" Sheppard asked. Rodney looked at him, realizing that perhaps the situation wasn't as obvious as he thought. "The scanner picked up an energy reading from the both of them - I was able to pinpoint it to those rocks around their necks. It's very similar to some of the signals the Ancients use in their version of wireless tech, but there is an added component that I'll need to study further. I've got the scanner gathering some of the signals I'm picking up. Hopefully that'll be enough to figure it out completely, but the fastest and best—"
"So you need to get your hands on one of those necklace things?" Sheppard asked, interrupting his thoughts mid-stream.
"They seem rather attached to them," Sheppard observed.
"Yeah. Maybe if we ask nicely."
Sheppard grunted. "I don't think --"
Rodney's hand held sounded a low alarm, and he missed the rest of whatever Sheppard said. An energy reading spiked erratically across the screen of the small device. He stopped to switch the time and resolution scales as the little device was maxed.
"What is it?" Sheppard asked. Before Rodney could begin to formulate a response, he was interrupted by a commotion from up ahead.
"The Lady! She has come!"
The screen was forgotten as he ran after Sheppard around a bend in the trees to see the two monks on their knees. His gaze was drawn upward to the large glowing image of the Ancient hologram woman looking down at them all. Her lips were moving as if she was speaking, but the only sounds were of the gibberish the two monks were muttering.
Rodney stood for several moments and gaped at the sight before him. He thought for a moment that the ghostly form exuded benevolent goodness. A half grin spilled over his face as he observed it. He blinked. What was wrong with him? He was a scientist. He needed to do what scientists did.
Sheppard eased alongside him. "It's just like in the hologram room," he said, his voice at a whisper as if he was going to somehow disturb the thing. Something clicked in Rodney's mind.
"It is just like the hologram room." He dragged his tablet computer out of his pack and connected it to the hand held. While he waited for the equipment to be recognized, he started a communications program which allowed him to combine several inputs and datasets.
He grinned in triumph as the jagged lines of audio overlaid the incoming video signal on his display. Then, suddenly, as quickly as it had appeared, the line flattened to nothing. He looked up to find the hologram had disappeared.
That didn't change their monk friends. They were still bent over on the ground, mumbling words he didn't care to understand. Teyla, still looking a little shell-shocked, moved toward them and placed a hand on their shoulders. "She is gone," she told them.
"She was never here." Rodney felt it was his obligation as a scientist to make the announcement. Teyla looked aghast. Ronon's brows went up and even Sheppard had that look that suggested Rodney had seriously stepped in it. But none of that mattered. He knew he was right, and he meant to tell them what he knew.
Before he could, a blast of stunner light flashed through the forest and struck the skinny guy monk full in the chest. He went down in a flurry of dry leaves.
John saw Ronon swing into action before Tobar hit the ground. His blaster was up and aiming off to the right. John was sure he would hit what he was shooting at. What he wasn't sure of was the depth of the problem.
"How many are out there, McKay?" he yelled, trying to find cover behind some of the larger trees, but stunner blasts were coming from more than one direction and he was forced to move to a less solid place, ducked behind a large fallen log. Teyla and Ronon had found cover and Rodney was crouched down beside him. Meltis was behind a tree off to the right.
He kept firing in the direction of the blasts, not getting a good feeling at the number of blasts that were coming back at him from angled directions. In a short time, they could be surrounded.
"Six … no, twelve … no …."
"Rodney, it's a simple question. How many?!"
"Either every bad guy we've ever met has descended on us or something is very wrong here!" Rodney shoved the LSD in his face and John watched in amazement as the number of life signs rapidly increased until the entire screen was glowing with light.
"Swarm!" Meltis yelled.
John looked up to see thick fog roiling into the area. Glowing points of light populated the fog bringing a very faint buzzing noise with them. The spots of light reminded him of a slightly larger version of the glowy bugs on the planet near the Lagrange point weapons platform. They moved erratically in the haze, seeming to almost vibrate.
A tiny amount of tension drained out of him. The little bugs were hardly as scary as he'd imagined when Teyla warned of a swarm. Unfortunately, the growing lack of visibility wasn't preventing their attackers from continuing to shoot at them.
"No!" Ronon's voice sounded, and his form appeared as he ran out from cover and began shooting haphazardly toward the incoming blaster fire. As a battle plan in general, John couldn't praise it, but sometimes it was the combined strategy of crazy surprise attack that won the war.
One of Ronon's shots went wild and John felt sure the tree off to his left was going to be down a couple of branches, but something strange happened. The fog itself seemed to absorb the blaster shot before it could reach the tree. Ronon fired again, this time with better aim and the same thing happened. Six feet out from the weapon and its energy dissipated in a burst of glowy mist.
Ronon growled in frustration and fired even faster. But the frantic angry bursts were getting him nowhere, except maybe showing the bad guys exactly where to shoot.
Thankfully, judging by the distant flashes of light, the same thing was happening on the other side. Their shots weren't making it through either. Two bullets cut a trail through the fog and embedded themselves on the other side of John's log. Apparently someone on the other side had at least one Genii hand gun – and it was working just fine.
"It's the fog," Rodney said at his side. "It's absorbing the energy from the weapons."
That made sense to John. Projectiles weapons, good, energy weapons, bad. "Ronon! Catch!" He tossed his nine millimeter to the big guy.
Some of the attackers had broken cover and were moving in closer. John could see their forms moving at the far edge of visibility in the thick soup. They'd given up on the stunners, but not on the attack. He fired a warning shot in the direction of the motion.
"No! Stop!" Meltis moved out onto the path, directly in his line of fire. "Be calm! We must all be calm!" She bowed her head and wrapped one hand around the stone necklace and raised the other skyward. More incoming gunfire sounded and was answered by Ronon's increasingly sloppy aim.
"What? Does she have a death wish?" Rodney said from beside him. "She needs to get down."
"I know," John murmured. Ronon was really beginning to worry him, too.
"Ronon, buddy, ease off!" John yelled to his friend as he squinted into the fog in search of his other team mate. Ronon kept firing, but at least he managed to duck behind a tree every once and a while.
Something small and dark sailed through the fog headed straight for Meltis. It struck a glancing blow against her shoulder before tumbling to the ground and rolling several feet. It was a rock. And still she was standing there making a big shadowy target of herself.
"Meltis! Get down!" John yelled to the woman, hoping that at least one person would listen in this mess. Another Genii bullet cut through the fog and spilled shattered bits of bark and leaves above her head.
John swore then bounded over the log, diving toward the oblivious woman. John was certain he saw the bullet cut through the fog above them as they went down. They landed hard on the uneven surface.
Meltis barely acknowledged her close call. She just curled up tighter and continued to murmur something that sounded like Ancient. Exsisto pacix.
John's Ancient was a little rusty and he had a few other concerns at the moment. Like the fact that they needed to get to better cover. And where the hell was Teyla?
"Are you okay?" he asked the gray haired monk.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "It is calm," she said and smiled. The hand around the stone necklace loosened, revealing that the once dull slab was glowing a soothing blue. "We will be safe now."
John blinked. That was different. While he didn't know about safe, she was right about the calm. There was no more gunfire; all the sounds of fighting were gone. Ronon and Teyla were standing nearby, taking in the thinning mists around them. Rodney remained huddled, wide-eyed, behind the log. Their attackers were nowhere in sight.
John moved to his feet, and helped Meltis to hers, not entirely sure what had just happened.
"What the hell was that?" Rodney demanded as he climbed over the fallen log to join them. John wanted to know the answer to that question, too. But even more, he needed to know about the rest of his team. He left Rodney arguing with Meltis.
Ronon and Teyla stood a ways off the path. They turned confused looks on him as he approached. Teyla was still holding onto her P-90, while Ronon lifted the nine mil and frowned at it.
"You guys okay?" John asked softly. He didn't like the sluggish way they were moving. It was almost as if they had been drugged.
"What happened?" Ronon asked. His gaze settled on the empty holster at John's thigh before he extended the still warm nine mil to John.
"You don't remember." John's alarm grew. This wasn't good. Not good at all.
Ronon and Teyla looked at each other, then looked around at the still hazy forest. Faint remnants of the fog still remained. "Someone shot at us," Teyla said. John couldn't tell if she meant it as a question or a confirmation of a memory. But at least, she was beginning to look more alert.
"Hey." Ronon gestured to a spot over his shoulder. "What happened to the other guy?"
John looked around to the place where Tobar had fallen. The spot was empty. Tobar Mit was gone.
* * *
"He has gone? Where has he gone?" Meltis looked off toward Ronon, Sheppard and Teyla. Shock and surprise colored her previously placid features. The stone around her neck immediately lost its glow.
Rodney blinked. He'd had a suspicion that she wasn't really listening to him. Now he wished he'd been paying better attention himself. "Who's gone?" he asked, of no one it turned out as Meltis moved fast when she wanted to. He followed her and everyone else to the spot where the other monk must have been.
"He was right here." Meltis got down on the ground and started riffling about in the weeds. Her motions were frantic as she sifted through the dried debris, getting dirt and muck all over her hands.
"I don't think he's there now," Rodney said. It would be pretty hard to hide a body in that short grass, no matter how scrawny he was. She had to know what she was doing was a waste of time.
"You do not understand." She didn't slow her motions. "It is the focus stone. The swarm has come too soon. There will be much panic. We must have nine stones."
"You are hoping that he dropped it or left behind?" Teyla asked, gently.
Meltis looked up at Teyla and nodded. Obviously she was done scratching in the grass. "He would have known how important it was." She climbed dejectedly to her feet.
Wait a minute. Rodney's brain did a rewind. Had she just said nine? That meant that there were at least seven more that weren't missing … or whatever. Maybe he could –
"It's possible that the same people who were shooting at us are the same people who took your painting." Sheppard interrupted Rodney's train of thought. "Maybe they wanted to add a Sylan monk to their list."
"What makes you think they were shooting at us?" Meltis objected to Sheppard's pretty reasonable assertion. "I have never seen them before and the monks of Sylan have no enemies."
"Their first target was your associate, Tobar," Sheppard pointed out.
"That does not confirm that he was the target. He may have merely been caught in the crossfire or those who attacked may have had poor aim." Meltis obviously wasn't ready to give in to reason.
Sheppard cut his losses. "Why don't we figure out the intended target later? Right now we need to get moving in case they decide to come back."
"On that we can agree."
Another question occurred to Rodney. "Speaking of before they come back, why did they leave in the first place?" he asked as they began moving through the forest again. "I mean, I hate to be the bearer of bad news and what not, but they had us surrounded. If it wasn’t for that freaky fog, we'd be toast."
"Yes," Sheppard agreed. "A very good question – one of the many on my list."
Meltis sighed heavily. "The Lady protects. She sent the Swarm early because she knew we would have need of its protection. We must hope that Tobar has gone to the village because he knows that his stone will be needed."
Rodney would have offered to find the guy with the LSD, but considering they didn't exactly show up on it, that solution was problematic. Asking questions to try to determine why the LSD didn't work would be ridiculous since he was dealing with a person who thought a hologram was providing them protection. So, he moved on to his next question.
"Why do you need nine stones?"
"To balance the Swarm. To become a Sylan monk, one must well know one's own mind, otherwise there can be no balance. That is the sacred purpose of the Sylan monastery. The Lady gives us the tools to succeed."
"Is that what you were doing when you were … saying those words?" Sheppard asked. "Looking for balance?"
"Yes." She eyed him oddly as if coming to a realization. "If you heard the words, then you were not affected by the Swarm. Are you one who carries Ancestor blood?"
Sheppard looked uncomfortable, like he really didn’t want to answer that question. Rodney could understand that considering the number of times it had gotten him into trouble, so he decided to bail him out.
"We both do," he said, offering a proud grin. He ignored the rolled eyes of his team mates. What was there not to be proud of? This might net him one of those focus stone things to study.
Meltis looked thoughtful. "Perhaps we may learn something from you after all."
Rodney's grin grew larger.
* * *
Teyla's headache was a dull squeezing pressure at the back of her head. She had come to understand that she and Ronon were affected by swarm madness. The curious drowning sensation had passed, though she still had little memory of what had occurred after the fog arrived.
An echoing tone began. For several moments, she thought it to be a new symptom of her headache then she realized that it was the sound of a bell being struck. "Does that sound come from your village?"
"It is the alert that the Swarm is upon us." Meltis quickened her pace as they exited the forest and entered the meadow which stretched out before them before abutting the edges of the village. "They are being called to the safety of the monastery grounds. They were unprepared. We were to have several days at least before first sighting."
"What do you mean by first sighting?" Ronon asked. "There's gonna be more?"
Meltis continued to speak as they walked. "The Swarm comes in waves, like childbirth pains. Second sighting usually occurs within 2 hours of the first. Third sighting is within an hour of second and so on until the Grand Swarm occurs, which is continuous and lasts for many hours until it burns itself out."
"Will Ronon and I return to the state we entered during the previous swarm?" Teyla asked. She did not like the idea of being so out of control. The thought of losing more time was terrifying. "Is there no defense?"
"Thoughts of peace are the only defense."
"Seriously?" Rodney cut in abruptly. "The answer to swarm madness is to think good thoughts?"
"Rodney!" Teyla admonished him. It was wrong to belittle the ways and beliefs of others.
"It is much more than that." Meltis didn't seem offended by Rodney's tone. "The task is more difficult than the words. Only through thorough knowledge of one's own mind can a monk find the balance to protect the people."
"Are there any long term effects to the swarm?" Teyla broached the next question.
"If the Swarm goes unbalanced, often there remains some loss of the Swarm memory."
As they drew closer to the village, Teyla could see that there had been much activity. Discarded sacks and other debris were left lying in the hard packed dirt of the streets. She could almost feel the anxiety that must have gripped the population.
"It is as I feared." Meltis hurried toward the village where people remained, racing to gather last minute items. She was greeted with expressions of relief by all who saw her. Each time she urged them to continue on toward the monastery, while the team assisted in ensuring that none were left behind.
Once Meltis was satisfied that the village was empty, they continued on into a hilly area beyond the village. A path wound around the hill ending at a low stone wall. They followed the wall until they reached an opening.
Teyla could hear the voices of many people even before they passed through the opening and rounded an outcropping of rock. A wide open area became visible before them. There were people everywhere.
Groups of tunic-clad monks were surrounded by villagers asking frantic questions. Children were crying, and frazzled parents were trying to calm them. Carts brimming with food items and personal belongs were scattered haphazardly. Several of the monks broke away from one of the groups and joined them.
"Meltis! What has happened?" one of the younger of the monks asked.
"The swarm has come early," she informed him. "It was the will of the Lady. Has your uncle returned?"
The young monk shook his head. "Tobar? He has not. We have not seen him since he left with you."
Meltis lowered her head. "It is as I feared."
She looked over her shoulder toward the team. "You say you have come to help us. Let us see what it is that you can do."
* * *
John settled a little girl that they'd picked up in the village alongside her mother and told her to be a good girl, before he followed Meltis and the rest of the team through the crowds. They went past rows of red stone buildings, what looked like a blue cornfield and a stream.
Beyond the stream was another of those three foot high walls of stacked oval stones. The gray stones were mingled in with stones of a darker material. John shot a look toward Rodney when Meltis stopped at the wall. Rodney's raised brows were answer enough – the darker stones were Naquadah.
Beyond the wall was an orchard of flowering trees that reminded John of magnolias. The path through the trees was made of tiny white pebbles which led to the door of a multi-storied stone building.
"This inner wall leads to the Sanctuary. Only a full monk may invite outsiders. You are present as my guests. Leave all ill thoughts behind."
There was no conversation as they moved among the trees. Rodney was occupied taking readings. John figured he was on to something, though there wasn't anything visibly obvious.
The building itself didn’t seem to be anything special, either. The entry was a large wooden door which was already standing open.
Meltis waved them into the large entry room. It was sparsely furnished with wooden tables and chairs. Doors and corridors led off the area at random intervals, while tapestries adorned the walls. Most were depictions of the swarm, a few were of the Ancient hologram lady. The other monks they passed simply went about their business as if strangers from off world visited their monastery every day.
"I'm picking up something," Rodney said into the silence.
Meltis turned on them. "One must not speak so loudly in the Sanctuary. The Lady does not require words above a whisper."
Rodney gave her a hard stare, then looked at Sheppard. "I'm picking up something," he said in a loud stage whisper. "It's coming from … there." He pointed toward a dark colored door on the far side of the room.
Meltis's eyes widened. "That is the door that does not open," she whispered.
John grimaced. How did he know it would be the door that didn't open?
"Is it wrong to go through the door, should it open?" Teyla asked.
Meltis shook her head. "I do not think so. But, I also do not think it will open. It has not opened in all the years of all the monks of Sylan."
Teyla looked toward John and he nodded. The question would be much better coming from her. So far all he'd managed to do with Meltis was argue. "May we try?" she asked.
Meltis gestured them toward the door.
It didn't appear to have any obvious handles or control panels. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a giant slab of black rock. John stopped Rodney just before he reached the door. "What kind of reading is it?" he asked.
"Ancient," Rodney responded.
"I'll go first," John said, then stepped closer to the smooth surface and thought open. He sensed the tickle of the ATA gene before the door slid slowly, grudgingly open. Nothing shot out at him and no alarms seemed to go off, so he stepped forward into what looked like any given lab on Atlantis.
Rodney followed behind him, a smug grin on his face. "Bingo."
In the thirty minutes it took for Meltis and the other seven monks on hand to get over the initial shock of what was behind the door that did not open, Rodney was busy figuring out exactly what the technology behind the door was doing.
"The time for the second wave is close. The eight of us who remain must attend to our look outs. We will have to hope in our Lady that the missing ninth stone does not cause an imbalance," Meltis and the monks behind her were all but wringing their hands.
"Exactly what is it that these stones do?" John asked. He hadn't gotten a straight answer yet, and wasn't holding out much hope.
"I can answer that," Rodney volunteered with a raised hand.
John glanced toward Meltis, who deferred to Rodney without complaint. Opening doors that did not open went a long way toward their credibility it seemed.
"Go ahead," he told Rodney.
"They send out a signal that on the monitor kinda looks like brain waves. They have a limited range, though, unless they are in the proper configuration." He brought up a diagram on his lap top. It was what had to be an older layout of the monastery grounds. None of the more rudimentary stone buildings were visible.
"These are your look out points – am I correct?" Rodney caused nine points spaced around the compound to illuminate. John recognized one of them as the outcropping they had passed when they first came into the main courtyard.
"You're correct," Meltis confirmed.
"Those are the perfect spots to allow for optimum attenuation of the signal throughout the monastery grounds. If one of the stones is missing, the signal coverage will not only be weaker, but there will be gaps."
"No. That is not good. If there are gaps, the madness could spread and we would not be able to control it."
"Are these signals somehow telepathic in nature?" Teyla asked.
Rodney shrugged. "It's possible. There are theories that telepathy is simply a matter of finding the right frequency."
Teyla nodded. John was sure she was on to something. She turned to the Sylan monk. "Meltis, do you concentrate on a specific emotion when you use your focus stone?"
"Yes." Meltis nodded. "We all do. We concentrate on peace and calm. It is what is needed."
Teyla's face spread into a wide grin. "That is how you counteract the swarm madness with thoughts of peace. You're surrounding the people with a telepathic message that is essentially telling them that all is well. It leaves them unaffected by the madness."
"What's the point?" Ronon asked, looking bored. "Why build this at all?"
"That's the $100,000 question," John said, then looked toward Rodney.
"I've only been here for 30 minutes," Rodney complained. "Besides, let me finish with my brilliant solution for this problem first."
"Okay, spill it," John said.
Rodney reached onto a shelf and produced a boxy looking device with a crystal jammed in one side of it. "I think this is the prototype for the focus stones. I'll need you to go to the ninth look out and activate it while I monitor it from here. Once it's up, it should allow the signal to transfer evenly around the monastery."
"You can truly do that?" Meltis looked in amazement at Rodney. "You can help us to balance the Swarm."
"We can do that." Rodney smiled proudly.
"I knew that the Lady would provide. She has sent you to rescue us."
John's grin grew as Rodney's sank. He grabbed the device from Rodney's hand. "We're running out of time here. Where do I need to go?"
"Which look out was ... er …?" Rodney looked around for help.
"Tobar's," John, Teyla and Meltis volunteered the name at the same time.
"Right," Rodney agreed. "Which look out was his?"
Meltis pointed to the spot on the map.
"You go there," Rodney told John.
"I'll go with you," Ronon said.
"No, Chewie. I need you to stay here." John turned his friend down.
"The rest of us must go to our places. I will send for Tobar's under monk. He will show you the way. We must hurry now."
John applauded the monk who led him to the look out. He was barely out of breath after setting a brutal pace up the side of a hill. But then, he was also probably half John's age.
"Thanks," John told him, pretending not to be winded. The monk merely nodded before gesturing him toward a half moon shaped area built into the rock. It was sheltered by a low roof. A stone bench and built in shelves were its only furnishings.
Deciding monks didn't exactly pass swarm time in high style, John tapped his radio. "Rodney, I'm here."
"It's about time," Rodney complained. "Activate the device."
John did as he was told. There was really no time and no point in arguing. "Activated."
"Good. I can see it. Find a place to put it where it won't get damaged." Rodney said..
John looked around the area then decided that maybe under the bench would be the safest bet. He tucked it underneath the seat. "How's that?" he asked. "You still reading?"
"Five by five," Rodney replied. "Your task is done, Colonel. And so is mine. I've figured out why the Ancient's built this thing. I can also tell you why the jumper was losing power and why this whole shooting match only pops up every five years or so."
"Really?" John was surprised. That was fast even for Rodney. "I take it that means you found a database."
"Why couldn't I be a genius who just figures these things out?" Rodney demanded.
"You are a genius who figures these things out," John told him. "With the help of the database." He ignored Rodney's choking disagreement. "And while you're brilliantly reading the database, maybe you can figure out what is going on with the Ancient hologram lady thing. See you when I get back." He signed off.
He turned to step out of the alcove and met up with a flash of brilliant red light. And then there was nothing.
"He's on his way back," McKay announced to the room.
Ronon shared a look with Teyla, the only other occupant. They both had their radios on and had heard every word Sheppard and McKay had exchanged. He looked back toward McKay. "Thanks. Didn't know that."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Oh, sarcasm. Did you learn that from hanging around with Sheppard?"
"No," Ronon replied. "From living." He crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall. He might as well settle in. Sheppard usually did the verbal sparring with McKay. Since he wasn't there, and Ronon was bored …
"Have you truly found the answers to all of those questions?" Teyla asked, interrupting the fun. She moved closer to the table where McKay was working and looked at the computer screen over his shoulder.
"What? You think I made it up?" McKay asked. "Of course I figured it out."
Teyla looked back at him, waiting.
"What?" McKay stared back.
"Tell us what you found, Rodney." Teyla's patience was a true virtue, but even Ronon could tell it was wearing thin. He wondered if her head still hurt.
"If I tell you now, I'll just have to repeat it all again when Sheppard gets here."
"And that's a problem for you?" Ronon asked.
McKay seemed to think about that. "Hmm. Good point. I do get some of my better ideas while I'm actually talking. Okay, here goes, starting at the beginning. I haven't gone through everything in the database yet, mind you, but what I have read explains the premise behind this place. It was a testing ground for a new weapon against the Wraith."
Ronon stood up straighter. "Really?" He didn’t understand how fog could be effective against a race that attacked from the skies, but he was willing to listen.
"In simple terms, they wanted to create a force field that wasn’t a force field. The fog isn't actually fog. It's a medium for tiny machines – the glowy bugs – that interact within the medium to prevent the darts from beaming anyone into Wraith storage and it also prevented their stunners from remaining cohesive."
So far, Ronon liked it. There were however still a couple of problems. "What about Wraith on the ground?" he asked. "They could still feed."
"Ah, yes," McKay nodded. "That is where I suspect the swarm madness comes in. The Wraith rely heavily on telepathy among themselves. We've theorized that the drones are controlled by telepathy. The field has the added effect of interfering with telepathic transmissions. It creates some sort of feedback which causes confusion among the hive. It may even have interfered with the operation of their ships."
"So, what happened?" Ronon asked. "Why didn’t they use it on other worlds?" It seemed like a pretty good weapon to him. Hundreds of worlds could have been saved.
"The inevitable side affects – chief among them was the swarm madness among the general population. Then there were the power requirements."
"So they created the focus stones," Teyla said thoughtfully. "And they taught some of the villagers to use them."
"Yes. The whole system was run on a single ZedPM – long since depleted. They knew that would happen eventually, so the back up is that the system will charge from a number of sources and come online as soon as the charge is high enough. The combination of solar, wind, geothermal and other energy sources take about five years, give or take, to get the power up to minimal levels. At that stage the system goes in and out until it comes online completely, protecting a fifty square mile radius around the gate from Wraith attack. All of the power is used within a day and then the system is back to charging again."
"So the first swarm came early because …?" Teyla asked.
"Because we arrived in a puddle jumper of Lantean design – a ship the system recognized. The software categorized charging to protection levels as a priority and drew additional power from the jumper. Hence, an early swarm."
"So there was no protection from their Lady?" Ronon asked. Of course, he hadn't believed there was, but he thought Sheppard would want to know the reason why she had appeared.
"The stones, in addition to being a broadcast beacon for brainwaves, are also a receiver. The "Lady" is a message from Atlantis still stored in the database buffers. Because they had no instruments to play back the audio, they couldn't hear the message, which is in Ancient anyway. Apparently, Atlantis sent the message after the scientists had already left so technically, no one ever listened to it. So every time the power climbed to a high enough level, the Ancient lady would appear as a sign that there was still an unseen message in their database."
"What does it say?" Teyla asked.
McKay started fiddling with his computer. "I recorded some of what we saw in the woods with … the other monk lady, but I only have pieces."
"Meltis," Teyla told him. "Why don't you just open the message on their system? Do you not have a translation program?"
"Well, Meltis and the others seem to think she's really helping them and I guess in a way she is, albeit in a really oblique not entirely intended kind of way since the message isn't even for them. The thing is, if I open it, then their Lady in the Woods will stop appearing at swarm time."
Ronon smiled. McKay looked uncomfortable. Like he'd let out a secret he would have preferred to keep private. "If they don't see the lady show up then they might not know when the swarm is coming," he suggested, adding to McKay's logic.
"Exactly," McKay agreed. "In all likelihood it's an evacuation order, anyway. I can confirm that when we get back to the city."
"A very thoughtful decision, Rodney," Teyla said. "I believe— "
Teyla's face drained of color. She grasped her head in her hands and dropped to her knees.
"Teyla!" Ronon was on the floor and at her side. McKay was on the other side. "What's wrong? Is it the headache?" He berated himself for not asking how she was feeling.
"I am fine," she insisted, though her voice sounded strained and beads of perspiration had broken out across her brow.
"Excuse me for saying," McKay said, "but you don't look fine.'
"I believe it is the swarm," she confessed. "If it was truly designed as an attack against the Wraith, perhaps my DNA is causing me to be affected as well."
McKay met Ronon's gaze across Teyla's bent head. "Oh no."
"What?" Ronon demanded.
"I think she's right." He pointed to a display on a wall behind them. "According to that, the second swarm sighting just began. It's only going to get stronger. As soon as this wave is over, we should head back to the jumper. We've got to get her out of here."
Ronon couldn't agree more. A thought occurred to him as he glanced around the room. "Shouldn't Sheppard be back by now?"
* * *
John woke to an up close and personal view of crushed leaves, and the familiar feeling of having been shot with a stunner. He breathed out a cautious breath and took inventory. He was laying on his side, obviously on the ground, in the woods. His hands were tied behind his back, but his legs felt free. His radio was missing.
A minute sound somewhere behind him suggested that whoever had dumped him here was still around. There was no warning before something hard impacted against the back of his legs.
"I know you're awake," a voice drawled. John was pretty sure he hadn't heard it before. "Turn over."
The weight of his weapons was missing, and the voice had backed away several paces so John decided to oblige. He rolled as much as he could with bound hands, and looked up the towering form of Scars – the security man who had come to Atlantis with Myrus. A smug grin was plastered over his face.
"How'd I know I'd be seeing you again?" John asked, not really caring for an answer as he looked around, trying to get a handle on how many he was up against. He could only see four from where he was laying, but he had the sense that there were others behind him.
"You couldn't have known that." Scars seemed pretty proud of himself, and he was out of his Coalition uniform. He and the men John could see were dressed more like someone else he knew and had thought was long behind him: Michael.
"So what's your name," John asked. This was getting old and he hadn't even heard the rant that he was sure was coming.
"Wouldn't you rather know what I want?" Scars asked.
"I like to know who I'm dealing with."
"Why don't you call me Michael?" Scars had a gleam in his eyes as he said it. He thought he was toying with John, letting him in on something he hadn't already figured out.
"You're not Michael," John told him point blank. Then something occurred to him. "But you want to be. You don't look like one of his hybrids. Did you make those scars on your face and cut your hair that way so you could look more like him?"
The man's eyes hardened and John knew he'd hit a nerve. "I have plans for this world, and for you. Nothing you say can change that."
"Yeah, Michael was big on plans, too. It got him dead. I watched him die."
Scars looked off into the distance. "There is a place that we're having trouble accessing. You're going to help me to get in."
"Why would I want to do a thing like that?" John asked.
"Because if you don't, you will force me to hurt this man."
John heard a commotion behind him as yet another minion dragged Tobar into John's visual range. He looked a little worse for wear; his hands were bound behind his back, but he was still wearing his focus stone. And he still wasn't much for making eye contact.
"He's probably already working for you," John posited, and watched the little man closely for his reaction. He thought he read disbelief and dismay in the eyes that briefly danced toward his.
Scars laughed. "Why would I need that, when I already have this one?"
Another man stepped from somewhere among the trees so that John could see him. It was Tobar's under monk. The one Meltis had sent with John to show him the look out. The one who had probably stunned him.
* * *
"How's she feeling?"
Teyla looked up as Ronon rushed back into the room and over to Rodney. "I am better," she told him firmly. She was more than capable of speaking for herself.
"The second swarm passed," Rodney responded to Ronon. "We only have like an hour until the next one. Did you find Sheppard?"
"I found this." Ronon tossed a radio onto the table near Rodney's laptop. John's radio. "He wasn't at the look out and no one has seen him. There were tracks leading away. I'm going to go back and follow them."
"No." Rodney shook his head. "If we can get back to the jumper, we can find him with his subcutaneous transmitter."
"You and Teyla do that," Ronon said. "I'll contact you when I find him."
"Ronon, no." Teyla couldn’t let him go out there alone. "We should all stay together. What if you are outside of the grounds when the next swarm arrives? You would have no protection against the madness."
"Sheppard is in trouble," Ronon told her. "What good is it if we're all in the jumper, but can't fly to help him because of all the trees?"
"Very well." Teyla had to admit to the sense of Ronon's words. She didn't like the idea of his being alone, but they had no choice. "Rodney and I will go the jumper and you will go after John, but we will keep the radio link open at all times."
"Deal." Ronon agreed readily. "Let's go."
* * *
"You are a traitor!" John heard Tobar speak for the first time since he'd met him. "The Lady will repay you in full!"
"And you are weak!" The younger monk bullied his way into Tobar's personal space and pushed him to the ground. "There is no Lady. The rest of the galaxy is moving and you would have us be left behind. I stand with Tynan."
"So you see?" Scars said. "Now, get up. We must go." John figured Tynan must be Scars' real name, but he preferred Scars.
"I'm pretty comfortable where I am," John said, though parts of his body were lodging complaints about the uneven ground beneath him.
Scars sighed, drew back his foot and kicked Tobar in his midsection. The monk whimpered and curled in on himself as best he could. Scars kicked him again, then stooped and grabbed the monk by the hair. "This is what happens when you trust the people of Atlantis."
"I'll go." John gave in. He couldn't watch a man beaten for his own stubbornness. He got his knees under him and worked his way to his feet. With his hands behind his back, it wasn't pretty, but he made it.
* * *
Rodney glanced toward Teyla as they moved through the growing twilight of the seemingly never ending Sylan forest. They had been walking for what seemed like hours, but according to his watch had been more like forty-five minutes. If the LSD was to be trusted, there wasn’t another soul nearby.
"I am fine, Rodney," Teyla said out loud, not looking in his direction. Her expression was grim and he wasn't sure if that meant she was annoyed or if the pain in her head was bothering her.
"I didn't say anything," he tried to defend himself. She did turn to look at him then, and he decided on annoyed. Or at least, more annoyed than in pain.
"You did not have to," she said. "Your actions spoke loudly enough."
"Well, what do you expect? You stoic types always say that you're fine until it's beyond obvious that you're not and then the rest of us –"
"Ronon, how is your search?" Teyla spoke to their other team mate over the radio.
"There are at least nine of them now. I think one was being carried before." Ronon's voice seemed so far away. "I can't be that far behind them. How close are you to the jumper?"
"We are nearly there," Teyla said. "I believe –"
"Wait!" Ronon's voice dropped to a whisper. "I think I hear something. They're right ahead. Stand by."
"We have reached the jumper," Teyla told him, then fell silent as they waited.
Rodney uncloaked the jumper, lowered the ramp and ran inside, Teyla right behind him. He didn't stop until he reached the forward section where he immediately activated the scanner. Within moments the HUD displayed Sheppard's sub-Q transmitter in relation to the jumper. And he wasn't that far away. There were eight other life signs near him with a ninth closing in on the group.
No wait … there were fifteen … no twenty-five … no …
The HUD whited out just as the LSD had done when the first swarm came.
"Oh, no," Rodney whispered.
* * *
John trudged alongside an embankment leading down to a dry waterbed. A pair of Scars' minions moved ahead of him, urging Tobar along, and two more followed behind him. He wasn’t sure where they were going, but the direction was opposite that of the monastery. Whatever they wanted him to access, it wasn't there. That might mean that the monastery wasn’t the only Ancient site on this world.
There was a change in the air – almost like an increase in barometric pressure. John slowed to a stop, trying to remember if that had happened before.
"Keep moving!" One of the guards behind butted him hard in the shoulder with his rifle.
"Wait. Tynan, it's time." The traitor monk strode past John and snatched the focus stone from Tobar's neck and tied it around his own.
"No! The Swarm is coming. You are not ready! You have no control." Tobar fought viciously against the men who held him.
"It is only technology. It is not some mystical thing that lets it work, Tobar. The stones will function for anyone."
"You are a foolish boy! You will bring the Swarm down upon us all!" Tobar continued to struggle. John edged his way back a few steps, hoping to use this distraction as an opportunity.
"And you are a useless old man!" Traitor monk pulled out a stunner and shot Tobar. The older monk collapsed to the ground.
John chose that moment to make his move. He bent double and kicked one of the guards behind him then turned and rammed the other with his shoulder. He thought he caught a glimpse of the fog rolling in before someone slammed into him from the left.
Already off balance, he lost his footing and went over the embankment. He rolled through the scrub, unable to halt his rolling progress. Pain spiked and the world went hazy as he came to a sudden stop at the bottom.
Something cried to him, telling him that he needed to get up, that he had to do something. He had to …
His eyes flew open to a sound he would have recognized anywhere – the not too distant sound of his favorite Satedan in battle. John huffed a relieved breath and got to his knees by pressing his shoulder into the ground. It hurt like hell and he was pretty sure he'd broken something in his left arm, but Ronan was there. Things were looking up.
By the time he managed to disentangle himself from the heavy underbrush, the flurry of fighting had died down. Only pacing foot falls interspersed with Ronon's heavy breathing remained.
Limping forward across the rough terrain, John spotted the big guy in the foggy semi-darkness at the top of the embankment. "Down here, buddy!" he called in a stage whisper. "Come untie me!" His prospects of making it up the steep bank on his feet with his hands still tied behind his back weren't looking very good.
Ronon turned sharply at the sound of his voice, then began bounding down toward him. His shadowy form seemed large and reassuring in the deepening twilight.
"You don't know how glad I am to see you," John said and half turned his body to give Ronon easier access to his bindings even before the other man reached the bottom of the hill. The sooner the too tight leather ties were cut, the better.
"How are –" John broke off mid thought. Something was wrong. There was something in the grim cast of his friend's expression, the way he simply stood over John and stared.
"Ronon?" Confusion warred with a sinking fear as he registered the murderous intent that glittered in the big guy's eyes.
"You don't want to do this." John took a half step backward.
* * *
"Ronon!" Rodney yelled over the dead radio connection. "Sheppard! Anybody! Answer me!"
"This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening." Rodney looked down at Teyla's barely conscious form. Her features were pale and twisted in pain.
"What am I going to do?" he asked aloud. How had things gone so wrong?
He'd heard a commotion over Ronon's radio link right about the time the swarm hit. Some one was yelling about something not working and then there was what sounded like Ronon taking on the entire marine contingent of Atlantis.
Then, when things had quieted down to just breathing and pacing, he'd thought he'd heard Sheppard. He was sure of it. Then the fighting and yelling started all over again. Ronon must have lost his radio at some point because the sounds grew more distant before the connection went completely dead.
"Oh God." The rest of his team was out there, and they needed help. But the part of his team that was in the jumper needed his help, too. Rodney looked around, desperately hoping for some inspiration.
The HUD was back. The white-out state had cleared, and once again he could see Sheppard's sub-Q transmitting as well as the other life signs. He looked out of the ramp – the fog was clearing. Teyla was coming around, too – though if it was anything like last time, she was going to be very weak.
Rodney made a decision.
* * *
As the mists cleared, Ronon's mind cleared. He was on his knees at the bottom of an embankment, his balled fist pulled back ready to strike. He blinked down at the man before him. The face was bloodied and bruised and his body twisted and half covered with leaves and other debris.
"Sheppard?" He half whispered the word as he unclenched his hand and moved it toward the motionless form. His gaze was caught by his own red-crusted knuckles. All of the air rushed right out of him. He felt sick.
Could he have done this? Could he really have beaten his friend and not remember it?
He examined his surroundings more closely and the memory of where he was returned. Sheppard needed help; he had to find it. With as much care as he could, he released the bindings around Sheppard's wrists and lifted him from the ground.
He was brought up short when he reached the top of the embankment. There were bodies everywhere. He knew he should know what happened, but the memory was frustratingly lost to him. The sound of uneven footsteps drew his attention to McKay approaching at a jog. The scientist skidded to a heavily-breathing frantic stop.
"Oh my God! What happened? Is he …?" McKay took hesitant steps forward as if afraid of what he might find.
"He's alive, but he's hurt. We've got to get him back to Atlantis." He looked around behind McKay. "Where's Teyla?"
"Oh, I locked her in the jumper," Rodney said dismissively. "What are we supposed to do with all them?" He gestured toward the unconscious men. "I'm guessing they're the ones who did that to Sheppard. We can't just leave them here."
"Why not?" Ronon demanded. He might not remember how they ended up unconscious in the forest, but he did remember that they had held Sheppard captive. He set off along the path to where they'd left the jumper.
"Because they could come after us!" McKay called after him. "Your hands are a little full and I've only got one gun." He was already bent over one of the men, wrapping zip ties around their hands.
Ronon came back and very carefully lowered Sheppard to the ground. He didn't want to hurt him more than he already was. His pulse still seemed good, but Ronon was terrified of what might be damaged, aside from the obvious.
"How is he?" McKay asked, moving to another man, adding the ties.
"Alive." Ronon breathed the word.
"Well, in that case. Help would make this faster!"
Ronon snatched the ties McKay shoved his way and went to work binding the men. The last one was Tobar, the monk who had met them at the gate. His hands were already secured with leather straps.
"Don't tie him," a hoarse voice spoke from the side. "He was a hostage."
Ronon turned sharply and locked eyes with Sheppard. McKay started talking, but Ronon didn't hear him. There was something else going on between him and Sheppard. Ronon broke first. He felt ashamed.
"I'm fine, Rodney." Sheppard answered the question Ronon hadn't heard.
"You don't look or sound—"
"Swarm over?" Sheppard cut him off, and tried to roll into a sitting position. He wasn't doing very well. Ronon moved closer to help. He didn't know how to feel about the fact that Sheppard let him.
"Hardly," McKay said. "There's another one coming. We need to get out of here, and fast. I don’t know if –"
"Where's Teyla?" Sheppard asked next, his words not much above a whisper. He was still stooped at the waist, but he had made it to his feet.
"She's in the jumper. It's kind of a long story. You see …."
As McKay continued talking ahead of them, John and Ronon followed. "It's not your fault." Sheppard said the words softly, his voice tinged with the pain of each step.
"Yes it is."
Sheppard's only response was a grunt. They followed McKay the rest of the way in silence.
"Good. You're awake."
John looked up as Rodney walked into his little corner of the infirmary. "Why wouldn't I be?" he asked, speaking with care.
"Well … you were kinda …" Rodney gestured a twirly motion. "Loopy there at the end, during the flight back to Atlantis."
He looked back down at the bright white cast wrapped around his left arm. "It's a concussion, Rodney, not a coma." He couldn't speak to the rest of it; it was a bit of a blur.
"And fractured ribs and ulna, assorted lacerations and abrasions …." McKay recited the list of his injuries, counting them off on his fingers.
"Are my medical records posted somewhere on the public network?" John asked.
"No, there's a mass email." Rodney broke into a goofy grin at John's sharp look. "Just kidding. I see Teyla's been released."
"Yeah – she's fine, by the way. No lasting affects." He shared what she'd told him before she’d left.
"Good to know."
John didn't miss Rodney's shifty look. "She still not speaking to you, huh?"
"It was for her own good." Rodney tried to defend himself. "I couldn't just let her wander around the forest in her condition."
"You locked her in the jumper, Rodney. Without telling her what was going on. She's not going to thank you for that."
"Believe me; I'm painfully aware of that fact. How long before you're cut loose?"
"Later today – Keller's insisting on a full twenty-four hours of observation."
"Did you hear Everett sent Lorne and a team of gene-carrier marines to pick up the bad guys?"
"Really?" John suddenly felt out of the loop. Keller had forbade his having a radio until he was released.
"He and Woolsey are still arguing over when and if they should be turned over to the Coalition."
John decided that being sans radio might not be such a bad thing at the moment. "Did we figure out where they were trying to take me?" he asked.
"No. But guess what world got bumped to the Explore ASAP For Ancient Technology list?"
"I'd be surprised if it didn't," John commented. "Hopefully the Sylans will play along considering they now know who their inside man was."
"Yeah," Rodney agreed. "Do you need something to do that doesn't involve two hands? I could bring your lap top."
"Thanks, Rodney. But I'm okay. You don't have to stick around. I'm sure you've got things to do."
"So, you're just going to sit there and stare at your cast until Keller let's you go?" Rodney was beginning to sound annoyed.
"I'm waiting for someone."
Rodney was silent for a moment. Obviously that thought had never occurred to him. "Who?" He looked completely stumped.
"Me." Ronon spoke from the curtain.
John looked up, glad his friend had decided to come.
"Oh." Rodney finally got it. "Okay. Right. I'll just go …." He gestured vaguely behind him. "See ya."
"Later, Rodney." John bid him goodbye. Once he was gone, he looked back toward Ronon. The big guy had moved a few more paces into the room to allow Rodney to pass, but he hadn't come any farther.
"So did Teyla convince you or threaten you?" John asked, hoping to lighten the mood. The sooner things got back to normal, the better.
"You asked for me, I came." Ronon's words were to the point.
"While I appreciate that, there used to be a time, when I didn't have to ask."
Ronon bristled. "So I'm a failure?"
John saw through the anger. "No. Maybe you feel responsible."
"No, you shouldn't," John objected. "Was I responsible for getting you shot when Elizabeth and I weren't … ourselves?" Recalling that time still made him feel uncomfortable, but he was willing to bring it up if it fixed the problem.
He thought he saw something relax in Ronon's expression as the words sank in. Then, "What if I say you were?"
John chuckled soflty. "Then I'd say now we're even."
Ronon smiled. "How about next time we spar, I let you win?"
"How about next five times we spar, you let me win?"
"Good. Now that that's settled, why don't you go find Keller and get me out of here?"
"Okay." Ronon held his gaze a moment longer. "Thanks." And then he turned and went in search of the doc.